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Thoughts and Details on the Dearly Beloved, Bright and Shining, Depression of 1920-21, of Blessed Memory

Commenter TravisV kindly referred me to a review article by David Frum in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly of The Deluge by Adam Tooze, an economic history of the First World War, its aftermath, and the rise of America as the first global superpower since the Roman Empire. Frum draws an interesting contrast between Tooze’s understanding of the 1920-21 depression and the analysis of that episode presented in James Grant’s recent paean to the Greatest Depression.

But in thinking about Frum’s article, and especially his comments on Grant, I realized that my own discussion of the 1920-21 depression was not fully satisfactory, and so I have been puzzling for a couple of weeks about my own explanation for the good depression of 1920-21. What follows is a progress report on my thinking.

Here is what Frum says about Grant:

Periodically, attempts have been made to rehabilitate the American leaders of the 1920s. The most recent version, James Grant’s The Forgotten Depression, 1921: The Crash That Cured Itself, was released just two days before The Deluge: Grant, an influential financial journalist and historian, holds views so old-fashioned that they have become almost retro-hip again. He believes in thrift, balanced budgets, and the gold standard; he abhors government debt and Keynesian economics. The Forgotten Depression is a polemic embedded within a narrative, an argument against the Obama stimulus joined to an account of the depression of 1920-21.

As Grant correctly observes, that depression was one of the sharpest and most painful in American history. Total industrial production may have dropped by 30 percent. [According to Industrial Production Index of the Federal Reserve, industrial production dropped by almost 40%, DG] Unemployment spiked at perhaps close to 12 percent (accurate joblessness statistics don’t exist for this period). Overall, prices plummeted at the steepest rate ever recorded—steeper than in 1929-33. Then, after 18 months of extremely hard times, the economy lurched into recovery. By 1923, the U.S. had returned to full employment.

Grant presents this story as a laissez-faire triumph. Wartime inflation was halted. . . . Recovery then occurred naturally, without any need for government stimulus. “The hero of my narrative is the price mechanism, Adam Smith’s invisible hand,” he notes. “In a market economy, prices coordinate human effort. They channel investment, saving and work. High prices encourage production but discourage consumption; low prices do the opposite. The depression of 1920-21 was marked by plunging prices, the malignity we call deflation. But prices and wages fell only so far. They stopped falling when they become low enough to entice consumers into shopping, investors into committing capital and employers into hiring. Through the agency of falling prices and wages, the American economy righted itself.” Reader, draw your own comparisons!

. . .

Grant rightly points out that wars are usually followed by economic downturns. Such a downturn occurred in late 1918-early 1919. “Within four weeks of the … Armistice, the [U.S.] War Department had canceled $2.5 billion of its then outstanding $6 billion in contracts; for perspective, $2.5 billion represented 3.3 percent of the 1918 gross national product,” he observes. Even this understates the shock, because it counts only Army contracts, not Navy ones. The postwar recession checked wartime inflation, and by March 1919, the U.S. economy was growing again.

Here is where the argument needs further clarity and elaboration. But first let me comment parenthetically that there are two distinct kinds of post-war downturns. First, there is an inevitable adjustment whereby productive resources are shifted to accommodate the shift in demand from armaments to civilian products. The reallocation entails the temporary unemployment that is described in familiar search and matching models. Because of the magnitude of the adjustment, these sectoral-adjustment downturns can last for some time, typically two to four quarters. But there is a second and more serious kind of downturn; it can be associated either with an attempt to restore a debased currency to its legal parity, or with the cessation of money printing to finance military expenditures by the government. Either the deflationary adjustment associated with restoring a suspended monetary standard or the disinflationary adjustment associated with the end of a monetary expansion tends to exacerbate and compound the pure resource reallocation problem that is taking place simultaneously.

