Posts Tagged 'Great Depression'

Does Macroeconomics Need Financial Foundations?

One of the little instances of collateral damage occasioned by the hue and cry following upon Stephen Williamson’s post arguing that quantitative easing has been deflationary was the dustup between Scott Sumner and financial journalist and blogger Izabella Kaminska. I am not going to comment on the specifics of their exchange except to say that the misunderstanding and hard feelings between them seem to have been resolved more or less amicably. However, in quickly skimming the exchange between them, I was rather struck by the condescending tone of Kaminska’s (perhaps understandable coming from the aggrieved party) comment about the lack of comprehension by Scott and Market Monetarists more generally of the basics of finance.

First I’d just like to say I feel much of the misunderstanding comes from the fact that market monetarists tend to ignore the influence of shadow banking and market plumbing in the monetary world. I also think (especially from my conversation with Lars Christensen) that they ignore technological disruption, and the influence this has on wealth distribution and purchasing decisions amongst the wealthy, banks and corporates. Also, as I outlined in the post, my view is slightly different to Williamson’s, it’s based mostly on the scarcity of safe assets and how this can magnify hoarding instincts and fragment store-of-value markets, in a Gresham’s law kind of way. Expectations obviously factor into it, and I think Williamson is absolutely right on that front. But personally I don’t think it’s anything to do with temporary or permanent money expansion expectations. IMO It’s much more about risk expectations, which can — if momentum builds — shift very very quickly, making something deflationary, inflationary very quickly. Though, that doesn’t mean I am worried about inflation (largely because I suspect we may have reached an important productivity inflection point).

This remark was followed up with several comments blasting Market Monetarists for their ignorance of the basics of finance and commending Kaminska for the depth of her understanding to which Kaminska warmly responded adding a few additional jibes at Sumner and Market Monetarists. Here is one.

Market monetarists are getting testy because now that everybody started scrutinizing QE they will be exposed as ignorant. The mechanisms they originally advocated QE would work through will be seen as hopelessly naive. For them the money is like glass beads squirting out of the Federal Reserve, you start talking about stuff like collateral, liquid assets, balance sheets and shadow banking and they are out of their depth.

For laughs: Sumner once tried to defend the childish textbook model of banks lending out reserves and it ended in a colossal embarrassment in the comments section

For you to defend your credentials in front of such “experts” is absurd. There is a lot more depth to your understanding than to their sandbox vision of the monetary system. And yes, it *is* crazy that journalists and bloggers can talk about these things with more sense than academics. But this [is] the world we live in.

To which Kaminska graciously replied:

Thanks as well! And I tend to agree with your assessment of the market monetarist view of the world.

So what is the Market Monetarist view of the world of which Kaminska tends to have such a low opinion? Well, from reading Kaminska’s comments and those of her commenters, it seems to be that Market Monetarists have an insufficiently detailed and inaccurate view of financial intermediaries, especially of banks and shadow banks, and that Market Monetarists don’t properly understand the role of safe assets and collateral in the economy. But the question is why, and how, does any of this matter to a useful description of how the economy works?

Well, this whole episode started when Stephen Williamson had a blog post arguing that QE was deflationary, and the reason it’s deflationary is that creating more high powered money provides the economy with more safe assets and thereby reduces the liquidity premium associated with safe assets like short-term Treasuries and cash. By reducing the liquidity premium, QE causes the real interest rate to fall, which implies a lower rate of inflation.

Kaminska thinks that this argument, which Market Monetarists find hard to digest, makes sense, though she can’t quite bring herself to endorse it either. But she finds the emphasis on collateral and safety and market plumbing very much to her taste. In my previous post, I raised what I thought were some problems with Williamson’s argument.

First, what is the actual evidence that there is a substantial liquidity premium on short-term Treasuries? If I compare the rates on short-term Treasuries with the rates on commercial paper issued by non-Financial institutions, I don’t find much difference. If there is a substantial unmet demand for good collateral, and there is only a small difference in yield between commercial paper and short-term Treasuries, one would think that non-financial firms could make a killing by issuing a lot more commercial paper. When I wrote the post, I was wondering whether I, a financial novice, might be misreading the data or mismeasuring the liquidity premium on short-term Treasuries. So far, no one has said anything about that, but If I am wrong, I am happy to be enlightened.

