• U.S.

The Squeeze of ’79

25 minute read

Even by the standards of the 1970s, the decade of recurring recession, relentless inflation and repeated runs on the no longer almighty dollar, it was a wild week. For some time, Americans had seemed able to ignore or nimbly thrust out of mind repeated symptoms of their out-of-joint economy, like alarming new price rises and further drubbings of the greenback abroad. But last week those distant, or perhaps too familiar, woes hit home, and hard, in a burst of financial hysteria that engulfed markets, speculators and ordinary investors big and small from Wall Street to Main Street.

On the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, where prices had generally been climbing through the year, brokers were swept up in a selling wave that caused pandemonium on Wall Street and twinges of fear throughout the country. In just five days, the market dive left investors with some $55 billion in paper losses and sent the Dow Jones industrial average plunging a total of 58.62 points to a week’s close of 838.99. In terms of points, that was the Dow’s second steepest one-week decline ever; during the week of Oct. 16, 1978, when prices were hammered by news of a sharply falling dollar abroad and worsening inflation at home, the Dow sank by a half point more, but on a much smaller volume of trading. The number of shares that changed hands last week, some 250 million, was the largest in Big Board history.

On Tuesday alone, the Dow dropped a breathtaking 26.45 points, its worst single-session loss since January 1974, when the last recession was pushing the nation into its steepest economic slide since the Great Depression. The very next day, as worried investors around the country hurried to unload their falling stocks, a record 81.6 million shares were sold off on the Big Board in such a headlong rush that the ticker tape reporting transactions and prices fell as much as 63 minutes behind the pace of trading. “This thing is feeding on itself,” fretted William LeFevre, vice president at one Wall Street brokerage house. “Each decline triggers another batch of people who have to sell.”

In other markets, there were similar cries of pain as huge price gyrations roiled trading in everything from metals and corporate bonds to livestock and even futures contracts for wheat and soybeans. In his office just off Chicago’s LaSalle Street, the heart of the Windy City’s financial district, Bond Trader Colin MacDonald paused long enough from juggling the phones on his Government securities desk to complain to a reporter that “the market’s in a shambles. Before this is over, there’ll be enough resignations from wiped-out traders to fill the Yellow Pages.”

On the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, a veteran trader emerged from a day of trying to cope with roller-coaster price changes in the pit where live cattle are traded to exclaim, “I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life!” In Florida, where the action this year in condominiums has been hotter than the summer sun, mortgage bankers felt a sudden chill. Said Charles Stuzin, head of a Miami savings and loan association: “People are asking, ‘What’s going to happen tomorrow?’ Everything has moved so quickly, no one can make any plans.”

The financial frenzy, which also sent prices plummeting on foreign stock exchanges and set off sharp swings in the bullion markets, inevitably left many Americans wondering whether they were about to be flattened by a 50th-anniversary replay of the October 1929 Wall Street collapse. In fact, the turmoil was the direct result of some coolly deliberate steps that the men who manage the U.S.’s money had made in hopes of stabilizing the wobbly dollar and pulling down inflation, now running at a blistering annual rate of 13.1%. The author of these moves was a mild-mannered, balding bureaucrat whom most people outside the cloistered international banking fraternity have never heard of: Paul A. Volcker, 52, the U.S.’s newly appointed top central banker and, as such, the chief guardian of the dollar.

As chairman of the seven-member Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Volcker works in a complex and mysterious world. But last week, after less than three months in the Fed job, Volcker abruptly moved to stage center in Washington’s so far faltering struggle to halt the price explosion that is sapping the nation’s vitality. He committed Federal Reserve policy to a campaign not just to support the dollar but to attack inflation at its root source at home, by making money both scarce and costly, as well as by tightening up on the various procedures that the board has available to accomplish that purpose.

