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.

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“The Stock Exchange as Barometer”

At the core of Market Monetarist thinking is the view that financial markets are incredibly important indicators of monetary policy conditions. That idea is certainly not new. Just take a look at this article from April 28 1938 (reproduced from the Australian newspaper The Courier Mail):

STOCK EXCHANGE AS BAROMETER

Professor Gustav Cassel, of Sweden, states that the Stock Exchange has often been represented as an astonishingly sensitive barometer, which indicates beforehand what is going to happen in economic life.

Recent experience, however, forced the conclusion that the economic recession in 1937 was in a marked degree, the effect of the distrust shown by the Stock Exchange, and thus might have been avoided if the Stock Exchange had not been exposed to the serious disturbance of confidence which a vacillating monetary policy is always bound to entail.

The ability of the stock exchange to fulfil its functions and to make a firm resistance to a panicky pessimism was greatly impaired by a number of restrictive measures, which, even if they had a grain of justification; unfortunately were framed under the influence of dilettante ideas about the stock exchange as the root of all evil.

There we have it – Gustav Cassel was a Market Monetarist or rather Gustav Cassel is a great influence on Market Monetarist thinking even when we don’t realise it.

The following sentence is especially notable: “the effect of the distrust shown by the Stock Exchange, and thus might have been avoided if the Stock Exchange had not been exposed to the serious disturbance of confidence which a vacillating monetary policy is always bound to entail.”

It is not the drop in the stock market that is causing the crisis, but rather the failure of monetary policy that is at the root of the crisis. The stock market, however, is a strong indicator of monetary policy failure. The quote also clearly shows that Cassel understood well the forward-looking nature of markets and the importance of monetary policy guidance. The stock markets crash in 1937 because policy makers signaled that monetary policy would be tightened (and was indeed tightened) and not because investors panicked. For more on the 1937 see my previous post: Remember the mistakes of 1937? A lesson for today’s policy makers

Hence, the stock market remains a great “barometer” of monetary policy. That was the case in 1937 – as is it today. The graph below – which I have used in an earlier post – illustrates this point quite well I think.

sp5004

At the moment the “barometer” is pretty clear in its verdict – stocks are going up and that is a pretty clear indication that monetary conditions are getting easier.

The upturn in the global markets since August-September last year of course has coincided with Mario Draghi’s “promise” to do “whatever it takes to save the euro”, the introduction of the Bernanke-Evans rule by the fed, Prime Minister Abe in Japan forcing Bank of Japan to seriously step up monetary easing and finally the hope the the Bank of England under the leadership of Mark Carney will introduce some form of NGDP targeting.

Gustav Cassel would have approved.

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See also:

Imagine that a S&P500 future was the Fed’s key policy tool

And more on Gustav Cassel:

Gustav Cassel on Hoover’s Mistake and monetary policy failure
Gustav Cassel foresaw the Great Depression
Hawtrey, Cassel and Glasner
Gustav Cassel on recessions
Danish and Norwegian monetary policy failure in 1920s – lessons for today
“Our Monetary ills Laid to Puritanism”
Calvinist economics – the sin of our times
France caused the Great Depression – who caused the Great Recession?

Update: Felix Salmon has a some different blog post, but it is nonetheless related.

H. L. Mencken comments on the ECB

I just found this wonderful quote from the American journalist and freethinker Henry Louie Mencken on “Puritanism” (“A Mencken Chrestomathy” (1949):

“The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” (from “A Mencken Chrestomathy” 1949)

He could have been talking about European monetary policy or maybe even the majority of Swedish central bank board members…at least Gustav Cassel would have agreed.

My Skåne vacation and what I am reading

It is vacation time for the Christensen family so I might not be blogging too much in the next couple of weeks, but we will see. I would however, like to share what books I have brought with me on our vacation in our vacation home in Southern Sweden (Skåne).

Here is my list of vacation books:

1) “Two lucky people”  is Milton and Rose Friedman’s autobiography. I have read it before, but it is such a nice book about a world class economist and his loving wife. They remained an incredible team throughout their long lives. Did I mention that my copy of Two Happy People is signed by Uncle Milty?

2) Two books – or rather pamphlets – by Gustav Cassel: “The World’s Monetary Problems; Two Memoranda” and “On Quantitative Thinking in Economics”. I have only read a little of both books. Cassel was an amazing writer and I look forward to digging into the books.

3) Of course Bob Hetzel’s “The Great Recession” is in my bag – also on this vacation. I have already long ago read the entire book, however I bring Bob’s book everywhere I go.

4) “The Gold Standard in Theory and History” – edited by Eichengreen and Flandreau back in 1985 is a collection of articles on the gold standard.

