Posts Tagged 'Monetarism'

Cleaning Up After Burns’s Mess

In my two recent posts (here and here) about Arthur Burns’s lamentable tenure as Chairman of the Federal Reserve System from 1970 to 1978, my main criticism of Burns has been that, apart from his willingness to subordinate monetary policy to the political interests of he who appointed him, Burns failed to understand that an incomes policy to restrain wages, thereby minimizing the tendency of disinflation to reduce employment, could not, in principle, reduce inflation if monetary restraint did not correspondingly reduce the growth of total spending and income. Inflationary (or employment-reducing) wage increases can’t be prevented by an incomes policy if the rate of increase in total spending, and hence total income,  isn’t controlled. King Canute couldn’t prevent the tide from coming in, and neither Arthur Burns nor the Wage and Price Council could slow the increase in wages when total spending was increasing at rate faster than was consistent with the 3% inflation rate that Burns was aiming for.

In this post, I’m going to discuss how the mess Burns left behind him upon leaving the Fed in 1978 had to be cleaned up. The mess got even worse under Burns’s successor, G. William Miller. The clean up did not begin until Carter appointed Paul Volcker in 1979 when it became obvious that the monetary policy of the Fed had failed to cope with problems left behind by Burns. After unleashing powerful inflationary forces under the cover of the wage-and-price controls he had persuaded Nixon to impose in 1971 as a precondition for delivering the monetary stimulus so desperately desired by Nixon to ensure his reelection, Burns continued providing that stimulus even after Nixon’s reelection, when it might still have been possible to taper off the stimulus before inflation flared up, and without aborting the expansion then under way. In his arrogance or ignorance, Burns chose not to adjust the policy that had so splendidly accomplished its intended result.

Not until the end of 1973, after crude oil prices quadrupled owing to a cutback in OPEC oil output, driving inflation above 10% in 1974, did Burns withdraw the monetary stimulus that had been administered in increasing doses since early 1971. Shocked out of his complacency by the outcry against 10% inflation, Burns shifted monetary policy toward restraint, bringing down the growth in nominal spending and income from over 11% in Q4 1973 to only 8% in Q1 1974.

After prolonging monetary stimulus unnecessarily for a year, Burn erred grievously by applying monetary restraint in response to the rise in oil prices. The largely exogenous rise in oil prices would most likely have caused a recession even with no change in monetary policy. By subjecting the economy to the added shock of reducing aggregate demand, Burns turned a mild recession into the worst recession since 1937-38 recession at the end of the Great Depression, with unemployment peaking at 8.8% in Q2 1975.. Nor did the reduction in aggregate demand have much anti-inflationary effect, because the incremental reduction in total spending occasioned by the monetary tightening was reflected mainly in reduced output and employment rather than in reduced inflation.

But even with unemployment reaching the highest level in almost 40 years, inflation did not fall below 5% – and then only briefly – until a year after the bottom of the recession. When President Carter took office in 1977, Burns, hoping to be reappointed to another term, provided Carter with a monetary expansion to hasten the reduction in unemployment that Carter has promised in his Presidential campaign. However, Burns’s accommodative policy did not sufficiently endear him to Carter to secure the coveted reappointment.

The short and unhappy tenure of Carter’s first appointee, G. William Miller, during which inflation rose from 6.5% to 10%, ended abruptly when Carter, with his Administration in crisis, sacked his Treasury Secretary, replacing him with Miller. Under pressure from the financial community to address the seemingly intractable inflation that seemed to be accelerating in the wake of a second oil shock following the Iranian Revolution and hostage taking, Carter felt constrained to appoint Volcker, formerly a high official in the Treasury in both the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, then serving as President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, who was known to be the favored choice of the financial community.

A year after leaving the Fed, Burns gave the annual Per Jacobson Lecture to the International Monetary Fund. Calling his lecture “The Anguish of Central Banking,” Burns offered a defense of his tenure, by arguing, in effect, that he should not be blamed for his poor performance, because the job of central banking is so very hard. Central bankers could control inflation, but only by inflicting unacceptably high unemployment. The political authorities and the public to whom central bankers are ultimately accountable would simply not tolerate the high unemployment that would be necessary for inflation to be controlled.

