Archive for the 'Milton Friedman' Category

The Near Irrelevance of the Vertical Long-Run Phillips Curve

From a discussion about how much credit Milton Friedman deserves for changing the way that economists thought about inflation, I want to nudge the conversation in a slightly different direction, to restate a point that I made some time ago in one of my favorite posts (The Lucas Critique Revisited). But if Friedman taught us anything it is that incessant repetition of the same already obvious point can do wonders for your reputation. That’s one lesson from Milton that I am willing to take to heart, though my tolerance for hearing myself say the same darn thing over and over again is probably not as great as Friedman’s was, which to be sure is not the only way in which I fall short of him by comparison. (I am almost a foot taller than he was by the way). Speaking of being a foot taller than Friedman, I don’t usually post pictures on this blog, but here is one that I have always found rather touching. And if you don’t know who the other guy is in the picture, you have no right to call yourself an economist.

friedman_&_StiglerAt any rate, the expectations augmented, long-run Phillips Curve, as we all know, was shown by Friedman to be vertical. But what exactly does it mean for the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve to be vertical? Discussions about whether the evidence supports the proposition that the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is vertical (including some of the comments on my recent posts) suggest that people are not clear on what “long-run” means in the context of the expectations-augmented Phillips Curve and have not really thought carefully about what empirical content is contained by the proposition that the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is vertical.

Just to frame the discussion of the Phillips Curve, let’s talk about what the term “long-run” means in economics. What it certainly does not mean is an amount of calendar time, though I won’t deny that there are frequent attempts to correlate long-run with varying durations of calendar time. But all such attempts either completely misunderstand what the long-run actually represents, or they merely aim to provide the untutored with some illusion of concreteness in what is otherwise a completely abstract discussion. In fact, what “long run” connotes is simply a full transition from one equilibrium state to another in the context of a comparative-statics exercise.

If a change in some exogenous parameter is imposed on a pre-existing equilibrium, then the long-run represents the full transition to a new equilibrium in which all endogenous variables have fully adjusted to the parameter change. The short-run, then, refers to some intermediate adjustment to the parameter change in which some endogenous variables have been arbitrarily held fixed (presumably because of some possibly reasonable assumption that some variables are able to adjust more speedily than other variables to the posited parameter change).

Now the Phillips Curve that was discovered by A. W. Phillips in his original paper was a strictly empirical relation between observed (wage) inflation and observed unemployment. But the expectations-augmented long-run Phillips Curve is a theoretical construct. And what it represents is certainly not an observable relationship between inflation and unemployment; it rather is a locus of points of equilibrium, each point representing full adjustment of the labor market to a particular rate of inflation, where full adjustment means that the rate of inflation is fully anticipated by all economic agents in the model. So what the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is telling us is that if we perform a series of comparative-statics exercises in which, starting from full equilibrium with the given rate of inflation fully expected, we impose on the system a parameter change in which the exogenously imposed rate of inflation is changed and deduce a new equilibrium in which the fully and universally expected rate of inflation equals the alternative exogenously imposed inflation parameter, the equilibrium rate of unemployment corresponding to the new inflation parameter will not differ from the equilibrium rate of unemployment corresponding to the original inflation parameter.

Notice, as well, that the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is not saying that imposing a new rate of inflation on an actual economic system would lead to a new equilibrium in which there was no change in unemployment; it is merely comparing alternative equilibria of the same system with different exogenously imposed rates of inflation. To make a statement about the effect of a change in the rate of inflation on unemployment, one has to be able to specify an adjustment path in moving from one equilibrium to another. The comparative-statics method says nothing about the adjustment path; it simply compares two alternative equilibrium states and specifies the change in endogenous variable induced by the change in an exogenous parameter.

So the vertical shape of the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve tells us very little about how, in any given situation, a change in the rate of inflation would actually affect the rate of unemployment. Not only does the expectations-augmented long-run Phillips Curve fail to tell us how a real system starting from equilibrium would be affected by a change in the rate of inflation, the underlying comparative-statics exercise being unable to specify the adjustment path taken by a system once it departs from its original equilibrium state, the expectations augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is even less equipped to tell us about the adjustment to a change in the rate of inflation when a system is not even in equilibrium to begin with.

The entire discourse of the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is completely divorced from the kinds of questions that policy makers in the real world usually have to struggle with – questions like will increasing the rate of inflation of an economy in which there is abnormally high unemployment facilitate or obstruct the adjustment process that takes the economy back to a more normal unemployment rate. The expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve may not be completely irrelevant to the making of economic policy – it is good to know, for example, that if we are trying to figure out which time path of NGDP to aim for, there is no particular reason to think that a time path with a 10% rate of growth of NGDP would probably not generate a significantly lower rate of unemployment than a time path with a 5% rate of growth – but its relationship to reality is sufficiently tenuous that it is irrelevant to any discussion of policy alternatives for economies unless those economies are already close to being in equilibrium.

Did David Hume Discover the Vertical Phillips Curve?

In my previous post about Nick Rowe and Milton Friedman, I pointed out to Nick Rowe that Friedman (and Phelps) did not discover the argument that the long-run Phillips Curve, defined so that every rate of inflation is correctly expected, is vertical. The argument I suggested can be traced back at least to Hume. My claim on Hume’s behalf was based on my vague recollection that Hume distinguished between the effect of a high price level and a rising price level, a high price level having no effect on output and employment, while a rising price level increases output and employment.

Scott Sumner offered the following comment, leaving it as an exercise for the reader to figure out what he meant by “didn’t quite get there.”:

As you know Friedman is one of the few areas where we disagree. Here I’ll just address one point, the expectations augmented Phillips Curve. Although I love Hume, he didn’t quite get there, although he did discuss the simple Phillips Curve.

I wrote the following response to Scott referring to the quote that I was thinking of without quoting it verbatim (because I couldn’t remember where to find it):

There is a wonderful quote by Hume about how low prices or high prices are irrelevant to total output, profits and employment, but that unexpected increases in prices are a stimulus to profits, output, and employment. I’ll look for it, and post it.

Nick Rowe then obligingly provided the quotation I was thinking of (but not all of it):

Here, to my mind, is the “money quote” (pun not originally intended) from David Hume’s “Of Money”:

“From the whole of this reasoning we may conclude, that it is of no manner of consequence, with regard to the domestic happiness of a state, whether money be in a greater or less quantity. The good policy of the magistrate consists only in keeping it, if possible, still encreasing; because, by that means, he keeps alive a spirit of industry in the nation, and encreases the stock of labour, in which consists all real power and riches.”

The first sentence is fine. But the second sentence is very clearly a problem.

Was it Friedman who said “we have only advanced one derivative since Hume”?

OK, so let’s see the whole relevant quotation from Hume’s essay “Of Money.”

