Posts Tagged 'Scott Sumner'

The Backing Theory of Money v. the Quantity Theory of Money

Mike Sproul and Scott Sumner were arguing last week about how to account for the value of fiat money and the rate of inflation. As I observed in a recent post, I am doubtful that monetary theory, in its current state, can handle those issues adequately, so I am glad to see that others are trying to think the problems through even if the result is only to make clear how much we don’t know. Both Mike and Scott are very smart guys, and I find some validity in the arguments of both even if I am not really satisfied with the arguments of either.

Mike got things rolling with a guest post on JP Koning’s blog in which he lodged two complaints against Scott:

First, “Scott thinks that the liabilities of governments and central banks are not really liabilities.”

I see two problems with Mike’s first complaint. First, Mike is not explicit about which liabilities he is referring to. However, from the context of his discussion, it seems clear that he is talking about those liabilities that we normally call currency, or in the case of the Federal Reserve, Federal Reserve Notes. Second, and more important, it is not clear what definition of “liability” Mike is using. In a technical sense, as Mike observes, Federal Reserve Notes are classified by the Fed itself as liabilities. But what does it mean for a Federal Reserve Note to be a liability of the Fed? A liability implies that an obligation has been undertaken by someone to be discharged under certain defined conditions. What is the obligation undertaken by the Fed upon issuing a Federal Reserve Note. Under the gold standard, the Fed was legally obligated to redeem its Notes for gold at a fixed predetermined conversion rate. After the gold standard was suspended, that obligation was nullified. What obligation did the Fed accept in place of the redemption obligation? Here’s Mike’s answer:

But there are at least three other ways that FRN’s can still be redeemed: (i) for the Fed’s bonds, (ii) for loans made by the Fed, (iii) for taxes owed to the federal government. The Fed closed one channel of redemption (the gold channel), while the other redemption channels (loan, tax, and bond) were left open.

Those are funny obligations inasmuch as there are no circumstances under which they require the Fed to take any action. The purchase of a Fed (Treasury?) bond at the going market price imposes no obligation on the Fed to do anything except what it is already doing anyway. For there to be an obligation resulting from the issue by the Fed of a note, it would have been necessary for the terms of the transaction following upon the original issue to have been stipulated in advance. But the terms on which the Fed engages in transactions with the public are determined by market forces not by contractual obligation. The same point applies to loans made by the Fed. When the Fed makes a loan, it emits FRNs. The willingness of the Fed to accept FRNs previously emitted in the course of making loans as repayment of those loans doesn’t strike me as an obligation associated with its issue of FRNs. Finally, the fact that the federal government accepts (or requires) payment of tax obligations in FRNs is a decision of the Federal government to which the Fed as a matter of strict legality is not a party. So it seems to me that the technical status of an FRN as a liability of the Fed is a semantic or accounting oddity rather than a substantive property of a FRN.

Having said that, I think that Mike actually does make a substantive point about FRNs, which is that FRNs are not necessarily hot potatoes in the strict quantity-theory sense. There are available channels through which the public can remit its unwanted FRNs back to the Fed. The economic question is whether those means of sending unwanted FRNs back to the Fed are as effective in pinning down the price level as an enforceable legal obligation undertaken by the Fed to redeem FRNs at a predetermined exchange rate in terms of gold. Mike suggests that the alternative mechanisms by which the public can dispose of unwanted FRNs are as effective as gold convertibility in pinning down the price level. I think that assertion is implausible, and it remains to be proved, though I am willing to keep an open mind on the subject.

Now let’s consider Mike’s second complaint: “Scott thinks that if the central bank issues more money, then the money will lose value even if the money is fully backed.”

My first reaction is to ask what it means for money to be “fully backed?” Since it is not clear in what sense the inconvertible note issue of a central bank represents a liability of the issuing bank, it is also not exactly clear why any backing is necessary, or what backing means, though I will try to suggest in a moment a reason why the assets of the central bank actually do matter. But again the point is that, when a liability does not impose a well-defined legal obligation on the central bank to redeem that liability at a predetermined rate in terms of an asset whose supply the central bank does not itself control, the notion of “backing” is as vague as the notion of a “liability.” The difference between a liability that imposes no effective constraint on a central bank and one that does impose an effective constraint on a central bank is the difference between what Nick Rowe calls an alpha bank, which does not make its notes convertible into another asset (real or monetary) not under its control, and what he calls a beta bank, which does make its liabilities convertible into another asset (real or monetary) not under its control.

Now one way to interpret “backing” is to look at all the assets on the balance sheet of the central bank and compare the value of those assets to the value of the outstanding notes issued by the central bank. Sometimes I think that this is really all that Mike means when he talks about “backing,” but I am not really sure. At any rate, if we think of backing in this vague sense, maybe what Mike wants to say is that the value of the outstanding note issue of the central bank is equal to the value of its assets divided by the amount of notes that it has issued. But if this really is what Mike means, then it seems that the aggregate value of the outstanding notes of the central bank must always equal the value of the assets of the central bank. But there is a problem with that notion of “backing” as well, because the equality in the value of the assets of the central bank and its liabilities can be achieved at any price level, and at any rate of inflation, because an increase in prices will scale up the nominal value of outstanding notes and the value of central-bank assets by the same amount. Without providing some nominal anchor, which, as far as I can tell, Mike has not done, the price level is indeterminate. Now to be sure, this is no reason for quantity theorist like Scott to feel overly self-satisfied, because the quantity theory is subject to the same indeterminacy. And while Mike seems absolutely convinced that the backing theory is superior to the quantity theory, he himself admits that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between the two theories in terms of their empirical implications.

Let me now consider a slightly different way in which the value of the assets on the balance sheet of a central bank could affect the value of the money issued by the central bank. I would suggest, along the lines of an argument made by Ben Klein many years ago in some of his papers on competitive moneys (e.g. this one), that it is meaningful to talk about the quality of the money issued by a particular bank. In Klein’s terms, the quality of a money reflects the confidence with which people can predict the future value of a money. It’s plausible to assume that the demand (in real terms) to hold money increases with the quality of money. Certainly people will tend to switch form holding lower- to higher-quality moneys. I think that it’s also plausible to assume that the quality of a particular money issued by a central bank increases as the value of the assets held by the central bank increases, because the larger the asset portfolio of the issuer, the more likely it is that the issuer will control the value of the money that it has issued. (This goes to Mike’s point that a central bank has to hold enough assets to buy back its currency if the demand for it goes down. Actually it doesn’t, but people will be more willing to hold a money the larger the stock of assets held by the issuer with which it can buy back its money to prevent it from losing value.) I think that is ultimately the idea that Mike is trying to get at when he talks about “backing.” So I would interpret Mike as saying that the quality of a money is an increasing function of the total asset holdings of the central bank issuing the money, and the demand for a money is an increasing function of its quality. Such an adjustment in Mike’s backing theory just might help to bring the backing theory and the quantity theory into a closer correspondence than one might gather from reading the back and forth between Mike and Scott last week.

