Archive for the 'Keynes' Category

The Neoclassical Synthesis and the Mind-Body Problem

The neoclassical synthesis that emerged in the early postwar period aimed at reconciling the macroeconomic (IS-LM) analysis derived from Keynes via Hicks and others with the neoclassical microeconomic analysis of general equilibrium derived from Walras. The macroeconomic analysis was focused on an equilibrium of income and expenditure flows while the Walrasian analysis was focused on the equilibrium between supply and demand in individual markets. The two types of analysis seemed to be incommensurate inasmuch as the conditions for equilibrium in the two analysis did not seem to match up against each other. How does an analysis focused on the equality of aggregate flows of income and expenditure get translated into an analysis focused on the equality of supply and demand in individual markets? The two languages seem to be different, so it is not obvious how a statement formulated in one language gets translated into the other. And even if a translation is possible, does the translation hold under all, or only under some, conditions? And if so, what are those conditions?

The original neoclassical synthesis did not aim to provide a definitive answer to those questions, but it was understood to assert that if the equality of income and expenditure was assured at a level consistent with full employment, one could safely assume that market forces would take care of the allocation of resources, so that markets would be cleared and the conditions of microeconomic general equilibrium satisfied, at least as a first approximation. This version of the neoclassical synthesis was obviously ad hoc and an unsatisfactory resolution of the incommensurability of the two levels of analysis. Don Patinkin sought to provide a rigorous reconciliation of the two levels of analysis in his treatise Money, Interest and Prices. But for all its virtues – and they are numerous – Patinkin’s treatise failed to bridge the gap between the two levels of analysis.

As I mentioned recently in a post on Romer and Lucas, Kenneth Arrow in a 1967 review of Samuelson’s Collected Works commented disparagingly on the neoclassical synthesis of which Samuelson was a leading proponent. The widely shared dissatisfaction expressed by Arrow motivated much of the work that soon followed on the microfoundations of macroeconomics exemplified in the famous 1970 Phelps volume. But the motivation for the search for microfoundations was then (before the rational expectations revolution) to specify the crucial deviations from the assumptions underlying the standard Walrasian general-equilibrium model that would generate actual or seeming price rigidities, which a straightforward – some might say superficial — understanding of neoclassical microeconomic theory suggested were necessary to explain why, after a macro-disturbance, equilibrium was not rapidly restored by price adjustments. Two sorts of explanations emerged from the early microfoundations literature: a) search and matching theories assuming that workers and employers must expend time and resources to find appropriate matches; b) institutional theories of efficiency wages or implicit contracts that explain why employers and workers prefer layoffs to wage cuts in response to negative demand shocks.

Forty years on, the search and matching theories do not seem capable of accounting for the magnitude of observed fluctuations in employment or the cyclical variation in layoffs, and the institutional theories are still difficult to reconcile with the standard neoclassical assumptions, remaining an ad hoc appendage to New Keynesian models that otherwise adhere to the neoclassical paradigm. Thus, although the original neoclassical synthesis in which the Keynesian income-expenditure model was seen as a pre-condition for the validity of the neoclassical model was rejected within a decade of Arrow’s dismissive comment about the neoclassical synthesis, Tom Sargent has observed in a recent review of Robert Lucas’s Collected Papers on Monetary Theory that Lucas has implicitly adopted a new version of the neoclassical synthesis dominated by an intertemporal neoclassical general-equilibrium model, but with the proviso that substantial shocks to aggregate demand and the price level are prevented by monetary policy, thereby making the neoclassical model a reasonable approximation to reality.

Ok, so you are probably asking what does all this have to do with the mind-body problem? A lot, I think in that both the neoclassical synthesis and the mind-body problem involve a disconnect between two kinds – two levels – of explanation. The neoclassical synthesis asserts some sort of connection – but a problematic one — between the explanatory apparatus – macroeconomics — used to understand the cyclical fluctuations of what we are used to think of as the aggregate economy and the explanatory apparatus – microeconomics — used to understand the constituent elements of the aggregate economy — households and firms — and how those elements are related to, and interact with, each other.

The mind-body problem concerns the relationship between the mental – our direct experience of a conscious inner life of thoughts, emotions, memories, decisions, hopes and regrets — and the physical – matter, atoms, neurons. A basic postulate of science is that all phenomena have material causes. So the existence of conscious states that seem to us, by way of our direct experience, to be independent of material causes is also highly problematic. There are a few strategies for handling the problem. One is to assert that the mind truly is independent of the body, which is to say that consciousness is not the result of physical causes. A second is to say that mind is not independent of the body; we just don’t understand the nature of the relationship. There are two possible versions of this strategy: a) that although the nature of the relationship is unknown to us now, advances in neuroscience could reveal to us the way in which consciousness is caused by the operation of the brain; b) although our minds are somehow related to the operation of our brains, the nature of this relationship is beyond the capacity of our minds or brains to comprehend owing to considerations analogous to Godel’s incompleteness theorem (a view espoused by the philosopher Colin McGinn among others); in other words, the mind-body problem is inherently beyond human understanding. And the third strategy is to deny the existence of consciousness, because a conscious state is identical with the physical state of a brain, so that consciousness is just an epiphenomenon of a brain state; we in our naivete may think that our conscious states have a separate existence, but those states are strictly identical with corresponding brain states, so that whatever conscious state that we think we are experiencing has been entirely produced by the physical forces that determine the behavior of our brains and the configuration of its physical constituents.

The first, and probably the last, thing that one needs to understand about the third strategy is that, as explained by Colin McGinn (see e.g., here), its validity has not been demonstrated by neuroscience or by any other branch of science; it is, no less than any of the other strategies, strictly a metaphysical position. The mind-body problem is a problem precisely because science has not even come close to demonstrating how mental states are caused by, let alone that they are identical to, brain states, despite some spurious misinterpretations of research that purport to show such an identity.

Analogous to the scientific principle that all phenomena have material or physical causes, there is in economics and social science a principle called methodological individualism, which roughly states that explanations of social outcomes should be derived from theories about the conduct of individuals, not from theories about abstract social entities that exist independently of their constituent elements. The underlying motivation for methodological individualism (as opposed to political individualism with which it is related but from which it is distinct) was to counter certain ideas popular in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries asserting the existence of metaphysical social entities like “history” that are somehow distinct from yet impinge upon individual human beings, and that there are laws of history or social development from which future states of the world can be predicted, as Hegel, Marx and others tried to do. This notion gave rise to a two famous books by Popper: The Open Society and its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism. Methodological individualism as articulated by Popper was thus primarily an attack on the attribution of special powers to determine the course of future events to abstract metaphysical or mystical entities like history or society that are supposedly things or beings in themselves distinct from the individual human beings of which they are constituted. Methodological individualism does not deny the existence of collective entities like society; it simply denies that such collective entities exist as objective facts that can be observed as such. Our apprehension of these entities must be built up from more basic elements — individuals and their plans, beliefs and expectations — that we can apprehend directly.

However, methodological individualism is not the same as reductionism; methodological individualism teaches us to look for explanations of higher-level phenomena, e.g., a pattern of social relationships like the business cycle, in terms of the basic constituents forming the pattern: households, business firms, banks, central banks and governments. It does not assert identity between the pattern of relationships and the constituent elements; it says that the pattern can be understood in terms of interactions between the elements. Thus, a methodologically individualistic explanation of the business cycle in terms of the interactions between agents – households, businesses, etc. — would be analogous to an explanation of consciousness in terms of the brain if an explanation of consciousness existed. A methodologically individualistic explanation of the business cycle would not be analogous to an assertion that consciousness exists only as an epiphenomenon of brain states. The assertion that consciousness is nothing but the epiphenomenon of a corresponding brain state is reductionist; it asserts an identity between consciousness and brain states without explaining how consciousness is caused by brain states.

