Dec

17

the st. louis fedThe latest release of the bi-weekly velocity of money multiplier series at the St. Louis Fed shows that the velocity has fallen to an all time historic low. The current reading is .811 and means that a dollar of money supply only produces 81 cents worth of GDP in a year. Another way to look at it is that the Fed needs to print $1.23 of new money to produce $1 of GDP in the next 12 months.

Part of economic impetus driving this situation is extremely low interest rates. At short term rates under 1% there is little urgency to invest. Putting your money under the mattress results in little in the way of lost interest. But it does save one from the savings account counter party risk and hypothetical failure of the FDIC program. The mattress strategy might even yield a net real return if deflation is the future.

The following link is to the St. Louis Fed site with a chart of the velocity of money and the most recent numbers.

Dr. McDonnell is the author of Optimal Portfolio Modeling, Wiley, 2008

Stefan Jovanovich replies:

Dr. Phil's statistical expertise dwarfs my poor abilities to add and subtract, but we Hayekian arithmeticians remain stubbornly skeptical about the relationship between official monies and wealth. If all the Fed really needs to do is print $xx.xx of new money to produce $yy.yy of GDP aka the sum of private and public incomes, then those in charge are clearly derelict in not immediately printing 2, 3 or 4 times $xx.xx.

Could it be that the evil capitalists are huddling at zero maturities, no matter what the price being paid for their lending the government back its official money, because the risks of (a) 2,3, and 4 times $xx.xx being printed or (b) the collapse of the carry trade in world commodities priced in U.S. dollars are BOTH best hedged by having the shortest possible terms on their official IOUs?

Those of us who dream of a return to the stupidities of Austrian and 19th century American gold standard economics fantasize that there will be that magic day when some impeccably credentialed Dr. of Economics stands up at the Emperor's testimonial dinner and asks why the accounting tautology of MV=GDP is any more meaningful than the one that says Equity=Assets-Liabilities.

MULT: The M1 multiplier is the ratio of M1 to the St. Louis Adjusted Monetary Base.

M1: The sum of currency held outside the vaults of depository institutions, Federal Reserve Banks, and the U.S. Treasury; travelers checks; and demand and other checkable deposits issued by financial institutions (except demand deposits due to the Treasury and depository institutions), minus cash items in process of collection and Federal Reserve float.

Adjusted Monetary Base: The sum of currency in circulation outside Federal Reserve Banks and the U.S. Treasury, deposits of depository financial institutions at Federal Reserve Banks, and an adjustment for the effects of changes in statutory reserve requirements on the quantity of base money held by depositories.

Rudolf Hauser writes:

 We do not live in a barter economy but rely on money instead. Anything that is convenient to use, that is very widely accepted in transactions and that retains it worth can be used as money. As with all goods and services, humanity is served by efficiency. Gold has the advantage that it is a limited commodity in nature, which keeps it relatively scarce and hence helps it to retain value, but one major disadvantage in that it is very costly to produce, making it an inefficient use of human resources. Paper money is cheap to produce but retaining value depends on the will of the producing authorities to provide an amount sufficient to meet demand for liquidity without exceeding it such as to neither increase or decrease its value (and the lesser problem of avoiding counterfeiting).

A decline in velocity indicates an increase in the demand for money relative to available supply. To measure velocity against economic activity (GDP) one most consider the lags typically involved. I prefer to use a two quarter lag. On that basis velocity was still declining for M1, M2 and MZM in the third quarter. But given the performance of financial markets I believe that the present monetary growth, while not that rapid of M2 and MZM, but more rapid for what I call liquid M2 (M2 less CD's, without institutional money market funds included in MZM), is adequate because of the increasing confidence which should be reducing the demand for money. Hence, the decline in income velocity is a reflection of the lags. Monetary growth was clearly inadequate earlier in 2008 given the rising demand for liquidity until the Fed finally panicked in the autumn.