PS Mike was kind enough to quote my argument about the problem that backward induction poses for the standard explanation of the value of fiat money. Scott once again dismisses the problem by saying that the problem can be avoided by assuming that no one knows when the last period is. I agree that that is a possible answer, but it means that the value of fiat money is contingent on a violation of rational expectations and the efficient market hypothesis. I am sort of surprised that Scott, of all people, would be so nonchalant about accepting such a violation. But I’ve already said enough about that for now.

The Irrelevance of QE as Explained by Three Bank of England Economists

An article by Michael McLeay, Amara Radia and Ryland Thomas (“Money Creation in the Modern Economy”) published in the Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin has gotten a lot of attention recently. JKH, who liked it a lot, highlighting it on his blog, and prompting critical responses from, among others, Nick Rowe and Scott Sumner.

Let’s look at the overview of the article provided by the authors.

In the modern economy, most money takes the form of bank deposits. But how those bank deposits are created is often misunderstood: the principal way is through commercial banks making loans. Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.

The reality of how money is created today differs from the description found in some economics textbooks:

• Rather than banks receiving deposits when households save and then lending them out, bank lending creates deposits.

• In normal times, the central bank does not fix the amount of money in circulation, nor is central bank money ‘multiplied up’ into more loans and deposits.

I start with a small point. What the authors mean by a “modern economy” is unclear, but presumably when they speak about the money created in a modern economy they are referring to the fact that the money held by the non-bank public has increasingly been held in the form of deposits rather than currency or coins (either tokens or precious metals). Thus, Scott Sumner’s complaint that the authors’ usage of “modern” flies in the face of the huge increase in the ratio of base money to broad money is off-target. The relevant ratio is that between currency and the stock of some measure of broad money held by the public, which is not the same as the ratio of base money to the stock of broad money.

I agree that the reality of how money is created differs from the textbook money-multiplier description. See my book on free banking and various posts I have written about the money multiplier and endogenous money. There is no meaningful distinction between “normal times” and “exceptional circumstances” for purposes of understanding how money is created.

Although commercial banks create money through lending, they cannot do so freely without limit. Banks are limited in how much they can lend if they are to remain profitable in a competitive banking system. Prudential regulation also acts as a constraint on banks’ activities in order to maintain the resilience of the financial system. And the households and companies who receive the money created by new lending may take actions that affect the stock of money — they could quickly ‘destroy’ money by using it to repay their existing debt, for instance.

I agree that commercial banks cannot create money without limit. They are constrained by the willingness of the public to hold their liabilities. Not all monies are the same, despite being convertible into each other at par. The ability of a bank to lend is constrained by the willingness of the public to hold the deposits of that bank rather than currency or the deposits of another bank.

Monetary policy acts as the ultimate limit on money creation. The Bank of England aims to make sure the amount of money creation in the economy is consistent with low and stable inflation. In normal times, the Bank of England implements monetary policy by setting the interest rate on central bank reserves. This then influences a range of interest rates in the economy, including those on bank loans.

Monetary policy is certainly a constraint on money creation, but I don’t understand why it is somehow more important (the constraint of last resort?) than the demand of the public to hold money. Monetary policy, in the framework suggested by this article, affects the costs borne by banks in creating deposits. Adopting Marshallian terminology, we could speak of the two blades of a scissors. Which bade is the ultimate blade? I don’t think there is an ultimate blade. In this context, the term “normal times” refers to periods in which interest rates are above the effective zero lower bound (see the following paragraph). But the underlying confusion here is that the authors seem to think that the amount of money created by the banking system actually matters. In fact, it doesn’t matter, because (at least in the theoretical framework being described) the banks create no more and no less money that the amount that the public willingly holds. Thus the amount of bank money created has zero macroeconomic significance.

In exceptional circumstances, when interest rates are at their effective lower bound, money creation and spending in the economy may still be too low to be consistent with the central bank’s monetary policy objectives. One possible response is to undertake a series of asset purchases, or ‘quantitative easing’ (QE). QE is intended to boost the amount of money in the economy directly by purchasing assets, mainly from non-bank financial companies.

Again the underlying problem with this argument is the presumption that the amount of money created by banks – money convertible into the base money created by the central bank – is a magnitude with macroeconomic significance. In the framework being described, there is no macroeconomic significance to that magnitude, because the value of bank money is determined by its convertibility into central bank money and the banking system creates exactly as much money as is willingly held. If the central bank wants to affect the price level, it has to do so by creating an excess demand or excess supply of the money that it — the central bank — creates, not the money created by the banking system.

QE initially increases the amount of bank deposits those companies hold (in place of the assets they sell). Those companies will then wish to rebalance their portfolios of assets by buying higher-yielding assets, raising the price of those assets and stimulating spending in the economy.

If the amount of bank deposits in the economy is the amount that the public wants to hold, QE cannot affect anything by increasing the amount of bank deposits; any unwanted bank deposits are returned to the banking system. It is only an excess of central-bank money that can possibly affect spending.

As a by-product of QE, new central bank reserves are created. But these are not an important part of the transmission mechanism. This article explains how, just as in normal times, these reserves cannot be multiplied into more loans and deposits and how these reserves do not represent ‘free money’ for banks.

The problem with the creation of new central-bank reserves by QE at the zero lower bound is that, central-bank reserves earn a higher return than alternative assets that might be held by banks, so any and all reserves created by the central bank are held willingly by the banking system. The demand of the banking for central bank reserves is unbounded at the zero-lower bound when the central bank pays a higher rate of interest than the yield on the next best alternative asset the bank could hold. If the central bank wants to increase spending, it can only do so by creating reserves that are not willingly held. Thus, in the theortetical framework described by the authors, QE cannot possibly have any effect on any macroeconomic variable. Now that’s a problem.

Now We Know: Ethanol Caused the 2008 Financial Crisis and the Little Depression

In the latest issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, now freely available here, Brian Wright, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, has a great article, summarizing his research (with various co-authors including, H Bobenrieth, H. Bobenrieth, and R. A. Juan) into the behavior of commodity markets, especially for wheat, rice and corn. Seemingly anomalous price movements in those markets – especially the sharp increase in prices since 2004 — have defied explanation. But Wright et al. have now shown that the anomalies can be explained by taking into account both the role of grain storage and the substitutability between these staples as caloric sources. With their improved modeling techniques, Wright and his co-authors have shown that the seemingly unexplained and sustained increase in world grain prices after 2005 “are best explained by the new policies causing a sustained surge in demand for biofuels.” Here is the abstract of Wright’s article.

