Posts Tagged 'Fischer Black'

Neo-Fisherism and All That

A few weeks ago Michael Woodford and his Columbia colleague Mariana Garcia-Schmidt made an initial response to the Neo-Fisherian argument advanced by, among others, John Cochrane and Stephen Williamson that a central bank can achieve its inflation target by pegging its interest-rate instrument at a rate such that if the expected inflation rate is the inflation rate targeted by the central bank, the Fisher equation would be satisfied. In other words, if the central bank wants 2% inflation, it should set the interest rate instrument under its control at the Fisherian real rate of interest (aka the natural rate) plus 2% expected inflation. So if the Fisherian real rate is 2%, the central bank should set its interest-rate instrument (Fed Funds rate) at 4%, because, in equilibrium – and, under rational expectations, that is the only policy-relevant solution of the model – inflation expectations must satisfy the Fisher equation.

The Neo-Fisherians believe that, by way of this insight, they have overturned at least two centuries of standard monetary theory, dating back at least to Henry Thornton, instructing the monetary authorities to raise interest rates to combat inflation and to reduce interest rates to counter deflation. According to the Neo-Fisherian Revolution, this was all wrong: the way to reduce inflation is for the monetary authority to reduce the setting on its interest-rate instrument and the way to counter deflation is to raise the setting on the instrument. That is supposedly why the Fed, by reducing its Fed Funds target practically to zero, has locked us into a low-inflation environment.

Unwilling to junk more than 200 years of received doctrine on the basis, not of a behavioral relationship, but a reduced-form equilibrium condition containing no information about the direction of causality, few monetary economists and no policy makers have become devotees of the Neo-Fisherian Revolution. Nevertheless, the Neo-Fisherian argument has drawn enough attention to elicit a response from Michael Woodford, who is the go-to monetary theorist for monetary-policy makers. The Woodford-Garcia-Schmidt (hereinafter WGS) response (for now just a slide presentation) has already been discussed by Noah Smith, Nick Rowe, Scott Sumner, Brad DeLong, Roger Farmer and John Cochrane. Nick Rowe’s discussion, not surprisingly, is especially penetrating in distilling the WGS presentation into its intuitive essence.

Using Nick’s discussion as a starting point, I am going to offer some comments of my own on Neo-Fisherism and the WGS critique. Right off the bat, WGS concede that it is possible that by increasing the setting of its interest-rate instrument, a central bank could, move the economy from one rational-expectations equilibrium to another, the only difference between the two being that inflation in the second would differ from inflation in the first by an amount exactly equal to the difference in the corresponding settings of the interest-rate instrument. John Cochrane apparently feels pretty good about having extracted this concession from WGS, remarking

My first reaction is relief — if Woodford says it is a prediction of the standard perfect foresight / rational expectations version, that means I didn’t screw up somewhere. And if one has to resort to learning and non-rational expectations to get rid of a result, the battle is half won.

And my first reaction to Cochrane’s first reaction is: why only half? What else is there to worry about besides a comparison of rational-expectations equilibria? Well, let Cochrane read Nick Rowe’s blogpost. If he did, he might realize that if you do no more than compare alternative steady-state equilibria, ignoring the path leading from one equilibrium to the other, you miss just about everything that makes macroeconomics worth studying (by the way I do realize the question-begging nature of that remark). Of course that won’t necessarily bother Cochrane, because, like other practitioners of modern macroeconomics, he has convinced himself that it is precisely by excluding everything but rational-expectations equilibria from consideration that modern macroeconomics has made what its practitioners like to think of as progress, and what its critics regard as the opposite .