Viewed in the abstract, the Federal Reserve System had the power to abort the inflation at its incipient stage fifteen years ago or at any later point, and it has the power to end it today. At any time within that period, it could have restricted money supply and created sufficient strains in the financial and industrial markets to terminate inflation with little delay. It did not do so because the Federal Reserve was itself caught up in the philosophic and political currents that were transforming American life and culture.

Burns’s framing of the choices facing a central bank was tendentious; no policy maker had suggested that, after years of inflation had convinced the public to expect inflation to continue indefinitely, the Fed should “terminate inflation with little delay.” And Burns was hardly a disinterested actor as Fed chairman, having orchestrated a monetary expansion to promote the re-election chances of his benefactor Richard Nixon after securing, in return for that service, Nixon’s agreement to implement an incomes policy to limit the growth of wages, a policy that Burns believed would contain the inflationary consequences of the monetary expansion.

However, as I explained in my post on Hawtrey and Burns, the conceptual rationale for an incomes policy was not to allow monetary expansion to increase total spending, output and employment without causing increased inflation, but to allow the monetary restraint to be administered without increasing unemployment. But under the circumstances in the summer of 1971, when a recovery from the 1970 recession was just starting, and unemployment was still high, monetary expansion might have hastened a recovery in output and employment the resulting increase in total spending and income might still increase output and employment rather than being absorbed in higher wages and prices.

But using controls over wages and prices to speed the return to full employment could succeed only while substantial unemployment and unused capacity allowed output and employment to increase; the faster the recovery, the sooner increased spending would show up in rising prices and wages, or in supply shortages, rather than in increased output. So an incomes policy to enable monetary expansion to speed the recovery from recession and restore full employment might theoretically be successful, but, only if the monetary stimulus were promptly tapered off before driving up inflation.

Thus, if Burns wanted an incomes policy to be able to hasten the recovery through monetary expansion and maximize the political benefit to Nixon in time for the 1972 election, he ought to have recognized the need to withdraw the stimulus after the election. But for a year after Nixon’s reelection, Burns continued the monetary expansion without let up. Burns’s expression of anguish at the dilemma foisted upon him by circumstances beyond his control hardly evokes sympathy, sounding more like an attempt to deflect responsibility for his own mistakes or malfeasance in serving as an instrument of the criminal Campaign to Re-elect the President without bothering to alter that politically motivated policy after accomplishing his dishonorable mission.

But it was not until Burns’s successor, G. William Miller, was succeeded by Paul Volcker in August 1979 that the Fed was willing to adopt — and maintain — an anti-inflationary policy. In his recently published memoir Volcker recounts how, responding to President Carter’s request in July 1979 that he accept appointment as Fed chairman, he told Mr. Carter that, to bring down inflation, he would adopt a tighter monetary policy than had been followed by his predecessor. He also writes that, although he did not regard himself as a Friedmanite Monetarist, he had become convinced that to control inflation it was necessary to control the quantity of money, though he did not agree with Friedman that a rigid rule was required to keep the quantity of money growing at a constant rate. To what extent the Fed would set its policy in terms of a fixed target rate of growth in the quantity of money became the dominant issue in Fed policy during Volcker’s first term as Fed chairman.

In a review of Volcker’s memoir widely cited in the econ blogosphere, Tim Barker decried Volcker’s tenure, especially his determination to control inflation even at the cost of spilling blood — other people’s blood – if that was necessary to eradicate the inflationary psychology of the 1970s, which become a seemingly permanent feature of the economic environment at the time of Volcker’s appointment.

If someone were to make a movie about neoliberalism, there would need to be a starring role for the character of Paul Volcker. As chair of the Federal Reserve from 1979 to 1987, Volcker was the most powerful central banker in the world. These were the years when the industrial workers movement was defeated in the United States and United Kingdom, and third world debt crises exploded. Both of these owe something to Volcker. On October 6, 1979, after an unscheduled meeting of the Fed’s Open Market Committee, Volcker announced that he would start limiting the growth of the nation’s money supply. This would be accomplished by limiting the growth of bank reserves, which the Fed influenced by buying and selling government securities to member banks. As money became more scarce, banks would raise interest rates, limiting the amount of liquidity available in the overall economy. Though the interest rates were a result of Fed policy, the money supply target let Volcker avoid the politically explosive appearance of directly raising rates himself. The experiment—known as the Volcker Shock—lasted until 1982, inducing what remains the worst unemployment since the Great Depression and finally ending the inflation that had troubled the world economy since the late 1960s. To catalog all the results of the Volcker Shock—shuttered factories, broken unions, dizzying financialization—is to describe the whirlwind we are still reaping in 2019. . . .

