The Turkish demonstrations – and the usefulness of the AS/AD framework

Peter Dorman has a blog post that have gotten quite a bit of attention in the blogosphere on the AS-AD model and why he thinks it is not a useful framework. This is Peter:

“Introductory textbooks are supposed to give you simplified versions of the models that professionals use in their own work.  The blogosphere is a realm where people from a range of backgrounds discuss current issues often using simplified concepts so everyone can be on the same page.

But while the dominant framework used in introductory macro textbooks is aggregate supply—aggregate demand (AS-AD), it is almost never mentioned in the econ blogs.  My guess is that anyone who tried to make an argument about current macropolicy using an AS-AD diagram would just invite snickers.  This is not true on the micro side, where it’s perfectly normal to make an argument with a standard issue, partial equilibrium supply and demand diagram.  What’s going on here?”

I am somewhat surprised by Peter’s statement that the AS-AD framework is never mentioned on the econ blogs. That could indicate that Peter has never read my blog (no offense taken – I never read Peter’s blog before either). My regular readers would of course know that I am quite fund of using the AS-AD framework to illustrate my arguments. Other Market Monetarists – particularly Nick Rowe and Scott Sumner are doing the same thing quite regularly. See Nick’s discussion of Peter’s post here.

The purpose of this post, however, is not really to discuss Peter’s critique of the AS-AD framework, but rather to show the usefulness of the framework with a example from today’s financial news flow. Furthermore, I will do a Market Monetarist ‘spin’ on the AS-AD framework. Hence, I will stress the importance of monetary policy rules and what financial markets tell us about AD and AS shocks.

The Istanbul demonstrations as an AS shock 

Over the weekend we have seen large street protests in Istanbul in Turkey. The demonstrations are the largest demonstrations ever against the ruling AKP party and Prime Minister Erdogan. Mr. Erdogan has been in power for a decade.

The demonstrations today triggered a 10% drop in the Istanbul stock exchange so there is no doubt that investors think that these demonstrations and the political ramifications of the demonstrations will have a profound negative economic impact.

I believe a core insight of Market Monetarist thinking is that financial markets are very useful indicators about monetary policy shocks. Hence, we for example argue that if the US dollar is depreciating, market inflation expectations are rising and the US stock market is rallying then it is a very clear indication that US monetary conditions are getting easier.

While the focus of Market Monetarists have not been as much on supply shocks as on monetary policy shocks (AD shocks) it is equal possible to ‘deduct’ AS shocks from financial markets. I believe that today’s market action in the Turkish markets are a pretty good indication of exactly that – the combination of lower stock prices, higher bond yields (higher risk premium and/or higher inflation expectations) and a weaker lira tells the story that investors see the demonstrations as a negative supply shock. It is less clear whether the shock is a long-term or a short-term shock.

A short-run AS shock – mostly about disruption of production

My preferred textbook version of the AS-AD model is a model similar to the one Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok use in their great textbook Modern Principles of Economics where the model is expressed in growth rates (real GDP growth and inflation) rather than in levels.

It is obvious that the demonstrations and unrest in Istanbul are likely to lead to disruptions in production – roads are closed down, damages to infrastructure, some workers are not coming to work and even some lines of communication might be negatively impacted by the unrest. Compared to the entire Turkish economy the impact these effects is likely quite small, but it is nonetheless a negative supply shock. These shocks are, however, also likely to be temporary – short-term – rather than permanent. Hence, this is a short-run AS shock. I have illustrated that in the graph below.

AS AD SRAS shock

This is the well-known illustration of a negative short-run supply shock – inflation increases (from P to P’) and real GDP growth declines (from Y to Y’).

This might very well be what we will see in Turkey in the very short run – even though I believe these effects are likely to be quite small in size.

However, note that we here assume a “constant” AD curve.

Peter Dorman is rightly critical about this assumption in his blog post:

“…try the AD assumption that, even as the price level and real output in the economy go up or down, the money supply remains fixed.”

Peter is of course right that the implicit assumption is that the money supply (or money base) is constant. The standard IS/LM model suffers from the same problem. A fact that have led me to suggest an alternative ISLM model – the so-called IS/LM+ model in which the central bank’s monetary policy rule is taken into account.

