Archive for November, 2013

George Selgin Relives the Sixties

Just two days before the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy, George Selgin offered an ironic endorsement of raising the inflation target, as happened during the Kennedy Administration, in order to reduce unemployment.

[T]his isn’t the first time that we’ve been in a situation like the present one. There was at least one other occasion when the U.S. economy, having been humming along nicely with the inflation rate of 2% and an unemployment rate between 5% and 6%, slid into a recession. Eventually the unemployment rate was 7%, the inflation rate was only 1%, and the federal funds rate was within a percentage point of the zero lower bound. Fortunately for the American public, some well-placed (mostly Keynesian) economists came to the rescue, by arguing that the way to get unemployment back down was to aim for a higher inflation rate: a rate of about 4% a year, they figured, should suffice to get the unemployment rate down to 4%–a much lower rate than anyone dares to hope for today.

I’m puzzled and frustrated because, that time around, the Fed took the experts’ advice and it worked like a charm. The federal funds rate quickly achieved lift-off (within a year it had risen almost 100 basis points, from 1.17% to 2.15%). Before you could say “investment multiplier” the inflation and unemployment numbers were improving steadily. Within a few years inflation had reached 4%, and unemployment had declined to 4%–just as those (mostly Keynesian) experts had predicted.

So why are these crazy inflation hawks trying to prevent us from resorting again to a policy that worked such wonders in the past? Do they just love seeing all those millions of workers without jobs? Or is it simply that they don’t care about job

Oh: I forgot to say what past recession I’ve been referring to. It was the recession of 1960-61. The desired numbers were achieved by 1967. I can’t remember exactly what happened after that, though I’m sure it all went exactly as those clever theorists intended.

George has the general trajectory of the story more or less right, but the details and the timing are a bit off. Unemployment rose to 7% in the first half of 1961, and inflation was 1% or less. So reducing the Fed funds rate certainly worked, real GDP rising at not less than a 6.8% annual rate for four consecutive quarters starting with the second quarter of 1961, unemployment falling to 5.5 in the first quarter of 1962. In the following 11 quarters till the end of 1964, there were only three quarters in which the annual growth of GDP was less than 3.9%. The unemployment rate at the end of 1964 had fallen just below 5 percent and inflation was still well below 2%. It was only in 1965, that we see the beginings of an inflationary boom, real GDP growing at about a 10% annual rate in three of the next five quarters, and 8.4% and 5.6% in the other two quarters, unemployment falling to 3.8% by the second quarter of 1966, and inflation reaching 3% in 1966. Real GDP growth did not exceed 4% in any quarter after the first quarter of 1966, which suggests that the US economy had reached or exceeded its potential output, and unemployment had fallen below its natural rate.

In fact, recognizing the inflationary implications of the situation, the Fed shifted toward tighter money late in 1965, the Fed funds rate rising from 4% in late 1965 to nearly 6% in the summer of 1966. But the combination of tighter money and regulation-Q ceilings on deposit interest rates caused banks to lose deposits, producing a credit crunch in August 1966 and a slowdown in both real GDP growth in the second half of 1966 and the first half of 1967. With the economy already operating at capacity, subsequent increases in aggregate demand were reflected in rising inflation, which reached 5% in the annus horribilis 1968.

Cleverly suggesting that the decision to use monetary expansion, and an implied higher tolerance for inflation, to reduce unemployment from the 7% rate to which it had risen in 1961 was the ultimate cause of the high inflation of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and, presumably, the stagflation of the mid- and late-1970s, George is inviting his readers to conclude that raising the inflation target today would have similarly disastrous results.

Well, that strikes me as quite an overreach. Certainly one should not ignore the history to which George is drawing our attention, but I think it is possible (and plausible) to imagine a far more benign course of events than the one that played itself out in the 1960s and 1970s. The key difference is that the ceilings on deposit interest rates that caused a tightening of monetary policy in 1966 to produce a mini-financial crisis, forcing the 1966 Fed to abandon its sensible monetary tightening to counter inflationary pressure, are no longer in place.

Nor should we forget that some of the inflation of the 1970s was the result of supply-side shocks for which some monetary expansion (and some incremental price inflation) was an optimal policy response. The disastrous long-term consequences of Nixon’s wage and price controls should not be attributed to the expansionary monetary policy of the early 1960s.

As Mark Twain put it so well:

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.

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What Makes Deflation Good?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Internal Contradiction of Quantitative Easing

Last week I was struggling to cut and paste my 11-part series on Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade into the paper on that topic that I am scheduled to present next week at the Southern Economic Association meetings in Tampa Florida, completing the task just before coming down with a cold which has kept me from doing anything useful since last Thursday. But I was at least sufficiently aware of my surroundings to notice another flurry of interest in quantitative easing, presumably coinciding with Janet Yellen’s testimony at the hearings conducted by the Senate Banking Committee about her nomination to succeed Ben Bernanke as Chairman of Federal Reserve Board.

