Sebastian Edwards, American Default: The Untold Story of FDR, the Supreme Court, and the Battle over Gold. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. xxxiii + 252 pp. $30 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-16188-4.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Gary Richardson, Department of Economics, University of California at Irvine.
The risk-free rate of return on investments is often considered to be the yield on United States government debt. “The risk-free rate is hypothetical,” Investopedia indicates, “as every investment has some type of risk associated with it. However, T-bills [United States Treasury debt obligations with a maturity of 52 weeks or less] are the closest investment possible to being risk-free for a couple of reasons.” The first is “the U.S. government has never defaulted on its debt obligations, even in times of severe economic stress.” Similar statements appear in Wikipedia’s entry on the risk-free interest rate as well as in scores of economics and finance textbooks used around the world. Sebastian Edwards’ new book, American Default: The Untold Story of FDR, the Supreme Court, and the Battle Over Gold, questions this concept underlying modern financial markets by asserting that the United States defaulted on federal debt during the 1930s, when it withdrew monetary gold from circulation and abrogated the gold clause in contracts, both public and private.
Before I delve into the details of Edwards’ insightful study, I want to give you an overall assessment of the book It is fascinating, well-written, and thoroughly researched. It provides new perspective on an important era of American history. It discusses the ideas, personalities, politics, economics, and finance underlying the principal policies by which the Roosevelt administration resuscitated the United States economy after the catastrophic contraction of the early 1930s. An academic press published the book, but the clarity of its prose and vividness of the narrative make it accessible to a general audience. The book should and will be widely read. It’s worth pondering and debating, and I will debate some aspects of it later in this review.
Edwards’ book asks provocative questions about fundamental features of the U.S. and international financial systems. The author lists these questions at two points in the book: the end of the introduction and beginning of the conclusion. The lists contain fifteen total queries. A short summary is:
• Did the United States default on federal government debt in 1934 when it abrogated the gold clause for government bonds (particularly the fourth Liberty Bond)?
• Why did the federal government abrogate the gold clause? Was this action necessary?
• Who made the key decisions during this episode and how did they justify their actions?
• What were the consequences for investors and for the economy as a whole, both in the United States and abroad?
• Could this happen again?
Edwards answers these questions over the course of 17 chapters plus an introduction, an appendix, a timeline, and a list describing the men around whom the story revolves. The introduction lays out the issues of interest. Chapters 1 through 15 narrate the story. The narrative revolves around policymakers, such as President Franklin Roosevelt, Senator Carter Glass, and members of the Supreme Court, and the men who advised them, including Roosevelt’s Brain Trust, whose initial members included Raymond Moley and Adolf Berle, law professors from Columbia University and Rexford Tugwell, an economics professor at Columbia. The narrative describes the decisions that these men made (or had to make), their rationales for making these decisions, and the state of knowledge and state of the world at the times the men made these decisions.
The narrative starts in March 1932, during the economic downturn now known as the Great Depression. A few pages describe the poverty and desperation imposed upon people from all walks of life. Nearly a quarter of the labor force experienced unemployment. Commodity prices declined more than half. These declines proved particularly hard on men and women running small businesses, such as family farmers who made up a quarter of the United States population. Declining farm prices accentuated farmers’ debt burden, since the nominal value of debts remained fixed. This forced farmers who wanted to pay their mortgages and crop loans to double production (which was often impossible) or cut consumption (particularly of durable goods like cars, radios, and clothing) — and forced other farmers (and eventually almost all farmers) to stop paying their debts, default on their loans, and face bankruptcy, which often resulted in the loss of lands and livelihoods.
Chapters 1 through 4 cover Roosevelt’s campaign platform and policies and the economic turmoil from November 1932 through February 1933. During these last five months of the Hoover administration, a nationwide panic drained funds from the banking system and gold from the vaults of the Federal Reserve. The public feared for the safety of deposits, and rushed to convert their claims against banks into coins and cash. The public (particularly foreign investors) also feared for the value of the dollar, since they anticipated that the Roosevelt administration might lower the gold content of U.S. currency or leave the gold standard all together, as had Britain and numerous other nations. In March, gold outflows forced the Federal Reserve Bank of New York below its gold reserve requirement. To prevent the New York Fed from shutting its doors, the newly inaugurated President Roosevelt declared a national banking holiday. This segment of the story ends by describing the policies that the Roosevelt administration implemented as it resuscitated the financial system and sparked economic recovery.