In the last half-decade, sharp jumps in the prices of wheat, rice, and corn, which furnish about two-thirds of the calorie requirements of mankind, have attracted worldwide attention. These price jumps in grains have also revealed the chaotic state of economic analysis of agricultural commodity markets. Economists and scientists have engaged in a blame game, apportioning percentages of responsibility for the price spikes to bewildering lists of factors, which include a surge in meat consumption, idiosyncratic regional droughts and fires, speculative bubbles, a new “financialization” of grain markets, the slowdown of global agricultural research spending, jumps in costs of energy, and more. Several observers have claimed to identify a “perfect storm” in the grain markets in 2007/2008, a confluence of some of the factors listed above. In fact, the price jumps since 2005 are best explained by the new policies causing a sustained surge in demand for biofuels. The rises in food prices since 2004 have generated huge wealth transfers to global landholders, agricultural input suppliers, and biofuels producers. The losers have been net consumers of food, including large numbers of the world’s poorest peoples. The cause of this large global redistribution was no perfect storm. Far from being a natural catastrophe, it was the result of new policies to allow and require increased use of grain and oilseed for production of biofuels. Leading this trend were the wealthy countries, initially misinformed about the true global environmental and distributional implications.

This conclusion, standing alone, is a devastating indictment of the biofuels policies of the last decade that have immiserated much of the developing world and many of the poorest in the developed world for the benefit of a small group of wealthy landowners and biofuels rent seekers. But the research of Wright et al. shows definitively that the runup in commodities prices after 2005 was driven by a concerted policy of intervention in commodities markets, with the fervent support of many faux free-market conservatives serving the interests of big donors, aimed at substituting biofuels for fossil fuels by mandating the use of biofuels like ethanol.

What does this have to do with the financial crisis of 2008? Simple. As Scott Sumner, Robert Hetzel, and a number of others (see, e.g., here) have documented, the Federal Open Market Committee, after reducing its Fed Funds target rates to 2% in March 2008 in the early stages of the downturn that started in December 2007, refused for seven months to further reduce the Fed Funds target because the Fed, disregarding or unaware of a rapidly worsening contraction in output and employment in the third quarter of 2008. Why did the Fed ignore or overlook a rapidly worsening economy for most of 2008 — even for three full weeks after the Lehman debacle? Because the Fed was focused like a laser on rapidly rising commodities prices, fearing that inflation expectations were about to become unanchored – even as inflation expectations were collapsing in the summer of 2008. But now, thanks to Wright et al., we know that rising commodities prices had nothing to do with monetary policy, but were caused by an ethanol mandate that enjoyed the bipartisan support of the Bush administration, Congressional Democrats and Congressional Republicans. Ah the joy of bipartisanship.

Barro and Krugman Yet Again on Regular Economics vs. Keynesian Economics

A lot of people have been getting all worked up about Paul Krugman’s acerbic takedown of Robert Barro for suggesting in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2011 that increased government spending would not stimulate the economy. Barro’s target was a claim by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that every additional dollar spent on food stamps would actually result in a net increase of $1.84 in total spending. This statement so annoyed Barro that, in a fit of pique, he wrote the following.

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.

Sorry to brag, but it was actually none other than moi that (via Mark Thoma) brought this little gem to Krugman’s attention. In what is still my third most visited blog post, I expressed incredulity that Barro could ask where Is the market failure about a situation in which unemployment suddenly rises to more than double its pre-recession level. I also pointed out that Barro had himself previously acknowledged in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that monetary expansion could alleviate a cyclical increase in unemployment. If monetary policy (printing money on worthless pieces of paper) can miraculously reduce unemployment, why is out of the question that government spending could also reduce unemployment, especially when it is possible to view government spending as a means of transferring cash from people with unlimited demand for money to those unwilling to increase their holdings of cash? So, given Barro’s own explicit statement that monetary policy could be stimulative, it seemed odd for him to suggest, without clarification, that it would be a miracle if fiscal policy were effective.

Apparently, Krugman felt compelled to revisit this argument of Barro’s because of the recent controversy about extending unemployment insurance, an issue to which Barro made only passing reference in his 2011 piece. Krugman again ridiculed the idea that just because regular economics says that a policy will have adverse effects under “normal” conditions, the policy must be wrongheaded even in a recession.

But if you follow right-wing talk — by which I mean not Rush Limbaugh but the Wall Street Journal and famous economists like Robert Barro — you see the notion that aid to the unemployed can create jobs dismissed as self-evidently absurd. You think that you can reduce unemployment by paying people not to work? Hahahaha!

Quite aside from the fact that this ridicule is dead wrong, and has had a malign effect on policy, think about what it represents: it amounts to casually trashing one of the most important discoveries economists have ever made, one of my profession’s main claims to be useful to humanity.

Krugman was subsequently accused of bad faith in making this argument because he, like other Keynesians, has acknowledged that unemployment insurance tends to increase the unemployment rate. Therefore, his critics argue, it was hypocritical of Krugman to criticize Barro and the Wall Street Journal for making precisely the same argument that he himself has made. Well, you can perhaps accuse Krugman of being a bit artful in his argument by not acknowledging explicitly that a full policy assessment might in fact legitimately place some limit on UI benefits, but Krugman’s main point is obviously not to assert that “regular economics” is necessarily wrong, just that Barro and the Wall Street Journal are refusing to acknowledge that countercyclical policy of some type could ever, under any circumstances, be effective. Or, to put it another way, Krugman could (and did) easily agree that increasing UI will increases the natural rate of unemployment, but, in a recession, actual unemployment is above the natural rate, and UI can cause the actual rate to fall even as it causes the natural rate to rise.

Now Barro might respond that all he was really saying in his 2011 piece was that the existence of a government spending multiplier significantly greater than zero is not supported by the empirical evidenc. But there are two problems with that response. First, it would still not resolve the theoretical inconsistency in Barro’s argument that monetary policy does have magical properties in a recession with his position that fiscal policy has no such magical powers. Second, and perhaps less obviously, the empirical evidence on which Barro relies does not necessarily distinguish between periods of severe recession or depression and periods when the economy is close to full employment. If so, the empirical estimates of government spending multipliers are subject to the Lucas critique. Parameter estimates may not be stable over time, because those parameters may change depending on the cyclical phase of the economy. The multiplier at the trough of a deep business cycle may be much greater than the multiplier at close to full employment. The empirical estimates for the multiplier cited by Barro make no real allowance for different cyclical phases in estimating the multiplier.

PS Scott Sumner also comes away from reading Barro’s 2011 piece perplexed by what Barro is really saying and why, and does an excellent job of trying in vain to find some coherent conceptual framework within which to understand Barro. The problem is that there is none. That’s why Barro deserves the rough treatment he got from Krugman.

Never Mistake a Change in Quantity Demanded for a Change in Demand

We are all in Scott Sumner’s debt for teaching (or reminding) us never, ever to reason from a price change. The reason is simple. You can’t just posit a price change and then start making inferences from the price change, because price changes don’t just happen spontaneously. If there’s a price change, it’s because something else has caused price to change. Maybe demand has increased; maybe supply has decreased; maybe neither supply nor demand has changed, but the market was in disequilibrium before and is in equilibrium now at the new price; maybe neither supply nor demand has changed, but the market was in equilibrium before and is in disequilibrium now. There could be other scenarios as well, but unless you specify at least one of them, you can’t reason sensibly about the implications of the price change.

