Archive for the 'Smoot-Hawley tariff' Category

What’s so Bad about the Gold Standard?

Last week Paul Krugman argued that Ted Cruz is more dangerous than Donald Trump, because Trump is merely a protectionist while Cruz wants to restore the gold standard. I’m not going to weigh in on the relative merits of Cruz and Trump, but I have previously suggested that Krugman may be too dismissive of the possibility that the Smoot-Hawley tariff did indeed play a significant, though certainly secondary, role in the Great Depression. In warning about the danger of a return to the gold standard, Krugman is certainly right that the gold standard was and could again be profoundly destabilizing to the world economy, but I don’t think he did such a good job of explaining why, largely because, like Ben Bernanke and, I am afraid, most other economists, Krugman isn’t totally clear on how the gold standard really worked.

Here’s what Krugman says:

[P]rotectionism didn’t cause the Great Depression. It was a consequence, not a cause – and much less severe in countries that had the good sense to leave the gold standard.

That’s basically right. But I note for the record, to spell out the my point made in the post I alluded to in the opening paragraph that protectionism might indeed have played a role in exacerbating the Great Depression, making it harder for Germany and other indebted countries to pay off their debts by making it more difficult for them to exports required to discharge their obligations, thereby making their IOUs, widely held by European and American banks, worthless or nearly so, undermining the solvency of many of those banks. It also increased the demand for the gold required to discharge debts, adding to the deflationary forces that had been unleashed by the Bank of France and the Fed, thereby triggering the debt-deflation mechanism described by Irving Fisher in his famous article.

Which brings us to Cruz, who is enthusiastic about the gold standard – which did play a major role in spreading the Depression.

Well, that’s half — or maybe a quarter — right. The gold standard did play a major role in spreading the Depression. But the role was not just major; it was dominant. And the role of the gold standard in the Great Depression was not just to spread it; the role was, as Hawtrey and Cassel warned a decade before it happened, to cause it. The causal mechanism was that in restoring the gold standard, the various central banks linking their currencies to gold would increase their demands for gold reserves so substantially that the value of gold would rise back to its value before World War I, which was about double what it was after the war. It was to avoid such a catastrophic increase in the value of gold that Hawtrey drafted the resolutions adopted at the 1922 Genoa monetary conference calling for central-bank cooperation to minimize the increase in the monetary demand for gold associated with restoring the gold standard. Unfortunately, when France officially restored the gold standard in 1928, it went on a gold-buying spree, joined in by the Fed in 1929 when it raised interest rates to suppress Wall Street stock speculation. The huge accumulation of gold by France and the US in 1929 led directly to the deflation that started in the second half of 1929, which continued unabated till 1933. The Great Depression was caused by a 50% increase in the value of gold that was the direct result of the restoration of the gold standard. In principle, if the Genoa Resolutions had been followed, the restoration of the gold standard could have been accomplished with no increase in the value of gold. But, obviously, the gold standard was a catastrophe waiting to happen.

The problem with gold is, first of all, that it removes flexibility. Given an adverse shock to demand, it rules out any offsetting loosening of monetary policy.

That’s not quite right; the problem with gold is, first of all, that it does not guarantee that value of gold will be stable. The problem is exacerbated when central banks hold substantial gold reserves, which means that significant changes in the demand of central banks for gold reserves can have dramatic repercussions on the value of gold. Far from being a guarantee of price stability, the gold standard can be the source of price-level instability, depending on the policies adopted by individual central banks. The Great Depression was not caused by an adverse shock to demand; it was caused by a policy-induced shock to the value of gold. There was nothing inherent in the gold standard that would have prevented a loosening of monetary policy – a decline in the gold reserves held by central banks – to reverse the deflationary effects of the rapid accumulation of gold reserves, but, the insane Bank of France was not inclined to reverse its policy, perversely viewing the increase in its gold reserves as evidence of the success of its catastrophic policy. However, once some central banks are accumulating gold reserves, other central banks inevitably feel that they must take steps to at least maintain their current levels of reserves, lest markets begin to lose confidence that convertibility into gold will be preserved. Bad policy tends to spread. Krugman seems to have this possibility in mind when he continues:

Worse, relying on gold can easily have the effect of forcing a tightening of monetary policy at precisely the wrong moment. In a crisis, people get worried about banks and seek cash, increasing the demand for the monetary base – but you can’t expand the monetary base to meet this demand, because it’s tied to gold.