What I have been mainly puzzling over is how to think about the World War I monetary expansion and inflation, especially in the US. From the beginning of World War I in 1914 till the US entered the war in April 1917, the dollar remained fully convertible into gold at the legal gold price of $20.67 an ounce. Nevertheless, there was a huge price inflation in the US prior to April 1917. How was this possible while the US was on the gold standard? It’s not enough to say that a huge influx of gold into the US caused the US money supply to expand, which is the essence of the typical quantity-theoretic explanation of what happened, an explanation that you will find not just in Friedman and Schwartz, but in most other accounts as well.

Why not? Because, as long as the dollar was still redeemable at the official gold price, people could redeem their excess dollars for gold to avoid the inflationary losses incurred by holding dollars. Why didn’t they? In my previous post on the subject, I suggested that it was because gold, too, was depreciating, so that rapid US inflation from 1915 to 1917 before entering the war was a reflection of the underlying depreciation of gold.

But why was gold depreciating? What happened to make gold less valuable? There are two answers. First, a lot of gold was being withdrawn from circulation, as belligerent governments were replacing their gold coins with paper or base metallic coins. But there was a second reason: the private demand for gold was being actively suppressed by governments. Gold could no longer be freely imported or exported. Without easy import and export of gold, the international gold market, a necessary condition for the gold standard, ceased to function. If you lived in the US and were concerned about dollar depreciation, you could redeem your dollars for gold, but you could not easily find anyone else in the world that would pay you more than the official price of $20.67 an ounce, even though there were probably people out there willing to pay you more than that price if you could only find them and circumvent the export and import embargoes to ship the gold to them. After the US entered the war in April 1917, an embargo was imposed on the export of gold from the US, but that was largely just a precaution. Even without an embargo, little gold would have been exported.

So it was at best an oversimplification for me to say in my previous post that the dollar depreciated along with gold during World War I, because there was no market mechanism that reflected or measured the value of gold during World War I. Insofar as the dollar was still being used as a medium of exchange, albeit with many restrictions, it was more correct to say that the value of gold reflected the value of the dollar, than that the value of the dollar reflected the value of gold.

In my previous post, I posited that, owing to the gold-export embargo imposed after US entry into World War I, the dollar actually depreciated by less than gold between April 1917 and the end of the war. I then argued that after full dollar convertibility into gold was restored after the war, the dollar had to depreciate further to match the value of gold. That was an elegant explanation for the anomalous postwar US inflation, but that explanation has a problem: gold was flowing out of the US during the inflation, but if my explanation of the postwar inflation were right, gold should have been flowing into the US as the trade balance turned in favor of the US.

So, much to my regret, I have to admit that my simple explanation, however elegant, of the post-World War I inflation, as an equilibration of the dollar price level with the gold price level, was too simple. So here are some provisional thoughts, buttressed by a bit of empirical research and evidence drawn mainly from two books by W. A. Brown England and the New Gold Standard and The International Gold Standard Reinterpreted 1914-34.

The gold standard ceased to function as an economic system during World War I, because a free market in gold ceased to exist. Nearly two-thirds of all the gold in the world was mined in territories under the partial or complete control of the British Empire (South Africa, Rhodesia, Australia, Canada, and India). Another 15% of the world’s output was mined in the US or its territories. Thus, Britain was in a position, with US support and approval, to completely dominate the world gold market. When the war ended, a gold standard could not begin to function again until a free market in gold was restored. Here is how Brown describes the state of the world gold market (or non-market) immediately after the War.

In March 1919 when the sterling-dollar rate was freed from control, the export of gold was for the first time legally [my emphasis] prohibited. It was therefore still impossible to measure the appreciation or depreciation of any currency in terms of a world price of gold. The price of gold was nowhere determined by world-wide forces. The gold of the European continent was completely shut out of the world’s trade by export embargoes. There was an embargo upon the export of gold from Australia. All the gold exported from the Union of South Africa had still to be sold to the Bank of England at its statutory price. Gold could not be exported from the United States except under government license. All the avenues of approach by which gold from abroad could reach the public in India were effectually closed. The possessors of gold in the United States, South Africa, India, or in England, Spain, or France, could not offer their gold to prospective buyers in competition with one another. The purchasers of gold in these countries did not have access to the world’s supplies, but on the other hand, they were not exposed to foreign competition for the supplies in their own countries, or in the sphere of influence of their own countries.

