Misunderstanding Reserve Currencies and the Gold Standard

In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Lewis Lehrman and John Mueller argue for replacing the dollar as the world’s reserve currency with gold. I don’t know Lewis Lehrman, but almost 30 years ago, when I was writing my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, which opposed restoring the gold standard, I received financial support from the Lehrman Institute where I gave a series of seminars discussing several chapters of my book. A couple of those seminars were attended by John Mueller, who was then a staffer for Congressman Jack Kemp. But despite my friendly feelings for Lehrman and Mueller, I am afraid that they badly misunderstand how the gold standard worked and what went wrong with the gold standard in the 1920s. Not surprisingly, that misunderstanding carries over into their comments on current monetary arrangements.

Lehrman and Mueller begin by discussing the 1922 Genoa Conference, a conference largely inspired by the analysis of Ralph Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel of post-World War I monetary conditions, and by their proposals for restoring an international gold standard without triggering a disastrous deflation in process of doing so, the international price level in terms of gold having just about doubled relative to the pre-War price level.

The 1922 Genoa conference, which was intended to supervise Europe’s post-World War I financial reconstruction, recommended “some means of economizing the use of gold by maintaining reserves in the form of foreign balances”—initially pound-sterling and dollar IOUs. This established the interwar “gold exchange standard.”

Lehrman and Mueller then cite the view of the gold exchange standard expressed by the famous French economist Jacques Rueff, of whom Lehrman is a fervent admirer.

A decade later Jacques Rueff, an influential French economist, explained the result of this profound change from the classical gold standard. When a foreign monetary authority accepts claims denominated in dollars to settle its balance-of-payments deficits instead of gold, purchasing power “has simply been duplicated.” If the Banque de France counts among its reserves dollar claims (and not just gold and French francs)—for example a Banque de France deposit in a New York bank—this increases the money supply in France but without reducing the money supply of the U.S. So both countries can use these dollar assets to grant credit. “As a result,” Rueff said, “the gold-exchange standard was one of the major causes of the wave of speculation that culminated in the September 1929 crisis.” A vast expansion of dollar reserves had inflated the prices of stocks and commodities; their contraction deflated both.

This is astonishing. Lehrman and Mueller do not identify the publication of Rueff that they are citing, but I don’t doubt the accuracy of the quotation. What Rueff is calling for is a 100% marginal reserve requirement. Now it is true that under the Bank Charter Act of 1844, Great Britain had a 100% marginal reserve requirement on Bank of England notes, but throughout the nineteenth century, there was an shift from banknotes to bank deposits, so the English money supply was expanding far more rapidly than English gold reserves. The kind of monetary system that Rueff was talking about, in which the quantity of money in circulation, could not increase by more than the supply of gold, never existed. Money was being created under the gold standard without an equal amount of gold being held in reserve.

The point of the gold exchange standard, after World War I, was to economize on the amount of gold held by central banks as they rejoined the gold standard to prevent a deflation back to the pre-War price level. Gold had been demonetized over the course of World War I as countries used gold to pay for imports, much of it winding up in the US before the US entered the war. If all the demonetized gold was remonetized, the result would be a huge rise in the value of gold, in other words, a huge, catastrophic, deflation.

Nor does the notion that the gold-exchange standard was the cause of speculation that culminated in the 1929 crisis have any theoretical or evidentiary basis. Interest rates in the 1920s were higher than they ever were during the heyday of the classical gold standard from about 1880 to 1914. Prices were not rising faster in the 1920s than they did for most of the gold standard era, so there is no basis for thinking that speculation was triggered by monetary causes. Indeed, there is no basis for thinking that there was any speculative bubble in the 1920s, or that even if there was such a bubble it was triggered by monetary expansion. What caused the 1929 crash was not the bursting of a speculative bubble, as taught by the popular mythology of the crash, it was caused by the sudden increase in the demand for gold in 1928 and 1929 resulting from the insane policy of the Bank of France and the clueless policy of the Federal Reserve after ill health forced Benjamin Strong to resign as President of the New York Fed.

Lehrman and Mueller go on to criticize the Bretton Woods system.

The gold-exchange standard’s demand-duplicating feature, based on the dollar’s reserve-currency role, was again enshrined in the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement. What ensued was an unprecedented expansion of official dollar reserves, and the consumer price level in the U.S. and elsewhere roughly doubled. Foreign governments holding dollars increasingly demanded gold before the U.S. finally suspended gold payments in 1971.

The gold-exchange standard of the 1920s was a real gold standard, but one designed to minimize the monetary demand for gold by central banks. In the 1920s, the US and Great Britain were under a binding obligation to convert dollars or pound sterling on demand into gold bullion, so there was a tight correspondence between the value of gold and the price level in any country maintaining a fixed exchange rate against the dollar or pound sterling. Under Bretton Woods, only the US was obligated to convert dollars into gold, but the obligation was largely a fiction, so the tight correspondence between the value of gold and the price level no longer obtained.

The economic crisis of 2008-09 was similar to the crisis that triggered the Great Depression. This time, foreign monetary authorities had purchased trillions of dollars in U.S. public debt, including nearly $1 trillion in mortgage-backed securities issued by two government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The foreign holdings of dollars were promptly returned to the dollar market, an example of demand duplication. This helped fuel a boom-and-bust in foreign markets and U.S. housing prices. The global excess credit creation also spilled over to commodity markets, in particular causing the world price of crude oil (which is denominated in dollars) to spike to $150 a barrel.

There were indeed similarities between the 1929 crisis and the 2008 crisis. In both cases, the world financial system was made vulnerable because there was a lot of bad debt out there. In 2008, it was subprime mortgages, in 1929 it was reckless borrowing by German local governments and the debt sold to refinance German reparations obligations under the Treaty of Versailles. But in neither episode did the existence of bad debt have anything to do with monetary policy; in both cases tight monetary policy precipitated a crisis that made a default on the bad debt unavoidable.

