Archive for November, 2012

The Road to Serfdom: Good Hayek or Bad Hayek?

A new book by Angus Burgin about the role of F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman and the Mont Pelerin Society (an organization of free-market economists plus some scholars in other disciplines founded by Hayek and later headed by Friedman) in resuscitating free-market capitalism as a political ideal after its nineteenth-century version had been discredited by the twin catastrophes of the Great War and the Great Depression was the subject of an interesting and in many ways insightful review by Robert Solow in the latest New Republic. Despite some unfortunate memory lapses and apologetics concerning his own errors and those of his good friend and colleague Paul Samuelson in their assessments of the of efficiency of central planning, thereby minimizing the analytical contributions of Hayek and Friedman, Solow does a good job of highlighting the complexity and nuances of Hayek’s thought — a complexity often ignored not only by Hayek’s critics but by many of his most vocal admirers — and of contrasting Hayek’s complexity and nuance with Friedman’s rhetorically and strategically compelling, but intellectually dubious, penchant for simplification.

First, let’s get the apologetics out of the way. Tyler Cowen pounced on this comment by Solow:

The MPS [Mont Pelerin Society] was no more influential inside the economics profession. There were no publications to be discussed. The American membership was apparently limited to economists of the Chicago School and its scattered university outposts, plus a few transplanted Europeans. “Some of my best friends” belonged. There was, of course, continuing research and debate among economists on the good and bad properties of competitive and noncompetitive markets, and the capacities and limitations of corrective regulation. But these would have gone on in the same way had the MPS not existed. It has to be remembered that academic economists were never optimistic about central planning. Even discussion about the economics of some conceivable socialism usually took the form of devising institutions and rules of behavior that would make a socialist economy function like a competitive market economy (perhaps more like one than any real-world market economy does). Maybe the main function of the MPS was to maintain the morale of the free-market fellowship.

And one of Tyler’s commenters unearthed this gem from Samuelson’s legendary textbook:

The Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.

Tyler also dug up this nugget from the classic paper by Sameulson and Solow on the Phillips Curve (but see this paper by James Forder for some revisionist history about the Samuelson-Solow paper):

We have not here entered upon the important question of what feasible institutional reforms might be introduced to lessen the degree of disharmony between full employment and price stability. These could of course involve such wide-ranging issues as direct price and wage controls, antiunion and antitrust legislation, and a host of other measures hopefully designed to move the American Phillips’ curves downward and to the left.

But actually, Solow was undoubtedly right that the main function of the MPS was morale-building! Plus networking. Nothing to be sneered at, and nothing to apologize for. The real heavy lifting was done in the 51 weeks of the year when the MPS was not in session.

Anyway, enough score settling, because Solow does show a qualified, but respectful, appreciation for Hayek’s virtues as an economist, scholar, and social philosopher, suggesting that there was a Good Hayek, who struggled to reformulate a version of liberalism that transcended the inadequacies (practical and theoretical) that doomed the laissez-faire liberalism of the nineteenth century, and a Bad Hayek, who engaged in a black versus white polemical struggle with “socialists of all parties.” The trope strikes me as a bit unfair, but Hayek could sometimes be injudicious in his policy pronouncements, or in his off-the-cuff observations and remarks. Despite his natural reserve, Hayek sometimes indulged in polemical exaggeration. The appetite for rhetorical overkill was especially hard for Hayek to resist when the topic of discussion was J. M. Keynes, the object of both Hayek’s admiration and his disdain. Hayek seemingly could not help but caricature Keynes in a way calculated to make him seem both ridiculous and irresistible.  Have a look.

So I would not dispute that Hayek occasionally committed rhetorical excesses when wearing his policy-advocate hat. And there were some other egregious lapses on Hayek’s part like his unqualified support for General Pinochet, reflecting perhaps a Quixotic hope that somewhere there was a benevolent despot waiting to be persuaded to implement Hayek’s ideas for a new liberal political constitution in which the principle of the separation of powers would be extended to separate the law-making powers of the legislative body from the governing powers of the representative assembly.

But Solow exaggerates by characterizing the Road to Serfdom as an example of the Bad Hayek, despite acknowledging that the Road to Serfdom was very far from advocating a return to nineteenth-century laissez-faire. What Solow finds troubling is thesis that

the standard regulatory interventions in the economy have any inherent tendency to snowball into “serfdom.” The correlations often run the other way. Sixty-five years later, Hayek’s implicit prediction is a failure, rather like Marx’s forecast of the coming “immiserization of the working class.”

This is a common interpretation of Hayek’s thesis in the Road to Serfdom.   And it is true that Hayek did intimate that piecemeal social engineering (to borrow a phrase coined by Hayek’s friend Karl Popper) created tendencies, which, if not held in check by strict adherence to liberal principles, could lead to comprehensive central planning. But that argument is a different one from the main argument of the Road to Serfdom that comprehensive central planning could be carried out effectively only by a government exercising unlimited power over individuals. And there is no empirical evidence that refutes Hayek’s main thesis.

A few years ago, in perhaps his last published article, Paul Samuelson wrote a brief historical assessment of Hayek, including personal recollections of their mostly friendly interactions and of one not so pleasant exchange they had in Hayek’s old age, when Hayek wrote to Samuelson demanding that Samuelson retract the statement in his textbook (essentially the same as the one made by Solow) that the empirical evidence, showing little or no correlation between economic and political freedom, refutes the thesis of the Road to Serfdom that intervention leads to totalitarianism. Hayek complained that this charge misrepresented what he had argued in the Road to Serfdom. Observing that Hayek, with whom he had long been acquainted, never previously complained about the passage, Samuelson explained that he tried to placate Hayek with an empty promise to revise the passage, attributing Hayek’s belated objection to the irritability of old age and a bad heart. Whether Samuelson’s evasive response to Hayek was an appropriate one is left as an exercise for the reader.

Defenders of Hayek expressed varying degrees of outrage at the condescending tone taken by Samuelson in his assessment of Hayek. I think that they were overreacting. Samuelson, an academic enfant terrible if there ever was one, may have treated his elders and peers with condescension, but, speaking from experience, I can testify that he treated his inferiors with the utmost courtesy. Samuelson was not dismissing Hayek, he was just being who he was.

The question remains: what was Hayek trying to say in the Road to Serfdom, and in subsequent works? Well, believe it or not, he was trying to say many things, but the main thesis of the Road to Serfdom was clearly what he always said it was: comprehensive central planning is, and always will be, incompatible with individual and political liberty. Samuelson and Solow were not testing Hayek’s main thesis. None of the examples of interventionist governments that they cite, mostly European social democracies, adopted comprehensive central planning, so Hayek’s thesis was not refuted by those counterexamples. Samuelson once acknowledged “considerable validity . . . for the nonnovel part [my emphasis] of Hayek’s warning” in the Road to Serfdom: “controlled socialist societies are rarely efficient and virtually never freely democratic.” Presumably Samuelson assumed that Hayek must have been saying something more than what had previously been said by other liberal economists. After all, if Hayek were saying no more than that liberty and democracy are incompatible with comprehensive central planning, what claim to originality could Hayek have been making? None.

Yep, that’s exactly right; Hayek was not making any claim to originality in the Road to Serfdom. But sometimes old truths have to be restated in a new and more persuasive form than that in which they were originally stated. That was especially the case in the early 1940s when collectivism and planning were widely viewed as the wave of the future, and even so thoroughly conservative and so eminent an economic theorist as Joseph Schumpeter could argue without embarrassment that there was no practical or theoretical reason why socialist central planning could not be implemented. And besides, the argument that every intervention leads to another one until the market system becomes paralyzed was not invented by Hayek either, having been made by Ludwig von Mises some twenty years earlier, and quite possibly by other writers before that.  So even the argument that Samuelson tried to pin on Hayek was not really novel either.