Ten months after the war ended, on September 12, 1919, many wartime controls over gold having been eliminated, a free market in gold was reestablished in London.

No longer propped up by the elaborate wartime apparatus of controls and supports, the official dollar-sterling exchange rate of $4.76 per pound gave way in April 1919, falling gradually to less than $4 by the end of 1919. With the dollar-sterling exchange rate set free and the dollar was pegged to gold at the prewar parity of $20.67 an ounce, the sterling price of gold and the dollar-sterling exchange rate varied inversely. The US wholesale price index (in current parlance the producer price index) stood at 23.5 in November 1918 when the war ended (compared to 11.6 in July 1914 just before the war began). Between November 1918 and June 1919 the wholesale price index was roughly stable, falling to 23.4, a drop of just 0.4% in seven months. However, the existence of wartime price controls, largely dismantled in the months after the war ended, introduces some noise into the price indices, making price-level estimates and comparisons in the latter stages of the War and its immediate aftermath problematic.

When the US embargo on gold exports was lifted in June 1919, causing a big jump in gold exports in July 1919, wholesale prices shot up nearly 4% to 24.3, and to 24.9 in August, suggesting that lifting the gold export embargo tended to reduce the international value of gold to which the dollar corresponded. Prices dropped somewhat in September when the London gold market was reestablished, perhaps reflecting the impact of pent-up demand for gold suddenly becoming effective. Prices remained stable in October before rising almost 2% in November. Price increases accelerated in December and January, leveled off in February and March, before jumping up in April, the PPI reaching its postwar peak (28.8, a level not reached again till November 1950!) in May 1920.

My contention is that the US price level after World War I largely reflected the state of the world gold market, and the state of the world gold market was mainly determined by the direction and magnitude of gold flows into or out of the US. From the War’s end in November 1918 till the embargo on US gold exports was lifted the following July, the gold market was insulated from the US. The wartime controls imposed on the world gold market were gradually being dismantled, but until the London gold market reopened in September 1919, allowing gold to move to where it was most highly valued, there was no such thing as a uniform international value of gold to which the dollar had to correspond.

My understanding of the postwar US inflation and the subsequent deflation is based on the close relationship between monetary policy and the direction and magnitude of gold flows. Under a gold standard, and given the demand to hold the liabilities of a central bank, a central bank typically controlled the amount of gold reserves it held by choosing the interest rate at which it would lend. The relationship between the central-bank lending rate and its holdings of reserves is complex, but the reserve position of a central bank was reliably correlated with the central-bank lending rate, as Hawtrey explained and documented in his Century of Bank Rate. So the central bank lending rate can be thought of as the means by which a central bank operating under a gold standard made its demand for gold reserves effective.

The chart below shows monthly net gold flows into the US from January 1919 through June 1922. Inflows (outflows) correspond to positive (negative) magnitudes measured on left vertical axis; the PPI is measured on the right vertical axis. From January 1919 to June 1920, prices were relatively high and rising, while gold was generally flowing out of the US. From July 1920 till June 1921, prices fell sharply while huge amounts of gold were flowing into the US. Prices hit bottom in June, and gold inflows gradually tapered off in the second half of 1921.

gold_imports_2The correlation is obviously very far from perfect; I have done a number of regressions trying to explain movements in the PPI from January 1919 to June 1922, and the net monthly inflow of gold into the US consistently accounts for roughly 25% of the monthly variation in the PPI, and I have yet to find any other variable that is reliably correlated with the PPI over that period. Of course, I would be happy to receive suggestions about other variables that might be correlated with price level changes. Here’s the simplest regression result.

y = -4.41e-10 NGOLDIMP, 41 observations, t = -3.99, r-squared = .285, where y is the monthly percentage change in the PPI, and NGOLDIMP is net monthly gold imports into the US.