Volcker’s self-styled brand of “pragmatic monetarism” is bound to make the nation’s developing recession deeper, and thus further cloud the re-election chances of Jimmy Carter, the man who appointed him. Nonetheless, the Fed’s new anti-inflation activism is one of the most hopeful signs in a decade that Washington is at last becoming serious about combatting the economy’s debilitating price spiral. As much as anything, the upheavals and spasms that overtook markets everywhere last week reflected an almost panicky realization by all sorts of people, from big plungers on the commodities exchanges to working couples hoping to make a few hundred dollars on the rise of a stock, that they may no longer be able to make investment decisions based on expectations of cheap money, easy credit and endlessly climbing prices.

The message of Volckernomics is plain: interest rates will be going up, perhaps to levels that would have seemed wholly unimaginable only a few months ago. Meanwhile, the supply of money and credit to the nation’s still badly overheated economy will be curbed, making it more and more difficult for people to keep fueling inflation by spending instead of saving. In short, both individuals and corporations, and indeed the nation as a whole, will simply have to settle for sharply lower growth for some time to come. In return, people ought now to begin to be able, for the first time since the mid-1960s, to look forward to a future in which a lasting decline in inflation is more than just a politician’s promise.

The specific details of the Fed’s new policy, which was unveiled over the weekend before the Columbus Day bank holiday, are so complex that many people might wonder whether they mean much at all. As the reaction in the money and stock markets plainly attests, they do. In brief, the Federal Reserve announced:

> An immediate and unusually sharp 1% rise, from 11% to 12%, in the discount rate, which is the interest the Federal Reserve charges to commercial banks that borrow funds from it. Since Federal Reserve rules require banks to keep a certain amount of money in reserve for every dollar in loans to customers, banks that want to increase their lending sometimes turn to Federal Reserve discount funds to do so. Pushing up the cost of those funds discourages banks from borrowing and thereby helps hold down the expansion of credit.

> A requirement that 8% of any dollars acquired by banks from foreign sources for relending to borrowers in the U.S. be set aside and not loaned to anyone. Known generally as Eurodollars, these expatriate greenbacks have accumulated as U.S. payments deficits, starting in the 1960s; lately they have been increasing dramatically as a result of the rising cost of imported oil. Today they form a $600 billion money mountain in Europe as well as in the Caribbean and other offshore tax havens, where they have escaped the control of the Federal Reserve. In the past, when the Fed tried to curb the pace of business—and inflation—by limiting the supply of money, banks were able to circumvent this tightening by obtaining Eurodollars. The 8% reserve requirement will discourage this by making that money more costly for the banks to borrow, since they cannot lend it all to their customers.

> A policy decision that henceforth the Federal Reserve will no longer concern itself with trying to manipulate interest rates, its traditional device for controlling the growth of money, and will just stop creating so many dollars instead. The Fed regulates the level of money in the economy by buying or selling Government securities through its so-called Open Market Desk at the New York Federal Reserve Bank. When the bank buys the securities, it pumps money into the economy; when it sells them, money is drawn out, and interest rates rise. The Fed is now saying that, within broad limits, interest rates can go where they will because the bank will instead be concentrating on cutting down the supply of money directly.

To government leaders throughout Europe and bankers and businessmen around the world, the Volcker package was more than just decisive. It made basic monetary sense, something that foreigners have come to long for in the White House’s increasingly ineffectual inflation fight. In the past year, not only have prices throughout the economy surged into double digits and stayed there, but the Administration’s chief weapon in the struggle, its year-old voluntary wage and price guidelines program, has proved hopelessly inadequate to the task.

So too has the White House’s much touted “dollar rescue package” of last November; it was slapped together as a sort of desperation move to prop up the dollar after foreign bankers last autumn looked at the guidelines scheme, judged it weak and began frantically dumping greenbacks and buying West German marks, Swiss francs and gold. Initially, the November rescue package did stabilize money markets, largely because the Federal Reserve began massively intervening in currency markets to buy dollars and support their value. But inflation kept rampaging domestically, and eventually the dollar began to crumble all over again.

