Archive for June, 2015

The Great, but Misguided, Benjamin Strong Goes Astray in 1928

In making yet further revisions to our paper on Hawtrey and Cassel, Ron Batchelder and I keep finding interesting new material that sheds new light on the thinking behind the policies that led to the Great Depression. Recently I have been looking at the digital archive of Benjamin Strong’s papers held at the Federal Reserve Bank. Benjamin Strong was perhaps the greatest central banker who ever lived. Milton Friedman, Charles Kindleberger, Irving Fisher, and Ralph Hawtrey – and probably others as well — all believed that if Strong, Governor of the New York Federal Reserve Bank from 1914 to 1928 and effectively the sole policy maker for the entire system, had not died in 1928, the Great Depression would have been avoided entirely or, at least, would have been far less severe and long-lasting. My own view had been that Strong had generally understood the argument of Hawtrey and Cassel about the importance of economizing on gold, and, faced with the insane policy of the Bank of France, would have accommodated that policy by allowing an outflow of gold from the immense US holdings, rather than raise interest rates and induce an inflow of gold into the US in 1929, as happened under his successor, George Harrison.

Having spent some time browsing through the papers, I am sorry — because Strong’s truly remarkable qualities are evident in his papers — to say that the papers also show to my surprise and disappointment that Strong was very far from being a disciple of Hawtrey or Cassel or of any economist, and he seems to have been entirely unconcerned in 1928 about the policy of the Bank of France or the prospect of a deflationary run-up in the value of gold even though his friend Montague Norman, Governor of the Bank of England, was beginning to show some nervousness about “a scramble for gold,” while other observers were warning of a deflationary collapse. I must admit that, at least one reason for my surprise is that I had naively accepted the charges made by various Austrians – most notably Murray Rothbard – that Strong was a money manager who had bought into the dangerous theories of people like Irving Fisher, Ralph Hawtrey and J. M. Keynes that central bankers should manipulate their currencies to stabilize the price level. The papers I have seen show that, far from being a money manager and a price-level stabilizer, Strong expressed strong reservations about policies for stabilizing the price level, and was more in sympathy with the old-fashioned gold standard than with the gold-exchange standard — the paradigm promoted by Hawtrey and Cassel and endorsed at the Genoa Conference of 1922. Rothbard’s selective quotation from the memorandum summarizing Strong’s 1928 conversation with Sir Arthur Salter, which I will discuss below, gives a very inaccurate impression of Strong’s position on money management.

Here are a few of the documents that caught my eye.

On November 28 1927, Montague Norman wrote Strong about their planned meeting in January at Algeciras, Spain. Norman makes the following suggestion:

Perhaps the chief uncertainty or danger which confronts Central Bankers on this side of the Atlantic over the next half dozen years is the purchasing power of gold and the general price level. If not an immediate, it is a very serious question and has been too little considered up to the present. Cassel, as you will remember, has held up his warning finger on many occasions against the dangers of a continuing fall in the price level and the Conference at Genoa as you will remember, suggested that the danger could be met or prevented, by a more general use of the “Gold Exchange Standard”.

This is a very abstruse and complicated problem which personally I do not pretend to understand, the more so as it is based on somewhat uncertain statistics. But I rely for information from the outside about such a subject as this not, as you might suppose, on McKenna or Keynes, but on Sir Henry Strakosch. I am not sure if you know him: Austrian origin: many years in Johannesburg: 20 years in this country: a student of economics: a gold producer with general financial interests: perhaps the main stay in setting up the South African Reserve Bank: a member of the Financial Committee of the League and of the Indian Currency Commission: full of public spirit, genial and helpful . . . and so forth. I have probably told you that if I had been a Dictator he would have been a Director here years ago.

This is a problem to which Strackosch has given much study and it alarms him. He would say that none of us are paying sufficient attention to the possibility of a future fall in prices or are taking precautions to prepare any remedy such as was suggested at Genoa, namely smaller gold reserves through the Gold Exchange Standard, and that you, in the long run, will feel any trouble just as much as the rest of the Central Bankers will feel it.

