‘Money Mischief’ – a major inspiration for ‘monetary thinkers’

I am in the process of surveying a number of “monetary thinkers” about their favourite books on monetary matters. I hope to do a number of posts on the survey results.

I had initially planned only to do one post on the survey, but I can see that there is material for a lot more. So I will likely do a number of posts on the topic in the near future. It is vacation time for the Christensen family – so I am a bit focused on reading books.

Among the monetary thinkers in the survey are George Selgin, David Laidler, Kurt Schuler, Josh Hendrickson, Marcus Nunes, Tobias Straumann, Steve Ambler and Douglas Irwin and many more and more will follow.

Milton Friedman’s “Money Mischief” is short, fun and informative

One of my own absolute favourite books on money is Milton Friedman’s “Money Mischief” from 1992. It is a collection of Friedman articles. Most of the articles are about episodes from monetary history. The book is extremely well-written and generally a very easy read.

Money Mischief is being mentioned as an major inspiration by a number of  the monetary thinkers in my survey. Josh Hendrickson calls Money Mischief “a great overview of money for non-economists and economists alike” and Douglas Irwin calls the book “just fun”. Both Josh and Doug have contributed to my survey and in later posts I will return to some of their other book recommendations.

Money Mischief to a large extent is a inspiration for this blog as I always thought that I wanted to write a blog about different monetary episodes in the spirit of Money Mischief to illustrate my views on monetary issues and I had in fact originally thought naming my blog Money Mischief.

Take for example Chapter 9 in Money Mischief“Chile and Israel: Identical Policies, Opposite Outcomes”. In this Chapter Friedman describes how fixed exchange rate policies was a major success in Israel, but a failure in Chile. In the chapter Friedman once again spells out his general opposition to fixed exchanges, but he also acknowledges that fixed exchange rate regimes might work well for certain countries. Friedman mentions Hong Kong’s currency board as an example of a fairly successful fixed exchange rate regime.

In the chapter he also makes a comment that have been a major inspiration to my own thinking about monetary matters. This is the statement (page 241):

“Never underestimate the role of luck in the fate of individuals and nations”.

I have written numerous blog posts inspired by this comment. See for example:

Never underestimate the importance of luck
The luck of the ‘Scandies’
National stereotyping is not an explanation for boom-bust – it is mostly about luck

And this is exactly what my survey of monetary thinkers is about – books that have inspired them and books that they think should be read by students of economics and money.

The survey has also inspired Kurt Schuler to reproduce his extensive reading list on monetary economics. You can see Kurt’s amazing reading list here.

In the near future I will share more survey results.

This is a picture of my own copy of Money Mischief – did you get a copy yet?

Money Mischief

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The New York Times joins the ‘currency war worriers’ – that is a mistake

It is very frustrating to follow the ongoing discussion of ‘currency war’. Unfortunately the prevailing view is that the world is heading for a ‘currency war’ in the form of ‘competitive devaluations’ that will only lead to misery for everybody. I have again, again and again stressed that when large parts of the world is caught in a low-growth quasi-deflationary trap then a competition to print more money is exactly what the world needs. ‘Currency war’ is a complete misnomer. What we are talking about is global monetary easing.

Now the New York Times has joined the discussion with a pretty horrible editorial on ‘currency war’.

This is from the editorial:

If all countries were to competitively devalue their currencies, the result would be a downward spiral that would benefit no one, but could lead to high inflation. Certainly in Europe, altering exchange rates is not the answer; reviving economies will require giving up on austerity, which is choking demand and investment.

It is just frustrating to hear this argument again and again. Monetary easing is not a negative or a zero sum game. In a quasi-deflationary world monetary easing is a positive sum game. The New York Times claims that “competitive devaluations” will lead to increased inflation.

Well, lets start with stating the fact a that the New York Times seems to miss – both the Bretton Woods and the gold standard are dead. We – luckily – live in a world of (mostly) freely floating exchange rates. Hence, nobody is “devaluing” their currencies. What is happening is that some currencies like the Japanese yen are depreciating on the back of monetary easing. The New York Times – and French president Hollande and Bundesbank chief Weidmann for that matter – also fails to notice that the yen is depreciating because the Bank of Japan is implementing the exact same monetary target as the ECB has – a 2% inflation target. After 15 years of failure the BoJ is finally trying to get Japan out of a low-growth deflationary trap. How that can be a hostile act is impossible for me to comprehend.

Second, the New York Times obviously got it right that if we have an international “competition” to print more money then inflation will increase. But isn’t that exactly what we want in a quasi-deflationary world? Can we really blame the BoJ for printing more money after 15 years of deflation? Can we blame the Fed for doing the same thing when US unemployment is running at nearly 8% and there are no real inflationary pressures in the US economy? On the other hand we should blame the ECB for not doing the same thing with the euro zone economy moving closer and closer to deflation and with unemployment in Europe continuing to rise.

When the New York Times joins the “currency war worriers” then the newspaper effectively is arguing in favour of a return to internationally managed exchange rates – either in the form of a gold standard or a Bretton Woods style system. Both systems ended in disaster.

The best international monetary system remains a system where countries are free to pursue their own domestic monetary objectives. Where every country is free to succeed or fail. A system of internationally coordinated monetary policy is doomed to fail and end in disaster as was the case with both the gold standard and Bretton Woods – not to mentioned the ill-faited attempts to coordinate monetary policy through the Plaza and Louvre Accords.