There’s another important piece of advice for anyone trying to do economics: never mistake a change in quantity demanded for a change in demand. A change in demand means that the willingness of people to pay for something has changed, so that, everything else held constant, the price has to change. If for some reason, the price of something goes up, the willingness of people to pay for not having changed, then the quantity of the thing that they demand will go down. But here’s the important point: their demand for that something – their willingness to pay for it – has not gone down; the change in the amount demanded is simply a response to the increased price of that something. In other words, a change in the price of something cannot be the cause of a change in the demand for that something; it can only cause a change in the quantity demanded. A change in demand can be caused only by change in something other than price – maybe a change in wealth, or in fashion, or in taste, or in the season, or in the weather.

Why am I engaging in this bit of pedantry? Well, in a recent post, Scott responded to the following question from Dustin in the comment section to one of his posts.

An elementary question on the topic of interest rates that I’ve been unable to resolve via google:

Regarding Fed actions, I understand that reduced interest rates are thought to be expansionary because the resulting decrease in cost of capital induces greater investment. But I also understand that reduced interest rates are thought to be contractionary because the resulting decrease in opportunity cost of holding money increases demand for money.

To which Scott responded as follows:

It’s not at all clear that lower interest rates boost investment (never reason from a price change.)  And even if they did boost investment it is not at all clear that they would boost GDP.

Scott is correct to question the relationship between interest rates and investment. The relationship in the Keynesian model is based on the idea that a reduced interest rate, by reducing the rate at which expected future cash flows are discounted, increases the value of durable assets, so that the optimal size of the capital stock increases, implying a speed up in the rate of capital accumulation (investment). There are a couple of steps missing in the chain of reasoning that goes from a reduced rate of discount to a speed up in the rate of accumulation, but, in the olden days at any rate, economists have usually been willing to rely on their intuition that an increase in the size of the optimal capital stock would translate into an increased rate of capital accumulation.

Alternatively, in the Hawtreyan scheme of things, a reduced rate of interest would increase the optimal size of inventories held by traders and middlemen, causing an increase in orders to manufacturers, and a cycle of rising output and income generated by the attempt to increase inventories. Notice that in the Hawtreyan view, the reduced short-term interest is, in part, a positive supply shock (reducing the costs borne by middlemen and traders of holding inventories financed by short-term borrowing) as long as there are unused resources that can be employed if desired inventories increase in size.

That said, I’m not sure what Scott, in questioning whether a reduction in interesting rates raises investment, meant by his parenthetical remark about reasoning from a price change. Scott was asked about the effect of a Fed policy to reduce interest rates. Why is that reasoning from a price change? And furthermore, if we do posit that investment rises, why is it unclear whether GDP would rise?

Scott continues:

However it’s surprisingly hard to explain why OMPs boost NGDP using the mechanism of interest rates. Dustin is right that lower interest rates increase the demand for money.  They also reduce velocity. Higher money demand and lower velocity will, ceteris paribus, reduce NGDP.  So why does everyone think that a cut in interest rates increases NGDP?  Is it possible that Steve Williamson is right after all?

Sorry, Scott. Lower interest rates don’t increase the demand for money; lower interest rates increase the amount of money demanded. What’s the difference? If an interest-rate reduction increased the demand for money, it would mean that the demand curve had shifted, and the size of that shift would be theoretically unspecified. If that were the case, we would be comparing an unknown increase in investment on the one hand to an unknown increase in money demand on the other hand, the net effect being indeterminate. That’s the argument that Scott seems to be making.

But that’s not, repeat not, what’s going on here. What we have is an interest-rate reduction that triggers an increase investment and also in the amount of money demanded. But there is no shift in the demand curve for money, just a movement along an unchanging demand curve. That imposes a limit on the range of possibilities. What is the limit? It’s the extreme case of a demand curve for money that is perfectly elastic at the current rate of interest — in other words a liquidity trap — so that the slightest reduction in interest rates causes an unlimited increase in the amount of money demanded. But that means that the rate of interest can’t fall, so that investment can’t rise. If the demand for money is less than perfectly elastic, then the rate of interest can in fact be reduced, implying that investment, and therefore NGDP, will increase. The quantity of money demanded increases as well — velocity goes down — but not enough to prevent investment and NGDP from increasing.

So, there’s no ambiguity about the correct answer to Dustin’s question. If Steve Williamson is right, it’s because he has introduced some new analytical element not contained in the old-fashioned macroeconomic analysis. (Note that I use the term “old-fashioned” only as an identifier, not as an expression of preference in either direction.) A policy-induced reduction in the rate of interest must, under standard assumption in the old-fashioned macroeconomics, increase nominal GDP, though the size of the increase depends on specific assumptions about empirical magnitudes. I don’t disagree with Scott’s analysis in terms of the monetary base, I just don’t see a substantive difference between that analysis and the one that I just went through in terms of the interest-rate policy instrument.

Just to offer a non-controversial example, it is possible to reason through the effect of a restriction on imports in terms of a per unit tariff on imports or in terms of a numerical quota on imports. For any per unit tariff, there is a corresponding quota on imports that gives you the same solution. MMT guys often fail to see the symmetry between setting the quantity and the price of bank reserves; in this instance Scott seems to have overlooked the symmetry between the quantity and price of base money.

What Makes Deflation Good?

Earlier this week, there was a piece in the Financial Times by Michael Heise, chief economist at Allianz SE, arguing that the recent dip in Eurozone inflation to near zero is not a sign of economic weakness, but a sign of recovery reflecting increased competitiveness in the Eurozone periphery. Scott Sumner identified a systematic confusion on Heise’s part between aggregate demand and aggregate supply, so that without any signs that rapidly falling Eurozone inflation has been accompanied by an acceleration of anemic growth in Eurozone real GDP, it is absurd to attribute falling inflation to a strengthening economy. There’s not really much more left to say about Heise’s piece after Scott’s demolition, but, nevertheless, sifting through the rubble, I still want to pick up on the distinction that Heise makes between good deflation and bad deflation.

Nonetheless, bank lending has been on the retreat, bankruptcies have soared and disposable incomes have fallen. This is the kind of demand shock that fosters bad deflation: a financial crisis causes aggregate demand to shrink faster than supply, resulting in falling prices.

However, looking through the lens of aggregate supply, the difficulties of the eurozone’s periphery bear only a superficial resemblance to those plaguing Japan. In this case, falling prices are the result of a supply shock, through improved productivity or real wage reduction.

Low inflation or even deflation is testament to the fact that (painful) adjustment through structural reforms is finally working.

In other words, deflation associated with a financial crisis, causing liquidation of assets and forced sales of inventories, thereby driving down prices and engendering expectations of continuing price declines, is bad. However, the subsequent response to that deflationary shock – the elimination of production inefficiencies and the reduction of wages — is not bad, but good. Both responses to the initial deflationary contraction in aggregate demand correspond to a rightward shift of the aggregate supply curve, thereby tending to raise aggregate output and employment even while tending to causes a further reduction in the price level or the inflation rate.

