Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

A Stable Spending Catechism

Although it has gained many converts since 2008, thanks especially to tireless crusading on its behalf by Scott Sumner, David Beckworth, and Lars Christensen, among other “Market Monetarists,” the suggestion that the Fed ought to stabilize, not the inflation rate, or employment, but the growth rate of overall spending on goods and services, still strikes many people as odd, if not positively barmy.

Being, as it were, a sort of Market Monetarist avant le letter  (for I first came to regard a stable level of overall spending as the sine qua none of a sound monetary regime while writing my dissertation ages ago), I naturally find the monetary policy credos of bona fide Market Monetarists as incontestably appealing as apple pie and baseball are to most full-blooded Americans.

My particular understanding of the case for stable spending is, nonetheless, mine alone, and as such somewhat distinct from that of my Market Monetarist brethren. So I thought I might venture, with all due humility, to try my hand at conveying that understanding to those curious but skeptical unbelievers among my cherished readers, by way of an imaginary exchange of questions and answers, where the questions are the unbelievers’, and the answers are my own.

Dollar-Denominated Cryptocurrencies: Flops and Tethered Success

A well-known obstacle to the greater popularity of Bitcoin as a medium of payment is the high volatility of its exchange value. This volatility results from its built-in quantity commitment: because the number of Bitcoins in existence stays on a programmed path, variations in the real demand to hold Bitcoin must be accommodated entirely by variations in its unit value. When demand goes up, there is no quantity increase to dampen the rise in price; and vice-versa for a fall in demand.

Not surprisingly, several cryptocurrency developers have thought of creating a cryptocurrency with a price commitment — namely a pegged exchange rate with the US dollar — rather than a quantity commitment, in hopes of greater popularity. The aim is to create a system in which dollar-denominated payments can be made with the ease, security, and low cost of Bitcoin payments, but without the exchange-rate risk.

Wrong Lessons from Canada’s Private Currency, Part 3

(This is the last of a three-part series.)

In my first and second posts addressing a recent Bank of Canada Working Paper by Ben Fung, Scott Hendry, and Warren E. Weber, I argued that the paper exaggerates the shortcomings of Canada’s 19th-century currency system, with its reliance upon the notes of numerous commercial banks, and also that it wrongly credits “government intervention” for various improvements to the system that were in fact instigated by Canada’s commercial bankers themselves.

With this third and final post, I come to the brass tacks of Fung et al.’s paper: its conclusion, supposedly informed by shortcomings of Canada’s 19th-century currency system, that even if governments supply their own, official digital monies, so long as private digital currencies aren’t altogether outlawed, it will take government regulation to render them safe and uniform.

Looking for Alternatives to Government Fiat Money?

The Cato Institute recently released Monetary Alternatives: Rethinking Government Fiat Money, a collection of essays 30 years in the making. As George Selgin explains in the foreword,

The complacency wrought by the Great Moderation, not to mention the limited interest in fundamental monetary reform before then, resulted in a dearth of serious inquiries into potentially superior arrangements….Cato kept the subject alive, offering a safe haven, in the shape of its Annual Monetary Conference, for the minority of experts that continued to stress the need for fundamental monetary reform. Although fundamental reform has been a consistent theme of Cato’s monetary conferences, those conferences have never been dominated by one approach to reform. The articles in this book present a variety of ideas for improving the monetary regime — including proposals for a formal “monetary constitution,” various monetary rules, competing currencies, and establishing a new gold standard.

In sum, Monetary Alternatives explores fundamental and controversial ideas that would move our monetary system and economy beyond repeated crises to sustainable stability and prosperity. The contributors to the volume energetically question the status quo and provide compelling arguments for moving to a monetary system based on freedom and the rule of law.

Wrong Lessons from Canada’s Private Currency, Part 2

(Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part article.)

Intervention or Private Initiative?

As I argued in my previous post addressing Fung et al.’s article on Canada’s private banknote currency, the imperfections of that currency appear, on close inspection, far less substantial than Fung et al. suggest. Moreover, what blemishes there were didn’t imply any market failure, or a need for more government regulation, for the simple reason that “imperfect” doesn’t mean “inefficient.” On the contrary: the facts suggest that heavy-handed government interventions aimed at correcting the supposed imperfections more rapidly than bankers’ own efforts might would probably have done Canadians more harm than good.