Obviously no analysis of macroeconomic shocks should ignore the monetary policy reaction to different shocks. This is obviously something Market Monetarists have stressed again and again when it for example comes to fiscal shocks like the ‘fiscal cliff’ in the US. In the case of Turkey we should therefore take into account that the Turkish central bank (TCMB) officially is targeting 5% inflation.

Therefore if the TCMB was targeting headline inflation in a very rigid way (ECB style) it would have to react to the increase in inflation by tightening monetary policy (reducing the money base/supply) until inflation was back at the target. In the graph above that would mean that the AD curve would shift to the left until inflation would have been brought down back to 5%. The result obviously would be a further drop in real GDP growth.

In reality I believe that the TCMB would be very unlikely to react to such a short run supply. In fact the TCMB has recently cut interest rates despite the fact that inflation continue to run slightly above the inflation target of 5%. Numbers released today show Turkish headline inflation was at 6.6% in May.

In fact I believe that one with some justification can think of Turkish monetary policy as a “flexible NGDP growth targeting” (with horrible communication) where the TCMB effectively is targeting around 10% yearly NGDP growth. Interestingly enough in the Cowen-Tabarrok version of the AS-AD model that would mean that the TCMB would effectively keep the AD curve “unchanged” as the AD curve in reality is based in the equation of exchange (MV=PY).

The demonstrations could reduce long-term growth – its all about ‘regime uncertainty’

While the Istanbul demonstrations clearly can be seen as a short-run supply shock that is probably not what the markets are really reacting to. Instead it is much more likely the the markets are reacting to fears that the ultimate outcome of the demonstrations could lead to lower long-run real GDP growth.

Cowen and Tabarrok basically think of long-run growth within a Solow growth model. Hence, there are overall three drivers of growth in the long run – labour forces growth, an increase in the capital stock and higher total factor productivity (TFP – think of that as “knowledge”/technology).

I believe that the most relevant channel for affecting long-run growth in the case of the demonstrations is the impact on investments in Turkey which likely will influence both the size of the capital stock and TFP negatively.

Broadly speaking I think Robert Higgs concept of “Regime Uncertainty” comes in handy here.  This is Higgs:

“The hypothesis is a variant of an old idea: the willingness of businesspeople to invest requires a sufficiently healthy state of “business confidence,”  … To narrow the concept of business confidence, I adopt the interpretation that businesspeople may be more or less “uncertain about the regime,” by which I mean, distressed that investors’ private property rights in their capital and the income it yields will be attenuated further by government action. Such attenuations can arise from many sources, ranging from simple tax-rate increases to the imposition of new kinds of taxes to outright confiscation of private property. Many intermediate threats can arise from various sorts of regulation, for instance, of securities markets, labor markets, and product markets. In any event, the security of private property rights rests not so much on the letter of the law as on the character of the government that enforces, or threatens, presumptive rights.”

I think this is pretty telling about the fears that investors might have about the situation in Turkey. It might be that the Turkish government is not loved by investors, but investors are clearly uncertain about what would follow if the demonstrations led to “regime change” in Turkey and a new government. Furthermore, the main opposition party – the CHP – is hardly seen as reformist.

And even if the AKP does remain in power the increased public disconnect could lead to ‘disruptions of production’ (broadly speaking) again and again in the future.  Furthermore, the government hard-handed reaction to the demonstrations might also “complicate” Turkey’s relationship to both the EU and the US – something which likely also will weigh on foreign direct investments into Turkey.

Hence, regime uncertainty therefore is likely to reduce the long-run growth in the Turkish economy. Obviously it is hard to estimate the scale such effects, but at least judging from the sharp drop in the Turkish stock market today the negative long-run supply shock is sizable.

I have illustrated such a negative long-run supply shock in the graph below.

LRAS shock

The result is the same as in the short-run model – a negative supply shock reduces real GDP growth and increases inflation.

However, I would stress that the TCMB would likely not in the long run accept a permanent higher rate of inflation and as a result the TCMB therefore sooner or later would have to tighten monetary policy to push down inflation (by shifting the AD curve to the left). This also illustrates that the demonstrations is likely to become a headache for the TCMB management.

Is the ‘tourism multiplier’ zero? 

Above I have primarily described the Istanbul demonstrations as a negative supply shock. However, some might argue that this is also going to lead to a negative demand shock.

Hence, Turkey very year has millions of tourists coming to the country and some them will likely stay away this year as a consequence of the unrest. In the Cowen- Tabarrok formulation of the AD curve a negative shock to tourism would effectively be a negative shock to money velocity. This obviously would shift the AD curve to the left – as illustrated in the graph below.

