Posts Tagged 'Ludwig von Mises'

Hayek’s Rapid Rise to Stardom

For a month or so, I have been working on a paper about Hayek’s early pro-deflationary policy recommendations which seem to be at odds with his own idea of neutral money which he articulated in a way that implied or at least suggested that the ideal monetary policy would aim to keep nominal spending or nominal income constant. In the Great Depression, prices and real output were both falling, so that nominal spending and income were also falling at a rate equal to the rate of decline in real output plus the rate of decline in the price level. So in a depression, the monetary policy implied by Hayek’s neutral money criterion would have been to print money like crazy to generate enough inflation to keep nominal spending and nominal income constant. But Hayek denounced any monetary policy that aimed to raise prices during the depression, arguing that such a policy would treat the disease of depression with the drug that had caused the disease in the first place. Decades later, Hayek acknowledged his mistake and made clear that he favored a policy that would prevent the flow of nominal spending from ever shrinking. In this post, I am excerpting the introductory section of the current draft of my paper.

Few economists, if any, ever experienced as rapid a rise to stardom as F. A. Hayek did upon arriving in London in January 1931, at the invitation of Lionel Robbins, to deliver a series of four lectures on the theory of industrial fluctuations. The Great Depression having started about 15 months earlier, British economists were desperately seeking new insights into the unfolding and deteriorating economic catastrophe. The subject on which Hayek was to expound was of more than academic interest; it was of the most urgent economic, political and social, import.

Only 31 years old, Hayek, director of the Austrian Institute of Business Cycle Research headed by his mentor Ludwig von Mises, had never held an academic position. Upon completing his doctorate at the University of Vienna, writing his doctoral thesis under Friedrich von Wieser, one of the eminent figures of the Austrian School of Economics, Hayek, through financial assistance secured by Mises, spent over a year in the United States doing research on business cycles, and meeting such leading American experts on business cycles as W. C. Mitchell. While in the US, Hayek also exhaustively studied the English-language  literature on the monetary history of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the, mostly British, monetary doctrines of that era.

Even without an academic position, Hayek’s productivity upon returning to Vienna was impressive. Aside from writing a monthly digest of statistical reports, financial news, and analysis of business conditions for the Institute, Hayek published several important theoretical papers, gaining a reputation as a young economist of considerable promise. Moreover, Hayek’s immersion in the English monetary literature and his sojourn in the United States gave him an excellent command of English, so that when Robbins, newly installed as head of the economics department at LSE, and having fallen under the influence of the Austrian school of economics, was seeking to replace Edwin Cannan, who before his retirement had been the leading monetary economist at LSE, Robbins thought of Hayek as a candidate for Cannan’s position.

Hoping that Hayek’s performance would be sufficiently impressive to justify the offer of a position at LSE, Robbins undoubtedly made clear to Hayek that if his lectures were well received, his chances of receiving an offer to replace Cannan were quite good. A secure academic position for a young economist, even one as talented as Hayek, was then hard to come by in Austria or Germany. Realizing how much depended on the impression he would make, Hayek, despite having undertaken to write a textbook on monetary theory for which he had already written several chapters, dropped everything else to compose the four lectures that he would present at LSE.

When he arrived in England in January 1931, Hayek actually went first to Cambridge to give a lecture, a condensed version of the four LSE lectures. Hayek was not feeling well when he came to Cambridge to face an unsympathetic, if not hostile, audience, and the lecture was not a success. However, either despite, or because of, his inauspicious debut at Cambridge, Hayek’s performance at LSE turned out to be an immediate sensation. In his History of Economic Analysis, Joseph Schumpeter, who, although an Austrian with a background in economics similar to Hayek’s, was neither a personal friend nor an ideological ally of Hayek’s, wrote that Hayek’s theory

on being presented to the Anglo-American community of economists, met with a sweeping success that has never been equaled by any strictly theoretical book that failed to make amends for its rigors by including plans and policy recommendations or to make contact in other ways with its readers loves or hates. A strong critical reaction followed that, at first, but served to underline the success, and then the profession turned away to other leaders and interests.