In Volcker’s approach, however, finance men and bankers now saw not just another quick fix but a direct assault on inflation itself. Said West German Finance Minister Hans Matthöfer: “The package goes straight to the heart of the problem.” Brussels Banker Roland Leuschel expressed a conviction shared by almost all European moneymen: “Throttling back on the money supply itself will be much more effective than raising interest rates in the fight against inflation. Paul Volcker is attacking inflation at its source.”

As if to underscore their approval, investors in London promptly chopped a sharp $13 off the price of gold; during the preceding weeks it had climbed by more than $100 to hit a momentary alltime high of $447 an ounce before settling back to about $385 at the beginning of October. Not only did the yellow metal on Monday droop to $372, but the dollar rebounded smartly on international exchanges, suggesting that its latest round of being bullied was coming to an end.

On Wall Street, however, about all that nervous traders could make of the Fed’s complex announcement was that interest rates would be rising. That is especially bad news for investors who hold shares of stock bought on margin with money borrowed from brokers at floating rates of interest. Wary of just how high those rates might climb, margin holders along with smaller investors began selling in earnest on Monday, pushing the Dow down 13.57 points, to 884.

But the big market break came on Tuesday. That was when the naition’s banks reopened after the Columbus Day holiday, and made their response to the Fed’s discount-rate rise. Led by Chase Manhattan, the nation’s third largest bank, several institutions immediately raised the prime rate (the interest charged the most credit-worthy corporate customers) from 13.5%, already a record, to a new peak of 14.5%. Since quarter-point raises are the norm, the effect of the full-point boost in the prime was electric. Not only did it push the interest charged to margin investors up close to 16%, making stock ownership on borrowed money extremely expensive, but it had a sharp psychological effect on the market. That was quickly compounded when Chase Manhattan President Willard Butcher, told a New Orleans press conference that the money markets were in such turmoil that banks might soon wind up having to recalculate their prime rates, “from 9 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon.”

The sheer scariness of it all was what set off the really huge midweek selling spree on the Big Board. The dumping spread, irrationally, not only to the commodities and futures markets but also to the international currency centers. Out of fear and uncertainty, traders who had been buying dollars on Monday on the logical theory that the Fed’s moves would strengthen the greenback abruptly began selling them again.

On the Big Board, sanity began to return late Wednesday, when large institutions like insurance companies and pension funds moved into the market heavily to buy up stocks that other less cool-headed investors had been selling off at unrealistically low prices.

Bonds took an especially bad beating, since they usually pay fixed rates of return to investors and have values that fluctuate in accordance with overall interest rates in the economy. When interest rates rise, bond prices go down, and last week they fell through the floor. IBM had an offering of some $1 billion worth of notes and debentures, but many remained unsold when bond prices collapsed last week, leaving the underwriters with a loss of as much as $25 million.

There was a message in the weeklong madness in the markets. Says Democratic Economist Walter Heller: “I think Wall Street was saying, Sure, we think you ought to fight inflation, you ought to strengthen the dollar, you ought to tighten money, but holy smokes, not necessarily to the extent of knocking the props out from under profits.” Still, the chaos in the markets deflected attention from the more fundamental significance of the Federal Reserve’s moves, particularly its shift toward management of the money supply through direct controls instead of manipulation of interest rates. Conservative Economist Alan Greenspan describes this development as “by far the most important and significant change in U.S. monetary policy in a generation,” and others concur. Says Carter’s chief economic adviser, Charles Schultze: “Whether you like it or lump it, this is one of the most interesting things that’s happened to monetary policy in years.”

Strictly speaking, the Federal Reserve’s action is less a shift in policy than a change in procedure. Successive Fed chairmen, beginning with William McChesney Martin in 1951, have remained committed to holding down inflation by preventing the rapid growth of money and credit. But the economy of the 1970s has grown so bloated and distorted with spiraling prices that the traditional techniques of money management have become increasingly useless and even counterproductive. Indeed, at certain critical moments, well-intentioned efforts by the Fed either to tighten up or to relax the reins on monetary growth have boomeranged. The result has been periods of money drying up when it should have been plentiful, or pouring in torrents into an economy already very much awash in it.