This review will not go into details about decisions and the logic underlying them. For that information, you should read the book, which presents the materials cogently and clearly. You may also peruse other recent readable treatments on the topic, including The Defining Moment (Alter, 2006), FDR: The First Hundred Days (Badger, 2008), Nothing to Fear (Cohen, 2009), and Freedom from Fear (Kennedy, 1999). All of these cover similar material and reach similar conclusions. I also recommend the memoirs of Herbert Hoover and Roosevelt’s principal advisors. A list appears in Edwards’ bibliography. To it, I recommend adding the memoir of Jesse Jones, who was head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Fifty Billion Dollars: My Thirteen Years with the RFC (1951).
Chapters 5 through 10 describe the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to help the economy recover from the spring of 1933 through the winter of 1934. The administration believed a key cause of the catastrophic contraction was the devaluation of the dollar and decline in prices — particularly of farm commodities — that occurred during the 1920s and early 1930s. Prices of wholesale goods fell an average of 25% between 1926 and 1933. Consumer prices fell by the same amount. The average price of farm crops fell more than 66%. Declining prices made it difficult for farmers and other producers to earn sufficient profits to pay their debts, which were fixed in nominal terms, forcing families and firms to cut consumption and investment, in order to avoid bankruptcy, or forcing families and firms to default on their debts, which was often worse for them and which also put banks out of business, restricting the availability of credit, triggering banking panics, and leading to further economic contraction. The administration sought to alleviate this cycle of debt-deflation by convincing (or forcing) individuals and firms to redeposit funds in banks, encouraging banks to lend, and refilling the Federal Reserve’s vaults with gold. All of these actions would expand the money supply and eventually raise prices.
The administration also sought to speed the process by directly influencing commodity prices, particularly those traded on international markets, which had fallen substantially due to foreign governments’ decisions to devalue their own currencies, usually by abandoning the gold standard and allowing the price of their currencies to be determined by market forces. The quickest way to raise commodity prices and alter the exchange rate was to change the dollar price of gold. The federal government had lowered and raised gold’s dollar price in the past. The constitution provided Congress with the power to do so. Congress authorized the president to act, by raising the dollar price of gold up to 100% (or synonymously by cutting the gold content of dollar coins up to 50%), with the Thomas Amendment to the Agricultural Adjustment Act in May 1933. The Roosevelt administration used these powers to the utmost, periodically and persistently raising gold’s dollar price from the spring of 1933 through the winter of 1934. Roosevelt’s gold program concluded in January 1934, with the passage of the Gold Reserve Act, which set gold’s official price at $35 per troy ounce.
Gold clauses in contracts impeded this policy. An example was printed on Liberty Bonds: “The principal and interest hereof are payable in United States gold coin of the present standard of value.” Clauses like this were common in public and private contracts. Their intent was to protect creditors from declines in the value of currency or inflation, which is the same phenomenon but stated as an increase in the average price of goods. Gold clauses ensured lenders that they would be repaid with currency or gold coins with the same real value, in terms of the goods and services that they could purchase, as the funds that they had lent.
Gold clauses had a pernicious effect, however, when deflations and devaluation decisions of foreign governments reduced prices and economic activity. Then, gold clauses prevented governments from quickly and effectively remedying the situation by altering the money supply, interest rates, exchange rates, and prices to push the economy back toward equilibrium. In Chapter 16, Edwards admits monetary expansion was the optimal policy to pursue. He “strongly” believes it was the “main force behind the recovery” (p. 188). He indicates, correctly, that this is the consensus of scholars who have studied the issue. He offers no alternative. The Roosevelt administration understood this problem, and on May 29, convinced Congress to void gold clauses in all contracts retroactively and in the future.
Chapters 5 through 10 do a good job of conveying this material and describing the thought-process of the Roosevelt administration as it struggled to make difficult decisions in real time with limited information. The chapters reflect the conventional wisdom found in canonical accounts of this period including Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s (1960) Monetary History of the United States, Peter Temin’s (1989) Lessons from the Great Depression, and Barry Eichengreen’s Golden Fetters (1992). The chapters also do a good job of describing concerns and criticisms of Roosevelt’s recovery plans. Perhaps as a narrative device, the chapters do not tell you who was right. That material appears one hundred pages later in Chapter 16.
