Archive for the 'monetary theory' Category



Keynes on the Fisher Equation and Real Interest Rates

Almost two months ago, I wrote a post (“Who Sets the Real Rate of Interest?”) about the Fisher equation, questioning the idea that the Fed can, at will, reduce the real rate of interest by printing money, an idea espoused by a lot of people who also deny that the Fed has the power to reduce the rate of unemployment by printing money. A few weeks later, I wrote another post (“On a Difficult Passage in the General Theory“) in which I pointed out the inconsistency between Keynes’s attack on the Fisher equation in chapter 11 of the General Theory and his analysis in chapter 17 of the liquidity premium and the conditions for asset-market equilibrium, an analysis that led Keynes to write down what is actually a generalized version of the Fisher equation. In both of those posts I promised a future post about how to understand the dynamic implications of the Fisher equation and the relationship between Fisher equation and the Keynesian analysis. This post is an attempt to make good on those promises.

As I observed in my earlier post, the Fisher equation is best understood as a property of equilibrium. If the Fisher equation does not hold, then it is reasonable to attribute the failure to some sort of disequilibrium. The most obvious, but not the only, source of disequilibrium is incorrectly expected inflation. Other sources of disequilibrium could be a general economic disorder, the entire economic system being (seriously) out of equilibrium, implying that the real rate of interest is somehow different from the “equilibrium” rate, or, as Milton Friedman might put it, that the real rate is different from the rate that would be ground out by the system of Walrasian (or Casselian or Paretian or Fisherian) equations.

Still a third possibility is that there is more than one equilibrium (i.e., more than one solution to whichever system of equations we are trying to solve). If so, as an economy moves from one equilibrium path to another through time, the nominal (and hence the real) rate of that economy could be changing independently of changes in expected inflation, thereby nullifying the empirical relationship implied (under the assumption of a unique equilibrium) by the Fisher equation.

Now in the canonical Fisherian theory of interest, there is, at any moment of time, a unique equilibrium rate of interest (actually a unique structure of equilibrium rates for all possible combinations of time periods), increasing thrift tending to reduce rates and increasing productivity of capital tending to raise them. While uniqueness of the interest rate cannot easily be derived outside a one-commodity model, the assumption did not seem all that implausible in the context of the canonical Fisherian model with a given technology and given endowments of present and future resources. In the real world, however, the future is unknown, so the future exists now only in our imagination, which means that, fundamentally, the determination of real interest rates cannot be independent of our expectations of the future. There is no unique set of expectations that is consistent with “fundamentals.” Fundamentals and expectations interact to create the future; expectations can be self-fulfilling. One of the reasons why expectations can be self-fulfilling is that often it is the case that individual expectations can only be realized if they are congruent with the expectations of others; expectations are subject to network effects. That was the valid insight in Keynes’s “beauty contest” theory of the stock market in chapter 12 of the GT.

There simply is no reason why there would be only one possible equilibrium time path. Actually, the idea that there is just one possible equilibrium time path seems incredible to me. It seems infinitely more likely that there are many potential equilibrium time paths, each path conditional on a corresponding set of individual expectations. To be sure, not all expectations can be realized. Expectations that can’t be realized produce bubbles. But just because expectations are not realized doesn’t mean that the observed price paths were bubbles; as long as it was possible, under conditions that could possibly have obtained, that the expectations could have been realized, the observed price paths were not bubbles.

Keynes was not the first economist to attribute economic fluctuations to shifts in expectations; J. S. Mill, Stanley Jevons, and A. C. Pigou, among others, emphasized recurrent waves of optimism and pessimism as the key source of cyclical fluctuations. The concept of the marginal efficiency of capital was used by Keynes to show the dependence of the desired capital stock, and hence the amount of investment, on the state of entrepreneurial expectations, but Keynes, just before criticizing the Fisher equation, explicitly identified the MEC with the Fisherian concept of “the rate of return over cost.” At a formal level, at any rate, Keynes was not attacking the Fisherian theory of interest.

So what I want to suggest is that, in attacking the Fisher equation, Keynes was really questioning the idea that a change in inflation expectations operates strictly on the nominal rate of interest without affecting the real rate. In a world in which there is a unique equilibrium real rate, and in which the world is moving along a time-path in the neighborhood of that equilibrium, a change in inflation expectations may operate strictly on the nominal rate and leave the real rate unchanged. In chapter 11, Keynes tried to argue the opposite: that the entire adjustment to a change in expected inflation is concentrated on real rate with the nominal rate unchanged. This idea seems completely unfounded. However, if the equilibrium real rate is not unique, why assume, as the standard renditions of the Fisher equation usually do, that a change in expected inflation affects only the nominal rate? Indeed, even if there is a unique real rate – remember that “unique real rate” in this context refers to a unique yield curve – the assumption that the real rate is invariant with respect to expected inflation may not be true in an appropriate comparative-statics exercise, such as the 1950s-1960s literature on inflation and growth, which recognized the possibility that inflation could induce a shift from holding cash to holding real assets, thereby increasing the rate of capital accumulation and growth, and, consequently, reducing the equilibrium real rate. That literature was flawed, or at least incomplete, in its analysis of inflation, but it was motivated by a valid insight.

In chapter 17, after deriving his generalized version of the Fisher equation, Keynes came back to this point when explaining why he had now abandoned the Wicksellian natural-rate analysis of the Treatise on Money. The natural-rate analysis, Keynes pointed out, presumes the existence of a unique natural rate of interest, but having come to believe that there could be an equilibrium associated with any level of employment, Keynes now concluded that there is actually a natural rate of interest corresponding to each level of employment. What Keynes failed to do in this discussion was to specify the relationship between natural rates of interest and levels of employment, leaving a major gap in his theoretical structure. Had he specified the relationship, we would have an explicit Keynesian IS curve, which might well differ from the downward-sloping Hicksian IS curve. As Earl Thompson, and perhaps others, pointed out about 40 years ago, the Hicksian IS curve is inconsistent with the standard neoclassical theory of production, which Keynes seems (provisionally at least) to have accepted when arguing that, with a given technology and capital stock, increased employment is possible only at a reduced real wage.

But if the Keynesian IS curve is upward-sloping, then Keynes’s criticism of the Fisher equation in chapter 11 is even harder to make sense of than it seems at first sight, because an increase in expected inflation would tend to raise, not (as Keynes implicitly assumed) reduce, the real rate of interest. In other words, for an economy operating at less than full employment, with all expectations except the rate of expected inflation held constant, an increase in the expected rate of inflation, by raising the marginal efficiency of capital, and thereby increasing the expected return on investment, ought to be associated with increased nominal and real rates of interest. If we further assume that entrepreneurial expectations are positively related to the state of the economy, then the positive correlation between inflation expectations and real interest rates would be enhanced. On this interpretation, Keynes’s criticism of the Fisher equation in chapter 11 seems indefensible.

That is one way of looking at the relationship between inflation expectations and the real rate of interest. But there is also another way.

The Fisher equation tells us that, in equilibrium, the nominal rate equals the sum of the prospective real rate and the expected rate of inflation. Usually that’s not a problem, because the prospective real rate tends to be positive, and inflation (at least since about 1938) is almost always positive. That’s the normal case. But there’s also an abnormal (even pathological) case, where the sum of expected inflation and the prospective real rate of interest is less than zero. We know right away that such a situation is abnormal, because it is incompatible with equilibrium. Who would lend money at a negative rate when it’s possible to hold the money and get a zero return? The nominal rate of interest can’t be negative. So if the sum of the prospective real rate (the expected yield on real capital) and the expected inflation rate (the negative of the expected yield on money with a zero nominal interest rate) is negative, then the return to holding money exceeds the yield on real capital, and the Fisher equation breaks down.

In other words, if r + dP/dt < 0, where r is the real rate of interest and dP/dt is the expected rate of inflation, then r < –dP/dt. But since i, the nominal rate of interest, cannot be less than zero, the Fisher equation does not hold, and must be replaced by the Fisher inequality

i > r + dP/dt.

If the Fisher equation can’t be satisfied, all hell breaks loose. Asset prices start crashing as asset owners try to unload their real assets for cash. (Note that I have not specified the time period over which the sum of expected inflation and the prospective yield on real capital are negative. Presumably the duration of that period is not indefinitely long. If it were, the system might implode.)

That’s what was happening in the autumn of 2008, when short-term inflation expectations turned negative in a contracting economy in which the short-term prospects for investment were really lousy and getting worse. The prices of real assets had to fall enough to raise the prospective yield on real assets above the expected yield from holding cash. However, falling asset prices don’t necessary restore equilibrium, because, once a panic starts it can become contagious, with falling asset prices reinforcing the expectation that asset prices will fall, depressing the prospective yield on real capital, so that, rather than bottoming out, the downward spiral feeds on itself.

Thus, for an economy at the zero lower bound, with the expected yield from holding money greater than the prospective yield on real capital, a crash in asset prices may not stabilize itself. If so, something else has to happen to stop the crash: the expected yield from holding money must be forced below the prospective yield on real capital. With the prospective yield on real capital already negative, forcing down the expected yield on money below the prospective yield on capital requires raising expected inflation above the absolute value of the prospective yield on real capital. Thus, if the prospective yield on real capital is -5%, then, to stop the crash, expected inflation would have to be raised to over 5%.

But there is a further practical problem. At the zero lower bound, not only is the prospective real rate not observable, it can’t even be inferred from the Fisher equation, the Fisher equation having become an inequality. All that can be said is that r < –dP/dt.

So, at the zero lower bound, achieving a recovery requires raising expected inflation. But how does raising expected inflation affect the nominal rate of interest? If r + dP/dt < 0, then increasing expected inflation will not increase the nominal rate of interest unless dP/dt increases enough to make r + dP/dt greater than zero. That’s what Keynes seemed to be saying in chapter 11, raising expected inflation won’t affect the nominal rate of interest, just the real rate. So Keynes’s criticism of the Fisher equation seems valid only in the pathological case when the Fisher equation is replaced by the Fisher inequality.

In my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations,” I found that a strongly positive correlation between inflation expectations (approximated by the breakeven TIPS spread on 10-year Treasuries) and asset prices (approximated by S&P 500) over the time period from spring 2008 through the end of 2010, while finding no such correlation over the period from 2003 to 2008. (Extending the data set through 2012 showed the relationship persisted through 2012 but may have broken down in 2013.) This empirical finding seems consistent with the notion that there has been something pathological about the period since 2008. Perhaps one way to think about the nature of the pathology is that the Fisher equation has been replaced by the Fisher inequality, a world in which changes in inflation expectations are reflected in changes in real interest rates instead of changes in nominal rates, the most peculiar kind of world described by Keynes in chapter 11 of the General Theory.

Why Hawtrey and Cassel Trump Friedman and Schwartz

This year is almost two-thirds over, and I still have yet to start writing about one of the two great anniversaries monetary economists are (or should be) celebrating this year. The one that they are already celebrating is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Monetary History of the United States 1867-1960 by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz; the one that they should also be celebrating is the 100th anniversary of Good and Bad Trade by Ralph Hawtrey. I am supposed to present a paper to mark the latter anniversary at the Southern Economic Association meetings in November, and I really have to start working on that paper, which I am planning to do by writing a series of posts about the book over the next several weeks.

