[Editor’s Note: this lengthy piece, by Richard Ebeling, primarily based on the “lost papers” of Ludwig von Mises that he and his wife, Anna, discovered in a formerly secret KGB archive in Moscow, Russia, is well worth reading as it shows Mises’s brilliance for understanding the problems of his time as well as purely abstract economics.]
This three-volume set of the Selected Writings of Ludwig von Mises has been published in reverse chronological order. The current volume, the last prepared in the series, in fact, is devoted to some of the earliest of Mises’s writings on a variety of economic issues. They mostly cover monetary, fiscal, and general economic policy matters in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before and during the First World War, with additional articles that Mises wrote in the postwar period that had not been included in volume 2. An appendix to the present volume includes a talk that Mises delivered at his private seminar, which would meet in his office at the Vienna Chamber of Commerce, in the spring of 1934 on the methodology of the social sciences, before he moved to Geneva, Switzerland; and the curriculum vitae that his great-grandfather prepared for the Habsburg Emperor in 1881 as part of his ennoblement that gave him and his heirs the hereditary title of “Edler von.”
It is in the second volume of the Selected Writings (2002), Between the Two World Wars: Monetary Disorder, Interventionism, Socialism, and the Great Depression, that the reader will find a large collection of Mises’s many articles and policy pieces from the 1920s and 1930s dealing with the Great Austrian Inflation, fiscal and regulatory mismanagement by the government, and the negative effects of numerous forms of government intervention and controls before and during the Great Depression. The volume also includes critiques of socialist central planning and his defense of praxeology, the science of human action.
The third volume of the Selected Writings (2000), The Political Economy of International Reform and Reconstruction, focuses on Mises’s writings mostly from the first half of the 1940s. In the midst of the Second World War, Mises lectured and wrote on the pressing issues of how Europe, small nations, and underdeveloped countries could recover [xii] from war and poverty and start on the path to economic renewal and prosperity.
Each volume begins with an introduction in which I try to explain the historical context in which Mises wrote the pieces in that particular volume. I have also tried to assist the reader with footnotes explaining some of the ideas, persons, events, or geographical locations to which Mises refers in the text.
This project developed out of the discovery of the “lost papers” of Ludwig von Mises in a formerly secret KGB archive in Moscow, Russia, in 1996. Looted by the Gestapo from Mises’s Vienna apartment in March 1938 shortly after the Nazi annexation of Austria into the German Third Reich, they ended up among a huge cache of stolen documents, papers, and archival collections that the Nazis had plundered from all over occupied Europe. At the end of the Second World War the entire cache, including Mises’s papers, was captured by the Soviet Red Army in a small town in western Czechoslovakia. After being informed about what had been captured, Stalin instructed that it all be brought to Moscow and that a secret archive be built to house it. For half a century, only the Soviet secret police and the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs had access to the collections in this archive.
In the introduction to volume 2 in these Selected Writings of Ludwig von Mises, I describe in detail how my wife and I came to find out about this archive and the existence of Mises’s papers among them, amounting to about 10,000 pages of material. In October 1996, we journeyed to Moscow and spent about two weeks carefully going through the entire collection of Mises’s papers. We returned to the United States with photocopies of virtually the entire collection, which includes Mises’s correspondence, unpublished manuscripts, published articles, policy memoranda prepared during the years when he worked for the Vienna Chamber of Commerce, material relating to his teaching at the University of Vienna and his famous private seminar, and his military service during the First World War. Many of the articles, policy memoranda, essays, and speeches that were found among Mises’s “lost papers” have been included in this series, especially in volumes 1 and 2 of his Selected Writings.
Shortly after the discovery of the “lost papers” was announced, Liberty Fund contacted Hillsdale College and me about the possibility of publishing a selection of these and some of Mises’s related essays, lectures, and articles covering the period from before the First World War [xiii] to the 1940s during the Second World War. I most happily accepted Liberty Fund’s kind offer to serve as editor of the translations (mostly from German) and to prepare the volumes for publication.
It has been a labor of love that has ended up taking far longer to complete than I had expected. A good part of the delay in finishing the last of these volumes was due to a five-year “distraction” during which I served as the president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) from 2003 to 2008. But my return to the “calmer” life of academia has permitted me to finally finish the task.
Ludwig von Mises is most famous for his great works on monetary theory, socialist central planning, the general theory of the market process, and the methodology of the social sciences, the leading ones, of course, being The Theory of Money and Credit;Socialism: An Economic and SociologicalAnalysis;Liberalism;Critique of Interventionism;Epistemological Problems of Economics;Bureaucracy;Omnipotent Government;Human Action: A Treatise on Economics;Theory and History; and The Ultimate Foundations of Economic Science.
But what the Selected Writings of Ludwig von Mises, in general, bring out is the “unknown Mises,” if you will. Not the Mises of grand economic theory and sweeping political economy, or the fundamental problems of human action. Here, instead, is Mises as applied economist, detailed policy analyst, and economic policy problem-solver in the detailed reality of the many pressing public policy issues that confronted the old Austro-Hungarian Empire and the new Austrian Republic in the aftermath of the Great War, and then the need for reconstruction and economic reform after the Second World War.
For those who have sometimes asked, “Well, but how do you apply Austrian economics to the ‘real world’ of public policy?” here is the answer by the economist who was considered the most original, thoroughgoing, and uncompromising member of the Austrian School in the twentieth century!
Indeed, it can be argued that it was having to grapple with the intricacies of these types of everyday economic policy issues during a time of great, and sometimes cataclysmic, change in the Europe and the Austria of the first half of the twentieth century that helped to guide and form Mises’s thinking on those wider and more general problems for which he is most famous.
The Selected Writings of Ludwig von Mises provide an insight into and a better understanding of the first two-thirds of Mises’s long and [xiv] productive life as a professional economist in a way that has not been available before. It also brings into English translation for the first time the vast majority of his practical economic policy writings from this, in many ways his most prolific, period before he left war-ravaged Europe in 1940 to make a new home and career for himself in the United States.
The articles and lectures included in this volume by the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises were written in the years before, during, and after the Great War of 1914-18, as the First World War used to be called. They focus on the monetary, fiscal, and general economic policy problems of, first, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, then, the new postwar Austrian Republic after the dismantling of the Habsburg Monarchy.
For those who may be familiar with Mises’s more theoretical works on various themes of monetary theory and policy,1 comparative economic systems—capitalism, socialism, and interventionism2—the general nature and workings of the market economy, or the methodology and philosophy of the social sciences,3 most of these articles and lectures (like the ones in volume 2 and 3 in this series)4 offer a different [xvi] perspective on Mises as an applied economist. Here is not the broad theorist concerned, often, with stepping back from the particular details of specific historical circumstances to investigate and evaluate the essential and universal properties of human action; or the institutional prerequisites for economic calculation and the rational allocation of resources among competing ends; or the relationships between time preference, investment time horizons, monetary expansion, and the sequential stages of the business cycle.5
Instead, these essays investigate and analyze the historical and institutional workings of the pre-World War I monetary system of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the issues surrounding legal specie redemption for the banknotes of the Austro-Hungarian Bank; the politics behind the establishment of the gold standard in Austria-Hungary; the growing fiscal imbalances developing in the Habsburg Empire due to the patterns of government spending and taxing policies in the first decade of the twentieth century; and the reasons behind the economic crisis that hit Austria-Hungary in the years immediately before the start of the Great War. Here, too, we see Mises analyzing during the war the motives behind German and Austro-Hungarian trade policy, the impact and significance of emigration from Austria, the effects from the monetary inflation used to fund the government’s war expenditures, and the pros and cons of financing those war expenditures through taxation versus borrowing by the issuance of war bonds.
After the war, Mises explains the distorting effects from the new Austrian government’s control and rationing of foreign exchange for imports and exports; the impact on the Austrian foreign exchange rate of monetary expansion to finance the government’s huge deficit spending; a specific policy agenda to bring the country’s financial house back into order, and the need for cooperation from both businesses and labor unions if this was to be achieved without Austria’s currency collapsing into hyperinflation; the claims that holders of banknotes of the old Austro-Hungarian Bank could make on the new Austrian National [xvii] Bank in the postwar period; Austria’s fiscal problems in the period after the end of the inflation; and the lessons for banking reform after the collapse of several banks in 1931.
Ludwig von Mises became immersed in these issues because he had to earn a living outside the Austrian academic arena. University teaching appointments were few and far between in Austria both before and after the First World War, even though Mises was clearly qualified for such a position.6 His only formal relationship with the University of Vienna, after graduating in 1906 with a doctoral degree in jurisprudence,7 was as a privatdozent (an unsalaried lecturer), which permitted him the privilege of offering seminars during the academic year. Mises offered such a seminar almost every term from 1913 to 1934 (except for most of the time during the Great War). He was promoted to professor extraordinary in May 1918, but this was a purely honorific title that was still unsalaried and with a nominal “tenure” as a professor in this status.8
However, from 1920 until the spring of 1934, Mises organized and chaired a privatseminar (private seminar) of interested scholars in the fields of economics, history, sociology, political science, and philosophy. It met twice a month between October and June on Friday evenings at 7 p.m. at his office at the Vienna Chamber of Commerce. The private seminar came to an end when Mises accepted a full-time teaching position at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, as professor of international economic relations beginning in autumn 1934.9
Because an academic career was closed off to him, from 1909 to 1934 Mises made his living as an economic advisor and policy analyst for the Vienna Chamber of Commerce, Crafts, and Industry. First hired as an assistant for the drafting of documents, in 1910 he was promoted to deputy secretary. When he returned from active duty in the First World War, he was made “first secretary” at the Chamber, responsible for matters relating to a wide variety of areas including monetary and fiscal affairs, trade and financial issues, and administrative and constitutional law.
He developed and refined his skills as an economist having to deal with the everyday practical affairs and policy issues of the Austria of his time. He had to master and maintain a thorough and extremely detailed knowledge of the Austrian economy and the impact of Austrian government policy on the industrial, commercial, and monetary and fiscal affairs of the country.10 As Mises expressed it years later in his Memoirs:
My job with the Handelskammer [the Chamber of Commerce] greatly expanded my horizons. That I now have the material for a social and economic history of the downfall of the Austrian civilization readily at hand is to a great degree the result of the studying that was required of me to be able to carry on with my work in theHandelskammer. Travels that led me to all parts of old Austria-Hungary from 1912-1914 taught me much in particular. In visiting the centers of industry, my intent was to become acquainted with the industrial situation in view of the renewal of customs and trade relations with Hungary, and the adoption of new, autonomous tariffs and trade treaties.
The main thrust of my job with the Handelskammer was not dealing with commercial questions, but those pertaining to finance, currency, credit, and tax policy. In addition, I was given special assignments on [xix] an ongoing basis. From the time of the armistice until the signing of the Peace Agreement of Saint Germain [in September 1919] I was the consultant on financial questions to the Foreign Office. Later, when the terms of the peace treaty were put into effect, I was in charge of the office concerned with the prewar debt. In this capacity I had numerous dealings with the representatives of our former enemies. I was the Austrian delegate to the international Handelskammer [the International Chamber of Commerce] and a member of many international commissions and committees, whose insoluble task it was to facilitate the peaceful exchange of goods and services in a world pervaded by national hatred and the precursors of genocide.11
At a relatively early age Mises seems to have formulated in his mind a rather comprehensive classical liberal worldview of the social order. His experience in the role of applied economist clearly left its mark and influenced his understanding of the effects that government intervention could have on the effective functioning of a modern market economy. To appreciate this, and the writings included in his volume, it is necessary to take a glance at the political and economic environment of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Austrian monetary system as it developed in the nineteenth century.
The Habsburg Monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire12
The House of Habsburg, which came to rule a vast empire for nearly eight hundred years, had its origin in the thirteenth century. Through [xx] a series of royal marriages, treaties, and some conquests, the Habsburg Monarchy gained control over a large territory in Central and Eastern Europe, and for a period of time large areas in Western Europe as well, including Spain, parts of modern-day France, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, and what later became Holland, Belgium, and Luxemburg. From the thirteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century, the Habsburgs also nominally headed the Holy Roman Empire, or its later, loose German Confederation.
It was during this time, when the Habsburgs were beginning to dominate so much of Europe, that Emperor Frederick III (1415-93) had inscribed on official buildings the five vowels, A E I O U, which he interpreted as “Alles Erdreich Ist Österreich Untertan” (“All the earth is subject to Austria”), or in Latin, “Austriae Est Imperare Orbi Universo” (“Austria must rule the universe”).13
The Habsburgs ruled as absolute monarchs. But under the influence of the Age of Enlightenment and the early phase of the French Revolution, Empress Maria Theresa (1717-70) and then her sons, Joseph II (1740-90) and Leopold II (1747-92), attempted to introduce various forward-looking reforms while retaining the principle of absolutism. The dark turn taken in the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon to power shifted the monarchy back in a far more conservative direction under Francis II (1768-1835). With Napoleon’s victories over the German states, the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved and Francis II declared himself emperor of Austria in 1804.
As one of the final victors over the French after Napoleon’s defeat in Russia in 1812, the Habsburg Empire in Central and Eastern Europe was consolidated following the Congress of Vienna in 1815 as one contiguous territory that by the 1880s incorporated what are today Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and large parts of Italy, Poland, Ukraine, and Romania.
In the years just preceding the First World War, the Austro-Hungarian Empire covered a territory of about 415,000 square miles and included within its borders a dozen or so national and linguistic groups, including Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians, Romanians, Italians, Poles, Bulgarians, Serbians, Slovenians, and Ruthenians. Out of a population of 50 million the Germans and Hungarians [xxi] each numbered about 10 million, with the remaining 30 million made up of these other groups.
Europe of the nineteenth century experienced a relentless battle between four powerful ideas: monarchical absolutism, political and economic liberalism, integral nationalism, and revolutionary socialism. Absolutism insisted upon the divine rights of kings to rule without restraint; liberalism demanded the recognition of individual liberty, representative and limited constitutional government, and freedom of private enterprise from state control; integral nationalism (by the middle decades of the nineteenth century) increasingly insisted upon the unification and political independence of peoples sharing a common language, culture, and history, and finally a common ethnicity or race;14 and socialism called for the overthrow of private property, nationalization of the means of production, and greater economic and social equality by either violent or democratic methods. All four of these ideological forces were at work in the Habsburg Monarchy until the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the ruins of the First World War.
The French Revolution of February 1848 reverberated across much of Europe, including in the Austrian Empire. Within days and weeks of the uprising in Paris, students on the streets of Vienna demanded constitutional change, and the Italians and Hungarians were in open revolt against their Habsburg rulers. By the end of 1849, however, the Italians and Hungarians had been crushed (the latter through the intervention of the Russian Imperial Army), and Habsburg rule was once more imposed with especial ruthlessness against the Hungarians.
At first reforms were promised to the Austrian liberals, with a constitution promised in July 1848. And when eighteen-year-old Francis Joseph (1830-1916) assumed the throne upon the abdication of his uncle, Ferdinand I (1793-1875), in December 1848, the new emperor gave his support to the constitutional changes.15 Almost immediately, however, [xxii] he reversed himself and insisted upon the reassertion of absolutist authority. What Francis Joseph had inherited from his ruling ancestors was a belief in “his divine right of unlimited monarchical power,” tempered with the idea “that his rule must, before all, produce the best possible results for the peoples of his realm. . . . Yet, up to the end he did not doubt that his empire, composed of so many different races and lands, could be governed successfully only by a hereditary monarch and according to his absolute will.”16 Thus, he could not make concessions that would have undermined his absolute rule in the name of caring for the well-being of his subjects.
Neither could he completely concede to the increasing nationalist sentiments of the diverse peoples in his large realm without also abdicating his responsibility as that benevolent ruler. Many Austrian liberals who lived a good portion of their lives under the reign of Francis Joseph believed that he twice missed the opportunity to successfully transform his multinational empire into a federal domain that might have reconciled the conflicting interests and demands of the national groups under his rule. The ideal of these liberals from the middle of the nineteenth century to the First World War had been what some of them called “the Austrian idea.” If a federal structure of government could have been set up in which each of these peoples had wide political and social autonomy within their own lands while sharing a common bond of economic freedom and civil liberties, the Habsburg Monarchy could have created on a larger and far grander scale what had been formed in the Swiss confederation with its reconciliation and harmony among its French-, German-, and Italian-speaking citizens.17
Francis Joseph’s rejection of constitutional reforms and the reimposition of central authority over the Italians, Hungarians, and his Slav [xxiii] subjects in 1848-49 was the first chance lost for any such reconciliation. The second lost opportunity occurred following his defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1866, when Bismarck pushed Austria out of the German Confederation. Fearful of the Hungarians taking advantage of the empire’s postwar weakness to claim full independence through another violent uprising, Francis Joseph agreed to the Ausgleich, the “Compromise,” of 1867 that transformed the Austrian Empire into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While Francis Joseph remained emperor of both halves of his domain, Hungary became widely independent in many of its domestic affairs. Only a common customs and monetary system and a shared military and foreign policy completely linked Hungary to the Austrian “Crownlands” directly ruled by Francis Joseph’s government in Vienna.18
As Hans Kohn, one of the twentieth century’s leading experts on the history and philosophy of nationalism, who had grown up under the rule of Francis Joseph in Prague, explained, “In the Compromise with the Hungarian nobility in 1867, the aspirations of the Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats, and Romanians, who in large majority were then still loyal to the dynasty, were sacrificed for the purpose of winning the assent of the Magyars to a common foreign and military policy on the part of what now became the Dual Monarchy.”19 Indeed, at first, several leading Czech and Hungarian nationalist leaders believed that the flowering of their people’s cultural and linguistic identities could best flourish in the wider setting of a multinational Habsburg Empire. But as the nineteenth century progressed this sentiment shifted into a belief that only national independence could secure these goals.
A far more liberal-minded voice in the Habsburg family was Francis Joseph’s son, Crown Prince Rudolf (1858-89), the heir to the throne. Among his personal tutors had been Carl Menger (1840-1921), the founder of the Austrian School of economics. Under Menger’s guidance, Crown Prince Rudolf had become well versed in the free trade and relatively laissez-faire ideas of the Classical economists.20Menger [xxiv] also had coauthored with Rudolf a scathing criticism of the Austrian nobility, who were accused of having lost their sense of social duty and, instead, had escaped into frivolous court intrigues, pointless social entertainments, and financial irresponsibility. It was a clear call for recognition of and respect for the middle-class values of enterprise, frugality, and personal responsibility. The bourgeois virtues needed to replace the anachronistic role of the aristocracy in society, who had lost their way in the pretensions of power and lure of wasteful pleasures.21 But whatever influence the crown prince might have had on the course of events in Austria-Hungary was cut short by his suicide in 1889 at his hunting lodge at Mayerling.22
The particularly nationalist imperialism of the Hungarians against the other peoples under their control was not the only problem as the nineteenth century progressed in terms of growing antagonism among the subject peoples in the Dual Monarchy. The German-Austrians, also, increasingly became defensive and antagonistic toward the rising nationalist aspirations of the Czechs, Poles, Slovenians, and others in the Crownlands, as well as the growing demands of the Hungarians for independence.
As Hans Kohn pointed out, “The spread of democracy, literacy, and economic well-being in the western half of the monarchy after 1867 strengthened the non-German nationalities there at the expense of the Germans. The result was that many Germans in the monarchy lost their faith in an Austrian idea as much as many Slavs and other non-Germanic peoples did. . . . By the end of the nineteenth century many Austrian Germans looked to the Prussian German Reich as their real home and venerated [Otto von] Bismarck.”23
Looking back at the events that brought about the demise of the Habsburg Empire in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, Ludwig von Mises explained why many German-Austrians turned against liberalism as a foundation for the preservation of the monarchy and [xxv] the Austro-Hungarian state. Over the centuries German-Austrian settlers had made their homes in the eastern reaches of the empire. They brought with them the German language, culture, literature, commercial knowledge, and knowhow. They viewed themselves as a “civilizing force” among the lesser-advanced nationalities, especially among the Slavic peoples. Indeed, many of these subject peoples became acculturated into German-Austrian life, since the latter was the dominant group; the German language in particular became the venue for social and economic advancement. But as literacy and national consciousness awakened among these other peoples in the nineteenth century, loyalties to and identification with German-Austria and the Habsburg dynasty were replaced with a growing allegiance and sense of belonging to their own ethnic and linguistic groups.
Furthermore, these peoples had higher birth rates than the Germans living among them. Cities and towns that had been settled and predominantly populated by Germans for centuries became increasingly Czech or Hungarian or Polish or Romanian or Slovenian communities. German-Austrians found themselves shrinking minorities in lands that they had long considered to be their own politically, culturally, and commercially. This was especially true in the Czech lands with Prague at the center.
As the nineteenth century progressed, German-Austrians discovered that adherence to liberal principles of representative government and full individual and cultural equality before the law meant the demise of the German communities sprinkled across the Habsburg domains. For many German-Austrian liberals the choice was between a liberalism that would logically mean the decentralization and possible eventual breakup of the empire along nationalist lines, or advocacy of centralized political control, monarchical dictate when required, and subversion of democratic aspirations among the non-German peoples.
The first course meant the eventual loss of German political and cultural domination in the non-German lands; the second meant holding onto both political and cultural power as long as possible in the non-German areas of the empire, but only by increasingly alienating the other subject peoples. As Mises explained, part of the German-Austrian tragedy was that national and linguistic imperialism won over liberal idealism.24
What enabled the Habsburg Empire to endure for fifty years after the establishment of the Dual Monarchy in 1867 was the constitutional order that had been implemented at the same time as theAusgleich (or “Compromise”). The Constitution of 1867, which accompanied the creation of “Austria-Hungary,” was imbued with the spirit of the classical liberal ideas that were then at their zenith in Europe.25 Every subject of the Habsburg emperor was guaranteed freedom of religion, language, association, profession, and occupation, and could appeal to a special higher court of law if a violation of these rights had occurred. Any subject might live wherever he chose throughout the emperor’s domain. Private property was secure, and relatively free trade prevailed within the boundaries of the empire, though protectionist barriers to international trade not only continued but grew in various ways in the last decades of the nineteenth and first decade of the twentieth centuries.26
The economic free trade zone that made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire fostered significant economic development beginning in and especially after the 1880s, though very far from matching the economic progress in Western Europe or in Imperial Germany after 1871.27 However, various forms of government controls and regulations began to be domestically superimposed on the society, including the nationalization of the railways, starting in the 1880s. As a result, the remaining [xxvii] history of the monarchy was one of liberal freedoms introduced in 1867 being undermined by nationalist discord, periods of rule by central government decree, and the continuation or introduction of interventionist policies that merely intensified the antagonisms among the subject peoples. As A. J. P. Taylor explained:
In another way, the Austrian state suffered from its strength: it never had its range of activity cut down during a successful period of laissez-faire, and therefore the openings for national conflict were far greater. There were no private schools or hospitals, no independent universities; and the state, in its infinite paternalism, performed a variety of services from veterinary surgery to the inspecting of buildings. The appointment of every schoolteacher, of every railway porter, of every hospital doctor, of every tax collector, was a signal of national struggle. Besides, private industry looked to the state for aid from tariffs and subsidies; these, in every country, produce “log-rolling,” and nationalism offered an added lever with which to shift the logs. German industries demanded state aid to preserve their privileged position; Czech industries demanded state aid to redress the inequalities of the past. The first generation of national rivals had been the products of universities and fought for appointments at the highest professional level; their disputes concerned only a few hundred state jobs. The generation that followed them was the result of universal elementary education and fought for the trivial state employment that existed in every village; hence, the more popular national conflicts at the end of the century.28
In spite of all this, and the international tensions and foreign policy fiascos that would eventually plunge Austria-Hungary and the rest of Europe into the calamitous cauldron of conflict in 1914, the Habsburg Monarchy succeeded in generating a cosmopolitan culture, especially in Vienna, that brought all the subject peoples together and fostered an inspiring and flourishing world of the arts, music, literature, philosophy, the humanities, and the sciences.29
It gave many who lived in the postwar period of rising totalitarianism in the 1920s and 1930s a deep nostalgia for what seemed a far more [xxviii] civilized and humane epoch in turn-of-the-century Vienna. One voice that attempted to capture this “lost world” was that of Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), a renowned Austrian novelist and essayist who fled Vienna in 1934 and committed suicide in Brazil during the Second World War out of despair for all that was happening in the European world that he had known. In his posthumous work The World of Yesterday, he said:
One lived well and easily and without cares in that old Vienna. . . . “Live and let live” was the famous Viennese motto, which today still seems to me more humane than all the categorical imperatives, and it maintained itself throughout all classes. Rich and poor, Czechs and Germans, Jews and Christians, lived peaceably together in spite of occasional chafing, and even the political and social movements were free of the terrible hatred which has penetrated the arteries of our time as a poisonous residue of the First World War. In the old Austria they still strove chivalrously, they abused each other in the news and in the parliament, but at the conclusion of their ciceronian tirades the selfsame representatives sat down together in friendship with a glass of beer or a cup of coffee, and called each other Du [the “familiar” in the German language]. . . . The hatred of country for country, of nation for nation, of one table for another, did not yet jump at one daily from the newspaper, it did not divide people from people and nations from nations; not yet had every herd and mass feeling become so disgustingly powerful in public life as today. Freedom in one’s personal affairs, which is no longer considered comprehensible, was taken for granted. One did not look down upon tolerance as one does today as weakness and softness, but rather praised it as an ethical force. . . . For the genius of Vienna—a specifically musical one—was always that it harmonized all the national and lingual contrasts. Its culture was a synthesis of all Western cultures. Whoever lived there and worked there felt himself free of all confinement and prejudice.30
For Zweig, thinking back on that bygone paradise, “It was sweet to live here, in this atmosphere of spiritual conciliation, and subconsciously every citizen became supernational, cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world.”31
It was, of course, only an illusion. That twilight of the liberal era in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire about which Zweig was so nostalgic [xxix] had never been as pure and perfect as his mind recalled it. It was certainly true that liberal ideals had been established in the Constitution of 1867, and that they were implemented and enforced for the most part, especially in the Crownlands more directly under Emperor Francis Joseph’s imperial authority. But beneath the surface of tolerance, civility, and cosmopolitanism were all the undercurrents of racial and nationalist bigotry, economic collectivism, and political authoritarianism that poured forth like destructive lava from an exploding volcano during and in the aftermath of the First World War.
A leading theme of Mises’s articles in the first part of this volume concerns the reasons for and the resistance to the full implementation of a gold standard in Austria-Hungary. His arguments in these essays can be better understood against the backdrop of Austria’s monetary policies and experiences during the nineteenth century leading up to the currency reform act of 1892.
The story of the Austrian currency in the late eighteenth century and the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century is one of almost continual financial mismanagement. The government would debase the currency to cover its expenses, then make promises to put its budget on a sound footing, only to see another crisis arise requiring once again turning the handle on the monetary printing press.33
The Austrian government made several experiments with state-chartered [xxx] banks in the 1700s. But each of these banks soon collapsed or was closed due to lack of public confidence following large quantities of paper monies being issued to cover government expenditures. These expenditures reached huge proportions during the long years of war between the Austrian Empire and first Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France.
