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Clark Johnson on “Keynes: Evidence for Monetary Policy Ineffectiveness?”

Over the last couple of days we have published four guest posts by Clark Johnson on “Keynes:  Evidence for Monetary Policy Ineffectiveness?”. Here you can read the paper in its entirety.

Clark, thank you for your contribution to my blog. I am sure my readers have enjoyed it as much as me.

PS here is Keynes celebrating the UK giving up the gold standard in 1931. Unfortunately at the time her wrote General Theory (1936) he had forgot about how powerful monetary policy can be and instead as Clark has so clearly demonstrated advocated the use of fiscal policy. Maybe the problem was that Keynes thought that devaluation of the pund worked through a competitiveness channel rather than through an increase in the money supply and money velocity. See more on that topic here and here.

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Guest post – Keynes: Evidence for Monetary Policy Ineffectiveness? (Part 4, by Clark Johnson)

Guest post: Part 3 – Keynes: Evidence for Monetary Policy Ineffectiveness (continued)

By Clark Johnson

EQUILIBRIUM WITH UNEMPLOYMENT

Keynes essential claim in the General Theory was that unemployment could persist for years, even if wages and other factor costs were flexible.  The point was that even if factor costs fell, the marginal efficiency of capital might not recover because it was driven by market expectations — which were volatile, and trending downward.  Falling costs might even be taken, not as restorative, but as evidence of weak demand and sagging investment prospects.  Investment might then stay below the level needed to maintain full employment.  Keynes was not claiming that general equilibrium was maintained in the face of unemployment, as critics were later to assert.  He used the term “equilibrium” more modestly to mean that unemployment could persist, and that it was not self-correcting.

Keynes never really explained why he thought monetary policy worked mainly through its effect on interest rates, rather than directly on demand.  This paper suggests the hypothesis that he saw accumulation of physical capital as inexorably leading to lower capital efficiency and declining profits.  With this premise, an attempt to reboot investment by increasing money and prices – even if it succeeded in the short run — would just mean more rapid accumulation of capital, and hence more rapid decline in profits, in a self-reinforcing stagnationist circle.  This conclusion was falsifiable, and has been falsified.  To be fair, it pushes Keynes’ suppositions to the edge of what his text might support, and Keynes never wrote it down, not in so many words.

Keynes was more inclined to dodge the whole topic, either by indirection or deliberately.  The best example of his dodge on monetary factors comes near the beginning of the General Theory, where Keynes quotes John Stuart Mill’s description of Say’s Law, the classical doctrine according to which “supply creates its own demand.”  Keynes sets up Say’s Law as a counterpoint for his own theoretical grand design.  Keynes quoted Mill to demonstrate that “classical” economists thought it possible to “double the purchasing power” merely by “doub[ling] the supply of commodities in every market.”[1]  Astonishingly, Keynes then chopped off the rest of Mill’s paragraph, in which was included –

…money is a commodity; and if all commodities are supposed to be doubled in quantity, we must suppose money to be doubled too, and then prices would no more fall than values would.[2]

Algebraically, an excess supply in one market must be matched by an excess demand in another.  A shortfall of demand for goods implies a matching excess (unsatisfied) demand for money.  Mill and other Classics recognized this – it was not Mill but Keynes who typically neglected discussion of such monetary dynamics.  Mundell highlighted this omission decades ago:

…Keynes perpetrated an historical error in the economics profession lasting several years, a distortion of the classical position that to this day remains in the elementary textbooks.  By thus attacking the logic of the central feature of the classical theory through carelessness or mischievous omission of its essential parts, Keynes was able to win disciples over to the belief that there was a fatal logical defect, an absurd premise, in the classical system.[3]

With somewhat more effect, Keynes did provide a critique of the conventional Quantity Theory   of money – which he had himself endorsed in his earlier Tract on Monetary Reform.  In the Treatise, he argued the case over several chapters that some cost and other factor price increases were tied directly to increases in the quantity of money, while price increases that feed into profits might be less correlated with changes in the money supply.  Indeed, where demand for money increases, a higher quantity of money might even correlate with lower aggregate profits and hence with lower prices.[4] Slaying the Quantity Theory, so to speak, was important to many of Keynes’ early followers, in whose understanding it opened the way to an active role for the State and to deploying an array of fiscal “multipliers.”

