Archive for the 'gold standard' Category

Real and Pseudo Gold Standards: Could Friedman Tell the Difference?

One of the first academic papers by Milton Friedman that I read was “Real and Pseudo Gold Standards.” It’s an interesting paper presented to the Mont Pelerin Society in September 1961 and published in the Journal of Law and Economics in October 1961. That it was published in the Journal of Law and Economics, then edited by Friedman’s colleague at Chicago (and fellow Mont Pelerin member) Ronald Coase, is itself interesting, that estimable journal hardly being an obvious place to publish research on monetary economics. But the point of the paper was not to advance new theoretical insights about monetary theory, though he did provide a short preview of his critique of Fed policy in the 1920-21 Depression and in the Great Depression that he and Anna Schwartz would make in their soon to be published Monetary History of the United States, but to defend Friedman’s pro-fiat money position as a respectable alternative among the libertarians and classical liberals with whom Friedman had allied himself in the Mont Pelerin Society.

Although many members of the Mont Pelerin Society, including Hayek himself, as well as Friedman, Fritz Machlup and Lionel Robbins no longer supported the gold standard, their reasons for doing so were largely pragmatic, believing that whatever its virtues, the gold standard was no longer a realistic or even a desirable option as a national or an international monetary system. But there was another, perhaps more numerous, faction within the Mont Pelerin Society and the wider libertarian/ classical-liberal community, that disdained any monetary system other than the gold standard. The intellectual leader of this group was of course the soul of intransigence, the unyieldingly stubborn Ludwig von Mises, notably supported by the almost equally intransigent French economist Jacques Rueff, whose attachment to gold was so intense that Charles de Gaulle, another in a long line of French politicians enchanted by the yellow metal, had chosen Rueff as his personal economic adviser.

What Friedman did in this essay was not to engage with von Mises on the question of the gold standard; Friedman was realistic enough to understand that one could not reason with von Mises, who anyway regarded Friedman, as he probably did most of the members of the Mont Pelerin Society, as hardly better than a socialist. Instead, his strategy was to say that there is only one kind of real gold standard – presumably the kind favored by von Mises, whose name went unmentioned by Friedman, anything else being a pseudo-gold standard — in reality, nothing but a form of price fixing in which the government sets the price of gold and manages the gold market to prevent the demand for gold from outstripping the supply. While Friedman acknowledged that a real gold standard could be defended on strictly libertarian grounds, he argued that a pseudo-gold standard could not, inasmuch as it requires all sorts of market interventions, especially restrictions on the private ownership of gold that were then in place. What Friedman was saying, in effect, to the middle group in the Mont Pelerin Society was the only alternatives for liberals and libertarians were a gold standard of the Mises type or his preference: a fiat standard with flexible exchange rates.

Here is how he put it:

It is vitally important for the preservation and promotion of a free society that we recognize the difference between a real and pseudo gold standard. War aside, nothing that has occurred in the past half-century has, in my view, done more weaken and undermine the public’s faith in liberal principles than the pseudo gold standard that has intermittently prevailed and the actions that have been taken in its name. I believe that those of us who support it in the belief that it either is or will tend to be a real gold standard are mistakenly fostering trends the outcome of which they will be among the first to deplore.

This is a sweeping charge, so let me document it by a few examples which will incidentally illustrate the difference between a real and a pseudo gold standard before turning to an explicit discussion of the difference.

So what were Friedman’s examples of a pseudo gold standard? He offered five. First, US monetary policy after World War I, in particular the rapid inflation of 1919 and the depression of 1920-21. Second, US monetary policy in the 1920s and the British return to gold. Third, US monetary policy in the 1931-33 period. Fourth the U.S. nationalization of gold in 1934. And fifth, the International Monetary Fund and post-World War II exchange-rate policy.

Just to digress for a moment, I will admit that when I first read this paper as an undergraduate I was deeply impressed by his introductory statement, but found much of the rest of the paper incomprehensible. Still awestruck by Friedman, who, I then believed, was the greatest economist alive, I attributed my inability to follow what he was saying to my own intellectual shortcomings. So I have to admit to taking a bit of satisfaction in now being able to demonstrate that Friedman literally did not know what he was talking about.

US Monetary Policy after World War I

Friedman’s discussion of monetary policy after WWI begins strangely as if he were cutting and pasting from another source without providing any background to the discussion. I suspected that he might have cut and pasted from the Monetary History, but that turned out not to be the case. However, I did find that this paragraph (and probably a lot more] was included in testimony he gave to the Joint Economic Committee.

Nearly half of the monetary expansion in the United States came after the end of the war, thanks to the acquiescence of the Federal Reserve System in the Treasury’s desire to avoid a fall in the price of government securities. This expansion, with its accompanying price inflation, led to an outflow of gold despite the great demand for United States goods from a war-ravaged world and despite the departure of most countries from any fixed parity between their currencies and either gold or the dollar.

Friedman, usually a very careful writer, refers to “half of the monetary expansion” without identifying in any way “the monetary expansion” that he is referring to, leaving it to the reader to conjecture whether he is talking about the monetary expansion that began with the start of World War I in 1914 or the monetary expansion that began with US entry into the war in 1917 or the monetary expansion associated with some other time period. Friedman then goes on to describe the transition from inflation to deflation.

Beginning in late 1919, then more sharply in January 1920 and May 1920, the Federal Reserve System took vigorous deflationary steps that produced first a slackening of the growth of money and then a sharp decline. These brought in their train a collapse in wholesale prices and a severe economic contraction. The near halving of wholesale prices in a twelve month period was by all odds the most rapid price decline ever experienced in the United States before or since. It was not of course confined to the United States but spread to all countries whose money was linked to the dollar either by having a fixed price in terms of gold or by central bank policies directed at maintaining rigid or nearly rigid exchange rates.

That is a fair description of what happened after the Fed took vigorous deflationary steps, notably raising its discount rate to 6%. What Friedman neglects to point out is that there was no international gold standard (real or pseudo) immediately after the war, because only the United States was buying and selling gold at a legally established gold parity. Friedman then goes on to compare the pseudo gold standard under which the US was then operating with what would have happened under a real gold standard.

Under a real gold standard, the large inflow of gold up to the entry of the United States into the war would have produced a price rise to the end of the war similar to that actually experienced.

Now, aside from asserting that under a real gold standard, gold is used as money, and that under a pseudo gold standard, government is engaged in fixing the price of gold, Friedman has not told us how to distinguish between a real and a pseudo gold standard. So it is certainly fair to ask whether in the passage just quoted Friedman meant that the gold standard under which the US was operating when there was a large inflow of gold before entering the war was real or pseudo. His use of the subjunctive verb “would have produced” suggests that he believed that the gold standard was pseudo, not real. But then he immediately says that, under the real gold standard, the “price rise to the end of the war” would have been “similar to that actually experienced.” So take your pick.

Evidently, the difference between a real and a pseudo gold standard became relevant only after the war was over.