But Nick Rowe actually takes the trouble to show what might happen if you try to specify the path by which you could get from rational-expectations equilibrium A with the interest-rate instrument of the central bank set at i to rational-expectations equilibrium B with the interest-rate instrument of the central bank set at i ­+ ε. If you try to specify a process of trial-and-error (tatonnement) that leads from A to B, you will almost certainly fail, your only chance being to get it right on your first try. And, as Nick further points out, the very notion of a tatonnement process leading from one equilibrium to another is a huge stretch, because, in the real world there are “no backs” as there are in tatonnement. If you enter into an exchange, you can’t nullify it, as is the case under tatonnement, just because the price you agreed on turns out not to have been an equilibrium price. For there to be a tatonnement path from the first equilibrium that converges on the second requires that monetary authority set its interest-rate instrument in the conventional, not the Neo-Fisherian, manner, using variations in the real interest rate as a lever by which to nudge the economy onto a path leading to a new equilibrium rather than away from it.

The very notion that you don’t have to worry about the path by which you get from one equilibrium to another is so bizarre that it would be merely laughable if it were not so dangerous. Kenneth Boulding used to tell a story about a physicist, a chemist and an economist stranded on a desert island with nothing to eat except a can of food, but nothing to open the can with. The physicist and the chemist tried to figure out a way to open the can, but the economist just said: “assume a can opener.” But I wonder if even Boulding could have imagined the disconnect from reality embodied in the Neo-Fisherian argument.

Having registered my disapproval of Neo-Fisherism, let me now reverse field and make some critical comments about the current state of non-Neo-Fisherian monetary theory, and what makes it vulnerable to off-the-wall ideas like Neo-Fisherism. The important fact to consider about the past two centuries of monetary theory that I referred to above is that for at least three-quarters of that time there was a basic default assumption that the value of money was ultimately governed by the value of some real commodity, usually either silver or gold (or even both). There could be temporary deviations between the value of money and the value of the monetary standard, but because there was a standard, the value of gold or silver provided a benchmark against which the value of money could always be reckoned. I am not saying that this was either a good way of thinking about the value of money or a bad way; I am just pointing out that this was metatheoretical background governing how people thought about money.

Even after the final collapse of the gold standard in the mid-1930s, there was a residue of metalism that remained, people still calculating values in terms of gold equivalents and the value of currency in terms of its gold price. Once the gold standard collapsed, it was inevitable that these inherited habits of thinking about money would eventually give way to new ways of thinking, and it took another 40 years or so, until the official way of thinking about the value of money finally eliminated any vestige of the gold mentality. In our age of enlightenment, no sane person any longer thinks about the value of money in terms of gold or silver equivalents.

But the problem for monetary theory is that, without a real-value equivalent to assign to money, the value of money in our macroeconomic models became theoretically indeterminate. If the value of money is theoretically indeterminate, so, too, is the rate of inflation. The value of money and the rate of inflation are simply, as Fischer Black understood, whatever people in the aggregate expect them to be. Nevertheless, our basic mental processes for understanding how central banks can use an interest-rate instrument to control the value of money are carryovers from an earlier epoch when the value of money was determined, most of the time and in most places, by convertibility, either actual or expected, into gold or silver. The interest-rate instrument of central banks was not primarily designed as a method for controlling the value of money; it was the mechanism by which the central bank could control the amount of reserves on its balance sheet and the amount of gold or silver in its vaults. There was only an indirect connection – at least until the 1920s — between a central bank setting its interest-rate instrument to control its balance sheet and the effect on prices and inflation. The rules of monetary policy developed under a gold standard are not necessarily applicable to an economic system in which the value of money is fundamentally indeterminate.

Viewed from this perspective, the Neo-Fisherian Revolution appears as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the present confused state of monetary theory in which the price level and the rate of inflation are entirely subjective and determined totally by expectations.


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.

John Cochrane on the Failure of Macroeconomics

The state of modern macroeconomics is not good; John Cochrane, professor of finance at the University of Chicago, senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, and adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute, writing in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, thinks macroeconomics is a failure. Perhaps so, but he has trouble explaining why.

The problem that Cochrane is chiefly focused on is slow growth.

Output per capita fell almost 10 percentage points below trend in the 2008 recession. It has since grown at less than 1.5%, and lost more ground relative to trend. Cumulative losses are many trillions of dollars, and growing. And the latest GDP report disappoints again, declining in the first quarter.