Barker is correct that Volcker had been persuaded that to tighten monetary policy the quantity of reserves that the Fed was providing to the banking system had to be controlled. But making the quantity of bank reserves the policy instrument was a technical change. Monetary policy had been — and could still have been — conducted using an interest-rate instrument, and it would have been entirely possible for Volcker to tighten monetary policy using the traditional interest-rate instrument. It is possible that, as Barker asserts, it was politically easier to tighten policy using a quantity instrument than an interest-rate instrument.

But even if so, the real difficulty was not the instrument used, but the economic and political consequences of a tight monetary policy. The choice of the instrument to carry out the policy could hardly have made more than a marginal difference on the balance of political forces favoring or opposing that policy. The real issue was whether a tight monetary policy aimed at reducing inflation was more effectively conducted using the traditional interest-rate instrument or the quantity-instrument that Volcker adopted. More on this point below.

Those who praise Volcker like to say he “broke the back” of inflation. Nancy Teeters, the lone dissenter on the Fed Board of Governors, had a different metaphor: “I told them, ‘You are pulling the financial fabric of this country so tight that it’s going to rip. You should understand that once you tear a piece of fabric, it’s very difficult, almost impossible, to put it back together again.” (Teeters, also the first woman on the Fed board, told journalist William Greider that “None of these guys has ever sewn anything in his life.”) Fabric or backbone: both images convey violence. In any case, a price index doesn’t have a spine or a seam; the broken bodies and rent garments of the early 1980s belonged to people. Reagan economic adviser Michael Mussa was nearer the truth when he said that “to establish its credibility, the Federal Reserve had to demonstrate its willingness to spill blood, lots of blood, other people’s blood.”

Did Volcker consciously see unemployment as the instrument of price stability? A Rhode Island representative asked him “Is it a necessary result to have a large increase in unemployment?” Volcker responded, “I don’t know what policies you would have to follow to avoid that result in the short run . . . We can’t undertake a policy now that will cure that problem [unemployment] in 1981.” Call this the necessary byproduct view: defeating inflation is the number one priority, and any action to put people back to work would raise inflationary expectations. Growth and full employment could be pursued once inflation was licked. But there was more to it than that. Even after prices stabilized, full employment would not mean what it once had. As late as 1986, unemployment was still 6.6 percent, the Reagan boom notwithstanding. This was the practical embodiment of Milton Friedman’s idea that there was a natural rate of unemployment, and attempts to go below it would always cause inflation (for this reason, the concept is known as NAIRU or non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment). The logic here is plain: there need to be millions of unemployed workers for the economy to work as it should.

I want to make two points about Volcker’s policy. The first, which I made in my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform over 30 years ago, and which I have reiterated in several posts on this blog and which I discussed in my recent paper “Rules versus Discretion in Monetary Policy Historically Contemplated” (for an ungated version click here) is that using a quantity instrument to tighten monetary policy, as advocated by Milton Friedman, and acquiesced in by Volcker, induces expectations about the future actions of the monetary authority that undermine the policy and render it untenable. Volcker eventually realized the perverse expectational consequences of trying to implement a monetary policy using a fixed rule for the quantity instrument, but his learning experience in following Friedman’s advice needlessly exacerbated and prolonged the agony of the 1982 downturn for months after inflationary expectations had been broken.

The problem was well-known in the nineteenth century thanks to British experience under the Bank Charter Act that imposed a fixed quantity limit on the total quantity of banknotes issued by the Bank of England. When the total of banknotes approached the legal maximum, a precautionary demand for banknotes was immediately induced by those who feared that they might not later be able to obtain credit if it were needed because the Bank of England would be barred from making additional credit available.