Lehrman and Mueller go on to argue, as do some Keynesians like Jared Bernstein, that the US would be better off if the dollar were not a reserve currency. There may be disadvantages associated with having a reserve currency – disadvantages like those associated with having a large endowment of exportable natural resource, AKA the Dutch disease – but the only way for the US to stop having a reserve currency would be to take a leaf out of the Zimbabwe hyperinflation playbook. Short of a Zimbabwean hyperinflation, the network externalities internalized by using the dollar as a reserve currency are so great, that the dollar is likely to remain the world’s reserve currency for at least a millennium. Of course, the flip side of the Dutch disease is at that there is a wealth transfer from the rest of the world to the US – AKA seignorage — in exchange for using the dollar.

Lehrman and Mueller are aware of the seignorage accruing to the supplier of a reserve currency, but confuse the collection of seignorage with the benefit to the world as a whole of minimizing the use of gold as the reserve currency. This leads them to misunderstand the purpose of the Genoa agreement, which they mistakenly attribute to Keynes, who actually criticized the agreement in his Tract on Monetary Reform.

This was exactly what Keynes and other British monetary experts promoted in the 1922 Genoa agreement: a means by which to finance systemic balance-of-payments deficits, forestall their settlement or repayment and put off demands for repayment in gold of Britain’s enormous debts resulting from financing World War I on central bank and foreign credit. Similarly, the dollar’s “exorbitant privilege” enabled the U.S. to finance government deficit spending more cheaply.

But we have since learned a great deal that Keynes did not take into consideration. As Robert Mundell noted in “Monetary Theory” (1971), “The Keynesian model is a short run model of a closed economy, dominated by pessimistic expectations and rigid wages,” a model not relevant to modern economies. In working out a “more general theory of interest, inflation, and growth of the world economy,” Mr. Mundell and others learned a great deal from Rueff, who was the master and professor of the monetary approach to the balance of payments.

The benefit from supplying the resource that functions as the world’s reserve currency will accrue to someone, that is the “exorbitant privilege” to which Lehrman and Mueller refer. But It is not clear why it would be better if the privilege accrued to owners of gold instead of to the US Treasury. On the contrary, the potential for havoc associated with reinstating gold as the world’s reserve currency dwarfs the “exorbitant privilege.” Nor is the reference to Keynes relevant to the discussion, the Keynesian model described by Mundell being the model of the General Theory, which was certainly not the model that Keynes was working with at the time of the Genoa agreement in which Keynes’s only involvement was as an outside critic.

As for Rueff, staunch defender of the insane policy of the Bank of France in 1932, he was an estimable scholar, but, luckily, his influence was much less than Lehrman and Mueller suggest.

Ludwig von Mises Explains (and Solves) Market Failure

Last week Major Freedom, a relentless and indefatigable web-Austrian troll – and with a name like that, I predict a bright future for him as a professional wrestler should he ever tire of internet trolling — who regularly occupies Scott Sumner’s blog, responded to a passing reference by Scott to F. A. Hayek’s support for NGDP targeting with an outraged rant against Hayek, calling Hayek a social democrat, a description of Hayek that for some reason brought to my mind Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cover showing what the world looks like from 9th Avenue in Manhattan.

saul_steinberg_newyorker

Hayek was not a libertarian by the way. He was a social democrat. If you read his works closely, you’ll realize he was politically leftist very soon after his earlier economics works. Hayek was actually an economist for only a short period of time. He soon became disenchanted with free market economics, and delved into sociology where his works were all heavily influenced by leftist politics. He was an ardent critic of government, but not because he was anti-government, but because the present day governments were not his ideal.

Hayek favored central banks preventing NGDP from falling yes, but he was a contradictory writer. It is dishonest to only focus on the one side of the contradiction that supports your own ideology. If you were honest, you would make it a point that Hayek also favored monetary denationalization, of competitive free market currencies. He wrote a book on that for crying out loud. His contradictions are “Hayekian.” NGDP targeting is merely the Dr. Jekyll to his Mr. Hyde.

Then responding to the incredulity of another commenter at his calling Hayek a social democrat, the Major let loose this barrage:

From [Hans-Hermann] Hoppe:

According to Hayek, government is “necessary” to fulfill the following tasks: not merely for “law enforcement” and “defense against external enemies” but “in an advanced society government ought to use its power of raising funds by taxation to provide a number of services which for various reasons cannot be provided, or cannot be provided adequately, by the market.” (Because at all times an infinite number of goods and services exist that the market does not provide, Hayek hands government a blank check.)

Among these goods and services are:

“…protection against violence, epidemics, or such natural forces as floods and avalanches, but also many of the amenities which make life in modern cities tolerable, most roads … the provision of standards of measure, and of many kinds of information ranging from land registers, maps and statistics to the certification of the quality of some goods or services offered in the market.”

Additional government functions include “the assurance of a certain minimum income for everyone”; government should “distribute its expenditure over time in such a manner that it will step in when private investment flags”; it should finance schools and research as well as enforce “building regulations, pure food laws, the certification of certain professions, the restrictions on the sale of certain dangerous goods (such as arms, explosives, poisons and drugs), as well as some safety and health regulations for the processes of production; and the provision of such public institutions as theaters, sports grounds, etc.”; and it should make use of the power of “eminent domain” to enhance the “public good.”

Moreover, it generally holds that “there is some reason to believe that with the increase in general wealth and of the density of population, the share of all needs that can be satisfied only by collective action will continue to grow.”

Further, government should implement an extensive system of compulsory insurance (“coercion intended to forestall greater coercion”), public, subsidized housing is a possible government task, and likewise “city planning” and “zoning” are considered appropriate government functions — provided that “the sum of the gains exceed the sum of the losses.” And lastly, “the provision of amenities of or opportunities for recreation, or the preservation of natural beauty or of historical sites or scientific interest … Natural parks, nature-reservations, etc.” are legitimate government tasks.

