Posts Tagged 'Murray Rothbard'

An Austrian Tragedy

It was hardly predictable that the New York Review of Books would take notice of Marginal Revolutionaries by Janek Wasserman, marking the susquicentenial of the publication of Carl Menger’s Grundsätze (Principles of Economics) which, along with Jevons’s Principles of Political Economy and Walras’s Elements of Pure Economics ushered in the marginal revolution upon which all of modern economics, for better or for worse, is based. The differences among the three founding fathers of modern economic theory were not insubstantial, and the Jevonian version was largely superseded by the work of his younger contemporary Alfred Marshall, so that modern neoclassical economics is built on the work of only one of the original founders, Leon Walras, Jevons’s work having left little impression on the future course of economics.

Menger’s work, however, though largely, but not totally, eclipsed by that of Marshall and Walras, did leave a more enduring imprint and a more complicated legacy than Jevons’s — not only for economics, but for political theory and philosophy, more generally. Judging from Edward Chancellor’s largely favorable review of Wasserman’s volume, one might even hope that a start might be made in reassessing that legacy, a process that could provide an opportunity for mutually beneficial interaction between long-estranged schools of thought — one dominant and one marginal — that are struggling to overcome various conceptual, analytical and philosophical problems for which no obvious solutions seem available.

In view of the failure of modern economists to anticipate the Great Recession of 2008, the worst financial shock since the 1930s, it was perhaps inevitable that the Austrian School, a once favored branch of economics that had made a specialty of booms and busts, would enjoy a revival of public interest.

The theme of Austrians as outsiders runs through Janek Wasserman’s The Marginal Revolutionaries: How Austrian Economists Fought the War of Ideas, a general history of the Austrian School from its beginnings to the present day. The title refers both to the later marginalization of the Austrian economists and to the original insight of its founding father, Carl Menger, who introduced the notion of marginal utility—namely, that economic value does not derive from the cost of inputs such as raw material or labor, as David Ricardo and later Karl Marx suggested, but from the utility an individual derives from consuming an additional amount of any good or service. Water, for instance, may be indispensable to humans, but when it is abundant, the marginal value of an extra glass of the stuff is close to zero. Diamonds are less useful than water, but a great deal rarer, and hence command a high market price. If diamonds were as common as dewdrops, however, they would be worthless.

Menger was not the first economist to ponder . . . the “paradox of value” (why useless things are worth more than essentials)—the Italian Ferdinando Galiani had gotten there more than a century earlier. His central idea of marginal utility was simultaneously developed in England by W. S. Jevons and on the Continent by Léon Walras. Menger’s originality lay in applying his theory to the entire production process, showing how the value of capital goods like factory equipment derived from the marginal value of the goods they produced. As a result, Austrian economics developed a keen interest in the allocation of capital. Furthermore, Menger and his disciples emphasized that value was inherently subjective, since it depends on what consumers are willing to pay for something; this imbued the Austrian school from the outset with a fiercely individualistic and anti-statist aspect.

Menger’s unique contribution is indeed worthy of special emphasis. He was more explicit than Jevons or Walras, and certainly more than Marshall, in explaining that the value of factors of production is derived entirely from the value of the incremental output that could be attributed (or imputed) to their services. This insight implies that cost is not an independent determinant of value, as Marshall, despite accepting the principle of marginal utility, continued to insist – famously referring to demand and supply as the two blades of the analytical scissors that determine value. The cost of production therefore turns out to be nothing but the value the output foregone when factors are used to produce one output instead of the next most highly valued alternative. Cost therefore does not determine, but is determined by, equilibrium price, which means that, in practice, costs are always subjective and conjectural. (I have made this point in an earlier post in a different context.) I will have more to say below about the importance of Menger’s specific contribution and its lasting imprint on the Austrian school.

Menger’s Principles of Economics, published in 1871, established the study of economics in Vienna—before then, no economic journals were published in Austria, and courses in economics were taught in law schools. . . .

The Austrian School was also bound together through family and social ties: [his two leading disciples, [Eugen von] Böhm-Bawerk and Friedrich von Wieser [were brothers-in-law]. [Wieser was] a close friend of the statistician Franz von Juraschek, Friedrich Hayek’s maternal grandfather. Young Austrian economists bonded on Alpine excursions and met in Böhm-Bawerk’s famous seminars (also attended by the Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin and the German Marxist Rudolf Hilferding). Ludwig von Mises continued this tradition, holding private seminars in Vienna in the 1920s and later in New York. As Wasserman notes, the Austrian School was “a social network first and last.”

After World War I, the Habsburg Empire was dismantled by the victorious Allies. The Austrian bureaucracy shrank, and university placements became scarce. Menger, the last surviving member of the first generation of Austrian economists, died in 1921. The economic school he founded, with its emphasis on individualism and free markets, might have disappeared under the socialism of “Red Vienna.” Instead, a new generation of brilliant young economists emerged: Schumpeter, Hayek, and Mises—all of whom published best-selling works in English and remain familiar names today—along with a number of less well known but influential economists, including Oskar Morgenstern, Fritz Machlup, Alexander Gerschenkron, and Gottfried Haberler.

