The ECB thinks it is learning the lessons of 1923, but it's not

It might be learning from 1973 — but those lessons don't apply anymore.

When editors of Bild, Germany’s best-selling tabloid newspaper, arrived at the European Central Bank in March 2012 to grill its president about the eurozone crisis, they brought with them an unusual gift. It was a Prussian military helmet to remind Mario Draghi that back in 2010 the tabloid had deemed him the most "Germanic" of candidates for the ECB’s top slot.

Of course, such editorial approval quickly disappeared after Draghi committed the ECB to buying unlimited quantities of eurozone government bonds amid efforts to do “whatever it takes” to solve the single currency’s crisis. But nevertheless the brief encounter revealed the extent of Germany’s cultural influence over Europe’s monetary guardian. Germans, it is often said, make for better central bankers: prudent and cautious, they like to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going.

Today we often read in news media of the German psychological "aversion" to inflationary policies. This antipathy has often been attributed by politicians, bankers and journalists to the traumatic events of 1923 when Germany succumbed to the full horrors of hyperinflation. Wheelbarrows full of paper money. Children building small fortresses on the pavement with thick wads of bank notes. We have all seen the photos.

But this was an event that occurred almost ninety years ago; few, if any, Germans today have living memory of it. Moreover, other European countries, such as Hungary and Austria, underwent similar inflationary excess during the 20th century and fail to hold price stability in the same regard.

A national economic mythology surrounds inflation in Germany, and it is one that is having a disruptive impact on the eurozone crisis. With every decision the ECB makes, Draghi has to factor in the expected response of the hawkish Germans. But why has one historical event etched itself upon German popular consciousness, whereas an episode just as devastating, such as mass unemployment, has not? After all, the Weimar Republic in 1920s Germany had to contend with joblessness and ever-lengthening dole queues.

Mass unemployment, like the hyperinflation, was a major reason why the German electorate voted in droves for extreme left- and right-wing parties. Yet the memory of rampant redundancy faded in the post-war era as high rates of economic growth allowed West Germans to enjoy unprecedented job opportunities.

Why then the special attention devoted to hyperinflation? The answer lies in the virtue of monetary mythology. For all the national trauma caused by the events in 1923, the memory of hyperinflation has proved over the decades a very convenient tool for managing price expectations and building a strong belief in the post-war West German central bank.

The story of 1923 has been lapped up by the news media in recent years. “For the Bundesbank, it had always been taboo to finance the state by purchasing its sovereign bonds,” argued Der Spiegel in late 2011. “Behind this belief was the terrifying example of its predecessor, the Reichsbank, which had printed money with abandon in the 1920s in order to support the budget of the Weimar Republic. The result was a hyperinflation that has become deeply entrenched in the collective memory of Germans.”

Similarly, The Economist declared in 2010 that, “Germany’s interwar experience with hyperinflation famously created a political climate amenable to the rise of Adolph Hitler and generated sufficient national trauma that the German central bank (and its descendent, the ECB) has ever since focused first, second and last on keeping inflation well in check.”

Indeed, when asked by The Guardian in late 2011 why the Berlin government was so reluctant to allow the ECB to become last lender of resort for eurozone member states, Hans-Werner Sinn, president of the influential Munich-based Ifo Institute for Economic Research replied, “Because it leads to inflation. We know this from our own history. It’s what Germany did until 1923.”

Quotes like those above litter media coverage of German monetary and foreign policy. But to a large extent they merely echo history lessons that were skilfully articulated by German policymakers in the post-war era.

The importance of being Ernst

A central bank’s power is derived from its credibility with the markets which, in turn, are influenced as much by psychological factors as underlying economic fundamentals. Prior to the introduction of the euro currency, the Bundesbank was able to carefully construct an image of prudence to keep the deutschmark stable - primarily by means of strong policy initiatives and a clear communications strategy.

Officials in Frankfurt used the example of hyperinflation in order to reassure markets that never again would a German state descend into the realm of monetary madness. It was a simple and effective narrative: 1923 was an event that evaporated people’s savings, destroyed the political support of moderate parties, and helped pave the way toward fascist dictatorship. An irresponsible monetary policy, the Bundesbank argued, was unimaginable in a post-war German state.

Just look at the 1970s, for instance - a decade when the old truths of monetary policy no longer seemed to apply. The Phillips curve, an erstwhile economic ‘law’ that hitherto demonstrated the inverse relationship between inflation and unemployment rates, dissipated amid economic turmoil. Suddenly governments had to contend with both problems at the same time, a new phenomenon dubbed ‘stagflation’.

