The Walras-Marshall Divide in Neoclassical Theory, Part II

In my previous post, which itself followed up an earlier post “General Equilibrium, Partial Equilibrium and Costs,” I laid out the serious difficulties with neoclassical theory in either its Walrasian or Marshallian versions: its exclusive focus on equilibrium states with no plausible explanation of any economic process that leads from disequilibrium to equilibrium.

The Walrasian approach treats general equilibrium as the primary equilibrium concept, because no equilibrium solution in a single market can be isolated from the equilibrium solutions for all other markets. Marshall understood that no single market could be in isolated equilibrium independent of all other markets, but the practical difficulty of framing an analysis of the simultaneous equilibration of all markets made focusing on general equilibrium unappealing to Marshall, who wanted economic analysis to be relevant to the concerns of the public, i.e., policy makers and men of affairs whom he regarded as his primary audience.

Nevertheless, in doing partial-equilibrium analysis, Marshall conceded that it had to be embedded within a general-equilibrium context, so he was careful to specify the ceteris-paribus conditions under which partial-equilibrium analysis could be undertaken. In particular, any market under analysis had to be sufficiently small, or the disturbance to which that market was subject had to be sufficiently small, for the repercussions of the disturbance in that market to have only minimal effect on other markets, or, if substantial, those effects had to concentrated on a specific market (e.g., the market for a substitute, or complementary, good).

By focusing on equilibrium in a single market, Marshall believed he was making the analysis of equilibrium more tractable than the Walrasian alternative of focusing on the analysis of simultaneous equilibrium in all markets. Walras chose to make his approach to general equilibrium, if not tractable, at least intuitive by appealing to the fiction of tatonnement conducted by an imaginary auctioneer adjusting prices in all markets in response to any inconsistencies in the plans of transactors preventing them from executing their plans at the announced prices.

But it eventually became clear, to Walras and to others, that tatonnement could not be considered a realistic representation of actual market behavior, because the tatonnement fiction disallows trading at disequilibrium prices by pausing all transactions while a complete set of equilibrium prices for all desired transactions is sought by a process of trial and error. Not only is all economic activity and the passage of time suspended during the tatonnement process, there is not even a price-adjustment algorithm that can be relied on to find a complete set of equilibrium prices in a finite number of iterations.

Despite its seeming realism, the Marshallian approach, piecemeal market-by-market equilibration of each distinct market, is no more tenable theoretically than tatonnement, the partial-equilibrium method being premised on a ceteris-paribus assumption in which all prices and all other endogenous variables determined in markets other than the one under analysis are held constant. That assumption can be maintained only on the condition that all markets are in equilibrium. So the implicit assumption of partial-equilibrium analysis is no less theoretically extreme than Walras’s tatonnement fiction.

In my previous post, I quoted Michel De Vroey’s dismissal of Keynes’s rationale for the existence of involuntary unemployment, a violation in De Vroey’s estimation, of Marshallian partial-equilibrium premises. Let me quote De Vroey again.

When the strict Marshallian viewpoint is adopted, everything is simple: it is assumed that the aggregate supply price function incorporates wages at their market-clearing magnitude. Instead, when taking Keynes’s line, it must be assumed that the wage rate that firms consider when constructing their supply price function is a “false” (i.e., non-market-clearing) wage. Now, if we want to keep firms’ perfect foresight assumption (and, let me repeat, we need to lest we fall into a theoretical wilderness), it must be concluded that firms’ incorporation of a false wage into their supply function follows from their correct expectation that this is indeed what will happen in the labor market. That is, firms’ managers are aware that in this market something impairs market clearing. No other explanation than the wage floor assumption is available as long as one remains in the canonical Marshallian framework. Therefore, all Keynes’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that his effective demand reasoning is based on the fixed-wage hypothesis. The reason for unemployment lies in the labor market, and no fuss should be made about effective demand being [the reason rather] than the other way around.

A History of Macroeconomics from Keynes to Lucas and Beyond, pp. 22-23

My interpretation of De Vroey’s argument is that the strict Marshallian viewpoint requires that firms correctly anticipate the wages that they will have to pay in making their hiring and production decisions, while presumably also correctly anticipating the future demand for their products. I am unable to make sense of this argument unless it means that firms — and why should firm owners or managers be the only agents endowed with perfect or correct foresight? – correctly foresee the prices of the products that they sell and of the inputs that they purchase or hire. In other words, the strict Marshallian viewpoint invoked by De Vroey assumes that each transactor foresees, without the intervention of a timeless tatonnement process guided by a fictional auctioneer, the equilibrium price vector. In other words, when the strict Marshallian viewpoint is adopted, everything is simple; every transactor is a Walrasian auctioneer.

My interpretation of Keynes – and perhaps I’m just reading my own criticism of partial-equilibrium analysis into Keynes – is that he understood that the aggregate labor market can’t be analyzed in a partial-equilibrium setting, because Marshall’s ceteris-paribus proviso can’t be maintained for a market that accounts for roughly half the earnings of the economy. When conditions change in the labor market, everything else also changes. So the equilibrium conditions of the labor market must be governed by aggregate equilibrium conditions that can’t be captured in, or accounted for by, a Marshallian partial-equilibrium framework. Because something other than supply and demand in the labor market determines the equilibrium, what happens in the labor market can’t, by itself, restore an equilibrium.

That, I think, was Keynes’s intuition. But while identifying a serious defect in the Marshallian viewpoint, that intuition did not provide an adequate theory of adjustment. But the inadequacy of Keynes’s critique doesn’t rehabilitate the Marshallian viewpoint, certainly not in the form in which De Vroey represents it.

But there’s a deeper problem with the Marshallian viewpoint than just the interdependence of all markets. Although Marshall accepted marginal-utility theory in principle and used it to explain consumer demand, he tried to limit its application to demand while retaining the classical theory of the cost of production as a coordinate factor explaining the relative prices of goods and services. Marginal utility determines demand while cost determines supply, so that the interaction of supply and demand (cost and utility) jointly determine price just as the two blades of a scissor jointly cut a piece of cloth or paper.

This view of the role of cost could be maintained only in the context of the typical Marshallian partial-equilibrium exercise in which all prices — including input prices — except the price of a single output are held fixed at their general-equilibrium values. But the equilibrium prices of inputs are not determined independently of the values of the outputs they produce, so their equilibrium market values are derived exclusively from the value of whatever outputs they produce.

This was a point that Marshall, desiring to minimize the extent to which the Marginal Revolution overturned the classical theory of value, either failed to grasp, or obscured: that both prices and costs are simultaneously determined. By focusing on partial-equilibrium analysis, in which input prices are treated as exogenous variables rather than, as in general-equilibrium analysis, endogenously determined variables, Marshall was able to argue as if the classical theory that the cost incurred to produce something determines its value or its market price, had not been overturned.

The absolute dependence of input prices on the value of the outputs that they are being used to produce was grasped more clearly by Carl Menger than by Walras and certainly more clearly than by Marshall. What’s more, unlike either Walras or Marshall, Menger explicitly recognized the time lapse between the purchasing and hiring of inputs by a firm and the sale of the final output, inputs having been purchased or hired in expectation of the future sale of the output. But expected future sales are at prices anticipated, but not known, in advance, making the valuation of inputs equally conjectural and forcing producers to make commitments without knowing either their costs or their revenues before undertaking those commitments.

It is precisely this contingent relationship between the expectation of future sales at unknown, but anticipated, prices and the valuations that firms attach to the inputs they purchase or hire that provides an alternative to the problematic Marshallian and Walrasian accounts of how equilibrium market prices are actually reached.

The critical role of expected future prices in determining equilibrium prices was missing from both the Marshallian and the Walrasian theories of price determination. In the Walrasian theory, price determination was attributed to a fictional tatonnement process that Walras originally thought might serve as a kind of oversimplified and idealized version of actual market behavior. But Walras seems eventually to have recognized and acknowledged how far removed from reality his tatonnement invention actually was.

The seemingly more realistic Marshallian account of price determination avoided the unrealism of the Walrasian auctioneer, but only by attributing equally, if not more, unrealistic powers of foreknowledge to the transactors than Walras had attributed to his auctioneer. Only Menger, who realistically avoided attributing extraordinary knowledge either to transactors or to an imaginary auctioneer, instead attributing to transactors only an imperfect and fallible ability to anticipate future prices, provided a realistic account, or at least a conceptual approach toward a realistic account, of how prices are actually formed.

In a future post, I will try spell out in greater detail my version of a Mengerian account of price formation and how this account might tell us about the process by which a set of equilibrium prices might be realized.

The Walras-Marshall Divide in Neoclassical Theory, Part I

This year, 2021, puts us squarely in the midst of the sesquicentennial period of the great marginal revolution in economics that began with the almost simultaneous appearance in 1871 of Menger’s Grundsatze der Volkwirtschaft and Jevons’s Theory of Political Economy followed in 1874 by Walras’s Elements d’Economie Politique Pure. Jevons left few students behind to continue his work, so his influence pales in comparison with that of his younger contemporary Alfred Marshall who, working along similar lines, published his Principles of Economics in 1890. It was Marshall’s version of marginal utility theory that defined for more than a generation what became known as neoclassical theory in the Anglophone world. Menger’s work, via his disciples, Bohm-Bawerk and Wieser, was actually the most influential work on marginal-utility theory for at least 50 years, the work of Walras and his successor, Vilfredo Pareto, being too mathematical, even for professional economists, to become influential before the 1930s.

But after it was restated in a form not only more accessible, but more coherent and more sophisticated by J. R. Hicks in his immensely influential treatise Value and Capital, Walras’s work became the standard for rigorous formal economic analysis. Although the Walrasian paradigm became the standard for formal theoretical work, the Marshallian paradigm remained influential for applied microeconomic theory and empirical research, especially in fields like industrial organization, labor economics and international trade. Neoclassical economics, the corpus of economic mainstream economic theory that grew out of the marginal revolution was therefore built almost entirely on the works of Marshall and Walras, the influence of Menger, like that of Jevons, having been largely, but not entirely, assimilated into the main body of neoclassical theory.

The subsequent development of monetary theory and macroeconomics, especially after the Keynesian Revolution swept the economics profession, was also influenced by both Marshall and Walras. And the question whether Keynes belonged to the Marshallian tradition in which he was trained, or became, either consciously or unconsciously, a Walrasian has been an ongoing dispute among historians of macroeconomics since the late 1940s.

The first attempt to merge Keynes into the Walrasian paradigm led to the first neoclassical synthesis, which gained a brief ascendancy in the 1960s and early 1970s before being eclipsed by the New Classical rational expectations macroeconomics of Lucas and Sargent that led to a transformation of macroeconomics.

With that in mind, I’ve been reading Michel De Vroey’s excellent History of Macroeconomics from Keynes to Lucas and Beyond. An important feature of De Vroey’s book is its classification of macrotheories as either Marshallian or Walrasian in structure and orientation. I believe that the Walras vs. Marshall distinction is important, but I would frame that distinction differently from how De Vroey does. To be sure, De Vroey identifies some key differences between the Marshallian and Walrasian schemas, but I question whether he focuses on the differences between Marshall and Walras that really matter. And I also believe that he fails to address adequately the important problem that both Marhsall and Walras failed to address, namely their inability adequately describe a market mechanism that actually does, or even might, lead an economy toward an equilibrium position.

One reason for De Vroey’s misplaced emphasis is that he focuses on the different stories told by Walras and Marshall to explain how equilibrium — either for the entire system (Walras) or for a single market (Marshall) – is achieved. The story that Walras famously told was the tatonnement stratagem conceived by Walras to provide an account of how market forces, left undisturbed, would automatically bring an economy to a state of rest (general equilibrium). But Walras eventually realized that tatonnement could never be realistic for an economy with both exchange and production. The point of tatonnement is to prevent trading at disequilibium prices, but assuming that production is suspended during tatonnement is untenable, because production cannot be interrupted until the search for the equilibrium price vector is successfully completed.

Nevertheless, De Vroey treats tatonnement, despite its hopeless unrealism, as sine qua non for any model to be classified as Walrasian. In chapter 19 (“The History of Macroeconomics through the lens of the Marshall-Walras Divide”), DeVroey provides a comprehensive list of differences between the Marshallian and Walrasian modeling approaches which makes tatonnement a key distinction between the two approaches. I will discuss the three that seem most important.

1 Price formation: Walras assumes all exchange occurs at equilibrium prices found through tatonnement conducted by a deus-ex-machina auctioneer. All agents are therefore price takers even in “markets” in which, absent the auctioneer, market power could be exercised. Marshall assumes that prices are determined in the course of interaction of suppliers and demanders in distinct markets, so that the mix of price-taking and price-setting agents depends on the characteristics of those distinct markets.

This dichotomy between the Walrasian and Marshallian accounts of how prices are determined sheds light on the motivation that led Marshall and Walras to adopt their differing modeling approaches, but there is an important distinction between a model and the intuition that motivates or rationalizes the model. The model stands on its own whatever the intuition motivating the model. The motivation behind the model can inform how the model is assessed, but the substance of the model and its implications remain in tact even if the intuition behind the model is rejected.

