The Soviet spy, the birth of the IMF, and the 1940s roots of today's crisis

Crises are born from stranger places.

Although the spectacular collapse of the global economic was apparently sudden and unpredicted, it is a crisis that has been building since the structure of the global economy was put in place in the desperate days of the mid-1940s. I want to take a step back from the feverish debates taking place in the Eurozone and explore the roots of the crisis in the agreements reached at the end of the Second World War, and question the rather dubious credentials of the man who can be said to have emerged victorious from those negotiations.

In these days of Depression and the failure of the neoliberal economic model many eyes are cast back nostalgically to the 1930s and the work of Keynes is receiving a particularly rapid rehabilitation. Keynes is identified most strongly with his support for government involvement in the management of national economies. This was a lesson learned the hard way during the last global depression, and that was deliberately unpicked by intellectual and political strategies dating from the 1970s onwards. In contrast to George Osborne, Keynes focused on the national economy as a system. His idea of the multiplier effect expressed the way that government spending is not money wasted or added to a pile of debt, but rather generates further cycles of spending. It thus stimulates economic activity, supports livelihoods and generates further tax revenue.

But arguably Keynes’s contribution to the international economic system was at least as impressive. The design for what is sometimes rather pompously called the ‘global financial architecture’ ate away the last years of his life. I imagine him at Bretton Woods, arguing to defend the equality of nations against the threat of dollar imperialism: a struggle that ended in failure. It is perhaps too romantic to suggest that Keynes was heart-broken by his failure to win the debates, but within two years of the conference he was dead.

Keynes’s opponent at Bretton Woods was Harry Dexter White, the chief economic adviser of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau.1 Our memory of policy towards the devastated countries of post-war Europe is of the US munificence of the Marshall Plan. The Morgenthau Plan is not so well remembered: its intent was to deconstruct the industrial infrastructure of Germany so that it could never again threaten the stability of Europe.2 Germany was to be returned to a peasant society. The chief author of this plan was Harry Dexter White. Those of us on the left have long assumed that Marshall investment was not motivated by compassion but by the fear of communism. How might it change our view if we were to find evidence that White may have been working for the Soviet Union?

There have long been rumours circulating to this effect, but a book published by former KGB officer Vassieliev produces fairly compelling evidence:

The most important member of the Silvermaster network and the most highly placed asset the Soviets possessed in the American government was Harry Dexter White, assistant secretary of the Treasury. More than two dozen KGB documents, spanning 1941 to 1948, spell out his assistance to Soviet intelligence.3

To put this into context we have to recall, first, that the US and Soviet Union were allies for most of the period that White worked for the US government. Secondly, wartime economies were heavily centrally controlled, and hence the ideological distance in terms of economic policy between US civil servants and their counterparts in the 1940s was considerably smaller than it became as the Cold War progressed.

More important in the context of our present situation is the role played by White at Bretton Woods, the conference held at the New Hampshire resort where the Allies debated the structure of the post-war global economy. As US Treasury Secretary, Morgenthau also chaired the Bretton Woods conference. As with his Plan for Europe, he saw the weakness of the US’s competitors as an opportunity to increase US power in the post-war world. The objective of the Bretton Woods negotiations was to put in place a structure that would achieve stability and fair competition between nations, but prevent the destructive consequences of the gold standard and the excessive competitive pressures of uncontrolled currency competition that had contributed to international tensions and eventually war.

White and Keynes were the chief negotiators for the US and UK and shared much understanding about how to design the new system. They agreed about the importance of maintaining some political control over exchange rates between national currencies, a compromise between fixed exchange rates and fully floating exchange rates that became known as the ‘pegged rate currency regime’. As White put it:

‘The absence of a high degree of economic collaboration among the leading nations will…inevitably result in economic warfare that will be but the prelude and instigator of military warfare on an even vaster scale.’4

The system of exchange rates free to move within a fixed band system achieved tremendous stability for nearly 30 years, until Nixon’s unilateral decision to cut the link between the dollar and gold in 1971.

This brings us to the crucial disagreement between the two economists: what would the world’s nations peg their national currencies to? White’s plan gave this role to the dollar, making it the world reserve currency; Keynes suggested the creation of a neutral trading currency he had called the ‘bancor’, or ‘bank gold’. This would achieve stability without limiting policy to the volume in circulation of one particular naturally occurring mineral. If the dollar became the peg currency then it would effectively enable the US to print money and buy up the world’s production in return. The link with gold prevented that in theory, but the link with gold would always be, as history proved, subject to the decision of the US President.

Speculation about White’s relationship with the Soviet secret services leads to questions about why Truman chose him to be the first Executive Director of the International Monetary Fund. It has been suggested that this might have been a protective strategy, moving White out of the administration. So while White's move to become first head of the IMF may seem incredible, in fact it sheltered him from national legal investigation in the US, and so protected the reputation of the Truman administration.

The piecing together of this jigsaw puzzle, a crucial piece of which has only come to light since the end of the Cold War, raises a series of fascinating questions. The first is what motivated Harry Dexter White to propel us into the post-war world of dollar-controlled capitalism. It seems rather a stretch to suggest that the Morgenthau Plan, heavily influenced by White, was a strategy to destabilise the societies of post-war Europe. It certainly had this effect, with votes for Communist parties soaring, especially in Italy, where only the intervention of the CIA prevented a Communist victory in the 1947 election.5

If his Morgenthau Plan was intended to ensure instability and social unrest in Europe, perhaps his Bretton Woods Plan was designed to achieve similar effects at a global scale? His success in massively enhancing the power of the dollar in the post-war world seems more obscure when viewed in terms of its potential benefit to the Soviet Union. Did he hope that the US would become massively indebted and that this would challenge the dominance of the capitalist system of which it was the heart? Did he underestimate the resilience of the free-market system, or is he still waiting to be proved right?

There are two problems with re-evaluating history in this way. First it is easy to forget the context. Both the Morgenthau Plan and the Bretton Woods agreement were drawn up before the Cold War; for example, it was originally envisaged that Russia would become a member of the IMF. Secondly, it is difficult to interpret the motivations and expectations of the players. If we are prepared to accept that White was attempting to further Russian interests, what would he have thought that meant? Building the inevitability of crises into the global financial system perhaps.

Poignantly, White may also have died of a broken heart. He suffered a heart attack shortly after giving evidence to McCarthy’s House Unamerican Activities Committee in August 1948, and died a few days later.

1. Information on White is taken from Boughton, M. (2004), ‘New Light on Harry Dexter White’, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 26/2: 179-95.

2. The Morgenthau Plan, including the role of Harry Dexter White, was the subject of a programme in the Radio 4 Series Things We Forgot to Remember, broadcast on 7 June and available as a BBC podcast.

3. Haynes, J. E., Klehr, H. and Vassiliev, A. (2009), Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press), p. 258.

4. Jones, B. D., Pascual, C. and Stedman, S. J. (2009), Power and Responsibility: Building International Order in an Era of Transnational Threats (Washington: Brookings Institution) p. 234.

5. See the interview with CIA operative F. Mark Wyatt in the CNN Cold War archive, who also identifies George Marshall as a key player in this operation.

The front cover of a 1953 edition of Time, asking what President Truman knew about Harry Dexter White.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton. She is Green Party parliamentary candidate for Bristol West.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?