Good and Bad Trade was Hawtrey’s first publication about economics. He was 34 years old, and had already been working at the Treasury for nearly a decade. Though a Cambridge graduate (in mathematics), Hawtrey was an autodidact in economics, so it is really a mistake to view him as a Cambridge economist. In Good and Bad Trade, he developed a credit theory of money (money as a standard of value in terms of which to discharge debts) in the course of presenting his purely monetary theory of the business cycle, one of the first and most original instances of such a theory. The originality lay in his description of the transmission mechanism by which money — actually the interest rate at which money is lent by banks — influences economic activity, through the planned accumulation or reduction of inventory holdings by traders and middlemen in response to changes in the interest rate at which they can borrow funds. Accumulation of inventories leads to cumulative increases of output and income; reductions in inventories lead to cumulative decreases in output and income. The business cycle (under a gold standard) therefore was driven by changes in bank lending rates in response to changes in lending rate of the central bank. That rate, or Bank Rate, as Hawtrey called it, was governed by the demand of the central bank for gold reserves. A desire to increase gold reserves would call for an increase in Bank Rate, and a willingness to reduce reserves would lead to a reduction in Bank Rate. The basic model presented in Good and Bad Trade was, with minor adjustments and refinements, pretty much the same model that Hawtrey used for the next 60 years, 1971 being the year of his final publication.

But in juxtaposing Hawtrey with Friedman and Schwartz, I really don’t mean to highlight Hawtrey’s theory of the business cycle, important though it may be in its own right, but his explanation of the Great Depression. And the important thing to remember about Hawtrey’s explanation for the Great Depression (the same explanation provided at about the same time by Gustav Cassel who deserves equal credit for diagnosing and explaining the problem both prospectively and retrospectively as explained in my paper with Ron Batchelder and by Doug Irwin in this paper) is that he did not regard the Great Depression as a business-cycle episode, i.e., a recurring phenomenon of economic life under a functioning gold standard with a central bank trying to manage its holdings of gold reserves through manipulation of Bank Rate. The typical business-cycle downturn described by Hawtrey was caused by a central bank responding to a drain on its gold reserves (usually because expanding output and income increased the internal monetary demand for gold to be used as hand-to-hand currency) by raising Bank Rate. What happened in the Great Depression was not a typical business-cycle downturn; it was characteristic of a systemic breakdown in the gold standard. In his 1919 article on the gold standard, Hawtrey described the danger facing the world as it faced the task of reconstructing the international gold standard that had been effectively destroyed by World War I.

We have already observed that the displacement of vast quantities of gold from circulation in Europe has greatly depressed the world value of gold in relation to commodities. Suppose that in a few years’ time the gold standard is restored to practically universal use. If the former currency systems are revived, and with them the old demands for gold, both for circulation in coin and for reserves against note issues, the value of gold in terms of commodities will go up. In proportion as it goes up, the difficulty of regaining or maintaining the gold standard will be accentuated. In other words, if the countries which are striving to recover the gold standard compete with one another for the existing supply of gold, they will drive up the world value of gold, and will find themselves burdened with a much more severe task of deflation than they ever anticipated.

And at the present time the situation is complicated by the portentous burden of the national debts. Except for America and this country, none of the principal participants in the war can see clearly the way to solvency. Even we, with taxation at war level, can only just make ends meet. France, Italy, Germany and Belgium have hardly made a beginning with the solution of their financial problems. The higher the value of the monetary unit in which one of these vast debts is calculated, the greater will be the burden on the taxpayers responsible for it. The effect of inflation in swelling the nominal national income is clearly demonstrated by the British income-tax returns, and by the well-sustained consumption of dutiable commodities notwithstanding enormous increases in the rates of duty. Deflation decreases the money yield of the revenue, while leaving the money burden of the debt undiminished. Deflation also, it is true, diminishes the ex-penses of Government, and when the debt charges are small in proportion to the rest, it does not greatly increase the national burdens. But now that the debt charge itself is our main pre-occupation, we may find the continuance of some degree of inflation a necessary condition of solvency.

So 10 years before the downward spiral into the Great Depression began, Hawtrey (and Cassel) had already identified the nature and cause of the monetary dysfunction associated with a mishandled restoration of the international gold standard which led to the disaster. Nevertheless, in their account of the Great Depression, Friedman and Schwartz paid almost no attention to the perverse dynamics associated with the restoration of the gold standard, completely overlooking the role of the insane Bank of France, while denying that the Great Depression was caused by factors outside the US on the grounds that, in the 1929 and 1930, the US was accumulating gold.

We saw in Chapter 5 that there is good reason to regard the 1920-21 contraction as having been initiated primarily in the United States. The initial step – the sharp rise in discount rates in January 1920 – was indeed a consequence of the prior gold outflow, but that in turn reflected the United States inflation in 1919. The rise in discount rates produced a reversal of the gold movements in May. The second step – the rise in discount rates in June 1920 go the highest level in history – before or since [written in 1963] – was a deliberate act of policy involving a reaction stronger than was needed, since a gold inflow had already begun. It was succeeded by a heavy gold inflow, proof positive that the other countries were being forced to adapt to United States action in order to check their loss of gold, rather than the reverse.

The situation in 1929 was not dissimilar. Again, the initial climactic event – the stock market crash – occurred in the United States. The series of developments which started the stock of money on its accelerated downward course in late 1930 was again predominantly domestic in origin. It would be difficult indeed to attribute the sequence of bank failures to any major current influence from abroad. And again, the clinching evidence that the Unites States was in the van of the movement and not a follower is the flow of gold. If declines elsewhere were being transmitted to the United States, the transmission mechanism would be a balance of payments deficit in the United States as a result of a decline in prices and incomes elsewhere relative to prices and incomes in the United States. That decline would lead to a gold outflow from the United States which, in turn, would tend – if the United States followed gold-standard rules – to lower the stock of money and thereby income and prices in the United States. However, the U.S. gold stock rose during the first two years of the contraction and did not decline, demonstrating as in 1920 that other countries were being forced adapt to our monetary policies rather than the reverse. (p. 360)

Amazingly, Friedman and Schwartz made no mention of the accumulation of gold by the insane Bank of France, which accumulated almost twice as much gold in 1929 and 1930 as did the US. In December 1930, the total monetary gold reserves held by central banks and treasuries had increased to $10.94 billion from $10.06 billion in December 1928 (a net increase of $.88 billion), France’s gold holdings increased by $.85 billion while the holdings of the US increased by $.48 billion, Friedman and Schwartz acknowledge that the increase in the Fed’s discount rate to 6.5% in early 1929 may have played a role in triggering the downturn, but, lacking an international perspective on the deflationary implications of a rapidly tightening international gold market, they treated the increase as a minor misstep, leaving the impression that the downturn was largely unrelated to Fed policy decisions, let alone those of the IBOF. Friedman and Schwartz mention the Bank of France only once in the entire Monetary History. When discussing the possibility that France in 1931 would withdraw funds invested in the US money market, they write: “France was strongly committed to staying on gold, and the French financial community, the Bank of France included, expressed the greatest concern about the United States’ ability and intention to stay on the gold standard.” (p. 397)

So the critical point in Friedman’s narrative of the Great Depression turns out to be the Fed’s decision to allow the Bank of United States to fail in December 1930, more than a year after the stock-market crash, almost a year-and-a-half after the beginning of the downturn in the summer of 1929, almost two years after the Fed raised its discount rate to 6.5%, and over two years after the Bank of France began its insane policy of demanding redemption in gold of much of its sizeable holdings of foreign exchange. Why was a single bank failure so important? Because, for Friedman, it was all about the quantity of money. As a result Friedman and Schwartz minimize the severity of the early stages of the Depression, inasmuch as the quantity of money did not begin dropping significantly until 1931. It is because the quantity of money did not drop in 1928-29, and fell only slightly in 1930 that Friedman and Schwartz did not attribute the 1929 downturn to strictly monetary causes, but rather to “normal” cyclical factors (whatever those might be), perhaps somewhat exacerbated by an ill-timed increase in the Fed discount rate in early 1929. Let’s come back once again to the debate about monetary theory between Friedman and Fischer Black, which I have mentioned in previous posts, after Black arrived at Chicago in 1971.

“But, Fischer, there is a ton of evidence that money causes prices!” Friedman would insist. “Name one piece,” Fischer would respond. The fact that the measured money supply moves in tandem with nominal income and the price level could mean that an increase in money causes prices to rise, as Friedman insisted, but it could also mean that an increase in prices causes the quantity of money to rise, as Fischer thought more reasonable. Empirical evidence could not decide the case. (Mehrling, Fischer Black and the Revolutionary Idea of Finance, p. 160)

So Black obviously understood the possibility that, at least under some conditions, it was possible for prices to change exogenously and for the quantity of money to adjust endogenously to the exogenous change in prices. But Friedman was so ideologically committed to the quantity-theoretic direction of causality from the quantity of money to prices that he would not even consider an alternative, and more plausible, assumption about the direction of causality when the value of money is determined by convertibility into a constant amount of gold.

This obliviousness to the possibility that prices, under convertibility, could change independently of the quantity of money is probably the reason that Friedman and Schwartz also completely overlooked the short, but sweet, recovery of 1933 following FDR’s suspension of the gold standard in March 1933, when, over the next four months, the dollar depreciated by about 20% in terms of gold, and the producer price index rose by almost 15% as industrial production rose by 70% and stock prices doubled, before the recovery was aborted by the enactment of the NIRA, imposing, among other absurdities, a 20% increase in nominal wages. All of this was understood and explained by Hawtrey in his voluminous writings on the Great Depression, but went unmentioned in the Monetary History.

Not only did Friedman get both the theory and the history wrong, he made a bad move from his own ideological perspective, inasmuch as, according to his own narrative, the Great Depression was not triggered by a monetary disturbance; it was just that bad monetary-policy decisions exacerbated a serious, but not unusual, business-cycle downturn that had already started largely on its own. According to the Hawtrey-Cassel explanation, the source of the crisis was a deflation caused by the joint decisions of the various central banks — most importantly the Federal Reserve and the insane Bank of France — that were managing the restoration of the gold standard after World War I. The instability of the private sector played no part in this explanation. This is not to say that stability of the private sector is entailed by the Hawtrey-Cassel explanation, just that the explanation accounts for both the downturn and the subsequent prolonged deflation and high unemployment, with no need for an assumption, one way or the other, about the stability of the private sector.

Of course, whether the private sector is stable is itself a question too complicated to be answered with a simple yes or no. It is one thing for a car to be stable if it is being steered on a paved highway; it is quite another for the car to be stable if driven into a ditch.

Friedman’s Dictum

In his gallant, but in my opinion futile, attempts to defend Milton Friedman against the scandalous charge that Friedman was, gasp, a Keynesian, if not in his policy prescriptions, at least in his theoretical orientation, Scott Sumner has several times referred to the contrast between the implication of the IS-LM model that expansionary monetary policy implies a reduced interest rate, and Friedman’s oft-repeated dictum that high interest rates are a sign of easy money, and low interest rates a sign of tight money. This was a very clever strategic and rhetorical move by Scott, because it did highlight a key difference between Keynesian and Monetarist ideas while distracting attention from the overlap between Friedman and Keynesians on the basic analytics of nominal-income determination.

Alghough I agree with Scott that Friedman’s dictum that high interest rates distinguishes him from Keynes and Keynesian economists, I think that Scott leaves out an important detail: Friedman’s dictum also distinguishes him from just about all pre-Keynesian monetary economists. Keynes did not invent the terms “dear money” and “cheap money.” Those terms were around for over a century before Keynes came on the scene, so Keynes and the Keynesians were merely reflecting the common understanding of all (or nearly all) economists that high interest rates were a sign of “dear” or “tight” money, and low interest rates a sign of “cheap” or “easy” money. For example, in his magisterial A Century of Bank Rate, Hawtrey actually provided numerical bounds on what constituted cheap or dear money in the period he examined, from 1844 to 1938. Cheap money corresponded to a bank rate less than 3.5% and dear money to a bank rate over 4.5%, 3.5 to 4.5% being the intermediate range.

