Archive for the 'Piero Sraffa' Category

How to Think about Own Rates of Interest

Phil Pilkington has responded to my post about the latest version of my paper (co-authored by Paul Zimmerman) on the Sraffa-Hayek debate about the natural rate of interest. For those of you who haven’t been following my posts on the subject, here’s a quick review. Almost three years ago I wrote a post refuting Sraffa’s argument that Hayek’s concept of the natural rate of interest is incoherent, there being a multiplicity of own rates of interest in a barter economy (Hayek’s benchmark for the rate of interest undisturbed by monetary influences), which makes it impossible to identify any particular own rate as the natural rate of interest.

Sraffa maintained that if there are many own rates of interest in a barter economy, none of them having a claim to priority over the others, then Hayek had no basis for singling out any particular one of them as the natural rate and holding it up as the benchmark rate to guide monetary policy. I pointed out that Ludwig Lachmann had answered Sraffa’s attack (about 20 years too late) by explaining that even though there could be many own rates for individual commodities, all own rates are related by the condition that the cost of borrowing in terms of all commodities would be equalized, differences in own rates reflecting merely differences in expected appreciation or depreciation of the different commodities. Different own rates are simply different nominal rates; there is a unique real own rate, a point demonstrated by Irving Fisher in 1896 in Appreciation and Interest.

Let me pause here for a moment to explain what is meant by an own rate of interest. It is simply the name for the rate of interest corresponding to a loan contracted in terms of a particular commodity, the borrower receiving the commodity now and repaying the lender with the same commodity when the term of the loan expires. Sraffa correctly noted that in equilibrium arbitrage would force the terms of such a loan (i.e., the own rate of interest) to equal the ratio of the current forward price of the commodity to its current spot price, buying spot and selling forward being essentially equivalent to borrowing and repaying.

Now what is tricky about Sraffa’s argument against Hayek is that he actually acknowledges at the beginning of his argument that in a stationary equilibrium, presumably meaning that prices remain at their current equilibrium levels over time, all own rates would be equal. In fact if prices remain (and are expected to remain) constant period after period, the ratio of forward to spot prices would equal unity for all commodities implying that the natural rate of interest would be zero. Sraffa did not make that point explicitly, but it seems to be a necessary implication of his analysis. (This implication seems to bear on an old controversy in the theory of capital and interest, which is whether the rate of interest would be positive in a stationary equilibrium with constant real income). Schumpeter argued that the equilibrium rate of interest would be zero, and von Mises argued that it would be positive, because time preference implying that the rate of interest is necessarily always positive is a kind of a priori praxeological law of nature, the sort of apodictic gibberish to which von Mises was regrettably predisposed. The own-rate analysis supports Schumpeter against Mises.

So to make the case against Hayek, Sraffa had to posit a change, a shift in demand from one product to another, that disrupts the pre-existing equilibrium. Here is the key passage from Sraffa:

Suppose there is a change in the distribution of demand between various commodities; immediately some will rise in price, and others will fall; the market will expect that, after a certain time, the supply of the former will increase, and the supply of the latter fall, and accordingly the forward price, for the date on which equilibrium is expected to be restored, will be below the spot price in the case of the former and above it in the case of the latter; in other words, the rate of interest on the former will be higher than on the latter. (p. 50)

This is a difficult passage, and in previous posts, and in my paper with Zimmerman, I did not try to parse this passage. But I am going to parse it now. Assume that demand shifts from tomatoes to cucumbers. In the original equilibrium, let the prices of both be $1 a pound. With a zero own rate of interest in terms of both tomatoes and cucumbers, you could borrow a pound of tomatoes today and discharge your debt by repaying the lender a pound of tomatoes at the expiration of the loan. However, after the demand shift, the price of tomatoes falls to, say, $0.90 a pound, and the price of cucumbers rises to, say, $1.10 a pound. Sraffa posits that the price changes are temporary, not because the demand shift is temporary, but because the supply curves of tomatoes and cucumbers are perfectly elastic at $1 a pound. However, supply does not adjust immediately, so Sraffa believes that there can be a temporary deviation from the long-run equilibrium prices of tomatoes and cucumbers.

