Archive for the 'gold standard' Category

The Real-Bills Doctrine, the Lender of Last Resort, and the Scope of Banking

Here is another section from my work in progress on the Smithian and Humean traditions in monetary economics. The discussion starts with a comparison of the negative view David Hume took toward banks and the positive view taken by Adam Smith which was also discussed in the previous post on the price-specie-flow mechanism. This section discusses how Smith, despite viewing banks positively, also understood that banks can be a source of disturbances as well as of efficiencies, and how he addressed that problem and how his followers who shared a positive view toward banks addressed the problem. Comments and feedback are welcome and greatly appreciated.

Hume and Smith had very different views about fractional-reserve banking and its capacity to provide the public with the desired quantity of money (banknotes and deposits) and promote international adjustment. The cash created by banks consists of liabilities on themselves that they exchange for liabilities on the public. Liabilities on the public accepted by banks become their assets, generating revenue streams with which banks cover their outlays including obligations to creditors and stockholders.

The previous post focused on the liability side of bank balance sheets, and whether there are economic forces that limit the size of those balance sheets, implying a point of equilibrium bank expansion. Believing that banks have an unlimited incentive to issue liabilities, whose face value exceeds their cost of production, Hume considered banks dangerous and inflationary. Smith disagreed, arguing that although bank money is a less costly alternative to the full-bodied money preferred by Hume, banks don’t create liabilities limitlessly, because, unless those liabilities generate corresponding revenue streams, they will be unable to redeem those liabilities, which their creditors may require of them, at will. To enhance the attractiveness of those liabilities and to increase the demand to hold them, competitive banks promise to convert those liabilities, at a stipulated rate, into an asset whose value they do not control. Under those conditions, banks have neither the incentive nor the capacity to cause inflation.

I turn now to a different topic: whether Smith’s rejection of the idea that banks are systematically biased toward overissuing liabilities implies that banks require no external control or intervention. I begin by briefly referring to Smith’s support of the real-bills doctrine and then extend that discussion to two other issues: the lender of last resort and the scope of banking.

A         Real-Bills Doctrine

I have argued elsewhere that, besides sketching the outlines of Fullarton’s argument for the Law of Reflux, Adam Smith recommended that banks observe a form of the real-bills doctrine, namely that banks issue sight liabilities only in exchange for real commercial bills of short (usually 90-days) duration. Increases in the demand for money cause bank balance sheets to expand; decreases cause them to contract. Unlike Mints (1945), who identified the Law of Reflux with the real-bills doctrine, I suggested that Smith viewed the real-bills doctrine as a pragmatic policy to facilitate contractions in the size of bank balance sheets as required by the reflux of their liabilities. With the discrepancy between the duration of liabilities and assets limited by issuing sight liabilities only in exchange for short-term bills, bank balance sheets would contract automatically thereby obviating, at least in part, the liquidation of longer-term assets at depressed prices.

On this reading, Smith recognized that banking policy ought to take account of the composition of bank balance sheets, in particular, the sort of assets that banks accept as backing for the sight liabilities that they issue. I would also emphasize that on this interpretation, Smith did not believe, as did many later advocates of the doctrine, that lending on the security of real bills is sufficient to prevent the price level from changing. Even if banks have no systematic incentive to overissue their liabilities, unless those liabilities are made convertible into an asset whose value is determined independently of the banks, the value of their liabilities is undetermined. Convertibility is how banks anchor the value of their liabilities, thereby increasing the attractiveness of those liabilities to the public and the willingness of the public to accept and hold them.

But Smith’s support for the real-bills doctrine indicates that, while understanding the equilibrating tendencies of competition on bank operations, he also recognized the inherent instability of banking caused by fluctuations in the value and liquidity of their assets. Smith’s support for the real-bills doctrine addressed one type of instability: the maturity mismatch between banks’ assets and liabilities. But there are other sources of instability, which may require further institutional or policy measures beyond the general laws of property and contract whose application and enforcement, in Smith’s view, generally sufficed for the self-interested conduct of private firms to lead to socially benign outcomes.

In the remainder of this section, I consider two other methods of addressing the vulnerability of bank assets to sudden losses of value: (1) the creation or empowerment of a lender of last resort capable of lending to illiquid, but solvent, banks possessing good security (valuable assets) as collateral against which to borrow, and (2) limits beyond the real-bills doctrine over the permissible activities undertaken by commercial banks.

B         Lender of Last Resort

Although the real-bills doctrine limits the exposure of bank balance sheets to adverse shocks on the value of long-term liabilities, even banks whose liabilities were issued in exchange for short-term real bills of exchange may be unable to meet all demands for redemption in periods of extreme financial distress, when debtors cannot sell their products at the prices they expected and cannot meet their own obligations to their creditors. If banks are called upon to redeem their liabilities, banks may be faced with a choice between depleting their own cash reserves, when they are most needed, or liquidating other assets at substantial, if not catastrophic, losses.

Smith’s version of the real-bills doctrine addressed one aspect of balance-sheet risk, but the underlying problem is deeper and more complicated than the liquidity issue that concerned Smith. The assets accepted by banks in exchange for their liabilities are typically not easily marketable, so if those assets must be shed quickly to satisfy demands for payment, banks’ solvency may be jeopardized by consequent capital losses. Limiting portfolios to short-term assets limits exposure to such losses, but only when the disturbances requiring asset liquidation affect only a relatively small number of banks. As the number of affected banks increases, their ability to counter the disturbance is impaired, as the interbank market for credit starts to freeze up or break down entirely, leaving them unable to offer short-term relief to, or receive it from, other momentarily illiquid banks. It is then that emergency lending by a lender of last resort to illiquid, but possibly still solvent, banks is necessary.

What causes a cluster of expectational errors by banks in exchanging their liabilities for assets supplied by their customers that become less valuable than they were upon acceptance? Are financial crises that result in, or are caused by, asset write downs by banks caused by random clusters of errors by banks, or are there systematic causes of such errors? Does the danger lie in the magnitude of the errors or in the transmission mechanism?

Here, too, the Humean and Smithian traditions seem to be at odds, offering different answers to problems, or, if not answers, at least different approaches to problems. Focusing on the liability side of bank balance sheets, the Humean tradition emphasizes the expansion of bank lending and the consequent creation of banknotes or deposits as the main impulse to macroeconomic fluctuations, a boom-bust or credit cycle triggered by banks’ lending to finance either business investment or consumer spending. Despite their theoretical differences, both Austrian business-cycle theory and Friedmanite Monetarism share a common intellectual ancestry, traceable by way of the Currency School to Hume, identifying the source of business-cycle fluctuations in excessive growth in the quantity of money.

The eclectic Smithian tradition accommodates both monetary and non-monetary business-cycle theories, but balance-sheet effects on banks are more naturally accommodated within the Smithian tradition than the Humean tradition with its focus on the liabilities not the assets of banks. At any rate, more research is necessary before we can decide whether serious financial disturbances result from big expectational errors or from contagion effects.

The Great Depression resulted from a big error. After the steep deflation and depression of 1920-22, followed by a gradual restoration of the gold standard, fears of further deflation were dispelled and steady economic expansion, especially in the United States, resulted. Suddenly in 1929, as France and other countries rejoined the gold standard, the fears voiced by Hawtrey and Cassel that restoring the gold standard could have serious deflationary consequences appeared increasingly more likely to be realized. Real signs of deflation began to appear in the summer of 1929, and in the fall the stock market collapsed. Rather than use monetary policy to counter incipient deflation, policy makers and many economists argued that deflation was part of the solution not the problem. And the Depression came.

It is generally agreed that the 2008 financial crisis that triggered the Little Depression (aka Great Recession) was largely the result of a housing bubble fueled by unsound mortgage lending by banks and questionable underwriting practices in packaging and marketing of mortgage-backed securities. However, although the housing bubble seems to have burst the spring of 2007, the crisis did not start until September 2008.

It is at least possible, as I have argued (Glasner 2018) that, despite the financial fragility caused by the housing bubble and unsound lending practices that fueled the bubble, the crisis could have been avoided but for a reflexive policy tightening by the Federal Reserve starting in 2007 that caused a recession starting in December 2007 and gradually worsening through the summer of 2008. Rather than ease monetary policy as the recession deepened, the Fed, distracted by rising headline inflation owing to rising oil prices that summer, would not reduce its interest-rate target further after March 2008. If my interpretation is correct, the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent Little Depression (aka Great Recession) were as much caused by bad monetary policy as by the unsound lending practices and mistaken expectations by lenders.

It is when all agents are cash constrained that a lender of last resort that is able to provide the liquidity that the usual suppliers of liquidity cannot provide, but are instead demanding, is necessary to avoid a systemic breakdown. In 2008, the Fed was unwilling to satisfy demands for liquidity until the crisis had deteriorated to the point of a worldwide collapse. In the nineteenth century, Thornton and Fullarton understood that the Bank of England was uniquely able to provide liquidity in such circumstances, recommending that it lend freely in periods of financial stress.

That policy was not viewed favorably either by Humean supporters of the Currency Principle, opposed to all forms of fractional-reserve banking, or by Smithian supporters of free banking who deplored the privileged central-banking position granted to the Bank of England. Although the Fed in 2008 acknowledged that it was both a national and international lender of last resort, it was tragically slow to take the necessary actions to end the crisis after allowing it to spiral nearly out of control.

While cogent arguments have been made that a free-banking alternative to the lender-of-last-resort services of the Bank of England might have been possible in the nineteenth century,[2] even a free-banking system would require a mechanism for handling periods of financial stress. Free-banking supporters argue that bank clearinghouses have emerged spontaneously in the absence of central banks, and could provide the lender-of-last resort services provided by central banks. But, insofar as bank clearinghouses would take on the lender-of-last-resort function, which involves some intervention and supervision of bank activities by either the clearinghouse or the central bank, the same anticompetitive or cartelistic objections to the provision of lender-of-last-resort services by central banks also would apply to the provision of those services by clearinghouses. So, the tension between libertarian, free-market principles and lender-of-last-resort services would not necessarily be eliminated bank clearinghouses instead of central banks provided those services.

