The Fisher-Hetzel Standard: A much improved “gold standard”

Anybody who follow my blog will know that I am not a great fan of the gold standard or any other form of fixed exchange rate policy. However, I am a great fan of policy rules that reduce monetary policy discretion to an absolute minimum.

Central bankers’ discretionary powers should be constrained and I fundamentally share Milton Friedman’s ideal that the central bank should be replaced by a “computer” – an automatic monetary policy rule.

Admittedly a gold standard or for that matter a currency board set-up reduce monetary policy discretion to a minimum. However, the main problem in my view is that different variations of a fixed exchange rate regime tend to be pro-cyclical. Imagine for example that productivity growth picks up for whatever reason (for example deregulation or a wave of new innovations).

That would tend to push the country’s currency stronger. However, as the central bank is keeping the currency pegged a positive supply shock will cause the central bank to “automatically” increase the money base to offset the appreciation pressures (from the positive supply shock) on the currency.

Said in another way under any form of pegged exchange rate policy a supply shock leads to an “automatic” demand shock. A gold standard will stabilize the currency, but might very well destabilize the economy.

Hence, the problem with a traditional gold standard is not that it is rule based, but that the rule is the wrong rule. We want a rule that provides nominal stability – not a rule, which is pro-cyclical.

Merging Fisher and Hetzel

Irving Fisher more than a 100 years ago came up with a good alternative to the gold standard – his so-called Compensated Dollar Plan. Fisher’s idea was that the Federal Reserve – he was writing from a US perspective – basically should keep the US price level stable by devaluing/revaluing the dollar against the gold price dependent on whether the price level was above or below the targeted level. This would be a fully automatic rule and it would ensure nominal stability. The problem with the rule, however, is that it not necessarily was forward-looking.

I suggest that we can “correct” the problems with Compensated Dollar Plan by learning a lesson from Bob Hetzel. Has I have explained in my earlier blog post Bob Hetzel has suggested that the central bank should target market expectations for inflation based on inflation-linked bonds (in the US so-called TIPS).

Now imagine that we that we merge the ideas of Fisher and Hetzel. So our intermediate target is the gold price in dollars and our ultimate monetary policy goal is for example 2-year/2-year break-even inflation at for example 2%.

Under this Fisher-Hetzel Standard the Federal Reserve would announce that it would buy or sell gold in the open market to ensure that 2-year/2-year break-even inflation is always at 2%. If inflation expectations for some reason moves above 2% the Fed would sell gold and buy dollars.

By buying dollars the Fed automatically reduces the money base (and import prices for that matter). This will ultimately lead to lower money supply growth and hence lower inflation. Similarly if inflation expectations drop below 2% the Fed would sell dollar (print more money), which would cause actual inflation to increase.

One could imagine that the Fed implemented this rule by at every FOMC meeting – instead of announcing a target for the Fed funds rate – would announce a target range for the dollar/gold price. The target range could for example be +/- 10% around a central parity. Within this target range the dollar (and the price of gold) would fluctuate freely. That would allow the market to do most of the lifting in terms of hitting the 2% (expected) inflation target.

Of course I would really like something different, but…

Obviously this is not my preferred monetary policy set-up and I much prefer NGDP level targeting to any form of inflation targeting.

Nonetheless a Fisher-Hetzel Standard would first of all seriously reduce monetary policy discretion. It would also provide a very high level of nominal stability – inflation expectations would basically always be 2%. And finally we would completely get rid of any talk about using interest rates as an instrument in monetary policy and therefore all talk of the liquidity trap would stop. And of course there would be no talk about the coming hyperinflation due to the expansion of the money base.

And no – we would not “manipulate” any market prices – at least not any more than in the traditional gold standard set-up.

Now I look forward to hearing why this would not work. Internet Austrians? Gold bugs? Keynesians?