It is also interesting to take note of the peculiar euphemism for cutting money wages adopted by Heise: internal devaluation. As he puts it:

The eurozone periphery is regaining competitiveness via internal devaluation. This could even be called “good deflation.”

Now in ordinary usage, the term “devaluation” signifies a reduction in the pegged value of one currency in terms of another. When a country devalues its currency, it is usually because that country is running a trade deficit for which foreign lenders are unwilling to provide financing. The cause of the trade deficit is that the country’s tradable-goods sector is not profitable enough to expand to the point that the trade deficit is brought into balance, or close enough to balance to be willingly financed by foreigners. To make expansion of its tradable-goods sector profitable, the country may resort to currency devaluation, raising the prices of exports and imports in terms of the domestic currency. With unchanged money wages, the increase in the prices of exports and imports makes expansion of the country’s tradable-goods sector profitable, thereby reducing or eliminating the trade deficit. What Heise means by “internal devaluation” in contrast to normal devaluation is a reduction in money wages, export and import prices being held constant at the fixed exchange.

There is something strange, even bizarre, about Heise’s formulation, because what he is saying amounts to this: a deflation is good insofar as it reduces money wages. So Heise’s message, delivered in an obscure language, apparently of his own creation, is that the high and rising unemployment of the past five years in the Eurozone is finally causing money wages to fall. Therefore, don’t do anything — like shift to an easier monetary policy — that would stop those blessed reductions in money wages. Give this much to Herr Heise, unlike American critics of quantitative easing who pretend to blame it for causing real-wage reductions by way of the resulting inflation, he at least is honest enough to criticize monetary expansion for preventing money (and real) wages from falling, though he has contrived a language in which to say this without being easily understood.

Actually there is a historical precedent for the kind of good deflation Heise appears to favor. It was undertaken by Heinrich Bruning, Chancellor of the Weimar Republic from 1930 to 1932, when, desperate to demonstrate Germany’s financial rectitude (less than a decade after the hyperinflation of 1923) he imposed, by emergency decree, draconian wage reductions aimed at increasing Germany’s international competitiveness, while remaining on the gold standard. The evidence does not suggest that the good deflation and internal devaluation adopted by Bruning’s policy of money-wage cuts succeeded in ending the depression. And internal devaluation was certainly not successful enough to keep Bruning’s government in office, its principal effect being to increase support for Adolph Hitler, who became Chancellor within less than nine months after Bruning’s government fell.

This is not to say that nominal wages should never be reduced, but the idea that nominal wage cuts could serve as the means to reverse an economic contraction has little, if any, empirical evidence to support it. A famous economist who supported deflation in the early 1930s believing that it would facilitate labor market efficiencies and necessary cuts in real wages, subsequently retracted his policy advice, admitting that he had been wrong to think that deflation would be an effective instrument to overcome rigidities in labor markets. His name? F. A. Hayek.

So there is nothing good about the signs of deflation that Heise sees. They are simply predictable follow-on effects of the aggregate demand shock that hit the Eurozone after the 2008 financial crisis, subsequently reinforced by the monetary policy of the European Central Bank, reflecting the inflation-phobia of the current German political establishment. Those effects, delayed responses to the original demand shock, do not signal a recovery.

What, then, would distinguish good deflation from bad deflation? Simple. If observed deflation were accompanied by a significant increase in output, associated with significant growth in labor productivity and increasing employment (indicating increasing efficiency or technological progress), we could be confident that the deflation was benign, reflecting endogenous economic growth rather than macroeconomic dysfunction. Whenever output prices are falling without any obvious signs of real economic growth, falling prices are a clear sign of economic dysfunction. If prices are falling without output rising, something is wrong — very wrong — and it needs fixing.

A New Paper Shows Just How Right Hawtrey and Cassel Were

I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email a couple of weeks ago from someone I don’t know, a graduate student in economics at George Mason University, James Caton. He sent me a link to a paper (“Good as Gold?: A Quantitative Analysis of Hawtrey and Cassel’s Theory of Gold Demand and the Gold Price Level During the Interwar Period”) that he recently posted on SSRN. Caton was kind enough to credit me and my co-author Ron Batchelder, as well as Doug Irwin (here and here) and Scott Sumner, for reviving interest in the seminal work of Ralph Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel on the interwar gold standard and the key role in causing the Great Depression played by the process of restoring the gold standard after it had been effectively suspended after World War I began.

The thesis independently, but cooperatively, advanced by Hawtrey and Cassel was that under a gold standard, fluctuations in the gold price level were sensitive to variations in the demand for gold reserves by the central banks. The main contribution of Caton’s paper is to provide econometric evidence of the tight correlation between variations in the total gold holdings of the world’s central banks and the gold price level in the period between the end of World War I (1918) to the start of Great Depression (1930-32). Caton uses a variation on a model used by Scott Sumner in his empirical work on the Great Depression to predict changes in the value of gold, and, hence, changes in the gold price level of commodities. If central banks in the aggregate are adding to their gold reserves at a faster rate than the rate at which the total world stock of gold is growing, then gold would be likely to appreciate, and if central banks are adding to their gold reserves at a slower rate than that at which the world stock is growing, then gold would be likely to depreciate.

So from the published sources, Caton constructed a time series of international monetary gold holdings and the total world stock of gold from 1918 to 1932 and regressed the international gold price level on the international gold reserve ratio (the ratio of monetary gold reserves to the total world stock of gold). He used two different measures of the world gold price level, the Sauerback-Statist price index and the gold price of silver. Based on his regressions (calculated in both log-linear and log-quadratic forms and separately for the periods 1918-30, 1918-31, 1918-32), he compared the predicted gold price level against both the Sauerback-Statist price index and the gold price of silver. The chart below shows his result for the log-linear regression estimated over the period 1918-30.

Caton_Regressions

Pretty impressive, if you ask me. Have a look yourself.

Let me also mention that Caton’s results also shed important light on the puzzling behavior of the world price level immediately after the end of World War I. Unlike most wars in which the wartime inflation comes to an abrupt end after the end of the war, inflation actually accelerated after the end of the war. The inflation did not actually stop for almost two years after the end of the war, when a huge deflation set in. Caton shows that the behavior of the price level was largely determined by the declining gold holdings of the Federal Reserve after the war ended. Unnerved by the rapid inflation, the Fed finally changed policy, and began accumulating gold rapidly in 1920 by raising the discount rate to an all-time high of 7 percent. Although no other countries were then on the gold standard, other countries, unwilling, for the most part, to allow their currencies to depreciate too much against the dollar, imported US deflation.

Jim is also a blogger. Check out his blog here.

Update: Thanks to commenter Blue Aurora for pointing out that I neglected to provide a link to Jim Caton’s paper.  Sorry about that. The link is now embedded.

Leijonhufvud on Friedman

Before it was hijacked by Paul Krugman, Scott Sumner and I were having a friendly little argument about whether Milton Friedman repackaged the Keynesian theory of the demand for money as the quantity theory of money transmitted to him via a fictitious Chicago oral tradition, as I, relying on Don Patinkin and Harry Johnson, claim, or whether Friedman was a resolute anti-Keynesian, as Scott claims. We have been trading extended quotations from the literature to try to support our positions.

