Keynes’s General Theory is not, in my estimation, an easy read. The terminology is often unfamiliar, and, so even after learning one of his definitions, I have trouble remembering what the term means the next time it’s used.. And his prose style, though powerful and very impressive, is not always clear, so you can spend a long time reading and rereading a sentence or a paragraph before you can figure out exactly what he is trying to say. I am not trying to be critical, just to point out that the General Theory is a very challenging book to read, which is one, but not the only, reason why it is subject to a lot of conflicting interpretations. And, as Harry Johnson once pointed out, there is an optimum level of difficulty for a book with revolutionary aspirations. If it’s too simple, it won’t be taken seriously. And if it’s too hard, no one will understand it. Optimally, a revolutionary book should be hard enough so that younger readers will be able to figure it out, and too difficult for the older guys to understand or to make the investment in effort to understand.
In this post, which is, in a certain sense, a follow-up to an earlier post about what, or who, determines the real rate of interest, I want to consider an especially perplexing passage in the General Theory about the Fisher equation. It is perplexing taken in isolation, and it is even more perplexing when compared to other passages in both the General Theory itself and in Keynes’s other writings. Here’s the passage that I am interested in.
The expectation of a fall in the value of money stimulates investment, and hence employment generally, because it raises the schedule of the marginal efficiency of capital, i.e., the investment demand-schedule; and the expectation of a rise in the value of money is depressing, because it lowers the schedule of the marginal efficiency of capital. This is the truth which lies behind Professor Irving Fisher’s theory of what he originally called “Appreciation and Interest” – the distinction between the money rate of interest and the real rate of interest where the latter is equal to the former after correction for changes in the value of money. It is difficult to make sense of this theory as stated, because it is not clear whether the change in the value of money is or is not assumed to be foreseen. There is no escape from the dilemma that, if it is not foreseen, there will be no effect on current affairs; whilst, if it is foreseen, the prices of exiting goods will be forthwith so adjusted that the advantages of holding money and of holding goods are again equalized, and it will be too late for holders of money to gain or to suffer a change in the rate of interest which will offset the prospective change during the period of the loan in the value of the money lent. For the dilemma is not successfully escaped by Professor Pigou’s expedient of supposing that the prospective change in the value of money is foreseen by one set of people but not foreseen by another. (p. 142)
The statement is problematic on just about every level, and one hardly knows where to begin in discussing it. But just for starters, it is amazing that Keynes seems (or, for rhetorical purposes, pretends) to be in doubt whether Fisher is talking about anticipated or unanticipated inflation, because Fisher himself explicitly distinguished between anticipated and unanticipated inflation, and Keynes could hardly have been unaware that Fisher was explicitly speaking about anticipated inflation. So the implication that the Fisher equation involves some confusion on Fisher’s part between anticipated and unanticipated inflation was both unwarranted and unseemly.
What’s even more puzzling is that in his Tract on Monetary Reform, Keynes expounded the covered interest arbitrage principle that the nominal-interest-rate-differential between two currencies corresponds to the difference between the spot and forward rates, which is simply an extension of Fisher’s uncovered interest arbitrage condition (alluded to by Keynes in referring to “Appreciation and Interest”). So when Keynes found Fisher’s distinction between the nominal and real rates of interest to be incoherent, did he really mean to exempt his own covered interest arbitrage condition from the charge?
But it gets worse, because if we flip some pages from chapter 11, where the above quotation is found, to chapter 17, we see on page 224, the following passage in which Keynes extends the idea of a commodity or “own rate of interest” to different currencies.
It may be added that, just as there are differing commodity-rates of interest at any time, so also exchange dealers are familiar with the fact that the rate of interest is not even the same in terms of two different moneys, e.g. sterling and dollars. For here also the difference between the “spot” and “future” contracts for a foreign money in terms of sterling are not, as a rule, the same for different foreign moneys. . . .
If no change is expected in the relative value of two alternative standards, then the marginal efficiency of a capital-asset will be the same in whichever of the two standards it is measured, since the numerator and denominator of the fraction which leads up to the marginal efficiency will be changed in the same proportion. If, however, one of the alternative standards is expected to change in value in terms of the other, the marginal efficiencies of capital-assets will be changed by the same percentage, according to which standard they are measured in. To illustrate this let us take the simplest case where wheat, one of the alternative standards, is expected to appreciate at a steady rate of a percent per annum in terms of money; the marginal efficiency of an asset, which is x percent in terms of money, will then be x – a percent in terms of wheat. Since the marginal efficiencies of all capital assets will be altered by the same amount, it follows that their order of magnitude will be the same irrespective of the standard which is selected.
So Keynes in chapter 17 explicitly allows for the nominal rate of interest to be adjusted to reflect changes in the expected value of the asset (whether a money or a commodity) in terms of which the interest rate is being calculated. Mr. Keynes, please meet Mr. Keynes.