In addition, Hayek insists we recognize that it is irrelevant how big government is or if and how fast it grows. What alone is important is that government actions fulfill certain formal requirements. “It is the character rather than the volume of government activity that is important.” Taxes as such and the absolute height of taxation are not a problem for Hayek. Taxes — and likewise compulsory military service — lose their character as coercive measures,

“…if they are at least predictable and are enforced irrespective of how the individual would otherwise employ his energies; this deprives them largely of the evil nature of coercion. If the known necessity of paying a certain amount of taxes becomes the basis of all my plans, if a period of military service is a foreseeable part of my career, then I can follow a general plan of life of my own making and am as independent of the will of another person as men have learned to be in society.”

But please, it must be a proportional tax and general military service!

The disgust felt by the Major for the crypto-statist Hayek is palpable, reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s pathological abhorrence of Hayek for tolerating welfare-statism. Ah, but Ludwig von Mises, there is a man after the Major’s very own heart.

In distinct contrast, how refreshingly clear — and very different — is Mises! For him, the definition of liberalism can be condensed into a single term: private property. The state, for Mises, is legalized force, and its only function is to defend life and property by beating antisocial elements into submission. As for the rest, government is “the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisonment. Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom.”

Moreover (and this is for those who have not read much of Mises but invariably pipe up, “but even Mises is not an anarchist”), certainly the younger Mises allows for unlimited secession, down to the level of the individual, if one comes to the conclusion that government is not doing what it is supposed to do: to protect life and property.

Well, the remark about Hayek’s support for — perhaps acquiescence in would be a better description — conscription (see the Constitution of Liberty) reminded me that in Human Action no less – for the uninitiated that’s Mises’s magnum opus, a 900+ page treatise on economics and praxeology — Mises himself weighed in on the issue of military conscription.

From this point of view one has to deal with the often-raised problem of whether conscription and the levy of taxes mean a restriction of freedom. If the principles of the market economy were acknowledged by all people all over the world, there would not be any reason to wage war and the individual states could live in undisturbed peace. But as conditions are in our age, a free nation is continually threatened by the aggressive schemes of totalitarian autocracies. If it wants to preserve its freedom, it must be prepared to defend its independence. If the government of a free country forces every citizen to cooperate fully in its designs to repel the aggressors and every able-bodied man to join the armed forces, it does not impose upon the individual a duty that would step beyond the tasks the praxeological law dictates. In a world full of unswerving aggressors and enslavers, integral unconditional pacifism is tantamount to unconditional surrender to the most ruthless oppressors. He who wants to remain free, must fight unto death those who are intent upon depriving him of his freedom. As isolated attempts on the part of each individual to resist are doomed to failure, the only workable way is to organize resistance by the government. The essential task of government is defense of the social system not only against domestic gangsters but also against external foes. He who in our age opposes armaments and conscription is, perhaps unbeknown to himself, an abettor of those aiming at the enslavement of all.

There it is. With characteristic understatement, Ludwig von Mises, a card-carrying member of the John Birch Society listed on the advisory board of the Society’s flagship publication American Opinion during the 1960s, calls anyone opposed to conscription an abettor of those aiming at the enslavement of all. But what I find interesting in Mises’s diatribe are the two sentences before the last one in the paragraph.

He who wants to remain free, must fight unto death those who are intent upon depriving him of his freedom. As isolated attempts on the part of each individual to resist are doomed to failure, the only workable way is to organize resistance by the government.

Here Mises says that we have to defend ourselves to maintain our freedom, otherwise we will be enslaved. OK. And then he says that voluntary self-defense will not work. Why won’t it work? Because the market isn’t working. And what causes the market to fail? “Isolated attempts on the part of each individual to resist” will fail. In other words, defense is a public good. People will free ride on the efforts of others. But Mises has the solution. Impose a draft, and compel the able-bodied to defend the homeland and force everyone to pay taxes to finance the provision of the public good, which the unhampered free market is unable to do on its own. Of course, this is just one example of market failure, but Mises doesn’t actually explain why the provision of national defense is the only public good. But, analytically of course, there is no distinction between national defense and other public goods, which confer benefits on people irrespective of whether they have paid for the good. So Mises acknowledges that there is such a thing as a public good, and supports the use of government coercion to supply the public good, but without providing any criterion for which public goods may be provided by the government and which may not. If conscription can be justified to solve a certain kind of public-good problem, why is it unthinkable to rely on taxation to solve other kinds of public-good problems, whose existence Mises, apparently unbeknown to himself, has implicitly conceded?

With the logical rigor that his acolytes find so compelling, Mises concludes this particular diatribe with the following pronouncement:

Every step a government takes beyond the fulfillment of its essential functions of protecting the smooth operation of the market economy against aggression, whether on the part of domestic or foreign disturbers, is a step forward on a road that directly leads into the totalitarian system where there is no freedom at all.

Let’s think about that one. “Every step a government takes beyond the fulfillment of its essential function of protecting the smooth operation of the market economy against aggression . . . is a step forward on a road that leads into the totalitarian system where there is no freedom at all.” Pretty scary words, but how logically compelling is this apodictally certain praxeological law?

Well, I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, a short distance from US Route 29. When I visit Baltimore about 35 miles from my home, I often come back from Baltimore via Interstate 70 which starts at a park-and-ride station near Baltimore and continues for about 2153 miles to Cove Fort, Utah. I am happy to report that I have never once driven from Baltimore to Cove Fort. In fact the first exit off of Interstate 70 puts me on US Route 29. What’s more, even if I miss the exit for Route 29, as I have done occasionally, there are other exits further down the highway that allow me to get to Route 29; just because I drive the first four miles on Interstate 70 from Baltimore, it doesn’t necessarily follow that I will wind up in Cove Fort, Utah. So this particular example of the supposedly impeccable Misesian logic sure seems like a non-sequitur to me.

 

John Cochrane Explains Neo-Fisherism

In a recent post, John Cochrane, responding to an earlier post by Nick Rowe about Neo-Fisherism, has tried to explain why raising interest rates could plausibly cause inflation to rise and reducing interest rates could plausibly cause inflation to fall, even though almost everyone, including central bankers, seems to think that when central banks raise interest rates, inflation falls, and when they reduce interest rates, inflation goes up.