I now offer some additional quotations, all but one from Axel Leijonhufvud’s wonderful essay “The Wicksell Connection: Variations on a Theme,” published in Leijonfuvud’s volume Information and Coordination (Oxford University Press, 1981). By some coincidence, the quotations tend to support my position, but, more importantly, they shed important light on problems of interpreting what Keynes was really talking about, and suggest a way of thinking about Keynes that takes us beyond the sterile ideological debates into which we tend lapse at the mere mention of the name John Maynard Keynes, or for that matter, Milton Friedman. Of course, the main lesson that readers should take away is: read the whole essay.

Herewith are a few extracts in which Leijonhufvud comments on Friedman and his doctrinal relationship with Keynes.

Milton Friedman has emphatically denied that the elasticity of LM is at issue [in the Monetarist v. Keynesian controversies]. At the same time his use of what is basically an IS-LM structure in presenting his own theory, and his oft-repeated insistence that no theoretical issues but only questions of empirical magnitudes within this shared theoretical frame separate him from his opponents, have apparently fortified others in their belief that (whatever he says) this elasticity must be crucial. Furthermore, Friedman has himself played around with elasticities, for example in advancing the notion of a horizontal IS curve. (p. 144, fn. 22)

The troubles with keeping track of the Wicksellian theme in its Keynesian guises and disguises go far back in time. The original “Savings-equals-Investment” debate did not reach a clear-cut collective verdict. As Lipsey ["The Foundations of the Theory of National Income: An Analysis of Some Fundamental Errors"] has recently shown, confusion persists to the present day. The IS-LM framework did not lend itself too well to a sharp characterization of the question whether the excess demand for bonds or the excess demand for money governs the interest rate. It was concluded that the distinction between the Loanable Funds and Liquidity Preference hypotheses was probably either pointless or misleading and that, in either case, the issue could safely be left unresolved. Correspondingly, Hansen found, Keynes’ insistence that saving and investment determine income while money stock and liquidity preference determine the rate of interest (rather than the other way around) makes no sense once you realize that, in IS-LM, everything simultaneously determines everything.

In Hansen’s reading Keynes’ interest theory was “indeterminate” – money supply and demand could not determine the interest rate, as Keynes would have it, but only give you the LM curve, etc. This way of looking at it missed the issue of which excess demand governs the interest rate.

One is reminded of Hansen’s indeterminacy charge by Friedman’s more recent argument that Keynes’ theory suffered from a “missing equation” – and should be completed by adding an exogenously determined price level. Keynes’ theory . . . was of the dynamic-historical variety. In describing the state of the system at some point in the sequential process, such theories make use of information about the system’s initial (historical) state. Static models do not use historical information, of course, but have to have equations for all endogenous variables. Reading a dynamic-historical theory on the presumption that it is static, therefore, is apt to lead to the mistaken impression that it lacks equations and is indeterminate. (pp. 180-81 and fn. 84)

Friedman, like so many others, filters Keynes and Keynesian theory through the IS-LM model and, consequently, ends up where everyone else ends up: bogged down in the Neoclassical Synthesis, which is to say, with the conclusion that exogenous fixity of money wages was Keynes’ explanation of unemployment. His discussion is notable for a sophisticated treatment of Keynes’ demand for money function and for its sweeping endorsement of the Pigou-effect. . . . (p. 189)

I break off from the final quotation, which is just a small part of an extended discussion of Friedman, because the argument is too dense to summarize adequately, and the entire lengthy passage (pp. 187-94) has to be read to grasp its full import. But I close with one final quotation from Leijonhufvud’s essay “Schools, ‘Revolutions,’ and Research Programmes in Economic Theory,” also contained in Information and Coordination (pp. 291-345).

The most widely known “monetarist,” Professor Milton Friedman, has for a long time consistently voiced the position that “monetarists” and “(neo)-Keynesians” share essentially the same theory and that their differences all derive from contrasting hypotheses concerning certain crucial empirical magnitudes. (He has also, however, persistently denied that the issues can be defined as a “simple” matter of the magnitude of the interest-elasticity of the excess demand for money – an otherwise oft-repeated contention in the debate.) In his recent attempts to provide an explicit representation for his theory, accordingly, Friedman chose ot use the “Keynesian” so-called “IS-LM” framework as his language of formal discourse.

In my opinion, there are “hard core” differences between the two theories and ones, moreover, that the “IS-LM” framework will not help us define. Not only are these differences at the “cosmological” level not accurately represented by the models used, but they will also lead to divergent interpretations of empirical results. (pp. 298-99, fn. 10)

The last paragraph, I suspect, probably sums up not just the inconclusiveness of the debate between Monetarists and Keynesians, but also the inconclusiveness of the debate about whether Friedman was or wasn’t a Keynesian. So be it.

Second Thoughts on Friedman

After blowing off some steam about Milton Friedman in my previous post, thereby antagonizing a sizable segment of my readership, and after realizing that I had been guilty of a couple of memory lapses in citing sources that I was relying on, I thought that I should go back and consult some of the relevant primary sources. So I looked up Friedman’s 1966 article “Interest Rates and the Demand for Money” published in the Journal of Law and Economics in which he denied that he had ever asserted that the demand for money did not depend on the rate of interest and that the empirical magnitude of the elasticity of money demand with respect to the interest rate was not important unless it approached the very high elasticity associated with the Keynesian liquidity trap. I also took a look at Friedman’s reply to Don Patinkin essay “Friedman on the Quantity Theory and Keynesian Economics” in Milton Friedman’s Monetary Framework: A Debate with his Critics.

Perhaps on another occasion, I will offer some comments on Friedman and the interest elasticity of the demand for money, but, for now, I will focus on Friedman’s reply to Patinkin, which is most relevant to my previous post. Patinkin’s essay, entitled, “Friedman on the Quantity Theory and Keynesian Economics,” charged that Friedman had repackaged the Keynesian theory as a quantity theory and tried to sell it with a Chicago oral tradition label stuck on the package. That’s an overstatement of a far more sophisticated argument than my one sentence summary can do justice to, but it captures the polemical gist of Patinkin’s argument, an argument that he had made previously in a paper, “The Chicago Tradition, the Quantity Theory, and Friedman” published in the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking which Harry Johnson relied on in his 1970 Richard T. Ely lecture, “The Keynesian Revolution and the Monetarist Counterrevolution.” Friedman took personal offense at what he regarded as attacks on his scholarly integrity in those papers, and his irritation (to put it mildly) with Patinkin is plainly in evidence in his reply to Patinkin. Much, but not all, of my criticism of Friedman stems from my memory of the two papers by Patinkin and Johnson.

