A Short Note on Fraudulent Banking

In my piece over at American Institute for Economic Research the other week, I discussed the phenomenon of selling property that one does not (yet) own. I mentioned a left-wing and a right-wing version, but focused my efforts mostly on the right-wing “Fractional-Reserve-Banking-is-Fraud” idea.

My main point was to, by analogy, point to other fiduciary relationship – specifically insurance and airline overbooking – that fulfil the same criteria of double-ownership that is so crucial for the right-wing view. Insofar as this analogy holds, rejecting fractional reserve banking as fraudulent and illegal requires one to similarly reject insurance policies and airlines’ practice of overbooking. Regardless of where one comes down on the legal relationship between a depositor and a bank, I thought the theme interesting to explore.

Unknown to me, in one of Hoppe-Hülsmann-Block’s (HHB) early articles they devoted about two pages to addressing my main points. To HHB, there’s a “fundamental distinction” between property and property titles that render these and other analogies “mistaken”: future vs present goods. Money titles such as fractionally issued bank notes are designated present goods whereas insurance policies, parking permits or flight tickets are considered future goods. Money is the “present good par excellence to use Rothbard’s words.

HHB claims that one can legally oversell future goods, but when overselling present goods, one is committing fraud. A narrow distinction, admittedly, and we’ll see that it doesn’t fare so well. Discussing the example of airline overbooking, this distinction does momentarily save HHB from condemning airlines; yes, the airline is selling a flight at a future date, which seems meaningfully different from the instantly-available present goods bank notes ought to be. But the thing about the future is that it inevitably and predictably becomes the present. Once that future arrives, HHB explicitly admits that having more passengers at the gate than they have seats on the plane does amount to fraud. Strangely, however, HHB exonerate airlines since they are “prepared to pay every excess ticket holder off”.

Oh, and fractional reserve banks aren’t?

At this point their already weak defense falls apart. Every instance of historical bank runs include management, shareholders and governments doing precisely that: slowing down the run by paying employees, friends or relatives to deposit funds; acquiring new funding (either debt or equity) to pay off skittish depositors who want their present goods right away; or my own personal favorite, as a good student of Scottish financial history: the Option Clause!

HHB say that airlines are not committing fraud since once at the gate – on the verge of having their oversold future goods transform into present goods – they stand ready to

“repurchase [the passenger’s] ticket at a price (by exchange of another good) that the holder considers more valuable than his present airline seat.”(HHB 1998: 47)

Let’s see what the financially innovative Scots did. Their notes were subject to a legal clause, allowing management to ‘mark’ particular notes when offered up for redemption. That meant deferring the redemption claim for six months, effectively transforming the present good (the money title) into a future good (money title in six months), at the maximum legal rate of interest of 5%. That sounds like a good “the holder considers more valuable”, especially considering that these notes were effortlessly accepted in trade – i.e., the holder could instantly turn around and buy things with this note, its value gradually appreciating as the six-month date arrived.  In practice, this deterrent was only used infrequently, and then almost exclusively against English currency speculators.

Indeed, extrapolating this point, as I do in a forthcoming piece on maturity-mismatch (and have flaunted in Austrian conferences), illustrate how little practical and economic difference there would be between the opposing and deeply-entrenched Fractional-Reserve-Banking camps.

Regardless, it seems the airline-insurance-parking permit analogy still stands.

Monetary Progression and the Bitcoiner’s History of Money

In the world of cryptocurrencies there’s a hype for a certain kind of monetary history that inevitably leads to bitcoin, thereby informing its users and zealots about the immense value of their endeavor. Don’t get me wrong – I laud most of what they do, and I’m much looking forward to see where it’s all going. But their (mis)use of monetary history is quite appalling for somebody who studies these things, especially since this particular story is so crucial and fundamental to what bitcoiners see themselves advancing.

Let me sketch out some problems. Their history of money (see also Nick Szabo’s lengthy piece for a more eloquent example) goes something like this:

  • In the beginning, there was self-sufficiency and the little trade that occurred place took place through barter.
  • In a Mengerian process of increased saleability (Menger’s word is generally translated as ‘saleableness’, rather than ‘saleability’), some objects became better and more convenient for trade than others, and those objects emerged as early primative money. Normally cherry-pick some of the most salient examples here, like hide, cowrie shells, wampum or Rai stones.
  • Throughout time, precious metals won out as the best objects to use as money, initially silver and gradually, as economies grew richer, large-scale payments using gold overtook silver.
  • In the early twentieth century, evil governments monopolized the production of money and through increasingly global schemes eventually cut the ties to hard money and put the world on a paper money fiat standard, ensuring steady (and sometimes not-so-steady) inflation.
  • Rising up against this modern Goliath are the technologically savvy bitcoiners, thwarting the evil money producing empires and launching their own revolutionary and unstoppable money; the only thing that stands in its way to worldwide success are crooked bankers backed by their evil governments and propaganda as to how useless and inapt bitcoin is.