PS I should say that this post is not part of my series on Bob Hetzel’s work and Bob has never advocated this idea (as far as I know), but the post obviously has been inspired by thinking about monetary matters from a Hetzelian perspective – as most of my blog posts are.

PPS Obviously you don’t have to implement the Fisher-Hetzel Standard with the gold price – you can use whatever commodity price or currency.

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The Casselian-Mundelian view: An overvalued dollar caused the Great Recession

This is CNBC’s legendary Larry Kudlow in a comment to my previous post:

My friend Bob Mundell believes a massively over-valued dollar (ie, overly tight monetary policy) was proximate cause of financial freeze/meltdown.

Larry’s comment reminded me of my long held view that we have to see the Great Recession in an international perspective. Hence, even though I generally agree on the Hetzel-Sumner view of the cause – monetary tightening – of the Great Recession I think Bob Hetzel and Scott Sumner’s take on the causes of the Great Recession is too US centric. Said in another way I always wanted to stress the importance of the international monetary transmission mechanism. In that sense I am probably rather Mundellian – or what used to be called the monetary theory of the balance of payments or international monetarism.

Overall, it is my view that we should think of the global economy as operating on a dollar standard in the same way as we in the 1920s going into the Great Depression had a gold standard. Therefore, in the same way as Gustav Cassel and Ralph Hawtrey saw the Great Depression as result of gold hoarding we should think of the causes of the Great Recession as being a result of dollar hoarding.

In that sense I agree with Bob Mundell – the meltdown was caused by the sharp appreciation of the dollar in 2008 and the crisis only started to ease once the Federal Reserve started to provide dollar liquidity to the global markets going into 2009.

I have earlier written about how I believe international monetary disorder and policy mistakes turned the crisis into a global crisis. This is what I wrote on the topic back in May 2012:

In 2008 when the crisis hit we saw a massive tightening of monetary conditions in the US. The monetary contraction was a result of a sharp rise in money (dollar!) demand and as the Federal Reserve failed to increase the money supply we saw a sharp drop in money-velocity and hence in nominal (and real) GDP. Hence, in the US the drop in NGDP was not primarily driven by a contraction in the money supply, but rather by a drop in velocity.

The European story is quite different. In Europe the money demand also increased sharply, but it was not primarily the demand for euros, which increased, but rather the demand for US dollars. In fact I would argue that the monetary contraction in the US to a large extent was a result of European demand for dollars. As a result the euro zone did not see the same kind of contraction in money (euro) velocity as the US. On the other hand the money supply contracted somewhat more in the euro zone than in the US. Hence, the NGDP contraction in the US was caused by a contraction in velocity, but in the euro zone the NGDP contraction was caused by both a contraction in velocity and in the money supply, reflecting a much less aggressive response by the ECB than by the Federal Reserve.

To some extent one can say that the US economy was extraordinarily hard hit because the US dollar is the global reserve currency. As a result global demand for dollar spiked in 2008, which caused the drop in velocity (and a sharp appreciation of the dollar in late 2008).

In fact I believe that two factors are at the centre of the international transmission of the crisis in 2008-9.

First, it is key to what extent a country’s currency is considered as a safe haven or not. The dollar as the ultimate reserve currency of the world was the ultimate safe haven currency (and still is) – as gold was during the Great Depression. Few other currencies have a similar status, but the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen have a status that to some extent resembles that of the dollar. These currencies also appreciated at the onset of the crisis.

Second, it is completely key how monetary policy responded to the change in money demand. The Fed failed to increase the money supply enough to meet the increase in the dollar demand (among other things because of the failure of the primary dealer system). On the other hand the Swiss central bank (SNB) was much more successful in responding to the sharp increase in demand for Swiss francs – lately by introducing a very effective floor for EUR/CHF at 1.20. This means that any increase in demand for Swiss francs will be met by an equally large increase in the Swiss money supply. Had the Fed implemented a similar policy and for example announced in September 2008 that it would not allow the dollar to strengthen until US NGDP had stopped contracting then the crisis would have been much smaller and would long have been over…

…I hope to have demonstrated above that the increase in dollar demand in 2008 not only hit the US economy but also led to a monetary contraction in especially Europe. Not because of an increased demand for euros, lats or rubles, but because central banks tightened monetary policy either directly or indirectly to “manage” the weakening of their currencies. Or because they could not ease monetary policy as members of the euro zone. In the case of the ECB the strict inflation targeting regime let the ECB to fail to differentiate between supply and demand shocks which undoubtedly have made things a lot worse.

