Archive for the '1920-21 Depression' Category

Milton Friedman’s Rabble-Rousing Case for Abolishing the Fed

I recently came across this excerpt from a longer interview of Milton Friedman conducted by Brian Lamb on Cspan in 1994. In this excerpt Lamb asks Friedman what he thinks of the Fed, and Friedman, barely able to contain his ideological fervor, quickly rattles off his version of the history of the Fed, blaming the Fed, at least by implication, for all the bad monetary and macroeconomic events that happened between 1914, when the Fed came into existence, and the1970s.

Here’s a rough summary of Friedman’s tirade:

I have long been in favor of abolishing [the Fed]. There is no institution in the United States that has such a high public standing and such a poor record of performance. . . . The Federal Reserve began operations in 1914 and presided over a doubling of prices during World War I. It produced a major collapse in 1921. It had a good period from about 1922 to 1928. It took actions in 1928 and 1929 that led to a major recession in 1929 and 1930, and it converted that recession by its actions into the Great Depression. The major villain in the Great Depression in my opinion was unquestionably the Federal Reserve System. Since that time, it presided over a doubling of price in World War II. It financed the inflation of the 1970s. On the whole it has a very poor record. It’s done far more harm than good.

Let’s go through Friedman’s complaints one at a time.

World War I inflation.

Friedman blames World War I inflation on the Fed. Friedman, as I have shown in many previous posts, had a very shaky understanding of how the gold standard worked. His remark about the Fed’s “presiding over a doubling of prices” during World War I is likely yet another example of Friedman’s incomprehension, though his use of the weasel words “presided over” rather than the straightforward “caused” does suggest that Friedman was merely trying to insinuate that the Fed was blameworthy when he actually understood that the Fed had almost no control over inflation in World War I, the US remaining formally on the gold standard until April 6, 1917, when the US declared war on Germany and entered World War I, formally suspending the convertibility of the dollar into gold.

As long as the US remained on a gold standard, the value of the dollar was determined by the value of gold. The US was importing lots of gold during the first two and a half years of the World War I as the belligerents used their gold reserves and demonetized their gold coins to finance imports of war material from the US. The massive demonetization of gold caused gold to depreciate on world markets. Another neutral country, Sweden, actually left the gold standard during World War I to avoid the inevitable inflation associated with the wartime depreciation of gold. So it was either ignorant or disingenuous for Friedman to attribute the World War I inflation to the actions of the Federal Reserve. No country could have remained on the gold standard during World War I without accepting inflation, and the Federal Reserve had no legal authority to abrogate or suspend the legal convertibility of the dollar into a fixed weight of gold.

The Post-War Collapse of 1921

Friedman correctly blames the 1921 collapse to the Fed. However, after a rapid wartime and postwar inflation, the US was trying to recreate a gold standard while holding 40% of the world’s gold reserves. The Fed therefore took steps to stabilize the value of gold, which meant raising interest rates, thereby inducing a further inflow of gold into the US to stop the real value of gold from falling in international markets. The problem was that the Fed went overboard, causing a really, and probably unnecessarily, steep deflation.

The Great Depression

Friedman is right that the Fed helped cause the Great Depression by its actions in 1928 and 1929, raising interest rates to try to quell rapidly rising stock prices. But the concerns about rising stock-market prices were probably misplaced, and the Fed’s raising of interest rates caused an inflow of gold into the US just when a gold outflow from the US was needed to accommodate the rising demand for gold on the part of the Bank of France and other central banks rejoining the gold standard and accumulating gold reserves. It was the sudden tightening of the world gold market, with the US and France and other countries rejoining the gold standard simultaneously trying to increase their gold holdings, that caused the value of gold to rise (and nominal prices to fall) in 1929 starting the Great Depression. Friedman totally ignored the international context in which the Fed was operating, failing to see that the US price level under the newly established gold standard, being determined by the international value of gold, was beyond the control of the Fed.

World War II Inflation

As with World War I, Friedman blamed the Fed for “presiding over” a doubling of prices in World War II. But unlike World War I, when rising US prices reflected a falling real value of gold caused by events outside the US and beyond the control of the Fed, in World War II rising US prices reflected the falling value of an inconvertible US dollar caused by Fed “money printing” at the behest of the President and the Treasury. But why did Friedman consider Fed money printing in World War II to have been a blameworthy act on the part of the Fed? The US was then engaged in a total war against the Axis powers. Under those circumstances, was the primary duty of the Fed to keep prices stable or to use its control over “printing press” to ensure that the US government had sufficient funds to win the war against Nazi totalitarianism and allied fascist forces, thereby preserving American liberties and values even more fundamental than keeping inflation low and enabling creditors to extract what was owed to them by their debtors in dollars of undiminished real purchasing power.