This progressively upward story is pretty compelling: better money overtake worse money until one major player unfairly took over gold – the then-best money – replacing it with something inferior that the Davids of the crypto world now intents to reverse. I’m sure it’ll make a good movie one day. Too bad that it’s not true.

Virtually every step of this monetary account is mistaken.

First, governments have almost always defined – or at least seriously impacted – decisions over what money individuals have chosen to use. From the early Mesopotamian civilizations to the late-19th century Gold Standard that bitcoin is often compared to, various rulers were pretty much always involved. Angela Redish writes in her 1993 article ‘Anchors Aweigh’ that

under commodity standards – in practice – the [monetary] anchor was put in place not by fundamental natural forces but by decisions of human monetary authorities. (p. 778)

Governments ensured the push to gold in the 18th and 19th centuries, not a spontaneous order-decentralized Mengerian process: Newton’s infamous underpricing of silver in 1717, initiating what’s known as the silver shortage; Gold standard laws passed by states; large-scale network effects in play in trading with merchants in those countries.

Secondly, Bills of Exchange – ie privately issued debt – rather than precious metals were the dominant international money, say 1500-1900. Aha! says the bitcoiner, but they were denominated in gold or at least backed by gold and so the precious metal were in fact the real outside money. Nope. Most bills of exchange were denominated in the major unit of account of the dominant financial centre at the time (from the 15th to the 20th century progressively Bruges, Antwerp, Amsterdam and London), quite often using a ghost money, in reference to the purchasing power of a centuries-old coins or social convention.

Thirdly, monetary history is, contrary to what bitcoiners might believe, not a steady upward race towards harder and harder money. Monetary functions such as the medium of exchange and the unit of account were seldomly even united into one asset such as we tend to think about money today (one asset, serving 2, 3 or 4 functions). Rather, many different currencies and units of accounts co-emerged, evolved, overtook one another in response to shifting market prices or government interventions, declined, disappeared or re-appeared as ghost money. My favorite – albeit biased – example is early modern Sweden with its copper-based trimetallism (copper, silver, gold), varying units of account, seven strictly separated coins and notes (for instance, both Stockholms Banco and what would later develop into Sveriges Riksbank, had to keep accounts in all seven currencies, repaying deposits in the same currency as deposited), as well as governmental price controls for exports of copper, partly counteracting effects of Gresham’s Law.

The two major mistakes I believe bitcoiners make in their selective reading of monetary theory and history are:

1) they don’t seem to understand that money supply is not the only dimension that money users value. The hardness of money – ie, the difficulty to increase supply – as an anchoring of price levels or stability in purchasing power is one dimension of money’s quality – far from the only. Reliability, user experience (not you tech nerds, but normal people), storage and transaction costs, default-risk as well as network effects might be valued higher from the consumers’ point of view.

2) Network effects: paradoxically, bitcoiners in quibbling with proponents of other coins (Ethereum, ripple, dash etc) seem very well aware of the network effects operating in money (see ‘winner-takes-it-all’ arguments). Unfortunately, they seem to opportunistically ignore the switching costs involved for both individuals and the monetary system as a whole. Even if bitcoin were a better money that could service one or more of the function of money better than our current monetary system, that would not be enough in the presence of pretty large switching costs. Bitcoin as money has to be sufficiently superior to warrant a switch.

Bitcoiners love to invoke history of money and its progression from inferior to superior money – a story in which bitcoin seems like the natural next progression. Unfortunately, most of their accounts are lacking in theory, and definitely in history. The monetary economist and early Nobel Laureate John Hicks used to say that monetary theory “belongs to monetary history, in a way that economic theory does not always belong to economic history.”

Current disputes over bitcoin and central banking epitomize that completely.

Economists vs. The Public

Economics is the dismal science, as Thomas Carlyle infamously said, reprising John Stuart Mill for defending the abolishment of slavery in the British Empire. But if being a “dismal science” includes respecting individual rights and standing up for early ideas of subjective, revealed, preferences – sign me up! Indeed, British economist Diane Coyle wisely pointed out that we should probably wear the charge as a badge of honor.

