November 1932: Hitler, FDR and European central bankers

The headline of most stock markets reports yesterday said something like “Stocks: Worst Thanksgiving Drop Since ’32”. That made me think – what really happened in November 1932?

As is the case this time around European worries dominated the financial headlines back in November 1932. The first of two key events of November 1932 was the German federal elections on November 6 1932. We all know the outcome – Hitler’s National Socialist Germans Workers’ Party (NSDAP) won a landslide victory and got 33.1% of the vote. As the Communist Party won 16.9% the totalitarian parties commanded a firm majority – what at the time was called the “negative majority”. This eventually led to the formation of Hitler’s first cabinet in January 1933.

The second key event of November 1932 of course was the US presidential elections. Two days after the German in elections Franklin D. Roosevelt won the US presidential elections defeating incumbent president Herbert Hoover on November 8 1932. FDR of course in 1933 took the US of the gold standard, but also introduced the catastrophic National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA).

Going through the New York Times articles of November 1932 I found a short article on the gold standard in which it said the following:

“Governors of Europe’s central banks who met today (November 13 1932) at the Bank of International Settlements expressed the unanimous opinion that the gold standard was the only basis on which the world economic situation could be bettered”

Obviously we today’s know that the failed gold standard was the key reason for the Great Depression and especially European central bankers’ desperate attempt to save the failed monetary regime created the environment in which Hitler and his nazi party was able to win the German elections in November 1932. What would have happened for example if Germany had been given proper debt relief, the European central banks had given up the gold standard and the French central bank had stopped the hoarding of gold?

Had I been a Marxist I would had been extremely depressed today because then I would had believed in historical determinism. Fortunately I think we can learn from history and avoid repeating past mistakes. I hope today’s European central bankers share this view and will learn a bit from the events of November 1932.

If European central bankers this time around decide not to learn from events of 1932 then they might be interested in learning about the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian currency union in 1919. Then they just have to read this excellent paper by Peter Garber and Michael Spencer.

Tilford and Whyte on the euro crisis

Simon Tilford and Philip Whyte have written an essay – Why stricter rules threaten the eurozone” – on the euro crisis for the normally strongly pro-European Centre for European Reform. I far from agree with everything in the report, but it is worth a read.

Here is the conclusion (for the lazy):

“When the euro was launched, critics worried that it was inherently unstable because it was institutionally incomplete. A monetary union, they argued, could not work outside a fiscal (and hence a political) union. Proponents of the euro, by contrast, believed that a currency union could survive without a fiscal union provided it was held together by rules to which its member-states adhered. If, however, a rules-based system proved insufficient to keep the monetary union together, many supporters assumed (as faithful disciples of Jean Monnet) that the resulting crisis would compel politicians to take steps towards greater fiscal union.

Initially, proponents of the euro seemed to have been vindicated. The euro enjoyed a remarkably uneventful birth, and a superficially blissful childhood. But its adolescence has been more troubled, lending increasing weight to the euro’s critics. If anything, a shared currency outside a fiscal union has turned out to be even less stable than the critics imagined. Common fiscal rules did not guarantee the stability of the system – not just (as North European politicians like to claim) because they were broken, but also because they were inadequate. The eurozone now faces an existential crisis – and EU politicians their ‘Monnet moment’. At root, the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis is a crisis of politics and democracy. It is clear that the eurozone will remain an unstable, crisis-prone arrangement unless critical steps are taken to place it on a more sustainable institutional footing. But it is equally clear that European politicians have no democratic mandate in the short term to take the steps required. The reason is that greater fiscal integration would turn the eurozone into the very thing that politicians said it would never be: a ‘transfer union’, with joint debt issuance and greater control from the centre over tax and spending policy in the member-states.

Eurozone leaders now face a choice between two unpalatable alternatives. Either they accept that the eurozone is institutionally flawed and do what is necessary to turn it into a more stable arrangement. This will require some of them to go beyond what their voters seem prepared to allow, and to accept that a certain amount of ‘rule-breaking’ is necessary in the short term if the eurozone is to survive intact. Or they can stick to the fiction that confidence can be restored by the adoption (and enforcement) of tougher rules. This option will condemn the eurozone to selfdefeating policies that hasten defaults, contagion and eventual break-up. If the eurozone is to avoid the second of these scenarios, a certain number of things need to happen. In the short term, the ECB must insulate Italy and Spain from contagion by announcing that it will intervene to buy as much of their debt as necessary. In the longer term, however, the future of the euro hinges on the participating economies agreeing at least four things: mutualising the issuance of their debt; adopting a pan-European bank deposit insurance scheme; pursuing macroeconomic policies that encourage growth, rather than stifle it (including symmetric action to narrow trade imbalances); and lowering residual barriers to factor mobility.”

