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.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can the left make the case for immigration?

All too often, we drift into telling people we want to convince that they just don't get it.

We don’t give the public enough credit. You’ll often hear their views dismissed with sighs in intellectual circles. In fact on most issues the public are broadly sensible, most are these days supportive of cutting the deficit and dubious about political giveaways, but in favor of protecting spending on the NHS and education. Yet there is one issue where most, “knowledgeable” folks will tell you the public are well out of step: immigration. 

With [today’s] net migration figures showing yet another record high, it is an ever more salient issue. On a lot of measures ‘too much immigration’ ranks highest as the number one concern (see Ipossmori). The ongoing rise of right wing political parties across Europe demonstrates that simply enough. But concerns about immigration don’t just sit with those with more extreme views, they’re also shared across the mainstream of public opinion. Yet unlike thinking on cutting the deficit or funding the NHS the public consensus that immigration is bad for Britain, flies flat in the face of the intellectual consensus, and by that I mean the economics. 

Given the intense public debate many a study has tried to spell out the economic impact of immigration, most find that it is positive. Immigration boosts the nation’s GDP. As the theory goes this is because immigrants bring with them entrepreneurialism and new ideas to the economy. This means firstly that they help start new ventures that in turn create more wealth and jobs for natives. They also help the supply chains to keep ticking. A example being British agriculture, where seasonal workers are are needed, for example, to pick the strawberries which help keeps the farms, the truckers and the sellers in business. 

Most studies also find little evidence of British jobs being lost (or displaced) due to immigrants, certainly when the economy is growing. Indeed economists refer to such “ “they’re” taking our jobs” arguments as the “lump of labour fallacy’. On top of all that the average migrant is younger than the native population and less likely to rely on welfare, so their net contribution to the state coffers are more likely to be positive than natives as they don’t draw as much state spending from pensions or the NHS. 

So why haven't the public cottoned on? Many progressive types dismiss such views as racist or xenophobic. But it turns out this is to misunderstand the public just as much as the public ‘misunderstand’ immigration. When you study people’s views on immigration more closely it becomes clear why. Far from being racist most people asked by focus groups cite practical concerns with immigration. Indeed if you go by the British Social Attitudes Survey a much smaller number of people express racist view than say they are concerned about migration.  

The think tank British Future broadly set out that while a quarter of people are opposed to immigration in principle and another quarter are positive about it the majority are concerned for practical reasons - concerns about whether the NHS can cope, whether there are enough social houses, whether our border controls are up to scratch and whether we know how many people are coming here in the first place (we don’t since exit checks were scrapped, they only came back a few months ago). But more than anything else they also have very little confidence that government can or wants to do anything about it. 

This truth, which is to often ignored, begets two things. Firstly, we go about making the argument in the wrong way. Telling someone “you don’t understand immigration is good for our economy etc etc” is going to get a reaction which says “this person just doesn't get my concerns”. Despite the moans of progressives, this is precisely why you won't hear left leaning politicians with any nous ‘preaching’ the the unconditional benefits of immigration.

More importantly, the economic arguments miss the central issue that those concerned with immigration have, that the benefits and effects of it are not shared fairly. Firstly migrants don’t settle homogeneously across the country, some areas have heavy influxes other have very little. So while the net effect of immigration may be positive on the national tax take that doesn't mean that public services in certain areas don’t loose out. Now there isn't clear evidence of this being the case, but that could just as well be because we don’t record the usage of public services by citizenship status. 

The effects are also not equal on the income scale, because while those of us with higher incomes scale tend to benefit from cheep labour in construction, care or agriculture (where many lower skilled migrants go) the lower paid British minority who work in those sectors do see small downward pressure on their wages. 

It’s these senses of unfairness of how migration has been managed (or not) that leads to the sense of concern and resentment. And any arguments about the benefit to the UK economy fail to answer the question of what about my local economy or my bit of the labour market. 

Its worth saying that most of these concerns are over-egged and misused by opponents of immigration. Its only a small factor in stagnating wages, and few local areas are really overrun. But the narrative is all important, if you want to win this argument you have to understand the concerns of the people you are trying to convince. That means the right way to make the argument about immigration is to start by acknowledging your opponents concerns - we do need better border controls and to manage demands on public services. Then persuade them that if we did pull up the drawbridge there is much we’d loose in smart entrepreneurs and in cultural diversity. 

Just whatever you do, don’t call them racist, they’re probably not.

Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.