Non-economists, quite wrongly, attack economics for considering itself the “Queen of the Social Science”, firing up slurs, insults and contours: Economism, economic imperialism, heartless money-grabbers. Instead, I posit, one of our great contributions to mankind lies in clarity and, quoting Joseph Persky “an acute sensitivity to budget constraints and opportunity costs.”

Now, clarity requires one to be specific. To clearly define the terms of use, and refrain from the vague generality of unmeasurable and undefinable concepts so common among the subjects over whom economics is the queen. When economists do their best to be specific, they sometimes use terms that also have a colloquial meaning, seriously confusing the layman while remaining perfectly clear for those of us who “speak the language”. I realize the irony here, and therefore attempt my best to straighten out some of these things, giving the examples of 1) money and 2) investments.

An age-old way to see this mismatch is measuring the beliefs held by the vast majority of economists and the general public (Browsing the Chicago IGM surveys gives some examples of this). Bryan Caplan illustrates this very well in his 2006 book The Myth of the Rational Voter:

Noneconomists and economists appear to systematically disagree on an array of topics. The SAEE [“Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy”] shows that they do. Economists appear to base their beliefs on logic and evidence. The SAEE rules out the competing theories that economists primarily rationalize their self-interest or political ideology. Economists appear to know more about economics than the public. (p. 83)

Harvard Professor Greg Mankiw lists some well-known positions where the beliefs of economists and laymen diverge significantly (rent control, tariffs, agricultural subsidies and minimum wages). The case I, Mankiw, Caplan and pretty much any economist would make is one of appeal to authority: if people who spent their lives studying something overwelmingly agree on the consequences of a certain position within their area of expertise (tariffs, minimum wage, subsidies etc) and in stark opposition to people who at best read a few newspapers now and again, you may wanna go with the learned folk. Just sayin’.

Caplan even humorously compared the ‘appeal to authority’ of other professions to economists:

In principle, experts could be mistaken instead of the public. But if mathematicians, logicians, or statisticians say the public is wrong, who would dream of “blaming the experts”? Economists get a lot less respect. (p. 53)

Money, Wealth, Income

The average public confusingly uses all of these terms interchangeably. A rich person has ‘money’, and being rich is either a reference to income or to wealth, or sometimes both – sometimes even in the same sentence. Economists, being specialists, should naturally have a more precise and clear meaning attached to these words. For us Income refers to a flow of purchasing power over a certain period (=wage, interest payments), whereas Wealth is a stock of assets or “fixed” purchasing power; my monthly salary is income whereas the ownership of my house is wealth (the confusion here may be attributable to the fact that prices of wealth  shares, house prices etc  can and often do change over short periods of time, and that people who specialize in trading assets can thereby create income for themselves).

‘Money’, which to the average public means either wealth or income, is to the economist simply the metric we use, the medium of exchange, the physical/digital object we pass forth and back in order to clear transactions; representing the unit of account, the thing in which we calculate money (=dollars). That little green-ish piece of paper we instantly think of as ‘money’. To illustrate the difference: As a poor student, I may currently have very little income and even negative wealth, but I still possess money with which I pay my rent and groceries. In the same way, Bill Gates with massive amounts of wealth can lack ‘money’, simply meaning that he would need to stop by the ATM.

Investment

A lot like money, the practice of calling everything an ‘investment’ is annoying to most economists: the misuse drives us nuts! We’re commonly told that some durable consumption good was an investment, simply because I use it often; I’ve had major disagreements friends over the investment or consumption status of a) cars, b) houses, c) clothes, and d) every other object under the sun. Much like ‘money’, ‘investment’ to the general public seem to mean anything that gives you some form of benefit or pleasure. Or it may more narrowly mean buying financial assets (stocks, shares, derivatives…). For economists, it means something much more specific. Investopedia brilliantly explains it: The definition has two components; first, it generates an income (or is hoped to appreciate in value); secondly, it is not consumed today but used to create wealth:

An investment is an asset or item that is purchased with the hope that it will generate income or will appreciate in the future. In an economic sense, an investment is the purchase of goods that are not consumed today but are used in the future to create wealth.