Now it’s true that many of Friedman’s libertarian allies were appalled by US participation in World War II, but Friedman, to his credit, did not share their disapproval of US participation in World War II. But, given his support for World War II, Friedman should have at least acknowledged the obvious role of inflationary finance in emergency war financing, a role which, as Earl Thompson and I and others have argued, rationalizes the historic legal monopoly on money printing maintained by almost all sovereign states. To condemn the Fed for inflationary policies during World War II without recognizing the critical role of the “printing press” in war finance was a remarkably uninformed and biased judgment on Friedman’s part.

1970s Inflation

The Fed certainly had a major role in inflation during the 1970s, which as early as 1966 was already starting to creep up from 1-2% rates that had prevailed from 1953 to 1965. The rise in inflation was again triggered by war-related expenditures, owing to the growing combat role of the US in Vietnam starting in 1965. The Fed’s role in rising inflation in the late 1960s and early 1970s was hardly the Fed’s finest hour, but again, it is unrealistic to expect a public institution like the Fed to withhold the financing necessary to support a military action undertaken by the national government. Certainly, the role of Arthur Burns, appointed by Nixon in 1970 to become Fed Chairman in encouraging Nixon to impose wage-and-price controls as an anti-inflationary measure was one of the most disreputable chapters in the Fed’s history, and the cluelessness of Carter’s first Fed Chairman, G. William Miller, appointed to succeed Burns, is almost legendary, but given the huge oil-price increases of 1973-74 and 1978-79, a policy of accommodating those supply-side shocks by allowing a temporary increase in inflation was probably optimal. So, given the difficult circumstances under which the Fed was operating, the increased inflation of the 1970s was not entirely undesirable.

But although Friedman was often sensitive to the subtleties and nuances of policy making when rendering scholarly historical and empirical judgments, he rarely allowed subtleties and nuances to encroach on his denunciations when he was operating in full rabble-rousing mode.

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Milton Friedman, Monetarism, and the Great and Little Depressions

Brad Delong has a nice little piece bashing Milton Friedman, an activity that, within reasonable limits, I consider altogether commendable and like to engage in myself from time to time (see here, here, here, here, here , here, here, here, here and here). Citing Barry Eichengreen’s recent book Hall of Mirrors, Delong tries to lay the blame for our long-lasting Little Depression (aka Great Recession) on Milton Friedman and his disciples whose purely monetary explanation for the Great Depression caused the rest of us to neglect or ignore the work of Keynes and Minsky and their followers in explaining the Great Depression.

According to Eichengreen, the Great Depression and the Great Recession are related. The inadequate response to our current troubles can be traced to the triumph of the monetarist disciples of Milton Friedman over their Keynesian and Minskyite peers in describing the history of the Great Depression.

In A Monetary History of the United States, published in 1963, Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz famously argued that the Great Depression was due solely and completely to the failure of the US Federal Reserve to expand the country’s monetary base and thereby keep the economy on a path of stable growth. Had there been no decline in the money stock, their argument goes, there would have been no Great Depression.

This interpretation makes a certain kind of sense, but it relies on a critical assumption. Friedman and Schwartz’s prescription would have worked only if interest rates and what economists call the “velocity of money” – the rate at which money changes hands – were largely independent of one another.

What is more likely, however, is that the drop in interest rates resulting from the interventions needed to expand the country’s supply of money would have put a brake on the velocity of money, undermining the proposed cure. In that case, ending the Great Depression would have also required the fiscal expansion called for by John Maynard Keynes and the supportive credit-market policies prescribed by Hyman Minsky.

I’m sorry, but I find this criticism of Friedman and his followers just a bit annoying. Why? Well, there are a number of reasons, but I will focus on one: it perpetuates the myth that a purely monetary explanation of the Great Depression originated with Friedman.

Why is it a myth? Because it wasn’t Friedman who first propounded a purely monetary theory of the Great Depression. Nor did the few precursors, like Clark Warburton, that Friedman ever acknowledged. Ralph Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel did — 10 years before the start of the Great Depression in 1919, when they independently warned that going back on the gold standard at the post-World War I price level (in terms of gold) — about twice the pre-War price level — would cause a disastrous deflation unless the world’s monetary authorities took concerted action to reduce the international monetary demand for gold as countries went back on the gold standard to a level consistent with the elevated post-War price level. The Genoa Monetary Conference of 1922, inspired by the work of Hawtrey and Cassel, resulted in an agreement (unfortunately voluntary and non-binding) that, as countries returned to the gold standard, they would neither reintroduce gold coinage nor keep their monetary reserves in the form of physical gold, but instead would hold reserves in dollar or (once the gold convertibility of sterling was restored) pound-denominated assets. (Ron Batchelder and I have a paper discussing the work of Hawtrey and Casssel on the Great Depression; Doug Irwin has a paper discussing Cassel.)