In fact, a surprise surge in money growth was precisely what happened last spring. This is a big reason why inflation shows no signs of abating. Ironically, even as then Fed Chairman and now Treasury Secretary G. William Miller was proclaiming a clampdown on monetary growth and pointing proudly to double-digit nationwide interest rates as evidence that the Fed was making it costly to borrow funds, the money supply itself was about to explode.

Miller’s mistake had been to assume that the Fed’s orchestration of the highest interest rates in five years would alone be sufficient to discourage borrowing and spending. Through the first half of 1979, business was actually slowing somewhat as a result of bad winter weather and the gasoline squeeze, which together put a crimp in consumer purchasing. The Fed even began to fear that its seemingly draconian interest rates were pushing the economy headlong into recession.

The then Treasury Secretary, W. Michael Blumenthal, strongly disagreed. He argued that the slowdown was only momentary and that demand for money and credit would soon be rocketing all over again. That is precisely what happened. With people increasingly following an impulse to “buy now before the price goes up,” spending began to roar anew in midsummer. Consumers once again crowded into supermarkets and stores while businesses began to borrow at a breakneck clip.

Left to itself, the accelerating demand for credit would have quickly pushed interest rates far beyond the target that the Federal Reserve had set. For instance, interest on six-month Treasury bills, which is used as a guide for regulating interest on certain bank deposits, would have leaped alarmingly. To keep money markets stable, the Fed’s so-called Open Market Desk in New York was forced to begin making more and more money available to banks in order to satisfy demand for funds. Indeed, though the Fed’s own inflation-cooling monetary growth target was 4.5%, which is just about right, the Open Market Desk’s operations after March were actually expanding the money supply at an annual rate of close to 11%.

Demand for credit ballooned. In the past four weeks alone, loans to business jumped at a rate of 23%, while the commercial paper market, which is where big corporations trade megabuck lOUs back and forth among themselves, leaped by an astonishing 96%.

The truth was that when Miller left the Fed in August to become Carter’s Treasury chief after the summary axing of Blumenthal, the Fed’s monetary policy was in disarray. So strong has been the resulting expansionary momentum that even as investors and financial markets were reeling last week from Volcker’s abrupt shift in Fed tactics, the central bank itself glumly announced that money growth for the previous week had been a too robust $2 billion. That was anywhere from two to four times what had been expected.

Clearly, the Fed’s efforts to get a grip on the money supply have come not a moment too soon. Liberal Economist Arthur Okun, who was chief economic adviser to Lyndon Johnson, is a consistent critic of fighting inflation with tight money, which inevitably slows economic growth and raises unemployment. Yet Okun says. “The Fed had to do something. It simply could not let those huge credit flows continue.”

The Fed’s change of strategy had been in the works since Sept. 29. On that date, Volcker and Treasury Secretary Miller met with their West German counterparts and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in Hamburg as part of a series of continuing huddles that grew out of the now faltering dollar-rescue package of November 1978. The West Germans told the new Fed chief that any sort of Son of Rescue plan would now be simply unacceptable. If Washington wanted anything more than disdainful sympathy for its economic malaise, the Germans indicated, it would have to stage a sustained assault on inflation itself. The U.S. could not just go on blabbering about exchange-rate instability, as if all the dollar’s woes boiled down to foreigners not wanting to own the crumbling currency.

It was during that meeting, reports TIME Washington Correspondent William Blaylock, that Volcker decided nothing short of decisive action would do: “Upon Volcker’s return to Washington, following a brief appearance at an International Monetary Fund conference in Belgrade, he immediately instructed his staff to draw up a list of options open to the Fed. The short-term goal would be to prevent a further dollar slide abroad, but long term the objective would be to puncture the inflation psychology of the nation as a whole. As many as 20 staffers were ultimately involved in the brain-storming sessions, and economists from the Fed’s New York operations were shuttling in and out daily for consultations and advice.”