In business-cycle theory, the analogue of such a reductionist assertion of identity between higher-level and lower level phenomena is the assertion that the business cycle is not the product of the interaction of individual agents, but is simply the optimal plan of a representative agent. On this account, the business cycle becomes an epiphenomenon; apparent fluctuations being nothing more than the optimal choices of the representative agent. Of course, everyone knows that the representative agent is merely a convenient modeling device in terms of which a business-cycle theorist tries to account for the observed fluctuations. But that is precisely the point. The whole exercise is a sham; the representative agent is an as-if device that does not ground business-cycle fluctuations in the conduct of individual agents and their interactions, but simply asserts an identity between those interactions and the supposed decisions of the fictitious representative agent. The optimality conditions in terms of which the model is solved completely disregard the interactions between individuals that might cause an unintended pattern of relationships between those individuals. The distinctive feature of methodological individualism is precisely the idea that the interactions between individuals can lead to unintended consequences; it is by way of those unintended consequences that a higher-level pattern might emerge from interactions among individuals. And those individual interactions are exactly what is suppressed by representative-agent models.

So the notion that any analysis premised on a representative agent provides microfoundations for macroeconomic theory seems to be a travesty built on a total misunderstanding of the principle of methodological individualism that it purports to affirm.

Scott Sumner Defends EMH

Last week I wrote about the sudden increase in stock market volatility as an illustration of why the efficient market hypothesis (EMH) is not entirely accurate. I focused on the empirical argument made by Robert Shiller that the observed volatility of stock prices is greater than the volatility implied by the proposition that stock prices reflect rational expectations of future dividends paid out by the listed corporations. I made two further points about EMH: a) empirical evidence cited in favor of EMH like the absence of simple trading rules that would generate excess profits and the lack of serial correlation in the returns earned by asset managers is also consistent with theories of asset pricing other than EMH such as Keynes’s casino (beauty contest) model, and b) the distinction between fundamentals and expectations that underlies the EMH model is not valid because expectations are themselves fundamental owing to the potential for expectations to be self-fulfilling.

Scott responded to my criticism by referencing two of his earlier posts — one criticizing the Keynesian beauty contest model, and another criticizing the Keynesian argument that the market can stay irrational longer than any trader seeking to exploit such irrationality can stay solvent – and by writing a new post describing what he called the self-awareness of markets.

Let me begin with Scott’s criticism of the beauty-contest model. I do so by registering my agreement with Scott that the beauty contest model is not a good description of how stocks are typically priced. As I have said, I don’t view EMH as being radically wrong, and in much applied work (including some of my own) it is an extremely useful assumption to make. But EMH describes a kind of equilibrium condition, and not all economic processes can be characterized or approximated by equilibrium conditions.

Perhaps the chief contribution of recent Austrian economics has been to explain how all entrepreneurial activity aims at exploiting latent disequilibrium relationships in the price system. We have no theoretical or empirical basis for assuming that deviations of prices whether for assets for services and whether prices are determined in auction markets or in imperfectly competitive markets that prices cannot deviate substantially from their equilibrium values.  We have no theoretical or empirical basis for assuming that substantial deviations of prices — whether for assets or for services, and whether prices are determined in auction markets or in imperfectly competitive markets — from their equilibrium values are immediately or even quickly eliminated. (Let me note parenthetically that vulgar Austrians who deny that prices voluntarily agreed upon are ever different from equilibrium values thereby undermine the Austrian theory of entrepreneurship based on the equilibrating activity of entrepreneurs which is the source of the profits they earn. The profits earned are ipso facto evidence of disequilibrium pricing. Austrians can’t have it both ways.)

So my disagreement with Scott about the beauty-contest theory of stock prices as an alternative to EMH is relatively small. My main reason for mentioning the beauty-contest theory was not to advocate it but to point out that the sort of empirical evidence that Scott cites in support of EMH is also consistent with the beauty-contest theory. As Scott emphasizes himself, it’s not easy to predict who judges will choose as the winner of the beauty contest. And Keynes also used a casino metaphor to describe stock pricing in same chapter (12) of the General Theory in which he developed the beauty-contest analogy. However, there do seem to be times when prices are rising or falling for extended periods of time, and enough people, observing the trends and guessing that the trends will continue long enough so that they can rely on continuation of the trend in making investment decisions, keep the trend going despite underlying forces that eventually cause a price collapse.

Let’s turn to Scott’s post about the ability of the market to stay irrational longer than any individual trader can stay solvent.

The markets can stay irrational for longer than you can stay solvent.

Thus people who felt that tech stocks were overvalued in 1996, or American real estate was overvalued in 2003, and who shorted tech stocks or MBSs, might go bankrupt before their accurate predictions were finally vindicated.

There are lots of problems with this argument. First of all, it’s not clear that stocks were overvalued in 1996, or that real estate was overvalued in 2003. Lots of people who made those claims later claimed that subsequent events had proven them correct, but it’s not obvious why they were justified in making this claim. If you claim X is overvalued at time t, is it vindication if X later rises much higher, and then falls back to the levels of time t?

I agree with Scott that the argument is problematic; it is almost impossible to specify when a suspected bubble is really a bubble. However, I don’t think that Scott fully comes to terms with the argument. The argument doesn’t depend on the time lag between the beginning of the run-up and the peak; it depends on the unwillingness of most speculators to buck a trend when there is no clear terminal point to the run-up. Scott continues:

The first thing to note is that the term ‘bubble’ implies asset mis-pricing that is easily observable. A positive bubble is when asset prices are clearly irrationally high, and a negative bubble is when asset price are clearly irrationally low. If these bubbles existed, then investors could earn excess returns in a highly diversified contra-bubble fund. At any given time there are many assets that pundits think are overpriced, and many others that are seen as underpriced. These asset classes include stocks, bonds, foreign exchange, REITs, commodities, etc. And even within stocks there are many different sectors, biotech might be booming while oil is plunging. And then you have dozens of markets around the world that respond to local factors. So if you think QE has led Japanese equity prices to be overvalued, and tight money has led Swiss stocks to be undervalued, the fund could take appropriate short positions in Japanese stocks and long positions in Swiss stocks.

A highly diversified mutual fund that takes advantage of bubble mis-pricing should clearly outperform other investments, such as index funds. Or at least it should if the EMH is not true. I happen to think the EMH is true, or at least roughly true, and hence I don’t actually expect to see the average contra-bubble fund do well. (Of course individual funds may do better or worse than average.)

I think that Scott is conflating a couple of questions here: a) is EMH a valid theory of asset prices? b) are asset prices frequently characterized by bubble-like behavior? Even if the answer to b) is no, the answer to a) need not be yes. Investors may be able, by identifying mis-priced assets, to earn excess returns even if the mis-pricing doesn’t meet a threshold level required for identifying a bubble. But the main point that Scott is making is that if there are a lot of examples of mis-pricing out there, it should be possible for astute investors capable of identifying mis-priced assets to diversify their portfolios sufficiently to avoid the problem of staying solvent longer than the market is irrational.

