Archive for the 'James Tobin' Category

Can There Really Be an Excess Supply of Commercial Bank Money?

Nick Rowe has answered the question in the affirmative. Nick mistakenly believes that I have argued that there cannot be an excess supply of commercial bank money. In fact, I agree with him that there can be an excess supply of commercial bank money, and, for that matter, that there can be an excess demand for commercial bank money. Our disagreement concerns a slightly different, but nonetheless important, question: is there a market mechanism whereby an excess supply of commercial bank money can be withdrawn from circulation, or is the money destined to remain forever in circulation, because, commercial bank money, once created, must ultimately be held, however unwillingly, by someone? That’s the issue. I claim that there is a market mechanism that tends to equilibrate the quantity of bank money created with the amount demanded, so that if too much bank money is created, the excess will tend to be withdrawn from circulation without generating an increase in total expenditure. Nick denies that there is any such mechanism.

Nick and I have been discussing this point for about two and a half years, and every time I think we inch a bit closer to agreement, it seems that the divide separating us seems unbridgeable. But I’m not ready to give up yet. On the other hand, James Tobin explained it all over 50 years ago (when the idea seemed so radical it was called the New View) in his wonderful, classic (I don’t have enough adjectives superlatives to do it justice) paper “Commercial Banks and Creators of Money.” And how can I hope to improve on Tobin’s performance? (Actually there was a flaw in Tobin’s argument, which was not to recognize a key distinction between the inside (beta) money created by banks and the outside (alpha) money created by the monetary authority, but that has nothing to do with the logic of Tobin’s argument about commercial banks.)

Message to Nick: You need to write an article (a simple blog post won’t do, but it would be a start) explaining what you think is wrong with Tobin’s argument. I think that’s a hopeless task, but I’m sorry that’s the challenge you’ve chosen for yourself. Good luck, you’ll need it.

With that introduction out of the way, let me comment directly on Nick’s post. Nick has a subsequent post defending both the Keynesian multiplier and the money multiplier. I reserve the right (but don’t promise) to respond to that post at a later date; I have my hands full with this post. Here’s Nick:

Commercial banks are typically beta banks, and central banks are typically alpha banks. Beta banks promise to convert their money into the money of alpha banks at a fixed exchange rate. Alpha banks make no such promise the other way. It’s asymmetric redeemability. This means there cannot be an excess supply of beta money in terms of alpha money. (Nor can there be an excess demand for alpha money in terms of beta money.) Because people would convert their beta money into alpha money if there were. But there can be an excess supply of beta money in terms of goods, just as there can be an excess supply of alpha money in terms of goods. If beta money is in excess supply in terms of goods, so is alpha money, and vice versa. If commercial and central bank monies are perfect or imperfect substitutes, an increased supply of commercial bank money will create an excess supply of both monies against goods. The Law of Reflux will not prevent this.

The primary duty of a central bank is not to make a profit. It is possible to analyze and understand its motivations and its actions in terms of policy objectives that do not reflect the economic interests of its immediate owners. On the other hand, commercial banks are primarily in business to make a profit, and it should be possible to explain their actions in terms of their profit-enhancing effects. As I follow Nick’s argument, I will try to point where I think Nick fails to keep this distinction in mind. Back to Nick:

Money, the medium of exchange, is not like other goods, because if there are n goods plus one money, there are n markets in which money is traded, and n different excess supplies of money. Money might be in excess supply in the apple market, and in excess demand in the banana market.

If there are two monies, and n other goods, there are n markets in which money is traded against goods, plus one market in which the two monies are traded for each other. If beta money is convertible into alpha money, there can never be an excess supply of beta money in the one market where beta money is traded for alpha money. But there can be an excess supply of both beta and alpha money in each or all of the other n markets.

Sorry, I don’t understand this at all. First of all, to be sure, there can be n different excess demands for money; some will be positive, some negative. But it is entirely possible that the sum of those n different excess demands is zero. Second, even if we assume that the n money excess demands don’t sum to zero, there is still another market, the (n+1)st market in which the public exchanges assets that provide money-backing services with the banking system. If there is an excess demand for money, the public can provide the banks with additional assets (IOUs) in exchange for money, and if there is an excess supply of money the public can exchange their excess holding of money with the banks in return for assets providing money-backing services. The process is equilibrated by adjustments in the spreads between interests on loans and deposits governing the profitability of the banks loans and deposits. This is what I meant in the first paragraph when I said that I agree that it is possible for there to an excess demand for or supply of beta money. But the existence of that excess demand or excess supply can be equilibrated via the equilibration of market for beta money and the market for assets (IOUs) providing money-backing services. If there is a market process equilibrating the quantity of beta money, the adjustment can take place independently of the n markets for real goods and services that Nick is concerned with. On the other hand, if there is an excess demand for or supply of alpha money, it is not so clear that there are any market forces that cause that excess demand or supply to be equilibrated without impinging on the n real markets for goods and services.

