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.

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Larry White on Bernard Lietaer’s new book

Larry White has a very insightful review of Bernard Lietaer and Jacqui Dunne’s new book “Rethinking Money: How New Currencies Turn Scarcity Into Prosperity“. As Larry writes in a Facebook update “I wanted to like the book more”. I have the exact same feeling about much of Lietaer’s work.

Bernard Lietaer of course is a pioneer in the “local currency” movement. Fundamentally local currencies (or parallel currencies) have a lot in common with free banking and it is of course why Larry and myself would like to like the work of people like Bernard Lietaer. However, the problem with the local currency crowd in my view is that it’s leading proponents base their arguments for “local currencies” on seriously flawed economic arguments. In fact I would rather say that they tend to have anti-economic arguments. As Larry notes in his review:

“In Rethinking Money, economist Bernard Lietaer and journalist Jacqui Dunne offer interesting accounts of community currency projects more or less like Berkshares around the world. But they admire them for rather different reasons. The dominant monetary system is problematic, in their view, because it “perpetuates scarcity and breeds competition,” stifles cooperation, makes life stressful, concentrates wealth at the top, causes financial instability, and threatens the environment. It does so chiefly because the need to pay interest is “structurally embedded” in the system.

…Today’s government-dominated monetary and financial systems do of course exhibit instability. But the book’s other indictments of them are more dubious. Any monetary system “perpetuates” (does not abolish) “scarcity,” as economists use the term, and so too does any barter system. Scarcity, meaning that we do not have enough time and resources to accomplish all of our imaginable goals, is an ineluctable feature of human life. Competition is not a problem: Indeed, to bring about greater prosperity we need more competition, not less, and especially so in money and banking. Freer competition promotes rather than stifles greater social cooperation. Free-market banking and money-issue would end the government’s monopoly on basic money and its control over the interbank transfer system. It would end both special privileges for commercial banks and special restrictions on their activities. Greater efficiency, stability, and prosperity would follow. But to think that “monetary scarcity can be a thing of the past” is to engage in wishful thinking.”

I completely agree with Larry’s comments – Lietaer and other “local currency” proponets’ analysis is flawed. That is too bad as I strongly believe that we can learn a lot from the experience with “local currencies”. In fact I believe that “local currencies” can help us remove monetary disequilibrium. However, the general anti-capitalist and “localist” (or rather protectionist) perspective of people like Bernard Lietaer is entirely wrong.

One of the key problems in the local currency literature is that it seems to be completely unaffected by the research on Free Banking. As Larry correctly notes:

They unfortunately never mention F.A. Hayek’s unconventional work The Denationalization of Money, nor any of the literature of the last 30 years concerning non-fiat, redeemability-based free banking.

In reviewing Georgina M. Gómez’s boo Argentina’s Parallel Currency about Argentina’s experience with parallel currencies I made a similar comment:

What strikes me when I read Dr. Gómez’s book is the near total lack of references to Free Banking theory and to monetary theory in general. For example there is no reference to Selgin, White, Horwitz and other Free Banking theorists. There is no references to Leland Yeager’s views on monetary disequilibrium either. That is too bad because I think theorists such as Selgin and Yeager would make it much easier for Gómez to explain and understand the emergence of CCS if she had utilized monetary disequilibrium theory and Free Banking theory.

As I noted – I strongly believe that we can learn a lot about monetary issues and particularly about the feasability of Free Banking by studying local/parallel currencies, but we need to do it from the perspective of Larry White rather than from the perspective of Bernard Lietaer – competition in money and finance is good and is a source of stability rather than instability.

See some of my earlier posts on local currencies here:

Free Banking theorists should study Argentina’s experience with parallel currencies

Time to try WIR in Greece or Ireland? (I know you are puzzled)

PS for a Free Banking critique of local currency thinking see George Selgin’s piece “The Folly that is “Local” Currency”

The counterfactual US inflation history – the case of NGDP targeting

Opponents of NGDP level targeting often accuse Market Monetarists of being “inflationists” and of being in favour of reflating bubbles. Nothing could be further from the truth – in fact we are strong proponents of sound money and nominal stability. I will try to illustrate that with a simple thought experiment.

Imagine that that the Federal Reserve had a strict NGDP level targeting regime in place for the past 20 years with NGDP growing 5% year in and year out. What would inflation then have been?