Now to give Friedman his due – and to reiterate what I have already said a number of times, Friedman was a great economist and you can learn a lot by reading his arguments carefully because he was a very skillful applied theorist — he makes a number of effective responses to Patinkin’s accusation that he was merely peddling a disguised version of Keynesianism under the banners of the quantity theory and the Chicago oral tradition. These are basically the same arguments that Scott Sumner used in the post that he wrote defending Friedman against my recycling of the Patinkin/Johnson criticism.

First, like earlier quantity theorists, and unlike Keynes in the General Theory, Friedman assumed that the price level is determined (not, as in the GT, somehow fixed exogenously) by the demand for money and the supply (effectively under the complete discretionary control of the monetary authority) of money.

Second, because differences between the demand for money and the supply of money (in nominal terms) are equilibrated primarily by changes in the price level (not, as in the GT, by changes in the rate of interest), the link between monetary policy and the economy that Friedman focused on was the price level not the rate of interest.

Third, Friedman did not deny that the demand for money was affected by the rate of interest, but he maintained that monetary policy would become ineffective only under conditions of a liquidity trap, which was therefore, in Friedman’s view, the chief theoretical innovation of the General Theory, but one which, on empirical grounds, Friedman flatly rejected.

So if I were to restate Patinkin’s objection in somewhat different terms, I would say that Friedman, in 1956 and in later expositions, described the quantity theory as a theory of the demand for money, which as a historical matter is a travesty, because the quantity theory was around for centuries before the concept of a demand for money was even articulated, but the theory of the demand for money that Friedman described was, in fact, very much influenced by the Keynesian theory of liquidity preference, an influence not mentioned by Friedman in 1956 but acknowledged in later expositions. Friedman explained away this failure by saying that Keynes was merely adding to a theory of the demand for money that had been evolving at Cambridge since Marshall’s day, and that the novel element in the General Theory, absolute liquidity preference, was empirically unsupported. That characterization of Keynes’s theory of liquidity preference strikes me as being ungenerous, but both Friedman and Patinkin neglected to point out that Keynes erroneously thought that his theory of liquidity preference was actually a complete theory of the rate of interest that displaced the real theory of interest.

So, my take on the dispute between Friedman and Patinkin is that Patinkin was right that Friedman did not sufficiently acknowledge the extent to which he was indebted to Keynes for the theory of the demand for money that he erroneously identified with the quantity theory of money. On the other hand, because Friedman explicitly allowed for the price level to be determined within his model, he avoided the Keynesian liquidity-preference relationship between the quantity of money and the rate of interest, allowing the real rate of interest to be determined by real factors not liquidity preference. In some sense, Friedman may have exaggerated the conceptual differences between himself and the Keynesians, but, by making a strategic assumption that the price level responds to changes in the quantity of money, Friedman minimized the effect of changes in the quantity of money on interest rates, except via changes in price level expectations.

But, having granted Friedman partial exoneration of the charge that he was a crypto-Keynesian, I want to explore a bit more carefully Friedman’s remarkable defense against the accusation by Patinkin and Johnson that he invented a non-existent Chicago oral tradition under whose name he could present his quasi-Keynesian theory of the demand for money. Friedman began his response to Patinkin with the following expression of outrage.

Patinkin . . . and Johnson criticize me for linking my work to a “Chicago tradition” rather than recognizing that, as they see it, my work is Keynesian. In the course of their criticism, they give a highly misleading impression of the Chicago tradition. . . .

Whether I conveyed the flavor of that tradition or not, there was such a tradition; it was significantly different from the quantity theory tradition that prevailed at other institutions of learning, notably the London School of Economics; that Chicago tradition had a great deal to do with the differential impact of Keynes’s General Theory on economists at Chicago and elsewhere; and it was responsible for the maintenance of interest in the quantity theory at Chicago. (Friedman’s Monetary Framework p. 158 )

Note the reference to the London School of Economics, as if LSE in the 1930s was in any way notable for its quantity theory tradition. There were to be sure monetary theorists of some distinction working at the LSE in the 1930s, but their relationship to the quantity theory was, at best, remote.

Friedman elaborates on this tidbit a few pages later, recalling that in the late 1940s or early 1950s he once debated Abba Lerner at a seminar at the University of Chicago. Despite agreeing with each other about many issues, Friedman recalled that they were in sharp disagreement about the Keynesian Revolution, Lerner being an avid Keynesian, and Friedman being opposed. The reason for their very different reaction to the Keynesian Revolution, Friedman conjectured, was that Lerner had been trained at the London School of Economics “where the dominant view was that the depression was an inevitable result of the prior boom, that it was deepened by the attempts ot prevent prices and wages from falling and firms from going bankrupt, that the monetary authorities had brought on the depression by inflationary policies before the crash and had prolonged it by ‘easy money’ policies thereafter; that the only sound policy was to let the depression run its course, bring down money costs, and eliminate the weak and unsound firms.” For someone trained in such a view, Friedman suggested, the Keynesian program would seem very attractive. Friedman continued:

It was the London School (really Austrian) view that I referred to in my “Restatement” when I spoke of “the atrophied and rigid caricature [of the quantity theory] that is so frequently described by the proponents of the new income-expenditure approach – and with some justice, to judge by much of the literature on policy that was spawned by the quantity theorists.”

The intellectual climate at Chicago had been wholly different. My teachers regarded the depression as largely the product of misguided government policy – or at least greatly intensified by such policies. They blamed the monetary and fiscal authorities for permitting banks to fail and the quantity of deposits to decline. Far from preaching the need to let deflation and bankruptcy run their course, they issued repeated pronouncements calling for governmental action to stem the deflation. . . .

It was this view the the quantity theory that I referred to in my “Restatement” as “a more subtle and relevant version, one in which the quantity theory was connected and integrated with general price theory and became a flexible and sensitive tool for interpreting movements in aggregate economic activity and for developing relevant policy prescriptions.” (pp. 162-63)

After quoting at length from a talk Jacob Viner gave in 1933 calling for monetary expansion, Friedman winds up with this gem.

What, in the field of interpretation and policy, did Keynes have to offer those of us who learned their economics at a Chicago filled with these views? Can anyone who knows my work read Viner’s comments and not see the direct links between them and Anna Schwartz’s and my Monetary History or between them and the empirical Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money? Indeed, as I have read Viner’s talk for purposes of this paper, I have myself been amazed to discover how precisely it foreshadows the main thesis of our Monetary History for the depression period, and have been embarrassed that we made no reference to it in our account. Can you find any similar link between [Lionel] Robbins’s [of LSE] comments [in his book The Great Depression] and our work? (p. 167)

So what is the evidence that Friedman provides to counter the scandalous accusation by Patinkin and Johnson that Friedman invented a Chicago oral tradition of the quantity theory? (And don’t forget: the quantity theory is a theory of the demand for money) Well, it’s that, at the London School of Economics, there were a bunch of guys who had crazy views about just allowing the Great Depression to run its course, and those guys were quantity theorists, which is why Keynes had to start a revolution to get rid of them all, but at Chicago, they didn’t allow any of those guys to spout their crazy ideas in the first place, so we didn’t need any damn Keynesian revolution.

