Archive for the 'Great Depression' Category

Friedman and Schwartz, Eichengreen and Temin, Hawtrey and Cassel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gold Exchange Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Post-War Deflation

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

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

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

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

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

This is correct, and I fully agree.

How It Could Have been Different

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milton Friedman and How not to Think about the Gold Standard, France, Sterilization and the Great Depression

Last week I listened to David Beckworth on his excellent podcast Macro Musings, interviewing Douglas Irwin. I don’t think I’ve ever met Doug, but we’ve been in touch a number of times via email. Doug is one of our leading economic historians, perhaps the foremost expert on the history of US foreign-trade policy, and he has just published a new book on the history of US trade policy, Clashing over Commerce. As you would expect, most of the podcast is devoted to providing an overview of the history of US trade policy, but toward the end of the podcast, David shifts gears and asks Doug about his work on the Great Depression, questioning Doug about two of his papers, one on the origins of the Great Depression (“Did France Cause the Great Depression?”), the other on the 1937-38 relapse into depression, (“Gold Sterlization and the Recession of 1937-1938“) just as it seemed that the US was finally going to recover fully  from the catastrophic 1929-33 downturn.

Regular readers of this blog probably know that I hold the Bank of France – and its insane gold accumulation policy after rejoining the gold standard in 1928 – primarily responsible for the deflation that inevitably led to the Great Depression. In his paper on France and the Great Depression, Doug makes essentially the same argument pointing out that the gold reserves of the Bank of France increased from about 7% of the world stock of gold reserves to about 27% of the world total in 1932. So on the substance, Doug and I are in nearly complete agreement that the Bank of France was the chief culprit in this sad story. Of course, the Federal Reserve in late 1928 and 1929 also played a key supporting role, attempting to dampen what it regarded as reckless stock-market speculation by raising interest rates, and, as a result, accumulating gold even as the Bank of France was rapidly accumulating gold, thereby dangerously amplifying the deflationary pressure created by the insane gold-accumulation policy of the Bank of France.

Now I would not have taken the time to write about this podcast just to say that I agreed with what Doug and David were saying about the Bank of France and the Great Depression. What prompted me to comment about the podcast were two specific remarks that Doug made. The first was that his explanation of how France caused the Great Depression was not original, but had already been provided by Milton Friedman, Clark Johnson, and Scott Sumner.  I agree completely that Clark Johnson and Scott Sumner wrote very valuable and important books on the Great Depression and provided important new empirical findings confirming that the Bank of France played a very malign role in creating the deflationary downward spiral that was the chief characteristic of the Great Depression. But I was very disappointed in Doug’s remark that Friedman had been the first to identify the malign role played by the Bank of France in precipitating the Great Depression. Doug refers to the foreward that Friedman wrote for the English translation of the memoirs of Emile Moreau the Governor of the Bank of France from 1926 to 1930 (The Golden Franc: Memoirs of a Governor of the Bank of France: The Stabilization of the Franc (1926-1928). Moreau was a key figure in the stabilization of the French franc in 1926 after its exchange rate had fallen by about 80% against the dollar between 1923 and 1926, particularly in determining the legal exchange rate at which the franc would be pegged to gold and the dollar, when France officially rejoined the gold standard in 1928.

That Doug credits Friedman for having – albeit belatedly — grasped the role of the Bank of France in causing the Great Depression, almost 30 years after attributing the Depression in his Monetary History of the United States, almost entirely to policy mistakes mistakes by the Federal Reserve in late 1930 and early 1931 is problematic for two reasons. First, Doug knows very well that both Gustave Cassel and Ralph Hawtrey correctly diagnosed the causes of the Great Depression and the role of the Bank of France during – and even before – the Great Depression. I know that Doug knows this well, because he wrote this paper about Gustav Cassel’s diagnosis of the Great Depression in which he notes that Hawtrey made essentially the same diagnosis of the Depression as Cassel did. So, not only did Friedman’s supposed discovery of the role of the Bank of France come almost 30 years after publication of the Monetary History, it was over 60 years after Hawtrey and Cassel had provided a far more coherent account of what happened in the Great Depression and of the role of the Bank of France than Friedman provided either in the Monetary History or in his brief foreward to the translation of Moreau’s memoirs.