But neither the postwar rise nor the subsequent collapse would have occurred. Instead, there would have been an earlier and milder price decline as the belligerent nations returned to a peacetime economy. The postwar increase in the stock of money occurred only because the Reserve System had been given discretionary power to “manage” the stock of money, and the subsequent collapse occurred only because this power to manage the money had been accompanied by gold reserve requirements as one among several masters the System was instructed to serve.

That’s nice, but Friedman has not even suggested, much less demonstrated in any way, how all of this is related to the difference between a real and a pseudo gold standard. Was there any postwar restriction on the buying or selling of gold by private individuals? Friedman doesn’t say. All he can come up with is the idea that the Fed had been given “discretionary power to ‘manage’ the stock of money.” Who gave the Fed this power? And how was this power exercised? He refers to gold reserve requirements, but gold reserve requirements – whether they were a good idea or not is not my concern here — existed before the Fed came into existence.

If the Fed had unusual powers after World War I, those powers were not magically conferred by some unidentified entity, but by the circumstance that the US had accumulated about 40% of the world’s monetary gold reserves during World War I, and was the only country, after the war, that was buying and selling gold freely at a fixed price ($20.67 an ounce). The US was therefore in a position to determine the value of gold either by accumulating more gold or by allowing an efflux of gold from its reserves. Whether the US was emitting or accumulating gold depended on the  interest-rate policy of the Federal Reserve. It is true that the enormous control the US then had over the value of gold was a unique circumstance in world history, but the artificial and tendentious distinction between a real and a pseudo gold standard has absolutely nothing to do with the inflation in 1919 or the deflation in 1920-21.

US Monetary Policy in the 1920s and Britain’s Return to Gold

In the next section Friedman continues his critical review of Fed policy in the 1920s, defending the Fed against the charge (a staple of Austrian Business Cycle Theory and other ill-informed and misguided critics) that it fueled a credit boom during the 1920s. On the contrary, Friedman shows that Fed policy was generally on the restrictive side.

I do not myself believe that the 1929-33 contraction was an inevitable result of the monetary policy of the 1920s or even owed much to it. What was wrong was the policy followed from 1929 to 1933. . . . But internationally, the policy was little short of catastrophic. Much has been made of Britain’s mistake in returning to gold in 1925 at a parity that overvalued the pound. I do not doubt that this was a mistake – but only because the United States was maintaining a pseudo gold standard. Had the United States been maintaining a real gold standard, the stock of money would have risen more in the United States than it did, prices would have been stable or rising instead of declining, the United States would have gained less gold or lost some, and the pressure on the pound would have been enormously eased. As it was by sterilizing gold, the United States forced the whole burden of adapting to gold movements on other countries. When, in addition, France adopted a pseudo gold standard at a parity that undervalued the franc and proceeded also to follow a gold sterilization policy, the combined effect was to make Britain’s position untenable.

This is actually a largely coherent paragraph, more or less correctly diagnosing the adverse consequences of an overly restrictive policy adopted by the Fed for most of the 1920s. What is not coherent is the attempt to attribute policy choices of which Friedman (and I) disapprove to the unrealness of the gold standard. There was nothing unreal about the gold standard as it was operated by the Fed in the 1920s. The Fed stood ready to buy and sell gold at the official price, and Friedman does not even suggest that there was any lapse in that commitment.

So what was the basis for Friedman’s charge that the 1920s gold standard was fake or fraudulent? Friedman says that if there had been a real, not a pseudo, gold standard, “the stock of money would have risen more in the United States than it did, prices would have been stable or rising instead of declining,” and the US “would have gained less gold or lost some.” That this did not happen, Friedman attributes to a “gold sterilization policy” followed by the US. Friedman is confused on two levels. First, he seems to believe that the quantity of money in the US was determined by the Fed. However, under a fixed-exchange-rate regime, the US money supply was determined endogenously via the balance of payments. What the Fed could determine by setting its interest rate was simply whether gold would flow into or out of US reserves. The level of US prices was determined by the internationally determined value of gold. Whether gold was flowing into or out of US reserves, in turn, determined the value of gold was rising or falling, and, correspondingly, whether prices in terms of gold were falling or rising. If the Fed had set interest rates somewhat lower than they did, gold would have flowed out of US reserves, the value of gold would have declined and prices in terms of gold would have risen, thereby easing deflationary pressure on Great Britain occasioned by an overvalued sterling-dollar exchange rate. I have no doubt that the Fed was keeping its interest rate too high for most of the 1920s, but why a mistaken interest-rate policy implies a fraudulent gold standard is not explained. Friedman, like his nemesis von Mises, simply asserted his conclusion or his definition, and expected his listeners and readers to nod in agreement.

US Monetary Policy in the 1931-33 Period

In this section Friedman undertakes his now familiar excoriation of Fed inaction to alleviate the banking crises that began in September 1931 and continued till March 1933. Much, if not all, of Friedman’s condemnation of the Fed is justified, though his failure to understand the international nature of the crisis caused him to assume that the Fed could have prevented a deflation caused by a rising value of gold simply by preventing bank failures. There are a number of logical gaps in that argument, and Friedman failed to address them, simply assuming that US prices were determined by the US money stock even though the US was still operating on the gold standard and the internationally determined value of gold was rising.

But in condemning the Fed’s policy in failing to accommodate an internal drain at the first outbreak of domestic banking crises in September 1931, Friedman observes:

Prior to September 1931, the System had been gaining gold, the monetary gold stock was at an all-time high, and the System’s gold reserve ratio was far above its legal minimum – a reflection of course of its not having operated in accordance with a real gold standard.

Again Friedman is saying that the criterion for identifying whether the gold standard is real or fraudulent is whether policy makers make the correct policy decision, if they make a mistake, it means that the gold standard in operation is no longer a real gold standard; it has become a pseudo gold standard.

The System had ample reserves to meet the gold outflow without difficulty and without resort to deflationary measures. And both its own earlier policy and the classical gold-standard rules as enshrined by Bagehot called for its doing so: the gold outflow was strictly speculative and motivated by fear that the United States would go off gold; the outflow had no basis in any trade imbalance; it would have exhausted itself promptly if all demands had been met.

Thus, Friedman, who just three pages earlier had asserted that the gold standard became a pseudo gold standard when the managers of the Federal Reserve System were given discretionary powers to manage the stock of money, now suggests that a gold standard can also be made a pseudo gold standard if the monetary authority fails to exercise its discretionary powers.

US Nationalization of Gold in 1934

The nationalization of gold by FDR effectively ended the gold standard in the US. Nevertheless, Friedman was so enamored of the distinction between real and pseudo gold standards that he tried to portray US monetary arrangements after the nationalization of gold as a pseudo gold standard even though the gold standard had been effectively nullified. But at least, the distinction between what is real and what is fraudulent about the gold standard is now based on an objective legal and institutional fact: the general right to buy gold from (or sell gold to) the government at a fixed price whenever government offices are open for business. Similarly after World War II, only the US government had any legal obligation to sell gold at the official price, but there was only a very select group of individuals and governments who were entitled to buy gold from the US government. Even to call such an arrangement a pseudo gold standard seems like a big stretch, but there is nothing seriously wrong with calling it a pseudo gold standard. But I have no real problem with Friedman’s denial that there was a true gold standard in operation after the nationalization of gold in 1934.

