Archive for the 'price-specie-flow mechanism' Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuelson Rules the Seas

I think Nick Rowe is a great economist; I really do. And on top of that, he recently has shown himself to be a very brave economist, fearlessly claiming to have shown that Paul Samuelson’s classic 1980 takedown (“A Corrected Version of Hume’s Equilibrating Mechanisms for International Trade“) of David Hume’s classic 1752 articulation of the price-specie-flow mechanism (PSFM) (“Of the Balance of Trade“) was all wrong. Although I am a great admirer of Paul Samuelson, I am far from believing that he was error-free. But I would be very cautious about attributing an error in pure economic theory to Samuelson. So if you were placing bets, Nick would certainly be the longshot in this match-up.

Of course, I should admit that I am not an entirely disinterested observer of this engagement, because in the early 1970s, long before I discovered the Samuelson article that Nick is challenging, Earl Thompson had convinced me that Hume’s account of PSFM was all wrong, the international arbitrage of tradable-goods prices implying that gold movements between countries couldn’t cause the relative price levels of those countries in terms of gold to deviate from a common level, beyond the limits imposed by the operation of international commodity arbitrage. And Thompson’s reasoning was largely restated in the ensuing decade by Jacob Frenkel and Harry Johnson (“The Monetary Approach to the Balance of Payments: Essential Concepts and Historical Origins”) and by Donald McCloskey and Richard Zecher (“How the Gold Standard Really Worked”) both in the 1976 volume on The Monetary Approach to the Balance of Payments edited by Johnson and Frenkel, and by David Laidler in his essay “Adam Smith as a Monetary Economist,” explaining why in The Wealth of Nations Smith ignored his best friend Hume’s classic essay on PSFM. So the main point of Samuelson’s takedown of Hume and the PSFM was not even original. What was original about Samuelson’s classic article was his dismissal of the rationalization that PSFM applies when there are both non-tradable and tradable goods, so that national price levels can deviate from the common international price level in terms of tradables, showing that the inclusion of tradables into the analysis serves only to slow down the adjustment process after a gold-supply shock.

So let’s follow Nick in his daring quest to disprove Samuelson, and see where that leads us.

Assume that durable sailing ships are costly to build, but have low (or zero for simplicity) operating costs. Assume apples are the only tradeable good, and one ship can transport one apple per year across the English Channel between Britain and France (the only countries in the world). Let P be the price of apples in Britain, P* be the price of apples in France, and R be the annual rental of a ship, (all prices measured in gold), then R=ABS(P*-P).

I am sorry to report that Nick has not gotten off to a good start here. There cannot be only tradable good. It takes two tango and two to trade. If apples are being traded, they must be traded for something, and that something is something other than apples. And, just to avoid misunderstanding, let me say that that something is also something other than gold. Otherwise, there couldn’t possibly be a difference between the Thompson-Frenkel-Johnson-McCloskey-Zecher-Laidler-Samuelson critique of PSFM and the PSFM. We need at least three goods – two real goods plus gold – providing a relative price between the two real goods and two absolute prices quoted in terms of gold (the numeraire). So if there are at least two absolute prices, then Nick’s equation for the annual rental of a ship R must be rewritten as follows R=ABS[P(A)*-P(A)+P(SE)*-P(SE)], where P(A) is the price of apples in Britain, P(A)* is the price of apples in France, P(SE) is the price of something else in Britain, and P(SE)* is the price of that same something else in France.

OK, now back to Nick:

In this model, the Law of One Price (P=P*) will only hold if the volume of exports of apples (in either direction) is unconstrained by the existing stock of ships, so rentals on ships are driven to zero. But then no ships would be built to export apples if ship rentals were expected to be always zero, which is a contradiction of the Law of One Price because arbitrage is impossible without ships. But an existing stock of ships represents a sunk cost (sorry) and they keep on sailing even as rentals approach zero. They sail around Samuelson’s Iceberg model (sorry) of transport costs.

This is a peculiar result in two respects. First, it suggests, perhaps inadvertently, that the law of price requires equality between the prices of goods in every location when in fact it only requires that prices in different locations not differ by more than the cost of transportation. The second, more serious, peculiarity is that with only one good being traded the price difference in that single good between the two locations has to be sufficient to cover the cost of building the ship. That suggests that there has to be a very large price difference in that single good to justify building the ship, but in fact there are at least two goods being shipped, so it is the sum of the price differences of the two goods that must be sufficient to cover the cost of building the ship. The more tradable goods there are, the smaller the price differences in any single good necessary to cover the cost of building the ship.

Again, back to Nick:

Start with zero exports, zero ships, and P=P*. Then suppose, like Hume, that some of the gold in Britain magically disappears. (And unlike Hume, just to keep it simple, suppose that gold magically reappears in France.)

Uh-oh. Just to keep it simple? I don’t think so. To me, keeping it simple would mean looking at one change in initial conditions at a time. The one relevant change – the one discussed by Hume – is a reduction in the stock of gold in Britain. But Nick is looking at two changes — a reduced stock of gold in Britain and an increased stock of gold in France — simultaneously. Why does it matter? Because the key point at issue is whether a national price level – i.e, Britain’s — can deviate from the international price level. In Nick’s two-country example, there should be one national price level and one international price level, which means that the only price level subject to change as a result of the change in initial conditions should be, as in Hume’s example, the British price level, while the French price level – representing the international price level – remained constant. In a two-country model, this can only be made plausible by assuming that France is large compared to Britain, so that a loss of gold could potentially affect the British price level without changing the French price level. Once again back to Nick.

The price of apples in Britain drops, the price of apples in France rises, and so the rent on a ship is now positive because you can use it to export apples from Britain to France. If that rent is big enough, and expected to stay big long enough, some ships will be built, and Britain will export apples to France in exchange for gold. Gold will flow from France to Britain, so the stock of gold will slowly rise in Britain and slowly fall in France, and the price of apples will likewise slowly rise in Britain and fall in France, so ship rentals will slowly fall, and the price of ships (the Present Value of those rents) will eventually fall below the cost of production, so no new ships will be built. But the ships already built will keep on sailing until rentals fall to zero or they rot (whichever comes first).

So notice what Nick has done. Instead of confronting the Thompson-Frenkel-Johnson-McCloseky-Zecher-Laidler-Samuelson critique of Hume, which asserts that a world price level determines the national price level, Nick has simply begged the question by not assuming that the world price of gold, which determines the world price level, is constant. Instead, he posits a decreased value of gold in France, owing to an increased French stock of gold, and an increased value of gold in Britain, owing to a decreased British stock of gold, and then conflating the resulting adjustment in the value gold with the operation of commodity arbitrage. Why Nick thinks his discussion is relevant to the Thompson-Frenkel-Johnson-McCloseky-Zecher-Laidler-Samuelson critique escapes me.

The flow of exports and hence the flow of specie is limited by the stock of ships. And only a finite number of ships will be built. So we observe David Hume’s price-specie flow mechanism playing out in real time.

This bugs me. Because it’s all sorta obvious really.

Yes, it bugs me, too. And, yes, it is obvious. But why is it relevant to the question under discussion, which is whether there is an international price level in terms of gold that constrains movements in national price levels in countries in which gold is the numeraire. In other words, if there is a shock to the gold stock of a small open economy, how much will the price level in that small open economy change? By the percentage change in the stock of gold in that country – as Hume maintained – or by the minisicule percentage change in the international stock of gold, gold prices in the country that has lost gold being constrained from changing by more than allowed by the cost of arbitrage operations? Nick’s little example is simply orthogonal to the question under discussion.

I skip Nick’s little exegetical discussion of Hume’s essay and proceed to what I think is the final substantive point that Nick makes.

Prices don’t just arbitrage themselves. Even if we take the limit of my model, as the cost of building ships approaches zero, we need to explain what process ensures the Law of One Price holds in equilibrium. Suppose it didn’t…then people would buy low and sell high… know the rest.

There are different equilibrium conditions being confused here. The equilibrium arbitrage conditions are not same as the equilibrium conditions for international monetary equilibrium. Arbitrage conditions for individual commodities can hold even if the international distribution of gold is not in equilibrium. So I really don’t know what conclusion Nick is alluding to here.

But let me end on what I hope is a conciliatory and constructive note. As always, Nick is making an insightful argument, even if it is misplaced in the context of Hume and PSFM. And the upshot of Nick’s argument is that transportation costs are a function of the dispersion of prices, because, as the incentive to ship products to capture arbitrage profits increases, the cost of shipping will increase as arbitragers bid up the value of resources specialized to the processes of transporting stuff. So the assumption that the cost of transportation can be treated as a parameter is not really valid, which means that the constraints imposed on national price level movements are not really parametric, they are endongenously determined within an appropriately specified general equilibrium model. If Nick is willing to settle for that proposition, I don’t think that our positions are that far apart.