That would have been bad enough, but a close reading of Friedman’s foreward shows that even though, by 1991 when he wrote that foreward, he had gained some insight into the disruptive and deflationary influence displayed exerted by the Bank of France, he had an imperfect and confused understanding of the transmission mechanism by which the actions of the Bank of France affected the rest of the world, especially the countries on the gold standard. I have previously discussed in a 2015 post, what I called Friedman’s cluelessness about the insane policy of the Bank of France. So I will now quote extensively from my earlier post and supplement with some further comments:

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 he liked to call the Great Contraction. 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. [I omit a table of world monetary gold reserves from December 1926 to June 1932 included in my earlier post.]

What 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.

New Comment. And I would further add that references to the supposed gold-standard rules are confusing, because, in the misguided tradition of the money multiplier, the idea of gold-standard rules of the game mistakenly assumes that the direction of causality between monetary reserves and bank money (either banknotes or bank deposits) created either by central banks or commercial banks goes from reserves to money. But bank reserves are held, because banks have created liabilities (banknotes and deposits) which, under the gold standard, could be redeemed either directly or indirectly for “base money,” e.g., gold under the gold standard. For prudential reasons, or because of legal reserve requirements, national monetary authorities operating under a gold standard held gold reserves in amounts related — in some more or less systematic fashion, but also depending on various legal, psychological and economic considerations — to the quantity of liabilities (in the form of banknotes and bank deposits) that the national banking systems had created. I will come back to, and elaborate on, this point below. So the causality runs from money to reserves, not, as the price-specie-flow mechanism and the rules-of-the-game idea presume, from reserves to money. Back to my earlier post:

So let’s examine another passage from Friedman’s forward, 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 . . . , 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.

I referred to Friedman’s foreward in which he quoted 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. Quoting from Harding’s memoirs in which he acknowledged that his acquiescence in the U.S. Treasury’s desire to borrow at “reasonable” interest rates caused the Board to follow monetary policies that ultimately caused a rapid postwar inflation

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. . . . 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 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 re-adaptation. 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 counter-speculation 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, DG]

So what this tells me is that the very act of personal strength that so impressed Friedman . . . 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 . . . based on the judgment of Moreau and his advisers . . . as attested to by Rueff in his preface.

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.

New Comment. Actually, between December 1926 and December 1928, US gold reserves decreased by almost $350 million while French gold reserves increased by almost $550 million, suggesting that factors other than whether the currency peg was under- or over-valued determined the direction in which gold was flowing.

Gold-standard rules called for letting the stock of money rise in response to the gold inflows and for price inflation in the U.S. and France, and deflation in Britain, to end the over-and under-valuations. But both Strong and Moreau were determined to prevent inflation and accordingly both sterilized the gold inflows, preventing them from providing the required increase in the quantity of money. 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.

New Comment. I pause here to insert the following diatribe about the mutually supporting fallacies of the price-specie-flow mechanism, the rules of the game under the gold standard, and central-bank sterilization expounded on by Friedman, and, to my surprise and dismay, assented to by Irwin and Beckworth. Inflation rates under a gold standard are, to a first approximation, governed by international price arbitrage so that prices difference between the same tradeable commodities in different locations cannot exceed the cost of transporting those commodities between those locations. Even if not all goods are tradeable, the prices of non-tradeables are subject to forces bringing their prices toward an equilibrium relationship with the prices of tradeables that are tightly pinned down by arbitrage. Given those constraints, monetary policy at the national level can have only a second-order effect on national inflation rates, because the prices of non-tradeables that might conceivably be sensitive to localized monetary effects are simultaneously being driven toward equilibrium relationships with tradeable-goods prices.

The idea that the supposed sterilization policies about which Friedman complains had anything to do with the pursuit of national price-level targets is simply inconsistent with a theoretically sound understanding of how national price levels were determined under the gold standard. The sterilization idea mistakenly assumes that, under the gold standard, the quantity of money in any country is what determines national price levels and that monetary policy in each country has to operate to adjust the quantity of money in each country to a level consistent with the fixed-exchange-rate target set by the gold standard.

