Et Tu, Nick Rowe?

January 22, 2015 7 comments

Nick Rowe has another post about “red money.” I love these posts because they are very close to the concept that I am trying to advance regarding the relationship between money (which Nick sometimes calls “green money”) and debt (which he sometimes calls “red money.”) But I have two gripes with this one. One is his abuse of the concept of utility, which some people who have read me before may roll their eyes at, but since I have assumed the role of internet utility policeman, I can’t let it slide. However, I will save it for last. The other is his insistence that his red money is not a debt.

Now, what is this a theory of? It’s not simply debt, because debt is an asset of someone. Red money is an asset of no one.

This is purely semantic of course, but I kind of take it as a shot at folks like me who like to talk about debt, so I feel compelled to point out the fact that it is purely semantic and based entirely on an entirely unrealistic assumption of his.

This conclusion is based on the notion that the red money is not an asset of anyone. But red money is an obligation to pay real goods in the future to someone. It’s just that the obligation is to a group of people (future young people) rather than to a specific individual. Therefore, it is difficult to say that any particular individual holds an asset.

However, in order to make this work, he has to make the (unrealistic) assumption that people have to dispose of all of their red money before they die. In reality, if you had red money, in the sense it is described, people would just accumulate vast amounts of red money and then never pay it back (sell it back?). The reason for this is precisely the reason that Nick claims it is not a debt, namely that no particular person holds an “asset” on the other end of that debt which could require them to pay.

Nick, of course, is aware of this and he deals with it by assuming that there is some punishment in the afterlife for dying with red money. But this assumption only serves to take the asset out of this mortal coil and place it instead in another realm. So, if you want, you can imagine that God holds the asset on the other end of your liability and it will be him that extracts payment if you fail to transfer it to someone else before death, but that is not changing the fundamental nature of the debt.

Of course, in real life, this wouldn’t work because many people would not believe that God would punish them if they didn’t sell all of their red money. So if you wanted to actually make red money work in a way similar to what Nick describes, you would need to come up with some way to punish people on earth for accumulating too much red money.

One way of doing this would be to create some kind of entity, on earth, that would hold the asset on the other end of the liability which is red money. This entity could then take the goods from the old and transfer them to the young, along with the requisite amount of red money. Then you would have a specific contract with that entity which would require you to pay real goods in a given timeframe and if you didn’t, that entity could come after you for the goods. At this point, someone would hold an “asset” for each unit of red money, and I think it would be difficult to argue that it was not a debt.

Of course, if that entity didn’t want to deal with collecting and distributing real goods, they could also issue another kind of notes, let’s call them “green money” to the young, along with their red money, and they could allow the old to use this green money to cancel out their red money. Then the young would trade the green money for goods from the old and the old would use the green money to repay their debt to the entity which issues red and green money and keeps track of who owes what (which is another way of saying that they hold the assets backing the red-money debts). Then they wouldn’t have to bother with real goods except in the event that some old person failed to come up with the requisite quantity of green money in the allotted time period.

Now I have no problem with making unrealistic assumptions in order to make a point, but if the point you make is driven entirely by an unrealistic assumption and when you replace it with a more realistic assumption that point is no longer valid, then you have a bad assumption (or a bad point depending on how you want to look at it).

So whose model seems more realistic, Nicks, in which red money is “not a debt” but people always resell it out of fear of punishment in the afterlife, or mine, in which red money is a debt and people resell it out of fear of having their stuff taken by the issuer of that debt? If it’s mine, then maybe we should think about the role that debt plays in all of this and not dismiss it as an unimportant detail.

Now, regarding utility, it is becoming apparent to me that it is macro people who are driving this particular regression in economic understanding. And the reason is somewhat understandable. Put simply, it’s easier to just assume diminishing marginal utility in each period than to assume the correct thing which is that people have diminishing marginal rates of substitution between consumption in each period. If Nick had proposed the same model, with the same equations and said that, I would have no beef.

Notice that his utility function, also exhibits the latter property, and it is that property which drives the results, not diminishing marginal utility. To see this, you can simply plug in a utility function which has increasing marginal utility and also diminishing MRS (for instance (cy^2)(co^2)). So Nick probably thinks it doesn’t matter whether you say it his way or my way, and I would have rolled my eyes and held my tongue if he hadn’t gone on to say this [emphasis added]:

“Diminishing Marginal Utility. If U=log(C), then dU/dC=1/C, which is a decreasing function of C. Every extra apple you eat per day gives you less and less extra utility. So you would rather eat 10 apples every day, than 9 apples on even days and 11 apples on odd days. And 0 apples on even days and 20 apples on odd days, would be even worse. We want to smooth our consumption across time periods (and across states of the world, because insurance is motivated by the same thing).”

So it’s not just a convenient mathematical assumption he is making, he is justifying that assumption with a defunct philosophy, with no theoretical or empirical justification, which the profession discarded a century ago. (Please note that I am talking about DMU not consumption smoothing, which I have no problem with, but which can be generated by diminishing MRS without resulting to making conjectures about purely hypothetical things like “satisfaction” or “happiness.”)