Here is how I described Volcker’s Monetarist experiment in my book.

The danger lurking in any Monetarist rule has been perhaps best summarized by F. A. Hayek, who wrote:

As regards Professor Friedman’s proposal of a legal limit on the rate at which a monopolistic issuer of money was to be allowed to increase the quantity in circulation, I can only say that I would not like to see what would happen if under such a provision it ever became known that the amount of cash in circulation was approaching the upper limit and therefore a need for increased liquidity could not be met.

Hayek’s warnings were subsequently borne out after the Federal Reserve Board shifted its policy from targeting interest rates to targeting the monetary aggregates. The apparent shift toward a less inflationary monetary policy, reinforced by the election of a conservative, antiinflationary president in 1980, induced an international shift from other currencies into the dollar. That shift caused the dollar to appreciate by almost 30 percent against other major currencies.

At the same time the domestic demand for deposits was increasing as deregulation of the banking system reduced the cost of holding deposits. But instead of accommodating the increase in the foreign and domestic demands for dollars, the Fed tightened monetary policy. . . . The deflationary impact of that tightening overwhelmed the fiscal stimulus of tax cuts and defense buildup, which, many had predicted, would cause inflation to speed up. Instead the economy fell into the deepest recession since the 1930s, while inflation, by 1982, was brought down to the lowest levels since the early 1960s. The contraction, which began in July 1981, accelerated in the fourth quarter of 1981 and the first quarter of 1982.

The rapid disinflation was bringing interest rates down from the record high levels of mid-1981 and the economy seemed to bottom out in the second quarter, showing a slight rise in real GNP over the first quarter. Sticking to its Monetarist strategy, the Fed reduced its targets for monetary growth in 1982 to between 2.5 and 5.5 percent. But in January and February, the money supply increased at a rapid rate, perhaps in anticipation of an incipient expansion. Whatever its cause, the early burst of the money supply pushed M-1 way over its target range.

For the next several months, as M-1 remained above its target, financial and commodity markets were preoccupied with what the Fed was going to do next. The fear that the Fed would tighten further to bring M-1 back within its target range reversed the slide in interest rates that began in the fall of 1981. A striking feature of the behavior of interest rates at that time was that credit markets seemed to be heavily influenced by the announcements every week of the change in M-1 during the previous week. Unexpectedly large increases in the money supply put upward pressure on interest rates.

The Monetarist explanation was that the announcements caused people to raise their expectations of inflation. But if the increase in interest rates had been associated with a rising inflation premium, the announcements should have been associated with weakness in the dollar on foreign exchange markets and rising commodities prices. In fact, the dollar was rising and commodities prices were falling consistently throughout this period – even immediately after an unexpectedly large jump in M-1 was announced. . . . (pp. 218-19)

I pause in my own earlier narrative to add the further comment that the increase in interest rates in early 1982 clearly reflected an increasing liquidity premium, caused by the reduced availability of bank reserves, making cash desirable to hold than real assets thereby inducing further declines in asset values.

However, increases in M-1 during July turned out to be far smaller than anticipated, relieving some of the pressure on credit and commodities markets and allowing interest rates to begin to fall again. The decline in interest rates may have been eased slightly by . . . Volcker’s statement to Congress on July 20 that monetary growth at the upper range of the Fed’s targets would be acceptable. More important, he added that he Fed was willing to let M-1 remain above its target range for a while if the reason seemed to be a precautionary demand for liquidity. By August, M-1 had actually fallen back within its target range. As fears of further tightening by the Fed subsided, the stage was set for the decline in interest rates to accelerate, [and] the great stock market rally began on August 17, when the Dow . . . rose over 38 points [almost 5%].

