Archive for the 'Milton Friedman' 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.

What’s Wrong with the Price-Specie-Flow Mechanism, Part II: Friedman and Schwartz on the 1879 Resumption

Having explained in my previous post why the price-specie-flow mechanism (PSFM) is a deeply flawed mischaracterization of how the gold standard operated, I am now going to discuss two important papers by McCloskey and Zecher that go explain in detail the conceptual and especially the historical shortcomings of PSFM. The first paper (“How the Gold Standard Really Worked”) was published in the 1976 volume edited by Johnson and Frenkel, The Monetary Approach to the Balance of Payments; the second paper, (“The Success of Purchasing Power Parity: Historical Evidence and its Relevance for Macroeconomics”) was published in a 1984 NBER conference volume edited by Schwartz and Bordo, A Retrospective on the Classical Gold Standard 1821-1931. I won’t go through either paper in detail, but I do want to mention their criticisms of The Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960, by Friedman and Schwartz and Friedman’s published response to those criticisms in the Schwartz-Bordo volume. I also want to register a mild criticism of an error of omission by McCloskey and Zecher in failing to note that, aside from the role of the balance of payments under the gold standard in equilibrating the domestic demand for money with the domestic supply of money, there is also a domestic mechanism for equilibrating the domestic demand for money with the domestic supply; it is only when the domestic mechanism does not operate that the burden for adjustment falls upon the balance of payments. I suspect that McCloskey and Zecher would not disagree that there is a domestic mechanism for equilibrating the demand for money with the supply of money, but the failure to spell out the domestic mechanism is still a shortcoming in these two otherwise splendid papers.

McCloskey and Zecher devote a section of their paper to the empirical anomalies that beset the PSFM.

If the orthodox theories of the gold standard are incorrect, it should be possible to observe signs of strain in the literature when they are applied to the experiences of the late nineteenth century. This is the case. Indeed, in the midst of their difficulties in applying the theories earlier observers have anticipated most of the elements of the alternative theory proposed here.

On the broadest level it has always been puzzling that the gold standard in its prime worked so smoothly. After all, the mechanism described by Hume, in which an initial divergence in price levels was to be corrected by flows of gold inducing a return to parity, might be expected to work fairly slowly, requiring alterations in the money supply and, more important, in expectations concerning the level and rate of change of prices which would have been difficult to achieve. The actual flows of gold in the late nineteenth century, furthermore, appear too small to play the large role assigned to them. . . . (pp. 361-62)

Later in the same section, they criticize the account given by Friedman and Schwartz of how the US formally adopted the gold standard in 1879 and its immediate aftermath, suggesting that the attempt by Friedman and Schwartz to use PSFM to interpret the events of 1879-81 was unsuccessful.

The behavior of prices in the late nineteenth century has suggested to some observers that the view that it was gold flows that were transmitting price changes from one country to another is indeed flawed. Over a short period, perhaps a year or so, the simple price-specie-flow mechanism predicts an inverse correlation in the price levels of two countries interacting with each other on the gold standard. . . . Yet, as Triffin [The Evolution of the International Monetary System, p. 4] has noted. . . even over a period as brief as a single year, what is impressive is “the overeall parallelism – rather than divergence – of price movements, expressed in the same unit of measurement, between the various trading countries maintaining a minimum degree of freedom of trade and exchange in their international transactions.

Over a longer period of time, of course, the parallelism is consistent with the theory of the price-specie-flow. In fact, one is free to assume that the lags in its mechanism are shorter than a year, attributing the close correlations among national price levels within the same year to a speedy flow of gold and a speedy price change resulting from the flow rather than to direct and rapid arbitrage. One is not free, however, to assume that there were no lags at all; in the price-specie-flow theory inflows of gold must precede increase in prices by at least the number of months necessary for the money supply to adjust to the new gold and for the increased amount of money to have an inflationary effect. The American inflation following the resumption of specie payments in January 1879 is a good example. After examining the annual statistics on gold flows and price levels for the period, Friedman and Schwartz [Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960, p. 99] concluded that “It would be hard to find a much neater example in history of the classical gold-standard mechanism in operation.” Gold flowed in during 1879, 1880, and 1881 and American prices rose each year. Yet the monthly statistics on American gold flows and price changes tell a very different story. Changes in the Warren and Pearson wholesale price index during 1879-81 run closely parallel month by month with gold flows, rising prices corresponding to net inflows of gold. There is no tendency for prices to lag behind a gold flow and some tendency for them to lead it, suggesting not only the episode is an especially poor example of the price-specie flow theory in operation, but also that it might well be a reasonably good one of the monetary theory. (pp. 365-66)

Now let’s go back and see exactly what Friedman and Schwartz said about the episode in the Monetary History. Here is how they describe the rapid expansion starting with the resumption of convertibility on January 1, 1879:

The initial cyclical expansion from 1879 to 1882 . . . was characterized by an unusually rapid rise in the stock of money and in net national product in both current and constant prices. The stock of money rose by over 50 per cent, net national product in current prices over 35 per cent, and net national product in constant prices nearly 25 per cent. . . . (p. 96)

The initial rapid expansion reflected a combination of favorable physical and financial factors. On the physical side, the preceding contraction had been unusually protracted; once it was over, there tended to be a vigorous rebound; this is a rather typical pattern of reaction. On the financial side, the successful achievement of resumption, by itself, eased pressure on the foreign exchanges and permitted an internal price rise without external difficulties, for two reasons: first, because it eliminated the temporary demand for foreign exchange on the part of the Treasury to build up its gold reserve . . . second because it promoted a growth in U.S. balances held by foreigners and a decline in foreign balances held by U.S. residents, as confidence spread that the specie standard would be maintained and that the dollar would not depreciate again. (p. 97)

The point about financial conditions that Friedman and Schwartz are making is that, in advance of resumption, the US Treasury had been buying gold to increase reserves with which to satisfy potential demands for redemption once convertibility at the official parity was restored. The gold purchases supposedly forced the US price level to drop further (at the official price of gold, corresponding to a $4.86 dollar/sterling exchange rate) than it would have fallen if the Treasury had not been buying gold. (See quotation below from p. 99 of the Monetary History). Their reasoning is that the additional imports of gold ultimately had to be financed by a corresponding export surplus, which required depressing the US price level below the price level in the rest of the world sufficiently to cause a sufficient increase in US exports and decrease of US imports. But the premise that US exports could be increased and US imports could be decreased only by reducing the US price level relative to the rest of the world is unfounded. The incremental export surplus required only that total domestic expenditure be reduced, thereby allowing an incremental increase US exports or reduction in US imports. Reduced US spending would have been possible without any change in US prices. Friedman and Schwartz continue:

These forces were powerfully reinforced by accidents of weather that produced two successive years of bumper crops in the United States and unusually short crops elsewhere. The result was an unprecedentedly high level of exports. Exports of crude foodstuffs, in the years ending June 30, 1889 and 1881, reached levels roughly twice the average of either the preceding or the following year five years. In each year they were higher than in any preceding year, and neither figure was again exceeded until 1892. (pp. 97-98)

This is a critical point, but neither Friedman and Schwartz nor McCloskey and Zecher in their criticism seem to recognize its significance. Crop shortages in the rest of the world must have caused a substantial increase in grain and cotton prices, but Friedman and Schwartz provide no indication of the magnitudes of the price increases. At any rate, the US was then still a largely agricultural economy, so a substantial rise in agricultural prices determined in international markets would imply an increase in an index of US output prices relative to an index of British output prices reflecting both a shifting terms of trade in favor of the US and a higher share of total output accounted for by agricultural products in the US than in Britain. That shift, and the consequent increase in US versus British price levels, required no divergence between prices in the US and in Britain, and could have occurred without operation of the PSFM. Ignoring the terms-of-trade effect after drawing attention to the bumper crops in the US and crop failures elsewhere was an obvious error in the narrative provided by Friedman and Schwartz. With that in mind, let us return to their narrative.