I would also agree that there really was not a gold standard in operation after the US entered World War I, because the US stopped selling gold after the War started. In fact, a pseudo gold standard is a good way to characterize the status of the gold standard during World War I, because the legal price of gold was not changed in any of the belligerent countries, but it was understood that for a private citizen to try to redeem currency for gold at the official price would be considered a reprehensible act, something almost no one was willing to do. But to assert, as Friedman did, that even when the basic right to buy gold at the official price was routinely exercised, a real gold standard was not necessarily in operation, is simply incoherent, or sophistical. Take your pick.

Misunderstanding (Totally!) Competitive Currency Devaluations

Before becoming Governor of the Resesrve Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan professor was Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago Business School. Winner of the Fischer Black Prize in 2003, he is the author numerous articles in leading academic journals in economics and finance, and co-author (with Luigi Zingales) of a well-regarded book Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists that had some valuable insights about financial-market dysfunction. He is obviously no slouch.

Unfortunately, based on recent reports, Goverenor Rajan is, despite his impressive resume and academic credentials, as Marcus Nunes pointed out on his blog, totally clueless about the role of monetary policy and the art of central banking in combating depressions. Here is the evidence provided by none other than the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper whose editorial page espouses roughly the same view as Rajan, summarizing Rajan’s remarks.

Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan warned Wednesday that the global economy bears an increasing resemblance to its condition in the 1930s, with advanced economies trying to pull out of the Great Recession at each other’s expense.

The difference: competitive monetary policy easing has now taken the place of competitive currency devaluations as the favored tool for playing a zero-sum game that is bound to end in disaster. Now, as then, “demand shifting” has taken the place of “demand creation,” the Indian policymaker said.

A clear symptom of the major imbalances crippling the world’s financial market is the over valuation of the euro, Mr. Rajan said.

The euro-zone economy faces problems similar to those faced by developing economies, with the European Central Bank’s “very, very accommodative stance” having a reduced impact due to the ultra-loose monetary policies being pursued by other central banks, including the Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan and the Bank of England.

The notion that competitive currency devaluations in the Great Depression were a zero-sum game is fallacy, an influential fallacy to be sure, but a fallacy nonetheless. And because it is – and was — so influential, it is a highly dangerous fallacy. There is indeed a similarity between the current situation and the 1930s, but the similarity is not that monetary ease is a zero-sum game that merely “shifts,” but does not “create,” demand; the similarity is that the fallacious notion that monetary ease does not create demand is still so prevalent.

The classic refutation of the fallacy that monetary ease only shifts, but does not create, demand was provided on numerous occasions by R. G. Hawtrey. Almost two and a half years ago, I quoted a particularly cogent passage from Hawtrey’s Trade Depression and the Way Out (2nd edition, 1933) in which he addressed the demand-shift fallacy. Hawtrey refuted the fallacy in responding to those who were arguing that Britain’s abandonment of the gold standard in September 1931 had failed to stimulate the British economy, and had damaged the world economy, because prices continued falling after Britain left the gold standard. Hawtrey first discussed the reasons for the drop in the world price level after Britain gave up the gold standard.

When Great Britain left the gold standard, deflationary measures were everywhere resorted to. Not only did the Bank of England raise its rate, but the tremendous withdrawals of gold from the United States involved an increase of rediscounts and a rise of rates there, and the gold that reached Europe was immobilized or hoarded. . . .

In other words, Britain’s departure from the gold standard led to speculation that the US would follow Britain off the gold standard, implying an increase in the demand to hoard gold before the anticipated increase in its dollar price. That is a typical reaction under the gold standard when the probability of a devaluation is perceived to have risen. By leaving gold, Britain increased the perceived probability that other countries, and especially the US, would also leave the gold standard.

The consequence was that the fall in the price level continued [because an increase in the demand to hold gold (for any reason including speculation on a future increase in the nominal price of gold) must raise the current value of gold relative to all other commodities which means that the price of other commodities in terms of gold must fall -- DG]. The British price level rose in the first few weeks after the suspension of the gold standard [because the value of the pound was falling relative to gold, implying that prices in terms of pounds rose immediately after Britain left gold -- DG], but then accompanied the gold price level in its downward trend [because after the initial fall in the value of the pound relative to gold, the pound stabilized while the real value of gold continued to rise -- DG]. This fall of prices calls for no other explanation than the deflationary measures which had been imposed [alarmed at the rapid fall in the value of gold, the Bank of England raised interest rates to prevent further depreciation in sterling -- DG]. Indeed what does demand explanation is the moderation of the fall, which was on the whole not so steep after September 1931 as before.

Yet when the commercial and financial world saw that gold prices were falling rather than sterling prices rising, they evolved the purely empirical conclusion that a depreciation of the pound had no effect in raising the price level, but that it caused the price level in terms of gold and of those currencies in relation to which the pound depreciated to fall.

Here Hawtrey identified precisely the demand-shift fallacy evidently now subscribed to by Governor Rajan. In other words, when Britain left the gold standard, Britain did nothing to raise the international level of prices, which, under the gold standard, is the level of prices measured in terms of gold. Britain may have achieved a slight increase in its own domestic price level, but only by imposing a corresponding reduction in the price level measured in terms of gold. Let’s see how Hawtrey demolishes the fallacy.

For any such conclusion there was no foundation. Whenever the gold price level tended to fall, the tendency would make itself felt in a fall in the pound concurrently with the fall in commodities. [Hawtrey is saying that if the gold price level fell, while the sterling price level remained constant, the value of sterling would also fall in terms of gold. -- DG] But it would be quite unwarrantable to infer that the fall in the pound was the cause of the fall in commodities.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that the depreciation of any currency, by reducing the cost of manufacture in the country concerned in terms of gold, tends to lower the gold prices of manufactured goods. . . . [In other words, the cost of production of manufactured goods, which include both raw materials – raw materials often being imported -- and capital equipment and labor, which generally are not mobile, is unlikely to rise as much in percentage terms as the percentage depreciation in the currency. -- DG]

But that is quite a different thing from lowering the price level. For the fall in manufacturing costs results in a greater demand for manufactured goods, and therefore the derivative demand for primary products is increased. [That is to say, if manufactured products become relatively cheaper as the currency depreciates, the real quantity of manufactured goods demanded will increase, and the real quantity of inputs used to produce the increased quantity of manufactured goods must also increase. -- DG] While the prices of finished goods fall, the prices of primary products rise. Whether the price level as a whole would rise or fall it is not possible to say a priori, but the tendency is toward correcting the disparity between the price levels of finished products and primary products. That is a step towards equilibrium. And there is on the whole an increase of productive activity. The competition of the country which depreciates its currency will result in some reduction of output from the manufacturing industry of other countries. But this reduction will be less than the increase in the country’s output, for if there were no net increase in the world’s output there would be no fall of prices. [Thus, even though there is some demand shifting toward the country that depreciates its currency because its products become relatively cheaper than the products of non-depreciating currencies, the cost reduction favoring the output of the country with a depreciating currency could not cause an overall reduction in prices elsewhere if total output had not increased. -- DG]

Hawtrey then articulates the policy implication of the demand-shift fallacy.