To be sure, Hayek’s warning that central planning would inevitably lead to totalitarianism was not the only warning he made in the Road to Serfdom, but conceptually distinct arguments should not be conflated. Hayek clearly wanted to make the argument that an unprincipled policy of economic interventions was dangerous, because interventions introduce distortions that beget further interventions, producing a cumulative process of ever-more intrusive interventions, thereby smothering market forces and eventually sapping the productive capacity of the free enterprise system. That is an argument about how it is possible to stumble into central planning without really intending to do so.  Hayek clearly believed in that argument, often invoking it in tandem with, or as a supplement to, his main argument about the incompatibility of central planning with liberty and democracy. Despite the undeniable tendency for interventions to create pressure (for both political and economic reasons) to adopt additional interventions, Hayek clearly overestimated the power of that tendency, failing to understand, or at least to take sufficient account of, the countervailing political forces resisting further interventions. So although Hayek was right that no intellectual principle enables one to say “so much intervention and not a drop more,” there could still be a kind of (messy) democratic political equilibrium that effectively limits the extent to which new interventions can be piled on top of old ones. That surely was a significant gap in Hayek’s too narrow, and overly critical, view of how the democratic political process operates.

That said, I think that Solow came close to getting it right in this paragraph:

THE GOOD HAYEK was not happy with the reception of The Road to Serfdom. He had not meant to provide a manifesto for the far right. Careless readers ignored his rejection of unqualified laissez-faire, and the fact that he reserved a useful, limited economic role for government. He had not actually claimed that the descent into serfdom was inevitable. There is no reason to doubt Hayek’s sincerity in this (although the Bad Hayek occasionally made other appearances). Perhaps he would be appalled at the thought of a Congress full of Tea Party Hayekians. But it was his book, after all. The fact that natural allies such as Knight and moderates such as Viner thought that he had overreached suggests that the Bad Hayek really was there in the text.

But not exactly right. Hayek was not totally good. Who is? Hayek made mistakes. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Frank Knight didn’t like the Road to Serfdom. But as Solow, himself, observed earlier in his review, Knight was a curmudgeon, and had previously crossed swords with Hayek over arcane issues of capital theory.  So any inference from Knight’s reaction to the Road to Serfdom must be taken with a large grain of salt. And one might also want to consider what Schumpeter said about Hayek in his review of the Road to Serfdom, criticizing Hayek for “politeness to a fault,” because Hayek would “hardly ever attribute to opponents anything beyond intellectual error.”  Was the Bad Hayek really there in the text? Was it really “not a good book?” The verdict has to be: unproven.

PS  In his review, Solow expressed a wish for a full list of the original attendees at the founding meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society.  Hayek included the list as a footnote to his “Opening Address to a  Conference at Mont Pelerin” published in his Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.  There is a slightly different list of original members in Wikipedia.

Maurice Allais, Paris

Carlo Antoni, Rome

Hans Barth, Zurich

Karl Brandt, Stanford, Calif.

John Davenport, New York

Stanley R. Dennison, Cambridge

Walter Eucken, Freiburg i. B.

Erich Eyck, Oxford

Milton Friedman, Chicago

H. D. Gideonse, Brooklyn

F. D. Graham, Princeton

F. A. Harper, Irvington-on-Hudson, NY

Henry Hazlitt, New York

T. J. B. Hoff, Oslo

Albert Hunold, Zurich

Bertrand de Jouvenal, Chexbres, Vaud

Carl Iversen, Copenhagen

John Jewkes, Manchester

F. H. Knight, Chicgao

Fritz Machlup, Buffalo

L. B. Miller, Detroit

Ludwig von Mises, New York

Felix Morely, Washington, DC

Michael Polanyi, Manchester

Karl R. Popper, London

William E. Rappard, Geneva

L. E. Read, Irvington-on-Hudson, NY

Lionel Robbins, London

Wilhelm Roepke, Geneva

George J. Stigler, Providence, RI

Herbert Tingsten, Stockholm

Fracois Trevoux, Lyon

V. O. Watts, Irvington-on-Hudson, NY

C. V. Wedgewood, London

In addition, Hayek included the names of others invited but unable to attend who joined MPS as original members

Constatino Bresciani-Turroni, Rome

William H. Chamberlin, New York

Rene Courtin, Paris

Max Eastman, New York

Luigi Einaudi, Rome

Howard Ellis, Berkeley, Calif.

A. G. B. Fisher, London

Eli Heckscher, Stockholm

Hans Kohn, Northampton, Mass

Walter Lippmann, New York

Friedrich Lutz, Princeton

Salvador de Madriaga, Oxford

Charles Morgan, London

W. A. Orten, Northampton, Mass.

Arnold Plant, London

Charles Rist, Paris

Michael Roberts, London

Jacques Rueff, Paris

Alexander Rustow, Istanbul

F. Schnabel, Heidelberg

W. J. H. Sprott, Nottingham

Roger Truptil, Paris

D. Villey, Poitiers

E. L. Woodward, Oxford

H. M. Wriston, Providence, RI

G. M. Young, London

It’s the Endogeneity, [Redacted]

A few weeks ago, just when I was trying to sort out my ideas on whether, and, if so, how, the Chinese engage in currency manipulation (here, here, and here), Scott Sumner started another one of his periodic internet dustups (continued here, here, and here) this one about whether the medium of account or the medium of exchange is the essential characteristic of money, and whether monetary disequilibrium is the result of a shock to the medium of account or to the medium exchange? Here’s how Scott put it (here):

Money is also that thing we put in monetary models of the price level and the business cycle.  That . . . raises the question of whether the price level is determined by shocks to the medium of exchange, or shocks to the medium of account.  Once we answer that question, the business cycle problem will also be solved, as we all agree that unanticipated price level shocks can trigger business cycles.

Scott answers the question unequivocally in favor of the medium of account. When we say that money matters, Scott thinks that what we mean is that the medium of account (and only the medium of account) matters. The medium of exchange is just an epiphenomenon (or something of that ilk), because often the medium of exchange just happens to be the medium of account as well. However, Scott maintains, the price level depends on the medium of account, and because the price level (in a world of sticky prices and wages) has real effects on output and employment, it is the medium-of-account characteristic of money that  is analytically crucial.  (I don’t like “sticky price” talk, as I have observed from time to time on this blog. As Scott, himself, might put it: you can’t reason from a price (non-)change, at least not without specifying what it is that is causing prices to be sticky and without explaining what would characterize a non-sticky price. But that’s a topic for a future post, maybe).

And while I am on a digression, let me also say a word or two about the terminology. A medium of account refers to the ultimate standard of value; it could be gold or silver or copper or dollars or pounds. All prices for monetary exchange are quoted in terms of the medium of account. In the US, the standard of value has at various times been silver, gold, and dollars. When the dollar is defined in terms of some commodity (e.g., gold or silver), dollars may or may not be the medium of account, depending on whether the definition is tied to an operational method of implementing the definition. That’s why, under the Bretton Woods system, the nominal definition of the dollar — one-35th of an ounce of gold — was a notional definition with no operational means of implementation, inasmuch as American citizens (with a small number of approved exceptions) were prohibited from owning gold, so that only foreign central banks had a quasi-legal right to convert dollars into gold, but, with the exception of those pesky, gold-obsessed, French, no foreign central bank was brazen enough to actually try to exercise its right to convert dollars into gold, at least not whenever doing so might incur the displeasure of the American government. A unit of account refers to a particular amount of gold that defines a standard, e.g., a dollar or a pound. If the dollar is the ultimate medium of account, then medium of account and the unit of account are identical. But if the dollar is defined in terms of gold, then gold is the medium account while the dollar is a unit of account (i.e., the name assigned to a specific quantity of gold).

Scott provoked the ire of blogging heavyweights Nick Rowe and Bill Woolsey (not to mention some heated comments on his own blog) who insist that the any monetary disturbance must be associated with an excess supply of, or an excess demand for, the medium of exchange. Now the truth is that I am basically in agreement with Scott in all of this, but, as usual, when I agree with Scott (about 97% of the time, at least about monetary theory and policy), there is something that I can find to disagree with him about. This time is no different, so let me explain why I think Scott is pretty much on target, but also where Scott may also have gone off track.

