My Two Cents

J.P. Paulson? And a global central bank?

Chris Farrell Oct 14, 2008

It was one of the most dramatic moments in U.S. financial history: The financial panic of 1907.

The U.S. economy boomed in the early 1900s. The demand for credit was enormous. Corporate America was in the midst of one of the largest merger and acquisition waves in U.S. history as financiers tried to stem ruinous price competition in industry after industry. Financial speculation was rampant, much of conducted through trust companies.

The economy slowed in 1906 and 1907, and money drained out of the U.S. as Britain and Germany hiked interest rates to fund their imperialist wars. Investors were also unsettled by the Roosevelt Administration’s attacks on Big Business and Big Money.

The trigger point for the panic of 1907 was the unraveling of a scheme by speculators F. Augustus Heinze and Charles W. Morse through various trust companies to corner the stock of United Copper Company. Depositors rushed to take their money out of the trusts.

To stem the tide, seventy year old J.P. Morgan established himself in the library in his New York house. The U.S. government and all of Wall Street relied on Morgan’s formidable reputation and acumen. The U.S. Treasury put $25 million at Morgan’s disposal. Morgan invited reluctant trust company presidents into his ornate library to contribute another $25 million. Eventually, Morgan put paper and pen into the hand of Edward King, leader of the New York trusts, saying, “Here’s the place, King. And here’s the pen.” The deal was signed and the panic over.

“The 1907 panic persuaded many skeptics that the country needed a central bank and couldn’t rely upon the theatrics of aging tycoons any longer,” says Ron Chernow, author of The House of Morgan. The Federal Reserve Board, America’s central bank, was created in 1913.

Now, a century later, a similar tale unfolds. According to a story in today’s Wall Street Journal, here’s what transpired when the U.S. decided to take a stake in major banks:

On one side of the table sat U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, flanked by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair.

On the other side sat the nation’s top bank executives who had flown in from around the country, lined up in alphabetical order by bank, with Bank of America Corp. at one end of the table and Wells Fargo & Co. at another.

It was Monday afternoon at 3 p.m. at the Treasury headquarters. Messrs. Paulson and Bernanke had called one of the most important gatherings of bankers in American history. For an hour, the nine executives drank coffee and water and listened to the two men paint a dire portrait of the U.S. economy and the unfolding financial crisis. As the meeting neared a close, each banker was handed a term sheet detailing how the government would take stakes valued at a combined $125 billion in their banks, combined with new restrictions over executive pay and dividend policies.

The participants, among the nation’s best deal makers, were in a peculiar position. They weren’t allowed to negotiate. Mr. Paulson requested that each of them sign. It was for their own good and the good of the country, he said, according to a person in the room….

Does a global central bank come out of this crisis? Is that the new mission of the IMF?

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