2 Market equilibrium: Walras assumes that no market is in equilibrium unless general equilibrium obtains. Marshall assumes partial equililbrium is reached separately in each market. General equilibrium is achieved when all markets are in partial equilibrium. The Walrasian approach is top-down, the Marshallian bottom-up.

3 Realism: Marshall is more realistic than Walras in depicting individual markets in which transactors themselves engage in the price-setting process, assessing market conditions, and gaining information about supply-and-demand conditions; Walras assumes that all agents are passive price takers merely calculating their optimal, but provisional, plans to buy and sell at any price vector announced by the auctioneer who then processes those plans to determine whether the plans are mutually consistent or whether a new price vector must be tried. But whatever the gain in realism, it comes at a cost, because, except in obvious cases of complementarity or close substitutability between products or services, the Marshallian paradigm ignores the less obvious, but not necessarily negligible, interactions between markets. Those interactions render the Marshallian ceteris-paribus proviso for partial-equilibrium analysis logically dubious, except under the most stringent assumptions.

The absence of an auctioneer from Marshall’s schema leads De Vroey to infer that market participants in that schema must be endowed with knowledge of market demand-and-supply conditions. I claim no expertise as a Marshallian scholar, but I find it hard to accept that, given his emphasis on realism, Marshall would have attributed perfect knowledge to market participants. The implausibility of the Walrasian assumptions is thus matched, in De Vroey’s view, by different, but scarcely less implausible, Marshallian assumptions.

De Vroey proceeds to argue that Keynes himself was squarely on the Marshallian, not the Walrasian, side of the divide. Here’s how, focusing on the IS-LM model, he puts it:

As far as the representation of the economy is concerned, the economy that the IS-LM model analyzes is composed of markets that function separately, each of them being an autonomous locus of equilibrium. Turning to trade technology, no auctioneer is supposedly present. As for the information assumption, it is true that economists using the IS-LM model scarcely evoke the possibility that it might rest on the assumption that agents are omniscient. But then nobody seems to have raised the issue of how equilibrium is reached in this model. Once raised, I see no other explanation than assuming agents’ ability to reconstruct the equilibrium values of the economy, that is, their being omniscient. On all these scores, the IS-LM model is Marshallian.

A History of Macroeconomics from Keynes to Lucas and Beyond, p. 350

De Vroey’s dichotomy between the Walrasian and Marshallian modeling approaches leads him to make needlessly sharp distinctions between them. The basic IS-LM model determines the quantity of money, consumption, saving and investment, income and the rate of interest rate. Presumably, by autonomous locus of equilibrium,” De Vroey means that the adjustment of some variable determined in one of the IS-LM markets adjusts in response to disequilibrium in that market alone, but even so, the markets are not isolated from each other as they are in Marshallian partial-equilibrium analysis. The equilibrium values of the variables in the IS-LM model are simultaneously determined in all markets, so the autonomy of each market does not preclude simultaneous determination. Nor does the equilibrium of the model depend, as De Vroey seems to suggest, on the existence of an auctioneer; the role of the auctioneer is merely to provide a story (however implausible) about how the equilibrium is, or might be, reached.

Elsewhere De Vroey faults Keynes for characterizing cyclical unemployment as involuntary, because that characterization is incompatible with a Marshallian analysis of the labor market. Without endorsing Keynes’s reasoning, I cannot accept De Vroey’s argument against Keynes, because the argument is based explicitly on the assumption of perfect foresight. Describing the difference between a strict Marshallian approach and that taken by Keynes, De Vroey writes as follows:

When the strict Marshallian viewpoint is adopted, everything is simple: it is assumed that the aggregate supply price function incorporates wages at their market-clearing magnitude. Instead, when taking Keynes’s line, it must be assumed that the wage rate that firms consider when constructing their supply price function is a “false” (i.e., non-market-clearing) wage. Now, if we want to keep firms’ perfect foresight assumption (and, let me repeat, we need to lest we fall into a theoretical wilderness), it must be concluded that firms’ incorporation of a false wage into their supply function follows from their correct expectation that this is indeed what will happen in the labor market. That is, firms’ managers are aware that in this market something impairs market clearing. No other explanation than the wage floor assumption is available as long as one remains in the canonical Marshallian framework. Therefore, all Keynes’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that his effective demand reasoning is based on the fixed-wage hypothesis. The reason for unemployment lies in the labor market, and no fuss should be made about effective demand being [the reason rather] than the other way around.

Id. pp. 22-23

De Vroey seems to be saying that if firms anticipate an equilibrium outcome, the equilibrium outcome will be realized. This is not an argument; it is question-begging, question-begging which De Vroey justifies by warning that the alternative to question-begging is to “fall into a theoretical wilderness.” Thus, Keynes’s argument for involuntary unemployment is rejected based on the argument that the in the only foreseeable outcome under the assumption of perfect information, unemployment cannot be involuntary.

Because neither the Walrasian nor the Marshallian modeling approach gives a plausible account of how an equilibrium is reached, De Vroey’s insistence that either implausible story is somehow essential to the corresponding modeling approach is misplaced, each approach committing the fallacy of misplaced concreteness in focusing on an equilibrium solution that cannot plausibly be realized. For De Vroey instead to argue that, because the Marshallian approach cannot otherwise explain how equilibrium is realized, the agents must be omniscient is akin to the advice of one Senator during the Vietnam war for President Nixon to declare victory and then withdraw all American troops.

I will have more to say about the Walras-Marshall divide and how to surmount the difficulties with both in a future post (or posts).

The Demise of Bretton Woods Fifty Years On

Today, Sunday, August 15, 2021, marks the 50th anniversary of the closing of the gold window at the US Treasury, at which a small set of privileged entities were at least legally entitled to demand redemption of dollar claims issued by the US government at the official gold price of $35 an ounce. (In 1971, as in 2021, August 15 fell on a Sunday.) When I started blogging in July 2011, I wrote one of my early posts about the 40th anniversary of that inauspicious event. My attention in that post was directed more at the horrific consequences of Nixon’s decision to combine a freeze on wages and price with the closing of the gold window, which was clearly far more damaging than the largely symbolic effect of closing the gold window. I am also re-upping my original post with some further comments, but in this post, my attention is directed solely on the closing of the gold window.

The advent of cryptocurrencies and the continuing agitprop aiming to restore the gold standard apparently suggest to some people that the intrinsically trivial decision to do away with the final vestige of the last remnant of the short-lived international gold standard is somehow laden with cosmic significance. See for example the new book by Jeffrey Garten (Three Days at Camp David) marking the 50th anniversary.

About 10 years before the gold window was closed, Milton Friedman gave a lecture at the Mont Pelerin Society which he called “Real and Pseudo-Gold Standards“, which I previously wrote about here. Many if not most of the older members of the Mont Pelerin Society, notably (L. v. Mises and Jacques Rueff) were die-hard supporters of the gold standard who regarded the Bretton Woods system as a deplorable counterfeit imitation of the real gold standard and longed for restoration of that old-time standard. In his lecture, Friedman bowed in their direction by faintly praising what he called a real gold standard, which he described as a state of affairs in which the quantity of money could be increased only by minting gold or by exchanging gold for banknotes representing an equivalent value of gold. Friedman argued that although a real gold standard was an admirable monetary system, the Bretton Woods system was nothing of the sort, calling it a pseudo-gold standard. Given that the then existing Bretton Woods system was not a real gold standard, but merely a system of artificially controlling the price of a particular commodity, Friedman argued that the next-best alternative would be to impose a quantitative limit on the increase in the quantity of fiat money, by enacting a law that would prohibit the quantity of money from growing by more than some prescribed amount or by some percentage (k-percent per year) of the existing stock percent in any given time period.

While failing to win over the die-hard supporters of the gold standard, Friedman’s gambit was remarkably successful, and for many years, it actually was the rule of choice among most like-minded libertarians and self-styled classical liberals and small-government conservatives. Eventually, the underlying theoretical and practical defects in Friedman’s k-percent rule became sufficiently obvious to cause even Friedman, however reluctantly, to abandon his single-minded quest for a supposedly automatic non-discretionary quantitative monetary rule.

Nevertheless, Friedman ultimately did succeed in undermining support among most right-wing conservative, libertarian and many centrist or left-leaning economists and decision makers for the Bretton Woods system of fixed, but adjustable, exchange rates anchored by a fixed dollar price of gold. And a major reason for his success was his argument that it was only by shifting to flexible exchange rates and abandoning a fixed gold price that the exchange controls and restrictions on capital movements that were in place for a quarter of a century after World Was II could be lifted, a rationale congenial and persuasive to many who might have otherwise been unwilling to experiment with a system of flexible exchange rates among fiat currencies that had never previously been implemented.

Indeed, the neoliberal economic and financial globalization that followed the closing of the gold window and freeing of exchange rates after the demise of the Bretton Woods system, whether one applauds or reviles it, can largely be attributed to Friedman’s influence both as an economic theorist and as a propagandist. As much as Friedman deplored the imposition of wage and price controls on August 15, 1971, he had reason to feel vindicated by the closing of the gold window, the freeing of exchange rates, and, eventually, the lifting of all capital controls and the legalization of gold ownership by private individuals, all of which followed from the Camp David meeting.

But, the objective economic situation confronted by those at Camp David was such that the Bretton Woods System could not be salvaged. As I wrote in my 2011 post, the Bretton Woods system built on the foundation of a fixed gold price of $35 an ounce was not a true gold standard because a free market in gold did not exist and could not be maintained at the official price. Trade in gold was sharply restricted, and only privileged central banks and governments were legally entitled to buy or sell gold at the official price. Even the formal right of the privileged foreign governments and central banks was subject to the informal, but unwelcome and potentially dangerous, disapproval of the United States.

The gold standard is predicated on the idea that gold has an ascertainable value, so that if money is made exchangeable for gold at a fixed rate, money and gold will have an identical value owing to arbitrage transactions. Such arbitrage transactions can occur only if, and so long as, no barriers prevent effective arbitrage. The unquestioned convertibility of a unit of currency into gold ensured that arbitrage would constrain the value of money to equal the value of gold. But under Bretton Woods the opportunities for arbitrage were so drastically limited that the value of the dollar was never clearly equal to the value of gold, which was governed by, pardon the expression, fiat rather than by free-market transactions.

The lack of a tight link between the value of gold and the value of the dollar was not a serious problem as long as the value of the dollar was kept essentially stable and there was a functioning (albeit not freely) gold market. After its closure during World War II, the gold market did not function at all until 1954, so the wartime and postwar inflation and the brief Korean War inflation did not undermine the official gold price of $35 an ounce that had been set in 1934 and was maintained under Bretton Woods. Even after a functioning, but not entirely free, gold market was reopened in 1954, the official price was easily sustained until the late 1960s thanks to central-bank cooperation, whose formalization through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was one of the positive achievements of Bretton Woods. The London gold price was hardly a free-market price, because of central bank intervention and restrictions imposed on access to the market, but the gold holdings of the central banks were so large that it had always been in their power to control the market price if they were sufficiently determined to do so. But over the course of the 1960s, their cohesion gradually came undone. Why was that?

The first point to note is that the gold standard evolved over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries first as a British institution, and much later as an international institution, largely by accident from a system of simultaneous gold and silver coinages that were closely but imperfectly linked by a relative price of between 15 to 16 ounces of silver per ounce of gold. Depending on the precise legal price ratio of silver coins to gold coins in any particular country, the legally overvalued undervalued metal would flow out of that country and the undervalued overvalued metal would flow into that country.

When Britain undervalued gold at the turn of the 18th century, gold flowed into Britain, leading to the birth of the British of gold standard. In most other countries, silver and gold coins were circulating simultaneously at a ratio of 15.5 ounces of silver per ounce of gold. It was only when the US, after the Civil War, formally adopted a gold standard and the newly formed German Reich also shifted from a bimetallic to a gold standard that the increased demand for gold caused gold to appreciate relative to silver. To avoid the resulting inflation, countries with bimetallic systems based on a 15.5 to 1 silver/gold suspended the free coinage of silver and shifted to the gold standard further raising the silver/gold price ratio. Thus, the gold standard became an international not just a British system only in the 1870s, and it happened not by design or international consensus but by a series of piecemeal decisions by individual countries.

The important takeaway from this short digression into monetary history is that the relative currency values of the gold standard currencies were largely inherited from the historical definitions of the currency units of each country, not by deliberate policy decisions about what currency value to adopt in establishing the gold standard in any particular country. But when the gold standard collapsed in August 1914 at the start of World War I, the gold standard had to be recreated more or less from scratch after the War. The US, holding 40% of the world’s monetary gold reserves was in a position to determine the value of gold, so it could easily restore convertibility at the prewar gold price of $20.67 an ounce. For other countries, the choice of the value at which to restore gold convertibility was really a decision about the dollar exchange rate at which to peg their currencies.