It is otherwise less important.  Monetary economics has by now moved past the Quantity Theory, or growth of the money supply, as a policy marker.  Lars Svensson and Scott Sumner recommend that central banks stabilize expectations by targeting a steady rate of growth in Nominal GDP.  Svensson has written that Milton Friedman told him late in his life that monetarists should target nominal GDP rather than growth in the money supply.[5]  I would qualify their recommendation with the suggestion, given the dollar’s role as the world economy’s key liquid asset, that US monetary authorities should also target foreign exchange rates during financial crises, especially the dollar-euro rate.  But nothing about moving beyond the Quantity Theory makes monetary policy less important, or makes interest rates the only channel, or they main channel, through which it can be effective.

The historical illustrations in the opening section suggest that economic slumps and unemployment persisted because effective monetary expansion did not occur.  This was true even where interest rates were already very low and where the marginal efficiency of capital was falling sharply.  The de-stabilizing factor was inept monetary policy, or inability to change such arrangements as the international gold standard.  The irony is that Keynes, the acclaimed revolutionary of Depression economics, had so little to say about the uses of monetary policy when interest rates fell to historic lows and anticipated investment returns went even lower.  Perhaps this was because he sought changes in the relationship between State and Market for which considerations of monetary economics were a distraction.

But faced with the aftermath of the 2008 financial sector crisis and the ongoing Euro-zone crisis, we should avoid such distraction.


[1] General Theory, p. 18.

[2] J. S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 1909 edition; p. 558.)

[3] Mundell, Man and Economics, 1968; p. 110

[4] See also, General Theory, pp. 208-209.

[5] Lars E.O. Svensson, What have economists learned about monetary policy over the past 50 years?  January 2008.  At http://www.princeton.edu/svensson/papers/Buba%20709.pdf

Guest post – Keynes: Evidence for Monetary Policy Ineffectiveness? (Part 2, by Clark Johnson)

Guest post: Part 2 – Keynes: Evidence for Monetary Policy Ineffectiveness (continued)

By Clark Johnson

(See the previous post in this series here)

a)    The 1937-38 Contraction in the US

A few years later, Keynes disregarded evidence of the role of monetary policy in triggering a sharp relapse into near-depression conditions in the US during 1937-1938.  The dollar depreciation of 1933 and the formal increase of the gold price to $35/ ounce in 1934 meant automatic revaluation of central bank gold stocks and gave impetus to increased gold exploration and production – concentrated, as it happened, in the Soviet Union.  (Keynes noted the irony that increased Soviet efficiency in mining of gold was bailing out world capitalism!) He also noted that new gold reserves were bringing increased effective demand to the world economy that might result in “abnormal profits.” [1]  Keynes understood (at least some of the time) the role of growing liquidity in the economic recovery of the mid-1930s.

In what now appears as one of the worst mis-steps in its history, the Federal Reserve, responded to rising wholesale prices in 1936 by deliberately sterilizing new gold inflows.[2]  A money supply measure (M2) that increased by 12 percent annually during 1934 -1936, suddenly turned flat and even slightly negative from about January 1937 to July 1938.[3]  Real GDP fell by 11 percent during this period, and industrial production fell by 30 percent.  Rather than sterilize gold, had the Fed intervened in financial markets to target a modest rate of increase in any of a number of variables – a price index, industrial production, either real or nominal GDP growth, even a money supply indicator – most of the 1937-1938 contraction could have been avoided.  By August 1938, the sterilization policy was jettisoned, and economic recovery resumed.

In February 1938, Keynes offered advice in a private letter to President Roosevelt that mentioned little of this.  He did acknowledge that addressing “credit and insolvency problems” was an essential step toward recovery, as this created a necessary “supply of credit” – while, one infers, demand for that credit would have to come from elsewhere.  This comment reflected Keynes’ ongoing view that expected returns on investment – the schedule of marginal efficiencies of capital — was independent of monetary policy.  He went on the recommend that the US could “maintain prosperity at a reasonable level” only through “large-scale recourse to … public works and other Investments aided by Government funds or guarantees.” [4]

Despite Keynes’ recommendations, the lesson of all four of the illustrations here is that increasing money balances – through open market purchases, or through new gold or foreign exchange reserves – does affect expected returns on investment in plant and equipment, in equities, and in real estate.

ARGUMENTS FOR FISCAL  ACTIVISM

We could stop here, having assembled evidence of Keynes’ dubious conclusions about relative un-importance of monetary factors in specific pivotal events.  Indeed, evidence from these cases points strongly in the opposite direction, toward the crucial role of such factors.  But the prominence of Keynes’ fiscalist legacy requires that we go further.   Evidence aside, what was Keynes’ argument?   In fact, he had a sequence of arguments.