Money creation does not increase real economic activity from a stable state level, although an erratic or inflationary monetary policy will probably decrease real growth potential. If money is inadequate to supply the effort to restore liquidity will drive down other financial asset prices and reduce economic activity. In such cases the supply of more money will meet that liquidity demand and result in an increase in financial asset prices and real economic activity. This is just a restoration from a prior inadequate supply of money. An increase in money from a starting state in which the demand for liquidity in a non-inflationary environment might increase real economic activity temporarily if there is money illusion, that is nominal demand increases are mistaken for real demand increases. Otherwise it will just cause inflation, with the lag depending on the state of the general view on monetary policy. In an inflationary environment the lag to an inflationary impact would be minimal to non-existent, but in a world with much confidence in the monetary authorities it is likely to be longer.

Stefan Jovanovich adds:

The arguments against the gold standard always come down to the "inefficiency" of having to carry around a heavy bag full of sovereigns or Double Eagles. This has, of course, absolutely nothing to do with the history of coinage or official money; but, given how few good arguments there are in favor of fiat money, it should not be surprising that it is the standard explanation for why our paper currency is no longer exchangeable for specie. One should never underestimate the determined historicisms of the monopoly academic mind. What is ironic is that the "inefficiency" explanation is made by people who depend on the credit records of the 19th century to establish their certainties about the relations between "money" (sic) and GDP (sic).

The gold standard, as adopted by the United States of America at its founding, and by the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Spain - the list is too long to continue - in the last third of the 19th century did not require people to carry bags of coins. What is remarkable is that it did not even require people to a particular money. All the gold standard said is that the sovereign government would mint coin in gold of a standard purity and that, on demand, the government would redeem its debts in such coin. You can find that pledge in the American constitution and, for that matter, in the constitution of the Confederacy. The gold standard did not require people to demand bags of coin as payment for the Treasury bonds, and even at times of financial distress, very few people did actually demand specie from the government. But the gold standard gave them that choice. "Ordinary" (sic) people could demand that the government meet its promises according to a standard that the government itself could not manipulate. Now, as Rudolph points out, the measure and weight of money is dependent on "the will of the producing authorities".

As Hayek kept reminding us, with elegance and without intemperateness, the notion that the government "supplies" money is the fallacy. Governments have minted coins from the beginning of recorded history, but they have not supplied that wealth; they have only collected it. Governments insisted on an official money because they could not live with private money. The idea that, before governments, people lived only by barter is truly fantastic; there is evidence of private money in every literate culture in history. As soon as people figured out how to write, they started issuing IOUs to each other. But, the promise of Fred the grain merchant of Tigris to pay Harry the wheat farmer two goats and a dowry for Gharry's daughter was not going to be very useful in paying the hill tribesmen pay/bribes/rewards for serving in the king's own regiment. The hill tribesmen did not know Fred or speak his dialect; they wanted something of tangible value. Official money developed out of the need/desire/vanity for armies and the necessity of paying them. That is still official money's ultimate rationale; the state needs to be able to pay its minions with a money that they will accept.

But why, as Hayek asked, does official money have to be a monopoly? Why are our most "progressive" thinkers in favor of a world currency, for example? The inefficiency argument hardly applies in this case; having 3, 5 or even 50 different sovereign currencies is no more difficult to manage in the age of computers than a single currency. The answer is obvious: with competing monies there is still a means for people to accumulate and hold their own wealth. That liberty may only be available to the very rich but it is still a freedom that exists and that could possibly be expanded to include "ordinary" (sic) people; and that movable private wealth represents a very real threat to official power.

The one valid argument that defenders of the Confederacy have is that Lincoln did want to impose a Federal monopoly on money and that, once the Civil War started, he did just that. What the defenders of States rights do not acknowledge is that state governments had been as eager monopolists as Lincoln. They had also, like Lincoln, been willing to default on specie redemption for their borrowings.

The reason that you have a period of rare political unanimity on the question of the gold standard for the 4 decades between the Resumption Act and the closing of the New York Stock Exchange at the beginning of World War I is that Northerners and Southerners, Democrats and Republicans, of any sense all understood the monetary lesson of the Civil War: if government is allowed to exempt itself from a Constitutional standard for money, then ruin follows. When governments can literally manipulate the weights and standards of money itself, the currency becomes a mechanism for theft by those who sit closest to the King.