Moreover, the Bretton Woods system collapsed in 1971. European states no longer had the benefit of fixing their currency exchange rates to the American greenback to hold inflation expectations steady. The international rules had changed, and all major economies soon opted for a system of floating exchange rates.

Central bankers in Europe had to fight to keep the trust of international markets in the midst of energy price spikes and economic volatility. In Germany, then, potential inflationary dangers took on new prominence during the 1970s, appearing in Bundesbank presidential speeches, policy documents and national debates. Central bank press statements and conferences allowed officials to complement and reinforce the institution’s hard-line policy actions with historical justification.

The strategy worked. In 1974 most industrialised economies had double digit inflation rates. By contrast West Germany had an inflation rate of 7 per cent, which steadily declined thereafter until 1979. Fifty years after wheelbarrows full of paper money, the deutschmark had become the centre of gravity in the European currency market.

The useful lessons of 1923 tapped into the Germans’ imagination. Cultural memory, it seems, has its own form of economics. When asked about his institution’s influence and power, Karl Otto Pöhl, the central bank’s president during the 1980s, quoted Stalin’s ironic remark, “How many divisions has the Pope?” Other European central bankers could only look with envy at the Bundesbank’s international prestige.

Don’t mention the euro

But what proved a useful instrument for the West German central bank in the decades following the Second World War, now acts as a hindrance to an effective solution to the eurozone crisis. The example of hyperinflation continues to be wielded by German policymakers as a means of influencing the parameters of European monetary debate.

News media still happily recount the narrative, almost without thinking. The Financial Times warned last October, “[t]he eurozone sovereign debt crisis has already generated a lot of angst in Germany – fears about hyperinflation wiping out savings, the ballooning cost of bailouts and the nagging doubt that life was more certain with the deutschmark in one’s pocket.”

Statements like these only serve to reinforce the German case for European austerity; for the impression is given that Germans can’t help but be psychologically opposed to inflationary policies.

And the ECB, for its part, is in a difficult position. The institution owes an enormous intellectual debt to the hawkish Bundesbank: its statutes are modelled on the Bundesbank’s, and it is no accident that the ECB’s headquarters can be found in Frankfurt – a symbolic act that stresses its link with Germany.

But this debt is now becoming an actual burden. The arena of central banking has changed dramatically since the financial crisis. Almost by necessity, monetary policy has become increasingly blurred with that of fiscal in order to counter the fallout stemming from market turmoil.

Indeed, many business commentators have accused the ECB of being too focused on fighting inflation and not enough on stimulating the floundering European economy. It is an accusation that Draghi is all too aware of. The Italian, however, is constrained by the tall shadow of the Bundesbank.

During the Bild interview, for instance, his interrogators put forward the following question: “For the Germans, the head of a central bank must be strictly against inflation, independent of politics and for a strong euro. In this sense, how German are you?” There was a pause. Draghi had to choose his words carefully.

“These are indeed German virtues,” the Italian responded. “Germany is a role model [for the ECB] … In the 20th century the Germans had terrible experiences with inflation. It destroys value and makes economic planning impossible. More still, it can literally destroy the society of a country.”

But the Bundesbank’s opposition to government bond purchases has substantially delayed the ECB’s eventual course of action. It was only last September, despite much German protest, that the ECB president adopted an open-ended commitment to buy up periphery short-term sovereign bonds – arguably seen as a core tenet of any effective solution to the eurozone’s woes.

An event that occurred nine decades ago continues to shape the contours of monetary debate in Europe today. But Germany’s national priorities do not necessarily make for good supranational ones.

When the editors of Bild reminded the ECB president that the tabloid cheekily portrayed him wearing a Pickelhaube on its front-page in 2010, Draghi shared his thoughts on the image: “I quite liked it actually. The Prussian is a good symbol for the most important job of the ECB: to maintain price stability and protect European savers.” It is unlikely, however, that the Prussian helmet will point Draghi in the right direction.

The ECB’s credibility now rests on an effective response to the eurozone crisis. The central bank’s president is quite right when he argues that inflation “destroys value and makes economic planning impossible.” But Draghi now has an opportunity to break from the past.

Were the ECB’s monetary chief to spearhead a successful solution to the euro’s troubles – one that is likely to depart significantly from Bundesbank orthodoxy – he may well go on to form a powerful, new narrative that will in turn shape the parameters of monetary debate in Europe.

Mario Draghi. Photograph: Getty Images

Simon Mee is a freelance journalist currently undertaking doctoral research in German economic history at Oxford University.

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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?