Two factual corrections are in order. Menger outlived Böhm-Bawerk, but not his other chief disciple von Wieser, who died in 1926, not long after supervising Hayek’s doctoral dissertation, later published in 1927, and, in 1933, translated into English and published as Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle. Moreover, a 16-year gap separated Mises and Schumpeter, who were exact contemporaries, from Hayek (born in 1899) who was a few years older than Gerschenkron, Haberler, Machlup and Morgenstern.

All the surviving members or associates of the Austrian school wound up either in the US or Britain after World War II, and Hayek, who had taken a position in London in 1931, moved to the US in 1950, taking a position in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago after having been refused a position in the economics department. Through the intervention of wealthy sponsors, Mises obtained an academic appointment of sorts at the NYU economics department, where he succeeded in training two noteworthy disciples who wrote dissertations under his tutelage, Murray Rothbard and Israel Kirzner. (Kirzner wrote his dissertation under Mises at NYU, but Rothbard did his graduate work at Colulmbia.) Schumpeter, Haberler and Gerschenkron eventually took positions at Harvard, while Machlup (with some stops along the way) and Morgenstern made their way to Princeton. However, Hayek’s interests shifted from pure economic theory to deep philosophical questions. While Machlup and Haberler continued to work on economic theory, the Austrian influence on their work after World War II was barely recognizable. Morgenstern and Schumpeter made major contributions to economics, but did not hide their alienation from the doctrines of the Austrian School.

So there was little reason to expect that the Austrian School would survive its dispersal when the Nazis marched unopposed into Vienna in 1938. That it did survive is in no small measure due to its ideological usefulness to anti-socialist supporters who provided financial support to Hayek, enabling his appointment to the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and Mises’s appointment at NYU, and other forms of research support to Hayek, Mises and other like-minded scholars, as well as funding the Mont Pelerin Society, an early venture in globalist networking, started by Hayek in 1947. Such support does not discredit the research to which it gave rise. That the survival of the Austrian School would probably not have been possible without the support of wealthy benefactors who anticipated that the Austrians would advance their political and economic interests does not invalidate the research thereby enabled. (In the interest of transparency, I acknowledge that I received support from such sources for two books that I wrote.)

Because Austrian School survivors other than Mises and Hayek either adapted themselves to mainstream thinking without renouncing their earlier beliefs (Haberler and Machlup) or took an entirely different direction (Morgenstern), and because the economic mainstream shifted in two directions that were most uncongenial to the Austrians: Walrasian general-equilibrium theory and Keynesian macroeconomics, the Austrian remnant, initially centered on Mises at NYU, adopted a sharply adversarial attitude toward mainstream economic doctrines.

Despite its minute numbers, the lonely remnant became a house divided against itself, Mises’s two outstanding NYU disciples, Murray Rothbard and Israel Kirzner, holding radically different conceptions of how to carry on the Austrian tradition. An extroverted radical activist, Rothbard was not content just to lead a school of economic thought, he aspired to become the leader of a fantastical anarchistic revolutionary movement to replace all established governments under a reign of private-enterprise anarcho-capitalism. Rothbard’s political radicalism, which, despite his Jewish ancestry, even included dabbling in Holocaust denialism, so alienated his mentor, that Mises terminated all contact with Rothbard for many years before his death. Kirzner, self-effacing, personally conservative, with no political or personal agenda other than the advancement of his own and his students’ scholarship, published hundreds of articles and several books filling 10 thick volumes of his collected works published by the Liberty Fund, while establishing a robust Austrian program at NYU, training many excellent scholars who found positions in respected academic and research institutions. Similar Austrian programs, established under the guidance of Kirzner’s students, were started at other institutions, most notably at George Mason University.

One of the founders of the Cato Institute, which for nearly half a century has been the leading avowedly libertarian think tank in the US, Rothbard was eventually ousted by Cato, and proceeded to set up a rival think tank, the Ludwig von Mises Institute, at Auburn University, which has turned into a focal point for extreme libertarians and white nationalists to congregate, get acquainted, and strategize together.

Isolation and marginalization tend to cause a subspecies either to degenerate toward extinction, to somehow blend in with the members of the larger species, thereby losing its distinctive characteristics, or to accentuate its unique traits, enabling it to find some niche within which to survive as a distinct sub-species. Insofar as they have engaged in economic analysis rather than in various forms of political agitation and propaganda, the Rothbardian Austrians have focused on anarcho-capitalist theory and the uniquely perverse evils of fractional-reserve banking.