This is an appropriate place to consider Walter Bagehot’s contribution to the lender-of-last-resort doctrine. Building on the work of Thornton and Fullarton, Bagehot formulated the classic principle that, during times of financial distress, the Bank of England should lend freely at a penalty rate to banks on good security. Bagehot, himself, admitted to a certain unease in offering this advice, opining that it was regrettable that the Bank of England achieved a pre-eminent position in the British banking system, so that a decentralized banking system, along the lines of the Scottish free-banking system, could have evolved. But given the historical development of British banking, including the 1844 Bank Charter Act, Bagehot, an eminently practical man, had no desire to recommend radical reform, only to help the existing system operate as smoothly as it could be made to operate.

But the soundness of Bagehot’s advice to lend freely at a penalty rate is dubious. In a financial crisis, the market rate of interest primarily reflects a liquidity premium not an expected real return on capital, the latter typically being depressed in a crisis. Charging a penalty rate to distressed borrowers in a crisis only raises the liquidity premium. Monetary policy ought to aim to reduce, not to increase, that premium. So Bagehot’s advice, derived from a misplaced sense of what is practical and prudent and financially sound, rather than from sound analysis, was far from sound.

Under the gold standard, or under any fixed-exchange-rate regime, a single country has an incentive to raise interest rates above the rates of other countries to prevent a gold outflow or attract an inflow. Under these circumstances, a failure of international cooperation can lead to competitive rate increases as monetary authorities scramble to maintain or increase their gold reserves. In testimony to the Macmillan Commission in 1930, Ralph Hawtrey masterfully described the obligation of a central bank in a crisis. Here is his exchange with the Chairman of the Commission Hugh Macmillan:

MACMILLAN: Suppose . . . without restricting credit . . . that gold had gone out to a very considerable extent, would that not have had very serious consequences on the international position of London?

HAWTREY: I do not think the credit of London depends on any particular figure of gold holding. . . . The harm began to be done in March and April of 1925 [when] the fall in American prices started. There was no reason why the Bank of England should have taken ny action at that time so far as the question of loss of gold is concerned. . . . I believed at the time and I still think that the right treatment would have been to restore the gold standard de facto before it was restored de jure. That is what all the other countries have done. . . . I would have suggested that we should have adopted the practice of always selling gold to a sufficient extent to prevent the exchange depreciating. There would have been no legal obligation to continue convertibility into gold . . . If that course had been adopted, the Bank of England would never have been anxious about the gold holding, they would have been able to see it ebb away to quite a considerable extent with perfect equanimity, . . and might have continued with a 4 percent Bank Rate.

MACMILLAN: . . . the course you suggest would not have been consistent with what one may call orthodox Central Banking, would it?

HAWTREY: I do not know what orthodox Central Banking is.

MACMILLAN: . . . when gold ebbs away you must restrict credit as a general principle?

HAWTREY: . . . that kind of orthodoxy is like conventions at bridge; you have to break them when the circumstances call for it. I think that a gold reserve exists to be used. . . . Perhaps once in a century the time comes when you can use your gold reserve for the governing purpose, provided you have the courage to use practically all of it.

Hawtrey here was echoing Fullarton’s insight that there is no rigid relationship between the gold reserves held by the Bank of England and the total quantity of sight liabilities created by the British banking system. Rather, he argued, the Bank should hold an ample reserve sufficient to satisfy the demand for gold in a crisis when a sudden and temporary demand for gold had to be accommodated. That was Hawtrey’s advice, but not Bagehot’s, whose concern was about banks’ moral hazard and imprudent lending in the expectation of being rescued in a crisis by the Bank of England. Indeed, moral hazard is a problem, but in a crisis it is a secondary problem, when, as Hawtrey explained, alleviating the crisis, not discouraging moral hazard, must be the primary concern of the lender of last resort.

            C         Scope of Banking

Inclined to find remedies for financial distress in structural reforms limiting the types of assets banks accept in exchange for their sight liabilities, Smith did not recommend a lender of last resort.[3] Another method of reducing risk, perhaps more in tune with the Smithian real-bills doctrine than a lender of last resort, is to restrict the activities of banks that issue banknotes and deposits.

In Anglophone countries, commercial banking generally evolved as separate and distinct from investment banking. It was only during the Great Depression and the resulting wave of bank failures that the combination of commercial and investment banking was legally prohibited by the Glass-Steagall Act, eventually repealed in 1999. On the Continent, where commercial banking penetrated less deeply into the fabric of economic and commercial life than in Anglophone countries, commercial banking developed more or less along with investment banking in what are called universal banks.

Whether the earlier, and more widespread, adoption of commercial banking in Anglophone countries than on the Continent advanced the idea that no banking institution should provide both commercial- and investment-banking services is not a question about which I offer a conjecture, but it seems a topic worthy of study. The Glass-Steagall Act, which enforced that separation after being breached early in the twentieth century, a breach thought by some to have contributed to US bank failures in the Great Depression, was based on a presumption against combining and investment-banking in a single institution. But even apart from the concerns that led to enactment of Glass-Steagall, limiting the exposure of commercial banks, which supply most of the cash held by the public, to the balance-sheet risk associated with investment-banking activities seems reasonable. Moreover, the adoption of government deposit insurance after the Great Depression as well as banks’ access to the discount window of the central bank may augment the moral hazard induced by deposit insurance and a lender of last resort, offsetting potential economies of scope associated with combining commercial and investment banking.

Although legal barriers to the combination of commercial and investment banking have long been eliminated, proposals for “narrow banking” that would restrict the activities undertaken by commercial banks continue to be made. Two different interpretations of narrow banking – one Smithian and one Humean – are possible.

The Humean concern about banking was that banks are inherently disposed to overissue their liabilities. The Humean response to the concern has been to propose 100-percent reserve banking, a comprehensive extension of the 100-percent marginal reserve requirement on the issue of banknotes imposed by the Bank Charter Act. Such measures could succeed, as some supporters (Simons 1936) came to realize, only if accompanied by a radical change the financial practices and arrangements on which all debt contracts are based. It is difficult to imagine that the necessary restructuring of economic activity would ever be implemented or tolerated.

The Humean concern was dismissed by the Smithian tradition, recognizing that banks, even if unconstrained by reserve requirements, have no incentive to issue liabilities without limit. The Smithian concern was whether banks could cope with balance-sheet risks after unexpected losses in the value of their assets. Although narrow banking proposals are a legitimate and possibly worthwhile response to that concern, the acceptance by central banks of responsibility to act as a lender of last resort and widespread government deposit insurance to dampen contagion effects have taken the question of narrowing or restricting the functions of money-creating banks off the table. Whether a different strategy for addressing the systemic risks associated with banks’ creation of money by relying solely on deposit insurance and a lender of last resort is a question that still deserves thoughtful attention.

On the Price Specie Flow Mechanism

I have been working on a paper tentatively titled “The Smithian and Humean Traditions in Monetary Theory.” One section of the paper is on the price-specie-flow mechanism, about which I wrote last month in my previous post. This section develops the arguments of the previous post at greater length and draws on a number of earlier posts that I’ve written about PSFM as well (e.g., here and here )provides more detailed criticisms of both PSFM and sterilization and provides some further historical evidence to support some of the theoretical arguments. I will be grateful for any comments and feedback.

The tortured intellectual history of the price-specie-flow mechanism (PSFM) received its still classic exposition in a Hume (1752) essay, which has remained a staple of the theory of international adjustment under the gold standard, or any international system of fixed exchange rates. Regrettably, the two-and-a-half-century life span of PSFM provides no ground for optimism about the prospects for progress in what some are pleased to call without irony economic science.

PSFM describes how, under a gold standard, national price levels tend to be equalized, with deviations between the national price levels in any two countries inducing gold to be shipped from the country with higher prices to the one with lower prices until prices are equalized. Premised on a version of the quantity theory of money in which (1) the price level in each country on the gold standard is determined by the quantity of money in that country, and (2) money consists entirely in gold coin or bullion, Hume elegantly articulated a model of disturbance and equilibration after an exogenous change in the gold stock in one country.

Viewing banks as inflationary engines of financial disorder, Hume disregarded banks and the convertible monetary liabilities of banks in his account of PSFM, leaving to others the task of describing the international adjustment process under a gold standard with fractional-reserve banking. The task of devising an institutional framework, within which PSFM could operate, for a system of fractional-reserve banking proved to be problematic and ultimately unsuccessful.

For three-quarters of a century, PSFM served a purely theoretical function. During the Bullionist debates of the first two decades of the nineteenth century, triggered by the suspension of the convertibility of the pound sterling into gold in 1797, PSFM served as a theoretical benchmark not a guide for policy, it being generally assumed that, when convertibility was resumed, international monetary equilibrium would be restored automatically.

However, the 1821 resumption was followed by severe and recurring monetary disorders, leading some economists, who formed what became known as the Currency School, to view PSFM as a normative criterion for ensuring smooth adjustment to international gold flows. That criterion, the Currency Principle, stated that the total currency in circulation in Britain should increase or decrease by exactly as much as the amount of gold flowing into or out of Britain.[1]

The Currency Principle was codified by the Bank Charter Act of 1844. To mimic the Humean mechanism, it restricted, but did not suppress, the right of note-issuing banks in England and Wales, which were allowed to continue issuing notes, at current, but no higher, levels, without holding equivalent gold reserves. Scottish and Irish note-issuing banks were allowed to continue issuing notes, but could increase their note issue only if matched by increased holdings of gold or government debt. In England and Wales, the note issue could increase only if gold was exchanged for Bank of England notes, so that a 100-percent marginal gold reserve requirement was imposed on additional banknotes.

Opposition to the Bank Charter Act was led by the Banking School, notably John Fullarton and Thomas Tooke. Rejecting the Humean quantity-theoretic underpinnings of the Currency School and the Bank Charter Act, the Banking School rejected the quantitative limits of the Bank Charter Act as both unnecessary and counterproductive, because banks, obligated to redeem their liabilities directly or indirectly in gold, issue liabilities only insofar as they expect those liabilities to be willingly held by the public, or, if not, are capable of redeeming any liabilities no longer willingly held. Rather than the Humean view that banks issue banknotes or create deposits without constraint, the Banking School held Smith’s view that banks issue money in a form more convenient to hold and to transact with than metallic money, so that bank money allows an equivalent amount of gold to be shifted from monetary to real (non-monetary) uses, providing a net social savings. For a small open economy, the diversion (and likely export) of gold bullion from monetary to non-monetary uses has negligible effect on prices (which are internationally, not locally, determined).

