Friday, May 24, 2013

Cleveland Fed: Interview with Economic Historian Barry Eichengreen

From the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland:
An interview by Mark Sniderman
To some, the term “economic historian” conjures up images of an academic whose only interests lie deep in the past; an armchair scholar who holds forth on days long ago but has no insights about the present. Barry Eichengreen provides a useful corrective to that stereotype. For, as much as Eichengreen has studied episodes in economic history, he seems more attuned to connecting the past to the present. At the same time, he is mindful that “lessons” have a way of taking on lives of their own. What’s taken as given among economic historians today may be wholly rejected in the future.

Barry Eichengreen is the George C. Pardee and Helen N. Pardee Professor of Economics and Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, his hometown. He is known as an expert on monetary systems and global finance. He has authored more than a dozen books and many more academic papers on topics from the Great Depression to the recent financial crisis.

Eichengreen was a keynote speaker at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s research conference, Current Policy under the Lens of Economic History, in December 2012. Mark Sniderman, the Cleveland Fed’s executive vice president and chief policy officer, interviewed Eichengreen during his visit. An edited transcript follows.

Sniderman: It’s an honor to talk with you. You’re here at this conference to discuss the uses and misuses of economic history. Can you give us an example of how people inaccurately apply lessons from the past to the recent financial crisis?

Eichengreen: The honor is mine.
Whenever I say “lessons,” please understand the word to be surrounded by quotation marks. My point is that “lessons” when drawn mechanically have considerable capacity to mislead. For example, one “lesson” from the literature on the Great Depression was how disruptive serious banking crises can be. That, in a nutshell, is why the Fed and its fellow regulators paid such close attention to the banking system in the run-up to the recent crisis. But that “lesson” of history was, in part, what allowed them to overlook what was happening in the shadow banking system, as our system of lightly regulated near-banks is known.
What did they miss it? One answer is that there was effectively no shadow banking system to speak of in the 1930s. We learned to pay close attention to what was going on in the banking system, narrowly defined. That bias may have been part of what led policymakers to miss what was going on in other parts of the financial system.

Another example, this one from Europe, is the “lesson” that there is necessarily such a thing as expansionary fiscal consolidation. Europeans, when arguing that such a thing exists, look to the experience of the Netherlands and Ireland in the 1980s, when those countries cut their budget deficits without experiencing extended recessions. Both countries were able to consolidate but continue to grow, leading contemporary observers to argue that the same should be true in Europe today. But reasoning from that historical case to today misleads because the circumstances at both the country and global level were very different. Ireland and the Netherlands were small. They were consolidating in a period when the world economy was growing.

These facts allowed them to substitute external demand for domestic demand. In addition, unlike European countries today they had their own monetary policies, allowing them step down the exchange rate, enhancing the competitiveness of their exports at one fell swoop, and avoid extended recessions. But it does not follow from their experience that the same is necessarily possible today. Everyone in Europe is consolidating simultaneously. Most nations lack their own independent exchange rate and monetary policies. And the world economy is not growing robustly.

A third “lesson” of history capable equally of informing and misinforming policy would be the belief in Germany that hyperinflation is always and everywhere just around the corner. Whenever the European Central Bank does something unconventional, like its program of Outright Monetary Transactions, there are warnings in German press that this is about to unleash the hounds of inflation. This presumption reflects from the “lesson” of history, taught in German schools, that there is no such thing as a little inflation. It reflects the searing impact of the hyperinflation of the 1920s, in other words. From a distance, it’s interesting and more than a little peculiar that those textbooks fail to mention the high unemployment rate in the 1930s and how that also had highly damaging political and social consequences.

The larger question is whether it is productive to think in terms of “history lessons.” Economic theory has no lessons; instead, it simply offers a way of systematically structuring how we think about the world. The same is true of history....MUCH MORE
HT: Real Time Economics