So there you go – you have to see the crisis in an international monetary perspective and the Fed could have avoided the crisis if it had acted to ensure that the dollar did not become significantly “overvalued” in 2008. So yes, I am as much a Mundellian (hence a Casselian) as a Sumnerian-Hetzelian when it comes to explaining the Great Recession. A lot of my blog posts on monetary policy in small-open economies and currency competition (and why it is good) reflect these views as does my advocacy for what I have termed an Export Price Norm in commodity exporting countries. Irving Fisher’s idea of a Compensated Dollar Plan has also inspired me in this direction.

That said, the dollar should be seen as an indicator or monetary policy tightness in both the US and globally. The dollar could be a policy instrument (or rather an intermediate target), but it is not presently a policy instrument and in my view it would be catastrophic for the Fed to peg the dollar (for example to the gold price).

Unlike Bob Mundell I am very skeptical about fixed exchange rate regimes (in all its forms – including currency unions and the gold standard). However, I do think it can be useful for particularly small-open economies to use the exchange rate as a policy instrument rather than interest rates. Here I think the policies of particularly the Czech, the Swiss and the Singaporean central banks should serve as inspiration.

Depression Remedy – what we can learn from old newspaper articles

I strongly believe that we can learn a lot about the present crisis from studying economic and monetary history. Particularly the study of the Great Depression should be of interest to anybody who is interested in the causes of the present crisis and how to get us out of the crisis.

Scott Sumner would hence tell you that he has read most of what was printed in the financial section of the New York Times in early 1930s. I think Scott is right when he is telling us that we should read old newspaper articles. My favourite source for Great Depression newspaper articles is the National Library of Australia’s newspaper database Trove.

The Trove newspaper database makes it possible to follow the discussion about economic and financial matters for example during the 1930s.  It is amazing how many interesting articles one will find there. The latest piece I have found is a very good article about Irving Fisher’s Compensated dollar plan. Below I have reproduced parts of the article. You can read it all on Trove. The article appeared in The Mercury on May 18 1933. I have added my own comments.

Depression Remedy: Professor Irving Fisher’s Plan for a Compensated Currency

In “Booms and Depressions” Professor Irving Fisher of Yale University (U.S.A.). has… set out to discover the causes of depressions and their cures. He is best known internationally as the originator of a plan whose object is to keep prices stable by varying as may be required the gold content of legal tender money. In his preface he indicates that the main conclusion of his book is that depressions are for the most part preventable, and that their prevention requires a definite policy, in which the central banking system of each country must play an important role. Such knowledge as he has obtained on the subject, he declares, he has only recently acquired.

That over-production is the cause of depressions he will not have. There is no over-production, nor is there anything wrong with the mechanical means of the distribution of production, nor with the roads, the bridges, or the transport systems by land or sea. But he asks as to the other distributive mechanism – the money mechanism – is there any more reason why the money mechanism should be proof against getting out of order than a railroad or a ship canal. Profits are measured in money, and if money should become deranged, is it not at least probable that the derangement would affect all profits in one way at one time? This is what he sets out to prove.

LC: Hence, you here see that Fisher’s view is that recessions are caused by a monetary disequilibrium. This of course is exactly what Market Monetarists argue today. The problem is not some inherent instability of the market system,  but rather instability created by monetary policy failure.

