Money and Trust
Pierpont Morgan's arrival took the quiet chamber by surprise. It was 2:00 p.m. on a mild Wednesday in December 1912, and the congressional committee did not expect its star witness until the following day. Politicians, lawyers, clerks, reporters, and the casual visitors who had come to watch these proceedings on Capitol Hill stopped what they were doing. All eyes followed the seventy-five-year-old banker and his party as they filed slowly toward seats near the center of the hall.
Morgan's matronly daughter, Louisa, stayed close to his side. His son, J. P. Morgan, Jr., walked a step behind. Next came two young partners from Morgan's Wall Street bank--Thomas W. Lamont and Henry P. Davison, with their wives--and a couple of lawyers. From a distance, the two J. P. Morgans looked very much alike. Each stood six feet tall, weighed over two hundred pounds, carried a velvet-collared Chesterfield topcoat, and walked with a tapered mahogany cane. People standing nearby could see the same broad planes in both faces, but the son's hair was dark and his features trim, while the father wore a drooping, grizzled mustache, what hair he still had was white, and his overgrown eyebrows arched up like wide-angled Gothic vaults. It was hard not to stare at the elder Morgan because of the rhinophyma--excess growth of sebaceous tissue--that deformed his nose. No one stared for long. Edward Steichen, who had taken the old man's photograph a few years earlier, said that meeting his gaze was like looking into the lights of an oncoming express train.
Once the New Yorkers had found seats, the afternoon's witness--a statistician named Philip Scudder--resumed his testimony, and Mr. Morgan heard his name mentioned several times. Mr. Scudder was describing, with the help of tables, charts, and diagrams, how eighteen financial institutions effectively controlled aggregate capital resources of over $25 billion--comparable to two thirds of the 1912 gross national product.
There is no precise way to measure the value of a 1912 dollar nearly a century later, but using a rough equivalent to the consumer price index and adjusting for inflation, $25 billion from 1912 would be worth about $375 billion in the 1990s. A more revealing comparison comes from the percentage of gross national product: two thirds of the 1998 GNP would be about $5 trillion.
For months in 1912 this House Banking and Currency subcommittee, headed by Louisiana Representative Arsène Pujo, had been trying to establish that a "money trust" ruled over America's major corporations, railroads, insurance companies, securities markets, and banks. The investigation served as climax to more than two decades of intense popular antagonism to "big money" interests--an antagonism that traced back to the founding of the American colonies. And now here under subpoena was the dominant figure behind all the recent financial consolidations, "the Napoleon of Wall Street."
Morgan by 1912 could not cross the street, much less the Atlantic, without arousing speculation in the stock market and the press. He managed to enter the Pujo Committee hearing room with minimal fanfare on Wednesday, December 18, because of a schedule change. The committee's counsel, Samuel Untermyer, had telephoned the Morgan bank on Tuesday morning to say that he would not be ready to examine the financier on Wednesday as originally planned, but would start on Thursday, December 19, instead. Morgan took a private train to Washington on Tuesday anyway, bringing with him an imposing array of counsel that included Joseph Hodges Choate, one of the country's leading corporate lawyers, a former U.S. ambassador to Britain's Court of St. James, and past president of the Bar Association of the City of New York; former Senator John Coit Spooner, once Wisconsin's preeminent railroad attorney; Richard V. Lindabury, who was defending the Morgan-organized U.S. Steel Corporation against a government antitrust suit; De Lancey Nicoll, former district attorney for the City of New York; William F. Sheehan, former lieutenant governor of New York; George B. Case of the New York law firm White & Case; and Francis Lynde Stetson of Stetson, Jennings & Russell, known as "Morgan's Attorney General." None of these men would be allowed to advise the banker as he testified, but they provided weighty political support.
The party reached Washington early Tuesday evening and went directly to the Willard Hotel at 14th and Pennsylvania. Morgan was gloomy and irritable. He had a bad cold. After dinner, too tired for any more talk with lawyers, he sat up late smoking his favorite cigar--a large Pedro Murias JPM made especially for him in Havana--and playing solitaire.
