Archive for the 'Great Depression' Category

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.

What Makes Deflation Good?

Earlier this week, there was a piece in the Financial Times by Michael Heise, chief economist at Allianz SE, arguing that the recent dip in Eurozone inflation to near zero is not a sign of economic weakness, but a sign of recovery reflecting increased competitiveness in the Eurozone periphery. Scott Sumner identified a systematic confusion on Heise’s part between aggregate demand and aggregate supply, so that without any signs that rapidly falling Eurozone inflation has been accompanied by an acceleration of anemic growth in Eurozone real GDP, it is absurd to attribute falling inflation to a strengthening economy. There’s not really much more left to say about Heise’s piece after Scott’s demolition, but, nevertheless, sifting through the rubble, I still want to pick up on the distinction that Heise makes between good deflation and bad deflation.

Nonetheless, bank lending has been on the retreat, bankruptcies have soared and disposable incomes have fallen. This is the kind of demand shock that fosters bad deflation: a financial crisis causes aggregate demand to shrink faster than supply, resulting in falling prices.

However, looking through the lens of aggregate supply, the difficulties of the eurozone’s periphery bear only a superficial resemblance to those plaguing Japan. In this case, falling prices are the result of a supply shock, through improved productivity or real wage reduction.

Low inflation or even deflation is testament to the fact that (painful) adjustment through structural reforms is finally working.

In other words, deflation associated with a financial crisis, causing liquidation of assets and forced sales of inventories, thereby driving down prices and engendering expectations of continuing price declines, is bad. However, the subsequent response to that deflationary shock – the elimination of production inefficiencies and the reduction of wages — is not bad, but good. Both responses to the initial deflationary contraction in aggregate demand correspond to a rightward shift of the aggregate supply curve, thereby tending to raise aggregate output and employment even while tending to causes a further reduction in the price level or the inflation rate.

It is also interesting to take note of the peculiar euphemism for cutting money wages adopted by Heise: internal devaluation. As he puts it:

The eurozone periphery is regaining competitiveness via internal devaluation. This could even be called “good deflation.”

Now in ordinary usage, the term “devaluation” signifies a reduction in the pegged value of one currency in terms of another. When a country devalues its currency, it is usually because that country is running a trade deficit for which foreign lenders are unwilling to provide financing. The cause of the trade deficit is that the country’s tradable-goods sector is not profitable enough to expand to the point that the trade deficit is brought into balance, or close enough to balance to be willingly financed by foreigners. To make expansion of its tradable-goods sector profitable, the country may resort to currency devaluation, raising the prices of exports and imports in terms of the domestic currency. With unchanged money wages, the increase in the prices of exports and imports makes expansion of the country’s tradable-goods sector profitable, thereby reducing or eliminating the trade deficit. What Heise means by “internal devaluation” in contrast to normal devaluation is a reduction in money wages, export and import prices being held constant at the fixed exchange.

There is something strange, even bizarre, about Heise’s formulation, because what he is saying amounts to this: a deflation is good insofar as it reduces money wages. So Heise’s message, delivered in an obscure language, apparently of his own creation, is that the high and rising unemployment of the past five years in the Eurozone is finally causing money wages to fall. Therefore, don’t do anything — like shift to an easier monetary policy — that would stop those blessed reductions in money wages. Give this much to Herr Heise, unlike American critics of quantitative easing who pretend to blame it for causing real-wage reductions by way of the resulting inflation, he at least is honest enough to criticize monetary expansion for preventing money (and real) wages from falling, though he has contrived a language in which to say this without being easily understood.

Actually there is a historical precedent for the kind of good deflation Heise appears to favor. It was undertaken by Heinrich Bruning, Chancellor of the Weimar Republic from 1930 to 1932, when, desperate to demonstrate Germany’s financial rectitude (less than a decade after the hyperinflation of 1923) he imposed, by emergency decree, draconian wage reductions aimed at increasing Germany’s international competitiveness, while remaining on the gold standard. The evidence does not suggest that the good deflation and internal devaluation adopted by Bruning’s policy of money-wage cuts succeeded in ending the depression. And internal devaluation was certainly not successful enough to keep Bruning’s government in office, its principal effect being to increase support for Adolph Hitler, who became Chancellor within less than nine months after Bruning’s government fell.

This is not to say that nominal wages should never be reduced, but the idea that nominal wage cuts could serve as the means to reverse an economic contraction has little, if any, empirical evidence to support it. A famous economist who supported deflation in the early 1930s believing that it would facilitate labor market efficiencies and necessary cuts in real wages, subsequently retracted his policy advice, admitting that he had been wrong to think that deflation would be an effective instrument to overcome rigidities in labor markets. His name? F. A. Hayek.

So there is nothing good about the signs of deflation that Heise sees. They are simply predictable follow-on effects of the aggregate demand shock that hit the Eurozone after the 2008 financial crisis, subsequently reinforced by the monetary policy of the European Central Bank, reflecting the inflation-phobia of the current German political establishment. Those effects, delayed responses to the original demand shock, do not signal a recovery.

What, then, would distinguish good deflation from bad deflation? Simple. If observed deflation were accompanied by a significant increase in output, associated with significant growth in labor productivity and increasing employment (indicating increasing efficiency or technological progress), we could be confident that the deflation was benign, reflecting endogenous economic growth rather than macroeconomic dysfunction. Whenever output prices are falling without any obvious signs of real economic growth, falling prices are a clear sign of economic dysfunction. If prices are falling without output rising, something is wrong — very wrong — and it needs fixing.

Eureka! Paul Krugman Discovers the Bank of France

Trying hard, but not entirely successfully, to contain his astonishment, Paul Krugman has a very good post (“France 1930, Germany 2013) inspired by Doug Irwin’s “very good” paper (see also this shorter version) “Did France Cause the Great Depression?” Here’s Krugman take away from Irwin’s paper.

[Irwin] points out that France, with its undervalued currency, soaked up a huge proportion of the world’s gold reserves in 1930-31, and suggests that France was responsible for about half the global deflation that took place over that period.

The thing is, France itself didn’t do that badly in the early stages of the Great Depression — again thanks to that undervalued currency. In fact, it was less affected than most other advanced countries (pdf) in 1929-31:

Krugman is on the right track here — certainly a hopeful sign — but he misses the distinction between an undervalued French franc, which, despite temporary adverse effects on other countries, would normally be self-correcting under the gold standard, and the explosive increase in demand for gold by the insane Bank of France after the franc was pegged at an undervalued parity against the dollar. Undervaluation of the franc began in December 1926 when Premier Raymond Poincare stabilized its value at about 25 francs to the dollar, the franc having fallen to 50 francs to the dollar in July when Poincare, a former prime minister, had been returned to office to deal with a worsening currency crisis. Undervaluation of the franc would have done no permanent damage to the world economy if the Bank of France had not used the resulting inflow of foreign exchange to accumulate gold, cashing in sterling- and dollar-denominated financial assets for gold. This was a step beyond classic exchange-rate protection (currency manipulation) whereby a country uses a combination of an undervalued exchange rate and a tight monetary policy to keep accumulating foreign-exchange reserves as a way of favoring its export and import-competing industries. Exchange-rate protection may have been one motivation for the French policy, but that objective did not require gold accumulation; it could have been achieved by accumulating foreign exchange reserves without demanding redemption of those reserves in terms of gold, as the Bank of France began doing aggressively in 1927. A more likely motivation for gold accumulation policy of the Bank of France seems to have been French resentment against a monetary system that, from the French perspective, granted a privileged status to the dollar and to sterling, allowing central banks to treat dollar- and sterling-denominated financial assets as official exchange reserves, thereby enabling issuers of dollar and sterling-denominated assets the ability to obtain funds on more favorable terms than issuers of instruments denominated in other currencies.

