In November 1910, six men – Nelson Aldrich, A. Piatt Andrew, Henry Davison, Arthur Shelton, Frank Vanderlip and Paul Warburg – met at the Jekyll Island Club, off the coast of Georgia, to write a plan to reform the nation’s banking system. The meeting and its purpose were closely guarded secrets, and participants did not admit that the meeting occurred until the 1930s. But the plan written on Jekyll Island laid a foundation for what would eventually be the Federal Reserve System.
The Need for Reform
At the time, the men who met on Jekyll Island believed the banking system suffered from serious problems. The Jekyll Island participants’ views on this issue are well known, since before and after their conclave several spoke publicly and others published extensively on the topic. Collectively, they encapsulated their concerns in the plan they wrote on Jekyll Island and in the reports of the National Monetary Commission.
Like many Americans, these men were concerned with financial panics, which had disrupted economic activity in the United States periodically during the nineteenth century. Nationwide panics occurred on average every fifteen years. These panics forced financial institutions to suspend operations, triggering long and deep recessions. American banks held large required reserves of cash, but these reserves were scattered throughout the nation, held in the vaults of thousands of banks or as deposits in financial institutions in designated reserve and central reserve cities. During crises, they became frozen in place, preventing them from being used to alleviate the situation. During booms, banks’ excess reserves tended to flow toward big cities, especially New York, where bankers invested them in call loans, which were loans repayable on demand to brokers. The brokers in turn loaned the funds to investors speculating in equity markets, whose stock purchases served as collateral for the transactions. This American system made bank reserves immobile and equity markets volatile, a recipe for financial instability.
In Europe, in contrast, bankers invested much of their portfolio in short-term loans to merchants and manufacturers. This commercial paper directly financed commerce and industry while providing banks with assets that they could quickly convert to cash during a crisis. These loans remained liquid for several reasons. First, borrowers paid financial institutions – typically banks with which they had long-standing relationships – to guarantee repayment in case the borrowers could not meet their financial obligations. Second, the loans funded merchandise in the process of production and sale and that merchandise served as collateral should borrowers default. The Jekyll Island participants also worried about the inelastic supply of currency in the United States. The value of the dollar was linked to gold, and the quantity of currency available was linked to the supply of a special series of federal government bonds. The supply of currency neither expanded nor contracted with seasonal changes in demands for cash, such as the fall harvest or the holiday shopping season, causing interest rates to vary substantially from one month to the next. The inelastic supply of currency and limited supplies of gold also contributed to long and painful deflations.
Furthermore, Jekyll Island participants believed that an array of antiquated arrangements impeded America’s financial and economic progress. For example, American banks could not operate overseas. Thus, American merchants had to finance imports and exports through financial houses in Europe, principally London. American banks also struggled to collectively clear checks outside the boundaries of a single city. This increased costs of inter-city and interstate commerce and required risky and expensive remittances of cash over long distances.
In an article published in the New York Times in 1907, Paul Warburg, a successful, German-born financier who was a partner at the investment bank Kuhn, Loeb, and Co. and widely regarded as an expert on the banking systems in the United States and Europe, wrote that the United States’ financial system was “at about the same point that had been reached by Europe at the time of the Medicis, and by Asia, in all likelihood, at the time of Hammurabi” (Warburg 1907).
Just months after Warburg wrote those words, the country was struck by the Panic of 1907. The panic galvanized the US Congress, particularly Republican senator Nelson Aldrich, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee. In 1908, Aldrich sponsored a bill with Republican representative Edward Vreeland that, among other things, created the National Monetary Commission to study reforms to the financial system. Aldrich quickly hired several advisers to the commission, including Henry Davison, a partner at J.P. Morgan, and A. Piatt Andrew, an economics professor at Harvard University. Over the next two years, they studied banking and financial systems extensively and visited Europe to meet with bankers and central bankers.
The Duck Hunt
By the fall of 1910, Aldrich was persuaded of the necessity of a central bank for the United States. With Congress ready to begin meeting in just a few weeks, Aldrich -- most likely at Davison’s suggestion -- decided to convene a small group to help him synthesize all he had learned and write down a proposal to establish a central bank.
The group included Aldrich; his private secretary Arthur Shelton; Davison; Andrew (who by 1910 had been appointed assistant Treasury secretary); Frank Vanderlip, president of National City Bank and a former Treasury official; and Warburg.
A member of the exclusive Jekyll Island Club, most likely J.P. Morgan, arranged for the group to use the club’s facilities. Founded in 1886, the club’s membership boasted elites such as Morgan, Marshall Field, and William Kissam Vanderbilt I, whose mansion-sized “cottages” dotted the island. Munsey’s Magazine described it in 1904 as “the richest, the most exclusive, the most inaccessible” club in the world.