My suggestion therefore is that it might be helpful if I could persuade Strakoosch too to come to Algeciras for a week: his visit could be quite casual and you would not be committed to any intrigue with him.

I gather from the tone of this letter and from other indications that the demands by the French to convert their foreign exchange to gold were already being made on the Bank of England and were causing some degree of consternation in London, which is why Norman was hoping that Strakosch might persuade Strong that something ought to be done to get the French to moderate their demands on the Bank of England to convert claims on sterling into gold. In the event, Strong met with Strakosch in December (probably in New York, not in Algeciras, without the presence of Norman). Not long thereafter Strong’s health deteriorated, and he took an extended leave from his duties at the bank. On March 27, 1928 Strong sent a letter to Norman outlining the main points of his conversation with Strakosch:

What [Strakosch] told me leads me to believe that he holds the following views:

  • That there is an impending shortage of monetary gold.
  • That there is certain to be a decline in the production by the South African mines.
  • That in consequence there will be a competition for gold between banks of issue which will lead to high discount rates, contracting credit and falling world commodity prices.
  • That Europe is so burdened with debt as to make such a development calamitous, possibly bankrupting some nations.
  • That the remedy is an extensive and formal development of the gold exchange standard.

From the above you will doubtless agree with me that Strakosch is a 100% “quantity” theory man, that he holds Cassel’s views in regard to the world’s gold position, and that he is alarmed at the outlook, just as most of the strict quantity theory men are, and rather expects that the banks of issue can do something about it.

Just as an aside, I will note that Strong is here displaying a rather common confusion, mixing up the quantity theory with a theory about the value of money under a gold standard. It’s a confusion that not only laymen, but also economists such as (to pick out a name almost at random) Milton Friedman, are very prone to fall into.

What he tells me is proposed consists of:

  • A study by the Financial Section of the League [of Nations] of the progress of economic recovery in Europe, which, he asserts, has closely followed progress in the resumption of gold payment or its equivalent.
  • A study of the gold problem, apparently in the perspective of the views of Cassel and others.
  • The submission of the results, with possibly some suggestions of a constructive nature, to a meeting of the heads of the banks of issue. He did not disclose whether the meeting would be a belated “Genoa resolution” meeting or something different.

What I told him appeared to shock him, and it was in brief:

  • That I did not share the fears of Cassel and others as to a gold shortage.
  • That I did not think that the quantity theory of prices, such for instance as Fisher has elaborate, “reduction ad absurdum,” was always dependable if unadulterated!
  • That I thought the gold exchange standard as now developing was hazardous in the extreme if allowed to proceed very much further, because of the duplication of bank liabilities upon the same gold.
  • That I much preferred to see the central banks build up their actual gold metal reserves in their own hands to something like orthodox proportions, and adopt their own monetary and credit policy and execute it themselves.
  • That I thought a meeting of the banks of issue in the immediate future to discuss the particular matter would be inappropriate and premature, until the vicissitudes of the Dawes Plan had developed further.
  • That any formal meeting of the banks of issue, if and when called, should originate among themselves rather than through the League, that the Genoa resolution was certainly no longer operative, and that such formal meeting should confine itself very specifically at the outset first to developing a sound basis of information, and second, to devising improvement in technique in gold practice

I am not at all sure that any formal meeting should be held before another year has elapsed. If it is held within a year or after a year, I am quite certain that it I attended it I could not do so helpfully if it tacitly implied acceptance of the principles set out in the Genoa resolution.