Again, the causality runs in the opposite direction;  under a gold standard, national price levels are, as a first approximation, determined by convertibility, and the quantity of money in a country is whatever amount of money that people in that country want to hold given the price level. If the quantity of money that the people in a country want to hold is supplied by the national monetary authority or by the local banking system, the public can obtain the additional money they demand exchanging their own liabilities for the liabilities of the monetary authority or the local banks, without having to reduce their own spending in order to import the gold necessary to obtain additional banknotes from the central bank. And if the people want to get rid of excess cash, they can dispose of the cash through banking system without having to dispose of it via a net increase in total spending involving an import surplus. The role of gold imports is to fill in for any deficiency in the amount of money supplied by the monetary authority and the local banks, while gold exports are a means of disposing of excess cash that people are unwilling to hold. France was continually importing gold after the franc was stabilized in 1926 not because the franc was undervalued, but because the French monetary system was such that the additional cash demanded by the public could not be created without obtaining gold to be deposited in the vaults of the Bank of France. To describe the Bank of France as sterilizing gold imports betrays a failure to understand the imports of gold were not an accidental event that should have triggered a compensatory policy response to increase the French money supply correspondingly. The inflow of gold was itself the policy and the result that the Bank of France deliberately set out to implement. If the policy was to import gold, then calling the policy gold sterilization makes no sense, because, the quantity of money held by the French public would have been, as a first approximation, about the same whatever policy the Bank of France followed. What would have been different was the quantity of gold reserves held by the Bank of France.

To think that sterilization describes a policy in which the Bank of France kept the French money stock from growing as much as it ought to have grown is just an absurd way to think about how the quantity of money was determined under the gold standard. But it is an absurdity that has pervaded discussion of the gold standard, for almost two centuries. Hawtrey, and, two or three generations later, Earl Thompson, and, independently Harry Johnson and associates (most notably Donald McCloskey and Richard Zecher in their two important papers on the gold standard) explained the right way to think about how the gold standard worked. But the old absurdities, reiterated and propagated by Friedman in his Monetary History, have proven remarkably resistant to basic economic analysis and to straightforward empirical evidence. Now back to my critique of Friedman’s foreward.

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.

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.

Hayek, Deflation and Nihilism

In the discussion about my paper on Hayek and intertemporal equilibrium at the HES meeting last month, Harald Hagemann suggested looking at Hansjorg Klausinger’s introductions to the two recently published volumes of Hayek’s Collected Works containing his writings (mostly from the 1920s and 1930s) about business-cycle theory in which he explores how Hayek’s attitude toward equilibrium analysis changed over time. But what I found most interesting in Klausinger’s introduction was his account of Hayek’s tolerant, if not supportive, attitude toward deflation — even toward what Hayek and other Austrians at the time referred to as “secondary deflation.” Some Austrians, notably Gottfried Haberler and Wilhelm Roepke, favored activist “reflationary” policies to counteract, and even reverse, secondary deflation. What did Hayek mean by secondary deflation? Here is how Klausinger (“Introduction” in Collected Works of F. A. Hayek: Business Cycles, Part II, pp. 5-6) explains the difference between primary and secondary deflation:

[A]ccording to Hayek’s theory the crisis is caused by a maladjustment in the structure of production typically initiated by a credit boom, such that the period of production (representing the capitalistic structure of production) is lengthened beyond what can be sustained by the rate of voluntary savings. The necessary reallocation of resources and its consequences give rise to crisis and depression. Thus, the “primary” cause of the crisis is a kind of “capital scarcity” while the depression represents an adjustment process by which the capital structure is adapted.

The Hayekian crisis or upper-turning point of the cycle occurs when banks are no longer willing or able to supply the funds investors need to finance their projects, causing business failures and layoffs of workers. The turning point is associated with distress sales of assets and goods, initiating a deflationary spiral. The collapse of asset prices and sell-off of inventories is the primary deflation, but at some point, the contraction may begin to feed on itself, and the contraction takes on a different character. That is the secondary deflation phase. But it is difficult to identify a specific temporal or analytic criterion by which to distinguish the primary from the secondary deflation.

Roepke and Haberler used the distinction – often referring to “depression”” and “deflation” interchangeably – to denote two phases of the cycle. The primary depression is characterized by the reactions to the disproportionalities of the boom, and accordingly an important cleansing function is ascribed to it; thus it is necessary to allow the primary depression to run its course. In contrast, the secondary depression refers to a self-feeding, cumulative process, not causally connected with the disproportionality that the primary depression is designed to correct. Thus the existence of the secondary depression opens up the possibility of a phase of depression dysfunctional to the economic system, where an expansionist policy might be called for. (Id. p. 6)

Despite conceding that there is a meaningful distinction between a primary and secondary deflation that might justify monetary expansion to counteract the latter, Hayek consistently opposed monetary expansion during the 1930s. The puzzle of Hayek’s opposition to monetary expansion, even at the bottom of the Great Depression, is compounded if we consider his idea of neutral money as a criterion for a monetary policy with no distorting effect on the price system. That idea can be understood in terms of the simple MV=PQ equation. Hayek argued that the proper criterion for neutral money was neither, as some had suggested, a constant quantity of money (M), nor, as others had suggested, a constant price level (P), but constant total spending (MV). But for MV to be constant, M must increase or decrease just enough to offset any change in V, where V represents the percentage of income held by the public in the form of money. Thus, if MV is constant, the quantity of money is increasing or decreasing by just as much as the amount of money the public wants to hold is increasing or decreasing.

