My outburst over the weekend against the Rothbardian version of Austrian business cycle theory was not my normal style of blogging. I normally try to be non-confrontational in my blogging style. Krugman-style blogging is not really for me, but I must admit my outburst had some positive consequences. Most important it generated some good – friendly – exchanges with Steve Horwitz and other Austrians.
Higg’s thesis is that the recovery from the Great Depression was prolonged due to “Regime Uncertainty”, which hampered especially growth in investment. Here is Higgs:
“The hypothesis is a variant of an old idea: the willingness of businesspeople to invest requires a sufficiently healthy state of “business confidence,” and the Second New Deal ravaged the requisite confidence …. To narrow the concept of business confidence, I adopt the interpretation that businesspeople may be more or less “uncertain about the regime,” by which I mean, distressed that investors’ private property rights in their capital and the income it yields will be attenuated further by government action. Such attenuations can arise from many sources, ranging from simple tax-rate increases to the imposition of new kinds of taxes to outright confiscation of private property. Many intermediate threats can arise from various sorts of regulation, for instance, of securities markets, labor markets, and product markets. In any event, the security of private property rights rests not so much on the letter of the law as on the character of the government that enforces, or threatens, presumptive rights.”
Overall I think Higgs’ concept makes a lot of sense and there is no doubt that uncertainty about economic policy had negative impact on the performance of the US economy during the Great Depression. I would especially highlight that the so-called National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and the Smoot-Hawley tariff act not only had directly negative impact on the US economy, but mostly likely also created uncertainty about core capitalist institutions such as property rights and the freedom of contract. This likely hampered investment growth in the way described by Higgs.
However, I am somewhat critical about the “transmission mechanism” of this regime uncertainty. From the Market Monetarist perspective recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. Hence, in my view regime uncertainty can only impact nominal GDP if it in someway impact monetary policy – either through money demand or the money supply.
This is contrary to Higgs’ description of the “transmission mechanism”. Higgs’ description is – believe it or not – fundamentally Keynesian in its character (no offence meant Bob): An increase in regime uncertainty reduces investments and that directly reduces real GDP. This is exactly similar to how the fiscal multiplier works in a traditional Keynesian model.
In a Market Monetarist set-up this will only have impact if the monetary authorities allowed it – in the same way as the fiscal multiplier will only be higher than zero if monetary policy allow it. See my discussion of fiscal policy here.
Hence, from a Market Monetarist perspective the impact on investment will be only important from a supply side perspective rather than from a demand side perspective. That, however, does not mean that it is not important – rather the opposite. What makes us rich or poor in the long run is supply side factor and not demand side factors.
The real uncertainty is nominal
While a drop in investment surely has a negative impact on the long run on real GDP growth I would suggest that we should focus on a slightly different kind of regime uncertain than the uncertainty discussed by Higgs. Or rather we should also focus on the uncertainty about the monetary regime.
Let me illustrate this by looking at the present crisis. The Great Moderation lasted from around 1985 and until 2008. This period was characterised by a tremendously high degree of nominal stability. Said in another way there was little or no uncertainty about the monetary regime. Market participants could rightly expect the Federal Reserve to conduct monetary policy in such a way to ensure that nominal GDP grew around 5% year in and year out and if NGDP overshot or undershot the target level one year then the Fed would makes to bring back NGDP on the “agreed” path. This environment basically meant that monetary policy became endogenous and the markets were doing most of the lifting to keep NGDP on its “announced” path.
However, the well-known – even though not the official – monetary regime broke down in 2008. As a consequence uncertainty about the monetary regime increased dramatically – especially as a result of the Federal Reserve’s very odd unwillingness to state a clearly nominal target.
This increase in monetary regime uncertainty mean that market participants now have a much harder time forecasting nominal income flows (NGDP growth). As a result market participants will try to ensure themselves negative surprises in the development in nominal variables by keeping a large “cash buffer”. Remember in uncertain times cash is king! Hence, as a result money demand will remain elevated as long as there is a high degree of regime uncertainty.
As a consequence the Federal Reserve could very easily ease monetary conditions without printing a cent more by clearly announcing a nominal target (preferably a NGDP level target). Hence, if the Fed announced a clear nominal target the demand for cash would like drop significantly and for a given money supply a decrease in money demand is as we know monetary easing.
This is the direct impact of monetary regime uncertainty and in my view this is significantly more important for economic activity in the short to medium run than the supply effects described above. However, it should also be noted that in the present situation with extremely subdued economic activity in the US the calls for all kind of interventionist policies are on the rise. Calls for fiscal easing, call for an increase in minimum wages and worst of all calls for all kind of protectionist initiatives (the China bashing surely has gotten worse and worse since 2008). This is also regime uncertainty, which is likely to have an negative impact on US investment activity, but equally important if you are afraid about for example what kind of tax regime you will be facing in one or two years time it is also likely to increase the demand for money. I by the way regard uncertainty about banking regulation and taxation to a be part of the uncertainty regarding the monetary regime. Hence, uncertainty about non-monetary issues such as taxation can under certain circumstances have monetary effects.
Concluding at the moment – as was the case during the Great Depression – uncertainty about the monetary regime is the biggest single regime uncertain both in the US and Europe. This monetary regime uncertainty in my view has tremendously negative impact on the economic perform in both the US and Europe.
So while I am sceptical about the transmission mechanism of regime uncertainty in the Higgs model I do certainly agree that we need regime certain. We can only get that with sound monetary institutions that secure nominal stability. I am sure that Steve Horwitz and Peter Boettke would agree on that.