BIS is fearful of bubbles, but is not always right (remember the gold standard?)

I think there is a bubble in bubble fears. This is particularly the the case for central bankers and institutional monetary institutions.

Here  in the Telegraph:

The two watchdogs launched broadsides against central bank largess last week. The BIS — the forum of central banks — was particularly blunt, seeming to imply that quantitative easing “does not work”.

Critics say this risks undermining the credibility of radical measures when more may yet be needed. They fear central banks could repeat the mistake made in 1937 when the Federal Reserve lost its nerve and tightened too soon, tipping America back into depression.

And here is my response in the same article:

“The BIS and the IMF are deeply misguided and risk doing the world a grave disservice. The biggest threat right now is irrational fear of bubbles among central banks,” said Lars Christensen 

Particularly the advise of BIS is taken to be very important as the general perception is that the BIS “got it right” prior to the crisis – the fact that it got it mostly wrong over the past five year apparently is less important. Paul Krugman has some not too kind words about BIS – or the Sadomonetarists of Basel as Krugman calls the institution headquartered in Switzerland:

I guess we can check the record here and see just how prescient the BIS was. What I do recall, however … is that the BIS has spent years warning about the dangers of low interest rates. Except that a couple of years back it was telling a completely different story about why we needed to raise rates; you see, the big danger was of imminent inflation…

…In fact, inflation is running below target just about everywhere. You might therefore think that the BIS would step back a bit and reconsider both its policy recommendations and the framework it uses to derive those recommendations.

I can, however, do better than Krugman. BIS’ Sadomonetarist tendencies date back more than five years. This is from BIS’ third annual report publish in May 1933:

“For the Bank for International Settlements, the year has been an eventful one, during which, while the volume of its ordinary banking business has necessarily been curtailed by the general falling off of international financial transactions and the continued departure from gold of more and more currencies, culminating in the defection of the American dollar, nevertheless the scope of its general activities has steadily broadened in sound directions. The widening of activities, aside from normal growth in developing new contacts, has been the consequence, primarily, of a year replete with international conferences, and, also, of the rapid extension of chaotic conditions in the international monetary system. In view of all the events which have occurred, the Bank’s Board of Directors determined to define the position of the Bank on the fundamental currency problems facing the world and it unanimously expressed the opinion, after due deliberation, that in the last analysis “the gold standard remains the best available monetary mechanism” and that it is consequently desirable to prepare all the necessary measures for its international reestablishment.”

And this is what I earlier had to say about that report:

Take a look at the report. The whole thing is outrageous – the world is falling apart and it is written very much as it is all business as usual. More and more countries are leaving the the gold standard and there had been massive bank runs across Europe and a number of countries in Europe had defaulted in 1932 (including Greece and Hungary!) Hitler had just become chancellor in Germany.

And then the report state: ”the gold standard remains the best available monetary mechanism”! It makes you wonder how anybody can reach such a conclusion and in hindsight obviously today’s economic historians will say that it was a collective psychosis – central bankers were suffering from some kind of irrational “gold standard mentality” that led them to insanely damaging conclusions, which brought deflation, depression and war to Europe.

Unfortunately BIS’ view haven’t changed much since 1933. Should we listen to the Sadomonetarists in Basel today?

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Vince Cable gives me hope

It is very easy to get frustrated about the discussion of monetary policy in today’s world. However, this morning we got something to cheer about as Vince Cable British Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills gave a speech on the UK recovery in the 1930s and the parallels to today’s crisis at the think tank Centre Forum. The entire speech is very uplifting.

Here is Cable:

“you learn far more about our recovery in the 1930s from looking at monetary conditions that you can from examining fiscal policy.”

Yes, yes, yes! We should stop wrangling about fiscal policy. What brought Britain out of the Great Depression was the decision to give up the gold standard in 1931 and what will bring the UK economy out of this crisis is monetary easing. Fiscal policy in that regard is basically irrelevant. Luckily Vince Cable seems to comprehend that – as do Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborn. Bank of England Governor Mervyn King might also (finally) get it.  

Back to Cable’s speech:

“… It is worth recalling just how brutal were the first dozen years after the First World War.  Britain attempted to return to its pre War gold level, which meant chronic deflation to bring us back with world prices (what Southern Europe is attempting today).  As a result, the price index which had risen from 100 in 1914 to 250 in 1920, fell to 180 in a couple of years and continued falling all the way below 150 in 1930.”

Yes again! The British economy was struggling to get out of the crisis because of a misguided commitment to the gold standard. Once the gold standard was given up it was recovery time. And luckily Vince Cable fully well knows that monetary easing also would do the trick today.

