Deflation – not hyperinflation – brought Hitler to power

This Matt O’Brien in The Atlantic:

“Everybody knows you can draw a straight line from its hyperinflation to Hitler, but, in this case, what everybody knows is wrong. The Nazis didn’t take power when prices were doubling every 4 days in 1923– they tried, and failed — but rather when prices were falling in 1933.”

Matt is of course right – unfortunately few European policy makers seem to have studied any economic and political history. Furthermore, few advocates of free market Capitalism today realise that the biggest threat to the capitalist system is not overly easy monetary policy. The biggest threat to free market Capitalism is overly tight monetary policy as it brings reactionary and populist forces – whether red or brown – to power.

Update: This is from the German magazine Spiegel:

From 1922-1923, hyperinflation plagued Germany and helped fuel the eventual rise of Adolf Hitler.”

…I guess somebody in the German media needs a lesson in German history.

HT Petar Sisko.

PS Scott Sumner has a new blog post on how wrong many free market proponents are about monetary issues.

PPS take a look at this news story from the deflationary euro zone.

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More silliness from the tin foil hat Austrians

I love reading the normally good blog posts on freebanking.org written by clever economists such as George Selgin and Kurt Schuler. However, the Facebook page of freebanking.org very often fails to live up to the same good standards as the blog. In fact most updates are what I consider to be internet-Austrian nonsense.

Here is the latest example:

“If the dollar were suddenly to lose reserve status, the United States of America would face catastrophic inflation.”

The freebanking facebook page is quoting an article by Lawrence J. Fedewa. I have never heard about him before, but his article is a pretty good example of the kind of “the-world-is-coming-to-an-end” nonsense, which is floating around in cyberspace mostly written by tin foil hat Austrians.

But let me address the quote above.

First of all there are no signs that the dollar in any way is loosing its reserve status. In fact the dollar is more popular than ever. Hence, since the onset of the crisis in 2008 we have seen a massive increase in dollar demand – in fact that was what caused the crisis.

Or just ask yourself what currency is about to replace the dollar as the reserve currency of the world? The euro? I think not? Or the yuan? Think again you silly people.

I am presently vacationing in Thailand and I am pretty sure that if I wanted to pay any local street vendor here with dollars they would be very happy to accept it. But would they accept euros? Probably – there is a lot of German tourists in the area where we are vacationing so the locals are probably familiar with the euro.

But what if I tried to pay with yuan? I doubt the street vendors would accept that. So no the verdict is pretty clear from the Thai street vendors – the US greenback is what they prefer to any other currency (I nonetheless pays in Thai baht).

But lets get back to some more silliness. This is again from Fedewa’s article:

If the dollar were suddenly to lose reserve status, the United States of America would face catastrophic inflation. All the dollars that the Federal Reserve has been creating, at about $85 billion each month, would begin to be dumped right on our heads, and the dollar would become virtually worthless. A loaf of bread could cost $50, a basket of groceries could cost $500. Hyperinflation has happened to many nations, including post WWI Germany, France and Russia, and modern day Greece and Spain.

Note here this is the trick used by the internet-Austrians – “It might be that we do not have hyperinflation yet but it will comes once dollar demand collapses”. Fine, first of all there is unfortunately no real sign that dollar demand is declining and money-velocity in the US is still quite elevated.

Second, if dollar demand where to start declining it would be good news as it would mean that the world would becoming “normal” again. That the excessive demand for dollars driven by deflation fears were easing. That obviously would increase inflationary pressures. And that should be welcomed – after all there is still significant slack in the US economy and inflation continues to be way below the Federal Reserve’s semi-official inflation inflation of 2% and the reason the fed has had to massively expand its balance sheet is exactly the massive demand for dollars.

But ok lets say that out of the blue everybody suddenly did not want to hold US dollars – I still fail to see why that would be the case, but lets for the sake of the argument assume that to be the case. A collapse in dollar demand would of course effectively be massive US monetary easing. The impact of this would likely be a sharp increase in both real and nominal GDP – and inflation.

