Divisia Money and “A Subjectivist Approach to the Demand for Money”

Recently Scott Sumner have brought up William Barnett’s new book “Getting it Wrong: How Faulty Monetary Statistics Undermine the Fed, the Financial System, and the Economy”. The theme in Barnett’s book is basically that “normal” money supply numbers where subcomponents of the money supply is added up with equal weight give wrong measure of the “real” money supply. Instead Barnett’s recommend using a so-called Divisia Money method of the money supply.

Here is a William Barnett’s discription of divisia money (from the comment section on Scott’s blog):

“Unlike the Fed’s simple-sum monetary aggregates, based on accounting conventions, my Divisia monetary aggregates are based on microeconomic aggregation theory. The accounting distinction between assets and liabilities is irrelevant and is not the same for all economic agents demanding monetary services in the economy. What is relevant is market data not accounting data.”

And here is the official book discription of Barnett’s book:

“Blame for the recent financial crisis and subsequent recession has commonly been assigned to everyone from Wall Street firms to individual homeowners. It has been widely argued that the crisis and recession were caused by “greed” and the failure of mainstream economics. In Getting It Wrong, leading economist William Barnett argues instead that there was too little use of the relevant economics, especially from the literature on economic measurement. Barnett contends that as financial instruments became more complex, the simple-sum monetary aggregation formulas used by central banks, including the U.S. Federal Reserve, became obsolete. Instead, a major increase in public availability of best-practice data was needed. Households, firms, and governments, lacking the requisite information, incorrectly assessed systemic risk and significantly increased their leverage and risk-taking activities. Better financial data, Barnett argues, could have signaled the misperceptions and prevented the erroneous systemic-risk assessments.

When extensive, best-practice information is not available from the central bank, increased regulation can constrain the adverse consequences of ill-informed decisions. Instead, there was deregulation. The result, Barnett argues, was a worst-case toxic mix: increasing complexity of financial instruments, inadequate and poor-quality data, and declining regulation. Following his accessible narrative of the deep causes of the crisis and the long history of private and public errors, Barnett provides technical appendixes, containing the mathematical analysis supporting his arguments.”

Needless to say I have ordered the book at look forward to reading. I am, however, already relatively well-read in the Divisia money literature and I have always intuitively found the Divisia concept interesting and useful and which that more central bank around the world had studied and published Divisia money supply numbers and fundamentally I think Divisia money is a good supplement to studying market data as Market Monetarists recommend. Furthermore, it should be noted that the weight of the different subcomponents in Divisia money is exactly based on market pricing of the return (the transaction service) of different components of the money supply.

My interest in Divisia money goes back more than 20 years (I am getting old…) and is really based on an article by Steven Horwitz from 1990. In the article “A Subjectivist Approach to the Demand for Money” Steve among other thing discusses the concept of “moneyness”. This discussion I think provide a very good background for understanding the concept of Divisia Money. Steve does not discuss Divisia Money in the article, but I fundamentally think he provides a theoretical justification for Divisa Money in his excellent article.

Here is a bit of Steve’s discussion of “moneyness”:

“Hicks argues that money is held because investing in interest-earning assets involves transactions costs ; the act of buying a bond involves sacrificing more real resources than does acquiring money. It is at least possible that the interest return minus the transactions costs could be negative, making money’s zero return preferred.

While this approach is consistent with the observed trade-off between interest rates and the demand for money (see below), it does not offer an explanation of what money does, nor what it provides to its holder, only that other relevant substitutes may be worse choices. By immediately portraying the choice between money and near-moneys as between barrenness and interest, Hicks starts off on the wrong track. When one “objectifies” the returns fro111each choice this way, one is led to both ignore the yield on money held as outlined above and misunderstand the choice between holding financial and non-financial assets. The notion of a subjective yield on money can help to explain better the relationship between money and near-moneys.

One way in which money differs from other goods is that it is much harder to identify any prticular good as money because goods can have aspects of money, yet not be full-blooded moneys. What can be said is that financial assets have degrees of “moneyness” about them, and that different financial assets can be placed along a moneyness continium. Hayek argues that: “it would be more helpful…if “money”were an adjective describing a property which different things could possess to varying degrees. A pure money asset is then defined as the generally accepted medium of exchange. Items which can he used as lnedia of exchange, but are somewhat or very much less accepted are classified as near-moneys.

Nonetheless, money and near-moneys share an important feature Like all other objects of exchange, their desirability is based o n their utility yield. However in the case of near-moneys, that yield is not simply availability. Near-moneys do yield some availability services, but not to the degree of pure money. ‘The explanation is that by definition, near-moneys are not as generally acceptable and therefore cannot he available for all the same contingencies as pure money. For example, as White argues, a passbook savings account is not the same as pure money because, aside from being not directly transferrable (one has to go to the hank and make a withdrawal, unlike a demand deposit), it is not generally acceptable. Even a demand deposit is not quite as available as currency or coin is – some places will not accept checks. These kinds of financial assets have lower availability yields than pure money because they are simply not as marketable.”

If you read Steve’s paper and then have a look at the Divisia numbers – then I am pretty sure that you will think that the concept makes perfect sense.

And now I have written a far too long post – and you should not really have wasted your time on reading my take on this issue as the always insightful Bill Woolsey has a much better discussion of the topic here.

Leave a comment


  1. JP Koning

     /  January 4, 2012

    I too read Steve’s paper on subjective money some time ago and have always liked it.

    If moneyness is a subjective concept, and I think it is, then trying to sum up various money assets into a Divisia index is problematic. That’s because an asset that appears to be high on one person’s subjective moneyness scale will be low on another’s, the result being that it is impossible to create objective categories for moneyness.

    Ultimately, the best way to determine moneyness is to back out the market’s assessment of an asset’s liquidity premium. The best way to do this is to introduce liquidity options on various assets and see how the market prices these options. Anyways, this is science fiction for now since liquidity options don’t exist.

  2. JPK, I completely agree – I must admit that I used to think that you could measure the moneyness, but I have become a lot more skeptical about that and there is no doubt that I these days are much more of a Market Monetarist than a old-school monetarist. This is no surprise for my readers I guess, but nonetheless I still think that money supply and divisia money is containing useful information.

    Anyway, I am happy you read Steve’s paper and I am sure that he appreciates it as well. Without saying to much I am sure that Steve more or less agrees with my view of Divisia Money.

  3. Benjamin Cole

     /  January 4, 2012

    The Divisa numbers are fascinating.

    I have always wondered about money supply numbers, given the vast hoards of US cash ($800 billion held somewhere, probably overseas), American food stamps, the shrinking barriers between liquid and illiquid, and the ability to instantly transfer money from offshore to onshore (now even Chinese mainlanders can instantly transfer money to the USA through banks such as East West Bank).

    For this reasons I think targeting NGDP makes sense, in a rules-based system, since we hardly know what is the money supply at any time.

    That said, there is a “judgement zone,” since we don’t have real time on NGDP. We may have many proxies, and in this age of Internet, one could hope the proxies are close. The Fed, while following a rules-based system, may be required to “play it by ear” on the front lines, while the overall war strategy is set in stone.

  4. flow5

     /  January 30, 2012

    Divisia monetary aggregates is the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever read.

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