Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

What You Should Know about Free Banking History

This is a revised excerpt from White (2015), and the first item in our “What You Should Know” series offering essential background information on various alternative money themes.

Historical monetary systems that are properly classified as free banking systems, in Kevin Dowd’s (1992, p. 2) words, have involved “at least a certain amount of bank freedom, multiple note issuers, and the absence of any government-sponsored ‘lender of last resort.” There were 60-plus episodes around the world of plural private currency issue in the 19th century (Schuler 1992). Dowd (1992) has compiled studies of 9 of these episodes, and Ignacio Briones and Hugh Rockoff (2005) have surveyed economists’ assessments of 6 relatively well-studied episodes: Scotland, the United States, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, and Chile. Because none of the six systems they review enjoyed complete freedom from legal restrictions, they suggest that “lightly regulated banking” is a more accurate label than “free banking.” All these nineteenth-century episodes had another feature worth mentioning: banknotes and deposits were denominated in and redeemable for silver or gold coins.

When we look into these episodes, we find a record of innovation, improvement, and success at serving money-users. As in other goods and services, competition provided the public with improved products at better prices. The least regulated systems were not only the most competitive but also by and large the least crisis-prone.

Was Monetary Policy Loose During the Housing Boom?

Did the Fed’s set its policy interest rate below the market-clearing or ‘natural’ interest rate level in the early-to-mid 2000s? Or did it simply lower its policy interest rate down to a depressed natural interest rate level during this time? The answers to these questions determine whether U.S. monetary policy was loose during the housing boom.

John Taylor believes the Fed pushed interest rates below their natural interest rate level. He views this departure from a neutral stance as a key contributor to the housing boom. Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers believe otherwise. They see the Fed simply doing its job back then by adjusting its policy rate down to a low natural interest rate level. Bernanke believes the natural interest rate level was low because of a saving glut while Summers holds that its was depressed because of secular stagnation. Either way, both individuals do not blame the Fed for any role the low interest rates played in fostering the housing boom. The Fed’s lowering of interest rates was simply an endogenous response.

George Selgin, Berrak Bahadir, and I recently published an article that lends support to John Taylor’s view of Fed policy during this time. It received some pushback from Scott Sumner who is sympathetic to both the saving glut and secular stagnation views. At the same time, Tony Yates provided a critique of John Taylor’s argument on the financial crisis that was heartily endorsed by Paul Krugman. So the debate over the Fed policy during this period continues.

What I want to do here is to step back from this debate and review what I see as the key economic developments that affected U.S. interest rates at this time. Then, given these considerations, I will jump back into the debate and ask whether Fed policy pushed interest rates in the same direction as that implied by these developments.

The key developments as I see them are threefold: a falling term premiums, a spate of large positive supply shocks, and the emergence of a monetary superpower. Let us consider each one in turn.

Should the GAO Audit the Fed? A Cato-CMFA Forum

Ever since Ron Paul first introduced it in 2009, the “Federal Reserve Transparency” Act, calling for the elimination of the Federal Reserve System’s exemption from certain kinds of GAO audits, has been the subject of vigorous debate between proponents of greater government accountability and champions of an independent Federal Reserve.

But that debate has for the most part produced more heat than light, with hyperbole on both sides obscuring rather than shedding light on the debate’s central questions—questions like, “What could the proposed Fed Audits possibly reveal that existing audits and Fed testimony do not?,” and “To what extent would such audits pose a threat to the Fed’s independence?”

To get some honest answers to these questions, the Cato Institute’s Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives recently held a Policy Forum, “Should the GAO Audit the Fed?” The forum’s participants, representing several important perspectives, were former GAO Comptroller General David Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Wessel, who also directs Brookings’ Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy, and our very own Mark Calabria, Cato’s director of Financial Regulation Studies.

Thanks to our participants’ expertise and also to the seamless moderation of their remarks by Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Zumbrun, the event turned out to be the most informative discussion of the issue to date!

OK, so I’m not exactly an unbiased critic. But watch the video and see if you don’t agree!

If this sample only leaves you yearning to hear more from these experts, check out Calabria’s piece on the actual content of the bill and David Wessel’s assessment of the motives behind and risks entailed in the proposed audits. For more on the GAO’s perspective, finally, have a look at this David Walker article.

