The United States Federal Government and the Making of Modern Futures Markets, 1920-1936
In 1921, 1924 and 1929-1934, markets for the future delivery of wheat went through periods of extreme volatility and/or significant depression, and in all three cases there were significant and long-lasting changes to both the institutional and regulatory framework of these Chicago-dominated grain markets. There was no real change after these key reforms until 1974, while indeed much of the original regulatory and market innovation remains. The result of the severe depression of 1921 was the Futures Trading Act of 1921. In 1924-25, the so-called ‘Cutten corner’ market turmoil was followed by three key institutional innovations brought about in 1926 by US federal government coercion of the grain futures trading industry in collusion with industry leaders. The Great Depression gave birth to the 1936 Commodity Exchange Act. This Act was based on research done by the government and/or with government-mandated evidence that essentially saw the small grain gambler as needing protection from the grain futures industry, and was pushed through by a coalition of farmers’ organisations and the agency responsible for the 1922 Act’s administration. The government demanded information that was begrudgingly provided, and the studies of this data formed the basis of a political and intellectual justification of the usefulness of futures markets to the marketing of farm products that influenced the Act of 1936 and – more importantly - continues to today. My key thesis is that government worked closely with the futures industry to the extent that the agency was captured by special interests for much of the interwar period, and I claim that government intervention was responsible for the essential changes that assured the dominance of futures markets, with the Chicago Board of Trade as their hub. The lasting institutions created in the 1920s and 1930s continue to immensely influence the financial markets of today, including being incorporated into the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. My study differs from the accepted account that sees federal regulation as an irrational ‘populist’ attempt at controlling or even banning the markets, with the new institutions developed during the interwar period as the result of effective industry self-regulation in spite of state interference. The findings are based on a theory-driven reading of archives of the Chicago Board of Trade, its regulator the Grain Futures Administration, and the other key government agencies engaging with the grain trade, the USDA, the Federal Farm Board and the Federal Trade Commission. The approach here differs from the accepted accounts in that it is based mostly on my archival work, including the newly reorganised (in 2014) Chicago Board of Trade archive, rather than on public sources such as Congressional hearings and newspaper stories.