In consequence of the competitive advantage gained by a country’s manufacturers from a depreciation of its currency, any such depreciation is only too likely to meet with recriminations and even retaliation from its competitors. . . . Fears are even expressed that if one country starts depreciation, and others follow suit, there may result “a competitive depreciation” to which no end can be seen.

This competitive depreciation is an entirely imaginary danger. The benefit that a country derives from the depreciation of its currency is in the rise of its price level relative to its wage level, and does not depend on its competitive advantage. [There is a slight ambiguity here, because Hawtrey admitted above that there is a demand shift. But there is also an increase in demand, and it is the increase in demand, associated with a rise of its price level relative to its wage level, which does not depend on a competitive advantage associated with a demand shift. -- DG] If other countries depreciate their currencies, its competitive advantage is destroyed, but the advantage of the price level remains both to it and to them. They in turn may carry the depreciation further, and gain a competitive advantage. But this race in depreciation reaches a natural limit when the fall in wages and in the prices of manufactured goods in terms of gold has gone so far in all the countries concerned as to regain the normal relation with the prices of primary products. When that occurs, the depression is over, and industry is everywhere remunerative and fully employed. Any countries that lag behind in the race will suffer from unemployment in their manufacturing industry. But the remedy lies in their own hands; all they have to do is to depreciate their currencies to the extent necessary to make the price level remunerative to their industry. Their tardiness does not benefit their competitors, once these latter are employed up to capacity. Indeed, if the countries that hang back are an important part of the world’s economic system, the result must be to leave the disparity of price levels partly uncorrected, with undesirable consequences to everybody. . . .

The picture of an endless competition in currency depreciation is completely misleading. The race of depreciation is towards a definite goal; it is a competitive return to equilibrium. The situation is like that of a fishing fleet threatened with a storm; no harm is done if their return to a harbor of refuge is “competitive.” Let them race; the sooner they get there the better. (pp. 154-57)

Hawtrey’s analysis of competitive depreciation can be further elucidated by reconsidering it in the light of Max Corden’s classic analysis of exchange-rate protection, which I have discussed several times on this blog (here, here, and here). Corden provided a deep analysis of the conditions under which exchange-rate depreciation confers a competitive advantage. For internationally traded commodities, it is hard to see how any advantage can be derived from currency manipulation. A change in the exchange rate would be rapidly offset by corresponding changes in the prices of the relevant products. However, factors of production like labor, land, and capital equipment, tend to be immobile so their prices in the local currency don’t necessarily adjust immediately to changes in exchange rate of the local currency. Hawtrey was clearly assuming that labor and capital are not tradable so that international arbitrage does not induce immediate adjusments in their prices. Also, Hawtrey’s analysis begins from a state of disequilibrirum, while Corden’s starts from equilibrium, a very important difference.

However, even if prices of non-tradable commodities and factors of production don’t immediately adjust to exchange-rate changes, there is another mechanism operating to eliminate any competitive advantage, which is that the inflow of foreign-exchange reserves into a country with an undervalued currency (and, thus, a competitive advantage) will normally induce monetary expansion in that country, thereby raising the prices of non-tradables and factors of production. What Corden showed was that a central bank willing to tolerate a sufficiently large expansion in its foreign-reserve holdings could keep its currency undervalued, thereby maintaining a competitive advantage for its country in world markets.

But the corollary to Corden’s analysis is that to gain competitive advantage from currency depreciation requires the central bank to maintain monetary stringency (a chronic excess demand for money thus requiring a corresponding export surplus) and a continuing accumulation of foreign exchange reserves. If central banks are pursuing competitive monetary easing, which Governor Rajan likens to competitive exchange-rate depreciation aimed at shifting, not expanding, total demand, he is obviously getting worked up over nothing, because Corden demonstrated 30 years ago that a necessary condition for competitive exchange-rate depreciation is monetary tightness, not monetary ease.

Monetarism and the Great Depression

Last Friday, Scott Sumner posted a diatribe against the IS-LM triggered by a set of slides by Chris Foote of Harvard and the Boston Fed explaining how the effects of monetary policy can be analyzed using the IS-LM framework. What really annoys Scott is the following slide in which Foote compares the “spending (aka Keynesian) hypothesis” and the “money (aka Monetarist) hypothesis” as explanations for the Great Depression. I am also annoyed; whether more annoyed or less annoyed than Scott I can’t say, interpersonal comparisons of annoyance, like interpersonal comparisons of utility, being beyond the ken of economists. But our reasons for annoyance are a little different, so let me try to explore those reasons. But first, let’s look briefly at the source of our common annoyance.

foote_81The “spending hypothesis” attributes the Great Depression to a sudden collapse of spending which, in turn, is attributed to a collapse of consumer confidence resulting from the 1929 stock-market crash and a collapse of investment spending occasioned by a collapse of business confidence. The cause of the collapse in consumer and business confidence is not really specified, but somehow it has to do with the unstable economic and financial situation that characterized the developed world in the wake of World War I. In addition there was, at least according to some accounts, a perverse fiscal response: cuts in government spending and increases in taxes to keep the budget in balance. The latter notion that fiscal policy was contractionary evokes a contemptuous response from Scott, more or less justified, because nominal government spending actually rose in 1930 and 1931 and spending in real terms continued to rise in 1932. But the key point is that government spending in those days was too meager to have made much difference; the spending hypothesis rises or falls on the notion that the trigger for the Great Depression was an autonomous collapse in private spending.

But what really gets Scott all bent out of shape is Foote’s commentary on the “money hypothesis.” In his first bullet point, Foote refers to the 25% decline in M1 between 1929 and 1933, suggesting that monetary policy was really, really tight, but in the next bullet point, Foote points out that if monetary policy was tight, implying a leftward shift in the LM curve, interest rates should have risen. Instead they fell. Moreover, Foote points out that, inasmuch as the price level fell by more than 25% between 1929 and 1933, the real value of the money supply actually increased, so it’s not even clear that there was a leftward shift in the LM curve. You can just feel Scott’s blood boiling:

What interests me is the suggestion that the “money hypothesis” is contradicted by various stylized facts. Interest rates fell.  The real quantity of money rose.  In fact, these two stylized facts are exactly what you’d expect from tight money.  The fact that they seem to contradict the tight money hypothesis does not reflect poorly on the tight money hypothesis, but rather the IS-LM model that says tight money leads to a smaller level of real cash balances and a higher level of interest rates.

To see the absurdity of IS-LM, just consider a monetary policy shock that no one could question—hyperinflation.  Wheelbarrows full of billion mark currency notes. Can we all agree that that would be “easy money?”  Good.  We also know that hyperinflation leads to extremely high interest rates and extremely low real cash balances, just the opposite of the prediction of the IS-LM model.  In contrast, Milton Friedman would tell you that really tight money leads to low interest rates and large real cash balances, exactly what we do see.

