Archive for the 'Great Depression' Category

Imagining the Gold Standard

The Marginal Revolution University has posted a nice little 10-minute video conversation between Scott Sumner and Larry about the gold standard and fiat money, Scott speaking up for fiat money and Larry weighing in on the side of the gold standard. I thought that both Scott and Larry acquitted themselves admirably, but several of the arguments made by Larry seemed to me to require either correction or elaboration. The necessary corrections or elaborations do not strengthen the defense of the gold standard that Larry presents so capably.

Larry begins with a defense of the gold standard against the charge that it caused the Great Depression. As I recently argued in my discussion of a post on the gold standard by Cecchetti and Schoenholtz, it is a bit of an overreach to argue that the Great Depression was the necessary consequence of trying to restore the international gold standard in the 1920s after its collapse at the start of World War I. Had the leading central banks at the time, the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, and especially the Bank of France, behaved more intelligently, the catastrophe could have been averted, allowing the economic expansion of the 1920s to continue for many more years, thereby averting subsequent catastrophes that resulted from the Great Depression. But the perverse actions taken by those banks in 1928 and 1929 had catastrophic consequences, because of the essential properties of the gold-standard system. The gold standard was the mechanism that transformed stupidity into catastrophe. Not every monetary system would have been capable of accomplishing that hideous transformation.

So while it is altogether fitting and proper to remind everyone that the mistakes that led to catastrophe were the result of choices made by policy makers — choices not required by any binding rules of central-bank conduct imposed by the gold standard — the deflation caused by the gold accumulation of the Bank of France and the Federal Reserve occurred only because the gold standard makes deflation inevitable if there is a sufficiently large increase in the demand for gold. While Larry is correct that the gold standard per se did not require the Bank of France to embark on its insane policy of gold accumulation, it should at least give one pause that the most fervent defenders of that insane policy were people like Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Lionel Robbins, and Charles Rist, who were also the most diehard proponents of maintaining the gold standard after the Great Depression started, even holding up the Bank of France as a role model for other central banks to emulate. (To be fair, I should acknowledge that Hayek and Robbins, to Mises’s consternation, later admitted their youthful errors.)

Of course, Larry would say that under the free-banking system that he favors, there would be no possibility that a central bank like the Bank of France could engage in the sort of ruinous policy that triggered the Great Depression. Larry may well be right, but there is also a non-trivial chance that he’s not. I prefer not to take a non-trivial chance of catastrophe.

Larry, I think, makes at least two other serious misjudgments. First, he argues that the instability of the interwar gold standard can be explained away as the result of central-bank errors – errors, don’t forget, that were endorsed by the most stalwart advocates of the gold standard at the time – and that the relative stability of the pre-World War I gold standard was the result of the absence of the central banks in the US and Canada and some other countries while the central banks in Britain, France and Germany were dutifully following the rules of the game.

As a factual matter, the so-called rules of the game, as I have observed elsewhere (also here), were largely imaginary, and certainly never explicitly agreed upon or considered binding by any monetary authority that ever existed. Moreover, the rules of the game were based on an incorrect theory of the gold standard reflecting the now discredited price-specie-flow mechanism, whereby differences in national price levels under the gold standard triggered gold movements that would be deflationary in countries losing gold and inflationary in countries gaining gold. That is a flatly incorrect understanding of how the international adjustment mechanism worked under the gold standard, because price-level differences large enough to trigger compensatory gold flows are inconsistent with arbitrage opportunities tending to equalize the prices of all tradable goods. And finally, as McCloskey and Zecher demonstrated 40 years ago, the empirical evidence clearly refutes the proposition that gold flows under the gold standard were in any way correlated with national price level differences. (See also this post.) So it is something of a stretch for Larry to attribute the stability of the world economy between 1880 and 1914 either to the absence of central banks in some countries or to the central banks that were then in existence having followed the rules of the game in contrast to the central banks of the interwar period that supposedly flouted those rules.

Focusing on the difference between the supposedly rule-based behavior of central banks under the classical gold standard and the discretionary behavior of central banks in the interwar period, Larry misses the really critical difference between the two periods. The second half of the nineteenth century was a period of peace and stability after the end of the Civil War in America and the short, and one-sided, Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The rapid expansion of the domain of the gold standard between 1870 and 1880 was accomplished relatively easily, but not without significant deflationary pressures that lasted for almost two decades. A gold standard had been operating in Britain and those parts of the world under British control for half a century, and gold had long been, along with silver, one of the two main international monies and had maintained a roughly stable value for at least half a century. Once started, the shift from silver to gold caused a rapid depreciation of silver relative to gold, which itself led the powerful creditor classes in countries still on the silver standard to pressure their governments to shift to gold.

After three and a half decades of stability, the gold standard collapsed almost as soon as World War I started. A non-belligerent for three years, the US alone remained on the gold standard until it prohibited the export of gold upon entry into the war in 1917. But, having amassed an enormous gold hoard during World War I, the US was able to restore convertibility easily after the end of the War. However, gold could not be freely traded even after the war. Restrictions on the ownership and exchange of gold were not eliminated until the early 1920s, so the gold standard did not really function in the US until a free market for gold was restored. But prices had doubled between the start of the war and 1920, while 40% of the world’s gold reserves were held by the US. So it was not the value of gold that determined the value of the U.S. dollar; it was the value of the U.S. dollar — determined by the policy of the Federal Reserve — that determined the value of gold. The kind of system that was operating under the classical gold standard, when gold had a clear known value that had been roughly maintained for half a century or more, did not exist in the 1920s when the world was recreating, essentially from scratch, a new gold standard.

Recreating a gold standard after the enormous shock of World War I was not like flicking a switch. No one knew what the value of gold was or would be, because the value of gold itself depended on a whole range of policy choices that inevitably had to be made by governments and central banks. That was just the nature of the world that existed in the 1920s. You can’t just assume that historical reality away.

Larry would like to think and would like the rest of us to think that it would be easy to recreate a gold standard today. But it would be just as hard to recreate a gold standard today as it was in the 1920s — and just as perilous. As Thomas Aubrey pointed out in a comment on my recent post on the gold standard, Russia and China between them hold about 25% of the world’s gold reserves. Some people complain loudly about Chinese currency manipulation now. How would you like to empower the Chinese and the Russians to manipulate the value of gold under a gold standard?

The problem of recreating a gold standard was beautifully described in 1922 by Dennis Robertson in his short classic Money. I have previously posted this passage, but as Herbert Spencer is supposed to have said, “it is only by repeated and varied iteration that alien conceptions can be forced upon reluctant minds.” So, I will once again let Dennis Robertson have the final word on the gold standard.

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

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

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

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

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

HT: J. P. Koning

Golden Misconceptions

The gold standard, as an international institution, existed for less than 40 years, emerging first, and by accident, in England, and more than a century and a half later, spreading by a rapid series of independent, but interrelated, decisions to the United States, Germany, and most of Europe and much of the rest of the world. After its collapse with the outbreak of World War I, reconstruction of the gold standard was thought by many to be a precondition for recreating the stable and prosperous international order that had been brutally demolished by the Great War. But that attempt ended catastrophically when the restoration of the gold standard was subverted by the insane gold-accumulation policy of the Bank of France and the failure of the Federal Reserve and other national monetary authorities to heed the explicit warnings of two of the leading monetary theorists of immediate postwar era, R. G. Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel, that unless the monetary demand for gold was kept from increasing as a result of the resumption of convertibility, a renewed gold standard could trigger a disastrous deflation.

But despite its short, checkered, and not altogether happy, history as an international institution, the gold standard, in its idealized and largely imagined form has retained a kind of nostalgic aura of stability, excellence and grandeur, becoming an idiom for anything that’s the best of its kind. So no, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus, and the gold standard is not the gold standard of monetary systems.

My own impression is that most, though not all, supporters of the gold standard are smitten by a kind of romantic, unthinking, and irrational attachment to the idea that the gold standard is a magic formula for recovering a lost golden age. But having said that, I would also add that I actually think that the gold standard, in its brief first run as an international monetary system, did not perform all that badly, and I can even sympathize with the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to restore the gold standard after World War I. I just think that the risks of scrapping our current monetary arrangements and trying to replace them with a gold standard recreated from scratch, over a century after it ceased to function effectively in practice, are far too great to consider it seriously as a practical option.

Not long ago I was chided by Larry White for being unduly harsh in my criticism of the gold standard in my talk at the Mercatus Center conference on Monetary Rules for a Post-Crisis World. I responded to Larry in this post. But I now find myself somewhat exasperated by a post by Stephen Cecchetti and Kermit Schoenholtz on the blog they maintain for their money and banking textbook. I don’t know much about Schoenholtz, but Cecchetti is an economist of the first rank. They clearly share my opposition to gold standard, but I’m afraid that some of their arguments against the gold standard are misguided or misconceived. I don’t write this post just to be critical; it’s only because their arguments reflect common and long-standing misconceptions and misunderstandings that have become part of the received doctrine about the gold standard that those arguments are worth taking the time and effort to criticize.

So let’s start from the beginning of their post, which is actually quite a good beginning. They quote Barry Eichengreen, one of our most eminent economic historians.

“Far from being synonymous with stability, the gold standard itself was the principal threat to financial stability and economic prosperity between the wars.” Barry Eichengreen, Golden Fetters.

That’s certainly true, but notice that the quotation from Eichengreen explicitly refers to the interwar period; it’s not a blanket indictment.

After quoting Eichengreen, Cecchetti and Schoenholtz refer to a lecture delivered by Ben Bernanke when he was still Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Quoting this lecture is not a good sign, because back in 2012 after Bernanke gave the lecture, I wrote a post in which I explained why Bernanke had failed to provide a coherent criticism of the gold standard.

In his 2012 lecture Origins and Mission of the Federal Reserve, then-Federal Reserve Board Chair Ben Bernanke identifies four fundamental problems with the gold standard:

  • When the central bank fixes the dollar price of gold, rather than the price of goods we consume, fluctuations in the dollar price of goods replace fluctuations in the market price of gold.
  • Since prices are tied to the amount of money in the economy, which is linked to the supply of gold, inflation depends on the rate that gold is mined.
  • When the gold standard is used at home and abroad, it is an exchange rate policy in which international transactions must be settled in gold.
  • Digging gold out of one hole in the ground (a mine) to put it into another hole in the ground (a vault) wastes resources.

Bernanke’s first statement is certainly correct, but his second statement ignores the fact that the amount of new gold extracted from the earth in a year is only a small fraction of the existing stock of gold. Thus, fluctuations in the value of gold are more likely to be caused by fluctuations in the demand for gold than by fluctuations in supply. The third statement makes as much sense as saying that since the US economy operates on a dollar standard transactions must be settled in hard currency. In fact, the vast majority of legal transactions are settled not by the exchange of currency but by the exchange of abstract claims to currency. There is no reason why, under a gold standard, international transactions could not be settled by abstract claims to gold rather than in physical gold. I agree with the fourth statement.

Consistent with Bernanke’s critique, the evidence shows that both inflation and economic growth were quite volatile under the gold standard. The following chart plots annual U.S. consumer price inflation from 1880, the beginning of the post-Civil War gold standard, to 2015. The vertical blue line marks 1933, the end of the gold standard in the United States. The standard deviation of inflation during the 53 years of the gold standard is nearly twice what it has been since the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1973 (denoted in the chart by the vertical red line). That is, even if we include the Great Inflation of the 1970s, inflation over the past 43 years has been more stable than it was under the gold standard. Focusing on the most recent quarter century, the interval when central banks have focused most intently on price stability, then the standard deviation of inflation is less than one-fifth of what it was during the gold standard epoch.

Annual Consumer Price Inflation, 1880 to 2016

gold_standard_vs_dollar_standard

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

I am sorry to say this, but comparing the average rate and the variability of inflation under the gold standard (1880-1933) and under a pure dollar standard (1973-2016) is tendentious and misleading, because the 20-year period from 1914 to 1933, a period marked by rapid wartime and post-war inflation and two post-war deflations, was a period when the gold standard either was not functioning at all (1914 to about 1922) or was being unsuccessfully reconstructed. Now it would be one thing to conclude from the failed attempt at reconstruction that a second attempt at reconstruction would be futile and potentially as disastrous as the first attempt, but that doesn’t seem to be what Ceccheti and Schoenholz are arguing. Instead, they include data from 20 years when the gold standard was either not operating at all or was operating dysfunctionally to make an unqualified comparison between the performance of the US economy under the gold standard and under a pure dollar standard. That simplistic comparison conveys almost no useful information.

A fairer comparison would be between the gold standard as it operated between 1880 and 1914 and either the dollar standard of the post-Bretton Woods era (1973 – 2016) or the period from 1991 to 2016 when, according to Cecchetti and Schoenholz, the Fed adopted an explicit or implicit inflation target as its primary policy objective. Changing the gold-standard period in this way reduces the average inflation rate from 0.86% to 0.23% a year and the standard deviation from 5.06% to 2.13%. That comparison is not obviously disadvantageous to the gold standard.

What about economic growth? Again, the gold standard was associated with greater volatility, not less. The following chart plots annual growth as measured by gross national product (gross domestic product only came into common use in the 1991.) The pattern looks quite a bit like that of inflation: the standard deviation of economic growth during the gold-standard era was more than twice that of the period since 1973. And, despite the Great Recession, the past quarter century has been even more stable. To use another, simpler, measure, in the period from 1880 to 1933 there were 15 business cycles identified by the National Bureau of Economic Research. That is, on average there was a recession once every 3½ years. By contrast, since 1972, there have been 7 recessions; one every 6 years.

