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Flexible Wages and Prices: Economic Shock Absorbers
At the same times that free markets are becoming an endangered species in our daily lives, they enjoy a lively literary existence. The latest stimulating exercise in free-market thought is The Forgotten Depression: 1921 – The Crash That Cured Itself. The author is James Grant, well-known in financial circles as editor/publisher of “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer.” For over thirty years, Grant has cast a skeptical eye on the monetary manipulations of governments and central banks. Now he casts his gimlet gaze backward on economic history. The result is electrifying.
The Recession/Depression of 1920-1921
The U.S. recession of 1920-1921 is familiar to students of business cycles and few others. It was a legacy of World War I. Back then, governments tended to finance wars through money creation. Invariably this led to inflation. In the U.S., the last days of the war and its immediate aftermath were boom times. As usual – when the boom was the artifact of money creation – the boom went bust.
Grant recounts the bust in harrowing detail. In 1921, industrial production fell by 31.6%, a staggering datum when we recall that the U.S. was becoming the world’s leading manufacturer. (The President’s Conference on Unemployment reported in 1929 that 1921 was the only year after 1899 in which industrial production had declined.) Gross national product (today we would cite gross domestic product; neither statistic was actually calculated at that time) fell about 24% in between 1920 and 1921 in nominal dollars, or 9% when account is taken of price changes. (Grant compares this to the figures for the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009, which were 2.4% and 4.3%, respectively.) Corporate profits nosedived commensurately. Stocks plummeted; the Dow Jones Industrial average fell by 46.6% between the cyclical peak of November, 1919 and trough of August, 1921. According to Grant, “the U.S. suffered the steepest plunge in wholesale prices in its history (not even eclipsed by the Great Depression),” over 36% within 12 months. Unemployment rose dramatically to a level of some 4,270,000 in 1921 – and included even the President of General Motors, Billy Durant. (As the price of GM’s shares fell, he augmented his already-sizable shareholdings by buying on margin – ending up flat broke and out of a job.) Although the Department of Labor did not calculate an “unemployment rate” at that time, Grant estimates the nonfarm labor force at 27,989,000, which would have made the simplest measure of the unemployment rate 15.3%. (That is, it would have undoubtedly included labor-force dropouts and part-time workers who preferred full-time employment.)
A telling indicator of the dark mood enveloping the nation was passage of the Quota Act, the first step on the road to systematic federal limitation of foreign immigration into the U.S. The quota was fixed at 3% of foreign nationals present in each of the 48 states as of 1910. That year evidently reflected nostalgia for pre-war conditions since the then-popular agricultural agitation for farm-price “parity” sought to peg prices to levels at that same time.
In the Great Recession and accompanying financial panic of 2008 and subsequently, we had global warming and tsunamis in Japan and Indonesia to distract us. In 1920-1921, Prohibition had already shut down the legal liquor business, shuttering bars and nightclubs. A worldwide flu pandemic had killed hundreds of thousands. The Black Sox had thrown the 1919 World Series at the behest of gamblers.
The foregoing seems to make a strong prima facie case that the recession of 1920 turned into the depression of 1921. That was the judgment of the general public and contemporary commentators. Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce under Republican President Warren G. Harding, who followed wartime President Woodrow Wilson in 1920, compiled many of the statistics Grant cites while chairman of the President’s Conference on Unemployment. He concurred with that judgment. So did the founder of the study of business cycles, the famous institutional economist Wesley C. Mitchell, who influenced colleagues as various and eminent as Thorstein Veblen, Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek and John Kenneth Galbraith. Mitchell referred to “…the boom of 1919, the crisis of 1920 and the depression of 1921 [that] followed the patterns of earlier cycles.”
By today’s lights, the stage was set for a gigantic wave of federal-government intervention, a gargantuan stimulus program. Failing that, economists would have us believe, the economy would sink like a stone into a pit of economic depression from which it would likely never emerge.
What actually happened in 1921, however, was entirely different.
The Depression That Didn’t Materialize
We may well wonder what might have happened if the Democrats had retained control of the White House and Congress. Woodrow Wilson and his advisors (notably his personal secretary, Joseph Tumulty) had greatly advanced the project of big government begun by Progressive Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. During World War I, the Wilson administration seized control of the railroads, the telephone companies and the telegraph companies. It levied wage and price controls. The spirit of the Wilson administration’s efforts is best characterized by the statement of the Chief Price Controller of the War Industries Board, Robert Brookings. “I would rather pay a dollar a pound for [gun]powder for the United States in a state of war if there was no profit in it than pay the DuPont Company 50 cents a pound if they had 10 cents profit in it.” Of course, Mr. Brookings was not actually himself buying the gunpowder; the government was only representing the taxpayers (of whom Mr. Brookings was presumably one). And their attitude toward taxpayers was displayed by the administration’s transformation of an income tax initiated at insignificant levels in 1913 and to a marginal rate of 77% (!!) on incomes exceeding $1 million.