The ratio of the forward prices to the spot prices tells you what the own rates are for tomatoes and cucumbers. For tomatoes, the ratio is 1/.9, implying an own rate of 11.1%. For cucumbers the ratio is 1/1.1, implying an own rate of -9.1%. Other prices have not changed, so all other own rates remain at 0. Having shown that own rates can diverge, Sraffa thinks that he has proven Hayek’s concept of a natural rate of interest to be a nonsense notion. He was mistaken.

There are at least two mistakes. First, the negative own rate on cucumbers simply means that no one will lend in terms of cucumbers for negative interest when other commodities allow lending at zero interest. It also means that no one will hold cucumbers in this period to sell at a lower price in the next period than the cucumbers would fetch in the current period. Cucumbers are a bad investment, promising a negative return; any lending and investing will be conducted in terms of some other commodity. The negative own rate on cucumbers signifies a kind of corner solution, reflecting the impossibility of transporting next period’s cucumbers into the present. If that were possible cucumber prices would be equal in the present and the future, and the cucumber own rate would be equal to all other own rates at zero. But the point is that if any lending takes place, it will be at a zero own rate.

Second, the positive own rate on tomatoes means that there is an incentive to lend in terms of tomatoes rather than lend in terms of other commodities. But as long as it is possible to borrow in terms of other commodities at a zero own rate, no one borrows in terms of tomatoes. Thus, if anyone wanted to lend in terms of tomatoes, he would have to reduce the rate on tomatoes to make borrowers indifferent between borrowing in terms of tomatoes and borrowing in terms of some other commodity. However, if tomatoes today can be held at zero cost to be sold at the higher price prevailing next period, currently produced tomatoes would be sold in the next period rather than sold today. So if there were no costs of holding tomatoes until the next period, the price of tomatoes in the next period would be no higher than the price in the current period. In other words, the forward price of tomatoes cannot exceed the current spot price by more than the cost of holding tomatoes until the next period. If the difference between the spot and the forward price reflects no more than the cost of holding tomatoes till the next period, then, as Keynes showed in chapter 17 of the General Theory, the own rates are indeed effectively equalized after appropriate adjustment for storage costs and expected appreciation.

Thus, it was Keynes, who having selected Sraffa to review Hayek’s Prices and Production in the Economic Journal, of which Keynes was then the editor, adapted Sraffa’s own rate analysis in the General Theory, but did so in a fashion that, at least partially, rehabilitated the very natural-rate analysis that had been the object of Sraffa’s scorn in his review of Prices and Production. Keynes also rejected the natural-rate analysis, but he did so not because it is nonsensical, but because the natural rate is not independent of the level of employment. Keynes’s argument that the natural rate depends on the level of employment seems to me to be inconsistent with the idea that the IS curve is downward sloping. But I will have to think about that a bit and reread the relevant passage in the General Theory and perhaps revisit the point in a future post.

 UPDATE (07/28/14 13:02 EDT): Thanks to my commenters for pointing out that my own thinking about the own rate of interest was not quite right. I should have defined the own rate in terms of a real numeraire instead of $, which was a bit of awkwardness that I should have fixed before posting. I will try to publish a corrected version of this post later today or tomorrow. Sorry for posting without sufficient review and revision.

A New Version of my Paper (with Paul Zimmerman) on the Hayek-Sraffa Debate Is Available on SSRN

One of the good things about having a blog (which I launched July 5, 2011) is that I get comments about what I am writing about from a lot of people that I don’t know. One of my most popular posts – it’s about the sixteenth most visited — was one I wrote, just a couple of months after starting the blog, about the Hayek-Sraffa debate on the natural rate of interest. Unlike many popular posts, to which visitors are initially drawn from very popular blogs that linked to those posts, but don’t continue to drawing a lot of visitors, this post initially had only modest popularity, but still keeps on drawing visitors.