In my cursory reading of the latest discussions, I didn’t find see a lot that has not already been said, so I will take that as an opportunity to restate some points that I have previously made on this blog. But before I do that, I can’t help observing (not for the first time either) that the two main arguments made by critics of QE do not exactly coexist harmoniously with each other. First, QE is ineffective; second it is dangerous. To be sure, the tension between these two claims about QE does not prove that both can’t be true, and certainly doesn’t prove that both are wrong. But the tension might at least have given a moment’s pause to those crying that Quantitative Easing, having failed for five years to accomplish anything besides enriching Wall Street and taking bread from the mouths of struggling retirees, is going to cause the sky to fall any minute.

Nor, come to think of it, does the faux populism of the attack on a rising stock market and of the crocodile tears for helpless retirees living off the interest on their CDs coexist harmoniously with the support by many of the same characters opposing QE (e.g., Freedomworks, CATO, the Heritage Foundation, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page) for privatizing social security via private investment accounts to be invested in the stock market, the argument being that the rate of return on investing in stocks has historically been greater than the rate of return on payments into the social security system. I am also waiting for an explanation of why abused pensioners unhappy with the returns on their CDs can’t cash in the CDs and buy dividend-paying-stocks? In which charter of the inalienable rights of Americans, I wonder, does one find it written that a perfectly secure real rate of interest of not less than 2% on any debt instrument issued by the US government shall always be guaranteed?

Now there is no denying that what is characterized as a massive program of asset purchases by the Federal Reserve System has failed to stimulate a recovery comparable in strength to almost every recovery since World War II. However, not even the opponents of QE are suggesting that the recovery has been weak as a direct result of QE — that would be a bridge too far even for the hard money caucus — only that whatever benefits may have been generated by QE are too paltry to justify its supposedly bad side-effects (present or future inflation, reduced real wages, asset bubbles, harm to savers, enabling of deficit-spending, among others). But to draw any conclusion about the effects of QE, you need some kind of a baseline of comparison. QE opponents therefore like to use previous US recoveries, without the benefit of QE, as their baseline.

But that is not the only baseline available for purposes of comparison. There is also the Eurozone, which has avoided QE and until recently kept interest rates higher than in the US, though to be sure not as high as US opponents of QE (and defenders of the natural rights of savers) would have liked. Compared to the Eurozone, where nominal GDP has barely risen since 2010, and real GDP and employment have shrunk, QE, which has been associated with nearly 4% annual growth in US nominal GDP and slightly more than 2% annual growth in US real GDP, has clearly outperformed the eurozone.

Now maybe you don’t like the Eurozone, as it includes all those dysfunctional debt-ridden southern European countries, as a baseline for comparison. OK, then let’s just do a straight, head-to-head matchup between the inflation-addicted US and solid, budget-balancing, inflation-hating Germany. Well that comparison shows (see the chart below) that since 2011 US real GDP has increased by about 5% while German real GDP has increased by less than 2%.

US_Germany_RGDP

So it does seem possible that, after all, QE and low interest rates may well have made things measurably better than they would have otherwise been. But don’t expect to opponents of QE to acknowledge that possibility.

Of course that still leaves the question on the table, why has this recovery been so weak? Well, Paul Krugman, channeling Larry Summers, offered a demographic hypothesis in his column Monday: that with declining population growth, there have been diminishing investment opportunities, which, together with an aging population, trying to save enough to support themselves in their old age, causes the supply of savings to outstrip the available investment opportunities, driving the real interest rate down to zero. As real interest rates fall, the ability of the economy to tolerate deflation — or even very low inflation — declines. That is a straightforward, and inescapable, implication of the Fisher equation (see my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations”).

So, if Summers and Krugman are right – and the trend of real interest rates for the past three decades is not inconsistent with their position – then we need to rethink revise upwards our estimates of what rate of inflation is too low. I will note parenthetically, that Samuel Brittan, who has been for decades just about the most sensible economic journalist in the world, needs to figure out that too little inflation may indeed be a bad thing.

But this brings me back to the puzzling question that causes so many people to assume that monetary policy is useless. Why have trillions of dollars of asset purchases not generated the inflation that other monetary expansions have generated? And if all those assets now on the Fed balance sheet haven’t generated inflation, what reason is there to think that the Fed could increase the rate of inflation if that is what is necessary to avoid chronic (secular) stagnation?

The answer, it seems to me is the following. If everyone believes that the Fed is committed to its inflation target — and not even the supposedly dovish Janet Yellen, bless her heart, has given the slightest indication that she favors raising the Fed’s inflation target, a target that, recent experience shows, the Fed is far more willing to undershoot than to overshoot – then Fed purchases of assets with currency are not going to stimulate additional private spending. Private spending, at or near the zero lower bound, are determined largely by expectations of future income and prices. The quantity of money in private hands, being almost costless to hold, is no longer a hot potato. So if there is no desire to reduce excess cash holdings, the only mechanism by which monetary policy can affect private spending is through expectations. But the Fed, having succeeded in anchoring inflation expectations at 2%, has succeeded in unilaterally disarming itself. So economic expansion is constrained by the combination of a zero real interest rate and expected inflation held at or below 2% by a political consensus that the Fed, even if it were inclined to, is effectively powerless to challenge.

