Archive for the 'Federal Reserve' Category



Sterilizing Gold Inflows: The Anatomy of a Misconception

In my previous post about Milton Friedman’s problematic distinction between real and pseudo-gold standards, I mentioned that one of the signs that Friedman pointed to in asserting that the Federal Reserve Board in the 1920s was managing a pseudo gold standard was the “sterilization” of gold inflows to the Fed. What Friedman meant by sterilization is that the incremental gold reserves flowing into the Fed did not lead to a commensurate increase in the stock of money held by the public, the failure of the stock of money to increase commensurately with an inflow of gold being the standard understanding of sterilization in the context of the gold standard.

Of course “commensurateness” is in the eye of the beholder. Because Friedman felt that, given the size of the gold inflow, the US money stock did not increase “enough,” he argued that the gold standard in the 1920s did not function as a “real” gold standard would have functioned. Now Friedman’s denial that a gold standard in which gold inflows are sterilized is a “real” gold standard may have been uniquely his own, but his understanding of sterilization was hardly unique; it was widely shared. In fact it was so widely shared that I myself have had to engage in a bit of an intellectual struggle to free myself from its implicit reversal of the causation between money creation and the holding of reserves. For direct evidence of my struggles, see some of my earlier posts on currency manipulation (here, here and here), in which I began by using the concept of sterilization as if it actually made sense in the context of international adjustment, and did not fully grasp that the concept leads only to confusion. In an earlier post about Hayek’s 1932 defense of the insane Bank of France, I did not explicitly refer to sterilization, and got the essential analysis right. Of course Hayek, in his 1932 defense of the Bank of France, was using — whether implicitly or explicitly I don’t recall — the idea of sterilization to defend the Bank of France against critics by showing that the Bank of France was not guilty of sterilization, but Hayek’s criterion for what qualifies as sterilization was stricter than Friedman’s. In any event, it would be fair to say that Friedman’s conception of how the gold standard works was broadly consistent with the general understanding at the time of how the gold standard operates, though, even under the orthodox understanding, he had no basis for asserting that the 1920s gold standard was fraudulent and bogus.

To sort out the multiple layers of confusion operating here, it helps to go back to the classic discussion of international monetary adjustment under a pure gold currency, which was the basis for later discussions of international monetary adjustment under a gold standard (i.e, a paper currency convertible into gold at a fixed exchange rate). I refer to David Hume’s essay “Of the Balance of Trade” in which he argued that there is an equilibrium distribution of gold across different countries, working through a famous thought experiment in which four-fifths of the gold held in Great Britain was annihilated to show that an automatic adjustment process would redistribute the international stock of gold to restore Britain’s equilibrium share of the total world stock of gold.

The adjustment process, which came to be known as the price-specie flow mechanism (PSFM), is widely considered one of Hume’s greatest contributions to economics and to monetary theory. Applying the simple quantity theory of money, Hume argued that the loss of 80% of Britain’s gold stock would mean that prices and wages in Britain would fall by 80%. But with British prices 80% lower than prices elsewhere, Britain would stop importing goods that could now be obtained more cheaply at home than they could be obtained abroad, while foreigners would begin exporting all they could from Britain to take advantage of low British prices. British exports would rise and imports fall, causing an inflow of gold into Britain. But, as gold flowed into Britain, British prices would rise, thereby reducing the British competitive advantage, causing imports to increase and exports to decrease, and consequently reducing the inflow of gold. The adjustment process would continue until British prices and wages had risen to a level equal to that in other countries, thus eliminating the British balance-of-trade surplus and terminating the inflow of gold.

This was a very nice argument, and Hume, a consummate literary stylist, expressed it beautifully. There is only one problem: Hume ignored that the prices of tradable goods (those that can be imported or exported or those that compete with imports and exports) are determined not in isolated domestic markets, but in international markets, so the premise that all British prices, like the British stock of gold, would fall by 80% was clearly wrong. Nevertheless, the disconnect between the simple quantity theory and the idea that the prices of tradable goods are determined in international markets was widely ignored by subsequent writers. Although Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and J. S. Mill avoided the fallacy, but without explicit criticism of Hume, while Henry Thornton, in his great work The Paper Credit of Great Britain, alternately embraced it and rejected it, the Humean analysis, by the end of the nineteenth century, if not earlier, had become the established orthodoxy.

Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a famous series of controversies over the Bank Charter Act of 1844, in which two groups of economists the Currency School in support and the Banking School in opposition argued about the key provisions of the Act: to centralize the issue of Banknotes in Great Britain within the Bank of England and to prohibit the Bank of England from issuing additional banknotes, beyond the fixed quantity of “unbacked” notes (i.e. without gold cover) already in circulation, unless the additional banknotes were issued in exchange for a corresponding amount of gold coin or bullion. In other words, the Bank Charter Act imposed a 100% marginal reserve requirement on the issue of additional banknotes by the Bank of England, thereby codifying what was then known as the Currency Principle, the idea being that the fluctuation in the total quantity of Banknotes ought to track exactly the Humean mechanism in which the quantity of money in circulation changes pound for pound with the import or export of gold.

The doctrinal history of the controversies about the Bank Charter Act are very confused, and I have written about them at length in several papers (this, this, and this) and in my book on free banking, so I don’t want to go over that ground again here. But until the advent of the monetary approach to the balance of payments in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the thinking of the economics profession about monetary adjustment under the gold standard was largely in a state of confusion, the underlying fallacy of PSFM having remained largely unrecognized. One of the few who avoided the confusion was R. G. Hawtrey, who had anticipated all the important elements of the monetary approach to the balance of payments, but whose work had been largely forgotten in the wake of the General Theory.

Two important papers changed the landscape. The first was a 1976 paper by Donald McCloskey and Richard Zecher “How the Gold Standard Really Worked” which explained that a whole slew of supposed anomalies in the empirical literature on the gold standard were easily explained if the Humean PSFM was disregarded. The second was Paul Samuelson’s 1980 paper “A Corrected Version of Hume’s Equilibrating Mechanisms for International Trade,” showing that the change in relative price levels — the mechanism whereby international monetary equilibrium is supposedly restored according to PSFM — is irrelevant to the adjustment process when arbitrage constraints on tradable goods are effective. The burden of the adjustment is carried by changes in spending patterns that restore desired asset holdings to their equilibrium levels, independently of relative-price-level effects. Samuelson further showed that even when, owing to the existence of non-tradable goods, there are relative-price-level effects, those effects are irrelevant to the adjustment process that restores equilibrium.

What was missing from Hume’s analysis was the concept of a demand to hold money (or gold). The difference between desired and actual holdings of cash imply corresponding changes in expenditure, and those changes in expenditure restore equilibrium in money (gold) holdings independent of any price effects. Lacking any theory of the demand to hold money (or gold), Hume had to rely on a price-level adjustment to explain how equilibrium is restored after a change in the quantity of gold in one country. Hume’s misstep set monetary economics off on a two-century detour, avoided by only a relative handful of economists, in explaining the process of international adjustment.

So historically there have been two paradigms of international adjustment under the gold standard: 1) the better-known, but incorrect, Humean PSFM based on relative-price-level differences which induce self-correcting gold flows that, in turn, are supposed to eliminate the price-level differences, and 2) the not-so-well-known, but correct, arbitrage-monetary-adjustment theory. Under the PSFM, the adjustment can occur only if gold flows give rise to relative-price-level adjustments. But, under PSFM, for those relative-price-level adjustments to occur, gold flows have to change the domestic money stock, because it is the quantity of domestic money that governs the domestic price level.

That is why if you believe, as Milton Friedman did, in PSFM, sterilization is such a big deal. Relative domestic price levels are correlated with relative domestic money stocks, so if a gold inflow into a country does not change its domestic money stock, the necessary increase in the relative price level of the country receiving the gold inflow cannot occur. The “automatic” adjustment mechanism under the gold standard has been blocked, implying that if there is sterilization, the gold standard is rendered fraudulent.

But we now know that that is not how the gold standard works. The point of gold flows was not to change relative price levels. International adjustment required changes in domestic money supplies to be sure, but, under the gold standard, changes in domestic money supplies are essentially unavoidable. Thus, in his 1932 defense of the insane Bank of France, Hayek pointed out that the domestic quantity of money had in fact increased in France along with French gold holdings. To Hayek, this meant that the Bank of France was not sterilizing the gold inflow. Friedman would have said that, given the gold inflow, the French money stock ought to have increased by a far larger amount than it actually did.