And he knows that fiscal easing is not the important thing – monetary policy will do the job:

“without a noticeable relaxation in fiscal policy, the economy surged into strong growth which was becoming apparent mid 1933. As I said earlier the obvious explanation was a sharp loosening of monetary policy”

Can it get much more Market Monetarist than that? Yes in fact it can:

“What tools does the Government have? The first is continued use of monetary policy, and stronger communication of the policy aim it is meant to achieve – robust recovery in money spending and GDP. “

Cable calls for an NGDP targeting regime!

And even better Cable seems to want a Market Monetarist as the next Bank of England Governor – or at least somebody in favour of NGDP targeting:

“I am sure that all the candidates to take over from Mervyn King are thinking very hard about how best to do this [a robust recovery in money spending and GDP].”

In 1931 the British government showed the way. I hope that today’s British government will show the same kind of resolve. Vince Cable gives me a lot of hope to be optimistic about that.

Thank you Vince, you’ve made my day!

Danish and Norwegian monetary policy failure in 1920s – lessons for today

History is fully of examples of massive monetary policy failure and today’s policy makers can learn a lot from studying these events and no one is better to learn from than Swedish monetary guru Gustav Cassel. In the 1920s Cassel tried – unfortunately without luck – to advise Danish and Norwegian policy makers from making a massive monetary policy mistake.

After the First World War policy makers across Europe wanted to return to the gold standard and in many countries it became official policy to return to the pre-war gold parity despite massive inflation during the war. This was also the case in Denmark and Norway where policy makers decided to return the Norwegian and the Danish krone to the pre-war parity.

The decision to bring back the currencies to the pre-war gold-parity brought massive economic and social hardship to Denmark and Norway in the 1920s and probably also killed of the traditionally strong support for laissez faire capitalism in the two countries. Paradoxically one can say that government failure opened the door for a massive expansion of the role of government in both countries’ economies. No one understood the political dangers of monetary policy failure better than Gustav Cassel.

Here you see the impact of the Price Level (Index 1924=100) of the deflation policies in Denmark and Norway. Sweden did not go back to pre-war gold-parity.

While most of the world was enjoying relatively high growth in the second half of the 1920s the Danish and the Norwegian authorities brought hardship to their nations through a deliberate policy of deflation. As a result both nations saw a sharp rise in unemployment and a steep decline in economic activity. So when anybody tells you about how a country can go through “internal devaluation” please remind them of the Denmark and Norway in the 1920s. The polices were hardly successful, but despite the clear negative consequences policy makers and many economists in the Denmark and Norway insisted that it was the right policy to return to the pre-war gold-parity.

Here is what happened to unemployment (%).

Nobody listened to Cassel. As a result both the Danish and the Norwegian economies went into depression in the second half of the 1920s and unemployment skyrocketed. At the same time Finland and Sweden – which did not return to the pre-war gold-partiy – enjoyed strong post-war growth and low unemployment.

Gustav Cassel strongly warned against this policy as he today would have warned against the calls for “internal devaluation” in the euro zone. In 1924 Cassel at a speech in the Student Union in Copenhagen strongly advocated a devaluation of the Danish krone. The Danish central bank was not exactly pleased with Cassel’s message. However, the Danish central bank really had little to fear. Cassel’s message was overshadowed by the popular demand for what was called “Our old, honest krone”.

To force the policy of revaluation and return to the old gold-parity the Danish central bank tightened monetary policy dramatically and the bank’s discount rate was hiked to 7% (this is more or less today’s level for Spanish bond yields). From 1924 to 1924 to 1927 both the Norwegian and the Danish krone were basically doubled in value against gold by deliberate actions of the two Scandinavian nation’s central bank.

The gold-insanity was as widespread in Norway as in Denmark and also here Cassel was a lone voice of sanity. In a speech in Christiania (today’s Oslo) Cassel in November 1923 warned against the foolish idea of returning the Norwegian krone to the pre-war parity. The speech deeply upset Norwegian central bank governor Nicolai Rygg who was present at Cassel’s speech.

After Cassel’s speech Rygg rose and told the audience that the Norwegian krone had been brought back to parity a 100 years before and that it could and should be done again. He said: “We must and we will go back and we will not give up”. Next day the Norwegian Prime Minister Abraham Berge in an public interview gave his full support to Rygg’s statement. It was clear the Norwegian central bank and the Norwegian government were determined to return to the pre-war gold-parity.

This is the impact on the real GDP level of the gold-insanity in Denmark and Norway. Sweden did not suffer from gold-insanity and grew nicely in the 1920s.

The lack of reason among Danish and Norwegian central bankers in the 1920s is a reminder what happens once the “project” – whether the euro or the gold standard – becomes more important than economic reason and it shows that countries will suffer dire economic, social and political consequences when they are forced through “internal devaluation”. In both Denmark and Norway the deflation of the 1920s strengthened the Socialists parties and both the Norwegian and the Danish economies as a consequence moved away from the otherwise successful  laissez faire model. That should be a reminder to any free market oriented commentators, policy makers and economists that a deliberate attempt of forcing countries through internal devaluation is likely to bring more socialism and less free markets. Gustav Cassel knew that – as do the Market Monetarists today.

