Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
SEEN in retrospect, the world's currency record of the last two decades is most curious. Its shifting pattern is rather like that of a formal dance, with alternating movements of union and dispersal, and with each participant in turn taking every possible rôle. Twice during this period the world has had and has lost what was in effect a single currency, for whatever the differences of unit or of nomenclature, national currencies that are linked at fixed parities to the same metallic standard constitute for practical purposes a single medium of exchange; and both in 1914 and in 1927 the exceptions to this system were few and unimportant. In the early post-war period, and again recently, the exceptions have been the rule. Now there is a renewed movement to recapture the lost currency stability. The world is again feeling its way towards a world currency, but still doubtful whether it will be found through a system substantially the same as it has known before or one profoundly different.
No less notable than the main alternating movements have been the changing rôles of individual countries. Of all the belligerents in the Great War, the United States alone retained its gold currency unimpaired. But in October 1933 it initiated, more voluntarily and deliberately than any other country, a policy of drastic depreciation; while since then it has returned again to a definite gold parity, which has now been maintained for over a year and a half. Germany's old currency lost all its value. That of France lost four-fifths and that of Italy lost three-quarters of the old parities. But in recent years they have endured the most destructive deflation rather than change them again. Great Britain was the first principal belligerent whose currency had been forced off gold to restore it to its old parity, without (as in the case of Germany) a liquidation of the past; now again it is off gold and the leader of those reluctant to return to it.
It may seem hard to discover any consistent thread of national policy or preoccupation in this shifting pattern of events. But the clue to present policy is, I think, to be found in the very contrasts of earlier experience. Each country, as is so commonly the case, has learnt from the experience of others—and at the same time has over-generalized from its own. It is precisely because America after the war had no direct experience of currency depreciation, as of extreme inflation, that she found it possible to embark so light-heartedly upon the experiment of October 1933. Significantly it was the distant memory of "greenbacks" that imposed the only definite limiting factor, the reluctance to resort to mere note-printing. It is precisely because the French and German peoples had directly experienced the disastrous consequences of extreme depreciation that they have clung so desperately to their restored currencies. It is in Great Britain's own experience of limited currency depreciation until 1925, and of severe currency deflation from then on to 1931, that we must seek the explanation of her attachment to a managed currency on the basis of a cautious financial policy of balanced budgets and cheap money.
But truth after all is one as well as all-comprehending. All these national experiences are relevant, and none has an exclusive importance. Alike to avoid reciprocal reproaches and to find the basis of a tolerable world system we must try to discover and assign to its due place the element of truth in each national experience and each divergent trend of opinion. Let us, then, consider in broad outline the cases for and against stabilization, and see whether the main lines of a practical policy will emerge.
The case for attempting some form of stabilization is a very strong one. It is perhaps best presented by describing the evils which now result from the fact, or fear, of currency instability.
Consider first the situation of the "gold bloc" countries. Their currencies are certainly over-valued, as they have been ever since the pound left gold in 1931, and increasingly since the dollar was progressively depreciated in the autumn of 1933. This in effect means that, except for special defensive or corrective measures, French and German exports could not compete successfully in external markets; that the goods of other countries with depreciated currencies would flow into France and Germany in excessive quantities; that their gold would be drained out; and that ultimately their currencies would be forced off their parities. The gold bloc countries have been determined to prevent this, and have taken measures to prevent it. The measures are of various kinds. They include, as in France, prohibitive tariffs and restrictive quotas; or, as in Germany, restrictions on exchange which in effect prevent the gold standard from working as a medium of international exchange; or, as in France, and as in Germany during the Brüning régime, a policy of internal deflation—of forcing down internal prices—which is, for reasons to be given a little later, the most fatal of all.