Would the Fed be helpless in this situation? No not at all. The Fed of course could just tighten monetary policy. It could of course easily shift quantitative easing into reverse by for example announcing that if would cut the money base by 100 or 200bn dollars per months until inflation expectations returned to (just) below 2% and given the fact that the Fed’s balance sheet has never been bigger it could cut the money base a lot. There is not limits to how easing or tightening a central bank can do. Only paleo Keynesians and tin foil Austrians fail to understand this.

It is too bad that there is so much nonsense about monetary policy floating around in cyberspace, but it is unfortunately only getting worse and worse. I don’t know why this is and these views have probably always been around, but I for one is sick and tired of listening to all is nonsense!

And finally, the US government is not about to default. The crackpots on the left are wrong when the claim that the US government would have to default had the debt ceiling not been raised (the US government could just have cut spending) and the crackpots on the right are wrong when they claim that the US government debt is out of control (the budget deficit is declining strongly and public debt levels have stabilized).

But of course that financial markets know that all this is just political hype in Washington. Just look at the S&P500 – it has gone up all though this show of US political dysfunctionality. Why? Because monetary policy dominates fiscal policy. It is the Sumner Critique stupid!

And now back to my vacation…

PS I have no clue whether Fedewa considers himself to be an Austrian. I use the term tin foil hat Austrian to describe a tendency or type of argument used by so many commentators rather than by people who actually read von Mises and Hayek. By the way I bet most of the people in cyberspace making what they believe to be “Austrian” arguments actually found these arguments on Youtube rather than by reading “Human Action” and other must-read Austrian classics. What I don’t understand is why Austrian scholars who actually did study von Mises and Hayek are not coming out much more aggressively and tell people like Peter Schiff that his arguments are nonsense. I would love to see a debate between for example Steve Horwitz and Peter Schiff.

PPS I just came to think of the Austrian version of Godwin’s law. Godwin’s law states that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” The Austrian version of this should read: “As an online discussion about monetary policy grows longer, the probability that an Austrian will mention Zimbabwe or the Weimar Republic approaches 1.”

The Sudanese Pound – another Troubled Currency

A couple of days ago I wrote about Steve Hanke’s new Troubled Currencies project. The project presently covers Argentina, Iran, North Korea, Syria andVenezuela. However, I think Steve now has to expand the list with the Sudanese pound.

This is from Reuters yesterday:

Sudan’s currency has fallen to a record low against the dollar on the black market since South Sudan started reducing cross-border oil flows in a row over alleged support for rebels, dealers said.

There is little foreign trading in the Sudanese pound but the black market rate is an important indicator of the mood of the business elite and of ordinary people left weary by years of economic crises, ethnic conflicts and wars.

The rate is also watched by foreign firms such as cellphone operators Zain and MTN and by Gulf banks who sell products in pounds and then struggle to convert profits into dollars. Gulf investors also hold pound-denominated Islamic bonds sold by the central bank.

On Wednesday, one dollar bought 7.35 pounds on the black market – which has become the business benchmark – compared to 7 last week, black market dealers said. The central bank rate is around 4.4.

The pound has more than halved in value since South Sudan became independent in July 2011, taking with it three-quarters of the united country’s oil output. Oil was the driver of the economy and source for dollars needed for imports.

Last week, South Sudan said it would close all oil wells by the end of July after Sudan notified it a month ago it would halt cross-border oil flows unless Juba gave up support for rebels. South Sudan denies the claims.

Flows had only resumed in April after an earlier 16-month oil shutdown following South Sudan’s secession.

Interesting it is not only Sudan that has a currency/inflation problem. The same has indeed been the case for South Sudan, which initially after it became independent in 2011 saw a sharp spike in inflation.

Paradoxically enough the cause of the spike in inflation in South Sudan was the same as in Sudan – an South Sudanese oil boycott of Sudan. Hence,  the cut in oil sales from South Sudan to Sudan caused a sharp drop in the South Sudanese government’s oil revenue. That led the government to effectively force the new South Sudan central bank to fund the revenue shortfall by letting the money printing press work overtime.