The quarter century following enactment of the Bank Charter Act showed that the Act had not eliminated monetary disturbances, the government having been compelled to suspend the Act in 1847, 1857 and 1866 to prevent incipient crises from causing financial collapse. Indeed, it was precisely the fear that liquidity might not be forthcoming that precipitated increased demands for liquidity that the Act made it impossible to accommodate. Suspending the Act was sufficient to end the crises with limited intervention by the Bank. [check articles on the crises of 1847, 1857 and 1866.]

It may seem surprising, but the disappointing results of the Bank Charter Act provided little vindication to the Banking School. It led only to a partial, uneasy, and not entirely coherent, accommodation between PSFM doctrine and the reality of a monetary system in which the money stock consists mostly of banknotes and bank deposits issued by fractional-reserve banks. But despite the failure of the Bank Charter Act, PSFM achieved almost canonical status, continuing, albeit with some notable exceptions, to serve as the textbook model of the gold standard.

The requirement that gold flows induce equal changes in the quantity of money within a country into (or from) which gold is flowing was replaced by an admonition that gold flows lead to “appropriate” changes in the central-bank discount rate or an alternative monetary instrument to cause the quantity of money to change in the same direction as the gold flow. While such vague maxims, sometimes described as “the rules of the game,” gave only directional guidance about how to respond to change in gold reserves, their hortatory character, and avoidance of quantitative guidance, allowed monetary authorities latitude to avoid the self-inflicted crises that had resulted from the quantitative limits of the Bank Charter Act.

Nevertheless, the myth of vague “rules” relating the quantity of money in a country to changes in gold reserves, whose observance ensured the smooth functioning of the international gold standard before its collapse at the start of World War I, enshrined PSFM as the theoretical paradigm for international monetary adjustment under the gold standard.

That paradigm was misconceived in four ways that can be briefly summarized.

  • Contrary to PSFM, changes in the quantity of money in a gold-standard country cannot change local prices proportionately, because prices of tradable goods in that country are constrained by arbitrage to equal the prices of those goods in other countries.
  • Contrary to PSFM, changes in local gold reserves are not necessarily caused either by non-monetary disturbances such as shifts in the terms of trade between countries or by local monetary disturbances (e.g. overissue by local banks) that must be reversed or counteracted by central-bank policy.
  • Contrary to PSFM, changes in the national price levels of gold-standard countries were uncorrelated with gold flows, and changes in national price levels were positively, not negatively, correlated.
  • Local banks and monetary authorities exhibit their own demands for gold reserves, demands exhibited by choice (i.e., independent of legally required gold holdings) or by law (i.e., by legally requirement to hold gold reserves equal to some fraction of banknotes issued by banks or monetary authorities). Such changes in gold reserves may be caused by changes in the local demands for gold by local banks and the monetary authorities in one or more countries.

Many of the misconceptions underlying PSFM were identified by Fullarton’s refutation of the Currency School. In articulating the classical Law of Reflux, he established the logical independence of the quantity convertible money in a country from by the quantity of gold reserves held by the monetary authority. The gold reserves held by individual banks, or their deposits with the Bank of England, are not the raw material from which banks create money, either banknotes or deposits. Rather, it is their creation of banknotes or deposits when extending credit to customers that generates a derived demand to hold liquid assets (i.e., gold) to allow them to accommodate the demands of customers and other banks to redeem banknotes and deposits. Causality runs from creating banknotes and deposits to holding reserves, not vice versa.

The misconceptions inherent in PSFM and the resulting misunderstanding of gold flows under the gold standard led to a further misconception known as sterilization: the idea that central banks, violating the obligations imposed by “the rules of the game,” do not allow, or deliberately prevent, local money stocks from changing as their gold holdings change. The misconception is the presumption that gold inflows ought necessarily cause increases in local money stocks. The mechanisms causing local money stocks to change are entirely different from those causing gold flows. And insofar as those mechanisms are related, causality flows from the local money stock to gold reserves, not vice versa.

Gold flows also result when monetary authorities transform their own asset holdings into gold. Notable examples of such transformations occurred in the 1870s when a number of countries abandoned their de jure bimetallic (and de facto silver) standards to the gold standard. Monetary authorities in those countries transformed silver holdings into gold, driving the value of gold up and silver down. Similarly, but with more catastrophic consequences, the Bank of France, in 1928 after France restored the gold standard, began redeeming holdings of foreign-exchange reserves (financial claims on the United States or Britain, payable in gold) into gold. Following the French example, other countries rejoining the gold standard redeemed foreign exchange for gold, causing gold appreciation and deflation that led to the Great Depression.

Rereading the memoirs of this splendid translation . . . has impressed me with important subtleties that I missed when I read the memoirs in a language not my own and in which I am far from completely fluent. Had I fully appreciated those subtleties when Anna Schwartz and I were writing our A Monetary History of the United States, we would likely have assessed responsibility for the international character of the Great Depression somewhat differently. We attributed responsibility for the initiation of a worldwide contraction to the United States and I would not alter that judgment now. However, we also remarked, “The international effects were severe and the transmission rapid, not only because the gold-exchange standard had rendered the international financial system more vulnerable to disturbances, but also because the United States did not follow gold-standard rules.” Were I writing that sentence today, I would say “because the United States and France did not follow gold-standard rules.”

I pause to note for the record Friedman’s assertion that the United States and France did not follow “gold-standard rules.” Warming up to the idea, he then accused them of sterilization.

Benjamin Strong and Emile Moreau were admirable characters of personal force and integrity. But . . .the common policies they followed were misguided and contributed to the severity and rapidity of transmission of the U.S. shock to the international community. We stressed that the U.S. “did not permit the inflow of gold to expand the U.S. money stock. We not only sterilized it, we went much further. Our money stock moved perversely, going down as the gold stock went up” from 1929 to 1931.

Strong and Moreau tried to reconcile two ultimately incompatible objectives: fixed exchange rates and internal price stability. Thanks to the level at which Britain returned to gold in 1925, the U.S. dollar was undervalued, and thanks to the level at which France returned to gold at the end of 1926, so was the French franc. Both countries as a result experienced substantial gold inflows. Gold-standard rules called for letting the stock of money rise in response to the gold inflows and for price inflation in the U.S. and France, and deflation in Britain, to end the over-and under-valuations. But both Strong and Moreau were determined to prevent inflation and accordingly both sterilized the gold inflows, preventing them from providing the required increase in the quantity of money.

Friedman’s discussion of sterilization is at odds with basic theory. Working with a naïve version of PSFM, he imagines that gold flows passively respond to trade balances independent of monetary forces, and that the monetary authority under a gold standard is supposed to ensure that the domestic money stock varies roughly in proportion to its gold reserves. Ignoring the international deflationary dynamic, he asserts that the US money stock perversely declined from 1929 to 1931, while its gold stock increased. With a faltering banking system, the public shifted from holding demand deposits to currency. Gold reserves were legally required against currency, but not against demand deposits, so the shift from deposits to currency entailed an increase gold reserves. To be sure the increased US demand for gold added to upward pressure on value of gold, and to worldwide deflationary pressure. But US gold holdings rose by only $150 million from December 1929 to December 1931 compared with an increase of $1.06 billion in French gold holdings over the same period. Gold accumulation by the US and its direct contribution to world deflation during the first two years of the Depression was small relative to that of France.

Friedman also erred in stating “the common policies they followed were misguided and contributed to the severity and rapidity of transmission of the U.S. shock to the international community.” The shock to the international community clearly originated not in the US but in France. The Fed could have absorbed and mitigated the shock by allowing a substantial outflow of its huge gold reserves, but instead amplified the shock by raising interest rates to nearly unprecedented levels, causing gold to flow into the US.

After correctly noting the incompatibility between fixed exchange rates and internal price stability, Friedman contradicts himself by asserting that, in seeking to stabilize their internal price levels, Strong and Moreau violated the gold-standard “rules,” as if it were rules, not arbitrage, that constrain national price to converge toward a common level under a gold standard.

Friedman’s assertion that, after 1925, the dollar was undervalued and sterling overvalued was not wrong. But he misunderstood the consequences of currency undervaluation and overvaluation under the gold standard, a confusion stemming from the underlying misconception, derived from PSFM, that foreign exchange rates adjust to balance trade flows, so that, in equilibrium, no country runs a trade deficit or trade surplus.

Thus, in Friedman’s view, dollar undervaluation and sterling overvaluation implied a US trade surplus and British trade deficit, causing gold to flow from Britain to the US. Under gold-standard “rules,” the US money stock and US prices were supposed to rise and the British money stock and British prices were supposed to fall until undervaluation and overvaluation were eliminated. Friedman therefore blamed sterilization of gold inflows by the Fed for preventing the necessary increase in the US money stock and price level to restore equilibrium. But, in fact, from 1925 through 1928, prices in the US were roughly stable and prices in Britain fell slightly. Violating gold-standard “rules” did not prevent the US and British price levels from converging, a convergence driven by market forces, not “rules.”

The stance of monetary policy in a gold-standard country had minimal effect on either the quantity of money or the price level in that country, which were mainly determined by the internationally determined value of gold. What the stance of national monetary policy determines under the gold standard is whether the quantity of money in the country adjusts to the quantity demanded by a process of domestic monetary creation or withdrawal or by the inflow or outflow of gold. Sufficiently tight domestic monetary policy restricting the quantify of domestic money causes a compensatory gold inflow increasing the domestic money stock, while sufficiently easy money causes a compensatory outflow of gold reducing the domestic money stock. Tightness or ease of domestic monetary policy under the gold standard mainly affected gold and foreign-exchange reserves, and, only minimally, the quantity of domestic money and the domestic price level.

However, the combined effects of many countries simultaneously tightening monetary policy in a deliberate, or even inadvertent, attempt to accumulate — or at least prevent the loss — of gold reserves could indeed drive up the international value of gold through a deflationary process affecting prices in all gold-standard countries. Friedman, even while admitting that, in his Monetary History, he had understated the effect of the Bank of France on the Great Depression, referred only the overvaluation of sterling and undervaluation of the dollar and franc as causes of the Great Depression, remaining oblivious to the deflationary effects of gold accumulation and appreciation.

