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Confronting financial crises under different monetary regimes:  Spain in the Great Depression years

This is the title of the paper I have written with my friend and colleague Professor Pedro Schwartz, which is being published in May 2018 as a chapter in a book, Money, Currency and Crisis. In Search of Trust, 2000 BC to AD 2000, edited by R. J. van der Spek and Bas van Leewen (Routledge). As we put it in the first section of the chapter, “the thesis of the present essay is that the recession was much lighter in Spain than in the US, Italy, Germany or France (see Figure 1); that the causes of the contraction were domestic rather than epidemic; and that the relative shallowness of the contraction in Spain, and of the UK after abandoning gold, may have been due in some measure to similarly flexible monetary arrangements.

 

The exchange rate system does matter in coping with a major crisis, and both the 1930s and the 2000s crises are good examples of this. Spain in the 1920s and 1930s, free of exchange rate commitments, and thus with full monetary sovereignty, led the Peseta float  in response to quite dramatic changes in both domestic and international market conditions. Being a very rigid economy at the time, the depreciation of the Peseta was an effective and timely tool to cut down costs and prices. This is not to say that depreciation is panacea; it is not! If not followed by orthodox both fiscal and monetary policies, it will just lead to greater and greater inflation over time, and we have plenty of examples of this. It is useful though to compare the adjustment of the Spanish economy to the Great Depression in the 1930s to that to the Global Financial Crisis in the 2000s via ‘internal devaluation’ (i.e. cutting domestic wages and prices); the charts below are quite revealing of the effects of these two alternatives (see Figures 15 and 16) and do provide a textbook case-study on the advantages and disadvantages of each.

 

As figures 15 and 16 above show, the depreciation of the Peseta carried most of the burden of the adjustment to the 1930s crisis, while it has been domestic costs (Unit Labour Costs) in the 2000s crisis.

Over the medium to the long term, both an internal devaluation and a standard (external) devaluation achieve the same (necessary) goal: to cut down costs, prices and spending in the economy in crisis. This is something unavoidable in either policy scenario; the economy cannot continue spending as it used to before the crisis. In addition, an internal devaluation also brings greater competitiveness over the long term, given that the economy will be able to produce with lower costs than its competitors. However, the economic and political costs of this latter policy option are not negligible in the short term. This is the trade-off every economy confronts in a major crisis, (1) either to opt for a quick devaluation to cut down domestic costs and prices almost instantaneously, or (2) to cut down public and private spending (internal devaluation).

  • The external devaluation option, when the country retains its currency and its domestic monetary policy, is the most appealing option in the short term; especially by politicians, as it may be unnoticed by the public for a time. But, if not accompanied by fiscal and monetary restrictive policies, it will surely lead to inflation very soon.
  • The internal devaluation option was the only available for the Eurozone countries in the 2000s crisis, and was the right policy to pursue, however painful as indeed it was. The experience of Spain, and the other Eurozone countries in crisis from 2009 to 2014, shows again how stringent the conditions to remain in a monetary union are in times of crisis: both labour and good and services markets must be as flexible as possible to let prices go up and down whenever needed; otherwise, the adjustment will be even more painful and will take longer, and more jobs and output will be lost.

The preference for one or the other policy will depend very much on how rigid markets are to adjust to new market conditions, and the commitment of policy-makers to run orthodox monetary and fiscal policies. In the absence of committed policy-makers to adjusting costs and prices, an external devaluation will just be a gateway to rampant inflation.

 

Juan Castañeda

 

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For those interested in the chapter, please find the abstract below (more in the book!):

Spain was effectively on silver from 1868 down to the II Republic in 1931. Being off the gold standard and on a depreciating silver standard from the 1890s on helped the economy adjust almost painlessly to the several economic crises it suffered during that period and resulted in a much milder recession than the rest of the world in the 1930s. This proves how relevant is the monetary regime to deal with shocks and economic crises, particularly when confronting financial crises. 