That is a very good point, worth taking into account. But it’s not dispositive and certainly doesn’t dispose of the objection that investors are unlikely to try to bet against a bubble, at least not in sufficient numbers to keep it from expanding. The reason is that the absence of proof is not proof of absence. That of course is a legal, not a scientific, principle, but it expresses a valid common-sense notion, you can’t make an evidentiary inference that something is not the case simply because you have not found evidence that it is the case. So you can’t infer from the non-implementatio of the plausible investment strategies listed by Scott that such strategies would not have generated excess returns if they were implemented. We simply don’t know whether they would be profitable or not.

In his new post Scott makes the following observation about what I had written in my post on excess volatility.

David Glasner seems to feel that it’s not rational for consumers to change their views on the economy after a stock crash. I will argue the reverse, that rationality requires them to do so. First, here’s David:

This seems an odd interpretation of what I had written because in the passage quoted by Scott I wrote the following:

I may hold a very optimistic view about the state of the economy today. But suppose that I wake up tomorrow and hear that the Shanghai stock market crashes, going down by 30% in one day. Will my expectations be completely independent of my observation of falling asset prices in China? Maybe, but what if I hear that S&P futures are down by 10%? If other people start revising their expectations, will it not become rational for me to change my own expectations at some point? How can it not be rational for me to change my expectations if I see that everyone else is changing theirs?

So, like Scott, I am saying that it is rational for people to revise their expectations based on new information that there has been a stock crash. I guess what Scott meant to say is that my argument, while valid, is not an argument against EMH, because the scenario I am describing is consistent with EMH. But that is not the case. Scott goes on to provide his own example.

All citizens are told there’s a jar with lots of jellybeans locked away in a room. That’s all they know. The average citizen guesstimates there are 453 jellybeans in this mysterious jar. Now 10,000 citizens are allowed in to look at the jar. They each guess the contents, and their average guess is 761 jellybeans. This information is reported to the other citizens. They revise their estimate accordingly.

But there’s a difference between my example and Scott’s. In my example, the future course of the economy depends on whether people are optimistic or pessimistic. In Scott’s example, the number of jellybeans in the jar is what it is regardless of what people expect it to be. The problem with EMH is that it presumes that there is some criterion of efficiency that is independent of expectations, just as in Scott’s example there is objective knowledge out there of the number of jellybeans in the jar. I claim that there is no criterion of market efficiency that is independent of expectations, even though some expectations may produce better outcomes than those produced by other expectations.

Excess Volatility Strikes Again

Both David Henderson and Scott Sumner had some fun with this declaration of victory on behalf of Austrian Business Cycle Theory by Robert Murphy after the recent mini-stock-market crash.

As shocking as these developments [drops in stock prices and increased volatility] may be to some analysts, those versed in the writings of economist Ludwig von Mises have been warning for years that the Federal Reserve was setting us up for another crash.

While it’s always tempting to join in the fun of mocking ABCT, I am going to try to be virtuous and resist temptation, and instead comment on a different lesson that I would draw from the recent stock market fluctuations.

To do so, let me quote from Scott’s post:

Austrians aren’t the only ones who think they have something useful to say about future trends in asset prices. Keynesians and others also like to talk about “bubbles”, which I take as an implied prediction that the asset will do poorly over an extended period of time. If not, what exactly does “bubble” mean? I think this is all foolish; assume the Efficient Markets Hypothesis is roughly accurate, and look for what markets are telling us about policy.

I agree with Scott that it is nearly impossible to define “bubble” in an operational ex ante way. And I also agree that there is much truth in the Efficient Market Hypothesis and that it can be a useful tool in making inferences about the effects of policies as I tried to show a few years back in this paper. But I also think that there are some conceptual problems with EMH that Scott and others don’t take as seriously as they should. Scott believes that there is powerful empirical evidence that supports EMH. Responding to Murphy’s charge that EMH is no more falsifiable than ABCT, Scott replied:

The EMH is most certainly “falsifiable.”  It’s been tested in many ways.  Some people even claim that it has been falsified, although I’m not convinced.  In the tests that I think are the most relevant the EMH comes out ahead.  (Stocks respond immediately to news, stocks follow roughly a random walk, indexed funds outperformed managed funds, excess returns are not serially correlated, or not enough to profit from, etc., etc.)

A few comments come to mind.

First, Nobel laureate Robert Shiller was awarded the prize largely for work showing that stock prices exhibit excess volatility. The recent sharp fall in stock prices followed by a sharp rebound raise the possibility that stock prices have been fluctuating for reasons other than the flow of new publicly available information, which, according to EMH, is what determines stock prices. Shiller’s work is not necessarily definitive, so it’s possible to reconcile EMH with observed volatility, but I think that there are good reasons for skepticism.

Second, there are theories other than EMH that predict or are at least consistent with stock prices following a random walk. A good example is Keynes’s discussion of the stock exchange in chapter 12 of the General Theory in which Keynes actually formulated a version of EMH, but rejected it based on his intuition that investors focused on “fundamentals” would not have the capital resources to finance their positions when, for whatever reason, market sentiment turns against them. According to Keynes, picking stocks is like guessing who will win a beauty contest. You can guess either by forming an opinion about the most beautiful contestant or by guessing who the judges will think is the most beautiful. Forming an opinion about who is the most beautiful is like picking stocks based on fundamentals or EMH, guessing who the judges will think is most beautiful is like picking stocks based on predicting market sentiment (Keynesian theory). EMH and the Keynesian theory are totally contrary to each other, but it’s not clear to me that any of the tests mentioned by Scott (random fluctuations in stock prices, index funds outperforming managed funds, excess returns not serially correlated) is inconsistent with the Keynesian theory.

Third, EMH presumes that there is a direct line of causation running from “fundamentals” to “expectations,” and that expectations are rationally inferred from “fundamentals.” That neat conceptual dichotomy between objective fundamentals and rational expectations based on fundamentals presumes that fundamentals are independent of expectations. But that is clearly false. The state of expectations is itself fundamental. Expectations can be and often are self-fulfilling. That is a commonplace observation about social interactions. The nature and character of many social interactions depends on the expectations with which people enter into those interactions.

I may hold a very optimistic view about the state of the economy today. But suppose that I wake up tomorrow and hear that the Shanghai stock market crashes, going down by 30% in one day. Will my expectations be completely independent of my observation of falling asset prices in China? Maybe, but what if I hear that S&P futures are down by 10%? If other people start revising their expectations, will it not become rational for me to change my own expectations at some point? How can it not be rational for me to change my expectations if I see that everyone else is changing theirs? If people are becoming more pessimistic they will reduce their spending, and my income and my wealth, directly or indirectly, depend on how much other people are planning to spend. So my plans have to take into account the expectations of others.

An equilibrium requires consistent expectations among individuals. If you posit an exogenous change in the expectations of some people, unless there is only one set of expectations that is consistent with equilibrium, the exogenous change in the expectations of some may very well imply a movement toward another equilibrium with a set of expectations from the set characterizing the previous equilibrium. There may be cases in which the shock to expectations is ephemeral, expectations reverting to what they were previously. Perhaps that was what happened last week. But it is also possible that expectations are volatile, and will continue to fluctuate. If so, who knows where we will wind up? EMH provides no insight into that question.

