Archive for the 'John Fullarton' Category

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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