Scott Sumner calls this monetary offset. I don’t think that we disagree much on the economic analysis, but it seems to me that he overestimates the amount of discretion that the Fed can actually exercise over monetary policy. Except at the margins, the Fed is completely boxed in by a political consensus it dares not question. FDR came into office in 1933, and was able to effect a revolution in monetary policy within his first month in office, thereby saving the country and Western Civilization. Perhaps Obama had an opportunity to do something similar early in his first term, but not any more. We are stuck at 2%, but it is no solution.

Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade, Part XI: Conclusion

For many readers, I am afraid that the reaction to the title of this post will be something like: “and not a moment too soon.” When I started this series two months ago, I didn’t expect it to drag out quite this long, but I have actually enjoyed the process of reading Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade carefully enough to be able to explain (or at least try to explain) it to an audience of attentive readers. In the course of the past ten posts, I have actually learned a fair amount about Hawtrey that I had not known before, and a number of questions have arisen that will require further investigation and research. More stuff to keep me busy.

My previous post about financial crises and asset crashes was mainly about chapter 16, which is the final substantive discussion of Hawtrey’s business-cycle theory in the volume. Four more chapters follow, the first three are given over to questions about how government policy affects the business cycle, and finally in the last chapter a discussion about whether changes in the existing monetary system (i.e., the gold standard) might eliminate, or at least reduce, the fluctuations of the business cycle.

Chapter 17 (“Banking and Currency Legislation in Relation to the State of Trade”) actually has little to do with banking and is mainly a discussion of how the international monetary system evolved over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century from a collection of mostly bimetallic standards before 1870 to a nearly universal gold standard, the catalyst for the evolution being the 1870 decision by newly formed German Empire to adopt a gold standard and then proceeded to convert its existing coinage to a gold basis, thereby driving up the world value of gold. As a result, all the countries with bimetallic standards (usually tied to a 15.5 to 1 ratio of silver to gold) to choose between adopting the gold standard and curtailing the unlimited free coinage of silver or tolerating the inflationary effects of Gresham’s Law as overvalued and depreciating silver drove gold out of circulation.

At the end of the chapter, Hawtrey speculates about the possibility that secular inflation might have some tendency to mitigate the effects of the business cycle, comparing the period from 1870 to 1896, characterized by deflation of about 1 to 2% a year, with the period from 1896 to 1913, when inflation was roughly about 1 to 2% a year.

Experience suggests that a scarcity of new gold prolongs the periods of depression and an abundance of new gold shortens them, so that the whole period of a fluctuation is somewhat shorter in the latter circumstances than is the former. (p. 227)

Hawtrey also noted the fact that, despite unlikelihood that long-term price level movements had been correctly foreseen, the period of falling prices from 1870 to 1896 was associated with low long-term interest rates while the period from 1896 to 1913 when prices were rising was associated with high interest rates, thereby anticipating by ten years the famous empirical observation made by the British economist A. W. Gibson of the positive correlation between long-term interest rates and the price level, an observation Keynes called the Gibson’s paradox, which he expounded upon at length in his Treatise on Money.

[T]he price was affected by the experience of investments during the long gold famine when profits had been low for almost a generation, and indeed it may be regarded as the outcome of the experience. In the same way the low prices of securities at the present time are the product of the contrary experience, the great output of gold in the last twenty years having been accompanied by inflated profits. (p. 229)

Chapter 18 (“Taxation in Relation to the State of Trade”) is almost exclusively concerned not with taxation as such but with protective tariffs. The question that Hawtrey considers is whether protective tariffs can reduce the severity of the business cycle. His answer is that unless tariffs are changed during the course of a cycle, there is no reason why they should have any cyclical effect. He then asks whether an increase in the tariff would have any effect on employment during a downturn. His answer is that imposing tariffs or raising existing tariffs, by inducing a gold inflow, and thus permitting a reduction in interest rates, would tend to reduce the adverse effect of a cyclical downturn, but he stops short of advocating such a policy, because of the other adverse effects of the protective tariff, both on the country imposing the tariff and on its neighbors.

Chapter 19 (“Public Finance in Relation to the State of Trade”) is mainly concerned with the effects of the requirements of the government for banking services in making payments to and accepting payments from the public.

Finally, Chapter 20 (“Can Fluctuations Be Prevented?”) addresses a number of proposals for mitigating the effects of the business cycle by means of policy or changes institutional reform. Hawtrey devotes an extended discussion to Irving Fisher’s proposal for a compensated dollar. Hawtrey is sympathetic, in principle, to the proposal, but expressed doubts about its practicality, a) because it did not seem in 1913 that replacing the gold standard was politically possible, b) because Hawtrey doubted that a satisfactory price index could be constructed, and c) because the plan would, at best, only mitigate, not eliminate, cyclical fluctuations.

Hawtrey next turns to the question whether government spending could be timed to coincide with business cycle downturns so that it would offset the reduction in private spending, thereby preventing the overall demand for labor from falling as much as it otherwise would during the downturn. Hawtrey emphatically rejects this idea because any spending by the government on projects would simply displace an equal amount of private spending, leaving total expenditure unchanged.

