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When an international banking crisis loomed large on the horizon, Norman made a valiant attempt to stave it off through an international cooperation of central banks. The leading American banker J. It was starved of funds and could not even attempt to aid ailing financial giants such as the Austrian Creditanstalt, which collapsed in , setting off an avalanche of bank failures throughout Europe. Instead of showing the power of central bank cooperation, the BIS demonstrated its helplessness.
The British finally abandoned the gold standard in September The pound was then allowed to float, and it depreciated by about 30 percent. The text of the announcement in which the British government explained its momentous decision was drafted by the staff of J. Morgan was the greatest creditor of Great Britain at that time, and he endorsed the move at a press conference in London, expressing his faith in British creditworthiness.
Norman was in the United States while all this happened, and later on pretended he had not known about the decision. He conducted vast open market operations that enabled him to calibrate money supply, as well as to adjust the exchange rate of the floating pound. As Ben Bernanke has shown in his studies of the Great Depression, such a crisis increases the cost of financial intermediation i.
In the industrial countries, this was accompanied by another counterproductive phenomenon: sticky nominal wages. According to orthodox views, the labor market is a market like any other, and is therefore governed by the rules of market clearing. Unemployment should thus not really exist, as every worker should find employment at the right price wage for his or her work.
Sticky nominal wages, which imply rising real wages when prices fall, should not exist either in a functioning labor market. Instead, however, the credit famine was accompanied by a wage freeze. The employer may thus find it easier to fire workers than to reduce wages.
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The war and its aftermath had caused the rise of the welfare state in the industrial countries. Its most important achievement was the introduction of unemployment benefits. Conservative politicians were against it, arguing that such benefits distorted the labor market. But socialist leaders defended it, and Germany added a Labor Ministry to its cabinet in It introduced unemployment insurance in , as well as a state-run labor exchange. The war had impoverished many Germans, and 6 million soldiers had to be demobilized after the war.
While these problems plagued the industrial sector, the agricultural sector experienced its own bitter fate during the Depression. Peasants working in a subsistence economy would not have been touched by the Depression, but by the s, there were very few pockets of subsistence economies left at the periphery of the world market. Most peasants on the periphery depended on the market and on credit for their operations. This fall was more dramatic than anything that happened in the industrial sector, and could also be traced to the fate of the gold standard.
The gold standard supported the expansion of the worldwide trade in food grains, particularly wheat. As long as the gold standard prevailed, credit was freely available. This also helped to finance the storage of wheat, which could be used as a collateral to obtain further credit. The trade in wheat futures helped to stabilize prices internationally. Huge machines performed the work for which thousands of laborers used to be required.
In Argentina , huge estates of cattle breeders were partly converted into land cultivated by itinerant tenants, who lived in huts but owned modern combine harvesters. The previous year had been a bad one — world production only amounted to a total of 68 million tons — but and were good years. World production climbed to 82 and then 92 million tons, and prices began to fall. Although was once more a bad year 77 million tons , prices did not recover. The storages were filled to the brim. In the meantime, the Fed had raised the bank rate in order to control the exuberance of the stock market.
But speculators deposited stocks with their banks, using them as collateral for buying more stocks. The higher interest rates hit those who stored wheat on credit. Up until then, storage had provided the ratchet which prevented the decline of the wheat price, but in , the ratchet broke, and an avalanche of wheat flooded the world market.
Supply and demand held fairly stable, but they no longer determined the price of commodities, which remained depressed for a long time. The steep fall in wheat prices affected the peasants on the periphery of the world market. India is a case in point: wheat prices declined even more precipitously there than elsewhere. From to , the wheat price fell by more than half. Most of the peasants were indebted to moneylenders, and their debt service and revenue demands were not adjusted to make allowance for their loss in income.
Even more crushing than the fall of the wheat price, which affected Northern and Western India, was the sudden and unexpected collapse of the rice price in January , which hit Eastern India. Rice was not overproduced and was not stored in great quantities.
