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MONEY, CREDIT, AND
BANKING LECTURE

The Macroeconomics of the Great Depression:
A Comparative Approach
BEN S. BERNANKE
To UNDERSTAND THE GREAT DEPRESSION is the Holy Grail
of macroeconomics. Not only did the Depression give birth to macroeconomics as a
distinct field of study, but also—to an extent that is not always fully appreciated—
the experience of the 1930s continues to influence macroeconomists' beliefs, policy
recommendations, and research agendas. And, practicalities aside, finding an explanation for the worldwide economic collapse of the 1930s remains a fascinating intellectual challenge.
We do not yet have our hands on the Grail by any means, but during the past
fifteen years or so substantial progress toward the goal of understanding the Depression has been made. This progress has a number of sources, including improvements in our theoretical framework and painstaking historical analysis. To my mind,
however, the most significant recent development has been a change in the focus of
Depression research, from a traditional emphasis on events in the United States to a
more comparative approach that examines the experiences of many countries simultaneously. This broadening of focus is important for two reasons: First, though in
the end we may agree with Romer (1993) that shocks to the domestic U.S. economy
were a primary cause of both the American and world depressions, no account of
the Great Depression would be complete without an explanation of the worldwide
nature of the event, and of the channels through which deflationary forces spread
among countries. Second, by effectively expanding the data set from one observation to twenty, thirty, or more, the shift to a comparative perspective substantially
The author thanks Barry Eichengreen for his comments and Ilian Mihov for excellent research
assistance.

Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking, Vol. 27, No. 1 (February 1995)
Copyright 1995 by The Ohio State University Press




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: MONEY, CREDIT, AND BANKING

improves our ability to identify—in the strict econometric sense—the forces responsible for the world depression. Because of its potential to bring the profession
toward agreement on the causes of the Depression—and perhaps, in consequence,
to greater consensus on the central issues of contemporary macroeconomics—I consider the improved identification provided by comparative analysis to be a particularly important benefit of that approach.
In this lecture I provide a selective survey of our current understanding of the
Great Depression, with emphasis on insights drawn from comparative research (by
both myself and others). For reasons of space, and because I am a macroeconomist
rather than a historian, my focus will be on broad economic issues rather than historical details. For readers wishing to delve into those details, Eichengreen (1992) provides a recent, authoritative treatment of the monetary and economic history of the
interwar period. I have drawn heavily on Eichengreen's book (and his earlier work)
in preparing this lecture, particularly in section 1 below.
To review the state of knowledge about the Depression, it is convenient to make
the textbook distinction between factors affecting aggregate demand and those affecting aggregate supply. I argue in section 1 that the factors that depressed aggregate demand around the world in the 1930s are now well understood, at least in
broad terms. In particular, the evidence that monetary shocks played a major role in
the Great Contraction, and that these shocks were transmitted around the world primarily through the workings of the gold standard, is quite compelling.
Of course, the conclusion that monetary shocks were an important source of the
Depression raises a central question in macroeconomics, which is why nominal
shocks should have real effects. Section 2 of this lecture discusses what we know
about the impacts of falling money supplies and price levels on interwar economies.
I consider two principal channels of effect: (1) deflation-induced financial crisis and
(2) increases in real wages above market-clearing levels, brought about by the incomplete adjustment of nominal wages to price changes. Empirical evidence drawn
from a range of countries seems to provide support for both of these mechanisms.
However, it seems that, of the two channels, slow nominal-wage adjustment (in the
face of massive unemployment) is especially difficult to reconcile with the postulate
of economic rationality. We cannot claim to understand the Depression until we can
provide a rationale for this paradoxical behavior of wages. I conclude the paper with
some thoughts on how the comparative approach may help us make progress on this
important remaining issue.
1. AGGREGATE DEMAND: THE GOLD STANDARD AND WORLD MONEY SUPPLIES

During the Depression years, changes in output and in the price level exhibited a
strong positive correlation in almost every country, suggesting an important role for
aggregate demand shocks. Although there is no doubt that many factors affected
aggregate demand in various countries at various times, my focus here will be on
the crucial role played by monetary shocks.




BEN S. BERNANKE

:

3

For many years, the principal debate about the causes of the Great Depression in
the United States was over the importance to be ascribed to monetary factors. It was
easily observed that the money supply, output, and prices all fell precipitously in the
contraction and rose rapidly in the recovery; the difficulty lay in establishing the
causal links among these variables. In their classic study of U.S. monetary history,
Friedman and Schwartz (1963) presented a monetarist interpretation of these observations, arguing that the main lines of causation ran from monetary contraction—
the result of poor policy-making and continuing crisis in the banking system—to
declining prices and output. Opposing Friedman and Schwartz, Temin (1976) contended that much of the monetary contraction in fact reflected a passive response of
money to output; and that the main sources of the Depression lay on the real side of
the economy (for example, the famous autonomous drop in consumption in 1930).
To some extent the proponents of these two views argued past each other, with
monetarists stressing the monetary sources of the latter stages of the Great Contraction (from late 1930 or early 1931 until 1933), and antimonetarists emphasizing the
likely importance of nonmonetary factors in the initial downturn. A reasonable
compromise position, adopted by many economists, was that both monetary and
nonmonetary forces were operative at various stages (Gordon and Wilcox 1981).
Nevertheless, conclusive resolution of the importance of money in the Depression
was hampered by the heavy concentration of the disputants on the U.S. case—on
one data point, as it were.1
Since the early 1980s, however, a new body of research on the Depression has
emerged which focuses on the operation of the international gold standard during
the interwar period (Choudhri and Kochin 1980; Eichengreen 1984; Eichengreen
and Sachs 1985; Hamilton 1988; Temin 1989; Bernanke and James 1991; Eichengreen 1992). Methodologically, as a natural consequence of their concern with international factors, authors working in this area brought a strong comparative
perspective into research on the Depression; as I suggested in the introduction, I
consider this development to be a major contribution, with implications that extend
beyond the question of the role of the gold standard. Substantively—in marked contrast to the inconclusive state of affairs that prevailed in the late 1970s—the new
gold-standard research allows us to assert with considerable confidence that monetary factors played an important causal role, both in the worldwide decline in prices
and output and in their eventual recovery. Two well-documented observations support this conclusion:2
First, exhaustive analysis of the operation of the interwar gold standard has
shown that much of the worldwide monetary contraction of the early 1930s was not
a passive response to declining output, but instead the largely unintended result of
1. That both sides considered only the U.S. case is not strictly true; both Friedman and Schwartz
(1963) and Temin (1976) made useful comparisons to Canada, for example. Nevertheless, the Depression experiences of countries other than the United States were not systematically considered.
2. More detailed discussions of these points may be found in Eichengreen and Sachs (1985), Temin
(1989), Bernanke and James (1991), and Eichengreen (1992). An important early precursor is Nurkse
(1944).




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: MONEY, CREDIT, AND BANKING

an interaction of poorly designed institutions, shortsighted policy-making, and unfavorable political and economic preconditions. Hence the correlation of money and
price declines with output declines that was observed in almost every country is
most reasonably interpreted as reflecting primarily the influence of money on the
real economy, rather than vice versa.
Second, for reasons that were largely historical, political, and philosophical rather than purely economic, some governments responded to the crises of the early
1930s by quickly abandoning the gold standard, while others chose to remain on
gold despite adverse conditions. Countries that left gold were able to reflate their
money supplies and price levels, and did so after some delay; countries remaining
on gold were forced into further deflation. To an overwhelming degree, the evidence
shows that countries that left the gold standard recovered from the Depression more
quickly than countries that remained on gold. Indeed, no country exhibited significant economic recovery while remaining on the gold standard. The strong dependence of the rate of recovery on the choice of exchange-rate regime is further,
powerful evidence for the importance of monetary factors.
Section 1.1 briefly discusses the first of these two observations, and section 1.2
considers the second.
1.1. The Sources of Monetary Contraction: Multiple Monetary Equilibria?
Despite the focus of the earlier monetarist debate on the U.S. monetary contraction of the early 1930s, this country was hardly unique in that respect: The same
phenomenon occurred in most market-oriented industrialized countries, and in
many developing nations as well. As the recent research has emphasized, what most
countries experiencing monetary contraction had in common was adherence to the
international gold standard.
Suspended at the beginning of World War I, the gold standard had been laboriously reconstructed after the war: The United Kingdom returned to gold at the
prewar parity in 1925, France completed its return by 1928, and by 1929 the gold
standard was virtually universal among market economies. (The short list of exceptions included Spain, whose internal political turmoil prevented a return to gold, and
some Latin American and Asian countries on the silver standard.) The reconstruction of the gold standard was hailed as a major diplomatic achievement, an essential
step toward restoring monetary and financial conditions—which were turbulent during the 1920s—to the relativetranquility[tranquillity]that characterized the classical (18701913) gold-standard period. Unfortunately, the hoped-for benefits of gold did not
materialize: Instead of a new era of stability, by 1931 financial panics and exchangerate crises were rampant, and a majority of countries left gold in that year. A complete collapse of the system occurred in 1936, when France and the other remaining
"Gold Bloc" countries devalued or otherwise abandoned the strict gold standard.
As noted, a striking aspect of the short-lived interwar gold standard was the tendency of the nations that adhered to it to suffer sharp declines in inside money
stocks. To understand in general terms why these declines happened, it is useful to




