"A Country of Long Credits and Long Seasons:" The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta and the Asynchronies of Agrarian Capitalism, 1914-1950

Mikael Omstedt, University of British Columbia

A major contradiction of American capitalism before the passing of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 was the mismatch between the needs of agriculture and the financial resources of the country. While this mismatch in part was spatial, pitching the West and the South against the Eastern money centers, it was also temporal: linked to the seasonality of the agricultural cycle, in which planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall would suddenly increase the demand for currency and credit in the agrarian regions and cause outflows of money from the Eastern centers that, in turn, threatened the stability of financial markets. These problems were particularly severe when it came to cotton. Part of a dissertation exploring the historical geography of the Federal Reserve System, this paper examines the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s response to the seasonality of cotton during its first decades of operation. Reading archival sources alongside historical theories of (more-than-)capitalist time, the paper tracks the Bank’s many interventions aimed at better aligning the times of cotton and credit: including by (i) rediscounting financial paper for member banks to provide crucial seasonal liquidity and (ii) by acting as a lender of last resort, which in the Cotton South often meant to intervene beyond the “normal” lending season to carry indebted Southern banks and farmers through bad harvests and downward price spirals. Though American capitalism in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was particularly expansive and dynamic, the seasonality of cotton constituted a limit to capitalist logics and this history, then, reveals the complex institutional structures, contested (techno-)politics, and hard work necessary to synchronize the asynchronies of agrarian capitalism.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 216. Governing through Finance