The four lectures provided a masterful survey of business-cycle theory and the role of monetary analysis in business-cycle theory, including a lucid summary of the Austrian capital-theoretic approach to business-cycle theory and of the equilibrium price relationships that are conducive to economic stability, an explanation of how those equilibrium price relationships are disturbed by monetary disturbances giving rise to cyclical effects, and some comments on the appropriate policies for avoiding or minimizing such disturbances. The goal of monetary policy should be to set the money interest rate equal to the hypothetical equilibrium interest rate determined by strictly real factors. The only policy implication that Hayek could extract from this rarified analysis was that monetary policy should aim not to stabilize the price level as recommended by such distinguished monetary theorists as Alfred Marshall and Knut Wicksell, but to stabilize total spending or total money income.

This objective would be achieved, Hayek argued, only if injections of new money preserved the equilibrium relationship between savings and investment, investments being financed entirely by voluntary savings, not by money newly created for that purpose. Insofar as new investment projects were financed by newly created money, the additional expenditure thereby financed would entail a deviation from the real equilibrium that would obtain in a hypothetical barter economy or in an economy in which money had no distortionary effect. That  interest rate was called by Hayek, following Wicksell, the natural (or equilibrium) rate of interest.

But according to Hayek, Wicksell failed to see that, in a progressive economy with real investment financed by voluntary saving, the increasing output of goods and services over time implies generally falling prices as the increasing productivity of factors of production progressively reduces costs of production. A stable price level would require ongoing increases in the quantity of money to, the new money being used to finance additional investment over and above voluntary saving, thereby causing the economy to deviate from its equilibrium time path by inducing investment that would not otherwise have been undertaken.

As Paul Zimmerman and I have pointed out in our paper on Hayek’s response to Piero Sraffa’s devastating, but flawed, review of Prices and Production (the published version of Hayek’s LSE lectures) Hayek’s argument that only an economy in which no money is created to finance investment is consistent with the real equilibrium of a pure barter economy depends on the assumption that money is non-interest-bearing and that the rate of inflation is not correctly foreseen. If money bears competitive interest and inflation is correctly foreseen, the economy can attain its real equilibrium regardless of the rate of inflation – provided, at least, that the rate of deflation is not greater than the real rate of interest. Inasmuch as the real equilibrium is defined by a system of n-1 relative prices per time period which can be multiplied by any scalar representing the expected price level or expected rate of inflation between time periods.

So Hayek’s assumption that the real equilibrium requires a rate of deflation equal to the rate of increase in factor productivity is an arbitrary and unfounded assumption reflecting his failure to see that the real equilibrium of the economy is independent of the price levels in different time periods and rates of inflation between time periods, when prices levels and rates of inflation are correctly anticipated. If inflation is correctly foreseen, nominal wages will rise commensurately with inflation and real wages with productivity increases, so that the increase in nominal money supplied by banks will not induce or finance investment beyond voluntary savings. Hayek’s argument was based on a failure to work through the full implications of his equilibrium method. As Hayek would later come to recognize, disequilibrium is the result not of money creation by banks but of mistaken expectations about the future.

Thus, Hayek’s argument mistakenly identified monetary expansion of any sort that moderated or reversed what Hayek considered the natural tendency of prices to fall in a progressively expanding economy, as the disturbing and distorting impulse responsible for business-cycle fluctuations. Although he did not offer a detailed account of the origins of the Great Depression, Hayek’s diagnosis of the causes of the Great Depression, made explicit in various other writings, was clear: monetary expansion by the Federal Reserve during the 1920s — especially in 1927 — to keep the US price level from falling and to moderate deflationary pressure on Britain (sterling having been overvalued at the prewar dollar-sterling parity when Britain restored gold convertibility in March 1925) distorted relative prices and the capital structure. When distortions eventually become unsustainable, unprofitable investment projects would be liquidated, supposedly freeing those resources to be re-employed in more productive activities. Why the Depression continued to deepen rather than recover more than a year after the downturn had started, was another question.

Despite warning of the dangers of a policy of price-level stabilization, Hayek was reluctant to advance an alternative policy goal or criterion beyond the general maxim that policy should avoid any disturbing or distorting effect — in particular monetary expansion — on the economic system. But Hayek was incapable of, or unwilling to, translate this abstract precept into a definite policy norm.

