Spain’s quasi-depression – an Austrian ‘bust’ or a monetary contraction? Or both?

A couple of days ago I wrote a post on the behavior of prices in the ‘bust’ phase of an Austrian style business cycle. My argument was that the Austrian business cycle story basically is a supply side story and that in the bust there is a negative supply shock. As a consequence one should expect inflation to increase during the ‘bust’ phase.

My post was not really about what have happened during the Great Recession, but it is obvious that the discussion could be relevant for understanding the present crisis.

Overall I don’t think that the present crisis can be explained by an Austrian style business cycle theory, but I nonetheless think that we can learn something relevant from Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT) that will deepen our understanding of the crisis.

Unlike Austrians Market Monetarists generally do not stress what happened prior to the crisis. I do, however, think that we prior to the crisis saw a significant misallocation of resources in some countries. I myself in the run up to the crisis – back in 2006/7 – pointed to the risk of boom-bust in for example Iceland and Baltic States. Furthermore, in hindsight one could certainly also argue that we saw a similar misallocation in some Southern European countries. This misallocation in my view was caused by a combination of overly easy monetary conditions and significant moral hazard problems.

This discussion has inspired me to have a look Spain in the light of my discussion of ABCT.

My starting point is to decompose Spanish inflation into a supply and a demand component. I have used the crude method - the Quasi-Real Price Index – that I inspired by David Eagle developed in a number of posts back in 2011. I will not go into details with the method here, but you can read more here.

This is my decomposition of Spanish inflation.

Spain inflation QRPI

The story prior to the crisis is pretty clear. Both demand and supply inflation is fairly stable and there are no real sign of strongly accelerating demand inflation. However, the picture that emerges in the “bust-years” is very different.

As the graph shows supply inflation spiked as the crisis played out and has remained elevated ever since and we are now seeing supply inflation around 5%. However, at the same time demand inflation has collapsed and we basically have had demand deflation since the outbreak of the crisis.

I would stress that my crude method of decomposing inflation assumes that the aggregate supply curve is vertical. That obviously is not the case and that likely lead to an overestimation of the supply side inflation. That said, I feel pretty confident that the overall story is correct.

Hence, the Spanish story in my view provides some support for an Austrian-inspired interpretation of the crisis in the Spanish economy. As the crisis in Spain started to unfold the Spanish economy was hit by a large negative supply shock, which caused supply inflation to spike. There is clearly an Austrian style argument to be made here. Investors realised that they had  made a mistake and therefore economic resources had to reallocated from unprofitable sectors (for example the construction sector) to other sector. With price and wage rigidities this is a supply shock.

A negative supply shock will not in itself cause a depression 

However, this is not the whole story. A purely Austrian interpretation of the crisis misses the main problem in the Spanish economy today – the collapse in aggregate demand. Despite the sharp increase in Spanish supply inflation headline inflation (measured with the GDP deflator) has collapsed! That can only happen if demand inflation drops more than supply inflation increases. This is exactly what have happened in Spain. In fact we have a situation where we have high suppply inflation AND demand deflation.

What have happened is that the Spanish economy has moved from the ‘bust’ phase to what Hayek called ‘secondary deflation’. The ‘secondary deflation’ is the post-bust phase where a negative demand shock causes the economy to go into depression and a general deflationary state. This is a massively negative monetary shock and this is the real cause of the prolonged crisis.

The ‘secondary deflation’ is not a natural consequence of an Austrian style boom-bust, but rather a consequence of a monetary contraction. In that sense the secondary deflation is more monetarist in nature than Austrian.

In the case of Spain the monetary contraction is a direct consequence of Spain’s euro membership. If a country has a freely floating exchange rate then a negative supply shock – the bust – will cause the country’s currency to depreciate. However, due to Spain’s membership this obviously is not possible. The lack of depreciation of Spain’s currency de facto is monetary tightening (process that plays out is basically David Hume’s Price-Specie-flow story).

In fact the monetary tightening in Spain has been massive and has caused demand inflation to drop from around 4% to today more than 5% (demand) deflation!

This obviously is the real cause of the continued crisis in the Spanish economy. So while my decomposition of Spanish inflation seems to indicate that there has been an ‘Austrian story’ in the sense that there Spain has gone through of re-allocation (the negative supply shock) the dominant story is the collapse in aggregate demand caused by a monetary contraction.

