Archive for the 'Bill Woolsey' Category

Those Dreaded Cantillon Effects

Once again, I find myself slightly behind the curve, with Scott Sumner (and again, and again, and again, and again), Nick Rowe and Bill Woolsey out there trying to face down an onslaught of Austrians rallying under the dreaded banner (I won’t say what color) of Cantillon Effects. At this point, the best I can do is some mopping up by making a few general observations about the traditional role of Cantillon Effects in Austrian business cycle theory and how that role squares with the recent clamor about Cantillon Effects.

Scott got things started, as he usually does, with a post challenging an Austrian claim that the Federal Reserve favors the rich because its injections of newly printed money enter the economy at “specific points,” thereby conferring unearned advantages on those lucky or well-connected few into whose hands those crisp new dollar bills hot off the printing press first arrive. The fortunate ones who get to spend the newly created money before the fresh new greenbacks have started on their inflationary journey through the economy are able to buy stuff at pre-inflation prices, while the poor suckers further down the chain of transactions triggered by the cash infusion must pay higher prices before receiving any of the increased spending. Scott’s challenge provoked a fierce Austrian counterattack from commenters on his blog and from not-so-fierce bloggers like Bob Murphy. As is often the case, the discussion (or the shouting) produced no clear outcome, each side confidently claiming vindication. Scott and Nick argued that any benefits conferred on first recipients of cash would be attributable to the fiscal impact of the Fed’s actions (e.g., purchasing treasury bonds with new money rather than helicopter distribution), with Murphy et al. arguing that distinctions between the fiscal and monetary effects of Fed operations are a dodge. No one will be surprised when I say that Scott and Nick got the better of the argument.

But there are a couple of further points that I would like to bring up about Cantillon effects. It seems to me that the reason Cantillon effects were thought to be of import by the early Austrian theorists like Hayek was that they had a systematic theory of the distribution or the incidence of those effects. Merely to point out that such effects exist and redound to the benefits of some lucky individuals would have been considered a rather trivial and pointless exercise by Hayek. Hayek went to great lengths in the 1930s to spell out a theory of how the creation of new money resulting in an increase in total expenditure would be associated with a systematic and (to the theorist) predictable change in relative prices between consumption goods and capital goods, a cheapening of consumption goods relative to capital goods causing a shift in the composition of output in favor of capital goods. Hayek then argued that such a shift in the composition of output would be induced by the increase in capital-goods prices relative to consumption-goods prices, the latter shift, having been induced by a monetary expansion that could not (for reasons I have discussed in previous posts, e.g., here) be continued indefinitely, eventually having to be reversed. This reversal was identified by Hayek with the upper-turning point of the business cycle, because it would trigger a collapse of the capital-goods industries and a disruption of all the production processes dependent on a continued supply of those capital goods.

Hayek’s was an interesting theory, because it identified a particular consequence of monetary expansion for an important sector of the economy, providing an explanation of the economic mechanism and a prediction about the direction of change along with an explanation of why the initial change would eventually turn out to be unsustainable. The theory could be right or wrong, but it involved a pretty clear-cut set of empirical implications. But the point to bear in mind is that this went well beyond merely saying that in principle there would be some gainers and some losers as the process of monetary expansion unfolds.

What accounts for the difference between the empirically rich theory of systematic Cantillon Effects articulated by Hayek over 80 years ago and the empirically trivial version on which so much energy was expended over the past few days on the blogosphere? I think that the key difference is that in Hayek’s cycle theory, it is the banks that are assumed somehow or other to set an interest rate at which they are willing to lend, and this interest rate may or may not be consistent with the constant volume of expenditure that Hayek thought (albeit with many qualifications) was ideal criterion of the neutral monetary policy which he favored. A central bank might or might not be involved in the process of setting the bank rate, but the instrument of monetary policy was (depending on circumstances) the lending rate of the banks, or, alternatively, the rate at which the central bank was willing lending to banks by rediscounting the assets acquired by banks in lending to their borrowers.

