Guest post: An Ireland of Alternative Private Currencies Without Bailouts

Today, we have a guest post by Sean Kenny (Lund), who below summarises some lessons for policymakers from a recent working paper with John Turner (Queens) on the Irish banking system before joint-stock banks.

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As the Irish economy continues to emerge from the financial crisis of 2008 and the controversial blanket guarantee which followed it, from the comfort of hindsight a number of decisions have been criticised by prominent commentators. In particular, the terms of the bailout package and the shouldering of bank debt by the Irish taxpayer have featured frequently in the debate. In other words, the domestic and international political machinery employed to address the collapse of the banking system was deemed by many to be inappropriate, as events unfolded all too rapidly. Over the critical weekend of the guarantee, concerns were raised that no currency would be available from ATM machines at the open of business the following Monday.

It is interesting to ponder what might have happened under such a scenario where no support mechanism, instead of an inadequate one, had existed and where money may in fact have disappeared from the economy. As my research with Professor John Turner (Queen’s University, Belfast) documents, such was largely the experience during the last Irish banking crisis of comparable scale in 1820. During this era, money consisted of alternative private bank notes which were redeemable in Bank of Ireland notes considered “as good as gold.”

No central bank existed and the Irish and British exchequers had recently amalgamated. If a private bank had lent unwisely, pushing too many of its notes into circulation, when their notes were presented for conversion at their counters, failure could quickly occur if its current loan income and reserves fell short of its short term liabilities (notes and deposits). Of course, this tendency was exacerbated by a lack of regulation on the issue of private currency, a lack of trust in the stability of small private partnership banks and a prevailing political ethos which saw no role for government involvement in ensuring financial stability.

The 1820 crisis, which began in Cork and spread north saw 40 per cent of Irish banks fail within three weeks, leaving large portions of the country with neither currency nor banks for many years. This had predictably adverse effects on the economy as investment and consumption were largely suspended. In a scene many of us are familiar with today, many bankers, consisting primarily of the politically-connected landed elite, shielded their personal estates from liquidators as their banks’ deposits and notes went unpaid, ruining whole communities in turn. In the worst affected areas, money was simply unavailable to pay wages or to engage in trade and so consumption and employment further collapsed while price falls continued as money became scarcer. As a petition signed by the Lord Mayor of Cork put it, “all confidence, as well as Trade, is suspended, there not being sufficient currency to represent property in its transfer”.

During the following five years, a twilight zone emerged from the ashes, during which an insufficient supply of private money in the form of trade bills was circulated amongst the merchant class who constantly petitioned for reform of the entire monetary and banking system. In this era of uncertainty, many survivor banks and businesses failed as debts could not be collected and the Bank of Ireland remained solely in Dublin.

The 1820 crisis marked the beginning of the end of a quarter century which one historian called a “financial pantomime” where more than 20 percent of the banking system failed on at least four separate occasions. Compared with our own age where banks are deemed “too big to fail”, this was an era in which banks were too small to survive with primitive legislation controlling their activities. So utterly decimated was the monetary and banking system following 1820, that new legislation was introduced in 1825 which replaced the small partnership banks with a system of well capitalised joint stock banks with unlimited liability for a large number of shareholders.

This revolutionised the Irish banking system and dramatically improved financial access through the coming decades. No major banking crisis was to visit Ireland again until 2008. In an age where private (crypto) currencies are being promoted as a panacea to the alleged ills of current monetary regimes, it is appropriate to recall that when private money dies, it is not only its holders and issuers who are affected when the scale of its exchange is significant.  The demise of this group will reduce their investment, consumption and debt-servicing capabilities, which will in turn affect the wider economy. Instead, the utopia of a well-designed financial system in the context of a political apparatus which minimises the fallout when things go awry, then as now, remains a goal worthy of our finest endeavour.

The Meeting of the Waters

The editor of Critical Quarterly bought me a drink last December and told me that he was planning a special issue on, of all things, Thomas Moore’s The Meeting of the Waters. Would I care to write an economics column on the theme?

