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The German Transfer Problem, 1920-1933: A Sovereign Debt Perspective


  • Albrecht Ritschl


The severity of the Great Depression in Germany has sometimes been blamed on reparations in simplistic fashion. Alternative interpretations relied on American capital exports, the demise of the Gold Standard, or on malfunctions of the domestic economy, such as excessive wage increases during the 1920s. This paper argues for a more subtle link between Germany's slump and these policies. I explain Germany's foreign borrowing rush before 1929 from transfer protection under the Dawes Plan, which gave commercial credits seniority over reparations. I argue that the Young Plan of 1929 implied a reversal of this seniority scheme, causing a sudden stop and reversal in the German balance of payments that lasted throughout the Great Depression. Invoking basic results of sovereign debt theory, the paper identifies a sequence of reparation regimes with varying degrees of relaxation of Germany's participation constraint in international credit markets. Transfer protection under the Dawes Plan created an incentive for Germany (and her commercial creditors) to drive out reparations. I conclude that the Young Plan could only have worked in the absence of an international recession, and that attempts to salvage it in 1931 were necessarily futile.

Suggested Citation

  • Albrecht Ritschl, 2012. "The German Transfer Problem, 1920-1933: A Sovereign Debt Perspective," CEP Discussion Papers dp1155, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE.
  • Handle: RePEc:cep:cepdps:dp1155

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. A.O. Ritschl, 2001. "Nazi economic imperialism and the exploitation of the small: evidence from Germany’s secret foreign exchange balances, 1938-1940[While I wa]," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 54(2), pages 324-345, May.
    2. Bulow, Jeremy & Rogoff, Kenneth, 1989. "A Constant Recontracting Model of Sovereign Debt," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 97(1), pages 155-178, February.
    3. Reinhart, Carmen & Calvo, Guillermo, 2000. "When Capital Inflows Come to a Sudden Stop: Consequences and Policy Options," MPRA Paper 6982, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    4. Lloyd A. Metzler, 1942. "The Transfer Problem Reconsidered," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 50, pages 397-397.
    5. Ritschl, Albrecht, 1996. "Sustainability of High Public Debt: What the Historical Record Shows," CEPR Discussion Papers 1357, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    6. Hautcoeur, Pierre-Cyrille & Sicsic, Pierre, 1999. "Threat of a capital levy, expected devaluation and interest rates in France during the interwar period," European Review of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 3(01), pages 25-56, April.
    7. Alesina, Alberto & Drazen, Allan, 1991. "Why Are Stabilizations Delayed?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 81(5), pages 1170-1188, December.
    8. Ritschl, Albrecht, 1998. "Reparation transfers, the Borchardt hypothesis and the Great Depression in Germany, 1929 32: A guided tour for hard-headed Keynesians," European Review of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 2(01), pages 49-72, April.
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    Blog mentions

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    1. How to wreak havoc in sovereign debt seniority
      by Economic Logician in Economic Logic on 2012-07-31 18:29:00


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    Cited by:

    1. Kim Oosterlinck & Loredana Ureche-Rangau & Jacques-Marie Vaslin, 2013. "Waterloo: a Godsend for French Public Finances?," Working Papers 0041, European Historical Economics Society (EHES).
    2. Flores Zendejas, Juan, 2017. "Averting defaults in turbulent times: controversies over the League of Nations preferred creditor status," Working Papers unige:98451, University of Geneva, Paul Bairoch Institute of Economic History.
    3. Jörn-Steffen Pischke & Hannes Schwandt, 2012. "A Cautionary Note on Using Industry Affiliation to Predict Income," NBER Working Papers 18384, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

    More about this item


    Germany; Great Depression; sovereign debt; reparations;

    JEL classification:

    • N14 - Economic History - - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics; Industrial Structure; Growth; Fluctuations - - - Europe: 1913-
    • N24 - Economic History - - Financial Markets and Institutions - - - Europe: 1913-

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