By week’s end Volcker had the measures that he wanted and called a mid-morning meeting of the board’s governors in the Fed’s second-floor boardroom. There, against a backdrop of silk wall coverings and an enormous blue-and-gold map of the U.S., the governors mulled over their chairman’s proposals for one hour, then two, then through lunch and on into the afternoon.

The first two items—an increase in the discount rate and the setting up of reserve requirements for offshore bank borrowings—went through smoothly enough, but the third presented a procedural problem. As a revolutionary change in Fed operations, the plan to focus day-to-day attention on actual money creation required not only board approval (which was given unanimously) but the support of the Open Market Committee, which comprises not only the board’s governors but also five other representatives from the Fed’s twelve regional banks. Just after lunch a conference call was arranged, unanimous support from the governors was secured, and at 2 p.m. both the White House and the Treasury were informed of the Fed’s decision.

Admirers of the “Volcker package,” is European central bankers are already calling the Fed’s moves, praise it mainly for the promise it holds that the U.S. will be able at last to control the availability of credit, as opposed to just its cost. After a full decade of high inflation, economists are pretty much agreed that the levers that have traditionally been used to control the flow of money into the economy—namely, the key interest rates that the Fed manipulates—have failed. This is in large part because the traditional concepts of money itself are outdated.

The Fed has developed several yardsticks to gauge the supply of money. The narrowest of these is a number that is known as M-1 and is the total of currency in circulation plus other immediately accessible funds in commercial bank checking accounts. As measured by M1, the U.S. money supply at present is about $380 billion. A broader yardstick is M2, which includes all of M-1 plus savings deposits, and shows a money supply of $935 billion.

The trouble is that the kinds of “cash” being developed in the world’s leading consumer economy are proliferating faster than the money managers can find ways to measure them. Among other elements in this unmeasured or “invisible” money stock are the credit lines consumers get with their Visa or Master Charge cards, the borrowing they do with a second or even third mortgage on a home, and the ability of companies to borrow on a line of bank credit, in the commercial paper market or even through an overseas financing subsidiary.

Moreover, the definitions of money do not include a whole array of newfangled financing and banking techniques. These include money market mutual funds, which have grown from nothing seven years ago to more than $36 billion now. The funds put investor deposits into government and corporate securities that pay more than twice what is available in regular bank savings accounts; they also permit check writing against the investments, making the whole concept rather like super high-paying checking accounts. People are now putting money into these funds at the rate of $500 million a week.

All this invisible money is, of course, available any time to buy a car or a TV or a vacation in Miami, or to finance a corporate takeover on Wall Street. The policy danger posed by this credit proliferation is that a tight money strategy may indeed cut down the growth of the Fed’s “official money,” but spending would just keep on surging and spurring inflation anyway. Urges Wall Street Economist Henry Kaufman, an internationally respected expert on interest rates and credit: “What we need now is a new monetary growth target that I call the ‘debt proxy.’ It would include not just currency and deposits but all private domestic debt as well, a figure that is already at $2.2 trillion, or almost exactly the nation’s entire G.N.P.”

While Volcker’s retooling of Fed policy may lead to surer control of the money supply, critics are worried that the steps he has taken to limit the inflationary flow of Eurodollars into the economy do not go far enough. In London, Geneva and other offshore finance centers, no sooner were the Fed’s money-tightening moves announced than finance men began huddling with their lawyers, looking for ways to circumvent the new rules. Reports TIME’S European economic correspondent Friedel Ungeheuer from Brussels: “The game of the week is finding loopholes in the Fed’s effort to keep Eurodollars out of the U.S. Like water finding the same level in connected containers, an ocean of money can flow through even the smallest opening.”

The ultimate challenge to the Fed’s bold new initiative is, of course, the sheer virulence of the nation’s inflationary malaise. In the short run, skyrocketing interest rates will just make the plague worse, since rising interest simply pushes up the cost of money. In fact, the new boost in rates makes it even more certain that the actual amount of inflation this year will far exceed the Administration’s official forecast; it still maintains that the rise in prices for all of 1979 will be no more than 10.6%.