The world economy was able to withstand the French gold-accumulation policy in 1927-28, because the Federal Reserve was tolerating an outflow of gold, thereby accommodating to some degree the French demand for gold. But after the Fed raised its discount rate to 5% in 1928 and 6% in February 1929, gold began flowing into the US as well, causing gold to start appreciating (in other words, prices to start falling) in world markets by the summer of 1929. But rather than reverse course, the Bank of France and the Fed, despite reductions in their official lending rates, continued pursuing policies that caused huge amounts of gold to flow into the French and US vaults in 1930 and 1931. Hawtrey and Cassel, of course, had warned against such a scenario as early as 1919, and proposed measures to prevent or reverse the looming catastrophe before it took place and after it started, but with little success. For a more complete account of this sad story, and the failure of the economics profession, with a very few notable exceptions, to figure out what happened, see my paper with Ron Batchelder “Pre-Keynesian Monetary Theories of the Great Depression: Whatever Happened to Hawtrey and Cassel?”

As Krugman observes, the French economy did not do so badly in 1929-31, because it was viewed as the most stable, thrifty, and dynamic economy in Europe. But France looked good only because Britain and Germany were in even worse shape. Because France was better off the Britain and Germany, and because its currency was understood to be undervalued, the French franc was considered to be stable, and, thus, unlikely to be devalued. So, unlike sterling, the reichsmark, and the dollar, the franc was not subjected to speculative attacks, becoming instead a haven for capital seeking safety.

Interestingly, Krugman even shows some sympathetic understanding for the plight of the French:

Notice, by the way, that the French weren’t evil or malicious here — they were just adhering to their hard-money ideology in an environment where that had terrible adverse effects on other countries.

Just wondering, would Krugman ever invoke adherence to a hard-money ideology as a mitigating factor in passing judgment on a Republican?

Krugman concludes by comparing Germany today with France in 1930.

Obviously the details are different, but I would argue that Germany is playing a somewhat similar role today — not as drastic, but with less excuse. For Germany is an economic hegemon in a way France never was; it has responsibilities, which it isn’t meeting.

Indeed, there are similarities, but there is a crucial difference in the mechanism by which damage is being inflicted: the world price level in 1930, under the gold standard, was determined by the value of gold. An increase in the demand for gold by central banks necessarily raised the value of gold, causing deflation for all countries either on the gold standard or maintaining a fixed exchange rate against a gold-standard currency. By accumulating gold, nearly quadrupling its gold reserves between 1926 and 1932, the Bank of France was a mighty deflationary force, inflicting immense damage on the international economy. Today, the Eurozone price level does not depend on the independent policy actions of any national central bank, including that of Germany. The Eurozone price level is rather determined by the policy choices of a nominally independent European Central Bank. But the ECB is clearly unable to any adopt policy not approved by the German government and its leader Mrs. Merkel, and Mrs. Merkel has rejected any policy that would raise prices in the Eurozone to a level consistent with full employment. Though the mechanism by which Mrs. Merkel and her government are now inflicting damage on the Eurozone is different from the mechanism by which the insane Bank of France inflicted damage during the Great Depression, the damage is just as pointless and just as inexcusable. But as the damage caused by Mrs. Merkel, in relative terms at any rate, seems somewhat smaller in magnitude than that caused by the insane Bank of France, I would not judge her more harshly than I would the Bank of France — insanity being, in matters of monetary policy, no defense.

HT: ChargerCarl

A New Paper Shows Just How Right Hawtrey and Cassel Were

I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email a couple of weeks ago from someone I don’t know, a graduate student in economics at George Mason University, James Caton. He sent me a link to a paper (“Good as Gold?: A Quantitative Analysis of Hawtrey and Cassel’s Theory of Gold Demand and the Gold Price Level During the Interwar Period”) that he recently posted on SSRN. Caton was kind enough to credit me and my co-author Ron Batchelder, as well as Doug Irwin (here and here) and Scott Sumner, for reviving interest in the seminal work of Ralph Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel on the interwar gold standard and the key role in causing the Great Depression played by the process of restoring the gold standard after it had been effectively suspended after World War I began.

The thesis independently, but cooperatively, advanced by Hawtrey and Cassel was that under a gold standard, fluctuations in the gold price level were sensitive to variations in the demand for gold reserves by the central banks. The main contribution of Caton’s paper is to provide econometric evidence of the tight correlation between variations in the total gold holdings of the world’s central banks and the gold price level in the period between the end of World War I (1918) to the start of Great Depression (1930-32). Caton uses a variation on a model used by Scott Sumner in his empirical work on the Great Depression to predict changes in the value of gold, and, hence, changes in the gold price level of commodities. If central banks in the aggregate are adding to their gold reserves at a faster rate than the rate at which the total world stock of gold is growing, then gold would be likely to appreciate, and if central banks are adding to their gold reserves at a slower rate than that at which the world stock is growing, then gold would be likely to depreciate.

So from the published sources, Caton constructed a time series of international monetary gold holdings and the total world stock of gold from 1918 to 1932 and regressed the international gold price level on the international gold reserve ratio (the ratio of monetary gold reserves to the total world stock of gold). He used two different measures of the world gold price level, the Sauerback-Statist price index and the gold price of silver. Based on his regressions (calculated in both log-linear and log-quadratic forms and separately for the periods 1918-30, 1918-31, 1918-32), he compared the predicted gold price level against both the Sauerback-Statist price index and the gold price of silver. The chart below shows his result for the log-linear regression estimated over the period 1918-30.

Caton_Regressions

Pretty impressive, if you ask me. Have a look yourself.

Let me also mention that Caton’s results also shed important light on the puzzling behavior of the world price level immediately after the end of World War I. Unlike most wars in which the wartime inflation comes to an abrupt end after the end of the war, inflation actually accelerated after the end of the war. The inflation did not actually stop for almost two years after the end of the war, when a huge deflation set in. Caton shows that the behavior of the price level was largely determined by the declining gold holdings of the Federal Reserve after the war ended. Unnerved by the rapid inflation, the Fed finally changed policy, and began accumulating gold rapidly in 1920 by raising the discount rate to an all-time high of 7 percent. Although no other countries were then on the gold standard, other countries, unwilling, for the most part, to allow their currencies to depreciate too much against the dollar, imported US deflation.

Jim is also a blogger. Check out his blog here.

Update: Thanks to commenter Blue Aurora for pointing out that I neglected to provide a link to Jim Caton’s paper.  Sorry about that. The link is now embedded.

Why Hawtrey and Cassel Trump Friedman and Schwartz

This year is almost two-thirds over, and I still have yet to start writing about one of the two great anniversaries monetary economists are (or should be) celebrating this year. The one that they are already celebrating is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Monetary History of the United States 1867-1960 by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz; the one that they should also be celebrating is the 100th anniversary of Good and Bad Trade by Ralph Hawtrey. I am supposed to present a paper to mark the latter anniversary at the Southern Economic Association meetings in November, and I really have to start working on that paper, which I am planning to do by writing a series of posts about the book over the next several weeks.

Good and Bad Trade was Hawtrey’s first publication about economics. He was 34 years old, and had already been working at the Treasury for nearly a decade. Though a Cambridge graduate (in mathematics), Hawtrey was an autodidact in economics, so it is really a mistake to view him as a Cambridge economist. In Good and Bad Trade, he developed a credit theory of money (money as a standard of value in terms of which to discharge debts) in the course of presenting his purely monetary theory of the business cycle, one of the first and most original instances of such a theory. The originality lay in his description of the transmission mechanism by which money — actually the interest rate at which money is lent by banks — influences economic activity, through the planned accumulation or reduction of inventory holdings by traders and middlemen in response to changes in the interest rate at which they can borrow funds. Accumulation of inventories leads to cumulative increases of output and income; reductions in inventories lead to cumulative decreases in output and income. The business cycle (under a gold standard) therefore was driven by changes in bank lending rates in response to changes in lending rate of the central bank. That rate, or Bank Rate, as Hawtrey called it, was governed by the demand of the central bank for gold reserves. A desire to increase gold reserves would call for an increase in Bank Rate, and a willingness to reduce reserves would lead to a reduction in Bank Rate. The basic model presented in Good and Bad Trade was, with minor adjustments and refinements, pretty much the same model that Hawtrey used for the next 60 years, 1971 being the year of his final publication.