The simplest implementation of Hayek’s objective would be to hold the quantity of money constant. But that policy, as Hayek acknowledged, was beset with both practical and conceptual difficulties. Under a gold standard, which Hayek, at least in the early 1930s, still favored, the relevant area within which to keep the quantity of money constant would be the entire world (or, more precisely, the set of countries linked to the gold standard). But national differences between the currencies on the gold standard would make it virtually impossible to coordinate those national currencies to keep some aggregate measure of the quantity of money convertible into gold constant. And Hayek also recognized that fluctuations in the demand to hold money (the reciprocal of the velocity of circulation) produce monetary disturbances analogous to variations in the quantity of money, so that the relevant policy objective was not to hold the quantity of money constant, but to change the quantity of money proportionately (inversely) with the demand to hold money (the velocity of circulation).

Hayek therefore suggested that the appropriate criterion for the neutrality of money might be to hold total spending (or alternatively total factor income) constant. With constant total spending, neither an increase nor a decrease in the amount of money the public desired to hold would lead to disequilibrium. This was a compelling argument for constant total spending as the goal of policy, but Hayek was unwilling to adopt it as a practical guide for monetary policy.

In the final paragraph of his final LSE lecture, Hayek made his most explicit, though still equivocal, policy recommendation:

[T]he only practical maxim for monetary policy to be derived from our considerations is probably . . . that the simple fact of an increase of production and trade forms no justification for an expansion of credit, and that—save in an acute crisis—bankers need not be afraid to harm production by overcaution. . . . It is probably an illusion to suppose that we shall ever be able entirely to eliminate industrial fluctuations by means of monetary policy. The most we may hope for is that the growing information of the public may make it easier for central banks both to follow a cautious policy during the upward swing of the cycle, and so to mitigate the following depression, and to resist the well-meaning but dangerous proposals to fight depression by “a little inflation “.

Thus, Hayek concluded his series of lectures by implicitly rejecting his own idea of neutral money as a policy criterion, warning instead against the “well-meaning but dangerous proposals to fight depression by ‘a little inflation.’” The only sensible interpretation of Hayek’s counsel of “resistance” is an icy expression of indifference to falling nominal spending in a deep depression.

Larry White has defended Hayek against the charge that his policy advice in the depression was liquidationist, encouraging policy makers to take a “hands-off” approach to the unfolding economic catastrophe. In making this argument, White relies on Hayek’s neutral-money concept as well as Hayek’s disavowals decades later of his early pro-deflation policy advice. However, White omitted any mention of Hayek’s explicit rejection of neutral money as a policy norm at the conclusion of his LSE lectures. White also disputes that Hayek was a liquidationist, arguing that Hayek supported liquidation not for its own sake but only as a means to reallocate resources from lower- to higher-valued uses. Although that is certainly true, White does not establish that any of the other liquidationists he mentions favored liquidation as an end and not, like Hayek, as a means.

Hayek’s policy stance in the early 1930s was characterized by David Laidler as a skepticism bordering on nihilism in opposing any monetary- or fiscal-policy responses to mitigate the suffering of the general public caused by the Depression. White’s efforts at rehabilitation notwithstanding, Laidler’s characterization seems to be on the mark. The perplexing and disturbing question raised by Hayek’s policy stance in the early 1930s is why, given the availability of his neutral-money criterion as a justification for favoring at least a mildly inflationary (or reflationary) policy to promote economic recovery from the Depression, did Hayek remain, during the 1930s at any rate, implacably opposed to expansionary monetary policies? Hayek’s later disavowals of his early position actually provide some insight into his reasoning in the early 1930s, but to understand the reasons for his advocacy of a policy inconsistent with his own theoretical understanding of the situation for which he was offering policy advice, it is necessary to understand the intellectual and doctrinal background that set the boundaries on what kinds of policies Hayek was prepared to entertain. The source of that intellectual and doctrinal background was David Hume and the intermediary through which it was transmitted was none other than Hayek’s mentor Ludwig von Mises.


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.