But anticipation of an incipient recovery again fed monetary growth. From the middle of August through the end of September, M-1 grew at an annual rate of over 15 percent. Fears that rapid monetary growth would induce the Fed to tighten monetary policy slowed down the decline in interest rates and led to renewed declines in commodities price and the stock market, while pushing up the dollar to new highs. On October 5 . . . the Wall Street Journal reported that bond prices had fallen amid fears that the Fed might tighten credit conditions to slow the recent strong growth in the money supply. But on the very next day it was reported that the Fed expected inflation to stay low and would therefore allow M-1 to exceed its targets. The report sparked a major decline in interest rates and the Dow . . . soared another 37 points. (pp. 219-20)

The subsequent recovery, which began at the end of 1982, quickly became very powerful, but persistent fears that the Fed would backslide, at the urging of Milton Friedman and his Monetarist followers, into its bad old Monetarist habits periodically caused interest-rate spikes reflecting rising liquidity premiums as the public built up precautionary cash balances. Luckily, Volcker was astute enough to shrug off the overwrought warnings of Friedman and other Monetarists that rapid increases in the monetary aggregates foreshadowed the imminent return of double-digit inflation.

Thus, the Monetarist obsession with controlling the monetary aggregates senselessly prolonged an already deep recession that, by Q1 1982, had already slain the inflationary dragon, inflation having fallen to less than half its 1981 peak while GDP actually contracted in nominal terms. But because the money supply was expanding at a faster rate than was acceptable to Monetarist ideology, the Fed continued in its futile but destructive campaign to keep the monetary aggregates from overshooting their arbitrary Monetarist target range. It was not until Volcker in summer of 1982 finally and belatedly decided that enough was enough and announced that the Fed would declare victory over inflation and call off its Monetarist campaign even if doing so meant incurring Friedman’s wrath and condemnation for abandoning the true Monetarist doctrine.

Which brings me to my second point about Volcker’s policy. While it’s clear that Volcker’s decision to adopt control over the monetary aggregates as the focus of monetary policy was disastrously misguided, monetary policy can’t be conducted without some target. Although the Fed’s interest rate can serve as a policy instrument, it is not a plausible policy target. The preferred policy target is generally thought to be the rate of inflation. The Fed after all is mandated to achieve price stability, which is usually understood to mean targeting a rate of inflation of about 2%. A more sophisticated alternative would be to aim at a suitable price level, thereby allowing some upward movement, say, at a 2% annual rate, the difference between an inflation target and a moving price level target being that an inflation target is unaffected by past deviations of actual from targeted inflation while a moving price level target would require some catch up inflation to make up for past below-target inflation and reduced inflation to compensate for past above-target inflation.

However, the 1981-82 recession shows exactly why an inflation target and even a moving price level target is a bad idea. By almost any comprehensive measure, inflation was still positive throughout the 1981-82 recession, though the producer price index was nearly flat. Thus, inflation targeting during the 1981-82 recession would have been almost as bad a target for monetary policy as the monetary aggregates, with most measures of inflation showing that inflation was then between 3 and 5 percent even at the depth of the recession. Inflation targeting is thus, on its face, an unreliable basis for conducting monetary policy.

But the deeper problem with targeting inflation is that seeking to achieve an inflation target during a recession, when the very existence of a recession is presumptive evidence of the need for monetary stimulus, is actually a recipe for disaster, or, at the very least, for needlessly prolonging a recession. In a recession, the goal of monetary policy should be to stabilize the rate of increase in nominal spending along a time path consistent with the desired rate of inflation. Thus, as long as output is contracting or increasing very slowly, the desired rate of inflation should be higher than the desired rate over the long-term. The appropriate strategy for achieving an inflation target ought to be to let inflation be reduced by the accelerating expansion of output and employment characteristic of most recoveries relative to a stable expansion of nominal spending.

The true goal of monetary policy should always be to maintain a time path of total spending consistent with a desired price-level path over time. But it should not be the objective of the monetary policy to always be as close as possible to the desired path, because trying to stay on that path would likely destabilize the real economy. Market monetarists argue that the goal of monetary policy ought to be to keep nominal GDP expanding at that whatever rate is consistent with maintaining the desired long-run price-level path. That is certainly a reasonable practical rule for monetary policy, but the policy criterion I have discussed here would, at least in principle, be consistent with a more activist approach in which the monetary authority would seek to hasten the restoration of full employment during recessions by temporarily increasing the rate of monetary expansion and in nominal GDP as long as real output and employment remained below the maximum levels consistent with desired price level path over time. But such a strategy would require the monetary authority to be able to fine tune its monetary expansion so that it was tapered off just as the economy was reaching its maximum sustainable output and employment path. Whether such fine-tuning would be possible in practice is a question to which I don’t think we now know the answer.