Sclerotic growth trumps every other economic problem. Without strong growth, our children and grandchildren will not see the great rise in health and living standards that we enjoy relative to our parents and grandparents. Without growth, our government’s already questionable ability to pay for health care, retirement and its debt evaporate. Without growth, the lot of the unfortunate will not improve. Without growth, U.S. military strength and our influence abroad must fade.

Macroeconomists offer two possible explanations for slow growth: a) too little demand — correctable through monetary or fiscal stimulus — and b) structural rigidities and impediments to growth, for which stimulus is no remedy. Cochrane is not a fan of the demand explanation.

The “demand” side initially cited New Keynesian macroeconomic models. In this view, the economy requires a sharply negative real (after inflation) rate of interest. But inflation is only 2%, and the Federal Reserve cannot lower interest rates below zero. Thus the current negative 2% real rate is too high, inducing people to save too much and spend too little.

New Keynesian models have also produced attractively magical policy predictions. Government spending, even if financed by taxes, and even if completely wasted, raises GDP. Larry Summers and Berkeley’s Brad DeLong write of a multiplier so large that spending generates enough taxes to pay for itself. Paul Krugman writes that even the “broken windows fallacy ceases to be a fallacy,” because replacing windows “can stimulate spending and raise employment.”

If you look hard at New-Keynesian models, however, this diagnosis and these policy predictions are fragile. There are many ways to generate the models’ predictions for GDP, employment and inflation from their underlying assumptions about how people behave. Some predict outsize multipliers and revive the broken-window fallacy. Others generate normal policy predictions—small multipliers and costly broken windows. None produces our steady low-inflation slump as a “demand” failure.

Cochrane’s characterization of what’s wrong with New Keynesian models is remarkably superficial. Slow growth, according to the New Keynesian model, is caused by the real interest rate being insufficiently negative, with the nominal rate at zero and inflation at (less than) 2%. So what is the problem? True, the nominal rate can’t go below zero, but where is it written that the upper bound on inflation is (or must be) 2%? Cochrane doesn’t say. Not only doesn’t he say, he doesn’t even seem interested. It might be that something really terrible would happen if the rate of inflation rose about 2%, but if so, Cochrane or somebody needs to explain why terrible calamities did not befall us during all those comparatively glorious bygone years when the rate of inflation consistently exceeded 2% while real economic growth was at least a percentage point higher than it is now. Perhaps, like Fischer Black, Cochrane believes that the rate of inflation has nothing to do with monetary or fiscal policy. But that is certainly not the standard interpretation of the New Keynesian model that he is using as the archetype for modern demand-management macroeconomic theories. And if Cochrane does believe that the rate of inflation is not determined by either monetary policy or fiscal policy, he ought to come out and say so.

Cochrane thinks that persistent low inflation and low growth together pose a problem for New Keynesian theories. Indeed it does, but it doesn’t seem that a radical revision of New Keynesian theory would be required to cope with that state of affairs. Cochrane thinks otherwise.

These problems [i.e., a steady low-inflation slump, aka “secular stagnation”] are recognized, and now academics such as Brown University’s Gauti Eggertsson and Neil Mehrotra are busy tweaking the models to address them. Good. But models that someone might get to work in the future are not ready to drive trillions of dollars of public expenditure.

In other words, unless the economic model has already been worked out before a particular economic problem arises, no economic policy conclusions may be deduced from that economic model. May I call  this Cochrane’s rule?

Cochrane the proceeds to accuse those who look to traditional Keynesian ideas of rejecting science.

The reaction in policy circles to these problems is instead a full-on retreat, not just from the admirable rigor of New Keynesian modeling, but from the attempt to make economics scientific at all.

Messrs. DeLong and Summers and Johns Hopkins’s Laurence Ball capture this feeling well, writing in a recent paper that “the appropriate new thinking is largely old thinking: traditional Keynesian ideas of the 1930s to 1960s.” That is, from before the 1960s when Keynesian thinking was quantified, fed into computers and checked against data; and before the 1970s, when that check failed, and other economists built new and more coherent models. Paul Krugman likewise rails against “generations of economists” who are “viewing the world through a haze of equations.”

