Eichengreen and Temin on systems failures

Barry Eichengreen and Peter Temin have written classic accounts of the Great Depression. If you haven’t read Golden Fetters, and Lessons from the Great Depression, you should.

But if you don’t have time for that, they have a piece on Vox which reprises the main conclusion of their work:

an international monetary system is .. a system in which countries on both sides of the exchange rate contribute to its smooth operation. Actions by surplus countries, and not just their deficit counterparts, have systemic implications. They cannot realistically assign all responsibility for adjustment to their deficit counterparts.

This is as true for EMU and “Bretton Woods II” as it was for Bretton Woods, or the Gold Standard, but it is a lesson that at times seems to have been completely forgotten.

Depression-Era Economics

The literature on the Great Depression throws up some curious parallels and contrasts to today.

From Kindleberger (The World in Depression, 1929-1939, p. 194):
“In the electoral campaign, Roosevelt charged Hoover with total responsibility for the depression. It’s origin, he said, was entirely within the United States… Hoover, in reply, insisted that the depression had originated abroad.”

Also from Kindleberger, p. 139:
“The Unemployment Insurance Fund, being in deficit, had to be made up by the German government, which thereby suffered a budget deficit. The Socialist Party proposed raising contributions to the fund by a 4 per cent levy largely on government officials, whose contracts provided protection from unemployment.”

In Ireland, the first Fianna Fáil budget of 11 May 1932 included a tax amnesty for those with undeclared overseas accounts.

The settlement would enable them to resolve any outstanding liabilities by paying 75 per cent of the amount owed in outstanding taxes on foreign holdings from 1914 to the present, with no penalties or interest charges.
(Dáil Éireann – Volume 41 – 11 May, 1932 – In Committee on Finance. – Financial Resolutions—Minister’s Statement.)

Ronan Fanning’s book on the Department of Finance, pps. 233-4, reveals that the same government hoped to but failed to cut public service pay.

“This proved a difficult process and the reductions were widely resisted by public servants, including the senior civil servants that the government relied on to implement its policies – some , whose tenure predated the state were threatening to take early retirement under a clause in the 1921 Treaty. The proposed cuts were targeted at higher-paid public servants – including Government ministers. This dispute suggests a strong division of opinion, with the farming community very much in favour of cutting the cost of public services. One minority report to the report on this topic concluded that:

‘Even at the reduced rate there are many competent people who would gladly exchange places with public servants for the next ten years. The discontented State Servant would derive much benefit from a sojourn in the beet fields of Leinster, the cow pasture of the Kerry hills, or turf banks of the Bog of Allen for £1 a week’.”

Eichengreen-O’Rourke update

Barry and I have updated our graphs here.

To recall: the red lines show what happen when governments respond to a worldwide economic crisis with monetary and fiscal stimulus. The blue lines show what happens when governments stick to monetary and fiscal orthodoxy. All very purgative and morally satisying no doubt, except that it led directly to the election of Adolf Hitler (something that I have been meaning to blog about for a while, but now I have to prepare for class..)

Pettis on Europe (and China)

A reader has pointed me towards this nice post by Michael Pettis, which strays from his usual Chinese turf to take a look at Europe. It makes the same points as the ones Martin Wolf has been making about the need for the large countries with ‘fiscal room’ in the Eurozone, particularly Germany, to do everything they can to maintain aggregate demand in the Eurozone.

This should be obvious to anyone with an understanding of intermediate macroeconomics, so I won’t comment on it. But Pettis also cites Barry Eichengreen’s classic Golden Fetters, which readers may not be familiar with, and in particular Barry’s views on the implications of democracy for the maintenance of the gold standard. That system required adjustment through deflation for countries suffering negative shocks. This was not necessarily a problem in the 19th century, when wages and prices were flexible, and universal suffrage was rare. By the 20th century, however, rigidities in the economy were such that deflation implied unemployment; and democracy meant that this economic cost translated into a direct political cost for policy makers. The gold standard, inevitably, broke down when confronted with the pressures of the Great Depression.

I don’t think it’s fair to compare the euro to the gold standard, as Pettis does. The ECB has lowered interest rates, not raised them, although not by as much as other central banks; and both the French and the Germans have applied fiscal stimulus to their economies. On the other hand, it is true that adjustment in the PIIGS now implies deflation there (unless, as the FT points out today, inflation in the Eurozone as a whole is increased). This is going to be both economically and politically costly, and will have unpredictable effects, especially if the Eurozone as a whole experiences a double dip recession.

I suspect that Ireland will find these adjustments easier to bear than most, since emigration gives us both an economic and a political safety valve. (That was a positive rather than a normative statement by the way.)

Moral hazard, time inconsistency, and banking in the long run

Will Hutton has an op-ed piece today in the Observer which includes some striking historical charts. These are extracted by a very interesting article by Andy Haldane, Executive Director, Financial Stability at the Bank of England. Haldane’s article is well worth a read, as a simple conceptualization of the long run problems facing financial regulators.

Money quote:

Haldane describes “the latest incarnation of efforts by the banking system to boost shareholder returns and, whether by accident or design, game the state. For the authorities, [these pose] a dilemma. Ex-ante, they may well say “never again”. But the ex-post costs of crisis mean such a statement lacks credibility. Knowing this, the rational response by market participants is to double their bets. This adds to the cost of future crises. And the larger these costs, the lower the credibility of “never again” announcements. This is a doom loop.”

“Like two drunks leaning against each other to stay upright . . .”

That’s how Buttonwood describes the relationship between the banks and government in Britain and America in his/her latest column in The Economist.
The piece goes on to predict:

. . . this leads to an odd symbiotic relationship in which governments have stepped in to rescue the banks, only for the banks in turn to finance the government. In the long run the danger is that this cosy relationship means lending is diverted away from productive private-sector projects and into government spending. Economic growth will be slower as a result.

It seems very relevant to the debate on the Irish banking crisis.

Donogh O’Malley’s 1966 Announcement of Free Education: The Hidden History

Donogh O’Malley caused consternation in government when he announced his free education scheme in September 1966 without having brought the matter to Cabinet.  The enthusiasm of the public response forced the government’s hand.  Whether or not Lemass had prior knowledge has been the subject of heated debate among historians.  Lemass denied it, but five members of the cabinet told Brian Farrell, while writing Chairman or Chief?, of their belief that not only had he seen the text in advance but he had actually amended it.

The journalist John Healy was a great friend of O’Malley’s.  Later in life he told Michael O’Regan, who is now the Irish Times parliamentary correspondent, that the paper trail had been designed as a smokescreen  and could not be relied upon.  Healy published his recollections in Magill magazine in March 1988, on the 20th anniversary of O’Malley’s death. At  the behest of Michael O’Regan, I’ve dug it out.  The hidden history is here.

Guinness and the knowledge economy

One of the points which smart economy boosters often miss, but which is obvious to economists, is that technology is internationally mobile. It follows that productivity growth in a small open economy like Ireland depends much more on the domestic adoption of foreign inventions than on domestic inventions. This in turn has implications for the sorts of arguments that can be made in favour of government R&D expenditure in Ireland.

Cormac provides a nice historical example here.