This kind of counterfactual history excise is obviously not easy to conduct, but I will try nonetheless. Lets start out with a definition:

(1) NGDP=P*RGDP

where NGDP is nominal GDP, RGDP is real GDP and P is the price level. It follows from (1) that:

(1)’ P=NGDP/RGDP

In our counterfactual calculation we will assume the NGDP would have grown 5% year-in and year-out over the last 20 years. Instead of using actual RGDP growth we RGDP growth we will use data for potential RGDP as calculated Congressional Budget Office (CBO) – as the this is closer to the path RGDP growth would have followed under NGDP targeting than the actual growth of RGDP.

As potential RGDP has not been constant in the US over paste 20 years the counterfactual inflation rate would have varied inversely with potential RGDP growth under a 5% NGDP targeting rule. As potential RGDP growth accelerates – as during the tech revolution during the 1990s – inflation would ease. This is obviously contrary to inflation targeting – where the central bank would ease monetary policy in response to higher potential RGDP growth. This is exactly what happened in the US during the 1990s.

The graph below shows the “counterfactual inflation rate” (what inflation would have been under strict NGDP targeting) and the actual inflation rate (GDP deflator).

The graph fairly clearly shows that actual US inflation during the Great Moderation (from 1992 to 2007 in the graph) pretty much followed an NGDP targeting ideal. Hence, inflation declined during the 1990s during the tech driven boost to US productivity growth. From around 2000 to 2007 inflation inched up as productivity growth slowed.

Hence, during the Great Moderation monetary policy nearly followed an NGDP targeting rule – but not totally.

At two points in time actual inflation became significantly higher than it would have been under a strict NGDP targeting rule – in 1999-2001 and 2004-2007.

This of course coincides with the two “bubbles” in the US economy over the past 20 years – the tech bubble in the late 1990s and the property bubble in the years just prior to the onset of the Great Recession in 2008.

Market Monetarists disagree among each other about the extent of bubbles particularly in 2004-2007. Scott Sumner and Marcus Nunes have stressed that there was no economy wide bubble, while David Beckworth argues that too easy monetary policy created a bubble in the years just prior to 2008. My own position probably has been somewhere in-between these two views. However, my counterfactual inflation history indicates that the Beckworth view is the right one. This view also plays a central role in the new Market Monetarist book “Boom and Bust Banking: The Causes and Cures of the Great Recession”, which David has edited. Free Banking theorists like George Selgin, Larry White and Steve Horwitz have a similar view.

Hence, if anything monetary policy would have been tighter in the late 1990s and and from 2004-2008 than actually was the case if the fed had indeed had a strict NGDP targeting rule. This in my view is an illustration that NGDP seriously reduces the risk of bubbles.

The Great Recession – the fed’s failure to keep NGDP on track 

According to the CBO’s numbers potential RGDP growth started to slow in 2007 and had the fed had a strict NGDP targeting rule at the time then inflation should have been allowed to increase above 3.5%. Even though I am somewhat skeptical about CBO’s estimate for potential RGDP growth it is clear that the fed would have allowed inflation to increase in 2007-2008. Instead the fed effective gave up 20 years of quasi NGDP targeting and as a result the US economy entered the biggest crisis after the Great Depression. The graph clearly illustrates how tight monetary conditions became in 2008 compared to what would have been the case if the fed had not discontinued the defacto NGDP targeting regime.

So yes, Market Monetarists argue that monetary policy in the US became far too tight in 2008 and that significant monetary easing still is warranted (actual inflation is way below the counterfactual rate of inflation), but Market Monetarists – if we had been blogging during the two “bubble episodes” – would also have favoured tighter rather than easier monetary policy during these episodes.

So NGDP targeting is not a recipe for inflation, but rather an cure against bubbles. Therefore, NGDP targeting should be endorsed by anybody who favours sound money and nominal stability and despise monetary induced boom-bust cycles.

Related posts:

Boom, bust and bubbles
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative (we try again)
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative

An empirical – not a theoretical – disagreement with George, Larry and Eli

Last week George Selgin warned us (the Market Monetarists) about getting to excited about the recent actions of the Federal Reserve. Now fellow Free Banker Larry White raises a similar critique in a post on freebanking.org.

Here is Larry:

“While saluting Sumner 2009…I favor an alternative view of 2012: the weak recovery today has more to do with difficulties of real adjustment. The nominal-problems-only diagnosis ignores real malinvestments during the housing boom that have permanently lowered our potential real GDP path. It also ignores the possibility that the “natural” rate of unemployment has been hiked by the extension of unemployment benefits. And it ignores the depressing effect of increased regime uncertainty.”

