Archive for the 'gold' Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Misunderstanding Reserve Currencies and the Gold Standard

In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Lewis Lehrman and John Mueller argue for replacing the dollar as the world’s reserve currency with gold. I don’t know Lewis Lehrman, but almost 30 years ago, when I was writing my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, which opposed restoring the gold standard, I received financial support from the Lehrman Institute where I gave a series of seminars discussing several chapters of my book. A couple of those seminars were attended by John Mueller, who was then a staffer for Congressman Jack Kemp. But despite my friendly feelings for Lehrman and Mueller, I am afraid that they badly misunderstand how the gold standard worked and what went wrong with the gold standard in the 1920s. Not surprisingly, that misunderstanding carries over into their comments on current monetary arrangements.

Lehrman and Mueller begin by discussing the 1922 Genoa Conference, a conference largely inspired by the analysis of Ralph Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel of post-World War I monetary conditions, and by their proposals for restoring an international gold standard without triggering a disastrous deflation in the process of doing so, the international price level in terms of gold having just about doubled relative to the pre-War price level.

The 1922 Genoa conference, which was intended to supervise Europe’s post-World War I financial reconstruction, recommended “some means of economizing the use of gold by maintaining reserves in the form of foreign balances”—initially pound-sterling and dollar IOUs. This established the interwar “gold exchange standard.”

Lehrman and Mueller then cite the view of the gold exchange standard expressed by the famous French economist Jacques Rueff, of whom Lehrman is a fervent admirer.

A decade later Jacques Rueff, an influential French economist, explained the result of this profound change from the classical gold standard. When a foreign monetary authority accepts claims denominated in dollars to settle its balance-of-payments deficits instead of gold, purchasing power “has simply been duplicated.” If the Banque de France counts among its reserves dollar claims (and not just gold and French francs)—for example a Banque de France deposit in a New York bank—this increases the money supply in France but without reducing the money supply of the U.S. So both countries can use these dollar assets to grant credit. “As a result,” Rueff said, “the gold-exchange standard was one of the major causes of the wave of speculation that culminated in the September 1929 crisis.” A vast expansion of dollar reserves had inflated the prices of stocks and commodities; their contraction deflated both.

This is astonishing. Lehrman and Mueller do not identify the publication of Rueff that they are citing, but I don’t doubt the accuracy of the quotation. What Rueff is calling for is a 100% marginal reserve requirement. Now it is true that under the Bank Charter Act of 1844, Great Britain had a 100% marginal reserve requirement on Bank of England notes, but throughout the nineteenth century, there was an shift from banknotes to bank deposits, so the English money supply was expanding far more rapidly than English gold reserves. The kind of monetary system that Rueff was talking about, in which the quantity of money in circulation, could not increase by more than the supply of gold, never existed. Money was being created under the gold standard without an equal amount of gold being held in reserve.

The point of the gold exchange standard, after World War I, was to economize on the amount of gold held by central banks as they rejoined the gold standard to prevent a deflation back to the pre-War price level. Gold had been demonetized over the course of World War I as countries used gold to pay for imports, much of it winding up in the US before the US entered the war. If all the demonetized gold was remonetized, the result would be a huge rise in the value of gold, in other words, a huge, catastrophic, deflation.

Nor does the notion that the gold-exchange standard was the cause of speculation that culminated in the 1929 crisis have any theoretical or evidentiary basis. Interest rates in the 1920s were higher than they ever were during the heyday of the classical gold standard from about 1880 to 1914. Prices were not rising faster in the 1920s than they did for most of the gold standard era, so there is no basis for thinking that speculation was triggered by monetary causes. Indeed, there is no basis for thinking that there was any speculative bubble in the 1920s, or that even if there was such a bubble it was triggered by monetary expansion. What caused the 1929 crash was not the bursting of a speculative bubble, as taught by the popular mythology of the crash, it was caused by the sudden increase in the demand for gold in 1928 and 1929 resulting from the insane policy of the Bank of France and the clueless policy of the Federal Reserve after ill health forced Benjamin Strong to resign as President of the New York Fed.