What Is Free Banking All About?

I notice that there has been a bit of a dustup lately about free banking, triggered by two posts by Izabella Kaminska, first on FTAlphaville followed by another on her own blog. I don’t want to get too deeply into the specifics of Kaminska’s posts, save to correct a couple of factual misstatements and conceptual misunderstandings (see below). At any rate, George Selgin has a detailed reply to Kaminska’s errors with which I mostly agree, and Scott Sumner has scolded her for not distinguishing between sensible free bankers, e.g., Larry White, George Selgin, Kevin Dowd, and Bill Woolsey, and the anti-Fed, gold-bug nutcases who, following in the footsteps of Ron Paul, have adopted free banking as a slogan with which to pursue their anti-Fed crusade.

Now it just so happens that, as some readers may know, I wrote a book about free banking, which I began writing almost 30 years ago. The point of the book was not to call for a revolutionary change in our monetary system, but to show that financial innovations and market forces were causing our modern monetary system to evolve into something like the theoretical model of a free banking system that had been worked out in a general sort of way by some classical monetary theorists, starting with Adam Smith, who believed that a system of private banks operating under a gold standard would supply as much money as, but no more money than, the public wanted to hold. In other words, the quantity of money produced by a system of competing banks, operating under convertibility, could be left to take care of itself, with no centralized quantitative control over either the quantity of bank liabilities or the amount of reserves held by the banking system.

So I especially liked the following comment by J. V. Dubois to Scott’s post

[M]y thing against free banking is that we actually already have it. We already have private banks issuing their own monies directly used for transactions – they are called bank accounts and debit/credit cards. There are countries like Sweden where there are now shops that do not accept physical cash (only bank monies) – a policy actively promoted government, if you can believe it.

There are now even financial products like Xapo Debit Card that automatically converts all payments received on your account into non-monetary assets (with Xapo it is bitcoins) and back into monies when you use the card for payment. There is a very healthy international bank money market so no matter what money you personally use, you can travel all around the world and pay comfortably without ever seeing or touching official local government currency.

In opposition to the Smithian school of thought, there was the view of Smith’s close friend David Hume, who famously articulated what became known as the Price-Specie-Flow Mechanism, a mechanism that Smith wisely omitted from his discussion of international monetary adjustment in the Wealth of Nations, despite having relied on PSFM with due acknowledgment of Hume, in his Lectures on Jurisprudence. In contrast to Smith’s belief that there is a market mechanism limiting the competitive issue of convertible bank liabilities (notes and deposits) to the amount demanded by the public, Hume argued that banks were inherently predisposed to overissue their liabilities, the liabilities being issuable at almost no cost, so that private banks, seeking to profit from the divergence between the face value of their liabilities and the cost of issuing them, were veritable engines of inflation.

These two opposing views of banks later morphed into what became known almost 70 years later as the Banking and Currency Schools. Taking the Humean position, the Currency School argued that without quantitative control over the quantity of banknotes issued, the banking system would inevitably issue an excess of banknotes, causing overtrading, speculation, inflation, a drain on the gold reserves of the banking system, culminating in financial crises. To prevent recurring financial crises, the Currency School proposed a legal limit on the total quantity of banknotes beyond which limit, additional banknotes could be only be issued (by the Bank of England) in exchange for an equivalent amount of gold at the legal gold parity. Taking the Smithian position, the Banking School argued that there were market mechanisms by which any excess liabilities created by the banking system would automatically be returned to the banking system — the law of reflux. Thus, as long as convertibility obtained (i.e., the bank notes were exchangeable for gold at the legal gold parity), any overissue would be self-correcting, so that a legal limit on the quantity of banknotes was, at best, superfluous, and, at worst, would itself trigger a financial crisis.