This corrupts peoples’ understanding of a concept that is at the heart of much of economics and it is frustrating to those of us who have to try to teach people intermediate micro in the proper way (at least those of us who care about getting this right which, much to my consternation,  seems to be a dying breed, …..). I wish smart, reputable, economists, whom I know are capable of comprehending the distinction, could refrain from falling back on this type of logic.

So I’m writing Nick a citation from the internet utility police department. If he fails to correct the violation, there will be no consequences, since it’s a department I made up and I have no real power or sway with anyone. Except, of course, that a bunch of people may read your stuff and become confused about what utility means, or heaven forbid, become utilitarians. May their intellectual blood be on your hands. (Maybe there will be some penalty in the afterlife…)


P.S. Just for the record, I’m being smug here, I love Nick Rowe and I hope his afterlife is filled with nothing but happiness and satisfaction. But if it is, I hope he doesn’t describe it as a high level of utility.

Categories: Uncategorized

Reply to Mike Sproul

December 18, 2014 22 comments

Mike Sproul has a post on J.P. Koning’s site explaining the “backing theory” of the value of money.  I think that there is a certain insight about the nature of money in this, but it goes horribly wrong when it starts talking about backing.  I will divide my critique into two sections.  The second one is more important. I. Criticism of the existing theory I happen to be a fellow critic of the standard monetary model, so I’m not saying it is perfect but there is some carelessness apparent in the way Mike characterizes it.  Take this paragraph.

It’s reasonable to think that short selling of money is governed by the same principles that govern short selling of stocks. Specifically, the fact that short selling of stocks does not affect stock price makes us expect that short selling of money will not affect the value of money. I think this view is correct, but it puts me at odds with every economics textbook I have ever seen. The textbook view is that as borrowers (and their banks) create new money, they reduce the demand for base money, and this causes inflation. This is where things get weird, because the borrowers, being short in dollars, would gain from the very inflation that they caused! Nobody thinks this happens with GM stock, but just about everyone thinks that it happens with money.

First of all, he calls a movement along the demand curve a decrease in demand.  (He does it a second time later on as well.)  That may seem nitpicky but it is kind of a serious error in this context.  Changes in demand for money play an important role in all mainstream theories and none of them would say that such a thing is caused by an increase in the money supply.  Second, there is nothing weird about borrowers “gain(ing) from the very inflation they caused.”  Things like the price level, and interest rates are market prices.  They are determined by the individual actions of many people interacting with each other.  The idea that “borrowers” can somehow act collectively to borrow, cause inflation and then benefit from that inflation is deeply confused.  No theory claims that individuals try to create inflation by borrowing.  If the central bank does something that causes people to expect higher inflation, then the cost of borrowing and lending will adjust to take that into account.  To quote Scott Sumner, quoting Paul Krugman: “it’s a simultaneous system.” Then there is this.

If the textbooks are right, then the value of the dollar is determined by money supply and money demand, and not by the amount of backing the Fed holds against the dollars it has issued.

But that is not an either/or proposition.  Every market price is determined by supply and demand in some sense.  The question is what determines the supply and demand for money.  And this brings us to the biggest problem (except for part II).  Unlike a stock, the whole point of money is that it provides liquidity.  (There is a sense in which a stock exists because it is more liquid than other ownership arrangements but it is not created from nothing for the sole purpose of making it easier to buy other things.) Mike Sproul seems to understand this in his characterization of money in the beginning.

Alternatively, you might buy that house by handing your IOU directly to the house seller. This would put you in a “forward style” short position in dollars (figure 2). If you are well known and trusted, then your IOU can actually circulate as money. But normally a bank would act as a broker between borrower and lender, and the bank would issue its own IOU (a checking account) in exchange for your IOU. The bank’s IOU will circulate more easily than your IOU, so we commonly talk as if the bank has created money

And he recognizes that there is a liquidity premium in the comments.

But once silver has lost all its monetary premium, additional creation of paper dollars (through short selling) can’t cause silver to fall any further. At that point the backing theory would be fully correct. The creation of new paper dollars will not cause either kind of inflation.

So there must be some supply and demand for liquidity and these must determine the “monetary premium” on silver in his example and an increase in the quantity of silver credit decreases the level of the monetary premium by moving along the demand curve for liquidity.  (His last sentence doesn’t seem to make sense since it is the creation of new paper dollars which he is talking about causing “silver inflation” in the first place, but that’s probably not worth dwelling on.)  So I think it is misguided to argue that the price of money is not determined by the supply and demand for money.  Any attempt at explaining the value of money is really an attempt to explain the supply and demand for the same.  Declaring that these don’t matter is not a productive first step. II.  What is backing the money? The issues above aside, the real problem here is that Sproul is mischaracterizing the contract involved in the creation of money through credit.  When a company issues stock, the stock represents ownership of a portion of the company.  We can call this an IOU for the real assets and future earnings of the company.  So money goes from the buyer to the issuer and the IOU goes the other way.  Simple. When a bank issues money, the IOU goes from the borrower to the bank.  The bank creates the money “out of thin air” and lends it and the borrower promises to pay back the same thing–namely money.  So the money goes from the bank to the borrower and the IOU goes the other way.  The money is not an IOU from the bank for any kind of real good.  Mike Sproul is going astray by calling both things IOUs.

