“I held in my hand the Holy Grail for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The most influential economic mind of the twentieth century provided the CME with the intellectual foundation upon which to build its financial superstructure.”
Nixon’s estimable free market advisors who gathered at the Camp David weekend were to an astonishing degree clueless as to the consequences of their recommendation to close the gold window and float the dollar. In their wildest imaginations they did not foresee that this would unhinge the monetary and financial nervous system of capitalism. They had no premonition at all that it would pave the way for a forty-year storm of financialization and a debt-besotted symbiosis between central bankers possessed by delusions of grandeur and private gamblers intoxicated with visions of delirious wealth.
In fact, when Nixon announced on August 15, 1971, that the dollar was no longer convertible to gold at $35 per ounce, his advisors had barely a scratch pad’s worth of ideas as to what should come next.
Its first attempted solution was a Burns-Connally hybrid known as the Smithsonian Agreement of December 1971. The United States needed precisely a $13 billion favorable swing in its balance of trade. This was not to be achieved the honest way—by domestic belt tightening and thereby a reduction of swollen US imports that were being funded by borrowing from foreigners. Instead, America’s trading partners were to revalue their currencies upward by about 15 percent against the dollar.
Connally’s blatant mercantilist offensive was cut short in late November 1971, however, when the initially jubilant stock market started heading rapidly south on fears that a global trade war was in the offing.
As it turned out, a few weeks later Connally’s protectionist gauntlet ended in an amicable paint-by-the-numbers exercise in diplomatic pettifoggery. The United States agreed to drop the 10 percent import surtax and raise the price of gold by 9 percent to $38 per ounce.
Quite simply, the United States had made no commitment whatsoever to redeem paper dollars for gold at the new $38 price or to defend the gold parity in any other manner. At bottom, the Smithsonian Agreement attempted the futile task of perpetuating the Bretton Woods gold exchange standard without any role for gold.
During the next eight months, further international negotiations attempted to rescue the Smithsonian Agreement with more baling wire and bubble gum. But the die was already cast and the monetary oxymoron which had prevailed in the interim, a gold standard system without monetary gold, was officially dropped in favor of pure floating currencies in March 1973.
Now, for the first time in modern history, all of the world’s major nations would operate their economies on the basis of what old-fashioned economists called “fiduciary money.” In practical terms, it amounted to a promise that currencies would retain as much, or as little, purchasing power as central bankers determined to be expedient.
In stumbling to this outcome, Nixon’s advisors were strikingly oblivious to the monetary disorder they were unleashing. The passivity of the “religious floaters” club in the White House was owing to their reflexive adherence to the profoundly erroneous monetarist doctrines of Milton Friedman.
A Friedmanite Fed would keep the money growth dial set strictly at 3 percent, year in and year out, ever steady as she goes.
Friedman’s pre-1971 writings nowhere give an account of the massive hedging industry that would flourish under a régime of floating paper money. This omission occurred for good reason: Friedman didn’t think there would be much volatility to hedge if his Chicago-trained central bankers stuck to the monetarist rulebook.
Most certainly, Friedman did not see that an unshackled central bank would eventually transform his beloved free markets into gambling halls and venues of uneconomic speculative finance.
It thus happened that Leo Melamed, a small-time pork-belly (i.e., bacon) trader who kept his modest office near the Chicago Mercantile Exchange trading floor stocked with generous supplies of Tums and Camels, found his opening and hired Professor Friedman.
THE PORK-BELLY PITS: WHERE THE AGE OF SPECULATIVE FINANCE STARTED
Leo Melamed was the genius founder of the financial futures market and presided over its explosive growth on the Chicago “Merc” during the last three decades of the twentieth century.
At the time of the Camp David weekend that changed the world, the Chicago Merc was still a backwater outpost of the farm commodity futures business.
The next chapters in the tale of Melamed and the Merc are downright astonishing. In 1970, Melamed made an intensive inquiry into currency and other financial markets about which he knew very little, in a desperate search for something to replace the Merc’s rapidly dwindling eggs contract. The latter was the core of its legacy business and was then perhaps $50 million per year in annual turnover.
Four decades later, Leo Melamed’s study program had mushroomed into a vast menu of futures and options contracts—covering currencies, commodities, fixed-income, and equities, which trade twenty-four hours per day on immense computerized platforms. The entire annual volume of the old eggs contract is now exceeded in literally the blink of an eye.
The reason futures contracts on D-marks and T-bills took off like rocket ships is that the fundamental nature of money and finance was turned upside down at Camp David. In effect, Professor Friedman’s floating money contraption created a massive market for hedging that did not have any reason for existence in the gold standard world of Bretton Woods, and most especially under its more robust pre-1914 antecedents.
When currency exchange rates were firmly fixed and some or all of the main ones were redeemable in a defined weight of gold, exporters and importers had no need to hedge future purchases or deliveries denominated in foreign currencies. The spot and forward exchange rates, save for technical differentials, were always the same.
