IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Kindleberger's History Lesson

A new edition of Charles Kindleberger's famous work, A World in Depression, 1929-1939, has been published, with a preface by Brad DeLong and Barry Eichengreen. Here are some extracts from the preface, with an emphasis on the three great lessons Kindleberger drew from the experience of the Depression:
Three lessons stand out, the first having to do with panic in financial markets, the second with the power of contagion, the third with the importance of hegemony.

First, panic. Kindleberger argued that panic, defined as sudden overwhelming fear giving rise to extreme behaviour on the part of the affected, is intrinsic in the operation of financial markets. In The World in Depression he gave the best ever “explain-and-illustrate-with-examples” answer to the question of how and why panic occurs and financial markets fall apart. Kindleberger was an early apostate from the efficient-markets school of thought that markets not just get it right but also that they are intrinsically stable. His rival in attempting to explain the Great Depression, Milton Friedman, had famously argued that speculation in financial markets can’t be destabilising because if destabilising speculators drive asset values away from justified, or equilibrium, levels, such speculators will lose money and eventually be driven out of the market.3 Kindleberger pushed back by observing that markets can continue to get it wrong for a very, very long time. He girded his position by elaborating and applying the work of Minsky, who had argued that markets pass through cycles characterised first by self-reinforcing boom, next by crash, then by panic, and finally by revulsion and depression. Kindleberger documented the ability of what is now sometimes referred to as the Minsky-Kindleberger framework to explain the behaviour of markets in the late 1920s and early 1930s – behaviour about which economists otherwise might have arguably had little of relevance or value to say. The Minsky paradigm emphasising the possibility of self-reinforcing booms and busts is the organising framework ofThe World in Depression. It then comes to the fore in all its explicit glory in Kindleberger’s subsequent book and summary statement of the approach, Mania, Panics and Crashes.4

Kindleberger’s second key lesson, closely related, is the power of contagion. At the centre of The World in Depression is the 1931 financial crisis, arguably the event that turned an already serious recession into the most severe downturn and economic catastrophe of the 20th century. The 1931 crisis began, as Kindleberger observes, in a relatively minor European financial centre, Vienna, but when left untreated leapfrogged first to Berlin and then, with even graver consequences, to London and New York. This is the 20th century’s most dramatic reminder of quickly how financial crises can metastasise almost instantaneously. In 1931 they spread through a number of different channels. German banks held deposits in Vienna. Merchant banks in London had extended credits to German banks and firms to help finance the country’s foreign trade. In addition to financial links, there were psychological links: as soon as a big bank went down in Vienna, investors, having no way to know for sure, began to fear that similar problems might be lurking in the banking systems of other European countries and the US. In the same way that problems in a small country, Greece, could threaten the entire European System in 2012, problems in a small country, Austria, could constitute a lethal threat to the entire global financial system in 1931 in the absence of effective action to prevent them from spreading. 
This brings us to Kindleberger’s third lesson, which has to do with the importance of hegemony, defined as a preponderance of influence and power over others, in this case over other nation states. Kindleberger argued that at the root of Europe’s and the world’s problems in the 1920s and 1930s was the absence of a benevolent hegemon: a dominant economic power able and willing to take the interests of smaller powers and the operation of the larger international system into account by stabilising the flow of spending through the global or at least the North Atlantic economy, and doing so by acting as a lender and consumer of last resort. Great Britain, now but a middle power in relative economic decline, no longer possessed the resources commensurate with the job. The rising power, the US, did not yet realise that the maintenance of economic stability required it to assume this role. In contrast to the period before 1914, when Britain acted as hegemon, or after 1945, when the US did so, there was no one to stabilise the unstable economy. Europe, the world economy’s chokepoint, was rendered rudderless, unstable, and crisis- and depression-prone. That is Kindleberger’s World in Depression in a nutshell. As he put it in 1973:
“The 1929 depression was so wide, so deep and so long because the international economic system was rendered unstable by British inability and United States unwillingness to assume responsibility for stabilising it in three particulars: (a) maintaining a relatively open market for distress goods; (b) providing counter-cyclical long-term lending; and (c) discounting in crisis…. The world economic system was unstable unless some country stabilised it, as Britain had done in the nineteenth century and up to 1913. In 1929, the British couldn’t and the United States wouldn’t. When every country turned to protect its national private interest, the world public interest went down the drain, and with it the private interests of all…”
Subsequently these insights stimulated a considerable body of scholarship in economics, particularly models of international economic policy coordination with and without a dominant economic power, and in political science, where Kindleberger’s “theory of hegemonic stability” is perhaps the leading approach used by political scientists to understand how order can be maintained in an otherwise anarchic international system.