Devaluation corrects past policy mistakes at the cost of making the country poorer; but it will only hold in the longer term if it is accompanied by sound fiscal and monetary policies. During WWI a neutral Spain had accumulated a large gold reserve by selling to all belligerent countries. Pressure to move to gold was resisted but the slow depreciation of the silver anchor after WWI was accompanied by a surprisingly sound Bank of Spain monetary policy. Though the Treasury did use its power to borrow from the Bank from time to time the Board of the Bank correspondingly tightened interest rates to maintain monetary stability. This resulted in quite moderate rates of growth of the money supply that helped keep internal prices in check. In fact, the peseta behaved like a properly managed nominal currency. In the ‘twenties the rate of exchange of the peseta versus the pound sterling fell along with silver against gold, due to a persistent structural deficit in the balance of payments; and though from 1929 to 1935 the peseta fell less rapidly than silver, it did fall more than if it had been on gold.

Being on the silver standard dampened the effects of the Great Depression in Spain. Under a gold standard regime the balance of payments would have rebalanced quickly but with a large restructuring cost such as that suffered by Spain today under the ‘euro-standard’: Then as now, almost immovable structural inflexibility makes external depreciation a more politically and socially acceptable policy than harshly imposed internal devaluation.

Another positive effect of the peseta being anchored on a depreciating silver standard was to allow the Bank of Spain freely to act as lender of last resort in 1931 and thus prevent the deep banking crisis that struck other developed economies.

However one must not exaggerate the effect of a flexible monetary policy in a country like Spain in the 1930ies: Spain still was an agricultural country and she enjoyed two bumper crops in wheat in 1933 and 1935; and in any case the relative smallness of the foreign sector helped dampen the effects of what was happening in the rest of the world.

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Last month I had the pleasure to contribute to the IIMR/IEA annual monetary conference (8 November 2017) in London, ‘Has Financial Regulation Gone Too Far? And do banks really need all the extra capital?‘. I gave a short talk in session 3, ‘The role of the central bank in financial regulation‘, chaired by Charles Goodhart (LSE), on the essential nature of central banks as banking institutions. It may sound silly to state the obvious but, as my good friend, mentor and excellent colleague – Pedro Schwartz – always reminds me, we should not take for granted the fundamentals in economics, even less in money and central banking. Let me then start by saying that modern central banks were established to cope with two major tasks: (1) to be the bankers of the State (the Bank of England and other continental European central banks are good examples of this, see here) but also (2) to become the bankers of the banks in monetary systems operated under a fractional reserve (again, the Bank of England is the first modern central bank in this regard); the latter is what we call the lender of last resort function of central banks.

In the early years of the establishment of central banks, with the running of the gold standard, strictly speaking, there was no monetary policy nor the pursue of a macroeconomic target as we understand it now; but a bank of issue with a privilege position in the monetary market, and mainly focused on maintaining the convertibility of its currency at the pre-announced rate. It was only quite recently (historically speaking), after the abandonment of the gold standard in the interwar years, that central banks have explicitly adopted or given other tasks, and indeed macroeconomic tasks, such as keeping price stability or achieving economic growth.

But we should not forget that central banks are at the core of the monetary system and the banking sector, providing financial services to a ‘club’ of commercial banks which create money in the currency issued by the central banks. Which money? ‘Bank money’, that is, bank deposits under a fractional reserve system. This money constitutes the bulk of the money supply in modern economies, and it is vital for the central bank to keep a steady growth of the amount of money in circulation to preserve stable and long term economic growth; thus avoiding too much money during the expansion of the economy or too little in a banking crisis. What I state in my talk is that privately-owned central banks are genuinely interested in maintaining financial stability, and thus will be willing to intervene in a liquidity crisis much more promptly and efficiently than a central bank under the shadow – if not the control – of the State. This is something I have supported in other articles (recently in this article), and my colleague at the IIMR, Tim Congdon, has written on (see chapter 7 in ‘Central Banking in a Free Society‘).