Annual GNP Growth, 1880-2016

gold_standard_vs_dollar_standard_2

 

Source: FRED and Romer (1986)

Again, this comparison, like the inflation comparison is distorted by the exogenous disruption associated with World War I and its aftermath. Excluding the 1914 to 1933 period from the comparison would make for a far less one-sided comparison than the one presented by Cecchetti and Schoenholtz.

Finally, consider a crude measure of financial stability: the frequency of banking crises. From 1880 to 1933, there were at least 5 full-fledged banking panics: 1893, 1907, 1930, 1931, and 1933. Including the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, in the past half century, there have been two.

But if we exclude the Great Depression period from the comparison, there were two banking panics under the gold standard and two under the dollar standard. So the performance of the gold standard when it was operating normally was not clearly inferior to the operation of the dollar standard.

So, on every score, the gold standard period was less stable. Prices were less stable; growth was less stable; and the financial system was less stable. Why?

We see six major reasons. First, the gold standard is procyclical. When the economy booms, inflation typically rises. In the absence of a central bank to force the nominal interest rate up, the real interest rate falls, providing a further impetus to activity. In contrast, countercyclical monetary policy—whether based on a Taylor rule or not—would lean against the boom.

I don’t know what the basis is for the factual assertion that high growth under a gold standard is associated with inflation. There were periods of high growth with very low or negative inflation under the gold standard. Periods of mild inflation, owing to a falling real value of gold, perhaps following significant discoveries of previously unknown gold deposits, may have had a marginal stimulative effect under the gold standard, but such episodes were not necessarily periods of economic instability.

At any rate it is not even clear why, if a countericyclical monetary policy were desirable, such a policy could not be conducted under the gold standard by a central bank constrained by an obligation to convert its liabilities into gold on demand. Some gold standard proponents, like Larry White for example, insist that a gold standard could and would function better without a central bank than with a central bank. I am skeptical about that position, but even if it is correct, there is nothing inherent in the idea of a gold standard that is inconsistent with the existence of a central bank that conducts a countercyclical policy, so I don’t understand why Cecchetti and Schoenholtz assert, without argument, that a central bank could not conduct a countercyclical policy under a gold standard.

Second, the gold standard has exchange rate implications. While we do not know for sure, we suspect that current U.S. advocates of a shift to gold are thinking of the case where the United States acts alone (rather than waiting to coordinate a global return to the gold standard). If so, the change would impose unnecessary risks on exporters and importers, their employees and their creditors. To see why, consider the consequences of a move in the global price of gold measured in some other currency, say British pounds. If the pound price of gold changed, but the dollar price of gold did not, the result would be a move in the real dollar-pound exchange rate. That is, unless the dollar prices of U.S. goods and the dollar wages of U.S. workers adjust instantly to offset gold price fluctuations, the real dollar exchange rate changes. In either case, the result would almost surely induce volatility of production, employment, and the debt burden.

If the US monetary policy were governed by a commitment to convert the dollar into gold at a fixed conversion rate, the dollar price of gold would remain constant and exchange rates of the dollar in terms of the pound and other non-gold currencies would fluctuate. We have fluctuating exchange rates now against the pound and other currencies. It is not clear to me why exchange rates would be more volatile under this system than they are currently.

More broadly, a gold standard suffers from some of the same problems as any fixed-exchange rate system. Not only can’t the exchange rate adjust to buffer external shocks, but the commitment invites speculative attacks because it lacks time consistency. Under a gold standard, the scale of the central bank’s liabilities—currency plus reserves—is determined by the gold it has in its vault. Imagine that, as a consequence of an extended downturn, people come to fear a currency devaluation. That is, they worry that the central bank will raise the dollar price of gold. In such a circumstance, it will be natural for investors to take their dollars to the central bank and exchange them for gold. The doubts that motivate such a run can be self-fulfilling: once the central bank starts to lose gold reserves, it can quickly be compelled to raise its dollar price, or to suspend redemption entirely. This is what happened in 1931 to the Bank of England, when it was driven off the gold standard. It happened again in 1992 (albeit with foreign currency reserves rather than gold) when Britain was compelled to abandon its fixed exchange rate.

Cecchetti and Schoenholtz articulate a valid concern, and it is a risk inherent in any gold standard or any monetary system based on trust in a redemption commitment. My only quibble is that Cecchetti and Schoenholtz overrate the importance of gold reserves. Foreign-exchange reserves would do just as well, and perhaps better, than gold reserves, because, unlike gold, foreign-exchange reserves yield interest.

Third, as historians have emphasized, the gold standard helped spread the Great Depression from the United States to the rest of the world. The gold standard was a global arrangement that formed the basis for a virtually universal fixed-exchange rate regime in which international transactions were settled in gold.

Here Cecchetti and Schoenholtz stumble into several interrelated confusions. First, while the gold standard was certainly an international transmission mechanism, the international linkage between national price levels being an essential characteristic of the gold standard, there is no reason to identify the United States as the source of a disturbance that was propagated to the rest of the world. Because the value of gold must be equalized in all countries operating under the gold standard, changes in the value of gold are an international, not a national, phenomenon. Thus, an increase in the demand for gold causing an increase in its value would have essentially the same effects on the world economy irrespective of the geographic location of the increase in the demand for gold. In the 1920s, the goal of reestablishing the gold standard meant restoring convertibility of the leading currencies into gold, so that price levels in all gold standard countries, all reflecting the internationally determined value of gold, were closely aligned.

This meant that a country with an external deficit — one whose imports exceed its exports — was required to pay the difference by transferring gold to countries with external surpluses. The loss of gold forced the deficit country’s central bank to shrink its balance sheet, reducing the quantity of money and credit in the economy, and driving domestic prices down. Put differently, under a gold standard, countries running external deficits face deflationary pressure. A surplus country’s central bank faced no such pressure, as it could choose whether to convert higher gold stocks into money or not. Put another way, a central bank can have too little gold, but it can never have too much.

Cecchetti and Schonholtz are confusing two distinct questions: a) what determines the common international value of gold? and b) what accounts for second-order deviations between national price levels? The important point is that movements in national price levels under the gold standard were highly correlated because, owing to international arbitrage of tradable goods, the value of gold could not differ substantially between countries on the gold standard. Significant short-run changes in the value of gold had to reflect changes in the total demand for gold because short-run changes in the supply of gold are only a small fraction of the existing stock. To be sure, short-run differences in inflation across countries might reflect special circumstances causing over- or under-valuation of particular currencies relative to one another, but those differences were of a second-order magnitude relative to the sharp worldwide deflation that characterized the Great Depression in which the price levels of all gold-standard countries fell simultaneously. It is always the case that some countries will be running trade deficits and some will be running trade surpluses. At most, that circmstance might explain small differences in relative rates of inflation or deflation across countries; it can’t explain why deflation was rampant across all countries at the same time.

The shock that produced the Great Depression was a shock to the real value of gold which was caused mainly by the gold accumulation policy of the Bank of France. However, the United States, holding about 40 percent of the world’s monetary gold reserves after World War I, could have offset or mitigated the French policy by allowing an outflow of some of its massive gold reserves. Instead, the Fed, in late 1928, raised interest rates yet again to counter what it viewed as unhealthy stock-market speculation, thereby intensifying, rather than mitigating, the deflationary effect of the gold-accumulation policy of the Bank of France. Implicitly, Cecchetti and Schoenholtz assume that the observed gold flows were the result of non-monetary causes, which is to say that gold flows were the result of trade imbalances reflecting purely structural factors, such as national differences in rates of productivity growth, or propensities to save, or demand and supply patterns, over which central banks have little or no influence. But in fact, central banks and monetary authorities based their policies on explicit or implicit goals for their holdings of gold reserves. And the value of gold ultimately reflected the combined effect of the policy decisions taken by all central banks thereby causing a substantial increase in the demand of national monetary authorities to hold gold.

This policy asymmetry helped transmit financial shocks in the United States abroad. By the late 1920s, the major economies had restored the pre-World War I gold standard. At the time, both the United States and France were running external surpluses, absorbing the world’s gold into their central bank vaults.

Cecchetti and Schoneholtz say explicitly “the United States and France were running external surpluses, absorbing the world’s gold into their central bank vaults” as if those surpluses just happened and were unrelated to the monetary policies deliberately adopted by the Bank of France and the Federal Reserve.

But, instead of allowing the gold inflows to expand the quantity of money in their financial systems, authorities in both countries tightened monetary policy to resist booming asset prices and other signs of overheating. The result was catastrophic, compelling deficit countries with gold outflows to tighten their monetary policies even more. As the quantity of money available worldwide shrank, so did the price level, adding to the real burden of debt, and prompting defaults and bank failures virtually around the world.

Cecchetti and Schoenholtz have the causation backwards; it was the tightness of monetary policy that caused gold inflows into France and later into the United States. The gold flows did not precede, but were the result of, already tight monetary policies. Cecchetti and Schoenholtz are implicitly adopting the sterilization model based on the price-specie-flow mechanism in which it is gold flows that cause, or ought to cause, changes in the quantity of money. I debunked the simplistic sterilization idea in this post. But, in fairness, I should acknowledge that Cecchetti and Schoenholz do eventually acknowledge that the demand by central banks to hold gold reserves is what determines actual monetary policy under the gold standard. But despite that acknowledgment, they can’t free themselves from the misconception that it was a reduction in the quantity of money, rather than an increase in the demand for gold, that caused the value of gold to rise in the Great Depression.

Fourth, economists blame the gold standard for sustaining and deepening the Great Depression. What makes this view most compelling is the fact that the sooner a country left the gold standard and regained discretionary control of its monetary policy, the faster it recovered. The contrast between Sweden and France is striking. Sweden left gold in 1931, and by 1936 its industrial production was 14 percent higher than its 1929 level. France waited until 1936 to leave, at which point its industrial production was fully 26 percent below the level just 7 years earlier (see here and here.) Similarly, when the U.S. suspended gold convertibility in March 1933—allowing the dollar to depreciate substantially—the financial and economic impact was immediate: deflation turned to inflation, lowering the real interest rate, boosting asset prices, and triggering one of the most powerful U.S. cyclical upturns (see, for example, Romer).

This is certainly right. My only quibble is that Cecchetti and Schoenholtz do not acknowledge that the Depression was triggered by a rapid increase in the international demand for gold by the world’s central banks in 1928-29, in particular the Bank of France and the Federal Reserve.

Turning to financial stability, the gold standard limits one of the most powerful tools for halting bank panics: the central bank’s authority to act as lender of last resort. It was the absence of this function during the Panic of 1907 that was the primary impetus for the creation of the Federal Reserve System. Yet, under a gold standard, the availability of gold limits the scope for expanding central bank liabilities. Thus, had the Fed been on a strict gold standard in the fall of 2008—when Lehman failed—the constraint on its ability to lend could again have led to a collapse of the financial system and a second Great Depression.

At best, the charge that the gold standard limits the capacity of a central bank to act as a lender of last resort is a serious oversimplification. The ability of a central bank to expand its liabilities is not limited by the gold standard in any way. What limits the ability of the central bank to expand its liabilities are gold-cover requirements such as those enacted by the Bank Charter Act of 1844 which imposed a 100% marginal reserve requirement on the issue of banknotes by the Bank of England beyond a fixed fiduciary issue requiring no gold cover. Subsequent financial crises in 1847, 1857, and 1866 were quelled as soon as the government suspended the relevant provisions of the Bank Charter Act, allowing the Bank of England to increase its note issue and satisfy the exceptional demands for liquidity that led to the crisis in the first place.

Finally, because the supply of gold is finite, the quantity available to the central bank likely will grow more slowly than the real economy. As a result, over long periods—say, a decade or more—we would expect deflation. While (in theory) labor, debt and other contracts can be arranged so that the economy will adjust smoothly to steady, long-term deflation, recent experience (including that with negative nominal interest rates) makes us skeptical.

Whether gold appreciates over the long-term depends on the rate at which the quantity of gold expands over time and the rate of growth of demand for gold over time. It is plausible to expect secular deflation under the gold standard, but it is hardly inevitable. I don’t think that we yet fully understand the conditions under which secular deflation is compatible with full employment. Certainly if we were confident that secular deflation is compatible with full employment, the case for secular deflation would be very compelling.

This brings us back to where we started. Under a gold standard, inflation, growth and the financial system are all less stable. There are more recessions, larger swings in cons umer prices and more banking crises. When things go wrong in one part of the world, the distress will be transmitted more quickly and completely to others. In short, re-creating a gold standard would be a colossal mistake.

These conclusions are based on very limited historical experience, and it is not clear how relevant that experience is for contemporary circumstances. The argument against a gold standard not so much that a gold standard could not in principle operate smoothly and efficiently. It is that, a real gold standard having been abandoned for 80 years, recreating a gold standard would be radical and risky undertaking completely lacking in a plausible roadmap for its execution. The other argument against the gold standard is that insofar as gold would be actually used as a medium of exchange in a recreated gold standard with a modern banking system, the banking system would be subject to the potentially catastrophic risk of a flight to quality in periods of banking instability, leading to a disastrous deflationary increase in the value of gold.

HT: J. P. Koning

What’s Wrong with Monetarism?

