Večina ekonomistov še nikoli ni slišala za Hjalmara Schachta, nemškega čudodelnega gospodarstvenika in ekonomista, ki je z eno potezo z uvedbo paralelne valute v roku enega tedna zaustavil nemško hiperinflacijo (1923), desetletje kasneje pa z inovativnimi obveznicami, vezanimi na obseg proizvodnje, financiral obnovo nemškega gospodarstva po globoki depresiji. Schacht je bil po Johnu M. Keynesu najbrž eden najbolj inovativnih praktičnih ekonomistov. Na žalost se ga zaradi vloge kot guvernerja nemške Reichsbanke in ministra za gospodarstvo v času Hitlerjevega režima in čeprav se je s Hitlerjevo politiko razšel že leta 1939 in bil deportiran v Dachau, zgodovina ne spominja rada.
Spodaj je nekaj odlomkov iz dveh virov o njegovih dosežkih ter o lekcijah njegovih MEFO obveznic za sedanji čas prenizkih investicij in mizerne rasti v razvitih članicah EU. Če koga zanima več, na Amazonu prodajajo tudi njegovo avtobiografijo “Confessions Of The Old Wizard: The Autobiography Of Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht“.
Despite the blemish on his record, in November 1923, Schacht became currency commissioner for the Weimar Republic and participated in the introduction of the Rentenmark, a new currency the value of which was based on a mortgage on all of the properties in Germany. Germany entered into a brief period where it had two separate currencies: the Reichsmark managed by Rudolf Havenstein, President of the Reichsbank, and the newly created Rentenmark managed by Schacht.
After his economic policies helped battle German hyperinflation and stabilize the German mark (Helferich Plan), Schacht was appointed president of the Reichsbank at the requests of president Friedrich Ebert and Chancellor Gustav Stresemann.
In 1926, Schacht provided funds for the formation of IG Farben. He collaborated with other prominent economists to form the 1929 Young Plan to modify the way that war reparations were paid after Germany’s economy was destabilizing under the Dawes Plan. In December 1929, he caused the fall of the Finance Minister Rudolf Hilferding by imposing upon the government his conditions for obtaining a loan. After modifications by Hermann Müller‘s government to the Young Plan during the Second Conference of The Hague (January 1930), he resigned as Reichsbank president on 7 March 1930. During 1930, Schacht campaigned against the war reparations requirement in the United States.
Schacht believed that if the German government was ever to commence a wholesale reindustrialization and rearmament in spite of the restrictions imposed by Germany’s treaty obligations, it would have to be during a period lacking clear international consensus among the Great Powers.
After the July 1932 elections, in which the NSDAP won more than a third of the seats, Schacht and Wilhelm Keppler organized a petition of industrial leaders requesting that president Hindenburg appoint Hitler as Chancellor. After Hitler took power in January 1933, Schacht won re-appointment as Reichsbank president on 17 March.
In August 1934 Hitler appointed Schacht as Germany’s Minister of Economics. Schacht supported public-works programs, most notably the construction of autobahnen (highways) to attempt to alleviate unemployment – policies which had been instituted in Germany by von Schleicher‘s government in late 1932, and had in turn influenced Roosevelt‘s policies. He also introduced the “New Plan”, Germany’s attempt to achieve economic “autarky”, in September 1934.
In 1921, in the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles, war reparation obligations upon Germany amounted to $33 billion. Keynes (1920) strongly criticised the Treaty. It did not include any plan to revamp the economy, and the punitive attitude and economic sanctions of the major powers against Germany, as he predicted, would lead to new conflicts and instabilities, instead of seeking to secure long-lasting peace. The reparations were in fact at the origin of the cataclysmic events that followed – from Weimar hyperinflation (1921-1923) to the dramatic austerity of the Bruning government (1930-1932). The resentment that all this created in the German people manifested itself in the huge support that Hitler’s National Socialism received in the whole country (Ruffolo and Sylos Labini, 2012).