The counterfactual story – and why a Austrian style bust is not recessionary

The discussion above in my view illustrates a clear problem with the Austrian story of the business cycle. I my view Austrians often fail to explain why a reallocation of economic resources will have to lead to a recession. Yes, it is clear that we will get a temporary downturn in real GDP in the bust phase, but there is nothing in ABCT that explains that that will turn into a depression-like situation as is the case in Spain.

What would for example have happened if Spain had had its own currency and an independent monetary policy regime where the central bank had targeted nominal GDP – for example along a 6% NGDP growth path.

Lets say that the entire initial Spanish downturn had been cause by a bubble bursting (it was not), but also that the central bank had been targeting a 6% NGDP growth path. Hence, as the bubble bursts real GDP growth decelerates sharply. However, as the central bank is keeping NGDP growth at 6% inflation will – temporary – increase. Most of the rise in inflation will be caused by an increase in supply inflation (but demand inflation will not drop). This is temporary and inflation will drop back once the re-allocation process has come to an end. Hence, there will not be a deflationary shock.

Therefore, the drop in real GDP growth is a necessary adjustment to a bubble bursting. However, the drop will likely be rather short-lived as aggregate demand (NGDP) is kept “on track” due to the NGDP target and hence “facilitate” a smooth re-allocation of resources in the Spanish economy.

This in my view clearly illustrates why we cannot use Austrian Business Cycle Theory to explain why the crisis in the Spanish economy is as deep as it is. Clever Austrians like Roger Garrison and Steve Horwitz will of course agree that ABCT is not a theory of depression. You need a monetary contraction to create a depression. This is Steve Horwitz on ABCT:

Both critics and adherents of the ABCT misunderstand it if they think it is some sort of comprehensive theory of the boom, breaking point, and length/depth of the bust.  It isn’t.  As Roger Garrison has long insisted, the theory by itself is a theory of the unsustainable boom.  It is a theory that explains why driving the market rate of interest below the natural rate through expansionary monetary policy produces a boom that contains endogenous processes that will cause that boom to turn to a bust.  Again, it’s a theory of the unsustainable boom.

ABCT tells us nothing about exactly when the boom will break and the precise factors that will cause it.  The theory claims that eventually costs will rise in such a way that make it clear that the longer-term production processes falsely induced by the boom will not be profitable, leading to their abandonment.  But it says nothing about which projects will be undertaken in which markets and which costs (other than perhaps the loan rate) will rise, and it tells us nothing about the timing of those events.  We know it has to happen, but the where and when are unique, not typical, features of business cycles.

… The ABCT is not a theory of the causes of the length and depth of recessions/depressions, but a theory of the unsustainable boom.

…The ABCT cannot explain the entirety of the Great Depression.  It simply can’t.  And adherents of theory who make the claim that it can are not doing the theory any favors.  What ABCT can explain (at least potentially, if the data support it) is why there was a recession at all in 1929.  It argues that it was the result of an unsustainable boom initiated by an excess supply of money at some point in the 1920s.  Yes, the bigger the boom, cet. par., the worse the bust, but even that doesn’t tell us much.  Once the turning point is reached, there’s not a lot that ABCT can say other than to let the healing process unfold unimpeded.

I think Steve’s description of ABCT is completely correct and in the same way as Steve doesn’t believe that ABCT can explain the entire Great Depression I would argue that ABCT cannot explain the Spanish crisis – or the euro crisis for that matter. Yes, there undoubtedly is some truth to the fact that overly easy monetary policy from the ECB contributed  to creating a unsustainable boom in the Spanish economy (and other European economies). However, ABCT cannot explain why we still five years into the crisis are trapped in a deflationary crisis in the Spanish economy. The depressionary state of the Spanish economy – at this stage – is nearly fully a consequence of a sharp monetary contraction. The bust has clearly long ago run its natural cause and what is keeping the Spanish economy from recovering is not a necessary re-allocation of economic resources, but very tight monetary conditions in Spain.

Conclusion: ABCT provide important insights, but will not help us now 

So to me the conclusion is pretty clear – Austrian Business Cycle theory do indeed provide some interesting and important insights to the boom-bust process. However, ABCT only explains a very limited part of the crisis in the Spanish economy and the euro zone for that matter. Had monetary policy been kept on track as the re-allocation process started the adjustment process in the Spanish economy would likely have been fairly painless and swift.