Well, it’s one thing to write a quarterly column on whatever is interesting me at the time, another entirely to write them to order. But since we were coming up to Christmas, and since my father’s family is from Wicklow, I said yes.

You can read the result here, and while I’m not sure how much economics there is in it, I did manage to work in a reference to Sargent and Velde!

Wir brauchen nicht noch mehr Offenheit

The NZZ interviewed me last week in Zürich. I made the case that we live in a world that is already astonishingly open, and sufficiently so that it is allowing poor countries to grow rapidly; and that Davos Man and Woman should therefore seek to preserve existing levels of openness, rather than pursuing a permanent pro-market revolution that will inevitably provoke a political backlash (and  indeed is already doing so). The interview is here.

Journées de l’Economie

I was at the Journées de l’économie in Lyon last week: this is a popular economics festival at which literally thousands of members of the public show up to listen to people like yours truly.

I was on a Brexit panel on the Wednesday, and tried to explain to a French audience how serious the issue is for us (I start about 30 minutes in, but the whole thing is worth listening to; I thought Jon Henley in particular, who preceded me, was really excellent and made all the points you would have wanted to make yourself); there was a more academic session on a very French topic (“Mutations du capitalisme“) on the Thursday,  at which Daniel Cohen made a couple of points that I thought were very thought-provoking (and also very French).

Does trade policy only have a small impact on trade flows? Interwar evidence

I have been working for a number of years on interwar trade policy, trying to see if using more fine-grained data will alter the consensus view that 1930s protectionism didn’t matter much for trade flows, in the context of everything else that was going on at the time. It is time-consuming work, but we are beginning to produce some results now, the first of which are previewed here. And I suppose that one upside of the time it has taken us to put the dataset together is that, in the meantime, Brexit intervened, which will hopefully increase interest in quantitative studies of trade policy!

Independent Ireland in Comparative Perspective

I gave the economics lecture at the recent national conference at NUIG commemorating the centenary of the Easter Rising. I had three main messages. First, the economic history of post-independence Ireland was not particularly unusual. Very often, things that were happening in Ireland were happening elsewhere as well. Second, for a long time we were hampered by an excessive dependence on a poorly performing UK economy. And third, EC membership in 1973, and the Single Market programme of the late 1980s and early 1990s, were absolutely crucial for us. Irish independence and EU membership have complemented each other, rather than being in conflict: each was required to give full effect to the other. Irish independence would not have worked as well for us as it did without the EU; and the EU would not have worked as well for us as it did without political independence.

There is a podcast available here. Since only audio is available, here is a link to my slides. I’m working on a paper version of the talk and will post a link to this as soon as possible.

The Nobel Factor

Tomorrow we will know the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics. This is not a ‘true’ Nobel, coming some 50 years after Alfred Nobel established the original prizes in physics, medicine, chemistry, literature, and peace. The Swedish Central Bank established the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in the late 1960s as a way to counter what it saw as the virulent spread of social democracy across Nordic countries in particular.

The Nobel Factor, a new book by Avner Offer and Gabriel Söderberg, traces the development of the Nobel Prize in economics, which grants authority and ‘Nobel magic’ to economics above other social sciences, and ensures laureates are listened to on every subject. Economics itself is seen as being more scientific, more worthy of the ears of the powerful, as a result of the Nobel prize. The impact of neoclassical economics, the dominant form of economics which emphasises market based interactions above all others on policy makers through teaching and research, is assured because of the Nobel prize.

Offer and Söderberg begin their book with what may well be the best combined explanation, intellectual history, and critique of neoclassical economics and its policy variants I’ve ever read. From there we have a discussion of the social and economic context for the creation of the prize in economic sciences, and an extended discussion of the conflict between free market and social democratic values in the Nordic states in particular. There’s a really interesting series of chapters tracing the evolution of European politics and the individual awards and their subject areas. There’s a great chapter focusing on Assar Lindbeck, a forceful personality and someone who shaped the Prize. 