Before the war, the dollar-pound exchange rate was $4.86 per pound. The postwar dollar-pound exchange rate was just barely close enough to the prewar rate to make restoring the convertibility of the pound at the prewar rate with the dollar seem doable. Many including Keynes argued that Britain would be better with an exchange rate in the neighborhood of $4.40 or less, but Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, was persuaded to restore convertibility at the prewar parity. That decision may or may not have been a good one, but I believe that its significance for the world economy at the time and subsequently has been overstated. After convertibility was restored at the prewar parity, chronically high postwar British unemployment increased only slightly in 1925-26 before declining modestly until with the onset of the Great Deflation and Great Depression in late 1929. The British economy would have gotten a boost if the prewar dollar-pound parity had not been restored (or if the Fed had accommodated the prewar parity by domestic monetary expansion), but the drag on the British economy after 1925 was a negligible factor compared to the other factors, primarily gold accumulation by the US and France, that triggered the Great Deflation in late 1929.

The cause of that deflation was largely centered in France (with a major assist from the Federal Reserve). Before the war the French franc was worth about 20 cents, but disastrous French postwar economic policies caused the franc to fall to just 2 cents in 1926 when Raymond Poincaré was called upon to lead a national-unity government to stabilize the situation. His success was remarkable, the franc rising to over 4 cents within a few months. However, despite earlier solemn pledges to restore the franc to its prewar value of 20 cents, he was persuaded to stabilize the franc at just 3.92 cents when convertibility into gold was reestablished in June 1928, undervaluing the franc against both the dollar and the pound.

Not only was the franc undervalued, but the Bank of France, which, under previous governments had been persuaded or compelled to supply francs to finance deficit spending, was prohibited by the new Monetary Law that restored convertibility at the fixed rate of 3.92 cents from increasing the quantity of francs except in exchange for gold or foreign-exchange convertible into gold. While protecting the independence of the Bank of France from government fiscal demands, the law also prevented the French money stock from increasing to accommodate increases in the French demand for money except by way of a current account surplus, or a capital inflow.

Meanwhile, the Bank of France began converting foreign-exchange reserves into gold. The resulting increase in French gold holdings led to gold appreciation. Under the gold standard, gold appreciation is manifested in price deflation affecting all gold-standard countries. That deflation was the direct and primary cause of the Great Depression, which led, over a period of five brutal years, to the failure and demise of the newly restored international gold standard.

These painful lessons were not widely or properly understood at the time, or for a long time afterward, but the clear takeaway from that experience was that trying to restore the gold standard again would be a dangerous undertaking. Another lesson that was intuited, if not fully understood, is that if a country pegs its exchange rate to gold or to another currency, it is safer to err on the side of undervaluation than overvaluation. So, when the task of recreating an international monetary system was undertaken at Bretton Woods in July 1944, the architects of the system tried to adapt it to the formal trappings of the gold standard while eliminating the deflationary biases and incentives that had doomed the interwar gold standard. To prevent increasing demand for gold from causing deflation, the obligation to convert cash into gold was limited to the United States and access to the US gold window was restricted to other central banks via the newly formed international monetary fund. Each country could, in consultation with the IMF, determine its exchange rate with the dollar.

Given the earlier experience, countries had an incentive to set exchange rates that undervalued their currencies relative to the dollar. Thus, for most of the 1950s and early 1960s, the US had to contend with a currency that was overvalued relative to the currencies of its principal trading partners, Germany and Italy (the two fastest growing economies in Europe) and Japan (later joined by South Korea and Taiwan) in Asia. In one sense, the overvaluation was beneficial to the US, because access to low-cost and increasingly high-quality imports was a form of repayment to the US of its foreign-aid assistance, and its ongoing defense protection against the threat of Communist expansionism , but the benefit came with the competitive disadvantage to US tradable-goods industries.

When West Germany took control of its economic policy from the US military in 1948, most price-and-wage controls were lifted and the new deutschmark was devalued by a third relative to the official value of the old reichsmark. A further devaluation of almost 25% followed a year later. Great Britain in 1949, perhaps influenced by the success of the German devaluation, devalued the pound by 30% from old parity of $4.03 to $2.80 in 1949. But unlike Germany, Britain, under the postwar Labour government, attempting to avoid postwar inflation, maintained wartime exchange controls and price controls. The underlying assumption at the time was that the Britain’s balance-of-payments deficit reflected an overvalued currency, so that devaluation would avoid repeating the mistake made two decades earlier when the dollar-pound parity had overvalued the pound.

That assumption, as Ralph Hawtrey had argued in lonely opposition to the devaluation, was misguided; the idea that the current account depends only, or even primarily, on the exchange rate abstracts from the monetary forces that affect the balance of payments and the current account. Worse, because British monetary policy was committed to the goal of maximizing short-term employment, the resulting excess supply of cash inevitably increased domestic spending, thereby attracting imports and diverting domestically produced products from export markets and preventing the devaluation from achieving the goal of improving the trade balance and promoting expansion of the tradable-goods sector.

Other countries, like Germany and Italy, combined currency undervaluation with monetary restraint, allowing only monetary expansion that was occasioned by current-account surpluses. This became the classic strategy, later called exchange-rate protection by Max Corden, of combining currency undervaluation with tight monetary policy. British attempts to use monetary policy to promote both (over)full employment subject to the balance-of-payments constraint imposed by an exchange rate pegged to the dollar proved unsustainable, while Germany, Italy, France (after De Gaulle came to power in 1958 and devalued the franc) found the combination of monetary restraint and currency undervaluation a successful economic strategy until the United States increased monetary expansion to counter chronic overvaluation of the dollar.

Because the dollar was the key currency of the world monetary system, and had committed itself to maintain the $35 an ounce price of gold, the US, unlike other countries whose currencies were pegged to the dollar, could not adjust the dollar exchange rate to reduce or alleviate the overvaluation of the dollar relative to the currencies of its trading partners. Mindful of its duties as supplier of the world’s reserve currency, US monetary authorities kept US inflation close to zero after the 1953 Korean War armistice.

However, that restrained monetary policy led to three recessions under the Eisenhower administration (1953-54, 1957-58, and 1960-61). The latter recessions led to disastrous Republican losses in the 1958 midterm elections and to Richard Nixon’s razor-thin loss in 1960 to John Kennedy, who had campaigned on a pledge to get the US economy moving again. The loss to Kennedy was a lesson that Nixon never forgot, and he was determined never to allow himself to lose another election merely because of scruples about US obligations as supplier of the world’s reserve currency.

Upon taking office, the Kennedy administration pressed for an easing of Fed policy to end the recession and to promote accelerated economic expansion. The result was a rapid recovery from the 1960-61 recession and the start of a nearly nine-year period of unbroken economic growth at perhaps the highest average growth rate in US history. While credit for the economic expansion is often given to the across-the-board tax cuts proposed by Kennedy in 1963 and enacted in 1964 under Lyndon Johnson, the expansion was already well under way by mid-1961, three years before the tax cuts became effective.

The international aim of monetary policy was to increase nominal domestic spending and to force US trading partners with undervalued currencies either to accept increased holdings of US liabilities or to revalue their exchange rates relative to the dollar to diminish their undervaluation relative to the dollar. Easier US monetary policy led to increasing complaints from Europeans, especially the Germans, that the US was exporting inflation and to charges that the US was taking advantage of the exorbitant privilege of its position as supplier of the world’s reserve currency.

The aggressive response of the Kennedy administration to undervaluation of most other currencies led to predictable pushback from France under de Gaulle who, like many other conservative and right-wing French politicians, was fixated on the gold standard and deeply resented Anglo-American monetary pre-eminence after World War I and American dominance after World War II. Like France under Poincaré, France under de Gaulle sought to increase its gold holdings as it accumulated dollar-denominated foreign exchange. But under Bretton Woods, French gold accumulation had little immediate economic effect other than to enhance the French and Gaullist pretensions to grandiosity.

Already in 1961 Robert Triffin predicted that the Bretton Woods system could not endure permanently because the growing world demand for liquidity could not be satisfied by the United States in a world with a relatively fixed gold stock and a stable or rising price level. The problem identified by Triffin was not unlike that raised by Gustav Cassel in the 1920s when he predicted that the world gold stock would likely not increase enough to prevent a worldwide deflation. This was a different problem from the one that actually caused the Great Depression, which was a substantial increase in gold demand associated with the restoration of the gold standard that triggered the deflationary collapse of late 1929. The long-term gold shortage feared by Cassel was a long-term problem distinct from the increase in gold demand caused by the restoration of the gold standard in the 1920s.

The problem Triffin identified was also a long-term consequence of the failure of the international gold stock to increase to provide the increased gold reserves that would be needed for the US to be able to credibly commit to maintaining the convertibility of the dollar into gold without relying on deflation to cause the needed increase in the real value of gold reserves.

Had it not been for the Vietnam War, Bretton Woods might have survived for several more years, but the rise of US inflation to over 4% in 1968-69, coupled with the 1969-70 recession in an unsuccessful attempt to reduce inflation, followed by a weak recovery in 1971, made it clear that the US would not undertake a deflationary policy to make the official $35 gold price credible. Although de Gaulle’s unexpected retirement in 1969 removed the fiercest opponent of US monetary domination, confidence that the US could maintain the official gold peg, when the London gold price was already 10% higher than the official price, caused other central banks to fear that they would be stuck with devalued dollar claims once the US raised the official gold price. Not only the French, but other central banks were already demanding redemption in gold of the dollar claims that they were holding.

An eleventh-hour policy reversal by the administration to save the official gold price was not in the cards, and everyone knew it. So all the handwringing about the abandonment of Bretton Woods on August 15, 1971 is either simple foolishness or gaslighting. The system was already broken, and it couldn’t be fixed at any price worth pondering for even half an instant. Nixon and his accomplices tried to sugarcoat their scrapping of the Bretton Woods System by pretending that they were announcing a plan that was the first step toward its reform and rejuvenation. But that pretense led to a so-called agreement with a new gold-price peg of $38 an ounce, which lasted hardly a year before it died not with a bang but a whimper.

What can we learn from this story? For me the real lesson is that the original international gold standard was, to borrow (via Hayek) a phrase from Adam Ferguson: “the [accidental] result of human action, not human design.” The gold standard, as it existed for those 40 years, was not an intuitively obvious or well understood mechanism working according to a clear blueprint; it was an improvised set of practices, partly legislated and partly customary, and partially nothing more than conventional, but not very profound, wisdom.

The original gold standard collapsed with the outbreak of World War I and the attempt to recreate it after World War I, based on imperfect understanding of how it had actually functioned, ended catastrophically with the Great Depression, a second collapse, and another, even more catastrophic, World War. The attempt to recreate a new monetary system –the Bretton Woods system — using a modified feature of the earlier gold standard as a kind of window dressing, was certainly not a real gold standard, and, perhaps, not even a pseudo-gold standard; those who profess to mourn its demise are either fooling themselves or trying to fool the rest of us.

We are now stuck with a fiat system that has evolved and been tinkered with over centuries. We have learned how to manage it, at least so far, to avoid catastrophe. With hard work and good luck, perhaps we will continue to learn how to manage it better than we have so far. But to seek to recreate a system that functioned fairly successfully for at most 40 years under conditions not even remotely likely ever again to be approximated, is hardly likely to lead to an outcome that will enhance human well-being. Even worse, if that system were recreated, the resulting outcome might be far worse than anything we have experienced in the last half century.

August 15, 1971: Unhappy Anniversary (Update)

[[Update 8/15/2021: I’m about to post a new post on the decision to close the gold window rather than the effects of the decision to freeze wages and prices. The new post is longer than this one and covers a different set of issues, but the two are complementary and readers may find both of interest]

[Update 8/15/2019: It seems appropriate to republish this post originally published about 40 days after I started blogging. I have made a few small changes and inserted a few comments to reflect my improved understanding of certain concepts like “sterilization” that I was uncritically accepting. I actually have learned a thing or two in the eight plus years that I’ve been blogging. I am grateful to all my readers — both those who agreed and those who disagreed — for challenging me and inspiring me to keep thinking critically. It wasn’t easy, but we did survive August 15, 1971. Let’s hope we survive August 15, 2019.]

August 15, 1971 may not exactly be a day that will live in infamy, but it is hardly a day to celebrate 40 years later.  It was the day on which one of the most cynical Presidents in American history committed one of his most cynical acts:  violating solemn promises undertaken many times previously, both before and after his election as President, Richard Nixon declared a 90-day freeze on wages and prices.  Nixon also announced the closing of the gold window at the US Treasury, severing the last shred of a link between gold and the dollar.  Interestingly, the current (August 13th, 2011) Economist (Buttonwood column) and Forbes  (Charles Kadlec op-ed) and today’s Wall Street Journal (Lewis Lehrman op-ed) mark the anniversary with critical commentaries on Nixon’s action ruefully focusing on the baleful consequences of breaking the link to gold, while barely mentioning the 90-day freeze that became the prelude to  the comprehensive wage and price controls imposed after the freeze expired.

