Remember the mistakes of 1937? A lesson for today’s policy makers

Since the ECB introduced it’s 3-year LTRO on December 8 the signs that we are emerging from the crisis have grown stronger. This has been visible with stock prices rebounding strongly, long US bond yields have started to inch up and commodity prices have increased. This is all signs of easier monetary conditions globally.

We are now a couple of months into the market recovery and especially the recovery in commodity prices should soon be visible in US and European headline inflation and will likely soon begin to enter into the communication of central bankers around the world. This has reminded me of the “recession in the depression” in 1937. After FDR gave up the gold standard in 1933 the global economy started to recover and by 1937 US industrial production had basically returned to the 1929-level. The easing of global monetary conditions and the following recovery had spurred global commodity prices and by 1937 policy makers in the US started to worry about inflationary pressures.

However, in the second half of 1936 US economic activity and the US stock market went into a free fall and inflationary concerns soon disappeared.

There are a number of competing theories about what triggered the 1937 recession. I will especially like to highlight three monetary explanations:

1) Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in their famous Monetary History highlighted the fact that the Federal Reserve’s decision to increase reserve requirements starting in July 1936 was what caused the recession of 1937.

2) Douglas Irwin has – in an excellent working paper from last year – claimed that it was not the Fed, but rather the US Treasury that caused the the recession as the Treasury moved aggressively to sterilize gold inflows into the US and thereby caused the US money supply to drop.

3) While 1) and 2) regard direct monetary actions the third explanation regards the change in the communication of US policy makers. Hence, Gauti B. Eggertsson and Benjamin Pugsley in an extremely interesting paper from 2006 argue that it was the communication about monetary and exchange rate policy that caused the recession of 1937. As Scott Sumner argues monetary policy works with long and variables leads. Eggertson and Pugsley argue exactly the same.

In my view all three explanations clearly are valid. However, I would probably question Friedman’s and Schwartz’s explanation on it’s own as being enough to explain the recession of 1937. I have three reasons to be slightly skeptical about the Friedman-Schwartz explanation. First, if indeed the tightening of reserve requirements caused the recession then it is somewhat odd that the market reaction to the announcement of the tightening of reserve requirements was so slow to impact the stock markets and the commodity prices. In fact the announcement of the increase in reserve requirements in July 1936 did not have any visible impact on stock prices when they were introduced. Second, it is also notable that there seems to have been little reference to the increased reserve requirement in the US financial media when the collapse started in the second half of 1937 – a year after the initial increase in reserve requirements. Third, Calomiris, Mason and Wheelock in paper from 2011 have demonstrated that banks already where holding large excess reserves and the increase in reserve requirements really was not very binding for many banks. That said, even if the increase in reserve requirement might not have been all that binding it nonetheless sent a clear signal about the Fed’s inflation worries and therefore probably was not irrelevant. More on that below.

Doug Irwin’s explanation that it was actually the US Treasury that caused the trouble through gold sterilization rather than the Fed through higher reserve requirements in my view has a lot of merit and I strongly recommend to everybody to read Doug’s paper on Gold Sterilization and the Recession 1937-38 in which he presents quite strong evidence that the gold sterilization caused the US money supply to drop sharply in 1937. That being said, that explanation does not fit perfectly well with the price action in the stock market and commodity prices either.

Hence, I believe we need to take into account the combined actions of the of the US Treasury (including comments from President Roosevelt) and the Federal Reserve caused a marked shift in expectations in a strongly deflationary direction. In their 2006 paper Eggertsson and Pugsley “The Mistake of 1937: A General Equilibrium Analysis” make this point forcefully (even though I have some reservations about their discussion of the monetary transmission mechanism). In my view it is very clear that both the Roosevelt administration and the Fed were quite worried about the inflationary risks and as a consequence increasing signaled that more monetary tightening would be forthcoming.

In that sense the 1937 recession is a depressing reminder of the strength of the of the Chuck Norris effect – here in the reserve form. The fact that investors, consumers etc were led to believe that monetary conditions would be tightened caused an increase in money demand and led to an passive tightening of monetary conditions in the second half of 1937 – and things obviously were not made better by the Fed and US Treasury actually then also actively tightened monetary conditions.

The risk of repeating the mistakes of 1937 – we did that in 2011! Will we do it again in 2012 or 2013?

So why is all this important? Because we risk repeating the mistakes of 1937. In 1937 US policy makers reacted to rising commodity prices and inflation fears by tightening monetary policy and even more important created uncertainty about the outlook for monetary policy. At the time the Federal Reserve failed to clearly state what nominal policy rule it wanted to implemented and as a result caused a spike in money demand.

So where are we today? Well, we might be on the way out of the crisis after the Federal Reserve and particularly the ECB finally came to acknowledged that a easing of monetary conditions was needed. However, we are already hearing voices arguing that rising commodity prices are posing an inflationary risk so monetary policy needs to be tighten and as neither the Fed nor the ECB has a very clearly defined nominal target we are doomed to see continued uncertainty about when and if the ECB and the Fed will tighten monetary policy. In fact this is exactly what happened in 2011. As the Fed’s QE2 pushed up commodity prices and the ECB moved to prematurely tighten monetary policy. To make matters worse extremely unclear signals about monetary policy from European central bankers caused market participants fear that the ECB was scaling back monetary easing.

Therefore we can only hope that this time around policy makers will have learned the lesson from 1937 and not prematurely tighten monetary policy and even more important we can only hope that central banks will become much more clear regarding their nominal targets. Any market monetarist will of course tell you that central bankers should not fear overdoing their monetary easing if they clearly define their nominal targets (preferably a NGDP level target) – that would ensure that monetary policy is not tightened prematurely and a well-timed exist from monetary easing is ensured.

PS I have an (very unclear!) idea that the so-called Tripartite Agreement from September 1936 b the US, Great Britain and France  to stabilize their nations’ currencies both at home and in the international FX markets might have played a role in causing a change in expectations as it basically told market participants that the days of “currency war” and competitive devaluations had come to an end. Might this have been seen as a signal to market participants that central banks would not compete to increase the money supply? This is just a hypothesis and I have done absolutely no work on it, but maybe some young scholar would like to pick you this idea?

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10 Comments

  1. Excellent blogging. Yes, the unhealthy obsession of central banks—really a phobia—that inflation might somehow be in mid-single digits for a few years and so we all must suffer permanently, is discouraging.

    When you think about it, if monetary policy must always be made in light of perceived inflationary threats somewhere in the future, then we can never have a recovery. It is always possible that we will face higher-than-wanted inflation in the future. Ergo, we can always justify money tightness. See Japan.

    Reply
  2. Ravi

     /  March 23, 2012

    I share your concerns. There was a slightly unnerving hawkishness to Draghi’s interview in The BIld, and the ECB’s tightening of collateral is not a good omen…

    Reply
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