The underlying principle of this proposal is that the Government should add to the effective demand for labour at the time when the effective private demand of private traders falls off. But [the proposal] appears to have overlooked the fact that the Government by the very fact of borrowing for this expenditure is withdrawing from the investment market savings which would otherwise be applied to the creation of capital. (p. 260)

Thus, already in 1913, Hawtrey formulated the argument later advanced in his famous 1925 paper on “Public Expenditure and the Demand for Labour,” an argument which eventually came to be known as the Treasury view. The Treasury view has been widely condemned, and, indeed, it did overlook the possibility that government expenditure might induce private funds that were being hoarded as cash to be released for spending on investment. This tendency, implied by the interest-elasticity of the demand for money, would prevent government spending completely displacing private spending, as the Treasury view asserted. But as I have observed previously, despite the logical gap in Hawtrey’s argument, the mistake was not as bad as it is reputed to be, because, according to Hawtrey, the decline in private spending was attributable to a high rate of interest, so that the remedy for unemployment is to be found in a reduction in the rate of interest rather than an increase in government spending.

And with that, I think I will give Good and Bad Trade and myself a rest.

Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade, Part X: Financial Crises and Asset Crashes

After presenting his account of an endogenous cycle in chapters 14 and 15, Hawtrey focuses more specifically in chapter 16 on the phenomenon of a financial crisis, which he considers to be fundamentally a cyclical phenomenon arising because the monetary response to inflation is sharp and sudden rather than gradual. As Hawtrey puts it:

It is not easy to say precisely what constitutes a financial crisis, but broadly it may be defined to be an escape from inflation by way of widespread failures and bankruptcies instead of by a gradual reduction of credit money. (p. 201)

Hawtrey’s focus in his discussion of financial crises is on the investment in fixed capital, having already discussed the role of inventory investment by merchants and traders in his earlier explanation of how variations in the lending rates of the banking system can lead to cumulative expansions or contractions through variations in the desired holdings of inventories by traders and merchants. New investments in fixed capital are financed, according to Hawtrey, largely out of the savings of the wealthy, which are highly pro-cyclical. The demand for new investment projects by businesses is also pro-cyclical, depending on the expected profit of businesses from installing new capital assets, the expected profit, in turn, depending on the current effective demand.

The financing for new long-term investment projects is largely channeled to existing businesses through what Hawtrey calls the investment market, the most important element of which is the stock exchange. The stock exchange functions efficiently only because there are specialists whose business it is to hold inventories of various stocks, being prepared to buy those stocks from those wishing to sell them or sell those stock to those wishing to buy them, at prices that seem at any moment to be market-clearing, i.e, at prices that keep buy and sell orders roughly in balance. The specialists, like other traders and middlemen, finance their holdings of inventories by borrowing from banks, using the proceeds from purchases and sales – corresponding to the bid-ask spread  – to repay their indebtedness to the banks. Unlike commercial traders and merchants, the turnover of whose inventories is relatively predictable with little likelihood of large price swings, and can obtain short-term financing for a fixed term, stock dealers hold inventories that are not very predictable in their price and turnover, and therefore can obtain financing only on a day to day basis, or “at call.” The securities held by the stock dealer serves as collateral for the loan, and banks require the dealer to hold securities with a value exceeding some minimum percentage (margin) of the dealer’s indebtedness to the bank.

New investment financed by the issue of stock must ultimately be purchased by savers who are seeking profitable investment opportunities into which to commit their savings. Existing firms may sometimes finance new projects by issuing new stock, but more often they issue debt or retained earnings to finance investment. Debt financing can be obtained by issuing bonds or preferred stock or by borrowing from banks. New issues of stock have to be underwritten and marketed through middlemen who expect to earn a return on their underwriting or marketing function and must have financing resources sufficient to bear risk of holding a large stock of securities until they are sold to the public.

Now at a time of expanding trade and growing inflation, when there is a general expectation of high profits and at the same time there is a flood of savings seeking investment, an underwriter’s business yields a good profit at very little risk. But at the critical moment when the banks are compelled to intervene to reduce the inflation this is changed. There is a sudden diminution of profits which simultaneously checks the accumulation of savings and dispels the expectation of high profits. An underwriter may find that the diminution of savings upsets his calculations and leaves on his hands a quantity of securities for which before the tide turned he could have found a ready market and that the prospect of disposing of these securities grows less and less with the steady shrinkage in the demand for investments and the falling prospect of high dividends. . . . (pp. 210-11)