But, there is no point in quarreling with the true believers in the money supply. It is part of the same theology that has as an article of faith the certainty that, without compulsory government schooling, none of us would ever learn how to read. One can only laugh at the irony that it is the true believers who have the most at risk. The contingent payments to the civil servants themselves - those glorious pensions - are the promises most likely to fail. The coins cannot be clipped, and competing monies do represent a restraint on hyper-devaluation. All that is left is default. Given a choice between defaulting on Social Security/Medicare and public employee and school teacher pensions, there seems little doubt what the electorate will vote for ten or twenty years from now - assuming, of course, that the issue is even put to a vote.

Alex Forshaw replies:

But, there is no point in quarreling with the true believers in the money supply. It is part of the same theology that has as an article of faith the certainty that, without compulsory government schooling, none of us would ever learn how to read.

I'd go even further than this.

In my (thus far brief) speculative experience, for every one brilliantly complex idea which spectacularly vindicates the prophet lost in the wilderness, there are 99 "brilliantly complex" ideas whose complexity proves nothing more than a refuge for the proponent's ego, for him to delay admitting he's been wrong all along. Such is the case with the academic mumbo-jumbo that belabors arguments on monetary policy, among others.

Arguments about money supply, liquidity provision, bubbles and the gold standard revolve around some very basic presuppositions.

Can bureaucrats be trusted to Do The Right Thing when specialized constituencies' interests, and bureaucratic institutional self-interest, unite on the other side of the argument?

Or do they–under the cover of complex esoterica completely foreign beyond their own constituencies–generally convince themselves that The Right Thing happens to align perfectly with their own institutional self interest?

I do not understand how anybody can look at the history of money, and the history of human nature in general, different from "hell no."

In my opinion, if you take the other side of that question, as Rudolf has, you will find yourself justifying the most brazen monetary manipulations any of us has ever seen. The rest is just pedantry. How does anyone have the arrogance to set the cost of capital for an entire planet? How does anyone else sucker themselves into believing any one individual ever has that kind of "edge," on any kind of ongoing, predictable basis?

Theses that can't be explained simply, should not be trusted. There is a lot more egotism than truth in complexity. No amount of academic mumbo jumbo will help contemporary, "how D A R E you suggest our tripling M1 in 1 year was anything other than saving the economy from Armageddon?" Keynesianism pass the bullshit test; and that's where the line in the sand should be drawn.

If you accept the terminology and the givens of the monetary clergy, you tacitly concede intellectual honesty on their part. For someone not invested in the status quo (or invested beyond that), all debate beyond that point is a waste of time. You aren't going to change anything, so why not just find something better to do?.

Rudolf Hauser counters:

I am not going to persuade Stefan to abandon his love of gold, so I would not even waste my time trying. He like our sometime contributor Larry Parks are staunch advocates. But other members of the list might be open to alternative viewpoints. First of all, I do not advocate a government mandated monopoly on money. I believe individuals should be able to hold whatever assets they wish, gold included, and contract to deal in whatever medium of exchange they prefer. I like Stefan object to efforts to restrict such as was done when the gold standard was abolished under the FDR administration. The inefficiency I am thinking off is not people carrying bags of gold around but the human costs of mining the stuff. How many work under absolutely miserable conditions digging through mounds of dirt for a few grams to buy them a meager subsistence in Central Africa? How many work under extremely hot, unpleasant and I suspect not without danger depths of South African mines? How many wasted their lives digging for gold without most finding much in the gold field booms of California, Alaska, etc.? Digging for the stuff costs lives and ruins lives. People would still do so for the non-monetary uses of gold, but the price would be lower and the resulting activity less. The use of IOUs etc. in early human activity not expressed in a common medium of exchange is still a form of barter. Only when you have a substance widely accepted by a large group of people in which the value of all other goods and services are expressed do you have something that can be called money. A near money, like the non-M1 components of M2 are not transactional money, but may be considered as money for analysis if they can readily be converted to a transactional money without any or most minimal cost. Transactions in international trade involving two or more currencies represent additional risks and costs. Not only is your competitive position determined by what happens to the demand and supply of your products but also by the overall balance between the countries in question which will impact the exchange value of the currencies. Hedging will reduce the risk somewhat but not without cost. I am not advocating a single currency as that also creates even greater problems with regions growing at different rates, etc.-just pointing out there is both advantages as well as disadvantages to having to deal only in a single currency. A gold standard will not prevent a government from defaulting. It only changes the form that the default might take. A fiat standard makes it easier to do so without being so overt about it, but in extreme situations it will not prevent that from happening. For an economy to function most efficiently, it needs to have an adequate but not excessive medium of exchange. Gold is limited by the amount in the ground. Any currency, etc. backed by gold at a constant amount would still be limited by the available quantity of gold. Major gold discoveries have lead to inflation, albeit very modest compared to what happens with inflated fiat money. A shortage of gold leads to deflation. As the experience of the latter half of the 18th century in the U.S. showed you can still have good real growth with modest deflation. But there is a problem here. Most people rely in others to make investments in real ventures (that is, capital spending, etc. as opposed to financial investments). But since the nominal return on money practically go below zero (storage costs, etc. might reduce it slightly below zero), the amount of deflation will set the risk free interest rate floor. As that rate rises higher and higher, fewer and fewer investments will offer enough of a return to attract saver's dollars. As such, investment and real economic growth, with resulting improvement in living standards, would lag behind potential. Efforts to accommodate this by reducing gold backing, changing conversion rates get you right back to the issue of government discretion that Stefan was talking about in the first place. You could end up with a monetary shortage as people hoarded available money. Alternative private forms of money might develop, but as they would represent more inflation prone forms of exchange than would private money such as gold under current conditions, they do not strike me a first glance as an attractive alternative to a sound fiat standard.

