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The Nearly Forgotten Dearly Beloved 1920-21 Depression Yet Again; Or, Never Reason from a Quantity Change

The industrious James Grant recently published a book about the 1920-21 Depression. It has received enthusiastic reviews in the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s, was the subject of an admiring column by Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson, and was celebrated at a Cato Institute panel discussion, luncheon, and book-signing event. The Cato extravaganza elicited a dismissive blog post by Barkley Rosser which was linked to by Paul Krugman on his blog. The Rosser/Krugman tandem provoked an unhappy reply on the Free Banking blog from George Selgin who chaired the Cato panel discussion. And the 1920-21 Depression is now the latest hot topic in the econblogosphere.

I am afraid that there are multiple layers of errors and confusion that are being mixed up and compounded in this discussion, errors and confusion derived from basic misunderstandings about how the gold standard operated that have been plaguing the economics profession and the financial world for about two and a half centuries. If you want to understand how the gold standard worked, what you have to read is the book by Ralph Hawtrey entitled – drum roll, please – The Gold Standard.

Here are the basic things you need to know about the gold standard.

1 The gold standard operates by creating an equivalence between a currency unit and a fixed amount of gold.

2 The gold standard does not require gold to circulate as money in the form of coins. That was historically the case, but a gold standard can function with no gold coins or even gold certificates.

3 The value of a currency unit and the value of a corresponding weight of gold are necessarily equalized by arbitrage.

4 Equality between a currency unit and a corresponding weight of gold does not necessarily show the direction of causality; the currency unit may determine the value of gold, not the other way around. In other words, making gold the standard of value for currency affects the demand for gold which affects the value of gold. Decisions made by monetary authorities under the gold standard necessarily affect the value of gold, so a gold standard does not somehow make the value of money independent of monetary policy.

5 When more than one country is on a gold standard, the countries share a common price level, because the value of gold is determined in an international market.

Keeping those basics in mind, let’s quickly try to understand what was going on in 1920 when the Fed decided to raise its discount rate to the then unprecedented level of 7 percent. But the situation in 1920 was the outcome of the previous six years of World War I that effectively destroyed the gold standard as a functioning institution, even though its existence was in some sense still legally recognized.

Under the gold standard, gold was the ultimate way of discharging international debts. In World War I, belligerents had to pay for imports with gold, thus governments amassed all available gold with which to pay for the imports required to support the war effort. Gold coins were melted down and converted to bullion so the gold could be exported. For a private citizen in a belligerent country to demand that the national currency unit be converted to gold would be considered an unpatriotic if not a treasonous act. So the gold standard ceased to function in belligerent countries. In non-belligerent countries, which were busy exporting to the belligerents, the result was a massive inflow of gold, causing a spectacular increase in the amount of gold held by the US Treasury between 1914 and 1917. Other non-belligerents like Sweden and Switzerland experienced similar inflows.

Quantity theorists and Monetarists like Milton Friedman habitually misinterpret the wartime inflation, and attributing the inflation to an inflow of gold that increased the money supply, thereby perpetrating the price-specie-flow-mechanism fallacy. What actually happened was that the huge demonetization of gold coins by the belligerents and their export of large quantities of gold to non-belligerent countries in which a free market in gold continued to operate drove down the value of gold. A falling value of gold under a gold standard logically implies rising prices for all other goods and services. Rising prices increased the nominal demand for money, which more or less automatically caused a corresponding adjustment in the quantity of money. A rising price level caused the quantity of money to increase, not the other way around.

In 1917, just before the US entered the war, the US, still effectively on a gold standard as gold flowed into the Treasury, had experienced a drastic inflation, like all other gold standard countries, because gold was rapidly losing value, as it was being demonetized and exported by the belligerent countries. But when the US entered the war in 1917, the US, like other belligerents, suspended operation of the gold standard, thereby accelerating the depreciation of gold, forcing the few remaining countries on the gold standard to suspend the gold standard to avoid runaway inflation. Inflationary pressure in the US did increase after entry into the war, but the war-induced fiat inflation, to some extent suppressed or disguised by price controls, was actually slower than inflation in terms of gold.

When the war ended, the US went back on the gold standard by again making the dollar convertible into gold at the legal parity. Doing so meant that the US price level in terms of dollars was below the notional (no currency any longer being convertible into gold) world price level in terms of gold. In other belligerent countries, notably Britain, France and Germany, inflation in terms of their national currencies exceeded gold inflation, requiring them to deflate even to restore the legal parity in terms of gold.  Thus, the US was the only country in the world that was both willing and able to return to the gold standard at the prewar parity. Sweden and Switzerland could have done so, but preferred to avoid the inflationary consequences of a return to the gold standard.

Once the dollar convertibility into gold was restored, arbitrage forced the US price level to rise to so that it would equal the gold price level. The excess of the gold price level over the US price level level explains the anomalous post-war inflation – everyone knows that prices are supposed to fall, not rise, when a war ends — in the US. The rest of the world, then, had to choose between accepting US inflation, by keeping their currencies pegged to the dollar, or allowing their currencies to appreciate against the dollar. The anomalous post-war inflation was caused by the reequilibration of the US price level to the gold price levels, not, as commonly supposed, by Fed inexperience or incompetence.

To stop the post-war inflation, the Fed could have simply abandoned the gold standard, or it could have revalued the dollar in terms of gold, by reducing the official dollar price of gold. (I ignore the minor detail that the official dollar price of gold was then determined by statute.) Instead, the Fed — whether knowingly or not I can’t say – chose to increase the value of gold. The method by which it did so was to raise its discount rate, thereby making it easier to obtain dollars by selling gold to the Treasury than to borrow from the Fed. The flood of gold into the Treasury in 1920-21 succeeded in taking a huge amount of gold out of private and public hands, thus driving up the real value of gold, and forcing down the gold price level. That’s when the brutal deflation of 1920-21 started. At some point, the Fed and the Treasury decided that they had had enough, having amassed about 40% of the world’s gold reserves, and began reducing the discount rate, thereby slowing the inflow of gold into the US, and stopping its appreciation. And that’s when and how the dearly beloved, but quite dreadful, depression of 1920-21 came to an end.

What Is Free Banking All About?

I notice that there has been a bit of a dustup lately about free banking, triggered by two posts by Izabella Kaminska, first on FTAlphaville followed by another on her own blog. I don’t want to get too deeply into the specifics of Kaminska’s posts, save to correct a couple of factual misstatements and conceptual misunderstandings (see below). At any rate, George Selgin has a detailed reply to Kaminska’s errors with which I mostly agree, and Scott Sumner has scolded her for not distinguishing between sensible free bankers, e.g., Larry White, George Selgin, Kevin Dowd, and Bill Woolsey, and the anti-Fed, gold-bug nutcases who, following in the footsteps of Ron Paul, have adopted free banking as a slogan with which to pursue their anti-Fed crusade.

Now it just so happens that, as some readers may know, I wrote a book about free banking, which I began writing almost 30 years ago. The point of the book was not to call for a revolutionary change in our monetary system, but to show that financial innovations and market forces were causing our modern monetary system to evolve into something like the theoretical model of a free banking system that had been worked out in a general sort of way by some classical monetary theorists, starting with Adam Smith, who believed that a system of private banks operating under a gold standard would supply as much money as, but no more money than, the public wanted to hold. In other words, the quantity of money produced by a system of competing banks, operating under convertibility, could be left to take care of itself, with no centralized quantitative control over either the quantity of bank liabilities or the amount of reserves held by the banking system.