Accordingly we find, that, in every kingdom, into which money begins to flow in greater abundance than formerly, everything takes a new face: labour and industry gain life; the merchant becomes more enterprising, the manufacturer more diligent and skilful, and even the farmer follows his plough with greater alacrity and attention. This is not easily to be accounted for, if we consider only the influence which a greater abundance of coin has in the kingdom itself, by heightening the price of Commodities, and obliging everyone to pay a greater number of these little yellow or white pieces for everything he purchases. And as to foreign trade, it appears, that great plenty of money is rather disadvantageous, by raising the price of every kind of labour.

To account, then, for this phenomenon, we must consider, that though the high price of commodities be a necessary consequence of the encrease of gold and silver, yet it follows not immediately upon that encrease; but some time is required before the money circulates through the whole state, and makes its effect be felt on all ranks of people. At first, no alteration is perceived; by degrees the price rises, first of one commodity, then of another; till the whole at last reaches a just proportion with the new quantity of specie which is in the kingdom. In my opinion, it is only in this interval or intermediate situation, between the acquisition of money and rise of prices, that the encreasing quantity of gold and silver is favourable to industry. When any quantity of money is imported into a nation, it is not at first dispersed into many hands; but is confined to the coffers of a few persons, who immediately seek to employ it to advantage. Here are a set of manufacturers or merchants, we shall suppose, who have received returns of gold and silver for goods which they sent to CADIZ. They are thereby enabled to employ more workmen than formerly, who never dream of demanding higher wages, but are glad of employment from such good paymasters. If workmen become scarce, the manufacturer gives higher wages, but at first requires an encrease of labour; and this is willingly submitted to by the artisan, who can now eat and drink better, to compensate his additional toil and fatigue.

He carries his money to market, where he, finds everything at the same price as formerly, but returns with greater quantity and of better kinds, for the use of his family. The farmer and gardener, finding, that all their commodities are taken off, apply themselves with alacrity to the raising more; and at the same time can afford to take better and more cloths from their tradesmen, whose price is the same as formerly, and their industry only whetted by so much new gain. It is easy to trace the money in its progress through the whole commonwealth; where we shall find, that it must first quicken the diligence of every individual, before it encrease the price of labour. And that the specie may encrease to a considerable pitch, before it have this latter effect, appears, amongst other instances, from the frequent operations of the FRENCH king on the money; where it was always found, that the augmenting of the numerary value did not produce a proportional rise of the prices, at least for some time. In the last year of LOUIS XIV, money was raised three-sevenths, but prices augmented only one. Corn in FRANCE is now sold at the same price, or for the same number of livres, it was in 1683; though silver was then at 30 livres the mark, and is now at 50. Not to mention the great addition of gold and silver, which may have come into that kingdom since the former period.

From the whole of this reasoning we may conclude, that it is of no manner of consequence, with regard to the domestic happiness of a state, whether money be in a greater or less quantity. The good policy of the magistrate consists only in keeping it, if possible, still encreasing; because, by that means, he keeps alive a spirit of industry in the nation, and encreases the stock of labour, in which consists all real power and riches. A nation, whose money decreases, is actually, at that time, weaker and more miserable than another nation, which possesses no more money, but is on the encreasing hand. This will be easily accounted for, if we consider, that the alterations in the quantity of money, either on one side or the other, are not immediately attended with proportionable alterations in the price of commodities. There is always an interval before matters be adjusted to their new situation; and this interval is as pernicious to industry, when gold and silver are diminishing, as it is advantageous when these metals are encreasing. The workman has not the same employment from the manufacturer and merchant; though he pays the same price for everything in the market. The farmer cannot dispose of his corn and cattle; though he must pay the same rent to his landlord. The poverty, and beggary, and sloth, which must ensue, are easily foreseen.

So Hume understands that once-and-for-all increases in the stock of money and in the price level are neutral, and also that in the transition from one price level to another, there will be a transitory effect on output and employment. However, when he says that the good policy of the magistrate consists only in keeping it, if possible, still increasing; because, by that means, he keeps alive a spirit of industry in the nation, he seems to be suggesting that the long-run Phillips Curve is actually positively sloped, thus confirming Milton Friedman (and Nick Rowe and Scott Sumner) in saying that Hume was off by one derivative.

While I think that is a fair reading of Hume, it is not the only one, because Hume really was thinking in terms of price levels, not rates of inflation. The idea that a good magistrate would keep the stock of money increasing could not have meant that the rate of inflation would indefinitely continue at a particular rate, only that the temporary increase in the price level would be extended a while longer. So I don’t think that Hume would ever have imagined that there could be a steady predicted rate of inflation lasting for an indefinite period of time. If he could have imagined a steady rate of inflation, I think he would have understood the simple argument that, once expected, the steady rate of inflation would not permanently increase output and employment.

At any rate, even if Hume did not explicitly anticipate Friedman’s argument for a vertical long-run Phillips Curve, certainly there many economists before Friedman who did. I will quote just one example from a source (Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty) that predates Friedman by about eight years. There is every reason to think that Friedman was familiar with the source, Hayek having been Friedman’s colleague at the University of Chicago between 1950 and 1962. The following excerpt is from p. 331 of the 1960 edition.

Inflation at first merely produces conditions in which more people make profits and in which profits are generally larger than usual. Almost everything succeeds, there are hardly any failures. The fact that profits again and again prove to be greater than had been expected and that an unusual number of ventures turn out to be successful produces a general atmosphere favorable to risk-taking. Even those who would have been driven out of business without the windfalls caused by the unexpected general rise in prices are able to hold on and to keep their employees in the expectation that they will soon share in the general prosperity. This situation will last, however, only until people begin to expect prices to continue to rise at the same rate. Once they begin to count on prices being so many per cent higher in so many months’ time, they will bid up the prices of the factors of production which determine the costs to a level corresponding to the future prices they expect. If prices then rise no more than had been expected, profits will return to normal, and the proportion of those making a profit also will fall; and since, during the period of exceptionally large profits, many have held on who would otherwise have been forced to change the direction of their efforts, a higher proportion than usual will suffer losses.

The stimulating effect of inflation will thus operate only so long as it has not been foreseen; as soon as it comes to be foreseen, only its continuation at an increased rate will maintain the same degree of prosperity. If in such a situation price rose less than expected, the effect would be the same as that of unforeseen deflation. Even if they rose only as much as was generally expected, this would no longer provide the expectational stimulus but would lay bare the whole backlog of adjustments that had been postponed while the temporary stimulus lasted. In order for inflation to retain its initial stimulating effect, it would have to continue at a rate always faster than expected.

This was certainly not the first time that Hayek made the same argument. See his Studies in Philosophy Politics and Economics, p. 295-96 for a 1958 version of the argument. Is there any part of Friedman’s argument in his 1968 essay (“The Role of Monetary Policy“) not contained in the quote from Hayek? Nor is there anything to indicate that Hayek thought he was making an argument that was not already familiar. The logic is so obvious that it is actually pointless to look for someone who “discovered” it. If Friedman somehow gets credit for making the discovery, it is simply because he was the one who made the argument at just the moment when the rest of the profession happened to be paying attention.

