Deja Vu – Part 1, Lessons from the US economy,1950-1973

13 Dec

I remember a conversation with a colleague in the office kitchen one Monday afternoon. The conversation occurred during my first banking job over a decade ago. I asked “How was your weekend?” to which my colleague replied, “My boyfriend took me to the Imperial War Museum over the weekend. They had something on about Musso, Musso, Musso… some Italian bloke.” “Mussolini?” I interjected, “Yes…” she said “…that’s the one. I was never one for history. Don’t understand the point in it. It’s all dead and gone now”. We had a brief discussion about the importance of history giving identity, and the opportunity to learn from trends and mistakes. At the time it struck me that this lady had just as many votes as me in a general election (only kidding!) Nonetheless, over 10 years on I decided to take my own advice and use history to understand some of the dynamics presently at work in global economics, and to use this information to help understand what is likely to happen in the coming years.

Analysts, the press, and even my own blog have been dealing with the issues of the trade imbalance between China and the US, the value of the Yuan vs. the USD (and the potential for a currency war), and the aftermath of the recent credit bubble/crisis. Yet, none of these issues are new. As recently as the past 50 years global trade and economics has played out the same script. The same questions have been asked in the lifetimes of people I sit amongst, albeit between the US on one side, and Germany and Japan on the other. I’ve not seen these precedents referred to by many experts, or by industry colleagues, so the first lesson I’ve learned is that we are very quick to forget, which means are most likely damned to repeat. But let’s not get philosophical yet! Let’s first outline the history.

The “West” enjoyed a long period of boom over the 50’s and most of the 60’s. The boom itself, however, was rooted in a fairly uneven development between the US, Japan, and Germany. Through a combination of “importing” American high-productivity technological advances and domestic low cost elastic labor supplies, Germany and Japan were not only able to catch up with the US in terms of growth, investment and returns but often surpass the superpower.

Until the mid 60’s this was all in the US’s favor. Firstly, it provided new markets for US capital. Secondly, it provided new markets for US goods as Japanese and German consumers prospered (note – at the time it was relatively harder for Japanese and German goods to enter the US market). And thirdly, it was a key component in fighting the cold war.

By 1965 things began to change. The economic development of Japan and Germany presented real competition to the US. Their growth was beginning to become a zero-sum-game (or even negative sum game) from the perspective of the US. During the years 1965-73 Japanese and German exports began to interrupt the easy flow of US goods onto global markets. In addition, their lower cost goods (of equal quality) were increasingly making their way into the US market. The impact was to decrease the return on capital in the US.

The US responded by lowering prices (i.e. lowering their returns to the cost of capital), capping wage growth, and updating plants and machinery in an attempt to produce more efficiently. However, its greatest weapon was the devaluation of the dollar.

Between 1969 and 1973 the dollar devalued by around 50% against the German Mark, and between 1971 and 1973 by about 30% against the Japanese Yen. How?

In the early 70’s the US followed a combined policy of lower interest rates, a policy of easy credit, and eventually the total abandonment of fixed currency rates in favor of a free floating currency by 1973. As the US government pursued a policy of fiscal stimulus in 1970, interest rates fell, and the Fed abetted with a policy of easy credit, I am struck by Nixon’s comment at the time that “We are all Keynesians now!”

Granted the story is a little more complex in terms of which parts of policy were a priori thought out, and which parts were responses. The balance of payments, impacts on the stocks markets, and inflation in Japan and Germany cannot be ignored. Nonetheless, the general picture of 8 years of economic struggle (to borrow a phrase from David S Landes) over 1965-1973, the reduction in the competitive position of US returns, and the Keynesian and currency devaluation responses are clear.

The devaluation of the dollar led to a turnaround in US manufacturing sector that restrained wage growth and productivity growth had blatantly been unable to achieve.  Profits, investments and productivity returned to US manufacturing, and the trade imbalances with Japan and Germany closed. The impact in the Japan and Germany was the opposite, as they sought to keep sales by suffering lower returns.

I will return with a second installment of this story in the coming weeks, and a closer of analysis of the meaning of these events for today’s economy and global trade. Nonetheless I want to end with a couple of points to consider already:

  • We don’t need all of the subsequent history to begin to see parallels with the state of the US economy in 2010 and the early 70’s, as well as parallels between modern US and China relations, and historical relations between the US and its trading partners in the 60’s.
  • I want to leave you with an additional question. Why did the capitalist system result in such a decline in US productivity and returns over the period we’ve discussed? Is the capitalist dynamic insufficient when it comes to ensuring the rejection of waste and barring the entrant of excess? We will return to this issue as well.
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