Raise less corn and more hell,” Mary Elizabeth Lease harangued Kansas farmers during America’s Populist era, but no such voice cries out today. America’s 21st-century financial victims make no protest against the Federal Reserve’s policy of showering dollars on the people who would seem to need them least.
Long ago and far away, a brilliant man of letters floated an idea. To stop a financial panic cold, he proposed, a central bank should lend freely, though at a high rate of interest. Nonsense, countered a certain hard-headed commercial banker. Such a policy would only instigate more crises by egging on lenders and borrowers to take more risks. The commercial banker wrote clumsily, the man of letters fluently. It was no contest.
The doctrine of activist central banking owes much to its progenitor, the Victorian genius Walter Bagehot. But Bagehot might not recognize his own idea in practice today. Late in the spring of 2007, American banks paid an average of 4.35% on three-month certificates of deposit. Then came the mortgage mess, and the Fed’s crash program of interest-rate therapy. Today, a three-month CD yields just 2.65%, or little more than half the measured rate of inflation. It wasn’t the nation’s small savers who brought down Bear Stearns, or tried to fob off subprime mortgages as “triple-A.” Yet it’s the savers who took a pay cut — and the savers who, today, in the heat of a presidential election year, are holding their tongues.