As far as I know it was initially considered that South Sudan should implement Steve’s favourite monetary solution for countries like Sudan and South Sudan – a currency board.

Even though I am no big fan of currency boards I would agree with Steve that it could be the right solution for countries with extremely weak institutions such as Sudan and South Sudan. Another possibility could simply be to just dollarize and completely give up having their own currencies. My favourite solution for South Sudan would be a currency board, but with a twist – the Sudan Sudanese pound should be pegged to the price of oil rather than to another currency. This of course would be a strict form of the Export Price Norm (EPN), while I think complete dollarization would be the best solution for Sudan. Needless to say both Sudan and South Sudan should get rid of all capital and currency controls.

Finally it should be noted that while inflation seems to be getting out of control in Sudan inflation in South Sudan has been coming down significantly over the past year.

PS While the monetary situation is getting worse in Sudan the situation in Egypt apparently is improving and the black market for the Egyptian pounds seem to be “vanishing” according to a blog post from Steve today.

Blame del Pont for the nightmarish rise in Argentine inflation

This is from MercoPress today (Saturday)):

For a third consecutive day the ‘blue’ dollar which trades in Argentina’s informal market established a new record and after having brushed 10 Pesos in earlier trading finally closed Friday at 9.84 (buying price) and 9.88 (selling price) Pesos.

This means the price of the greenback in Argentina’s informal market, as people flock to get rid of their local currency, has soared 44 cents in a week and the gap with the ‘official’ rate which ended trading on Friday at 5.20 Pesos selling price, has reached 90%.

“There are plenty of buyers, but people wanting to sell dollars are scarcer and scarcer. Nobody wants to get rid of the dollars in Argentina, not even tourists”, said Buenos Aires city financial quarter money traders.

“Despite the rain we’re literally flooded with demands for dollars and we have been forced to work on weekends. Because of inflation, people collect their salaries and rush to turn them into foreign currency”, added the money traders…

…With the latest advance, the ‘blue’ dollar in Argentina has ballooned 44.49% since the beginning of the year, while the official rate has only increased 5.5%. The rush on the dollar is reflected in the Central bank’s international reserves which lost 911 million last month and now stand at 39.535 billion, which is the lowest in six years.

The situation called for an urgent meeting at midday convened by President Cristina Fernandez and the cabinet chief Juan Manuel Abal Medina together with Economy minister Hernan Lorenzino, Deputy minister Axel Kicillof, Domestic Trade Secretary Guillermo Moreno, the president of the Central bank, Mercedes Marcó del Pont and the head of the tax revenue office Ricardo Echegaray.

The collapse of the peso should be no surprise to anybody who have studied Milton Friedman. Unfortunately Argentina’s central bank governor Mercedes Marcó del Pont hates Milton Friedman, but she loves printing money to finance public spending.

Paradoxically one can say that del Pont at the moment is providing a very good demonstration that monetary policy “works”. First, she is showing that printing a lot of money will eventually lead to inflation and second that expectations are tremendously important in the conduct of monetary policy.

As Argentines know that del Pont has no plan of stopping her “money printing mission” they also know that inflation will accelerate further in the future. That of course is the reason why the are dumping the peso to buying dollars. The consequence of course is a sharp increase in money-velocity. Therefore, Argentine prices now very likely increasing at a much faster rate the the growth of the money supply.

The Argentine government is refusing to recognize the connection between del Pont’s nightmarish monetary policy and the spike in inflation. Instead the Argentine government is fighting inflation in two other ways.

First, the government simply is cheating on the numbers. Nobody thinks that the official Argentine inflation numbers are correct. In fact in a recent highly embarrassing interview with Greek TV Argentina’s economic minister Hernan Lorenzino was completely unable to explain what the level of inflation is in Argentina. Lorenzino called the Argentine inflation statistics “complex”. Well, it might be “complex” to Lorenzino, but understanding the inflation process is extremely simple – when you print more money than is demanded then you get inflation.