Take the period just leading up to the Great Depression, when Britain returned to the gold standard in 1925. The Bank of England kept its bank rate over 5% almost continuously until well into 1930. Meanwhile the discount rate of the Federal Reserve System from 1925 to late 1928 was between 3.5 and 5%, the increase in the discount rate in 1928 to 5% representing a decisive shift toward tight money that helped drive the world economy into the Great Depression. We all know – and certainly no one better than Scott – that, in the late 1920s, the bank rate was an absolutely reliable indicator of the stance of monetary policy. So what are we to make of Friedman’s dictum?

I think that the key point is that traditional notions of central banking – the idea of “cheap” or “dear” money – were arrived at during the nineteenth century when almost all central banks were operating either in terms of a convertible (gold or silver or bimetallic) standard or with reference to such a standard, so that the effect of monetary policy on prices could be monitored by observing the discount of the currency relative to gold or silver. In other words, there was an international price level in terms of gold (or silver), and the price level of every country could be observed by looking at the relationship of its currency to gold (or silver). As long as convertibility was maintained between a currency and gold (or silver), the price level in terms of that currency was fixed.

If a central bank changed its bank rate, as long as convertibility was maintained (and obviously most changes in bank rate occurred with no change in convertibility), the effect of the change in bank rate was not reflected in the country’s price level (which was determined by convertibility). So what was the point of a change in bank rate under those circumstances? Simply for the central bank to increase or decrease its holding of reserves (usually gold or silver). By increasing bank rate, the central bank would accumulate additional reserves, and, by decreasing bank rate, it would reduce its reserves. A “dear money” policy was the means by which a central bank could add to its reserve and an “easy money” policy was the means by which it could disgorge reserves.

So the idea that a central bank operating under a convertible standard could control its price level was based on a misapprehension — a widely held misapprehension to be sure — but still a mistaken application of the naive quantity theory of money to a convertible monetary standard. Nevertheless, although the irrelevance of bank rate to the domestic price level was not always properly understood in the nineteenth century – economists associated with the Currency School were especially confused on this point — the practical association between interest rates and the stance of monetary policy was well understood, which is why all monetary theorists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries agreed that high interest rates were a sign of dear money and low interest rates a sign of cheap money. Keynes and the Keynesians were simply reflecting the conventional wisdom.

Now after World War II, when convertibility was no longer a real constraint on the price level (despite the sham convertibility of the Bretton Woods system), it was a true innovation of Friedman to point out that the old association between dear (cheap) money and high (low) interest rates was no longer a reliable indicator of the stance of monetary policy. However, as a knee-jerk follower of the Currency School – the 3% rule being Friedman’s attempt to adapt the Bank Charter Act of 1844 to a fiat currency, and with equally (and predictably) lousy results – Friedman never understood that under the gold standard, it is the price level which is fixed and the money supply that is endogenously determined, which is why much of the Monetary History, especially the part about the Great Depression (not, as Friedman called it, “Contraction,” erroneously implying that the change in the quantity of money was the cause, rather than the effect, of the deflation that characterized the Great Depression) is fundamentally misguided owing to its comprehensive misunderstanding of the monetary adjustment mechanism under a convertible standard.

PS This is written in haste, so there may be some errors insofar as I relying on my memory without checking my sources. I am sure that readers will correct my lapses of memory

PPS I also apologize for not responding to recent comments, I will try to rectify that transgression over the next few days.

Hawtrey and the “Treasury View”

Mention the name Ralph Hawtrey to most economists, even, I daresay to most monetary economists, and you are unlikely to get much more than a blank stare. Some might recognize the name because of it is associated with Keynes, but few are likely to be able to cite any particular achievement or contribution for which he is remembered or worth remembering. Actually, your best chance of eliciting a response about Hawtrey might be to pose your query to an acolyte of Austrian Business Cycle theory, for whom Hawtrey frequently serves as a foil, because of his belief that central banks ought to implement a policy of price-level (actually wage-level) stabilization to dampen the business cycle, Murray Rothbard having described him as “one of the evil genius of the 1920s” (right up there, no doubt, with the likes of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Mussolini). But if, despite the odds, you found someone who knew something about Hawtrey, there’s a good chance that it would be for his articulation of what has come to be known as the “Treasury View.”

The Treasury View was a position articulated in 1929 by Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Conservative government headed by Stanley Baldwin, in a speech to the House of Commons opposing proposals by Lloyd George and the Liberals, supported notably by Keynes, to increase government spending on public-works projects as a way of re-employing the unemployed. Churchill invoked the “orthodox Treasury View” that spending on public works would simply divert an equal amount of private spending on other investment projects or consumption. Spending on public-works projects was justified if and only if the rate of return over cost from those projects was judged to be greater than the rate of return over cost from alternative private spending; public works spending could not be justified as a means by which to put the unemployed back to work. The theoretical basis for this position was an article published by Hawtrey in 1925 “Public Expenditure and the Demand for Labour.”

Exactly how Hawtrey’s position first articulated in a professional economics journal four years earlier became the orthodox Treasury View in March 1929 is far from clear. Alan Gaukroger in his doctoral dissertation on Hawtrey’s career at the Treasury provides much helpful background information. Apparently, Hawtrey’s position was elevated into the “orthodox Treasury View” because Churchill required some authority on which to rely in opposing Liberal agitation for public-works spending which the Conservative government and Churchill’s top Treasury advisers and the Bank of England did not want to adopt for a variety of reason. The “orthodox Treasury View” provided a convenient and respectable doctrinal cover with which to clothe their largely political opposition to public-works spending. This is not to say that Churchill and his advisers were insincere in taking the position that they did, merely that Churchill’s position emerged from on-the-spot political improvisation in the course of which Hawtrey’s paper was dredged up from obscurity rather than from applying any long-standing, well-established, Treasury doctrine. For an illuminating discussion of all this, see chapter 5 (pp. 234-75) of Gaukroger’s dissertation.

I have seen references to the Treasury View for a very long time, probably no later than my first year in graduate school, but until a week or two ago, I had never actually read Hawtrey’s 1925 paper. Brad Delong, who has waged a bit of a campaign against the Treasury View on his blog as part of his larger war against opponents of President Obama’s stimulus program, once left a comment on a post of mine about Hawtrey’s explanation of the Great Depression, asking whether I would defend Hawtrey’s position that public-works spending would not increase employment. I think I responded by pleading ignorance of what Hawtrey had actually said in his 1925 article, but that Hawtrey’s explanation of the Great Depression was theoretically independent of his position about whether public-works spending could increase employment. So in a sense, this post is partly belated reply to Delong’s query.

The first thing to say about Hawtrey’s paper is that it’s hard to understand. Hawtrey is usually a very clear expositor of his ideas, but sometimes I just can’t figure out what he means. His introductory discussion of A. C. Pigou’s position on the wisdom of concentrating spending on public works in years of trade depression was largely incomprehensible to me, but it is worth reading, nevertheless, for the following commentary on a passage from Pigou’s Wealth and Welfare in which Pigou proposed to “pass behind the distorting veil of money.”

Perhaps if Professsor Pigou had carried the argument so far, he would have become convinced that the distorting veil of money cannot be put aside. As well might he play lawn tennis without the distorting veil of the net. All the skill and all the energy emanate from the players and are transmitted through the racket to the balls. The net does nothing; it is a mere limiting condition. So is money.

Employment is given by producers. They produce in response to an effective demand for products. Effective demand means ultimately money, offered by consumers in the market.

A wonderful insight, marvelously phrased, but I can’t really tell, beyond Pigou’s desire to ignore the “distorting veil of money,” how it relates to anything Pigou wrote. At any rate, from here Hawtrey proceeds to his substantive argument, positing “a community in which there is unemployment.” In other words, “at the existing level of prices and wages, the consumers’ outlay [Hawtrey’s term for total spending] is sufficient only to employ a part of the productive resources of the country.” Beyond the bare statement that spending is insufficient to employ all resources at current prices, no deeper cause of unemployment is provided. The problem Hawtrey is going to address is what happens if the government borrows money to spend on new public works?

Hawtrey starts by assuming that the government borrows from private individuals (rather than from the central bank), allowing Hawtrey to take the quantity of money to be constant through the entire exercise, a crucial assumption. The funds that the government borrows therefore come either from that portion of consumer income that would have been saved, in which case they are not available to be spent on whatever private investment projects they would otherwise have financed, or they are taken from idle balances held by the public (the “unspent margin” in Hawtrey’s terminology). If the borrowed funds are obtained from cash held by the public, Hawtrey argues that the public will gradually reduce spending in order to restore their cash holdings to their normal level. Thus, either way, increased government spending financed by borrowing must be offset by a corresponding reduction in private spending. Nor does Hawtrey concede that there will necessarily be a temporary increase in spending, because the public may curtail expenditures to build up their cash balances in anticipation of lending to the government. Moreover, there is always an immediate effect on income from any form of spending (Hawtrey understood the idea of a multiplier effect, having relied on it in his explanation of how an increase in the stock of inventories held by traders in response to a cut in interest rates would produce a cumulative increase in total income and spending), so if government spending on public works reduces spending elsewhere, there is no necessary net increase in total spending even in the short run. Here is how Hawtrey sums up the crux of his argument.

To show why this does not happen, we must go back to consider the hypothesis with which we started. We assumed that no additional bank credits are created. It follows that there is no increase in the supply of the means of payment. As soon as the people employed on the new public works begin to receive payment, they will begin to accumulate cash balances and bank balances. Their balances can only be provided at the expense of the people already receiving incomes. These latter will therefore become short of ready cash and will curtail their expenditures with a view to restoring their balances. An individual can increase his balance by curtailing his expenditure, but if the unspent margin (that is to say, the total of all cash balances and bank balances) remains unchanged, he can only increase his balance at the expense of those of his neighbours. If all simultaneously try to increase their balances, they try in vain. The effect can only be that sales of goods are diminished, and the consumers’ income is reduced as much as the consumers’ outlay. In the end the normal proportion between the consumers’ income and the unspent margin is restored, not by an increase in balances, but by a decrease in incomes. It is this limitation of the unspent margin that really prevents the new Government expenditure from creating employment. (pp. 41-42)

Stated in these terms, the argument suggests another possible mechanism by which government expenditure could increase total income and employment: an increase in velocity. And Hawtrey explicitly recognized it.

There is, however, one possibility which would in certain conditions make the Government operations the means of a real increase in the rapidity of circulation. In a period of depression the rapidity of circulation is low, because people cannot find profitable outlets for their surplus funds and they accumulate idle balances. If the Government comes forward with an attractive gild-edged loan, it may raise money, not merely by taking the place of other possible capital issues, but by securing money that would otherwise have remained idle in balances. (pp. 42-43)

In other words, Hawtrey did indeed recognize the problem of a zero lower bound (in later works he called it a “credit deadlock”) in which the return to holding money exceeds the expected return from holding real capital assets, and that, in such circumstances, government spending could cause aggregate spending and income to increase.

Having established that, absent any increase in cash balances, government spending would have stimulative effects only at the zero lower bound, Hawtrey proceeded to analyze the case in which government spending increased along with an increase in cash balances.

In the simple case where the Government finances its operations by the creation of bank credits, there is no diminution in the consumers’ outlay to set against the new expenditure. It is not necessary for the whole of the expenditure to be so financed. All that is required is a sufficient increase in bank credits to supply balances of cash and credit for those engaged in the new enterprise, without diminishing the balances held by the rest of the community. . . . If the new works are financed by the creation of bank credits, they will give additional employment. (p. 43)

After making this concession, however, Hawtrey added a qualification, which has provoked the outrage of many Keynesians.

What has been shown is that expenditure on public works, if accompanied by a creation of credit, will give employment. But then the same reasoning shows that a creation of credit unaccompanied by any expenditure on public works would be equally effective in giving employment.

