For whatever wonderful reasons Amazon now has a $10 Kindle edition of Bresciani-Turroni's study of what is commonly known as the German Hyperinflation. It is the only study worth reading because it is the only one that points out the obvious — Germany along with the other countries in Eastern Europe had a war that they did not pay for even as they were fighting it. German tax collections between 1914 and 1918 were 23 million marks; during that same time the government wrote checks and paid cash totaling 164 million marks.

It makes one marvel yet again at the wonders of the gold standard as a fundamental restraint on collective insanities. Until July 31 1914 every mark spent had been redeemable by the recipient in gold. The market — the decisions of self-interested people — had foretold what would happen through the simple act of asking for gold instead of paper — so much so that, before the war's extravagances had even begun, the German currency had to default.

On this subject the wikipedia article on WW I Reparations also deserves a reading. The standard Anglo-Saxon academic explanation for the events of the 1920s and 1930s is the one taken from Keynes - i.e. the allies' reparations demands were impossible for Germany to pay and this led to the hyperinflation, which, together with the misbegotten belief in the gold standard, doomed Europe to financial collapse. As usual with Keynes, his predictions about the facts of the future were extraordinarily confident and mostly wrong. What is remarkable is how thoroughly the U.S. and Britain accepted his thesis. Raymond Poincare had the good sense to point out that France had paid a larger reparation (as a % of their economy) after the Franco-Prussian War than the one Germany was actually expected to pay. He also pointed out that France had undergone turmoil equal to what Germany had endured in the years immediately following 1918 yet it had not gone bankrupt or had the franc collapse as an international currency. But, of course, what would a - a mere Prime Minister and a French one at that know about political economy? It is appalling but not surprising, given what one discovers about the prejudices of the time, (Poincare was guilty not only of being French but also of being a good Catholic), that by 1924 the British Prime Minister was making public statements implying that the war itself had been the fault of "French" militarism.

Richard Owen writes:

Great scholarship as ever. As a quick question, as i have not yet tucked in to the homework assignment: France paid larger than the Germans requirement to pay (relative to the economy)? The amount Germany was expected to pay was impossible, so how could France pay larger than an impossible amount?

Stefan Jovanovich replies: 

Richard identifies the key issue - what were the Germans expected to pay. The usual number offered is 132 billion gold marks; but that includes the "C" bonds that were, in effect, non-recourse. The actual "debt" secured by Germany's industrial and agricultural production, was 50 billion. They paid 40% of that amount; what is truly amazing is that, through the Dawes plan, they were able to borrow most of the 20 billion that they actually paid; and that 20 billion was, in turn, used to "pay" the debt the British and, to a lesser extent, the French owed the U.S. (FWVLIW, I remain bewildered by the reasoning behind the decisions of the higher minds at the Federal Reserve in the 1910s and 1920s. How exactly did they think it was in the interest of the U.S. to allow European nations to run up a tab that makes quantitative easing seem like fiscal prudence?) Back to the question of reparations - 50 billion was not an impossible sum, especially since it was to be paid out of decades. Germany's "Federal" government had spent more than that amount on the war in a single year.

Richard Owen writes: 

Very interesting. Keynes' numbers were something like $40bn treaty reparations owed and that Germany's max capacity to pay was $10bn. This is against an economy with c.$2.5bn exports. So the treaty reparations were c.16x exports. Even at peak estimate, Greece's modern debts were something like 5x exports pre restructuring. And I guess you could wonder the correct way to think about 'capacity' — a lot of Keynes' complaint was the deflationairy mistake of even going close to theoretical capacity. Which seemed to bear out.

Stefan Jovanovich responds: 

The difficulty is that Keynes used the numbers that the Germans offered, not the ones that experience proved out. For example, his estimates of coal production were only 2/3rds of what the Ruhr and Saar produced. The central fact is the one that no one in Britain or America liked; when the claimant took possession, the debtor paid. What defeated Poincare is the decision of the French communists to oppose the occupation of the Ruhr because the Comintern had decided that the Soviet Union's best interests lay in closer relations with Germany. Perhaps we can agree that these questions are those of political economy, not economic science. what remains unanswered is why the Fed thought countries that had defaulted could still set their currencies' specie prices independent of what money changers on the street corners thought the paper was worth. The best explanation for the blowoff of the U.S. stock AND bond markets after 1925 is the willingness of the Fed to pretend that Germany was materially broke yet somehow stable enough for the mark to be accepted at the administered exchange price.


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