Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Hayek's "Degrees of Explanation": Moving Away from the Apodictic Certainty Derived from the "Axiom" of Human Action

In "Degrees of Explanation", Hayek defends a system of analysis that approaches knowledge in a deductive manner. His proposed methodology is unique in that it is not Misesian, though it bares some similarities. Core knowledge need not be "apriori" in the sense that Mises employs the term. As Kant claimed in his Critique of Pure Reason, apriori claims must be established in empirical observation. Since they are core claims within an argument or, more generally, within a system, we must be especially confident about these claims.

Mises begins his analysis with a single fact. Humans act. Of course he does more than this. In contextualizing his analysis, Mises argues that,
Complex phenomena in the production of which various causal chains are interlaced cannot test and theory. Such phenomena, on the contrary, become intelligible only through an interpretation in terms of theories previously developed from other sources. In the case of natural phenomena the interpretation of an event must not be at variance  with the theories satisfactorily verified by experiments. (31)
This is true for the study of society as well.
Praxeology is a theoretical and systemic, not a historical, science. Its scope is human action as such, irrespective of all environmental, accidental, and individual circumstances of the concrete acts. Its cognition is purely formal and general without reference to the material content and the particular features of the actual case. It aims at knowledge valid for all instances in which the conditions exactly correspond to those implied in its assumptions and inferences. (32)
So far, we see nothing unreasonable. Research in one field should be consistent with, or at least take account of research in other fields. Mises then goes on to make more extreme statements.
Its statements  and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logical and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification or falsification on the grounds of experience and facts. They are both logically and temporally antecedent to any comprehension of historical facts. (32)
A consistent reading of Mises suggests that these arguments are necessary as an analytical starting point. The trouble is that he does not frame them as such. In attempting to defend the scientific nature of social analysis, which includes economic analysis, Mises makes an argument that is stronger than the facts themselves merit. The facts that we employ are, as far as agents with finite knowledge can know, more true or less true. The facts support analysis of social order must be well-supported by prior research. The task of a good theorist is to identify those facts that are implied by the facts that one takes as given. This should lead to new areas of research that can either support or invalidate the extrapolation. This isn't what Mises is saying, though I wish it was.

Not too far later (39), Mises makes the claim that is perhaps the most problematic for his treatise:
Action and reason are congeneric and homogeneous; they may even be called two different aspects of the same thing. That reason has the power to make clear through pure ratiocination the essential features of action is a consequence of the fact that action is an offshoot of reason. The theorems attained by correct praxeological reasoning are not only perfectly certain and incontestable, like the correct mathematical theorems. They refer, moreover, with the full rigidity of their apodictic certainty and incontestability to the reality of action [emphasis mine] as it appears in life and history. Praxeology conveys exact and precise knowledge of real things.
Two problems arise here.

1) Mises does not explicitly direct interpretation away from social atomism. Perhaps all action is the result of reason, but we must ask, "Whose reason?" Must action and reason be coterminous? Can the reason of one man or many lead to action in someone not directly connected to them? What is the range of action, local or non-local, that results from reason exercised at some time t. The reason of humankind echoes throughout society in its institutions. These are established through a combination of reason and blind groping, through the process of trial and error. Without the use of reason, an agent might take action in the same way that wolves learn the social norms of a wolf pack. Perhaps this fits Mises's definition of reason as applied with a means/ends framework, but I doubt that Mises would apply it in this manner as he argues that "animals are unconditionally driven by the impulse to rpeserve their own lives and by the impulse of proliferation (19)." The relationship between reason and action is more complex than Mises admits here; I suspect that this is the result of Mises's ideological emphasis and the collectives zeitgeist that was in the air of academic conversation at the time.

2) Mises claims that "the theorems attained by correct praxeological reasoning" are "perfectly certain and incontestible." Mises is playing a logical trick here. His statement is true to the extent that conclusion arise from "correct praxological reasoning". But in what situation can I confirm that I have engaged in "correct" analysis? Every theory must always have a disclaimer attached to it that says, "we consider fact A implied by our theory true as long as facts B, C, D, etc... hold as true." We don't live in a world with perfect knowledge, but if we did, we would be apodictically certain. Just as this statement about apodictic certainty is a tautology - useful as it may be - so is Mises claim, but he does not explicitly identify it as a tautology. And his defense of economics that follows is a defense contingent on the truth of the facts upon which praxeology relies. A more honest approach admits that we cannot know that the claims of economists are true with apodictic certainty, even if they apply the system that Mises uses. The best that one can say is that he or she employs a system that makes full use of available, time-tested knowledge (even this claim may be too much due to the asymmetries of interpretation).

