The Real Problem with High-Frequency Trading

Everybody seems to be talking about Michael Lewis’s new book (Flash Boys), which has been featured on 60 Minutes and reviewed twice by the New York Times. The book is about something called high-frequency trading, which, I will admit, with some, but not too much, embarrassment, I know almost nothing about. Actually, the first time I heard of the existence of high-frequency trading was from a commenter on a post I wrote almost two years ago, about which I will have something more to say in a moment. Michael Lewis’s book is a polemic against high-frequency trading, alleging that it enables high-frequency traders to rig the stock market and exploit ordinary traders. Lewis makes his case by telling the story of a group of hedge-funds that have banded together to create an alternative trading platform IEX, thereby avoiding contact with the high-frequency platforms, which, according to Lewis and the heroes of his tale, is exploiting everyone else on the stock market.

Lots of other people have weighed in on both sides, some defending high-frequency trading against Lewis’s accusations, pointing out that high-frequency trading has added liquidity to the market and reduced bid-ask spreads, so that ordinary investors are made better off, not worse off, as Lewis charges, and others backing him up. Still others argue that any problems with high-frequency trading are caused by regulators, not by high-speed trading as such.

I think all of this misses the point. Lots of investors are indeed benefiting from the reduced bid-ask spreads resulting from low-cost high-frequency trading. Does that mean that high-frequency trading is a good thing? Um, not necessarily.

To see what I’m getting at, let’s go back to the earlier post I just mentioned. I called it “Soak the Rich?” Here’s what I said then, discussing research by Edward Saez suggesting that marginal tax rates could be increased without reducing economic growth, an idea that, to many economists, including moi, seems counterintuitive.

Is there any way of explaining why raising top marginal rates to very high levels would not cause a loss of real income? Here’s an idea. The era of low marginal tax rates in the US has been associated with a huge expansion in the US financial sector. . . . What has been the social payoff to this expansion of finance? I am not so sure. Over a century ago, Thorstein Veblen wrote his book The Theory of the Leisure Class, followed some years later by his essay “The Engineers and the Price System.” He distinguished between engineers who actually make things that people use and financiers who simply make investments on behalf of the leisure class, adding no value to society. This was a vulgar distinction, premised on the unwarranted assumption that finance is unproductive simply because it generates no tangible physical product. On that criterion, Veblen would have ranked pretty low as a contributor to social welfare. Mainstream economists felt pretty comfortable dismissing Veblen because he was presuming that only physical stuff can be valuable.

However in 1971, Jack Hirshleifer, one of my great teachers at UCLA, wrote a classic article “The Private and Social Value of Information and the Reward to Inventive Activity.” The great insight of that article is that the private value of information, say, about what the weather will be tomorrow, is greater than its value to society. The reason is that if I know that it will rain tomorrow, I can go out today and buy lots of cheap umbrellas (suppose I live in Dallas during a drought), and then sell them all tomorrow at a much higher price than I paid for them. The example does not depend on my having a monopoly in umbrellas; I sell every umbrella that I have at the rainy-day market price for umbrellas instead of the sunny-day price. The gain to me from getting that information exceeds the gain to society, because part of my gain comes at the expense of everyone who sold me an umbrella at the sunny-day price but would not have sold to me yesterday had they known that it would rain today.

Our current overblown financial sector is largely built on people hunting, scrounging, doing whatever they possibly can, to obtain any scrap of useful information — useful, that is for anticipating a price movement that can be traded on. But the net value to society from all the resources expended on that feverish, obsessive, compulsive, all-consuming search for information is close to zero (not exactly zero, but close to zero), because the gains from obtaining slightly better information are mainly obtained at some other trader’s expense. There is a net gain to society from faster adjustment of prices to their equilibrium levels, and there is a gain from the increased market liquidity resulting from increased trading generated by the acquisition of new information. But those gains are second-order compared to gains that merely reflect someone else’s losses. That’s why there is clearly overinvestment — perhaps massive overinvestment — in the mad quest for information.

So I am inclined to conjecture that over the last 30 years, reductions in top marginal tax rates may have provided a huge incentive to expand the financial services industry. The increasing importance of finance also seems to have been a significant factor in the increasing inequality in income distribution observed over the same period. But the net gain to society from an expanding financial sector has been minimal, resources devoted to finance being resources denied to activities that produce positive net returns to society. So if my conjecture is right — and I am not at all confident that it is, but if it is – then raising marginal tax rates could actually increase economic growth by inducing the financial sector and its evil twin the gaming sector — to release resources now being employed without generating any net social benefit.

And here is one of the comments I received to my post.

An example in your favor: the construction of a more direct fiber cable from NYC to Chicago in order to save 20-30 microseconds for HFTs for around $300mm and talk of a similar venture from London (Europe) to Tokyo for five times that amount. I am sure there are sound business reasons for the construction and use of such networks but on a society level a definition of insanity?

So there you have it, high-frequency trading is a new way for traders to exploit — before their competitors can — any slight and fleeting information advantage that they have expended so much effort and so many resources to acquire. In other words, with the opportunity to engage in high-frequency trading, the incentive to search for, and uncover, slight and fleeting information advantages is growing ever larger, and the waste of valuable resources in the quest for such advantages is increasing parri passu.

Felix Salmon nails this point in his review of Flash Boys, observing that Michael Lewis writes his book as a tale of good guys versus bad guys. It’s true the interests of his protagonists and antagonists are diametrically opposed. But his notion, that one side is somehow better than the other, is simply asserted without proof or evidence.

You never know which side Lewis is going to pick in his books. In The Big Short, for instance, he sided with, of all people, the hedge funds who helped destroy the world by making multibillion-dollar bets against the U.S. economy in the highly complex world of mortgage-bond derivatives. And now, in Flash Boys, he sides with a small group of stock traders, funded by some of New York’s most notorious hedge fund billionaires, who have created their own private stock exchange, IEX. Truth be told, the IEX guys are a lot more sympathetic than the guys shorting mortgages. But by creating an oppositional narrative of what he explicitly describes as “good guys and bad guys,” Lewis runs the risk of turning a highly complex issue into an unhelpfully simplistic morality tale.

What Lewis has done is to find a group of traders who find that their attempts to trade on their information advantages are being stymied by the trading strategies devised by high-frequency traders. Lewis’s guys are certainly aggrieved. But just because they have a grievance does not make them any more admirable than the high-frequency traders. Vladimir Putin has lots of grievances, too, but those grievances don’t justify his actions or his arguments. Both sides are engaged in an essentially zero-sum battle for trivial informational advantage that they can exploit at the expense of informationally disadvantaged professional traders. (All traders are sometimes informationally disadvantaged. Their goal is to be informationally advantaged often enough to turn a profit.) Lewis, channeling the story of his IEX heroes, attempts to paint “average investors” as the victims. but Salmon effectively punctures that self-serving pretense.

“[Lewis] interviews a righteous avenger by the name of John Schwall, an IEX employee with justice on his mind:

“As soon as you realize that you are not able to execute your orders because someone else is able to identify what you are trying to do and race ahead of you to the other exchanges, it’s over,” he said. “It changes your mind.” He stewed on the situation; the longer he stewed, the angrier he became. “It really just pissed me off,” he said. “That people set out in this way to make money from everyone else’s retirement account. I knew who was being screwed, people like my mom and pop, and I became hell-bent on figuring out who was doing the screwing.”

Schwall tells Lewis that HFT is “ripping off the retirement savings of the entire country through systematic fraud,” and Lewis just allows the quote to sit there, damningly, even if he would never come out and put it that way himself. After all, the fact of the matter is that of all the various actors screwing your mom and pop out of the money in their retirement account, high-frequency traders are at the very bottom of the list. If, that is, they’re on the list at all.

If your mom has a brokerage account, or a mutual fund manager, or generally entrusts her retirement savings to any kind of intermediary, then the fees charged by her broker or fund manager will dwarf any profits being skimmed from her by HFT. And if your pop invests in the market himself—if he’s among those people with a TD Ameritrade or E-Trade or Schwab account, the “easy kill” for the high-frequency algorithms, then, in reality, he is the one big winner of the high-frequency game.

Of course, the stock market is a game with winners and losers: Every time one person is buying, another person is selling. If you sell before a stock goes up, you’re a loser, but if you sell before it goes down, you’re a winner. And if you’re making your own decisions of what to buy and sell, and at exactly what price, then there is no room to blame anybody but yourself if you make bad decisions. The trading fees and the stock prices, for individual investors, are all completely transparent.

If you’re a big investor, that’s not the case. Brad Katsuyama, when he was at Royal Bank of Canada, would see thousands of shares available for sale at a certain price—but when he tried to buy them, they would suddenly disappear, and he would be forced to pay more. That was the high-frequency traders, front-running his order.

Retail investors don’t run into this problem. If they see a stock available for $50.00, they can buy it at $50.00—not $50.01 or anything higher. They get exactly what they want, at exactly the price they want, which is also the best price in the market, and they get it immediately, in a way that makes big investors rather jealous. . . .

If your mom or your pop buys or sells a stock, that order will almost certainly never make its way to any stock exchange: It will be filled by a high-frequency trading shop that is happy to pay good money for the privilege of doing so. The high-frequency traders do make money from the retail investors—but mainly they do so the old-fashioned way, just by being on the right side of the trade.

If an HFT shop simply fills every single retail order at the best price in the market, then over the course of a day, and certainly over the course of a year, it will make a decent profit. Retail investors, in aggregate, are dumb money: If you take the opposite side of their trades, you’re going to do just fine. Especially when you also buy stock off them for a penny or two less than you will sell the same stock to them. That’s called NBBO—the national best bid/offer—and it simply reflects the fact that there’s always a small gap between the highest price that someone is willing to buy, and the lowest price that someone is willing to sell.

That’s why HFTs love to give retail investors what they want: It turns out that retail investors are very good at making very bad decisions all on their own. What’s more, if you’re an HFT seeing what retail is doing at any given moment, you can use that information to inform your stock-market trades elsewhere. So mom and pop end up making you a lot of money, without your ripping them off in the slightest.

So what we have here is a war between professional traders, the practitioners of l’haute finance. The rest of us are merely bystanders in their battle, with no particular reason to consider one side or the other as representing justice, fairness, or the common good. On the contrary, their perpetual battle for new and better mechanisms for gaining temporary informational advantage make the rest of us worse off, possibly because they are causing greater volatility in them market, though that is a suggestion made by Salmon for which there is no conclusive evidence, but by diverting productive resources into socially unproductive zero-sum activities, using valuable physical and human capital to produce temporary informational advantages with little, if any, net social value, being merely the instrumentality by which to extract wealth from others who are informationally disadvantaged.

I am not a fan of Thorstein Veblens; his celebration of engineering over finance at least partly reflected a crude misunderstanding of the operation of the price system and a failure to grasp the difference between engineering efficiency and economic efficiency. But lurking in his diatribes, there may have been some inkling that much of what financiers do is a waste of real resources in a battle over the surplus generated by the real economy. It is depressing to reflect on the fact that when more than a century ago Veblen was complaining that financiers, though less productive, were more highly remunerated than engineers, the engineers were still out there designing bridges, and railroads, and other wonders of late nineteenth and early twentieth century technology, while, now in the twenty-first century, the engineers are actually employed by the financiers to design complex high-frequency trading systems, connecting New York and Chicago with fiber-optic cable to speed up trading by fractions of a second, and designing complicated software to implement trading strategies designed to exploit socially useless informational advantages. Does that sound like progress?

Can There Really Be an Excess Supply of Commercial Bank Money?

Nick Rowe has answered the question in the affirmative. Nick mistakenly believes that I have argued that there cannot be an excess supply of commercial bank money. In fact, I agree with him that there can be an excess supply of commercial bank money, and, for that matter, that there can be an excess demand for commercial bank money. Our disagreement concerns a slightly different, but nonetheless important, question: is there a market mechanism whereby an excess supply of commercial bank money can be withdrawn from circulation, or is the money destined to remain forever in circulation, because, commercial bank money, once created, must ultimately be held, however unwillingly, by someone? That’s the issue. I claim that there is a market mechanism that tends to equilibrate the quantity of bank money created with the amount demanded, so that if too much bank money is created, the excess will tend to be withdrawn from circulation without generating an increase in total expenditure. Nick denies that there is any such mechanism.

Nick and I have been discussing this point for about two and a half years, and every time I think we inch a bit closer to agreement, it seems that the divide separating us seems unbridgeable. But I’m not ready to give up yet. On the other hand, James Tobin explained it all over 50 years ago (when the idea seemed so radical it was called the New View) in his wonderful, classic (I don’t have enough adjectives superlatives to do it justice) paper “Commercial Banks and Creators of Money.” And how can I hope to improve on Tobin’s performance? (Actually there was a flaw in Tobin’s argument, which was not to recognize a key distinction between the inside (beta) money created by banks and the outside (alpha) money created by the monetary authority, but that has nothing to do with the logic of Tobin’s argument about commercial banks.)

Message to Nick: You need to write an article (a simple blog post won’t do, but it would be a start) explaining what you think is wrong with Tobin’s argument. I think that’s a hopeless task, but I’m sorry that’s the challenge you’ve chosen for yourself. Good luck, you’ll need it.

With that introduction out of the way, let me comment directly on Nick’s post. Nick has a subsequent post defending both the Keynesian multiplier and the money multiplier. I reserve the right (but don’t promise) to respond to that post at a later date; I have my hands full with this post. Here’s Nick:

Commercial banks are typically beta banks, and central banks are typically alpha banks. Beta banks promise to convert their money into the money of alpha banks at a fixed exchange rate. Alpha banks make no such promise the other way. It’s asymmetric redeemability. This means there cannot be an excess supply of beta money in terms of alpha money. (Nor can there be an excess demand for alpha money in terms of beta money.) Because people would convert their beta money into alpha money if there were. But there can be an excess supply of beta money in terms of goods, just as there can be an excess supply of alpha money in terms of goods. If beta money is in excess supply in terms of goods, so is alpha money, and vice versa. If commercial and central bank monies are perfect or imperfect substitutes, an increased supply of commercial bank money will create an excess supply of both monies against goods. The Law of Reflux will not prevent this.

The primary duty of a central bank is not to make a profit. It is possible to analyze and understand its motivations and its actions in terms of policy objectives that do not reflect the economic interests of its immediate owners. On the other hand, commercial banks are primarily in business to make a profit, and it should be possible to explain their actions in terms of their profit-enhancing effects. As I follow Nick’s argument, I will try to point where I think Nick fails to keep this distinction in mind. Back to Nick:

Money, the medium of exchange, is not like other goods, because if there are n goods plus one money, there are n markets in which money is traded, and n different excess supplies of money. Money might be in excess supply in the apple market, and in excess demand in the banana market.

If there are two monies, and n other goods, there are n markets in which money is traded against goods, plus one market in which the two monies are traded for each other. If beta money is convertible into alpha money, there can never be an excess supply of beta money in the one market where beta money is traded for alpha money. But there can be an excess supply of both beta and alpha money in each or all of the other n markets.

Sorry, I don’t understand this at all. First of all, to be sure, there can be n different excess demands for money; some will be positive, some negative. But it is entirely possible that the sum of those n different excess demands is zero. Second, even if we assume that the n money excess demands don’t sum to zero, there is still another market, the (n+1)st market in which the public exchanges assets that provide money-backing services with the banking system. If there is an excess demand for money, the public can provide the banks with additional assets (IOUs) in exchange for money, and if there is an excess supply of money the public can exchange their excess holding of money with the banks in return for assets providing money-backing services. The process is equilibrated by adjustments in the spreads between interests on loans and deposits governing the profitability of the banks loans and deposits. This is what I meant in the first paragraph when I said that I agree that it is possible for there to an excess demand for or supply of beta money. But the existence of that excess demand or excess supply can be equilibrated via the equilibration of market for beta money and the market for assets (IOUs) providing money-backing services. If there is a market process equilibrating the quantity of beta money, the adjustment can take place independently of the n markets for real goods and services that Nick is concerned with. On the other hand, if there is an excess demand for or supply of alpha money, it is not so clear that there are any market forces that cause that excess demand or supply to be equilibrated without impinging on the n real markets for goods and services.

Nick goes on to pose the following question:

Start in equilibrium, where the existing stocks of both alpha and beta money are willingly held. Hold constant the stock of alpha money. Now suppose the issuers of beta money create more beta money. Could this cause an excess supply of money and an increase in the price level?

That’s a great question. Just the question that I would ask. Here’s how Nick looks at it:

If alpha and beta money were perfect substitutes for each other, people would be indifferent about the proportions of alpha to beta monies they held. The desired share or ratio of alpha/beta money would be indeterminate, but the desired total of alpha+beta money would still be well-defined. If beta banks issued more beta money, holding constant the stock of alpha money, the total stock of money would be higher than desired, and there would be an excess supply of both monies against all other goods. But no individual would choose to go to the beta bank to convert his beta money into alpha money, because, by assumption, he doesn’t care about the share of alpha/beta money he holds. The Law of Reflux will not work to eliminate the excess supply of alpha+beta money against all other goods.

The assumption of perfect substitutability doesn’t seem right, as Nick himself indicates, inasmuch as people don’t seem to be indifferent between holding currency (alpha money) and holding deposits (beta money). And Nick focuses mainly on the imperfect-substitutes case. But, aside from that point, I have another problem with Nick’s discussion of perfect substitutes, which is that he seems to be conflate the assumption that alpha and beta moneys are perfect substitutes with the assumption that they are indistinguishable. I may be indifferent between holding currency and deposits, but if I have more deposits than I would like to hold, and I can tell the difference between a unit of currency and a deposit and there is a direct mechanism whereby I can reduce my holdings of deposits – by exchanging the deposit at the bank for another asset – it would seem that there is a mechanism whereby the excess supply of deposits can be eliminated without any change in overall spending. Now let’s look at Nick’s discussion of the more relevant case in which currency and deposits are imperfect substitutes.

Now suppose that alpha and beta money are close but imperfect substitutes. If beta banks want to prevent the Law of Reflux from reducing the stock of beta money, they would need to make beta money slightly more attractive to hold relative to alpha money. Suppose they do that, by paying slightly higher interest on beta money. This ensures that the desired share of alpha/beta money equals the actual share. No individual wants to reduce his share of beta/alpha money. But there will be an excess supply of both alpha and beta monies against all other goods. If apples and pears are substitutes, an increased supply of pears reduces the demand for apples.

What does it mean for “beta banks to want to prevent the Law of Reflux from reducing the stock of beta money?” Why would beta banks want to do such a foolish thing? Banks want to make profits for their owners. Does Nick think that by “prevent[ing] the Law of Reflux from reducing the stock of beta money” beta banks are increasing their profitability? The method by which he suggests that they could do this is to increase the interest they pay on deposits? That does not seem to me an obvious way of increasing the profits of beta banks. So starting from what he called an equilibrium, which sounds like a position in which beta banks were maximizing their profits, Nick is apparently positing that they increased the amount of deposits beyond the profit-maximizing level and, then, to keep that amount of deposits outstanding, he assumes that the banks increase the interest that they are paying on deposits.

What does this mean? Is Nick saying something other than that if banks collectively decide on a course of action that is not profit-maximizing either individually or collectively that the outcome will be different from the outcome that would have resulted had they acted with a view to maximize profits? Why should anyone be interested in that observation? At any rate, Nick concludes that because the public would switch from holding currency to deposits, the result would be an increase in total spending, as people tried to reduce their holdings of currency. It is not clear to me that people would be trying to increase their spending by reducing their holdings of deposits, but I can see that there is a certain ambiguity in trying to determine whether there is an excess supply of deposits or not in this case. But the case seems very contrived to say the least.

A more plausible way to look at the case Nick has in mind might be the following. Suppose banks perceive that their (marginal) costs of intermediation have fallen. Intermediation costs are very hard to measure, and banks aren’t necessarily very good at estimating those costs either. That may be one reason for the inherent instability of credit, but that’s a whole other discussion. At any rate, under the assumption that marginal intermediation costs have fallen, one could posit that the profit-maximizing response of beta banks would be to increase their interest payments on deposits to support an increase in their, suddenly more profitable than heretofore, lending. With bank deposits now yielding higher interest than before, the public would switch some of their holdings of currency to deposits. The shift form holding currency to holding deposits would initially involve an excess demand for deposits and an excess supply of currency. If the alpha bank was determined not to allow the quantity of currency to fall, then the excess supply of currency could be eliminated only through an increase in spending that would raise prices sufficiently to increase the demand to hold currency. But Nick would apparently want to say that even in this case there was also an excess supply of deposits, even though we saw that initially there was an excess demand for deposits when banks increased the interest paid on deposits, and it was only because the alpha bank insisted on not allowing the quantity of currency to fall that there was any increase in total spending.

So, my conclusion remains what it was before. The Law of Reflux works to eliminate excess supplies of bank money, without impinging on spending for real goods and services. To prove otherwise, you have to find a flaw in the logic of Tobin’s 1963 paper. I think that that is very unlikely. On the other hand, if you do find such a flaw, you just might win the Nobel Prize.

The Uselessness of the Money Multiplier as Brilliantly Elucidated by Nick Rowe

Not long after I started blogging over two and a half years ago, Nick Rowe and I started a friendly argument about the money multiplier. He likes it; I don’t. In his latest post (“Alpha banks, beta banks, fixed exchange rates, market shares, and the money multiplier”), Nick attempts (well, sort of) to defend the money multiplier. Nick has indeed figured out an ingenious way of making sense out of the concept, but in doing so, he has finally and definitively demonstrated its total uselessness.

How did Nick accomplish this remarkable feat? By explaining that there is no significant difference between a commercial bank that denominates its deposits in terms of a central bank currency, thereby committing itself to make its deposits redeemable on demand into a corresponding amount of central bank currency, and a central bank that commits to maintain a fixed exchange rate between its currency and the currency of another central bank — the commitment to a fixed exchange rate being unilateral and one-sided, so that only one of the central banks (the beta bank) is constrained by its unilateral commitment to a fixed exchange rate, while the other central bank (the alpha bank) is free from commitment to an exchange-rate peg.

Just suppose the US Fed, for reasons unknown, pegged the exchange rate of the US dollar to the Canadian dollar. The Fed makes a promise to ensure the US dollar will always be directly or indirectly convertible into Canadian dollars at par. The Bank of Canada makes no commitment the other way. The Bank of Canada does whatever it wants to do. The Fed has to do whatever it needs to do to keep the exchange rate fixed.

For example, just suppose, for reasons unknown, the Bank of Canada decided to double the Canadian price level, then go back to targeting 2% inflation. If it wanted to keep the exchange rate fixed at par, the Fed would need to follow along, and double the US price level too, otherwise the US dollar would appreciate against the Canadian dollar. The Fed’s promise to fix the exchange rate makes the Bank of Canada the alpha bank and the Fed the beta bank. Both Canadian and US monetary policy would be decided in Ottawa. It’s asymmetric redeemability that gives the Bank of Canada its power over the Fed.

Absolutely right! Under these assumptions, the amount of money created by the Fed would be governed, among other things, by its commitment to maintain the exchange-rate peg between the US dollar and the Canadian dollar. However, the numerical relationship between the quantity of US dollars and quantity of Canadian dollars would depend on the demand of US (and possibly Canadian) citizens and residents to hold US dollars. The more US dollars people want to hold, the more dollars the Fed can create.

Nick then goes on to make the following astonishing (for him) assertion.

Doubling the Canadian price level would mean approximately doubling the supplies of all Canadian monies, including the money issued by the Bank of Canada. Doubling the US price level would mean approximately doubling the supplies of all US monies, including the money issued by the Fed. Because the demand for money is proportional to the price level.

In other words, given the price level, the quantity of money adjusts to whatever is the demand for it, the price level being determined unilaterally by the unconstrained (aka “alpha”) central bank.

To see how astonishing (for Nick) this assertion is, consider the following passage from Perry Mehrling’s superb biography of Fischer Black. Mehrling devotes an entire chapter (“The Money Wars”) to the relationship between Black and Milton Friedman. Black came to Chicago as a professor in the Business School, and tried to get Friedman interested in his idea the quantity of money supplied by the banking system adjusted passively to the amount demanded. Friedman dismissed the idea as preposterous, a repetition of the discredited “real bills doctrine,” considered by Friedman to be fallacy long since refuted (definitively) by his teacher Lloyd Mints in his book A History of Banking Theory. Friedman dismissed Black and told him to read Mints, and when Black, newly arrived at Chicago in 1971, presented a paper at the Money Workshop at Chicago, Friedman introduced Black as follows:

Fischer Black will be presenting his paper today on money in a two-sector model. We all know that the paper is wrong. We have two hours to work out why it is wrong.

Mehrling describes the nub of the disagreement between Friedman and Black this way:

“But, Fischer, there is a ton of evidence that money causes prices!” Friedman would insist. “Name one piece,” Fischer would respond.The fact that the measured money supply moves in tandem with nominal income and the price level could mean that an increase in money casues prices to rise, as Friedman insisted, but it could also mean that an increase in prices casues the quantity of money to rise, as Fischer thought more reasonable. Empirical evidence could not decide the case. (p. 160)

Well, we now see that Nick Rowe has come down squarely on the side of, gasp, Fischer Black against Milton Friedman. “Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles!”

But despite making that break with his Monetarist roots, Nick isn’t yet quite ready to let go, lapsing once again into money-multiplier talk.

The money issued by the Bank of Canada (mostly currency, with a very small quantity of reserves) is a very small share of the total Canadian+US money supply. What exactly that share would be would depend on how exactly you define “money”. Let’s say it’s 1% of the total. The total Canadian+US money supply would increase by 100 times the amount of new money issued by the Bank of Canada. The money multiplier would be the reciprocal of the Bank of Canada’s share in the total Canadian+US money supply. 1/1%=100.

Maybe the US Fed keeps reserves of Bank of Canada dollars, to help it keep the exchange rate fixed. Or maybe it doesn’t. But it doesn’t matter.

Do loans create deposits, or do deposits create loans? Yes. Neither. But it doesn’t matter.

The only thing that does matter is the Bank of Canada’s market share, and whether it stays constant. And which bank is the alpha bank and which bank is the beta bank.

So in Nick’s world, the money multiplier is just the reciprocal of the market share. In other words, the money multiplier simply reflects the relative quantities demanded of different monies. That’s not the money multiplier that I was taught in econ 2, and that’s not the money multiplier propounded by Monetarists for the past century. The point of the money multiplier is to take the equation of exchange, MV=PQ, underlying the quantity theory of money in which M stands for some measure of the aggregate quantity of money that supposedly determines what P is. The Monetarists then say that the monetary authority controls P because it controls M. True, since the rise of modern banking, most of the money actually used is not produced by the monetary authority, but by private banks, but the money multiplier allows all the privately produced money to be attributed to the monetary authority, the broad money supply being mechanically related to the monetary base so that M = kB, where M is the M in the equation of exchange and B is the monetary base. Since the monetary authority unquestionably controls B, it therefore controls M and therefore controls P.

The point of the money multiplier is to provide a rationale for saying: “sure, we know that banks create a lot of money, and we don’t really understand what governs the amount of money banks create, but whatever amount of money banks create, that amount is ultimately under the control of the monetary authority, the amount being some multiple of the monetary base. So it’s still as if the central bank decides what M is, so that it really is OK to say that the central bank can control the price level even though M in the quantity equation is not really produced by the central bank. M is exogenously determined, because there is a money multiplier that relates M to B. If that is unclear, I’m sorry, but that’s what the Monetarists have been saying all these years.

Who cares, anyway? Well, all the people that fell for Friedman’s notion (traceable to the General Theory by the way) that monetary policy works by controlling the quantity of money produced by the banking system. Somehow Monetarists like Friedman who was pushing his dumb k% rule for monetary growth thought that it was important to be able to show that the quantity of money could be controlled by the monetary authority. Otherwise, the whole rationale for the k% rule would be manifestly based based on a faulty — actually vacuous — premise. The post-Keynesian exogenous endogenous-money movement was an equally misguided reaction to Friedman’s Monetarist nonsense, taking for granted that if they could show that the money multiplier and the idea that the central bank could control the quantity of money were unfounded, it would follow that inflation is not a monetary phenomenon and is beyond the power of a central bank to control. The two propositions are completely independent of one another, and all the sturm und drang of the last 40 years about endogenous money has been a complete waste of time, an argument about a non-issue. Whether the central bank can control the price level has nothing to do with whether there is or isn’t a multiplier. Get over it.

Nick recognizes this:

The simple money multiplier story is a story about market shares, and about beta banks fixing their exchange rates to the alpha bank. If all banks expand together, their market shares stay the same. But if one bank expands alone, it must persuade the market to be willing to hold an increased share of its money and a reduced share of some other banks’ monies, otherwise it will be forced to redeem its money for other banks’ monies, or else suffer a depreciation of its exchange rate. Unless that bank is the alpha bank, to which all the beta banks fix their exchange rates. It is the beta banks’ responsibility to keep their exchange rates fixed to the alpha bank. The Law of Reflux ensures that an individual beta bank cannot overissue its money beyond the share the market desires to hold. The alpha bank can do whatever it likes, because it makes no promise to keep its exchange rate fixed.

It’s all about the public’s demand for money, and their relative preferences for holding one money or another. The alpha central bank may or may not be able to achieve some targeted value for its money, but whether it can or can not has nothing to do with its ability to control the quantity of money created by the beta banks that are committed to an exchange rate peg against  the money of the alpha bank. In other words, the money multiplier is a completely useless concept, as useless as a multiplier between, say, the quantity of white Corvettes the total quantity of Corvettes. From now on, I’m going to call this Rowe’s Theorem. Nick, you’re the man!

The Irrelevance of QE as Explained by Three Bank of England Economists

An article by Michael McLeay, Amara Radia and Ryland Thomas (“Money Creation in the Modern Economy”) published in the Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin has gotten a lot of attention recently. JKH, who liked it a lot, highlighting it on his blog, and prompting critical responses from, among others, Nick Rowe and Scott Sumner.

Let’s look at the overview of the article provided by the authors.

In the modern economy, most money takes the form of bank deposits. But how those bank deposits are created is often misunderstood: the principal way is through commercial banks making loans. Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.

The reality of how money is created today differs from the description found in some economics textbooks:

• Rather than banks receiving deposits when households save and then lending them out, bank lending creates deposits.

• In normal times, the central bank does not fix the amount of money in circulation, nor is central bank money ‘multiplied up’ into more loans and deposits.

I start with a small point. What the authors mean by a “modern economy” is unclear, but presumably when they speak about the money created in a modern economy they are referring to the fact that the money held by the non-bank public has increasingly been held in the form of deposits rather than currency or coins (either tokens or precious metals). Thus, Scott Sumner’s complaint that the authors’ usage of “modern” flies in the face of the huge increase in the ratio of base money to broad money is off-target. The relevant ratio is that between currency and the stock of some measure of broad money held by the public, which is not the same as the ratio of base money to the stock of broad money.

I agree that the reality of how money is created differs from the textbook money-multiplier description. See my book on free banking and various posts I have written about the money multiplier and endogenous money. There is no meaningful distinction between “normal times” and “exceptional circumstances” for purposes of understanding how money is created.

Although commercial banks create money through lending, they cannot do so freely without limit. Banks are limited in how much they can lend if they are to remain profitable in a competitive banking system. Prudential regulation also acts as a constraint on banks’ activities in order to maintain the resilience of the financial system. And the households and companies who receive the money created by new lending may take actions that affect the stock of money — they could quickly ‘destroy’ money by using it to repay their existing debt, for instance.

I agree that commercial banks cannot create money without limit. They are constrained by the willingness of the public to hold their liabilities. Not all monies are the same, despite being convertible into each other at par. The ability of a bank to lend is constrained by the willingness of the public to hold the deposits of that bank rather than currency or the deposits of another bank.

Monetary policy acts as the ultimate limit on money creation. The Bank of England aims to make sure the amount of money creation in the economy is consistent with low and stable inflation. In normal times, the Bank of England implements monetary policy by setting the interest rate on central bank reserves. This then influences a range of interest rates in the economy, including those on bank loans.

Monetary policy is certainly a constraint on money creation, but I don’t understand why it is somehow more important (the constraint of last resort?) than the demand of the public to hold money. Monetary policy, in the framework suggested by this article, affects the costs borne by banks in creating deposits. Adopting Marshallian terminology, we could speak of the two blades of a scissors. Which bade is the ultimate blade? I don’t think there is an ultimate blade. In this context, the term “normal times” refers to periods in which interest rates are above the effective zero lower bound (see the following paragraph). But the underlying confusion here is that the authors seem to think that the amount of money created by the banking system actually matters. In fact, it doesn’t matter, because (at least in the theoretical framework being described) the banks create no more and no less money that the amount that the public willingly holds. Thus the amount of bank money created has zero macroeconomic significance.

In exceptional circumstances, when interest rates are at their effective lower bound, money creation and spending in the economy may still be too low to be consistent with the central bank’s monetary policy objectives. One possible response is to undertake a series of asset purchases, or ‘quantitative easing’ (QE). QE is intended to boost the amount of money in the economy directly by purchasing assets, mainly from non-bank financial companies.

Again the underlying problem with this argument is the presumption that the amount of money created by banks – money convertible into the base money created by the central bank – is a magnitude with macroeconomic significance. In the framework being described, there is no macroeconomic significance to that magnitude, because the value of bank money is determined by its convertibility into central bank money and the banking system creates exactly as much money as is willingly held. If the central bank wants to affect the price level, it has to do so by creating an excess demand or excess supply of the money that it — the central bank — creates, not the money created by the banking system.

QE initially increases the amount of bank deposits those companies hold (in place of the assets they sell). Those companies will then wish to rebalance their portfolios of assets by buying higher-yielding assets, raising the price of those assets and stimulating spending in the economy.

If the amount of bank deposits in the economy is the amount that the public wants to hold, QE cannot affect anything by increasing the amount of bank deposits; any unwanted bank deposits are returned to the banking system. It is only an excess of central-bank money that can possibly affect spending.

As a by-product of QE, new central bank reserves are created. But these are not an important part of the transmission mechanism. This article explains how, just as in normal times, these reserves cannot be multiplied into more loans and deposits and how these reserves do not represent ‘free money’ for banks.

The problem with the creation of new central-bank reserves by QE at the zero lower bound is that, central-bank reserves earn a higher return than alternative assets that might be held by banks, so any and all reserves created by the central bank are held willingly by the banking system. The demand of the banking for central bank reserves is unbounded at the zero-lower bound when the central bank pays a higher rate of interest than the yield on the next best alternative asset the bank could hold. If the central bank wants to increase spending, it can only do so by creating reserves that are not willingly held. Thus, in the theortetical framework described by the authors, QE cannot possibly have any effect on any macroeconomic variable. Now that’s a problem.

Hawtrey v. Keynes on the General Theory and the Rate of Interest

Almost a year ago, I wrote a post briefly discussing Hawtrey’s 1936 review of the General Theory, originally circulated as a memorandum to Hawtrey’s Treasury colleagues, but included a year later in a volume of Hawtrey’s essays Capital and Employment. My post covered only the initial part of Hawtrey’s review criticizing Keynes’s argument that the rate of interest is a payment for the sacrifice of liquidity, not a reward for postponing consumption – the liquidity-preference theory of the rate of interest. After briefly quoting from Hawtrey’s criticism of Keynes, the post veered off in another direction, discussing the common view of Keynes and Hawtrey that an economy might suffer from high unemployment because the prevailing interest rate might be too high. In the General Theory Keynes theorized that the reason that the interest rate was too high to allow full employment might be that liquidity preference was so intense that the interest rate could not fall below a certain floor (liquidity trap). Hawtrey also believe that unemployment might result from an interest rate that was too high, but Hawtrey maintained that the most likely reason for such a situation was that the monetary authority was committed to an exchange-rate peg that, absent international cooperation, required an interest higher than the rate consistent with full employment. In this post I want to come back and look more closely at Hawtrey’s review of the General Theory and also at Keynes’s response to Hawtrey in a 1937 paper (“Alternative Theories of the Rate of Interest”) and at Hawtrey’s rejoinder to that response.

Keynes’s argument for his liquidity-preference theory of interest was a strange one. It had two parts. First, in contrast to the old orthodox theory, the saving-investment equilibrium is achieved by variations of income, not by variations in the rate of interest. Second – and this is where the strangeness really comes in — the rate of interest has an essential nature or meaning. That essential meaning, according to Keynes, is not a rate of exchange between cash in the present and cash in the future, but the sacrifice of liquidity accepted by a lender in forgoing money in the present in exchange for money in the future. For Keynes the existence of a margin between the liquidity of cash and the rate of interest is the essence of what interest is all about. Although Hawtrey thought that the idea of liquidity preference was an important contribution to monetary theory, he rejected the idea that liquidity preference is the essence of interest. Instead, he viewed liquidity preference as an independent constraint that might prevent the interest rate, determined, in part, by other forces, from falling to a level as low as it might otherwise.

Let’s have a look at Keynes’s argument that liquidity preference is what determines the rate of interest. Keynes begins Chapter 7 of the General Theory with the following statement:

In the previous chapter saving and investment have been so defined that they are necessarily equal in amount, being, for the community as a whole, merely different aspect of the same thing.

Because savings and investment (in the aggregate) are merely different names for the same thing, both equaling the unconsumed portion of total income, Keynes argued that any theory of interest — in particular what Keynes called the classical or orthodox theory of interest — in which the rate of interest is that rate at which savings and investment are equal is futile and circular. How can the rate of interest be said to equilibrate savings and investment, when savings and investment are necessarily equal? The function of the rate of interest, Keynes concluded, must be determined by something other than equilibrating savings and investment.

To find what it is that the rate of interest is equilibrating, Keynes undertook a brilliant analysis of own rates of interest in chapter 13 of the General Theory. Corresponding to every commodity or asset that can be held into the future, there is an own rate of interest which corresponds to the rate at which a unit of the asset can be exchanged today for a unit in the future. The money rate of interest is simply the own rate of interest in terms of money. In equilibrium, the expected net rate of return, including the service flow or the physical yield of the asset, storage costs, and expected appreciation or depreciation, must be equalized. Keynes believed that money, because it provides liquidity services, must be associated with a liquidity premium, and that this liquidity premium implied that the rate of return from holding money (exclusive of its liquidity services) had to be correspondingly less than the expected net rate of return on holding other assets. For some reason, Keynes concluded that it was the liquidity premium that explained why the own rate of interest on real assets had to be positive. The rate of interest, Keynes asserted, was not the reward for foregoing consumption, i.e., carrying an asset forward from the current period to the next period; it is the reward for foregoing liquidity. But that is clearly false. The liquidity premium explains why there is a difference between the rate of return from holding a real asset that provides no liquidity services and the rate of return from holding money. It does not explain what the equilibrium expected net rate of return from holding any asset is what it is. Somehow Keynes missed that obvious distinction.

Equally as puzzling is that Keynes also argued that there is an economic mechanism operating to ensure the equality of savings and investment, just as there is an economic mechanism (namely price adjustment) operating to ensure the equality of aggregate purchases and sales. Just as price adjusts to equilibrate purchases and sales, income adjusts to equilibrate savings and investment.

Keynes argued himself into a corner, and in his review of the General Theory, Hawtrey caught him there and pummeled him.

The identity of saving and investment may be compared to the identity of two sides of an account.

Identity so established does not prove anything. The idea that a tendency for saving and investment so defined to become different has to be counteracted by an expansion or contraction of the total of incomes is an absurdity; such a tendency cannot strain the economic system; it can only strain Keynes’s vocabulary.

Thus, Keynes’s premise that it is income, not the rate of interest, which equilibrates saving and investment was based on a logical misconception. Now to be sure, Keynes was correct in pointing out that variations in income also affect saving and investment. But that just means that income, savings, investment, the demand for money and the supply of money and the rate of interest are simultaneously determined in a macroeconomic model, a model that cannot be partitioned in such a way investment and saving depend exclusively on income and are completely independent of the rate of interest. Whatever the shortcomings of the Hicksian IS-LM model, it at least recognized that the variables in the model are simultaneously, not sequentially, determined. That Keynes, who was a highly competent and skilled mathematician, author of one of the most important works ever written on probability theory, seems to have been oblivious to this simple distinction is hugely perplexing.

In 1937, a year after publishing the General Theory, Keynes wrote an article “Alternative Theories of the Rate of Interest” in which he defended his liquidity-preference theory of interest against the alternative theories of interest of Ohlin, Robertson, and Hawtrey in which the rate of interest was conceived as the price of credit. Responding to Hawtrey’s criticism of his attempt to define aggregate investment and aggregate savings as different aspects of the same thing while also using their equality as an equilibrium condition that determines what the equilibrium level of income is, Keynes returned again to a comparison between the identity of investment and savings and the identity of purchases and sales:

Aggregate saving and aggregate investment . . . are necessarily equal in the same way in which the aggregate purchases of anything on the market are equal to the aggregate sales. But this does not mean that “buying” and “selling” are identical terms, and that the laws of supply and demand are meaningless.

Keynes went on to explain the relationship between his view that saving and investment are equilibrated by income and his view of what determines the rate of interest.

[T]he . . . novelty lies in my maintaining that it is not the rate of interest, but the level of incomes which ensures equality between saving and investment. The arguments which lead up to this initial conclusion are independent of my subsequent theory of the rate of interest, and in fact I reached it before I had reached the latter theory. But the result of it was to leave the rate of interest in the air. If the rate of interest in not determined by saving and investment in the same way in which price is determined by supply and demand, how is it determined? One naturally began by supposing that the rate of interest must be determined in some sense by productivity – that it was, perhaps, simply the monetary equivalent of the marginal efficiency of capital, the latter being independently fixed by physical and technical considerations in conjunction with expected demand. It was only when this line of approach led repeatedly to what seemed to be circular reasoning, that I hit on what I now think to be the true explanation. The resulting theory, whether right or wrong, is exceedingly simply – namely, that the rate of interest on a loan of given quality and maturity has to be established at the level which, in the opinion of those who have the opportunity of choice – i.e., of wealth-holders – equalises the attractions of holding idle cash and of holding the loan. It would be true to say that this by itself does not carry us very far. But it gives us firm and intelligible ground from which to proceed.

The concluding sentence seems to convey some intuition on Keynes’s part of how inadequate his liquidity-preference theory is as a theory of the rate of interest. But if he had thought the matter through to the bottom, he could not have claimed even that much for it.

Here is Hawtrey’s response to Keynes’s attempt to defend his position.

The part of Mr. Keynes’ article . . . which refers to my book Capital and Employment is concerned mainly with questions of terminology. He finds fault with my statement that he has defined saving and investment as “two different names for the same thing.” He himself describes them as being “for the community as a whole, merely different aspects of the same thing ” . . . . If, as I suppose, we both mean the same thing by the same thing, the distinction is rather a fine one. In Capital and Employment . . . I point out that the identity of . . . saving and investment . . . “is not a purely verbal proposition: it is an arithmetical identity, comparable to two sides of an account.”

Something very like that seems to be in Mr. Keynes’ mind when he compares the relation between saving and investment to that between purchases and sales. Purchases and sales are necessarily equal, but “this does not mean that buying and selling are identical terms, and that the laws of supply and demand are meaningless.”

Purchases and sales are also “different aspects of the same thing.” And surely, if demand were defined to mean purchases and supply to mean sales, any proposition about economic forces tending to make demand and supply equal, or about their equality being a condition of equilibrium, or indeed a condition of anything whatever, would be nonsense.

“The theory of the rate of interest which prevailed before 1914,” Mr. Keynes writes, “regarded it as the factor which ensured equality between saving and investment,” and he claims therefore that, “in maintaining the equality of saving and investment,” he is “returning to old-fashioned orthodoxy.” That is not so. Old-fashioned orthodoxy never held that saving and investment could not be unequal; it held that their inequality, when it did occur, was inconsistent with equilibrium. If they are defined as “different aspects of the same thing,” how can it possibly be “the level of incomes which ensures equality between saving and investment”? Whatever the level of incomes may be, and however great the disequilibrium, the condition that saving and investment must be equal is always identically satisfied.

While it is widely recognized that Hawtrey showed that Keynes’s attempt to define investment and savings as different aspects of the same thing and as a condition of equilibrium was untenable (a criticism made by others like Haberler and Robertson as well), the fallacy committed by Keynes was not a fatal one, though the fallacy has not been entirely extirpated from textbook expositions of the basic Keynesian model. Unfortunately, the related fallacy underlying Keynes’s attempt to transform his liquidity-preference theory of the demand for money into a full-fledged theory of the rate of interest was not as easily exposed. In his review, Hawtrey discussed various limitations of Keynes’s own-rate analysis, but, unless I have missed it, he failed to see the fallacy in supposing that liquidity premium on money explains the equilibrium net return from holding assets, which is what the real (or natural) rate of interest corresponds to in the analytical framework of chapter 13 of the General Theory.

Stephen Williamson Defends the FOMC

Publication of the transcripts of the FOMC meetings in 2008 has triggered a wave of criticism of the FOMC for the decisions it took in 2008. Since the transcripts were released I have written two posts (here and here) charging that the inflation-phobia of the FOMC was a key (though not the sole) cause of the financial crisis in September 2008. Many other bloggers, Matt Yglesias, Scott Sumner, Brad Delong and Paul Krugman, just to name a few, were also sharply critical of the FOMC, though Paul Krugman at any rate seemed to think that the Fed’s inflation obsession was merely weird rather than catastrophic.

Stephen Williamson, however, has a different take on all this. In a post last week, just after the release of the transcripts, Williamson chastised Matt Yglesias for chastising Ben Bernanke and the FOMC for not reducing the Federal Funds target at the September 16 FOMC meeting, the day after Lehman went into bankruptcy. Williamson quotes this passage from Yglesias’s post.

New documents released last week by the Federal Reserve shed important new light on one of the most consequential and underdiscussed moments of recent American history: the decision to hold interest rates flat on Sept. 16, 2008. At the time, the meeting at which the decision was made was overshadowed by the ongoing presidential campaign and Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy filing the previous day. Political reporters were focused on the campaign, economic reporters on Lehman, and since the news from the Fed was that nothing was changing, it didn’t make for much of a story. But in retrospect, it looks to have been a major policy blunder—one that was harmful on its own terms and that set a precedent for a series of later disasters.

To which Williamson responds acidly:

So, it’s like there was a fire at City Hall, and five years later a reporter for the local rag is complaining that the floor wasn’t swept while the fire was in progress.

Now, in a way, I agree with Williamson’s point here; I think it’s a mistake to overemphasize the September 16 meeting. By September 16, the damage had been done. The significance of the decision not to cut the Fed Funds target is not that the Fed might have prevented a panic that was already developing (though I don’t rule out the possibility that a strong enough statement by the FOMC might have provided enough reassurance to the markets to keep the crisis from spiraling out of control), but what the decision tells us about the mindset of the FOMC. Just read the statement that the Fed issued after its meeting.

The Federal Open Market Committee decided today to keep its target for the federal funds rate at 2 percent.

Strains in financial markets have increased significantly and labor markets have weakened further. Economic growth appears to have slowed recently, partly reflecting a softening of household spending. Tight credit conditions, the ongoing housing contraction, and some slowing in export growth are likely to weigh on economic growth over the next few quarters. Over time, the substantial easing of monetary policy, combined with ongoing measures to foster market liquidity, should help to promote moderate economic growth.

Inflation has been high, spurred by the earlier increases in the prices of energy and some other commodities. The Committee expects inflation to moderate later this year and next year, but the inflation outlook remains highly uncertain.

The downside risks to growth and the upside risks to inflation are both of significant concern to the Committee. The Committee will monitor economic and financial developments carefully and will act as needed to promote sustainable economic growth and price stability.

What planet were they living on? “The downside risks to growth and the upside risks to inflation are both of significant concern to the Committee.” OMG!

Williamson, however, sees it differently.

[T]he FOMC agreed to keep the fed funds rate target constant at 2%. Seems like this was pretty dim-witted of the committee, given what was going on in financial markets that very day, right? Wrong. At that point, the fed funds market target rate had become completely irrelevant.

Williamson goes on to point out that although the FOMC did not change the Fed Funds target, borrowings from the Fed increased sharply in September, so that the Fed was effectively easing its policy even though the target – a meaningless target in Williamson’s view – had not changed.

Thus, by September 16, 2008, it seems the Fed was effectively already at the zero lower bound. At that time the fed funds target was irrelevant, as there were excess reserves in the system, and the effective fed funds rate was irrelevant, as it reflected risk.

I want to make two comments on Williamson’s argument. First, the argument is certainly at odds with Bernanke’s own statement in the transcript, towards the end of the September 16 meeting, giving his own recommendation about what policy action the FOMC should take:

Overall I believe that our current funds rate setting is appropriate, and I don’t really see any reason to change…. Cutting rates would be a very big step that would send a very strong signal about our views on the economy and about our intentions going forward, and I think we should view that step as a very discrete thing rather than as a 25 basis point kind of thing. We should be very certain about that change before we undertake it because I would be concerned, for example, about the implications for the dollar, commodity prices, and the like.

So Bernanke clearly states that his view is that the current fed funds target was “appropriate.” He did not say that the fed funds rate is at the lower bound. Instead, he explains why he does not want to cut the fed funds rate, implying that he believed that cutting the rate was an option. He didn’t want to exercise that option, because he did not like the “very strong signal about our views on the economy and about our intentions going forward” that a rate cut would send. Indeed, he intimates that a rate cut of 25 basis points would be meaningless under the circumstances, suggesting an awareness, however vague, that a crisis was brewing, so that a cut in the target rate would have to be substantial to calm, rather than scare, the markets. (The next cut, three weeks later, was 50 basis points, and things only got worse.)

Second, suppose for argument’s sake, that Williamson is right and Bernanke (and almost everyone else) was wrong, that the fed funds target was meaningless. Does that mean that the Fed’s inflation obsession in 2008 is just an optical illusion with no significance — that the Fed was powerless to have done anything that would have increased expenditure and income, thereby avoiding or alleviating the crisis?

I don’t think so, and the reason is that, as I pointed out in my previous post, the dollar began appreciating rapidly in forex markets in mid-July 2009, the dollar euro exchange rate appreciating by about 12% and the trade-weighted value of the dollar appreciating by about 10% between mid-July and the week before the Lehman collapse. An appreciating that rapid was a clear sign that there was a shortage of dollar liquidity which was causing spending to drop all through the economy, as later confirmed by the sharp drop in third-quarter GDP. The dollar fell briefly in the days just before and after the Lehman collapse, then resuming its sharp ascent as the financial crisis worsened in September and October, appreciating by another 10-15%.

So even if the fed funds target was ineffectual, the Fed, along with the Treasury, still had it within their power to intervene in forex markets, selling dollars for euros and other currencies, thereby preventing the dollar from rising further in value. Unfortunately, as is clear from the transcripts, the FOMC thought that the rising dollar was a favorable development that would reduce the inflation about which it was so obsessively concerned. So the FOMC happily watched the dollar rise by 25% against other currencies between July and November as the economy tanked, because, as the September 16 statement of the FOMC so eloquently put it, “upside risks to inflation are . . . of significant concern to the Committee.” The FOMC gave us the monetary policy it wanted us to have.

Why Fed Inflation-Phobia Mattered

Last week I posted an item summarizing Matthew O’Brien’s article about the just-released transcripts of FOMC meetings in June, August and September of 2008. I spiced up my summary by quoting from and commenting on some of the more outrageous quotes that O’Brien culled from the transcripts, quotes showing that most of the FOMC, including Ben Bernanke, were obsessing about inflation while unemployment was rising rapidly and the economy contracting sharply. I especially singled out what I called the Gang of Four — Charles Plosser, Jeffrey Lacker, Richard Fisher, and Thomas Hoenig, the most militant inflation hawks on the FOMC — noting that despite their comprehensive misjudgments of the 2008 economic situation and spectacularly wrongheaded policy recommendations, which they have yet to acknowledge, much less apologize for, three of them (Plosser, Lacker, and Fisher) continue to serve in their Fed positions, displaying the same irrational inflation-phobia by which they were possessed in 2008. Paul Krugman also noticed O’Brien’s piece and remarked on the disturbing fact that three of the Gang of Four remain in their policy-making positions at the Fed, doing their best to keep the Fed from taking any steps that could increase output and employment.

However, Krugman went on to question the idea — suggested by, among others, me — that it was the Fed’s inflation phobia that produced the crash of 2008. Krugman has two arguments for why the Fed’s inflation phobia in 2008, however silly, did not the cause of the crash.

First, preventing the financial crisis would have taken a lot more than cutting the Fed funds rate to zero in September 2008 rather than December. We were in the midst of an epic housing bust, which was in turn causing a collapse in the value of mortgage-backed securities, which in turn was causing a collapse of confidence in financial firms. Cutting rates from very low to extremely low a few months earlier wouldn’t have stopped that collapse.

What was needed to end the run on Wall Street was a bailout — both the actual funds disbursed and the reassurance that the authorities would step in if necessary. And that wasn’t in the cards until, as Rick Mishkin observed in the transcripts, “something hit the fan.”

Second, even avoiding the financial panic almost surely wouldn’t have meant avoiding a prolonged economic slump. How do we know this? Well, what we actually know is that the panic was in fact fairly short-lived, ending in the spring of 2009. It doesn’t really matter which measure of financial stress you use, they all look like this:

Yet the economy didn’t come roaring back, and in fact still hasn’t. Why? Because the housing bust and the overhang of household debt are huge drags on demand, even if there isn’t a panic in the financial market.

Sorry, but, WADR, I have to disagree with Professor Krugman.

The first argument is not in my view very compelling, because the Fed’s inflation-phobia did not suddenly appear at the September 2008 FOMC meeting, or even at the June meeting, though, to be sure, its pathological nature at those meetings does have a certain breathtaking quality; it had already been operating for a long time before that. If you look at the St. Louis Fed’s statistics on the monetary base, you will find that the previous recession in 2001 had been preceded in 2000 by a drop of 3.6% in the monetary base. To promote recovery, the Fed increased the monetary base in 2001 (partly accommodating the increased demand for money characteristic of recessions) by 8.5%. The monetary base subsequently grew by 7% in 2002, 5.2% in 2003, 4.4% in 2004, 3.2% in 2005, 2.6% in 2006, and a mere 1.2% in 2007.

The housing bubble burst in 2006, but the Fed was evidently determined to squeeze inflation out of the system, as if trying to atone for its sins in allowing the housing bubble in the first place. From January to September 10, 2008, the monetary base increased by 3.3%. Again, because the demand for money typically increases in recessions, one cannot infer from the slight increase in the rate of growth of the monetary base in 2008 over 2006 and 2007 that the Fed was easing its policy stance. (On this issue, see my concluding paragraph.) The point is that for at least three years before the crash, the Fed, in its anti-inflationary zelotry, had been gradually tightening the monetary-policy screws. So it is simply incorrect to suggest that there was no link between the policy stance of the Fed and the state of the economy. If the Fed had moderated its stance in 2008 in response to ample evidence that the economy was slowing, there is good reason to think that the economy would not have contracted as rapidly as it did, starting, even before the Lehman collapse, in the third quarter of 2008, when, we now know, the economy had already begun one of the sharpest contractions of the entire post World War II era.

As for Krugman’s second argument, I believe it is a mistake to confuse a financial panic with a recession. A financial panic is an acute breakdown of the financial system, always associated with a period of monetary stringency when demands for liquidity cannot be satisfied owing to a contagious loss of confidence in the solvency of borrowers and lenders. The crisis is typically precipitated by a too aggressive tightening of monetary conditions by the monetary authority seeking to rein in inflationary pressures. The loss of confidence is thus not a feature of every business-cycle downturn, and its restoration no guarantee of a recovery. (See my post on Hawtrey and financial crises.) A recovery requires an increase aggregate demand, which is the responsibility of those in charge of monetary policy and fiscal policy. I confess to a measure of surprise that the author of End This Depression Now would require a reminder about that from me.

A final point. Although the macroeconomic conditions for an asset crash and financial panic had been gradually and systematically created by the Fed ever since 2006, the egregious Fed policy in the summer of 2008 was undoubtedly a major contributing cause in its own right. The magnitude of the policy error is evident in this graph from the St. Louis Fed, showing the dollar/euro exchange rate.

dollar_euro_exchange_rateFrom April to July, the exchange rate was fluctuating between $1.50 and $1.60 per euro. In mid-July, the dollar began appreciating rapidly against the euro, rising in value to about $1.40/euro just before the Lehman collapse, an appreciation of about 12.5% in less than two months. The only comparable period of appreciation in the dollar/euro exchange rate was in the 1999-2000 period during the monetary tightening prior to the 2001 recession. But the 2008 appreciation was clearly greater and steeper than the appreciation in 1999-2000. Under the circumstances, such a sharp appreciation in the dollar should have alerted the FOMC that there was a liquidity shortage (also evidenced in a sharp increase in borrowings from the Fed) that required extraordinary countermeasures by the Fed. But the transcript of the September 2008 meeting shows that the appreciation of the dollar was interpreted by members of the FOMC as evidence that the current policy was working as intended! Now how scary is that?

HT: Matt O’Brien


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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