Rather than work through the analysis in terms of a medium of account and a medium of exchange, I prefer to talk about outside money and inside money. Outside money is either a real commodity like gold, also functioning as a medium of exchange and thus combining both the medium-of-exchange and the medium-of-account functions, or it is a fiat money that can only be issued by the state. (For the latter proposition I am relying on the proposition (theorem?) that only the state, but not private creators of money, can impart value to an inconvertible money.) The value of an outside money is determined by the total stock in existence (whether devoted to real or monetary uses) and the total demand (real and monetary) for it. Since, by definition, all prices are quoted in terms of the medium of account and the price of something in terms of itself must be unity, changes in the value of the medium of account must correspond to changes in the money prices of everything else, which are quoted in terms of the medium of account. There may be cases in which the medium of account is abstract so that prices are quoted in terms of the abstract medium of account, but in such cases there is a fixed relationship between the abstract medium of account and the real medium of account. Prices in Great Britain were once quoted in guineas, which originally was an actual coin, but continued to be quoted in guineas even after guineas stopped circulating. But there was a fixed relationship between pounds and guineas: 1 guinea = 1.05 pounds.

I understand Scott to be saying that the price level is determined in the market for the outside money. The outside money can be a real commodity, as it was under a metallic standard like the gold or silver standard, or it can be a fiat money issued by the government, like the dollar when it is not convertible into gold or silver. This is certainly right. Changes in the price level undoubtedly result from changes in the value of outside money, aka the medium of account. When Nick Rowe and Bill Woolsey argue that changes in the price level and other instances of monetary disequilibrium are the result of excess supplies or excess demands for the medium of exchange, they can have in mind only two possible situations. First, that there is an excess monetary demand for, or excess supply of, outside money. But that situation does not distinguish their position from Scott’s, because outside money is both a medium of exchange and a medium of account. The other possible situation is that there is zero excess demand for outside money, but there is an excess demand for, or an excess supply of, inside money.

Let’s unpack what it means to say that there is an excess demand for, or an excess supply of, inside money. By inside money, I mean money that is created by banks or by bank-like financial institutions (money market funds) that can be used to settle debts associated with the purchase and sale of goods, services, and assets. Inside money is created in the process of lending by banks when they create deposits or credit lines that borrowers can spend or hold as desired. And inside money is almost always convertible unit for unit with some outside money.  In modern economies, most of the money actually used in executing transactions is inside money produced by banks and other financial intermediaries. Nick Rowe and Bill Woolsey and many other really smart economists believe that the source of monetary disequilibrium causing changes in the price level and in real output and employment is an excess demand for, or an excess supply of, inside money. Why? Because when people have less money in their bank accounts than they want (i.e., given their income and wealth and other determinants of their demand to hold money), they reduce their spending in an attempt to increase their cash holdings, thereby causing a reduction in both nominal and real incomes until, at the reduced level of nominal income, the total amount of inside money in existence matches the amount of inside money that people want to hold in the aggregate. The mechanism causing this reduction in nominal income presupposes that the fixed amount of inside money in existence is exogenously determined; once created, it stays in existence. Since the amount of inside money can’t change, it is the rest of the economy that has to adjust to whatever quantity of inside money the banks have, in their wisdom (or their folly), decided to create. This result is often described as the hot potato effect. Somebody has to hold the hot potato, but no one wants to, so it gets passed from one person to the next. (Sorry, but the metaphor works in only one direction.)

But not everyone agrees with this view of how the quantity of inside money is determined. There are those (like Scott and me) who believe that the quantity of inside money created by the banks is not some fixed amount that bears no relationship to the demand of the public to hold it, but that the incentives of the banks to create inside money change as the demand of the public to hold inside money changes. In other words, the quantity of inside money is determined endogenously. (I have discussed this mechanism at greater length here, here, here, and here.) This view of how banks create inside money goes back at least to Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations. Almost 70 years later, it was restated in greater detail and with greater rigor by John Fullarton in his 1844 book On the Regulation of Currencies, in which he propounded his Law of Reflux. Over 100 years after Fullarton, the Smith-Fullarton view was brilliantly rediscovered, and further refined, by James Tobin, apparently under the misapprehension that he was propounding a “New View,” in his wonderful 1962 essay “Commercial Banks as Creators of Money.”

According to the “New View,” if there is an excess demand for, or excess supply of, money, there is a market mechanism by which the banks are induced to bring the amount of inside money that they have created into closer correspondence with the amount of money that the public wants to hold. If banks change the amount of inside money that they create when the amount of inside money demanded by the public doesn’t match the amount in existence, then nominal income doesn’t have to change at all (or at least not as much as it otherwise would have) to eliminate the excess demand for, or the excess supply of, inside money. So when Scott says that the medium of exchange is not important for changes in prices or for business cycles, what I think he means is that the endogeneity of inside money makes it unnecessary for an economy to undergo a significant change in nominal income to restore monetary equilibrium.

There’s just one problem: Scott offers another, possibly different, explanation than the one that I have just given. Scott says that we rarely observe an excess demand for, or an excess supply of, the medium of exchange. Now the reason that we rarely observe that an excess demand for, or an excess supply of, the medium of exchange could be because of the endogeneity of the supply of inside money, in which case, I have no problem with what Scott is saying. However, to support his position that we rarely observe an excess demand for the medium of exchange, he says that anyone can go to an ATM machine and draw out more cash. But that argument is irrelevant for two reasons. First, because what we are (or should be) talking about is an excess demand for inside money (i.e., bank deposits) not an excess demand for currency (i.e., outside money). And second, the demand for money is funny, because, as a medium of exchange, money is always circulating, so that it is relatively easy for most people to accumulate or decumulate cash, either currency or deposits, over a short period. But when we talk about the demand for money what we usually mean is not the amount of money in our bank account or in our wallet at a particular moment, but the average amount that we want to hold over a non-trivial period of time. Just because we almost never observe a situation in which people are literally unable to find cash does not mean that people are always on their long-run money demand curves.

So whether Nick Rowe and Bill Woolsey are right that inflation and recession are caused by a monetary disequilibrium involving an excess demand for, or an excess supply of, the medium of exchange, or whether Scott Sumner is right that monetary disequilibrium is caused by an excess demand for, or an excess supply of, the medium of account depends on whether the supply of inside money is endogenous or exogenous. There are certain monetary regimes in which various regulations, such as restrictions on the payment of interest on deposits, may gum up the mechanism (the adjustment of interest rates on deposits) by which market forces determine the quantity of inside money thereby making the supply of inside money exogenous over fairly long periods of time. That was what the US monetary system was like after the Great Depression until the 1980s when those regulations lost effectiveness because of financial innovations designed to circumvent the regulations.  As a result the regulations were largely lifted, though the deregulatory process introduced a whole host of perverse incentives that helped get us into deep trouble further down the road. The monetary regime from about 1935 to 1980 was the kind of system in which the correct way to think about money is the way Nick Rowe and Bill Woolsey do, a world of exogenous money.  But, one way or another, for better or for worse, that world is gone.  Endogeneity of the supply of inside money is here to stay.  Better get used to it.

Negotiating the Fiscal Cliff

Last week I did a post based on a chart that I saw in an article in the New York Review of Books by Paul Krugman. Relying on an earlier paper by Robert Hall on the empirical evidence about the effectiveness of fiscal stimulus, Krugman used the chart to illustrate the efficacy of government spending as a stimulus to economic recovery. While Krugman evidently thought his chart was a pretty compelling visual aid in showing that fiscal stimulus really works, I didn’t find his chart that impressive, because there were relatively few years in which changes in government spending were clearly associated with large changes in growth, and a lot of years with large changes in growth, but little or no change in government spending.

In particular, the years in which government spending seemed to make a big difference were during and immediately after World War II. The 1930s, however, were associated with huge swings in GDP, but with comparatively minimal changes in government spending. Instead, changes in GDP in the 1930s were associated with big changes in the price level. The big increases in GDP in the early 1940s were also associated with big increases in the price level, the rapid rise in the price level slowing down only in 1943 after price controls were imposed in 1942. When controls were gradually lifted in 1946 and 1947, inflation increased sharply notwithstanding a sharp economic contraction, creating a spurious (in my view) negative correlation between (measured) inflation and the change in GDP. From 1943 to mid-1945, properly measured inflation was increasing much faster than official indices that made no adjustment for the shortages and quality degradation caused by the price controls. Similarly, the measured inflation from late 1945 through 1947, when price controls were being gradually relaxed and dismantled, overstated actual inflation, because increases in official prices were associated with the elimination of shortages and improving quality.