The public works are merely a piece of ritual, convenient to people who want to be able to say that they are doing something, but otherwise irrelevant. To stimulate an expansion of credit is usually only too easy. To resort for the purpose to the construction of expensive public works is to burn down the house for the sake of the roast pig.

That applies to the case where the works are financed by credit creation. In the practical application of the policy, however, this part of the programme is omitted. The works are started by the Government at the very moment when the central bank is doing all it can to prevent credit from expanding. The Chinaman burns down his house in emulation of his neighbour’s meal of roast pork, but omits the pig.

Keynesians are no doubt offended by the dismissive reference to public-works spending as “a piece of ritual.” But it is worth recalling the context in which Hawtrey published his paper in 1925 (read to the Economics Club on February 10). Britain was then in the final stages of restoring the prewar dollar-sterling parity in anticipation of formally reestablishing gold convertibility and the gold standard. In order to accomplish this goal, the Bank of England raised its bank rate to 5%, even though unemployment was still over 10%. Indeed, Hawtrey did favor going back on the gold standard, but not at any cost. His view was that the central position of London in international trade meant that the Bank of England had leeway to set its bank rate, and other central banks would adjust their rates to the bank rate in London. Hawtrey may or may not have been correct in assessing the extent of the discretionary power of the Bank of England to set its bank rate. But given his expansive view of the power of the Bank of England, it made no sense to Hawtrey that the Bank of England was setting its bank rate at 5% (historically a rate characterizing periods of “dear money” as Hawtrey demonstrated subsequently in his Century of Bank Rate) in order to reduce total spending, thereby inducing an inflow of gold, while the Government simultaneously initiated public-works spending to reduce unemployment. The unemployment was attributable to the restriction of spending caused by the high bank rate, so the obvious, and most effective, remedy for unemployment was a reduced bank rate, thereby inducing an automatic increase in spending. Given his view of the powers of the Bank of England, Hawtrey felt that the gold standard would take care of itself. But even if he was wrong, he did not feel that restoring the gold standard was worth the required contraction of spending and employment.

From the standpoint of pure monetary analysis, notwithstanding all the bad press that the “Treasury View” has received, there is very little on which to fault the paper that gave birth to the “Treasury View.”

Hawtrey v. Keynes on the Rate of Interest that Matters

In my previous post, I quoted Keynes’s remark about the “stimulus and useful suggestion” he had received from Hawtrey and the “fundamental sympathy and agreement” that he felt with Hawtrey even though he nearly always disagreed with Hawtrey in detail. One important instance of such simultaneous agreement about principle and disagreement about detail involves their conflicting views about whether it is the short-run rate of interest (bank rate) or the long-run rate of interest (bond rate) that is mainly responsible for the fluctuations in investment that characterize business cycles, the fluctuations that monetary policy should therefore attempt to control.

Already in 1913 in his first work on monetary theory, Good and Bad Trade, Hawtrey had identified the short-term interest rate as the key causal variable in the business cycle, inasmuch as the holdings of inventories that traders want to hold are highly sensitive to the short-term interest rates at which traders borrow to finance those holdings. Increases in the desired inventories induce output increases by manufacturers, thereby generating increased incomes for workers and increased spending by consumers, further increasing the desired holding of stocks by traders. Reduced short-term interest rates, according to Hawtrey, initiated a cumulative process leading to a permanently higher level of nominal income and output. But Keynes disputed whether adjustments in the desired stocks held by traders were of sufficient size to account for the observed fluctuations in income and employment. Instead, Keynes argued, it was fluctuations in fixed-capital investment that accounted for the fluctuations in income and employment characteristic of business cycles. In his retrospective (1969) on the differences between Hawtrey and Keynes, J. R. Hicks observed that “there are large parts of the Treatise [on Money] which are a reply to Currency and Credit Hawtrey’s 1919 book on monetary theory and business cycles. But despite their differences, Hicks emphasized that Hawtrey and Keynes

started from common ground, not only on the need for policy, but in agreement that the instrument of policy was the rate of interest, or “terms of credit,” to be determined, directly or indirectly, by a Central Bank. But what rate of interest? It was Hawtrey’s doctrine that the terms of bank lending had a direct eSect on the activity of trade and industry; traders, having more to pay for credit, would seek to reduce their stocks, being therefore less willing to buy and more willing to sell. Keynes, from the start (or at least from the time of the Treatise 1930) rejected this in his opinion too simple view. He substituted for it (or began by substituting for it) an alternative mechanism through the long rate of interest. A change in the terms of bank lending affected the long rate of interest, the terms on which business could raise long-term capital; only in this roundabout way would a change in the terms of bank lending affect the activity of industry.

I think we can now see, after all that has happened, and has been said, since 1930, that the trouble with both of these views (as they were presented, or at least as they were got over) was that the forces they purported to identify were not strong enough to bear the weight that was put upon them. This is what Keynes said about Hawtrey (I quote from the Treatise):

The whole emphasis is placed on one particular kind of investment, namely, investment by dealers and middlemen in liquid goods-to which a degree of sensitivity to changes in Bank Rate is attributed which certainly does not exist in fact…. [Hawtrey] relies exclusively on the increased costs of business resulting from dearer money. [He] admits that these additional costs will be too small materially to affect the manufacturer, but assumes without investigation that they do materially affect the trader…. Yet probably the question whether he is paying S or 6 per cent for the accommodation he receives from his banker influences the mind of the dealer very little more than it influences the mind of the manufacturer as compared with the current and prospective rate of take-off for the goods he deals in and his expectations as to their prospective price-movements. [Treatise on Money, v. I, pp. 193-95.]

Although Hicks did not do so, it is worth quoting the rest of Keynes’s criticism of Hawtrey

The classical refutation of Hawtrey was given by Tooke in his examination of an argument very similar to Hawtrey’s, put forward nearly a hundred years ago by Joseph Hume. Before the crisis of 1836-37 the partisans of the “currency theory” . . . considered the influence of the Bank of England on the price level only operated through the amount of its circulation; but in 1839 the new-fangled notion was invented that Bank-rate also had an independent influence through its effect on “speculation.”

Keynes then quoted the following passage from Tooke:

There are, doubtless, persons, who, upon imperfect information, and upon insufficient grounds, or with too sanguine a view of contingencies in their favour, speculate improvidently; but their motive or inducement so to speculate is the opinion which, whether well or ill-founded, or whether upon their own view or upon the authority or example of other persons, they entertain the probability of an advance of price. It is not the mere facility of borrowing, or the difference between borrowing at 3 or at 6 percent that supplies the motive for purchasing, or even for selling. Few persons of the description here mentioned ever speculate but upon the confident expectation of an advance of price of at least 10 percent.

In his review of the Treatise, published in The Art of Central Banking, Hawtrey took note of this passage and Keynes’s invocation of Tooke’s comment on Joseph Hume.

This quotation from Tooke is entirely beside the point. My argument relates not to speculators . . . but to regular dealers or merchants. And as to these there is no evidence, in the following passage, that Tooke’s view of the effects of a rise in the rate of interest did not differ very widely from that which I have advocated. In volume v. of his History of Prices (p. 584) he wrote:

Inasmuch as a higher than ordinary rate of interest supposes a contraction of credit, such goods as are held by means of a large proportion of borrowed capital may be forced for sale by a difficulty in obtaining banking accommodation, the measure of which difficulty is in the rate of discount and perhaps in the insufficiency of security. In this view, and in this view only, a rate of interest higher than ordinary may be said to have an influence in depressing prices.

Tooke here concentrates on the effect of a high rate of interest in hastening sales. I should lay more emphasis on delaying purchases. But at any rate he clearly recognizes the susceptibility to credit conditions of the regular dealers in commodities.

And Hicks, after quoting Keynes’s criticism of Hawtrey’s focus on the short-term interest, followed up with following observation about Keynes:

Granted, but could not very much the same be said of Keynes’s own alternative mechanism? One has a feeling that in the years when he was designing the General Theory he was still clinging to it, for it is deeply embedded in the structure of his theory; yet one suspects that before the book left his hands it was already beginning to pass out. It has left a deep mark on the teaching of Keynesian economics, but a much less deep mark upon its practical influence. In the fight that ensued after the publication of the General Theory, it was quite clearly a casualty.

In other words, although Keynes in the Treatise believed that variation in the long-term interest rate could moderate business-cycle fluctuations by increasing or decreasing the amount of capital expenditure by business firms, Keynes in the General Theory was already advocating the direct control of spending through fiscal policy and minimizing the likely effectiveness of trying to control spending via the effect of monetary policy on the long-term interest rate. Hicks then goes on to observe that the most effective response to Keynes’s view that monetary policy operates by way of its effect on the long-term rate of interest came from none other than Hawtrey.

It had taken him some time to mount his attack on Keynes’s “modus operandi of Bank Rate” but when it came it was formidable. The empirical data which Keynes had used to support his thesis were derived from a short period only-the 1920’s; and Hawtrey was able to show that it was only in the first half of that decade (when, in the immediate aftermath of the War, the long rate in England was for that time unusually volatile) that an effect of monetary policy on the long rate, sufficient to give substantial support yo Keynes’s case, was at all readily detectable. Hawtrey took a much longer period. In A Century of Bank Rate which, in spite of the narrowness of its subject, seems to me to be one of his best books, he ploughed through the whole of the British experience from 1844 to the date of writing; and of any effect of Bank Rate (or of any short rate) upon the long rate of interest, sufficient to carry the weight of Keynes’s argument, he found little trace.

On the whole I think that we may infer that Bank Rate and measures of credit restriction taken together rarely, if ever, affected the price of Consols by more than two or three points; whereas a variation of }4 percent in the long-term rate of interest would correspond to about four points in the price of a 3 percent stock.

Now a variation of even less than 1/8 per cent in the long-term rate of interest ought, theoretically and in the long run, to have a definite effect for what it is worth on the volume of capital outlay…. But there is in reality no close adjustment of prospective yield to the rate of interest. Most of the industrial projects offered for exploitation at any time promise yields ever so far above the rate of interest…. [They will not be adopted until] promoters are satisfied that the projects they take up will yield a commensurate profit, and the rate of interest calculated on money raised will probably be no more than a very moderate deduction from this profit. [A Century of Bank Rate pp. 170-71]

Hicks concludes that, as regards the effect of the rate of interest on investment and aggregate spending, Keynes and Hawtrey cancelled each other out, thereby clearing the path for fiscal policy to take over as the key policy instrument for macroeconomic stabilization, a conclusion that Hawtrey never accepted. But Hicks adds an interesting and very modern-sounding (even 40 years on) twist to his argument.

When I reviewed the General Theory, the explicit introduction of expectations was one of the things which I praised; but I have since come to feel that what Keynes gave with one hand, he took away with the other. Expectations do appear in the General Theory, but (in the main) they appear as data; as autonomous influences that come in from outside, not as elements that are moulded in the course of the process that is being analysed. . . .

I would maintain that in this respect Hawtrey is distinctly superior. In his analysis of the “psychological effect” of Bank Rate — it is not just a vague indication, it is analysis — he identifies an element which ought to come into any monetary theory, whether the mechanism with which it is concerned is Hawtrey’s, or any other. . . .

What is essential, on Hawtrey’s analysis, is that it should be possible (and should look as if it were possible) for the Central Bank to take decisive action. There is a world of difference . . . between action which is determinedly directed to imposing restraint, so that it gives the impression that if not effective in itself, it will be followed by further doses of the same medicine; and identically the same action which does not engender the same expectations. Identically the same action may be indecisive, if it appears to be no more than an adjustment to existing market conditions; or if the impression is given that it is the most that is politically possible. If conditions are such that gentle pressure can be exerted in a decisive manner, no more than gentle pressure will, as a rule, be required. But as soon as there is doubt about decisiveness, gentle pressure is useless; even what would otherwise be regarded as violent action may then be ineffective.  [p. 313]

There is a term which was invented, and then spoiled, by Pigou . . . on which I am itching to get my hand; it is the term announcement effect. . . . I want to use the announcement effect of an act of policy to mean the change which takes place in people’s minds, the change in the prospect which they think to be before them, before there is any change which expresses itself in transactions of any kind. It is the same as what Hawtrey calls “psychological effect”; but that is a bad term, for it suggests something irrational, and this is entirely rational. Expectations of the future (entirely rational expectations) [note Hicks’s use of the term “rational expectations before Lucas or Sargent] are based upon the data that are available in the present. An act of policy (if it is what I have called a decisive action) is a significant addition to the data that are available; it should result, and should almost immediately result, in a shift in expectations. This is what I mean by an announcement effect.