—-

My account of these events is based on Richard Lester’s paper “Gold-Parity Depression in Denmark and Norway, 1925-1928″ (Journal of Political Economy, August 1937)

Update: Here is an example that not all German policy makers have studied economic and monetary history.

“Meantime people wrangle about fiscal remedies”

The other day I wrote a piece about the risks of introducing politics (particularly fiscal policy) into the central bank’s reaction function. I used the example of the ECB, but now it seems like I should have given a bit more attention to the Federal Reserve as Fed chief Bernanke yesterday said the follow:

“Monetary policy is not a panacea, it would be much better to have a broad-based policy effort addressing a whole variety of issues…I’d be much more comfortable if, in fact, Congress would take some of this burden from us and address those issues.”

So what is Bernanke saying – well he sounds like a Keynesian who believes that we are in a liquidity trap and that monetary policy is inefficient. It is near-tragic that Bernanke uses the exact same wording as Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann used recently (See here). While Bernanke is a keynesian Weidmann is a calvinist. Bernanke wants looser fiscal policy – Weidmann wants fiscal tightening. However, what they both have in common is that they are central bankers who apparently don’t think that nominal GDP is determined by monetary policy. Said, in another other way they say that nominal stability is not the responsibility of the central bank. You can then wonder what they then think central banks can do.

What both Weidmann and Bernanke effectively are saying is that they can not do anymore. They are out of ammunition. This is the good old  “pushing on a string” excuse for monetary in-action.  This is of course nonsense. The central bank can determine whatever level for nominal GDP it wants. Just ask Gedeon Gono. It is incredible that we four years into this mess still have central bankers from the biggest central banks in the world who are making the same mistakes as central bankers did during the Great Depression.

Yesterday Scott Sumner quoted Viscount d’Abernon who in 1931 said:

“This depression is the stupidest and most gratuitous in history!…The explanation of our anomalous situation…is that the machinery for handling and distributing the product of labor has proved inadequate. The means of payment provided by currency and credit have fallen so short of the amount required by increased production that a general fall in prices has ensued…This has not only caused a disturbance in the relations between buyer and seller, but has gravely aggravated the situation between debtor and creditor. The gold standard, which was adopted with a view to obtaining stability of price, has failed in its main function. In the meantime people wrangle about fiscal remedies and similar devices of secondary importance, neglecting the essential question of stability in standard of value…The situation could be remedied within a month by joint action of the principal gold-using countries through the taking of necessary steps by the central banks.”

It is tragic that the same day Scott quotes d’Abernon Ben Bernanke “wrangles about fiscal remedies”. Bernanke of course full well knows that the impact on nominal GDP and prices of fiscal policy depends 100% on actions of the Federal Reserve. Fiscal policy does not determine the level of NGDP – monetary policy determines NGDP (Remember MV=PY!).

The Great Depression was caused by monetary policy failure and so was the Great Recession (See here and here). In the 1930s the Lords of Finance Montagu, Norman, Meyer, Moret, Stringher, Hijikata and Schacht were all wrangling about fiscal remedies and defended their failed monetary policies. Today the New Lords of Finance Bernanke, Shirakawa, Draghi and Weidmann are doing the same thng. How little we – or rather central bankers – have learned in 80 years…

UPDATE: Maybe our New Lords of Finance should read this Easy Guide to Monetary Policy.

“The gold standard remains the best available monetary mechanism”

< UPDATE: See an updated version of this piece here >

This is from the Bank of International Settlements third annual report publish in May 1933:

“For the Bank for International Settlements, the year has been an eventful one, during which, while the volume of its ordinary banking business has necessarily been curtailed by the general falling off of international financial transactions and the continued departure from gold of more and more currencies, culminating in the defection of the American dollar, nevertheless the scope of its general activities has steadily broadened in sound directions. The widening of activities, aside from normal growth in developing new contacts, has been the consequence, primarily, of a year replete with international conferences, and, also, of the rapid extension of chaotic conditions in the international monetary system. In view of all the events which have occurred, the Bank’s Board of Directors determined to define the position of the Bank on the fundamental currency problems facing the world and it unanimously expressed the opinion, after due deliberation, that in the last analysis “the gold standard remains the best available monetary mechanism” and that it is consequently desirable to prepare all the necessary measures for its international reestablishment.”

Take a look at the report. The whole thing is outrageous – the world is falling apart and it is written very much as it is all business as usual. More and more countries are leaving the the gold standard and there had been massive bank runs across Europe and a number of countries in Europe had defaulted in 1932 (including Greece and Hungary!) Hitler had just become chancellor in Germany.