Rejecting the political extremism of the Rothbardians, Kirznerian Austrians differentiate themselves by analyzing what they call market processes and emphasizing the limitations on the knowledge and information possessed by actual decision-makers. They attribute this misplaced focus on equilibrium to the extravagantly unrealistic and patently false assumptions of mainstream models on the knowledge possessed by economic agents, which effectively make equilibrium the inevitable — and trivial — conclusion entailed by those extreme assumptions. In their view, the focus of mainstream models on equilibrium states with unrealistic assumptions results from a preoccupation with mathematical formalism in which mathematical tractability rather than sound economics dictates the choice of modeling assumptions.

Skepticism of the extreme assumptions about the informational endowments of agents covers a range of now routine assumptions in mainstream models, e.g., the ability of agents to form precise mathematical estimates of the probability distributions of future states of the world, implying that agents never confront decisions about which they are genuinely uncertain. Austrians also object to the routine assumption that all the information needed to determine the solution of a model is the common knowledge of the agents in the model, so that an existing equilibrium cannot be disrupted unless new information randomly and unpredictably arrives. Each agent in the model having been endowed with the capacity of a semi-omniscient central planner, solving the model for its equilibrium state becomes a trivial exercise in which the optimal choices of a single agent are taken as representative of the choices made by all of the model’s other, semi-omnicient, agents.

Although shreds of subjectivism — i.e., agents make choices based own preference orderings — are shared by all neoclassical economists, Austrian criticisms of mainstream neoclassical models are aimed at what Austrians consider to be their insufficient subjectivism. It is this fierce commitment to a robust conception of subjectivism, in which an equilibrium state of shared expectations by economic agents must be explained, not just assumed, that Chancellor properly identifies as a distinguishing feature of the Austrian School.

Menger’s original idea of marginal utility was posited on the subjective preferences of consumers. This subjectivist position was retained by subsequent generations of the school. It inspired a tradition of radical individualism, which in time made the Austrians the favorite economists of American libertarians. Subjectivism was at the heart of the Austrians’ polemical rejection of Marxism. Not only did they dismiss Marx’s labor theory of value, they argued that socialism couldn’t possibly work since it would lack the means to allocate resources efficiently.

The problem with central planning, according to Hayek, is that so much of the knowledge that people act upon is specific knowledge that individuals acquire in the course of their daily activities and life experience, knowledge that is often difficult to articulate – mere intuition and guesswork, yet more reliable than not when acted upon by people whose livelihoods depend on being able to do the right thing at the right time – much less communicate to a central planner.

Chancellor attributes Austrian mistrust of statistical aggregates or indices, like GDP and price levels, to Austrian subjectivism, which regards such magnitudes as abstractions irrelevant to the decisions of private decision-makers, except perhaps in forming expectations about the actions of government policy makers. (Of course, this exception potentially provides full subjectivist license and legitimacy for macroeconomic theorizing despite Austrian misgivings.) Observed statistical correlations between aggregate variables identified by macroeconomists are dismissed as irrelevant unless grounded in, and implied by, the purposeful choices of economic agents.

But such scruples about the use of macroeconomic aggregates and inferring causal relationships from observed correlations are hardly unique to the Austrian school. One of the most important contributions of the 20th century to the methodology of economics was an article by T. C. Koopmans, “Measurement Without Theory,” which argued that measured correlations between macroeconomic variables provide a reliable basis for business-cycle research and policy advice only if the correlations can be explained in terms of deeper theoretical or structural relationships. The Nobel Prize Committee, in awarding the 1975 Prize to Koopmans, specifically mentioned this paper in describing Koopmans’s contributions. Austrians may be more fastidious than their mainstream counterparts in rejecting macroeconomic relationships not based on microeconomic principles, but they aren’t the only ones mistrustful of mere correlations.

Chancellor cites mistrust about the use of statistical aggregates and price indices as a factor in Hayek’s disastrous policy advice warning against anti-deflationary or reflationary measures during the Great Depression.

Their distrust of price indexes brought Austrian economists into conflict with mainstream economic opinion during the 1920s. At the time, there was a general consensus among leading economists, ranging from Irving Fisher at Yale to Keynes at Cambridge, that monetary policy should aim at delivering a stable price level, and in particular seek to prevent any decline in prices (deflation). Hayek, who earlier in the decade had spent time at New York University studying monetary policy and in 1927 became the first director of the Austrian Institute for Business Cycle Research, argued that the policy of price stabilization was misguided. It was only natural, Hayek wrote, that improvements in productivity should lead to lower prices and that any resistance to this movement (sometimes described as “good deflation”) would have damaging economic consequences.

The argument that deflation stemming from economic expansion and increasing productivity is normal and desirable isn’t what led Hayek and the Austrians astray in the Great Depression; it was their failure to realize the deflation that triggered the Great Depression was a monetary phenomenon caused by a malfunctioning international gold standard. Moreover, Hayek’s own business-cycle theory explicitly stated that a neutral (stable) monetary policy ought to aim at keeping the flow of total spending and income constant in nominal terms while his policy advice of welcoming deflation meant a rapidly falling rate of total spending. Hayek’s policy advice was an inexcusable error of judgment, which, to his credit, he did acknowledge after the fact, though many, perhaps most, Austrians have refused to follow him even that far.