The New York Times and other ‘currency war worriers’ seem to think that if countries are free to pursue their own domestic monetary policy objectives then it will not only lead to ‘currency war’, but also to ‘trade war’. Trade war obviously would be disastrous. However, the experiences from the 1930s clearly show that those countries that remained committed to international monetary policy coordination in the form of staying on the gold standard suffered the biggest output lose  and the biggest rise in unemployment. But more importantly these countries were also much more likely to implement protectionist measures – that is the clear conclusion from research conducted by for example Barry Eichengreen and Douglas Irwin.

‘Currency war’ is what we need to get the global economy out of the crisis and monetary easing is much preferable to the populist alternative – protectionism and ‘deflationism’.

HT William Bruce.

Update: It seems like Paul Krugman – who of course blogs at the New York Times – disagrees with the editors of the New York Times.

Fiscal devaluation – a terrible idea that will never work

Maybe I am ignorant, but until recently I had never heard of the concept “fiscal devaluation” (at least not that term), but I fear it could be an idea that could have considerable political appeal, but as I understand the idea it smells of protectionism and the idea is based on a mis-diagnosing the reasons for the present crisis – particularly in the euro zone.

What is a “fiscal devaluation”?

The idea behind fiscal devaluations is that a nation can improve it’s competitiveness by basically “twisting” taxes by cutting payroll taxes and finance it by increasing VAT.

The idea is not new. Already back in 1931 John Maynard Keynes suggested a VAT style tariff on all imported goods plus a uniform subsidy on all exports. In 2011 the idea was re-introduced by Gita Gopinath, Emmanuel Farhi and Oleg Itskhoki in their paper “Fiscal Devaluations”.

I will not go through the paper (and it the idea I want to discuss rather than the specific paper), but rather discuss why I find the idea terrible and why I think it will not achieve any of the results suggested by it’s proponents.

Fiscal devaluation is protectionism

The first thing that came to my mind when I heard the description of a fiscal devaluation was that this is basically a typically 1930s style protectionist idea: Tax imports and subsidies exports. Anybody who have studied economics should know that protectionism is extremely negative for everybody and such protectionist ideas will lower the economic welfare of the country that introduces the protectionist measures and of other countries. Only fools advocate protectionism.

Furthermore, I am completely unaware of any countries that came out of the Great Depression through a fiscal devaluation, but I know of many countries that tried. This is an idea that have been tried before and failed before. So why try it again? However, I can easily find numerous examples of countries that have undertaken proper (monetary) devaluations and have succeed. The UK and the “Sterling bloc” in 1931, the US in 1933, Sweden in 1992 and Argentina in 2002. The list is much longer…

The point is that a fiscal devaluation is negative sum game – it hurts everybody – while a monetary devaluation is a positive sum game if the world is caught in a quasi-deflationary environment as has been the case for the last 4-5 years. As I have stress before a monetary devaluation is not a hostile act – a fiscal devaluation certainly is.

Mis-diagnosing the problem

A key problem for the Fiscal devaluationists in my view is that they mis-diagnose the problem in for example South Europe as a problem of competitiveness rather than a problem of weak domestic demand. In that sense it is paradoxical that origin of the idea comes from Keynes.

It might of course be that South Europe has a competitiveness problem in the sense that the real exchange rate is “overvalued”. However, competitiveness does not determine aggregate demand. The real exchange rate determines the composition of aggregate demand, but not the aggregate demand. Aggregate demand is determined by monetary policy. And the lack of aggregate demand is Greece’s (and the other PIIGS’) real problem. The euro crisis is not a competitiveness problem, but a NGDP crisis.

Countries with fixed exchange rates or countries – like Spain or Portugal – that are in currency unions are not able to ease monetary policy as the have “outsourced” their monetary policy – in the case of Spain and Portugal to the ECB. A fiscal devaluation is unable to ease monetary policy – at the most it can only “twist” demand from domestic demand to exports (…there is a small aber dabei – see PPS below). In that sense a fiscal devaluation is mercantilist idea – an idea that exports in some way is “better” than domestic demand.

However, artificially twisting demand from domestic demand reduces the international division of labour. It might be that Keynes or the average German policy maker think that is a great idea, but Adam Smith and David Ricardo are spinning in their graves.

There is only one way out of a quasi-deflationary trap – monetary easing

For countries caught in a quasi-deflationary trap – as the South European countries – a fiscal devaluation might temporarily improve external balances, but it will not do anything about the deflationary pressures. There are only two options for these countries – either they leave the euro or the ECB ease monetary conditions.

Lower taxes is great for long-run growth – twisting taxes is mostly a waste of time

Finally I would like to stress that I in no way is arguing against lowering payroll taxes. However, the purpose of lowering payroll taxes should not be to increase export, but to remove a tax wedge that lowers employment. Lower payroll taxes very likely will increase the level of potential GDP (but not impact nominal GDP). Furthermore, I doubt that higher VAT would be beneficial to any country in the world. Even worse if the central bank – like the ECB – targets headline CPI-inflation then higher VAT rates will temporarily increase headline inflation and that could trigger a monetary tightening. If you think that is alarmist – then just think about what happened when a number of euro zone countries started to increase indirect taxes in 2010-11 at the same time oil prices spiked. The ECB hiked interest rates twice in 2011!

