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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.

D.H. Robertson on Why the Gold Standard after World War I Was Really a Dollar Standard

In a recent post, I explained how the Depression of 1920-21 was caused by Federal Reserve policy that induced a gold inflow into the US thereby causing the real value of gold to appreciate. The appreciation of gold implied that, measured in gold, prices for most goods and services had to fall. Since the dollar was equal to a fixed weight of gold, dollar prices also had to fall, and insofar as other countries kept their currencies from depreciating against the dollar, prices in terms of other currencies were also falling. So in 1920-21, pretty much the whole world went into a depression along with the US. The depression stopped in late 1921 when the Fed decided to allowed interest rates to fall sufficiently to stop the inflow of gold into the US, thereby halting the appreciation of gold.

As an addendum to my earlier post, I reproduce here a passage from D. H. Robertson’s short classic, one of the Cambridge Economic Handbooks, entitled Money, originally published 92 years ago in 1922. I first read the book as an undergraduate – I think when I took money and banking from Ben Klein – which would have been about 46 years ago. After seeing Nick Rowe’s latest post following up on my post, I remembered that it was from Robertson that I first became aware of the critical distinction between a small country on the gold standard and a large country on the gold standard. So here is Dennis Robertson from chapter IV (“The Gold Standard”), section 6 (“The Value of Money and the Value of Gold”) (pp. 65-67):

We can now resume the main thread of our argument. In a gold standard country, whatever the exact device in force for facilitating the maintenance of the standard, the quantity of money is such that its value and that of a defined weight of gold are kept at an equality with one another. It looks therefore as if we could confidently take a step forward, and say that in such a country the quantity of money depends on the world value of gold. Before the war this would have been a true enough statement, and it may come to be true again in the lifetime of those now living: it is worthwhile therefore to consider what, if it be true, are its implications.

The value of gold in its turn depends on the world’s demand for it for all purposes, and on the quantity of it in existence in the world. Gold is demanded not only for use as money and in reserves, but for industrial and decorative purposes, and to be hoarded by the nations of the East : and the fact that it can be absorbed into or ejected from these alternative uses sets a limit to the possible changes in its value which may arise from a change in the demand for it for monetary uses, or from a change in its supply. But from the point of view of any single country, the most important alternative use for gold is its use as money or reserves in other countries; and this becomes on occasion a very important matter, for it means that a gold standard country is liable to be at the mercy of any change in fashion not merely in the methods of decoration or dentistry of its neighbours, but in their methods of paying their bills. For instance, the determination of Germany to acquire a standard money of gold in the [eighteen]’seventies materially restricted the increase of the quantity of money in England.

But alas for the best made pigeon-holes! If we assert that at the present day the quantity of money in every gold standard country, and therefore its value, depends on the world value of gold, we shall be in grave danger of falling once more into Alice’s trouble about the thunder and the lightning. For the world’s demand for gold includes the demand of the particular country which we are considering; and if that country be very large and rich and powerful, the value of gold is not something which she must take as given and settled by forces outside her control, but something which up to a point at least she can affect at will. It is open to such a country to maintain what is in effect an arbitrary standard, and to make the value of gold conform to the value of her money instead of making the value of her money conform to the value of gold. And this she can do while still preserving intact the full trappings of a gold circulation or gold bullion system. For as we have hinted, even where such a system exists it does not by itself constitute an infallible and automatic machine for the preservation of a gold standard. In lesser countries it is still necessary for the monetary authority, by refraining from abuse of the elements of ‘play’ still left in the monetary system, to make the supply of money conform to the gold position: in such a country as we are now considering it is open to the monetary authority, by making full use of these same elements of ‘play,’ to make the supply of money dance to its own sweet pipings.

