THE moment at which the new scheme presented by the Committees of Experts offers the most promising and most serious attempt yet made to solve the central economic problem of Europe, is an appropriate one at which to examine the progress made in the reconstruction of Austria. For among the reconstruction schemes already put into operation the one undertaken in September, 1922, is beyond comparison the most interesting and the most significant which the world has seen since the war. It is a scheme at once constructive and international in character. It is not only keeping a country alive, but it is putting it on its feet, and it is doing this by a combination of national self-help and international coöperation. After the havoc and disorganization left by the war we have seen some countries sink into chaos and destitution, others struggling painfully to comparative prosperity, still others kept alive by external charity. In Austria alone we have a country which, after definitely failing to save itself unaided, and after drifting to the very brink of chaos and destitution, is being brought back by sustained and effective international action. It is now nineteen months since the experiment was planned and sixteen since it has been in effective operation. The task is not indeed accomplished, but the experience already gained is sufficient to permit a general description of the present situation and a reasonable judgment of the future.

I

The situation of Austria which confronted the League of Nations when it was asked by the Allied Powers to intervene in August, 1922, may be very briefly summarized. Its main features are well known. The rich and powerful Empire of Austria-Hungary had in 1919 been broken in war and dismembered by peace as no other country has been in recent history. Of the fragments into which the old empire was divided Austria was by far the most miserable. Vienna, once the rich capital of over sixty millions, was left the center of a small country with only one-tenth of that population. Her own population was more than half that of all the rest of the country of which she still remained the capital. The new Austria produced less than one-third of her food supplies and few raw materials. She was hemmed in by new political frontiers, which became also for a time almost impassable economic barriers. These barriers separated the urban populations from the food, without which they could not live, and the main industries both from their raw materials and from their markets. As a country the new Austria had no national self-consciousness, no sentiment of unity, no feeling of patriotism. The provinces felt no unity with, or common responsibility for, the capital. In sentiment, in economic relations, in administration and government, this small fragment, the new Austria, began indeed, for practical purposes, to break up into even smaller units. And this dismembered and impoverished small country was left with the weight of a reparation obligation none the less serious because it was undefined.

Under these conditions Austria's spirit broke. She gave up any serious attempt to reëstablish her future. Her administration became demoralized, her power of government enfeebled. She continued or embarked upon expenditure which no resources of her own could meet. She printed notes and borrowed recklessly. The officials of Vienna were as numerous now that Vienna was the impoverished capital of a small country as when she was the rich center of an empire ten times the size. The demoralization of her administration may be illustrated by the fact that she was still printing one-crown notes in June, 1922, when the crown was worth less than one-hundredth of a cent, a mere fraction of the cost of the paper and printing.

For three years Austria became the beggar of Europe. The charity of the world responded generously and over $100,000,000 of public money was lent by other countries, in addition to millions of private charity--America taking a leading part in both. With this help, and with the losses of foreign speculators in the crown, or foreign merchants who accepted the crown in payment for their goods (losses estimated at no less than some $150,000,000), Austria lived--but pitifully and precariously. She froze in winter, and a large part of her population was hungry throughout the year. Her middle class was almost destroyed, and it was a common sight to see scientists or historians of European reputation ill-clad or obviously starved. The mortality was high and, among children, terrible.

In 1921 and 1922 there was some improvement in the actual supply of food and some of the barest necessities of life. But it was a precarious improvement only rendered possible by the foreign money which was flowing in from public loans and from private charity, aided by the continued optimism with which for a long time the foreigner still accepted the crown in payment.

But such external money as was available was all consumed for current needs. There was no reconstruction. The deficit in the budget was continually increasing. The fall in the value of the crown was becoming continually more rapid. By August, 1922, all external sources of help had come to an end. The springs of public and private charity had dried up. The crown had dropped to 1-15000 part of its gold value and was still falling precipitously. It was clear that it could not long continue to be accepted in payment by foreigners. Austria was faced with the vital necessity of purchasing large imports of food and raw materials during the coming autumn and winter, and she had no resources from which to pay for them. There seemed no escape from destitution, starvation, riots and perhaps revolution, with incalculable foreign complications.