It was thus nonsensical for Friedman to argue that the mistake of the Bank of France during the Great Depression was not to increase the quantity of francs in proportion to the increase of its gold reserves. The problem was not that the quantity of francs was too low; it was that the Bank of France prevented the French public from collectively increasing the quantity of francs that they held except by importing gold.

Unlike Friedman, F. A. Hayek actually defended the policy of the Bank of France, and denied that the Bank of France had violated “the rules of the game” after nearly quadrupling its gold reserves between 1928 and 1932. Under his interpretation of those “rules,” because the Bank of France increased the quantity of banknotes after the 1928 restoration of convertibility by about as much as its gold reserves increased, it had fully complied with the “rules.” Hayek’s defense was incoherent; under its legal obligation to convert gold into francs at the official conversion rate, the Bank of France had no choice but to increase the quantity of francs by as much as its gold reserves increased.

That eminent economists like Hayek and Friedman could defend, or criticize, the conduct of the Bank of France during the Great Depression, because the Bank either did, or did not, follow “the rules of the game” under which the gold standard operated, shows the uselessness and irrelevance of the “rules of the game” as a guide to policy. For that reason alone, the failure of empirical studies to find evidence that “the rules of the game” were followed during the heyday of the gold standard is unsurprising. But the deeper reason for that lack of evidence is that PSFM, whose implementation “the rules of the game” were supposed to guarantee, was based on a misunderstanding of the international-adjustment mechanism under either the gold standard or any fixed-exchange-rates system.

Despite the grip of PSFM over most of the profession, a few economists did show a deeper understanding of the adjustment mechanism. The idea that the price level in terms of gold directly constrained the movements of national price levels across countries was indeed recognized by writers as diverse as Keynes, Mises, and Hawtrey who all pointed out that the prices of internationally traded commodities were constrained by arbitrage and that the free movement of capital across countries would limit discrepancies in interest rates across countries attached to the gold standard, observations that had already been made by Smith, Thornton, Ricardo, Fullarton and Mill in the classical period. But, until the Monetary Approach to the Balance of Payments became popular in the 1970s, only Hawtrey consistently and systematically deduced the implications of those insights in analyzing both the Great Depression and the Bretton Woods system of fixed, but adjustable, exchange rates following World War II.

The inconsistencies and internal contradictions of PSFM were sometimes recognized, but usually overlooked, by business-cycle theorists when focusing on the disturbing influence of central banks, perpetuating mistakes of the Humean Currency School doctrine that attributed cyclical disturbances to the misbehavior of local banking systems that were inherently disposed to overissue their liabilities.

White and Hogan on Hayek and Cassel on the Causes of the Great Depression

Lawrence White and Thomas Hogan have just published a new paper in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (“Hayek, Cassel, and the origins of the great depression”). Since White is a leading Hayek scholar, who has written extensively on Hayek’s economic writings (e.g., his important 2008 article “Did Hayek and Robbins Deepen the Great Depression?”) and edited the new edition of Hayek’s notoriously difficult volume, The Pure Theory of Capital, when it was published as volume 11 of the Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, the conclusion reached by the new paper that Hayek had a better understanding than Cassel of what caused the Great Depression is not, in and of itself, surprising.

However, I admit to being taken aback by the abstract of the paper:

We revisit the origins of the Great Depression by contrasting the accounts of two contemporary economists, Friedrich A. Hayek and Gustav Cassel. Their distinct theories highlight important, but often unacknowledged, differences between the international depression and the Great Depression in the United States. Hayek’s business cycle theory offered a monetary overexpansion account for the 1920s investment boom, the collapse of which initiated the Great Depression in the United States. Cassel’s warnings about a scarcity gold reserves related to the international character of the downturn, but the mechanisms he emphasized contributed little to the deflation or depression in the United States.

I wouldn’t deny that there are differences between the way the Great Depression played out in the United States and in the rest of the world, e.g., Britain and France, which to be sure, suffered less severely than did the US or, say, Germany. It is both possible, and important, to explore and understand the differential effects of the Great Depression in various countries. I am sorry to say that White and Hogan do neither. Instead, taking at face value the dubious authority of Friedman and Schwartz’s treatment of the Great Depression in the Monetary History of the United States, they assert that the cause of the Great Depression in the US was fundamentally different from the cause of the Great Depression in many or all other countries.

Taking that insupportable premise from Friedman and Schwartz, they simply invoke various numerical facts from the Monetary History as if those facts, in and of themselves, demonstrate what requires to be demonstrated: that the causes of the Great Depression in the US were different from those of the Great Depression in the rest of the world. That assumption vitiated the entire treatment of the Great Depression in the Monetary History, and it vitiates the results that White and Hogan reach about the merits of the conflicting explanations of the Great Depression offered by Cassel and Hayek.

I’ve discussed the failings of Friedman’s treatment of the Great Depression and of other episodes he analyzed in the Monetary History in previous posts (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here). The common failing of all the episodes treated by Friedman in the Monetary History and elsewhere is that he misunderstood how the gold standard operated, because his model of the gold standard was a primitive version of the price-specie-flow mechanism in which the monetary authority determines the quantity of money, which then determines the price level, which then determines the balance of payments, the balance of payments being a function of the relative price levels of the different countries on the gold standard. Countries with relatively high price levels experience trade deficits and outflows of gold, and countries with relatively low price levels experience trade surpluses and inflows of gold. Under the mythical “rules of the game” under the gold standard, countries with gold inflows were supposed to expand their money supplies, so that prices would rise and countries with outflows were supposed to reduce their money supplies, so that prices fall. If countries followed the rules, then an international monetary equilibrium would eventually be reached.

That is the model of the gold standard that Friedman used throughout his career. He was not alone; Hayek and Mises and many others also used that model, following Hume’s treatment in his essay on the balance of trade. But it’s the wrong model. The correct model is the one originating with Adam Smith, based on the law of one price, which says that prices of all commodities in terms of gold are equalized by arbitrage in all countries on the gold standard.

As a first approximation, under the Smithean model, there is only one price level adjusted for different currency parities for all countries on the gold standard. So if there is deflation in one country on the gold standard, there is deflation for all countries on the gold standard. If the rest of the world was suffering from deflation under the gold standard, the US was also suffering from a deflation of approximately the same magnitude as every other country on the gold standard was suffering.

The entire premise of the Friedman account of the Great Depression, adopted unquestioningly by White and Hogan, is that there was a different causal mechanism for the Great Depression in the United States from the mechanism operating in the rest of the world. That premise is flatly wrong. The causation assumed by Friedman in the Monetary History was the exact opposite of the actual causation. It wasn’t, as Friedman assumed, that the decline in the quantity of money in the US was causing deflation; it was the common deflation in all gold-standard countries that was causing the quantity of money in the US to decline.

To be sure there was a banking collapse in the US that was exacerbating the catastrophe, but that was an effect of the underlying cause: deflation, not an independent cause. Absent the deflationary collapse, there is no reason to assume that the investment boom in the most advanced and most productive economy in the world after World War I was unsustainable as the Hayekian overinvestment/malinvestment hypothesis posits with no evidence of unsustainability other than the subsequent economic collapse.

So what did cause deflation under the gold standard? It was the rapid increase in the monetary demand for gold resulting from the insane policy of the Bank of France (disgracefully endorsed by Hayek as late as 1932) which Cassel, along with Ralph Hawtrey (whose writings, closely parallel to Cassel’s on the danger of postwar deflation, avoid all of the ancillary mistakes White and Hogan attribute to Cassel), was warning would lead to catastrophe.

It is true that Cassel also believed that over the long run not enough gold was being produced to avoid deflation. White and Hogan spend inordinate space and attention on that issue, because that secular tendency toward deflation is entirely different from the catastrophic effects of the increase in gold demand in the late 1920s triggered by the insane policy of the Bank of France.

The US could have mitigated the effects if it had been willing to accommodate the Bank of France’s demand to increase its gold holdings. Of course, mitigating the effects of the insane policy of the Bank of France would have rewarded the French for their catastrophic policy, but, under the circumstances, some other means of addressing French misconduct would have spared the world incalculable suffering. But misled by an inordinate fear of stock market speculation, the Fed tightened policy in 1928-29 and began accumulating gold rather than accommodate the French demand.

And the Depression came.

What’s Right and not so Right with Modern Monetary Theory

I am finishing up a first draft of a paper on fiat money, bitcoins and cryptocurrencies that will be included in a forthcoming volume on bitcoins and cryptocurrencies. The paper is loosely based on a number of posts that have appeared on this blog since I started blogging almost nine years ago. My first post appeared on July 5, 2011. Here are some of my posts on and fiat money, bitcoins and cryptocurrencies (this, this, this, and this). In writing the paper, it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to include a comment on Modern Monetary Theory inasmuch as the proposition that the value of fiat money is derived from the acceptability of fiat money for discharging the tax liabilities imposed by the governments issuing those fiat moneys, which is a proposition that Modern Monetary Theorists have adopted from the chartalist school of thought associated with the work of G. F. Knapp. But there were clearly other economists before and since Knapp that have offered roughly the same explanation for the positive value of fiat money that offers no real non-monetary services to those holding such moneys. Here is the section from my draft about Modern Monetary Theory.

Although there’s a long line of prominent economic theorists who have recognized that acceptability of a fiat money for discharging tax liabilities, the proposition is now generally associated with the chartalist views of G. F. Knapp, whose views have been explicitly cited in recent works by economists associated with what is known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). While the capacity of fiat money to discharge tax liabilities is surely an important aspect of MMT, not all propositions associated with MMT automatically follow from that premise. Recognizing the role of the capacity of fiat money to discharge tax liabilities, Knapp juxtaposed his “state theory of money” from the metallist theory. The latter holds that the institution of money evolved from barter trade, because certain valuable commodities, especially precious metals became widely used as media of exchange, because, for whatever reason, they were readily accepted in exchange, thereby triggering the self-reinforcing network effects discussed above.[1]

However, the often bitter debates between chartalists and metallists notwithstanding, there is no necessary, or logical, inconsistency between the theories. Both theories about the origin of money could be simultaneously true, each under different historical conditions. Each theory posits an explanation for why a monetary instrument providing no direct service is readily accepted in exchange. That one explanation could be true does not entail the falsity of the other.