Good grief! Is there a single word that makes sense? To begin with those detestable guys at LSE were Austrians, as Friedman acknowledges. What he didn’t say, or didn’t know, is that Austrians, either by self-description or by any reasonable definition of the term, are not quantity theorists. So the idea that there was anything special about the Chicago quantity theory as opposed to any other species of the quantity theory is total humbug.

But hold on, it only gets worse. Friedman holds up Jacob Viner as an exemplar of the Chicago quantity theory oral tradition. Jacob Viner was a superb economist, a magnificent scholar, and a legendary teacher for whom I have the utmost admiration, and I am sure that Friedman learned a lot from him at Chicago, But isn’t it strange that Friedman writes: “as I have read Viner’s talk for purposes of this paper, I have myself been amazed to discover how precisely it foreshadows the main thesis of our Monetary History for the depression period, and have been embarrassed that we made no reference to it in our account.” OMG! This is the oral tradition that exerted such a powerful influence on Friedman and his fellow students? Viner explains how to get out of the depression in 1933, and in 1971 Friedman is “amazed to discover” how precisely Viner’s talk foreshadowed the main thesis of his explanation of the Great Depression? That sounds more like a subliminal tradition than an oral tradition.

Responding to Patinkin’s charge that his theory of the demand for money – remember the quantity theory, according to Friedman is a theory of the demand for money — is largely derived from Keynes, Friedman plays a word game.

Is everything in the General Theory Keynesian? Obviously yes, in the trivial sense that the words were set down on paper by John Maynard Keynes. Obviously no, in the more important sense that the term Keynesian has come to refer to a theory of short-term economic change – or a way of analyzing such change – presented in the General Theory and distinctively different from the theory that preceded it. To take a noncontroversial example: in his chapter 20 on “The Employment Function” and elsewhere, Keynes uses the law of diminishing returns to conclude that an increase of employment requires a decline in real-wage rates. Clearly that does not make the “law of diminishing returns” Keynesian or justify describing the “analytical framework” of someone who embodies the law of diminishing returns in his theoretical structure as Keynesian.

In just the same sense, I maintain that Keynes’s discussion of the demand curve for money in the General Theory is for the most part a continuation of earlier quantity theory approaches, improved and refined but not basically modified. As evidence, I shall cite Keynes’s own writings in the Tract on Monetary Reform – long before he became a Keynesian in the present sense. (p. 168)

There are two problems with this line of defense. First, the analogy to the law of diminishing returns would have been appropriate only if Keynes had played a major role in the discovery of the law of diminishing returns just as, on Friedman’s own admission, he played a major role in discovering the theory of liquidity preference. Second, it is, to say the least, debatable to what extent “Keynes’s discussion of the demand curve for money was merely a continuation of earlier quantity theory approaches, improved and refined but not basically modified.” But there is no basis at all for the suggestion that a Chicago oral tradition was the least bit implicated in those earlier quantity theory approaches. So Friedman’s invocation of a Chicago oral tradition was completely fanciful.

This post has gone on too long already. I have more to say about Friedman’s discussion of the relationship between money, price levels, and interest rates. But that will have to wait till next time.

John Taylor, Post-Modern Monetary Theorist

In the beginning, there was Keynesian economics; then came Post-Keynesian economics.  After Post-Keynesian economics, came Modern Monetary Theory.  And now it seems, John Taylor has discovered Post-Modern Monetary Theory.

What, you may be asking yourself, is Post-Modern Monetary Theory all about? Great question!  In a recent post, Scott Sumner tried to deconstruct Taylor’s position, and found himself unable to determine just what it is that Taylor wants in the way of monetary policy.  How post-modern can you get?

Taylor is annoyed that the Fed is keeping interest rates too low by a policy of forward guidance, i.e., promising to keep short-term interest rates close to zero for an extended period while buying Treasuries to support that policy.

And yet—unlike its actions taken during the panic—the Fed’s policies have been accompanied by disappointing outcomes. While the Fed points to external causes, it ignores the possibility that its own policy has been a factor.

At this point, the alert reader is surely anticipating an explanation of why forward guidance aimed at reducing the entire term structure of interest rates, thereby increasing aggregate demand, has failed to do so, notwithstanding the teachings of both Keynesian and non-Keynesian monetary theory.  Here is Taylor’s answer:

At the very least, the policy creates a great deal of uncertainty. People recognize that the Fed will eventually have to reverse course. When the economy begins to heat up, the Fed will have to sell the assets it has been purchasing to prevent inflation.

Taylor seems to be suggesting that, despite low interest rates, the public is not willing to spend because of increased uncertainty.  But why wasn’t the public spending more in the first place, before all that nasty forward guidance?  Could it possibly have had something to do with business pessimism about demand and household pessimism about employment?  If the problem stems from an underlying state of pessimistic expectations about the future, the question arises whether Taylor considers such pessimism to be an element of, or related to, uncertainty?

I don’t know the answer, but Taylor posits that the public is assuming that the Fed’s policy will have to be reversed at some point. Why? Because the economy will “heat up.” As an economic term, the verb “to heat up” is pretty vague, but it seems to connote, at the very least, increased spending and employment. Which raises a further question: given a state of pessimistic expectations about future demand and employment, does a policy that, by assumption, increases the likelihood of additional spending and employment create uncertainty or diminish it?

It turns out that Taylor has other arguments for the ineffectiveness of forward guidance.  We can safely ignore his two throw-away arguments about on-again off-again asset purchases, and the tendency of other central banks to follow Fed policy.  A more interesting reason is provided when Taylor compares Fed policy to a regulatory price ceiling.

[I]f investors are told by the Fed that the short-term rate is going to be close to zero in the future, then they will bid down the yield on the long-term bond. The forward guidance keeps the long-term rate low and tends to prevent it from rising. Effectively the Fed is imposing an interest-rate ceiling on the longer-term market by saying it will keep the short rate unusually low.

The perverse effect comes when this ceiling is below what would be the equilibrium between borrowers and lenders who normally participate in that market. While borrowers might like a near-zero rate, there is little incentive for lenders to extend credit at that rate.

This is much like the effect of a price ceiling in a rental market where landlords reduce the supply of rental housing. Here lenders supply less credit at the lower rate. The decline in credit availability reduces aggregate demand, which tends to increase unemployment, a classic unintended consequence of the policy.

When economists talk about a price ceiling what they usually mean is that there is some legal prohibition on transactions between willing parties at a price above a specified legal maximum price.  If the prohibition is enforced, as are, for example, rent ceilings in New York City, some people trying to rent apartments will be unable to do so, even though they are willing to pay as much, or more, than others are paying for comparable apartments.  The only rates that the Fed is targeting, directly or indirectly, are those on US Treasuries at various maturities.  All other interest rates in the economy are what they are because, given the overall state of expectations, transactors are voluntarily agreeing to the terms reflected in those rates.  For any given class of financial instruments, everyone willing to purchase or sell those instruments at the going rate is able to do so.  For Professor Taylor to analogize this state of affairs to a price ceiling is not only novel, it  is thoroughly post-modern.


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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