AD shock

Hence, we initially get a drop in both inflation and real GDP growth as the AD curve shifts left.

However, we should never forget to think about the central bank’s reaction to a negative AD shock. Hence, whether the TCMB is targeting inflation or some kind of NGDP growth target it would “automatically” react to the drop in aggregate demand by easing monetary policy.

In the case the TCMB is targeting inflation it would ease monetary policy until the AD curve has shifted back and the inflation rate is back at the inflation target.

This effectively means that a negative shock to Turkish tourism should not be expected to have an negative impact on aggregate demand in Turkey for long. This effectively is a variation of the Sumner Critique – this time, however, it is not the budget multiplier, which is zero, but rather the ‘tourism multiplier’.

Hence, from a macroeconomic perspective the demonstrations are unlikely to have any major negative impact on aggregate demand as we would expect the TCMB to offset any such negative shock by easing monetary policy.

That, however, does not mean that a negative shock to tourism will not impact the Turkish financial markets. Hence, there will be a change in the composition of aggregate demand – less tourism “exports” and more domestic demand. This likely is bad news for the Turkish lira.

Mission accomplished – we can use the AS-AD framework to analysis the ‘real world’

I hope that my discussion above have demonstrated that the AS-AD framework can be a very useful tool when analyzing real world problems – such as the present public unrest in Turkey. Obviously Peter Dorman is right – we should know the limitations of the AS-AD model and we should particularly be aware what kind of monetary policy reaction there will be to different shocks. But if we take that into account I believe the textbook (the Cowen-Tabarrok textbook) version of the AS-AD model is a quite useful tool. In fact it is a tool that I use every single day both when I produce research in my day-job or talk to clients about such ‘events’ as the Turkish demonstrations.

Furthermore, I would add that I could have done the same kind of analysis in a DSGE framework, but I doubt that my readers would have enjoyed looking at a lot of equations and a DSGE model would likely have reveal little more about the real world than the version of the AS-AD model I have presented above.

PS Please also take a look at this paper in which I discuss the politics and economics of the present Turkish crisis.

PPS Paul Krugman, Nick Rowe and Mark Thoma also comment on the usefulness of the AS-AD framework.

About these ads

Paul Krugman warns against fiscal stimulus

This is Paul Krugman on the effectiveness on fiscal policy and why fiscal “stimulus” will in fact not be stimulative:

“The US is currently engaged in the largest peacetime fiscal stimulus in history, with a budget deficit of around 10 percent of GDP. And this stimulus is working in the narrow sense that it has headed off the imminent risk of a deflationary spiral, and generated some economic growth. On the other hand, deficits this size cannot be continued over the long haul; USA now has Italian (or Belgian) levels of internal debt, together with large implicit liabilities associated with its awkward demographics. So the current strategy can work in the larger sense only if it succeeds in jump-starting the economy, in eventually generating a self-sustaining recovery that persists even after the stimulus is phased out.

Is this likely? The phrase “self-sustaining recovery” trips lightly off the tongue of economic officials; but it is in fact a remarkably exotic idea. The purpose of this note is to expose this hidden exoticism – to show that anyone who believes that temporary fiscal stimulus will produce sustained recovery is implicitly endorsing a rather fancy economic model, the sort of model that finance ministries would under normal circumstances regard as implausible and disreputable…

…What continues to amaze me is this: USA’s current strategy of massive, unsustainable deficit spending in the hopes that this will somehow generate a self-sustained recovery is currently regarded as the orthodox, sensible thing to do – even though it can be justified only by exotic stories about multiple equilibria, the sort of thing you would imagine only a professor could believe. Meanwhile further steps on monetary policy – the sort of thing you would advocate if you believed in a more conventional, boring model, one in which the problem is simply a question of the savings-investment balance – are rejected as dangerously radical and unbecoming of a dignified economy.”

Wauw! What is this? What happened to the keynesian Krugman? Isn’t he calling for fiscal easing anymore? Well yes, but I am cheating here. This is Paul Krugman, but it is not today’s Paul Krugman. This is Paul Krugman in 1999 – and he is talking about Japan and not the US. I simply replaced “Japan” with “the US” in the Krugman quote above.

Read the entire article here.