Considered from the vantage point of almost a century, the collapse of the Austrian School seems to have been inevitable. Hayek’s long-shot bid to establish his business-cycle theory as the dominant explanation of the Great Depression was doomed from the start by the inadequacies of the very specific version of his basic model and his disregard of the obvious implication of that model: prevent total spending from contracting. The promising young students and colleagues who had briefly gathered round him upon his arrival in England, mostly attached themselves to other mentors, leaving Hayek with only one or two immediate disciples to carry on his research program. The collapse of his research program, which he himself abandoned after completing his final work in economic theory, marked a research hiatus of almost a quarter century, with the notable exception of publications by his student, Ludwig Lachmann who, having decamped in far-away South Africa, labored in relative obscurity for most of his career.

The early clash between Keynes and Hayek, so important in the eyes of Chancellor and others, is actually overrated. Chancellor, quoting Lachmann and Nicholas Wapshott, describes it as a clash of two irreconcilable views of the economic world, and the clash that defined modern economics. In later years, Lachmann actually sought to effect a kind of reconciliation between their views. It was not a conflict of visions that undid Hayek in 1931-32, it was his misapplication of a narrowly constructed model to a problem for which it was irrelevant.

Although the marginalization of the Austrian School, after its misguided policy advice in the Great Depression and its dispersal during and after World War II, is hardly surprising, the unwillingness of mainstream economists to sort out what was useful and relevant in the teachings of the Austrian School from what is not was unfortunate not only for the Austrians. Modern economics was itself impoverished by its disregard for the complexity and interconnectedness of economic phenomena. It’s precisely the Austrian attentiveness to the complexity of economic activity — the necessity for complementary goods and factors of production to be deployed over time to satisfy individual wants – that is missing from standard economic models.

That Austrian attentiveness, pioneered by Menger himself, to the complementarity of inputs applied over the course of time undoubtedly informed Hayek’s seminal contribution to economic thought: his articulation of the idea of intertemporal equilibrium that comprehends the interdependence of the plans of independent agents and the need for them to all fit together over the course of time for equilibrium to obtain. Hayek’s articulation represented a conceptual advance over earlier versions of equilibrium analysis stemming from Walras and Pareto, and even from Irving Fisher who did pay explicit attention to intertemporal equilibrium. But in Fisher’s articulation, intertemporal consistency was described in terms of aggregate production and income, leaving unexplained the mechanisms whereby the individual plans to produce and consume particular goods over time are reconciled. Hayek’s granular exposition enabled him to attend to, and articulate, necessary but previously unspecified relationships between the current prices and expected future prices.

Moreover, neither mainstream nor Austrian economists have ever explained how prices are adjust in non-equilibrium settings. The focus of mainstream analysis has always been the determination of equilibrium prices, with the implicit understanding that “market forces” move the price toward its equilibrium value. The explanatory gap has been filled by the mainstream New Classical School which simply posits the existence of an equilibrium price vector, and, to replace an empirically untenable tâtonnement process for determining prices, posits an equally untenable rational-expectations postulate to assert that market economies typically perform as if they are in, or near the neighborhood of, equilibrium, so that apparent fluctuations in real output are viewed as optimal adjustments to unexplained random productivity shocks.

Alternatively, in New Keynesian mainstream versions, constraints on price changes prevent immediate adjustments to rationally expected equilibrium prices, leading instead to persistent reductions in output and employment following demand or supply shocks. (I note parenthetically that the assumption of rational expectations is not, as often suggested, an assumption distinct from market-clearing, because the rational expectation of all agents of a market-clearing price vector necessarily implies that the markets clear unless one posits a constraint, e.g., a binding price floor or ceiling, that prevents all mutually beneficial trades from being executed.)

Similarly, the Austrian school offers no explanation of how unconstrained price adjustments by market participants is a sufficient basis for a systemic tendency toward equilibrium. Without such an explanation, their belief that market economies have strong self-correcting properties is unfounded, because, as Hayek demonstrated in his 1937 paper, “Economics and Knowledge,” price adjustments in current markets don’t, by themselves, ensure a systemic tendency toward equilibrium values that coordinate the plans of independent economic agents unless agents’ expectations of future prices are sufficiently coincident. To take only one passage of many discussing the difficulty of explaining or accounting for a process that leads individuals toward a state of equilibrium, I offer the following as an example:

All that this condition amounts to, then, is that there must be some discernible regularity in the world which makes it possible to predict events correctly. But, while this is clearly not sufficient to prove that people will learn to foresee events correctly, the same is true to a hardly less degree even about constancy of data in an absolute sense. For any one individual, constancy of the data does in no way mean constancy of all the facts independent of himself, since, of course, only the tastes and not the actions of the other people can in this sense be assumed to be constant. As all those other people will change their decisions as they gain experience about the external facts and about other people’s actions, there is no reason why these processes of successive changes should ever come to an end. These difficulties are well known, and I mention them here only to remind you how little we actually know about the conditions under which an equilibrium will ever be reached.