Reading recommendation for policy makers

Concluding, fiscal devaluation is a terrible idea and we should call it what it is – protectionism – and any policy maker out there who is tempted by these ideas should carefully study the experience of the 1930s. The best way to learn about the serious welfare cost of this sort of ideas is to read Doug Irwin’s excellent little book Trade Policy Disaster.

In his book Doug clearly shows that fiscal devaluation style measures never worked but helped escalate trade wars while proper monetary devaluations helped countries like the US, the UK and Sweden get out of the Great Depression.

You could also read Chapter 10 in Larry White’s great book Clashes of Economic Ideas. In that chapter Larry explains the disaster that was economic policy in India in the first 4-5 decades after Indian independence in 1947. India of course pursued (and to a large extent still do) the kind of policies that the fiscal devaluationistists advocate. The result of course was decades of lacklustre growth.

So before policy makers are tempted by protectionist ideas packaged in modern New Keynesian models they should study history and then they should realize that “fiscal devaluation” is terrible idea that will never work.

PS Maybe it is not a surprise that the French government – yes the government that introduced a 75% marginal income tax (!) – find a fiscal devaluation attractive.

PPS I write above that improving competitiveness cannot ease monetary conditions. That is not entirely right as anybody who knows Hume’s traditional price-specie-flow mechanism would acknowledge, but that is at best a very indirect channel and is very unlikely to be very powerful. In fact there has been a quite drastic improvement in external balance in some of the PIIGS, but none of these economies are exactly booming.

Update: Doug Irwin tells me that Joan Robinson used to called ideas like a fiscal devaluation “Silly clever”.  I think it is an excellent term – from time to time you will see economic papers that are overly mathematical and complex that come up with answers that are a result of certain (random?) model assumptions that gives anti-economic results. I am afraid silly clever has become fashionable and certain academic economists.

Update 2: My friend David Glasner just wrote a blog post addressing a similar topic – competitive devaluations – we reach very similar conclusions. I love David’s Ralph Hawtrey quote on competitive devaluation – it is very similar to what I argue above.

Doug Irwin on Market Monetarism and the fed

Our friend Douglas Irwin professor of economics at Dartmouth College has an excellent new comment on ft.com on Market Monetarism and Federal Reserve’s latest actions.

Here is Doug:

“The Federal Reserve’s policy of large-scale bond purchases may have cheered global equity markets but economists have been more sceptical. These sceptics include Keynesians and inflation hawks, who either believe that monetary policy has been too easy since the crisis began or that it is impotent at the zero lower bound.

“Market monetarists”, however, hold that both these views are wrong. Market monetarism, a relatively new school, draws upon Milton Friedman’s monetarism of the 1970s and has become increasingly influential in policy circles.”

Doug continues:

“Most economists equate monetary policy with interest rates and conclude that monetary policy is easy because interest rates are low. Throughout his career, Friedman argued that this was fallacious.

…In Friedman’s view, the best way to judge the stance of monetary policy is by the growth of the money supply – which central banks have ignored since the early 1980s because financial innovation was believed to have destroyed the relationship between monetary aggregates and prices and nominal income. It is true that the standard monetary aggregates, which arbitrarily give equal weight to different components of the money supply, are flawed. But Divisia monetary indices, which weight the different components by the monetary services they provide, track prices and income much better.

…The Divisia M3 and M4 figures for the US money supply, calculated by the Center for Financial Stability, show that the money supply is no higher today than in early 2008. For all the fretting about the Fed’s accommodative policy, the money supply has barely increased and is way off its previous trend. This represents a very tight policy compared to Friedman’s rule that growth in the money supply should be limited to a constant percentage. The lack of growth in the money supply is an important reason why US inflation and inflationary expectations remain under control. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s latest market-based estimate of the 10-year expected inflation rate is 1.32 per cent.”

So true, so true – US monetary policy remains fairly tight and there is little inflation risk in the near to medium term.

Back to Doug:

“Aside from financial markets, market monetarists have been among the few to applaud the Federal Reserve’s Ben Bernanke for extending quantitative easing (while questioning some policy details, such as paying banks interest on their excess reserves). Though his monetarist doctrine is most often remembered in the context of the high inflation of the 1970s, Friedman also recognised periods when monetary policy was too tight – including in the US in the early 1990s. Then, when inflation was under control but unemployment high because of a sluggish recovery, he wrote: “It is hard to escape the conclusion that the restrictive monetary policy of the Fed deserves much of the blame for the slow, and interrupted, recovery from the 1990 recession.””

Doug is one of the world’s foremost experts on economic and monetary history and an excellent and open-minded scholar. I am happy that he is has written this piece for the FT and can only hope that he will one day take up blogging as well.

PS the headline on Doug’s piece is somewhat misleading: “Why modern monetarists are sceptical about QE3″. I know for a fact that that is not the headline Doug put on his piece – sometimes editors makes odd mistakes.


Is monetary easing (devaluation) a hostile act?

One of the great things about blogging is that people comment on your posts and thereby challenge your views and at the same time create new ideas for blog posts. Therefore I want to thank commentator Max for the following response to my previous post:

“I don’t think exchange rate intervention is a good idea for a large country. For one thing, it’s a hostile act given that other countries have exactly the same issue. And it can’t work without their cooperation, since they have the power to undo the intervention.” 

Let me start out by saying that Max is wrong on both accounts, but I would also acknowledge that both views are more or less the “consensus” view of devaluations and my view – which is based on the monetary approach to balance of payments and exchange rates – is the minority view. Let me address the two issues separately.

Is monetary easing a hostile act?