5) Tobias Straumann’s “Fixed Ideas of Money” about why small European nations have tended to opt for fixed exchange rate regimes. I have read most of the book. It is an extremely well researched and well written book. I find the book particularly interesting because it describes the monetary history of small countries like Belgium and Denmark. This monetary history of these countries is generally under-researched compared to for example the monetary history of the US or the UK.

6) Larry White’s new book “The Clash of Economic Ideas” about “The Great Policy Debates and Experiments of the Last Hundred Years”. Have read a couple of the chapters in the book even before I got the book, but the latest chapter I read was about the formation of the Mont Pelerin Society (Chapter 8) – it’s a great chapter. The book is a very easy read and very enjoyable. I suspect that this will be the book I will spend the most time with on this vacation. See Larry’s presentation on his book here.

Finally, I must admit I have never been able to read fictional books. Economics, history, philosophy and books about gastronomy, but never fiction (sorry Ayn Rand…)

Danish and Norwegian monetary policy failure in 1920s – lessons for today

History is fully of examples of massive monetary policy failure and today’s policy makers can learn a lot from studying these events and no one is better to learn from than Swedish monetary guru Gustav Cassel. In the 1920s Cassel tried – unfortunately without luck – to advise Danish and Norwegian policy makers from making a massive monetary policy mistake.

After the First World War policy makers across Europe wanted to return to the gold standard and in many countries it became official policy to return to the pre-war gold parity despite massive inflation during the war. This was also the case in Denmark and Norway where policy makers decided to return the Norwegian and the Danish krone to the pre-war parity.

The decision to bring back the currencies to the pre-war gold-parity brought massive economic and social hardship to Denmark and Norway in the 1920s and probably also killed of the traditionally strong support for laissez faire capitalism in the two countries. Paradoxically one can say that government failure opened the door for a massive expansion of the role of government in both countries’ economies. No one understood the political dangers of monetary policy failure better than Gustav Cassel.

Here you see the impact of the Price Level (Index 1924=100) of the deflation policies in Denmark and Norway. Sweden did not go back to pre-war gold-parity.

While most of the world was enjoying relatively high growth in the second half of the 1920s the Danish and the Norwegian authorities brought hardship to their nations through a deliberate policy of deflation. As a result both nations saw a sharp rise in unemployment and a steep decline in economic activity. So when anybody tells you about how a country can go through “internal devaluation” please remind them of the Denmark and Norway in the 1920s. The polices were hardly successful, but despite the clear negative consequences policy makers and many economists in the Denmark and Norway insisted that it was the right policy to return to the pre-war gold-parity.

Here is what happened to unemployment (%).

Nobody listened to Cassel. As a result both the Danish and the Norwegian economies went into depression in the second half of the 1920s and unemployment skyrocketed. At the same time Finland and Sweden – which did not return to the pre-war gold-partiy – enjoyed strong post-war growth and low unemployment.

Gustav Cassel strongly warned against this policy as he today would have warned against the calls for “internal devaluation” in the euro zone. In 1924 Cassel at a speech in the Student Union in Copenhagen strongly advocated a devaluation of the Danish krone. The Danish central bank was not exactly pleased with Cassel’s message. However, the Danish central bank really had little to fear. Cassel’s message was overshadowed by the popular demand for what was called “Our old, honest krone”.

To force the policy of revaluation and return to the old gold-parity the Danish central bank tightened monetary policy dramatically and the bank’s discount rate was hiked to 7% (this is more or less today’s level for Spanish bond yields). From 1924 to 1924 to 1927 both the Norwegian and the Danish krone were basically doubled in value against gold by deliberate actions of the two Scandinavian nation’s central bank.

The gold-insanity was as widespread in Norway as in Denmark and also here Cassel was a lone voice of sanity. In a speech in Christiania (today’s Oslo) Cassel in November 1923 warned against the foolish idea of returning the Norwegian krone to the pre-war parity. The speech deeply upset Norwegian central bank governor Nicolai Rygg who was present at Cassel’s speech.

After Cassel’s speech Rygg rose and told the audience that the Norwegian krone had been brought back to parity a 100 years before and that it could and should be done again. He said: “We must and we will go back and we will not give up”. Next day the Norwegian Prime Minister Abraham Berge in an public interview gave his full support to Rygg’s statement. It was clear the Norwegian central bank and the Norwegian government were determined to return to the pre-war gold-parity.

This is the impact on the real GDP level of the gold-insanity in Denmark and Norway. Sweden did not suffer from gold-insanity and grew nicely in the 1920s.