I started out by saying that I was going to resist the temptation to mock ABCT, but I’m afraid that I must acknowledge that temptation has got the better of me. Here are two charts: the first shows the movement of gold prices from August 2005 to August 2015, the second shows the movement of the S&P 500 from August 2005 to August 2015. I leave it to readers to decide which chart is displaying the more bubble-like price behavior.gold_price_2005-15


Le Boche Payera Tout

Despite the belated acquiescence of the Greek government to Eurozone demands that further austerity measures be imposed, the latest news updates from Brussels continue to sound ominous, Eurozone officials now insisting on even tougher measures than previously demanded as evidence that Greece is finally getting serious about carrying out its commitments to bring its finances under control. All participants in this tragicomedy have plenty to answer for, but as I, along with many others, have said before, the primary blame rests with the policy of the European Central Bank, which, obeying the dictates of Mrs. Merkel and her government, has a policy that has allowed nominal GDP in the Eurozone to grow by just 5% since 2011, an average rate of growth of only 1% a year. For Greece, this policy has meant a catastrophic fall in nominal GDP since 2008 of about a third. No country could survive such a sustained reduction in its nominal GDP without irreparable damage to its economy.

The responsibility of successive Greek governments for the current disaster is palpable and universally recognized, but the responsibility of the ECB and its German masters for the damage to the Greek tragedy is equally palpable, but scarcely mentioned, at least outside of Greece. What is even less mentioned is how contrary this policy has been to Germany’s own self-interest, because, in devastating the Greek economy through the – dare I say it, yes I will say it – INSANE policy of the European Central Bank, Germany has, in what might easily be construed as a policy of deliberate and sadistic torture, doled out to Greece just enough in the way of loans to prevent its default over the past five years, even as it has systematically destroyed the capacity of Greece to repay the very loans that Germany has extended to Greece.

It is worth recalling that just over 90 years ago, another European country was in the midst of a debt crisis, a crisis that country had brought upon itself by its own irresponsible — indeed reckless and even criminal – policies. In case you don’t already know which European country I am referring to – and even if you don’t know, you should be able to guess – I am referring to Germany, which, in its pursuit of its goal of European domination and a colonial empire to match, if not, overshadow those of Britain and France, provoked the start of World War I, leading to the deaths of 17 million military personnel and civilians. The outrage against Germany after the War was such that, after the collapse of the German government and the flight of Kaiser Wilhelm, the subsequent Versailles Treaty of 1919 imposed punitive terms on Germany, obligating Germany to pay war reparations to the allies, primarily France on whose soil the Western front was largely fought.

In what was his most famous work until he wrote the General Theory, J. M. Keynes, who was on the British delegation to Versailles conference, wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace in which he accused the allies of imposing a Carthaginian Peace on Germany, because the burden of reparations was beyond the realistic capacity of Germany to bear, thereby making Keynes a kind of national hero in Germany (“sic transit gloria mundi,” as they say). The next decade seemed to confirm Keynes’s warning, because Germany was either unable or unwilling to make the reparations payments required of it, and the United States and the rest of the world, by raising tariffs throughout the 1920s, showed little inclination to accept the trade deficits that would have been required if Germany had made the reparations payments it was obligated to pay. As if to demonstrate its incapacity to pay its debts, Germany in 1923 opted for a hyperinflationary meltdown of its economy — the political equivalent of a hunger strike — in a kind of passive-aggressive show of defiance toward its debt obligations.

Meanwhile, the prospect of receiving reparations payments proved to be equally unsettling on the chief prospective beneficiaries of those payments, the French. While most of the rest of Europe was struggling to restore their currencies back to gold convertibility, by adopting austerity measures aimed at reducing public expenditures and raising revenues, the French felt that they could adopt afford to increase public expenditures, because after all, “le Boche payera tout” (the Hun will pay it all), “Boche” being a French slang term of endearment for Germans that has somehow come to be translated in English as “Hun.”

The notion that it would be the Germans who could be made to pay for their self-indulgent extravagance had a poisonous effect on the French economy in the mid-1920s, causing a rapid inflation, and capital flight, which not halted until Raymond Poincare formed a national unity government in 1926 and Emile Moreau was appointed Governor of the Bank of France, together managing to halt the inflation and stabilize the franc, setting the stage for their own disastrous gold accumulation policy starting in 1927, thereby precipitating, with a huge assist from the Federal Reserve Board, the Great Depression.

There are really two points that I want to make by recounting this sad history of the aftermath of World War I. First, one might have expected that, having once been victimized by the demands of its European neighbors that it pay the debt obligations it owed them, the Germans might have some feeling of empathy or understanding for the national suffering imposed when creditor nations try to collect debt obligations beyond the capacity of the debtor nation to repay. But there is hardly any sign of such an awareness in Germany today. Rather the attitude seems to be “the Greeks must pay whatever the cost.”

Now one might say, in defense of the Germans, that the debts incurred by the Greeks were voluntarily undertaken, while the debts imposed on Germany were imposed against the will of the Germans. But that seems to me to be a distorted view of the war reparations imposed on Germany. The German nation went to war enthusiastically in 1914 in hopes of achieving European, if not world, domination, the same ambition that led to another war enthusiastically supported by the German nation only 20 years after the end of the previous war. The war reparations imposed on Germany after World War I may have been excessive, given the economic realities of the situation, but there is no reason to think that, given the appalling suffering caused by German aggression in World War I, the war reparations imposed upon them were less legitimate obligations than the current debts owed by the Greeks to the Germans.

The second point that I would make is that there is certainly nothing noble or uplifting about the French attitude “le Boche payera tout.” Indeed, the attitude was both irresponsible and ultimately self-defeating, for two reasons. First, there was never a realistic way of compelling the Germans to pay, and second, even if the Germans could have been compelled to pay, the consequence would likely have been damaging to the French economy, because transfer payments on a large scale tend to undermine incentives to produce (the “Dutch disease”). Nevertheless, there was a certain selfish logic underlying the French attitude that is not hard to understand.

However, the current German attitude that the Greeks must pay whatever the cost is, at a very deep level, irrational. Forcing the Greeks into national bankruptcy or to leave the Euro will only guarantee that the Greeks will never pay the Germans back what is owed to them. If the Germans want to be repaid, the only possible way for that to be accomplished is to ease the current debt burden sufficiently to allow a reconstruction of the Greek economy, thereby enabling the Greeks to produce enough to service their debt obligations. As long as Greek nominal GDP is growing less rapidly than their debt obligations, that will never happen. That simple truth seems beyond the power of German comprehension.

What are the Germans even thinking? Who knows what they could possibly be thinking? Maybe Donald Trump could tell us. Or consider the fable of the scorpion and the frog:

A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.”

The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?”

Replies the scorpion: “It’s my nature…”

Gold Standard or Gold-Exchange Standard: What’s the Difference?

In recent posts (here and here) I have mentioned both the gold standard and the gold-exchange standard, a dichotomy that suggests that the two are somehow distinct, and I noted that the Genoa Conference of 1922 produced a set of resolutions designed to ensure that the gold standard, whose restoration was the goal of the conference, would be a gold-exchange standard rather than the traditional pre-World War I gold standard. I also mentioned that the great American central banker Benjamin Strong had stated that he was not particularly fond of the gold-exchange standard favored by the Genoa Resolutions. So there seems to be some substantive difference between a gold standard (of the traditional type) and a gold-exchange standard. Wherein lies the difference? And what, if anything, can we infer from that difference about how the two standards operate?

Let’s begin with some basics. Suppose there’s a pure metallic (gold) currency. All coins that circulate are gold and their value reflects the weight and fineness of the gold, except that the coins are stamped so that they don’t have to be weighed or assayed; they trade at their face value. Inevitably under such systems, there’s a problem with the concurrent circulation of old and worn coins at par with newly minted coins. Because they have the same face value, it is old coins that remain in circulation, while the new coins are hoarded, leading to increasingly overvalued (underweight) coins in circulation. This observation gives rise to Gresham’s Law: bad (i.e., old and worn) money drives out the good (i.e., new full-weight) money. The full-weight coin is the standard, but it tends not to circulate.