After the short, but fierce, deflation of 1920-21 (see here and here), when the US (about the only country in the world then on the gold standard) led the world in reducing the price level by about a third, but still about two-thirds higher than the pre-War price level, the Genoa system worked moderately well until 1928 when the Bank of France, totally defying the Genoa Agreement, launched its insane policy of converting its monetary reserves into physical gold. As long as the US was prepared to accommodate the insane French gold-lust by permitting a sufficient efflux of gold from its own immense holdings, the Genoa system continued to function. But in late 1928 and 1929, the Fed, responding to domestic fears about a possible stock-market bubble, kept raising interest rates to levels not seen since the deflationary disaster of 1920-21. And sure enough, a 6.5% discount rate (just shy of the calamitous 7% rate set in 1920) reversed the flow of gold out of the US, and soon the US was accumulating gold almost as rapidly as the insane Bank of France was.

This was exactly the scenario against which Hawtrey and Cassel had been warning since 1919. They saw it happening, and watched in horror while their warnings were disregarded as virtually the whole world plunged blindly into a deflationary abyss. Keynes had some inkling of what was going on – he was an old friend and admirer of Hawtrey and had considerable regard for Cassel – but, for reasons I don’t really understand, Keynes was intent on explaining the downturn in terms of his own evolving theoretical vision of how the economy works, even though just about everything that was happening had already been foreseen by Hawtrey and Cassel.

More than a quarter of a century after the fact, and after the Keynesian Revolution in macroeconomics was well established, along came Friedman, woefully ignorant of pre-Keynesian monetary theory, but determined to show that the Keynesian explanation for the Great Depression was wrong and unnecessary. So Friedman came up with his own explanation of the Great Depression that did not even begin until December 1930 when the Fed allowed the Bank of United States to fail, triggering, in Friedman’s telling, a wave of bank failures that caused the US money supply to decline by a third by 1933. Rather than see the Great Depression as a global phenomenon caused by a massive increase in the world’s monetary demand for gold, Friedman portrayed it as a largely domestic phenomenon, though somehow linked to contemporaneous downturns elsewhere, for which the primary explanation was the Fed’s passivity in the face of contagious bank failures. Friedman, mistaking the epiphenomenon for the phenomenon itself, ignorantly disregarded the monetary theory of the Great Depression that had already been worked out by Hawtrey and Cassel and substituted in its place a simplistic, dumbed-down version of the quantity theory. So Friedman reinvented the wheel, but did a really miserable job of it.

A. C. Pigou, Alfred Marshall’s student and successor at Cambridge, was a brilliant and prolific economic theorist in his own right. In his modesty and reverence for his teacher, Pigou was given to say “It’s all in Marshall.” When it comes to explaining the Great Depression, one might say as well “it’s all in Hawtrey.”

So I agree that Delong is totally justified in criticizing Friedman and his followers for giving such a silly explanation of the Great Depression, as if it were, for all intents and purposes, made in the US, and as if the Great Depression didn’t really start until 1931. But the problem with Friedman is not, as Delong suggests, that he distracted us from the superior insights of Keynes and Minsky into the causes of the Great Depression. The problem is that Friedman botched the monetary theory, even though the monetary theory had already been worked out for him if only he had bothered to read it. But Friedman’s interest in the history of monetary theory did not extend very far, if at all, beyond an overrated book by his teacher Lloyd Mints A History of Banking Theory.

As for whether fiscal expansion called for by Keynes was necessary to end the Great Depression, we do know that the key factor explaining recovery from the Great Depression was leaving the gold standard. And the most important example of the importance of leaving the gold standard is the remarkable explosion of output in the US beginning in April 1933 (surely before expansionary fiscal policy could take effect) following the suspension of the gold standard by FDR and an effective 40% devaluation of the dollar in terms of gold. Between April and July 1933, industrial production in the US increased by 70%, stock prices nearly doubled, employment rose by 25%, while wholesale prices rose by 14%. All that is directly attributable to FDR’s decision to take the US off gold, and devalue the dollar (see here). Unfortunately, in July 1933, FDR snatched defeat from the jaws of victory (or depression from the jaws of recovery) by starting the National Recovery Administration, whose stated goal was (OMG!) to raise prices by cartelizing industries and restricting output, while imposing a 30% increase in nominal wages. That was enough to bring the recovery to a virtual standstill, prolonging the Great Depression for years.

