Archive for the 'Ben Klein' Category

The Backing Theory of Money v. the Quantity Theory of Money

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.

Two Reviews: One Old, One New

Recently I have been working on a review of a recently published (2011) volume, The Empire of Credit: The Financial Revolution in Britain, Ireland, and America, 1688-1815 for The Journal of the History of Economic Thought. I found the volume interesting in a number of ways, but especially because it seemed to lend support to some of my ideas on why the state has historically played such a large role in the supply of money. When I first started to study economics, I was taught that money is a natural monopoly, the value of money being inevitably forced down by free competition to the value of the paper on which it was written. I believe that Milton Friedman used to make this argument (though, if I am not mistaken, he eventually stopped), and I think the argument can be found in writing in his Program for Monetary Stability, but my memory may be playing a trick on me.

Eventually I learned, first from Ben Klein and later from Earl Thompson, that the naïve natural-monopoly argument is a fallacy, because it presumes that all moneys are indistinguishable. However, Earl Thompson had a very different argument, explaining that the government monopoly over money is an efficient form of emergency taxation when a country is under military threat, so that raising funds through taxation would be too cumbersome and time-consuming to rely on when that state is faced with an existential threat. Taking this idea, I wrote a paper “An Evolutionary Theory of the State Monopoly over Money,” eventually published (1998) in a volume Money and the Nation State. The second chapter of my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform was largely based on this paper. Earl Thompson worked out the analytics of the defense argument for a government monopoly over money in a number of places. (Here’s one.)

And here are the first two paragraphs from my review (which I have posted on SSRN):

The diverse studies collected in The Empire of Credit , ranging over both monetary and financial history and the history of monetary theory, share a common theme: the interaction between the fiscal requirements of national defense and the rapid evolution of monetary and financial institutions from the late seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century, the period in which Great Britain unexpectedly displaced France as the chief European military power, while gaining a far-flung intercontinental empire, only modestly diminished by the loss of thirteen American colonies in 1783. What enabled that interaction to produce such startling results were the economies achieved by substituting bank-supplied money (banknotes and increasingly bank deposits) for gold and silver. The world leader in the creation of these new instruments, Britain reaped the benefits of efficiencies in market transactions while simultaneously creating a revenue source (through the establishment of the Bank of England) that could be tapped by the Crown and Parliament to fund the British military, thereby enabling conquests against rivals (especially France) that lagged behind Britain in the development of flexible monetary institutions.

Though flexible, British monetary arrangements were based on a commitment to a fixed value of sterling in terms of gold, a commitment which avoided both the disastrous consequences of John Law’s brilliant, but ill-fated, monetary schemes in France, and the resulting reaction against banking that may account for the subsequent slow development of French banking and finance. However, at a crucial moment, the British were willing and able to cut the pound lose from its link to gold, providing themselves with the wherewithal to prevail in the struggle against Napoleon, thereby ensuring British supremacy for another century. (Read more.) [Update 2:37 PM EST: the paper is now available to be downloaded.]

In writing this review, I recalled a review that I wrote in 2000 for EH.net of a volume of essays (Essays in History: Financial, Economic, and Personal) by the eminent economic historian Charles Kindleberger, author of the classic Manias, Panics and Crashes. Although I greatly admired Kindleberger for his scholarship and wit, I disagreed with a lot of his specific arguments and policy recommendations, and I tried to give expression to both my admiration of Kindleberger and my disagreement with him in my review (also just posted on SSRN). Here are the first two paragraphs of that essay.

Charles P. Kindleberger, perhaps the leading financial historian of our time, has also been a prolific, entertaining, and insightful commentator and essayist on economics and economists. If one were to use Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated dichotomy between hedgehogs that know one big thing and foxes that know many little things, Kindleberger would certainly appear at or near the top of the list of economist foxes. Although Kindleberger himself never invokes Berlin’s distinction between hedgehogs and foxes, many of Kindleberger’s observations on the differences between economic theory and economic history, the difficulty of training good economic historians, and his critical assessment of grand theories of economic history such as Kondratieff long cycles, are in perfect harmony with Berlin.

So it is hard to imagine a collection of essays by Kindleberger that did not contain much that those interested in economics, finance, history, and policy — all considered from a humane and cosmopolitan perspective — would find worth reading. For those with a pronounced analytical bent (who are perhaps more inclined to prefer the output of a hedgehog than of a fox), this collection may seem a somewhat thin gruel. And some of the historical material in the first section will appear rather dry to all but the most dedicated numismatists. Nevertheless, there are enough flashes of insight, wit (my favorite is his aside that during talks on financial crises he elicits a nervous laugh by saying that nothing disturbs a person’s judgment so much as to see a friend get rich), and wisdom as well as personal reminiscences from a long and varied career (including an especially moving memoir of his relationship with his student and colleague Carlos F. Diaz-Alejandro) to repay readers of this volume. Unfortunately the volume is marred somewhat by an inordinate number of editorial lapses and mistaken attributions or misidentifications such as attributing a cutting remark about Paganini’s virtuosity to Samuel Johnson (who died when the maestro was all of two years old). (Read more) [Update 2:37 PM EST: the paper is now available to be downloaded.]


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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