Lehrman and Mueller go on to criticize the Bretton Woods system.

The gold-exchange standard’s demand-duplicating feature, based on the dollar’s reserve-currency role, was again enshrined in the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement. What ensued was an unprecedented expansion of official dollar reserves, and the consumer price level in the U.S. and elsewhere roughly doubled. Foreign governments holding dollars increasingly demanded gold before the U.S. finally suspended gold payments in 1971.

The gold-exchange standard of the 1920s was a real gold standard, but one designed to minimize the monetary demand for gold by central banks. In the 1920s, the US and Great Britain were under a binding obligation to convert dollars or pound sterling on demand into gold bullion, so there was a tight correspondence between the value of gold and the price level in any country maintaining a fixed exchange rate against the dollar or pound sterling. Under Bretton Woods, only the US was obligated to convert dollars into gold, but the obligation was largely a fiction, so the tight correspondence between the value of gold and the price level no longer obtained.

The economic crisis of 2008-09 was similar to the crisis that triggered the Great Depression. This time, foreign monetary authorities had purchased trillions of dollars in U.S. public debt, including nearly $1 trillion in mortgage-backed securities issued by two government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The foreign holdings of dollars were promptly returned to the dollar market, an example of demand duplication. This helped fuel a boom-and-bust in foreign markets and U.S. housing prices. The global excess credit creation also spilled over to commodity markets, in particular causing the world price of crude oil (which is denominated in dollars) to spike to $150 a barrel.

There were indeed similarities between the 1929 crisis and the 2008 crisis. In both cases, the world financial system was made vulnerable because there was a lot of bad debt out there. In 2008, it was subprime mortgages, in 1929 it was reckless borrowing by German local governments and the debt sold to refinance German reparations obligations under the Treaty of Versailles. But in neither episode did the existence of bad debt have anything to do with monetary policy; in both cases tight monetary policy precipitated a crisis that made a default on the bad debt unavoidable.

Lehrman and Mueller go on to argue, as do some Keynesians like Jared Bernstein, that the US would be better off if the dollar were not a reserve currency. There may be disadvantages associated with having a reserve currency – disadvantages like those associated with having a large endowment of an exportable natural resource, AKA the Dutch disease – but the only way for the US to stop having a reserve currency would be to take a leaf out of the Zimbabwe hyperinflation playbook. Short of a Zimbabwean hyperinflation, the network externalities internalized by using the dollar as a reserve currency are so great, that the dollar is likely to remain the world’s reserve currency for at least a millennium. Of course, the flip side of the Dutch disease is at that there is a wealth transfer from the rest of the world to the US – AKA seignorage — in exchange for using the dollar.

Lehrman and Mueller are aware of the seignorage accruing to the supplier of a reserve currency, but confuse the collection of seignorage with the benefit to the world as a whole of minimizing the use of gold as the reserve currency. This leads them to misunderstand the purpose of the Genoa agreement, which they mistakenly attribute to Keynes, who actually criticized the agreement in his Tract on Monetary Reform.

This was exactly what Keynes and other British monetary experts promoted in the 1922 Genoa agreement: a means by which to finance systemic balance-of-payments deficits, forestall their settlement or repayment and put off demands for repayment in gold of Britain’s enormous debts resulting from financing World War I on central bank and foreign credit. Similarly, the dollar’s “exorbitant privilege” enabled the U.S. to finance government deficit spending more cheaply.

But we have since learned a great deal that Keynes did not take into consideration. As Robert Mundell noted in “Monetary Theory” (1971), “The Keynesian model is a short run model of a closed economy, dominated by pessimistic expectations and rigid wages,” a model not relevant to modern economies. In working out a “more general theory of interest, inflation, and growth of the world economy,” Mr. Mundell and others learned a great deal from Rueff, who was the master and professor of the monetary approach to the balance of payments.

