David Laidler should be awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics

My biggest wish for the Autumn is that David Laidler will win the Nobel Prize in Economics next week for …

“…his contribution to monetary economics and the history of economic thought”

There is unfortunately little chance that that will happen, but it is about time that a historian of economic thought is awarded the Nobel Prize.

While we are awaiting for the good news (fingers crossed) you should read David’s latest paper - Reassessing the Thesis of the Monetary HistoryThis is the abstract:

The economic crisis that began in 2007 and still lingers has invited comparison with the Great Depression of the 1930s. It has also generated renewed interest in Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s explanation of the latter as mainly the consequence of the Fed’s failure as a lender of last resort at its onset, and the ineptitude of its policies thereafter. This explanation is reassessed in the light of events since 2007, and it is argued that its plausibility emerges enhanced, even though policy debates in recent years have paid more attention to interest rates and credit markets than to Friedman and Schwartz’s key variable, the quantity of money.

David of course was the research assistant for Friedman and Schwartz when they wrote Monetary History.

HT Mike Belongia

PS don’t tell me that the Nobel Prize in Economics is not a real Nobel Prize – I don’t care.

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The books on money that David Laidler would like you to read

As I wrote in my post on Milton Friedman’s “Money Mischief” yesterday I have asked a number of “monetary thinkers” to make a list of around five (or so) books on monetary matters they would recommend for students of economics. I had initially just thought I would make a list of books based on the survey, but it turns out that there is a lot more material than I really had thought about. So I will instead do a number of posts on the book recommendations.

When I started to study economics in the early 1990s at the University of Copenhagen I already had a keen interest in monetarist thinking as I read Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose when I was 16 years or so. Some of my fellow students probably would have said that I had a obsessive interest in money supply numbers (I still have…)

Other than studying money supply numbers I early on found the library at the economics department at the University of Copenhagen. I read everything I could find by and about Milton Friedman and then went on to read other monetarists – such as Karl Brunner and Allan Meltzer. It was also at that time I first read articles by Scott Sumner and Bob Hetzel.

Another book I found at the library was David Laidler’s “Monetarist Perspectives”. I think what made the biggest impression initially by reading Monetarist Perspectives was actually that David termed Robert Lucas’ New Classical business cycle theory a Neo-Austrian business cycle theory (Lucas had used a similar term himself). That was one of the inspirations when I later in my Master thesis tried to formalize mathematically by “merging” rational expectations and Austrians Business Cycle theory (I am not sure I was successful…)

It was not everything in Monetarist Perspectives, which impressed me. In fact I was somewhat upset by David’s discussion of “The Case for Gradualism” (Chapther 5). I wanted shock therapy to end inflation. I reread the Chapter last year I must say I had a very hard time seeing what my problem had been back in the early 1990s.

The reason why reread Monetarist Perspectives is that I was able to get my own copy last year. I got a used copy. In fact my copy used to belong to University of California but was withdrawn from the library there and now it is on my table while I am writing this.

Monetarist Perspectives

Monetarist Perspectives is not the only book written by David Laidler I own. And it is not even my favourite Laidler book – that is instead “The Golden Age of the Quantity Theory”.

Laidler MVPY Golden Age

David Laidler is hence one of the biggest experts on monetary thinking in the world and it was therefore natural that I asked David for his contribution to my book survey.

And I am very happy that David kindly has provided me with five books that he would recommend to students of monetary thinking.

This is David’s list:
W. S. Jevons. Money and the Mechanism of Exchange (1875)
D. H. Robertson, Money (3rd ed, 1928)  (the best edition according to David)
Axel Leijonhufvud, Information and Coordination  (1981)
John Hicks, A Market Theory of Money (1989)
Milton Friedman, Money Mischief (1992)

This is what David has to say about the books on his list:

The common theme here is that the monetary economy performs the allocative and distributive functions usually attributed to the “market” by general equilibrium theory, that it is capable of performing these well, that success in this regard should nevertheless not be taken for granted, and that the way in which issues related to these matters appear evolves over time as monetary institutions evolve in the face of challenges presented by their own successes and failures.

When I went through David’s list and his arguments for choosing these books I actually came to think of another book and that is Robert Clower’s “Money and Markets”. 

The reason I mention Clower is that I think he has been a particular inspiration for particularly Canadian monetarists like Nick Rowe who was very much brought up in a Laidlerian tradition of monetarism. Nick and David are of course both British-Canadian.

Bob Clower

As always David Laidler is a great inspiration and I hope this post and particularly David’s list will inspire my readers to explore some of these great books (including those written by David!)

And finally as Kurt Schuler notes many of the books on money published prior to 1922 are now available for free online. Particularly the Ludwig von Mises Institute has done a great job in making classics available online – including the first book on David’s list Jevon’s “Money and the Mechanism of Exchange “.

Cheers David and start reading all of you!