Of the two events, the wage and price freeze and subsequent controls had by far the more adverse consequences, the closing of the gold window merely ratifying the demise of a gold standard that long since had ceased to function as it had for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  In contrast to the final break with gold, no economic necessity or even a coherent economic argument on the merits lay behind the decision to impose a wage and price freeze, notwithstanding the ex-post rationalizations offered by Nixon’s economic advisers, including such estimable figures as Herbert Stein, Paul McKracken, and George Schultz, who surely knew better,  but somehow were persuaded to fall into line behind a policy of massive, breathtaking, intervention into private market transactions.

The argument for closing the gold window was that the official gold peg of $35 an ounce was probably at least 10-20% below any realistic estimate of the true market value of gold at the time, making it impossible to reestablish the old parity as an economically meaningful price without imposing an intolerable deflation on the world economy.  An alternative response might have been to officially devalue the dollar to something like the market value of gold $40-42 an ounce.  But to have done so would merely have demonstrated that the official price of gold was a policy instrument subject to the whims of the US monetary authorities, undermining faith in the viability of a gold standard.  In the event, an attempt to patch together the Bretton Woods System (the Smithsonian Agreement of December 1971) based on an official $38 an ounce peg was made, but it quickly became obvious that a new monetary system based on any form of gold convertibility could no longer survive.

How did the $35 an ounce price became unsustainable barely 25 years after the Bretton Woods System was created?  The problem that emerged within a few years of its inception was that the main trading partners of the US systematically kept their own currencies undervalued in terms of the dollar, promoting their exports while sterilizing the consequent dollar inflow, allowing neither sufficient domestic inflation nor sufficient exchange-rate appreciation to eliminate the overvaluation of their currencies against the dollar. [DG 8/15/19: “sterilization” is a misleading term because it implies that persistent gold or dollar inflows just happen randomly; the persistent inflow occur only because they are induced by a persistent increased demand for reserves or insufficient creation of cash.] After a burst of inflation in the Korean War, the Fed’s tight monetary policy and a persistently overvalued exchange rate kept US inflation low at the cost of sluggish growth and three recessions between 1953 and 1960.  It was not until the Kennedy administration came into office on a pledge to get the country moving again that the Fed was pressured to loosen monetary policy, initiating the long boom of the 1960s some three years before the Kennedy tax cuts were posthumously enacted in 1964.

Monetary expansion by the Fed reduced the relative overvaluation of the dollar in terms of other currencies, but the increasing export of dollars left the $35 an ounce peg increasingly dependent on the willingness of foreign government to hold dollars.  However, President Charles de Gaulle of France, having overcome domestic opposition to his rule, felt secure enough to assert [his conception of] French interests against the US, resuming the traditional French policy of accumulating physical gold reserves rather than mere claims on gold physically held elsewhere.  By 1967 the London gold pool, a central bank cartel acting to control the price of gold in the London gold market, was collapsing, as France withdrew from the cartel, demanding that gold be shipped to Paris from New York.  In 1968, unable to hold down the market price of gold any longer, the US and other central banks let the gold price rise above the official price, but agreed to conduct official transactions among themselves at the official price of $35 an ounce.  As market prices for gold, driven by US monetary expansion, inched steadily higher, the incentives for central banks to demand gold from the US at the official price became too strong to contain, so that the system was on the verge of collapse when Nixon acknowledged the inevitable and closed the gold window rather than allow depletion of US gold holdings.

Assertions that the Bretton Woods system could somehow have been saved simply ignore the economic reality that by 1971 the Bretton Woods System was broken beyond repair, or at least beyond any repair that could have been effected at a tolerable cost.

But Nixon clearly had another motivation in his August 15 announcement, less than 15 months before the next Presidential election.  It was in effect the opening shot of his reelection campaign.  Remembering all too well that he lost the 1960 election to John Kennedy because the Fed had not provided enough monetary stimulus to cut short the 1960-61 recession, Nixon had appointed his long-time economic adviser, Arthur Burns to replace William McChesney Martin as chairman of the Fed in 1970.  A mild tightening of monetary policy in 1969 as inflation was rising above a 5% annual rate, had produced a recession in late 1969 and early 1970, without providing much relief from inflation.  Burns eased policy enough to allow a mild recovery, but the economy seemed to be suffering the worst of both worlds — inflation still near 4 percent and unemployment at what then seemed an unacceptably high level of almost 6 percent. [For more on Burns and his deplorable role in all of this see this post.]

With an election looming ever closer on the horizon, Nixon in the summer of 1971 became consumed by the political imperative of speeding up the recovery.  Meanwhile a Democratic Congress, assuming that Nixon really did mean his promises never to impose wage and price controls to stop inflation, began clamoring for controls as the way to stop inflation without the pain of a recession, even authorizing the President to impose controls, a dare they never dreamed he would accept.  Arthur Burns, himself, perhaps unwittingly [I was being too kind], provided support for such a step by voicing frustration that inflation persisted in the face of a recession and high unemployment, suggesting that the old rules of economics were no longer operating as they once had.  He even offered vague support for what was then called an incomes policy, generally understood as an informal attempt to bring down inflation by announcing a target  for wage increases corresponding to productivity gains, thereby eliminating the need for businesses to raise prices to compensate for increased labor costs.  What such proposals usually ignored was the necessity for a monetary policy that would limit the growth of total spending sufficiently to limit the growth of wage incomes to the desired target. [On incomes policies and how they might work if they were properly understood see this post.]

Having been persuaded that there was no acceptable alternative to closing the gold window — from Nixon’s perspective and from that of most conventional politicians, a painfully unpleasant admission of US weakness in the face of its enemies (all this was occurring at the height of the Vietnam War and the antiwar protests) – Nixon decided that he could now combine that decision, sugar-coated with an aggressive attack on international currency speculators and a protectionist 10% duty on imports into the United States, with the even more radical measure of a wage-price freeze to be followed by a longer-lasting program to control price increases, thereby snatching the most powerful and popular economic proposal of the Democrats right from under their noses.  Meanwhile, with the inflation threat neutralized, Arthur Burns could be pressured mercilessly to increase the rate of monetary expansion, ensuring that Nixon could stand for reelection in the middle of an economic boom.

But just as Nixon’s electoral triumph fell apart because of his Watergate fiasco, his economic success fell apart when an inflationary monetary policy combined with wage-and-price controls to produce increasing dislocations, shortages and inefficiencies, gradually sapping the strength of an economic recovery fueled by excess demand rather than increasing productivity.  Because broad based, as opposed to narrowly targeted, price controls tend to be more popular before they are imposed than after (as too many expectations about favorable regulatory treatment are disappointed), the vast majority of controls were allowed to lapse when the original grant of Congressional authority to control prices expired in April 1974.

Already by the summer of 1973, shortages of gasoline and other petroleum products were becoming commonplace, and shortages of heating oil and natural gas had been widely predicted for the winter of 1973-74.  But in October 1973 in the wake of the Yom Kippur War and the imposition of an Arab Oil Embargo against the United States and other Western countries sympathetic to Israel, the shortages turned into the first “Energy Crisis.”  A Democratic Congress and the Nixon Administration sprang into action, enacting special legislation to allow controls to be kept on petroleum products of all sorts together with emergency authority to authorize the government to allocate products in short supply.

It still amazes me that almost all the dislocations manifested after the embargo and the associated energy crisis were attributed to excessive consumption of oil and petroleum products in general or to excessive dependence on imports, as if any of the shortages and dislocations would have occurred in the absence of price controls.  And hardly anyone realizes that price controls tend to drive the prices of whatever portion of the supply is exempt from control even higher than they would have risen in the absence of any controls.

About ten years after the first energy crisis, I published a book in which I tried to explain how all the dislocations that emerged from the Arab oil embargo and the 1978-79 crisis following the Iranian Revolution were attributable to the price controls first imposed by Richard Nixon on August 15, 1971.  But the connection between the energy crisis in all its ramifications and the Nixonian price controls unfortunately remains largely overlooked and ignored to this day.  If there is reason to reflect on what happened forty years ago on this date, it surely is for that reason and not because Nixon pulled the plug on a gold standard that had not been functioning for years.

General Equilibrium, Partial Equilibrium and Costs

Neoclassical economics is now bifurcated between Marshallian partial-equilibrium and Walrasian general-equilibrium analyses. With the apparent inability of neoclassical theory to explain the coordination failure of the Great Depression, J. M. Keynes proposed an alternative paradigm to explain the involuntary unemployment of the 1930s. But within two decades, Keynes’s contribution was subsumed under what became known as the neoclassical synthesis of the Keynesian and Walrasian theories (about which I have written frequently, e.g., here and here). Lacking microfoundations that could be reconciled with the assumptions of Walrasian general-equilibrium theory, the neoclassical synthesis collapsed, owing to the supposedly inadequate microfoundations of Keynesian theory.

But Walrasian general-equilibrium theory provides no plausible, much less axiomatic, account of how general equilibrium is, or could be, achieved. Even the imaginary tatonnement process lacks an algorithm that guarantees that a general-equilibrium solution, if it exists, would be found. Whatever plausibility is attributed to the assumption that price flexibility leads to equilibrium derives from Marshallian partial-equilibrium analysis, with market prices adjusting to equilibrate supply and demand.

Yet modern macroeconomics, despite its explicit Walrasian assumptions, implicitly relies on the Marshallian intuition that the fundamentals of general-equilibrium, prices and costs are known to agents who, except for random disturbances, continuously form rational expectations of market-clearing equilibrium prices in all markets.

I’ve written many earlier posts (e.g., here and here) contesting, in one way or another, the notion that all macroeconomic theories must be founded on first principles (i.e., microeconomic axioms about optimizing individuals). Any macroeconomic theory not appropriately founded on the axioms of individual optimization by consumers and producers is now dismissed as scientifically defective and unworthy of attention by serious scientific practitioners of macroeconomics.

When contesting the presumed necessity for macroeconomics to be microeconomically founded, I’ve often used Marshall’s partial-equilibrium method as a point of reference. Though derived from underlying preference functions that are independent of prices, the demand curves of partial-equilibrium analysis presume that all product prices, except the price of the product under analysis, are held constant. Similarly, the supply curves are derived from individual firm marginal-cost curves whose geometric position or algebraic description depends critically on the prices of raw materials and factors of production used in the production process. But neither the prices of alternative products to be purchased by consumers nor the prices of raw materials and factors of production are given independently of the general-equilibrium solution of the whole system.

Thus, partial-equilibrium analysis, to be analytically defensible, requires a ceteris-paribus proviso. But to be analytically tenable, that proviso must posit an initial position of general equilibrium. Unless the analysis starts from a state of general equilibrium, the assumption that all prices but one remain constant can’t be maintained, the constancy of disequilibrium prices being a nonsensical assumption.

The ceteris-paribus proviso also entails an assumption about the market under analysis; either the market itself, or the disturbance to which it’s subject, must be so small that any change in the equilibrium price of the product in question has de minimus repercussions on the prices of every other product and of every input and factor of production used in producing that product. Thus, the validity of partial-equilibrium analysis depends on the presumption that the unique and locally stable general-equilibrium is approximately undisturbed by whatever changes result from by the posited change in the single market being analyzed. But that presumption is not so self-evidently plausible that our reliance on it to make empirical predictions is always, or even usually, justified.

Perhaps the best argument for taking partial-equilibrium analysis seriously is that the analysis identifies certain deep structural tendencies that, at least under “normal” conditions of moderate macroeconomic stability (i.e., moderate unemployment and reasonable price stability), will usually be observable despite the disturbing influences that are subsumed under the ceteris-paribus proviso. That assumption — an assumption of relative ignorance about the nature of the disturbances that are assumed to be constant — posits that those disturbances are more or less random, and as likely to cause errors in one direction as another. Consequently, the predictions of partial-equilibrium analysis can be assumed to be statistically, though not invariably, correct.

Of course, the more interconnected a given market is with other markets in the economy, and the greater its size relative to the total economy, the less confidence we can have that the implications of partial-equilibrium analysis will be corroborated by empirical investigation.

Despite its frequent unsuitability, economists and commentators are often willing to deploy partial-equilibrium analysis in offering policy advice even when the necessary ceteris-paribus proviso of partial-equilibrium analysis cannot be plausibly upheld. For example, two of the leading theories of the determination of the rate of interest are the loanable-funds doctrine and the Keynesian liquidity-preference theory. Both these theories of the rate of interest suppose that the rate of interest is determined in a single market — either for loanable funds or for cash balances — and that the rate of interest adjusts to equilibrate one or the other of those two markets. But the rate of interest is an economy-wide price whose determination is an intertemporal-general-equilibrium phenomenon that cannot be reduced, as the loanable-funds and liquidity preference theories try to do, to the analysis of a single market.

Similarly partial-equilibrium analysis of the supply of, and the demand for, labor has been used of late to predict changes in wages from immigration and to advocate for changes in immigration policy, while, in an earlier era, it was used to recommend wage reductions as a remedy for persistently high aggregate unemployment. In the General Theory, Keynes correctly criticized those using a naïve version of the partial-equilibrium method to recommend curing high unemployment by cutting wage rates, correctly observing that the conditions for full employment required the satisfaction of certain macroeconomic conditions for equilibrium that would not necessarily be satisfied by cutting wages.