These counter-measures involve great loss both to the countries directly concerned and to the world as a whole. The policy of deflation, of attempting to force costs down to a point which will enable industries to be profitable not only at existing prices but at prices which are competitive in external markets, through reductions in wages and in external expenditure, and at the same time of arresting the outflow of gold through high discount rates, which increase the cost of capital for all purposes—this policy is disastrous. It puts out of action industries which are operating on the margin of profitability; it reduces the individual's power to purchase both at home and abroad; it counteracts the efforts of other countries to encourage a rise of prices by depreciation; and thus in every way, while it is in process, it aggravates both the internal and the general depression. True, when the process had been completed there might be a basis for a sound new upward movement. But there is no security that before that moment arrives another depreciation of an external currency will not occur and the whole process have to be begun over again. This is what happened to the gold countries when, after painful and prolonged efforts to adjust themselves to the consequences of the British depreciation of 1931, they were confronted with the new American depreciation of 1933. It is significant that in the period immediately preceding this latter event all the gold countries were showing a renewed activity, and that in the immediately following period they all showed a decline. Prolonged deflation passes the limits of human endurance and in time will break every human institution. As pursued in Great Britain after 1925 it broke the currency, and changed all political alignments in 1931; as pursued by the Federal Reserve Board in the autumn of 1932 it broke the American financial structure in 1933; as pursued under Brüning it shattered Germany's whole political and social structure; as pursued in France it has led to continuous political crises and increasing depression since the beginning of 1934.
Deflation, then, involves directly very great loss to the country pursuing it, and, indirectly, a consequent loss to other countries. The other measures, increased tariffs, quotas, and exchange restrictions immediately injure other countries' exports; they deprive the country imposing them of the benefits of cheap imports and, as retaliatory measures are adopted elsewhere, react also on its exports. The net result is the loss of the benefits of international trade, which becomes mainly confined to bilateral exchanges and to articles which cannot be produced at home even at a large increase in cost.
Why, then, do not the gold countries follow the example of others and either devalue or go on to a managed currency? The reason, already indicated, is that after their earlier experience the peoples have no confidence in the ability of their rulers to maintain their currencies at any reasonable value if they are not anchored to a sure foundation outside their own control and policy. This constitutes not only a political obstacle to a new policy, but a psychological fact with important technical consequences. When, for a few days in the summer of 1931, the German mark fell a few shillings below its parity, the furniture shops of Berlin were denuded by panic-stricken purchasers who preferred any form of real goods to a currency in which they had suddenly lost all confidence. The same memories and fears remain. They might make it impossible to effect, without panic, revaluation as a part of a world agreement. But they may not prevent a forced devaluation under the stresses of the present situation; and they make it a desperate adventure from which every politician shrinks.
A country like France justly fears and rightly dislikes competitive currency depreciation. She has seen the fall of the British pound followed by a fall in gold prices still greater than the increase in sterling prices. She has seen a renewed war of deflation started over the world by the American currency experiment and the limited benefits of its internal effects. She has seen the further consequences in the protective measures of quotas and exchange restrictions. She has witnessed the international suspicions, mainly unfounded but none the less injurious, as to the purposes and uses of equalization funds in relation to managed currencies. She dare not hazard a managed currency and she has no assurance that a devaluation, even if appropriate for the moment, would not be rendered inadequate by further devaluation and depreciation elsewhere.
With these hazards on one hand and the immediate hardships of deflation on the other, France would naturally welcome stabilization, whether or not with a corrective devaluation of her own currency; and equally she envisages stabilization only in terms of fixed parities with gold. It is true, of course, that in the last analysis the changing costs and varying supplies of gold make it an irrational basis of the world's currency, and the expense of mining is wasteful in view of the fact that if there were general confidence in a world institution it could secure the same results with a regulated central note issue. But if a metallic basis (I need not here go into the complication introduced by silver proposals) is justifiable only by the fact that mutual confidence is lacking, it is equally true that no substitute for it has been found which has been effective both generally and for long periods, and that today there is less, not more, mutual confidence than in the prewar days when the gold standard was generally accepted as desirable, reasonably successful and well worth its cost. France argues, with justice, that there is no such absolute shortage of gold as would prevent both a large increase of activity and a substantial increase of price levels. There is no shortage except that which results from hoarding, whether by private persons or institutions or central banks. Indeed, if account is taken of the increase of monetary gold stocks from mining and the opening of India's treasures, as well as of diminished activity and of reductions in gold prices, it is roughly true to say that each ounce of gold is now doing only about half as much work as it did in 1928 in supporting a given price structure for a given volume of trade. Stabilization on a secure basis would, France argues, release these hoards and immobilized reserves and permit at once a stimulating rise of prices and a very large extension of activities. Gold deflation has perhaps been a serious factor in the past; it need not be feared now.