Scott is totally right, of course, to point out that the fall in interest rates and the increase in the real quantity of money do not contradict the “money hypothesis.” However, he is also being selective and unfair in making that criticism, because, in two slides following almost immediately after the one to which Scott takes such offense, Foote actually explains that the simple IS-LM analysis presented in the previous slide requires modification to take into account expected deflation, because the demand for money depends on the nominal rate of interest while the amount of investment spending depends on the real rate of interest, and shows how to do the modification. Here are the slides:

foote_83

foote_84Thus, expected deflation raises the real rate of interest thereby shifting the IS curve to the left while leaving the LM curve where it was. Expected deflation therefore explains a fall in both nominal and real income as well as in the nominal rate of interest; it also explains an increase in the real rate of interest. Scott seems to be emotionally committed to the notion that the IS-LM model must lead to a misunderstanding of the effects of monetary policy, holding Foote up as an example of this confusion on the basis of the first of the slides, but Foote actually shows that IS-LM can be tweaked to accommodate a correct understanding of the dominant role of monetary policy in the Great Depression.

The Great Depression was triggered by a deflationary scramble for gold associated with the uncoordinated restoration of the gold standard by the major European countries in the late 1920s, especially France and its insane central bank. On top of this, the Federal Reserve, succumbing to political pressure to stop “excessive” stock-market speculation, raised its discount rate to a near record 6.5% in early 1929, greatly amplifying the pressure on gold reserves, thereby driving up the value of gold, and causing expectations of the future price level to start dropping. It was thus a rise (both actual and expected) in the value of gold, not a reduction in the money supply, which was the source of the monetary shock that produced the Great Depression. The shock was administered without a reduction in the money supply, so there was no shift in the LM curve. IS-LM is not necessarily the best model with which to describe this monetary shock, but the basic story can be expressed in terms of the IS-LM model.

So, you ask, if I don’t think that Foote’s exposition of the IS-LM model seriously misrepresents what happened in the Great Depression, why did I say at beginning of this post that Foote’s slides really annoy me? Well, the reason is simply that Foote seems to think that the only monetary explanation of the Great Depression is the Monetarist explanation of Milton Friedman: that the Great Depression was caused by an exogenous contraction in the US money supply. That explanation is wrong, theoretically and empirically.

What caused the Great Depression was an international disturbance to the value of gold, caused by the independent actions of a number of central banks, most notably the insane Bank of France, maniacally trying to convert all its foreign exchange reserves into gold, and the Federal Reserve, obsessed with suppressing a non-existent stock-market bubble on Wall Street. It only seems like a bubble with mistaken hindsight, because the collapse of prices was not the result of any inherent overvaluation in stock prices in October 1929, but because the combined policies of the insane Bank of France and the Fed wrecked the world economy. The decline in the nominal quantity of money in the US, the great bugaboo of Milton Friedman, was merely an epiphenomenon.

As Ron Batchelder and I have shown, Gustav Cassel and Ralph Hawtrey had diagnosed and explained the causes of the Great Depression fully a decade before it happened. Unfortunately, whenever people think of a monetary explanation of the Great Depression, they think of Milton Friedman, not Hawtrey and Cassel. Scott Sumner understands all this, he’s even written a book – a wonderful (but unfortunately still unpublished) book – about it. But he gets all worked up about IS-LM.

I, on the other hand, could not care less about IS-LM; it’s the idea that the monetary cause of the Great Depression was discovered by Milton Friedman that annoys the [redacted] out of me.

UPDATE: I posted this post prematurely before I finished editing it, so I apologize for any mistakes or omissions or confusing statements that appeared previously or that I haven’t found yet.

The Enchanted James Grant Expounds Eloquently on the Esthetics of the Gold Standard

One of the leading financial journalists of our time, James Grant is obviously a very smart, very well read, commentator on contemporary business and finance. He also has published several highly regarded historical studies, and according to the biographical tag on his review of a new book on the monetary role of gold in the weekend Wall Street Journal, he will soon publish a new historical study of the dearly beloved 1920-21 depression, a study that will certainly be worth reading, if not entirely worth believing. Grant reviewed a new book, War and Gold, by Kwasi Kwarteng, which provides a historical account of the role of gold in monetary affairs and in wartime finance since the 16th century. Despite his admiration for Kwarteng’s work, Grant betrays more than a little annoyance and exasperation with Kwarteng’s failure to appreciate what a many-splendored thing gold really is, deploring the impartial attitude to gold taken by Kwarteng.

Exasperatingly, the author, a University of Cambridge Ph. D. in history and a British parliamentarian, refuses to render historical judgment. He doesn’t exactly decry the world’s descent into “too big to fail” banking, occult-style central banking and tiny, government-issued interest rates. Neither does he precisely support those offenses against wholesome finance. He is neither for the dematerialized, non-gold dollar nor against it. He is a monetary Hamlet.

He does, at least, ask: “Why gold?” I would answer: “Because it’s money, or used to be money, and will likely one day become money again.” The value of gold is inherent, not conferred by governments. Its supply tends to grow by 1% to 2% a year, in line with growth in world population. It is nice to look at and self-evidently valuable.

Evidently, Mr. Grant’s enchantment with gold has led him into incoherence. Is gold money or isn’t it? Obviously not — at least not if you believe that definitions ought to correspond to reality rather than to Platonic ideal forms. Sensing that his grip on reality may be questionable, he tries to have it both ways. If gold isn’t money now, it likely will become money again — “one day.” For sure, gold used to be money, but so did cowerie shells, cattle, and at least a dozen other substances. How does that create any presumption that gold is likely to become money again?

Then we read: “The value of gold is inherent.” OMG! And this from a self-proclaimed Austrian! Has he ever heard of the “subjective theory of value?” Mr. Grant, meet Ludwig von Mises.

Value is not intrinsic, it is not in things. It is within us. (Human Action p. 96)

If value “is not in things,” how can anything be “self-evidently valuable?”

Grant, in his emotional attachment to gold, feels obligated to defend the metal against any charge that it may have been responsible for human suffering.

Shelley wrote lines of poetry to protest the deflation that attended Britain’s return to the gold standard after the Napoleonic wars. Mr. Kwarteng quotes them: “Let the Ghost of Gold / Take from Toil a thousandfold / More than e’er its substance could / In the tyrannies of old.” The author seems to agree with the poet.

Grant responds to this unfair slur against gold:

I myself hold the gold standard blameless. The source of the postwar depression was rather the decision of the British government to return to the level of prices and wages that prevailed before the war, a decision it enforced through monetary means (that is, by reimposing the prewar exchange rate). It was an error that Britain repeated after World War I.