Stratosch is a fine fellow: I like him immensely, but I would feel reluctant to join in discussions where there was likelihood that the views so strongly advocated by Fisher, Cassel, Keynes, Commons, and others would seem likely to prevail. I would be willing at the proper time, if objection were not raised at home, to attend a conference of the banks of issue, if we could agree at the outset upon a simple platform, i.e., that gold is an effective measure of value and medium of exchange. If these two principles are extended, as seems to be in Stratosch’s mind, to mean that a manipulation of gold and credit can be employed as a regulator of prices at all times and under all circumstances, then I fear fundamental differences are inescapable.

And here is a third document in a similar vein that is also worth looking at. It is a memorandum written by O. E. Moore (a member of Strong’s staff at the New York Fed) providing a detailed account of the May 25, 1928 conversation between Strong and Sir Arthur Salter, then head of the economic and financial section of the League of Nations, who came to New York to ask for Strong’s cooperation in calling a new conference (already hinted at by Strakosch in his December conversation with Strong) with a view toward limiting the international demand for gold. Salter handed Strong a copy of a report by a committee of the League of Nations warning of the dangers of a steep increase in the value of gold because of increasing demand and a declining production.

Strong responded with a historical rendition of international monetary developments since the end of World War I, pointing out that even before the war was over he had been convinced of the need for cooperation among the world’s central banks, but then adding that he had been opposed to the recommendation of the 1922 Genoa Conference (largely drafted by Hawtrey and Cassel).

Governor Strong had been opposed from the start to the conclusions reached at the Genoa Conference. So far as he was aware, no one had ever been able to show any proof that there was a world shortage of gold or that there was likely to be any such shortage in the near future. . . . He was also opposed to the permanent operation of the gold exchange standard as outlined by the Genoa Conference, because it would mean by virtue of the extensive credits which the exchange standard countries would be holding in the gold centers, that they would be taking away from each of those two centers the control of their own money markets. This was an impossible thing for the Federal Reserve System to accept, so far as the American market was concerned, and in fact it was out of the question for any important country, it seemed to him, to give up entirely the direction of its own market. . . .

As a further aside, I will just observe that Strong’s objection to the gold exchange standard, namely that it permits an indefinite expansion of the money supply, a given base of gold reserves being able to support an unlimited expansion of the quantity of money, is simply wrong as a matter of theory. A country running a balance-of-payments deficit under a gold-exchange standard would be no less subject to the constraint of an external drain, even if it is holding reserves only in the form of instruments convertible into gold rather than actual gold, than it would be if it were operating under a gold standard holding reserves in gold.

Although Strong was emphatic that he could not agree to participate in any conference in which the policies and actions of the US could be determined by the views of other countries, he was open to a purely fact-finding commission to ascertain what the total world gold reserves were and how those were distributed among the different official reserve holding institutions. He also added this interesting caveat:

Governor Strong added that, in his estimation, it was very important that the men who undertook to find the answers to these questions should not be mere theorists who would take issue on controversial points, and that it would be most unfortunate if the report of such a commission should result in giving color to the views of men like Keynes, Cassel, and Fisher regarding an impending world shortage of gold and the necessity of stabilizing the price level. . . .

Governor Strong mentioned that one thing which had made him more wary than ever of the policies advocated by these men was that when Professor Fisher wrote his book on “Stabilizing the Dollar”, he had first submitted the manuscript to him (Governor Strong) and that the proposal made in that original manuscript was to adjust the gold content of the dollar as often as once a week, which in his opinion showed just how theoretical this group of economists were.

Here Strong was displaying the condescending attitude toward academic theorizing characteristic of men of affairs, especially characteristic of brilliant and self-taught men of affairs. Whether such condescension is justified is a question for which there is no general answer. However, it is clear to me that Strong did not have an accurate picture of what was happening in 1928 and what dangers were lying ahead of him and the world in the last few months of his life. So the confidence of Friedman, Kindelberger, Fisher, and Hawtrey in Strong’s surpassing judgment does not seem to me to rest on any evidence that Strong actually understood the situation in 1928 and certainly not that he knew what to do about it. On the contrary he was committed to a policy that was leading to disaster, or at least, was not going to avoid disaster. The most that can be said is that he was at least informed about the dangers, and if he had lived long enough to observe that the dangers about which he had been warned were coming to pass, he would have had the wit and the good sense and the courage to change his mind and take the actions that might have avoided catastrophe. But that possibility is just a possibility, and we can hardly be sure that, in the counterfactual universe in which Strong does not die in 1928, the Great Depression never happened.