Larry’s point is certainly valid and Bill Woolsey has expressed a similar view:

“Targeting real variables is a potential disaster.  Expansionary monetary policy seeking an unfeasible  target for unemployment was the key error that generated the Great Inflation of the Seventies.  Employment or the employment/population ratio could have the same disastrous result.”

I have already in an earlier post addressed these issues. I agree with Bill (and George Selgin) that it potentially could be a disaster for central banks to target real variables and that is also why I think that an NGDP level target is much preferable to the rule the fed now seems to try to implementing. Both Larry and George think that the continued weak real GDP growth and high unemployment in the US might to a large extent be a result of supply side problems rather than as a result of demand side problems. Eli Dourado makes a similar point in a recent thoughtful blog post. Bill Woolsey has a good reply to Eli.

To me our disagreement is not theoretical – the disagreement is empirical. I fully agree that it is hard to separate supply shocks from demand shocks and that is exactly why central banks should not target real variable. However, the question is now how big the risk isthat the fed is likely to ease monetary policy excessively at the moment.

In my view it is hard to find much evidence that there has been a major supply shock to the US economy. Had there been a negative supply shock then one would have expected inflation to have increased and one would certainly not have expected wage growth to slow. The fact is that both wage growth and inflation have slowed significantly over the past four years. This is also what the markets are telling us – just look at long-term bond yields. I would not argue that there has not been a negative supply shock – I think there has been. For example higher minimum wages and increased regulation have likely reduced aggregate supply in the US economy, but in my view the negative demand shock is much more import. I am less inclined to the Austrian misallocation hypothesis as empirically significant.

A simple way to try to illustrate demand shocks versus supply shocks is to compare the development in real GDP with the development in prices. If the US primarily has been hit by a negative supply shock then we would have expect that real GDP to have dropped (relative to the pre-crisis trend) and prices should have increased (relative to the pre-crisis trend). On the other hand a negative demand shock will lead to a drop in both prices and real GDP (relative to pre-crisis trend).

The graph below shows the price level measured by the PCE core deflator – actual and the pre-crisis trend (log scale, 1993:1=100).

The next graph show the “price gap” which I define as the percentage difference between the actual price level and the pre-crisis trend.

Both graphs are clear – since the outbreak of the Great Recession in 2008 prices have grown slower than the pre-crisis trend (from 1993) and the price gap has therefore turned increasingly negative.

This in my view is a pretty clear indication that the demand shock “dominates” the possible supply shock.

Compare this with the early 1990s where prices grew faster than trend, while real GDP growth slowed. That was a clear negative supply shock.

That said, it is notable that the drop in prices (relative to the pre-crisis trend) has not been bigger when one compared it to how large the drop in real GDP has been, which could be an indication that White, Selgin and Dourado also have a point – there has probably also been some deterioration of the supply side of the US economy.

Monetary easing is still warranted

…but rules are more important than easing

I therefore think that monetary easing is still warranted in the US and I am not overly worried about the recent actions of the Federal Reserve will lead to bubbles or sharply higher inflation.

However, I have long stressed that I find it significantly more important that the fed introduce a proper rule based monetary policy – preferably a NGDP level target – than monetary policy is eased in a discretionary fashion.

Therefore, if I had the choice between significant discretionary monetary easing on the one hand and NGDP level targeting from the present level of NGDP (rather than from the pre-crisis trend level) I would certainly prefer the later. Nothing has been more harmful than the last four years of discretionary monetary policy in the US and the euro zone. To me the most important thing is that monetary policy is not distorting the workings of the price system and distort relative prices. Here I have been greatly inspired by Larry and George.

I have stressed similar points in numerous earlier posts:

NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative (we try again)
NGDP targeting is not about ”stimulus”
NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy
Be right for the right reasons
Monetary policy can’t fix all problems
Boettke’s important Political Economy questions for Market Monetarists
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative
Lets concentrate on the policy framework
Boettke and Smith on why we are wasting our time
Scott Sumner and the Case against Currency Monopoly…or how to privatize the Fed

I think we Market Monetarists should be grateful to George, Larry and Eli for challenging us. We should never forget that targeting real variables is a very dangerous strategy for monetary policy and we should never put the need for “stimulus” over the need for a strictly ruled based monetary policy. And again I don’t think the disagreement is over theory or objectives, but rather over empirical issues.

