Posts Tagged 'General Theory'

Keynes and Hawtrey: The General Theory

Before pausing for an interlude about the dueling reviews of Hayek and Hawtrey on each other’s works in the February 1932 issue of Economica, I had taken my discussion of the long personal and professional relationship between Hawtrey and Keynes through Hawtrey’s review of Keynes’s Treatise on Money. The review was originally written as a Treasury document for Hawtrey’s superiors at the Treasury (and eventually published in slightly revised form as chapter six of The Art of Central Banking), but Hawtrey sent it almost immediately to Keynes. Although Hawtrey subjected Keynes’s key analytical result in the Treatise — his fundamental equations, relating changes in the price level to the difference between savings and investment — to sharp criticism, Keynes responded to Hawtrey’s criticisms with (possibly uncharacteristic) good grace, writing back to Hawtrey: “it is very seldom indeed that an author can expect to get as a criticism anything so tremendously useful to himself,” adding that he was “working it out all over again.” What Keynes was working out all over again of course eventually evolved into his General Theory.

Probably because Keynes had benefited so much from Hawtrey’s comments on and criticisms of the Treatise, which he received only shortly before delivering the final draft to the publisher, Keynes began sending Hawtrey early drafts of the General Theory instead of waiting, as he had when writing the Treatise, till the book was almost done. There was thus a protracted period of debate and argument between Keynes and Hawtrey over the General Theory, a process that clearly frustrated and annoyed Keynes, though he never actually terminated the discussion with Hawtrey. “Hawtrey,” Keynes wrote to his wife in 1933, “was very sweet to the last but quite mad. One can argue with him a long time on a perfectly sane and interesting basis and then, suddenly, one is in a madhouse.” On the accuracy of that characterization, I cannot comment, but clearly the two Cambridge Apostles were failing to communicate.

The General Theory was published in February 1936, and hardly a month had passed before Hawtrey shared his thoughts about the General Theory with his Treasury colleagues. (Hawtrey subsequently published the review in his collection of essays Capital and Employment.) Hawtrey began by expressing his doubts about Keynes’s attempt to formulate an alternative theory of interest based on liquidity preference in place of the classical theory based on time preference and productivity.

According to [Keynes], the rate of interest is to be regarded not as the reward of abstaining from consumption or of “waiting”, but as the reward of forgoing liquidity. By tying up their savings in investments people forgo liquidity, and the extent to which they are willing to do so will depend on the rate of interest. Anyone’s “liquidity preference” is a function relating the amount of his resources which he will wish ot retain in the form of money to different sets of circumstances, and among those circumstances will be the rate of interest. . . . The supply of money determines the rate of interest, and the rate of interest so determined governs the volume of capital outlay.

As in his criticism of the fundamental equations of the Treatise, Hawtrey was again sharply critical of Keynes’s tendency to argue from definitions rather than from causal relationships.

[A]n essential step in [Keynes’s] train of reasoning is the proposition that investment an saving are necessarily equal. That proposition Mr. Keynes never really establishes; he evades the necessity doing so by defining investment and saving as different names for the same thing. He so defines income to be the same thing as output, and therefore, if investment is the excess of output over consumption, and saving is the excess of income over consumption, the two are identical. Identity so established cannot prove anything. The idea that a tendency for investment and saving to become different has to be counteracted by an expansion or contraction of the total of incomes is an absurdity; such a tendency cannot strain the economic system, it can only strain Mr. Keynes’s vocabulary. [quoted by Alan Gaukroger “The Director of Financial Enquiries A Study of the Treasury Career of R. G. Hawtrey, 1919-1939.” pp. 507-08]

But despite the verbal difference between them, Keynes and Hawtrey held a common view that the rate of interest might be too high to allow full employment. Keynes argued that liquidity preference could prevent monetary policy from reducing the rate of interest to a level at which there would be enough private investment spending to generate full employment. Hawtrey held a similar view, except that, according to Hawtrey, the barrier to a sufficient reduction in the rate of interest to allow full employment was not liquidity preference, but a malfunctioning international monetary system under a gold-standard, or fixed-exchange rate, regime. For any country operating under a fixed-exchange-rate or balance-of-payments constraint, the interest rate has to be held at a level consistent with maintaining the gold-standard parity. But that interest rate depends on the interest rates that other countries are setting. Thus, a country may find itself in a situation in which the interest rate consistent with full employment is inconsistent with maintaining its gold-standard parity. Indeed all countries on a gold standard or a fixed exchange rate regime may have interest rates too high for full employment, but each one may feel that it can’t reduce its own interest rate without endangering its exchange-rate parity.