So in my previous post, I tried to do a quantitative analysis of the data underlying Krugman’s chart. Unfortunately, I only came up with a very rough approximation of his data. Using my rough approximation (constructing a chart resembling, but clearly different from, Krugman’s), I ran a regression estimating the statistical relationship between yearly changes in military spending (Krugman’s statistical instrument for fiscal stimulus) as a percentage of GDP and yearly changes in real GDP from 1929 to 1962. I then compared that statistical relationship to the one between annual changes in the price level and annual changes in real GDP over the same time period. After controlling for the mismeasurement of inflation in 1946 and 1947, I found that changes in the rate of inflation were more closely correlated to changes in real GDP over the 1929-1962 time period than were changes in military spending and changes in real GDP. Unfortunately, I also claimed (mistakenly)  that that regressing changes in real GDP on both changes in military spending and inflation (again controlling for mismeasurement of inflation in 1946-47) did not improve the statistical fit of the regression, and did not show a statistically significant coefficient for the military-spending term. That claim was based on looking at the wrong regression estimates.  Sorry, I blew that one.

Over the weekend, Mark Sadowski kindly explained to me how Krugman did the calculations underlying his chart, even generating the data for me, thereby allowing me to reconstruct Krugman’s chart and to redo my earlier regressions using the exact data. Here are the old and the new results.

OLD: dGDP = 3.60 + .70dG, r-squared = .295

NEW: dGDP = 3.26 + .51dG, r-squared = .433

So, according to the correct data set, the relationship between changes in government spending and changes in GDP is closer than the approximated data set that I used previously. However, the newly estimated coefficient on the government spending term is almost 30% smaller than the coefficient previously estimated using the approximated data set. In other words a one dollar increase in government spending generates an increase in GDP of only 50 cents. Increasing government spending reduces private spending by about half.

The estimated regression for changes in real GDP on inflation changed only slightly:

OLD: dGDP = 2.48 + .69dP, r-squared = .199

NEW: dGDP = 2.46 + .70dP, r-squared = .193

The estimated regression for changes in real GDP on inflation (controlled for mismeasurement of inflation in 1946 and 1947) also showed only a slight change:

OLD: dGDP = 2.76 + 1.28dP – 23.29PCON, r-squared = .621

NEW: dGDP = 3.02 + 1.25dP – 23.13PCON, r-squared = .613

Here are my old and new regressions for changes in real GDP on government spending as well as on inflation (controlled for mismeasurement of inflation in 1946-47). As you can see, the statistical fit of the regression improves by including both inflation and the change in government spending as variables (the adjusted r-squared is .648) and the coefficient on the government-spending term is positive and significant (t = 2.37). When I re-estimated the regression on Krugman’s data set, the statistical fit improved, and the coefficient on the government-spending variable remained positive and statistically significant (t = 3.45), but was about a third smaller than the coefficient estimated from the approximated data set.

OLD: dGDP = 2.27 + .49dG + 1.15dP – 13.36PCON, r-squared = .681

NEW: dGDP = 2.56 + .33dG + 1.00dP – 13.14PCON, r-squared = .728

So even if we allow for the effect of inflation on changes in output, and contrary to what I suggested in my previous post, changes in government spending were indeed positively and significantly correlated with changes in real GDP, implying that government spending may have some stimulative effect even apart from the effect of monetary policy on inflation. Moreover, insofar as government spending affects inflation, attributing price-level changes exclusively to monetary policy may underestimate the stimulative effect of government spending. However, if one wants to administer stimulus to the private sector rather than increase the size of the public sector at the expense of the private sector (the implication of a coefficient less than one on the government-spending term in the regression), there is reason to prefer monetary policy as a method of providing stimulus.

The above, aside from the acknowledment of Mark Sadowski’s assistance and the mea culpa for negligence in reporting my earlier results, is all by way of introduction to a comment on a recent post by my internet buddy Lars Christensen on his Market Moneterist blog in which he welcomes the looming fiscal cliff. Here’s how Lars puts it:

The point is that the US government is running clearly excessive public deficits and the public debt has grown far too large so isn’t fiscal tightening exactly what you need? I think it and the fiscal cliff ensures that. Yes, I agree tax hikes are unfortunate from a supply side perspective, but cool down a bit – it is going to have only a marginally negative impact on long-term US growth perspective that the Bush tax cuts experiences. But more importantly the fiscal cliff would mean cuts in US defense spending. The US is spending more on military hardware than any other country in the world. It seems to me like US policy makers have not realized that the Cold War is over. You don’t need to spend 5% of GDP on bombs. In fact I believe that if the entire 4-5% fiscal consolidation was done as cuts to US defence spending the world would probably be a better place. But that is not my choice – and it is the peace loving libertarian rather than the economist speaking (here is a humorous take on the sad story of war). What I am saying is that the world is not coming to an end if the US defense budget is cut marginally. Paradoxically the US conservatives this time around are against budget consolidation. Sad, but true.

I am not going to take the bait and argue with Lars about the size of the US defense budget. The only issue that I want to consider is what would happen as a result of the combination of a large cut in defense (and in other categories of) spending and an increase in taxes? It might not be catastrophic, but there seems to me to be a non-negligible risk that such an outcome would have a significant contractionary effect on aggregate demand at a time when the recovery is still anemic and requires as much stimulus as it can get. Lars argues that any contractionary effect caused by reduced government spending and increased taxes could be offset by sufficient monetary easing. I agree in theory, but in practice there are just too many uncertainties associated with how massive fiscal tightening would be received by public and private decision makers to rely on the theoretical ability of monetary policy in one direction to counteract fiscal policy in the opposite direction. This would be the case even if we knew that Bernanke and the FOMC would do the right thing. But, despite encouraging statements by Bernanke and other Fed officials since September, it seems more than a bit risky at this time and this place to just assume that the Fed will become the stimulator of last resort.

So, Lars, my advice to you is: be careful what you wish for.

PS Noah Smith has an excellent post about inflation today.

Paul Krugman on Fiscal Stimulus 1929-1962

UPDATE:  See my correction of an error in the penultimate paragraph.

Last week I read an article Paul Krugman published several months ago for the New York Review of Books just before his book End This Depression Now came out. The article was aimed not aimed at an audience of professional economists, and consisted of arguments that Krugman has been making regularly since the onset of the crisis just over four years ago. However, the following passage towards the end of the article caught my eye.

[S]ince the crisis began there has been a boom in research into the effects of fiscal policy on output and employment. This body of research is growing fast, and much of it is too technical to be summarized in this article. But here are a few highlights.

First, Stanford’s Robert Hall has looked at the effects of large changes in US government purchases—which is all about wars, specifically World War II and the Korean War. Figure 2 on this page [see below] compares changes in US military spending with changes in real GDP—both measured as a percentage of the preceding year’s GDP—over the period from 1929 to 1962 (there’s not much action after that). Each dot represents one year; I’ve labeled the points corresponding to the big buildup during World War II and the big demobilization just afterward. Obviously, there were big moves in years when nothing much was happening to military spending, notably the slump from 1929 to 1933 and the recovery from 1933 to 1936. But every year in which there was a big spending increase was also a year of strong growth, and the reduction in military spending after World War II was a year of sharp output decline.

Krugman did not explain his chart in detail, so I consulted the study by Robert Hall cited by Krugman. Hall’s insight was to focus not on government spending, just military spending, because other components of government spending are themselves influenced by the state of the economy, making it difficult to disentangle the effects of spending on the economy from the effects of the economy on spending. However, military spending is largely driven, especially in wartime (World War II and Korea), by factors unrelated to how the economy is performing. This makes military spending an appropriate instrument by which to identify and estimate the effect of government spending on the economy.

The problem with Krugman’s discussion is that, although using military expenditures allowed him to avoid the identification problem associated with the interdependency of government spending and the level of economic activity, he left out any mention of the behavior of the price level, which, many of us (and perhaps even Krugman himself) believe, powerfully affects the overall level of economic activity. Krugman artfully avoids any discussion of this relationship with the seemingly innocent observation “there were big moves in years when nothing much was happening to military spending, notably the slump from 1929 to 1933 and the recovery from 1933 to 1936.” But even this implicit acknowledgment of the importance of the behavior of the price level overlooks the fact that the huge wartime increase in military spending took place against the backdrop of rapid inflation, so that attributing economic expansion during World War II solely to the increase in government spending does not seem to warranted, because at least some of the increase in output would have been been forthcoming, even without increased military spending, owing to the rise in the price level.