As our disagreement primarily is empirical it would be interesting to hear what George, Larry and Eli think about the euro zone in this regard? Here it to me seem completely without question that the problem is nominal rather than real (even though the euro zone certainly has significant supply side problems, but they are unrelated to the crisis).

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Update: David Beckworth and George Selgin joins/continue the debate.

NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative (we try again)

Most of the blogging Market Monetarists have their roots in a strong free market tradition and nearly all of us would probably describe ourselves as libertarians or classical liberal economists who believe that economic allocation is best left to market forces. Therefore most of us would also tend to agree with general free market positions regarding for example trade restrictions or minimum wages and generally consider government intervention in the economy as harmful.

I think that NGDP targeting is totally consistent with these general free market positions – in fact I believe that NGDP targeting is the monetary policy regime which best ensures well-functioning and undistorted free markets. I am here leaving aside the other obvious alternative, which is free banking, which my readers would know that I have considerable sympathy for.

However, while NGDP targeting to me is the true free market alternative this is certainly not the common view among free market oriented economists. In fact I find that most of the economists who I would normally agree with on other issues such as labour market policies or trade policy tend to oppose NGDP targeting. In fact most libertarian and conservative economists seem to think of NGDP targeting as some kind of quasi-keynesian position. Below I will argue why this perception of NGDP targeting is wrong and why libertarians and conservatives should embrace NGDP targeting as the true free market alternative.

Why is NGDP targeting the true free market alternative?

I see six key reasons why NGDP level targeting is the true free market alternative:

1) NGDP targeting is ”neutral” – hence unlike under for example inflation targeting NGDPLT do not distort relative prices – monetary policy “ignores” supply shocks.
2) NGDP targeting will not distort the saving-investment decision – both George Selgin and David Eagle argue this very forcefully.
3) NGDP targeting ”emulates” the Free Banking allocative outcome.
4) Level targeting minimizes the amount of discretion and maximises the amount of accountability in the conduct of monetary policy. Central banks cannot get away with “forgetting” about past mistakes. Under NGDP level targeting there is no letting bygones-be-bygones.
5) A futures based NGDP targeting regime will effective remove all discretion in monetary policy.
6) NGDP targeting is likely to make the central bank “smaller” than under the present regime(s). As NGDP targeting is likely to mean that the markets will do a lot of the lifting in terms of implementing monetary policy the money base would likely need to be expanded much less in the event of a negative shock to money velocity than is the case under the present regimes in for example the US or the euro zone. Under NGDP targeting nobody would be calling for QE3 in the US at the moment – because it would not be necessary as the markets would have fixed the problem.

So why are so many libertarians and conservatives sceptical about NGDP targeting?

Common misunderstandings:

1) NGDP targeting is a form of “countercyclical Keynesian policy”. However, Market Monetarists generally see recessions as a monetary phenomenon, hence monetary policy is not supposed to be countercyclical – it is supposed to be “neutral” and avoid “generating” recessions. NGDP level targeting ensures that.
2) Often the GDP in NGDP is perceived to be real GDP. However, NGDP targeting does not target RGDP. NGDP targeting is likely to stabilise RGDP as monetary shocks are minimized, but unlike for example inflation targeting the central bank will NOT react to supply shocks and as such NGDP targeting means significantly less “interference” with the natural order of things than inflation targeting.
3) NGDP targeting is discretionary. On the contrary NGDP targeting is extremely ruled based, however, this perception is probably a result of market monetarists call for easier monetary policy in the present situation in the US and the euro zone.
4) Inflation will be higher under NGDP targeting. This is obviously wrong. Over the long-run the central bank can choose whatever inflation rate it wants. If the central bank wants 2% inflation as long-term target then it will choose an NGDP growth path, which is compatible which this. If the long-term growth rate of real GDP is 2% then the central bank should target 4% NGDP growth path. This will ensure 2% inflation in the long run.

Another issue that might be distorting the discussion of NGDP targeting is the perception of the reasons for the Great Recession. Even many libertarian and conservative economists think that the present crisis is a result of some kind of “market disorder” – either due to the “natural instability” of markets (“animal spirits”) or due to excessively easy monetary policy in the years prior to the crisis. The proponents of these positions tend to think that NGDP targeting (which would mean monetary easing in the present situation) is some kind of a “bail out” of investors who have taken excessive risks.