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Trying to Make Sense of the Insane Policy of the Bank of France and Other Catastrophes

In the almost four years since I started blogging I have occasionally referred to the insane Bank of France or to the insane policy of the Bank of France, a mental disorder that helped cause the deflation that produced the Great Depression. The insane policy began in 1928 when the Bank of France began converting its rapidly growing stockpile of foreign-exchange reserves (i.e., dollar- or sterling-denominated financial instruments) into gold. The conversion of foreign exchange was precipitated by the enactment of a law restoring the legal convertibility of the franc into gold and requiring the Bank of France to hold gold reserves equal to at least 35% of its outstanding banknotes. The law induced a massive inflow of gold into the Bank of France, and, after the Federal Reserve recklessly tightened its policy in an attempt to stamp out stock speculation on Wall Street, thereby inducing an inflow of gold into the US, the one-two punch knocked the world economy into just the deflationary tailspin that Hawtrey and Cassel, had warned would result if the postwar restoration of the gold standard were not managed so as to minimize the increase in the monetary demand for gold.

In making a new round of revisions to our paper on Hawtrey and Cassel, my co-author Ron Batchelder has just added an interesting footnote pointing out that there may have been a sensible rationale for the French gold policy: to accumulate a sufficient hoard of gold for use in case of another war with Germany. In World War I, belligerents withdrew gold coins from circulation, melted them down, and, over the next few years, exported the gold to neutral countries to pay for food and war supplies. That’s how the US, remaining neutral till 1917, wound up with a staggering 40% of the world’s stock of monetary gold reserves after the war. Obsessed with the military threat a re-armed Germany would pose, France insisted that the Versailles Treaty impose crippling reparations payments. The 1926 stabilization of the franc and enactment of the law restoring the gold standard and imposing a 35% reserve requirement on banknotes issued by the Bank of France occurred during the premiership of the staunchly anti-German Raymond Poincaré, a native of Lorraine (lost to Prussia in the war of 1870-71) and President of France during World War I.

A long time ago I wrote a paper “An Evolutionary Theory of the State Monopoly over Money” (which was reworked as chapter two of my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform and was later published in Money and the Nation State) in which, relying on an argument made by Earl Thompson, I suggested that historically the main reason for the nearly ubiquitous state involvement in supplying money was military not monetary: monopoly control over the supply of money enables the sovereign to quickly gain control over resources in war time, thereby giving states in which the sovereign controls the supply of money a military advantage over states in which the sovereign has no such control. Subsequently, Thompson further developed the idea to explain the rise of the gold standard after the Bank of England was founded in 1694, early in the reign of William and Mary, to finance rebuilding of the English navy, largely destroyed by the French in 1690. As explained by Macaulay in his History of England, the Bank of England, by substantially reducing the borrowing costs of the British government, was critical to the survival of the new monarchs in their battle with the Stuarts and Louis XIV. See Thompson’s article “The Gold Standard: Causes and Consequences” in Business Cycles and Depressions: An Encyclopedia (edited by me).

Thompson’s article is not focused on the holding of gold reserves, but on the confidence that the gold standard gave to those lending to the state, especially during a wartime suspension of convertibility, owing to an implicit commitment to restore the gold standard at the prewar parity. The importance of that implicit commitment is one reason why Churchill’s 1925 decision to restore the gold standard at the prewar parity was not necessarily as foolish as Keynes (The Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill), along with almost all subsequent commentators, judged it to have been. But the postwar depreciation of the franc was so extreme that restoring the convertibility of the franc at the prewar parity became a practical impossibility, and the new parity at which convertibility was restored was just a fifth of its prewar level. Having thus reneged on its implicit commitment to restore the gold standard at the prewar parity, impairing its ability to borrow, France may have felt it had no alternative but to accumulate a ready gold reserve from which to draw when another war against Germany came. This is just theoretical speculation, but it might provide some clues for historical research into the thinking of French politicians and bankers in the late 1920s as they formulated their strategy for rejoining the gold standard.