This is the video of the talk:

Comments are very welcome as ever!

 

Juan Castañeda

PS. To the best of my knowledge the characterisation of central banks as the bankers of a ‘club’ was first coined by Charles Goodhart in his seminal 1988 book, ‘The Evolution of Central Banks‘, a book anyone interested in the history and functions of central banks must read. However, unlike Goodhart’s position in his book, I do not see a conflict of interest for a self-interested central bank to become a lender of last resort in times of crisis. Actually, central banks did make a profit when lending in times of crisis, such as the Bank of England in several banking crises in the 19th century.

 

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This is the title of an article written with my colleague, Tim Congdon (Institute of International Monetary Research and University of Buckingham), published in CityAM on 27/10/2017.

Our main point is that more regulation won’t make banks safer and is counterproductive. It is a sort of an instinctive reaction by politicians, policy-makers and regulators to respond to a crisis with more and tighter regulation, in an effort to tackle the ‘excesses’ in the market economy left of its own will. This is both very naive and irresponsible, as much as empirically and theoretically wrong. The recent announcement and approval of the Basell III tighter bank capital ratios is an example of it: this tougher set of regulations was announced and approved in the midst of a severe financial crisis (2008-2010), and resulted in banks shrinking their balance sheets even more; with the expected dramatic fall in money growth and nominal spending.

It is again a dire example of the running of the law of the unintended consequences of regulation; which would recommend the need to assess in advance the expected consequences of regulation, rather than quickly and desperately calling for more and tougher laws on banks and the rest of the financial system.

As we put it in the article:

Far too many people believe that “better” regulation is the answer to financial crises. But further regulation involves an expansion of the power of the state, and a loss of freedom for the financial system. Remember that Britain had no explicit official rules on bank capital until the 1980s, yet no British bank suffered a run on its deposits over the preceding century. Crucial to the success of British banking in the decades before the Northern Rock fiasco was the Bank of England’s willingness to lend to solvent banks if they were having difficulty funding their assets. Good central banking helped Britain’s commercial banks to run their businesses efficiently and profitably, and to the benefit of their customers.’

There was a time, not that far away, when regulation was not that prominent and financial markets flourished; and when a banking institution failed, that occasionally they did, there were solid policies and institutions willing to intervene in an decisively and orderly manner (the Bank of England had been an example of that, at least until the collapse of Norther rock in the recent crisis).

You will find the article in full here: http://www.cityam.com/274672/tighter-bank-regulation-wont-stop-boom-and-bust-but-damage.

Comments, even more if critical, most welcome!

Juan Castañeda

PS. We will be discussing these issues with the member of the Bank of England’ s Financial Policy Committee, Martin Taylor, in the IIMR Annual Public Lecture on the 7/10 in London: https://www.mv-pt.org/events/public-lecture-the-committee-of-public-safety-the-work-of-the-financial-policy-committee-by-m

 

 

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‘How functional is the Eurozone? An index of European economic integration through the single currency’

This is the title of the paper I have just written with my good friend and colleague, Professor Pedro Schwartz (Camilo Jose Cela University in Madrid and University of Buckingham), which will be published in Economic Affairs (October issue, 2017).

We deal with a quite straight forward question: How can we measure the optimality of a currency area? When does it become more and more difficult to run a single monetary policy? If there are internal asymmetries in the currency area, how do they evolve? To answer, if only tentatively, these questions we have developed the method to calculate the index of optimality of a currency area, which we have split up in four major categories and components: (1) fiscal synchronicity, (2) public finance, (3) competitiveness and (4) monetary. Both the overall index and the above partial indices will inform us about the performance of the currency union and how internal asymmetries have increased or decreased. We have applied it to the eurozone, from 1999 to 2016. The results and calculations give us a metric to identify the building up of internal tensions in the running of the single monetary policy since the inception of the euro in 1999.