In his explanation, Cochrane concedes that there is an immediate short-term tendency for increased interest rates to reduce inflation and for reduced interest rates to raise inflation, but he also argues that these effects (liquidity effects in Keynesian terminology) are transitory and would be dominated by the Fisher effects if the central bank committed itself to a permanent change in its interest-rate target. Of course, the proviso that the central bank commit itself to a permanent interest-rate peg is a pretty important qualification to the Neo-Fisherian position, because few central banks have ever committed themselves to a permanent interest-rate peg, the most famous attempt (by the Fed after World War II) to peg an interest rate having led to accelerating inflation during the Korean War, thereby forcing the peg to be abandoned, in apparent contradiction of the Neo-Fisherian view.

However, Cochrane does try to reconcile the Neo-Fisherian view with the standard view that raising interest rates reduces inflation and reducing interest rates increases inflation. He suggests that the standard view is strictly a short-run relationship and that the way to target inflation over the long-run is simply to target an interest rate consistent with the desired rate of inflation, and to rely on the Fisher equation to generate the actual and expected rate of inflation corresponding to that nominal rate. Here’s how Cochrane puts it:

We can put the issue more generally as, if the central bank does nothing to interest rates, is the economy stable or unstable following a shock to inflation?

For the next set of graphs, I imagine a shock to inflation, illustrated as the little upward sloping arrow on the left. Usually, the Fed responds by raising interest rates. What if it doesn’t?  A pure neo-Fisherian view would say inflation will come back on its own.

cochrane1

Again, we don’t have to be that pure.

The milder view allows there may be some short run dynamics; the lower real rates might lead to some persistence in inflation. But even if the Fed does nothing, eventually real interest rates have to settle down to their “natural” level, and inflation will come back. Mabye not as fast as it would if the Fed had aggressively tamed it, but eventually.

cochrane2

By contrast, the standard view says that inflation is unstable. If the Fed does not raise rates, inflation will eventually careen off following the shock.

cochrane3

Now this really confuses me. What does a shock to inflation mean? From the context, Cochrane seems to be thinking that something happens to raise the rate of inflation in the short run, but the persistence of increased inflation somehow depends on an underlying assumption about whether the economy is stable or unstable. Cochrane doesn’t tell us what kind of shock to inflation he is talking about, and I can imagine only two possibilities, either a nominal shock or a real shock.

Let’s say it’s a nominal shock. What kind of nominal shock might Cochrane have in mind? An increase in the money supply? Well, presumably an increase in the money supply would cause an increase in the price level, and a temporary increase in the rate of inflation, but if the increase in the money supply is a once-and-for-all increase, the system must revert, after a temporary increase, back to the old rate of inflation. Or maybe, Cochrane is thinking of a permanent increase in the rate of growth in the money supply. But in that case, why would the rate of inflation come back on its own as Cochrane suggests it would? Well, maybe it’s not the money supply but money demand that’s changing. But again, one would normally assume that an appropriate change in central-bank policy could cope with such a scenario and stabilize the rate of inflation.

Alright, then, let’s say it’s a real shock. Suppose some real event happens that raises the rate of inflation. Well, like what? A supply shock? That raises the rate of inflation, but since when is the standard view that the appropriate response by the central bank to a negative supply shock is to raise the interest-rate target? Perhaps Cochrane is talking about a real shock that reduces the real rate of interest. Well, in that case, the rate of inflation would certainly rise if the central bank maintained its nominal-interest-rate target, but the increase in inflation would not be temporary unless the real shock was temporary. If the real shock is temporary, it is not clear why the standard view would recommend that the central bank raise its target rate of interest. So, I am sorry, but I am still confused.

Now, the standard view that Cochrane is disputing is actually derived from Wicksell, and Wicksell’s cycle theory is in fact based on the assumption that the central bank keeps its target interest rate fixed while the natural rate fluctuates. (This, by the way, was also Hayek’s assumption in his first exposition of his theory in Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle.) When the natural rate rises above the central bank’s target rate, a cumulative inflationary process starts, because borrowing from the banking system to finance investment is profitable as long as the expected return on investment exceeds the interest rate on loans charged by the banks. (This is where Hayek departed from Wicksell, focusing on Cantillon Effects instead of price-level effects.) Cochrane avoids that messy scenario, as far as I can tell, by assuming that the initial position is one in which the Fisher equation holds with the nominal rate equal to the real plus the expected rate of inflation and with expected inflation equal to actual inflation, and then positing an (as far as I can tell) unexplained inflation shock, with no change to the real rate (meaning, in Cochrane’s terminology, that the economy is stable). If the unexplained inflation shock goes away, the system must return to its initial equilibrium with expected inflation equal to actual inflation and the nominal rate equal to the real rate plus inflation.

In contrast, the Wicksellian assumption is that the real rate fluctuates with the nominal rate and expected inflation unchanged. Unless the central bank raises the nominal rate, the difference between the profit rate anticipated by entrepreneurs and the rate at which they can borrow causes the rate of inflation to increase. So it does not seem to me that Cochrane has in any way reconciled the Neo-Fisherian view with the standard view (or at least the Wicksellian version of the standard view).

PS I would just note that I have explained in my paper on Ricardo and Thornton why the Wicksellian analysis (anticipated almost a century before Wicksell by Henry Thornton) is defective (basically because he failed to take into account the law of reflux), but Cochrane, as far as I can tell, seems to be making a completely different point in his discussion.

Is Insanity Breaking out in Switzerland?

The other day, I saw this item on Bloomberg.com “1500 Tons of Gold on the Line in Swiss Vote Buy Back Bullion.” Have a look:

There are people in Switzerland who resent that the country sold away much of its gold last decade. They may be a splinter group of Swiss politics, but they’re a persistent bunch.

And if they get their way in a referendum this month, these voters will make their presence known to gold traders around the world.

