The Tiny Village That Beat the Great Depression

Nestled in the Austrian Alps is the tiny village of Worgl. In 1932, as the world economy was in the depths of the Great Depression, Worgl too had fallen on hard times:

The Great Depression was in full swing and of its population of nearly 5000, a third were jobless, and about 200 families were bankrupt. The situation was desperate. The town would try anything.

What followed was one of the most radical economic experiments in history. The town created a new form of money. It was a lot like the standard Austrian schilling it replaced, except its value dropped by 1% every month. In a year, you’d have just 88.64 left of every 100 schillings.

This gave residents a strong incentive to stop hoarding currency, a natural reaction to a scary economic climate:

The speed that money changed hands (14 times higher than the national schilling) helped keep local businesses afloat and, in time, brought back the town’s lost jobs.

Soon, the town went from 1/3 jobless to full employment. Tax revenues boomed as people paid their bills in the new currency before it lost its value.

Worgl’s success attracted attention from its neighbors:

Things looked up for Worgl and [Mayor] Unterguggenberger. The town did so well that six neighbouring villages successfully copied the system and over 200 grew an interest in following suit.

Ultimately, the central bank shut down this experiment in a local currency. Shortly thereafter, unemployment shot right back up to where it was before Worgl’s mayor made this bold move to save his town.

It makes sense that Worgl would’ve rocketed ahead of nearby villages. Worgl essentially had (very) negative interest rates and a far more accomodative monetary policy than its neighbors.

Today too, lowering interest rates, even below zero, is a commonly used tactic to stimulate economic activity. The US Federal Reserve lowered interest rates substantially at the beginning of the COVID crisis, and Japan and much of Europe has had negative rates for years.

But despite the success of Worgl, the results of negative rates today are mixed. Negative rates might encourage consumers to spend, but they could also discourage banks from lending. After all, who wants to lend when you might have to pay for the privilege!

Worgl remains an interesting footnote to monetary policy. Whatever the applications to today may be, I applaud the bravery of those villagers who took a radical step to try to save their home.

For more on markets and the economy, check out these posts:

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Photo: “File:Pfarrkirche Woergl Osten.jpg” by Thom16 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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