Now for a number of years, for reasons connected partly with the war and partly with its own inherent strength, the United States has been in such a position as has just been described. More than one-third of the world’s monetary gold is still concentrated in her shores; and she possesses two big elements of ‘play’ in her system — the power of varying considerably in practice the proportion of gold reserves which the Federal Reserve Banks hold against their notes and deposits (p. 47), and the power of substituting for one another two kinds of common money, against one of which the law requires a gold reserve of 100 per cent and against the other only one of 40 per cent (p. 51). Exactly what her monetary aim has been and how far she has attained it, is a difficult question of which more later. At present it is enough for us that she has been deliberately trying to treat gold as a servant and not as a master.

It was for this reason, and for fear that the Red Queen might catch us out, that the definition of a gold standard in the first section of this chapter had to be so carefully framed. For it would be misleading to say that in America the value of money is being kept equal to the value of a defined weight of gold: but it is true even there that the value of money and the value of a defined weight of gold are being kept equal to one another. We are not therefore forced into the inconveniently paradoxical statement that America is not on a gold standard. Nevertheless it is arguable that a truer impression of the state of the world’s monetary affairs would be given by saying that America is on an arbitrary standard, while the rest of the world has climbed back painfully on to a dollar standard.

Traffic Jams and Multipliers

Since my previous post which I closed by quoting the abstract of Brian Arthur’s paper “Complexity Economics: A Different Framework for Economic Thought,” I have been reading his paper and some of the papers he cites, especially Magda Fontana’s paper “The Santa Fe Perspective on Economics: Emerging Patterns in the Science of Complexity,” and Mark Blaug’s paper “The Formalist Revolution of the 1950s.” The papers bring together a number of themes that I have been emphasizing in previous posts on what I consider the misguided focus of modern macroeconomics on rational-expectations equilibrium as the organizing principle of macroeconomic theory. Among these themes are the importance of coordination failures in explaining macroeconomic fluctuations, the inappropriateness of the full general-equilibrium paradigm in macroeconomics, the mistaken transformation of microfoundations from a theoretical problem to be solved into an absolute methodological requirement to be insisted upon (almost exactly analogous to the absurd transformation of the mind-body problem into a dogmatic insistence that the mind is merely a figment of our own imagination), or, stated another way, a recognition that macrofoundations are just as necessary for economics as microfoundations.

Let me quote again from Arthur’s essay; this time a beautiful passage which captures the interdependence between the micro and macro perspectives

To look at the economy, or areas within the economy, from a complexity viewpoint then would mean asking how it evolves, and this means examining in detail how individual agents’ behaviors together form some outcome and how this might in turn alter their behavior as a result. Complexity in other words asks how individual behaviors might react to the pattern they together create, and how that pattern would alter itself as a result. This is often a difficult question; we are asking how a process is created from the purposed actions of multiple agents. And so economics early in its history took a simpler approach, one more amenable to mathematical analysis. It asked not how agents’ behaviors would react to the aggregate patterns these created, but what behaviors (actions, strategies, expectations) would be upheld by — would be consistent with — the aggregate patterns these caused. It asked in other words what patterns would call for no changes in microbehavior, and would therefore be in stasis, or equilibrium. (General equilibrium theory thus asked what prices and quantities of goods produced and consumed would be consistent with — would pose no incentives for change to — the overall pattern of prices and quantities in the economy’s markets. Classical game theory asked what strategies, moves, or allocations would be consistent with — would be the best course of action for an agent (under some criterion) — given the strategies, moves, allocations his rivals might choose. And rational expectations economics asked what expectations would be consistent with — would on average be validated by — the outcomes these expectations together created.)

This equilibrium shortcut was a natural way to examine patterns in the economy and render them open to mathematical analysis. It was an understandable — even proper — way to push economics forward. And it achieved a great deal. Its central construct, general equilibrium theory, is not just mathematically elegant; in modeling the economy it re-composes it in our minds, gives us a way to picture it, a way to comprehend the economy in its wholeness. This is extremely valuable, and the same can be said for other equilibrium modelings: of the theory of the firm, of international trade, of financial markets.

