Chapter 12: Money - Master or Servant
In December, 1920, business the country over was marking time. More automobile plants were closed than were open and quite a number of those which were closed were completely in the charge of bankers.
Rumours of bad financial condition were afloat concerning nearly every industrial company, and I became interested when the reports persisted that the Ford Motor Company not only needed money but could not get it. I have become accustomed to all kinds of rumours about our company--so much so, that nowadays I rarely deny any sort of rumour. But these reports differed from all previous ones. They were so exact and circumstantial. I learned that I had overcome my prejudice against borrowing and that I might be found almost any day down in Wall Street, hat in hand, asking for money. And rumour went even further and said that no one would give me money and that I might have to break up and go out of business.
It is true that we did have a problem. In 1919 we had borrowed $70,000,000 on notes to buy the full stock interest in the Ford Motor Company. On this we had $33,000,000 left to pay. We had $18,000,000 in income taxes due or shortly to become due to the Government, and also we intended to pay our usual bonus for the year to the workmen, which amounted to $7,000,000. Altogether, between January 1st and April 18, 1921, we had payments ahead totaling $58,000,000. We had only $20,000,000 in bank. Our balance sheet was more or less common knowledge and I suppose it was taken for granted that we could not raise the $38,000,000 needed without borrowing. For that is quite a large sum of money. Without the aid of Wall Street such a sum could not easily and quickly be raised. We were perfectly good for the money. Two years before we had borrowed $70,000,000. And since our whole property was unencumbered and we had no commercial debts, the matter of lending a large sum to us would not ordinarily have been a matter of moment. In fact, it would have been good banking business.
However, I began to see that our need for money was being industriously circulated as an evidence of impending failure. Then I began to suspect that, although the rumours came in news dispatches from all over the country, they might perhaps be traced to a single source. This belief was further strengthened when we were informed that a very fat financial editor was at Battle Creek sending out bulletins concerning the acuteness of our financial condition. Therefore, I took care not to deny a single rumour. We had made our financial plans and they did not include borrowing money.
I cannot too greatly emphasize that the very worst time to borrow money is when the banking people think that you need money. In the last chapter I outlined our financial principles. We simply applied those principles. We planned a thorough house-cleaning.
Go back a bit and see what the conditions were. Along in the early part of 1920 came the first indications that the feverish speculative business engendered by the war was not going to continue. A few concerns that had sprung out of the war and had no real reason for existence failed. People slowed down in their buying. Our own sales kept right along, but we knew that sooner or later they would drop off. I thought seriously of cutting prices, but the costs of manufacturing everywhere were out of control. Labour gave less and less in return for high wages. The suppliers of raw material refused even to think of coming back to earth. The very plain warnings of the storm went quite unheeded.
In June our own sales began to be affected. They grew less and less each month from June on until September. We had to do something to bring our product within the purchasing power of the public, and not only that, we had to do something drastic enough to demonstrate to the public that we were actually playing the game and not just shamming. Therefore in September we cut the price of the touring car from $575 to $440. We cut the price far below the cost of production, for we were still making from stock bought at boom prices. The cut created a considerable sensation. We received a deal of criticism. It was said that we were disturbing conditions. That is exactly what we were trying to do. We wanted to do our part in bringing prices from an artificial to a natural level. I am firmly of the opinion that if at this time or earlier manufacturers and distributors had all made drastic cuts in their prices and had put through thorough house-cleanings we should not have so long a business depression. Hanging on in the hope of getting higher prices simply delayed adjustment. Nobody got the higher prices they hoped for, and if the losses had been taken all at once, not only would the productive and the buying powers of the country have become harmonized, but we should have been saved this long period of general idleness. Hanging on in the hope of higher prices merely made the losses greater, because those who hung on had to pay interest on their high-priced stocks and also lost the profits they might have made by working on a sensible basis. Unemployment cut down wage distribution and thus the buyer and the seller became more and more separated. There was a lot of flurried talk of arranging to give vast credits to Europe--the idea being that thereby the high-priced stocks might be palmed off. Of course the proposals were not put in any such crude fashion, and I think that quite a lot of people sincerely believed that if large credits were extended abroad even without a hope of the payment of either principal or interest, American business would somehow be benefited. It is true that if these credits were taken by American banks, those who had high-priced stocks might have gotten rid of them at a profit, but the banks would have acquired so much frozen credit that they would have more nearly resembled ice houses than banks. I suppose it is natural to hang on to the possibility of profits until the very last moment, but it is not good business.
Our own sales, after the cut, increased, but soon they began to fall off again. We were not sufficiently within the purchasing power of the country to make buying easy. Retail prices generally had not touched bottom. The public distrusted all prices. We laid our plans for another cut and we kept our production around one hundred thousand cars a month. This production was not justified by our sales but we wanted to have as much as possible of our raw material transformed into finished product before we shut down. We knew that we would have to shut down in order to take an inventory and clean house. We wanted to open with another big cut and to have cars on hand to supply the demand. Then the new cars could be built out of material bought at lower prices. We determined that we were going to get lower prices.