Monetary Theory on the Neo-Fisherite Edge

The week before last, Noah Smith wrote a post “The Neo-Fisherite Rebellion” discussing, rather sympathetically I thought, the contrarian school of monetary thought emerging from the Great American Heartland, according to which, notwithstanding everything monetary economists since Henry Thornton have taught, high interest rates are inflationary and low interest rates deflationary. This view of the relationship between interest rates and inflation was advanced (but later retracted) by Narayana Kocherlakota, President of the Minneapolis Fed in a 2010 lecture, and was embraced and expounded with increased steadfastness by Stephen Williamson of Washington University in St. Louis and the St. Louis Fed in at least one working paper and in a series of posts over the past five or six months (e.g. here, here and here). And John Cochrane of the University of Chicago has picked up on the idea as well in two recent blog posts (here and here). Others seem to be joining the upstart school as well.

The new argument seems simple: given the Fisher equation, in which the nominal interest rate equals the real interest rate plus the (expected) rate of inflation, a central bank can meet its inflation target by setting a fixed nominal interest rate target consistent with its inflation target and keeping it there. Once the central bank sets its target, the long-run neutrality of money, implying that the real interest rate is independent of the nominal targets set by the central bank, ensures that inflation expectations must converge on rates consistent with the nominal interest rate target and the independently determined real interest rate (i.e., the real yield curve), so that the actual and expected rates of inflation adjust to ensure that the Fisher equation is satisfied. If the promise of the central bank to maintain a particular nominal rate over time is believed, the promise will induce a rate of inflation consistent with the nominal interest-rate target and the exogenous real rate.

The novelty of this way of thinking about monetary policy is that monetary theorists have generally assumed that the actual adjustment of the price level or inflation rate depends on whether the target interest rate is greater or less than the real rate plus the expected rate. When the target rate is greater than the real rate plus expected inflation, inflation goes down, and when it is less than the real rate plus expected inflation, inflation goes up. In the conventional treatment, the expected rate of inflation is momentarily fixed, and the (expected) real rate variable. In the Neo-Fisherite school, the (expected) real rate is fixed, and the expected inflation rate is variable. (Just as an aside, I would observe that the idea that expectations about the real rate of interest and the inflation rate cannot occur simultaneously in the short run is not derived from the limited cognitive capacity of economic agents; it can only be derived from the limited intellectual capacity of economic theorists.)

The heretical views expressed by Williamson and Cochrane and earlier by Kocherlakota have understandably elicited scorn and derision from conventional monetary theorists, whether Keynesian, New Keynesian, Monetarist or Market Monetarist. (Williamson having appropriated for himself the New Monetarist label, I regrettably could not preserve an appropriate symmetry in my list of labels for monetary theorists.) As a matter of fact, I wrote a post last December challenging Williamson’s reasoning in arguing that QE had caused a decline in inflation, though in his initial foray into uncharted territory, Williamson was actually making a narrower argument than the more general thesis that he has more recently expounded.

Although deep down, I have no great sympathy for Williamson’s argument, the counterarguments I have seen leave me feeling a bit, shall we say, underwhelmed. That’s not to say that I am becoming a convert to New Monetarism, but I am feeling that we have reached a point at which certain underlying gaps in monetary theory can’t be concealed any longer. To explain what I mean by that remark, let me start by reviewing the historical context in which the ruling doctrine governing central-bank operations via adjustments in the central-bank lending rate evolved. The primary (though historically not the first) source of the doctrine is Henry Thornton in his classic volume The Nature and Effects of the Paper Credit of Great Britain.

Even though Thornton focused on the policy of the Bank of England during the Napoleonic Wars, when Bank of England notes, not gold, were legal tender, his discussion was still in the context of a monetary system in which paper money was generally convertible into either gold or silver. Inconvertible banknotes – aka fiat money — were the exception not the rule. Gold and silver were what Nick Rowe would call alpha money. All other moneys were evaluated in terms of gold and silver, not in terms of a general price level (not yet a widely accepted concept). Even though Bank of England notes became an alternative alpha money during the restriction period of inconvertibility, that situation was generally viewed as temporary, the restoration of convertibility being expected after the war. The value of the paper pound was tracked by the sterling price of gold on the Hamburg exchange. Thus, Ricardo’s first published work was entitled The High Price of Bullion, in which he blamed the high sterling price of bullion at Hamburg on an overissue of banknotes by the Bank of England.

But to get back to Thornton, who was far more concerned with the mechanics of monetary policy than Ricardo, his great contribution was to show that the Bank of England could control the amount of lending (and money creation) by adjusting the interest rate charged to borrowers. If banknotes were depreciating relative to gold, the Bank of England could increase the value of their notes by raising the rate of interest charged on loans.