And then the report state: “the gold standard remains the best available monetary mechanism”! It makes you wonder how anybody can reach such a conclusion and in hindsight obviously today’s economic historians will say that it was a collective psychosis – central bankers were suffering from some kind of irrational “gold standard mentality” that led them to insanely damaging conclusions, which brought deflation, depression and war to Europe.

I wonder what economic historians will say in 7-8 decades about today’s central bankers.

——

Reading recommendation of the day: Lords of Finance – The (Central!) Bankers who Broke the World

Completely unrelated take a look at this story about Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann.

Meanwhile in Greece you have this and in Hungary you have this.

Draw your own conclusions…

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

Most Market Monetarist bloggers have a fairly US centric perspective (and from time to time a euro zone focus). I have however from I started blogging promised to cover non-US monetary issues. It is also in the light of this that I have been giving attention to the conduct of monetary policy in open economies – both developed and emerging markets. In the discussion about the present crisis there has been extremely little focus on the international transmission of monetary shocks. As a consequences policy makers also seem to misread the crisis and why and how it spread globally. I hope to help broaden the discussion and give a Market Monetarist perspective on why the crisis spread globally and why some countries “miraculously” avoided the crisis or at least was much less hit than other countries.

The euro zone-US connection

– why the dollar’ status as reserve currency is important

In 2008 when crisis hit we saw a massive tightening of monetary conditions in the US. The monetary contraction was a result of a sharp rise in money (dollar!) demand and as the Federal Reserve failed to increase the money supply we saw a sharp drop in money-velocity and hence in nominal (and real) GDP. Hence, in the US the drop in NGDP was not primarily driven by a contraction in the money supply, but rather by a drop in velocity.

The European story is quite different. In Europe the money demand also increased sharply, but it was not primarily the demand for euros, which increased, but rather the demand for US dollars. In fact I would argue that the monetary contraction in the US to a large extent was a result of European demand for dollars. As a result the euro zone did not see the same kind of contraction in money (euro) velocity as the US. On the other hand the money supply contracted somewhat more in the euro zone than in the US. Hence, the NGDP contraction in the US was caused by a contraction in velocity, but in the euro zone the NGDP contraction was caused to drop by both a contraction in velocity and in the money supply. Reflecting a much less aggressive response by the ECB than by the Federal Reserve.

To some extent one can say that the US economy was extraordinarily hard hit because the US dollar is the global reserve currency. As a result global demand for dollar spiked in 2008, which caused the drop in velocity (and a sharp appreciation of the dollar in late 2008).

In fact I believe that two factors are at the centre of the international transmission of the crisis in 2008-9.

First, it is key to what extent a country’s currency is considered as a safe haven or not. The dollar as the ultimate reserve currency of the world was the ultimate safe haven currency (and still is) – as gold was during the Great Depression. Few other currencies have a similar status, but the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen have a status that to some extent resembles that of the dollar. These currencies also appreciated at the onset of the crisis.

Second, it is completely key how monetary policy responded to the change in money demand. The Fed failed to increase the money supply enough to the increase in the dollar demand (among other things because of the failure of the primary dealer system). On the other hand the Swiss central bank (SNB) was much more successful in responding to the sharp increase in demand for Swiss franc – lately by introducing a very effective floor for EUR/CHF at 1.20. This means that any increase in demand for Swiss franc will be met by an equally large increase in the Swiss money supply. Had the Fed implemented a similar policy and for example announced in September 2008 that it would not allow the dollar to strengthen until US NGDP had stopped contracting then the crisis would have been much smaller and would long have been over.

Why was the contraction so extreme in for example the PIIGS countries and Russia?

While the Fed failed to increase the money supply enough to counteract the increase in dollar demand it nonetheless acted through a number of measures. Most notably two (and a half) rounds of quantitative easing and the opening of dollar swap lines with other central banks in the world. Other central banks faced bigger challenges in terms of the possibility – or rather the willingness – to respond to the increase in dollar demand. This was especially the case for countries with fixed exchanges regimes – for example Denmark, Bulgaria and the Baltic States – and countries in currencies unions – most notably the so-called PIIGS countries.

I have earlier showed that when oil prices dropped in 2008 the Russian ruble started depreciated (the demand for ruble dropped). However, the Russian central bank would not accept the drop in the ruble and was therefore heavily intervening in the currency market to curb the ruble depreciation. The result was a 20% contraction in the Russian money supply in a few months during the autumn of 2008. As a consequence Russia saw the biggest real GDP contraction in 2009 among the G20 countries and rather unnecessary banking crisis! Hence, it was not a drop in velocity that caused the Russian crisis but the Russian central bank lack of willingness to allow the ruble to depreciate. The CBR suffers from a distinct degree of fear-of-floating and that is what triggered it’s unfortunate policy response.