It will be seen, then, that of all the borrowers from the bans those who borrow for the purposes of the investment market are the most liable to failure when the period of good trade comes to an end. And as it happens, it is they who are most at the mercy of the banks in times of trouble. For it is their habit to borrow from day to day, and the bans, since they cannot call in loans to traders which will only mature after several weeks or months, are apt to try to reduce an excess of credit money by refusing to lend from day to day. If that happens, the investment market will suddenly have to find the money which the banks want. The total amount of ready money in the hands of the whole investment market will probably be quite small, and, except in so far as they can persuade the bans to wait (in consideration probably of a high rate of interest), they must raise money by selling securities. But there are limits to the amount that can be raised in this way. The demand for investments is very inelastic. The money offered at any time is ordinarily simply the amount of accumulated savings of the community till then uninvested. This total can only be added to by people investing sums which they would otherwise leave as part of their working balances of money, and they cannot be induced to increase their investments very much in this way, however low the price in proportion to the yield of the securities offered. Consequently when the banks curtail the accommodation which they give to the investment market and the investment market tries to raise money by selling securities, the prices of securities may fall heavily without attracting much additional money. Meanwhile the general fall in the prices of securities will undermine the position of the entire investment market, since the value of the assets held against their liabilities to the banks will be depreciated. If the banks insist on payment in such circumstances a multitude of failures on the Stock Exchange and in the investment market must follow. The knowledge of this will deter the banks from making the last turn of the screw if they can help it. But it may be that the banks themselves are acting under dire necessity. If they have let the creation of credit get beyond their control, if they are on the point of running short of the legal tender money necessary to meet the daily demands upon them, they must have no alternative but to insist on payment. When the collapse comes it is not unlikely that that some of the banks themselves will be dragged down by it. A bank which has suffered heavy losses may be unable any longer to show an excess of assets over liabilities, and if subjected to heavy demands may be unable to borrow to meet them.

The calling in of loans from the investment market enables the banks to reduce the excess of credit money rapidly. The failure of one or more banks, by annihilating the credi money based upon their demand liabilities, hastens the process still more. A crisis therefore has the effect of bringing a trade depression into being with striking suddenness. . . .

It should not escape attention that even in a financial crisis, which is ordinarily regarded as simply a “collapse of credit,” credit only plays a secondary part. The shortage of savings, which curtails the demand for investments, and the excess of credit money, which leads the banks to call in loans, are causes at least as prominent as the impairment of credit. And the impairment of credit itself is not a mere capricious loss of confidence, but is a revised estimate of the profits of commercial enterprises in general, which is based on the palpable facts of the market. The wholesale depreciation of securities at such a time is not due to a vague “distrust” but partly to the plain fact that the money values of the assets which they represent are falling and partly to forced sales necessitated by the sudden demand for money. . . .[T]he crisis dos not originate in distrust. Loss of credit in fact is only a symptom. (pp. 212-14)

Let me now go back to Hawtrey’s discussion in chapter 14 in which he considers the effect of expected inflation or deflation on the rate of interest (i.e., the Fisher effect). This discussion is one of the few, if not the only one, that I have seen that consders the special case in which expected deflation is actually greater than the real (or natural) rate of interest. In my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations” I suggested that such a situation would account for a sudden crash of asset values such as occurred in September and October of 2008.

It is in order to counteract the effect of the falling prices that the bankers fix a rate of interest lower than the natural rate by the rate at which prices are believed to be falling. If they fail to do this they will find their business gradually falling off and superfluous stocks of gold accumulating in their vaults. Here may digress for a moment to consider a special case. What if the rate of depreciation of prices is actually greater than the natural rate of interest? If that is so nothing that the bankers can do will make borrowing sufficiently attractive. Business will be revolving in a vicious circle; the dealers unwilling to buy in a falling market, the manufacturers unable to maintain their output in face of ever-diminishing orders, dealers and manufacturers alike cutting down their borrowings in proportion to the decline of business, demand falling in proportion to the shrinkage in credit money, and with the falling demand, the dealers more unwilling to buy than ever. This, which may be called “stagnation” of trade, is of course exceptional, but it deserves our attention in passing.

From the apparent impasse there is one way out – a drastic reduction of money wages. If at any time this step is taken the spell will be broken. Wholesale prices will fall abruptly, the expectation of a further fall will cease, dealers will begin to replenish their stocks, manufacturers to increase their output, dealers and manufacturers alike will borrow again, and the stock of credit money will grow. In fact the profit rate will recover, and will again equal or indeed exceed the natural rate. The market rate, however, will be kept below the profit rate, since in the preceding period of stagnation the bankers’ reserves will have been swollen beyond the necessary proportions, and the bankers will desire to develop their loan and discount business. It should be observed that this phenomenon of stagnation will only be possible where the expected rate of depreciation of prices of commodities happens to be high. As to the precise circumstances in which this will be so, it is difficult to arrive at any very definite conclusion. Dealers will be guided partly by the tendency of prices in the immediate past, partly by what they know of the conditions of production.

A remarkable example of trade stagnation occurred at the end of the period from 1873 to 1897, when there had been a prolonged falling off in the gold supply, and in consequence a continuous fall in prices. The rate of interest in London throughout the period of no less than seven years, ending with 1897, averaged only 1.5 percent, and yet superfluous gold went on accumulating in the vaults of the Bank of England. (pp. 186-87)

It seems that Hawtrey failed to see that the circumstances that he is describing here — an expected rate of deflation that exceeds the real rate of interest — would precipitate a crisis. If prices are expected to fall more rapidly than the expected yield on real capital, then the expected return on holding cash exceeds the expected return on holding real assets. If so, holders of real assets will want to sell their assets in order to hold cash, implying that asset prices must start falling. This is precisely the sort of situation that Hawtrey describes in the passages I quoted above from chapter 16, a crisis precipitated by the reversal of an inflationary credit expansion. Exactly why Hawtrey failed to see that the two processes that he describes in chapter 14 and in chapter 16 are essentially equivalent I am unable to say.

Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade, Part IX: An Endogenous Cycle

We are now at the point at which Hawtrey’s model of the business cycle can be assembled from the parts laid out in the previous thirteen chapters. Hawtrey had already shown that monetary disturbances can lead to significant cumulative fluctuations, while mere demand shifts cause only minor temporary fluctuations, but his aim was to account not just for a single cumulative expansion or contraction in response to a single disturbance, but for recurring cyclical fluctuations. His theoretical model therefore required a mechanism whereby a positive or expansionary impulse would be reversed and transformed into a negative or contractionary impulse. A complete cyclical theory must provide some explanation of how an expansion becomes a contraction, and how a contraction becomes an expansion.

In chapters 14 and 15, Hawtrey identifies the banking system as the transforming agent required for a theory of recurring cycles. The key behavioral relationship for Hawtrey was that banks demand reserves — either gold or currency or reserves held with the central bank — into which their own liabilities (banknotes or deposits) are convertible. Given their demand for reserves, banks set interest rates at a level that will maintain their reserves at the desired level, raising interest rates when their reserves are less than desired, and reducing interest rates when reserves are greater than desired. Hawtrey combined this behavioral relationship with two key empirical relationships: 1) that workers and other lower-income groups generally make little use of banknotes (limited in Britain to denominations above £5, roughly the equivalent of $200 at today’s prices) and almost none of bank deposits; 2) that the share of labor in total income is countercyclical.

Using these two relationships, Hawtrey provided a theoretical account of recurring cyclical fluctuations in output, income, and employment. He begins the story at the upper turning point, when a combination of rising inflation and diminishing reserves causes banks to raise their interest rates to stem a loss of reserves. The rise in interest rates causes a reduction in spending, thereby leading to falling prices, output, and employment. Hawtrey poses the following question:

We are now concerned not with the direct consequences of a given monetary disturbance, but with the influences at work to modify and, perhaps in the end, to counteract those consequence. In particular are we to regard the tendency towards renewed inflation which experience teaches us to expect after a period of depression as a fortuitous disturbance which may come sooner or later, or as a reaction the seeds of which are already sown? To put the same problem in another form, when the position of equilibrium which should follow a disturbance according to the theory of Chapter 6 is attained, is there any reason, apart from visible causes of renewed disturbance, why that equilibrium should not continue?  (pp. 182-83)

Hawtrey argues that the equilibrium will not continue, invoking the different money-holding habits of capitalists and workers along with the countercyclical share of labor in total income. Although both employment and wages fall in the downturn, Hawtrey maintains that profits fall more sharply than wages, so that the share of labor in total income actually increases in the downturn. The entire passage is worth quoting, because it also constitutes an implicit criticism of the Austrian theory of the downturn, notwithstanding the fact that Hawtrey very likely was not yet acquainted with the Austrian theory of the business cycles, its primary text, Mises’s Theory of Money and Credit, having been published in German in 1912 just a year before publication of Good and Bad Trade.

[R]ather than let their plant lie idle, manufacturers will sacrifice part or even the whole of their profits, and that in this way the restriction of output is mitigated. If all producers insisted on stopping work unless they could obtain a normal rate of profit, there would be a greater restriction of output and more workmen would be discharged, and in that case the proceeds of the diminished output would be divided (approximately) in the same proportion between the capitalists and the workmen as before. But in consequence of the sacrifice of profits to output which actually occurs, the number of workmen in employment and therefore also the aggregate of working-class earnings will not be so severely diminished as they would otherwise be. Thus the capitalists will get a smaller proportion and the workmen a greater proportion of the gross proceeds than before. But anything which tends to increase or maintain working-class earnings tends to increase or maintain the amount of cash in the hands of the working classes. If the banks have succeeded in reducing the outstanding amount of credit money by 10 percent, they will probably have reduced the incomes of the people with bank accounts by 10 percent, but the earnings of the working classes will have been reduced in a much smaller proportion – say, 5 percent. (pp. 189-90)

The reduction in the quantity of the liabilities of the banking system in the hands of the public will relieve the pressure that previously felt to increase their reserves, which pressure had caused them to raise interest rates.

Here is the process at work which is likely enough to produce fluctuations. For the bankers will thereupon be ready to increase the stock of credit money again, and once they have embarked on this course they may find it very difficult to stop short of a dangerous inflation. . . .