I don’t say that the fiscal expansion under FDR had no stimulative effect in the Great Depression or that the fiscal expansion under Obama in the Little Depression had no stimulative effect, but you can’t prove that monetary policy is useless just by reminding us that Friedman liked to assume (as if it were a fact) that the demand for money is highly insensitive to changes in the rate of interest. The difference between the rapid recovery from the Great Depression when countries left the gold standard and the weak recovery from the Little Depression is that leaving the gold standard had an immediate effect on price-level expectations, while monetary expansion during the Little Depression was undertaken with explicit assurances by the monetary authorities that the 2% inflation target – in the upper direction, at any rate — was, and would forever more remain, sacred and inviolable.

A Keynesian Postscript on the Bright and Shining, Dearly Beloved, Depression of 1920-21

In his latest blog post Paul Krugman drew my attention to Keynes’s essay The Great Slump of 1930. In describing the enormity of the 1930 slump, Keynes properly compared the severity of the 1930 slump with the 1920-21 episode, noting that the price decline in 1920-21 was of a similar magnitude to that of 1930. James Grant, in his book on the Greatest Depression, argues that the Greatest Depression was so outstanding, because, in contrast to the Great Depression, there was no attempt by the government in 1920-21 to cushion the blow. Instead, the powers that be just stood back and let the devil take the hindmost.

Keynes had a different take on the difference between the Greatest Depression and the Great Depression:

First of all, the extreme violence of the slump is to be noticed. In the three leading industrial countries of the world—the United States, Great Britain, and Germany—10,000,000 workers stand idle. There is scarcely an important industry anywhere earning enough profit to make it expand—which is the test of progress. At the same time, in the countries of primary production the output of mining and of agriculture is selling, in the case of almost every important commodity, at a price which, for many or for the majority of producers, does not cover its cost. In 1921, when prices fell as heavily, the fall was from a boom level at which producers were making abnormal profits; and there is no example in modern history of so great and rapid a fall of prices from a normal figure as has occurred in the past year. Hence the magnitude of the catastrophe.

In diagnosing what went wrong in the Great Depression, Keynes largely, though not entirely, missed the most important cause of the catastrophe, the appreciation of gold caused by the attempt to restore an international gold standard without a means by which to control the monetary demand for gold of the world’s central banks — most notoriously, the insane Bank of France. Keynes should have paid more attention to Hawtrey and Cassel than he did. But Keynes was absolutely on target in explaining why the world more easily absorbed and recovered from a 40% deflation in 1920-21 than it was able to do in 1929-33.

Thoughts and Details on the Dearly Beloved, Bright and Shining, Depression of 1920-21, of Blessed Memory

Commenter TravisV kindly referred me to a review article by David Frum in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly of The Deluge by Adam Tooze, an economic history of the First World War, its aftermath, and the rise of America as the first global superpower since the Roman Empire. Frum draws an interesting contrast between Tooze’s understanding of the 1920-21 depression and the analysis of that episode presented in James Grant’s recent paean to the Greatest Depression.

But in thinking about Frum’s article, and especially his comments on Grant, I realized that my own discussion of the 1920-21 depression was not fully satisfactory, and so I have been puzzling for a couple of weeks about my own explanation for the good depression of 1920-21. What follows is a progress report on my thinking.

Here is what Frum says about Grant:

Periodically, attempts have been made to rehabilitate the American leaders of the 1920s. The most recent version, James Grant’s The Forgotten Depression, 1921: The Crash That Cured Itself, was released just two days before The Deluge: Grant, an influential financial journalist and historian, holds views so old-fashioned that they have become almost retro-hip again. He believes in thrift, balanced budgets, and the gold standard; he abhors government debt and Keynesian economics. The Forgotten Depression is a polemic embedded within a narrative, an argument against the Obama stimulus joined to an account of the depression of 1920-21.

As Grant correctly observes, that depression was one of the sharpest and most painful in American history. Total industrial production may have dropped by 30 percent. [According to Industrial Production Index of the Federal Reserve, industrial production dropped by almost 40%, DG] Unemployment spiked at perhaps close to 12 percent (accurate joblessness statistics don’t exist for this period). Overall, prices plummeted at the steepest rate ever recorded—steeper than in 1929-33. Then, after 18 months of extremely hard times, the economy lurched into recovery. By 1923, the U.S. had returned to full employment.