UPDATE: (05/06): In an email Richard Lipsey has chided me for seeming to endorse the notion that 1970s stagflation refuted Keynesian economics. Lipsey rightly points out that by introducing inflation expectations into the Phillips Curve or the Aggregate Supply Curve, a standard Keynesian model is perfectly capable of explaining stagflation, so that it is simply wrong to suggest that 1970s stagflation constituted an empirical refutation of Keynesian theory. So my statement in the penultimate paragraph that the k-percent rule

was empirically demolished in the 1980s in a failure even more embarrassing than the stagflation failure of Keynesian economics.

should be amended to read “the supposed stagflation failure of Keynesian economics.”

Brad DeLong recently did a post (“The Disappearance of Monetarism”) referencing an old (apparently unpublished) paper of his following up his 2000 article (“The Triumph of Monetarism”) in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Paul Krugman added his own gloss on DeLong on Friedman in a post called “Why Monetarism Failed.” In the JEP paper, DeLong argued that the New Keynesian policy consensus of the 1990s was built on the foundation of what DeLong called “classic monetarism,” the analytical core of the doctrine developed by Friedman in the 1950s and 1960s, a core that survived the demise of what he called “political monetarism,” the set of factual assumptions and policy preferences required to justify Friedman’s k-percent rule as the holy grail of monetary policy.

In his follow-up paper, DeLong balanced his enthusiasm for Friedman with a bow toward Keynes, noting the influence of Keynes on both classic and political monetarism, arguing that, unlike earlier adherents of the quantity theory, Friedman believed that a passive monetary policy was not the appropriate policy stance during the Great Depression; Friedman famously held the Fed responsible for the depth and duration of what he called the Great Contraction, because it had allowed the US money supply to drop by a third between 1929 and 1933. This was in sharp contrast to hard-core laissez-faire opponents of Fed policy, who regarded even the mild and largely ineffectual steps taken by the Fed – increasing the monetary base by 15% – as illegitimate interventionism to obstruct the salutary liquidation of bad investments, thereby postponing the necessary reallocation of real resources to more valuable uses. So, according to DeLong, Friedman, no less than Keynes, was battling against the hard-core laissez-faire opponents of any positive action to speed recovery from the Depression. While Keynes believed that in a deep depression only fiscal policy would be effective, Friedman believed that, even in a deep depression, monetary policy would be effective. But both agreed that there was no structural reason why stimulus would necessarily counterproductive; both rejected the idea that only if the increased output generated during the recovery was of a particular composition would recovery be sustainable.

Indeed, that’s why Friedman has always been regarded with suspicion by laissez-faire dogmatists who correctly judged him to be soft in his criticism of Keynesian doctrines, never having disputed the possibility that “artificially” increasing demand – either by government spending or by money creation — in a deep depression could lead to sustainable economic growth. From the point of view of laissez-faire dogmatists that concession to Keynesianism constituted a total sellout of fundamental free-market principles.

Friedman parried such attacks on the purity of his free-market dogmatism with a counterattack against his free-market dogmatist opponents, arguing that the gold standard to which they were attached so fervently was itself inconsistent with free-market principles, because, in virtually all historical instances of the gold standard, the monetary authorities charged with overseeing or administering the gold standard retained discretionary authority allowing them to set interest rates and exercise control over the quantity of money. Because monetary authorities retained substantial discretionary latitude under the gold standard, Friedman argued that a gold standard was institutionally inadequate and incapable of constraining the behavior of the monetary authorities responsible for its operation.

The point of a gold standard, in Friedman’s view, was that it makes it costly to increase the quantity of money. That might once have been true, but advances in banking technology eventually made it easy for banks to increase the quantity of money without any increase in the quantity of gold, making inflation possible even under a gold standard. True, eventually the inflation would have to be reversed to maintain the gold standard, but that simply made alternative periods of boom and bust inevitable. Thus, the gold standard, i.e., a mere obligation to convert banknotes or deposits into gold, was an inadequate constraint on the quantity of money, and an inadequate systemic assurance of stability.

In other words, if the point of a gold standard is to prevent the quantity of money from growing excessively, then, why not just eliminate the middleman, and simply establish a monetary rule constraining the growth in the quantity of money. That was why Friedman believed that his k-percent rule – please pardon the expression – trumped the gold standard, accomplishing directly what the gold standard could not accomplish, even indirectly: a gradual steady increase in the quantity of money that would prevent monetary-induced booms and busts.

Moreover, the k-percent rule made the monetary authority responsible for one thing, and one thing alone, imposing a rule on the monetary authority prescribing the time path of a targeted instrument – the quantity of money – over which the monetary authority has direct control: the quantity of money. The belief that the monetary authority in a modern banking system has direct control over the quantity of money was, of course, an obvious mistake. That the mistake could have persisted as long as it did was the result of the analytical distraction of the money multiplier: one of the leading fallacies of twentieth-century monetary thought, a fallacy that introductory textbooks unfortunately continue even now to foist upon unsuspecting students.

The money multiplier is not a structural supply-side variable, it is a reduced-form variable incorporating both supply-side and demand-side parameters, but Friedman and other Monetarists insisted on treating it as if it were a structural — and a deep structural variable at that – supply variable, so that it no less vulnerable to the Lucas Critique than, say, the Phillips Curve. Nevertheless, for at least a decade and a half after his refutation of the structural Phillips Curve, demonstrating its dangers as a guide to policy making, Friedman continued treating the money multiplier as if it were a deep structural variable, leading to the Monetarist forecasting debacle of the 1980s when Friedman and his acolytes were confidently predicting – over and over again — the return of double-digit inflation because the quantity of money was increasing for most of the 1980s at double-digit rates.

So once the k-percent rule collapsed under an avalanche of contradictory evidence, the Monetarist alternative to the gold standard that Friedman had persuasively, though fallaciously, argued was, on strictly libertarian grounds, preferable to the gold standard, the gold standard once again became the default position of laissez-faire dogmatists. There was to be sure some consideration given to free banking as an alternative to the gold standard. In his old age, after winning the Nobel Prize, F. A. Hayek introduced a proposal for direct currency competition — the elimination of legal tender laws and the like – which he later developed into a proposal for the denationalization of money. Hayek’s proposals suggested that convertibility into a real commodity was not necessary for a non-legal tender currency to have value – a proposition which I have argued is fallacious. So Hayek can be regarded as the grandfather of crypto currencies like the bitcoin. On the other hand, advocates of free banking, with a few exceptions like Earl Thompson and me, have generally gravitated back to the gold standard.

So while I agree with DeLong and Krugman (and for that matter with his many laissez-faire dogmatist critics) that Friedman had Keynesian inclinations which, depending on his audience, he sometimes emphasized, and sometimes suppressed, the most important reason that he was unable to retain his hold on right-wing monetary-economics thinking is that his key monetary-policy proposal – the k-percent rule – was empirically demolished in a failure even more embarrassing than the stagflation failure of Keynesian economics. With the k-percent rule no longer available as an alternative, what’s a right-wing ideologue to do?

Anyone for nominal gross domestic product level targeting (or NGDPLT for short)?

What’s so Bad about the Gold Standard?

Last week Paul Krugman argued that Ted Cruz is more dangerous than Donald Trump, because Trump is merely a protectionist while Cruz wants to restore the gold standard. I’m not going to weigh in on the relative merits of Cruz and Trump, but I have previously suggested that Krugman may be too dismissive of the possibility that the Smoot-Hawley tariff did indeed play a significant, though certainly secondary, role in the Great Depression. In warning about the danger of a return to the gold standard, Krugman is certainly right that the gold standard was and could again be profoundly destabilizing to the world economy, but I don’t think he did such a good job of explaining why, largely because, like Ben Bernanke and, I am afraid, most other economists, Krugman isn’t totally clear on how the gold standard really worked.

Here’s what Krugman says:

[P]rotectionism didn’t cause the Great Depression. It was a consequence, not a cause – and much less severe in countries that had the good sense to leave the gold standard.

That’s basically right. But I note for the record, to spell out the my point made in the post I alluded to in the opening paragraph that protectionism might indeed have played a role in exacerbating the Great Depression, making it harder for Germany and other indebted countries to pay off their debts by making it more difficult for them to exports required to discharge their obligations, thereby making their IOUs, widely held by European and American banks, worthless or nearly so, undermining the solvency of many of those banks. It also increased the demand for the gold required to discharge debts, adding to the deflationary forces that had been unleashed by the Bank of France and the Fed, thereby triggering the debt-deflation mechanism described by Irving Fisher in his famous article.

Which brings us to Cruz, who is enthusiastic about the gold standard – which did play a major role in spreading the Depression.

Well, that’s half — or maybe a quarter — right. The gold standard did play a major role in spreading the Depression. But the role was not just major; it was dominant. And the role of the gold standard in the Great Depression was not just to spread it; the role was, as Hawtrey and Cassel warned a decade before it happened, to cause it. The causal mechanism was that in restoring the gold standard, the various central banks linking their currencies to gold would increase their demands for gold reserves so substantially that the value of gold would rise back to its value before World War I, which was about double what it was after the war. It was to avoid such a catastrophic increase in the value of gold that Hawtrey drafted the resolutions adopted at the 1922 Genoa monetary conference calling for central-bank cooperation to minimize the increase in the monetary demand for gold associated with restoring the gold standard. Unfortunately, when France officially restored the gold standard in 1928, it went on a gold-buying spree, joined in by the Fed in 1929 when it raised interest rates to suppress Wall Street stock speculation. The huge accumulation of gold by France and the US in 1929 led directly to the deflation that started in the second half of 1929, which continued unabated till 1933. The Great Depression was caused by a 50% increase in the value of gold that was the direct result of the restoration of the gold standard. In principle, if the Genoa Resolutions had been followed, the restoration of the gold standard could have been accomplished with no increase in the value of gold. But, obviously, the gold standard was a catastrophe waiting to happen.

The problem with gold is, first of all, that it removes flexibility. Given an adverse shock to demand, it rules out any offsetting loosening of monetary policy.

That’s not quite right; the problem with gold is, first of all, that it does not guarantee that value of gold will be stable. The problem is exacerbated when central banks hold substantial gold reserves, which means that significant changes in the demand of central banks for gold reserves can have dramatic repercussions on the value of gold. Far from being a guarantee of price stability, the gold standard can be the source of price-level instability, depending on the policies adopted by individual central banks. The Great Depression was not caused by an adverse shock to demand; it was caused by a policy-induced shock to the value of gold. There was nothing inherent in the gold standard that would have prevented a loosening of monetary policy – a decline in the gold reserves held by central banks – to reverse the deflationary effects of the rapid accumulation of gold reserves, but, the insane Bank of France was not inclined to reverse its policy, perversely viewing the increase in its gold reserves as evidence of the success of its catastrophic policy. However, once some central banks are accumulating gold reserves, other central banks inevitably feel that they must take steps to at least maintain their current levels of reserves, lest markets begin to lose confidence that convertibility into gold will be preserved. Bad policy tends to spread. Krugman seems to have this possibility in mind when he continues:

Worse, relying on gold can easily have the effect of forcing a tightening of monetary policy at precisely the wrong moment. In a crisis, people get worried about banks and seek cash, increasing the demand for the monetary base – but you can’t expand the monetary base to meet this demand, because it’s tied to gold.

But Krugman is being a little sloppy here. If the demand for the monetary base – meaning, presumably, currency plus reserves at the central bank — is increasing, then the public simply wants to increase their holdings of currency, not spend the added holdings. So what stops the the central bank accommodate that demand? Krugman says that “it” – meaning, presumably, the monetary base – is tied to gold. What does it mean for the monetary base to be “tied” to gold? Under the gold standard, the “tie” to gold is a promise to convert the monetary base, on demand, at a specified conversion rate.

Question: why would that promise to convert have prevented the central bank from increasing the monetary base? Answer: it would not and did not. Since, by assumption, the public is demanding more currency to hold, there is no reason why the central bank could not safely accommodate that demand. Of course, there would be a problem if the public feared that the central bank might not continue to honor its convertibility commitment and that the price of gold would rise. Then there would be an internal drain on the central bank’s gold reserves. But that is not — or doesn’t seem to be — the case that Krugman has in mind. Rather, what he seems to mean is that the quantity of base money is limited by a reserve ratio between the gold reserves held by the central bank and the monetary base. But if the tie between the monetary base and gold that Krugman is referring to is a legal reserve requirement, then he is confusing the legal reserve requirement with the gold standard, and the two are simply not the same, it being entirely possible, and actually desirable, for the gold standard to function with no legal reserve requirement – certainly not a marginal reserve requirement.

On top of that, a slump drives interest rates down, increasing the demand for real assets perceived as safe — like gold — which is why gold prices rose after the 2008 crisis. But if you’re on a gold standard, nominal gold prices can’t rise; the only way real prices can rise is a fall in the prices of everything else. Hello, deflation!

Note the implicit assumption here: that the slump just happens for some unknown reason. I don’t deny that such events are possible, but in the context of this discussion about the gold standard and its destabilizing properties, the historically relevant scenario is when the slump occurred because of a deliberate decision to raise interest rates, as the Fed did in 1929 to suppress stock-market speculation and as the Bank of England did for most of the 1920s, to restore and maintain the prewar sterling parity against the dollar. Under those circumstances, it was the increase in the interest rate set by the central bank that amounted to an increase in the monetary demand for gold which is what caused gold appreciation and deflation.