Second, the government has introduced draconian price controls. But as Milton Friedman would have explained to del Pont and the Argentine government – price controls cannot curb the inflation pressures, but it is a very effective mechanism to empty the shops for goods to buy and that is of course exactly what is happening in Argentina right now. See more on the rise of price controls in Latin America in this excellent article from Steve Hanke.

I have recently argued that based on the collapse in the blackmarket peso exchange rate inflation might already have surpassed 100%. That might or might not be the case, but the escalation in the sell-off in the peso is a very clear indication of a complete collapse in average Argentine’s trust in the value of the currency. Normally when we see such a collapse of confidence in the currency inflation will spike dramatically. In fact I would argue that if Del Pont continues her misguided monetary policies for much longer then Argentina clearly risks hyperinflation. We don’t have hyperinflation at the moment, but inflation is certainly extremely high and is accelerating very fast.

The only thing to be happy about – from a distance – is that del Pont at the moment is proving to the world that there is no such thing as a liquidity trap. A central bank can always increase inflation by printing more money than is being demanded. In Argentina the demand for pesos has collapsed, while at the same time the supply of pesos is exploding.

If del Pont had bothered studying Milton Friedman she would have known that that will cause a massive rise in inflation. Unfortunately it seems like del Pont never studied monetary theory or monetary history, but she is unfortunately giving every Argentine a horrific lesson in central bank incompetence.

Papers about money, regime uncertainty and efficient religions

I have the best wife in the world and she has been extremely understanding about my odd idea to start blogging, but there is one thing she is not too happy about and that is that I tend to leave printed copies of working papers scatted around our house. I must admit that I hate reading working papers on our iPad. I want the paper version, but I also read quite a few working papers and print out even more papers. So that creates quite a paper trail in our house…

But some of the working papers also end up in my bag. The content of my bag today might inspire some of my readers:

“Monetary Policy and Japan’s Liquidity Trap” by Lars E. O. Svensson and “Theoretical Analysis Regarding a Zero Lower Bound on Nominal Interest Rate” by Bennett T. McCallum.

These two papers I printed out when I was writting my recent post on Czech monetary policy. It is obvious that the Czech central bank is struggling with how to ease monetary policy when interest rates are close to zero. We can only hope that the Czech central bankers read papers like this – then they would be in no doubt how to get out of the deflationary trap. Frankly speaking I didn’t read the papers this week as I have read both papers a number of times before, but I still think that both papers are extremely important and I would hope central bankers around the world would study Svensson’s and McCallum’s work.

“Regime Uncertainty – Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed after the War” - by Robert Higgs.

My regular readers will know that I believe that the key problem in both the US and the European economies is overly tight monetary policy. However, that does not change the fact that I am extremely fascinated by Robert Higgs’ concept “Regime Uncertainty”. Higgs’ idea is that uncertainty about the regulatory framework in the economy will impact investment activity and therefore reduce growth. While I think that we primarily have a demand problem in the US and Europe I also think that regime uncertainty is a highly relevant concept. Unlike for example Steve Horwitz I don’t think that regime uncertainty can explain the slow recovery in the US economy. As I see it regime uncertainty as defined by Higgs is a supply side phenomena. Therefore, we should expect a high level of regime uncertainty to lower real GDP growth AND increase inflation. That is certainly not what we have in the US or in the euro zone today. However, there are certainly countries in the world where I would say regime uncertainty play a dominant role in the present economic situation and where tight monetary policy is not the key story. My two favourite examples of this are South Africa and Hungary. I would also point to regime uncertainty as being extremely important in countries like Venezuela and Argentina – and obviously in Iran. The last three countries are also very clear examples of a supply side collapse combined with extremely easy monetary policy.

Furthermore, we should remember that tight monetary policy in itself can lead to regime uncertainty. Just think about Greece. Extremely tight monetary conditions have lead to a economic collapse that have given rise to populist and extremist political forces and the outlook for economic policy in Greece is extremely uncertain. Or remember the 1930s where tight monetary conditions led to increased protectionism and generally interventionist policies around the world – for example the horrible National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in the US.