We shut down in December with the intention of opening again in about two weeks. We found so much to do that actually we did not open for nearly six weeks. The moment that we shut down the rumours concerning our financial condition became more and more active. I know that a great many people hoped that we should have to go out after money--for, were we seeking money, then we should have to come to terms. We did not ask for money. We did not want money. We had one offer of money. An officer of a New York bank called on me with a financial plan which included a large loan and in which also was an arrangement by which a representative of the bankers would act as treasurer and take charge of the finance of the company. Those people meant well enough, I am quite sure. We did not want to borrow money but it so happened that at the moment we were without a treasurer. To that extent the bankers had envisaged our condition correctly. I asked my son Edsel to be treasurer as well as president of the company. That fixed us up as to a treasurer, so there was really nothing at all that the bankers could do for us.
Then we began our house-cleaning. During the war we had gone into many kinds of war work and had thus been forced to depart from our principle of a single product. This had caused many new departments to be added. The office force had expanded and much of the wastefulness of scattered production had crept in. War work is rush work and is wasteful work. We began throwing out everything that did not contribute to the production of cars.
The only immediate payment scheduled was the purely voluntary one of a seven-million-dollar bonus to our workmen. There was no obligation to pay, but we wanted to pay on the first of January. That we paid out of our cash on hand.
Throughout the country we have thirty-five branches. These are all assembling plants, but in twenty-two of them parts are also manufactured. They had stopped the making of parts but they went on assembling cars. At the time of shutting down we had practically no cars in Detroit. We had shipped out all the parts, and during January the Detroit dealers actually had to go as far a field as Chicago and Columbus to get cars for local needs. The branches shipped to each dealer, under his yearly quota, enough cars to cover about a month's sales. The dealers worked hard on sales. During the latter part of January we called in a skeleton organization of about ten thousand men, mostly foremen, sub-foremen, and straw bosses, and we started Highland Park into production. We collected our foreign accounts and sold our by-products.
Then we were ready for full production. And gradually into full production we went--on a profitable basis. The house-cleaning swept out the waste that had both made the prices high and absorbed the profit. We sold off the useless stuff. Before we had employed fifteen men per car per day. Afterward we employed nine per car per day. This did not mean that six out of fifteen men lost their jobs. They only ceased being unproductive. We made that cut by applying the rule that everything and everybody must produce or get out.
We cut our office forces in halves and offered the office workers better jobs in the shops. Most of them took the jobs. We abolished every order blank and every form of statistics that did not directly aid in the production of a car. We had been collecting tons of statistics because they were interesting. But statistics will not construct automobiles--so out they went.
We took out 60 per cent. of our telephone extensions. Only a comparatively few men in any organization need telephones. We formerly had a foreman for every five men; now we have a foreman for every twenty men. The other foremen are working on machines.
We cut the overhead charge from $146 a car to $93 a car, and when you realize what this means on more than four thousand cars a day you will have an idea how, not by economy, not by wage-cutting, but by the elimination of waste, it is possible to make an "impossible" price. Most important of all, we found out how to use less money in our business by speeding up the turnover. And in increasing the turnover rate, one of the most important factors was the Detroit, Toledo, & Ironton Railroad--which we purchased. The railroad took a large place in the scheme of economy. To the road itself I have given another chapter.
We discovered, after a little experimenting, that freight service could
be improved sufficiently to reduce the cycle of manufacture from
twenty-two to fourteen days. That is, raw material could be bought,
manufactured, and the finished product put into the hands of the
distributor in (roughly) 33 per cent. less time than before. We had been
carrying an inventory of around $60,000,000 to insure uninterrupted
production. Cutting down the time one third released $20,000,000, or
$1,200,000 a year in interest. Counting the finished inventory, we saved
approximately $8,000,000 more--that is, we were able to release
$28,000,000 in capital and save the interest on that sum.
On January 1st we had $20,000,000. On April 1st we had $87,300,000, or $27,300,000 more than we needed to wipe out all our indebtedness. That is what boring into the business did for us! This amount came to us in these items:
- Cash on hand, January $20,000,000
- Stock on hand turned into cash, January 1 to April 1 24,700,000
- Speeding up transit of goods released 28,000,000
- Collected from agents in foreign countries 3,000,000
- Sale of by-products 3,700,000
- Sale of Liberty Bonds 7,900,000
- TOTAL $87,300,000
We could have borrowed $40,000,000--more had we wanted to. Suppose we had borrowed, what would have happened? Should we have been better fitted to go on with our business? Or worse fitted? If we had borrowed we should not have been under the necessity of finding methods to cheapen production. Had we been able to obtain the money at 6 per cent. flat--and we should in commissions and the like have had to pay more than that--the interest charge alone on a yearly production of 500,000 cars would have amounted to about four dollars a car. Therefore we should now be without the benefit of better production and loaded with a heavy debt. Our cars would probably cost about one hundred dollars more than they do; hence we should have a smaller production, for we could not have so many buyers; we should employ fewer men, and in short, should not be able to serve to the utmost. You will note that the financiers proposed to cure by lending money and not by bettering methods. They did not suggest putting in an engineer; they wanted to put in a treasurer.