In "Degrees of Explanation", Hayek engages a softer claim.
It is, no doubt, desirable that in working out such deductive systems the conclusions should be tested against the facts at every step. We can never exclude the possibility that even the best accredit law may cease to hold under conditions for which it has not yet been tested. But while this possibility always exists, its likelihood in the case of well-confirmed hypothesis is so small that we often disregard it in practice. The conclusions which we can draw from a combination of well-established hypotheses will therefore by valuable though we may not be in a position to test them.
Later in the same paper, he claims,
We shall here have to proceed in our deductions, not from the hypothetical or unknown to the known and observable, but - as used to be thought to be the normal procedure - from the familiar to the unknown.
There is no need to claim that we have apodictic certainty of any kind. Our analysis is a certain as the facts that represent the core claims that support the analysis. In this sense, theory represents facts and arrangements of facts that we are most certain about, assuming that deductions were correctly carried out.

In this spirit, Hayek writes in "Economics and Knowledge",
My criticism of the recent tendencies to make economic theory more and more formal is not that they have gone too far but that they have not yet been carried far enough to complete the isolation of this branch of logic and to restore to its rightful place the investigation of causal processes [emphasis mine] , using formal economic theory as a tool in the same way as mathematics.
Hayek points the way toward forming a more perfect praxeological system. If we are to take Popper seriously, we must accept that we will never have such a perfect system. Theory represents knowledge in most general and most perfect form that we can expect. It is from this light that Daniel Klein's revised iteration of Peter Boettke's claim that "The best reading of Mises is a Hayekian one and the best reading of Hayek is a Misesian one" holds (2012, 30):
I might concur with Peter Boettke that the most charitable reading of Mises is a Hayekian one. The most charitable reading of Hayek, however, is not a Misesian one (32).

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

My Review of Nigel Dodd's "Social Life of Money" is up at EH.net

Read it here.

Brief summary of review: In ideologically charged fashion, Dodd pulls together diverse perspectives concerning money role in society. The author eschews theories of money that stress price theory and Say's identity in favor or analyses that consider the social and political roles of money.

Monday, April 6, 2015

How the Credit Cycle Forms the Basis of the Business Cycle

Within the world that we have constructed, agents and objects take on discrete states.  Agents do not experience the world continuously, but rather, in chunks. For example, when an agent purchases some quantity of a good, very often that good can only be sold in whole units. For example, an agent must purchase some discrete number of computers as defined by an integer. Wholesalers must hold some quantity of goods on hand. Agents and firms must constantly adjust their output to avoid shortages or relieve surpluses of goods and services.

Sometimes economic data changes so quickly that suppliers are unable to avoid loss. Particularly troublesome is a scenario where total demand for goods collapses. This is the bust that comprises the latter part of the boom-bust cycle. After a period of relative prosperity, firms may find themselves holding excess stocks of goods that they can only discard if they lower prices. By lowering prices, the marginal revenue earned by the firm falls. In  extreme cases, the firm finds itself subject to an accounting loss. This is a signal to the firm that it has overproduced and must therefore slow production. By slowing production, the firm will also need to cut expenditures on inputs. This is equivalent to a decrease in demand for intermediate goods produced by firms higher in the supply chain. This reduction in expenditures also includes a reduction of the quantity of labor hired by the firm. 

The bust represents a cluster of errors by entrepreneurs and firms. A large proportion of market participants find that they have erred in their expectation of the future and face subsequent losses. These losses accumulate such that total demand for goods and services – i.e., aggregate demand – falls across the economy. Losses extend beyond only those agents who had taken large risks. Prices and output plummet as agents seek to acquire money to repay debts and increase the security of their positions. The process continues until agents regain confidence in the market, however, the timing of the rebound is far from certain.

What is the nature of the business cycle and why does it occur? The first of these questions can be answered succinctly:

A business cycle is a cyclical fluctuation in the aggregate economic activity of a nation, or a cyclical change in the rate of economic growth.” Business cycles involve coherent changes in output quantities and prices of consumer goods and capital goods, input costs, employment and wage rates, profits, productivity, investment, total and per capita income, the quantity of money, volume of credit and interest rates. (Wood 1997)

The business cycle represents a recurring pattern of a increases and decreases in the value of goods and services produced across all markets, The cause of the business cycle is not exactly obvious. Many economists have attempted to explain the causes of these fluctuations, but few have adequately explained a substantial number of features of the cycle. The most salient explanation of which I am aware comes from Ralph Hawtrey. Hawtrey describes the elements that comprise aggregate demand:

. . . The consumers’ outlay is the whole effective demand for everything that is produced, whether commodities or services. The trader who buys to sell again is merely an intermediary passing on a portion of this demand to one of his neighbours. The cyclical alternations in effective demand must therefore be alternations in the consumers’ outlay. (Hawtrey 1919, 52)

Consumer outlays fluctuate concurrently with production as incomes of both laborers and capital owners are dependent upon total productivity. In a world where money was super-neutral or in a world where capital could somehow trade costlessly for other capital, the business cycle would not exist as a recurring phenomena. But this is not the world that we live in. Exchange occurs indirectly. Agents sell their goods and labor for money in order purchase goods and services from other agents. This would not be a problem except that there occur periods where either the stock of money, demand for money, or both, fluctuate. Fluctuations in the money stock and income are dominated by changes in total volume of credit extended. In a world with a static monetary base, changes in the volume of credit extended are driven primarily by changes in expectation of the value of goods and services produced. An investor who purchases a bond must expect that the borrower can repay his loan and the interest it accumulates. When businesses borrow, the money soon ends up in the hands of the laboring class.