What I learn from Hawtrey’s analysis is that the “classical” Bank Rate system was strong, or could be strong, in its announcement effects. Fiscal policy, at least as so far practised, gets from this point of view much worse marks. It is not simply that it is slow, being subject to all sorts of parliamentary and administrative delays; made indecisive, merely because the gap between announcement and effective operation is liable to be so long. This is by no means its only defect. Its announcement effect is poor, for the very reason which is often claimed to be one of its merits its selectivity; for selectivity implies complexity and an instrument which is to have a strong announcement effect should, above all, be simple. [p. 315]

Just to conclude this rather long and perhaps rambling selection of quotes with a tangentially related observation, I will note that Hawtrey’s criticism of Keynes’s identification of the long-term interest rate as the key causal and policy variable for the analysis of business cycles applies with equal force to Austrian business-cycle theory, which, as far as I can tell, rarely, if ever, distinguishes between the effects of changes in short-term and long-term rates caused by monetary policy.

HT: Alan Gaukroger

Keynes v. Hawtrey on British Monetary Policy after Rejoining the Gold Standard

The close, but not always cozy, relationship between Keynes and Hawtrey was summed up beautifully by Keynes in 1929 when, commenting on a paper by Hawtrey, “Money and Index Numbers,” presented to the Royal Statistical Society, Keynes began as follows.

There are very few writers on monetary subjects from whom one receives more stimulus and useful suggestion . . . and I think there are few writers on these subjects with whom I personally feel more fundamental sympathy and agreement. The paradox is that in spite of that, I nearly always disagree in detail with what he says! Yet truly and sincerely he is one of the writers who seems to me to be most nearly on the right track!

The tension between these two friendly rivals was dramatically displayed in April 1930, when Hawtrey gave testimony before the Macmillan Committee (The Committee on Finance and Industry) established after the stock-market crash in 1929 to investigate the causes of depressed economic conditions and chronically high unemployment in Britain. The Committee, chaired by Hugh Pattison Macmillan, included an impressive roster of prominent economists, financiers, civil servants, and politicians, but its dominant figure was undoubtedly Keynes, who was a relentless interrogator of witnesses and principal author of the Committee’s final report. Keynes’s position was that, having mistakenly rejoined the gold standard at the prewar parity in 1925, Britain had no alternative but to follow a policy of high interest rates to protect the dollar-sterling exchange rate that had been so imprudently adopted. Under those circumstances, reducing unemployment required a different kind of policy intervention from reducing the bank rate, which is what Hawtrey had been advocating continuously since 1925.

In chapter 5 of his outstanding doctoral dissertation on Hawtrey’s career at the Treasury, which for me has been a gold mine (no pun intended) of information, Alan Gaukroger discusses the work of the Macmillan Committee, focusing particularly on Hawtrey’s testimony in April 1930 and the reaction to that testimony by the Committee. Especially interesting are the excerpts from Hawtrey’s responses to questions asked by the Committee, mostly by Keynes. Hawtrey’s argument was that despite the overvaluation of sterling, the Bank of England could have reduced British unemployment had it dared to cut the bank rate rather than raise it to 5% in 1925 before rejoining the gold standard and keeping it there, with only very brief reductions to 4 or 4.5% subsequently. Although reducing bank rate would likely have caused an outflow of gold, Hawtrey believed that the gold standard was not worth the game if it could only be sustained at the cost of the chronically high unemployment that was the necessary consequence of dear money. But more than that, Hawtrey believed that, because of London’s importance as the principal center for financing international trade, cutting interest rates in London would have led to a fall in interest rates in the rest of the world, thereby moderating the loss of gold and reducing the risk of being forced off the gold standard. It was on that point that Hawtrey faced the toughest questioning.

After Hawtrey’s first day of his testimony, in which he argued to a skeptical committee that the Bank of England, if it were willing to take the lead in reducing interest rates, could induce a world-wide reduction in interest rates, Hawtrey was confronted by the chairman of the Committee, Hugh Macmillan. Summarizing Hawtrey’s position, Macmillan entered into the following exchange with Hawtrey

MACMILLAN. Suppose . . . without restricting credit . . . that gold had gone out to a very considerable extent, would that not have had very serious consequences on the international position of London?

HAWTREY. I do not think the credit of London depends on any particular figure of gold holding. . . . The harm began to be done in March and April of 1925 [when] the fall in American prices started. There was no reason why the Bank of England should have taken ny action at that time so far as the question of loss of gold is concerned. . . . I believed at the time and I still think that the right treatment would have been to restore the gold standard de facto before it was restored de jure. That is what all the other countries have done. . . . I would have suggested that we should have adopted the practice of always selling gold to a sufficient extent to prevent the exchange depreciating. There would have been no legal obligation to continue convertibility into gold . . . If that course had been adopted, the Bank of England would never have been anxious about the gold holding, they would have been able to see it ebb away to quite a considerable extent with perfect equanimity, and might have continued with a 4 percent Bank Rate.

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

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

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

HAWTREY. . . . that kind of orthodoxy is like conventions at bridge; you have to break them when the circumstances call for it. I think that a gold reserve exists to be used. . . . Perhaps once in a century the time comes when you can use your gold reserve for the governing purpose, provided you have the courage to use practically all of it. I think it is possible that the situation arose in the interval between the return to the gold standard . . . and the early part of 1927 . . . That was the period at which the greater part of the fall in the [international] price level took place. [Gaukroger, p. 298]

Somewhat later, Keynes began his questioning.

KEYNES. When we returned to the gold standard we tried to restore equilibrium by trying to lower prices here, whereas we could have used our influence much more effectively by trying to raise prices elsewhere?

HAWTREY. Yes.

KEYNES . . . I should like to take the argument a little further . . . . the reason the method adopted has not been successful, as I understand you, is partly . . . the intrinsic difficulty of . . . [reducing] wages?

HAWTREY. Yes.

KEYNES. . . . and partly the fact that the effort to reduce [prices] causes a sympathetic movement abroad . . .?

HAWTREY. Yes.

KEYNES. . . . you assume a low Bank Rate [here] would have raised prices elsewhere?

HAWTREY. Yes.

KEYNES. But it would also, presumably, have raised [prices] here?

HAWTREY. . . . what I have been saying . . . is aimed primarily at avoiding the fall in prices both here and abroad. . . .it is possible there might have been an actual rise in prices here . . .

KEYNES. One would have expected our Bank Rate to have more effect on our own price level than on the price level of the rest of the world?

HAWTREY. Yes.

KEYNES. So, in that case . . . wouldn’t dear money have been more efficacious . . . in restoring equilibrium between home and foreign price . . .?

HAWTREY. . . .the export of gold itself would have tended to produce equilibrium. It depends very much at what stage you suppose the process to be applied.

KEYNES. . . . so cheap money here affects the outside world more than it affects us, but dear money here affects us more than it affects the outside world.

HAWTREY. No. My suggestion is that through cheap money here, the export of gold encourages credit expansion elsewhere, but the loss of gold tends to have some restrictive effect on credit here.

KEYNES. But this can only happen if the loss of gold causes a reversal of the cheap money policy?

HAWTREY. No, I think that the export of gold has some effect consistent with cheap money.

In his questioning, Keynes focused on an apparent asymmetry in Hawtrey’s argument. Hawtrey had argued that allowing an efflux of gold would encourage credit expansion in the rest of the world, which would make it easier for British prices to adjust to a rising international price level rather than having to fall all the way to a stable or declining international price level. Keynes countered that, even if the rest of the world adjusted its policy to the easier British policy, it was not plausible to assume that the effect of British policy would be greater on the international price level than on the internal British price level. Thus, for British monetary policy to facilitate the adjustment of the internal British price level to the international price level, cheap money would tend to be self-defeating, inasmuch as cheap money would tend to raise British prices faster than it raised the international price level. Thus, according to Keynes, for monetary policy to close the gap between the elevated internal British price level and the international price level, a dear-money policy was necessary, because dear money would reduce British internal prices faster than it reduced international prices.

Hawtrey’s response was that the export of gold would induce a policy change by other central banks. What Keynes called a dear-money policy was the status quo policy in which the Bank of England was aiming to maintain its current gold reserve. Under Hawtrey’s implicit central-bank reaction function, dear money (i.e., holding Bank of England gold reserves constant) would induce no reaction by other central banks. However, an easy-money policy (i.e., exporting Bank of England gold reserves) would induce a “sympathetic” easing of policy by other central banks. Thus, the asymmetry in Hawtrey’s argument was not really an asymmetry, because, in the context of the exchange between Keynes and Hawtrey, dear money meant keeping Bank of England gold reserves constant, while easy money meant allowing the export of gold. Thus, only easy money would induce a sympathetic response from other central banks. Unfortunately, Hawtrey’s response did not explain that the asymmetry identified by Keynes was a property not of Hawtrey’s central-bank reaction function, but of Keynes’s implicit definitions of cheap and dear money. Instead, Hawtrey offered a cryptic response about “the loss of gold tend[ing] to have some restrictive effect on credit” in Britain.

The larger point is that, regardless of the validity of Hawtrey’s central-bank reaction function as a representation of the role of the Bank of England in the international monetary system under the interwar gold standard, Hawtrey’s model of how the gold standard operated was not called into question by this exchange. It is not clear from the exchange whether Keynes was actually trying to challenge Hawtrey on his model of the international monetary system or was just trying to cast doubt on Hawtrey’s position that monetary policy was, on its own, a powerful enough instrument to have eliminated unemployment in Britain without adopting any other remedial policies, especially Keynes’s preferred policy of public works. As the theoretical source of the Treasury View that public works were incapable of increasing employment without monetary expansion, it is entirely possible that that was Keynes’s ultimate objective. However, with the passage of time, Keynes drifted farther and farther away from the monetary model that, in large measure, he shared with Hawtrey in the 1920s and the early 1930s.

Hayek v. Hawtrey on the Trade Cycle

While searching for material on the close and multi-faceted relationship between Keynes and Hawtrey which I am now studying and writing about, I came across a remarkable juxtaposition of two reviews in the British economics journal Economica, published by the London School of Economics. Economica was, after the Economic Journal published at Cambridge (and edited for many years by Keynes), probably the most important economics journal published in Britain in the early 1930s. Having just arrived in Britain in 1931 to a spectacularly successful debut with his four lectures at LSE, which were soon published as Prices and Production, and having accepted the offer of a professorship at LSE, Hayek began an intense period of teaching and publishing, almost immediately becoming the chief rival of Keynes. The rivalry had been more or less officially inaugurated when Hayek published the first of his two-part review-essay of Keynes’s recently published Treatise on Money in the August 1931 issue of Economica, followed by Keynes’s ill-tempered reply and Hayek’s rejoinder in the November 1931 issue, with the second part of Hayek’s review appearing in the February 1932 issue.

But interestingly in the same February issue containing the second installment of Hayek’s lengthy review essay, Hayek also published a short (2 pages, 3 paragraphs) review of Hawtrey’s Trade Depression and the Way Out immediately following Hawtrey’s review of Hayek’s Prices and Production in the same issue. So not only was Hayek engaging in controversy with Keynes, he was arguing with Hawtrey as well. The points at issue were similar in the two exchanges, but there may well be more to learn from the lower-key, less polemical, exchange between Hayek and Hawtrey than from the overheated exchange between Hayek and Keynes.