Taking chartalism as its theoretical foundation, MMT focuses on a set of accounting identities that are presumed to embody deep structural relationships. Because money is regarded as the creature of the state, the quantity of money is said to reflect the cumulative difference between government tax revenues and expenditures which are financed by issuing fiat money. The role of government bonds is to provide a buffer with which short-term fluctuations in the inflow of taxes (recurrently peaking at particular times of the year when tax payments become due) and government expenditures.

But the problem with MMT, shared with many other sorts of monetary theory, is that it focuses on a particular causal relationship, working through the implications of that relationship conditioned on a ceteris-paribus assumption that all other relationships are held constant and are unaffected by the changes on which the theory is focusing, regardless of whether the assumption can be maintained.

For example, MMT posits that increases in taxes are deflationary and reductions in taxes are inflationary, because an increase in taxes implies a net drain of purchasing power from the private sector to the government sector and a reduction in taxes implies an injection of purchasing power.[2] According to the MMT, the price level reflects the relationship between total spending and total available productive resources, At given current prices, some level of total spending would just suffice to ensure that all available resources are fully employed. If total spending exceeds that amount, the excess spending must cause prices to rise to absorb the extra spending.

This naïve theory of inflation captures a basic intuition about the effect of increasing the rate of spending, but it is not a complete theory of inflation, because the level of spending depends not only on how much the government spends and how much tax revenue it collects; it also depends on, among other things, whether the public is trying to add to, or to reduce, the quantity of cash balances being held. Now it’s true that an efficiently operating banking system tends to adjust the quantity of cash to the demands of the public, but the banking system also has demands for the reserves that the government, via the central bank, makes available to be held, and its demands to hold reserves may match, or fall short of, the amount that banks at any moment wish to hold.

There is an interbank system of reserves, but if the amount of reserves that the government central bank creates is systematically above the amount of reserves that banks wish to hold, the deficiency will have repercussions on total spending. MMT theorists insist that the government central bank is obligated to provide whatever quantity of reserves is demanded, but that’s because the demand of banks to hold reserves is a function of the foregone interest incurred by banks holding reserves. Given the cost of holding reserves implied by the interest-rate target established by the government central bank, the banking system will demand a corresponding quantity of reserves, and, at that interest rate, government central banks will supply all the reserves demanded. But that doesn’t mean that, in setting its target rate, the government central bank isn’t implicitly determining the quantity of reserves for the entire system, thereby exercising an independent influence on the price level or the rate of inflation that must be reconciled with the fiscal stance of the government.

A tendency toward oversimplification is hardly unique to MMT. It’s also characteristic of older schools of thought, like the metallist theory of money, the polar opposite from the MMT and the chartalist theory. The metallist theory asserts that the value of a metallic money must equal the value of the amount of the metal represented by any particular monetary unit defined in terms of that metal. Under a gold standard, for example, all monetary units represent some particular quantity of gold, and the relative values of those units correspond to the ratios of the gold represented by those units. The value of gold standard currency therefore doesn’t deviate more than trivially from the value of the amount of gold represented by the currency.

But, here again, we confront a simplification; the value of gold, or of any commodity serving as a monetary standard, isn’t independent of its monetary-standard function. The value of any commodity depends on the total demand for any and all purposes for which it is, or may be, used. If gold serves as money, either as coins actually exchanged or a reserves sitting in bank vaults, that amount of gold is withdrawn from potential non-monetary uses, so that the value of gold relative to other commodities must rise to reflect the diversion of that portion of the total stock from non-monetary uses. If the demand to hold money rises, and the additional money that must be created to meet that demand requires additional gold to be converted into monetary form, either as coins or as reserves held by banks, the additional derived demand for gold tends to increase the value of gold, and, as a result, the value of money.

Moreover, insofar as governments accumulate reserves of gold that are otherwise held idle, the decision about how much gold reserves to continue holding in relation to the monetary claims on those reserves also affects the value of gold. It’s therefore not necessarily correct to say that, under a gold standard, the value of gold determines the value of money. The strictly correct proposition is that, under a gold standard, the value of gold and the value of money must be equal. But the value of money causally affects the value of gold no less than the value of gold causally affects the value of money.

In the context of a fiat money, whose value necessarily reflects expectations of its future purchasing power, it is not only the current policies of the government and the monetary authority, but expectations about future economic conditions and about the future responses of policy-makers to those conditions that determine the value of a fiat money. A useful theory of the value of money and of the effect of monetary policy on the value of money cannot be formulated without taking the expectations of individuals into account. Rational-expectations may be a useful first step to in formulating models that explicitly take expectations into account, but their underlying suppositions of most rational-expectations models are too far-fetched – especially the assumption that all expectations converge on the “correct” probability distributions of all future prices – to provide practical insight, much less useful policy guidance (Glasner 2020).

So, in the end, all simple theories of causation, like MMT, that suggest one particular variable determines the value of another are untenable in any complex system of mutually interrelated phenomena (Hayek 1967). There are few systems in nature as complex as a modern economy; only if it were possible to write out a complete system of equations describing all those interrelationships, could we trace out the effects of increasing the income tax rate or the level of government spending on the overall price level, as MMT claims to do. But for a complex interrelated system, no direct causal relationship between any two variables to the exclusion of all the others is likely to serve as a reliable guide to policy except in special situations when it can plausibly be assumed that a ceteris-paribus assumption is likely to be even approximately true.

[1] The classic exposition of this theory of money was provided by Carl Menger (1892).

 

[2] In an alternate version of the tax theory of inflation, an increase in taxes increases the value of money by increasing the demand of money at the moment when tax liabilities come due. The value of money is determined by its value at those peak periods, and it is the expected value of money at those peak periods that maintains its value during non-peak periods. The problem with this version is that it presumes that the value of money is solely a function of its value in discharging tax liabilities, but money is also demanded to serve as a medium of exchange which implies an increase in value above the value it would have solely from the demand occasioned by its acceptability to discharge tax liabilities.

My Paper “Hayek, Deflation, Gold, and Nihilism” Is now Available on SSRN

I contributed a chapter entitled “Hayek, Deflation, Gold and Nihilism” to volume 13 of Hayek: A Collaborative Biography edited by Robert Leeson and published in 2018 by Palgrave Macmillan.

I have posted a preliminary draft of that chapter on SSRN. Here is the abstract.

In Hayek’s early writings on business cycle theory and the Great Depression he argued that business cycle downturns including the steep downturn of 1929-31 were caused by unsustainable elongations of capital structure of the economy resulting from bank-financed investment in excess of voluntary saving. Because monetary expansion was the cause of the crisis, Hayek argued that monetary expansion was an inappropriate remedy to cure the deflation and high unemployment caused by the crisis. He therefore recommended allowing the Depression to take its course until the distortions that led to the downturn could be corrected by market forces. However, this view of the Depression was at odds with Hayek’s own neutral money criterion which implied that prices should fall during expansions and rise during contractions so that nominal spending would remain more or less constant over the cycle. Although Hayek strongly favored allowing prices to fall in the expansion, he did not follow the logic of his own theory in favoring generally increasing prices during the contraction. This paper explores the reasons for Hayek’s reluctance to follow the logic of his own theory in his early policy recommendations. The key factors responsible for his early policy recommendations seem to be his attachment to the gold standard and the seeming necessity for countries to accept deflation to maintain convertibility and his hope or expectation that deflation would overwhelm the price rigidities that he believed were obstructing the price mechanism from speeding a recovery. By 1935 Hayek’s attachment to the gold standard was starting to weaken, and in later years he openly acknowledged that he had been mistaken not to favor policy measures, including monetary expansion, designed to stabilize total spending.

My Paper “Hawtrey and Keynes” Is Now Available on SSRN

About five or six years ago, I was invited by Robert Dimand and Harald Hagemann to contribute an article on Hawtrey for The Elgar Companion to John Maynard Keynes, which they edited. I have now posted an early (2014) version of my article on SSRN.

Here is the abstract of my article on Hawtrey and Keynes

R. G. Hawtrey, like his younger contemporary J. M. Keynes, was a Cambridge graduate in mathematics, an Apostle, deeply influenced by the Cambridge philosopher G. E. Moore, attached, if only peripherally, to the Bloomsbury group, and largely an autodidact in economics. Both entered the British Civil Service shortly after graduation, publishing their first books on economics in 1913. Though eventually overshadowed by Keynes, Hawtrey, after publishing Currency and Credit in 1919, was in the front rank of monetary economists in the world and a major figure at the 1922 Genoa International Monetary Conference planning for a restoration of the international gold standard. This essay explores their relationship during the 1920s and 1930s, focusing on their interactions concerning the plans for restoring an international gold standard immediately after World War I, the 1925 decision to restore the convertibility of sterling at the prewar dollar parity, Hawtrey’s articulation of what became known as the Treasury view, Hawtrey’s commentary on Keynes’s Treatise on Money, including his exposition of the multiplier, Keynes’s questioning of Hawtrey after his testimony before the Macmillan Committee, their differences over the relative importance of the short-term and long-term rates of interest as instruments of monetary policy, Hawtrey’s disagreement with Keynes about the causes of the Great Depression, and finally the correspondence between Keynes and Hawtrey while Keynes was writing the General Theory, a correspondence that failed to resolve theoretical differences culminating in Hawtrey’s critical review of the General Theory and their 1937 exchange in the Economic Journal.

Dr. Shelton Remains Outspoken: She Should Have Known Better

I started blogging in July 2011, and in one of my first blogposts I discussed an article in the now defunct Weekly Standard by Dr. Judy Shelton entitled “Gold Standard or Bust.” I wrote then:

I don’t know, and have never met Dr. Shelton, but she has been a frequent op-ed contributor to the Wall Street Journal and various other publications of a like ideological orientation for 20 years or more, invariably advocating a return to the gold standard.  In 1994, she published a book Money Meltdown touting the gold standard as a cure for all our monetary ills.

I was tempted to provide a line-by-line commentary on Dr. Shelton’s Weekly Standard piece, but it would be tedious and churlish to dwell excessively on her deficiencies as a wordsmith or lapses from lucidity.

So I was not very impressed by Dr. Shelton then. I have had occasion to write about her again a few times since, and I cannot report that I have detected any improvement in the lucidity of her thought or the clarity of her exposition.