And that is the danger of having bankers in business. They think solely in terms of money. They think of a factory as making money, not goods. They want to watch the money, not the efficiency of production. They cannot comprehend that a business never stands still, it must go forward or go back. They regard a reduction in prices as a throwing away of profit instead of as a building of business.
Bankers play far too great a part in the conduct of industry. Most business men will privately admit that fact. They will seldom publicly admit it because they are afraid of their bankers. It required less skill to make a fortune dealing in money than dealing in production. The average successful banker is by no means so intelligent and resourceful a man as is the average successful business man. Yet the banker through his control of credit practically controls the average business man.
There has been a great reaching out by bankers in the last fifteen or twenty years--and especially since the war--and the Federal Reserve System for a time put into their hands an almost limitless supply of credit. The banker is, as I have noted, by training and because of his position, totally unsuited to the conduct of industry. If, therefore, the controllers of credit have lately acquired this very large power, is it not to be taken as a sign that there is something wrong with the financial system that gives to finance instead of to service the predominant power in industry? It was not the industrial acumen of the bankers that brought them into the management of industry. Everyone will admit that. They were pushed there, willy-nilly, by the system itself. Therefore, I personally want to discover whether we are operating under the best financial system.
Now, let me say at once that my objection to bankers has nothing to do with personalities. I am not against bankers as such. We stand very much in need of thoughtful men, skilled in finance. The world cannot go on without banking facilities. We have to have money. We have to have credit. Otherwise the fruits of production could not be exchanged. We have to have capital. Without it there could be no production. But whether we have based our banking and our credit on the right foundation is quite another matter.
It is no part of my thought to attack our financial system. I am not in the position of one who has been beaten by the system and wants revenge. It does not make the least difference to me personally what bankers do because we have been able to manage our affairs without outside financial aid. My inquiry is prompted by no personal motive whatsoever. I only want to know whether the greatest good is being rendered to the greatest number.
No financial system is good which favors one class of producers over another. We want to discover whether it is not possible to take away power which is not based on wealth creation. Any sort of class legislation is pernicious. I think that the country's production has become so changed in its methods that gold is not the best medium with which it may be measured, and that the gold standard as a control of credit gives, as it is now (and I believe inevitably) administered, class advantage. The ultimate check on credit is the amount of gold in the country, regardless of the amount of wealth in the country.
I am not prepared to dogmatize on the subject of money or credit. As far as money and credit are concerned, no one as yet knows enough about them to dogmatize. The whole question will have to be settled as all other questions of real importance have to be settled, and that is by cautious, well-founded experiment. And I am not inclined to go beyond cautious experiments. We have to proceed step by step and very carefully. The question is not political, it is economic, and I am perfectly certain that helping the people to think on the question is wholly advantageous. They will not act without adequate knowledge, and thus cause disaster, if a sincere effort is made to provide them with knowledge. The money question has first place in multitudes of minds of all degrees or power. But a glance at most of the cure-all systems shows how contradictory they are. The majority of them make the assumption of honesty among mankind, to begin with, and that, of course, is a prime defect. Even our present system would work splendidly if all men were honest. As a matter of fact, the whole money question is 95 per cent. human nature; and your successful system must check human nature, not depend upon it.
The people are thinking about the money question; and if the money masters have any information which they think the people ought to have to prevent them going astray, now is the time to give it. The days are fast slipping away when the fear of credit curtailment will avail, or when wordy slogans will affright. The people are naturally conservative. They are more conservative than the financiers. Those who believe that the people are so easily led that they would permit printing presses to run off money like milk tickets do not understand them. It is the innate conservation of the people that has kept our money good in spite of the fantastic tricks which the financiers play--and which they cover up with high technical terms.
The people are on the side of sound money. They are so unalterably on the side of sound money that it is a serious question how they would regard the system under which they live, if they once knew what the initiated can do with it.
The present money system is not going to be changed by speech-making or political sensationalism or economic experiment. It is going to change under the pressure of conditions--conditions that we cannot control and pressure that we cannot control. These conditions are now with us; that pressure is now upon us.
The people must be helped to think naturally about money. They must be told what it is, and what makes it money, and what are the possible tricks of the present system which put nations and peoples under control of the few.