By making those points, I don’t mean to deny that the various reforms Fung et al. describe, culminating in the Bank Act of 1890, led to some genuine improvements. Yet even if they did, the reforms still don’t imply any market failure, for the simple reason that those reforms appear, for the most part, to have been ones that Canada’s private bankers themselves recommended and implemented, often in anticipation of legislation that enshrined them.

The specific reforms to which Fung et al. refer are:

  • The provision of the 1870 Bank Act imposing double liability on banks’ shareholders[1];
  • That of the 1880 Act giving note holders a first lien on banks’ assets; and
  • Those of the 1890 Act requiring banks to establish note-redemption agencies in “all of Canada’s major commercial centers,” together with a Bank Circulation Fund for the redemption of notes of failed banks, and also to provide for the payment of interest to holders of failed banks’ notes as compensation for any settlement delay.

It’s the importance Fung et al. assign to these reforms, in perfecting Canada’s commercial banknote currency, as well as their belief that the reforms were compulsory, that informs their conclusion that “some intervention by government” will be called for if digital currencies are to be made safe and uniform.

But to what extent were those 19th century reforms truly compulsory, in the sense meaning that they had to be imposed upon Canada’s bankers by government authorities?

DOJ Enters the Fray…Against the CFPB

There’s another installment in the ongoing saga of PHH v. CFPB, the legal case challenging the constitutionality of the newest federal agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And this installment is a weird one. The Department of Justice has now joined in, filing a briefagainst the CFPB. Yes, the federal government is now effectively on opposing sides of this case.

If you haven’t been following the story, I have a few posts that can bring you up to speed. At this point, a panel of judges has ruled against the CFPB, and a majority of them found that the CFPB’s structure is unconstitutional. (I find it difficult to see how anyone could find otherwise.) Part of the problem with the agency’s structure, as the court found, is that it has a single head who is removable only for cause. The director is not accountable to any elected official. To cure this problem, the court decided that the director should be removable by the president at will. This would make the agency more like a traditional executive agency—like the Department of Justice, for example—and less like existing independent agencies. Although it is important to note that even most independent agencies, like the Securities and Exchange Commission, are headed by a multi-member board and the chair of that board serves as chair at the will of the president. 

Now the federal appeals court in D.C. is rehearing the case en banc. That means that all 11 of the active judges on the court will hear the case and issue an opinion together. On Friday, the DOJ filed a friend of the court brief in support of PHH.

While it is extremely rare (although not unheard of) for one part of the government to file a brief in opposition to another part, it is not entirely surprising in this case. In ruling against the CFPB in the earlier hearing, the court handed the president a new bit of power. One of the reasons that our government has three co-equal branches is to allow them to serve as checks on one another. As Judge Kavanaugh noted in his opinion for the panel in the original hearing, quoting Justice Scalia “The purpose of the separation and equilibrium of powers in general, and of the unitary Executive in particular, was not merely to assure effective government but to preserve individual freedom.” Arguably, the government filing on both sides of a case is a sign the system is working as planned. 

Yellen’s Balance Sheet Baloney

Of the many questions reporters asked Janet Yellen on Wednesday, at her press conference following the FOMC’s decision to raise the Fed’s policy rates, my favorite was the very first, posed by the Financial Times’ U.S. Economics Editor, Sam Fleming.

Here is Mr. Fleming’s question:

[You’ve stated that the Fed wants to delay*] balance sheet normalization until [interest rate*] normalization is well under way. Could you give us some sense about “what well under way” means, at least in your mind — what kind of hurdles are you setting, what kind of economic conditions would you like to see, is it a matter of the level of the short term federal funds rate as being the main issue? What kind of role do you see the role of the balance sheet playing in the mobilization process over longer term? Is it an active tool or passive tool? Thanks.

And here is Chair Yellen’s response:

Let me start with the second question first. We have emphasized for quite some time that the committee wishes to use variations in the fed funds rate target or short term interest rate target as our key active tool of policy. We think it’s much easier, in using that tool, to communicate the stance of policy. We have much more experience with it, and have a better idea of its impact on the economy. So, while the balance sheet asset purchases are a tool that we could conceivably resort to if we found ourselves in a serious downturn where we were again up against the zero bound, and faced with substantial weakness in the economy, it’s not a tool that we would want to use as a routine tool of policy.

Mr. Fleming didn’t ask a follow-up question, so naturally I had no way of knowing what he thought of Yellen’s answer. I did, however, know just what I myself thought of it, which was, not much.