In 1929, Keynes offered a comparative argument in favor of fiscal stimulus, and against monetary stimulus, specific to economic circumstances in Britain at the time.[5]  Keynes anticipated some portion of an argument Robert Mundell was to make decades later regarding the “policy mix,” that is, the appropriate mix of monetary and fiscal policy to meet both domestic output and external exchange rate targets.[6]  Britain in 1929 was on the international gold standard, hence was constrained externally by the need to maintain gold reserves.  The Bank of England could not simply create credit, because, Keynes reasoned, “such credit might find its way to foreign borrowers, with the result of a drain of gold out of the Bank.”  Hence Keynes proposed fiscal stimulus to increase domestic demand and employment, alongside monetary constraint to maintain Britain’s reserve and exchange rate targets.

This well-grounded argument also offers possible insight into the 1890s, where demand for gold reserves among central banks generated monetary contraction.  Keynes, as we saw, did not make that argument – but we can construct it post facto.  While the best solution might have been some international agreement to increase demand by modifying the international gold standard, a purely national approach could have looked to a fiscalist demand boost.  But Keynes soon abandoned this policy-mix argument.

a)    Removing external constraint on Monetary Policy

The US had freedom of action in monetary policy in 1933 and 1934.  By March 1933, the dollar had been floated against gold, hence removing the external policy constraint – and, in any event, the US had by then accumulated vast gold reserves.  In Keynes’ comments in January 1934, he had moved beyond his 1929 analysis.  His newer interest was to argue that fiscal activism was preferable to monetary expansion even if the latter was not constrained.

Keynes in the General Theory (Ch. 15, “Incentives to Liquidity,”) offered the argument that monetary policy was specifically unsuited to boost economic demand when interest rates approached zero percent.  In conditions where interest rates could not be lowered further, he reasoned, a condition of “absolute liquidity preference” held, later dubbed a “liquidity trap.”  He observed, “In this event, the monetary authority would have lost effective control over the rate of interest.”  This argument is cited endlessly by later-day Keynesians in support of a fiscalist agenda.  (For example, see the reference to Summers mentioned at the outset.)

But the argument establishes much less than Keynes needed for his fiscalist agenda.  Near-zero interest rates did not prevail in any of the four situations discussed earlier – yet Keynes wanted fiscal activism in all of them.  So his case against monetary activism went beyond situations of absolute liquidity preference.

As noted earlier, Keynes pointed to a collapse in the marginal efficiency of capital as the trigger for the “slump of 1930.”  The General Theory does much more to advance the concept that investment volume is unstable.   Much of Keynes’ vision for government intervention, including fiscal activism, follows from his discussion of the fickleness of financial markets (Ch. 12, “Long Term Expectations.”)  Noting the instability of private sector investment volume, he advocated a larger role by the government in stabilizing investment demand, often through direct outlays.

Keynes’ argument often shifted from the instability of the investment function to concern that investment was and would remain chronically weak – hence the conclusion that high unemployment was not self-correcting, but could persist for years.  In Ch. 17 on the “Essential Properties of Interest and Money,” Keynes noted situations where the:

…rate of interest declines more slowly, as output increases, than the marginal efficiencies of capital-assets measured in terms [of the same asset].[7]

As formulated in one of several instances in Ch. 22 (“Notes on the Trade Cycle”):

A more typical, and often the predominant, explanation of the crisis is, not primarily a rise in the rate of interest, but a sudden collapse in the marginal efficiency of capital.[8]

This pattern of falling marginal efficiencies of capital made Keynes increasingly skeptical of monetary remedies.[9]

A counter-argument is that adding liquidity – through open market purchases, gold inflows, or variations on these – might directly boost demand, and hence boost the marginal efficiency of capital, by increasing cash balances.  But Keynes usually argued, to the contrary, that monetary policy worked mainly through raising or lowering interest rates –this was certainly a premise of the “liquidity trap” argument in Ch. 15.  Further on, he wrote that “the primary effect of a change in the quantity of money on the quantity of effective demand is through its effect on the rate of interest.”[10]  In the Treatise chapter on “Control of Investment,” where he calls for open market operations a outrance, the goal is to bring “the market rate of interest … down to the limiting point.”  In 1937 articles on “finance,” where Keynes stressed the crucial role of monetary policy, he again emphasized the channel of lowering interest rates.[11]


[1] Keynes, “The Supply of Gold,” Economic Journal, Sept 1936.