It may be pointed out that the consumers’ outlay is increased as soon as producers begin to borrow. The producers and their employees have more to spend while the orders are still uncompleted. (Hawtrey 1919, 55)

A increase in consumer income translates to an increase in aggregate demand assuming that agents spend at least a portion of this increase. In industries where the new money is spent to purchase goods that otherwise would not have been purchased, prices will tend to increase and so too will production in the short-run relative to prices given the same scenario absent credit expansion. The reverse is also true. A contraction of total credit expanded promotes a fall in incomes.

The business cycle arises when the expectations of a substantial number of investors and entrepreneurs are upset, meaning that at the time of initial investment these agents expected incomes to be higher than turned out. If enough borrowers are unable to repay their loans, bank who suffer these defaults must begin to slow their rate of credit expansion so as to allow there reserve ratios to recover. An increase in the reserve ratio is equivalent to a decrease in the broader money stock. This contraction leads to a fall in incomes which worsens the problem. With less credit available, firms must begin to rely more on savings for repayment of debt. This further contracts the money stock. Firms whose managers sense that the business outlook has turned for the near future also begin to increase their balances of cash and reduce their reliance on borrowing, both of which lead to reductions in the total stock of credit, and therefore, money. (Hawtrey 1919, 14). As agents sense that the economy is in a state of consolidation, many begin to form expectations of price deflation. Demand falls in the short-run and the fall in prices accelerates. Only after banks have increased reserve ratios to a level that pleases managers, and ultimately depositors, may banks interrupt this fall in prices by expanding credit on net. They must wait to expand credit, however, until businesses feel safe to expand production.

This story of credit expansion and contraction gives the theorist a starting point from which to build an understanding of the business cycle. Credit seems the primary driver, but what drives credit? It is expectation by financiers that will be an increase in production that drives the expansion of credit. The process of credit creation creates a natural oscillation in productivity, and therefore, oscillating expectations concerning productivity. Credit is not the only driver of expectations. Innovation brings new products and increases the efficiency of production. The expansion of production made possible by new technology certainly affects the expectations of financiers and bankers and of producers. New technology raises opportunity for economic profit and therefore serves to attract the funds of perceptive financiers. Not only must entrepreneurs sense profit opportunities, but financiers must be apt to perceive that the entrepreneur is correct. (It is worthwhile to consider how they accomplish this. Consider that as a rule of thumb, successful venture capitalists, which are one class of financiers, are sure to bet on a person, which includes that person’s network, vision, and creativity, not simply an idea.) Thus Schumpeter is to some extent correct when he claims:

We agree with him [Hawtrey], first, in recognizing that the fundamental cause, whilst in its nature independent of the machinery of money and credit, could not without it produce the particular kind of effect it does. (86)

He is incorrect in claiming:

Booms and consequently depressions are not the work of banks: their cause is a non-monetary one and entrepreneurs’ demand is the initiating cause even of so much of the cycle as can be said to be added by the act of banks. (86)

I have shown that there exists a natural fluctuation in credit driven by errors in expectations of entrepreneurs and financiers, the effects of those errors on the position and expectations of banks, and therefore, on the available stock of money and demand for a portion of that stock. The high level of expected profits that emerges from knowledge of an innovation attracts more capital into the market than would otherwise exist. As long as the expectation of economic profit exists, the innovation will increase total credit extended in the market. If expectations of creditors are on average correct, this expansion of technology is responsible for a long-run increase in the volume of production and its real value to consumers. It is possible that a sector centered around a new innovation will attract a large portion of available credit during an expansion, but this would only serve to increase the amplitude of cycles where financiers overinvested in the sector of innovation.

Aside from encouraging credit expansion, innovations that increase efficiency tend also to devalue capital whose role the innovation has displaced. What was the fate of the horse and buggy after Henry Ford began production of the model-T? Was it not appropriate that the mass production of telephones and computers contributed to the waning of the telegram? This capital lost most of its value as agents in society no longer demanded them. This devaluation of capital can hardly be blamed for a tendency toward depression for the whole economy. Neither overinvestment in new innovation or devaluation of obscelescent capital are necessary or sufficient to generate the cycle in its most essential form.