So I especially liked the following comment by J. V. Dubois to Scott’s post

[M]y thing against free banking is that we actually already have it. We already have private banks issuing their own monies directly used for transactions – they are called bank accounts and debit/credit cards. There are countries like Sweden where there are now shops that do not accept physical cash (only bank monies) – a policy actively promoted government, if you can believe it.

There are now even financial products like Xapo Debit Card that automatically converts all payments received on your account into non-monetary assets (with Xapo it is bitcoins) and back into monies when you use the card for payment. There is a very healthy international bank money market so no matter what money you personally use, you can travel all around the world and pay comfortably without ever seeing or touching official local government currency.

In opposition to the Smithian school of thought, there was the view of Smith’s close friend David Hume, who famously articulated what became known as the Price-Specie-Flow Mechanism, a mechanism that Smith wisely omitted from his discussion of international monetary adjustment in the Wealth of Nations, despite having relied on PSFM with due acknowledgment of Hume, in his Lectures on Jurisprudence. In contrast to Smith’s belief that there is a market mechanism limiting the competitive issue of convertible bank liabilities (notes and deposits) to the amount demanded by the public, Hume argued that banks were inherently predisposed to overissue their liabilities, the liabilities being issuable at almost no cost, so that private banks, seeking to profit from the divergence between the face value of their liabilities and the cost of issuing them, were veritable engines of inflation.

These two opposing views of banks later morphed into what became known almost 70 years later as the Banking and Currency Schools. Taking the Humean position, the Currency School argued that without quantitative control over the quantity of banknotes issued, the banking system would inevitably issue an excess of banknotes, causing overtrading, speculation, inflation, a drain on the gold reserves of the banking system, culminating in financial crises. To prevent recurring financial crises, the Currency School proposed a legal limit on the total quantity of banknotes beyond which limit, additional banknotes could be only be issued (by the Bank of England) in exchange for an equivalent amount of gold at the legal gold parity. Taking the Smithian position, the Banking School argued that there were market mechanisms by which any excess liabilities created by the banking system would automatically be returned to the banking system — the law of reflux. Thus, as long as convertibility obtained (i.e., the bank notes were exchangeable for gold at the legal gold parity), any overissue would be self-correcting, so that a legal limit on the quantity of banknotes was, at best, superfluous, and, at worst, would itself trigger a financial crisis.

As it turned out, the legal limit on the quantity of banknotes proposed by the Currency School was enacted in the Bank Charter Act of 1844, and, just as the Banking School predicted, led to a financial crisis in 1847, when, as soon as the total quantity of banknotes approached the legal limit, a sudden precautionary demand for banknotes led to a financial panic that was subdued only after the government announced that the Bank of England would incur no legal liability for issuing banknotes beyond the legal limit. Similar financial panics ensued in 1857 and 1866, and they were also subdued by suspending the relevant statutory limits on the quantity of banknotes. There were no further financial crises in Great Britain in the nineteenth century (except possibly for a minicrisis in 1890), because bank deposits increasingly displaced banknotes as the preferred medium of exchange, the quantity of bank deposits being subject to no statutory limit, and because the market anticipated that, in a crisis, the statutory limit on the quantity of banknotes would be suspended, so that a sudden precautionary demand for banknotes never materialized in the first place.

Let me pause here to comment on the factual and conceptual misunderstandings in Kaminska’s first post. Discussing the role of the Bank of England in the British monetary system in the first half of the nineteenth century, she writes:

But with great money-issuance power comes great responsibility, and more specifically the great temptation to abuse that power via the means of imprudent money-printing. This fate befell the BoE — as it does most banks — not helped by the fact that the BoE still had to compete with a whole bunch of private banks who were just as keen as it to issue money to an equally imprudent degree.

And so it was that by the 1840s — and a number of Napoleonic Wars later — a terrible inflation had begun to grip the land.

So Kaminska seems to have fallen for the Humean notion that banks are inherently predisposed to overissue and, without some quantitative restraint on their issue of liabilities, are engines of inflation. But, as the law of reflux teaches us, this is not true, especially when banks, as they inevitably must, make their liabilities convertible on demand into some outside asset whose supply is not under their control. After 1821, the gold standard having been officially restored in England, the outside asset was gold. So what was happening to the British price level after 1821 was determined not by the actions of the banking system (at least to a first approximation), but by the value of gold which was determined internationally. That’s the conceptual misunderstanding that I want to correct.

Now for the factual misunderstanding. The chart below shows the British Retail Price Index between 1825 and 1850. The British price level was clearly falling for most of the period. After falling steadily from 1825 to about 1835, the price level rebounded till 1839, but it prices again started to fall reaching a low point in 1844, before starting another brief rebound and rising sharply in 1847 until the panic when prices again started falling rapidly.


From a historical perspective, the outcome of the implicit Smith-Hume disagreement, which developed into the explicit dispute over the Bank Charter Act of 1844 between the Banking and Currency Schools, was highly unsatisfactory. Not only was the dysfunctional Bank Charter Act enacted, but the orthodox view of how the gold standard operates was defined by the Humean price-specie-flow mechanism and the Humean fallacy that banks are engines of inflation, which made it appear that, for the gold standard to function, the quantity of money had to be tied rigidly to the gold reserve, thereby placing the burden of adjustment primarily on countries losing gold, so that inflationary excesses would be avoided. (Fortunately, for the world economy, gold supplies increased fairly rapidly during the nineteenth century, the spread of the gold standard meant that the monetary demand for gold was increasing faster than the supply of gold, causing gold to appreciate for most of the nineteenth century.)

When I set out to write my book on free banking, my intention was to clear up the historical misunderstandings, largely attributable to David Hume, surrounding the operation of the gold standard and the behavior of competitive banks. In contrast to the Humean view that banks are inherently inflationary — a view endorsed by quantity theorists of all stripes and enshrined in the money-multiplier analysis found in every economics textbook — that the price level would go to infinity if banks were not constrained by a legal reserve requirement on their creation of liabilities, there was an alternative view that the creation of liabilities by the banking system is characterized by the same sort of revenue and cost considerations governing other profit-making enterprises, and that the equilibrium of a private banking system is not that value of money is driven down to zero, as Milton Friedman, for example, claimed in his Program for Monetary Stability.

The modern discovery (or rediscovery) that banks are not inherently disposed to debase their liabilities was made by James Tobin in his classic paper “Commercial Banks and Creators of Money.” Tobin’s analysis was extended by others (notably Ben Klein, Earl Thompson, and Fischer Black) to show that the standard arguments for imposing quantitative limits on the creation of bank liabilities were unfounded, because, even with no legal constraints, there are economic forces limiting their creation of liabilities. A few years after these contributions, F. A. Hayek also figured out that there are competitive forces constraining the creation of liabilities by the banking system. He further developed the idea in a short book Denationalization of Money which did much to raise the profile of the idea of free banking, at least in some circles.

If there is an economic constraint on the creation of bank liabilities, and if, accordingly, the creation of bank liabilities was responsive to the demands of individuals to hold those liabilities, the Friedman/Monetarist idea that the goal of monetary policy should be to manage the total quantity of bank liabilities so that it would grow continuously at a fixed rate was really dumb. It was tried unsuccessfully by Paul Volcker in the early 1980s, in his struggle to bring inflation under control. It failed for precisely the reason that the Bank Charter Act had to be suspended periodically in the nineteenth century: the quantitative limit on the growth of the money supply itself triggered a precautionary demand to hold money that led to a financial crisis. In order to avoid a financial crisis, the Volcker Fed constantly allowed the monetary aggregates to exceed their growth targets, but until Volcker announced in the summer of 1982 that the Fed would stop paying attention to the aggregates, the economy was teetering on the verge of a financial crisis, undergoing the deepest recession since the Great Depression. After the threat of a Friedman/Monetarist financial crisis was lifted, the US economy almost immediately began one of the fastest expansions of the post-war period.