Paul Krugman Suffers a Memory Lapse

smoot_hawleyPaul Krugman, who is very upset with Republicans on both sides of the Trump divide, ridiculed Mitt Romney’s attack on Trump for being a protectionist. Romney warned that if Trump implemented his proposed protectionist policies, the result would likely be a trade war and a recession. Now I totally understand Krugman’s frustration with what’s happening inside the Republican Party; it’s not a pretty sight. But Krugman seems just a tad too eager to find fault with Romney, especially since the danger that a trade war could trigger a recession, while perhaps overblown, is hardly delusional, and, as Krugman ought to recall, is a danger that Democrats have also warned against. (I’ll come back to that point later.) Here’s the quote that got Krugman’s back up:

If Donald Trump’s plans were ever implemented, the country would sink into prolonged recession. A few examples. His proposed 35 percent tariff-like penalties would instigate a trade war and that would raise prices for consumers, kill our export jobs and lead entrepreneurs and businesses of all stripes to flee America.

Krugman responded:

After all, doesn’t everyone know that protectionism causes recessions? Actually, no. There are reasons to be against protectionism, but that’s not one of them.

Think about the arithmetic (which has a well-known liberal bias). Total final spending on domestically produced goods and services is

Total domestic spending + Exports – Imports = GDP

Now suppose we have a trade war. This will cut exports, which other things equal depresses the economy. But it will also cut imports, which other things equal is expansionary. For the world as a whole, the cuts in exports and imports will by definition be equal, so as far as world demand is concerned, trade wars are a wash.

Actually, Krugman knows better than to argue that the comparative statics response to a parameter change (especially a large change) can be inferred from an accounting identity. The accounting identity always holds, but the equilibrium position does change, and you can’t just assume that the equilibrium rate of spending is unaffected by the parameter change or by the adjustment path the follows the parameter change. So Krugman’s assertion that a trade war cannot cause a recession depends on an implicit assumption that a trade war would be accompanied by a smooth reallocation of resources from producing tradable to producing non-tradable goods and that the wealth losses from the depreciation of specific human and non-human capital invested in the tradable-goods sector would have small repercussions on aggregate demand. That might be true, but the bigger the trade war and the more rounds of reciprocal retaliation, the greater the danger of substantial wealth losses and other disruptions. The fall in oil prices over the past year or two was supposed to be a good thing for the world economy. I think that for a lot of reasons reduced oil prices are, on balance, a good thing, but we also have reason to believe that it also had negative effects, especially on financial institutions holding a lot of assets sensitive to the price of oil. A trade war would have all the negatives of a steep decline in oil prices, but none of the positives.

But didn’t the Smoot-Hawley tariff cause the Great Depression? No. There’s no evidence at all that it did. Yes, trade fell a lot between 1929 and 1933, but that was almost entirely a consequence of the Depression, not a cause. (Trade actually fell faster during the early stages of the 2008 Great Recession than it did after 1929.) And while trade barriers were higher in the 1930s than before, this was partly a response to the Depression, partly a consequence of deflation, which made specific tariffs (i.e., tariffs that are stated in dollars per unit, not as a percentage of value) loom larger.

I certainly would not claim to understand fully the effects of the Smoot Hawley tariff, the question of effects being largely an empirical one that I haven’t studied, but I’m not sure that the profession has completely figured out those effects either. I know that Doug Irwin, who wrote the book on the Smoot-Hawley tariff and whose judgment I greatly respect, doesn’t think that Smoot Hawley tariff was a cause of the Great Depression, but that it did make the Depression worse than it would otherwise have been. It certainly was not the chief cause, and I am not even saying that it was a leading cause, but there is certainly a respectable argument to be made that it played a bigger role in the Depression than even Irwin acknowledges.

In brief, the argument is that there was a lot of international debt – especially allied war loans, German war reparations, German local government borrowing during the 1920s. To be able to make their scheduled debt payments, Germany and other debtor nations had to run trade surpluses. Increased tariffs on imported goods meant that, under the restored gold standard of the late 1920s, to run the export surpluses necessary to meet their debt obligations, debtor nations had to reduce their domestic wage levels sufficiently to overcome the rising trade barriers. Germany, of course, was the country most severely affected, and the prospect of German default undoubtedly undermined the solvency of many financial institutions, in Europe and America, with German debt on their balance sheets. In other words, the Smoot Hawley tariff intensified deflationary pressure and financial instability during the Great Depression, notwithstanding the tendency of tariffs to increase prices on protected goods.

Krugman takes a parting shot at Romney:

Protectionism was the only reason he gave for believing that Trump would cause a recession, which I think is kind of telling: the GOP’s supposedly well-informed, responsible adult, trying to save the party, can’t get basic economics right at the one place where economics is central to his argument.

I’m not sure what other reason there is to think that Trump would cause a recession. He is proposing to cut taxes by a lot, and to increase military spending by a lot without cutting entitlements. So given that his fiscal policy seems to be calculated to increase the federal deficit by a lot, what reason, besides starting a trade war, is there to think that Trump would cause a recession? And as I said, right or wrong, Romeny is hardly alone in thinking that trade wars can cause recessions. Indeed, Romney didn’t even mention the Smoot-Hawley tariff, but Krugman evidently forgot the classic exchange between Al Gore and the previous incarnation of protectionist populist outrage in an anti-establishment billionaire candidate for President:

GORE I’ve heard Mr. Perot say in the past that, as the carpenters says, measure twice and cut once. We’ve measured twice on this. We have had a test of our theory and we’ve had a test of his theory. Over the last five years, Mexico’s tariffs have begun to come down because they’ve made a unilateral decision to bring them down some, and as a result there has been a surge of exports from the United States into Mexico, creating an additional 400,000 jobs, and we can create hundreds of thousands of more if we continue this trend. We know this works. If it doesn’t work, you know, we give six months notice and we’re out of it. But we’ve also had a test of his theory.

PEROT When?

GORE In 1930, when the proposal by Mr. Smoot and Mr. Hawley was to raise tariffs across the board to protect our workers. And I brought some pictures, too.

[Larry] KING You’re saying Ross is a protectionist?

GORE This is, this is a picture of Mr. Smoot and Mr. Hawley. They look like pretty good fellows. They sounded reasonable at the time; a lot of people believed them. The Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley Protection Bill. He wants to raise tariffs on Mexico. They raised tariffs, and it was one of the principal causes, many economists say the principal cause, of the Great Depression in this country and around the world. Now, I framed this so you can put it on your wall if you want to.

You can watch it here

How not to Win Friends and Influence People

Last week David Beckworth and Ramesh Ponnuru wrote a very astute op-ed article in the New York Times explaining how the Fed was tightening its monetary policy in 2008 even as the economy was rapidly falling into recession. Although there are a couple of substantive points on which I might take issue with Beckworth and Ponnuru (more about that below), I think that on the whole they do a very good job of covering the important points about the 2008 financial crisis given that their article had less than 1000 words.

That said, Beckworth and Ponnuru made a really horrible – to me incomprehensible — blunder. For some reason, in the second paragraph of their piece, after having recounted the conventional narrative of the 2008 financial crisis as an inevitable result of housing bubble and the associated misconduct of the financial industry in their first paragraph, Beckworth and Ponnuru cite Ted Cruz as the spokesman for the alternative view that they are about to present. They compound that blunder in a disclaimer identifying one of them – presumably Ponnuru — as a friend of Ted Cruz – for some recent pro-Cruz pronouncements from Ponnuru see here, here, and here – thereby transforming what might have been a piece of neutral policy analysis into a pro-Cruz campaign document. Aside from the unseemliness of turning Cruz into the poster-boy for Market Monetarism and NGDP Level Targeting, when, as recently as last October 28, Mr. Cruz was advocating resurrection of the gold standard while bashing the Fed for debasing the currency, a shout-out to Ted Cruz is obviously not a gesture calculated to engage readers (of the New York Times for heaven sakes) and predispose them to be receptive to the message they want to convey.

I suppose that this would be the appropriate spot for me to add a disclaimer of my own. I do not know, and am no friend of, Ted Cruz, but I was a FTC employee during Cruz’s brief tenure at the agency from July 2002 to December 2003. I can also affirm that I have absolutely no recollection of having ever seen or interacted with him while he was at the agency or since, and have spoken to only one current FTC employee who does remember him.

Predictably, Beckworth and Ponnuru provoked a barrage of negative responses to their argument that the Fed was responsible for the 2008 financial crisis by not easing monetary policy for most of 2008 when, even before the financial crisis, the economy was sliding into a deep recession. Much of the criticism focuses on the ambiguous nature of the concepts of causation and responsibility when hardly any political or economic event is the direct result of just one cause. So to say that the Fed caused or was responsible for the 2008 financial crisis cannot possibly mean that the Fed single-handedly brought it about, and that, but for the Fed’s actions, no crisis would have occurred. That clearly was not the case; the Fed was operating in an environment in which not only its past actions but the actions of private parties and public and political institutions increased the vulnerability of the financial system. To say that the Fed’s actions of commission or omission “caused” the financial crisis in no way absolves all the other actors from responsibility for creating the conditions in which the Fed found itself and in which the Fed’s actions became crucial for the path that the economy actually followed.

Consider the Great Depression. I think it is totally reasonable to say that the Great Depression was the result of the combination of a succession of interest rate increases by the Fed in 1928 and 1929 and by the insane policy adopted by the Bank of France in 1928 and continued for several years thereafter to convert its holdings of foreign-exchange reserves into gold. But does saying that the Fed and the Bank of France caused the Great Depression mean that World War I and the abandonment of the gold standard and the doubling of the price level in terms of gold during the war were irrelevant to the Great Depression? Of course not. Does it mean that accumulation of World War I debt and reparations obligations imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles and the accumulation of debt issued by German state and local governments — debt and obligations that found their way onto the balance sheets of banks all over the world, were irrelevant to the Great Depression? Not at all.

Nevertheless, it does make sense to speak of the role of monetary policy as a specific cause of the Great Depression because the decisions made by the central bankers made a difference at critical moments when it would have been possible to avoid the calamity had they adopted policies that would have avoided a rapid accumulation of gold reserves by the Fed and the Bank of France, thereby moderating or counteracting, instead of intensifying, the deflationary pressures threatening the world economy. Interestingly, many of those objecting to the notion that Fed policy caused the 2008 financial crisis are not at all bothered by the idea that humans are causing global warming even though the world has evidently undergone previous cycles of rising and falling temperatures about which no one would suggest that humans played any causal role. Just as the existence of non-human factors that affect climate does not preclude one from arguing that humans are now playing a key role in the current upswing of temperatures, the existence of non-monetary factors contributing to the 2008 financial crisis need not preclude one from attributing a causal role in the crisis to the Fed.

So let’s have a look at some of the specific criticisms directed at Beckworth and Ponnuru. Here’s Paul Krugman’s take in which he refers back to an earlier exchange last December between Mr. Cruz and Janet Yellen when she testified before Congress:

Back when Ted Cruz first floated his claim that the Fed caused the Great Recession — and some neo-monetarists spoke up in support — I noted that this was a repeat of the old Milton Friedman two-step.

First, you declare that the Fed could have prevented a disaster — the Great Depression in Friedman’s case, the Great Recession this time around. This is an arguable position, although Friedman’s claims about the 30s look a lot less convincing now that we have tried again to deal with a liquidity trap. But then this morphs into the claim that the Fed caused the disaster. See, government is the problem, not the solution! And the motivation for this bait-and-switch is, indeed, political.

Now come Beckworth and Ponnuru to make the argument at greater length, and it’s quite direct: because the Fed “caused” the crisis, things like financial deregulation and runaway bankers had nothing to do with it.

As regular readers of this blog – if there are any – already know, I am not a big fan of Milton Friedman’s work on the Great Depression, and I agree with Krugman’s criticism that Friedman allowed his ideological preferences or commitments to exert an undue influence not only on his policy advocacy but on his substantive analysis. Thus, trying to make a case for his dumb k-percent rule as an alternative monetary regime to the classical gold standard regime generally favored by his libertarian, classical liberal and conservative ideological brethren, he went to great and unreasonable lengths to deny the obvious fact that the demand for money is anything but stable, because such an admission would have made the k-percent rule untenable on its face as it proved to be when Paul Volcker misguidedly tried to follow Friedman’s advice and conduct monetary policy by targeting monetary aggregates. Even worse, because he was so wedded to the naïve quantity-theory monetary framework he thought he was reviving – when in fact he was using a modified version of the Cambride/Keynesian demand for money, even making the patently absurd claim that the quantity theory of money was a theory of the demand for money – Friedman insisted on conducting monetary analysis under the assumption – also made by Keynes — that quantity of money is directly under the control of the monetary authority when in fact, under a gold standard – which means during the Great Depression – the quantity of money for any country is endogenously determined. As a result, there was a total mismatch between Friedman’s monetary model and the institutional setting in place at the time of the monetary phenomenon he was purporting to explain.

So although there were big problems with Friedman’s account of the Great Depression and his characterization of the Fed’s mishandling of the Great Depression, fixing those problems doesn’t reduce the Fed’s culpability. What is certainly true is that the Great Depression, the result of a complex set of circumstances going back at least 15 years to the start of World War I, might well have been avoided largely or entirely, but for the egregious conduct of the Fed and Bank of France. But it is also true that, at the onset of the Great Depression, there was no consensus about how to conduct monetary policy, even though Hawtrey and Cassel and a handful of others well understood how terribly monetary policy had gone off track. But theirs was a minority view, and Hawtrey and Cassel are still largely ignored or forgotten.

