Tuesday, November 10, 2009

When good politics was better than good economics

Yesterday was 9/11, written in the British way. It is as momentous a day as its American equivalent is tragic. For it was on this day, 20 years ago, that the Berlin wall collapsed. And Europe would never be the same again.

A trillion words are being written about the event and the celebration and the hoopla surrounding it. This blog is loath to add to that total, and in any case is not a political forum. Instead we will touch upon one of the most interesting aspects of the reunification at that time, the currency unification.

The word German reunification is actually a politically correct, but not factual, term – in reality it was an acquisition of East Germany by West Germany. When German reunification happened, the black market rate between the mighty Deutsche Mark and the Ostmark (East German Mark) was 1 to 5. The Ostmark would be abolished and instead the Deutshe Mark would be the currency of the new Germany. But then, at what rate do you convert the existing Ostmarks of East Germans ?

Economists fell over each other to proclaim that the exchange should happen at the fair value, which was the black market rate. They warned of huge inflation if it was converted at a rate better than the true rate. They also warned that if East German wages were reset in Deutsche Mark at anything other than the fair rate, East German industries, with their low productivity, would be outpriced, go out of business and result in high unemployment. Dire consequences were predicted by the economists.

The politicians however cared two hoots for the economists. Germany was in euphoria. It was one country, once again. The cold war was over. It was a momentous time. They grasped in a second that for the reunification to succeed, there must not be social upheaval in the East. They fixed the exchange rate as 1 Deutsche Mark to 1 Ostmark for upto 4000 marks and 1 to 2 thereafter.

Economists were outraged. Doomsday scenarios were predicted for Germany. East Germans were , as you would expect, mighty pleased. They embraced reunification wholeheartedly. West Germans were in fact giving a massive subsidy to East Germans. While there may have been some grumpiness at this, there wasn’t fierce resistance from them.

No doomsday scenario emerged. Inflation didn’t rocket up. Sure there was some pain and perhaps some prolonged impact on the German economy, but pick up it did. This was the best way to have handled the reunification – any other alternative might have been far worse. For once political logic triumphed over economic logic.

Look at Germany today. It is the engine of Europe, much as the British or the French might like to think otherwise. We go gaga over China, but even last year, the world’s largest exporter was Germany, not China. Despite all the chronicling of Germany’s economic woes, almost every country would give an arm and a leg to trade places with Germany.

But back to 1989. On that fateful day thousands of East Germans joyously crossed into the West. Amongst them was a 35 year old lady. Her name – Angela Merkel. Today she is the Chancellor of Germany. It probably wouldn’t have been possible, but for the fact that the politicians were right and the economists wrong.