The benefit from supplying the resource that functions as the world’s reserve currency will accrue to someone, that is the “exorbitant privilege” to which Lehrman and Mueller refer. But It is not clear why it would be better if the privilege accrued to owners of gold instead of to the US Treasury. On the contrary, the potential for havoc associated with reinstating gold as the world’s reserve currency dwarfs the “exorbitant privilege.” Nor is the reference to Keynes relevant to the discussion, the Keynesian model described by Mundell being the model of the General Theory, which was certainly not the model that Keynes was working with at the time of the Genoa agreement in which Keynes’s only involvement was as an outside critic.

As for Rueff, staunch defender of the insane policy of the Bank of France in 1932, he was an estimable scholar, but, luckily, his influence was much less than Lehrman and Mueller suggest.

Is Insanity Breaking out in Switzerland?

The other day, I saw this item on Bloomberg.com “1500 Tons of Gold on the Line in Swiss Vote Buy Back Bullion.” Have a look:

There are people in Switzerland who resent that the country sold away much of its gold last decade. They may be a splinter group of Swiss politics, but they’re a persistent bunch.

And if they get their way in a referendum this month, these voters will make their presence known to gold traders around the world.

The proposal from the “Save Our Swiss Gold” proponents is simple: Force the central bank to build its bullion position up to at least 20 percent of total assets from 8 percent today. Holding 522 billion Swiss francs ($544 billion) of assets in its coffers, the Swiss National Bank would have to buy at least 1,500 tons of gold, costing about $56.3 billion at current prices, to get to the required threshold by 2019.

Those purchases, equal to about 7 percent of annual global demand, would trigger an 18 percent rally, giving a lift to gold bulls who’ve suffered 32 percent losses in the past two years, Bank of America Corp. estimates. With polls showing voters split before the Nov. 30 referendum, the SNB and national government are warning that such a move could undermine efforts to prevent the franc from surging against the euro and erode the bank’s annual dividend distribution to regional governments.

There they go again. The gold bugs are rallying to prop up the gold-price bubble with mandated purchases of the useless yellow metal so that it can be locked up to lie idle and inert in the vaults of the Swiss National Bank. How insane is that?

But wait! There is method to their madness.

A “yes” victory means Switzerland would face buying the metal at prices that quadrupled since it began selling more than half its reserves in 2000. The move would make the SNB the world’s third-biggest holder of gold. The initiative would also force the central bank to repatriate the 30 percent of its gold held abroad in the U.K. and Canada and bar it from ever selling bullion again.

With 1,040 metric tons, Switzerland is already the seventh-largest holder of gold by country, International Monetary Fund data show. According to UBS, a change in the law may force the SNB to buy about 1,500 tons, while ABN Amro Group NV and Societe Generale SA estimate the need at closer to 1,800 tons.

The SNB’s assets have expanded by more than a third in the past three years because of currency interventions to enforce a minimum exchange rate of 1.20 per euro. As of August, just under 8 percent of its assets were in gold, compared with a ratio of 15 percent for Germany‘s Bundesbank.

Many people get all bent out of shape at the mere mention of bailing out the banks and Wall Street, but those same people don’t seem to mind bailing out all those hedge funds and gold investment trusts, as well as all the individual investors, egged on by the Peter Schiffs of the world and by the sleazy characters advertising on Fox News and talk radio, who recklessly jumped on the gold bandwagon at the height of the gold bubble from 2008 to 2011.

Gold price tanking? No problemo. Just get the central banks to start buying all the gold now being dumped into the market by people who have finally realized that it’s time to cut their losses before prices fall even further. The price of gold having fallen by almost 20% from its 2014 high, a central-bank rescue operation looks awfully attractive to a lot of desperate people. Even better, the rescue operation can be dressed up and packaged as if it were the quintessence of monetary virtue, merely requiring central banks to hold gold backing for the paper money they issue.

