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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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