As Hitler rose to power, in January 1933 the economic situation in Germany was dire. Stocks of raw materials had been depleted, factories and warehouses lay empty, and about 6.5 million people (about 25% of the domestic workforce) were unemployed and on the verge of malnutrition, while the country was crushed by debt and its foreign exchange reserves approached zero.
Yet, from 1933-1938, thanks to Schacht, the economy recovered spectacularly (Figure 1).2 Schacht’s objective to jumpstart the moribund economy required money. But money was not available, since savings were inexistent and production was so restricted that savings would not accumulate (Schacht 1967). Neither could money be printed, since lending to the government would have put the Reichsbank at risk of losing control of monetary policy.
Schacht then contrived a brilliant unconventional monetary solution. For payments, state contractors and suppliers received bills of exchange issued by a company called ‘MEFO’.3 The MEFO-bills were state guaranteed, they could circulate in the economy and could be discounted by their holders at the Reichsbank in exchange for cash.
Figure 1 GDP growth and inflation in Germany and the Netherlands, 1922-1939
Source: Mahe (2012).
Schacht believed that the duty of the central bank was to make available to the economy as much money as necessary to facilitate output production. The issuance of bills of exchange was instrumental to this end – as each bill stood against the sale of newly produced goods, and each issue of money was based on the exchange of the new goods, central bank money issuance against bills could not be inflationary. Indeed, the employees of MEFO checked that every MEFO-bill issued was tied to a quantity of newly produced goods, and only bills issued against the sales of these goods were granted. This way, the circulation of money and the circulation of goods remained in equilibrium.4
The Reichsbank undertook to accept on demand all MEFO bills, irrespective of their size, number and due date, and to exchange them for money. The bills were discounted at a 4% interest rate. As such, they were given the character of interest-bearing money, and banks, savings banks, and firms could hold and use them exactly as if they were money. If all MEFO-bills had been presented for discount at once, inflation would have resulted. But this did not happen – making the bills both re-discountable and interest-bearing allowed for much of them to be absorbed by the market without going through the Reichsbank.5 Also, output responded remarkably well. State purchases fed into a growing demand for labour, and firms restarted investments using MEFO-bills as collateral for borrowing. Investments put additional manpower to work, and incomes and savings increased as a result, raising fiscal revenues (Guillebaud 1940).
In 1938, Schacht strongly urged terminating the MEFO programme, as full employment had been reached and the closing output gap was raising price tensions (Toniolo 1988).6 He clashed with Hitler on this, and on 19 January 1939 the Führer removed him from the Reichsbank.
Modernity of Schacht’s lesson
Such was the economic policy that allowed Germany to regain monetary sovereignty and finance its reconstruction in the interwar period – an ante litteram case of unconventional money-financed fiscal expansion. It enabled a national economy to exit a long and deep depression, and to attain non-inflationary full employment in a short span and with no use of price controls or rationing (Stucken 1953).7 In only five years, Schacht’s programme transformed a bankrupt state into Europe’s strongest economy (Emry 1982).
It is quite unfortunate that Schacht’s lesson was lost while Eucken’s paradigm carried the day. Schacht’s programme resembles a variation of the ‘helicopter money’ policy and its free-lunch effects (Bossone 2016), which several economists today consider an effective demand management tool for fiscally constrained economies trapped in deep depression.
The ‘fiscal money’ proposal launched in Italy by Cattaneo and others,8 whereby special Tax Credit Certificates would be issued by Eurozone crisis countries (in line with the EU fiscal rules) as quasi-money, claims that it would add to the economy’s purchasing power, stimulate output and employment growth, and raise fiscal revenues. It draws inspiration from Schacht’s MEFO-bills (although it also features important differences).
Bofinger’s (2016) contribution offers an excellent opportunity to contrast two important economic lessons from Germany. One – from Walter Eucken, still celebrated – has served Germany well but has proven dramatically unfit for Europe. The other – from Hjalmar Schacht, removed from memory – was a success, and should inspire Europe as it deals ineptly with its worst crisis since the 1930s.