Archive for September, 2016

Price Stickiness Is a Symptom not a Cause

In my recent post about Nick Rowe and the law of reflux, I mentioned in passing that I might write a post soon about price stickiness. The reason that I thought it would be worthwhile writing again about price stickiness (which I have written about before here and here), because Nick, following a broad consensus among economists, identifies price stickiness as a critical cause of fluctuations in employment and income. Here’s how Nick phrased it:

An excess demand for land is observed in the land market. An excess demand for bonds is observed in the bond market. An excess demand for equities is observed in the equity market. An excess demand for money is observed in any market. If some prices adjust quickly enough to clear their market, but other prices are sticky so their markets don’t always clear, we may observe an excess demand for money as an excess supply of goods in those sticky-price markets, but the prices in flexible-price markets will still be affected by the excess demand for money.

Then a bit later, Nick continues:

If individuals want to save in the form of money, they won’t collectively be able to if the stock of money does not increase.There will be an excess demand for money in all the money markets, except those where the price of the non-money thing in that market is flexible and adjusts to clear that market. In the sticky-price markets there will nothing an individual can do if he wants to buy more money but nobody else wants to sell more. But in those same sticky-price markets any individual can always sell less money, regardless of what any other individual wants to do. Nobody can stop you selling less money, if that’s what you want to do.

Unable to increase the flow of money into their portfolios, each individual reduces the flow of money out of his portfolio. Demand falls in stick-price markets, quantity traded is determined by the short side of the market (Q=min{Qd,Qs}), so trade falls, and some traders that would be mutually advantageous in a barter or Walrasian economy even at those sticky prices don’t get made, and there’s a recession. Since money is used for trade, the demand for money depends on the volume of trade. When trade falls the flow of money falls too, and the stock demand for money falls, until the representative individual chooses a flow of money out of his portfolio equal to the flow in. He wants to increase the flow in, but cannot, since other individuals don’t want to increase their flows out.

The role of price stickiness or price rigidity in accounting for involuntary unemployment is an old and complicated story. If you go back and read what economists before Keynes had to say about the Great Depression, you will find that there was considerable agreement that, in principle, if workers were willing to accept a large enough cut in their wages, they could all get reemployed. That was a proposition accepted by Hawtry and by Keynes. However, they did not believe that wage cutting was a good way of restoring full employment, because the process of wage cutting would be brutal economically and divisive – even self-destructive – politically. So they favored a policy of reflation that would facilitate and hasten the process of recovery. However, there also those economists, e.g., Ludwig von Mises and the young Lionel Robbins in his book The Great Depression, (which he had the good sense to disavow later in life) who attributed high unemployment to an unwillingness of workers and labor unions to accept wage cuts and to various other legal barriers preventing the price mechanism from operating to restore equilibrium in the normal way that prices adjust to equate the amount demanded with the amount supplied in each and every single market.

But in the General Theory, Keynes argued that if you believed in the standard story told by microeconomics about how prices constantly adjust to equate demand and supply and maintain equilibrium, then maybe you should be consistent and follow the Mises/Robbins story and just wait for the price mechanism to perform its magic, rather than support counter-cyclical monetary and fiscal policies. So Keynes then argued that there is actually something wrong with the standard microeconomic story; price adjustments can’t ensure that overall economic equilibrium is restored, because the level of employment depends on aggregate demand, and if aggregate demand is insufficient, wage cutting won’t increase – and, more likely, would reduce — aggregate demand, so that no amount of wage-cutting would succeed in reducing unemployment.

To those upholding the idea that the price system is a stable self-regulating system or process for coordinating a decentralized market economy, in other words to those upholding microeconomic orthodoxy as developed in any of the various strands of the neoclassical paradigm, Keynes’s argument was deeply disturbing and subversive.

In one of the first of his many important publications, “Liquidity Preference and the Theory of Money and Interest,” Franco Modigliani argued that, despite Keynes’s attempt to prove that unemployment could persist even if prices and wages were perfectly flexible, the assumption of wage rigidity was in fact essential to arrive at Keynes’s result that there could be an equilibrium with involuntary unemployment. Modigliani did so by positing a model in which the supply of labor is a function of real wages. It was not hard for Modigliani to show that in such a model an equilibrium with unemployment required a rigid real wage.