Nevertheless, for years afterwards, Friedman and his fellow Monetarists kept warning that rapid growth of the monetary aggregates meant that the double-digit inflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s would soon return. So one of my aims in my book was to use free-banking theory – the idea that there are economic forces constraining the issue of bank liabilities and that banks are not inherently engines of inflation – to refute the Monetarist notion that the key to economic stability is to make the money stock grow at a constant 3% annual rate of growth.

Another goal was to explain that competitive banks necessarily have to select some outside asset into which to make their liabilities convertible. Otherwise those liabilities would have no value, or at least so I argued, and still believe. The existence of what we now call network effects forces banks to converge on whatever assets are already serving as money in whatever geographic location they are trying to draw customers from. Thus, free banking is entirely consistent with an already existing fiat currency, so that there is no necessary link between free banking and a gold (or other commodity) standard. Moreover, if free banking were adopted without abolishing existing fiat currencies and legal tender laws, there is almost no chance that, as Hayek argued, new privately established monetary units would arise to displace the existing fiat currencies.

My final goal was to suggest a new way of conducting monetary policy that would enhance the stability of a free banking system, proposing a monetary regime that would ensure the optimum behavior of prices over time. When I wrote the book, I had been convinced by Earl Thompson that the optimum behavior of the price level over time would be achieved if an index of nominal wages was stabilized. He proposed accomplishing this objective by way of indirect convertibility of the dollar into an index of nominal wages by way of a modified form of Irving Fisher’s compensated dollar plan. I won’t discuss how or why that goal could be achieved, but I am no longer convinced of the optimality of stabilizing an index of nominal wages. So I am now more inclined toward nominal GDP level targeting as a monetary policy regime than the system I proposed in my book.

But let me come back to the point that I think J. V. Dubois was getting at in his comment. Historically, idea of free banking meant that private banks should be allowed to issue bank notes of their own (with the issuing bank clearly identified) without unreasonable regulations, restrictions or burdens not generally applied to other institutions. During the period when private banknotes were widely circulating, banknotes were a more prevalent form of money than bank deposits. So in the 21st century, the right of banks to issue hand to hand circulating banknotes is hardly a crucial issue for monetary policy. What really matters is the overall legal and regulatory framework under which banks operate.

The term “free banking” does very little to shed light on most of these issues. For example, what kind of functions should banks perform? Should commercial banks also engage in investment banking? Should commercial bank liabilities be ensured by the government, and if so under what terms, and up to what limits? There are just a couple of issues; there are many others. And they aren’t necessarily easily resolved by invoking the free-banking slogan. When I was writing, I meant by “free banking” a system in which the market determined the total quantity of bank liabilities. I am still willing to use “free banking” in that sense, but there are all kinds of issues concerning the asset side of bank balance sheets that also need to be addressed, and I don’t find it helpful to use the term free banking to address those issues.

George Selgin Relives the Sixties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Mark Twain put it so well:

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

Two Problems with Austrian Business-Cycle Theory

Even though he has written that he no longer considers himself an Austrian economist, George Selgin remains sympathetic to the Austrian theory of business cycles, and, in accord with the Austrian theory, still views recessions and depressions as more or less inevitable outcomes of distortions originating in the preceding, credit-induced, expansions. In a recent post, George argues that the 2002-06 housing bubble conforms to the Austrian pattern in which a central-bank lending rate held below the “appropriate,” or “natural” rate causes a real misallocation of resources reflecting the overvaluation of long-lived capital assets (like houses) induced by the low-interest rate policy. For Selgin, it was the Fed’s distortion of real interest rates from around 2003 to 2005 that induced a housing bubble even though the rate of increase in nominal GDP during the housing bubble was only slightly higher than the 5% rate of increase in nominal GDP during most of the Great Moderation.

Consequently, responses by Marcus Nunes, Bill Woolsey and Scott Sumner to Selgin, questioning whether he used an appropriate benchmark against which to gauge nominal GDP growth in the 2003 to 2006 period, don’t seem to me to address the core of Selgin’s argument. Selgin is arguing that the real distortion caused by the low-interest-rate policy of the Fed was more damaging to the economy than one would gather simply by looking at a supposedly excessive rate of nominal GDP growth, which means that the rate of growth of nominal GDP in that time period does not provide all the relevant information about the effects of monetary policy.

So to counter Selgin’s argument – which is to say, the central argument of Austrian Business-Cycle Theory – one has to take a step back and ask why a price bubble, or a distortion of interest rates, caused by central-bank policy should have any macroeconomic significance. In any conceivable real-world economy, entrepreneurial error is a fact of life. Malinvestments occur all the time; resources are, as a consequence, constantly being reallocated when new information makes clear that some resources were misallocated owing to mistaken expectations. To be sure, the rate of interest is a comprehensive price potentially affecting how all resources are allocated. But that doesn’t mean that a temporary disequilibrium in the rate of interest would trigger a major economy-wide breakdown, causing the growth of real output and income to fall substantially below their historical trend, perhaps even falling sharply in absolute terms.

The Austrian explanation for this system-wide breakdown is that the price bubble or the interest-rate misallocation leads to the adoption of investments projects and of production processes that “unsustainable.” The classic Austrian formulation is that the interest-rate distortion causes excessively roundabout production processes to be undertaken. For a time, these investment projects and production processes can be sustained by way of credit expansion that shifts resources from consumption to investment, what is sometimes called “forced saving.” At a certain point, the credit expansion must cease, and at that point, the unsustainability of the incomplete investment projects or even the completed, but excessively roundabout, production processes becomes clear, and the investments and production processes are abandoned. The capital embodied in those investment projects and production processes is revealed to have been worthless, and all or most of the cooperating factors of production, especially workers, are rendered unemployable in their former occupations.

Although it is not without merit, that story is far from compelling. There are two basic problems with it. First, the notion of unsustainability is itself unsustainable, or at the very least greatly exaggerated and misleading. Why must the credit expansion that produced the interest-rate distortion or the price bubble come to an end? Well, if one goes back to the original sources for the Austrian theory, namely Mises’s 1912 book The Theory of Money and Credit and Hayek’s 1929 book Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle, one finds that the effective cause of the contraction of credit is not a physical constraint on the availability of resources with which to complete the investments and support lengthened production processes, but the willingness of the central bank to tolerate a decline in its gold holdings. It is quite a stretch to equate the demand of the central bank for a certain level of gold reserves with a barrier that renders the completion of investment projects and the operation of lengthened production processes impossible, which is how Austrian writers, fond of telling stories about what happens when someone tries to build a house without having the materials required for its completion, try to explain what “unsustainability” means.

The original Austrian theory of the business cycle was thus a theory specific to the historical conditions associated with classical gold standard. Hawtrey, whose theory of the business cycle, depended on a transmission mechanism similar to, but much simpler than, the mechanism driving the Austrian theory, realized that there was nothing absolute about the gold standard constraint on monetary expansion. He therefore believed that the trade cycle could be ameliorated by cooperation among the central banks to avoid the sharp credit contractions imposed by central banks when they feared that their gold reserves were falling below levels that they felt comfortable with. Mises and Hayek in the 1920s (along with most French economists) greatly mistrusted such ideas about central bank cooperation and economizing the use of gold as a threat to monetary stability and sound money.