Between 1797 and 1811, the supply of government paper money increased from 74,200,000 florins to 1,064,000,000 florins, yielding a fourteen-fold increase over this period. Not surprisingly, whereas the price of silver coin expressed in paper money was 118 in 1800, it rose to 203 by 1807, then to 500 by 1810, and reached 1,200 by 1811.
The government announced its intention in 1811 to stop the printing presses and issue a new currency that would be converted at the ratio of five old florins for one new florin, with the total amount of paper money in circulation to be reduced to 212,800,000 florins. But the renewal of the war with Napoleon in 1812 resulted in the new currency being increased to 678,716,000 florins by 1816, a near tripling of the “reformed” currency in five years.
With the final defeat of Napoleon, the Austrian government announced that it would use a portion of the war reparations being paid by France to retire about 131,829,900 florins from circulation, leaving the paper money supply outstanding at around 546,886,000 florins. This process was assisted with the establishment of a new National Bank of Austria, with the Bank withdrawing government paper money in circulation in exchange for its own banknotes, until by early 1848, the total currency supply in circulation had been reduced to 241,240,000 florins; that is, there was an almost two-thirds reduction in the paper money supply over a thirty-year period. The National Bank, in February 1848, had silver reserves of about 65,000,000 florins, or, an approximate 25 percent specie cover for its outstanding currency in circulation.
But all of these monetary reforms began to unravel with the outbreak of the revolution of 1848, especially the Hungarian revolt against Austrian rule. Within days, panic runs on the National Bank reduced its silver reserves to 35,023,000 florins, a 53 percent loss in specie. The Austrian government suspended silver redemption and banned the exporting of silver and gold. Putting down the revolution forced the government to again borrow heavily from the National Bank. As a result, confidence in the Bank fell so low that in 1849 the government publicly promised to stop borrowing and cease increasing the currency.
But the process started again in a few years with Austria’s military mobilization during the Crimean War, and then its wars against Italian nationalists and their French ally in a vain attempt to maintain control of portions of northern Italy. In 1850 government indebtedness to the National Bank had stood at 205,300,000 florins. With the Crimean War of 1854, the government’s debt increased to 294,200,000 florins. It was reduced to 145,700,000 florins by 1859. But the start of the Italian campaigns that year pushed it up again to 285,800,000 florins, along with a renewed suspension of specie payments as the public wished to redeem the paper currency representing the value of this enlarged debt.
In 1863, an attempt was made, once again, to introduce a currency reform—the Plener Act—this time along the lines of Britain’s Peel’s Bank Act of 1844. But Austria’s disastrous war with Prussia in 1866 pushed the supply of paper money in circulation from 80,000,000 florins before the conflict to 300,000,000 florins at its end.
The Compromise of 1867 that formally created the Austro-Hungarian Empire granted Hungary its own parliament, government, and domestic budget. It established a customs union and a common military and foreign policy between the two parts of the Habsburg domain, and a monetary union with the Austrian National Bank retaining its monopoly of note issue throughout Francis Joseph’s domain. Some of the Hungarian liberals had advocated a system of competitive note-issuing private banks in place of the National Bank, but secret agreements between the emperor’s government and the Hungarian nobility eliminated this as an option.
On July 1, 1878, the Austrian National Bank was transformed into the Austro-Hungarian Bank. The emperor, under joint nomination of the Austrian and Hungarian parliaments, appointed its governor. He was assisted by two vice-governors—one Austrian and the other Hungarian—appointed by the respective governments. The Bank’s operating privileges were renewed in 1887, 1899, and 1910, with few substantial changes in their detail.
Formally, from 1816, Austria had been on a silver standard. But as we saw, the Austrian National Bank maintained unofficial specie redemption only for limited periods of time, soon interrupted usually by another war crisis requiring currency expansion to fund the government’s expenditures.
The paper currency florin, not surprisingly, traded at a significant [xxxii] discount against the silver coin florin. Between 1848 and 1870, this discount was never less than about 14 percent and was often between 20 and 23 percent. But restrictions on note issuance under the operating rules of the Bank limited the expansion of the supply of banknotes. The provisions of the 1863 Bank Act limited the circulation of “uncovered” florins to 200,000,000. Any amount above that had to be covered by gold or silver coin or bullion. Any additional “uncovered” banknote issuance was subject to a penalty tax against the Bank of 5 percent.
With many of the major governments of Europe and North America establishing or reestablishing their economies on a gold basis in place of silver in the 1870s, the world price of silver began to fall.34 After the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, the government’s pressures on the Bank to fund deficits were greatly reduced, and the Bank could more or less follow the rules against uncovered note issuance. As a result, the paper florin’s discount relative to silver disappeared by 1878. Silver began to flow into Austria-Hungary in such quantities that the Bank was instructed by the government to end the free minting of silver.
As a result, the paper florin actually rose to a premium against silver. As Friedrich von Wieser expressed it, “Silver had become of less value than paper!”35 In addition, the florin was significantly appreciating in value against gold. The price in paper florins for 100 gold florins between 1887 and 1892 was:
Average for the year
Austrian florin notes
The major monetary issue, therefore, during these years was to bring a halt to any further increase in the value of the Austrian paper currency. In February 1892, the Austrian and Hungarian governments invited a group of professional and academic experts to meet and address a set of questions relating to whether a gold standard should be [xxxiii] adopted; if so, should it be monometallic or partly bimetallic with silver; what should be the status of government notes in circulation; how should the conversion from the existing florin to a gold standard be undertaken; and what monetary unit should be chosen?
Some of the most illustrious people in the field were brought together to offer their views and opinions on these questions. Thirty years later Ludwig von Mises described them in the following manner:
From March 8 to March 17, 1892, the government-convened Currency Inquiry Commission met in Vienna. The chairman was Finance Minister [Emil] Steinbach; beside him stood the memorable Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, as section head. Thirty-six experts appeared before the commission to answer five questions that were posed by the government. No Austrian was left off the list of participants at the inquiry who had anything of importance to say on currency matters. Along with Carl Menger, the founder of the Austrian School of economics, there was Wilhelm von Lucam, the highly honored longtime secretary general of the Austro-Hungarian Bank; Moriz Benedikt, the publisher of Neue Freie Presse [New Free Press]; Theodor Thaussig, the spiritual leader of the Viennese banking world; and Theodor Hertzka, the well-known writer on monetary matters and social policy. The thick quarto volume that makes up the stenographic minutes of the inquiry remains today a source for the best ideas on all matters relating to monetary policy.36
Virtually all of the participants spoke in favor of Austria’s adoption of a gold standard. Menger, for example, at one point said: “Gold is the money of advanced nations in the modern age. No other money can provide the convenience of a gold currency in our age of rapid and massive commodity exchanges. Silver has become a troublesome tool of trade. Even paper money must yield to gold when it comes to monetary convenience in everyday life. . . . Moreover, under present conditions only a gold currency constitutes hard money. Neither a bank note and treasury note nor a silver certificate can take the place of gold, especially in moments of crisis.”37
Later summarizing the work of the commission, Wieser supported the adoption of the gold standard in colorful language:
Money is like speech; it is a means of intercourse. He who would have dealings with others must speak their language, however irrational he may find it. Language is rational by the very fact that it is intelligible to others, and more rational in proportion as it is intelligible to more people or to all. There can no more be an independent money system than independent speech; indeed, the more universal character of money, as compared with language, appears in this, that while a national language has its justification and significance in the intercourse of the world, there is no place for a national monetary system in the world’s intercourse. If Europe errs in adopting gold, we must still, for good or evil, join Europe in her error, and we shall thus receive less injury than if we insist on being “rational” all by ourselves.38
The Currency Commission, in its official report to the Upper House of the Austrian Parliament, was no less adamant that gold, and only gold, was the recognized and essential international money. For that reason Austria-Hungary needed to adopt gold as the nation’s standard if it was to successfully participate in the commerce and trade of the world.39
The commission proposed and the government accepted that the monetary unit would be renamed thekrone (the crown), with the new crown being equal to one-half the replaced florin. Standard coins would be gold pieces of ten and twenty crowns, each one being of 900 parts gold to 100 parts copper. The twenty-crown coin would have a full weight of 6.775067 grams, and a fine weight of 6.09756 grams. In 1892 an exchange rate for the crown was fixed at 1.05 Swiss francs and 0.8505 German marks.
Silver was kept as a secondary medium of exchange of limited legal tender status for smaller transactions. Government paper money was temporarily kept in circulation up to a certain maximum, but with the expectation of its eventual retirement. For the transition to a full gold standard with legally mandated redemption of banknotes for specie, it was expected that the Austro-Hungarian Bank would continue to accumulate sufficient supplies of gold until at an unspecified date formal redemption would be instituted.
An obligation to redeem crowns for gold was, in fact, never made into law. Yet from 1896 and most certainly after 1900 up until the outbreak of the war in 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Bank acted as if it now had that obligation and did pay in gold for its banknotes presented for redemption. Indeed, the oversight of this “shadow” gold standard (as it was called) by the Austro-Hungarian Bank, with maintenance of the exchange rate within a margin not much off the “gold points,” was praised by authorities at the time as an exemplary case of a highly successful “managed currency.”40
Ludwig von Mises’s Writings on Monetary and Fiscal Policy Before the Great War
Ludwig von Mises’s earliest writings on monetary and fiscal policy were published between 1907 and 1914,41 and focused on these currency reform and related issues. He devoted a chapter in his Memoirsto explaining the background behind some of these articles.42 He details his frustrations when the articles resulted in his coming face-to-face for the first time with opposition by government officials to reasonable and publicly endorsed policies due to political corruption and misappropriation of “secret” slush funds that would be threatened by implementing a fully convertible gold standard.
But he does not go into very great detail about the content of these early essays. They may be grouped under two headings. The first consists of articles concerning the political pressures that finally led to putting Austria formally on the path of a gold standard in 1892, and the reasons for the resistance and delay in legally establishing gold convertibility up to the beginning of World War I. The second group deals with fiscal extravagance and the regulatory and redistributive intrusiveness of the Austro-Hungarian government, which was leading the [xxxvi] country to a potential financial and economic crisis. Even if the events of the war had not intervened to accelerate the process that culminated in an end to the nearly eight-hundred-year reign of the Habsburgs, the growth of the interventionist state was weakening the foundations of the country.
The earliest of these essays is “The Political-Economic Motives of the Austrian Currency Reform.” It is primarily an analysis of the changing factors influencing various interest groups that finally led to a sufficient coalition of these interests endorsing the move toward a gold standard. It highlights the fact that a major shift in economic policy is often dependent upon the vagaries of unique historical events, without which such a change might never have the chance to be implemented.43
From 1872 to 1887, the Austrian currency had been depreciating on the foreign exchange market. Many of the agricultural and manufacturing interests in both Austria and Hungary did not object to this trend, since it reduced foreign competition by raising the costs of imports and worked to make Austrian goods more competitive in other countries. But beginning in 1887, the currency began to appreciate, and continued to do so until 1891. The same interests that were quite happy living with a currency losing value were extremely anxious with an appreciating currency that lowered the costs of imports and raised the costs of Austrian exports.
By the time the Austrian Currency Commission was convened in 1892, all the leading manufacturing, agricultural, and financial interests had agreed behind the scenes on the necessity for currency reform to bring the appreciation of the Austrian florin to a halt. And they all concurred on the desirability for Austria-Hungary to establish a gold standard, while they initially argued over the particular rate of exchange at which the new currency—the crown—would be stabilized.
Mises’s essay reads partly as what, today, would be considered a “public choice” analysis of the special-interest politicking that often guides [xxxvii] public policy. It brings out how a concentrated benefit to a wide array of interest groups served to generate a consensus on a significant institutional change in the existing monetary system. It also demonstrates how the costs or burdens imposed on a variety of smaller interest groups—particularly creditors and a number of medium-sized businesses who gained from currency appreciation, and conservatives who opposed a gold standard on ideological grounds—could be outweighed and outmaneuvered into being unable to prevent the monetary reform.
But at first, the Austro-Hungarian Bank was not legally compelled to redeem its notes for specie (gold). Its initial task was to prevent any further appreciation of the new crown from its formal foreign exchange rate. It was not given any direct instruction to prevent any renewed depreciation, if it were to occur. This, too, was consistent with the dynamics of the coalition of interest groups that had opposed any further increase in the value of the currency, but had not objected to the earlier years of currency depreciation.
But after 1896, the Austro-Hungarian Bank had accumulated enough gold and foreign exchange that it could assure the stability of the Austrian crown’s foreign exchange rate within both the upper and lower ends of the gold points, and in fact kept it within less than one percent of the parity rate most of the time. And after 1900, the Bank was redeeming and issuing its notes for gold as well as for foreign exchange on an unofficial de facto basis, while still not legally required to follow a policy of specie redemption.
This was the context in which Mises wrote four of the essays in this volume: “The Problem of Legal Resumption of Specie Payments in Austria-Hungary,” “The Foreign Exchange Policy of the Austro-Hungarian Bank,” “On the Problem of Legal Resumption of Specie Payments in Austria-Hungary,” and “The Fourth Issuing Right of the Austro-Hungarian Bank.”
Mises’s argument was that nothing was keeping the Austro-Hungarian Bank from now being given the legal obligation to redeem gold on demand for its banknotes, and thus formally joining the international community of gold standard nations. He insisted that this would immediately raise the creditworthiness of debt issued by the Austrian and Hungarian governments on foreign markets, and therefore lower the costs of borrowing from international creditors. It would also improve global confidence in Austria-Hungary as a developing nation desirous [xxxviii] of attracting foreign investment and lower the cost of international capital for Austrian entrepreneurs.
Opponents of formal specie redemption argued that requiring the Austro-Hungarian Bank to redeem gold would risk a large hemorrhage of specie reserves at any time an international crisis induced holders of crown notes to transfer their liquid capital out of the country. If during such an international crisis other central banks were to raise interest rates to protect their gold reserves from the danger of capital flight, the Austro-Hungarian Bank would be compelled to also raise its interest rate to prevent loss of its own gold reserves. Domestic manufacturing and commerce would then find that the cost of capital was held captive to the uncontrollable market forces of international finance. Domestic interest rates could experience swings that would carry negative effects for business within the country, merely to counteract speculators who wished to move gold in and out of the country to take advantage of interest rate spreads that had nothing to do with the legitimate needs of the import and export trade to facilitate international transactions. These critics argued that it was far better to maintain the present system of de facto specie payments, which gave the Austro-Hungarian Bank the latitude and liberty to, at any time, refuse gold or foreign exchange redemption for its notes to shelter the domestic economy from unnecessary and destabilizing interest rate changes.
Mises counterargued in these articles that since the 1860s, first the old Austrian National Bank and then its successor, the Austro-Hungarian Bank, had had legal authority to hold a sizable portion of its reserves against notes outstanding (even when official redemption was not imposed) in foreign bills of exchange, foreign currency, and other foreign-denominated assets that were, themselves, redeemable abroad in specie money. In other words, the Austrian central bank operated on the basis of a gold-exchange standard rather than a full gold standard. Through this method the Austro-Hungarian Bank was able to earn a significant interest income from its reserve holdings instead of letting its gold sit idle in the Bank’s vaults. At the same time, these foreign earnings not only went to the Bank’s stockholders, but were shared by law with the Austrian and Hungarian governments, thus reducing what otherwise might have been higher taxes to cover government expenditures.
For a long time the Bank already had been utilizing its holdings of foreign exchange and other foreign-denominated assets precisely to [xxxix] substitute for having to meet every demand with an actual gold outflow. This not only was an effective tool for meeting “legitimate” needs for specie in international transactions, but served to counteract speculative demands for gold or foreign exchange to keep the crown’s foreign exchange rate within the gold points, beyond which it would become profitable to export or import gold.
Furthermore, the Austro-Hungarian Bank did, in fact, export gold at times of international crisis, as well as on a regular basis. In normal times it exported gold precisely to replenish its stock of foreign exchange, foreign bills of exchange, and other foreign-denominated assets redeemable in specie abroad to maintain a supply sufficient to cover its international dealings and obligations. And during international financial crises it consciously exported gold to markets in Germany, Great Britain, and France to help alleviate the pressure for gold abroad, and at the same time earned a handsome return when gold prices were high. By supplying gold to foreign markets at such times, it also reduced the need to raise interest rates at home since the gold exports reduced the need for other central banks to raise their interest rates to protect their own gold reserves.
Finally, even while not legally obligated to redeem its notes for specie, the Austro-Hungarian Bank used its discount rate when it deemed it necessary to dampen the demand for both gold and other foreign-denominated assets among its reserves on the part of “speculators” and any others. Thus the Bank was already doing all the things that it would be required to do or could do under formal specie redemption to both maintain the official parity rate and preserve its gold reserves from undesired withdrawals. From any of the critics’ perspectives, no case could be reasonably made against the Austro-Hungarian government’s legislatively enacting the final completion of the currency reform process that had begun in 1892.
So why did the Austrian and Hungarian governments never pass legislation establishing formal specie redemption on the part of the Austro-Hungarian Bank? Mises gave no fully satisfactory answer in these articles, which were all published in respected scholarly journals of the time. However, in his MemoirsMises explained that behind the scenes the opposition to formal convertibility was partly because a portion of the rather large funds earned from foreign exchange dealings by the Austro-Hungarian Bank were hidden away in a secret account from which senior political and ministerial officials could draw for [xl] various “off the books” purposes, including influencing public opinion through the media. He learned about this special fund from Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk (1851-1914),44 the internationally renowned Austrian economist and Mises’s mentor, who told him about it off the record. Böhm-Bawerk was disgusted by the whole business and frustrated that even when he was finance minister (1900-1904), he had not been able to abolish the fund. A good part of the opposition and anger expressed against Mises’s defense of legal convertibility was the fear by those accessing these special funds that this source of money would dry up under the more transparent accounting procedures that would come with legal redemption.45
In his 1909 article “The Problem of Legal Resumption of Specie Payments in Austria-Hungary,” Mises did point out that one reason behind the opposition to legal convertibility was the resistance of the Hungarians. They wanted to weaken the power of the joint Austro-Hungarian Bank as a way to continue their drive for independence from the Habsburg Monarchy. Since the Compromise of 1867,
Hungarian politics have ceaselessly endeavored to loosen the common bonds that connect that country to Austria. The achievement of economic autonomy from Austria has appeared as an especially important goal for Hungarian policy as a preliminary step leading to political independence. The national rebirth of the non-Magyar peoples of Hungary—Germans, Serbo-Croatians, Romanians, Ruthenians, and Slovaks—will, however, pull the rug out from under these endeavors and contribute to the strengthening of the national ideal of Greater Austria. At the moment, however, Hungarian policy is still determined by the views of the Magyar nobility, and the power of the government rests in the hands of the intransigent Independence Party.
The nationalistic “rebirth” of these peoples under the often oppressive control of the Hungarians did not strengthen the “national ideal of Greater Austria”—that “Austrian idea” of a harmonious multinational empire under the reign of the Habsburgs—that Mises assumed and clearly hoped would triumph. Instead, the appeal of nationalism over individual liberty and liberalism that had been developing throughout [xli] the empire for decades finally contributed to the death of the Habsburg dynasty in 1918.46
But if the centrifugal forces of nationalism were pulling the empire apart from within, it was also being undermined by the fiscal cost and growth of the state. This was the second theme in Mises’s policy writings before the First World War, in two essays: “Financial Reform in Austria” and “Disturbances in the Economic Life of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy During the Years 1912-13.”
After having its financial house in order for almost twenty years, Mises pointed out, the Austrian government was now threatening the fiscal stability of the society with increasing expenditures, rising taxes, and budget deficits. Government spending was likely to significantly grow in future years partly due to the expenses of maintaining costly military forces in an environment of an international arms race. The other major factor at work on the spending side of the government’s ledger were social welfare expenditures that the Austrian authorities were taking on, and which would only grow in the years ahead. Already in the preceding ten years, government spending had increased by over 53 percent, and over the same decade the cost of funding the government’s debt had increased by nearly 20 percent. The cost of financing many of the ministries was exploding; the nationalized railway system was running large deficits that had to be covered from other government funding sources; and the Austrian Crownlands were managed with a three-layered bureaucratic system of administrators at the national, provincial, and municipal levels, each with its own rules, regulations, [xlii] and taxing authorities—and often in contradiction with each other.
To cover these expenditures, a wide variety of taxes were being increased, including inheritance taxes, sales and excise taxes, and income and corporate taxes. They frequently were manipulated to shift the incidence of the tax burden away from the agricultural and rural areas of Austria onto the shoulders of the urban populations and especially onto industry and manufacturing. In addition, the finance ministry wanted to implement legislation giving the government the authority to examine the books of businesses and industries. Mises observed that “Austrian entrepreneurs rightly see in this arrangement an intensification of the harassment that the authorities display toward them.” Although the tax rates and burdens that Mises analyzes and criticizes seem by today’s higher and more intrusive fiscal standards to be part of that bygone, idyllic world of limited government liberalism before the First World War, they all represented significant increases at the time, and all pointed in a dangerous direction for the future.
What Mises also found most disturbing in the coalition of political forces raising taxes and shifting them onto industry and the urban areas was a clear ideological bias against modern capitalist society. There were conservative and rural interests who wished for a return to the preindustrial era, Mises claimed, and were using their preponderant representation in the Austrian parliament to place roadblocks in the way of modernization, and delay if not stop the economic development of the country.
The economic crisis in Austria-Hungary in 1912 and 1913, Mises argued, showed that fiscal irresponsibility was pervasive in both the government and the private sector. Everywhere consumption spending was growing at the expense of savings, while everyone did all in their power to avoid work. Government expenditures were expanding and eating away at the hard-won wealth and capital accumulation of previous years as a result of government deficit spending. But the private sector was no more frugal than government. In every walk of Austrian life, people attempted to live beyond their means. Everyone lived on credit that depended upon the illusion that debts accumulating on the books of retailers and wholesalers eventually could be repaid. Retailers extended credit to their customers; wholesalers extended credit to retailers; and the financial institutions extended credit to the wholesalers, manufacturers, and merchants.
It was a financial game of musical chairs in which everyone throughout the entire chain of production and sales appeared to be prosperous and profitable only because of the claims on the books against others up and down the payment structure of the economy. A serious default anywhere along the line could set off repercussions that would threaten the entire financial system. And precisely because of this, whenever anyone failed to pay even a fraction of the balances owed, the lines of credit were extended further to put off the inevitable day of reckoning and keep the illusions going.
The financial crisis of 1912-13, Mises explained, had been partially that day of reckoning in which the financial system was found to be built on sand. Mises could only hope that some lessons would be learned: that consumption needed to be based on production, and debts undertaken needed to be repaid through savings, work, and investment. He feared that the lessons had not been learned. Within a matter of months after writing in early 1914 his analysis of the causes and consequences of this crisis, Austria-Hungary was plunged into a far more disastrous crisis from which it would not survive as a political entity.
In two pieces written in 1913, “The General Rise in Prices in the Light of Economic Theory” and “On Rising Prices and Purchasing Power Policies,” Mises had attempted to explain the monetary mechanism by which increases in the supply of money and credit bring about a general rise in prices. Mises develops part of the argument that he had formulated in 1912, in The Theory of Money and Credit,47 that the period of inflation through which Austria-Hungary and much of the world was passing was due to the expansion of credit by the banking system in the form of fiduciary media. The latter, in Mises’s terminology, are money substitutes in the form of banknotes and checking deposits that are claims against specie currency held as reserves by the central bank and other lending institutions. However, such fiduciary media may be of two sorts: those that Mises calls “commodity credit,” which is fully backed by bank reserves, and “circulation credit,” which is only partially backed by reserves in the banking system. It is the fractional reserve basis behind a growing amount of the fiduciary media in circulation, Mises insists, that is the real cause of price inflation and the business cycle. Creating and lending unbacked fiduciary media at [xliv] artificially lowered rates of interest produces an imbalance between savings and investment that leads to an unsustainable boom, which finally has to end in an economic downturn and a period of readjustment in the market.48
But Mises suggested that another influence was generating a general rise in prices, which he argued was caused by the nature of monetary transactions in an increasingly complex market order. In a developed market with multistaged processes of production, in which producers no longer meet face-to-face with their ultimate consumers, each seller must fix his prices on the basis of his expectations about what he thinks buyers further down the production chain may be willing to pay. This expectation about what his buyer will be willing to pay, in turn, influences the price he will be willing to pay to the producer or wholesaler from whom he purchases goods.
To the extent that such a seller expects that his buyer may be willing to pay more, he then will be willing to pay prices to those who sell to him that he otherwise might consider too high. Thus, Mises argued, a dynamic is set in motion that results in a continuing rise in prices throughout the various sectors of the economy in a certain temporal sequence. For example, trade unions may demand wages higher than employers consider the workers’ labor to be worth. But if those employers are confident that they can pass on the cost of paying higher money wages to those to whom they sell their products, they acquiesce in money wage demands that would otherwise be unjustifiable. At the same time, the higher real wages that those workers hope to obtain through an increase in their money wages will be eroded as prices of finished goods continue to rise in the economy due to this general inflationary process throughout the market. What trade unions might consider their demonstrated capacity to improve the real wages of workers was illusionary, since over time any temporary gains would be washed out by the general rise in prices. In the long run workers [xlv] could not obtain real wages in excess of the value of their marginal product.
Mises went as far as to say that nothing really could be done about this inherent price-increasing process; he even suggested that it was indicative of a dynamic and growing economy in which constant shifts in supply and demand and the conditions and methods of production required pricing decisions to be made on the basis of expectations under inescapable uncertain future market conditions. Mises concluded that the fact that the economy was not static, and therefore not more fully predictable, was a reason for optimism that these changing economic circumstances were bringing about improvements all the time.
What is missing in this part of Mises’s analysis is any clear link with either a prior or simultaneous increase in the supply of money and fiduciary media that permits this price-inflationary process to continue, or an indication that the process implies an increase in the velocity of money that would allow the same number of market transactions to be facilitated at rising prices. As he formulated it in these two articles, his argument seems to represent a version of what in the post-World War II period became known as cost-push inflation.49
War Financing, Inflation, and the Goals of International Trade Policy
When war broke out in summer 1914, Mises’s artillery reserve unit was called up for active duty. For part of the next four years he sometimes saw intense action on the eastern front against the Russian Army. However, in 1918, during the last year of the war, Mises was assigned to work in various consulting capacities for the Austrian High Command in Vienna. And for a short time he served in Austrian-occupied Ukraine involved with currency matters.50
In 1916, he published “On the Goals of Trade Policy,” in which he presents a clear analysis of the gains from division of labor and international trade. But Mises goes on to explain that what motivated nations such as Germany and Austria-Hungary was a particular dilemma. For [xlvi] these relatively overpopulated countries in Europe, the greater economic opportunities in foreign countries resulted in emigration that meant a loss of manpower both for future wars and as part of the work-force during peace as well as at times of international conflict. Also, in the cultural struggles between countries, emigration meant a loss of part of a nation’s human heritage, since over time many such emigrants were absorbed into the culture and language of the host nation.