The ultimate fear-of-floating is of course a pegged exchange rate regime. A good example is Latvia. When the crisis hit the Latvian economy was already in the process of a rather sharp slowdown as the bursting of the Latvian housing bubble was unfolding. However, in 2008 the demand for Latvian lat collapsed, but due to the country’s quasi-currency board the lat was not allowed to depreciate. As a result the Latvian money supply contracted sharply and send the economy into a near-Great Depression style collapse and real GDP dropped nearly 30%. Again it was primarily the contraction in the money supply rather and a velocity collapse that caused the crisis.

The story was – and still is – the same for the so-called PIIGS countries in the euro zone. Take for example the Greek central bank. It is not able to on it’s own to increase the money supply as it is part of the euro area. As the crisis hit (and later escalated strongly) banking distress escalated and this lead to a marked drop in the money multiplier and drop in bank deposits. This is what caused a very sharp drop in the Greek board money supply. This of course is at the core of the Greek crisis and this has massively worsened Greece’s debt woes.

Therefore, in my view there is a very close connection between the international spreading of the crisis and the currency regime in different countries. In general countries with floating exchange rates have managed the crisis much better than countries with countries with pegged or quasi-pegged exchange rates. Obviously other factors have also played a role, but at the key of the spreading of the crisis was the monetary policy and exchange rate regime in different countries.

Why did Sweden, Poland and Turkey manage the crisis so well?

While some countries like the Baltic States or the PIIGS have been extremely hard hit by the crisis others have come out of the crisis much better. For countries like Poland, Turkey and Sweden nominal GDP has returned more or less to the pre-crisis trend and banking distress has been much more limited than in other countries.

What do Poland, Turkey and Sweden have in common? Two things.

First of all, their currencies are not traditional reserve currencies. So when the crisis hit money demand actually dropped rather increased in these countries. For an unchanged supply of zloty, lira or krona a drop in demand for (local) money would actually be a passive or automatic easing of monetary condition. A drop in money demand would also lead these currencies to depreciate. That is exactly what we saw in late 2008 and early 2009. Contrary to what we saw in for example the Baltic States, Russia or in the PIIGS the money supply did not contract in Poland, Sweden and Turkey. It expanded!

And second all three countries operate floating exchange rate regimes and as a consequence the central banks in these countries could act relatively decisively in 2008-9 and they made it clear that they indeed would ease monetary policy to counter the crisis. Avoiding crisis was clearly much more important than maintaining some arbitrary level of their currencies. In the case of Sweden and Turkey growth rebound strongly after the initial shock and in the case of Poland we did not even have negative growth in 2009. All three central banks have since moved to tighten monetary policy – as growth has remained robust. The Swedish Riksbank is, however, now on the way back to monetary easing (and rightly so…)

I could also have mentioned the Canada, Australia and New Zealand as cases where the extent of the crisis was significantly reduced due to floating exchange rates regimes and a (more or less) proper policy response from the local central banks.

Fear-of-floating via inflation targeting

Some countries fall in the category between the PIIGS et al and Sweden-like countries. That is countries that suffer from an indirect form of fear-of-floating as a result of inflation targeting. The most obvious case is the ECB. Unlike for example the Swedish Riksbank or the Turkish central bank (TCMB) the ECB is a strict inflation targeter. The ECB does target headline inflation. So if inflation increases due to a negative supply shock the ECB will move to tighten monetary policy. It did so in 2008 and again in 2011. On both occasions with near-catastrophic results. As I have earlier demonstrated this kind of inflation targeting will ensure that the currency will tend to strengthen (or weaken less) when import prices increases. This will lead to an “automatic” fear-of-floating effect. It is obviously less damaging than a strict currency peg or Russian style intervention, but still can be harmful enough – as it clear has been in the case of the euro zone.

Conclusion: The (international) monetary disorder view explains the global crisis

I hope to have demonstrated above that the increase in dollar demand in 2008 not only hit the US economy but also lead to a monetary contraction in especially Europe. Not because of an increase demand for euro, lats or rubles, but because central banks tighten monetary policy either directly or indirectly to “manage” the weakening of their currencies. Or because they could not ease monetary policy as member of the euro zone. In the case of the ECB the strict inflation targeting regime let the ECB to fail to differentiate between supply and demand shocks which undoubtedly have made things a lot worse.

The international transmission was not caused by “market disorder”, but by monetary policy failure. In a world of freely floating exchange rates (or PEP – currencies pegged to export prices) and/or NGDP level targeting the crisis would never have become a global crisis and I certainly would have no reason to write about it four-five years after the whole thing started.

Obviously, the “local” problems would never have become any large problem had the Fed and the ECB got it right. However, the both the Fed and the ECB failed – and so did monetary policy in a number of other countries.