II

It was in these circumstances that Austria made a last appeal to the Allied Powers in London in August, 1922. She obtained cold comfort. She was told that "representatives of the Allied governments have come to the decision that they are unable to hold out any hope of future financial assistance." She was referred to the League of Nations. At the time this reference was generally understood as little more than a formula of polite dismissal. Monsignor Seipel, indeed, on receiving the reply went not to Geneva but to Prague, Berlin and Verona, to discuss the situation of his country with the Governments of Czechoslovakia, Germany and Italy. When he was at Prague there was real anxiety at Rome as to the object of this visit. When he went to Verona there was equal anxiety in Prague. When he went to Berlin all the Allies became uneasy.

There had been for some time a movement in Austria, which grew in proportion to her distress, in favor of union with Germany. And now, as the prospect of disorder and revolution drew nearer, the possibility of intervention by Italy was also actively discussed and became a subject of anxiety in Czechoslovakia. It was clear, indeed, that the imminent dangers of social distress and disturbance had developed to a point where they had created a grave political problem.

The League was therefore confronted with a complex problem, political as well as financial and economic in character. It was fortunate that already in 1921, before it had the power or authority to act, the League had carefully studied the Austrian position with the aid of an expert commission in Vienna. It was fortunate, too, that when the appeal for intervention arrived the Assembly was just about to meet and was throughout the subsequent negotiations able to provide the most favorable atmosphere for the negotiations; that the Council was in constant session throughout September to provide the necessary political authority; and that the Financial Committee, also in session, was there to give the required expert advice. Difficult, therefore, and almost desperate as the problem appeared to be, the League decided to make a serious attempt at a solution.

Mgr. Seipel was invited to attend meetings of the Council and, in accordance with the normal rule of the League, became a full member of the Council during consideration of a question particularly interesting his country. The representative of Czechoslovakia, Dr. Benes, was similarly added, and a strong committee, consisting of these two members, with Lord Balfour, M. Hanotaux and the Marquis Imperiali, handled the whole question during the next five weeks. Working under the general directions of this committee, the Financial Committee of the League prepared in detail a scheme of financial reconstruction, while the main committee proceeded to deal with the political aspects of the same problem.

III

In five weeks a comprehensive scheme was framed, signed and launched.

As its basis a protocol was signed by Great Britain, France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, certain other powers, and Austria herself, containing a solemn declaration that the signatories would respect the political independence, the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Austria; that they would seek no special or exclusive economic or financial advantage which would compromise Austria's independence, and that if any such question arose they would refer the matter to the Council of the League and comply with its decision. Austria herself in the same protocol entered into corresponding commitments. Aided by the confidence created by an international agreement and the coöperation promised in this protocol, Austria was to be restored by a plan of financial reconstruction. Complicated in its detail, this scheme is simple in its main outline and principles.

The immediate trouble with Austria was that the value of her currency was rapidly falling. This was due primarily to the fact that her revenue was insufficient for her public expenditure and that the government, having no other resources, was meeting the deficit by printing notes. It was therefore first provided that inflation by the issue of notes should cease at once, and, to assure this, that the right of note issue should be transferred by the government to an independent bank of issue working on commercial principles and in accordance with carefully defined statutes approved by the League.

Of course this in itself was no solution of the problem. Inflation resulted directly from an unbalanced budget and stability was impossible unless the budget could be brought into equilibrium. Austria was therefore to undertake internal reforms, the indispensable condition of external help, which would in time secure a balance of her expenditure and receipts.

It was estimated that this could be effected in two years. The stoppage of inflation, however, necessarily deprived Austria of the only internal means by which she could meet her current deficits and it was necessary to meet the deficits for the two years in question, estimated at about $130,000,000, by loans. Austria herself was required to raise the first of these loans, but she could obviously only raise a small portion; the rest had to come from outside.

Austria's assets, in particular her customs and tobacco receipts, were quite sufficient security for these loans if they could be relied upon. But at the time there was an obvious danger that Austria herself would fall to pieces, in which case her customs and tobacco receipts would necessarily disappear. It was not therefore practical, at the desperate stage which Austria had been allowed to reach, to expect foreign investments on her own securities alone. This difficulty was met in two ways. Not only was Austria's political and economic independence assured by the protocol already referred to, but in addition Italy, Great Britain, France, and Czechoslovakia each agreed to guarantee a portion of the loan, and ultimately Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Switzerland, and Spain were also associated as guarantors under the same or somewhat similar terms.