Nick Rowe Goes Bonkers over Milton Friedman

Nick Rowe, usually a very cool guy, recently wrote a gushing post about the awesomeness of Milton Friedman. How uncool of him. As followers of this blog may know, even though I like free markets, am skeptical of big government programs, believe that the business cycle is largely a monetary phenomenon, I am not a fan of Milton Friedman. So I am going to offer some comments about Nick’s panegyric to Friedman.

I can’t think of any economist living today who has had as much influence on economics and economic policy as Milton Friedman had, and still has. Neither on the right, nor on the left.

Bob Lucas and Ned Prescott have not had as much influence on modern macroeconomics as Milton Friedman? I am less of a fan of  Lucas and Prescott than I am of Friedman, but surely Nick can’t be serious.

If you had a time machine, went back to (say) 1985, picked up Milton Friedman, brought him forward to 2015, and showed him the current debate over macroeconomic policy, he could immediately join right in. Is there anything important that would be really new to him?

We are all Friedman’s children and grandchildren. The way that New Keynesians approach macroeconomics owes more to Friedman than to Keynes: the permanent income hypothesis; the expectations-augmented Phillips Curve; the idea that the central bank is responsible for inflation and should follow a transparent rule. The first two Friedman invented; the third pre-dates Friedman, but he persuaded us it was right. Using the nominal interest rate as the monetary policy instrument is non-Friedmanite, but the new-fangled “Quantitative Easing” is just a silly new name for Friedmanite base-control.

Certainly Friedman looms large, and New Keynesianism is indeed a way of rationalizing the price and wage stickiness that Friedman, like so many others, relied on to account for the correlation between downward cyclical movements in nominal GDP, or in its rate of growth, and real GDP. To be sure the permanent-income hypothesis was a great achievement, for it wasn’t just Friedman’s, but the expectations-augmented Phillips Curve was anticipated by far too many people (including David Hume) for Friedman to be given very much credit. He certainly gave an influential statement of the reasoning behind the expectations-augmented Phillips Curve, but that hardly counts as a breakthrough. So of the three key elements of New Keynesianism for which Nick credits Friedman only one was (co-)invented by Friedman; the other two were promoted by Friedman, and he certainly influenced the profession, but they were ideas already out there, when he picked them up. And just what does Nick mean by “Friedmanite base-control?” That Friedman invented open-market operations? Good grief!

Then Nick waxes nostalgic:

We easily forget how daft the 1970’s really were, and some ideas were much worse than pet rocks. (Marxism was by far the worst, of course, and had a lot of support amongst university intellectuals, though not much in economics departments.) When inflation was too high, and we wanted to bring inflation down, many (most?) macroeconomists advocated direct controls on prices and wages.

And governments in Canada, the US, the UK (there must have been more) actually implemented direct controls on prices and wages to bring inflation down. Milton Friedman actually had to argue against price and wage controls and against the prevailing wisdom that inflation was caused by monopoly power, monopoly unions, a grab-bag of sociological factors, and had nothing to do with monetary policy.

Many economists unfortunately either supported, or did not forthrightly oppose, wage and price controls when they were imposed successively in the US, UK and Canada in the early 1970s. And Friedman was certainly right to oppose them, and deserves credit for speaking out eloquently against them. But their failure became palpable to most economists, and it is not as if Friedman required any special insight to see the underlying fallacy that Nick nicely articulates. He was just straightforwardly applying Econ 101.

Imagine if I argued today: “Inflation is dangerously low. In order to increase inflation, governments should pass a law saying that all firms must raise all prices and wages by a minimum of 2% a year, unless they apply for and get special permission from the Prices and Incomes Board to raise them by less.” What are the chances my policy proposal would be accepted?

I hope zero, but are we indebted to Friedman for any argument against wage and price controls that was not understood by economists long before Friedman appeared on the scene?

Friedman had a mountain to move, and he moved it. And because he already moved it, we simply cannot have a Friedman today.

Great men like Friedman require a great job to do, or else they can’t become great men. They also require an aristocracy, oligarchy, or monarchy, where only a few voices can get heard, or else they can’t become one of the few voices. The internet actually makes it harder to create great public intellectuals, which is probably a good thing, simply because it’s harder to stand out as great, when there’s lots of competition.

The right won the economics debate; left and right are just haggling over details. The big debate is no longer about economics (sadly for me); and it won’t be held on the pages of the New York Times or in the economics journals.

Actually I agree with Nick that Friedman was a great man and a great economist. He did make a difference, but the difference was not mainly the result of any important theoretical discoveries or contributions, his theory of the consumption function being his main theoretical contribution. Otherwise, he was a great applied and empirical economist, specializing in US monetary history, but his knowledge of the history of monetary theory was sketchy, causing him to make huge blunders in describing the quantity theory of money as a theory of the demand for money, and in suggesting that his 1956 restatement of the quantity theory was inspired by an imagined Chicago oral tradition, when, in fact, his restatement was a reworking of the Cambridge theory of the demand for money that Keynes had turned into his theory of liquidity preference. He hardly cited the work of earlier monetary theorists, aside from Keynes and Irving Fisher, completely ignoring the monetary theory of Hawtrey and Hawtrey’s monetary explanation of the Great Depression, which preceded Friedman’s by some 30 years. Friedman also wrote a famous paper repackaging a slightly dumbed down version of Karl Popper’s philosophy of science as the methodology of positive economics, without acknowledging Popper, an omission that he seems never to have been called on. But his industriousness and diligence were epic, he had a fine intellect and a true mastery of microeconomic theory, coupled with great empirical and statistical insight when applying theory. His ability to express himself cogently and forcefully in writing and in speech was remarkable, and he had a gift for strategic simplification, which unfortunately often led him to convenient oversimplification. Nor do I doubt that he was sincerely motivated by an idealistic dedication to his conception of free-market principles, which he expounded and defended tirelessly.

Nick seems to believe that because hardly any younger economists recognize then name J. K. Galbraith, and because no one any longer advocates imposing wage and price controls to control or speed up inflation, it is obvious that the right won the economics debate. I don’t entirely disagree with that, but I do think it is more complicated than that, the terms right and left being far too limited to portray a complex reality. Galbraith believed that the book he published in 1967 The New Industrial State was going to demonstrate the market economics was a snare and a delusion, because both the Soviet Union and the US were moving toward an economic system dominated by huge enterprises that engaged in long-term planning and were able to impose their plans on unwilling consumers and workers. The most devastating review of Galbraith’s book was published in the June 1968 edition of The Economic Journal by James Meade, an eminent British economist who had been a close disciple of Keynes at Cambridge, and was a kind of market socialist, or a self-described LibLaberal. The entire essay is worth reading, but I just want to highlight a few excerpts from it.