The root of most fallacies in economics: Forgetting to ask WHY prices change

Even though I am a Dane and work for a Danish bank I tend to not follow the Danish media too much – after all my field of work is international economics. But I can’t completely avoid reading Danish newspapers. My greatest frustration when I read the financial section of Danish newspapers undoubtedly is the tendency to reason from different price changes – for example changes in the price of oil or changes in bond yields – without discussing the courses of the price change.

The best example undoubtedly is changes in (mortgage) bond yields. Denmark has been a “safe haven” in the financial markets so when the euro crisis escalated in 2011 Danish bond yields dropped dramatically and short-term government bond yields even turned negative. That typically triggered the following type of headline in Danish newspapers: “Danish homeowners benefit from the euro crisis” or “The euro crisis is good news for the Danish economy”.

However, I doubt that any Danish homeowner felt especially happy about the euro crisis. Yes, bond yields did drop and that cut the interest rate payments for homeowners with floating rate mortgages. However, bond yields dropped for a reason – a sharp deterioration of the growth outlook in the euro zone due to the ECB’s two unwarranted interest rate hikes in 2011. As Denmark has a pegged exchange rate to the euro Denmark “imported” the ECB’s monetary tightening and with it also the prospects for lower growth. For the homeowner that means a higher probability of becoming unemployed and a prospect of seeing his or her property value go down as the Danish economy contracted. In that environment lower bond yields are of little consolation.

Hence, the Danish financial journalists failed to ask the crucial question why bond yields dropped. Or said in another way they failed to listen to the advice of Scott Sumner who always tells us not to reason from a price change.

This is what Scott has to say on the issue:

My suggestion is that people should never reason from a price change, but always start one step earlier—what caused the price to change.  If oil prices fall because Saudi Arabia increases production, then that is bullish news.  If oil prices fall because of falling AD in Europe, that might be expansionary for the US.  But if oil prices are falling because the euro crisis is increasing the demand for dollars and lowering AD worldwide; confirmed by falls in commodity prices, US equity prices, and TIPS spreads, then that is bearish news.

I totally agree. When we see a price change – for example oil prices or bond yields – we should ask ourselves why prices are changing if we want to know what macroeconomic impact the price change will have. It is really about figuring out whether the price change is caused by demand or supply shocks.

The euro strength is not necessarily bad news – more on the currency war that is not a war

A very good example of this general fallacy of forgetting to ask why prices are changing is the ongoing discussion of the “currency war”. From the perspective of some European policy makers – for example the French president Hollande – the Bank of Japan’s recent significant stepping up of monetary easing is bad news for the euro zone as it has led to a strengthening of the euro against most other major currencies in the world. The reasoning is that a stronger euro is hurting European “competitiveness” and hence will hurt European exports and therefore lower European growth.

This of course is a complete fallacy. Even ignoring the fact that the ECB can counteract any negative impact on European aggregate demand (the Sumner critique also applies for exports) we can see that this is a fallacy. What the “currency war worriers” fail to do is to ask why the euro is strengthening.

The euro is of course strengthening not because the ECB has tightened monetary policy but because the Bank of Japan and the Federal Reserve have stepped up monetary easing.

With the Fed and the BoJ significantly stepping up monetary easing the growth prospects for the largest and the third largest economies in the world have greatly improved. That surely is good news for European exporters. Yes, European exporters might have seen a slight erosion of their competitiveness, but I am pretty sure that they happily will accept that if they are told that Japanese and US aggregate demand – and hence imports – will accelerate strongly.

Instead of just looking at the euro rate European policy makers should consult more than one price (the euro rate) and look at other financial market prices – for example European stock prices. European stock prices have in fact increased significantly since August-September when the markets started to price in more aggressive monetary easing from the Fed and the BoJ. Or look at bond yields in the so-called PIIGS countries – they have dropped significantly. Both stock prices and bond yields in Europe hence are indicating that the outlook for the European economy is improving rather than deteriorating.

The oil price fallacy – growth is not bad news, but war in the Middle East is

A very common fallacy is to cry wolf when oil prices are rising – particularly in the US. The worst version of this fallacy is claiming that Federal Reserve monetary easing will be undermined by rising oil prices.

This of course is complete rubbish. If the Fed is easing monetary policy it will increase aggregate demand/NGDP and likely also NGDP in a lot of other countries in the world that directly or indirectly is shadowing Fed policy. Hence, with global NGDP rising the demand for commodities is rising – the global AD curve is shifting to the right. That is good news for growth – not bad news.

Said another way when the AD curve is shifting to the right – we are moving along the AS curve rather than moving the AS curve. That should never be a concern from a growth perspective. However, if oil prices are rising not because of the Fed or the actions of other central banks – for example because of fears of war in the Middle East then we have to be concerned from a growth perspective. This kind of thing of course is what happened in 2011 where the two major supply shocks – the Japanese tsunami and the revolutions in Northern Africa – pushed up oil prices.