It was contemplated that in this way the necessary external loan could be obtained, but that was clearly not enough; it was essential to provide that the funds so raised were really used to achieve the object in view--the permanent self-supporting independence of Austria. Austria bound herself to undertake the most drastic administrative reforms. A delegation of the League at once visited Vienna and worked out in detail, with the Austrian Government, the legislation, the statutes and arrangements for the new bank of issue and a program of budget reform, limiting the expenditure in each period of six months for two years in such a way as to secure, on a moderate estimate of the yields of taxation, a budget equilibrium by the end of 1925. A Commissioner-General--Dr. Zimmermann--was at the same time appointed by the League to see that the reforms were duly executed. His authority was increased by the fact that both the revenue assigned as security for the loan, and the loan itself, were paid into accounts from which no money could pass to the Austrian Government without his consent.

Such in bare outline was the scheme. One comment immediately occurs. The scheme was obviously one of financial reconstruction only. It did not directly deal with Austria's economic position, which, it was clear, could not remain permanently stable unless not only her budget and financial position was satisfactory, but also her trade balance. It was also obvious that she must not only meet her public expenditure by taxation, but she must produce, and sell, as much as she consumed. It was common knowledge at the time that the trade balance of Austria was seriously adverse. Many economists believed, indeed, that with her new frontiers nothing else was possible; that the new Austria created by the peace treaty was essentially not "viable." The League fully recognized the existence and importance of the economic, as well as the financial, problem; but it was felt that the best contribution which a League scheme could make to the economic problem was to give, for the first time since the war, a stable basis on which Austria herself could develop her economic life and make such adaptations as might prove necessary. It was believed that with the advantage of such a stable basis the task of adaptation would indeed be difficult and painful, but not impossible.

IV

Before proceeding to compare results with anticipations, it will be interesting to notice the criticisms made throughout the world at the time of the adoption of the scheme. It was generally said by the economists and financiers of all countries that the League advisers had been too optimistic in thinking that a loan could be raised on securities so novel to the lending public, that equilibrium could be attained in as short a period as two years, or that so small a sum as that contemplated could suffice to meet the deficits in that period. It was further said generally that the new Austria with her large capital was top-heavy, and probably did not possess the natural and acquired resources necessary to enable her to pay her way.

In the first place, the loan was successfully and very rapidly raised (at the same rate of interest as the average yield at that time of the French and Italian external loans) in New York, London, Paris, Rome, Brussels, Switzerland, Prague, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Vienna and, somewhat later, Madrid.

The Austrian crown was at once stabilized and has remained absolutely stable in relation to the dollar for the whole of the nineteen months. Instead of being the least stable currency in the world outside Russia, it has become the most stable currency in Europe. With legitimate pride it is locally known as the "Alpine dollar." The difficulty, in fact, has been, as we shall see later, not to prevent the crown from falling but to prevent it from increasing in exchange value in such a way as to impede economic development and increase the real burden of the public debt. The most notable features of the whole experience have been the way in which, once a comprehensive scheme supported by international coöperation was produced, confidence returned immediately, and the startling recuperative effect of this returning confidence. The previous flight from the crown was replaced at once by a flight to the crown. Nothing could better illustrate the difference between the old methods of piece-meal system and the present comprehensive scheme than the record of the exchange value of the crown. Early in 1922 the British Government lent a sum of £2,000,000. It was spent mainly in an attempt to maintain the value of the crown by selling foreign exchange at a fixed rate. In three or four weeks the £2,000,000 was exhausted and the crown continued its fall. But after the present scheme was launched the same process of offering foreign exchange at stable rates resulted not in the exhaustion of foreign exchange but in its increase. The foreign exchange holdings in the national bank now amount to some 300,000,000 gold crowns, as compared with corresponding holdings of less than 20,000,000 when the scheme commenced. From the first the Austrian public, instead of bringing crowns and asking for foreign exchange, brought back the foreign exchange which they had hoarded or invested abroad and asked for crowns. Every other index of restored confidence gave the same results. Savings increased in real value twenty-fold in some sixteen months. The value of the stock exchange securities in the same period increased four-fold.