But normally a bank would act as a broker between borrower and lender, and the bank would issue its own IOU (a checking account) in exchange for your IOU.

But the role of money is the opposite of an IOU.  It is the means with which the borrower’s IOU must be paid.  There is no silver in this contract.  There is no promise to deliver a stock, there is no ownership in the bank.  The bank does not promise to redeem the money for anything except for wiping out the debt of the borrower(s).  So there is no underlying asset forming the basis for the value of the dollar (there is actually, but it’s not what Mike Sproul says.  I will come to that in a bit).  In a short sale of a stock, the stock is the underlying asset.  In the issuance of stock, the company is the underlying asset.  If we had a gold or silver standard, in which dollars were redeemable for gold or silver, then those things would be the underlying asset and everything Mike Sproul says would be right (except for the part about decreasing demand in part I).  However we don’t have that! So take this claim.

For example, if the Fed has issued $100 of paper currency, and its assets are worth 30 ounces of silver, then the backing value of each paper dollar is 0.30 oz/$.

And ask yourself what exactly he means by “assets.”  No matter what you answer, the above makes no sense.  For instance consider the following scenario. A bank is formed which has 30 oz. of silver.  It then invents a unit of measurement called a dollar and prints 100 of them.  Then it trades those 100 dollars for a promise to repay 100 dollars in one year (in other words, it lends them).  Now what are the bank’s assets?  Mike Sproul might say that their assets are 30 oz. of silver and therefore, you simply divide those assets by the number of dollars in circulation to arrive at the value of a dollar.  But this can’t be right because didn’t he say that they are like a short seller and if they create more money, it doesn’t diminish the value of the money? Of course, if you are an accountant, you might say that their assets are 30 oz. of silver and an account receivable for 100 dollars, and of course this would be correct.  But now how do you determine the value of a dollar?  You divide 100 dollars and 30 oz. of silver by 100 dollars?  Obviously that’s not mathematically possible.  Maybe you need to find the net assets by subtracting the liabilities of the bank.  In this case you get $100-$100+30 oz. of silver.  So their net assets are 30 oz. of silver because, as Mike says, they have a neutral dollar position.  They didn’t get any richer or poorer by this transaction.  But then what do we divide these 30 oz. of silver by, now that we cancelled out the liability?  If you answer that you divide them by the number of dollars outstanding, then you are back doing the same thing we established was wrong in the first place. Furthermore, what happens if the bank is laying some pipe in the back and they discover another 30 oz. of silver?  Does the value of a dollar double?  Does the bank now owe you twice as much silver for your dollar?  After all, that would be the case if GM found some silver and you owned the stock.  But money is not a stock!  It does not represent ownership in the bank.  The bank doesn’t owe you anything more than before, because they didn’t owe you anything in the first place except to extinguish your debt.  Whatever other assets the bank happens to have, have no bearing on the contract between themselves and borrowers because they are not part of the contract. The bank does not need to have any other assets to create money like this.  The bank can have no silver, make up the unit dollar, create 100 of them and lend them in return for a promise to pay them back in the future.  Then what is the value of those dollars?  How many of those dollars will it take to buy a TV?  Or an oz. of silver for that matter? That’s a serious question and mainstream monetary theory has a crappy answer.  But Mike Sproul is not answering it either, although, in a way he is getting close.  If you are selling TVs and somebody comes to you with those newly created dollars, assuming you know that their contract with the bank is binding and therefore, they will want to get them back in the future by trading you some real assets in order to repay the bank, how would you go about trying to determine how many of them you should demand for a TV? Seriously think about it for a minute before I tell you.  If I know anything about teaching (a big if) it’s that you gotta get them to consider the question before you answer it.  I’ll wait. . . . OK, ready?  You would want to know what will happen to the guy if he doesn’t repay!  Does he get his head chopped off?  If so, those dollars are worth a lot of TVs cause he will do almost anything to get them back.  You will be able to demand everything he owns.  If nothing happens to him, then you probably shouldn’t take them for any quantity of TVs.  But what if the contract says that if he doesn’t repay the $100 in one year that he loses his car?  Well then, in one year, you would able to demand anything up to the value of his car so you would probably be willing to sell him several TVs (depending on the car of course).  If it is his house, then you would probably sell him a great many TVs. Now imagine millions of people with debts like this all competing to  sell real goods and services for dollars which they can all use to retire their debts to the banks and keep their stuff and you have a modern fiat-money economy.  The quantity of gold and silver in the central bank’s vault has nothing to do with it.  If the Fed opened Fort Knox and there were no gold there, everyone would act outraged for a week and nothing would change. It is the value of the collateral securing all of those debts which is the underlying asset in the contract that creates money and it is the thread connecting nominal money values to real good values.  And this is the reason that this value can change over time, because the value of that collateral changes (both in the sense that the original collateral for a particular loan changes in value and that the value of collateral required for new loans changes).  So in some sense, of course, it is a relationship between the bank’s assets and liabilities that determines the value of the money, but I think that Mike Sproul is missing the relevant assets.  Money is not an IOU it is a YOM (“you owe me”).  If you have a loan, you owe money.  If you don’t pay, then you owe some goods which you pledge as collateral.  That is the asset that matters.

