Time to try WIR in Greece or Ireland? (I know you are puzzled)

The ECB so far has refused to sufficiently increase the money base to meet the increase in the demand of money and as a result euro zone money-velocity has contracted. We are basically in a monetary disequilibrium. Normally we would say an excess demand for money can be reduced in two ways. Either you can increase the money supply or the price of money can increase sufficiently to reduce the demand for money until it matches the supply of money. An increase in the price of money of course means a drop in all other prices – deflation.

However, there is a third option – we could also increase the supply of money substitutes. This could be in the form of free banking – privately issued money – or through different forms batter systems. I have also earlier examined the impact ofthe so-called M-Pesa system in Kenya and how M-Pesa likely has increased money-velocity (reduced money demand) dramatically in Kenya. I suggested that could offer a partial solution to the euro crisis. A similar idea could be to create a system similar to the Swiss Wirtschaftring system (WIR).

WIR is basically a barter club of corporations and households and in a sense WIR functions as a parallel currency in the Swiss economy. Here is a description from a paper by Wojtek Kalinowski:

“The Swiss currency known as the WIR is by far the oldest and most important complementary currency presently in circulation. It remains, however, largely unknown. Created in 1934, it is currently used by approximately 60,000 small and medium-sized businesses found in all economic sectors, but primarily building, commerce (wholesale and retail), and manufacturing … In 2008, the volume of WIR-denominated trade was 1.5 billion Swiss francs …a figure that makes it far superior to any other parallel currency but which is still only an insignificant portion of the global monetary mass (0.35% of M2 in 2003).”

What I find particularly interesting with the Swiss experience is the counter-cyclical nature of the use of WIR. In a 2009 paper by James Stodder “Complementary Credit Networks and Macro-Economic Stability: Switzerland’s Wirtschaftsring”  it is demonstrated that there is a clear negative (positive) correlation between GDP growth (unemployment) and the turnover of WIR. Hence, this indicates that WIR tends to help equate money supply and money demand (reduce monetary disequilibrium). If you have studied George Selgin’s theory of Free Banking then you should not be surprised by this result.

Time for WIR in Greee or Ireland?

The deflationary trends are very strong in some euro zone countries such as Ireland or Greece. So what is needed is an increase in the money supply, but as the national central banks do not determine the local money supply (that is firmly in the hands of the ECB) that option does not exist. However, a WIR style system could be a second or third best solution for doing something about the monetary disequilibrium in these countries.

Obviously, it will likely be far too little to end the crisis and the best solution obviously still would be for the ECB to significantly ease monetary conditions. However, that should not stop deflation and crisis hit euro zone countries from removing legal barriers to the introduction of WIR style systems. Furthermore, one could easily imagine that euro zone governments and central banks could move to facilitate the creation of WIR style systems in their countries.

Obviously, this kind of discussion would not be necessary if the ECB moved to reduce monetary disequilibrium, but times are desperate – and that is why you for example see the reemergence of the old Irish punt certain places in Ireland (See here).

Finally I should add that some proponents of local currencies and WIR systems see them as a kind of “small is beautiful” system and a system to protect local producers. I strongly disagree with this kind of protectionist view and in that sense I completely agree with the views of George Selgin. See here.


Update: See also this paper by James Stodder.
Update 2: In the comments below James Stodder recommends Irving Fisher’s book on “Scrip Currencies” and Georgiana Gomez’s recent book (2009) “Argentina’s Parallel Currency: The Economy of the Poor”. I knew Fisher’s book before, but was unaware of Gomez’s book (so I ordered it…)

Liaquat Ahamed should write a book about Trichet, Draghi, Weidmann & Co.

The author of the great book  ‘Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World’ Liaquat Ahamed has a comment on ft.com on the euro crisis and the parallels of the behavior of today’s European central bankers with that of the central bankers of the 1930s. I have been making the argument many times that we are in the process of making the same mistakes as we did in the 1930s – particularly in Europe. Ahamed agrees.

Here is Ahamed:

“The situation in Europe today bears an eerie similarity to that of Europe in the 1930s. Ironically, Germany was then in the position of the peripheral European countries today. It was weighed down with government debt because of reparations imposed at Versailles; its banking system was severely undercapitalised, the result of the hyperinflation of the early 1920s; and it had become dependent on foreign borrowing. It was locked into a rigid fixed exchange rate system, the gold standard, which it dared not tamper with for fear of provoking a gigantic crisis of confidence. And so when the Depression hit and international capital markets essentially closed down, Germany had no choice but to impose brutal austerity. Eventually, unemployment rose to 35 per cent.

Like today, in the 1930s there was one major economy in Europe doing well. It was France. While the rest of Europe was suffering, unemployment in France, as in Germany today, was in the low single figures. And France, again like Germany today, had large current-account surpluses and was in a financial position to act as the locomotive for the rest of Europe. But the French authorities of the 1930s, refusing to accept responsibility for what was happening elsewhere in Europe, would not adopt expansionary policies. Nor would they lend directly to Germany, fearing that they would be throwing good money after bad. The effect of French policy eventually brought down the whole financial system of western Europe”

I completely agree. The PIIGS are the Germany of the 1930s and Germany of today is France of the 1930s. In that regard it should be noted that despite France initially avoided being hard hit by the Great Depression, but the crisis eventually caught up with the French economy in 1931-32. Let that be a lesson for Merkel and Weidmann. Unfortunately today’s policy makers seem completely unaware of the parallels to the mistakes of the 1930s.

Maybe it is time for  Liaquat Ahamed to write a book on today’s Lords of Finance – the central bankers who are in the process of killing the European economy.


For an overview of some of my posts on the 1930s see here.

Book recommendation of the week: I just received in the mail what seems to be a very interesting book on Exchange Rate Regimes of small states in twenties-century Europe. The book “Fixed Ideas of Money” by Tobias Straumann tells the story of why European small economies such as the Scandinavian countries, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland have been so attracted to pegged exchange rate regimes. From what of the book I have read so far I must say it is very interesting and the book is full of interesting anecdotes from European monetary history. The book is extremely well-researched and it is clear that Straumann has had access to local sources for information about monetary policy in for example Denmark or Belgium in the 1930s.

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