This is a remarkable and fanciful defense, suggesting that the British government actually had a specific target level of prices and wages in mind when it restored the pound to its prewar gold parity. In fact, the idea of a price level was not yet even understood by most economists, let alone by the British government. Restoring the pound to its prewar parity was considered a matter of financial rectitude and honor, not a matter of economic fine-tuning. Nor was the choice of the prewar parity the only reason for the ruinous deflation that followed the postwar resumption of gold payments. The replacement of paper pounds with gold pounds implied a significant increase in the total demand for gold by the world’s leading economic power, which implied an increase in the total world demand for gold, and an increase in its value relative to other commodities, in other words deflation. David Ricardo foresaw the deflationary consequences of the resumption of gold payments, and tried to mitigate those consequences with his Proposals for an Economical and Secure Currency, designed to limit the increase in the monetary demand for gold. The real error after World War I, as Hawtrey and Cassel both pointed out in 1919, was that the resumption of an international gold standard after gold had been effectively demonetized during World War I would lead to an enormous increase in the monetary demand for gold, causing a worldwide deflationary collapse. After the Napoleonic wars, the gold standard was still a peculiarly British institution, the rest of the world then operating on a silver standard.

Grant makes further extravagant and unsupported claims on behalf of the gold standard:

The classical gold standard, in service roughly from 1815 to 1914, was certainly imperfect. What it did deliver was long-term price stability. What the politics of the gold-standard era delivered was modest levels of government borrowing.

The choice of 1815 as the start of the gold standard era is quite arbitrary, 1815 being the year that Britain defeated Napoleonic France, thereby setting the stage for the restoration of the golden pound at its prewar parity. But the very fact that 1815 marked the beginning of the restoration of the prewar gold parity with sterling shows that for Britain the gold standard began much earlier, actually 1717 when Isaac Newton, then master of the mint, established the gold parity at a level that overvalued gold, thereby driving silver out of circulation. So, if the gold standard somehow ensures that government borrowing levels are modest, one would think that borrowing by the British government would have been modest from 1717 to 1797 when the gold standard was suspended. But the chart below showing British government debt as a percentage of GDP from 1692 to 2010 shows that British government debt rose rapidly over most of the 18th century.

uk_national_debtGrant suggests that bad behavior by banks is mainly the result of abandonment of the gold standard.

Progress is the rule, the Whig theory of history teaches, but the old Whigs never met the new bankers. Ordinary people live longer and Olympians run faster than they did a century ago, but no such improvement is evident in our monetary and banking affairs. On the contrary, the dollar commands but 1/1,300th of an ounce of gold today, as compared with the 1/20th of an ounce on the eve of World War I. As for banking, the dismal record of 2007-09 would seem inexplicable to the financial leaders of the Model T era. One of these ancients, Comptroller of the Currency John Skelton Williams, predicted in 1920 that bank failures would soon be unimaginable. In 2008, it was solvency you almost couldn’t imagine.

Once again, the claims that Mr. Grant makes on behalf of the gold standard simply do not correspond to reality. The chart below shows the annual number of bank failures in every years since 1920.

bank_failures

Somehow, Mr. Grant somehow seems to have overlooked what happened between 1929 and 1932. John Skelton Williams obviously didn’t know what was going to happen in the following decade. Certainly no shame in that. I am guessing that Mr. Grant does know what happened; he just seems too bedazzled by the beauty of the gold standard to care.

Monetary Theory on the Neo-Fisherite Edge

The week before last, Noah Smith wrote a post “The Neo-Fisherite Rebellion” discussing, rather sympathetically I thought, the contrarian school of monetary thought emerging from the Great American Heartland, according to which, notwithstanding everything monetary economists since Henry Thornton have taught, high interest rates are inflationary and low interest rates deflationary. This view of the relationship between interest rates and inflation was advanced (but later retracted) by Narayana Kocherlakota, President of the Minneapolis Fed in a 2010 lecture, and was embraced and expounded with increased steadfastness by Stephen Williamson of Washington University in St. Louis and the St. Louis Fed in at least one working paper and in a series of posts over the past five or six months (e.g. here, here and here). And John Cochrane of the University of Chicago has picked up on the idea as well in two recent blog posts (here and here). Others seem to be joining the upstart school as well.

The new argument seems simple: given the Fisher equation, in which the nominal interest rate equals the real interest rate plus the (expected) rate of inflation, a central bank can meet its inflation target by setting a fixed nominal interest rate target consistent with its inflation target and keeping it there. Once the central bank sets its target, the long-run neutrality of money, implying that the real interest rate is independent of the nominal targets set by the central bank, ensures that inflation expectations must converge on rates consistent with the nominal interest rate target and the independently determined real interest rate (i.e., the real yield curve), so that the actual and expected rates of inflation adjust to ensure that the Fisher equation is satisfied. If the promise of the central bank to maintain a particular nominal rate over time is believed, the promise will induce a rate of inflation consistent with the nominal interest-rate target and the exogenous real rate.

The novelty of this way of thinking about monetary policy is that monetary theorists have generally assumed that the actual adjustment of the price level or inflation rate depends on whether the target interest rate is greater or less than the real rate plus the expected rate. When the target rate is greater than the real rate plus expected inflation, inflation goes down, and when it is less than the real rate plus expected inflation, inflation goes up. In the conventional treatment, the expected rate of inflation is momentarily fixed, and the (expected) real rate variable. In the Neo-Fisherite school, the (expected) real rate is fixed, and the expected inflation rate is variable. (Just as an aside, I would observe that the idea that expectations about the real rate of interest and the inflation rate cannot occur simultaneously in the short run is not derived from the limited cognitive capacity of economic agents; it can only be derived from the limited intellectual capacity of economic theorists.)

The heretical views expressed by Williamson and Cochrane and earlier by Kocherlakota have understandably elicited scorn and derision from conventional monetary theorists, whether Keynesian, New Keynesian, Monetarist or Market Monetarist. (Williamson having appropriated for himself the New Monetarist label, I regrettably could not preserve an appropriate symmetry in my list of labels for monetary theorists.) As a matter of fact, I wrote a post last December challenging Williamson’s reasoning in arguing that QE had caused a decline in inflation, though in his initial foray into uncharted territory, Williamson was actually making a narrower argument than the more general thesis that he has more recently expounded.

Although deep down, I have no great sympathy for Williamson’s argument, the counterarguments I have seen leave me feeling a bit, shall we say, underwhelmed. That’s not to say that I am becoming a convert to New Monetarism, but I am feeling that we have reached a point at which certain underlying gaps in monetary theory can’t be concealed any longer. To explain what I mean by that remark, let me start by reviewing the historical context in which the ruling doctrine governing central-bank operations via adjustments in the central-bank lending rate evolved. The primary (though historically not the first) source of the doctrine is Henry Thornton in his classic volume The Nature and Effects of the Paper Credit of Great Britain.

Even though Thornton focused on the policy of the Bank of England during the Napoleonic Wars, when Bank of England notes, not gold, were legal tender, his discussion was still in the context of a monetary system in which paper money was generally convertible into either gold or silver. Inconvertible banknotes – aka fiat money — were the exception not the rule. Gold and silver were what Nick Rowe would call alpha money. All other moneys were evaluated in terms of gold and silver, not in terms of a general price level (not yet a widely accepted concept). Even though Bank of England notes became an alternative alpha money during the restriction period of inconvertibility, that situation was generally viewed as temporary, the restoration of convertibility being expected after the war. The value of the paper pound was tracked by the sterling price of gold on the Hamburg exchange. Thus, Ricardo’s first published work was entitled The High Price of Bullion, in which he blamed the high sterling price of bullion at Hamburg on an overissue of banknotes by the Bank of England.