The story gets a little more complicated once the Prize itself evolves, because it’s not a simple case of rewarding only those who espouse ‘markets are great’ approaches, like Friedman and Hayek. For example in Chapter 7, we learn a lot about empiricists, experimentalists, econometricians and behaviouralists who won the Prize because of their rejection of equilibrium approaches to economics. In Chapter 10, the failure of economics to understand, model, or respond to the growing threats posed by unfettered global capital markets gets a very thorough treatment.

Overall I found the book riveting in that it is written in a deep and scholarly way. I buy the ‘Social Democracy vs Markets’ argument about the genesis of the economics Nobel in the 1960s, but I’m not sure the evolution of the Prize is as clear cut as it could be, after awards to people like Oliver Williamson and Lin Ostrom and Vernon Smith.

The book concludes on a hopeful note. The authors write on page 278:

“To recapture validity, economics has to come down to the ground of argument, evidence, and counterargument, supported by reason and an open mind. In the quest for valid knowledge, for those of Enlightenment disposition, it is well to ignore black boxes, the magic of prizes, and the lure of immutable laws”.

I couldn’t agree more. As intellectual, social, and political history, the Nobel Factor is well worth your time getting stuck into.

My wish for tomorrow’s Prize: Duncan Foley for his work on Public Goods and General Equilibrium, and Charles Manski for his work on just about everything else.

The box below should display the Nobel citation tomorrow around lunchtime.

The EU and the border

Our text for today is Graham Gudgeon’s piece in the Irish Times, which makes a number of questionable claims.

First, he argues that

An accurate version of Ireland’s economic history is important. This is because, contrary to what we are continually told, EU membership does not seem to have had a noticeably beneficial impact on Ireland’s economic growth, even if this seemed to be the case during the great construction boom occasioned by overly low interest rates inside the euro zone.

I don’t think any economic historian or economist believes that the EU has not been massively good for Ireland’s economic growth: just compare our experiences pre- and post-1973.

Maddison’s numbers show per capita growth of 3% p.a. 1950-73, and 4.1% p.a. 1973-2008. 4.3% p.a. 1973-2000, in case you want to strip out the Celtic Bubble years and the first year of the crash. That’s before we even get into the important issue of what was happening to the number of capitas. GDP grew by 3.2% p.a. 1950-73, and by 5.1% p.a. 1973-2000. 5.0% 1973-2008. And there is an even more important point to be made. The period from 1950-73 saw extremely rapid growth throughout Western Europe: our growth rates then were disappointing in that context. Growth slowed everywhere after 1973: our growth rates since then have been very strong in that context.

Our whole development strategy has been to serve as an export platform for multinationals selling into the EU market. You might think that we should be diversifying, and I might agree, but everyone accepts that the strategy has worked, massively, to date.

From the text, it seems that Gudgin may be confusing EU and Eurozone membership. I’m one of those who thinks that the Euro has been a damaging failure, but let’s not confuse the EU, and the Single Market’s four freedoms that have worked so well for us, with a flawed monetary union.

Gudgeon then goes on to say that

Ireland should ally with Germany and the Netherlands in arguing for continued free trade between the UK and the EU. This will greatly ease any pressures for Border controls in Ireland.

In fact, as Ben Kelly has usefully reminded us, unless the British decide to stay in the EU customs union either permanently or as an interim measure (or, most implausibly, succeed in negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU within two years of Article 50 being triggered) there will have to be tariffs between Ireland and the UK. There will be no choice in the matter: for the EU not to impose tariffs on UK exports would leave it in breach of its WTO obligations. And unless the UK has zero tariffs on everything from everyone, WTO rules would similarly oblige it to impose tariffs on EU exports.

Unfortunately for us, it seems likely that the British are intent on leaving the customs union, as Robert Peston points out here. There is therefore a fairly strong possibility that we will see tariff barriers between the Republic and Northern Ireland in the not too distant future (unless the North can get a special dispensation to stay in the customs union, and the tariffs are imposed across the Irish Sea instead).