The Fisher Paradox

November 24, 2014 2 comments

There is a bit of a paradox underlying much of monetary economics. If real rates are independent of monetary factors, then a reduction in the nominal rate should be accompanied by a reduction in the expected rate of inflation (or vice-versa). Yet we typically observe, at least in the short run, that if the central bank lowers its interest rate target, it causes a higher rate of inflation. Of course, both old monetarists and market monetarists reconcile this by saying “never reason from a price change” (always good advice) and instead, reason from a change in the money supply (and expected future money supply), assuming sticky prices in the short run and then separate the effects on interest rates into the well-known liquidity, income and Fisher effects which allows for the real rate to change in the short run and for the nominal rate to go either way.

That’s all perfectly reasonable but lately there has been a school of thought emerging known as “neo Fisherites” who are bringing this issue back into the discussion. Nick Rowe (for one) has recently been taking them to task(here, here and here).

Now let me say for starters that I suspect everything Nick says about these papers is correct, and I’m not trying to defend them. I agree that denying that lowering rates raises inflation is contrary to all observations, and I suspect (though I haven’t read them yet) that his analysis of the specific papers as lacking in economic intuition and relying on strange assumptions to “rig” the results in favor of their prior beliefs is most likely spot on. That is how I feel about most modern economic papers I read, sadly. However, I think beneath the snow job and the tiny pebble of wrongness, there is actually a kernel of insight (or at least the pebble started out as a kernel before it got all mangled and turned to the dark side) and it is closely related to the stuff I have been trying to say. So I will try to flesh it out a little bit in a way that does not contradict everything we know about how monetary policy actually works.

Note that this actually began as a discussion of monetary and “fiscal” policy, which I intend to get to but I will put that off for a future post since just dealing with this Fisher paradox will be enough to fill a lengthy post by itself, but keep in mind that adding that piece in will be important for making this model look like the real world. (And also keep in mind that I don’t mean what other people mean when I say “fiscal policy.” Frankly, it’s almost tongue-in-cheek. All macro is monetary.) Read more…

A Reply To Nick Rowe on Robustness

November 22, 2014 2 comments


This is a reply to Nick Rowe’s post on the fragility/robustness of equilibria. For the record, I agree entirely with his overarching, macroeconomic point. I’m just nit-picking the technical details here (which I believe is what he’s looking for).

Here are Nick’s definitions.

Let G be a game, let S be a set of strategies in that game (one for each player), and let S* be a Nash equilibrium in that game. Assume a large number of players, and a continuous strategy space, if it helps (because that’s what I have in my mind).

Suppose that a small fraction n of the players deviate by a small amount e from S* (their hands tremble slightly), and that the remaining players know this. Let S*’ (if it exists) be a Nash equilibrium in the modified game.

  1. If S*’ does not exist, then S* is a fragile Nash equilibrium.

  2. If S*’ does not approach S* in the limit as n approaches zero, then S* is a fragile Nash equilibrium.

  3. If S*’ does not approach S* in the limit as e approaches zero, then S* is a fragile Nash equilibrium.

  4. But if S*’ does exist, and S*’ approaches S* in the limit as n or e approaches zero, then S* is a robust Nash equilibrium.

[This began as a comment on the original post so I will proceed in the second person]


I think the wheel you are reinventing is basically the idea of trembling hand perfection. I’m not quite an expert on that but I think I know enough game theory to go out on a limb here. So taking the definition from Wikipedia.

First we define a perturbed game. A perturbed game is a copy of a base game, with the restriction that only totally mixed strategies are allowed to be played. A totally mixed strategy is a mixed strategy where every pure strategy is played with non-zero probability. This is the “trembling hands” of the players; they sometimes play a different strategy than the one they intended to play. Then we define a strategy set S (in a base game) as being trembling hand perfect if there is a sequence of perturbed games that converge to the base game in which there is a series of Nash equilibria that converge to S.

I think the main difference between what you are doing and the TH concept is that you are limiting the errors to a “small fraction” of the players whereas the TH definition above assumes that all players have some probability of making a mistake.(also it assumes that all players know this not only the “non-trembling” players, which is only natural since there aren’t any such players.)

Now, I believe your game will pass both the traditional trembling-hand perfect criteria and your modified “robustnest/fragility” criteria for the same reasons, but let’s work with the standard modification since we don’t have to deal with two types. So let us assume that everyone chooses a “target” speed St and let each individual’s actual speed be Sti+ei where ei is an error with some distribution and assume that everyone’s errors are identically distributed and everyone knows the distribution.

Now there are two issues here. First, there is the issue of the number of players. If it is finite, I believe (though I haven’t done the math) that the game will break down even in its original form because when everyone is going the speed limit, any individual driver will be able to change the average slightly by changing their own speed and therefore be able to get paid by doing so and so everyone will want to do this. (Although, there might (in fact I bet there would) be an equilibrium where half of them drive over the speed limit and half drive under and the average speed is S*.)