DISCLAIMER: I have discussed different countries in this post. I would however, stress that the different countries are used as examples. Other countries – both the good, the bad and the ugly – could also have been used. Just because I for example highlight Poland, Turkey and Sweden as good examples does not mean that these countries did everything right. Far from it. The Polish central bank had horrible communication in early 2009 and was overly preoccupied the weakening of the zloty. The Turkish central bank’s communication was horrific last year and the Sweden bank has recently been far too reluctant to move towards monetary easing. And I might even have something positive to say about the ECB, but let me come back on that one when I figure out what that is (it could take a while…) Furthermore, remember I often quote Milton Friedman for saying you never should underestimate the importance of luck of nations. The same goes for central banks.

PS You are probably wondering, “Why did Lars not mention Asia?” Well, that is easy – the Asian economies in general did not have a major funding problem in US dollar (remember the Asian countries’ general large FX reserve) so dollar demand did not increase out of Asia and as a consequence Asia did not have the same problems as Europe. Long story, but just show that Asia was not key in the global transmission of the crisis and the same goes for Latin America.

PPS For more on the distinction between the ‘monetary disorder view’ and the ‘market disorder view’ in Hetzel (2012).

Hjalmar Schacht’s echo – it all feels a lot more like 1932 than 1923

The weekend’s Greek elections brought a neo-nazi party (“Golden Dawn”) into the Greek parliament. The outcome of the Greek elections made me think about the German parliament elections in July 1932 which gave a stunning victory to Hitler’s nazi party. The Communist Party and other extreme leftist also did well in the Greek elections as they did in Germany in 1932. I am tempted to say that fascism is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. At least that was the case in Germany in 1932 as it is today in Greece. And as in 1932 central bankers does not seem to realise the connection between monetary strangulation and the rise of extremist political forces.

The rise of Hitler in 1932 was to a large extent a result of the deflationary policies of the German Reichbank under the leadership of the notorious Hjalmar Schacht who later served in Hitler’s government as Economics Ministers.

Schacht was both a hero and a villain. He successfully ended the 1923 German hyperinflation, but he also was a staunch supporter of the gold standard which lead to massive German deflation that laid the foundation for Hitler’s rise to power. After Hitler’s rise to power Schacht helped implement draconian policies, which effectively turned Germany into a planned economy that lead to the suffering of millions of Germans and he was instrumental in bringing in policies to support Hitler’s rearmament policies. However, he also played a (minor) role in the German resistance movement to Hitler.

The good and bad legacy of Hjalmar Schacht is a reminder that central bankers can do good and bad, but also that central bankers very seldom will admit when they make mistakes. This is what Matthew Yglesias in a blog post from last year called the Perverse Reputational Incentives In Central Banking.

Here is Matt:

I was reading recently in Hjalmar Schacht’s biography Confessions of the Old Wizard … and part of what’s so incredible about it are that Schacht’s two great achievements—the Weimar-era whipping of hyperinflation and the Nazi-era whipping of deflation—were both so easy. The both involved, in essence, simply deciding that the central bank actually wanted to solve the problem.

To step back to the hyperinflation. You might ask yourself how things could possibly have gotten that bad. And the answer really just comes down to refusal to admit that a mistake had been made. To halt the inflation, the Reichsbank would have to stop printing money. But once the inflation had gotten too high for Reichsbank President Rudolf Havenstein to stop printing money and stop the inflation would be an implicit admission that the whole thing had been his fault in the first place and he should have done it earlier…

…So things continued for several years until a new government brought Schacht on as a sort of currency czar. Schacht stopped the private issuance of money, launched a new land-backed currency and simply . . . refused to print too much of it. The problem was solved both very quickly and very easily…

…The institutional and psychological problem here turns out to be really severe. If the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee were to take strong action at its next meeting and put the United States on a path to rapid catch-up growth, all that would do is serve to vindicate the position of the Fed’s critics that it’s been screwing up for years now. Rather than looking like geniuses for solving the problem, they would look like idiots for having let it fester so long. By contrast, if you were to appoint an entirely new team then their reputational incentives would point in the direction of fixing the problem as soon as possible.

Matt is of course very right. Central banks and central banks alone determines inflation, deflation, the price level and nominal GDP. Therefore central banks are responsible if we get hyperinflation, debt-deflation or a massive drop in nominal GDP. However, central bankers seem to think that they are only in control of these factors when they are “on track”, but once the nominal variables move “off track” then it is the mistake of speculators, labour unions or irresponsible politicians. Just think of how Fed chief Arthur Burns kept demanding wage and price controls in the early 1970s to curb inflationary pressures he created himself by excessive money issuance.  The credo seems to be that central bankers are never to blame.

Here is today’s German central bank governor Jens Weidmann in comment in today’s edition of the Financial Times:

Contrary to widespread belief, monetary policy is not a panacea and central banks’ firepower is not unlimited, especially not in the monetary union. First, to protect their independence central banks in the eurozone face clear constraints to the risks they are allowed to take.