At the time the ECB of course committed a fallacy by reasoning from one price change – the rise in European HICP inflation. The ECB unfortunately concluded that monetary policy was too easy as HICP inflation increased. Had the ECB instead asked why inflation was increasing then we would likely have avoided the rate hikes – and hence the escalation of the euro crisis. The AD curve (which the ECB effectively controls) had not shifted to the right in the euro area. Instead it was the AS curve that had shifted to the left. The ECB’s failure to ask why prices were rising nearly caused the collapse of the euro.

The money supply fallacy – the fallacy committed by traditional monetarists 

Traditional monetarists saw the money supply as the best and most reliable indicator of the development in prices (P) and nominal spending (PY). Market Monetarists do not disagree that there is a crucial link between money and prices/nominal spending. However, traditional monetarists tend(ed) to always see the quantity of money as being determined by the supply of money and often disregarded changes in the demand for money. That made perfectly good sense for example in the 1970s where the easy monetary policies were the main driver of the money supply in most industrialized countries, but that was not the case during the Great Moderation, where the money supply became “endogenous” due to a rule-based monetary policies or during the Great Recession where money demand spiked in particularly the US.

Hence, where traditional monetarists often fail – Allan Meltzer is probably the best example today – is that they forget to ask why the quantity of money is changing. Yes, the US money base exploded in 2008 – something that worried Meltzer a great deal – but so did the demand for base money. In fact the supply of base money failed to increase enough to counteract the explosion in demand for US money base, which effectively was a massive tightening of US monetary conditions.

So while Market Monetarists like myself certainly think money is extremely important we are skeptical about using the money supply as a singular indicator of the stance of monetary policy. Therefore, if we analyse money supply data we should constantly ask ourselves why the money supply is changing – is it really the supply of money increasing or is it the demand for money that is increasing? The best way to do that is to look at market data. If market expectations for inflation are going up, stock markets are rallying, the yield curve is steepening and global commodity prices are increasing then it is pretty reasonable to assume global monetary conditions are getting easier – whether or not the money supply is increasing or decreasing.

Finally I should say that my friends Bob Hetzel and David Laidler would object to this characterization of traditional monetarism. They would say that of course one should look at the balance between money demand and money supply to assess whether monetary conditions are easy or tight. And I would agree – traditional monetarists knew that very well, however, I would also argue that even Milton Friedman from time to time forgot it and became overly focused on money supply growth.

And finally I happily will admit committing that fallacy very often and I still remain committed to studying money supply data – after all being a Market Monetarist means that you still are 95% old-school traditional monetarist at least in my book.

PS maybe the root of all bad econometrics is the also forgetting to ask WHY prices change.

David Laidler: “Two Crises, Two Ideas and One Question”

The main founding fathers of monetarism to me always was Milton Friedman, Anna Schwartz, Karl Brunner, Allan Meltzer and David Laidler. The three first have all now passed away and Allan Meltzer to some extent seems to have abandoned monetarism. However, David Laidler is still going strong and maintains his monetarist views. David has just published a new and very interesting paper – “Two Crises, Two Ideas and One Question” – in which he compares the Great Depression and the Great Recession through the lens of history of economic thought.

David’s paper is interesting in a number of respects and any student of economic history and history of economic thought will find it useful to read the paper. I particularly find David’s discussion of the views of Allan Meltzer and other (former!?) monetarists interesting. David makes it clear that he think that they have given up on monetarism or as he express it in footnote 18:

“In this group, with which I would usually expect to find myself in agreement (about the Great Recession), I include, among others, Thomas Humphrey, Allan Meltzer, the late Anna Schwartz, and John Taylor, though the latter does not have quite the same track record as a monetarist as do the others.”

Said in another way David basically thinks that these economists have given up on monetarism. However, according to David monetarism is not dead as another other group of economists today continues to carry the monetarist torch – footnote 18 continues:

“Note that I self-consciously exclude such commentators as Timothy Congdon (2011), Robert Hetzel (2012) and that group of bloggers known as the “market monetarists”, which includes Lars Christensen, Scott Sumner, Nicholas Rowe …. – See Christensen (2011) for a survey of their work – from this list. These have all consistently advocated measures designed to increase money growth in recent years, and have sounded many themes similar to those explored here in theory work.”

I personally think it is a tremendous boost to the intellectual standing of Market Monetarism that no other than David Laidler in this way recognize the work of the Market Monetarists. Furthermore and again from a personal perspective when David recognizes Market Monetarist thinking in this way and further goes on to advocate monetary easing as a respond to the present crisis I must say that it confirms that we (the Market Monetarists) are right in our analysis of the crisis and helps my convince myself that I have not gone completely crazy. But read David’s paper – there is much more to it than praise of Market Monetarism.

PS This year it is exactly 30 years ago David’s book “Monetarist Perspectives” was published. I still would recommend the book to anybody interested in monetary theory. It had a profound impact on me when I first read it in the early 1990s, but I must say that when I reread it a couple of months ago I found myself in even more agreement with it than was the case 20 years ago.

Update: David Glasner also comments on Laidler’s paper.

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