This definition clearly shows why clothes, yoga mats and cars are not investments; they are clearly consumption goods that, although giving us lots of joy and benefits, generates zero income, won’t appreciate and is gradually worn out (i.e. consumed). Almost as clearly, houses (bought to live in) aren’t investments (newsflash a decade after the financial crisis); they generate no income for the occupants (but lots of costs!) and deteriorates over time as they are consumed. The only confusing element here is the appreciation in value, which is an abnormal feature of the last say four decades: the general trend in history has been that housing prices move with price inflation, i.e. don’t lose value other than through deterioration. In fact, Adam Smith said the very same thing about housing as an investment:

A dwelling-house, as such, contributed nothing to the revenue of its inhabitant; and though it is no doubt extremely useful to him, it is as his cloaths and household furniture are useful to him, which however make a part of his expence, and not his revenue. (AS, Wealth of Nations, II.1.12)

Cars are even worse, depreciating significantly the minute you leave the parking lot of the dealership. Where the Investopedia definition above comes up short is for business investments; when my local bakery purchases a new oven, it passes the first criteria (generates incomes, in terms of bread I can sell), but not the second, since it is generally consumed today. Some other tricky example are cases where political interests attempt to capture the persuasive language of economists for their own purposes: that we need to invest in our future, either meaning non-fossil fuel energy production, health care or some form of publicly-funded education. It is much less clear that these are investments, since they seldom generate an income and are more like extremely durable consumption goods (if they do classify on some kind of societal level, they seem like very bad ones).

In summary, economists think of investments as something yielding monetary returns in one way or another. Either directly like interest paid on bonds or deposits (or dividends on stocks) or like companies transforming inputs into revenue-generating output. It is, however, clear that most things the public refer to as investments (cars, clothes, houses) are very far from the economists’ understanding.

Economists and the general public often don’t see eye-to-eye. But improving the communication between the two should hopefully allow them to – indeed, the clarity with which we do so is our claim to fame in the first place.

Revised version of blog post originally published in Nov 2016 on Life of an Econ Student as a reflection on Establishment-General Public Divide.

On Scottish Free Banking (a Canadian Perspective)

Yesterday, George Selgin responded on Alt-M to a series of (relatively) recent paper that posit the impossibility of private money. While Selgin does criticize the theoretical reasoning of the papers, the majority of his case is based on the historical experience of private money – notably the Scottish experience with free banking.

I wanted to write something on this, but Selgin got there faster. Indeed, the historical evidence of free banking in Canada, Scotland, Sweden and the limited experiences observed in France and elsewhere provide a strong backing for soundness of private money. Selgin is right to emphasize this.

However, I can provide a small piece of evidence to support his case. It is not only scholars like Selgin who believe that the historical experience of Scotland was positive. As far back as 1835 and as far away as Canada, the robustness of the Scottish free banking experience was lauded. Consider the following quote from a report to the House of Assembly of Upper Canada (modern day Ontario):

“In Scotland, private banking has long existed and fewer failures have occurred there than in any other part of the world; their Joint Stock Banking Companies embrace some of the following principles by which the public are quite secured and the institutions useful as Banks of Deposit and circulation, while the stock is above par, and proved to be a good investment”

This report was actually presented in Canada arguing that Scottish free banking was a solution to a longstanding problem in the colony : dearth of small denominations. The “big problem of small change” was a real issue in the colony and created important frictions. The problem was most likely created by the fixing of exchange rates between the different currencies at levels dissonant with the actual value of different currencies so that “bad money drove out good money” (see Angela Redish’s work). The report recommended legislative actions to encourage the formation of banks that would issue private notes to solve this problem. Newspapers in the neighboring colony of Lower Canada also praised (in the early 1830s) the role that banks played in easing the problem of “poor money”.

I have made an initial foray on this with Mathieu Bédard of Aix-Marseille School of Economics (and we plan to make another few) and  showed that the role of free banking in improving economic growth was considerable exactly because of the issue of private money. While Canada is a small, it provides some additional support to the claim that private money can indeed exist, survive and be superior to state money.

Source:  House of Assembly of Upper Canada. 1835. Report of the Select Committee to which was referred the subject of The Currency. Toronto : M.Reynolds Printer.

P.S. Below there is a picture of a half-penny issued by the Quebec Bank in 1837 showing that there was even private coinage in Canada.

IMG_6955

NGO v. NGDP: In reply to Nunes and Sumner

A week ago, I initiated a discussion on using another indicator of nominal spending instead of NGDP when the time comes to set monetary policy. My claim was that NGDP includes only final goods and as a result, it misses numerous business-to-business transactions. This means that NGDP would not be the best indicator. I propose a shift to a measure that would capture some intermediate transactions.