There a number of other models that describe the business cycle, some of them ad hoc. These include, in no particular order, Lucas’s Island Model, New Keynesian theories of market imperfections, Real Business Cycle Theory, and the Austrian Business Cycle. Of special note are modern monetarist theories concerning fluctuations in the money stock and money demand as they are closely related to the creit cycle. I have posted on these before, including in this short summary. For more on the Austrian Business Cycle see here and here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Emergence of the Clearinghouse

We continue our journey through the evolution of banking with the rise of the clearinghouse association. First, let’s review the evolution of economic development thus far. Imagine a world of scarcity where we have instantiated agents. These agents own property and take action according to their preferences. As agents interact, direct (barter) exchange arises. Each agent trades some good or goods that he owns for some other good or goods that he or she values more than the item or bundle given up. In each exchange, agents pays only as much for a good or goods as they are willing. Sometimes, a good desired by an agent can only be acquired by multiple exchanges. Imagine that agent A owns an apple, agent B owns an orange, and agent C owns an avocado. Agent A is willing to trade her apple for an avocado, but agent C will only trade her avocado for an orange. It just so happens that Agent B would like to trade his orange for an apple. Agent A, sensing an opportunity to attain her desired end, trades her apple for agent B’s orange. Then she trades the orange for an avocado. This is indirect exchange. Over time, some types of commodities, say oats, come into use for indirect exchange. The commodity used for indirect exchange comes to gain value for its use in indirect exchange. This value is its exchange value.

Eventually, one or several of these moneys comes to dominate markets of indirect exchange. Money has developed whose price tends to reflect its supply and demand. One interesting feature of a commodity money is that its quantity is, in the long run, dependent on its supply and demand. If money becomes dearer due to an increase in demand for it, its price will rise and thereby increase the quantity of money supplied. A fall in demand will allow the quantity supplied in a given time period to fall. Thus, the quantity of money stock is self-regulated with respect to changes in demand.

Commodity moneys are costly for agents carry. If the commodity money is not standardized, it may be difficult to measure. If it is heavy, like gold or silver, it may be costly, or even dangerous, to carry on one’s person. Owing, at least in part, to these reasons, agents find that they benefit from leaving their money entrusted to a third party at a secure location. The agent will likely receive a deposit slip in exchange which can be used as money. Thus we have the emergence of fiduciary currency. Eventually, the agent or firm entrusted with the gold realize that they might profit from lending out some portion of the existing deposits. This allows the latent media to earn a return. This return allows the agent or firm to pay interest on deposits. The cost of holding gold is no longer borne by the agent who owns the commodity. Fractional-reserve banking is born.

Any bank in operation chooses to keep on hand some commodities whose value is equal to a portion of its reserves. This is needed in the case that some depositors want to immediately withdraw their currency from the bank. If too many depositors attempt to withdraw from the bank simultaneously, the bank may risk being unable to make a repayment. Absent any institution designed to aid the bank in such a crisis, the bank will have to borrow from another bank in order to stave off hysteria. Of course, if no other bank is willing to lend to the bank, it will have to close until it can acquire the funds. This option is a last resort as it will certainly attract the attention of risk-averse depositors. Bankers realize that they have incentive to minimize the occurrence of this scenario as a wave of collapses may have repercussions for the entire economy. It so happens that a clearinghouse association is an organization in prime position to provide stability during a run. 

A clearinghouse is the location at which multiple banks may hold some of their reserves and keep their records. By holding their reserves and records at a common location, banks can clear debits and credits between one another and use the reserves on hand to pay remaining debts between one another. The clearinghouse is also a nexus for information concerning the creditworthiness of borrowers, thus serving a role in risk mitigation. The clearinghouse might also mitigate risk by producing temporary currency during a crisis. The clearinghouse has plenty of reserves on hand. During a crisis the clearinghouse, ostensibly drawing from these reserves, can lend out emergency currency. This emergency currency allows banks that consider themselves to be at risk and that the clearinghouse deems to be only illiquid - not insolvent - to build up their reserves without depleting the supply of available credit. Since credit is employed predominantly for business, a net decrease in available credit typically diminishes the level of future production, and consequently, real income. Likewise, a collapse in the credit markets leads to a collapse in production until the collapse reverses (assuming it reverses). A wave of banking failures, like the one that occurred during the Great Depression, can turn an economic recession into a depression. For the sake of self-preservation, the clearinghouse has incentive to prevent such an extreme crisis.


Given the risk of a credit crisis, the clearinghouse also takes on a proactive role in regulating the positions of its member banks. If may, at random or on the suspicion of a bank’s malhealth, withdraw a large amount of funds from a member bank in order to test its capacity to handle adverse clearings. This serves to discourage excessive risk taking by member banks and represents yet another means of promoting the stability within the system. 