The Tragic year: 1931

Benjamin Anderson termed 1931 the “the tragic year” – these are some of the events in that tragic year: 

  1. One of Europe’s largest banks with large exposure to Central and Eastern Europe gets into serious trouble (It is of course Austria’s largest bank Österiechishe Kredit Anstalt – and it of course collapsed)
  2. Europe’s Sovereign debt crisis is threatening financial stability and currency collapse (It’s the Germans that are to blame – they can’t pay their war debts)
  3. Major international banks push for a big country to save the sinners (The US banks ask US president Hoover to help ease the pain on Germany)
  4. Debt restructuring (The Hoover moratorium gives Germany a bit of relief – the US banks are happy to begin with)
  5. Monetary policy keeps deflationary pressures on (The French central bank keeps hoarding gold)
  6. An insane commitment to a failed monetary system (the gold standard mentality keeps the commitment to the gold standard despite the fact that it is killing Europe)
  7. Some countries have had enough and give up the monetary standard (The UK leaves the gold standard – the Scandinavian countries follows suit – and recover fast from the Great Depression)
  8. Technocracy is popular and it suggested that indebted nations should be run by technocrats (The so-called Technocracy Movement became increasingly popular in German)

And here we are 80 years on…do you see any similarities? I wonder what 2012 will bring – in 1932 10 countries (or so…) defaulted…

The Fed can save the euro

David Beckworth has a excellent comment on the correlation between NGDP in the US and the euro zone.

David shows that US NGDP growth leads NGDP growth in the euro zone. This means that if the Federal Reserve were to move to push NGDP back to the pre-crisis trend level then it would likely lead to a similar increase in the NGDP level in the euro zone.

Hence, if the Fed were to introduce a NGDP level target then because the US is a “global monetary superpower” then the ECB would effective be forced to do the same thing. Interestingly this would probably mean that the ECB would overshoot it’s 2% inflation in the short-run as NGDP shifts from on level to another. How would the ECB react to that? Well, first of all the EUR/USD would undoubtedly spike, which would curb short time inflationary pressures and the question is really whether the ECB would have time to do anything about the jump in NGDP. Paradoxically because the ECB is targeting future inflation then it could say “well, inflation is now at 5%, but that is really not something we can do anything about and inflation nonetheless be back to 2% once US NGDP settles down at the new (old) NGDP trend level so no tightening of monetary policy is needed”.

For now the ECB refuses any easing of monetary policy, but if the Fed were to act decisively then the ECB probably would import an easing of monetary policy – and that would probably save the euro. So please Ben can you help us?

Repeating a (not so) crazy idea – or if Chuck Norris was ECB chief

Recently I in a post came up with what I described as a crazy idea – that might in fact not be so crazy.

My suggestion was based on what I termed the Chuck Norris effect of monetary policy – that a central banks can ease monetary policy without printing money if it has a credible target. The Swiss central bank’s (SNB) actions to introduce a one-sided peg for the Swiss franc against the euro have demonstrated the power of the Chuck Norris effect.

The SNB has said it will maintain the peg until deflationary pressures in the Swiss economy disappears. The interesting thing is that the markets now on its own is doing the lifting so when the latest Swiss consumer prices data showed that we in fact now have deflation in Switzerland the franc weakened against the euro because market participants increased their bets that the SNB would devalue the franc further.

In recent days the euro crisis has escalated dramatically and it is pretty clear that what we are seeing in the European markets is having a deflationary impact not only on the European economy, but also on the global economy. Hence, monetary easing from the major central banks of the world seems warranted so why do the ECB not just do what the SNB has done? For that matter why does the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan not follow suit? The “crazy” idea would be a devaluation of euro, dollar, pound and yen not against each other but against commodity prices. If the four major central banks (I am leaving out the People’s Bank of China here) tomorrow announced that their four currencies had been devalued 15% against the CRB commodity index then I am pretty sure that global stock markets would increase sharply and the positive effects in global macro data would likely very fast be visible.

The four central banks should further announce that they would maintain the one-sided new “peg” for their currencies against CRB until the nominal GDP level of all for countries/regions have returned to pre-crisis trend levels around 10-15% above the present levels and that they would devalue further if NGDP again showed signs of contracting. They would also announce that the policies of pegging against CRB would be suspended once NGDP had returned to the pre-crisis trend levels.

If they did that do you think we would still talk about a euro crisis in two months’ time?