The result was a response by Nick Rowe (to which I did respond), Matt Rognlie, Marcus Nunes and Scott Sumner (to whom I am responding now). Nunes and Sumner are particularly skeptical of my claim. I am providing a first response here (and I am attempting to expand it for a working paper).

The case against NGDP

GDP has important shortcomings. First of all, thanks to the work of Prescott and McGrattan (2012 : 115-154), we know that a sizable part of capital goods acquisition fails to be included inside GDP. That sizable part is “intangible capital” which Prescott and McGrattan define as the “accumulated know-how from investing in research and development, brands, and organizations which is the most part expensed rather than capitalized” (p.116).  Yet, investments in research and development are – in pure theoretical terms – like the acquisition of capital goods. However, national accounts exclude those. Once they’re included in papers like those of Prescott and McGrattan and those of Corrado, Hulten and Sichel (2009), increases in productivity were faster prior to 2008 and that the collapse after 2008 was much more pronounced.  In addition, this form of capital is increasing much faster than tangible so that its share of the total capital stock increases. Thus, the error of not capturing this form of capital good investment is actually growing over time causing us to miss both the level and the trend.

A second shortcoming of importance is the role of time in production. Now, just the utterance of these words makes me sound like an Austrian. Yet, this point is very neoclassical since it relies on the time to build approach. In the time-to-build model of the real business cycle approach, production occurs over many periods. Thus changes in monetary policy may have some persistence.  The time-to-build model proposes that firms undertake long projects and consume more inputs. In terms of overall transactions, this will mean more and more business to business (B2B) transactions.  Hence if an easy monetary policy is inciting individuals to expand their number of projects that have more distant maturities, then a focus on GDP won’t capture the distortionary effects of that policy through. Similarly, if monetary policy tightens (either directly as a fall of the money supply or through an uncompensated change in velocity), the drop in economic activity as projects are closed down will not equally well captured. While this point was initially advanced by Kyland and Prescott (1982), some Austrians economists have taken up the issue (Montgomery 1995a; 1995b; 2006; Wainhouse 1984; Mulligan 2010), several neoclassicals have also taken it up (Kühn 2007; Kalouptsidi 2014; Kyland, Rupert, Sustek, 2014).

Why shift to another measure

My contention is that NGO (Nominal Gross Output) allows us to solve a part of that problem. First of all, NGO is more likely to capture a large share of the intangible capital part since, as a statistic, it does not concern itself with double counting. Hence, most of the intangible capital expenses are captured. Secondly, it also captures the time-to-build problem by virtue of capturing inputs being reallocated to the production of projects with longer maturities.

Thus, NGO is a better option because it it tries to capture the structure of production. The intangible capital problem and the time to build problem are both problems of intermediate goods. By capturing those, we get a better approximate idea of the demand for money.

Let me argue my case based on the Yeager-esque assumption that any monetary disequilibrium is a discrepancy between actual and desired money holdings at a given price level. Let me also state the importance of the Cantillon effects whereby the point of entry of money is important.

If an injection of money is made through a given sector that leads him to expand his output, the reliability of NGDP will be best if the entry-point predominantly affects final goods industry. If it enters through a sector which desires to spend more on intangible investments or undertake long-term projects, then the effects of that change will not appear as they will merely go unmeasured. They will nonetheless exist. Eventually firms will realize that they took credit for these projects for which the increased output did not meet any demand. The result is that they have to contract their output by a sizable margin. In that case, they will abandon those activities (imagine unfinished skyscrapers or jettisoned research projects).

In such situations, GO (or even a wider measure of gross domestic expenditures) are superior to GDP. And in cases where the effects would start in final-goods industry, then they have the same efficiency as GO (or the wider measure of gross domestic expenditures.

The empirical case

The recurring criticism in most posts is that NGO is volatile over the period when the data is available (2005Q1-today). True, the average growth rate of NGO is the same as NGDP over the same period, but the standard deviation is nearly twice that of NGDP. However if you exclude the initial shock of the recession, the standard deviations converge. In a way, all the difference in volatility between the two series is driven by the shock of the recession. Another way to see it is to recompute two graphs. One is an imitation of the graphs by Nunes where NGDP growth in period T is compared with growth in the period T minus 1, but we add NGO. The second is the ratio of NGO to NGDP.

