Archive for the 'Benjamin Strong' Category

What Hath Merkel Wrought?

In my fifth month of blogging in November 2011, I wrote a post which I called “The Economic Consequences of Mrs. Merkel.” The title, as I explained, was inspired by J. M. Keynes’s famous essay “The Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill,” which eloquently warned that Britain was courting disaster by restoring the convertibility of sterling into gold at the prewar parity of $4.86 to the pound, the dollar then being the only major currency convertible into gold. The title of Keynes’s essay, in turn, had been inspired by Keynes’s celebrated book The Economic Consequences of the Peace about the disastrous Treaty of Versailles, which accurately foretold the futility of imposing punishing war reparations on Germany.

In his essay, Keynes warned that by restoring the prewar parity, Churchill would force Britain into an untenable deflation at a time when more than 10% of the British labor force was unemployed (i.e., looking for, but unable to find, a job at prevailing wages). Keynes argued that the deflation necessitated by restoration of the prewar parity would impose an intolerable burden of continued and increased unemployment on British workers.

But, as it turned out, Churchill’s decision turned out to be less disastrous than Keynes had feared. The resulting deflation was quite mild, wages in nominal terms were roughly stable, and real output and employment grew steadily with unemployment gradually falling under 10% by 1928. The deflationary shock that Keynes had warned against turned out to be less severe than Keynes had feared because the U.S. Federal Reserve, under the leadership of Benjamin Strong, President of the New York Fed, the de facto monetary authority of the US and the world, followed a policy that allowed a slight increase in the world price level in terms of dollars, thereby moderating the deflationary effect on Britain of restoring the prewar sterling/dollar exchange rate.

Thanks to Strong’s enlightened policy, the world economy continued to expand through 1928. I won’t discuss the sequence of events in 1928 and 1929 that led to the 1929 stock market crash, but those events had little, if anything, to do with Churchill’s 1925 decision. I’ve discussed the causes of the 1929 crash and the Great Depression in many other places including my 2011 post about Mrs. Merkel, so I will skip the 1929 story in this post.

The point that I want to make is that even though Keynes’s criticism of Churchill’s decision to restore the prewar dollar/sterling parity was well-taken, the dire consequences that Keynes foretold, although they did arrive a few years thereafter, were not actually caused by Churchill’s decision, but by decisions made in Paris and New York, over which Britain may have had some influence, but little, if any, control.

What I want to discuss in this post is how my warnings about potential disaster almost six and a half years ago have turned out. Here’s how I described the situation in November 2011:

Fast forward some four score years to today’s tragic re-enactment of the deflationary dynamics that nearly destroyed European civilization in the 1930s. But what a role reversal! In 1930 it was Germany that was desperately seeking to avoid defaulting on its obligations by engaging in round after round of futile austerity measures and deflationary wage cuts, causing the collapse of one major European financial institution after another in the annus horribilis of 1931, finally (at least a year after too late) forcing Britain off the gold standard in September 1931. Eighty years ago it was France, accumulating huge quantities of gold, in Midas-like self-satisfaction despite the economic wreckage it was inflicting on the rest of Europe and ultimately itself, whose monetary policy was decisive for the international value of gold and the downward course of the international economy. Now, it is Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe dominating the European Central Bank, which effectively controls the value of the euro. And just as deflation under the gold standard made it impossible for Germany (and its state and local governments) not to default on its obligations in 1931, the policy of the European Central Bank, self-righteously dictated by Germany, has made default by Greece and now Italy and at least three other members of the Eurozone inevitable. . . .

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.

Greece did default, but the European Community succeeded in imposing draconian austerity measures on Greece, while Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal, which had all been in some danger, managed to avoid default. That they did so is due first to the enormous cost that would have be borne by a country in the Eurozone to extricate itself from the Eurozone and reinstitute its own national currency and second to the actions taken by Mario Draghi, who succeeded Jean Claude Trichet as President of the European Central Bank in November 2011. If monetary secession from the eurozone were less fraught, surely Greece and perhaps other countries would have chosen that course rather than absorb the continuing pain of remaining in the eurozone.

But if it were not for a decisive change in policy by Draghi, Greece and perhaps other countries would have been compelled to follow that uncharted and potentially catastrophic path. But, after assuming leadership of the ECB, Draghi immediately reversed the perverse interest-rate hikes imposed by his predecessor and, even more crucially, announced in July 2012 that the ECB “is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the Euro. And believe me, it will be enough.” Draghi’s reassurance that monetary easing would be sufficient to avoid default calmed markets, alleviated market pressure driving up interest rates on debt issued by those countries.

But although Draghi’s courageous actions to ease monetary policy in the face of German disapproval avoided a complete collapse, the damage inflicted by Mrs. Merkel’s ferocious anti-inflation policy did irreparable damage, not only on Greece, but, by deepening the European downturn and delaying and suppressing the recovery, on the rest of the European community, inflaming anti-EU, populist nationalism in much of Europe that helped fuel the campaign for Brexit in the UK and has inspired similar anti-EU movements elsewhere in Europe and almost prevented Mrs. Merkel from forming a government after the election a few months ago.

Mrs. Merkel is perhaps the most impressive political leader of our time, and her willingness to follow a humanitarian policy toward refugees fleeing the horrors of war and persecution showed an extraordinary degree of political courage and personal decency that ought to serve as a model for other politicians to emulate. But that admirable legacy will be forever tarnished by the damage she inflicted on her own country and the rest of the EU by her misguided battle against the phantom threat of inflation.

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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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