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For release on delivery
4:00 p.m. EST (3:00 p.m. CST)
November 8, 2002

On Milton Friedman's Ninetieth Birthday

Remarks by
Ben S. Bemanke
Member, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System

before the

Conference to Honor Milton Friedman

University of Chicago

Chicago, Illinois

November 8, 2002

I can think of no greater honor than being invited to speak on the occasion of
Milton Friedman's ninetieth birthday. Among economic scholars, Friedman has no peer.
His seminal contributions to economics are legion, including his development of the
permanent-income theory of consumer spending, his paradigm-shifting research in
monetary economics, and his stimulating and original essays on economic history and
methodology. Generations of graduate students, at the University of Chicago and
elsewhere, have benefited from his insight; and many of these intellectual children and
grandchildren continue to this day to extend the sway of Friedman's ideas in economics.
What is more, Milton Friedman's influence on broader public opinion, exercised through
his popular writings, speaking, and television appearances, has been at least as important
and enduring as his impact on academic thought. In his humane and engaging way,
Milton Friedman has conveyed to millions an understanding of the economic benefits of
free, competitive markets, as well as the close connection that economic freedoms such
as property rights and freedom of contract bear to other types of liberty.
Today I'd like to honor Milton Friedman by talking about one of his greatest
contributions to economics, made in close collaboration with his distinguished coauthor,
Anna J. Schwartz. This achievement is nothing less than to provide what has become the
leading and most persuasive explanation of the worst economic disaster in American
history, the onset of the Great Depression--or, as Friedman and Schwartz dubbed it, the
Great Contraction of 1929-33. Remarkably, Friedman and Schwartz did not set out to
solve this complex and important problem specifically but rather addressed it as part of a
larger project, their magisterial monetary history of the United States (Friedman and

-2Schwartz, 1963). As a personal aside, I note that I first read A Monetary History of the
United States early in my graduate school years at M.LT. I was hooked, and I have been
a student of monetary econ~mics and economic history ever since.' I think many others
have had that experience, w'ith the result that the direct and indirect influences of the
Monetary History on contemporary monetary economics would be difficult to overstate.
As everyone here knows, in their Monetary History Friedman and Schwartz made
the case that the economic cbllapse of 1929-33 was the product of the nation's monetary
mechanism gone wrong.


the received wisdom at the time that they wrote,

which held that money was fl passive player in the events of the 1930s, Friedman and
Schwartz argued that "the c<!)ntraction is in fact a tragic testimonial to the importance of
monetary forces [po 300; alllJage references refer to Friedman and Schwartz, 1963]."
Friedman and Schwartz's account of the Great Contraction is impressive in its
erudition and development of historical detail, including the use of many previously
untapped primary sources. But what is most important about the work, and the reason
that the book is as influential today as ever, is the authors' subtle use of history to
disentangle complicated skeins of cause and effect--to solve what economists call the
identification problem. A statistician studying data from the Great Depression would
notice the basic fact that the money stock, output, and prices in the United States went
down together in 1929 through 1933 and up together in subsequent years. But these
correlations cannot answer tbe crucial questions: What is causing what? Are changes in
the money stock largely causing changes in prices and output, as Friedman and Schwartz

I AccordIngly, I hope the reader will forgive the many references to my own work in the list of references
below. They arise because much of my own research has followed up leads from the Friedman-Schwartz

-3were to conclude? Or, instead, is the stock of money reacting passively to changes in the
state of economy? Or is there yet some other, unmeasured factor that is affecting all
three variables?
The special genius of the Monetary History is the authors' use of what some today
would call "natural experiments"--in this context, episodes in which money moves for
reasons that are plausibly unrelated to the current state of the economy. By locating such
episodes, then observing what subsequently occurred in the economy, Friedman and
Schwartz laboriously built the case that the causality can be interpreted as running
(mostly) from money to output and prices, so that the Great Depression can reasonably be
described as having been caused by monetary forces. Of course, natural experiments are
never perfectly controlled, so that no single natural experiment can be viewed as
dispositive--hence the importance of Friedman and Schwartz's historical analysis, which
adduces a wide variety of such episodes and comparisons in support of their case. I think
the most useful thing I can do in the remainder of my talk today is to remind you of the
genius of the Friedman-Schwartz methodology by reviewing some of their main
examples and describing how they have held up in subsequent research.
Four Monetary Policy Episodes
To reiterate, at the heart of Friedman and Schwartz's identification strategy is the
examination of historical periods in the attempt to identify changes in the money stock or
in monetary policy that occurred for reasons largely unrelated to the contemporaneous
behavior of output and prices. To the extent that these monetary changes can reasonably
be construed as "exogenous," one can interpret the response of the economy to the