As one can see from the first figure, NGO and NGDP show the same relation except for a cluster of points at the bottom for NGO. All of those lower points are related to the drop from the initial recession. All concentrated at the bottom. This suggests that the recession had a much deeper effect than otherwise believed. The second graph allows us to see it.

Nunes

The ratio of NGO to NGDP shows that the two evolved roughly the same way over the period before the recession. However, when the recession hit, the drop was more important and the ratio never recovered!  This suggest a much deeper deviation from the long-term trend of nominal spending which is not seen at the final level but would be seen rather in the undertaking of long-term projects and the formation of intangible capital (the areas that NGDP cannot easily capture).

Ratio.png

The case for NGO over NGDP is solid. It does not alter the validity of the case for nominal spending stability. However since the case for nominal spending stability hinges on total transactions of inputs and outputs more than it does on the final goods sold, NGO is a better option.

 

Quick comment in response to Rognlie 
In his reply to Nick Rowe, Matt Rognlie states that the more important fall of NGO is explained by changes in relative prices. Although his transformation shows this, the BEA disagrees. Here is the explanation provided by the BEA:
For example, value added for durable-goods manufacturing dropped 15 percent in 2009, while gross output dropped 19 percent.  The decline in gross output is much more pronounced than the decline in value added because it includes each of the successive declines in the intermediate inputs supply chain required to manufacture the durable goods.

 

NGDP, NGO and total expenditures

I did not think that my post on NGO versus NGDP would gather attention, but it did (so, I am happy). Nick Rowe of Carleton University and the (always relevant) blog Worthwhile Canadian Initiative responded to my post with the following post (I was very happy to see a comment by Matt Rognlie in there).

Like Mr. Rowe, I prefer to speak about trade cycles as well. I do not know how the shift from “transactions” to “output” occurred, but I do know that as semantic as some may see it, it is crucial. While a transaction is about selling a unit of output, the way we measure output does not mean that we focus on all transactions.  I became aware of this when reading Leland Yeager (just after reading about the adventures on Lucas’ Islands). However, Nick (if I may use first names) expresses this a thousand times better than I did in my initial post. When there is a shift of the demand for money, this will affect all transactions, not only those on final goods. Thus, my first point: gross domestic product is not necessarily the best for monetary transaction.

In fact, as an economist who decided to spend his life doing economic history, I do not like gross domestic product for measuring living standards as well (I’ll do a post on this when I get my ideas on secular stagnation better organized). Its just the “least terrible tool”. However, is it the “least terrible” for monetary policy guidance?

My answer is “no” and thus my proposition to shift to gross output or a measure of “total spending”. Now, for the purposes of discussion, let’s see what the “ideal” statistic for “total spending” would be. To illustrate this, let’s take the case of a change in the supply of money (I would prefer using a case with the demand for money, but for blogging purposes, its easier to go with supply)

Now unless there is a helicopter drop*, changes in the money supply generate changes in relative prices and thus the pattern (and level) of production changes too. Where this occurs depends on the entry point of the increased stock of money. The entry point could be in sectors producing intermediary goods or it could closer to the final point of sale. The closer it is to the point of sale, the better NGDP becomes as a measure of total spending. The further it is, the more NGDP wavers in its efficiency at any given time. This is because, in the long-run, NGDP should follow the same trend at any measure of total spending but it would not do so in the very short-run. If monetary policy (or sometimes regulatory changes affecting bank behavior “cough Dodd-Frank cough”) causes an increase in the production of intermediary goods, the movements the perfect measure of total spending would be temporarily divorced from the movements of NGDP. As a result, we need something that captures all transaction. And in a way, we do have such a statistic: input-output tables. Developed by the vastly underrated (and still misunderstood in my opinion) Wassily Leontief, input-output tables are the basis of any measurement of national income you will see out there. Basically, they are matrixes of all “trades” (inputs and outputs) between industries. What this means is that input-output tables are tables of all transactions. That would be the ideal measure of total spending.  Sadly, these tables are not produced regularly (in Canada, I believe there are produced every five years). Their utility would be amazing: not only would we capture all spending (which is the goal of a NGDP target), but we could capture the transmission mechanism of monetary policy and see how certain monetary decisions could be affecting relative prices.** If input-output tables could be produced on a quarterly-basis, it would be the amazing (but mind-bogglingly complex for statistical agencies).