When the currency consists entirely of full-weight gold coins, it is redundant to speak of a gold standard. The term “gold standard” has significance only if the coin represents a value greater than the value of its actual metallic content. When underweight coins can circulate at par, because they are easily exchangeable for coins of full weight, the coinage is up to standard. If coins don’t circulate at par, the coinage is debased; it is substandard.

Despite the circulation of gold coins for millenia, the formal idea of a gold standard did not come into being until the eighteenth century, when, because the English mint was consistently overvaluing gold at a ratio relative to silver of approximately 15.5 to 1, while on the Continent, the gold-silver ratio was about 15 to 1, inducing an influx of gold into England. The pound sterling had always been a silver coin, like the shilling (20 shillings in a pound), but by the end of the 17th century, debasement of the silver coinage led to the hoarding and export of full weight silver coins. In the 17th century, the British mint had begun coining a golden guinea, originally worth a pound, but, subsequently, reflecting the premium on gold, guineas traded in the market at a premium.

In 1717, the master of the mint — a guy named Isaac Newton who, in his youth, had made something of a name for himself as a Cambridge mathematician — began to mint a golden pound at a mint price of £3 17 shillings and 10.5 pence (12 pence in a shilling) for an ounce of gold. The mint stopped minting guineas, which continued to circulate, and had an official value of 21 shillings (£1 1s.). In theory the pound remained a weight of silver, but in practice the pound had become a golden coin whose value was determined by the mint price chosen by that Newton guy.

Meanwhile the Bank of England based in London and what were known as country banks (because they operated outside the London metro area) as well as the Scottish banks operating under the Scottish legal regime that was retained after the union of England with Scotland, were all issuing banknotes denominated in sterling, meaning that they were convertible into an equivalent value of metallic (now golden) pounds. So legally the banks were operating under a pound standard not a gold standard. The connection to gold was indirect, reflecting the price at which Isaac Newton had decided that the mint would coin gold into pounds, not a legal definition of the pound.

The pound did not become truly golden until Parliament passed legislation in 1819 (The Resumption Act) after the Napoleonic Wars. The obligation of banks to convert their notes into coinage was suspended in 1797, and Bank of England notes were made legal tender. With the indirect link between gold and paper broken, the value of gold in terms of inconvertible pounds rose above the old mint price. Anticipating the resumption of gold payments, David Ricardo in 1816 penned what he called Proposals for an Economical and Secure Currency in which he proposed making all banknotes convertible into a fixed weight of gold, while reducing the metallic content of the coinage to well below their face value. By abolishing the convertibility of banknotes into gold coin, but restricting the convertibility of bank notes to gold bullion, Ricardo was proposing what is called a gold-bullion standard, as opposed to a gold-specie standard when banknotes are convertible into coin. Ricardo reasoned that by saving the resources tied up in a gold coinage, his proposal would make the currency economical, and, by making banknotes convertible into gold, his proposals would ensure that the currency was secure. Evidently too radical for the times, Ricardo’s proposals did not gain acceptance, and a gold coinage was brought back into circulation at the Newtonian mint price.

But as Keynes observed in his first book on economics Indian Currency and Finance published in 1913 just before the gold standard collapsed at the start of World War I, gold coinage was not an important feature of the gold standard as it operated in its heday.

A gold standard is the rule now in all parts of the world; but a gold currency is the exception. The “sound currency” maxims of twenty or thirty years ago are still often repeated, but they have not been successful, nor ought they to have been, in actually influencing affairs. I think that I am right in saying that Egypt is now the only country in the world in which actual gold coins are the principle medium of exchange.

The reasons for this change are easily seen. It has been found that the expense of a gold circulation is insupportable, and that large economics can be safely effected by the use of some cheaper substitute; and it has been found further that gold in the pockets of the people is not in the least available at a time of crisis or to meet a foreign drain. For these purposes the gold resources of a country must be centralized.

This view has long been maintained by economists. Ricardo’s proposals for a sound and economical currency were based on the principle of keeping gold out of actual circulation. Mill argued that “gold wanted for exportation is almost invariably drawn from the reserves of banks, and is never likely to be taken from the outside circulation while the banks remain solvent.” . . .

A preference for a tangible gold currency is no longer more than a relic of a time when Governments were less trustworthy in these matters than they are now, and when it was the fashion to imitate uncritically the system which had been established in England and had seemed to work so well during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. (pp. 71-73)

Besides arguing against the wastefulness of a gold coinage, Keynes made a further argument about the holding of gold reserves as a feature of the gold standard, namely that, as a matter of course, there are economic incentives (already recognized by Ricardo almost a century earlier) for banks to economize on their holdings of gold reserves with which to discharge their foreign obligations by holding foreign debt instruments which also serve to satisfy foreign claims upon themselves while also generating a pecuniary return. A decentralized informal clearinghouse evolved over the course of the nineteenth century, in which banks held increasing amounts of foreign instruments with which to settle mutual claims upon each other, thereby minimizing the need for actual gold shipments to settle claims. Thus, for purposes of discharging foreign indebtedness, the need for banks to hold gold reserves became less urgent. The holding of foreign-exchange reserves and the use of those reserves to discharge foreign obligations as they came due is the defining characteristic of what was known as the gold-exchange standard.

To say that the Gold-Exchange Standard merely carries somewhat further the currency arrangements which several European countries have evolved during the last quarter of a century is not, of course, to justify it. But if we see that the Gold-Exchange Standard is not, in the currency world of to-day, anomalous, and that it is in the main stream of currency evolution, we shall have a wider experience, on which to draw in criticising it, and may be in a better position to judge of its details wisely. Much nonsense is talked about a gold standard’s properly carrying a gold currency with it. If we mean by a gold currency a state of affairs in which gold is the principal or even, in the aggregate, a very important medium of exchange, no country in the world has such a thing. [fn. Unless it be Egypt.] Gold is an international, but not a local currency. The currency problem of each country is to ensure that they shall run no risk of being unable to put their hands on international currency when they need it, and to waste as small a proportion of their resources on holdings of actual gold as is compatible with this. The proper solution for each country must be governed by the nature of its position in the international money market and of its relations to the chief financial centres, and by those national customs in matters of currency which it may be unwise to disturb. It is as an attempt to solve this problem that the Gold Exchange Standard ought to be judged. . . .

The Gold-Exchange Standard arises out of the discovery that, so long as gold is available for payments of international indebtedness at an approximately constant rate in terms of the national currency, it is a matter of comparative indifference whether it actually forms the national currency.

The Gold-Exchange Standard may be said to exist when gold does not circulate in a country to an appreciable extent, when the local currency is not necessarily redeemable in gold, but when the Government or Central Bank makes arrangements for the provision of foreign remittances in gold at a fix, ed maximum rate in terms of the local currency, the reserves necessary to provide these remittances being kept to a considerable extent abroad. . . .

Its theoretical advantages were first set forth by Ricardo at the time of the Bullionist Controversy. He laid it down that a currency is in its most perfect state when it consists of a cheap material, but having an equal value with the gold it professes to represent; and he suggested that convertibility for the purposes of the foreign exchanges should be ensured by the tendering on demand of gold bars (not coin) in exchange for notes, — so that gold might be available for purposes of export only, and would be prevented from entering into the internal circulation of the country. (pp. 29-31)

The Gold-Exchange Standard in the form in which it has been adopted in India is justly known as the Lindsay scheme. It was proposed and advocated from the earliest discussions, when the Indian currency problem first became prominent, by Mr. A. M. Lindsay, Deputy-Secretary of the Bank of Bengal, who always maintained that “they must adopt my scheme despite themselves.” His first proposals were made in 1876 and 1878. They were repeated in 1885 and again in 1892, when he published a pamphlet entitled Ricardo’s Exchange Remedy. Finally he explained his views in detail to the Committee of 1898.

