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Boettke’s important Political Economy questions for Market Monetarists

Peter Boettke over at Coordination Problem a post in which he challenge Market Monetarists to think about some political economy questions.

Here is Peter:

“Now I understand that much has changed since 1962 about the state of the art in central banking and the debate over rules versus discretion.  But after 2008, can we really say that anymore?

So while I might agree with the technical theory point about monetary equilibrium, the question remains as to what institutional arrangement best fits.  Central banking as a system simply might not be capable of operationalizing the lessons from monetary equilibrium theory.  The ability of the system to pursue optimal policy rules may beyond its reach and not merely for reasons of interest group manipulation, but due to an epistemic constraint.  That is actually how I read the critical aspects of Selgin’s The Theory of Free Banking.

So when I focus on the following passage of Hayek about liberal policy in general, I wonder whether the “market monetarist” can actually pass this test:

Libeal or individualist policy must be essentially long-run policy; the present fashion to concentrate on short-run effects, and to justify this by the argument that ‘in the long run we are all dead,’ leads inevitably to the reliance on orders adjusted to the particular circumstances of the moment in the place of rules couched in terms of typical situations. (Individualism and Economic Order, p. 20)

If we add to this, the point Hayek makes in The Constitution of Liberty, that the misunderstanding of the costs of inflation by economists (due to the equilibrium preoccupation) combined with an obsessive fear of deflation in monetary policy will lead to a regime of permanent inflation, then I think the necessary contemplation about the political economy of monetary policy might question the robustness of even the most careful presentation of market monetarism.”

I think Peter raises some very important issues. Basically Peter argue that it is more important that we discuss the institutional arrangement guiding the monetary regime rather than just the day-to-day conduct of monetary policy. I am happy that Peter is raising these issues. I have often argued that Market Monetarists should never argue in favour of “stimulus” in the keynesian discretionary fashion and rather stress that we are strongly in favour of rules. We are certainly intellectually indebted to Hayek and Friedman.

Here a is few earlier posts in which I argue strongly for rules in the conduct of monetary policy:

NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy

NGDP targeting is not about ”stimulus”

Adam Posen calls for more QE – that’s fine, but…

Selgin’s Monetary Credo – Please Dr. Taylor read it!

We favour Futarchy in monetary policy – we want markets rather than policy makers to determine monetary policy. Scott Sumner has argued in favour of using NGDP futures to directly determine monetary policy. I while endorse Scott’s proposal for NGDP futures I have further argued that central banks should use predictions markets to do macroeconomic forecasting and for implementation of monetary policy. “Market” in Market Monetarism is not just a buzzword – it is an integral part of our thinking. In fact I have earlier argued that futures based NGDP level targeting could be seen as privatisation strategy and a first step toward the total privatisation of the supply of money. Not all Market Monetarists bloggers are in favour of Free Banking, but there is no doubt that a number of us are highly sympathetic to the idea of privatisation of the monetary regime.

So I think we have both been thinking about and answered Peter’s question. Peter, there is no reason to worry – we are loyal disciples of Hayek and Friedman – also when it comes to institutional questions.

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Josh Hendrickson shows that the Fed targeted NGDP growth

I have previously quoted Alan Greenspan for saying the following at a FOMC meeting in 1992:

“Let me put it to you this way. If you ask whether we are confirming our view to contain the success that we’ve had to date on inflation, the answer is “yes.” I think that policy is implicit among the members of this Committee, and the specific instruments that we may be using or not using are really a quite secondary question. As I read it, there is no debate within this Committee to abandon our view that a non-inflationary environment is best for this country over the longer term. Everything else, once we’ve said that, becomes technical questions. I would say in that context that on the basis of the studies, we have seen that to drive nominal GDP, let’s assume at 4-1/2 percent, in our old philosophy we would have said that [requires] a 4-1/2 percent growth in M2. In today’s analysis, we would say it’s significantly less than that. I’m basically arguing that we are really in a sense using [unintelligible] a nominal GDP goal of which the money supply relationships are technical mechanisms to achieve that. And I don’t see any change in our view…and we will know they are convinced (about “price stability”) when we see the 30-year Treasury at 5-1/2 percent.

Now Josh Hendrickson has a new paper out – “An Overhaul of Federal Reserve Doctrine: Nominal Income and the Great Moderation” – that basically confirms that the Fed actually did what Greenspan said it would do – at least during the Great Moderation. Here is the abstract:

“The Great Moderation is often characterized by the decline in the variability of output and inflation from earlier periods. While a multitude of explanations for the Great Moderation exist, notable research has focused on the role of monetary policy. Specifically, early evidence suggested that this increased stability is the result of monetary policy that responded much more strongly to realized inflation. Recent evidence casts doubt on this change in monetary policy. An alternative hypothesis is that the change in monetary policy was the result of a change in doctrine; specifically the rejection of the view that inflation was largely a cost-push phenomenon. As a result, this alternative hypothesis suggests that the change in monetary policy beginning in 1979 is reflected in the Federal Reserve’s response to expectations of nominal income growth rather than realized inflation as previously argued. I provide evidence for this hypothesis by estimating the parameters of a monetary policy rule in which policy adjusts to forecasts of nominal GDP for the pre- and post-Volcker eras. Finally, I embed the rule in two dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models with gradual price adjustment to determine whether the overhaul of doctrine can explain the reduction in the volatility of inflation and the output gap.”

Josh has written and excellent paper and I recommend everybody to have a look at Josh’s paper – maybe if we are lucky Ben Bernanke might also read the paper. After all the paper will be published in Journal of Macroeconomics. Bernanke is on the editorial board of JoM.

PS Josh also has a comment on this on his blog.

Update: Scott Sumner also has a comment on Josh’s paper.

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!).

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