Aside from, or perhaps owing to, her infatuation with the gold standard, Dr. Shelton seems to have developed a deep aversion to what is commonly, and usually misleadingly, known as currency manipulation. Using her modest entrepreneurial skills as a monetary-policy pundit, Dr. Shelton has tried to use the specter of currency manipulation as a talking point for gold-standard advocacy. So, in 2017 Dr. Shelton wrote an op-ed about currency manipulation for the Wall Street Journal that was so woefully uninformed and unintelligible, that I felt obligated to write a blogpost just for her, a tutorial on the ABCs of currency manipulation, as I called it then. Here’s an excerpt from my tutorial:

[i]t was no surprise to see in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal that monetary-policy entrepreneur Dr. Judy Shelton has written another one of her screeds promoting the gold standard, in which, showing no awareness of the necessary conditions for currency manipulation, she assures us that a) currency manipulation is a real problem and b) that restoring the gold standard would solve it.

Certainly the rules regarding international exchange-rate arrangements are not working. Monetary integrity was the key to making Bretton Woods institutions work when they were created after World War II to prevent future breakdowns in world order due to trade. The international monetary system, devised in 1944, was based on fixed exchange rates linked to a gold-convertible dollar.

No such system exists today. And no real leader can aspire to champion both the logic and the morality of free trade without confronting the practice that undermines both: currency manipulation.

Ahem, pray tell, which rules relating to exchange-rate arrangements does Dr. Shelton believe are not working? She doesn’t cite any. And, what, on earth does “monetary integrity” even mean, and what does that high-minded, but totally amorphous, concept have to do with the rules of exchange-rate arrangements that aren’t working?

Dr. Shelton mentions “monetary integrity” in the context of the Bretton Woods system, a system based — well, sort of — on fixed exchange rates, forgetting – or choosing not — to acknowledge that, under the Bretton Woods system, exchange rates were also unilaterally adjustable by participating countries. Not only were they adjustable, but currency devaluations were implemented on numerous occasions as a strategy for export promotion, the most notorious example being Britain’s 30% devaluation of sterling in 1949, just five years after the Bretton Woods agreement had been signed. Indeed, many other countries, including West Germany, Italy, and Japan, also had chronically undervalued currencies under the Bretton Woods system, as did France after it rejoined the gold standard in 1926 at a devalued rate deliberately chosen to ensure that its export industries would enjoy a competitive advantage.

The key point to keep in mind is that for a country to gain a competitive advantage by lowering its exchange rate, it has to prevent the automatic tendency of international price arbitrage and corresponding flows of money to eliminate competitive advantages arising from movements in exchange rates. If a depreciated exchange rate gives rise to an export surplus, a corresponding inflow of foreign funds to finance the export surplus will eventually either drive the exchange rate back toward its old level, thereby reducing or eliminating the initial depreciation, or, if the lower rate is maintained, the cash inflow will accumulate in reserve holdings of the central bank. Unless the central bank is willing to accept a continuing accumulation of foreign-exchange reserves, the increased domestic demand and monetary expansion associated with the export surplus will lead to a corresponding rise in domestic prices, wages and incomes, thereby reducing or eliminating the competitive advantage created by the depressed exchange rate. Thus, unless the central bank is willing to accumulate foreign-exchange reserves without limit, or can create an increased demand by private banks and the public to hold additional cash, thereby creating a chronic excess demand for money that can be satisfied only by a continuing export surplus, a permanently reduced foreign-exchange rate creates only a transitory competitive advantage.

I don’t say that currency manipulation is not possible. It is not only possible, but we know that currency manipulation has been practiced. But currency manipulation can occur under a fixed-exchange rate regime as well as under flexible exchange-rate regimes, as demonstrated by the conduct of the Bank of France from 1926 to 1935 while it was operating under a gold standard. And the most egregious recent example of currency manipulation was undertaken by the Chinese central bank when it effectively pegged the yuan to the dollar at a fixed rate. Keeping its exchange rate fixed against the dollar was precisely the offense that the currency-manipulation police accused the Chinese of committing.

I leave it to interested readers to go back and finish the rest of my tutorial for Dr. Shelton. And if you read carefully and attentively, you are likely to understand the concept of currency manipulation a lot more clearly than when you started.

Alas, it’s obvious that Dr. Shelton has either not read or not understood the tutorial I wrote for her, because, in her latest pronouncement on the subject she covers substantially the same ground as she did two years ago, with no sign of increased comprehension of the subject on which she expounds with such misplaced self-assurance. Here are some samples of Dr. Shelton’s conceptual confusion and historical ignorance.

History can be especially informative when it comes to evaluating the relationship between optimal economic performance and monetary regimes. In the 1930s, for example, the “beggar thy neighbor” tactic of devaluing currencies against gold to gain a trade export advantage hampered a global economic recovery.

Beggar thy neighbor policies were indeed adopted by the United States, but they were adopted first in the 1922 (the Fordney-McCumber Act) and again in 1930 (Smoot-Hawley Act) when the US was on the gold standard with the value of the dollar pegged at $4.86 $20.67 for an ounce of gold. The Great Depression started in late 1929, but the stock market crash of 1929 may have been in part precipitated by fears that the Smoot-Hawley Act would be passed by Congress and signed into law by President Hoover.

At any rate, exchange rates among most major countries were pegged to either gold or the dollar until September 1931 when Britain suspended the convertibility of the pound into gold. The Great Depression was the result of a rapid deflation caused by gold accumulation by central banks as they rejoined the gold standard that had been almost universally suspended during World War I. Countries that remained on the gold standard during the Great Depression were condemned to suffer deflation as gold became ever more valuable in real terms, so that currency depreciation against gold was the only pathway to recovery. Thus, once convertibility was suspended and the pound allowed to depreciate, the British economy stopped contracting and began a modest recovery with slowly expanding output and employment.

The United States, however, kept the dollar pegged to its $4.86 $20.67 an ounce parity with gold until April 1933, when FDR saved the American economy by suspending convertibility and commencing a policy of deliberate reflation (i.e. inflation to restore the 1926 price level). An unprecedented expansion of output, employment and income accompanied the rise in prices following the suspension of the gold standard. Currency depreciation was the key to recovery from, not the cause of, depression.

Having exposed her ignorance of the causes of the Great Depression, Dr. Shelton then begins a descent into her confusion about the subject of currency manipulation, about which I had tried to tutor her, evidently without success.

The absence of rules aimed at maintaining a level monetary playing field invites currency manipulation that could spark a backlash against the concept of free trade. Countries engaged in competitive depreciation undermine the principles of genuine competition, and those that have sought to participate in good faith in the global marketplace are unfairly penalized by the monetary sleight of hand executed through central banks.

Currency manipulation is possible only under specific conditions. A depreciating currency is not normally a manipulated currency. Currencies fluctuate in relative values for many different reasons, but if prices adjust in rough proportion to the change in exchange rates, the competitive positions of the countries are only temporarily affected by the change in exchange rates. For a country to gain a sustained advantage for its export and import-competing industries by depreciating its exchange rate, it must adopt a monetary policy that consistently provides less cash than the public demands or needs to satisfy its liquidity needs, forcing the public to obtain the desired cash balances through a balance-of-payments surplus and an inflow of foreign-exchange reserves into the country’s central bank or treasury.

U.S. leadership is necessary to address this fundamental violation of free-trade practices and its distortionary impact on free-market outcomes. When the United States’ trading partners engage in currency manipulation, it is not competing — it’s cheating.

That is why it is vital to weigh the implications of U.S. monetary policy on the dollar’s exchange-rate value against other currencies. Trade and financial flows can be substantially altered by speculative market forces responding to the public comments of officials at the helm of the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan or the People’s Bank of China — with calls for “additional stimulus” alerting currency players to impending devaluation policies.

Dr. Shelton here reveals a comprehensive misunderstanding of the difference between a monetary policy that aims to stimulate economic activity in general by raising the price level or increasing the rate of inflation to stimulate expenditure and a policy of monetary restraint that aims to raise the relative price of domestic export and import-competing products relative to the prices of domestic non-tradable goods and services, e.g., new homes and apartments. It is only the latter combination of tight monetary policy and exchange-rate intervention to depreciate a currency in foreign-exchange markets that qualifies as currency manipulation.

And, under that understanding, it is obvious that currency manipulation is possible under a fixed-exchange-rate system, as France did in the 1920s and 1930s, and as most European countries and Japan did in the 1950s and early 1960s under the Bretton Woods system so well loved by Dr. Shelton.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the US dollar was chronically overvalued. The situation was not remediated until the 1960s under the Kennedy administration when consistently loose monetary policy by the Fed made currency manipulation so costly for the Germans and Japanese that they revalued their currencies upward to avoid the inflationary consequences of US monetary expansion.

And then, in a final flourish, Dr. Shelton puts her ignorance of what happened in the Great Depression on public display with the following observation.

When currencies shift downward against the dollar, it makes U.S. exports more expensive for consumers in other nations. It also discounts the cost of imported goods compared with domestic U.S. products. Downshifting currencies against the dollar has the same punishing impact as a tariff. That is why, as in the 1930s during the Great Depression, currency devaluation prompts retaliatory tariffs.

The retaliatory tariffs were imposed in response to the US tariffs that preceded the or were imposed at the outset of the Great Depression in 1930. The devaluations against gold promoted economic recovery, and were accompanied by a general reduction in tariff levels under FDR after the US devalued the dollar against gold and the remaining gold standard currencies. Whereof she knows nothing, thereof Dr. Shelton would do better to remain silent.

Friedman and Schwartz, Eichengreen and Temin, Hawtrey and Cassel

Barry Eichengreen and Peter Temin are two of the great economic historians of our time, writing, in the splendid tradition of Charles Kindleberger, profound and economically acute studies of the economic and financial history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most notably they have focused on periods of panic, crisis and depression, of which by far the best-known and most important episode is the Great Depression that started late in 1929, bottomed out early in 1933, but lingered on for most of the 1930s, and they are rightly acclaimed for having emphasized and highlighted the critical role of the gold standard in the Great Depression, a role largely overlooked in the early Keynesian accounts of the Great Depression. Those accounts identified a variety of specific shocks, amplified by the volatile entrepreneurial expectations and animal spirits that drive, or dampen, business investment, and further exacerbated by inherent instabilities in market economies that lack self-stabilizing mechanisms for maintaining or restoring full employment.