But there has been a price for this equilibrium finesse. Economists have objected to it — to the neoclassical construction it has brought about — on the grounds that it posits an idealized, rationalized world that distorts reality, one whose underlying assumptions are often chosen for analytical convenience. I share these objections. Like many economists, I admire the beauty of the neoclassical economy; but for me the construct is too pure, too brittle — too bled of reality. It lives in a Platonic world of order, stasis, knowableness, and perfection. Absent from it is the ambiguous, the messy, the real. (pp. 2-3)

Later in the essay, Arthur provides a simple example of a non-equilibrium complex process: traffic flow.

A typical model would acknowledge that at close separation from cars in front, cars lower their speed, and at wide separation they raise it. A given high density of traffic of N cars per mile would imply a certain average separation, and cars would slow or accelerate to a speed that corresponds. Trivially, an equilibrium speed emerges, and if we were restricting solutions to equilibrium that is all we would see. But in practice at high density, a nonequilibrium phenomenon occurs. Some car may slow down — its driver may lose concentration or get distracted — and this might cause cars behind to slow down. This immediately compresses the flow, which causes further slowing of the cars behind. The compression propagates backwards, traffic backs up, and a jam emerges. In due course the jam clears. But notice three things. The phenomenon’s onset is spontaneous; each instance of it is unique in time of appearance, length of propagation, and time of clearing. It is therefore not easily captured by closed-form solutions, but best studied by probabilistic or statistical methods. Second, the phenomenon is temporal, it emerges or happens within time, and cannot appear if we insist on equilibrium. And third, the phenomenon occurs neither at the micro-level (individual car level) nor at the macro-level (overall flow on the road) but at a level in between — the meso-level. (p. 9)

This simple example provides an excellent insight into why macroeconomic reasoning can be led badly astray by focusing on the purely equilibrium relationships characterizing what we now think of as microfounded models. In arguing against the Keynesian multiplier analysis supposedly justifying increased government spending as a countercyclical tool, Robert Barro wrote the following in an unfortunate Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, which I have previously commented on here and here.

Keynesian economics argues that incentives and other forces in regular economics are overwhelmed, at least in recessions, by effects involving “aggregate demand.” Recipients of food stamps use their transfers to consume more. Compared to this urge, the negative effects on consumption and investment by taxpayers are viewed as weaker in magnitude, particularly when the transfers are deficit-financed.

Thus, the aggregate demand for goods rises, and businesses respond by selling more goods and then by raising production and employment. The additional wage and profit income leads to further expansions of demand and, hence, to more production and employment. As per Mr. Vilsack, the administration believes that the cumulative effect is a multiplier around two.

If valid, this result would be truly miraculous. The recipients of food stamps get, say, $1 billion but they are not the only ones who benefit. Another $1 billion appears that can make the rest of society better off. Unlike the trade-off in regular economics, that extra $1 billion is the ultimate free lunch.

How can it be right? Where was the market failure that allowed the government to improve things just by borrowing money and giving it to people? Keynes, in his “General Theory” (1936), was not so good at explaining why this worked, and subsequent generations of Keynesian economists (including my own youthful efforts) have not been more successful.

In the disequilibrium environment of a recession, it is at least possible that injecting additional spending into the economy could produce effects that a similar injection of spending, under “normal” macro conditions, would not produce, just as somehow withdrawing a few cars from a congested road could increase the average speed of all the remaining cars on the road, by a much greater amount than would withdrawing a few cars from an uncongested road. In other words, microresponses may be sensitive to macroconditions.

John Cochrane, Meet Richard Lipsey and Kenneth Carlaw

Paul Krugman wrote an uncharacteristically positive post today about John Cochrane’s latest post in which Cochrane dialed it down a bit after writing two rather heated posts (here and here) attacking Alan Blinder for a recent piece he wrote in the New York Review of Books in which Blinder wrote dismissively quoted Cochrane’s dismissive remark about Keynesian economics being fairy tales that haven’t been taught to graduate students since the 1960s. I don’t want to get into that fracas, but I was amused to read the following paragraphs at the end of Cochrane’s second post in the current series.

