Posts Tagged 'James Grant'

The Nearly Forgotten Dearly Beloved 1920-21 Depression Yet Again; Or, Never Reason from a Quantity Change

The industrious James Grant recently published a book about the 1920-21 Depression. It has received enthusiastic reviews in the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s, was the subject of an admiring column by Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson, and was celebrated at a Cato Institute panel discussion, luncheon, and book-signing event. The Cato extravaganza elicited a dismissive blog post by Barkley Rosser which was linked to by Paul Krugman on his blog. The Rosser/Krugman tandem provoked an unhappy reply on the Free Banking blog from George Selgin who chaired the Cato panel discussion. And the 1920-21 Depression is now the latest hot topic in the econblogosphere.

I am afraid that there are multiple layers of errors and confusion that are being mixed up and compounded in this discussion, errors and confusion derived from basic misunderstandings about how the gold standard operated that have been plaguing the economics profession and the financial world for about two and a half centuries. If you want to understand how the gold standard worked, what you have to read is the book by Ralph Hawtrey entitled – drum roll, please – The Gold Standard.

Here are the basic things you need to know about the gold standard.

1 The gold standard operates by creating an equivalence between a currency unit and a fixed amount of gold.

2 The gold standard does not require gold to circulate as money in the form of coins. That was historically the case, but a gold standard can function with no gold coins or even gold certificates.

3 The value of a currency unit and the value of a corresponding weight of gold are necessarily equalized by arbitrage.

4 Equality between a currency unit and a corresponding weight of gold does not necessarily show the direction of causality; the currency unit may determine the value of gold, not the other way around. In other words, making gold the standard of value for currency affects the demand for gold which affects the value of gold. Decisions made by monetary authorities under the gold standard necessarily affect the value of gold, so a gold standard does not somehow make the value of money independent of monetary policy.

5 When more than one country is on a gold standard, the countries share a common price level, because the value of gold is determined in an international market.

Keeping those basics in mind, let’s quickly try to understand what was going on in 1920 when the Fed decided to raise its discount rate to the then unprecedented level of 7 percent. But the situation in 1920 was the outcome of the previous six years of World War I that effectively destroyed the gold standard as a functioning institution, even though its existence was in some sense still legally recognized.

Under the gold standard, gold was the ultimate way of discharging international debts. In World War I, belligerents had to pay for imports with gold, thus governments amassed all available gold with which to pay for the imports required to support the war effort. Gold coins were melted down and converted to bullion so the gold could be exported. For a private citizen in a belligerent country to demand that the national currency unit be converted to gold would be considered an unpatriotic if not a treasonous act. So the gold standard ceased to function in belligerent countries. In non-belligerent countries, which were busy exporting to the belligerents, the result was a massive inflow of gold, causing a spectacular increase in the amount of gold held by the US Treasury between 1914 and 1917. Other non-belligerents like Sweden and Switzerland experienced similar inflows.

Quantity theorists and Monetarists like Milton Friedman habitually misinterpret the wartime inflation, and attributing the inflation to an inflow of gold that increased the money supply, thereby perpetrating the price-specie-flow-mechanism fallacy. What actually happened was that the huge demonetization of gold coins by the belligerents and their export of large quantities of gold to non-belligerent countries in which a free market in gold continued to operate drove down the value of gold. A falling value of gold under a gold standard logically implies rising prices for all other goods and services. Rising prices increased the nominal demand for money, which more or less automatically caused a corresponding adjustment in the quantity of money. A rising price level caused the quantity of money to increase, not the other way around.

In 1917, just before the US entered the war, the US, still effectively on a gold standard as gold flowed into the Treasury, had experienced a drastic inflation, like all other gold standard countries, because gold was rapidly losing value, as it was being demonetized and exported by the belligerent countries. But when the US entered the war in 1917, the US, like other belligerents, suspended operation of the gold standard, thereby accelerating the depreciation of gold, forcing the few remaining countries on the gold standard to suspend the gold standard to avoid runaway inflation. Inflationary pressure in the US did increase after entry into the war, but the war-induced fiat inflation, to some extent suppressed or disguised by price controls, was actually slower than inflation in terms of gold.