Instead of ending up, therefore, with the establishment of a golden mean of prosperity, unbroken by any deviation towards less or more, the depression will be marked in its later stages by a new complication. At the time when the reduction of wages is beginning to be accompanied not merely by an increase of employment, but also by an increase of profits, the banks will find that cash is beginning to accumulate in their vaults. They will ease off the rate of interest to something a little below the profit rate, and dealers will take advantage of the low rate to add to their stocks. The manufacturers will become aware of an increase in orders, and they will find that they can occupy their plant more fully. And now that stocks and output are both increased, borrowing will be increased and the bankers will have gained their end. But then the new accession to the amount of credit money means a corresponding increase of purchasing power. At existing prices the dealers find that their stocks are being depleted by the growing demand from the consumer. The prospect of rising prices is an inducement to add to their stocks as much as they can at existing prices, and so their order to the manufacturers grow, wholesale prices go up; and as the consumers’ demands on the dealers’ stocks grow, retail prices go up; ans as prices go up, the money needed to finance a given quantity of goods grows greater and greater, and both dealers and manufacturers borrow more and more from their bankers. In fact here are all the characteristics of a period of trade expansion in full swing. (pp. 190-92)

How far such a cumulative process of credit expansion can proceed before it reaches its upper turning point depends on the willingness of the banks to continue supplying credit with an ever smaller margin of reserves relative to liabilities.

The total credit money created by the banks will be so limited by them as not to outstrip the capacities of these working balances [deposits of the banks at the Bank of England], while the Bank of England will not allow the balances to grow out of proportion to its own cash holdings. It is indeed almost, though not quite, true to say that the entire stock of credit money in England is built up not on the cash holdings of the banks taken as a whole, but on the Reserve of the Bank of England. And as the legal tender money in circulation is something like four times the average amount of the reserves, it is obvious that a small proportional change in the quantity in circulation will produce a relatively large proportional change in the reserve, and therefor in the stock of credit money. The Bank of England does not maintain blindly a fixed proportion between reserve and deposits, so that a given change in the reserve isnot reflected immediately in the stock of credit money, but of course when there is a marked increase in the reserve there is a tendency toward a marked increase in the deposits and through the other banks towards a general increase in credit money. (pp. 195-96)

But as the expansion proceeds, and businesses begin to expect to profit from selling their output at rising prices, businesses short of workers with which to increase output will start bidding up wages.

Production having been stimulated to great activity there is a scarcity of labour, or at any rate of properly trained and competent labour, and employers are so anxious ot get the benefit of the high profits that ehy are more ready than usual to make concessions in preference to facing strikes which would leave their workers idle. There follows a period of full employment and rising wages. But this means growing cash requirements, and sooner or later the banks must take action to prevent their reserves being depleted. If they act in time they may manage to relieve the inflation of credit money gradually and an actual financial crisis may be avoided. But in either case there must ensue a period of slack trade. Here, therefore, we have proved that there is an inherent tendency toward fluctuations in the banking institutions which prevail in the world as it is. (p. 199)

This built-in cyclical pattern may also be amplified by other special factors.

Another cause which tends to aggravate trade fluctuations is that imprudent banking is profitable. In a period of buoyant trade such as marks the recovery from a state of depression the profit rate is high, and the rate of interest received by the banks on their loans and discounts is correspondingly high. It may be that during the depression the banks have had to be content with 1 or 1.5 percent. When the recovery begins they find in quite a short time that they can earn 4 or 5 percent. This is not 4 or 5 percent on their own capital, but on the money which they lend, which may be for ten times their capital. That portion of their deposits which is represented by cash in hand is idle and earns nothing, and they are eager to swell their profits by reducing their cash and reserves and increasing their loans and discounts. Working balances are more or less elastic and can at a pinch be reduced, but the lower its reserves fall the more likely is the bank to find it necessary to borrow from other institutions. Again, the reader a bank is to lend, the more likely it is to lend to speculative enterprises, the more likely it is to suffer losses through the total or perhaps temporary failure of such enterprises, and the more likely it is to show a balance on the wrong side of its accounts when it needs to borrow. When many banks have yielded to these temptations a crisis is almost inevitable, or if an acute crisis with its accompaniment of widespread bankruptcies is avoided, there is bound to be a very severe and probably prolonged depression during which the top-heavy structure of credit money is gently pulled down brick by brick. . . .

It will probably be only a minority of the banks that overreach themselves in speculation, and it may not occur in all countries. But the prudent banks have no means of guarding themselves against the consequences of their neighbours’ rashness. They could hardly be expected to increase their reserves beyond what they believe to be a prudent proportion. It is true that a central bank, in those countries where such an institution exists, can take this precaution. But it will only do so if aware of the over-speculation. Of this, however, it will have no accurate or complete knowledge, and it will experience great difficulty in determining what measures are to be taken. (pp. 200-02)

Hawtrey elaborates on his account of the cycle in chapter 16 with a discussion of financial crises, which he views as an exceptionally severe cyclical downturn. My next post in this series will focus on that discussion and possibly also on Hawtrey’s discussion in chapter 14 of another special case: the adjustment to an expected rate of deflation that exceeds the real rate of interest.

Eureka! Paul Krugman Discovers the Bank of France

Trying hard, but not entirely successfully, to contain his astonishment, Paul Krugman has a very good post (“France 1930, Germany 2013) inspired by Doug Irwin’s “very good” paper (see also this shorter version) “Did France Cause the Great Depression?” Here’s Krugman take away from Irwin’s paper.

[Irwin] points out that France, with its undervalued currency, soaked up a huge proportion of the world’s gold reserves in 1930-31, and suggests that France was responsible for about half the global deflation that took place over that period.