But in juxtaposing Hawtrey with Friedman and Schwartz, I really don’t mean to highlight Hawtrey’s theory of the business cycle, important though it may be in its own right, but his explanation of the Great Depression. And the important thing to remember about Hawtrey’s explanation for the Great Depression (the same explanation provided at about the same time by Gustav Cassel who deserves equal credit for diagnosing and explaining the problem both prospectively and retrospectively as explained in my paper with Ron Batchelder and by Doug Irwin in this paper) is that he did not regard the Great Depression as a business-cycle episode, i.e., a recurring phenomenon of economic life under a functioning gold standard with a central bank trying to manage its holdings of gold reserves through manipulation of Bank Rate. The typical business-cycle downturn described by Hawtrey was caused by a central bank responding to a drain on its gold reserves (usually because expanding output and income increased the internal monetary demand for gold to be used as hand-to-hand currency) by raising Bank Rate. What happened in the Great Depression was not a typical business-cycle downturn; it was characteristic of a systemic breakdown in the gold standard. In his 1919 article on the gold standard, Hawtrey described the danger facing the world as it faced the task of reconstructing the international gold standard that had been effectively destroyed by World War I.

We have already observed that the displacement of vast quantities of gold from circulation in Europe has greatly depressed the world value of gold in relation to commodities. Suppose that in a few years’ time the gold standard is restored to practically universal use. If the former currency systems are revived, and with them the old demands for gold, both for circulation in coin and for reserves against note issues, the value of gold in terms of commodities will go up. In proportion as it goes up, the difficulty of regaining or maintaining the gold standard will be accentuated. In other words, if the countries which are striving to recover the gold standard compete with one another for the existing supply of gold, they will drive up the world value of gold, and will find themselves burdened with a much more severe task of deflation than they ever anticipated.

And at the present time the situation is complicated by the portentous burden of the national debts. Except for America and this country, none of the principal participants in the war can see clearly the way to solvency. Even we, with taxation at war level, can only just make ends meet. France, Italy, Germany and Belgium have hardly made a beginning with the solution of their financial problems. The higher the value of the monetary unit in which one of these vast debts is calculated, the greater will be the burden on the taxpayers responsible for it. The effect of inflation in swelling the nominal national income is clearly demonstrated by the British income-tax returns, and by the well-sustained consumption of dutiable commodities notwithstanding enormous increases in the rates of duty. Deflation decreases the money yield of the revenue, while leaving the money burden of the debt undiminished. Deflation also, it is true, diminishes the ex-penses of Government, and when the debt charges are small in proportion to the rest, it does not greatly increase the national burdens. But now that the debt charge itself is our main pre-occupation, we may find the continuance of some degree of inflation a necessary condition of solvency.

So 10 years before the downward spiral into the Great Depression began, Hawtrey (and Cassel) had already identified the nature and cause of the monetary dysfunction associated with a mishandled restoration of the international gold standard which led to the disaster. Nevertheless, in their account of the Great Depression, Friedman and Schwartz paid almost no attention to the perverse dynamics associated with the restoration of the gold standard, completely overlooking the role of the insane Bank of France, while denying that the Great Depression was caused by factors outside the US on the grounds that, in the 1929 and 1930, the US was accumulating gold.

We saw in Chapter 5 that there is good reason to regard the 1920-21 contraction as having been initiated primarily in the United States. The initial step – the sharp rise in discount rates in January 1920 – was indeed a consequence of the prior gold outflow, but that in turn reflected the United States inflation in 1919. The rise in discount rates produced a reversal of the gold movements in May. The second step – the rise in discount rates in June 1920 go the highest level in history – before or since [written in 1963] – was a deliberate act of policy involving a reaction stronger than was needed, since a gold inflow had already begun. It was succeeded by a heavy gold inflow, proof positive that the other countries were being forced to adapt to United States action in order to check their loss of gold, rather than the reverse.

The situation in 1929 was not dissimilar. Again, the initial climactic event – the stock market crash – occurred in the United States. The series of developments which started the stock of money on its accelerated downward course in late 1930 was again predominantly domestic in origin. It would be difficult indeed to attribute the sequence of bank failures to any major current influence from abroad. And again, the clinching evidence that the Unites States was in the van of the movement and not a follower is the flow of gold. If declines elsewhere were being transmitted to the United States, the transmission mechanism would be a balance of payments deficit in the United States as a result of a decline in prices and incomes elsewhere relative to prices and incomes in the United States. That decline would lead to a gold outflow from the United States which, in turn, would tend – if the United States followed gold-standard rules – to lower the stock of money and thereby income and prices in the United States. However, the U.S. gold stock rose during the first two years of the contraction and did not decline, demonstrating as in 1920 that other countries were being forced adapt to our monetary policies rather than the reverse. (p. 360)

Amazingly, Friedman and Schwartz made no mention of the accumulation of gold by the insane Bank of France, which accumulated almost twice as much gold in 1929 and 1930 as did the US. In December 1930, the total monetary gold reserves held by central banks and treasuries had increased to $10.94 billion from $10.06 billion in December 1928 (a net increase of $.88 billion), France’s gold holdings increased by $.85 billion while the holdings of the US increased by $.48 billion, Friedman and Schwartz acknowledge that the increase in the Fed’s discount rate to 6.5% in early 1929 may have played a role in triggering the downturn, but, lacking an international perspective on the deflationary implications of a rapidly tightening international gold market, they treated the increase as a minor misstep, leaving the impression that the downturn was largely unrelated to Fed policy decisions, let alone those of the IBOF. Friedman and Schwartz mention the Bank of France only once in the entire Monetary History. When discussing the possibility that France in 1931 would withdraw funds invested in the US money market, they write: “France was strongly committed to staying on gold, and the French financial community, the Bank of France included, expressed the greatest concern about the United States’ ability and intention to stay on the gold standard.” (p. 397)

So the critical point in Friedman’s narrative of the Great Depression turns out to be the Fed’s decision to allow the Bank of United States to fail in December 1930, more than a year after the stock-market crash, almost a year-and-a-half after the beginning of the downturn in the summer of 1929, almost two years after the Fed raised its discount rate to 6.5%, and over two years after the Bank of France began its insane policy of demanding redemption in gold of much of its sizeable holdings of foreign exchange. Why was a single bank failure so important? Because, for Friedman, it was all about the quantity of money. As a result Friedman and Schwartz minimize the severity of the early stages of the Depression, inasmuch as the quantity of money did not begin dropping significantly until 1931. It is because the quantity of money did not drop in 1928-29, and fell only slightly in 1930 that Friedman and Schwartz did not attribute the 1929 downturn to strictly monetary causes, but rather to “normal” cyclical factors (whatever those might be), perhaps somewhat exacerbated by an ill-timed increase in the Fed discount rate in early 1929. Let’s come back once again to the debate about monetary theory between Friedman and Fischer Black, which I have mentioned in previous posts, after Black arrived at Chicago in 1971.

“But, Fischer, there is a ton of evidence that money causes prices!” Friedman would insist. “Name one piece,” Fischer would respond. The fact that the measured money supply moves in tandem with nominal income and the price level could mean that an increase in money causes prices to rise, as Friedman insisted, but it could also mean that an increase in prices causes the quantity of money to rise, as Fischer thought more reasonable. Empirical evidence could not decide the case. (Mehrling, Fischer Black and the Revolutionary Idea of Finance, p. 160)

So Black obviously understood the possibility that, at least under some conditions, it was possible for prices to change exogenously and for the quantity of money to adjust endogenously to the exogenous change in prices. But Friedman was so ideologically committed to the quantity-theoretic direction of causality from the quantity of money to prices that he would not even consider an alternative, and more plausible, assumption about the direction of causality when the value of money is determined by convertibility into a constant amount of gold.

This obliviousness to the possibility that prices, under convertibility, could change independently of the quantity of money is probably the reason that Friedman and Schwartz also completely overlooked the short, but sweet, recovery of 1933 following FDR’s suspension of the gold standard in March 1933, when, over the next four months, the dollar depreciated by about 20% in terms of gold, and the producer price index rose by almost 15% as industrial production rose by 70% and stock prices doubled, before the recovery was aborted by the enactment of the NIRA, imposing, among other absurdities, a 20% increase in nominal wages. All of this was understood and explained by Hawtrey in his voluminous writings on the Great Depression, but went unmentioned in the Monetary History.