Modigliani was not in favor of relying on price flexibility instead of counter-cyclical policy to solve the problem of involuntary unemployment; he just argued that the rationale for such policies had to be that prices and wages were not adjusting immediately to clear markets. But the inference that Modigliani drew from that analysis — that price flexibility would lead to an equilibrium with full employment — was not valid, there being no guarantee that price adjustments would necessarily lead to equilibrium, unless all prices and wages instantaneously adjusted to their new equilibrium in response to any deviation from a pre-existing equilibrium.

All the theory of general equilibrium tells us is that if all trading takes place at the equilibrium set of prices, the economy will be in equilibrium as long as the underlying “fundamentals” of the economy do not change. But in a decentralized economy, no one knows what the equilibrium prices are, and the equilibrium price in each market depends in principle on what the equilibrium prices are in every other market. So unless the price in every market is an equilibrium price, none of the markets is necessarily in equilibrium.

Now it may well be that if all prices are close to equilibrium, the small changes will keep moving the economy closer and closer to equilibrium, so that the adjustment process will converge. But that is just conjecture, there is no proof showing the conditions under which a simple rule that says raise the price in any market with an excess demand and decrease the price in any market with an excess supply will in fact lead to the convergence of the whole system to equilibrium. Even in a Walrasian tatonnement system, in which no trading at disequilibrium prices is allowed, there is no proof that the adjustment process will eventually lead to the discovery of the equilibrium price vector. If trading at disequilibrium prices is allowed, tatonnement is hopeless.

So the real problem is not that prices are sticky but that trading takes place at disequilibrium prices and there is no mechanism by which to discover what the equilibrium prices are. Modern macroeconomics solves this problem, in its characteristic fashion, by assuming it away by insisting that expectations are “rational.”

Economists have allowed themselves to make this absurd assumption because they are in the habit of thinking that the simple rule of raising price when there is an excess demand and reducing the price when there is an excess supply inevitably causes convergence to equilibrium. This habitual way of thinking has been inculcated in economists by the intense, and largely beneficial, training they have been subjected to in Marshallian partial-equilibrium analysis, which is built on the assumption that every market can be analyzed in isolation from every other market. But that analytic approach can only be justified under a very restrictive set of assumptions. In particular it is assumed that any single market under consideration is small relative to the whole economy, so that its repercussions on other markets can be ignored, and that every other market is in equilibrium, so that there are no changes from other markets that are impinging on the equilibrium in the market under consideration.

Neither of these assumptions is strictly true in theory, so all partial equilibrium analysis involves a certain amount of hand-waving. Nor, even if we wanted to be careful and precise, could we actually dispense with the hand-waving; the hand-waving is built into the analysis, and can’t be avoided. I have often referred to these assumptions required for the partial-equilibrium analysis — the bread and butter microeconomic analysis of Econ 101 — to be valid as the macroeconomic foundations of microeconomics, by which I mean that the casual assumption that microeconomics somehow has a privileged and secure theoretical position compared to macroeconomics and that macroeconomic propositions are only valid insofar as they can be reduced to more basic microeconomic principles is entirely unjustified. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about reconciling macroeconomics with microeconomics; it just means that the validity of proposition in macroeconomics is not necessarily contingent on being derived from microeconomics. Reducing macroeconomics to microeconomics should be an analytical challenge, not a methodological imperative.

So the assumption, derived from Modigliani’s 1944 paper that “price stickiness” is what prevents an economic system from moving automatically to a new equilibrium after being subjected to some shock or disturbance, reflects either a misunderstanding or a semantic confusion. It is not price stickiness that prevents the system from moving toward equilibrium, it is the fact that individuals are engaging in transactions at disequilibrium prices. We simply do not know how to compare different sets of non-equilibrium prices to determine which set of non-equilibrium prices will move the economy further from or closer to equilibrium. Our experience and out intuition suggest that in some neighborhood of equilibrium, an economy can absorb moderate shocks without going into a cumulative contraction. But all we really know from theory is that any trading at any set of non-equilibrium prices can trigger an economic contraction, and once it starts to occur, a contraction may become cumulative.