Well, maybe they’re right. Social sciences can go off the rails for 50 years. I think Keynesian economics did just that. But if economics is as ephemeral as philosophy or literature, then it cannot don the mantle of scientific expertise to demand trillions of public expenditure.

This is political rhetoric wrapped in a cloak of scientific objectivity. We don’t have the luxury of knowing in advance what the consequences of our actions will be. The United States has spent trillions of dollars on all kinds of stuff over the past dozen years or so. A lot of it has not worked out well at all. So it is altogether fitting and proper for us to be skeptical about whether we will get our money’s worth for whatever the government proposes to spend on our behalf. But Cochrane’s implicit demand that money only be spent if there is some sort of scientific certainty that the money will be well spent can never be met. However, as Larry Summers has pointed out, there are certainly many worthwhile infrastructure projects that could be undertaken, so the risk of committing the “broken windows fallacy” is small. With the government able to borrow at negative real interest rates, the present value of funding such projects is almost certainly positive. So one wonders what is the scientific basis for not funding those projects?

Cochrane compares macroeconomics to climate science:

The climate policy establishment also wants to spend trillions of dollars, and cites scientific literature, imperfect and contentious as that literature may be. Imagine how much less persuasive they would be if they instead denied published climate science since 1975 and bemoaned climate models’ “haze of equations”; if they told us to go back to the complex writings of a weather guru from the 1930s Dustbowl, as they interpret his writings. That’s the current argument for fiscal stimulus.

Cochrane writes as if there were some important scientific breakthrough made by modern macroeconomics — “the new and more coherent models,” either the New Keynesian version of New Classical macroeconomics or Real Business Cycle Theory — that rendered traditional Keynesian economics obsolete or outdated. I have never been a devote of Keynesian economics, but the fact is that modern macroeconomics has achieved its ascendancy in academic circles almost entirely by way of a misguided methodological preference for axiomatized intertemporal optimization models for which a unique equilibrium solution can be found by imposing the empirically risible assumption of rational expectations. These models, whether in their New Keynesian or Real Business Cycle versions, do not generate better empirical predictions than the old fashioned Keynesian models, and, as Noah Smith has usefully pointed out, these models have been consistently rejected by private forecasters in favor of the traditional Keynesian models. It is only the dominant clique of ivory-tower intellectuals that cultivate and nurture these models. The notion that such models are entitled to any special authority or scientific status is based on nothing but the exaggerated self-esteem that is characteristic of almost every intellectual clique, particularly dominant ones.

Having rejected inadequate demand as a cause of slow growth, Cochrane, relying on no model and no evidence, makes a pitch for uncertainty as the source of slow growth.

Where, instead, are the problems? John Taylor, Stanford’s Nick Bloom and Chicago Booth’s Steve Davis see the uncertainty induced by seat-of-the-pants policy at fault. Who wants to hire, lend or invest when the next stroke of the presidential pen or Justice Department witch hunt can undo all the hard work? Ed Prescott emphasizes large distorting taxes and intrusive regulations. The University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan deconstructs the unintended disincentives of social programs. And so forth. These problems did not cause the recession. But they are worse now, and they can impede recovery and retard growth.

Where, one wonders, is the science on which this sort of seat-of-the-pants speculation is based? Is there any evidence, for example, that the tax burden on businesses or individuals is greater now than it was let us say in 1983-85 when, under President Reagan, the economy, despite annual tax increases partially reversing the 1981 cuts enacted in Reagan’s first year, began recovering rapidly from the 1981-82 recession?

The Uselessness of the Money Multiplier as Brilliantly Elucidated by Nick Rowe

Not long after I started blogging over two and a half years ago, Nick Rowe and I started a friendly argument about the money multiplier. He likes it; I don’t. In his latest post (“Alpha banks, beta banks, fixed exchange rates, market shares, and the money multiplier”), Nick attempts (well, sort of) to defend the money multiplier. Nick has indeed figured out an ingenious way of making sense out of the concept, but in doing so, he has finally and definitively demonstrated its total uselessness.