The way Hayek’s theory works is through an unobservable natural interest rate that would, if it were chosen by the banks, generate a constant rate of total spending. There is, however, no market mechanism guaranteeing that the lending rate selected by the banks (with or without the involvement of a central bank) coincides with the ideal but unobservable natural rate.  Deviations of the banks’ lending rate from the natural rate cause Cantillon Effects involving relative-price distortions, thereby misdirecting resources from capital-goods industries to consumption-goods industries, or vice versa. But the specific Cantillon effect associated with Hayek’s theory presumes that the banking system has the power to determine the interest rates at which borrowing and lending take place for the entire economy.  This presumption is nowhere ot my knowledge justified, and it does not seem to me that the presumption is even remotely justifiable unless one accepts the very narrow theory of interest known as the loanable-funds theory.  According to the loanable-funds theory, the rate of interest is that rate which equates the demand for funds to be borrowed with the supply of funds available to be lent.  However, if one views the rate of interest (in the sense of the entire term structure of interest rates) as being determined in the process by which the entire existing stock of capital assets is valued (i.e., the price for each asset at which it would be willingly held by just one economic agent) those valuations being mutually consistent only when the expected net cash flows attached to each asset are discounted at the equilibrium term structure and equilibrium risk premia. Given that comprehensive view of asset valuations and interest-rate determination, the notion that banks (with or without a central bank) have any substantial discretion in choosing interest rates is hard to take seriously. And to the extent that banks have any discretion over lending rates, it is concentrated at the very short end of the term structure. I really can’t tell what she meant, but it is at least possible that Joan Robinson was alluding to this idea when, in her own uniquely charming way, she criticized Hayek’s argument in Prices and Production.

I very well remember Hayek’s visit to Cambridge on his way to the London School. He expounded his theory and covered a black board with his triangles. The whole argument, as we could see later, consisted in confusing the current rate of investment with the total stock of capital goods, but we could not make it out at the time. The general tendency seemed to be to show that the slump was caused by [excessive] consumption. R. F. Kahn, who was at that time involved in explaining that the multiplier guaranteed that saving equals investment, asked in a puzzled tone, “Is it your view that if I went out tomorrow and bought a new overcoat, that would increase unemploy- ment?”‘ “Yes,” said Hayek, “but,” pointing to his triangles on the board, “it would take a very long mathematical argument to explain why.”

At any rate, if interest rates are determined comprehensively in all the related markets for existing stocks of physical assets, not in flow markets for current borrowing and lending, Hayek’s notion that the banking system can cause significant Cantillon effects via its control over interest rates is hard to credit. There is perhaps some room to alter very short-term rates, but longer-term rates seem impervious to manipulation by the banking system except insofar as inflation expectations respond to the actions of the banking system. But how does one derive a Cantillon Effect from a change in expected inflation?  Cantillon Effects may or may not exist, but unless they are systematic, predictable, and unsustainable, they have little relevance to the study of business cycles.

It’s the Endogeneity, [Redacted]

A few weeks ago, just when I was trying to sort out my ideas on whether, and, if so, how, the Chinese engage in currency manipulation (here, here, and here), Scott Sumner started another one of his periodic internet dustups (continued here, here, and here) this one about whether the medium of account or the medium of exchange is the essential characteristic of money, and whether monetary disequilibrium is the result of a shock to the medium of account or to the medium exchange? Here’s how Scott put it (here):

Money is also that thing we put in monetary models of the price level and the business cycle.  That . . . raises the question of whether the price level is determined by shocks to the medium of exchange, or shocks to the medium of account.  Once we answer that question, the business cycle problem will also be solved, as we all agree that unanticipated price level shocks can trigger business cycles.

Scott answers the question unequivocally in favor of the medium of account. When we say that money matters, Scott thinks that what we mean is that the medium of account (and only the medium of account) matters. The medium of exchange is just an epiphenomenon (or something of that ilk), because often the medium of exchange just happens to be the medium of account as well. However, Scott maintains, the price level depends on the medium of account, and because the price level (in a world of sticky prices and wages) has real effects on output and employment, it is the medium-of-account characteristic of money that  is analytically crucial.  (I don’t like “sticky price” talk, as I have observed from time to time on this blog. As Scott, himself, might put it: you can’t reason from a price (non-)change, at least not without specifying what it is that is causing prices to be sticky and without explaining what would characterize a non-sticky price. But that’s a topic for a future post, maybe).