When the war ended, the US went back on the gold standard by again making the dollar convertible into gold at the legal parity. Doing so meant that the US price level in terms of dollars was below the notional (no currency any longer being convertible into gold) world price level in terms of gold. In other belligerent countries, notably Britain, France and Germany, inflation in terms of their national currencies exceeded gold inflation, requiring them to deflate even to restore the legal parity in terms of gold.  Thus, the US was the only country in the world that was both willing and able to return to the gold standard at the prewar parity. Sweden and Switzerland could have done so, but preferred to avoid the inflationary consequences of a return to the gold standard.

Once the dollar convertibility into gold was restored, arbitrage forced the US price level to rise to so that it would equal the gold price level. The excess of the gold price level over the US price level level explains the anomalous post-war inflation – everyone knows that prices are supposed to fall, not rise, when a war ends — in the US. The rest of the world, then, had to choose between accepting US inflation, by keeping their currencies pegged to the dollar, or allowing their currencies to appreciate against the dollar. The anomalous post-war inflation was caused by the reequilibration of the US price level to the gold price levels, not, as commonly supposed, by Fed inexperience or incompetence.

To stop the post-war inflation, the Fed could have simply abandoned the gold standard, or it could have revalued the dollar in terms of gold, by reducing the official dollar price of gold. (I ignore the minor detail that the official dollar price of gold was then determined by statute.) Instead, the Fed — whether knowingly or not I can’t say – chose to increase the value of gold. The method by which it did so was to raise its discount rate, thereby making it easier to obtain dollars by selling gold to the Treasury than to borrow from the Fed. The flood of gold into the Treasury in 1920-21 succeeded in taking a huge amount of gold out of private and public hands, thus driving up the real value of gold, and forcing down the gold price level. That’s when the brutal deflation of 1920-21 started. At some point, the Fed and the Treasury decided that they had had enough, having amassed about 40% of the world’s gold reserves, and began reducing the discount rate, thereby slowing the inflow of gold into the US, and stopping its appreciation. And that’s when and how the dearly beloved, but quite dreadful, depression of 1920-21 came to an end.


The Enchanted James Grant Expounds Eloquently on the Esthetics of the Gold Standard

One of the leading financial journalists of our time, James Grant is obviously a very smart, very well read, commentator on contemporary business and finance. He also has published several highly regarded historical studies, and according to the biographical tag on his review of a new book on the monetary role of gold in the weekend Wall Street Journal, he will soon publish a new historical study of the dearly beloved 1920-21 depression, a study that will certainly be worth reading, if not entirely worth believing. Grant reviewed a new book, War and Gold, by Kwasi Kwarteng, which provides a historical account of the role of gold in monetary affairs and in wartime finance since the 16th century. Despite his admiration for Kwarteng’s work, Grant betrays more than a little annoyance and exasperation with Kwarteng’s failure to appreciate what a many-splendored thing gold really is, deploring the impartial attitude to gold taken by Kwarteng.

Exasperatingly, the author, a University of Cambridge Ph. D. in history and a British parliamentarian, refuses to render historical judgment. He doesn’t exactly decry the world’s descent into “too big to fail” banking, occult-style central banking and tiny, government-issued interest rates. Neither does he precisely support those offenses against wholesome finance. He is neither for the dematerialized, non-gold dollar nor against it. He is a monetary Hamlet.

He does, at least, ask: “Why gold?” I would answer: “Because it’s money, or used to be money, and will likely one day become money again.” The value of gold is inherent, not conferred by governments. Its supply tends to grow by 1% to 2% a year, in line with growth in world population. It is nice to look at and self-evidently valuable.

Evidently, Mr. Grant’s enchantment with gold has led him into incoherence. Is gold money or isn’t it? Obviously not — at least not if you believe that definitions ought to correspond to reality rather than to Platonic ideal forms. Sensing that his grip on reality may be questionable, he tries to have it both ways. If gold isn’t money now, it likely will become money again — “one day.” For sure, gold used to be money, but so did cowerie shells, cattle, and at least a dozen other substances. How does that create any presumption that gold is likely to become money again?

Then we read: “The value of gold is inherent.” OMG! And this from a self-proclaimed Austrian! Has he ever heard of the “subjective theory of value?” Mr. Grant, meet Ludwig von Mises.