How did Nick accomplish this remarkable feat? By explaining that there is no significant difference between a commercial bank that denominates its deposits in terms of a central bank currency, thereby committing itself to make its deposits redeemable on demand into a corresponding amount of central bank currency, and a central bank that commits to maintain a fixed exchange rate between its currency and the currency of another central bank — the commitment to a fixed exchange rate being unilateral and one-sided, so that only one of the central banks (the beta bank) is constrained by its unilateral commitment to a fixed exchange rate, while the other central bank (the alpha bank) is free from commitment to an exchange-rate peg.

Just suppose the US Fed, for reasons unknown, pegged the exchange rate of the US dollar to the Canadian dollar. The Fed makes a promise to ensure the US dollar will always be directly or indirectly convertible into Canadian dollars at par. The Bank of Canada makes no commitment the other way. The Bank of Canada does whatever it wants to do. The Fed has to do whatever it needs to do to keep the exchange rate fixed.

For example, just suppose, for reasons unknown, the Bank of Canada decided to double the Canadian price level, then go back to targeting 2% inflation. If it wanted to keep the exchange rate fixed at par, the Fed would need to follow along, and double the US price level too, otherwise the US dollar would appreciate against the Canadian dollar. The Fed’s promise to fix the exchange rate makes the Bank of Canada the alpha bank and the Fed the beta bank. Both Canadian and US monetary policy would be decided in Ottawa. It’s asymmetric redeemability that gives the Bank of Canada its power over the Fed.

Absolutely right! Under these assumptions, the amount of money created by the Fed would be governed, among other things, by its commitment to maintain the exchange-rate peg between the US dollar and the Canadian dollar. However, the numerical relationship between the quantity of US dollars and quantity of Canadian dollars would depend on the demand of US (and possibly Canadian) citizens and residents to hold US dollars. The more US dollars people want to hold, the more dollars the Fed can create.

Nick then goes on to make the following astonishing (for him) assertion.

Doubling the Canadian price level would mean approximately doubling the supplies of all Canadian monies, including the money issued by the Bank of Canada. Doubling the US price level would mean approximately doubling the supplies of all US monies, including the money issued by the Fed. Because the demand for money is proportional to the price level.

In other words, given the price level, the quantity of money adjusts to whatever is the demand for it, the price level being determined unilaterally by the unconstrained (aka “alpha”) central bank.

To see how astonishing (for Nick) this assertion is, consider the following passage from Perry Mehrling’s superb biography of Fischer Black. Mehrling devotes an entire chapter (“The Money Wars”) to the relationship between Black and Milton Friedman. Black came to Chicago as a professor in the Business School, and tried to get Friedman interested in his idea the quantity of money supplied by the banking system adjusted passively to the amount demanded. Friedman dismissed the idea as preposterous, a repetition of the discredited “real bills doctrine,” considered by Friedman to be fallacy long since refuted (definitively) by his teacher Lloyd Mints in his book A History of Banking Theory. Friedman dismissed Black and told him to read Mints, and when Black, newly arrived at Chicago in 1971, presented a paper at the Money Workshop at Chicago, Friedman introduced Black as follows:

Fischer Black will be presenting his paper today on money in a two-sector model. We all know that the paper is wrong. We have two hours to work out why it is wrong.

Mehrling describes the nub of the disagreement between Friedman and Black this way:

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

Well, we now see that Nick Rowe has come down squarely on the side of, gasp, Fischer Black against Milton Friedman. “Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles!”

But despite making that break with his Monetarist roots, Nick isn’t yet quite ready to let go, lapsing once again into money-multiplier talk.

The money issued by the Bank of Canada (mostly currency, with a very small quantity of reserves) is a very small share of the total Canadian+US money supply. What exactly that share would be would depend on how exactly you define “money”. Let’s say it’s 1% of the total. The total Canadian+US money supply would increase by 100 times the amount of new money issued by the Bank of Canada. The money multiplier would be the reciprocal of the Bank of Canada’s share in the total Canadian+US money supply. 1/1%=100.