This argument for a national indicative plan is strangely overlooked by Professor Galbraith. Indeed, there is a great hiatus in his analysis of the economic system as a whole or, perhaps more accurately, in his implied analysis of what the economic system as a whole would be like when virtually the whole of it was controlled by large modern corporations. Professor Galbraith asserts that each modern corporation plans ahead the quantities of the various products which it will produce and the prices at which it will sell them; he assumes we will discuss this assumption later that as a general rule each corporation through its advertising and other sales activi-ties can so mould consumers’ demands that these planned quantities are actually sold at these planned prices. But he never explains why and by what mechanism these individual plans can be expected to build up into a coherent whole. . . .

In short, if all individual plans are to be simultaneously fulfilled they must in the first instance be consistent. But Professor Galbraith never considers this problem. It is a strange oversight in a modern professional economist-to overlook the problem of general, as contrasted with particular, equilibrium. (pp. 377-78)

Professor Galbraith writes always as if planning meant deciding in advance what should be produced and sold, in what quantities, at what cost and at what prices, and then taking effective steps to ensure that quantities and prices of inputs and outputs developed in precisely this way, and as if the market mechanism meant taking no thought for the morrow, taking no initiative in planning ahead the introduction of new products and processes, but just waiting for consumers to come to the firm and order a new car of such-and-such a bespoke design. It is by silly contrasts of this kind that Professor Galbraith pokes fun at his professional colleagues. (p. 382)

In the modern complex economy there are two major forces at work. One of these is that which Professor Galbraith rightly emphasises, namely the increased need for careful forward planning in a system which involves the commitment of large resources to inflexible uses over long periods of time.

But there is a second and equally important trend, which he entirely neglects: namely, the increased need in the modern industrial economy for a price mechanism, that is to say for reliance on a system of prices as a signaling device to indicate to producers and consumers what is and what is not scarce. This increased need for a price mechanism arises because in the modern industrial system input-output relationships have become so complex and the differentiation between products (many of which are the technically sophisticated inputs of other productive processes) has become so manifold that simple quantitative planning without a price or market mechanism becomes increasingly clumsy and inefficient. Moreover, this increased need for a signaling system through prices is occurring at a time when advances in mathematical economics and in the electronic and other technologies for measuring and metering have made a great extension of the price mechanism possible. Public authorities begin to make serious quantitative cost-benefit studies where previously pure hunches would have had to serve; and we nowadays seriously consider as, for example, in electronic metering devices for charging for the use of road space by motor vehicles-extensions of the use of pricing which would previously have been considered technologically impossible.

The particular brand of conventional wisdom which Professor Galbraith promotes in his recent book overlooks all these increased needs and opportunities for the use of the price mechanism. But many of the planned socialist societies are not falling into this error. Experiments which they are making in such devices as setting the maximisation of profit as the success criterion for the managers of socialised plants, in the direct use of the free market as in Yugoslavia, and generally in an increased reliance on price-mechanism indicators for many decentralised decisions constitute an undoubtedly significant development. The use of the price mechanism is, of course, not the same thing as the use of a market mechanism. A completely planned socialist economy could theoretically be run without any markets at all but with a complete system of “shadow prices” to measure relative scarcities and to be used as the decisive indicators for the adjustments to be made in the economy’s quantitative planned inputs and outputs. But in many, though not of course in all, cases an actual market mechanism will be found to be institutionally the best way of operating a price mechanism. There are many degrees and forms of such extensions of the market; for example, in some cases the prices at which transactions take place might be centrally controlled and adjusted, while in others they might be freely determined by supply and demand in the market. But in one form or an-other increased reliance on a price mechanism does imply increased reliance at least on something closely analogous to a market mechanism.

Professor Galbraith expressly denies that recent developments in the socialist countries have any significant connections with the use of the market as a controlling device. This denial would, by the uncouth, be called drivel-if I may be permitted to use Professor Galbraith’s own expression. But he has to hold this view simply because the socialist countries continue to plan while he, drawing no distinction between the price mechanism and a market mechanism, believes that one can have either planning or a market-price mechanism but not both. In fact, “planning and the price mechanism” not “planning or the price mechanism” should be a central theme of every modern economist’s work. (pp. 391-92)

In his 1977 Nobel Lecture, as Marcus Nunes informed us a few days ago, Meade explicitly advocated targeting nominal GDP writing as follows:

I have told this particular story simply to make the point that the choice between fiscal action and monetary action must often depend upon basic policy issues which should certainly be the responsibility of the government rather than of any independent monetary authority. Perhaps the best compromise is an independent monetary authority charged so to manage the money supply and the market rate of interest as to maintain the growth of total money income on its 5-per-cent-per-annum target path, after taking into account whatever fiscal policies the government may adopt.

So let me ask Nick the following: Was Meade right or left? And was he on the winning side or the losing side?

Krugman on the Volcker Disinflation

Earlier in the week, Paul Krugman wrote about the Volcker disinflation of the 1980s. Krugman’s annoyance at Stephen Moore (whom Krugman flatters by calling him an economist) and John Cochrane (whom Krugman disflatters by comparing him to Stephen Moore) is understandable, but he has less excuse for letting himself get carried away in an outburst of Keynesian triumphalism.

Right-wing economists like Stephen Moore and John Cochrane — it’s becoming ever harder to tell the difference — have some curious beliefs about history. One of those beliefs is that the experience of disinflation in the 1980s was a huge shock to Keynesians, refuting everything they believed. What makes this belief curious is that it’s the exact opposite of the truth. Keynesians came into the Volcker disinflation — yes, it was mainly the Fed’s doing, not Reagan’s — with a standard, indeed textbook, model of what should happen. And events matched their expectations almost precisely.

I’ve been cleaning out my library, and just unearthed my copy of Dornbusch and Fischer’s Macroeconomics, first edition, copyright 1978. Quite a lot of that book was concerned with inflation and disinflation, using an adaptive-expectations Phillips curve — that is, an assumed relationship in which the current inflation rate depends on the unemployment rate and on lagged inflation. Using that approach, they laid out at some length various scenarios for a strategy of reducing the rate of money growth, and hence eventually reducing inflation. Here’s one of their charts, with the top half showing inflation and the bottom half showing unemployment:

Not the cleanest dynamics in the world, but the basic point should be clear: cutting inflation would require a temporary surge in unemployment. Eventually, however, unemployment could come back down to more or less its original level; this temporary surge in unemployment would deliver a permanent reduction in the inflation rate, because it would change expectations.

And here’s what the Volcker disinflation actually looked like:

A temporary but huge surge in unemployment, with inflation coming down to a sustained lower level.

So were Keynesian economists feeling amazed and dismayed by the events of the 1980s? On the contrary, they were feeling pretty smug: disinflation had played out exactly the way the models in their textbooks said it should.