Grant presents this story as a laissez-faire triumph. Wartime inflation was halted. . . . Recovery then occurred naturally, without any need for government stimulus. “The hero of my narrative is the price mechanism, Adam Smith’s invisible hand,” he notes. “In a market economy, prices coordinate human effort. They channel investment, saving and work. High prices encourage production but discourage consumption; low prices do the opposite. The depression of 1920-21 was marked by plunging prices, the malignity we call deflation. But prices and wages fell only so far. They stopped falling when they become low enough to entice consumers into shopping, investors into committing capital and employers into hiring. Through the agency of falling prices and wages, the American economy righted itself.” Reader, draw your own comparisons!

. . .

Grant rightly points out that wars are usually followed by economic downturns. Such a downturn occurred in late 1918-early 1919. “Within four weeks of the … Armistice, the [U.S.] War Department had canceled $2.5 billion of its then outstanding $6 billion in contracts; for perspective, $2.5 billion represented 3.3 percent of the 1918 gross national product,” he observes. Even this understates the shock, because it counts only Army contracts, not Navy ones. The postwar recession checked wartime inflation, and by March 1919, the U.S. economy was growing again.

Here is where the argument needs further clarity and elaboration. But first let me comment parenthetically that there are two distinct kinds of post-war downturns. First, there is an inevitable adjustment whereby productive resources are shifted to accommodate the shift in demand from armaments to civilian products. The reallocation entails the temporary unemployment that is described in familiar search and matching models. Because of the magnitude of the adjustment, these sectoral-adjustment downturns can last for some time, typically two to four quarters. But there is a second and more serious kind of downturn; it can be associated either with an attempt to restore a debased currency to its legal parity, or with the cessation of money printing to finance military expenditures by the government. Either the deflationary adjustment associated with restoring a suspended monetary standard or the disinflationary adjustment associated with the end of a monetary expansion tends to exacerbate and compound the pure resource reallocation problem that is taking place simultaneously.

What I have been mainly puzzling over is how to think about the World War I monetary expansion and inflation, especially in the US. From the beginning of World War I in 1914 till the US entered the war in April 1917, the dollar remained fully convertible into gold at the legal gold price of $20.67 an ounce. Nevertheless, there was a huge price inflation in the US prior to April 1917. How was this possible while the US was on the gold standard? It’s not enough to say that a huge influx of gold into the US caused the US money supply to expand, which is the essence of the typical quantity-theoretic explanation of what happened, an explanation that you will find not just in Friedman and Schwartz, but in most other accounts as well.

Why not? Because, as long as the dollar was still redeemable at the official gold price, people could redeem their excess dollars for gold to avoid the inflationary losses incurred by holding dollars. Why didn’t they? In my previous post on the subject, I suggested that it was because gold, too, was depreciating, so that rapid US inflation from 1915 to 1917 before entering the war was a reflection of the underlying depreciation of gold.

But why was gold depreciating? What happened to make gold less valuable? There are two answers. First, a lot of gold was being withdrawn from circulation, as belligerent governments were replacing their gold coins with paper or base metallic coins. But there was a second reason: the private demand for gold was being actively suppressed by governments. Gold could no longer be freely imported or exported. Without easy import and export of gold, the international gold market, a necessary condition for the gold standard, ceased to function. If you lived in the US and were concerned about dollar depreciation, you could redeem your dollars for gold, but you could not easily find anyone else in the world that would pay you more than the official price of $20.67 an ounce, even though there were probably people out there willing to pay you more than that price if you could only find them and circumvent the export and import embargoes to ship the gold to them. After the US entered the war in April 1917, an embargo was imposed on the export of gold from the US, but that was largely just a precaution. Even without an embargo, little gold would have been exported.

So it was at best an oversimplification for me to say in my previous post that the dollar depreciated along with gold during World War I, because there was no market mechanism that reflected or measured the value of gold during World War I. Insofar as the dollar was still being used as a medium of exchange, albeit with many restrictions, it was more correct to say that the value of gold reflected the value of the dollar, than that the value of the dollar reflected the value of gold.

In my previous post, I posited that, owing to the gold-export embargo imposed after US entry into World War I, the dollar actually depreciated by less than gold between April 1917 and the end of the war. I then argued that after full dollar convertibility into gold was restored after the war, the dollar had to depreciate further to match the value of gold. That was an elegant explanation for the anomalous postwar US inflation, but that explanation has a problem: gold was flowing out of the US during the inflation, but if my explanation of the postwar inflation were right, gold should have been flowing into the US as the trade balance turned in favor of the US.