Lindsay’s scheme was severely criticized both by Government officials and leading financiers. Lord Farrer described it as “far too clever for the ordinary English mind with its ineradicable prejudice for an immediately tangible gold backing of all currencies.” Lord Rothschild, Sir John Lubbock (Lord Avebury), Sir Samuel Montagu (the late Lord Swythling) all gave evidence before the Committee that any system without a visible gold currency would be looked on with distrust. Mr. Alfred de Rothschild went so far as to say that “in fact a gold standard without a gold currency seemed to him an utter impossibility.” Financiers of this type will not admit the feasibility of anything until it has been demonstrated to them by practical experience. (pp. 34-35)

Finally, as to the question of what difference, aside from convenience, does it make whether a country operates on a full-fledged honest to goodness gold standard or a cheap imitation gold-exchange standard, I conclude with another splendid quotation from Keynes.

But before we pass to these several features of the Indian system, it will be worth while to emphasise two respects in which this system is not peculiar. In the first place a system, in which the rupee is maintained at 1s. 4d. by regulation, does not affect the level of prices differently from the way in which it would be affected by a system in which the rupee was a gold coin worth 1s 4d., except in a very indirect and unimportant way to be explained in a moment. So long as the rupee is worth 1s. 4d. in gold, no merchant or manufacturer considers of what material it is made when he fixes the price of his product. The indirect effect on prices, due to the rupee’s being silver, is similar to the effect of the use of any medium of exchange, such as cheques or notes, which economises the use of gold. If the use of gold is economised in any country, gold throughout the world is less valuable – gold prices, that is to say, are higher. But as this effect is shared by the whole world, the effect on prices in any country of economies in the use of gold made by that country is likely to be relatively slight. In short, a policy which led to a greater use of gold in India would tend, by increasing the demand for gold in the world’s markets, somewhat to lower the level of world prices as measured in gold; but it would not cause any alteration worth considering in the relative rates of exchange of Indian and non-Indian commodities.

In the second place, although it is true that the maintenance of the rupee at or near 1s. 4d. is due to regulation, it is not true, when once 1s. 4d. rather than some other gold value has been determined, that the volume of currency in circulation depends in the least upon the policy of the Government or the caprice of an official. This part of the system is as perfectly automatic as in any other country. (pp. 11-13)

The Great, but Misguided, Benjamin Strong Goes Astray in 1928

In making yet further revisions to our paper on Hawtrey and Cassel, Ron Batchelder and I keep finding interesting new material that sheds new light on the thinking behind the policies that led to the Great Depression. Recently I have been looking at the digital archive of Benjamin Strong’s papers held at the Federal Reserve Bank. Benjamin Strong was perhaps the greatest central banker who ever lived. Milton Friedman, Charles Kindleberger, Irving Fisher, and Ralph Hawtrey – and probably others as well — all believed that if Strong, Governor of the New York Federal Reserve Bank from 1914 to 1928 and effectively the sole policy maker for the entire system, had not died in 1928, the Great Depression would have been avoided entirely or, at least, would have been far less severe and long-lasting. My own view had been that Strong had generally understood the argument of Hawtrey and Cassel about the importance of economizing on gold, and, faced with the insane policy of the Bank of France, would have accommodated that policy by allowing an outflow of gold from the immense US holdings, rather than raise interest rates and induce an inflow of gold into the US in 1929, as happened under his successor, George Harrison.

Having spent some time browsing through the papers, I am sorry — because Strong’s truly remarkable qualities are evident in his papers — to say that the papers also show to my surprise and disappointment that Strong was very far from being a disciple of Hawtrey or Cassel or of any economist, and he seems to have been entirely unconcerned in 1928 about the policy of the Bank of France or the prospect of a deflationary run-up in the value of gold even though his friend Montague Norman, Governor of the Bank of England, was beginning to show some nervousness about “a scramble for gold,” while other observers were warning of a deflationary collapse. I must admit that, at least one reason for my surprise is that I had naively accepted the charges made by various Austrians – most notably Murray Rothbard – that Strong was a money manager who had bought into the dangerous theories of people like Irving Fisher, Ralph Hawtrey and J. M. Keynes that central bankers should manipulate their currencies to stabilize the price level. The papers I have seen show that, far from being a money manager and a price-level stabilizer, Strong expressed strong reservations about policies for stabilizing the price level, and was more in sympathy with the old-fashioned gold standard than with the gold-exchange standard — the paradigm promoted by Hawtrey and Cassel and endorsed at the Genoa Conference of 1922. Rothbard’s selective quotation from the memorandum summarizing Strong’s 1928 conversation with Sir Arthur Salter, which I will discuss below, gives a very inaccurate impression of Strong’s position on money management.

Here are a few of the documents that caught my eye.

On November 28 1927, Montague Norman wrote Strong about their planned meeting in January at Algeciras, Spain. Norman makes the following suggestion:

Perhaps the chief uncertainty or danger which confronts Central Bankers on this side of the Atlantic over the next half dozen years is the purchasing power of gold and the general price level. If not an immediate, it is a very serious question and has been too little considered up to the present. Cassel, as you will remember, has held up his warning finger on many occasions against the dangers of a continuing fall in the price level and the Conference at Genoa as you will remember, suggested that the danger could be met or prevented, by a more general use of the “Gold Exchange Standard”.

This is a very abstruse and complicated problem which personally I do not pretend to understand, the more so as it is based on somewhat uncertain statistics. But I rely for information from the outside about such a subject as this not, as you might suppose, on McKenna or Keynes, but on Sir Henry Strakosch. I am not sure if you know him: Austrian origin: many years in Johannesburg: 20 years in this country: a student of economics: a gold producer with general financial interests: perhaps the main stay in setting up the South African Reserve Bank: a member of the Financial Committee of the League and of the Indian Currency Commission: full of public spirit, genial and helpful . . . and so forth. I have probably told you that if I had been a Dictator he would have been a Director here years ago.

This is a problem to which Strackosch has given much study and it alarms him. He would say that none of us are paying sufficient attention to the possibility of a future fall in prices or are taking precautions to prepare any remedy such as was suggested at Genoa, namely smaller gold reserves through the Gold Exchange Standard, and that you, in the long run, will feel any trouble just as much as the rest of the Central Bankers will feel it.

My suggestion therefore is that it might be helpful if I could persuade Strakoosch too to come to Algeciras for a week: his visit could be quite casual and you would not be committed to any intrigue with him.

I gather from the tone of this letter and from other indications that the demands by the French to convert their foreign exchange to gold were already being made on the Bank of England and were causing some degree of consternation in London, which is why Norman was hoping that Strakosch might persuade Strong that something ought to be done to get the French to moderate their demands on the Bank of England to convert claims on sterling into gold. In the event, Strong met with Strakosch in December (probably in New York, not in Algeciras, without the presence of Norman). Not long thereafter Strong’s health deteriorated, and he took an extended leave from his duties at the bank. On March 27, 1928 Strong sent a letter to Norman outlining the main points of his conversation with Strakosch:

What [Strakosch] told me leads me to believe that he holds the following views:

  • That there is an impending shortage of monetary gold.
  • That there is certain to be a decline in the production by the South African mines.
  • That in consequence there will be a competition for gold between banks of issue which will lead to high discount rates, contracting credit and falling world commodity prices.
  • That Europe is so burdened with debt as to make such a development calamitous, possibly bankrupting some nations.
  • That the remedy is an extensive and formal development of the gold exchange standard.