Under the gold standard in the 1920s and 1930s, Hawtrey argued, interest rates were chronically too high to allow full employment, and no country was willing to risk unilaterally reducing its own interest rates, lest it provoke a balance-of-payments crisis. After the 1929 crash, even though interest rates came down, they came down too slowly to stimulate a recovery, because no country would cut interest rates as much and as fast as necessary out of fear doing so would trigger a currency crisis. From 1925, when Britain rejoined the gold standard, to 1931 when Britain left the gold standard, Hawtrey never stopped arguing for lower interest rates, because he was convinced that credit expansion was the only way to increase output and employment. The Bank of England would lose gold, but Hawtrey argued that the point of a gold reserve was to use it when it was necessary. By emitting gold, the Bank of England would encourage other countries to ease their monetary policies and follow England in reducing their interest rates. That, at any rate, is what Hawtrey hoped would happen. Perhaps he was wrong in that hope; we will never know. But even if he was, the outcome would certainly not have been any worse than what resulted from the policy that Hawtrey opposed.

To the contemporary observer, the sense of déjà vu is palpable.

Keynes and Hawtrey: The Treatise on Money and Discovering the Multiplier

In my previous post on Keynes and Hawtrey, I tried to show the close resemblance between their upbringing and education and early careers. It becomes apparent that Keynes’s brilliance, and perhaps also his more distinguished family connections, had already enabled Keynes to begin overshadowing Hawtrey, four years his senior, as Keynes was approaching his thirties, and by 1919, when Hawtrey was turning 40, Keynes, having achieved something close to superstardom with the publication of The Econoomic Consequences of the Peace, had clearly eclipsed Hawtrey as a public figure, though as a pure monetary theoretician Hawtrey still had a claim to be the more influential of the two. For most of the 1920s, their relative standing did not change greatly, Hawtrey writing prolifically for economics journals as well as several volumes on monetary theory and a general treatise on economics, but without making much of an impression on broader public opinion, while Keynes, who continued to write primarily for a non-professional, though elite, audience, had the much higher public profile.

In the mid-1920s Keynes began writing his first systematic work on monetary theory and policy, the Treatise on Money. The extent to which Keynes communicated with Hawtrey about the Treatise in the five or six years during which he was working on it is unknown to me, but Keynes did send Hawtrey the proofs of the Treatise (totaling over 700 pages) in installments between April and July 1930. Hawtrey sent Keynes detailed comments, which Keynes later called “tremendously useful,” but, except for some minor points, Keynes could not incorporate most of the lengthy comments, criticisms or suggestions he received from Hawtrey before sending the final version of the Treatise to the publisher on September 14. Keynes did not mention Hawtrey in the preface to the Treatise, in which D. H. Robertson, R. F. Kahn, and H. D. Henderson were acknowledged for their assistance. Hawtrey would be mentioned along with Kahn, Joan Robinson, and Roy Harrod in the preface to the General Theory, but Hawtrey’s role in the preparation of the General Theory will be the subject of my next installment in this series. Hawtrey published his comments on the Treatise in his 1932 volume The Art of Central Banking.

Not long after the Treatise was published, and almost immediately subjected to critical reviews by Robertson and Hayek, among others, Keynes made it known that he was dissatisfied with the argument of the Treatise, and began work on what would eventually evolve into the General Theory. Hawtrey’s discussion was especially notable for two criticisms.  First Hawtrey explained that Keynes’s argument that an excess of investment over saving caused prices to rise was in fact a tautology entailed by Keynes’s definition of savings and investment.

[T]he fundamental equations disclose . . . that the price level is composed of two terms, one of which is cost per unit and the other is the difference between price and cost per unit.

Thus the difference between saving and investment is simply another name for the windfall gains or losses or for the difference between prices and costs of output. Throughout the Treatise Mr. Keynes adduces a divergence between saving and investment as the criterion of a departure from monetary equilibrium. But this criterion is nothing more or less than a divergence between prices and costs. Though the criterion ostensibly depends on two economic activities, “investment” and “saving,” it depends in reality not on them but on movements of the price level relative to costs.

That does not mean that the price level may not be influenced by changes in investment or in saving in some sense. But Mr. Keynes’s formula does not record such changes till their effect upon the price level is an accomplished fact. (p. 336)

Hawtrey’s other important criticism was his observation that Keynes assumed that a monetary disequilibrium would manifest itself exclusively in price changes and not at all in changes in output and employment. In fact this criticism followed naturally from Hawtrey’s criticism of Keynes’s definitions of savings and investment, from which the fundamental equations were derived, as not being grounded in the decisions of consumers and entrepreneurs.

With regard to savings, the individual consumers decide what they shall spend (or refrain from spending) on consumption. The balance of their earnings is “savings.” But the balance of their incomes (earnings plus windfall gains) is “investment.” Their decisions determine the amount of investment just as truly and in just the same way as they determine the amount of savings.