HT Tyler Cowen and Vaidas Urba.

MRUniversity – join now!

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok have written one of the best economics textbooks out there and now they are introducing the Marginal Revolution University.

Is is how the gentlemen introduces MRUniversity:

We think education should be better, cheaper, and easier to access.  So we decided to take matters into our own hands and create a new online education platform toward those ends. We have decided to do more to communicate our personal vision of economics to you and to the broader world.

You can visit http://www.MRUniversity.com here.  There you can sign up for information about our first course, Development Economics, which is described by Alex below.

Here are a few of the principles behind MR University:

1. The product is free (like this blog), and we offer more material in less time.

2. Most of our videos are short, so you can view and listen between tasks, rather than needing to schedule time for them.  The average video is five minutes, twenty-eight seconds long.  When needed, more videos are used to explain complex topics.

3. No talking heads and no long, boring lectures.  We have tried to reconceptualize every aspect of the educational experience to be friendly to the on-line world.

4. It is low bandwidth and mobile-friendly.  No ads.

5. We offer tests and quizzes.

6. We have plans to subtitle the videos in major languages.  Our reach will be global, and in doing so we are building upon the global emphasis of our home institution, George Mason University.

7. We invite users to submit content.

8. It is a flexible learning module.  It is not a “MOOC” per se, although it can be used to create a MOOC, namely a massive, open on-line course.

9. It is designed to grow rapidly and flexibly, absorbing new content in modular fashion — note the beehive structure to our logo.  But we are starting with plenty of material.

10. We are pleased to announce that our first course will begin on October 1

I think this is a great idea and a very good opportunity for students of economics and amateur economists to get high quality economic education from some of the best and most clever guys out there. So I encourage everybody just remotely interested in economics to sign up NOW.

Counterfeiting, nazis and monetary separation

A couple of months ago a friend my sent me an article from the Guardian about how “Nazi Germany flooded Europe with fake British banknotes in an attempt to destroy confidence in the currency. The forgeries were so good that even German spymasters paid their agents in Britain with fake notes..The fake notes were first circulated in neutral Portugal and Spain with the double objective of raising money for the Nazi cause and creating a lack of confidence in the British currency.”

The article made me think about the impact of counterfeiting and whether thinking about the effects of counterfeiting could teach us anything about monetary theory. It should be stressed that my argument will not be a defense of counterfeiting. Counterfeiting is obviously fraudulent and as such immoral.

Thinking about the impact of counterfeiting we need to make two assumptions. First, are the counterfeited notes (and coins for the matter) “good” or not. Second what is the policy objective of the central bank – does the central bank have a nominal target or not.

Lets start out analyzing the case where the quality of the the counterfeited notes is so good that nobody will be able to distinguish them from the real thing and where the central bank has a clear and credible nominal target – for example a inflation target or a NGDP level target. In this case the counterfeiter basically is able to expand the money supply in a similar fashion as the central bank. Hence, effectively the nazi German counterfeiters in this scenario would be able to increase inflation and the level of NGDP in the UK in the same way as the Bank of  England. However, if the BoE had been operating an inflation target then any increase in inflation (above the inflation target) due to an increase in the counterfeit money supply would have lead the BoE to reduce the official money supply. Furthermore, if the inflation target was credible an increase in inflation would be considered to be temporary by market participants and would lead to a drop in money velocity (this is the Chuck Norris effect).

Hence, under a credible inflation targeting regime an increase in the counterfeit money supply would automatically lead to a drop in the official money supply and/or a drop in money-velocity and as a consequence it would not lead to an increase in inflation. The same would go for any other nominal target.

In fact we can imagine a situation where the entire official UK money supply would have been replaced by “nazi notes” and the only thing the BoE was be doing was to provide a credible nominal anchor. This would in fact be complete monetary separation – between the different functions of money. On the one hand the Nazi counterfeiters would be supplying both the medium of exchange and a medium for store of value, while the BoE would be supplying a unit of account.

Therefore the paradoxical result is that as long as the central bank provides a credible nominal target the impact of counterfeiting will be limited in terms of the impact on the economy. There is, however, one crucial impact and that is the revenue from seigniorage from iss uing money would be captured by the counterfeiters rather than by the central bank. From a fiscal perspective this might or might not be important.

Could counterfeiting be useful?