Nick goes on to pose the following question:

Start in equilibrium, where the existing stocks of both alpha and beta money are willingly held. Hold constant the stock of alpha money. Now suppose the issuers of beta money create more beta money. Could this cause an excess supply of money and an increase in the price level?

That’s a great question. Just the question that I would ask. Here’s how Nick looks at it:

If alpha and beta money were perfect substitutes for each other, people would be indifferent about the proportions of alpha to beta monies they held. The desired share or ratio of alpha/beta money would be indeterminate, but the desired total of alpha+beta money would still be well-defined. If beta banks issued more beta money, holding constant the stock of alpha money, the total stock of money would be higher than desired, and there would be an excess supply of both monies against all other goods. But no individual would choose to go to the beta bank to convert his beta money into alpha money, because, by assumption, he doesn’t care about the share of alpha/beta money he holds. The Law of Reflux will not work to eliminate the excess supply of alpha+beta money against all other goods.

The assumption of perfect substitutability doesn’t seem right, as Nick himself indicates, inasmuch as people don’t seem to be indifferent between holding currency (alpha money) and holding deposits (beta money). And Nick focuses mainly on the imperfect-substitutes case. But, aside from that point, I have another problem with Nick’s discussion of perfect substitutes, which is that he seems to be conflate the assumption that alpha and beta moneys are perfect substitutes with the assumption that they are indistinguishable. I may be indifferent between holding currency and deposits, but if I have more deposits than I would like to hold, and I can tell the difference between a unit of currency and a deposit and there is a direct mechanism whereby I can reduce my holdings of deposits – by exchanging the deposit at the bank for another asset – it would seem that there is a mechanism whereby the excess supply of deposits can be eliminated without any change in overall spending. Now let’s look at Nick’s discussion of the more relevant case in which currency and deposits are imperfect substitutes.

Now suppose that alpha and beta money are close but imperfect substitutes. If beta banks want to prevent the Law of Reflux from reducing the stock of beta money, they would need to make beta money slightly more attractive to hold relative to alpha money. Suppose they do that, by paying slightly higher interest on beta money. This ensures that the desired share of alpha/beta money equals the actual share. No individual wants to reduce his share of beta/alpha money. But there will be an excess supply of both alpha and beta monies against all other goods. If apples and pears are substitutes, an increased supply of pears reduces the demand for apples.

What does it mean for “beta banks to want to prevent the Law of Reflux from reducing the stock of beta money?” Why would beta banks want to do such a foolish thing? Banks want to make profits for their owners. Does Nick think that by “prevent[ing] the Law of Reflux from reducing the stock of beta money” beta banks are increasing their profitability? The method by which he suggests that they could do this is to increase the interest they pay on deposits? That does not seem to me an obvious way of increasing the profits of beta banks. So starting from what he called an equilibrium, which sounds like a position in which beta banks were maximizing their profits, Nick is apparently positing that they increased the amount of deposits beyond the profit-maximizing level and, then, to keep that amount of deposits outstanding, he assumes that the banks increase the interest that they are paying on deposits.

What does this mean? Is Nick saying something other than that if banks collectively decide on a course of action that is not profit-maximizing either individually or collectively that the outcome will be different from the outcome that would have resulted had they acted with a view to maximize profits? Why should anyone be interested in that observation? At any rate, Nick concludes that because the public would switch from holding currency to deposits, the result would be an increase in total spending, as people tried to reduce their holdings of currency. It is not clear to me that people would be trying to increase their spending by reducing their holdings of deposits, but I can see that there is a certain ambiguity in trying to determine whether there is an excess supply of deposits or not in this case. But the case seems very contrived to say the least.

A more plausible way to look at the case Nick has in mind might be the following. Suppose banks perceive that their (marginal) costs of intermediation have fallen. Intermediation costs are very hard to measure, and banks aren’t necessarily very good at estimating those costs either. That may be one reason for the inherent instability of credit, but that’s a whole other discussion. At any rate, under the assumption that marginal intermediation costs have fallen, one could posit that the profit-maximizing response of beta banks would be to increase their interest payments on deposits to support an increase in their, suddenly more profitable than heretofore, lending. With bank deposits now yielding higher interest than before, the public would switch some of their holdings of currency to deposits. The shift form holding currency to holding deposits would initially involve an excess demand for deposits and an excess supply of currency. If the alpha bank was determined not to allow the quantity of currency to fall, then the excess supply of currency could be eliminated only through an increase in spending that would raise prices sufficiently to increase the demand to hold currency. But Nick would apparently want to say that even in this case there was also an excess supply of deposits, even though we saw that initially there was an excess demand for deposits when banks increased the interest paid on deposits, and it was only because the alpha bank insisted on not allowing the quantity of currency to fall that there was any increase in total spending.