BEN S. BERNANKE

: 5

consider a simple identity that relates the inside money stock (say, Ml) of a country
on the gold standard to its reserves of monetary gold:
Ml = (MI/BASE) x (BASE/RES) x (RES/GOLD) x PGOLD
X QGOLD

(1)

where
MX = Ml money supply (money and notes in circulation plus commercial bank
deposits),
BASE = monetary base (money and notes in circulation plus reserves of commercial banks),
RES = international reserves of the central bank (foreign assets plus gold reserves), valued in domestic currency,
GOLD = gold reserves of the central bank, valued in domestic currency =
PGOLD x QGOLD,
PGOLD = the official domestic-currency price of gold, and
QGOLD = the physical quantity (for example, in metric tons) of gold reserves.
Equation (1) makes the familiar points that, under the gold standard, a country's
money supply is affected both by its physical quantity of gold reserves (QGOLD)
and the price at which its central bank stands ready to buy and sell gold (PGOLD).
In particular, ceteris paribus, an inflow of gold (an increase in QGOLD) or a devaluation (a rise in PGOLD) raises the money supply. However, equation (1) also
indicates three additional determinants of the inside money supply under the gold
standard:
(1) The "money multiplier," M1/BASE. In fractional-reserve banking systems,
the total money supply (including bank deposits) is larger than the monetary base.
As is familiar from textbook treatments, the so-called money multiplier, M1/BASE,
is a decreasing function of the currency-deposit ratio chosen by the public and the
reserve-deposit ratio chosen by commercial banks. At the beginning of the 1930s,
M1/BASE was relatively low (not much above one) in countries in which banking
was less developed, or in which people retained a preference for currency in transactions. In contrast, in the financially well-developed United States this ratio was
close to four in 1929.
(2) The inverse of the gold backing ratio, BASE/RES. Because central banks were
typically allowed to hold domestic assets as well as international reserves, the ratio
BASE/RE S—the inverse of the gold backing ratio (also called the coverage ratio)—
exceeded one. Statutory requirements usually set a minimum backing ratio (such as
the Federal Reserve's 40 percent requirement), implying a maximum value for
BASE/RES (for example, 2.5 in the United States). However, there was typically no
statutory minimum for BASE/RES, an important asymmetry. In particular, sterilization of gold inflows by surplus countries reduced average values of BASE/RES.
(3) The ratio of international reserves to gold, RES/GOLD. Under the gold-




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: MONEY, CREDIT, AND BANKING

exchange standard of the interwar period, foreign exchange convertible into gold
could be counted as international reserves, on a one-to-one basis with gold itself.3
Hence, except for a few "reserve currency" countries, the ratio RES/GOLD also
usually exceeded one.
Because the ratio of inside money to monetary base, the ratio of base to reserves,
and the ratio of reserves to monetary gold were all typically greater than one, the
money supplies of gold-standard countries—far from equalling the value of monetary gold, as might be suggested by a naive view of the gold standard—were often
large multiples of the value of gold reserves. Total stocks of monetary gold continued to grow through the 1930s; hence, the observed sharp declines in inside money
supplies must be attributed entirely to contractions in the average money-gold ratio.
Why did the world money-gold ratio decline? In the early part of the Depression
period, prior to 1931, the consciously chosen policies of some major central banks
played an important role (see, for example, Hamilton 1987). For example, it is now
rather widely accepted that Federal Reserve policy turned contractionary in 1928, in
an attempt to curb stock market speculation. In terms of quantities defined in equation (1), the ratio of the U.S. monetary base to U.S. reserves (BASE/RES) fell from
1.871 in June 1928, to 1.759 in June 1929, to 1.626 in June 1930, reflecting both
conscious monetary tightening and sterilization of induced gold inflows.4 Because
of this decline, the U.S. monetary base fell about 6 percent between June 1928 and
June 1930, despite a more-than-10 percent increase in U.S. gold reserves during the
same period. This flow of gold into the United States, like a similarly large inflow
into France following the Poincare' stabilization, drained the reserves of other goldstandard countries and forced them into parallel tight-money policies.5
However, in 1931 and subsequently, the large declines in the money-gold ratio
that occurred around the world did not reflect anyone's consciously chosen policy.
The proximate causes of these declines were the waves of banking panics and
exchange-rate crises that followed the failure of the Kreditanstalt, the largest bank in
Austria, in May 1931. These developments affected each of the components of the
money-gold ratio: First, by leading to rises in aggregate currency-deposit and bank
reserve-deposit ratios, banking panics typically led to sharp declines in the money
multiplier, M1/BASE (Friedman and Schwartz 1963; Bernanke and James 1991).
Second, exchange-rate crises and the associated fears of devaluation led central
banks to substitute gold for foreign exchange reserves; this flight from foreignexchange reserves reduced the ratio of total reserves to gold, RES/GOLD. Finally,
in the wake of these crises, central banks attempted to increase gold reserves and
coverage ratios as security against future attacks on their currencies; in many coun3. The gold-exchange standard was proposed by participants at the Genoa Conference of 1922, as a
means of averting a feared shortage of monetary gold. Although the Genoa recommendations were not
formally adopted, as the gold standard was reconstructed the reliance on foreign exchange reserves increased significantly relative to the prewar practice.
4. U.S. monetary data in this paragraph are from Friedman and Schwartz (1963). Sumner (1991) suggests the use of the coverage ratio as an indicator of the stance of monetary policy under a gold standard.
5. The gold flow into France was exacerbated by a 1928 law that induced a systematic conversion of
foreign exchange reserves into gold by the Bank of France; see Nurkse (1944).




BEN S. BERNANKE

: 7

tries, the resulting "scramble for gold" induced continuing declines in the ratio
BASE/RES.6
A particularly destabilizing aspect of this process was the tendency of fears about
the soundness of banks and expectations of exchange-rate devaluation to reinforce
each other (Bernanke and James 1991; Temin 1993). An element that the two types
of crises had in common was the so-called "hot money," short-term deposits held by
foreigners in domestic banks. On one hand, expectations of devaluation induced
outflows of the hot-money deposits (as well as flight by domestic depositors), which
threatened to trigger general bank runs. On the other hand, a fall in confidence in a
domestic banking system (arising, for example, from the failure of a major bank)
often led to a flight of short-term capital from the country, draining international
reserves and threatening convertibility. Other than abandoning the parity altogether,
central banks could do little in the face of combined banking and exchange-rate crises, as the former seemed to demand easy money policies while the latter required
monetary tightening.
From a theoretical perspective, the sharp declines in the money-gold ratio during
the early 1930s have an interesting implication: namely, that under the gold standard
as it operated during this period, there appeared to be multiple potential equilibrium
values of the money supply.1 Broadly speaking, when financial investors and other
members of the public were "optimistic," believing that the banking system would
remain stable and gold parities would be defended, the money-gold ratio and hence
the money stock itself remained "high." More precisely, confidence in the banks
allowed the ratio of inside money to base to remain high, while confidence in the
exchange rate made central banks willing to hold foreign exchange reserves and to
keep relatively low coverage ratios. In contrast, when investors and the general public became "pessimistic," anticipating bank runs and devaluation, these expectations
were to some degree self-confirming and resulted in "low" values of the money-gold
ratio and the money stock. In its vulnerability to self-confirming expectations, the
gold standard appears to have borne a strong analogy to a fractional-reserve banking
system in the absence of deposit insurance: For example, Diamond and Dybvig
(1983) have shown that in such a system there may be two Nash equilibria, one in
which depositor confidence ensures that there will be no run on the bank, the other
in which the fears of a run (and the resulting liquidation of the bank) are selfconfirming.
An interpretation of the monetary collapse of the interwar period as a jump from
one expectational equilibrium to another one fits neatly with Eichengreen's (1992)
comparison of the classical and interwar gold-standard periods [see also Eichengreen (forthcoming)]. According to Eichengreen, in the classical period, high levels
of central bank credibility and international cooperation generated stabilizing expectations, for example, speculators' activities tended to reverse rather than exacerbate
6. Declines in BASE/RES also reflected sterilization of gold inflows by gold-surplus countries
concerned about inflation; and, more benignly, the revaluation of gold reserves following currency
devaluations.
7. I am investigating this possibility more formally in ongoing work with Ilian Mihov.