From the above you will doubtless agree with me that Strakosch is a 100% “quantity” theory man, that he holds Cassel’s views in regard to the world’s gold position, and that he is alarmed at the outlook, just as most of the strict quantity theory men are, and rather expects that the banks of issue can do something about it.

Just as an aside, I will note that Strong is here displaying a rather common confusion, mixing up the quantity theory with a theory about the value of money under a gold standard. It’s a confusion that not only laymen, but also economists such as (to pick out a name almost at random) Milton Friedman, are very prone to fall into.

What he tells me is proposed consists of:

  • A study by the Financial Section of the League [of Nations] of the progress of economic recovery in Europe, which, he asserts, has closely followed progress in the resumption of gold payment or its equivalent.
  • A study of the gold problem, apparently in the perspective of the views of Cassel and others.
  • The submission of the results, with possibly some suggestions of a constructive nature, to a meeting of the heads of the banks of issue. He did not disclose whether the meeting would be a belated “Genoa resolution” meeting or something different.

What I told him appeared to shock him, and it was in brief:

  • That I did not share the fears of Cassel and others as to a gold shortage.
  • That I did not think that the quantity theory of prices, such for instance as Fisher has elaborate, “reduction ad absurdum,” was always dependable if unadulterated!
  • That I thought the gold exchange standard as now developing was hazardous in the extreme if allowed to proceed very much further, because of the duplication of bank liabilities upon the same gold.
  • That I much preferred to see the central banks build up their actual gold metal reserves in their own hands to something like orthodox proportions, and adopt their own monetary and credit policy and execute it themselves.
  • That I thought a meeting of the banks of issue in the immediate future to discuss the particular matter would be inappropriate and premature, until the vicissitudes of the Dawes Plan had developed further.
  • That any formal meeting of the banks of issue, if and when called, should originate among themselves rather than through the League, that the Genoa resolution was certainly no longer operative, and that such formal meeting should confine itself very specifically at the outset first to developing a sound basis of information, and second, to devising improvement in technique in gold practice

I am not at all sure that any formal meeting should be held before another year has elapsed. If it is held within a year or after a year, I am quite certain that it I attended it I could not do so helpfully if it tacitly implied acceptance of the principles set out in the Genoa resolution.

Stratosch is a fine fellow: I like him immensely, but I would feel reluctant to join in discussions where there was likelihood that the views so strongly advocated by Fisher, Cassel, Keynes, Commons, and others would seem likely to prevail. I would be willing at the proper time, if objection were not raised at home, to attend a conference of the banks of issue, if we could agree at the outset upon a simple platform, i.e., that gold is an effective measure of value and medium of exchange. If these two principles are extended, as seems to be in Stratosch’s mind, to mean that a manipulation of gold and credit can be employed as a regulator of prices at all times and under all circumstances, then I fear fundamental differences are inescapable.

And here is a third document in a similar vein that is also worth looking at. It is a memorandum written by O. E. Moore (a member of Strong’s staff at the New York Fed) providing a detailed account of the May 25, 1928 conversation between Strong and Sir Arthur Salter, then head of the economic and financial section of the League of Nations, who came to New York to ask for Strong’s cooperation in calling a new conference (already hinted at by Strakosch in his December conversation with Strong) with a view toward limiting the international demand for gold. Salter handed Strong a copy of a report by a committee of the League of Nations warning of the dangers of a steep increase in the value of gold because of increasing demand and a declining production.

Strong responded with a historical rendition of international monetary developments since the end of World War I, pointing out that even before the war was over he had been convinced of the need for cooperation among the world’s central banks, but then adding that he had been opposed to the recommendation of the 1922 Genoa Conference (largely drafted by Hawtrey and Cassel).

Governor Strong had been opposed from the start to the conclusions reached at the Genoa Conference. So far as he was aware, no one had ever been able to show any proof that there was a world shortage of gold or that there was likely to be any such shortage in the near future. . . . He was also opposed to the permanent operation of the gold exchange standard as outlined by the Genoa Conference, because it would mean by virtue of the extensive credits which the exchange standard countries would be holding in the gold centers, that they would be taking away from each of those two centers the control of their own money markets. This was an impossible thing for the Federal Reserve System to accept, so far as the American market was concerned, and in fact it was out of the question for any important country, it seemed to him, to give up entirely the direction of its own market. . . .

As a further aside, I will just observe that Strong’s objection to the gold exchange standard, namely that it permits an indefinite expansion of the money supply, a given base of gold reserves being able to support an unlimited expansion of the quantity of money, is simply wrong as a matter of theory. A country running a balance-of-payments deficit under a gold-exchange standard would be no less subject to the constraint of an external drain, even if it is holding reserves only in the form of instruments convertible into gold rather than actual gold, than it would be if it were operating under a gold standard holding reserves in gold.

Although Strong was emphatic that he could not agree to participate in any conference in which the policies and actions of the US could be determined by the views of other countries, he was open to a purely fact-finding commission to ascertain what the total world gold reserves were and how those were distributed among the different official reserve holding institutions. He also added this interesting caveat:

Governor Strong added that, in his estimation, it was very important that the men who undertook to find the answers to these questions should not be mere theorists who would take issue on controversial points, and that it would be most unfortunate if the report of such a commission should result in giving color to the views of men like Keynes, Cassel, and Fisher regarding an impending world shortage of gold and the necessity of stabilizing the price level. . . .

Governor Strong mentioned that one thing which had made him more wary than ever of the policies advocated by these men was that when Professor Fisher wrote his book on “Stabilizing the Dollar”, he had first submitted the manuscript to him (Governor Strong) and that the proposal made in that original manuscript was to adjust the gold content of the dollar as often as once a week, which in his opinion showed just how theoretical this group of economists were.

Here Strong was displaying the condescending attitude toward academic theorizing characteristic of men of affairs, especially characteristic of brilliant and self-taught men of affairs. Whether such condescension is justified is a question for which there is no general answer. However, it is clear to me that Strong did not have an accurate picture of what was happening in 1928 and what dangers were lying ahead of him and the world in the last few months of his life. So the confidence of Friedman, Kindelberger, Fisher, and Hawtrey in Strong’s surpassing judgment does not seem to me to rest on any evidence that Strong actually understood the situation in 1928 and certainly not that he knew what to do about it. On the contrary he was committed to a policy that was leading to disaster, or at least, was not going to avoid disaster. The most that can be said is that he was at least informed about the dangers, and if he had lived long enough to observe that the dangers about which he had been warned were coming to pass, he would have had the wit and the good sense and the courage to change his mind and take the actions that might have avoided catastrophe. But that possibility is just a possibility, and we can hardly be sure that, in the counterfactual universe in which Strong does not die in 1928, the Great Depression never happened.

Milton Friedman, Monetarism, and the Great and Little Depressions

Brad Delong has a nice little piece bashing Milton Friedman, an activity that, within reasonable limits, I consider altogether commendable and like to engage in myself from time to time (see here, here, here, here, here , here, here, here, here and here). Citing Barry Eichengreen’s recent book Hall of Mirrors, Delong tries to lay the blame for our long-lasting Little Depression (aka Great Recession) on Milton Friedman and his disciples whose purely monetary explanation for the Great Depression caused the rest of us to neglect or ignore the work of Keynes and Minsky and their followers in explaining the Great Depression.