But to get back to Thornton, who was far more concerned with the mechanics of monetary policy than Ricardo, his great contribution was to show that the Bank of England could control the amount of lending (and money creation) by adjusting the interest rate charged to borrowers. If banknotes were depreciating relative to gold, the Bank of England could increase the value of their notes by raising the rate of interest charged on loans.

The point is that if you are a central banker and are trying to target the exchange rate of your currency with respect to an alpha currency, you can do so by adjusting the interest rate that you charge borrowers. Raising the interest rate will cause the exchange value of your currency to rise and reducing the interest rate will cause the exchange value to fall. And if you are operating under strict convertibility, so that you are committed to keep the exchange rate between your currency and an alpha currency at a specified par value, raising that interest rate will cause you to accumulate reserves payable in terms of the alpha currency, and reducing that interest rate will cause you to emit reserves payable in terms of the alpha currency.

So the idea that an increase in the central-bank interest rate tends to increase the exchange value of its currency, or, under a fixed-exchange rate regime, an increase in the foreign exchange reserves of the bank, has a history at least two centuries old, though the doctrine has not exactly been free of misunderstanding or confusion in the course of those two centuries. One of those misunderstandings was about the effect of a change in the central-bank interest rate, under a fixed-exchange rate regime. In fact, as long as the central bank is maintaining a fixed exchange rate between its currency and an alpha currency, changes in the central-bank interest rate don’t affect (at least as a first approximation) either the domestic money supply or the domestic price level; all that changes in the central-bank interest rate can accomplish is to change the bank’s holdings of alpha-currency reserves.

It seems to me that this long well-documented historical association between changes in the central-bank interest rates and the exchange value of currencies and the level of private spending is the basis for the widespread theoretical presumption that raising the central-bank interest rate target is deflationary and reducing it is inflationary. However, the old central-bank doctrine of the Bank Rate was conceived in a world in which gold and silver were the alpha moneys, and central banks – even central banks operating with inconvertible currencies – were beta banks, because the value of a central-bank currency was still reckoned, like the value of inconvertible Bank of England notes in the Napoleonic Wars, in terms of gold and silver.

In the Neo-Fisherite world, central banks rarely peg exchange rates against each other, and there is no longer any outside standard of value to which central banks even nominally commit themselves. In a world without the metallic standard of value in which the conventional theory of central banking developed, do the propositions about the effects of central-bank interest-rate setting still obtain? I am not so sure that they do, not with the analytical tools that we normally deploy when thinking about the effects of central-bank policies. Why not? Because, in a Neo-Fisherite world in which all central banks are alpha banks, I am not so sure that we really know what determines the value of this thing called fiat money. And if we don’t really know what determines the value of a fiat money, how can we really be sure that interest-rate policy works the same way in a Neo-Fisherite world that it used to work when the value of money was determined in relation to a metallic standard? (Just to avoid misunderstanding, I am not – repeat NOT — arguing for restoring the gold standard.)

Why do I say that we don’t know what determines the value of fiat money in a Neo-Fisherite world? Well, consider this. Almost three weeks ago I wrote a post in which I suggested that Bitcoins could be a massive bubble. My explanation for why Bitcoins could be a bubble is that they provide no real (i.e., non-monetary) service, so that their value is totally contingent on, and derived from (or so it seems to me, though I admit that my understanding of Bitcoins is partial and imperfect), the expectation of a positive future resale value. However, it seems certain that the resale value of Bitcoins must eventually fall to zero, so that backward induction implies that Bitcoins, inasmuch as they provide no real service, cannot retain a positive value in the present. On this reasoning, any observed value of a Bitcoin seems inexplicable except as an irrational bubble phenomenon.

Most of the comments I received about that post challenged the relevance of the backward-induction argument. The challenges were mainly of two types: a) the end state, when everyone will certainly stop accepting a Bitcoin in exchange, is very, very far into the future and its date is unknown, and b) the backward-induction argument applies equally to every fiat currency, so my own reasoning, according to my critics, implies that the value of every fiat currency is just as much a bubble phenomenon as the value of a Bitcoin.

My response to the first objection is that even if the strict logic of the backward-induction argument is inconclusive, because of the long and uncertain duration of the time elapse between now and the end state, the argument nevertheless suggests that the value of a Bitcoin is potentially very unsteady and vulnerable to sudden collapse. Those are not generally thought to be desirable attributes in a medium of exchange.

My response to the second objection is that fiat currencies are actually quite different from Bitcoins, because fiat currencies are accepted by governments in discharging the tax liabilities due to them. The discharge of a tax liability is a real (i.e. non-monetary) service, creating a distinct non-monetary demand for fiat currencies, thereby ensuring that fiat currencies retain value, even apart from being accepted as a medium of exchange.

That, at any rate, is my view, which I first heard from Earl Thompson (see his unpublished paper, “A Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory” pp. 23-25 for a derivation of the value of fiat money when tax liability is a fixed proportion of income). Some other pretty good economists have also held that view, like Abba Lerner, P. H. Wicksteed, and Adam Smith. Georg Friedrich Knapp also held that view, and, in his day, he was certainly well known, but I am unable to pass judgment on whether he was or wasn’t a good economist. But I do know that his views about money were famously misrepresented and caricatured by Ludwig von Mises. However, there are other good economists (Hal Varian for one), apparently unaware of, or untroubled by, the backward induction argument, who don’t think that acceptability in discharging tax liability is required to explain the value of fiat money.

Nor do I think that Thompson’s tax-acceptability theory of the value of money can stand entirely on its own, because it implies a kind of saw-tooth time profile of the price level, so that a fiat currency, earning no liquidity premium, would actually be appreciating between peak tax collection dates, and depreciating immediately following those dates, a pattern not obviously consistent with observed price data, though I do recall that Thompson used to claim that there is a lot of evidence that prices fall just before peak tax-collection dates. I don’t think that anyone has ever tried to combine the tax-acceptability theory with the empirical premise that currency (or base money) does in fact provide significant liquidity services. That, it seems to me, would be a worthwhile endeavor for any eager young researcher to undertake.

What does all of this have to do with the Neo-Fisherite Rebellion? Well, if we don’t have a satisfactory theory of the value of fiat money at hand, which is what another very smart economist Fischer Black – who, to my knowledge never mentioned the tax-liability theory — thought, then the only explanation of the value of fiat money is that, like the value of a Bitcoin, it is whatever people expect it to be. And the rate of inflation is equally inexplicable, being just whatever it is expected to be. So in a Neo-Fisherite world, if the central bank announces that it is reducing its interest-rate target, the effect of the announcement depends entirely on what “the market” reads into the announcement. And that is exactly what Fischer Black believed. See his paper “Active and Passive Monetary Policy in a Neoclassical Model.”