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: MONEY, CREDIT, AND BANKING

movements of currency values away from official exchange rates. In contrast, Eichengreen argues, in the interwar period central banks' credibility was significantly
reduced by the lack of effective international cooperation (the result of lingering
animosities and the lack of effective leadership) and by changing domestic political
equilibria—notably, the growing power of the labor movement, which reduced the
perceived likelihood that the exchange rate would be defended at the cost of higher
unemployment. Banking conditions also changed significantly between the earlier
and later periods, as war, reconstruction, and the financial and economic problems of
the 1920s left the banks of many countries in a much weaker financial condition, and
thus more crisis-prone. For these reasons, destabilizing expectations and a resulting
low-level equilibrium for the money supply seemed much more likely in the interwar
environment.
Table 1 illustrates equation (1) with data from six representative countries. The
first three countries in the table were members of the Gold Bloc, who remained on
the gold standard until relatively late in the Depression (France and Poland left gold
in 1936, Belgium in 1935). The remaining three countries in the table abandoned
gold earlier: the United Kingdom and Sweden in 1931, the United States in 1933.
[Throughout this lecture I follow Bernanke and James (1991) in treating any major
departure from gold-standard rules, including devaluation or the imposition of exchange controls, as "leaving gold."] Of course, the gold leavers gained autonomy
for their domestic monetary policies; but as these countries continued to hold gold
reserves and set an official gold price, the components of equation (1) could still be
calculated for those countries.
Several useful points may be gleaned from Table 1: First, observe the strong correspondence between gold-standard membership and falling Ml money supplies (a
minor exception is Poland, which managed a small growth in nominal Ml between
1932 and 1936). Second, note the sharp declines in M1/BASE and RES/GOLD, reflecting (respectively) the banking crises and exchange crises (both of which peaked
in 1931). Third, the table shows the tendency of gold-surplus countries to sterilize
(that is, BASE/RES tends to fall in countries experiencing increases in gold stocks,
QGOLD).
A striking case shown in Table 1 is that of Belgium: Although that country was
the beneficiary of large gold inflows early in the Depression, the combination of
declines in M1/BASE (reflecting banking panics), RES/GOLD (reflecting liquidation of foreign-exchange reserves), and BASE/RES (the result of conscious sterilization early in the period, and of attempts to defend the exchange rate against
speculative attack later in the period) induced sharp declines in the Belgian money
stock. Similarly, because of falls in M1/BASE and RES/GOLD, France experienced
almost no nominal growth in Ml between 1930 and 1934, despite a more than 50
percent increase in gold reserves. The other Gold Bloc country in the table, Poland,
experienced monetary contraction principally because of loss of gold reserves.
Another interesting phenomenon shown in Table 1 is the tendency of countries
devaluing or leaving the gold standard to attract gold away from countries still on
the gold standard. In the table, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and the United States




TABLE 1
DETERMINANTS OF THE MONEY SUPPLY IN SIX COUNTRIES, 1929-1936

FRANCE (devalued October 1936)
Ml

Ml /BASE

BASE/RES

RES/GOLD

1.109
1.354
1.623
101562
1929
1.489
1.106
1.325
111720
1930
1.307
1.101
1.239
122748
1931
1.054
1.010
1.263
121519
1932
1.015
1.156
1.264
114386
1933
1.012
1.098
1.244
113451
1934
1.020
1.298
1.230
1935
108009
1.024
1.557
1.218
117297
1936
POLAND (imposed exchange control April 1936, devalued October 1936)
Ml

2284
1929
1930
2212
1931
1945
1932
1773
1933
1802
1934
1861
1935
1897
1936
2059
BELGIUM (devalued March
Ml

Ml

988
1030
1021
1004
1085
1205
1353
1557




2456.3
3158.4
4059.4
4893.9
4544.9
4841.2
3908.1
2661.8
QGOLD

BASE/RES

RES/GOLD

PGOLD

1.339
1.328
1.267
1.275
1.280
1.301
1.277
1.340
1935)

1.390
1.709
1.888
2.177
2.496
2.693
3.155
3.634

1.750
1.735
1.355
1.273
1.185
1.056
1.061
1.076

5.92
5.92
5.92
5.92
5.92
5.92
5.92
5.92

M l /BASE

BASE/RES

RES/GOLD

PGOLD

Ml /BASE

1.560
1929
1328
1930
1.618
1361
1931
1.579
1229
1932
1.667
1362
1933
1.680
1408
1934
1.642
1449
1935
1565
1.694
1936
1.700
1755
SWEDEN (suspended gold standard
1929
1930
1931
1932
1933
1934
1935
1936

QGOLD

16.96
16.96
16.96
16.96
16.96
16.96
16.96
22.68

Ml /BASE

1.492
1.949
2.504
1929
42788
1930
46420
2.336
1.697
1.707
1931
44863
2.047
1.266
1.358
1.395
1.265
1932
41349
1.805
1933
40382
1.754
1.314
1.282
1934
NA
NA
1.113
1.266
1935
1.063
1.378
39956
1.579
1936
43314
1.637
1.098
1.293
UNITED KINGDOM (suspended gold standard September 1931)
Ml

PGOLD

BASE/RES

5.825
5.699
6.452
6.823
4.395
4.590
4.615
3.291
September 1931)

RES/GOLD

1.0
1.0
1.0
1.0
1.0
1.0
1.0
1.0

23.90
23.90
23.90
23.90
23.90
23.90
33.19
33.19

118.3
94.9
101.3
84.7
80.3
84.9
74.9
66.3
QGOLD

245.9
287.1
533.4
543.1
571.9
524.0
520.8
561.6

PGOLD

QGOLD

0.1366
0.1366
0.1366
0.1366
0.1366
0.1366
0.1366
0.1366

1069.8
1080.8
883.8
877.2
1396.4
1408.1
1465.2
2297.0
QGOLD

M1/BASE

BASE/RES

RES/GOLD

PGOLD

1.498
1.508
1.522
1.373
1.106
1.211
1.268
1.211

1.280
1.082
2.631
1.740
1.202
1.101
1.029
1.032

2.082
2.618
1.238
2.039
2.205
2.575
2.542
2.355

2.48
2.48
2.48
2.48
2.48
2.48
2.48
2.48

98.8
97.2
83.1
83.1
149.2
141.5
164.5
213.3
(continued)

10

: MONEY, CREDIT, AND BANKING

TABLE 1

{Continued)

UNITED STATES (suspended gold standard March 1933)
M\

1929
1930
1931
1932
1933
1934
1935
1936

26434
24922
21894
20341
19759
22774
27032
30852

M1/

BASE

BASE/RES

3.788
3.498
2.831
2.534
2.380
2.396
2.335
2.327

1.746
1.655
1.854
1.900
2.057
1.154
1.144
1.178

RES/GOLD

10
.
10
.
10
.
10
.
10
.
10
.
10
.
10
.

PGOLD

QGOLD

0.6646
0.6646
0.6646
0.6646
0.6646
1.1253
1.1253
1.1253

6014.0
6478.9
6278.8
6358.6
6072.7
7320.9
8997.8
10004.7

NOTES: The table illustrates the identity, equation (1), for six countries. Where possible, values are end-of-year. Data sources are given in
the Appendix.
Definitions are as follows:
MX — Money and notes in circulation plus commercial bank deposits; in local currency (millions).
BASE = Money and notes in circulation plus commercial bank reserves; in local currency.
RES = International reserves (gold plus foreign assets); valued in local currency.
GOLD = Gold reserves; valued in local currency at the official gold price = PGOLD x QGOLD.
PGOLD — Official gold price (units of local currency per gram); for countries not on the gold standard, a legal fiction rather than a market
price.
QGOLD = Physical quantity of gold reserves; in metric tons.

all experienced significant gold inflows starting in 1933. This seemingly perverse
result reflected the greater confidence of speculators in already depreciated currencies, relative to the clearly overvalued currencies of the Gold Bloc. This flow of
gold away from some important Gold Bloc countries was the final nail in the gold
standard's coffin.
1.2. The Macroeconomic Implications of the Choice of Exchange-rate Regime
We have seen that countries adhering to the international gold standard suffered
largely unintended and unanticipated declines in their inside money stocks in the
late 1920s and early 1930s. These declines in inside money stocks, particularly in
1931 and later, were naturally influenced by macroeconomic conditions; but they
were hardly continuous, passive responses to changes in output. Instead, money
supplies evolved discontinuously in response to financial and exchange-rate crises,
crises whose roots in turn lay primarily in the political and economic conditions of
the 1920s and in the institutional structure as rebuilt after the war. Thus, to a first
approximation, it seems reasonable to characterize these monetary shocks as exogenous with respect to contemporaneous output, suggesting a significant causal role
for monetary forces in the world depression.
However, even stronger evidence for the role of nominal factors in the Depression
is provided by a comparison of the experiences of countries that continued to adhere
to the gold standard with those that did not. Although, as has been mentioned, the
great majority of countries had returned to gold by the late 1920s, there was considerable variation in the strength of national allegiances to gold during the 1930s:
Many countries left gold following the crises of 1931, notably the "sterling bloc"
(the United Kingdom and its trading partners). Other countries held out a few years
more before capitulating (for example, the United States in 1933, Italy in 1934).
Finally, the diehard Gold Bloc nations, led by France, remained on gold until the