Unfortunately that has not been the case and monetary policy has caused the Spanish economy to enter a ‘secondary deflation’ and clever Austrians know that that is not a result of a bust, but rather a result of a monetary disequilibrium resulting from a excessive demand for money relative to the supply of money. There is no reason to worry about about reflating a bubble. The bubble has been deflated long ago.

PS The purpose of this post has been to discuss ABCT in the light of the crisis in Spain. However, the purpose has not been to tell the full story of Spain’s economic problems. Hence, it is clear that Spain struggles with serious structural problems such as extremely damaging firing-and-hiring rules. This structural problem significantly contribute to deepen and prolong the crisis, but it has not been the cause of the crisis.

Mario Rizzo on Austrian Business Cycle Theory

Mario Rizzo has an excellent post on Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT). I think Mario do a good job explaining what ABCT is and what it is not.

At the centre of Mario’s discussion is that monetary policy is not neutral, but that the important think is not inflation, but rather “relative inflation”. Here is Mario:

The Austrian theory rests, not on a catalyzing effect of core inflation or headline inflation, but on changes inrelative prices that cause resources to be allocated in ultimately unsustainable ways. The Great Depression was not preceded by much inflation because productivity improvements allowed for increases in bank credit without increasing (by much) the price level. Hayek said repeatedly that the price level aggregate can hide the distortions basic to the cycle.

This point is especially important in the early stages of recovery when there is so much unused capacity and previous investment pessimism that expansions in bank credit (not meaning base money) may be returning to sustainable levels and inflation in the usual sense is unlikely. Nevertheless, as the recovery proceeds, there is a danger that maintenance of low interest rates by the central bank for long periods can induce a distorted character of investment, even as the total amount of investment measured throughout the economy has not recovered.

The policy-relevant point is that if the central bank decides not to allow interest rates to rise until aggregate investment has recovered to boom levels, it will have waited too long. The character of the investment will be distorted. Malinvestments will set in – even without inflation.

I do not think that the Austrian theory says anything unique about inflation – in the sense of increases in the aggregate price level – beyond the warning that aggregates of this sort can conceal the theoretically-relevant magnitudes for understanding business cycles.

I think this is a completely fair and accurate description of Austrian Business Cycle Theory (at least the Hayek-Garrison version of ABCT). That said, I do have serious problems with ABCT as a general business cycle theory. First of all while I don’t think the so-called Cantillon effect is completely irrelevant I don’t think it is very important empirically and the Cantillon effect seems to be based on the assumption that some agents have adaptive or static expectations and/or asymmetrical information (these assumptions are highly ad hoc in nature). Second, ABCT is also based on the assumption that credit markets are imperfect – that might or might not be the case in the real world, but Austrians often fail to state that clearly. I hope to follow up on these issues in a later post.

That said, unlike some other Market Monetarists I don’t think Austrian Business Cycle theory is irrelevant. Rather, I think that (variations of) ABCT will be helpful in understanding the “boom” in for example certain euro zone countries prior to 2008 – and it certainly helped me in my own research on for example Iceland and the Baltic States during the “boom years” of 2006-7. However, empirically I think that both the US and particularly in euro zone are in the secondary deflation phase of the business cycle (in the sense that NGDP has fallen well below the pre-crisis trend), which as Mario notes ABCT has little to say about. As a consequence I don’t think that monetary easing in at the present state of the cycle is likely to lead to a Austrian style boom with distortion of relative prices – at least not if monetary easing is conducted with-in a clear rule based set-up like NGDP level targeting.

In a sense one can say that my biggest problem with ABCT is not so much ABCT in itself, but rather that many Austrian economists today seems to believe that we are in necessary “bursting of the bubble”-phase of the cycle rather than in the secondary deflation phase.

Concluding, while I do not think that ABCT is a general theory of the business cycle and I would certainly also stress the “secondary deflation” part of the cycle much more than the “boom” phase of the cycle I nonetheless think that Mario’s description of Austrian Business Cycle Theory is excellent and I hope that Austrian and non-Austrians alike will read it.

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Suggested reading on ABCT:

Hayek’s Price and Production

Garrison’s Time and Money (I linked to a PDF of Garrison’s book, but do yourself a favour and buy a hardcopy)

See my earlier post on the Rothbardian version of ABCT and Steve Horwitz excellent reply to that post. Steve’s reply to me was very much in line with Mario’s views.