In his comment Max describes a devaluation as a hostile act towards other countries. This is a very common view and it is often said that it is a reflection of a beggar-thy-neighbour policy for a country to devalue its currency. I have two comments on that.

First, if a devaluation is a hostile act then all forms of monetary easing are hostile acts as any form of monetary easing is likely to lead to a weakening of the currency. Let’s for example assume that the Federal Reserve tomorrow announced that it would buy unlimited amounts of US equities and it would continue to do so until US nominal GDP had increased 15%. I am pretty sure that would lead to a massive weakening of the US dollar. In fact we can basically define monetary easing as a situation where the supply of the currency is increased relative to the demand for the currency. Said, in another way if the currency weakens it is a pretty good indication that monetary conditions are getting easier.

Second, I have often argued that the impact of a devaluation does not primarily work through an improvement in the country’s competitiveness. In fact the purpose of the devaluation should be to increase prices (and wages) and hence nominal GDP. An increase in prices and wages can hardly be said to be an improvement of competitiveness. It is correct that if prices and wages are sticky then you might get an initial real depreciation of the currency, however that impact is not really important compared to the monetary impact. Hence, a devaluation will lead to an increase in the money supply (that is how you engineer the devaluation) and likely also to an increase in money-velocity as inflation expectations increase. Empirically that is much more important than any possible competitiveness effect.

A good example of how the monetary effect dominates the competitiveness effect: the Argentine devaluation in 2002 actually led to a deterioration of the Argentine trade balance and what really was the driver of the recovery was the sharp pickup in domestic demand due to an increase in the money supply and money-velocity rather than an improvement in exports. See my previous comment on the episode here. When the US gave up the gold standard in 1933 the story was the same – the monetary effect strongly dominated the competitiveness effect.

Yet another example of the monetary effect of a devaluation dominating the competitiveness effect is Denmark and Sweden in 2008-9. It is a common misunderstanding that Sweden grew stronger than Denmark in 2008-9 because a sharp depreciation of the Swedish krona led to a massive improvement in competitiveness. It is correct that Swedish competitiveness was improved due to the weakening of the krona, but this was not the main reason for Sweden’s relatively fast recovery from the crisis. The real reason was that Sweden did not see any substantial decline in money-velocity and the Swedish money supply grew relatively steadily through the crisis.

Looking at Swedish exports in 2008-9 it is very hard to spot any advantage from the depreciation of the krona. In fact Swedish exports did more or less as badly as Danish exports in 2008-9 despite the fact that the Danish krone did not depreciate due to Denmark’s fixed exchange rate regime. However, looking at domestic demand there was a much sharper contraction in Danish private consumption and investment than was the case in Sweden. This difference can easily be explained by the sharp monetary contraction in Denmark in 2008-9 (both a drop in M and V).

Furthermore, let’s assume that the Federal Reserve announced massive intervention in the FX market to weaken the US dollar and the result was a sharp increase in US nominal GDP. Would the rest of the world be worse off? I doubt it. Yes, the likely impact would be that for example German exports would get under pressure as the euro would strengthen dramatically against the dollar. However, nothing would stop the ECB from also undertaking monetary easing to counteract the strengthening of the euro. This is what somebody calls “competitive devaluations” or even “currency war”. However, in a deflationary environment such “currency war” should be welcomed as it basically would be a competition to print money. Hence, the “net result” of currency war would not be any change in competitiveness, but an increase in the global money supply (and global money-velocity) and hence in global nominal GDP. Who would be against that and in a situation where the global economy continues to contract and as such a currency war like that would be very welcomed news. In fact we can not really talk about a “war” as it would be mutually beneficial. So I say please bring on the currency war!

Is global monetary cooperation needed? No, but…

This brings us to Max’s second argument: “And it can’t work without their cooperation, since they have the power to undo the intervention.

This is obviously related to the discussion above. Max seems to think a devaluation will not work if it is met by “competitive devaluations” from all other countries. As I have argued above this is completely wrong. It would work as the devaluation will increase the money supply and money-velocity even if the devaluation has no impact on competitiveness at all. As a result there is no need for international monetary cooperation. In fact healthy competition among currencies is exactly what we need. In fact every time the major nations of the world have gotten together to agree on realigning exchange rates it has had major negative consequences.

However, there is one argument for international coordination that I think is extremely important and that is the need for cooperation to avoid “competitive protectionism”. The problem is that most global policy makers perceive devaluations in the same way as Max. They see devaluations as hostile acts and therefore these policy makers might react to devaluations by introducing trade tariffs and other protectionist measures. This is what happened in the 1930s where especially the (foolish) countries which maintained the gold standard reacted by introducing trade tariffs against for example the UK and the Scandinavian countries, which early on gave up the gold standard.

Unfortunately Mitt Romney seems to think as Max

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has said that his first act as US president would be to slap tariffs on China for being a “currency manipulator”. Here is what Romney recently said:

“If I’m president, I will label China a currency manipulator and apply tariffs” wherever needed “to stop them from unfair trade practices”

The discussion above should show clearly that Romney’s comments on China’s currency policy is economically meaningless – or rather extremely dangerous. Imagine what would be the impact on the US economy if China tomorrow announced a 40% (just to pick a number) revaluation of the yuan. To engineer this the People’s Bank of China would have to cause a sharp contraction in the Chinese money supply and money-velocity. The result would undoubtedly throw China into a massive recession – or more likely a depression. You can only wonder what that would do to US exports to China and to US employment. Obviously this would be massively negative for the US economy.