BEN S. BERNANKE

: 11

final collapse of the system in late 1936. Because countries leaving gold effectively
removed the external constraint on monetary reflation, to the extent that they took
advantage of this freedom we should observe these countries enjoying earlier and
stronger recoveries than the countries remaining on the gold standard.
That a clear divergence between the two groups of countries did occur was first
noticed in a pathbreaking paper by Choudhri and Kochin (1980), who considered
the relative performances of Spain (which as mentioned never joined the gold standard club), three Scandinavian countries (which left gold following the sterling crisis in September 1931), and four countries that remained part of the Gold Bloc (the
Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Poland). Choudhri and Kochin found that the goldstandard countries suffered substantially more severe contractions in output and
prices than did Spain and the three Scandinavian nations. In another important paper, Eichengreen and Sachs (1985) examined a number of macro variables in a sample of ten major countries over the period 1929-1935; they found that by 1935
countries that had left gold relatively early had largely recovered from the Depression, while the Gold Bloc countries remained at low levels of output and employment. Bernanke and James (1991) confirmed the general findings of the earlier
authors for a broader sample of twenty-four (mostly industrialized) countries, and
Campa (1990) did the same for a sample of Latin American countries.
If choices of exchange-rate regime were random, these results would leave little
doubt as to the importance of nominal factors in determining real outcomes in the
Depression. Of course, in practice the decision about whether to leave the gold standard was endogenous to a degree, and so we must be concerned with the possibility
that the results of the literature are spurious, that is, that some underlying factor
accounted for both the choice of exchange-rate regime and the subsequent differences in economic performance. In fact, these results are very unlikely to be spurious, for two general reasons:
First, as has been documented in detail by Eichengreen (1992) and others, for
most countries the decision to remain on or leave the gold standard was strongly
influenced by internal and external political factors and by prevailing economic and
philosophical beliefs. For example, the French decision to stay with gold reflected,
among other things, a desire to preserve at any cost the benefits of the Poincare'
stabilization and the associated distributional bargains among domestic groups; an
overwhelmingly dominant economic view (shared even by the Communists) that
sound money and fiscal austerity were the best long-run antidotes to the Depression;
and what can only be described as a strong association of national pride with maintenance of the gold standard.8 Indeed, as Bernanke and James (1991) point out, economic conditions in 1929 and 1930 were on average quite similar in those countries
8. The differences in world views were most apparent at the ill-fated 1933 London Economic Conference, in which Gold Bloc delegates decried lack of sound money as the root of all evil, while representatives of the sterling bloc stressed the imperatives of reflation and economic expansion (Eichengreen and
Uzan 1993). The persistence of these attitudes across decades is fascinating; note the attachment of the
French to the franc fort in the recent troubles of the EMS, and the contrasting willingness of the British
(as in September 1931) to abandon the fixed exchange rate in the pursuit of domestic macroeconomic
objectives.




12

: MONEY, CREDIT, AND BANKING

that were to leave gold in 1931 and those that would not; thus it is difficult to view
this choice as being simply a reflection of cross-sectional differences in macroeconomic performance.
Second, and perhaps even more compelling, is that any bias created by endogeneity of the decision to leave gold would appear to go the wrong way, as it were,
to explain the facts: The presumption is that economically weaker countries, or
those suffering the deepest depressions, would be the first to devalue or abandon
gold. Yet the evidence is that countries leaving gold recovered substantially more
rapidly and vigorously than those who did not. Hence, any correction for endogeneity bias in the choice of exchange-rate regime should tend to strengthen the association of economic expansion and the abandonment of gold.
Tables 2 and 3 below extend the results of Bernanke and James (1991) on the links
between exchange-rate regime and macroeconomic performance, using a data set
similar to theirs. Both tables employ annual data on thirteen macroeconomic variables for up to twenty-six countries, depending on availability (see the Appendix for
a list of countries, data sources, and data availabilities). Following similar tables in
Bernanke and James, Table 2 shows average values of the log-changes of each variable (except for nominal and real interest rates, which are measured in percentage
points) for all countries in the sample, and for the subsets of countries on and off the
gold standard in each year.9 Averages for the whole sample are reported for each
year from 1930 to 1936; because almost all countries were on gold in 1930 and
almost all had left gold by 1936, averages for the subsamples are shown for 19311935 only.
The statistical significance of the divergences between gold and nongold countries is assessed in Table 3. Lines marked "a" in Table 3 present the results of paneldata regressions of each of the macroeconomic variables in Table 2 against a constant, yearly time dummies, and a dummy variable for gold-standard membership
(ONGOLD). (Lines in Table 3 marked "b" should be ignored for now.) For each
country-year observation, the variable ONGOLD indicates the fraction of the year
that the country was on the gold standard (the number of months on the gold standard divided by twelve). The regressions use data for 1931-1935 inclusive, but the
results are not sensitive to adding data from 1930 or 1936 or to dropping 1931. Because each regression contains a full set of annual time dummies, the estimated coefficients of ONGOLD in each regression may be interpreted as reflecting purely
cross-sectional differences between countries on and off gold, holding constant average macroeconomic conditions. Absolute values of t-statistics, given under each estimated coefficient, indicate the significance of the between-group differences.
Tables 2 and 3 are generally quite consistent with the conclusions that (1) mone9. As noted earlier, we treat a country as leaving gold if it deviates seriously from gold-standard rules,
for example, by imposing comprehensive controls or devaluing, as well as if it formally renounces the
gold standard. Dates of changes in gold-standard policies for twenty-four of our countries are given by
Bernanke and James, Table 2.1. In addition, we take Argentina and Switzerland as leaving gold on their
official devaluation dates (December 1929 and October 1936, respectively). Reported values are simple
within-group averages of the data; however, weighting the results by gold reserves held or relative to
1929 production levels (available in League of Nations 1945) did not qualitatively change the results.




TABLE 2
AVERAGE BEHAVIOR OF SELECTED MACRO VARIABLES FOR COUNTRIES ON AND OFF THE GOLD

STANDARD, 1930-1936
1930

1931

1932

1. Manufacturing production (log-change)
Average
-.066
-.116
-.090
ON
-.117
-.173
OFF
-.113
-.057
2. Wholesale prices (log-change)
Average
-.116
-.122
-.045
ON
-.140
-.133
-.084
OFF
-.011
3. Ml money supply (log-change)
Average
.016
-.088
-.068
ON
-.094
-.088
OFF
-.076
-.060
4. Ml-currency ratio (log-change)
Average
.030
-.129
-.006
ON
-.142
-.052
OFF
.014
-.102
5. Nominal wages (log-change)
Average
.004
-.030
-.053
ON
-.027
-.070
OFF
-.039
-.045
6. Real wages (log-change)
Average
.122
.094
.007
ON
.110
.064
OFF
.059
-.020
7. Employment (log-change)
Average
-.066
-.117
-.074
ON
-.113
-.137
OFF
-.127
-.047
8. Nominal interest rate (percentage points)
Average
5.31
5.43
5.29
ON
5.22
4.20
OFF
5.90
5.68
9. Ex-post real interest rate (percentage points)
Average
16.89
9.39
6.51
ON
9.41
10.38
OFF
5.47
7.16
10. Relative price of exports (log-change)
Average
-.033
-.011
-.047
ON
.003
-.019
OFF
-.058
-.040
11. Real exports (log-change)
Average
-.073
-.179
-.222
ON
-.193
-.292
OFF
-.146
-.192
12. Real imports (log-change)
Average
-.071
-.211
-.264
ON
-.159
-.250
-.315
-.271
OFF
13. Real share prices (log-change)
Average
-.107
-.186
ON
-.181
-.198
OFF

-.214
-.219
-.211

1933

1934

1935

1936

.076
.068
.078

.100
.025
.120

.074
-.001
.008

.072

-.017
-.065
-.002

.018
-.037
.033

.024
-.038
.036

.048

-.006
-.045
.007

.019
-.013
.028

.027
-.067
.046

.074

-.024
-.009
-.030

-.002
-.016
.002

-.011
-.037
-.006

-.011

-.030
-.033
-.029

-.002
-.031
.007

-.001
-.022
.004

.031

-.009
.032
-.025

-.023
.005
-.032

-.022
.016
-.031

-.018

.050
.006
.065

.096
.028
.113

.064
-.016
.083

.068

4.37
3.69
4.56

3.97
3.26
4.13

3.89
4.05
3.86

3.79

2.78
6.94
1.64

1.11
3.35
0.61

-1.19
-4.92
-0.62

-8.93

.076
.134
.058

.084
.140
.070

-.067
-.112
-.058

.039

.014
-.008
.021

.056
.015
.067

.021
-.024
.030

.072

.004
-.006
.008

.038
-.067
.070

.020
-.012
.027

.049

.133
.139
.130

.060
-.028
.092

.091
.062
.098

.115

NOTES: For each variable and year, the table presents the overall average value of the variable, and the average for countries on and off the
gold standard in that year (see Bernanke and James 1991). As most countries were on the gold standard in 1930 and off the gold standard in
1936, disaggregated data for those years are not presented. Data are annual and for up to twenty-six countries, depending on data availability
(see the Appendix). Real wages, real share prices, and the ex postrealrateof interest are computed using the wholesale price index. If a
country is on the gold standard for a fraction f of a particular year, the values of its variables for the whole year are counted with the gold
standard countries with weight f and with non-gold-standard countries with weight l-f for that year. The proportion of country-months "on
gold" in each year are as follows: 0.676 (1931), 0.282 (1932), 0.237 (1933), 0.205 (1934), 0.160 (1935).