Well, this is true, but only up to a point. What Krugman neglects to mention, which is why the Volcker disinflation is not widely viewed as having enhanced the Keynesian forecasting record, is that most Keynesians had opposed the Reagan tax cuts, and one of their main arguments was that the tax cuts would be inflationary. However, in the Reagan-Volcker combination of loose fiscal policy and tight money, it was tight money that dominated. Score one for the Monetarists. The rapid drop in inflation, though accompanied by high unemployment, was viewed as a vindication of the Monetarist view that inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon, a view which now seems pretty commonplace, but in the 1970s and 1980s was hotly contested, including by Keynesians.

However, the (Friedmanian) Monetarist view was only partially vindicated, because the Volcker disinflation was achieved by way of high interest rates not by tightly controlling the money supply. As I have written before on this blog (here and here) and in chapter 10 of my book on free banking (especially, pp. 214-21), Volcker actually tried very hard to slow down the rate of growth in the money supply, but the attempt to implement a k-percent rule induced perverse dynamics, creating a precautionary demand for money whenever monetary growth overshot the target range, the anticipation of an imminent future tightening causing people, fearful that cash would soon be unavailable, to hoard cash by liquidating assets before the tightening. The scenario played itself out repeatedly in the 1981-82 period, when the most closely watched economic or financial statistic in the world was the Fed’s weekly report of growth in the money supply, with growth rates over the target range being associated with falling stock and commodities prices. Finally, in the summer of 1982, Volcker announced that the Fed would stop trying to achieve its money growth targets, and the great stock market rally of the 1980s took off, and economic recovery quickly followed.

So neither the old-line Keynesian dismissal of monetary policy as irrelevant to the control of inflation, nor the Monetarist obsession with controlling the monetary aggregates fared very well in the aftermath of the Volcker disinflation. The result was the New Keynesian focus on monetary policy as the key tool for macroeconomic stabilization, except that monetary policy no longer meant controlling a targeted monetary aggregate, but controlling a targeted interest rate (as in the Taylor rule).

But Krugman doesn’t mention any of this, focusing instead on the conflicts among  non-Keynesians.

Indeed, it was the other side of the macro divide that was left scrambling for answers. The models Chicago was promoting in the 1970s, based on the work of Robert Lucas and company, said that unemployment should have come down quickly, as soon as people realized that the Fed really was bringing down inflation.

Lucas came to Chicago in 1975, and he was the wave of the future at Chicago, but it’s not as if Friedman disappeared; after all, he did win the Nobel Prize in 1976. And although Friedman did not explicitly attack Lucas, it’s clear that, to his credit, Friedman never bought into the rational-expectations revolution. So although Friedman may have been surprised at the depth of the 1981-82 recession – in part attributable to the perverse effects of the money-supply targeting he had convinced the Fed to adopt – the adaptive-expectations model in the Dornbusch-Fischer macro textbook is as much Friedmanian as Keynesian. And by the way, Dornbush and Fischer were both at Chicago in the mid 1970s when the first edition of their macro text was written.

By a few years into the 80s it was obvious that those models were unsustainable in the face of the data. But rather than admit that their dismissal of Keynes was premature, most of those guys went into real business cycle theory — basically, denying that the Fed had anything to do with recessions. And from there they just kept digging ever deeper into the rabbit hole.

But anyway, what you need to know is that the 80s were actually a decade of Keynesian analysis triumphant.

I am just as appalled as Krugman by the real-business-cycle episode, but it was as much a rejection of Friedman, and of all other non-Keynesian monetary theory, as of Keynes. So the inspiring morality tale spun by Krugman in which the hardy band of true-blue Keynesians prevail against those nasty new classical barbarians is a bit overdone and vastly oversimplified.

Forget the Monetary Base and Just Pay Attention to the Price Level

Kudos to David Beckworth for eliciting a welcome concession or clarification from Paul Krugman that monetary policy is not necessarily ineffectual at the zero lower bound. The clarification is welcome because Krugman and Simon Wren Lewis seemed to be making a big deal about insisting that monetary policy at the zero lower bound is useless if it affects only the current, but not the future, money supply, and touting the discovery as if it were a point that was not already well understood.

Now it’s true that Krugman is entitled to take credit for having come up with an elegant way of showing the difference between a permanent and a temporary increase in the monetary base, but it’s a point that, WADR, was understood even before Krugman. See, for example, the discussion in chapter 5 of Jack Hirshleifer’s textbook on capital theory (published in 1970), Investment, Interest and Capital, showing that the Fisher equation follows straightforwardly in an intertemporal equilibrium model, so that the nominal interest rate can be decomposed into a real component and an expected-inflation component. If holding money is costless, then the nominal rate of interest cannot be negative, and expected deflation cannot exceed the equilibrium real rate of interest. This implies that, at the zero lower bound, the current price level cannot be raised without raising the future price level proportionately. That is all Krugman was saying in asserting that monetary policy is ineffective at the zero lower bound, even though he couched the analysis in terms of the current and future money supplies rather than in terms of the current and future price levels. But the entire argument is implicit in the Fisher equation. And contrary to Krugman, the IS-LM model (with which I am certainly willing to coexist) offers no unique insight into this proposition; it would be remarkable if it did, because the IS-LM model in essence is a static model that has to be re-engineered to be used in an intertemporal setting.

Here is how Hirshleifer concludes his discussion:

The simple two-period model of choice between dated consumptive goods and dated real liquidities has been shown to be sufficiently comprehensive as to display both the quantity theorists’ and the Keynesian theorists’ predicted results consequent upon “changes in the money supply.” The seeming contradiction is resolved by noting that one result or the other follows, or possibly some mixture of the two, depending upon the precise meaning of the phrase “changes in the quantity of money.” More exactly, the result follows from the assumption made about changes in the time-distributed endowments of money and consumption goods.  pp. 150-51

Another passage from Hirshleifer is also worth quoting:

Imagine a financial “panic.” Current money is very scarce relative to future money – and so monetary interest rates are very high. The monetary authorities might then provide an increment [to the money stock] while announcing that an equal aggregate amount of money would be retired at some date thereafter. Such a change making current money relatively more plentiful (or less scarce) than before in comparison with future money, would clearly tend to reduce the monetary rate of interest. (p. 149)

In this passage Hirshleifer accurately describes the objective of Fed policy since the crisis: provide as much liquidity as needed to prevent a panic, but without even trying to generate a substantial increase in aggregate demand by increasing inflation or expected inflation. The refusal to increase aggregate demand was implicit in the Fed’s refusal to increase its inflation target.