For all except entrepreneurs, earnings and income are the same. For entrepreneurs they differ if, and only if, there is a windfall gain or loss. But if there is a windfall gains, the recipients must decide what to do with it exactly as with any other receipt. If there is a windfall loss, the victims are deemed, according to Mr. Keynes’s definition of saving, to “save” the money they do not receive. But this is the result of the definition, not of any “decision.” (p. 345)

Preferring the more natural definition of savings as unconsumed income and of investment as capital outlay, Hawtrey proceeded to suggest an alternative analysis of an increase in saving by consumers. In the alternative analysis both output and prices could vary. It was Hawtrey therefore who provided the impetus for a switch to output and employment, not just prices, as equilibrating variable to a monetary disequilibrium.

It has been pointed out above that a difference between savings and investment [as defined by Keynes] cannot be regarded as the cause of a windfall loss or gain, for it is the windfall loss or gain. To find a causal sequence, we must turn to the decisions relating to consumption and capital outlay. When we do so, we find the windfall loss or gain to be one only among several consequences, and neither the earliest, nor necessarily the most important.

Throughout the Treatise Mr. Keynes refers to these decisions, and bases his argument upon them. And I think it is true to say that almost everywhere what he says may be interpreted as applying to the modified analysis which we have arrived at just as well as to that embodied in his fundamental equations. (p. 349)

To a large extent, Hawtrey’s criticisms of Keynes were criticisms of Keynes’s choice of definitions and the formal structure of his model rather than of the underlying theoretical intuition motivating Keynes’s theoretical apparatus. Hawtrey made this point in correcting Keynes’s misinterpretation of Hawtrey’s own position.

Mr. Keynes attributes to me (rather tentatively, it is true) acceptance of the view of “Bank rate as acting directly on the quantity of bank credit and so on prices in accordance with the Quantity Equation” (vol. 1., p. 188). But the passage which he quotes from my Currency and Credit contains no reference, explicit or implicit, to the quantity equation. Possibly I have misled him by using the expression “contraction of credit” for what I have sometimes called more accurately a “retardation of the creation of credit.”

The doctrine that I have consistently adhered to, that an acceleration or retardation of the creation of credit acts through changes in consumers’ income and outlay on the price level and on productive activity, and not through changes in the unspent margin [Hawtrey’s term of holdings of cash], is, I think, very close to Mr. Keynees’s theory. (p. 363)

In drawing attention to his belief “that an acceleration or retardation of the creation of credit acts through changes in consumers’ income and outlay . . . not through changes in the unspent margin,” Hawtrey emphasized that his monetary theory was not strictly speaking a quantity-theoretic monetary theory, as Keynes had erroneously suggested. Rather, he shared with Keynes the belief that there is a tendency for changes in expenditure and income to be cumulative. It was Hawtrey’s belief that the most reliable method by which such changes in income and expenditure could be realized was by way of changes in the short-term interest rate, which normally cause businesses and traders to alter their desired stocks of unfinished goods, working capital and inventories. Those changes, in turn, lead to increases in output and income and consumer outlay, which trigger further increases, and so on. In short, as early as 1913, Hawtrey had already sketched out in Good and Bad Trade the essential concept of a multiplier process initiated by changes in short-term interest rates, by way of their effect on desired stocks of working capital and inventories.

Thus, it is a complete misunderstanding of Hawtrey to suggest that, in the words of Peter Clarke (The Keynesian Revolution in the Making  pp. 242-43) that he was “the man who, having stumbled upon [the multiplier], painstakingly suppressed news of its discovery in his subsequent publications.” The multiplier analysis was not stumbled upon, nor was it suppressed. Rather, Hawtrey simply held that, under normal conditions, unless supported by credit expansion (i.e., a lower bank rate), increased government spending would be offset by reduced spending elsewhere producing no net increase in spending and therefore no multiplier effect. In fact, Hawtrey in 1931 in his Trade Depression and the Way Out (or perhaps only in the second 1933 edition of that book) conceded that under conditions of what he called a “credit deadlock” in which businesses could not be induced to borrow to increase spending, monetary policy would not be effective unless it was used to directly finance government spending. In Keynesian terminology, the situation was described as a liquidity trap, and we no refer to it as the zero lower bound. But the formal analysis of the multiplier was a staple of Hawtrey’s cycle theory from the very beginning. It was just kept in the background, not highlighted as in the Keynesian analysis. But it was perfectly natural for Hawtrey to have explained how Keynes could use it in his commentary on the Treatise.

UPDATE (03/12/13): In reading the excellent doctoral thesis of Alan Gaukroger about Hawtrey’s career at the British Treasury (to view and download the thesis click here) to which I refer in my reply to Luis Arroyo’s comment, I realized that Hawtrey did not introduce the terms “consumers’ income” and “consumers’ outlay” in Good and Bad Trade as I asserted in the post.  Those terms were only introduced six years later in Currency and Credit. I will have to reread the relevant passages more carefully to determine to what extent the introduction of the new terms in Currency and Credit represented an actual change in Hawtrey’s conceptual framework as opposed to the introduction of a new term for an a concept that he had previously worked out.

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.

My new book Studies in the History of Monetary Theory: Controversies and Clarifications has been published by Palgrave Macmillan

Follow me on Twitter @david_glasner


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