TABLE 3
REGRESSIONS OF SELECTED MACRO VARIABLES AGAINST GOLD STANDARD AND BANKING PANIC

DUMMIES, 1931-1935
ONGOLD

Dependent variable

Manufacturing
production

(la)
(lb)

Wholesale
prices

(2a)
(2b)

Money supply
(Ml)

(3a)
(3b)

Ml-currency
ratio
Nominal
wages

(4a)
(4b)
(5a)
(5b)

Real wages

(6a)
(6b)

Employment

(7a)
(7b)

Nominal interest rate

(8a)
(8b)

Ex-post real
interest rate

(9a)
(9b)

Relative price
of exports

(10a)
(10b)

Real exports

(Ha)
(l1b)

Real imports

(12a)
(12b)

Real share
prices

(13a)
(13b)

-.0704
(4.04)
-.0496
(2.80)
-.0914
(8.20)
-.0885
(7.47)
-.0534
(3.26)
-.0344
(2.06)
-.0329
(1.91)
-.0176
(0.99)
-.0204
(2.62)
-.0145
(1.78)
.0605
(5.84)
.0656
(5.99)
-.0610
(4.38)
-.0507
(3.48)
-1.22
(2.83)
-1.00
(2.20)
2.70
(2.07)
2.16
(1.56)
.0464
(1.70)
.0288
(1.00)
-.0745
(2.08)
-.0523
(1.39)
-.0000
(0.00)
.0232
(0.75)
-.0299
(1.12)
-.0206
(0.72)

PANIC

Adjusted R2

0.601
-.0926
(3.50)

0.634
0.622

-.0129
(0.73)

0.620
0.297

-.0846
(3.40)

0.352
0.263

-.0680
(2.55)

0.294
0.196

-.0262
(2.16)

0.219
0.466

-.0230
(1.41)

0.470
0.557

-.0458
(2.10)

0.569
0.109

-0.97
(1.43)

0.116
0.264

2.39
(1.16)

0.266
0.198

.0783
(1.83)

0.213
0.323

-.0990
(1.76)

0.334
0.416

-.1036
(2.25)

0.435
0.354

-0.413
(0.97)

0.354

NOTES: Entries are estimated coefficients from regressions of the dependent variables against dummies for adherence to the gold standard
(ONGOLD) and for the presence of a banking panic (PANIC). Absolute values of t-statistics are in parentheses. Dependent variables are
measured in log-changes, except for the nominal and ex post real interest rates, which are in percentage points (levels). Data are annual,
1931 to 1935 inclusive, and for up to twenty-six countries, depending on data availability (see the Appendix). Each regression includes a
complete set of year dummies. ONGOLD and PANIC are measured as the number of months during the year in which the country was on
gold or experiencing a banking panic (see text), divided by twelve.




BEN S. BERNANKE

:

15

tary contraction was an important source of the Depression in all countries; (2) subsequent to 1931 or 1932, there was a sharp divergence between countries which
remained on the gold standard and those that left it; and (3) this divergence arose
because countries leaving the gold standard had greater freedom to initiate expansionary monetary policies.
Turning first to the behavior of money supplies, we can see from Table 2 (line 3)
that the inside money stocks of all countries contracted sharply in 1931 and 1932. In
an arithmetic sense, much of this contraction can be attributed to declines in the
ratio of M1 to currency (line 4), which in turn primarily reflected the effects of banking crises (note the concentration of this effect in 1931).10 During the period 1933—
1935, however, Table 2 shows that the money supplies of gold-standard countries
continued to contract, while those of countries not on the gold standard expanded.
Table 3 (line 3a) indicates that, over the 1931-1935 period, the growth rate of Ml
(line 3a) in countries on gold averaged about 5 percentage points per year less than
in countries off gold, with an absolute t-value of 3.26.
The behavior of price levels corresponded closely to the behavior of money
stocks. Table 2 (line 2) shows that, although a sharp deflation occurred in all countries through 1931, in countries leaving gold wholesale prices stabilized in 19321933 and began, on average, to rise in 1934.11 Countries remaining on gold experienced continuing deflation through 1935, leading to a cumulative difference in log
price levels over 1932-1935 of .329. According to Table 3 (line 2a), over the 19311935 period wholesale price inflation was about 9 percentage points per year lower
(absolute t-value = 8.20) in countries on gold.
Declines in output and employment were strongly correlated with money and
price declines: Manufacturing production (Table 2, line 1) and employment (Table
2, line 7) fell in all countries in 1930-1931 but afterward began to diverge between
the two groups. Over the period 1932-1935, the cumulative difference in log output
levels was .310, and the cumulative difference in log employment levels was .301,
in favor of countries not on gold. The corresponding absolute t-values (Table 3, lines
la and 7a, for the 1931-1935 sample) were 4.04 and 4.38 for output and employment, respectively. These are highly significant differences, both economically and
statistically.
The behavior of other macro variables shown in Tables 2 and 3 are also generally consistent with the monetary-shocks story. For example, a standard MundellFleming analysis of a small gold-standard economy (Eichengreen and Sachs 1986)
would predict that monetary contraction abroad would depress domestic aggregate
demand by raising the domestic real interest rate. It also would predict an increase
10. The preferred measure, Ml/BASE, is not used owing to lack of data on commercial bank reserves
for many countries in the sample. Note from Table 3, line 4a, that the fall in the M1 -currency ratio is
greater on average in gold-standard countries (and the difference is statistically significant at approximately the 5 percent level), consistent with our earlier observation that banking problems were more
severe in gold-standard countries.
11. Thus price-level stabilization preceded monetary stabilization in the typical country leaving gold.
A possible explanation is that devaluation raised expectations of future inflation, lowering money demand and raising current prices.




16 : MONEY, CREDIT, AND BANKING

in the domestic real exchange rate (price of exports), relative to countries not on
gold, and an accompanying decline in real exports. Table 2 (line 9) shows that ex
post real interest rates were universally high in 1930, coming down gradually in
both gold and nongold countries, but being consistently lower in countries not on
gold.12 Table 3 (line 9a) confirms that, on average, ex post real interest rates were
2.7 percentage points higher in gold-standard countries (t = 2.07). The real exchange rate in gold-standard countries (line 10a of Table 3, measured relative to the
United States) grew on average close to 5 percentage points per year relative to that
of nongold countries (but with a t-value of only 1.70), and correspondingly real exports (Table 3, line 1 la) of gold-standard countries fell between 7 and 8 percentage
points per year more quickly (absolute t-value = 2.08). There was no difference in
the growth rates of imports between gold and nongold countries (Table 3, line 12a),
presumably reflecting the offsetting effects in Gold Bloc countries of lower domestic
income and improved terms of trade.
Interestingly, real share prices (a nominal share-price index deflated by the wholesale price index) did not fare that much worse in gold-standard countries, falling
about 3 percentage points a year faster (absolute t-value = 1.12). There are significant differences between gold and nongold countries in the behavior of nominal and
real wages, but as these variables are most closely linked to issues of aggregate supply, we defer discussion of them until the next section.
2. AGGREGATE SUPPLY: THE FAILURE OF NOMINAL ADJUSTMENT

Although the consensus view of the causes of the Great Depression has long included a role for monetary shocks, we have seen in section 1 that recent research
taking a comparative perspective has greatly strengthened the empirical case for
money as a major driving force. Further, the effects of monetary contraction on real
economic variables appeared to be persistent as well as large. Explaining this persistent non-neutrality is particularly challenging to contemporary macroeconomists,
since current theories of non-neutrality (such as those based on menu costs or the
confusion of relative and absolute price levels) typically predict that the real effects
of monetary shocks will be transitory.
On the aggregate supply side, then, we still have a puzzle: Why did the process of
adjustment to nominal shocks appear to take so long in interwar economies? In this
12. A finding that ex post real interest rates were higher in gold-standard countries of course does not
settle whether ex ante real interest rates were higher; that depends on whether deflation was anticipated.
For the U.S. case, Cecchetti (1992) finds evidence for, and Hamilton (1992) finds evidence against, the
proposition that people anticipated the declines in the price level. (I do not know of any studies of this
issue for countries other than the United States.) This debate bears less on the question of whether the
initiating shocks were monetary than it does on the particular channel of transmission: If deflation was
anticipated, so that the ex ante real interest rate was high, then the channel of monetary transmission was
through conventional IS curve effects. If deflation was unanticipated, as both Cecchetti and Hamilton
note, then one must rely more on a debt-deflation mechanism (see section 2). The behavior of nominal
interest rates, which remained well above zero in most countries and were not substantially lower in goldstandard than in non-gold-standard countries (Table 2, line 8), suggests to me that much of the deflation
was not expected, at least at the medium-term horizon. Evans and Wachtel (1993) draw a similar conclusion based on U.S. nominal interest rate behavior.