It is not hard to compare the effects of inflation and the effects of military spending on economic growth over the time period considered by Krugman. One can simply take annual inflation each year from 1930 to 1962 and plot the yearly rates of inflation and economic growth that Krugman plotted on his figure. Here is my version of Krugman’s chart substituting inflation for the change in military spending as a percentage of GDP.

It is difficult visually to compare the diagrams to see which one provides the more informative account of the fluctuations in economic growth over the 33 years in the sample. But it is not hard to identify the key difference between the two diagrams. In Krugman’s diagram, the variation in military spending provides no information about the variation in economic growth during the 1930s. There are is a cluster of points up and down the vertical axis corresponding to big positive and negative fluctuations in GDP with minimal changes in military spending. But large changes in GDP during the 1940s do correspond to changes in the same direction in military spending. Similarly, during the Korean War in the early 1950s, there was a positive correlation between changes in military spending. From the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, annual changes in GDP and in military spending were relatively small.

In my diagram plotting annual rates of inflation against annual changes in GDP, the large annual changes in GDP are closely related to positive or negative changes in the price level. In that respect, my diagram provides a more informative representation of the data than does Krugman’s. Even in World War II, the points representing the war years 1942 to 1945 are not far from a trend line drawn through the scatter of points. Where the diagram runs into serious trouble is that two points are way, way off to one side. Those are the years 1946 and 1947.

What was going on in those years? GDP was contracting, especially in 1946, and prices were rising rapidly, exactly contrary to the usual presumption that rising prices tend to generate increases in output. What was going on? It all goes back to 1942, when FDR imposed wartime price controls. This was partly a way of preventing suppliers from raising prices to the government, and also a general anti-inflation measure. However, the result was that there were widespread shortages, with rationing of a wide range of goods and services.  The officially measured rate of inflation from 1942 to 1945 was therefore clearly understated. In 1946 and 1947, controls were gradually relaxed and finally eliminated, with measured inflation rates actually increasing even though the economy was contracting.  Measured inflation in 1946 and 1947 therefore overstated actual inflation by an amount corresponding (more or less) to the cumulative understatement of inflation from 1942 to 1945. That the dots representing 1946 and 1947 are outliers is not because the hypothesized causal relationship between inflation and GDP was inoperative or reversed, but because of a mistaken measurement of what inflation actually was.

To get a better handle on the relative explanatory power of the government-spending and the inflation hypotheses in accounting for fluctuations in GDP than visual inspection of the data allows, one has to work with the underlying data. Unfortunately, when I tried to measure changes in military spending from 1929 to 1962, I could not reproduce the data underlying Krugman’s chart. That was not Krugman’s fault; I don’t doubt that he accurately calculated the relevant data from the appropriate sources. But when I searched for data on military spending since 1929, the only source that I found was this. So that is what I used. I assume that Krugman was using a different source from the one that I used, and he may also have defined his government spending variable in a different way from how I did. At any rate, when I did the calculation, I generated a chart that looked like the one below. It is generally similar to Krugman’s, but obviously not the same. If someone can explain why I did not come up with the same numbers for changes in government spending that Krugman did, I would be very much obliged and will redo my calculations. However, in the meantime, I am going to assume that my numbers are close enough to Krugman’s, so that my results would not be reversed if I used his numbers instead.

Taking my version of Krugman’s data, I ran a simple regression of the annual change in real GDP (dGDP) on the annual change in government (i.e., military spending) as a percentage of GDP (dG) from 1930 to 1962 (the data start in 1929, but the changes don’t start till 1930). The regression equation that I estimated was the following:

dGDP = 3.60 + .70dG, r-squared = .295.

This equation says that the percent increase in real GDP in any year is 3.6% plus seven-tenths of the percentage increase in government (i.e., military) spending for that year.

I then ran a corresponding regression of the annual change in real GDP on the annual change in the price level (dP, derived from my estimate of the GDP price deflator). The estimated regression was the following:

dGDP = 2.48 + .69dP, r-squared = .199.

The equation says that the percent increase in real GDP in any year is 2.48% plus .69 times that year’s rate of inflation.

Because the r-squared of the first equation is about 50% higher than that of the second, there would be good reason to prefer the first equation over the second were it not for the measurement problem that I mentioned above. I tried a number of ways of accounting for that measurement problem, but the simplest adjustment was simply to add two dummy variables, one for price controls during World War II and one for the lifting of price controls in 1946 and 1947. When I introduced both dummy variables into the equation, it turned out that the dummy variable for price controls during World War II was statistically insignificant, inasmuch as there was some measured inflation even during the World War II price controls. It was only the dummy variable controlling for the (mis)measured inflation associated with the lifting of price controls that was statistically significant. Here is the estimated regression:

dGDP = 2.76 + 1.28dP – 23.29PCON, r-squared = .621

I also tried attributing the inflation measured in 1946 and 1947 to the years 1942 to 1945, giving each of those years an inflation rate of about 9.7% and attributing zero inflation to the years 1946 and 1947. The regression equation that I estimated using that approach did not perform as well, based on a comparison of adjusted r-squares, as the simple equation with a single dummy variable. I also estimated equations using both the government spending variable and the inflation variable, and the two price-control dummies. That specification, despite two extra variables, had an r-squared less than the r-squared of the above equation. [Update 11/20/2012:  This was my mistake, because the best results were obtained using only a dummy variable for 1946 and 1947.  When the government spending and the inflation variables were estimated with a dummy for 1946-1947, the coefficients on both variables were positive and significant.]  So my tentative conclusion is that the best way to summarize the observed data pattern for the fluctuations of real GDP between 1929 and 1962 is with an equation with only an inflation variable and an added dummy variable accounting for the mismeasurement of inflation in 1946 and 1947.

Nevertheless, I would caution against reading too much into these results, even on the assumption that the provisional nature of the data that I have used has not introduced any distortions and that there are no other errors in my results. (Anyone who wants to check my results is welcome to email me at, and I will send you the (Stata) data files that I have used.) Nor do I claim that government spending has no effect on real GDP. I am simply suggesting that for the time period between 1929 and 1962 in the US, there does not seem to be strong evidence that government spending significantly affected real GDP, once account is taken of the effects of changes in the price level. With only 33 observations, the effect of government spending, though theoretically present, may not be statistically detectable, at least not using a simple linear regression model. One might also argue that wartime increases in government spending contributed to the wartime inflation, so that the effect of government spending is masked by including a price-level variable. Be that as it may, Krugman’s (and Hall’s) argument that government spending was clearly effective in increasing real GDP in World War II and Korea, and would, therefore, be likely to be effective under other circumstances, is not as self-evidently true as Krugman makes it out to be. I don’t say that it is incorrect, but the evidence seems to be, at best, ambiguous.

Currency Manipulation: Is It Just About Saving?

After my first discussion of currency manipulation, Scott Sumner responded with some very insightful comments of his own in which he pointed out that the current account surplus (an inflow of cash) corresponds to the difference between domestic savings and domestic investment. Scott makes the point succinctly:

There are two views of current account surpluses.  One is that they reflect “undervalued” currencies.  Another is that they reflect saving/investment imbalances.  Thus the CA surplus is the capital account deficit, which is (by definition) domestic saving minus domestic investment.

The difference is that when an undervalued currency leads to a current account surplus, the surplus itself tends to be self-correcting, because, under fixed exchange rates, the current account surplus leads (unless sterilized) to an increase of the domestic money stock, thereby raising domestic prices, with the process continuing until the currency ceases to be undervalued. A current account surplus caused by an imbalance between domestic saving and domestic investment is potentially more long-lasting, inasmuch as it depends on the relationship between the saving propensities of the community and the investment opportunities available to the community, a relationship that will not necessarily be altered as a consequence of the current account surplus.

From this observation, Scott infers that it is not really monetary policy, but a high savings rate, that causes an undervalued currency.