This also leads us to what surely is a controversial conclusion that a central bank, which is faced with a situation where there is strong monetary deflation – for example in the US during the Great Depression – counterfeiting would actually be beneficial as it would increase the “effective” money supply and therefore help curb the deflationary pressures. In that regard it would be noted that this case only is relevant when the nominal target – for example a NGDP level target or lets say a 2% inflation target is not seen to be credible.

Therefore, if the nominal target is not credible and there is deflation we could argue that counterfeiting could be beneficial in terms of hitting the nominal target. Of course in a situation with high inflation and no credible nominal target counterfeiting surely would make the inflationary problems even worse. This would probably have been the case in the UK during WW2 – inflation was high and there was not a credible nominal target and as such had the nazi counterfeiting been “successful” then it surely would have had a serious a negative impact on the British economy in the form of potential hyperinflation.

Monetary separation could be desirable – at least in terms of thinking about money

The discussion above in my view illustrates that it is important in separating the different functions of money when we talk about monetary policy and the example with perfect counterfeiting under a credible nominal target shows that we can imagine a situation where the provision of the unit of accounting is produced by a (monopoly) central bank, but where production the medium of exchange and storage is privatized. This is at the core of what used to be know as New Monetary Economics (NME).

The best known NME style policy proposal is the little understood BFH system proposed by Leland Yeager and Robert Greenfield. What Yeager and Greenfield basically is suggesting is that the only task the central bank should provide is the provision media of accounting, while the other functions should be privatised – or should I say it should be left to “counterfeiters”.

While I am skeptical about the practically workings of the BFH system and certainly is not proposing to legalise counterfeiting one should acknowledge that the starting point for monetary policy most be to provide the medium account – or said in another way under a monopoly central bank the main task of the central bank is to provide a numéraire. NGDP level targeting of course is such numéraire.

A more radical solution could of course be to allow private issuance of money denominated in the official medium of account. This effectively would take away the need for a lender of last resort, but would not be a full Free Banking system as the central bank would still set the numéraire, which occasionally would necessitate that the central bank issued its own money or sucked up privated issued money to ensure the NGDP target (or any other nominal target). This is of course not completely different from what is already happening in the sense the private banks under the present system is able to create money – and one can argue that that is in fact what happened in the US during the Great Moderation.

NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative

Tyler Cown a couple of days ago put out a comment on “Why doesn’t the right-wing favor looser monetary policy?”

Tyler has three answers to his own question:

1. There is a widespread belief that inflation helped cause the initial mess (not to mention centuries of other macroeconomic problems, plus the problems from the 1970s, plus the collapse of Zimbabwe), and that therefore inflation cannot be part of a preferred solution.  It feels like a move in the wrong direction, and like an affiliation with ideas that are dangerous.  I recall being fourteen years of age, being lectured about Andrew Dickson White’s work on assignats in Revolutionary France, and being bored because I already had heard the story.

2. There is a widespread belief that we have beat a lot of problems by “getting tough” with them.  Reagan got tough with the Soviet Union, soon enough we need to get tough with government spending, and perhaps therefore we also need to be “tough on inflation.”  The “turning on the spigot” metaphor feels like a move in the wrong direction.  Tough guys turn off spigots.

3. There is a widespread belief that central bank discretion always will be abused (by no means is this view totally implausible).  “Expansionary” monetary policy feels “more discretionary” than does “tight” monetary policy.  Run those two words through your mind: “expansionary,” and “tight.”  Which one sounds and feels more like “discretion”?  To ask such a question is to answer it.


There is a lot of truth in what Tyler is saying. I especially like #2. There seem especially among US conservative and libertarian intellectuals a need to be “tough”. The dogma seems to be “no pain, no gain”. This obviously is an idiotic position. It seems like the tough guys have forgotten that sometimes there are indeed gains to be made with little or no pain. Just remember what the supply siders like Arthur Laffer taught us – sometimes you can cut tax rates and increase revenues. In fact most market reforms are exactly about that – economists call it a Pareto improvement. Unlike other monetary policy rules NGDP level targeting can actually be shown to ensure Pareto optimality (yes, yes I know it is based on questionable theoretical assumptions…)

Even though I like Tyler’s explanations to his question I think there is one big problem with his comment and that is his premise that Market Monetarists are advocating “expansionary” monetary policy. We are not – at least I am not and I don’t think Scott Sumner is. I have again and again argued that NGDP level targeting is not about “stimulus” and it is certainly not discretionary. Rather NGDP level targeting is about ensuring that monetary policy is “neutral” and does not distort the price system.

