Archive for August, 2018

Hu McCulloch Figures out (More or Less) the Great Depression

Last week Houston McCulloch, one of the leading monetary economists of my generation, posted an  insightful and thoughtful discussion of the causes of the Great Depression with which I largely, though not entirely, agree. Although Scott Sumner has already commented on Hu’s discussion, I also wanted to weigh in with some of my comments. Here is how McCulloch sets up his discussion.

Understanding what caused the Great Depression of 1929-39 and why it persisted so long has been fairly characterized by Ben Bernanke as the “Holy Grail of Macroeconomics.” The fear that the financial crisis of 2008 would lead to a similar Depression induced the Fed to use its emergency powers to bail out failing firms and to more than quadruple the monetary base, while Congress authorized additional bailouts and doubled the national debt. Could the Great Recession have taken a similar turn had these extreme measures not been taken?

Economists have often blamed the Depression on U.S. monetary policy or financial institutions.  Friedman and Schwartz (1963) famously argued that a spontaneous wave of runs against fragile fractional reserve banks led to a rise in the currency/deposit ratio. The Fed failed to offset the resulting fall in the money multiplier with base expansion, leading to a disastrous 24% deflation from 1929 to 1933. Through the short-run Phillips curve effect (Friedman 1968), this in turn led to a surge in unemployment to 22.5% by 1932.

The Debt-Deflation theory of Irving Fisher, and later Ben Bernanke (1995), takes the deflation as given, and blames the severity of the disruption on the massive bankruptcies that were caused by the increased burden of nominal indebtedness.  Murray Rothbard (1963) uses the “Austrian” business cycle theory of Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek to blame the downturn on excessive domestic credit expansion by the Fed during the 1920s that disturbed the intertemporal structure of production (cf. McCulloch 2014).

My own view, after pondering the problem for many decades, is that indeed the Depression was monetary in origin, but that the ultimate blame lies not with U.S. domestic monetary and financial policy during the 1920s and 30s. Rather, the massive deflation was an inevitable consequence of Europe’s departure from the gold standard during World War I —  and its bungled and abrupt attempt to return to gold in the late 1920s.

I agree with every word of this introductory passage, so let’s continue.

In brief, the departure of the European belligerents from gold in 1914 massively reduced the global demand for gold, leading to the inflation of prices in terms of gold — and, therefore, in terms of currencies like the U.S. dollar which were convertible to gold at a fixed parity. After the war, Europe initially postponed its return to gold, leading to a plateau of high prices during the 1920s that came to be perceived as the new normal. In the late 1920s, there was a scramble to return to the pre-war gold standard, with the inevitable consequence that commodity prices — in terms of gold, and therefore in terms of the dollar — had to return to something approaching their 1914 level.

The deflation was thus inevitable, but was made much more harmful by its postponement and then abruptness. In retrospect, the UK could have returned to its pre-war parity with far less pain by emulating the U.S. post-Civil War policy of freezing the monetary base until the price level gradually fell to its pre-war level. France should not have over-devalued the franc, and then should have monetized its gold influx rather than acting as a global gold sink. Gold reserve ratios were unnecessarily high, especially in France.

Here is where I start to quibble a bit with Hu, mainly about the importance of Britain’s 1925 resumption of convertibility at the prewar parity with the dollar. Largely owing to Keynes’s essay “The Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill,” in which Keynes berated Churchill for agreeing to the demands of the City and to the advice of the British Treasury advisers (including Ralph Hawtrey), on whom he relied despite Keynes’s attempt to convince him otherwise, to quickly resume gold convertibility at the prewar dollar parity, warning of the devastating effects of the subsequent deflation on British industry and employment, much greater significance has been attributed to the resumption of convertibility than it actually had on the subsequent course of events. Keynes’s analysis of the deflationary effect of the resumption was largely correct, but the effect turned out to be milder than he anticipated. Britain had already undergone a severe deflation in the early 1920s largely as a result of the American deflation. Thus by 1925, Britain had already undergone nearly 5 years of continuous deflation that brought the foreign exchange value of sterling to within 10 percent of the prewar dollar parity. The remaining deflation required to enable sterling to appreciate another 10 percent was not trivial, but by 1925 most of the deflationary pain had already been absorbed. Britain was able to sustain further mild deflation for the next four years till mid-1929 even as the British economy grew and unemployment declined gradually. The myth that Britain was mired in a continuous depression after the resumption of convertibility in 1925 has no basis in the evidence. Certainly, a faster recovery would have been desirable, and Hawtrey consistently criticized the Bank of England for keeping Bank Rate at 5% even with deflation in the 1-2% range.

The US Federal Reserve was somewhat accommodative in the 1925-28 period, but could have easily been even more accommodative. As McCulloch correctly notes it was really France, which undervalued the franc when it restored convertibility in 1928, and began accumulating gold in record quantities that became the primary destabilizing force in the world economy. Britain was largely an innocent bystander.

However, given that the U.S. had a fixed exchange rate relative to gold and no control over Europe’s misguided policies, it was stuck with importing the global gold deflation — regardless of its own domestic monetary policies. The debt/deflation problem undoubtedly aggravated the Depression and led to bank failures, which in turn increased the currency/deposit ratio and compounded the situation. However, a substantial portion of the fall in the U.S. nominal money stock was to be expected as a result of the inevitable deflation — and therefore was the product, rather than the primary cause, of the deflation. The anti-competitive policies of the Hoover years and FDR’s New Deal (Rothbard 1963, Ohanian 2009) surely aggravated and prolonged the Depression, but were not the ultimate cause.

Actually, the Fed, holding 40% of the world’s gold reserves in 1929, could have eased pressure on the world gold market by allowing an efflux of gold to accommodate the French demand for gold. However, instead of taking an accommodative stance, the Fed, seized by dread of stock-market speculation, kept increasing short-term interest rates, thereby attracting gold into the United States instead of allowing gold to flow out, increasing pressure on the world gold market and triggering the latent deflationary forces that until mid-1929 had been kept at bay. Anti-competitive policies under Hoover and under FDR were certainly not helpful, but those policies, as McCulloch recognizes, did not cause the collapse of output between 1929 and 1933.