Thus, if you read Krugman’s columns, you will see him occasionally crowing about how Keynesian economics won, and how the disciples of Stan Fisher at MIT have spread out to run the world. He’s right. Then you see him complaining about how nobody in academia understands Keynesian economics. He’s right again.

Perhaps academic research ran off the rails for 40 years producing nothing of value. Social sciences can do that. Perhaps our policy makers are stuck with simple stories they learned as undergraduates; and, as has happened countless times before, new ideas will percolate up when the generation trained in the 1980s makes their way to to top of policy circles.

I think we can agree on something. If one wants to write about “what’s wrong with economics,” such a huge divide between academic research ideas and the ideas running our policy establishment is not a good situation.

The right way to address this is with models — written down, objective models, not pundit prognostications — and data. What accounts, quantitatively, for our experience?  I see old-fashioned Keynesianism losing because, having dramatically failed that test once, its advocates are unwilling to do so again, preferring a campaign of personal attack in the popular press. Models confront data in the pages of the AER, the JPE, the QJE, and Econometrica. If old-time Keynesianism really does account for the data, write it down and let’s see.

So Cochrane wants to take this bickering out of the realm of punditry and put the conflicting models to an objective test of how well they perform against the data. Sounds good to me, but I can’t help but wonder if Cochrane means to attribute the academic ascendancy of RBC/New Classical models to their having empirically outperformed competing models? If so, I am not aware that anyone else has made that claim, including Kartik Athreya who wrote the book on the subject. (Here’s my take on the book.) Again just wondering – I am not a macroeconometrician – but is there any study showing that RBC or DSGE models outperform old-fashioned Keynesian models in explaining macro-time-series data?

But I am aware of, and have previously written about, a paper by Kenneth Carlaw and Richard Lipsey (“Does History Matter?: Empirical Analysis of Evolutionary versus Stationary Equilibrium Views of the Economy”) in which they show that time-series data for six OECD countries provide no evidence of the stylized facts about inflation and unemployment implied by RBC and New Keynesian theory. Here is the abstract from the Carlaw-Lipsey paper.

The evolutionary vision in which history matters is of an evolving economy driven by bursts of technological change initiated by agents facing uncertainty and producing long term, path-dependent growth and shorter-term, non-random investment cycles. The alternative vision in which history does not matter is of a stationary, ergodic process driven by rational agents facing risk and producing stable trend growth and shorter term cycles caused by random disturbances. We use Carlaw and Lipsey’s simulation model of non-stationary, sustained growth driven by endogenous, path-dependent technological change under uncertainty to generate artificial macro data. We match these data to the New Classical stylized growth facts. The raw simulation data pass standard tests for trend and difference stationarity, exhibiting unit roots and cointegrating processes of order one. Thus, contrary to current belief, these tests do not establish that the real data are generated by a stationary process. Real data are then used to estimate time-varying NAIRU’s for six OECD countries. The estimates are shown to be highly sensitive to the time period over which they are made. They also fail to show any relation between the unemployment gap, actual unemployment minus estimated NAIRU and the acceleration of inflation. Thus there is no tendency for inflation to behave as required by the New Keynesian and earlier New Classical theory. We conclude by rejecting the existence of a well-defined a short-run, negatively sloped Philips curve, a NAIRU, a unique general equilibrium, short and long-run, a vertical long-run Phillips curve, and the long-run neutrality of money.

Cochrane, like other academic macroeconomists with a RBC/New Classical orientation seems inordinately self-satisfied with the current state of the modern macroeconomics, but curiously sensitive to, and defensive about, criticism from the unwashed masses. Rather than weigh in again with my own criticisms, let me close by quoting another abstract – this one from a paper (“Complexity Eonomics: A Different Framework for Economic Thought”) by Brian Arthur, certainly one of the smartest, and most technically capable, economists around.