The progress made in balancing the budget has similarly exceeded all anticipations. The main scheme contemplated stable equilibrium being attained by the end of 1924, and in order to give a margin for security the detailed program was so arranged as to secure a balance by mid-summer 1924. In fact, however, receipts have been equal to expenditure in every month since November, 1923; that is to say, equilibrium (though not necessarily stable equilibrium) had already been attained within eleven months of the scheme being effectively initiated with the institution of control. The yield of taxes has been considerably greater than was anticipated. The yield for example of the revenues assigned as security for the loan doubled in gold value in the course of 1923. They were already some thirty percent above the estimates in the first six months of the year, and were about doubled by the end of the year. As a consequence of this, considerably less money than had been anticipated has had to be drawn from the proceeds of the loan to meet current deficits. More than half the period has elapsed--the half during which much the heaviest expenditure was expected--but less than half the loan money has been spent. Up to date, in fact, only between fifty and sixty percent of the loan expenditure contemplated has been required.

In the meantime the general economic condition of the country--if not in all respects all that could be wished--has certainly been immensely better than was anticipated. The cost of living has remained fairly stable. It was exactly the same in September, 1923, as in September, 1922, though it has since begun to show some signs of increase. Unemployment, though greater in the period of depreciating exchange, has never been so serious as in Great Britain, Czechoslovakia, or Switzerland--to take three countries with comparatively stabilized exchanges--and again has been much less serious than was anticipated. The numbers of unemployed were 38,000 in September, 1922, rising to 167,000 in March, 1923; but falling again to 77,000 by November of last year. The figure has now, however, risen again over 100,000 and gives some cause for anxiety. Most important, perhaps, with a view to the permanent future of Austria, has been the clear demonstration that Vienna, instead of being as was feared an impossible burden upon the small state of Austria, has been an asset. Vienna never entirely lost, and has now recovered, her position as banker of southeastern Europe. The earnings and profits of financial operations are indeed an immensely important factor in the Austrian balance of payments. Unfortunately, from the statistical point of view, they are "invisible exports," incapable of exact assessment. The statistics of visible trade show for January, 1923, a total value of imports and exports of 149,000,000 gold crowns (adverse balance 31), and for November of the same year 253,000,000 gold crowns (adverse balance 85). These figures, however, for the above reason are important rather as showing the expanding economic activity of Austria than as suggesting a real adverse balance. The invisible exports have been rapidly increasing throughout the whole of this period. The visible adverse balance in fact only reflects the fact that Austria is largely dependent on the financial earnings of Vienna.

These fortunate results, however, are subject to one important qualification. The budget equilibrium has, at least for the time, been attained, but it has not been attained mainly through reduction of expenditure, but through an increase in taxation receipts. And there is some reason to fear that this increase may not be entirely permanent in character. The influx of foreign exchange,--from the proceeds of the external loan, from the return of Austria's foreign credits, and from foreign capital attracted by the large financial profits of last year,--has created a prosperity which to some extent may be temporary in character, as its immediate causes are largely temporary. It is this partly abnormal prosperity which by increasing taxation receipts has reduced the budget deficits. The present danger is that, though budget equilibrium is attained, it may be on too high a level of expenditure to give an assurance of permanence. The general prosperity and the increase of receipts have naturally made it more difficult to insist on strict economies.

The use of foreign money to meet deficits in Austrian crowns, coupled with the influx of foreign exchange from the other sources indicated above, has moreover resulted in certain currency and price problems which are of considerable interest to the economist.

