Archive for the 'Hawtrey' Category

What’s Wrong with the Price-Specie-Flow Mechanism, Part III: Friedman and Schwartz on the Great US Inflation of 1933

I have been writing recently about two great papers by McCloskey and Zecher (“How the Gold Standard Really Worked” and “The Success of Purchasing Power Parity”) on the gold standard and the price-specie-flow mechanism (PSFM). This post, for the time being at any rate, will be the last in the series. My main topic in this post is the four-month burst of inflation in the US from April through July of 1933, an episode that largely escaped the notice of Friedman and Schwartz in their Monetary History  of the US, an omission criticized by McCloskey and Zecher in their purchasing-power-parity paper. (I will mention parenthetically that the 1933 inflation was noticed and its importance understood by R. G. Hawtrey in the second (1933) edition of his book Trade Depression and the Way Out and by Scott Sumner in his 2015 book The Midas Paradox. Both Hawtrey and Sumner emphasize the importance of the aborted 1933 recovery as have Jalil and Rua in an important recent paper.) In his published comment on the purchasing-power-parity paper, Friedman (pp. 157-62) responded to the critique by McCloskey and Zecher, and I will look carefully at that response below. But before discussing Friedman’s take on the 1933 inflation, I want to make four general comments about the two McCloskey and Zecher papers.

My first comment concerns an assertion made in a couple of places in which they interpret balance-of-payments surpluses or deficits under a fixed-exchange-rate regime as the mechanism by which excess demands for (supplies of) money in one country are accommodated by way of a balance-of-payments surpluses (deficits). Thus, given a fixed exchange rate between country A and country B, if the quantity of money in country A is less than the amount that the public in country A want to hold, the amount of money held in country A will be increased as the public, seeking to add to their cash holdings, collectively spend less than their income, thereby generating an export surplus relative to country B, and inducing a net inflow of country B’s currency into country A to be converted into country A’s currency at the fixed exchange rate. The argument is correct, but it glosses over a subtle point: excess supplies of, and excess demands for, money in this context are not absolute, but comparative. Money flows into whichever country has the relatively larger excess demand for money. Both countries may have an absolute excess supply of money, but the country with the comparatively smaller excess supply of money will nevertheless experience a balance-of-payments surplus and an inflow of cash.

My second comment is that although McCloskey and Zecher are correct to emphasize that the quantity of money in a country operating with a fixed exchange is endogenous, they fail to mention explicitly that, apart from the balance-of-payments mechanism under fixed exchange rates, the quantity of domestically produced inside money is endogenous, because there is a domestic market mechanism that adjusts the amount of inside money supplied by banks to the amount of inside money demanded by the public. Thus, under a fixed-exchange-rate regime, the quantity of inside money and the quantity of outside money are both endogenously determined, the quantity of inside money being determined by domestic forces, and the quantity of outside money determined by international forces operating through the balance-of-payments mechanism.

Which brings me to my third comment. McCloskey and Zecher have a two-stage argument. The first stage is that commodity arbitrage effectively constrains the prices of tradable goods in all countries linked by international trade. Not all commodities are tradable, and even tradable goods may be subject to varying limits — based on varying ratios of transportation costs to value — on the amount of price dispersion consistent with the arbitrage constraint. The second stage of their argument is that insofar as the prices of tradable goods are constrained by arbitrage, the rest of the price system is also effectively constrained, because economic forces constrain all relative prices to move toward their equilibrium values. So if the nominal prices of tradable goods are fixed by arbitrage, the tendency of relative prices between non-tradables and tradables to revert to their equilibrium values must constrain the nominal prices of non-tradable goods to move in the same direction as tradable-goods prices are moving. I don’t disagree with this argument in principle, but it’s subject to at least two qualifications.

First, monetary policy can alter spending patterns; if the monetary authority wishes, it can accumulate the inflow of foreign exchange that results when there is a domestic excess demand for money rather than allow the foreign-exchange inflow to increase the domestic money stock. If domestic money mostly consists of inside money supplied by private banks, preventing an increase in the quantity of inside money may require increasing the legal reserve requirements to which banks are subject. By not allowing the domestic money stock to increase in response to a foreign-exchange inflow, the central bank effectively limits domestic spending, thereby reducing the equilibrium ratio between the prices of non-tradables and tradables. A monetary policy that raises the relative price of tradables to non-tradables was called exchange-rate protection by the eminent Australian economist Max Corden. Although term “currency manipulation” is chronically misused to refer to any exchange-rate depreciation, the term is applicable to the special case in which exchange-rate depreciation is combined with a tight monetary policy thereby sustaining a reduced exchange rate.

Second, Although McCloskey and Zecher are correct that equilibrating forces normally cause the prices of non-tradables to move in the direction toward which arbitrage is forcing the prices of tradables to move, such equilibrating processes need not always operate powerfully. Suppose, to go back to David Hume’s classic thought experiment, the world is on a gold standard and the amount of gold in Britain is doubled while the amount of gold everywhere else is halved, so that the total world stock of gold is unchanged, just redistributed from the rest of the world to Britain. Under the PSFM view of the world, prices instantaneously double in Britain and fall by half in the rest of the world, and it only by seeking bargains in the rest of the world that Britain gradually exports gold to import goods from the rest of the world. Prices gradually fall in Britain and rise in the rest of the world; eventually (and as a first approximation) prices and the distribution of gold revert back to where they were originally. Alternatively, in the arbitrage view of the world, the prices of tradables don’t change, because in the world market for tradables, neither the amount of output nor the amount of gold has changed, so why should the price of tradables change? But if prices of tradables don’t change, does that mean that the prices of non-tradables won’t change? McCloskey and Zecher argue that if arbitrage prevents the prices of tradables from changing, the equilibrium relationship between the prices of tradables and non-tradables will also prevent the prices of non-tradables from changing.

I agree that the equilibrium relationship between the prices of tradables and non-tradables imposes some constraint on the movement of the prices of non-tradables, but the equilibrium relationship between the prices of tradables and non-tradables is not necessarily a constant. If people in Britain suddenly have more gold in their pockets, and they can buy all the tradable goods they want at unchanged prices, they may well increase their demand for non-tradables, causing the prices of British non-tradables to rise relative to the prices of tradables. The terms of trade will shift in Britain’s favor. Nevertheless, it would be very surprising if the price of non-tradables were to double, even momentarily, as the Humean PSFM argument suggests. Just because arbitrage does not strictly constrain the price of non-tradables does not mean that the appropriate default assumption is that the prices of non-tradables would rise by as much as suggested by a naïve quantity-theoretic PSFM extrapolation. Thus, the way to think of the common international price level under a fixed-exchange-rate regime is that the national price levels are linked by arbitrage, so that movements in national price levels are highly — but not necessarily perfectly — correlated.

My fourth comment is terminological. As Robert Lipsey (pp. 151-56) observes in his published comment about the McCloskey-Zecher paper on purchasing power parity (PPP), when the authors talk about PPP, they usually have in mind the narrower concept of the law of one price which says that commodity arbitrage keeps the prices of the same goods at different locations from deviating by more than the cost of transportation. Thus, a localized increase in the quantity of money at any location cannot force up the price of that commodity at that location by an amount exceeding the cost of transporting that commodity from the lowest cost alternative source of supply of that commodity. The quantity theory of money cannot operate outside the limits imposed by commodity arbitrage. That is the fundamental mistake underlying the PSFM.

PPP is a weaker proposition than the law of one price, refering to the relationship between exchange rates and price indices. If domestic price indices in two locations with different currencies rise by different amounts, PPP says that the expected change in the exchange rate between the two currencies is proportional to relative change in the price indices. But PPP is only an approximate relationship, while the law of one price is, within the constraints of transportation costs, an exact relationship. If all goods are tradable and transportation costs are zero, prices of all commodities sold in both locations will be equal. However, the price indices for the two location will not have the same composition, goods not being produced or consumed in the same proportions in the two locations. Thus, even if all goods sold in both locations sell at the same prices the price indices for the two locations need not change by the same proportions. If the price of a commodity exported by country A goes up relative to the price of the good exported by country B, the exchange rate between the two countries will change even if the law of one price is always satisfied. As I argued in part II of this series on PSFM, it was this terms-of-trade effect that accounted for the divergence between American and British price indices in the aftermath of the US resumption of gold convertibility in 1879. The law of one price can hold even if PPP doesn’t.

With those introductory comments out of the way, let’s now examine the treatment of the 1933 inflation in the Monetary History. The remarkable thing about the account of the 1933 inflation given by Friedman and Schwartz is that they treat it as if it were a non-event. Although industrial production increased by over 45% in a four-month period, accompanied by a 14% rise in wholesale prices, Friedman and Schwartz say almost nothing about the episode. Any mention of the episode is incidental to their description of the longer cyclical movements described in Chapter 9 of the Monetary History entitled “Cyclical Changes, 1933-41.” On p. 493, they observe: “the most notable feature of the revival after 1933 was not its rapidity but its incompleteness,” failing to mention that the increase of over 45% in industrial production from April to July was the largest increase industrial production over any four-month period (or even any 12-month period) in American history. In the next paragraph, Friedman and Schwartz continue:

The revival was initially erratic and uneven. Reopening of the banks was followed by rapid spurt in personal income and industrial production. The spurt was intensified by production in anticipation of the codes to be established under the National Industrial Recovery Act (passed June 16, 1933), which were expected to raise wage rates and prices, and did. (pp. 493-95)

Friedman and Schwartz don’t say anything about the suspension of convertibility by FDR and the devaluation of the dollar, all of which caused wholesale prices to rise immediately and substantially (14% in four months). It is implausible to think that the huge increase in industrial production and in wholesale prices was caused by the anticipation of increased wages and production quotas that would take place only after the NIRA was implemented, i.e., not before August. The reopening of the banks may have had some effect, but it is hard to believe that the effect would have accounted for more than a small fraction of the total increase or that it would have had a continuing effect over a four-month period. In discussing the behavior of prices, Friedman and Schwartz, write matter-of-factly:

Like production, wholesale prices first spurted in early 1933, partly for the same reason – in anticipation of the NIRA codes – partly under the stimulus of depreciation in the foreign exchange value of the dollar. (p. 496)

This statement is troubling for two reasons: 1) it seems to suggest that anticipation of the NIRA codes was at least as important as dollar depreciation in accounting for the rise in wholesale prices; 2) it implies that depreciation of the dollar was no more important than anticipation of the NIRA codes in accounting for the increase in industrial production. Finally, Friedman and Schwartz assess the behavior of prices and output over the entire 1933-37 expansion.

