Did the Gold Standard Fail? A Response to David Glasner

At the Mercatus / Cato CMFA conference a few weeks ago on “Monetary Rules for a Post-Crisis World,” David Laidler and David Glasner gave interesting and informative talks on the history (and history of economic thought) regarding the evolution of monetary rules during the first panel. Video of their talks, and that of co-panelist Mark Calabria, is available here. Ari Blask recaps the entire conference here.

I haven’t seen Glasner’s paper, but he has posted a summary of it on his blog. (All subsequent quotes are drawn from that source.) There he suggests that perhaps the earliest monetary rule, in the general sense of a binding pre-commitment for a money issuer, can be seen in the redemption obligations attached to banknotes. The obligation was contractual: A typical banknote pledged that the bank “will pay the bearer on demand” in specie. (Demand deposit contracts, which preceded banknotes historically, made the same pledge.) He rightly remarks that “convertibility was not originally undertaken as a policy rule; it was undertaken simply as a business expedient” without which the public would not have accepted demand deposits or banknotes.

I wouldn’t characterize the contract in quite the way Glasner does, however, as a “monetary rule to govern the operation of a monetary system.” In a system with many banks of issue, the redemption contract on any one bank’s notes was a commitment from that bank to the holders of those notes only, without anyone intending it as a device to govern the operation of the entire system. The commitment that governs a single bank ipso facto governs an entire monetary system only when that single bank is a central bank, the only bank allowed to issue currency and the repository of the gold reserves of ordinary commercial banks. Under a gold standard with competitive plural note-issuers (a free banking system) holding their own reserves, by contrast, the operation of the monetary system is governed by impersonal market forces rather than by any single agent. This is an important distinction between the properties of a gold standard with free banking and the properties of a gold standard managed by a central bank. The distinction is especially important when it comes to judging whether historical monetary crises and depressions can be accurately described as instances where “the gold standard failed” or instead where “central bank management of the monetary system failed.”

As the author of Free Banking and Monetary Reform, Glasner of course knows the distinction well. So I am not here telling him anything he doesn’t know. I am only alerting readers to keep the distinction in mind when they hear or read “the gold standard” being blamed for financial instability. I wish that Glasner had made it more explicit that he is talking about a system run by the Bank of England, not the more automatic type of gold standard with free banking.

Glasner highlights the British Parliament’s legislative decision “to restore the convertibility of banknotes issued by the Bank of England into a fixed weight of gold” after a decades-long suspension that began during the Napoleonic wars. He comments:

However, the widely held expectations that the restoration of convertibility of banknotes issued by the Bank of England into gold would produce a stable monetary regime and a stable economy were quickly disappointed, financial crises and depressions occurring in 1825 and again in 1836.

Left unexplained is why the expectations were disappointed, why the monetary regime remained unstable. A reader who hasn’t read Glasner’s other blog entries on the gold standard might think that he is blaming the gold standard as such.

My own view is that because the Bank of England’s monopoly was not broken up, even with convertibility acting as a long-run constraint, the Bank had the power to create cyclical monetary instability and occasionally did so by (unintentionally) over-issuing and then having to contract suddenly as gold flowed out of its vault — as happened in 1825 and again in 1836. Because the London note-issue was not decentralized, the Bank of England did not experience prompt loss of reserves to rival banks (adverse clearings) as soon as it over-issued. Regulation via the price-specie-flow mechanism (external drain) allowed over-issue to persist longer and grow larger. Correction came only with a delay, and came more harshly than continuous intra-London correction through adverse clearings would have. Bank of England mistakes boggled the entire financial system. It was central bank errors and not the gold standard that disrupted monetary stability after 1821.

This hypothesis about the source of England’s cyclical instability is far from original with me. It was offered during the 1821-1850 period by a number of writers. Some, like Robert Torrens, were members of the Currency School and offered the Currency Principle as a remedy. Others, like James William Gilbart, are better classified as members of the Free Banking School because they argued that competition and adverse clearings would effectively constrain the Bank of England once rival note issuers were allowed in London. Although they offered different remedies, these writers shared the judgment that the Bank of England had over-issued, stimulating an unsustainable boom, then was eventually forced by gold reserve losses to reverse course, instituting a credit crunch. Because Glasner elides the distinction between free banking and central banking in his talk and blog post, he naturally omits the third side in the Currency School-Banking School-Free Banking School debate.

Later in his blog post, Glasner fairly summarizes how a gold standard works when a central bank does not subvert or over-ride its automatic operation:

Given the convertibility commitment, the actual quantity of the monetary instrument that is issued is whatever quantity the public wishes to hold.

But he then immediately remarks:

That, at any rate, was the theory of the gold standard. There were — and are – at least two basic problems with that theory. First, making the value of money equal to the value of gold does not imply that the value of money will be stable unless the value of gold is stable, and there is no necessary reason why the value of gold should be stable. Second, the behavior of a banking system may be such that the banking system will itself destabilize the value of gold, e.g., in periods of distress when the public loses confidence in the solvency of banks and banks simultaneously increase their demands for gold. The resulting increase in the monetary demand for gold drives up the value of gold, triggering a vicious cycle in which the attempt by each to increase his own liquidity impairs the solvency of all.

These two purported “basic problems” prompt me to make two sets of comments:

  1. While it is true that the purchasing power of gold was not perfectly stable under the classical gold standard, perfection is not the relevant benchmark. The purchasing power of money was more stable under the classical gold standard than it has been under fiat money standards since the Second World War. Average inflation rates were closer to zero, and the price level was more predictable at medium to long horizons. Whatever Glasner may have meant by “necessary reason,” there certainly is a theoretical reason for this performance: the economics of gold mining make the purchasing power of gold (ppg) mean-reverting in the face of monetary demand and supply shocks. An unusually high ppg encourages additional gold mining, until the ppg declines to the normal long-run value determined by the flow supply and demand for gold. An unusually low ppg discourages mining, until the normal long-run ppg is restored. It is true that permanent changes in the gold mining cost conditions can have a permanent impact on the long-run level of the ppg, but empirically such shocks were smaller than the money supply variations that central banks have produced.
  2. The behavior of the banking system is indeed critically important for short-run stability. Instability wasn’t a problem in all countries, so we need to ask why some banking systems were unstable or panic-prone, while others were stable. The US banking system was panic prone in the late 19th century while the Canadian system was not. The English system was panic-prone while the Scottish system was not. The behavioral differences were not random or mere facts of nature, but grew directly from differences in the legal restrictions constraining the banks. The Canadian and Scottish systems, unlike the US and English systems, allowed their banks to adequately diversify, and to respond to peak currency demands, thus allowed banks to be more solvent and more liquid, and thus avoided loss of confidence in the banks. The problem in the US and England was not the gold standard, or a flaw in “the theory of the gold standard,” but ill-conceived legal restrictions that weakened the banking systems.

[Cross-posted from Alt-M.org]