There are those who would like to see Ireland leave the EU. Expect them to argue in the years ahead that any border controls between the Republic and the North are arising because of “pressure” from the Continent. Expect them to further argue that this shows that our true friends are in London rather than the European mainland. On the contrary: any border controls that arise will be as a result of British decisions, and British decisions alone. And to date there is no indication whatsoever that those decisions are taking any heed of Irish interests.

Markets and states are complements

The main point of my 1999 book with Jeff Williamson was that globalisation produces both winners and losers, and that this can lead to an anti-globalisation backlash. We argued this based on late 19th century evidence, but opinion poll evidence (citations here) suggested that something similar was at work in the late 20th century as well, a hunch confirmed in the early 21st century by the 2005 and 2008 French and Irish referenda.

What was missing from all this was an analysis of what, if anything, governments can do about this. Which is where Dani Rodrik’s finding that more open states had bigger governments in the late 20th century comes in. Dani’s interpretation is that markets expose workers to risk, and that government expenditure of various sorts can help protect them from those risks. In a series of articles, and an important book, Michael Huberman showed that this correlation between states and markets was present before 1914 as well: countries with more liberal trade policies tended to have more advanced social protections of various sorts, and this helped maintain political support for openness.

Anti-immigration sentiment was clearly crucial in delivering an anti-EU vote in England. And if you talk to ordinary people, it seems clear that competition for scarce public housing and other public services was one important factor behind this. If the Tories had really wanted to maintain support for the EU, investment in public services and public housing would have been the way to do it: if these had been elastically supplied, that would have muted the impression that there was a zero-sum competition between natives and immigrants. It wouldn’t have satisfied the xenophobes, but not all anti-immigrant voters are xenophobes. But of course the Tories were never going to do that, at least not with Osborne at the helm.

If the English want continued Single Market access, they will have to swallow continued labor mobility. There are complementary domestic policies that could help in making that politically feasible. We will have to wait and see what the English decide. But there are also lessons for the 27 remaining EU states. Too much market and too little state invites a backlash. Take the politics into account, and it becomes clear (as Dani has often argued) that markets and states are complements, not substitutes.

 

Globalization, Brexit and the prospect of European disintegration

Britain has voted to leave the European Union (EU), or more accurately, England has voted to leave. The majority in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar voted to remain. The opinion polls, the bookies and the markets did not predict this outcome. The mood of the nation, it would seem, is becoming increasingly difficult to measure. Or is it?

There is a lot of data suggesting that ‘immigration’ was the dominant concern for those who voted to leave the EU. This should not be too surprising. In the latest Eurobarometer data, immigration was cited as the main concern of UK citizens, alongside Germany and Denmark.

According to YouGov data, which is more revealing, income was the best predictor as to whether someone intended to vote to leave or remain. Basically, the lower your income, the more inclined you were to vote leave. Some have referred to this category as ‘those with lower education’. But let’s be honest, it’s called social class.

Another predictor as to whether someone was more inclined to vote leave was age. Younger, more liberal voters, were much more supportive of remaining in the EU. The only problem with this category of voter, is that they failed to turn out en masse to vote. According to the data, electoral turnout among 18-25 year olds was fairly weak. Older conservative citizens were much more inclined to vote.

The precise data on how particular communities and constituencies across England voted is perhaps most revealing. The poorest twenty districts in England overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU. Or to get at it another way, according to this report, those areas with the most stagnant wages are the same communities with the most anti-EU attitudes.

What can we infer from all of this? What should EU policymakers infer from all of this?

The core inference is that England is a deeply class divided society, and that the poorest in England are increasingly venting their anger at immigrants and the EU. Further, and not captured in the Brexit data, right-wing political parties are now mobilising working class England.

Those same electoral constituencies most likely to vote leave, and with the most stagnant wages, are the same constituencies most likely to vote for the far-right populist UKIP party. In addition, they are the same people most likely to be discursively conscripted into the anti-immigrant lies of England’s infamous red-top tabloid press.

