Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

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.”

Capture and Ignorance in Financial Regulation

After spending some years in both legislative and regulatory policy roles, I’ve come to even more strongly believe that almost everything you really need to understand regulation can be found in Peltzman’s classic 1976 extension of Stigler’s original economic model of regulation. Almost everything. What I find lacking is recognition of the importance of both outright ignorance of the “correct” policy solution, along with cognitive biases on the part of policymakers. While I reach slightly different conclusions for the structure of policy implementation, I follow Rachlinski and Farina(2002) in framing the inquiry around two models of government error: Public Choice and Cognitive Failure.

While still largely ignored within mainstream academia, the central framework of Public Choice theory, that actors in the political realm pursue rational self-interest, appears to have been largely embraced by popular political commentators from Senator Elizabeth Warren to Presidential Candidate Donald Trump. The notion that “the system is rigged” clearly resonates with the public. For some the obvious solution has been to further insulate regulators from the political process: witness the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) created by the Dodd-Frank Act.

The “protecting” of regulators from the political process is, however, based upon the belief that the “correct” policy is obvious and is simply being blocked because regulators are “captured” by those they regulate. Insulate the regulators, and like magic, you get the right policy.

Bank of Dave

Tom Clougherty’s recent post on competition (or the lack thereof) in UK banking nicely highlights the problem posed by barriers to entry into the British banking industry. That there is indeed an entry problem should be obvious from the fact that Metro Bank, which opened in 2010, was the first new financial institution in the UK to get its own banking license in over 150 years!

What may still not be sufficiently appreciated is the extent to which entry into the British banking industry has been limited, not by the unavoidable challenges would-be entrants must face in attempting to compete head-on with established British banks, but by hurdles erected by British bank regulators.

Nothing better illustrates this fact than the story of Dave Fishwick and his struggle to establish a bank in Burnley, a run-down town in Lancashire, in the northwest of England.

Now that the Bank of Dave is up and running, Fishwick has become something of a celebrity here in the UK. A charismatic self-made businessman, Fishwick grew up in a small two-up-two-down terraced house in one of the poorer parts of the former mill town of Nelson, just outside of Burnley. He did badly at school, which he left at 16. He then began dealing in second-hand cars, eventually moving up from cars to vans and from vans to minibuses. The minibus business then grew to be the largest in the country, making Fishwick a rich man in the process.

Come the financial crisis, bank lending in Burnley dried up almost overnight. Local firms could no longer finance purchases of Fishwick’s vehicles. Soon his business was in trouble. To save it, he himself started lending to his customers. When, after six months of doing so, and despite hard times, not a single customer defaulted, it struck him that running a bank wouldn’t be too difficult.

So Fishwick rented and renovated the lower floor of a vacant £100-a-week shop, installed a cash machine and a safe, and (it’s said) hid the key to the safe behind a bottle of cherryade. He then put a sign above the window saying “Bank on Dave!” and, September 2011, opened shop.

Work “Nonprofit”? Get Free Grad School!

The Cato Institute is a 501(c)(3)—a nonprofit organization. Of course, as an employee I get paid more than my job costs me—I make what you might call “profit”—but because of the tax designation of my employer, I could be getting big forgiveness on any federal student loans I might have. Indeed, a new, quick-read report from the Brookings Institution shows that someone could potentially get all of their graduate schooling covered for free through the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program which, by the way, is expected to cost the American taxpayer a lot more than originally anticipated.

The general way PSLF operates is if you work for government, a 501(c)3 organization, or some other qualifying entity like a public interest law firm, you can get the remainder of your federal student loans forgiven after 10 years of regular payments. Sound great? Well don’t order yet! Those payments are also controlled, capped at 10 percent of income above 150 percent of the poverty line. So a single person would pay nothing on income below $17,820, and 10 percent on income above that. And it doesn’t matter if you get paid more than your job-description doppelganger in a for-profit venture—as long as you work for a “nonprofit” you qualify for PSLF.

The Brookings report describes how someone could essentially get a graduate degree for free through PSLF as long as he had substantial—but not huge—undergraduate debt and worked in a relatively low-paid field. Of course, many people will want to earn more than low pay, but PSLF furnishes strong incentives to stick with a low-paying job for awhile, or more likely, take on much bigger debt and all the nice-to-have college stuff that goes with big college revenue.

Go ahead, future Jack McCoy, take that dip in the lazy river!

Of course, this is not free to taxpayers, many of whom have not gone to college, or may work in struggling for-profit businesses, or may even have thought the right thing to do was to get an inexpensive—and frill free—education. But according to the report, their PSLF bill is rising as enrollment in the program is much higher than anticipated, and nearly one-third of enrollees have debt exceeding $100,000. The report doesn’t give estimated total costs because those are very hard to predict, but estimates of what would be saved with controls such as capping forgivable amounts have risen by more than 2000 percent just from 2014 to 2016! The figures are in the billions of dollars.

There is a strong argument, of course, that there is nothing more noble about working for government, or a nonprofit hospital, or even a think tank, than owning a neighborhood shoe store, or being an accountant at Apple, or risking all you have on a new, entrepreneurial venture, all of which seek to offer things of value to other people. Heck, it is the production of goods and services for profit that gives us the “excess” wealth that enables us to pay for government and all its programs. But few employees, regardless for whom they work, are losing money on their jobs, and many—see, for instance, federal workers—make big profits from their nonprofit jobs not just financially, but also with lots of vacation time, or job security, or simply doing something fun every day.

We’re all working for profit. Why should we be treated—especially given big costs and unintended consequences—differently just because of our employers’ tax designation?

Rules, Discretion, and Audacity: A Critique of Kocherlakota

I was just about to treat myself to a little R&R last Friday when — wouldn’t you know it? — I received an email message from the Brookings Institution’s Hutchins Center. The message alerted me to a new Brookings Paper by former Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota. The paper’s thesis, according to Hutchins Center Director David Wessel’s summary,is that the Fed “was — and still is — trapped by adherence to rules.”

Having recently presided over a joint Mercatus-Cato conference on “Monetary Rules for a Post-Crisis World” in which every participant, whether favoring rules or not, took for granted that the Fed is a discretionary monetary authority if there ever was one, I naturally wondered how Professor Kocherlakota could claim otherwise. I also wondered whether the sponsors and supporters of the Fed Oversight Reform and Modernization (FORM) Act realize that they’ve been tilting at windmills, since the measure they’ve proposed would only require the FOMC to do what Kocherlakota says it’s been doing all along.

So, instead of making haste to my favorite watering hole, I spent my late Friday afternoon reading, “Rules versus Discretion: A Reconsideration.” And a remarkable read it is, for it consists of nothing less than an attempt to champion the Fed’s command of unlimited discretionary powers by referring to its past misuse of what everyone has long assumed to be those very powers!

To pull off this seemingly impossible feat, Kocherlakota must show that, despite what others may think, the FOMC’s past mistakes, including those committed during and since the recent crisis, have been due, not to the mistaken actions of a discretionary FOMC, but to that body’s ironclad commitment to monetary rules, and to the Taylor Rule especially.

When Will The Fed Move Again?

As widely reported, the soft employment data for August and declines in August retail sales and industrial production (manufacturing IP also down) have reduced market odds on a Fed rate hike at its meeting 20-21 September. According to the CME FedWatch Tool, based on trading in federal funds, the probability of a rate hike tomorrow is only 0.12. The same CME tool gives a probability of .46 the Fed will stand pat through December. Now what? I wish I knew. Here is how I think about the question.

First, it now appears that the Fed will go into its December meeting, as it did last year, with forward guidance on the table for a federal funds rate increase. The FOMC might, of course, alter its 2016 forward guidance at its September meeting. If the Committee reduces its guidance to indicate a fed funds range 25 basis points higher than now, but below prior guidance, will that create a strengthened implied “promise” to act in December? That would double down on its current problem with forward guidance. Will the FOMC hike even if employment data through November remain soft? Or, suppose employment growth resumes; will the market take seriously that the FOMC would consider a 50 bps hike in December as implied by current forward guidance?

Second, what are Janet Yellen’s incentives? A year from now, looking back, is the Fed likely to be in a better position and her reputation enhanced if the Fed has raised the federal funds target rate in 2016 and it turns out to be premature or the if Fed has held steady whereas it would have been better to have tightened in 2016? Given the data in hand as I write, it seems to me that waiting makes more sense. Yes, unemployment is below 5 percent and recent employment growth solid, but softening. However, there is little sign of rising inflation. On conventional measures, there is still slack in the labor market; for example, the labor-force participation rate is still well below prior levels. And, don’t forget that in 1999 unemployment fell to almost 4 percent.

Third, if the Fed gets behind by not moving in 2016, how hard will it be to catch up? How much difference can it make if the Fed moves in early 2017 rather than in 2016? Only an old-fashioned fine-tuner can believe it makes much difference.

We can replay this same argument at every future FOMC meeting. What must happen to create a compelling case for the Fed to move? My interpretation of the rate increase last December is that it had less to do with compelling new information than with the fact that the Fed had long promised to move in 2015. That says much more about the wisdom of forward guidance than about sensible monetary policy.

Here is a suggestion for the FOMC, which seems so obvious that I assume the Committee must already be considering it. The FOMC should recast its forward guidance away from the calendar. At its September meeting, the guidance should apply to end of third quarter 2017, 2018 and 2019 rather than end of those calendar years. At each meeting, the guidance would then apply to 4 quarters ahead, 8 quarters ahead and 12 quarters ahead. With this approach, the Committee would never again face an apparent calendar deadline to act.

Seems obvious to me, and very simple. Yes, perhaps guts forward guidance and that would be a good thing. The mantra should be “data dependence, not date dependence.”

A Monetary Policy Primer, Part 7: Monetary Control, Then

It’s high time that I got ‘round to the subject of “monetary control,” meaning the various procedures and devices the Fed and other central banks employ in their attempts to regulate the overall availability of liquid assets, and through it the general course of spending, prices, and employment, in the economies they oversee.

In addressing this important subject, I’m especially anxious to disabuse my readers of the popular, but mistaken, belief — and it is popular, not only among non-experts, but also among economists — that monetary control is mainly, if not entirely, a matter of central banks’ “setting” one or more interest rates.  As I hope to show, although there is a grain of truth to this perspective, a grain is all  the truth there is to it. The deeper truth is that “monetary control” is fundamentally about controlling the quantity of (hang on to your hats) … money! In particular, it is about altering the supply of (and, in recent years, the demand for) “base” money, meaning (once again) the sum of outstanding Federal Reserve notes and depository institutions’ deposit balances at the Fed.

Although radical changes to the Fed’s monetary control procedures since the recent crisis don’t alter this fundamental truth about monetary control, they do make it impractical to address the Fed’s control procedures both before and since the crisis within the space of a single blog entry.  Instead, I plan to limit myself here to describing monetary control as the Fed exercised it in the years leading to the crisis.  I’ll then devote a separate post to describing how the Fed’s methods of monetary control have changed since then, and why the changes matter.