So, much to my regret, I have to admit that my simple explanation, however elegant, of the post-World War I inflation, as an equilibration of the dollar price level with the gold price level, was too simple. So here are some provisional thoughts, buttressed by a bit of empirical research and evidence drawn mainly from two books by W. A. Brown England and the New Gold Standard and The International Gold Standard Reinterpreted 1914-34.

The gold standard ceased to function as an economic system during World War I, because a free market in gold ceased to exist. Nearly two-thirds of all the gold in the world was mined in territories under the partial or complete control of the British Empire (South Africa, Rhodesia, Australia, Canada, and India). Another 15% of the world’s output was mined in the US or its territories. Thus, Britain was in a position, with US support and approval, to completely dominate the world gold market. When the war ended, a gold standard could not begin to function again until a free market in gold was restored. Here is how Brown describes the state of the world gold market (or non-market) immediately after the War.

In March 1919 when the sterling-dollar rate was freed from control, the export of gold was for the first time legally [my emphasis] prohibited. It was therefore still impossible to measure the appreciation or depreciation of any currency in terms of a world price of gold. The price of gold was nowhere determined by world-wide forces. The gold of the European continent was completely shut out of the world’s trade by export embargoes. There was an embargo upon the export of gold from Australia. All the gold exported from the Union of South Africa had still to be sold to the Bank of England at its statutory price. Gold could not be exported from the United States except under government license. All the avenues of approach by which gold from abroad could reach the public in India were effectually closed. The possessors of gold in the United States, South Africa, India, or in England, Spain, or France, could not offer their gold to prospective buyers in competition with one another. The purchasers of gold in these countries did not have access to the world’s supplies, but on the other hand, they were not exposed to foreign competition for the supplies in their own countries, or in the sphere of influence of their own countries.

Ten months after the war ended, on September 12, 1919, many wartime controls over gold having been eliminated, a free market in gold was reestablished in London.

No longer propped up by the elaborate wartime apparatus of controls and supports, the official dollar-sterling exchange rate of $4.76 per pound gave way in April 1919, falling gradually to less than $4 by the end of 1919. With the dollar-sterling exchange rate set free and the dollar was pegged to gold at the prewar parity of $20.67 an ounce, the sterling price of gold and the dollar-sterling exchange rate varied inversely. The US wholesale price index (in current parlance the producer price index) stood at 23.5 in November 1918 when the war ended (compared to 11.6 in July 1914 just before the war began). Between November 1918 and June 1919 the wholesale price index was roughly stable, falling to 23.4, a drop of just 0.4% in seven months. However, the existence of wartime price controls, largely dismantled in the months after the war ended, introduces some noise into the price indices, making price-level estimates and comparisons in the latter stages of the War and its immediate aftermath problematic.

When the US embargo on gold exports was lifted in June 1919, causing a big jump in gold exports in July 1919, wholesale prices shot up nearly 4% to 24.3, and to 24.9 in August, suggesting that lifting the gold export embargo tended to reduce the international value of gold to which the dollar corresponded. Prices dropped somewhat in September when the London gold market was reestablished, perhaps reflecting the impact of pent-up demand for gold suddenly becoming effective. Prices remained stable in October before rising almost 2% in November. Price increases accelerated in December and January, leveled off in February and March, before jumping up in April, the PPI reaching its postwar peak (28.8, a level not reached again till November 1950!) in May 1920.

My contention is that the US price level after World War I largely reflected the state of the world gold market, and the state of the world gold market was mainly determined by the direction and magnitude of gold flows into or out of the US. From the War’s end in November 1918 till the embargo on US gold exports was lifted the following July, the gold market was insulated from the US. The wartime controls imposed on the world gold market were gradually being dismantled, but until the London gold market reopened in September 1919, allowing gold to move to where it was most highly valued, there was no such thing as a uniform international value of gold to which the dollar had to correspond.

My understanding of the postwar US inflation and the subsequent deflation is based on the close relationship between monetary policy and the direction and magnitude of gold flows. Under a gold standard, and given the demand to hold the liabilities of a central bank, a central bank typically controlled the amount of gold reserves it held by choosing the interest rate at which it would lend. The relationship between the central-bank lending rate and its holdings of reserves is complex, but the reserve position of a central bank was reliably correlated with the central-bank lending rate, as Hawtrey explained and documented in his Century of Bank Rate. So the central bank lending rate can be thought of as the means by which a central bank operating under a gold standard made its demand for gold reserves effective.