The thing is, France itself didn’t do that badly in the early stages of the Great Depression — again thanks to that undervalued currency. In fact, it was less affected than most other advanced countries (pdf) in 1929-31:

Krugman is on the right track here — certainly a hopeful sign — but he misses the distinction between an undervalued French franc, which, despite temporary adverse effects on other countries, would normally be self-correcting under the gold standard, and the explosive increase in demand for gold by the insane Bank of France after the franc was pegged at an undervalued parity against the dollar. Undervaluation of the franc began in December 1926 when Premier Raymond Poincare stabilized its value at about 25 francs to the dollar, the franc having fallen to 50 francs to the dollar in July when Poincare, a former prime minister, had been returned to office to deal with a worsening currency crisis. Undervaluation of the franc would have done no permanent damage to the world economy if the Bank of France had not used the resulting inflow of foreign exchange to accumulate gold, cashing in sterling- and dollar-denominated financial assets for gold. This was a step beyond classic exchange-rate protection (currency manipulation) whereby a country uses a combination of an undervalued exchange rate and a tight monetary policy to keep accumulating foreign-exchange reserves as a way of favoring its export and import-competing industries. Exchange-rate protection may have been one motivation for the French policy, but that objective did not require gold accumulation; it could have been achieved by accumulating foreign exchange reserves without demanding redemption of those reserves in terms of gold, as the Bank of France began doing aggressively in 1927. A more likely motivation for gold accumulation policy of the Bank of France seems to have been French resentment against a monetary system that, from the French perspective, granted a privileged status to the dollar and to sterling, allowing central banks to treat dollar- and sterling-denominated financial assets as official exchange reserves, thereby enabling issuers of dollar and sterling-denominated assets the ability to obtain funds on more favorable terms than issuers of instruments denominated in other currencies.

The world economy was able to withstand the French gold-accumulation policy in 1927-28, because the Federal Reserve was tolerating an outflow of gold, thereby accommodating to some degree the French demand for gold. But after the Fed raised its discount rate to 5% in 1928 and 6% in February 1929, gold began flowing into the US as well, causing gold to start appreciating (in other words, prices to start falling) in world markets by the summer of 1929. But rather than reverse course, the Bank of France and the Fed, despite reductions in their official lending rates, continued pursuing policies that caused huge amounts of gold to flow into the French and US vaults in 1930 and 1931. Hawtrey and Cassel, of course, had warned against such a scenario as early as 1919, and proposed measures to prevent or reverse the looming catastrophe before it took place and after it started, but with little success. For a more complete account of this sad story, and the failure of the economics profession, with a very few notable exceptions, to figure out what happened, see my paper with Ron Batchelder “Pre-Keynesian Monetary Theories of the Great Depression: Whatever Happened to Hawtrey and Cassel?”

As Krugman observes, the French economy did not do so badly in 1929-31, because it was viewed as the most stable, thrifty, and dynamic economy in Europe. But France looked good only because Britain and Germany were in even worse shape. Because France was better off the Britain and Germany, and because its currency was understood to be undervalued, the French franc was considered to be stable, and, thus, unlikely to be devalued. So, unlike sterling, the reichsmark, and the dollar, the franc was not subjected to speculative attacks, becoming instead a haven for capital seeking safety.

Interestingly, Krugman even shows some sympathetic understanding for the plight of the French:

Notice, by the way, that the French weren’t evil or malicious here — they were just adhering to their hard-money ideology in an environment where that had terrible adverse effects on other countries.

Just wondering, would Krugman ever invoke adherence to a hard-money ideology as a mitigating factor in passing judgment on a Republican?

Krugman concludes by comparing Germany today with France in 1930.

Obviously the details are different, but I would argue that Germany is playing a somewhat similar role today — not as drastic, but with less excuse. For Germany is an economic hegemon in a way France never was; it has responsibilities, which it isn’t meeting.

Indeed, there are similarities, but there is a crucial difference in the mechanism by which damage is being inflicted: the world price level in 1930, under the gold standard, was determined by the value of gold. An increase in the demand for gold by central banks necessarily raised the value of gold, causing deflation for all countries either on the gold standard or maintaining a fixed exchange rate against a gold-standard currency. By accumulating gold, nearly quadrupling its gold reserves between 1926 and 1932, the Bank of France was a mighty deflationary force, inflicting immense damage on the international economy. Today, the Eurozone price level does not depend on the independent policy actions of any national central bank, including that of Germany. The Eurozone price level is rather determined by the policy choices of a nominally independent European Central Bank. But the ECB is clearly unable to any adopt policy not approved by the German government and its leader Mrs. Merkel, and Mrs. Merkel has rejected any policy that would raise prices in the Eurozone to a level consistent with full employment. Though the mechanism by which Mrs. Merkel and her government are now inflicting damage on the Eurozone is different from the mechanism by which the insane Bank of France inflicted damage during the Great Depression, the damage is just as pointless and just as inexcusable. But as the damage caused by Mrs. Merkel, in relative terms at any rate, seems somewhat smaller in magnitude than that caused by the insane Bank of France, I would not judge her more harshly than I would the Bank of France — insanity being, in matters of monetary policy, no defense.

HT: ChargerCarl


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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