Money, after all, is extremely simple. It is a part of our transportation system. It is a simple and direct method of conveying goods from one person to another. Money is in itself most admirable. It is essential. It is not intrinsically evil. It is one of the most useful devices in social life. And when it does what it was intended to do, it is all help and no hindrance.
But money should always be money. A foot is always twelve inches, but when is a dollar a dollar? If ton weights changed in the coal yard, and peck measures changed in the grocery, and yard sticks were to-day 42 inches and to-morrow 33 inches (by some occult process called "exchange") the people would mighty soon remedy that. When a dollar is not always a dollar, when the 100-cent dollar becomes the 65-cent dollar, and then the 50-cent dollar, and then the 47-cent dollar, as the good old American gold and silver dollars did, what is the use of yelling about "cheap money," "depreciated money"? A dollar that stays 100 cents is as necessary as a pound that stays 16 ounces and a yard that stays 36 inches.
The bankers who do straight banking should regard themselves as naturally the first men to probe and understand our monetary system--instead of being content with the mastery of local banking-house methods; and if they would deprive the gamblers in bank balances of the name of "banker" and oust them once for all from the place of influence which that name gives them, banking would be restored and established as the public service it ought to be, and the iniquities of the present monetary system and financial devices would be lifted from the shoulders of the people.
There is an "if" here, of course. But it is not insurmountable. Affairs are coming to a jam as it is, and if those who possess technical facility do not engage to remedy the case, those who lack that facility may attempt it. Nothing is more foolish than for any class to assume that progress is an attack upon it. Progress is only a call made upon it to lend its experience for the general advancement. It is only those who are unwise who will attempt to obstruct progress and thereby become its victims. All of us are here together, all of us must go forward together; it is perfectly silly for any man or class to take umbrage at the stirring of progress. If financiers feel that progress is only the restlessness of weak-minded persons, if they regard all suggestions of betterment as a personal slap, then they are taking the part which proves more than anything else could their unfitness to continue in their leadership.
If the present faulty system is more profitable to a financier than a more perfect system would be, and if that financier values his few remaining years of personal profits more highly than he would value the honour of making a contribution to the life of the world by helping to erect a better system, then there is no way of preventing a clash of interests. But it is fair to say to the selfish financial interests that, if their fight is waged to perpetuate a system just because it profits them, then their fight is already lost. Why should finance fear? The world will still be here. Men will do business with one another. There will be money and there will be need of masters of the mechanism of money. Nothing is going to depart but the knots and tangles. There will be some readjustments, of course. Banks will no longer be the masters of industry. They will be the servants of industry. Business will control money instead of money controlling business. The ruinous interest system will be greatly modified. Banking will not be a risk, but a service. Banks will begin to do much more for the people than they do now, and instead of being the most expensive businesses in the world to manage, and the most highly profitable in the matter of dividends, they will become less costly, and the profits of their operation will go to the community which they serve.
Two facts of the old order are fundamental. First: that within the nation itself the tendency of financial control is toward its largest centralized banking institutions--either a government bank or a closely allied group of private financiers. There is always in every nation a definite control of credit by private or semi-public interests. Second: in the world as a whole the same centralizing tendency is operative. An American credit is under control of New York interests, as before the war world credit was controlled in London--the British pound sterling was the standard of exchange for the world's trade.
Two methods of reform are open to us, one beginning at the bottom and one beginning at the top. The latter is the more orderly way, the former is being tried in Russia. If our reform should begin at the top it will require a social vision and an altruistic fervour of a sincerity and intensity which is wholly inconsistent with selfish shrewdness.
The wealth of the world neither consists in nor is adequately represented by the money of the world. Gold itself is not a valuable commodity. It is no more wealth than hat checks are hats. But it can be so manipulated, as the sign of wealth, as to give its owners or controllers the whip-hand over the credit which producers of real wealth require. Dealing in money, the commodity of exchange, is a very lucrative business. When money itself becomes an article of commerce to be bought and sold before real wealth can be moved or exchanged, the usurers and speculators are thereby permitted to lay a tax on production. The hold which controllers of money are able to maintain on productive forces is seen to be more powerful when it is remembered that, although money is supposed to represent the real wealth of the world, there is always much more wealth than there is money, and real wealth is often compelled to wait upon money, thus leading to that most paradoxical situation--a world filled with wealth but suffering want.
These facts are not merely fiscal, to be cast into figures and left there. They are instinct with human destiny and they bleed. The poverty of the world is seldom caused by lack of goods but by a "money stringency." Commercial competition between nations, which leads to international rivalry and ill-will, which in their turn breed wars-- these are some of the human significations of these facts. Thus poverty and war, two great preventable evils, grow on a single stem.
Let us see if a beginning toward a better method cannot be made.