Larry White on the Gold Standard and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he then immediately remarks:

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

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

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

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

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

Exposed: Milton Friedman’s Cluelessness about the Insane Bank of France

About a month ago, I started a series of posts about monetary policy in the 1920s, (about the Bank of France, Benjamin Strong, the difference between a gold-exchange standard and a gold standard, and Ludwig von Mises’s unwitting affirmation of the Hawtrey-Cassel explanation of the Great Depression). The series was not planned, each post being written as new ideas occurred to me or as I found interesting tidbits (about Strong and Mises) in reading stuff I was reading about the Bank of France or the gold-exchange standard.

Another idea that occurred to me was to look at the 1991 English translation of the memoirs of Emile Moreau, Governor of the Bank of France from 1926 to 1930; I managed to find a used copy for sale on Amazon, which I got in the mail over the weekend. I have only read snatches here and there, by looking up names in the index, and we’ll see when I get around to reading the book from cover to cover. One of the more interesting things about the book is the foreward to the English translation by Milton Friedman (and one by Charles Kindleberger as well) to go along with the preface to the 1954 French edition by Jacques Rueff (about which I may have something to say in a future post — we’ll see about that, too).

Friedman’s foreward to Moreau’s memoir is sometimes cited as evidence that he backtracked from his denial in the Monetary History that the Great Depression had been caused by international forces, Friedman insisting that there was actually nothing special about the initial 1929 downturn and that the situation only got out of hand in December 1930 when the Fed foolishly (or maliciously) allowed the Bank of United States to fail, triggering a wave of bank runs and bank failures that caused a sharp decline in the US money stock. According to Friedman it was only at that point that what had been a typical business-cycle downturn degenerated into what Friedman like to call the Great Contraction.

Friedman based his claim that domestic US forces, not an international disturbance, had caused the Great Depression on the empirical observation that US gold reserves increased in 1929; that’s called reasoning from a quantity change. From that fact, Friedman inferred that international forces could not have caused the 1929 downturn, because an international disturbance would have meant that the demand for gold would have increased in the international centers associated with the disturbance, in which case gold would have been flowing out of, not into, the US. In a 1985 article in AER, Gertrude Fremling pointed out an obvious problem with Friedman’s argument which was that gold was being produced every year, and some of the newly produced gold was going into the reserves of central banks. An absolute increase in US gold reserves did not necessarily signify a monetary disturbance in the US. In fact, Fremling showed that US gold reserves actually increased proportionately less than total gold reserves. Unfortunately, Fremling failed to point out that there was a flood of gold pouring into France in 1929, making it easier for Friedman to ignore the problem with his misidentification of the US as the source of the Great Depression.

With that introduction out of the way, let me now quote Friedman’s 1991 acknowledgment that the Bank of France played some role in causing the Great Depression.

Rereading the memoirs of this splendid translation . . . has impressed me with important subtleties that I missed when I read the memoirs in a language not my own and in which I am far from completely fluent. Had I fully appreciated those subtleties when Anna Schwartz and I were writing our A Monetary History of the United States, we would likely have assessed responsibility for the international character of the Great Depression somewhat differently. We attributed responsibility for the initiation of a worldwide contraction to the United States and I would not alter that judgment now. However, we also remarked, “The international effects were severe and the transmission rapid, not only because the gold-exchange standard had rendered the international financial system more vulnerable to disturbances, but also because the United States did not follow gold-standard rules.” Were I writing that sentence today, I would say “because the United States and France did not follow gold-standard rules.”

I find this minimal adjustment by Friedman of his earlier position in the Monetary History totally unsatisfactory. Why do I find it unsatisfactory? To begin with, Friedman makes vague references to unnamed but “important subtleties” in Moreau’s memoir that he was unable to appreciate before reading the 1991 translation. There was nothing subtle about the gold accumulation being undertaken by the Bank of France; it was massive and relentless. The table below is constructed from data on official holdings of monetary gold reserves from December 1926 to June 1932 provided by Clark Johnson in his important book Gold, France, and the Great Depression, pp. 190-93. In December 1926 France held $711 million in gold or 7.7% of the world total of official gold reserves; in June 1932, French gold holdings were $3.218 billion or 28.4% of the world total.

monetary_gold_reservesWhat was it about that policy that Friedman didn’t get? He doesn’t say. What he does say is that he would not alter his previous judgment that the US was responsible “for the initiation of a worldwide contraction.” The only change he would make would be to say that France, as well as the US, contributed to the vulnerability of the international financial system to unspecified disturbances, because of a failure to follow “gold-standard rules.” I will just note that, as I have mentioned many times on this blog, references to alleged “gold standard rules” are generally not only unhelpful, but confusing, because there were never any rules as such to the gold standard, and what are termed “gold-standard rules” are largely based on a misconception, derived from the price-specie-flow fallacy, of how the gold standard actually worked.

My goal in this post was not to engage in more Friedman bashing. What I wanted to do was to clarify the underlying causes of Friedman’s misunderstanding of what caused the Great Depression. But I have to admit that sometimes Friedman makes it hard not to engage in Friedman bashing. So let’s examine another passage from Friedman’s foreward, and see where that takes us.

Another feature of Moreau’s book that is most fascinating . . . is the story it tells of the changing relations between the French and British central banks. At the beginning, with France in desperate straits seeking to stabilize its currency, [Montagu] Norman [Governor of the Bank of England] was contemptuous of France and regarded it as very much of a junior partner. Through the accident that the French currency was revalued at a level that stimulated gold imports, France started to accumulate gold reserves and sterling reserves and gradually came into the position where at any time Moreau could have forced the British off gold by withdrawing the funds he had on deposit at the Bank of England. The result was that Norman changed from being a proud boss and very much the senior partner to being almost a supplicant at the mercy of Moreau.

What’s wrong with this passage? Well, Friedman was correct about the change in the relative positions of Norman and Moreau from 1926 to 1928, but to say that it was an accident that the French currency was revalued at a level that stimulated gold imports is completely — and in this case embarrassingly — wrong, and wrong in two different senses: one strictly factual, and the other theoretical. First, and most obviously, the level at which the French franc was stabilized — 125 francs per pound — was hardly an accident. Indeed, it was precisely the choice of the rate at which to stabilize the franc that was a central point of Moreau’s narrative in his memoir, a central drama of the tale told by Moreau, more central than the relationship between Norman and Moreau, being the struggle between Moreau and his boss, the French Premier, Raymond Poincaré, over whether the franc would be stabilized at that rate, the rate insisted upon by Moreau, or the prewar parity of 25 francs per pound. So inquiring minds can’t help but wonder what exactly did Friedman think he was reading?

The second sense in which Friedman’s statement was wrong is that the amount of gold that France was importing depended on a lot more than just its exchange rate; it was also a function of a) the monetary policy chosen by the Bank of France, which determined the total foreign-exchange holdings held by the Bank of France, and b) the portfolio decisions of the Bank of France about how, given the exchange rate of the franc and given the monetary policy it adopted, the resulting quantity of foreign-exchange reserves would be held.

Let’s follow Friedman a bit further in his foreward as he quotes from his own essay “Should There Be an Independent Monetary Authority?” contrasting the personal weakness of W. P. G. Harding, Governor of the Federal Reserve in 1919-20, with the personal strength of Moreau:

Almost every student of the period is agreed that the great mistake of the Reserve System in postwar monetary policy was to permit the money stock to expand very rapidly in 1919 and then to step very hard on the brakes in 1920. This policy was almost surely responsible for both the sharp postwar rise in prices and the sharp subsequent decline. It is amusing to read Harding’s answer in his memoirs to criticism that was later made of the policies followed. He does not question that alternative policies might well have been preferable for the economy as a whole, but emphasizes the treasury’s desire to float securities at a reasonable rate of interest, and calls attention to a then-existing law under which the treasury could replace the head of the Reserve System. Essentially he was saying the same thing that I heard another member of the Reserve Board say shortly after World War II when the bond-support program was in question. In response to the view expressed by some of my colleagues and myself that the bond-support program should be dropped, he largely agreed but said ‘Do you want us to lose our jobs?’

The importance of personality is strikingly revealed by the contrast between Harding’s behavior and that of Emile Moreau in France under much more difficult circumstances. Moreau formally had no independence whatsoever from the central government. He was named by the premier, and could be discharged at any time by the premier. But when he was asked by the premier to provide the treasury with funds in a manner that he considered inappropriate and undesirable, he flatly refused to do so. Of course, what happened was that Moreau was not discharged, that he did not do what the premier had asked him to, and that stabilization was rather more successful.