But Wilson’s obsession with the League of Nations and his 14 points for international governance had not only ruined his health, it had ruined his party’s standing with the electorate. In 1920, Republican Warren G. Harding was elected President. (The Republicans had already gained substantial Congressional majorities in the off-year elections of 1918.) Except for Hoover, the Harding circle of advisors was comprised largely of policy skeptics – people who felt there was nothing to be done in the face of an economic downturn but wait it out. After all, the U.S. had endured exactly this same phenomenon of economic boom, financial panic and economic bust before in 1812, 1818, 1825, 1837, 1847, 1857, 1873, 1884, 1890, 1893, 1903, 1907, 1910 and 1913. The U.S. economy had not remained mired in depression; it had emerged from all these recessions – or, in the case of 1873, a depression. If the 19th-century system of free markets were to be faulted, it would not be for failure to lift itself out of recession or depression, but for repeatedly re-entering the cycle of boom and bust.
There was no Federal Reserve to flood the economy with liquidity or peg interest rates at artificially low levels or institute a “zero interest-rate policy.” Indeed, the rules of the gold-standard “game” called for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates to stem the inflation that still raged in the aftermath of World War I. Had it not done so, a gold outflow might theoretically have drained the U.S. dry. The Fed did just that, and interest rates hovered around 8% for the duration. Deliberate deficit spending as an economic corrective would have been viewed as madness. As Grant put it, “laissez faire had its last hurrah in 1921.”
What was the result?
In the various individual industries, prices and wages and output fell like a stone. Auto production fell by 23%. General Motors, as previously noted, was particularly hard hit. It went from selling 52,000 vehicles per month to selling 13,000 to 6,150 in the space of seven months. Some $85 million in inventory was eventually written off in losses.
Hourly manufacturing wages fell by 22%. Average disposable income in agriculture, which comprised just under 20% of the economy, fell by over 55%. Bankruptcies overall tripled to nearly 20,000 over the two years ending in 1921. In Kansas City, MO, a haberdashery shop run by Harry Truman and Eddie Jacobson held out through 1920 before finally folding in 1921. The resulting personal bankruptcy and debt plagued the partners for years. Truman evaded it by taking a job as judge of the Jackson County Court, where his salary was secure against liens. But his bank accounts were periodically raided by bill collectors for years until 1935, when he was able to buy up the remaining debt at a devalued price.
In late 1920, Ford Motor Co. cut the price of its Model T by 25%. GM at first resisted price cuts but eventually followed suit. Farmers, who as individuals had no control over the price of their products, had little choice but to cut costs and increase productivity – increasing output was an individual’s only way to increase income. When all or most farmers succeeded, this produced lower prices. How much lower? Grant: “In the second half of , the average price of 10 leading crops fell by 57 percent.” But how much more food can humans eat; how many more clothes can they wear? Since the price- and income-elasticities of demand for agricultural goods were less than one, this meant that agricultural revenue and incomes fell.
As noted by Wesley Mitchell, the U.S. slump was not unique but rather part of a global depression that began as a series of commodity-price crashes in Japan, the U.K., France, Italy, Germany, India, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands and Australia. It encompassed commodities including pig iron, beef, hemlock, Portland cement, bricks, coal, crude oil and cotton.
Banks that had speculative commodity positions were caught short. Among these was the largest bank in the U.S., National City Bank, which had loaned extensively to finance the sugar industry in Cuba. Sugar prices were brought down in the commodity crash and brought the bank down with them. That is, the bank would have failed had it not received sweetheart loans from the Federal Reserve.
Today, the crash of prices would be called “deflation.” So it was called then and with much more precision. Today, deflation can mean anything from the kind of nosediving general price level seen in 1920-1921 to relatively stable prices to mild inflation – in short, any general level of prices that does not rise fast enough to suit a commentator.
But there was apparently general acknowledgment that deflation was occurring in the depression of 1921. Yet few people apart from economists found that ominous. And for good reason. Because after some 18 months of panic, recession and depression – the U.S. economy recovered. Just as it had done 14 times previously.