Thus, in countries like Germany and Austria-Hungary the task was to develop policies that would raise the living standards and opportunities in the homeland to reduce the incentive to leave and be “lost” to the fatherland. The nationalist trade method rejected free trade and erected protectionist barriers to artificially raise prices and secure domestic employments for the population. Alternatively, such a country could attempt territorial expansion into surrounding areas to gain the land and resources that would overcome the too densely populated condition within the pattern of existing political boundaries in which, for example, Germany was currently confined. One other method was to acquire colonies abroad to which emigrants could move while retaining their cultural identity and political allegiance to the fatherland.
Writing at a time of war, Mises carefully emphasized that these political trade policy goals were in the long run incompatible with the economic forces of an increasingly global market society. These forces were constantly working to guide both labor and capital to where their productive capacity was most highly valued, which inevitably would result in redistributions of people around the world to reflect their most optimal employments in the international division of labor. In the long run, the logic and incentives of the market would transcend the political goals of nationalist ideology.
In “Remarks Concerning the Problem of Emigration,” a memorandum that Mises prepared in 1918 for the Austrian government commission to which he was assigned in Vienna, he suggested a variety of domestic policies that would reduce the incentive for workers to leave Austria. These included making more farmland available out of existing larger estates for the benefit of small landholders who currently could not support their families on the properties they owned. It would be useful for the government and private associations to assist seasonal migrant labor in finding more attractive wage and work condition opportunities abroad, thus increasing the likelihood they would return home to a country that cared about their well-being. It was also necessary [xlvii] to reduce the burden and inconveniences of compulsory military service that too often induced some workers employed abroad to not come home.
Also in the summer of 1918, Mises delivered a public lecture, “On Paying for the Costs of War and War Loans.” He praised the military successes of Austria’s armed forces in its fight against the Allied Powers and the industrial efficiencies of Austrian business that had provided the manufacturing wherewithal for, Austria to do so well, even in the face of Allied blockades that cut Austria off from foreign sources of supply. But production had to be paid for, and the issue arose of whether the government’s war costs should be covered by taxation or debt.
Mises reminded his listeners that borrowing did not enable the current generation to shift any part of the costs of war to a future generation. Current consumption could only come out of current production, and this applied no less to consumption of finished goods designed for and used in war. Whether the war was financed by taxes or borrowing, the citizenry paid for it today by forgoing all that could have been produced and used, if not for the war. Mises also explained to his audience what today is often referred to as the Ricardian equivalence theorem, named after British economist David Ricardo (1772-1823). In his 1820 essay, “Funding System,” Ricardo argued that all that the borrowing option entailed was a decision whether to be taxed more in the present or more in the future, since all that was borrowed now would have to be paid back at a later date through future taxes; therefore in terms of their financial burden the two funding methods can be shown to be equivalent, under specified conditions. Ricardo, however, also pointed out that due to people’s perceptions and evaluations of costs in the present versus the future, they were rarely equivalent in their minds.51
But Mises raised a different point in favor of certain benefits to debt financing for the government’s war expenditures. First, many who would not have the liquid assets to pay lump-sum wartime taxes would either have to sell off less liquid properties to pay their tax obligation, or would have to borrow the required sum to pay the tax. In the first case, a sizable number of citizens might have to liquidate properties more or less all at the same time to improve their cash positions, which would put exceptional downward pressure on the market prices of those assets. [xlviii] This would impose a financial loss on those forced to sell these properties and assets to the benefit of those who were able to buy them at prices that would not have been so abnormally low if not for the war and need for ready cash to pay the tax obligation. Second, to the extent that some citizens would need to borrow to cover their wartime tax payments, the private individual’s creditworthiness undoubtedly would be much lower than the government’s. As a consequence, these private individuals would have to pay a noticeably higher interest rate than that at which the government could finance its borrowing. Thus, the interest burden from government borrowing to be paid for out of future taxes would be less for the citizenry than the financial cost of their having to borrow money in the present to cover all the costs of war through current taxation.52 Hence it was both patriotic and cost-efficient for those listening to Mises’s presentation to buy war bonds in support of the war effort.
Finally, in “Inflation,” another lecture delivered in the late summer of 1918, Mises explained the impact of the government’s financing a large amount of its war expenditures through monetary expansion. First, all creditors who had failed to anticipate the resulting depreciation in the value of the Austrian crown are paid back in money possessing less purchasing power than when the loan was issued. This might seem to be a desirable side effect, since clearly the debtor gains by paying back his loan in depreciated crowns, especially if it is “the poor” who are the predominant debtor group. But it was worth recalling, Mises said, that in modern society the debtors were most often businesses that had borrowed to cover investment costs, while the creditors were middle-class citizens, widows and orphans, civil servants, and members of the lower-income working class who had put their savings into the financial institutions that did the lending. Hence, Mises pointed out, in this debtor-creditor relationship, under inflation the “rich” benefited at the expense of the middle class and the “poor.”
Some saw the benefit from inflation in that it also reduced the real value of the government’s accumulating debt, thus reducing the “real” cost of the war. At the same time, rising money incomes and profits in the private sector due to inflation meant that the government gained higher tax revenues in money terms. On the other hand, to the extent [xlix] to which the government had covered part of its debt with foreign borrowing denominated in another currency, the falling value of the crown on the foreign exchange market due to inflation increased the amount of crowns the government had to pay to meet its foreign financial obligations. Also, some taxes were fixed at a specified level, so in this instance the taxpayer gained in real terms during inflation while the government lost. Furthermore, the worse and more continuing the inflation, the more reluctant citizens would be to buy war bonds and other government debt instruments, thus increasing the difficulties of financing the war other than through inflation. Thus, from a variety of perspectives, inflation was a dangerous and undesirable method of covering the costs of war, since it undermined the real wealth of the middle class and those in the working class who saved in an attempt to improve their position in society.
After War: Hyperinflation and Fiscal Mismanagement in the New Austria53
In October and November 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire began to disintegrate as various national groups began to break away and declare their independence, most notably the Czechs and Slovaks, who joined in creating their own country, then the Hungarians, who were then followed by the Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, and Bosnians, who formed a new Yugoslavia. The Romanians soon began to incorporate Transylvania within their borders, and Italy seized south Tyrol and the port of Trieste. Galicia became a battleground between the Poles, the Ukrainians, and the Russian Bolsheviks in the next few years.
In what was declared the new state of German-Austria a coalition government was formed between the Social Democrats, the Christian Socialists, and the Nationalist Party. Almost immediately, they began a campaign of expensive food subsidies for the urban population at controlled prices, compulsory requisitioning of agricultural goods from the rural parts of the country, foreign exchange controls on all imports and exports at an artificial rate of exchange, a vast array of social welfare [l] programs, and the use of the monetary printing press to finance it all. By the middle of 1919 and then into 1920 and 1921, serious inflation had degenerated into hyperinflation.54
Mises’s articles “Monetary Devaluation and the National Budget” and “For the Reintroduction of Normal Stock Market Practices in Foreign Exchange Dealings” explained that the foreign exchange rate was a market-created price that could not be simply fixed and manipulated by the state. The value of any one currency in terms of another was ultimately a reflection of each currency’s purchasing power. Guided by the “law of one price,” the market tendency was to establish the exchange rate at that point at which the attractiveness of buying some quantity of a good in either country was the same. Setting the exchange rate at some level other than the market-determined rate merely meant that it was artificially fixed at too dear or too cheap a price. In the face of the currency shortages that the exchange control resulted in, the government then commanded that all foreign exchange earnings be sold to the Austrian Exchange Control Authority at the fixed rate, with the government bureaucracy now determining the rationing of it to both importers and exporters.
Prohibiting normal foreign exchange dealings merely drove transactions underground into the black market, and prevented the functioning of those institutional arrangements through which individuals can hedge against uncertain fluctuations in the foreign exchange rate by utilizing a legal futures market. Instead, the inflationary environment, with limited legal avenues to “take cover” against the effects of a depreciating currency, meant that more and more people were shifting into the use of foreign monies in domestic Austrian business transactions. The foreign exchange controls needed to be abolished, and the printing presses needed to be brought to a halt if a monetary disaster was to be averted.
The fundamental cause for Austria’s problems was that it was in the stranglehold of the socialist idea, with all of its negative consequences. This was the theme in two pieces by Mises: “The Austrian Problem” and “The Social Democratic Agrarian Program.” The socialists were [li] determined to control and spend their way into the destruction of the country. Under this administration, taxes and inflation ate away at the accumulated wealth of the past and hindered any capital formation in the present. They demagogically promised wealth while causing waste by nationalizing and regulating industries that ended up suffering losses that needed to be paid for through even more inflation. Their agricultural agenda was to do with the rural economy the same harm they were doing with industry and manufacturing in the cities.
What was to be done? In February 1921, Mises presented the outline of a plan in answer to the question, “How Can Austria Be Saved?” The first order of business was to stop the monetary printing presses. But this could be done only if the costly food subsidies were eliminated and the nationalized industries were reprivatized to end the huge expenses to cover their deficits, so the national budget once again could be brought into balance. Foreign exchange controls had to be abolished with a free market in all currency dealings. At the same time, the value of the Austrian crown had to be stabilized once the central bank had stopped issuing paper money and the depreciation of the currency was brought to a halt. All domestic regulations and controls inhibiting free commerce among the various provinces of Austria had to be lifted, and free trade had to be reintroduced in all forms of foreign trade. This was the path to a revitalized and prosperous Austria.
A sound monetary system was unlikely if the governments of those new states that had formerly been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire looted the assets of a reconstructed Austrian central bank. Thus, in “The Claims of Note Holders upon Liquidation of the Bank,” published in February 1921, Mises argued against those who asserted that those other governments had a right to a portion of the old Austro-Hungarian Bank’s gold reserves. Under the Treaty of Saint-Germain, which had ended the war between Austria and the Allied Powers, the successor states were obligated to redeem the old crown notes on their territories for their own respective currencies. The old Austro-Hungarian Bank notes were then to be turned over to the new Austrian central bank, which would take them out of circulation. Mises argued that everyone knew that the huge expansion of banknotes to fund the government’s war expenses were backed by nothing, and certainly not by whatever gold may have remained in the central bank’s vaults. To demand anything else would be to plunder the gold and other assets upon which a reconstituted Austrian monetary system would be built.
Mises observed in an article early in 1922, “The Austrian Currency Problem Thirty Years Ago and Today,” that the key to ending Austria’s problems was stopping inflation. Thirty years earlier, in 1892, the task had been to stabilize a currency that was appreciating in value. The task in 1922 was to bring a halt to its depreciation. But the method was the same: link the currency to gold and do not manipulate its quantity in circulation.
As the situation worsened, Mises put together a proposal on behalf of the Vienna Chamber of Commerce for “The Restoration of Austria’s Economic Situation,” which was submitted to other trade and labor union associations in the country to devise a way to bring an end to the government budget deficits as a prelude to stopping the inflation. In a nutshell, Mises recommended the establishment of price indexation throughout the economy. Already government expenditure levels were automatically adjusted in line with a cost-of-living index. Now the same arrangement had to be set up for government revenues. Otherwise nominal expenditures would keep growing while nominal tax revenues would always lag behind, never leading to an end to the deficits. Incomes, profits, and wages and prices all had to be indexed to the market value of gold. This would continually adjust government tax revenues to government expenditures. It would mean that government nationalized sectors, such as the railway system, would have their prices rise in tandem with the average rate of depreciation of the currency reflected in its link to the price of gold, which would help to reduce their losses and maybe even earn a profit from transit fees for cargos passing through Austria. At the same time, gold indexation would assist in keeping the wages and salaries of many workers rising to maintain a certain real value of their income.
Mises emphasized that such an indexation policy was desirable not only due to questions of equity in a period of rapid depreciation and the need to bring the government’s budget better into balance. It was also needed because inflation distorted the very essence of a money-using economy: the ability for economic calculation to reasonably estimate profit and loss, and relative profitability of alternative lines of production. Price and wage indexation linked to the price of gold would help to reduce the miscalculations that inflation caused, and which often resulted in capital consumption. This measure, Mises stated, was meant to be a transition method to bring stability to the Austrian economy, or, as he concluded, “We must make up our minds to return from [liii] the extravagant intoxication of spending ‘billions’ to the sober, more modest financial figures of a smaller state. The object of the proposed plan is to avoid a sudden and disastrous collapse.”
The inflation was brought to a halt in late 1922 and early 1923 with the financial assistance and supervisorial oversight of the League of Nations. In 1925, in “The Gold-Exchange Standard,” Mises pointed out that while Austria and a number of other countries were moving back to a gold-backed currency, it was not a full gold standard system. Most countries did not have large amounts of actual gold reserves, and gold coins were nowhere in circulation. Instead, their monetary systems (like that under the old Austro-Hungarian Bank) were gold-exchange standards, under which most reserves were held in other countries in the forms of financial assets that were, in principle, redeemable in gold in those other countries. The entire system depended upon at least a few countries, like the United States at that time, being willing to serve as ultimate gold reserve redeemers. Mises thought that this was only a shadow of the type of real gold-backed system that could assure noninflationary stability to the various countries of the world.
In 1926, Mises had spent three months traveling in the United States. When he returned he delivered the talk “America and the Reconstruction of the European Economy.” Any further European recovery from the effects of the Great War could not count upon American political or economic leadership. Both manufacturing and agricultural interests in the United States were heavily protectionist and therefore resistant to imports. This, in turn, made it difficult for Europeans to find markets for their goods or to earn the dollars to pay back their wartime loans to America. While the United States was a creditor nation with the means to invest in Europe, money would not be given away but would depend on the profitability of such investments. Thus Europe would have to rely upon itself if it was to continue to overcome the legacy of the war.
Mises pointed out the difficulty for such stable recovery and growth in a summary he presented in 1928, “The Currency and Finances of the Federal State of Austria.” Five years after the end to Austria’s inflation, the currency was on a relatively sound basis. A new schilling had replaced the old crown and was fixed at a specific value in terms of gold. The rules under which the new Austrian National Bank operated made it difficult for it to serve as a means to finance the expenses of the government.
However, the fiscal affairs of the nation were far from sound. The government was still running budget deficits, but all of it was due to cost overruns in the nationalized sectors of the economy, especially the railway system and the lumber industry in the nationalized forest system. Financial pressures were placed on the federal authority because of the tax and related transfers to the provincial governments, which were all overlaid with bureaucratic regulatory structures and mismanagement. And in Vienna, where the Social Democrats controlled the municipal government, the financial extravagance on public projects was exceptionally large. For domestic growth and international competitiveness, Austria had to make its economy more productive. Cutting wasteful government and radically reducing taxes was the only avenue to a prosperous future for Austria.
When the Great Depression began in the early 1930s, the banking system was badly shaken. The collapse in May 1931 of the Austrian bank, Credit-Anstalt, in particular, sent shock waves throughout the financial markets. Shortly afterward, Mises wrote “The Economic Crisis and Lessons for Banking Policy.” In his eyes, the banking systems in Germany and Austria had two weaknesses. First, too many banks had become financially entangled with the industrial corporations to whom they lent. In fact, they often had become major shareholders in the very companies whose financial status they were supposed to oversee with a critical eye in terms of continuing creditworthiness. Instead, they unsoundly extended more credit to companies they should have pulled back from because their own balance sheets were too closely linked to the illusion of their continuing profitability. Finally the situation imploded, taking the banks down with those companies.
Second, those same banks had poorly managed the term structure of their investment portfolios. They lent long, while being liable for depositor withdrawals on demand. In other words, they had become caught in the system of fractional reserve banking, in which the amount of claims payable on demand far exceeded their available cash reserves to meet depositor liabilities.
The banking crisis, as far as Mises was concerned, was not the end of capitalism, but showed the need to reorganize the way banks managed their liabilities and investments after the crisis had passed. Sounder banking principles in a market economy were the avenue to avoid similar crises in the future.
Interventionism, Collectivism, and Their Ideological Roots
In the 1920s, one of the contributions for which Mises was most famous was his theory of government intervention. In 1930, he published “The Economic System of Interventionism,” a brief summary of his critique of this practice, with particular emphasis on the deleterious effects from all forms of control over prices. While various forms of production regulations had the tendency to reduce productivity, price controls were a far more directly harmful type of intervention. They inevitably distorted the relationship between supply and demand, artificially generated either shortages or surpluses, and deflected production from those avenues most likely to satisfy consumer demand. They also had a tendency to spread out to more and more sectors of the economy, as the government imposed similar controls on other markets and industries in a vain attempt to compensate for the imbalances the earlier price controls had created. If followed to their logical conclusion, such price controls led to a fully planned economy through piecemeal interventions imposed one after another.
Where did all this lead? In “Economic Order and the Political System” (1936), Mises pointed out that in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, political democracy, civil liberty, and economic freedom had grown hand in hand. But in the second half of the nineteenth century the idea had taken hold that political democracy and personal freedom could be preserved even if the government increasingly intervened in and controlled the economic affairs of the citizenry in the name of social justice and socialist planning.
What the twentieth century was showing, however, was that political democracy and individual freedom could not last long when government planning increasingly replaces the market economy. Economic planning means planning people’s lives, and people must then conform in all their affairs to what the plan dictates. In countries like Soviet Russia, fascist Italy, or National Socialist (Nazi) Germany even the appearance of preserving democratic and personal liberties had been discarded and the reality of where planning leads could be most clearly seen. This was the crossroads that now confronted the remaining relatively free and democratic societies in the West: freedom or planning.
More than twenty years later, in 1959, Mises offered “Remarks Concerning the Ideological Roots of the Monetary Catastrophe of 1923,” when hyperinflation had brought Germany to the edge of total economic [lvi] collapse. He reflected back to when he was a young man before the First World War, during the years when he wrote those early pieces on the gold standard and had only just published The Theory of Money and Credit. He had attended the meetings of the Verein für Sozialpolitik (Society for Social Policy), the leading and most influential social science association in the German-speaking world, which was dominated by members of the German Historical School. Here he came face-to-face with the enemies of economic liberalism, who rejected most of economic theory in the name of a historically based approach to social analysis, on the basis of which they rationalized aggressive nationalistic conclusions, all leading to an eventual war. They had contempt for the Austrian economists and ridiculed the idea that there were “laws of economics” that should stand in the way of markets and money being controlled by the state. These were the thinkers who were the harbingers of many of the disasters of the twentieth century. Their aggressive nationalism had led to two world wars; their belief in the interventionist state had cultivated the coming of the planned and regulated society; and their confidence that money and its value were creatures of the state had fostered the inflations of the twentieth century.
And though Mises did not point it out, many of these German thinkers laid the ideological groundwork for the mass murder of millions at the hands of the National Socialists, including the destruction of six million Jews. Indeed, it was because of such ideas and their consequences that Mises himself was forced to flee a Nazi-dominated Europe and find sanctuary in America in the midst of the Second World War.
Leaving Europe for America had not been an easy decision for Mises. Indeed, he said in a letter to Friedrich A. Hayek in May 1940, as he was approaching his departure from Switzerland for the United States, “The decision to leave is truly difficult. For me, it represents saying good-bye to a life which I have always lived, it is for me an ‘adieu’ to a Europe which is about to disappear forever.”55
It is only appropriate, therefore, that before concluding this introduction we should take a look at Mises’s Jewish family roots in the old Habsburg Empire and how the fate of the Austrian Jews led to a man [lvii] like Mises having to say good-bye to the life and world in which he made his career and won his reputation as one of the leading economists of his time, and his having to make a new start at the age of fifty-eight in the New World.
Ludwig von Mises was born on September 29, 1881, into a prominent Jewish family in Lemberg (Lvov in present-day Ukraine), the capital of the Austrian Crownland of Galicia, far to the east of Vienna and near the border with the Russian Empire. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, more than 50 percent of the population of some parts of Galicia was Jewish, with the center of Jewish life and culture being in Lemberg.57
The documents that Ludwig von Mises’s great-grandfather, Mayer Rachmiel Mises (1801-91), prepared as background for his ennoblement by the Austrian emperor, Francis Joseph, in mid-1881 (just a few months before Ludwig was born), record the history of the Mises family in Lemberg going back to the 1700s. Mayer’s father, Fischel Mises, had been a wholesaler and real estate owner who had received permission to live and conduct business in the “restricted district” reserved for non-Jews. At the age of eighteen, Mayer married a daughter of Hirsch Halberstamm, the leading Russian-German export trader in the Galician city of Brody.
Mayer took over the family business following his father’s death and also served for twenty-five years as a commissioner in the commercial court of Lemberg. For a time he also was on the city council and was a full member of the Lemberg Chamber of Commerce. He also was a cofounder of the Lemberg Savings Bank, and later was a member of the board of the Lemberg branch of the Austrian National Bank. He also was one of the founders of the Cracow-Lemberg railway line. In addition, he was a founder of a Jewish orphanage, a reform school, a secondary education school, a charitable institution for infant orphans, and a library in the Jewish community. Some of these charities were [lviii] begun with funds provided by Mayer for their endowment. Indeed, it was for his service to the emperor as a leader of the Jewish community in Lemberg that Mayer Mises, great-grandfather of Ludwig von Mises, was ennobled.
Mayer’s oldest son, Abraham Oscar Mises, ran the Vienna office of the family business until he was appointed in 1860 the director of the Lemberg branch of the Credit-Anstalt bank. Abraham also was the director of the Galician Carl-Ludwig Railroad. His other son, Hirsch Mises, was a partner in and a director of the Halberstamm and Nirenstein banking company.58
It is perhaps because of the family’s connection with the railroad business that Hirsch Mises’s son, Arthur Edler von Mises, took up civil engineering with a degree from the Zurich Polytechnic in Switzerland, and then worked for the Lemberg-Czernowitz Railroad Company. Arthur married Adele Landau, the granddaughter of Moses Kallir and the grandniece of Mayer Kallir, a prominent Jewish merchant family in the city of Brody. Arthur and Adele had three sons, of whom Ludwig was the oldest. His brother, Richard, became an internationally renowned mathematician who later taught at Harvard University. The third child died at an early age.
Members of the Mises family also were devout practitioners of their Jewish faith. The vast majority of the Galician Jews were Hasidic, with all the religious customs and rituals that entailed. But the Mises family was part of that movement in the Jewish community devoted to theological and cultural reform, and participated in the liberal-oriented political activities that were attempted in nineteenth-century Galicia. As a small boy, Ludwig would have heard and spoken Yiddish, Polish, and German, and studied Hebrew in preparation for his bar mitzvah.
Ludwig’s father, Arthur, like many of his generation, chose to leave Galicia and make his life and career in the secular and German cultural world of Vienna, where he accepted a civil servant’s position with the Austrian Ministry of Railways. But from the documents among [lix] Ludwig von Mises’s “lost papers” found in the Moscow archives,59 it is clear that his mother maintained ties to her birthplace, contributing money to several charities in Brody, including a Jewish orphanage. In Vienna in the 1890s, Arthur was an active member of the Israelite Community’s Board, a focal point for Jewish cultural and political life in the Austrian capital.60
Until the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century, Jews throughout many parts of Europe were denied civil liberties, often being severely restricted in their economic freedom, and, especially in Eastern Europe, confined to certain geographical areas. In the 1820s it was still not permitted for Jews to unrestrictedly live and work in Vienna; this required the special permission of the emperor.61Commercial and civil liberation of the Austrian Jews occurred only in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1848, and most especially with the new constitution of 1867, which created the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy following Austria’s defeat in its 1866 war with Prussia. The spirit and content of the 1867 constitution, which remained the fundamental law of the empire until the collapse of Austria-Hungary in 1918, reflected the classical liberal ideas of the time. Every subject of the emperor was secure in his life and private property; freedom of speech and the press was guaranteed; freedom of occupation and enterprise was permitted; all religious faiths were respected and allowed to be practiced; freedom of movement and residence within the empire was a guaranteed right; and all national groups were declared to have equal status before the law.