However, in the very same volume, Keynes argued that the rate of interest is determined exclusively by the relationship between the quantity of money and the demand to hold money, ignoring that the rate of interest is an intertemporal relationship between current and expected future prices, an insight earlier explained by Irving Fisher that Keynes himself had expertly deployed in his Tract on Monetary Reform and elsewhere (Chapter 17) in the General Theory itself.

Evidently, the allure of supply-demand analysis can sometimes be too powerful for well-trained economists to resist even when they actually know better themselves that it ought to be resisted.

A further point also requires attention: the conditions necessary for partial-equilibrium analysis to be valid are never really satisfied; firms don’t know the costs that determine the optimal rate of production when they actually must settle on a plan of how much to produce, how much raw materials to buy, and how much labor and other factors of production to employ. Marshall, the originator of partial-equilibrium analysis, analogized supply and demand to the blades of a scissor acting jointly to achieve a intended result.

But Marshall erred in thinking that supply (i.e., cost) is an independent determinant of price, because the equality of costs and prices is a characteristic of general equilibrium. It can be applied to partial-equilibrium analysis only under the ceteris-paribus proviso that situates partial-equilibrium analysis in a pre-existing general equilibrium of the entire economy. It is only in general-equilibrium state, that the cost incurred by a firm in producing its output represents the value of the foregone output that could have been produced had the firm’s output been reduced. Only if the analyzed market is so small that changes in how much firms in that market produce do not affect the prices of the inputs used in to produce that output can definite marginal-cost curves be drawn or algebraically specified.

Unless general equilibrium obtains, prices need not equal costs, as measured by the quantities and prices of inputs used by firms to produce any product. Partial equilibrium analysis is possible only if carried out in the context of general equilibrium. Cost cannot be an independent determinant of prices, because cost is itself determined simultaneously along with all other prices.

But even aside from the reasons why partial-equilibrium analysis presumes that all prices, but the price in the single market being analyzed, are general-equilibrium prices, there’s another, even more problematic, assumption underlying partial-equilibrium analysis: that producers actually know the prices that they will pay for the inputs and resources to be used in producing their outputs. The cost curves of the standard economic analysis of the firm from which the supply curves of partial-equilibrium analysis are derived, presume that the prices of all inputs and factors of production correspond to those that are consistent with general equilibrium. But general-equilibrium prices are never known by anyone except the hypothetical agents in a general-equilibrium model with complete markets, or by agents endowed with perfect foresight (aka rational expectations in the strict sense of that misunderstood term).

At bottom, Marshallian partial-equilibrium analysis is comparative statics: a comparison of two alternative (hypothetical) equilibria distinguished by some difference in the parameters characterizing the two equilibria. By comparing the equilibria corresponding to the different parameter values, the analyst can infer the effect (at least directionally) of a parameter change.

But comparative-statics analysis is subject to a serious limitation: comparing two alternative hypothetical equilibria is very different from making empirical predictions about the effects of an actual parameter change in real time.

Comparing two alternative equilibria corresponding to different values of a parameter may be suggestive of what could happen after a policy decision to change that parameter, but there are many reasons why the change implied by the comparative-statics exercise might not match or even approximate the actual change.

First, the initial state was almost certainly not an equilibrium state, so systemic changes will be difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle from the effect of parameter change implied by the comparative-statics exercise.

Second, even if the initial state was an equilibrium, the transition to a new equilibrium is never instantaneous. The transitional period therefore leads to changes that in turn induce further systemic changes that cause the new equilibrium toward which the system gravitates to differ from the final equilibrium of the comparative-statics exercise.

Third, each successive change in the final equilibrium toward which the system is gravitating leads to further changes that in turn keep changing the final equilibrium. There is no reason why the successive changes lead to convergence on any final equilibrium end state. Nor is there any theoretical proof that the adjustment path leading from one equilibrium to another ever reaches an equilibrium end state. The gap between the comparative-statics exercise and the theory of adjustment in real time remains unbridged and may, even in principle, be unbridgeable.

Finally, without a complete system of forward and state-contingent markets, equilibrium requires not just that current prices converge to equilibrium prices; it requires that expectations of all agents about future prices converge to equilibrium expectations of future prices. Unless, agents’ expectations of future prices converge to their equilibrium values, an equilibrium many not even exist, let alone be approached or attained.

So the Marshallian assumption that producers know their costs of production and make production and pricing decisions based on that knowledge is both factually wrong and logically untenable. Nor do producers know what the demand curves for their products really looks like, except in the extreme case in which suppliers take market prices to be parametrically determined. But even then, they make decisions not on known prices, but on expected prices. Their expectations are constantly being tested against market information about actual prices, information that causes decision makers to affirm or revise their expectations in light of the constant flow of new information about prices and market conditions.

I don’t reject partial-equilibrium analysis, but I do call attention to its limitations, and to its unsuitability as a supposedly essential foundation for macroeconomic analysis, especially inasmuch as microeconomic analysis, AKA partial-equilibrium analysis, is utterly dependent on the uneasy macrofoundation of general-equilibrium theory. The intuition of Marshallian partial equilibrium cannot fil the gap, long ago noted by Kenneth Arrow, in the neoclassical theory of equilibrium price adjustment.

Krugman on Mr. Keynes and the Moderns

UPDATE: Re-upping this slightly revised post from July 11, 2011

Paul Krugman recently gave a lecture “Mr. Keynes and the Moderns” (a play on the title of the most influential article ever written about The General Theory, “Mr. Keynes and the Classics,” by another Nobel laureate J. R. Hicks) at a conference in Cambridge, England commemorating the publication of Keynes’s General Theory 75 years ago. Scott Sumner and Nick Rowe, among others, have already commented on his lecture. Coincidentally, in my previous posting, I discussed the views of Sumner and Krugman on the zero-interest lower bound, a topic that figures heavily in Krugman’s discussion of Keynes and his relevance for our current difficulties. (I note in passing that Krugman credits Brad Delong for applying the term “Little Depression” to those difficulties, a term that I thought I had invented, but, oh well, I am happy to share the credit with Brad).

In my earlier posting, I mentioned that Keynes’s, slightly older, colleague A. C. Pigou responded to the zero-interest lower bound in his review of The General Theory. In a way, the response enhanced Pigou’s reputation, attaching his name to one of the most famous “effects” in the history of economics, but it made no dent in the Keynesian Revolution. I also referred to “the layers upon layers of interesting personal and historical dynamics lying beneath the surface of Pigou’s review of Keynes.” One large element of those dynamics was that Keynes chose to make, not Hayek or Robbins, not French devotees of the gold standard, not American laissez-faire ideologues, but Pigou, a left-of-center social reformer, who in the early 1930s had co-authored with Keynes a famous letter advocating increased public-works spending to combat unemployment, the main target of his immense rhetorical powers and polemical invective.  The first paragraph of Pigou’s review reveals just how deeply Keynes’s onslaught had wounded Pigou.

When in 1919, he wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Mr. Keynes did a good day’s work for the world, in helping it back towards sanity. But he did a bad day’s work for himself as an economist. For he discovered then, and his sub-conscious mind has not been able to forget since, that the best way to win attention for one’s own ideas is to present them in a matrix of sarcastic comment upon other people. This method has long been a routine one among political pamphleteers. It is less appropriate, and fortunately less common, in scientific discussion.  Einstein actually did for Physics what Mr. Keynes believes himself to have done for Economics. He developed a far-reaching generalization, under which Newton’s results can be subsumed as a special case. But he did not, in announcing his discovery, insinuate, through carefully barbed sentences, that Newton and those who had hitherto followed his lead were a gang of incompetent bunglers. The example is illustrious: but Mr. Keynes has not followed it. The general tone de haut en bas and the patronage extended to his old master Marshall are particularly to be regretted. It is not by this manner of writing that his desire to convince his fellow economists is best promoted.

Krugman acknowledges Keynes’s shady scholarship (“I know that there’s dispute about whether Keynes was fair in characterizing the classical economists in this way”), only to absolve him of blame. He then uses Keynes’s example to attack “modern economists” who deny that a failure of aggregate demand can cause of mass unemployment, offering up John Cochrane and Niall Ferguson as examples, even though Ferguson is a historian not an economist.

Krugman also addresses Robert Barro’s assertion that Keynes’s explanation for high unemployment was that wages and prices were stuck at levels too high to allow full employment, a problem easily solvable, in Barro’s view, by monetary expansion. Although plainly annoyed by Barro’s attempt to trivialize Keynes’s contribution, Krugman never addresses the point squarely, preferring instead to justify Keynes’s frustration with those (conveniently nameless) “classical economists.”

Keynes’s critique of the classical economists was that they had failed to grasp how everything changes when you allow for the fact that output may be demand-constrained.

Not so, as I pointed out in my first post. Frederick Lavington, an even more orthodox disciple than Pigou of Marshall, had no trouble understanding that “the inactivity of all is the cause of the inactivity of each.” It was Keynes who failed to see that the failure of demand was equally a failure of supply.

They mistook accounting identities for causal relationships, believing in particular that because spending must equal income, supply creates its own demand and desired savings are automatically invested.

Supply does create its own demand when economic agents succeed in executing their plans to supply; it is when, owing to their incorrect and inconsistent expectations about future prices, economic agents fail to execute their plans to supply, that both supply and demand start to contract. Lavington understood that; Pigou understood that. Keynes understood it, too, but believing that his new way of understanding how contractions are caused was superior to that of his predecessors, he felt justified in misrepresenting their views, and attributing to them a caricature of Say’s Law that they would never have taken seriously.

And to praise Keynes for understanding the difference between accounting identities and causal relationships that befuddled his predecessors is almost perverse, as Keynes’s notorious confusion about whether the equality of savings and investment is an equilibrium condition or an accounting identity was pointed out by Dennis Robertson, Ralph Hawtrey and Gottfried Haberler within a year after The General Theory was published. To quote Robertson:

(Mr. Keynes’s critics) have merely maintained that he has so framed his definition that Amount Saved and Amount Invested are identical; that it therefore makes no sense even to inquire what the force is which “ensures equality” between them; and that since the identity holds whether money income is constant or changing, and, if it is changing, whether real income is changing proportionately, or not at all, this way of putting things does not seem to be a very suitable instrument for the analysis of economic change.

It just so happens that in 1925, Keynes, in one of his greatest pieces of sustained, and almost crushing sarcasm, The Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill, offered an explanation of high unemployment exactly the same as that attributed to Keynes by Barro. Churchill’s decision to restore the convertibility of sterling to gold at the prewar parity meant that a further deflation of at least 10 percent in wages and prices would be necessary to restore equilibrium.  Keynes felt that the human cost of that deflation would be intolerable, and held Churchill responsible for it.

Of course Keynes in 1925 was not yet the Keynes of The General Theory. But what historical facts of the 10 years following Britain’s restoration of the gold standard in 1925 at the prewar parity cannot be explained with the theoretical resources available in 1925? The deflation that began in England in 1925 had been predicted by Keynes. The even worse deflation that began in 1929 had been predicted by Ralph Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel soon after World War I ended, if a way could not be found to limit the demand for gold by countries, rejoining the gold standard in aftermath of the war. The United States, holding 40 percent of the world’s monetary gold reserves, might have accommodated that demand by allowing some of its reserves to be exported. But obsession with breaking a supposed stock-market bubble in 1928-29 led the Fed to tighten its policy even as the international demand for gold was increasing rapidly, as Germany, France and many other countries went back on the gold standard, producing the international credit crisis and deflation of 1929-31. Recovery came not from Keynesian policies, but from abandoning the gold standard, thereby eliminating the deflationary pressure implicit in a rapidly rising demand for gold with a more or less fixed total supply.

Keynesian stories about liquidity traps and Monetarist stories about bank failures are epiphenomena obscuring rather than illuminating the true picture of what was happening.  The story of the Little Depression is similar in many ways, except the source of monetary tightness was not the gold standard, but a monetary regime that focused attention on rising price inflation in 2008 when the appropriate indicator, wage inflation, had already started to decline.

Why Price Stickiness Matters, or Doesn’t

When I was a young economics graduate student at UCLA in the early 1970s during the heyday of that wonderful department, convinced, like most of the other UCLA grad students, that I was in the best graduate program in the country (and therefore the world), where the deepest, most creative, economic theorists in the world, under the relaxed and amiable leadership of Armen Alchian — whose failure to win a Nobel Prize is really the failure of the Nobel selection committee — would eventually succeed in unifying economic theory by reformulating macroeconomics on correctly specified microfoundations, I naively entertained for a while the idea that I would write a Ph.D. dissertation on some aspect of the problem of price rigidity. However, I never could do more than formulate some general observations about the theoretical role of price rigidity in macroeconomic models and compose a superficial survey of the empirical literature on price rigidity, starting with the work of Gardiner Means in the 1930s on administered prices up to a volume, The Behavior of Industrial Prices, by Stigler and Kindahl that had just appeared. After many months of frustrating and fruitless efforts to come up with a hook on which to base a dissertation, I came to the painful conclusion that my theoretical ambition exceeded my intellectual resources and I would have to look for a dissertation topic that I could get my arms around.