The lack of reason among Danish and Norwegian central bankers in the 1920s is a reminder what happens once the “project” – whether the euro or the gold standard – becomes more important than economic reason and it shows that countries will suffer dire economic, social and political consequences when they are forced through “internal devaluation”. In both Denmark and Norway the deflation of the 1920s strengthened the Socialists parties and both the Norwegian and the Danish economies as a consequence moved away from the otherwise successful  laissez faire model. That should be a reminder to any free market oriented commentators, policy makers and economists that a deliberate attempt of forcing countries through internal devaluation is likely to bring more socialism and less free markets. Gustav Cassel knew that – as do the Market Monetarists today.

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My account of these events is based on Richard Lester’s paper “Gold-Parity Depression in Denmark and Norway, 1925-1928″ (Journal of Political Economy, August 1937)

Update: Here is an example that not all German policy makers have studied economic and monetary history.

Gustav Cassel on Hoover’s Mistake and monetary policy failure

While I was going through old Australian newspaper articles (don’t ask me why…) I came across a wonderful little article by Gustav Cassel published on February 17 1930. In the article Cassel spells out why fiscal policy would not be able to pull out the US of the Depression and why the Great Depression was caused by  monetary policy failure. The whole thing sounds very Market Monetarist.

I have reproduced the entire article below. Enjoy the wisdom of Gustav Cassel.

President Hoover’s Mistake

- By Professor Gustav Cassel, the Distinguished Swedish Economist

It has been an open question for many years as to what Governments can do to counteract an economic depression… It has above all been suggested that public works should be regulated according to the fluctuations caused from time to time by economic conditions. In other words, the Government should start comprehensive undertakings at the moment when private enterprise begins to lag. The United States are at present in such a condition. Under the energetic leadership of President Hoover it seems that the Government is to intervene promptly and effectively in order to prevent the Stock Exchange crisis from developing into an economic depression.

This case can provide a most useful lesson for the general treatment of this problem and deserves special attention because Europe is more or less bound to be affected by an American depression and will then have to face the same difficulties against which America is fighting today. President Hoover’s programme, which has been given the name of ‘Prosperity Maintenance’ mainly comprises the starting of big undertakings in order to prevent the threatened reduction of industrial employment. To this purpose the official departments are to co-operate with the private employers.

The President called together at the White House several groups representing the economic activity of the country, and the representatives of the railways at once assured him of their cooperation in the form of a comprehensive programme of extensions.

Apart from a certain psychological influence, the President’s programme, is, however, in every way a mistake. It rests not only on an incorrect conception of the actual conditions, but also on an over-estimate the Government’s power.

In the endeavours to create employment by extraordinary new enterprises, it must be remembered very clearly that the burden will fill on the nation’s savings and reduce the amount of money available for the increase of true capital. An intervention by the State in order to increase the existing works and their machinery equipment might possibly be a sensible policy if a surplus of savings were available. The Hoover programme seems to assume that it is the case. In his message to Congress the President has proclaimed to the whole world that hitherto American capital was invested to an extraordinarily large proportion in stock speculation. The crisis is now said to have set this capital free, and made it available for general economic enterprises.

The ‘Government therefore considered it to be their duty to find employment for the capital supply. Every link in this chain or argument is a fallacy. Speculation in stocks has never involved any capital and cannot involve any. Therefore no capital can flow back from the Stock Exchange to economic enterprise. After all, America has no more available capital requiring a special effort for its employment.

The American Stock Exchange crisis signifies no more than that exaggerated quotations have been reduced to their normal value. There is no crisis in the economic life, but only a certain reduction of capital available, mostly for the building of dwelling houses. This reduction is caused immediately by the fact that the current new savings were not sufficient to maintain the production of real capital in the enormous proportions of last year.

The outstanding feature of the present position is therefore undoubtedly a great scarcity of capital. This being the case, is it not foolish to undertake large new enterprises in the belief that they can be paid for with available capital? Any effort in this direction, especially if made by the Government, is bound to waste the already scarce reserves, and thus to weaken the entire political economy.

That scarcity of capital is the principal feature of the present situation is also shown by the fact that the export of American capital has decreased very considerably indeed. If more surplus money were offered America would increase its export of capital and thereby improve the purchasing power of the other countries for the American export products. This would free the Government from many cares concerning inner political economy and at the same time render superfluous its efforts to exert its political power in creating outlets for American exports.

Such a development would be most welcome to all the countries needing capital. Conditions, the whole world over have shaped themselves in such a way that the export of American capital is an indispensable condition for a prosperous world economy. The whole world must therefore view with grave concern a Government intervention which, on account of its uneconomic investments, is bound to render impossible the accumulation of American savings.

Government intervention is in this case obviously to the detriment of the economic organisation. It would be far better to leave that organisation to look after itself. If this were done, any available new surplus money would very quickly be put, to use, provided that no new hindering circumstances should arise. An important American journal has recently collected a number of views on this subject by industrial leaders.