Actual Chinese exchange rate manipulation usually involves three factors:

1.  More Chinese government saving.

2.  The saving is done by the central bank.

3.  The central bank keeps the nominal exchange rate pegged.

But only the first is important.  If the Chinese government saves a huge percentage of GDP, and total Chinese saving rises above total Chinese investment, then by definition China has a CA surplus.  And this surplus would occur even if the exchange rate were floating, and if the purchases were done by the Chinese Treasury, not its central bank. That’s why you often see huge CA surpluses in countries that don’t have pegged exchange rates (Switzerland (prior to the recent peg), Singapore, Norway, etc).  They have government policies which involve either enormous government saving (Singapore and Norway) or policies that encourage private saving (Switzerland.)  It should also be noted that government saving does not automatically produce a CA surplus. Australia is a notable counterexample.  The Aussie government does some saving, but the private sector engages in massive borrowing from the rest of the world, so they still end up with a large CA deficit.

I think that Scott is largely correct, but he does overlook some important aspects of Chinese policy that distinguish it from other countries with high savings rates. First, Scott already observed that it is not savings alone that determines the current account surplus; it is the difference between domestic savings and domestic investment. China has a very high savings rate, but why is China’s domestic saving being channeled into holdings of American treasury notes yielding minimal nominal interest and negative real interest rather than domestic investment projects? While the other high-savings countries mentioned by Scott, are small wealthy countries with limited domestic investment opportunities, China is a vast poor and underdeveloped country with very extensive domestic investment opportunities. So one has to wonder why more Chinese domestic savings is not being channeled directly into financing Chinese investment opportunities.

In my follow-up post to the one Scott was commenting on, I pointed out the role of high Chinese reserve requirements on domestic bank deposits in sterilizing foreign cash inflows. As China develops and its economy expands, with income and output increasing at rates of 10% a year or more, the volume of market transactions is probably increasing even more rapidly than income, implying a very rapid increase in the demand to hold cash and deposits. By imposing high reserve requirements on deposits and choosing to let its holdings of domestic assets grow at a much slower rate than the expansion of its liabilities (the monetary base), the Chinese central bank has prevented the Chinese public from satisfying their growing demand for money except through an export surplus with which to obtain foreign assets that can be exchanged with the Chinese central bank for the desired additions to their holdings of deposits.

Now It is true, as Scott points out, that an export surplus could be achieved by other means, and all of the alternatives would ultimately involve increasing domestic saving above domestic investment. But that does not mean that there is nothing distinctive about the use of monetary policy as the instrument by which the export surplus and the excess of domestic saving over domestic investment (corresponding to the increase in desired holdings of the monetary base) is achieved. The point is that China is using monetary policy to pursue a protectionist policy favoring its tradable goods industries and disadvantaging the tradable goods industries of other countries including the US. It is true that a similar result would follow from an alternative set of policies that increased the Chinese savings relative to Chinese domestic investment, but it is not obvious that other policies aimed at increasing Chinese savings would not tend to increase Chinese domestic investment, leaving the overall effect on the Chinese tradable goods sector in doubt.

So it seems clear to me that Chinese monetary policy is protectionist, but Scott questions whether the US should care about that.

In the end none of this should matter, as the job situation in the US is determined by two factors:

1.  US supply-side policies

2.  US NGDP growth (i.e. monetary policy.)

After all, in a strict welfare sense, it would seem that China is doing us a favor by selling their products to us cheaply. Why should we complain about that? US employment depends on US nominal GDP, and with an independent monetary authority, the US can control nominal GDP and employment.

But it seems to me that this sort of analysis may be a bit too Ricardian, in the sense that it focuses mainly on long-run equilibrium tendencies. In fact there are transitional effects on US tradable goods industries and the factors of production specific to those industries. When those industries become unprofitable because of Chinese competition, the redundant factors of production bear heavy personal and economic costs. Second, if China uses protectionism to compete by keeping its real wages low, then low Chinese wages may tend to amplify downward pressure on real wages in the US compared to a non-protectionist Chinese policy. If so, Chinese protectionism may be exacerbating income inequality in the US. Theoretically, I think that the effects could go either way, but I don’t think that the concerns can be dismissed so easily. If countries have agreed not to follow protectionist policies, it seems to me that they should not be able to avoid blame for policies that are protectionist simply by saying that the same or similar effects would have been achieved by a sufficiently large excess of domestic savings over domestic investment.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady Needs to Take a Deep Breath

Obviously upset at Tuesday’s election results, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, takes out her frustration on Ben Bernanke, accusing Mr. Bernanke of buying the election for Mr. Obama. I mean who needs Sheldon Adelson when you’ve got the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board out there working for you day and night?

Which brings us to whom Mr. Obama, if he is going to be honest, ought to thank for his victory. It is the man behind the curtain at the Federal Reserve in Washington. By pulling the monetary levers driving credit—fast and furiously and out of the view of most Americans—Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke artificially juiced asset prices and the housing market just in time for Election Day.

If you doubt that, consider this: The total return on the S&P 500 from the beginning of this election year until yesterday was almost 13.9%. The Dow Jones Industrial Average returned almost 9.2%. That means that as millions of Americans have opened their monthly 401 (K) statement this year, they have been under the impression that the losses they suffered after the 2008 financial crisis are being recovered. There has also been a recovery in a number of housing markets around the country.

Now lest you think that rising stock prices and a bottoming out of housing prices show that Mr. Bernanke is ably discharging his responsibilities as Fed Chairman, Mrs. O’Grady proceeds to explain why you are being taken for a sucker by a con artist.

That cheap credit and the search for yield is driving what is likely to become another bubble may not be appreciated by these investors. Instead, it is not unreasonable to suggest that some significant number, having had their portfolios injected with Mr. Bernanke’s feel-good monetary stimulus, decided that Mr. Obama is in fact making them better off.

But are near-zero interest rates and the central bank financing of the U.S. government, through quantitative easing, sustainable policies? To put it another way, can the Fed print our way out of economic and fiscal troubles? If that were possible, Argentina would be a rich country. Instead it is poor and its political system is dominated by leftwing populist demagogues.

Mrs. O’Grady has a point. A country cannot permanently increase its output beyond what its available resources are capable of producing. A poor country cannot become rich by inflating its currency. The problem in the US is not that we lack resources, but that we are not utilizing the resources that are available. There are millions of people not working, something that Mrs. O’Grady’s preferred candidate for President spent a fair amount of time repeating for more than a year. The question is not whether monetary policy can create resources that don’t exist, but whether monetary policy can help get idle resources back to work. Perhaps monetary policy can’t do that.  After all, there are some smart people who don’t think it can.  But we do have a lot of evidence that bad monetary policy does cause high unemployment, as in the Great Depression. And some of us are old enough to remember when, during the Reagan administration, the Wall Street Journal editorial page was continually berating Paul Volcker for holding back a recovery by keeping monetary policy too tight and interest rates too high. The evidence shows that in deep depressions currency devaluation and inflation can work wonders, as FDR proved in 1933. It even worked for Argentina after its financial crisis in 2001. The disastrous policies of the past several years don’t mean that monetary expansion was not instrumental for Argentina’s recovery from the earlier crisis.

More on Currency Manipulation

My previous post on currency manipulation elicited some excellent comments and responses, helping me, I hope, to gain a better understanding of the subject than I started with. What seemed to me the most important point to emerge from the comments was that the Chinese central bank (PBC) imposes high reserve requirements on banks creating deposits. Thus, the creation of deposits by the Chinese banking system implies a derived demand for reserves that must be held with the PBC either to satisfy the legal reserve requirement or to satisfy the banks’ own liquidity demand for reserves. Focusing directly on the derived demand of the banking system to hold reserves is a better way to think about whether the Chinese are engaging in currency manipulation and sterilization than the simple framework of my previous post. Let me try to explain why.