That post also led to a collaboration between me and my FTC colleague Paul Zimmerman on a paper “The Sraffa-Hayek Debate on the Natural Rate of Interest” which I presented two years ago at the History of Economics Society conference. We have now finished our revisions of the version we wrote for the conference, and I have just posted the new version on SSRN and will be submitting it for publication later this week.

Here’s the abstract posted on the SSRN site:

Hayek’s Prices and Production, based on his hugely successful lectures at LSE in 1931, was the first English presentation of Austrian business-cycle theory, and established Hayek as a leading business-cycle theorist. Sraffa’s 1932 review of Prices and Production seems to have been instrumental in turning opinion against Hayek and the Austrian theory. A key element of Sraffa’s attack was that Hayek’s idea of a natural rate of interest, reflecting underlying real relationships, undisturbed by monetary factors, was, even from Hayek’s own perspective, incoherent, because, without money, there is a multiplicity of own rates, none of which can be uniquely identified as the natural rate of interest. Although Hayek’s response failed to counter Sraffa’s argument, Ludwig Lachmann later observed that Keynes’s treatment of own rates in Chapter 17 of the General Theory (itself a generalization of Fisher’s (1896) distinction between the real and nominal rates of interest) undercut Sraffa’s criticism. Own rates, Keynes showed, cannot deviate from each other by more than expected price appreciation plus the cost of storage and the commodity service flow, so that anticipated asset yields are equalized in intertemporal equilibrium. Thus, on Keynes’s analysis in the General Theory, the natural rate of interest is indeed well-defined. However, Keynes’s revision of Sraffa’s own-rate analysis provides only a partial rehabilitation of Hayek’s natural rate. There being no unique price level or rate of inflation in a barter system, no unique money natural rate of interest can be specified. Hayek implicitly was reasoning in terms of a constant nominal value of GDP, but barter relationships cannot identify any path for nominal GDP, let alone a constant one, as uniquely compatible with intertemporal equilibrium.

Aside from clarifying the conceptual basis of the natural-rate analysis and its relationship to Sraffa’s own-rate analysis, the paper also highlights the connection (usually overlooked but mentioned by Harald Hagemann in his 2008 article on the own rate of interest for the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences) between the own-rate analysis, in either its Sraffian or Keynesian versions, and Fisher’s early distinction between the real and nominal rates of interest. The conceptual identity between Fisher’s real and nominal distinction and Keynes’s own-rate analysis in the General Theory only magnifies the mystery associated with Keynes’s attack in chapter 13 of the General Theory on Fisher’s distinction between the real and the nominal rates of interest.

I also feel that the following discussion of Hayek’s role in developing the concept of intertemporal equilibrium, though tangential to the main topic of the paper, makes an important point about how to think about intertemporal equilibrium.

Perhaps the key analytical concept developed by Hayek in his early work on monetary theory and business cycles was the idea of an intertemporal equilibrium. Before Hayek, the idea of equilibrium had been reserved for a static, unchanging, state in which economic agents continue doing what they have been doing. Equilibrium is the end state in which all adjustments to a set of initial conditions have been fully worked out. Hayek attempted to generalize this narrow equilibrium concept to make it applicable to the study of economic fluctuations – business cycles – in which he was engaged. Hayek chose to formulate a generalized equilibrium concept. He did not do so, as many have done, by simply adding a steady-state rate of growth to factor supplies and technology. Nor did Hayek define equilibrium in terms of any objective or measurable magnitudes. Rather, Hayek defined equilibrium as the mutual consistency of the independent plans of individual economic agents.