Having mechanisms that promote stability does not suggest that the system is itself perfect. Every system has bugs. There will always be some banks that take on excessive risk. There will always be failures. Irresponsible banks must fail or else they corrupt the whole system. The significance of the clearinghouse system is not that it prevents any instability, but that it places bounds on that instability. Regulation and stability are themselves properties of the system as entrepreneurs earn profit by finding ways to mitigate risk.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Central Banking: The Basics

1. Credit Fluctuations and Financial Crisis

Last post, we discussed the role of fluctuations in total credit extended to the value of production and also to the total money stock. When credit is expanded, this is typically indicative of an increase in the value of production. This can occur either through an increase in production itself, an increase in prices, or an increase in demand for cash balances which may lead to an increase in demand for credit assuming that prices do not immediately adjust to accommodate the change in demand for money. The relation between credit and money implies a relationship between aggregate demand and credit. When the volume of credit extended increases on net, this is equivalent to an increase in the money stock, and therefore an increase in aggregate demand (MV). Thus, changes in the credit stock, absent a change in demand for money, shifts the aggregate demand curve in the same direction. After a period where credit has been misallocated, something only discovered ex post, there must follow a contraction as the value of collateral adjusts to reflect underlying demands of the economy. While this process works to reallocated resources to their most highly value use, the fall in credit also precipitates a fall in income. Falling incomes encourages agents and firms to take a more conservative stance financially until they expect that the crisis is nearing an end. This tendency creates aggregate oscillations known as the business cycle. We will discuss the business cycle in later posts. For now it is sufficient that we recognize that the phenomenon exists.

When these oscillations in the volume of available money and credit grow extreme, banks that might otherwise be economically sustainable risk default. The same holds true for other businesses. In the worst case, these fluctuations may create a wave of insolvencies that turn a minor crisis into a financial pandemic. Nominal fluctuations begin to affect the structure of the real economy. This is what occurred in the recent crisis. Many large financial firms were holding bundles of AAA rated mortgage backed securities. The AAA rating hid from non-critical observers the risk contained in these securities. Before the crisis in 2007 and 2008, banks held these securities were able to acquire very high levels of leverage. The ratio of debt to cash on hand grew to dangerously high levels. When the value of these assets collapsed, leverage levels increased as many of these firms were on the brink of collapse. Assets that had served as money – mortgage backed securities – fell in price. This was equivalent to a drop in the broader money stock as it necessitated a contraction of credit in order for the system to stay solvent. In order to avoid collapse, the Federal Reserve provided the market with liquidity by buying up “toxic” assets, i.e., the overvalued mortgage backed securities. Ignoring the politics that were at issue, we observe that the Federal Reserve was, in an unorthodox manner, serving the role of lender of last resort.

2. The Central Bank and the Money Stock

The central bank’s primary means of policy implementation depends on its control of the money stock. This control provides it the ability to intervene within a market. There are 3 means by which a central bank typically intervenes.
a. Discount Rate 
The central bank lends money directly to other banks through the discount window. In the early days, this was the central bank’s primary means of intervention. It has come to play a smaller role in the modern environment. 
b. Open Market Operations 
This is a favorite tool of central banks. Open market operations is the general process in which central banks engage when they buy and sell debt on the open market. If the central bank purchases debt, it has increased the monetary base, usually with the expectation that this increase will promote credit creation. If the central bank sells, bonds, it diminishes the base money stock and, by so doing, discourages the creation of new credit. Most central bank policies imply an inflationary bias, so this latter case is less common. 
c. Reserve Requirements 
The central bank can influence the broader money stock by changing the proportion of commercial bank liabilities that are required to be held with the central bank. By increasing reserve requirements, the central bank contracts the total money stock. By decreasing reserve requirements, the central bank enables the expansion of the total money stock.
3. The Central Bank as the Lender of Last Resort

The lender of last resort role is probably the strongest justification for central bank management of the money stock. During a crisis, banks need liquidity. Under some banking regimes, private banks collectively established institutions that stabilized the banking system during crises (as we will see next post). The norm has been for governments to establish a central bank.

The central bank is responsible, not only for providing liquidity during a crisis, but also to manage the base money stock. This is of particular significance for the functioning of credit markets. If a bank or banks risks collapse, cannot acquire credit, and appears to be solvent, the central bank’s role is to provide temporary liquidity to the institution. This function provides stability to the system during periods of credit collapse.

a. Moral Hazard 
The lender of last resort role creates a problem of second-order: moral hazard. In a system where stability is provided privately, provision of liquidity is constrained by expectation of repayment. This expectation is formed by the creditor’s local knowledge of the bank receiving emergency funds. In the private system, this role is decentralized as major players within different banking systems (networks) play the role of lender of last resort. The implementation of a central bank degrades this local knowledge and distorts incentives. Banks with relatively high levels of risky assets might not receive credit under the private system. They are more likely to receive credit under a system of central banking as 1) politics plays a greater role in allocating credit and 2) private bankers and investors may form the expectation that the central bank will always provide them liquidity. This encourages private banks to extend more credit than they would otherwise.
4. Relative Prices and the Flow of Goods and Currency
a. Fixed Exchange Rates (Gold Flows) 
During the years of the gold standard, this role was fulfilled by adjusting the base money stock according to business conditions. This might lead to fluctuations in the reserve ratio as well as gold flows. Under this system, exchange rates could not adjust to bring international prices to parity. Instead, prices denominated in gold were brought into parity by arbitrageurs.