I have read Higg’s paper before, but hope to re-read it in the coming week (when I will be traveling a lot) as I plan to write something about the economic situation in Hungary from the perspective of regime uncertain. I have written a bit about that topic before.

“World Hyperinflations” by Steve Hanke and Nicholas Krus.

I have written about this paper before and I have now come around to read the paper. It is excellent and gives a very good overview of historical hyperinflations. There is a strong connection to Higgs’ concept of regime uncertainty. It is probably not a coincidence that the countries in the world where inflation is getting out of control are also countries with extreme regime uncertainty – again just think about Argentina, Venezuela and Iran.

“Morality and Monopoly: The Constitutional political economy of religious rules” by Gary Anderson and Robert Tollison.

This blog is about monetary policy issues and that is what I spend my time writing about, but I do certainly have other interests. There is no doubt that I am an economic imperialist and I do think that economics can explain most social phenomena – including religion. My recent trip to Provo, Utah inspired me to think about religion again or more specifically I got intrigued how the Church of Jesus Chris Latter day Saints (LDS) – the Mormons – has become so extremely successful. When I say successful I mean how the LDS have grown from being a couple of hundreds members back in the 1840s to having millions of practicing members today – including potentially the next US president. My hypothesis is that religion can be an extremely efficient mechanism by which to solve collective goods problems. In Anderson’s and Tollison’s paper they have a similar discussion.

If religion is an mechanism to solve collective goods problems then the most successful religions – at least those which compete in an unregulated and competitive market for religions – will be those religions that solve these collective goods problems in the most efficient way. My rather uneducated view is that the LDS has been so successful because it has been able to solve collective goods problems in a relatively efficient way. Just think about when the Mormons came to Utah in the late 1840s. At that time there was effectively no government in Utah – it was essentially an anarchic society. Government is an mechanism to solve collective goods problems, but with no government you have to solve these problems in another way. Religion provides such mechanism and I believe that this is what the LDS did when the pioneers arrived in Utah.

So if I was going to write a book about LDS from an economic perspective I think I would have to call it “LDS – the efficient religion”. But hey I am not going to do that because I don’t really know much about religion and especially not about Mormonism. Maybe it is good that we are in the midst of the Great Recession – otherwise I might write about the economics and religion or why I prefer to drive with taxi drivers who don’t wear seat belts.

—-

Update: David Friedman has kindly reminded me of Larry Iannaccone’s work on economics of religion. I am well aware of Larry’s work and he is undoubtedly the greatest authority on the economics of religion and he is president of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture. Larry’s paper “Introduction to the Economics of Religion” is an excellent introduction to the topic.

Hanke and Krus on “World Hyperinflations”

I just read an interesting piece on the escalation of inflation in Iran by Steve Hanke. Steve’s Iran piece is interesting enough, but in his article he has a reference a to his recent Cato working paper on “World Hyperinflations”. Nicholas Krus is co-author of the paper.

I haven’t read the paper yet, but the abstract certainly makes me want to read it:

“This chapter supplies, for the first time, a table that contains all 56 episodes of hyperinflation, including several which had previously gone unreported. The Hyperinflation Table is compiled in a systematic and uniform way. Most importantly, it meets the replicability test. It utilizes clean and consistent inflation metrics, indicates the start and end dates of each episode, identifies the month of peak hyperinflation, and signifies the currency that was in circulation, as well as the method used to calculate inflation rates.”

Even though some – especially some internet Austrians in US – worry about the danger of hyperinflation in the US and Europe I rather think that the risk in the euro zone and partly in the US is deflation than hyperinflation. However, there are countries in the world today where hyperinflation is a real risk. Steve of course gives the example of Iran. I would also be quite worried about inflation getting seriously out of control in Venezuela and Argentina.

So what is worse hyperinflation or (demand) deflation? Well, both are the result of serious monetary policy mistakes and both have devastating impact on the economies hit by it. Germany experienced both within a 10 year period from 1923-1933 and we know how that ended.

PS The 1923 German hyperinflation is documented in Adam Fergusson’s 1975 book “When Money Dies”.

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