However, despite their antipathy to proposals for easing the constraints of the gold standard on individual central banks, Mises and Hayek never succeeded in explaining why a central-bank expansion necessarily had to be stopped. Rather than provide such an explanation they instead made a different argument, which was that the stimulative effect of a central-bank expansion would wear off once economic agents became aware of its effects and began to anticipate its continuation. This was a fine argument, anticipating the argument of Milton Friedman and Edward Phelps in the late 1960s by about 30 or 40 years. But that was an argument that the effects of central-bank expansion would tend to diminish over time as its effects were anticipated. It was not an argument that the expansion was unsustainable. Just because total income and employment are not permanently increased by the monetary expansion that induces an increase in investment and an elongation of the production process does not mean that the investments financed by, and the production processes undertaken as a result of, the monetary expansion must be abandoned. The monetary expansion may cause a permanent shift in the economy’s structure of production in the same way that tax on consumption, whose proceeds were used to finance investment projects that would otherwise not have been undertaken, might be carried on indefinitely. So the Austrian theory has never proven that forced saving induced by monetary expansion, in the absence of a gold-standard constraint, is necessarily unsustainable, inevitably being reversed because of physical constraints preventing the completion of the projects financed by the credit expansion. That’s the first problem.

The second problem is even more serious, and it goes straight to the argument that Selgin makes against Market Monetarists. The whole idea of unsustainability involves a paradox. The paradox is that unsustainability results from some physical constraint on the completion of investment projects or the viability of newly adopted production processes, because the consumer demand is driving up the costs of resources to levels making it unprofitable to complete the investment projects or operate new production processes.  But this argument presumes that all the incomplete investment projects and all the new production processes become unprofitable more or less simultaneously, leading to their rapid abandonment. But the consequence is that all the incomplete investment projects and all the newly adopted production processes are scuttled, producing massive unemployment and redundant resources. But why doesn’t that drop in resource prices restore the profitability of all the investment projects and production processes just abandoned?

It therefore seems that the Austrian vision is of a completely brittle economy in which price adjustments continue without inducing any substitutions to ease the resource bottlenecks. Demands and supplies are highly inelastic, and adjustments cannot be made until prices can no longer even cover variable costs. At that point prices collapse, implying that resource bottlenecks are eliminated overnight, without restoring profitability to any of the abandoned projects or processes.  Actually the most amazing thing about such a vision may be how closely it resembles the vision of an economy espoused by Hayek’s old nemesis Piero Sraffa in his late work The Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities, a vision based on fixed factor proportions in production, thus excluding the possibility of resource substitution in production in response to relative price changes.

A more realistic vision, it seems to me, would be for resource bottlenecks to induce substitution away from the relatively scarce resources allowing production processes to continue in operation even though the value of many fixed assets would have to be written down substantially. Those write downs would allow existing or new owners to maintain output as long as total demand is not curtailed as a result of a monetary policy that either deliberately seeks or inadvertently allows monetary contraction. Real distortions inherited from the past can be accommodated and adjusted to by a market economy as long as that economy is not required at the same time to undergo a contraction, in total spending. But once a sharp contraction in total spending does occur, a recovery may require a temporary boost in total spending above the long-term trend that would have sufficed under normal conditions.

Economy, Heal Thyself

Lately, some smart economists (Eli Dourado backed up by Larry White, George Selgin, and Tyler Cowen) have been questioning whether it is plausible, four years after the US economy was hit with a severe negative shock to aggregate demand, and about three and a half years since aggregate demand stopped falling (nominal GDP subsequently growing at about a 4% annual rate), that the reason for persistent high unemployment and anemic growth in real output is that nominal aggregate demand has been growing too slowly. Even conceding that the 4% growth in nominal GDP was too slow to generate a rapid recovery from the original shock, they still ask why almost four years after hitting bottom, we should assume that slow growth in real GDP and persistent high unemployment are the result of deficient aggregate demand rather than the result of some underlying real disturbance, such as a massive misallocation of resources and capital induced by the housing bubble from 2002 to 2006. In other words, even if it was an aggregated demand shock that caused a sharp downturn in 2008-09, and even if insufficient aggregate demand growth unnecessarily weakened and prolonged the recovery, what reason is there to assume that the economy could not, by now, have adjusted to a slightly lower rate of growth in nominal GDP 4% (compared to the 5 to 5.5% that characterized the period preceding the 2008 downturn). As Eli Dourado puts it:

If we view the recession as a purely nominal shock, then monetary stimulus only does any good during the period in which the economy is adjusting to the shock. At some point during a recession, people’s expectations about nominal flows get updated, and prices, wages, and contracts adjust. After this point, monetary stimulus doesn’t help.

Thus, Dourado,White, Selgin, and Cowen want to know why an economy not afflicted by some deep structural, (i.e. real) problems would not have bounced back to its long-term trend of real output and employment after almost four years of steady 4% nominal GDP growth. Four percent growth in nominal GDP may have been too stingy, but why should we believe that 4% nominal GDP growth would not, in the long run, provide enough aggregate demand to allow an eventual return to the economy’s long-run real growth path?  And if one concedes that a steady rate of 4% growth in nominal GDP would eventually get the economy back on its long-run real growth path, why should we assume that four years is not enough time to get there?

Well, let me respond to that question with one of my own: what is the theoretical basis for assuming that an economy subjected to a very significant nominal shock that substantially reduces real output and employment would ever recover from that shock and revert back to its previous growth path? There is, I suppose, a presumption that markets equilibrate themselves through price adjustments, prices adjusting in response to excess demands and supplies until markets again clear. But there is a fallacy of composition at work here. Supply and demand curves are always drawn for a single market. The partial-equilibrium analysis that we are taught in econ 101 operates based on the implicit assumption that all markets other than the one under consideration are in equilibrium. (That is actually a logically untenable assumption, because, according to Walras’s Law, if one market is out of equilibrium at least one other market must also be out of equilibrium, but let us not dwell on that technicality.) But after an economy-wide nominal shock, the actual adjustment process involves not one market, but many (if not most, or even all) markets are out of equilibrium. When many markets are out of equilibrium, the adjustment process is much more problematic than under the assumptions of the partial-equilibrium analysis that we are so accustomed to. Just because the adjustment process that brings a single isolated market back from disequilibrium to equilibrium seems straightforward, we are not necessarily entitled to assume that there is an equivalent adjustment process from an economy-wide disequilibrium in which many, most, or all, markets are starting from a position of disequilibrium. A price adjustment in any one market will, in general, affect demands and supplies in at least some other markets. If only a single market is out of equilibrium, the effects on other markets of price and quantity adjustment in that one market are likely to be small enough, so that those effects on other markets can be safely ignored. But when many, most, or all, markets are in disequilibrium, the adjustments in some markets may aggravate the disequilibrium in other markets, setting in motion an endless series of adjustments that may – but may not! — lead the economy back to equilibrium. We just don’t know. And the uncertainty about whether equilibrium will be restored becomes even greater, when one of the markets out of equilibrium is the market for labor, a market in which income effects are so strong that they inevitably have major repercussions on all other markets.