Now, if you didn’t read this passage carefully, in particular the part about Moreau’s threat to resign, as I did not the first three or four times that I read it, you might not have noticed what a peculiar description Friedman gives of the incident in which Moreau threatened to resign following a request “by the premier to provide the treasury with funds in a manner that he considered inappropriate and undesirable.” That sounds like a very strange request for the premier to make to the Governor of the Bank of France. The Bank of France doesn’t just “provide funds” to the Treasury. What exactly was the request? And what exactly was “inappropriate and undesirable” about that request?

I have to say again that I have not read Moreau’s memoir, so I can’t state flatly that there is no incident in Moreau’s memoir corresponding to Friedman’s strange account. However, Jacques Rueff, in his preface to the 1954 French edition (translated as well in the 1991 English edition), quotes from Moreau’s own journal entries how the final decision to stabilize the French franc at the new official parity of 125 per pound was reached. And Friedman actually refers to Rueff’s preface in his foreward! Let’s read what Rueff has to say:

The page for May 30, 1928, on which Mr. Moreau set out the problem of legal stabilization, is an admirable lesson in financial wisdom and political courage. I reproduce it here in its entirety with the hope that it will be constantly present in the minds of those who will be obliged in the future to cope with French monetary problems.

“The word drama may sound surprising when it is applied to an event which was inevitable, given the financial and monetary recovery achieved in the past two years. Since July 1926 a balanced budget has been assured, the National Treasury has achieved a surplus and the cleaning up of the balance sheet of the Bank of France has been completed. The April 1928 elections have confirmed the triumph of Mr. Poincaré and the wisdom of the ideas which he represents. The political situation has been stabilized. Under such conditions there is nothing more natural than to stabilize the currency, which has in fact already been pegged at the same level for the last eighteen months.

“But things are not quite that simple. The 1926-28 recovery from restored confidence to those who had actually begun to give up hope for their country and its capacity to recover from the dark hours of July 1926. . . . perhaps too much confidence.

“Distinguished minds maintained that it was possible to return the franc to its prewar parity, in the same way as was done with the pound sterling. And how tempting it would be to thereby cancel the effects of the war and postwar periods and to pay back in the same currency those who had lent the state funds which for them often represented an entire lifetime of unremitting labor.

“International speculation seemed to prove them right, because it kept changing its dollars and pounds for francs, hoping that the franc would be finally revalued.

“Raymond Poincaré, who was honesty itself and who, unlike most politicians, was truly devoted to the public interest and the glory of France, did, deep in his heart, agree with those awaiting a revaluation.

“But I myself had to play the ungrateful role of representative of the technicians who knew that after the financial bloodletting of the past years it was impossible to regain the original parity of the franc.

“I was aware, as had already been determined by the Committee of Experts in 1926, that it was impossible to revalue the franc beyond certain limits without subjecting the national economy to a particularly painful readaptation. If we were to sacrifice the vital force of the nation to its acquired wealth, we would put at risk the recovery we had already accomplished. We would be, in effect, preparing a counterspeculation against our currency that would come within a rather short time.

“Since the parity of 125 francs to one pound has held for long months and the national economy seems to have adapted itself to it, it should be at this rate that we stabilize without further delay.

“This is what I had to tell Mr. Poincaré at the beginning of June 1928, tipping the scales of his judgment with the threat of my resignation.” [my emphasis]

So what this tells me is that the very act of personal strength that so impressed Friedman about Moreau was not about some imaginary “inappropriate” request made by Poincaré (“who was honesty itself”) for the Bank to provide funds to the treasury, but about whether the franc should be stabilized at 125 francs per pound, a peg that Friedman asserts was “accidental.” Obviously, it was not “accidental” at all, but it was based on the judgment of Moreau and his advisers (including two economists of considerable repute, Charles Rist and his student Pierre Quesnay) as attested to by Rueff in his preface, of which we know that Friedman was aware.

Just to avoid misunderstanding, I would just say here that I am not suggesting that Friedman was intentionally misrepresenting any facts. I think that he was just being very sloppy in assuming that the facts actually were what he rather cluelessly imagined them to be.

Before concluding, I will quote again from Friedman’s foreword:

Benjamin Strong and Emile Moreau were admirable characters of personal force and integrity. But in my view, the common policies they followed were misguided and contributed to the severity and rapidity of transmission of the U.S. shock to the international community. We stressed that the U.S. “did not permit the inflow of gold to expand the U.S. money stock. We not only sterilized it, we went much further. Our money stock moved perversely, going down as the gold stock went up” from 1929 to 1931. France did the same, both before and after 1929.

Strong and Moreau tried to reconcile two ultimately incompatible objectives: fixed exchange rates and internal price stability. Thanks to the level at which Britain returned to gold in 1925, the U.S. dollar was undervalued, and thanks to the level at which France returned to gold at the end of 1926, so was the French franc. Both countries as a result experienced substantial gold inflows. Gold-standard rules called for letting the stock of money rise in response to the gold inflows and for price inflation in the U.S. and France, and deflation in Britain, to end the over-and under-valuations. But both Strong and Moreau were determined to preven t inflation and accordingly both sterilized the gold inflows, preventing them from providing the required increase in the quantity of money. The result was to drain the other central banks of the world of their gold reserves, so that they became excessively vulnerable to reserve drains. France’s contribution to this process was, I now realize, much greater than we treated it as being in our History.

These two paragraphs are full of misconceptions; I will try to clarify and correct them. First Friedman refers to “the U.S. shock to the international community.” What is he talking about? I don’t know. Is he talking about the crash of 1929, which he dismissed as being of little consequence for the subsequent course of the Great Depression, whose importance in Friedman’s view was certainly far less than that of the failure of the Bank of United States? But from December 1926 to December 1929, total monetary gold holdings in the world increased by about $1 billion; while US gold holdings declined by nearly $200 million, French holdings increased by $922 million over 90% of the increase in total world official gold reserves. So for Friedman to have even suggested that the shock to the system came from the US and not from France is simply astonishing.

Friedman’s discussion of sterilization lacks any coherent theoretical foundation, because, working with the most naïve version of the price-specie-flow mechanism, he imagines that flows of gold are entirely passive, and that the job of the monetary authority under a gold standard was to ensure that the domestic money stock would vary proportionately with the total stock of gold. But that view of the world ignores the possibility that the demand to hold money in any country could change. Thus, Friedman, in asserting that the US money stock moved perversely from 1929 to 1931, going down as the gold stock went up, misunderstands the dynamic operating in that period. The gold stock went up because, with the banking system faltering, the public was shifting their holdings of money balances from demand deposits to currency. Legal reserves were required against currency, but not against demand deposits, so the shift from deposits to currency necessitated an increase in gold reserves. To be sure the US increase in the demand for gold, driving up its value, was an amplifying factor in the worldwide deflation, but total US holdings of gold from December 1929 to December 1931 rose by $150 million compared with an increase of $1.06 billion in French holdings of gold over the same period. So the US contribution to world deflation at that stage of the Depression was small relative to that of France.

Friedman is correct that fixed exchange rates and internal price stability are incompatible, but he contradicts himself a few sentences later by asserting that Strong and Moreau violated gold-standard rules in order to stabilize their domestic price levels, as if it were the gold-standard rules rather than market forces that would force domestic price levels into correspondence with a common international level. Friedman asserts that the US dollar was undervalued after 1925 because the British pound was overvalued, presuming with no apparent basis that the US balance of payments was determined entirely by its trade with Great Britain. As I observed above, the exchange rate is just one of the determinants of the direction and magnitude of gold flows under the gold standard, and, as also pointed out above, gold was generally flowing out of the US after 1926 until the ferocious tightening of Fed policy at the end of 1928 and in 1929 caused a sizable inflow of gold into the US in 1929.

In thrall to the crude price-specie-flow fallacy, Friedman erroneously assumes that inflation rates under the gold standard are governed by the direction and size of gold flows, inflows being inflationary and outflows deflationary. That is just wrong; national inflation rates were governed by a common international price level in terms of gold (and any positive or negative inflation in terms of gold) and whether prices in the local currency were above or below their gold equivalents, market forces operating to equalize the prices of tradable goods. Domestic monetary policies, whether or not they conformed to supposed gold standard rules, had negligible effect on national inflation rates. If the pound was overvalued, there was deflationary pressure in Britain regardless of whether British monetary policy was tight or easy, and if the franc was undervalued there was inflationary pressure in France regardless of whether French monetary policy was tight or easy. Tightness or ease of monetary policy under the gold standard affects not the rate of inflation, but the rate at which the central bank gained or lost foreign exchange reserves.