In this theoretical muddle, Keynesian economics and the neoclassical synthesis were abandoned, because the key proposition of Keynesian economics was supposedly the tendency of a modern economy toward an equilibrium with involuntary unemployment while the neoclassical synthesis rejected that proposition, so that the supposed synthesis was no more than an agreement to disagree. That divided house could not stand. The inability of Keynesian economists such as Hicks, Modigliani, Samuelson and Patinkin to find a satisfactory (at least in terms of a preferred Walrasian general-equilibrium model) rationalization for Keynes’s conclusion that an economy would likely become stuck in an equilibrium with involuntary unemployment led to the breakdown of the neoclassical synthesis and the displacement of Keynesianism as the dominant macroeconomic paradigm.

But perhaps the way out of the muddle is to abandon the idea that a systemic tendency toward equilibrium is a property of an economic system, and, instead, to recognize that equilibrium is, as Hayek suggested, a contingent, not a necessary, property of a complex economy. Ludwig Lachmann, cited by Chancellor for his remark that the early theoretical clash between Hayek and Keynes was a conflict of visions, eventually realized that in an important sense both Hayek and Keynes shared a similar subjectivist conception of the crucial role of individual expectations of the future in explaining the stability or instability of market economies. And despite the efforts of New Classical economists to establish rational expectations as an axiomatic equilibrating property of market economies, that notion rests on nothing more than arbitrary methodological fiat.

Chancellor concludes by suggesting that Wasserman’s characterization of the Austrians as marginalized is not entirely accurate inasmuch as “the Austrians’ view of the economy as a complex, evolving system continues to inspire new research.” Indeed, if economics is ever to find a way out of its current state of confusion, following Lachmann in his quest for a synthesis of sorts between Keynes and Hayek might just be a good place to start from.

The Great, but Misguided, Benjamin Strong Goes Astray in 1928

In making yet further revisions to our paper on Hawtrey and Cassel, Ron Batchelder and I keep finding interesting new material that sheds new light on the thinking behind the policies that led to the Great Depression. Recently I have been looking at the digital archive of Benjamin Strong’s papers held at the Federal Reserve Bank. Benjamin Strong was perhaps the greatest central banker who ever lived. Milton Friedman, Charles Kindleberger, Irving Fisher, and Ralph Hawtrey – and probably others as well — all believed that if Strong, Governor of the New York Federal Reserve Bank from 1914 to 1928 and effectively the sole policy maker for the entire system, had not died in 1928, the Great Depression would have been avoided entirely or, at least, would have been far less severe and long-lasting. My own view had been that Strong had generally understood the argument of Hawtrey and Cassel about the importance of economizing on gold, and, faced with the insane policy of the Bank of France, would have accommodated that policy by allowing an outflow of gold from the immense US holdings, rather than raise interest rates and induce an inflow of gold into the US in 1929, as happened under his successor, George Harrison.

Having spent some time browsing through the papers, I am sorry — because Strong’s truly remarkable qualities are evident in his papers — to say that the papers also show to my surprise and disappointment that Strong was very far from being a disciple of Hawtrey or Cassel or of any economist, and he seems to have been entirely unconcerned in 1928 about the policy of the Bank of France or the prospect of a deflationary run-up in the value of gold even though his friend Montague Norman, Governor of the Bank of England, was beginning to show some nervousness about “a scramble for gold,” while other observers were warning of a deflationary collapse. I must admit that, at least one reason for my surprise is that I had naively accepted the charges made by various Austrians – most notably Murray Rothbard – that Strong was a money manager who had bought into the dangerous theories of people like Irving Fisher, Ralph Hawtrey and J. M. Keynes that central bankers should manipulate their currencies to stabilize the price level. The papers I have seen show that, far from being a money manager and a price-level stabilizer, Strong expressed strong reservations about policies for stabilizing the price level, and was more in sympathy with the old-fashioned gold standard than with the gold-exchange standard — the paradigm promoted by Hawtrey and Cassel and endorsed at the Genoa Conference of 1922. Rothbard’s selective quotation from the memorandum summarizing Strong’s 1928 conversation with Sir Arthur Salter, which I will discuss below, gives a very inaccurate impression of Strong’s position on money management.

Here are a few of the documents that caught my eye.