However, even if the motivation for France’s gold accumulation was not simply a miserly desire to hold ever larger piles of shiny gold ingots in the vaults of the Banque de France, but was a precautionary measure against the possibility of a future war with Germany – and we know only too well that the fear was not imaginary – it is important to understand that, in the end, it was almost certainly the French policy of gold accumulation that paved the way for Hitler’s rise to power and all that entailed. Without the Great Depression and the collapse of the German economy, Hitler might well have remained an outcast on the margins of German politics.

The existence of a legitimate motivation for the insane policy of the Bank of France cannot excuse the failure to foresee the all too predictable consequences of that policy – consequences laid out plainly by Hawtrey and Cassel already in 1919-20, and reiterated consistently over the ensuing decade. Nor does the approval of that policy by reputable, even eminent, economists, who simply failed to understand how the gold standard worked, absolve those who made the wrong decisions of responsibility for their mistaken decisions. They were warned about the consequences of their actions, and chose to disregard the warnings.

All of this is sadly reminiscent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I don’t agree with those who ascribe evil motives to the Bush administration for invading Iraq, though there seems little doubt that the WMD issue was largely pretextual. But that doesn’t mean that Bush et al. didn’t actually believe that Saddam had WMD. More importantly, I think that Bush et al. sincerely thought that invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein would, after the supposed defeat of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, establish a benign American dominance in the region, as World War II had done in Japan and Western Europe.

The problem is not, as critics like to say, that Bush et al. lied us into war; the problem is that they stupidly fooled themselves into thinking that they could just invade Iraq, unseat Saddam Hussein, and that their job would be over. They fooled themselves even though they had been warned in advance that Iraq was riven by internal ethnic, sectarian, religious and political divisions. Brutally suppressed by Hussein and his Ba’athist regime, those differences were bound to reemerge once the regime was dismantled. When General Eric Shinseki’s testified before Congress that hundreds of thousands of American troops would be needed to maintain peace and order after Hussein was ousted, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld could only respond with triumphalist ridicule at the idea that more troops would be required to maintain law and order in Iraq after Hussein was deposed than were needed to depose him. The sophomoric shallowness of the response to Shinseki by those that planned the invasion still shocks and appalls.

It’s true that, after the Republican loss in the 2006 Congressional elections, Bush, freeing himself from the influence of Dick Cheney and replacing Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, and Gen. George Casey with Gen. David Petraeus as commander of US forces in Iraq, finally adopted the counter-insurgency strategy (aka the “surge”) so long resisted by Cheney and Rumsfeld, thereby succeeding in putting down the Sunni/Al-Qaeda/Baathist insurgency and in bringing the anti-American Shi’ite militias to heel. I wrote about the success of the surge in December 2007 when that provisional military success was still controversial. But, as General Petraeus conceded, the ultimate success of the counter-insurgency strategy depended on implementing a political strategy to reconcile the different elements of Iraqi society to their government. We now know that even in 2008 Premier Nouri al-Maliki, who had been installed as premier with the backing of the Bush administration, was already reversing the limited steps taken during the surge to achieve accommodation between Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’ites, while consolidating his Shi’ite base by reconciling politically with the pro-Iranian militants he had put down militarily.

