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The grumpier economist

In his generally thought-provoking blog The Grumpy Economist, John Cochrane refers to a recent paper and a paper earlier this year that he wrote. (The title of the blog, by the way, comes from the name his children teasingly gave him after hearing one too many of his dinner-table rants. I suspect it is how most children who have economists as parents think of them.)

In the earlier paper, “Toward a Run-Free Financial System,” Cochrane writes (page 4), “Our government should take over its natural monopoly position in supplying interest-paying money, just as it took over a monopoly position in supplying nineteenth-century bank notes, and for the same reason: to eliminate crises, which have the same fundamental source.”

Cochrane’s specialty is finance, not monetary economics, but I hold the University of Chicago to a higher standard here than such Podunk outfits as Berkeley (where Cochrane earned his Ph.D.) or Harvard. Even a Chicago professor whose specialty is elsewhere within economics should avoid gross errors of historical fact in American monetary history, given the many Chicago professors and students who have done so much to gather and interpret facts ignored by others.

First, government had no natural monopoly position in supplying bank notes. The federal government did not issue notes on a level playing field with privately issued notes and drive the private notes out of circulation. Rather, in 1863 the federal government passed a law requiring federally chartered banks to hold federal bonds as collateral against notes issued, and in 1865 and 1866 it passed acts imposing prohibitively high tax rates on notes issued by state-chartered banks and nonbank issuers. Even after ending the state bank and nonbank notes, federally issued “greenbacks,” gold certificates and silver certificates did not drive the notes of federally chartered banks out of circulation. They remained until finally prohibited by law from circulating further, in 1935.

Second, notes issued by the U.S. government in fact have historically had considerably higher risk of nonpayment than notes issued by U.S. banks. In 1933 the U.S. government defaulted on 100% of its notes with respect to the obligation to redeem them in gold. American citizens were not legally allowed to hold gold again no questions asked until 1975. In the meantime, the dollar had depreciated from $20.67 per troy ounce to nearly $200 per troy ounce.

Third, government control of the note supply was a cause of crisis in the United States, not a path to eliminating them. The “inelasticity” of the note supply in the late 19th century United States contributed to periodic financial crisis from 1873 to 1914. People wanted to convert deposits into notes, but government-imposed restrictions on note issue prevented them from doing so. The result, in those days when deposit accounts were much less widespread among the public, was a shortage of currency that prevented people from making payments and undertaking transactions they wanted to make, which were made by their counterparts in Canada and other countries that had looser restrictions on the ability of banks to convert deposits into notes. Even after the Federal Reserve began operations in November 1914, there was a note shortage during the Great Depression, as seen by the temporary increase, before further issues were outlawed, of notes issued by federally chartered banks. (Details about the regulations I have referred to are available in this old article I wrote.)

Enough of my own grumpiness for now. In a later post I will have some more general, ungrumpy comments on whether risk-free banking is really possible.