Contemporary economists Ralph Hawtrey, Charles Rist, and Gustav Cassel warned throughout the 1920s that substantial deflation, in terms of gold and therefore the dollar, would be required to sustain a return to anything like the 1914 gold standard.[1]  In 1928, Cassel actually predicted that a global depression was imminent:

The post-War superfluity of gold is, however, of an entirely temporary character, and the great problem is how to meet the growing scarcity of gold which threatens the world both from increased demand and from diminished supply. We must solve this problem by a systematic restriction of the monetary demand for gold. Only if we succeed in doing this can we hope to prevent a permanent fall in the general price level and a prolonged and world-wide depression which would inevitably be connected with such a fall in prices [as quoted by Johnson (1997, p. 55)].

As early as 1919 both Hawtrey and Cassel had warned that a global depression would follow an attempt to restore the gold standard as it existed before World War I. To avoid such a deflation it was necessary to limit the increase in the monetary demand for gold. Hawtrey and Cassel therefore proposed shifting to a gold exchange standard in which gold coinage would not be restored and central banks would hold non-gold foreign exchange reserves rather than gold bullion. The 1922 Genoa Resolutions were largely inspired by the analysis of Hawtrey and Cassel, and those resolutions were largely complied with until France began its insane gold accumulation policy in 1928 just as the Fed began tightening monetary policy to suppress stock-market speculation, thereby triggering, more or less inadvertently, an almost equally massive inflow of gold into the US. (On Hawtrey and Cassel, see my paper with Ron Batchelder.)

McCulloch has a very interesting discussion of the role of the gold standard as a tool of war finance, which reminds me of Earl Thompson’s take on the gold standard, (“Gold Standard: Causes and Consequences”) that Earl contributed to a volume I edited, Business Cycles and Depressions: An Encyclopedia. To keep this post from growing inordinately long, and because it’s somewhat tangential to McCulloch’s larger theme, I won’t comment on that part of McCulloch’s discussion.

The Gold Exchange Standard

After the war, in order to stay on gold at $20.67 an ounce, with Europe off gold, the U.S. had to undo its post-1917 inflation. The Fed achieved this by raising the discount rate on War Bonds, beginning in late 1919, inducing banks to repay their corresponding loans. The result was a sharp 16% fall in the price level from 1920 to 1922. Unemployment rose from 3.0% in 1919 to 8.7% in 1921. However, nominal wages fell quickly, and unemployment was back to 4.8% by 1923, where it remained until 1929.[3]

The 1920-22 deflation thus brought the U.S. price level into equilibrium, but only in a world with Europe still off gold. Restoring the full 1914 gold standard would have required going back to approximately the 1914 value of gold in terms of commodities, and therefore the 1914 U.S. price level, after perhaps extrapolating for a continuation of the 1900-1914 “gold inflation.”

This is basically right except that I don’t think it makes sense to refer to the US price level as being in equilibrium in 1922. Holding 40% of the world’s monetary gold reserves, the US was in a position to determine the value of gold at whatever level it wanted. To call the particular level at which the US decided to stabilize the value of gold in 1922 an equilibrium is not based on any clear definition of equilibrium that I can identify.

However, the European countries did not seriously try to get back on gold until the second half of the 1920s. The Genoa Conference of 1922 recognized that prices were too high for a full gold standard, but instead tried to put off the necessary deflation with an unrealistic “Gold Exchange Standard.” Under that system, only the “gold center” countries, the U.S. and UK, would hold actual gold reserves, while other central banks would be encouraged to hold dollar or sterling reserves, which in turn would only be fractionally backed by gold. The Gold Exchange Standard sounded good on paper, but unrealistically assumed that the rest of the world would permanently kowtow to the financial supremacy of New York and London.

There is an argument to be made that the Genoa Resolutions were unrealistic in the sense that they assumed that countries going back on the gold standard would be willing to forego the holding of gold reserves to a greater extent than they were willing to. But to a large extent, this was the result of systematically incorrect ideas about how the gold standard worked before World War I and how the system could work after World War I, not of any inherent or necessary properties of the gold standard itself. Nor was the assumption that the rest of the world would permanently kowtow to the financial supremacy of New York and London all that unrealistic when considered in the light of how readily, before World War I, the rest of the world kowtowed to the financial supremacy of London.

In 1926, under Raymond Poincaré, France stabilized the franc after a 5:1 devaluation. However, it overdid the devaluation, leaving the franc undervalued by about 25%, according to The Economist (Johnson 1997, p. 131). Normally, under the specie flow mechanism, this would have led to a rapid accumulation of international reserves accompanied by monetary expansion and inflation, until the price level caught up with purchasing power parity. But instead, the Banque de France sterilized the reserve influx by reducing its holdings of government and commercial credit, so that inflation did not automatically stop the reserve inflow. Furthermore, it often cashed dollar and sterling reserves for gold, again contrary to the Gold Exchange Standard.  The Banking Law of 1928 made the new exchange rate, as well as the gold-only policy, official. By 1932, French gold reserves were 80% of currency and sight deposits (Irwin 2012), and France had acquired 28.4% of world gold reserves — even though it accounted for only 6.6% of world manufacturing output (Johnson 1997, p. 194). This “French Gold Sink” created even more deflationary pressure on gold, and therefore dollar prices, than would otherwise have been expected.

Here McCulloch is unintentionally displaying some of the systematically incorrect ideas about how the gold standard worked that I referred to above. McCulloch is correct that the franc was substantially undervalued when France restored convertibility in 1928. But under the gold standard, the French price level would automatically adjust to the world price level regardless of what happened to the French money supply. However, the Bank of France, partly because it was cashing in the rapidly accumulating foreign exchange reserves for gold as French exports were rising and its imports falling given the low internal French price level, and partly because it was legally barred from increasing the supply of banknotes by open-market operations, was accumulating gold both actively and passively. With no mechanism for increasing the quantity of banknotes in France, a balance of payment of surplus was the only mechanism by which an excess demand for money could be accommodated. It was not an inflow of gold that was being sterilized (sterilization being a misnomer reflecting a confusion about the direction of causality) it was the lack of any domestic mechanism for increasing the quantity of banknotes that caused an inflow of gold. Importing gold was the only means by which an excess domestic demand for banknotes could be satisfied.