However, when, in the aggregate, central banks were tightening their policies, thereby tending to accumulate gold, the international gold market would come under pressure, driving up the value of gold relative goods, thereby causing deflationary pressure among all the gold standard countries. That is what happened in 1929, when the US started to accumulate gold even as the insane Bank of France was acting as a giant international vacuum cleaner sucking in gold from everywhere else in the world. Friedman, even as he was acknowledging that he had underestimated the importance of the Bank of France in the Monetary History, never figured this out. He was obsessed, instead with relatively trivial effects of overvaluation of the pound, and undervaluation of the franc and the dollar. Talk about missing the forest for the trees.

Of course, Friedman was not alone in his cluelessness about the Bank of France. F. A. Hayek, with whom, apart from their common belief in the price-specie-flow fallacy, Friedman shared almost no opinions about monetary theory and policy, infamously defended the Bank of France in 1932.

France did not prevent her monetary circulation from increasing by the very same amount as that of the gold inflow – and this alone is necessary for the gold standard to function.

Thus, like Friedman, Hayek completely ignored the effect that the monumental accumulation of gold by the Bank of France had on the international value of gold. That Friedman accused the Bank of France of violating the “gold-standard rules” while Hayek denied the accusation simply shows, notwithstanding the citations by the Swedish Central Bank of the work that both did on the Great Depression when awarding them their Nobel Memorial Prizes, how far away they both were from an understanding of what was actually going on during that catastrophic period.

The Nearly Forgotten Dearly Beloved 1920-21 Depression Yet Again; Or, Never Reason from a Quantity Change

The industrious James Grant recently published a book about the 1920-21 Depression. It has received enthusiastic reviews in the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s, was the subject of an admiring column by Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson, and was celebrated at a Cato Institute panel discussion, luncheon, and book-signing event. The Cato extravaganza elicited a dismissive blog post by Barkley Rosser which was linked to by Paul Krugman on his blog. The Rosser/Krugman tandem provoked an unhappy reply on the Free Banking blog from George Selgin who chaired the Cato panel discussion. And the 1920-21 Depression is now the latest hot topic in the econblogosphere.

I am afraid that there are multiple layers of errors and confusion that are being mixed up and compounded in this discussion, errors and confusion derived from basic misunderstandings about how the gold standard operated that have been plaguing the economics profession and the financial world for about two and a half centuries. If you want to understand how the gold standard worked, what you have to read is the book by Ralph Hawtrey entitled – drum roll, please – The Gold Standard.

Here are the basic things you need to know about the gold standard.

1 The gold standard operates by creating an equivalence between a currency unit and a fixed amount of gold.

2 The gold standard does not require gold to circulate as money in the form of coins. That was historically the case, but a gold standard can function with no gold coins or even gold certificates.

3 The value of a currency unit and the value of a corresponding weight of gold are necessarily equalized by arbitrage.

4 Equality between a currency unit and a corresponding weight of gold does not necessarily show the direction of causality; the currency unit may determine the value of gold, not the other way around. In other words, making gold the standard of value for currency affects the demand for gold which affects the value of gold. Decisions made by monetary authorities under the gold standard necessarily affect the value of gold, so a gold standard does not somehow make the value of money independent of monetary policy.

5 When more than one country is on a gold standard, the countries share a common price level, because the value of gold is determined in an international market.

Keeping those basics in mind, let’s quickly try to understand what was going on in 1920 when the Fed decided to raise its discount rate to the then unprecedented level of 7 percent. But the situation in 1920 was the outcome of the previous six years of World War I that effectively destroyed the gold standard as a functioning institution, even though its existence was in some sense still legally recognized.

Under the gold standard, gold was the ultimate way of discharging international debts. In World War I, belligerents had to pay for imports with gold, thus governments amassed all available gold with which to pay for the imports required to support the war effort. Gold coins were melted down and converted to bullion so the gold could be exported. For a private citizen in a belligerent country to demand that the national currency unit be converted to gold would be considered an unpatriotic if not a treasonous act. So the gold standard ceased to function in belligerent countries. In non-belligerent countries, which were busy exporting to the belligerents, the result was a massive inflow of gold, causing a spectacular increase in the amount of gold held by the US Treasury between 1914 and 1917. Other non-belligerents like Sweden and Switzerland experienced similar inflows.

Quantity theorists and Monetarists like Milton Friedman habitually misinterpret the wartime inflation, and attributing the inflation to an inflow of gold that increased the money supply, thereby perpetrating the price-specie-flow-mechanism fallacy. What actually happened was that the huge demonetization of gold coins by the belligerents and their export of large quantities of gold to non-belligerent countries in which a free market in gold continued to operate drove down the value of gold. A falling value of gold under a gold standard logically implies rising prices for all other goods and services. Rising prices increased the nominal demand for money, which more or less automatically caused a corresponding adjustment in the quantity of money. A rising price level caused the quantity of money to increase, not the other way around.

In 1917, just before the US entered the war, the US, still effectively on a gold standard as gold flowed into the Treasury, had experienced a drastic inflation, like all other gold standard countries, because gold was rapidly losing value, as it was being demonetized and exported by the belligerent countries. But when the US entered the war in 1917, the US, like other belligerents, suspended operation of the gold standard, thereby accelerating the depreciation of gold, forcing the few remaining countries on the gold standard to suspend the gold standard to avoid runaway inflation. Inflationary pressure in the US did increase after entry into the war, but the war-induced fiat inflation, to some extent suppressed or disguised by price controls, was actually slower than inflation in terms of gold.

When the war ended, the US went back on the gold standard by again making the dollar convertible into gold at the legal parity. Doing so meant that the US price level in terms of dollars was below the notional (no currency any longer being convertible into gold) world price level in terms of gold. In other belligerent countries, notably Britain, France and Germany, inflation in terms of their national currencies exceeded gold inflation, requiring them to deflate even to restore the legal parity in terms of gold.  Thus, the US was the only country in the world that was both willing and able to return to the gold standard at the prewar parity. Sweden and Switzerland could have done so, but preferred to avoid the inflationary consequences of a return to the gold standard.

Once the dollar convertibility into gold was restored, arbitrage forced the US price level to rise to so that it would equal the gold price level. The excess of the gold price level over the US price level level explains the anomalous post-war inflation – everyone knows that prices are supposed to fall, not rise, when a war ends — in the US. The rest of the world, then, had to choose between accepting US inflation, by keeping their currencies pegged to the dollar, or allowing their currencies to appreciate against the dollar. The anomalous post-war inflation was caused by the reequilibration of the US price level to the gold price levels, not, as commonly supposed, by Fed inexperience or incompetence.

To stop the post-war inflation, the Fed could have simply abandoned the gold standard, or it could have revalued the dollar in terms of gold, by reducing the official dollar price of gold. (I ignore the minor detail that the official dollar price of gold was then determined by statute.) Instead, the Fed — whether knowingly or not I can’t say – chose to increase the value of gold. The method by which it did so was to raise its discount rate, thereby making it easier to obtain dollars by selling gold to the Treasury than to borrow from the Fed. The flood of gold into the Treasury in 1920-21 succeeded in taking a huge amount of gold out of private and public hands, thus driving up the real value of gold, and forcing down the gold price level. That’s when the brutal deflation of 1920-21 started. At some point, the Fed and the Treasury decided that they had had enough, having amassed about 40% of the world’s gold reserves, and began reducing the discount rate, thereby slowing the inflow of gold into the US, and stopping its appreciation. And that’s when and how the dearly beloved, but quite dreadful, depression of 1920-21 came to an end.

What Is Free Banking All About?

I notice that there has been a bit of a dustup lately about free banking, triggered by two posts by Izabella Kaminska, first on FTAlphaville followed by another on her own blog. I don’t want to get too deeply into the specifics of Kaminska’s posts, save to correct a couple of factual misstatements and conceptual misunderstandings (see below). At any rate, George Selgin has a detailed reply to Kaminska’s errors with which I mostly agree, and Scott Sumner has scolded her for not distinguishing between sensible free bankers, e.g., Larry White, George Selgin, Kevin Dowd, and Bill Woolsey, and the anti-Fed, gold-bug nutcases who, following in the footsteps of Ron Paul, have adopted free banking as a slogan with which to pursue their anti-Fed crusade.