Steve, George and Bryan debate Austrian economics and empirics

I am a huge fan of Cato-Unbound.org. Here you find good insightful and intellectual debates amount classical liberal, libertarian and conservative scholars on a number of topics. The quality of the pieces on Cato Unbound is always very high. That is also the case for the latest “debate”. As always there is a “Lead Essay” and a number of “Response Essays”. This time the topic is “Theory and Practice in the Austrian School”.

The lead essay is written by Steve Hortwiz and the response essays are by George Selgin and Bryan Caplan.

Fundamentally Steve’s claim is that Austrian method – praxeology – is not as strict anti-empirical as it is often said to be. In his essay “The Empirics of Austrian Economics” Steve makes an heroic attempt to argue that there is no real conflict between praxeology and empirical studies. Everybody who know me would know that I have greatest respect for Steve and I think he is a very open-minded Austrian. However, sometimes Steve’s attempt to defend Austrian economics goes too far. Fundamentally Steve is making up a version of Austrian economics, which never really existed – or rather the Austrian economics that Steve describes is not really Austrian economics, but rather it is how Steve would like to think Austrian economics should be. And I certainly admit I that I prefer Hortwizian economics to Misesian-Rothbardian economics and Steve certainly knows (much!) better than me what “Austrian economics” really is. However, his essay did not convince me that Austrians are as methodologically open-minded as he claims. Neither has he convinced Bryan Caplan and George Selgin.

Both Bryan and George are well-known friendly critics of Austrian Economics. My own feelings about Austrian economics are similar to those of Bryan and George. To me the world of economics would be very empty without Austrian economics. The contributions to economics by Mises, Hayek and Kirzner etc. can certainly not be overestimated. But I also share the view of particular Bryan who rightly notes that it is too bad that Austrians tend to marginalize themselves and the contributions of Austrian economics by their eagerness to not speak in language of mainstream economics. It is hard not from time to time to feel that Austrian economics is a cult. That is sad because it means that far to many economics students around the world are never introduced to Austrian economics (if you are one of them get a copy of Human Action and start reading NOW!).

Furthermore, I share George’s view that empirical research can be useful in understanding what is important and what is not important. Empirical research is also useful in figuring out the magnitude of a certain economic problem. We can deduct from praxeology that an increase in minimum wages will increase unemployment, but praxeology is not telling us anything about how large that the increase in unemployment will be if minimum wages are increased by X dollars. Both Mises and Rothbard were negative about this kind of empirical analysis – Steve tries to argue that that is not the case, but George shows that his arguments for this is rather weak.

Anyway, the three gentlemen have much better arguments than I have on these issues so read their pieces yourself:

Steve Horwitz: “The Empirics of Austrian Economics”

Bryan Caplan: “Horwitz, Economy and Empirics”

George Selgin: “How Austrian Is It?”

Update – follow-ups:

Lorenzo and Horwitz debate Austrian economics

Back in April our friend Lorenzo did a interesting post on Austrian theory. That has now triggered a response from Steve Horwitz who defends the Austrian position. It is excellent stuff. It is a debate between two clever debaters and I have very strong sympathies for both gentlemen. However, I don’t have time today to go through the entire debate, but I will strongly recommend to my readers to take a look at this very interesting debate.

See here:

Lorenzo: About Austrian Economics

Steve’s response: Thoughts on Lorenzo on Austrian Economics

Lorenzo’s feedback to Steve: Response to Dr. Horwitz’s thoughts

Again, this is excellent stuff. Read it! We can all become more clever by debates like this. Thanks guys.

Most people do “national accounting economics” – including most Austrians

Yesterday, I did a presentation about  monetary explanations for the Great Depression (See my paper here) at a conference hosted by the Danish Libertas Society. The theme of the conference was Austrian economics so we got of to an interesting start when I started my presentation with a bashing of Austrian business cycle theory – particularly the Rothbardian version (you know that has given me a headache recently).

The debate at the conference reminded me that most people – economists and non-economists – have a rather simple keynesian model in their heads or rather a simple national account model in their head.

We all the know the basic national account identity:

(1) Y=C+I+G+X-M

It is notable that most people are not clear about whether Y is nominal or real GDP. In the standard keynesian textbook model it is of course not important as prices (P) are assumed to be fixed and equal to one.

The fact that most people see the macroeconomics in this rather standard keynesian formulation means that they fail to understand the nominal character of recessions and hence nearly by construction they are unable to comprehend that the present crisis is a result of monetary policy mistake.

