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.