Jean Strouse: When the Economy Really Did ‘Fall Off a Cliff’





[Jean Strouse is the author of “Morgan: American Financier” and the director of the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at The New York Public Library.]

IN what may come to be the definitive line about our current economic crisis, Warren Buffett said on the CNBC program “Squawk Box” this month that the United States economy has “fallen off a cliff.”

The most trusted investor in history went on the air to talk, with characteristic candor and humor, about the horrendous truth we pretty much know, possibly in an effort to calm things down and point toward some answers we don’t yet know. He proceeded to give his views on what went wrong (“everybody thought house prices could go nothing but up ... so you had $11 trillion of residential mortgage debt built on this theory ”), on people’s paralyzing fear and confusion (“We are in a very, very vicious negative feedback cycle .... I don’t want this to be the last line of the movie”), and on the absolute necessity of fixing the banks and taking clear, decisive action.

A look back at the handling of another financial crisis a full century ago underlines the point about decisive action. You just don’t want to take the wrong decisive action. Markets today are immeasurably more complex, global, fast-moving and regulated (a lot of good that did) than they were a hundred years ago, but the need for strong leadership has not changed.

In early 1906, the banker Jacob Schiff told a group of colleagues that if the United States did not modernize its banking and currency systems, its economy would, in effect, fall off a cliff — that the country would “have such a panic ... as will make all previous panics look like child’s play.”

Yet the country failed to reform its financial institutions, and conditions deteriorated steadily over the next 20 months. There was a worldwide credit shortage. The American stock market crashed twice. The young Dow Jones industrial average lost half of its value.

In October 1907, when a panic started among trust companies in New York and terrified depositors lined up to get their money out, Schiff’s dire prediction seemed about to come true. The United States had no Federal Reserve, the Treasury secretary did not have much political authority, and the president, Theodore Roosevelt, was off shooting game in Louisiana.

J. Pierpont Morgan, a 70-year-old private banker, quietly took charge of the situation....

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