[2] That is, coupling purchases of gold with offsetting sales of other central bank assets to drain liquidity

[3] Doug Irwin, Gold Sterilization and the Recession of 1937-1938,  NBER Working Paper No. 17595, Nov 2011.

[4] In Collected Works of JM Keynes, Vol 21, pp. 434-39.

[5] Keynes, “A Program of Expansion (General Election, May 1929),” in Essays on Persuasion (1931), p. 124f.

[6] For ex., Robert Mundell, The Dollar and the Policy Mix (1973)

[7]Keynes, General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), p. 236.

[8] General Theory, p. 315.

[9] Axel Leijonhufvud offers a variation on this argument with the comment that in in Ch. 37 of the Treatise “the assumption that entrepreneurs are right was dispensed with” – that is, entrepreneurs became, in Keynes’ judgment, excessively bearish.  In “Keynes and the Effectiveness of Monetary Policy,” Information and Coordination (1981).  Leijonhufvud argues that Keynes’ subsequent arguments therefore relied more on fiscal intervention.

[10] General Theory, p. 298.

[11] For ex.,Keynes, “The ‘Ex Ante’ Theory of the Rate of Interest,” Economic Journal 46 (1937)

Guest post – Keynes: Evidence for Monetary Policy Ineffectiveness? (Part 1, by Clark Johnson)

I am extremely happy to announce that my blog this week will feature four guest posts by Clark Johnson. I have for some time tried to convince Clark to write something for my blog so I was very happy when Clark’s manuscript for his paper Keynes:  Evidence for Monetary Policy Ineffectiveness?” arrived in my in-box recently. Clark and I have decided to split up the paper in four parts which will be published in the coming four days.

Clark Johnson is not only a brilliant economic historian and author of the great book “Gold, France, and the Great Depression, 1919-1932”, but he is also a clever observer of the current monetary policy debate. Clark last year authored an insightful paper on the causes of the Great Recession, which in my view already is a Market Monetarist classic.

Lars Christensen

Guest post 

Keynes:  Evidence for Monetary Policy Ineffectiveness? (Part 1)

by Clark Johnson

Lawrence Summers, who was President Obama’s chief economist during 2009-2010, and who by accounts continues to be an important advisor, recently called on the US and other government to increase borrowing at current very low interest rates.[1]  He observes that, based on inflation-protected bond rates, current Treasury borrowing costs for securities of five and ten year maturities are negative.  He adds that interest rates elsewhere in the world – Germany, Japan, and Britain – are also extremely low.  He then argues that governments should look on such rates as an opportunity to borrow cheaply and thereby improve their long-term fiscal positions.

Summers is presumably correct from a fiscal management perspective about benefits of borrowing when interest rates are low.  But as a macroeconomic strategy for recovery, that is only the beginning.  Whether we turn to John Taylor on the right or Paul Krugman on the left, the essential element for fiscal stimulus to succeed is to stabilize expectations: will the stimulus continue for long enough to drive expectations, so that market participants know the boost will ongoing and not soon withdrawn?    Summers’ then shifts to monetary policy, where his case is weaker.  He says there is no point in “quantitative easing”, the open-market mechanism the Federal Reserve uses to inject reserves, as interest rates are already rock-bottom – and monetary easing works, he explains, through the mechanism of lowering interest rates.  Presumably, this is what he has been telling Obama since 2009.

Summers’ reasoning draws at least in part, on John Maynard Keynes’ discussion about “absolute liquidity preference” that occur when interest rates are very low, and demonstrates a key argument used in policy circles against more aggressive use of monetary policy.   I believe Keynes was, and Summers is, mistaken.  Literature on Keynes is abundant.  To gain a different perspective, I want to look at various evidence Keynes adduced against monetary remedies.  I will then return to arguments he used in the General Theory (1936) and elsewhere, hopefully with fresh perspectives.

KEYNES’  ILLUSTRATIONS FOR MONETARY POLICY INEFFECTIVENESS

A portion of Keynes’ reputation as an economist, and of his place in history, rest on his diagnoses of crisis situations and his proposed remedies.  Well-known examples include his tract on the post-World War One Versailles Conference, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1921), and subsequent writings on hyperinflations and then on British deflation during the 1920s.   Another, less well-known, was his discussion of French monetary and political crises during 1925 and 1926, which I credited in my own work on the period.[2]  His two-volume Treatise on Money (1930) provided detailed and often shrewd observations on a wide range of economic policy matters.