The potential consistency of such plans may be conceived of even if economic magnitudes do not remain constant or grow at a constant rate. Even if the magnitudes fluctuate, equilibrium is conceivable if the fluctuations are correctly foreseen. Correct foresight is not the same as perfect foresight. Perfect foresight is necessarily correct; correct foresight is only contingently correct. All that is necessary for equilibrium is that fluctuations (as reflected in future prices) be foreseen. It is not even necessary, as Hayek (1937) pointed out, that future price changes be foreseen correctly, provided that individual agents agree in their anticipations of future prices. If all agents agree in their expectations of future prices, then the individual plans formulated on the basis of those anticipations are, at least momentarily, equilibrium plans, conditional on the realization of those expectations, because the realization of those expectations would allow the plans formulated on the basis of those expectations to be executed without need for revision. What is required for intertemporal equilibrium is therefore a contingently correct anticipation by future agents of future prices, a contingent anticipation not the result of perfect foresight, but of contingently, even fortuitously, correct foresight. The seminal statement of this concept was given by Hayek in his classic 1937 paper, and the idea was restated by J. R. Hicks (1939), with no mention of Hayek, two years later in Value and Capital.

I made the following comment in a footnote to the penultimate sentence of the quotation:

By defining correct foresight as a contingent outcome rather than as an essential property of economic agents, Hayek elegantly avoided the problems that confounded Oskar Morgenstern ([1935] 1976) in his discussion of the meaning of equilibrium.

I look forward to reading your comments.

That Oh So Elusive Natural Rate of Interest

Last week, I did a short post linking to the new draft of my paper with Paul Zimmerman about the Sraffa-Hayek exchange on the natural rate of interest. In the paper, we attempt to assess Sraffa’s criticism in his 1932 review of Prices and Production of Hayek’s use of the idea of a natural rate of interest as well as Hayek’s response, or, perhaps, his lack of response, to Sraffa’s criticism. The issues raised by Sraffa are devilishly tricky, especially because he introduced the unfamiliar terminology of own-rates of interest, later adopted Keynes in chapter 17 of the General Theory in order to express his criticism. The consensus about this debate is that Sraffa got the best of Hayek in this exchange – the natural rate of interest was just one of the issues Sraffa raised, and, in the process, he took Hayek down a peg or two after the startling success that Hayek enjoyed upon his arrival in England, and publication of Prices and Production. In a comment to my post, Greg Ransom questions this conventional version of the exchange, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

What Paul and I do in the paper is to try to understand Sraffa’s criticism of Hayek. It seems to us that the stridency of Sraffa’s attack on Hayek suggests that Sraffa was arguing that Hayek’s conception of a natural rate of interest was somehow incoherent in a barter economy in which there is growth and investment and, thus, changes in relative prices over time, implying that commodity own rates of interest would have differ. If, in a barter economy with growth and savings and investment, there are many own-rates, Sraffa seemed to be saying, it is impossible to identify any one of them as the natural rate of interest. In a later account of the exchange between Sraffa and Hayek, Ludwig Lachmann, a pupil of Hayek, pointed out that, even if there are many own rates in a barter economy, the own rates must, in an intertemporal equilibrium, stand in a unique relationship to each other: the expected net return from holding any asset cannot differ from the expected net return on holding any other asset. That is a condition of equilibrium. If so, it is possible, at least conceptually, to infer a unique real interest rate. That unique real interest rate could be identified with Hayek’s natural rate of interest.

In fact, as we point out in our paper, Irving Fisher in his classic Appreciation and Interest (1896) had demonstrated precisely this point, theoretically extracting the real rate from the different nominal rates of interest corresponding to loans contracted in terms of different assets with different expected rates of price appreciation. Thus, Sraffa did not demonstrate that there was no natural rate of interest. There is a unique real rate of interest in intertemporal equilibrium which corresponds to the Hayekian natural rate. However, what Sraffa could have demonstrated — though had he done so, he would still have been 35 years behind Irving Fisher – is that the unique real rate is consistent with an infinite number of nominal rates provided that those nominal rates reflected corresponding anticipated rate of price appreciation. But, instead, Sraffa argued that there is no unique real rate in intertemporal equilibrium. That was a mistake.