However, I do want to make explicit a point of disagreement between me and Hirshleifer, Krugman and Beckworth. The point is more conceptual than analytical, by which I mean that although the analysis of monetary policy can formally be carried out either in terms of current and future money supplies, as Hirshleifer, Krugman and Beckworth do, or in terms of price levels, as I prefer to do so in terms of price levels. For one thing, reasoning in terms of price levels immediately puts you in the framework of the Fisher equation, while thinking in terms of current and future money supplies puts you in the framework of the quantity theory, which I always prefer to avoid.

The problem with the quantity theory framework is that it assumes that quantity of money is a policy variable over which a monetary authority can exercise effective control, a mistake — imprinted in our economic intuition by two or three centuries of quantity-theorizing, regrettably reinforced in the second-half of the twentieth century by the preposterous theoretical detour of monomaniacal Friedmanian Monetarism, as if there were no such thing as an identification problem. Thus, to analyze monetary policy by doing thought experiments that change the quantity of money is likely to mislead or confuse.

I can’t think of an effective monetary policy that was ever implemented by targeting a monetary aggregate. The optimal time path of a monetary aggregate can never be specified in advance, so that trying to target any monetary aggregate will inevitably fail, thereby undermining the credibility of the monetary authority. Effective monetary policies have instead tried to target some nominal price while allowing monetary aggregates to adjust automatically given that price. Sometimes the price being targeted has been the conversion price of money into a real asset, as was the case under the gold standard, or an exchange rate between one currency and another, as the Swiss National Bank is now doing with the franc/euro exchange rate. Monetary policies aimed at stabilizing a single price are easy to implement and can therefore be highly credible, but they are vulnerable to sudden changes with highly deflationary or inflationary implications. Nineteenth century bimetallism was an attempt to avoid or at least mitigate such risks. We now prefer inflation targeting, but we have learned (or at least we should have) from the Fed’s focus on inflation in 2008 that inflation targeting can also lead to disastrous consequences.

I emphasize the distinction between targeting monetary aggregates and targeting the price level, because David Beckworth in his post is so focused on showing 1) that the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet under QE has been temoprary and 2) that to have been effective in raising aggregate demand at the zero lower bound, the increase in the monetary base needed to be permanent. And I say: both of the facts cited by David are implied by the fact that the Fed did not raise its inflation target or, preferably, replace its inflation target with a sufficiently high price-level target. With a higher inflation target or a suitable price-level target, the monetary base would have taken care of itself.

PS If your name is Scott Sumner, you have my permission to insert “NGDP” wherever “price level” appears in this post.

The Nearly Forgotten Dearly Beloved 1920-21 Depression Yet Again; Or, Never Reason from a Quantity Change

The industrious James Grant recently published a book about the 1920-21 Depression. It has received enthusiastic reviews in the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s, was the subject of an admiring column by Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson, and was celebrated at a Cato Institute panel discussion, luncheon, and book-signing event. The Cato extravaganza elicited a dismissive blog post by Barkley Rosser which was linked to by Paul Krugman on his blog. The Rosser/Krugman tandem provoked an unhappy reply on the Free Banking blog from George Selgin who chaired the Cato panel discussion. And the 1920-21 Depression is now the latest hot topic in the econblogosphere.

I am afraid that there are multiple layers of errors and confusion that are being mixed up and compounded in this discussion, errors and confusion derived from basic misunderstandings about how the gold standard operated that have been plaguing the economics profession and the financial world for about two and a half centuries. If you want to understand how the gold standard worked, what you have to read is the book by Ralph Hawtrey entitled – drum roll, please – The Gold Standard.

Here are the basic things you need to know about the gold standard.

1 The gold standard operates by creating an equivalence between a currency unit and a fixed amount of gold.

2 The gold standard does not require gold to circulate as money in the form of coins. That was historically the case, but a gold standard can function with no gold coins or even gold certificates.

3 The value of a currency unit and the value of a corresponding weight of gold are necessarily equalized by arbitrage.

4 Equality between a currency unit and a corresponding weight of gold does not necessarily show the direction of causality; the currency unit may determine the value of gold, not the other way around. In other words, making gold the standard of value for currency affects the demand for gold which affects the value of gold. Decisions made by monetary authorities under the gold standard necessarily affect the value of gold, so a gold standard does not somehow make the value of money independent of monetary policy.

5 When more than one country is on a gold standard, the countries share a common price level, because the value of gold is determined in an international market.

Keeping those basics in mind, let’s quickly try to understand what was going on in 1920 when the Fed decided to raise its discount rate to the then unprecedented level of 7 percent. But the situation in 1920 was the outcome of the previous six years of World War I that effectively destroyed the gold standard as a functioning institution, even though its existence was in some sense still legally recognized.

Under the gold standard, gold was the ultimate way of discharging international debts. In World War I, belligerents had to pay for imports with gold, thus governments amassed all available gold with which to pay for the imports required to support the war effort. Gold coins were melted down and converted to bullion so the gold could be exported. For a private citizen in a belligerent country to demand that the national currency unit be converted to gold would be considered an unpatriotic if not a treasonous act. So the gold standard ceased to function in belligerent countries. In non-belligerent countries, which were busy exporting to the belligerents, the result was a massive inflow of gold, causing a spectacular increase in the amount of gold held by the US Treasury between 1914 and 1917. Other non-belligerents like Sweden and Switzerland experienced similar inflows.

Quantity theorists and Monetarists like Milton Friedman habitually misinterpret the wartime inflation, and attributing the inflation to an inflow of gold that increased the money supply, thereby perpetrating the price-specie-flow-mechanism fallacy. What actually happened was that the huge demonetization of gold coins by the belligerents and their export of large quantities of gold to non-belligerent countries in which a free market in gold continued to operate drove down the value of gold. A falling value of gold under a gold standard logically implies rising prices for all other goods and services. Rising prices increased the nominal demand for money, which more or less automatically caused a corresponding adjustment in the quantity of money. A rising price level caused the quantity of money to increase, not the other way around.

In 1917, just before the US entered the war, the US, still effectively on a gold standard as gold flowed into the Treasury, had experienced a drastic inflation, like all other gold standard countries, because gold was rapidly losing value, as it was being demonetized and exported by the belligerent countries. But when the US entered the war in 1917, the US, like other belligerents, suspended operation of the gold standard, thereby accelerating the depreciation of gold, forcing the few remaining countries on the gold standard to suspend the gold standard to avoid runaway inflation. Inflationary pressure in the US did increase after entry into the war, but the war-induced fiat inflation, to some extent suppressed or disguised by price controls, was actually slower than inflation in terms of gold.

When the war ended, the US went back on the gold standard by again making the dollar convertible into gold at the legal parity. Doing so meant that the US price level in terms of dollars was below the notional (no currency any longer being convertible into gold) world price level in terms of gold. In other belligerent countries, notably Britain, France and Germany, inflation in terms of their national currencies exceeded gold inflation, requiring them to deflate even to restore the legal parity in terms of gold.  Thus, the US was the only country in the world that was both willing and able to return to the gold standard at the prewar parity. Sweden and Switzerland could have done so, but preferred to avoid the inflationary consequences of a return to the gold standard.