And while I am on a digression, let me also say a word or two about the terminology. A medium of account refers to the ultimate standard of value; it could be gold or silver or copper or dollars or pounds. All prices for monetary exchange are quoted in terms of the medium of account. In the US, the standard of value has at various times been silver, gold, and dollars. When the dollar is defined in terms of some commodity (e.g., gold or silver), dollars may or may not be the medium of account, depending on whether the definition is tied to an operational method of implementing the definition. That’s why, under the Bretton Woods system, the nominal definition of the dollar — one-35th of an ounce of gold — was a notional definition with no operational means of implementation, inasmuch as American citizens (with a small number of approved exceptions) were prohibited from owning gold, so that only foreign central banks had a quasi-legal right to convert dollars into gold, but, with the exception of those pesky, gold-obsessed, French, no foreign central bank was brazen enough to actually try to exercise its right to convert dollars into gold, at least not whenever doing so might incur the displeasure of the American government. A unit of account refers to a particular amount of gold that defines a standard, e.g., a dollar or a pound. If the dollar is the ultimate medium of account, then medium of account and the unit of account are identical. But if the dollar is defined in terms of gold, then gold is the medium account while the dollar is a unit of account (i.e., the name assigned to a specific quantity of gold).

Scott provoked the ire of blogging heavyweights Nick Rowe and Bill Woolsey (not to mention some heated comments on his own blog) who insist that the any monetary disturbance must be associated with an excess supply of, or an excess demand for, the medium of exchange. Now the truth is that I am basically in agreement with Scott in all of this, but, as usual, when I agree with Scott (about 97% of the time, at least about monetary theory and policy), there is something that I can find to disagree with him about. This time is no different, so let me explain why I think Scott is pretty much on target, but also where Scott may also have gone off track.

Rather than work through the analysis in terms of a medium of account and a medium of exchange, I prefer to talk about outside money and inside money. Outside money is either a real commodity like gold, also functioning as a medium of exchange and thus combining both the medium-of-exchange and the medium-of-account functions, or it is a fiat money that can only be issued by the state. (For the latter proposition I am relying on the proposition (theorem?) that only the state, but not private creators of money, can impart value to an inconvertible money.) The value of an outside money is determined by the total stock in existence (whether devoted to real or monetary uses) and the total demand (real and monetary) for it. Since, by definition, all prices are quoted in terms of the medium of account and the price of something in terms of itself must be unity, changes in the value of the medium of account must correspond to changes in the money prices of everything else, which are quoted in terms of the medium of account. There may be cases in which the medium of account is abstract so that prices are quoted in terms of the abstract medium of account, but in such cases there is a fixed relationship between the abstract medium of account and the real medium of account. Prices in Great Britain were once quoted in guineas, which originally was an actual coin, but continued to be quoted in guineas even after guineas stopped circulating. But there was a fixed relationship between pounds and guineas: 1 guinea = 1.05 pounds.

I understand Scott to be saying that the price level is determined in the market for the outside money. The outside money can be a real commodity, as it was under a metallic standard like the gold or silver standard, or it can be a fiat money issued by the government, like the dollar when it is not convertible into gold or silver. This is certainly right. Changes in the price level undoubtedly result from changes in the value of outside money, aka the medium of account. When Nick Rowe and Bill Woolsey argue that changes in the price level and other instances of monetary disequilibrium are the result of excess supplies or excess demands for the medium of exchange, they can have in mind only two possible situations. First, that there is an excess monetary demand for, or excess supply of, outside money. But that situation does not distinguish their position from Scott’s, because outside money is both a medium of exchange and a medium of account. The other possible situation is that there is zero excess demand for outside money, but there is an excess demand for, or an excess supply of, inside money.

Let’s unpack what it means to say that there is an excess demand for, or an excess supply of, inside money. By inside money, I mean money that is created by banks or by bank-like financial institutions (money market funds) that can be used to settle debts associated with the purchase and sale of goods, services, and assets. Inside money is created in the process of lending by banks when they create deposits or credit lines that borrowers can spend or hold as desired. And inside money is almost always convertible unit for unit with some outside money.  In modern economies, most of the money actually used in executing transactions is inside money produced by banks and other financial intermediaries. Nick Rowe and Bill Woolsey and many other really smart economists believe that the source of monetary disequilibrium causing changes in the price level and in real output and employment is an excess demand for, or an excess supply of, inside money. Why? Because when people have less money in their bank accounts than they want (i.e., given their income and wealth and other determinants of their demand to hold money), they reduce their spending in an attempt to increase their cash holdings, thereby causing a reduction in both nominal and real incomes until, at the reduced level of nominal income, the total amount of inside money in existence matches the amount of inside money that people want to hold in the aggregate. The mechanism causing this reduction in nominal income presupposes that the fixed amount of inside money in existence is exogenously determined; once created, it stays in existence. Since the amount of inside money can’t change, it is the rest of the economy that has to adjust to whatever quantity of inside money the banks have, in their wisdom (or their folly), decided to create. This result is often described as the hot potato effect. Somebody has to hold the hot potato, but no one wants to, so it gets passed from one person to the next. (Sorry, but the metaphor works in only one direction.)