Of course, this referendum, even if passed by Swiss electorate, is less than half as insane as the Monetary Law enacted in 1928, at the urging of the Bank of France, by the French Parliament, a law requiring the Bank to hold gold equal to at least 35% of its outstanding note issue. The Bank in its gold frenzy went way beyond its legal obligation to accumulate gold. The proposed Swiss Law is less than half as insane as the French Monetary Law of 1928, because in 1928 France and much of the rest of the world were either on the gold standard or about to rejoin the gold standard, so that increasing the demand for gold meant forcing the world into the deflationary death spiral that turned into the Great Depression. The most that the proposed Swiss Law could do is force Switzerland into a deflationary spiral.

That would be too bad for Switzerland, but probably not such a big deal for the rest of the world. If the Swiss want to lock up 1500 tons of gold in the vaults of their central bank, well, it’s their sovereign right to go insane. Luckily, the rest of the world has figured out how to have a monetary system in which the gyrations of the hyper-volatile gold price can no longer ruin the lives of many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people.

The Enchanted James Grant Expounds Eloquently on the Esthetics of the Gold Standard

One of the leading financial journalists of our time, James Grant is obviously a very smart, very well read, commentator on contemporary business and finance. He also has published several highly regarded historical studies, and according to the biographical tag on his review of a new book on the monetary role of gold in the weekend Wall Street Journal, he will soon publish a new historical study of the dearly beloved 1920-21 depression, a study that will certainly be worth reading, if not entirely worth believing. Grant reviewed a new book, War and Gold, by Kwasi Kwarteng, which provides a historical account of the role of gold in monetary affairs and in wartime finance since the 16th century. Despite his admiration for Kwarteng’s work, Grant betrays more than a little annoyance and exasperation with Kwarteng’s failure to appreciate what a many-splendored thing gold really is, deploring the impartial attitude to gold taken by Kwarteng.

Exasperatingly, the author, a University of Cambridge Ph. D. in history and a British parliamentarian, refuses to render historical judgment. He doesn’t exactly decry the world’s descent into “too big to fail” banking, occult-style central banking and tiny, government-issued interest rates. Neither does he precisely support those offenses against wholesome finance. He is neither for the dematerialized, non-gold dollar nor against it. He is a monetary Hamlet.

He does, at least, ask: “Why gold?” I would answer: “Because it’s money, or used to be money, and will likely one day become money again.” The value of gold is inherent, not conferred by governments. Its supply tends to grow by 1% to 2% a year, in line with growth in world population. It is nice to look at and self-evidently valuable.

Evidently, Mr. Grant’s enchantment with gold has led him into incoherence. Is gold money or isn’t it? Obviously not — at least not if you believe that definitions ought to correspond to reality rather than to Platonic ideal forms. Sensing that his grip on reality may be questionable, he tries to have it both ways. If gold isn’t money now, it likely will become money again — “one day.” For sure, gold used to be money, but so did cowerie shells, cattle, and at least a dozen other substances. How does that create any presumption that gold is likely to become money again?

Then we read: “The value of gold is inherent.” OMG! And this from a self-proclaimed Austrian! Has he ever heard of the “subjective theory of value?” Mr. Grant, meet Ludwig von Mises.

Value is not intrinsic, it is not in things. It is within us. (Human Action p. 96)

If value “is not in things,” how can anything be “self-evidently valuable?”

Grant, in his emotional attachment to gold, feels obligated to defend the metal against any charge that it may have been responsible for human suffering.

Shelley wrote lines of poetry to protest the deflation that attended Britain’s return to the gold standard after the Napoleonic wars. Mr. Kwarteng quotes them: “Let the Ghost of Gold / Take from Toil a thousandfold / More than e’er its substance could / In the tyrannies of old.” The author seems to agree with the poet.