It was mostly produced and consumed in Asia. By , the price of rice was lower than that of wheat: an unprecedented event. It was a drastic case of contagion by credit contraction. In October , there had been a good rice harvest in Japan. The Japanese price of rice then dropped by about 30 percent. This was also due to a deflationary monetary policy pursued in order to keep Japan on the gold standard, which it had rejoined only one year earlier. Japan neither imported nor exported rice at that time, but in November , the news from Japan affected the international rice market of Liverpool, where the rice price was halved.
This was communicated to Rangoon, the chief rice market of British India, where the price also fell by half when the winter harvest reached the market in January The impact of the Great Depression on the periphery of the world market could be noted in many other countries, too. A curious case of a delayed impact of the Great Depression was that of China , which had been on a silver standard. The price of silver fell steeply in parallel with that of all other commodities in , and Chinese living abroad in gold standard countries then bought silver and invested it in China.
This gave rise to a short-lived boom at the very time when other countries were hit by the Depression. But the Silver Purchase Act of obliged the US government to hold a quarter of its currency reserves in silver. The silver price doubled within a year and once more attained the level of In , the price of silver increased by another 50 percent. Silver was sucked out of China with a vengeance, and fierce deflation followed. In other countries on the periphery, gold flowed out in torrents after Great Britain had left the gold standard in September and was floating the pound.
This immediately increased the price of gold.
Download The Floating Pound And The Sterling Area: 1931 1939
But the imperial rulers saw to it that India disgorged its gold, following a deflationary policy that deepened the Depression and helped to squeeze out more gold. The steep fall in commodity prices had deprived the rulers of this benefit. They now held on to the colonies as creditors. The trend towards decolonization emerged in the s. An age of empire-breaking is following an age of empire-making. The myth of white racial superiority had been undermined on the battlefields, where millions of soldiers of color defended the empires by killing white soldiers.
Post-war German democracy was a brittle edifice. The occupation of the Ruhr area by the French army and the subsequent hyperinflation had weakened the Weimar Republic, and finally, the Great Depression had subjected it to severe unemployment, amounting to 3. Hindenburg died in , and Hitler usurped his office.
In running the government, Hitler was supported by Hjalmar Schacht, head of the German central bank Reichsbank , who was, in addition, Minister of Economic Affairs from to Schacht had to yield the ministry to him, but remained head of the Reichsbank. Hitler retained Schacht as minister without portfolio. Schacht gradually reflated the German economy and practiced Keynesianism even before Keynes had published his General Theory. The Nazis had no economic ideology, and Schacht could do what he liked. He proclaimed that German productivity was the backing of its currency.
From to , the volume of the German currency had declined from 5. By , it amounted to 8. Schacht was backed in this venture by leading German industrialists, who, though they invested hardly any capital in this fake company, profited from it, since German re-armament was financed with Mefo bonds. By , Mefo bonds to the tune of 12 billion were outstanding, while government bonds amounted to 19 billion. This shows that Mefo bonds were an additional currency. Hitler called Schacht a swindler when talking to his minions, but he found his tricks very useful.
Of course, this also required the Nazi state, which kept both capital and labor on a tight leash. Schacht was a conservative nationalist who backed Hitler because he shared his desire to get rid of the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles. Initially, Hitler was cautious. He carefully watched the reactions of the British and the French to his moves.
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If they had stopped him early, they could have prevented the war. When Hitler saw his troops occupy the demilitarized Rhineland in and get away with it, he felt encouraged to move on. His next aims were the annexation of Austria and reclaiming the predominantly German regions of Czechoslovakia. The boundaries of the nations emerging from the defunct Habsburg Empire were determined by the victorious powers, and not by those nations themselves.
The Germans in what was left of Austria were inclined to join Germany. Similary, the Germans of Czechoslovakia, whose settlements formed a ring around the Czech area, had their eyes on Germany. Halifax told Hitler that he had discussed his initiative with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain Poland sided at that time with Germany, as it had also claims on Czech territory in Silesia. Both Hitler and Halifax felt that their talks had been successful.
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