Not only did Friedman get both the theory and the history wrong, he made a bad move from his own ideological perspective, inasmuch as, according to his own narrative, the Great Depression was not triggered by a monetary disturbance; it was just that bad monetary-policy decisions exacerbated a serious, but not unusual, business-cycle downturn that had already started largely on its own. According to the Hawtrey-Cassel explanation, the source of the crisis was a deflation caused by the joint decisions of the various central banks — most importantly the Federal Reserve and the insane Bank of France — that were managing the restoration of the gold standard after World War I. The instability of the private sector played no part in this explanation. This is not to say that stability of the private sector is entailed by the Hawtrey-Cassel explanation, just that the explanation accounts for both the downturn and the subsequent prolonged deflation and high unemployment, with no need for an assumption, one way or the other, about the stability of the private sector.

Of course, whether the private sector is stable is itself a question too complicated to be answered with a simple yes or no. It is one thing for a car to be stable if it is being steered on a paved highway; it is quite another for the car to be stable if driven into a ditch.

Friedman’s Dictum

In his gallant, but in my opinion futile, attempts to defend Milton Friedman against the scandalous charge that Friedman was, gasp, a Keynesian, if not in his policy prescriptions, at least in his theoretical orientation, Scott Sumner has several times referred to the contrast between the implication of the IS-LM model that expansionary monetary policy implies a reduced interest rate, and Friedman’s oft-repeated dictum that high interest rates are a sign of easy money, and low interest rates a sign of tight money. This was a very clever strategic and rhetorical move by Scott, because it did highlight a key difference between Keynesian and Monetarist ideas while distracting attention from the overlap between Friedman and Keynesians on the basic analytics of nominal-income determination.

Alghough I agree with Scott that Friedman’s dictum that high interest rates distinguishes him from Keynes and Keynesian economists, I think that Scott leaves out an important detail: Friedman’s dictum also distinguishes him from just about all pre-Keynesian monetary economists. Keynes did not invent the terms “dear money” and “cheap money.” Those terms were around for over a century before Keynes came on the scene, so Keynes and the Keynesians were merely reflecting the common understanding of all (or nearly all) economists that high interest rates were a sign of “dear” or “tight” money, and low interest rates a sign of “cheap” or “easy” money. For example, in his magisterial A Century of Bank Rate, Hawtrey actually provided numerical bounds on what constituted cheap or dear money in the period he examined, from 1844 to 1938. Cheap money corresponded to a bank rate less than 3.5% and dear money to a bank rate over 4.5%, 3.5 to 4.5% being the intermediate range.

Take the period just leading up to the Great Depression, when Britain returned to the gold standard in 1925. The Bank of England kept its bank rate over 5% almost continuously until well into 1930. Meanwhile the discount rate of the Federal Reserve System from 1925 to late 1928 was between 3.5 and 5%, the increase in the discount rate in 1928 to 5% representing a decisive shift toward tight money that helped drive the world economy into the Great Depression. We all know – and certainly no one better than Scott – that, in the late 1920s, the bank rate was an absolutely reliable indicator of the stance of monetary policy. So what are we to make of Friedman’s dictum?

I think that the key point is that traditional notions of central banking – the idea of “cheap” or “dear” money – were arrived at during the nineteenth century when almost all central banks were operating either in terms of a convertible (gold or silver or bimetallic) standard or with reference to such a standard, so that the effect of monetary policy on prices could be monitored by observing the discount of the currency relative to gold or silver. In other words, there was an international price level in terms of gold (or silver), and the price level of every country could be observed by looking at the relationship of its currency to gold (or silver). As long as convertibility was maintained between a currency and gold (or silver), the price level in terms of that currency was fixed.

If a central bank changed its bank rate, as long as convertibility was maintained (and obviously most changes in bank rate occurred with no change in convertibility), the effect of the change in bank rate was not reflected in the country’s price level (which was determined by convertibility). So what was the point of a change in bank rate under those circumstances? Simply for the central bank to increase or decrease its holding of reserves (usually gold or silver). By increasing bank rate, the central bank would accumulate additional reserves, and, by decreasing bank rate, it would reduce its reserves. A “dear money” policy was the means by which a central bank could add to its reserve and an “easy money” policy was the means by which it could disgorge reserves.

So the idea that a central bank operating under a convertible standard could control its price level was based on a misapprehension — a widely held misapprehension to be sure — but still a mistaken application of the naive quantity theory of money to a convertible monetary standard. Nevertheless, although the irrelevance of bank rate to the domestic price level was not always properly understood in the nineteenth century – economists associated with the Currency School were especially confused on this point — the practical association between interest rates and the stance of monetary policy was well understood, which is why all monetary theorists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries agreed that high interest rates were a sign of dear money and low interest rates a sign of cheap money. Keynes and the Keynesians were simply reflecting the conventional wisdom.

Now after World War II, when convertibility was no longer a real constraint on the price level (despite the sham convertibility of the Bretton Woods system), it was a true innovation of Friedman to point out that the old association between dear (cheap) money and high (low) interest rates was no longer a reliable indicator of the stance of monetary policy. However, as a knee-jerk follower of the Currency School – the 3% rule being Friedman’s attempt to adapt the Bank Charter Act of 1844 to a fiat currency, and with equally (and predictably) lousy results – Friedman never understood that under the gold standard, it is the price level which is fixed and the money supply that is endogenously determined, which is why much of the Monetary History, especially the part about the Great Depression (not, as Friedman called it, “Contraction,” erroneously implying that the change in the quantity of money was the cause, rather than the effect, of the deflation that characterized the Great Depression) is fundamentally misguided owing to its comprehensive misunderstanding of the monetary adjustment mechanism under a convertible standard.

PS This is written in haste, so there may be some errors insofar as I relying on my memory without checking my sources. I am sure that readers will correct my lapses of memory

PPS I also apologize for not responding to recent comments, I will try to rectify that transgression over the next few days.

Krugman Predicts the Future History of Economic Thought

It’s always nice to have a Nobel Laureate rely on something you’ve written in making an argument of his own, so I would prefer not to turn around and criticize Paul Krugman for the very blog-post in which he cited my recent posts about Milton Friedman. Now there are obviously certain basic points about Friedman that Krugman and I agree on, e.g., that Friedman relied more heavily on the Keynesian theory of the demand for money than he admitted, and second that Friedman’s description of his theory of the demand for money as the expression of an oral tradition transmitted from an earlier generation of Chicago quantity theorists lacked any foundation. Although some people, including my friend Scott Sumner, seem resistant to acknowledging these points, I don’t think that they are really very controversial statements.

However, Krugman goes beyond this to make a stronger point, which is that Friedman, unlike Keynes, is no longer a factor in policy debates, because the policy position that Friedman advocated is no longer tenable. Here’s how Krugman explains the posthumous untenability of Friedman’s position.

[A]t this point both of Friedman’s key contributions to macroeconomics look hard to defend.

First, on monetary policy . . . Friedman was still very much associated with the notion that the Fed can control the money supply, and controlling the money supply is all you need to stabilize the economy. In the wake of the 2008 crisis, this looks wrong from soup to nuts: the Fed can’t even control broad money, because it can add to bank reserves and they just sit there; and money in turn bears little relationship to GDP. And in retrospect the same was true in the 1930s, so that Friedman’s claim that the Fed could easily have prevented the Great Depression now looks highly dubious.

Krugman is making a tricky point. I agree that Friedman was wrong to focus entirely on the quantity of money in the Great Depression, but that’s because, under the gold standard then in place, the quantity of money was endogenous and prices exogenously determined by the gold standard. The Great Depression occurred because the international restoration of the gold standard in the late 1920s was driving up the value of gold and forcing deflation on all gold standard countries, not just the US, which is why leaving the gold standard or devaluation was a sure-fire way of starting a recovery even without expansionary fiscal policy, as evidenced by the spectacular recovery that started in April 1933 when FDR started devaluing the dollar. So Friedman was wrong about the nature of the monetary mechanisms then operating, but he wasn’t wrong about the ultimately monetary nature of the problem.

Second, on inflation and unemployment: Friedman’s success, with Phelps, in predicting stagflation was what really pushed his influence over the top; his notion of a natural rate of unemployment, of a vertical Phillips curve in the long run, became part of every textbook exposition. But it’s now very clear that at low rates of inflation the Phillips curve isn’t vertical at all, that there’s an underlying downward nominal rigidity to wages and perhaps many prices too that makes the natural rate hypothesis a very bad guide under depression conditions.