I then went to the other extreme, choosing a straightforward empirical topic, a comparison of car insurance premiums in states with different regulatory regimes, eventually finding that, as suggested by the regulatory capture theory, stricter regulation was associated with higher, not lower, premiums. But in choosing a dissertation topic in which I had little emotional or intellectual investment, I paid an unforeseen cost of another sort; my lack of passion for my dissertation made me a poor candidate in the job market. So the only job offer I got was from an undistinguished upper-midwestern economics department.

These not so pleasant reminiscences were triggered by my response a couple of days ago to the comments of Nick Rowe, Scott Sumner, Anon, and Wonks Anonymous on my posting “Krugman on Keynes and the Moderns.” In that post, I had chided Krugman for dismissing without any, much less adequate, explanation Robert Barro’s assertion that Keynes’s theory of high unemployment could be reduced to the following:  wages and prices are stuck at a level too high to allow full employment;  the problem could therefore be solved by monetary expansion raising equilibrium wages and prices, thereby obviating the reduction in wages and prices that “price stickiness” had been blocking.  In response, Krugman merely harrumphs, and complains that Barro doesn’t get it.

In  his comment, Nick distinguished between the cause for the decline in AD and why, once AD has declined, it is translated into a reduction in output and employment rather than a pure reduction in prices and wages with unchanged output and employment.  According to Nick’s interpretation, the Krugman/Barro dispute is seemingly reduced to a verbal dispute about the meaning of the word “cause.”  But, presumably, Krugman wants to say that a reduction in AD, must, for reasons deeper than mere “price stickiness,” have output and employment effects, not just price effects.

Then Scott weighed in with the following comment.

If wage and price stickiness aren’t needed for the Keynesian model, do the model without them. I don’t see how it can be done. I’ve never seen a Keynesian model with complete wage and price flexibility. If NGDP falls 99%, and so do wages and prices, how is there unemployment?

I responded to Nick and Scott as well as to further comments by Anon and Wonks Anonymous, but my comments may have been too terse to have been comprehensible.  At any rate, there was no response to my comment, so I don’t know if readers came away nodding or shaking their heads.

At the risk of boring even those who have made it this far, let me try to make a couple of crucial, but rarely noted, distinctions  about terms like “price stickiness,” “price inflexibility,” or “price rigidity.”  On the one hand, “rigid prices” can mean that, even though supply and demand have shifted in a way that implies that the price should change, the price doesn’t change.  On this interpretation, “price stickiness” is a kind of (perhaps externally imposed) market failure.  The virtue of the price system, as Hayek taught us, is that it transmits information about alternative uses for and supplies of resources, leading to efficient resource allocation with no need for central direction, purely through voluntary responses to price signals.

On this interpretation, “sticky” prices constitute a fundamental failure; prices and wages, either because of direct government intervention or monopoly privileges, do not adjust in the “normal” or “proper” way to changes in demand and supply; the price mechanism doesn’t function as it is supposed to.  Well, then, the argument goes, if the price mechanism is malfunctioning, because prices are “stuck” at levels too high for markets to clear, of course output and employment will contract.  If that is all there is to what Keynes was saying, what’s the big deal?  Everybody knew that.

I interpret this to have been Barro’s point about which Krugman complained.  And, Scott Sumner seems to agree with Barro that Keynesian economics is nothing other than the economics of sticky prices.  Nick Rowe, however, if I understand him correctly, at least wants to leave open the possibility that Keynesian economics is about more than just the assumption that the price mechanism is malfunctioning.

Here is where my UCLA training, and my seemingly fruitless efforts nearly 40 years ago, may give me (but certainly not just me) some added insight into the problem.  Let me ask the following question.  When aggregate demand drops, would we really expect workers immediately to take wage cuts and businesses immediately to reduce prices, the decline in aggregate demand being entirely reflected in instantaneously falling prices and wages, with no reduction in output and employment?  I doubt it.  At the moment aggregate demand falls, how many people are even aware of what has just happened?  It’s not easy to distinguish between a general decline in demand and a decline limited to just your own product.  If you are a worker told by your employer that you are being laid off because his sales are down, would it be more rational for you to ask how big a wage cut would allow you to hang on to your job, or to assume that some other employer would be willing to pay you a wage close to what you had been earning.  (And if there was none, why was your old employer paying you a much higher wage than anyone else was?)

This is the search rationale for unemployment developed at UCLA in the early 1960s and discussed in the classic introductory text University Economics by Alchian and Allen, later developed by others like Peter Diamond into a theory for which Diamond, not undeservingly, did win a Nobel Prize.  Axel Leijonhufvud, who came to UCLA while  turning his own Ph. D. dissertation into a wonderful book On Keynesian Economic and the Economics of Keynes, used the search-theoretic explanation of unemployment to suggest an interpretation of Keynes that didn’t rely on wage and price rigidity in the first sense.

Another UCLA luminary, Earl Thompson, restated the same basic point more elegantly in a Hicksian temporary equilibrium framework.  In temporary equilibrium, as understood by Hicks, individual supply and demand decisions depend on the possibly incorrect and conflicting price expectations of each transactor.  Only in full general equilibrium are all price expectations correct, but in temporary equilibrium prices do adjust to clear markets despite incorrect price expectations.  Suppose price expectations are too high, as they are after a decline in aggregate demand, then the quantities offered for sale by transactors will be less than would have been offered if expected prices were lower.  Given that expected future prices are too high, the price mechanism is working  as well as it can.  Prices are not sticky; no price adjustment would induce a mutually beneficial transaction given the price expectations held by the transactors.   But those incorrect price expectations, nevertheless, cause a cumulative contraction of output, with shrinking aggregate demand.  Even though price expectations may be revised downward, the fall in aggregate demand may prevent restoration of full equilibrium with correct price expectations.

That is how you can have declining real output and employment even with fully “flexible” prices in the only sense of the term that I can conceive of.  If someone wants to call this Keynesian or involuntary unemployment, it is fine with me. But I don’t think that the formal apparatus of what is commonly understood to be Keynesian economics is at all necessary to understand the mechanism. And I’m not so sure that the Keynesian model really helps us understand the nature of the dynamic at work in this situation.

Those were the days.

Krugman and Sumner on the Zero-Interest Lower Bound: Some History of Thought

UPDATE: Re-upping my post from July 8, 2011

I indicated in my first posting on Tuesday that I was going to comment on some recent comparisons between the current anemic recovery and earlier more robust recoveries since World War II. The comparison that I want to perform involves some simple econometrics, and it is taking longer than anticipated to iron out the little kinks that I keep finding. So I will have to put off that discussion a while longer. As a diversion, I will follow up on a point that Scott Sumner made in discussing Paul Krugman’s reasoning for having favored fiscal policy over monetary policy to lead us out of the recession.

Scott’s focus is on the factual question whether it is really true, as Krugman and Michael Woodford have claimed, that a monetary authority, like, say, the Bank of Japan, may simply be unable to create the inflation expectations necessary to achieve equilibrium, given the zero-interest-rate lower bound, when the equilibrium real interest rate is less than zero. Scott counters that a more plausible explanation for the inability of the Bank of Japan to escape from a liquidity trap is that its aversion to inflation is so well-known that it becomes rational for the public to expect that the Bank of Japan would not permit the inflation necessary for equilibrium.

It seems that a lot of people have trouble understanding the idea that there can be conditions in which inflation — or, to be more precise, expected inflation — is necessary for a recovery from a depression. We have become so used to thinking of inflation as a costly and disruptive aspect of economic life, that the notion that inflation may be an integral element of an economic equilibrium goes very deeply against the grain of our intuition.

The theoretical background of this point actually goes back to A. C. Pigou (another famous Cambridge economist, Alfred Marshall’s successor) who, in his 1936 review of Keynes’s General Theory, referred to what he called Mr. Keynes’s vision of the day of judgment, namely, a situation in which, because of depressed entrepreneurial profit expectations or a high propensity to save, macro-equilibrium (the equality of savings and investment) would correspond to a level of income and output below the level consistent with full employment.

The “classical” or “orthodox” remedy to such a situation was to reduce the rate of interest, or, as the British say “Bank Rate” (as in “Magna Carta” with no definite article) at which the Bank of England lends to its customers (mainly banks).  But if entrepreneurs are so pessimistic, or households so determined to save rather than consume, an equilibrium corresponding to a level of income and output consistent with full employment could, in Keynes’s ghastly vision, only come about with a negative interest rate. Now a zero interest rate in economics is a little bit like the speed of light in physics; all kinds of crazy things start to happen if you posit a negative interest rate and it seems inconsistent with the assumptions of rational behavior to assume that people would lend for a negative interest when they could simply hold the money already in their pockets. That’s why Pigou’s metaphor was so powerful. There are layers upon layers of interesting personal and historical dynamics lying beneath the surface of Pigou’s review of Keynes, but I won’t pursue that tangent here, tempting though it would be to go in that direction.

The conclusion that Keynes drew from his model is the one that we all were taught in our first course in macro and that Paul Krugman holds close to his heart, the government can come to the rescue by increasing its spending on whatever, thereby increasing aggregate demand, raising income and output up to the level consistent with full employment. But Pigou, whose own policy recommendations were not much different from those of Keynes, felt that Keynes had left out an important element of the model in his discussion. As a matter of logic, which to Pigou was as, or more important than, policy, an economy confronting Keynes’s day of judgment would not forever be stuck in “underemployment equilibrium” just because the rate of interest could not fall to the (negative) level required for full employment.

Rather, Pigou insisted, at least in theory, though not necessarily in practice, deflation, resulting from unemployed workers bidding down wages to gain employment, would raise the real value of the money supply (fixed in nominal terms in Keynes’s model) thereby generating a windfall to holders of money, inducing them to increase consumption, raising aggregate demand and eventually restoring full employment.  Discussion of the theoretical validity and policy relevance of what came to be known as the Pigou effect (or, occasionally, as the Pigou-Haberler Effect, or even the Pigou-Haberler-Scitovsky effect) became a really big deal in macroeconomics in the 1940s and 1950s and was still being taught in the 1960s and 1970s.

What seems remarkable to me now about that whole episode is that the analysis simply left out the possibility that the zero-interest-rate lower bound becomes irrelevant if the expected rate of inflation exceeds the putative negative equilibrium real interest rate that would hypothetically generate a macro-equilibrium at a level of income and output consistent with full employment.

If only Pigou had corrected the logic of Keynes’s model by positing an expected rate of inflation greater than the negative real interest rate rather than positing a process of deflation to increase the real value of the money stock, how different would the course of history and the development of macroeconomics and monetary theory have been.

One economist who did think about the expected rate of inflation as an equilibrating variable in a macroeconomic model was one of my teachers, the late, great Earl Thompson, who introduced the idea of an equilibrium rate of inflation in his remarkable unpublished paper, “A Reformulation of Macreconomic Theory.” If inflation is an equilibrating variable, then it cannot make sense for monetary authorities to commit themselves to a single unvarying target for the rate of inflation. Under certain circumstances, macroeconomic equilibrium may be incompatible with a rate of inflation below some minimum level. Has it occurred to the inflation hawks on the FOMC and their supporters that the minimum rate of inflation consistent with equilibrium is above the 2 percent rate that Fed has now set as its policy goal?

One final point, which I am still trying to work out more coherently, is that it really may not be appropriate to think of the real rate of interest and the expected rate of inflation as being determined independently of each other. They clearly interact. As I point out in my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations,” increasing the expected rate of inflation when the real rate of interest is very low or negative tends to increase not just the nominal rate, but the real rate as well, by generating the positive feedback effects on income and employment that result when a depressed economy starts to expand.

Welcome to Uneasy Money, aka the Hawtreyblog

UPDATE: I’m re-upping my introductory blog post, which I posted ten years ago toady. It’s been a great run for me, and I hope for many of you, whose interest and responses have motivated to keep it going. So thanks to all of you who have read and responded to my posts. I’m adding a few retrospective comments and making some slight revisions along the way. In addition to new posts, I will be re-upping some of my old posts that still seem to have relevance to the current state of our world.

What the world needs now, with apologies to the great Burt Bachrach and Hal David, is, well, another blog.  But inspired by the great Ralph Hawtrey and the near great Scott Sumner, I decided — just in time for Scott’s return to active blogging — to raise another voice on behalf of a monetary policy actively seeking to promote recovery from what I call the Little Depression, instead of the monetary policy we have now:  waiting for recovery to arrive on its own.  Just like the Great Depression, our Little Depression was caused mainly by overly tight money in an environment of over-indebtedness and financial fragility, and was then allowed to deepen and become entrenched by monetary authorities unwilling to commit themselves to a monetary expansion aimed at raising prices enough to make business expansion profitable.

