Posts Tagged 'Ben Klein'

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.

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The Backing Theory of Money v. the Quantity Theory of Money

Mike Sproul and Scott Sumner were arguing last week about how to account for the value of fiat money and the rate of inflation. As I observed in a recent post, I am doubtful that monetary theory, in its current state, can handle those issues adequately, so I am glad to see that others are trying to think the problems through even if the result is only to make clear how much we don’t know. Both Mike and Scott are very smart guys, and I find some validity in the arguments of both even if I am not really satisfied with the arguments of either.

Mike got things rolling with a guest post on JP Koning’s blog in which he lodged two complaints against Scott:

First, “Scott thinks that the liabilities of governments and central banks are not really liabilities.”

I see two problems with Mike’s first complaint. First, Mike is not explicit about which liabilities he is referring to. However, from the context of his discussion, it seems clear that he is talking about those liabilities that we normally call currency, or in the case of the Federal Reserve, Federal Reserve Notes. Second, and more important, it is not clear what definition of “liability” Mike is using. In a technical sense, as Mike observes, Federal Reserve Notes are classified by the Fed itself as liabilities. But what does it mean for a Federal Reserve Note to be a liability of the Fed? A liability implies that an obligation has been undertaken by someone to be discharged under certain defined conditions. What is the obligation undertaken by the Fed upon issuing a Federal Reserve Note. Under the gold standard, the Fed was legally obligated to redeem its Notes for gold at a fixed predetermined conversion rate. After the gold standard was suspended, that obligation was nullified. What obligation did the Fed accept in place of the redemption obligation? Here’s Mike’s answer:

But there are at least three other ways that FRN’s can still be redeemed: (i) for the Fed’s bonds, (ii) for loans made by the Fed, (iii) for taxes owed to the federal government. The Fed closed one channel of redemption (the gold channel), while the other redemption channels (loan, tax, and bond) were left open.

Those are funny obligations inasmuch as there are no circumstances under which they require the Fed to take any action. The purchase of a Fed (Treasury?) bond at the going market price imposes no obligation on the Fed to do anything except what it is already doing anyway. For there to be an obligation resulting from the issue by the Fed of a note, it would have been necessary for the terms of the transaction following upon the original issue to have been stipulated in advance. But the terms on which the Fed engages in transactions with the public are determined by market forces not by contractual obligation. The same point applies to loans made by the Fed. When the Fed makes a loan, it emits FRNs. The willingness of the Fed to accept FRNs previously emitted in the course of making loans as repayment of those loans doesn’t strike me as an obligation associated with its issue of FRNs. Finally, the fact that the federal government accepts (or requires) payment of tax obligations in FRNs is a decision of the Federal government to which the Fed as a matter of strict legality is not a party. So it seems to me that the technical status of an FRN as a liability of the Fed is a semantic or accounting oddity rather than a substantive property of a FRN.

Having said that, I think that Mike actually does make a substantive point about FRNs, which is that FRNs are not necessarily hot potatoes in the strict quantity-theory sense. There are available channels through which the public can remit its unwanted FRNs back to the Fed. The economic question is whether those means of sending unwanted FRNs back to the Fed are as effective in pinning down the price level as an enforceable legal obligation undertaken by the Fed to redeem FRNs at a predetermined exchange rate in terms of gold. Mike suggests that the alternative mechanisms by which the public can dispose of unwanted FRNs are as effective as gold convertibility in pinning down the price level. I think that assertion is implausible, and it remains to be proved, though I am willing to keep an open mind on the subject.

Now let’s consider Mike’s second complaint: “Scott thinks that if the central bank issues more money, then the money will lose value even if the money is fully backed.”

My first reaction is to ask what it means for money to be “fully backed?” Since it is not clear in what sense the inconvertible note issue of a central bank represents a liability of the issuing bank, it is also not exactly clear why any backing is necessary, or what backing means, though I will try to suggest in a moment a reason why the assets of the central bank actually do matter. But again the point is that, when a liability does not impose a well-defined legal obligation on the central bank to redeem that liability at a predetermined rate in terms of an asset whose supply the central bank does not itself control, the notion of “backing” is as vague as the notion of a “liability.” The difference between a liability that imposes no effective constraint on a central bank and one that does impose an effective constraint on a central bank is the difference between what Nick Rowe calls an alpha bank, which does not make its notes convertible into another asset (real or monetary) not under its control, and what he calls a beta bank, which does make its liabilities convertible into another asset (real or monetary) not under its control.

Now one way to interpret “backing” is to look at all the assets on the balance sheet of the central bank and compare the value of those assets to the value of the outstanding notes issued by the central bank. Sometimes I think that this is really all that Mike means when he talks about “backing,” but I am not really sure. At any rate, if we think of backing in this vague sense, maybe what Mike wants to say is that the value of the outstanding note issue of the central bank is equal to the value of its assets divided by the amount of notes that it has issued. But if this really is what Mike means, then it seems that the aggregate value of the outstanding notes of the central bank must always equal the value of the assets of the central bank. But there is a problem with that notion of “backing” as well, because the equality in the value of the assets of the central bank and its liabilities can be achieved at any price level, and at any rate of inflation, because an increase in prices will scale up the nominal value of outstanding notes and the value of central-bank assets by the same amount. Without providing some nominal anchor, which, as far as I can tell, Mike has not done, the price level is indeterminate. Now to be sure, this is no reason for quantity theorist like Scott to feel overly self-satisfied, because the quantity theory is subject to the same indeterminacy. And while Mike seems absolutely convinced that the backing theory is superior to the quantity theory, he himself admits that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between the two theories in terms of their empirical implications.

Let me now consider a slightly different way in which the value of the assets on the balance sheet of a central bank could affect the value of the money issued by the central bank. I would suggest, along the lines of an argument made by Ben Klein many years ago in some of his papers on competitive moneys (e.g. this one), that it is meaningful to talk about the quality of the money issued by a particular bank. In Klein’s terms, the quality of a money reflects the confidence with which people can predict the future value of a money. It’s plausible to assume that the demand (in real terms) to hold money increases with the quality of money. Certainly people will tend to switch form holding lower- to higher-quality moneys. I think that it’s also plausible to assume that the quality of a particular money issued by a central bank increases as the value of the assets held by the central bank increases, because the larger the asset portfolio of the issuer, the more likely it is that the issuer will control the value of the money that it has issued. (This goes to Mike’s point that a central bank has to hold enough assets to buy back its currency if the demand for it goes down. Actually it doesn’t, but people will be more willing to hold a money the larger the stock of assets held by the issuer with which it can buy back its money to prevent it from losing value.) I think that is ultimately the idea that Mike is trying to get at when he talks about “backing.” So I would interpret Mike as saying that the quality of a money is an increasing function of the total asset holdings of the central bank issuing the money, and the demand for a money is an increasing function of its quality. Such an adjustment in Mike’s backing theory just might help to bring the backing theory and the quantity theory into a closer correspondence than one might gather from reading the back and forth between Mike and Scott last week.

PS Mike was kind enough to quote my argument about the problem that backward induction poses for the standard explanation of the value of fiat money. Scott once again dismisses the problem by saying that the problem can be avoided by assuming that no one knows when the last period is. I agree that that is a possible answer, but it means that the value of fiat money is contingent on a violation of rational expectations and the efficient market hypothesis. I am sort of surprised that Scott, of all people, would be so nonchalant about accepting such a violation. But I’ve already said enough about that for now.


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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