Alex, M1 did treble-relative to Feb. 1985. It has increased 22.9% in the past two years. M2 was up 13.2% over those two years. On a continuing basis that would surely be inflationary. But given the financial uncertainty, it resulted in that time, it has probably been desirable. I am very concerned that it might not be reversed when the demand for money decreases again and then we might have an inflationary result.

Efficient societies depend on trust. Remove trust and the ability to make progress is greatly limited. But the biggest problem in modern society is indeed the need to restrict and control the power of government. We have different view on how that should be done and what government should be allowed to do.

Also, Alex, M1 did treble-relative to Feb. 1985. It has increased 22.9% in the past two years. M2 was up 13.2% over those two years. On a continuing basis that would surely be inflationary. But given the financial uncertainty, it resulted in that time, it has probably been desirable. I am very concerned that it might not be reversed when the demand for money decreases again and then we might have an inflationary result.

Efficient societies depend on trust. Remove trust and the ability to make progress is greatly limited. But the biggest problem in modern society is indeed the need to restrict and control the power of government. We have different view on how that should be done and what government should be allowed to do.

Jack Tierney comments:

 The arguments against mining (not just of gold but most other "raw materials") has become extremely popular. Much of the case made against the practice include elements similar to those put forth by Rudy (the larger and more revealing reason is that the government in general and the leeches in particular, want a bigger piece of the action, i.e., higher royalties).

Unfortunately, most are convinced that the maintenance and continued health of our "way of life" is dependent on computerized technology. It is not - not now and not ever. Our way of life began when individuals, so sympathetically described by Rudy, began digging holes. Our development as a country and our continued successes are wholly dependent on the mining, refining, fabricating, and moulding of raw materials. Autos exist because poor people dug holes in the ground in Michigan. The iron ore produced was useless without a refining process that called for other poor souls to harvest the coal beneath the soil of Appalachia. And what use is the auto without a group of speculators and rough necks drilling the world for oil?

The specialty steels used by defense contractors is insufficient without the necessary rare earths which greatly enhance its strength. Solar panels and longer enduring batteries are inconceivable without silicon & lithium (among others) which also must be mined and refined.

And all the miners, fabricators, designers, innovators, developers, and speculators still depend on someone digging a hole in the ground, dropping in a seed, adding a little (mined & refined) fertilizer, watering it (pumped from an underground aquifer), and, eventually, producing a crop which after further milling, purifying, packaging, and shipping is available as food.

Make any case you wish for or against gold, but we cannot do without hole diggers and those processes which follow the raw material in the production process. Yet we have abandoned all those incremental steps and continue to believe we can somehow maintain our standard of living. We are left to purchase many required finished products which, at one time, we produced in such abundance that we exported the raw materials (e.g., copper & iron ore) necessary for their manufacture (and, whether measured in dollars or ounces of gold, paying an increasingly higher price). We face a situation in which these manufacturing countries are still creating the end products but now, due to their internal growth, are consuming much of what they produce. Understandably, our need does not trump theirs.