As always happens in a period of rapidly falling currency, the fall in exchange value of the Austrian crown had by August, 1922, largely outrun the increase in the number of notes printed, and the total gold value of the currency in existence was at that time obviously insufficient for the conduct of the business of the country under normal conditions. To a large extent transactions were effected through the medium of foreign exchange, and in other ways the public had found means of avoiding the use of a currency which was ceasing to be any sure measure of value. It was always contemplated, therefore, that while the strictest provisions must be taken to prevent an inflationary printing of notes, additional notes would be required, against a proper reserve, to meet the expanding needs of the country. In fact, the amount of currency, and, as its value was stable, its gold value, doubled in the course of 1923 and is now about four times as great as in September, 1922. This increase has been effected without running any risk of depreciation in exchange value, since 100 percent of cover in foreign exchange has been kept against the additional notes. It has also up till recently been effected without causing a depreciation in internal purchasing value, i.e., without an increase in prices. The index figure was exactly the same for December, 1923, as for September, 1922. The increase, in fact, corresponded with a general increase in the economic activity of the country, and still more in the demand for Austrian crowns for internal use as the crown again became the sole medium of exchange. Recently, however, there are several signs (for example, in a tendency of the index figure to rise) that the increase of notes is in danger of outrunning the internal demand. This creates a difficult situation, for foreign exchange continues to flow in. If the bank continues to print notes and to give them out at the standard rate of exchange, internal prices must rise. If, however, the bank slows down the printing of extra notes it is difficult to avoid appreciation in the external value of the crown, with its normal consequences. I need not here go into the technical methods by which a solution is being attempted for this dilemma, but the dilemma itself is an interesting example of the difference in the problems presented in the course of the execution of the scheme from those which occupied attention when it was begun. It would certainly have seemed very curious in 1922 to discuss the danger of an appreciation in the crown.

In general summary, therefore, it may be said that while there are certain features in the Austrian position which will need anxious watching, the situation as a whole is very much better than was anticipated by the most optimistic in 1922. As a well-known financier said to me recently, "If Austria is now suffering, it is no longer from 'poor man's gout' but from 'rich man's gout.'"

V

It may be convenient if I now turn to a few specific criticisms which have been made of the working of the scheme. It is essential, however, in considering such criticisms to keep a proper perspective by remembering the desperate condition of Austria until eighteen months ago. It is only too easy, in view of the financial prosperity of this last year, to forget the desperate position which preceded it and to begin to apply to Austria standards of comparison which no one would have thought of applying in 1922. Nothing can better give this perspective than a quotation from the concluding words of the Financial Committee's Report of September, 1922:

"The Committee feels bound, in conclusion, to issue one word of warning. Austria has for three years been living largely upon public and private loans, which have voluntarily or involuntarily become gifts, upon private charity and upon losses of foreign speculators in the crown. Such resources cannot, in any event, continue and be so used. Austria has been consuming much more than she has produced. The large sums advanced, which should have been used for the reëstablishment of her finances and for her economic reconstruction, have been used for current consumption. Any new advances must be used for the purposes of reform; and within a short time Austria will only be able to consume as much as she produces. The period of reform itself, even if the new credits are forthcoming, will necessarily be a very painful one. The longer it is deferred the more painful it must be. At the best, the conditions of life in Austria must be worse next year, when she is painfully reestablishing her position, than last year, when she was devoting loans intended for that purpose to current consumption without reform.

"The alternative is not between continuing the conditions of life of last year or improving them. It is between enduring a period of perhaps greater hardship than she has known since 1919 (but with the prospect of real amelioration thereafter)--the happier alternative,--or collapsing into a chaos of destitution and starvation to which there is no modern analogy outside Russia.

"There is no hope for Austria unless she is prepared to endure and support an authority which must enforce reforms entailing harder conditions than those at present prevailing, knowing that in this way only can she avoid an even worse fate."

This passage already seems somewhat paradoxical, or at least over-strained in tone. We must not forget that it seemed a platitude, and perhaps an under-statement, to all the world when it was written.

With this preface I turn very briefly to some of the criticisms most commonly made. It is sometimes said that the intellectual and the middle class generally is suffering in Austria. This is true. No class suffered so much from the depreciating currency. The value of their savings was destroyed; the value of their current earnings largely reduced. The evil had been done, however, before the League scheme was introduced. The League has done nothing to aggravate it, and much to improve it. It has given a stable basis on which the middle class can readjust,--and largely have readjusted,--their earnings and salaries, and once readjusted the gain is permanent. The scheme has not, indeed, restored their lost savings. That was impossible. If the crown had been allowed to rise in value and so somewhat increase the purchasing power of dividends from bonds and other securities payable in Austrian crowns, the relief could at the best have been infinitesimal to the middle class holding such bonds. Those who had suffered most had already parted with their bonds. The gainers in the great bulk of cases would have been people who bought at a depreciated value and who would have made an entirely undeserved and unnecessary profit at the expense of the state. Moreover, even stabilization caused an impediment to Austria's foreign trade, as it has done in every other country, and appreciation would have been fatal to it. In addition, it is obvious that any appreciation in the crown would have increased the burden of Austria's budget and so rendered more difficult the whole progress of her reform.