The point is that if you are a central banker and are trying to target the exchange rate of your currency with respect to an alpha currency, you can do so by adjusting the interest rate that you charge borrowers. Raising the interest rate will cause the exchange value of your currency to rise and reducing the interest rate will cause the exchange value to fall. And if you are operating under strict convertibility, so that you are committed to keep the exchange rate between your currency and an alpha currency at a specified par value, raising that interest rate will cause you to accumulate reserves payable in terms of the alpha currency, and reducing that interest rate will cause you to emit reserves payable in terms of the alpha currency.

So the idea that an increase in the central-bank interest rate tends to increase the exchange value of its currency, or, under a fixed-exchange rate regime, an increase in the foreign exchange reserves of the bank, has a history at least two centuries old, though the doctrine has not exactly been free of misunderstanding or confusion in the course of those two centuries. One of those misunderstandings was about the effect of a change in the central-bank interest rate, under a fixed-exchange rate regime. In fact, as long as the central bank is maintaining a fixed exchange rate between its currency and an alpha currency, changes in the central-bank interest rate don’t affect (at least as a first approximation) either the domestic money supply or the domestic price level; all that changes in the central-bank interest rate can accomplish is to change the bank’s holdings of alpha-currency reserves.

It seems to me that this long well-documented historical association between changes in the central-bank interest rates and the exchange value of currencies and the level of private spending is the basis for the widespread theoretical presumption that raising the central-bank interest rate target is deflationary and reducing it is inflationary. However, the old central-bank doctrine of the Bank Rate was conceived in a world in which gold and silver were the alpha moneys, and central banks – even central banks operating with inconvertible currencies – were beta banks, because the value of a central-bank currency was still reckoned, like the value of inconvertible Bank of England notes in the Napoleonic Wars, in terms of gold and silver.

In the Neo-Fisherite world, central banks rarely peg exchange rates against each other, and there is no longer any outside standard of value to which central banks even nominally commit themselves. In a world without the metallic standard of value in which the conventional theory of central banking developed, do the propositions about the effects of central-bank interest-rate setting still obtain? I am not so sure that they do, not with the analytical tools that we normally deploy when thinking about the effects of central-bank policies. Why not? Because, in a Neo-Fisherite world in which all central banks are alpha banks, I am not so sure that we really know what determines the value of this thing called fiat money. And if we don’t really know what determines the value of a fiat money, how can we really be sure that interest-rate policy works the same way in a Neo-Fisherite world that it used to work when the value of money was determined in relation to a metallic standard? (Just to avoid misunderstanding, I am not – repeat NOT — arguing for restoring the gold standard.)

Why do I say that we don’t know what determines the value of fiat money in a Neo-Fisherite world? Well, consider this. Almost three weeks ago I wrote a post in which I suggested that Bitcoins could be a massive bubble. My explanation for why Bitcoins could be a bubble is that they provide no real (i.e., non-monetary) service, so that their value is totally contingent on, and derived from (or so it seems to me, though I admit that my understanding of Bitcoins is partial and imperfect), the expectation of a positive future resale value. However, it seems certain that the resale value of Bitcoins must eventually fall to zero, so that backward induction implies that Bitcoins, inasmuch as they provide no real service, cannot retain a positive value in the present. On this reasoning, any observed value of a Bitcoin seems inexplicable except as an irrational bubble phenomenon.

Most of the comments I received about that post challenged the relevance of the backward-induction argument. The challenges were mainly of two types: a) the end state, when everyone will certainly stop accepting a Bitcoin in exchange, is very, very far into the future and its date is unknown, and b) the backward-induction argument applies equally to every fiat currency, so my own reasoning, according to my critics, implies that the value of every fiat currency is just as much a bubble phenomenon as the value of a Bitcoin.

My response to the first objection is that even if the strict logic of the backward-induction argument is inconclusive, because of the long and uncertain duration of the time elapse between now and the end state, the argument nevertheless suggests that the value of a Bitcoin is potentially very unsteady and vulnerable to sudden collapse. Those are not generally thought to be desirable attributes in a medium of exchange.