Moreover, France argues, stabilization is the only way back to a larger world trade and to the removal of the barriers that obstruct it. The new quotas and exchange restrictions have been inspired through currency fears; they can be remedied only if these fears are ended. And there can be no other basis for negotiated tariff reductions than stabilization. For it is obvious that France would not, for example, make a reciprocal tariff agreement with Great Britain and run the risk of losing all the benefits at any moment by a further fall in sterling.
Thus France looks with somewhat greater hope to the two other countries on which a decision mainly depends. America has discovered for herself the limited benefits and far-reaching evils that result from deliberate currency depreciation. The American Executive would clearly like to call a halt. It is the more inclined, in this matter at least, not only to associate itself with orthodox financial opinion at home but also to find extra support in external agreements, because of the continuing domestic pressure of the wilder inflationists.
Great Britain has managed its currency off gold for four years with considerable success and has led nearly half the world in its train. But even in Great Britain the case for some form of stabilization is becoming more apparent and is being more insistently argued. The internal recovery, with the accompanying increase in employment, has doubtless not reached its limit. But future progress is likely to be both more difficult and slower. A very large proportion of the unemployed consist of those whose normal occupation is in export industries or in industries dependent upon them, and who can be transferred to other localities and other kinds of work only with the greatest difficulty. It is not easy to foresee in any near future a reduction of unemployment by one-half, that is, from two millions to one, unless there is a substantial recovery of the export trade. It is difficult to anticipate this latter without some form of stabilization, since the remaining obstacles—increased tariffs, quotas, exchange restrictions, and the almost complete cessation of foreign lending—are all closely associated with exchange instability.
Nevertheless, from the point of view of Great Britain and of the main countries which now follow sterling rather than gold, the present case against definite stabilization is equally strong and must be put with equal force. The gold countries, I believe, delude themselves if they think that the sterling countries will return definitely to fixed gold parities except under very specific conditions; or if they think that these conditions can be satisfied within the space of a few months, or even of a few years. The present uncertainty and instability will, I think, long remain unless it is possible to find some intermediate system of conditional stabilization. The reason for this opinion will only appear when we consider why exactly it is that countries which have abandoned fixed parities with gold are unwilling to return to them.
This reluctance is not due to artificial and transitory circumstances. The difficulties are deep rooted, and we must go back to some first principles to appreciate them.
The purpose of a currency is to serve as a medium of exchange; that is, in substitution for crude barter, to express and determine prices in a single unit in such a way as to facilitate the interchange of goods and services. Similarly the purpose of a world currency (which is in fact what a linking of national currencies to a single standard at fixed rates constitutes) is to express and determine prices in order to facilitate the interchange of goods and services of different countries. Such a single world currency (or system of definitely stabilized national currencies) is the servant of international trade and its only value and justification is to serve it well. But it can be a successful servant only by being also, in certain vital respects, a master. It can only maintain trade by keeping prices in such relation to each other that disequilibria in the balances of trade and payments are corrected. This means that it will sometimes cause a rise, sometimes a fall, in the prices of a particular country. It will sometimes increase, sometimes diminish, a nation's imports, and at other times its exports. If it is not allowed to do this it cannot serve its purpose; it cannot indeed maintain its existence.
Two crucial difficulties arise in the discharge of its function, the first when it operates to increase a country's imports, the second when it operates to reduce a country's price-level. A stabilized currency system can work in conjunction with almost any tariff system, short of one that is absolutely prohibitive, so long as it is reasonably stable. But if the additional imports which are flowing into a country as a result of the normal operation of the currency system in correcting a general disequilibrium in a country's balance of trade and payments are kept out by a new and increased tariff, the currency cannot fulfil its function. Having failed to correct an over-positive balance, it will itself be broken by the results of that balance. So too when, in terms of the gold standard currency, a given country's price structure is too high for the world market, it must either compel a reduction of these prices or, in the end, it must itself be broken. The first of these two factors greatly aggravated the difficulties of the restored gold standard between 1926 and 1931. But it was the second that mainly accounts for its failure and for the reluctance of sterling countries to return to it. It is this, therefore, that we must examine a little more closely.