Grant responds to this unfair slur against gold:

I myself hold the gold standard blameless. The source of the postwar depression was rather the decision of the British government to return to the level of prices and wages that prevailed before the war, a decision it enforced through monetary means (that is, by reimposing the prewar exchange rate). It was an error that Britain repeated after World War I.

This is a remarkable and fanciful defense, suggesting that the British government actually had a specific target level of prices and wages in mind when it restored the pound to its prewar gold parity. In fact, the idea of a price level was not yet even understood by most economists, let alone by the British government. Restoring the pound to its prewar parity was considered a matter of financial rectitude and honor, not a matter of economic fine-tuning. Nor was the choice of the prewar parity the only reason for the ruinous deflation that followed the postwar resumption of gold payments. The replacement of paper pounds with gold pounds implied a significant increase in the total demand for gold by the world’s leading economic power, which implied an increase in the total world demand for gold, and an increase in its value relative to other commodities, in other words deflation. David Ricardo foresaw the deflationary consequences of the resumption of gold payments, and tried to mitigate those consequences with his Proposals for an Economical and Secure Currency, designed to limit the increase in the monetary demand for gold. The real error after World War I, as Hawtrey and Cassel both pointed out in 1919, was that the resumption of an international gold standard after gold had been effectively demonetized during World War I would lead to an enormous increase in the monetary demand for gold, causing a worldwide deflationary collapse. After the Napoleonic wars, the gold standard was still a peculiarly British institution, the rest of the world then operating on a silver standard.

Grant makes further extravagant and unsupported claims on behalf of the gold standard:

The classical gold standard, in service roughly from 1815 to 1914, was certainly imperfect. What it did deliver was long-term price stability. What the politics of the gold-standard era delivered was modest levels of government borrowing.

The choice of 1815 as the start of the gold standard era is quite arbitrary, 1815 being the year that Britain defeated Napoleonic France, thereby setting the stage for the restoration of the golden pound at its prewar parity. But the very fact that 1815 marked the beginning of the restoration of the prewar gold parity with sterling shows that for Britain the gold standard began much earlier, actually 1717 when Isaac Newton, then master of the mint, established the gold parity at a level that overvalued gold, thereby driving silver out of circulation. So, if the gold standard somehow ensures that government borrowing levels are modest, one would think that borrowing by the British government would have been modest from 1717 to 1797 when the gold standard was suspended. But the chart below showing British government debt as a percentage of GDP from 1692 to 2010 shows that British government debt rose rapidly over most of the 18th century.

uk_national_debtGrant suggests that bad behavior by banks is mainly the result of abandonment of the gold standard.

Progress is the rule, the Whig theory of history teaches, but the old Whigs never met the new bankers. Ordinary people live longer and Olympians run faster than they did a century ago, but no such improvement is evident in our monetary and banking affairs. On the contrary, the dollar commands but 1/1,300th of an ounce of gold today, as compared with the 1/20th of an ounce on the eve of World War I. As for banking, the dismal record of 2007-09 would seem inexplicable to the financial leaders of the Model T era. One of these ancients, Comptroller of the Currency John Skelton Williams, predicted in 1920 that bank failures would soon be unimaginable. In 2008, it was solvency you almost couldn’t imagine.

Once again, the claims that Mr. Grant makes on behalf of the gold standard simply do not correspond to reality. The chart below shows the annual number of bank failures in every years since 1920.

bank_failures

Somehow, Mr. Grant somehow seems to have overlooked what happened between 1929 and 1932. John Skelton Williams obviously didn’t know what was going to happen in the following decade. Certainly no shame in that. I am guessing that Mr. Grant does know what happened; he just seems too bedazzled by the beauty of the gold standard to care.

Did Raising Interest Rates under the Gold Standard Really Increase Aggregate Demand?