But not everyone agrees with this view of how the quantity of inside money is determined. There are those (like Scott and me) who believe that the quantity of inside money created by the banks is not some fixed amount that bears no relationship to the demand of the public to hold it, but that the incentives of the banks to create inside money change as the demand of the public to hold inside money changes. In other words, the quantity of inside money is determined endogenously. (I have discussed this mechanism at greater length here, here, here, and here.) This view of how banks create inside money goes back at least to Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations. Almost 70 years later, it was restated in greater detail and with greater rigor by John Fullarton in his 1844 book On the Regulation of Currencies, in which he propounded his Law of Reflux. Over 100 years after Fullarton, the Smith-Fullarton view was brilliantly rediscovered, and further refined, by James Tobin, apparently under the misapprehension that he was propounding a “New View,” in his wonderful 1962 essay “Commercial Banks as Creators of Money.”

According to the “New View,” if there is an excess demand for, or excess supply of, money, there is a market mechanism by which the banks are induced to bring the amount of inside money that they have created into closer correspondence with the amount of money that the public wants to hold. If banks change the amount of inside money that they create when the amount of inside money demanded by the public doesn’t match the amount in existence, then nominal income doesn’t have to change at all (or at least not as much as it otherwise would have) to eliminate the excess demand for, or the excess supply of, inside money. So when Scott says that the medium of exchange is not important for changes in prices or for business cycles, what I think he means is that the endogeneity of inside money makes it unnecessary for an economy to undergo a significant change in nominal income to restore monetary equilibrium.

There’s just one problem: Scott offers another, possibly different, explanation than the one that I have just given. Scott says that we rarely observe an excess demand for, or an excess supply of, the medium of exchange. Now the reason that we rarely observe that an excess demand for, or an excess supply of, the medium of exchange could be because of the endogeneity of the supply of inside money, in which case, I have no problem with what Scott is saying. However, to support his position that we rarely observe an excess demand for the medium of exchange, he says that anyone can go to an ATM machine and draw out more cash. But that argument is irrelevant for two reasons. First, because what we are (or should be) talking about is an excess demand for inside money (i.e., bank deposits) not an excess demand for currency (i.e., outside money). And second, the demand for money is funny, because, as a medium of exchange, money is always circulating, so that it is relatively easy for most people to accumulate or decumulate cash, either currency or deposits, over a short period. But when we talk about the demand for money what we usually mean is not the amount of money in our bank account or in our wallet at a particular moment, but the average amount that we want to hold over a non-trivial period of time. Just because we almost never observe a situation in which people are literally unable to find cash does not mean that people are always on their long-run money demand curves.

So whether Nick Rowe and Bill Woolsey are right that inflation and recession are caused by a monetary disequilibrium involving an excess demand for, or an excess supply of, the medium of exchange, or whether Scott Sumner is right that monetary disequilibrium is caused by an excess demand for, or an excess supply of, the medium of account depends on whether the supply of inside money is endogenous or exogenous. There are certain monetary regimes in which various regulations, such as restrictions on the payment of interest on deposits, may gum up the mechanism (the adjustment of interest rates on deposits) by which market forces determine the quantity of inside money thereby making the supply of inside money exogenous over fairly long periods of time. That was what the US monetary system was like after the Great Depression until the 1980s when those regulations lost effectiveness because of financial innovations designed to circumvent the regulations.  As a result the regulations were largely lifted, though the deregulatory process introduced a whole host of perverse incentives that helped get us into deep trouble further down the road. The monetary regime from about 1935 to 1980 was the kind of system in which the correct way to think about money is the way Nick Rowe and Bill Woolsey do, a world of exogenous money.  But, one way or another, for better or for worse, that world is gone.  Endogeneity of the supply of inside money is here to stay.  Better get used to it.


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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