The most significant and instructive event in post-war currency history is, I think, the return of sterling to its old parity of 4.86 in 1925. Though expectations of the return had driven the current exchange rate higher, the real value of the pound, i.e., the value which would have enabled the British balance of trade and payments to remain in a sound position without change in the price structure, was about 10 percent less than this figure. It became necessary, therefore, for English prices, so far as they concerned external trade—and the whole price structure is in varying degrees related to the prices obtainable in external trade—to be reduced by 10 percent, unless world prices rose. It was first expected that the downward adjustment could be easily and rapidly effected. When these expectations, which should never have been entertained, were disappointed, it was hoped that world prices would rise so that adjustment could be obtained by a mere abstention from participation in a general rise. The depression of 1929 ended this hope. Great Britain's price structure, which had indeed been pressed down, painfully but inadequately, remained out of adjustment. The country's balance of payments came to depend less upon its balance of trade and services and more upon precarious movements of short-term capital. In the end the strain proved too great.
In the last analysis, and disregarding the immediate factors which determined the occasion and the date rather than the fact, the fall of sterling represented the victory of economic forces over currency. The working of the gold standard, through its traditional methods of increased bank rate and restriction of credit, had proved incapable of securing the necessary reduction of prices. Political and practical difficulties had prevented the system from being operated to the full; the resistances of elements in the price structure, the injustices involved, the resulting loss and dislocation and unemployment, were too great.
For this failure, for the greater resistance of economic factors to the pressure of currency policy, circumstances arising out of the war were, of course, in a large measure responsible. But there were others which were independent of the war and will remain when the specific war disturbances are ended; and it is these which make it doubtful whether we shall ever see the gold standard working again quite as it did before the war. Reductions of cost have to operate upon the costs which are changeable, not on those which are fixed. Rents normally are stable for long periods. A large proportion, and unhappily an increased proportion, of the capital of industries is in a form which involves fixed annual charges—whether in respect of overdraft, mortgages or debentures, as distinct from ordinary shares. Reductions, therefore, fall mainly, and therefore disproportionately and unjustly, on wages. The wage-earners, in these circumstances, see no prospect of equal reduction in the costs of what they buy and no sense of justice in equal sacrifices. They resist. They now are organized to resist successfully, and public opinion supports them.
Meanwhile, while deflation is in operation and until it is complete, it radiates disaster in every direction, in reduced purchasing-power, in diminished sales of industries whose market is consequently reduced, in increased unemployment, and so on. Since every country, even one like Great Britain which depends to such an exceptional extent on world trade, has a larger internal than external market, there is an increasing disinclination to endure the dislocation of the internal price structure as the condition of exchange stability. The lesson learnt by countries like Great Britain which have left their gold parities after a long struggle to maintain them, is that the worst evil of currency troubles is not the loss of external markets, serious as that is, but the dislocation of the internal price structure.
This experience determines the conditions which will be required before such countries will again link themselves irrevocably to gold. They will not do so unless and until they are assured that a gold standard can and will be so worked as to protect the internal price structure from the violent impact of external deflation, and to ensure a large part of their industries from being pushed below the line of profitability. These conditions, agreed to unanimously by all the experts, were summarized in the report of the preparatory committee of the World Economic Conference of 1933. They included, internationally, a solution of major outstanding political problems; the settlement of intergovernmental debts; and a return to a reasonable degree of freedom in the movement of goods, in foreign exchange markets and in the movement of capital. Internally, they included balanced budgets; the maintenance of healthy conditions in the domestic money and capital markets; and a "sufficient degree of flexibility to the national economy without which an international monetary standard, however improved, cannot function properly." With these were cited numerous special provisions as to the action required by countries which have maintained a free gold standard, by those which have left it and by those which have introduced exchange restrictions. In addition it was insisted that a restoration of the gold standard must be accompanied by provisions as to coöperation of central banks in credit policy with a view to checking "undue fluctuations in the purchasing power of gold."
The British Government has frequently restated such conditions as the basis of its own policy with regard to a definite return to gold. It must be expected that this position will be maintained, and that other countries of the sterling group will adopt a similar attitude. At the same time it is evident that it will be a very long time before these conditions are satisfied, if indeed they can ever be satisfied completely. We must therefore be content with the present instability, with all its attendant evils, or else find an acceptable form of partial or conditional stabilization pending the realization of the conditions for a complete and definite stabilization. Is such a halfway policy practicable?
