Undercover Economist

Rules of trading in a POW camp

An economist who was taken prisoner during the second world war observed that market institutions were universal and spontaneous

Robert A. Radford had, in some ways, a perfectly conventional career as an economist. He studied the subject at Cambridge in the late 1930s, before war interrupted, and his civilian working life was spent at the International Monetary Fund. But he also spent half the war in a German prison camp, and on his release wrote an article in the LSE journal Economica.

The “Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp” is a remarkable piece of writing, in which Radford analyses the economic institutions that arose in tough circumstances. Students should read it to learn about monetary economics, and their professors should read it to learn how to write. But Radford himself thought his experiences constituted more than a teachable moment: “the principal significance is sociological.”

First, a word about the basic economic building blocks. Prisoners received some rations from the Germans, but were mostly sustained by parcels of food and cigarettes from the Red Cross. The parcels were standardised – everyone got the same. Occasionally the Red Cross received bumper supplies, or ran short; in those instances everybody enjoyed a surplus or a shortage.

Radford’s first sociological observation was that there was no gift economy in the camp. Everybody started with the same, so what was the point? But trading quickly developed, because while prisoners had equal means they did not have identical preferences – the Sikhs sold their beef rations, the French were desperate for coffee. So middlemen who could speak Urdu or bribe a guard to let them visit the French quarters had the chance to make “small fortunes” in biscuits or cigarettes. In rare circumstances, the camp’s economy interacted with the outside world: coffee rations apparently went “over the wire” and traded at high prices in black market cafés in Munich.

Market institutions, Radford concluded, were universal and spontaneous, “a response to immediate needs” rather than an attempt to imitate civilian life. One of the spontaneous developments was the emergence of a currency: the cigarette, which was portable and reasonably homogenous. Not entirely so, though: cigarettes could be “sweated” by rolling them back and forth between the fingers to shake a little tobacco out. Gresham’s Law – “bad money drives out good” – asserted itself, as the plumper cigarettes were reserved for smoking, while those that circulated as money grew thinner. When Red Cross supplies were interrupted, deflation set in, as a cigarette bought ever more goods.

The law of one price also tended to hold: arbitrage meant prices rarely varied much within a permanent camp. The chaos of transit camps, however, created profit opportunities. “Stories circulated of a padre who started off round the camp with a tin of cheese and five cigarettes and returned to his bed with a complete parcel in addition to his original cheese and cigarettes; the market was not yet perfect.”

Relative prices moved in response to broader developments – such as an influx of new, hungry POWs – and from day to day. With bread rations handed out on Monday, on Sunday evening “bread now” traded at a premium to “bread Monday”. And yes, there was a futures market.

All this mattered greatly. “The small scale of the transactions and the simple expression of comfort and wants in terms of cigarettes and jam, razor blades and writing paper, make the urgency of those needs difficult to appreciate, even by an ex-prisoner of some three months’ standing,” wrote Radford. His article was written in summer 1945, looking back at March and April, where market prices twitched wildly amid rumour and scarcity. On April 12, the camp was liberated, and, says Radford, “every want could be satisfied without effort.” It is quite a parting thought.

Also published at ft.com.