Furthermore, a sharp appreciation of the yuan would effectively be a massive negative supply shock to the US economy as US import prices would skyrocket. Given the present (wrongful) thinking of the Federal Reserve, that might even trigger monetary tightening as US inflation would pick up. In other words the US might face stagflation and I am pretty sure that Romney would have no friends left on Wall Street if that where to happen and he would certainly not be reelected in four years.

I hope that Romney has some economic advisors that realize the insanity of forcing China to a massive appreciation of the yuan. Unfortunately I do not have high hope that there is an understanding of these issues in today’s Republican Party – as it was the case in 1930 when two Republican lawmakers Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis C. Hawley sponsored the draconian and very damaging Smoot-Hawley tariff act.

Finally, thanks to Max for your comments. I hope you appreciate that I do not think that you would like the same kind of protectionist policies as Mitt Romney, but I do think that when we get it wrong on the monetary impact of devaluations we might end up with the kind of policy response that Mitt Romney is suggesting. And no, this is no endorsement of President Obama – I think my readers fully understand that. Furthermore to Max, I do appreciate your comments even though I disagree on this exact topic.

PS if you want to learn more about the policy dynamics that led to Smoot-Hawley you should have a look at Doug Irwin’s great little book “Peddling Protectionism: Smoot-Hawley and the Great Depression”.

Update: Scott Sumner has a similar discussion of the effects of devaluation.

Remember the mistakes of 1937? A lesson for today’s policy makers

Since the ECB introduced it’s 3-year LTRO on December 8 the signs that we are emerging from the crisis have grown stronger. This has been visible with stock prices rebounding strongly, long US bond yields have started to inch up and commodity prices have increased. This is all signs of easier monetary conditions globally.

We are now a couple of months into the market recovery and especially the recovery in commodity prices should soon be visible in US and European headline inflation and will likely soon begin to enter into the communication of central bankers around the world. This has reminded me of the “recession in the depression” in 1937. After FDR gave up the gold standard in 1933 the global economy started to recover and by 1937 US industrial production had basically returned to the 1929-level. The easing of global monetary conditions and the following recovery had spurred global commodity prices and by 1937 policy makers in the US started to worry about inflationary pressures.

However, in the second half of 1936 US economic activity and the US stock market went into a free fall and inflationary concerns soon disappeared.

There are a number of competing theories about what triggered the 1937 recession. I will especially like to highlight three monetary explanations:

1) Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in their famous Monetary History highlighted the fact that the Federal Reserve’s decision to increase reserve requirements starting in July 1936 was what caused the recession of 1937.

2) Douglas Irwin has – in an excellent working paper from last year – claimed that it was not the Fed, but rather the US Treasury that caused the the recession as the Treasury moved aggressively to sterilize gold inflows into the US and thereby caused the US money supply to drop.

3) While 1) and 2) regard direct monetary actions the third explanation regards the change in the communication of US policy makers. Hence, Gauti B. Eggertsson and Benjamin Pugsley in an extremely interesting paper from 2006 argue that it was the communication about monetary and exchange rate policy that caused the recession of 1937. As Scott Sumner argues monetary policy works with long and variables leads. Eggertson and Pugsley argue exactly the same.

In my view all three explanations clearly are valid. However, I would probably question Friedman’s and Schwartz’s explanation on it’s own as being enough to explain the recession of 1937. I have three reasons to be slightly skeptical about the Friedman-Schwartz explanation. First, if indeed the tightening of reserve requirements caused the recession then it is somewhat odd that the market reaction to the announcement of the tightening of reserve requirements was so slow to impact the stock markets and the commodity prices. In fact the announcement of the increase in reserve requirements in July 1936 did not have any visible impact on stock prices when they were introduced. Second, it is also notable that there seems to have been little reference to the increased reserve requirement in the US financial media when the collapse started in the second half of 1937 – a year after the initial increase in reserve requirements. Third, Calomiris, Mason and Wheelock in paper from 2011 have demonstrated that banks already where holding large excess reserves and the increase in reserve requirements really was not very binding for many banks. That said, even if the increase in reserve requirement might not have been all that binding it nonetheless sent a clear signal about the Fed’s inflation worries and therefore probably was not irrelevant. More on that below.

Doug Irwin’s explanation that it was actually the US Treasury that caused the trouble through gold sterilization rather than the Fed through higher reserve requirements in my view has a lot of merit and I strongly recommend to everybody to read Doug’s paper on Gold Sterilization and the Recession 1937-38 in which he presents quite strong evidence that the gold sterilization caused the US money supply to drop sharply in 1937. That being said, that explanation does not fit perfectly well with the price action in the stock market and commodity prices either.

Hence, I believe we need to take into account the combined actions of the of the US Treasury (including comments from President Roosevelt) and the Federal Reserve caused a marked shift in expectations in a strongly deflationary direction. In their 2006 paper Eggertsson and Pugsley “The Mistake of 1937: A General Equilibrium Analysis” make this point forcefully (even though I have some reservations about their discussion of the monetary transmission mechanism). In my view it is very clear that both the Roosevelt administration and the Fed were quite worried about the inflationary risks and as a consequence increasing signaled that more monetary tightening would be forthcoming.

In that sense the 1937 recession is a depressing reminder of the strength of the of the Chuck Norris effect – here in the reserve form. The fact that investors, consumers etc were led to believe that monetary conditions would be tightened caused an increase in money demand and led to an passive tightening of monetary conditions in the second half of 1937 – and things obviously were not made better by the Fed and US Treasury actually then also actively tightened monetary conditions.