Chapters 11 to 15 contain the novel part of the narrative. They describe investors’ reactions to Roosevelt’s gold policies and the abrogation of the gold clause. Investors quickly sued in state and federal courts, demanding that borrowers repay debts with gold coin, as required by gold clauses, rather than currency, as determined by Congress. Courts consistently ruled against plaintiffs, usually indicating that the Constitution gave Congress the power “to coin money and regulate the value thereof” and to determine what was legal tender for the discharge of public and private debts. Plaintiffs appealed these decisions, and the cases quickly reached the Supreme Court.
American Default’s coverage of these court cases is seminal and stimulating. I know the literature on this topic well. As the official Historian of the Federal Reserve System, I wrote essays on “Roosevelt’s Gold Program” and the “Gold Reserve Act of 1934” which appear on the Federal Reserve’s historical web site. I have read much of what scholars have published on this topic. I know of no comparable source for information on these court cases, the arguments presented by the plaintiffs and defendants, and the rationale underlying the Supreme Court’s confusing decision that Congress’s abrogation of the gold in private contracts was constitutional while Congress’s abrogation of the gold clause for government bonds, particularly the Liberty Bonds, was constitutional in some ways but unconstitutional in others, did not harm the plaintiffs, and therefore would not be overturned by the courts.
Now, we get to one point on which I disagree with the author. Edwards clearly believes the United States federal government defaulted on its debts. The Supreme Court equivocated, but generally seemed to think that the United States did not default, and I agree with the Supreme Court. Let me explain.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a default as either a (1) failure to do something required by duty or law or (2) a failure to pay financial debts. The United States Supreme Court decision in the gold cases indicated that the federal government defaulted in the first sense. It did not fulfill a promise printed on the bonds, which was to literally repay bondholders with United States gold coins at the standard of value that prevailed when the bonds were issued in 1918. At that time, the basic gold coin was the Eagle. It was worth $10 and contained 0.48375 troy ounces of gold and 0.05375 troy ounces of copper. So, a Liberty Bond with a face value of $100 promised upon maturity payment of 10 gold Eagles containing a total of 4.8375 troy ounces of gold and 0.5375 troy ounces of copper. When Liberty Bonds matured in 1938, however, the government gave bondholders neither the Eagles nor the metals that they contained.
The Supreme Court ruled that the federal government did not default in the second sense. The government fully paid its financial debts. The latter conclusion requires explanation, particularly because the book emphasizes the “American Default” aspect of the Supreme Court’s decision. The Supreme Court justified this conclusion based upon two arguments originally advanced by the federal government. The first argument began with the fact that in 1933, the federal government had withdrawn all monetary gold from circulation and paid in return paper currency at the standard of value which had prevailed since 1900. This meant that an individual holding 10 Eagle coins had to give them to the government and accept $100 in paper currency in return. The government argued that Liberty bond holders could and should be treated the same way as everyone else in the United States. In a hypothetical scenario, when the bonds matured, the government would pay bondholders the gold coins as promised, but then the government would also immediately confiscate those coins and compensate the former bondholders with currency at the same rate as everyone else had been compensated a few years before. This hypothetical sequence of transactions was legal. The U.S. Constitution enumerated Congress’s power to determine the standards of coinage and legal tender. These enumerated powers enabled Congress to convert gold coins to paper currency and/or redefine the standards of value and objects accepted as payment for public and private debts. If the government executed this hypothetical sequence of transactions when the bonds matured in 1938, an individual who had purchased a $100 Liberty Bond in 1918 would in the end receive $100 in currency. The Supreme Court ruled that it was acceptable for the government to give that currency directly to the bondholders upon maturity, rather than go to the hassle of giving them gold coins, taking them back, and then paying the currency to them.
To understand the second argument that abrogating the gold clause did not involve a financial default, it may help to step back from the legal technicalities and think of the repayment in an economic sense. The purpose of the gold clause was the protect bond holders from a fall in the value of American currency, a phenomenon known as inflation. The clause promised that individuals who invested in the United States would be repaid with dollars whose real value in terms of goods and services was equivalent to the real value of the dollars with which they purchased the bonds. Did the United States government do this? The answer is yes. The purchasing power of the dollar rose four percent between 1918, when the fourth Liberty Bond was issued, and 1938, when the fourth Liberty Bond matured. So, an American citizen who in 1918 purchased a $100 Liberty Bond received in 1938 funds sufficient to purchase goods and services that would have cost $104 in 1918. The government also paid 4.5% interest each year along the way. So, the government did honor its pledge to maintain the purchasing power of the funds entrusted to it by purchasers of Liberty Bonds and return that to them plus interest.