Ted Cruz may view the Fed’s mistakes in 2008 as a club with which to beat up on Janet Yellen, but for most of the rest of us who think that Fed mistakes were a critical element of the 2008 financial crisis, the point is not to make an ideological statement, it is to understand what went wrong and to try to keep it from happening again.

Krugman sends us to Mike Konczal for further commentary on Beckworth and Ponnuru.

Is Ted Cruz right about the Great Recession and the Federal Reserve? From a November debate, Cruz argued that “in the third quarter of 2008, the Fed tightened the money and crashed those asset prices, which caused a cascading collapse.”

Fleshing that argument out in the New York Times is David Beckworth and Ramesh Ponnuru, backing and expanding Cruz’s theory that “the Federal Reserve caused the crisis by tightening monetary policy in 2008.”

But wait, didn’t the Federal Reserve lower rates during that time?

Um, no. The Fed cut its interest rate target to 2.25% on March 18, 2008, and to 2% on April 20, which by my calculations would have been in the second quarter of 2008. There it remained until it was reduced to 1.5% on October 8, which by my calculations would have been in the fourth quarter of 2008. So on the face of it, Mr. Cruz was right that the Fed kept its interest rate target constant for over five months while the economy was contracting in real terms in the third quarter at a rate of 1.9% (and growing in nominal terms at a mere 0.8% rate)

Konczal goes on to accuse Cruz of inconsistency for blaming the Fed for tightening policy in 2008 before the crash while bashing the Fed for quantitative easing after the crash. That certainly is a just criticism, and I really hope someone asks Cruz to explain himself, though my expectations that that will happen are not very high. But that’s Cruz’s problem, not Beckworth’s or Ponnuru’s.

Konczal also focuses on the ambiguity in saying that the Fed caused the financial crisis by not cutting interest rates earlier:

I think a lot of people’s frustrations with the article – see Barry Ritholtz at Bloomberg here – is the authors slipping between many possible interpretations. Here’s the three that I could read them making, though these aren’t actual quotes from the piece:

(a) “The Federal Reserve could have stopped the panic in the financial markets with more easing.”

There’s nothing in the Valukas bankruptcy report on Lehman, or any of the numerous other reports that have since come out, that leads me to believe Lehman wouldn’t have failed if the short-term interest rate was lowered. One way to see the crisis was in the interbank lending spreads, often called the TED spread, which is a measure of banking panic. Looking at an image of the spread and its components, you can see a falling short-term t-bill rate didn’t ease that spread throughout 2008.

And, as Matt O’Brien noted, Bear Stearns failed before the passive tightening started.

The problem with this criticism is that it assumes that the only way that the Fed can be effective is by altering the interest rate that it effectively sets on overnight loans. It ignores the relationship between the interest rate that the Fed sets and total spending. That relationship is not entirely obvious, but almost all monetary economists have assumed that there is such a relationship, even if they can’t exactly agree on the mechanism by which the relationship is brought into existence. So it is not enough to look at the effect of the Fed’s interest rate on Lehman or Bear Stearns, you also have to look at the relationship between the interest rate and total spending and how a higher rate of total spending would have affected Lehman and Bear Stearns. If the economy had been performing better in the second and third quarters, the assets that Lehman and Bear Stearns were holding would not have lost as much of their value. And even if Lehman and Bear Stearns had not survived, arranging for their takeover by other firms might have been less difficult.

But beyond that, Beckworth and Ponnuru themselves overlook the fact that tightening by the Fed did not begin in the third quarter – or even the second quarter – of 2008. The tightening may have already begun in as early as the middle of 2006. The chart below shows the rate of expansion of the adjusted monetary base from January 2004 through September 2008. From 2004 through the middle of 2006, the biweekly rate of expansion of the monetary base was consistently at an annual rate exceeding 4% with the exception of a six-month interval at the end of 2005 when the rate fell to the 3-4% range. But from the middle of 2006 through September 2008, the bi-weekly rate of expansion was consistently below 3%, and was well below 2% for most of 2008. Now, I am generally wary of reading too much into changes in the monetary aggregates, because those changes can reflect either changes in supply conditions or demand conditions. However, when the economy is contracting, with the rate of growth in total spending falling substantially below trend, and the rate of growth in the monetary aggregates is decreasing sharply, it isn’t unreasonable to infer that monetary policy was being tightened. So, the monetary policy may well have been tightened as early as 2006, and, insofar as the rate of growth of the monetary base is indicative of the stance of monetary policy, that tightening was hardly passive.

adjusted_monetary_base

(b) “The Federal Reserve could have helped the recovery by acting earlier in 2008. Unemployment would have peaked at, say, 9.5 percent, instead of 10 percent.”

That would have been good! I would have been a fan of that outcome, and I’m willing to believe it. That’s 700,000 people with a job that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. The stimulus should have been bigger too, with a second round once it was clear how deep the hole was and how Treasuries were crashing too.

Again, there are two points. First, tightening may well have begun at least a year or two before the third quarter of 2008. Second, the economy started collapsing in the third quarter of 2008, and the run-up in the value of the dollar starting in July 2008, foolishly interpreted by the Fed as a vote of confidence in its anti-inflation policy, was really a cry for help as the economy was being starved of liquidity just as the demand for liquidity was becoming really intense. That denial of liquidity led to a perverse situation in which the return to holding cash began to exceed the return on real assets, setting the stage for a collapse in asset prices and a financial panic. The Fed could have prevented the panic, by providing more liquidity. Had it done so, the financial crisis would have been avoided, and the collapse in the real economy and the rise in unemployment would have been substantially mitigate.

c – “The Federal Reserve could have stopped the Great Recession from ever happening. Unemployment in 2009 wouldn’t have gone above 5.5 percent.”

This I don’t believe. Do they? There’s a lot of “might have kept that decline from happening or at least moderated it” back-and-forth language in the piece.

Is the argument that we’d somehow avoid the zero-lower bound? Ben Bernanke recently showed that interest rates would have had to go to about -4 percent to offset the Great Recession at the time. Hitting the zero-lower bound earlier than later is good policy, but it’s still there.

I think there’s an argument about “expectations,” and “expectations” wouldn’t have been set for a Great Recession. A lot of the “expectations” stuff has a magic and tautological quality to it once it leaves the models and enters the policy discussion, but the idea that a random speech about inflation worries could have shifted the Taylor Rule 4 percent seems really off base. Why doesn’t it go haywire all the time, since people are always giving speeches?

Well, I have shown in this paper that, starting in 2008, there was a strong empirical relationship between stock prices and inflation expectations, so it’s not just tautological. And we’re not talking about random speeches; we are talking about the decisions of the FOMC and the reasons that were given for those decisions. The markets pay a lot of attention to those reason.

And couldn’t it be just as likely that since the Fed was so confident about inflation in mid-2008 it boosted nominal income, by giving people a higher level of inflation expectations than they’d have otherwise? Given the failure of the Evans Rule and QE3 to stabilize inflation (or even prevent it from collapsing) in 2013, I imagine transporting them back to 2008 would haven’t fundamentally changed the game.

The inflation in 2008 was not induced by monetary policy, but by adverse supply shocks, expectations of higher inflation, given the Fed’s inflation targeting were thus tantamount to predictions of further monetary tightening.

If your mental model is that the Federal Reserve delaying something three months is capable of throwing 8.7 million people out of work, you should probably want to have much more shovel-ready construction and automatic stabilizers, the second of which kicked in right away without delay, as part of your agenda. It seems odd to put all the eggs in this basket if you also believe that even the most minor of mistakes are capable of devastating the economy so greatly.

Once again, it’s not a matter of just three months, but even if it were, in the summer of 2008 the economy was at a kind of inflection point, and the failure to ease monetary policy at that critical moment led directly to a financial crisis with cascading effects on the real economy. If the financial crisis could have been avoided by preventing total spending from dropping far below trend in the third quarter, the crisis might have been avoided, and the subsequent loss of output and employment could have been greatly mitigated.

And just to be clear, I have pointed out previously that the free market economy is fragile, because its smooth functioning depends on the coherence and consistency of expectations. That makes monetary policy very important, but I don’t dismiss shovel-ready construction and automatic stabilizers as means of anchoring expectations in a useful way, in contrast to the perverse way that inflation targeting stabilizes expectations.

Eric Rauchway on the Gold Standard

Commenter TravisV recently flagged for me a New York Times review of a new book by Eric Rauchway, Professor of History at the University of California at Davis. The book is called Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace, a history of how FDR, with a bit of encouragement, but no real policy input, from J. M. Keynes, started a recovery from the Great Depression in 1933 by taking the US off the gold standard and devaluing the dollar, and later, with major input from Keynes, was instrumental in creating the post-World War II monetary system which was the result of the historic meeting at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire in 1944.

I had only just learned of Rauchway a week or so before the Times reviewed his book when I read his op-ed piece in the New York Times (“Why Republicans Still Love the Gold Standard” 11/13/15), warning about the curious (and ominous) infatuation that many Republican candidates for President seem to have with the gold standard, an infatuation forthrightly expressed by Ted Cruz in a recent debate among the Republican candidates for President. Rauchway wrote:

In Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate, Senator Ted Cruz reintroduced an idea that had many viewers scratching their heads and nearly all economists pulling out their hair. Mr. Cruz advocated a return to the gold standard — that is, tying the value of a dollar to a set amount of gold — because, he said, it produced prosperity under the Bretton Woods system and it helped “workingmen and -women.”

Mr. Cruz is confused about history and economics. The framers of Bretton Woods specifically designed their new international monetary system not to be a gold standard because they believed gold-based currency was largely responsible for the Great Depression. Their system, named for the New Hampshire town hosting the 1944 international conference that created it, was not a gold standard but “the exact opposite,” according to John Maynard Keynes, one of the system’s principal designers. Under Bretton Woods, nations were not obliged to set monetary policy according to how much gold they had, but rather according to their economic needs.

I thought that Rauchway made an excellent point in distinguishing between the actual gold standard and the Bretton Wood monetary system, in which the price of gold was nominally fixed at $35 dollars an ounce. But Bretton Woods system was very far from being a true gold standard, because the existence of a gold standard is predicated on the existence of a free market in gold, so that gold can be freely bought and sold by anyone at the official price. Under Bretton Woods, however, the market was tightly controlled, and US citizens could not legally own gold, except for industrial or commercial purposes, while the international gold market was under the strict control of the international monetary authorities. The only purchasers to whom the Fed was obligated to sell gold at the official price were other central banks, and it was understood that any request to purchase gold from the US monetary authority beyond what the US government thought appropriate would be considered a hostile act. The only foreign government willing to make such requests was the French government under de Gaulle, who took obvious pleasure in provoking the Anglo-Saxons whenever possible.

If Senator Cruz were a little older, or a little better read, or a little more scrupulous in his historical pronouncements, he might have been deterred from identifying the Bretton Woods system with the gold standard, because in the 1950s and 1960s right-wing supporters of the gold standard – I mean people like Ludwig von Mises and Henry Hazlitt — regarded the Bretton Woods as a dreadful engine of inflation, regarding the Bretton Woods system as a sham, embodying only the form, but not the substance, of the gold standard. It was only in the late 1970s that right-wingers began making nostalgic references to Bretton Woods, the very system that they had spent the previous 25 or 30 years denouncing as an abhorrent scheme for currency debasement.

But I stopped nodding my head in agreement with Rauchway when I reached the fifth paragraph of his piece.

Under a gold standard, the amount of gold a nation holds in bank vaults determines how much of its money circulates. If a nation’s gold stock increases through trade, for example, the country issues more currency. Likewise, if its gold stock decreases, it issues less.

Oh dear! Rauchway, like so many others, gets the gold standard all wrong, even though he started off correctly by saying that the gold standard ties “the value of a dollar to a set amount of gold.”

Here’s the point. Given a demand for some product, say, apples, if you can set the quantity of apples, while allowing everyone to trade that fixed amount freely, the equilibrium price for applies will be the price at which the amount demanded exactly matches the fixed quantity available to the market. Alternatively, if you set the price of apples, and can supply exactly as many apples as are demanded, the equilibrium quantity will be whatever quantity is demanded at the fixed price.

The gold standard operates by fixing the price of currency at a certain value in terms of gold (or stated equivalently, defining the currency unit as representing a fixed quantity of gold). The amount of currency under a gold standard is therefore whatever quantity of currency is demanded at the fixed price. That is very different from saying that a gold standard operates by placing a limit on the amount of currency that can be created. It is, to be sure, possible to place a limit on the quantity of currency by imposing a legal gold-reserve requirement on currency issued. But even then, it’s not the amount of reserves that limits the amount of currency; it’s the amount of currency that determines how much gold is held in reserve. Such requirements have existed under a gold standard, but those requirements do not define a gold standard, which is the legal equivalence established between currency and a corresponding amount of gold. A gold-reserve requirement is rather a condition imposed upon the gold standard, not the gold standard itself. Whether reserve requirements are good or bad, wise or unwise, is debatable. But it is a category mistake to confuse the defining characteristic of the gold standard with a separate condition imposed upon the gold standard.