In contrast, the General Theory, the heart of Keynes’ contribution to economic ideas, is light on historical or even contemporary illustration.  So the reader seeks to fill in the gaps by turning to other writings.  Consider four prominent cases as they reflect on Keynes’ view of roles of monetary and fiscal policy.

a)    British Deflation in the 1890s

An unexpected embrace of fiscal activism comes in the Treatise discussion of the deflation of the early 1890s, where Keynes argued that the Bank of England’s gold reserves were abundant and credit was easy.  But prices in Britain and the world nevertheless went into decline, which undermined profit and investment and reduced employment.  He wrote:

I consider, therefore, that the history of this period [1890-1896] is a perfect example of a prolonged Commodity Deflation – developing and persisting in spite of a great increase in the total volume of Bank-Money.  There has been no other case where one can trace so clearly the effects of a prolonged withdrawal of entrepreneurs from undertaking the production of new fixed capital on a scale commensurate with current savings.

Keynes then concluded (anticipating his arguments a few years later, including in the General Theory,) that monetary expansion does not always work, and that there might therefore be a role for public investment projects to boost demand.[3]

Keynes’ discussion of the 1890s misses the point.  Britain in the late nineteenth century was part of an open world economy, with easy movement of goods, people, and especially capital.  Keynes neglected to mention that system-wide demand for gold rose much more than the supply from the 1870s through the 1890s as nearly two dozen countries adopted or re-adopted the gold standard, and hence needed to accumulate reserves.  Indeed, demand drove the commodity-exchange value of gold to the highest level it was to reach in four centuries of record-keeping[4] — the flip-side of commodity price deflation.  The commodity price decline reduced profits and chilled investment demand; but commodity prices were determined in international markets, not in Britain.

While demand for gold was surging, the world’s monetary gold supply in the mid-1890s was at its lowest point it was ever to reach relative to its 1800-1920 trend line.[5]  As the mines in the South African Rand cranked up production in the 1890s, relative gold supply and commodity prices increased, nearly in tandem after 1896 – thus ending the Commodity Deflation, and initiating a gentle inflation.  A growing money stock affected not just the supply of credit (as reflected in a declining interest rate), but also the demand for it.  A result was nearly two decades of economic growth in all of the industrial powers, which was sadly interrupted by the First World War.

Monetary events were at the heart of both the origins of and recovery from the depression of the early 1890s.  Keynes himself gave this backhand acknowledgement with his comment a few paragraphs later that, “the fall of prices [in the early 1890s] could only have been avoided by a much greater expansion of the volume of bank-money.”  It is revealing that Keynes could discuss price trends during that period without mentioning the geographic expansion of the gold standard – easily the most important monetary development of the era.

b)    The onset of the Great Depression

Moving to then contemporary events, Keynes’ discussion of the “slump of 1930,” also in the Treatise, builds on similar themes.[6]  Gustav Cassel and Ralph Hawtrey had argued a few years earlier that the undervaluation of gold following restoration of gold standards at prewar gold prices would force world-wide monetary contraction, especially as former belligerents Britain, France, Germany, and Italy restored their gold standards.   Keynes, in contrast, told the Royal Commission on Indian Currency in 1926 that central banks would adjust their currency reserve cover ratios if  their gold stocks became inadequate – which allowed him to dismiss the danger.  Keynes underestimated what we might call the mystique of gold money.

Keynes listed factors driving interest rates higher during the 1920s: corporate borrowing for new industries; governments borrowing to pay reparations and war debts; central banks borrowing to add reserves; and speculators borrowing to buy shares of stock.  He identified but was less able to explain the collapse internationally in anticipated returns in investment – what he would later call the marginal efficiency of capital — that occurred in the mid-1920s.  As in considering the early 1890s, he did not connect the fall-off in real yields on new investment with systemic monetary constraint.  Parallel to what happened in the 1890s, the middle and late 1920s saw a commodity deflation as key countries adopted or returned to gold standards.  He thought monetary expansion worked through lowering interest rates, without directly affecting demand for goods and services.  He wrote that the only ways to boost demand were by lowering interest rates, especially long rates, further – or by government fiscal activism.  He did not understand that the world required a higher gold price to restore gold-to-currency reserve ratios, or perhaps needed a departure from gold money altogether.