Dourado et al. take it for granted that people’s expectations about nominal flows get updatd, and that prices, wages, and contracts adjust. But adjustment is one thing; equilibration is another. It is one thing to adjust expectations about a market in disequilibrium when all or most markets ar ein or near equilibrium; it is another to adjust expectations when markets are all out of equilibrium. Real interest rates, as very imperfectly approximated by TIPS, seem to have been falling steadily since early 2011 reflecting increasing pessimism about future growth in the economy. To overcome the growing entrepreneurial pessimism underlying the fall in real interest rates, it would have been necessary for workers to have accepted wage cuts far below their current levels. That scenario seems wildly unrealistic under any conceivable set of conditions. But even if the massive wage cuts necessary to induce a substantial increase in employment were realistic, wage cuts of that magnitude could have very unpredictable repercussions on consumption spending and prices, potentially setting in motion a destructive deflationary spiral. Dourado assumes that updating expectations about nominal flows, and the adjustments of prices and wages and contracts lead to equilibrium – that the short run is short. But that is question begging no less than those who look at slow growth and high unemployment and conclude that the economy is operating below its capacity. Dourado is sure that the economy has to return to equilibrium in a finite period of time, and I am sure that if the economy were in equilibrium real output would be growing at least 3% a year, and unemployment would be way under 8%. He has no more theoretical ground for his assumption than I do for mine.

Dourado challenges supporters of further QE to make “a broadly falsifiable claim about how long the short run lasts.” My response is that there is no theory available from which to deduce such a falsifiable claim. And as I have pointed out a number of times, no less an authority than F. A. Hayek demonstrated in his 1937 paper “Economics and Knowledge” that there is no economic theory that entitles us to conclude that the conditions required for an intertemporal equilibrium are in fact ever satisfied, or even that there is a causal tendency for them to be satisfied. All we have is some empirical evidence that economies from time to time roughly approximate such states. But that certainly does not entitle us to assume that any lapse from such a state will be spontaneously restored in a finite period of time.

Do we know that QE will work? Do we know that QE will increase real growth and reduce unemployment? No, but we do have a lot of evidence that monetary policy has succeeded in increasing output and employment in the past by changing expectations of the future price-level path. To assume that the current state of the economy is an equilibrium when unemployment is at a historically high level and inflation at a historically low level seems to me just, well, irresponsible.

George Selgin Asks a Question

I first met George Selgin almost 30 years ago at NYU where I was a visiting assistant professor in 1981, and he was a graduate student. I used to attend the weekly Austrian colloquium headed by Israel Kirzner, which included Mario Rizzo, Gerry O’Driscoll, and Larry White, and a group of very smart graduate students like George, Roger Koppl, Sandy Ikeda, Allanah Orrison, and others that I am not recalling. Ludwig Lachmann was also visiting NYU for part of the year, and meeting him was a wonderful experience, as he was very encouraging about an early draft of my paper “A Reinterpretation of Classical Monetary Theory,” which I was then struggling to get into publishable form. A few years later, while I was writing my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I found out (I can’t remember how, but perhaps through Anna Schwartz who was on George’s doctoral committee) that he was also writing a book on free banking based on his doctoral dissertation. His book, The Theory of Free Banking, came out before mine, and he kindly shared his manuscript with me as I was writing my book. Although we agreed on many things, our conceptions of free banking and our interpretations of monetary history and policy were often not in sync.

Despite these differences, I watched with admiration as George developed into a prolific economist with a long and impressive list of publications and accomplishments to his credit. I also admire his willingness to challenge his own beliefs and to revise his views about economic theory and policy when that seems to be called for, for example, recently observing in a post on the Free Banking blog that he no longer describes himself as an Austrian economist, and admires that Austrian bete noire, Milton Friedman, though he has hardly renounced his Hayekian leanings.

In one of his periodic postings (“A Question to Market Monetarists“) on the Free Banking blog, George recently discussed NGDP targeting, and raised a question to supporters of nominal GDP targeting, a challenging question to be sure, but a question not posed in a polemical spirit, but out of genuine curiosity. George begins by noting that his previous work in arguing for the price level to vary inversely with factor productivity bears a family resemblance to proposals for NGDP targeting, the difference being whether, in a benchmark case with no change in factor productivity and no change in factor supplies, the price level would be constant or would rise at some specified rate, presumably to overcome nominal rigidities. In NGDP targeting with an upward price trend (Scott Sumner’s proposal) or in NGDP targeting with a stationary price trend (George’s proposal), any productivity increase would correspond to price increases below the underlying price trend and productivity declines would correspond to price increases above underlying the price trend.

However, despite that resemblance, George is reluctant to endorse the Market Monetarist proposal for rapid monetary expansion to promote recovery. George gives three reasons for his skepticism about increasing the rate of monetary expansion to promote recovery, but my concern in this post is with his third, which is the most interesting from his point of view and the one that prompts the question that he poses. George suggests that given the 4.5-5.0% rate of growth in NGDP in the US since the economy hit bottom in the second quarter of 2009, it is not clear why, according to the Market Monetarists, the economy should not, by now, have returned to roughly its long-run real growth trend. (I note here a slight quibble with George’s 4.5-5.0% estimate of recent NGDP growth.  In my calculations, NGDP has grown at just 4.00% since the second quarter of 2009, and at 3.82% since the second quarter of 2010.)

Here’s how George characterizes the problem.

My third reason stems from pondering the sort of nominal rigidities that would have to be at play to keep an economy in a state of persistent monetary shortage, with consequent unemployment, for several years following a temporary collapse of the level of NGDP, and despite the return of the NGDP growth rate to something like its long-run trend.

Apart from some die-hard New Classical economists, and the odd Rothbardian, everyone appreciates the difficulty of achieving such downward absolute cuts in nominal wage rates as may be called for to restore employment following an absolute decline in NGDP. Most of us (myself included) will also readily agree that, if equilibrium money wage rates have been increasing at an annual rate of, say, 4 percent (as was approximately true of U.S. average earnings around 2006), then an unexpected decline in that growth rate to another still positive rate can also lead to unemployment. But you don’t have to be a die-hard New Classicist or Rothbardian to also suppose that, so long as equilibrium money wage rates are rising, as they presumably are whenever there is a robust rate of NGDP growth, wage demands should eventually “catch down” to reality, with employees reducing their wage demands, and employers offering smaller raises, until full employment is reestablished. The difficulty of achieving a reduction in the rate of wage increases ought, in short, to be considerably less than that of achieving absolute cuts.

U.S. NGDP was restored to its pre-crisis level over two years ago. Since then both its actual and its forecast growth rate have been hovering relatively steadily around 5 percent, or about two percentage points below the pre-crisis rate.The growth rate of U.S. average hourly (money) earnings has, on the other hand, declined persistently and substantially from its boom-era peak of around 4 percent, to a rate of just 1.5 percent.** At some point, surely, these adjustments should have sufficed to eliminate unemployment in so far as such unemployment might be attributed to a mere lack of spending. How can this be?

There have been a number of responses to George. Among them, Scott Sumner, Bill Woolsey and Lars Christensen. George, himself, offered a response to his own question, in terms of this graph plotting the time path of GDP versus the time path of nominal wages before and since the 2007-09 downturn.

Here’s George’s take on the graph:

Here one can clearly see how, while NGDP plummeted, hourly wages kept right on increasing, albeit at an ever declining rate. Allowing for compounding, this difference sufficed to create a gap between wage and NGDP levels far exceeding its pre-bust counterpart, and large enough to have been only slightly reduced by subsequent, reasonably robust NGDP growth, notwithstanding the slowed growth of wages.

The puzzle is, of course, why wages have kept on rising at all, despite high unemployment. Had they stopped increasing altogether at the onset of the NGDP crunch, wages and total spending might have recovered their old relative positions about two years ago. That, presumably, would have been too much to hope for. But if it is unreasonable to expect wage inflation to stop on a dime, is it not equally perplexing that it should lunge ahead like an ocean liner might, despite having its engines put to a full stop?