I don’t subscribe to the natural-rate hypothesis as a law of nature, but it did make an important contribution to the understanding of the limitations of macroeconomic policy. But even the strictest version of Friedman’s natural-rate hypothesis does not imply that, if the rate of unemployment is above the natural rate, an increase in the rate of inflation through expansionary monetary or fiscal policy would not hasten the transition back to the natural rate of unemployment. For an argument against expansionary monetary or fiscal policy in such circumstances, one has to resort to arguments other than those made by Friedman.

So Friedman’s economic analysis has taken a serious hit. But that’s not the whole story behind his disappearance; after all, all those economists who have been predicting runaway inflation still have a constituency after being wrong year after year.

Friedman’s larger problem, I’d argue, is that he was, when all is said and done, a man trying to straddle two competing world views — and our political environment no longer has room for that kind of straddle.

Think of it this way: Friedman was an avid free-market advocate, who insisted that the market, left to itself, could solve almost any problem. Yet he was also a macroeconomic realist, who recognized that the market definitely did not solve the problem of recessions and depressions. So he tried to wall off macroeconomics from everything else, and make it as inoffensive to laissez-faire sensibilities as possible. Yes, he in effect admitted, we do need stabilization policy — but we can minimize the government’s role by relying only on monetary policy, none of that nasty fiscal stuff, and then not even allowing the monetary authority any discretion.

At a fundamental level, however, this was an inconsistent position: if markets can go so wrong that they cause Great Depressions, how can you be a free-market true believer on everything except macro? And as American conservatism moved ever further right, it had no room for any kind of interventionism, not even the sterilized, clean-room interventionism of Friedman’s monetarism.

Well, inconsistency is in the eye of the beholder, and, anyway, it is surely appropriate to beware of that foolish consistency which is the hobgoblin of little minds. The Great Depression was the result of a complex pattern of events, and acknowledging the inability of free markets to cope with those events is not the same thing as agreeing that free markets caused the Great Depression.

So Friedman has vanished from the policy scene — so much so that I suspect that a few decades from now, historians of economic thought will regard him as little more than an extended footnote.

I suspect that Krugman is correct that the small-minded political right-wing of our time is no longer as willing to accept Milton Friedman as their pre-eminent economic authority figure as were earlier generations of political right-wingers in the last three or four decades of the twentieth century. But to extrapolate from that sociological factoid how future historians of economic thought will evaluate the contributions of Milton Friedman seems to me to be a bit of a stretch.

Second Thoughts on Friedman

After blowing off some steam about Milton Friedman in my previous post, thereby antagonizing a sizable segment of my readership, and after realizing that I had been guilty of a couple of memory lapses in citing sources that I was relying on, I thought that I should go back and consult some of the relevant primary sources. So I looked up Friedman’s 1966 article “Interest Rates and the Demand for Money” published in the Journal of Law and Economics in which he denied that he had ever asserted that the demand for money did not depend on the rate of interest and that the empirical magnitude of the elasticity of money demand with respect to the interest rate was not important unless it approached the very high elasticity associated with the Keynesian liquidity trap. I also took a look at Friedman’s reply to Don Patinkin essay “Friedman on the Quantity Theory and Keynesian Economics” in Milton Friedman’s Monetary Framework: A Debate with his Critics.

Perhaps on another occasion, I will offer some comments on Friedman and the interest elasticity of the demand for money, but, for now, I will focus on Friedman’s reply to Patinkin, which is most relevant to my previous post. Patinkin’s essay, entitled, “Friedman on the Quantity Theory and Keynesian Economics,” charged that Friedman had repackaged the Keynesian theory as a quantity theory and tried to sell it with a Chicago oral tradition label stuck on the package. That’s an overstatement of a far more sophisticated argument than my one sentence summary can do justice to, but it captures the polemical gist of Patinkin’s argument, an argument that he had made previously in a paper, “The Chicago Tradition, the Quantity Theory, and Friedman” published in the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking which Harry Johnson relied on in his 1970 Richard T. Ely lecture, “The Keynesian Revolution and the Monetarist Counterrevolution.” Friedman took personal offense at what he regarded as attacks on his scholarly integrity in those papers, and his irritation (to put it mildly) with Patinkin is plainly in evidence in his reply to Patinkin. Much, but not all, of my criticism of Friedman stems from my memory of the two papers by Patinkin and Johnson.

Now to give Friedman his due – and to reiterate what I have already said a number of times, Friedman was a great economist and you can learn a lot by reading his arguments carefully because he was a very skillful applied theorist — he makes a number of effective responses to Patinkin’s accusation that he was merely peddling a disguised version of Keynesianism under the banners of the quantity theory and the Chicago oral tradition. These are basically the same arguments that Scott Sumner used in the post that he wrote defending Friedman against my recycling of the Patinkin/Johnson criticism.

First, like earlier quantity theorists, and unlike Keynes in the General Theory, Friedman assumed that the price level is determined (not, as in the GT, somehow fixed exogenously) by the demand for money and the supply (effectively under the complete discretionary control of the monetary authority) of money.

Second, because differences between the demand for money and the supply of money (in nominal terms) are equilibrated primarily by changes in the price level (not, as in the GT, by changes in the rate of interest), the link between monetary policy and the economy that Friedman focused on was the price level not the rate of interest.

Third, Friedman did not deny that the demand for money was affected by the rate of interest, but he maintained that monetary policy would become ineffective only under conditions of a liquidity trap, which was therefore, in Friedman’s view, the chief theoretical innovation of the General Theory, but one which, on empirical grounds, Friedman flatly rejected.

So if I were to restate Patinkin’s objection in somewhat different terms, I would say that Friedman, in 1956 and in later expositions, described the quantity theory as a theory of the demand for money, which as a historical matter is a travesty, because the quantity theory was around for centuries before the concept of a demand for money was even articulated, but the theory of the demand for money that Friedman described was, in fact, very much influenced by the Keynesian theory of liquidity preference, an influence not mentioned by Friedman in 1956 but acknowledged in later expositions. Friedman explained away this failure by saying that Keynes was merely adding to a theory of the demand for money that had been evolving at Cambridge since Marshall’s day, and that the novel element in the General Theory, absolute liquidity preference, was empirically unsupported. That characterization of Keynes’s theory of liquidity preference strikes me as being ungenerous, but both Friedman and Patinkin neglected to point out that Keynes erroneously thought that his theory of liquidity preference was actually a complete theory of the rate of interest that displaced the real theory of interest.

So, my take on the dispute between Friedman and Patinkin is that Patinkin was right that Friedman did not sufficiently acknowledge the extent to which he was indebted to Keynes for the theory of the demand for money that he erroneously identified with the quantity theory of money. On the other hand, because Friedman explicitly allowed for the price level to be determined within his model, he avoided the Keynesian liquidity-preference relationship between the quantity of money and the rate of interest, allowing the real rate of interest to be determined by real factors not liquidity preference. In some sense, Friedman may have exaggerated the conceptual differences between himself and the Keynesians, but, by making a strategic assumption that the price level responds to changes in the quantity of money, Friedman minimized the effect of changes in the quantity of money on interest rates, except via changes in price level expectations.

But, having granted Friedman partial exoneration of the charge that he was a crypto-Keynesian, I want to explore a bit more carefully Friedman’s remarkable defense against the accusation by Patinkin and Johnson that he invented a non-existent Chicago oral tradition under whose name he could present his quasi-Keynesian theory of the demand for money. Friedman began his response to Patinkin with the following expression of outrage.

Patinkin . . . and Johnson criticize me for linking my work to a “Chicago tradition” rather than recognizing that, as they see it, my work is Keynesian. In the course of their criticism, they give a highly misleading impression of the Chicago tradition. . . .