PS this idea is a variation of Irving Fisher’s compensated dollar plan and it is similar to the scheme that got Sweden fast and well out of the Great Depression. See Don Patinkin excellent paper on “Irving Fisher and His Compensated Dollar Plan” and Claes Berg’s and Lars Jonung’s paper on Swedish monetary policy in 1930s.

PPS this it not really my idea, but rather a variation of an idea one of my colleagues came up with – he is not an economist so that is maybe why he is able to think out of the box.

PPPS I real life I am not really a big supporter of coordinated monetary action and I think it has mostly backfired when central banks have tried to manipulate exchange rates. However, the purpose of this idea is really not to manipulate FX rates per se, but rather to ease global monetary conditions and the devaluation against CRB is really only method to increase money velocity.

If just David Glasner was ECB chief…

The all-knowing David Glasner has a fantastic post on his blog uneasymoney.com putting the euro crisis into historical perspective. Glasner – as do I – see very strong parallels between the European crisis of the 1930s and the present crisis and it the same “gold standard mentality” which is at the heart of the crisis. Too tight monetary policy and not overly loose fiscal policy is really the main cause for the European crisis.

Here is Glasner deep insight:

“If the European central bank does not soon – and I mean really soon – grasp that there is no exit from the debt crisis without a reversal of monetary policy sufficient to enable nominal incomes in all the economies in the Eurozone to grow more rapidly than does their indebtedness, the downward spiral will overtake even the stronger European economies. (I pointed out three months ago that the European crisis is a NGDP crisis not a debt crisis.) As the weakest countries choose to ditch the euro and revert back to their own national currencies, the euro is likely to start to appreciate as it comes to resemble ever more closely the old deutschmark. At some point the deflationary pressures of a rising euro will cause even the Germans, like the French in 1935, to relent. But one shudders at the economic damage that will be inflicted until the Germans come to their senses. Only then will we be able to assess the full economic consequences of Mrs. Merkel.”

If just Glasner was ECB chief the world would be so much different…

Germany 1931, Argentina 2001 – Greece 2011?

The events that we are seeing in Greece these days are undoubtedly events that economic historians will study for many years to come. But the similarities to historical crises are striking. I have already in previous posts reminded my readers of the stark similarities with the European – especially the German – debt crisis in 1931. However, one can undoubtedly also learn a lot from studying the Argentine crisis of 2001-2002 and the eventual Argentine default in 2002.

What this crises have in common is the combination of rigid monetary regimes (the gold standard, a currency board and the euro), serious fiscal austerity measures that ultimately leads to the downfall of the government and an international society that is desperately trying to solve the problem, but ultimately see domestic political events makes a rescue impossible – whether it was the Hoover administration and BIS in 1931, the IMF in 2001 or the EU (Germany/France) in 2011. The historical similarities are truly scary.

I have no clue how things will play out in Greece, but Germany 1931 and Argentina 2001 does not give much hope for optimism, but we can at least prepare ourselves for how things might play out by studying history.

I can recommend having a look at this timeline for how the Argentine crisis played out. You can start on page 3 – the Autumn of 2001. This is more or less where we are in Greece today.

Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #5

The euro – “a great mistake”

The European Monetary Union came into being in 1999, with the euro being introduced at the same time (as “account money”, and in 2002 as physical currency). Milton Friedman was an outspoken critic of this project, and his criticisms can be traced all the way back to “The Case for Flexible Exchange Rates” from 1953. The basic idea behind the euro is that to exploit the full potential of a single European market for goods, capital and labour – the inner market – a single common currency is essential. Friedman opposes this idea, as his view is namely that free trade is best promoted through floating exchange rates when wage and price formation are sluggish.

In Friedman’s eyes the euro area is not an optimal currency area, as the European goods and labour markets are still heavily regulated, and so prices and wages are relatively slow to adjust. At the same time, the mobility of labour between the euro countries is limited – due to both regulations and cultural differences. If this situation is not changed, it will, according to Friedman, inevitably lead to political tensions within the EU that may reach an intensity the European Central Bank (ECB) cannot ignore.

An asymmetric shock to one or more euro countries would require real national adjustment (price and wage adjustments), as nominal adjustments (exchange rate adjustments) are not possible within the framework of the monetary union. In Friedman’s view this would spark tension between the countries hit by the asymmetric shock and those not affected. Thus the euro might actually fan political conflict and the disintegration of Europe – which is in diametric opposition to the founding idea behind the single currency.

For Friedman the euro is not primarily an economic project. Rather, Friedman views the euro as basically a political concept designed to force further political integration onto Europe. Friedman believes that in the long run no country can maintain its sovereignty if it abandons its currency. The integration of the goods, capital and labour markets in the euro member countries is a prerequisite for the euro to function, and according to Friedman this can only happen through further political integration – something he fears will lead to the formation of a European superstate.