I thought about responding to Rauchway’s erroneous characterization of the gold standard after seeing his op-ed piece, but it didn’t seem quite important enough to make the correction until TravisV pointed me to the review of his new book, which is largely about the gold standard. But then I thought that perhaps Rauchway had just expressed himself sloppily in the Times op-ed, mistakenly trying to convey a somewhat complicated and unfamiliar idea in more easily understood terms. So, without a copy of his book handy, I did a little on-line research, looking up some of the recent – and mostly favorable — reviews of the book. And, to my dismy, I found the following statement in a review in the Economist:

More important, says Mr Rauchway, in 1933 he [FDR] took America off the gold standard, a system whereby the amount of dollars in circulation was determined by the country’s gold reserves.

I am assuming that the reviewer for the Economist did not make this up on his own and is accurately conveying Mr. Rauchway’s understanding of how the gold standard operated. But just to be sure, I checked a few other online reviews, and I found this one by the indefatigable John Tamny in Real Clear Markets. Tamny is listed as editor of Real Clear Markets, which makes sense, because I can’t understand how else his seemingly interminable review of over 4200 words could have gotten published. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to go through the entire review before finding the following comment:

Rauchway lauds FDR for leaving a gold standard that in Rauchway’s words limited money creation to a ratio informed by the “amount of shiny yellow metal a nation had on hand,” but the problem here is that Rauchway’s analysis is spectacularly untrue. As monetary expert Nathan Lewis explained it recently about the U.S. gold standard,

A gold standard system is not, and has never been, a system that “fixes the supply of money to the supply of gold.” Absolutely not. A gold standard system is what I call a fixed-value system. The value of the currency – not the quantity – is linked to gold, for example at 23.2 troy grains of gold per dollar ($20.67/ounce).

It’s too bad that Rauchway had to be corrected by John Tamny and Nathan Lewis, but it is what it is. And don’t forget, even F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman couldn’t figure out how the gold standard worked. But still, despite its theoretical shortcomings, it seems more than likely that Rauchway’s book is worth reading.

PS Further discussion of GOP nostalgia for the gold standard in today’s New York Times

Exposed: Milton Friedman’s Cluelessness about the Insane Bank of France

About a month ago, I started a series of posts about monetary policy in the 1920s, (about the Bank of France, Benjamin Strong, the difference between a gold-exchange standard and a gold standard, and Ludwig von Mises’s unwitting affirmation of the Hawtrey-Cassel explanation of the Great Depression). The series was not planned, each post being written as new ideas occurred to me or as I found interesting tidbits (about Strong and Mises) in reading stuff I was reading about the Bank of France or the gold-exchange standard.

Another idea that occurred to me was to look at the 1991 English translation of the memoirs of Emile Moreau, Governor of the Bank of France from 1926 to 1930; I managed to find a used copy for sale on Amazon, which I got in the mail over the weekend. I have only read snatches here and there, by looking up names in the index, and we’ll see when I get around to reading the book from cover to cover. One of the more interesting things about the book is the foreward to the English translation by Milton Friedman (and one by Charles Kindleberger as well) to go along with the preface to the 1954 French edition by Jacques Rueff (about which I may have something to say in a future post — we’ll see about that, too).

Friedman’s foreward to Moreau’s memoir is sometimes cited as evidence that he backtracked from his denial in the Monetary History that the Great Depression had been caused by international forces, Friedman insisting that there was actually nothing special about the initial 1929 downturn and that the situation only got out of hand in December 1930 when the Fed foolishly (or maliciously) allowed the Bank of United States to fail, triggering a wave of bank runs and bank failures that caused a sharp decline in the US money stock. According to Friedman it was only at that point that what had been a typical business-cycle downturn degenerated into what Friedman like to call the Great Contraction.

Friedman based his claim that domestic US forces, not an international disturbance, had caused the Great Depression on the empirical observation that US gold reserves increased in 1929; that’s called reasoning from a quantity change. From that fact, Friedman inferred that international forces could not have caused the 1929 downturn, because an international disturbance would have meant that the demand for gold would have increased in the international centers associated with the disturbance, in which case gold would have been flowing out of, not into, the US. In a 1985 article in AER, Gertrude Fremling pointed out an obvious problem with Friedman’s argument which was that gold was being produced every year, and some of the newly produced gold was going into the reserves of central banks. An absolute increase in US gold reserves did not necessarily signify a monetary disturbance in the US. In fact, Fremling showed that US gold reserves actually increased proportionately less than total gold reserves. Unfortunately, Fremling failed to point out that there was a flood of gold pouring into France in 1929, making it easier for Friedman to ignore the problem with his misidentification of the US as the source of the Great Depression.

With that introduction out of the way, let me now quote Friedman’s 1991 acknowledgment that the Bank of France played some role in causing 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 find this minimal adjustment by Friedman of his earlier position in the Monetary History totally unsatisfactory. Why do I find it unsatisfactory? To begin with, Friedman makes vague references to unnamed but “important subtleties” in Moreau’s memoir that he was unable to appreciate before reading the 1991 translation. There was nothing subtle about the gold accumulation being undertaken by the Bank of France; it was massive and relentless. The table below is constructed from data on official holdings of monetary gold reserves from December 1926 to June 1932 provided by Clark Johnson in his important book Gold, France, and the Great Depression, pp. 190-93. In December 1926 France held $711 million in gold or 7.7% of the world total of official gold reserves; in June 1932, French gold holdings were $3.218 billion or 28.4% of the world total.

monetary_gold_reservesWhat was it about that policy that Friedman didn’t get? He doesn’t say. What he does say is that he would not alter his previous judgment that the US was responsible “for the initiation of a worldwide contraction.” The only change he would make would be to say that France, as well as the US, contributed to the vulnerability of the international financial system to unspecified disturbances, because of a failure to follow “gold-standard rules.” I will just note that, as I have mentioned many times on this blog, references to alleged “gold standard rules” are generally not only unhelpful, but confusing, because there were never any rules as such to the gold standard, and what are termed “gold-standard rules” are largely based on a misconception, derived from the price-specie-flow fallacy, of how the gold standard actually worked.

My goal in this post was not to engage in more Friedman bashing. What I wanted to do was to clarify the underlying causes of Friedman’s misunderstanding of what caused the Great Depression. But I have to admit that sometimes Friedman makes it hard not to engage in Friedman bashing. So let’s examine another passage from Friedman’s foreward, and see where that takes us.

Another feature of Moreau’s book that is most fascinating . . . is the story it tells of the changing relations between the French and British central banks. At the beginning, with France in desperate straits seeking to stabilize its currency, [Montagu] Norman [Governor of the Bank of England] was contemptuous of France and regarded it as very much of a junior partner. Through the accident that the French currency was revalued at a level that stimulated gold imports, France started to accumulate gold reserves and sterling reserves and gradually came into the position where at any time Moreau could have forced the British off gold by withdrawing the funds he had on deposit at the Bank of England. The result was that Norman changed from being a proud boss and very much the senior partner to being almost a supplicant at the mercy of Moreau.

What’s wrong with this passage? Well, Friedman was correct about the change in the relative positions of Norman and Moreau from 1926 to 1928, but to say that it was an accident that the French currency was revalued at a level that stimulated gold imports is completely — and in this case embarrassingly — wrong, and wrong in two different senses: one strictly factual, and the other theoretical. First, and most obviously, the level at which the French franc was stabilized — 125 francs per pound — was hardly an accident. Indeed, it was precisely the choice of the rate at which to stabilize the franc that was a central point of Moreau’s narrative in his memoir, a central drama of the tale told by Moreau, more central than the relationship between Norman and Moreau, being the struggle between Moreau and his boss, the French Premier, Raymond Poincaré, over whether the franc would be stabilized at that rate, the rate insisted upon by Moreau, or the prewar parity of 25 francs per pound. So inquiring minds can’t help but wonder what exactly did Friedman think he was reading?

The second sense in which Friedman’s statement was wrong is that the amount of gold that France was importing depended on a lot more than just its exchange rate; it was also a function of a) the monetary policy chosen by the Bank of France, which determined the total foreign-exchange holdings held by the Bank of France, and b) the portfolio decisions of the Bank of France about how, given the exchange rate of the franc and given the monetary policy it adopted, the resulting quantity of foreign-exchange reserves would be held.

Let’s follow Friedman a bit further in his foreward as he quotes from his own essay “Should There Be an Independent Monetary Authority?” contrasting the personal weakness of W. P. G. Harding, Governor of the Federal Reserve in 1919-20, with the personal strength of Moreau:

Almost every student of the period is agreed that the great mistake of the Reserve System in postwar monetary policy was to permit the money stock to expand very rapidly in 1919 and then to step very hard on the brakes in 1920. This policy was almost surely responsible for both the sharp postwar rise in prices and the sharp subsequent decline. It is amusing to read Harding’s answer in his memoirs to criticism that was later made of the policies followed. He does not question that alternative policies might well have been preferable for the economy as a whole, but emphasizes the treasury’s desire to float securities at a reasonable rate of interest, and calls attention to a then-existing law under which the treasury could replace the head of the Reserve System. Essentially he was saying the same thing that I heard another member of the Reserve Board say shortly after World War II when the bond-support program was in question. In response to the view expressed by some of my colleagues and myself that the bond-support program should be dropped, he largely agreed but said ‘Do you want us to lose our jobs?’

The importance of personality is strikingly revealed by the contrast between Harding’s behavior and that of Emile Moreau in France under much more difficult circumstances. Moreau formally had no independence whatsoever from the central government. He was named by the premier, and could be discharged at any time by the premier. But when he was asked by the premier to provide the treasury with funds in a manner that he considered inappropriate and undesirable, he flatly refused to do so. Of course, what happened was that Moreau was not discharged, that he did not do what the premier had asked him to, and that stabilization was rather more successful.

Now, if you didn’t read this passage carefully, in particular the part about Moreau’s threat to resign, as I did not the first three or four times that I read it, you might not have noticed what a peculiar description Friedman gives of the incident in which Moreau threatened to resign following a request “by the premier to provide the treasury with funds in a manner that he considered inappropriate and undesirable.” That sounds like a very strange request for the premier to make to the Governor of the Bank of France. The Bank of France doesn’t just “provide funds” to the Treasury. What exactly was the request? And what exactly was “inappropriate and undesirable” about that request?

I have to say again that I have not read Moreau’s memoir, so I can’t state flatly that there is no incident in Moreau’s memoir corresponding to Friedman’s strange account. However, Jacques Rueff, in his preface to the 1954 French edition (translated as well in the 1991 English edition), quotes from Moreau’s own journal entries how the final decision to stabilize the French franc at the new official parity of 125 per pound was reached. And Friedman actually refers to Rueff’s preface in his foreward! Let’s read what Rueff has to say:

The page for May 30, 1928, on which Mr. Moreau set out the problem of legal stabilization, is an admirable lesson in financial wisdom and political courage. I reproduce it here in its entirety with the hope that it will be constantly present in the minds of those who will be obliged in the future to cope with French monetary problems.

“The word drama may sound surprising when it is applied to an event which was inevitable, given the financial and monetary recovery achieved in the past two years. Since July 1926 a balanced budget has been assured, the National Treasury has achieved a surplus and the cleaning up of the balance sheet of the Bank of France has been completed. The April 1928 elections have confirmed the triumph of Mr. Poincaré and the wisdom of the ideas which he represents. The political situation has been stabilized. Under such conditions there is nothing more natural than to stabilize the currency, which has in fact already been pegged at the same level for the last eighteen months.

“But things are not quite that simple. The 1926-28 recovery from restored confidence to those who had actually begun to give up hope for their country and its capacity to recover from the dark hours of July 1926. . . . perhaps too much confidence.

“Distinguished minds maintained that it was possible to return the franc to its prewar parity, in the same way as was done with the pound sterling. And how tempting it would be to thereby cancel the effects of the war and postwar periods and to pay back in the same currency those who had lent the state funds which for them often represented an entire lifetime of unremitting labor.

“International speculation seemed to prove them right, because it kept changing its dollars and pounds for francs, hoping that the franc would be finally revalued.

“Raymond Poincaré, who was honesty itself and who, unlike most politicians, was truly devoted to the public interest and the glory of France, did, deep in his heart, agree with those awaiting a revaluation.

“But I myself had to play the ungrateful role of representative of the technicians who knew that after the financial bloodletting of the past years it was impossible to regain the original parity of the franc.

“I was aware, as had already been determined by the Committee of Experts in 1926, that it was impossible to revalue the franc beyond certain limits without subjecting the national economy to a particularly painful readaptation. If we were to sacrifice the vital force of the nation to its acquired wealth, we would put at risk the recovery we had already accomplished. We would be, in effect, preparing a counterspeculation against our currency that would come within a rather short time.

“Since the parity of 125 francs to one pound has held for long months and the national economy seems to have adapted itself to it, it should be at this rate that we stabilize without further delay.

“This is what I had to tell Mr. Poincaré at the beginning of June 1928, tipping the scales of his judgment with the threat of my resignation.” [my emphasis]

So what this tells me is that the very act of personal strength that so impressed Friedman about Moreau was not about some imaginary “inappropriate” request made by Poincaré (“who was honesty itself”) for the Bank to provide funds to the treasury, but about whether the franc should be stabilized at 125 francs per pound, a peg that Friedman asserts was “accidental.” Obviously, it was not “accidental” at all, but it was based on the judgment of Moreau and his advisers (including two economists of considerable repute, Charles Rist and his student Pierre Quesnay) as attested to by Rueff in his preface, of which we know that Friedman was aware.

Just to avoid misunderstanding, I would just say here that I am not suggesting that Friedman was intentionally misrepresenting any facts. I think that he was just being very sloppy in assuming that the facts actually were what he rather cluelessly imagined them to be.

