Like ‘Ignorant and Illiterate Depositors in Times of Panic’

There were three basic problems during the Great Contraction of 1929-33.  People hoarded currency, people hoarded gold, and central banks hoarded gold.  Because currency was backed by gold, the hoarding of currency created a derived demand for gold.  So the bottom line is that people and central bank hoarded gold.  This raised the value of gold, and lowered price levels all over the world.

In mid-1931 people began to fear devaluations; first in Germany, then Britain, then America.  This led people to hoard gold.  Unfortunately, this also led other central banks to hoard massive quantities of gold.  The French were the biggest hoarders.  In one sense this is understandable; they saw the value of their sterling reserves decline after Britain devalued, and did want the same to happen when the US devalued.  So they sold dollars and bought gold.

But there was one big problem with the French policy.  They were on the gold standard.  Hoarding gold increased the value of gold, causing deflation.  It dragged down all the economies still tied to gold, including France itself.  They loaded up their lifeboat with gold bars, and it sank their economy.

A few days ago stock markets soared on news that China was not planning on abandoning the purchase of euro assets.  But todays’ news is not so rosy:

June 1 (Bloomberg) — Wall Street’s foreign-exchange strategists say central bankers are showing growing reluctance toward holding euros as Europe’s debt crisis undermines confidence in the region’s single currency.

The euro weakened 2.4 percent against the dollar last week even after China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange, which manages the country’s $2.4 trillion of reserves, denied speculation that it was diversifying away from European bonds. The 20 percent depreciation from last year’s peak in November has demonstrated the limits of the euro as a reserve currency to rival the dollar as well as the European Central Bank’s ability to defend its legal tender.

A net 105 billion euros ($129 billion) flowed out of the region’s fixed-income markets on an annualized basis in the first three months of the year, signaling a “broad shift” in appetite for euro-denominated assets, according to Nomura Holdings Inc. The region attracted a net 225 billion euros from foreign debt investors in 2009.

“It’s clearly the case that there’s been an element of foreign central banks slowing down their euro purchases,” said Jens Nordvig, a managing director for foreign-exchange research at Nomura in New York. “The institutional framework is being questioned, the credibility of the ECB is being questioned, and all that uncertainty is really fueling an asset allocation shift away from the euro zone.”

.   .   .

The euro fell as much as 1.6 percent against the dollar to $1.2111 today in London, the lowest since April 14, 2006. It depreciated as much as 2.3 percent to 109.77 yen. The Financial Times reported last week without saying where it got the information that Chinese officials have been meeting with foreign bankers to review holdings of euro-zone debt.

Think of it this way:

The euro in 2010 = the US$ in 1931.

The US$ in 2010 = gold in 1931

China is in the position of France.  If they don’t sell of their euros, they risk a capital loss.  If they exchange euros for dollars, they strengthen the dollar and thus their own currency–which puts more deflationary pressure on the dollar bloc.  France gave a higher priority to avoiding capital losses in their reserves, than to high unemployment.  As a result, gold appreciated and the French economy deteriorated further, with no recovery until they left the gold standard in 1936.  Penny wise and pound foolish.

After Britain left the gold standard, Paul Einzig argued that European central bankers had not acted as public-minded economic policymakers, but rather had substituted gold for foreign exchange reserves much as “ignorant and illiterate depositors do in times of panic.”  Let’s hope the world’s central bankers don’t re-enact this 1931 scenario in 2010.

There is, of course, one major difference between 1931 and today.  In 1931 the Fed had no ability to print gold.  So it was not easy for a single central bank, no matter how large, to prevent the value of gold from rising.  Today, however, there is one central bank that does have the ability to print unlimited quantities of dollars.  And it’s not the PBOC.  Although I would hope the Chinese will behave responsibly, the real responsibility for any dollar-zone deflation would lie much closer to home.

If only we had an expert on 1931 in charge of the Fed!  Seriously, despite my frequent criticism of Bernanke, one reason that I have never forecast the worst case scenario is that, despite everything that has happened I just don’t see him allowing things to get much worse.  He knows exactly what happened in 1931, and indeed shares my view of those events.   I hope I am not being naive.

One other point.  The EMH says that you should never say “the euro is falling” but instead say “the euro has fallen.”  Asset prices have near-zero momentum.  Thus the Chinese have no scientific basis for converting euros into dollars.  The (expected) damage from a weak euro has already been done, already been incorporated into the current price of their euro assets.  I know that sounds counterintuitive, but do you really think central bank portfolio managers are smarter than the bond market?

Slightly off topic; this extremely discouraging NYT article contains one sentence that seems very misleading:

The bond purchases were only the latest of a series of extraordinary moves that Mr. Trichet has pursued to stabilize the European banking system. Since the beginning of the financial crisis, the central bank has been essentially keeping banks afloat by providing almost unlimited loans at 1 percent interest.

Let’s not forget that “the” financial crisis began in September 2008, and in the worst part of the financial crisis the ECB maintained a roughly 4% policy rate, not 1%.  That’s how we got into this mess.  I understand that the author meant the latest part of the financial crisis, related to Greece, but this kind of sloppy writing creates the impression that the ECB is blameless, when in fact it is primarily responsible for the fall in NGDP that underlies much (but not all) of the European debt crisis.  I’d hate to see these central bank blunders airbrushed out of the history books.

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About Scott Sumner 492 Articles

Affiliation: Bentley University

Scott Sumner has taught economics at Bentley University for the past 27 years.

He earned a BA in economics at Wisconsin and a PhD at University of Chicago.

Professor Sumner's current research topics include monetary policy targets and the Great Depression. His areas of interest are macroeconomics, monetary theory and policy, and history of economic thought.

Professor Sumner has published articles in the Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, and the Bulletin of Economic Research.

Visit: TheMoneyIllusion

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