The resulting increased demand for dollars meant that a relatively higher price level in the United States was consistent with equilibrium in the balance of payments.

Friedman and Schwartz are assuming that a demand for dollars under a fixed-exchange-rate regime can be satisfied only by through an incremental adjustment in exports and imports to induce an offsetting flow of dollars. Such a demand for dollars could also be satisfied by way of appropriate banking and credit operations requiring no change in imports and exports, but even if the demand for money is satisfied through an incremental adjustment in the trade balance, the implicit assumption that an adjustment in the trade balance requires an adjustment in relative price levels is totally unfounded; the adjustment in the trade balance can occur with no divergence in prices, such a divergence being inconsistent with the operation of international arbitrage.

Pending the rise in prices, it led to a large inflow of gold. The estimated stock of gold in the United States rose from $210 million on June 30, 1879, to $439 million on June 30, 1881.

The first sentence is difficult to understand. Having just asserted that there was a rise in US prices, why do Friedman and Schwartz now suggest that the rise in prices has not yet occurred? Presumably, the antecedent of the pronoun “it” is the demand for dollars, but why is the demand for dollars conditioned on a rise in prices? There are any number of reasons why there could have been an inflow of gold into the United States. (Presumably, higher than usual import demand could have led to a temporary drawdown of accumulated liquid assets, e.g., gold, in other countries to finance their unusually high grain imports. Moreover, the significant wealth transfer associated with a sharply improving terms of trade in favor of the US would have led to an increased demand for gold, either for real or monetary uses. More importantly, as banks increased the amount of deposits and banknotes they were supplying to the public, the demand of banks to hold gold reserves would have also increased.)

In classical gold-standard fashion, the inflow of gold helped produce an expansion in the stock of money and in prices. The implicit price index for the U.S. rose 10 per cent from 1879 to 1882 while a general index of British prices was roughly constant, so that the price level in the United States relative to that in Britain rose from 89.1 to 96.1. In classical gold-standard fashion, also, the outflow of gold from other countries produced downward pressure on their stock of money and their prices.

To say that the inflow of gold helped produce an expansion in the stock of money and in prices is simply to invoke the analytically empty story that gold reserves are lent out to the public, because the gold is sitting idle in bank vaults just waiting to be put to active use. But gold doesn’t just wind up sitting in a bank vault for no reason. Banks demand it for a purpose; either they are legally required to hold the gold or they find it more useful or rewarding to hold gold than to hold alternative assets. Banks don’t create liabilities payable in gold because they are holding gold; they hold gold because they create liabilities payable in gold; creating liabilities legally payable in gold may entail a legal obligation to hold gold reserves, or create a prudential incentive to keep some gold on hand. The throw-away references made by Friedman and Schwartz to “classical gold-standard fashion” is just meaningless chatter, and the divergence between the US and the British price indexes between 1879 and 1882 is attributable to a shift in the terms of trade of which the flow of gold from Britain to the US was the effect not the cause.

The Bank of England reserve in the Banking Department declined by nearly 40 percent from mid-1879 to mid-1881. In response, Bank rate was raised by steps from 2.5 per cent in April 1881 to 6 per cent in January 1882. The resulting effects on both prices and capital movements contributed to the cessation of the gold outflow to the U.S., and indeed, to its replacement by a subsequent inflow from the U.S. . . . (p. 98)

The only evidence about the U.S. gold stock provided by Friedman and Schwartz is an increase from $210 million to $439 million between June 30, 1879 to June 30, 1881. They juxtapose that with a decrease in the gold stock held by the Bank of England between mid-1879 and mid-1881, and an increase in Bank rate from 2.5% to 6%. Friedman and Schwartz cite Hawtrey’s Century of Bank Rate as the source for this fact (the only citation of Hawtrey in the Monetary History). But the increase in Bank rate from 2.5% did not begin till April 28, 1881, Bank rate having fluctuated between 2 and 3% from January 1878 to April 1881, two years and three months after the resumption. Discussing the fluctuations in the gold reserve of the Bank England in 1881, Hawtrey states:

The exports of gold had abated in the earlier part of the year, but set in again in August, and Bank rate was raised to 4 per cent. On the 6th of October it was put up to 5 per cent and on the 30th January, 1882, to 6.

The exports of gold had been accentuated in consequence of the crisis in Paris in January, 1882, resulting from the failure of the Union Generale. The loss of gold by export stopped almost immediately after the rise to 6 per cent. In fact the importation into the United States was ceasing, in consequence partly of the silver legislation which went far to satisfy the need for currency with silver certificates. (p. 102)

So it’s not at all clear from the narrative provided by Friedman and Schwartz to what extent the Bank of England, in raising Bank rate in 1881, was responding to the flow of gold to the United States, and they certainly do not establish that price-level changes between 1879 to 1881 reflected monetary, rather than real, forces. Here is how Friedman and Schwartz conclude their discussion of the effects of the resumption of US gold convertibility.

These gold movements and those before resumption have contrasting economic significance. As mentioned in the preceding chapter, the inflow into the U.S. before resumption was deliberately sought by the Treasury and represented an increased demand for foreign exchange. It required a surplus in the balance of payments sufficient to finance the gold inflow. The surplus could be generated only by a reduction in U.S. prices relative to foreign prices or in the price of the U.S. dollar relative to foreign currencies and was, in fact, generated by a relative reduction in U.S. prices. The gold inflow was, as it were, the active element to which the rest of the balance of payments adjusted.

This characterization of the pre-resumption deflationary process is certainly correct insofar as refers to the necessity of a deflation in US dollar prices for the dollar to appreciate to allow convertibility into gold at the 1861 dollar price of gold and dollar/sterling exchange rate. It is not correct insofar as it suggests that beyond the deflation necessary to restore purchasing power parity, a further incremental deflation was required to finance the Treasury’s demand for foreign exchange

After resumption, on the other hand, the active element was the increased demand for dollars resulting largely from the crop situation. The gold inflow was a passive reaction which temporarily filled the gap in payments. In its absence, there would have had to be an appreciation of the dollar relative to other currencies – a solution ruled out by the fixed exchange rate under the specie standard – or a more rapid [sic! They meant “less rapid”] rise in internal U.S. prices. At the same time, the gold inflow provided the basis and stimulus for an expansion in the stock of money and thereby a rise in internal prices at home and downward pressure on the stock of money and price abroad sufficient to bring an end to the necessity for large gold inflows. (p. 99)

This explanation of the causes of gold movements is not correct. The crop situation was a real, not a monetary, disturbance. We would now say that there was a positive supply shock in the US and a negative supply shock in the rest of the world, causing the terms of trade to shift in favor of the US. The resulting gold inflow reflected an increased US demand for gold induced by rapid economic growth and the improved terms of trade and a reduced demand to hold gold elsewhere to finance a temporary excess demand for grain. The monetary demand for gold would have also increased as a result of an increasing domestic demand for money. An increased demand for money could induce an inflow of gold to be minted into coin or to be held as legally required reserves for banknotes or to be held as bank reserves for deposits. The rapid increase in output and income, fueled in part by the positive supply shock and the improving terms of trade, would normally be expected to increase the demand to hold money. If the gold inflow was the basis, or the stimulus, for an expansion of the money stock, then increases in the gold stock should have preceded increases in the money stock. But as I am going to show, Friedman himself later provided evidence showing that in this episode the money stock at first increased more rapidly than the gold stock. And just as price increases and money expansion in the US were endogenous responses to real shocks in output and the terms of trade, adjustments in the stock of money and prices abroad were not the effects of monetary disturbances but endogenous monetary adjustments to real disturbances.