What about foreigners? They owned many U.S. bonds. The largest group of foreign investors were English. Their position is worth considering. In October 1918, when the Liberty Bonds were issued, the dollar-pound exchange rate was 4.77. An English investor could exchange ₤1 for $4.77 and purchase a $100 Liberty Bond for ₤20.96. In October 1938, when the Liberty Bonds matured, the dollar-pound exchange rate was 4.77. So, an English investor who redeemed his bond for $100 in U.S. currency could convert that into ₤20.96, exactly what they had paid for it, and with those funds, they could buy goods which would have been valued at ₤46.69 in 1918, since the purchasing power of the pound had risen substantially since that time. So, English investors, like many others overseas, made large profits from investing in Liberty Bonds.
Plaintiffs in the gold clause cases before the Supreme Court hoped that their suit would allow them to reap even higher returns. They argued that the government should be required to pay them with old gold coins, like the Eagle, at the 1918 standard of value, and then they should be able to convert the Eagles to dollars at the price established by the Gold Reserve Act of 1934 ($35 per troy ounce of gold). The government countered that this plan was infeasible. There was not enough gold in the U.S. to pay gold to all Liberty Bond holders. That plan was also illegal. The law no longer allowed the public to own, save, or spend monetary gold. In that case, the plaintiffs argued, they should receive the amount which would result from a hypothetical sequence of transactions where the government gave them gold coins at the 1918 standard of value (as stated on the bonds) and then immediately converted that gold to currency at the 1934 standard of value. This sequence would pay $166.67 on a $100 Liberty Bond upon maturity in 1938, a sum sufficient to purchase goods and services which would have cost $174.19 in 1918. The majority of the Supreme Court rejected this claim and referred to it as unjust enrichment.
Chapter 16 discusses the consequences of the abrogation of the gold clause. At the time, opponents of the policy contended that its effects could be catastrophic. Contracts would not be trusted. Creditors would no longer want to extend loans. Interest rates would rise. Investment would fall. The economy would stagnate. Edwards looks for evidence of these ailments in data on investment, borrowing, bonds, stocks, prices, interest rates, and output and finds none. After abrogation, the government actually found it easier to borrow, rather than harder. Edwards concludes that there is “no evidence of distress or dislocation in the period immediately following the abrogation, or the Court ruling. … it is possible that if the gold clause had not been abrogated, output and investment would have recovered faster than they did, and that the costs of borrowing would have declined even more. Those outcomes are possible, but in my view, highly unlikely” (p. 195).
The reason abrogation had no detectable impact, Edwards concludes, was that it was an excusable default. Excusable defaults occur under circumstances “when the market understands that a debt restructuring is, indeed, warranted, and beneficial for (almost) everyone involved in the marketplace” (p. 197), when the restructuring is done according to existing legal rules, and when the default is largely a domestic matter, with few foreigners involved. Excusable defaults do not stigmatize sovereigns, since they do not change borrowers’ expectations of sovereigns’ probability of repaying future debts. I agree with Edwards that the abrogation of the gold clause fit these circumstances, and I argued, in the preceding paragraphs, that the abrogation fit another classic characteristic of an excusable default. Bondholders received payment equal to (or better than) what they expected when the debt was issued. Since past holders of Liberty Bonds received the repayments that they expected when they purchased the bonds on origination in 1918, despite the tremendous shocks to the United States and world economies between then and maturity in 1938, future bondholders had no reason to doubt that their expectations would not be met.
Could it happen again? The author asks that question at the beginning and end of the book (and in the title to Chapter 17), because he says “among all questions, [it was] the one that kept coming back again and again” (p. 201). In emerging economies, Edwards indicates, “situations that mirror what happened in the United States during 1933-1935 have occurred recently in a number of … countries, and it is almost certain that they will continue to arise in the future” (p 203). Examples from the recent past include Argentina, Mexico, Turkey, Russia, Indonesia, and Chile. Advanced economies are not immune from these economic forces. In 2008, Iceland faced “a gigantic external crisis with a massive devaluation and a complete collapse of the banking sector. It took almost ten years for Iceland to recover” (p. 205). Greece continues to struggle with a similar situation. So do other European nations, such as Portugal, Italy, and Spain. These nations may be tempted to leave the Eurozone, reintroduce independent currencies, and devalue their exchange rate in order to speed economic recovery. But, any nation that tries (or is forced) to do this will struggle with contracts, all of which are written requiring payment in Euros. If these are rewritten to permit repayment in new currencies of lesser value, the issue is sure to end up in domestic and foreign courts as well as the World Bank’s tribunal for international investment disputes.