The failure of the Iraqi government to consolidate and maintain the gains made in 2007-08 has been blamed on Obama’s decision to withdraw all American forces from Iraq after the status of forces agreement signed by President Bush and Premier al-Maliki in December 2008 expired at the end of 2011. But preserving the gains made in 2007-08 depended on a political strategy to reconcile the opposing ethnic and sectarian factions of Iraqi society. The Bush administration could not implement such a strategy with 130,000 troops still in Iraq at the end of 2008, and the sovereign Iraqi government in place, left to its own devices, had no interest in pursuing such a strategy. Perhaps keeping a larger US presence in Iraq for a longer time would have kept Iraq from falling apart as fast as it has, but the necessary conditions for a successful political outcome were never in place.

So even if the motivation for the catastrophic accumulation of gold by France in the 1928-29 was merely to prepare itself to fight, if need be, another war against Germany, the fact remains that the main accomplishment of the gold-accumulation policy was to bring to power a German regime far more dangerous and threatening than the one that would have otherwise confronted France. And even if the motivation for the catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003 was to defeat and discredit Islamic terrorism, the fact remains that the invasion, just as Osama bin Laden had hoped, was to create the conditions in which Islamic terrorism could grow into a worldwide movement, attracting would-be jihadists to a growing number of local conflicts across the world. Although bin Laden was eventually killed in his Pakistani hideout, the invasion of Iraq led to rise of an even more sophisticated, more dangerous, and more threatening opponent than the one the invasion was intended to eradicate. Just as a misunderstanding of the gold standard led to catastrophe in 1928-29, the misconception that the threat of terrorism can be eliminated by military means has been leading us toward catastrophe since 2003. When will we learn?

PS Despite some overlap between what I say above and what David Henderson said in this post, I am not a libertarian or a non-interventionist.

Optimistic Thoughts about Productivity Growth and Secular Stagnation

The world, for all kinds of reasons, seems to be in a rather deplorable state, and the trendlines are not necessarily pointed in the right direction either. I won’t go through the whole, or even a partial, list of what is depressing me these days, but there is one topic that comes up a lot in the economics blogosphere, secular stagnation, about which I can conjure up some reasons for optimism.

What a lot of people are depressed about is the unusually low rate of growth in labor productivity that we have seen in the current recovery from the Little Depression. Although the rate of job creation has picked up over the past 15 months or so, averaging over 200,000 new jobs a month, the minimal increases in labor productivity mean that output growth has been much slower than usually observed in previous recoveries from steep downturns. The slow increase in labor productivity and the corresponding weakness of the recovery have been widely cited as evidence that we have entered into an era of secular stagnation.

I don’t deny that secular stagnation is a reasonable inference to be drawn from the persistently low increases in labor productivity during this recovery, but it does seem to me that a less depressing, though perhaps partial, explanation for low productivity growth may be available. My suggestion is that the 2008-09 downturn was associated with major sectoral shifts that caused an unusually large reallocation of labor from industries like construction and finance to other industries so that an unusually large number of workers have had to find new jobs doing work different from what they were doing previously. In many recessions, laid-off workers are either re-employed at their old jobs or find new jobs doing basically the same work that they had been doing at their old jobs. When workers transfer from one job to another similar job, there is little reason to expect a decline in their productivity after they are re-employed, but when workers are re-employed doing something very different from what they did before, a significant drop in their productivity in their new jobs is likely, though there may instances when, as workers gain new skills and experience in their new jobs, their productivity will rise rapidly.

In addition, the number of long-term unemployed (27 weeks or more) since the 2000-09 downturn has been unusually high. Workers who remain unemployed for an extended period of time tend to suffer an erosion of skills, causing their productivity to drop when they are re-employed even if they are able to find a new job in their old occupation. It seems likely that the percentage of long-term unemployed workers that switch occupations is larger than the percentage of short-term unemployed workers that switch occupations, so the unusually high rate of long-term unemployment has probably had a doubly negative effect on labor productivity.