Once the dollar convertibility into gold was restored, arbitrage forced the US price level to rise to so that it would equal the gold price level. The excess of the gold price level over the US price level level explains the anomalous post-war inflation – everyone knows that prices are supposed to fall, not rise, when a war ends — in the US. The rest of the world, then, had to choose between accepting US inflation, by keeping their currencies pegged to the dollar, or allowing their currencies to appreciate against the dollar. The anomalous post-war inflation was caused by the reequilibration of the US price level to the gold price levels, not, as commonly supposed, by Fed inexperience or incompetence.

To stop the post-war inflation, the Fed could have simply abandoned the gold standard, or it could have revalued the dollar in terms of gold, by reducing the official dollar price of gold. (I ignore the minor detail that the official dollar price of gold was then determined by statute.) Instead, the Fed — whether knowingly or not I can’t say – chose to increase the value of gold. The method by which it did so was to raise its discount rate, thereby making it easier to obtain dollars by selling gold to the Treasury than to borrow from the Fed. The flood of gold into the Treasury in 1920-21 succeeded in taking a huge amount of gold out of private and public hands, thus driving up the real value of gold, and forcing down the gold price level. That’s when the brutal deflation of 1920-21 started. At some point, the Fed and the Treasury decided that they had had enough, having amassed about 40% of the world’s gold reserves, and began reducing the discount rate, thereby slowing the inflow of gold into the US, and stopping its appreciation. And that’s when and how the dearly beloved, but quite dreadful, depression of 1920-21 came to an end.

What Is Free Banking All About?

I notice that there has been a bit of a dustup lately about free banking, triggered by two posts by Izabella Kaminska, first on FTAlphaville followed by another on her own blog. I don’t want to get too deeply into the specifics of Kaminska’s posts, save to correct a couple of factual misstatements and conceptual misunderstandings (see below). At any rate, George Selgin has a detailed reply to Kaminska’s errors with which I mostly agree, and Scott Sumner has scolded her for not distinguishing between sensible free bankers, e.g., Larry White, George Selgin, Kevin Dowd, and Bill Woolsey, and the anti-Fed, gold-bug nutcases who, following in the footsteps of Ron Paul, have adopted free banking as a slogan with which to pursue their anti-Fed crusade.

Now it just so happens that, as some readers may know, I wrote a book about free banking, which I began writing almost 30 years ago. The point of the book was not to call for a revolutionary change in our monetary system, but to show that financial innovations and market forces were causing our modern monetary system to evolve into something like the theoretical model of a free banking system that had been worked out in a general sort of way by some classical monetary theorists, starting with Adam Smith, who believed that a system of private banks operating under a gold standard would supply as much money as, but no more money than, the public wanted to hold. In other words, the quantity of money produced by a system of competing banks, operating under convertibility, could be left to take care of itself, with no centralized quantitative control over either the quantity of bank liabilities or the amount of reserves held by the banking system.

So I especially liked the following comment by J. V. Dubois to Scott’s post

[M]y thing against free banking is that we actually already have it. We already have private banks issuing their own monies directly used for transactions – they are called bank accounts and debit/credit cards. There are countries like Sweden where there are now shops that do not accept physical cash (only bank monies) – a policy actively promoted government, if you can believe it.

There are now even financial products like Xapo Debit Card that automatically converts all payments received on your account into non-monetary assets (with Xapo it is bitcoins) and back into monies when you use the card for payment. There is a very healthy international bank money market so no matter what money you personally use, you can travel all around the world and pay comfortably without ever seeing or touching official local government currency.

In opposition to the Smithian school of thought, there was the view of Smith’s close friend David Hume, who famously articulated what became known as the Price-Specie-Flow Mechanism, a mechanism that Smith wisely omitted from his discussion of international monetary adjustment in the Wealth of Nations, despite having relied on PSFM with due acknowledgment of Hume, in his Lectures on Jurisprudence. In contrast to Smith’s belief that there is a market mechanism limiting the competitive issue of convertible bank liabilities (notes and deposits) to the amount demanded by the public, Hume argued that banks were inherently predisposed to overissue their liabilities, the liabilities being issuable at almost no cost, so that private banks, seeking to profit from the divergence between the face value of their liabilities and the cost of issuing them, were veritable engines of inflation.

These two opposing views of banks later morphed into what became known almost 70 years later as the Banking and Currency Schools. Taking the Humean position, the Currency School argued that without quantitative control over the quantity of banknotes issued, the banking system would inevitably issue an excess of banknotes, causing overtrading, speculation, inflation, a drain on the gold reserves of the banking system, culminating in financial crises. To prevent recurring financial crises, the Currency School proposed a legal limit on the total quantity of banknotes beyond which limit, additional banknotes could be only be issued (by the Bank of England) in exchange for an equivalent amount of gold at the legal gold parity. Taking the Smithian position, the Banking School argued that there were market mechanisms by which any excess liabilities created by the banking system would automatically be returned to the banking system — the law of reflux. Thus, as long as convertibility obtained (i.e., the bank notes were exchangeable for gold at the legal gold parity), any overissue would be self-correcting, so that a legal limit on the quantity of banknotes was, at best, superfluous, and, at worst, would itself trigger a financial crisis.

As it turned out, the legal limit on the quantity of banknotes proposed by the Currency School was enacted in the Bank Charter Act of 1844, and, just as the Banking School predicted, led to a financial crisis in 1847, when, as soon as the total quantity of banknotes approached the legal limit, a sudden precautionary demand for banknotes led to a financial panic that was subdued only after the government announced that the Bank of England would incur no legal liability for issuing banknotes beyond the legal limit. Similar financial panics ensued in 1857 and 1866, and they were also subdued by suspending the relevant statutory limits on the quantity of banknotes. There were no further financial crises in Great Britain in the nineteenth century (except possibly for a minicrisis in 1890), because bank deposits increasingly displaced banknotes as the preferred medium of exchange, the quantity of bank deposits being subject to no statutory limit, and because the market anticipated that, in a crisis, the statutory limit on the quantity of banknotes would be suspended, so that a sudden precautionary demand for banknotes never materialized in the first place.

Let me pause here to comment on the factual and conceptual misunderstandings in Kaminska’s first post. Discussing the role of the Bank of England in the British monetary system in the first half of the nineteenth century, she writes:

But with great money-issuance power comes great responsibility, and more specifically the great temptation to abuse that power via the means of imprudent money-printing. This fate befell the BoE — as it does most banks — not helped by the fact that the BoE still had to compete with a whole bunch of private banks who were just as keen as it to issue money to an equally imprudent degree.

And so it was that by the 1840s — and a number of Napoleonic Wars later — a terrible inflation had begun to grip the land.