Disaster of over-indebtedness

Debts are a necessary part of the establishment of business. For business to be carried out in volume as we know it today debts must be incurred. Debts may lead to over-indebtedness, which he defines as that degree of in-debtedness which multiplies unduly the chances of becoming insolvent. Pressure caused by over-indebtedness leads to distress selling, which prevents the operations of the law of supply and demand, and when a whole community is involved in distress selling the effect is to lower the general price level. It does this because the stampede liquidation involved there by actually shrinks the volume of currency, that is, deposit currency.

Three of the main factors causing depressions are in this manner shortly stated-debts, currency volume, price level. The al- teration of tho price level causes an alteration of the real measures of money-dollar in tho United States, pound in Great Britain and Australia. When the price level falls in the manner stated it reacts on the debt situation, which first caused the alteration.

“When a whole community is in a state of over-indebtedness” Professor Fisher states, “the dollar reacts in such a way that the very act of liquidation may sometimes enlarge the real debts, instead of reducing them. Nominally every liquidation must reduce debts, but really by swelling the worth of every dollar in the country it may swell the unpaid balance of every debt in the country, because the dollar which has to be paid may increase in size faster than the number of dollars in the debt decreases, and when this process starts It must go on, much after the fashion of a vicious spiral . . . downward into the trough of depression.”

So he concludes that when the expanding dollar (that is when the value of the dollar increases) grows faster than the reduction of the number of dollars of debt, liquidation docs not really liquidate, so that the depression goes right on, until there are sufficient bankruptcies to wipe out the activating cause the debts.

LC: Fisher’s comments about indebtedness seem highly relevant today. What Fisher is arguing is that deleveraging is a necessary evil if we have become over-indebted, but if the price level is allowed to contract at during the deleveraging process (the “liquidation”) then the desirable process of “liquidation” will become depressionary. This of course is the argument that Market Monetarists make today when we argue that the euro crisis is not a debt crisis, but a monetary crisis. Yes, it is necessary to reduce debt levels in parts of the euro zone but this process is unlikely to end well if monetary policy remains too tight.

Similarly Fischer’s discussion shows that the debate between one the one hand Keynesian fiscalists and the ‘Austerians’ on the other hand is a phony debate. The Austerians are of course right when they argue that if you have become overly indebted you have to reduce debts, but the Keynesians are equally right that the collapse in aggregate demand is the main cause of the present crisis. Where both sides are wrong is their common focus on fiscal policy. Irving Fisher would have told them to focus on monetary policy instead. Yes, we should reduce debt levels (if we are overly indebted), but the central bank needs to ensure nominal stability so this process does not become deflationary.

Correcting the Price Level

But Why, he asks, suffer from this dollar disease, this variation in the value of the dollar? Should gold coin become copious in the nick of time the gold inflation might counteract the credit deflation. The same result might come from paper inflation for instance, by way of financing a war. That inflation would be a matter ot exercising control of the currency. It should be equally clear, Professor Irving Fisher considers, that deflation or dollar bulging is not an “act of God.” We need not wait for a happy accident to neutralise deflation; we may frustrate, it by design. Man has, or should have, control of his own currency. If we must suffer from the debt disease, why also catch the dollar disease?

LC: Deflation is not a necessary outcome of the “bust”. Deflation is a result of overly tight monetary policy. Irving Fischer knew this very well. Friedman learned that from studying Fisher and Market Monetarists know that today.

The remedy, Professor Fisher declares is first a correction of the price-level by reflation and then henceforward its safe-guarding. He admits that the problem of “what price-level?” is difficult, because the matter what year may be chosen as the year whose level should be restored, it will do injustice. He proposes, therefore, as between the years from 1929 to 1932 to put the price-level part of the way back, so that the injustice would be shared by a great part of two groups, the debtors and the creditors.

…Reflation is the duty of Central Banks, he considers, through expanding thc currency and credit, and when sufficient reflation has been obtained to serve the purpose sought, the currency and credit should be so managed that the general price index after it has been raised to the height required should be maintained at that height.