Recent developments unfortunately have proven Friedman’s analysis right…

Milton Friedman on exchange rates #4

Always floating exchange rates?

The theoretical literature often distinguishes between completely fixed exchange rates on the one hand and freely floating exchange rates on the other. Milton Friedman has pointed out, however, that this sharp distinction often does not apply to the exchange rate regimes that are used in practice. As well as the two “extremes” (completely freely floating exchange rates in which the central bank never intervenes, and a firmly fixed exchange rate with no fluctuations allowed), a common system is to have fixed but adjustable exchange rates – or rather exchange rate bands. The Danish krone, for example, can swing freely within a band of +/- 2¼% around the “fixed” euro exchange rate of 7.44 kr. per euro.

The three global majors, the US dollar, the Japanese yen and the European euro do float freely against each other – as do a number of smaller currencies, such as the Swedish krona, the British pound, the Korean won and the New Zealand dollar. However, even such in principle freely floating exchange rates do not prevent the central banks of these countries from being active in the FX markets from time to time.

A system with fully fixed exchange rates is in practice the same as a monetary union and involves the complete abolition of any form of monetary independence. One example is Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority is obliged at all times to exchange US dollars for a fixed amount of Hong Kong dollars (7.8 Hong Kong dollars per US dollar). This means in essence that Hong Kong is in a monetary union with the USA – the only difference is that Hong Kong has its own banknotes. A second example is the European Monetary Union, where all members have given up monetary independence and left all monetary policy decisions to the European Central Bank.

An example of a system with fixed but adjustable exchange rates is the European fixed exchange rate mechanism, the EMS. Members of the EMS pursued a mutual fixed exchange rate policy – or more correctly, exchange rates were allowed to float within a narrow band and the various central banks were obliged to ensure (via for example changes in interest rates or intervention in the FX market) that they remained there. Denmark, Latvia and Lithuania currently follow a fixed exchange rate policy within the framework of a similar system, ERMII.

According to Friedman, however, a system of fixed but adjustable exchange rates is the worst of all worlds. Such a system means that the country abandons the option of an independent exchange rate policy. However, at times the need to use the exchange rate policy for “domestic purposes” – for example to tackle an asymmetric shock – will be irresistible, and the country will then either have to adjust exchange rates (devalue or revalue), or completely abandon the fixed exchange rate policy. This will, meanwhile, cause uncertainty in the FX market about just how “fixed” the policy is in reality. Thus a system with fixed but adjustable exchange rates will always be a potential “target” for speculative attack: one has so to speak closed the door, but not locked it. In a monetary union with irrevocably fixed currencies one has, in contrast, closed the door, locked it and thrown away the key – there is simply no doubt about how solid the fixed exchange rate policy is and thus speculation in exchange rate movements will therefore cease.

Hence for Friedman the choice is between either a freely floating exchange rate or some form of monetary union. Friedman has over the years presented the criteria by which to choose between the two exchange rate regimes. Basically there are six criteria that a small country (A) should consider when deciding its exchange rate policy in relation to the “rest of the world” (country B):

1.     How important is foreign trade for the economy of country A?

2.     How flexible are wages and prices in country A?

3.     How mobile is labour across national borders?

4.     How mobile is capital?

5.     How good is monetary policy in country A and the “rest of the world”?

6.     How are political relations between country A and the “rest of the world” ?

These criteria in fact define what in modern economics literature is termed an optimal currency area[1]. If there are close trade ties, high wage and price flexibility, and high capital and labour mobility between country A and the “rest of the world”, there is, according to Friedman, no reason why the two countries should not form a monetary union with a common currency.

Friedman stresses, however, that a country should not abandon its monetary policy independence to another country if that country is expected to pursue a poorer monetary policy than the first country itself would have done. Friedman places greatest emphasis on this criterion.

Despite Milton Friedman typically – and rightly – being labelled as the standard bearer for floating exchange rates, he often stresses that the choice is not easy, and he has repeatedly emphasised that countries have achieved both good and bad results with fixed and floating exchange rates. He points out for example that in 1985 Israel successfully implemented a fixed exchange rate policy against the dollar that helped cut inflation without causing any negative long-term economic repercussions.

By way of contrast, Chile implemented a fixed exchange rate policy against the dollar in 1976. Results were good for the first year following the implementation. However, when US monetary policy was seriously tightened between 1980 and 1982, causing the dollar to surge, monetary policy in Chile also had to be tightened: Chile suffered a serious economic setback, and in 1982 it abandoned its fixed exchange rate policy.