He disliked everything about these hearings. For years he had worked closely with politicians he trusted, and thought U.S. markets would continue to thrive if the government let financial experts alone to conduct business in the nation's best interests. Neither the government nor the press had left him alone lately, however, and neither seemed willing to take his word about what constituted the country's best interests. Pretty soon, he ruefully told a friend, business would have to be conducted with "glass pockets." The Pujo Committee apparently wanted to go through his pockets, and to score political points with the proceedings.
Morgan had some grounds for thinking that the country ought to leave its financial affairs to him. Over the past half century, his bank had helped transform the United States from an economic neophyte into the strongest industrial power in the modern world. In the 1850s, when America needed much more capital than it could generate on its own, the Morgans and their associates had funneled money from Europe to build railroads and float government bonds. By the turn of the century, Pierpont Morgan was organizing giant industrial corporations, largely with American money, and the vital center of world finance had shifted from London to New York.
The risks involved in funding the emerging U.S. economy were as enormous as the potential rewards, but investors regarded the Morgan name on issues of stocks and bonds as a warranty. It is a maxim on Wall Street that cash chases performance, and the house of Morgan established its reputation by backing properties that yielded steady profits and long-term growth. Moreover, Morgan personally took on the job of financial disciplinarian, acting as mediator between the owners and the users of capital. His clients, largely foreign at first, were putting up money to build railroads, steel mills, farm equipment, and electrical plants, and when things went wrong with one of those operations, Morgan fired the managers, restructured the finances, and set up a board of trustees to supervise the company until things went right. He was building internationally competitive financial and industrial structures, and his power came not from his own wealth but from a record that led other bankers and industrialists to trust him.
It is another Wall Street maxim that markets hate uncertainty. Wars, panics, crashes, and depressions punctuated Morgan's professional life, disrupting the flow of capital toward the future he had appointed himself to guard, and over time he had managed to impose a measure of order on America's turbulent economic development. He reorganized the nation's railroads (the process came to be known as Morganization), put together the world's first billion-dollar corporation (U.S. Steel), and had a hand in setting up International Harvester and General Electric--all on the principle that the combination of rival interests into huge, stable systems was preferable to the boom-and-bust cycles, price wars, waste, and speculative recklessness of internecine competition. The "Napoleon of Wall Street" advocated a kind of managed competition, in which the managing was done not by government bureaucrats but by experienced professionals who understood the complexities of high finance--in other words, by him. Given the arcane nature of capital markets, a private banker with transatlantic authority, access to accurate information, and a high sense of stewardship was able to exercise extraordinary power.
Under Morgan's direction, New York's major financial houses in 1912 were serving in effect as a central bank. Andrew Jackson had terminally crippled the Second Bank of the United States in 1836, shortly before Morgan was born, and Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve System into law in 1913, just after Morgan died. Between 1836 and 1913 there was no central bank to regulate the supply of money and credit in the United States, no official lender of last resort, no federal recourse in times of acute turbulence or panic. America's antiquated banking system had been devised before the Civil War, for a decentralized agricultural society. When the federal government ran out of gold in 1895, Morgan raised $65 million and made sure it stayed in the Treasury's coffers. When a panic started in New York in 1907, he led teams of bankers to stop it.
For a moment in 1907 he was a national hero. Crowds cheered as he made his way down Wall Street, and world political leaders saluted his statesmanship with awe. The next moment, however, the exercise of that much power by one private citizen horrified a nation of democrats and revived America's long-standing distrust of concentrated wealth. Morgan's critics charged that he had made huge profits on the rescue operation--even that he had engineered the crisis in order to scoop up assets at fire-sale prices. The 1907 panic convinced the country that its financial welfare could no longer be left in private hands. It led to the setting up of a National Monetary Commission, to the "money trust" investigation, and eventually to the founding of the Federal Reserve.