The Second Post-War Deflation

By 1931, French gold withdrawals forced Germany to adopt exchange controls, and Britain to give up convertibility altogether. However, these countries did not then disgorge their remaining gold, but held onto it in the hopes of one day restoring free convertibility. Meanwhile, after having been burned by the Bank of England’s suspension, the “Gold Bloc” countries — Belgium, Netherlands and Switzerland — also began amassing gold reserves in earnest, raising their share of world gold reserves from 4.2% in June 1930 to 11.1% two years later (Johnson 1997, p. 194). Despite the dollar’s relatively strong position, the Fed also contributed to the problem by raising its gold coverage ratio to over 75% by 1930, well in excess of the 40% required by law (Irwin 2012, Fig. 5).

The result was a second post-war deflation as the value of gold, and therefore of the dollar, in terms of commodities, abruptly caught up with the greatly increased global demand for gold. The U.S. price level fell 24.0% between 1929 and 1933, with deflation averaging 6.6% per year for 4 years in a row. Unemployment shot up to 22.5% by 1932.

By 1933, the U.S. price level was still well above its 1914 level. However, if the “gold inflation” of 1900-1914 is extrapolated to 1933, as in Figure 3, the trend comes out to almost the 1933 price level. It therefore appears that the U.S. price level, if not its unemployment rate, was finally near its equilibrium under a global gold standard with the dollar at $20.67 per ounce, and that further deflation was probably unnecessary.[4]

Once again McCulloch posits an equilibrium price level under a global gold standard. The mistake is in assuming that there is a fixed monetary demand for gold, which is an assumption completely without foundation. The monetary demand for gold is not fixed. The greater the monetary demand for gold the higher the equilibrium real value of gold and the lower the price level in terms of gold. The equilibrium price level is a function of the monetary demand for gold.

The 1929-33 deflation was much more destructive than the 1920-22 deflation, in large part because it followed a 7-year “plateau” of relatively stable prices that lulled the credit and labor markets into thinking that the higher price level was the new norm — and that gave borrowers time to accumulate substantial nominal debt. In 1919-1920, on the other hand, the newly elevated price level seemed abnormally high and likely to come back down in the near future, as it had after 1812 and 1865.

This is correct, and I fully agree.

How It Could Have been Different

In retrospect, the UK could have successfully gotten itself back on gold with far less disruption simply by emulating the U.S. post-Civil War policy of freezing the monetary base at its war-end level, and then letting the economy grow into the money supply with a gradual deflation. This might have taken 14 years, as in the U.S. between 1865-79, or even longer, but it would have been superior to the economic, social, and political turmoil that the UK experienced. After the pound rose to its pre-war parity of $4.86, the BOE could have begun gradually buying gold reserves with new liabilities and even redeeming those liabilities on demand for gold, subject to reserve availability. Once reserves reached say 20% of its liabilities, it could have started to extend domestic credit to the government and the private sector through the banks, while still maintaining convertibility. Gold coins could even have been circulated, as demanded.

Again, I reiterate that, although the UK resumption was more painful for Britain than it need have been, the resumption had little destabilizing effect on the international economy. The UK did not have a destabilizing effect on the world economy until the September 1931 crisis that caused Britain to leave the gold standard.

If the UK and other countries had all simply devalued in proportion to their domestic price levels at the end of the war, they could have returned to gold quicker, and with less deflation. However, given that a country’s real demand for money — and therefore its demand for real gold reserves — depends only on the real size of the economy and its net gold reserve ratio, such policies would not have reduced the ultimate global demand for gold or lessened the postwar deflation in countries that remained on gold at a fixed parity.

This is an important point. Devaluation was a way of avoiding an overvalued currency and the relative deflation that a single country needed to undergo. But the main problem facing the world in restoring the gold standard was not the relative deflation of countries with overvalued currencies but the absolute deflation associated with an increased world demand for gold across all countries. Indeed, it was France, the country that did devalue that was the greatest source of increased demand for gold owing to its internal monetary policies based on a perverse gold standard ideology.

In fact, the problem was not that gold was “undervalued” (as Johnson puts it) or that there was a “shortage” of gold (as per Cassel and others), but that the price level in terms of gold, and therefore dollars, was simply unsustainably high given Europe’s determination to return to gold. In any event, it was inconceivable that the U.S. would have devalued in 1922, since it had plenty of gold, had already corrected its price level to the world situation with the 1920-22 deflation, and did not have the excuse of a banking crisis as in 1933.

I think that this is totally right. It was not the undervaluation of individual currencies that was the problem, it was the increase in the demand for gold associated with the simultaneous return of many countries to the gold standard. It is also a mistake to confuse Cassel’s discussion of gold shortage, which he viewed as a long-term problem, with the increase in gold demand associated with returning to the gold standard which was the cause of sudden deflation starting in 1929 as a result of the huge increase in gold demand by the Bank of France, a phenomenon that McCulloch mentions early on in his discussion but does not refer to again.

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Hayek v. Rawls on Social Justice: Correcting the False Narrative

Matt Yglesias, citing an article (“John Rawls, Socialist?“) by Ed Quish in the Jacobin arguing that Rawls, in his later years, drifted from his welfare-state liberalism to democratic socialism, tweeted a little while ago

I’m an admirer of, but no expert on, Rawls, so I won’t weigh in on where to pigeon-hole Rawls on the ideological spectrum. In general, I think such pigeon-holing is as likely to mislead as to clarify because it tends to obscure the individuality of the individual or thinker being pigeon-hold. Rawls was above all a Rawlsian and to reduce his complex and nuanced philosophy to simple catch-phrase like “socialism” or even “welfare-state liberalism” cannot possibly do his rich philosophical contributions justice (no pun intended).