Here’s something else I don’t get. What’s so special about so-called safe assets? Suppose, as Williamson claims, that there’s a shortage of safe assets. Why does that imply a liquidity premium? One could still compensate for the lack of safety by over-collateralizing the loan using an inferior asset. If that is a possibility, why is the size of the liquidity premium not constrained?

I also pointed out in my previous post that a declining liquidity premium would be associated with a shift out of money and into real assets, which would cause an increase in asset prices. An increase in asset prices would tend to be associated with an increase in the value of the underlying service flows embodied in the assets, in other words in an increase in current prices, so that, if Williamson is right, QE should have caused measured inflation to rise even as it caused inflation expectations to fall. Of course Williamson believes that the decrease in liquidity premium is associated with a decline in real interest rates, but it is not clear that a decline in real interest rates has any implications for the current price level. So Williamson’s claim that his model explains the decline in observed inflation since QE was instituted does not seem all that compelling.

Now, as one who has written a bit about banking and shadow banking, and as one who shares the low opinion of the above-mentioned commenter on Kaminska’s blog about the textbook model (which Sumner does not defend, by the way) of the money supply via a “money multiplier,” I am in favor of changing how the money supply is incorporated into macromodels. Nevertheless, it is far from clear that changing the way that the money supply is modeled would significantly change any important policy implications of Market Monetarism. Perhaps it would, but if so, that is a proposition to be proved (or at least argued), not a self-evident truth to be asserted.

I don’t say that finance and banking are not important. Current spreads between borrowing and lending rates, may not provide a sufficient margin for banks to provide the intermediation services that they once provided to a wide range of customers. Businesses have a wider range of options in obtaining financing than they used to, so instead of holding bank accounts with banks and foregoing interest on deposits to be able to have a credit line with their banker, they park their money with a money market fund and obtain financing by issuing commercial paper. This works well for firms large enough to have direct access to lenders, but smaller businesses can’t borrow directly from the market and can only borrow from banks at much higher rates or by absorbing higher costs on their bank accounts than they would bear on a money market fund.

At any rate, when market interest rates are low, and when perceived credit risks are high, there is very little margin for banks to earn a profit from intermediation. If so, the money multiplier — a crude measure of how much intermediation banks are engaging in goes down — it is up to the monetary authority to provide the public with the liquidity they demand by increasing the amount of bank reserves available to the banking system. Otherwise, total spending would contract sharply as the public tried to build up their cash balances by reducing their own spending – not a pretty picture.

So finance is certainly important, and I really ought to know more about market plumbing and counterparty risk  and all that than I do, but the most important thing to know about finance is that the financial system tends to break down when the jointly held expectations of borrowers and lenders that the loans that they agreed to would be repaid on schedule by the borrowers are disappointed. There are all kinds of reasons why, in a given case, those jointly held expectations might be disappointed. But financial crises are associated with a very large cluster of disappointed expectations, and try as they might, the finance guys have not provided a better explanation for that clustering of disappointed expectations than a sharp decline in aggregate demand. That’s what happened in the Great Depression, as Ralph Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel and Irving Fisher and Maynard Keynes understood, and that’s what happened in the Little Depression, as Market Monetarists, especially Scott Sumner, understand. Everything else is just commentary.


A Newly Revised Version of My Paper (with Ron Batchelder) on Hawtrey and Cassel Is Now Available on SSRN

This may not be the most important news of the day, but for those wishing to immerse themselves in the economics of Hawtrey and Cassel, a newly revised version of my paper with Ron Batchelder “Pre-Keynesian Monetary Explanations of the Great Depression: Whatever Happened to Hawtrey and Cassel?” is now available on SSRN.

The paper has also recently been submitted to a journal for review, so we are hoping that it will finally be published before too long. Wish us luck. Here’s the slightly revised abstract.

A strictly monetary theory of the Great Depression is generally thought to have originated with Milton Friedman. Designed to counter the Keynesian notion that the Depression resulted from instabilities inherent in modern capitalist economies, Friedman’s explanation identified the culprit as an ill-conceived monetary policy pursued by an inept Federal Reserve Board. More recent work on the Depression suggests that the causes of the Depression, rooted in the attempt to restore an international gold standard that had been suspended after World War I started, were more international in scope than Friedman believed. We document that current views about the causes of the Depression were anticipated in the 1920s by Ralph Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel who independently warned that restoring the gold standard risked causing a disastrous deflation unless the resulting increase in the international monetary demand for gold could be limited. Although their early warnings of potential disaster were validated, and their policy advice after the Depression started was consistently correct, their contributions were later ignored or forgotten. This paper explores the possible reasons for the remarkable disregard by later economists of the Hawtrey-Cassel monetary explanation of the Great Depression.