One part of this process is the price-specie-flow mechanism. Let us assume that the economy is in equilibrium. If the central bank increases the portion of the base money stock comprised of paper money absent a change in the gold stock, this will tend (though not always) to promote credit creation and increase prices within the nation. This leads to discrepancies between the prices of domestic goods and goods from abroad. The discrepancy in prices encourages gold to flow out of the country to other nations where prices are lower and goods are therefore cheaper. Domestic interest rates are also depressed, thus encouraging gold to leave the country. Likewise, a contraction of the paper money by the central bank will lead to a domestic deflation which encourages the flow of gold from foreign countries into the domestic economy.

In the long run, the price of any like goods tend to equalize. This gives rise to purchasing power parity. Traders can earn a profit by purchasing goods or claims to goods in a country where prices are relatively lower and selling them in countries where prices are relatively lower. This shifts demand away from the more expensive goods and toward the cheaper goods which diminishes the discrepancy in prices. This long-run tendency is the process on which the law of one price depends. Anywhere where there is a discrepancy in the price of goods represents a profit opportunity. Consequently, in a gold standard world, gold has only one international price, deviations from which are constrained (Samuelson 1980).
b. Floating Exchange Rates 
For the most part, central banks no longer hold gold. They hold currency and debt, both foreign and domestic, as the large share of their assets. The effects that operated under the gold standard still effect prices, but these changes tend to be swamped by swift changes in exchange rates. If a central bank increases the money stock, ceteris paribus, then we can expect that prices will tend to rise on average. The currency loses value. If the exchange rate of the currency adjusts before domestic prices, then there exists an arbitrage opportunity for investors who purchase these domestic goods and sell them abroad. Under the gold standard, fixed exchange rates led goods to flow into the country as prices rose. Relatively cheaper foreign goods would flow into the country engaged in inflation. With no fixed exchange rate, however, the flow of goods out of the country whose currency has devalued relative to other currencies is the consequence of inflation.

5. The Federal Funds Rate

In the United States, the Federal Reserve sets a target for the Federal Funds Rate. This is the rate at which banks lend to one another, often overnight. Since new money first comes into possession by banks that sell assets to the Fed, this rate is relatively responsive to changes in the money stock.

6. Types of U.S. Government Debt

The Federal Reserve usually expands money by buying government debt. This debt is divided into 3 categories
a. Treasury Bills 
This is comprised of debt that matures within one year. These represent the bulk of debt purchases by the Federal Reserve. 
b. Treasury Notes 
Treasury notes include debt that matures in 1 to 10 years. 
c. Treasury Bonds 
Treasury bonds mature in greater than 10 years.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Money and Credit: Origins, Instruments, and Dynamics

Banking

When money first arises, agents must find a way to economize on cash balances. Agents can hold on to commodities, but this is a risky practice. Commodity money may deteriorate or be lost or stolen. Theft was especially a problem for those making long trips through the countryside. Holding on to cash balances is costly. Early on, agents realize this. Those with enough wealth begin to keep their money with a trusted third party. Historically, when gold came into use as money, agents left their gold at a warehouse in exchange for a deposit slip. These deposit slips served a role as a medium of exchange. If the warehouse has multiple branches, the deposit slips might be exchanged at another branch, thus increasing the marketability of the slips by diminishing agents’ incentive to discount the them. These slips are part of a more general class of money known as fiduciary currency (the root of the word fiduciary comes from the Latin word for “faith”). These are promises to repay.
                
Eventually, the keepers of the warehouses realize that they can lend the money entrusted to them so long as depositors do not rush all at once to retrieve their commodity money. This is fractional reserve banking. Banks hold some portion of their reserves (the money lent to them) while lending the remainder. This allows cash to be employed when it would otherwise sit in reserve. For depositors, this diminishes the cost of holding cash balances. In a gold standard world, for example, instead of holding and exchanging in actual gold, agents can exchange deposit slips. Meanwhile, they earn interest on the money that they have temporarily relinquished to the bank. This creates a tendency for the total money stock, which in our example is the total gold plus the total amount of deposit slips to fluctuate due to changes in demand to hold currency. We measure the relative size of the total money supply by comparing the base money stock to the total amount of money in circulation.

MT= MB / r
               
Where:
MT = Total Money Stock (MB + Liquid Credit Instruments)
MB = Base Money
r = Reserve Ratio (Aggregate)

The logic here is straightforward. Collectively, banks collectively form an aggregate reserve ratio. It is defined by the amount of currency they have on hand divided by their total liabilities. Monetary dynamics fall out of this identity. When banks extend credit on net, the reserve ratio drops. When banks contract credit on net, the ratio increases. When agents deposit currency on net, the ratio increases. When agents withdraw currency on net, the ratio falls (Hawtrey 1919).