BEN S. BERNANKE

:

17

section I will discuss the evidence for two leading explanations of how monetary
shocks may have had long-lived effects: induced financial crisis and sticky nominal
wages.
2.1. Deflation and the Financial System
If one thinks about important sets of contracts in the economy that are set in nominal terms, and which are unlikely to be implicitly insured or indexed against unanticipated price-level changes, financial contracts (such as debt instruments) come
immediately to mind. In my 1983 paper I argued that nonindexation of financial
contracts may have provided a mechanism through which declining money stocks
and price levels could have had real effects on the U.S. economy of the 1930s. I
discussed two related channels, one operating through "debt-deflation" and the other through bank capital and stability.
The idea of debt-deflation goes back to Irving Fisher (1933). Fisher envisioned a
dynamic process in which falling asset and commodity prices created pressure on
nominal debtors, forcing them into distress sales of assets, which in turn led to further price declines and financial difficulties.13 His diagnosis led him to urge President Roosevelt to subordinate exchange-rate considerations to the need for reflation,
advice that (ultimately) FDR followed. Fisher's idea was less influential in academic circles, though, because of the counterargument that debt-deflation represented no more than a redistribution from one group (debtors) to another (creditors).
Absent implausibly large differences in marginal spending propensities among the
groups, it was suggested, pure redistributions should have no significant macroeconomic effects.
However, the debt-deflation idea has recently experienced a revival, which has
drawn its inspiration from the burgeoning literature on imperfect information and
agency costs in capital markets.14 According to the agency approach, which has
come to dominate modern corporate finance, the structure of balance sheets provides an important mechanism for aligning the incentives of the borrower (the
agent) and the lender (the principal). One central feature of the balance sheet is the
borrower's net worth, defined to be the borrower's own ("internal") funds plus
the collateral value of his illiquid assets. Many simple principal-agent models imply
that a decline in the borrower's net worth increases the deadweight agency costs of
lending, and thus the net cost of financing the borrower's proposed investments.
Intuitively, if a borrower can contribute relatively little to his or her own project and
hence must rely primarily on external finance, then the borrower's incentives to take
actions that are not in the lender's interest may be relatively high; the result is both
deadweight losses (for example, inefficiently high risk-taking or low effort) and the
necessity of costly information provision and monitoring. If the borrower's net
worth falls below a threshold level, he or she may not be able to obtain funds at all.
13. Kiyotaki and Moore (1993) provide a formal analysis that captures some of Fisher's intuition.
14. An important early paper that applied this approach to consumer spending in the Depression is
Mishkin (1978). Bernanke and Gertler (1990) provide a theoretical analysis of debt-deflation. See Calomiris (1993) for a recent survey of the role of financial factors in the Depression.




18

: MONEY, CREDIT, AND BANKING

From the agency perspective, a debt-deflation that unexpectedly redistributes
wealth away from borrowers is not a macroeconomically neutral event: To the extent
that potential borrowers have unique or lower-cost access to particular investment
projects or spending opportunities, the loss of borrower net worth effectively cuts
off these opportunities from the economy. Thus, for example, a financially distressed firm may not be able to obtain working capital necessary to expand production, or to fund a project that would be viable under better financial conditions.
Similarly, a household whose current nominal income has fallen relative to its debts
may be barred from purchasing a new home, even though purchase is justified in a
permanent-income sense. By inducing financial distress in borrower firms and
households, debt-deflation can have real effects on the economy.
If the extent of debt-deflation is sufficiently severe, it can also threaten the health
of banks and other financial intermediaries (the second channel). Banks typically
have both nominal assets and nominal liabilities and so over a certain range are
hedged against deflation. However, as the distress of banks' borrowers increases,
the banks' nominal claims are replaced by claims on real assets (for example, collateral); from that point, deflation squeezes the banks as well.15 Actual and potential
loan losses arising from debt-deflation impair bank capital and hurt banks' economic
efficiency in several ways: First, particularly in a system without deposit insurance,
depositor runs and withdrawals deprive banks of funds for lending; to the extent that
bank lending is specialized or information-intensive, these loans are not easily replaced by nonbank forms of credit. Second, the threat of runs also induces banks to
increase the liquidity and safety of their assets, further reducing normal lending activity. (The most severely decapitalized banks, however, may have incentives to
make very risky loans, in a gambling strategy.) Finally, bank and branch closures
may destroy local information capital and reduce the provision of financial services.
How macroeconomically significant were financial effects in the interwar period?
My 1983 paper, which considered only the U.S. case, showed that measures of the
liabilities of failing commercial firms and the deposits of failing banks helped predict monthly changes in industrial production, in an equation that also included
lagged values of money and prices. However, this evidence is not really conclusive:
For example, as Green and Whiteman (1992) pointed out, the spikes in commercial
and banking failures in 1931 and 1932 could well be functioning as a dummy variable, picking up whatever forces—financial or otherwise—caused the U.S. Depression to take a sharp second dip during that period. As with the debate on the role of
money, the problem is the reliance on what amounts to one data point.
However, in the comparative spirit of the new gold standard research, Bernanke
and James (1991) studied the macroeconomic effects of financial crises in a panel of
twenty-four countries. The expansion of the sample brought with it data limitations:
Bernanke and James used annual rather than monthly data, and lack of data on indebtedness and financial distress forced them to confine their analysis to the effects
15. Banks in universal banking systems, such as those of central Europe, held a mixture of real and
nominal assets (for example, they held equity as well as debt). Universal banks were thus subject to
pressure even earlier in the deflationary process.




BEN S. BERNANKE

:

19

of banking panics. Further, not having a consistent quantitative measure of banking
instability, they chose to use dummy variables to indicate periods of banking crisis
(as suggested by their reading of historical sources). Offsetting these disadvantages,
expanding the sample made it possible to compare the U.S. case with both countries
that also suffered severe banking problems and countries in which banking remained
stable despite the Depression. In particular, Bernanke and James argued that crossnational differences in vulnerability to banking crises had more to do with institutional and policy differences than macroeconomic conditions, strengthening the
case that banking panics had an independent macroeconomic effect (as opposed to
being a purely passive response to the general economic downturn).16
As a measure of banking instability, Bernanke and James constructed a dummy
variable called PANIC, which they defined as the number of months during each
year that countries in their sample suffered banking crises.17 In regressions controlling for a variety of factors, including the rate of change of prices, wages, and money stocks, the growth rate of exports, and discount rate policy, Bernanke and James
found an economically large and highly statistically significant effect of banking
panics on industrial production.
A reduced-form summary of the effects of PANIC on our list of macro variables is
given in the rows of Table 3 marked "b," which reports estimated coefficients from
regressions of each macro variable against PANIC, the dummy for gold standard
membership (ONGOLD), and time dummies for each year. For these estimates we
have divided the Bernanke-James PANIC variable by twelve, so that its estimated
coefficients may be interpreted as annualized effects.
The results suggest important macroeconomic effects of bank panics that are both
independent of gold-standard effects and consistent with theoretical predictions: On
the real side of the economy, PANIC is found to have economically large and statistically significant effects on manufacturing production (line lb) and employment
(line 7b). In particular, with gold-standard membership controlled for, the effect of a
year of banking panic on the log-change of manufacturing production is estimated to
be -.0926 with an absolute t-value of 3.50; and the effect on the log-change of
employment is —.0456, with a t-value of 2.10. Banking panics are also found to
reduce both real and nominal wages (lines 6b and 5b), hurt competitiveness and
exports (lines 10b and 1lb), raise the ex post real interest rate (line 9b), and reduce
16. Factors cited by Bernanke and James as contributing to banking panics included banking structure
("universal" banking systems and systems with many small banks were more vulnerable); reliance on
short-term foreign liabilities; and the country's financial and economic experiences and banking policies
during the 1920s. See Grossman (1993) for a more detailed and generally complementary analysis of the
causes of interwar banking panics.
17. Bernanke and James dated periods of crisis as starting from the first severe banking problems, as
determined from a reading of primary and secondary sources. If there was some clear demarcation point,
such as the U.S. banking holiday of March 1933, that point was used as the ending data of the crisis;
otherwise, they arbitrarily assumed that the effects of the crisis would last for one year after its most
intense point. Countries with nonzero values of PANIC included Austria, Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Rumania, and the United States. Results presented here add data
for Argentina and Switzerland to the Bernanke-James sample; consistent with the Bernanke-James banking crisis chronology, we treat Switzerland (July 1931-November 1933) as a crisis country. Grossman
(1993) includes all of these countries as "crisis" countries in his study but differs in counting Norway as a
crisis country as well.