LC: While Fisher focused on the price level Market Monetarists today focus on the level of nominal GDP,  but the policy message is basically the same – a monetary contraction caused the crisis so monetary policy needs to be eased to “undo” the damage done by monetary tightening. The question then is how much? What level of prices/NGDP should be targeted? This was a challenge to Fisher and that is a challenge to Market Monetarists today.

The Other Means

If, in spite of all other efforts to regulate the price level, the purchasing power of gold over goods should fall, the weight of the gold dollar or sovereign should be increased; or if the purchasing power of gold should rise, the weight of the dollar or sovereign would be correspondingly reduced. Under this plan the actual coinage of gold would be abandoned, and instead of gold I coins, gold bars would be used to redeem the gold certificates. Only gold certificates would circulate, and the price of the bars in terms of these certificates I would be varied from time to time. One advantage of the compensated gold coin plan would be that any nation could operate it alone. The inconvenience of each alteration in the gold coin’s weight causing a corresponding alteration in the foreign exchange would be, he considers, a small matter.

LC: Hence, Irving Fisher was suggesting to revalue or devalue the dollar against the price of gold to ensure a stable price level. Hence, if the price level dropped below the targeted level then the dollar would be devalued against gold, while if prices rose above the targeted level then the dollar would be revalued. The Market Monetarist proposal that central banks should use an NGDP future to conduct monetary policy is very much in the spirit of Fisher’s compensated dollar plan. Both are rule based policies that ensures nominal stability and at the same time strongly limits the central bank’s discretionary powers.

We can learn a lot from history so I encourage everybody interested in monetary history to have a look at the Trove database and similar newspaper archives and please let me know if you find something interesting that can teach us more about how to get out of the present crisis.

Merry Christmas – and why Fisher’s Compensated dollar plan remains highly relevant

Today is Christmas Eve and in Denmark that is the most important day of Christmas (just ask my son!) so it is not really time for blogging. So instead I will do a bit of a re-run of a blog post I wrote exactly a year ago. If there is a area where my thinking about monetary policy has developed a lot over the last couple of years it is in regard to my view of exchange rates as a monetary policy instrument. As I explained a year ago:

I have always been rather skeptical about fixed exchange rate regimes even though I acknowledge that they have worked well in some countries and at certain times. My dislike of fixed exchange rates originally led me to think that then one should advocate floating exchange rates and I certainly still think that a free floating exchange rate regime is much preferable to a fixed exchange rate regime for a country like the US.

However, the present crisis have made me think twice about floating exchange rates – not because I think floating exchange rates have done any harm in this crisis. Countries like Sweden, Australia, Canada, Poland and Turkey have all benefitted a great deal from having floating exchange rates in this crisis. However, exchange rates are really the true price of money (or rather the relative price of monies). Unlike the interest rate which is certainly NOT – contrary to popular believe – the price of money. Therefore, if we want to change the price of money then the most direct way to do that is through the exchange rate.

Furthermore, most central banks in the world today are “interest rates target’ers”. However, with interest rates effectively at zero it is mentally (!) impossible for many central banks to ease monetary policy as they operationally are unwilling to venture into using other monetary policy instruments than the interest rate. Obviously numerous central banks have conducted “quantitative easing”, but it is also clear that many (most) central bankers are extremely uncomfortable using QE to ease monetary policy. Therefore, the exchange rate channel might be a highly useful instrument that might cause less concern for central bankers and it might be easier to understand for central bankers and the public alike.

In my post a year ago I suggested that Irving Fisher’s proposal for a Compensated Dollar Plan might be an inspiration for central bankers in small open economies.