I think that one source of Keynes’s confusion in attacking the Fisher equation was his attempt to force the analysis of a change in inflation expectations, clearly a disequilibrium, into an equilibrium framework. In other words, Keynes is trying to analyze what happens when there has been a change in inflation expectations as if the change had been foreseen. But any change in inflation expectations, by definition, cannot have been foreseen, because to say that an expectation has changed means that the expectation is different from what it was before. Perhaps that is why Keynes tied himself into knots trying to figure out whether Fisher was talking about a change in the value of money that was foreseen or not foreseen. In any equilibrium, the change in the value of money is foreseen, but in the transition from one equilibrium to another, the change is not foreseen. When an unforeseen change occurs in expected inflation, leading to a once-and-for-all change in the value of money relative to other assets, the new equilibrium will be reestablished given the new value of money relative to other assets.
But I think that something else is also going on here, which is that Keynes was implicitly assuming that a change in inflation expectations would alter the real rate of interest. This is a point that Keynes makes in the paragraph following the one I quoted above.
The mistake lies in supposing that it is the rate of interest on which prospective changes in the value of money will directly react, instead of the marginal efficiency of a given stock of capital. The prices of existing assets will always adjust themselves to changes in expectation concerning the prospective value of money. The significance of such changes in expectation lies in their effect on the readiness to produce new assets through their reaction on the marginal efficiency of capital. The stimulating effect of the expectation of higher prices is due, not to its raising the rate of interest (that would be a paradoxical way of stimulating output – insofar as the rate of interest rises, the stimulating effect is to that extent offset) but to its raising the marginal efficiency of a given stock of capital. If the rate of interest were to rise pari passu with the marginal efficiency of capital, there would be no stimulating effect from the expectation of rising prices. For the stimulating effect depends on the marginal efficiency of capital rising relativevly to the rate of interest. Indeed Professor Fisher’s theory could best be rewritten in terms of a “real rate of interest” defined as being the rate of interest which would have to rule, consequently on change in the state of expectation as to the future value of money, in order that this change should have no effect on current output. (pp. 142-43)
Keynes’s mistake lies in supposing that an increase in inflation expectations could not have a stimulating effect except as it raises the marginal efficiency of capital relative to the rate of interest. However, the increase in the value of real assets relative to money will increase the incentive to produce new assets. It is the rise in the value of existing assets relative to money that raises the marginal efficiency of those assets, creating an incentive to produce new assets even if the nominal interest rate were to rise by as much as the rise in expected inflation.
Keynes comes back to this point at the end of chapter 17, making it more forcefully than he did the first time.
In my Treatise on Money I defined what purported to be a unique rate of interest, which I called the natural rate of interest – namely, the rate of interest which, in the terminology of my Treatise, preserved equality between the rate of saving (as there defined) and the rate of investment. I believed this to be a development and clarification of of Wicksell’s “natural rate of interest,” which was, according to him, the rate which would preserve the stability of some, not quite clearly specified, price-level.
I had, however, overlooked the fact that in any given society there is, on this definition, a different natural rate for each hypothetical level of employment. And, similarly, for every rate of interest there is a level of employment for which that rate is the “natural” rate, in the sense that the system will be in equilibrium with that rate of interest and that level of employment. Thus, it was a mistake to speak of the natural rate of interest or to suggest that the above definition would yield a unique value for the rate of interest irrespective of the level of employment. . . .
If there is any such rate of interest, which is unique and significant, it must be the rate which we might term the neutral rate of interest, namely, the natural rate in the above sense which is consistent with full employment, given the other parameters of the system; though this rate might be better described, perhaps, as the optimum rate. (pp. 242-43)
So what Keynes is saying, I think, is this. Consider an economy with a given fixed marginal efficiency of capital (MEC) schedule. There is some interest rate that will induce sufficient investment expenditure to generate enough spending to generate full employment. That interest rate Keynes calls the “neutral” rate of interest. If the nominal rate of interest is more than the neutral rate, the amount of investment will be less than the amount necessary to generate full employment. In such a situation an expectation that the price level will rise will shift up the MEC schedule by the amount of the expected increase in inflation, thereby generating additional investment spending. However, because the MEC schedule is downward-sloping, the upward shift in the MEC schedule that induces increased investment spending will correspond to an increase in the rate of interest that is less than the increase in expected inflation, the upward shift in the MEC schedule being partially offset by the downward movement along the MEC schedule. In other words, the increase in expected inflation raises the nominal rate of interest by less than increase in expected inflation by inducing additional investment that is undertaken only because the real rate of interest has fallen.
However, for an economy already operating at full employment, an increase in expected inflation would not increase employment, so whether there was any effect on the real rate of interest would depend on the extent to which there was a shift from holding money to holding real capital assets in order to avoid the inflation tax.
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.