changes as reflecting cause and effect--particularly if a similar pattern is found again and
For the early Depression era, Friedman and Schwartz identified at least four
distinct episodes that seem to meet these criteria. Three are tightenings of policy; one is a
loosening. In each case, the economy responded in the way that the monetary theory of
the Great Depression would predict. I will discuss each of these episodes briefly, both
because they nicely illustrate the Friedman-Schwartz method and because they are
interesting in themselves.
The first episode analyzed by Friedman and Schwartz was the deliberate
tightening of monetary policy that began in the spring of 1928 and continued until the
stock market crash of Octob~r 1929. This policy tightening occurred in conditions that
we would not today normally consider conducive to tighter money: As Friedman and
Schwartz noted, the business-cycle trough had only just been reached at the end of 1927
(the NBER's official trough date is November 1927), commodity prices were declining,
and there was not the slightest hint ofinflation. 2 Why then did the Federal Reserve
tighten in early 1928? A principal reason was the Board's ongoing concern about
speculation on Wall Street. The Federal Reserve had long made the distinction between
"productive" and "speculative" uses of credit, and the rising stock market and the
associated increases in bank loans to brokers were thus a major concern. 3 Benjamin
Strong, the influential Governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and a key

However, as Athanaslos Orphamdes pomted out to me, by 1929 the rate of output growth was strong,
which may have prOVided additIOnal motivation for a tlghtemng.
3 Apparently the Board was not entirely clear on the point that funds used to purchase stock are not made
unavatlable for productive use Of course, as stock sales are merely transfers of existing assets, fUT'ds used
to purchase stock are not diSSipated but only transferred from one person to another.


-5protagonist in Friedman and Schwartz's narrative, had strong reservations about using
monetary policy to try to arrest the stock market boom. Unfortunately, Strong was
afflicted by chronic tuberculosis; his health was declining severely in 1928 (he died in
October) and, with it, his influence in the Federal Reserve System.
The "antispeculative" policy tightening of 1928-29 was affected to some degree
by the developing feud between Strong's successor at the New York Fed, George
Harrison, and members of the Federal Reserve Board in Washington. In particular, the
two sides disagreed on the best method for restraining brokers' loans: The Board favored
so-called "direct action," essentially a program of moral suasion, while Harrison thought
that only increases in the discount rate (that is, the policy rate) would be effective. This
debate was resolved in Harrison's favor in 1929, and direct action was dropped in favor
of a further rate increase. Despite this sideshow and its effects on the timing of policy
actions, it would be incorrect to infer that monetary policy was not tight during the
dispute between Washington and New York. As Friedman and Schwartz noted (p. 289),
"by July [1928], the discount rate had been raised in New York to 5 per cent, the highest
since 1921, and the System's holdings of government securities had been reduced to a
level of over $600 million at the end of 1927 to $210 million by August 1928, despite an
outflow of gold." Hence this period represents a tightening in monetary policy not
related to the current state of output and prices--a monetary policy "innovation," in
today's statistical jargon.
Moreover, Friedman and Schwartz went on to point out that this tightening of
policy was followed by falling prices and weaker economic activity: "During the two
months from the cyclical peak in August 1929 to the crash, production, wholesale prices,