c)     The Roosevelt Recovery in 1933

Keynes’ comments in January 1934 on the monetary-fiscal mix in the US were baffling.  In one of his initial acts after Roosevelt’s accession to power in March 1933, the dollar was allowed to depreciate against gold.  This was a momentous event in monetary history – the underlying cause of the interwar deflation had been removed, and the gold standard was never restored with the same conviction.  Keynes nevertheless wrote:

One half of [Roosevelt’s] programme has consisted in abandoning the gold standard, which was probably wise, and in taking various measures … to depreciate the gold value of the dollar… [But i]t is not easy to bring about business expansion merely by monetary manipulation.  The other half of his programme, however, is infinitely more important and offers in my opinion much greater hopes.  I mean the effort to cure unemployment by large-scale expenditure on public works and similar purposes.[7]

This summary scarcely acknowledges the results of the real-time experiment in expansionary monetary policy undertaken in the US within the previous year.  Depreciation succeeded at least to the extent any advocate could have hoped.  Industrial production soared by 57 percent during the first four months of the Roosevelt Administration beginning in March 1933 – this was the actual increase, not an annualized rate — making up half of what had been lost since 1929.  It was the fastest four-month rate of expansion in industrial production in the history of the US. Yet Keynes apparently considered this event to be “infinitely” less important than the boost to come from fiscal borrowing for public works programs.

Had the experiment continued for a few months more, pre-crash production levels might have been recovered.  Unfortunately, the NIRA (National Industrial Recovery Act, announced in July 1933, brought micro-policy changes that had the effect of stopping the recovery in its tracks.  The NRA (National Recovery Administration), set up under NIRA, then negotiated specific sets of codes with leaders of the nation’s major industries; the most important provisions were anti-deflationary floors below which no company would lower prices or wages, and agreements on maintaining employment and production. Within a short time, the NRA reached agreements with most major industries. In a phrase, the NIRA wanted to increase prices by restricting output rather than by increasing demand.   Scott Sumner provides several rounds of evidence for the contractionary impact of NIRA policy in his soon-to-arrive book, The Midas Curse: Gold, Wages, and the Great Depression.

Lest this appear suspect as a predictable right-wing narrative of the New Deal, consider that Keynes himself pointed to the “fallacy” of the NRA approach: He noted that “rising prices caused by deliberately increasing prime costs or by restricting output have a vastly inferior value to rising prices which are the natural result of an increase in the nation’s purchasing power.”  He added that it was “hard to detect any material aid to recovery in the National Industrial Recovery Act.”[8]  Within six months after the NRA went into effect, industrial production had dropped twenty-five percent,[9] erasing nearly half of the gains recorded during Roosevelt’s more successful initial months in office.

So here we are.  We saw an historically sharp recovery for four months during 1933, driven almost entirely by a decision to break the straightjacket imposed on monetary policy by the international gold standard.  Keynes had previously been an able critic of the gold standard, for example in the Tract on Monetary Reform (1923) and then in several chapters in the Treatise. The 1933 recovery was then stalled by micro-policies of which he was explicitly critical.  Yet Keynes seemed to dismiss this entire episode in his call a few months later for fiscal stimulus!


[1] Lawrence Summers, “Look beyond interest rates to get out of the gloom,” Financial Times, 3 June 2012

[2] H. Clark Johnson, Gold, France, and the Great Depression, 1919-1932  (Yale, 1997)

[3] John Maynard Keynes, Treatise on Money (1930), Ch. 30 (ii).

[4] Roy Jastram, The Golden Constant (1977)

[5] League of Nations chart, reproduced in Johnson, p. 52.

[6] Treatise, Ch. 37 (iv) “The Slump of 1930.”

[7] Keynes, “Roosevelt’s Economic Experiments,” The Listener, 17 January, 1934.

[8] Keynes, “Mr. Roosevelt’s Experiments,” London Times, 02 Jan 1934.

Monetary disorder – not animal spirits – caused the Great Recession

If one follows the financial media on a daily basis as I do there is ample room to get both depressed and frustrated over the coverage of the financial markets. Often market movements are described as being very irrational and the description of what is happening in the markets is often based on an “understanding” of economic agents as somebody who have huge mood swings due to what Keynes termed animal spirits.