However, after some further tinkering, George decided that the appropriate scaling of the graph implied that the relationship between the two time paths was that displayed in the graph below.

As a result of that rescaling, George withdrew, or at least qualified, his earlier comment. So, it’s obviously getting complicated. But Marcus Nunes, a terrific blogger and an ingenious graph maker, properly observes that George’s argument should be unaffected by any rescaling of his graph. The important feature of the time path of nominal GDP is that it dipped sharply and then resumed its growth at a somewhat slower rate than before the dip while the time path of nominal wages has continued along its previous trend, with just a gentle flattening of the gradient, but without any dip as occurred in the NGDP time path.  The relative position of the two curves on the graph should not matter.

By coincidence George’s first post appeared the day before I published my post about W. H. Hutt on Say’s Law and the Keynesian multiplier in which I argued that money-wage adjustments — even very substantial money-wage adjustments — would not necessarily restore full employment. The notion that money-wage adjustments must restore full employment is a mistaken inference from a model in which trading occurs only at equilibrium prices.  But that is not the world that we inhabit. Trading takes place at prices that the parties agree on, whether or not those prices are equilibrium prices. The quantity adjustments envisaged by Keynes and also by Hutt in his brilliant interpretation of Say’s Law, can prevent price-and-wage adjustments, even very large price-and-wage adjustments, from restoring a full-employment equilibrium. Hutt thought otherwise, but made no effective argument to prove his case, relying simply on a presumption that market forces will always put everything right in the end. But he was clearly mistaken on that point, as no less an authority that F. A. Hayek, in his 1937 article, “Economics and Knowledge,” clearly understood. For sufficiently large shocks, there is no guarantee that wage-and-price adjustments on their own will restore full employment.

In a comment on Scott’s blog, I made the following observation.

[T]he point [George] raises about the behavior of wages is one that I have also been wondering about. I mentioned it in passing in a recent post on W. H. Hutt and Say’s Law and the Keynesian multiplier. I suggested the possibility that we have settled into something like a pessimistic expectations equilibrium with anemic growth and widespread unemployment that is only very slowly, if at all, trending downwards. To get out of such a pessimistic expectations equilibrium you would need either a drastic downward revision of expected wages or a drastic increase in inflationary expectations sufficient to cause a self-sustaining expansion in output and employment. Just because the level of wages currently seems about right relative to a full employment equilibrium doesn’t mean that level of wages needed to trigger an expansion would not need to be substantially lower than the current level in the transitional period to an optimistic-expectations equilibrium. This is only speculation on my part, but I think it is potentially consistent with the story about inflationary expectations causing the stock market to rise in the current economic climate.

George later replied on Scott’s blog as follows:

David Glasner suggests “the possibility that we have settled into something like a pessimistic expectations equilibrium with anemic growth and widespread unemployment…To get out of such a pessimistic expectations equilibrium you would need either a drastic downward revision of expected wages or a drastic increase in inflationary expectations.”

The rub, if you ask me, is that of reconciling “pessimistic expectations” with what appears, on the face of things, to be an overly optimistic positioning of expected wages.

I am not sure why George thinks there is a problem of reconciliation. As Hayek showed in his 1937 article, a sufficient condition for disequilibrium is that expectations be divergent. If expectations diverge, then the plans constructed on those plans cannot be mutually consistent, so that some, perhaps all, plans will not be executed, and some, possibly all, economic agents will regret some prior decisions that they took. Especially after a large shock, I see no reason to be surprised that expectations diverge or even that, as a group, workers are slower to change expectations than employers. I may have been somewhat imprecise in referring to a “pessimistic-expectations” equilibrium, because what I am thinking of is an inconsistency between the pessimism of entrepreneurs about future prices and the expectations of workers about wages, not a situation in which all agents are equally pessimistic. If everyone were equally pessimistic, economic activity might be at a low level, but we wouldn’t necessarily observe any disappointed buyers or sellers. But what qualifies as disappointment might not be so easy to interpret. But we likely would observe a reduction in output. So a true “pessimistic-expectations” equilibrium is a bit tricky to think about. But in practice, there seems nothing inherently surprising about workers’ expectations of future wages not adjusting downward as rapidly as employers’ expectations do. It may also be the case that it is the workers with relatively pessimistic expectations who are dropping out of the labor force, while those with more optimistic expectations continue to search for employment.

I don’t say that the slow recovery poses not difficult issues for advocates of monetary stimulus to address.  The situation today is not exactly the same as it was in 1932, but I don’t agree that it can be taken as axiomatic that a market economy will recover from a large shock on its own.  It certainly may recover, but it may not.  And there is no apodictically true demonstration in the whole corpus of economic or praxeological theory that such a recovery must necessarily occur.

Am I Being Unfair to the Gold Standard?

Kurt Schuler takes me (among others) to task in a thoughtful post on the Free-Banking blog for being too harsh in my criticisms of the gold standard, in particular in blaming the gold standard for the Great Depression, when it was really the misguided policies of central banks that were at fault.

Well, I must say that Kurt is a persuasive guy, and he makes a strong case for the gold standard. And, you know, the gold standard really wasn’t fatally flawed, and if the central banks at the time had followed better policies, the gold standard might not have imploded in the way that it did in the early 1930s. So, I have to admit that Kurt is right; the Great Depression was not the inevitable result of the gold standard. If the world’s central banks had not acted so unwisely – in other words, if they had followed the advice of Hawtrey and Cassel about limiting the monetary demand for gold — if the Bank of France had not gone insane, if Benjamin Strong, Governor of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, then the de facto policy-making head of the entire Federal Reserve System, had not taken ill in 1928 and been replaced by the ineffectual George L. Harrison, the Great Depression might very well have been avoided.

So was I being unfair to the gold standard? OK, yes, I admit it, I was being unfair. Gold standard, you really weren’t as bad as I said you were. The Great Depression was really not all your fault. There, I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. But, do I want to see you restored? No way! At least not while the people backing you are precisely those who, like Hayek, in his 1932 lament for the gold standard defending the insane Bank of France against accusations that it caused the Great Depression, hold Hawtrey and Cassel responsible for the policies that caused the Great Depression. If those are the ideas motivating your backers to want to restore you as a monetary standard, I find the prospect of your restoration pretty scary — as in terrifying.

Now, Kurt suggests that people Ron Paul are not so scary, because all Ron Paul means when he says he wants to restore the gold standard is that the Federal Reserve System be abolished. With no central bank, it will be left up to the market to determine what will serve as money. Here is how Kurt describes what would happen.

If people want the standard to be gold, that’s what free banks will offer to attract their business. But if people want the standard to be silver, copper, a commodity basket, seashells, or cellphone minutes, that’s what free banks will offer. Or if they want several standards side by side, the way that multiple computer operating systems exist side by side, appealing to different niches, that’s what free banks will offer. A pure free banking system would also give people the opportunity to change standards at any time. Historically, though, many free banking systems have used the gold standard, and it is quite possible that gold would re-emerge against other competitors as the generally preferred standard.

Now that’s pretty scary – as in terrifying – too. As I suggested in arecent post, the reason that people in some places, like London, for instance, seem to agree readily on what constitutes money, even without the operation of legal tender laws, is that there are huge advantages to standardization. Economists call these advantages network effects, or network externalities. The demand to use a certain currency increases as other people use it, just as the demand to use a computer operating system or a web browser increases as the number of people already using it increases. Abolishing the dollar as we know it, which is what Kurt’s scenario sounds like to me, would annihilate the huge network effects associated with using the dollar, thereby forcing us to go through an uncertain process of indefinite length to recapture those network effects without knowing how or where the process would end up.  If we did actually embark on such a process, there is indeed some chance, perhaps a good chance, that it would lead in the end to a gold standard.