We might also think of the reserve ratio as its inverse: the money multiplier. This represents the ratio of total currency to base currency. The ratio of currency to deposits plays an important role in this identity as it allows us to observe the effect of a change in currency or deposits on the money multiplier.
Mt = C + D
Mb = C + R
Mt/Mb = (C + D) / (C + R)
Mt/Mb = (C/D + 1) / (C/D + r)
Where:
Mt / Mb = Money Multiplier
C = Currency
D = Deposit 
*Other variables defined as above

Notice that the numerator is larger than the denominator as long as r < 1. This means that as C increases, the denominator grows at a faster rate than the numerator. The money multiplier falls under this scenario. Likewise, as the total stock of currency shrinks, the money multiplier grows. Similarly, as the amount of deposits decreases, the denominator, C/D + r, grows at a faster rate than the numerator. The money multiplier falls. As deposits increase, the money multiplier also increases.

Unspent Margin: Cash Balances, Money on Account, and Substituting for Available Credit Lines

Agents respond to the incentives of this relatively flexible system. We assume that agents economize on cash balances. That is, they decide to hold cash for several reasons. Agents receive income in discrete units, so they must build up reserves in preparation for periods where income has yet to be received. Agents also hold currency or deposit balances in order to hedge for risk. Last, agents deposit their currency in discrete quantities. (This was more important before the development of direct deposit and electronic quasi-monies.) Agents may economize on cash balances by leaving their money on deposit to collect interest. They may also choose to allot some wealth to long-term investments where it collects more interest than an ordinary demand deposit account. They may also choose to substitute an available credit line for balances of cash or deposits. By doing this, an agent may collect a higher yield from long-term investments while still having ample liquidity to deal with fluctuations in their own demand for money.

The unspent margin serves as analytical proxy for demand for money. First we must identify the unspent margin. “The unspent margin is equal to all the cash, whether in circulation or in the banks, plus the net interest bearing assets of the banks (Hawtrey 1919).” The unspent margin represents portfolio demand for money. In a world where credit influences the money stock, a net increase in loans by the banks will first have the effect of increasing the unspent margin. When credit is expanded without being exchanged for goods, the credit represents an increase in the money stock with an offsetting expenditure. Demand for money increases (velocity falls) as a result. A contraction of credit represent a fall in demand for money. Demand for money falls as agents relinquish cash to the bank and the bank fails to offset the decrease in liabilities. In either case, prices must adjust to in order to facilitate the exchange despite a change in the money stock.

It is from this pattern that Hawtrey made an observation concerning the relation between incomes and changes in credit.

Apart from this shuffling of debts, all the credit created is created for the purposes of being paid away in the form of profits, wages, salaries, interest, rents – in fact, to provide the incomes of all who contribute, by their services or their property, to the process of production, production being taken in the widest sense to include whatever produces value. It is for the expenses of production, in this wide sense, that people borrow, and it is of these payments that the expenses of production consist. So we reach the conclusion that an acceleration or retardation of the creation of credit means an equal increase or decrease in people’s incomes.


In the world that we have constructed thus far, exchange only occurs when both agents expect to profit. This implies an expectation of the lender that the borrower has or will earn the means to repay the loan at a later date. The borrower will typically produce goods or provide services in order to raise the income required for repayment. In a world of voluntary exchange, then, incomes rise and fall with increases and decreases of the credit stock as this reflects changes in the expected value of production.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Nature and Role of the Interest Rate

What is Interest?

When an agent owns wealth, whether in the form of a commodity or currency, he or she may decide to temporarily relinquish control of his or her asset in exchange for a return whose value is dependent upon the length of time for which the asset is relinquished. The value of the return divided by the original investment – the value of that which was lent – represents the rate of return. The rate of return implies a time period over which investment occurs. Typically this period is one year. If the rate of return is 10%, an agent who invests $100 or an asset worth $100 in year one receives a value of $110 in year two. The rate of return in this sense is a rate of return for an individual investment. We might weight the returns from an agent’s investments to calculate an average rate of return for an individual agent or we might attempt to calculate the rate of return for the market as a whole. The latter of these is known as the market rate of return.
                
When working with the rate of return, either for analysis of the past or estimations of the future, we use the equation for present-value. In its simplest form, we compound over one year (period):

PV = FV/(1 + r)

Where:
PV = Present Value
FV = Future Value
r = Interest Rate

We can use this equation to estimate the rate of return for any investment, monetary or otherwise. Alchian and Allen (1983, 108) show us that we might calculate the rate of return using physical assets. This is known as an own rate of interest. (For a discussion of own rates see this post from David Glasner). Imagine that we have 3 pound of grapes. That one pound of grapes might be sold immediately or they might be processed for a year and sold as a bottle of wine. Let us assume that, aside from time, this process is costless. In this case, the present value of the grapes is equal to the price they would sell for on the market. The future value is equal to the price that a bottle of wine is expected to fetch one year from the present. If the bottle of wine is expected to sell for $1.10 and the three pounds of grapes is expected to sell for $1.00, then we again have a case where the expected rate of return is 10%:

1 + re = $1.10/$1.00
1 + re = 1.1
re = .1

This calculation can also be performed ex post in order to compare the actual return to the return on another investment.