No group within the Austro-Hungarian Empire took as much advantage of the new liberal environment as the Jews. In the early decades of the nineteenth century a transformation had begun among the Jewish community in Galicia. Reformers arose arguing for a revision in [lx] the practices and customs of Orthodox Jewry. Jews needed to enter the modern world and to secularize in terms of dress, manner, attitudes, and culture. The faith had to be stripped of its medieval characteristics and ritualism. Jews should immerse themselves in the German language and German culture. All things “German” were distinguished as representing freedom and progress.62
With the freedoms of the 1867 constitution, Austrian and especially Galician Jews began a cultural as well as a geographical migration. In 1869, Jews made up about 6 percent of the population of Vienna. By the 1890s, when the young Ludwig von Mises moved to Vienna from Lemberg with his family, Jews made up 12 percent of the Vienna population. In District I, the center of the city where the Mises family lived, Jews made up over 20 percent of the population. In the neighboring District II, the Jews made up over 30 percent.63
But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a stark contrast between these two districts of the city. In the central District I, the vast majority of the Jewish population had attempted to assimilate with their non-Jewish neighbors in dress, manners, and cultural outlook. In District II, bordering on the Danube, on the other hand, the Jewish residents were more likely to have retained their Hasidic practices and orthodox manners, including their traditional dress. It was the visible difference of these Jews, who often had more recently arrived from Galicia, which so revolted the young Adolf Hitler—who was shocked, and wondered how people acting and appearing as they did could ever be considered “real Germans.” They seemed such an obviously alien element in Hitler’s eyes.64
The characteristic mark of most of the Jews who migrated to Vienna (and other large cities of the empire such as Budapest or Prague) was their desire and drive for assimilation; in many ways they tried to be more German than the German-Austrians.65 The Czechs, the Hungarians, and the Slavs, on the other hand, often were still focused on their traditional ways; the Hungarians in particular were suspicious of the Enlightenment, civil liberties, and equality—these threatened their dominance over the subject peoples in their portions of the empire (the Slovaks, Romanians, and Croats). To constrain the Hungarians, the emperor increasingly put the Czechs, Poles, and Slavs under direct imperial administration on an equal legal footing with the German-Austrians. For the Jews, Austrian imperial policy meant the end of official prejudice and legal restrictions, and a securing of civil rights and educational opportunities.66 Their continuing and generally steadfast loyalty to the Habsburgs, however, led many of the other nationalities to be suspicious and anti-Semitic as the years went by. The Jews were viewed as apologists and blind supporters of the Habsburg emperor, without whose indulgence and protection the Jews might have been kept within the ghetto walls.67
Civil liberties and practically unrestrained commercial and professional [lxii] opportunity soon saw the Jews rise to prominence in a wide array of areas of Viennese life.68 By the beginning of the twentieth century more than 50 percent of the lawyers and medical doctors in Vienna were Jewish. The leading liberal and socialist newspapers in the capital were either owned or edited by those of Jewish descent, including the New Free Press, the Viennese newspaper for which Mises often wrote in the 1920s and 1930s. The membership of the journalists’ association in Vienna was more than 50 percent Jewish. At the University of Vienna, in 1910, professors of Jewish descent constituted 37 percent of the law faculty, 51 percent of the medical faculty, and 21 percent of the philosophy faculty. At the time Mises attended the university in the first decade of the twentieth century almost 21 percent of the student body was Jewish. The proportion of Jews in literature, theater, music, and the arts was equally pronounced.69
The main avenue for social and professional advancement was education in the gymnasium system—the high school system in the German-speaking world. But the gymnasium education not only offered a path to higher education and a university degree for many Jews, it also was an avenue for acculturation and assimilation into European and especially German culture. For example, Mises and his fellow student Hans Kelsen (who later became an internationally renowned philosopher of law and the author of the 1920 constitution of the Republic of Austria) attended the Akademisches Gymnasium in the center of Vienna. It was meant for students preparing for the university and professional careers. Here a wide liberal arts education was acquired, with mandatory courses in Latin, Greek, German language and literature, history, geography, mathematics, physics, and religion, with electives in either French or English—Mises selected French. At the core of the curriculum was the study of the ancient Greek and Roman classics. Mises and other Jewish students at the Akademisches Gymnasium, as a part of their religion training, had courses in Hebrew.70 According to memoirs written by people who attended theAkademisches Gymnasium in the 1880s and 1890s, most of the students ridiculed [lxiii] the religion classes as “superstition.” The Greek and Roman classics were considered literary avenues for entering the mainstream of modern European and Western culture. And while it was not assigned, the students absorbed on their own contemporary writings in history, social criticism, literature, and the sciences as their way to integrate themselves into modern and “progressive” society.71
In the 1890s, during Mises’s time at the Akademisches Gymnasium, 44 percent of the student body was Jewish. But there were some gymnasiums at which Jewish admission was informally restricted. For example, the Maria Theresa Academy of Knights in Vienna was reserved for the children of the nobility and senior officials. Joseph Schumpeter attended it in the 1890s, but only because his stepfather was a lieutenant field marshal. No matter what his academic qualification, Mises would have had virtually no chance to be accepted there. Thus clusters of these gymnasiums were clearly closed to Jews, even if they were converts to Christianity, while other clusters represented the high schools where middle-class Jewish businessmen, professionals, and civil servants sent their children.72
But for all their assimilationist strivings—their conscious attempts to be German-Austrians in thought, philosophy, outlook, and manner—the Jews remained distinct and separate. Not only was this because they belonged to schools, professions, and occupations in which they as Jews were concentrated, but because non-Jewish German-Austrians viewed them as separate and distinct. However eloquent and perfect their German in literature and the spoken word, no matter how contributing they were to the improvement of Viennese society and culture, most non-Jewish Viennese considered these to be Jewish contributions to and influences on German-Austrian corners of cultural life.73
Name, family history, gossip, and mannerisms made it clear to most [lxiv] people who were Jewish and who were not. The wide and pronounced success of so many Viennese Jews made non-Jews conscious of their preponderance and presence in many visible walks of life. This success also served as the breeding ground for anti-Semitism.74
In the Habsburg domain, part of this anti-Semitism was fed by conservative and reactionary forces in society who often resented the emperor’s diminishment or abolition of the privileges, favors, and status of the Catholic Church and the traditional landed aristocracy. The high proportion of Austrian Jews involved in liberal or socialist politics made them targets of the conservatives who said they were carriers of modernity, with its presumption of civil equality, unrestrained market competition, and a secularization that was said to be anti-Christian and therefore immoral and decadent. Preservation and restoration of traditional and Christian society, it was claimed, required opposition to and elimination of the Jewish influence on society. Jews were the rootless “peddlers” who undermined traditional occupations and ways of earning a living, as well as the established social order of things. They pursued profit. Honor, custom, and faith were willingly traded away by them for a few pieces of gold, it was said. Craft associations became leading voices of anti-Semitism, especially when economic hard times required small craftsmen and businessmen to go hat in hand to Jewish bankers for borrowed sums to tide them over.75
German nationalism also was a vehicle for growing anti-Jewish sentiment. The paradox here is that in the 1860s and 1870s a sizable number of Jewish intellectuals were founders and leaders in the Austrian and German nationalist movements. German culture and society were viewed as representing the universal values of reason, science, justice, and openness in both thought and deed. German culture and political predominance within the Austro-Hungarian Empire restrained the backward-looking forces of darkness—the Hungarian, Czech, and Slavic threats. At the same time, German culture in Central Europe offered rays of enlightenment in the regions of Eastern Europe.
Mises estimated that before the Second World War, Jews made up 50 percent of the business community in Central Europe and 90 percent of the business community in Eastern Europe.76 Indeed, in Omnipotent Government he asserted that in Eastern Europe “modern civilization was predominantly an achievement of Jews.”77 What the Jews in these parts of Europe introduced and represented, at least in their own minds, was the enlightened German mind, with its culture and institutions. But to those other nationalities being introduced to and “threatened” by this German cultural influence, it was perceived as being Jewish as much as German—a dominating, imperial, and “foreign” culture.
At the same time, in both Germany and German-Austria, the Jews in the forefront of the Pan-German nationalist movements were viewed as interlopers by many of the Christian German nationalists. As a consequence, there emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century [lxvi] rationalizations to justify the rejection of Jewish participation in the cause of German nationalism and culture. First, it was said that only Christians and the Christian faith were consistent with true German life and culture. But when a significant number of German and Austrian Jews converted to Christianity, it still was found not to be enough. Now it was claimed that to be a true German it was not sufficient to be a convert to Christianity. “Germanness” was a culture, an attitude toward life, and a certain sense of belonging to the Volk community.
As a growing number of Jews immersed themselves in all things German—language, philosophy, literature, dress, and manner—it was found, again, not to be enough. Really to be a German was to share a common ancestry, a heritage of a common blood lineage.78 This was one barrier the German and Austrian Jews could not overcome. In the emergence of racial anti-Semitism in the 1880s and 1890s, there were laid the seeds of the “final solution.”
In Vienna, Karl Lueger, who was mayor of the capital city in the first decade of the twentieth century and a leader of the Christian Social Party, represented the spirit of anti-Semitism. He insisted that only “fat Jews” could weather the storm of capitalist competition. Anti-Semitism, Lueger said, “is not an explosion of brutality, but the cry of oppressed Christian people for help from church and state.”79 He blended anti-Semitism with social-left reforms, which included civil service and municipal government restrictions on Jewish access to city jobs or contracts. On the other hand, when Lueger was challenged as to why he had Jewish friends and political associates, he replied, “I decide who is a Jew.”80
But in spite of the presence and growth of anti-Semitic attitudes in [lxvii] the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Austria in general and Vienna in particular, Mises’s seeming lack of attention to his own Jewish family background or any hint of the impact of anti-Semitism around him—there were anti-Jewish student riots at the University of Vienna during the years when he was a student there around the turn of the century—was in fact not uncommon.81 One can read Stefan Zweig’s fascinating account of everyday life in the Vienna of this time and have the distinct impression that anti-Semitic attitudes or municipal government policy were virtually nonexistent.
Yet many invisible walls characterized the circles in which people moved in Viennese society both before and after the First World War. Traditional or Orthodox Jews lived and worked within a world of their own in the city.82 Secular and assimilated Jews, like Ludwig von Mises and Hans Kelsen, moved in circles of both Jews and non-Jews, but even the nonreligious and German-acculturated Jews clustered together. A review of the list of participants in Mises’s famous private seminar in Vienna, for example, shows a high proportion of Jews.83 And even after Mises had moved to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1934, his agenda books for this time show that many of his social engagements were with other Jews residing in or visiting that country.
The end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century saw the eclipse of liberalism in Austria and the rise of socialism in its place, centered in the political ascendancy of the Social Democratic Party. A sizable number of Jews were prominent in the Austrian socialist movement; they were anticapitalist and viewed the entrepreneurial segment of the society as exploiters and economic oppressors. The capitalist class would be swept away in the transformation to socialism, including the Jewish capitalists in the “ruling class.” Most of the Jews in the socialist movement not only were secular and considered themselves harbingers of the worker’s world to come; they were contemptuously opposed to cultural and religious Judaism as well.84
These three political movements in Austria and Vienna when Mises was a young man—conservatism, German nationalism, and radical socialism—were, each for its own reasons, enemies of liberal society, opponents of free-market capitalism, and therefore threats to the ideas and occupations of those middle class, or “bourgeois,” walks of life heavily populated by the Jews of Austria and Vienna.
The history of Austrian Jewry during this time is a story of triumph and tragedy. The winds of nineteenth-century liberalism freed the Austrian Jewish community, both internally and externally. Internally, the liberal idea pried open Orthodox Jewish society in places such as Austrian Galicia. It heralded reason over ritual; greater individualism over religious collectivism; open-minded modernity over the strictures of traditionalism. Externally, it freed the Jewish community from legal and political restraints and restrictions. The right of freedom of trade, occupation, and profession opened wide many opportunities for social improvement, economic betterment, and political acceptance.85
Within two generations this transformed Austrian Jewish society. And that same span of time saw the rise of many Jews to social and economic prominence, with greater political tolerance than ever known before. If these two liberating forces had not been at work, there would not have been Ludwig von Mises—the economist, the political and social philosopher, and the notable public figure and policy analyst in Austria both before and between the two world wars.
At the same time, these two liberating forces set the stage for the tragedy of the German and Austrian Jews. Their very successes in the arts and the sciences, in academia, and in commerce fostered the animosity and resentment of those less successful in the arenas of intellectual, cultural, and commercial competition. It set loose the emotion of envy, the terror of failure, and the psychological search for scapegoats and excuses. It ended at the gates to the Nazi death camps.
In Mises’s case and for many others it meant leaving the country of their birth and seeking refuge in other lands. Among those who left before or immediately after Germany’s annexation of Austria were many members of the Austrian School of economics or Mises’s private seminar circle (both Jews and non-Jews): Martha Steffy Browne, Gottfried Haberler, Friedrich A. Hayek, Felix Kaufmann, Fritz Machlup, Ilse Mintz, Oscar Morgenstern, Paul N. Rosenstein-Rodan, Alfred Schutz, and Erich Voegelin, to name just a few.
Mises had departed in autumn 1934 for a teaching position at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, when it was clear that the collectivist darkness was starting to fall over the center of Europe. He made a new life for himself after 1940 in the United States, like many of his Austrian colleagues and friends, where the spirit of freedom was not yet in the same shadow of tyranny as in their native Austria. America, for them, was still a land where Austrian Jews such as Mises could breathe the air of liberty.
He continued to explain and defend the principles and ideals of classical liberalism and the free market in his new home in America until his death on October 10, 1973, at the age of 92.
Ludwig von Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 3rd rev. ed., [1924; 1953] 1981) and “Monetary Stabilization and Cyclical Policy,” (1928) in The Causes of the Economic Crisis, and Other Essays Before and After the Great Depression (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006), pp. 53-153.
Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund,  1981), Liberalism: The Classical Tradition (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund,  2005), Critique of Interventionism (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education,  1996),Interventionism: An Economic Analysis (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education,  1996), Bureaucracy (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund,  2007), and Planning for Freedom, and Other Essays (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund,  2008).
Ludwig von Mises, Epistemological Problems of Economics (New York: New York University Press,  1981), Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, [1949; 4th rev. ed. 1966] 2007), Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund,  2005), and The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund,  2006).
Richard M. Ebeling, ed., Selected Writings of Ludwig von Mises, vol. 2, Between the Two World Wars: Monetary Disorder, Interventionism, Socialism, and the Great Depression (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002); Selected Writings of Ludwig von Mises, vol. 3, The Political Economy of International Reform and Reconstruction (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
On Mises’s life and contributions to economics in general and the philosophy of freedom, see Richard M. Ebeling, “A Rational Economist in an Irrational Age: Ludwig von Mises,” in Austrian Economics and the Political Economy of Freedom (Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar, 2003), pp. 61-100, and Political Economy, Public Policy, and Monetary Economics: Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian Tradition (London: Routledge, 2010); also, Murray N. Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises:Scholar, Creator, Hero (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1988); Israel M. Kirzner, Ludwig von Mises(Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2001); and Jörg Guido Hülsmann, Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism(Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007).
For Friedrich A. Hayek’s explanation for Mises’s failure to obtain a formal academic position, see Peter G. Klein, ed., The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, vol. 4, The Fortunes of Liberalism: Essays on Austrian Economics and the Ideal of Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 127-28. While anti-Semitism may have played a part in Mises’s not being offered a position at the University of Vienna, Hayek believed that it was mostly due to Mises’s uncompromising and outspoken criticism of socialism when the intellectual community of Vienna was heavily dominated by the Left.
He was also permitted to serve as a chair on dissertation committees and was regularly called upon as a faculty participant at graduate student oral defenses of theses. For example, the book by Fritz Machlup on the gold-exchange standard that Mises discusses in Chapter 22 of this volume was Machlup’s dissertation under Mises’s supervision at the University of Vienna. He was also on the faculty committee that questioned Alfred Schutz, later internationally known as a sociologist and phenomenological philosopher, when he defended his thesis at the University of Vienna.
See Appendix A in this volume for Mises’s last paper presented at his private seminar, “Maxims for the Discussion of the Methodological Problems of the Social Sciences,” in March 1934. Many of those who participated in the seminar recalled in later years that they considered it to be one of the most rewarding and challenging intellectual experiences of their lives because of the consistent quality of the papers delivered and the discussions that followed. For accounts of the seminar by some of the participants, see Ludwig von Mises, Memoirs (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute,  2009), pp. 81-83, and the recollections of other members of the seminar in the appendix to Margit von Mises,My Years with Ludwig von Mises, 2nd ed. (Cedar Falls, Iowa: Center for Futures Education, 1984), pp. 201-10.
For a detailed discussion of Mises’s policy writings and work at the Vienna Chamber of Commerce in the interwar period, see Richard M. Ebeling, “The Economist as the Historian of Decline: Ludwig von Mises and Austria Between the Two World Wars,” in Political Economy, Public Policy, and Monetary Economics, pp. 88-140. For many of Mises’s articles and Chamber of Commerce policy pieces during the 1920s and 1930s, see Richard M. Ebeling, ed., Selected Writings of Ludwig von Mises, vol. 2,Between the Two World Wars: Monetary Disorder, Interventionism, Socialism, and the Great Depression.
Ludwig von Mises, Memoirs, pp. 63-64; also see, on Mises’s work at the Chamber, Alexander Hörtlehner, “Ludwig von Mises und die österreichissche Handelskammerorganisation” [“Ludwig von Mises and the Chamber of Commerce”], Wirtschaftspolitische Blatter, no. 28 (1981), pp. 140-50.
The following summary of the history of the Habsburg Empire is drawn from Henry Wickham Steed, The Hapsburg Monarchy (New York: Howard Fertig,  1969); Oscar Jaszi, The Dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929); A. J. P. Taylor, The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918: A History of the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,  1976); Arthur J. May, The Hapsburg Monarchy, 1867-1918 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951); Arthur J. May, The Passing of the Hapsburg Monarchy, 1914-1918(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966); Robert A. Kann, The Multinational Empire: Nationalism and National Reform in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1848-1918, 2 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1950); Robert A. Kann, A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526-191 8 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974); Hans Kohn, The Habsburg Empire, 1804-1918 (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1961); Edward Crankshaw, The Fall of the House of Habsburg (New York: The Viking Press, 1963); C. A. Macartney, The Habsburg Empire, 1790-1918 (New York: Macmillan, 1969); Gordon Brook-Shepherd, The Austrians: A Thousand-Year Odyssey (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1996); and Robin Okey, The Habsburg Monarchy: From Enlightenment to Eclipse (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001).
On the development and evolution of the nationalist idea in the nineteenth century, see G. P. Gooch, Nationalism (New York: Harcourt Brace & Howe, 1920); Carlton J. H. Hayes, The Historical Evolution of Modern Nationalism (New York: Richard R. Smith, 1931); Walter Sulzbach, National Consciousness (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Public Affairs, 1934); Frederick Hertz,Nationality in History and Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1944); Hans Kohn,Nationalism: Its Meaning and History (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1955) and Nationalism and Realism: 1852-1879 (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1968).
On the life and reign of Francis Joseph, who ruled over the empire for sixty-eight years, see Joseph Redlich, Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria (New York: Macmillan, 1929); and Alan Palmer, Twilight of the Habsburgs: The Life and Times of Emperor Francis Joseph (New York: Grove Press, 1994).
Joseph Redlich, “The End of the House of Austria,” Foreign Affairs (July 1, 1930), p. 605; see also Kohn, The Habsburg Empire, 1804-1918, p. 49: “Like a good eighteenth century monarch, [Francis Joseph] regarded himself as the first servant of the nation, but he identified the nation with himself and his dynasty. He worked indefatigably for the good of his people, but they were his people and he interpreted what was good for them.”
On the mutual benefits to be derived from a state that incorporates a variety of different national groups, see the classic essay by Lord Acton, “Nationality,” (1862) in J. Rufus Fears, ed., Selected Writings of Lord Acton, vol. 1, Essays in the History of Liberty (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985), pp. 409-33; for a contrary view as to why such a Swiss-type solution to the nationalist tensions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was not feasible, see Benedetto Croce, History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1933), pp. 181-86.
The Habsburg “Crownlands” directly under the emperor’s authority were made up of the territory of present-day Austria, Bohemia, and Moravia (the present-day Czech Republic), Galicia and Bukovina (now part of western Ukraine), Slovenia, Dalmatia (along part of the Adriatic seacoast), and southern Tyrol (now part of northern Italy); Bosnia was ruled as a separate administrative entity.
Crown Prince Rudolf and Carl Menger, “The Austrian Nobility and Its Constitutional Vocation: A Warning to Aristocratic Youth,” (1878) in Eugene N. Anderson, Stanley J. Pinceti, and Donald J. Siegler, eds., Europe in the Nineteenth Century, a Documentary Analysis of Change and Conflict, vol. 2, 1870-1914 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961), pp. 78-101.
See Richard Barkeley, The Road to Mayerling: The Life and Death of Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria (New York: Macmillan, 1958); and Judith Listowel, A Habsburg Tragedy: Crown Prince Rudolph (New York: Dorset Press, 1978). Rudolph’s domestic liberalism, however, was combined with support for Austrian foreign policy imperialism; see Robert A. Kann, The Multinational Empire, vol. 2, pp. 181-87.
See Kohn, The Habsburg Empire, 1804-1918, p. 72: “Amidst all the controversies and upheavals caused by the growing conflict of nationalities and by the vain search for an Austrian idea, the Austrian Constitution of December 31, 1867, which was a document of mid-century liberalism, remained in force for over half a century.” The Fundamental Law Concerning the General Rights of Citizens from the Austrian Constitution of 1867 may be found at http://www.h-net.org/∼habsweb/sourcetexts.auscon.htm. However, see Robert S. Wistrich, The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 151: “[Adolf] Fischof put his finger on the central contradiction of the 1867 Constitution—that Austria-Hungary was a multinational state masquerading under liberal German hegemony as a nation-state on the Western European model. It had a dual personality, liberal with regards to the rights of the individual but oppressive in its relation to the Slav nationalities who were treated as ‘servant peoples.’” Adolf Fischof (1816-93) was a prominent figure in the Austrian Revolution of 1848, and an outspoken liberal in support of autonomy for the various subject nationalities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In 1867, for example, the Lower Austrian Chamber of Commerce located in Vienna declared, “The state has fulfilled its task if it removes all obstacles to the free, orderly activity of its citizens. Everything else is achieved by the considerateness and benevolence of the factory owners and above all by the personal efforts and thriftiness of the workers.” See Okey, Habsburg Monarchy, p. 206.
See William M. Johnson, The Austrian Mind: An Intellectual and Social History, 1848-1938(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972); Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1973); Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980); Hilde Spiel, Vienna’s Golden Autumn, 1866-1938 (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987); Paul Hofmann, The Viennese: Splendor, Twilight, and Exile (New York: Doubleday, 1988).
Part of the discussion in this section draws upon Richard M. Ebeling, “Austria-Hungary’s Economic Policies in the Twilight of the ‘Liberal’ Era: Ludwig von Mises’ Writings on Monetary and Fiscal Policy,” in Political Economy, Public Policy, and Monetary Economics: Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian Tradition, pp. 57-87.
The following brief account of the history of the Austrian currency is primarily taken from Charles A. Conant, A History of Modern Banks of Issue, 5th ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915), pp. 219-50; J. Laurence Laughlin, History of Bimetallism in the United States (New York: Appleton, 1898), pp. 189-97, 331-37; Robert Zuckerkandl, “The Austro-Hungarian Bank,” in Banking in Russia, Austro-Hungary, the Netherlands, and Japan (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1911), pp. 55-118. Also, specifically on the currency reform of 1892 and its implementation, “The Gold Standard in Austria” [Translation of the Report of the Special Currency Commission to the Upper House of the Austrian Parliament], Quarterly Journal of Economics (January 1893), pp. 225-54; “Reform of the Currency in Austria-Hungary,” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society (June 1892), pp. 333-39; Friedrich von Wieser, “Resumption of Specie Payments in Austria-Hungary,” Journal of Political Economy (June 1893), pp. 380-405; and Wesley C. Mitchell, “Resumption of Specie Payments in Austria-Hungary,” Journal of Political Economy (December 1898), pp. 106-13.
For example, following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the German Empire was proclaimed, unifying under Prussian leadership the various German states and principalities. In 1871 and 1873, legislation was passed formally putting Imperial Germany on the gold standard. See The Reichbank, 1876-1900 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1910).
Quoted in Hans Sennholz, “The Monetary Writings of Carl Menger,” in Llewellyn H. Rockwell, ed.,The Gold Standard: Perspectives in the Austrian School (Auburn, Ala.: The Ludwig von Mises Institute,  1992), p. 26; see also Günther Chaloupek, “Carl Menger’s Contributions to the Austrian Currency Debate (1892) and His Theory of Money” (paper presented to the 7th ESHET Conference, Paris, France, January 30-February 1, 2003).
More recently, the Austro-Hungarian Bank’s exchange rate policy has been praised as an example of successful “target zone” management of an exchange rate band; see Marc Flandreau and John Komlos, “Target Zone in History and Theory: Lessons from an Austro-Hungarian Experiment (1896-1914),” Discussion Paper no. 18 (July 2003), Department of Economics, University of Munich, Germany.
The “gold points” represented the upper and lower limits of fluctuations of a country’s foreign exchange value under the gold standard, beyond which it would be profitable to either export gold out of or import gold into that country.
For example, the Classical economist Henry Fawcett argued in Free Trade and Protection(London: Macmillan, 1878), pp. 17-47, that if not for the great famine due to the failure of many of the crops and therefore such a large portion of the population in England and Ireland simultaneously threatened with starvation in the winter of 1845-46, the pressure for the unilateral repeal of agricultural protectionism (the Corn Laws) might never have occurred. It was unlikely that the same passion for a radical change to free trade would have been stimulated by the existing industrial and manufacturing protectionism that affected only different diverse and limited subgroups of the consuming public.
For a short biography of Böhm-Bawerk and his contributions to Austrian economics and service as Austro-Hungarian minister of finance, see Richard M. Ebeling, “Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk: A Sesquicentennial Appreciation,” Ideas on Liberty (February 2001), pp. 36-41.
Almost fifteen years after the First World War, Mises still regretted the failure of the “Austrian idea,” referring to “the attempts which were made to find some means of ensuring the amity of the various peoples that constituted the Empire. These efforts, which met with the approval of some of the most intelligent and noble spirits of the time, aimed not only at the maintenance of the Habsburg dynasty; they were informed by the idea that an entirely satisfactory solution of the struggles of the different nationalities could not be found simply in a dismemberment of the Empire. The fact is that a large area of the old Empire was inhabited by people of different languages, living together without geographical separation. For these territories, which are the cradle of all struggles between the nationalities, a system of peaceful cooperation could be more easily found within the framework of a big empire than by giving to every nationality a separate sovereignty. Events since the armistice, both political and economic, prove ex post the soundness of the attempts to transform the Habsburg Monarchy into a kind of Eastern European League of Nations.” See Ludwig von Mises, review of “Die letzten Jahrzehnte einer Grossmacht. Menschen, Völker und Probleme des Habsburg-Reichs,” by Rudolph Sieghart in Economica (November 1932) p. 477.
For a detailed exposition of Mises’s “Austrian” theory of the business cycle, see Richard M. Ebeling, “The Austrian Economists and the Keynesian Revolution: The Great Depression and the Economics of the Short-Run,” in Political Economy, Public Policy, and Monetary Economics: Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian Tradition, pp. 203-72; “Two Variations of the Austrian Monetary Theme: Ludwig von Mises and Joseph A. Schumpeter on the Business Cycle,” in ibid., pp. 273-301; and “Money, Economic Fluctuations, Expectations and Period Analysis: The Austrian and Swedish Economists in the Interwar Period,” in ibid., pp. 302-31. Also, Richard M. Ebeling, “Ludwig von Mises and the Gold Standard,” inAustrian Economics and the Political Economy of Freedom, pp. 136-58.
See Fritz Machlup, “Another View of Cost-Push and Demand-Pull Inflation,” (1960) in Essays on Economic Semantics (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books,  1991), pp. 241-68; also, Gottfried Haberler, Inflation: Its Causes and Cures (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1966), pp. 65-78, and Economic Growth and Stability (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing, 1974), pp. 99-116.
Ricardo, “Funding System,” (1820) in Piero Sraffa, ed., The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, vol. 4, Pamphlets and Papers, 1815-1823 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951), pp. 149-200, especially pp. 186-87.
See Richard M. Ebeling, “The Economist as the Historian of Decline: Ludwig von Mises and Austria Between the Two World Wars,” in Political Economy, Public Policy, and Monetary Economics: Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian Tradition, especially pp. 92-100, for a detailed account of the political and economic situation in Austria in the years following the end of the First World War.
For a brief history of the inflation in Austria during and after the First World War and its disastrous consequences, see Richard M. Ebeling, “The Great Austrian Inflation,” The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty(April 2006), pp. 2-3; also, Richard M. Ebeling, “The Lasting Legacies of World War I: Big Government, Paper Money and Inflation,” Economic Education Bulletin, vol. 48, no. 11 (Great Barrington, Mass.: American Institute for Economic Research, November 2008), for accounts of the hyperinflations in both Germany and Austria.
Part of this section draws upon Richard M. Ebeling, “Ludwig von Mises and the Vienna of His Time,” in Political Economy, Public Policy, and Monetary Economics: Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian Tradition, pp. 36-56.
See Appendix B in the present volume for a translation of Mayer Rachmiel Mises’s short curriculum vitae that he submitted in June 1881 to the office of the Austrian emperor, Francis Joseph, as part of the legal process for ennoblement and the bestowing of the honorific and hereditary title of “Edler von.” He was ennobled on April 30, 1881, with the ennoblement document issued on July 13, 1881. Ludwig von Mises is not mentioned at the end of the document among Mayer Rachmiel Mises’s great-grandchildren because Ludwig’s birth would not occur until September.
See Richard M. Ebeling, “Mission to Moscow: The Mystery of the ‘Lost Papers’ of Ludwig von Mises,” Notes from FEE (July 2004), pp. 1-3, http://www.fee.org/pdf/notes/NFF_0704.pdf; also, for a more detailed account, see Richard M. Ebeling, introduction to Selected Writings of Ludwig von Mises,vol. 2, pp. xv-xx.
On the history of the Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, see Wistrich, Jews of Vienna; McCagg,A History of Habsburg Jews, 1670-1918; Steven Beller, Vienna and the Jews, 1867-1938: A Cultural History (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1989); George E. Berkley, Vienna and Its Jews: The Tragedy of Success, 1880s-1980s (Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1988); and Max Grunwald, History of the Jews in Vienna (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1936).