I can accept that a great deal of the industrial transformations we have experienced can be related to global labor arbitrage. However, it behooves any country which pictures itself as an "international power" to continually monitor the world production of those raw materials (from origination to end product) which are essential to its continued health. We already have strategic petroleum reserves - but that reserve is exactly that: petroleum. It is not gasoline, diesel, or kerosene -products which can be used immediately. It must be refined; yet, in spite of no new refineries in 40 years, Valero just closed down another operation within the past week.

We not only need to consider strategic reserves of a wide variety of raw materials, but also the means to produce those essential end items. But we must keep digging holes.

Rudolf Hauser responds:

I agree with almost everything you write with regard to mining. My point was that I rather have people engaged in other productive activities, mining of those other minerals included, instead of doing unpleasant work digging for something that serves a function that could be served with much less human effort or cost. Much of mining has always been somewhat dangerous and hazardous to health, just as building railroads and canals was in the 19th century. People took those jobs because the need for the income and the available income was judged better than the alternatives. Keeping their families alive here and now was worth more to them than longevity. As overall living standards improved, so did mine safety. It is still difficult work but vastly improved over what it once was. Because living standards are lower, safety standards still lag ours in places like China. And yes, we are still dependent on the rare materials produced and the processing of such. The cost of externalities such as resulting water pollution still have to be allocated to the producers in some cases .

But while my main point was that it is more efficient to use paper money than gold or silver when possible to do so responsibly, I also made note of the human misery associated with gold. Just as people will gamble when they think that the odds of winning big are great but at the same time be reluctant to undertake a risky investment that is likely to yield a superior return with much less risk of loss than those activities and investments designed to make giant killings for the very few (like lotteries), so to it was with gold discoveries. Some made millions, but many more made little. Those with the best prospects were the merchants and others who serviced the miners. Digging for coal, oil or copper will not do the same. That takes larger operations. Even wildcatting is expensive. It's not like taking a few simple tools and looking for gold. Gold you measure in ounces, the other minerals in tons. Today there are dictators and war lords in central Africa who exploit people desperate to make a living by having them dig in unsatisfactory conditions for diamonds and gold. And the South African gold mines are some of the deepest mines in existence, and it gets hotter the further down you go. There have got to be better ways to earn a living.

Stefan Jovanovich replies:

I can't argue with Rudolph about the nastiness of mining. Grandfather Jovanovich was a miner; he dug for coal in Pennsylvania and Southern Illinois and Colorado and for copper in New Mexico, and his stories of those days were never, ever about the ease or safety of the work even though he loved it. But, using the particular barbarousness of finding and smelting the monetary metal seems to me a very weak argument to make against the lessons of several millennia. Lead mining and smelting are far more nasty, brutish and toxic; and that "near-gold" element is - so far - the unavoidable technological foundation for our brave, new Green world full of batteries. It is equally improbable that the gold miners in South Africa would be willing to trade places with the coal miners in China. The sociological argument against gold is, at base, pretty weak.

Gold's virtues are simple: it has been accepted throughout history as genuinely precious and scarce, it is not easily counterfeited (unlike, for example, diamonds and silver), and its costs of production seem to have a remarkably consistent relationship to the real costs of doing things when measured over centuries and even millennia.

The only argument that has even half-succeeded against the gold standard is the one that Rudolph makes. It is the one that was made in favor of the adoption of the Federal Reserve Act - namely, that a massive new discovery of gold - like the one then happening in South Africa - would unbalance the price structure of that newly discovered thing called "the economy" by increasing the quantity of money. But that argument only wins if one accepts the strict monetarist premise that prices change only because of the fluctuations in bank reserves. One had to believe that innovation, enterprise and science AND the varying animal spirits of the people getting and giving credit had no significant effects on prices.

