Mussolini’s great monetary policy failure

Benito Mussolini is known for having been a horrible warmongering fascist dictator. However, he was also responsible for a major failed monetary experiment – the so-called Battle of the Lira.

Hence, in 1926 Mussolini announced a major revaluation of the Italian Lira as part of his general plan to revive the greatness of Italy.

This is how the Battle of the Lira was described in the New York Times in August 1927:

“It is just one year since Premier Mussolini, speaking at Pesaro, delivered that oration, destined to remain famous in the annals of modern Italian history, in which he announced his intention to revalue the lira.

‘We shall never inflict upon our wonderful Italian people, which for four years has been working with ascetic discipline and is ready for even greater sacrifieces, the moral shame and economic catastrophe of failure of the lira,’ he declared.

Looking back upon the last year, one must admit that Primier Mussolini has more than kept his word. In August 1926, the average exchange rate was 30 1/2 lira to the dollar. By October it had already dropped to 27 …the lira steadily continued its descent till in May (1927) it reached 18 to the the dollar, where it has remained ever since”

Hence, Mussolini engineered a nearly 70% revaluation of the lira in less than one year. Not surprisingly the economic impact was not positive. This how that is described in the same New York Times article:

“But the result has not been obtained without servere…jolts affecting all classes of citizens.

…Revaluation has led to a period of general stagnation and lack of enterprise in industry, for the gold value of money has increased automatically while the revaluation process was in progress and people preferred to leave their money in banks to rising it in ventures of any kind.

Unemployment is twice as high as it was in this month last year and greater than it has been at any time since 1924. Average quotations on stock exchanges have fallen 40 per cent. Wholesale prices have fallen about 30 per cent, but retail prices lag far behind and show a decrease of less than 15 per cent…

…Despite these somewhat depressing indications, the Government is convinced that the benefits of revaluation will ultimately far outweigh the drawbacks. The official opinion, indeed, is that now that the whole country has become adjusted to the new value of the lira, a rapid improvement will be expirienced.”

That of course never happened. Instead the Italian economy was hit by yet another shock in 1929 when the global crisis hit.

Finally in 1934 Mussolini decided to give up the gold standard and in October 1936 the lira was devalued by 41%.

What role Mussolini’s failed monetary policy played in his domestic policies and particularly in the foreign policy “adventures” – his war against Abyssinia in 1935-36 and his decision to ally himself with Hitler and Nazi-Germany in WWII – I don’t know, but there is nothing like war to take away the attention from failed economic policies.

Or as it was expressed in an article in New York Times in April 1935 at the start on Mussolini war against Abyssinia (but before the 1936 devaluation):

Behind each new political move in Europe, which expresses itself in the mobilization of larger armies, may generally be found an economic cause.

The article also touches on another key issue – the fact that (über) tight monetary policy historically has led to protectionist measures and that the logical consequence of such protectionist measures often is war:

The foreign trade of Italy is, figuratively, “shot to pieces.” The decrees against imports , the unwillingness to do business except where equal valued are exchanged by a foreign nation and the high rate of the lira have produced an alarming situation for a country that today under unobstructed movements of goods, would have an unfavorable trade balance.

One of the major efforts of Mussolini has been to place Italy on a self-supporting basis. Much has been done in this direction. As Italy is poor in natural resources that enter into processes of manufacture, the handicaps to attaining self-sufficiency are not easy to surmount.”

It is too bad today’s European policy makers didn’t study any economic history.