Before concluding, I will quote again from Friedman’s foreword:

Benjamin Strong and Emile Moreau were admirable characters of personal force and integrity. But in my view, 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. France did the same, both before and after 1929.

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 preven t inflation and accordingly both sterilized the gold inflows, preventing them from providing the required increase in the quantity of money. The result was to drain the other central banks of the world of their gold reserves, so that they became excessively vulnerable to reserve drains. France’s contribution to this process was, I now realize, much greater than we treated it as being in our History.

These two paragraphs are full of misconceptions; I will try to clarify and correct them. First Friedman refers to “the U.S. shock to the international community.” What is he talking about? I don’t know. Is he talking about the crash of 1929, which he dismissed as being of little consequence for the subsequent course of the Great Depression, whose importance in Friedman’s view was certainly far less than that of the failure of the Bank of United States? But from December 1926 to December 1929, total monetary gold holdings in the world increased by about $1 billion; while US gold holdings declined by nearly $200 million, French holdings increased by $922 million over 90% of the increase in total world official gold reserves. So for Friedman to have even suggested that the shock to the system came from the US and not from France is simply astonishing.

Friedman’s discussion of sterilization lacks any coherent theoretical foundation, because, working with the most naïve version of the price-specie-flow mechanism, he imagines that flows of gold are entirely passive, and that the job of the monetary authority under a gold standard was to ensure that the domestic money stock would vary proportionately with the total stock of gold. But that view of the world ignores the possibility that the demand to hold money in any country could change. Thus, Friedman, in asserting that the US money stock moved perversely from 1929 to 1931, going down as the gold stock went up, misunderstands the dynamic operating in that period. The gold stock went up because, with the banking system faltering, the public was shifting their holdings of money balances from demand deposits to currency. Legal reserves were required against currency, but not against demand deposits, so the shift from deposits to currency necessitated an increase in gold reserves. To be sure the US increase in the demand for gold, driving up its value, was an amplifying factor in the worldwide deflation, but total US holdings of gold from December 1929 to December 1931 rose by $150 million compared with an increase of $1.06 billion in French holdings of gold over the same period. So the US contribution to world deflation at that stage of the Depression was small relative to that of France.

Friedman is correct that fixed exchange rates and internal price stability are incompatible, but he contradicts himself a few sentences later by asserting that Strong and Moreau violated gold-standard rules in order to stabilize their domestic price levels, as if it were the gold-standard rules rather than market forces that would force domestic price levels into correspondence with a common international level. Friedman asserts that the US dollar was undervalued after 1925 because the British pound was overvalued, presuming with no apparent basis that the US balance of payments was determined entirely by its trade with Great Britain. As I observed above, the exchange rate is just one of the determinants of the direction and magnitude of gold flows under the gold standard, and, as also pointed out above, gold was generally flowing out of the US after 1926 until the ferocious tightening of Fed policy at the end of 1928 and in 1929 caused a sizable inflow of gold into the US in 1929.

In thrall to the crude price-specie-flow fallacy, Friedman erroneously assumes that inflation rates under the gold standard are governed by the direction and size of gold flows, inflows being inflationary and outflows deflationary. That is just wrong; national inflation rates were governed by a common international price level in terms of gold (and any positive or negative inflation in terms of gold) and whether prices in the local currency were above or below their gold equivalents, market forces operating to equalize the prices of tradable goods. Domestic monetary policies, whether or not they conformed to supposed gold standard rules, had negligible effect on national inflation rates. If the pound was overvalued, there was deflationary pressure in Britain regardless of whether British monetary policy was tight or easy, and if the franc was undervalued there was inflationary pressure in France regardless of whether French monetary policy was tight or easy. Tightness or ease of monetary policy under the gold standard affects not the rate of inflation, but the rate at which the central bank gained or lost foreign exchange reserves.

However, when, in the aggregate, central banks were tightening their policies, thereby tending to accumulate gold, the international gold market would come under pressure, driving up the value of gold relative goods, thereby causing deflationary pressure among all the gold standard countries. That is what happened in 1929, when the US started to accumulate gold even as the insane Bank of France was acting as a giant international vacuum cleaner sucking in gold from everywhere else in the world. Friedman, even as he was acknowledging that he had underestimated the importance of the Bank of France in the Monetary History, never figured this out. He was obsessed, instead with relatively trivial effects of overvaluation of the pound, and undervaluation of the franc and the dollar. Talk about missing the forest for the trees.

Of course, Friedman was not alone in his cluelessness about the Bank of France. F. A. Hayek, with whom, apart from their common belief in the price-specie-flow fallacy, Friedman shared almost no opinions about monetary theory and policy, infamously defended the Bank of France in 1932.

France did not prevent her monetary circulation from increasing by the very same amount as that of the gold inflow – and this alone is necessary for the gold standard to function.

Thus, like Friedman, Hayek completely ignored the effect that the monumental accumulation of gold by the Bank of France had on the international value of gold. That Friedman accused the Bank of France of violating the “gold-standard rules” while Hayek denied the accusation simply shows, notwithstanding the citations by the Swedish Central Bank of the work that both did on the Great Depression when awarding them their Nobel Memorial Prizes, how far away they both were from an understanding of what was actually going on during that catastrophic period.

Mises’s Unwitting Affirmation of the Hawtrey-Cassel Explanation of the Great Depression

In looking up some sources for my previous post on the gold-exchange standard, I checked, as I like to do from time to time, my old copy of The Theory of Money and Credit by Ludwig von Mises. Mises published The Theory of Money and Credit in 1912 (in German of course) when he was about 31 years old, a significant achievement. In 1924 he published a second enlarged edition addressing many issues that became relevant in the aftermath the World War and the attempts then underway to restore the gold standard. So one finds in the 1934 English translation of the 1924 German edition a whole section of Part III, chapter 6 devoted to the Gold-Exchange Standard. I noticed that I had dog-eared the section, which presumably means that when I first read the book I found the section interesting in some way, but I did not write any notes in the margin, so I am not sure what it was that I found interesting. I can’t even remember when I read the book, but there are many passages underlined throughout the book, so I am guessing that I did read it from cover to cover. Luckily, I wrote my name and the year (1971) in which I bought the book on the inside of the front cover, so I am also guessing that I read the book before I became aware of the Hawtrey Cassel explanation of the Great Depression. But it seems clear to me that whatever it was that I found interesting about the section on the gold-exchange standard, it didn’t make a lasting impression on me, because I don’t think that I ever reread that section until earlier this week. So let’s go through Mises’s discussion and see what we find.

Wherever inflation has thrown the monetary system into confusion, the primary aim of currency policy has been to bring the printing presses to a standstill. Once that is done, once it has at last been learned that even the policy of raising the objective exchange-value of money has undesirable consequences, and once it is seen that the chief thing is to stabilize the value of money, then attempts are made to establish a gold-exchange standard as quickly as possible.

This seems to be reference to the World War I inflation and the somewhat surprising post-war inflation of 1919, which caused most countries to want to peg their currencies against the dollar, then the only major country with a currency convertible into gold. Mises continues:

This, for example, is what occurred in Austria at the end of 1922 and since then, at least for the time being, the dollar rate in that country has been fixed. But in existing circumstances, invariability of the dollar rate means invariability of the price of gold also. Thus Austria has a dollar-exchange standard and so, indirectly, a gold-exchange standard. That is the currency system that seems to be the immediate aim in Germany, Poland, Hungary, and many other European countries. Nowadays, European aspirations in the sphere of currency policy are limited to a return to the gold standard. This is quite understandable, for the gold standard previously functioned on the whole satisfactorily; it is true that it did not secure the unattainable ideal of a money with an invariable objective exchange value, but it did preserve the monetary system from the influence of governments and changing policies.

Yet the gold-standard system was already undermined before the war. The first step was the abolition of the physical use of gold in individual payments and the accumulation of the stocks of gold in the vaults of the great banks-of-issue. The next step was the adoption of the practice by a series of States of holding the gold reserves of the central banks-of-issue (or the redemption funds that took their place), not in actual gold, but in various sorts of foreign claims to gold. Thus it came about that the greater part of the stock of gold that was used for monetary purposes was gradually accumulated in a few large banks-of-issue; and so these banks became the central reserve-banks of the world, as previously the central banks-of-issue had become central reserve-banks for individual countries.

Mises is leaving out a lot here. Many countries were joining gold standard in the last quarter of the 19th century, when the gold standard became an international system. The countries adopting the gold standard did not have a gold coinage; for them to introduce a gold coinage, as Mises apparently would have been wanted, was then prohibitively costly. But gold reserves were still piling up in many central banks because of laws and regulations requiring central banks to hold gold reserves against banknotes. If gold coinages would have been introduced in addition to the gold gold reserves being accumulated as reserves against banknotes, the spread of gold standard through much of the world in the last quarter of the 19th century would have drastically accentuated the deflationary trends that marked most of the period from 1872 to 1896.

The War did not create this development; it merely hastened it a little.

Actually a lot. But we now come to the key passage.

Neither has the development yet reached the stage when all the newly-produced gold that is not absorbed into industrial use flows to a single centre. The Bank of England and the central banks-of-issue of some other States still control large stocks of gold; there are still several of them that take up part of the annual output of gold. Yet fluctuations in the price of gold are nowadays essentially dependent on the policy followed by the Federal Reserve Board. If the United States did not absorb gold to the extent to which it does, the price of gold would fall and the gold-prices of commodities would rise. Since, so long as the dollar represents a fixed quantity of gold, the United States admits the surplus gold and surrenders commodities for gold to an unlimited extent, a rapid fall in the value of gold has hitherto been avoided.

Mises’s explanation here is rather confused, because he neglects to point out that the extent to which gold was flowing into the Federal Reserve was a function, among other things, of the credit policy adopted by the Fed. The higher the interest rate, the more gold would flow into the Fed and, thus, the lower the international price level. Mises makes it sound as if there was a fixed demand for gold by the rest of the world and the US simply took whatever was left over. That was a remarkable misunderstanding on Mises’s part.

But this policy of the United States, which involves considerable sacrifices, might one day be changed. Variations in the price of gold would then occur and this would be bound to give rise in other gold countries to the question of whether it would not be better in order to avoid further rises in prices to dissociate the currency standard from gold.

Note the ambiguous use of the term “price of gold.” The nominal price of gold was fixed by convertibility, so what Mises meant was the real price of gold, with a fixed nominal price. It would have been less ambiguous if the term “value of gold” had been used here and in the rest of the passage instead of “price of gold.” I don’t know if Mises or his translator was at fault.

Just as Sweden attempted for a time to raise the krone above its old gold parity by closing the Mint to gold, so other countries that are now still on the gold standard or intend to return to it might act similarly. This would mean a further drop in the price of gold and a further reduction of the usefulness of gold for monetary purposes. If we disregard the Asiatic demand for money, we might even now without undue exaggeration say that gold has ceased to be a commodity the fluctuations in the price of which are independent of government influence. Fluctuations in the price of gold are nowadays substantially dependent on the behaviour of one government, viz. that of the United States of America.

By George, he’s got it! The value of gold depends mainly on the Fed! Or, to be a bit more exact, on how much gold is being held by the Fed and by the other central banks. The more gold they hold, the more valuable in real terms gold becomes, which means that, with a fixed nominal price of gold, the lower are the prices of all other commodities. The point of the gold-exchange standard was thus to reduce the world’s monetary demand for gold, thereby limiting the tendency of gold to appreciate and for prices in terms of gold to fall. Indeed, Mises here cites in a footnote none other than the villainous John Maynard Keynes himself (Tract on Monetary Reform) where he also argued that after World War I, the value of gold was determined by government policy, especially that of the Federal Reserve. Mises goes on to explain:

All that could not have been foreseen in this result of a long process of development is the circumstance that the fluctuations in the price of gold should have become dependent upon the policy of one government only. That the United States should have achieved such an economic predominance over other countries as it now has, and that it alone of all the countries of great economic importance should have retained the gold standard while the others (England, France, Germany, Russia, and the rest) have at least temporarily abandoned it – that is a consequence of what took place during the War. Yet the matter would not be essentially different if the price of gold was dependent not on the policy of the United States alone, but on those of four or five other governments as well. Those protagonists of the gold-exchange standard who have recommended it as a general monetary system and not merely as an expedient for poor countries, have overlooked this fact. They have not observed that the gold-exchange standard must at last mean depriving gold of that characteristic which is the most important from the point of view of monetary policy – its independence of government influence upon fluctuations in its value. The gold-exchange standard has not been recommended or adopted with the object of dethroning gold. All that Ricardo wanted was to reduce the cost of the monetary system. In many countries which from the last decade of the nineteenth century onward have wished to abandon the silver or credit-money standard, the gold-exchange standard rather than a gold standard with an actual gold currency has been adopted in order to prevent the growth of a new demand for gold from causing a rise in its price and a fall in the gold-prices of commodities. But whatever the motives may have been by which the protagonists of the gold-exchange standard have been led, there can be no doubt concerning the results of its increasing popularity.

If the gold-exchange standard is retained, the question must sooner or later arise as to whether it would not be better to substitute for it a credit-money standard whose fluctuations were more susceptible to control than those of gold. For if fluctuations in the price of gold are substantially dependent on political intervention, it is inconceivable why government policy should still be restricted at all and not given a free hand altogether, since the amount of this restriction is not enough to confine arbitrariness in price policy within narrow limits. The cost of additional gold for monetary purposes that is borne by the whole world might well be saved, for it no longer secures the result of making the monetary system independent of government intervention. If this complete government control is not desired, there remains one alternative only: an attempt must be made to get back from the gold-exchange standard to the actual use of gold again.