20

: MONEY, CREDIT, AND BANKING

real share prices (line 13b), although estimated coefficients are not always statistically significant.
On the nominal side of the economy, banking panics significantly lower the money multiplier (proxied in line 4b of Table 3 by the ratio of Ml to currency), as expected. We also find (line 3b) that banking panics in a country significantly reduce
the Ml money stock. This effect on the money supply is actually inconsistent with a
simple Mundell-Fleming model of a small open economy on the gold standard:
With worldwide conditions held constant (by the time dummies), a small country's
money stock is determined by domestic money demand, so that any declines in the
money multiplier should be offset by endogenous inflows of gold reserves. Possible
reconciliations of the empirical result with the model are that banking panics lowered domestic Ml money demand or raised the probability of exchange-rate devaluation (either would induce an outflow of reserves); our finding above that panics
raised the real interest rate fit with the latter possibility. A finding that is consistent
with the Mundell-Fleming model is that, once gold-standard membership is controlled for, banking panics had no effect on wholesale prices (line 2b). This last result is important, because it suggests that the observed effects of panics on output
and other real variables are operating largely through nonmonetary channels, for
example, the disruption of credit flows.
As with the earlier debate about the role of monetary shocks, moving from a focus on the U.S. case to a comparative international perspective provides much
stronger evidence on the potential role of banking crises in the Depression. Ideally,
we should like to extend this evidence to the broader debt-deflation story as well.
Indeed, the strong presumption is that debt-deflation effects were much more pervasive than banking crises, which were relatively more localized in space and time.
Unfortunately, consistent international data on types and amounts of inside debt,
and on various indicators of financial distress, are not generally available.18
2.2. Deflation and Nominal Wages
Induced financial crisis is a relatively novel proposal for solving the aggregate
supply puzzle of the Depression. The more traditional explanation of monetary nonneutrality in the 1930s, as in macroeconomics more generally, is that nominal wages
and/or prices were slow to adjust in the face of monetary shocks. In fact, widely
available price indexes, such as wholesale and consumer price indexes, show relatively little nominal inertia during this period (admittedly, the same is not true for
many individual prices, such as industrial prices). Hence—in contradistinction to
contemporary macroeconomics, which has come to emphasize price over wage
rigidity—research on the interwar period has focused on the slow adjustment of
nominal wages as a source of nonneutrality. Following that lead, in this subsection I
18. Eichengreen and Grossman (1994) attempt to measure debt-deflation by an indirect indicator, the
spread between the central bank discount rate and the interest rate on commercial paper. As they note,
this indicator is not wholly satisfactory and they obtain mixed results.




BEN S. BERNANKE

: 21

discuss the comparative empirical evidence for sticky wages in the Depression. I
defer for the moment the deeper question of how wages could have failed to adjust,
given the extreme labor-market conditions of the Depression era.
The link between nominal wage adjustment and aggregate supply is straightforward: If nominal wages adjust imperfectly, then falling price levels raise real wages;
employers respond by cutting their workforces.19 Similarly, in a country experiencing monetary reflation, real wages should fall, permitting reemployment. Although
the cyclically of real wages has been much debated in the postwar context, these
two implications of the sticky-wage hypothesis are clearly borne out by the comparative interwar data, as can be seen in Tables 2 and 3:
First, during the worldwide deflation of 1930 and 1931, nominal wages worldwide fell much less slowly than (wholesale) prices, leading to significant increases
in the ratio of nominal wages to prices (Table 2, lines 2 , 5 , and 6). Associated with
this sharp increase in real wages were declines in employment and output (Table 2,
lines 7 and 1). 20
Second, from about 1932 on, there was a marked divergence in real-wage behavior between countries on and off the gold standard (Table 2, line 6): In countries
leaving gold, prices rose more quickly than nominal wages (indeed, the latter continued to fall for a while), so that real wages fell; simultaneously, employment rose
sharply. In countries remaining on gold, real wages rose or stabilized and employment remained stagnant. Table 3 (line 6a) indicates a difference in real wage growth
between countries on and off the gold standard equivalent to about 6 percentage
points per year, with a t-value of 5.84.
This latter result, that real-wage behavior varied widely between countries in and
out of the Gold Bloc, was first pointed out in the previously cited article by
Eichengreen and Sachs (1985). Using data from ten European countries for 1935,
Eichengreen and Sachs showed that Gold Bloc countries systematically had high
real wages and low levels of industrial output, while countries not on gold had much
lower real wages and higher levels of production (all variables were measured relative to 1929).
In a recent paper, Bernanke and Carey (1994) extended the Eichengreen-Sachs
analysis in a number of ways: First, they expanded the sample from ten to twentytwo countries, and they employed annual data for 1931-1936 rather than for 1935
only. Second, to avoid the spurious attribution to real wages of price effects operat19. In the standard analysis, increases in the real wage lead to declines in employment because employers move northwest along their neoclassical labor demand curves. An alternative possible channel is
that higher wage payments deplete firms' liquidity, leading to reduced output and investment for the types
of financial reasons discussed above (my thanks to Mark Gertler and Bruce Greenwald for independently
making this suggestion). This latter channel might be tested by observing whether smaller or less liquid
firms responded to real-wage increases by cutting employment more severely than did large, financially
more robust firms.
20. The wholesale price index is not the ideal deflator for nominal wages; to find the product wage,
which is relevant to labor demand decisions, one should deflate by an index of output prices. The very
limited international data on product wages are less supportive of the sticky-wage hypothesis than the
evidence given here; see Eichengreen and Hatton (1988) or Bernanke and James (1991) for further
discussion.




22

: MONEY, CREDIT, AND BANKING

ing through nonwage channels,21 in regressions they separated the real wage into its
nominal-wage and price-level components. Third, they controlled for factors other
than wages affecting aggregate supply and used instrumental variables techniques to
correct for simultaneity bias in output and wage determination.22 With these modifications, Bernanke and Carey's "preferred" equation describing output supply in
their sample was (their Table 4, line 9):
q = - . 6 0 0 w + .673 p + .540 q-1(3.84)
(5.10)
(7.66)

.144 PANIC - .69-05 STRIKE
(5.79)
(3.60)

(2)

where
q, q-1 = current and lagged manufacturing production (in logs),
w = nominal wage index (in logs),
p = wholesale price index (in logs),
PANIC = number of months in each year of banking panic [see the text or
Bernanke-James (1991)], divided by 12, and
STRIKE = working days lost to labor disputes (per thousand employees).
Absolute values of t-statistics are shown in parentheses. The regression pooled
cross-sectional data for 1931-1936 and included time dummies and fixed country
effects. A consistent estimate of within-country first-order serial correlation of
— .066 was obtained by application of nonlinear least squares.
The equation indicates that banking panics (PANIC) and work stoppages (STRIKE)
had large and statistically significant effects on the supply of output,23 and the coefficient on lagged output indicates that output adjusted about half-way to its "target" level in any given year. Most importantly, the coefficient on nominal wages is
highly significant and approximately equal and opposite in magnitude to the coefficient on the price level, as suggested by the sticky-wage hypothesis.24 In particular,
equation (2) indicates that countries in which nominal wages adjusted relatively
slowly toward changing price levels experienced the sharpest declines in manufacturing output.
To illustrate this last point in a very simple way, Figure 1 shows 1935 outputs and
nominal wages for five Gold Bloc countries (Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Po21. Suppose that deflation affects output through a nonwage channel, such as induced financial crisis,
and that nominal-wage data are relatively noisy (for example, they reflect official wage rates rather than
rates actually paid). Then we might well observe an inverse relationship between measured real wages
and output, even though wages are not part of the transmission channel.
22. Instruments used in the equation to follow included, as aggregate demand shifters, a tradeweighted import price index and the discount rate for Gold Bloc countries, and Ml for countries off gold.
Additionally, the banking panic and strike variables, and lagged values of the nominal wage and output,
were treated as predetermined.
23. The coefficient on PANIC implies that one year of banking crisis reduced output by approximately
14 percent. The coefficient on STRIKE is about what one would expect if output losses due to strikes are
proportional to hours of work lost. See Bernanke and Carey (1994) for further discussion.
24. That the coefficients on wages and prices are equal and opposite is easily accepted at standard
significance levels (p = .573).