The one part of the story that still really puzzles me is that deflation bottomed out in June 1921, even though monthly gold inflows remained strong throughout the spring and summer of 1921 before tapering off in the autumn. Perhaps there was a complicated lag structure in the effects of gold inflows on prices that might be teased out of the data, but I don’t see it. And adding lagged variables does little if anything to improve the fit of the regression.

I want to make two further points about the dearly beloved 1920-21 depression. Let me go to the source and quote from James Grant himself waxing eloquent in the Wall Street Journal about the beguiling charms of the wonderful 1920-21 experience.

In the absence of anything resembling government stimulus, a modern economist may wonder how the depression of 1920-21 ever ended. Oddly enough, deflation turned out to be a tonic. Prices—and, critically, wages too—were allowed to fall, and they fell far enough to entice consumers, employers and investors to part with their money. Europeans, noticing that America was on the bargain counter, shipped their gold across the Atlantic, where it swelled the depression-shrunken U.S. money supply. Shares of profitable and well-financed American companies changed hands at giveaway valuations.

The first point to make is that Grant has the causation backwards; it was the flow of gold into the US that caused deflation by driving up the international value of gold and forcing down prices in terms of gold. The second point to make is that Grant completely ignores the brutal fact that the US exported its deflation to Europe and most of the rest of the world. Indeed, because Europe and much of the rest of the world were aiming to rejoin the gold standard, which effectively meant going on a dollar standard at the prewar dollar parity, and because, by 1920, almost every other currency was at a discount relative to the prewar dollar parity, the rest of the world had to endure a far steeper deflation than the US did in order to bring their currencies back to the prewar parity against the dollar. So the notion that US deflation lured eager bargain-hunting Europeans to flock to the US to spend their excess cash would be laughable, if it weren’t so pathetic. Even when the US recovery began in the summer of 1921, almost everywhere else prices were still falling, and output and employment contractin.

This can be seen by looking at the exchange rates of European countries against the dollar, normalizing the February 1920 exchange rates as 100. In February 1921, here are the exchange rates. (Source W. A. Brown The International Gold Standard Reinterpreted 1914-34, Table 29)

UK 114.6

France 101.8

Switzerland 99.3

Denmark 124.4

Belgium 103.6

Sweden 119.6

Holland 94.9

Italy 81.6

Norway 102.8

Spain 84.9

And in 1922, the exchange rates for every country had risen against the dollar (peak month noted in parentheses), implying steeper deflation in each of those countries in 1921 than in the US.

UK (June) 134.3

France (April) 131.1

Switzerland (February) 118.5

Denmark (June) 145.4

Belgium (April) 117.7

Sweden (March) 140.6

Holland (April) 105.2

Italy (April) 119.6

Norway (May) 106.8

Spain (February) 94.9

As David Frum emphasizes, the damage inflicted by the bright and shining depression of 1920-21 was not confined to the US, it exacted an even greater price on the already devastated European continent, thereby setting the stage, in conjunction with the draconian reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles and the war debts that the US insisted on collecting, preferably in gold, not imports, from its allies, first for the great German hyperinflation and then the Great Depression. And we all know what followed.

So, yes, by all means, let us all raise our glasses and toast the dearly beloved, bright and shining, depression of 1920-21, of blessed memory, the greatest depression ever. May we never see its like again.

Bitcoins Are Tanking Today

Bitcoins opened today at $226.04. As I write this, they are now trading at about $178. So they have lost about 25% of their value today, and its only 1PM EST.

Here’s a chart of what’s happened today.

coindesk-bpi-chart

Over the last month, bitcoins have lost nearly half their value. Bitcoins were trading at about $350 on December 15.

Here’s a chart of what’s happened over the last month.

coindesk-bpi-chart-1Last April, I wrote a post asking why bitcoins aren’t a bubble. Some people, including me, didn’t take that post too seriously, but I still don’t understand why bitcoins are worth anything. I seem to have more company now.