I believe that it is, and that the time is now opportune for it. Let me recite some of the recent events and statements which encourage this belief.
The dollar has now been stable in relation to gold, and therefore the franc, for over a year and a half. France and other countries of the gold bloc have again demonstrated their intense desire for a fixed gold value for their currency; and they have experienced the extreme difficulties of achieving this by solitary action. They are likely to be more accommodating than they would be in other circumstances as regards the determination of parities and the conditions of an international agreement. The American Government, through Mr. Morgenthau's declaration of May and otherwise, has indicated its desire for stabilization. The declared policy of the British Government indeed remains unchanged, and its leadership of other sterling countries remains unimpaired. But the movement in favor of attempting to secure greater stability is growing and, as already indicated, is likely to be encouraged by the increasing advantage which stabilization would bring to Great Britain at this stage of its recovery.
One of the greatest difficulties in the past, moreover, the choice of the ratio between the dollar and the pound, is now much less serious. While the pound was standing at much less than its old parity, and before the recent rises in American costs and prices, this question was almost insoluble. Great Britain believed that, even at the lower quotation, the pound was overvalued. Americans were of the precisely opposite opinion, and indeed very widely, though unjustly, suspected that the British Equalization Fund was being used not to even out fluctuations above and below the natural level but to depress the exchange below that level in the interests of British exports. But during the past year the pound has, on the whole, been above rather than below its old parity of 4.86. American prices have risen more than British so as to make this ratio tolerable, and the general balance of American trade and payments has changed so as to involve less danger to the maintenance of such a ratio. A ratio of 4.86—or 5, if American prices rise further in comparison with ours—might well be acceptable to both countries.
At the same time France's situation offers a strong inducement both to herself and to other countries to attempt stabilization. If the United States and Great Britain were to offer to link the dollar, pound and franc together, France would find it much easier to solve her problem, whether through short, sharp and definite deflation or on the basis of a corrective and definite devaluation; and the United States and Great Britain would themselves be saved from the reactions of either prolonged deflation or of an excessive panic-devaluation in the gold countries, which would in turn start a new series of dislocations.
The main conditions of a practicable form of stabilization have now been indicated.
It would be impossible for England to accept an engagement which would in any circumstances force her into deflation, to sacrifice low interest rates and to force down prices, in order to preserve her reserves and the fixed parity of exchange. I suggest that it would also be impossible for America to maintain such an engagement if the contingency arose. It might well be, for the reasons already suggested, that if the ratios were carefully chosen there would be a general restoration of confidence, a cessation of hoarding, a general upward movement of recovery and a tendency of prices to rise rather than to fall; and that in such a case there would be no great strain on any given currency and therefore no need for any country to resort to a policy of deflation. But there are many uncertain factors in the situation, some of them deep-rooted and bound to continue for a long time to come. Who can tell, for example, which way America's balance will turn? It may be that her strong creditor position and the general movement will so develop as to make the dollar seriously undervalued at the ratio first chosen. It may be, on the other hand, that the large deficit in the budget and a continued need for further public works may make the pressure for real inflation irresistible, so that the dollar would prove to be overvalued at that ratio.
These limiting conditions do not, in my view, prevent a most valuable form of conditional stabilization. I therefore venture to suggest the following course of action:
The American and British Treasuries should first explore the general problem in private conversations; at an appropriate stage in the conversations they should extend them to include France; and thenceforward each of these three countries would consult with other countries who look to them as leaders. The object of these conversations would be to secure agreement upon a policy to maintain specified ratios between the main currencies. The rate might be 4.86 (or conceivably 5, according as the situation should develop in the near future) between the dollar and the pound; while the ratio of the franc would be whatever France might choose, but not less than say 80 percent of the present parity, deflation being left to achieve equilibrium if she prefers this to any measure of devaluation.
Each country would engage itself to aim at maintaining these ratios with a reasonable and defined margin, this margin being wider than the old gold points in order to give greater facilities for dealing sharply and decisively with speculative attacks. And each country would specifically undertake not to aim by any form of policy at currency depreciation below the agreed ratios.
