In a comment on my previous post about Ralph Hawtrey’s discussion of the explosive, but short-lived, recovery triggered by FDR’s 1933 suspension of the gold standard and devaluation of the dollar, Greg Ransom queried me as follows:
Is this supposed to be a lesson in international monetary economics . . . or a lesson in closed economy macroeconomics?
To which I responded:
I don’t understand your question. The two are not mutually exclusive; it could be a lesson in either.
To which Greg replied:
I’m pushing you David to make a clearer and cleaner claim about what sort of monetary disequilibrium you are asserting existed in the 1929-1933 period, is this a domestic disequilibrium or an international disequilibrium — or are these temprary effects any nation could achieve via competitive devaluations of the currency, i.e. improving the terms of international trade via unsustainable temporary monetary policy.
Or are a ping pong of competitive devaluations among nations a pure free lunch?
And if so, why?
You can read my response to Greg in the comment section of my post, but I also mentioned that Hawtrey had addressed the issue of competitive devaluation in Trade Depression and the Way Out, hinting that another post discussing Hawtrey’s views on the subject might be in the offing. So let me turn the floor over to Mr. R. G. Hawtrey.
When Great Britain left the gold standard, deflationary measure were everywhere resorted to. Not only did the Bank of England raise its rate, but the tremendous withdrawals of gold from the United States involved an increase of rediscounts and a rise of rates there, and the gold that reached Europe was immobilized or hoarded. . . .
The consequence was that the fall in the price level continued. The British price level rose in the first few weeks after the suspension of the gold standard, but then accompanied the gold price level in its downward trend. This fall of prices calls for no other explanation than the deflationary measures which had been imposed. Indeed what does demand explanation is the moderation of the fall, which was on the whole not so steep after September 1931 as before.
Yet when the commercial and financial world saw that gold prices were falling rather than sterling prices rising, they evolved the purely empirical conclusion that a depreciation of the pound had no effect in raising the price level, but that it caused the price level in terms of gold and of those currencies in relation to which the pound depreciated to fall.
For any such conclusion there was no foundation. Whenever the gold price level tended to fall, the tendency would make itself felt in a fall in the pound concurrently with the fall in commodities. But it would be quite unwarrantable to infer that the fall in the pound was the cause of the fall in commodities.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that the depreciation of any currency, by reducing the cost of manufacture in the country concerned in terms of gold, tends to lower the gold prices of manufactured goods. . . .
But that is quite a different thing from lowering the price level. For the fall in manufacturing costs results in a greater demand for manufactured goods, and therefore the derivative demand for primary products is increased. While the prices of finished goods fall, the prices of primary products rise. Whether the price level as a whole would rise or fall it is not possible to say a priori, but the tendency is toward correcting the disparity between the price levels of finished products and primary products. That is a step towards equilibrium. And there is on the whole an increase of productive activity. The competition of the country which depreciates its currency will result in some reduction of output from the manufacturing industry of other countries. But this reduction will be less than the increase in the country’s output, for if there were no net increase in the world’s output there would be no fall of prices.
In consequence of the competitive advantage gained by a country’s manufacturers from a depreciation of its currency, any such depreciation is only too likely to meet with recriminations and even retaliation from its competitors. . . . Fears are even expressed that if one country starts depreciation, and others follow suit, there may result “a competitive depreciation” to which no end can be seen.
This competitive depreciation is an entirely imaginary danger. The benefit that a country derives from the depreciation of its currency is in the rise of its price level relative to its wage level, and does not depend on its competitive advantage. If other countries depreciate their currencies, its competitive advantage is destroyed, but the advantage of the price level remains both to it and to them. They in turn may carry the depreciation further, and gain a competitive advantage. But this race in depreciation reaches a natural limit when the fall in wages and in the prices of manufactured goods in terms of gold has gone so far in all the countries concerned as to regain the normal relation with the prices of primary products. When that occurs, the depression is over, and industry is everywhere remunerative and fully employed. Any countries that lag behind in the race will suffer from unemployment in their manufacturing industry. But the remedy lies in their own hands; all they have to do is to depreciate their currencies to the extent necessary to make the price level remunerative to their industry. Their tardiness does not benefit their competitors, once these latter are employed up to capacity. Indeed, if the countries that hang back are an important part of the world’s economic system, the result must be to leave the disparity of price levels partly uncorrected, with undesirable consequences to everybody. . . .
The picture of an endless competition in currency depreciation is completely misleading. The race of depreciation is towards a definite goal; it is a competitive return to equilibrium. The situation is like that of a fishing fleet threatened with a storm; no harm is done if their return to a harbor of refuge is “competitive.” Let them race; the sooner they get there the better. (pp. 154-57)
So yes, Greg, competitive devaluation is a free lunch. Bring it on.