Irving Fisher first suggested the compensated dollar plan in 1911 in his book The Purchasing Power of Money. The idea is that the dollar (Fisher had a US perspective) should be fixed to the price of gold, but the price should be adjustable to ensure a stable level of purchasing power for the dollar (zero inflation). Fisher starts out by defining a price index (equal to what we today we call a consumer price index) at 100. Then Fisher defines the target for the central bank as 100 for this index – so if the index increases above 100 then monetary policy should be tightened – and vis-a-vis if the index drops. This is achieved by a proportional adjustment of  the US rate vis-a-vis the the gold prices. So it the consumer price index increase from 100 to 101 the central bank intervenes to strengthen the dollar by 1% against gold. Ideally – and in my view also most likely – this system will ensure stable consumer prices and likely provide significant nominal stability.

Irving Fisher campaigned unsuccessfully for his proposals for years and despite the fact that is was widely discussed it was not really given a chance anywhere. However, Sweden in the 1930s implemented a quasi-compensated dollar plan and as a result was able to stabilize Swedish consumer prices in the 1930s. This undoubtedly was the key reason why Sweden came so well through the Great Depression. I am very certain that had the US had a variation of the compensated dollar plan in place in 2008-9 then the crisis in the global economy wold have been much smaller.

There is no doubt in my mind that the compensated dollar plan demonstrates that even though there is a “zero lower bound” for interest rates there is no limits to monetary easing. There might be a zero lower bound, but there is no liquidity trap. However, I have reservations about the compensated dollar standard in its original form. As I explained a year ago:

There is no doubt that the Compensated dollar plan fits well into Market Monetarist thinking. It uses market prices (the exchange rate and gold prices) in the conduct of monetary policy rather than a monetary aggregate, it is strictly ruled based and it ensures a strong nominal anchor.

From a Market Monetarists perspective I, however, have three reservations about the idea.

First, the plan is basically a price level targeting plan (with zero inflation) rather than a plan to target nominal spending/income (NGDP targeting). This is clearly preferable to inflation targeting, but nonetheless fails to differentiate between supply and demand inflation and as such still risk leading to misallocation and potential bubbles. This is especially relevant for Emerging Markets, which undergoes significant structural changes and therefore continuously is “hit” by a number of minor and larger supply shocks.

Second, the plan is based on a backward-looking target rather than on a forward-looking target – where is the price level today rather than where is the price level tomorrow? In stable times this is not a major problem, but in a time of shocks to the economy and the financial system this might become a problem. How big this problem is in reality is hard to say.

Finally third, the fact that the plan uses only one commodity price as an “anchor” might become a problem. As Robert Hall among other have argued it would be preferable to use a basket of commodities as an anchor instead and he has suggest the so-called ANCAP standard where the anchor is a basket of Ammonium Nitrate, Copper, Aluminum and Plywood.

These reservations led me to suggest a “updated” version of the compensated dollar pan for small open economies:

My suggestion is that it the the small open economy (SOE) announces that it will peg a growth path for NGDP (or maybe for nominal wages as data might be faster available than NGDP data) of for example 5% a year and it sets the index at 100 at the day of the introduction of the new monetary regime. Instead of targeting the gold price it could choose to either to “peg” the currency against a basket of other currencies – for example the 3-4 main trading partners of the country – or against a basket of commodities (I would prefer the CRB index which is pretty closely correlated with global NGDP growth).

Thereafter the central bank should every month announce a monthly rate of depreciation/appreciation of the currency against the anchor for the coming 24-36 month in the same way as most central banks today announces interest rate decisions. The target of course would be to “hit” the NGDP target path within a certain period. The rule could be fully automatic or there could be allowed for some discretion within the overall framework. Instead of using historical NGDP the central bank naturally should use some forecast for NGDP (for example market consensus or the central bank’s own forecast).

No more blogging for today – Merry Christmas to all of my readers around the world.

—-

Related posts:

Reykjavik here I come – so let me tell you about Singapore
Sweden, Poland and Australia should have a look at McCallum’s MC rule
Reading recommendation for my friends in Prague
Exchange rate based NGDP targeting for small-open economies
Imagine that a S&P500 future was the Fed’s key policy tool

Christmas money

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