The chart below shows monthly net gold flows into the US from January 1919 through June 1922. Inflows (outflows) correspond to positive (negative) magnitudes measured on left vertical axis; the PPI is measured on the right vertical axis. From January 1919 to June 1920, prices were relatively high and rising, while gold was generally flowing out of the US. From July 1920 till June 1921, prices fell sharply while huge amounts of gold were flowing into the US. Prices hit bottom in June, and gold inflows gradually tapered off in the second half of 1921.

gold_imports_2The correlation is obviously very far from perfect; I have done a number of regressions trying to explain movements in the PPI from January 1919 to June 1922, and the net monthly inflow of gold into the US consistently accounts for roughly 25% of the monthly variation in the PPI, and I have yet to find any other variable that is reliably correlated with the PPI over that period. Of course, I would be happy to receive suggestions about other variables that might be correlated with price level changes. Here’s the simplest regression result.

y = -4.41e-10 NGOLDIMP, 41 observations, t = -3.99, r-squared = .285, where y is the monthly percentage change in the PPI, and NGOLDIMP is net monthly gold imports into the US.

The one part of the story that still really puzzles me is that deflation bottomed out in June 1921, even though monthly gold inflows remained strong throughout the spring and summer of 1921 before tapering off in the autumn. Perhaps there was a complicated lag structure in the effects of gold inflows on prices that might be teased out of the data, but I don’t see it. And adding lagged variables does little if anything to improve the fit of the regression.

I want to make two further points about the dearly beloved 1920-21 depression. Let me go to the source and quote from James Grant himself waxing eloquent in the Wall Street Journal about the beguiling charms of the wonderful 1920-21 experience.

In the absence of anything resembling government stimulus, a modern economist may wonder how the depression of 1920-21 ever ended. Oddly enough, deflation turned out to be a tonic. Prices—and, critically, wages too—were allowed to fall, and they fell far enough to entice consumers, employers and investors to part with their money. Europeans, noticing that America was on the bargain counter, shipped their gold across the Atlantic, where it swelled the depression-shrunken U.S. money supply. Shares of profitable and well-financed American companies changed hands at giveaway valuations.

The first point to make is that Grant has the causation backwards; it was the flow of gold into the US that caused deflation by driving up the international value of gold and forcing down prices in terms of gold. The second point to make is that Grant completely ignores the brutal fact that the US exported its deflation to Europe and most of the rest of the world. Indeed, because Europe and much of the rest of the world were aiming to rejoin the gold standard, which effectively meant going on a dollar standard at the prewar dollar parity, and because, by 1920, almost every other currency was at a discount relative to the prewar dollar parity, the rest of the world had to endure a far steeper deflation than the US did in order to bring their currencies back to the prewar parity against the dollar. So the notion that US deflation lured eager bargain-hunting Europeans to flock to the US to spend their excess cash would be laughable, if it weren’t so pathetic. Even when the US recovery began in the summer of 1921, almost everywhere else prices were still falling, and output and employment contractin.

This can be seen by looking at the exchange rates of European countries against the dollar, normalizing the February 1920 exchange rates as 100. In February 1921, here are the exchange rates. (Source W. A. Brown The International Gold Standard Reinterpreted 1914-34, Table 29)

UK 114.6

France 101.8

Switzerland 99.3

Denmark 124.4

Belgium 103.6

Sweden 119.6

Holland 94.9

Italy 81.6

Norway 102.8

Spain 84.9

And in 1922, the exchange rates for every country had risen against the dollar (peak month noted in parentheses), implying steeper deflation in each of those countries in 1921 than in the US.

UK (June) 134.3

France (April) 131.1

Switzerland (February) 118.5

Denmark (June) 145.4

Belgium (April) 117.7

Sweden (March) 140.6

Holland (April) 105.2

Italy (April) 119.6

Norway (May) 106.8

Spain (February) 94.9

As David Frum emphasizes, the damage inflicted by the bright and shining depression of 1920-21 was not confined to the US, it exacted an even greater price on the already devastated European continent, thereby setting the stage, in conjunction with the draconian reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles and the war debts that the US insisted on collecting, preferably in gold, not imports, from its allies, first for the great German hyperinflation and then the Great Depression. And we all know what followed.

So, yes, by all means, let us all raise our glasses and toast the dearly beloved, bright and shining, depression of 1920-21, of blessed memory, the greatest depression ever. May we never see its like again.