A good way to illustrate both the complexity of Rawls’s philosophy and that of someone like F. A. Hayek, often regarded as standing on the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum from Rawls, is to quote from two passages of volume 2 of Law, Legislation and Liberty. Hayek entitled this volume The Mirage of Social Justice, and the main thesis of that volume is that the term “justice” is meaningful only in the context of the foreseen or foreseable consequences of deliberate decisions taken by responsible individual agents. Social justice, because it refers to the outcomes of complex social processes that no one is deliberately aiming at, is not a meaningful concept.

Because Rawls argued in favor of the difference principle, which says that unequal outcomes are only justifiable insofar as they promote the absolute (though not the relative) well-being of the least well-off individuals in society, most libertarians, including famously Robert Nozick whose book Anarchy, State and Utopia was a kind of rejoinder to Rawls’s book A Theory of Justice, viewed Rawls as an ideological opponent.

Hayek, however, had a very different take on Rawls. At the end of his preface to volume 2, explaining why he had not discussed various recent philosophical contributions on the subject of social justice, Hayek wrote:

[A]fter careful consideration I have come to the conclusion that what I might have to say about John Rawls’ A theory of Justice would not assist in the pursuit of my immediate object because the differences between us seemed more verbal than substantial. Though the first impression of readers may be different, Rawls’ statement which I quote later in this volume (p. 100) seems to me to show that we agree on what is to me the essential point. Indeed, as I indicate in a note to that passage, it appears to me that Rawls has been widely misunderstood on this central issue. (pp. xii-xiii)

Here is what Hayek says about Rawls in the cited passage.

Before leaving this subject I want to point out once more that the recognition that in such combinations as “social”, “economic”, “distributive”, or “retributive” justice the term “justice” is wholly empty should not lead us to throw the baby out with the bath water. Not only as the basis of the legal rules of just conduct is the justice which the courts of justice administer exceedingly important; there unquestionably also exists a genuine problem of justice in connection with the deliberate design of political institutions the problem to which Professor John Rawls has recently devoted an important book. The fact which I regret and regard as confusing is merely that in this connection he employs the term “social justice”. But I have no basic quarrel with an author who, before he proceeds to that problem, acknowledges that the task of selecting specific systems or distributions of desired things as just must be abandoned as mistaken in principle and it is, in any case, not capable of a definite answer. Rather, the principles of justice define the crucial constraints which institutions and joint activities must satisfy if persons engaging in them are to have no complaints against them. If these constraints are satisfied, the resulting distribution, whatever it is, may be accepted as just (or at least not unjust).” This is more or less what I have been trying to argue in this chapter.

In the footnote at the end of the quotation, Hayek cites the source from which he takes the quotation and then continues:

John Rawls, “Constitutional Liberty and the Concept of Justice,” Nomos IV, Justice (New York, 1963), p. 102. where the passage quoted is preceded by the statement that “It is the system of institutions which has to be judged and judged from a general point of view.” I am not aware that Professor Rawls’ later more widely read work A Theory of Justice contains a comparatively clear statement of the main point, which may explain why this work seems often, but as it  appears to me wrongly, to have been interpreted as lending support to socialist demands, e.g., by Daniel Bell, “On Meritocracy and Equality”, Public Interest, Autumn 1972, p. 72, who describes Rawls’ theory as “the most comprehensive effort in modern philosophy to justify a socialist ethic.”

Henry Manne and the Dubious Case for Insider Trading

In a recent tweet, my old friend Alan Reynolds plugged a 2003 op-ed article (“The Case for Insider Training”) by Henry Manne railing against legal prohibitions against insider trading. Reynolds’s tweet followed his earlier tweet railing against the indictment of Rep. Chris Collins for engaging in insider trading after learning that the small pharmaceutical company (Innate Pharmaceuticals) of which he was the largest shareholder transmitted news that a key clinical trial of a drug the company was developing had failed, making a substantial decline in the value of the company’s stock inevitable once news of the failed trial became public. Collins informed his own son of the results of the trial, and his son then shared that information with the son’s father-in-law and other friends and acquaintances, who all sold their stock in the firm, causing the company’s stock price to fall by 92%.

Reynolds thinks that what Collins did was just fine, and invokes Manne as an authority to support his position. Here is how Manne articulated the case against insider trading in his op-ed piece, which summarizes a longer 2005 article (“Insider Trading: Hayek, Virtual Markets and the Dog that Did not Bark”) published in The Journal of Corporate Law.

Prior to 1968, insider trading was very common, well-known, and generally accepted when it was thought about at all.

A similar observation – albeit somewhat backdated — might be made about slavery and polygamy.

When the time came, the corporate world was neither able nor inclined to mount a defense of the practice, while those who demanded its regulation were strident and successful in its demonization. The business community was as hoodwinked by these frightening arguments as was the public generally.

Note the impressive philosophical detachment with which Manne recounts the historical background.

Since then, however, insider trading has been strongly, if by no means universally, defended in scholarly journals. There have been three primary economic arguments (not counting the show-stopper that the present law simply cannot be effectively enforced.) The first and generally undisputed argument is that insider trading does little or no direct harm to any individual trading in the market, even when an insider is on the other side of the trades.

The assertion that insider trading does “little or no direct harm” is patently ridiculous inasmuch as it is based on the weasel word “direct” so that the wealth transferred from less informed to better informed traders cannot result in “direct” harm to the less-informed traders, “direct harm” being understood to occur only when theft or fraud is used to effect a wealth transfer. Question-begging at its best.

The second argument in favor of allowing insider trading is that it always (fraud aside) helps move the price of a corporation’s shares to its “correct” level. Thus insider trading is one of the most important reasons why we have an “efficient” stock market. While there have been arguments about the relative weight to be attributed to insider trading and to other devices also performing this function, the basic idea that insider pushes stock prices in the right direction is largely unquestioned today.

“Efficient” (scare quotes are Manne’s) pricing of stocks and other assets certainly sounds good, but defining “efficient” pricing is not so easy. And even if one were to grant that there is a well-defined efficient price at a moment in time, it is not at all clear how to measure the social gain from an efficient price relative to an inefficient price, or, even more problematically, how to measure the social benefit from arriving at the efficient price sooner rather than later.

The third economic defense has been that it is an efficient and highly desirable form of incentive compensation, especially for corporation dependent on innovation and new developments. This argument has come to the fore recently with the spate of scandals involving stock options. These are the closes substitutes for insider trading in managerial compensation, but they suffer many disadvantages not found with insider trading. The strongest argument against insider trading as compensation is the difficulty of calibrating entitlements and rewards.

“The difficulty of calibrating entitlements and rewards” is simply a euphemism for the incentive of insiders privy to adverse information to trade on that information rather than attempt to counteract an expected decline in the value of the firm.

Critics of insider trading have responded to these arguments principally with two aggregate-harm theories, one psychological and the other economic. The first, the faraway favorite of the SEC, is the “market confidence” argument: If investors in the stock market know that insider trading is common, they will refuse to invest in such an “unfair” market.

Using scare quotes around “unfair” as if the idea that trading with asymmetric information might be unfair were illogical or preposterous, Manne stumbles into an inconsistency of his own by abandoning the very efficient market hypothesis that he otherwise steadfastly upholds. According to the efficient market hypothesis that market prices reflects all publicly available information, movements in stock prices are unpredictable on the basis of publicly available information. Thus, investors who select stocks randomly should, in the aggregate, and over time, just break even. However, traders with inside information make profits. But if it is possible to break even by picking stocks randomly, who are the insiders making their profits from? The renowned physicist Niels Bohr, who was fascinated by stock markets and anticipated the efficient market hypothesis, argued that it must be the stock market analysts from whom the profits of insiders are extracted. Whether Bohr was right that insiders extract their profits only from market analysts and not at all from traders with randomized strategies, I am not sure, but clearly Bohr’s basic intuition that profits earned by insiders are necessarily at the expense of other traders is logically unassailable.

Thus investment and liquidity will be seriously diminished. But there is no evidence that publicity about insider trading ever caused a significant reduction in aggregate stock market activity. It is merely one of many scare arguments that the SEC and others have used over the years as a substitute for sound economics.

Manne’s qualifying adjective “significant” is clearly functioning as a weasel world in this context, because the theoretical argument that an understanding that insiders may freely trade on their inside information would, on Manne’s own EMH premises, clearly imply that stock trading by non-insiders would in the aggregate, and over time, be unprofitable. So Manne resorts to a hand-waving argument about the size of the effect. The size of the effect depends on how widespread insider trading and how-well informed the public is about the extent of such trading, so he is in no position to judge its significance.

The more responsible aggregate-harm argument is the “adverse selection” theory. This argument is that specialists and other market makers, when faced with insider trading, will broaden their bid-ask spreads to cover the losses implicit in dealing with insiders. The larger spread in effect becomes a “tax” on all traders, thus impacting investment and liquidity. This is a plausible scenario, but it is of very questionable applicability and significance. Such an effect, while there is some confirming data, is certainly not large enough in aggregate to justify outlawing insider trading.

But the adverse-selection theory credited by Manne is no different in principle from the “market confidence” theory that he dismisses; they are two sides of the same coin, and are equally derived from the same premise: that the profits of insider traders must come from the pockets of non-insiders. So he has no basis in theory to dismiss either effect, and his evidence that insider trading provides any efficiency benefit is certainly no stronger than the evidence he dismisses so blithely that insider trading harms non-insiders.

In fact the relevant theoretical point was made very clearly by Jack Hirshleifer in the important article (“The Private and Social Value of Information and the Reward to Inventive Activity”) about which I wrote last week on this blog. Information has social value when it leads to a reconfiguration of resources that increases the total output of society. However, the private value of information may far exceed whatever social value the information has, because privately held information that allows the better-informed to trade with the less-well informed enables the better-informed to profit at the expense of the less-well informed. Prohibiting insider trading prevents such wealth transfers, and insofar as these wealth transfers are not associated with any social benefit from improved resource allocation, an argument that such trading reduces welfare follows as night does day. Insofar as such trading does generate some social benefit, there are also the losses associated with adverse selection and reduced market confidence, so the efficiency effects, though theoretically ambiguous, are still very likely negative.

But Manne posits a different kind of efficiency effect.

No other device can approach knowledgeable trading by insiders for efficiently and accurately pricing endogenous developments in a company. Insiders, driven by self-interest and competition among themselves will trade until the correct price is reached. This will be true even when the new information involves trading on bad news. You do not need whistleblowers if you have insider trading.

Here again, Manne is assuming that efficient pricing has large social benefits, but that premise depends on the how rapidly resource allocation responds to price changes, especially changes in asset prices. The question is how long does it take for insider information to become public information? If insider information quickly becomes public, so that insiders can profit from their inside information only by trading on it before the information becomes public, the social value of speeding up the rate at which inside information is reflected in asset pricing is almost nil. But Manne implicitly assumes that the social value of the information is very high, and it is precisely that implicit assumption that would have to be demonstrated before the efficiency argument for insider trading would come close to being persuasive.

Moreover, allowing insiders to trade on bad news creates precisely the wrong incentive, effectively giving insiders the opportunity to loot a company before it goes belly up, rather than take any steps to mitigate the damage.

While I acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns about whether laws against insider trading can be enforced without excessive arbitrariness, those concerns are entirely distinct from arguments that insider trading actually promotes economic efficiency.

My Paper (with Sean Sullivan) on Defining Relevant Antitrust Markets Now Available on SSRN

Antitrust aficionados may want to have a look at this new paper (“The Logic of Market Definition”) that I have co-authored with Sean Sullivan of the University of Iowa School of Law about defining relevant antitrust markets. The paper is now posted on SSRN.

Here is the abstract:

Despite the voluminous commentary that the topic has attracted in recent years, much confusion still surrounds the proper definition of antitrust markets. This paper seeks to clarify market definition, partly by explaining what should not factor into the exercise. Specifically, we identify and describe three common errors in how courts and advocates approach market definition. The first error is what we call the natural market fallacy: the mistake of treating market boundaries as preexisting features of competition, rather than the purely conceptual abstractions of a particular analytical process. The second is the independent market fallacy: the failure to recognize that antitrust markets must always be defined to reflect a theory of harm, and do not exist independent of a theory of harm. The third is the single market fallacy: the tendency of courts and advocates to seek some single, best relevant market, when in reality there will typically be many relevant markets, all of which could be appropriately drawn to aid in competitive effects analysis. In the process of dispelling these common fallacies, this paper offers a clarifying framework for understanding the fundamental logic of market definition.

Hirshleifer on the Private and Social Value of Information

I have written a number posts (here here here, and here) over the past few years citing an article by one of my favorite UCLA luminaries, Jack Hirshleifer, of the fabled UCLA economics department of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Like everything Hirshleifer wrote, the article, “The Private and Social Value of Information and the Reward to Inventive Activity,” published in 1971 in the American Economic Review, is deeply insightful, carefully reasoned, and lucidly explained, reflecting the author’s comprehensive mastery of the whole body of neoclassical microeconomic theory.

Hirshleifer’s article grew out of a whole literature inspired by two of Hayek’s most important articles “Economics and Knowledge” in 1937 and “The Use of Knowledge in Society” in 1945. Both articles were concerned with the fact that, contrary to the assumptions in textbook treatments, economic agents don’t have complete information about all the characteristics of the goods being traded and about the prices at which those goods are available. Hayek was aiming to show that markets are characteristically capable of transmitting information held by some agents in a condensed form to make it usable by other agents. That role is performed by prices. It is prices that provide both information and incentives to economic agents to formulate and tailor their plans, and if necessary, to readjust those plans in response to changed conditions. Agents need not know what those underlying changes are; they need only observe, and act on, the price changes that result from those changes.

Hayek’s argument, though profoundly insightful, was not totally convincing in demonstrating the superiority of the pure “free market,” for three reasons.

First, economic agents base decisions, as Hayek himself was among the first to understand, not just on actual current prices, but also on expected future prices. Although traders sometimes – but usually don’t — know what the current price of something is, one can only guess – not know — what the price of that thing will be in the future. So, the work of providing the information individuals need to make good economic decisions cannot be accomplished – even in principle – just by the adjustment of prices in current markets. People also need enough information to make good guesses – form correct expectations — about future prices.

Second, economic agents don’t automatically know all prices. The assumption that every trader knows exactly what prices are before executing plans to buy and sell is true, if at all, only in highly organized markets where prices are publicly posted and traders can always buy and sell at the posted price. In most other markets, transactors must devote time and effort to find out what prices are and to find out the characteristics of the goods that they are interested in buying. It takes effort or search or advertising or some other, more or less costly, discovery method for economic agents to find out what current prices are and what characteristics those goods have. If agents aren’t fully informed even about current prices, they don’t necessarily make good decisions.

Libertarians, free marketeers, and other Hayek acolytes often like to credit Hayek with having solved or having shown how “the market” solves “the knowledge problem,” a problem that Hayek definitively showed a central-planning regime to be incapable of solving. But the solution at best is only partial, and certainly not robust, because markets never transmit all available relevant information. That’s because markets transmit only information about costs and valuations known to private individuals, but there is a lot of information about public or social valuations and costs that is not known to private individuals and rarely if ever gets fed into, or is transmitted by, the price system — valuations of public goods and the social costs of pollution for example.

Third, a lot of information is not obtained or transmitted unless it is acquired, and acquiring information is costly. Economic agents must search for relevant information about the goods and services that they are interested in obtaining and about the prices at which those goods and services are available. Moreover, agents often engage in transactions with counterparties in which one side has an information advantage over the other. When traders have an information advantage over their counterparties, the opportunity for one party to take advantage of the inferior information of the counterparty may make it impossible for the two parties to reach mutually acceptable terms, because a party who realizes that the counterparty has an information advantage may be unwilling to risk being taken advantage of. Sometimes these problems can be surmounted by creative contractual arrangements or legal interventions, but often they can’t.

To recognize the limitations of Hayek’s insight is not to minimize its importance, either in its own right or as a stimulus to further research. Important early contributions (all published between 1961 and 1970) by Stigler (“The Economics of Information”) Ozga (“Imperfect Markets through Lack of Knowledge”), Arrow (“Economic Welfare and the Allocation of Resources for Invention”), Demsetz (“Information and Efficiency: Another Viewpoint”) and Alchian (“Information Costs, Pricing, and Resource Unemployment”) all analyzed the problem of incomplete and limited information and the incentives for acquiring information, the institutions and market arrangements that arise to cope with limited information and the implications for economic efficiency of these limitations and incentives. They can all be traced directly or indirectly to Hayek’s early contributions. Among the important results that seem to follow from these early papers was that the inability of those discovering or creating new knowledge to appropriate the net benefits accruing from the knowledge implied that the incentive to create new knowledge is less than optimal owing to their inability to claim full property rights over new knowledge through patents or other forms of intellectual property.

Here is where Hirshleifer’s paper enters the picture. Is more information always better? It would certainly seem that more of any good is better than less. But how valuable is new information? And are the incentives to create or discover new information aligned with the value of that information? Hayek’s discussion implicitly assumed that the amount of information in existence is a given stock, at least in the aggregate. How can the information that already exists be optimally used? Markets help us make use of the information that already exists. But the problem addressed by Hirshleifer was whether the incentives to discover and create new information call forth the optimal investment of time, effort and resources to make new discoveries and create new knowledge.

Instead of focusing on the incentives to search for information about existing opportunities, Hirshleifer analyzed the incentives to learn about uncertain resource endowments and about the productivity of those resources.

This paper deals with an entirely different aspect of the economics of information. We here revert to the textbook assumption that markets are perfect and costless. The individual is always fully acquainted with the supply-demand offers of all potential traders, and an equilibrium integrating all individuals’ supply-demand offers is attained instantaneously. Individuals are unsure only about the size of their own commodity endowments and/or about the returns attainable from their own productive investments. They are subject to technological uncertainty rather than market uncertainty.