The general impression to be gathered from this inquiry is that the industrialists intend to carry on, notwithstanding the Stock Exchange crisis. In most branches of industry there is an acute necessity to enlarge the buildings and to improve the equipment. On reading the inquiry made by this journal we certainly do not feel that there is any lack of opportunities to use any available American capital. In the present situation there is indeed only one single factor which can seriously hinder development and this one factor has its origin in a Government Department. I am referring to the bank rate policy or in a wider sense to the limitation of money supplies to the economic life by the Federal Reserve System. This limitation has of late been far too strict. The reason is the attempt to regulate the bank rate in such a way that it, would have a supreme influence on the Stock Exchange, limiting the speculative inflation of share prices.

There is no doubt that this attempt constitutes an improper transgression of the natural limits of the tasks evolving upon a central banking institution – an attempt which ultimately can be traced back to the ardent desire of the Government to usurp an ever growing share of influence upon the country’s political economy. It is true that after the Stock Exchange crisis the bank rate has been slightly reduced. But this measure was taken far too slowly and hesitatingly.

The Federal Reserve system has not kept pace with the development, but since the last summer has adhered to rates which were far too high, with the result of a collapse in prices which seriously endangered the whole political economy, and which, so long as it continues will naturally prevent any sensible persons from making new investments. If the fall in prices were to continue, this would unavoidably prevent American economy from continuing its recent wonderful developments.

The collapse in prices is bound to drag with it the whole of the rest of the world and to create a universal condition which must react on the economy of the United States. And all this entirely unnecessary collapse of prices is exclusively the result of the mishandling of the American dollar value which in its turn is the consequence of an uncalled for excursion of Government influence into the province of economic problems.

The whole matter is a blatant example of what happens if we yield to the modern tendency of permitting the Government to meddle unnecessarily with economics. The Government assumes a task which is not in its province; in consequence of this it is driven to mismanage one of its most pertinent tasks, i.e., the supervision of money resources, this causes a depression, which the same government seeks to remedy by measures which are again outside the sphere of its true activity and which can only make the whole position worse.

The particular case under review is really only an illustration of a phenomenon which at present is very general; while neglecting their proper functions, governments greedily seize every opportunity to usurp provinces which are not their concern, and by doing so place themselves – with or against their will – on a plane inclined towards a form of socialism, the aim of which is, in this respect, to risk everything to obtain the utmost.

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Other posts on Gustav Cassel:

Gustav Cassel foresaw the Great Depression
Hawtrey, Cassel and Glasner
“Our Monetary ills Laid to Puritanism”
Calvinist economics – the sin of our times
Gustav Cassel on recessions

And Steve Horwitz on why Hoover was an interventionist.

Maybe Jens Weidmann and Francios Hollande should switch jobs

There seem to be two main positions on how to solve the European crisis. One represented by Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann and that is that monetary policy should not be eased anymore and fiscal policy needs to be tightened (this is the Calvinist position). The other position is held by the new French president Francios Hollande who wants to spur European growth by easing fiscal policy (this is the keynesian position)

I would claim that both positions are wrong. At the core of the European crisis is rising public debt ratios in Europe. The public debt ration (d) is defined in the following way:

(1) d=D/NGDP

Where D is public debt in euros and NGDP is nominal GDP.

Anybody with rudimentary monetarist insights would inform you that D is determined by the fiscal authorities, while NGDP is determined by monetary policy (remember MV=PY).

If you want to stabilize or reduce d then you have to either decrease D and/or increase NGDP. So what you basically need is fiscal tightening and monetary easing.

Unfortunately Weidmann is basically arguing for reducing NGDP and Hollande is arguing in favour of increasing D. Both positons will lead to an increase in d and hence worsen the crisis. Hence, it would be better if the two gentleman switched jobs  – at least mentally. It would be a lot more productivity if Weidmann argued for monetary easing and Hollande argued for fiscal consolidation. That would do the job and the crisis would come to an end fairly fast.

Between the need for fiscal tightening and the need for increasing NGDP I have no doubt that it is much more important to increase NGDP. The public debt ratios in Europe has not primarily increased because fiscal policy has been eased, but because NGDP has collapsed. In that sense the crisis is not a debt crisis, but a monetary crisis.

….

Note to the two gentlemen:

To President Hollande (The keynesian): Fiscal policy cannot increase NGDP. Recommend reading: There is no such thing as fiscal policy

To Bundesbank chief Weidmann (The Calvinist): Monetary policy is a panache and it can increase NGDP as much as you like it to be increased. Recommend reading: “Ben Volcker” and the monetary transmission mechanism

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!

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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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