However, if we assume an infinite number of players, then this won’t be a problem and the equilibrium (the one in question that is) to the base game will be as you say. However, now we have another issue to deal with.

First of all, let me say that the thing which makes TH difficult to deal with is the bit “there is a sequence of perturbed games that converge to the base game” which could mean a lot of different things. But let us assume that the sequence we are interested in is e converging to zero. But the problem here is that the thing that matters to each individual’s payoff is the average speed. And if the mean of e is zero, and everyone is choosing St=S* and there are an infinite number of them, then the average speed Sbar will always be S* and the equilibrium will work no matter what the distribution of e (so long as it is mean zero). This is because the distribution of sample means converges to the population mean as the sample size approaches infinity.  (And note that if the mean of e is not zero, I’m pretty sure they can all just adjust their target to account for it and you will still have an equilibrium.)

I believe this will be the case in your formulation as well since a fraction of the infinite number of players will still be an infinite number and the distribution of the mean of their errors will still be degenerate. So essentially we have an equilibrium that doesn’t work under any circumstances with a finite number of drivers and is not ruled out under any circumstances with our proposed refinements.

What we need in order to rule this out is some way of saying that the average speed Sbar might vary for some reason. For instance if there were some error e which were random but applied to every driver (like weather or traffic or something, or “real” shocks in the case of the macroeconomy), that would probably blow it up in a way that would prevent it from converging, although I think you might be able to find one, like I said above, where some people choose a target a bit over and some a bit lower than S* and the amount over/under decreases as the distribution of e collapses to zero, which could be said to be “converging to S.”

This is interesting stuff though, I’m glad you got me thinking about it. There is a sort of fundamental dilemma underlying this I think, which is that much of game theory (and economics) is built around finding conditions under which everyone is indifferent and calling it an equilibrium. For instance, any mixed-strategy equilibrium basically requires the payout function to be flat over some range of strategies. But that ends up looking a lot like the kind of thing you want to rule out when you start looking for some kind of “stability” criteria.

So what we kind of want to do is have a way of determining whether the nature of an equilibrium is such that if you “unflattened” it a little bit, each individual would have a maximum in the general neighborhood of that equilibrium that is somehow qualitatively similar as opposed to “unflattening” it a little and finding a minimum there which is sort of the case we have here. However, this is a highly untechnical way of putting things.

In this case, we only get an equilibrium to the base game there because we made the payoff function flat in that equilibrium by assuming an infinite number of players. But doing that makes other things “flat” in a sense (makes the distribution of the average speed collapse to the target speed) which makes it hard to rule out. What I think you and I would both like to say is something like “let’s assume a ‘large’ number of players such that the effect each of their speeds has on the average is functionally zero but that there is still some random variation in the average.” Then we could say that even a slight variation in the average would torpedo the equilibrium and we would be happy. But man it’s hard to do that rigorously! (I had a similar problem in my dissertation which I never really solved.)

Another thing you could probably do for this particular case is put it in the context of a dynamic game and put some restriction on peoples’ beliefs like: everyone observes the average speed of the previous day and chooses their target speed based on the assumption that it will be the same today. Then ask what would happen if you had one day where the speed were slightly above or below the speed limit. Would it work back toward the equilibrium or would it shoot off to someplace else. Here, I think obviously, it would do the latter. It’s just that with an infinite number of players and an error with mean zero, we can’t get it to depart from the equilibrium in the first place.

Incidentally, I have been working on a bit of an apology for the neo-Fisherites. I agree about the “90 percent snow job with a tiny pebble of wrongness” analysis (great line by the way) but I think there is a kernel of solid intuition in there, it’s just being applied carelessly. I’ll have that soon.

A Modified Gold Standard

October 17, 2014 3 comments

David Gordon has a piece on critiquing Steve Forbes’ book Money. The piece is rife with confusion but I don’t want to do my usual routine and go line by line pointing out how each point is mistaken. (They never seem to respond when I do that, which is odd because I know they notice, I can see the hits…) For what it’s worth, I haven’t read the book but from what I can gather from the quotes in Gordon’s post, it is also somewhat confused.  This quote, however, got me thinking.

“[Forbes’] gold standard allows the money supply to expand naturally in a vibrant economy. Remember that gold, a measuring rod, is stable in value. It does not restrict the supply of dollars any more than a foot with twelve inches restricts the number of rulers being used in the economy.”

This got me thinking about how gold could be used as a “measuring rod” for money without being “convertible” in the traditional sense of the word and I think that thinking about it this way may help to explain the relationship between money and debt.