Let’s now turn to the second McCloskey-Zecher paper in which they returned to the 1879 resumption of gold convertibility by the US.

In an earlier paper (1976, p. 367) we reviewed the empirical anomalies in the price-specie-flow mechanism. For instance, we argued that Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz misapplied the mechanism to an episode in American history. The United States went back on the gold standard in January 1879 at the pre-Civil War parity. The American price level was too low for the parity, allegedly setting the mechanism in motion. Over the next three years, Friedman and Schwartz argued from annual figures, gold flowed in and the price level rose just as Hume would have had it. They conclude (1963, p. 99) that “it would be hard to find a much neater example in history of the classical gold-standard mechanism in operation.” On the contrary, however, we believe it seems much more like an example of purchasing-power parity and the monetary approach than of the Humean mechanism. In the monthly statistics (Friedman and Schwartz confined themselves to annual data), there is no tendency for price rises to follow inflows of gold, as they should in the price-specie-flow mechanism; if anything, there is a slight tendency for price rises to precede inflows of gold, as they would if arbitrage were shortcutting the mechanism and leaving Americans with higher prices directly and a higher demand for gold. Whether or not the episode is a good example of the monetary theory, it is a poor example of the price-specie-flow mechanism. (p. 126)

Milton Friedman, a discussant at the conference at which McCloskey and Zecher presented their paper, submitted his amended remarks about the paper which were published in the volume along with comments of the other discussant, Robert E. Lipsey, and a transcript of the discussion of the paper by those in attendance. Here is Friedman’s response.

[McCloskey and Zecher] quote our statement that “it would be hard to find a much neater example in history of the classical gold-standard mechanism in operation” (p. 99). Their look at that episode on the basis of monthly data is interesting and most welcome, but on closer examination it does not, contrary to their claims, contradict our interpretation of the episode. McCloskey and Zecher compare price rises to inflows of gold, concluding, “In the monthly statistics … there is no tendency for price rises to follow inflows of gold . . . ; if anything, there is a slight tendency for price rises to precede inflows of gold, as they would if arbitrage were shortcutting the mechanism.”

Their comparison is the wrong one for determining whether prices were reacting to arbitrage rather than reflecting changes in the quantity of money. For that purpose the relevant comparison is with the quantity of money. Gold flows are relevant only as a proxy for the quantity of money. (p. 159)

I don’t understand this assertion at all. Gold flows are not simply a proxy for the quantity of money, because the whole premise of the PSFM is, as he and Schwartz assert in the Monetary History, that gold flows provide the “basis and stimulus for” an increase in the quantity of money.

If we compare price rises with changes in the quantity of money directly, a very different picture emerges than McCloskey and Zecher draw (see table C2.1). Our basic estimates of the quantity of money for this period are for semiannual dates, February and August. Resumption took effect on 1 January 1879. From August 1878 to February 1879, the money supply declined a trifle, continuing a decline that had begun in 1875 in final preparation for resumption. From February 1879 to August 1879, the money supply rose sharply, according to our estimates, by 15 percent. The Warren-Pearson monthly wholesale price index fell in the first half of 1879, reflecting the earlier decline in the money stock. It started its sharp rise in September 1879, or at least seven months later than the money supply.

Again, I don’t understand Friedman’s argument. The quantity of money began to rise after the resumption. In fact, Friedman’s own data show that in the six months from February to August of 1879, the quantity of money rose by 14.8% and the gold stock by 10.6%, without any effect on the price level. Friedman asserts that the price level only started to increase in September 8 or 9 months after the resumption in January. But it seems quite plausible that the fall harvest would have been the occasion for the effects of crop failures on grain prices to begin to make themselves felt on wholesale prices. So Friedman’s own evidence undercuts his argument that the increase in the quantity of money was what was driving the increase in US prices.

As to gold, the total stock of gold, as well as gold held by the Treasury, had been rising since 1877 as part of the preparation for resumption. But it had been rising at the expense of other components of high-powered money, which actually fell slightly. However, the decline in the money stock before 1879 had been due primarily to a decline in the deposit-currency ratio and the deposit-reserve ratio. After successful resumption, both ratios rose, which enabled the stock of money to rise despite no initial increase in gold flows. The large step-up in gold inflows in the fall of 1879, to which McCloskey and Zecher call attention, was mostly absorbed in raising the fraction of high-powered money in the form of gold rather than in speeding up monetary growth.

I agree with Friedman that the rapid increase in gold flows starting the fall of 1879 probably had little to do with the increase in the US price level, that increase reflecting primarily the terms-of-trade effect of rising agricultural prices, not a divergence between prices in the US and prices elsewhere in the world.  But that does not justify Friedman’s self-confident reiteration of the conclusion reached in the Monetary History that it would be hard to find a much neater example in history of the classical gold standard mechanism in operation. On the contrary, I see no evidence at all that “the classical gold standard mechanism” aka PSFM had anything to do with the behavior of prices after the resumption.

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.

A Draft of my Paper on Rules versus Discretion Is Now Available on SSRN

My paper “Rules versus Discretion in Monetary Policy Historically Contemplated” which I spoke about last September at the Mercatus Center Conference on rules for a post-crisis world has been accepted by the Journal of Macroeconomics. I posted a draft of the concluding section of the paper on this blog several weeks ago. An abstract, and a complete draft, of the paper are available on the journal website, but only the abstract is ungated.

I have posted a draft of the paper on SSRN where it may now be downloaded. Here is the abstract of the paper.

Monetary-policy rules are attempts to cope with the implications of having a medium of exchange whose value exceeds its cost of production. Two classes of monetary rules can be identified: (1) price rules that target the value of money in terms of a real commodity, e.g., gold, or in terms of some index of prices, and (2) quantity rules that target the quantity of money in circulation. Historically, price rules, e.g. the gold standard, have predominated, but the Bank Charter Act of 1844 imposed a quantity rule as an adjunct to the gold standard, because the gold standard had performed unsatisfactorily after being restored in Britain at the close of the Napoleonic Wars. A quantity rule was not proposed independently of a price rule until Henry Simons proposed a constant money supply consisting of government-issued fiat currency and deposits issued by banks operating on a 100-percent reserve basis. Simons argued that such a plan would be ideal if it could be implemented because it would deprive the monetary authority of any discretionary decision-making power. Nevertheless, Simons concluded that such a plan was impractical and supported a price rule to stabilized the price level. Simons’s student Milton Friedman revived Simons’s argument against discretion and modified Simons plan for 100-percent reserve banking and a constant money supply into his k-percent rule for monetary growth. This paper examines the doctrinal and ideological origins and background that lay behind the rules versus discretion distinction.

Rules vs. Discretion Historically Contemplated

Here is a new concluding section which I have just written for my paper “Rules versus Discretion in Monetary Policy: Historically Contemplated” which I spoke about last September at the Mercatus Confernce on Monetary Rules in a Post-Crisis World. I have been working a lot on the paper over the past month or so and I hope to post a draft soon on SSRN and it is now under review for publication. I apologize for having written very little in past month and for having failed to respond to any comments on my previous posts. I simply have been too busy with work and life to have any energy left for blogging. I look forward to being more involved in the blog over the next few months and expect to be posting some sections of a couple of papers I am going to be writing. But I’m offering no guarantees. It is gratifying to know that people are still visiting the blog and reading some of my old posts.