That was the lesson of the Great Depression.  Unfortunately that lesson, for reasons too complicated to go into now, was never properly understood, because neither Keynesians nor Monetarists had a fully coherent understanding of what happened in the Great Depression.  Although Ralph Hawtrey — called by none other than Keynes “his grandparent in the paths of errancy,” and an early, but unacknowledged, progenitor of Chicago School Monetarism — had such an understanding,  Hawtrey’s contributions were overshadowed and largely ignored, because of often irrelevant and misguided polemics between Keynesians and Monetarists and Austrians.  One of my goals for this blog is to bring to light the many insights of this perhaps most underrated — though competition for that title is pretty stiff — economist of the twentieth century.  I have discussed Hawtrey’s contributions in my book on free banking and in a paper published years ago in Encounter and available here.  Patrick Deutscher has written a biography of Hawtrey.

What deters businesses from expanding output and employment in a depression is lack of demand; they fear that if they do expand, they won’t be able to sell the added output at prices high enough to cover their costs, winding up with redundant workers and having to engage in costly layoffs.  Thus, an expectation of low demand tends to be self-fulfilling.  But so is an expectation of rising prices, because the additional output and employment induced by expectations of rising prices will generate the demand that will validate the initial increase in output and employment, creating a virtuous cycle of rising income, expenditure, output, and employment.

The insight that “the inactivity of all is the cause of the inactivity of each” is hardly new.  It was not the discovery of Keynes or Keynesian economics; it is the 1922 formulation of Frederick Lavington, another great, but underrated, pre-Keynesian economist in the Cambridge tradition, who, in his modesty and self-effacement, would have been shocked and embarrassed to be credited with the slightest originality for that statement.  Indeed, Lavington’s dictum might even be understood as a restatement of Say’s Law, the bugbear of Keynes and object of his most withering scorn.  Keynesian economics skillfully repackaged the well-known and long-accepted idea that when an economy is operating with idle capacity and high unemployment, any increase in output tends to be self-reinforcing and cumulative, just as, on the way down, each reduction in output is self-reinforcing and cumulative.

But at least Keynesians get the point that, in a depression or deep recession, individual incentives may not be enough to induce a healthy expansion of output and employment. Aggregate demand can be too low for an expansion to get started on its own. Even though aggregate demand is nothing but the flip side of aggregate supply (as Say’s Law teaches), if resources are idle for whatever reason, perceived effective demand is deficient, diluting incentives to increase production so much that the potential output expansion does not materialize, because expected prices are too low for businesses to want to expand. But if businesses can be induced to expand output, more than likely, they will sell it, because (as Say’s Law teaches) supply usually does create its own demand.

[Comment after 10 years: In a comment, Rowe asked why I wrote that Say’s Law teaches that supply “usually” creates its own demand. At that time, I responded that I was just using “usually” as a weasel word. But I subsequently realized (and showed in a post last year) that the standard proofs of both Walras’s Law and Say’s Law are defective for economies with incomplete forward and state-contingent markets. We actually know less than we once thought we did!] 

Keynesians mistakenly denied that, by creating price-level expectations consistent with full employment, monetary policy could induce an expansion of output even in a depression. But at least they understood that the private economy can reach an impasse with price-level expectations too low to sustain full employment. Fiscal policy may play a role in remedying a mismatch between expectations and full employment, but fiscal policy can only be as effective as monetary policy allows it to be. Unfortunately, since the downturn of December 2007, monetary policy, except possibly during QE1 and QE2, has consistently erred on the side of uneasiness.

With some unfortunate exceptions, however, few Keynesians have actually argued against monetary easing. Rather, with some honorable exceptions, it has been conservatives who, by condemning a monetary policy designed to provide incentives conducive to business expansion, have helped to hobble a recovery led by the private sector rather than the government which  they profess to want. It is not my habit to attribute ill motives or bad faith to people whom I disagree with. One of the finest compliments ever paid to F. A. Hayek was by Joseph Schumpeter in his review of The Road to Serfdom who chided Hayek for “politeness to a fault in hardly ever attributing to his opponents anything but intellectual error.” But it is a challenge to come up with a plausible explanation for right-wing opposition to monetary easing.

[Comment after 10 years: By 2011 when this post was written, right-wing bad faith had already become too obvious to ignore, but who could then have imagined where the willingness to resort to bad faith arguments without the slightest trace of compunction would lead them and lead us.] 

In condemning monetary easing, right-wing opponents claim to be following the good old conservative tradition of supporting sound money and resisting the inflationary proclivities of Democrats and liberals. But how can claims of principled opposition to inflation be taken seriously when inflation, by every measure, is at its lowest ebb since the 1950s and early 1960s? With prices today barely higher than they were three years ago before the crash, scare talk about currency debasement and future hyperinflation reminds me of Ralph Hawtrey’s famous remark that warnings that leaving the gold standard during the Great Depression would cause runaway inflation were like crying “fire, fire” in Noah’s flood.

The groundlessness of right-wing opposition to monetary easing becomes even plainer when one recalls the attacks on Paul Volcker during the first Reagan administration. In that episode President Reagan and Volcker, previously appointed by Jimmy Carter to replace the feckless G. William Miller as Fed Chairman, agreed to make bringing double-digit inflation under control their top priority, whatever the short-term economic and political costs. Reagan, indeed, courageously endured a sharp decline in popularity before the first signs of a recovery became visible late in the summer of 1982, too late to save Reagan and the Republicans from a drubbing in the mid-term elections, despite the drop in inflation to 3-4 percent. By early 1983, with recovery was in full swing, the Fed, having abandoned its earlier attempt to impose strict Monetarist controls on monetary expansion, allowed the monetary aggregates to grow at unusually rapid rates.

However, in 1984 (a Presidential election year) after several consecutive quarters of GDP growth at annual rates above 7 percent, the Fed, fearing a resurgence of inflation, began limiting the rate of growth in the monetary aggregates. Reagan’s secretary of the Treasury, Donald Regan, as well as a variety of outside Administration supporters like Arthur Laffer, Larry Kudlow, and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, began to complain bitterly that the Fed, in its preoccupation with fighting inflation, was deliberately sabotaging the recovery. The argument against the Fed’s tightening of monetary policy in 1984 was not without merit. But regardless of the wisdom of the Fed tightening in 1984 (when inflation was significantly higher than it is now), holding up the 1983-84 Reagan recovery as the model for us to follow now, while excoriating Obama and Bernanke for driving inflation all the way up to 1 percent, supposedly leading to currency debauchment and hyperinflation, is just a bit rich. What, I wonder, would Hawtrey have said about that?

In my next posting I will look a little more closely at some recent comparisons between the current non-recovery and recoveries from previous recessions, especially that of 1983-84.

Gabriel Mathy and I Discuss the Gold Standard and the Great Depression

Sometimes you get into a Twitter argument when you least expect to. It was after 11pm two Saturday nights ago when I saw this tweet by Gabriel Mathy (@gabriel_mathy)

Friedman says if there had been no Fed, there would have been no Depression. That’s certainly wrong, even if your position is that the Fed did little to nothing to mitigate the Depression (which is reasonable IMO)

Chiming in, I thought to reinforce Mathy’s criticism of Friedman, I tweeted the following:

Friedman totally misunderstood the dynamics of the Great Depression, which was driven by increasing demand for gold after 1928, in particular by the Bank of France and by the Fed. He had no way of knowing what the US demand for gold would have been if there had not been a Fed

I got a response from Mathy that I really wasn’t expecting who tweeted with seeming annoyance

There already isn’t enough gold to back the gold standard by the end of World War I, it’s just a matter of time until a negative shock large enough sent the world into a downward spiral (my emphasis). Just took a few years after resumption of the gold standard in most countries in the mid-20s. (my emphasis)

I didn’t know exactly what to make of Mathy’s assertion that there wasn’t enough gold by the end of World War I. The gold standard was effectively abandoned at the outset of WWI and the US price level was nearly double the prewar US price level after the postwar inflation of 1919. Even after the deflation of 1920-21, US prices were still much higher in 1922 than they were in 1914. Gold production fell during World War I, but gold coins had been withdrawn from circulation and replaced with paper or token coins. The idea that there is a fixed relationship between the amount of gold and the amount of money, especially after gold coinage had been eliminated, has no theoretical basis.

So I tweeted back:

The US holdings of gold after WWI were so great that Keynes in his Tract on Monetary Reform [argued] that the great danger of a postwar gold standard was inflation because the US would certainly convert its useless holding of gold for something more useful

To which Mathy responded

The USA is not the only country though. The UK had to implement tight monetary policies to back the gold standard, and eventually had to leave the gold standard. As did the USA in 1931. The Great Depression is a global crisis.

Mathy’s response, I’m afraid, is completely wrong. Of course, the Great Depression is a global crisis. It was a global crisis, because, under the (newly restored) gold standard, the price level in gold-standard countries was determined internationally. And, holding 40% of the world’s monetary reserves of gold at the end of World War I, the US, the largest and most dynamic economy in the world, was clearly able to control, as Keynes understood, the common international price level for gold-standard countries.

The tight monetary policy imposed on the UK resulted from its decision to rejoin the gold standard at the prewar dollar parity. Had the US followed a modestly inflationary monetary policy, allowing an outflow of gold during the 1920s rather than inducing an inflow, deflation would not have been imposed on the UK.

But instead of that response, I replied as follows:

The US didn’t leave till 1933 when FDR devalued. I agree that individual countries, worried about losing gold, protected their reserves by raising interest rates. Had they all reduced rates together, the conflict between individual incentives and common interest could have been avoided.

Mathy then kept the focus on the chronology of the Great Depression, clarifying that he meant that in 1931 the US, like the UK, tightened monetary policy to remain on the gold standard, not that the US, like the UK, also left the gold standard in 1931:

The USA tightens in 1931 to stay on the gold standard. And this sets off a wave of bank failures.

Fair enough, but once the situation deteriorated after the crash and the onset of deflation, the dynamics of the financial crisis made managing the gold standard increasingly difficult, given the increasingly pessimistic expectations conditioned by deepening economic contraction and deflation. While an easier US monetary policy in the late 1920s might have avoided the catastrophe and preserved the gold standard, an easier monetary policy may, at some point, have become inconsistent with staying on the gold standard.

So my response to Mathy was more categorical than was warranted.

Again, the US did not have to tighten in 1931 to stay on the gold standard. I agree that the authorities might have sincerely thought that they needed to tighten to stay on the gold standard, but they were wrong if that’s what they thought.

Mathy was having none of it, unleashing a serious snark attack

You know better I guess, despite collapsing free gold amidst a massive speculative attack

What I ought to have said is that the gold standard was not worth saving if doing so entailed continuing deflation. If I understand him, Mathy believes that deflation after World War I was inevitable and unavoidable, because there wasn’t enough gold to sustain the gold standard after World War I. I was arguing that if there was a shortage of gold, it was because of the policies followed, often in compliance with legal gold-cover requirements, that central banks, especially the Bank of France, which started accumulating gold rapidly in 1928, and the Fed, which raised interest rates to burst a supposed stock-market bubble, were following. But as I point out below, the gold accumulation by the Bank of France far exceeded what was mandated by legal gold-cover requirements.

My point is that the gold shortage that Mathy believes doomed the gold standard was not preordained; it could have been mitigated by policies to reduce, or reverse, gold accumulation. France could have rejoined the gold standard without accumulating enormous quantities of gold in 1928-29, and the Fed did not have to raise interest rates in 1928-29, attracting additional gold to its own already massive holdings just as France was rapidly accumulating gold.

When France formally rejoined the gold standard in July 1928, the gold reserves of the Bank of France were approximately equal to its foreign-exchange holdings and its gold-reserve ratio was 39.5% slightly above the newly established legal required ratio of 35%. In subsequent years, the gold reserves of the Bank of France steadily increased while foreign exchange reserves declined. At the close of 1929, the gold-reserve ratio of the Bank of France stood at 47.3%, while its holdings of foreign exchange hardly changed. French gold holdings increased in 1930 by slightly more than in 1929, with foreign-exchange holdings almost constant; the French gold-reserve ratio at the end of 1930 was 53.2%. The 1931 increase in French gold reserves, owing to a 20% drop in foreign-exchange holdings, was even larger than in 1930, raising the gold-reserve ratio to 60.5% at the end of 1931.

Once deflation and the Great Depression started late in 1929, deteriorating rapidly in 1930, salvaging the gold standard became increasingly unlikely, with speculators becoming increasingly alert to the possibility of currency devaluation or convertibility suspension. Speculation against a pegged exchange rate is not always a good bet, but it’s rarely a bad one, any change in the pegged rate being almost surely in the direction that speculators are betting on. 

But, it was still at least possible that, if gold-cover requirements for outstanding banknotes and bank reserves were relaxed or suspended, central banks could have caused a gold outflow sufficient to counter the deflationary expectations then feeding speculative demands for gold. Gold does not have many non-monetary uses, so a significant release of gold from idle central-bank reserves might have caused gold to depreciate relative to other real assets, thereby slowing, or even reversing, deflation.