and personal income fell at annual rates of 20 per cent, 7-112 per cent, and 5 per cent,
respectively." Of course, once the crash occurred in October--the result, many students
of the period have surmised, of a slowing economy as much as any fundamental
overvaluation--the economic decline became even more precipitous. Incidentally, the
case that money was quite tight as early as the spring of 1928 has been strengthened by
the subsequent work of James Hamilton (1987). Hamilton showed that the Fed's desire
to slow outflows of U.S. gold to France--which under the leadership of Henri Poincare
had recently stabilized its economy, thereby attracting massive flows of gold from
abroad--further tightened U.s. monetary policy.
The next episode studied by Friedman and Schwartz, another tightening, occurred
in September 1931, following the sterling crisis. In that month, a wave of speculative
attacks on the pound forced Oreat Britain to leave the gold standard. Anticipating that
the United States might be the next to leave gold, speculators turned their attention from
the pound to the dollar. Central banks and private investors converted a substantial
quantity of dollar assets to gold in September and October of 1931. The resulting
outflow of gold reserves (an


drain") also put pressure on the U.S. banking

system (an "internal drain"), as foreigners liquidated dollar deposits and domestic
depositors withdrew cash in anticipation of additional bank failures. Conventional and
long-established central banking practice would have mandated responses to both the
external and internal drains, but the Federal Reserve--by this point having forsworn any
responsibility for the U.S. banking system, as I will discuss later--decided to respond only
to the external drain. As Friedman and Schwarz wrote, "The Federal Reserve System
reacted vigorously and promptly to the external drain .... On October 9 [1931], the

- 7-

Reserve Bank of New York raised its rediscount rate to 2-112 per cent, and on October
16, to 3-112 per cent--the sharpest rise within so brief a period in the whole history of the
System, before or since (p. 317)." This action stemmed the outflow of gold but
contributed to what Friedman and Schwartz called a "spectacular" increase in bank
failures and bank runs, with 522 commercial banks closing their doors in October alone.
The policy tightening and the ongoing collapse of the banking system caused the money
supply to fall precipitously, and the declines in output and prices became even more
virulent. Again, the logic is that a monetary policy change related to objectives other
than the domestic economy--in this case, defense of the dollar against external attack-were followed by changes in domestic output and prices in the predicted direction.
One might object that the two "experiments" described so far were both episodes
of monetary contraction. Hence, although they suggest that declining output and prices
followed these tight-money policies, the evidence is perhaps not entirely persuasive. The
possibility remains that the Great Depression occurred for other reasons and that the
contractionary monetary policies merely coincided with (or perhaps, slightly worsened)
the ongoing declines in the economy. Hence it is particularly interesting that the third
episode studied by Friedman and Schwartz is an expansionary episode.
This third episode occurred in April 1932, when the Congress began to exert
considerable pressure on the Fed to ease monetary policy, in particular, to conduct largescale open-market purchases of securities. The Board was quite reluctant; but between
April and June 1932, it did authorize substantial purchases. This infusion of liquidity
appreciably slowed the decline in the stock of money and significantly brought down
yields on government bonds, corporate bonds, and commercial paper. Most interesting,

-8as Friedman and Schwartz noted (p. 324), "[t]he tapering off of the decline in the stock of
money and the beginning oflthe purchase program were followed shortly by an equally
notable change in the general economic indicator.... Wholesale prices started rising in
July, production in August.


income continued to fall but at a much reduced rate.

Factory employment, railro~d ton-miles, and numerous other indicators of physical
activity tell a similar story. All in all, as in early 1931, the data again have many of the
earmarks of a cyclical revival. ... Bums and Mitchell (1946), although dating the trough
in March 1933, refer to the period as an example of a 'double bottom.'" Unfortunately,
although a few Fed officials supported the open-market purchase program, notably
George Harrison at the New 'York Fed, most did not consider the policy to be appropriate.
In particular, as argued by s~veral modem scholars, they took the mistaken view that low
nominal interest rates were ititdicative of monetary ease. Hence, when the Congress
adjourned on July 16, 1932, the System essentially ended the program. By the latter part
of the year, the economy hadl relapsed dramatically.
The final episode stu4ied by Friedman and Schwartz, again contractionary in

impact, occurred in the perio~ from January 1933 to the banking holiday in March. This
time the exogenous factor might be taken to be the long lag mandated by the Constitution
between the election and the jnauguration of a new U.S. President. Franklin D.
Roosevelt, elected in Novemper 1932, was not to take office until March 1933. In the
interim, of course, considerable speculation circulated about the new President's likely
policies; the uncertainty was
policy statements or to