My response to the second objection is that fiat currencies are actually quite different from Bitcoins, because fiat currencies are accepted by governments in discharging the tax liabilities due to them. The discharge of a tax liability is a real (i.e. non-monetary) service, creating a distinct non-monetary demand for fiat currencies, thereby ensuring that fiat currencies retain value, even apart from being accepted as a medium of exchange.

That, at any rate, is my view, which I first heard from Earl Thompson (see his unpublished paper, “A Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory” pp. 23-25 for a derivation of the value of fiat money when tax liability is a fixed proportion of income). Some other pretty good economists have also held that view, like Abba Lerner, P. H. Wicksteed, and Adam Smith. Georg Friedrich Knapp also held that view, and, in his day, he was certainly well known, but I am unable to pass judgment on whether he was or wasn’t a good economist. But I do know that his views about money were famously misrepresented and caricatured by Ludwig von Mises. However, there are other good economists (Hal Varian for one), apparently unaware of, or untroubled by, the backward induction argument, who don’t think that acceptability in discharging tax liability is required to explain the value of fiat money.

Nor do I think that Thompson’s tax-acceptability theory of the value of money can stand entirely on its own, because it implies a kind of saw-tooth time profile of the price level, so that a fiat currency, earning no liquidity premium, would actually be appreciating between peak tax collection dates, and depreciating immediately following those dates, a pattern not obviously consistent with observed price data, though I do recall that Thompson used to claim that there is a lot of evidence that prices fall just before peak tax-collection dates. I don’t think that anyone has ever tried to combine the tax-acceptability theory with the empirical premise that currency (or base money) does in fact provide significant liquidity services. That, it seems to me, would be a worthwhile endeavor for any eager young researcher to undertake.

What does all of this have to do with the Neo-Fisherite Rebellion? Well, if we don’t have a satisfactory theory of the value of fiat money at hand, which is what another very smart economist Fischer Black – who, to my knowledge never mentioned the tax-liability theory — thought, then the only explanation of the value of fiat money is that, like the value of a Bitcoin, it is whatever people expect it to be. And the rate of inflation is equally inexplicable, being just whatever it is expected to be. So in a Neo-Fisherite world, if the central bank announces that it is reducing its interest-rate target, the effect of the announcement depends entirely on what “the market” reads into the announcement. And that is exactly what Fischer Black believed. See his paper “Active and Passive Monetary Policy in a Neoclassical Model.”

I don’t say that Williamson and his Neo-Fisherite colleagues are correct. Nor have they, to my knowledge, related their arguments to Fischer Black’s work. What I do say (indeed this is a problem I raised almost three years ago in one of my first posts on this blog) is that existing monetary theories of the price level are unable to rule out his result, because the behavior of the price level and inflation seems to depend, more than anything else, on expectations. And it is far from clear to me that there are any fundamentals in which these expectations can be grounded. If you impose the rational expectations assumption, which is almost certainly wrong empirically, maybe you can argue that the central bank provides a focal point for expectations to converge on. The problem, of course, is that in the real world, expectations are all over the place, there being no fundamentals to force the convergence of expectations to a stable equilibrium value.

In other words, it’s just a mess, a bloody mess, and I do not like it, not one little bit.

Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade, Part IX: An Endogenous Cycle

We are now at the point at which Hawtrey’s model of the business cycle can be assembled from the parts laid out in the previous thirteen chapters. Hawtrey had already shown that monetary disturbances can lead to significant cumulative fluctuations, while mere demand shifts cause only minor temporary fluctuations, but his aim was to account not just for a single cumulative expansion or contraction in response to a single disturbance, but for recurring cyclical fluctuations. His theoretical model therefore required a mechanism whereby a positive or expansionary impulse would be reversed and transformed into a negative or contractionary impulse. A complete cyclical theory must provide some explanation of how an expansion becomes a contraction, and how a contraction becomes an expansion.

In chapters 14 and 15, Hawtrey identifies the banking system as the transforming agent required for a theory of recurring cycles. The key behavioral relationship for Hawtrey was that banks demand reserves — either gold or currency or reserves held with the central bank — into which their own liabilities (banknotes or deposits) are convertible. Given their demand for reserves, banks set interest rates at a level that will maintain their reserves at the desired level, raising interest rates when their reserves are less than desired, and reducing interest rates when reserves are greater than desired. Hawtrey combined this behavioral relationship with two key empirical relationships: 1) that workers and other lower-income groups generally make little use of banknotes (limited in Britain to denominations above £5, roughly the equivalent of $200 at today’s prices) and almost none of bank deposits; 2) that the share of labor in total income is countercyclical.