It is also a mistake to assume that in a world of incomplete markets, the missing markets being markets for the delivery of goods and the provision of services in the future, any set of price adjustments, however large, could by themselves ensure that equilibrium is restored. With an incomplete set of markets, economic agents base their decisions not just on actual prices in the existing markets; they base their decisions on prices for future goods and services which can only be guessed at. And it is only when individual expectations of those future prices are mutually consistent that equilibrium obtains. With inconsistent expectations of future prices, the adjustments in current prices in the markets that exist for currently supplied goods and services that in some sense equate amounts demanded and supplied, lead to a (temporary) equilibrium that is not efficient, one that could be associated with high unemployment and unused capacity even though technically existing markets are clearing.

So that’s why I regard the term “sticky prices” and other similar terms as very unhelpful and misleading; they are a kind of mental crutch that economists are too ready to rely on as a substitute for thinking about what are the actual causes of economic breakdowns, crises, recessions, and depressions. Most of all, they represent an uncritical transfer of partial-equilibrium microeconomic thinking to a problem that requires a system-wide macroeconomic approach. That approach should not ignore microeconomic reasoning, but it has to transcend both partial-equilibrium supply-demand analysis and the mathematics of intertemporal optimization.

Paul Romer on Modern Macroeconomics, Or, the “All Models Are False” Dodge

Paul Romer has been engaged for some time in a worthy campaign against the travesty of modern macroeconomics. A little over a year ago I commented favorably about Romer’s takedown of Robert Lucas, but I also defended George Stigler against what I thought was an unfair attempt by Romer to identify George Stigler as an inspiration and role model for Lucas’s transgressions. Now just a week ago, a paper based on Romer’s Commons Memorial Lecture to the Omicron Delta Epsilon Society, has become just about the hottest item in the econ-blogosophere, even drawing the attention of Daniel Drezner in the Washington Post.

I have already written critically about modern macroeconomics in my five years of blogging, and here are some links to previous posts (link, link, link, link). It’s good to see that Romer is continuing to voice his criticisms, and that they are gaining a lot of attention. But the macroeconomic hierarchy is used to criticism, and has its standard responses to criticism, which are being dutifully deployed by defenders of the powers that be.

Romer’s most effective rhetorical strategy is to point out that the RBC core of modern DSGE models posit unobservable taste and technology shocks to account for fluctuations in the economic time series, but that these taste and technology shocks are themselves simply inferred from the fluctuations in the times-series data, so that the entire structure of modern macroeconometrics is little more than an elaborate and sophisticated exercise in question-begging.

In this post, I just want to highlight one of the favorite catch-phrases of modern macroeconomics which serves as a kind of default excuse and self-justification for the rampant empirical failures of modern macroeconomics (documented by Lipsey and Carlaw as I showed in this post). When confronted by evidence that the predictions of their models are wrong, the standard and almost comically self-confident response of the modern macroeconomists is: All models are false. By which the modern macroeconomists apparently mean something like: “And if they are all false anyway, you can’t hold us accountable, because any model can be proven wrong. What really matters is that our models, being microfounded, are not subject to the Lucas Critique, and since all other models than ours are not micro-founded, and, therefore, being subject to the Lucas Critique, they are simply unworthy of consideration. This is what I have called methodological arrogance. That response is simply not true, because the Lucas Critique applies even to micro-founded models, those models being strictly valid only in equilibrium settings and being unable to predict the adjustment of economies in the transition between equilibrium states. All models are subject to the Lucas Critique.

Here is Romer’s take:

In response to the observation that the shocks are imaginary, a standard defense invokes Milton Friedman’s (1953) methodological assertion from unnamed authority that “the more significant the theory, the more unrealistic the assumptions (p.14).” More recently, “all models are false” seems to have become the universal hand-wave for dismissing any fact that does not conform to the model that is the current favorite.