Obviously this is not the case. In fact NGDP targeting would mean that central bank would get out of the business of messing around with credit allocation and NGDP targeting would lead to a strict separation of money and banking. Under NGDP targeting the central bank would only provide liquidity to “the market” against proper collateral and the central bank would not be in the business of saving banks (or governments). There is a strict no-bail out clause in NGDP targeting. However, NGDP targeting would significantly increase macroeconomic stability and as such sharply reduce the risk of banking crisis and sovereign debt crisis. As a result the political pressure for “bail outs” would be equally reduced. Similarly the increased macroeconomic stability will also reduce the perceived “need” for other interventionist measures such as tariffs and capital control. This of course follows the same logic as Milton Friedman’s argument against fixed exchange rates.

NGDP level targeting as a privatization strategy

As I argue above there are clear similarities between the allocative outcome under Free Banking – hence a fully privatized money supply – and NGDP targeting. In fact I believe that NGDP level targeting might very well be seen as part of a privatization strategy. (I have argued that before – see here)

Hence, a futures based NGDP targeting regime would basically replace the central bank with a computer in the sense that there would be no discretionary decisions at all in the conduct of monetary policy. In that sense the futures based NGDP targeting regime would be similar to a currency board, but instead of “pegging” monetary policy to a foreign currency monetary policy would be “pegged” to the market expectation of future nominal GDP. This would seriously limit the discretionary powers of central banks and a truly futures based NGDP targeting regime in my view would only be one small step away from Free Banking. This is also why I do not see any conflict between advocating NGDP level targeting and Free Banking. This of course is something, which is fully recognised by Free Banking proponents such as George Selgin, Larry White and Steve Horwitz.

PS this is no the first time I try to convince libertarians and conservatives that NGDP level targeting is the true free market alternative. See my first attempt here.

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Related posts:

NGDP targeting is not about ”stimulus”
NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy
Be right for the right reasons
Monetary policy can’t fix all problems
Boettke’s important Political Economy questions for Market Monetarists
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative
Lets concentrate on the policy framework
Boettke and Smith on why we are wasting our time
Scott Sumner and the Case against Currency Monopoly…or how to privatize the Fed

Update (July 23 2012): Scott Sumner once again tries to convince “conservatives” that monetary easing is the “right” position. I agree, but I predict that Scott will fail once again because he argue in terms of “stimulus” rather than in terms of rules.

Selgin just punched the 100-percent wasp’s nest again

One day George Selgin is picking a friendly fight with the Market Monetarists, the next day he is picking a fight with the Rothbardian Austrians. You will have to respect George for always being 100% intellectually honest and behaving like a true gentleman – something you can not always say about his opponents. His latest fight is over the old story of fractional reserve banking versus 100% reserve banking.

Personally I never understood the 100%-crowd, but I am not going to go into that debate other than saying I agree 100% with George on this issue. However, I want to do a bit of PR for George’s posts and the response to his posts.

Here is George’s first post: 100-Percent Censorship?

Here is  Joseph Salerno‘s response to George: The Selgin Story  (Warning: This is typical Rothbardian style)

And George’s response to Salerno: Reply to Salerno

When you read an exchange like this you will realise why Rothbardian style Austrianism is completely marginalised today and George is a well-respected monetary historian and theorist.

Larry White also has a good post on fractional reserve banking – and why it is the true free market outcome in an unregulated market economy.

If you are interested in this discussion then you should have a look at Larry and George’s classic article “In Defense of Fiduciary Media – or, We are Not Devo(lutionists), We are Misesians”.

Related post: I am blaming Murray Rothbard for my writer’s block

Update 1: The fist fight continues – here is a not too clever attacks on George from the comment section on Economic Policy Journal (which has nothing to do with a Journal) and here is George’s response: More Dumb Anti-Fractional Reserve Stuff

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…)

Nixon was a crook and Arthur Burns was a failed central banker

Back from my trip to Riga and Stockholm and two books had arrived in the mail from Amazon.

The first one “Inside The Nixon Administration – the Secret Diary of Arthur Burns 1969-1974″ (Edited by Robert Ferrell, 2010). The second one is Larry White’s “Free Banking in Britain” (yes, dear readers believe it or not I did not read it before…).

Obviously I have not read the two books yet, but they are in some odd way complementary – the one is about how central banking can become hugely politicized and the second is about how to avoid that the monetary regime is politicized.