That Keynesian vision of an unstable market economy vulnerable to episodic, but prolonged, lapses from full-employment was vigorously, but at first unsuccessfully, disputed by advocates of free-market economics. It wasn’t until Milton Friedman provided an alternative narrative explaining the depth and duration of the Great Depression, that the post-war dominance of Keynesian theory among academic economists seriously challenged. Friedman’s alternative narrative of the Great Depression was first laid out in the longest chapter (“The Great Contraction”) of his magnum opus, co-authored with Anna Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States. In Friedman’s telling, the decline in the US money stock was the critical independent causal factor that directly led to the decline in prices, output, and employment. The contraction in the quantity of money was not caused by the inherent instability of free-market capitalism, but, owing to a combination of incompetence and dereliction of duty, by the Federal Reserve.

In the Monetary History of the United States, all the heavy lifting necessary to account for both secular and cyclical movements in the price level, output and employment is done by, supposedly exogenous, changes in the nominal quantity of money, Friedman having considered it to be of the utmost significance that the largest movements in both the quantity of money, and in prices, output and employment occurred during the Great Depression. The narrative arc of the Monetary History was designed to impress on the mind of the reader the axiomatic premise that monetary authority has virtually absolute control over the quantity of money which served as the basis for inferring that changes in the quantity of money are what cause changes in prices, output and employment.

Friedman’s treatment of the gold standard (which I have discussed here, here and here) was both perfunctory and theoretically confused. Unable to reconcile the notion that the monetary authority has absolute control over the nominal quantity of money with the proposition that the price level in any country on the gold standard cannot deviate from the price levels of other gold standard countries without triggering arbitrage transactions that restore the equality between the price levels of all gold standard countries, Friedman dodged the inconsistency repeatedly invoking his favorite fudge factor: long and variable lags between changes in the quantity of money and changes in prices, output and employment. Despite its vacuity, the long-and-variable-lag dodge allowed Friedman to ignore the inconvenient fact that the US price level in the Great Depression did not and could not vary independently of the price levels of all other countries then on the gold standard.

I’ll note parenthetically that Keynes himself was also responsible for this unnecessary and distracting detour, because the General Theory was written almost entirely in the context of a closed economy model with an exogenously determined quantity of money, thereby unwittingly providing with a useful tool with which to propagate his Monetarist narrative. The difference of course is that Keynes, as demonstrated in his brilliant early works, Indian Currency and Finance and A Tract on Monetary Reform and the Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill, had a correct understanding of the basic theory of the gold standard, an understanding that, owing to his obsessive fixation on the nominal quantity of money, eluded Friedman over his whole career. Why Keynes, who had a perfectly good theory of what was happening in the Great Depression available to him, as it was to others, was diverted to an unnecessary, but not uninteresting, new theory is a topic that I wrote about a very long time ago here, though I’m not so sure that I came up with a good or even adequate explanation.

So it does not speak well of the economics profession that it took nearly a quarter of a century before the basic internal inconsistency underlying Friedman’s account of the Great Depression was sufficiently recognized to call for an alternative theoretical account of the Great Depression that placed the gold standard at the heart of the narrative. It was Peter Temin and Barry Eichengreen, both in their own separate works (e.g., Lessons of the Great Depression by Temin and Golden Fetters by Eichengreen) and in an important paper they co-authored and published in 2000 to remind both economists and historians how important a role the gold standard must play in any historical account of the Great Depression.

All credit is due to Temin and Eichengreen for having brought to the critical role of the gold standard in the Great Depression to the attention of economists who had largely derived their understanding of what had caused the Great Depression from either some variant of the Keynesian narrative or of Friedman’s Monetarist indictment of the Federal Reserve System. But it’s unfortunate that neither Temin nor Eichnegreen gave sufficient credit to either R. G. Hawtrey or to Gustav Cassel for having anticipated almost all of their key findings about the causes of the Great Depression. And I think that what prevented Eichengreen and Temin from realizing that Hawtrey in particular had anticipated their explanation of the Great Depression by more than half a century was that they did not fully grasp the key theoretical insight underlying Hawtrey’s explanation of the Great Depression.

That insight was that the key to understanding the common world price level in terms of gold under a gold standard is to think in terms of a given world stock of gold and to think of total world demand to hold gold consisting of real demands to hold gold for commercial, industrial and decorative uses, the private demand to hold gold as an asset, and the monetary demand for gold to be held either as a currency or as a reserve for currency. The combined demand to hold gold for all such purposes, given the existing stock of gold, determines a real relative price of gold in terms of all other commodities. This relative price when expressed in terms of a currency unit that is convertible into gold corresponds to an equivalent set of commodity prices in terms of those convertible currency units.

This way of thinking about the world price level under the gold standard was what underlay Hawtrey’s monetary analysis and his application of that analysis in explaining the Great Depression. Given that the world output of gold in any year is generally only about 2 or 3 percent of the existing stock of gold, it is fluctuations in the demand for gold, of which the monetary demand for gold in the period after the outbreak of World War I was clearly the least stable, that causes short-term fluctuations in the value of gold. Hawtrey’s efforts after the end of World War I were therefore focused on the necessity to stabilize the world’s monetary demands for gold in order to avoid fluctuations in the value of gold as the world moved toward the restoration of the gold standard that then seemed, to most monetary and financial experts and most monetary authorities and political leaders, to be both inevitable and desirable.

In the opening pages of Golden Fetters, Eichengreen beautifully describes backdrop against which the attempt to reconstitute the gold standard was about to made after World War I.

For more than a quarter of a century before World War I, the gold standard provided the framework for domestic and international monetary relations. . .  The gold standard had been a remarkably efficient mechanism for organizing financial affairs. No global crises comparable to the one that began in 1929 had disrupted the operation of financial markets. No economic slump had so depressed output and employment.

The central elements of this system were shattered by . . . World War I. More than a decade was required to complete their reconstruction. Quickly it became evident that the reconstructed gold standard was less resilient that its prewar predecessor. As early as 1929 the new international monetary system began to crumble. Rapid deflation forced countries to  producing primary commodities to suspend gold convertibility and depreciate their currencies. Payments problems spread next to the industrialized world. . . Britain, along with United State and France, one of the countries at the center of the international monetary system, was next to experience a crisis, abandoning the gold standard in the autumn of 1931. Some two dozen countries followed suit. The United States dropped the gold standard in 1933; France hung on till the bitter end, which came in 1936.

The collapse of the international monetary system is commonly indicted for triggering the financial crisis that transformed a modes economic downturn gold standard into an unprecedented slump. So long as the gold standard was maintained, it is argued, the post-1929 recession remained just another cyclical contraction. But the collapse of the gold standard destroyed confidence in financial stability, prompting capital flight which undermined the solvency of financial institutions. . . Removing the gold standard, the argument continues, further intensified the crisis. Having suspended gold convertibility, policymakers manipulated currencies, engaging in beggar thy neighbor depreciations that purportedly did nothing to stimulate economic recovery at home while only worsening the Depression abroad.

The gold standard, then, is conventionally portrayed as synonymous with financial stability. Its downfall starting in 1929 is implicated in the global financial crisis and the worldwide depression. A central message of this book is that precisely the opposite was true. (Golden Fetters, pp. 3-4).

That is about as clear and succinct and accurate a description of the basic facts leading up to and surrounding the Great Depression as one could ask for, save for the omission of one important causal factor: the world monetary demand for gold.

Eichengreen was certainly not unaware of the importance of the monetary demand for gold, and in the pages that immediately follow, he attempts to fill in that part of the story, adding to our understanding of how the gold standard worked by penetrating deeply into the nature and role of the expectations that supported the gold standard, during its heyday, and the difficulty of restoring those stabilizing expectations after the havoc of World War I and the unexpected post-war inflation and subsequent deep 1920-21 depression. Those stabilizing expectations, Eichengreen argued, were the result of the credibility of the commitment to the gold standard and the international cooperation between governments and monetary authorities to ensure that the international gold standard would be maintained notwithstanding the occasional stresses and strains to which a complex institution would inevitably be subjected.

The stability of the prewar gold standard was instead the result of two very different factors: credibility and cooperation. Credibility is the confidence invested by the public in the government’s commitment to a policy. The credibility of the gold standard derived from the priority attached by governments to the maintenance of to the maintenance of balance-of-payments equilibrium. In the core countries – Britain, France and Germany – there was little doubt that the authorities would take whatever steps were required to defend the central bank’s gold reserves and maintain the convertibility of the currency into gold. If one of these central banks lost gold reserves and its exchange rate weakened, fund would flow in from abroad in anticipation of the capital gains investors in domestic assets would reap once the authorities adopted measures to stem reserve losses and strengthen the exchange rate. . . The exchange rate consequently strengthened on its own, and stabilizing capital flows minimized the need for government intervention. The very credibility of the official commitment to gold meant that this commitment was rarely tested. (p. 5)

But credibility also required cooperation among the various countries on the gold standard, especially the major countries at its center, of which Britain was the most important.

Ultimately, however, the credibility of the prewar gold standard rested on international cooperation. When the stabilizing speculation and domestic intervention proved incapable of accommodating a disturbance, the system was stabilized through cooperation among governments and central banks. Minor problems could be solved by tacit cooperation, generally achieved without open communication among the parties involved. . .  Under such circumstances, the most prominent central bank, the Bank of England, signaled the need for coordinated action. When it lowered its discount rate, other central banks usually responded in kind. In effect, the Bank of England provided a focal point for the harmonization of national monetary policies. . .

Major crises in contrast typically required different responses from different countries. The country losing gold and threatened by a convertibility crisis had to raise interest rates to attract funds from abroad; other countries had to loosen domestic credit conditions to make funds available to the central bank experiencing difficulties. The follow-the-leader approach did not suffice. . . . Such crises were instead contained through overt, conscious cooperation among central banks and governments. . . Consequently, the resources any one country could draw on when its gold parity was under attack far exceeded its own reserves; they included the resources of the other gold standard countries. . . .

What rendered the commitment to the gold standard credible, then, was that the commitment was international, not merely national. That commitment was achieved through international cooperation. (pp. 7-8)

Eichengreen uses this excellent conceptual framework to explain the dysfunction of the newly restored gold standard in the 1920s. Because of the monetary dislocation and demonetization of gold during World War I, the value of gold had fallen to about half of its prewar level, thus to reestablish the gold standard required not only restoring gold as a currency standard but also readjusting – sometimes massively — the prewar relative values of the various national currency units. And to prevent the natural tendency of gold to revert to its prewar value as gold was remonetized would require an unprecedented level of international cooperation among the various countries as they restored the gold standard. Thus, the gold standard was being restored in the 1920s under conditions in which neither the credibility of the prewar commitment to the gold standard nor the level of international cooperation among countries necessary to sustain that commitment was restored.

