The Objectives of Currency Devaluation
[Human Action (1949)]
In the boom period that ended in 1929, labor unions had succeeded in almost all countries in enforcing wage rates higher than those which the market, if manipulated only by migration barriers, would have determined. These wage rates already produced in many countries institutional unemployment of a considerable amount while credit expansion was still going on at an accelerated pace.
When finally the inescapable depression came and commodity prices began to drop, the labor unions, firmly supported by the governments, even by those disparaged as antilabor, clung stubbornly to their high-wages policy. They either flatly denied permission for any cut in nominal wage rates or conceded only insufficient cuts. The result was a tremendous increase in institutional unemployment. (On the other hand, those workers who retained their jobs improved their standard of living as their hourly real wages went up.)
The burden of unemployment doles became unbearable. The millions of unemployed were a serious menace to domestic peace. The industrial countries were haunted by the specter of revolution. But union leaders were intractable, and no statesman had the courage to challenge them openly.
In this plight the frightened rulers bethought themselves of a makeshift long since recommended by inflationist doctrinaires. As unions objected to an adjustment of wages to the state of the money relation and commodity prices, they chose to adjust the money relation and commodity prices to the height of wage rates. As they saw it, it was not wage rates that were too high; their own nation's monetary unit was overvalued in terms of gold and foreign exchange and had to be readjusted. Devaluation was the panacea.
The objectives of devaluation were
- To preserve the height of nominal wage rates or even to create the conditions required for their further increase, while real wage rates should rather sink
- To make commodity prices, especially the prices of farm products, rise in terms of domestic money or, at least, to check their further drop
- To favor the debtors at the expense of the creditors
- To encourage exports and to reduce imports
- To attract more foreign tourists and to make it more expensive (in terms of domestic money) for the country's own citizens to visit foreign countries
However, neither the governments nor the literary champions of their policy were frank enough to admit openly that one of the main purposes of devaluation was a reduction in the height of real wage rates. They preferred for the most part to describe the objective of devaluation as the removal of an alleged "fundamental disequilibrium" between the domestic and the international "level" of prices. They spoke of the necessity of lowering domestic costs of production. But they were anxious not to mention that one of the two cost items they expected to lower by devaluation was real wage rates, the other being interest stipulated on long-term business debts and the principal of such debts.
It is impossible to take seriously the arguments advanced in favor of devaluation. They were utterly confused and contradictory. For devaluation was not a policy that originated from a cool weighing of the pros and cons. It was a capitulation of governments to union leaders who did not want to lose face by admitting that their wage policy had failed and had produced institutional unemployment on an unprecedented scale.
It was a desperate makeshift of weak and inept statesmen who were motivated by their wish to prolong their tenure of office. In justifying their policy, these demagogues did not bother about contradictions. They promised the processing industries and the farmers that devaluation would make prices rise. But at the same time they promised the consumers that rigid price control would prevent any increase in the cost of living.
After all, the governments could still excuse their conduct by referring to the fact that under the given state of public opinion, entirely under the sway of the doctrinal fallacies of labor unionism, no other policy could be resorted to. No such excuse can be advanced for those authors who hailed the flexibility of foreign-exchange rates as the perfect and most desirable monetary system. While governments were still anxious to emphasize that devaluation was an emergency measure not to be repeated again, these authors proclaimed the flexible standard as the most appropriate monetary system and were eager to demonstrate the alleged evils inherent in the stability of foreign-exchange rates.
In their blind zeal to please the governments and the powerful pressure groups of unionized labor and farming, they overstated tremendously the case of flexible parities. But the drawbacks of standard flexibility became manifest very soon. The enthusiasm for devaluation vanished quickly.
In the years of the Second World War, hardly more than a decade after the day when Great Britain had set the pattern for the flexible standard, even Lord Keynes and his adepts discovered that stability of foreign-exchange rates has its merits. One of the avowed objectives of the International Monetary Fund is to stabilize foreign-exchange rates.
If one looks at devaluation not with the eyes of an apologist of government and union policies but with the eyes of an economist, one must first of all stress the point that all its alleged blessings are temporary only. Moreover, they depend on the condition that only one country devalues while the other countries abstain from devaluing their own currencies. If the other countries devalue in the same proportion, no changes in foreign trade appear. If they devalue to a greater extent, all these transitory blessings, whatever they may be, favor them exclusively.
A general acceptance of the principles of the flexible standard must therefore result in a mutual overbidding between the nations. At the end of this race is the complete destruction of all nations' monetary systems.