Class politics in England increasingly overlaps with enthno-nationalism, whereby identity and immigration, rather than economic self-interest takes precedence in shaping electoral behaviour.

In political science, there is a large literature on economic voting. One of the core findings of this literature is that in times of crisis and economic austerity, voters punish incumbent governments. This is partially what happened in the UK. Disenfranchised working class voters punished the Tories, liberal elites, the EU and the city of London.

However, the economic voting literature, whilst useful in describing why voters punish government, tells us very little about who these voters turn to, when expressing their social grievances.

In theory, those voters most affected by austerity, unemployment, underemployment and precarious work, would turn to parties on the left and those parties committed to reducing economic inequality. Most research, particularly within Europe, however, suggests, working class voters are turning to the ethno-nationalist right.

To put it simply, those affected by austerity and right-wing economic policies don’t necessarily vote in their class interest; they increasingly vote in their ethno-nationalist interest. UKIP’s economic policies are aggressively libertarian, not social democratic.

Economic liberalisation, rising inequality, and the complete free movement of peoples has social and electoral consequences. Societies will react to this disruption in different ways. Nationalism provides a sense of meaning, community and belonging, to those most affected by liberalisation. Far-right parties, such as UKIP, know this.

This realisation, however, does not seem to have seeped through to policymakers in the EU or  Germany, who, despite a near complete destabilisation of the parliamentary party system in Southern, Eastern and Central Europe, remain committed to their failed neoliberal economic adjustment of austerity induced cost competitiveness.

Most political science research in the aftermath of the great recession increasingly suggests that not only are electorates losing trust in the EU, but that the support for national democracy, in general, is in decline. When the politicians change, yet the policy remains the same, voters lose trust in the institutions of liberal democracy.

The question for national leaders in the European Council, and policymakers in the European Commission, is whether they need to wait for the election of Trump in the US, Le Penn in France, or the Five Star Movement in Italy, to realise that their economic policy response to the crisis has failed, and must fundamentally change?

Polities disintegrate when they begin to loose control of their external borders and their internal legitimacy. Or, as W.B Yeats poignantly wrote in 1919, “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world“.  The UK and the EU are now faced with the potential for disorderly disintegration. Political scientists are accustomed to thinking that ‘more EU integration’ is inevitable. This is wrong.

Yeats wrote this after WW1, which coincided with the end of the first wave of free-market globalisation, when economic inequality peaked, much like today. In many ways Brexit can be interpreted as Europe’s Polanyi moment. It was a counter-reaction to a political economic system that is perceived to be designed in the interest of the comfortable elite.

It would be naive to assume that the popular reaction to rising inequality, precarious work, economic uncertainty, liberal elites and fear of immigration will lead to something politically progressive. The wave of anti-immigrant, nationalist sentiment, sweeping England, clearly shows that it won’t. France could be next. The EU should not wait to find out.

Britain and the EU

Though Ireland and the UK joined at the same time, the UK always remained semi-detached from the EU. Brussels affairs received barely a mention in the Blair-era diaries of British government ministers and advisors. That this was not even noticed by British reviewers is telling. London regarded itself as more significant on the world stage than Brussels. And, strange as this might sound to Irish ears, until German reunification it had perhaps good reason to do so.

The “supra-national” nature of the EU was designed by France to limit German post-war independence. As Ernest Bevin, Britain’s post-war Labour Foreign Secretary, commented: “when you open that Pandora’s box you’ll find it full of Trojan horses”. Britain felt neither the need nor the desire to have its independence limited in this way. For centuries it had stood secure in its island fortress, holding the balance of power between competing continental states. In the immediate post-war period it looked as much to the US and the Commonwealth as to Europe. The US was of much greater military importance. And as the world’s first industrial nation Britain had long pursued a ‘cheap food’ policy: the agricultural protectionism of the Common Market held little appeal.

Britain’s interest in Europe is as a free trade area. It viewed the creation of the single currency as a federalist step “far too far”, a position with which very many economists agreed.