But Krugman is being a little sloppy here. If the demand for the monetary base – meaning, presumably, currency plus reserves at the central bank — is increasing, then the public simply wants to increase their holdings of currency, not spend the added holdings. So what stops the the central bank accommodate that demand? Krugman says that “it” – meaning, presumably, the monetary base – is tied to gold. What does it mean for the monetary base to be “tied” to gold? Under the gold standard, the “tie” to gold is a promise to convert the monetary base, on demand, at a specified conversion rate.

Question: why would that promise to convert have prevented the central bank from increasing the monetary base? Answer: it would not and did not. Since, by assumption, the public is demanding more currency to hold, there is no reason why the central bank could not safely accommodate that demand. Of course, there would be a problem if the public feared that the central bank might not continue to honor its convertibility commitment and that the price of gold would rise. Then there would be an internal drain on the central bank’s gold reserves. But that is not — or doesn’t seem to be — the case that Krugman has in mind. Rather, what he seems to mean is that the quantity of base money is limited by a reserve ratio between the gold reserves held by the central bank and the monetary base. But if the tie between the monetary base and gold that Krugman is referring to is a legal reserve requirement, then he is confusing the legal reserve requirement with the gold standard, and the two are simply not the same, it being entirely possible, and actually desirable, for the gold standard to function with no legal reserve requirement – certainly not a marginal reserve requirement.

On top of that, a slump drives interest rates down, increasing the demand for real assets perceived as safe — like gold — which is why gold prices rose after the 2008 crisis. But if you’re on a gold standard, nominal gold prices can’t rise; the only way real prices can rise is a fall in the prices of everything else. Hello, deflation!

Note the implicit assumption here: that the slump just happens for some unknown reason. I don’t deny that such events are possible, but in the context of this discussion about the gold standard and its destabilizing properties, the historically relevant scenario is when the slump occurred because of a deliberate decision to raise interest rates, as the Fed did in 1929 to suppress stock-market speculation and as the Bank of England did for most of the 1920s, to restore and maintain the prewar sterling parity against the dollar. Under those circumstances, it was the increase in the interest rate set by the central bank that amounted to an increase in the monetary demand for gold which is what caused gold appreciation and deflation.

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Paul Krugman Suffers a Memory Lapse

smoot_hawleyPaul Krugman, who is very upset with Republicans on both sides of the Trump divide, ridiculed Mitt Romney’s attack on Trump for being a protectionist. Romney warned that if Trump implemented his proposed protectionist policies, the result would likely be a trade war and a recession. Now I totally understand Krugman’s frustration with what’s happening inside the Republican Party; it’s not a pretty sight. But Krugman seems just a tad too eager to find fault with Romney, especially since the danger that a trade war could trigger a recession, while perhaps overblown, is hardly delusional, and, as Krugman ought to recall, is a danger that Democrats have also warned against. (I’ll come back to that point later.) Here’s the quote that got Krugman’s back up:

If Donald Trump’s plans were ever implemented, the country would sink into prolonged recession. A few examples. His proposed 35 percent tariff-like penalties would instigate a trade war and that would raise prices for consumers, kill our export jobs and lead entrepreneurs and businesses of all stripes to flee America.

Krugman responded:

After all, doesn’t everyone know that protectionism causes recessions? Actually, no. There are reasons to be against protectionism, but that’s not one of them.

Think about the arithmetic (which has a well-known liberal bias). Total final spending on domestically produced goods and services is

Total domestic spending + Exports – Imports = GDP

Now suppose we have a trade war. This will cut exports, which other things equal depresses the economy. But it will also cut imports, which other things equal is expansionary. For the world as a whole, the cuts in exports and imports will by definition be equal, so as far as world demand is concerned, trade wars are a wash.

Actually, Krugman knows better than to argue that the comparative statics response to a parameter change (especially a large change) can be inferred from an accounting identity. The accounting identity always holds, but the equilibrium position does change, and you can’t just assume that the equilibrium rate of spending is unaffected by the parameter change or by the adjustment path the follows the parameter change. So Krugman’s assertion that a trade war cannot cause a recession depends on an implicit assumption that a trade war would be accompanied by a smooth reallocation of resources from producing tradable to producing non-tradable goods and that the wealth losses from the depreciation of specific human and non-human capital invested in the tradable-goods sector would have small repercussions on aggregate demand. That might be true, but the bigger the trade war and the more rounds of reciprocal retaliation, the greater the danger of substantial wealth losses and other disruptions. The fall in oil prices over the past year or two was supposed to be a good thing for the world economy. I think that for a lot of reasons reduced oil prices are, on balance, a good thing, but we also have reason to believe that it also had negative effects, especially on financial institutions holding a lot of assets sensitive to the price of oil. A trade war would have all the negatives of a steep decline in oil prices, but none of the positives.