This transformation of the Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe, especially in the German-speaking lands, is usually associated with the influence of Moses Mendelssohn, beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century. See Marvin Lowenthal, The Jews of Germany: A Story of 16 Centuries (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1938), pp. 197-216; Ruth Gay, The Jews of Germany: A Historical Portrait (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 98-117; Nachum T. Gidal, Jews in Germany: From Roman Times to the Weimar Republic (Köln, Germany: Könemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, 1998), pp. 118-23; Amos Elon, The Pity of It All: A History of the Jews in Germany, 1743-1933 (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002), pp. 1-64.
Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,  1943), p. 56: “Once as I was walking through the Inner City [of Vienna before the First World War] I suddenly encountered an apparition in a black caftan and black hair locks. Is this a Jew? was my first thought. For, to be sure, they had not looked like that in Linz. I observed the man furtively and cautiously, but the longer I stared at this foreign face, scrutinizing feature after feature, the more the first question assumed a new form: Is this a German?”
On the parallel process of Jewish assimilation and resistance from non-Jews in Prague and Bohemia, see the autobiographical recollections of this period in Hans Kohn, Living in a World Revolution: My Encounters with History (New York: Trident Press, 1964), pp. 1-46.
Habsburg enlightenment was more advanced in many ways than that of the German government. For example, before the First World War it was virtually impossible for a Jew to be commissioned as an officer in the German Army, no matter what his qualifications and merit. On the other hand, Jews were accepted as officers in the Austrian Army with no similar prejudice, and that is what enabled Ludwig von Mises to be commissioned as a reserve officer in the Austrian Army as a young man, and serve with distinction in the First World War on the Russian front. See Wistrich, Jews of Vienna, pp. 174-75:
In striking contrast to the Prussian regiments, there was no deliberate exclusion of Jewish officers and anti-Semitism was not officially tolerated. Indeed, anti-Semitism appears to have been notably weaker in the army than in many other sectors of Austrian society in spite of persistent nationalist agitation and the fact that most officers were Roman Catholic Germans. . . . In this supranational institution par excellence which was loyal to the Emperor and the dynasty alone, Jews were by and large treated on equal terms with other ethnic and religious groups. The army could simply not tolerate open racial or religious discrimination which would only undermine morale and patriotic motivation.
On the perception of the Jews before the First World War by the various nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including the Austrian-Germans, see Henry W. Steed, The Hapsburg Monarchy,pp. 145-94.
See Arthur Schnitzler, My Youth in Vienna (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), for a rich memoir on the Akademisches Gymnasium in Vienna a few years before Mises attended as a student. Also see the fascinating account of Viennese gymnasium life during this time in Zweig, The World of Yesterday, pp. 28-66.
On the Maria Theresa Academy of Knights in Vienna during the time when Schumpeter attended, see Robert Loring Allen, Opening Doors: The Life and Work of Joseph Schumpeter, vol. 1 (Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1991), pp. 18-22; and Richard Swedberg, Schumpeter: A Biography(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), pp. 10-12.
In 1897, a prominent Jewish liberal political figure pointed out in a Vienna newspaper the German-Austrian attitude to the attempt by many Jews to fully integrate themselves into Austrian life: “When you consider the way the poor Jews strive to gain your favor in the ranks of the Germans, how they try to accumulate the treasures of German culture, how they work in the sciences, some perhaps dying young as a result—and still all the thanks they get is that they are not even accepted as human beings.” Quoted in Beller, Vienna and the Jews, p. 163.
On the nature and evolution of anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria, see Peter G. J. Pulzer, The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria (New York: John Wiley, 1964); and Bruce F. Pauley, From Prejudice to Persecution: A History of Austrian Anti-Semitism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).
That the real target behind much of the anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria was economic liberalism has been suggested by Frederick Hertz, Nationality in History and Politics, p. 403: “It was rightly felt by many that the real object of [anti-Semitic attacks such as those by the German historian Heinrich von Treitschke] was not the Jews, but liberalism, and that the Jews were only used as a means for working up public opinion against its fundamental principles.” Similarly, Hans Kohn, Prophets and Peoples: Studies in Nineteenth Century Nationalism (New York: Macmillan, 1946), pp. 124-25: “Treitschke’s words, ‘The Jews are our misfortune,’ served as a rallying banner for the German anti-Semitic movements for the next sixty years. Though the Jews were the immediate goal of the agitation, it ultimately aimed at the liberalism that had brought about Jewish emancipation. Treitschke hated the liberal middle-class society of the West and despised its concern for trade, prosperity and peace. . . . In view of the apparent decay of the Western world through liberalism and individualism, only the German mind with its deeper insight and its higher morality could regenerate the world.” See also F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,  2005), p. 161:
In Germany and Austria the Jew had come to be regarded as the representative of capitalism because a traditional dislike of large classes of the population for commercial pursuits had left these more readily accessible to a group that was practically excluded from the more highly esteemed occupations. It is the old story of the alien race being admitted only to the less respected trades, and then being hated still more for practicing them. The fact that German anti-Semitism and anti-capitalism spring from the same root is of great importance for the understanding of what has happened there, but this is rarely grasped by foreign observers.
And Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of Germanic Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), pp. 142-43: “Of course, the Jews favored liberalism, secularism, and capitalism. Where else but in the cities, in the free professions, in an open society, could they escape from the restrictions and prejudices that lingered on from the closed, feudal society of an earlier era? They were, and in a sense had to be, the promoters and profiteers of modernity, and for this . . . [many Germans] could not forgive the Jews.”
Ludwig von Mises, “Postwar Economic Reconstruction of Europe,” (1940) in Richard M. Ebeling, ed., Selected Writings of Ludwig von Mises, vol. 3, The Political Economy of International Reform and Reconstruction, p. 27.
This attitude was expressed, as one example, during the 1930s by the ardent National Socialist Adolf Bertels, who said of Heinrich Heine (possibly, after Goethe, the greatest German writer of the nineteenth century) that “however well he handles the German language and German poetical forms, however much he knows the German way of life, it is impossible for a Jew to be a German.” Quoted in Alistair Hamilton, The Appeal of Fascism: A Study of Intellectuals and Fascism, 1919-1945 (London: Anthony Blond, 1971), p. 109.
Ibid., p. 157; also, Berkley, Vienna and Its Jews, pp. 103-11; on the history of the Christian Social movement with its blending of anti-Semitism, anticapitalism, and socialism, and Lueger’s role and participation in it, see John W. Boyer, Political Radicalism in Late Imperial Vienna: Origins of the Christian Social Movement, 1848-1897 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) and Culture and Political Crisis in Vienna: Christian Socialism in Power, 1897-1918 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
Mises barely mentions anti-Semitic sentiments in Austria in his Memoirs, and devotes time to a detailed discussion of it only in Omnipotent Government, pp. 169-92, written during the Second World War. For a discussion of Mises’s critique of anti-Semitism, see Richard M. Ebeling, “Ludwig von Mises and the Vienna of His Time,” especially pp. 43-49.
In his magisterial 1936 work, ‘A World in Debt‘, Freeman Tilden treated the business of contracting a loan with a heavy serving of well-deserved irony, describing how the debtor gradually mutates from a man thankful, at the instant of receiving the funds, for having found such a wise philanthropist as is his lender to one soon becoming a little anxious that the time for renewal is fast approaching. From there, he turns to the comfort of self-justification, undertaking a little mental debt-to-equity conversion in persuading himself that his soon-to-be disappointed creditor was, after all, in the way of a partner in their joint undertaking and so consciously accepted a share of the associated risks.
Next he adopts an air of righteous indignation at the idea that he really must redeem his obligation on the due date, before rapidly giving into a growing fury in contemplation of how this wicked usurer has duped him into contracting for something he cannot hope to fulfil, as so many poor fools before him have similarly been entrapped by this veritable shark.
Likewise, our author quotes the 19th century utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham, to much the same effect.
‘Those who have the resolution to sacrifice the present to the future are natural objects of envy’ for those who have done the converse, our sage declared, like children still with a cake are for those who have already scoffed theirs. ‘While the money is hoped for… he who lends it is a friend and benefactor: by the time the money is spent and the evil hour of reckoning is come, the benefactor is found to… have put on the tyrant and the oppressor.’
Here we should realise the pointlessness of trying to decide whether the Greeks or the Germans are at fault in the present impasse and press on toward the crux of the matter. As Tilden rightly argued about the consequences of a bust:-
‘It follows that any scheme looking towards the avoidance of panics and depressions must deal with this cause [viz., debt] and any plan that does not do so is not only idle, but may be a dangerous adventure.’
‘Hence, the way to deal with a collapse of exchange is not to pretend that “prosperity” is merely in a temporary eclipse, to return again if everybody will act optimistically; but frankly to acknowledge that conditions were unsound, and to permit the natural impulses of trade to rectify them. This prescribes a bitter medicine, which people do not like and politicians cannot collect upon, but quack remedies merely put off the final reckoning.’
Are you listening, Mario?
‘The natural remedies, if the credit-sickness be far advanced, will always include a redistribution of wealth: the further it is postponed, the more violent it will be. Every collapse of credit expansion is a bankruptcy and the magnitude… will be proportional to the magnitude of the debt debauch. In bankruptcies, creditors must suffer.’
The problem with our modern world is that the ‘quack remedies’ we most routinely favour are ones which involve adding another layer of ‘debt debauch’ on top of the still uncleared detritus of the previous one. If you doubt this, I must ask what else, pray, do you think is entailed by QE in all its many variants if not the attempt to find new, biddable debtors to take the place of the grumbling, undischarged old ones?
Even if you are loth to accept this line of reasoning, you surely must concede that a ‘putting-off of the reckoning’ comes with many disadvantageous features and several self-aggravating tendencies and that this should be obvious enough to anyone with sufficient intellectual honesty to consult the record of the past few years – if not decades – objectively.
Firstly, it encourages a wasting forbearance of dead or dying enterprises in a kind of lunatic refusal to recognise that the associated costs are well and truly sunk and that the only valid criterion for continued investment is the judgement that the undertaking will be viable from today, not whether we can thereby avoid booking the losses incurred by it yesterday. Such ‘zombification’ retards, if not prevents, the necessary reallocation of men, machinery, and financial means toward more profitable (and hence more socially beneficial) employment. By propping up the diseased trunks of the past, it prevents light and nutrients from reaching the thrusting saplings of tomorrow. Creative destruction is out and destructive continuation is in to the detriment of all.
Worse, yet, the feeble, ‘stimulus’-dependent manifestation of growth which does then occur leads to that dreadful, anti-Hippocratic impatience to which all our electoral cycle overlords are prone. Bad policy thus leads to more bad policy – whether by way of simple reinforcement of ineffective treatment or by jejune ‘innovation’. As more and more market signals become scrambled, as larger and larger swathes of the economy are turned over either to run-‘em-for-cash basket cases or to newly malinvested Bubble 2.0 entrants upon the stage, the space for genuine entrepreneurship becomes progressively restricted. Growth therefore slows, cycle after cycle, until men in authority – who really should know better – start to mutter rehashed 1930s pessimism about ‘secular stagnation’.
Compounding all this, of course, is the awful truth that practitioners of mainstream economics are in thrall to age-old underconsumptionist fallacies and so require – nay, demand – that no debt must ever be paid down in aggregate (or, as they like to put it, in order to give the idea a thin sheen of respectability, the total of outstanding credit must never fall). Thus, with each successive cycle, new strata of debt are laid down upon the barely eroded bedrock of stale, older ones. Thus it is that the burden of servicing such a growing mountain of claims – an orogenesis of obligation, we might say – can only ever go up. In turn, this results in the officially-imposed interest rate cycle becoming more and more truncated, with each peak lying below the preceding one and with each trough being pushed to – and lately through – the zero bound so that the income drain imposed by that tower of debt does not become too onerous or the old problems re-emerge with renewed venom.
As official rates trend downward, the private sector usually seeks to go one better. Knowing that the debt principal holds little place in the popular imagination but that the monthly payment is the true determining factor in the bargain, lenders start to push out maturities and/or forego the requirement that loans should be smoothly amortized. Not only does this allow the already-indebted both to refinance and then to add to the sums they owe, but it helps entice new cohorts of previously unwelcome borrowers to live beyond their means as well. A fifty-year mortgage or an eight-year car loan? Step this way, sir, we’ll see what we can do.
Soon so much income has been alienated – much of it for such entirely unproductive purposes that little extra earning potential has been acquired in the process – that what we call the intertemporal imbalances again become insupportable. In the current jargon, so much spending has been ‘brought forward’ to prop up today’s faltering system that ever more desperate measures are required to find new expenditures to accelerate and new prodigals to accelerate them when arrives that tomorrow whose fruits we have ‘brought forward’ and the orchard is seen to have been long since stripped bare of its bounty.
On top of this, the eradication of any appreciable opportunity cost in keeping money for its own sake in preference to owning one of the many recognisable claims on greater future money payments (loans, bonds, etc.) leads to a dilution of the principal source of demand for money, the one only transiently expressed in respect of its imminent use as the medium of exchange. This not only confuses the indicators by which we try to balance today’s thrift with tomorrow’s hopes of improved output, but it begins to poison the monetary manipulators’ own wells, to boot.
Accordingly, if money is seen as conferring no great disadvantage should one hold it in place of an ultra-low yielding bond, then the disingenuous assertion first made by Chairman Bernanke that QE is not inflationary because it comprises nothing more than an ‘asset swap’, starts to become all too true.
The central authority, desirous of creating just such an inflation out of a predominant fear of the effect of flat or falling prices on all those whom it has been ceaselessly exhorting to continue to overborrow, easily generates base or ‘outside’ money on which new loans could theoretically be pyramided. But, alas, the commercial banks passively book a good part of these reserves as the primary balance sheet counterparts to the largely inactive settlement deposits of the sellers of the bonds earlier ‘swapped’ for them. Thus, excess reserves do not induce the creation of many additional earning assets – and hence of ‘inside’ money deposits – on top of the original influx.
Moreover, where those same depositors do start to feel their trouser pockets heating up, they typically start to play pass-the-parcel with one another by engaging in a bidding war for bulk credits or listed equities on the financial market, inflating their values and further reducing yields below their optimum levels. What they do not do is rush out and make loans to small businessmen so that these latter earnest souls can improve their capital stock or expand their workforce, no matter what M. Sarkozy may have blustered in 2008 about wanting to ‘…put down the foundations of a capitalism of the entrepreneur and not of the speculator’ as a response to the ongoing financial apoplexy.
With barely a nod to the operation of the much vaunted ‘transmission channels’ so beloved of academia, real-side monetary ‘velocity’ is therefore seen to decline and before too long, the central bank is casting about again for new, more ‘unorthodox’ ways to engineer a perceived surfeit of money and hence to promote a more rapid transactional circulation of the stuff. The vicious circle takes another turn as it does: rates decline further across the curve and yet both borrowing and real-side activity are again only modestly excited.
Before long, men in authority – who really should know better – start to mutter freshly cooked forms of idiocy, claiming that the ‘natural’ rate of interest has fallen to a negative value – a state of affairs in which they must imagine that all of us intemperate, impatient, indulgent mortals have somehow switched en masse to a rare preference for the delayed, rather than the instant, gratification of our wants. Even worse, they find no paradox in supposing that the inexhaustible Horn of Plenty, without which no such unmitigated satiation can have been brought about, must have made its wondrous appearance in a period of mass unemployment and so, presumably, also one of mass want.
In the Looking Glass world of ‘secular stagnation’ and ‘negative real natural rates’ to which all this monetary accommodation has supposedly consigned us, can you guess what the prescription for a restoration of normality must be? Of course! A determined effort to swamp the world with yet more central bank money, to further suppress interest rates, to co-opt more of the decision-making to the central planners, and to annexe more of the economic realm to the fiefdoms of Frankfurt, Washington, and Threadneedle St.! Whatever it takes, don’t you know?
So, with all that said, we come today to yet another major confrontation between lender and borrower in the respective shape of Germany and Greece, one which has foolishly been delayed for more than seven years by the unshakable intransigence of those in power.
This all began with the early crisis vainglory that ‘no strategic bank will fail – and, yes, they are all strategic’. It continued into 2010 when M. Trichet pointed his metaphorical revolver of the refusal to continue with emergency support right at the head of the unfortunate Irish Finance Minister Brian Lenihan – a kind of financial Melian dialogue which the Greeks seem to have well taken to heart, now that such threats are being repeated once more. It rolled on and on with the efforts of the so-called Troika and with the ever-changing, but never truly effective programmes of the ECB itself. It mounted with the widespread abuse of Target2 – something that is, after all, supposed to be a clearing system, not a continent-wide credit wrapper – and with the inordinate strain placed on the balance sheet of the neighbouring SNB.
All the while, the insidious transfer of debt from the private sector to the state (or at least to banks which could not survive absent either explicit or implicit support from that state) has continued, so rendering the necessary resolution between creditor and debtor too diffuse, too indirect, and too legally undefined ever to achieve.
Pity then a Greece which is unfortunate enough to be stuck at Europe’s bottom-right corner instead of at Asia’s top-left, or an Iberian peninsula separated from its neighbours by the Pyrenees to the north rather than by the Atlas mountains to the south, for can we find it at all conceivable to think that they would both not have long ago have seen their debts meaningfully restructured, much of their dead wood cut away, and many of their people set back on the road to prosperity if they had been ‘emerging market’ nations and not satrapies subject to the reality-denying Canutes who run the EU?
For all the hand-wringing about ‘mindless austerity’ on the part of that economic luminary who occupies the Oval Office between golf rounds and for all the wailing conducted over ‘deleveraging’, the sorry truth, of course, is that neither a shrinkage of government outlays nor an overall reduction in debt levels is to be found in even the smallest corner of the globe.
To take one much quoted recent study, this month’s McKinsey report estimates that, since the start of the Crisis in 2007, global debt has risen by some $57 trillion (so, by around $8,000 for every man, woman, and child on the planet) with almost exactly half of the increase in the sub-total attributable to non-financial entities being the fault of those oh-so heartlessly austere governments who have run up an additional tab of a cool $25 trillion in that brief space of time! This means that, in the 6 ½ years of slump and reflation, Leviathan has treated himself to almost $11 billion a day in deficit spending, a sizeable deterioration of almost 2 ½ times the paltry $4.3 billion it was gobbling up during Pharaoh’s preceding seven years of plenty.
It may not be enough to satisfy a Krugman or a Lagarde, but for our taste that represents a dreadfully large quota of capital either frozen in place, shovelled (sometimes literally) into sub-marginal, make-work projects, or simply squandered on recipients of welfare – whether corporate, individual, or among the serried and largely sacrosanct ranks of the place-holding bureaucracy.
Looking instead to the subset represented by the BIS numbers for ‘global liquidity’ – i.e., the loans extended to and securities bought by banks from non-bank borrowers –we see a similar picture. Since Lehman fell, $25 trillion has been added to this particular pile, an increase of one-third from its starting point. Somewhat alarmingly, two-fifths of that increment has its origins in the Asia-Pacific combination of China, Taiwan, Indonesia, India, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. Indeed, the last twelve months’ 21.4% increase in cross-border lending to the region has capped off a nearly 80% rise in debt owed by this octet in the period under consideration. To gain some perspective on the magnitude of this, it should be noted that the $10.3 trillion which this involves matches the sums jointly accumulated by governments, households, and non-financial companies in the whole of Europe, the US, Japan, and Latam put together.
A sizeable proportion of that, it almost goes without saying, lies at the door of the Chinese and, coincidentally, the PBoC has been gracious enough this week to reveal its estimate of what it calls Total Social Finance (a hybrid of bank and non-bank credit, together with a smattering of non-bank equity issuance) – an inclusive agglomeration which the likes of Fitch would argue even so does not in any way account for the whole of the web of obligations being woven so densely across the Middle Kingdom.
Nevertheless, the totals we are given are impressive enough. As of the end of last year, the central bank reckons that TSF outstanding came to CNY124 trillion (around $20 trillion). Having pretty much been stable at a ratio of just over 120% of GDP in the prior six years, the massive stimulus programme unleashed in the immediate aftermath of the GFC and never truly attenuated since has seen the credit measure more than triple in absolute size the most recent six, pushing the ratio dangerously skyward to 193% of national income.
This is the legacy whose baneful influence makes up those ‘Three Overlays’ of debt overhang, surplus capacity, and urgent restructuring with which Beijing likes to remind us it has to tussle on the (Silk) road to its ‘new normal’ of slower, more rational growth, and more market-oriented, value-added activity.
So here we have both a major peril and a possible source of hope. The Chinese authorities appear to have recognised that, by following the practices preached by the execrable Western mainstream – albeit on a truly gargantuan, command-economy scale – it has gone beyond the bounds of merely diminishing to reach the Omega point of no return.
So far, as its economy has stuttered and stumbled along, it has resisted the temptation to add just one last, generous coup de whiskey in order to postpone the inevitable hangover (which does not mean it has been entirely abstemious since the new boys took over in 2013). But now not only is growth stuttering, but many prices are falling, too – principally, if not exclusively, those of the raw materials for which it has such a voracious appetite. However beneficial this discount may be to cash-strapped processing firms, it has nevertheless raised the bogey of so-called ‘deflation’ in the counsels of the wise
The question therefore presents itself: will Xi and Li stick to their guns and rely on broader micro-economic and institutional reform to foster a national renaissance – albeit one backed up with a little judicious concrete pouring ‘Along the Way’, i.e., along the route of the new trade routes being constructed to Europe? Or will the pressure to deaden the pain in the interim prove too intense and so unleash both indiscriminate policy easing and possibly an export-boosting devaluation of the yuan?
So far, all the signals are that they will resist the urge, despite a barrage of domestic commentary to the contrary, but a great deal hangs on the fortitude of Xi himself, that one lonely man, perched at the top of the CCP hierarchy – an organisation which itself sits uneasily at the very peak of a true Mount Olympus of debt.
While money can be made in markets on the minutest of scales, sometimes it helps to have a broader sense of perspective. After all, if you can’t locate yourself on a map – without the aid of GPS, children! – you don’t know where you are and if you have no grasp of history, you don’t really know who you are either.
So, focusing on commodities in this instance, we here use the monthly IMF price report to construct an overall index composed of energy, ags, base and precious metals by blending them with the typical sort of weightings favoured by the major tradable indices of today.
As can be seen from the graph, commodities – priced in the dollar of the day over the last four decades of floating exchange rates and unanchored policy – form a neat, symmetrical pattern when plotted on a log scale (on which equal percentage, not arithmetical, moves have the same length). At the bottom left lies the substantial, two-stage rise in prices which finished by defining the upper and lower bounds of what would turn out to be a 33-year central value area, This took place, as needs little recounting, over the course of the two Oil Shocks of ’73-4 and ’79-80.
A long decline followed that first peak, one punctuated both with the 1986 oil crash – from which many are drawing a chastening lesson today – and with the spike which attended Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and the First Gulf War, before the move came to an end in the chaos of the 1998 Russian bankruptcy and the climax of the shattering Asian Contagion.
From that nadir, we have lived through the so-called ‘Super-Cycle’, whose salient features were the run to near $150/bbl oil in 2008, the ensuing financial collapse, and the Great (Chinese-led) Reflation which followed. Three years were spent zigzagging lower in a narrow corridor thereafter – during which ags hit their highs, metals ground ever lower, and silver and gold each made record highs before going into their own, separate tailspins – then came the dramatic, front-led breakdown of the energy complex, the last resort of the commodity bull to that point, a man who luxuriated complacently in a narrowing range, falling volatility, and a then-remunerative inverted (‘backwardated’) forward curve.
From here, the question is whether the current uptick is any more than a bout of short-covering which is doomed to relapse and print new lows once the overstretch inherent in an almost uninterrupted 60% plunge is worked off, or whether some more meaningful recovery can be staged. We still have our doubts about the latter outlook and would watch for behaviour near the 2009 low and the old range high (or in terms of the most heavily weighted of the constituents, crude oil, whether it will hold above first $40/bbl then $35).
If not, we face the possibility of a reversion to the mean/mode of that 1974-2005 band at a level loosely corresponding to $20/bbl oil.
Courtesy of Bloomberg
Of course, the foregoing discussion has all been conducted in nominal terms – that is, without allowing for the general decline in the purchasing power of the dollars in which the index is measured (itself something of a tail-chasing concept since we calculate that same depreciation by looking at how much ‘stuff’ a dollar buys today compared with yesterday and some of that same ‘stuff’ is energy itself, so this recalculation inevitably contains an inseparable mix of relative and absolute prices changes).
We choose here to make the adjustment not in terms of that often rejigged and housing-heavy basket of goods, the CPI index,, but in terms of what that aristocrat of the labour force, the American manufacturing worker, can buy with an hour’s worth of his time on the assembly line.
Once we make the necessary reckoning, the long decline over the last quarter of the last century is thrown into an even starker relief. It also becomes clear that the rise from the secondary, post-9/11 low to 2011’s reflation peak lasted almost exactly as longas did the first great lurch higher and that it reached its apogee at almost exactly the same height as did its forerunner.
Here, we would note that, while trading below the 199o spike and/or its nearby fib level, the distribution’s mid and the 2008 lows look well nigh unavoidable from a technical perspective.
Having adjusted for the dollar one way, let us now do so in another. For the world beyond America’s boundaries, it matters not a jot if the dollar price of corn or cotton goes up by 10% if the greenback moves a similar proportion in the opposite direction in terms of the local unit of exchange. In order to isolate the history of price changes from the worst of this effect, the simplest – if very approximate – operation is to multiply the index by the trade-weighted value of the dollar and so we do.
Here, too, we can see how clearly delineated was the ‘Super-Cycle’ – i.e., that coincidence of China’s ‘opening up’ and the Europeriphery’s enjoyment of cheap German finance with a sustained spell of preternaturally low interest rates around most of the world (rates which now, of course, seem unattainably lofty!). the ‘Committee to Save the World’ has a lot to answer for!
We can also see just how decisive the last six month’s break has been and note that technicals, at least, offer little support for something still so historically elevated and presently so remote from any momentum-sapping area of well-populated precedent.
Finally, since only very few participants in our markets buy commodities for their own sake, but rather do so with a nod to the Modern Portfolio Theory superstition of ‘decorrelation’, we offer up a graph of commodity prices (not returns) versus stock prices (not returns). Now it is the various highs and lows which seem to define an all-encompassing, downward-sloping channel of chronic underperformance.
Within this long, gloomy run, we can identify two periods of relative commodity glory of roughly equal extent and duration, spaced some thirty years apart. The first occurred during the Great Inflation which bracketed the break-up of Bretton Woods and the first fumblings toward its replacement monetary order, the Age of the Independent Central Bank (reverentially capitalized, of course). The second, one might contend, coincided with the end of the so-called Great Moderation which followed and – we would suggest – with the ongoing transition to a new and yet unspecified era wherein the follies and failings of our generation of manically-active, inveterately hubristic, printing-press central planners will be utterly repudiated in its turn.
Here’s a question for all the cheering QEuro fans out there. If you came across a country where both real and nominal money supply were growing at rates in the low teens – something its people had not experienced for almost a decade and close to the fastest seen in the last four – would you consider it to be a victim of ‘deflation’? If not, what help do you suppose an expansionary central bank would be to it?