The neutral-money criterion led Hayek to denounce the US Federal Reserve for a policy that kept the average level of prices essentially stable from 1922 to 1929, arguing that rapid economic growth should have been accompanied by falling not stable prices, in line with his neutral money criterion. The monetary expansion necessary to keep prices stable, had in Hayek’s view, led to a distortion of relative prices, causing an overextension of the capital structure of production, which was the ultimate cause of the 1929 downturn that triggered the Great Depression. But once the downturn started to accelerate, causing aggregate spending to decline by 50% between 1929 and 1933, Hayek, totally disregarding his own neutral-money criterion, uttered not a single word in protest of a monetary policy that was in flagrant violation of his own neutral money criterion. On the contrary, Hayek wrote an impassioned defense of the insane gold accumulation policy of the Bank of France, which along with the US Federal Reserve was chiefly responsible for the decline in aggregate spending.

In an excellent paper, Larry White has recently discussed Hayek’s pro-deflationary stance in the 1930s, absolving Hayek from responsibility for the policy errors of the 1930s on the grounds that the Federal Reserve Board and the Hoover Administration had been influenced not by Hayek, but by a different strand of pro-deflationary thinking, while pointing out that Hayek’s own theory of monetary policy, had he followed it consistently, would have led him to support monetary expansion during the 1930s to prevent any decline in aggregate spending. White may be correct in saying that policy makers paid little if any attention to Hayek’s pro-deflation policy advice. But Hayek’s policy advice was what it was: relentlessly pro-deflation.

Why did Hayek offer policy advice so blatantly contradicted by his own neutral-money criterion? White suggests that the reason was that Hayek viewed deflation as potentially beneficial if it would break the rigidities obstructing adjustments in relative prices. It was the lack of relative-price adjustments that, in Hayek’s view, caused the depression. Here is how Hayek (“The Present State and Immediate Prospects of the Study of Industrial Fluctuations” in Collected Works of F. A. Hayek: Business Cycles, Part II, pp. 171-79) put it:

The analysis of the crisis shows that, once an excessive increase of the capital structure has proved insupportable and has led to a crisis, profitability of production can be restored only by considerable changes in relative prices, reductions of certain stocks, and transfers of the means of production to other uses. In connection with these changes, liquidations of firms in a purely financial sense of the word may be inevitable, and their postponement may possibly delay the process of liquidation in the first, more general sense; but this is a separate and special phenomenon which in recent discussions has been stressed rather excessively at the expense of the more fundamental changes in prices, stocks, etc. (Id. pp. 175-76)

Hayek thus draws a distinction between two possible interpretations of liquidation, noting that widespread financial bankruptcy is not necessary for liquidation in the economic sense, an important distinction. Continuing with the following argument about rigidities, Hayek writes:

A theoretical problem of great importance which needs to be elucidated in this connection is the significance, for this process of liquidation, of the rigidity of prices and wages, which since the great war has undoubtedly become very considerable. There can be little question that these rigidities tend to delay the process of adaptation and that this will cause a “secondary” deflation which at first will intensify the depression but ultimately will help to overcome those rigidities. (Id. p. 176)

It is worth noting that Hayek’s assertion that the intensification of the depression would help to overcome the rigidities is an unfounded and unsupported supposition. Moreover, the notion that increased price flexibility in a depression would actually promote recovery has a flimsy theoretical basis, because, even if an equilibrium does exist in an economy dislocated by severe maladjustments — the premise of Austrian cycle theory — the notion that price adjustments are all that’s required for recovery can’t be proven even under the assumption of Walrasian tatonnement, much less under the assumption of incomplete markets with trading at non-equilibrium prices. The intuitively appealing notion that markets self-adjust is an extrapolation from Marshallian partial-equilibrium analysis in which the disequilibrium of a single market is analyzed under the assumption that all other markets remain in equilibrium. The assumption of approximate macroeconomic equilibrium is a necessary precondition for the partial-equilibrium analysis to show that a single (relatively small) market reverts to equilibrium after a disturbance. In the general case in which multiple markets are simultaneously disturbed from an initial equilibrium, it can’t be shown that price adjustments based on excess demands in individual markets lead to the restoration of equilibrium.