If only a chart, this is the summary of what we found in our research; in a nutshell, the adoption of the euro has not increased convergence among eurozone economies. The overall index of dispersion increased by 25% from 1999 to 2005 (see figure below),  and so asymmetries amongst member states even during an expansionary cycle. Of course, as expected, internal dispersion soared during and immediately after the outbreak of the Global Financial Crisis. This increase in dispersion in the crisis years ‘s not a symptom of the malfunction of the euro; what we should rather focus on is on the time taken for asymmetries to resume pre-crisis levels. Overall, even after 10 year since the start of the recent crisis, the optimality index still shows the Eurozone has a long way ahead to resume pre-2007 crisis levels (such as 1999 levels, when even countries joining the Eurozone were far from convergence).

 

 

This is the abstract of the paper:

‘This is a step in empirically assessing how near the Eurozone is to becoming an ‘optimal currency area’, as originally defined by Mundell (1961). For this purpose we have compiled ten indicators, organised them in four chapters, and summarised them in an overall indicator of ‘optimality’. The resulting picture is mixed, with zone optimality not increasing when circumstances were favourable but the trend towards integration returning after the 2008-2014 crisis. The suggestion is that dis-integration during the crisis, rather than an evidence of failure of the Eurozone when the going was tough, showed a self-healing mechanism at work. However our measurements and indices show that optimality is much lower than that in 1999.’

Feedback most welcome, as ever.

Juan Castañeda

 

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Following up my last post on the eurozone crisis and the monetary policy of the ECB (see IIMR esearch Paper 3: Have Central Banks forgotten about money? by my colleague Tim Congdon and myself), please find below a video with further details on the changes made to the monetary strategy of the ECB since its establishment.

What I claim in the video is that the ECB did give a prominent role to the analysis of the changes in broad money up to 2003, when it reviewed its strategy, and not surprisingly it led to a higher rate of growth of money in the Eurozone in the years running up to the Global Financial Crisis. Just to be clear, I do not support that any central bank should adopt a ‘mechanistic’ monetary growth policy rule, by which the bank adheres to an intermediate M3 (or broad money) rate of growth target come what may. The link between money and prices and nominal income is indeed very strong over the medium and long term, but it is of course affected by other variables/phenomena in the short term that need to be properly considered and taken into account by policy makers. So rather than a mechanistic approach to such a monetary target, changes in money growth should be given a primary role in assessing inflation and nominal income forecasts, and thus in the making of monetary policy decisions; and this is precisely what the ECB did from 1999 to 2003 under its two-pillar strategy. So when money growth continuously exceeds the rate deemed to be compatible with monetary stability, this would signal inflationary pressures and even financial instability the central bank would eventually tackle by tightening its monetary policy. This rationale would show the commitment of the central bank to both monetary and financial stability over the long term, and the use of a broad monetary aggregate would serve as a credible indicator to make monetary policy decisions and as a means to transmit the central bank’s expectations on inflation and output growth.

As ever, comments very welcome.

Juan Castañeda

PS. More videos on the IIMR YouTube channel

 

 

 

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This is the title of a research paper I have written with my colleague and leading monetarist, Professor Tim Congdon, and published by the Institute of International Monetary Research (IIMR). This is a brief summary extracted from the paper, which is fully available at http://www.mv-pt.org/research-papers:

The quantity of money matters in the design of a monetary policy regime, if that regime is to be stable or even viable on a long-term basis. The passage of events in the Eurozone since 1999 has shown, yet again, that excessive money growth leads to both immoderate asset price booms and unsustainably above-trend growth in demand and output, and that big falls in the rate of change in the quantity of money damage asset markets, undermine demand and output, and cause job losses and heavy unemployment. This is nothing new. The ECB did not sustain a consistent strategy towards money growth and banking regulation over its first decade and a half. The abandonment of the broad money reference value in 2003 was followed in short order by three years of unduly high monetary expansion and then, from late 2008, by a plunge in money growth to the lowest rates seen in European countries since the 1930s. The resulting macroeconomic turmoil was of the sort that would be expected by quantity theory- of-money analyses, including such analyses of the USA’s Great Depression as in Friedman and Schwartz’s Monetary History of the United States.