Imagine next what would be the state of that nation if, in a five year burst of temporary insanity, it had it had contracted 2 ½ times as many bank loans as it had when it first went mad and that it had thus registered four times the net indebtedness (loans less deposits) as when it began– a deficit which nearly equalled the combined shortfall of its two largest neighbours put together, despite the fact that they were three times as heavily populated.
Now you might well suppose that, if such a thing could ever be advisable in such circumstances, the central bank could readily offer an effective incentive to carry the tendency further were it only to act to suppress interest rates across the curve.
But consider instead what would be the case if, after another five, nearly six, years of blood, sweat, toil and tears, that nation had rid itself of 30% of its loans, had added 25% to its stock of deposits, and had therefore shrunk its net indebtedness by an impressive two-thirds to return itself to where it was in relation to national income eleven years previously. If you were also told that households, having gone into hock to the tune of 28% net from an initial position of small surplus, were now, thankfully, back in credit, would you imagine that the plight of the saver might outweigh that of the borrower in the ordering of their priorities?
If so, you would be considering whether Spain should rejoice at Snr. Draghi’s latest coup de main or whether it should balefully consider that he was not only gilding a lily, but bedizening one from which the bloom had long since faded, into the bargain?
Nor might you sing Hosannas if you were Swiss or Danish since it is principally in those two peripheral nations that the overspill is most violent. Denmark has cancelled this year’s government bond auction schedule in a kind of QE by omission even as the central bank has continued to force interest rates deeper and deeper into negative territory – to the point where there are apocryphal tales being told of a people who are among the developed world’s most indebted being paid to take out floating-rate mortgages.
That will end well, if true!
As for the Swiss, it seems that the habit dies hard of putting the national balance sheet at the disposal of those wanting to short the euro at subsidised rates. We say this because, even though the €1.20 hard floor was abolished in the middle of the month, in the two weeks since, sight deposit balances have risen by some CHF44 billion – clearly a much higher run rate than during the preceding six weeks when a mere CHF29 billion was accumulated. The most that can be said for this is that the SNB has been improving its average (assuming the very strong hints of continued intervention are confirmed), getting euros on board at rates from CHF0.85 to CF1.05 so far and again depressing bond yields further below zero.
With Syriza trying to work out how far they can push a Union which would gladly be shot of them if that were not to open the infamous box of a certain over-inquisitive Greek lady; with Bepe Grillo still trying to engineer a referendum on the euro membership of his native Italy; Podemos pulling the aggrieved of Spain into the streets in their thousands; and the AfD having come out of their conference in Bremen all signed up to fighting the mainstream parties, not each other, the pressure will persist. There will be many trying to find a safer haven for all those shiny new euros with which Mario will be happy to furnish them so they can express their doubts over the course he is taking in cold, hard(er) cash. The Danes and the Swiss may therefore end up with rather more of them than they otherwise might wish.
If we look beyond this to the wider markets, we can see the ripples from the stone thrown in by the ECB spreading as far away as China where the press is starting to run stories about how disadvantageous the rise of the yuan is becoming for a nation tacitly hoping for a quick, external outlet for some of the unwanted goods which its heavily underutilized industrial base is all too capable of producing.
Coupled with the growing unease of some of those who have borrowed those ever rising dollars to dabble in the onshore market – possibly via the medium of one of those commodity plays whose collateral value is not exactly beyond question these days – this is beginning to test the mettle of the PBoC at its idiosyncratic daily fix (the one where it simply refuses to entertain any bids beyond the rate it has settled upon and so allows a recalcitrant market no outlet for its frustrations).
Though nothing definitive has yet occurred and even if, rather than breaking any key levels, the stock market is tending to churn up and down near the highs, one is hard pressed not to give in to the foreboding that the sands are shifting: that, grain by grain, the cosy consensus of the last several quarters is starting to erode.
Take for example the fact that the US market is beginning to lose some of the effortless predominance it has so long enjoyed. Indeed, that leadership – wherein a rising stock market draws in the capital with which to move the dollar higher while the rise in the dollar makes the equities denominated therein gain more ground on their global rivals – has been challenged these past three weeks or so to a 2-sigma extent not seen since mid-2010.
This reversal, though not yet so large as to magnify our nascent sense of alarm, does add to the suspicion that change is in the air. That said, however, some longer term projections do still allow for the possibility that stocks might yet press on to complete the current 3QE pattern which began with assistance from all three big CBs, back in late 2012, and so map out a full TMT bubble move before the reaction truly sets in (q.v., the Nasdaq Composite). So what we are presented with is another case of letting the market decide which way it wants to move before committing ourselves too heavily to one side or the other. Note, too, that this is a waiting game which itself marks a very different phase from the straightforward momentum chase of recent months.
If stocks are ambivalent, fixed income seems to entertain no such doubts. Even that bear market dog-with-fleas, the 5-year T-Note, is back to its lowest yield since the ‘taper tantrum’ while the next quinquennial slice of the curve has made record lows, narrowing the spread between spot and forward 5s by 175bps in three months to reach the lowest level of recent times. We can perhaps best observe the developments by a glance at the eurodollar curve.
But, far from placating the market, even the remarkable run of successive record lows in bond yields is starting to raise the eyebrows of many of those whose wills are beginning to be bent to the policymakers’ doom-laden croaking about the imminence of ‘deflation’. It would be amusing if it were not so serious: in order to justify their crass, hyperactive heterodoxy, the central bankers are having to scare the very horses they are simultaneously trying to lead oh-so calmly to water.
Another frequently cited storm warning is the 5-year forward break-even inflation reading as derived from the difference between vanilla and index-linked govvies. Your author must here confess to feeling this is far too arbitrary a number. We gauge the ‘inflation expectations’ which the authorities have insisted are key to judging the success of monetary policy from a spread – and now, worse, from a hypothetical forward spread which is the derived difference of two other arbitrary pairs of differences. Yet all this is reckoned in a segmented bond market subject to both institutional and regulatory imperatives, to vicissitudes of issuance, and to a vast official distortion made worse by the fact that, at very low nominal rates the reluctance to price the residual ‘real’ yields on linkers too far into the negative column is compressing the BEI spread between them – a phenomenon additionally exacerbated in the forward version by dint of the rapidly flattening yield curve.
It would be wiser to bear in mind that just because we can define and measure the 5y5y break-even does not of itself imbue the measure with any genuine informational significance even if one cannot deny that it has come to exercise a certain lurid fascination in the mind of the market as well as in that of the official rate-setter.
Adding a further strand to this hangman’s noose, many of yesterday’s Peak Resource commodity bulls have undergone a temperamental slump which matches for its giddiness that of the prices of the industrial commodities themselves. Again, the spectre of ‘deflation’ has come to peer over our shoulder as we watch the tape.
Here we would only caution that the inferences people are deriving from commodity prices may not be as cast-iron (sorry) as they appear because it is not, in fact, so easy to disentangle the factors contributing to that decline in a world where we have so many broken pricing mechanisms in play.
Take crude, for one. Given the extraordinary growth in supply of which we have long been aware and given, too, the muted growth of (physical) demand in a world unable to shake off the shackles of the last boom, the presence of record long positioning in speculative markets at the end of July was a clear omen of doom, even if the timing of the sudden, catastrophic phase shift from a three-year sideways, ever-narrowing range to a runaway cascade was impossible to predict in advance.
All sorts of commodities in their turn have acted similarly over this last cycle; silver, gold, copper, tin, nickel, iron ore, rubber, uranium, minor metals, some ags, and so on – but the booms and busts have not all been coincident, a divergence from which we can infer that they are as much a story of a rolling wave of fickle, speculative over-exposure and subsequent mass liquidation as they are of anything to do with underlying, real-side economic factors at work in their use.
‘Doctor’ Copper is another commodity to which many outsiders like to refer, yet its medical credentials have been called into question by the huge distortions entailed in many years of shadowy Chinese malfeasance. What is therefore impossible to decide is how much the current slide relates to weaker contemporary real demand and how much is due to the unwinding of the greatly exaggerated, financially-enhanced, apparent demand from which we are presently correcting.
Again, the malinvestment bubble in mining itself was both enormous and – given the echo effects of loose credit firstly on selling prices and then on project finance – thoroughly comprehensible. But to move from diagnosis to prognosis, what we again have to ask is this: if we accept that there was a period of widespread over-expansion in the industry – albeit one formerly hidden by a credit-enabled take-up of the end product at ever higher prices – is today’s fall-out the same thing as evidence of a generally weaker economy, or is it just a belatedly more accurate reflection of what the state of that economy has truly been all along? The solution to that riddle, if one could reach one, would tell one whether the big losses to come will be confined mainly to the commodity sector itself or dispersed more generally across the equity universe.
What today’s reverse Malthusianism does overlook is the inarguable case that, if we made a miraculous scientific breakthrough tomorrow which unlocked what was an essentially limitless and near-free source of energy, we would all be unequivocally better off. Reasoning from such a Garden of Eden scenario, we can be resolute in maintaining that a supply-led fall in prices is good overall – not just for ‘consumers’ – but for intermediary producers of all other goods and services, too. And, yes, it may well be, as has been bandied about, that some 10% of US earnings are energy related and so in jeopardy, but devotees of Bastiat’s Things Which are Not Seen will have already asked themselves how much the earnings of energy users have been depressed by the success of the energy providers and whether, therefore, the ongoing rebalancing is the unmitigated evil some fear it to be.
Above all, we might take comfort from the realisation that oil & gas consumption still only amounts to 5% or so of global GDP. Or we could, were we not also to bring to mind the injunction that in a non-linear system such as ours we cannot entirely discount that large effects emanate from small causes or that, given its high profile, the sector’s travails could contribute meaningfully to a souring of general sentiment and so perhaps take us across that critical mass threshold beyond which rotations and reversals morph into landslides of liquidation. But to see why we think this is even possible, we need to go back a step or two to explain what we think is the source of such fragility.
Back in the immediate aftermath of LEH, we wrote that the scale of the coming reflation would be unprecedented and that it would certainly boost commodity and asset prices in the short run, but we also warned that we needed the debt overhang to be rapidly eradicated, renewed entrepreneurship to be promoted, and heavy-handed state intervention to be avoided (we entertained few real hopes on that that last score) if the recovery were to take root. Otherwise, we predicted, we would find ourselves on a tedious roller-coaster of anaemic growth interspersed with weary episodes of recurrent stagnation where the supposed triumph of the authorities’ 1933 moment would give way to their dread of repeating a 1937 one, meaning they could never pull the trigger on ending their stimulus programmes. This, we envisaged, would ensure that the whole system would become ever more addicted to the medicine and ever more subject to its unwelcome side-effects.
We also felt, back then, that if we were to avoid this switchback turning into a negative-g log flume of downturn, the West had to have its house in order by the time that China realised it was doing more harm than good with its own gargantuan injections and that it had to revise its whole approach as a consequence. So it is proving to be.
In the interim, we have all been strung along by the persistent faith that, this quarter, the next, or the one after that, Europe would once more arise from the ashes. When that seemed too much of a stretch we were briefly distracted instead with the foolishness that was Abenomics, and all the while we had the cheery presumption that the Daddy of them all, the US, was slowly getting back on track and so would be enough to keep our illusions alive.
But now we have nothing – or close thereto – to which to cling except for the fact that while so many central banks remain so doggedly accommodative we cannot seem to bring ourselves not to plunge for a further rise in the market. The pockets of our trousers have, after all, long since burned through as a result of all the hot money which has been thrust into them these past several years.
But, whatever the imperatives to remain fully invested and highly leveraged, it cannot be denied that the underpinnings of our optimism are becoming ever more slender. Japan has predictably disappointed. Europe again stands on the verge of major political upheaval and the reaction to the oft-promised QEuro has either been muted (in the real world) or actively counter-productive (in its disruptive, possibly system-threatening effect on the capital and currency markets), suggesting that clinical tolerance is setting in there, too.
EMs are over-owned, are becoming disfavoured, and are anyway not weighty enough to swing the balance. Add to this the sad fact that America is fostering conflict and instability all around the Eastern and Southern rim of Europe and we are left only with the belief in US economic recovery – at first stoutly resisted, but later held with all the fervour of the true convert – to maintain our faith. Hence, as we said, the outperformance of Wall St amid the growing strength of the dollar, a constellation which has even induced high-ranking pundits of the kind who should – but somehow never do – know better to start exulting recklessly at the putative ‘decoupling’ of the Land of the Free from the rest of the poor, huddled mass of humanity.
Now though, the States is starting to stutter as well – with a run of softer-than-expected macro data, fears of what the shale shock will mean both for jobs and credit, and a few wobbles on the corporate earnings front (even if many of these are only strong-dollar, money illusion effects).
In the recent past, such bad news would have been perversely seen as market positive for its capacity to call forth more from the Mighty Oz’s bag of monetary tricks. But what can we now expect from the ‘Goldilocks’ scenario of weakness calling forth some form of official, ‘Greenspan Put’ compensation? Only the weak, negative assistance that it might further delay the day the Fed finally takes its first baby steps to renormalization. There is therefore not much by way of porridge in that particular bowl, we fear!
In such a world, it would not take much for the multitude of stale longs to become anxious. Though it will be said – as it always is – that there is copious ‘cash on the sidelines’ waiting for exactly such an opportunity or, conversely, that a setback in one market must lead to a rise in another (‘the money has to go somewhere’), this overlooks the fact that asset prices can only advance on such a broad and enduring front as they have if they are being fed a steady nourishment of a credit created expressly for that purpose.
When this is the case, it is just as true in reverse; that when people take fright and the assets begin to fall, or the carry trade starts to go awry, the associated credit can quickly evaporate – that where the money ‘goes’ is whence it came: into fractional reserve oblivion. The one place where the classic Fisherian ‘debt deflation’ – or, if you prefer, the Hayekian ‘secondary depression’ – can most easily occur is in the market for financial claims, especially when that market may already have reached its ‘permanently high plateau’.
It may not happen just yet, but it certainly pays to be alert to the possibility that, one fine morning, it surely will.
Swiss National Bank policy and its implications for currencies, assets and central banking
The SNB unpegged from the Euro and sustained balance sheet losses, they will survive
The Euro has been helped lower but rumours of a new SNB target are rife
The long run appreciation of the Swiss Franc (CHF) is structural and accelerating, the Swiss economy will adjust
If G7 central bank balance sheets expanded to Swiss levels, relative to GDP, QE would triple
On Thursday 15th January the Swiss National Bank (SNB) finally, and unexpectedly, threw in the towel and ceased their foreign exchange intervention to maintain a pegged rate of EURCHF 1.20. The cap was introduced in September 2011 after a 28% appreciation in the CHF since the beginning of the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) – from 1.68 to 1.20. After plumbing the depths of 0.85 the EURCHF rate settled at 0.99 – around 18% higher in a single day. This is a huge one day move for a G10 currency and has inflicted collateral damage on leveraged traders, their brokers and those who borrowed in CHF to finance asset purchases in other currencies.Citibank estimates that is has also cost the SNB CHF 60bln. Here is a 10 year chart of EURCHF: –
The Swiss SMI stock Index declined from 9259 to 8400 (-9.2%) whilst the German DAX Index rose from 9933 to 10,032 (+1.1%). Swiss and German bond yields headed lower. Swiss bonds now exhibit negative nominal yields out to 15 years – the table below is from Wednesday 4th February:-
Swiss inflation is running at -0.3% so the real-yields are fractionally better due to the mild deflation seen in the past couple of months. I expect this deflation to deepen and persist.
The Swiss National Bank (SNB) has decided to discontinue the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro with immediate effect and to cease foreign currency purchases associated with enforcing it. The minimum exchange rate was introduced during a period of exceptional overvaluation of the Swiss franc and an extremely high level of uncertainty on the financial markets. This exceptional and temporary measure protected the Swiss economy from serious harm. While the Swiss franc is still high, the overvaluation has decreased as a whole since the introduction of the minimum exchange rate. The economy was able to take advantage of this phase to adjust to the new situation. Recently, divergences between the monetary policies of the major currency areas have increased significantly – a trend that is likely to become even more pronounced. The euro has depreciated substantially against the US dollar and this, in turn, has caused the Swiss franc to weaken against the US dollar. In these circumstances, the SNB has concluded that enforcing and maintaining the minimum exchange rate for the Swiss franc against the euro is no longer justified.
Interest rate lowered
At the same time as discontinuing the minimum exchange rate, the SNB will be lowering the interest rate for balances held on sight deposit accounts to –0.75% from 22 January. The exemption thresholds remain unchanged. Further lowering the interest rate makes Swiss-franc investments considerably less attractive and will mitigate the effects of the decision to discontinue the minimum exchange rate. The target range for the three-month Libor is being lowered by 0.5 percentage points to between –1.25% and –0.25%.
Outlook for inflation and the economy
The inflation outlook for Switzerland is low. In December we presented a conditional inflation forecast, which predicts inflation of –0.1% for this year. Since this forecast was published, the oil price has once again fallen significantly, which will further dampen the inflation outlook for a time. However, lower oil prices will stimulate growth globally, and this will influence economic developments in Switzerland positively. Swiss franc exchange rate movements also impact inflation and the economic situation.
The SNB remains committed to its mandate of ensuring medium-term price stability while taking account of economic developments. In concluding, let me emphasise that the SNB will continue to take account of the exchange rate situation in formulating its monetary policy in future. If necessary, it will therefore remain active in the foreign exchange market to influence monetary conditions.
On Tuesday 27th January the CHF fell marginally after SNB Vice President Jean-Pierre Danthine told Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger – Die Presse war voller Spekulationen, that the SNB remains ready to intervene in the currency market. One comment worthy of consideration, with apologies for the “google-translate”, is:-
Q. Does the SNB did not develop a new monetary policy? Just as Denmark, which has tied its currency to the euro in 30 years? Or as Singapore, which manages its currency based on a trade-weighted basket of currencies?
A. Denmark is the euro zone financially and politically closer than Switzerland. The binding to Europe is a long standing. Means that this solution is for Switzerland hardly considered. The arrangement of Singapore is worthy of consideration. But what is decisive is the long-term. Apart from Switzerland and other small and open economies such as Sweden and Norway are done well over the years with a flexible exchange rate.
Rumours of a new unofficial corridor of EURCHF 1.05-1.10 are now circulating – strikingly similar to the level reached prior to the September 2011 peg.
Breaking the Bank
Another rumour to have surfaced after the currency move was that the SNB had become concerned about the size of their balance sheet relative to Swiss GDP. The chart below is from 2013 but it shows the relative scale of SNB QE:-
Source: SNB and snbchf.com
Estimates of the loss sustained by the SNB, due to the appreciation of the CHF, vary, but, rather like countries, central banks don’t tend to “go bust”. The Economist – Broke but never Busttakes up the subject (my emphasis in bold):-
…For one thing central banks are far bigger. Between 2006 and 2014 central-bank balance-sheets in the G7 jumped from $3.4 trillion to $10.5 trillion, or from 10% to 25% of GDP. And the assets they hold have changed. The SNB, aiming to protect Swiss exporters from an appreciating currency, has built up a huge stock of euros, bought with newly created francs.
…Bonds that paid 5% or more ten years ago now yield nothing, and other investments have performed badly (the SNB was stung by a drop in the value of gold in 2013 and cut its dividend to zero). Concerned that its euro holdings might lose value the SNB shocked markets on January 15th by abruptly ending its euro-buying spree.
…With capital of €95 billion supporting a €2.2 trillion balance-sheet, the Eurosystem (the ECB and the national banks that stand behind it) is 23 times levered; a loss of 4% would wipe out its equity. Since two central banks have suffered devastating crunches recently (Tajikistan in 2007, Zimbabwe in 2009) the standard logic seems to apply: capital-eroding losses must be avoided.
But the worries are overdone. For one thing central banks are healthier than they appear. On top of its equity, the Eurosystem holds €330 billion in additional reserves. These funds are designed to absorb losses as assets change in value. Even if the ECB were to buy all available Greek debt—around €50 billion—and Greece were to default, the system would lose just 15% of these reserves; its capital would not be touched.
And even if a central bank’s equity were wiped out it would not go bust in the way high-street lenders do. With liabilities outweighing its assets it might seem unable to pay all its creditors. But even bust central banks retain a priceless asset: the power to print money. Customers’ deposits are a claim on domestic currency, something the bank can create at will. Only central banks that borrow heavily in foreign currencies they cannot mint (as in Tajikistan) or in failing states (Zimbabwe) get into deep trouble.
The Economist goes on to highlight the risk that going “cap in hand” to their finance ministries will weaken central banks’ “independence” and might prove inflationary. In the current environment inflation would be a nice problem for the SNB, or, for that matter, the ECB or BoJ to have. As for the limits of central bank balance sheet expansion, the SNB – at 80% of GDP – have blazed a trail for their larger peers to follow.
Is it the money supply?
A further unofficial explanation of the SNB move concerns the unusually large expansion of Swiss money supply since the GFC. In early January an article from snbchf.com – The Risks on the Rising SNB Money Supply – discussed how the SNB might be thinking (my emphasis): –
Since the financial crisis central banks in developed nations increased their balance sheets. The leading one was the American Federal Reserve that increased the monetary base (“narrow money”), followed by the Bank of Japan and recently the ECB. Only partially the extension of narrow money had an effect on banks’ money supply, so called “broad money”. For the Swiss, however, the rising money supply concerns both narrow and broad money. Broad money in Switzerland rises as strong as it did in Spain or Ireland before the financial crisis.
They go on to discuss the global effects of QE:-
…The SNB had the choice between a stronger currency and, secondly, an excessive appreciation of the Swiss assets. With the introduction of the euro floor, it opted for the second alternative and increased its monetary base massively in order to absorb foreign currency inflows. Implicitly the central bank helped to push up asset prices even further. Hence it was rather foreign demand for Swiss assets that helped to increase the demand for credit and money in the real economy.
…The SNB printed a lot of money especially in the years before and just after the euro introduction until 2003, to weaken the franc and the “presumed slow” Swiss growth. The money increase, however, did not affect credit growth more than it should have: investors preferred other countries to Switzerland to buy assets. Finally the central bank increased interest rates a bit and reduced money supply between 2006 and 2008. Be aware that in 2006/2007 there is a statistical effect with the inclusion of “Raiffeisen” group banks into M3. Since 2009, things have changed M3 is rising with an average of 7.7% per year, while before 2009 it was 3% per year. Banking lending to the private sector is increasing by 3.9% per year while it was 1.7% between 1995 and 2005.
…Since April 2014, money supply M3 has suddenly stopped at around 940 billion CHF. Before it had increased by 80 bln. CHF per year from 626 bln. in each year since 2008. We explained before that Fed’s QE translated in higher lending in dollars, dollars that found their way into emerging markets. The same thing happens in Switzerland with newly created Swiss francs. Not all of them remained in the Swiss economy, but they were loaned out to clients from Emerging Markets. Hence the second risk does not directly concerns the Swiss economy and the euro, but the relationship between its banks and emerging markets and the risks of a strong franc for banks’ balance sheets.
Here is a chart of M3 and bank lending in Switzerland, the annotation is from snbchf.com:-
Source: SNB and snbchf.com
The SNBs decision to unpeg seems a brutal way to impose discipline on the domestic lending market and an unusual way to test increased bank capital requirements, however, I believe this was the least bad time to escape from the corner into which they had boxed themselves. The recent fall in M3 should put some upward pressure on the CHF – until growth slows and reverses the process.
The expansion of the money supply witnessed since the beginning of the financial and economic crisis is mainly attributable to bank lending. An examination of components of the M3 monetary aggregate and its balance sheet counterparts, based on the consolidated balance sheet of the banking sector, shows that approximately70% of the increase in the M3 monetary aggregate between October 2008 and October 2014 (CHF 311 billion) was attributable to the increase in domestic Swiss franc lending (CHF 216 billion). The remaining 30% of the M3 increase was due in part to households and companies switching their portfolio holdings from securities and foreign exchange into Swiss franc sight deposits.
Stable mortgage lending growth in the third quarter
In the third quarter of 2014 – as in the previous quarter – banks’ mortgage claims, which make up four-fifths of all domestic bank lending, were up 3.8% year-on-year. Mortgage lending growth thus continued to slow, as it has for some time now, despite the fact that mortgage rates have fallen to a historic low. A breakdown by borrower shows that the growth slowdown has taken place in mortgage lending to households as well as companies.
This slower growth in mortgage lending may be attributed to various measures taken since 2012 to restrain the banks’ appetite for risk and strengthen their resilience. These include the banks’ own self-regulation measures, which subject mortgage lending to stricter minimum requirements. Moreover, at the request of the SNB, the Federal Council activated the countercyclical capital buffer in 2013 and increased it this year. This obliges the banks to back their mortgage loans on residential property with additional capital. The SNB’s bank lending survey also indicates that lending standards have been tightened and demand for loans among households and companies has declined.
…Growing ratio of bank lending to GDP
The strong growth in bank lending recorded in recent years is reflected in the ratio of bank loans to nominal GDP. After a sharp rise in the 1980s, this ratio remained largely unchanged until mid-2008. Since the onset of the financial and economic crisis, it has increased again substantially. This increase suggests that banks’ lending activities have supported aggregate demand. However, strong lending growth also entails risks for financial stability. In the past, excessive growth in lending has often been the root cause of later difficulties in the banking industry.
Switzerland’s banking sector is truly multi-national, deposits continue to arrive, despite penal “negative” rates, meanwhile, many CHF bank loans have been made to international clients. The sharp appreciation of the CHF will force the banking sector to make additional provisions for non-performing international loans. Further analysis of the effect of relative money supply growth, between Switzerland and the Eurozone (EZ) on the EURCHF exchange rate, can be found in this post by Frank Shostak – Post Mortem on the Swiss Franc’s Euro-Peg. He makes an interesting “Austrian” case for a weakening of the CHF versus the EUR over-time.
Swiss Francs in the long run
My first ever journey outside the UK was to Switzerland, that was back in 1971 when a pound sterling bought CHF 10.5. The Swiss economy has had to deal with a constantly rising exchange rate ever since. The chart below of the CHF Real Trade-Weighted value shows this most clearly: –
This chart only goes up to mid-2013, since then the USDCHF has moved from 0.88 and 0.99 by early January – after the unpegging the rate is near to its mid-point at 0.93. According to theGuardian – What a $7.54 Swiss Big Mac tells us about global currencies – the Swiss currency is now 33% overvalued. Exporters will be hit hard and the financial sector is bound to be damaged by commercial bank lending policies associated with pegging the CHF to a declining EUR. On Monday Bank Julius Baer (BAER.VX) announced plans to cut costs by CHF 100mln, domestic job cuts were also indicated – more institutions are sure to follow their lead. Meanwhile, there are bound to be emerging market borrowers which default. The Swiss economy will slow, exacerbating deflationary forces, but lower prices will improve the purchasing power of the domestic population. Switzerland’s trade balance hit a record high in July 2014 and came close to the same level in November:-
Source: Trading Economics and Swiss Customs
In a recent newsletter – The Swiss Release the Kraken – John Maudlin quoted fellow economist Charles Gave in a tongue in cheek assessment of the SNB’s action:-
They [the SNB] didn’t mind pegging the Swiss franc to the Deutsche mark, but it is becoming more and more obvious that the euro is more a lira than a mark. A clear sign is the decline of the euro against the US dollar.