by the President-elect's refusal to make definite

actions proposed by the increasingly frustrated President

Hoover. However, from the President-elect's campaign statements and known

-9propensities, many inferred (correctly) that Roosevelt might devalue the dollar or even
break the link with gold entirely. Fearing the resulting capital losses, both domestic and
foreign investors began to convert dollars to gold, putting pressure on both the banking
system and the gold reserves of the Federal Reserve System. Bank failures and the Fed's
defensive measures against the gold drain further reduced the stock of money. The
economy took its deepest plunge between November 1932 and March 1933, once more
confirming the temporal sequence predicted by the monetary hypothesis. Once Roosevelt
was sworn in, his declaration of a national bank holiday and, subsequently, his cutting the
link between the dollar and gold initiated the expansion of money, prices, and output. It
is an interesting but not uncommon phenomenon in economics that the expectation of a
devaluation can be highly destabilizing but that the devaluation itself can be beneficial.
These four episodes might be considered as time series examples of Friedman and
Schwartz's evidence for the role of monetary forces in the Depression. They are not the
entirety of the evidence, however. Friedman and Schwartz also introduced "crosssectional"--that is, cross-country--evidence as well. This cross-sectional evidence is
based on differences in exchange-rate regimes across countries in the 1930s.

The Gold Standard and the International Depression
Although the Monetary History focuses by design on events in the United States, some of
its most compelling insights come from cross-sectional evidence. Anticipating a large
academic literature of the 1980s and 1990s, Friedman and Schwartz recognized in 1963
that a comparison of the economic performances in the 1930s of countries with different
monetary regimes could also serve as a test for their monetary hypothesis.

- 10 -

Facilitating the cros~-sectional natural experiment was the fact that the
international gold standard, which had been suspended during World War I, was
laboriously rebuilt during the 1920s (in a somewhat modified form called the goldexchange standard). Countties that adhered to the international gold standard were
essentially required to maintain a fixed exchange rate with other gold-standard countries.
Moreover, because the United States was the dominant economy on the gold standard
during this period (with some competition from France), countries adhering to the gold
standard were forced to match the contractionary monetary policies and price deflation
being experienced in the United States.
Importantly for identification purposes, however, the gold standard was not
adhered to uniformly as the Depression proceeded. A few countries for historical or
political reasons never joined the gold standard. Others were forced off early, because of
factors such as internal politics, weak domestic banking conditions, and the local
influence of competing economic doctrines. Other countries, notably France and the
other members of the so-called Gold Bloc, had a strong ideological commitment to gold
and therefore remained on the gold standard as long as possible.
Friedman and Schwartz's insight was that, if monetary contraction was in fact the
source of economic depression, then countries tightly constrained by the gold standard to
follow the United States into deflation should have suffered relatively more severe
economic downturns. Although not conducting a formal statistical analysis, Friedman
and Schwartz gave a number of salient examples to show that the more tightly
constrained a country was by the gold standard (and, by default, the more closely bound
to follow U.S. monetary policies), the more severe were both its monetary contraction

- 11 -

and its declines in prices and output. One can read their discussion as dividing countries
into four categories.
The first category consisted of countries that did not adhere to the gold standard at
all or perhaps adhered only very briefly. The example cited by Friedman and Schwartz
was China. As they wrote (p. 361), "China was on a silver rather than a gold standard.
As a result, it had the equivalent of a floating exchange rate with respect to gold-standard
countries. A decline in the gold price of silver had the same effect as a depreciation in
the foreign exchange value of the Chinese yuan. The effect was to insulate Chinese
internal economic conditions from the worldwide depression .... And that is what
happened. From 1929 to 1931, China was hardly affected internally by the holocaust that
was sweeping the gold-standard world, just as in 1920-21, Germany had been insulated
by her hyperinflation and associated floating exchange rate."
Subsequent research (for example, Choudhri and Kochin, 1980) has identified
other countries that, like China, did not adhere to the gold standard and hence escaped the
worst of the Depression. Two examples are Spain, where the internal instability that
ultimately led to the Spanish Civil War prevented the country from re-adopting the gold
standard in the 1920s, and Japan, which was forced from the gold standard after being on
it for only a matter of months. The Depression in Spain was quite mild, and Japan
experienced a powerful recovery almost immediately after abandoning its short-lived
experiment with gold.
The second category consisted of countries that had restored the gold standard in
the 1920s but abandoned it early in the Depression, typically in the fall of 1931. As
Friedman and Schwartz observed (p. 362), the first major country to leave the gold