…Second, unconditional further easing would ignore the lessons learned from the financial crisis.

This crisis is exceptional in scale and scope and extraordinary times do call for extraordinary measures. But we have to make sure that by putting out the fire now, we are not unwittingly preparing the ground for the next one. The medicine of a near-zero interest rate policy combined with large-scale intervention in financial markets does not come without side effects – which are all the more severe, the longer the drug is administered.

I don’t feel like commenting more on Weidmann’s comments (you can pretty well guess what I think…), but I do note that German long-term bond yields today have inch down further and is now at record low levels. Normally long-term bond yields and NGDP growth tend to move more or less in sync – so with German government 10-year bond yields at 1.5% we can safely say that the markets are not exactly afraid of inflation. Or said in another way, if ECB deliver 2% inflation in line with its inflation target over the coming decade then you will be loosing 1/2% every year by holding German government bonds. This is not exactly an indication that we are about to repeat the mistakes of the Reichbank in 1923, but rather an indication that we are in the process of repeating the mistakes of 1932. The Greek election is sad testimony to that.

PS David Glasner comments also comments on Jens Weidmann. He is not holding back…

PPS Scott Sumner today compares the newly elected French president Francois Hollande with Léon Blum. I have been having been thinking the same thing. Léon Blum served as French Prime Minister from June 1936 to June 1937. Blum of course gave up the gold standard in 1936 and allowed a 25% devaluation of the French franc. While most of Blum’s economic policies were grossly misguided the devaluation of the franc nonetheless did the job – the French economy started a gradual recovery. Unfortunately at that time the gold standard had already destroyed Europe’s economy and the next thing that followed was World War II. I wonder if central bankers ever study history…They might want to start with Adam Tooze’s Wages of Destruction.

Update: See Matt O’Brien’s story on “Europe’s FDR? How France’s New President Could Save Europe”. Matt is making the same point as me – just a lot more forcefully.

“The Bacon Standard” (the PIG PEG) would have saved Denmark from the Great Depression

Even though I am a Danish economist I am certainly no expert on the Danish economy and I have certainly not spend much time blogging about the Danish economy and I have no plans to change that in the future. However, for some reason I today came to think about what would have been the impact on the Danish economy if the Danish krone had been pegged to the price of bacon rather than to gold at the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Lets call it the Bacon Standard – or a the PIG PEG (thanks to Mikael Bonde Nielsen for that suggestion).

Today less than 10% of Danish export revenues comes from bacon export – back during in the 1920s it was much more sizable and agricultural products dominated export revenues and Denmark’s main trading partner was Great Britain. Since bacon prices and other agricultural product were highly correlated (and still are) the bacon price probably would have been a very good proxy for Danish export prices. Hence, a the PIG PEG would basically have been similar to Jeff Frankel’s Peg the Export Price (PEP) proposal (see my earlier posts on this idea here and here).

When the global crisis hit in 1929 it put significant downward pressure on global agricultural prices and in two years most agricultural prices had been halved. As a consequence of the massive drop in agricultural prices – including bacon prices – the crisis put a serious negative pressures on the Danish krone peg against gold. Denmark had relatively successfully reintroduced the gold standard in 1927, but when the crisis hit things changed dramatically.

Initially the Danish central bank (Danmarks Nationalbank) defended the gold standard and as a result the Danish economy was hit by a sharp monetary contraction. As I argued in my post on Russian monetary policy a negative shock to export prices is not a supply shock, but rather a negative demand shock under a fixed exchange rate regime – like the gold standard. Said in another way the Danish AD curve shifted sharply to the left.

The shock had serious consequences. Hence, Danish economic activity collapsed as most places in the world, unemployment spiked dramatically and strong deflationary pressures hit the economy.

Things got even worse when the British government in 1931 decided to give up the gold standard and eventually the Danish government decided to follow the lead from the British government and also give up the gold standard. However, unlike Sweden the Danish authorities felt very uncomfortable to go it’s own ways (like today…) and it was announced that the krone would be re-pegged against sterling. That strongly limited the expansionary impact of the decision to give up the gold standard. Therefore, it is certainly no coincidence that Swedish economy performed much better than the Danish economy during the 1930s.

The Danish economy, however, started to recovery in 1933. Two events spurred the recovery. First, FDR’s decision to give the gold standard helped the US economy to begin pulling out of the recovery and that helped global commodity prices which certainly helped Danish agricultural exports. Second, the so-called  Kanslergade Agreementa political agreement named after the home address of then Prime Minister Thorvald Stauning in the street Kanslergade in Copenhagen – lead to a devaluation of the Danish krone. Both events effectively were monetary easing.

What would the Bacon standard have done for the Danish economy?