D.H. Robertson on Why the Gold Standard after World War I Was Really a Dollar Standard

In a recent post, I explained how the Depression of 1920-21 was caused by Federal Reserve policy that induced a gold inflow into the US thereby causing the real value of gold to appreciate. The appreciation of gold implied that, measured in gold, prices for most goods and services had to fall. Since the dollar was equal to a fixed weight of gold, dollar prices also had to fall, and insofar as other countries kept their currencies from depreciating against the dollar, prices in terms of other currencies were also falling. So in 1920-21, pretty much the whole world went into a depression along with the US. The depression stopped in late 1921 when the Fed decided to allowed interest rates to fall sufficiently to stop the inflow of gold into the US, thereby halting the appreciation of gold.

As an addendum to my earlier post, I reproduce here a passage from D. H. Robertson’s short classic, one of the Cambridge Economic Handbooks, entitled Money, originally published 92 years ago in 1922. I first read the book as an undergraduate – I think when I took money and banking from Ben Klein – which would have been about 46 years ago. After seeing Nick Rowe’s latest post following up on my post, I remembered that it was from Robertson that I first became aware of the critical distinction between a small country on the gold standard and a large country on the gold standard. So here is Dennis Robertson from chapter IV (“The Gold Standard”), section 6 (“The Value of Money and the Value of Gold”) (pp. 65-67):

We can now resume the main thread of our argument. In a gold standard country, whatever the exact device in force for facilitating the maintenance of the standard, the quantity of money is such that its value and that of a defined weight of gold are kept at an equality with one another. It looks therefore as if we could confidently take a step forward, and say that in such a country the quantity of money depends on the world value of gold. Before the war this would have been a true enough statement, and it may come to be true again in the lifetime of those now living: it is worthwhile therefore to consider what, if it be true, are its implications.

The value of gold in its turn depends on the world’s demand for it for all purposes, and on the quantity of it in existence in the world. Gold is demanded not only for use as money and in reserves, but for industrial and decorative purposes, and to be hoarded by the nations of the East : and the fact that it can be absorbed into or ejected from these alternative uses sets a limit to the possible changes in its value which may arise from a change in the demand for it for monetary uses, or from a change in its supply. But from the point of view of any single country, the most important alternative use for gold is its use as money or reserves in other countries; and this becomes on occasion a very important matter, for it means that a gold standard country is liable to be at the mercy of any change in fashion not merely in the methods of decoration or dentistry of its neighbours, but in their methods of paying their bills. For instance, the determination of Germany to acquire a standard money of gold in the [eighteen]’seventies materially restricted the increase of the quantity of money in England.

But alas for the best made pigeon-holes! If we assert that at the present day the quantity of money in every gold standard country, and therefore its value, depends on the world value of gold, we shall be in grave danger of falling once more into Alice’s trouble about the thunder and the lightning. For the world’s demand for gold includes the demand of the particular country which we are considering; and if that country be very large and rich and powerful, the value of gold is not something which she must take as given and settled by forces outside her control, but something which up to a point at least she can affect at will. It is open to such a country to maintain what is in effect an arbitrary standard, and to make the value of gold conform to the value of her money instead of making the value of her money conform to the value of gold. And this she can do while still preserving intact the full trappings of a gold circulation or gold bullion system. For as we have hinted, even where such a system exists it does not by itself constitute an infallible and automatic machine for the preservation of a gold standard. In lesser countries it is still necessary for the monetary authority, by refraining from abuse of the elements of ‘play’ still left in the monetary system, to make the supply of money conform to the gold position: in such a country as we are now considering it is open to the monetary authority, by making full use of these same elements of ‘play,’ to make the supply of money dance to its own sweet pipings.

Now for a number of years, for reasons connected partly with the war and partly with its own inherent strength, the United States has been in such a position as has just been described. More than one-third of the world’s monetary gold is still concentrated in her shores; and she possesses two big elements of ‘play’ in her system — the power of varying considerably in practice the proportion of gold reserves which the Federal Reserve Banks hold against their notes and deposits (p. 47), and the power of substituting for one another two kinds of common money, against one of which the law requires a gold reserve of 100 per cent and against the other only one of 40 per cent (p. 51). Exactly what her monetary aim has been and how far she has attained it, is a difficult question of which more later. At present it is enough for us that she has been deliberately trying to treat gold as a servant and not as a master.

It was for this reason, and for fear that the Red Queen might catch us out, that the definition of a gold standard in the first section of this chapter had to be so carefully framed. For it would be misleading to say that in America the value of money is being kept equal to the value of a defined weight of gold: but it is true even there that the value of money and the value of a defined weight of gold are being kept equal to one another. We are not therefore forced into the inconveniently paradoxical statement that America is not on a gold standard. Nevertheless it is arguable that a truer impression of the state of the world’s monetary affairs would be given by saying that America is on an arbitrary standard, while the rest of the world has climbed back painfully on to a dollar standard.


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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