While doing further research on Ralph Hawtrey, I recently came across a brief 1933 review written by Hawtrey in the Economic Journal of a short book by Gustav Cassel, The Crisis in the World Monetary System. Sound familiar? The review provides a wonderfully succinct summary of the views of both Cassel and Hawtrey of the causes of, and the cure for, the Great Depression. The review can still be read with pleasure and profit. It can also be read with wonder. It is amazing that something written 80 years ago about the problem of monetary disorder can have such relevance to the problems of today. Here is the review in full. And pay special attention to the last paragraph.
The delivery of a series of three lectures at Oxford last summer has given Professor Cassel an opportunity of fulfilling his function of instructing public opinion in the intricacies of economic theory, especially of monetary theory in their application to current events. This little book of just under 100 pages is the result. As admirers of Professor Cassel will expect, it is full of wisdom, expressed with an admirable clarity and simplicity.
He points out that so long as the policy of economising gold, recommended at the Genoa Conference, was carried out, it was possible to prevent any considerable rise in the value of gold. “The world reaped the fruits of this policy in an economic development in which most countries had their share and which for some countries meant a great deal of prosperity” (p. 27).
Progress up to 1928 was normally healthy; it was not more rapid than was usual in the pre-war period. It was interrupted in 1929 by the fall of prices, for which in Professor Cassel’s view the responsibility rests on the central banks. “The course of a ship is doubtless the combined result of wind, current and navigation, and each of these factors could be quoted as independent causes of the result that the ship arrives at a certain place.” But it is navigation that is within human control, and consequently the responsibility rests on the captain. So a central bank, which has the monopoly of supplying the community with currency, bears the responsibility for variations in the value of the currency (pp. 46-7).
Under a gold standard the responsibility becomes international, but “if some important central banks follow a policy which must lead, say, to a violent increase in the value of gold, the behaviour of such banks must be regarded as the cause of this movement” (p. 48).
Professor Cassel further apportions a heavy share of the responsibility for the breakdown to war debts and reparations. “The payment of war debts in conjunction with the unwillingness to receive payment in the normal form of goods led to unreasonable demands on the world’s monetary stocks; and the claimants failed to use in a proper way the gold that they had accumulated” (pp. 71-2).
Just as a reminder, if you have made it this far, don’t stop without reading the next and final paragraph.
Finally, for a remedy, “the best thing that the gold standard countries could do for a rapid economic recovery would be immediately to start an inflation of their currencies. If this inflation were the outcome of a deliberate and well-conceived policy it could be controlled, and the consequent rise of the general level of commodity prices could be kept within such limits as were deemed desirable for the restoration of a necessary equilibrium between different groups of prices, wages, and commercial debts” (p. 94).
Let’s read that again:
If inflation were the outcome of a deliberate and well-conceived policy, it could be controlled, and the consequent rise of the general level of commodity prices could be kept within such limits as were deemed desirable for the restoration of a necessary equilibrium between different groups of prices, wages, and commercial debts.