The main problem in this connection, on which opinions are still diametrically opposed, are, firstly, whether this process of deflation is merely an evil which has to be combated, or whether it does not serve a necessary function in breaking these rigidities, and, secondly, whether the persistence of these deflationary tendencies proves that the fundamental maladjustment of prices still exists, or whether, once that process of deflation has gathered momentum, it may not continue long after it has served its initial function. (Id.)

Unable to demonstrate that deflation was not exacerbating economic conditions, Hayek justified tolerating further deflation, as White acknowledged, with the hope that it would break the “rigidities” preventing the relative-price adjustments that he felt were necessary for recovery. Lacking a solid basis in economic theory, Hayek’s support for deflation to break rigidities in relative-price adjustment invites evaluation in ideological terms. Conceding that monetary expansion might increase employment, Hayek may have been disturbed by the prospect that an expansionary monetary policy would be credited for having led to a positive outcome, thereby increasing the chances that inflationary policies would be adopted under less extreme conditions. Hayek therefore appears to have supported deflation as a means to accomplish a political objective – breaking politically imposed and supported rigidities in prices – he did not believe could otherwise be accomplished.

Such a rationale, I am sorry to say, reminds me of Lenin’s famous saying that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. Which is to say, that in order to achieve a desired political outcome, Hayek was prepared to support policies that he had good reason to believe would increase the misery and suffering of a great many people. I don’t accuse Hayek of malevolence, but I do question the judgment that led him to such a conclusion. In Fabricating the Keynesian Revolution, David Laidler described Hayek’s policy stance in the 1930s as extreme pessimism verging on nihilism. But in supporting deflation as a means to accomplish a political end, Hayek clearly seems to have crossed over the line separating pessimism from nihilism.

In fairness to Hayek, it should be noted that he eventually acknowledged and explicitly disavowed his early pro-deflation stance.

I am the last to deny – or rather, I am today the last to deny – that, in these circumstances, monetary counteractions, deliberate attempts to maintain the money stream, are appropriate.

I probably ought to add a word of explanation: I have to admit that I took a different attitude forty years ago, at the beginning of the Great Depression. At that time I believed that a process of deflation of some short duration might break the rigidity of wages which I thought was incompatible with a functioning economy. Perhaps I should have even then understood that this possibility no longer existed. . . . I would no longer maintain, as I did in the early ‘30s, that for this reason, and for this reason only, a short period of deflation might be desirable. Today I believe that deflation has no recognizable function whatever, and that there is no justification for supporting or permitting a process of deflation. (A Discussion with Friedrich A. Von Hayek: Held at the American Enterprise Institute on April 9, 1975, p. 5)

Responding to a question about “secondary deflation” from his old colleague and friend, Gottfried Haberler, Hayek went on to elaborate:

The moment there is any sign that the total income stream may actually shrink, I should certainly not only try everything in my power to prevent it from dwindling, but I should announce beforehand that I would do so in the event the problem arose. . .

You ask whether I have changed my opinion about combating secondary deflation. I do not have to change my theoretical views. As I explained before, I have always thought that deflation had no economic function; but I did once believe, and no longer do, that it was desirable because it could break the growing rigidity of wage rates. Even at that time I regarded this view as a political consideration; I did not think that deflation improved the adjustment mechanism of the market. (Id. pp. 12-13)

I am not sure that Hayek’s characterization of his early views is totally accurate. Although he may indeed have believed that a short period of deflation would be enough to break the rigidities that he found so troublesome, he never spoke out against deflation, even as late as 1932 more than two years the start of deflation at the end of 1929. But on the key point Hayek was perfectly candid: “I regarded this view as a political consideration.”

This harrowing episode seems worth recalling now, as the U.S. Senate is about to make decisions about the future of the highly imperfect American health care system, and many are explicitly advocating taking steps calculated to make the system (or substantial parts of it) implode or enter a “death spiral” for the express purpose of achieving a political/ideological objective. Policy-making and nihilism are a toxic mix, as we learned in the 1930s with such catastrophic results. Do we really need to be taught that lesson again?

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


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



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.


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.


(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.

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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