On November 28 1927, Montague Norman wrote Strong about their planned meeting in January at Algeciras, Spain. Norman makes the following suggestion:

Perhaps the chief uncertainty or danger which confronts Central Bankers on this side of the Atlantic over the next half dozen years is the purchasing power of gold and the general price level. If not an immediate, it is a very serious question and has been too little considered up to the present. Cassel, as you will remember, has held up his warning finger on many occasions against the dangers of a continuing fall in the price level and the Conference at Genoa as you will remember, suggested that the danger could be met or prevented, by a more general use of the “Gold Exchange Standard”.

This is a very abstruse and complicated problem which personally I do not pretend to understand, the more so as it is based on somewhat uncertain statistics. But I rely for information from the outside about such a subject as this not, as you might suppose, on McKenna or Keynes, but on Sir Henry Strakosch. I am not sure if you know him: Austrian origin: many years in Johannesburg: 20 years in this country: a student of economics: a gold producer with general financial interests: perhaps the main stay in setting up the South African Reserve Bank: a member of the Financial Committee of the League and of the Indian Currency Commission: full of public spirit, genial and helpful . . . and so forth. I have probably told you that if I had been a Dictator he would have been a Director here years ago.

This is a problem to which Strackosch has given much study and it alarms him. He would say that none of us are paying sufficient attention to the possibility of a future fall in prices or are taking precautions to prepare any remedy such as was suggested at Genoa, namely smaller gold reserves through the Gold Exchange Standard, and that you, in the long run, will feel any trouble just as much as the rest of the Central Bankers will feel it.

My suggestion therefore is that it might be helpful if I could persuade Strakoosch too to come to Algeciras for a week: his visit could be quite casual and you would not be committed to any intrigue with him.

I gather from the tone of this letter and from other indications that the demands by the French to convert their foreign exchange to gold were already being made on the Bank of England and were causing some degree of consternation in London, which is why Norman was hoping that Strakosch might persuade Strong that something ought to be done to get the French to moderate their demands on the Bank of England to convert claims on sterling into gold. In the event, Strong met with Strakosch in December (probably in New York, not in Algeciras, without the presence of Norman). Not long thereafter Strong’s health deteriorated, and he took an extended leave from his duties at the bank. On March 27, 1928 Strong sent a letter to Norman outlining the main points of his conversation with Strakosch:

What [Strakosch] told me leads me to believe that he holds the following views:

  • That there is an impending shortage of monetary gold.
  • That there is certain to be a decline in the production by the South African mines.
  • That in consequence there will be a competition for gold between banks of issue which will lead to high discount rates, contracting credit and falling world commodity prices.
  • That Europe is so burdened with debt as to make such a development calamitous, possibly bankrupting some nations.
  • That the remedy is an extensive and formal development of the gold exchange standard.

From the above you will doubtless agree with me that Strakosch is a 100% “quantity” theory man, that he holds Cassel’s views in regard to the world’s gold position, and that he is alarmed at the outlook, just as most of the strict quantity theory men are, and rather expects that the banks of issue can do something about it.

Just as an aside, I will note that Strong is here displaying a rather common confusion, mixing up the quantity theory with a theory about the value of money under a gold standard. It’s a confusion that not only laymen, but also economists such as (to pick out a name almost at random) Milton Friedman, are very prone to fall into.

What he tells me is proposed consists of:

  • A study by the Financial Section of the League [of Nations] of the progress of economic recovery in Europe, which, he asserts, has closely followed progress in the resumption of gold payment or its equivalent.
  • A study of the gold problem, apparently in the perspective of the views of Cassel and others.
  • The submission of the results, with possibly some suggestions of a constructive nature, to a meeting of the heads of the banks of issue. He did not disclose whether the meeting would be a belated “Genoa resolution” meeting or something different.

What I told him appeared to shock him, and it was in brief:

  • That I did not share the fears of Cassel and others as to a gold shortage.
  • That I did not think that the quantity theory of prices, such for instance as Fisher has elaborate, “reduction ad absurdum,” was always dependable if unadulterated!
  • That I thought the gold exchange standard as now developing was hazardous in the extreme if allowed to proceed very much further, because of the duplication of bank liabilities upon the same gold.
  • That I much preferred to see the central banks build up their actual gold metal reserves in their own hands to something like orthodox proportions, and adopt their own monetary and credit policy and execute it themselves.
  • That I thought a meeting of the banks of issue in the immediate future to discuss the particular matter would be inappropriate and premature, until the vicissitudes of the Dawes Plan had developed further.
  • That any formal meeting of the banks of issue, if and when called, should originate among themselves rather than through the League, that the Genoa resolution was certainly no longer operative, and that such formal meeting should confine itself very specifically at the outset first to developing a sound basis of information, and second, to devising improvement in technique in gold practice

I am not at all sure that any formal meeting should be held before another year has elapsed. If it is held within a year or after a year, I am quite certain that it I attended it I could not do so helpfully if it tacitly implied acceptance of the principles set out in the Genoa resolution.