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Related blog posts:

“If goods don’t cross borders, armies will” – the case of Russia
Denmark and Norway were the PIIGS of the Scandinavian Currency Union

And posts on the early 1930s:

1931:
The Tragic year: 1931
Germany 1931, Argentina 2001 – Greece 2011?
Brüning (1931) and Papandreou (2011)
Lorenzo on Tooze – and a bit on 1931
“Meantime people wrangle about fiscal remedies”
“Incredible Europeans” have learned nothing from history
The Hoover (Merkel/Sarkozy) Moratorium
80 years on – here we go again…
“Our Monetary ills Laid to Puritanism”
Monetary policy and banking crisis – lessons from the Great Depression

1932:
“The gold standard remains the best available monetary mechanism”
Hjalmar Schacht’s echo – it all feels a lot more like 1932 than 1923
Greek and French political news slipped into the financial section
Political news kept slipping into the financial section – European style
November 1932: Hitler, FDR and European central bankers
Please listen to Nicholas Craft!
Needed: Rooseveltian Resolve
Gold, France and book recommendations
“…political news kept slipping into the financial section”
Gideon Gono, a time machine and the liquidity trap
France caused the Great Depression – who caused the Great Recession?

1933:
Who did most for the US stock market? FDR or Bernanke?
“The Bacon Standard” (the PIG PEG) would have saved Denmark from the Great Depression
Remember the mistakes of 1937? A lesson for today’s policy makers
I am blaming Murray Rothbard for my writer’s block
Irving Fisher and the New Normal

 

Italy’s Greater Depression – Eerie memories of the 1930s

This is from the Telegraph:

Italy was hit by strikes, violent demonstrations and protests against refugees on Friday as anger and frustration towards soaring unemployment and the enduring economic crisis exploded onto the streets.

Riot police clashed with protesters, students and unionists in Milan and Padua, in the north of the country, while in Rome a group of demonstrators scaled the Colosseum to protest against the labour reforms proposed by the government of Matteo Renzi, the 39-year-old prime minister.

Eggs and fire crackers were hurled at the economy ministry.

On the gritty, long-neglected outskirts of Rome there was continuing tension outside a centre for refugees, which was repeatedly attacked by local residents during the week.

Locals had hurled stones, flares and other missiles at the migrant centre, smashing windows, setting fire to dumpster rubbish bins and fighting running battles with riot police during several nights of violence.

They demanded that the facility be closed down and claimed that the refugees from Africa and Asia were dirty, anti-social and violent.

Some protesters, with suspected links to the extreme Right, yelled “Viva Il Duce” or Long Live Mussolini, calling the migrants “b*******”, “animals” and “filthy Arabs”.

…A group of 36 teenage migrants had to be evacuated from the centre in Tor Sapienza, a working-class suburb, on Thursday night after the authorities said the area was no longer safe for them.

The sense of chaos in the country was heightened by transport strikes, which disrupted buses, trams, trains and even flights at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. Demonstrations also took place in Turin, Naples and Genoa.

Unemployment among young people in Italy is around 42 per cent, prompting tens of thousands to emigrate in search of better opportunities, with Britain the top destination. The overall jobless rate is 12 per cent.

Mr Renzi’s attempts to reform the country’s labour laws, making it easier for firms to dismiss lazy or inefficient employees, are bitterly opposed by the unions.

The ongoing recession has also exacerbated racial tensions, with some Italians blaming refugees and immigrants for their economic woes.

It is hard not to be reminded of the kind of political and social chaos that we saw in Europe in the 1930s and it is hard not to think that the extremely weak Italian economy is the key catalyst for Italy’s political and social unrest.

By many measures the Italian economy of today is worse than the Italian economy of the 1930s. One can say – as Brad DeLong has suggested – that this is a Greater Depression than the Great Depression.

Just take a look at the development in real GDP over the past 10 years and during the 1925-1936-period.

crisis Italy

If you wonder why Italian GDP took a large jump in 1936 (year +6) it should be enough to be reminded that that was the year that the Italian lira was sharply devalued.

Today Italy don’t have the lira and everybody knows who I blame for the deep crisis in the Italian economy.

It is sad that so few European policy makers understand the monetary causes of this crisis and it is tragic that the longer the ECB takes to act the more political and social unrest we will face in Europe.

PS I do not mean to suggest that Italy do not have structural problems. Italy has massive structural problems, but the core reason for the Greater Depression is monetary policy failure. Don’t blame Renzi or the immigrants – blame the Italian in Frankfurt.

 

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