Whether I conveyed the flavor of that tradition or not, there was such a tradition; it was significantly different from the quantity theory tradition that prevailed at other institutions of learning, notably the London School of Economics; that Chicago tradition had a great deal to do with the differential impact of Keynes’s General Theory on economists at Chicago and elsewhere; and it was responsible for the maintenance of interest in the quantity theory at Chicago. (Friedman’s Monetary Framework p. 158 )

Note the reference to the London School of Economics, as if LSE in the 1930s was in any way notable for its quantity theory tradition. There were to be sure monetary theorists of some distinction working at the LSE in the 1930s, but their relationship to the quantity theory was, at best, remote.

Friedman elaborates on this tidbit a few pages later, recalling that in the late 1940s or early 1950s he once debated Abba Lerner at a seminar at the University of Chicago. Despite agreeing with each other about many issues, Friedman recalled that they were in sharp disagreement about the Keynesian Revolution, Lerner being an avid Keynesian, and Friedman being opposed. The reason for their very different reaction to the Keynesian Revolution, Friedman conjectured, was that Lerner had been trained at the London School of Economics “where the dominant view was that the depression was an inevitable result of the prior boom, that it was deepened by the attempts ot prevent prices and wages from falling and firms from going bankrupt, that the monetary authorities had brought on the depression by inflationary policies before the crash and had prolonged it by ‘easy money’ policies thereafter; that the only sound policy was to let the depression run its course, bring down money costs, and eliminate the weak and unsound firms.” For someone trained in such a view, Friedman suggested, the Keynesian program would seem very attractive. Friedman continued:

It was the London School (really Austrian) view that I referred to in my “Restatement” when I spoke of “the atrophied and rigid caricature [of the quantity theory] that is so frequently described by the proponents of the new income-expenditure approach – and with some justice, to judge by much of the literature on policy that was spawned by the quantity theorists.”

The intellectual climate at Chicago had been wholly different. My teachers regarded the depression as largely the product of misguided government policy – or at least greatly intensified by such policies. They blamed the monetary and fiscal authorities for permitting banks to fail and the quantity of deposits to decline. Far from preaching the need to let deflation and bankruptcy run their course, they issued repeated pronouncements calling for governmental action to stem the deflation. . . .

It was this view the the quantity theory that I referred to in my “Restatement” as “a more subtle and relevant version, one in which the quantity theory was connected and integrated with general price theory and became a flexible and sensitive tool for interpreting movements in aggregate economic activity and for developing relevant policy prescriptions.” (pp. 162-63)

After quoting at length from a talk Jacob Viner gave in 1933 calling for monetary expansion, Friedman winds up with this gem.

What, in the field of interpretation and policy, did Keynes have to offer those of us who learned their economics at a Chicago filled with these views? Can anyone who knows my work read Viner’s comments and not see the direct links between them and Anna Schwartz’s and my Monetary History or between them and the empirical Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money? Indeed, as I have read Viner’s talk for purposes of this paper, I have myself been amazed to discover how precisely it foreshadows the main thesis of our Monetary History for the depression period, and have been embarrassed that we made no reference to it in our account. Can you find any similar link between [Lionel] Robbins’s [of LSE] comments [in his book The Great Depression] and our work? (p. 167)

So what is the evidence that Friedman provides to counter the scandalous accusation by Patinkin and Johnson that Friedman invented a Chicago oral tradition of the quantity theory? (And don’t forget: the quantity theory is a theory of the demand for money) Well, it’s that, at the London School of Economics, there were a bunch of guys who had crazy views about just allowing the Great Depression to run its course, and those guys were quantity theorists, which is why Keynes had to start a revolution to get rid of them all, but at Chicago, they didn’t allow any of those guys to spout their crazy ideas in the first place, so we didn’t need any damn Keynesian revolution.

Good grief! Is there a single word that makes sense? To begin with those detestable guys at LSE were Austrians, as Friedman acknowledges. What he didn’t say, or didn’t know, is that Austrians, either by self-description or by any reasonable definition of the term, are not quantity theorists. So the idea that there was anything special about the Chicago quantity theory as opposed to any other species of the quantity theory is total humbug.

But hold on, it only gets worse. Friedman holds up Jacob Viner as an exemplar of the Chicago quantity theory oral tradition. Jacob Viner was a superb economist, a magnificent scholar, and a legendary teacher for whom I have the utmost admiration, and I am sure that Friedman learned a lot from him at Chicago, But isn’t it strange that Friedman writes: “as I have read Viner’s talk for purposes of this paper, I have myself been amazed to discover how precisely it foreshadows the main thesis of our Monetary History for the depression period, and have been embarrassed that we made no reference to it in our account.” OMG! This is the oral tradition that exerted such a powerful influence on Friedman and his fellow students? Viner explains how to get out of the depression in 1933, and in 1971 Friedman is “amazed to discover” how precisely Viner’s talk foreshadowed the main thesis of his explanation of the Great Depression? That sounds more like a subliminal tradition than an oral tradition.

Responding to Patinkin’s charge that his theory of the demand for money – remember the quantity theory, according to Friedman is a theory of the demand for money — is largely derived from Keynes, Friedman plays a word game.

Is everything in the General Theory Keynesian? Obviously yes, in the trivial sense that the words were set down on paper by John Maynard Keynes. Obviously no, in the more important sense that the term Keynesian has come to refer to a theory of short-term economic change – or a way of analyzing such change – presented in the General Theory and distinctively different from the theory that preceded it. To take a noncontroversial example: in his chapter 20 on “The Employment Function” and elsewhere, Keynes uses the law of diminishing returns to conclude that an increase of employment requires a decline in real-wage rates. Clearly that does not make the “law of diminishing returns” Keynesian or justify describing the “analytical framework” of someone who embodies the law of diminishing returns in his theoretical structure as Keynesian.

In just the same sense, I maintain that Keynes’s discussion of the demand curve for money in the General Theory is for the most part a continuation of earlier quantity theory approaches, improved and refined but not basically modified. As evidence, I shall cite Keynes’s own writings in the Tract on Monetary Reform – long before he became a Keynesian in the present sense. (p. 168)

There are two problems with this line of defense. First, the analogy to the law of diminishing returns would have been appropriate only if Keynes had played a major role in the discovery of the law of diminishing returns just as, on Friedman’s own admission, he played a major role in discovering the theory of liquidity preference. Second, it is, to say the least, debatable to what extent “Keynes’s discussion of the demand curve for money was merely a continuation of earlier quantity theory approaches, improved and refined but not basically modified.” But there is no basis at all for the suggestion that a Chicago oral tradition was the least bit implicated in those earlier quantity theory approaches. So Friedman’s invocation of a Chicago oral tradition was completely fanciful.

This post has gone on too long already. I have more to say about Friedman’s discussion of the relationship between money, price levels, and interest rates. But that will have to wait till next time.

My Milton Friedman Problem

In my previous post , I discussed Keynes’s perplexing and problematic criticism of the Fisher equation in chapter 11 of the General Theory, perplexing because it is difficult to understand what Keynes is trying to say in the passage, and problematic because it is not only inconsistent with Keynes’s reasoning in earlier writings in which he essentially reproduced Fisher’s argument, it is also inconsistent with Keynes’s reasoning in chapter 17 of the General Theory in his exposition of own rates of interest and their equilibrium relationship. Scott Sumner honored me with a whole post on his blog which he entitled “Glasner on Keynes and the Fisher Effect,” quite a nice little ego boost.

After paraphrasing some of what I had written in his own terminology, Scott quoted me in responding to a dismissive comment that Krugman recently made about Milton Friedman, of whom Scott tends to be highly protective. Here’s the passage I am referring to.

PPS.  Paul Krugman recently wrote the following:

Just stabilize the money supply, declared Milton Friedman, and we don’t need any of this Keynesian stuff (even though Friedman, when pressured into providing an underlying framework, basically acknowledged that he believed in IS-LM).

Actually Friedman hated IS-LM.  I don’t doubt that one could write down a set of equilibria in the money market and goods market, as a function of interest rates and real output, for almost any model.  But does this sound like a guy who “believed in” the IS-LM model as a useful way of thinking about macro policy?

Low interest rates are generally a sign that money has been tight, as in Japan; high interest rates, that money has been easy.