The proposal from the “Save Our Swiss Gold” proponents is simple: Force the central bank to build its bullion position up to at least 20 percent of total assets from 8 percent today. Holding 522 billion Swiss francs ($544 billion) of assets in its coffers, the Swiss National Bank would have to buy at least 1,500 tons of gold, costing about $56.3 billion at current prices, to get to the required threshold by 2019.

Those purchases, equal to about 7 percent of annual global demand, would trigger an 18 percent rally, giving a lift to gold bulls who’ve suffered 32 percent losses in the past two years, Bank of America Corp. estimates. With polls showing voters split before the Nov. 30 referendum, the SNB and national government are warning that such a move could undermine efforts to prevent the franc from surging against the euro and erode the bank’s annual dividend distribution to regional governments.

There they go again. The gold bugs are rallying to prop up the gold-price bubble with mandated purchases of the useless yellow metal so that it can be locked up to lie idle and inert in the vaults of the Swiss National Bank. How insane is that?

But wait! There is method to their madness.

A “yes” victory means Switzerland would face buying the metal at prices that quadrupled since it began selling more than half its reserves in 2000. The move would make the SNB the world’s third-biggest holder of gold. The initiative would also force the central bank to repatriate the 30 percent of its gold held abroad in the U.K. and Canada and bar it from ever selling bullion again.

With 1,040 metric tons, Switzerland is already the seventh-largest holder of gold by country, International Monetary Fund data show. According to UBS, a change in the law may force the SNB to buy about 1,500 tons, while ABN Amro Group NV and Societe Generale SA estimate the need at closer to 1,800 tons.

The SNB’s assets have expanded by more than a third in the past three years because of currency interventions to enforce a minimum exchange rate of 1.20 per euro. As of August, just under 8 percent of its assets were in gold, compared with a ratio of 15 percent for Germany‘s Bundesbank.

Many people get all bent out of shape at the mere mention of bailing out the banks and Wall Street, but those same people don’t seem to mind bailing out all those hedge funds and gold investment trusts, as well as all the individual investors, egged on by the Peter Schiffs of the world and by the sleazy characters advertising on Fox News and talk radio, who recklessly jumped on the gold bandwagon at the height of the gold bubble from 2008 to 2011.

Gold price tanking? No problemo. Just get the central banks to start buying all the gold now being dumped into the market by people who have finally realized that it’s time to cut their losses before prices fall even further. The price of gold having fallen by almost 20% from its 2014 high, a central-bank rescue operation looks awfully attractive to a lot of desperate people. Even better, the rescue operation can be dressed up and packaged as if it were the quintessence of monetary virtue, merely requiring central banks to hold gold backing for the paper money they issue.

Of course, this referendum, even if passed by Swiss electorate, is less than half as insane as the Monetary Law enacted in 1928, at the urging of the Bank of France, by the French Parliament, a law requiring the Bank to hold gold equal to at least 35% of its outstanding note issue. The Bank in its gold frenzy went way beyond its legal obligation to accumulate gold. The proposed Swiss Law is less than half as insane as the French Monetary Law of 1928, because in 1928 France and much of the rest of the world were either on the gold standard or about to rejoin the gold standard, so that increasing the demand for gold meant forcing the world into the deflationary death spiral that turned into the Great Depression. The most that the proposed Swiss Law could do is force Switzerland into a deflationary spiral.

That would be too bad for Switzerland, but probably not such a big deal for the rest of the world. If the Swiss want to lock up 1500 tons of gold in the vaults of their central bank, well, it’s their sovereign right to go insane. Luckily, the rest of the world has figured out how to have a monetary system in which the gyrations of the hyper-volatile gold price can no longer ruin the lives of many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people.

Why Are Corporations Hoarding all that Cash?

One of the ongoing puzzles of this joyless recovery (to give it the benefit of the doubt) has been the huge accumulation of cash by corporations. The puzzle is that the huge cash hoards that companies are sitting on are being generated by high earnings, high earning reflected in – or, perhaps more accurately, anticipated by — rising stock prices since the stock market bottomed out in March 2009. So one would think that the high earnings would have encouraged these highly profitable companies to expand output, building new capacity and hiring new workers, rather than accumulate all that cash. But the growth in cash holdings by companies has dwarfed the growth in new capital spending and employment. So what gives?

Corporations, obviously, are not all the same, so that any simple broad generalizations about what they are doing and why are very questionable. A disproportionate share of the newly accumulated cash is in the hands of large companies, especially in the telecommunications sector, the most notorious case being Apple, whose hoard is reportedly close to 200 billion dollars. Let me also observe that the increase in cash holding by corporations has been increasing for a long time, especially since the mid-1990s, tapering off in the mid-2000s before dipping during the financial crisis. But the upward trend resumed and accelerated after the crisis.

Here are some of the reasons that I have seen mentioned or have thought of myself for all this corporate cash hoarding.

A basic proposition of the theory of the demand for money is that an increase in uncertainty increases the demand for money. It is certain that the financial crisis was associated with increased uncertainty, raising the demand for money during and, owing to residual effects of the crisis, after the crisis. One might wonder why, if the demand for money increased during the crisis, corporate cash holdings decreased. The answer is that cash flows during the crisis were drastically reduced, requiring companies to expend cash even though they would have preferred to squirrel it away. The crisis was a period of extreme disequilibrium, and corporations (like many other economic agents) were forced way off their demand curves. So some part of the increase in corporate cash holdings can probably be attributed to a general increase in overall macroeconomic uncertainty. However, macroeconomic conditions has been fairly stable now for the last two or three years, at least in the US. So, although one could argue that the general macroeconomic environment is more uncertain than it was before the crisis, it would be hard to argue that uncertainty has not been gradually diminishing over the past few years, even as corporate cash hoards have continued to grow rapidly.