Whether austrian, keynesian or lay-person the assumption is that something happened on the righthand side of (1) and that caused Y to drop. The Austrians claim that we had an unsustainable boom in investments (I) caused by too low interest rates and that that boom ended in a unavoidable drop I. The keynesians (of the more traditional style) on the other hand claim that private consumption (C) and investments (I) is driven by animal spirits –  both in the boom and the bust.

What both keynesians and austrians completely fail to realise is the importance of money. The starting point of macroeconomic analysis should not be (1), but rather the equation of exchange:

(2) MV=PY

I have earlier argued that when we teach economics we should start out we money-free and friction-free micro economy. Then we should add money, move to aggregated prices and quantities and price rigidities. That is what we call macroeconomics.

If we can make people understand that the starting point of macroeconomic analysis should be (2) and not (1) then we can also convince them that the present recession (as all other recessions) is caused by a monetary contraction rather than drop in C or I. The drop in C and I are consequences rather the reasons for the recessions.

In this regard it is also important to note that Austrian Business Cycle Theory as formulated by Hayek or Rothbard basically is keynesian in nature in the sense that it is not really monetary theory. The starting point is that interest rates impact the capital structure and investments and that impacts Y – first as a boom and then as a bust. This is also why it is hard to convince Austrians that the present crisis is caused by tight money. (You could also choose to see Austrian business cycle theory as a growth theory that explain secular swings in real GDP, but that is not a business cycle theory).

Austrians and keynesians disagree on the policy response to the crisis. The Austrians want “liquidation” and the keynesians want to use fiscal policy (G) to fill the hole left empty by the drop in C and I in (1). This might actually also explain why “Austrians” often resort to quasi-moralist arguments against monetary or fiscal easing. In the Austrian model it would actually “work” if fiscal or monetary policy was eased, but that is politically unacceptable so you need to come up with some other objection. Ok, that is maybe not fair, but that is at least the feeling you get when you listen to populist part of the “Austrian movement” which is popular especially among commentators and young libertarians around the world – the Ron Paul crowd so to speak.

If people understood that our starting point should be (2) rather than (1) then people would also get a much better understanding of the monetary transmission mechanism. It is not about changes in interest rates to change C or I or changes in the exchange rate to change net exports (X-M). (Note of course in (1) M means imports and in (2) M means money). If we focus on (2) rather than (1) we will understand that a devaluation impact nominal demand by changes in M or V – it is really not about “competitiveness” – its about money.

So what we really want is a textbook that starts out with Arrow–Debreu in microeconomics and then move on (2) and macroeconomics. Imagine if economics students were not introduce to the mostly irrelevant national account identity (1) before they had a good understand on the equation of exchange (2)? Then I am pretty sure that we would not have these endless discussions about fiscal policy and most economists would then readily acknowledge that recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.

————

PS I am of course aware this partly is a caricature of both the Austrian and the keynesian position. New Keynesians are more clever than just relying on (1), but nonetheless fails really to grasp the importance of money. And then some modern day Austrians like Steve Horwitz fully appreciate that we should start out with (2) rather than (1). However, I am not really sure that I would consider Steve’s macro model to be a Austrian model. There is a lot more Leland Yeager and Clark Warburton in Steve’s model than there is Rothbard or Hayek. That by the way is no critique, but rather why I generally like Steve’s take on the world.

PPS Take a Scott Sumner’s discussion of Bank of England’s inflation. You will see Scott is struggling with the BoE’s research departments lack of understanding nominal vs real. Basically at the BoE they also start out with (1) rather than (2) and that is a central bank! No surprise they get monetary policy wrong…

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!).

The Economist comments on Market Monetarism

The Economist has an interesting article on Market Monetarists as well as would the magazine calls “Heterodox economics” – Market Monetarism, Austrianism and “Modern Monetary Theory” (MMT).

I am happy to see this:

“Mr Sumner’s blog not only revealed his market monetarism to the world at large (“I cannot go anywhere in the world of economics…without hearing his name,” says Mr Cowen). It also drew together like-minded economists, many of them at small schools some distance from the centre of the economic universe, who did not realise there were other people thinking the same way they did. They had no institutional home, no critical mass. The blogs provided one. Lars Christensen, an economist at a Danish bank who came up with the name “market monetarism”, says it is the first economic school of thought to be born in the blogosphere, with post, counter-post and comment threads replacing the intramural exchanges of more established venues.” (Please have a look at my paper on Market Monetarism)

There is no doubt that Scott is at the centre of the Market Monetarist movement. To me he is the Milton Friedman of the day – a pragmatic revolutionary. Scott does not always realise this but his influence can not be underestimated. Our friend Bill Woolsey is also mentioned in the article. But I miss mentioning of for example David Beckworth.