Recall that agents achieve profit by transforming the present state of the world into one that they prefer more greatly. Interest helps to expand this definition of profit. We can now imagine not only a transformation of the present state, but so also the exchange of expected states in the future. If an agent comes to realize a return that is less the market rate of return, she may choose to invest in assets whose returns she expects to at least match the market rate of return. This exercise in arbitrage is what drives the market toward an equilibrium state so long as expectations are convergent; that is, so long as agents’ expectations about the present state of reality and its future unfolding tend to cohere with one another. This is not an unreasonable assumption as those who fail to predict the future state of the market will tend to be out-competed by those who do. In the short run, extreme, even systematically destabilizing outcomes may occur. We should beware against ignoring context and process by turning belief in market efficiency into a tautology. (For more on expectations, see Koppl 2002; Koppl and Butos 1993)

The rate of interest emerges as a result of agents’ time-preferences. Given one’s context, an agent reflects time preference in his or her decisions to refrain from consumption or not. If an agent refrains from consumption and invests his or her wealth for a period of time, that agent increases the availability of loanable funds. Assuming normal conditions – i.e., the future is expected to look mostly like today – a typical agent demonstrates positive time preference. He prefers having goods in the present to having the same goods in the future. Absent other influences, this results in a positive rate of interest. It is possible that markets might arrive at a negative rate of interest, but this categorically cannot be the result of an inversion of time-preference where agents prefer a state in the future to an otherwise identical state in the present. This positive time preference leads agents to invest so long as they receive a positive rate of interest.

The other, secondary determinate of the interest rate is the productive sector. If agents are lending their wealth to other agents with expectation of a certain rate of return, then agents who are borrowing expect either to earn higher rate of return. If this expectation is incorrect, the borrower will incur a loss, and in the worst case, default. For now we deal with the first case. Time preference is reflected by the supply of loanable funds, investment opportunities determine the demand for loanable funds. If an increasing number of agents expect that rate of return in the market will be greater than the interest rate, the demand for loanable funds will increase (See Figure 1). The rate will tend to rise until agents, in aggregate, no longer expect a rate of return higher than the interest rate. Likewise, the interest rate will fall if agents, in aggregate, expect that the rate of return will be less than the market rate of interest. (This analysis may be further complicated by differing expectations for a variety of time horizons. For simplicity, I leave this case out.)

























Figure 1

Natural Rate of Interest

The interest rate plays a significant role in coordinating investment across time. Of particular concern in the natural rate. Wicksell explains,

There is a certain rate of interest on loans which is neutral in respect to commodity prices, and tends neither to raise nor to lower them. This is necessarily the same as the rate of interest which would be determined by supply and demand if no use were made of money and all lending were effected in the form of real capital goods. It comes to much the same thing to describe it as the current value of the natural rate of interest on capital. ([1898] 1936, 102)

The natural rate of interest is the rate of interest that would exist absent nominal factor such as fluctuations in the money stock or fluctuations in demand for money. The nominal rate of interest is thought to fluctuate within proximity of the natural rate and is ultimately bounded by the natural rate. In the long run, the natural rate constrains the viability of particular investments, although in the short-run profits might be made from investments that are unsustainable. If a tendency arises for unsustainable investment projects to receive funds, this will eventually be checked by liquidity constraints. A rising interest rate thus reveals this problem and forces funds to be allocated away from those projects.

Real and Nominal Rates

Interest rates are observed in nominal form. This means that the observed rate of interest can, and typically does, deviate from the natural rate, defined in terms of a real rate. In equilibrium, meaning all exchanges have been made and under conditions where perception and expectations cohere with objective reality, the observed rate is equal to the sum of the real rate and the inflation rate. This is known as the Fisher Equation

i = r + π

                Where:
                                i = Nominal (Observed) Interest Rate
                                r = Real Interest Rate
                                π = Inflation Rate


Through a process of trial and error, agent action factors the average rate of inflation into the money rate of interest. Within this construct, the money rate of interest converges with the natural rate of interest.

To sum, the interest rate is emerges as the result of positive time preference. Individuals value present goods over future goods. The interest rate tells us by how much agents, on average, these agents prefer the future to the present. A secondary factor of influence over the interest rate is the rate of return on investments in the market. If opportunities for profitable investment, in terms of dollar value, are expected to exceed the rate of return, this pushes the rate of interest upward. Likewise, if there is a general expectation that the value of investment opportunities are shrinking, this will push down the rate of interest. In the long run, the interest rate will tend to reflect the real return on capital. Nominal factors such as changes in demand for money and changes in the available money stock tend to produce short-run deviations away from the natural rate. These fluctuations tend to be limited by liquidity restraints and are mitigated by a short-run rise in the interest rate. In the long run, inflation will be factored into the observed rate such that observed rate of interest is equal to the sum real rate and the nominal rate of interest. Finally, the reader should be aware that this analysis occurs within a static framework and ignores complications that arise due to destabilizing events such as herding, distortions from Big Players, political, economic, and/or natural disasters, etc... These additional sorts of details require a careful study of history and the use of simulation to further our understanding.