Some people – I don’t have to name them, you know who they are – like to say that the increase in uncertainty is all, or perhaps only mostly, due to the policies of the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve, especially, but not only, Obamacare and quantitative easing. But Obamacare was enacted in 2010, and it has been implemented gradually since then, coming more or less fully into effect this year. So the uncertainty associated with Obamacare should have been decreasing over time. Quantitative easing has been in effect in one form or another for most of the past four years, so people have gotten used to it. There is now uncertainty about when and how it will come to an end, but there is no sign that concerns about its gradual termination are causing any major market disturbances. So one can’t easily attribute the continuing increase in corporate cash-holding to uncertainty caused by Obamacare or quantitative-easing.

There are also microeconomic sources of uncertainty that are specific to particular sectors or industries, accounting for faster rates of increase in cash-holding by particular types of corporations, but the increase in cash-holding has not been confined to any single group of corporations, though large multi-national corporations, especially technology, media, and telecommunications companies have shown the largest increases in cash holdings. A study by economists at the St. Louis Fed suggested that R&D intensive corporations, being subject to high uncertainty owing to the unpredictable outcomes of their R&D activities, have been increasing their cash holdings more rapidly than less R&D intensive corporations. As R&D expenditures increase as a share of total investment, total cash holding by corporations would be expected to increase. But, again, this explanation can account for a long-term trend towards increased corporate cash holding, but not for the surge in corporate cash holding since 2009.

Let’s think again about why a profitable company is holding a lot of cash. So what can a profitable company do with all that cash gushing into its coffers? Well, 1) it can just hold on to the cash, 2) it could invest in new plant and equipment, (we’ll come back to this in a moment), 3) it could go out and buy other companies, 4) it could pay bonuses to some or all of the employees (guess which ones) of the company, or 5) it could return the cash to the owners of the company by paying dividends or by repurchasing stock.

As promised, let’s now think a bit more about option 2). There are broadly speaking three categories of capital investment. First, there is capital investment that replaces old and depreciating equipment with new and possibly improved equipment, but does not alter the firm’s structure or methods of production. It simply allows the company to keep doing what it has been doing, but perhaps a little bit more efficiently. Second, there is capital investment that aims to alter the structure of production, by adopting a new method or technique of production. Third, there is capital investment intended to increase the total productive capacity of the firm, enabling the firm to expand its output and increase its sales.

Notice that the first category is necessary for any firm unless it is about to go out of business. A firm may postpone such investment if it is not currently profitable, but it can’t postpone it for long without compromising the viability of the firm. Capital replacement is important, but to a large extent it is automatic, not being sensitive to relatively small changes in economic incentives.

The second category does depend importantly on the relative profitability of different techniques, and these decisions require pretty careful and detailed assessments by corporate management to decide which ones will be profitable and should be undertaken and which ones are unlikely to be profitable or involve too much risk to be undertaken. I note parenthetically that it is only a subset (probably a small subset) of this category that is sensitive to the interest-rate mechanism that looms so large in Austrian business-cycle theory. To presume that this probably small sub-category of interest-sensitive investment is what drives the business cycle involves a huge, and empirically unsupported, assumption.

The third – and undoubtedly the largest — category depends primarily not on calculations about the relative cost and profitability of different techniques, but on expectations about future demand for the firm’s output. If firms believe that they can increase sales at current prices, they will expand capacity to produce more output. If they don’t invest in increased capacity, they will probably lose market share to their competitors.

So, if corporations have been accumulating cash rather than investing in new plant and equipment to expand output – the sort of investment that would involve major expenditures and a significant drawdown of cash hoards — the most obvious explanation seems to be that firms don’t expect future demand at current prices to increase enough to justify such investments. A surge in corporate cash holding is an indication that corporate expectations about future demand are not very optimistic. Mildly pessimistic expectations about future demand are not inconsistent with high current profitability and rising stock prices.

I will not comment about why companies are not using their cash to buy other companies or to pay more and bigger bonuses to employees, but I do want to say something about why companies aren’t paying higher dividends to stockholders or buying back stock. One reason that they are not increasing dividend payments is that dividends are not tax-deductible. The non-deductibility of dividends is a terrible flaw in our corporate tax code. (See this post about Hyman Minsky’s opinion of the corporate income tax.) It penalizes giving the owners of companies the ability to decide how to allocate their capital, locking up capital in existing corporations because capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than dividends.

Now it would still be possible for corporations with excess cash to repurchase stock, allowing stockholders to be taxed at the lower rate on capital gains instead of the higher rate on dividends. But for multinational corporations, there is another obstacle to returning cash to stockholders either by paying dividends or by stock repurchase: cash now held overseas would be subject to the 35% corporate tax rate on either dividends or stock repurchases, imposing a huge penalty on returning idle cash to stockholders. So, instead of the cash being made available to millions of stockholders to spend or invest as they wish, creating new demand for output or providing capital to firms seeking new financing, the money is now effectively embargoed in corporate treasuries. What a waste.

Just How Infamous Was that Infamous Open Letter to Bernanke?

There’s been a lot of comment recently about the infamous 2010 open letter to Ben Bernanke penned by an assorted group of economists, journalists, and financiers warning that the Fed’s quantitative easing policy would cause inflation and currency debasement.

Critics of that letter (e.g., Paul Krugman and Brad Delong) have been having fun with the signatories, ridiculing them for what now seems like a chicken-little forecast of disaster. Those signatories who have responded to inquiries about how they now feel about that letter, notably Cliff Asness and Nial Ferguson, have made two arguments: 1) the letter was just a warning that QE was creating a risk of inflation, and 2) despite the historically low levels of inflation since the letter was written, the risk that inflation could increase as a result of QE still exists.

For the most part, critics of the open letter have focused on the absence of inflation since the Fed adopted QE, the critics characterizing the absence of inflation despite QE as an easily predictable outcome, a straightforward implication of basic macroeconomics, which it was ignorant or foolish of the signatories to have ignored. In particular, the signatories should have known that, once interest rates fall to the zero lower bound, the demand for money becoming highly elastic so that the public willingly holds any amount of money that is created, monetary policy is rendered ineffective. Just as a semantic point, I would observe that the term “liquidity trap” used to describe such a situation is actually a slight misnomer inasmuch as the term was coined to describe a situation posited by Keynes in which the demand for money becomes elastic above the zero lower bound. So the assertion that monetary policy is ineffective at the zero lower bound is actually a weaker claim than the one Keynes made about the liquidity trap. As I have suggested previously, the current zero-lower-bound argument is better described as a Hawtreyan credit deadlock than a Keynesian liquidity trap.