So, my conclusion remains what it was before. The Law of Reflux works to eliminate excess supplies of bank money, without impinging on spending for real goods and services. To prove otherwise, you have to find a flaw in the logic of Tobin’s 1963 paper. I think that that is very unlikely. On the other hand, if you do find such a flaw, you just might win the Nobel Prize.


Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade: Part II

Here I am again back at you finally with another installment in my series on Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade. In my first installment I provided some background on Hawtrey and a quick overview of the book, including a mention of the interesting fact (brought to my attention by David Laidler) that Hawtrey used the term “effective demand” in pretty much the same way that Keynes, some 20 years later, would use it in the General Theory.

In this post, I want to discuss what I consider the highlights of the first six chapters. The first chapter is a general introduction to the entire volume laying out the basic premise of the book, which is that the business cycle, understood as recurring fluctuations in the level of employment, is the result of monetary disturbances that lead to alternating phases of expansion and contraction. It is relatively easy for workers to find employment in expansions, but more difficult to do so in contractions. From the standpoint of the theory of economic equilibrium, the close correlation between employment and nominal income over the business cycle is somewhat paradoxical, because, according to the equilibrium theory, the allocation of resources is governed by relative, not absolute, prices. In the theory of equilibrium, a proportional increase or decrease in all prices should have no effect on employment. To explain the paradox, Hawtrey relies on the rigidity of some prices, and especially wages, an empirical fact that, Hawtrey believed, was an essential aspect of any economic system, and a necessary condition for the cyclicality of output and employment.

In Hawtrey’s view, economic expansions and contractions are caused by variations in effective demand, which he defines as total money income. (For reasons I discussed about a year and a half ago, I prefer to define “effective demand” as total money expenditure.) What determines effective demand, according to Hawtrey, is the relationship between the amount of money people are holding and the amount that they would, on average over time, like to hold. The way to think about the amount of money that people would like to hold is to imagine that there is some proportion of their annual income that people aim to hold in the form of cash.

The relationship between the amount of cash being held and the amount that people would like to hold depends on the nature of the monetary system. Hawtrey considers two types of monetary system: one type (discussed in chapter 2) is a pure fiat money system in which all money is issued by government; the other (discussed in chapter 3) is a credit system in which money is also created by banks by promising to redeem, on demand, their obligations (either deposits or negotiable banknotes) for fiat money. Credit money is issued by banks in exchange for a variety of assets, usually the untraded IOUs of borrowers.

In a pure fiat money system, effective demand depends chiefly on the amount of fiat money that people want to hold and on the amount of fiat money created by the government, fiat money being the only money available. A pure fiat money system, Hawtrey understood, was just the sort of system in which the propositions of the quantity theory of money would obtain at least in the medium to long run.

[I]f the adjustment [to a reduction in the quantity of money] could be made entirely by a suitable diminution of wages and salaries, accompanied by a corresponding diminution of prices, the commercial community could be placed forthwith in a new position of equilibrium, in which the output would continue unchanged, and distribution would only be modified by the apportionment of a somewhat larger share of the national product to the possessors of interest, rent, and other kinds of fixed incomes. In fact, the change in the circulating medium is merely a change in the machinery of distribution, and a change, moreover, which, once made, does not impair the effectiveness of that machinery. If the habits of the community are adapted without delay to the change, the production of wealth will continue unabated. If customary prices resist the change, the adjustment, which is bound to come sooner or later, will only be forced upon the people by the pressure of distress. (p. 41)

In a fiat money system, if the public have less money than they would like to hold their only recourse is to attempt to reduce their expenditures relative to their receipts, either offering more in exchange, which tends to depress prices or reducing their purchases, making it that much more difficult for anyone to increase sales except by reducing prices. The problem is that in a fiat system the amount of money is what it is, so that if one person manages to increase his holdings of money by increasing sales relative to purchases, his increase in cash balances must have be gained at the expense of someone else. With a fixed amount of fiat money in existence, the public as a whole cannot increase their holdings of cash, so equilibrium can be restored only by reducing the quantity of money demanded. But the reduction in the amount of money that people want to hold cannot occur unless income in money terms goes down. Money income can go down only if total output in real terms, or if the price level, falls. With nominal income down, people, wanting to hold some particular share of their nominal income in the form of money, will be content with a smaller cash balance than they were before, and will stop trying to increase their cash balances by cutting their expenditure. Because some prices — and especially wages — tend to be sticky, Hawtrey felt that it was inevitable that the adjustment to reduction in the amount of fiat money would cause both real income and prices to fall.