According to Eichengreen, the Great Depression and the Great Recession are related. The inadequate response to our current troubles can be traced to the triumph of the monetarist disciples of Milton Friedman over their Keynesian and Minskyite peers in describing the history of the Great Depression.

In A Monetary History of the United States, published in 1963, Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz famously argued that the Great Depression was due solely and completely to the failure of the US Federal Reserve to expand the country’s monetary base and thereby keep the economy on a path of stable growth. Had there been no decline in the money stock, their argument goes, there would have been no Great Depression.

This interpretation makes a certain kind of sense, but it relies on a critical assumption. Friedman and Schwartz’s prescription would have worked only if interest rates and what economists call the “velocity of money” – the rate at which money changes hands – were largely independent of one another.

What is more likely, however, is that the drop in interest rates resulting from the interventions needed to expand the country’s supply of money would have put a brake on the velocity of money, undermining the proposed cure. In that case, ending the Great Depression would have also required the fiscal expansion called for by John Maynard Keynes and the supportive credit-market policies prescribed by Hyman Minsky.

I’m sorry, but I find this criticism of Friedman and his followers just a bit annoying. Why? Well, there are a number of reasons, but I will focus on one: it perpetuates the myth that a purely monetary explanation of the Great Depression originated with Friedman.

Why is it a myth? Because it wasn’t Friedman who first propounded a purely monetary theory of the Great Depression. Nor did the few precursors, like Clark Warburton, that Friedman ever acknowledged. Ralph Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel did — 10 years before the start of the Great Depression in 1919, when they independently warned that going back on the gold standard at the post-World War I price level (in terms of gold) — about twice the pre-War price level — would cause a disastrous deflation unless the world’s monetary authorities took concerted action to reduce the international monetary demand for gold as countries went back on the gold standard to a level consistent with the elevated post-War price level. The Genoa Monetary Conference of 1922, inspired by the work of Hawtrey and Cassel, resulted in an agreement (unfortunately voluntary and non-binding) that, as countries returned to the gold standard, they would neither reintroduce gold coinage nor keep their monetary reserves in the form of physical gold, but instead would hold reserves in dollar or (once the gold convertibility of sterling was restored) pound-denominated assets. (Ron Batchelder and I have a paper discussing the work of Hawtrey and Casssel on the Great Depression; Doug Irwin has a paper discussing Cassel.)

After the short, but fierce, deflation of 1920-21 (see here and here), when the US (about the only country in the world then on the gold standard) led the world in reducing the price level by about a third, but still about two-thirds higher than the pre-War price level, the Genoa system worked moderately well until 1928 when the Bank of France, totally defying the Genoa Agreement, launched its insane policy of converting its monetary reserves into physical gold. As long as the US was prepared to accommodate the insane French gold-lust by permitting a sufficient efflux of gold from its own immense holdings, the Genoa system continued to function. But in late 1928 and 1929, the Fed, responding to domestic fears about a possible stock-market bubble, kept raising interest rates to levels not seen since the deflationary disaster of 1920-21. And sure enough, a 6.5% discount rate (just shy of the calamitous 7% rate set in 1920) reversed the flow of gold out of the US, and soon the US was accumulating gold almost as rapidly as the insane Bank of France was.

This was exactly the scenario against which Hawtrey and Cassel had been warning since 1919. They saw it happening, and watched in horror while their warnings were disregarded as virtually the whole world plunged blindly into a deflationary abyss. Keynes had some inkling of what was going on – he was an old friend and admirer of Hawtrey and had considerable regard for Cassel – but, for reasons I don’t really understand, Keynes was intent on explaining the downturn in terms of his own evolving theoretical vision of how the economy works, even though just about everything that was happening had already been foreseen by Hawtrey and Cassel.

More than a quarter of a century after the fact, and after the Keynesian Revolution in macroeconomics was well established, along came Friedman, woefully ignorant of pre-Keynesian monetary theory, but determined to show that the Keynesian explanation for the Great Depression was wrong and unnecessary. So Friedman came up with his own explanation of the Great Depression that did not even begin until December 1930 when the Fed allowed the Bank of United States to fail, triggering, in Friedman’s telling, a wave of bank failures that caused the US money supply to decline by a third by 1933. Rather than see the Great Depression as a global phenomenon caused by a massive increase in the world’s monetary demand for gold, Friedman portrayed it as a largely domestic phenomenon, though somehow linked to contemporaneous downturns elsewhere, for which the primary explanation was the Fed’s passivity in the face of contagious bank failures. Friedman, mistaking the epiphenomenon for the phenomenon itself, ignorantly disregarded the monetary theory of the Great Depression that had already been worked out by Hawtrey and Cassel and substituted in its place a simplistic, dumbed-down version of the quantity theory. So Friedman reinvented the wheel, but did a really miserable job of it.

A. C. Pigou, Alfred Marshall’s student and successor at Cambridge, was a brilliant and prolific economic theorist in his own right. In his modesty and reverence for his teacher, Pigou was given to say “It’s all in Marshall.” When it comes to explaining the Great Depression, one might say as well “it’s all in Hawtrey.”

So I agree that Delong is totally justified in criticizing Friedman and his followers for giving such a silly explanation of the Great Depression, as if it were, for all intents and purposes, made in the US, and as if the Great Depression didn’t really start until 1931. But the problem with Friedman is not, as Delong suggests, that he distracted us from the superior insights of Keynes and Minsky into the causes of the Great Depression. The problem is that Friedman botched the monetary theory, even though the monetary theory had already been worked out for him if only he had bothered to read it. But Friedman’s interest in the history of monetary theory did not extend very far, if at all, beyond an overrated book by his teacher Lloyd Mints A History of Banking Theory.

As for whether fiscal expansion called for by Keynes was necessary to end the Great Depression, we do know that the key factor explaining recovery from the Great Depression was leaving the gold standard. And the most important example of the importance of leaving the gold standard is the remarkable explosion of output in the US beginning in April 1933 (surely before expansionary fiscal policy could take effect) following the suspension of the gold standard by FDR and an effective 40% devaluation of the dollar in terms of gold. Between April and July 1933, industrial production in the US increased by 70%, stock prices nearly doubled, employment rose by 25%, while wholesale prices rose by 14%. All that is directly attributable to FDR’s decision to take the US off gold, and devalue the dollar (see here). Unfortunately, in July 1933, FDR snatched defeat from the jaws of victory (or depression from the jaws of recovery) by starting the National Recovery Administration, whose stated goal was (OMG!) to raise prices by cartelizing industries and restricting output, while imposing a 30% increase in nominal wages. That was enough to bring the recovery to a virtual standstill, prolonging the Great Depression for years.

I don’t say that the fiscal expansion under FDR had no stimulative effect in the Great Depression or that the fiscal expansion under Obama in the Little Depression had no stimulative effect, but you can’t prove that monetary policy is useless just by reminding us that Friedman liked to assume (as if it were a fact) that the demand for money is highly insensitive to changes in the rate of interest. The difference between the rapid recovery from the Great Depression when countries left the gold standard and the weak recovery from the Little Depression is that leaving the gold standard had an immediate effect on price-level expectations, while monetary expansion during the Little Depression was undertaken with explicit assurances by the monetary authorities that the 2% inflation target – in the upper direction, at any rate — was, and would forever more remain, sacred and inviolable.

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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