Friedman’s methodological assertion would have been correct had Friedman substituted “simple” for “unrealistic.” Sometimes simplifications are unrealistic, but they don’t have to be. A simplification is a generalization of something complicated. By simplifying, we can transform a problem that had been too complex to handle into a problem more easily analyzed. But such simplifications aren’t necessarily unrealistic. To say that all models are false is simply a dodge to avoid having to account for failure. The excuse of course is that all those other models are subject to the Lucas Critique, so my model wins. But your model is subject to the Lucas Critique even though you claim it’s not, so even according to the rules you have arbitrarily laid down, you don’t win.

So I was just curious about where the little phrase “all models are false” came from. I was expecting that Karl Popper might have said it, in which case to use the phrase as a defense mechanism against empirical refutation would have been a particularly fraudulent tactic, because it would have been a perversion of Popper’s methodological stance, which was to force our theoretical constructs to face up to, not to insulate it from, empirical testing. But when I googled “all theories are false” what I found was not Popper, but the British statistician, G. E. P. Box who wrote in his paper “Science and Statistics” based on his R. A. Fisher Memorial Lecture to the American Statistical Association: “All models are wrong.” Here’s the exact quote:

Since all models are wrong the scientist cannot obtain a “correct” one by excessive elaboration. On the contrary following William of Occam he should seek an economical description of natural phenomena. Just as the ability to devise simple but evocative models is the signature of the great scientist so overelaboration and overparameterization is often the mark of mediocrity.

Since all models are wrong the scientist must be alert to what is importantly wrong. It is inappropriate to be concerned about mice when there are tigers abroad. Pure mathematics is concerned with propositions like “given that A is true, does B necessarily follow?” Since the statement is a conditional one, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the truth of A nor of the consequences B in relation to real life. The pure mathematician, acting in that capacity, need not, and perhaps should not, have any contact with practical matters at all.

In applying mathematics to subjects such as physics or statistics we make tentative assumptions about the real world which we know are false but which we believe may be useful nonetheless. The physicist knows that particles have mass and yet certain results, approximating what really happens, may be derived from the assumption that they do not. Equally, the statistician knows, for example, that in nature there never was a normal distribution, there never was a straight line, yet with normal and linear assumptions, known to be false, he can often derive results which match, to a useful approximation, those found in the real world. It follows that, although rigorous derivation of logical consequences is of great importance to statistics, such derivations are necessarily encapsulated in the knowledge that premise, and hence consequence, do not describe natural truth.

It follows that we cannot know that any statistical technique we develop is useful unless we use it. Major advances in science and in the science of statistics in particular, usually occur, therefore, as the result of the theory-practice iteration.

One of the most annoying conceits of modern macroeconomists is the constant self-congratulatory references to themselves as scientists because of their ostentatious use of axiomatic reasoning, formal proofs, and higher mathematical techniques. The tiresome self-congratulation might get toned down ever so slightly if they bothered to read and take to heart Box’s lecture.

Putin v. Obama: It’s the Economy, Stupid

A couple of days ago, Daniel Drezner wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post commenting on a statement made by one of the candidates in the recent televised forum on national security.

Last week at a televised presidential forum on national security, Donald Trump continued his pattern of praising Russian President Vladimir Putin. In particular, Trump said the following:

I mean, the man has very strong control over a country. And that’s a very different system and I don’t happen to like the system. But certainly in that system he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader. We have a divided country.

As my Post colleague David Weigel notes, this is simply Trump’s latest slathering of praise onto the Russian strongman:

Trump goes further than many Republicans. In his telling, Putin — a “strong leader” — epitomizes how any serious president should position his country in the world. Knowingly or not, Trump builds on years of wistful, sometimes ironic praise of Putin as a swaggering, bare-chested autocrat.

After the forum, his running mate, Mike Pence, who used to be more critical of Putin, doubled down on Trump’s claim:

Pence walked that line back a little Sunday, suggesting that he was trying to indict the “weak and feckless leadership” of President Obama — but you get the point.

Well, if we are going to compare the leadership of Putin and Obama, why not compare them by measuring what people really care about? After all, don’t we all know that “it’s the economy, stupid.”

So let’s see how what Putin’s leadership has done for Russia compares with what Obama’s leadership has done for the US? We all know that the last eight years under Obama have not been the greatest, but if it’s Putin that Obama is being compared to, we ought to check out how Putin’s “very strong” leadership has worked out for the Russian economy as opposed to Obama’s “weak and feckless leadership” has worked out for the US economy.

Here’s a little graph comparing US and Russian GDP between 2008 and 2015. To make the comparison on an even playing field, I have normalized GDP for both countries at 1.0 in 2008.

putin_v_obamaLooks to me like Obama wins that leadership contest pretty handily. And it’s not getting any better for Putin in 2016, as the Russian economy continues to contract, while the US economy continues to expand, albeit slowly, in 2016.

So chalk one up for the home team.


Nick Rowe Ignores, But Does Not Refute, the Law of Reflux

In yet another splendid post, Nick Rowe once again explains what makes money – the medium of exchange – so special. Money – the medium of exchange – is the only commodity that is traded in every market. Unlike every other commodity, each of which has a market of its very own, in which it – and only it – is traded (for money!), money has no market of its own, because money — the medium of exchange — is traded in every other market.

This distinction is valid and every important, and Nick is right to emphasize it, even obsess about it. Here’s how Nick described it his post:

1. If you want to increase the stock of land in your portfolio, there’s only one way to do it. You must increase the flow of land into your portfolio, by buying more land.

If you want to increase the stock of bonds in your portfolio, there’s only one way to do it. You must increase the flow of bonds into your portfolio, by buying more bonds.

If you want to increase the stock of equities in your portfolio, there’s only one way to do it. You must increase the flow of equities into your portfolio, by buying more equities.

But if you want to increase the stock of money in your portfolio, there are two ways to do it. You can increase the flow of money into your portfolio, by buying more money (selling more other things for money). Or you can decrease the flow of money out of your portfolio, by selling less money (buying less other things for money).

An individual who wants to increase his stock of money will still have a flow of money out of his portfolio. But he will plan to have a bigger flow in than flow out.

OK, let’s think about this for a second. Again, I totally agree with Nick that money is traded in every market. But is it really the case that there is no market in which only money is traded? If there is no market in which only money is traded, how do we explain the quantity of money in existence at any moment of time as the result of an economic process? Is it – I mean the quantity of money — just like an external fact of nature that is inexplicable in terms of economic theory?

Well, actually, the answer is: maybe it is, and maybe it’s not. Sometimes, we do just take the quantity of money to be an exogenous variable determined by some outside – noneconomic – force, aka the Monetary Authority, which, exercising its discretion, determines – judiciously or arbitrarily, take your pick – The Quantity of Money. But sometimes we acknowledge that the quantity of money is actually determined by economic forces, and is not a purely exogenous variable; we say that money is endogenous. And sometimes we do both; we distinguish between outside (exogenous) money and inside (endogenous) money.

But if we do acknowledge that there is – or that there might be – an economic process that determines what the quantity of money is, how can we not also acknowledge that there is – or might be — some market – a market dedicated to money, and nothing but money – in which the quantity of money is determined? Let’s now pick up where I left off in Nick’s post:

2. There is a market where land is exchanged for money; a market where bonds are exchanged for money; a market where equities are exchanged for money; and markets where all other goods and services are exchanged for money. “The money market” (singular) is an oxymoron. The money markets (plural) are all those markets. A monetary exchange economy is not an economy with one central Walrasian market where anything can be exchanged for anything else. Every market is a money market, in a monetary exchange economy.

An excess demand for land is observed in the land market. An excess demand for bonds is observed in the bond market. An excess demand for equities is observed in the equity market. An excess demand for money might be observed in any market.

Yes, an excess demand for money might be observed in any market, as people tried to shed, or to accumulate, money by altering their spending on other commodities. But is there no other way in which people wishing to hold more or less money than they now hold could obtain, or dispose of, money as desired?