Neither Hayek nor Friedman understood what was happening. The French public wanted to increase their holdings of money. Because the French government imposed high gold reserve requirements (but less than 100%) on the creation of French banknotes and deposits, increasing holdings of money required the French to restrict their spending sufficiently to create a balance-of-trade surplus large enough to induce the inflow of gold needed to satisfy the reserve requirements on the desired increase in cash holdings. The direction of causation was exactly the opposite of what Friedman thought. It was the desired increase in the amount of francs that the French wanted to hold that (given the level of gold reserve requirements) induced the increase in French gold holdings.

But this doesn’t mean, as Hayek argued, that the insane Bank of France was not wreaking havoc on the international monetary system. By advocating a banking law that imposed very high gold reserve requirements and by insisting on redeeming almost all of its non-gold foreign exchange reserves into gold bullion, the insane Bank of France, along with the clueless Federal Reserve, generated a huge increase in the international monetary demand for gold, which was the proximate cause of the worldwide deflation that began in 1929 and continued till 1933. The problem was not a misalignment between relative price levels, which is sterilization supposedly causes; the problem was a worldwide deflation that afflicted all countries on the gold standard, and was avoidable only by escaping from the gold standard.

At any rate, the concept of sterilization does nothing to enhance our understanding of that deflationary process. And whatever defects there were in the way that central banks were operating under the gold standard in the 1920s, the concept of sterilization averts attention from the critical problem which was the increasing demand of the world’s central banks, especially the Bank of France and the Federal Reserve, for gold reserves.

Real and Pseudo Gold Standards: Could Friedman Tell the Difference?

One of the first academic papers by Milton Friedman that I read was “Real and Pseudo Gold Standards.” It’s an interesting paper presented to the Mont Pelerin Society in September 1961 and published in the Journal of Law and Economics in October 1961. That it was published in the Journal of Law and Economics, then edited by Friedman’s colleague at Chicago (and fellow Mont Pelerin member) Ronald Coase, is itself interesting, that estimable journal hardly being an obvious place to publish research on monetary economics. But the point of the paper was not to advance new theoretical insights about monetary theory, though he did provide a short preview of his critique of Fed policy in the 1920-21 Depression and in the Great Depression that he and Anna Schwartz would make in their soon to be published Monetary History of the United States, but to defend Friedman’s pro-fiat money position as a respectable alternative among the libertarians and classical liberals with whom Friedman had allied himself in the Mont Pelerin Society.

Although many members of the Mont Pelerin Society, including Hayek himself, as well as Friedman, Fritz Machlup and Lionel Robbins no longer supported the gold standard, their reasons for doing so were largely pragmatic, believing that whatever its virtues, the gold standard was no longer a realistic or even a desirable option as a national or an international monetary system. But there was another, perhaps more numerous, faction within the Mont Pelerin Society and the wider libertarian/ classical-liberal community, that disdained any monetary system other than the gold standard. The intellectual leader of this group was of course the soul of intransigence, the unyieldingly stubborn Ludwig von Mises, notably supported by the almost equally intransigent French economist Jacques Rueff, whose attachment to gold was so intense that Charles de Gaulle, another in a long line of French politicians enchanted by the yellow metal, had chosen Rueff as his personal economic adviser.

What Friedman did in this essay was not to engage with von Mises on the question of the gold standard; Friedman was realistic enough to understand that one could not reason with von Mises, who anyway regarded Friedman, as he probably did most of the members of the Mont Pelerin Society, as hardly better than a socialist. Instead, his strategy was to say that there is only one kind of real gold standard – presumably the kind favored by von Mises, whose name went unmentioned by Friedman, anything else being a pseudo-gold standard — in reality, nothing but a form of price fixing in which the government sets the price of gold and manages the gold market to prevent the demand for gold from outstripping the supply. While Friedman acknowledged that a real gold standard could be defended on strictly libertarian grounds, he argued that a pseudo-gold standard could not, inasmuch as it requires all sorts of market interventions, especially restrictions on the private ownership of gold that were then in place. What Friedman was saying, in effect, to the middle group in the Mont Pelerin Society was the only alternatives for liberals and libertarians were a gold standard of the Mises type or his preference: a fiat standard with flexible exchange rates.

Here is how he put it:

It is vitally important for the preservation and promotion of a free society that we recognize the difference between a real and pseudo gold standard. War aside, nothing that has occurred in the past half-century has, in my view, done more weaken and undermine the public’s faith in liberal principles than the pseudo gold standard that has intermittently prevailed and the actions that have been taken in its name. I believe that those of us who support it in the belief that it either is or will tend to be a real gold standard are mistakenly fostering trends the outcome of which they will be among the first to deplore.

This is a sweeping charge, so let me document it by a few examples which will incidentally illustrate the difference between a real and a pseudo gold standard before turning to an explicit discussion of the difference.

So what were Friedman’s examples of a pseudo gold standard? He offered five. First, US monetary policy after World War I, in particular the rapid inflation of 1919 and the depression of 1920-21. Second, US monetary policy in the 1920s and the British return to gold. Third, US monetary policy in the 1931-33 period. Fourth the U.S. nationalization of gold in 1934. And fifth, the International Monetary Fund and post-World War II exchange-rate policy.

Just to digress for a moment, I will admit that when I first read this paper as an undergraduate I was deeply impressed by his introductory statement, but found much of the rest of the paper incomprehensible. Still awestruck by Friedman, who, I then believed, was the greatest economist alive, I attributed my inability to follow what he was saying to my own intellectual shortcomings. So I have to admit to taking a bit of satisfaction in now being able to demonstrate that Friedman literally did not know what he was talking about.

US Monetary Policy after World War I

Friedman’s discussion of monetary policy after WWI begins strangely as if he were cutting and pasting from another source without providing any background to the discussion. I suspected that he might have cut and pasted from the Monetary History, but that turned out not to be the case. However, I did find that this paragraph (and probably a lot more] was included in testimony he gave to the Joint Economic Committee.

Nearly half of the monetary expansion in the United States came after the end of the war, thanks to the acquiescence of the Federal Reserve System in the Treasury’s desire to avoid a fall in the price of government securities. This expansion, with its accompanying price inflation, led to an outflow of gold despite the great demand for United States goods from a war-ravaged world and despite the departure of most countries from any fixed parity between their currencies and either gold or the dollar.

Friedman, usually a very careful writer, refers to “half of the monetary expansion” without identifying in any way “the monetary expansion” that he is referring to, leaving it to the reader to conjecture whether he is talking about the monetary expansion that began with the start of World War I in 1914 or the monetary expansion that began with US entry into the war in 1917 or the monetary expansion associated with some other time period. Friedman then goes on to describe the transition from inflation to deflation.

Beginning in late 1919, then more sharply in January 1920 and May 1920, the Federal Reserve System took vigorous deflationary steps that produced first a slackening of the growth of money and then a sharp decline. These brought in their train a collapse in wholesale prices and a severe economic contraction. The near halving of wholesale prices in a twelve month period was by all odds the most rapid price decline ever experienced in the United States before or since. It was not of course confined to the United States but spread to all countries whose money was linked to the dollar either by having a fixed price in terms of gold or by central bank policies directed at maintaining rigid or nearly rigid exchange rates.

That is a fair description of what happened after the Fed took vigorous deflationary steps, notably raising its discount rate to 6%. What Friedman neglects to point out is that there was no international gold standard (real or pseudo) immediately after the war, because only the United States was buying and selling gold at a legally established gold parity. Friedman then goes on to compare the pseudo gold standard under which the US was then operating with what would have happened under a real gold standard.

Under a real gold standard, the large inflow of gold up to the entry of the United States into the war would have produced a price rise to the end of the war similar to that actually experienced.

Now, aside from asserting that under a real gold standard, gold is used as money, and that under a pseudo gold standard, government is engaged in fixing the price of gold, Friedman has not told us how to distinguish between a real and a pseudo gold standard. So it is certainly fair to ask whether in the passage just quoted Friedman meant that the gold standard under which the US was operating when there was a large inflow of gold before entering the war was real or pseudo. His use of the subjunctive verb “would have produced” suggests that he believed that the gold standard was pseudo, not real. But then he immediately says that, under the real gold standard, the “price rise to the end of the war” would have been “similar to that actually experienced.” So take your pick.

Evidently, the difference between a real and a pseudo gold standard became relevant only after the war was over.

But neither the postwar rise nor the subsequent collapse would have occurred. Instead, there would have been an earlier and milder price decline as the belligerent nations returned to a peacetime economy. The postwar increase in the stock of money occurred only because the Reserve System had been given discretionary power to “manage” the stock of money, and the subsequent collapse occurred only because this power to manage the money had been accompanied by gold reserve requirements as one among several masters the System was instructed to serve.