Value is not intrinsic, it is not in things. It is within us. (Human Action p. 96)

If value “is not in things,” how can anything be “self-evidently valuable?”

Grant, in his emotional attachment to gold, feels obligated to defend the metal against any charge that it may have been responsible for human suffering.

Shelley wrote lines of poetry to protest the deflation that attended Britain’s return to the gold standard after the Napoleonic wars. Mr. Kwarteng quotes them: “Let the Ghost of Gold / Take from Toil a thousandfold / More than e’er its substance could / In the tyrannies of old.” The author seems to agree with the poet.

Grant responds to this unfair slur against gold:

I myself hold the gold standard blameless. The source of the postwar depression was rather the decision of the British government to return to the level of prices and wages that prevailed before the war, a decision it enforced through monetary means (that is, by reimposing the prewar exchange rate). It was an error that Britain repeated after World War I.

This is a remarkable and fanciful defense, suggesting that the British government actually had a specific target level of prices and wages in mind when it restored the pound to its prewar gold parity. In fact, the idea of a price level was not yet even understood by most economists, let alone by the British government. Restoring the pound to its prewar parity was considered a matter of financial rectitude and honor, not a matter of economic fine-tuning. Nor was the choice of the prewar parity the only reason for the ruinous deflation that followed the postwar resumption of gold payments. The replacement of paper pounds with gold pounds implied a significant increase in the total demand for gold by the world’s leading economic power, which implied an increase in the total world demand for gold, and an increase in its value relative to other commodities, in other words deflation. David Ricardo foresaw the deflationary consequences of the resumption of gold payments, and tried to mitigate those consequences with his Proposals for an Economical and Secure Currency, designed to limit the increase in the monetary demand for gold. The real error after World War I, as Hawtrey and Cassel both pointed out in 1919, was that the resumption of an international gold standard after gold had been effectively demonetized during World War I would lead to an enormous increase in the monetary demand for gold, causing a worldwide deflationary collapse. After the Napoleonic wars, the gold standard was still a peculiarly British institution, the rest of the world then operating on a silver standard.

Grant makes further extravagant and unsupported claims on behalf of the gold standard:

The classical gold standard, in service roughly from 1815 to 1914, was certainly imperfect. What it did deliver was long-term price stability. What the politics of the gold-standard era delivered was modest levels of government borrowing.

The choice of 1815 as the start of the gold standard era is quite arbitrary, 1815 being the year that Britain defeated Napoleonic France, thereby setting the stage for the restoration of the golden pound at its prewar parity. But the very fact that 1815 marked the beginning of the restoration of the prewar gold parity with sterling shows that for Britain the gold standard began much earlier, actually 1717 when Isaac Newton, then master of the mint, established the gold parity at a level that overvalued gold, thereby driving silver out of circulation. So, if the gold standard somehow ensures that government borrowing levels are modest, one would think that borrowing by the British government would have been modest from 1717 to 1797 when the gold standard was suspended. But the chart below showing British government debt as a percentage of GDP from 1692 to 2010 shows that British government debt rose rapidly over most of the 18th century.

uk_national_debtGrant suggests that bad behavior by banks is mainly the result of abandonment of the gold standard.

Progress is the rule, the Whig theory of history teaches, but the old Whigs never met the new bankers. Ordinary people live longer and Olympians run faster than they did a century ago, but no such improvement is evident in our monetary and banking affairs. On the contrary, the dollar commands but 1/1,300th of an ounce of gold today, as compared with the 1/20th of an ounce on the eve of World War I. As for banking, the dismal record of 2007-09 would seem inexplicable to the financial leaders of the Model T era. One of these ancients, Comptroller of the Currency John Skelton Williams, predicted in 1920 that bank failures would soon be unimaginable. In 2008, it was solvency you almost couldn’t imagine.

Once again, the claims that Mr. Grant makes on behalf of the gold standard simply do not correspond to reality. The chart below shows the annual number of bank failures in every years since 1920.


Somehow, Mr. Grant somehow seems to have overlooked what happened between 1929 and 1932. John Skelton Williams obviously didn’t know what was going to happen in the following decade. Certainly no shame in that. I am guessing that Mr. Grant does know what happened; he just seems too bedazzled by the beauty of the gold standard to care.

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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