Well, to answer that question, it helps to ask another question: what is the economic process that brings (inside) money – i.e., the money created by a presumably explicable process of economic activity — into existence? And the answer is that ordinary people exchange their liabilities with banks (or similar entities) and in return they receive the special liabilities of the banks. The difference between the liabilities of ordinary individuals and the special liabilities of banks is that the liabilities of ordinary individuals are not acceptable as payment for stuff, but the special liabilities of banks are acceptable as payment for stuff. In other words, special bank liabilities are a medium of exchange; they are (inside) money. So if I am holding less (more) money than I would like to hold, I can adjust the amount I am holding by altering my spending patterns in the ways that Nick lists in his post, or I can enter into a transaction with a bank to increase (decrease) the amount of money that I am holding. This is a perfectly well-defined market in which the public exchanges “money-backing” instruments (their IOUs) with which the banks create the monetary instruments that the banks give the public in return.

Whenever the total amount of (inside) money held by the non-bank public does not equal the total amount of (inside) money in existence, there are market forces operating by which the non-bank public and the banks can enter into transactions whereby the amount of (inside) money is adjusted to eliminate the excess demand for (supply of) (inside) money. This adjustment process does not operate instantaneously, and sometimes it may even operate dysfunctionally, but, whether it operates well or not so well, the process does operate, and we ignore it at our peril.

The rest of Nick’s post dwells on the problems caused by “price stickiness.” I may try to write another post soon about “price stickiness,” so I will just make a brief further comment about one further statement made by Nick:

Unable to increase the flow of money into their portfolios, each individual reduces the flow of money out of his portfolio.

And my comment is simply that Nick is begging the question here. He is assuming that there is no market mechanism by which individuals can increase the flow of money into their portfolios. But that is clearly not true, because most of the money in the hands of the public now was created by a process in which individuals increased the flow of money into their portfolios by exchanging their own “money-backing” IOUs with banks in return for the “monetary” IOUs created by banks.

The endogenous process by which the quantity of monetary IOUs created by the banking system corresponds to the amount of monetary IOUs that the public wants to hold at any moment of time is what is known as the Law of Reflux. Nick may believe — and may even be right — that the Law of Reflux is invalid, but if that is what Nick believes, he needs to make an argument, not assume a conclusion.

Where Do Monetary Rules Come From and How Do They Work?

In my talk last week at the Mercatus Conference on Monetary Rules for a Post-Crisis World, I discussed how monetary rules and the thinking about monetary rules have developed over time. The point that I started with was that monetary rules become necessary only when the medium of exchange has a value that exceeds the cost of producing the medium of exchange. You don’t need a monetary rule if money is a commodity; people just trade stuff for stuff; it’s not barter, because everyone accepts one real commodity, making that commodity the medium of exchange. But there’s no special rule governing the monetary system beyond the rules that govern all forms of exchange. the first monetary rule came along only when something worth more than its cost of production was used as money. This might have happened when people accepted minted coins at face value, even though the coins were not full-bodied. But that situation was not a stable equilibrium, because eventually Gresham’s Law kicks in, and the bad money drives out the good, so that the value of coins drops to their metallic value rather than their face value. So no real monetary rule was operating to control the value of coinage in situations where the coinage was debased.

So the idea of an actual monetary rule to govern the operation of a monetary system only emerged when banks started to issue banknotes. Banknotes having a negligible cost of production, a value in excess of that negligible cost could be imparted to those essentially worthless banknotes only by banks undertaking a commitment — a legally binding obligation — to make those banknotes redeemable (convertible) for a fixed weight of gold or silver or some other valuable material whose supply was not under the control of the bank itself. This convertibility commitment can be thought of as a kind of rule, but convertibility was not originally undertaken as a policy rule; it was undertaken simply as a business expedient; it was the means by which banks could create a demand for the banknotes that they wanted to issue to borrowers so that they could engage in the profitable business of financial intermediation.

It was in 1797, during the early stages of the British-French wars after the French Revolution, when, the rumor of a French invasion having led to a run on Bank of England notes, the British government prohibited the Bank of England from redeeming its banknotes for gold, and made banknotes issued by the Bank of England legal tender. The subsequent premium on gold in Continental commodity markets in terms of sterling – what was called the high price of bullion – led to a series of debates which engaged some of the finest economic minds in Great Britain – notably David Ricardo and Henry Thornton – over the causes and consequences of the high price of bullion and, if a remedy was in fact required, the appropriate policy steps to be taken to administer that remedy.