I would even hazard a guess that the low rate of productivity growth in the 1970s may have also, at least in part, been skills-related, though for somewhat different reasons. The 1970s were a period of rapid growth in the labor force because of an influx of women and baby boomers, which continued throughout the 1980s. The influx of first-time workers into the labor force may have had something to do with slowdown in productivity growth in the 1970s and 1980s compared to the 1950s and 1960s, though the increase in the absolute size of the labor force was also a factor in holding down the rate of productivity growth. When the labor-force participation rate peaked in the 1990s, the rate of productivity growth increased.

I am not a labor economist, but a quick internet search seems to indicate that a strong empirical connection between labor-force composition and productivity growth has not been found. But another factor, the increase in energy prices, also had a skills aspect, the adjustment to increased energy prices having led to the adoption of new technologies and new methods of production that presumably required new skills different from those that workers had previously acquired. And the new technologies adopted in response to a sudden increase in energy prices had to go through a period of implementation and debugging and improvement during which measured productivity likely declined. Technological transformations require many workers to learn new skills and adapt to new technologies. The time spent learning how to do new things in new ways and figuring out how to do them better and more efficiently may have caused the measured productivity of such workers to drop, thereby slowing down the overall rate of productivity growth.

At any rate, if the anomalous decline in productivity in the expansion following the 2008-09 downturn has been caused, even if only in part, by a loss of skills by workers who were induced to change jobs or occupations or who experienced long periods of unemployment, that decline in unlikely to be permanent, so that the rate of productivity growth and the rate of growth in real GDP can be expected to pick up somewhat over time. Stagnation may therefore not be as long-lasting as some people fear.

Maybe that’s not such a great reason for optimism, but for now at least, it’s the best that I can muster.

Repeat after Me: Inflation’s the Cure not the Disease

Last week Martin Feldstein triggered a fascinating four-way exchange with a post explaining yet again why we still need to be worried about inflation. Tony Yates responded first with an explanation of why money printing doesn’t work at the zero lower bound (aka liquidity trap), leading Paul Krugman to comment wearily about the obtuseness of all those right-wingers who just can’t stop obsessing about the non-existent inflation threat when, all along, it was crystal clear that in a liquidity trap, printing money is useless.

I’m still not sure why relatively moderate conservatives like Feldstein didn’t find all this convincing back in 2009. I get, I think, why politics might predispose them to see inflation risks everywhere, but this was as crystal-clear a proposition as I’ve ever seen. Still, even if you managed to convince yourself that the liquidity-trap analysis was wrong six years ago, by now you should surely have realized that Bernanke, Woodford, Eggertsson, and, yes, me got it right.

But no — it’s a complete puzzle. Maybe it’s because those tricksy Fed officials started paying all of 25 basis points on reserves (Japan never paid such interest). Anyway, inflation is just around the corner, the same way it has been all these years.

Which surprisingly (not least to Krugman) led Brad DeLong to rise to Feldstein’s defense (well, sort of), pointing out that there is a respectable argument to be made for why even if money printing is not immediately effective at the zero lower bound, it could still be effective down the road, so that the mere fact that inflation has been consistently below 2% since the crash (except for a short blip when oil prices spiked in 2011-12) doesn’t mean that inflation might not pick up quickly once inflation expectations pick up a bit, triggering an accelerating and self-sustaining inflation as all those hitherto idle balances start gushing into circulation.

That argument drew a slightly dyspeptic response from Krugman who again pointed out, as had Tony Yates, that at the zero lower bound, the demand for cash is virtually unlimited so that there is no tendency for monetary expansion to raise prices, as if DeLong did not already know that. For some reason, Krugman seems unwilling to accept the implication of the argument in his own 1998 paper that he cites frequently: that for an increase in the money stock to raise the price level – note that there is an implicit assumption that the real demand for money does not change – the increase must be expected to be permanent. (I also note that the argument had been made almost 20 years earlier by Jack Hirshleifer, in his Fisherian text on capital theory, Capital Interest and Investment.) Thus, on Krugman’s own analysis, the effect of an increase in the money stock is expectations-dependent. A change in monetary policy will be inflationary if it is expected to be inflationary, and it will not be inflationary if it is not expected to be inflationary. And Krugman even quotes himself on the point, referring to

my call for the Bank of Japan to “credibly promise to be irresponsible” — to make the expansion of the base permanent, by committing to a relatively high inflation target. That was the main point of my 1998 paper!