So here is my summary (in reverse order) of the two reviews:

Hayek on Trade Depression and the Way Out.

Hayek, in his usual polite fashion, begins by praising Hawtrey’s theoretical eminence and skill as a clear expositor of his position. (“the rare clarity and painstaking precision of his theoretical exposition and his very exceptional knowledge of facts making anything that comes from his pen well worth reading.”) However, noting that Hawtrey’s book was aimed at a popular rather than a professional audience, Hayek accuses Hawtrey of oversimplification in attributing the depression to a lack of monetary stimulus.

Hayek proceeds in his second paragraph to explain what he means by oversimplification. Hayek agrees that the origin of the depression was monetary, but he disputes Hawtrey’s belief that the deflationary shocks were crucial.

[Hawtrey’s] insistence upon the relation between “consumers’ income” and “consumers’ outlay” as the only relevant factor prevents him from seeing the highly important effects of monetary causes upon the capitalistic structure of production and leads him along the paths of the “purchasing power theorists” who see the source of all evil in the insufficiency of demand for consumers goods. . . . Against all empirical evidence, he insists that “the first symptom of contracting demand is a decline in sales to the consumer or final purchaser.” In fact, of course, depression has always begun with a decline in demand, not for consumers’ goods but for capital goods, and the one marked phenomenon of the present depression was that the demand for consumers’ goods was very well maintained for a long while after the crisis occurred.

Hayek’s comment seems to me to misinterpret Hawtrey slightly. Hawtrey wrote “a decline in sales to the consumer or final purchaser,” which could refer to a decline in the sales of capital equipment as well as the sales of consumption goods, so Hawtrey’s assertion was not necessarily inconsistent with Hayek’s representation about the stability of consumption expenditure immediately following a cyclical downturn. It would also not be hard to modify Hawtrey’s statement slightly; in an accelerator model, with which Hawtrey was certainly familiar, investment depends on the growth of consumption expenditures, so that a leveling off of consumption, rather than an actual downturn in consumption, would suffice to trigger the downturn in investment which, according to Hayek, was a generally accepted stylized fact characterizing the cyclical downturn.

Hayek continues:

[W]hat Mr. Hawtrey, in common with many other English economists [I wonder whom Hayek could be thinking of], lacks is an adequate basic theory of the factors which affect [the] capitalistic structure of production.

Because of Hawtrey’s preoccupation with the movements of the overall price level, Hayek accuses Hawtrey of attributing the depression solely “to a process of deflation” for which the remedy is credit expansion by the central banks. [Sound familiar?]

[Hawtrey] seems to extend [blame for the depression] on the policy of the Bank of England even to the period before 1929, though according to his own criterion – the rise in the prices of the original factors of production [i.e., wages] – it is clear that, in that period, the trouble was too much credit expansion. “In 1929,” Mr. Hawtrey writes, “when productive activity was at its highest in the United States, wages were 120 percent higher than in 1913, while commodity prices were only 50 percent higher.” Even if we take into account the fact that the greater part of this rise in wages took place before 1921, it is clear that we had much more credit expansion before 1929 than would have been necessary to maintain the world-wage-level. It is not difficult to imagine what would have been the consequences if, during that period, the Bank of England had followed Mr. Hawtrey’s advice and had shown still less reluctance to let go. But perhaps, this would have exposed the dangers of such frankly inflationist advice quicker than will now be the case.

A remarkable passage indeed! To accuse Hawtrey of toleration of inflation, he insinuates that the 50% rise in wages from 1913 to 1929, was at least in part attributable to the inflationary policies Hawtrey was advocating. In fact, I believe that it is clear, though I don’t have easy access to the best data source C. H. Feinstein’s “Changes in Nominal Wages, the Cost of Living, and Real Wages in the United Kingdom over Two Centuries, 1780-1990,” in Labour’s Reward edited by P. Schoillers and V. Zamagni (1995). From 1922 to 1929 the overall trend of nominal wages in Britain was actually negative. Hayek’s reference to “frankly inflationist advice” was not just wrong, but wrong-headed.

Hawtrey on Prices and Production

Hawtrey spends the first two or three pages or so of his review giving a summary of Hayek’s theory, explaining the underlying connection between Hayek and the Bohm-Bawerkian theory of production as a process in time, with the length of time from beginning to end of the production process being a function of the rate of interest. Thus, reducing the rate of interest leads to a lengthening of the production process (average period of production). Credit expansion financed by bank lending is the key cyclical variable, lengthening the period of production, but only temporarily.

The lengthening of the period of production can only take place as long as inflation is increasing, but inflation cannot increase indefinitely. When inflation stops increasing, the period of production starts to contract. Hawtrey explains:

Some intermediate products (“non-specific”) can readily be transferred from one process to another, but others (“specific”) cannot. These latter will no longer be needed. Those who have been using them, and still more those who have producing them, will be thrown out of employment. And here is the “explanation of how it comes about at certain times that some of the existing resources cannot be used.” . . .

The originating cause of the disturbance would therefore be the artificially enhanced demand for producers’ goods arising when the creation of credit in favour of producers supplements the normal flow savings out of income. It is only because the latter cannot last for ever that the reaction which results in under-employment occurs.

But Hawtrey observes that only a small part of the annual capital outlay is applied to lengthening the period of production, capital outlay being devoted mostly to increasing output within the existing period of production, or to enhancing productivity through the addition of new plant and equipment embodying technical progress and new inventions. Thus, most capital spending, even when financed by credit creation, is not associated with any alteration in the period of production. Hawtrey would later introduce the terms capital widening and capital deepening to describe investments that do not affect the period of production and those that do affect it. Nor, in general, are capital-deepening investments the most likely to be adopted in response to a change in the rate of interest.

Similarly, If the rate of interest were to rise, making the most roundabout processes unprofitable, it does not follow that such processes will have to be scrapped.

A piece of equipment may have been installed, of which the yield, in terms of labour saved, is 4 percent on its cost. If the market rate of interest rises to 5 percent, it would no longer be profitable to install a similar piece. But that does not mean that, once installed, it will be left idle. The yield of 4 percent is better than nothing. . . .

When the scrapping of plant is hastened on account of the discovery of some technically improved process, there is a loss not only of interest but of the residue of depreciation allowance that would otherwise have accumulated during its life of usefulness. It is only when the new process promises a very suitable gain in efficiency that premature scrapping is worthwhile. A mere rise in the rate of interest could never have that effect.

But though a rise in the rate of interest is not likely to cause the scrapping of plant, it may prevent the installation of new plant of the kind affected. Those who produce such plant would be thrown out of employment, and it is this effect which is, I think, the main part of Dr. Hayek’s explanation of trade depressions.

But what is the possible magnitude of the effect? The transition from activity to depression is accompanied by a rise in the rate of interest. But the rise in the long-term rate is very slight, and moreover, once depression has set in, the long-term rate is usually lower than ever.

Changes are in any case perpetually occurring in the character of the plant and instrumental goods produced for use in industry. Such changes are apt to throw out of employment any highly specialized capital and labour engaged in the production of plant which becomes obsolete. But among the causes of obsolescence a rise in the rate of interest is certainly one of the least important and over short periods it may safely be said to be quite negligible.

Hawtrey goes on to question Hayek’s implicit assumption that the effects of the depression were an inevitable result of stopping the expansion of credit, an assumption that Hayek disavowed much later, but it was not unreasonable for Hawtrey to challenge Hayek on this point.

It is remarkable that Dr. Hayek does not entertain the possibility of a contraction of credit; he is content to deal with the cessation of further expansion. He maintains that at a time of depression a credit expansion cannot provide a remedy, because if the proportion between the demand for consumers’ goods and the demand for producers’ goods “is distorted by the creation of artificial demand, it must mean that part of the available resources is again led into a wrong direction and a definite and lasting adjustment is again postponed.” But if credit being contracted, the proportion is being distorted by an artificial restriction of demand.

The expansion of credit is assumed to start by chance, or at any rate no cause is suggested. It is maintained because the rise of prices offers temporary extra profits to entrepreneurs. A contraction of credit might equally well be assumed to start, and then to be maintained because the fall of prices inflicts temporary losses on entrepreneurs, and deters them from borrowing. Is not this to be corrected by credit expansion?

Dr. Hayek recognizes no cause of under-employment of the factors of production except a change in the structure of production, a “shortening of the period.” He does not consider the possibility that if, through a credit contraction or for any other reason, less money altogether is spent on intermediate products (capital goods), the factors of production engaged in producing these products will be under-employed.

Hawtrey then discusses the tension between Hayek’s recognition that the sense in which the quantity of money should be kept constant is the maintenance of a constant stream of money expenditure, so that in fact an ideal monetary policy would adjust the quantity of money to compensate for changes in velocity. Nevertheless, Hayek did not feel that it was within the capacity of monetary policy to adjust the quantity of money in such a way as to keep total monetary expenditure constant over the course of the business cycle.

Here are the concluding two paragraphs of Hawtrey’s review:

In conclusion, I feel bound to say that Dr. Hayek has spoiled an original piece of work which might have been an important contribution to monetary theory, by entangling his argument with the intolerably cumbersome theory of capital derived from Jevons and Bohm-Bawerk. This theory, when it was enunciated, was a noteworthy new departure in the metaphysics of political economy. But it is singularly ill-adapted for use in monetary theory, or indeed in any practical treatment of the capital market.

The result has been to make Dr. Hayek’s work so difficult and obscure that it is impossible to understand his little book of 112 pages except at the cost of many hours of hard work. And at the end we are left with the impression, not only that this is not a necessary consequence of the difficulty of the subject, but that he himself has been led by so ill-chosen a method of analysis to conclusions which he would hardly have accepted if given a more straightforward form of expression.

Keynes and Hawtrey: The Treatise on Money and Discovering the Multiplier

In my previous post on Keynes and Hawtrey, I tried to show the close resemblance between their upbringing and education and early careers. It becomes apparent that Keynes’s brilliance, and perhaps also his more distinguished family connections, had already enabled Keynes to begin overshadowing Hawtrey, four years his senior, as Keynes was approaching his thirties, and by 1919, when Hawtrey was turning 40, Keynes, having achieved something close to superstardom with the publication of The Econoomic Consequences of the Peace, had clearly eclipsed Hawtrey as a public figure, though as a pure monetary theoretician Hawtrey still had a claim to be the more influential of the two. For most of the 1920s, their relative standing did not change greatly, Hawtrey writing prolifically for economics journals as well as several volumes on monetary theory and a general treatise on economics, but without making much of an impression on broader public opinion, while Keynes, who continued to write primarily for a non-professional, though elite, audience, had the much higher public profile.

In the mid-1920s Keynes began writing his first systematic work on monetary theory and policy, the Treatise on Money. The extent to which Keynes communicated with Hawtrey about the Treatise in the five or six years during which he was working on it is unknown to me, but Keynes did send Hawtrey the proofs of the Treatise (totaling over 700 pages) in installments between April and July 1930. Hawtrey sent Keynes detailed comments, which Keynes later called “tremendously useful,” but, except for some minor points, Keynes could not incorporate most of the lengthy comments, criticisms or suggestions he received from Hawtrey before sending the final version of the Treatise to the publisher on September 14. Keynes did not mention Hawtrey in the preface to the Treatise, in which D. H. Robertson, R. F. Kahn, and H. D. Henderson were acknowledged for their assistance. Hawtrey would be mentioned along with Kahn, Joan Robinson, and Roy Harrod in the preface to the General Theory, but Hawtrey’s role in the preparation of the General Theory will be the subject of my next installment in this series. Hawtrey published his comments on the Treatise in his 1932 volume The Art of Central Banking.