Post-referendum Britain is not the only polity in existential crisis. The EU itself is clearly in the same position. The eurozone crisis side-lined the European Commission as member states looked to their own interests first. As a leading academic wrote recently, “supranational agents’ ability to take autonomous decisions can only be sustained in matters where the extent of disagreement among national governments over policy outcomes is relatively low”. The European elite thinks that the only way forward is through further integration: “more Europe”. But there is almost zero support across the European electorate for this.

The reaction to the referendum outcome has thrown a sharp light on clashing cultures. British political culture has always been suspicious of grandiose schemes and popular culture has always been irritated by layers upon layers of bureaucracy. (Ireland bears some responsibility for the latter, in that “a Commissioner from every member state” was given to us as a concession after one of our ‘no’ votes. Every commissioner views as their legacy the amount of legislation that they leave behind on the statute books.) The other side of the culture clash is reflected in the furious reaction of the European elite to the British vote, and the apparent desire to get the British out the door as quickly as possible. Twice the Irish voted no, and twice we were asked to vote again. Why did Europe react so differently to us, when there was so much less at stake?

The British vote is also clearly an inchoate reaction to globalisation, or perhaps more accurately to its “collateral damage”. In this it seems as one with the political support for the Trump campaign in the US.

Surely European leaders would be better advised to take a long hard look at how such widespread concerns might be addressed rather than rush to accept a British withdrawal? The latter may well lead to the break-up not just of the UK but to the withdrawal of other EU member states over time. It will entail years of negotiation on future relationships – at the bare minimum between the UK and Europe, and between the UK and Ireland. More worrying perhaps – given the class, age and geographic fault lines reflected in the referendum vote – is the legacy of bitterness and, quite possibly, civil strife that it will bequeath to Britain.

There is no need to rush Britain to withdraw, other than as a threat to other potential waverers. But this is hardly what the European project was supposed to be about. A year or two of uncertainty, particularly given the fragility of the global economy, is clearly undesirable. But the next general election in Britain is likely to offer the electorate an opportunity to visit the issue anew. Europe can use the hiatus to consider how the concerns of so many of its electorates can be addressed. A substantial electorate has spoken. Is Europe prepared to listen?

This really is a slow train wreck

I see that everyone is now arguing that globalisation has distributional consequences, and that losers may eventually decide they have had enough. Which is something that I and others have been writing about since at least the 1990s.

I don’t expect anyone to take much notice of a bunch of academics, but how can we be surprised at the Brexit vote when we have had practical, political experience of the class divides surrounding European integration (viewed and experienced as a regional manifestation of globalisation) since at least 2005, when the French rejected the so-called Constitutional Treaty? And here is my very first ever Vox.Eu column, on the Irish Lisbon 1 vote.

And so my question is: when this has been so obvious for so long, how come nobody has done anything about it? Where are the enhanced safety nets, or the more elastic provision of public housing and other services that would surely have made a difference in the English debate? It really is quite extraordinary.

The History of Economic Thought Website

With the support of the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), the History of Economic Thought Website has been re-launched.

It is an excellent resource and provides an Alphabetical Index of Economists, Schools of Thought and a collection of Essays and Surveys.

The Essays and Surveys section includes an “Edgeworthian Exchange” link dedicated to Edgeworth’s Tales and The Edgeworthian Revival. Aside from the obvious Irish connections, this link is a fascinating read and might be of particular interest to some.

Macrofinancial History and the New Business Cycle Facts

Jordà, Schularick and Taylor have produced a must-read paper, summarising the results of a decade-long research effort to create a long-run macro-financial data set for 17 countries. The paper is here (.pdf) and they provide some new stylized facts they document should “prove fertile ground for the development of a newer generation of macroeconomic models with a prominent role for financial factors”.Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 21.57.06

In particular, they document a ‘hockey-stick’ effect of private sector creditto GDP for a range of economies, and one of the hockey sticks can be seen in the figure below. After about 1950, for most of the elements the authors study, finance and leverage takes a more and more central role in the development of modern economies.