Technological uncertainty brings immediately to mind the economics of research and invention. The traditional position been that the excess of the social over the private value of new technological knowledge leads to underinvestment in inventive activity. The main reason is that information, viewed as a product, is only imperfectly appropriable by its discoverer. But this paper will show that there is a hitherto unrecognized force operating in opposite direction. What has been scarcely appreciated in the literature, if recognized at all, is the distributive aspect of access to superior information. It will be seen below how this advantage provides a motivation for the private acquisition and dissemination of technological information that is quite apart from – and may even exist in the absence – of any social usefulness of that information. (p. 561)

The key insight motivating Hirshleifer was that privately held knowledge enables someone possessing that knowledge to anticipate future price movements once the privately held information becomes public. If you can anticipate a future price movement that no one else can, you can confidently trade with others who don’t know what you know, and then wait for the profit to roll in when the less well-informed acquire the knowledge that you have. By assumption the newly obtained knowledge doesn’t affect the quantity of goods available to be traded, so acquiring new knowledge or information provides no social benefit. In a pure-exchange model, newly discovered knowledge provides no net social benefit; it only enables better-informed traders to anticipate price movements that less well-informed traders don’t see coming. Any gains from new knowledge are exactly matched by the losses suffered by those without that knowledge. Hirshleifer called the kind of knowledge that enables one to anticipate future price movements “foreknowledge,” which he distinguished from actual discovery .

The type of information represented by foreknowledge is exemplified by ability to successfully predict tomorrow’s (or next year’s) weather. Here we have a stochastic situation: with particular probabilities the future weather might be hot or cold, rainy or dry, etc. But whatever does actually occur will, in due time, be evident to all: the only aspect of information that may be of advantage is prior knowledge as to what will happen. Discovery, in contrast, is correct recognition of something that is hidden from view. Examples include the determination of the properties of materials, of physical laws, even of mathematical attributes (e.g., the millionth digit in the decimal expansion of “π”). The essential point is that in such cases nature will not automatically reveal the information; only human action can extract it. (562)

Hirshleifer’s result, though derived in the context of a pure-exchange economy, is very powerful, implying that any expenditure of resources devoted to finding out new information that enables the first possessor of the information to predict price changes and reap profits from trading is unambiguously wasteful by reducing total consumption of the community.

[T]he community as a whole obtains no benefit, under pure exchange, from either the acquisition or the dissemination (by resale or otherwise) of private foreknowledge. . . .

[T]he expenditure of real resources for the production of technological information is socially wasteful in pure exchange, as the expenditure of resources for an increase in the quantity of money by mining gold is wasteful, and for essentially the same reason. Just as a smaller quantity of money serves monetary functions as well as a larger, the price level adjusting correspondingly, so a larger amount of foreknowledge serves no social purpose under pure exchange that the smaller amount did not. (pp. 565-66)

Relaxing the assumption that there is no production does not alter the conclusion, because the kind of information that is discovered, even if it did lead to efficient production decisions that increase the output of goods whose prices rise sooner as a result of the new information than they would have otherwise. But if the foreknowledge is privately obtained, the private incentive is to use that information by trading with another, less-well-informed, trader, at a price the other trader would not agree to if he weren’t at an information disadvantage. The private incentive to use foreknowledge that might cause a change in production decisions is not to use the information to alter production decisions but to use it to trade with, and profit from, those with inferior knowledge.

[A]s under the regime of pure exchange, private foreknowledge makes possible large private profit without leading to socially useful activity. The individual would have just as much incentive as under pure exchange (even more, in fact) to expend real resources in generating socially useless private information. (p. 567)

If the foreknowledge is publicly available, there would be a change in production incentives to shift production toward more valuable products. However, the private gain if the information is kept private greatly exceeds the private value of the information if the information is public. Under some circumstances, private individuals may have an incentive to publicize their private information to cause the price increases in expectation of which they have taken speculative positions. But it is primarily the gain from foreseen price changes, not the gain from more efficient production decisions, that creates the incentive to discover foreknowledge.

The key factor underlying [these] results . . . is the distributive significance of private foreknowledge. When private information fails to lead to improved productive alignments (as must necessarily be the case in a world of pure exchange, and also in a regime of production unless there is dissemination effected in the interest of speculation or resale), it is evident that the individual’s source of gain can only be at the expense of his fellows. But even where information is disseminated and does lead to improved productive commitments, the distributive transfer gain will surely be far greater than the relatively minor productive gain the individual might reap from the redirection of his own real investment commitments. (Id.)

Moreover, better-informed individuals – indeed individuals who wrongly believe themselves to be better informed — will perceive it to be in their self-interest to expend resources to disseminate the information in the expectation that the ensuing price changes would redound to their profit. The private gain expected from disseminating information far exceeds the social benefit from the prices changes once the new information is disseminated; the social benefit from the price changes resulting from the disseminated information corresponds to an improved allocation of resources, but that improvement will be very small compared to the expected private profit from anticipating the price change and trading with those that don’t anticipate it.

Hirshleifer then turns from the value of foreknowledge to the value of discovering new information about the world or about nature that makes a contribution to total social output by causing a shift of resources to more productive uses. Inasmuch as the discovery of new information about the world reveals previously unknown productive opportunities, it might be thought that the private incentive to devote resources to the discovery of technological information about productive opportunities generates substantial social benefits. But Hirshleifer shows that here, too, because the private discovery of information about the world creates private opportunities for gain by trading based on the consequent knowledge of future price changes, the private incentive to discover technological information always exceeds the social value of the discovery.

We need only consider the more general regime of production and exchange. Given private, prior, and sure information of event A [a state of the world in which a previously unknown natural relationship has been shown to exist] the individual in a world of perfect markets would not adapt his productive decisions if he were sure the information would remain private until after the close of trading. (p. 570)

Hirshleifer is saying that the discovery of a previously unknown property of the world can lead to an increase in total social output only by causing productive resources to be reallocated, but that reallocation can occur only if and when the new information is disclosed. So if someone discovers a previously unknown property of the world, the discoverer can profit from that information by anticipating the price effect likely to result once the information is disseminated and then making a speculative transaction based on the expectation of a price change. A corollary of this argument is that individuals who think that they are better informed about the world will take speculative positions based on their beliefs, but insofar as their investments in discovering properties of the world lead them to incorrect beliefs, their investments in information gathering and discovery will not be rewarded. The net social return to information gathering and discovery is thus almost certainly negative.