Sorry, but I couldn’t resist the parenthetical history-of-thought digression; let’s get back to that infamous open letter.

Those now heaping scorn on signatories to the open letter are claiming that it was obvious that quantitative easing would not increase inflation. I must confess that I did not think that that was the case; I believed that quantitative easing by the Fed could indeed produce inflation. And that’s why I was in favor of quantitative easing. I was hoping for a repeat of what I have called the short but sweat recovery of 1933, when, in the depths of the Great Depression, almost immediately following the worst financial crisis in American history capped by a one-week bank holiday announced by FDR upon being inaugurated President in March 1933, the US economy, propelled by a 14% rise in wholesale prices in the aftermath of FDR’s suspension of the gold standard and 40% devaluation of the dollar, began the fastest expansion it ever had, industrial production leaping by 70% from April to July, and the Dow Jones average more than doubling. Unfortunately, FDR spoiled it all by getting Congress to pass the monumentally stupid National Industrial Recovery Act, thereby strangling the recovery with mandatory wage increases, cost increases, and regulatory ceilings on output as a way to raise prices. Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory!

Inflation having worked splendidly as a recovery strategy during the Great Depression, I have believed all along that we could quickly recover from the Little Depression if only we would give inflation a chance. In the Great Depression, too, there were those that argued either that monetary policy is ineffective – “you can’t push on a string” — or that it would be calamitous — causing inflation and currency debasement – or, even both. But the undeniable fact is that inflation worked; countries that left the gold standard recovered, because once currencies were detached from gold, prices could rise sufficiently to make production profitable again, thereby stimulating multiplier effects (aka supply-side increases in resource utilization) that fueled further economic expansion. And oh yes, don’t forget providing badly needed relief to debtors, relief that actually served the interests of creditors as well.

So my problem with the open letter to Bernanke is not that the letter failed to recognize the existence of a Keynesian liquidity trap or a Hawtreyan credit deadlock, but that the open letter viewed inflation as the problem when, in my estimation at any rate, inflation is the solution.

Now, it is certainly possible that, as critics of the open letter maintain, monetary policy at the zero lower bound is ineffective. However, there is evidence that QE announcements, at least initially, did raise inflation expectations as reflected in TIPS spreads. And we also know (see my paper) that for a considerable period of time (from 2008 through at least 2012) stock prices were positively correlated with inflation expectations, a correlation that one would not expect to observe under normal circumstances.

So why did the huge increase in the monetary base during the Little Depression not cause significant inflation even though monetary policy during the Great Depression clearly did raise the price level in the US and in the other countries that left the gold standard? Well, perhaps the success of monetary policy in ending the Great Depression could not be repeated under modern conditions when all currencies are already fiat currencies. It may be that, starting from an interwar gold standard inherently biased toward deflation, abandoning the gold standard created, more or less automatically, inflationary expectations that allowed prices to rise rapidly toward levels consistent with a restoration of macroeconomic equilibrium. However, in the current fiat money system in which inflation expectations have become anchored to an inflation target of 2 percent or less, no amount of money creation can budge inflation off its expected path, especially at the zero lower bound, and especially when the Fed is paying higher interest on reserves than yielded by short-term Treasuries.

Under our current inflation-targeting monetary regime, the expectation of low inflation seems to have become self-fulfilling. Without an explicit increase in the inflation target or the price-level target (or the NGDP target), the Fed cannot deliver the inflation that could provide a significant economic stimulus. So the problem, it seems to me, is not that we are stuck in a liquidity trap; the problem is that we are stuck in an inflation-targeting monetary regime.

 

Currency Wars: The Next Generation

I saw an interesting news story on the Bloomberg website today. The title sums it up pretty well. “Currency Wars Evolve With Goal of Avoiding Deflation.” Just as Lars Christensen predicted recently, nervous — and misguided — talk about currency wars is spreading fast. Here’s what it says on Bloomberg:

Currency wars are back, though this time the goal is to steal inflation, not growth.

Brazil Finance Minister Guido Mantega popularized the term “currency war” in 2010 to describe policies employed at the time by major central banks to boost the competitiveness of their economies through weaker currencies. Now, many see lower exchange rates as a way to avoid crippling deflation.

Now, as I have pointed out many times (e.g., here, here, and most recently here), “currency war” in the sense used by Mantega, also known as “currency manipulation” or “exchange-rate protection” involves the simultaneous application of exchange-rate intervention by the monetary authority to reduce the nominal exchange rate together with a tight monetary policy aimed at creating a chronic domestic excess demand for money, thereby forcing domestic households and businesses to restrict expenditure to build up their holdings of cash to desired levels, resulting in a chronic balance of payments surplus and the steady accumulation of foreign-exchange reserves by the central bank. So the idea that quantitative easing had anything to do with “currency war” in this sense was a nonsensical notion based on a complete failure to understand the difference between a nominal and a real exchange rate.

“This beggar-thy-neighbor policy is not about rebalancing, not about growth,” David Bloom, the global head of currency strategy at London-based HSBC Holdings Plc, which does business in 74 countries and territories, said in an Oct. 17 interview. “This is about deflation, exporting your deflationary problems to someone else.”

Bloom puts it in these terms because, when one jurisdiction weakens its exchange rate, another’s gets stronger, making imported goods cheaper. Deflation is a both a consequence of, and contributor to, the global economic slowdown that’s pushing the euro region closer to recession and reducing demand for exports from countries such as China and New Zealand.

