Deficits with inky blots and rotten parchment bonds sustained - of Balance of Payments and Public Sector Finances.
Earlier this month is his speech at the Mansion House, Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, referenced the Sterling Crisis of 1931 and imbalances within the economy.
“We need balance. One has only to look back to 1931 when Britain’s economic prospects were strained by a large budget deficit and a deteriorating balance of payments. In the ensuing crisis, the government of the day resigned, sterling was forced off the gold standard" [and the Governor of the day went back to Canada.]
In 2014, despite significant internal and external deficits, neither the resignation of the government, nor the repatriation of the Governor of the Bank of England appears imminent. It is however, worth revisiting 1931 and recalling the worlds of Sir Warren Fisher, permanent secretary to the Treasury.
In September of that year, Sir Warren Fisher, warned Cabinet, of the Balance of Payments Crisis and the National Budget problem - "Deficits with inky blots and rotten parchment bonds sustained". He could easily have been talking of the present day, QE and debt monetisation.
Trade Deficit ...
Fisher 1931: The seriousness of the financial difficulties which are engaging public attention is perhaps not fully realised. The root cause of the "run on Sterling" on the part of the foreign depositor is the fact of our living beyond our means as evidenced by our ordering from abroad more goods than we could pay for and therefore our owing to other countries more in dollars and francs than they owe to us in sterling.”
Public Sector Finances …
Fisher 1931: Closely associated with this fact in the foreign mind is the question of our national Budget. After the war a certain number of countries continued to have difficulties in balancing their budgets and instead of pulling in their belts, resorted to the expedient of meeting deficits by printing innumerable bank or currency notes. Whenever this was done, the national currency lost much or all of its value i.e. purchasing power, and with the corresponding rise in prices, hardship, even hunger, was widespread.
Consequently, when any of these countries subsequently desired financial assistance from other countries before the citizens of the latter could be induced to lend, they insisted on the borrowing country balancing its budget. And no one was more emphatic than ourselves in preaching this doctrine.
National Budget …
Fisher 1931: A national Budget has thus come to be regarded as a touchstone of a country's financial stability second only in importance to its international balance of trade; and if, as the case at present with us, we are "down" on our balance of trade with other countries, foreigners to whom we owe money automatically turn a microscope on to our Budget. And if the Budget is not really balanced, but is merely dressed up to look as though it were, the distrust abroad of our soundness would be intensified. Any expectation that we might continue on a "rake's progress" would complete the destruction of international confidence and thus result in the final collapse of our greatest asset, i.e. our credit.
Living beyond our means …
Fisher 1931: The remedy is to reverse the process which has been responsible for the trouble, and this means that instead of living at a level which has entailed ordering abroad more goods than we can pay for, we must relate our orders to our capacity to pay. And unless we can produce and sell abroad more goods (including "services") than we have been doing, we shall be forced to cut down our orders abroad, and our and our standard of living must be reduced accordingly.
If not the epitaph of us English of to-day will be written by historians to come in Shakespeare' words (Richard II , Act 2, Scene l )
"England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege of watery Neptune,
Is now bound in with shame, with inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.
That England, that was won’t to conquer others, hath made a shameful conquest of itself".
Lessons from History
And so history is revisited. With inky blots and rotten bonds sustained. The latest data on the Public Sector Finances is hardly reassuring and the trade deficit will continue to present a problem for an economy growing faster than major trading partners.
Note "By the Secretary, The attached memorandum by Sir Warren Fisher is circulated to the Cabinet by instructions from the Prime Minister. (Signed) M. P. A. HANKEY Secretary, Cabinet, Whitehall Gardens, SW1. September 14th, 1931. Footnote : Up to this time the pound sterling, has for international purposes been valued and accepted as the equivalent of a gold pound or of 4.00 dollars or 124 Francs.
The Financial and Economic Position of the United Kingdom 1931. Memo to Cabinet from Sir Warren Fisher, Permanent Secretary to the Treasury September 1931. Deficits with Inky Blots and Rotten Parchment Bonds sustained.
This article was originally published John Ashcroft.co.uk in July 2009. References : Fun with the National Archives : Cabinet Papers
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