‘Some useful things I’ve learned about Germany’s hyperinflation’ | FT Alphaville

‘Some useful things I’ve learned about Germany’s hyperinflation’

That’s from Dylan Grice — über-bear Albert Edwards’ sidekick at Societe Generale.

He’s done a review of inflation during the Weimar Republic inflation in his latest `Popular Delusions’ note. Prussian central banker Rudolf von Havenstein developed a habit of monetising Germany’s debt during the First World War, eventually leading to massive bouts of hyperinflation:

Amazingly, von Havenstein got away with the move largely because a school of economic thought at the time held that increasing money supply had nothing to do with the rate of inflation. Instead Germans were told the high rates of inflation were all down to external factors; foreigners to be exact, and the reparations Germany had to pay them. Oh, and a hefty portion of blame was laid on speculators too.

It’s an interesting historical economic rundown, but you can probably see where Grice is going with it:

I don’t want to overplay the parallels. In fact, there is one very clear difference between the hand Von Havenstein had to play then and those today’s central bankers have to play now, namely the stability of today’s political climate. Clearly this can change, but the class warfare, nationalistic xenophobia and revolutionary spirit poisoning the political atmosphere of 1920s Germany is at the very least dormant today, and certainly not meaningfully visible across the political landscape. But let’s not ignore the parallels either: as is the case for today’s central bankers, Von Havenstein was faced with horrible fiscal problems; as is the case for today’s central bankers, the distinction between fiscal and monetary policy had blurred; as is the case for today’s central bankers, the political difficulty of deflating was daunting; and as is the case for today’s QE-enthralled central bankers, apparently respectable economic theory reassured him that he was doing the right thing.

One might think that the big difference is that today we have a greater expertise. Surely we understand what happens when deficits are financed with printed money, and that it is only backward and corrupt states that don’t know any better, like Bolivia and Zimbabwe? But just a few years ago didn’t we think that it was only backward and corrupt states that suffered banking crises too?

And anyway, how could Von Havenstein not have known that the continued and escalating printing of money to fund government deficits would cause inflation? The United States experience of unrestrained money printing during the Civil War had been well documented, as had the hyperinflation of revolutionary France in the late 18th century. Isn’t it possible that, like today, he was overconfident in his ability to control his creation and in the economic theory which told him such control was possible? Certainly, in an article in the New York Times on the eve of the First World War, again from Liaquat Ahamed’s book, there seems to have been evidence of the general optimism that there would be no “unlimited issue of paper money and its steady depreciation … since monetary science is better understood at the present time than in those days.”

The fact is we do understand the economics of inflation. Despite what economists everywhere say about being in `uncharted territory’ with QE, we know that if you keep monetizing deficits eventually you get inflation, and we know that once you’re on that path it can be extremely difficult to get off it. But we knew that then. The real problem is that inflation is an inherently political variable and that concern over debt sustainability and unfunded welfare obligations leaves us more dependent on politicians than we have been in many decades. Frank Graham concluded his 1930 study of the Weimar hyperinflation with the following observation, which I think is as ominous as it is apt today:

“The mills of international finance grind slowly but their capacity is great. It is also flexible. The one condition is that the hoppers be not unduly loaded in the effort to get the whole grist from a single grinding. So much for the economics of the question. What politics has in store is, however, an inscrutable mystery. It can only be said that such financial difficulties as may occur will almost certainly arise from political rather than from economic sources.”

Related links:
Deflation dead and deader, Federal Reserve style – FT Alphaville
Of bonds and stocks and the Weimar Republic – FT Alphaville