Another interesting (at least to us) point in our paper is that Keynes who, as editor of the Economic Journal, asked Sraffa to review Prices and Production, borrowed Sraffa’s own-rate terminology in chapter 17 of the General Theory, but, instead of following Sraffa’s analysis and arguing that there is no natural rate of interest, Keynes proceeded to derive, using (without acknowledgment) a generalized version of Fisher’s argument of 1896, a unique relationship between commodity own rates, adjusted for expected price changes, and net service yields, such that the expected net returns on all assets would be equalized. From this, Keynes did not conclude, as had Sraffa, that there is no natural rate of interest. Rather, he made a very different argument: that the natural rate of interest is a useless concept, because there are many natural rates each corresponding to a different the level of income and employment, a consideration that Hayek, and presumably Fisher, had avoided by assuming full intertemporal equilibrium. But Keynes never disputed that for any given level of income and employment, there would be a unique real rate to which all commodity own rates had to correspond. Thus, Keynes turned Sraffa’s analysis on its head. And the final point of interest is that even though Keynes, in chapter 17, presented essentially the same analysis of own rates, though in more general terms, that Fisher had presented 40 years earlier, Keynes in chapter 13 explicitly rejected Fisher’s distinction between the real and nominal rates of interest. Go figure.

Bob Murphy wrote a nice paper on the Sraffa-Hayek debate, which I have referred to before on this blog. However, I disagree with him that Sraffa’s criticism of Hayek was correct. In a post earlier this week, he infers, from our statement that, as long as price expectations are correct, any nominal rate is consistent with the unique real natural rate, that we must agree with him that Sraffa was right and Hayek was wrong about the natural rate. I think that Bob is in error on the pure theory here. There is a unique real natural rate in intertemporal equilibrium, and, in principle, the monetary authority could set a money rate equal to that real rate, provided that that nominal rate was consistent with the price expectations held by the public. However, intertemporal equilibrium could be achieved by any nominal interest rate selected by the monetary authority, again provided that the nominal rate chosen was consistent with the price expectations held by the public. In practice, either formulation is very damaging to Hayek’s policy criterion of setting the nominal interest rate equal to the real natural rate. But contrary to Sraffa’s charge, the policy criterion is not incoherent. It is just unworkable, as Hayek formulated it, and, on Hayek’s own theory, the criterion is unnecessary to avoid distorting malinvestments.

My Paper (co-authored with Paul Zimmerman) on Hayek and Sraffa

I have just uploaded to the SSRN website a new draft of the paper (co-authored with Paul Zimmerman) on Hayek and Sraffa and the natural rate of interest, presented last June at the History of Economics Society conference at Brock University. The paper evolved from an early post on this blog in September 2011. I also wrote about the Hayek-Sraffa controversy in a post in June 2012 just after the HES conference.

One interesting wrinkle that occurred to me just as I was making revisions in the paper this week is that Keynes’s treatment of own rates in chapter 17 of the General Theory, which was in an important sense inspired by Sraffa, but, in my view, came to a very different conclusion from Sraffa’s, was actually nothing more than a generalization of Irving Fisher’s analysis of the real and nominal rates of interest, first presented in Fisher’s 1896 book Appreciation and Interest. In his Tract on Monetary Reform, Keynes extended Fisher’s analysis into his theory of covered interest rate arbitrage. What is really surprising is that, despite his reliance on Fisher’s analysis in the Tract and also in the Treatise on Money, Keynes sharply criticized Fisher’s analysis of the nominal and real rates of interest in chapter 13 of the General Theory. (I discussed that difficult passage in the General Theory in this post).  That is certainly surprising. But what is astonishing to me is that, after trashing Fisher in chapter 13 of the GT, Keynes goes back to Fisher in chapter 17, giving a generalized restatement of Fisher’s analysis in his discussion of own rates. Am I the first person to have noticed Keynes’s schizophrenic treatment of Fisher in the General Theory?

PS: My revered teacher, the great Armen Alchian passed away yesterday at the age of 98. There have been many tributes to him, such as this one by David Henderson, also a student of Alchian’s, in the Wall Street Journal. I have written about Alchian in the past (here, here, here, here, and here), and I hope to write about Alchian again in the near future. There was none like him; he will be missed terribly.


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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