Not long after the Treatise was published, and almost immediately subjected to critical reviews by Robertson and Hayek, among others, Keynes made it known that he was dissatisfied with the argument of the Treatise, and began work on what would eventually evolve into the General Theory. Hawtrey’s discussion was especially notable for two criticisms.  First Hawtrey explained that Keynes’s argument that an excess of investment over saving caused prices to rise was in fact a tautology entailed by Keynes’s definition of savings and investment.

[T]he fundamental equations disclose . . . that the price level is composed of two terms, one of which is cost per unit and the other is the difference between price and cost per unit.

Thus the difference between saving and investment is simply another name for the windfall gains or losses or for the difference between prices and costs of output. Throughout the Treatise Mr. Keynes adduces a divergence between saving and investment as the criterion of a departure from monetary equilibrium. But this criterion is nothing more or less than a divergence between prices and costs. Though the criterion ostensibly depends on two economic activities, “investment” and “saving,” it depends in reality not on them but on movements of the price level relative to costs.

That does not mean that the price level may not be influenced by changes in investment or in saving in some sense. But Mr. Keynes’s formula does not record such changes till their effect upon the price level is an accomplished fact. (p. 336)

Hawtrey’s other important criticism was his observation that Keynes assumed that a monetary disequilibrium would manifest itself exclusively in price changes and not at all in changes in output and employment. In fact this criticism followed naturally from Hawtrey’s criticism of Keynes’s definitions of savings and investment, from which the fundamental equations were derived, as not being grounded in the decisions of consumers and entrepreneurs.

With regard to savings, the individual consumers decide what they shall spend (or refrain from spending) on consumption. The balance of their earnings is “savings.” But the balance of their incomes (earnings plus windfall gains) is “investment.” Their decisions determine the amount of investment just as truly and in just the same way as they determine the amount of savings.

For all except entrepreneurs, earnings and income are the same. For entrepreneurs they differ if, and only if, there is a windfall gain or loss. But if there is a windfall gains, the recipients must decide what to do with it exactly as with any other receipt. If there is a windfall loss, the victims are deemed, according to Mr. Keynes’s definition of saving, to “save” the money they do not receive. But this is the result of the definition, not of any “decision.” (p. 345)

Preferring the more natural definition of savings as unconsumed income and of investment as capital outlay, Hawtrey proceeded to suggest an alternative analysis of an increase in saving by consumers. In the alternative analysis both output and prices could vary. It was Hawtrey therefore who provided the impetus for a switch to output and employment, not just prices, as equilibrating variable to a monetary disequilibrium.

It has been pointed out above that a difference between savings and investment [as defined by Keynes] cannot be regarded as the cause of a windfall loss or gain, for it is the windfall loss or gain. To find a causal sequence, we must turn to the decisions relating to consumption and capital outlay. When we do so, we find the windfall loss or gain to be one only among several consequences, and neither the earliest, nor necessarily the most important.

Throughout the Treatise Mr. Keynes refers to these decisions, and bases his argument upon them. And I think it is true to say that almost everywhere what he says may be interpreted as applying to the modified analysis which we have arrived at just as well as to that embodied in his fundamental equations. (p. 349)

To a large extent, Hawtrey’s criticisms of Keynes were criticisms of Keynes’s choice of definitions and the formal structure of his model rather than of the underlying theoretical intuition motivating Keynes’s theoretical apparatus. Hawtrey made this point in correcting Keynes’s misinterpretation of Hawtrey’s own position.

Mr. Keynes attributes to me (rather tentatively, it is true) acceptance of the view of “Bank rate as acting directly on the quantity of bank credit and so on prices in accordance with the Quantity Equation” (vol. 1., p. 188). But the passage which he quotes from my Currency and Credit contains no reference, explicit or implicit, to the quantity equation. Possibly I have misled him by using the expression “contraction of credit” for what I have sometimes called more accurately a “retardation of the creation of credit.”

The doctrine that I have consistently adhered to, that an acceleration or retardation of the creation of credit acts through changes in consumers’ income and outlay on the price level and on productive activity, and not through changes in the unspent margin [Hawtrey’s term of holdings of cash], is, I think, very close to Mr. Keynees’s theory. (p. 363)

In drawing attention to his belief “that an acceleration or retardation of the creation of credit acts through changes in consumers’ income and outlay . . . not through changes in the unspent margin,” Hawtrey emphasized that his monetary theory was not strictly speaking a quantity-theoretic monetary theory, as Keynes had erroneously suggested. Rather, he shared with Keynes the belief that there is a tendency for changes in expenditure and income to be cumulative. It was Hawtrey’s belief that the most reliable method by which such changes in income and expenditure could be realized was by way of changes in the short-term interest rate, which normally cause businesses and traders to alter their desired stocks of unfinished goods, working capital and inventories. Those changes, in turn, lead to increases in output and income and consumer outlay, which trigger further increases, and so on. In short, as early as 1913, Hawtrey had already sketched out in Good and Bad Trade the essential concept of a multiplier process initiated by changes in short-term interest rates, by way of their effect on desired stocks of working capital and inventories.

Thus, it is a complete misunderstanding of Hawtrey to suggest that, in the words of Peter Clarke (The Keynesian Revolution in the Making  pp. 242-43) that he was “the man who, having stumbled upon [the multiplier], painstakingly suppressed news of its discovery in his subsequent publications.” The multiplier analysis was not stumbled upon, nor was it suppressed. Rather, Hawtrey simply held that, under normal conditions, unless supported by credit expansion (i.e., a lower bank rate), increased government spending would be offset by reduced spending elsewhere producing no net increase in spending and therefore no multiplier effect. In fact, Hawtrey in 1931 in his Trade Depression and the Way Out (or perhaps only in the second 1933 edition of that book) conceded that under conditions of what he called a “credit deadlock” in which businesses could not be induced to borrow to increase spending, monetary policy would not be effective unless it was used to directly finance government spending. In Keynesian terminology, the situation was described as a liquidity trap, and we no refer to it as the zero lower bound. But the formal analysis of the multiplier was a staple of Hawtrey’s cycle theory from the very beginning. It was just kept in the background, not highlighted as in the Keynesian analysis. But it was perfectly natural for Hawtrey to have explained how Keynes could use it in his commentary on the Treatise.

UPDATE (03/12/13): In reading the excellent doctoral thesis of Alan Gaukroger about Hawtrey’s career at the British Treasury (to view and download the thesis click here) to which I refer in my reply to Luis Arroyo’s comment, I realized that Hawtrey did not introduce the terms “consumers’ income” and “consumers’ outlay” in Good and Bad Trade as I asserted in the post.  Those terms were only introduced six years later in Currency and Credit. I will have to reread the relevant passages more carefully to determine to what extent the introduction of the new terms in Currency and Credit represented an actual change in Hawtrey’s conceptual framework as opposed to the introduction of a new term for an a concept that he had previously worked out.

Two Problems with Austrian Business-Cycle Theory

Even though he has written that he no longer considers himself an Austrian economist, George Selgin remains sympathetic to the Austrian theory of business cycles, and, in accord with the Austrian theory, still views recessions and depressions as more or less inevitable outcomes of distortions originating in the preceding, credit-induced, expansions. In a recent post, George argues that the 2002-06 housing bubble conforms to the Austrian pattern in which a central-bank lending rate held below the “appropriate,” or “natural” rate causes a real misallocation of resources reflecting the overvaluation of long-lived capital assets (like houses) induced by the low-interest rate policy. For Selgin, it was the Fed’s distortion of real interest rates from around 2003 to 2005 that induced a housing bubble even though the rate of increase in nominal GDP during the housing bubble was only slightly higher than the 5% rate of increase in nominal GDP during most of the Great Moderation.

Consequently, responses by Marcus Nunes, Bill Woolsey and Scott Sumner to Selgin, questioning whether he used an appropriate benchmark against which to gauge nominal GDP growth in the 2003 to 2006 period, don’t seem to me to address the core of Selgin’s argument. Selgin is arguing that the real distortion caused by the low-interest-rate policy of the Fed was more damaging to the economy than one would gather simply by looking at a supposedly excessive rate of nominal GDP growth, which means that the rate of growth of nominal GDP in that time period does not provide all the relevant information about the effects of monetary policy.

So to counter Selgin’s argument – which is to say, the central argument of Austrian Business-Cycle Theory – one has to take a step back and ask why a price bubble, or a distortion of interest rates, caused by central-bank policy should have any macroeconomic significance. In any conceivable real-world economy, entrepreneurial error is a fact of life. Malinvestments occur all the time; resources are, as a consequence, constantly being reallocated when new information makes clear that some resources were misallocated owing to mistaken expectations. To be sure, the rate of interest is a comprehensive price potentially affecting how all resources are allocated. But that doesn’t mean that a temporary disequilibrium in the rate of interest would trigger a major economy-wide breakdown, causing the growth of real output and income to fall substantially below their historical trend, perhaps even falling sharply in absolute terms.

The Austrian explanation for this system-wide breakdown is that the price bubble or the interest-rate misallocation leads to the adoption of investments projects and of production processes that “unsustainable.” The classic Austrian formulation is that the interest-rate distortion causes excessively roundabout production processes to be undertaken. For a time, these investment projects and production processes can be sustained by way of credit expansion that shifts resources from consumption to investment, what is sometimes called “forced saving.” At a certain point, the credit expansion must cease, and at that point, the unsustainability of the incomplete investment projects or even the completed, but excessively roundabout, production processes becomes clear, and the investments and production processes are abandoned. The capital embodied in those investment projects and production processes is revealed to have been worthless, and all or most of the cooperating factors of production, especially workers, are rendered unemployable in their former occupations.

Although it is not without merit, that story is far from compelling. There are two basic problems with it. First, the notion of unsustainability is itself unsustainable, or at the very least greatly exaggerated and misleading. Why must the credit expansion that produced the interest-rate distortion or the price bubble come to an end? Well, if one goes back to the original sources for the Austrian theory, namely Mises’s 1912 book The Theory of Money and Credit and Hayek’s 1929 book Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle, one finds that the effective cause of the contraction of credit is not a physical constraint on the availability of resources with which to complete the investments and support lengthened production processes, but the willingness of the central bank to tolerate a decline in its gold holdings. It is quite a stretch to equate the demand of the central bank for a certain level of gold reserves with a barrier that renders the completion of investment projects and the operation of lengthened production processes impossible, which is how Austrian writers, fond of telling stories about what happens when someone tries to build a house without having the materials required for its completion, try to explain what “unsustainability” means.

The original Austrian theory of the business cycle was thus a theory specific to the historical conditions associated with classical gold standard. Hawtrey, whose theory of the business cycle, depended on a transmission mechanism similar to, but much simpler than, the mechanism driving the Austrian theory, realized that there was nothing absolute about the gold standard constraint on monetary expansion. He therefore believed that the trade cycle could be ameliorated by cooperation among the central banks to avoid the sharp credit contractions imposed by central banks when they feared that their gold reserves were falling below levels that they felt comfortable with. Mises and Hayek in the 1920s (along with most French economists) greatly mistrusted such ideas about central bank cooperation and economizing the use of gold as a threat to monetary stability and sound money.