One thing I would note about the Economist’s article is that the Austrianism presented in the article actually is quite close to Market Monetarism. Hence, Leland Yeager (who calls himself a monetarist) and one of the founders of the Free Banking school Larry White are quoted on Austrianism. Bob Murphy is not mentioned. Thats a little on unfair to Bob I think. I think that both Yeager’s and White’s is pretty close to MM thinking. In fact Larry White endorses NGDP targeting as do other George Mason Austrians like Steven Horwitz. I have written the GMU Austrians about earlier. See here and here.

And see this one:

“Austrians still struggle, however, to get published in the principal economics journals. Most economists do not share their admiration for the gold standard, which did not prevent severe booms and busts even in its heyday. And their theory of the business cycle has won few mainstream converts. According to Leland Yeager, a fellow-traveller of the Austrian school who once held the Mises chair at Auburn, it is “an embarrassing excrescence” that detracts from the Austrians’ other ideas. While it provides insights into booms and their ending, it fails to explain why things must end quite so badly, or how to escape when they do. Low interest rates no doubt helped to inflate America’s housing bubble. But this malinvestment cannot explain why 21.8m Americans remain unemployed or underemployed five years after the housing boom peaked.”

Market Monetarists of course provide that insight – overly tight monetary policy – and it seems like Leland Yeager agrees.

It would of course have been great if the Economist had endorsed Market Monetarism, but it is great to see that Market Monetarism now is getting broad coverage in the financial media and there is no doubt that especially Scott’s advocacy is beginning to have a real impact – now we can only hope that they read the Economist at the Federal Reserve and the ECB.

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See also the comments on the Economists from Scott Sumner, Marcus NunesDavid BeckworthLuis Arroyo (in Spanish) and Tyler Cowen.

Hayekian capital theory – the math geek version

When I wrote my master thesis many years ago the topic was a mathematical formalization of Austrian Business Cycle Theory. In hindsight I think it is incredible that I able to pull it off and I am still pretty happy with that master thesis. It, however, convinced me that Hayek’s version of Austrian Business Cycle theory was seriously flawed. Furthermore, the math in my modeling never really satisfied me. It was just not good enough.

Now somebody more clever than me have tried a similar exercise.Here is the abstract from a new paper from the talented Arash Molavi Vasséi:

“This paper provides a systematic translation of F.A. Hayek’s informal exposition of capital theory in Utility Analysis and Interest and The Pure Theory of Capital into a model. The underlying premise is that Hayek adopts infant versions of `modern’ analytical tools such that a rational reconstruction of his capital theory by established neoclassical tools is admissible. The major result is that Hayek’s capital theory contains a generalization of the Ramsey-Cass-Koopmans model. In concrete, Hayek provides the solution to an infinite-horizon deterministic social planner optimization problem in a one-sector economy such that the rate of pure time preference encapsulated in the discount factor increases in prospective utility. With respect to stability properties, he emphasizes that the system converges even in the special case of constant returns to per-capita accumulation.”

How cool is that? Pretty cool if you ask me, but take a look at the paper yourself.

PS Arash has promised me that his next project will be on NGDP targeting and/or Market Monetarism.
PPS I hope you all remember Arash’s clever discussion on (dis)equilibrium in Market Monetarism.

When central banking becomes central planning

The great thing about the blogosphere is that everything is happening in “real-time”. In economic journals the exchange of ideas and arguments can go on forever without getting to any real conclusion and some debates is never undertaken in the economic journals because of the format of journals.

Such a debate is the discussion about whether central banking is central planning, which has been going on between the one hand Kurt Schuler and on the other hand David Glasner and Bill Woolsey. Frankly speaking, I shouldn’t really get involved in this debate as the three gentlemen all are extreme knowledgeable about exactly this topic and they have all written extensively about Free Banking – something that I frankly has not written much about.

