In my previous post, I quoted Keynes’s remark about the “stimulus and useful suggestion” he had received from Hawtrey and the “fundamental sympathy and agreement” that he felt with Hawtrey even though he nearly always disagreed with Hawtrey in detail. One important instance of such simultaneous agreement about principle and disagreement about detail involves their conflicting views about whether it is the short-run rate of interest (bank rate) or the long-run rate of interest (bond rate) that is mainly responsible for the fluctuations in investment that characterize business cycles, the fluctuations that monetary policy should therefore attempt to control.
Already in 1913 in his first work on monetary theory, Good and Bad Trade, Hawtrey had identified the short-term interest rate as the key causal variable in the business cycle, inasmuch as the holdings of inventories that traders want to hold are highly sensitive to the short-term interest rates at which traders borrow to finance those holdings. Increases in the desired inventories induce output increases by manufacturers, thereby generating increased incomes for workers and increased spending by consumers, further increasing the desired holding of stocks by traders. Reduced short-term interest rates, according to Hawtrey, initiated a cumulative process leading to a permanently higher level of nominal income and output. But Keynes disputed whether adjustments in the desired stocks held by traders were of sufficient size to account for the observed fluctuations in income and employment. Instead, Keynes argued, it was fluctuations in fixed-capital investment that accounted for the fluctuations in income and employment characteristic of business cycles. In his retrospective (1969) on the differences between Hawtrey and Keynes, J. R. Hicks observed that “there are large parts of the Treatise [on Money] which are a reply to Currency and Credit Hawtrey’s 1919 book on monetary theory and business cycles. But despite their differences, Hicks emphasized that Hawtrey and Keynes
started from common ground, not only on the need for policy, but in agreement that the instrument of policy was the rate of interest, or “terms of credit,” to be determined, directly or indirectly, by a Central Bank. But what rate of interest? It was Hawtrey’s doctrine that the terms of bank lending had a direct eSect on the activity of trade and industry; traders, having more to pay for credit, would seek to reduce their stocks, being therefore less willing to buy and more willing to sell. Keynes, from the start (or at least from the time of the Treatise 1930) rejected this in his opinion too simple view. He substituted for it (or began by substituting for it) an alternative mechanism through the long rate of interest. A change in the terms of bank lending affected the long rate of interest, the terms on which business could raise long-term capital; only in this roundabout way would a change in the terms of bank lending affect the activity of industry.
I think we can now see, after all that has happened, and has been said, since 1930, that the trouble with both of these views (as they were presented, or at least as they were got over) was that the forces they purported to identify were not strong enough to bear the weight that was put upon them. This is what Keynes said about Hawtrey (I quote from the Treatise):
The whole emphasis is placed on one particular kind of investment, namely, investment by dealers and middlemen in liquid goods-to which a degree of sensitivity to changes in Bank Rate is attributed which certainly does not exist in fact…. [Hawtrey] relies exclusively on the increased costs of business resulting from dearer money. [He] admits that these additional costs will be too small materially to affect the manufacturer, but assumes without investigation that they do materially affect the trader…. Yet probably the question whether he is paying S or 6 per cent for the accommodation he receives from his banker influences the mind of the dealer very little more than it influences the mind of the manufacturer as compared with the current and prospective rate of take-off for the goods he deals in and his expectations as to their prospective price-movements. [Treatise on Money, v. I, pp. 193-95.]
Although Hicks did not do so, it is worth quoting the rest of Keynes’s criticism of Hawtrey
The classical refutation of Hawtrey was given by Tooke in his examination of an argument very similar to Hawtrey’s, put forward nearly a hundred years ago by Joseph Hume. Before the crisis of 1836-37 the partisans of the “currency theory” . . . considered the influence of the Bank of England on the price level only operated through the amount of its circulation; but in 1839 the new-fangled notion was invented that Bank-rate also had an independent influence through its effect on “speculation.”
Keynes then quoted the following passage from Tooke:
There are, doubtless, persons, who, upon imperfect information, and upon insufficient grounds, or with too sanguine a view of contingencies in their favour, speculate improvidently; but their motive or inducement so to speculate is the opinion which, whether well or ill-founded, or whether upon their own view or upon the authority or example of other persons, they entertain the probability of an advance of price. It is not the mere facility of borrowing, or the difference between borrowing at 3 or at 6 percent that supplies the motive for purchasing, or even for selling. Few persons of the description here mentioned ever speculate but upon the confident expectation of an advance of price of at least 10 percent.
In his review of the Treatise, published in The Art of Central Banking, Hawtrey took note of this passage and Keynes’s invocation of Tooke’s comment on Joseph Hume.
This quotation from Tooke is entirely beside the point. My argument relates not to speculators . . . but to regular dealers or merchants. And as to these there is no evidence, in the following passage, that Tooke’s view of the effects of a rise in the rate of interest did not differ very widely from that which I have advocated. In volume v. of his History of Prices (p. 584) he wrote:
Inasmuch as a higher than ordinary rate of interest supposes a contraction of credit, such goods as are held by means of a large proportion of borrowed capital may be forced for sale by a difficulty in obtaining banking accommodation, the measure of which difficulty is in the rate of discount and perhaps in the insufficiency of security. In this view, and in this view only, a rate of interest higher than ordinary may be said to have an influence in depressing prices.
Tooke here concentrates on the effect of a high rate of interest in hastening sales. I should lay more emphasis on delaying purchases. But at any rate he clearly recognizes the susceptibility to credit conditions of the regular dealers in commodities.
And Hicks, after quoting Keynes’s criticism of Hawtrey’s focus on the short-term interest, followed up with following observation about Keynes:
Granted, but could not very much the same be said of Keynes’s own alternative mechanism? One has a feeling that in the years when he was designing the General Theory he was still clinging to it, for it is deeply embedded in the structure of his theory; yet one suspects that before the book left his hands it was already beginning to pass out. It has left a deep mark on the teaching of Keynesian economics, but a much less deep mark upon its practical influence. In the fight that ensued after the publication of the General Theory, it was quite clearly a casualty.
In other words, although Keynes in the Treatise believed that variation in the long-term interest rate could moderate business-cycle fluctuations by increasing or decreasing the amount of capital expenditure by business firms, Keynes in the General Theory was already advocating the direct control of spending through fiscal policy and minimizing the likely effectiveness of trying to control spending via the effect of monetary policy on the long-term interest rate. Hicks then goes on to observe that the most effective response to Keynes’s view that monetary policy operates by way of its effect on the long-term rate of interest came from none other than Hawtrey.
It had taken him some time to mount his attack on Keynes’s “modus operandi of Bank Rate” but when it came it was formidable. The empirical data which Keynes had used to support his thesis were derived from a short period only-the 1920’s; and Hawtrey was able to show that it was only in the first half of that decade (when, in the immediate aftermath of the War, the long rate in England was for that time unusually volatile) that an effect of monetary policy on the long rate, sufficient to give substantial support yo Keynes’s case, was at all readily detectable. Hawtrey took a much longer period. In A Century of Bank Rate which, in spite of the narrowness of its subject, seems to me to be one of his best books, he ploughed through the whole of the British experience from 1844 to the date of writing; and of any effect of Bank Rate (or of any short rate) upon the long rate of interest, sufficient to carry the weight of Keynes’s argument, he found little trace.
On the whole I think that we may infer that Bank Rate and measures of credit restriction taken together rarely, if ever, affected the price of Consols by more than two or three points; whereas a variation of }4 percent in the long-term rate of interest would correspond to about four points in the price of a 3 percent stock.
Now a variation of even less than 1/8 per cent in the long-term rate of interest ought, theoretically and in the long run, to have a definite effect for what it is worth on the volume of capital outlay…. But there is in reality no close adjustment of prospective yield to the rate of interest. Most of the industrial projects offered for exploitation at any time promise yields ever so far above the rate of interest…. [They will not be adopted until] promoters are satisfied that the projects they take up will yield a commensurate profit, and the rate of interest calculated on money raised will probably be no more than a very moderate deduction from this profit. [A Century of Bank Rate pp. 170-71]
Hicks concludes that, as regards the effect of the rate of interest on investment and aggregate spending, Keynes and Hawtrey cancelled each other out, thereby clearing the path for fiscal policy to take over as the key policy instrument for macroeconomic stabilization, a conclusion that Hawtrey never accepted. But Hicks adds an interesting and very modern-sounding (even 40 years on) twist to his argument.
When I reviewed the General Theory, the explicit introduction of expectations was one of the things which I praised; but I have since come to feel that what Keynes gave with one hand, he took away with the other. Expectations do appear in the General Theory, but (in the main) they appear as data; as autonomous influences that come in from outside, not as elements that are moulded in the course of the process that is being analysed. . . .
I would maintain that in this respect Hawtrey is distinctly superior. In his analysis of the “psychological effect” of Bank Rate — it is not just a vague indication, it is analysis — he identifies an element which ought to come into any monetary theory, whether the mechanism with which it is concerned is Hawtrey’s, or any other. . . .
What is essential, on Hawtrey’s analysis, is that it should be possible (and should look as if it were possible) for the Central Bank to take decisive action. There is a world of difference . . . between action which is determinedly directed to imposing restraint, so that it gives the impression that if not effective in itself, it will be followed by further doses of the same medicine; and identically the same action which does not engender the same expectations. Identically the same action may be indecisive, if it appears to be no more than an adjustment to existing market conditions; or if the impression is given that it is the most that is politically possible. If conditions are such that gentle pressure can be exerted in a decisive manner, no more than gentle pressure will, as a rule, be required. But as soon as there is doubt about decisiveness, gentle pressure is useless; even what would otherwise be regarded as violent action may then be ineffective. [p. 313]
There is a term which was invented, and then spoiled, by Pigou . . . on which I am itching to get my hand; it is the term announcement effect. . . . I want to use the announcement effect of an act of policy to mean the change which takes place in people’s minds, the change in the prospect which they think to be before them, before there is any change which expresses itself in transactions of any kind. It is the same as what Hawtrey calls “psychological effect”; but that is a bad term, for it suggests something irrational, and this is entirely rational. Expectations of the future (entirely rational expectations) [note Hicks's use of the term "rational expectations before Lucas or Sargent] are based upon the data that are available in the present. An act of policy (if it is what I have called a decisive action) is a significant addition to the data that are available; it should result, and should almost immediately result, in a shift in expectations. This is what I mean by an announcement effect.
What I learn from Hawtrey’s analysis is that the “classical” Bank Rate system was strong, or could be strong, in its announcement effects. Fiscal policy, at least as so far practised, gets from this point of view much worse marks. It is not simply that it is slow, being subject to all sorts of parliamentary and administrative delays; made indecisive, merely because the gap between announcement and effective operation is liable to be so long. This is by no means its only defect. Its announcement effect is poor, for the very reason which is often claimed to be one of its merits its selectivity; for selectivity implies complexity and an instrument which is to have a strong announcement effect should, above all, be simple. [p. 315]
Just to conclude this rather long and perhaps rambling selection of quotes with a tangentially related observation, I will note that Hawtrey’s criticism of Keynes’s identification of the long-term interest rate as the key causal and policy variable for the analysis of business cycles applies with equal force to Austrian business-cycle theory, which, as far as I can tell, rarely, if ever, distinguishes between the effects of changes in short-term and long-term rates caused by monetary policy.
HT: Alan Gaukroger