The obvious way of acquiring the private information in question is, of course, by performing technological research. By a now familiar argument we can show once again that the distributive advantage of private information provides an incentive for information-generating activity that may quite possibly be in excess of the social value of the information. (Id.)

Finally, Hirshliefer turns to the implications for patent policy of his analysis of the private and social value of information.

The issues involved may be clarified by distinguishing the “technological” and “pecuniary” effects of invention. The technological effects are the improvements in production functions . . . consequent upon the new idea. The pecuniary effects are the wealth shifts due to the price revaluations that take place upon release and/or utilization of the information. The pecuniary effects are purely redistributive.

For concreteness, we can think in terms of a simple cost-reducing innovation. The technological benefit to society is, roughly, the integrated area between the old and new marginal-cost curves for the preinvention level of output plus, for any additional output, and the area between the demand curve and the new marginal-cost curve. The holder of a (perpetual) patent could ideally extract, via a perfectly discriminatory fee policy, this entire technological benefit. Equivalence between the social and private benefits of innovation would thus induce the optimal amount of private inventive activity. Presumably it is reasoning of this sort that underlies the economic case for patent protection. (p. 571)

Here Hirshleifer is uncritically restating the traditional analysis for the social benefit from new technological knowledge. But the analysis overstates the benefit, by assuming incorrectly that, with no patent protection, the discovery would never be made. If the discovery would be made without patent protection, then obviously the technological benefit to society is only the area indicated over a limited time horizon, so a perpetual patent enabling the holder of the patent to extract all additional consumer and producer surplus flowing from invention in perpetuity would overcompensate the patent holder for the invention.

Nor does Hirshleifer mention the tendency of patents to increase the costs of invention, research and development owing to the royalties subsequent inventors would have to pay existing patent holders for infringing inventions even if those inventions were, or would have been, discovered with no knowledge of the patented invention. While rewarding some inventions and inventors, patent protection penalizes or blocks subsequent inventions and inventors. Inventions are outputs, but they are also inputs. If the use of past inventions is made more costly by new inventors, it is not clear that the net result will be an increase in the rate of invention.

Moreover, the knowledge that a patented invention may block or penalize a new invention that infringes on an existing patent or a patent that issues before a new invention is introduced, may in some cases cause an overinvestment in research as inventors race to gain the sole right to an invention, in order to avoid being excluded while gaining the right to exclude others.

Hirshleifer does mention some reasons why maximally rewarding patent holders for their inventions may lead to suboptimal results, but fails to acknowledge that the conventional assessment of the social gain from new invention is substantially overstated or patents may well have a negative effect on inventive activity in fields in which patent holders have gained the right to exclude potentially infringing inventions even if the infringing inventions would have been made without the knowledge publicly disclosed by the patent holders in their patent applications.

On the other side are the recognized disadvantages of patents: the social costs of the administrative-judicial process, the possible anti-competitve impact, and restriction of output due to the marginal burden of patent fees. As a second-best kind of judgment, some degree of patent protection has seemed a reasonable compromise among the objectives sought.

Of course, that judgment about the social utility of patents is not universally accepted, and authorities from Arnold Plant, to Fritz Machlup, and most recently Michele Boldrin and David Levine have been extremely skeptical of the arguments in favor of patent protection, copyright and other forms of intellectual property.

However, Hirshleifer advances a different counter-argument against patent protection based on his distinction between the private and social gains derived from information.

But recognition of the unique position of the innovator for forecasting and consequently capturing portions of the pecuniary effects – the wealth transfers due to price revaluation – may put matters in a different light. The “ideal” case of the perfectly discriminating patent holder earning the entire technological benefit is no longer so ideal. (pp. 571-72)

Of course, as I have pointed out, the ‘“ideal” case’ never was ideal.

For the same inventor is in a position to reap speculative profits, too; counting these as well, he would clearly be overcompensated. (p. 572)

Indeed!

Hirshleifer goes on to recognize that the capacity to profit from speculative activity may be beyond the capacity or the ken of many inventors.

Given the inconceivably vast number of potential contingencies and the costs of establishing markets, the prospective speculator will find it costly or even impossible ot purchase neutrality from “irrelevant” risks. Eli Whitney [inventor of the cotton gin who obtained one of the first US patents for his invention in 1794] could not be sure that his gin would make cotton prices fall: while a considerable force would clearly be acting in that direction, a multitude of other contingencies might also have possibly affected the price of cotton. Such “uninsurable” risks gravely limit the speculation feasible with any degree of prudence. (Id.)

HIrshleifer concludes that there is no compelling case either for or against patent protection, because the standard discussion of the case for patent protection has not taken into consideration the potential profit that inventors can gain by speculating on the anticipated price effects of their patents. Of course the argument that inventors are unlikely to be adept at making such speculative plays is a serious argument, we have also seen the rise of patent trolls that buy up patent rights from inventors and then file lawsuits against suspected infringers. In a world without patent protection, it is entirely possible that patent trolls would reinvent themselves as patent speculators, buying up information about new inventions from inventors and using that information to engage in speculative activity based on that information. By acquiring a portfolio of patents such invention speculators could pool the risks of speculation over their entire portfolio, enabling them to speculate more effectively than any single inventor could on his own invention. Hirshleifer concludes as follows:

Even though practical considerations limit the effective scale and consequent impact of speculation and/or resale [but perhaps not as much as Hirshleifer thought], the gains thus achievable eliminate any a priori anticipation of underinvestment in the generation of new technological knowledge. (p. 574)

And I reiterate one last time that Hirshleifer arrived at his non-endorsement of patent protection even while accepting the overstated estimate of the social value of inventions and neglecting the tendency of patents to increase the cost of inventive activity.


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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