There are several methods which, separately or in conjunction, could be used to support the agreed ratios. For example, each country might undertake to support any threatened currency by buying and holding it, without immediate conversion into gold, up to defined amounts. Next, the several national equalization funds could be operated in consultation for the same purpose, and it might be arranged that they should be so used until the funds had been depleted to a substantial and specified extent. Or lastly, the Bank for International Settlements might be entrusted with a central equalization fund, contributed by all the participants in the agreement, to be used for the same purpose.
If, in spite of action of the kind just suggested, there should be a continuing drain on one currency or another, this would necessarily mean either that the original ratios were wrongly chosen or that subsequent developments had made them wrong. It is in this event that what I propose differs from definite stabilization. No country would be required under my proposal to make the ratios right again by forcing down its prices. It would be free instead to change the ratio. Great Britain, indeed, would wish to make quite clear that this is what it would do in such a case. Where the choice is between an increase of the bank rate and depreciation, the latter must be preferred. The low interest rates which have already assisted British recovery, and are essential to its further progress, will never penetrate the whole economy of the country unless a low bank rate is long maintained and unless there is every assurance that it will be so maintained.
If such a goal of policy were accepted by America and Great Britain there is no reason why action should wait until complete agreement is reached. A public announcement of agreement as to the dollar-pound ratio, and of coöperation in supporting it, would in itself be of great value and would pave the way for agreement on a wider basis. We can imagine, for example, simultaneous statements by the American and British Treasuries, to the following effect: "In present circumstances we are content with a ratio of (say) 4.86 to the pound. While we should allow this ratio to change if the situation so developed that the only alternative would be an increase in the bank rate, with other deflationary measures, in either country, we are at present using our Equalization Funds, so far as it is necessary to use them at all, in coöperation and in consultation, for the purpose of maintaining the exchange near this ratio, with only a limited range of fluctuation on either side." Such a statement of common policy and coöperation would in itself greatly increase confidence. And much of the remaining suspicion and distrust would be removed if each government published an account of the past operations of its Equalization Fund showing, as such a publication would, that the consistent purpose of the Funds has been to even out fluctuations (which is to the general advantage) and not to force down a currency and hold it below its natural level.
Let us glance at the advantages which would follow such a form of conditional stabilization of the dollar, pound and franc and of all the currencies which look to them for leadership.
Confidence would develop in the maintenance of the ratios for at least long periods. Speculation would be hazardous and could be sharply dealt with by the combined resources of the Funds. The violent movements of short-term capital would be greatly reduced, and the strain on the Equalization Funds would be correspondingly eased. General confidence would also be increased, and recovery everywhere would receive just the stimulus it most needs. As hoarding ceased, the increase in gold stocks would add a further stimulus through prices. The danger and the fears of deliberate, competitive exchange depreciation would be ended. Indeed, criticisms would take a different, and opposite, form. American public opinion, which has been inclined to think that the British Equalization Fund is being used to depress the pound, might become critical of the fact that dollars were being used to support it. The two completely opposite, and mutually inconsistent, criticisms would tend to cancel out; and if a change of ratio were required it would be a great advantage that the necessity for it should have first been demonstrated by a drain on other equalization funds as well as on the national fund of the threatened currency. In such circumstances the change would be, and would be recognized to be, a corrective one calculated to remove, and not to create, disequilibrium.
Above all, perhaps, the way would be open for removing some of the worst barriers to international trade. The exchange restrictions and quotas which were imposed for currency reasons would begin to disappear—though unhappily a restriction imposed for any cause does not automatically disappear with the removal of the cause. And lastly, the obstacle to negotiations for reciprocal tariff agreements due to currency instability would no longer be insuperable. Tariff treaties might be concluded on the assumption that the ratios would be maintained, and with recognition of the fact that any country which considered itself injured by a change of currency-ratio by another signatory should be free to withdraw. Such a treaty would give an extra inducement to the maintenance of the ratios, while the right of withdrawal would probably not be exercised if a change of currency-ratio were recognized as being genuinely a corrective one.
Such are the principal positive benefits which might be anticipated. In addition, conditional stabilization would be a safeguard against many dangers which threaten the precarious and partial recovery that has already been achieved. It would reduce the risks of a new course of competitive depreciation, of a further devaluation of the dollar, of prolonged deflation and excessive devaluation in France, and, above all, of an intensification of economic nationalism in every country.