The risk of repeating the mistakes of 1937 – we did that in 2011! Will we do it again in 2012 or 2013?

So why is all this important? Because we risk repeating the mistakes of 1937. In 1937 US policy makers reacted to rising commodity prices and inflation fears by tightening monetary policy and even more important created uncertainty about the outlook for monetary policy. At the time the Federal Reserve failed to clearly state what nominal policy rule it wanted to implemented and as a result caused a spike in money demand.

So where are we today? Well, we might be on the way out of the crisis after the Federal Reserve and particularly the ECB finally came to acknowledged that a easing of monetary conditions was needed. However, we are already hearing voices arguing that rising commodity prices are posing an inflationary risk so monetary policy needs to be tighten and as neither the Fed nor the ECB has a very clearly defined nominal target we are doomed to see continued uncertainty about when and if the ECB and the Fed will tighten monetary policy. In fact this is exactly what happened in 2011. As the Fed’s QE2 pushed up commodity prices and the ECB moved to prematurely tighten monetary policy. To make matters worse extremely unclear signals about monetary policy from European central bankers caused market participants fear that the ECB was scaling back monetary easing.

Therefore we can only hope that this time around policy makers will have learned the lesson from 1937 and not prematurely tighten monetary policy and even more important we can only hope that central banks will become much more clear regarding their nominal targets. Any market monetarist will of course tell you that central bankers should not fear overdoing their monetary easing if they clearly define their nominal targets (preferably a NGDP level target) – that would ensure that monetary policy is not tightened prematurely and a well-timed exist from monetary easing is ensured.

PS I have an (very unclear!) idea that the so-called Tripartite Agreement from September 1936 b the US, Great Britain and France  to stabilize their nations’ currencies both at home and in the international FX markets might have played a role in causing a change in expectations as it basically told market participants that the days of “currency war” and competitive devaluations had come to an end. Might this have been seen as a signal to market participants that central banks would not compete to increase the money supply? This is just a hypothesis and I have done absolutely no work on it, but maybe some young scholar would like to pick you this idea?

Mises was clueless about the effects of devaluation

Over at the Ludwig von Mises Institute’s website they have reproduced a comment from good old Ludwig von Mises on The Objectives of Currency Devaluation” from Human Action. I love Human Action and there is no doubt Ludwig von Mises was a great economist, but to be frank when it comes to the issue of devaluation he was basically clueless. Sorry guys – his views on this issue are not too impressive.

He mentions five reasons why policy makers might favour “devaluation”:

  • To preserve the height of nominal wage rates or even to create the conditions required for their further increase, while real wage rates should rather sink
  • To make commodity prices, especially the prices of farm products, rise in terms of domestic money or, at least, to check their further drop
  • To favor the debtors at the expense of the creditors
  • To encourage exports and to reduce imports
  • To attract more foreign tourists and to make it more expensive (in terms of domestic money) for the country’s own citizens to visit foreign countries

It might be that this is what motivates policy makers to devalue the currency, but he forgets the real reason why it might make perfectly good sense to allow the currency to weaken. If monetary policy has caused nominal GDP to collapse as was the case during the Great Depression (or during the the Great Recession!) then a policy of devaluation is of course the policy to pursue. Hence, von Mises totally fails to understand the monetary implications of devaluation.

The core of von Mises’ lack to understand of the monetary impact of devaluation is that he – like Rothbard – has a very hard time differentiating between good and bad deflation. George Selgin has a great discussion of von Mises’ view of deflation in his 1990 paper “Ludwig von Mises and the Case for Gold”. George goes out of the way to explain that von Mises really did understand the difference between good and bad deflation and that given his views he should really have supported a monetary policy regime (rather than the gold standard) that ensures stabilisation of nominal spending (M*V). The paradox is of course that you can interpret von Mises in this way, but why would he then be so outspoken against devaluation? In my view von Mises did not fully appreciate that there is good and bad devaluation – so it is no surprise that his modern day internet supporters (of the populist kind…) is so in love with the gold standard. By the way the kind of arguments von Mises has against devaluation and in favour of the gold standard are very similar to the arguments of the most outspoken proponents of the euro today. Yes, the logic of a common currency and the gold standard is exactly the same.

I never understood people who support free markets could also be in favour of fixing the price of the currency – to me that makes absolutely no sense. Milton Friedman of course reached the same conclusion and more important Friedman realised that if you try to peg your currency at an unsustainable level then policy makers will try to pursue interventionist policies to maintain this peg. Capital restrictions and protectionism are the children of pegged exchange rates. Just ask Douglas Irwin.

Further reading:

My recent post on the monetary effects of devaluation: Exchange rates and monetary policy – it’s not about competitiveness: Some Argentine lessons

My posts on Milton Friedman’s view of exchange rate policy:

Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #1
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #2
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #3
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #4
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #5
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #6


UPDATE:  disagrees with me on this issue. Read his comment here. What I regret the most about the comments above is not that I have been a bit too hard on Mises, but rather that my representation of George Selgin’s views on the issue. While I do not think my representation of what George said in his 1999 paper is wrong I do admit that I could have expressed his position more clearly.