It didn’t merely recover. It roared back to life. President Harding died suddenly in 1923, but under President Coolidge the U.S. economy experienced the “Roaring 20s.” This was an economic boom fueled by low tax rates and high productivity, the likes of which would not be seen again until the 1980s. It was characterized by innovation and investment. Unfortunately, in the latter stages, the Federal Reserve forgot the lessons of 1921 and increases the money supply to “keep the price level stable” and prevent deflation in the face of the wave of innovation and productivity increases. This helped to usher in the Great Depression, along with numerous policy errors by the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations.
Economists like Keynes, Irving Fisher and Gustav Cassel were dumbfounded. They had expected deflation to flatten the U.S. economy like a pancake, increasing the real value of debts owed by debtor classes and discouraging consumers from spending in the expectation that prices would fall in the future. Not.
There was no economic stimulus. No TARP, no ZIRP, no QE. No wartime controls. No meddlesome regulation a la Theodore Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson. The Harding administration and the Fed left the economy alone to readjust and – mirabile dictu – it readjusted. In spite of the massive deflation or, much more likely, because of it.
The (Forgotten) Classical Theory of Flexible Wages and Prices
James Grant wants us to believe that this outcome was no accident. The book jacket for the Forgotten Depression bills it as “a free-market rejoinder to Bush’s and Obama’s Keynesian stimulus applied to the 2007-9 recession,” which “proposes ‘less is more’ with respect to federal intervention.”
His argument is almost entirely empirical and very heavily oriented to the 1920-1921 depression. That is deliberate; he cites the 14 previous cyclical contractions but focuses on this one for obvious reasons. It was the last time that free markets were given the opportunity to cure a depression; both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt supervised heavy, continual interference with markets from 1929 through 1941. We have much better data on the 1920-21 episode than, say, the 1873 depression.
Readers may wonder, though, whether there is underlying logical support for the result achieved by the deflation of 1921. Can the chorus of economists advocating stimulative policy today really be wrong?
Prior to 1936, the policy chorus was even louder. Amazing as it now seems, it advocated the stance taken by Harding et al. Classical economists propounded the theory of flexible wages and prices as an antidote to recession and depression. And, without stating it in rigorous fashion, that is the theory that Grant is following in his book.
Using the language of modern macroeconomics, the problems posed by cyclical downturns are unemployment due to a sudden decline in aggregate (effective) demand for goods and services. The decline in aggregate demand causes declines in demand for all or most goods; the decline in demand for goods causes declines in demand for all or most types of labor. As a first approximation, this produces surpluses of goods and labor. The surplus of labor is defined as unemployment.
The classical economists pointed out that, while the shock of a decline in aggregate demand could cause temporary dislocations such as unsold goods and unemployment, this was not a permanent condition. Flexible wages and prices could, like the shock absorbers on an automobile, absorb the shock of the decline in aggregate demand and return the economy to stability.
Any surplus creates an incentive for sellers to lower price and buyers to increase purchases. As long as the surplus persists, the downward pressure on price will remain. And as the price (or wage) falls toward the new market-clearing point, the amount produced and sold (or the amount of labor offered and purchases) will increase once more.
Flexibility of wages and prices is really a two-part process. Part one works to clear the surpluses created by the initial decline in aggregate demand. In labor markets, this serves to preserve the incomes of workers who remain willing to work at the now-lower market wage. If they were unemployed, they would have no wage, but working at a lower wage gives them a lower nominal income than before. That is only part of this initial process, though. Prices in product markets are decreasing alongside the declining wages. In principle, fully flexible prices and wages would mean that even though the nominal incomes of workers would decline, their real incomes would be restored by the decline of all prices in equal proportion. If your wage falls by (say) 20%, declines in all prices by 20% should leave you able to purchase the same quantities of goods and services as before.
The emphasis on real magnitudes rather than nominal magnitudes gives rise to the name given to the second part of this process. It is called the real-balance effect. It was named by the classical economist A. C. Pigou and refined by later macroeconomist Don Patinkin.
When John Maynard Keynes wrote his General Theory of Employment Interest and Income in 1936, he attacked classical economists by attacking the concepts of flexible wages and prices. First, he attacked their feasibility. Then, he attacked their desirability.
Flexible wages were not observed in reality because workers would not consent to downward revisions in wages, Keynes maintained. Did Keynes really believe that workers preferred to be unemployed and earn zero wages at a relatively high market wage rather than work and earn a lower market wage? Well, he said that workers oriented their thinking toward the nominal wage rather than the real wage and thus did not perceive that they had regained their former position with lower prices and a lower wage. (This became known as the fallacy of money illusion.) His followers spent decades trying to explain what he really meant or revising his words or simply ignoring his actual words. (It should be noted, however, that Keynes was English and trade unions exerted vastly greater influence on prevailing wage levels in England that they did in the U.S. for at least the first three-quarters of the 20th century. This may well have biased Keynes’ thinking.)