Swings in the financial markets created by these animal spirits then apparently impact the macroeconomy through the impact on investment and private consumption. In this understanding markets move up and down based on rather irrational mood swings among investors. This is what Robert Hetzel has called the “market disorder”-view. It is market imperfections and particularly the animal spirits of investors which created swings not only in the markets, but also in the financial markets. Bob obviously in his new book convincingly demonstrates that this “theory” is grossly flawed and that animal spirits is not the cause of neither the volatility in the markets nor did animal spirits cause the present crisis.

The Great Recession is a result of numerous monetary policy mistakes – this is the “monetary disorder”-view – rather than a result of irrational investors behaving as drunken fools. This is very easy to illustrate. Just have a look first at S&P500 during the Great Recession.

The 6-7 phases of the Great Recession – so far

We can basically spot six or seven overall phases in S&P500 since the onset of the crisis. In my view all of these phases or shifts in “market sentiment” can easy be shown to coincide with monetary policy changes from either the Federal Reserve or the ECB (or to some extent also the PBoC).

We can start out with the very unfortunate decision by the ECB to hike interest rates in July 2008. Shortly after the ECB hike the S&P500 plummeted (and yes, yes Lehman Brother collapses in the process). The free fall in S&P500 was to some extent curbed by relatively steep interest rate reductions in the Autumn of 2008 from all of the major central banks in the world. However, the drop in the US stock markets did not come to an end before March 2009.

March-April 2009: TAF and dollar swap lines

However, from March-April 2009 the US stock markets recovered strongly and the recovery continued all through 2009. So what happened in March-April 2009? Did all investors suddenly out of the blue become optimists? Nope. From early March the Federal Reserve stepped up its efforts to improve its role as lender-of-last resort. The de facto collapse of the Fed primary dealer system in the Autumn of 2008 had effective made it very hard for the Fed to function as a lender-of-last-resort and effectively the Fed could not provide sufficient dollar liquidity to the market. See more on this topic in George Selgin’s excellent paper  “L Street: Bagehotian Prescriptions for a 21st-Century Money Market”.

Here especially the two things are important. First, the so-called Term Auction Facility (TAF). TAF was first introduced in 2007, but was expanded considerably on March 9 2009. This is also the day the S&P500 bottomed out! That is certainly no coincidence.

Second, on April 9 when the Fed announced that it had opened dollar swap lines with a number of central banks around the world. Both measures significantly reduced the lack of dollar liquidity. As a result the supply of dollars effectively was increased sharply relatively to the demand for dollars. This effectively ended the first monetary contraction during the early stage of the Great Recession and the results are very visible in S&P500.

This as it very clear from the graph above the Fed’s effects to increase the supply of dollar liquidity in March-April 2009 completely coincides with the beginning of the up-leg in the S&P500. It was not animal spirits that triggered the recovery in S&P500, but rather easier monetary conditions.

January-April 2010: Swap lines expiry, Chinese monetary tightening and Fed raises discount rate

The dollar swap lines expired February 1 2010. That could hardly be a surprise to the markets, but nonetheless this seem to have coincided with the S&P500 beginning to loose steam in the early part of 2010. However, it was probably more important that speculation grew in the markets that global central banks could move to tighten monetary conditions in respond to the continued recovery in the global economy at that time.

On January 12 2010 the People’s Bank of China increased reserve requirements for the Chinese banks. In the following months the PBoC moved to tighten monetary conditions further. Other central banks also started to signal future monetary tightening.

Even the Federal Reserve signaled that it might be reversing it’s monetary stance. Hence, on February 18 2010 the Fed increased the discount rate by 25bp. The Fed insisted that it was not monetary tightening, but judging from the market reaction it could hardly be seen by investors as anything else.

Overall the impression investors most have got from the actions from PBoC, the Fed and other central banks in early 2010 was that the central banks now was moving closer to initiating monetary tightening. Not surprisingly this coincides with the S&P500 starting to move sideways in the first half of 2010. This also coincides with the “Greek crisis” becoming a market theme for the first time.

August 27 2010: Ben Bernanke announces QE2 and stock market takes off again

By mid-2010 it had become very clear that talk of monetary tightening had bene premature and the Federal Reserve started to signal that a new round of monetary easing might be forthcoming and on August 27 at his now famous Jackson Hole speech Ben Bernanke basically announced a new round quantitative easing – the so-called QE2. The actual policy was not implemented before November, but as any Market Monetarist would tell you – it is the Chuck Norris effect of monetary policy: Monetary policy mainly works through expectations.