By the way I have noticed that when I verbally insult people – living or dead – then it clearly increases the traffic on my blog. So if I wanted to maximize “clicks” I would insult a lot more people. However, I do not like that kind of debate so I promise to try to stay civil and polite – also to people with whom I disagree. Using words like “clueless” in the headline might not live up to that criteria, but I will admit that I have been greatly frustrated by the arguments made by “internet Austrians” recently (And once again I am not talking about what we could call the GMU Austrians…).

I am blaming Murray Rothbard for my writer’s block

I have promised to write an article about monetary explanations for the Great Depression for the Danish libertarian magazine Libertas (in Danish). The deadline was yesterday. It should be easy to write it because it is about stuff that I am very familiar with. Friedman’s and Schwartz’s “Monetary History”, Clark Warburton’s early monetarist writings on the Great Depression. Cassel’s and Hawtrey’s account of the (insane) French central bank’s excessive gold demand and how that caused gold prices to spike and effective lead to an tigthening of global monetary conditions. This explanation has of course been picked up by my Market Monetarists friends – Scott Sumner (in his excellent, but unpublished book on the Great Depression), Clark Johnson’s fantastic account of French monetary history in his book “Gold, France and the Great Depression, 1919-1932″ and super star economic historian Douglas Irwin.

But I didn’t finnish the paper yet. I simply have a writer’s block. Well, that is not entirely true as I have no problem writing these lines. But I have a problem writing about the Austrian school’s explanation for the Great Depression and I particularly have a problem writing about Murray Rothbard’s account of the Great Depression. I have been rereading his famous book “America’s Great Depression” and frankly speaking – it is not too impressive. And that is what gives me the problem – I do not want to be too hard on the Austrian explanation of the Great Depression, but dear friends the Austrians are deadly wrong about the Great Depression – maybe even more wrong than Keynes! Yes, even more wrong than Keynes – and he was certainly very wrong.

So what is the problem? Well, Rothbard is arguing that US money supply growth was excessive during the 1920s. Rothbard’s own measure of the money supply  apparently grew by 7% y/y on average from 1921 to 1929. That according to Rothbard was insanely loose monetary policy. But was it? First of all, money supply growth was the strongest in the early years following the near-Depression of 1920-21. Hence, most of the “excessive” growth in the money supply was simply filling the gap created by the Federal Reserve’s excessive tightening in 1920-21. Furthermore, in the second half of the 1920s money supply started to slow relatively fast. I therefore find it very hard to argue as Rothbard do that US monetary policy in anyway can be described as being very loose during the 1920s. Yes, monetary conditions probably became too loose around 1925-7, but that in no way can explain the kind of collapse in economic activity that the world and particularly the US saw from 1929 to 1933 – Roosevelt finally did the right thing and gave up the gold standard in 1933 and monetary easing pulled the US out of the crisis (later to return again in 1937). Yes dear Austrians, FDR might have been a quasi-socialist, but giving up the gold standard was the right thing to do and no we don’t want it back!

But why did the money supply grow during the 1920s? Rothbard – the libertarian freedom-loving anarchist blame the private banks! The banks were to blame as they were engaging in “pure evil” – fractional reserve banking. It is interesting to read Rothbard’s account of the behaviour of banks. One nearly gets reminded of the Occupy Wall Street crowd. Lending is seen as evil – in fact fractional reserve banking is fraud according to Rothbard. How a clever man like Rothbard came to that conclusion continues to puzzle me, but the fact is that the words “prohibit” and “ban” fill the pages of Rothbard’s account of the Great Depression. The anarchist libertarian Rothbard blame the Great Depression on the fact that US policy makers did not BAN fractional reserve banking. Can’t anybody see the the irony here?

Austrians like Rothbard claim that fractional reserve banking is fraud. So the practice of private banks in a free market is fraud even if the bank’s depositors are well aware of the fact that banks do not hold 100% reserve? Rothbard normally assumes that individuals are rational and it must follow from simple deduction that if you get paid interest rates on your deposits then that must mean that the bank is not holding 100% reserves otherwise the bank would be asking you for a fee for keeping your money safe. But apparently Rothbard do not think that individuals can figure that out. I could go on and on about how none-economic Rothbard’s arguments are – dare I say how anti-praxeological Rothbard’s fraud ideas are. Of course fractional reserve banking is not fraud. It is a free market phenomenon. However, don’t take my word for it. You better read George Selgin’s and Larry White’s 1996 article on the topic “In Defense of Fiduciary Media – or, We are Not Devo(lutionists), We are Misesians”. George and Larry in that article also brilliantly shows that Rothbard’s view on fractional reserve banking is in conflict with his own property right’s theory:

“Fractional-reserve banking arrangements cannot then be inherently or inescapably fraudulent. Whether a particular bank is committing a fraud by holding fractional reserves must depend on the terms of the title-transfer agreements between the bank and its customers.

Rothbard (1983a, p. 142) in The Ethics of Liberty gives two examples of fraud, both involving blatant misrepresentations (in one, “A sells B a package which A says contains a radio, and it contains only a pile of scrap metal”). He concludes that “if the entity is not as the seller describes, then fraud and hence implicit theft has taken place.” The consistent application of this view to banking would find that it is fraudulent for a bank to hold fractional reserves if and only if the bank misrepresents itself as holding 100percent reserves, or if the contract expressly calls for the holding of 100 percent reserves.’ If a bank does not represent or expressly oblige itself to hold 100 percent reserves, then fractional reserves do not violate the contractual agreement between the bank and its customer (White 1989, pp. 156-57). (Failure in practice to satisfy a redemption request that the bank is contractually obligated to satisfy does of course constitute a breach of contract.) Outlawing voluntary contractual arrangements that permit fractional reserve-holding is thus an intervention into the market, a restriction on the freedom of contract which is an essential aspect of private property rights.”