Now it just so happens that, as some readers may know, I wrote a book about free banking, which I began writing almost 30 years ago. The point of the book was not to call for a revolutionary change in our monetary system, but to show that financial innovations and market forces were causing our modern monetary system to evolve into something like the theoretical model of a free banking system that had been worked out in a general sort of way by some classical monetary theorists, starting with Adam Smith, who believed that a system of private banks operating under a gold standard would supply as much money as, but no more money than, the public wanted to hold. In other words, the quantity of money produced by a system of competing banks, operating under convertibility, could be left to take care of itself, with no centralized quantitative control over either the quantity of bank liabilities or the amount of reserves held by the banking system.

So I especially liked the following comment by J. V. Dubois to Scott’s post

[M]y thing against free banking is that we actually already have it. We already have private banks issuing their own monies directly used for transactions – they are called bank accounts and debit/credit cards. There are countries like Sweden where there are now shops that do not accept physical cash (only bank monies) – a policy actively promoted government, if you can believe it.

There are now even financial products like Xapo Debit Card that automatically converts all payments received on your account into non-monetary assets (with Xapo it is bitcoins) and back into monies when you use the card for payment. There is a very healthy international bank money market so no matter what money you personally use, you can travel all around the world and pay comfortably without ever seeing or touching official local government currency.

In opposition to the Smithian school of thought, there was the view of Smith’s close friend David Hume, who famously articulated what became known as the Price-Specie-Flow Mechanism, a mechanism that Smith wisely omitted from his discussion of international monetary adjustment in the Wealth of Nations, despite having relied on PSFM with due acknowledgment of Hume, in his Lectures on Jurisprudence. In contrast to Smith’s belief that there is a market mechanism limiting the competitive issue of convertible bank liabilities (notes and deposits) to the amount demanded by the public, Hume argued that banks were inherently predisposed to overissue their liabilities, the liabilities being issuable at almost no cost, so that private banks, seeking to profit from the divergence between the face value of their liabilities and the cost of issuing them, were veritable engines of inflation.

These two opposing views of banks later morphed into what became known almost 70 years later as the Banking and Currency Schools. Taking the Humean position, the Currency School argued that without quantitative control over the quantity of banknotes issued, the banking system would inevitably issue an excess of banknotes, causing overtrading, speculation, inflation, a drain on the gold reserves of the banking system, culminating in financial crises. To prevent recurring financial crises, the Currency School proposed a legal limit on the total quantity of banknotes beyond which limit, additional banknotes could be only be issued (by the Bank of England) in exchange for an equivalent amount of gold at the legal gold parity. Taking the Smithian position, the Banking School argued that there were market mechanisms by which any excess liabilities created by the banking system would automatically be returned to the banking system — the law of reflux. Thus, as long as convertibility obtained (i.e., the bank notes were exchangeable for gold at the legal gold parity), any overissue would be self-correcting, so that a legal limit on the quantity of banknotes was, at best, superfluous, and, at worst, would itself trigger a financial crisis.

As it turned out, the legal limit on the quantity of banknotes proposed by the Currency School was enacted in the Bank Charter Act of 1844, and, just as the Banking School predicted, led to a financial crisis in 1847, when, as soon as the total quantity of banknotes approached the legal limit, a sudden precautionary demand for banknotes led to a financial panic that was subdued only after the government announced that the Bank of England would incur no legal liability for issuing banknotes beyond the legal limit. Similar financial panics ensued in 1857 and 1866, and they were also subdued by suspending the relevant statutory limits on the quantity of banknotes. There were no further financial crises in Great Britain in the nineteenth century (except possibly for a minicrisis in 1890), because bank deposits increasingly displaced banknotes as the preferred medium of exchange, the quantity of bank deposits being subject to no statutory limit, and because the market anticipated that, in a crisis, the statutory limit on the quantity of banknotes would be suspended, so that a sudden precautionary demand for banknotes never materialized in the first place.

Let me pause here to comment on the factual and conceptual misunderstandings in Kaminska’s first post. Discussing the role of the Bank of England in the British monetary system in the first half of the nineteenth century, she writes:

But with great money-issuance power comes great responsibility, and more specifically the great temptation to abuse that power via the means of imprudent money-printing. This fate befell the BoE — as it does most banks — not helped by the fact that the BoE still had to compete with a whole bunch of private banks who were just as keen as it to issue money to an equally imprudent degree.

And so it was that by the 1840s — and a number of Napoleonic Wars later — a terrible inflation had begun to grip the land.

So Kaminska seems to have fallen for the Humean notion that banks are inherently predisposed to overissue and, without some quantitative restraint on their issue of liabilities, are engines of inflation. But, as the law of reflux teaches us, this is not true, especially when banks, as they inevitably must, make their liabilities convertible on demand into some outside asset whose supply is not under their control. After 1821, the gold standard having been officially restored in England, the outside asset was gold. So what was happening to the British price level after 1821 was determined not by the actions of the banking system (at least to a first approximation), but by the value of gold which was determined internationally. That’s the conceptual misunderstanding that I want to correct.

Now for the factual misunderstanding. The chart below shows the British Retail Price Index between 1825 and 1850. The British price level was clearly falling for most of the period. After falling steadily from 1825 to about 1835, the price level rebounded till 1839, but it prices again started to fall reaching a low point in 1844, before starting another brief rebound and rising sharply in 1847 until the panic when prices again started falling rapidly.


From a historical perspective, the outcome of the implicit Smith-Hume disagreement, which developed into the explicit dispute over the Bank Charter Act of 1844 between the Banking and Currency Schools, was highly unsatisfactory. Not only was the dysfunctional Bank Charter Act enacted, but the orthodox view of how the gold standard operates was defined by the Humean price-specie-flow mechanism and the Humean fallacy that banks are engines of inflation, which made it appear that, for the gold standard to function, the quantity of money had to be tied rigidly to the gold reserve, thereby placing the burden of adjustment primarily on countries losing gold, so that inflationary excesses would be avoided. (Fortunately, for the world economy, gold supplies increased fairly rapidly during the nineteenth century, the spread of the gold standard meant that the monetary demand for gold was increasing faster than the supply of gold, causing gold to appreciate for most of the nineteenth century.)

When I set out to write my book on free banking, my intention was to clear up the historical misunderstandings, largely attributable to David Hume, surrounding the operation of the gold standard and the behavior of competitive banks. In contrast to the Humean view that banks are inherently inflationary — a view endorsed by quantity theorists of all stripes and enshrined in the money-multiplier analysis found in every economics textbook — that the price level would go to infinity if banks were not constrained by a legal reserve requirement on their creation of liabilities, there was an alternative view that the creation of liabilities by the banking system is characterized by the same sort of revenue and cost considerations governing other profit-making enterprises, and that the equilibrium of a private banking system is not that value of money is driven down to zero, as Milton Friedman, for example, claimed in his Program for Monetary Stability.

The modern discovery (or rediscovery) that banks are not inherently disposed to debase their liabilities was made by James Tobin in his classic paper “Commercial Banks and Creators of Money.” Tobin’s analysis was extended by others (notably Ben Klein, Earl Thompson, and Fischer Black) to show that the standard arguments for imposing quantitative limits on the creation of bank liabilities were unfounded, because, even with no legal constraints, there are economic forces limiting their creation of liabilities. A few years after these contributions, F. A. Hayek also figured out that there are competitive forces constraining the creation of liabilities by the banking system. He further developed the idea in a short book Denationalization of Money which did much to raise the profile of the idea of free banking, at least in some circles.

If there is an economic constraint on the creation of bank liabilities, and if, accordingly, the creation of bank liabilities was responsive to the demands of individuals to hold those liabilities, the Friedman/Monetarist idea that the goal of monetary policy should be to manage the total quantity of bank liabilities so that it would grow continuously at a fixed rate was really dumb. It was tried unsuccessfully by Paul Volcker in the early 1980s, in his struggle to bring inflation under control. It failed for precisely the reason that the Bank Charter Act had to be suspended periodically in the nineteenth century: the quantitative limit on the growth of the money supply itself triggered a precautionary demand to hold money that led to a financial crisis. In order to avoid a financial crisis, the Volcker Fed constantly allowed the monetary aggregates to exceed their growth targets, but until Volcker announced in the summer of 1982 that the Fed would stop paying attention to the aggregates, the economy was teetering on the verge of a financial crisis, undergoing the deepest recession since the Great Depression. After the threat of a Friedman/Monetarist financial crisis was lifted, the US economy almost immediately began one of the fastest expansions of the post-war period.

Nevertheless, for years afterwards, Friedman and his fellow Monetarists kept warning that rapid growth of the monetary aggregates meant that the double-digit inflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s would soon return. So one of my aims in my book was to use free-banking theory – the idea that there are economic forces constraining the issue of bank liabilities and that banks are not inherently engines of inflation – to refute the Monetarist notion that the key to economic stability is to make the money stock grow at a constant 3% annual rate of growth.