Friedman used the two cases above to underline that identical exchange rate policies can lead to different results. The outcome of the fixed exchange rate policy depends on how “lucky” one is with regard to the monetary policy in the country whose currency one has fixed to. Israel was lucky to introduce a fixed exchange rate policy at a time when monetary policy was relatively accommodative in the USA, while Chile was unlucky to fix just before US monetary policy had to be vigorously tightened. Or as Friedman says:

“Never underestimate the role of luck in the fate of individuals or of nations.”[2]


[1] The theory on optimal currency areas can be traced in particular back to Robert Mundell, see eg, Mundell, R. A., “A Theory of Optimal Currency Areas”, American Economic Review, Vol. 51, No. 4, September 1961, pp 657-665.

[2]”Money Mischief”, page 241.


Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #3

The fears of economists and politicians with regard to flexible exchange rates can largely be traced back to the policies of the 1920s following the collapse of the gold standard. The most famous criticism of flexible exchange rates is probably that made by the Estonian economist Ragnar Nurkse. Nurkse[1] claimed that the 1920s demonstrated that flexible exchange rates are destabilising.

Friedman, however, is fiercely critical of Nurkse’s view. First of all Friedman claims that currency speculation is stabilising and, second, that much of the historical volatility that can be observed in flexible exchange rates is in fact due to poor economic policy – primarily poor monetary policy – and not a result of “currency speculators”.

As mentioned Milton Friedman claims that currency speculation is stabilising not destabilising. The purpose of currency speculation is basically to buy cheap and sell expensive. If a currency deviates from its fundamental value – ie, is overvalued or undervalued – it would be rational for the “currency speculator” to expect that the currency would sooner or later move towards its fundamental exchange rate. If the currency is, for example, undervalued – ie, is cheap relative to the fundamental exchange rate – it would be rational to expect that the currency will eventually strengthen, and thus the rational speculator will buy the currency. If the majority of speculators act in this way, the exchange rate will all else equal be driven in the direction of the currency’s fundamental value – thus currency speculation is stabilising. Friedman argues furthermore that speculators who do not speculate rationally – ie, who sell when the currency is undervalued and buy when it is overvalued – will not earn money in the long run. Such speculators will soon be looking for a new job, and thus there will be a tendency for the number of “stabilising speculators” to be relatively greater than the number of “destabilising speculators”.

According to Friedman floating exchange rates will remain relatively stable if the FX market is left to its own devices. However, the problem is that governments and central banks have had problems keeping their hands off. Even in the 1920s and after the collapse of Bretton Woods in 1971 when flexible exchange rates were the norm, governments and central banks intervened in global FX markets. Friedman claims this has actually increased volatility in FX markets rather than stabilised exchange rates. As both the 1920s and the 1970s were marked by inappropriate monetary policies, this further contributed to unstable exchange rates. Put another way, floating exchange rates require sensible monetary policy. This implies that to ensure low and stable inflation one must let the supply of money grow at a low and stable rate.

Flexible exchange rates provide no guarantee of sensible monetary policy, but they are a precondition for an independent monetary policy. If a small country pursues a fixed exchange rate policy it will automatically be forced to follow the monetary policy of the nation(s) that dominate the currency system. This will be a particular problem if the “small” country’s economy is hit by what in the modern theoretical literature is called an asymmetric shock.

An asymmetric shock is an economic event (for example a strike or a shift in fiscal policy) that only affects one of the countries in a fixed exchange rate mechanism and not the others. One example of this is the reunification of Germany. Both fiscal and monetary policy were eased considerably in Germany at the time of reunification. This stoked inflationary pressure in Germany to a level that caused the German central bank, the Bundesbank, to tighten monetary policy again in 1992. Most EU currencies were at the time linked to the German mark under the European Monetary System (EMS). In the early 1990s, the other EU countries were struggling to break out of a period of low growth and the majority of the European economies had absolutely no need for the monetary tightening they were indirectly subject to via their fixed exchange rate policy with Germany. In 1992 Milton Friedman predicted the consequences for the EMS[2]:

“I suspect that EMS, too, will break down if Germany ever becomes unwilling to follow those policies, as it well may as a result of the unification of East and West Germany.”

The EMS broke down (partially) in 1993, proving Milton Friedman – as had been the case with the Canadian fixed exchange rate policy 43 years earlier – correct.

See also my posts in this series:

Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #1

Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #2

 


[1] Nurkse, Ragnar, “International Currency Experience: Lessons of Interwar Experience”, Genéve, 1944.

[2]“Money Mischief”, page 245.

%d bloggers like this: