Mike Sproul and Scott Sumner were arguing last week about how to account for the value of fiat money and the rate of inflation. As I observed in a recent post, I am doubtful that monetary theory, in its current state, can handle those issues adequately, so I am glad to see that others are trying to think the problems through even if the result is only to make clear how much we don’t know. Both Mike and Scott are very smart guys, and I find some validity in the arguments of both even if I am not really satisfied with the arguments of either.
Mike got things rolling with a guest post on JP Koning’s blog in which he lodged two complaints against Scott:
First, “Scott thinks that the liabilities of governments and central banks are not really liabilities.”
I see two problems with Mike’s first complaint. First, Mike is not explicit about which liabilities he is referring to. However, from the context of his discussion, it seems clear that he is talking about those liabilities that we normally call currency, or in the case of the Federal Reserve, Federal Reserve Notes. Second, and more important, it is not clear what definition of “liability” Mike is using. In a technical sense, as Mike observes, Federal Reserve Notes are classified by the Fed itself as liabilities. But what does it mean for a Federal Reserve Note to be a liability of the Fed? A liability implies that an obligation has been undertaken by someone to be discharged under certain defined conditions. What is the obligation undertaken by the Fed upon issuing a Federal Reserve Note. Under the gold standard, the Fed was legally obligated to redeem its Notes for gold at a fixed predetermined conversion rate. After the gold standard was suspended, that obligation was nullified. What obligation did the Fed accept in place of the redemption obligation? Here’s Mike’s answer:
But there are at least three other ways that FRN’s can still be redeemed: (i) for the Fed’s bonds, (ii) for loans made by the Fed, (iii) for taxes owed to the federal government. The Fed closed one channel of redemption (the gold channel), while the other redemption channels (loan, tax, and bond) were left open.
Those are funny obligations inasmuch as there are no circumstances under which they require the Fed to take any action. The purchase of a Fed (Treasury?) bond at the going market price imposes no obligation on the Fed to do anything except what it is already doing anyway. For there to be an obligation resulting from the issue by the Fed of a note, it would have been necessary for the terms of the transaction following upon the original issue to have been stipulated in advance. But the terms on which the Fed engages in transactions with the public are determined by market forces not by contractual obligation. The same point applies to loans made by the Fed. When the Fed makes a loan, it emits FRNs. The willingness of the Fed to accept FRNs previously emitted in the course of making loans as repayment of those loans doesn’t strike me as an obligation associated with its issue of FRNs. Finally, the fact that the federal government accepts (or requires) payment of tax obligations in FRNs is a decision of the Federal government to which the Fed as a matter of strict legality is not a party. So it seems to me that the technical status of an FRN as a liability of the Fed is a semantic or accounting oddity rather than a substantive property of a FRN.
Having said that, I think that Mike actually does make a substantive point about FRNs, which is that FRNs are not necessarily hot potatoes in the strict quantity-theory sense. There are available channels through which the public can remit its unwanted FRNs back to the Fed. The economic question is whether those means of sending unwanted FRNs back to the Fed are as effective in pinning down the price level as an enforceable legal obligation undertaken by the Fed to redeem FRNs at a predetermined exchange rate in terms of gold. Mike suggests that the alternative mechanisms by which the public can dispose of unwanted FRNs are as effective as gold convertibility in pinning down the price level. I think that assertion is implausible, and it remains to be proved, though I am willing to keep an open mind on the subject.
Now let’s consider Mike’s second complaint: “Scott thinks that if the central bank issues more money, then the money will lose value even if the money is fully backed.”
My first reaction is to ask what it means for money to be “fully backed?” Since it is not clear in what sense the inconvertible note issue of a central bank represents a liability of the issuing bank, it is also not exactly clear why any backing is necessary, or what backing means, though I will try to suggest in a moment a reason why the assets of the central bank actually do matter. But again the point is that, when a liability does not impose a well-defined legal obligation on the central bank to redeem that liability at a predetermined rate in terms of an asset whose supply the central bank does not itself control, the notion of “backing” is as vague as the notion of a “liability.” The difference between a liability that imposes no effective constraint on a central bank and one that does impose an effective constraint on a central bank is the difference between what Nick Rowe calls an alpha bank, which does not make its notes convertible into another asset (real or monetary) not under its control, and what he calls a beta bank, which does make its liabilities convertible into another asset (real or monetary) not under its control.
Now one way to interpret “backing” is to look at all the assets on the balance sheet of the central bank and compare the value of those assets to the value of the outstanding notes issued by the central bank. Sometimes I think that this is really all that Mike means when he talks about “backing,” but I am not really sure. At any rate, if we think of backing in this vague sense, maybe what Mike wants to say is that the value of the outstanding note issue of the central bank is equal to the value of its assets divided by the amount of notes that it has issued. But if this really is what Mike means, then it seems that the aggregate value of the outstanding notes of the central bank must always equal the value of the assets of the central bank. But there is a problem with that notion of “backing” as well, because the equality in the value of the assets of the central bank and its liabilities can be achieved at any price level, and at any rate of inflation, because an increase in prices will scale up the nominal value of outstanding notes and the value of central-bank assets by the same amount. Without providing some nominal anchor, which, as far as I can tell, Mike has not done, the price level is indeterminate. Now to be sure, this is no reason for quantity theorist like Scott to feel overly self-satisfied, because the quantity theory is subject to the same indeterminacy. And while Mike seems absolutely convinced that the backing theory is superior to the quantity theory, he himself admits that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between the two theories in terms of their empirical implications.
Let me now consider a slightly different way in which the value of the assets on the balance sheet of a central bank could affect the value of the money issued by the central bank. I would suggest, along the lines of an argument made by Ben Klein many years ago in some of his papers on competitive moneys (e.g. this one), that it is meaningful to talk about the quality of the money issued by a particular bank. In Klein’s terms, the quality of a money reflects the confidence with which people can predict the future value of a money. It’s plausible to assume that the demand (in real terms) to hold money increases with the quality of money. Certainly people will tend to switch form holding lower- to higher-quality moneys. I think that it’s also plausible to assume that the quality of a particular money issued by a central bank increases as the value of the assets held by the central bank increases, because the larger the asset portfolio of the issuer, the more likely it is that the issuer will control the value of the money that it has issued. (This goes to Mike’s point that a central bank has to hold enough assets to buy back its currency if the demand for it goes down. Actually it doesn’t, but people will be more willing to hold a money the larger the stock of assets held by the issuer with which it can buy back its money to prevent it from losing value.) I think that is ultimately the idea that Mike is trying to get at when he talks about “backing.” So I would interpret Mike as saying that the quality of a money is an increasing function of the total asset holdings of the central bank issuing the money, and the demand for a money is an increasing function of its quality. Such an adjustment in Mike’s backing theory just might help to bring the backing theory and the quantity theory into a closer correspondence than one might gather from reading the back and forth between Mike and Scott last week.
PS Mike was kind enough to quote my argument about the problem that backward induction poses for the standard explanation of the value of fiat money. Scott once again dismisses the problem by saying that the problem can be avoided by assuming that no one knows when the last period is. I agree that that is a possible answer, but it means that the value of fiat money is contingent on a violation of rational expectations and the efficient market hypothesis. I am sort of surprised that Scott, of all people, would be so nonchalant about accepting such a violation. But I’ve already said enough about that for now.