While the rest of the world may be in danger of experiencing events similar to the U.S. abrogation crisis of the 1930s, Edwards argues that “it is almost impossible that something similar will happen again in the United States” (p. 201). The main reasons are the change in the monetary system and the exchange rate regime. The United States’ exchange rates are now determined by market forces. Gold no longer underlies the monetary system. Most contracts are denominated in lawful currency, not gold, commodities, or foreign currency. Even if a repeat is extremely unlikely, the chance of the United States restructuring its debt, Edwards argues, is not zero. The federal debt outstanding is now nearly equal to gross domestic product. A tenth of the debt is fixed in real terms, because upon maturity, bondholders receive a premium payment linked to increases in the Consumer Price Index. The implicit debt for future entitlement, particularly Medicare, Medicaid, and Society Security, exceeds 400 percent of gross domestic product. There is little agreement on how to pay for these promises, Edwards notes, and at some point in the not-too-distant future, the U.S. government may be forced to restructure these payments. This potential crisis, Edwards argues, differs from the crisis of the 1930s, because the abrogation crisis stemmed from deflation, exchange rates, and the structure of the monetary system. The modern problem arises from promises made in the present for the future delivery of services.
On all of these points, I agree with Edwards. I am, however, less hopeful for the future. The unsustainable federal debt is not an accident. It was consciously created by Republican politicians to justify reducing (or eliminating) future federal entitlements. With Republicans in control of all three branches [When the review was published by Cato, this was true. However, Republicans now control only half of Congress] of the federal government, taxes cut, deficits up, and a recession on the horizon, the day of reckoning may be upon us in the near future. I anticipate a massive abrogation of federal medical and retirement entitlements within the next decade and sooner if Republicans retain control of Congress and the Presidency through 2020.
The roots of the past and current crises may have more in common than Edwards indicates. Most payments for federal entitlement programs are indexed for inflation. Federal entitlement obligations are, in other words, guaranteed in real terms, just like payments for Liberty Bonds one hundred years ago. They cannot be adjusted on aggregate by monetary policies that generate inflation. The can only be adjusted through the legislature and the courts. On this point, Edwards’ American Default ends on a high note. The ability of the United States to deal with the crisis of the 1930s and the abrogation of the gold clause demonstrates the strength of our legislative and judicial institutions. Given these, it is likely that our nation will be able to overcome future federal financial restructurings. Memories of those events will fade. The will be forgotten just like the events that Edwards masterfully recounts in his book, and America’s federal debt will remain the risk-free standard for the rest of the world.
Alter, Jonathan. The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Badger, Anthony J. FDR: The First Hundred Days. Hill and Wang, 2008.
Cohen, Adam. Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America. Penguin Press, 2009.
Eichengreen, Barry. Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919-1939. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Friedman, Milton and Anna J. Schwartz. A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.
Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. Oxford University Press, 1999.
Investopedia. “Risk-Free Rate of Return”. Retrieved June 21, 2018.
Investopedia. “How is the risk-free rate determined when calculating market risk premium?” https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/040915/how-riskfree-rate-determined-when-calculating-market-risk-premium.asp. Retrieved June 21, 2018
Richardson, Gary, Michael Gou, and Alejandro Komai. “Gold Reserve Act of 1934.” Federal Reserve History Web Site. Retrieved June 26, 2018. https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/roosevelts_gold_program.
Richardson, Gary, Michael Gou, and Alejandro Komai. “Roosevelt’s Gold Program.” Federal Reserve History Web Site. Retrieved June 26, 2018. https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/roosevelts_gold_program.
Temin, Peter. Lessons from the Great Depression. MIT Press, 1989.
Wikipedia. “Risk-Free Interest Rate.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risk-free_interest_rate. Retrieved June 21, 2018
This review was originally published in Regulation, Fall 2018.
Gary Richardson was the editor of the Federal Reserve’s historical web site, https://www.federalreservehistory.org/, on which he wrote a series of articles about the Roosevelt Administration’s gold policies. He is the author of numerous academic articles on the history of money, banking, and the Federal Reserve.