This paper provides a logical framework for complexity economics. Complexity economics builds from the proposition that the economy is not necessarily in equilibrium: economic agents (firms, consumers, investors) constantly change their actions and strategies in response to the outcome they mutually create. This further changes the outcome, which requires them to adjust afresh. Agents thus live in a world where their beliefs and strategies are constantly being “tested” for survival within an outcome or “ecology” these beliefs and strategies together create. Economics has largely avoided this nonequilibrium view in the past, but if we allow it, we see patterns or phenomena not visible to equilibrium analysis. These emerge probabilistically, last for some time and dissipate, and they correspond to complex structures in other fields. We also see the economy not as something given and existing but forming from a constantly developing set of technological innovations, institutions, and arrangements that draw forth further innovations, institutions and arrangements.

Complexity economics sees the economy as in motion, perpetually “computing” itself — perpetually constructingitself anew. Where equilibrium economics emphasizes order, determinacy, deduction, and stasis, complexity economics emphasizes contingency, indeterminacy, sense-making, and openness to change. In this framework time, in the sense of real historical time, becomes important, and a solution is no longer necessarily a set of mathematical conditions but a pattern, a set of emergent phenomena, a set of changes that may induce further changes, a set of existing entities creating novel entities. Equilibrium economics is a special case of nonequilibrium and hence complexity economics, therefore complexity economics is economics done in a more general way. It shows us an economy perpetually inventing itself, creating novel structures and possibilities for exploitation, and perpetually open to response.

HT: Mike Norman

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.

Hayek, Free Banking and Tax Payments

Among the many interesting comments on my previous post about free banking was one by Philippe which provoked an extended (and perhaps still ongoing) exchange between Philippe and George Selgin. Referring to this assertion of mine,

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

Philippe made the following comment:

In “The Denationalization of Money” Hayek argued that you should be able to pay taxes with privately-issued currencies. However, this would in effect turn those ‘private currencies into’ de facto state currencies, or forms of government ‘fiat money’. For some reason Hayek chose to ignore this massive contradiction in his argument. Essentially, what he was actually arguing was that private corporations should be granted special state powers, i.e. the power to issue money backed by the state’s legal powers of taxation.

I thought that this was a very insightful observation by Philippe, though its significance for me may be somewhat different from its significance for Philippe. In my criticisms of Hayek’s free-banking position – I call it a free-banking position even though free banking may be a misnomer inasmuch as Hayek advocated banks’ creating new currency units not just allowing banks freedom to create a complete menu of liabilities denominated in existing currency units – my argument was that newly created currency units would be worthless unless the banks made them convertible into some outside asset not under their control. Or in Nick Rowe’s helpful terminology, Hayek advocated free-alpha-banking, while conventional free bankers advocate free-beta-banking. The reasoning behind my argument is that the value of a pure medium of exchange depends entirely on its expected value in exchange, so if a currency unit is not defined in terms of a commodity providing a real, valuable, service apart from being used as money, people will eventually realize that its value must go to zero. Any positive value that it may temporarily have is just a bubble, and, like every bubble, it will burst.

However, unlike the private issuer of a currency unit, a sovereign issuer can impart a real value to a fiat currency by making the currency acceptable for discharging tax liabilities, creating a real demand for the currency distinct from its use as a medium of exchange. Using this argument, I have suggested that bitcoins are a bubble, though it is possible that are some techie reasons that I don’t understand why bitcoins could provide real services that would allow them retain a positive value. At any rate, the point made by Philippe — that if governments were to accept newly created private currency units in payment of taxes – they could retain their value just as fiat currencies issued by governments do – is a point that had escaped me in my criticisms of Hayek. So, well done, Philippe.

However, Philippe seems to carry this valid point a bit too far, accusing Hayek of a massive contradiction in arguing that private corporations be granted special state powers. The problem with that argument is that it begs the question what is special about money that confers the sole power to issue money to the state. I actually once wrote a paper trying to answer that question (once again relying on an argument that I heard from Earl Thompson) published in a volume called Money and the Nation State. I summarized the argument in chapter 2 of Free Banking and Monetary Reform.