What accounts for the greater rise in wholesale prices in 1933-37, despite a probably higher fraction of the labor force unemployed and of physical capacity unutilized than in the two earlier expansions [i.e., 1879-82, 1897-1900]? One factor, already mentioned, was devaluation with its differential effect on wholesale prices. Another was almost surely the explicit measures to raise prices and wages undertaken with government encouragement and assistance, notably, NIRA, the Guffey Coal Act, the agricultural price-support program, and National Labor Relations Act. The first two were declared unconstitutional and lapsed, but they had some effect while in operation; the third was partly negated by Court decisions and then revised, but was effective throughout the expansion; the fourth, along with the general climate of opinion it reflected, became most important toward the end of the expansion.

There has been much discussion in recent years of a wage-price spiral or price-wage spiral as an explanation of post-World War II price movements. We have grave doubts that autonomous changes in wages and prices played an important role in that period. There seems to us a much stronger case for a wage-price or price-wage spiral interpretation of 1933-37 – indeed this is the only period in the near-century we cover for which such an explanation seems clearly justified. During those years there were autonomous forces raising wages and prices. (p. 498)

McCloskey and Zecher explain the implausibility of the idea that the 1933 burst of inflation (mostly concentrated in the April-July period) that largely occurred before NIRA was passed and almost completely occurred before the NIRA was implemented could be attributed to the NIRA.

The chief factual difficulties with the notion that the official cartels sanctioned by the NRA codes caused a rise in the general price level is that most of the NRA codes were not enacted until after the price rise. Ante hoc ergo non propter hoc. Look at the plot of wholesale prices of 1933 in figure 2.3 (retail prices, including such nontradables as housing, show a similar pattern). Most of the rise occurs in May, June, and July of 1933, but the NIRA was not even passed until June. A law passed, furthermore, is not a law enforced. However eager most businessmen must have been to cooperate with a government intent on forming monopolies, the formation took time. . . .

By September 1933, apparently before the approval of most NRA codes — and, judging from the late coming of compulsion, before the effective approval of agricultural codes-three-quarters of the total rise in wholesale prices and more of the total rise in retail food prices from March 1933 to the average of 1934 was complete. On the face of it, at least, the NRA is a poor candidate for a cause of the price rise. It came too late.

What came in time was the depreciation of the dollar, a conscious policy of the Roosevelt administration from the beginning. . . . There was certainly no contemporaneous price rise abroad to explain the 28-percent rise in American wholesale prices (and in retail food prices) between April 1933 and the high point in September 1934. In fact, in twenty-five countries the average rise was only 2.2 percent, with the American rise far and away the largest.

It would appear, in short, that the economic history of 1933 cannot be understood with a model closed to direct arbitrage. The inflation was no gradual working out of price-specie flow; less was it an inflation of aggregate demand. It happened quickly, well before most other New Deal policies (and in particular the NRA) could take effect, and it happened about when and to the extent that the dollar was devalued. By the standard of success in explaining major events, parity here works. (pp. 141-43)

In commenting on the McCloskey-Zecher paper, Friedman responds to their criticism of account of the 1933 inflation presented in the Monetary History. He quibbles about the figure in which McCloskey and Zecher showed that US wholesale prices were highly correlated with the dollar/sterling exchange rate after FDR suspended the dollar’s convertibility into gold in April, complaining that chart leaves the impression that the percentage increase in wholesale prices was as large as the 50% decrease in the dollar/sterling exchange rate, when in fact it was less than a third as large. A fair point, but merely tangential to the main issue: explaining the increase in wholesale prices. The depreciation in the dollar can explain the increase in wholesale prices even if the increase in wholesale prices is not as great as the depreciation of the dollar. Friedman continues:

In any event, as McCloskey and Zecher note, we pointed out in A Monetary History that there was a direct effect of devaluation on prices. However, the existence of a direct effect on wholesale prices is not incompatible with the existence of many other prices, as Moe Abramovitz has remarked, such as non-tradable-goods prices, that did not respond immediately or responded to different forces. An index of rents paid plotted against the exchange rate would not give the same result. An index of wages would not give the same result. (p. 161)

In saying that the Monetary History acknowledged that there was a direct effect of devaluation on prices, Friedman is being disingenuous; by implication at least, the Monetary History suggests that the importance of the NIRA for rising prices and output even in the April to July 1933 period was not inferior to the effect of devaluation on prices and output. Though (belatedly) acknowledging the primary importance of devaluation on wholesale prices, Friedman continues to suggest that factors other than devaluation could have accounted for the rise in wholesale prices — but (tellingly) without referring to the NIRA. Friedman then changes the subject to absence of devaluation effects on the prices of non-tradable goods and on wages. Thus, he is left with no substantial cause to explain the sudden rise in US wholesale prices between April and July 1933 other than the depreciation of the dollar, not the operation of PSFM. Friedman and Schwartz could easily have consulted Hawtrey’s definitive contemporaneous account of the 1933 inflation, but did not do so, referring only once to Hawtrey in the Monetary History (p. 99) in connection with changes by the Bank of England in Bank rate in 1881-82.

Having been almost uniformly critical of Friedman, I would conclude with a word on his behalf. In the context of Great Depression, I think there are good reasons to think that devaluation would not necessarily have had a significant effect on wages and the prices of non-tradables. At the bottom of a downturn, it’s likely that relative prices are far from their equilibrium values. So if we think of devaluation as a mechanism for recovery and restoring an economy to the neighborhood of equilibrium, we would not expect to see prices and wages rising uniformly. So if, for the sake of argument, we posit that real wages were in some sense too high at the bottom of the recession, we would not necessarily expect that a devaluation would cause wages (or the prices of non-tradables) to rise proportionately with wholesale prices largely determined in international markets. Friedman actually notes that the divergence between the increase of wholesale prices and the increase in the implicit price deflator in 1933-37 recovery was larger than in the 1879-82 or the 1897-99 recoveries. The magnitude of the necessary relative price adjustment in the 1933-37 episode may have been substantially greater than it was in either of the two earlier episodes.

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What’s Wrong with the Price-Specie-Flow Mechanism? Part I

The tortured intellectual history of the price-specie-flow mechanism (PSFM), which received its classic exposition in an essay (“Of the Balance of Trade”) by David Hume about 275 years ago is not a history that, properly understood, provides solid grounds for optimism about the chances for progress in what we, somewhat credulously, call economic science. In brief, the price-specie-flow mechanism asserts that, under a gold or commodity standard, deviations between the price levels of those countries on the gold standard induce gold to be shipped from countries where prices are relatively high to countries where prices are relatively low, the gold flows continuing until price levels are equalized. Hence, the compound adjective “price-specie-flow,” signifying that the mechanism is set in motion by price-level differences that induce gold (specie) flows.

The PSFM is thus premised on a version of the quantity theory of money in which price levels in each country on the gold standard are determined by the quantity of money circulating in that country. In his account, Hume assumed that money consists entirely of gold, so that he could present a scenario of disturbance and re-equilibration strictly in terms of changes in the amount of gold circulating in each country. Inasmuch as Hume held a deeply hostile attitude toward banks, believing them to be essentially inflationary engines of financial disorder, subsequent interpretations of the PSFM had to struggle to formulate a more general theoretical account of international monetary adjustment to accommodate the presence of the fractional-reserve banking so detested by Hume and to devise an institutional framework that would facilitate operation of the adjustment mechanism under a fractional-reserve-banking system.

In previous posts on this blog (e.g., here, here and here) a recent article on the history of the (misconceived) distinction between rules and discretion, I’ve discussed the role played by the PSFM in one not very successful attempt at monetary reform, the English Bank Charter Act of 1844. The Bank Charter Act was intended to ensure the maintenance of monetary equilibrium by reforming the English banking system so that it would operate the way Hume described it in his account of the PSFM. However, despite the failings of the Bank Charter Act, the general confusion about monetary theory and policy that has beset economic theory for over two centuries has allowed PSFM to retain an almost canonical status, so that it continues to be widely regarded as the basic positive and normative model of how the classical gold standard operated. Using the PSFM as their normative model, monetary “experts” came up with the idea that, in countries with gold inflows, monetary authorities should reduce interest rates (i.e., lending rates to the banking system) causing monetary expansion through the banking system, and, in countries losing gold, the monetary authorities should do the opposite. These vague maxims described as the “rules of the game,” gave only directional guidance about how to respond to an increase or decrease in gold reserves, thereby avoiding the strict numerical rules, and resulting financial malfunctions, prescribed by the Bank Charter Act.

In his 1932 defense of the insane gold-accumulation policy of the Bank of France, Hayek posited an interpretation of what the rules of the game required that oddly mirrored the strict numerical rules of the Bank Charter Act, insisting that, having increased the quantity of banknotes by about as much its gold reserves had increased after restoration of the gold convertibility of the franc, the Bank of France had done all that the “rules of the game” required it to do. In fairness to Hayek, I should note that decades after his misguided defense of the Bank of France, he was sharply critical of the Bank Charter Act. At any rate, the episode indicates how indefinite the “rules of the game” actually were as a guide to policy. And, for that reason alone, it is not surprising that evidence that the rules of the game were followed during the heyday of the gold standard (roughly 1880 to 1914) is so meager. But the main reason for the lack of evidence that the rules of the game were actually followed is that the PSFM, whose implementation the rules of the game were supposed to guarantee, was a theoretically flawed misrepresentation of the international-adjustment mechanism under the gold standard.

Until my second year of graduate school (1971-72), I had accepted the PSFM as a straightforward implication of the quantity theory of money, endorsed by such luminaries as Hayek, Friedman and Jacob Viner. I had taken Axel Leijonhufvud’s graduate macro class in my first year, so in my second year I audited Earl Thompson’s graduate macro class in which he expounded his own unique approach to macroeconomics. One of the first eye-opening arguments that Thompson made was to deny that the quantity theory of money is relevant to an economy on the gold standard, the kind of economy (allowing for silver and bimetallic standards as well) that classical economics, for the most part, dealt with. It was only after the Great Depression that fiat money was widely accepted as a viable system for the long-term rather than a mere temporary wartime expedient.

What determines the price level for a gold-standard economy? Thompson’s argument was simple. The value of gold is determined relative to every other good in the economy by exactly the same forces of supply and demand that determine relative prices for every other real good. If gold is the standard, or numeraire, in terms of which all prices are quoted, then the nominal price of gold is one (the relative price of gold in terms of itself). A unit of currency is specified as a certain quantity of gold, so the price level measure in terms of the currency unit varies inversely with the value of gold. The amount of money in such an economy will correspond to the amount of gold, or, more precisely, to the amount of gold that people want to devote to monetary, as opposed to real (non-monetary), uses. But financial intermediaries (banks) will offer to exchange IOUs convertible on demand into gold for IOUs of individual agents. The IOUs of banks have the property that they are accepted in exchange, unlike the IOUs of individual agents which are not accepted in exchange (not strictly true as bills of exchange have in the past been widely accepted in exchange). Thus, the amount of money (IOUs payable on demand) issued by the banking system depends on how much money, given the value of gold, the public wants to hold; whenever people want to hold more money than they have on hand, they obtain additional money by exchanging their own IOUs – not accepted in payment — with a bank for a corresponding amount of the bank’s IOUs – which are accepted in payment.

Thus, the simple monetary theory that corresponds to a gold standard starts with a value of gold determined by real factors. Given the public’s demand to hold money, the banking system supplies whatever quantity of money is demanded by the public at a price level corresponding to the real value of gold. This monetary theory is a theory of an ideal banking system producing a competitive supply of money. It is the basic monetary paradigm of Adam Smith and a significant group of subsequent monetary theorists who formed the Banking School (and also the Free Banking School) that opposed the Currency School doctrine that provided the rationale for the Bank Charter Act. The model is highly simplified and based on assumptions that aren’t necessarily fulfilled always or even at all in the real world. The same qualification applies to all economic models, but the realism of the monetary model is certainly open to question.

So under the ideal gold-standard model described by Thompson, what was the mechanism of international monetary adjustment? All countries on the gold standard shared a common price level, because, under competitive conditions, prices for any tradable good at any two points in space can deviate by no more than the cost of transporting that product from one point to the other. If geographic price differences are constrained by transportation costs, then the price effects of an increased quantity of gold at any location cannot be confined to prices at that location; arbitrage spreads the price effect at one location across the whole world. So the basic premise underlying the PSFM — that price differences across space resulting from any disturbance to the equilibrium distribution of gold would trigger equilibrating gold shipments to equalize prices — is untenable; price differences between any two points are always constrained by the cost of transportation between those points, whatever the geographic distribution of gold happens to be.

Aside from the theoretical point that there is a single world price level – actually it’s more correct to call it a price band reflecting the range of local price differences consistent with arbitrage — that exists under the gold standard, so that the idea that local prices vary in proportion to the local money stock is inconsistent with standard price theory, Thompson also provided an empirical refutation of the PSFM. According to the PSFM, when gold is flowing into one country and out of another, the price levels in the two countries should move in opposite directions. But the evidence shows that price-level changes in gold-standard countries were highly correlated even when gold flows were in the opposite direction. Similarly, if PSFM were correct, cyclical changes in output and employment should have been correlated with gold flows, but no such correlation between cyclical movements and gold flows is observed in the data. It was on this theoretical foundation that Thompson built a novel — except that Hawtrey and Cassel had anticipated him by about 50 years — interpretation of the Great Depression as a deflationary episode caused by a massive increase in the demand for gold between 1929 and 1933, in contrast to Milton Friedman’s narrative that explained the Great Depression in terms of massive contraction in the US money stock between 1929 and 1933.

Thompson’s ideas about the gold standard, which he had been working on for years before I encountered them, were in the air, and it wasn’t long before I encountered them in the work of Harry Johnson, Bob Mundell, Jacob Frenkel and others at the University of Chicago who were then developing what came to be known as the monetary approach to the balance of payments. Not long after leaving UCLA in 1976 for my first teaching job, I picked up a volume edited by Johnson and Frenkel with the catchy title The Monetary Approach to the Balance of Payments. I studied many of the papers in the volume, but only two made a lasting impression, the first by Johnson and Frenkel “The Monetary Approach to the Balance of Payments: Essential Concepts and Historical Origins,” and the last by McCloskey and Zecher, “How the Gold Standard Really Worked.” Reinforcing what I had learned from Thompson, the papers provided a deeper understanding of the relevant history of thought on the international-monetary-adjustment  mechanism, and the important empirical and historical evidence that contradicts the PSFM. I also owe my interest in Hawtrey to the Johnson and Frenkel paper which cites Hawtrey repeatedly for many of the basic concepts of the monetary approach, especially the existence of a single arbitrage-constrained international price level under the gold standard.

When I attended the History of Economics Society Meeting in Toronto a couple of weeks ago, I had the  pleasure of meeting Deirdre McCloskey for the first time. Anticipating that we would have a chance to chat, I reread the 1976 paper in the Johnson and Frenkel volume and a follow-up paper by McCloskey and Zecher (“The Success of Purchasing Power Parity: Historical Evidence and Its Implications for Macroeconomics“) that appeared in a volume edited by Michael Bordo and Anna Schwartz, A Retrospective on the Classical Gold Standard. We did have a chance to chat and she did attend the session at which I talked about Friedman and the gold standard, but regrettably the chat was not a long one, so I am going to try to keep the conversation going with this post, and the next one in which I will discuss the two McCloskey and Zecher papers and especially the printed comment to the later paper that Milton Friedman presented at the conference for which the paper was written. So stay tuned.

PS Here is are links to Thompson’s essential papers on monetary theory, “The Theory of Money and Income Consistent with Orthodox Value Theory” and “A Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory” about which I have written several posts in the past. And here is a link to my paper “A Reinterpretation of Classical Monetary Theory” showing that Earl’s ideas actually captured much of what classical monetary theory was all about.

Stock Prices, the Economy and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Paul Krugman has a nice column today warning us that the recent record highs in the stock market indices don’t mean that happy days are here again. While I agree with much of what he says, I don’t agree with all of it, so let me try to sort out what I think is right and what I think may not be right.

Like most economists, I don’t usually have much to say about stocks. Stocks are even more susceptible than other markets to popular delusions and the madness of crowds, and stock prices generally have a lot less to do with the state of the economy or its future prospects than many people believe.

I think that’s generally right. The efficient market hypothesis (EMH) is at best misleading in positing that market prices are determined by solid fundamentals. What does it mean for fundamentals to be solid? It means that the fundamentals remain what they are independent of what people think they are. But if fundamentals themselves depend on opinions, the idea that values are determined by fundamentals is a snare and a delusion. So the fundamental idea on which the EMH is premised that there are fundamentals is itself fundamentally wrong. Fundamentals are no more than conjectures and psychologically flimsy perceptions, and individual perceptions are themselves very much influenced by how other people perceive the world and their perceptions. That’s why fads are contagious and bubbles can arise. But because fundamentals are nothing but opinions, expectations can be self-fulfilling. So it is possible for some ex ante bubbles to wind up being justified ex post, but only because expectations can be self-fulfilling.

Still, we shouldn’t completely ignore stock prices. The fact that the major averages have lately been hitting new highs — the Dow has risen 177 percent from its low point in March 2009 — is newsworthy and noteworthy. What are those Wall Street indexes telling us?

Stock prices are in fact governed by expectations, but expectations may or may not be rational, where a rational expectation is an expectation that could actually be realized in some possible state of the world.

The answer, I’d suggest, isn’t entirely positive. In fact, in some ways the stock market’s gains reflect economic weaknesses, not strengths. And understanding how that works may help us make sense of the troubling state our economy is in. . . .

The truth . . . is that there are three big points of slippage between stock prices and the success of the economy in general. First, stock prices reflect profits, not overall incomes. Second, they also reflect the availability of other investment opportunities — or the lack thereof. Finally, the relationship between stock prices and real investment that expands the economy’s capacity has gotten very tenuous.

To put this into the slightly different language of basic financial theory, stock prices reflect the expected future cash flows from owning shares of publicly traded corporations. So stock prices reflect the net value of the tangible and intangible capital assets of these corporations. The public valuations of those assets reflected in stock prices reflect expectations about the future income streams associated with those assets, but those expected future income streams must be discounted so that they can be expressed as a present value. The rate at which future income streams are discounted into the present represents what Krugman calls “the availability of other investment opportunities.” If lots of good investment opportunities are available, then future income streams will be discounted at a higher rate than if there aren’t so many good investment opportunities. In theory the discount rate at which future income streams are discounted would reflect the rate of return corresponding to the marginal investment opportunities that are on the verge of being adopted or abandoned, because they just break even. What Krugman means by the tenuous relationship between stock prices and real investment that expands the economy’ capacity will have to be considered below.

Krugman maintains that, over the past two decades, even though the economy as a whole has not done all that well, stock prices have increased a lot, because the share of capital in total GDP has increased at the expense of labor. He also points out that the low — even negative — real interest rates on government bonds are indicative of the poor opportunities now available (at the margin) to investors.

And these days those options [“for converting money today into income tomorrow”] are pretty poor, with interest rates on long-term government bonds not only very low by historical standards but zero or negative once you adjust for inflation. So investors are willing to pay a lot for future income, hence high stock prices for any given level of profits.

Two points should be noted here. First, scare talk about low interest rates causing bubbles because investors search for yield is nonsense. Even in a fundamentalist EMH universe, a deterioration of marginal investment opportunities causing a drop in the real interest rate will, for given expectations of future income streams, imply that the present value of the assets generating those streams would rise. Rising asset prices in such circumstances are totally rational, which is exactly what bubbles are not. Second, the low interest rates on long-term government bonds are not the cause of poor investment opportunities but the result of poor investment opportunities. Krugman certainly understands that, but many of his readers might not.

But why are long-term interest rates so low? As I argued in my last column, the answer is basically weakness in investment spending, despite low short-term interest rates, which suggests that those rates will have to stay low for a long time.

Again, this seems inexactly worded. Weakness in investment spending is a symptom not a cause, so we are back to where we started from. At the margin, there are no attractive investment opportunities. The mystery deepens:

This may seem, however, to present a paradox. If the private sector doesn’t see itself as having a lot of good investment opportunities, how can profits be so high? The answer, I’d suggest, is that these days profits often seem to bear little relationship to investment in new capacity. Instead, profits come from some kind of market power — brand position, the advantages of an established network, or good old-fashioned monopoly. And companies making profits from such power can simultaneously have high stock prices and little reason to spend.

Why do profits bear only a weak relationship to investment in new capacity? Krugman suggests that the cause  is that rising profits are due to the exercise of market power, firms increasing profits not by increasing output, but by restricting output to raise prices (not necessarily in absolute terms but relative to costs). This is a kind of microeconomic explanation of a macroeconomic phenomenon, which does not necessarily make it wrong, but it is a somewhat anomalous argument for a Keynesian. Be that as it may, to be credible such an argument must explain how the share of corporate profits in total income has been able to grow steadily for nearly twenty years. What would account for a steady economy-wide increase in the market power of corporations lasting for two decades?

Consider the fact that the three most valuable companies in America are Apple, Google and Microsoft. None of the three spends large sums on bricks and mortar. In fact, all three are sitting on huge reserves of cash. When interest rates go down, they don’t have much incentive to spend more on expanding their businesses; they just keep raking in earnings, and the public becomes willing to pay more for a piece of those earnings.

Krugman’s example suggests that the continuing increase in market power, if that is what has been happening, has been structural. By structural I mean that much of the growth in the economy over the past two decades has been in sectors characterized by strong network effects or aggressive enforcement of intellectual property rights. Network effects and strong intellectual property rights tend to create, enhance, and entrench market power, supporting very large gaps between prices and variable costs, which is the standard metric for identifying exercises of market power. The nature of what these companies offer consumers is such that their marginal cost of production is very low, so that reducing price and expanding output would not require a substantial increase in their demand for inputs (at least compared to other industries with higher marginal costs), but would cause a big loss of profit.

But I would suggest looking at the problem from a different perspective, using the distinction between two kinds of capital investment proposed by Ralph Hawtrey. One kind of investment is capital deepening, which involves an increase in the capital intensity of production, the idea being to reduce the cost of production by installing new or better equipment to economize on other inputs (usually labor); the other kind of investment is capital widening, which involves an increase in the scale of output but not in capital intensity, for example building a new plant or expanding an existing one. Capital deepening tends to reduce the demand for labor while capital widening tends to increase it.

More of the investment now being undertaken may be of the capital-deepening sort than has been true historically. Aside from the structural shifts mentioned above, the reduction in capital-widening investment may be the result of declining optimism by businesses in their projections about future demand for their products, making capital-widening investments seem less profitable. For the economy as a whole, a decline in optimism about future demand may turn out to be self-fulfilling. Thus, an increasing share of total investment has become capital-deepening and a declining share capital-widening. But for the economy as a whole, this self-fulfilling pessimism implies that total investment declines. The question is whether monetary (or fiscal) policy could now do anything to increase expectations of future demand sufficiently to induce an self-fulfilling increase in optimism and in capital-widening investment.

 

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.

Competitive Devaluation Plus Monetary Expansion Does Create a Free Lunch

I want to begin this post by saying that I’m flattered by, and grateful to, Frances Coppola for the first line of her blog post yesterday. But – and I note that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – I fear I have to take issue with her over competitive devaluation.

Frances quotes at length from a quotation from Hawtrey’s Trade Depression and the Way Out that I used in a post I wrote almost four years ago. Hawtrey explained why competitive devaluation in the 1930s was – and in my view still is – not a problem (except under extreme assumptions, which I will discuss at the end of this post). Indeed, I called competitive devaluation a free lunch, providing her with a title for her post. Here’s the passage that Frances quotes:

This competitive depreciation is an entirely imaginary danger. The benefit that a country derives from the depreciation of its currency is in the rise of its price level relative to its wage level, and does not depend on its competitive advantage. If other countries depreciate their currencies, its competitive advantage is destroyed, but the advantage of the price level remains both to it and to them. They in turn may carry the depreciation further, and gain a competitive advantage. But this race in depreciation reaches a natural limit when the fall in wages and in the prices of manufactured goods in terms of gold has gone so far in all the countries concerned as to regain the normal relation with the prices of primary products. When that occurs, the depression is over, and industry is everywhere remunerative and fully employed. Any countries that lag behind in the race will suffer from unemployment in their manufacturing industry. But the remedy lies in their own hands; all they have to do is to depreciate their currencies to the extent necessary to make the price level remunerative to their industry. Their tardiness does not benefit their competitors, once these latter are employed up to capacity. Indeed, if the countries that hang back are an important part of the world’s economic system, the result must be to leave the disparity of price levels partly uncorrected, with undesirable consequences to everybody. . . .

The picture of an endless competition in currency depreciation is completely misleading. The race of depreciation is towards a definite goal; it is a competitive return to equilibrium. The situation is like that of a fishing fleet threatened with a storm; no harm is done if their return to a harbor of refuge is “competitive.” Let them race; the sooner they get there the better. (pp. 154-57)

Here’s Frances’s take on Hawtrey and me:

The highlight “in terms of gold” is mine, because it is the key to why Glasner is wrong. Hawtrey was right in his time, but his thinking does not apply now. We do not value today’s currencies in terms of gold. We value them in terms of each other. And in such a system, competitive devaluation is by definition beggar-my-neighbour.

Let me explain. Hawtrey defines currency values in relation to gold, and advertises the benefit of devaluing in relation to gold. The fact that gold is the standard means there is no direct relationship between my currency and yours. I may devalue my currency relative to gold, but you do not have to: my currency will be worth less compared to yours, but if the medium of account is gold, this does not matter since yours will still be worth the same amount in terms of gold. Assuming that the world price of gold remains stable, devaluation therefore principally affects the DOMESTIC price level.  As Hawtrey says, there may additionally be some external competitive advantage, but this is not the principal effect and it does not really matter if other countries also devalue. It is adjusting the relationship of domestic wages and prices in terms of gold that matters, since this eventually forces down the price of finished goods and therefore supports domestic demand.

Conversely, in a floating fiat currency system such as we have now, if I devalue my currency relative to yours, your currency rises relative to mine. There may be a domestic inflationary effect due to import price rises, but we do not value domestic wages or the prices of finished goods in terms of other currencies, so there can be no relative adjustment of wages to prices such as Hawtrey envisages. Devaluing the currency DOES NOT support domestic demand in a floating fiat currency system. It only rebalances the external position by making imports relatively more expensive and exports relatively cheaper.

This difference is crucial. In a gold standard system, devaluing the currency is a monetary adjustment to support domestic demand. In a floating fiat currency system, itis an external adjustment to improve competitiveness relative to other countries.

Actually, Frances did not quote the entire passage from Hawtrey that I reproduced in my post, and Frances would have done well to quote from, and to think carefully about, what Hawtrey said in the paragraphs preceding the ones she quoted. Here they are:

When Great Britain left the gold standard, deflationary measure were everywhere resorted to. Not only did the Bank of England raise its rate, but the tremendous withdrawals of gold from the United States involved an increase of rediscounts and a rise of rates there, and the gold that reached Europe was immobilized or hoarded. . . .

The consequence was that the fall in the price level continued. The British price level rose in the first few weeks after the suspension of the gold standard, but then accompanied the gold price level in its downward trend. This fall of prices calls for no other explanation than the deflationary measures which had been imposed. Indeed what does demand explanation is the moderation of the fall, which was on the whole not so steep after September 1931 as before.

Yet when the commercial and financial world saw that gold prices were falling rather than sterling prices rising, they evolved the purely empirical conclusion that a depreciation of the pound had no effect in raising the price level, but that it caused the price level in terms of gold and of those currencies in relation to which the pound depreciated to fall.

For any such conclusion there was no foundation. Whenever the gold price level tended to fall, the tendency would make itself felt in a fall in the pound concurrently with the fall in commodities. But it would be quite unwarrantable to infer that the fall in the pound was the cause of the fall in commodities.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that the depreciation of any currency, by reducing the cost of manufacture in the country concerned in terms of gold, tends to lower the gold prices of manufactured goods. . . .

But that is quite a different thing from lowering the price level. For the fall in manufacturing costs results in a greater demand for manufactured goods, and therefore the derivative demand for primary products is increased. While the prices of finished goods fall, the prices of primary products rise. Whether the price level as a whole would rise or fall it is not possible to say a priori, but the tendency is toward correcting the disparity between the price levels of finished products and primary products. That is a step towards equilibrium. And there is on the whole an increase of productive activity. The competition of the country which depreciates its currency will result in some reduction of output from the manufacturing industry of other countries. But this reduction will be less than the increase in the country’s output, for if there were no net increase in the world’s output there would be no fall of prices.

So Hawtrey was refuting precisely the argument raised  by Frances. Because the value of gold was not stable after Britain left the gold standard and depreciated its currency, the deflationary effect in other countries was mistakenly attributed to the British depreciation. But Hawtrey points out that this reasoning was backwards. The fall in prices in the rest of the world was caused by deflationary measures that were increasing the demand for gold and causing prices in terms of gold to continue to fall, as they had been since 1929. It was the fall in prices in terms of gold that was causing the pound to depreciate, not the other way around

Frances identifies an important difference between an international system of fiat currencies in which currency values are determined in relationship to each other in foreign exchange markets and a gold standard in which currency values are determined relative to gold. However, she seems to be suggesting that currency values in a fiat money system affect only the prices of imports and exports. But that can’t be so, because if the prices of imports and exports are affected, then the prices of the goods that compete with imports and exports must also be affected. And if the prices of tradable goods are affected, then the prices of non-tradables will also — though probably with a lag — eventually be affected as well. Of course, insofar as relative prices before the change in currency values were not in equilibrium, one can’t predict that all prices will adjust proportionately after the change.

To make the point in more abstract terms, the principle of purchasing power parity (PPP) operates under both a gold standard and a fiat money standard, and one can’t just assume that the gold standard has some special property that allows PPP to hold, while PPP is somehow disabled under a fiat currency system. Absent an explanation of why PPP doesn’t hold in a floating fiat currency system, the assertion that devaluing a currency (i.e., driving down the exchange value of one currency relative to other currencies) “is an external adjustment to improve competitiveness relative to other countries” is baseless.

I would also add a semantic point about this part of Frances’s argument:

We do not value today’s currencies in terms of gold. We value them in terms of each other. And in such a system, competitive devaluation is by definition beggar-my-neighbour.

Unfortunately, Frances falls into the common trap of believing that a definition actually tell us something about the real word, when in fact a definition tell us no more than what meaning is supposed to be attached to a word. The real world is invariant with respect to our definitions; our definitions convey no information about reality. So for Frances to say – apparently with the feeling that she is thereby proving her point – that competitive devaluation is by definition beggar-my-neighbour is completely uninformative about happens in the world; she is merely informing us about how she chooses to define the words she is using.

Frances goes on to refer to this graph taken from Gavyn Davies in the Financial Times, concerning a speech made by Stanley Fischer about research done by Fed staff economists showing that the 20% appreciation in the dollar over the past 18 months has reduced the rate of US inflation by as much as 1% and is projected to cause US GDP in three years to be about 3% lower than it would have been without dollar appreciation.Gavyn_Davies_Chart

Frances focuses on these two comments by Gavyn. First:

Importantly, the impact of the higher exchange rate does not reverse itself, at least in the time horizon of this simulation – it is a permanent hit to the level of GDP, assuming that monetary policy is not eased in the meantime.

And then:

According to the model, the annual growth rate should have dropped by about 0.5-1.0 per cent by now, and this effect should increase somewhat further by the end of this year.

Then, Frances continues:

But of course this assumes that the US does not ease monetary policy further. Suppose that it does?

The hit to net exports shown on the above graph is caused by imports becoming relatively cheaper and exports relatively more expensive as other countries devalue. If the US eased monetary policy in order to devalue the dollar support nominal GDP, the relative prices of imports and exports would rebalance – to the detriment of those countries attempting to export to the US.

What Frances overlooks is that by easing monetary policy to support nominal GDP, the US, aside from moderating or reversing the increase in its real exchange rate, would have raised total US aggregate demand, causing US income and employment to increase as well. Increased US income and employment would have increased US demand for imports (and for the products of American exporters), thereby reducing US net exports and increasing aggregate demand in the rest of the world. That was Hawtrey’s argument why competitive devaluation causes an increase in total world demand. Francis continues with a description of the predicament of the countries affected by US currency devaluation:

They have three choices: they respond with further devaluation of their own currencies to support exports, they impose import tariffs to support their own balance of trade, or they accept the deflationary shock themselves. The first is the feared “competitive devaluation” – exporting deflation to other countries through manipulation of the currency; the second, if widely practised, results in a general contraction of global trade, to everyone’s detriment; and you would think that no government would willingly accept the third.

But, as Hawtrey showed, competitive devaluation is not a problem. Depreciating your currency cushions the fall in nominal income and aggregate demand. If aggregate demand is kept stable, then the increased output, income, and employment associated with a falling exchange rate will spill over into a demand for the exports of other countries and an increase in the home demand for exportable home products. So it’s a win-win situation.

However, the Fed has permitted passive monetary tightening over the last eighteen months, and in December 2015 embarked on active monetary tightening in the form of interest rate rises. Davies questions the rationale for this, given the extraordinary rise in the dollar REER and the growing evidence that the US economy is weakening. I share his concern.

And I share his concern, too. So what are we even arguing about? Equally troubling is how passive tightening has reduced US demand for imports and for US exportable products, so passive tightening has negative indirect effects on aggregate demand in the rest of the world.

Although currency depreciation generally tends to increase the home demand for imports and for exportables, there are in fact conditions when the general rule that competitive devaluation is expansionary for all countries may be violated. In a number of previous posts (e.g., this, this, this, this and this) about currency manipulation, I have explained that when currency depreciation is undertaken along with a contractionary monetary policy, the terms-of-trade effect predominates without any countervailing effect on aggregate demand. If a country depreciates its exchange rate by intervening in foreign-exchange markets, buying foreign currencies with its own currency, thereby raising the value of foreign currencies relative to its own currency, it is also increasing the quantity of the domestic currency in the hands of the public. Increasing the quantity of domestic currency tends to raise domestic prices, thereby reversing, though probably with a lag, the effect on the currency’s real exchange rate. To prevent the real-exchange rate from returning to its previous level, the monetary authority must sterilize the issue of domestic currency with which it purchased foreign currencies. This can be done by open-market sales of assets by the cental bank, or by imposing increased reserve requirements on banks, thereby forcing banks to hold the new currency that had been created to depreciate the home currency.

This sort of currency manipulation, or exchange-rate protection, as Max Corden referred to it in his classic paper (reprinted here), is very different from conventional currency depreciation brought about by monetary expansion. The combination of currency depreciation and tight money creates an ongoing shortage of cash, so that the desired additional cash balances can be obtained only by way of reduced expenditures and a consequent export surplus. Since World War II, Japan, Germany, Taiwan, South Korea, and China are among the countries that have used currency undervaluation and tight money as a mechanism for exchange-rate protectionism in promoting industrialization. But exchange rate protection is possible not only under a fiat currency system. Currency manipulation was also possible under the gold standard, as happened when the France restored the gold standard in 1928, and pegged the franc to the dollar at a lower exchange rate than the franc had reached prior to the restoration of convertibility. That depreciation was accompanied by increased reserve requirements on French banknotes, providing the Bank of France with a continuing inflow of foreign exchange reserves with which it was able to pursue its insane policy of accumulating gold, thereby precipitating, with a major assist from the high-interest rate policy of the Fed, the deflation that turned into the Great Depression.

Keynes on the Theory of Interest

In my previous post, I asserted that Keynes used the idea that savings and investment (in the aggregated) are identically equal to dismiss the neoclassical theory of interest of Irving Fisher, which was based on the idea that the interest rate equilibrates savings and investment. One of the commenters on my post, George Blackford, challenged my characterization of Keynes’s position.

I find this to be a rather odd statement for when I read Keynes I didn’t find anywhere that he argued this sort of thing. He often argued that “an act of saving” or “an act of investing” in itself could not have an direct effect on the rate of interest, and he said things like: “Assuming that the decisions to invest become effective, they must in doing so either curtail consumption or expand income”, but I don’t find him saying that savings and investment could not determine the rate of interest are identical.

A quote from Keynes in which he actually says something to this effect would be helpful here.

Now I must admit that in writing this characterization of what Keynes was doing, I was relying on my memory of how Hawtrey characterized Keynes’s theory of interest in his review of the General Theory, and did not look up the relevant passages in the General Theory. Of course, I do believe that Hawtrey’s characterization of what Keynes said to be very reliable, but it is certainly not as authoritative as a direct quotation from Keynes himself, so I have been checking up on the General Theory for the last couple of days. I actually found that Keynes’s discussion in the General Theory was less helpful than Keynes’s 1937 article “Alternative Theories of the Rate of Interest” in which Keynes responded to criticisms by Ohlin, Robertson, and Hawtrey, of his liquidity-preference theory of interest. So I will use that source rather than what seems to me to be the less direct and more disjointed exposition in the General Theory.

Let me also remark parenthetically that Keynes did not refer to Fisher at all in discussing what he called the “classical” theory of interest which he associated with Alfred Marshall, his only discussion of Fisher in the General Theory being limited to a puzzling criticism of the Fisher relation between the real and nominal rates of interest. That seems to me to be an astonishing omission, perhaps reflecting a deplorable Cambridgian provincialism or chauvinism that would not deign to acknowledge Fisher’s magisterial accomplishment in incorporating the theory of interest into the neoclassical theory of general equilibrium. Equally puzzling is that Keynes chose to refer to Marshall’s theory (which I am assuming he considered an adequate proxy for Fisher’s) as the “classical” theory while reserving the term “neo-classical” for the Austrian theory that he explicitly associates with Mises, Hayek, and Robbins.

Here is how Keynes described his liquidity-preference theory:

The liquidity-preference theory of the rate of interest which I have set forth in my General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money makes the rate of interest to depend on the present supply of money and the demand schedule for a present claim on money in terms of a deferred claim on money. This can be put briefly by saying that the rate of interest depends on the demand and supply of money. . . . (p. 241)

The theory of the rate of interest which prevailed before (let us say) 1914 regarded it as the factor which ensured equality between saving and investment. It was never suggested that saving and investment could be unequal. This idea arose (for the first time, so far as I am aware) with certain post-war theories. In maintaining the equality of saving and investment, I am, therefore, returning to old-fashioned orthodoxy. The novelty in my treatment of saving and investment consists, not in my maintaining their necessary aggregate equality, but in the proposition that it is, not the rate of interest, but the level of incomes which (in conjunction with certain other factors) ensures this equality. (pp. 248-49)

As Hawtrey and Robertson explained in their rejoinders to Keynes, the necessary equality in the “classical” system between aggregate savings and aggregate investment of which Keynes spoke was not a definitional equality but a condition of equilibrium. Plans to save and plans to invest will be consistent in equilibrium and the rate of interest – along with all the other variables in the system — must be such that the independent plans of savers and investors will be mutually consistent. Keynes had no basis for simply asserting that this consistency of plans is ensured entirely by way of adjustments in income to the exclusion of adjustments in the rate of interest. Nor did he have a basis for asserting that the adjustment to a discrepancy between planned savings and planned investment was necessarily an adjustment in income rather than an adjustment in the rate of interest. If prices adjust in response to excess demands and excess supplies in the normal fashion, it would be natural to assume that an excess of planned savings over planned investment would cause the rate of interest to fall. That’s why most economists would say that the drop in real interest rates since 2008 has been occasioned by a persistent tendency for planned savings to exceed planned investment.

Keynes then explicitly stated that his liquidity preference theory was designed to fill the theoretical gap left by his realization that a change income not in the interest rate is what equalizes savings and investment (even while insisting that savings and investment are necessarily equal by definition).

As I have said above, the initial novelty lies in my maintaining that it is not the rate of interest, but the level of incomes which ensures equality between saving and investment. The arguments which lead up to this initial conclusion are independent of my subsequent theory of the rate of interest, and in fact I reached it before I had reached the latter theory. But the result of it was to leave the rate of interest in the air. If the rate of interest is not determined by saving and investment in the same way in which price is determined by supply and demand, how is it determined? One naturally began by supposing that the rate of interest must be determined in some sense by productivity-that it was, perhaps, simply the monetary equivalent of the marginal efficiency of capital, the latter being independently fixed by physical and technical considerations in conjunction with the expected demand. It was only when this line of approach led repeatedly to what seemed to be circular reasoning, that I hit on what I now think to be the true explanation. The resulting theory, whether right or wrong, is exceedingly simple-namely, that the rate of interest on a loan of given quality and maturity has to be established at the level which, in the opinion of those who have the opportunity of choice -i.e. of wealth-holders-equalises the attractions of holding idle cash and of holding the loan. It would be true to say that this by itself does not carry us very far. But it gives us firm and intelligible ground from which to proceed. (p. 250)

Thus, Keynes denied forthrightly the notion that the rate of interest is in any way determined by the real forces of what in Fisherian terms are known as the impatience to spend income and the opportunity to invest it. However, his argument was belied by his own breathtakingly acute analysis in chapter 17 of the General Theory (“The Properties of Interest and Money”) in which, applying and revising ideas discussed by Sraffa in his 1932 review of Hayek’s Prices and Production he introduced the idea of own rates of interest.

The rate of interest (as we call it for short) is, strictly speaking, a monetary phenomenon in the special sense that it is the own-rate of interest (General Theory, p. 223) on money itself, i.e. that it equalises the advantages of holding actual cash and a deferred claim on cash. (p. 245)

The huge gap in Keynes’s reasoning here is that he neglected to say at what rate of return “the advantages of holding actual cash and a deferred claim on cash” or, for that matter, of holding any other real asset are equalized. That’s the rate of return – the real rate of interest — for which Irving Fisher provided an explanation. Keynes simply ignored — or forgot about — it, leaving the real rate of interest totally unexplained.

Keynes and Accounting Identities

In a post earlier this week, Michael Pettis was kind enough to refer to a passage from Ralph Hawtrey’s review of Keynes’s General Theory, which I had quoted in an earlier post, criticizing Keynes’s reliance on accounting identities to refute the neoclassical proposition that it is the rate of interest which equilibrates savings and investment. Here’s what Pettis wrote:

Keynes, who besides being one of the most intelligent people of the 20th century was also so ferociously logical (and these two qualities do not necessarily overlap) that he was almost certainly incapable of making a logical mistake or of forgetting accounting identities. Not everyone appreciated his logic. For example his also-brilliant contemporary (but perhaps less than absolutely logical), Ralph Hawtrey, was “sharply critical of Keynes’s tendency to argue from definitions rather than from causal relationships”, according to FTC economist David Glasner, whose gem of a blog, Uneasy Money, is dedicated to reviving interest in the work of Ralph Hawtrey. In a recent entry Glasner quotes Hawtrey:

[A]n essential step in [Keynes’s] train of reasoning is the proposition that investment and saving are necessarily equal. That proposition Mr. Keynes never really establishes; he evades the necessity doing so by defining investment and saving as different names for the same thing. He so defines income to be the same thing as output, and therefore, if investment is the excess of output over consumption, and saving is the excess of income over consumption, the two are identical. Identity so established cannot prove anything. The idea that a tendency for investment and saving to become different has to be counteracted by an expansion or contraction of the total of incomes is an absurdity; such a tendency cannot strain the economic system, it can only strain Mr. Keynes’s vocabulary.

This is a very typical criticism of certain kinds of logical thinking in economics, and of course it misses the point because Keynes is not arguing from definition. It is certainly true that “identity so established cannot prove anything”, if by that we mean creating or supporting a hypothesis, but Keynes does not use identities to prove any creation. He uses them for at least two reasons. First, because accounting identities cannot be violated, any model or hypothesis whose logical corollaries or conclusions implicitly violate an accounting identity is automatically wrong, and the model can be safely ignored. Second, and much more usefully, even when accounting identities have not been explicitly violated, by identifying the relevant identities we can make explicit the sometimes very fuzzy assumptions that are implicit to the model an analyst is using, and focus the discussion, appropriately, on these assumptions.

I agree with Pettis that Keynes had an extraordinary mind, but even great minds are capable of making mistakes, and I don’t think Keynes was an exception. And on the specific topic of Keynes’s use of the accounting identity that expenditure must equal income and savings must equal investment, I think that the context of Keynes’s discussion of that identity makes it clear that Keynes was not simply invoking the identity to prevent some logical slipup, as Pettis suggests, but was using it to deny the neoclassical Fisherian theory of interest which says that the rate of interest represents the intertemporal rate of substitution between present and future goods in consumption and the rate of transformation between present and future goods in production. Or, in less rigorous terminology, the rate of interest reflects the marginal rate of time preference and the marginal rate of productivity of capital. In its place, Keynes wanted to substitute a pure monetary or liquidity-preference theory of the rate of interest.

Keynes tried to show that the neoclassical theory could not possibly be right, inasmuch as, according to the theory, the equilibrium rate of interest is the rate that equilibrates the supply of with the demand for loanable funds. Keynes argued that because investment and savings are identically equal, savings and investment could not determine the rate of interest. But Keynes then turned right around and said that actually the equality of savings and investment determines the level of income. Well, if savings and investment are identically equal, so that the rate of interest can’t be determined by equilibrating the market for loanable funds, it is equally impossible for savings and investment to determine the level of income.

Keynes was unable to distinguish the necessary accounting identity of savings and investment from the contingent equality of savings and investment as an equilibrium condition. For savings and investment to determine the level of income, there must be some alternative definition of savings and investment that allows them to be unequal except at equilibrium. But if there are alternative definitions of savings and investment that allow those magnitudes to be unequal out of equilibrium — and there must be such alternative definitions if the equality of savings and investment determines the level of income — there is no reason why the equality of savings and investment could not be an equilibrium condition for the rate of interest. So Keynes’s attempt to refute the neoclassical theory of interest failed. That was Hawtrey’s criticism of Keynes’s use of the savings-investment accounting identity.

Pettis goes on to cite Keynes’s criticism of the Versailles Treaty in The Economic Consequences of the Peace as another example of Keynes’s adroit use of accounting identities to expose fallacious thinking.

A case in point is The Economic Consequences of the Peace, the heart of whose argument rests on one of those accounting identities that are both obvious and easily ignored. When Keynes wrote the book, several members of the Entente – dominated by England, France, and the United States – were determined to force Germany to make reparations payments that were extraordinarily high relative to the economy’s productive capacity. They also demanded, especially France, conditions that would protect them from Germany’s export prowess (including the expropriation of coal mines, trains, rails, and capital equipment) while they rebuilt their shattered manufacturing capacity and infrastructure.

The argument Keynes made in objecting to these policies demands was based on a very simple accounting identity, namely that the balance of payments for any country must balance, i.e. it must always add to zero. The various demands made by France, Belgium, England and the other countries that had been ravaged by war were mutually contradictory when expressed in balance of payments terms, and if this wasn’t obvious to the former belligerents, it should be once they were reminded of the identity that required outflows to be perfectly matched by inflows.

In principle, I have no problem with such a use of accounting identities. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out the logical inconsistency between wanting Germany to pay reparations and being unwilling to accept payment in anything but gold. Using an accounting identity in this way is akin to using the law of conservation of energy to point out that perpetual motion is impossible. However, essentially the same argument could be made using an equilibrium condition for the balance of payments instead of an identity. The difference is that the accounting identity tells you nothing about how the system evolves over time. For that you need a behavioral theory that explains how the system adjusts when the equilibrium conditions are not satisfied. Accounting identities and conservation laws don’t give you any information about how the system adjusts when it is out of equilibrium. So as Pettis goes on to elaborate on Keynes’s analysis of the reparations issue, one or more behavioral theories must be tacitly called upon to explain how the international system would adjust to a balance-of-payments disequilibrium.

If Germany had to make substantial reparation payments, Keynes explained, Germany’s capital account would tend towards a massive deficit. The accounting identity made clear that there were only three possible ways that together could resolve the capital account imbalance. First, Germany could draw down against its gold supply, liquidate its foreign assets, and sell domestic assets to foreigners, including art, real estate, and factories. The problem here was that Germany simply did not have anywhere near enough gold or transferable assets left after it had paid for the war, and it was hard to imagine any sustainable way of liquidating real estate. This option was always a non-starter.

Second, Germany could run massive current account surpluses to match the reparations payments. The obvious problem here, of course, was that this was unacceptable to the belligerents, especially France, because it meant that German manufacturing would displace their own, both at home and among their export clients. Finally, Germany could borrow every year an amount equal to its annual capital and current account deficits. For a few years during the heyday of the 1920s bubble, Germany was able to do just this, borrowing more than half of its reparation payments from the US markets, but much of this borrowing occurred because the great hyperinflation of the early 1920s had wiped out the country’s debt burden. But as German debt grew once again after the hyperinflation, so did the reluctance to continue to fund reparations payments. It should have been obvious anyway that American banks would never accept funding the full amount of the reparations bill.

What the Entente wanted, in other words, required an unrealistic resolution of the need to balance inflows and outflows. Keynes resorted to accounting identities not to generate a model of reparations, but rather to show that the existing model implicit in the negotiations was contradictory. The identity should have made it clear that because of assumptions about what Germany could and couldn’t do, the global economy in the 1920s was being built around a set of imbalances whose smooth resolution required a set of circumstances that were either logically inconsistent or unsustainable. For that reason they would necessarily be resolved in a very disruptive way, one that required out of arithmetical necessity a substantial number of sovereign defaults. Of course this is what happened.

Actually, if it had not been for the insane Bank of France and the misguided attempt by the Fed to burst the supposed stock-market bubble, the international system could have continued for a long time, perhaps indefinitely, with US banks lending enough to Germany to prevent default until rapid economic growth in the US and western Europe enabled the Germans to service their debt and persuaded the French to allow the Germans to do so via an export surplus. Instead, the insane Bank of France, with the unwitting cooperation of the clueless (following Benjamin Strong’s untimely demise) Federal Reserve precipitated a worldwide deflation that triggered that debt-deflationary downward spiral that we call the Great Depression.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What he tells me is proposed consists of:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying to Make Sense of the Insane Policy of the Bank of France and Other Catastrophes

In the almost four years since I started blogging I have occasionally referred to the insane Bank of France or to the insane policy of the Bank of France, a mental disorder that helped cause the deflation that produced the Great Depression. The insane policy began in 1928 when the Bank of France began converting its rapidly growing stockpile of foreign-exchange reserves (i.e., dollar- or sterling-denominated financial instruments) into gold. The conversion of foreign exchange was precipitated by the enactment of a law restoring the legal convertibility of the franc into gold and requiring the Bank of France to hold gold reserves equal to at least 35% of its outstanding banknotes. The law induced a massive inflow of gold into the Bank of France, and, after the Federal Reserve recklessly tightened its policy in an attempt to stamp out stock speculation on Wall Street, thereby inducing an inflow of gold into the US, the one-two punch knocked the world economy into just the deflationary tailspin that Hawtrey and Cassel, had warned would result if the postwar restoration of the gold standard were not managed so as to minimize the increase in the monetary demand for gold.

In making a new round of revisions to our paper on Hawtrey and Cassel, my co-author Ron Batchelder has just added an interesting footnote pointing out that there may have been a sensible rationale for the French gold policy: to accumulate a sufficient hoard of gold for use in case of another war with Germany. In World War I, belligerents withdrew gold coins from circulation, melted them down, and, over the next few years, exported the gold to neutral countries to pay for food and war supplies. That’s how the US, remaining neutral till 1917, wound up with a staggering 40% of the world’s stock of monetary gold reserves after the war. Obsessed with the military threat a re-armed Germany would pose, France insisted that the Versailles Treaty impose crippling reparations payments. The 1926 stabilization of the franc and enactment of the law restoring the gold standard and imposing a 35% reserve requirement on banknotes issued by the Bank of France occurred during the premiership of the staunchly anti-German Raymond Poincaré, a native of Lorraine (lost to Prussia in the war of 1870-71) and President of France during World War I.

A long time ago I wrote a paper “An Evolutionary Theory of the State Monopoly over Money” (which was reworked as chapter two of my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform and was later published in Money and the Nation State) in which, relying on an argument made by Earl Thompson, I suggested that historically the main reason for the nearly ubiquitous state involvement in supplying money was military not monetary: monopoly control over the supply of money enables the sovereign to quickly gain control over resources in war time, thereby giving states in which the sovereign controls the supply of money a military advantage over states in which the sovereign has no such control. Subsequently, Thompson further developed the idea to explain the rise of the gold standard after the Bank of England was founded in 1694, early in the reign of William and Mary, to finance rebuilding of the English navy, largely destroyed by the French in 1690. As explained by Macaulay in his History of England, the Bank of England, by substantially reducing the borrowing costs of the British government, was critical to the survival of the new monarchs in their battle with the Stuarts and Louis XIV. See Thompson’s article “The Gold Standard: Causes and Consequences” in Business Cycles and Depressions: An Encyclopedia (edited by me).

Thompson’s article is not focused on the holding of gold reserves, but on the confidence that the gold standard gave to those lending to the state, especially during a wartime suspension of convertibility, owing to an implicit commitment to restore the gold standard at the prewar parity. The importance of that implicit commitment is one reason why Churchill’s 1925 decision to restore the gold standard at the prewar parity was not necessarily as foolish as Keynes (The Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill), along with almost all subsequent commentators, judged it to have been. But the postwar depreciation of the franc was so extreme that restoring the convertibility of the franc at the prewar parity became a practical impossibility, and the new parity at which convertibility was restored was just a fifth of its prewar level. Having thus reneged on its implicit commitment to restore the gold standard at the prewar parity, impairing its ability to borrow, France may have felt it had no alternative but to accumulate a ready gold reserve from which to draw when another war against Germany came. This is just theoretical speculation, but it might provide some clues for historical research into the thinking of French politicians and bankers in the late 1920s as they formulated their strategy for rejoining the gold standard.

However, even if the motivation for France’s gold accumulation was not simply a miserly desire to hold ever larger piles of shiny gold ingots in the vaults of the Banque de France, but was a precautionary measure against the possibility of a future war with Germany – and we know only too well that the fear was not imaginary – it is important to understand that, in the end, it was almost certainly the French policy of gold accumulation that paved the way for Hitler’s rise to power and all that entailed. Without the Great Depression and the collapse of the German economy, Hitler might well have remained an outcast on the margins of German politics.

The existence of a legitimate motivation for the insane policy of the Bank of France cannot excuse the failure to foresee the all too predictable consequences of that policy – consequences laid out plainly by Hawtrey and Cassel already in 1919-20, and reiterated consistently over the ensuing decade. Nor does the approval of that policy by reputable, even eminent, economists, who simply failed to understand how the gold standard worked, absolve those who made the wrong decisions of responsibility for their mistaken decisions. They were warned about the consequences of their actions, and chose to disregard the warnings.

All of this is sadly reminiscent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I don’t agree with those who ascribe evil motives to the Bush administration for invading Iraq, though there seems little doubt that the WMD issue was largely pretextual. But that doesn’t mean that Bush et al. didn’t actually believe that Saddam had WMD. More importantly, I think that Bush et al. sincerely thought that invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein would, after the supposed defeat of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, establish a benign American dominance in the region, as World War II had done in Japan and Western Europe.

The problem is not, as critics like to say, that Bush et al. lied us into war; the problem is that they stupidly fooled themselves into thinking that they could just invade Iraq, unseat Saddam Hussein, and that their job would be over. They fooled themselves even though they had been warned in advance that Iraq was riven by internal ethnic, sectarian, religious and political divisions. Brutally suppressed by Hussein and his Ba’athist regime, those differences were bound to reemerge once the regime was dismantled. When General Eric Shinseki’s testified before Congress that hundreds of thousands of American troops would be needed to maintain peace and order after Hussein was ousted, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld could only respond with triumphalist ridicule at the idea that more troops would be required to maintain law and order in Iraq after Hussein was deposed than were needed to depose him. The sophomoric shallowness of the response to Shinseki by those that planned the invasion still shocks and appalls.

It’s true that, after the Republican loss in the 2006 Congressional elections, Bush, freeing himself from the influence of Dick Cheney and replacing Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, and Gen. George Casey with Gen. David Petraeus as commander of US forces in Iraq, finally adopted the counter-insurgency strategy (aka the “surge”) so long resisted by Cheney and Rumsfeld, thereby succeeding in putting down the Sunni/Al-Qaeda/Baathist insurgency and in bringing the anti-American Shi’ite militias to heel. I wrote about the success of the surge in December 2007 when that provisional military success was still controversial. But, as General Petraeus conceded, the ultimate success of the counter-insurgency strategy depended on implementing a political strategy to reconcile the different elements of Iraqi society to their government. We now know that even in 2008 Premier Nouri al-Maliki, who had been installed as premier with the backing of the Bush administration, was already reversing the limited steps taken during the surge to achieve accommodation between Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’ites, while consolidating his Shi’ite base by reconciling politically with the pro-Iranian militants he had put down militarily.

The failure of the Iraqi government to consolidate and maintain the gains made in 2007-08 has been blamed on Obama’s decision to withdraw all American forces from Iraq after the status of forces agreement signed by President Bush and Premier al-Maliki in December 2008 expired at the end of 2011. But preserving the gains made in 2007-08 depended on a political strategy to reconcile the opposing ethnic and sectarian factions of Iraqi society. The Bush administration could not implement such a strategy with 130,000 troops still in Iraq at the end of 2008, and the sovereign Iraqi government in place, left to its own devices, had no interest in pursuing such a strategy. Perhaps keeping a larger US presence in Iraq for a longer time would have kept Iraq from falling apart as fast as it has, but the necessary conditions for a successful political outcome were never in place.

So even if the motivation for the catastrophic accumulation of gold by France in the 1928-29 was merely to prepare itself to fight, if need be, another war against Germany, the fact remains that the main accomplishment of the gold-accumulation policy was to bring to power a German regime far more dangerous and threatening than the one that would have otherwise confronted France. And even if the motivation for the catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003 was to defeat and discredit Islamic terrorism, the fact remains that the invasion, just as Osama bin Laden had hoped, was to create the conditions in which Islamic terrorism could grow into a worldwide movement, attracting would-be jihadists to a growing number of local conflicts across the world. Although bin Laden was eventually killed in his Pakistani hideout, the invasion of Iraq led to rise of an even more sophisticated, more dangerous, and more threatening opponent than the one the invasion was intended to eradicate. Just as a misunderstanding of the gold standard led to catastrophe in 1928-29, the misconception that the threat of terrorism can be eliminated by military means has been leading us toward catastrophe since 2003. When will we learn?

PS Despite some overlap between what I say above and what David Henderson said in this post, I am not a libertarian or a non-interventionist.

Repeat after Me: Inflation’s the Cure not the Disease

Last week Martin Feldstein triggered a fascinating four-way exchange with a post explaining yet again why we still need to be worried about inflation. Tony Yates responded first with an explanation of why money printing doesn’t work at the zero lower bound (aka liquidity trap), leading Paul Krugman to comment wearily about the obtuseness of all those right-wingers who just can’t stop obsessing about the non-existent inflation threat when, all along, it was crystal clear that in a liquidity trap, printing money is useless.

I’m still not sure why relatively moderate conservatives like Feldstein didn’t find all this convincing back in 2009. I get, I think, why politics might predispose them to see inflation risks everywhere, but this was as crystal-clear a proposition as I’ve ever seen. Still, even if you managed to convince yourself that the liquidity-trap analysis was wrong six years ago, by now you should surely have realized that Bernanke, Woodford, Eggertsson, and, yes, me got it right.

But no — it’s a complete puzzle. Maybe it’s because those tricksy Fed officials started paying all of 25 basis points on reserves (Japan never paid such interest). Anyway, inflation is just around the corner, the same way it has been all these years.

Which surprisingly (not least to Krugman) led Brad DeLong to rise to Feldstein’s defense (well, sort of), pointing out that there is a respectable argument to be made for why even if money printing is not immediately effective at the zero lower bound, it could still be effective down the road, so that the mere fact that inflation has been consistently below 2% since the crash (except for a short blip when oil prices spiked in 2011-12) doesn’t mean that inflation might not pick up quickly once inflation expectations pick up a bit, triggering an accelerating and self-sustaining inflation as all those hitherto idle balances start gushing into circulation.

That argument drew a slightly dyspeptic response from Krugman who again pointed out, as had Tony Yates, that at the zero lower bound, the demand for cash is virtually unlimited so that there is no tendency for monetary expansion to raise prices, as if DeLong did not already know that. For some reason, Krugman seems unwilling to accept the implication of the argument in his own 1998 paper that he cites frequently: that for an increase in the money stock to raise the price level – note that there is an implicit assumption that the real demand for money does not change – the increase must be expected to be permanent. (I also note that the argument had been made almost 20 years earlier by Jack Hirshleifer, in his Fisherian text on capital theory, Capital Interest and Investment.) Thus, on Krugman’s own analysis, the effect of an increase in the money stock is expectations-dependent. A change in monetary policy will be inflationary if it is expected to be inflationary, and it will not be inflationary if it is not expected to be inflationary. And Krugman even quotes himself on the point, referring to

my call for the Bank of Japan to “credibly promise to be irresponsible” — to make the expansion of the base permanent, by committing to a relatively high inflation target. That was the main point of my 1998 paper!

So the question whether the monetary expansion since 2008 will ever turn out to be inflationary depends not on an abstract argument about the shape of the LM curve, but about the evolution of inflation expectations over time. I’m not sure that I’m persuaded by DeLong’s backward induction argument – an argument that I like enough to have used myself on occasion while conceding that the logic may not hold in the real word – but there is no logical inconsistency between the backward-induction argument and Krugman’s credibility argument; they simply reflect different conjectures about the evolution of inflation expectations in a world in which there is uncertainty about what the future monetary policy of the central bank is going to be (in other words, a world like the one we inhabit).

Which brings me to the real point of this post: the problem with monetary policy since 2008 has been that the Fed has credibly adopted a 2% inflation target, a target that, it is generally understood, the Fed prefers to undershoot rather than overshoot. Thus, in operational terms, the actual goal is really less than 2%. As long as the inflation target credibly remains less than 2%, the argument about inflation risk is about the risk that the Fed will credibly revise its target upwards.

With the both Wickselian natural real and natural nominal short-term rates of interest probably below zero, it would have made sense to raise the inflation target to get the natural nominal short-term rate above zero. There were other reasons to raise the inflation target as well, e.g., providing debt relief to debtors, thereby benefitting not only debtors but also those creditors whose debtors simply defaulted.

Krugman takes it for granted that monetary policy is impotent at the zero lower bound, but that impotence is not inherent; it is self-imposed by the credibility of the Fed’s own inflation target. To be sure, changing the inflation target is not a decision that we would want the Fed to take lightly, because it opens up some very tricky time-inconsistency problems. However, in a crisis, you may have to take a chance and hope that credibility can be restored by future responsible behavior once things get back to normal.

In this vein, I am reminded of the 1930 exchange between Hawtrey and Hugh Pattison Macmillan, chairman of the Committee on Finance and Industry, when Hawtrey, testifying before the Committee, suggested that the Bank of England reduce Bank Rate even at the risk of endangering the convertibility of sterling into gold (England eventually left the gold standard a little over a year later)

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

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

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

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

Of course the best evidence for the effectiveness of monetary policy at the zero lower bound was provided three years later, in April 1933, when FDR suspended the gold standard in the US, causing the dollar to depreciate against gold, triggering an immediate rise in US prices (wholesale prices rising 14% from April through July) and the fastest real recovery in US history (industrial output rising by over 50% over the same period). A recent paper by Andrew Jalil and Gisela Rua documents this amazing recovery from the depths of the Great Depression and the crucial role that changing inflation expectations played in stimulating the recovery. They also make a further important point: that by announcing a price level target, FDR both accelerated the recovery and prevented expectations of inflation from increasing without limit. The 1933 episode suggests that a sharp, but limited, increase in the price-level target would generate a faster and more powerful output response than an incremental increase in the inflation target. Unfortunately, after the 2008 downturn we got neither.

Maybe it’s too much to expect that an unelected central bank would take upon itself to adopt as a policy goal a substantial increase in the price level. Had the Fed announced such a goal after the 2008 crisis, it would have invited a potentially fatal attack, and not just from the usual right-wing suspects, on its institutional independence. Price stability, is after all, part of dual mandate that Fed is legally bound to pursue. And it was FDR, not the Fed, that took the US off the gold standard.

But even so, we at least ought to be clear that if monetary policy is impotent at the zero lower bound, the impotence is not caused by any inherent weakness, but by the institutional and political constraints under which it operates in a constitutional system. And maybe there is no better argument for nominal GDP level targeting than that it offers a practical and civilly reverent way of allowing monetary policy to be effective at the zero lower bound.


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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