So Kaminska seems to have fallen for the Humean notion that banks are inherently predisposed to overissue and, without some quantitative restraint on their issue of liabilities, are engines of inflation. But, as the law of reflux teaches us, this is not true, especially when banks, as they inevitably must, make their liabilities convertible on demand into some outside asset whose supply is not under their control. After 1821, the gold standard having been officially restored in England, the outside asset was gold. So what was happening to the British price level after 1821 was determined not by the actions of the banking system (at least to a first approximation), but by the value of gold which was determined internationally. That’s the conceptual misunderstanding that I want to correct.

Now for the factual misunderstanding. The chart below shows the British Retail Price Index between 1825 and 1850. The British price level was clearly falling for most of the period. After falling steadily from 1825 to about 1835, the price level rebounded till 1839, but it prices again started to fall reaching a low point in 1844, before starting another brief rebound and rising sharply in 1847 until the panic when prices again started falling rapidly.


From a historical perspective, the outcome of the implicit Smith-Hume disagreement, which developed into the explicit dispute over the Bank Charter Act of 1844 between the Banking and Currency Schools, was highly unsatisfactory. Not only was the dysfunctional Bank Charter Act enacted, but the orthodox view of how the gold standard operates was defined by the Humean price-specie-flow mechanism and the Humean fallacy that banks are engines of inflation, which made it appear that, for the gold standard to function, the quantity of money had to be tied rigidly to the gold reserve, thereby placing the burden of adjustment primarily on countries losing gold, so that inflationary excesses would be avoided. (Fortunately, for the world economy, gold supplies increased fairly rapidly during the nineteenth century, the spread of the gold standard meant that the monetary demand for gold was increasing faster than the supply of gold, causing gold to appreciate for most of the nineteenth century.)

When I set out to write my book on free banking, my intention was to clear up the historical misunderstandings, largely attributable to David Hume, surrounding the operation of the gold standard and the behavior of competitive banks. In contrast to the Humean view that banks are inherently inflationary — a view endorsed by quantity theorists of all stripes and enshrined in the money-multiplier analysis found in every economics textbook — that the price level would go to infinity if banks were not constrained by a legal reserve requirement on their creation of liabilities, there was an alternative view that the creation of liabilities by the banking system is characterized by the same sort of revenue and cost considerations governing other profit-making enterprises, and that the equilibrium of a private banking system is not that value of money is driven down to zero, as Milton Friedman, for example, claimed in his Program for Monetary Stability.

The modern discovery (or rediscovery) that banks are not inherently disposed to debase their liabilities was made by James Tobin in his classic paper “Commercial Banks and Creators of Money.” Tobin’s analysis was extended by others (notably Ben Klein, Earl Thompson, and Fischer Black) to show that the standard arguments for imposing quantitative limits on the creation of bank liabilities were unfounded, because, even with no legal constraints, there are economic forces limiting their creation of liabilities. A few years after these contributions, F. A. Hayek also figured out that there are competitive forces constraining the creation of liabilities by the banking system. He further developed the idea in a short book Denationalization of Money which did much to raise the profile of the idea of free banking, at least in some circles.

If there is an economic constraint on the creation of bank liabilities, and if, accordingly, the creation of bank liabilities was responsive to the demands of individuals to hold those liabilities, the Friedman/Monetarist idea that the goal of monetary policy should be to manage the total quantity of bank liabilities so that it would grow continuously at a fixed rate was really dumb. It was tried unsuccessfully by Paul Volcker in the early 1980s, in his struggle to bring inflation under control. It failed for precisely the reason that the Bank Charter Act had to be suspended periodically in the nineteenth century: the quantitative limit on the growth of the money supply itself triggered a precautionary demand to hold money that led to a financial crisis. In order to avoid a financial crisis, the Volcker Fed constantly allowed the monetary aggregates to exceed their growth targets, but until Volcker announced in the summer of 1982 that the Fed would stop paying attention to the aggregates, the economy was teetering on the verge of a financial crisis, undergoing the deepest recession since the Great Depression. After the threat of a Friedman/Monetarist financial crisis was lifted, the US economy almost immediately began one of the fastest expansions of the post-war period.

Nevertheless, for years afterwards, Friedman and his fellow Monetarists kept warning that rapid growth of the monetary aggregates meant that the double-digit inflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s would soon return. So one of my aims in my book was to use free-banking theory – the idea that there are economic forces constraining the issue of bank liabilities and that banks are not inherently engines of inflation – to refute the Monetarist notion that the key to economic stability is to make the money stock grow at a constant 3% annual rate of growth.

Another goal was to explain that competitive banks necessarily have to select some outside asset into which to make their liabilities convertible. Otherwise those liabilities would have no value, or at least so I argued, and still believe. The existence of what we now call network effects forces banks to converge on whatever assets are already serving as money in whatever geographic location they are trying to draw customers from. Thus, free banking is entirely consistent with an already existing fiat currency, so that there is no necessary link between free banking and a gold (or other commodity) standard. Moreover, if free banking were adopted without abolishing existing fiat currencies and legal tender laws, there is almost no chance that, as Hayek argued, new privately established monetary units would arise to displace the existing fiat currencies.

My final goal was to suggest a new way of conducting monetary policy that would enhance the stability of a free banking system, proposing a monetary regime that would ensure the optimum behavior of prices over time. When I wrote the book, I had been convinced by Earl Thompson that the optimum behavior of the price level over time would be achieved if an index of nominal wages was stabilized. He proposed accomplishing this objective by way of indirect convertibility of the dollar into an index of nominal wages by way of a modified form of Irving Fisher’s compensated dollar plan. I won’t discuss how or why that goal could be achieved, but I am no longer convinced of the optimality of stabilizing an index of nominal wages. So I am now more inclined toward nominal GDP level targeting as a monetary policy regime than the system I proposed in my book.

But let me come back to the point that I think J. V. Dubois was getting at in his comment. Historically, idea of free banking meant that private banks should be allowed to issue bank notes of their own (with the issuing bank clearly identified) without unreasonable regulations, restrictions or burdens not generally applied to other institutions. During the period when private banknotes were widely circulating, banknotes were a more prevalent form of money than bank deposits. So in the 21st century, the right of banks to issue hand to hand circulating banknotes is hardly a crucial issue for monetary policy. What really matters is the overall legal and regulatory framework under which banks operate.

The term “free banking” does very little to shed light on most of these issues. For example, what kind of functions should banks perform? Should commercial banks also engage in investment banking? Should commercial bank liabilities be ensured by the government, and if so under what terms, and up to what limits? There are just a couple of issues; there are many others. And they aren’t necessarily easily resolved by invoking the free-banking slogan. When I was writing, I meant by “free banking” a system in which the market determined the total quantity of bank liabilities. I am still willing to use “free banking” in that sense, but there are all kinds of issues concerning the asset side of bank balance sheets that also need to be addressed, and I don’t find it helpful to use the term free banking to address those issues.

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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