Using these two relationships, Hawtrey provided a theoretical account of recurring cyclical fluctuations in output, income, and employment. He begins the story at the upper turning point, when a combination of rising inflation and diminishing reserves causes banks to raise their interest rates to stem a loss of reserves. The rise in interest rates causes a reduction in spending, thereby leading to falling prices, output, and employment. Hawtrey poses the following question:

We are now concerned not with the direct consequences of a given monetary disturbance, but with the influences at work to modify and, perhaps in the end, to counteract those consequence. In particular are we to regard the tendency towards renewed inflation which experience teaches us to expect after a period of depression as a fortuitous disturbance which may come sooner or later, or as a reaction the seeds of which are already sown? To put the same problem in another form, when the position of equilibrium which should follow a disturbance according to the theory of Chapter 6 is attained, is there any reason, apart from visible causes of renewed disturbance, why that equilibrium should not continue?  (pp. 182-83)

Hawtrey argues that the equilibrium will not continue, invoking the different money-holding habits of capitalists and workers along with the countercyclical share of labor in total income. Although both employment and wages fall in the downturn, Hawtrey maintains that profits fall more sharply than wages, so that the share of labor in total income actually increases in the downturn. The entire passage is worth quoting, because it also constitutes an implicit criticism of the Austrian theory of the downturn, notwithstanding the fact that Hawtrey very likely was not yet acquainted with the Austrian theory of the business cycles, its primary text, Mises’s Theory of Money and Credit, having been published in German in 1912 just a year before publication of Good and Bad Trade.

[R]ather than let their plant lie idle, manufacturers will sacrifice part or even the whole of their profits, and that in this way the restriction of output is mitigated. If all producers insisted on stopping work unless they could obtain a normal rate of profit, there would be a greater restriction of output and more workmen would be discharged, and in that case the proceeds of the diminished output would be divided (approximately) in the same proportion between the capitalists and the workmen as before. But in consequence of the sacrifice of profits to output which actually occurs, the number of workmen in employment and therefore also the aggregate of working-class earnings will not be so severely diminished as they would otherwise be. Thus the capitalists will get a smaller proportion and the workmen a greater proportion of the gross proceeds than before. But anything which tends to increase or maintain working-class earnings tends to increase or maintain the amount of cash in the hands of the working classes. If the banks have succeeded in reducing the outstanding amount of credit money by 10 percent, they will probably have reduced the incomes of the people with bank accounts by 10 percent, but the earnings of the working classes will have been reduced in a much smaller proportion – say, 5 percent. (pp. 189-90)

The reduction in the quantity of the liabilities of the banking system in the hands of the public will relieve the pressure that previously felt to increase their reserves, which pressure had caused them to raise interest rates.

Here is the process at work which is likely enough to produce fluctuations. For the bankers will thereupon be ready to increase the stock of credit money again, and once they have embarked on this course they may find it very difficult to stop short of a dangerous inflation. . . .

Instead of ending up, therefore, with the establishment of a golden mean of prosperity, unbroken by any deviation towards less or more, the depression will be marked in its later stages by a new complication. At the time when the reduction of wages is beginning to be accompanied not merely by an increase of employment, but also by an increase of profits, the banks will find that cash is beginning to accumulate in their vaults. They will ease off the rate of interest to something a little below the profit rate, and dealers will take advantage of the low rate to add to their stocks. The manufacturers will become aware of an increase in orders, and they will find that they can occupy their plant more fully. And now that stocks and output are both increased, borrowing will be increased and the bankers will have gained their end. But then the new accession to the amount of credit money means a corresponding increase of purchasing power. At existing prices the dealers find that their stocks are being depleted by the growing demand from the consumer. The prospect of rising prices is an inducement to add to their stocks as much as they can at existing prices, and so their order to the manufacturers grow, wholesale prices go up; and as the consumers’ demands on the dealers’ stocks grow, retail prices go up; ans as prices go up, the money needed to finance a given quantity of goods grows greater and greater, and both dealers and manufacturers borrow more and more from their bankers. In fact here are all the characteristics of a period of trade expansion in full swing. (pp. 190-92)

How far such a cumulative process of credit expansion can proceed before it reaches its upper turning point depends on the willingness of the banks to continue supplying credit with an ever smaller margin of reserves relative to liabilities.