Imagine that you have an economy where physical gold is commonly used as money. A bank enters this economy and offers the following deal: You can borrow X “dollars” (a unit which the bank makes up out of thin air).  At some point in the future you must repay the same number of dollars or a given quantity of gold. Let’s say that the exchange rate is one oz. of gold per dollar so if you borrow 100 dollars, you can repay either with 100 dollars or with 100 oz. of gold or any linear combination of the two. The bank has only 1 oz. of gold which it keeps in the vault to act as the “standard gold oz.” like the official meter (or was it the foot?) that the French (or was it the English?) have in a vault somewhere. If you come in to pay off a debt using gold, it is compared to the standard oz. for weight and purity. Otherwise, the bank has no gold, nobody “deposits” gold and the bank does not stand ready to sell gold for dollars or dollars for gold in the traditional sense of “convertibility.”

Furthermore, assume that the contract specifies that, if the borrower does not pay the appointed quantity of dollars and/or gold by the specified date, that the bank (by way of the courts and police) will seize real goods from the borrower which can be traded for the requisite quantity of gold. And assume that only people who can post sufficient collateral are allowed to borrow so that nobody can default.

Now, first question: How much “money” (dollars) can the bank create?

Answer: As much as people are willing to borrow.

Of course, people will only be willing to borrow these dollars if other people are willing to take them in exchange for goods. So does it make sense for people to take these dollars even though they are not “convertible” in the traditional sense into any “real” good?



Because the dollars are convertible. The person who borrows them and spends them today will need to get them back, or else get gold back, or else forfeit some quantity of real goods at some point in the future. They are contractually obligated to do this. So if somebody comes to you and wants to buy seed corn with these dollars and you understand the contract that they signed with the bank and you believe that this contract will be enforced, you can accept the dollars and hold them until the loan comes due and be assured that the borrower will be willing to trade you some portion of his crop (or other goods) to get those dollars back.

Next question: How is the price of a dollar in terms of gold determined?

First of all, let me say that what Forbes seems to mean by the “value” of money is the price of gold and this is what Gordon is erroneously interpreting as the subjective value of money and that is a source of much of the confusion in his criticism. But putting that aside, what forces are acting on the exchange rate between money and gold and how, if at all, is this rate “fixed?”

First of all, it should be fairly obvious that the price of a dollar cannot rise much above 1 oz. of gold. This is because only the borrower has an ultimate use for these dollars (paying off the loan) and he will not be willing to trade more than 1 oz./dollar to get them. If he had to pay 2 oz. (or other goods which he could trade for 2 oz. of gold) he would instead just use the gold to repay the loan.

On the other hand, the borrower will always be willing to pay up to 1 oz./dollar because if he can get dollars cheaper than that, then the difference represents a surplus to the borrower. (If you are imagining a kind of hold-up problem, just imagine that there are a hundred borrowers bidding for the dollars.)

So this type of “convertibility” should fix the exchange rate between gold and dollars right around the rate specified in the debt contract. This does not depend on the quantity of dollars that are created this way, the quantity of gold in bank vaults or the quantity of gold relative to other goods.

Now if there is some liquidity preference for gold or dollars relative to the other, the exchange rate might deviate slightly in one direction or the other (and likewise for risk preference). The magnitude of the liquidity preference will likely depend on the quantity of dollars and gold in circulation so these things may have a marginal effect on the exchange rate between dollars and gold and this will factor into the interest rate charged by the bank and how prices change over time in a more complicated model but just ignore all that for now. And obviously, the quantity of gold and other goods affects the price of gold (and therefore dollars) relative to other goods.

The important point is that liquidity preference is not the sole (or even the main) explanation for the value of a dollar. It explains a small deviation from a certain value relative to other less liquid assets but it does not explain the existence of any value in the first place. That depends on the real assets which someone is contractually allowed/obligated (depending on how you look at it) to exchange them for. This means that it is the quantity of money relative to the quantity of debt which is the main anchor holding the “value” of a dollar in place.

“Well that’s all well and good Mike but there are no gold clauses in debt contracts so this isn’t how the real world actually works” I can hear the skeptics reply. But the skeptics are wrong. We no longer have a fixed gold “measuring rod.” But we still have fixed convertibility between dollars and real goods built into the debt contracts that create money. It’s just that the goods and the rate are not the same for everyone.

If you want to borrow money to buy a house, you put the house up as collateral. The contract specifies that if you do not repay a specified number of dollars by a specified date, the bank (via the courts and police) will seize your house (a real good). It’s the same thing.

We all (Keynesians, Austrians, monetarists, whatever) act like when they suspended convertibility of dollars into gold at a fixed rate for everyone, they severed all concrete (read: “contractual”) ties between money and real goods and money just sort of magically behaves as though it were still backed by something even though it isn’t.  That is not what happened.  They only severed one particular kind of convertibility into real goods.  But this does not require everybody to be able to exchange dollars for real assets at a given rate, it just requires somebody to be able to.  And the ability of debtors to “convert” dollars into real assets at a contractually fixed rate remains.

Of course, since this rate (and the particular goods) can vary from one contract to another, it is possible for the price of a dollar, measured in any (and for that matter all) particular real good(s), to drift over time and modelling that is a complicated matter which I have been attempting. But any attempt to model it which ignores debt entirely and assumes either that liquidity preference is all that matters or that there is no reason for money to be valuable at all except for some form of mass delusion is like trying to model the position of a sailboat based on the direction of the wind without realizing that the anchor is down.  The wind matters.  The length of rope and the depth of the water matter. But you can’t really make sense of how or why they matter if you don’t notice that there is an anchor involved.