In my previous post, I argued that currency manipulation is tantamount to the sterilization of foreign cash inflows triggered by the export surplus associated with an undervalued currency. Thanks to an undervalued yuan, Chinese exporters enjoy a competitive advantage in international markets, the resulting export surplus inducing an inflow of foreign cash to finance that surplus. But neither that surplus, nor the undervaluation of the yuan that underlies it, is sustainable unless the inflow of foreign cash is sterilized. Otherwise, the cash inflow, causing a corresponding increase in the Chinese money supply, would raise the Chinese price level until the competitive advantage of Chinese exporters was eroded. Sterilization, usually conceived of as open-market sales of domestic assets held by the central bank, counteracts the automatic increase in the domestic money supply and in the domestic price level caused by the exchange of domestic for foreign currency. But this argument implies (or, at least, so I argued) that sterilization is not occurring unless the central bank is running down its holdings of domestic assets to offset the increase in its holdings of foreign exchange. So I suggested that, unless the Chinese central holdings of domestic assets had been falling, it appeared that the PBC was not actually engaging in sterilization. Looking at balance sheets of the PBC since 1999, I found that 2009 was the only year in which the holdings of domestic assets by the PBC actually declined. So I tentatively concluded that there seemed to be no evidence that, despite its prodigious accumulation of foreign exchange reserves, the PBC had been sterilizing inflows of foreign cash triggered by persistent Chinese export surpluses.

Somehow this did not seem right, and I now think that I understand why not. The answer is that reserve requirements imposed by the PBC increase the demand for reserves by the Chinese banking system. (See here.) The Chinese reserve requirements on the largest banks were until recently as high as 21.5% of deposits (apparently the percentage is the same for both time deposits and demand deposits). The required reserve ratio is the highest in the world. Thus, if Chinese banks create 1 million yuan in deposits, they are required to hold approximately 200,000 yuan in reserves at the PBC. That 200,000 increase in reserves must come from somewhere. If the PBC does not create those reserves from domestic credit, the only way that they can be obtained by the banks (in the aggregate) is by obtaining foreign exchange with which to satisfy their requirement. So given a 20% reserve requirement, unless the PBC undertakes net purchases of domestic assets equal to at least 200,000 yuan, it is effectively sterilizing the inflows of foreign exchange. So in my previous post, using the wrong criterion for determining whether sterilization was taking place, I had it backwards. The criterion for whether sterilization has occurred is whether bank reserves have increased over time by a significantly greater percentage than the increase in the domestic asset holdings of the PBC, not, as I had thought, whether those holdings of the PBC have declined.

In fact it is even more complicated than that, because the required-reserve ratio has fluctuated over time, the required-reserve ratio having roughly tripled between 2001 and 2010, so that the domestic asset holdings of the PBC would have had to increase more than proportionately to the increase in reserves to avoid effective sterilization. Given that the reserves held by banking system with the PBC at the end of 2010 were almost 8 times as large as they had been at the end of 2001, while the required reserve ratio over the period roughly tripled, the domestic asset holdings of the PBC should have increased more than twice as fast as bank reserves over the same period, an increase of, say, 20-fold, if not more. In the event, the domestic asset holdings of the PBC at the end of 2010 were just 2.2 times greater than they were at the end of 2001, so the inference of effective sterilization seems all but inescapable.

Why does the existence of reserve requirements mean that, unless the domestic asset holdings of the central bank increase at least as fast as reserves, sterilization is taking place? The answer is that the existence of a reserve requirement means that an increase in deposits implies a roughly equal percentage increase in reserves. If the additional reserves are not forthcoming from domestic sources, the domestic asset holdings of the central bank not having increased as fast as did required reserves, the needed reserves can be obtained from abroad only by way of an export surplus. Thus, an increase in the demand of the public to hold deposits cannot be accommodated unless the required reserves can be obtained from some source. If the central bank does not make the reserves available by purchasing domestic assets, then the only other mechanism by which the increased demand for deposits can be accommodated is through an export surplus, the surplus being achieved by restricting domestic spending, thereby increasing exports and reducing imports. The economic consequences of the central bank not purchasing domestic assets when required reserves increase are the same as if the central bank sold some of its holdings of domestic assets when required reserves were unchanged.

The more general point is that one cannot assume that the inflow of foreign exchange corresponding to an export surplus is determined solely by the magnitude of domestic currency undervaluation. It is also a function of monetary policy. The tighter is monetary policy, the larger the export surplus, the export surplus serving as the mechanism by which the public increases their holdings of cash. Unfortunately, most discussions treat the export surplus as if it were determined solely by the exchange rate, making it seem as if an easier monetary policy would have little or no effect on the export surplus.

The point is similar to one I made almost a year ago when I criticized F. A. Hayek’s 1932 defense of the monetary policy of the insane Bank of France. Hayek acknowledged that the gold holdings of the Bank of France had increased by a huge amount in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but, nevertheless, absolved the Bank of France of any blame for the Great Depression, because the quantity of money in France had increased by as much as the increase in gold reserves of the Bank of France.  To Hayek this meant that the Bank of France had done “all that was necessary for the gold standard to function.” This was a complete misunderstanding on Hayek’s part of how the gold standard operated, because what the Bank of France had done was to block every mechanism for increasing the quantity of money in France except the importation of gold. If the Bank of France had not embarked on its insane policy of gold accumulation, the quantity of money in France would have been more or less the same as it turned out to be, but France would have imported less gold, alleviating the upward pressure being applied to the real value of gold, or stated equivalently alleviating the downward pressure on the prices of everything else, a pressure largely caused by insane French policy of gold accumulation.

The consequences of the Chinese sterilization policy for the world economy are not nearly as disastrous as those of the French gold accumulation from 1928 to 1932, because the Chinese policy does not thereby impose deflation on any other country. The effects of Chinese sterilization and currency manipulation are more complex than those of French gold accumulation. I’ll try to at least make a start on analyzing those effects in an upcoming post addressing the comments of Scott Sumner on my previous post.

On the Manipulation of Currencies

Mitt Romney is promising to declare China a currency manipulator on “day one” of his new administration. Why? Ostensibly, because Mr. Romney, like so many others, believes that the Chinese are somehow interfering with the foreign-exchange markets and holding the exchange rate of their currency (confusingly called both the yuan and the remnibi) below its “true” value. But the other day, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, a member of the editorial board of the avidly pro-Romeny Wall Street Journal, wrote an op-ed piece (“Ben Bernanke: Currency Manipulator” ) charging that Bernanke is no less a currency manipulator than those nasty Chinese Communists. Why? Well, that was not exactly clear, but it seemed to have something to do with the fact that Mr. Bernanke, seeking to increase the pace of our current anemic recovery, is conducting a policy of monetary expansion to speed the recovery.

So, is what Mr. Bernanke is doing (or supposed to be doing) really the same as what the Chinese are doing (or supposed to be doing)?

Well, obviously it is not. What the Chinese are accused of doing is manipulating the yuan’s exchange rate by, somehow, intervening in the foreign-exchange market to prevent the yuan from rising to its “equilibrium” value against the dollar. The allegation against Mr. Bernanke is that he is causing the exchange rate of the dollar to fall against other currencies by increasing the quantity of dollars in circulation. But given the number of dollars in circulation, the foreign-exchange market is establishing a price that reflects the “equilibrium” value of dollars against any other currency. Mr. Bernanke is not setting the value of the dollar in foreign-exchange markets, as the Chinese are accused of doing to the dollar/yuan exchange rate. Even if he wanted to control the exchange value of the dollar, it is not directly within Mr. Bernanke’s power to control the value that participants in the foreign-exchange markets attach to the dollar relative to other currencies.

But perhaps this is too narrow a view of what Mr. Bernanke is up to. If the Chinese government wants the yuan to have a certain exchange value against the dollar and other currencies, all it has to do is to create (or withdraw) enough yuan to ensure that the value of yuan on the foreign-exchange markets falls (or rises) to its target. In the limit, the Chinese government could peg its exchange rate against the dollar (or against any other currency or any basket of currencies) by offering to buy and sell dollars (or any other currency or any basket of currencies) in unlimited quantities at the pegged rate with the yuan. Does that qualify as currency manipulation? For a very long time, pegged or fixed exchange rates in which countries maintained fixed exchange rates against all other currencies was the rule, not the exception, except that the pegged rate was most often a fixed price for gold or silver rather than a fixed price for a particular currency. No one ever said that simply maintaining a fixed exchange rate between one currency and another or between one currency and a real commodity is a form of currency manipulation. And for some 40 years, since the demise of the Bretton Woods system, the Wall Street Journal editorial page has been tirelessly advocating restoration of a system of fixed exchange rates, or, ideally, restoration of a gold standard. And now the Journal is talking about currency manipulation?