The total credit money created by the banks will be so limited by them as not to outstrip the capacities of these working balances [deposits of the banks at the Bank of England], while the Bank of England will not allow the balances to grow out of proportion to its own cash holdings. It is indeed almost, though not quite, true to say that the entire stock of credit money in England is built up not on the cash holdings of the banks taken as a whole, but on the Reserve of the Bank of England. And as the legal tender money in circulation is something like four times the average amount of the reserves, it is obvious that a small proportional change in the quantity in circulation will produce a relatively large proportional change in the reserve, and therefor in the stock of credit money. The Bank of England does not maintain blindly a fixed proportion between reserve and deposits, so that a given change in the reserve isnot reflected immediately in the stock of credit money, but of course when there is a marked increase in the reserve there is a tendency toward a marked increase in the deposits and through the other banks towards a general increase in credit money. (pp. 195-96)

But as the expansion proceeds, and businesses begin to expect to profit from selling their output at rising prices, businesses short of workers with which to increase output will start bidding up wages.

Production having been stimulated to great activity there is a scarcity of labour, or at any rate of properly trained and competent labour, and employers are so anxious ot get the benefit of the high profits that ehy are more ready than usual to make concessions in preference to facing strikes which would leave their workers idle. There follows a period of full employment and rising wages. But this means growing cash requirements, and sooner or later the banks must take action to prevent their reserves being depleted. If they act in time they may manage to relieve the inflation of credit money gradually and an actual financial crisis may be avoided. But in either case there must ensue a period of slack trade. Here, therefore, we have proved that there is an inherent tendency toward fluctuations in the banking institutions which prevail in the world as it is. (p. 199)

This built-in cyclical pattern may also be amplified by other special factors.

Another cause which tends to aggravate trade fluctuations is that imprudent banking is profitable. In a period of buoyant trade such as marks the recovery from a state of depression the profit rate is high, and the rate of interest received by the banks on their loans and discounts is correspondingly high. It may be that during the depression the banks have had to be content with 1 or 1.5 percent. When the recovery begins they find in quite a short time that they can earn 4 or 5 percent. This is not 4 or 5 percent on their own capital, but on the money which they lend, which may be for ten times their capital. That portion of their deposits which is represented by cash in hand is idle and earns nothing, and they are eager to swell their profits by reducing their cash and reserves and increasing their loans and discounts. Working balances are more or less elastic and can at a pinch be reduced, but the lower its reserves fall the more likely is the bank to find it necessary to borrow from other institutions. Again, the reader a bank is to lend, the more likely it is to lend to speculative enterprises, the more likely it is to suffer losses through the total or perhaps temporary failure of such enterprises, and the more likely it is to show a balance on the wrong side of its accounts when it needs to borrow. When many banks have yielded to these temptations a crisis is almost inevitable, or if an acute crisis with its accompaniment of widespread bankruptcies is avoided, there is bound to be a very severe and probably prolonged depression during which the top-heavy structure of credit money is gently pulled down brick by brick. . . .

It will probably be only a minority of the banks that overreach themselves in speculation, and it may not occur in all countries. But the prudent banks have no means of guarding themselves against the consequences of their neighbours’ rashness. They could hardly be expected to increase their reserves beyond what they believe to be a prudent proportion. It is true that a central bank, in those countries where such an institution exists, can take this precaution. But it will only do so if aware of the over-speculation. Of this, however, it will have no accurate or complete knowledge, and it will experience great difficulty in determining what measures are to be taken. (pp. 200-02)

Hawtrey elaborates on his account of the cycle in chapter 16 with a discussion of financial crises, which he views as an exceptionally severe cyclical downturn. My next post in this series will focus on that discussion and possibly also on Hawtrey’s discussion in chapter 14 of another special case: the adjustment to an expected rate of deflation that exceeds the real rate of interest.

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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