- 12 standard was Great Britain, which was forced off gold in September 1931. Several
trading partners, among them the Scandinavian countries, followed Britain's lead almost
immediately. The effect ofleaving gold was to free domestic monetary policy and to
stop the monetary contraction. What was the consequence of this relaxed pressure on the
money stock? Friedman and Schwartz noted (p. 362) that "[t]he trough of the depression
in Britain and the other countries that accompanied Britain in leaving gold was reached in
the third quarter of 1932. [Irt contrast, i]n the countries that remained on the gold
standard or, like Canada, that went only part way with Britain, the Depression dragged
Third were countries that remained on gold but had ample reserves or were
attracting gold inflows. The key example was France (see p. 362), the leader of the Gold
Bloc. After its stabilization in 1928, France attracted gold reserves well out of proportion
to the size of its economy. France's gold inflows allowed it to maintain its money supply
and avoid a serious downturn until 1932. However, at that point, France's liquidation of
non-gold foreign exchange reserves and its banking problems began to offset the
continuing gold inflows, reducing the French money stock. A serious deflation and
declines in output began in France, which, as Friedman and Schwartz pointed out, did not
reach its trough until April 1935, much later than Great Britain and other countries that
left gold early.
Fourth, and perhaps the worst hit, were countries that rejoined the gold standard
but had very low gold reserves and banking systems seriously weakened by World War
and the ensuing hyperinflations. Friedman and Schwartz mention Austria, Gennany,
Hungary, and Romania as examples of this category (p. 361). These countries suffered


- 13 not only deflation but also extensive banking and financial crises, making their plunge
into depression particularly precipitous.
The powerful identification achieved by this categorization of countries by
Friedman and Schwartz is worth reemphasizing. If the Depression had been the product
primarily of nonmonetary forces, such as changes in autonomous spending or in
productivity, then the nominal exchange rate regime chosen by each country would have
been largely irrelevant. The close connection among countries' exchange rate regimes,
their monetary policies, and the behavior of domestic prices and output, is strong
evidence for the proposition that monetary forces played a central role not just in the U.S.
depression but in the world as a whole.
Of course, those familiar with more recent work on the Great Depression will
recognize that Friedman and Schwartz's idea of categorizing countries by exchange rate
regime has been widely extended by subsequent researchers. Notably, in the paper that
revived Friedman and Schwartz's temporarily dormant insight, Choudhri and Kochin
(1980) considered the relative performances of Spain (which, as mentioned, did not adopt
the gold standard), three Scandinavian countries (which left gold with Great Britain in
September 1931), and four countries that remained part of the French-led Gold Bloc (the
Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Poland). They found that the countries that remained on
gold suffered much more severe contractions in output and prices than the countries
leaving gold. In a highly influential paper, Eichengreen and Sachs (1985) examined a
number of key macro variables for ten major countries over 1929-35, finding that
countries that left gold earlier also recovered earlier. Bemanke and James (1991)
confirmed the findings of Eichengreen and Sachs for a broader sample of twenty-four

- 14 -

(mostly industrialized) cour)tries (see also Bernanke and Carey, 1996), and Campa (1990)
did the same for a sample of Latin American countries. Bernanke (1995) showed that not
only did adherence to the gold standard predict deeper and more extended depression, as
had been noted by earlier authors, but also that the behavior of various key macro
variables, such as real wages and real interest rates, differed across gold-standard and
non-gold-standard countries in just the way one would expect if the driving shocks were
monetary in nature. The most detailed narrative discussion of how the gold standard
propagated the Depression around the world is, of course, the influential book by
Eichengreen (1992). Eichengreen (2002) reviews the conclusions of his book and
concludes largely that they are quite compatible with the Friedman and Schwartz
The Role of Bank Failures,
Yet another striking feature of the Great Contraction in the United States was the massive
extent of banking panics and failures, culminating in the Bank Holiday of March 1933, in
which the entire U.S. banking system was shut down. During the Depression decade,
something close to half of al~ U.S. commercial banks either failed or merged with other
Friedman and Schwattz take the unusually severe and protracted U.S. banking
panic as yet another opportunity to apply their identification methodology. Their
argument, in short, is that under institutional arrangements that existed before the
establishment of the Federal Reserve, bank failures of the scale of those in 1929-33
would not have occurred, even in an economic downturn as severe as that in the
Depression. For doctrinal and institutional reasons to be detailed in a moment, however,