The much-talked-about advantages which devaluation secures in foreign trade and tourism are entirely due to the fact that the adjustment of domestic prices and wage rates to the state of affairs created by devaluation requires some time. As long as this adjustment process is not yet completed, exporting is encouraged and importing is discouraged. However, this merely means that in this interval the citizens of the devaluating country are getting less for what they are selling abroad and paying more for what they are buying abroad; concomitantly they must restrict their consumption.
This effect may appear as a boon in the opinion of those for whom the balance of trade is the yardstick of a nation's welfare. In plain language it is to be described in this way: the British citizen must export more British goods in order to buy that quantity of tea which he received before the devaluation for a smaller quantity of exported British goods.
The devaluation, say its champions, reduces the burden of debts. This is certainly true. It favors debtors at the expense of creditors. In the eyes of those who still have not learned that under modern conditions the creditors must not be identified with the rich nor the debtors with the poor, this is beneficial.
The actual effect is that the indebted owners of real estate and farmland and the shareholders of indebted corporations are helped to the disadvantage of the enormous majority whose savings are invested in bonds, debentures, savings-bank deposits, and insurance policies.
There are also foreign loans to be considered. When Great Britain, the United States, France, Switzerland, and some other European creditor countries devalued their currencies, they made a gift to their foreign debtors.
One of the main arguments advanced in favor of the flexible standard is that it lowers the rate of interest on the domestic money market. Under the classical gold standard and the rigid gold-exchange standard, it is said, a country must adjust the domestic rate of interest to conditions on the international money market. Under the flexible standard it is free to follow in the determination of interest rates a policy exclusively guided by considerations of its own domestic welfare.
The argument is obviously untenable with regard to those countries in which the total amount of debts to foreign countries exceeds the total amount of loans granted to foreign countries. When in the course of the 19th century, some of these debtor nations adopted a sound-money policy, their firms and citizens could contract foreign debts in terms of their national currency.
This opportunity disappeared altogether with the change in these countries' monetary policies. No American banker would contract a loan in Italian lire or try to float an issue of lire bonds. As far as foreign credits are concerned, no change in a debtor country's domestic currency conditions can be of any avail. As far as domestic credits are concerned, devaluation abates only the already previously contracted debts. It enhances the gross market rate of interest of new debts as it makes a positive price premium appear.
This is valid also with regard to interest-rate conditions in the creditor nations. There is no need to add anything to the demonstration that interest is not a monetary phenomenon and cannot in the long run be affected by monetary measures.
It is true that the devaluations which were resorted to by various governments between 1931 and 1938 made real wage rates drop in some countries and thus reduced the amount of institutional unemployment. The historian in dealing with these devaluations may therefore say that they were a success as they prevented a revolutionary upheaval of the daily increasing masses of unemployed and as, under the prevailing ideological conditions, no other means could be resorted to in this critical situation.
But the historian will no less have to add that the remedy did not affect the root causes of institutional unemployment, the faulty tenets of labor unionism. Devaluation was a cunning device to elude the sway of the union doctrine. It worked because it did not impair the prestige of unionism. But precisely because it left the popularity of unionism untouched, it could work only for a short time.
Union leaders learned to distinguish between nominal wage rates and real wage rates. Today their policy aims at raising real wage rates. They can no longer be cheated by a drop in the monetary unit's purchasing power. Devaluation has worn out its usefulness as a device for reducing institutional unemployment.
Cognizance of these facts provides a key for a correct appraisal of the role which Lord Keynes's doctrines played in the years between the First and Second World Wars. Keynes did not add any new idea to the body of inflationist fallacies, a thousand times refuted by economists. His teachings were even more contradictory and inconsistent than those of his predecessors who, like Silvio Gesell, were dismissed as monetary cranks. He merely knew how to cloak the plea for inflation and credit expansion in the sophisticated terminology of mathematical economics.
The interventionist writers were at a loss to advance plausible arguments in favor of the policy of reckless spending; they simply could not find a case against the economic theorem concerning institutional unemployment. In this juncture they greeted the "Keynesian Revolution" with the verses of Wordsworth: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven."
It was, however, a short-run heaven only. We may admit that for the British and American governments in the 1930s no way was left other than that of currency devaluation, inflation and credit expansion, unbalanced budgets, and deficit spending. Governments cannot free themselves from the pressure of public opinion. They cannot rebel against the preponderance of generally accepted ideologies, however fallacious.
But this does not excuse the officeholders who could resign rather than carry out policies disastrous for the country. Still less does it excuse authors who tried to provide a would-be scientific justification for the crudest of all popular fallacies — inflationism.