There is a vast literature on the many-sided Bullionist debates as they are now called, but my only concern here is with the final outcome of the debates, which was the appointment of a Parliamentary Commission, which included none other than the great Henry Thornton, himself, and two less renowned colleagues, William Huskisson and Francis Horner, who collaborated to write a report published in 1811 recommending the speedy restoration of convertibility of Bank of England notes. The British government and Parliament were unwilling to follow the recommendation while war with France was ongoing, however, there was a broad consensus in favor of the restoration of convertibility once the war was over.

After Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, the process of restoring convertibility was begun with the intention of restoring the pre-1797 conversion rate between banknotes and gold. Parliament in fact enacted a statute defining the pound sterling as a fixed weight of gold. By 1819, the value of sterling had risen to its prewar level, and in 1821 the legal obligation of the Bank of England to convert its notes into gold was reinstituted. So the first self-consciously adopted monetary rule was the Parliamentary decision to restore the convertibility of banknotes issued by the Bank of England into a fixed weight of gold.

However, the widely held expectations that the restoration of convertibility of banknotes issued by the Bank of England into gold would produce a stable monetary regime and a stable economy were quickly disappointed, financial crises and depressions occurring in 1825 and again in 1836. To explain the occurrence of these unexpected financial crises and periods of severe economic distress, a group of monetary theorists advanced a theory based on David Hume’s discussion of the price-specie-flow mechanism in his essay “Of the Balance of Trade,” in which he explained the automatic tendency toward equilibrium in the balance of trade and stocks of gold and precious metals among nations. Hume carried out his argument in terms of a fully metallic (gold) currency, and, in other works, Hume decried the tendency of banks to issue banknotes to excess, thereby causing inflation and economic disturbances.

So the conclusion drawn by these monetary theorists was that the Humean adjustment process would work smoothly only if gold shipments into Britain or out of Britain would result in a reduction or increase in the quantity of banknotes exactly equal to the amount of gold flowing into or out of Britain. It was the failure of the Bank of England and the other British banks to follow the Currency Principle – the idea that the total amount of currency in the country should change by exactly the same amount as the total quantity of gold reserves in the country – that had caused the economic crises and disturbances marking the two decades since the resumption of convertibility in 1821.

Those advancing this theory of economic fluctuations and financial crises were known as the Currency School and they succeeded in persuading Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister to support legislation to require the Bank of England and the other British Banks to abide by the Currency Principle. This was done by capping the note issue of all banks other than the Bank of England at existing levels and allowing the Bank of England to increase its issue of banknotes only upon deposit of a corresponding quantity of gold bullion. The result was in effect to impose a 100% marginal reserve requirement on the entire British banking system. Opposition to the Currency School largely emanated from what came to be known as the Banking School, whose most profound theorist was John Fullarton who formulated the law of reflux, which focused attention on the endogenous nature of the issue of banknotes by commercial banks. According to Fullarton and the Banking School, the issue of banknotes by the banking system was not a destabilizing and disequilibrating disturbance, but a response to the liquidity demands of traders and dealers. Once these liquidity demands were satisfied, the excess banknotes, returning to the banks in the ordinary course of business, would be retired from circulation unless there was a further demand for liquidity from some other source.

The Humean analysis, abstracting from any notion of a demand for liquidity, was therefore no guide to the appropriate behavior of the quantity of banknotes. Imposing a 100% marginal reserve requirement on the supply of banknotes would make it costly for traders and dealers to satisfy their demands for liquidity in times of financial stress; rather than eliminate monetary disturbances, the statutory enactment of the Currency Principle would be an added source of financial disturbance and disorder.

With the support of Robert Peel and his government, the arguments of the Currency School prevailed, and the Bank Charter Act was enacted in 1844. In 1847, despite the hopes of its supporters that an era of financial tranquility would follow, a new financial crisis occurred, and the crisis was not quelled until the government suspended the Bank Charter Act, thereby enabling the Bank of England to lend to dealers and traders to satisfy their demands for liquidity. Again in 1857 and in 1866, crises occurred which could not be brought under control before the government suspended the Bank Charter Act.