The closest thing, at present, to this ideal measure is gross output. It is the only quarterly statistic of gross output (one way to calculate total spending) that exists out there. The closest things are annual datasets. Yet, even gross output is incomplete as a measure of total spending. It does not include wholesale distributors (well, only a part of their activities through value-added). This post from the Cobden Centre in England details an example of this. Mark Skousen in the Journal of Private Enterprise published a piece detailing other statistics that could serve as proxies for “total spending”. One of those is Gross Domestic Expenditures and it is the closest thing to the ideal we would get. Basically, he adds wholesale and retail sales together.  He also looks at business receipts from the IRS to see if it conforms (the intuition being that all sales should imitate receipts claimed by businesses). His measure of domestic expenditure is somewhat incomplete for my eyes and further research would be needed. But there is something to be said for Skousen’s point: total nominal spending did drop massively during the recession (see the fall of wholesale, gross output and retail) while NGDP barely moved while, before the recession, total nominal spending did increase much faster than NGDP.

NGONGDP1

In all cases, I think that it is fair to divide my claim into three parts: a) business cycles are about the deviation from trends in total volume of trades/transactions, thus the core variable of interest is nominal expenditures b) NGDP is not a measure of total nominal spending whose targeting the market monetarist crowd aims to follow; c) since we care about total nominal spending, what we should have is an IO table … every month and d) the imperfect statistics for total spending show that the case made that central banks fueled spending above trend and then failed to compensate in 2008-2009 seems plausible.

Overall, I think that the case for A, B and C are strong, but D is weak…

* I dislike the helicopter drop analogy. Money is never introduced in an equal fashion leading to a uniform price increase. It is always introduced through a certain number of entry points which distort relative prices and then the pattern of trade (which is why there is a positive short-term relation between real output and money supply). The helicopter drop analogy is only useful for explaining the nominal/real dichotomy for introductory macro classes.
** Funny observation here: if I am correct, this means that Hayek’s comments about the structure of production would have been answered by using Leontief’s input-output table. Indeed, the Austrians and Neoclassicals of the RBC school after them have long held that monetary policy’s real effects are seen through changes in the structure of production (in the Austrian jargon) or by inciting more long-term projects to be undertaken creating the “time to build” problem (in the RBC jargon). Regardless of which one you end up believing (I confess to a mixed bag of RBC/Austrian views with a slight penchant to walk towards Rochester), both can be answered by using input-output tables. The irony is that Hayek actually debated “planning” in the 1970s and castigated Leontief for his planning views. Although I am partial (totally) to Hayek’s view on planning, it is funny that the best tool (in my opinion) in support of Hayek is produced by an intellectual adversary

A Tale of Free Banking

Herewith we visit an imaginary future where free banking prevails. Government regulation of banks is a thing of the past. Banks have the freedom and the responsibility that they lacked under government regulation. In particular, private banks are free to print money, either literally, in the form of paper banknotes for the shrinking number of customers who want them, but in electronic form for most.

Print money? Horrors, you say! Fraud! Runaway inflation!

Not so fast. Come with me on a fantasy visit to the local branch of my bank, a future incarnation of Wells Fargo to be specific.

The first thing we notice is a display case showing a number of gold coins and a placard that says, “available here for 1,000 Wells Fargo Dollars each, now and forever.” I have in my wallet a number of Wells Fargo banknotes in various denominations. I could walk up to a teller and plunk down 1,000 of them and the smiling young lady would hand over one of these coins. More likely I would whip out my smartphone and hold it up to the near-field reader, validate my thumbprint, and complete the transaction without paper.

I have a few of these beautiful gold coins socked away at home but I don’t want any more today nor do I want to carry them around. Electronic money is ever so much safer and more convenient. Still, I am reassured by the knowledge that I could get the gold any time I wanted it. That is the basis for my confidence in this bank, not the FDIC sticker we used to see in the bank’s window.

Confidence? What about inflation? Wells Fargo can create as many of these dollars as they want, out of thin air. Without government regulation, who will stop them from creating and spending as many dollars as they want?

The market will stop them, that’s who.

In my scenario, Consumer Reports and a number of lesser known organizations track Wells Fargo and other banks. These organizations post daily figures online showing the number of Wells Fargo dollars (WF$) outstanding and the amount of gold holdings that the bank keeps in reserve to back these dollars. Premium subscribers, I imagine, can get an email alert any time a bank’s reserves fall below some specified levels. Large depositors will notify Wells Fargo of their intention to begin withdrawing deposits and/or demanding physical gold. Small depositors piggyback on the vigilance efforts of big depositors. They know it is not necessary for them to pester the bank when the big guys are doing it for everybody.

