Like the gold standard of a century ago, the euro has promoted free trade and investment across borders. The 12-year-old unified currency also shares the gold standard’s greatest flaw: the lack of an escape hatch. If a country runs chronic deficits, it can’t regain competitiveness through the market’s depreciation of its currency. Under the gold standard, exchange rates were fixed, which is to say the escape hatch of depreciation was locked. Under the euro, exchange rates no longer even exist. The escape hatch has been locked, welded shut, and sat on by the leaders of the Continent’s most powerful economies.
What does a country do when it can’t depreciate its currency to lower its prices? Now, as in the 1930s, the only alternative is an internal devaluation, which means cutting wages and other costs, including government benefits. That’s a painful process that creates enormous social stress. In the 1920s and ’30s the impoverishment of the working class led to the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. Even if fascism is averted, punitive austerity can lead to a downward spiral as trade and financing dry up, deflation sets in, debts loom larger, and one country after another gets sucked downward.
Once the euro symbolized common purpose and uplift. But to quote the Depression-era lyricist Lorenz Hart, “When love congeals/It soon reveals/The faint aroma of performing seals.” The seals of 2011 are the hard-money types in Germany, Finland, and other points north who insist that the Greeks, the Italians—and maybe soon the French—must be held to account for their financial transgressions. These calls for fiscal responsibility, and the anger behind them, make emotional sense. But today’s austerity tough guys sound alarmingly like Andrew Mellon, President Herbert Hoover’s Treasury Secretary, who, according to Hoover’s memoirs, said the only way to get the U.S. economy back on track in the 1930s was to “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate … purge the rottenness out of the system.”
Purging the rottenness nearly killed the patient. In an increasingly relevant 2000 essay called “The Gold Standard and the Great Depression” in Contemporary European History, American economists Barry Eichengreen and Peter Temin wrote that elites were befuddled by a gold standard mentality that “sharply restricted the range of actions they were willing to contemplate.” They added: “The result of this cultural condition was to transform a run-of-the-mill economic contraction into a Great Depression that changed the course of history.”
A gold standard doesn’t have to be deflationary. From the 1870s until World War I, the gold standard more or less worked under the auspices of the Bank of England: Countries that imported more than they exported were forced to make up the difference by shipping gold to their trading partners. Because gold was the ultimate storehouse of value, countries feared losing too much of it. To stanch the outflow of gold, central banks would raise interest rates to push down domestic spending and prices. Meanwhile, the countries that imported gold would see domestic prices rise, which would make them more receptive to cheaper imports and shrink their surpluses. There was discipline and a natural balance.
World War I spoiled the equilibrium. War spending caused inflation, forcing countries to suspend convertibility of their currencies into gold. After the war most countries struggled back onto the gold standard (though not Germany, which suffered hyperinflation). Returning to the old exchange rates required reversing the wartime inflation—namely, imposing punishing deflation. Democracies weren’t as good at imposing austerity as autocracies had been. The rise of labor unions and the introduction of minimum-wage laws made it harder for employers to cut pay, so they cut workers instead.
Creditor countries such as the U.S. didn’t play fair in the 1930s. They bought tons of gold to take it off the market so it wouldn’t affect their money supply or interest rates. By hoarding, they left too little gold for the debtor countries and worsened their deflation.
Eventually all countries were forced off gold by financial crises and popular upheavals. Britain abandoned gold in 1931 and fared best economically. Die-hard France, which stuck with gold until 1936, did worst. Even with prices plunging, the elites fretted about the threat of inflation. Ralph Hawtrey, a British Treasury official, likened that to crying “‘Fire, fire’ in Noah’s flood.”
Policymakers have not fully absorbed the lessons of the Depression. Monetary and fiscal policy are better but “not enough better,” Eichengreen says. There’s an understanding that big banks can’t be allowed to fail, but “one might say, Aren’t the biggest banks too big to save, especially in Europe?”
The most unfortunate difference between then and now is that the euro, unlike the gold standard, is a raccoon trap: Its designers deliberately left out an exit procedure. That means you can get in, but you can’t get out without leaving a part of yourself behind. Eichengreen points out that Britain was growing again by the end of 1932, just over a year after abandoning gold under duress. Today a country—say, Greece—that quit the euro would take far longer to right itself. That’s because unlike Britain, to get relief Greece would have to default on its euro-denominated debts and damage its credit rating. “The Greek government,” Eichengreen says, “will be hard-pressed to find funds to recapitalize the banking system. Greek companies won’t be able to get credit lines. The new Greek government is going to have to print money hand over fist. At some point they would be able to push down the drachma and become more competitive. But the balance is different now.”
That’s why Eichengreen thinks leaving the euro zone should be a last resort. The better option, he says, is to make the euro work the way the gold standard worked in its best years. Surplus countries should equally share the cost of adjustment with deficit countries. He favors transforming the underfunded European Financial Stability Facility from an emergency fund into a bank. He would have the facility borrow from the European Central Bank so it can make unlimited loans to countries such as Greece and Italy—on the condition, of course, that the countries demonstrate they’re on a path to fixing their competitiveness problems. Those countries don’t have a chance to fix things without the breathing room afforded by official lending, Eichengreen says.
Europe’s fatal mistake was to push ahead with monetary union without having achieved fiscal union. Limits on national budget deficits were flouted with impunity. Now creditor nations are dragging their heels on aid and stimulus because they don’t want profligate debtors to play them for fools. In an echo of the gold-hoarding mentality of the Depression, Germans have reacted angrily to the suggestion that the International Monetary Fund might tap Germany’s gold reserves to bolster the EFSF. The mood is angry and confused. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was correct on Nov. 14 in Leipzig when she described the debt crisis as “maybe Europe’s most difficult hours since World War II.”
The answer, as Merkel told her Christian Democratic Union colleagues, is “more Europe and not less Europe.” If Germany can get the “more Europe” it wants—i.e., tough, enforceable budget rules—it might countenance more help for weaker nations, even if for now Merkel is still rejecting open-ended ECB lending or jointly issued euro bonds.
There are signs that creditor nations understand their responsibilities. In October, European Union finance ministers agreed on a “six pack” of economic-governance rules that in theory should penalize countries with excessive surpluses, not just those with excessive deficits. Merkel said on Nov. 16 that “we are prepared to give up a little bit of national sovereignty” to preserve the euro. Something needs to happen fast. As the debt crisis has come to a head, economists surveyed by Bloomberg have sharply lowered their forecasts for European growth in 2012. Output may well be shrinking in the current quarter. The risk is that the worsening woes will make the key players less flexible. In the 1930s, Eichengreen and Temin wrote, “The masochistic strand of the gold-standard mentality grew stronger as the crisis built.” Now would be an excellent time to replace masochism with common sense.