This paper argues, from the experience of the Eurozone after the introduction of the single currency in 1999, that maintaining steady growth of a broadly-defined measure of money is crucial to the achievement of stability in demand and output. The ECB did not sustain a consistent strategy towards money growth and banking regulation over its first decade and a half.

The chart below illustrates our point very well:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As ever, comments very welcome.

Juan Castañeda

 

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It is a privilege to work so close to Tim Congdon particularly since I was appointed Director of the Institute of International monetary Research (IIMR) in January 2016. Tim is the Chairman of the Institute and indeed a leading reference for those who want to understand monetary economics and central banks’ policy decisions; and in particular the role played by changes in the amount of money in circulation on changes in prices (all prices, CPI and asset prices) and nominal income along the business cycle. Changes in the amount of money do lead to portfolio decisions made by households, financial institutions and non-financial companies. The rationale is quite straightforward: in normal times agents tend to keep a rather stable cash to total assets ratio in their portfolios, so the greater the amount of money in the hands of (say) banks and insurance companies, the greater their willingness to invest it in other assets such as real estate, bonds (either long term or short term maturity bonds, or public or private bonds) or equity looking for a greater remuneration. And, should the creation of more and more money continues, it will eventually lead to an increase in the demand of consumption goods and services. Consequently asset prices (and CPI prices, though to a lesser extent) will change as a result of the greater demand for assets in the market and thus higher prices. The new equilibrium in the economy will be reached when agents have got rid of the excess in cash balances in their portfolios so now they keep again their desired cash to asset ratio. As a result of it all the amount of money in the economy will be greater and so will be the price level. M. Friedman and A. Schwartz explained it as clear as marvellously in the 1960s and it remains valid today as a theoretical framework to assess inflation and changes in nominal income.

This is in a nutshell the core of the explanation of monetarism; of course the process by which a greater amount of money in circulation ends up in higher asset and CPI prices can be more complex and, particularly when applied to a policy scenario, it will require a more detailed explanation. Of course there are lags in the transmission of money changes onto prices, as agents take time to assess the market conditions and make their own portfolio adjustments. In addition, institutions matter so a more regulated (less free) economy will require more time to reflect the new monetary conditions on the price level. On top of that the central bank and other financial regulators may interfere further in markets by making new monetary policy decisions, or even changing regulation regarding banks’ capital and/or liquidity ratios. This will make the picture given above more nuanced but by no means invalid; what we know, and there is plenty of evidence about it, is that a sustained increase in the amount of money over the increase in the supply of goods and services in the economy (say the GDP growth) will over time lead to higher prices.

On the 20th of April at the University of Buckingham I had the privilege to discuss with Tim Congdon on (1) what monetarism means nowadays, (2) which are the common criticisms of monetarism and (3) the relevance of monetarism for investment and monetary policy decisions. In fact, in the last few minutes in the video Tim sets up very clearly what it can well be labelled as an operational monetary policy rule for central banks to make policy decisions.

Many will find monetarism a not very fancy or topical term; call it instead rigorous monetary analysis then. As long as we focus on the impact of changes in the amount of money on prices and nominal income I do not think we should pay too much attention to labels. Unfortunately there is virtually a vacuum in this field in our days, as most central banks (not all) and financial regulators have seemed to forget or even disregard the valuable information provided by the analysis of changes in the amount money (and how it is created) for monetary policy purposes.

Enjoy the video with the interview below; comments, as ever, very much welcome.

Juan Castañeda

PS. You can find further videos on money and central banking at the IIMR Youtube channel

 

 

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