Even more importantly, the newly emergent need of corporations and investors to hedge against currency and interest rate risk caused other fateful developments in financial markets; namely, the accumulation of capital and trading resources by firms which became specialized in the intermediation of financial hedges. Purely an artifact of an unstable monetary régime, this new industry resulted in prodigious and wasteful consumption of capital, technology, and labor resources.
The four decades since Camp David also show that the Friedmanite régime of floating money is dynamically unstable. Each business cycle recovery since 1971 has amplified the ratio of credit to income in the system, causing the daisy chains of debt upon debt to become ever more distended and fragile.
Currently, the daily volume of foreign exchange hedging activity in global futures and options markets, for example, is estimated at $4 trillion, compared to daily merchandise trade of only $40 billion. This 100:1 ratio of hedging volume to the underlying activity rate does not exist because the currency managers at exporters like Toyota re-trade their hedges over and over all day; that is, every fourteen minutes.
Due to the dead-weight losses to society from this massive churning, the hedging casinos are a profound deformation of capitalism, not its crowning innovation. They consume vast resources without adding to society’s output or wealth, and flush income and net worth to the very top rungs of the economic ladder—rarefied redoubts of opulence which are currently occupied by the most aggressive and adept speculators. The talented Leo Melamed thus did not spend forty years doing God’s work, as he believed. He was just an adroit gambler in the devil’s financial workshop—the great hedging venues—necessitated by Professor Friedman’s contraption of floating, untethered money.
THE LUNCH AT THE WALDORF-ASTORIA THAT OPENED THE FUTURES
According to Melamed’s later telling, by 1970 he had “become a committed and ardent disciple in the army that was forming around Milton Friedman’s ideas. He had become our hero, our teacher, our mentor.”
Thus inspired, Melamed sought to establish a short position against the pound, but after visiting all of the great Loop banks in Chicago he soon discovered they weren’t much interested in pure speculators: “if you didn’t have any commercial reasons, the banks weren’t likely to be very helpful.”
The banking system was not in the business of financing currency speculators, and for good reason. In a fixed exchange rate régime the currency departments of the great international banks were purely service operations which deployed no capital and conducted their operations out of hushed dealing rooms, not noisy cavernous trading floors. The foreign currency business was no different than trusts and estates. Even Melamed had wondered at the time whether “foreign currency instruments could succeed” within the strictures designed for soybeans and eggs, and pretended to answer his own question: “Perhaps there was some fundamental economic reason why no one had before successfully applied financial instruments to futures.”
In point of fact, yes, there was a huge reason and it suggests that while Melamed might have audited Milton Friedman’s course, he had evidently not actually passed it. There were no currency futures contracts because there was no opportunity for speculative profit in forward exchange transactions as long as the fixed-rate monetary régime remained reasonably stable.
Indeed, this reality was evident in a rebuke from an unnamed New York banker which Melamed recalled having received in response to his entreaties shortly before the Smithsonian Agreement was announced. “It is ludicrous to think that foreign exchange can be entrusted to a bunch of pork belly crapshooters,” the banker had allegedly sniffed.
Whether apocryphal or not, this anecdote captures the essence of what happened at Camp David in August 1971. There a motley crew of economic nationalists, Friedman acolytes, and political cynics supinely embraced Richard Nixon’s monetary madness. In so doing, they opened the financial system to a forty-year swarm of “crapshooters” who eventually engulfed capitalism itself in endless waves of speculation and fevered gambling, activities which redistributed the income upward but did not expand the economic pie.
As it happened, Melamed did not waste any time getting an audience with the wizard behind the White House screen. At a luncheon meeting with Professor Friedman at the New York Waldorf-Astoria on November 13, 1971, which Melamed later described as his “moment of truth,” he laid out his case.
After asking Friedman “not to laugh,” Melamed described his scheme: “I held my breath as I put forth the idea of a futures market in foreign currency. The great man did not hesitate.”
“It’s a wonderful idea,” Friedman told him. “You must do it!”
Melamed then suggested that his colleagues in the pork-belly pits might be more reassured about the venture if Friedman would put his endorsement in writing. At that, Friedman famously replied, “You know I am a capitalist?”
He was apparently a pretty timid capitalist, however. In consideration of the aforementioned $7,500, Melamed got an eleven-page paper that launched the greatest trading casino in world history. It made Melamed extremely wealthy and also millionaires out of countless other recycled eggs and bacon traders that Friedman never even met.
Modestly entitled “The Need for a Futures Market in Currencies,” the paper today reads like so much free market eyewash. But back then it played a decisive role in conveying Friedman’s imprimatur.
In describing the paper’s impact, Melamed did not spare the superlatives: “I held in my hand the Holy Grail for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The most influential economic mind of the twentieth century provided the CME with the intellectual foundation upon which to build its financial superstructure.”