I hope that I can write this quickly just so people won’t think that I’ve disappeared. I’ve been a bit under the weather this week, and the post that I’ve been working on needs more attention and it’s not going to be ready for a few more days. But the good news, from my perspective at any rate, is that Scott Sumner, as he has done so often in the past, has come through for me by giving me something to write about. In his most recent post at his second home on Econlog, Scott writes the following:

I recently did a post pointing out that higher interest rates don’t reduce AD.  Indeed even higher interest rates caused by a decrease in the money supply don’t reduce AD. Rather the higher rates raise velocity, but that effect is more than offset by the decrease in the money supply.

Of course that’s not the way Keynesians typically look at things.  They believe that higher interest rates actually cause AD to decrease.  Except under the gold standard. Back in 1988 Robert Barsky and Larry Summers wrote a paper showing that higher interest rates were expansionary when the dollar was pegged to gold.  Now in fairness, many Keynesians understand that higher interest rates are often associated with higher levels of AD.  But Barsky and Summers showed that the higher rates actually caused AD to increase.  Higher nominal rates increase the opportunity cost of holding gold. This reduces gold demand, and thus lowers its value.  Because the nominal price of gold is fixed under the gold standard, the only way for the value of gold to decrease is for the price level to increase. Thus higher interest rates boost AD and the price level.  This explains the “Gibson Paradox.”

Very clever on Scott’s part, and I am sure that he will have backfooted a lot of Keynesians. There’s just one problem with Scott’s point, which is that he forgets that an increase in interest rates by the central bank under the gold standard corresponds to an increase in the demand of the central bank for gold, which, as Scott certainly knows better than almost anyone else, is deflationary. What Barsky and Summers were talking about when they were relating interest rates to the value of gold was movements in the long-term interest rate (the yield on consols), not in central-bank lending rate (the rate central banks charge for overnight or very short-dated loans to other banks). As Hawtrey showed in A Century of Bank Rate, the yield on consols was not closely correlated with Bank Rate. So not only is Scott looking at the wrong interest rate (for purposes of his argument), he is – and I don’t know how to phrase this delicately – reasoning from a price change. Ouch!

The Golden Constant My Eye

John Tamny, whose economic commentary I usually take with multiple grains of salt, writes an op-ed about the price of gold in today’s Wall Street Journal, a publication where the probability of reading nonsense is dangerously high. Amazingly, Tamny writes that the falling price of gold is a good sign for the US economy. “The recent decline in the price of gold, ” Tamny informs us, “is cause for cautious optimism.” What’s this? A sign that creeping sanity is infiltrating the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal? Is the Age of Enlightenment perhaps dawning in America?

Um, not so fast. After all, we are talking about the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Yep, it turns out that Tamny is indeed up to his old tricks again.

The precious metal has long been referred to as “the golden constant” for its steady value. An example is the skyrocketing price of gold in the 1970s, which didn’t so much signal a spike in gold’s value as it showed the decline of the dollar in which it was priced. If gold’s constancy as a measure of value is doubted, consider oil: In 1971 an ounce of gold at $35 bought 15 barrels, in 1981 an ounce of gold at $480 similarly bought 15 barrels, and today an ounce once again buys a shade above 15.

OMG! The golden constant! Gold was selling for about $35 an ounce in 1970 rose to nearly $900 an ounce in 1980, fell to about $250 an ounce in about 2001, rose back up to almost $1900 in 2011 and is now below $1400, and Mr. Tamny thinks that the value of gold is constant. Give me a break. Evidently, Mr. Tamny attaches deep significance to the fact that the value of gold relative to the value of a barrel of oil was roughly 15 barrels of oil per ounce in 1971, and again in 1981, and now, once again, is at roughly 15 barrels per ounce, though he neglects to inform us whether the significance is economic or mystical.