In an odd way, the onrushing inflation is actually giving the economy a kind of deceptively healthy glow. With money available in seemingly inexhaustible quantities, neither business nor consumer spending shows signs of slowing much at all. In spite of wide agreement among economists that the U.S. is already in recession, September’s unemployment level fell to 5.8% of the labor force, down from 6% in August; that decline suggests that businesses are not just continuing to keep factory lines humming, but are even expanding their production in the belief that someone will buy almost anything they can turn out.

Demand remains impressively strong, as the latest retail sales results show. In September purchases by consumers rose by a very vigorous 2.2%, which was nearly twice the increase that had occurred in any previous month this year. Moreover, revised Government figures show that spending in August climbed by an astonishing 3.1%, which works out to an annual rate of 44%.

Though higher interest rates are bound to crimp housing, pinch installment loans, and put a drag on sales of big-ticket items like cars, which are normally bought on credit and not with cash, most economists continue to agree that the economy is not about to drop into a free-fall plunge as it did after the oil-price shocks of 1973 and 1974. For the most part, the members of TIME’S Board of Economists predict a moderately deeper recession than envisioned in their earlier forecasts of September; but they foresee no economic tailspin, in part because the strength of spending and borrowing has exceeded even their most extreme expectations.

On balance, the board sees the economy remaining in recession until perhaps the summer of 1980. The total slide in the nation’s output of goods and services would be anywhere from about 2% to 4%. Inflation will remain locked in double digits for the rest of 1979, but could edge down somewhat next year.

One considerable danger is the threat of an outright credit crunch. That would occur if the Federal Reserve’s tightening up of money, and the resulting rise in interest rates, reach such levels that borrowers found it impossible to get money on almost any terms. Such a squeeze occurred in the summer and fall of 1974, and almost immediately forced businesses to lay off upwards of 2 million workers because of the unavailability of even short term credit.

The chances of such a crunch developing would be somewhat higher if the Federal Reserve continued its now discarded practice of trying to manage the money supply by juggling interest rates Reason: in a slowdown, demand for money necessarily eases off at least somewhat and interest rates subside. But to keep those rates stable, the Fed would wind up slowing and slowing the growth of money until suddenly it would be creating nowhere near enough new money.

The Fed argues that its new system will enable it to keep a day-to-day eye on what really matters—the money supply—and to feed just enough new cash and credit into the economy to prevent a crunch. Yet something very much like a credit crunch may be the only thing that can break the nation’s addiction to easy money. The inflation psychology of spending to beat price rises is becoming a part of the national psyche.

That attitude must be dislodged if inflation’s grip on the economy is ever to be broken. At a Business Council meeting of 100 corporate chiefs in Hot Springs, Va., last week, Du Pont Chairman Irving Shapiro strongly endorsed the Federal Reserve’s tough new tactics to halt the price spiral: “The sooner we suffer the pain, the sooner we will be through it all.” Added General Electric Chairman Reginald Jones, with biblical solemnity: “We have to go through the valley of despair. There will be several months of pain and disruption.”

As the 1980 campaign intensifies, so will the political pressure on Jimmy Carter to keep unemployment from climbing and the recession from deepening, either by calling for a quickie tax cut or by pumping up the economy with an inflationary jolt of deficit spending. But at his press conference last week, the President insisted he would not be swayed: “Whatever it takes to control inflation, that’s what I will do.”

Treasury Secretary Miller, along with Volcker, traveled to Hot Springs to endorse the Federal Reserve’s actions and to repeat Carter’s pledge before the Business Council. Said Miller: “The President is supportive of these actions, because he is determined to carry on the war against inflation.” In fact, all eyes were instead on the quiet-spoken Volcker. With no fanfare but with steely determination, he had brought monetary policymaking fully into the fight to hold down prices. In so doing, the new Federal Reserve chief was offering the first genuine hope of the Carter Administration that someone might have both a will and a way to deal with the inflation menace.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com