The quasi-announcement of QE2 on August 27 is pretty closely connected with another up-leg in S&P500 starting in August 2010. The actual upturn in the market, however, started slightly before Bernanke’s speech. This is probably a reflection that the markets started to anticipate that Bernanke was inching closer to introducing QE2. See for example this news article from early August 2010. This obviously is an example of Scott Sumner’s point that monetary policy works with long and variable leads. Hence, monetary policy might be working before it is actually announced if the market start to price in the action beforehand.

April and July 2011: The ECB’s catastrophic rate hikes

The upturn in the S&P500 lasted the reminder of 2010 and continued into 2011, but commodity prices also inched up and when two major negative supply shocks (revolutions in Northern Africa and the Japanese Tsunami) hit in early 2011 headline inflation increased in the euro zone. This triggered the ECB to take the near catastrophic decision to increase interest rates twice – once in April and then again in July. At the same time the ECB also started to scale back liquidity programs.

The market movements in the S&P500 to a very large extent coincide with the ECB’s rate hikes. The ECB hiked the first time on April 7. Shortly there after – on April 29 – the S&P500 reached it’s 2011 peak. The ECB hiked for the second time on July 7 and even signaled more rate hikes! Shortly thereafter S&P500 slumped. This obviously also coincided with the “euro crisis” flaring up once again.

September-December 2011: “Low for longer”, Operation twist and LTRO – cleaning up your own mess

The re-escalation of the European crisis got the Federal Reserve into action. On September 9 2011 the FOMC announced that it would keep interest rates low at least until 2013. Not exactly a policy that is in the spirit of Market Monetarism, but nonetheless a signal that the Fed acknowledged the need for monetary easing. Interestingly enough September 9 2011 was also the date where the three-month centered moving average of S&P500 bottomed out.

On September 21 2011 the Federal Reserve launched what has come to be known as Operation Twist. Once again this is certainly not a kind of monetary operation which is loved by Market Monetarists, but again at least it was an signal that the Fed acknowledged the need for monetary easing.

The Fed’s actions in September pretty much coincided with S&P500 starting a new up-leg. The recovery in S&P500 got further imputes after the ECB finally acknowledged a responsibility for cleaning up the mess after the two rate hikes earlier in 2011 and on December 8 the ECB introduced the so-called 3-year longer-term refinancing operations (LTRO).

The rally in S&P500 hence got more momentum after the introduction of the 3-year LTRO in December 2011 and the rally lasted until March-April 2012.

The present downturn: Have a look at ECB’s new collateral rules

We are presently in the midst of a new crisis and the media attention is on the Greek political situation and while the need for monetary policy easing in the euro zone finally seem to be moving up on the agenda there is still very little acknowledgement in the general debate about the monetary causes of this crisis. But again we can explain the last downturn in S&P500 by looking at monetary policy.

On March 23 the ECB moved to tighten the rules for banks’ use of assets as collateral. This basically coincided with the S&P500 reaching its peak for the year so far on March 19 and in the period that has followed numerous European central bankers have ruled out that there is a need for monetary easing (who are they kidding?)

Conclusion: its monetary disorder and not animal spirits

Above I have tried to show that the major ups and downs in the US stock markets since 2008 can be explained by changes monetary policy by the major central banks in the world. Hence, the volatility in the markets is a direct consequence of monetary policy failure rather than irrational investor behavior. Therefore, the best way to ensure stability in the financial markets is to ensure nominal stability through a rule based monetary policy. It is time for central banks to do some soul searching rather than blaming animal spirits.

This in no way is a full account of the causes of the Great Recession, but rather meant to show that changes in monetary policy – rather than animal spirits – are at the centre of market movements over the past four years. I have used the S&P500 to illustrate this, but a similar picture would emerge if the story was told with US or German bond yields, inflation expectations, commodity prices or exchange rates.

Appendix: Some Key monetary changes during the Great Recession

July 2008: ECB hikes interest rates

March-April 2009: Fed expand TAF and introduces dollar swap lines

January-April 2010: Swap lines expiry, Chinese monetary tightening and Fed raises discount rate

August 27 2010: Bernanke announces QE2

April and July 2011: The ECB hike interest rates twice

September-December 2011: Fed announces policy to keep rate very low until the end of 2013 and introduces “operation twist”. The ECB introduces the 3-year LTRO

March 2012: ECB tightens collateral rules

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