The communication of a banking crisis: it’s all about confidence!

During a visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC (‘The Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture’) I visited the Presidents’ gallery and found Franklin Delano Roosevelt‘s portrait accompanied by an interactive panel with some of his very popular at the time ‘fireside (radio) chats’ with the nation. One of them caught my attention; it was his address to the nation on the 13th of March of 1933 on the occasion of a major financial panic which led to the suspension of all banking activities for a week (the proclamation of 5 days of bank holiday). Of course the explanation of it would take us to the Great Depression and the massive fall in banks’ deposits in the country (as calculated by M. Friedman and A. Schwartz in their seminal Monetary History of the US, more than a third of the money supply since 1929). But what this brief post is about today is on just the communication of the suspension of the banking activities by the President himself to the nation: as you will hear in this audio recording, it is a very good explanation, and very easy to follow, of how the financial system in a modern economy operates and how fragile it becomes when confidence is lost and people run suddenly on their banks for liquidity. Even at that time, when the US was still on the gold standard and thus paper notes were ultimately backed by gold, the system relied on the confidence of the depositors on the soundness of the banks. Being very well aware of it, all the President tries to do with in this ‘fireside chat’ on the banking crisis was to restore the confidence lost by reassuring the american  people the monetary authorities were willing (and had already) to lend to sound banks to meet the liquidity needs of their customers. It is a good example of how to educate the people on these complex issues and to communicate how the crisis was being tackled.

Do not miss the opportunity to listen to it; in just a two-minute recording you will easily recognise all the elements involved in a banking panic and in the solutions needed: run on liquidity, fractional reserve, fiat versus backed money, lender of last resort, confidence, … . It is an excellent teaching material for a lecture in macroeconomics or money and banking.

However, involved in a massive fiscal expansionary program, only three months later the President suspended the convertibility of the US$ notes in gold, which left more room for the government and the baking sector as a whole to expand the amount of (fiat) money in circulation.

Juan Castañeda

PS. This audio and others of FDR and other Presidents can be found at ‘The American Presidency Project‘ website (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/medialist.php?presid=32).


(Franklin Delano Roosevelt, picture taken at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC)

In a series of posts on the assessment of the bias of the US Fed prior to the Global Financial Crisis published on Alt-M, the blog of the recently established Center for Money and Financial Alternatives at the Cato Institute, David Beckworth just published a post with a very clear analysis of the inflationary bias of the Fed before 2008, based on an excellent paper written along with George Selgin and Berrak Bahadir in the Journal of Policy Modelling (those interested in monetary policy rules cannot miss it!).

The publication of both these posts and the academic article couldn’t be more timely. Surprisingly enough, monetary economists still disagree on the stance of monetary policy (not just in the US but elsewhere) before the outbreak of the Global Financial Crisis; this proves that we, economists, are not even that good at what we were supposed to do well, that is, the ‘prediction’ of the past. Leaving the academic interest of the subject aside, this is a policy question of major concern for all, should we want to contribute to the running of more sound, and more monetary-stability-oriented, monetary policy rules in the years to come. Now there are very good academics suggesting the way to exit QE and to move forward towards a more ‘normal’ monetary environment, and it is thus the perfect time to make the case for a different type of policy rules, those compatible with the fall of prices in a growing economy.

As I wrote as a comment on a recent George Selgin’s entry to this blog, the productivity rule ‘certainly provides solid theoretical basis to support the running of a different type of monetary policy rules; indeed different to the (CPI) inflation stabilising rules applied by all and sundry before 2008, which contributed to the recent crisis as well as to the instability generated in markets in the last years. It is time to apply less active and less inflationary monetary rules, those that allow the price level to reflect changes in productivity during expansions. Rather than focusing on price stability (actually it is most often ‘inflation stability’) we should be focusing on rules that better preserve monetary and financial stability on longer term basis; and the productivity norm is a good example of the latter. They are not going to be the cure for all problems but at least they will not be adding monetary disturbances on top of other (real-side) disturbances and shocks affecting the economy. And this will help agents form their expectations and make their plans.

For those unfamiliar with this literature, David Beckworth’s post provides the explanation for why (market or Fed’s) interest rates should be increased whenever productivity raises, so that the market interest rate runs in parallel with the natural interest rate, as Wicksell put it a century ago. Since then, this has been taken as the condition to keep monetary equilibrium in the economy (or at least, to put it more modestly and accurately, to avoid at least major disequilibria in the markets) and thus to  prevent from the excess of money creation that so often has contributed to monetary and financial crises in the past as well as to the succession of the so-called boom and bust business cycles. Quoting Beckworth’s words from his recent post, ‘Was monetary policy loose during the last housing boom?’:

Note that the rise in the labor force and productivity growth rates both raised the expected return to capital. The faster productivity growth also implied higher expected household incomes. These developments, in turn, should have lead to less saving and more borrowing by firms and households and put upward pressure on the natural interest rate. Interest rates, in short, should have been rising given these large positive supply shocks during this time.

And guess what the Fed did during those years of increase in productivity? Focused much more on (a falling) CPI rate of inflation in a growing economy (which shouldn’t be surprising at all), its policy rule didn’t recommend a change in the Fed’s nominal interest rates (at the very best) and later on it kept on cutting them down for years to avoid deflation by all means. It is well time to put the debate on policy rules on the agenda so we dot repeat the same mistakes in the future.

Juan Castaneda

PS. To be fair and fully transparent, let me declare myself any possible conflict of interest (if at all): I am a lecturer at the University of Buckingham and yes, I am a visiting research scholar at Cato (during the spring 2015).

Two competing, free floating, currencies

My colleague and friend, Prof. Pedro Schwartz (President, Mont Pelerin Society), recently published a letter in the ‘Financial Times’ (‘Three conditions for a two-currency system’ praising the monetary system in Peru. Rather than a purely dollarised economy (either de facto or de iure), Peruvian authorities allow for the circulation of two currencies; the national currency (the ‘Sol’) and the US dollar. As Prof. Schwartz specifies in the letter, the system has been working rather well since its introduction in 1990, provided that three main conditions are met:

– Free movement of capital so Peruvians are free to put their income in either currency and take their money out of the country if they didn’t trust the national authorities.

– Both currencies freely float in the market, so their value clearly reflects the confidence of money holders on the issuer.

– And, in order to avoid the expel of the national currency from the market, the national central bank conducts an independent monetary policy focused on maintaining the purchasing power of the currency; which has resulted in a quite moderate rate of inflation in the last years. Doing so will foster the demand for the national currency on long term basis and thus make it attractive for the public.

Nothing really new so far; this type of two or even more currency systems worked well in the past all across the world: one currency was used for international trade, another for savings and possibly another for small transactions.  The government usually tried to control the parities but the price of the different currencies fluctuated in the market according to their purchasing power.

Those familiar with this blog won’t be surprised when I say that I do find this alternative monetary system a more desirable regime to both introduce more competition in the monetary system and thus discipline money issuers more effectively, as well as provide a convenient institutional tool for Euro zone member states in trouble to timely adjust their local costs and prices without the need to be expelled from the Euro (more details on this question here and here). Of course, this doesn’t mean that a devaluation of the local currency will solve all the problems, if not followed by credible and sound monetary and fiscal policies in the future under the three-condition system set out above.

Juan Castaneda

PS. I am currently working on a research paper with Prof. Schwartz to apply this system to the Euro zone (to be continued … soon).

Very, very basic hints on how a fractional reserve and fully centralised monetary reserve monetary system works

It seems to be unnecessary but, given all it’s being said by all and sundry in the last two weeks, may I remind the kind readers of this blog that the current monetary crisis in Greece is just a textbook example of how a fully centralised monetary system works. I would have thought that the members of the recently appointed new government in Greece were well aware of the institutional and economic constraints of the euro, as well as the very much restricted range of manoeuvre a monetary union allows to its members. Let’s start with the very basics:

Under a fractional reserve and fully centralised monetary system such as ours, the ultimate source of liquidity is under the control of a central bank, the single issuer of the currency with legal tender power. The Greek economy (along with quite some other countries in the euro area) has been running persistent and quite significant current account deficits and, particularly since the outbreak of the 2007-08 financial crisis, has required the extraordinary assistance of the ECB. When no one was willing to lend out money to Greece, the ECB has not only taken part on the bail-out successive plan(s) granted to Greece but also, and most importantly, has been accepting Greek government bonds as collateral in its main refinancing operation with Greek commercial banks. The latter has been key to maintain a regular source of liquidity to the Greek economy and thus to avoid the collapse of its national monetary system and a run on Greek banks.

Along with the loans, the ECB (actually the so-called Troika with the other two institutional lenders, the EU Commission and the IMF) has imposed conditionality on the provision of the loans granted to Greece. And of course, this is the (natural) expected behaviour of any lender: those willing to lend out their money would like to be sure the borrower will be able to honour his debts. Needles to say that successive Greek governments have accepted the deal because no other international creditor was willing to make a loan to the country or to accept Greek bonds as collateral. Who else but your central bank could take such a high risk and keep on hoarding in its portfolio assets nobody wants? (By the way, all the shareholders of the ECB are contributing to these loans and supporting this continuous financial assistance in accordance to their percentage in the capital of the bank).

Now a new government in Greece is playing a quite risky game, with potentially disastrous consequences for the country. All along the campaign, Syriza has been denouncing the ‘imposition’ of the bail-out programmes and the loss of sovereignty of the Greek government in favour of the interests of the international creditors (let us leave aside the meaningless and populist rhetoric used by its dealers to refer to the bankers, capitalists and free marketeers as those wickedly pulling the strings in the shadow … ). They claim that the debt is unfair and needs to be restructured, if not partially or totally written off (may I remind one more time that a more than 50% ‘voluntary’ haircut was already accepted by private bondholders in 2012). Actually the new finance minister has been very busy in his recent road trip throughout   Europe to demand a change in the rules of the game; as if he was in a position to do so. Let me remind again few very basic facts in this regard:

– The more radical the demands of the Greek governments the more difficult it will become to find any other source of liquidity in international markets and thus the more dependent the Greeks will be on the single source of money available, the ECB. Actually the risk premium of Greek bonds has already exploded in the last two weeks and thus this situation has already materialised.

– The message that the Greek government couldn’t be willing to fulfil the conditions of the bail out programme has already increased capital flights out of the country and this shouldn’t be surprising at all (as it already happened back in 2012). And again, in this financially stressed scenario Greek banks are even more fragile and exposed to high liquidity constraints, which can only be sorted out by the assistance of the ECB (if willing to accept Greek bonds as collateral).

In this context we may well understand last week’s Mr Draghi’s reaction to the demands of the Greek government; in particular, his announcement that since next Wednesday Greek banks will no longer have access to the regular financing operations of the ECB via the ordinary discount of Greek bonds as collateral. This can only mean two things: either (hopefully) the precipitation of a new mutually beneficial deal between the new Greek government and the Troika or, if not feasible, the most likely sudden collapse of Greek banks as soon as the ECB stops providing liquidity to them on a regular basis. Well, perhaps another alternative might happen, which is the return to the national (devalued) currency (see an alternative in line with the introduction of more monetary competition in Europe here).

I do not know who advices the new Greek government on these matters but it would help to familiarise first with the very basics on money and central banking. All my best wishes to the Greeks of course!

Juan Castaneda

An old (wrong) recipe: we all want to be consumers

I should start with an apology; it’s been far too long since my last post and I haven’t attended this blog as I would have liked. There have been so many things happening around in money and central banking that I will certainly need some time to catch up. I hope the patient readers of this blog find the forthcoming entries worthy of their time.

Last Autumn I was kindly invited to attend a very interesting seminar organised by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) at its headquarters in London, and chaired by S. Davies; the topic was the so-called ‘stagnation hypothesis’, recently popularised by L. Summers at the 14th IMF Research Conference. Interesting as it was I am not going to write on it today but rather on a poem (that I must confess I hadn’t read at the time) a colleague of mine at the University of Buckingham (Malcolm Rees) brought to our attention. While we were in the midst of the discussion about the best way to tackle the slow (hypothetically secular) growth of the developed economies, Malcolm used his turn to read aloud a poem written in 1934 by Patrick Barrington, ‘I want to be a consumer’, which you will find below. Following the recipes of those economists supporting the underconsumption theory back in the 1930s, of course very well-known and popular well before the publication of Keynes’ General Theory, the poem summarises the views of a boy willing to consume more for the good of the economy as a whole. Then and now we all hear these young (and not so young) ‘lads’ encouraging us all to borrow more money and simply spend or even better asking the government to do so in our own interest, so the magical multiplier of spending operates the needed miracle. I am afraid this old recipe is quite short-sighted: as the brilliant (and austere) Catalan writer (Josep Pla) famously asked in 1954 during his visit to New York and saw all the lights displayed everywhere in the city, ‘and this, who pays for it?’. Even more, if adopted as a systematic policy, will this pattern of more and more spending be sustainable? And who works and saves more so we can increase production on long term basis? Well, I guess the answers to all these questions are only implicit in the poem and I am sure the readers of this blog will certainly know that these tricky questions are not so easy to answer; but indeed essential to bear in mind so perhaps we can avoid the same policy mistakes that have brought us to the chaotic economic situation where we are still in.

Juan E. Castaneda

PS. I am afraid ‘the old lady’ is back.

‘I Want to be a Consumer’

(by Patrick Barrington. Originally published in Punch, 25th April 1934. Text taken from the blog StudyofEconomics.wordpress.com)

“And what do you mean to be?”
The kind old Bishop said
As he took the boy on his ample knee
And patted his curly head.
“We should all of us choose a calling
To help Society’s plan;
Then what do you mean to be, my boy,
When you grow to be a man?”

“I want to be a Consumer,”
The bright-haired lad replied
As he gazed up into the Bishop’s face
In innocence open-eyed.
“I’ve never had aims of a selfish sort,
For that, as I know, is wrong.
I want to be a Consumer, Sir,
And help the world along.

“I want to be a Consumer
And work both night and day,
For that is the thing that’s needed most,
I’ve heard Economists say,
I won’t just be a Producer,
Like Bobby and James and John;
I want to be a Consumer, Sir,
And help the nation on.”

“But what do you want to be?”
The Bishop said again,
“For we all of us have to work,” said he,
“As must, I think, be plain.
Are you thinking of studying medicine
Or taking a Bar exam?”
“Why, no!” the bright-haired lad replied
As he helped himself to jam.

“I want to be a Consumer
And live in a useful way;
For that is the thing that’s needed most,
I’ve heard Economists say.
There are too many people working
And too many things are made.
I want to be a Consumer, Sir,
And help to further Trade.

“I want to be a Consumer
And do my duty well;
For that is the thing that’s needed most,
I’ve heard Economists tell.
I’ve made up my mind,” the lad was heard,
As he lit a cigar, to say;
“I want to be a Consumer, Sir,
And I want to begin today.”

Pasos en favor de una mayor competencia monetaria

Hace unos meses tuve la ocasión de dar una charla sobre el sistema monetario actual y sus alternativas de mercado en el Instituto Juan de Mariana de Madrid (18 de Mayo de 2013), titulada ‘Los Bancos Centrales y la reforma monetaria pendiente’. Lo que traté de transmitir es que un sistema caracterizado por la introducción de más competencia en el mercado de la creación de dinero no ha de llevarnos al caos monetario, como muchos aún creen, sino todo lo contrario; por cierto, resulta muy chocante esta creencia y crítica a la competencia entre monedas visto cómo el actual sistema de control estatal de la moneda ha estado muy cerca de llevarnos a un auténtico caos financiero muy recientemente. Además, ese sistema monetario más competitivo no ha de ser necesariamente uno en el que desaparezca completamente el dinero actual y sea sustituido de la noche a la mañana por una miríada de emisores privados de diferentes medios de pago. Tanto algunos de los partidarios como los muchos detractores de introducir competencia en este mercado lo entienden como un sistema en que la gente llevaría algo así como tres o cuatros (o incluso más) monedas distintas para usarlas en el mercado a conveniencia. No creo fuera así, pues sería ciertamente ineficiente y costoso realizar las operaciones normales de mercado en ese escenario de múltiples monedas y precios. De hecho, cuando hubo competencia monetaria, porque la hubo en siglos pasados y en mucho países, convivían a lo sumo dos o tres monedas, pero su uso estaba bastante diferenciado en función de la naturaleza de la operación a realizar: una moneda de menor valor era destinada para los pequeños pagos del día a día, otra de mayor valor para el pago de grandes sumas e impuestos en el país y una tercera (que podía ser una moneda circulante o sólo un patrón monetario) era destinada a operaciones con terceros en el resto del mundo. Un sistema así funcionó durante muchos años en la Castilla en la Edad Moderna.

Dado el elevado grado de intervención de las autoridades económicas en la emisión y verdadero ‘manejo’ de la moneda (por ejemplo, con la política monetaria), intervención que viene de muy antiguo, concentrarse en conseguir de manera fulminante ese ideal de mercado abierto y competitivo resulta poco realista, al menos a corto y medio plazo. Pero sí que hay cambios que pueden ir haciéndose en esa dirección: desde permitir la competencia de dos monedas en paralelo en el área del euro (algo que defendemos y explicamos varios profesores aquí) hasta, ‘simplemente’, eliminar la cláusula de dinero de curso legal de la moneda nacional (estatal); la eliminación de esa auténtica barrera legal (cierto, junto con otras condiciones adicionales) permitiría dar un gran salto en favor de la creación de un mercado abierto y disputable en el que podrían competir el banco central nacional y otros emisores privados (nacionales o extranjeros) por la provisión del mejor medio para realizar transacciones y también para diferir pagos, lo que no deja de ser una forma de ahorro claro. En función de la calidad de la moneda emitida en el mercado, la demanda de una y otras variará y, con ella, la apreciación o depreciación de las mismas; de esta forma, las variaciones del tipo de cambio (flexible) en el medio y largo plazo entre las monedas sería un buen indicador del mayor o menor poder adquisitivo de las mismas. Como maravillosamente explicó Vera Smith (1936) en sus Fundamentos de la Banca Central y de la Libertad Bancaria y detalla George Selgin(*) (1988) en La libertad de emisión del dinero bancario, en un sistema abierto a la competencia, los emisores de monedas tendrían incentivos para asociarse y formar una especie de clubes de emisión de moneda en el que proveerían por si mismos los servicios esenciales para el mantenimiento del poder de compra de la moneda y la fiabilidad de los pagos hechos con ella en el mercado. Si, bajo este sistema monetario abierto a la competencia, el Estado quiere seguir monetizando sus déficits fiscales e inflar el mercado con emisiones excesivas de esa moneda, la respuesta de los usuarios será desprenderse paulatinamente de ella; lo que se reflejará en una depreciación de la moneda estatal y en la consiguiente pérdida de las ganancias por señoreaje de emisión del Estado en favor del resto de competidores. Ello sería sin duda el mejor incentivo para abandonar tales políticas inflacionistas que acaban por deteriorar la calidad de la moneda.

Pero, como decía más arriba, hasta llegar a ese sistema más competitivo mucho nos queda por mejorar el presente. Y es a ello a lo que dediqué la segunda parte de mi intervención en el Instituto Juan de Mariana; al estudio de otras reglas de emisión de los bancos centrales distintas a las actuales que pueden contribuir a mejorar la calidad del dinero que emiten. La charla fue seguida de un muy activo turno de preguntas y comentarios por parte de los asistentes que espero os resulte de interés; especialmente animada fue sin duda la discusión sobre el patrón oro clásico y su posible aplicación en la actualidad. Os dejo a continuación el vídeo y una entrevista resumen de la misma. Como siempre, los comentarios y especialmente las críticas son muy bienvenidas:

Vídeo completo de la conferencia

Entrevista resumen

Juan Castañeda

Nota: (*) G. Selgin dará una charla en Madrid el 2 de Octubre, en la Fundación Rafael del Pino. Merece muy mucho la pena ir a escucharle. Es un auténtico especialista en estos temas, es muy ameno y se explica de maravilla. Toda la información para asistir la encontraréis aquí:


Estimates of the aboveground stock of gold (1492-2012)

Those of you who regularly follow this blog will find this topic familiar. This is because it is the second paper I have just published on this question; in the first one (2012), “The aboveground gold stock: its importance and size”, published by the GoldMoney Foundation, James Turk and myself mainly focused on the analysis of the available estimates of the stock of gold and concluded that most of them overestimated the stock of gold in 1492; which necessarily leads to a less amount of gold in the present time (the study also includes a very useful and comprehensive statistical annex).

In this one (“New estimates of the stock of gold (1492-2012)”, full text published in Moneta 156), I offer alternative estimates of the stock of gold in 1492 using different sources of (indirect) information, which include the analysis of the research made by economic historians, geologists and economists. As a result, an interval estimate of the stock of gold in 1492 is offered; one which is again much lower (see the table below) than the one implied according to the current estimates of the stock of gold and the data we have on gold production since the discovery of the Americas. Taking these new estimates as a starting point, I also include a full series on gold production since 1492 (a series collected from different sources) and a new series on the stock of gold since 1492 to 2012.

There might be several implications for the analysis of the current gold market as, according to this research, the aboveground stock of gold in our days may be around a 10% lower than the “official” figures (as published by the World Gold Council). Of course, due to the nature of this research and the lack of (much) reliable information on this issue for such a long time period, the results must be interpreted with due cautious; and I would welcome more research on this topic to refine the current estimates.

Anyhow, find below the table with the main results of the paper (in tonnes of gold):

1.World Gold Council aboveground gold stock in 2012
2.Gold production 1493-2012
3.Implied World Gold Council estimate of aboveground gold stock in 1492 (1-2)
4.Our high estimate of aboveground gold stock in 1492
5.Overstatement of the aboveground gold stock (3-4)
6.Our high estimate of aboveground gold stock in 2012 (2+4)
7.Overestimation of the current aboveground gold stock (2012) (1-6)

More details on the estimates can be found herea video with the presentation of the paper in a recent seminar organised in Madrid last May organised by Prof. G. Depeyrot as part of the activities of the Damin project, which is a world-wide research network of scholars interested in the study of precious metals and monetary issues in the 19th century.

I hope it can be of some interest. Comments very welcome.

Juan Castañeda

PS. Link to the video with the presentation of the research paper and many others: http://www.anr-damin.net/spip.php?article60


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