As it turned out, the legal limit on the quantity of banknotes proposed by the Currency School was enacted in the Bank Charter Act of 1844, and, just as the Banking School predicted, led to a financial crisis in 1847, when, as soon as the total quantity of banknotes approached the legal limit, a sudden precautionary demand for banknotes led to a financial panic that was subdued only after the government announced that the Bank of England would incur no legal liability for issuing banknotes beyond the legal limit. Similar financial panics ensued in 1857 and 1866, and they were also subdued by suspending the relevant statutory limits on the quantity of banknotes. There were no further financial crises in Great Britain in the nineteenth century (except possibly for a minicrisis in 1890), because bank deposits increasingly displaced banknotes as the preferred medium of exchange, the quantity of bank deposits being subject to no statutory limit, and because the market anticipated that, in a crisis, the statutory limit on the quantity of banknotes would be suspended, so that a sudden precautionary demand for banknotes never materialized in the first place.

Let me pause here to comment on the factual and conceptual misunderstandings in Kaminska’s first post. Discussing the role of the Bank of England in the British monetary system in the first half of the nineteenth century, she writes:

But with great money-issuance power comes great responsibility, and more specifically the great temptation to abuse that power via the means of imprudent money-printing. This fate befell the BoE — as it does most banks — not helped by the fact that the BoE still had to compete with a whole bunch of private banks who were just as keen as it to issue money to an equally imprudent degree.

And so it was that by the 1840s — and a number of Napoleonic Wars later — a terrible inflation had begun to grip the land.

So Kaminska seems to have fallen for the Humean notion that banks are inherently predisposed to overissue and, without some quantitative restraint on their issue of liabilities, are engines of inflation. But, as the law of reflux teaches us, this is not true, especially when banks, as they inevitably must, make their liabilities convertible on demand into some outside asset whose supply is not under their control. After 1821, the gold standard having been officially restored in England, the outside asset was gold. So what was happening to the British price level after 1821 was determined not by the actions of the banking system (at least to a first approximation), but by the value of gold which was determined internationally. That’s the conceptual misunderstanding that I want to correct.

Now for the factual misunderstanding. The chart below shows the British Retail Price Index between 1825 and 1850. The British price level was clearly falling for most of the period. After falling steadily from 1825 to about 1835, the price level rebounded till 1839, but it prices again started to fall reaching a low point in 1844, before starting another brief rebound and rising sharply in 1847 until the panic when prices again started falling rapidly.


From a historical perspective, the outcome of the implicit Smith-Hume disagreement, which developed into the explicit dispute over the Bank Charter Act of 1844 between the Banking and Currency Schools, was highly unsatisfactory. Not only was the dysfunctional Bank Charter Act enacted, but the orthodox view of how the gold standard operates was defined by the Humean price-specie-flow mechanism and the Humean fallacy that banks are engines of inflation, which made it appear that, for the gold standard to function, the quantity of money had to be tied rigidly to the gold reserve, thereby placing the burden of adjustment primarily on countries losing gold, so that inflationary excesses would be avoided. (Fortunately, for the world economy, gold supplies increased fairly rapidly during the nineteenth century, the spread of the gold standard meant that the monetary demand for gold was increasing faster than the supply of gold, causing gold to appreciate for most of the nineteenth century.)

When I set out to write my book on free banking, my intention was to clear up the historical misunderstandings, largely attributable to David Hume, surrounding the operation of the gold standard and the behavior of competitive banks. In contrast to the Humean view that banks are inherently inflationary — a view endorsed by quantity theorists of all stripes and enshrined in the money-multiplier analysis found in every economics textbook — that the price level would go to infinity if banks were not constrained by a legal reserve requirement on their creation of liabilities, there was an alternative view that the creation of liabilities by the banking system is characterized by the same sort of revenue and cost considerations governing other profit-making enterprises, and that the equilibrium of a private banking system is not that value of money is driven down to zero, as Milton Friedman, for example, claimed in his Program for Monetary Stability.

The modern discovery (or rediscovery) that banks are not inherently disposed to debase their liabilities was made by James Tobin in his classic paper “Commercial Banks and Creators of Money.” Tobin’s analysis was extended by others (notably Ben Klein, Earl Thompson, and Fischer Black) to show that the standard arguments for imposing quantitative limits on the creation of bank liabilities were unfounded, because, even with no legal constraints, there are economic forces limiting their creation of liabilities. A few years after these contributions, F. A. Hayek also figured out that there are competitive forces constraining the creation of liabilities by the banking system. He further developed the idea in a short book Denationalization of Money which did much to raise the profile of the idea of free banking, at least in some circles.