It turns out that IS-LM curves will look very different if one moves away from the interest rate transmission mechanism of the Keynesians.  Again, here’s David:

Before closing, I will just make two side comments. First, my interpretation of Keynes’s take on the Fisher equation is similar to that of Allin Cottrell in his 1994 paper “Keynes and the Keynesians on the Fisher Effect.” Second, I would point out that the Keynesian analysis violates the standard neoclassical assumption that, in a two-factor production function, the factors are complementary, which implies that an increase in employment raises the MEC schedule. The IS curve is not downward-sloping, but upward sloping. This is point, as I have explained previously (here and here), was made a long time ago by Earl Thompson, and it has been made recently by Nick Rowe and Miles Kimball.I hope in a future post to work out in more detail the relationship between the Keynesian and the Fisherian analyses of real and nominal interest rates.

Please do.  Krugman reads Glasner’s blog, and if David keeps posting on this stuff then Krugman will eventually realize that hearing a few wisecracks from older Keynesians about various non-Keynesian traditions doesn’t make one an expert on the history of monetary thought.

I wrote a comment on Scott’s blog responding to this post in which, after thanking him for mentioning me in the same breath as Keynes and Fisher, I observed that I didn’t find Krugman’s characterization of Friedman as someone who basically believed in IS-LM as being in any way implausible.

Then, about Friedman, I don’t think he believed in IS-LM, but it’s not as if he had an alternative macromodel. He didn’t have a macromodel, so he was stuck with something like an IS-LM model by default, as was made painfully clear by his attempt to spell out his framework for monetary analysis in the early 1970s. Basically he just tinkered with the IS-LM to allow the price level to be determined, rather than leaving it undetermined as in the original Hicksian formulation. Of course in his policy analysis and historical work he was not constained by any formal macromodel, so he followed his instincts which were often reliable, but sometimes not so.

So I am afraid that my take may on Friedman may be a little closer to Krugman’s than to yours. But the real point is that IS-LM is just a framework that can be adjusted to suit the purposes of the modeler. For Friedman the important thing was to deny that that there is a liquidity trap, and introduce an explicit money-supply-money-demand relation to determine the absolute price level. It’s not just Krugman who says that, it’s also Don Patinkin and Harry Johnson. Whether Krugman knows the history of thought, I don’t know, but surely Patinkin and Johnson did.

Scott responded:

I’m afraid I strongly disagree regarding Friedman. The IS-LM “model” is much more than just the IS-LM graph, or even an assumption about the interest elasticity of money demand. For instance, suppose a shift in LM also causes IS to shift. Is that still the IS-LM model? If so, then I’d say it should be called the “IS-LM tautology” as literally anything would be possible.

When I read Friedman’s work it comes across as a sort of sustained assault on IS-LM type thinking.

To which I replied:

I think that if you look at Friedman’s responses to his critics the volume Milton Friedman’s Monetary Framework: A Debate with his Critics, he said explicitly that he didn’t think that the main differences among Keynesians and Monetarists were about theory, but about empirical estimates of the relevant elasticities. So I think that in this argument Friedman’s on my side.

And finally Scott:

This would probably be easier if you provided some examples of monetary ideas that are in conflict with IS-LM. Or indeed any ideas that are in conflict with IS-LM. I worry that people are interpreting IS-LM too broadly.

For instance, do Keynesians “believe” in MV=PY? Obviously yes. Do they think it’s useful? No.

Everyone agrees there are a set of points where the money market is in equilibrium. People don’t agree on whether easy money raises interest rates or lowers interest rates. In my view the term “believing in IS-LM” implies a belief that easy money lowers rates, which boosts investment, which boosts RGDP. (At least when not at the zero bound.) Friedman may agree that easy money boosts RGDP, but may not agree on the transmission mechanism.

People used IS-LM to argue against the Friedman and Schwartz view that tight money caused the Depression. They’d say; “How could tight money have caused the Depression? Interest rates fell sharply in 1930?”

I think that Friedman meant that economists agreed on some of the theoretical building blocks of IS-LM, but not on how the entire picture fit together.

Oddly, your critique of Keynes reminds me a lot of Friedman’s critiques of Keynes.

Actually, this was not the first time that I provoked a negative response by writing critically about Friedman. Almost a year and a half ago, I wrote a post (“Was Milton Friedman a Closet Keynesian?”) which drew some critical comments from such reliably supportive commenters as Marcus Nunes, W. Peden, and Luis Arroyo. I guess Scott must have been otherwise occupied, because I didn’t hear a word from him. Here’s what I said:

Commenting on a supremely silly and embarrassingly uninformed (no, Ms. Shlaes, A Monetary History of the United States was not Friedman’s first great work, Essays in Positive Economics, Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money, A Theory of the Consumption Function, A Program for Monetary Stability, and Capitalism and Freedom were all published before A Monetary History of the US was published) column by Amity Shlaes, accusing Ben Bernanke of betraying the teachings of Milton Friedman, teachings that Bernanke had once promised would guide the Fed for ever more, Paul Krugman turned the tables and accused Friedman of having been a crypto-Keynesian.

The truth, although nobody on the right will ever admit it, is that Friedman was basically a Keynesian — or, if you like, a Hicksian. His framework was just IS-LM coupled with an assertion that the LM curve was close enough to vertical — and money demand sufficiently stable — that steady growth in the money supply would do the job of economic stabilization. These were empirical propositions, not basic differences in analysis; and if they turn out to be wrong (as they have), monetarism dissolves back into Keynesianism.

Krugman is being unkind, but he is at least partly right.  In his famous introduction to Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money, which he called “The Quantity Theory of Money:  A Restatement,” Friedman gave the game away when he called the quantity theory of money a theory of the demand for money, an almost shockingly absurd characterization of what anyone had ever thought the quantity theory of money was.  At best one might have said that the quantity theory of money was a non-theory of the demand for money, but Friedman somehow got it into his head that he could get away with repackaging the Cambridge theory of the demand for money — the basis on which Keynes built his theory of liquidity preference — and calling that theory the quantity theory of money, while ascribing it not to Cambridge, but to a largely imaginary oral tradition at the University of Chicago.  Friedman was eventually called on this bit of scholarly legerdemain by his old friend from graduate school at Chicago Don Patinkin, and, subsequently, in an increasingly vitriolic series of essays and lectures by his then Chicago colleague Harry Johnson.  Friedman never repeated his references to the Chicago oral tradition in his later writings about the quantity theory. . . . But the simple fact is that Friedman was never able to set down a monetary or a macroeconomic model that wasn’t grounded in the conventional macroeconomics of his time.

As further evidence of Friedman’s very conventional theoretical conception of monetary theory, I could also cite Friedman’s famous (or, if you prefer, infamous) comment (often mistakenly attributed to Richard Nixon) “we are all Keynesians now” and the not so famous second half of the comment “and none of us are Keynesians anymore.” That was simply Friedman’s way of signaling his basic assent to the neoclassical synthesis which was built on the foundation of Hicksian IS-LM model augmented with a real balance effect and the assumption that prices and wages are sticky in the short run and flexible in the long run. So Friedman meant that we are all Keynesians now in the sense that the IS-LM model derived by Hicks from the General Theory was more or less universally accepted, but that none of us are Keynesians anymore in the sense that this framework was reconciled with the supposed neoclassical principle of the monetary neutrality of a unique full-employment equilibrium that can, in principle, be achieved by market forces, a principle that Keynes claimed to have disproved.

But to be fair, I should also observe that missing from Krugman’s take down of Friedman was any mention that in the original HIcksian IS-LM model, the price level was left undetermined, so that as late as 1970, most Keynesians were still in denial that inflation was a monetary phenomenon, arguing instead that inflation was essentially a cost-push phenomenon determined by the rate of increase in wages. Control of inflation was thus not primarily under the control of the central bank, but required some sort of “incomes policy” (wage-price guidelines, guideposts, controls or what have you) which opened the door for Nixon to cynically outflank his Democratic (Keynesian) opponents by coopting their proposals for price controls when he imposed a wage-price freeze (almost 42 years ago on August 15, 1971) to his everlasting shame and discredit.