Well, by definition of an exchange rate (a reciprocal relationship) between two currencies, if one currency appreciates the other depreciates correspondingly. If the euro depreciates relative to the dollar, prices of the same goods will rise measured in euros and fall measured in dollars. The question is what has been causing the euro to depreciate relative to the dollar. The notion of a currency war is meaningless if the change in exchange rates is not at least in part being driven by a deliberate policy choice. So what kind of policy choices are we talking about?

Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said last month he’d welcome a lower exchange rate to help meet his inflation target and may extend the nation’s unprecedented stimulus program to achieve that. Like his Japanese counterpart, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has acknowledged the need for a weaker euro to avoid deflation and make exports more competitive, though he’s denied targeting the exchange rate specifically.

After the Argentine peso, which is plunging following a debt default and devaluation, the yen will be the biggest loser among major currencies by the end of 2015, according to median strategist forecasts compiled by Bloomberg as of yesterday. A 6 percent decline is predicted, which would build on a 5.5 percent slide since June.

The euro is also expected to be among the 10 biggest losers, with strategists seeing a 4.8 percent drop. The yen traded at 107.21 per dollar 10:18 a.m. in New York, while the euro bought $1.2658.

Notice that there is no mention of the monetary policy that goes along with the exchange-rate target. Since the goal of the monetary policy is to produce inflation, one would imagine that the mechanism is monetary expansion. If the Japanese and the Europeans want their currencies to depreciate against the dollar, they can intervene in foreign-exchange markets and buy up dollars with newly printed euros or yen. That would tend to cause euros and yen to depreciate against the dollar, but would also tend to raise prices of goods in terms of euros and yen. How does that export deflation to the US?

At 0.3 percent in September, annual inflation in the 18-nation bloc remains a fraction of the ECB’s target of just under 2 percent. Gross-domestic-product growth flat-lined in the second quarter, while Germany, Europe‘s biggest economy, reduced its 2014 expansion forecast this month to 1.2 percent from 1.8 percent.

Disinflationary pressures in the euro area are starting to spread to its neighbors and biggest trading partners. The currencies of Switzerland, Hungary (HUCPIYY), Denmark, the Czech Republic and Sweden are forecast to fall from 3.8 percent to more than 6 percent by the end of next year, estimates compiled by Bloomberg show, partly due to policy makers’ actions to stoke prices.

“Deflation is spilling over to central and eastern Europe,” Simon Quijano-Evans, the London-based head of emerging-markets research at Commerzbank AG, said yesterday by phone. “Weaker exchange rates will help” them tackle the issue, he said.

Hungary and Switzerland entered deflation in the past two months, while Swedish central-bank Deputy Governor Per Jansson last week blamed his country’s falling prices partly on rate cuts the ECB used to boost its own inflation. A policy response may be necessary, he warned.

If the Swedish central bank thinks that it is experiencing deflation, it has tools with which to prevent deflation from occurring. It is bizarre to suggest that a rate cut by ECB could be causing deflation in Sweden.

While not strictly speaking stimulus measures, the Swiss, Danish and Czech currency pegs — whether official or unofficial — have a similar effect by limiting gains versus the euro.

The Swedes could very easily adopt a similar currency peg to avoid any appreciation of the Swedish krona against the euro.

Measures like these are necessary because, even after a broad-based dollar rally, eight of the Group of 10 developed-nation currencies remain overvalued versus the dollar, according to a purchasing-power parity measure from the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development.

If these currencies are overvalued relative to the dollar, according to a PPP measure, they are under deflationary pressure even at current exchange rates. That means that exchange rate depreciation via monetary expansion is essential to counteracting deflationary pressure.

The notion that exchange-rate depreciation to avoid deflation is a beggar-thy-neighbor policy or a warlike act could not be more wrong. If exchange-rate depreciation by one country causes retaliation by other countries that try to depreciate their currencies even more, that would be a virtuous cycle, not a vicious one.

In his book Trade Depression and the Way Out, Hawtrey summed it up beautifully over 80 years ago, as I observed in this post.

In consequence of the competitive advantage gained by a country’s manufacturers from a depreciation of its currency, any such depreciation is only too likely to meet with recriminations and even retaliation from its competitors. . . . Fears are even expressed that if one country starts depreciation, and others follow suit, there may result “a competitive depreciation” to which no end can be seen.

This competitive depreciation is an entirely imaginary danger. The benefit that a country derives from the depreciation of its currency is in the rise of its price level relative to its wage level, and does not depend on its competitive advantage. If other countries depreciate their currencies, its competitive advantage is destroyed, but the advantage of the price level remains both to it and to them. They in turn may carry the depreciation further, and gain a competitive advantage. But this race in depreciation reaches a natural limit when the fall in wages and in the prices of manufactured goods in terms of gold has gone so far in all the countries concerned as to regain the normal relation with the prices of primary products. When that occurs, the depression is over, and industry is everywhere remunerative and fully employed. Any countries that lag behind in the race will suffer from unemployment in their manufacturing industry. But the remedy lies in their own hands; all they have to do is to depreciate their currencies to the extent necessary to make the price level remunerative to their industry. Their tardiness does not benefit their competitors, once these latter are employed up to capacity. Indeed, if the countries that hang back are an important part of the world’s economic system, the result must be to leave the disparity of price levels partly uncorrected, with undesirable consequences to everybody. . . .

The picture of an endless competition in currency depreciation is completely misleading. The race of depreciation is towards a definite goal; it is a competitive return to equilibrium. The situation is like that of a fishing fleet threatened with a storm; no harm is done if their return to a harbor of refuge is “competitive.” Let them race; the sooner they get there the better.

The only small quibble that I have with Hawtrey’s discussion is his assertion that a fall in the real wage is necessary to restore equilibrium. A temporary fall in real wages may be part of the transition to equilibrium, but that doesn’t mean that the real wage at the end of the transition must be less than it was at the start of the process.


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist at the Federal Trade Commission. Nothing that you read on this blog necessarily reflects the views of the FTC or the individual commissioners. Although I work at the FTC as an antitrust economist, most of my research and writing has been on monetary economics and policy and the history of monetary theory. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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