Maybe the US Fed keeps reserves of Bank of Canada dollars, to help it keep the exchange rate fixed. Or maybe it doesn’t. But it doesn’t matter.

Do loans create deposits, or do deposits create loans? Yes. Neither. But it doesn’t matter.

The only thing that does matter is the Bank of Canada’s market share, and whether it stays constant. And which bank is the alpha bank and which bank is the beta bank.

So in Nick’s world, the money multiplier is just the reciprocal of the market share. In other words, the money multiplier simply reflects the relative quantities demanded of different monies. That’s not the money multiplier that I was taught in econ 2, and that’s not the money multiplier propounded by Monetarists for the past century. The point of the money multiplier is to take the equation of exchange, MV=PQ, underlying the quantity theory of money in which M stands for some measure of the aggregate quantity of money that supposedly determines what P is. The Monetarists then say that the monetary authority controls P because it controls M. True, since the rise of modern banking, most of the money actually used is not produced by the monetary authority, but by private banks, but the money multiplier allows all the privately produced money to be attributed to the monetary authority, the broad money supply being mechanically related to the monetary base so that M = kB, where M is the M in the equation of exchange and B is the monetary base. Since the monetary authority unquestionably controls B, it therefore controls M and therefore controls P.

The point of the money multiplier is to provide a rationale for saying: “sure, we know that banks create a lot of money, and we don’t really understand what governs the amount of money banks create, but whatever amount of money banks create, that amount is ultimately under the control of the monetary authority, the amount being some multiple of the monetary base. So it’s still as if the central bank decides what M is, so that it really is OK to say that the central bank can control the price level even though M in the quantity equation is not really produced by the central bank. M is exogenously determined, because there is a money multiplier that relates M to B. If that is unclear, I’m sorry, but that’s what the Monetarists have been saying all these years.

Who cares, anyway? Well, all the people that fell for Friedman’s notion (traceable to the General Theory by the way) that monetary policy works by controlling the quantity of money produced by the banking system. Somehow Monetarists like Friedman who was pushing his dumb k% rule for monetary growth thought that it was important to be able to show that the quantity of money could be controlled by the monetary authority. Otherwise, the whole rationale for the k% rule would be manifestly based based on a faulty — actually vacuous — premise. The post-Keynesian exogenous endogenous-money movement was an equally misguided reaction to Friedman’s Monetarist nonsense, taking for granted that if they could show that the money multiplier and the idea that the central bank could control the quantity of money were unfounded, it would follow that inflation is not a monetary phenomenon and is beyond the power of a central bank to control. The two propositions are completely independent of one another, and all the sturm und drang of the last 40 years about endogenous money has been a complete waste of time, an argument about a non-issue. Whether the central bank can control the price level has nothing to do with whether there is or isn’t a multiplier. Get over it.

Nick recognizes this:

The simple money multiplier story is a story about market shares, and about beta banks fixing their exchange rates to the alpha bank. If all banks expand together, their market shares stay the same. But if one bank expands alone, it must persuade the market to be willing to hold an increased share of its money and a reduced share of some other banks’ monies, otherwise it will be forced to redeem its money for other banks’ monies, or else suffer a depreciation of its exchange rate. Unless that bank is the alpha bank, to which all the beta banks fix their exchange rates. It is the beta banks’ responsibility to keep their exchange rates fixed to the alpha bank. The Law of Reflux ensures that an individual beta bank cannot overissue its money beyond the share the market desires to hold. The alpha bank can do whatever it likes, because it makes no promise to keep its exchange rate fixed.

It’s all about the public’s demand for money, and their relative preferences for holding one money or another. The alpha central bank may or may not be able to achieve some targeted value for its money, but whether it can or can not has nothing to do with its ability to control the quantity of money created by the beta banks that are committed to an exchange rate peg against  the money of the alpha bank. In other words, the money multiplier is a completely useless concept, as useless as a multiplier between, say, the quantity of white Corvettes the total quantity of Corvettes. From now on, I’m going to call this Rowe’s Theorem. Nick, you’re the man!

Why Hawtrey and Cassel Trump Friedman and Schwartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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