It might be hoped that something would have been learned from this considerable body of scholarship. Yet today, to our surprise, alarm and dismay, we find ourselves watching a rerun of Europe in 1931. Once more, panic and financial distress are widespread. And, once more, Europe lacks a hegemon – a dominant economic power capable of taking the interests of smaller powers and the operation of the larger international system into account by stabilising flows of finance and spending through the European economy. The ECB does not believe it has the authority: its mandate, the argument goes, requires it to mechanically pursue an inflation target – which it defines in practice as an inflation ceiling. It is not empowered, it argues, to act as a lender of the last resort to distressed financial markets, the indispensability of a lender of last resort in times of crisis being another powerful message of The World in Depression. The EU, a diverse collection of more than two dozen states, has found it difficult to reach a consensus on how to react. And even on those rare occasions where it does achieve something approaching a consensus, the wheels turn slowly, too slowly compared to the crisis, which turns very fast.

The German federal government, the political incarnation of the single most consequential economic power in Europe, is one potential hegemon. It has room for countercyclical fiscal policy. It could encourage the European Central Bank to make more active use of monetary policy. It could fund a Marshall Plan for Greece and signal a willingness to assume joint responsibility, along with its EU partners, for some fraction of their collective debt. But Germany still thinks of itself as the steward is a small open economy. It repeats at every turn that it is beyond its capacity to stabilise the European system: “German taxpayers can only bear so much after all”. Unilaterally taking action to stabilise the European economy is not, in any case, its responsibility, as the matter is perceived. The EU is not a union where big countries lead and smaller countries follow docilely but, at least ostensibly, a collection of equals. Germany’s own difficult history in any case makes it difficult for the country to assert its influence and authority and equally difficult for its EU partners, even those who most desperately require it, to accept such an assertion.6 Europe, everyone agrees, needs to strengthen its collective will and ability to take collective action. But in the absence of a hegemon at the European level, this is easier said than done.

The International Monetary Fund, meanwhile, is not sufficiently well capitalised to do the job even were its non-European members to permit it to do so, which remains doubtful. Viewed from Asia or, for that matter, from Capitol Hill, Europe’s problems are properly solved in Europe. More concretely, the view is that the money needed to resolve Europe’s economic and financial crisis should come from Europe. The US government and Federal Reserve System, for their part, have no choice but to view Europe’s problems from the sidelines. A cash-strapped US government lacks the resources to intervene big-time in Europe’s affairs in 1948; there will be no 21st century analogue of the Marshall Plan, when the US through the Economic Recovery Programme, of which the young Charles Kindleberger was a major architect, extended a generous package of foreign aid to help stabilise an unstable continent. Today, in contrast, the Congress is not about to permit Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, and Spain to incorporate in Delaware as bank holding companies and join the Federal Reserve System.7

In a sense, Kindleberger predicted all this in 1973. He saw the power and willingness of the US to bear the responsibility and burden of sacrifice required of benevolent hegemony as likely to falter in subsequent generations. He saw three positive and three negative branches on the then-future’s probability tree. The positive outcomes were: "[i] revived United States leadership… [ii] an assertion of leadership and assumption of responsibility… by Europe…” [sitting here, in 2013, one might be tempted to add emerging markets like China as potentially stepping into the leadership breach, although in practice the Chinese authorities have been reluctant to go there], and] [iii] cession of economic sovereignty to international institutions….” Here, in a sense, Kindleberger had both global and regional – meaning European – institutions in mind. “The last”, meaning a global solution, “is the most attractive”, he concluded,” but perhaps, because difficult, the least likely…" The negative outcomes were: "(a) the United States and the [EU] vying for leadership… (b) one unable to lead and the other unwilling, as in 1929 to 1933… (c) each retaining a veto… without seeking to secure positive programmes…"

As we write, the North Atlantic world appears to have fallen foul to his bad outcome (c), with extraordinary political dysfunction in the US preventing its government from acting as a benevolent hegemon, and the ruling mandarins of Europe, in Germany in particular, unwilling to step up and convince their voters that they must assume the task.

It was fear of this future that led Kindleberger to end The World in Depression with the observation: “In these circumstances, the third positive alternative of international institutions with real authority and sovereignty is pressing.”