“Negative Money” (A Variation on Nick Rowe)

October 8, 2014 Leave a comment

As I said recently, I have a bunch of outstanding business with Nick Rowe which I am trying to work through. Foremost on the list is a couple of older posts about negative money (Part I, Part II). This comes remarkably close to my way of looking at things, but let me make a couple amendments.

First, let me address another point on which Nick and I agree. Here is one of his comments on a different post.

Start out be assuming One Big Bank, that is both a central bank and a commercial bank. That issues only one type of money. And it does not matter if that money is paper or electrons. Now make an assumption about what the Bank holds constant: is it r, M, or NGDP, or what? Then ask your question.

I believe that one of the main mistakes people make which causes us to miss some important insights is to separate the central bank from the commercial banks and sort of lump the commercial banks in with the rest of the private economy as a facility that simply matches borrowers with lenders or something like that. The commercial banks play a key role in the functioning of the money supply and they have the special privilege, granted by the central bank, of performing this role. So let’s take the opposite approach and lump the commercial banks in with the central bank and treat it as one big bank.

However, instead of having it issue one kind of money, let’s have it issue two kinds: red and green. Anyone who wishes, can go to the bank and ask for some quantity of green dollars and an equal quantity of red dollars (and assume that the bank just keeps track of this in their records, as in Nick’s model, the actual paper currency is not the important thing here.

Then let us make two changes to the model. First, in Nick’s model, either red or green money can be used in exchange. Let us instead assume that only green money can be used. So instead of this.

. . . if neither the buyer nor seller of $10 worth of apples has any money, each goes to the central bank and asks for 5 green and 5 red notes, the buyer gives 5 green notes to the seller, the seller gives 5 red notes to the buyer, and they do the deal.

We would have the buyer going to the bank and getting ten red notes and ten green notes and trading the ten green notes to the seller. Notice that this difference is not particularly meaningful in terms of the model as in both cases the seller ends up with ten green notes and the buyer ends up with ten red notes. This does however, start to look a lot like how things actually work.

Second, in Nick’s model, the interest rates the bank “pays” on each type of note are constrained to be equal. Instead of assuming that, let us assume that the bank can only “pay” interest on red notes and the rate on green notes is constrained at zero. This means that the quantity of red and green notes will not be equal unless one of two things happens.

1. The rate on red notes is zero at all times.

2. Additional green notes are created and somehow distributed to balance out the red notes which are “paid” out as interest.

Now, if this doesn’t look like what really goes on in a modern economy, just replace “red money” with “debt” and “pay” with “charge” and it should start to look familiar.

This causes several things to start making sense. First, we have the whole issue of why, seemingly worthless bits of paper are stubbornly (and stably) valuable. They aren’t just meaningless bits of paper, they represent one half of a debt contract. Behind those pieces of paper is another half–red money, if you will–and a vast infrastructure dedicated to seizing your property if you hold too much “red money” for too long without producing the requisite green money to cancel it out.

Second is the issue of recessions. Once you look at it this way, it is easy (relatively speaking) to see that there are two separate but related “willingnesses” at play here. There is a willingness to hold red money (debt) and there is a willingness to hold green money (money). People hold green money until their marginal liquidity preference is equal to the foregone interest from lending the money or from “investing” in real goods. People hold red money until the interest rate on red money is equal to the marginal rate of substitution between current and future consumption. These are equilibrium conditions so there are a bunch of different ways to express them.  I tackled it more thoroughly in my model. The important thing is that there is red money and green money and people can hold different quantities of each depending on their situation.  If you only see (and your model only includes) one and not the other, you are missing a very important piece of the puzzle.

But since it is possible for the quantities of these two things in circulation to change relative to each other while they are still “convertible” at a 1:1 ratio, the real value of each type can change differently over time. And since the constraints involved in equilibrium involve expectations about these changes over time, those expectations can be wrong. And the important thing to note is that the expectation of the quantity (and therefore the value) of green money that will exist in the future is tied to the quantity of red money people are willing to hold in the future. In order for the quantity of green money to increase, people must hold more red money. If people decide to reduce their holdings of red money, they must “redeem” green money to get rid of it and this will reduce the quantity of green money.

That is, unless number 2 above happens. Number 2 is required in order to have the type of inflation expectations and interest rates that we have amount to a long-run equilibrium. Number 2 is what I meant before when I said “fiscal policy.” This is not exactly what other people mean when they say “fiscal policy” and that got me into a bit of trouble but the thing that I mean is the relevant thing whatever you want to call it.  (I’m still not entirely clear on what everyone else means by “fiscal policy”…)

If people expect some level of inflation which requires the (green) money supply to keep growing at some rate and we come to a point where the quantity of red money refuses to keep growing at a rate which will make that growth rate of green money possible, everything starts to fall apart unless the bank or the government or somebody finds a way to pump more green money in.

There are a lot of ins and outs and what-have-yous wrapped up in the last four paragraphs here but for a more careful treatment, again, see the model.

