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.

Exchange rates are not truly floating when we target inflation

There is a couple of topics that have been on my mind lately and they have made me want to write this post. In the post I will claim that inflation targeting is a soft-version of what economists have called the fear-of-floating. But before getting to that let me run through the topics on my mind.

1) Last week I did a presentation for a group of Norwegian investors and even thought the topic was the Central and Eastern European economies the topic of Norwegian monetary politics came up. I am no big expert on the Norwegian economy or Norwegian monetary policy so I ran for the door or rather I started to talk about an other large oil producing economy, which I know much better – The Russian economy. I essentially re-told what I recently wrote about in a blog post on the Russian central bank causing the 2008/9-crisis in the Russian economy, by not allowing the ruble to drop in line with oil prices in the autumn of 2008. I told the Norwegian investors that the Russian central bank was suffering from a fear-of-floating. That rang a bell with the Norwegian investors – and they claimed – and rightly so I think – that the Norwegian central bank (Norges Bank) also suffers from a fear-of-floating. They had an excellent point: The Norwegian economy is booming, domestic demand continues to growth very strongly despite weak global growth, asset prices – particularly property prices – are rising strongly and unemployment is very low and finally do I need to mention that Norwegian NGDP long ago have returned to the pre-crisis trend? So all in all if anything the Norwegian economy probably needs tighter monetary policy rather than easier monetary policy. However, this is not what Norges Bank is discussing. If anything the Norges Bank has recently been moving towards monetary easing. In fact in March Norges Bank surprised investors by cutting interest rates and directly cited the strength of the Norwegian krone as a reason for the rate cut.

2) My recent interest in Jeff Frankel’s idea that commodity exporters should peg their currency to the price of the main export (PEP) has made me think about the connect between floating exchange rates and what monetary target the central bank operates. Frankel in one of his papers shows that historically there has been a rather high positive correlation between higher import prices and monetary tightening (currency appreciation) in countries with floating exchange rates and inflation targeting. The mechanism is clear – strict inflation targeting central banks an increase in import prices will cause headline inflation to increase as the aggregate supply curve shots to the left and as the central bank does not differentiate between supply shocks and nominal shocks it will react to a negative supply shock by tightening monetary policy causing the currency to strengthen. Any Market Monetarist would of course tell you that central banks should not react to supply shocks and should allow higher import prices to feed through to higher inflation – this is basically George Selgin’s productivity norm. Very few central banks allow this to happen – just remember the ECB’s two ill-fated rate hikes in 2011, which primarily was a response to higher import prices. Sad, but true.

3) Scott Sumner tells us that monetary policy works with long and variable leads. Expectations are tremendously important for the monetary transmission mechanism. One of the main channels by which monetary policy works in a small-open economy  – with long and variable leads – is the exchange rate channel. Taking the point 2 into consideration any investor would expect the ECB to tighten monetary policy  in responds to a negative supply shock in the form of a increase in import prices. Therefore, we would get an automatic strengthening of the euro if for example oil prices rose. The more credible an inflation target’er the central bank is the stronger the strengthening of the currency. On the other hand if the central bank is not targeting inflation, but instead export prices as Frankel is suggesting or the NGDP level then the currency would not “automatically” tend to strengthen in responds to higher oil prices. Hence, the correlation between the currency and import prices strictly depends on what monetary policy rule is in place.

These three point leads me to the conclusion that inflation targeting really just is a stealth version of the fear-of-floating. So why is that? Well, normally we would talk about the fear-of-floating when the central bank acts and cut rates in responds to the currency strengthening (at a point in time when the state of the economy does not warrant a rate cut). However, in a world of forward-looking investors the currency tends move as-if we had the old-fashioned form of fear-of-floating – it might be that higher oil prices leads to a strengthening of the Norwegian krone, but expectations of interest rate cuts will curb the strengthen of NOK. Similarly the euro is likely to be stronger than it otherwise would have been when oil prices rise as the ECB again and again has demonstrated the it reacts to negative supply shocks with monetary easing.

Exchange rates are not truly floating when we target inflation 

And this lead me to my conclusion. We cannot fundamentally say that currencies are truly floating as long as central banks continue to react to higher import prices due to inflation targeting mandates. We might formally have laid behind us the days of managed exchange rates (at least in North America and Europe), but de facto we have reintroduced it with inflation targeting. As a consequence monetary policy becomes excessively easy (tight) when import prices are dropping (increasing) and this is the recipe for boom-bust. Therefore, floating exchange rates and inflation targeting is not that happy a couple it often is made out to be and we can fundamentally only talk about truly floating exchange rates when monetary policy cease to react to supply shocks.

Therefore, the best way to ensure true exchange rates flexibility is through NGDP level targeting and if we want to manage exchange rates then at least do it by targeting the export price rather than the import price.

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