The short answer is that currency debasement may be necessary as a means of emergency taxation when a sovereign is faced with a hostile military force threatening its survival. To profitably debase a currency, you have to be the monopoly supplier. Ergo, sovereigns that monopolize the mint or the supply of currency have a better chance of surviving than sovereigns that don’t. Hayek was a staunch anti-communist, cold warrior, so the defense argument, at least on some level, would have appealed to him. But otherwise, it’s not clear to me why Hayek could not have said that, apart from certain national-defense functions, there really are no government services that may not be provided by private enterprise. After all, we do allow various services that were once exclusively provided by the government to be provided by private enterprise. I don’t say that this is always a good thing, but it doesn’t seem to me inherently unreasonable to believe that the burden of proof is on the one claiming that the state has an exclusive right to discharge a particular service, not on the one who questions that such an exclusive right exists.

Having said that, I will also say that it also seems perfectly reasonable for a government to say that a tax obligation that it legitimately imposes – I freely admit that I am now begging the question where this legitimate power comes from, but only libertarian fanatics dispute that power – can only be discharged in terms of a currency unit that the government itself specifies. And implicitly or explicitly, George Selgin and other free bankers — i.e., free-beta-bankers — seem to be perfectly OK with the government specifying the currency unit in terms of which tax obligations may be discharged. In other words, the government may impose a tax obligation on me that is specified in dollar terms. To discharge it, I have no choice but to pay the government the requisite number of dollars, either delivering the government’s own currency or delivering a private (beta-bank) money denominated in dollar terms.

The peculiarity in Hayek’s argument is that he was proposing that governments impose a tax liability in, say, dollar terms, and then accept payment in some other currency unit without specifying any method by which an obligation specified in dollars would be discharged in terms of another currency unit. Any creditor is free to specify at the time an obligation is created the terms on which the debt will be discharged (subject of course to legal tender laws, but for purposes of this discussion I am ignoring legal tender laws which are not the same as tax acceptance). The government is not just any creditor, but there doesn’t seem to me to be any compelling reason why a government should not be entitled to say we have created this obligation in terms of dollars and it must be discharged in terms of dollars. And, if I am right in asserting that acceptability in payment of taxes is a necessary condition for an inconvertible fiat money to retain value, there does seem to be something funny about Hayek’s argument for the creation of private fiat moneys, even if it is not a flat-out contradiction as Philippe claims.

What is funny is the degree to which the viability of a Hayekian private fiat currency is dependent on its being accepted by the state as payment for taxes. Moreover, Hayek’s argument was that there would be a discovery process in which many competing currencies would vie for acceptance with the market eventually choosing one or a few currency units as somehow being the most desirable. Hayek thought that the currency unit with the most stable value would eventually capture the largest market share. There are lots of problems with the argument, especially that it ignores the network effects that tend to produce an entrenched monopoly, and the extreme path dependence of such outcomes, but on a practical level, it seems almost unimaginable that a government would, or could, allow any number of distinct competing currency units to be simultaneously acceptable in payment of taxes.

I do not mean to be overly critical of Hayek, for whom I always have had the greatest admiration, but he had an unfortunate tendency to get carried away with certain utopian ideas and proposals, for example his idea of separating the law-making power from the governing function of parliaments into two distinct bodies, going so far as to propose a method for selecting members of the law-making body under which people at the age of 35 would each year elect a number of their contemporaries to serve a 15-year term in the law-making body, the law-making body being composed entirely of people between the ages of 35 and 50. He presents the idea in volume 3 of Law, Legislation and Liberty, a wonderful book of great philosophical depth and erudition. But it is amazing that Hayek felt that such an idea could ever be implemented. I don’t like to think so, but it occurs to me that his toleration for certain dictators might have had something to do with his imagining that they could be persuaded to implement his ideas for political and constitutional reform. His Denationalization of Money was a similar flight of fancy, based on some profound insights, but used as the basis for practical proposals that were fantastically unrealistic.


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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