Wells Fargo practices fractional reserve banking. They cannot redeem all their banknote liabilities and demand deposit liabilities at the stated rate of one ounce of gold per thousand WF$. This situation is clearly outlined in the contract that depositors sign and is printed on their banknotes.

Let’s assume Wells Fargo backs just 40% of its banknotes and deposits with physical gold. How is this figure arrived at? By trial and error. Managers believe that if they let the reserve ratio slip much below 40% they will start getting flak from the monitoring websites and their big depositors. If they let it rise much above that figure their stockholders will begin complaining about missed profit opportunities.

Under fractional reserve banking, bank runs are possible. A bank run is a situation where a few depositors lose confidence in a bank and demand redemption of their deposits in gold or in notes of another bank. Seeing this, other depositors line up to get their money out, and if left unchecked, the bank is wiped out along with the depositors who were last in line. Bank runs are not a pretty sight.

Wells Fargo has a number of strategies for heading off a bank run. They have an agreement with the private clearing house of which they are a member that allows the bank to draw on a line of credit under certain circumstances. There is a clause, clearly indicated in the agreement with their depositors, allowing them to delay gold redemption for up to 60 days under special circumstances. They can reduce the supply of WF$ by calling in loans as permitted by loan agreements. Most important, though, is Wells Fargo’s reputation. Not once in their long history has Wells Fargo been subject to a bank run. Management is keenly aware of the value of their reputation and will move heaven and earth to preserve it.

To sum up, Wells Fargo’s ability to create unbacked money is limited by the public’s willingness to hold that money. The bank can respond to changes in the demand to hold WF$ whether those changes are seasonal in nature or secular.  They have strategies in place to head off runs should one appear imminent or actually begin.

What about competing banks, you may ask. Does Bank of America issue its own money? If so, there must be chaos with several different brands of money in the market. Are there floating exchange rates? Is a BofA$ worth WF$1.05 one day and WF$0.95 the next? What else but government regulation could put an end to such chaos?

The market, that’s what else.

Competing suppliers of all sorts of products have an incentive to adhere to standards even as they compete vigorously. If we were in a classroom right now I would point to the fluorescent lights overhead. The tubes are all four feet long and 1.5 inches in diameter, with standard connectors. They run on 110 volt 60 Hz AC current. Suppliers all adhere to this standard while competing vigorously with one another. If they don’t adhere to the standards people won’t buy their light bulbs.

So it is that competing banks in my fantasy world have all converged on a gold standard. They all adhere to the standard one ounce of gold per thousand dollars. (I trust it’s obvious that I just made up this number. Any number would do.)

Why gold? Gold has physical properties that have endeared it to people over the ages—durability, divisibility, scarcity to name a few. But other standards might have evolved such as a basket of commodities—gold, silver, copper, whatever.

You may raise another objection. All this gold sitting in vaults detracts from the supply available for jewelry, electronics, etc. That’s a real cost to these industries and their customers.

Yes, it is. It’s called the “resource cost” of commodity-backed money. To get a handle on this cost we must recognize that gold sitting in vaults is not really idle, but is actively providing a service. It is ensuring a stable monetary system immune from political meddling. How valuable is that? The market will balance the benefits of stability against the resource costs of a gold standard.

Furthermore we can expect resource costs to decline slowly as confidence in the banking system increases and people are comfortable with declining reserve ratios. Wells Fargo may find that a 30% reserve ratio rather 40% will be enough to maintain confidence. Other things equal, this development would boost profits temporarily, but those profits would soon be competed away, to the benefit of depositors and the economy as a whole.

Let’s go back to bank runs. Aren’t they something horrible, to be avoided at all costs?

Actually an occasional bank run is something to be celebrated. Not for those involved, of course, but to remind depositors and bank managers alike that they need to be careful. The same is true of the recent Radio Shack bankruptcy. Bad news for stockholders, suppliers and employees but an opportunity for competitors to learn from this bankruptcy.

Under my free banking scenario, depositors must take some responsibility for their actions. That doesn’t mean they have to become professional examiners. They just have to take some care to check with Consumer Reports or other rating organizations before signing on with a bank.

Have I sketched out a perfect situation? There’s no such thing as perfection in human affairs but I submit that this situation would be vastly superior to what we have now, where the Federal Reserve’s policy of printing money to finance government deficits will end badly. Furthermore, relatively free banking has existed in the past and worked well. To learn more, start with Larry White’s “Free Banking in Britain.”