So I thought that I would test the constancy of this so-called relationship by computing the implied exchange rate between oil and gold since April 1968 when the gold price series maintained by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis begins. The chart below, derived from the St. Louis Fed, plots the monthly average of the number of barrels of oil per ounce of gold from April 1968 (when it was a bit over 12) through March 2013 (when it was about 17). But as the graph makes clear the relative price  of gold to oil has been fluctuating wildly over the past 45 years, hitting a low of 6.6 barrels of oil per ounce of gold in June 2008, and a high of 33.8 barrels of oil per ounce of gold in July 1973. And this graph is based on monthly averages; plotting the daily fluctuations would show an even greater amplitude.

barrels_of_oil_per_ounce_of_goldDo Mr. Tamny and his buddies at the Wall Street Journal really expect people to buy this nonsense? This is what happens to your brain when you are obsessed with gold. If you think that the US and the world economies have been on a wild ride these past five years, imagine what it would have been like if the US or the world price level had been fluctuating as the relative price of gold in terms of oil has been fluctuating over the same time period. And don’t even think about what would have happened over the past 45 years under Mr. Tamny’s ideal, constant, gold-based monetary standard.

Let’s get this straight. The value of gold is entirely determined by speculation. The current value of gold has no relationship — none — to the value of the miniscule current services gold now provides. It is totally dependent on the obviously not very well-informed expectations of people like Mr. Tamny.

Gold indeed had a relatively stable value over long periods of time when there was a gold standard, but that was largely due to fortuitous circumstances, not the least of which was the behavior of national central banks that would accumulate gold or give up gold as needed to prevent the value of gold from fluctuating as wildly as it otherwise would have. When, as a result of the First World War, gold was largely demonetized, prices were no longer tied to gold. Then, in the 1920s, when the world tried to restore the gold standard, it was beyond the capacity of the world’s central banks to recreate the gold standard in such a way that their actions smoothed the inevitable fluctuations in the value of gold. Instead, their actions amplified fluctuations in the value of the gold, and the result was the greatest economic catastrophe the world had seen since the Black Death. To suggest another restoration of the gold standard in the face of such an experience is sheer lunacy. But, as members of at least one of our political parties can inform you, just in case you have been asleep for the past decade or so, the lunatic fringe can sometimes transform itself . . . into the lunatic mainstream.

Is the Gold Bubble About to Burst?

Today’s Financial Times contains an article “Gold price falls as Asian durchases dwindle” The article points out that purchases of gold by the two largest sources of demand for gold, India and China, have fallen sharply iin recent months “abruptly halting a consumption boom that started five years ago with the onset of the financial crisis.”

The article notes that gold prices, just over $1600 an ounce yesterday, are now about 17% below their all-time high (in nominal terms) of $1920 an ounce set almost a year ago last September.

With weakening Indian and Chinese demand, and a price stagnating well below the peak reached a year ago, speculative demand for gold may be poised to collapse, triggering a self-reinforcing downward spiral. That’s what happened after gold peaked at about $900 an ounce in the early 1980s, ushering in a long downward slide in which gold lost almost 75% of its peak value. That process was helped by historically high real interest rates, but that doesn’t mean that the current gold bubble couldn’t burst even with historically low real rates.

The article concludes with the assessment of Marcus Grubb, managing director for investment at the London-based Worl Gold Council:

The wild card is what will happen to investment in the second half and that will be driven by QE [quantitative easing, or central banks printing money] in the US, the eurozone and even emerging countries like China

So what we seem to have here is two potentially segmented clusters of markets that are dominated by inconsistent expectations. Bond markets are dominated by expectations of low inflation, while gold markets (commodities, futures, gold mines shares) may be the refuge of believers in imminent (or medium-term) hyperinflation. The confidence of the hyperinflationists seems to be wavering, but apparently they are still nursing hopes that the next round of QE will finally work its magic.

Now my question — and it’s primarily directed to all those believers in the efficient market hypothesis out there — is how does one  explain the apparently inconsistent expectations underlying the bond markets and the gold markets. Should there not be a profitable trading strategy out there that would enable one to arbitrage the inconsistent expectations of the gold markets and the bond markets? If not, what does that say about the efficient market hypothesis?


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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