Of course, deflation would not have stopped unless the deflationary expectations fueling speculative demands for gold were reversed. Different expectational responses would have led to different outcomes. More often than not, inflationary and deflationary expectations are self-fulfilling. Because expectations tend to be mutually interdependent – my inflationary expectations reinforce your inflationary expectations and vice versa — the notion of rational expectation in this context borders on the nonsensical, making outcomes inherently unpredictable. Reversing inflationary or deflationary expectations requires policy credibility and a willingness by policy makers to take policy actions – even or especially painful ones — that demonstrate their resolve.

In 1930 Ralph Hawtrey testified to the Macmillan Committee on Finance and Industry, he recommended that the Bank of England reduce interest rates to counter the unemployment and deflation. That testimony elicited the following exchange between Hugh Pattison Macmillan, the chairman of the Committee and Hawtrey:

MACMILLAN: Suppose . . . without restricting credit . . . that gold had gone out to a very considerable extent, would that not have had very serious consequences on the international position of London?

HAWTREY: I do not think the credit of London depends on any particular figure of gold holding. . . . The harm began to be done in March and April of 1925 [when] the fall in American prices started. There was no reason why the Bank of England should have taken any action at that time so far as the question of loss of gold is concerned. . . . I believed at the time and I still think that the right treatment would have been to restore the gold standard de facto before it was restored de jure. That is what all the other countries have done. . . . I would have suggested that we should have adopted the practice of always selling gold to a sufficient extent to prevent the exchange depreciating. There would have been no legal obligation to continue convertibility into gold . . . If that course had been adopted, the Bank of England would never have been anxious about the gold holding, they would have been able to see it ebb away to quite a considerable extent with perfect equanimity, . . and might have continued with a 4 percent Bank Rate.

MACMILLAN: . . . the course you suggest would not have been consistent with what one may call orthodox Central Banking, would it?

HAWTREY: I do not know what orthodox Central Banking is.

MACMILLAN: . . . when gold ebbs away you must restrict credit as a general principle?

HAWTREY: . . . that kind of orthodoxy is like conventions at bridge; you have to break them when the circumstances call for it. I think that a gold reserve exists to be used. . . . Perhaps once in a century the time comes when you can use your gold reserve for the governing purpose, provided you have the courage to use practically all of it.

Hawtrey’s argument lay behind this response of mine to Mathy:

What else is a gold reserve is for? That’s like saying you can’t fight a fire because you’ll drain the water tank. But I agree that by 1931 there was no point in defending the gold standard and the US should have made clear the goal was reflation to the 1926 price level as FDR did in 1933.

Mathy responded:

If the Fed cuts discount rates to 0%, capital outflow will eventually exhaust gold reserves. So do you recommend a massive OMO in 1929? What specifically is the plan?

In 1927, the Fed reduced its discount rate to 3.5%; in February 1928, it was raised the rate to 4%. The rate was raised again in August 1928 and to 6% in September 1929. The only reason the Fed raised interest rates in 1928 was a misguided concern with rising stock prices. A zero interest rate was hardly necessary in 1929, nor were massive open-market operations. Had the Fed kept its interest rate at 4%, and the Bank of France not accumulated gold rapidly in 1928-29, the history of the world might well have followed a course much different from the one actually followed.

In another exchange, Mathy pointed to the 1920s adoption of the gold-exchange standard rather than a (supposedly) orthodox version of the gold standard as evidence that there wasn’t enough gold to support the gold standard after World War I. (See my post on the difference between the gold standard and the gold-exchange standard.)

Mathy: You seem to be implying there was plentiful free gold [i.e., gold held by central banks in excess of the amount required by legal gold-cover requirements] in the world after WW1 so that gold was not a constraint. How much free gold to you reckon there was?

Glasner: All of it was free. Legal reserve requirements soaked up much but nearly all the free gold

Mathy: All of it was not free, and countries suffered speculative attacks before their real or perceived minimum backings of gold were reached

Glasner: All of it would have been free but for the legal reserve requirements. Of course countries were subject to speculative attacks, when the only way for a country to avoid deflation was to leave the gold standard.

Mathy: You keep asserting an abundance of free gold, so let’s see some numbers. The lack of free gold led to the gold exchange standard where countries would back currencies with other currencies (themselves only partially backed by gold) because there wasn’t enough gold.

Glasner: The gold exchange standard was a rational response to the WWI inflation and post WWI deflation and it could have worked well if it had not been undermined by the Bank of France and gold accumulation by the US after 1928.

Mathy: Both you and [Douglas] Irwin assume that the gold inflows into France are the result of French policy. But moving your gold to France, a country committed to the gold standard, is exactly what a speculative attack on another currency at risk of leaving the gold standard looks like.

Mathy: What specific policies did the Bank if France implement in 1928 that caused gold inflows? We can just reason from accounting identities, assuming that international flows to France are about pull factors from France rather than push factors from abroad.

Mathy: So lay out your counterfactual- how much gold should the US and France have let go abroad, and how does this prevent the Depression?

Glasner: The increase in gold monetary holdings corresponds to a higher real value of gold. Under the gold standard that translates into [de]flation. Alternatively, to prevent gold outflows central banks raised rates which slowed economic activity and led to deflation.

Mathy: So give me some numbers. What does the Fed do specifically in 1928 and what does France do specifically in 1928 that avoid the debacle of 1929. You can take your time, pick this up Monday.

Mathy: The UK was suffering from high unemployment before 1928 because there wasn’t enough gold in the system. The Bank of England had been able to draw gold “from the moon” with a higher bank rate. After WW1, this was no longer possible.

Glasner: Unemployment in the UK steadily fell after 1922 and continued falling till ’29. With a fixed exchange rate against the $, and productivity in the US rising faster than in the UK, the UK needed more US inflation than it got to reach full employment. That has nothing to do with what happened after 1929.

Mathy: UK unemployment rises 1925-1926 actually, that’s incorrect and it’s near double digits throughout the 1920s. That’s not good at all and the problems start long before 1928.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I will try to at least touch on the main points. Mathy questions whether there was enough free gold available in the 1920s, while also acknowledging that the gold-exchange standard was instituted in the 1920s precisely to avoid the demands on monetary gold reserves that would result from restoring gold coinage and imposing legal gold-cover requirements on central-bank liabilities. So, if free-gold reserves were insufficient before the Great Depression, it was because of the countries that restored the gold standard and also imposed legal gold-cover requirements, notably the French Monetary Law enacted in June 1928 that imposed a minimum 35% gold-cover requirement when convertibility of the franc was restored.

It’s true that there were speculative movements of gold into France when there were fears that countries might devalue their currencies or suspend gold convertibility, but those speculative movements did not begin until late 1930 or 1931.

Two aspects of the French restoration of gold convertibility should be mentioned. First, France pegged the dollar/franc exchange rate at $0.0392, with the intention of inducing a current-account surplus and a gold inflow. Normally that inflow would have been transitory as French prices and wages rose to the world level. But the French Monetary Law allowed the creation of new central-bank liabilities only in exchange for gold or foreign exchange convertible into gold. So French demand for additional cash balances could be satisfied only insofar as total spending in France was restricted sufficiently to ensure an inflow of gold or convertible foreign exchange. Hawtrey explained this brilliantly in Chapter two of The Art of Central Banking.

Mathy suggests that the gold-standard was adopted by countries without enough gold to operate a true gold standard, which he thinks proves that there wasn’t enough free gold available. What resort to the gold-exchange standard shows is that countries without enough gold were able to join the gold standard without first incurring the substantial cost of accumulating (either by direct gold purchases or by inducing large amounts of gold inflows by raising domestic interest rates); it does not prove that the gold-exchange standard system was inherently unstable.

Why did some countries restoring the gold standard not have enough gold? First, much of the world’s stock of gold reserves had been shipped to the US during World War I when countries were importing food, supplies and war material from the US paid with gold, or, promising to repay after the war, on credit. Second, wartime and immediate postwar inflation required increased quantities of cash to conduct transactions and satisfy liquidity demands. Third, legislated gold-cover requirements in the US, and later in France and other countries rejoining the gold standard, obligated monetary authorities to accumulate gold.

Those gold-cover requirements, forcing countries to accumulate additional gold to satisfy any increased demand by the public for cash, were an ongoing, and unnecessary, cause of rising demand for gold reserves as countries rejoined the gold standard in the 1920s, imparting an inherent deflationary bias to the gold standard. The 1922 Genoa Accords attempted to cushion this deflationary bias by allowing countries to rejoin the gold standard without making their own currencies directly convertible into gold, but by committing themselves to a fixed exchange rate against those currencies – at first the dollar and subsequently pound sterling – that were directly convertible into gold. But the accords were purely advisory and provided no effective mechanism to prevent the feared increase in the monetary demand for gold. And the French never intended to rejoin the gold standard except by making the franc convertible directly into gold.

Mathy asks how much gold I think that the French and the US should have let go to avoid the Great Depression. This is an impossible question to answer, because French gold accumulation in 1928-29, combined with increased US interest rates in 1928-29, which caused a nearly equivalent gold inflow into the US, triggered deflation in the second half of 1929 that amplified deflationary expectations, causing a stock market crash, a financial crisis and ultimately the Great Depression. Once deflation got underway, the measures needed to calm the crisis and reverse the downturn became much more extreme than those that would have prevented the downturn in the first place.

Had the Fed kept its discount rate at 3.5 to 4 percent, had France not undervalued the franc in setting its gold peg, and had France created a mechanism for domestic credit expansion instead of making an increase in the quantity of francs impossible except through a current account surplus, and had the Bank of France been willing to accumulate foreign exchange instead of requiring its foreign-exchange holdings to be redeemed for gold, the crisis would not have occurred.

Here are some quick and dirty estimates of the effect of French policy on the availability of free gold. In July 1928 when France rejoined the gold standard and enacted the Monetary Law drafted by the Bank of France, the notes and demand deposits against which the Bank was required to gold reserves totaled almost ff76 billion (=$2.98 billion). French gold holdings in July 1928 were then just under ff30 billion (=$1.17 billion), implying a reserve ratio of 39.5%. (See the discussion above.)

By the end of 1931, the total of French banknotes and deposits against which the Bank of France was required to hold gold reserves was almost ff114 billion (=$4.46 billion). French gold holdings at the end of 1931 totaled ff68.9 billion (=$2.7 billion), implying a gold-reserve ratio of 60.5%. If the French had merely maintained the 40% gold-reserve ratio of 1928, their gold holdings in 1931 would have been approximately ff45 billion (=$1.7 billion).

Thus, from July 1929 to December 1931, France absorbed $1 billion of gold reserves that would have otherwise been available to other central banks or made available for use in non-monetary applications. The idea that free gold was a constraint on central bank policy is primarily associated with the period immediately before and after the British suspension of the gold standard in September 1931, which occasioned speculative movements of gold from the US to France to avoid a US suspension of the gold standard or a devaluation. From January 1931 through August 1931, the gold holdings of the Bank of France increased by just over ff3 billion (=$78 million). From August to December of 1931 French gold holdings increased by ff10.3 billion (=$404 million).

So, insofar as a lack of free gold was a constraint on US monetary expansion via open market purchases in 1931, which is the only time period when there is a colorable argument that free gold was a constraint on the Fed, it seems highly unlikely that that constraint would have been binding had the Bank of France not accumulated an additional $1 billion of gold reserves (over and above the increased reserves necessary to maintain the 40% gold-reserve ratio of July 1928) after rejoining the gold standard. Of course, the claim that free gold was a binding constraint on Fed policy in the second half of 1931 is far from universally accepted, and I consider the claim to be pretextual.

Finally, I concede that my assertion that unemployment fell steadily in Britain after the end of the 1920-22 depression was not entirely correct. Unemployment did indeed fall substantially after 1922, but remained around 10 percent in 1924 — there are conflicting estimates based on different assumptions about how to determine whom to count as unemployed — when the pound began appreciating before the restoration of the prewar parity. Unemployment continued rising rise until 1926, but remained below the 1922 level. Unemployment then fell substantially in 1926-27, but rose again in 1928 (as gold accumulation by France and the US led to a rise in Bank rate), without reaching the 1926 level. Unemployment fell slightly in 1929 and was less than the 1924 level before the crash. See Eichengreen “Unemployment in Interwar Britain.”

I agree that unemployment had been a serious problem in Britain before 1928. But that wasn’t because sufficient gold was lacking in the system. Unemployment was a British problem caused by an overvalued exchange rate; it was not a systemic gold-standard problem.

Before World War I, when the gold standard was largely a sterling standard (just as the postwar gold standard became a dollar standard), the Bank of England had been able to “draw gold from the moon” by raising Bank rate. But the gold that had once been in the moon moved to the US during World War I. What Britain required was a US discount rate low enough to raise the world price level, thereby reducing deflationary pressure on Britain caused by overvaluation of sterling. Instead of keeping the discount rate at 3.5 – 4%, and allowing an outflow of gold, the Fed increased its discount rate, inducing a gold inflow and triggering a worldwide deflationary catastrophe. Between 1929 to 1931, British unemployment nearly doubled because of that catastrophe, not because Britain didn’t have enough gold. The US had plenty of gold and suffered equally from the catastrophe.


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. 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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