Another goal was to explain that competitive banks necessarily have to select some outside asset into which to make their liabilities convertible. Otherwise those liabilities would have no value, or at least so I argued, and still believe. The existence of what we now call network effects forces banks to converge on whatever assets are already serving as money in whatever geographic location they are trying to draw customers from. Thus, free banking is entirely consistent with an already existing fiat currency, so that there is no necessary link between free banking and a gold (or other commodity) standard. Moreover, if free banking were adopted without abolishing existing fiat currencies and legal tender laws, there is almost no chance that, as Hayek argued, new privately established monetary units would arise to displace the existing fiat currencies.

My final goal was to suggest a new way of conducting monetary policy that would enhance the stability of a free banking system, proposing a monetary regime that would ensure the optimum behavior of prices over time. When I wrote the book, I had been convinced by Earl Thompson that the optimum behavior of the price level over time would be achieved if an index of nominal wages was stabilized. He proposed accomplishing this objective by way of indirect convertibility of the dollar into an index of nominal wages by way of a modified form of Irving Fisher’s compensated dollar plan. I won’t discuss how or why that goal could be achieved, but I am no longer convinced of the optimality of stabilizing an index of nominal wages. So I am now more inclined toward nominal GDP level targeting as a monetary policy regime than the system I proposed in my book.

But let me come back to the point that I think J. V. Dubois was getting at in his comment. Historically, idea of free banking meant that private banks should be allowed to issue bank notes of their own (with the issuing bank clearly identified) without unreasonable regulations, restrictions or burdens not generally applied to other institutions. During the period when private banknotes were widely circulating, banknotes were a more prevalent form of money than bank deposits. So in the 21st century, the right of banks to issue hand to hand circulating banknotes is hardly a crucial issue for monetary policy. What really matters is the overall legal and regulatory framework under which banks operate.

The term “free banking” does very little to shed light on most of these issues. For example, what kind of functions should banks perform? Should commercial banks also engage in investment banking? Should commercial bank liabilities be ensured by the government, and if so under what terms, and up to what limits? There are just a couple of issues; there are many others. And they aren’t necessarily easily resolved by invoking the free-banking slogan. When I was writing, I meant by “free banking” a system in which the market determined the total quantity of bank liabilities. I am still willing to use “free banking” in that sense, but there are all kinds of issues concerning the asset side of bank balance sheets that also need to be addressed, and I don’t find it helpful to use the term free banking to address those issues.

Hey, Look at Me; I Turned Brad Delong into an Apologist for Milton Friedman

It’s always nice to be noticed, so I can hardly complain if Brad Delong wants to defend Milton Friedman on his blog against my criticism of his paper “Real and Pseudo Gold Standards.” I just find it a little bit rich to see Friedman being defended against my criticism by the arch-Keynesian Brad Delong.

But in the spirit of friendly disagreement in which Brad criticizes my criticism, I shall return the compliment and offer some criticisms of my own of Brad’s valiant effort to defend the indefensible.

So let me try to parse what Brad is saying and see if Brad can help me find sense where before I could find none.

I think that Friedman’s paper has somewhat more coherence than David does. From Milton Friedman’s standpoint (and from John Maynard Keynes’s) you need microeconomic [I think Brad meant to say macroeconomic] stability in order for private laissez-faire to be for the best in the best of possible worlds. Macroeconomic stability is:

  1. stable and predictable paths for total spending, the price level, and interest rates; hence
  2. a stable and predictable path for the velocity of money; hence
  3. (1) then achieved by a stable and predictable path for the money stock; and
  4. if (3) is secured by institutions, then expectations of (3) will generate the possibility of (1) and (2) so that if (3) is actually carried out then eppur si muove

I agree with Brad that macroeconomic stability can be described as a persistent circumstance in which the paths for total spending, the price level, and (perhaps) interest rates are stable and predictable. I also agree that a stable and predictable path for the velocity of money is conducive to macroeconomic stability. But note the difference between saying that the time paths for total spending, the price level and (perhaps) interest rates are stable and predictable and that the time path for the velocity of money is stable and predictable. It is, at least possibly the case, that it is within the power of an enlightened monetary authority to provide, or that it would be possible to construct a monetary regime that could provide, stable and predictable paths for total spending and the price level. Whether it is also possible for a monetary authority or a monetary regime to provide a stable and predictable path for interest rates would depend on the inherent variability in the real rate of interest. It may be that variations in the real rate are triggered by avoidable variations in nominal rates, so that if nominal rates are stabilized, real rates will be stabilized, too. But it may be that real rates are inherently variable and unpredictable. But it is at least plausible to argue that the appropriate monetary policy or monetary regime would result in a stable and predictable path of real and nominal interest rates. However, I find it highly implausible to think that it is within the power of any monetary authority or monetary regime to provide a stable and predictable path for the velocity of money. On the contrary, it seems much more likely that in order to provide stability and predictability in the paths for total spending, the price level, and interest rates, the monetary authority or the monetary regime would have to tolerate substantial variations in the velocity of money associated with changes in the public’s demand to hold money. So the notion that a stable and predictable path for the money stock is a characteristic of macroeconomic stability, much less a condition for monetary stability, strikes me as a complete misconception, a misconception propagated, more than anyone else, by Milton Friedman, himself.

Thus, contrary to Brad’s assertion, a stable and predictable path for the money stock is more likely than not to be a condition not for macroeconomic stability, but of macroeconomic instability. And to support my contention that a stable and predictable path for the money stock is macroeconomically destabilizing, let me quote none other than F. A. Hayek. I quote Hayek not because I think he is more authoritative than Friedman – Hayek having made more than his share of bad macroeconomic policy calls (e.g. his 1932 defense of the insane Bank of France) – but because in his own polite way he simply demolished the fallacy underlying Friedman’s fetish with a fixed rate of growth in the money stock (Full Empoyment at Any Price).

I wish I could share the confidence of my friend Milton Friedman who thinks that one could deprive the monetary authorities, in order to prevent the abuse of their powers for political purposes, of all discretionary powers by prescribing the amount of money they may and should add to circulation in any one year. It seems to me that he regards this as practicable because he has become used for statistical purposes to draw a sharp distinction between what is to be regarded as money and what is not. This distinction does not exist in the real world. I believe that, to ensure the convertibility of all kinds of near-money into real money, which is necessary if we are to avoid severe liquidity crises or panics, the monetary authorities must be given some discretion. But I agree with Friedman that we will have to try and get back to a more or less automatic system for regulating the quantity of money in ordinary times. The necessity of “suspending” Sir Robert Peel’s Bank Act of 1844 three times within 25 years after it was passed ought to have taught us this once and for all.

He was briefer and more pointed in a later comment (Denationalization of Money).

As regards Professor Friedman’s proposal of a legal limit on the rate at which a monopolistic issuer of money was to be allowed to increase the quantity in circulation, I can only say that I would not like to see what would happen if it ever became known that the amount of cash in circulation was approaching the upper limit and that therefore a need for increased liquidity could not be met.

And for good measure, Hayek added this footnote quoting Bagehot:

To such a situation the classic account of Walter Bagehot . . . would apply: “In a sensitive state of the English money market the near approach to the legal limit of reserve would be a sure incentive to panic; if one-third were fixed by law, the moment the banks were close to one-third, alarm would begin and would run like magic.

In other words if 3 is secured by institutions, all hell breaks loose.

But let us follow Brad a bit further in his quixotic quest to make Friedman seem sensible.

Now there are two different institutional setups that can produce (3):

  1. a monetarist central bank committed to targeting a k% growth rate of the money stock via open-market operations; or
  2. a gold standard in which a Humean price-specie flow mechanism leads inflating countries to lose and deflating countries to gain gold, tightly coupled to a banking system in which there is a reliable and stable money multiplier, and thus in which the money stock grows at the rate at which the world’s gold stock grows (plus the velocity trend).

Well, I have just – and not for the first time — disposed of 1, and in my previous post, I have disposed of 2. But having started to repeat myself, why not continue.