Thus, we see that in 1924 none other than the legendary Ludwig von Mises was explaining that the value of gold had come to depend primarily on the policy decisions of the Federal Reserve and the other leading central banks. He also understood that a process of deflation could have terrible consequences if free-market forces were not operating to bring about an adjustment of market prices to the rising value of gold. Recognizing the potentially disastrous consequences of a scramble for gold by the world’s central banks as they rejoined the gold standard, Hawtrey and Cassel called for central-bank cooperation to limit the increase in the demand for gold and to keep the value of gold stable. In 1924, at any rate, Mises, too, recognized that there could be a destabilizing deflationary increase in the demand for gold by central banks. But when the destabilizing deflationary increase actually started to happen in 1927 when the Bank of France began cashing in its foreign-exchange reserves for gold, triggering similar demands by other central banks in the process of adopting the gold standard, the gold standard started collapsing under the weight  of deflation. But, as far as I know, Mises never said a word about the relationship between gold demand and the Great Depression.

Instead, in the mythology of Austrian business-cycle theory, it was all the fault of the demonic Benjamin Strong for reducing the Fed’s discount rate from 5% to 3.5% in 1927 (and back to only 4% in 1928) and of the duplicitous Montagu Norman for reducing Bank Rate from 5% to 4.5% in 1927-28 rather than follow the virtuous example of the Bank of France in abandoning the cursed abomination of the gold-exchange standard.

The Great, but Misguided, Benjamin Strong Goes Astray in 1928

In making yet further revisions to our paper on Hawtrey and Cassel, Ron Batchelder and I keep finding interesting new material that sheds new light on the thinking behind the policies that led to the Great Depression. Recently I have been looking at the digital archive of Benjamin Strong’s papers held at the Federal Reserve Bank. Benjamin Strong was perhaps the greatest central banker who ever lived. Milton Friedman, Charles Kindleberger, Irving Fisher, and Ralph Hawtrey – and probably others as well — all believed that if Strong, Governor of the New York Federal Reserve Bank from 1914 to 1928 and effectively the sole policy maker for the entire system, had not died in 1928, the Great Depression would have been avoided entirely or, at least, would have been far less severe and long-lasting. My own view had been that Strong had generally understood the argument of Hawtrey and Cassel about the importance of economizing on gold, and, faced with the insane policy of the Bank of France, would have accommodated that policy by allowing an outflow of gold from the immense US holdings, rather than raise interest rates and induce an inflow of gold into the US in 1929, as happened under his successor, George Harrison.

Having spent some time browsing through the papers, I am sorry — because Strong’s truly remarkable qualities are evident in his papers — to say that the papers also show to my surprise and disappointment that Strong was very far from being a disciple of Hawtrey or Cassel or of any economist, and he seems to have been entirely unconcerned in 1928 about the policy of the Bank of France or the prospect of a deflationary run-up in the value of gold even though his friend Montague Norman, Governor of the Bank of England, was beginning to show some nervousness about “a scramble for gold,” while other observers were warning of a deflationary collapse. I must admit that, at least one reason for my surprise is that I had naively accepted the charges made by various Austrians – most notably Murray Rothbard – that Strong was a money manager who had bought into the dangerous theories of people like Irving Fisher, Ralph Hawtrey and J. M. Keynes that central bankers should manipulate their currencies to stabilize the price level. The papers I have seen show that, far from being a money manager and a price-level stabilizer, Strong expressed strong reservations about policies for stabilizing the price level, and was more in sympathy with the old-fashioned gold standard than with the gold-exchange standard — the paradigm promoted by Hawtrey and Cassel and endorsed at the Genoa Conference of 1922. Rothbard’s selective quotation from the memorandum summarizing Strong’s 1928 conversation with Sir Arthur Salter, which I will discuss below, gives a very inaccurate impression of Strong’s position on money management.

Here are a few of the documents that caught my eye.

On November 28 1927, Montague Norman wrote Strong about their planned meeting in January at Algeciras, Spain. Norman makes the following suggestion:

Perhaps the chief uncertainty or danger which confronts Central Bankers on this side of the Atlantic over the next half dozen years is the purchasing power of gold and the general price level. If not an immediate, it is a very serious question and has been too little considered up to the present. Cassel, as you will remember, has held up his warning finger on many occasions against the dangers of a continuing fall in the price level and the Conference at Genoa as you will remember, suggested that the danger could be met or prevented, by a more general use of the “Gold Exchange Standard”.

This is a very abstruse and complicated problem which personally I do not pretend to understand, the more so as it is based on somewhat uncertain statistics. But I rely for information from the outside about such a subject as this not, as you might suppose, on McKenna or Keynes, but on Sir Henry Strakosch. I am not sure if you know him: Austrian origin: many years in Johannesburg: 20 years in this country: a student of economics: a gold producer with general financial interests: perhaps the main stay in setting up the South African Reserve Bank: a member of the Financial Committee of the League and of the Indian Currency Commission: full of public spirit, genial and helpful . . . and so forth. I have probably told you that if I had been a Dictator he would have been a Director here years ago.

This is a problem to which Strackosch has given much study and it alarms him. He would say that none of us are paying sufficient attention to the possibility of a future fall in prices or are taking precautions to prepare any remedy such as was suggested at Genoa, namely smaller gold reserves through the Gold Exchange Standard, and that you, in the long run, will feel any trouble just as much as the rest of the Central Bankers will feel it.

My suggestion therefore is that it might be helpful if I could persuade Strakoosch too to come to Algeciras for a week: his visit could be quite casual and you would not be committed to any intrigue with him.

I gather from the tone of this letter and from other indications that the demands by the French to convert their foreign exchange to gold were already being made on the Bank of England and were causing some degree of consternation in London, which is why Norman was hoping that Strakosch might persuade Strong that something ought to be done to get the French to moderate their demands on the Bank of England to convert claims on sterling into gold. In the event, Strong met with Strakosch in December (probably in New York, not in Algeciras, without the presence of Norman). Not long thereafter Strong’s health deteriorated, and he took an extended leave from his duties at the bank. On March 27, 1928 Strong sent a letter to Norman outlining the main points of his conversation with Strakosch:

What [Strakosch] told me leads me to believe that he holds the following views:

  • That there is an impending shortage of monetary gold.
  • That there is certain to be a decline in the production by the South African mines.
  • That in consequence there will be a competition for gold between banks of issue which will lead to high discount rates, contracting credit and falling world commodity prices.
  • That Europe is so burdened with debt as to make such a development calamitous, possibly bankrupting some nations.
  • That the remedy is an extensive and formal development of the gold exchange standard.

From the above you will doubtless agree with me that Strakosch is a 100% “quantity” theory man, that he holds Cassel’s views in regard to the world’s gold position, and that he is alarmed at the outlook, just as most of the strict quantity theory men are, and rather expects that the banks of issue can do something about it.

Just as an aside, I will note that Strong is here displaying a rather common confusion, mixing up the quantity theory with a theory about the value of money under a gold standard. It’s a confusion that not only laymen, but also economists such as (to pick out a name almost at random) Milton Friedman, are very prone to fall into.

What he tells me is proposed consists of:

  • A study by the Financial Section of the League [of Nations] of the progress of economic recovery in Europe, which, he asserts, has closely followed progress in the resumption of gold payment or its equivalent.
  • A study of the gold problem, apparently in the perspective of the views of Cassel and others.
  • The submission of the results, with possibly some suggestions of a constructive nature, to a meeting of the heads of the banks of issue. He did not disclose whether the meeting would be a belated “Genoa resolution” meeting or something different.

What I told him appeared to shock him, and it was in brief:

  • That I did not share the fears of Cassel and others as to a gold shortage.
  • That I did not think that the quantity theory of prices, such for instance as Fisher has elaborate, “reduction ad absurdum,” was always dependable if unadulterated!
  • That I thought the gold exchange standard as now developing was hazardous in the extreme if allowed to proceed very much further, because of the duplication of bank liabilities upon the same gold.
  • That I much preferred to see the central banks build up their actual gold metal reserves in their own hands to something like orthodox proportions, and adopt their own monetary and credit policy and execute it themselves.
  • That I thought a meeting of the banks of issue in the immediate future to discuss the particular matter would be inappropriate and premature, until the vicissitudes of the Dawes Plan had developed further.
  • That any formal meeting of the banks of issue, if and when called, should originate among themselves rather than through the League, that the Genoa resolution was certainly no longer operative, and that such formal meeting should confine itself very specifically at the outset first to developing a sound basis of information, and second, to devising improvement in technique in gold practice

I am not at all sure that any formal meeting should be held before another year has elapsed. If it is held within a year or after a year, I am quite certain that it I attended it I could not do so helpfully if it tacitly implied acceptance of the principles set out in the Genoa resolution.

Stratosch is a fine fellow: I like him immensely, but I would feel reluctant to join in discussions where there was likelihood that the views so strongly advocated by Fisher, Cassel, Keynes, Commons, and others would seem likely to prevail. I would be willing at the proper time, if objection were not raised at home, to attend a conference of the banks of issue, if we could agree at the outset upon a simple platform, i.e., that gold is an effective measure of value and medium of exchange. If these two principles are extended, as seems to be in Stratosch’s mind, to mean that a manipulation of gold and credit can be employed as a regulator of prices at all times and under all circumstances, then I fear fundamental differences are inescapable.

And here is a third document in a similar vein that is also worth looking at. It is a memorandum written by O. E. Moore (a member of Strong’s staff at the New York Fed) providing a detailed account of the May 25, 1928 conversation between Strong and Sir Arthur Salter, then head of the economic and financial section of the League of Nations, who came to New York to ask for Strong’s cooperation in calling a new conference (already hinted at by Strakosch in his December conversation with Strong) with a view toward limiting the international demand for gold. Salter handed Strong a copy of a report by a committee of the League of Nations warning of the dangers of a steep increase in the value of gold because of increasing demand and a declining production.

Strong responded with a historical rendition of international monetary developments since the end of World War I, pointing out that even before the war was over he had been convinced of the need for cooperation among the world’s central banks, but then adding that he had been opposed to the recommendation of the 1922 Genoa Conference (largely drafted by Hawtrey and Cassel).

Governor Strong had been opposed from the start to the conclusions reached at the Genoa Conference. So far as he was aware, no one had ever been able to show any proof that there was a world shortage of gold or that there was likely to be any such shortage in the near future. . . . He was also opposed to the permanent operation of the gold exchange standard as outlined by the Genoa Conference, because it would mean by virtue of the extensive credits which the exchange standard countries would be holding in the gold centers, that they would be taking away from each of those two centers the control of their own money markets. This was an impossible thing for the Federal Reserve System to accept, so far as the American market was concerned, and in fact it was out of the question for any important country, it seemed to him, to give up entirely the direction of its own market. . . .

As a further aside, I will just observe that Strong’s objection to the gold exchange standard, namely that it permits an indefinite expansion of the money supply, a given base of gold reserves being able to support an unlimited expansion of the quantity of money, is simply wrong as a matter of theory. A country running a balance-of-payments deficit under a gold-exchange standard would be no less subject to the constraint of an external drain, even if it is holding reserves only in the form of instruments convertible into gold rather than actual gold, than it would be if it were operating under a gold standard holding reserves in gold.

Although Strong was emphatic that he could not agree to participate in any conference in which the policies and actions of the US could be determined by the views of other countries, he was open to a purely fact-finding commission to ascertain what the total world gold reserves were and how those were distributed among the different official reserve holding institutions. He also added this interesting caveat:

Governor Strong added that, in his estimation, it was very important that the men who undertook to find the answers to these questions should not be mere theorists who would take issue on controversial points, and that it would be most unfortunate if the report of such a commission should result in giving color to the views of men like Keynes, Cassel, and Fisher regarding an impending world shortage of gold and the necessity of stabilizing the price level. . . .

Governor Strong mentioned that one thing which had made him more wary than ever of the policies advocated by these men was that when Professor Fisher wrote his book on “Stabilizing the Dollar”, he had first submitted the manuscript to him (Governor Strong) and that the proposal made in that original manuscript was to adjust the gold content of the dollar as often as once a week, which in his opinion showed just how theoretical this group of economists were.

Here Strong was displaying the condescending attitude toward academic theorizing characteristic of men of affairs, especially characteristic of brilliant and self-taught men of affairs. Whether such condescension is justified is a question for which there is no general answer. However, it is clear to me that Strong did not have an accurate picture of what was happening in 1928 and what dangers were lying ahead of him and the world in the last few months of his life. So the confidence of Friedman, Kindelberger, Fisher, and Hawtrey in Strong’s surpassing judgment does not seem to me to rest on any evidence that Strong actually understood the situation in 1928 and certainly not that he knew what to do about it. On the contrary he was committed to a policy that was leading to disaster, or at least, was not going to avoid disaster. The most that can be said is that he was at least informed about the dangers, and if he had lived long enough to observe that the dangers about which he had been warned were coming to pass, he would have had the wit and the good sense and the courage to change his mind and take the actions that might have avoided catastrophe. But that possibility is just a possibility, and we can hardly be sure that, in the counterfactual universe in which Strong does not die in 1928, the Great Depression never happened.


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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