Mr. Draghi has been trying to talk the euro down for at least a year. This should not come as a surprise. After all, in the old pre-euro days, every time Italy had a problem, the solution was always to devalue.
But the Swiss, not being as smart as the Italians, do not believe in devaluations. You see, in Switzerland they have never believed in the ‘euthanasia of the rentier’, nor have they believed in the Keynesian multiplier of government spending, nor have they accepted that the permanent growth of government spending as a proportion of gross domestic product is a social necessity. The benighted Swiss, just down from their mountains where it was difficult to survive the winters, have a strong Neanderthal bias and have never paid any attention to the luminaries teaching economics in Princeton or Cambridge. Strange as it may seem, they still believe in such queer, outdated notions as sound money, balanced budgets, local democracy, and the need for savings to finance investments. How quaint!
Of course, the Swiss are paying a huge price for their lack of enlightenment. For example, since the move to floating exchange rates in 1971, the Swiss franc has risen from CHF4.3 to the US dollar to CHF0.85 and appreciated from CHF10.5 to the British pound to CHF1.5. Naturally, such a protracted revaluation has destroyed the Swiss industrial base and greatly benefited British producers [not!]. Since 1971, the bilateral ratio of industrial production has gone from 100 to 175…in favor of Switzerland.
And for most of that time Switzerland ran a current account surplus, a balanced budget, and suffered almost no unemployment, all despite the fact that nobody knows the name of a single Swiss politician or central banker (or perhaps because nobody knows a single Swiss politician or central banker, since they have such limited power? And that all these marvelous results come from that one simple fact: their lack of power.)
The last time I looked, the Swiss population had the highest standard of living in the world – another disastrous long-term consequence of not having properly trained economists of the true faith.
Swiss unemployment has been trending higher recently (3.4% in December) and this figure may rise as sectors such as banking and tourism adjust to the new environment, however, this level of unemployment is still enviable by comparison with other developed countries.
The following charts give an excellent insight into the nature of trade in the Swiss economy. Firstly, exports:-
The importance of the EZ is evident (46.4% excluding UK) however the next chart shows a rather different perspective:-
The relative importance of the USA is striking – 11% of exports but nearly half of the trade surplus – so too, is the magnitude of the deficit with Germany, in fact, within Europe, only Spain and the UK are export surplus markets.
A closer look at the break-down of Imports and Exports by sector provides an additional dimension:-
The SNB already highlighted the import of energy as a significant factor – Switzerland’s energy bill is now much lower than it was in July 2014. The export of pharmaceuticals has always been of major importance – many of these products are inherently price inelastic, the rise in the currency will have less impact on Switzerland than it might do on other developed economies.
Conclusion and investment opportunities
“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Mark Twain
Contrary to what several commentators have been suggesting, I do not believe the SNB capitulation marks the beginning of the end of central bank omnipotence – they were never that omnipotent in the first place. The size of the SNB balance sheet is also testament to the limits of QE – if the other G7 central banks expand to 80% of GDP the total QE would more than triple from $10.5 trln to $33.6 trln – and what is to say that 80% of GDP is the limit?
Switzerland will benefit from a floating currency in the longer term, although the recent abrupt appreciation may lead to a recession – which in turn should reduce upward pressure on the CHF. Criticism of the SNB for creating greater volatility within the Swiss economy is only partially justified, the excessive rise of the CHF effective exchange rate was due to external factors and the SNB felt it needed to be managed, the subsequent rise in the US$ has brought the CHF back to a more realistic level but the current environment of zero interest rate policy adopted by several major central banks has parallels with the conditions seen after the collapse of Bretton Woods.
I believe the SNB anticipates an acceleration in the long term trend rate of appreciation of the CHF. Swiss exports, even to the US, will be impaired but German imports will be cheaper – with a record trade surplus, this is a good time to start the adjustment of market expectations about the value of the CHF going forward. Swiss companies are used to planning within a framework which incorporates a steadily rising value of their currency – now they must anticipate an acceleration in that trend.
The money and bond markets will remain distorted and, in the event of another EZ crisis, the SNB may increase the penalties for access to the “safe-haven” Switzerland represents: and, as indicated, they may intervene again if the capital flows become excessive. 20 year, or longer, Confederation Bonds, alone, offer positive carry, buying call spreads on shorter maturities is a strategy worth considering.
The SMI Index is likely to lag the broader European market, but negative bond yields offer little alternative to stocks and domestic investors will exhibit a renewed cognizance of the risk of foreign currency investments. The SMI Index, at around 8550, is only 7.6% below the level it was trading prior to the SNB announcement. Swiss stocks will undoubtedly benefit from any export led European economic recovery. Meanwhile, the relative strength of the US economy appears in tact – the Philadelphia Fed Leading Indexes for December – released earlier this week – suggest economic expansion in 49 states over the next six months.
The EZ has already been aided by the departure of its strongest “shadow” member; combined with the ECB’s Expanded Asset Purchase Programme (EAPP) this should drive the EUR lower. European stocks have already taken heart, fuelled by the new liquidity and international competitiveness.
European bond spreads continue to compress. Fears of peripheral countries exiting the single currency area will provide volatility but for the major countries – France, Italy and Spain – any weakness is still a buying opportunity, but at these, often negative real-yields, they should be viewed as a “trading” rather than an “investment” asset
Colin has worked in the financial and commodity markets since 1981. He started his career in physical commodities moving on to a futures and options brokerage in 1987. Here he focused on servicing bank proprietary traders, global macro and relative-value fixed income hedge funds together with managed futures advisors. He was also instrumental in the development of interest rate and credit default swaps businesses.
In December 2013 he launched a macroeconomic newsletter – In the Long Run – focussing on macroeconomics and financial markets.
He has recently became a director of AAIN - Asian Alternative Investments Network – a non-profit industry group with which he has been involved since its inception in 2007. | Contact us
8 February 15 | Tags: Central Banking, deflation, monetary policy, Money, money supply, Switzerland | Category: Money | Comments are closed
Today’s obvious mispricing of sovereign bonds is a bonanza for spending politicians and allows over-leveraged banks to build up their capital. This mispricing has gone so far that negative interest rates have become common: in Denmark, where the central bank persists in holding the krona peg to a weakening euro, it is reported that even some mortgage rates have gone negative, and high quality corporate bonds such as a recent Nestlé euro bond issue are also flirting with negative yields.
The most identifiable reason for this distortion of free markets is bank regulation. Under the Basel 3 rules, a bank with sovereign debt on its balance sheet is regarded by bank regulators as owning a risk-free asset.
Unsurprisingly, banks are encouraged by this to invest in sovereign debt in preference to anything else. This leads to the self-fulfilling second reason: falling yields. Central bank intervention in the bond markets through quantitative easing and commercial bank buying leads to higher bond prices, which in turn give the banks enormous profits. It is a process that the banks wish would go on for ever, but logic says it doesn’t.
Don’t think that there is an economic justification for negative bond yields: there isn’t. Even if price inflation goes negative, interest rates in a free market will always remain positive. The reason for this cast-iron rule is interest rates are an expression of time-preference. Time preference is the solid reason that possession of money today is more valuable than a promise to give it to you at some time in the future. The future value of money must always be at a discount to cash-in-the-hand, or put the other way, to balance the value of cash today with cash tomorrow always requires a supplementary payment of interest. That is always true so long as interest rates are set by genuine market factors and not set by a market-monopolising central bank, and then distorted by banking regulations.
So we have arrived close to the logical end-point in falling yields, and in some cases we have gone beyond it. We must also conclude that negative yields are a signal that bond prices are so over-blown that they are vulnerable to a substantial correction. Furthermore, when the tide turns against bond markets the downside could be considerable. The long-term real yield on high quality government bonds has historically tended to average about three per cent, which implies that sovereign bonds would crash if central banks lost control of the market.
Bond bulls are on weak ground from another angle. If history tells us that real yields of three per cent are the norm, has government creditworthiness changed for the better, justifying a lower yield? Well, no: the accumulation of debt across all welfare economies is less sustainable than at any time in the past, and demographics, the number of retirees relative to those in work and paying taxes, are rapidly making the situation far worse.
Macroeconomists will probably claim that so long as central banks can continue to manage the quantity of money sloshing about in financial markets they can keep bond prices up. But this is valid only so long as markets believe this to be true. Put another way central banks have to continue fooling all of the people all of the time, which as we all know is impossible.
I have worked to keep this piece readable, and as brief as possible. My grave diagnosis demands the evidence and reasoning to support it. One cannot explain the collapse of this currency with the conventional view. “They will print money to infinity,” may be popular but it’s not accurate. The coming destruction has nothing to do with the quantity of money. It is a story of what happens when interest rates fall into a black hole.
Yields Have Fallen Beyond Zero
The Swiss yield curve looks like nothing so much as a sinking ship. All but the 20- and 30-year bonds are now below the water line.
Look at how much it’s submerged in just one week. The top line (yellow) is January 16, and the one below it was taken just a week later on January 23. It’s terrifying how fast the whole interest rate structure sank. Here is a graph of the 10-year bond since September. For comparison, the 10-year Treasury bond would not fit on this chart. The US bond currently pays 1.8%.
The Swiss 10-year yield was as high as 37 basis points on Friday January 2. By the next Monday, it had plunged to 28, or -25%. By January 15—the day the Swiss National Bank (SNB) announced it was removing the peg to the euro—the yield had plunged to just 7 basis points. It has been nonstop freefall since then, currently to -26 basis points.
What can explain this epic collapse? Why is the entire Swiss bond market drowning?
Drowning is a fitting metaphor. In my dissertation, I describe several harbingers of financial and monetary collapse. The first is when the interest interest rate on the long bond goes to zero. I discuss the fact that a falling rate destroys capital, and that lower rates mean a higher burden of debt. If the long bond rate is zero then the net present value of all debt (which is effectively perpetual) is infinite. Debtors cannot carry an infinite burden. As we’ll see, any monetary system that depends on debtors servicing their debt must collapse when the rate goes to zero.
I think the franc has reached the end. With negative rates out to 15 years, and a scant 33 basis points on the 30-year, it is all over but the shouting.
Not Printing, Borrowing
Let’s take a step back for a moment, and look at how the recent chapter unfolded. It began with the SNB borrowing mass quantities of francs. Most people say printed, but it’s impossible to understand this unprecedented disaster with such an approximate understanding. It’s not printing, but borrowing.
Think of a homebuyer borrowing $100,000 to buy a house. He never gets the cash in his bank account. He signs a bunch of paperwork, and then at the end of the day he has a debt obligation to repay, plus the title to the house. The former owner has the cash.
It works the same with any central bank that wants to buy an asset. At the end of the day, the bank owns the asset, and the former owner of the asset now holds the cash. This cash is the debt of the central bank. It is on the bank’s balance sheet as a liability. The bank owes it.
This is vitally important to understand, and it can be quite counterintuitive. If one thinks of the franc (or dollar, euro, etc.) as money, and if one thinks that the central banks print money, then one will come to precisely the wrong conclusion: that there is nothing owed, and indeed there is no debtor. In this view, the holder of francs has cash, which is a current asset. End of story.
This conclusion could not be more wrong.
Certainly, the idea of the central bank repaying its debt is absurd. By law, payment is deemed made when the debtor pays in currency—i.e. francs in Switzerland. However, the franc is the very liability of the SNB that we’re discussing. How can the SNB pay off its franc liabilities using its own franc liabilities as means of payment?
It can’t. This is a contradiction in terms. Thus it’s critical to understand that there is no extinguisher of debt in the regime of irredeemable paper currency. You may get yourself out of the debt loop by paying in currency, but that merely shifts the debt. The debt does not go out of existence, because paying a debt with an IOU cannot extinguish it. Unlike you, the central bank cannot get itself out of debt.
However, it can service its debt. For example, the Federal Reserve in the U.S. pays interest on reserves. Indeed, the bank must service its debts. It would be a calamity if a payment is missed, if the central bank ever defaulted.
The central bank must also maintain its liabilities, which is what it uses to fund its assets. If the commercial banks withdraw their deposits—and they do generally have a choice—the central bank would be forced to sell its assets. That would be contrary to its policy intent, not to mention quite a shock to brittle economies.
Make no mistake, a central bank can go bankrupt. This may seem tricky to understand, as the law makes its liability legal tender for all debts public and private. A central bank is also allowed to commit acts of accounting (and leverage) that would not be tolerated in a private company. Regardless, it can present misleading financial statements, but even if the law lets it get away with that, reality will have its revenge in the end. The emperor may claim to be wearing magnificent royal robes, but he’s still naked.
If liabilities exceed assets, then a bank—even a central bank—is insolvent and the consequences will come soon enough. The cash flow from the assets will sooner or later become insufficient to pay the interest on the liabilities. No central bank wants to be in a position where it is obliged to borrow, not to purchase asset but to service a negative cash flow. That is a rapid death spiral. It must somehow push down the interest rate on its liabilities (which are typically short term) to keep the cost of financing its portfolio below the revenue generated on the assets.
This becomes increasingly tricky when two things happen. One, the yield on the asset goes negative. Thus, the even-more-negative (and even more absurd) one-day rate of -400 basis points in Switzerland. Two, the issuance of more currency drives down yields even further (described in detail, below).
Events force the hand of the central bank. It goes down a path where it has fewer and fewer choices. That brings us back to negative interest rates out to the 15-year bond so far.
The Visible Hand of the Swiss National Bank
So the SNB issued francs to fund its purchase of euros. Next, it spent the euros on whatever Eurozone assets it wished to buy, such as German bunds.
It’s well known that the SNB put on a lot of this trade to keep the franc down to €0.83 (the inverse of keeping the euro down to CHF1.2) l. It also helped push down interest rates in Europe. The SNB was a relentless buyer of European bonds.
That leads to the question of what it did in Switzerland. The SNB was trading new francs for euros. That means the former owner of those euros then owned francs. These francs have to stay in the franc-denominated domain. What asset will this new franc owner buy?
I frame the question this way deliberately. If you have a 100-franc note, you can put it in your pocket. If you have CHF100,000, you can deposit it in a bank. If you have CHF100,000,000 (or billions) then you are going to buy a bond or other asset (depositing cash in a bank just pushes it to the bank, who buys the asset).
The seller of the asset is selling on an uptick. He gives up the bond, because at its higher price (and hence lower yield) he now finds another asset more attractive on a risk-adjusted basis. Risk includes his own liquidity risk (which of course rises as his leverage increases).
As the SNB (and many others) relentlessly push up the bond price, and hence push down the yield, the sellers of the ever-lower yielding bonds have fresh new franc cash balances.
The Quantity Theory of Money holds that the demand for money falls as the quantity rises. If demand for money falls, then by this definition the prices of all other things—including consumer goods—rises. It is commonly held that people tradeoff between saving money vs. spending money (i.e. consumption). The prediction is rising consumer prices.
I emphatically disagree. A wealthy investor does unload his assets to go on an extra vacation if he doesn’t like the bond yield. A bank with a trillion dollar balance sheet does not dole out bigger salaries if its margins are compressed.
So what does trade off with government bonds? If an investor doesn’t want to own a government bond, what else might he want to own? He buys corporate bonds, stocks, or rental real estate, thus pushing up their prices and yields down.
And then, in a dysfunctional monetary system, you can add antique cars, paintings, a second and third home, etc. These things serve as surrogates for investment. When investing cannot produce an adequate yield, people turn to non-yielding non-investment assets.
The addition of a new franc at the margin perturbs the previous equilibrium of risk-adjusted yields across all asset classes. Every time the bond price goes up, every owner of every franc-denominated asset must recalculate his preferences.
The problem is that the SNB does not create any more productive investment opportunities when it spills more francs into the Swiss financial system. Those new francs have to chase after the existing assets.
Yields are falling. They necessarily had to fall.
An Increasing Money Supply and Decreasing Interest Rate
The above discussion describes the picture in every developed economy. Interest rates have been falling for 34 years in the U.S., for example.
In a free market, the expansion of credit would be driven by a market spread: available yield – cost of borrowing. If that spread is too small (or negative) there will be no more borrowing to buy assets. If it gets wider, then banks can spring into action.
However, central banks distort this. Instead of the cost of borrowing being a market-determined price, it is fixed by the central bank. This perverts the business model of a bank into what is euphemistically known as maturity transformation—borrowing short to lend long. It’s not possible for a bank to borrow money from depositors with 5-year time deposit accounts in order to buy 5-year bonds. The bank has to borrow a shorter duration and buy a longer, in order to make a reasonable profit margin.
If the central bank sets the borrowing cost lower and lower, then the banks can bid up the price of government bonds higher and higher (which causes a lower and lower yield on the long bond). This is not capitalism at all, but a centrally planned kabuki theater. All of the rules are set by a non-market actor, who can change them for political expediency.
The net result is issuance of credit far beyond what could ever happen in a free market. This problem is compounded by the fact that the central bank cannot control what assets get bought when it buys bonds. It hands the cash over to the former bond holders. It’s trying to accomplish something—such as keeping the franc down in the case of the SNB, or preventing bankruptcies, in the case of the Fed—and it has no choice but to keep flooding the market until it achieves its goal. In the US, the rising tide eventually lifted all ships, even the leaky old tubs. The result is a steeper credit gradient, and the bank can eventually force liquidity out to its target debtors.
The situation in Switzerland makes the Fed’s problems look small by comparison. Unlike the Fed, which had a relatively well-defined goal, the SNB put itself at the mercy of the currency market. It had no particular goal, and therefore no particular budget or cost. The SNB was fighting to hold a line against the world. While it kept the franc peg, the SNB put pressure on both Swiss and European interest rates.
Something changed with the start of the year. We can understand it in light of the arbitrage between the Swiss bond, and other Swiss assets. The risk-adjusted rate of return on other assets always has to be greater than that of the Swiss government bond (except perhaps at the peak of a bubble). Otherwise why would anyone own the higher-risk and lower-yield asset?
Therefore, there are three possible causes for the utter collapse in interest rates in Switzerland beginning 10 days prior to the abandonment of the peg:
the rate of return of other assets has been leading the drop in yields
buying pressure on the franc obliged the SNB to borrow more francs into existence, fueling more bond buying
the risk of other assets has been rising (including liquidity risk to their leveraged owners)
#1 is doubtful. It’s surely the other way around. It’s not falling yields on real estate driving falling yields on bonds. Bond holders are induced to part with their bonds on a SNB-subsidized uptick. Then they use the proceeds to buy something else, and drive its yield down.
One fact supports conclusion #2. Something forced the SNB to remove the peg. Buying pressure is the only thing that makes any sense. The SNB hit its stop-loss.
The rate of interest continued to fall even after the SNB abandoned its peg. Why? Reason #3, rising risks. Think of a bank which borrowed in Swiss francs to buy Eurozone assets. This trade seemed safe with the franc pegged to the euro. When the peg was lifted, suddenly the firm was faced with a staggering loss incurred in a very short time.
The overreaction of the franc in the minutes following the SNB’s policy change had to be the urgent closing of Eurozone positions by many of these players. The franc went from €0.83 to €1.15 in 10 minutes, before settling down near €0.96. For those balance sheets denominated in francs, this looked like the euro moved from CHF1.20 to CHF0.87, a loss of 28%. What would you do, if your positions instantly lost so much? Most people would try to close their positions.
Closing means selling Eurozone assets to get francs. Then you need to buy a franc-denominated asset, such as the Swiss government bond. That clearly happened big-time, as we see in the incredible drop in the interest rate in Switzerland. Francs which had formerly been used to fund Eurozone assets must now be used to fund assets exclusively in the much-smaller Swiss realm.
In other words, a great deal of franc credit was used to finance Eurozone assets. This is a big world, and hence the franc carry trade didn’t dominate it. When those francs had to go home and finance Swiss assets only, it capsized the market.
And the entire yield curve is now sinking into a sea of negative rates.
The Consequences of Falling Interest
Meanwhile, unnaturally low interest is offering perverse incentives to corporations who can issue franc-denominated liabilities. They are being forced-fed with credit, like ducks being fatted for foie gras. This surely must be fueling all manner of malinvestment, including overbuilding of unnecessary capacity. The hurdle to build a business case has never been lower, because the cost of borrowing has never been lower. The consequence is to push down the rate of profit, as competitors expand production to chase smaller returns. All thanks to ever-cheaper credit.
Artificially low interest in Switzerland is causing rising risk and, at the same time, falling returns.
The Swiss situation is truly amazing. One has to go out to 20 years to see a positive number for yield—if one can call 21 basis points much of a yield.
It’s not only pathological, but terminal. This is the end.
In Switzerland, there is hardly any incentive remaining to do the right things, such as save and invest for the long term. However, there’s no lack of perverse incentives to borrow more and speculate on asset prices detaching even further from reality.
Speculation is in its own class of perversity. Speculation is a process that converts one man’s capital into another man’s income. The owner of capital, as I noted earlier, does not want to squander it. The recipient of income, on the other hand, is happy to spend some of it.
We should think of a falling interest rate (i.e. rising bond market and hence rising asset markets) as sucking the juice (capital) out of the system. While the juice is flowing, asset owners can spend, and lots of people are employed (especially in the service sector).
For example, picture a homeowner in a housing bubble. Every year, the market price of his house is up 20%. Many homeowners might consider borrowing money against their houses. They spend this money freely. Suppose a house goes up in price from $100,000 to $1,000,000 in a little over a decade. Unfortunately, the debt owed on the house goes up proportionally.
With financial assets, they typically change hands many times on the way up. In each case, the sellers may spend some of their gains. Certainly, the brokers, advisors, custodians, and other professionals all get a cut—and the tax man too. At the end of the day, you have higher prices but not higher equity. In other words, the capital ratio in the market collapses.
To understand the devastating significance of this, consider two business owners. Both have small print shops. Both have $1,000,000 worth of presses, cutters, binding machines, etc. One owns everything outright; he paid cash when he bought it. The other used every penny of financing he could get, and has a monthly payment of about $18,000. Both shops have the same cost of doing business, say $6,000. If sales revenues are $27,000 then both owners may feel they are doing well. What happens if revenues drop by $3,500? The all-equity owner is fine. He can reduce the dividend a bit. The leveraged owner is forced to default. The more your leverage, the more vulnerable you are to a drop in revenues or asset values.
Falling interest, and its attendant rising asset prices, juices up the economy. People feel richer (especially if their estimation of their wealth is portfolio value divided by consumer prices) and spend freely. Unfortunately, it becomes harder and harder to extract smaller and smaller drops of juice. The marginal productivity of debt falls.
Think about it from the other side, the borrower. The very capacity to pay interest has been falling for decades. A declining rate of profit goes hand-in-hand with a falling rate of interest. Lower profit is both caused by lower interest, and also the cause of it. A business with less profit is less able to pay interest expense. Who could afford to pay rates that were considered to be normal just a few decades ago? It is capital that makes profit, and hence capacity to pay interest, possible. And it is capital that’s eroded by falling rates.
The stream of endless bubbles is just the flip side of the endless consumption of capital. Except, there is an end. There is no way of avoiding it now, for Switzerland.
How About Just Shrinking the Money Supply?
Monetarists often tell us that the central bank can shrink the money supply as well as grow it, and the reason why it’s never happened is, well… the wrong people were in charge.
To see why, let’s look at the mechanism for how a central bank expands the money supply. It issues cash to an asset owner, and the asset changes hands. Now the bank owns the asset and the seller owns the cash (which he will promptly use to buy the next best asset). A relentlessly rising bond price is lots of fun. It’s called a bull market, and everyone is making profits as they reckon them (actually consuming capital, as we said above).
How would a contraction of the money supply work? It seems simple, at first. The central bank just sells an asset and gets back the cash. The cash is actually its own liability, so it can just retire it. And voila. The money supply shrinks.
Not so fast.
There is an old saying among traders. Markets take the escalator up, but the elevator down. Central bank buying slowly but relentlessly bid up the price of bonds. Tick by tick, the bank forced it up. What would central bank selling do? What would even a rumor of massive central bank selling do?
Bond prices would fall sharply.
The problem is that few can tolerate falling bond prices, because everyone is leveraged. Think about what it means for everyone to borrow and buy assets, for sellers to consume some profits and reinvest the proceeds into other assets. There is increasingly scant capital base supporting an increasingly inflated—as in puffed-up with air, without much substance—asset market. A small decline in prices across all asset classes would wipe out the financial system.
Market participants have to be leveraged. Dirt cheap credit not only makes leverage possible, but also necessary. How else to keep the doors open, without using leverage? Spreads are too thin to support anyone, unlevered.
Banks are also maturity mismatched, borrowing short to lend long. The consequences of a rate hike will be devastating, crushing banks on both sides of the balance sheet. On the liabilities side, the cost of funding rises with each uptick in the interest rate. On the asset side, long bonds fall in value at the same time. If short-term rates rise enough, banks will have a negative cash flow.
For example, imagine owning a 10-year bond that pays 250 basis points. To finance it, you borrow at 25 basis points. Well, now imagine your financing cost rises to 400 basis points. For every dollar worth of bonds you own, you lose 1.5 cents per year. This problem can also afflict the central bank itself.
You have a cash flow problem. You are also bust.
The Bottom Line
The problem of falling rates is crushing everyone, but raising the rate cannot fix the problem. It should not be surprising that, after decades of capital destruction—caused by falling rates—the ruins of a once-great accumulation of wealth cannot be repaired by raising the interest rate.
I do not see any way out for the Swiss National Bank and the franc, within the system of irredeemable paper money. However, unless the SNB can get out of this jam, the franc is doomed. I can’t predict the timing, but I believe the fuse is lit and the powder keg could go off at any time.
One day, a bankruptcy will happen. Soothing voices will assure us it was unexpected. Then another will happen, perhaps triggered by the first or perhaps not. Then the cascading begins. One party’s liabilities are another’s assets. ABC’s bankruptcy wipes out DEF’s asset. Since DEF is leveraged, it cannot absorb much loss until it, too, is dragged under.
Somewhere in the midst of this, people will turn against the franc. Today, it’s arguably the most loved paper currency. However, I don’t think it will take too many capital losses in Switzerland, before there is a selling stampede. The currency will fall to zero, in a repeat of a pattern that the world has seen many times before.
People will call it hyperinflation (I don’t prefer that term). Call it what you will, it will be the death of the franc. It will have nothing to do with the quantity of money.
Two factors can delay the inevitable. One, the SNB may unwind its euro position. As this will involve selling euros to buy francs, the result will be to put a firm bid under the franc. Two, speculators will of course know this is happening and eagerly front-run the SNB. After all, the SNB is not an arbitrager buying when it can make a spread. It is a buyer by mandate (in this scenario) and must pay the ask price. Even if the SNB does not unwind, speculators may buy the franc and wait for it to happen. And of course, they could also buy based on a poor understanding of what’s happening, or due to other perverse incentives in their own countries.
Bankruptcies aside, the franc is already set on a hair-trigger. Something else could trip it and begin the process of collapse. There is little reason for holding Swiss francs in preference to dollars. The interest rate differential is huge. The 10-year US Treasury pays 1.8%. Compare that to the Swiss bond which charges you 26 basis points, and the difference is over 208 points in favor of the US Treasury. Once the risk of a rising franc is taken out of the market (by time or price action) this trade will commence. A falling franc against the dollar will add further kick to this trade. A trickle could become a torrent very quickly.