There are two points to make about the Humean price-specie-flow mechanism. First, it makes no sense, as Samuelson showed in his classic 1980 paper, inasmuch as it violates arbitrage conditions which do not allow the prices of tradable commodities to differ by more than the costs of transport. The Humean price-specie-flow mechanism presumes that the local domestic price levels are determined by local money supplies (either gold or convertible into gold), but that is simply not possible if arbitrage conditions obtain. There is no price-specie-flow mechanism under the gold standard, there is simply a movement of money sufficient to eliminate excess demands or supplies of money at the constant internationally determined price level. Domestic money supplies are endogenous and prices are (from the point of view of the monetary system) exogenously determined by the value of gold and the exchange rates of the local currencies in terms of gold. There is therefore no stable money multiplier at the level of a national currency (gold or convertible into gold). Friedman’s conception a pure [aka real] gold standard was predicated on a fallacy, namely the price-specie-flow mechanism. No gold standard in history ever operated as Friedman supposed that it operated. There were a few attempts to impose by statutory requirement a 100% (or sometime lower) marginal reserve requirement on banknotes, but that was statutory intervention, not a gold standard, which, at any operational level, is characterized by a fixed exchange rate between gold and the local currency with no restriction on the ability of economic agents to purchase gold at the going market price. the market price, under the gold standard, always equaling (or very closely approximating) the legal exchange rate between gold and the local currency.

Friedman calls (2) a “pure gold standard”. Anything else that claims to be a gold standard is and must be a “pseudo gold standard”. It might be a pseudo gold standard either because something disrupts the Humean price-specie flow mechanism–the “rules of the game” are not obeyed–so that deficit countries do not reliably lose and surplus countries do not reliably gain gold. It might be a pseudo gold standard because the money multiplier is not reliable and stable–because the banking system does not transparently and rapidly transmute a k% shift in the stock of gold into a k% shift in the money stock.

Friedman’s calling (2) “a pure [real] gold standard,” because it actualizes the Humean price-specie-flow-mechanism simply shows that Friedman understood neither the gold standard nor the price-specie-flow mechanism. The supposed rules of the game were designed to make the gold standard function in a particular way. In fact, the evidence shows that the classical gold standard in operation from roughly 1880 to 1914 operated with consistent departures from the “rules of the game.” What allows us to call the monetary regime in operation from 1880 to 1914 a gold standard is not that the rules of the game were observed but that the value of local currencies corresponded to the value of the gold with which they could be freely exchanged at the legal parities. No more and no less. And even Friedman was unwilling to call the gold standard in operation from 1880 to 1914 a pseudo gold standard, because if that was a pseudo-gold standard, there never was a real gold standard. So he was simply talking nonsense when he asserted that during the 1920s there a pseudo gold standard in operation even though gold was freely exchangeable for local currencies at the legal exchange rates.

Or, in short, to Friedman a gold standard is only a real gold standard if it produces a path for the money stock that is a k% rule. Anything else is a pseudo gold standard.

Yes! And that is what Friedman said, and it is absurd. And I am sure that Harry Johnson must have told him so.

The purpose of the paper, in short, is a Talmudic splitting-of-hairs. The point is to allow von Mises and Rueff and their not-so-deep-thinking latter-day followers (paging Paul Ryan! Paging Benn Steil! Paging Charles Koch! Paging Rand Paul!) to remain in their cloud-cuckoo-land of pledging allegiance to the gold standard as a golden calf while at the same time walling them off from and keeping them calm and supportive as the monetarist central bank does its job of keeping our fiat-money system stable by making Say’s Law true enough in practice.

As such, it succeeds admirably.

Or, at least, I think it does…

Have I just given an unconvincing Straussian reading of Friedman–that he knows what he is doing, and that what he is doing is leaving the theoretical husk to the fanatics von Mises and Rueff while keeping the rational kernel for himself, and making the point that a gold standard is a good monetary policy only if it turns out to mimic a good monetarist fiat-money standard policy? That his apparent confusion is simply a way of accomplishing those two tasks without splitting Mont Pelerin of the 1960s into yet more mutually-feuding camps?

I really sympathize with Brad’s effort to recruit Friedman into the worthy cause of combating nonsense. But you can’t combat nonsense with nonsense.


Sterilizing Gold Inflows: The Anatomy of a Misconception

In my previous post about Milton Friedman’s problematic distinction between real and pseudo-gold standards, I mentioned that one of the signs that Friedman pointed to in asserting that the Federal Reserve Board in the 1920s was managing a pseudo gold standard was the “sterilization” of gold inflows to the Fed. What Friedman meant by sterilization is that the incremental gold reserves flowing into the Fed did not lead to a commensurate increase in the stock of money held by the public, the failure of the stock of money to increase commensurately with an inflow of gold being the standard understanding of sterilization in the context of the gold standard.

Of course “commensurateness” is in the eye of the beholder. Because Friedman felt that, given the size of the gold inflow, the US money stock did not increase “enough,” he argued that the gold standard in the 1920s did not function as a “real” gold standard would have functioned. Now Friedman’s denial that a gold standard in which gold inflows are sterilized is a “real” gold standard may have been uniquely his own, but his understanding of sterilization was hardly unique; it was widely shared. In fact it was so widely shared that I myself have had to engage in a bit of an intellectual struggle to free myself from its implicit reversal of the causation between money creation and the holding of reserves. For direct evidence of my struggles, see some of my earlier posts on currency manipulation (here, here and here), in which I began by using the concept of sterilization as if it actually made sense in the context of international adjustment, and did not fully grasp that the concept leads only to confusion. In an earlier post about Hayek’s 1932 defense of the insane Bank of France, I did not explicitly refer to sterilization, and got the essential analysis right. Of course Hayek, in his 1932 defense of the Bank of France, was using — whether implicitly or explicitly I don’t recall — the idea of sterilization to defend the Bank of France against critics by showing that the Bank of France was not guilty of sterilization, but Hayek’s criterion for what qualifies as sterilization was stricter than Friedman’s. In any event, it would be fair to say that Friedman’s conception of how the gold standard works was broadly consistent with the general understanding at the time of how the gold standard operates, though, even under the orthodox understanding, he had no basis for asserting that the 1920s gold standard was fraudulent and bogus.

To sort out the multiple layers of confusion operating here, it helps to go back to the classic discussion of international monetary adjustment under a pure gold currency, which was the basis for later discussions of international monetary adjustment under a gold standard (i.e, a paper currency convertible into gold at a fixed exchange rate). I refer to David Hume’s essay “Of the Balance of Trade” in which he argued that there is an equilibrium distribution of gold across different countries, working through a famous thought experiment in which four-fifths of the gold held in Great Britain was annihilated to show that an automatic adjustment process would redistribute the international stock of gold to restore Britain’s equilibrium share of the total world stock of gold.

The adjustment process, which came to be known as the price-specie flow mechanism (PSFM), is widely considered one of Hume’s greatest contributions to economics and to monetary theory. Applying the simple quantity theory of money, Hume argued that the loss of 80% of Britain’s gold stock would mean that prices and wages in Britain would fall by 80%. But with British prices 80% lower than prices elsewhere, Britain would stop importing goods that could now be obtained more cheaply at home than they could be obtained abroad, while foreigners would begin exporting all they could from Britain to take advantage of low British prices. British exports would rise and imports fall, causing an inflow of gold into Britain. But, as gold flowed into Britain, British prices would rise, thereby reducing the British competitive advantage, causing imports to increase and exports to decrease, and consequently reducing the inflow of gold. The adjustment process would continue until British prices and wages had risen to a level equal to that in other countries, thus eliminating the British balance-of-trade surplus and terminating the inflow of gold.

This was a very nice argument, and Hume, a consummate literary stylist, expressed it beautifully. There is only one problem: Hume ignored that the prices of tradable goods (those that can be imported or exported or those that compete with imports and exports) are determined not in isolated domestic markets, but in international markets, so the premise that all British prices, like the British stock of gold, would fall by 80% was clearly wrong. Nevertheless, the disconnect between the simple quantity theory and the idea that the prices of tradable goods are determined in international markets was widely ignored by subsequent writers. Although Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and J. S. Mill avoided the fallacy, but without explicit criticism of Hume, while Henry Thornton, in his great work The Paper Credit of Great Britain, alternately embraced it and rejected it, the Humean analysis, by the end of the nineteenth century, if not earlier, had become the established orthodoxy.

Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a famous series of controversies over the Bank Charter Act of 1844, in which two groups of economists the Currency School in support and the Banking School in opposition argued about the key provisions of the Act: to centralize the issue of Banknotes in Great Britain within the Bank of England and to prohibit the Bank of England from issuing additional banknotes, beyond the fixed quantity of “unbacked” notes (i.e. without gold cover) already in circulation, unless the additional banknotes were issued in exchange for a corresponding amount of gold coin or bullion. In other words, the Bank Charter Act imposed a 100% marginal reserve requirement on the issue of additional banknotes by the Bank of England, thereby codifying what was then known as the Currency Principle, the idea being that the fluctuation in the total quantity of Banknotes ought to track exactly the Humean mechanism in which the quantity of money in circulation changes pound for pound with the import or export of gold.