Scott asked me to list some monetary ideas that I believe are in conflict with IS-LM. I have done so in my earlier posts (here, here, here and here) on Earl Thompson’s paper “A Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory” (not that I am totally satisfied with Thompson’s model either, but that’s a topic for another post). Three of the main messages from Thompson’s work are that IS-LM mischaracterizes the monetary sector, because in a modern monetary economy the money supply is endogenous, not exogenous as Keynes and Friedman assumed. Second, the IS curve (or something corresponding to it) is not negatively sloped as Keynesians generally assume, but upward-sloping. I don’t think Friedman ever said a word about an upward-sloping IS curve. Third, the IS-LM model is essentially a one-period model which makes it difficult to carry out a dynamic analysis that incorporates expectations into that framework. Analysis of inflation, expectations, and the distinction between nominal and real interest rates requires a richer model than the HIcksian IS-LM apparatus. But Friedman didn’t scrap IS-LM, he expanded it to accommodate expectations, inflation, and the distinction between real and nominal interest rates.

Scott’s complaint about IS-LM seems to be that it implies that easy money reduces interest rates and that tight money raises rates, but, in reality, it’s the opposite. But I don’t think that you need a macro-model to understand that low inflation implies low interest rates and that high inflation implies high interest rates. There is nothing in IS-LM that contradicts that insight; it just requires augmenting the model with a term for expectations. But there’s nothing in the model that prevents you from seeing the distinction between real and nominal interest rates. Similarly, there is nothing in MV = PY that prevented Friedman from seeing that increasing the quantity of money by 3% a year was not likely to stabilize the economy. If you are committed to a particular result, you can always torture a model in such a way that the desired result can be deduced from it. Friedman did it to MV = PY to get his 3% rule; Keynesians (or some of them) did it to IS-LM to argue that low interest rates always indicate easy money (and it’s not only Keynesians who do that, as Scott knows only too well). So what? Those are examples of the universal tendency to forget that there is an identification problem. I blame the modeler, not the model.

OK, so why am I not a fan of Friedman’s? Here are some reasons. But before I list them, I will state for the record that he was a great economist, and deserved the professional accolades that he received in his long and amazingly productive career. I just don’t think that he was that great a monetary theorist, but his accomplishments far exceeded his contributions to monetary theory. The accomplishments mainly stemmed from his great understanding of price theory, and his skill in applying it to economic problems, and his great skill as a mathematical statistician.

1 His knowledge of the history of monetary theory was very inadequate. He had an inordinately high opinion of Lloyd Mints’s History of Banking Theory which was obsessed with proving that the real bills doctrine was a fallacy, uncritically adopting its pro-currency-school and anti-banking-school bias.

2 He covered up his lack of knowledge of the history of monetary theory by inventing a non-existent Chicago oral tradition and using it as a disguise for his repackaging the Cambridge theory of the demand for money and aspects of the Keynesian theory of liquidity preference as the quantity theory of money, while deliberately obfuscating the role of the interest rate as the opportunity cost of holding money.

3 His theory of international monetary adjustment was a naïve version of the Humean Price-Specie-Flow mechanism, ignoring the tendency of commodity arbitrage to equalize price levels under the gold standard even without gold shipments, thereby misinterpreting the significance of gold shipments under the gold standard.

4 In trying to find a respectable alternative to Keynesian theory, he completely ignored all pre-Keynesian monetary theories other than what he regarded as the discredited Austrian theory, overlooking or suppressing the fact that Hawtrey and Cassel had 40 years before he published the Monetary History of the United States provided (before the fact) a monetary explanation for the Great Depression, which he claimed to have discovered. And in every important respect, Friedman’s explanation was inferior to and retrogression from Hawtrey and Cassel explanation.

5 For example, his theory provided no explanation for the beginning of the downturn in 1929, treating it as if it were simply routine business-cycle downturn, while ignoring the international dimensions, and especially the critical role played by the insane Bank of France.

6 His 3% rule was predicated on the implicit assumption that the demand for money (or velocity of circulation) is highly stable, a proposition for which there was, at best, weak empirical support. Moreover, it was completely at variance with experience during the nineteenth century when the model for his 3% rule — Peel’s Bank Charter Act of 1844 — had to be suspended three times in the next 22 years as a result of financial crises largely induced, as Walter Bagehot explained, by the restriction on creation of banknotes imposed by the Bank Charter Act. However, despite its obvious shortcomings, the 3% rule did serve as an ideological shield with which Friedman could defend his libertarian credentials against criticism for his opposition to the gold standard (so beloved of libertarians) and to free banking (the theory of which Friedman did not comprehend until late in his career).

7 Despite his professed libertarianism, he was an intellectual bully who abused underlings (students and junior professors) who dared to disagree with him, as documented in Perry Mehrling’s biography of Fischer Black, and confirmed to me by others who attended his lectures. Black was made so uncomfortable by Friedman that Black fled Chicago to seek refuge among the Keynesians at MIT.

Fear Is Contagious

Ever the optimist, I was hoping that yesterday’s immediate, sharply negative, reaction to the FOMC statement and Ben Bernanke’s press conference was only a mild correction, not the sign of a major revision in expectations. Today’s accelerating slide in stock prices, coupled with continuing rises declines in bond prices, across the entire yield curve, shows that the FOMC, whose obsession with inflation in 2008 drove the world economy into a Little Depression, may now be on the verge of precipitating yet another downturn even before any real recovery has taken place.

If 2008-09 was a replay of 1929-30, then we might be headed back to a reprise of 1937, when a combination of fiscal austerity and monetary tightening, fed by exaggerated, if not irrational fears of inflation, notwithstanding the absence of a full recovery from the 1929-33 downturn, caused a second downturn, nearly as sharp as that of 1929-30.

Nothing is inevitable. History does not have to repeat itself. But if we want to avoid a repeat of 1937, we must avoid repeating the same stupid mistakes made in 1937. Don’t withdraw – or talk about withdrawing — a stimulus that isn’t even generating the measly 2% inflation that the FOMC says its targeting, even while the unemployment rate is still 7.6%. And as Paul Krugman pointed out in his blog today, the labor force participation rate has barely increased since the downturn bottomed out in 2009. I reproduce his chart below.

labor_participation

Bernanke claims to be maintaining an accommodative monetary policy and is simply talking about withdrawing (tapering off), as conditions warrant, the additional stimulus associated with  the Fed’s asset purchases. That reminds me of the stance of the FOMC in 2008 when the Fed, having reduced interest rates to 2% in March, kept threatening to raise interest rates during the spring and summer to counter rising commodity prices, even as the economy was undergoing, even before the onset of the financial crisis, one of the fastest contractions since World War II. Yesterday’s announcement, making no commitment to ensure that the Fed’s own inflation target would be met, has obviously been understood by the markets to signal the willingness of the FOMC to tolerate even lower rates of inflation than we have now.

In my post yesterday, I observed that the steep rise in nominal and real interest rates (at least as approximated by the yield on TIPS) was accompanied by only a very modest decline in inflation expectations (as approximated by the TIPS spread). Well, today, nominal and real interest rates (as reflected in TIPS) rose again, but with the breakeven 10-year TIPS spread falling by 9 basis points, to 1.95%. Meanwhile, the dollar continued to appreciate against the euro, supporting the notion that the markets are reacting to a perceived policy change, a change in exactly the wrong direction. Oh, and by the way, the price of gold continued to plummet, reaching $1280 an ounce, the lowest in almost three years, nearly a third less than its 2011 peak.

But for a contrary view, have a look at theeditorial (“Monetary Withdrawal Symptom”) in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, as well as an op-ed piece by an asset fund manager, Romain Hatchuel, (“Central Banks and the Borrowing Addiction”). Both characterize central banks as drug pushers who have induced hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people around the world to become debt addicts. Hatchuel sees some deep significance in the fact that total indebtedness has, since 1980, increased as fast as GDP, while from 1950 to 1980 total indebtedness increased at a much slower rate.

Um, if more people are borrowing, more people are lending, so the mere fact that total indebtedness has increased faster in the last 30 years than it did in the previous 30 years says nothing about debt addiction. It simply says that more people have been gaining access to credit markets in recent years than had access to credit markets in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. If we are so addicted to debt, how come real interest rates are so low? If a growing epidemic of debt addiction started in 1980, shouldn’t real interest rates have been rising steadily since then? Guess what? Real interest rates have been falling steadily since 1982. The Wall Street Journal strikes (out) again.


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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