Posts Tagged 'Bank Charter Act'

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.

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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.

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.

uk_rpi_1825-50

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.


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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