A second criticism sometimes made against the scheme is that it has impeded social legislation. During the socialist régime Austria proceeded to enact very rapidly a series of social measures. Five main laws included provision for an eight-hour day, unemployment insurance, workmen's councils, collective contracts and a system of conciliation boards. With the passage of these laws social legislation in Austria was, except for the absence of any scheme of old age pensions, advanced by comparison with that of most countries of Europe. These laws have not been annulled, or seriously modified, since the scheme of reconstruction has been in force. But already, before that scheme was begun, the socialist government had been replaced by a bourgeois government, which was naturally not inclined to apply the laws as completely as their predecessors would have wished, still less to pass new measures involving additional expense. The arrest in the development of social measures therefore came originally not from the scheme of reconstruction but from the rejection of the socialist government by the Austrian people. It is of course true that any scheme of which the main basis is economy such as will enable the budget to be balanced, must operate as a restraining force against proposals involving new expense. It is, however, a rather idle question to ask whether the scheme has impeded social progress. Social measures, however desirable for a country which can afford them, must obviously bear some relation to a country's financial resources.

A more pertinent question is whether the progress achieved is permanent in character,--whether there is any assurance that when the control is terminated Austria can and will remain in the position of self-supporting independence. This is a much more difficult question to answer. All the indications are to the effect that the fundamental economic resources and earning capacity of Austria are such as to enable her to live on a reasonable standard of life and with no impossible changes in the life and occupations of her people. Vienna has been clearly shown to be a source of earning power, a net asset to the country and not a drain upon the resources of the provinces. At the same time it is possible, for the reasons given above, that Austria's present prosperity is to some extent fictitious and temporary. It is doubtful whether her permanent economic resources are yet sufficiently developed to give her a permanently stable basis of prosperity and independent life, though it is fairly clear that they are capable of such development. It is also true that the maintenance of a budget equilibrium will need a succession of reasonably strong and strict governments, and political conditions which will enable them to avoid unjustified expenditure. Here, again, the future only can give a definite answer. It should be noted, however, that the League control is, under the protocol, to last not merely till the moment when equilibrium is attained, but until the Council "shall have ascertained that the financial stability of Austria is assured."

VI

An attempt is now being made to apply the same principles found effective in Austria to the somewhat analogous problem of Hungary. Hungary, unlike Austria, is agricultural and more than self-sufficient in the prime necessities of life. The fall of the Hungarian crown was, for these reasons, not so immediately catastrophic in its results; and it is likely that, in such a country, the financial results of restored confidence will be on a smaller scale. But there is no reason to doubt that the same methods will be equally successful in securing a stable basis on which the country can attain its normal economic development.

Those who study carefully the principles of the scheme prepared by the Committees of Experts for securing stabilization in Germany will find (with important points of difference) much that bears a close resemblance to the Austrian and Hungarian schemes. In taking as the main bases of their scheme (1) a stabilized currency secured by an independent bank of issue and (2) a balanced budget, the Experts have obviously proceeded on the same principles. In estimating first the budget possibilities and afterwards safeguarding the exchange position by limitations upon transfer from marks into foreign currency they have applied a method adopted in the Hungarian scheme. Finally, the method of securing an external obligation, otherwise determined, by means of assigned revenues controlled by commissioners, again follows the Austrian and Hungarian models.

There is, of course, the important difference that Germany is considered capable of meeting her ordinary external expenditure from her internal resources, without requiring a loan devoted specially to meeting ordinary deficits during a period of reconstruction, and that there is therefore no general budget control during a reconstruction period. In spite of this difference, however, the Austrian and Hungarian schemes, in addition to bringing stability to the important region of Europe directly concerned, may perhaps be justly considered to have assisted in the solution--if, as may be hoped, it proves to be the solution--of the larger problem of Germany.

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  • SIR ARTHUR SALTER, Secretary of the Allied Maritime Transport Council during the war; Director of the Economic and Finance Section of the League of Nations, 1919-1920, and again since 1922; General Secretary of the Reparation Commission, 1920-1922
  • More By Arthur Salter