Telegraph.co.uk; Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
28 March 2009
By the time world leaders gathered to vent their spleens at the London Economic Conference in June 1933, the Slump had already done its worst. Catastrophic policy errors – tight money – had caused the 1930-31 recession to metastasize into debt deflation. Hitler had been let into government with three cabinet seats, enough to give him the Prussian police and Reich interior ministry. It was all he needed.
Any country that tried to reflate alone was punished by creditors. Most stuck grimly to liquidation. Europe and America undercut each other with beggar-thy-neighbour moves on trade and gold. The surplus countries refused to play their part in restoring demand – just as they refuse today, either because they will not (Germany and the Netherlands, who between them have a surplus of $294 billion) or because they cannot for structural reasons (China, $401 billion).
It was impossible for deficit states to fill the breach, so the system folded on itself. Today, the biggest deficits are: the US ($673 billion), Spain ($155 billion), Italy ($73 billion), France ($57 billion), Greece ($50 billion), Britain ($46 billion). When the Banque de France withdrew gold deposits from New York in October 1931, the US Federal Reserve was forced to raise rates from
1.5 per cent to 3.5 per cent at a terrible moment. It knocked the stuffing out of the US banking system. Needless to say, France was the bigger loser from this petulant act, though that took time to become evident.
The London Conference was a fiasco. President Roosevelt refused to attend. He took a sailing holiday to flag his contempt for Old World posturing. FDR feared a trap to draw America back onto the Gold Standard – the source of the misery – and to lock the White House into Europe's deflation orthodoxies. As delegates waited, he cabled a message mocking the "old fetishes of so-called international bankers". Keynes defended him as "magnificently right".
The London G20 comes earlier in the depression cycle. A good thing too. The fundamental circumstances are worse today than in the early 1930s. The debt burden is higher. The global economy is more tightly intertwined. The virus spreads more swiftly.
Do not be misled by apparent normality. Unemployment lags, and social devastation lags further – although it has already hit the Baltics and Ukraine. Do not compress the historical time sequence either. Life seemed normal in early 1931 when the press reported "green shoots" everywhere. Part Two of the Depression was the killer. Part Two is what we risk now if we botch it.
Yes, we have done better this time. We saved the credit system. Central banks have slashed rates to near zero in half the world economy. The heroic Bank of England has pioneered monetary stimulus a l'outrance, even if the ungrateful wretches of this island mock their own salvation. But we must move faster because world manufacturing is collapsing at three times the speed. The damage that occurred from late 1929 to early 1931 has been packed into six months. Japan's exports fell 49 per cent in January. Holland's CPB Institute says global trade shrank 41 per cent (annualised) from November to January. Industrial output has fallen heavily over the last year: by 31 per cent in Japan, 24 per cent in Spain, 19 per cent in Germany, 17 per cent in Brazil, 13 per cent in Russia and by 11 per cent in the UK and US. Almost all has occurred since September.
In any case, the European Central Bank (ECB) is still standing pat. It is partial to medieval leech-cures – and hamstrung by the lack of EU debt union. Now, if the G20 were to convey the world's wrath at Europe's monetary paralysis, we might get somewhere. But Gordon Brown has been sidetracked by fiscal flammery. We are past that stage. Only the printing presses can rescue us, and the ECB refuses to print. Tactically, Mr Brown erred gravely by promising "the biggest fiscal stimulus the world has ever seen". It is not his gift, and comes ill from a deadbeat state that cannot sell its own bonds.
There again, was it wise for the Czech premier and titular EU president to rubbish Barack Obama's fiscal blitz as the "road to hell"? That too comes ill from a leader who has just lost a no-confidence vote over his handling of the Czech economy. But the hapless Bohemian speaks for Europe, where Hooverism is written into EU Treaty law. Indeed, last week Brussels fired anathemae at Greece, Spain, France, Britain and Ireland, for breach of the 3 per cent deficit rule. We must retrench under Regulation 1466/97. Laugh not.
Germany's finance minister, Peer Steinbruck, is still digging in his heels against "crass Keynesianism". No matter that his economy will shrink 6-7 per cent this year. Germans must sweat it out: some more than others. Unemployment may reach five million in 2010. No doubt spending is a poor instrument, and we are all sick of bail-outs. But Mr Steinbruck might brush up on history. It was the deflation of 1930-1932 – not the hyperinflation of 1923 – that killed Weimar democracy. (Communists and Nazis won half the Reichstag seats in July 1932). The neo-Marxist Linke Party is already angling for 30 per cent in June's Thuringia poll.
You may agree with Mr Steinbruck. Fine. Capitol Hill does not. The most protectionist Congress since Bretton Woods is not going to acquiesce as precious US stimulus leaks abroad to the benefit of "free-riders". Patience will snap. "Buy American" is already US law.
The risk is that this G20 becomes the defining moment when a disgusted American political class – sorely provoked – turns its back on the open trading system. The US alone has the strategic depth to clear its own path, and might find eager partners in a "pro-growth bloc" – much as Britain led a reflation bloc behind Imperial Preference in the early 1930s. As the world's top exporters, Germany and China should take great care to restrain their body language this week.
Well done, Mr Brown, for trying to hold the world together. But if the summit degenerates into a shouting match between mercantilist creditors and prostrate debtors, it may serve only to frighten markets and tip us into the next – more violent – downward leg of this slump.