- 15 the extraordinary spate of bank failures did occur and led in tum to the massive extinction
of bank deposits and an abnormally large decline in the stock of money. Because the
decline in money induced by bank panics would not have occurred under previous
regimes, Friedman and Schwartz argued, it can be treated as partially exogenous and thus
a potential cause of the extraordinary declines in output and prices that followed.
Before the creation of the Federal Reserve, Friedman and Schwartz noted, bank
panics were typically handled by banks themselves--for example, through urban
consortiums of private banks called clearinghouses. If a run on one or more banks in a
city began, the clearinghouse might declare a suspension of payments, meaning that,
temporarily, deposits would not be convertible into cash. Larger, stronger banks would
then take the lead, first, in determining that the banks under attack were in fact
fundamentally solvent, and second, in lending cash to those banks that needed to meet
withdrawals. Though not an entirely satisfactory solution--the suspension of payments
for several weeks was a significant hardship for the public--the system of suspension of
payments usually prevented local banking panics from spreading or persisting (Gorton
and Mullineaux, 1987). Large, solvent banks had an incentive to participate in curing
panics because they knew that an unchecked panic might ultimately threaten their own
It was in large part to improve the management of banking panics that the Federal

Reserve was created in 1913. However, as Friedman and Schwartz discuss in some
detail, in the early 1930s the Federal Reserve did not serve that function. The problem
within the Fed was largely doctrinal: Fed officials appeared to subscribe to Treasury
Secretary Andrew Mellon's infamous 'liquidationist' thesis, that weeding out "weak"

- 16 -

banks was a harsh but necessary prerequisite to the recovery of the banking system.
Moreover, most ofthe failing banks were small banks (as opposed to what we would now
call money-center banks) and not members of the Federal Reserve System. Thus the Fed
saw no particular need to try to stem the panics. At the same time, the large banks-which would have intervened before the founding of the Fed--felt that protecting their
smaller brethren was no longer their responsibility. Indeed, since the large banks felt
confident that the Fed would protect them if necessary, the weeding out of small
competitors was a positive good, from their point of view.
In short, according to Friedman and Schwartz, because of institutional changes
and misguided doctrines, the banking panics of the Great Contraction were much more
severe and widespread than would have normally occurred during a downturn. Bank
failures and depositor withdrawals greatly reduced the quantity of bank deposits,
consequently reducing the money supply. The result, they argued, was greater deflation
and output decline than would have otherwise occurred.
A couple of objections can be raised to the Friedman-Schwartz inference. One
logical possibility is that the extraordinary rate of bank failure of the 1930s, rather than
causing the subsequent dec1~nes in output and prices, occurred because depositors and
others anticipated the collapse of the economy--that is, that the banking panics were
endogenous to the expected state of the economy. Friedman and Schwartz's institutional
arguments persuade me that ,this is unlikely. If previous arrangements had been in place,
bank panics would not have been allowed to progress to the degree they did, independent
of the severity of the downturn. Moreover, I don't find it plausible that, in 1930 and
1931, depositors and bankers fully anticipated the severity of the downturn still to come.