Although recognition of a need for some rule to govern the conduct of the monetary authority originated in the perceived incentive of the authority to opportunistically abuse its privileged position, the expectations of the public (including that small, but modestly influential, segment consisting of amateur and professional economists) about what monetary rules might actually accomplish have evolved and expanded over the course of the past two centuries. As Laidler (“Economic Ideas, the Monetary Order, and the Uneasy Case for Monetary Rules”) shows, that evolution has been driven by both the evolution of economic and monetary institutions and the evolution of economic and monetary doctrines about how those institutions work.

I distinguish between two types of rules: price rules and quantity rules. The simplest price rule involved setting the price of a commodity – usually gold or silver – in terms of a monetary unit whose supply was controlled by the monetary authority or defining a monetary unit as a specific quantity of a particular commodity. Under the classical gold standard, for example, the monetary authority stood ready to buy or sell gold on demand at legally determined price of gold in terms of the monetary unit. Thus, the fixed price of gold under the gold standard was originally thought to serve as both the policy target of the rule and the operational instrument for implementing the rule.

However, as monetary institutions and theories evolved, it became apparent that there were policy objectives other than simply maintaining the convertibility of the monetary unit into the standard commodity that required the attention of the monetary authority. The first attempt to impose an additional policy goal on a monetary authority was the Bank Charter Act of 1844 which specified a quantity target – the aggregate of banknotes in circulation in Britain – which the monetary authority — the Bank of England – was required to reach by following a simple mechanical rule. By imposing a 100-percent marginal gold-reserve requirement on the notes issued by the Bank of England, the Bank Charter Act made the quantity of banknotes issued by the Bank of England both the target of the quantity rule and the instrument by which the rule was implemented.

Owing to deficiencies in the monetary theory on the basis of which the Act was designed and to the evolution of British monetary practices and institution, the conceptual elegance of the Bank Charter Act was not matched by its efficacy in practice. But despite, or, more likely, because of, the ultimate failure of Bank Charter Act, the gold standard, surviving recurring financial crises in Great Britain in the middle third of the nineteenth century, was eventually adopted by many other countries in the 1870s, becoming the de facto international monetary system from the late 1870s until the start of World War I. Operation of the gold standard was defined by, and depended on, the observance of a single price rule in which the value of a currency was defined by its legal gold content, so that corresponding to each gold-standard currency, there was an official gold price at which the monetary authority was obligated to buy or sell gold on demand.

The value – the purchasing power — of gold was relatively stable in the 35 or so years of the gold standard era, but that stability could not survive the upheavals associated with World War I, and so the problem of reconstructing the postwar monetary system was what kind of monetary rule to adopt to govern the post-war economy. Was it enough merely to restore the old currency parities – perhaps adjusted for differences in the extent of wartime and postwar currency depreciation — that governed the classical gold standard, or was it necessary to take into account other factors, e.g., the purchasing power of gold, in restoring the gold standard? This basic conundrum was never satisfactorily answered, and the failure to do so undoubtedly was a contributing, and perhaps dominant, factor in the economic collapse that began at the end of 1929, ultimately leading to the abandonment of the gold standard.

Searching for a new monetary regime to replace the failed gold standard, but to some extent inspired by the Bank Charter Act of the previous century, Henry Simons and ten fellow University of Chicago economists devised a totally new monetary system based on 100-percent reserve banking. The original Chicago proposal for 100-percent reserve banking proposed a monetary rule for stabilizing the purchasing power of fiat money. The 100-percent banking proposal would give the monetary authority complete control over the quantity of money, thereby enhancing the power of the monetary authority to achieve its price-level target. The Chicago proposal was thus inspired by a desire to increase the likelihood that the monetary authority could successfully implement the desired price rule. The price level was the target, and the quantity of money was the instrument. But as long as private fractional-reserve banks remained in operation, the monetary authority would lack effective control over the instrument. That was the rationale for replacing fractional reserve banks with 100-percent reserve banks.

But Simons eventually decided in his paper (“Rules versus Authorities in Monetary Policy”) that a price-level target was undesirable in principle, because allowing the monetary authority to choose which price level to stabilize, thereby favoring some groups at the expense of others, would grant too much discretion to the monetary authority. Rejecting price-level stabilization as monetary rule, Simons concluded that the exercise of discretion could be avoided only if the quantity of money was the target as well as the instrument of a monetary rule. Simons’s ideal monetary rule was therefore to keep the quantity of money in the economy constant — forever. But having found the ideal rule, Simons immediately rejected it, because he realized that the reforms in the financial and monetary systems necessary to make such a rule viable over the long run would never be adopted. And so he reluctantly and unhappily reverted back to the price-level stabilization rule that he and his Chicago colleagues had proposed in 1933.

Simons’s student Milton Friedman continued to espouse his teacher’s opposition to discretion, and as late as 1959 (A Program for Monetary Stability) he continued to advocate 100-percent reserve banking. But in the early 1960s, he adopted his k-percent rule and gave up his support for 100-percent banking. But despite giving up on 100-percent banking, Friedman continued to argue that the k-percent rule was less discretionary than the gold standard or a price-level rule, because neither the gold standard nor a price-level rule eliminated the exercise of discretion by the monetary authority in its implementation of policy, failing to acknowledge that, under any of the definitions that he used (usually M1 and sometimes M2), the quantity of money was a target, not an instrument. Of course, Friedman did eventually abandon his k-percent rule, but that acknowledgment came at least a decade after almost everyone else had recognized its unsuitability as a guide for conducting monetary policy, let alone as a legally binding rule, and long after Friedman’s repeated predictions that rapid growth of the monetary aggregates in the 1980s presaged the return of near-double-digit inflation.

However, the work of Kydland and Prescott (“Rules Rather than Discretion: The Inconsistency of Optimal Plans”) on time inconsistency has provided an alternative basis on which argue against discretion: that the lack of commitment to a long-run policy would lead to self-defeating short-term attempts to deviate from the optimal long-term policy.[1]

It is now I think generally understood that a monetary authority has available to it four primary instruments in conducting monetary policy, the quantity of base money, the lending rate it charges to banks, the deposit rate it pays banks on reserves, and an exchange rate against some other currency or some asset. A variety of goals remain available as well, nominal goals like inflation, the price level, or nominal income, or even an index of stock prices, as well as real goals like real GDP and employment.

Ever since Friedman and Phelps independently argued that the long-run Phillips Curve is vertical, a consensus has developed that countercyclical monetary policy is basically ineffectual, because the effects of countercyclical policy will be anticipated so that the only long-run effect of countercyclical policy is to raise the average rate of inflation without affecting output and employment in the long run. Because the reasoning that generates this result is essentially that money is neutral in the long run, the reasoning is not as compelling as the professional consensus in its favor would suggest. The monetary neutrality result only applies under the very special assumptions of a comparative static exercise comparing an initial equilibrium with a final equilibrium. But the whole point of countercyclical policy is to speed the adjustment from a disequilbrium with high unemployment back to a low-unemployment equilibrium. A comparative-statics exercise provides no theoretical, much less empirical, support for the proposition that anticipated monetary policy cannot have real effects.

So the range of possible targets and the range of possible instruments now provide considerable latitude to supporters of monetary rules to recommend alternative monetary rules incorporating many different combinations of alternative instruments and alternative targets. As of now, we have arrived at few solid theoretical conclusions about the relative effectiveness of alternative rules and even less empirical evidence about their effectiveness. But at least we know that, to be viable, a monetary rule will almost certainly have to be expressed in terms of one or more targets while allowing the monetary authority at least some discretion to adjust its control over its chosen instruments in order to effectively achieve its target (McCallum 1987, 1988). That does not seem like a great deal of progress to have made in the two centuries since economists began puzzling over how to construct an appropriate rule to govern the behavior of the monetary authority, but it is progress nonetheless. And, if we are so inclined, we can at least take some comfort in knowing that earlier generations have left us a lot of room for improvement.