[Cross-posted from]

How the Fed Ended Up Fueling a Subprime Boom

Plenty of writers have claimed that the Federal Reserve fueled last decade’s subprime boom by holding interest rates too low for too long after the dot-com crash. But hardly anyone has tried to explain why the Fed did so.

Yours truly has taken a stab at it, together with my former student (and now eminent Market Monetarist) David Beckworth and my former University of Georgia colleague (and current Özyeğin University faculty member) Berrak Bahadir. Here is our just-published article in the Journal of Policy Modeling.

Our argument, in brief, is that the Fed blew it by not treating the exceptionally high post-2001 productivity growth rate as warranting an upward revision of the Fed’s interest-rate target (as neoclassical theory would suggest). Instead, Fed officials believed they could maintain a below-natural interest rate target without risking a corresponding increase in inflation.

We supply lots of evidence supporting our interpretation and, thereby, supporting the view that excessively easy Fed policy did indeed contribute substantially to the subprime boom. We also show how nominal gross domestic product targeting would have prevented this outcome, and that it would have done so to an even greater extent than strict adherence to a Taylor Rule.

Readers familiar with my arguments favoring a “productivity norm,” as presented in Less Than Zero and elsewhere, will understand the claims made in our paper as a specific application of those more general arguments.

The publishers have kindly allowed us to make the article available here without a pay wall for a brief period only, so consider saving it if you might want to have it for longer.

[Cross posted from]

Monetary Standards: An Introduction

A monetary standard is a set of institutions and rules governing the supply of money in an economy. These rules and institutions collectively constrain the production of money. Through its constraints on money creation, the standard indirectly acts on prices. A monetary standard may also affect the rate of growth of real economic output, but that depends on expectations. Monetary institutions may also affect other economic institutions, which themselves influence economic growth.

Some authors talk about a monetary regime, and still others a monetary constitution. For purposes of this discussion, the same underlying issues are being discussed.

The banking and financial system interacts with the monetary standard and differences in the one may affect how the other operates. Though very important, the banking and financial system is not my main focus.

Familiar Yet Forgotten Tax Lessons from Ancient Greece and Rome

In Ancient Greece, “The politicians strained their ingenuity to discover new sources of public revenue… . The results of these imposts was a wholesale hiding of wealth and income, Evasion became universal, goods were seized, men were thrown into jail. But the wealth still hid itself, or melted away.”

–Will Durant The Life of Greece, Simon and Schuster, 1939. P. 66.

 In ancient Rome; “taxation rose to such heights that men lost incentive to work or earn, and an erosive contest began between lawyers finding devices to evade taxes and lawyers formulating laws to prevent evasion. The government issued decrees binding the peasant to his field and the worker to his shop until all his debts and taxes had been paid. In this and other ways medieval serfdom began.”

–Will, and Durant, Ariel. The Lessons ofHistory, Simon and Schuster, 1968.

The Fed and the Recovery, or, QE not D

Lately more and more people seem inclined to congratulate the Fed for the great job it has done saving us from another Great Depression and getting the U.S. economy back on its feet. Frankly, I’m getting tired of it.

It’s not that I’m cock-sure that the Fed’s post-2008 actions haven’t achieved anything. It’s just that I’m pretty darn sure that all the people who claim that the Fed has done a bang-up job haven’t any solid reasons for doing so. They remind me of the characters in an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies who were certain that Granny had a concoction that could cure the common cold–certain, that is, until Granny told them that it took about ten days for the stuff to work.

Some point to Europe’s relatively feeble economy, and the ECB’s belated attempt to revive it by means of Bernanke-style Quantitative Easing, as proof of the Fed’s enlightened conduct. But that comparison may only prove that Europe’s central bank has bungled things even more than ours has. In fact, the comparison doesn’t even prove that much, since U.S. money market conditions appeared to offer better prospects for the success of quantitative easing than those that prevailed in Europe.

Apart from being better than Europe’s, our recovery offers precious little for Fed boosters to brag about. It has been remarkably slow—slower, according to some experts, than the severity of the crisis can itself account for. It has been remarkably incomplete. And it has landed us in a low low-interest-rate mire from which there’s no easy escape.