- 17 A second possibility is that banking panics contributed to the collapse of output
and prices through nonmonetary mechanisms. My own early work (Bemanke, 1983)
argued that the effective closing down of the banking system might have had an adverse
impact by creating impediments to the normal intermediation of credit, as well as by
reducing the quantity of transactions media. Friedman and Schwartz anticipated this
argument and adduced as contrary evidence a comparison of the United States and
Canada (p. 352). They pointed out that (1) Canada's monetary policy was tied to that of
the United States by a fixed exchange rate; (2) Canada had no significant bank failures;
but (3) Canada's output declines were as severe as those of the United States. Friedman
and Schwartz concluded that Canada's economy declined because of its enforced
monetary contraction--whether that monetary contraction took place through bank
failures or was enforced by the exchange-rate regime was immaterial.
I would argue that Canada, both being a commodity exporter and being unusually
highly integrated with the United States, may not have been fully representative of the
experience of all countries in the 1930s. For example, in Bemanke (1995, table 3), I
showed using a sample of twenty-six countries that, with the exchange-rate regime held
constant, countries suffering severe banking panics had subsequent declines in output that
were significantly worse than those in countries with stable banking systems. This result
supports the possibility of an additional, nonmonetary channel for bank failures. At the
same time, my results were also strongly supportive of the view that adherence to the
gold standard, and the associated monetary contraction, was of first-order importance in
explaining which countries suffered severe depressions. Thus, as I have always tried to
make clear, my argument for nonmonetary influences of bank failures is simply an

- 18 embellishment of the Friedman-Schwartz story; it in no way contradicts the basic logic of
their analysis.
Benjamin Strong and the Leadership Vacuum
Finally, what is probably Friedman and Schwartz's most controversial "natural
experiment" stems from the ipremature death, in 1928, of America's preeminent central
banker, Benjamin Strong.


who was Governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of

New York and the de facto equivalent to a Fed Chairman today, had led the Federal
Reserve throughout the 192{)s. Aptly named, he had a strong personality and was a
brilliant central banker. Quite plausibly, his personality and skills created a leadership
position within a Federal


System that--as suggested by its name--was intended

by the Congress to be a relatively decentralized institution.
After Strong's death,las Friedman and Schwartz describe in useful detail, the
Federal Reserve no longer had an effective leader or even a well-established chain of
command. Members of the $oard in Washington, jealous of the traditional powers of the
Federal Reserve Bank of New York, strove for greater influence; and Strong's successor,
George Harrison, did not have the experience or personality to stop them. Regional
banks also began to assert themselves more. Thus, power became diffused; worse, what
power there was accrued to men who did not understand central banking from a national
and international point of view, as Strong had. The leadership vacuum and the generally
low level of central banking expertise in the Federal Reserve System was a major
problem that led to excessive passivity and many poor decisions by the Fed in the years
after Strong's death.

- 19 Friedman and Schwartz argued in their book that if Strong had lived, many of the
mistakes of the Great Depression would have been avoided. This proposition has been
highly controversial and has led to detailed examinations of what Strong's views "really
were" on various matters of monetary policyrnaking. This counterfactual debate
somewhat misses the point, in my opinion. We don't know what would have happened
had Strong lived; but what we do know is that the central bank of the world's
economically most important nation in 1929 was essentially leaderless and lacking in
expertise. This situation led to decisions, or nondecisions, which might well not have
occurred under either better leadership or a more centralized institutional structure. And
associated with these decisions, we observe a massive collapse of money, prices, and
output. Thus, it seems to me that the death of Strong does qualify as one more natural
experiment with which to try to identify the effects of monetary forces in the Great

The brilliance of Friedman and Schwartz's work on the Great Depression is not simply
the texture of the discussion or the coherence of the point of view. Their work was
among the first to use history to address seriously the issues of cause and effect in a
complex economic system, the problem of identification. Perhaps no single one of their
"natural experiments" alone is convincing; but together, and enhanced by the subsequent
research of dozens of scholars, they make a powerful case indeed.
For practical central bankers, among which I now count myself, Friedman and
Schwartz's analysis leaves many lessons. What I take from their work is the idea that
monetary forces, particularly if unleashed in a destabilizing direction, can be extremely

- 20-

powerful. The best thing that central bankers can do for the world is to avoid such crises
by providing the economy with, in Milton Friedman's words, a "stable monetary
background"--for example as reflected in low and stable inflation.
Let me end my talk by abusing slightly my status as an official representative of
the Federal Reserve. I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great
Depression. You're right, we did it. We're very sorry. But thanks to you, we won't do it
Best wishes for your next ninety years.


Bemanke, Ben, "Non-Monetary Effects of the Financial Crisis in the Propagation of the
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