The Golden Constant My Eye

John Tamny, whose economic commentary I usually take with multiple grains of salt, writes an op-ed about the price of gold in today’s Wall Street Journal, a publication where the probability of reading nonsense is dangerously high. Amazingly, Tamny writes that the falling price of gold is a good sign for the US economy. “The recent decline in the price of gold, ” Tamny informs us, “is cause for cautious optimism.” What’s this? A sign that creeping sanity is infiltrating the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal? Is the Age of Enlightenment perhaps dawning in America?

Um, not so fast. After all, we are talking about the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Yep, it turns out that Tamny is indeed up to his old tricks again.

The precious metal has long been referred to as “the golden constant” for its steady value. An example is the skyrocketing price of gold in the 1970s, which didn’t so much signal a spike in gold’s value as it showed the decline of the dollar in which it was priced. If gold’s constancy as a measure of value is doubted, consider oil: In 1971 an ounce of gold at $35 bought 15 barrels, in 1981 an ounce of gold at $480 similarly bought 15 barrels, and today an ounce once again buys a shade above 15.

OMG! The golden constant! Gold was selling for about $35 an ounce in 1970 rose to nearly $900 an ounce in 1980, fell to about $250 an ounce in about 2001, rose back up to almost $1900 in 2011 and is now below $1400, and Mr. Tamny thinks that the value of gold is constant. Give me a break. Evidently, Mr. Tamny attaches deep significance to the fact that the value of gold relative to the value of a barrel of oil was roughly 15 barrels of oil per ounce in 1971, and again in 1981, and now, once again, is at roughly 15 barrels per ounce, though he neglects to inform us whether the significance is economic or mystical.

So I thought that I would test the constancy of this so-called relationship by computing the implied exchange rate between oil and gold since April 1968 when the gold price series maintained by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis begins. The chart below, derived from the St. Louis Fed, plots the monthly average of the number of barrels of oil per ounce of gold from April 1968 (when it was a bit over 12) through March 2013 (when it was about 17). But as the graph makes clear the relative price  of gold to oil has been fluctuating wildly over the past 45 years, hitting a low of 6.6 barrels of oil per ounce of gold in June 2008, and a high of 33.8 barrels of oil per ounce of gold in July 1973. And this graph is based on monthly averages; plotting the daily fluctuations would show an even greater amplitude.

barrels_of_oil_per_ounce_of_goldDo Mr. Tamny and his buddies at the Wall Street Journal really expect people to buy this nonsense? This is what happens to your brain when you are obsessed with gold. If you think that the US and the world economies have been on a wild ride these past five years, imagine what it would have been like if the US or the world price level had been fluctuating as the relative price of gold in terms of oil has been fluctuating over the same time period. And don’t even think about what would have happened over the past 45 years under Mr. Tamny’s ideal, constant, gold-based monetary standard.

Let’s get this straight. The value of gold is entirely determined by speculation. The current value of gold has no relationship — none — to the value of the miniscule current services gold now provides. It is totally dependent on the obviously not very well-informed expectations of people like Mr. Tamny.

Gold indeed had a relatively stable value over long periods of time when there was a gold standard, but that was largely due to fortuitous circumstances, not the least of which was the behavior of national central banks that would accumulate gold or give up gold as needed to prevent the value of gold from fluctuating as wildly as it otherwise would have. When, as a result of the First World War, gold was largely demonetized, prices were no longer tied to gold. Then, in the 1920s, when the world tried to restore the gold standard, it was beyond the capacity of the world’s central banks to recreate the gold standard in such a way that their actions smoothed the inevitable fluctuations in the value of gold. Instead, their actions amplified fluctuations in the value of the gold, and the result was the greatest economic catastrophe the world had seen since the Black Death. To suggest another restoration of the gold standard in the face of such an experience is sheer lunacy. But, as members of at least one of our political parties can inform you, just in case you have been asleep for the past decade or so, the lunatic fringe can sometimes transform itself . . . into the lunatic mainstream.

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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