As I have earlier argued that if the central bank is pursuing a policy of NGDP level targeting then (ideally) relatively prices would be unaffected by monetary policy and hence be equal to what they would have been in a pure barter economy.

This is what I have called Selgin’s Monetary Credo:

The goal of monetary policy ought to be that of avoiding unnatural fluctuations in output…while refraining from interfering with fluctuations that are “natural.” That means having a single mandate only, where that mandate calls for the central bank to keep spending stable, and then tolerate as optimal, if it does not actually welcome, those changes in P and y that occur despite that stability

Hence, what we line with George Selgin are arguing is the true Free Market alternative to the present monetary policy in for example the euro zone and the US. Contrary to for example the Taylor rule which anybody who has studied David Eagle or George Selgin would tell you is leading to distortions of relative prices. How can any conservative or libertarian advocate a monetary policy rule which distorts market prices?

Furthermore, Scott Sumner, Bill Woolsey and myself have suggested that not only should the central banks target the only non-distortionary policy rule (NGDP level targeting), but the central bank should also leave the implementation of this rule to the market through the use of predictions markets (e.g. NGDP futures). I have not seen conservative economists like John Taylor or Allan Meltzer showing such trust in the free market. (The gold bugs and Rothbard style Austrians do not even want to let the market decide on was level of reserves banks should hold…)

Of course there is a position which is even more Free Market and that is of course the Free Banking alternative. However, as I argued the Market Monetarist position and the Free Banking position are fundamentally not in conflict. In fact NGDP targeting could be seen as a privatisation strategy. Free Banking theorists like George Selgin of course understand this, but will John Taylor or Allan Meltzer go along with that idea? I think not…

But why do people get confused and think we want monetary stimulus? Well, it is probably partly our own fault because we argue that the present crisis particularly in the US and Europe is due to overly tight monetary policy and as a natural consequence we seem to be favouring “expansionary” monetary policy or “monetary stimulus”.  However, the point is that we argue that the ECB and Fed failed in 2008 and to a large extent have continued to fail ever since and that they need to undo their mistakes. But we mostly want the central bank to stop distorting relative prices and we would really just like to have a big nice “computer” called The Market to take care of the implementation of monetary policy. That is also what Milton Friedman favoured and what right-winger would be against that?

PS I assume that Tyler uses the term “right-winger” to mean somebody who is in favour of free markets. That is at least how I here use the term.

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

Tyler Cowen on the gold standard

Here is Tyler Cowen on the gold standard:

“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.

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?

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.”

I fully agree – I think it would be an extremely bad idea to introduce a gold standard today. That does not mean that the gold standard does not have some merits. It has – the gold standard will for example significantly reduce discretion in monetary policy and I surely prefer rules to discretion in monetary policy. Furthermore, I think that exchange rate based monetary policy also has some merits as it can “circumvent” the financial sector. Monetary policy is not conducted via a credit channel, but via a exchange rate channel – that makes a lot of sense in a situation will a financial crisis.

However, why gold? Why not silver? Or Uranium? Or rather a basket of commodities. Robert Hall has suggested a method that I fundamentally think has a lot of merit – the ANCAP standard, which is a basket of Ammonium Nitrate, Copper, Aluminum and Plywood. Why these commodities? Because as Robert Hall shows they have been relatively highly correlated with the general cost of living. I am not sure that these commodities are the best for a basket – I in fact think it would make more sense to use a even broader basket like the so-called CRB index, but that is not important – the important thing is that the best commodity standard is not one with one commodity (like gold), but rather a number of commodities so to reduce the volatility of the basket.

Furthermore, it makes very little sense to me to keep the exchange rate completely fixed against the the commodity basket. As I have advocated in a number of earlier posts I think a commodity-exchange rates based NGDP targeting regime could make sense for small open economies – and maybe even for large economies. Anyway, the important thing is that we can learn quite a bit from discussing exchange rate and commodity based monetary standards. Therefore, I think the Market Monetarists should engage gold standard proponents in in 2012. We might have more in common than we think.

Now I better stop blogging for this year – the guests will be here in a second and my wife don’t think it is polite to write about monetary theory while we have guests;-)

Happy new year everybody!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,637 other followers

%d bloggers like this: