The mother of all sudden stops – lessons from the 1930s

I really never understood why most economists study so little economic history as they tend to do, but it is a fact that most professional economists are quite uneducated when it comes to economic history.

My contribution to changing that is sharing research on economic history with my readers. So take a look at this new paper by Olivier Accominotti and Barry Eichengreen on The Mother of All Sudden Stops: Capital Flows and Reversals in Europe, 1919-1932″.

Here is the abstract:

We present new data documenting European capital issues in major financial centers from 1919 to 1932. Push factors (conditions in international capital markets) perform better than pull factors (conditions in the borrowing countries) in explaining the surge and reversal in capital flows. In particular, the sharp increase in stock market volatility in the major financial centers at the end of the 1920s figured importantly in the decline in foreign lending. We draw parallels with Europe today.

A couple of days ago I argued that David Laidler should be awarded the Nobel Prize in economics, but if it is award to Barry Eichengreen for his contribution to “the understanding of economic history” I think it would be well-deserved!

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“Political Extremism in the 1920s and 1930s: Do German Lessons Generalize?”

While surfing a bit on Brad DeLong’s blog I came across a reference to what looks like a very interesting paper by one of my favourite economic historians – Barry Eichengreen. He has co-authored the paper “Political Extremism in the 1920s and 1930s: Do German Lessons Generalize?” with Kevin H. O’Rourke.

Here is the abstract:

“We examine the impact of the Great Depression on the share of votes for rightwing anti-system parties in elections in the 1920s and 1930s. We confirm the existence of a link between political extremism and economic hard times as captured by growth or contraction of the economy. What mattered was not simply growth at the time of the election but cumulative growth performance. But the effect of the Depression on support for right-wing anti-system parties was not equally powerful under all economic, political and social circumstances. It was greatest in countries with relatively short histories of democracy, with existing extremist parties, and with electoral systems that created low hurdles to parliamentary representation. Above all, it was greatest where depressed economic conditions were allowed to persist.”

As usual when I see an interesting paper I want to share the reference with my readers before even reading the paper – this is also the case this time around.

So just two observations.

First, why only rightwing extremist parties? Why not also communists and other left-extremist parties? After all it was not only the nazis and other rightwing extremist parties that did well in the German elections in 1932, but also the Communist party.

Second, even though I think there is reason to fear that the present economic crisis can lead to extremism I must say that one of the positive surprises about this crisis has been that we have not seen a general rise in political extremism and even better we have not seen the kind of political violence that we saw in many countries in the 1930s. The Baltic States which truly have gone through a very deep recession since 2008 have so far come through the crisis without seeing any significant rise in extremism. There are of course horrible examples in Hungary, Bulgaria and Greece, but even in these countries the extremists parties are not in power.

Luckily these guys (“Golden Dawn” parliament members in Greece) are ‘outliers” today.

Golden Dawn MPs

The New York Times joins the ‘currency war worriers’ – that is a mistake

It is very frustrating to follow the ongoing discussion of ‘currency war’. Unfortunately the prevailing view is that the world is heading for a ‘currency war’ in the form of ‘competitive devaluations’ that will only lead to misery for everybody. I have again, again and again stressed that when large parts of the world is caught in a low-growth quasi-deflationary trap then a competition to print more money is exactly what the world needs. ‘Currency war’ is a complete misnomer. What we are talking about is global monetary easing.

Now the New York Times has joined the discussion with a pretty horrible editorial on ‘currency war’.

This is from the editorial:

If all countries were to competitively devalue their currencies, the result would be a downward spiral that would benefit no one, but could lead to high inflation. Certainly in Europe, altering exchange rates is not the answer; reviving economies will require giving up on austerity, which is choking demand and investment.

It is just frustrating to hear this argument again and again. Monetary easing is not a negative or a zero sum game. In a quasi-deflationary world monetary easing is a positive sum game. The New York Times claims that “competitive devaluations” will lead to increased inflation.

Well, lets start with stating the fact a that the New York Times seems to miss – both the Bretton Woods and the gold standard are dead. We – luckily – live in a world of (mostly) freely floating exchange rates. Hence, nobody is “devaluing” their currencies. What is happening is that some currencies like the Japanese yen are depreciating on the back of monetary easing. The New York Times – and French president Hollande and Bundesbank chief Weidmann for that matter – also fails to notice that the yen is depreciating because the Bank of Japan is implementing the exact same monetary target as the ECB has – a 2% inflation target. After 15 years of failure the BoJ is finally trying to get Japan out of a low-growth deflationary trap. How that can be a hostile act is impossible for me to comprehend.

Second, the New York Times obviously got it right that if we have an international “competition” to print more money then inflation will increase. But isn’t that exactly what we want in a quasi-deflationary world? Can we really blame the BoJ for printing more money after 15 years of deflation? Can we blame the Fed for doing the same thing when US unemployment is running at nearly 8% and there are no real inflationary pressures in the US economy? On the other hand we should blame the ECB for not doing the same thing with the euro zone economy moving closer and closer to deflation and with unemployment in Europe continuing to rise.

When the New York Times joins the “currency war worriers” then the newspaper effectively is arguing in favour of a return to internationally managed exchange rates – either in the form of a gold standard or a Bretton Woods style system. Both systems ended in disaster.

The best international monetary system remains a system where countries are free to pursue their own domestic monetary objectives. Where every country is free to succeed or fail. A system of internationally coordinated monetary policy is doomed to fail and end in disaster as was the case with both the gold standard and Bretton Woods – not to mentioned the ill-faited attempts to coordinate monetary policy through the Plaza and Louvre Accords.

The New York Times and other ‘currency war worriers’ seem to think that if countries are free to pursue their own domestic monetary policy objectives then it will not only lead to ‘currency war’, but also to ‘trade war’. Trade war obviously would be disastrous. However, the experiences from the 1930s clearly show that those countries that remained committed to international monetary policy coordination in the form of staying on the gold standard suffered the biggest output lose  and the biggest rise in unemployment. But more importantly these countries were also much more likely to implement protectionist measures – that is the clear conclusion from research conducted by for example Barry Eichengreen and Douglas Irwin.

‘Currency war’ is what we need to get the global economy out of the crisis and monetary easing is much preferable to the populist alternative – protectionism and ‘deflationism’.

HT William Bruce.

Update: It seems like Paul Krugman – who of course blogs at the New York Times – disagrees with the editors of the New York Times.

Eichengreen’s reading list to European policy makers

Barry Eichengreen provides a Summer reading list for European policy makers in his latest article on Project Syndicate. Here is Eichengreen:

“Milton Friedman’s and Anna Schwartz’s A Monetary History of the United States belongs at the top of the list. At the center of their gripping narrative is a chapter on the Great Depression, anchored by an indictment of the US Federal Reserve Board for responding inadequately to the mounting crisis.

Friedman and Schwartz are generally seen as reproving the Fed for failing to react swiftly to successive waves of bank failures, first in late 1930 and then again in 1931 and 1933. But a close reading reveals that the authors reserve their most scathing criticism for the Fed’s failure to initiate a concerted program of security purchases in the first half of 1930 in order to prevent those bank failures.

That is a message that the European Central Bank’s board members could usefully take to heart, given their announcement on August 2 that they were ready to respond to events as they unfolded but were taking no action for now. Reading Friedman and Schwartz will remind them that it is better to head off a crisis than it is to rely on one’s ability to end it.”

So true, so true…if just European policy makers had read and understood “Monetary History” then we would not be trapped in this crisis.

There are a couple of other titles on Eichengreen’s reading list, but in my view he forgets a very important book and that is his own “Golden Fetters”. Anybody who would like to understand the international monetary perspectives of the Great Depression should read “Golden Fetters”. And if you understand that you have a much better idea about the international monetary sources of the present crisis. Read Eichengreen’s “Golden Fetters” and replace “gold standard” with “dollar standard” everywhere and then you will get a pretty good idea about why we are still in this crisis. In the Great Depression it was excess demand for gold (from Europe) that caused the crisis. Today it is excess demand for dollars, which is causing the crisis. European policy makers should especially concentrate on what Eichengreen has to say about the mistakes made by European policy makers in 1931-32.

One day I hope to write a book with the title “Green Fetters”, but it will never be as good as “Golden Fetters”, but the topic would be the same – the insane commitment to a failed monetary regime and its dire consequences for the global economy. If just only policy makers would learn a bit from history.

HT David Altenhofen

PS See also Eichengreen’s critique of the ECB’s and the Fed’s inaction here (In German).

Related posts:

Between the money supply and velocity – the euro zone vs the US

International monetary disorder – how policy mistakes turned the crisis into a global crisis

1931-33 – we should learn something from history

Recommend reading for aspiring Market Monetarists

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