BEN S. BERNANKE

23

FIG. 1. Output and Wages in the Gold Bloc, 1935

land, and Switzerland). As they shared a common monetary standard throughout the
period, these countries had similar wholesale price levels in 1935, but nominal
wages differed among the countries. As Figure 1 indicates, France and Switzerland
had significantly higher nominal wages than the other three countries (indeed, those
countries had shown almost no nominal wage adjustment since 1929); these two
countries also had significantly lower output levels. A regression for just these five
data points of the log of output on a constant and the log of the nominal wage yields
a coefficient on the nominal wage of — .628 with a t-statistic of — 1.49.
Although Bernanke and Carey (1994) found cross-sectional evidence for the
sticky-wage hypothesis, they emphasized that the time-series evidence is much
weaker (recall that their regression included yearly time dummies, so that the results
are based entirely on cross-country comparisons). Broadly, the problem with sticky
wages as an explanation of the time-series behavior of output in the Depression is as
follows: Although real wages rose sharply around the world during the 1929-1931
downturn, in most countries real wages didn't decline much during the recovery
phase of the Depression; indeed, some countries (such as the United States) enjoyed
strong recoveries despite rising real wages. Bernanke and Carey report that, for the
twenty-two countries in their sample, average output in 1936 was nearly 10 percent
above 1929 levels, even though real wages in 1936 remained nearly 20 percent
higher than in 1929.25 One possible reconciliation of the cross-section and timeseries results is that actual wages paid fell relative to reported or official wage rates
25. In principle this result could be explained by secular increases in capacity at a given real wage.
However, Bernanke and Carey estimate that trend capacity growth of 5.6 percent per year on average
would be needed to reconcile the behavior of output and real wages.




24

: MONEY, CREDIT, AND BANKING

as the Depression wore on; and that the ratio of actual to reported wages was similar
among the countries in the sample.
2.3. Can Failures of Nominal Adjustment in the Depression be Explained?
I have discussed two general reasons for the failure of interwar economies to adjust to the large nominal shocks that hit them in the early 1930s: (1) nonindexed debt
contracts, through which deflation induced redistributions and financial crisis; and
(2) slow adjustment of nominal wages (and presumably other elements of the cost
structure as well). From an economic theorist's point of view, there is an important
distinction between these two sources of nonneutrality, which is that—following an
unanticipated deflation—there are incentives for the parties to renegotiate nominal
wage (or price) agreements, but not nominal debt contracts. In particular, if the
nominal wage is "too high" relative to labor market equilibrium, both the employer
and the worker (who otherwise would be unemployed) should be willing to accept a
lower wage, or to take other measures to achieve an efficient level of employment
(Barro 1977). In contrast, there is no presumption that the redistributive effects of
unanticipated deflation operating through debt contracts will be undone by some
sort of implicit indexing or renegotiation ex post, since large net creditors do gain
from deflation and have no incentive to give up those gains.26 Hence the failure of
nominal wages (and, similarly, prices) to adjust seems inconsistent with the postulate of economic rationality, while deflation-induced financial crisis does not (given
that nonindexed financial contracts exist in the first place27).
One interesting possibility for reconciling wage-price stickiness with economic
rationality is that the nonindexation of financial contracts, and the associated debtdeflation, might in some way have been a source of the slow adjustment of wages
and other prices. Such a link would most likely arise for political reasons: As deflation proceeded, both the growing threat of financial crisis and the complaints of
debtors increased pressure on governments to intervene in the economy in ways that
inhibit adjustment. In the case of France, for example (which, note from Figure 1,
seemed a particularly slow adjuster), a historian reported:
as prices broke and incomes declined, as farmers, shopkeepers, merchants, and industrialists faced bankruptcy, the state began, on an empirical basis, to build up a complex
and inchoate array of interventionist measures which interfered with the free operation
of market forces in order to preserve certain situations acquises. (Kemp 1972, p. 101)
Examples of interventionist measures by the French government included tough
agricultural import restrictions and minimum grain prices, intended to support the
nominal incomes of farmers (a politically powerful group of debtors); government26. Formal models in the literature, such as Bernanke-Gertler (1990), typically predict that debtdeflation lowers aggregate output and investment but does not lead to a situation that is Pareto-inefficient
(given the information constraints). Thus there is no incentive for renegotiation between creditors and
debtors. If the Bernanke-Gertler model were enhanced by assuming production or aggregate demand
externalities, then debt-deflation could imply Pareto-inefficiency, but not of the sort that can easily be
remedied by bilateral renegotiation.
27. Nonindexation of financial contracts might be rationalized as an attempt to minimize transactions
costs ex ante. This strategy is reasonable if the monetary authority is expected to keep inflation stable—
an understandable assumption given the restoration of the gold standard.




BEN S. BERNANKE

:

25

supported Cartelization of industry, as well as import protection, with the goal of
increasing prices and profits; and measures to reduce labor supply, including repatriation of foreign workers and the shortening of workweeks.28 These measures
(comparable to New Deal-era actions in the United States) tended to block the
downward adjustment of wages and prices.
Other links from debt-deflation to wage-price behavior operated through more
strictly economic channels. For example, in France, heavy industries such as iron
and steel expanded extensively during the 1920s, which left them with heavy debt
burdens. In response to the financial distress caused by deflation, firms acted singly
and in combination to try to restrict output, raise prices, and maintain profit margins
(Kemp 1972, pp. 89ff.) Such behavior is predicted by modern industrial organization theory and evidence (see, for example, Chevalier and Scharfstein 1994).
A variety of other factors no doubt contributed to incomplete nominal adjustment. In some countries, many wages and prices were either directly controlled by
the government (so that change involved administrative or legislative action, with
the usual lags), or were highly politicized. Legislatively set taxes, fees, and tariffs
were an additional source of nominal rigidity [see Crucini (1994) on tariffs]. Complex, decentralized economies also no doubt faced serious problems of coordination, both internally and with other economies, an issue that has been the subject of
recent theoretical work (see, for example, Cooper 1990).
I believe that, as with other issues relating to the Depression, the comparative
international approach holds the most promise for improving our understanding of
the sources of incomplete nominal adjustment. In this case, though, the comparative
analysis will need to include political and institutional variables, such as the proportion of workers covered by unions; the extent of representation of workers, farmers,
industrialists, etc., in the legislature; the share of the workforce employed by the
government, and so on. More qualitatively, historical and case-study comparisons
of the political response to deflation in different countries may help explain the differing degrees of economic damage inflicted by falling prices.
3. CONCLUSION

Methodologically, the main contribution of recent research on the Depression has
been to expand the sample to include many countries other than the United States.
Comparative studies of a large set of countries have greatly improved our ability to
identify the forces that drove the world into depression in the 1930s. In particular,
the evidence for monetary contraction as an important cause of the Depression, and
for monetary reflation as a leading component of recovery, has been greatly
strengthened.
On the aggregate supply side of the economy, we have learned and will continue
28. Of course, the most obvious interventions would have been to stop the deflation by devaluing or to
mandate a writedown of all nominal claims. As we have seen, however, in France devaluation was widely considered as heralding a plunge into chaos; while the writedown of debts and other claims, besides
being administratively complex, would have been considered a politically unacceptable violation of the
sanctity of contracts.




26

: MONEY, CREDIT, AND BANKING

to learn a great deal from the interwar period. One key result is that wealth redistributions may have aggregate effects, if they are of the form to induce systematic
financial distress. Empirical evidence has also been found for incomplete adjustment of nominal wages as a factor leading to monetary nonneutrality. Understanding this latter phenomenon will probably require a broad perspective that takes into
account political as well as economic factors.
APPENDIX: DATA SOURCES

Manufacturing production data are from League of Nations (1945). Wages and
employment data are from International Labour Organization, Year Book of Labor
Statistics, various issues. Data on commercial bank reserves, used in constructing
monetary base measures, are taken from League of Nations, II.A Economic and
Financial Series: Money and Banking, various issues. Monetary data for the United
States are from Friedman and Schwartz (1963) and Board of Governors (1943). Other data are from League of Nations, Statistical Year Book and Monthly Bulletin of
Statistics, various issues.
All data are annual and were collected for as many of the following twenty-six
countries as possible: Australia, Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Poland, Rumania, Sweden,
Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Data availability by variable is described below. Inclusion of countries in the data
set was based on the availability of data for key variables, particularly output and
prices.
Data Availability
Manufacturing production: All countries, except Spain for 1936. Industrial production used for Argentina, from Thorp (1984).
Wholesale prices: All countries.
Money and notes in circulation: All countries.
Commercial bank deposits: All countries, except Greece and Spain for 1936.
Nominal wages: All countries, except Finland, Greece, Rumania, Spain.
Employment: All countries, except Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece,
Spain, and Denmark for 1930.
Discount rate: All countries, except Argentina and Switzerland.
Exchange rates (relative to French franc): All countries.
Exports: All countries, except Argentina and Spain for 1936.
Imports: All countries, except Estonia, Finland, Greece, and Spain for 1936.
Share price index: Available for Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden,
Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.




BEN S. BERNANKE

: 27

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