While monetary easing eventually started to pull Denmark out of the Great Depression it didn’t happen before four year into the crisis and the recovery never became as impressive as the development in Sweden. Had Denmark instead had a Bacon Standard then things would likely have played out in a significantly more positive way. Hence, had the Danish krone been pegged to the price of bacon then it would have been “automatically” devalued already in 1929 and the gradual devaluation would have continued until 1933 after, which rising commodity prices (and bacon prices) gradually would have lead to a tightening of monetary conditions.

In my view had Denmark had the PIG PEG in 1929 the crisis would been much more short-lived and the economy would fast have recovered from the crisis. Unfortunately that was not the case and four years was wasted defending an insanely tight monetary policy.

Monetary disequilibrium leads to interventionism   

The Danish authorities’ decision to maintain the gold standard and then to re-peg to sterling had significant economic and social consequences. As a consequence the public support for interventionist policies grew dramatically and effectively lay the foundation for what came to be known as the danish “Welfare State”. Hence, the Kanslergade Agreement not only lead to a devaluation of the krone, but also to a significant expansion of the role of government in the Danish economy. In that sense the Kanslergade Agreement has parallels to FDR’s policies during the Great Depression – monetary easing, but also more interventionist policies.

Hence, the Danish experience is an example of Milton Friedman’s argument that monetary disequilibrium caused by a fixed exchange rate policy is likely to increase interventionist tendencies.

Bon appetite – or as we say in Danish velbekomme…

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?

Mises was clueless about the effects of devaluation

Over at the Ludwig von Mises Institute’s website they have reproduced a comment from good old Ludwig von Mises on The Objectives of Currency Devaluation” from Human Action. I love Human Action and there is no doubt Ludwig von Mises was a great economist, but to be frank when it comes to the issue of devaluation he was basically clueless. Sorry guys – his views on this issue are not too impressive.

He mentions five reasons why policy makers might favour “devaluation”:

  • To preserve the height of nominal wage rates or even to create the conditions required for their further increase, while real wage rates should rather sink
  • To make commodity prices, especially the prices of farm products, rise in terms of domestic money or, at least, to check their further drop
  • To favor the debtors at the expense of the creditors
  • To encourage exports and to reduce imports
  • To attract more foreign tourists and to make it more expensive (in terms of domestic money) for the country’s own citizens to visit foreign countries

It might be that this is what motivates policy makers to devalue the currency, but he forgets the real reason why it might make perfectly good sense to allow the currency to weaken. If monetary policy has caused nominal GDP to collapse as was the case during the Great Depression (or during the the Great Recession!) then a policy of devaluation is of course the policy to pursue. Hence, von Mises totally fails to understand the monetary implications of devaluation.

The core of von Mises’ lack to understand of the monetary impact of devaluation is that he – like Rothbard – has a very hard time differentiating between good and bad deflation. George Selgin has a great discussion of von Mises’ view of deflation in his 1990 paper “Ludwig von Mises and the Case for Gold”. George goes out of the way to explain that von Mises really did understand the difference between good and bad deflation and that given his views he should really have supported a monetary policy regime (rather than the gold standard) that ensures stabilisation of nominal spending (M*V). The paradox is of course that you can interpret von Mises in this way, but why would he then be so outspoken against devaluation? In my view von Mises did not fully appreciate that there is good and bad devaluation – so it is no surprise that his modern day internet supporters (of the populist kind…) is so in love with the gold standard. By the way the kind of arguments von Mises has against devaluation and in favour of the gold standard are very similar to the arguments of the most outspoken proponents of the euro today. Yes, the logic of a common currency and the gold standard is exactly the same.

I never understood people who support free markets could also be in favour of fixing the price of the currency – to me that makes absolutely no sense. Milton Friedman of course reached the same conclusion and more important Friedman realised that if you try to peg your currency at an unsustainable level then policy makers will try to pursue interventionist policies to maintain this peg. Capital restrictions and protectionism are the children of pegged exchange rates. Just ask Douglas Irwin.

Further reading:

My recent post on the monetary effects of devaluation: Exchange rates and monetary policy – it’s not about competitiveness: Some Argentine lessons

My posts on Milton Friedman’s view of exchange rate policy:

Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #1
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #2
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #3
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #4
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #5
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #6

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UPDATE:  disagrees with me on this issue. Read his comment here. What I regret the most about the comments above is not that I have been a bit too hard on Mises, but rather that my representation of George Selgin’s views on the issue. While I do not think my representation of what George said in his 1999 paper is wrong I do admit that I could have expressed his position more clearly.

By the way I have noticed that when I verbally insult people – living or dead – then it clearly increases the traffic on my blog. So if I wanted to maximize “clicks” I would insult a lot more people. However, I do not like that kind of debate so I promise to try to stay civil and polite – also to people with whom I disagree. Using words like “clueless” in the headline might not live up to that criteria, but I will admit that I have been greatly frustrated by the arguments made by “internet Austrians” recently (And once again I am not talking about what we could call the GMU Austrians…).

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