Would a gold standard associated with a system of free banking — without the disruptive interference of central banks — work well? There are strong reasons to doubt that it would. For starters, we have no way of knowing what the demand of such banks to hold gold reserves would be. We also have no way of knowing what would happen to the gold holdings of the US government if the Federal Reserve were abolished. Would the US continue to hold gold reserves if it went out of the money creation business?  I have no idea.  Thus, the future value of gold in a free-banking system is thus completely unpredictable. What we do know is that under a fractional reserve system, the demand for reserves by the banking system tends to be countercyclical, going up in recessions and going down in expansions. But what tends to cause recessions is an increase in the demand of the public to hold money.  So the natural cyclical path of a free-banking system under a gold standard would be an increasing demand for money in recessions, associated with an increasing monetary demand for gold by banks as reserves, causing an increase in the value of gold and a fall in prices. Recessions are generally characterized by declining real interest rates produced by depressed profit expectations. Declining real interest rates increase the demand for an asset like gold under the gold standard with a fixed nominal value, so both the real and the monetary demand for gold would increase in recessions, causing recessions to be deflationary. Recessions with falling asset prices and rising unemployment and, very likely, an increasing number of non-performing loans would impair the profitability and liquidity of banks, perhaps threatening the solvency of at least some banks as well, thereby inducing holders of bank notes and bank deposits to try to shift from holding bank notes and bank deposits to holding gold.

A free-banking system based on a gold standard is thus likely to be subject to a shift in demand from holding bank money to holding gold, when it is least able to accommodate such a shift, making a free-banking system based on a gold standard potentially vulnerable to a the sort of vicious deflationary cycle that characterized the Great Depression. The only way out of such a cycle would be to suspend convertibility. Such suspensions might or might not be tolerated, but it is not at all clear whether or how a mechanism to trigger such a suspension could be created. Insofar as such suspensions were expected, the mere anticipation of a liquidity problem might be sufficient to trigger a shift in demand away from holding bank money toward holding gold, thereby forcing a suspension of convertibility.  Chronic suspensions of convertibility would tend to undermine convertibility.

In short, there is a really serious problem inherent in any banking system in which the standard is itself a medium of exchange. The very fact that gold is money means that, in any fractional reserve system based on gold, there is an inherent tendency for the system to implode when there is a loss of confidence in bank money that causes a shift in demand from bank money to gold. In principle, what would be most desirable is a system in which the monetary standard is not itself money.  Alternatively, the monetary standard could be an asset whose supply may be increased without limit to meet an increase in demand, an asset like, you guessed it, Federal Reserve notes and reserves. But that very defect is precisely what makes the Ron Pauls of this world think that the gold standard is such a wonderful idea.  And that is a scary — as in terrifying — thought.

NGDP Targeting v. Nominal Wage Targeting

This post follows up on an observation I made in my post about George Selgin’s recent criticism of John Taylor’s confused (inasmuch as the criticism was really of level versus rate targeting which is a completely different issue from whether to target nominal GDP or the price level) critique of NGDP targeting. I found Selgin’s discussion helpful to me in thinking through a question that came up in earlier discussions (like this) about the relative merits of targeting NGDP (or a growth path for NGDP) versus targeting nominal wages (or a growth path for nominal wages).

The two policies are similar inasmuch as wages are the largest component of nominal income, so if you stabilize the nominal wage, chances are that you will stabilize nominal income, and if you stabilize nominal income (or its growth path), chances are that you will stabilize the nominal wage (or its growth path). Aside from that, the advantage of NGDP targeting is that it avoids a perverse response to an adverse supply shock, which, by causing an increase in the price level and inflation, induces the monetary authority to tighten monetary policy, exacerbating the decline in real income and employment. However, a policy of stabilizing nominal income, unlike a policy of price level (or inflation) targeting, implies no tightening of monetary policy. A policy of stabilizing nominal GDP sensibly accepts that an adverse supply shock, by reducing total output, automatically causes output prices to increase, so that trying to counteract that automatic response to the supply shock subjects the economy to an unnecessary, and destabilizing, demand-side shock on top of the initial supply-side shock.

Here’s Selgin’s very useful formulation of the point:

[A]lthough it is true that unsound monetary policy tends to contribute to undesirable and unnecessary fluctuations in prices and output, it does not follow that the soundest conceivable policy is one that eliminates such fluctuations altogether. The goal of monetary policy ought, rather, to be that of avoiding unnatural fluctuations in output–that is, departures of output from its full-information level–while refraining from interfering with fluctuations that are “natural.”

The question I want to explore is which policy, NGDP targeting or nominal-wage targeting, does the better job of minimizing departures from what Selgin calls the “full-information” level of output. To simplify the discussion let’s compare a policy of constant NGDP with a policy of constant nominal wages. In this context, constant nominal wages means that the average level of wages is constant, any change in a particular nominal meaning an equivalent change in the relative wage. Let’s now suppose that our economy is subjected to an adverse supply shock, meaning that the supply of a non-labor input has been reduced or withheld. The reduction in the supply of the non-labor input increases its rate of remuneration and reduces the real wage of labor. If the share of labor in national income falls as a result of the supply shock (as it typically does after a supply shock), then the equilibrium nominal (as well as the real) wage must fall under a policy of constant nominal GDP. Under a policy of stabilizing nominal wages, it would be necessary to counteract the adverse supply shock with a monetary expansion to prevent nominal wages from falling.

Is it possible to assess which is the better policy? I think so. In most employment models, workers accept unemployment when they observe that wage offers are low relative to their expectations. If workers are accustomed to constant nominal wages, and then observe falling nominal wages, the probability rises that they will choose unemployment in the mistaken expectation that they will find a higher wages by engaging in search or by waiting. Thus, falling nominal wages induces inefficient (“involuntary”) unemployment, with workers accepting unemployment because their wage expectations are too optimistic.  Because of their overly-optimistic expectations, workers’ decisions to accept unemployment cause a further contraction in economic activity, inducing a further unexpected decline in nominal wages and a further increase in involuntary unemployment, producing a kind of Keynesian multiplier process whose supply-side analogue is Say’s Law.

So my conclusion is that even nominal GDP targeting does not provide enough monetary stimulus to offset the contractionary tendency of a supply shock.  Although my example was based on a comparison of constant nominal GDP with constant nominal wages, I think an analogous argument would lead to a similar conclusion in a comparison between nominal NGDP targeting at say 5 percent with nominal wage inflation of say 3 percent.  The quantitative difference between nominal GDP targeting and nominal wage targeting may be small, but, at least directionally, nominal wage targeting seems to be the superior policy.

Selgin Takes Down Taylor on NGDP Targeting

A couple of weeks ago (November 18, 2011), responding to the recent groundswell of interest in NGDP targeting, John Taylor wrote a critique of NGDP targeting on his blog (“More on Nominal GDP Targeting”). Taylor made two main points in his critique. First, noting that recent proposals for NGDP targeting (in contrast to earlier proposals advanced in the 1980s) propose targeting the level (or more precisely a trend line) of NGDP rather than the growth rate of NGDP, Taylor conceded that in recoveries from recessions there is a case for allowing NGDP to grow faster than the long-run trend. Strict rate targeting would not accommodate faster than normal NGDP growth in recoveries, level targeting would. However, Taylor argued that level targeting has a corresponding drawback.