Another thing that really is upsetting to me is Rothbard’s claim that Austrian business cycle theory (ABCT) is a general theory. That is a ludicrous claim in my view. Rothbard style ABCT is no way a general theory. First of all it basically describes a closed economy as it is said that monetary policy easing will push down interest rates below the “natural” interest rates (sorry Bill, Scott and David but I think the idea of a natural interest rates is more less useless). But what determines the interest rates in a small open economy like Denmark or Sweden? And why the hell do Austrians keep on talking about the interest rate? By the way interest rates is not the price of money so what do interest rates and monetary easing have to do with each other? Anyway, another thing that mean that ABCT certainly not is a general theory is the explicit assumption in ABCT – particularly in the Rothbardian version – that money enters the economy via the banking sector. I wonder what Rothbard would have said about the hyperinflation in Zimbabwe. I certainly don’t think we can blame fractional reserve banking for the hyperinflation in Zimbabwe.

Anyway, I just needed to get this out so I can get on with writing the article that I promised would be done yesterday!

PS Dear GMU style Austrians – you know I am not talking about you. Clever Austrians like Steve Horwitz would of course not argue against fractional reserve banking and I am sure that he thinks that Friedman’s and Schwartz’s account of the Great Depression makes more sense than “America’s Great Depression”.

PPS not everything Rothbard claims in “America’s Great Depression” is wrong – only his monetary theory and its application to the Great Depression. To quote Selgin again: “To add to the record, I had the privilege of getting to know both Murray and Milton. Like most people who encountered him while in their “Austrian” phase, I found Murray a blast, not the least because of his contempt for non-Misesians of all kinds. Milton, though, was exceedingly gracious and generous to me even back when I really was a self-styled Austrian. For that reason Milton will always seem to me the bigger man, as well as the better monetary economist.”

PPPS David Glasner also have a post discussing the Austrian school’s view of the Great Depression.

Update: Steve Horwitz has a excellent comment on this post over at Coordination Problem and Peter Boettke – also at CP – raises some interesting institutional questions concerning monetary policy and is asking the question whether Market Monetarists have been thinking about these issues (We have!).

Gustav Cassel foresaw the Great Depression

I might be a complete monetary nerd, but I truly happy when I receive a new working paper in the mail from Douglas Irwin on Gustav Cassel. That happened tonight. I have been waiting for the final version of the paper for a couple weeks. Doug was so nice to send me a “preview” a couple a weeks ago. However, now the paper has been published on Dartmouth College’s website.

Lets just say it at once – it is a great paper about the views and influences of the great Swedish economist and monetary expert Gustav Cassel.

Here is the abstract:

“The intellectual response to the Great Depression is often portrayed as a battle between the ideas of Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes. Yet both the Austrian and the Keynesian interpretations of the Depression were incomplete. Austrians could explain how a country might get into a depression (bust following an investment boom) but not how to get out of one (liquidation). Keynesians could explain how a country might get out of a depression (government spending on public works) but not how it got into one (animal spirits). By contrast, the monetary approach of economists such as Gustav Cassel has been ignored. As early as 1920, Cassel warned that mismanagement of the gold standard could lead to a severe depression. Cassel not only explained how this could occur, but his explanation anticipates the way that scholars today describe how the Great Depression actually occurred. Unlike Keynes or Hayek, Cassel explained both how a country could get into a depression (deflation due to tight monetary policies) and how it could get out of one (monetary expansion).”

Douglas Irwin has written a great paper on Cassel and for those who do not already know Cassel’s important contributions not only to the monetary discussions in 1920s and 1930s, but to monetary theory should read Doug’s paper.

Cassel fully understood the monetary origins of the Great Depression contrary to the other main players in the discussion of the day – Hayek and Keynes. From the perspective of today it is striking how we are repeating all the discussions from the 1930s. To me there is no doubt Gustav Cassel would have been as outspoken a critique of both Keynesians and Austrians as he was in 1930s and I am pretty sure that he would have been a proud Market Monetarist. In fact – had it not been for the fantastic name of our school (ok, I got a ego problem…) then I might be tempted to say that we are really all New Casselian economists.

Cassel clearly explained how gold hoarding by especially the French and the US central banks was the key cause for the tightening of global monetary conditions that pushed the global economy into depression – exactly in the same way as “passive” monetary tightening due to a sharp rise in money demand generated deflationary pressures that push the global economy and particularly the US and the European economies into the Great Recession. I my mind Cassel would have been completely clear in his analysis of the causes of the Great Recession had he been alive today.

In fact even though I think Market Monetarists tell a convincing and correct story of the causes for the Great Recession and I also sure that Gustav Cassel would have helped Market Monetarists in seeing the international dimensions of the crisis – particular European demand for dollars – better.

Douglas Irwin has written an excellent paper and it should be read by anyone who is interested monetary theory and monetary history.

Thank you Doug – you did it again!


See a couple of previous comments on Doug’s work and on Cassel:

Hawtrey, Cassel and Glasner

“Our Monetary ills Laid to Puritanism”

“Calvinist economics – the sin of our times”

“Gustav Cassel on recessions”

“France caused the Great Depression – who caused the Great Recession?”


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