However, despite their antipathy to proposals for easing the constraints of the gold standard on individual central banks, Mises and Hayek never succeeded in explaining why a central-bank expansion necessarily had to be stopped. Rather than provide such an explanation they instead made a different argument, which was that the stimulative effect of a central-bank expansion would wear off once economic agents became aware of its effects and began to anticipate its continuation. This was a fine argument, anticipating the argument of Milton Friedman and Edward Phelps in the late 1960s by about 30 or 40 years. But that was an argument that the effects of central-bank expansion would tend to diminish over time as its effects were anticipated. It was not an argument that the expansion was unsustainable. Just because total income and employment are not permanently increased by the monetary expansion that induces an increase in investment and an elongation of the production process does not mean that the investments financed by, and the production processes undertaken as a result of, the monetary expansion must be abandoned. The monetary expansion may cause a permanent shift in the economy’s structure of production in the same way that tax on consumption, whose proceeds were used to finance investment projects that would otherwise not have been undertaken, might be carried on indefinitely. So the Austrian theory has never proven that forced saving induced by monetary expansion, in the absence of a gold-standard constraint, is necessarily unsustainable, inevitably being reversed because of physical constraints preventing the completion of the projects financed by the credit expansion. That’s the first problem.

The second problem is even more serious, and it goes straight to the argument that Selgin makes against Market Monetarists. The whole idea of unsustainability involves a paradox. The paradox is that unsustainability results from some physical constraint on the completion of investment projects or the viability of newly adopted production processes, because the consumer demand is driving up the costs of resources to levels making it unprofitable to complete the investment projects or operate new production processes.  But this argument presumes that all the incomplete investment projects and all the new production processes become unprofitable more or less simultaneously, leading to their rapid abandonment. But the consequence is that all the incomplete investment projects and all the newly adopted production processes are scuttled, producing massive unemployment and redundant resources. But why doesn’t that drop in resource prices restore the profitability of all the investment projects and production processes just abandoned?

It therefore seems that the Austrian vision is of a completely brittle economy in which price adjustments continue without inducing any substitutions to ease the resource bottlenecks. Demands and supplies are highly inelastic, and adjustments cannot be made until prices can no longer even cover variable costs. At that point prices collapse, implying that resource bottlenecks are eliminated overnight, without restoring profitability to any of the abandoned projects or processes.  Actually the most amazing thing about such a vision may be how closely it resembles the vision of an economy espoused by Hayek’s old nemesis Piero Sraffa in his late work The Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities, a vision based on fixed factor proportions in production, thus excluding the possibility of resource substitution in production in response to relative price changes.

A more realistic vision, it seems to me, would be for resource bottlenecks to induce substitution away from the relatively scarce resources allowing production processes to continue in operation even though the value of many fixed assets would have to be written down substantially. Those write downs would allow existing or new owners to maintain output as long as total demand is not curtailed as a result of a monetary policy that either deliberately seeks or inadvertently allows monetary contraction. Real distortions inherited from the past can be accommodated and adjusted to by a market economy as long as that economy is not required at the same time to undergo a contraction, in total spending. But once a sharp contraction in total spending does occur, a recovery may require a temporary boost in total spending above the long-term trend that would have sufficed under normal conditions.

The Wisdom of David Laidler

Michael Woodford’s paper for the Jackson Hole Symposium on Monetary Policy wasn’t the only important paper on monetary economics to be posted on the internet last month. David Laidler, perhaps the world’s greatest expert on the history of monetary theory and macroeconomics since the time of Adam Smith, has written an important paper with the somewhat cryptic title, “Two Crises, Two Ideas, and One Question.” Most people will figure out pretty quickly which two crises Laidler is referring to, but you will have to read the paper in order to figure out which two ideas and which question, Laidler has on his mind. Actually, you won’t have to read the paper if you keep reading this post, because I am about to tell you. The two ideas are what Laidler calls the “Fisher relation” between real and nominal interest rates, and the idea of a lender of last resort. The question is whether a market economy is inherently stable or unstable.

How does one weave these threads into a coherent narrative? Well, to really understand that you really will just have to read Laidler’s paper, but this snippet from the introduction will give you some sense of what he is up to.

These two particular ideas are especially interesting, because in the 1960s and ’70s, between our two crises, they feature prominently in the Monetarist reassessment of the Great Depression, which helped to establish the dominance in macroeconomic thought of the view that, far from being a manifestation of deep flaws in the very structure of the market economy, as it had at first been taken to be, this crisis was the consequence of serious policy errors visited upon an otherwise robustly self-stabilizing system. The crisis that began in 2007 has re-opened this question.

The Monetarist counterargument to the Keynesian view that the market economy is inherently subject to wide fluctuations and has no strong tendency toward full employment was that the Great Depression was caused primarily by a policy shock, the failure of the Fed to fulfill its duty to act as a lender of last resort during the US financial crisis of 1930-31. Originally, the Fisher relation did not figure prominently in this argument, but it eventually came to dominate Monetarism and the post-Monetarist/New Keynesian orthodoxy in which the job of monetary policy was viewed as setting a nominal interest rate (via a Taylor rule) that would be consistent with expectations of an almost negligible rate of inflation of about 2%.

This comfortable state of affairs – Monetarism without money is how Laidler describes it — in which an inherently stable economy would glide along its long-run growth path with low inflation, only rarely interrupted by short, shallow recessions, was unpleasantly overturned by the housing bubble and the subsequent financial crisis, producing the steepest downturn since 1937-38. That downturn has posed a challenge to Monetarist orthodoxy inasmuch as the sudden collapse, more or less out of nowhere in 2008, seemed to suggest that the market economy is indeed subject to a profound instability, as the Keynesians of old used to maintain. In the Great Depression, Monetarists could argue, it was all, or almost all, the fault of the Federal Reserve for not taking prompt action to save failing banks and for not expanding the money supply sufficiently to avoid deflation. But in 2008, the Fed provided massive support to banks, and even to non-banks like AIG, to prevent a financial meltdown, and then embarked on an aggressive program of open-market purchases that prevented an incipient deflation from taking hold.

As a result, self-identifying Monetarists have split into two camps. I will call one camp the Market Monetarists, with whom I identify even though I am much less of a fan of Milton Friedman, the father of Monetarism, than most Market Monetarists, and, borrowing terminology adopted in the last twenty years or so by political conservatives in the US to distinguish between old-fashioned conservatives and neoconservatives, I will call the old-style Monetarists, paleo-Monetarists. The paelo-Monetarists are those like Alan Meltzer, the late Anna Schwartz, Thomas Humphrey, and John Taylor (a late-comer to Monetarism who has learned quite well how to talk to the Monetarist talk). For the paleo-Monetarists, in the absence of deflation, the extension of Fed support to non-banking institutions and the massive expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet cannot be justified. But this poses a dilemma for them. If there is no deflation, why is an inherently stable economy not recovering? It seems to me that it is this conundrum which has led paleo-Monetarists into taking the dubious position that the extreme weakness of the economic recovery is a consequence of fiscal and monetary-policy uncertainty, the passage of interventionist legislation like the Affordable Health Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Bill, and the imposition of various other forms of interventionist regulations by the Obama administration.

Market Monetarists, on the other hand, have all along looked to monetary policy as the ultimate cause of both the downturn in 2008 and the lack of a recovery subsequently. So, on this interpretation, what separates paleo-Monetarists from Market Monetarists is whether you need outright deflation in order to precipitate a serious malfunction in a market economy, or whether something less drastic can suffice. Paleo-Monetarists agree that Japan in the 1990s and even early in the 2000s was suffering from a deflationary monetary policy, a policy requiring extraordinary measures to counteract. But the annual rate of deflation in Japan was never more than about 1% a year, a far cry from the 10% annual rate of deflation in the US between late 1929 and early 1933. Paleo-Monetarists must therefore explain why there is a radical difference between 1% inflation and 1% deflation. Market Monetarists also have a problem in explaining why a positive rate of inflation, albeit less than the 2% rate that is generally preferred, is not adequate to sustain a real recovery from starting more than four years after the original downturn. Or, if you prefer, the question could be restated as why a 3 to 4% rate of increase in NGDP is not adequate to sustain a real recovery, especially given the assumption, shared by paleo-Monetarists and Market Monetarists, that a market economy is generally stable and tends to move toward a full-employment equilibrium.

Here is where I think Laidler’s focus on the Fisher relation is critically important, though Laidler doesn’t explicitly address the argument that I am about to make. This argument, which I originally made in my paper “The Fisher Effect under Deflationary Expectations,” and have repeated in several subsequent blog posts (e.g., here) is that there is no specific rate of deflation that necessarily results in a contracting economy. There is plenty of historical experience, as George Selgin and others have demonstrated, that deflation is consistent with strong economic growth and full employment. In a certain sense, deflation can be a healthy manifestation of growth, allowing that growth, i.e., increasing productivity of some or all factors of production, to be translated into falling output prices. However, deflation is only healthy in an economy that is growing because of productivity gains. If productivity is flagging, there is no space for healthy (productivity-driven) deflation.

The Fisher relation between the nominal interest rate, the real interest rate and the expected rate of deflation basically tells us how much room there is for healthy deflation. If we take the real interest rate as given, that rate constitutes the upper bound on healthy deflation. Why, because deflation greater than real rate of interest implies a nominal rate of interest less than zero. But the nominal rate of interest has a lower bound at zero. So what happens if the expected rate of deflation is greater than the real rate of interest? Fisher doesn’t tell us, because in equilibrium it isn’t possible for the rate of deflation to exceed the real rate of interest. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be a disequilibrium in which the expected rate of deflation is greater than the real rate of interest. We (or I) can’t exactly model that disequilibrium process, but whatever it is, it’s ugly. Really ugly. Most investment stops, the rate of return on cash (i.e., expected rate of deflation) being greater than the rate of return on real capital. Because the expected yield on holding cash exceeds the expected yield on holding real capital, holders of real capital try to sell their assets for cash. The only problem is that no one wants to buy real capital with cash. The result is a collapse of asset values. At some point, asset values having fallen, and the stock of real capital having worn out without being replaced, a new equilibrium may be reached at which the real rate will again exceed the expected rate of deflation. But that is an optimistic scenario, because the adjustment process of falling asset values and a declining stock of real capital may itself feed pessimistic expectations about the future value of real capital so that there literally might not be a floor to the downward spiral, at least not unless there is some exogenous force that can reverse the downward spiral, e.g., by changing price-level expectations.  Given the riskiness of allowing the rate of deflation to come too close to the real interest rate, it seems prudent to keep deflation below the real rate of interest by a couple of points, so that the nominal interest rate doesn’t fall below 2%.

But notice that this cumulative downward process doesn’t really require actual deflation. The same process could take place even if the expected rate of inflation were positive in an economy with a negative real interest rate. Real interest rates have been steadily falling for over a year, and are now negative even at maturities up to 10 years. What that suggests is that ceiling on tolerable deflation is negative. Negative deflation is the same as inflation, which means that there is a lower bound to tolerable inflation.  When the economy is operating in an environment of very low or negative real rates of interest, the economy can’t recover unless the rate of inflation is above the lower bound of tolerable inflation. We are not in the critical situation that we were in four years ago, when the expected yield on cash was greater than the expected yield on real capital, but it is a close call. Why are businesses, despite high earnings, holding so much cash rather than using it to purchase real capital assets? My interpretation is that with real interest rates negative, businesses do not see a sufficient number of profitable investment projects to invest in. Raising the expected price level would increase the number of investment projects that appear profitable, thereby inducing additional investment spending, finally inducing businesses to draw down, rather than add to, their cash holdings.

So it seems to me that paleo-Monetarists have been misled by a false criterion, one not implied by the Fisher relation that has become central to Monetarist and Post-Monetarist policy orthodoxy. The mere fact that we have not had deflation since 2009 does not mean that monetary policy has not been contractionary, or, at any rate, insufficiently expansionary. So someone committed to the proposition that a market economy is inherently stable is not obliged, as the paleo-Monetarists seem to think, to take the position that monetary policy could not have been responsible for the failure of the feeble recovery since 2009 to bring us back to full employment. Whether it even makes sense to think about an economy as being inherently stable or unstable is a whole other question that I will leave for another day.

HT:  Lars Christensen


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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