I would not be surprised if the process of collapse of the franc began next week, nor if it lingered all year. This kind of event is not susceptible to a precise prediction of when.
What is clear is that, once the process begins in earnest, it will be explosive, highly non-linear, and over quickly (I would guess a matter weeks).
The European Central Bank has announced its intention to create out of thin air over one trillion new Euros from March 2015 to September 2016. The rationale, the monetary central planners say, is to prevent price deflation and “stimulate” the European economy into prosperity.
The only problem with their plan is that their concern about “deflation” is a misguided fear, and printing money can never serve as a long-term solution to bring about sustainable economic growth and prosperity.
Europe’s High Unemployment and Economic Stagnation
The European Union (of which the Euro currency zone is a subset) is experiencing staggering levels of unemployment. The EU as a whole has 10 percent of the work force unemployed, and 11.5 percent in the Euro Zone.
But breaking these numbers down to the national levels show just how bad the unemployment levels are in the different member countries. In Greece it is nearly 26 percent of the work force. In Spain, it is 24 percent; Italy and Portugal are both over 13 percent. France has over 10 percent unemployment, with Sweden at 8 percent. Only Germany and Austria have unemployment of 5 percent or less out of the 28-member countries of the European Union.
Youth unemployment (defined as those between 16 and 25 years of age unable to find desired work) is even more catastrophic. For the European Union as a whole it is an average of over 22 percent, and more than 23 percent in the Euro Zone.
In Greece, its almost 60 percent of those under 25; in Spain, it is nearly 55 percent, with Italy at 43 percent, and over 22 percent in both France and Sweden. Only in Norway and Germany is youth unemployment less than 8 percent. Almost all the other EU countries are in the double-digit range.
At the same time, growth in Gross Domestic Product for the European Union as a whole in 2014 was well below one percent. Only in the Czech Republic, Norway, and Poland was it above 2 percent among the EU members.
Consumer prices for the EU averaged 0.4 percent in 2014, with most of the member countries experiencing average consumer price increases between 0.2 and 2 percent for the year. Only in Greece was the average level of prices calculated as having absolutely declined by a minus 1.3 percent. Hardly a measured sign of dramatically suffered price deflation in the EU or the Euro Zone!
Fears of Price Deflation are Misplaced
The monetary central planners who manage the European Central Bank are fearful that the Euro Zone may be plagued by a prolonged period of generally falling prices if they do not act to push measured price inflation towards their desired target of around two percent a year.
(It is worth pointing out that if the Euro Zone monetary central planners were to succeed with their goal and maintain two percent average annual price inflation, this would mean that over a twenty-year period the purchasing power of a Euro would decline by around 50 percent.)
Many commentators inside and outside of the European Union and the Euro Zone have insisted that price deflation needs to be prevented or reversed at all costs. The implicit premise behind their arguments is that deflation equals economic depression or recession, and therefore any such decline in prices in general must not be allowed.
In all these discussions it is often ignored or forgotten that annual falling prices can well be an indication of economic prosperity and rising standards of living. For instance, between 1865 and 1900, prices in general in the United States declined by around 50 percent, with overall standards of living in general estimated to have increased by 100 percent over these 35 years. This period is usually recognized as America’s time of rapid industrialization in the post-Civil War era that set the United States on the path to becoming the world’s economic giant through most of the 20thcentury.
Falling Prices and Improved Standards of Living
A hallmark of an innovative and competitive free market economy is precisely the never-ending attempt by entrepreneurs and enterprisers to devise ways to make new, better and less expensive goods to sell to the consuming public. The stereotypes in modern times have been pocket calculators, mobile phones, DVD players, and flat-screen TVs.
When pocket calculators first came on the market in the 1980s, they were too big to fit in your shirt pocket, basically performed only the most elementary arithmetic functions, and cost hundreds of dollars. Within a few years they fit in your shirt pocket with space to spare, performed increasingly complex mathematical functions, and became so inexpensive that many companies would give them away as advertising gimmicks.
The companies that made them did not proclaim their distress due to the lower and lower prices at which they sold the devices. Cost efficiencies were developed and introduced in their manufacture so they could be sold for less to consumers to expand demand and capture a larger share of a growing market.
In a dynamic, innovative and growing free market economy there normally would be a tendency for one product after another being improved in its quality and offered at lower prices as productivity gains and decreased costs made them less expensive to market and still make a profit.
Looking over a period of time, a statistical averaging of prices in general in the economy would no doubt show a falling price level, or “price deflation,” as one price after another experienced such a decline. This would be an indication of rising standards of living as the real cost of buying desired goods with our money incomes was decreasing.
Europe’s Problems are Due to Anti-Market Burdens
Relatively stagnant economies with high rates of unemployment like in the European Union and the Euro Zone are not signs of deflationary forces preventing growth and job creation. Indeed, since 2008, the European Central Bank has increased its balance sheet through monetary expansion by well over one trillion Euros, and prices in the Euro Zone, in general, have been rising on average between 0.5 and 2 percent throughout this period. Hardly an indication of “deflationary” forces at work.
The European Union’s problems are not caused by a lack of “aggregate demand” in the form of money spending. Its problems are on the “supply-side.” The EU is notorious for rigid labor markets in which trade unions limit worker flexibility and workplace adaptiveness to global market change.
Above market-determined wages and benefits price many who could be gainfully employed out of a possible job, because government policies and union power price these potential employees out of the market. Plus, the difficulty of firing someone once a worker is hired undermines the incentives of European companies to want to expand their work forces.
Even a number of international organizations, usually culprits in fostering anti-free market policies, have pointed out the need for European governments to introduce workplace reforms to free up labor markets in their countries, along with general reductions in regulations on business than hamper entrepreneurial incentives and prevent greater profit-oriented competitiveness.
Creating a Trillion Euros will only Imbalance Europe More
Creating a trillion more Euros cannot overcome or get around anti-competitive regulations, cost-price mismatches and imbalances due to government interventions and union restrictions, or the burdensomeness of taxes that reduce the willingness and ability of businessmen to undertake the enterprising activities that could lift Europe out of its economic malaise.
Furthermore, to the extent to which the European Central Bank succeeds in injecting this trillion Euros into the European economy it will only set in motion the danger of another future economic downturn. Not only may it feed an unsustainable financial and stock market run-up. The very manner in which the new money is introduced into the European-wide economy will inevitably distort the structure of relative prices and wages; wrongly twist the patterns of resource and labor uses; and induce forms of mal-invested capital.
Thus, the attempt to overcome Europe’s stagnant economy through monetary expansion will be the cause of a misdirection of labor, capital and production that will inescapably require readjustments and rebalances of supplies and demands, and price relationships that will mean people living through another recession at some point in the future.
A Market-Based Agenda for Growth and Jobs
What, then might be a “positive” pro-market agenda for economic recovery and job creation in the European Union, and in the United States, as well, for that matter? Among such policies should be:
Significantly reduce marginal personal tax rates and corporate taxes, and eliminate inheritance taxes; this would create greater incentives and the financial means for private investment, capital formation and job creation;
Cut government spending across the board by at a minimum of 10 percent more than taxes have been cut so to move the government in the direction of a balanced budget without any tax increases; this would take pressure off financial markets to fund government deficits, and end the growth in accumulated government debt, until finally government budgets would have surpluses to start paying down that debt;
Reduce and repeal government regulations over the business sector and financial institutions to allow competitive forces to operate and bring about necessary adjustments and corrections for restoring economic balance;
Institute real free trade through elimination and radical reduction of remaining financial and regulatory barriers to the competitive free flow of goods among countries;
End central bank monetary expansions and manipulation of interest rates; interest rates need to tell the truth about savings availability and investment profitability for long-run growth that is market-based and sustainable. Monetary expansion merely sends out false signals that distort the normal functioning of the market economy.
A market-based set of policies such as these would serve as the foundation for a sound and sustainable real “stimulus” for the European and American economies. It also would be consistent with the limited government and free enterprise principles at the foundation of a free society.
So, finally, the world’s most open conspiracy came to full fruition and Magic Mario actually got to do a little of ‘whatever it takes’ after 2 1/2 long years of bluster. Sweeping aside the objections of what appears to have been most of Northern Europe, the triumph of the Latins was near complete. For all his stubborn resistance, Jens Weidmann proved no Arminius and the airy council rooms of the ECB building in Frankfurt no Teutoburger Wald whose mazy forest tracks and swampy margins proved so deadly to the legions of that earlier Roman legate, Publius Quinctilius Varus.
Indeed, there was some suggestion in the Dutch press that Mario got his way without even putting the issue of his vast ‘stimulus’ programme to a formal vote and so prevented Jens, his fellow German, Sabine Lautenschläger, the Netherlander Klaas Knot, and their Estonian and Austrian colleagues from registering their opposition to the decision and also therefore from making concrete the divisions which it has sharpened within an already fractious governing body.
In pressing ahead with the implementation of its own version of QE, the ECB has taken a further, significant step away from the template of the old Bundesbank and one more towards that of such latter-day, Gosplans of all-intrusive macro-management as the Fed and the PBoC. While any model of central banking is a very poor alternative to a system of genuinely free banking, one cannot quite suppress a pang of nostalgia for the traditions of the ECB’s predecessor, with its rigid insistence on being as far removed from politics as possible; for eschewing any taint of pliant fiscalism; and of sticking reasonably consistently to its primary task of preventing easy money from encouraging reckless behaviour – whether on the part of home-buyers, stock market plungers, Alexander-complex industrialists, or office-hungry politicians.
The hallowed institution of our youth may well have dished out a very tough form of love, but its true virtue was that its heads did not presume to sit at some metaphorical control centre of the economy, constantly flipping switches and pushing buttons to ordain whose traffic lights should be red and whose green; whose heating should be turned up and whose down; whose satellite dish should receive which channels and at what hour. Instead, the old Buba simply tried to ensure that the generators were running smoothly, that there would be neither blackouts nor power surges, and by and large left the choice of what its fellow did with their electricity down to them.
Sadly, as the crisis has dragged on and as the cost in forgone human opportunity has mounted, the established political architecture – a structure populated largely by careerist pygmies who clutch eagerly at anything which might boost them a few points in the next focus group assessment and who are therefore only too happy to absolve themselves of any duty of true statesmanship – has visibly crumbled. That degradation has elevated, almost by default, the central bank itself to the cloud-topped heights of an interventionist Olympus – and rare the presiding member of that august body who does not relish a taste of ambrosia and a sip of nectar before going out to hurl thunderbolts among the weaklings thronging helplessly among the mountain’s gloomy foothills.
No longer is the job seen as one of trying to ensure the wheels do not come off the creaking old Trabant of fractional reserve banking, or of trying to ensure that the nation does write too many cheques – whether issued abroad or at home – against its actual ability to generate income. No, now we must make constant appeal to the gods of central banking to assist us with all the minutiae of our lives in a show of the same touching naivety our ancestors displayed in regard to their tutelary deities. ‘O Holy Draghi, Thrice Blessed One, let it please Thee to ripen the corn in my field, to keep my children’s teeth from rotting too soon, and to allow me to win a few denarii when I play at dice in the tavern this evening!’
Such is the Zeitgeist that we deem it to be sacrilege even to look objectively back at the sorry record of the past seven years lest we start to wonder if we are in fact suffering from is the toxic side-effects of the attempted cure rather than from the disease we are aiming to treat with it. We see it as blasphemy, therefore, to ask whether the sanctimonious Austrian ‘liquidationists’, on the one hand, or those careful Japanese students of their own country’s long malaise – such as Keiichiro Kobayashi and Tadashi Nakamae – on the other, might be right in saying that we Westerners currently have everything back to front in our reasoning.
Might it be so hard to imagine that to try to tempt into renewed borrowing the very people who are still suffering the effects of their previous over-borrowing might not only be economically futile but ethically indefensible, too? Could it be that what is shackling enterprise and hobbling endeavour; that what prevents the crewing of a hopeful new fleet of merchantmen with the slaves loosed from the oars of a now obsolete galley, is the attempt to weld in place the rusted links of their chains of past obligation? Can we not simply strike off the irons even if some do collapse after their manumission? Or must we continue to prevaricate by slyly skewing all contractual terms in favour of the debtors – whether by forcibly suppressing the interest rates applicable to their claims (and so penalising the prudent everywhere); by depreciating the currency in which they are serviced and redeemed (with all the inequities that visits on buyers and sellers); or by transferring the IOUs to the government so that the non-exempt Estates might share the cost through a hike in their already burdensome taxes?
Apparently it is so hard to reconsider our methods that all we are left with is to double and redouble the dose of the poison we have been so unavailingly prescribed. Given the prevalence of this dogma, it was only to be expected that, once it had insidiously secured the political backing for the move, the ECB would not be in any way half-hearted about its first real foray into the world of Bernanke’s ‘making sure it‘ – i.e., that phylloxera of finance, the wasting disease of deflation – ‘doesn’t happen here.’ With a programme of €60 billion a month in bond purchases the Bank will henceforth be gorging on duration to the tune of €720 billion a year, a total heavily in excess of the past five years’ €315 billion average net new sovereign issuance.
Whether it will end up doing more harm than good, or indeed, doing anything at all, is another matter entirely. To see why we say this, we should first recall that Blackhawk Ben himself once tried to allay the fears being provoked by his bond buying drives by saying they were nothing more than an asset swap. Our response at the time was to say, ‘Yes, but you are swapping non-money for money on an unprecedented scale’ – an act that can have the most far-reaching consequences, indeed.
Moreover, the ‘swap’ is not just a monetary, but also an overtly fiscal act if you reckon with the reduction in the interest charged when rolling over some of the outstanding debt, as well as the naked seigniorage to be had from substituting reserves (especially those to which are appended negative interest rates) for higher-yielding securities in all their tens of hundreds of billions. The cynic might say that this is in fact nothing less than the most perfect form of debt repudiation ever carried out in the long, weary infamy of sovereign default.
The fact that the most feared of the likely effects of such a programme – a widespread, self-aggravating spiral of price rises to rage like a pestilence though the markets for goods, services, and labour – has not yet materialised is seen by the smug – and among them, we must count Friend Draghi, with his supercilious call for a ‘statute of limitations’ on the promulgation of such concerns – as a complete justification of their actions.
Ironically, since the QEasers are wedded to the same sort of cart-before-the-horse shamanism that Roosevelt and Morgenthau practised when setting the price of gold over the former’s breakfast egg – namely, the superstition which holds a rise in prices to be in and of itself the most effective trigger for a return to prosperity – the refusal to date of said prices to budge very far at all should have occasioned the Serial Stimulators to question the efficacy of their nostrums and not to stoop to throwing brickbats at those who expect the same thing to ensue which the policy-makers themselves so greatly desire, if admittedly in a somewhat less vigorous fashion than the one the wheelbarrow worrywarts have been publicly dreading.
Faced with the patient’s continued lack of response, the physician should really be posing the question not only of whether the medicine is appropriate for the case but whether he completely misdiagnosed the ailment in the first place. There are many plausible explanations for why recorded ‘inflation’ has been so subdued, among which narratives are several common themes t be found. One such is that the debt overhang and the consequent evergreening of loans keeps other lenders chary of becoming exposed to firms being run for cash at their bankers’ behest lest the first hint of a better liquidation value, or the arrival of a new, get-all-the-bad-news-out-now, broom as CEO, signals a ruinous end to the lender’s forbearance.
Another postulates that the straitened condition of the public treasury leaves people anxious about the next wave of confiscatory taxation. A third contends that mere basis point levels of interest rates are counterproductive in serving to eradicate the necessary distinction between money – whose main purpose is to circulate uninterruptedly from one transaction to the next – and savings – which are supposed to pass the baton of spending on to a third party, giving them the power to transact in one’s place. One can see elements of all these at work today, frustrating the designs of those in command of the printing press.
But yet another feasible diagnosis is that ‘inflation’ is not so much as dead as it is hidden: that its true measure is the admittedly unobservable one of how much policy has propped up prices which should have fallen much, much further when the overabundance caused by the credit-driven malinvestment of the past met with the much lessened appetite and much reduced means of purchase of consumers who also had succumbed to the lure of too much cheap credit in the boom.
Central bankers would view that last scenario as something of a triumph, for they are utterly wedded to the myth that falling prices are especially pernicious in the face of unresponsive or ‘sticky’ wages – a credo to which the Swiss may be about to give the lie as they consider whether to offset the franc’s dramatic rise with the introduction of extra, unpaid hours for workers, or even the dismissal and re-engagement on inferior terms of their entire staff. The central bankers also subscribe to the risible theory that the very expectation that prices may be about to fall is enough to send the Body Economic into an instant catatonia of abstention: a state of utter pecuniary paralysis where we all sit around, bellies rumbling, fires unstoked, children unshod – and latest tech upgrades unqueued for – until those prices finally bottom out.
The greater truth, however, may be that what is being done prevents markets from clearing; that it magnifies entrepreneurial uncertainty (and so effectively raises hurdle rates much faster than low market rates can reduce them); and that, by avoiding the bankruptcy of the few, it ensures the enervation of the many, as sub-marginal businesses cling on to labour and capital which could be better used elsewhere and where the life-support afforded them absorbs too much space on bank balance sheets – much to the detriment of the would-be creatively destructive who must wait in vain to snap up the bargains with which they stand ready to reorder the commercial world.
Beyond this, it is also doubtful whether this sort of QE is even well-grounded in the basic theory of how it is supposed to take effect, rather than at the more rarefied levels we have visited above regarding why we should wish it to do so. While no one can condemn the lack of effort expended by the BOJ, the Fed, the BOE, or even the PBoC, the track record is in truth a spotty one.
This is not least because it is not at all evident that central bank gavage can always do much to get the golden goose laying again. Instead, the record suggests that its creation of vast increments of ‘outside’ money – currency and reserve balances – is not quite so ‘high-powered’ as the textbooks would have us believe, not in a world where it has for long not been banks’ reserve quotients which matter for the application of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum to credit policy. Indeed, if we look at what has happened to the other big central banks when they have opened the sluice-gates, we must conclude that their ‘outside’ money has largely come to substitute, not provide the catalyst for ‘inside’ money creation by the commercial banks.
Take the UK. There, since the Crash of 2008, the BOE has quintupled the monetary base, no less: yet money supply is up only a third (and M4 lending has actually declined £158 billion or ~7%), meaning that while at least positive in this case, the ‘multiplier’ has amounted to a paltry 16p of extra ‘inside’ money for every £1 sterling of the ‘outside’ kind. [Draghi, Deflationistas more generally and retro-Radcliffian ‘total liquidity’ fans should all take note that falling bank lending has been clearly trumped by the impact of rising money supply in exciting Britain’s typically unbalanced recovery]
For its part, QEI-III in the US has seen roughly $2.7 trillion added to reserves and so – with currency included – the monetary base has been pumped up by $3.2 trillion since the LEH-AIG crisis. However, money supply proper (essentially M1+) has ‘only’ risen by $1.8 trillion (actually an ‘only’ which constitutes an historically high deviation from trend). This is a combination which bears the construction, therefore, that far from boosting its stock, the Fed has destroyed 45¢ of bank ‘inside’ money for every $1 of the ‘outside’ variety it has injected.
Capping it all, since the assault on good sense that is Abenomics was first perpetrated two years ago, the BOJ has doubled the monetary base there, an increase of Y138 trillion. Yet M1 has grown by no more than 11%, or Y60 trillion, in that same period, implying that the BOJ has managed to vaporise 57 ‘inside’ sen for every ‘outside’ yen it writes onto its own books.
As for the ECB itself, it has actually managed to keep the nominal money supply growing at the eminently reasonable clip of 6.6% CAR since the Crash. Moreover, 2014 closed with the growth of real money accelerating to almost 7% – a whisker off the best in nearly a decade if we ignore the anomalous rebound from 2008’s tailspin. In the background, the reader should be aware, the monetary base has been wildly erratic as policy has coughed and spluttered, fortunately with very little correlation to what has being going on beyond the corridors of power.
Why is it, then, that the members of the Southern Front of the ECB have pushed through such a controversial policy now? Are they really that anxious to prevent the hard-pressed Spanish housewife from reaping the benefits of lower fuel costs in her household budget? Do they really suppose they will advance the cause of ‘structural’ reform when even the most reckless government can now turn to the Bank to ensure that its debt will always find a willing buyer? Do they think they are unwinding the ‘Doom Loop’ between banks and their governmental masters or that, if they do, this will again spur the banks to lend to every businessmen crossing their threshold or – a proposition harder yet to defend – that it will make businessmen more eager to borrow from the banks? Do they ever stop to work out whether this would be a good thing if it were to occur, rather than a three-lane highway to hell?
One thing the policy will certainly do is bleed income from those very same, sorely afflicted banks their Guardian Angel purports to protect. Why do we say this? Simple arithmetic shows us that once banks have satisfied their circa €100 billion minimum reserve requirement (and earned the associated €50 million interest on it) they start to become subject to the negative deposit rate – as they are already to the tune of around €140 billion in excess holdings. In a year’s time, Messrs. Draghi et Cie will have bought their €720 billion allotment, so banks will be paying 20bps on €860 billion per annum, or €1.72 billion, to their overlords in Frankfurt. Six months later, they will be the grateful recipients of another €360 billion and will be paying a further €720 million to keep them safe, too. Potentially, they will simultaneously lose earnings on their €1.87 trillion in holdings of government securities (the average interest rate at issuance for all of which is 3.0% but whose replacement rate and/or running yield will be not only be appreciably lower now but destined to decline further as a result of the ECB’s actions).
Now given that the Bloomberg European Banks index has a market cap of €900 billion and trades on a multiple of approaching 45, we can see that earnings for its members amount to roughly €20 billion (including the winnings of British, Swiss, and Scandinavian, as well as Euro banks). That €2 billion deposit tax therefore represents a sizeable chunk of profit, even without reckoning on income losses elsewhere in the portfolio and before allowing for the cost of any extra capital which has to be raised as balance sheets swell and leverage ratios rise.
But what of the wider effects? Well, householders earn around €70 billion in net interest a year (before taxes), so that is about to take a hit. They also keep around 60% of their financial assets – a sum of €12.2 trillion as of QI’14 – in the form of deposits, debt securities, and loans, around a third of which resides in their pension and insurance plans rather than being directly owned. Against this, they are collectively on the hook for €6.1 trillion in loans, so putting their chances of loss at twice those of the possibilities for gain even before they start to cough up higher pension contributions and insurance premia as institutional income dwindles.
For all those involved in this grouping, the main hope – apart from some miraculous burst of hiring and productive expansion suddenly occurring in response to Draghi the Magnificent’s latest conjuring trick – is that the notional gains on their €8.2 trillion of equity exposure (€3 trillion of that at the pension and insurance companies) continue to accrue and that these can actually be used to pay the bills, as and when they arrive.
The caveat here is that contained in our previous piece and embedded in our header: that ‘silver is the true sinews of the circulation’. Let us try to explain.
One of the most evident effects of all the reflationary attempts to date is that while it is no more than arguable that they may have had some marginal impact on actual wealth creation above and beyond what would have happened anyway as people readjusted to the post-Crash, they have without doubt unleashed one speculative wave after another in the markets.
Rather than the greater weight of nominal money at people’s disposal being recalibrated as the kind of precautionary realbalance one holds against one’s foreseeable regular outlay on goods and services (a phenomenon which comprises the old-school inflationary reapportionment for which the authorities so yearn), it has taken place in terms of the portfolio balance of assets to be held in a minimal interest rate environment. If the excess money burns a hole in one’s pocket, the ‘inside’ type cannot be collectively diminished, except by paying down debt (and the ‘outside’ type not all unless the central bank is complicit in the deed). Thus, it will be used mainly to pass other assets around in an ascending spiral of price appreciation until a new level of comfort is reached between notional net worth and cash at hand.
The problem is that such a spiral can all so easily go into reverse if the money is now withdrawn from its job of passing parcels between the players so it can be used to buy things outside the circle. Prices will assuredly dip and if the check delivered to the rise in valuations as the first few cash out their chips dislodges one or two too many margined grains of sand, the resulting avalanche can swiftly come to make boring old money seem winningly secure once more and so give rise to further waves of selling. What goes up, and all that.
So has it largely been these past several years. A perceived surfeit of money has not circulated with much renewed vigour against tangible goods and real side transactions, as was hoped would be the case, but it has swirled with often cyclonic fury among all the buyers and sellers, firstly of commodities, then of EM securities, then of junk debt, tech stocks, equities in general, and lately of US equities in particular.
Hence the overstretched valuations in both bond and stock markets and hence the politically-sensitive perception that ‘inequality’ is rising – that only the 1% is benefiting. To the extent that latter charge holds water, the great irony is that – pacePiketty and the rest of the petulant Progressives – it is not because the evil Plutocrats have somehow rigged the game in their favour, but because the Global Left, being avowedly Keynesian-Inflationist for the most part, has got its redistributional arithmetic horribly wrong.
The ‘euthanasia of the rentier’ is not, dear Maynard, taking place to the advantage of the horny-handed sons of toil, nor even to the gain of the scowling industrialists who ‘exploit’ them so mercilessly, but the spoils are rather going to the remuneration committee royalists in the corporat(ist)e boardroom – furnished as it is in C-Suite plush with trimmings of ESOP perverse incentive. And what is true of Davos Man holds true in spades of the grandest of punters of Other People’s Money who can nowfont leurs jeux in a global financial casino made even bigger and brasher than before by the misplaced arguments and ill-judged actions of the Krugmans, Kurodas, Carneys, and Coeurés of this world.
Too low interest rates and falsified capital calculation is at the root of much of what afflicts us, gentlemen of the central bank, and the sooner you accept this truth and retreat humbly to your appointed place, adopting as you do the self-effacing demeanour and taciturn approach of the Bundesbanker of yore, the better it will be for all us in the sorely put-upon 99% for a change.
Addendum: Some members of the Euroclerisy have been stamping their feet in pique in recent days, moaning that the tattered fig leaf offered by Draghi to the dwindling band of constitutionalists – viz., that four-fifths of QE will be a home-grown affair whereby the National Central Banks will be charged with buying whatever bonds and incurring whatever risks they see fit – has been a gross breach of the principle (!) of solidarity and that it enshrines a dreadful obeisance to those outdated tenets of democratic sovereignty which is anathema to all good servants of the Apparat.
That this is nothing more than a straw man, served up to hide their, the QEasers’, end run around the spirit of the law should be obvious from a scan of the Eurobanks’ own accounts (much less from a glance at the still lofty T2 totals extant out there).
As of the third quarter of last year, Euro MFIs had, as a group, non-bank deposit liabilities of €12.2 trillion, 87% of which were taken from individuals and businesses in their own country and just 5% from other members of the Zone. Of the €12.7 trillion in loans to non-banks, again seven-eighths were domestic and a piffling 5% were extended to residents among their Euro ‘partners’. Seen in that light, an inspection of the geographical origin of securities held showed they were, by comparison, the souls of impartiality with a mere 65% issued within the home borders and 23% coming from across the frontier.