Archive for the 'George Selgin' Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.


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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