The doctrinal history of the controversies about the Bank Charter Act are very confused, and I have written about them at length in several papers (this, this, and this) and in my book on free banking, so I don’t want to go over that ground again here. But until the advent of the monetary approach to the balance of payments in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the thinking of the economics profession about monetary adjustment under the gold standard was largely in a state of confusion, the underlying fallacy of PSFM having remained largely unrecognized. One of the few who avoided the confusion was R. G. Hawtrey, who had anticipated all the important elements of the monetary approach to the balance of payments, but whose work had been largely forgotten in the wake of the General Theory.

Two important papers changed the landscape. The first was a 1976 paper by Donald McCloskey and Richard Zecher “How the Gold Standard Really Worked” which explained that a whole slew of supposed anomalies in the empirical literature on the gold standard were easily explained if the Humean PSFM was disregarded. The second was Paul Samuelson’s 1980 paper “A Corrected Version of Hume’s Equilibrating Mechanisms for International Trade,” showing that the change in relative price levels — the mechanism whereby international monetary equilibrium is supposedly restored according to PSFM — is irrelevant to the adjustment process when arbitrage constraints on tradable goods are effective. The burden of the adjustment is carried by changes in spending patterns that restore desired asset holdings to their equilibrium levels, independently of relative-price-level effects. Samuelson further showed that even when, owing to the existence of non-tradable goods, there are relative-price-level effects, those effects are irrelevant to the adjustment process that restores equilibrium.

What was missing from Hume’s analysis was the concept of a demand to hold money (or gold). The difference between desired and actual holdings of cash imply corresponding changes in expenditure, and those changes in expenditure restore equilibrium in money (gold) holdings independent of any price effects. Lacking any theory of the demand to hold money (or gold), Hume had to rely on a price-level adjustment to explain how equilibrium is restored after a change in the quantity of gold in one country. Hume’s misstep set monetary economics off on a two-century detour, avoided by only a relative handful of economists, in explaining the process of international adjustment.

So historically there have been two paradigms of international adjustment under the gold standard: 1) the better-known, but incorrect, Humean PSFM based on relative-price-level differences which induce self-correcting gold flows that, in turn, are supposed to eliminate the price-level differences, and 2) the not-so-well-known, but correct, arbitrage-monetary-adjustment theory. Under the PSFM, the adjustment can occur only if gold flows give rise to relative-price-level adjustments. But, under PSFM, for those relative-price-level adjustments to occur, gold flows have to change the domestic money stock, because it is the quantity of domestic money that governs the domestic price level.

That is why if you believe, as Milton Friedman did, in PSFM, sterilization is such a big deal. Relative domestic price levels are correlated with relative domestic money stocks, so if a gold inflow into a country does not change its domestic money stock, the necessary increase in the relative price level of the country receiving the gold inflow cannot occur. The “automatic” adjustment mechanism under the gold standard has been blocked, implying that if there is sterilization, the gold standard is rendered fraudulent.

But we now know that that is not how the gold standard works. The point of gold flows was not to change relative price levels. International adjustment required changes in domestic money supplies to be sure, but, under the gold standard, changes in domestic money supplies are essentially unavoidable. Thus, in his 1932 defense of the insane Bank of France, Hayek pointed out that the domestic quantity of money had in fact increased in France along with French gold holdings. To Hayek, this meant that the Bank of France was not sterilizing the gold inflow. Friedman would have said that, given the gold inflow, the French money stock ought to have increased by a far larger amount than it actually did.

Neither Hayek nor Friedman understood what was happening. The French public wanted to increase their holdings of money. Because the French government imposed high gold reserve requirements (but less than 100%) on the creation of French banknotes and deposits, increasing holdings of money required the French to restrict their spending sufficiently to create a balance-of-trade surplus large enough to induce the inflow of gold needed to satisfy the reserve requirements on the desired increase in cash holdings. The direction of causation was exactly the opposite of what Friedman thought. It was the desired increase in the amount of francs that the French wanted to hold that (given the level of gold reserve requirements) induced the increase in French gold holdings.

But this doesn’t mean, as Hayek argued, that the insane Bank of France was not wreaking havoc on the international monetary system. By advocating a banking law that imposed very high gold reserve requirements and by insisting on redeeming almost all of its non-gold foreign exchange reserves into gold bullion, the insane Bank of France, along with the clueless Federal Reserve, generated a huge increase in the international monetary demand for gold, which was the proximate cause of the worldwide deflation that began in 1929 and continued till 1933. The problem was not a misalignment between relative price levels, which is sterilization supposedly causes; the problem was a worldwide deflation that afflicted all countries on the gold standard, and was avoidable only by escaping from the gold standard.

At any rate, the concept of sterilization does nothing to enhance our understanding of that deflationary process. And whatever defects there were in the way that central banks were operating under the gold standard in the 1920s, the concept of sterilization averts attention from the critical problem which was the increasing demand of the world’s central banks, especially the Bank of France and the Federal Reserve, for gold reserves.

Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade, Part VII: International Adjustment to a Demand Shift

In this installment, I will provide a very quick overview of Hawtrey’s chapters 10 and 11, and point out a minor defect in his argument about the international adjustment process. Having explained the international adjustment process to a monetary disturbance in chapter 9, Hawtrey uses the next two chapters to give a brief, but highly insightful, account of the process of economic growth, expanding human settlement into new geographic locations, thereby showing an acute sense of the importance of geography and location in economic development, and of the process by which newly extracted gold is exported from gold-producing to gold-importing areas, even though, under the gold standard, the value of gold is the same all over the world (chapter 10). Hawtrey then examines the process of adjustment to a reduction in the demand for a product exported by a particular country. Hawtrey explains the adjustment processes first under the assumption that the exchange rate is allowed to adjust (all countries being assumed to have inconvertible fiat currencies). and, then, under the assumption that all money is convertible into gold and exchange rates are fixed (at least within the limits of gold import and export points).

The analysis is pretty straightforward. Starting from a state of equilibrium, if the worldwide demand for one of country A’s export products (say hats) declines, with the increased expenditure shared among all other commodities, country A will experience a balance-of-payments deficit, requiring a depreciation of the exchange rate of the currency of country exchange against other currencies. In the meantime, country A’s hat producers will have to cut output, thus laying off workers. The workers are unlikely to accept an offer of reduced wages from country A hat producers, correctly reasoning that they may be able to find work elsewhere at close to their old wage. In fact the depreciation of country A’s currency will offer some incentive to country A’s other producers to expand output, eventually reabsorbing the workers laid off by country A’s hat producers. The point is that a demand shift, though leading to a substantial reduction in the output and employment of one industry, does not trigger the wider contraction in economic activity characteristic of cyclical disturbances. Sectoral shifts in demand don’t normally lead to cyclical downturns.

Hawtrey then goes through the analysis under the assumption that all countries are on the gold standard. What happens under the gold standard, according to Hawtrey, is that the balance-of-payments deficit caused by the demand shift requires the export of gold to cover the deficit. The exported gold comes out of the gold reserves held by the banks. When banks see that their gold reserves are diminishing, they in turn raise interest rates as a way of stemming the outflow of gold. The increase in the rate of interest will tend to restrain total spending, which tends to reduce imports and encourage exports. Hawtrey goes through a somewhat abstruse numerical example, which I will spare you, to show how much the internal demand for gold falls as a result of the reduction in demand for country A’s hats. This all seems generally correct.

However, there is one point on which I would take issue with Hawtrey. He writes:

But even so equilibrium is not yet reached. For the export of hats has been diminished by 20 percent, and if the prices ruling in other industries are the same, relatively to those ruling abroad, as before, the imports of those commodities will be unchanged. There must therefore be a further export of gold to lower the general level of prices and so to encourage exports and discourage imports. (pp. 137-38)

Here is an example of the mistaken reasoning that I pointed out in my previous post, a failure to notice that the prices of all internationally traded commodities are fixed by arbitrage (at least as a first approximation) not by the domestic quantity of gold. The export of gold does nothing to reduce the prices of the products of the other industries in country A, which are determined in international markets. Given the internationally determined prices for those goods, equilibrium will have to be restored by the adjustment of wages in country A to make it profitable for country A’s exporting industries and import-competing industries to increase their output, thereby absorbing the workers displaced from country A’s hat industry. As I showed in my previous post, Hawtrey eventually came to understand this point. But in 1913, he had still not freed himself from that misunderstanding originally perpetrated by David Hume in his famous essay “Of the Balance of Trade,” expounding what came to be known as the price-specie-flow mechanism.

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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