An important further contribution that Eichengreen, following Temin, brings to the historical narrative of the Great Depression is to incorporate the political forces that affected and often determined the decisions of policy makers directly into the narrative rather than treat those decisions as being somehow exogenous to the purely economic forces that were controlling the unfolding catastrophe.

The connection between domestic politics and international economics is at the center of this book. The stability of the prewar gold standard was attributable to a particular constellation of political as well as economic forces. Similarly, the instability of the interwar gold standard is explicable in terms of political as well as economic changes. Politics enters at two levels. First, domestic political pressures influence governments’ choices of international economic policies. Second, domestic political pressures influence the credibility of governments’ commitments to policies and hence their economic effects. . . (p. 10)

The argument, in a nutshell, is that credibility and cooperation were central to the smooth operation of the classical gold standard. The scope for both declined abruptly with the intervention of World War I. The instability of the interwar gold standard was the inevitable result. (p. 11)

Having explained and focused attention on the necessity for credibility and cooperation for a gold standard to function smoothly, Eichengreen then begins his introductory account of how the lack of credibility and cooperation led to the breakdown of the gold standard that precipitated the Great Depression, starting with the structural shift after World War I that made the rest of the world highly dependent on the US as a source of goods and services and as a source of credit, rendering the rest of the world chronically disposed to run balance-of-payments deficits with the US, deficits that could be financed only by the extension of credit by the US.

[I]f U.S. lending were interrupted, the underlying weakness of other countries’ external positions . . . would be revealed. As they lost gold and foreign exchange reserves, the convertibility of their currencies into gold would be threatened. Their central banks would be forced to  restrict domestic credit, their fiscal authorities to compress public spending, even if doing so threatened to plunge their economies into recession.

This is what happened when U.S. lending was curtailed in the summer of 1928 as a result of increasingly stringent Federal Reserve monetary policy. Inauspiciously, the monetary contraction in the United States coincided with a massive flow of gold to France, where monetary policy was tight for independent reasons. Thus, gold and financial capital were drained by the United States and France from other parts of the world. Superimposed on already weak foreign balances of payments, these events provoked a greatly magnified monetary contraction abroad. In addition they caused a tightening of fiscal policies in parts of Europe and much of Latin America. This shift in policy worldwide, and not merely the relatively modest shift in the United States, provided the contractionary impulse that set the stage for the 1929 downturn. The minor shift in American policy had such dramatic effects because of the foreign reaction it provoked through its interactions with existing imbalances in the pattern of international settlements and with the gold standard constraints. (pp. 12-13)

Eichengreen then makes a rather bold statement, with which, despite my agreement with, and admiration for, everything he has written to this point, I would take exception.

This explanation for the onset of the Depression, which emphasizes concurrent shifts in economic policy in the Unites States and abroad, the gold standard as the connection between them, and the combined impact of U.S. and foreign economic policies on the level of activity, has not previously appeared in the literature. Its elements are familiar, but they have not been fit together into a coherent account of the causes of the 1929 downturn. (p. 13)

I don’t think that Eichengreen’s claim of priority for his explanation of the onset of the 1929 downturn can be defended, though I certainly wouldn’t suggest that he did not arrive at his understanding of what caused the Great Depression largely on his own. But it is abundantly clear from reading the writings of Hawtrey and Cassel starting as early as 1919, that the basic scenario outlined by Eichengreen was clearly spelled out by Hawtrey and Cassel well before the Great Depression started, as papers by Ron Batchelder and me and by Doug Irwin have thoroughly documented. Undoubtedly Eichengreen has added a great deal of additional insight and depth and done important quantitative and documentary empirical research to buttress his narrative account of the causes of the Great Depression, but the basic underlying theory has not changed.

Eichengreen is not unaware of Hawtrey’s contribution and in a footnote to the last quoted paragraph, Eichengreen writes as follows.

The closest precedents lie in the work of the British economists Lionel Robbins and Ralph Hawtrey, in the writings of German historians concerned with the causes of their economy’s precocious slump, and in Temin (1989). Robbins (1934) hinted at many of the mechanism emphasized here but failed to develop the argument fully. Hawtrey emphasized how the contractionary shift in U.S. monetary policy, superimposed on an already weak British balance of payments position, forced a draconian contraction on the Bank of England, plunging the world into recession. See Hawtrey (1933), especially chapter 2. But Hawtrey’s account focused almost entirely on the United States and the United Kingdom, neglecting the reaction of other central banks, notably the Bank of France, whose role was equally important. (p. 13, n. 17)

Unfortunately, this footnote neither clarifies nor supports Eichengreen’s claim of priority for his account of the role of the gold standard in the Great Depression. First, the bare citation of Robbins’s 1934 book The Great Depression is confusing at best, because Robbins’s explanation of the cause of the Great Depression, which he himself later disavowed, is largely a recapitulation of the Austrian business-cycle theory that attributed the downturn to a crisis caused by monetary expansion by the Fed and the Bank of England. Eichengreen correctly credits Hawtrey for attributing the Great Depression, in almost diametric opposition to Robbins, to contractionary monetary policy by the Fed and the Bank of England, but then seeks to distinguish Hawtrey’s explanation from his own by suggesting that Hawtrey neglected the role of the Bank of France.

Eichengreen mentions Hawtrey’s account of the Great Depression in his 1933 book, Trade Depression and the Way Out, 2nd edition. I no longer have a copy of that work accessible to me, but in the first edition of this work published in 1931, Hawtrey included a brief section under the heading “The Demand for Gold as Money since 1914.”

[S]ince 1914 arbitrary changes in monetary policy and in the demand for gold as money have been greater and more numerous than ever before. Frist came the general abandonment of the gold standard by the belligerent countries in favour of inconvertible paper, and the release of hundreds of millions of gold. By 1920 the wealth value of gold had fallen to two-fifths of what it had been in 1913. The United States, which was almost alone at that time in maintaining a gold standard, thereupon started contracting credit and absorbing gold on a vast scale. In June 1924 the wealth value of gold was seventy per cent higher than at its lowest point in 1920, and the amount of gold held for monetary purposes in the United States had grown from $2,840,000,000 in 1920 to $4,488,000,000.

Other countries were then beginning to return to the gold standard, Gemany in 1924, England in 1925, besides several of the smaller countries of Europe. In the years 1924-8 Germany absorbed over £100,000,000 of gold. France stabilized her currency in 1927 and re-established the gold standard in 1928, and absorbed over £60,000,000 in 1927-8. But meanwhile, the Unitd States had been parting with gold freely and her holding had fallen to $4,109,000,000 in June 1928. Large as these movements had been, they had not seriously disturbed the world value of gold. . . .

But from 1929 to the present time has been a period of immense and disastrous instability. France has added more than £200,000,000 to her gold holding, and the United Statesmore than $800,000,000. In the two and a half years the world’s gold output has been a little over £200,000,000, but a part of this been required for the normal demands of industry. The gold absorbed by France and America has exceeded the fresh supply of gold for monetary purposes by some £200,000,000.

This has had to be wrung from other countries, and much o of it has come from new countries such as Australia, Argentina and Brazil, which have been driven off the gold standard and have used their gold reserves to pay their external liabilities, such as interest on loans payable in foreign currencies. (pp. 20-21)

The idea that Hawtrey neglected the role of the Bank of France is clearly inconsistent with the work that Eichengreen himself cites as evidence for that neglect. Moreover in Hawtrey’s 1932 work, The Art of Central Banking, his first chapter is entitled “French Monetary Policy” which directly addresses the issues supposedly neglected by Hawtrey. Here is an example.

I am inclined therefore to say that while the French absorption of gold in the period from January 1929 to May 1931 was in fact one of the most powerful causes of the world depression, that is only because it was allowed to react an unnecessary degree upon the monetary policy of other countries. (p. 38)

In his foreward to the 1962 reprinting of his volume, Hawtrey mentions his chapter on French Monetary Policy in a section under the heading “Gold and the Great Depression.”

Conspicuous among countries accumulating reserves foreign exchange was France. Chapter 1 of this book records how, in the course of stabilizing the franc in the years 1926-8, the Bank of France accumulated a vast holding of foreign exchange [i.e., foreign bank liabilities payable in gold], and in the ensuing years proceeded to liquidate it [for gold]. Chapter IV . . . shows the bearing of the French absorption of gold upon the starting of the great depression of the 1930s. . . . The catastrophe foreseen in 1922 [!] had come to pass, and the moment had come to point to the moral. The disaster was due to the restoration of the gold standard without any provision for international cooperation to prevent undue fluctuations in the purchasing power of gold. (pp. xiv-xv)

Moreover, on p. 254 of Golden Fetters, Eichengreen himself cites Hawtrey as one of the “foreign critics” of Emile Moreau, Governor of the Bank of France during the 1920s and 1930s “for failing to build “a structure of credit” on their gold imports. By failing to expand domestic credit and to repel gold inflows, they argued, the French had violated the rules of the gold standard game.” In the same paragraph Eichengreen also cites Hawtrey’s recommendation that the Bank of France change its statutes to allow for the creation of domestically supplied money and credit that would have obviated the need for continuing imports of gold.

Finally, writers such as Clark Johnson and Kenneth Mouré, who have written widely respected works on French monetary policy during the 1920s and 1930s, cite Hawtrey extensively as one of the leading contemporary critics of French monetary policy.

PS I showed Barry Eichengreen a draft of this post a short while ago, and he agrees with my conclusion that Hawtrey, and presumably Cassel also, had anticipated the key elements of his explanation of how the breakdown of the gold standard, resulting largely from the breakdown of international cooperation, was the primary cause of the Great Depression. I am grateful to Barry for his quick and generous response to my query.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gold Exchange Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Post-War Deflation

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

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

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

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

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

This is correct, and I fully agree.

How It Could Have been Different

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World War I inflation.

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

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

The Post-War Collapse of 1921

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

The Great Depression

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

World War II Inflation

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

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

1970s Inflation

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

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


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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