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

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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

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.

NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy

I have come to realize that many when they hear about NGDP targeting think that it is in someway a counter-cyclical policy – a (feedback) rule to stabilize real GDP (RGDP). This is far from the case from case and should instead be seen as a rule to ensure monetary neutrality.

The problem is that most economists and none-economists alike think of the world as a world more or less without money and their starting point is real GDP. For Market Monetarist the starting point is money and that monetary disequilibrium can lead to swings in real GDP and prices.

The starting point for the traditional Taylor rule is basically a New Keynesian Phillips curve and the “input” in the Taylor rule is inflation and the output gap, where the output gap is measured as RGDP’s deviation from some trend. The Taylor rule thinking is basically the same as old Keynesian thinking in the sense that inflation is seen as a result of excessive growth in RGDP. For Market Monetarists inflation is a monetary phenomenon – if money supply growth outpaces money demand growth then you get inflation.

Our starting point is not the Phillips curve, but rather Say’s Law and the equation of exchange. In a world without money Say’s Law holds – supply creates it’s own demand. Said in another way in a barter economy business cycles do not exist. It therefore follows logically that recessions always and everywhere is a monetary phenomenon.

Monetary policy can therefore “create” a business cycle by creating a monetary disequilibrium, however, in the absence of monetary disequilibrium there is no business cycle.

So while economists often talk of “money neutrality” as a positive concept Market Monetarists see monetary neutrality not only as a positive concept, but also as a normative concept. Yes, money is neutral in that sense that higher money supply growth cannot increase RGDP in the long run, but higher money supply growth (than money demand growth) will increase inflation and NGDP in the long run.

However, money is not neutral in the short-run due to for price and wage rigidities and therefore money disequilibrium and monetary disequilibrium can therefore create business cycles understood as a general glut or excess supply of goods and labour. Market Monetarists do not argue that the monetary authorities should stabilize RGDP growth, but rather we argue that the monetary authorities should avoid creating a monetary disequilibrium.

So why so much confusing?

I believe that much of the confusing about our position on monetary policy has to do with the kind of policy advise that Market Monetarist are giving in the present situation in both the US and the euro zone.

Both the euro zone and the US economy is at the presently in a deep recession with both RGDP and NGDP well below the pre-crisis trend levels. Market Monetarists have argued – in my view forcefully – that the reason for the Great Recession is that monetary authorities both in the US and the euro zone have allowed a passive tightening of monetary policy (See Scott Sumner’s excellent paper on the causes of the Great Recession here) – said in another way money demand growth has been allowed to strongly outpaced money supply growth. We are in a monetary disequilibrium. This is a direct result of a monetary policy mistakes and what we argue is that the monetary authorities should undo these mistakes. Nothing more, nothing less. To undo these mistakes the money supply and/or velocity need to be increased. We argue that that would happen more or less “automatically” (remember the Chuck Norris effect) if the central bank would implement a strict NGDP level target.

So when Market Monetarists like Scott Sumner has called for “monetary stimulus” it NOT does mean that he wants to use some artificial measures to permanently increase RGDP. Market Monetarists do not think that that is possible, but we do think that the monetary authorities can avoid creating a monetary disequilibrium through a NGDP level target where swings in velocity is counteracted by changes in the money supply. (See also my earlier post on “monetary stimulus”)

I have previously argued that when a NGDP target is credible market forces will ensure that any overshoot/undershoot in money supply growth will be counteracted by swings in velocity in the opposite direction. Similarly one can argue that monetary policy mistakes can create swings in velocity, which is the same as to say hat monetary policy mistakes creates monetary disequilibrium.

Therefore, we are in some sense to blame for the confusion. We should really stop calling for “monetary stimulus” and rather say “stop messing with Say’s Law, stop creating a monetary disequilibrium”. Unfortunately monetary policy discourse today is not used to this kind of terms and many Market Monetarists therefore for “convenience” use fundamentally Keynesian lingo. We should stop that and we should instead focus on “microsovereignty”

NGDP level targeting ensures microsovereignty

A good way to structure the discussion about monetary policy or rather monetary policy regimes is to look at the crucial difference between what Larry White has termed a “macroinstrumental” approach and a “microsovereignty” approach.

The Taylor rule is a typical example of the macroinstrumental approach. In this approached it is assumed that it is the purpose of monetary policy to “maximise” some utility function for society with includes a “laundry list” of more or less randomly chosen macroeconomic goals. In the Taylor rule this the laundry list includes two items – inflation and the output gap.

The alternative approach to choose a criteria for monetary success (as Larry White states it) is the microsovereignty approach – micro for microeconomic and sovereignty for individual sovereignty.

The microsovereignty approach states that the monetary regime should ensure an institutional set-up that allows individuals to make decisions on consumption, investment and general allocation without distortions from the monetary system. More technically the monetary system should ensure that individuals can “capture” Pareto improvements.

Therefore an “optimal” monetary regime ensures monetary neutrality. Larry White argues that Free Banking can ensure this, while Market Monetarists argue that given central banks exist a NGDP level targeting regime can ensure monetary neutrality and therefore microsovereignty.

This is basically a traditional neo-classical welfare economic approach to monetary theory. We should choose a monetary regime that “maximises” welfare by ensuring individual sovereignty.

A monetary regime that ensures microsovereignty does not have the purpose of stabilising the business cycle, but it will nonetheless be the likely consequence as NGDP level targeting removes or at least strongly reduces monetary disequilibrium and as recessions is a monetary phenomenon this will also strongly reduce RGDP and price volatility. This is, however, a pleasant consequence but not the main objective of NGDP level targeting.

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Marcus Nunes has a similar discussion here.

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UPDATE: There are two follow up article to this post:

“Be right for the right reasons”

“Roth’s Monetary and Fiscal Framework for Economic Stability”

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