But didn’t the Smoot-Hawley tariff cause the Great Depression? No. There’s no evidence at all that it did. Yes, trade fell a lot between 1929 and 1933, but that was almost entirely a consequence of the Depression, not a cause. (Trade actually fell faster during the early stages of the 2008 Great Recession than it did after 1929.) And while trade barriers were higher in the 1930s than before, this was partly a response to the Depression, partly a consequence of deflation, which made specific tariffs (i.e., tariffs that are stated in dollars per unit, not as a percentage of value) loom larger.

I certainly would not claim to understand fully the effects of the Smoot Hawley tariff, the question of effects being largely an empirical one that I haven’t studied, but I’m not sure that the profession has completely figured out those effects either. I know that Doug Irwin, who wrote the book on the Smoot-Hawley tariff and whose judgment I greatly respect, doesn’t think that Smoot Hawley tariff was a cause of the Great Depression, but that it did make the Depression worse than it would otherwise have been. It certainly was not the chief cause, and I am not even saying that it was a leading cause, but there is certainly a respectable argument to be made that it played a bigger role in the Depression than even Irwin acknowledges.

In brief, the argument is that there was a lot of international debt – especially allied war loans, German war reparations, German local government borrowing during the 1920s. To be able to make their scheduled debt payments, Germany and other debtor nations had to run trade surpluses. Increased tariffs on imported goods meant that, under the restored gold standard of the late 1920s, to run the export surpluses necessary to meet their debt obligations, debtor nations had to reduce their domestic wage levels sufficiently to overcome the rising trade barriers. Germany, of course, was the country most severely affected, and the prospect of German default undoubtedly undermined the solvency of many financial institutions, in Europe and America, with German debt on their balance sheets. In other words, the Smoot Hawley tariff intensified deflationary pressure and financial instability during the Great Depression, notwithstanding the tendency of tariffs to increase prices on protected goods.

Krugman takes a parting shot at Romney:

Protectionism was the only reason he gave for believing that Trump would cause a recession, which I think is kind of telling: the GOP’s supposedly well-informed, responsible adult, trying to save the party, can’t get basic economics right at the one place where economics is central to his argument.

I’m not sure what other reason there is to think that Trump would cause a recession. He is proposing to cut taxes by a lot, and to increase military spending by a lot without cutting entitlements. So given that his fiscal policy seems to be calculated to increase the federal deficit by a lot, what reason, besides starting a trade war, is there to think that Trump would cause a recession? And as I said, right or wrong, Romeny is hardly alone in thinking that trade wars can cause recessions. Indeed, Romney didn’t even mention the Smoot-Hawley tariff, but Krugman evidently forgot the classic exchange between Al Gore and the previous incarnation of protectionist populist outrage in an anti-establishment billionaire candidate for President:

GORE I’ve heard Mr. Perot say in the past that, as the carpenters says, measure twice and cut once. We’ve measured twice on this. We have had a test of our theory and we’ve had a test of his theory. Over the last five years, Mexico’s tariffs have begun to come down because they’ve made a unilateral decision to bring them down some, and as a result there has been a surge of exports from the United States into Mexico, creating an additional 400,000 jobs, and we can create hundreds of thousands of more if we continue this trend. We know this works. If it doesn’t work, you know, we give six months notice and we’re out of it. But we’ve also had a test of his theory.

PEROT When?

GORE In 1930, when the proposal by Mr. Smoot and Mr. Hawley was to raise tariffs across the board to protect our workers. And I brought some pictures, too.

[Larry] KING You’re saying Ross is a protectionist?

GORE This is, this is a picture of Mr. Smoot and Mr. Hawley. They look like pretty good fellows. They sounded reasonable at the time; a lot of people believed them. The Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley Protection Bill. He wants to raise tariffs on Mexico. They raised tariffs, and it was one of the principal causes, many economists say the principal cause, of the Great Depression in this country and around the world. Now, I framed this so you can put it on your wall if you want to.

You can watch it here


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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