In my day-job central banks are just something we accept as a fact that is not up for debate. Anyway, I want to let me readers know about this interesting debate and maybe add a bit of my humble opinion as we go along. There is, however, no reason to “reprint” every single argument in the debate so here are the key links:

From Glasner:

“Gold and Ideology, continued”

“Central Banking is not Central Planning”

“Hayek on the meaning of planning”

“Central Banking and Central Planning, again”

From Schuler:

“Central Banking is a form of Central Planning”

“Once more: central banking is a form of central planning”

From Woolsey:

“Central Banking is Not Central Planning”

Initially my thinking was, yes, of course central banking is central planning, but Bill Woolsey arguments won the day (Sorry David, the Hayek quotes didn’t convince me…).

Here is Bill Woolsey:

“Comprehensive central planning of the economy is the central direction of the production and consumption of all goods services. How many cars do we want this year? How much steel is needed to produce those cars? How much iron ore is needed to produce the steel?…Trying to do this for every good and service all the time for millions of people producing and consuming is really, really hard. Perhaps impossible is not too strong of a word, though that really means impossible to do very well at all, much less do better than a competitive market system…Central banking is very different. It does involve having a monopoly over a very important good–base money. Early on, governments sold that monopoly to private firms, but later either explicitly nationalized the central banks, or regulated and “taxed” them to a point where any private elements are just window dressing…Schuler’s error is to identify this monopoly on the provision of an important good with comprehensive central planning. Yes, a monopolist must determine how much of its product to produce and what price to charge. The central bank must determine what quantity of base money to produce and what interest rate to pay (or charge) on reserve balances. But that is nothing like determining how much of each and every good is to be produced while making sure that the resources needed to produce them are properly delivered to the correct places at the correct times.”

Bill continues (here its gets really convincing…):

“Suppose electric power was produced as a government monopoly. That is certainly realistic. The inefficiency of multiple sets of transmission lines provides a plausible rationale. The government power monopoly would need to determine some pricing scheme and how much power to generate. And, of course, these decisions would have implications for the overall level of economic activity. Not enough capacity, and blackouts disrupt economic activity. Too much capacity, and the higher rates needed to pay for it deter economic activity…It is hard to conceive of an electric utility centrally directing the economy, but it isn’t impossible. Ration electricity to all firms based upon a comprehensive plan for what they should be doing. Any firm that produces the wrong amount and sends it to the wrong place is cut off.”

Central banking might not be central planning

Hence, there is a crucial difference between central planning and a government monopoly on the production of certain goods (as for example money). One can of course argue that if government produces anything it is socialism and therefore central planning. However, then central planning loses its meaning and will just become synonymous with socialism. Therefore, arguing that central banking is central planning as Schuler does is in my view wrong. It might be a integral part of an socialist economic system that money is monopolized, but that is still not the same thing as to say central banking is central planning.

But increasingly central banking is conducted as central planning

While central banking need not to be central banking it is also clear that during certain periods of history and in certain countries monetary policy has been conducted as if part (or actually being part of) a overall central planning scheme. In fact until the early 1980s most Western European economies and the US had massively regulated financial markets and credit and money were to a large extent allocated with central planning methods by the financial authorities and by the central banks. Furthermore, exchange controls meant that there was not a free flow of capital, which “necessitated” central planning of which companies and institutions should have access to foreign currency. Therefore, central banking during the 1970s for example clearly involved significant amounts of central planning.

However, the liberalization of the financial markets in most Western countries during the 1980s sharply reduced the elements of central planning in central banking around the world.

The Great Recession, however, has lead to a reversal of this trend away from “central bank planning” and central banks are increasingly involved in “micromanagement” and what clear feels and look like central planning.

In the US the Federal Reserve has been highly involved in buying “distressed assets” and hence strongly been influencing the relative prices in financial markets. In Europe the ECB has been actively interfering in the pricing of government bonds by actively buying for example Greek or Italian bonds to “support” the prices of these bonds. This obviously is not central banking, but central planning of financial markets. It is not and should not be the task of central banks to influence the allocation of credit and capital.

With central banks increasingly getting involved in micromanaging financial market prices and trying to decide what is the “right price” (contrary to the market price) the central banks obviously are facing the same challenges as any Soviet time central planning would face.

Mises and Hayek convincing won the Socialist calculation debate back in the 1920s and the collapse of communism once and for all proved the impossibility of a central planned economy. I am, however, afraid that central banks around the world have forgotten that lesson and increasing are acting as if it was not Mises and Hayek who prevailed in the Socialist-calculation debate but rather Lerner and Lange.