Footnote:

[1] Friedman in fact recognized the point in his writings, but he emphasized the dangers of allowing discretion in the choice of instruments rather than the time-inconsistency policy, because it was only former argument that provided a basis for preferring his quantity rule over price rules.

Larry White on the Gold Standard and Me

A little over three months ago on a brutally hot day in Washington DC, I gave a talk about a not yet completed paper at the Mercatus Center Conference on Monetary Rules for a Post-Crisis World. The title of my paper was (and still is) “Rules versus Discretion Historically Contemplated.” I hope to post a draft of the paper soon on SSRN.

One of the attendees at the conference was Larry White who started his graduate training at UCLA just after I had left. When I wrote a post about my talk, Larry responded with a post of his own in which he took issue with some of what I had to say about the gold standard, which I described as the first formal attempt at a legislated monetary rule. Actually, in my talk and my paper, my intention was not as much to criticize the gold standard as it was to criticize the idea, which originated after the gold standard had already been adopted in England, of imposing a fixed numerical rule in addition to the gold standard to control the quantity of banknotes or the total stock of money. The fixed mechanical rule was imposed by an act of Parliament, the Bank Charter Act of 1844. The rule, intended to avoid financial crises such as those experienced in 1825 and 1836, actually led to further crises in 1847, 1857 and 1866 and the latter crises were quelled only after the British government suspended those provisions of the Act preventing the Bank of England from increasing the quantity of banknotes in circulation. So my first point was that the fixed quantitative rule made the gold standard less stable than it would otherwise have been.

My second point was that, in the depths of the Great Depression, a fixed rule freezing the nominal quantity of money was proposed as an alternative rule to the gold standard. It was this rule that one of its originators, Henry Simons, had in mind when he introduced his famous distinction between rules and discretion. Simons had many other reasons for opposing the gold standard, but he introduced the famous rules-discretion dichotomy as a way of convincing those supporters of the gold standard who considered it a necessary bulwark against comprehensive government control over the economy to recognize that his fixed quantity rule would be a far more effective barrier than the gold standard against arbitrary government meddling and intervention in the private sector, because the gold standard, far from constraining the conduct of central banks, granted them broad discretionary authority. The gold standard was an ineffective rule, because it specified only the target pursued by the monetary authority, but not the means of achieving the target. In Simons view, giving the monetary authority to exercise discretion over the instruments used to achieve its target granted the monetary authority far too much discretion for independent unconstrained decision making.

My third point was that Henry Simons himself recognized that the strict quantity rule that he would have liked to introduce could only be made operational effectively if the entire financial system were radically restructured, an outcome that he reluctantly concluded was unattainable. However, his student Milton Friedman convinced himself that a variant of the Simons rule could actually be implemented quite easily, and he therefore argued over the course of almost his entire career that opponents of discretion ought to favor the quantity rule that he favored instead of continuing to support a restoration of the gold standard. However, Friedman was badly mistaken in assuming that his modified quantity rule eliminated discretion in the manner that Simons had wanted, because his quantity rule was defined in terms of a magnitude, the total money stock in the hands of the public, which was a target, not, as he insisted, an instrument, the quantity of money held by the public being dependent on choices made by the public, not just on choices made by the monetary authority.

So my criticism of quantity rules can be read as at least a partial defense of the gold standard against the attacks of those who criticized the gold standard for being insufficiently rigorous in controlling the conduct of central banks.

Let me now respond to some of Larry’s specific comments and criticisms of my post.

[Glasner] suggests that perhaps the earliest monetary rule, in the general sense of a binding pre-commitment for a money issuer, can be seen in the redemption obligations attached to banknotes. The obligation was contractual: A typical banknote pledged that the bank “will pay the bearer on demand” in specie. . . .  He rightly remarks that “convertibility was not originally undertaken as a policy rule; it was undertaken simply as a business expedient” without which the public would not have accepted demand deposits or banknotes.

I wouldn’t characterize the contract in quite the way Glasner does, however, as a “monetary rule to govern the operation of a monetary system.” In a system with many banks of issue, the redemption contract on any one bank’s notes was a commitment from that bank to the holders of those notes only, without anyone intending it as a device to govern the operation of the entire system. The commitment that governs a single bank ipso facto governs an entire monetary system only when that single bank is a central bank, the only bank allowed to issue currency and the repository of the gold reserves of ordinary commercial banks.

It’s hard to write a short description of a system that covers all possible permutations in the system. While I think Larry is correct in noting the difference between the commitment made by any single bank to convert – on demand — its obligations into gold and the legal commitment imposed on an entire system to maintain convertibility into gold, the historical process was rather complicated, because both silver and gold coins circulating in Britain. So the historical fact that British banks were making their obligations convertible into gold was the result of prior decisions that had been made about the legal exchange rate between gold and silver coins, decisions which overvalued gold and undervalued silver, causing full bodied silver coins to disappear from circulation. Given a monetary framework shaped by the legal gold/silver parity established by the British mint, it was inevitable that British banks operating within that framework would make their banknotes convertible into gold not silver.

Under a gold standard with competitive plural note-issuers (a free banking system) holding their own reserves, by contrast, the operation of the monetary system is governed by impersonal market forces rather than by any single agent. This is an important distinction between the properties of a gold standard with free banking and the properties of a gold standard managed by a central bank. The distinction is especially important when it comes to judging whether historical monetary crises and depressions can be accurately described as instances where “the gold standard failed” or instead where “central bank management of the monetary system failed.”

I agree that introducing a central bank into the picture creates the possibility that the actions of the central bank will have a destabilizing effect. But that does not necessarily mean that the actions of the central bank could not also have a stabilizing effect compared to how a pure free-banking system would operate under a gold standard.

As the author of Free Banking and Monetary Reform, Glasner of course knows the distinction well. So I am not here telling him anything he doesn’t know. I am only alerting readers to keep the distinction in mind when they hear or read “the gold standard” being blamed for financial instability. I wish that Glasner had made it more explicit that he is talking about a system run by the Bank of England, not the more automatic type of gold standard with free banking.

But in my book, I did acknowledge that there inherent instabilities associated with a gold standard. That’s why I proposed a system that would aim at stabilizing the average wage level. Almost thirty years on, I have to admit to having my doubts whether that would be the right target to aim for. And those doubts make me more skeptical than I once was about adopting any rigid monetary rule. When it comes to monetary rules, I fear that the best is the enemy of the good.

Glasner highlights the British Parliament’s legislative decision “to restore the convertibility of banknotes issued by the Bank of England into a fixed weight of gold” after a decades-long suspension that began during the Napoleonic wars. He comments:

However, the widely held expectations that the restoration of convertibility of banknotes issued by the Bank of England into gold would produce a stable monetary regime and a stable economy were quickly disappointed, financial crises and depressions occurring in 1825 and again in 1836.

Left unexplained is why the expectations were disappointed, why the monetary regime remained unstable. A reader who hasn’t read Glasner’s other blog entries on the gold standard might think that he is blaming the gold standard as such.

Actually I didn’t mean to blame anyone for the crises of 1825 and 1836. All I meant to do was a) blame the Currency School for agitating for a strict quantitative rule governing the total quantity of banknotes in circulation to be imposed on top of the gold standard, b) point out that the rule that was enacted when Parliament passed the Bank Charter Act of 1844 failed to prevent subsequent crises in 1847, 1857 and 1866, and c) that the crises ended only after the provisions of the Bank Charter Act limiting the issue of banknotes by the Bank of England had been suspended.

My own view is that, because the monopoly Bank of England’s monopoly was not broken up, even with convertibility acting as a long-run constraint, the Bank had the power to create cyclical monetary instability and occasionally did so by (unintentionally) over-issuing and then having to contract suddenly as gold flowed out of its vault — as happened in 1825 and again in 1836. Because the London note-issue was not decentralized, the Bank of England did not experience prompt loss of reserves to rival banks (adverse clearings) as soon as it over-issued. Regulation via the price-specie-flow mechanism (external drain) allowed over-issue to persist longer and grow larger. Correction came only with a delay, and came more harshly than continuous intra-London correction through adverse clearings would have. Bank of England mistakes boggled the entire financial system. It was central bank errors and not the gold standard that disrupted monetary stability after 1821.

Here, I think, we do arrive at a basic theoretical disagreement, because I don’t accept that the price-specie-flow mechanism played any significant role in the international adjustment process. National price levels under the gold standard were positively correlated to a high degree, not negatively correlated, as implied by the price-specie-flow mechanism. Moreover, the Bank Charter Act imposed a fixed quantitative limit on the note issue of all British banks and the Bank of England in particular, so the overissue of banknotes by the Bank of England could not have been the cause of the post-1844 financial crises. If there was excessive credit expansion, it was happening through deposit creation by a great number of competing deposit-creating banks, not the overissue of banknotes by the Bank of England.

This hypothesis about the source of England’s cyclical instability is far from original with me. It was offered during the 1821-1850 period by a number of writers. Some, like Robert Torrens, were members of the Currency School and offered the Currency Principle as a remedy. Others, like James William Gilbart, are better classified as members of the Free Banking School because they argued that competition and adverse clearings would effectively constrain the Bank of England once rival note issuers were allowed in London. Although they offered different remedies, these writers shared the judgment that the Bank of England had over-issued, stimulating an unsustainable boom, then was eventually forced by gold reserve losses to reverse course, instituting a credit crunch. Because Glasner elides the distinction between free banking and central banking in his talk and blog post, he naturally omits the third side in the Currency School-Banking School-Free Banking School debate.

And my view is that Free Bankers like Larry White overestimate the importance of note issue in a banking system in which deposits were rapidly overtaking banknotes as the primary means by which banks extended credit. As Henry Simons, himself, recognized this shift from banknotes to bank deposits was itself stimulated, at least in part, by the Bank Charter Act, which made the extension of credit via banknotes prohibitively costly relative to expansion by deposit creation.

Later in his blog post, Glasner fairly summarizes how a gold standard works when a central bank does not subvert or over-ride its automatic operation:

Given the convertibility commitment, the actual quantity of the monetary instrument that is issued is whatever quantity the public wishes to hold.

But he then immediately remarks:

That, at any rate, was the theory of the gold standard. There were — and are – at least two basic problems with that theory. First, making the value of money equal to the value of gold does not imply that the value of money will be stable unless the value of gold is stable, and there is no necessary reason why the value of gold should be stable. Second, the behavior of a banking system may be such that the banking system will itself destabilize the value of gold, e.g., in periods of distress when the public loses confidence in the solvency of banks and banks simultaneously increase their demands for gold. The resulting increase in the monetary demand for gold drives up the value of gold, triggering a vicious cycle in which the attempt by each to increase his own liquidity impairs the solvency of all.

These two purported “basic problems” prompt me to make two sets of comments:

1 While it is true that the purchasing power of gold was not perfectly stable under the classical gold standard, perfection is not the relevant benchmark. The purchasing power of money was more stable under the classical gold standard than it has been under fiat money standards since the Second World War. Average inflation rates were closer to zero, and the price level was more predictable at medium to long horizons. Whatever Glasner may have meant by “necessary reason,” there certainly is a theoretical reason for this performance: the economics of gold mining make the purchasing power of gold (ppg) mean-reverting in the face of monetary demand and supply shocks. An unusually high ppg encourages additional gold mining, until the ppg declines to the normal long-run value determined by the flow supply and demand for gold. An unusually low ppg discourages mining, until the normal long-run ppg is restored. It is true that permanent changes in the gold mining cost conditions can have a permanent impact on the long-run level of the ppg, but empirically such shocks were smaller than the money supply variations that central banks have produced.

2 The behavior of the banking system is indeed critically important for short-run stability. Instability wasn’t a problem in all countries, so we need to ask why some banking systems were unstable or panic-prone, while others were stable. The US banking system was panic prone in the late 19th century while the Canadian system was not. The English system was panic-prone while the Scottish system was not. The behavioral differences were not random or mere facts of nature, but grew directly from differences in the legal restrictions constraining the banks. The Canadian and Scottish systems, unlike the US and English systems, allowed their banks to adequately diversify, and to respond to peak currency demands, thus allowed banks to be more solvent and more liquid, and thus avoided loss of confidence in the banks. The problem in the US and England was not the gold standard, or a flaw in “the theory of the gold standard,” but ill-conceived legal restrictions that weakened the banking systems.

Larry makes two good points, but I doubt that they are very important in practice. The problem with the value of gold is that there is a very long time lag before the adjustment in the rate of output of new gold will cause the value of gold to revert back to its normal level. The annual output of gold is only about 3 percent of the total stock of gold. If the monetary demand for gold is large relative to the total stock and that demand is unstable, the swing in the overall demand for gold can easily dominate the small resulting change in the annual rate of output. So I do not have much confidence that the mean-reversion characteristic of the purchasing power of gold to be of much help in the short or even the medium term. I also agree with Larry that the Canadian and Scottish banking systems exhibited a lot more stability than the neighboring US and English banking systems. That is an important point, but I don’t think it is decisive. It’s true that there were no bank failures in Canada in the Great Depression. But the absence of bank failures, while certainly a great benefit, did not prevent Canada from suffering a downturn of about the same depth and duration as the US did between 1929 and 1933. The main cause of the Great Depression was the deflation caused by the appreciation of the value of gold. The deflation caused bank failures when banks were small and unstable and did not cause bank failures when banks were large and diversified. But the deflation  was still wreaking havoc on the rest of the economy even though banks weren’t failing.

Where Do Monetary Rules Come From and How Do They Work?

In my talk last week at the Mercatus Conference on Monetary Rules for a Post-Crisis World, I discussed how monetary rules and the thinking about monetary rules have developed over time. The point that I started with was that monetary rules become necessary only when the medium of exchange has a value that exceeds the cost of producing the medium of exchange. You don’t need a monetary rule if money is a commodity; people just trade stuff for stuff; it’s not barter, because everyone accepts one real commodity, making that commodity the medium of exchange. But there’s no special rule governing the monetary system beyond the rules that govern all forms of exchange. the first monetary rule came along only when something worth more than its cost of production was used as money. This might have happened when people accepted minted coins at face value, even though the coins were not full-bodied. But that situation was not a stable equilibrium, because eventually Gresham’s Law kicks in, and the bad money drives out the good, so that the value of coins drops to their metallic value rather than their face value. So no real monetary rule was operating to control the value of coinage in situations where the coinage was debased.

So the idea of an actual monetary rule to govern the operation of a monetary system only emerged when banks started to issue banknotes. Banknotes having a negligible cost of production, a value in excess of that negligible cost could be imparted to those essentially worthless banknotes only by banks undertaking a commitment — a legally binding obligation — to make those banknotes redeemable (convertible) for a fixed weight of gold or silver or some other valuable material whose supply was not under the control of the bank itself. This convertibility commitment can be thought of as a kind of rule, but convertibility was not originally undertaken as a policy rule; it was undertaken simply as a business expedient; it was the means by which banks could create a demand for the banknotes that they wanted to issue to borrowers so that they could engage in the profitable business of financial intermediation.

It was in 1797, during the early stages of the British-French wars after the French Revolution, when, the rumor of a French invasion having led to a run on Bank of England notes, the British government prohibited the Bank of England from redeeming its banknotes for gold, and made banknotes issued by the Bank of England legal tender. The subsequent premium on gold in Continental commodity markets in terms of sterling – what was called the high price of bullion – led to a series of debates which engaged some of the finest economic minds in Great Britain – notably David Ricardo and Henry Thornton – over the causes and consequences of the high price of bullion and, if a remedy was in fact required, the appropriate policy steps to be taken to administer that remedy.

There is a vast literature on the many-sided Bullionist debates as they are now called, but my only concern here is with the final outcome of the debates, which was the appointment of a Parliamentary Commission, which included none other than the great Henry Thornton, himself, and two less renowned colleagues, William Huskisson and Francis Horner, who collaborated to write a report published in 1811 recommending the speedy restoration of convertibility of Bank of England notes. The British government and Parliament were unwilling to follow the recommendation while war with France was ongoing, however, there was a broad consensus in favor of the restoration of convertibility once the war was over.

After Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, the process of restoring convertibility was begun with the intention of restoring the pre-1797 conversion rate between banknotes and gold. Parliament in fact enacted a statute defining the pound sterling as a fixed weight of gold. By 1819, the value of sterling had risen to its prewar level, and in 1821 the legal obligation of the Bank of England to convert its notes into gold was reinstituted. So the first self-consciously adopted monetary rule was the Parliamentary decision to restore the convertibility of banknotes issued by the Bank of England into a fixed weight of gold.

However, the widely held expectations that the restoration of convertibility of banknotes issued by the Bank of England into gold would produce a stable monetary regime and a stable economy were quickly disappointed, financial crises and depressions occurring in 1825 and again in 1836. To explain the occurrence of these unexpected financial crises and periods of severe economic distress, a group of monetary theorists advanced a theory based on David Hume’s discussion of the price-specie-flow mechanism in his essay “Of the Balance of Trade,” in which he explained the automatic tendency toward equilibrium in the balance of trade and stocks of gold and precious metals among nations. Hume carried out his argument in terms of a fully metallic (gold) currency, and, in other works, Hume decried the tendency of banks to issue banknotes to excess, thereby causing inflation and economic disturbances.

So the conclusion drawn by these monetary theorists was that the Humean adjustment process would work smoothly only if gold shipments into Britain or out of Britain would result in a reduction or increase in the quantity of banknotes exactly equal to the amount of gold flowing into or out of Britain. It was the failure of the Bank of England and the other British banks to follow the Currency Principle – the idea that the total amount of currency in the country should change by exactly the same amount as the total quantity of gold reserves in the country – that had caused the economic crises and disturbances marking the two decades since the resumption of convertibility in 1821.

Those advancing this theory of economic fluctuations and financial crises were known as the Currency School and they succeeded in persuading Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister to support legislation to require the Bank of England and the other British Banks to abide by the Currency Principle. This was done by capping the note issue of all banks other than the Bank of England at existing levels and allowing the Bank of England to increase its issue of banknotes only upon deposit of a corresponding quantity of gold bullion. The result was in effect to impose a 100% marginal reserve requirement on the entire British banking system. Opposition to the Currency School largely emanated from what came to be known as the Banking School, whose most profound theorist was John Fullarton who formulated the law of reflux, which focused attention on the endogenous nature of the issue of banknotes by commercial banks. According to Fullarton and the Banking School, the issue of banknotes by the banking system was not a destabilizing and disequilibrating disturbance, but a response to the liquidity demands of traders and dealers. Once these liquidity demands were satisfied, the excess banknotes, returning to the banks in the ordinary course of business, would be retired from circulation unless there was a further demand for liquidity from some other source.

The Humean analysis, abstracting from any notion of a demand for liquidity, was therefore no guide to the appropriate behavior of the quantity of banknotes. Imposing a 100% marginal reserve requirement on the supply of banknotes would make it costly for traders and dealers to satisfy their demands for liquidity in times of financial stress; rather than eliminate monetary disturbances, the statutory enactment of the Currency Principle would be an added source of financial disturbance and disorder.

With the support of Robert Peel and his government, the arguments of the Currency School prevailed, and the Bank Charter Act was enacted in 1844. In 1847, despite the hopes of its supporters that an era of financial tranquility would follow, a new financial crisis occurred, and the crisis was not quelled until the government suspended the Bank Charter Act, thereby enabling the Bank of England to lend to dealers and traders to satisfy their demands for liquidity. Again in 1857 and in 1866, crises occurred which could not be brought under control before the government suspended the Bank Charter Act.

So British monetary history in the first half of the nineteenth century provides us with two paradigms of monetary rules. The first is a price rule in which the value of a monetary instrument is maintained at a level above its cost of production by way of a convertibility commitment. Given the convertibility commitment, the actual quantity of the monetary instrument that is issued is whatever quantity the public wishes to hold. That, at any rate, was the theory of the gold standard. There were – and are – at least two basic problems with that theory. First, making the value of money equal to the value of gold does not imply that the value of money will be stable unless the value of gold is stable, and there is no necessary reason why the value of gold should be stable. Second, the behavior of a banking system may be such that the banking system will itself destabilize the value of gold, e.g., in periods of distress when the public loses confidence in the solvency of banks and banks simultaneously increase their demands for gold. The resulting increase in the monetary demand for gold drives up the value of gold, triggering a vicious cycle in which the attempt by each to increase his own liquidity impairs the solvency of all.

The second rule is a quantity rule in which the gold standard is forced to operate in a way that prevents the money supply from adjusting freely to variations in the demand for money. Such a rule makes sense only if one ignores or denies the possibility that the demand for money can change suddenly and unpredictably. The quantity rule is neither necessary nor sufficient for the gold standard or any monetary standard to operate. In fact, it is an implicit assertion that the gold standard or any metallic standard cannot operate, the operation of profit-seeking private banks and their creation of banknotes and deposits being inconsistent with the maintenance of a gold standard. But this is really a demand for abolition of the gold standard in which banknotes and deposits draw their value from a convertibility commitment and its replacement by a pure gold currency in which there is no distinction between gold and banknotes or deposits, banknotes and deposits being nothing more than a receipt for an equivalent physical amount of gold held in reserve. That is the monetary system that the Currency School aimed at achieving. However, imposing the 100% reserve requirement only on banknotes, they left deposits unconstrained, thereby paving the way for a gradual revolution in the banking practices of Great Britain between 1844 and about 1870, so that by 1870 the bulk of cash held in Great Britain was held in the form of deposits not banknotes and the bulk of business transactions in Britain were carried out by check not banknotes.

So Milton Friedman was working entirely within the Currency School monetary tradition, formulating a monetary rule in terms of a fixed quantity rather than a fixed price. And, in ultimately rejecting the gold standard, Friedman was merely following the logic of the Currency School to its logical conclusion, because what ultimately matters is the quantity rule not the price rule. For the Currency School, the price rule was redundant, a fifth wheel; the real work was done by the 100% marginal reserve requirement. Friedman therefore saw the gold standard as an unnecessary and even dangerous distraction from the ultimate goal of keeping the quantity of money under strict legal control.