If there is an economic constraint on the creation of bank liabilities, and if, accordingly, the creation of bank liabilities was responsive to the demands of individuals to hold those liabilities, the Friedman/Monetarist idea that the goal of monetary policy should be to manage the total quantity of bank liabilities so that it would grow continuously at a fixed rate was really dumb. It was tried unsuccessfully by Paul Volcker in the early 1980s, in his struggle to bring inflation under control. It failed for precisely the reason that the Bank Charter Act had to be suspended periodically in the nineteenth century: the quantitative limit on the growth of the money supply itself triggered a precautionary demand to hold money that led to a financial crisis. In order to avoid a financial crisis, the Volcker Fed constantly allowed the monetary aggregates to exceed their growth targets, but until Volcker announced in the summer of 1982 that the Fed would stop paying attention to the aggregates, the economy was teetering on the verge of a financial crisis, undergoing the deepest recession since the Great Depression. After the threat of a Friedman/Monetarist financial crisis was lifted, the US economy almost immediately began one of the fastest expansions of the post-war period.

Nevertheless, for years afterwards, Friedman and his fellow Monetarists kept warning that rapid growth of the monetary aggregates meant that the double-digit inflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s would soon return. So one of my aims in my book was to use free-banking theory – the idea that there are economic forces constraining the issue of bank liabilities and that banks are not inherently engines of inflation – to refute the Monetarist notion that the key to economic stability is to make the money stock grow at a constant 3% annual rate of growth.

Another goal was to explain that competitive banks necessarily have to select some outside asset into which to make their liabilities convertible. Otherwise those liabilities would have no value, or at least so I argued, and still believe. The existence of what we now call network effects forces banks to converge on whatever assets are already serving as money in whatever geographic location they are trying to draw customers from. Thus, free banking is entirely consistent with an already existing fiat currency, so that there is no necessary link between free banking and a gold (or other commodity) standard. Moreover, if free banking were adopted without abolishing existing fiat currencies and legal tender laws, there is almost no chance that, as Hayek argued, new privately established monetary units would arise to displace the existing fiat currencies.

My final goal was to suggest a new way of conducting monetary policy that would enhance the stability of a free banking system, proposing a monetary regime that would ensure the optimum behavior of prices over time. When I wrote the book, I had been convinced by Earl Thompson that the optimum behavior of the price level over time would be achieved if an index of nominal wages was stabilized. He proposed accomplishing this objective by way of indirect convertibility of the dollar into an index of nominal wages by way of a modified form of Irving Fisher’s compensated dollar plan. I won’t discuss how or why that goal could be achieved, but I am no longer convinced of the optimality of stabilizing an index of nominal wages. So I am now more inclined toward nominal GDP level targeting as a monetary policy regime than the system I proposed in my book.

But let me come back to the point that I think J. V. Dubois was getting at in his comment. Historically, idea of free banking meant that private banks should be allowed to issue bank notes of their own (with the issuing bank clearly identified) without unreasonable regulations, restrictions or burdens not generally applied to other institutions. During the period when private banknotes were widely circulating, banknotes were a more prevalent form of money than bank deposits. So in the 21st century, the right of banks to issue hand to hand circulating banknotes is hardly a crucial issue for monetary policy. What really matters is the overall legal and regulatory framework under which banks operate.

The term “free banking” does very little to shed light on most of these issues. For example, what kind of functions should banks perform? Should commercial banks also engage in investment banking? Should commercial bank liabilities be ensured by the government, and if so under what terms, and up to what limits? There are just a couple of issues; there are many others. And they aren’t necessarily easily resolved by invoking the free-banking slogan. When I was writing, I meant by “free banking” a system in which the market determined the total quantity of bank liabilities. I am still willing to use “free banking” in that sense, but there are all kinds of issues concerning the asset side of bank balance sheets that also need to be addressed, and I don’t find it helpful to use the term free banking to address those issues.

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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