That’s nice, but Friedman has not even suggested, much less demonstrated in any way, how all of this is related to the difference between a real and a pseudo gold standard. Was there any postwar restriction on the buying or selling of gold by private individuals? Friedman doesn’t say. All he can come up with is the idea that the Fed had been given “discretionary power to ‘manage’ the stock of money.” Who gave the Fed this power? And how was this power exercised? He refers to gold reserve requirements, but gold reserve requirements – whether they were a good idea or not is not my concern here — existed before the Fed came into existence.

If the Fed had unusual powers after World War I, those powers were not magically conferred by some unidentified entity, but by the circumstance that the US had accumulated about 40% of the world’s monetary gold reserves during World War I, and was the only country, after the war, that was buying and selling gold freely at a fixed price ($20.67 an ounce). The US was therefore in a position to determine the value of gold either by accumulating more gold or by allowing an efflux of gold from its reserves. Whether the US was emitting or accumulating gold depended on the  interest-rate policy of the Federal Reserve. It is true that the enormous control the US then had over the value of gold was a unique circumstance in world history, but the artificial and tendentious distinction between a real and a pseudo gold standard has absolutely nothing to do with the inflation in 1919 or the deflation in 1920-21.

US Monetary Policy in the 1920s and Britain’s Return to Gold

In the next section Friedman continues his critical review of Fed policy in the 1920s, defending the Fed against the charge (a staple of Austrian Business Cycle Theory and other ill-informed and misguided critics) that it fueled a credit boom during the 1920s. On the contrary, Friedman shows that Fed policy was generally on the restrictive side.

I do not myself believe that the 1929-33 contraction was an inevitable result of the monetary policy of the 1920s or even owed much to it. What was wrong was the policy followed from 1929 to 1933. . . . But internationally, the policy was little short of catastrophic. Much has been made of Britain’s mistake in returning to gold in 1925 at a parity that overvalued the pound. I do not doubt that this was a mistake – but only because the United States was maintaining a pseudo gold standard. Had the United States been maintaining a real gold standard, the stock of money would have risen more in the United States than it did, prices would have been stable or rising instead of declining, the United States would have gained less gold or lost some, and the pressure on the pound would have been enormously eased. As it was by sterilizing gold, the United States forced the whole burden of adapting to gold movements on other countries. When, in addition, France adopted a pseudo gold standard at a parity that undervalued the franc and proceeded also to follow a gold sterilization policy, the combined effect was to make Britain’s position untenable.

This is actually a largely coherent paragraph, more or less correctly diagnosing the adverse consequences of an overly restrictive policy adopted by the Fed for most of the 1920s. What is not coherent is the attempt to attribute policy choices of which Friedman (and I) disapprove to the unrealness of the gold standard. There was nothing unreal about the gold standard as it was operated by the Fed in the 1920s. The Fed stood ready to buy and sell gold at the official price, and Friedman does not even suggest that there was any lapse in that commitment.

So what was the basis for Friedman’s charge that the 1920s gold standard was fake or fraudulent? Friedman says that if there had been a real, not a pseudo, gold standard, “the stock of money would have risen more in the United States than it did, prices would have been stable or rising instead of declining,” and the US “would have gained less gold or lost some.” That this did not happen, Friedman attributes to a “gold sterilization policy” followed by the US. Friedman is confused on two levels. First, he seems to believe that the quantity of money in the US was determined by the Fed. However, under a fixed-exchange-rate regime, the US money supply was determined endogenously via the balance of payments. What the Fed could determine by setting its interest rate was simply whether gold would flow into or out of US reserves. The level of US prices was determined by the internationally determined value of gold. Whether gold was flowing into or out of US reserves, in turn, determined the value of gold was rising or falling, and, correspondingly, whether prices in terms of gold were falling or rising. If the Fed had set interest rates somewhat lower than they did, gold would have flowed out of US reserves, the value of gold would have declined and prices in terms of gold would have risen, thereby easing deflationary pressure on Great Britain occasioned by an overvalued sterling-dollar exchange rate. I have no doubt that the Fed was keeping its interest rate too high for most of the 1920s, but why a mistaken interest-rate policy implies a fraudulent gold standard is not explained. Friedman, like his nemesis von Mises, simply asserted his conclusion or his definition, and expected his listeners and readers to nod in agreement.

US Monetary Policy in the 1931-33 Period

In this section Friedman undertakes his now familiar excoriation of Fed inaction to alleviate the banking crises that began in September 1931 and continued till March 1933. Much, if not all, of Friedman’s condemnation of the Fed is justified, though his failure to understand the international nature of the crisis caused him to assume that the Fed could have prevented a deflation caused by a rising value of gold simply by preventing bank failures. There are a number of logical gaps in that argument, and Friedman failed to address them, simply assuming that US prices were determined by the US money stock even though the US was still operating on the gold standard and the internationally determined value of gold was rising.

But in condemning the Fed’s policy in failing to accommodate an internal drain at the first outbreak of domestic banking crises in September 1931, Friedman observes:

Prior to September 1931, the System had been gaining gold, the monetary gold stock was at an all-time high, and the System’s gold reserve ratio was far above its legal minimum – a reflection of course of its not having operated in accordance with a real gold standard.

Again Friedman is saying that the criterion for identifying whether the gold standard is real or fraudulent is whether policy makers make the correct policy decision, if they make a mistake, it means that the gold standard in operation is no longer a real gold standard; it has become a pseudo gold standard.

The System had ample reserves to meet the gold outflow without difficulty and without resort to deflationary measures. And both its own earlier policy and the classical gold-standard rules as enshrined by Bagehot called for its doing so: the gold outflow was strictly speculative and motivated by fear that the United States would go off gold; the outflow had no basis in any trade imbalance; it would have exhausted itself promptly if all demands had been met.

Thus, Friedman, who just three pages earlier had asserted that the gold standard became a pseudo gold standard when the managers of the Federal Reserve System were given discretionary powers to manage the stock of money, now suggests that a gold standard can also be made a pseudo gold standard if the monetary authority fails to exercise its discretionary powers.

US Nationalization of Gold in 1934

The nationalization of gold by FDR effectively ended the gold standard in the US. Nevertheless, Friedman was so enamored of the distinction between real and pseudo gold standards that he tried to portray US monetary arrangements after the nationalization of gold as a pseudo gold standard even though the gold standard had been effectively nullified. But at least, the distinction between what is real and what is fraudulent about the gold standard is now based on an objective legal and institutional fact: the general right to buy gold from (or sell gold to) the government at a fixed price whenever government offices are open for business. Similarly after World War II, only the US government had any legal obligation to sell gold at the official price, but there was only a very select group of individuals and governments who were entitled to buy gold from the US government. Even to call such an arrangement a pseudo gold standard seems like a big stretch, but there is nothing seriously wrong with calling it a pseudo gold standard. But I have no real problem with Friedman’s denial that there was a true gold standard in operation after the nationalization of gold in 1934.

I would also agree that there really was not a gold standard in operation after the US entered World War I, because the US stopped selling gold after the War started. In fact, a pseudo gold standard is a good way to characterize the status of the gold standard during World War I, because the legal price of gold was not changed in any of the belligerent countries, but it was understood that for a private citizen to try to redeem currency for gold at the official price would be considered a reprehensible act, something almost no one was willing to do. But to assert, as Friedman did, that even when the basic right to buy gold at the official price was routinely exercised, a real gold standard was not necessarily in operation, is simply incoherent, or sophistical. Take your pick.

Monetarism and the Great Depression

Last Friday, Scott Sumner posted a diatribe against the IS-LM triggered by a set of slides by Chris Foote of Harvard and the Boston Fed explaining how the effects of monetary policy can be analyzed using the IS-LM framework. What really annoys Scott is the following slide in which Foote compares the “spending (aka Keynesian) hypothesis” and the “money (aka Monetarist) hypothesis” as explanations for the Great Depression. I am also annoyed; whether more annoyed or less annoyed than Scott I can’t say, interpersonal comparisons of annoyance, like interpersonal comparisons of utility, being beyond the ken of economists. But our reasons for annoyance are a little different, so let me try to explore those reasons. But first, let’s look briefly at the source of our common annoyance.

foote_81The “spending hypothesis” attributes the Great Depression to a sudden collapse of spending which, in turn, is attributed to a collapse of consumer confidence resulting from the 1929 stock-market crash and a collapse of investment spending occasioned by a collapse of business confidence. The cause of the collapse in consumer and business confidence is not really specified, but somehow it has to do with the unstable economic and financial situation that characterized the developed world in the wake of World War I. In addition there was, at least according to some accounts, a perverse fiscal response: cuts in government spending and increases in taxes to keep the budget in balance. The latter notion that fiscal policy was contractionary evokes a contemptuous response from Scott, more or less justified, because nominal government spending actually rose in 1930 and 1931 and spending in real terms continued to rise in 1932. But the key point is that government spending in those days was too meager to have made much difference; the spending hypothesis rises or falls on the notion that the trigger for the Great Depression was an autonomous collapse in private spending.

But what really gets Scott all bent out of shape is Foote’s commentary on the “money hypothesis.” In his first bullet point, Foote refers to the 25% decline in M1 between 1929 and 1933, suggesting that monetary policy was really, really tight, but in the next bullet point, Foote points out that if monetary policy was tight, implying a leftward shift in the LM curve, interest rates should have risen. Instead they fell. Moreover, Foote points out that, inasmuch as the price level fell by more than 25% between 1929 and 1933, the real value of the money supply actually increased, so it’s not even clear that there was a leftward shift in the LM curve. You can just feel Scott’s blood boiling:

What interests me is the suggestion that the “money hypothesis” is contradicted by various stylized facts. Interest rates fell.  The real quantity of money rose.  In fact, these two stylized facts are exactly what you’d expect from tight money.  The fact that they seem to contradict the tight money hypothesis does not reflect poorly on the tight money hypothesis, but rather the IS-LM model that says tight money leads to a smaller level of real cash balances and a higher level of interest rates.

To see the absurdity of IS-LM, just consider a monetary policy shock that no one could question—hyperinflation.  Wheelbarrows full of billion mark currency notes. Can we all agree that that would be “easy money?”  Good.  We also know that hyperinflation leads to extremely high interest rates and extremely low real cash balances, just the opposite of the prediction of the IS-LM model.  In contrast, Milton Friedman would tell you that really tight money leads to low interest rates and large real cash balances, exactly what we do see.

Scott is totally right, of course, to point out that the fall in interest rates and the increase in the real quantity of money do not contradict the “money hypothesis.” However, he is also being selective and unfair in making that criticism, because, in two slides following almost immediately after the one to which Scott takes such offense, Foote actually explains that the simple IS-LM analysis presented in the previous slide requires modification to take into account expected deflation, because the demand for money depends on the nominal rate of interest while the amount of investment spending depends on the real rate of interest, and shows how to do the modification. Here are the slides:

foote_83

foote_84Thus, expected deflation raises the real rate of interest thereby shifting the IS curve to the left while leaving the LM curve where it was. Expected deflation therefore explains a fall in both nominal and real income as well as in the nominal rate of interest; it also explains an increase in the real rate of interest. Scott seems to be emotionally committed to the notion that the IS-LM model must lead to a misunderstanding of the effects of monetary policy, holding Foote up as an example of this confusion on the basis of the first of the slides, but Foote actually shows that IS-LM can be tweaked to accommodate a correct understanding of the dominant role of monetary policy in the Great Depression.

The Great Depression was triggered by a deflationary scramble for gold associated with the uncoordinated restoration of the gold standard by the major European countries in the late 1920s, especially France and its insane central bank. On top of this, the Federal Reserve, succumbing to political pressure to stop “excessive” stock-market speculation, raised its discount rate to a near record 6.5% in early 1929, greatly amplifying the pressure on gold reserves, thereby driving up the value of gold, and causing expectations of the future price level to start dropping. It was thus a rise (both actual and expected) in the value of gold, not a reduction in the money supply, which was the source of the monetary shock that produced the Great Depression. The shock was administered without a reduction in the money supply, so there was no shift in the LM curve. IS-LM is not necessarily the best model with which to describe this monetary shock, but the basic story can be expressed in terms of the IS-LM model.

So, you ask, if I don’t think that Foote’s exposition of the IS-LM model seriously misrepresents what happened in the Great Depression, why did I say at beginning of this post that Foote’s slides really annoy me? Well, the reason is simply that Foote seems to think that the only monetary explanation of the Great Depression is the Monetarist explanation of Milton Friedman: that the Great Depression was caused by an exogenous contraction in the US money supply. That explanation is wrong, theoretically and empirically.

What caused the Great Depression was an international disturbance to the value of gold, caused by the independent actions of a number of central banks, most notably the insane Bank of France, maniacally trying to convert all its foreign exchange reserves into gold, and the Federal Reserve, obsessed with suppressing a non-existent stock-market bubble on Wall Street. It only seems like a bubble with mistaken hindsight, because the collapse of prices was not the result of any inherent overvaluation in stock prices in October 1929, but because the combined policies of the insane Bank of France and the Fed wrecked the world economy. The decline in the nominal quantity of money in the US, the great bugaboo of Milton Friedman, was merely an epiphenomenon.

As Ron Batchelder and I have shown, Gustav Cassel and Ralph Hawtrey had diagnosed and explained the causes of the Great Depression fully a decade before it happened. Unfortunately, whenever people think of a monetary explanation of the Great Depression, they think of Milton Friedman, not Hawtrey and Cassel. Scott Sumner understands all this, he’s even written a book – a wonderful (but unfortunately still unpublished) book – about it. But he gets all worked up about IS-LM.

I, on the other hand, could not care less about IS-LM; it’s the idea that the monetary cause of the Great Depression was discovered by Milton Friedman that annoys the [redacted] out of me.

UPDATE: I posted this post prematurely before I finished editing it, so I apologize for any mistakes or omissions or confusing statements that appeared previously or that I haven’t found yet.

Stephen Williamson Defends the FOMC

Publication of the transcripts of the FOMC meetings in 2008 has triggered a wave of criticism of the FOMC for the decisions it took in 2008. Since the transcripts were released I have written two posts (here and here) charging that the inflation-phobia of the FOMC was a key (though not the sole) cause of the financial crisis in September 2008. Many other bloggers, Matt Yglesias, Scott Sumner, Brad Delong and Paul Krugman, just to name a few, were also sharply critical of the FOMC, though Paul Krugman at any rate seemed to think that the Fed’s inflation obsession was merely weird rather than catastrophic.

Stephen Williamson, however, has a different take on all this. In a post last week, just after the release of the transcripts, Williamson chastised Matt Yglesias for chastising Ben Bernanke and the FOMC for not reducing the Federal Funds target at the September 16 FOMC meeting, the day after Lehman went into bankruptcy. Williamson quotes this passage from Yglesias’s post.

New documents released last week by the Federal Reserve shed important new light on one of the most consequential and underdiscussed moments of recent American history: the decision to hold interest rates flat on Sept. 16, 2008. At the time, the meeting at which the decision was made was overshadowed by the ongoing presidential campaign and Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy filing the previous day. Political reporters were focused on the campaign, economic reporters on Lehman, and since the news from the Fed was that nothing was changing, it didn’t make for much of a story. But in retrospect, it looks to have been a major policy blunder—one that was harmful on its own terms and that set a precedent for a series of later disasters.

To which Williamson responds acidly:

So, it’s like there was a fire at City Hall, and five years later a reporter for the local rag is complaining that the floor wasn’t swept while the fire was in progress.

Now, in a way, I agree with Williamson’s point here; I think it’s a mistake to overemphasize the September 16 meeting. By September 16, the damage had been done. The significance of the decision not to cut the Fed Funds target is not that the Fed might have prevented a panic that was already developing (though I don’t rule out the possibility that a strong enough statement by the FOMC might have provided enough reassurance to the markets to keep the crisis from spiraling out of control), but what the decision tells us about the mindset of the FOMC. Just read the statement that the Fed issued after its meeting.

The Federal Open Market Committee decided today to keep its target for the federal funds rate at 2 percent.

Strains in financial markets have increased significantly and labor markets have weakened further. Economic growth appears to have slowed recently, partly reflecting a softening of household spending. Tight credit conditions, the ongoing housing contraction, and some slowing in export growth are likely to weigh on economic growth over the next few quarters. Over time, the substantial easing of monetary policy, combined with ongoing measures to foster market liquidity, should help to promote moderate economic growth.

Inflation has been high, spurred by the earlier increases in the prices of energy and some other commodities. The Committee expects inflation to moderate later this year and next year, but the inflation outlook remains highly uncertain.

The downside risks to growth and the upside risks to inflation are both of significant concern to the Committee. The Committee will monitor economic and financial developments carefully and will act as needed to promote sustainable economic growth and price stability.

What planet were they living on? “The downside risks to growth and the upside risks to inflation are both of significant concern to the Committee.” OMG!

Williamson, however, sees it differently.

[T]he FOMC agreed to keep the fed funds rate target constant at 2%. Seems like this was pretty dim-witted of the committee, given what was going on in financial markets that very day, right? Wrong. At that point, the fed funds market target rate had become completely irrelevant.

Williamson goes on to point out that although the FOMC did not change the Fed Funds target, borrowings from the Fed increased sharply in September, so that the Fed was effectively easing its policy even though the target – a meaningless target in Williamson’s view – had not changed.

Thus, by September 16, 2008, it seems the Fed was effectively already at the zero lower bound. At that time the fed funds target was irrelevant, as there were excess reserves in the system, and the effective fed funds rate was irrelevant, as it reflected risk.

I want to make two comments on Williamson’s argument. First, the argument is certainly at odds with Bernanke’s own statement in the transcript, towards the end of the September 16 meeting, giving his own recommendation about what policy action the FOMC should take:

Overall I believe that our current funds rate setting is appropriate, and I don’t really see any reason to change…. Cutting rates would be a very big step that would send a very strong signal about our views on the economy and about our intentions going forward, and I think we should view that step as a very discrete thing rather than as a 25 basis point kind of thing. We should be very certain about that change before we undertake it because I would be concerned, for example, about the implications for the dollar, commodity prices, and the like.

So Bernanke clearly states that his view is that the current fed funds target was “appropriate.” He did not say that the fed funds rate is at the lower bound. Instead, he explains why he does not want to cut the fed funds rate, implying that he believed that cutting the rate was an option. He didn’t want to exercise that option, because he did not like the “very strong signal about our views on the economy and about our intentions going forward” that a rate cut would send. Indeed, he intimates that a rate cut of 25 basis points would be meaningless under the circumstances, suggesting an awareness, however vague, that a crisis was brewing, so that a cut in the target rate would have to be substantial to calm, rather than scare, the markets. (The next cut, three weeks later, was 50 basis points, and things only got worse.)

Second, suppose for argument’s sake, that Williamson is right and Bernanke (and almost everyone else) was wrong, that the fed funds target was meaningless. Does that mean that the Fed’s inflation obsession in 2008 is just an optical illusion with no significance — that the Fed was powerless to have done anything that would have increased expenditure and income, thereby avoiding or alleviating the crisis?

I don’t think so, and the reason is that, as I pointed out in my previous post, the dollar began appreciating rapidly in forex markets in mid-July 2009, the dollar euro exchange rate appreciating by about 12% and the trade-weighted value of the dollar appreciating by about 10% between mid-July and the week before the Lehman collapse. An appreciating that rapid was a clear sign that there was a shortage of dollar liquidity which was causing spending to drop all through the economy, as later confirmed by the sharp drop in third-quarter GDP. The dollar fell briefly in the days just before and after the Lehman collapse, then resuming its sharp ascent as the financial crisis worsened in September and October, appreciating by another 10-15%.

So even if the fed funds target was ineffectual, the Fed, along with the Treasury, still had it within their power to intervene in forex markets, selling dollars for euros and other currencies, thereby preventing the dollar from rising further in value. Unfortunately, as is clear from the transcripts, the FOMC thought that the rising dollar was a favorable development that would reduce the inflation about which it was so obsessively concerned. So the FOMC happily watched the dollar rise by 25% against other currencies between July and November as the economy tanked, because, as the September 16 statement of the FOMC so eloquently put it, “upside risks to inflation are . . . of significant concern to the Committee.” The FOMC gave us the monetary policy it wanted us to have.

Why Fed Inflation-Phobia Mattered

Last week I posted an item summarizing Matthew O’Brien’s article about the just-released transcripts of FOMC meetings in June, August and September of 2008. I spiced up my summary by quoting from and commenting on some of the more outrageous quotes that O’Brien culled from the transcripts, quotes showing that most of the FOMC, including Ben Bernanke, were obsessing about inflation while unemployment was rising rapidly and the economy contracting sharply. I especially singled out what I called the Gang of Four — Charles Plosser, Jeffrey Lacker, Richard Fisher, and Thomas Hoenig, the most militant inflation hawks on the FOMC — noting that despite their comprehensive misjudgments of the 2008 economic situation and spectacularly wrongheaded policy recommendations, which they have yet to acknowledge, much less apologize for, three of them (Plosser, Lacker, and Fisher) continue to serve in their Fed positions, displaying the same irrational inflation-phobia by which they were possessed in 2008. Paul Krugman also noticed O’Brien’s piece and remarked on the disturbing fact that three of the Gang of Four remain in their policy-making positions at the Fed, doing their best to keep the Fed from taking any steps that could increase output and employment.

However, Krugman went on to question the idea — suggested by, among others, me — that it was the Fed’s inflation phobia that produced the crash of 2008. Krugman has two arguments for why the Fed’s inflation phobia in 2008, however silly, did not the cause of the crash.

First, preventing the financial crisis would have taken a lot more than cutting the Fed funds rate to zero in September 2008 rather than December. We were in the midst of an epic housing bust, which was in turn causing a collapse in the value of mortgage-backed securities, which in turn was causing a collapse of confidence in financial firms. Cutting rates from very low to extremely low a few months earlier wouldn’t have stopped that collapse.

What was needed to end the run on Wall Street was a bailout — both the actual funds disbursed and the reassurance that the authorities would step in if necessary. And that wasn’t in the cards until, as Rick Mishkin observed in the transcripts, “something hit the fan.”

Second, even avoiding the financial panic almost surely wouldn’t have meant avoiding a prolonged economic slump. How do we know this? Well, what we actually know is that the panic was in fact fairly short-lived, ending in the spring of 2009. It doesn’t really matter which measure of financial stress you use, they all look like this:

Yet the economy didn’t come roaring back, and in fact still hasn’t. Why? Because the housing bust and the overhang of household debt are huge drags on demand, even if there isn’t a panic in the financial market.

Sorry, but, WADR, I have to disagree with Professor Krugman.

The first argument is not in my view very compelling, because the Fed’s inflation-phobia did not suddenly appear at the September 2008 FOMC meeting, or even at the June meeting, though, to be sure, its pathological nature at those meetings does have a certain breathtaking quality; it had already been operating for a long time before that. If you look at the St. Louis Fed’s statistics on the monetary base, you will find that the previous recession in 2001 had been preceded in 2000 by a drop of 3.6% in the monetary base. To promote recovery, the Fed increased the monetary base in 2001 (partly accommodating the increased demand for money characteristic of recessions) by 8.5%. The monetary base subsequently grew by 7% in 2002, 5.2% in 2003, 4.4% in 2004, 3.2% in 2005, 2.6% in 2006, and a mere 1.2% in 2007.

The housing bubble burst in 2006, but the Fed was evidently determined to squeeze inflation out of the system, as if trying to atone for its sins in allowing the housing bubble in the first place. From January to September 10, 2008, the monetary base increased by 3.3%. Again, because the demand for money typically increases in recessions, one cannot infer from the slight increase in the rate of growth of the monetary base in 2008 over 2006 and 2007 that the Fed was easing its policy stance. (On this issue, see my concluding paragraph.) The point is that for at least three years before the crash, the Fed, in its anti-inflationary zelotry, had been gradually tightening the monetary-policy screws. So it is simply incorrect to suggest that there was no link between the policy stance of the Fed and the state of the economy. If the Fed had moderated its stance in 2008 in response to ample evidence that the economy was slowing, there is good reason to think that the economy would not have contracted as rapidly as it did, starting, even before the Lehman collapse, in the third quarter of 2008, when, we now know, the economy had already begun one of the sharpest contractions of the entire post World War II era.

As for Krugman’s second argument, I believe it is a mistake to confuse a financial panic with a recession. A financial panic is an acute breakdown of the financial system, always associated with a period of monetary stringency when demands for liquidity cannot be satisfied owing to a contagious loss of confidence in the solvency of borrowers and lenders. The crisis is typically precipitated by a too aggressive tightening of monetary conditions by the monetary authority seeking to rein in inflationary pressures. The loss of confidence is thus not a feature of every business-cycle downturn, and its restoration no guarantee of a recovery. (See my post on Hawtrey and financial crises.) A recovery requires an increase aggregate demand, which is the responsibility of those in charge of monetary policy and fiscal policy. I confess to a measure of surprise that the author of End This Depression Now would require a reminder about that from me.

A final point. Although the macroeconomic conditions for an asset crash and financial panic had been gradually and systematically created by the Fed ever since 2006, the egregious Fed policy in the summer of 2008 was undoubtedly a major contributing cause in its own right. The magnitude of the policy error is evident in this graph from the St. Louis Fed, showing the dollar/euro exchange rate.

dollar_euro_exchange_rateFrom April to July, the exchange rate was fluctuating between $1.50 and $1.60 per euro. In mid-July, the dollar began appreciating rapidly against the euro, rising in value to about $1.40/euro just before the Lehman collapse, an appreciation of about 12.5% in less than two months. The only comparable period of appreciation in the dollar/euro exchange rate was in the 1999-2000 period during the monetary tightening prior to the 2001 recession. But the 2008 appreciation was clearly greater and steeper than the appreciation in 1999-2000. Under the circumstances, such a sharp appreciation in the dollar should have alerted the FOMC that there was a liquidity shortage (also evidenced in a sharp increase in borrowings from the Fed) that required extraordinary countermeasures by the Fed. But the transcript of the September 2008 meeting shows that the appreciation of the dollar was interpreted by members of the FOMC as evidence that the current policy was working as intended! Now how scary is that?

HT: Matt O’Brien

Exposed: Irrational Inflation-Phobia at the Fed Caused the Panic of 2008

Matthew O’Brien at The Atlantic has written a marvelous account of the bizarre deliberations of the Federal Open Market Committee at its meetings (June 25 and August 5) before the Lehman debacle on September 15 2008 and its meeting the next day on September 16. A few weeks ago, I wrote in half-seriousness a post attributing the 2008 financial crisis to ethanol because of the runup in corn and other grain prices in 2008 owing to the ethanol mandate and the restrictions on imported ethanol products. But ethanol, as several commenters pointed out, was only a part, probably a relatively small part, of the spike in commodities prices in the summer of 2008. Thanks to O’Brien’s careful reading of the recently released transcripts of the 2008 meetings of the FOMC, we now have a clear picture of how obsessed the FOMC was about inflation, especially the gang of four regional bank presidents, Charles Plosser, Richard Fisher, James Lacker, and Thomas Hoenig, supported to a greater or lesser extent by James Bullard and Kevin Warsh.

On the other hand, O’Brien does point out that two members of the FOMC, Eric Rosengren, President of the Boston Fed, and Fredric Mishkin of the Board of Governors, consistently warned of the dangers of a financial crisis, and consistently objected to and cogently punctured the hysterical inflation fears of the gang of four. It is somewhat, but only somewhat, reassuring that Janet Yellen was slightly more sensitive to the dangers of a financial crisis and less concerned about inflation than Ben Bernanke. Perhaps because he was still getting his feet wet as chairman, Bernanke seems to have been trying to articulate a position that could balance the opposing concerns of the FOMC membership, rather than leading the FOMC in the direction he thought best. While Yellen did not indulge the inflation phobia of the gang of four, she did not strongly support Rosengren and Mishkin in calling for aggressive action to avert the crisis that they clearly saw looming on the horizon.

Here are some highlights from O’Brien’s brilliant piece:

[FOMC Meeting] June 24-25, 2008: 468 mentions of inflation, 44 of unemployment, and 35 of systemic risks/crises

Those numbers pretty much tell you everything you need to know about what happened during the disastrous summer of 2008 at the Fed

Rosengren wasn’t nearly as concerned with 5 percent headline inflation—and with good reason. He reminded his colleagues that “monetary policy is unlikely to have much effect on food and energy prices,” that “total [inflation] has tended to converge to core, and not the opposite,” and that there was a “lack of an upward trend of wages and salaries.”

In short, inflation was high today, but it wouldn’t be tomorrow. They should ignore it. A few agreed. Most didn’t.

Mishkin, Fed Governor Donald Kohn, and then-San Francisco Fed chief Janet Yellen comprised Team: Ignore Inflation. They pointed out that core inflation hadn’t actually risen, and that “inflation expectations remain reasonably well-anchored.” The rest of the Fed, though, was eager to raise rates soon, if not right away. Philadelphia Fed president Charles Plosser recognized that core inflation was flat, but still thought they needed to get ready to tighten “or our credibility could soon vanish.” Fed Governor Kevin Warsh said that “inflation risks, in my view, continue to predominate as the greater risk to the economy,” because he thought headline would get passed into core inflation.

And let us not forget Richard Fisher of the Dallas Fed who provided badly needed comic relief.

And then there was Dallas Fed chief Richard Fisher, who had a singular talent for seeing inflation that nobody else could—a sixth sense, if you will. He was allergic to data. He preferred talking to CEOs instead. But, in Fisher’s case, the plural of anecdote wasn’t data. It was nonsense. He was worried about Frito-Lays increasing prices 9 percent, Budweiser increasing them 3.5 percent, and a small dry-cleaning chain in Dallas increasing them, well, an undisclosed amount. He even half-joked that the Fed was giving out smaller bottles of water, presumably to hide creeping inflation?

By the way, I notice that these little bottles of water have gotten smaller—this will be a Visine bottle at the next meeting. [Laughter]

But it was another member of the Gang of Four who warned ominously:

Richmond Fed president Jeffrey Lacker suggested, that “at some point we’re going to choose to let something disruptive happen.”

Now to the August meeting:

[FOMC Meeting] August 5, 2008: 322 mentions of inflation, 28 of unemployment, and 19 of systemic risks/crises.

Despite evidence that the inflationary blip of spring and summer was winding down, and the real economy was weakening, the Gang of Four continued to press their case for tougher anti-inflation measures. But only Rosengren and Mishkin spoke out against them.

But even though inflation was falling, it was a lonesome time to be a dove. As the Fed’s resident Cassandra, Rosengren tried to convince his colleagues that high headline inflation numbers “appear to be transitory responses to supply shocks that are not flowing through to labor markets.” In other words, inflation would come down on its own, and the Fed should focus on the credit crunch instead. Mishkin worried that “really bad things could happen” if “a shoe drops” and there was a “nasty, vicious spiral” between weak banks and a weak economy. Given this, he wanted to wait to tighten until inflation expectations “actually indicate there is a problem,” and not before.

But Richard Fisher was in no mood to worry about horror stories unless they were about runaway inflation:

The hawks didn’t want to wait. Lacker admitted that wages hadn’t gone up, but thought that “if we wait until wage rates accelerate or TIPS measures spike, we will have waited too long.” He wanted the Fed to “be prepared to raise rates even if growth is not back to potential, and even if financial markets are not yet tranquil.” In other words, to fight nonexistent wage inflation today to prevent possible wage inflation tomorrow, never mind the crumbling economy. Warsh, for his part, kept insisting that “inflation risks are very real, and I believe that these are higher than growth risks.” And Fisher had more”chilling anecdotes”—as Bernanke jokingly called them—about inflation. This time, the culprit was Disney World and its 5 percent price increase for single-day tickets.

The FOMC was divided, but the inflation-phobes held the upper hand. Unwilling to challenge them, Bernanke appeased them by promising that his statement about future monetary policy after the meeting would be “be slightly hawkish—to indicate a slight uplift in policy.”

Frightened by what he was hearing, Mishkin reminded his colleagues of some unpleasant monetary history:

Remember that in the Great Depression, when—I can’t use the expression because it would be in the transcripts, but you know what I’m thinking—something hit the fan, [laughter] it actually occurred close to a year after the initial negative shock.

Mishkin also reminded his colleagues that the stance of monetary policy cannot be directly inferred from the federal funds rate.

I just very much hope that this Committee does not make this mistake because I have to tell you that the situation is scary to me. I’m holding two houses right now. I’m very nervous.

And now to the September meeting, the day after Lehman collapsed:

[FOMC meeting] September 16, 2008: 129 mentions of inflation, 26 of unemployment, and 4 of systemic risks/crises

Chillingly, Lacker and Hoenig did a kind of victory dance about the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Lacker had gotten the “disruptive” event he had wanted, and he was pretty pleased about it. “What we did with Lehman I obviously think was good,” he said, because it would “enhance the credibility of any commitment that we make in the future to be willing to let an institution fail.” Hoenig concurred that it was the “right thing,” because it would suck moral hazard out of the market.

The rest of the Gang of Four and their allies remained focused like a laser on inflation.

Even though commodity prices and inflation expectations were both falling fast, Hoenig wanted the Fed to “look beyond the immediate crisis,” and recognize that “we also have an inflation issue.” Bullard thought that “an inflation problem is brewing.” Plosser was heartened by falling commodity prices, but said, “I remain concerned about the inflation outlook going forward,” because “I do not see the ongoing slowdown in economic activity is entirely demand driven.” And Fisher half-jokingly complained that the bakery he’d been going to for 30 years—”the best maker of not only bagels, but anything with Crisco in it”—had just increased prices. All of them wanted to leave rates unchanged at 2 percent.

Again, only Eric Rosengren seemed to be in touch with reality, but no was listening:

[Rosengren] was afraid that exactly what did end up happening would happen. That all the financial chaos “would have a significant impact on the real economy,” that “individuals and firms will be become risk averse, with reluctance to consume or invest,” that “credit spreads are rising, and the cost and availability of financing is becoming more difficult,” and that “deleveraging is likely to occur with a vengeance.” More than that, he thought that the “calculated bet” they took in letting Lehman fail would look particularly bad “if we have a run on the money market funds or if the nongovernment tri-party repo market shuts down.” He wanted to cut rates immediately to do what they could to offset the worsening credit crunch. Nobody else did.

Like Bernanke for instance. Here is his take on the situation:

Overall I believe that our current funds rate setting is appropriate, and I don’t really see any reason to change…. Cutting rates would be a very big step that would send a very strong signal about our views on the economy and about our intentions going forward, and I think we should view that step as a very discrete thing rather than as a 25 basis point kind of thing. We should be very certain about that change before we undertake it because I would be concerned, for example, about the implications for the dollar, commodity prices, and the like.

OMG!

O’Brien uses one of my favorite Hawtrey quotes to describe the insanity of the FOMC deliberations:

In other words, the Fed was just as worried about an inflation scare that was already passing as it was about a once-in-three-generations crisis.

It brought to mind what economist R. G. Hawtrey had said about the Great Depression. Back then, central bankers had worried more about the possibility of inflation than the grim reality of deflation. It was, Hawtrey said, like “crying Fire! Fire! in Noah’s flood.”

In any non-dysfunctional institution, the perpetrators of this outrage would have been sacked. But three of Gang of Four (Hoenig having become a director of the FDIC in 2012) remain safely ensconced in their exalted positions, blithely continuing, without the slightest acknowledgment of their catastrophic past misjudgments, to exert a malign influence on monetary policy. For shame!

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.

The Internal Contradiction of Quantitative Easing

Last week I was struggling to cut and paste my 11-part series on Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade into the paper on that topic that I am scheduled to present next week at the Southern Economic Association meetings in Tampa Florida, completing the task just before coming down with a cold which has kept me from doing anything useful since last Thursday. But I was at least sufficiently aware of my surroundings to notice another flurry of interest in quantitative easing, presumably coinciding with Janet Yellen’s testimony at the hearings conducted by the Senate Banking Committee about her nomination to succeed Ben Bernanke as Chairman of Federal Reserve Board.

In my cursory reading of the latest discussions, I didn’t find a lot that has not already been said, so I will take that as an opportunity to restate some points that I have previously made on this blog. But before I do that, I can’t help observing (not for the first time either) that the two main arguments made by critics of QE do not exactly coexist harmoniously with each other. First, QE is ineffective; second it is dangerous. To be sure, the tension between these two claims about QE does not prove that both can’t be true, and certainly doesn’t prove that both are wrong. But the tension might at least have given a moment’s pause to those crying that Quantitative Easing, having failed for five years to accomplish anything besides enriching Wall Street and taking bread from the mouths of struggling retirees, is going to cause the sky to fall any minute.

Nor, come to think of it, does the faux populism of the attack on a rising stock market and of the crocodile tears for helpless retirees living off the interest on their CDs coexist harmoniously with the support by many of the same characters opposing QE (e.g., Freedomworks, CATO, the Heritage Foundation, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page) for privatizing social security via private investment accounts to be invested in the stock market, the argument being that the rate of return on investing in stocks has historically been greater than the rate of return on payments into the social security system. I am also waiting for an explanation of why abused pensioners unhappy with the returns on their CDs can’t cash in the CDs and buy dividend-paying-stocks? In which charter of the inalienable rights of Americans, I wonder, does one find it written that a perfectly secure real rate of interest of not less than 2% on any debt instrument issued by the US government shall always be guaranteed?

Now there is no denying that what is characterized as a massive program of asset purchases by the Federal Reserve System has failed to stimulate a recovery comparable in strength to almost every recovery since World War II. However, not even the opponents of QE are suggesting that the recovery has been weak as a direct result of QE — that would be a bridge too far even for the hard money caucus — only that whatever benefits may have been generated by QE are too paltry to justify its supposedly bad side-effects (present or future inflation, reduced real wages, asset bubbles, harm to savers, enabling of deficit-spending, among others). But to draw any conclusion about the effects of QE, you need some kind of a baseline of comparison. QE opponents therefore like to use previous US recoveries, without the benefit of QE, as their baseline.

But that is not the only baseline available for purposes of comparison. There is also the Eurozone, which has avoided QE and until recently kept interest rates higher than in the US, though to be sure not as high as US opponents of QE (and defenders of the natural rights of savers) would have liked. Compared to the Eurozone, where nominal GDP has barely risen since 2010, and real GDP and employment have shrunk, QE, which has been associated with nearly 4% annual growth in US nominal GDP and slightly more than 2% annual growth in US real GDP, has clearly outperformed the eurozone.

Now maybe you don’t like the Eurozone, as it includes all those dysfunctional debt-ridden southern European countries, as a baseline for comparison. OK, then let’s just do a straight, head-to-head matchup between the inflation-addicted US and solid, budget-balancing, inflation-hating Germany. Well that comparison shows (see the chart below) that since 2011 US real GDP has increased by about 5% while German real GDP has increased by less than 2%.

US_Germany_RGDP

So it does seem possible that, after all, QE and low interest rates may well have made things measurably better than they would have otherwise been. But don’t expect to opponents of QE to acknowledge that possibility.

Of course that still leaves the question on the table, why has this recovery been so weak? Well, Paul Krugman, channeling Larry Summers, offered a demographic hypothesis in his column Monday: that with declining population growth, there have been diminishing investment opportunities, which, together with an aging population, trying to save enough to support themselves in their old age, causes the supply of savings to outstrip the available investment opportunities, driving the real interest rate down to zero. As real interest rates fall, the ability of the economy to tolerate deflation — or even very low inflation — declines. That is a straightforward, and inescapable, implication of the Fisher equation (see my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations”).

So, if Summers and Krugman are right – and the trend of real interest rates for the past three decades is not inconsistent with their position – then we need to rethink revise upwards our estimates of what rate of inflation is too low. I will note parenthetically, that Samuel Brittan, who has been for decades just about the most sensible economic journalist in the world, needs to figure out that too little inflation may indeed be a bad thing.

But this brings me back to the puzzling question that causes so many people to assume that monetary policy is useless. Why have trillions of dollars of asset purchases not generated the inflation that other monetary expansions have generated? And if all those assets now on the Fed balance sheet haven’t generated inflation, what reason is there to think that the Fed could increase the rate of inflation if that is what is necessary to avoid chronic (secular) stagnation?

The answer, it seems to me is the following. If everyone believes that the Fed is committed to its inflation target — and not even the supposedly dovish Janet Yellen, bless her heart, has given the slightest indication that she favors raising the Fed’s inflation target, a target that, recent experience shows, the Fed is far more willing to undershoot than to overshoot – then Fed purchases of assets with currency are not going to stimulate additional private spending. Private spending, at or near the zero lower bound, are determined largely by expectations of future income and prices. The quantity of money in private hands, being almost costless to hold, is no longer a hot potato. So if there is no desire to reduce excess cash holdings, the only mechanism by which monetary policy can affect private spending is through expectations. But the Fed, having succeeded in anchoring inflation expectations at 2%, has succeeded in unilaterally disarming itself. So economic expansion is constrained by the combination of a zero real interest rate and expected inflation held at or below 2% by a political consensus that the Fed, even if it were inclined to, is effectively powerless to challenge.

Scott Sumner calls this monetary offset. I don’t think that we disagree much on the economic analysis, but it seems to me that he overestimates the amount of discretion that the Fed can actually exercise over monetary policy. Except at the margins, the Fed is completely boxed in by a political consensus it dares not question. FDR came into office in 1933, and was able to effect a revolution in monetary policy within his first month in office, thereby saving the country and Western Civilization. Perhaps Obama had an opportunity to do something similar early in his first term, but not any more. We are stuck at 2%, but it is no solution.

Eureka! Paul Krugman Discovers the Bank of France

Trying hard, but not entirely successfully, to contain his astonishment, Paul Krugman has a very good post (“France 1930, Germany 2013) inspired by Doug Irwin’s “very good” paper (see also this shorter version) “Did France Cause the Great Depression?” Here’s Krugman take away from Irwin’s paper.

[Irwin] points out that France, with its undervalued currency, soaked up a huge proportion of the world’s gold reserves in 1930-31, and suggests that France was responsible for about half the global deflation that took place over that period.

The thing is, France itself didn’t do that badly in the early stages of the Great Depression — again thanks to that undervalued currency. In fact, it was less affected than most other advanced countries (pdf) in 1929-31:

Krugman is on the right track here — certainly a hopeful sign — but he misses the distinction between an undervalued French franc, which, despite temporary adverse effects on other countries, would normally be self-correcting under the gold standard, and the explosive increase in demand for gold by the insane Bank of France after the franc was pegged at an undervalued parity against the dollar. Undervaluation of the franc began in December 1926 when Premier Raymond Poincare stabilized its value at about 25 francs to the dollar, the franc having fallen to 50 francs to the dollar in July when Poincare, a former prime minister, had been returned to office to deal with a worsening currency crisis. Undervaluation of the franc would have done no permanent damage to the world economy if the Bank of France had not used the resulting inflow of foreign exchange to accumulate gold, cashing in sterling- and dollar-denominated financial assets for gold. This was a step beyond classic exchange-rate protection (currency manipulation) whereby a country uses a combination of an undervalued exchange rate and a tight monetary policy to keep accumulating foreign-exchange reserves as a way of favoring its export and import-competing industries. Exchange-rate protection may have been one motivation for the French policy, but that objective did not require gold accumulation; it could have been achieved by accumulating foreign exchange reserves without demanding redemption of those reserves in terms of gold, as the Bank of France began doing aggressively in 1927. A more likely motivation for gold accumulation policy of the Bank of France seems to have been French resentment against a monetary system that, from the French perspective, granted a privileged status to the dollar and to sterling, allowing central banks to treat dollar- and sterling-denominated financial assets as official exchange reserves, thereby enabling issuers of dollar and sterling-denominated assets the ability to obtain funds on more favorable terms than issuers of instruments denominated in other currencies.

The world economy was able to withstand the French gold-accumulation policy in 1927-28, because the Federal Reserve was tolerating an outflow of gold, thereby accommodating to some degree the French demand for gold. But after the Fed raised its discount rate to 5% in 1928 and 6% in February 1929, gold began flowing into the US as well, causing gold to start appreciating (in other words, prices to start falling) in world markets by the summer of 1929. But rather than reverse course, the Bank of France and the Fed, despite reductions in their official lending rates, continued pursuing policies that caused huge amounts of gold to flow into the French and US vaults in 1930 and 1931. Hawtrey and Cassel, of course, had warned against such a scenario as early as 1919, and proposed measures to prevent or reverse the looming catastrophe before it took place and after it started, but with little success. For a more complete account of this sad story, and the failure of the economics profession, with a very few notable exceptions, to figure out what happened, see my paper with Ron Batchelder “Pre-Keynesian Monetary Theories of the Great Depression: Whatever Happened to Hawtrey and Cassel?”

As Krugman observes, the French economy did not do so badly in 1929-31, because it was viewed as the most stable, thrifty, and dynamic economy in Europe. But France looked good only because Britain and Germany were in even worse shape. Because France was better off the Britain and Germany, and because its currency was understood to be undervalued, the French franc was considered to be stable, and, thus, unlikely to be devalued. So, unlike sterling, the reichsmark, and the dollar, the franc was not subjected to speculative attacks, becoming instead a haven for capital seeking safety.

Interestingly, Krugman even shows some sympathetic understanding for the plight of the French:

Notice, by the way, that the French weren’t evil or malicious here — they were just adhering to their hard-money ideology in an environment where that had terrible adverse effects on other countries.

Just wondering, would Krugman ever invoke adherence to a hard-money ideology as a mitigating factor in passing judgment on a Republican?

Krugman concludes by comparing Germany today with France in 1930.

Obviously the details are different, but I would argue that Germany is playing a somewhat similar role today — not as drastic, but with less excuse. For Germany is an economic hegemon in a way France never was; it has responsibilities, which it isn’t meeting.

Indeed, there are similarities, but there is a crucial difference in the mechanism by which damage is being inflicted: the world price level in 1930, under the gold standard, was determined by the value of gold. An increase in the demand for gold by central banks necessarily raised the value of gold, causing deflation for all countries either on the gold standard or maintaining a fixed exchange rate against a gold-standard currency. By accumulating gold, nearly quadrupling its gold reserves between 1926 and 1932, the Bank of France was a mighty deflationary force, inflicting immense damage on the international economy. Today, the Eurozone price level does not depend on the independent policy actions of any national central bank, including that of Germany. The Eurozone price level is rather determined by the policy choices of a nominally independent European Central Bank. But the ECB is clearly unable to any adopt policy not approved by the German government and its leader Mrs. Merkel, and Mrs. Merkel has rejected any policy that would raise prices in the Eurozone to a level consistent with full employment. Though the mechanism by which Mrs. Merkel and her government are now inflicting damage on the Eurozone is different from the mechanism by which the insane Bank of France inflicted damage during the Great Depression, the damage is just as pointless and just as inexcusable. But as the damage caused by Mrs. Merkel, in relative terms at any rate, seems somewhat smaller in magnitude than that caused by the insane Bank of France, I would not judge her more harshly than I would the Bank of France — insanity being, in matters of monetary policy, no defense.

HT: ChargerCarl

A New Paper Shows Just How Right Hawtrey and Cassel Were

I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email a couple of weeks ago from someone I don’t know, a graduate student in economics at George Mason University, James Caton. He sent me a link to a paper (“Good as Gold?: A Quantitative Analysis of Hawtrey and Cassel’s Theory of Gold Demand and the Gold Price Level During the Interwar Period”) that he recently posted on SSRN. Caton was kind enough to credit me and my co-author Ron Batchelder, as well as Doug Irwin (here and here) and Scott Sumner, for reviving interest in the seminal work of Ralph Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel on the interwar gold standard and the key role in causing the Great Depression played by the process of restoring the gold standard after it had been effectively suspended after World War I began.

The thesis independently, but cooperatively, advanced by Hawtrey and Cassel was that under a gold standard, fluctuations in the gold price level were sensitive to variations in the demand for gold reserves by the central banks. The main contribution of Caton’s paper is to provide econometric evidence of the tight correlation between variations in the total gold holdings of the world’s central banks and the gold price level in the period between the end of World War I (1918) to the start of Great Depression (1930-32). Caton uses a variation on a model used by Scott Sumner in his empirical work on the Great Depression to predict changes in the value of gold, and, hence, changes in the gold price level of commodities. If central banks in the aggregate are adding to their gold reserves at a faster rate than the rate at which the total world stock of gold is growing, then gold would be likely to appreciate, and if central banks are adding to their gold reserves at a slower rate than that at which the world stock is growing, then gold would be likely to depreciate.

So from the published sources, Caton constructed a time series of international monetary gold holdings and the total world stock of gold from 1918 to 1932 and regressed the international gold price level on the international gold reserve ratio (the ratio of monetary gold reserves to the total world stock of gold). He used two different measures of the world gold price level, the Sauerback-Statist price index and the gold price of silver. Based on his regressions (calculated in both log-linear and log-quadratic forms and separately for the periods 1918-30, 1918-31, 1918-32), he compared the predicted gold price level against both the Sauerback-Statist price index and the gold price of silver. The chart below shows his result for the log-linear regression estimated over the period 1918-30.

Caton_Regressions

Pretty impressive, if you ask me. Have a look yourself.

Let me also mention that Caton’s results also shed important light on the puzzling behavior of the world price level immediately after the end of World War I. Unlike most wars in which the wartime inflation comes to an abrupt end after the end of the war, inflation actually accelerated after the end of the war. The inflation did not actually stop for almost two years after the end of the war, when a huge deflation set in. Caton shows that the behavior of the price level was largely determined by the declining gold holdings of the Federal Reserve after the war ended. Unnerved by the rapid inflation, the Fed finally changed policy, and began accumulating gold rapidly in 1920 by raising the discount rate to an all-time high of 7 percent. Although no other countries were then on the gold standard, other countries, unwilling, for the most part, to allow their currencies to depreciate too much against the dollar, imported US deflation.

Jim is also a blogger. Check out his blog here.

Update: Thanks to commenter Blue Aurora for pointing out that I neglected to provide a link to Jim Caton’s paper.  Sorry about that. The link is now embedded.


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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