I did peak a little into the pages of the Burns diary. Burns who of course was Federal Reserve governor while Nixon was US president wrote a diary with notes from all its meetings with Nixon. I must admit that I am in total shock about how extreme the polarization of the US monetary policy was in the Nixon years. The man surely was a crook. One of the worst. However, from the little I have read Burns diary also clearly shows how misguided his views of monetary policy were. Again and again the diary mentions how he think price and wage controls are necessary to curb inflation, while Nixon at the same time is demanding money printing to be stepped up. Surely a bizarre duo – one a failed economist and one a crook. Very scary indeed.

So what is the lesson? Politics and money is a deadly cocktail and that is why you want to restrict both central bankers and a politicians when it comes to monetary policy.

If any of my readers have read these books I would be very happy to hear your opinion about them.

 

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!).

Guest blog: Tyler Cowen is wrong about gold (By Blake Johnson)

In a recent post I commented on Tyler Cowen’s reservations about the gold standard on his excellent blog Marginal Revolution. In my comment I invited to dialogue between Market Monetarists and gold standard proponents and to a general discussion of commodity standards. I am happy that Blake Johnson has answered my call and written a today’s guest blog in which he discusses Tyler’s reservations about the gold standard.

Obviously I do not agree with everything that my guest bloggers write and that is also the case with Blake’s excellent guest blog. However, I think Blake is making some very valid points about the gold standard and commodity standards and I think that it is important that we continue to discuss the validity of different monetary institutions – including commodity based monetary systems – even though I would not “push the button” if I had the option to reintroduce the gold standard (I am indirectly quoting Tyler here).

Blake, thank you very much for contributing to my blog and I look forward to have you back another time.

Lars Christensen

—————-

Guest blog: Tyler Cowen is wrong about gold

By Blake Johnson

I have been reading Marginal Revolution for several years now, and genuinely find it to be one of the more interesting and insightful blogs out there. Tyler Cowen’s prolific blogging covers a massive range of topics, and he is so well read that he has something interesting to say about almost anything.

That is why I was surprised when I saw Tyler’s most recent post on the gold standard. I think Tyler makes some claims based on some puzzling assumptions. I’d like to respond here to Cowen’s criticism of the gold standard, as well as one or two of Lars’ points in his own response to Cowen.

“The most fundamental argument against a gold standard is that when the relative price of gold is go up, that creates deflationary pressures on the general price level, thereby harming output and employment.  There is also the potential for radically high inflation through gold, though today that seems like less a problem than it was in the seventeenth century.”

I am surprised that Cowen would call this the most fundamental argument against the gold standard. First, regular readers of the Market Monetarist are likely very familiar with Selgin’s excellent piece “Less than Zero” which Lars is very fond of. There is plenty of evidence that suggests that there is nothing necessarily harmful about deflation. Cowen’s blanket statement of the harmful effects of deflation neglects the fact that it matters very much why the price level is falling/the real price of gold is going up. The real price of gold could increase for many reasons.

If the deflation is the result of a monetary disequilibrium, i.e. an excess demand for money, then it will indeed have the kind of negative consequences Cowen suggests. However, the purchasing power of gold (PPG) will also increase as the rest of the economy becomes more productive. An ounce of gold will purchase more goods if per unit costs of other goods are falling from technological improvements. This kind of deflation, far from being harmful, is actually the most efficient way for the price system to convey information about the relative scarcity of goods.

Cowen’s claim likely refers to the deflation that turned what may have been a very mild recession in the late 1920’s into the Great Depression. The question then is whether or not this deflation was a necessary result of the gold standard. Douglas Irwin’s recent paper “Did France cause the Great Depression” suggests that the deflation from 1928-1932 was largely the result of the actions of the US and French central banks, namely that they sterilized gold inflows and allowed their cover ratios to balloon to ludicrous levels. Thus, central bankers were not “playing by the rules” of the gold standard.

Personally, I see this more as an indictment of central bank policy than of the gold standard. Peter Temin has claimed that the asymmetry in the ability of central banks to interfere with the price specie flow mechanism was the fundamental flaw in the inter-war gold standard. Central banks that wanted to inflate were eventually constrained by the process of adverse clearings when they attempted to cause the supply of their particular currency exceed the demand for that currency. However, because they were funded via taxpayer money, they were insulated from the profit motive that generally caused private banks to economize on gold reserves, and refrain from the kind of deflation that would result from allowing your cover ratio to increase as drastically as the US and French central banks did. Indeed, one does not generally hear the claim that private banks will issue too little currency, the fear of those in opposition to private banks issuing currency is often that they will issue currency ad infinitum and destroy the purchasing power of that currency.