Walras with Money

October 2, 2014 2 comments

As I’ve been saying, in the standard Walrasian model you don’t get absolute prices, you get only relative prices and you have to apply an arbitrary restriction in order to make them look like absolute prices (like all prices sum to 1 or something similar) these relative prices can be multiplied by any scalar (“price level”) without changing the solution. So what if, just for fun, we try to add money in, make it an economy where all goods are traded for money, try to get a price level and see if we can characterize a general glut. This is, I suspect, exactly what most economists have in mind when they imagine a general glut and I assume it has been done before but I don’t recall seeing anyone put it explicitly in this context.

Let’s say you have an economy with n “real” goods and you also have money. The quantity of all of the goods produced as well as the quantity of money are determined exogenously. People only care about the quantity of each good they consume as well as their (average) real money balances (m/P) where m is the quantity of money an individual holds and P is the price level somehow defined. (For instance, we might let P be the sum of all nominal prices or the average nominal price or something along those lines such that we can characterize the price vector as a vector of relative prices–somehow defined–multiplied by the price level). So we have utility functions that look like this.


And assume, for ease of exposition, that this function is separable in money so that we can write:

Ux(X1,X2,…Xn)+Um(m/P)= U(X1,X2,….Xn,m/P)

And everyone has a budget constraint that looks like this.

Sum[Pi(Xi-Xi’)Pi]+ m-m’=0

Where Xi is the quantity of good i consumed, Xi’ is the initial endowment of good i, Pi is the price of good i and m’ is the initial endowment of money (nominal).

Now assume that you have a Walrasian auctioneer calling out nominal prices until every market clears. If you take out the money part and just have Ux() and the Xs in the budget constraints, then you will get a vector of relative prices that clears all markets. If you say that one price is fixed too low, then you get excess demand for that good and excess supply of some other good(s). If you then add to the model by saying that people change their demands for other goods in response to the constraint on their ability to purchase the good with the fixed price and you then have the Walrasian auctioneer call out prices for the other goods until those markets all clear conditional on that constraint, then you have what Nick Rowe has been talking about.

But if you have no money and the Walrasian auctioneer calls out prices which are all too high what happens? The answer is: that question doesn’t make any sense. Without money, he is only calling out relative prices. It’s impossible for them to all be too high. If the supposedly “too high” prices are all exactly half of the supposedly correct prices, then they are the same prices and the markets all clear. If the relative prices change, then you have a case where there is excess demand for some good(s) and excess supply for some good(s) and what happens depends on how you alter the model from the original to account for the persistence of this phenomenon.

In order to even consider the possibility of all prices being “too high” or “too low,” we have to change the model. We have to put money in. Luckily I did that already. So return to that formulation.

With money, the solution will be a vector of prices such that the sum of the excess demands for all real goods equals zero and everyone is holding their desired quantity of money. This means that the marginal utility of a dollar will be equal to the marginal utility of one dollars-worth of each good. This allows us to get an actual set of nominal prices (and by extension, a price level).

So let us assume that the relative price vector called out by the Walrasian auctioneer is the “correct” one (the one which would clear all markets in the case with no money). What if the price level is too low? Even if the real goods are allocated efficiently, the marginal utility of a dollar’s-worth of money balances will be higher than the marginal utility of an additional unit of some good for at least some people and they will try to trade dollars for goods. Since the number of dollars is fixed exogenously, they can’t all do this at once. There will be an excess demand for goods and an excess supply of dollars.

The only way to alleviate this situation will be for the Walrasian auctioneer to call out a higher price level. As he dos this, the quantity of real money balances will fall (the nominal value stays the same but the price level rises) and the marginal utility will rise. At some point, the marginal utility of a dollar will be equal to the marginal utility of a dollar’s-worth of any other good (since we are assuming the equilibrium relative prices) and that will be the equilibrium price level—the level at which people are just willing to hold the quantity of dollars that exist.

Conversely, if the Walrasian auctioneer calls out a price level that is too high, people will want to hold more dollars than there are and the only way to alleviate this is for the price level to fall. This is a general glut. If, for instance, the money supply contracts, prices will need to fall to bring things into equilibrium. If they can’t fall because they are “sticky” for some reason, then you may get a general glut in which the excess supply of real goods is offset by an excess demand for money.

Now does this contradict Walras’ Law? Not exactly. Since we changed the model, we have to change the characterization of the law before we can ask a question like that. If what you mean by “Walras’ Law” in this context is that an excess supply in the market for some real good, measured in dollars, must be offset by an excess demand in the market for another real good, measured in dollars, then no. If what you mean is that an excess supply of goods must be offset by an excess demand for something, potentially money, then yes. Is the latter characterization of the law meaningless? Maybe some would say yes but I think that a lot of people out there could benefit from carefully considering in what sense “Walras’ Law” applies in an economy with money and in my book, that makes it pretty useful.

For the record, this is pretty standard stuff, I don’t think I’m saying anything groundbreaking here. I also think there is more to the story but saying groundbreaking things is hard. I’ll get around to it eventually.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.