So it’s all very confusing. To get a better handle on the question of currency manipulation, I suggest going back to a classic statement of the basic issue by none other than John Maynard Keynes in a book, A Tract on Monetary Reform, that he published in 1923, when the world was trying to figure out how to reconstruct an international system of monetary arrangements to replace the prewar international gold standard, which had been one of the first casualties of the outbreak of World War I.

Since . . . the rate of exchange of a country’s currency with the currency of the rest of the world (assuming for the sake of simplicity that there is only one external currency) depends on the relation between the internal price level and the external price level [i.e., the price level of the rest of the world], it follows that the exchange cannot be stable unless both internal and external price levels remain stable. If, therefore, the external price level lies outside our control, we must submit either to our own internal price level or to our exchange rate being pulled about by external influences. If the external price level is unstable, we cannot keep both our own price level and our exchanges stable. And we are compelled to choose.

I like to call this proposition – that a country can control either its internal price level or the exchange rate of its currency, but cannot control both — Keynes’s Law, though Keynes did not discover it and was not the first to articulate it (but no one else did so as succinctly and powerfully as he). So, according to Keynes, whether a country pegs its exchange rate or controls its internal price level would not matter if the price level in the rest of the world were stable, because in that case for any internal price level there would be a corresponding exchange rate and for every exchange rate there would be a corresponding internal price level. For a country to reduce its own exchange rate to promote exports would not work, because the low exchange rate would cause its internal prices to rise correspondingly, thereby eliminating any competitive advantage for its products in international trade. This principle, closely related to the idea of purchasing power parity (a concept developed by Gustav Cassel), implies that currency manipulation is not really possible, except for transitory periods, because prices adjust to nullify any temporary competitive advantage associated with a weak, or undervalued, currency. An alternative way of stating the principle is that a country can control its nominal exchange rate, but cannot control its real exchange rate, i.e, the exchange rate adjusted for price-level differences. If exchange rates and price levels tend to adjust to maintain purchasing power parity across currency areas, currency manipulation is an exercise in futility.

That, at any rate, is what the theory says. But for any proposition derived from economic theory, it is usually possible to come up with exceptions by altering the assumptions. Now for Keynes’s Law, there are two mechanisms causing prices to rise faster in a country with an undervalued currency than they do elsewhere. First, price arbitrage between internationally traded products tends to equalize prices in all locations after adjusting for exchange rate differentials. If it is cheaper for Americans to buy wheat in Winnipeg than in Wichita at the current exchange rate between the US and Canadian dollars, Americans will buy wheat in Winnipeg rather than Wichita forcing the Wichita price down until buying wheat in Wichita is again economical. But the arbitrage mechanism works rapidly only for internationally traded commodities like wheat. Many commodities, especially factors of production, like land and labor, are not tradable, so that price differentials induced by an undervalued exchange rate cannot be eliminated by direct arbitrage. But there is another mechanism operating to force prices in the country with an undervalued exchange rate to rise faster than elsewhere, which is that the competitive advantage from an undervalued currency induces an inflow of cash from other countries importing those cheap products, the foreign cash influx, having been exchanged for domestic cash, becoming an additional cause of rising domestic prices. The influx of cash won’t stop until purchasing power parity is achieved, and the competitive advantage eliminated.

What could prevent this automatic adjustment process from eliminating the competitive advantage created by an undervalued currency? In principle, it would be possible to interrupt the process of international arbitrage tending to equalize the prices of internationally traded products by imposing tariffs or quotas on imports or by imposing exchange controls on the movement of capital across borders. All of those restrictions or taxes on international transactions prevent the price equalization implied by Keynes’s Law and purchasing power parity from actually occurring. But after the steady trend of liberalization since World War II, these restrictions, though plenty remain, are less important than they used to be, and a web of international agreements, codified by the International Trade Organization, makes resorting to them a lot trickier than it used to be.

That leaves another, less focused, method by which governments can offer protection from international competition to certain industries or groups. The method is precisely for the government and the monetary authority to do what Keynes’s Law says can’t be done:  to choose an exchange rate that undervalues the currency, thereby giving an extra advantage or profit cushion to all producers of tradable products (i.e., export industries and import-competing industries), perhaps spreading the benefits of protection more widely than governments, if their choices were not restricted by international agreements, would wish. However, to prevent the resulting inflow of foreign cash from driving up domestic prices and eliminating any competitive advantage, the monetary authority must sterilize the induced cash inflows by selling assets to mop up the domestic currency just issued in exchange for the foreign cash directed toward domestic exporters. (The classic analysis of such a policy was presented by Max Corden in his paper “Exchange Rate Protection,” reprinted in his Production, Growth, and Trade: Essays in International Economics.) But to borrow a concept from Austrian Business Cycle Theory, this may not be a sustainable long-run policy for a central bank, because maintaining the undervalued exchange rate would require the central bank to keep accumulating foreign-exchange reserves indefinitely, while selling off domestic assets to prevent the domestic money supply from increasing. The central bank might even run out of domestic assets with which to mop up the currency created to absorb the inflow of foreign cash. But in a rapidly expanding economy (like China’s), the demand for currency may be growing so rapidly that the domestic currency created in exchange for the inflow of foreign currency can be absorbed by the public without creating any significant upward pressure on prices necessitating a sell-off of domestic assets to prevent an outbreak of domestic inflation.

It is thus the growth in, and the changing composition of, the balance sheet of China’s central bank rather than the value of the dollar/yuan exchange rate that tells us whether the Chinese are engaging in currency manipulation. To get some perspective on how the balance sheet of Chinese central banks has been changing, consider that Chinese nominal GDP in 2009 was about 2.5 times as large as it was in 2003 while Chinese holdings of foreign exchange reserves in 2009 were more than 5 times greater than those holdings were in 2003. This means that the rate of growth (about 25% a year) in foreign-exchange reserves held by the Chinese central bank between 2003 and 2009 was more than twice as great as the rate of growth in Chinese nominal GDP over the same period. Over that period, the share of the total assets of the Chinese central bank represented by foreign exchange has grown from 48% in December 2003 to almost 80% in December 2010. Those changes are certainly consistent with the practice of currency manipulation.  However, except for 2009, there was no year since 2000 in which the holdings of domestic assets by the Chinese central bank actually fell, suggesting that there has been very little actual sterilization undertaken by the Chinese central bank.  If there has indeed been no (or almost no) actual sterilization by the Chinese central bank, then, despite my long-standing suspicions about what the Chinese have been doing, I cannot conclude that the Chinese have been engaging in currency manipulation. But perhaps one needs to look more closely at the details of how the balance sheet of the Chinese central bank has been changing over time.  I would welcome the thoughts of others on how to interpret evidence of how the balance sheet of the Chinese central bank has been changing.

At any rate, to come back to Mary Anastasia O’Grady’s assertion that Ben Bernanke is guilty of currency manipulation, her accusation, based on the fact that Bernanke is expanding the US money supply, is clearly incompatible with Max Corden’s exchange-rate-protection model. In Corden’s model, undervaluation is achieved by combining a tight monetary policy that sterilizes (by open-market sales!) the inflows induced by an undervalued exchange rate. But, according to Mrs. O’Grady, Bernanke is guilty of currency manipulation, because he is conducting open-market purchases, not open-market sales! So Mrs. O’Grady has got it exactly backwards.  But, then, what would you expect from a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board?

PS  I have been falling way behind in responding to recent comments.  I hope to catch up over the weekend as well as write up something on medium of account vs. medium of exchange.

PPS  Thanks to my commenters for providing me with a lot of insight into how the Chinese operate their monetary and banking systems.  My frequent commenter J.P. Koning has an excellent post and a terrific visual chart on his blog Moneyness showing the behavior over time of the asset and liability sides of the Chinese central bank.  Scott Sumner has also added an excellent discussion of his own about what Chinese monetary policy is all about.  I am trying to assimilate the various responses and hope to have a further post on the subject in the next day or two.

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.

My new book Studies in the History of Monetary Theory: Controversies and Clarifications has been published by Palgrave Macmillan

Follow me on Twitter @david_glasner


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