PS I have been spending a lot of time over the last 10 days thinking about the 1920-21 depression. I hope to post something later today or tomorrow on that topic.

Krugman on the Volcker Disinflation

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

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

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




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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is John Cochrane Really an (Irving) Fisherian?

I’m pretty late getting to this Wall Street Journal op-ed by John Cochrane (here’s an ungated version), and Noah Smith has already given it an admirable working over, but, even after Noah Smith, there’s an assertion or two by Cochrane that could use a bit of elucidation. Like this one:

Keynesians told us that once interest rates got stuck at or near zero, economies would fall into a deflationary spiral. Deflation would lower demand, causing more deflation, and so on.

Noah seems to think this is a good point, but I guess that I am less easily impressed than Noah. Feeling no need to provide citations for the views he attributes to Keynesians, Cochrane does not bother either to tell us which Keynesian has asserted that the zero lower bound creates the danger of a deflationary spiral, though in a previous blog post, Cochrane does provide a number of statements by Paul Krugman (who I guess qualifies as the default representative of all Keynesians) about the danger of a deflationary spiral. Interestingly all but one of these quotations were from 2009 when, in the wake of the fall 2008 financial crisis, a nasty little relapse in early 2009 having driven the stock market to a 12-year low, the Fed finally launched its first round of quantitative easing, the threat of a deflationary spiral did not seem at all remote.

Now an internet search shows that Krugman does have a model showing that a downward deflationary spiral is possible at the zero lower bound. I would just note, for the record, that Earl Thompson, in an unpublished 1976 paper, derived a similar result from an aggregate model based on a neo-classical aggregate production function with the Keynesian expenditure functions (through application of Walras’s Law) excluded. So what’s Keynes got to do with it?

But even more remarkable is that the most famous model of a deflationary downward spiral was constructed not by a Keynesian, but by the grandfather of modern Monetarism, Irving Fisher, in his famous 1933 paper on debt deflation, “The Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions.” So the suggestion that there is something uniquely Keynesian about a downward deflationary spiral at the zero lower bound is simply not credible.

Cochrane also believes that because inflation has stabilized at very low levels, slow growth cannot be blamed on insufficient aggregate demand.

Zero interest rates and low inflation turn out to be quite a stable state, even in Japan. Yes, Japan is growing more slowly than one might wish, but with 3.5% unemployment and no deflationary spiral, it’s hard to blame slow growth on lack of “demand.”

Except that, since 2009 when the threat of a downward deflationary spiral seemed more visibly on the horizon than it does now, Krugman has consistently argued that, at the zero lower bound, chronic stagnation and underemployment are perfectly capable of coexisting with a positive rate of inflation. So it’s not clear why Cochrane thinks the coincidence of low inflation and sluggish economic growth for five years since the end of the 2008-09 downturn somehow refutes Krugman’s diagnosis of what has been ailing the economy in recent years.

And, again, what’s even more interesting is that the proposition that there can be insufficient aggregate demand, even with positive inflation, follows directly from the Fisher equation, of which Cochrane claims to be a fervent devotee. After all, if the real rate of interest is negative, then the Fisher equation tells us that the equilibrium expected rate of inflation cannot be less than the absolute value of the real rate of interest. So if, at the zero lower bound, the real rate of interest is minus 1%, then the equilibrium expected rate of inflation is 1%, and if the actual rate of inflation equals the equilibrium expected rate, then the economy, even if it is operating at less than full employment and less than its potential output, may be in a state of macroeconomic equilibrium. And it may not be possible to escape from that low-level equilibrium and increase output and employment without a burst of unexpected inflation, providing a self-sustaining stimulus to economic growth, thereby moving the economy to a higher-level equilibrium with a higher real rate of interest than the rate corresponding to lower-level equilibrium. If I am not mistaken, Roger Farmer has been making an argument along these lines.

Given the close correspondence between the Keynesian and Fisherian analyses of what happens in the neighborhood of the zero lower bound, I am really curious to know what part of the Fisherian analysis Cochrane finds difficult to comprehend.

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.


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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