[I]f an inflation shock takes the price level and thus NGDP above the target NGDP path, then the Fed will have to take sharp tightening action which would cause real GDP to fall much more than with inflation targetting and most likely result in abandoning the NGDP target.

Taylor’s second point was that NGDP targeting is not an adequate rule, because it allows the monetary authorities too much discretion in choosing how to hit the specified target. Taylor regards this as a dangerous concession of arbitrary authority to the central bank.

NGDP targeting may seem like a policy rule, but it does not give much quantitative operational guidance about what the central bank should do with the instruments. It is highly discretionary. Like the wolf dressed up as a sheep, it is discretion in rules clothing.

In reply Scott Sumner wrote a good defense of NGDP targeting, focusing mainly on the forward-looking orientation of NGDP targeting in contrast to the backward-looking orientation of the rule favored by Taylor. Further, Taylor’s criticism is beside the point, having nothing to do with NGDP targeting; it’s all about level targeting versus growth targeting. Scott also points out that his own version of NGDP targeting precisely specifies what the central bank is supposed to do to implement its objective, avoiding entirely Taylor’s charge of giving too much discretion to the central bank.

All well and good, but no coup de grace.

It took almost two weeks, but the coup de grace was finally administered with admirable clarity and efficiency at 3:58 PM on December 1, 2011 by George Selgin on the Free Banking Blog. Selgin’s main point is that it is illegitimate for Taylor to posit an inflation shock to the price level, because inflation shocks don’t just happen, they must be caused by some other, more fundamental, cause. That cause can either be classified as a (negative) shift in aggregate supply or a (positive) shift in aggregate demand. If the shift affected aggregate supply, meaning that aggregate demand has not changed, there is no particular reason to suppose that any change has occurred in NGDP. So there is no reason for the Fed to tighten monetary policy to counteract the increase in the price level. On the other hand, if the inflation shock was caused by an increase in aggregate demand, then NGDP has certainly increased, and a tightening action would be required, but the cause of the tightening would have been the targeting of NGDP,  but the failure to do so.

Now in fairness to Professor Taylor, one could interpret his point in a different way: Central bankers are not infallible. Try as they might, they will not succeed in hitting their NGDP targets every time. But each miss will require an offsetting change in the opposite direction. The result of random errors in targeting, may be increased instability in NGDP. But if that was what Taylor meant, he should have said so. Selgin identifies the source of Taylor’s confusion as follows:

But lurking below the surface of Professor Taylor’s nonsensical critique is, I sense, a more fundamental problem, consisting of his implicit treatment of stabilization of aggregate demand or spending, not as a desirable end in itself, but as a rough-and-ready (if not seriously flawed) means by which the Fed might attempt to fulfill its so-called dual mandate–a mandate calling for it to concern itself with both the control of inflation and the stability of employment and real output.

What Selgin is arguing for is a policy targeting a (nearly) constant level of NGDP, taking seriously the vague (and essentially non-operational) goal, mentioned by Hayek in his early work, of a constant level of monetary expenditure.

[A]lthough it is true that unsound monetary policy tends to contribute to undesirable and unnecessary fluctuations in prices and output, it does not follow that the soundest conceivable policy is one that eliminates such fluctuations altogether. The goal of monetary policy ought, rather, to be that of avoiding unnatural fluctuations in output–that is, departures of output from its full-information level–while refraining from interfering with fluctuations that are “natural.”

I find Selgin’s formulation really interesting, because a few months ago I was trying to think through the following problem. Suppose there is a supply shock that causes real output to fall. Unless the supply shock is caused by a reduced supply of labor, the real wage must fall. Under a policy of stabilizing nominal income, the nominal wage as well as the real wage would (or at least could) fall if, as a result of the supply shock, labor’s share of factor income also declined. But a falling nominal wage would tend to cause inefficient (involuntary) unemployment, because workers, observing unexpectedly reduced wages, would therefore not accept the relatively low wage offers, becoming unemployed in the mistaken expectation of finding better paying jobs while unemployed. A policy of stabilizing nominal wages would avoid inefficient (involuntary) unemployment, which is an argument for making stable wages (as advocated by Hawtrey and Earl Thompson) rather than stable nominal income the goal of economic policy.  Thus, it seems to me that from the standpoint of optimal employment policy, a policy of stabilizing wages may do better than a policy of stabilizing NGDP.  Of course, if one adopts a policy of targeting a sufficiently high growth rate of NGDP, the likelihood that nominal wage would fall as a result of a supply shock would be correspondingly reduced.

I also want to comment further on Taylor’s criticism of NGDP targeting as unacceptably discretionary, but that will have to wait for another day.

Central Banking and Central Planning Once Again

Kurt Schuler over at the Free Banking Blog takes issue yet again with my earlier posts in which I disputed the identification increasingly made by ideological opponents of the Federal Reserve Board that central banking is a form of central planning. I don’t have much to add to my earlier posts (here, here, and here), and interested readers can go back and have a look at what I have already said on the subject. Readers may also want to have a look at Lars Chistensen’s blog in which he gives a brief summary and commentary of the debate between Kurt and me and provides links to the relevant posts as well as to a post by Bill Woolsey on his blog supporting my view. Lars actually finds Bill’s argument, quoted at length, more persuasive than mine, which is OK, because I think that Bill spells out what I wanted to say by way of a specific example illustrating the difference between central planning and government ownership of, or a legal monopoly over, an economically critical service.

But I will take this opportunity to reply to the following passage from Kurt’s post expressing surprise that, having published a book on free banking, I would now dispute that central banking is a form of free banking central planning, a proposition, according to Kurt, crucial to free-banking thought.

the idea that central banking is a form of central planning is a crucial part of free banking thought, and because I am amazed by Glasner’s view given that he once wrote a book on free banking,

I did indeed write a book nearly 25 years ago in which I advocated free banking. The truth is that I still believe that most of what I wrote in my book was correct, but I would admit to having greater doubts than I did then about the practicality of adopting a free-banking system. The main source of my doubts is that I don’t think that we have yet come up with a model for dealing with insolvent or even illiquid banks. I suggested in my book that money market mutual funds provided a workable model for free banking, but the experience of September and October 2008 in which a run on money market mutual funds that had invested heavily in the commercial paper backed by mortgage backed securities issued by Lehman Brothers and others was a key part of the financial panic suggests to me that we need a more fundamental redesign of monetary institutions than I had imagined if we are to shift to a monetary system without a lender of last resort. I understand all the arguments about the distorted incentives that regulation and other interventions created, promoting risk taking by too-big-to-fail financial institutions, but I don’t know if there is any way of showing that a system of free banking would not entail a higher level of systemic risk than our current system.

But forget about that very big question mark in my mind about the potential instability of a free-banking system. In my book I argued that a system of indirect convertibility under a labor standard could ensure a socially optimal time path for the price level while a free-banking system would provide the public with just as much money as they wished to hold, thereby eliminating socially undesirable fluctuations in economic activity. Just because free banking under a labor standard could outperform central banking doesn’t mean that central banking is central planning; it means that central banking is a less effective way of arranging our monetary system than a possible alternative. There may be some infringements on liberty associated with central banking, with certain types of transactions being prohibited.  But is every infringement on liberty the same as central planning? The identification of central banking with central planning suggests to me a certain kind of rhetorical extremism, a casual tendency not merely to disagree with or to criticize, but to vilify and to demonize, our current institutions and political leaders, that I find a tad scary. To see what I mean, have a look at the comments on Kurt’s post on the Free Banking Blog.  Comrade Bernanke, first a traitor, now a commie.

Next Page »

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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