Stratosch is a fine fellow: I like him immensely, but I would feel reluctant to join in discussions where there was likelihood that the views so strongly advocated by Fisher, Cassel, Keynes, Commons, and others would seem likely to prevail. I would be willing at the proper time, if objection were not raised at home, to attend a conference of the banks of issue, if we could agree at the outset upon a simple platform, i.e., that gold is an effective measure of value and medium of exchange. If these two principles are extended, as seems to be in Stratosch’s mind, to mean that a manipulation of gold and credit can be employed as a regulator of prices at all times and under all circumstances, then I fear fundamental differences are inescapable.

And here is a third document in a similar vein that is also worth looking at. It is a memorandum written by O. E. Moore (a member of Strong’s staff at the New York Fed) providing a detailed account of the May 25, 1928 conversation between Strong and Sir Arthur Salter, then head of the economic and financial section of the League of Nations, who came to New York to ask for Strong’s cooperation in calling a new conference (already hinted at by Strakosch in his December conversation with Strong) with a view toward limiting the international demand for gold. Salter handed Strong a copy of a report by a committee of the League of Nations warning of the dangers of a steep increase in the value of gold because of increasing demand and a declining production.

Strong responded with a historical rendition of international monetary developments since the end of World War I, pointing out that even before the war was over he had been convinced of the need for cooperation among the world’s central banks, but then adding that he had been opposed to the recommendation of the 1922 Genoa Conference (largely drafted by Hawtrey and Cassel).

Governor Strong had been opposed from the start to the conclusions reached at the Genoa Conference. So far as he was aware, no one had ever been able to show any proof that there was a world shortage of gold or that there was likely to be any such shortage in the near future. . . . He was also opposed to the permanent operation of the gold exchange standard as outlined by the Genoa Conference, because it would mean by virtue of the extensive credits which the exchange standard countries would be holding in the gold centers, that they would be taking away from each of those two centers the control of their own money markets. This was an impossible thing for the Federal Reserve System to accept, so far as the American market was concerned, and in fact it was out of the question for any important country, it seemed to him, to give up entirely the direction of its own market. . . .

As a further aside, I will just observe that Strong’s objection to the gold exchange standard, namely that it permits an indefinite expansion of the money supply, a given base of gold reserves being able to support an unlimited expansion of the quantity of money, is simply wrong as a matter of theory. A country running a balance-of-payments deficit under a gold-exchange standard would be no less subject to the constraint of an external drain, even if it is holding reserves only in the form of instruments convertible into gold rather than actual gold, than it would be if it were operating under a gold standard holding reserves in gold.

Although Strong was emphatic that he could not agree to participate in any conference in which the policies and actions of the US could be determined by the views of other countries, he was open to a purely fact-finding commission to ascertain what the total world gold reserves were and how those were distributed among the different official reserve holding institutions. He also added this interesting caveat:

Governor Strong added that, in his estimation, it was very important that the men who undertook to find the answers to these questions should not be mere theorists who would take issue on controversial points, and that it would be most unfortunate if the report of such a commission should result in giving color to the views of men like Keynes, Cassel, and Fisher regarding an impending world shortage of gold and the necessity of stabilizing the price level. . . .

Governor Strong mentioned that one thing which had made him more wary than ever of the policies advocated by these men was that when Professor Fisher wrote his book on “Stabilizing the Dollar”, he had first submitted the manuscript to him (Governor Strong) and that the proposal made in that original manuscript was to adjust the gold content of the dollar as often as once a week, which in his opinion showed just how theoretical this group of economists were.

Here Strong was displaying the condescending attitude toward academic theorizing characteristic of men of affairs, especially characteristic of brilliant and self-taught men of affairs. Whether such condescension is justified is a question for which there is no general answer. However, it is clear to me that Strong did not have an accurate picture of what was happening in 1928 and what dangers were lying ahead of him and the world in the last few months of his life. So the confidence of Friedman, Kindelberger, Fisher, and Hawtrey in Strong’s surpassing judgment does not seem to me to rest on any evidence that Strong actually understood the situation in 1928 and certainly not that he knew what to do about it. On the contrary he was committed to a policy that was leading to disaster, or at least, was not going to avoid disaster. The most that can be said is that he was at least informed about the dangers, and if he had lived long enough to observe that the dangers about which he had been warned were coming to pass, he would have had the wit and the good sense and the courage to change his mind and take the actions that might have avoided catastrophe. But that possibility is just a possibility, and we can hardly be sure that, in the counterfactual universe in which Strong does not die in 1928, the Great Depression never happened.

The Gold Bubble Is Bursting: Who’s To Blame?

The New York Times finally caught on today that the gold bubble is bursting, months after I had alerted the blogosphere. But even though I haven’t received much credit for scooping the Times, I am still happy to see that word that the bubble has burst is spreading.