It is in the larger context of Friedman’s position on 100% reserve banking, of which he remained an advocate until he shifted to the k-percent rule in the early 1960s, that his anomalous description of the classical gold standard of late nineteenth century till World War I as a pseudo-gold standard can be understood. What Friedman described as a real gold standard was a system in which only physical gold and banknotes and deposits representing corresponding holdings of physical gold circulate as media of exchange. But this is not a gold standard that has ever existed, so what Friedman called a real gold standard was actually just the gold standard of his hyperactive imagination.

What’s Wrong with Monetarism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How not to Win Friends and Influence People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

adjusted_monetary_base

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Free Market Economy Is Awesome and Fragile

Scott Sumner’s three most recent posts (here, here, and here)have been really great, and I’ld like to comment on all of them. I will start with a comment on his post discussing whether the free market economy is stable; perhaps I will get around to the other two next week. Scott uses a 2009 paper by Robert Hetzel as the starting point for his discussion. Hetzel distinguishes between those who view the stabilizing properties of price adjustment as being overwhelmed by real instabilities reflecting fluctuations in consumer and entrepreneurial sentiment – waves of optimism and pessimism – and those who regard the economy as either perpetually in equilibrium (RBC theorists) or just usually in equilibrium (Monetarists) unless destabilized by monetary shocks. Scott classifies himself, along with Hetzel and Milton Friedman, in the latter category.

Scott then brings Paul Krugman into the mix:

Friedman, Hetzel, and I all share the view that the private economy is basically stable, unless disturbed by monetary shocks. Paul Krugman has criticized this view, and indeed accused Friedman of intellectual dishonesty, for claiming that the Fed caused the Great Depression. In Krugman’s view, the account in Friedman and Schwartz’s Monetary History suggests that the Depression was caused by an unstable private economy, which the Fed failed to rescue because of insufficiently interventionist monetary policies. He thinks Friedman was subtly distorting the message to make his broader libertarian ideology seem more appealing.

This is a tricky topic for me to handle, because my own view of what happened in the Great Depression is in one sense similar to Friedman’s – monetary policy, not some spontaneous collapse of the private economy, was what precipitated and prolonged the Great Depression – but Friedman had a partial, simplistic and distorted view of how and why monetary policy failed. And although I believe Friedman was correct to argue that the Great Depression did not prove that the free market economy is inherently unstable and requires comprehensive government intervention to keep it from collapsing, I think that his account of the Great Depression was to some extent informed by his belief that his own simple k-percent rule for monetary growth was a golden bullet that would ensure economic stability and high employment.

I’d like to first ask a basic question: Is this a distinction without a meaningful difference? There are actually two issues here. First, does the Fed always have the ability to stabilize the economy, or does the zero bound sometimes render their policies impotent?  In that case the two views clearly do differ. But the more interesting philosophical question occurs when not at the zero bound, which has been the case for all but one postwar recession. In that case, does it make more sense to say the Fed caused a recession, or failed to prevent it?

Here’s an analogy. Someone might claim that LeBron James is a very weak and frail life form, whose legs will cramp up during basketball games without frequent consumption of fluids. Another might suggest that James is a healthy and powerful athlete, who needs to drink plenty of fluids to perform at his best during basketball games. In a sense, both are describing the same underlying reality, albeit with very different framing techniques. Nonetheless, I think the second description is better. It is a more informative description of LeBron James’s physical condition, relative to average people.

By analogy, I believe the private economy in the US is far more likely to be stable with decent monetary policy than is the economy of Venezuela (which can fall into depression even with sufficiently expansionary monetary policy, or indeed overly expansionary policies.)

I like Scott’s LeBron James analogy, but I have two problems with it. First, although LeBron James is a great player, he’s not perfect. Sometimes, even he messes up. When he messes up, it may not be his fault, in the sense that, with better information or better foresight – say, a little more rest in the second quarter – he might have sunk the game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer. Second, it’s one thing to say that a monetary shock caused the Great Depression, but maybe we just don’t know how to avoid monetary shocks. LeBron can miss shots, so can the Fed. Milton Friedman certainly didn’t know how to avoid monetary shocks, because his pet k-percent rule, as F. A. Hayek shrewdly observed, was a simply a monetary shock waiting to happen. And John Taylor certainly doesn’t know how to avoid monetary shocks, because his pet rule would have caused the Fed to raise interest rates in 2011 with possibly devastating consequences. I agree that a nominal GDP level target would have resulted in a monetary policy superior to the policy the Fed has been conducting since 2008, but do I really know that? I am not sure that I do. The false promise held out by Friedman was that it is easy to get monetary policy right all the time. It certainly wasn’t the case for Friedman’s pet rule, and I don’t think that there is any monetary rule out there that we can be sure will keep us safe and secure and fully employed.

But going beyond the LeBron analogy, I would make a further point. We just have no theoretical basis for saying that the free-market economy is stable. We can prove that, under some assumptions – and it is, to say the least, debatable whether the assumptions could properly be described as reasonable – a model economy corresponding to the basic neoclassical paradigm can be solved for an equilibrium solution. The existence of an equilibrium solution means basically that the neoclassical model is logically coherent, not that it tells us much about how any actual economy works. The pieces of the puzzle could all be put together in a way so that everything fits, but that doesn’t mean that in practice there is any mechanism whereby that equilibrium is ever reached or even approximated.

The argument for the stability of the free market that we learn in our first course in economics, which shows us how price adjusts to balance supply and demand, is an argument that, when every market but one – well, actually two, but we don’t have to quibble about it – is already in equilibrium, price adjustment in the remaining market – if it is small relative to the rest of the economy – will bring that market into equilibrium as well. That’s what I mean when I refer to the macrofoundations of microeconomics. But when many markets are out of equilibrium, even the markets that seem to be equilibrium (with amounts supplied and demanded equal) are not necessarily in equilibrium, because the price adjustments in other markets will disturb the seeming equilibrium of the markets in which supply and demand are momentarily equal. So there is not necessarily any algorithm, either in theory or in practice, by which price adjustments in individual markets would ever lead the economy into a state of general equilibrium. If we believe that the free market economy is stable, our belief is therefore not derived from any theoretical proof of the stability of the free market economy, but simply on an intuition, and some sort of historical assessment that free markets tend to work well most of the time. I would just add that, in his seminal 1937 paper, “Economics and Knowledge,” F. A. Hayek actually made just that observation, though it is not an observation that he, or most of his followers – with the notable and telling exceptions of G. L. S. Shackle and Ludwig Lachmann – made a big fuss about.

Axel Leijonhufvud, who is certainly an admirer of Hayek, addresses the question of the stability of the free-market economy in terms of what he calls a corridor. If you think of an economy moving along a time path, and if you think of the time path that would be followed by the economy if it were operating at a full-employment equilibrium, Leijonjhufvud’s corridor hypothesis is that the actual time path of the economy tends to revert to the equilibrium time path as long as deviations from the equilibrium are kept within certain limits, those limits defining the corridor. However, if the economy, for whatever reasons (exogenous shocks or some other mishaps) leaves the corridor, the spontaneous equilibrating tendencies causing the actual time path to revert back to the equilibrium time path may break down, and there may be no further tendency for the economy to revert back to its equilibrium time path. And as I pointed out recently in my post on Earl Thompson’s “Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory,” he was able to construct a purely neoclassical model with two potential equilibria, one of which was unstable so that a shock form the lower equilibrium would lead either to a reversion to the higher-level equilibrium or to downward spiral with no endogenous stopping point.

Having said all that, I still agree with Scott’s bottom line: if the economy is operating below full employment, and inflation and interest rates are low, there is very likely a problem with monetary policy.


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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