I am finishing The Deluge by Adam Tooze, an ambitious undertaking of a book which covers the post-WW1 rebalancing of power on a global scale. WW1 was largely a war of feuding imperialist nations with entangled alliances. But after the war the world became a different place. One particular issue that has relevance today is that of debt. Europe was very familiar with debt with from 1917 to 1925, particularly Germany. All the powers, Germany, England, France and Britain had borrowed heavily from their populace and international bankers (JP Morgan and friends) to finance the war and reconstructions. The populace could be easily taxed or the currency devalued to eliminate a portion of the debt. The foreign debt holders, however, demanded payment in hard currency or gold and were ruthless in collection. Their was no debt forgiveness by friends or foes. The Entente (Britain, France, Russia) had their ongoing currency and gold wars amongst themselves and with the US over debt. Germany was crushed by debt during that period. Perhaps Germany's intransigence today is due to their history. No one showed them much mercy at that time.

All told today in Greece the total debt at par is roughly 400b euro. A reasonable haircut could easily be absorbed by the central banks and official institutions who own most of the debt. I think the battle is one of ideas. The German notion of aggressive self reliance and go-it-alone attitude, versus the dream of a family of nations which Wilson wanted ( at least for everyone outside the US). I predict in Europe the latter path will prevail. No one wants another war, metaphoric or otherwise. The cost of a write off is negligible when the ECB is prepared to spend 1.6 trillion euro on various paper. The 5 and 10 year Greek bonds appear to agree as they started to rally in October well in advance of the current debate and are up roughly 40% since that time.

Stefan Jovanovich writes: 

Adam Tooze has written a very good book on the Nazi economy. Now he has written a very bad one. There was only one foreign debt holder for Britain and France after WW I - the U.S. The only justification for describing the Americans as "ruthless" is the Keynesian one: the U.S. Should not have insisted on being paid back in the same money that it had lent - gold priced at the U.S. Exchange rate. The U.S. Did not, in fact, collect any war debts beyond the amounts lent to Germany under the Dawes and Young plans which were paid to the European Allies as reparations and then sent back to the U.S. Finland is the one country that actually paid back what it borrowed. Germany was not crushed by debt; the hyperinflation literally wiped out all the creditors. The reparations demanded by the Allies were large, but they were less than a third the size of the ones demanded from France after their defeat in 1870. The French actually paid, in gold; the Germans never did pay up. The British thought they could ignore their default by adopting a gold exchange standard - i.e one that only applied to account reconciliation between central banks but not to money held privately. The French and the Japanese, to their credit, actually tried to restore fully so that their money would once again be automatically exchangeable to specie. The Japanese were defeated by the Tokyo earthquake and fire of 1925; the French by the U.S. Reversion to mercantilism under Hoover and Roosevelt's planned economies and the devaluation of the dollar. The great sin of the U.S. Was not to have tried to collect the war debts; it was to have violated the Constitution by failing to value foreign coin. Without the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve's connivance, the New York banks would not have been able to discount francs and pounds at pre-war par; and the war in Europe would have ended by summer 1915.


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