So the question whether the monetary expansion since 2008 will ever turn out to be inflationary depends not on an abstract argument about the shape of the LM curve, but about the evolution of inflation expectations over time. I’m not sure that I’m persuaded by DeLong’s backward induction argument – an argument that I like enough to have used myself on occasion while conceding that the logic may not hold in the real word – but there is no logical inconsistency between the backward-induction argument and Krugman’s credibility argument; they simply reflect different conjectures about the evolution of inflation expectations in a world in which there is uncertainty about what the future monetary policy of the central bank is going to be (in other words, a world like the one we inhabit).

Which brings me to the real point of this post: the problem with monetary policy since 2008 has been that the Fed has credibly adopted a 2% inflation target, a target that, it is generally understood, the Fed prefers to undershoot rather than overshoot. Thus, in operational terms, the actual goal is really less than 2%. As long as the inflation target credibly remains less than 2%, the argument about inflation risk is about the risk that the Fed will credibly revise its target upwards.

With the both Wickselian natural real and natural nominal short-term rates of interest probably below zero, it would have made sense to raise the inflation target to get the natural nominal short-term rate above zero. There were other reasons to raise the inflation target as well, e.g., providing debt relief to debtors, thereby benefitting not only debtors but also those creditors whose debtors simply defaulted.

Krugman takes it for granted that monetary policy is impotent at the zero lower bound, but that impotence is not inherent; it is self-imposed by the credibility of the Fed’s own inflation target. To be sure, changing the inflation target is not a decision that we would want the Fed to take lightly, because it opens up some very tricky time-inconsistency problems. However, in a crisis, you may have to take a chance and hope that credibility can be restored by future responsible behavior once things get back to normal.

In this vein, I am reminded of the 1930 exchange between Hawtrey and Hugh Pattison Macmillan, chairman of the Committee on Finance and Industry, when Hawtrey, testifying before the Committee, suggested that the Bank of England reduce Bank Rate even at the risk of endangering the convertibility of sterling into gold (England eventually left the gold standard a little over a year later)

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

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

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

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

Of course the best evidence for the effectiveness of monetary policy at the zero lower bound was provided three years later, in April 1933, when FDR suspended the gold standard in the US, causing the dollar to depreciate against gold, triggering an immediate rise in US prices (wholesale prices rising 14% from April through July) and the fastest real recovery in US history (industrial output rising by over 50% over the same period). A recent paper by Andrew Jalil and Gisela Rua documents this amazing recovery from the depths of the Great Depression and the crucial role that changing inflation expectations played in stimulating the recovery. They also make a further important point: that by announcing a price level target, FDR both accelerated the recovery and prevented expectations of inflation from increasing without limit. The 1933 episode suggests that a sharp, but limited, increase in the price-level target would generate a faster and more powerful output response than an incremental increase in the inflation target. Unfortunately, after the 2008 downturn we got neither.

Maybe it’s too much to expect that an unelected central bank would take upon itself to adopt as a policy goal a substantial increase in the price level. Had the Fed announced such a goal after the 2008 crisis, it would have invited a potentially fatal attack, and not just from the usual right-wing suspects, on its institutional independence. Price stability, is after all, part of dual mandate that Fed is legally bound to pursue. And it was FDR, not the Fed, that took the US off the gold standard.

But even so, we at least ought to be clear that if monetary policy is impotent at the zero lower bound, the impotence is not caused by any inherent weakness, but by the institutional and political constraints under which it operates in a constitutional system. And maybe there is no better argument for nominal GDP level targeting than that it offers a practical and civilly reverent way of allowing monetary policy to be effective at the zero lower bound.


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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