What has worked to defeat the gold standard is the theological argument that Money and Credit are really one and the same. Given how bitterly we Christians have argued over the mysteries of the Trinity, it should hardly be shocking that the young science of economics has fallen into the snares that captured Church Councils, but one wishes that somehow, as a science, economics could avoid the mystical notion measure of Credit and Credit itself are both separate and one. To the rationalist Deists who voted for our Federal Constitution the endless analyses about M's 1 through pick a number would have seemed like the very doctrinal arguments they wanted their new country to set aside. The delegates who suffered through the true global warming of the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia formally adopted Article I. Section 8. for the same reason they insisted that there be no establishment of religion even in this nation formed under God. The delegates adopted a gold standard for the United States of America to prevent the Congress from extending its monopoly power over Money (which was granted by the Constitution) to a monopoly power over credit.

The original Constitutionalists would not have found Ron Paul's arguments any more persuasive than Rudolph's. In their demand for a gold-backed currency the Paulistas are not arguing for a restoration of the Constitutional gold standard; they are insisting that gold to be the sword that will slay the dragon of fractional reserve banking itself. To the delegates in Philadelphia in 1787, that would have seemed as lunatic as our present fiat Money system. Abolishing the ability of banks to deal in their own credit would have been as crazy as requiring all businesses to deal only in cash.

Having lived through a war, and its destructions, the original Constitutionalists were not in a mood to accept either Rudolph's monetary extremism or Ron Paul's. The country had lost its primary banker - the United Kingdom - and had destroyed its own currency - "not worth a Continental". What the Constitutionalists understood - and what we moderns still do not understand - is that thinking about money as a "medium of exchange" puts the cart before the horse. People will exchange things whether or not they have an official "medium"; what they cannot do, without money, is have savings whose future value is under their and not the government's control. That is, of course, the root of the problem we face now. If money itself is nothing but an IOU, then the government can resort to the form of cheating that had been a universal constant throughout history: the government can demand payment of its taxes in something real - grain, for example - and pay its obligations in something mostly false - adulterated coinage or paper like John Law's.

For better or worse, the original Constitutionalists gave the Federal government an extraordinary monopoly power; Congress alone, of all the governments in the United States, had the power to create Money in all its forms. See Article I. Section 10. "No State shall …coin Money, emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts". Only Congress had the power "coin Money". To assure that the Federal government would not abuse its monopoly power over Money, the Constitution required that Congress "regulate the Value thereof". (Article I. Section 8.) Morris' words need a careful reading. If one uses our current understanding of the word "regulate", one fails completely to understand the sense of what was written. In 1787 the word "regulate" was a technical term of science; it meant "to make regular" - i.e. to make uniform and consistent, in this case, in the assay. No other interpretation makes sense of why the founders then gave Congress the authority and obligation to "regulate the Value" of U.S. Money and also foreign Coin. Both were part of Congress' more general authority and obligation to "fix the Standard of Weights and Measures". Congress would have sole authority over Money, but that authority could only be exercised by fixing Money's Weight and Measure - i.e. purity.

The Constitutionalists took it for granted that the price of Money - what it would buy now and what it would be worth in future credit - would fluctuate. That was in the nature of credit itself. What should not fluctuate was the Value - i.e. the assay - of Money. If Congress wanted to add a further Measure - to define a particular weight and purity as a "dollar", that was certainly within their authority. What was not within their authority and certainly not within the President's Executive authority was to abolish their Constitutional obligation to regulate the Value of Money.

I don't really expect to convince Rudolph or anyone else who has been schooled in the modern Temples of Erewhon that Morris, Washington and Franklin had a greater understanding of money and credit than Paul Samuelson. But, the evidence seems overwhelming. The difficulties of arbitrage that Rudolph makes such a fuss over are precisely the difficulties that the original Constitutionalists expected the citizens to endure. No government on earth could make Money "safe" in the sense of guaranteeing its future purchasing power and assuring that its price in Credit would not suffer. Holding Money by itself was not enterprise; the citizens would have to take the daily risk inherent in either spending or keeping their Money. What they could be promised is that the Money itself would be true and "regular".

Alston Mabry writes:

Just by the way, I was thinking the Treasury and Fed kept separate gold accounts, but it appears they each list the same 261M oz, with the Treasury using market price and the Fed using $42/oz. The "gold stock" line on this Fed report dated today, shows the Federal Reserve Banks having ~$11B in gold, which, @ $42, equals 261M oz.
 

 


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