Gold, pride of Croesus and store of wealth since time immemorial, has turned out to be a very bad investment of late. A mere two years after its price raced to a nominal high, gold is sinking — fast. Its price has fallen 17 percent since late 2011. Wednesday was another bad day for gold: the price of bullion dropped $28 to $1,558 an ounce.

It is a remarkable turnabout for an investment that many have long regarded as one of the safest of all. The decline has been so swift that some Wall Street analysts are declaring the end of a golden age of gold. The stakes are high: the last time the metal went through a patch like this, in the 1980s, its price took 30 years to recover.

What went wrong? The answer, in part, lies in what went right. Analysts say gold is losing its allure after an astonishing 650 percent rally from August 1999 to August 2011. Fast-money hedge fund managers and ordinary savers alike flocked to gold, that haven of havens, when the world economy teetered on the brink in 2009. Now, the worst of the Great Recession has passed. Things are looking up for the economy and, as a result, down for gold. On top of that, concern that the loose monetary policy at Federal Reserve might set off inflation — a prospect that drove investors to gold — have so far proved to be unfounded.

And so Wall Street is growing increasingly bearish on gold, an investment that banks and others had deftly marketed to the masses only a few years ago. On Wednesday, Goldman Sachs became the latest big bank to predict further declines, forecasting that the price of gold would sink to $1,390 within a year, down 11 percent from where it traded on Wednesday. Société Générale of France last week issued a report titled, “The End of the Gold Era,” which said the price should fall to $1,375 by the end of the year and could keep falling for years.

Granted, gold has gone through booms and busts before, including at least two from its peak in 1980, when it traded at $835, to its high in 2011. And anyone who bought gold in 1999 and held on has done far better than the average stock market investor. Even after the recent decline, gold is still up 515 percent.

But for a generation of investors, the golden decade created the illusion that the metal would keep rising forever. The financial industry seized on such hopes to market a growing range of gold investments, making the current downturn in gold felt more widely than previous ones. That triumph of marketing gold was apparent in an April 2011 poll by Gallup, which found that 34 percent of Americans thought that gold was the best long-term investment, more than another other investment category, including real estate and mutual funds.

It is hard to know just how much money ordinary Americans plowed into gold, given the array of investment vehicles, including government-minted coins, publicly traded commodity funds, mining company stocks and physical bullion. But $5 billion that flowed into gold-focused mutual funds in 2009 and 2010, according to Morningstar, helped the funds reach a peak value of $26.3 billion. Since hitting a peak in April 2011, those funds have lost half of their value.

“Gold is very much a psychological market,” said William O’Neill, a co-founder of the research firm Logic Advisors, which told its investors to get out of all gold positions in December after recommending the investment for years. “Unless there is some unforeseen development, I think the market is going lower.”

The smart money is getting out fast.

Investment professionals, who have focused many of their bets on gold exchange-traded funds, or E.T.F.’s, have been faster than retail investors to catch wind of gold’s changing fortune. The outflow at the most popular E.T.F., the SPDR Gold Shares, was the biggest of any E.T.F. in the first quarter of this year as hedge funds and traders pulled out $6.6 billion, according to the data firm IndexUniverse. Two prominent hedge fund managers who had taken big positions in gold E.T.F.’s, George Soros and Louis M. Bacon, sold in the last quarter of 2012, according to recent regulatory filings.

“Gold was destroyed as a safe haven, proved to be unsafe,” Mr. Soros said in an interview last week with The South China Morning Post of Hong Kong. “Because of the disappointment, most people are reducing their holdings of gold.”

And if you happen to think that the nearly $400 an ounce drop in the price of gold since it peaked in 2011 is no big deal, have a look at these two graphs. The first is the Case-Shiller house price index from 1987 to 2008. The second is the price of gold from 1985 to 2013.

Case-Shiller_1987-2008

gold_1985-2013

Of course now that it is semi-official that the gold bubble has burst, isn’t it time to start looking for someone to blame it on? I mean we blamed Greenspan and Bernanke for the housing bubble, right. There must be someone (or two, or three) to blame for the gold bubble.

Juliet Lapidos, on the editorial page editor’s blog of  the Times, points an accusing finger at Ron Paul, dredging up quotes like this from the sagacious Congressman.

As the fiat money pyramid crumbles, gold retains its luster.  Rather than being the barbarous relic Keynesians have tried to lead us to believe it is, gold is, as the Bundesbank president put it, ‘a timeless classic.’  The defamation of gold wrought by central banks and governments is because gold exposes the devaluation of fiat currencies and the flawed policies of government.  Governments hate gold because the people cannot be fooled by it.

Fooled by gold? No way.

But the honorable Mr. Paul is surely not alone in beating the drums for gold. If he were still alive, it would have been nice to question Murray Rothbard about his role in feeding gold mania. But we still have Rothbard’s partner Lew Rockwell with us, maybe we should ask him for his take on the gold bubble. Indeed, inquiring minds want to know: what is the Austrian explanation for the gold bubble?


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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