I don’t say that Williamson and his Neo-Fisherite colleagues are correct. Nor have they, to my knowledge, related their arguments to Fischer Black’s work. What I do say (indeed this is a problem I raised almost three years ago in one of my first posts on this blog) is that existing monetary theories of the price level are unable to rule out his result, because the behavior of the price level and inflation seems to depend, more than anything else, on expectations. And it is far from clear to me that there are any fundamentals in which these expectations can be grounded. If you impose the rational expectations assumption, which is almost certainly wrong empirically, maybe you can argue that the central bank provides a focal point for expectations to converge on. The problem, of course, is that in the real world, expectations are all over the place, there being no fundamentals to force the convergence of expectations to a stable equilibrium value.

In other words, it’s just a mess, a bloody mess, and I do not like it, not one little bit.

Did Raising Interest Rates under the Gold Standard Really Increase Aggregate Demand?

I hope that I can write this quickly just so people won’t think that I’ve disappeared. I’ve been a bit under the weather this week, and the post that I’ve been working on needs more attention and it’s not going to be ready for a few more days. But the good news, from my perspective at any rate, is that Scott Sumner, as he has done so often in the past, has come through for me by giving me something to write about. In his most recent post at his second home on Econlog, Scott writes the following:

I recently did a post pointing out that higher interest rates don’t reduce AD.  Indeed even higher interest rates caused by a decrease in the money supply don’t reduce AD. Rather the higher rates raise velocity, but that effect is more than offset by the decrease in the money supply.

Of course that’s not the way Keynesians typically look at things.  They believe that higher interest rates actually cause AD to decrease.  Except under the gold standard. Back in 1988 Robert Barsky and Larry Summers wrote a paper showing that higher interest rates were expansionary when the dollar was pegged to gold.  Now in fairness, many Keynesians understand that higher interest rates are often associated with higher levels of AD.  But Barsky and Summers showed that the higher rates actually caused AD to increase.  Higher nominal rates increase the opportunity cost of holding gold. This reduces gold demand, and thus lowers its value.  Because the nominal price of gold is fixed under the gold standard, the only way for the value of gold to decrease is for the price level to increase. Thus higher interest rates boost AD and the price level.  This explains the “Gibson Paradox.”

Very clever on Scott’s part, and I am sure that he will have backfooted a lot of Keynesians. There’s just one problem with Scott’s point, which is that he forgets that an increase in interest rates by the central bank under the gold standard corresponds to an increase in the demand of the central bank for gold, which, as Scott certainly knows better than almost anyone else, is deflationary. What Barsky and Summers were talking about when they were relating interest rates to the value of gold was movements in the long-term interest rate (the yield on consols), not in central-bank lending rate (the rate central banks charge for overnight or very short-dated loans to other banks). As Hawtrey showed in A Century of Bank Rate, the yield on consols was not closely correlated with Bank Rate. So not only is Scott looking at the wrong interest rate (for purposes of his argument), he is – and I don’t know how to phrase this delicately – reasoning from a price change. Ouch!

James Grant on Irving Fisher and the Great Depression

In the past weekend edition (January 4-5, 2014) of the Wall Street Journal, James Grant, financial journalist, reviewed (“Great Minds, Failed Prophets”) Fortune Tellers by Walter A. Friedman, a new book about the first generation of economic forecasters, or business prophets. Friedman tells the stories of forecasters who became well-known and successful in the 1920s: Roger Babson, John Moody, the team of Carl J. Bullock and Warren Persons, Wesley Mitchell, and the great Irving Fisher. I haven’t read the book, but, judging from the Grant’s review, I am guessing it’s a good read.

Grant is a gifted, erudite and insightful journalist, but unfortunately his judgment is often led astray by a dogmatic attachment to Austrian business cycle theory and the gold standard, which causes him to make an absurd identification of Fisher’s views on how to stop the Great Depression with the disastrous policies of Herbert Hoover after the stock market crash.

Though undoubtedly a genius, Fisher was not immune to bad ideas, and was easily carried away by his enthusiasms. He was often right, but sometimes he was tragically wrong. His forecasting record and his scholarship made him perhaps the best known American economist in the 1920s, and a good case could be made that he was the greatest economist who ever lived, but his reputation was destroyed when, on the eve of the stock market crash, he commented “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” For a year, Fisher insisted that stock prices would rebound (which they did in early 1930, recovering most of their losses), but the recovery in stock prices was short-lived, and Fisher’s public reputation never recovered.

Certainly, Fisher should have been more alert to the danger of a depression than he was. Working with a monetary theory similar to Fisher’s, both Ralph Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel foresaw the deflationary dangers associated with the restoration of the gold standard and warned against the disastrous policies of the Bank of France and the Federal Reserve in 1928-29, which led to the downturn and the crash. What Fisher thought of the warnings of Hawtrey and Cassel I don’t know, but it would be interesting and worthwhile for some researcher to go back and look for Fisher’s comments on Hawtrey and Cassel before or after the 1929 crash.

So there is no denying that Fisher got something wrong in his forecasts, but we (or least I) still don’t know exactly what his mistake was. This is where Grant’s story starts to unravel. He discusses how, under the tutelage of Wesley Mitchell, Herbert Hoover responded to the crash by “[summoning] the captains of industry to the White House.”

So when stocks crashed in 1929, Hoover, as president, summoned the captains of industry to the White House. Profits should bear the brunt of the initial adjustment to the downturn, he said. Capital-spending plans should go forward, if not be accelerated. Wages must not be cut, as they had been in the bad old days of 1920-21. The executives shook hands on it.

In the wake of this unprecedented display of federal economic activism, Wesley Mitchell, the economist, said: “While a business cycle is passing over from a phase of expansion to the phase of contraction, the president of the United States is organizing the economic forces of the country to check the threatened decline at the start, if possible. A more significant experiment in the technique of balance could not be devised than the one which is being performed before our very eyes.”

The experiment in balance ended in monumental imbalance. . . . The laissez-faire depression of 1920-21 was over and done within 18 months. The federally doctored depression of 1929-33 spanned 43 months. Hoover failed for the same reason that Babson, Moody and Fisher fell short: America’s economy is too complex to predict, much less to direct from on high.

We can stipulate that Hoover’s attempt to keep prices and wages from falling in the face of a massive deflationary shock did not aid the recovery, but neither did it cause the Depression; the deflationary shock did. The deflationary shock was the result of the failed attempt to restore the gold standard and the insane policies of the Bank of France, which might have been counteracted, but were instead reinforced, by the Federal Reserve.

Before closing, Grant turns back to Fisher, recounting, with admiration, Fisher’s continuing scholarly achievements despite the loss of his personal fortune in the crash and the collapse of his public reputation.

Though sorely beset, Fisher produced one of his best known works in 1933, the essay called “The Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions,” in which he observed that plunging prices made debts unsupportable. The way out? Price stabilization, the very policy that Hoover had championed.

Grant has it totally wrong. Hoover acquiesced in, even encouraged, the deflationary policies of the Fed, and never wavered in his commitment to the gold standard. His policy of stabilizing prices and wages was largely ineffectual, because you can’t control the price level by controlling individual prices. Fisher understood the difference between controlling individual prices and controlling the price level. It is Grant, not Fisher, who resembles Hoover in failing to grasp that essential distinction.


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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