I would further point out that if you believe Scott Sumner’s claim that the Fed has failed to supply enough currency, and that there is a monetary disequilibrium at the root of the Great Recession, it seems even more clear that central bankers don’t need the gold standard to help them fail to reach a state of monetary equilibrium. While we obviously haven’t seen anything like the kind of deflation that occurred in the Great Depression, this is partially due to the drastically different inflation expectations between the 1920’s and the 2000’s. The Fed still allowed NGDP to fall well below trend, which I firmly believe has exacerbated the current crisis.

Finally, I would dispute the claim that the gold standard has the potential for “radically high inflation”. First, one has to ask the question, radically high compared to what? If one compares it to the era of fiat currency, the argument seems to fall flat on its face rather quickly. In a study by Rolnick and Weber, they found that the average inflation rate for countries during the gold standard to be somewhere between -0.5% and 1%, while the average inflation rate for fiat standards has been somewhere between 6.5% and 8%. That result is even more striking because Rolnick and Weber found this discrepancy even after throwing out all cases of hyperinflation under fiat standards. Perhaps the most fundamental benefit of a gold run is its property of keeping the long run price level relatively stable.

“Why put your economy at the mercy of these essentially random forces?  I believe the 19th century was a relatively good time to have had a gold standard, but the last twenty years, with their rising commodity prices, would have been an especially bad time.  When it comes to the next twenty years, who knows?”

I think Cowen makes two mistakes here. First, the forces behind a functioning gold standard are not random. They are the forces of supply and demand that seem to work pretty well in basically every other market. Lawrence H. White’s book “The Theory of Monetary Institutions” has an excellent discussion of the response in both the flow market for gold as well as the market for the stock of monetary gold to changes in the PPG. To go over it here in detail would take far too much space.

Second, commodity prices have not been increasing independent of monetary policy; the steady inflation over the last 30 years has had a significant effect on commodity prices. This is rather readily apparent if one looks at a graph of the real price of gold, which is extremely stable and even falling slightly until Nixon closes the Gold Window and ends the Bretton Woods system, at which point it begins fluctuating wildly. Market forces stabilize the purchasing power of the medium of redemption in a commodity standard; this would be true for any commodity standard, it is not something special about gold in particular.

As an aside, in response to Lars question, why gold and not some other commodity or basket of commodities, I would argue that without a low transaction cost medium of redemption the process of adverse clearings that ensures that money supply tends toward equilibrium becomes significantly less efficient. The reason the ANCAP standard, or a multi-commodity standard such as Yeager’s valun standard are not likely to have great success is mainly the problems of redemption (they also have not tracked inflation well since the 1980’s and 1990’s respectively.) I would gladly say that I believe there are many other commodities that a monetary standard could be based upon. C.O. Hardy argued that a clay brick standard would work fairly well if not for the problem of trying to get people to think of bricks as money (and Milton Friedman commented favorably on Hardy’s idea in a 1981 paper.)

“Whether or not there is “enough gold,” and there always will be at some price, the transition to a gold standard still involves the likelihood of major price level shocks, if only because the transition itself involves a repricing of gold.  A gold standard, by the way, is still compatible with plenty of state intervention.”

This is Cowen’s best point in my opinion. There would indeed be some sizable difficulties in returning from a fiat standard to a gold standard. In particular, it would not be fully effective if only one or two countries returned to a commodity standard, it would need to be part of a broader international movement to have the full positive effects of a commodity standard. Further, the parity at which countries return to the commodity standard would need to be better coordinated than the return to the gold standard in the 1920’s, when some countries returned with the currencies overvalued, and others returned with their currencies undervalued.

My main gripe is that Cowen’s claims seemed to be a broad indictment of the gold standard (or commodity standards) in general, rather than on the difficulties of returning to a gold standard today. They are two separate debates, and in my opinion, there is plenty of reason to believe that theoretically the gold standard is the better choice, particularly for lesser-developed countries. Even for countries such as the US with more advanced countries, the record does not seem so rosy. Central banks not only watched over, but we have reason to believe that their actions (or inaction) have been significant factors in the severity of both the Great Depression and the Great Recession.

© Copyright (2012) Blake Johnson

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