Keynes also decried the assumption of flexible prices for various reasons, some of which continue to sway economists today. The upshot is that macroeconomics has lost touch with the principles of price flexibility. Even though Keynes’ criticisms of the classical economists and the price system were discredited in strict theory, they were accepted de facto by macroeconomists because it was felt that flexible wages and prices would take too long to work, while macroeconomic policy could be formulated and deployed relatively quickly. Why make people undergo the misery of unemployment and insolvency when we can relieve their anxiety quickly and compassionately by passing laws drafted by macroeconomists on the President’s Council of Economic Advisors?
Thanks to James Grant, we now have an empirical basis for comparison between policy regimes. In 1920-1921, the old-fashioned classical medicine of deflation, flexible wages and prices and the real-balance effect took 18 months to turn a panic, recession and depression into a rip-roaring recovery that lasted 8 years.
Fast forward to December, 2007. The recession has begun. Unfortunately, it is not detected until September, 2008, when the financial panic begins. The stimulus package is not passed until January, 2009 – barely in time for the official end of the recession in June, 2009. Whoops – unemployment is still around 10% and remains stubbornly high until 2013. Moreover, it only declines because Americans have left the labor force in numbers not seen for over thirty years. The recovery, such as it is, is so anemic as to hardly merit the name – and it is now over 7 years since the onset of recession in December, 2007.
It is no good complaining that the stimulus package was not large enough because we are comparing it with a case in which the authorities did nothing – or rather, did nothing stimulative, since their interest-rate increase should properly be termed contractionary. That is exactly what macroeconomists call it when referring to Federal Reserve policy in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, when they blame Fed policy and high interest rates for prolonging the Depression. Shouldn’t they instead be blaming the continual series of government interventions by the Fed and the federal government under Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt? And we didn’t even count the stimulus package introduced by the Bush administration, which came and went without making a ripple in term of economic effect.
Economists Are Lousy Accident Investigators
For nearly a century, the economics profession has accused free markets of possessing faulty shock absorbers; namely, inflexible wages and prices. When it comes to economic history, economists are obviously lousy accident investigators. They have never developed a theory of business cycles but have instead assumed a decline in aggregate demand without asking why it occurred. In figurative terms, they have assumed the cause of the “accident” (the recession or the depression). Then they have made a further assumption that the failure of the “vehicle’s” (the economy’s) automatic guidance system to prevent (or mitigate) the accident was due to “faulty shock absorbers” (inflexible wages and prices).
Would an accident investigator fail to visit the scene of the accident? The economics profession has largely failed to investigate the flexibility of wages and prices even in the Great Depression, let alone the thirty-odd other economic contractions chronicled by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The work of researchers like Murray Rothbard, Vedder and Galloway, Benjamin Anderson and Harris Warren overturns the mainstream presumption of free-market failure.
The biggest empirical failure of all is one ignored by Grant; namely, the failure to demonstrate policy success. If macroeconomic policy worked as advertised, then we would not have recessions in the first place and could reliably end them once they began. In fact, we still have cyclical downturns and cannot use policy to end them and macroeconomists can point to no policy successes to bolster their case.
Now we have this case study by James Grant that provides meticulous proof that deflation – full-blooded, deep-throated, hell-for-leather deflation in no uncertain terms – put a prompt, efficacious end to what must be called an economic depression.
Combine this with the 40-year-long research project conducted on Keynesian theory, culminating in its final discrediting by the early 1980s. Throw in the existence of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory, which combines the monetary theory of Ludwig von Mises and interest-rate theory of Knut Wicksell with the dynamic synthesis developed by F. A. Hayek. This theory cannot be called complete because it lacks a fully worked out capital theory to complete the integration of monetary and value theory. (We might think of this as the economic version of the Unified Field Theory in the natural sciences.) But an incomplete valid theory beats a discredited theory every time.
In other words, free-market economics has an explanation for why the accident repeatedly happens and why its effects can be mitigated by the economy’s automatic guidance mechanism without the need for policy action by government. It also explains why the policy actions are ineffective at both remedial and preventive action in the field of accidents.
James Grant’s book will take its place in the pantheon of economic history as the outstanding case study to date of a self-curing depression.