So British monetary history in the first half of the nineteenth century provides us with two paradigms of monetary rules. The first is a price rule in which the value of a monetary instrument is maintained at a level above its cost of production by way of a convertibility commitment. Given the convertibility commitment, the actual quantity of the monetary instrument that is issued is whatever quantity the public wishes to hold. That, at any rate, was the theory of the gold standard. There were – and are – at least two basic problems with that theory. First, making the value of money equal to the value of gold does not imply that the value of money will be stable unless the value of gold is stable, and there is no necessary reason why the value of gold should be stable. Second, the behavior of a banking system may be such that the banking system will itself destabilize the value of gold, e.g., in periods of distress when the public loses confidence in the solvency of banks and banks simultaneously increase their demands for gold. The resulting increase in the monetary demand for gold drives up the value of gold, triggering a vicious cycle in which the attempt by each to increase his own liquidity impairs the solvency of all.

The second rule is a quantity rule in which the gold standard is forced to operate in a way that prevents the money supply from adjusting freely to variations in the demand for money. Such a rule makes sense only if one ignores or denies the possibility that the demand for money can change suddenly and unpredictably. The quantity rule is neither necessary nor sufficient for the gold standard or any monetary standard to operate. In fact, it is an implicit assertion that the gold standard or any metallic standard cannot operate, the operation of profit-seeking private banks and their creation of banknotes and deposits being inconsistent with the maintenance of a gold standard. But this is really a demand for abolition of the gold standard in which banknotes and deposits draw their value from a convertibility commitment and its replacement by a pure gold currency in which there is no distinction between gold and banknotes or deposits, banknotes and deposits being nothing more than a receipt for an equivalent physical amount of gold held in reserve. That is the monetary system that the Currency School aimed at achieving. However, imposing the 100% reserve requirement only on banknotes, they left deposits unconstrained, thereby paving the way for a gradual revolution in the banking practices of Great Britain between 1844 and about 1870, so that by 1870 the bulk of cash held in Great Britain was held in the form of deposits not banknotes and the bulk of business transactions in Britain were carried out by check not banknotes.

So Milton Friedman was working entirely within the Currency School monetary tradition, formulating a monetary rule in terms of a fixed quantity rather than a fixed price. And, in ultimately rejecting the gold standard, Friedman was merely following the logic of the Currency School to its logical conclusion, because what ultimately matters is the quantity rule not the price rule. For the Currency School, the price rule was redundant, a fifth wheel; the real work was done by the 100% marginal reserve requirement. Friedman therefore saw the gold standard as an unnecessary and even dangerous distraction from the ultimate goal of keeping the quantity of money under strict legal control.

It is in the larger context of Friedman’s position on 100% reserve banking, of which he remained an advocate until he shifted to the k-percent rule in the early 1960s, that his anomalous description of the classical gold standard of late nineteenth century till World War I as a pseudo-gold standard can be understood. What Friedman described as a real gold standard was a system in which only physical gold and banknotes and deposits representing corresponding holdings of physical gold circulate as media of exchange. But this is not a gold standard that has ever existed, so what Friedman called a real gold standard was actually just the gold standard of his hyperactive imagination.

Mercatus Center Conference on Monetary Rules for a Post-Crisis World

It’s been almost three weeks since my last post, which I think is my longest dry spell since I started blogging a little over five years ago. Aside from taking it a little easy during this really hot summer in Washington DC, I have been working on the paper I am supposed to present tomorrow at the Mercatus Center Conference on Monetary Rules for a Post-Crisis World.

After Scott Sumner opens the conference with welcoming remarks at 9AM, I will be speaking in the first panel starting at 9:10 AM. My paper is entitled “Rules versus Discretion, Historically Contemplated.” I hope soon to write a post summarizing some of what I have to say and to post a link to a draft of the paper. The conference proceedings are to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Macroeconomics.

I’m especially pleased to be on the same panel as one of my all-time favorite economists, David Laidler. That’s almost enough to lift me out of my chronic depression about the November elections. Other speakers include, Mark Calabria, Robert Hetzel, David Papell, Scott Sumner, John Taylor, Perry Mehrling, Kevin Sheedy, Walker Todd, David Beckworth, Miles Kimball, and Peter Ireland. A stellar cast, indeed. You can watch a live stream here.

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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