Furthermore, the central banks’ focus on micromanaging financial market prices is taking away attention from the actual conduct of monetary policy. This should also be a lesson for Market Monetarists who for example have supported quantitative easing in the US. The fact remains that what have been called QE in the US in fact does not have the purpose of increasing the money supply (to reduce monetary disequilibrium), but rather had the purpose of micromanaging financial market prices. Therefore, Market Monetarists should again and again stress that we support central bank actions to reduce monetary disequilibrium within a rule-based framework, but we object to any suggestion of the use  central planning “tools” in the conduct of monetary policy.

Scott Sumner and the Case against Currency Monopoly…or how to privatize the Fed

I always enjoy reading whatever George Selgin has to say about monetary theory and monetary policy and I mostly find myself in agreement with him.

George always is very positive towards the views of Milton Friedman, which is something I true enjoy as longtime Friedmanite. I particular like George’s 2008 paper “Milton Friedman and the Case against Currency Monopoly”, in which he describes Friedman’s transformation over the years from being in favour of activist monetary policy to becoming in favour of a constant growth rule for the money supply and then finally to a basically Free Banking view.

I believe that George’s arguments make a lot of sense I and I always thought of Milton Friedman as a much more radical libertarian than it is normally the perception. In my book (it’s in Danish – who will translate it into English?) on Friedman I make the argument that Friedman is a pragmatic revolutionary.

To radical libertarians like Murray Rothbard Milton Friedman seemed like a “pinko” who was compromising with the evil state. Friedman, however, did never compromise, but rather always presented his views in pragmatic fashion, but his ideas would ultimately have an revolutionary impact.

I there are two obvious examples of this. First Friedman’s proposal for a Negative Income Tax and second his proposal school vouchers. Both ideas have been bashed by Austrian school libertarians for compromising with the enemy and for accepting government involvement in education and “social welfare”. However, there is another way to see both proposals and is as privatization strategies. The first step towards the privatization of the production of educational and welfare services.

Furthermore, Friedman’s proposals also makes people think of the advantages if the freedom of choice and once people realize that school vouchers are preferable to a centrally planned school system then they might also realize that free choice as a general principle might be preferable.

In a similar sense one could argue that Scott Sumner and other Market Monetarists are pragmatic revolutionaries when they argue in favour of nominal GDP targeting.

Why is that? Well, it is a well-known result from the Free Banking literature that a privatization of the money supply will lead to money supply becoming perfectly elastic to changes in money demand. Said, in another way any drop in velocity will be accompanied by an “automatic” increase in the money, which effectively would mean that a Free Banking system would “target” nominal NGDP. Hence, as I have often stated NGDP targeting “emulates” a Free Banking outcome. In that sense Sumner’s proposal for NGDP targeting is similar to Friedman’s proposal for school vouchers. It is a step toward more freedom of choice. Scott therefore in many ways also is a pragmatic revolutionary as Friedman was.

There is, however, one crucial difference between Friedman and Sumner is that, while Friedman was in favour of a total privatization of the school system and just saw school vouchers as a step in that direction Scott does not (necessarily) favour Free Banking. Scott argues in favour of NGDP targeting based on its own merits and not as part of a privatization strategy. This is contrary to the Austrian NGDP targeting proponents like Steve Horwitz who clearly see NGDP targeting as a step towards Free Banking. Whether Scott favours Free Banking or not does, however, not change the fact that it might very well be seen as the first step towards the total privatization of the money supply.

Sumner’s proposal the implementation of NGDP futures could in a in similar fashion be seen as a integral part of the privatization of the money supply.

Friedman famously paraphrased the French Word War I Prime Minister George Clemenceau who said that “war is much too serious matter to be entrusted to the military” to “money is much too serious a mater to be entrusted to central banker”. Scott Sumner’s proposal for NGDP targeting within a NGDP futures framework in my view is the first step to taken away central bankers’ control of the money supply…but don’t tell that to the central bankers then they might never go along with NGDP Tageting in the first place.

For Scott own view of the Free Banking story see: “An idealistic defense of pragmatism” – he of course might as well have said “A revolutionary defense of pragmatism”.

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Update: I just found this fantastic quote from George Selgin (from comment section of Scott’s blog): ‘I only wish…that Scott would draw inspiration from Cato the Elder, andend each of his pleas for replacing current Fed practice with NGDP targeting with: “For the rest, I believe that the Federal Reserve System must ultimately be destroyed.”’

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