Although Hawtrey correctly perceived that the simple quantity theory would not, even in theory, hold precisely for a credit system, his analysis of the credit system was incomplete inasmuch as he did not fully take into account the factors governing the public’s choice between holding credit money as opposed to fiat money or the incentives of the banking system to create credit money. That theory was not worked out till James Tobin did so 50 years later (another important anniversary worthy of note), though John Fullarton made an impressive start in his great work on the subject in 1844, a work Hawtrey must have been familiar with, but, to my knowledge, never discussed in detail.

In such a banking system there is no necessary connexion between the total of the deposits and the amount of coin which has been paid to the banks. A banker may at any time grant a customer a loan by simply adding to the balance standing to the customer’s credit in the books of the bank. No cash passes, but the customer acquires the right, during the currency of the loan, to draw cheques on the bank up to the amount lent. When the period of the loan expires, if the customer has a large enough balance to his credit, the loan can be repaid without any cash being employed, the amount of the loan being simply deducted from the balance. So long as the loan is outstanding it represents a clear addition to the available stock of “money,” in the sense of purchasing power. It is “money” in the the sense which will play, in a community possessing banks, the same part as money in the stricter sense of legal tender currency would play in the fictitious bankless community whose commercial conditions we previously have been considering. This is the most distinctive feature of the banking system, that between the stock of legal tender currency and the trading community there is interposed an intermediary, the banker, who can, if he wishes, create money out of nothing. (PP. 56-57)

This formulation is incomplete, inasmuch as it leaves the decision of the banker about how much money to create unconstrained by the usual forces of marginal revenue and marginal cost that supposedly determine the decisions of other profit-seeking businessmen. Hawtrey is not oblivious to the problem, but does not advance the analysis as far as he might have.

We have now to find out how this functionary uses his power and under what limitations he works. Something has already been said of the contingencies for which he must provide. Whenever he grants a loan and thereby creates money, he must expect a certain portion of this money to be applied sooner or later, to purposes for which legal tender currency is necessary. Sums will be drawn out from time to time to be spent either in wages or in small purchases, and the currency so applied will take a little time to find its way back to the banks. Large purchases will be paid for by cheque, involving a mere transfer of credit from one banking account to another, but the recipient of the cheque may wish to apply it ot the payment of wages, etc. Thus the principal limitation upon the banker’s freedom to create money is that he must have a reserve to meet the fresh demands for cash to which the creation of new money may lead. (Id.)

This is a very narrow view, apparently assuming that there is but one banker and that the only drain on the reserves of the banker is the withdrawal of currency by depositors. The possibility that recipients of cheques drawn on one bank may prefer to hold those funds in a different bank so that the bank must pay a competitive rate of interest on its deposits to induce its deposits to be held rather than those of another bank is not considered.

In trade a seller encourages or discourages buyers by lowering or raising his prices. So a banker encourages or discourages borrowers by lowering or raising the rate of interest. (p.58)

Again, Hawtrey only saw half the picture. The banker is setting two rates: the rate that he charges borrowers and the rate that he pays to depositors. It is the spread between those two rates that determines the marginal revenue from creating another dollar of deposits. Given that marginal revenue, the banker must form some estimate of the likely cost associated with creating another dollar of deposits (an estimate that depends to a large degree on expectations that may or may not be turn out to be correct), and it is the comparison between the marginal revenue from creating additional deposits with the expected cost of creating additional deposits that determines whether a bank wants to expand or contract its deposits.

Of course, the incomplete analysis of the decision making of the banker is not just Hawtrey’s, it is characteristic of all Wicksellian natural-rate theories. However, in contrast to other versions of the natural-rate genre, Hawtrey managed to avoid the logical gap in those theories: the failure to see that it is the spread between the lending and the deposit rates, not the difference between the lending rate and the natural rate, that determines whether banks are trying to expand or contract. But that is a point that I will have to come back to in the next installment in this series in which I will try to follow through the main steps of Hawtrey’s argument about how a banking system adjusts to a reduction in the quantity of fiat money (aka legal tender currency or base money) is reduced. That analysis, which hinges on the role of merchants and traders whose holding of inventories of goods is financed by borrowing from the banks, was a critical intellectual innovation of Hawtrey’s and was the key to his avoidance of the Wicksellian explanatory gap.

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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