Scaling to New Depths* with Scott Sumner

by Mike Kimel

Scaling to New Depths* with Scott Sumner

I’ve been having a bit of back and forth with Scott Sumner. Here is his latest post, helpfully entitled: “A suggestion for Mike Kimel.”

His key suggestion:

“Please take a close look at the data from the Great Depression, before doing more posts claiming I don’t know the facts.”

He then goes on to point out he’s been studying the 1933 period for 20 years. From there he goes on to explain my first mistake:

He insists that FDR’s dollar depreciation program began in October 1933, even though all economic historians agree in began in mid-April 1933, when the exchange rate for the dollar began declining (against gold and against other currencies.) He insists prices began rising before FDR took office off, which is not true. He presents a graph that he claims shows prices rising before FDR took office, but his graph shows inflation rates, not the price level. In fact, the graph actually supports my argument that inflation didn’t turn positive until after FDR took office. There’s a difference between the rate of inflation and the price level.

OK. Let’s redo the graph showing not inflation but rather the price level. And I’ll keep it very simple… I will limit it to two points. Well, three, though the third is not exactly on the curve so to speak. As before, I’m still using PPI because its the publicly available source most closely related to the prices Sumner seems to be discussing, and I’ll use the graphics tool at the Federal Reserve Economic Database (FRED)

Figure 1.

The graph shows the PPI for February and March of 1933. FDR took office in March 1933.

As I noted in my previous post,

You can see the decline in prices halt and start reversing even before he took office.

Now, I don’t remember arguing that inflation didn’t turn positive before then. To me, its a big deal that PPI hit rock bottom and reversed itself. Getting out of free-fall was in itself a big deal. Here’s a graph for 1929 to 1934 to give you an idea:

Figure 2.

Note that February 1933 happened to be the low point for PPI during its entire history, and the PPI had been calculated since 1913.

But there’s another important point in the quote I provided above, namely this:

He insists that FDR’s dollar depreciation program began in October 1933, even though all economic historians agree in began in mid-April 1933, when the exchange rate for the dollar began declining (against gold and against other currencies.)

This isn’t quite right. As I’ll make clear, I don’t think the dollar actually depreciated against gold until January 1934. Sumner was so insistent on this depreciation occurring before then that I spent a bit of time on google and found a story by Jesse Jones, head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, about how FDR had him and soon to be Treasury Secretary Morgenthau help him (FDR) revalue the price of gold.

Now, I am not an economic historian, and I’m not sure I know any these days, so for all I know, Sumner is correct about what all economic historians agree happened. I am, instead a data guy. I like data. Scratch that. I love data. I go through data in my spare time. Most of the stuff I do at this blog, for instance, has absolutely nothing to do with my day job. Nothing. But its an opportunity to play with data. My wife usually scratches her head wondering why I do this kind of thing, but everyone needs a hobby and I don’t watch tv.

One thing I’ve learned with data is that its generally important to go back as close to the original source of data as possible. Another is to know something about your sources. Go through the data. Read footnotes.

So in that spirit, I decided to try see what I can learn by looking for data from the era or thereabouts, ideally coming directly from the folks who collect it. I have not succeeded in finding a series that shows what Sumner claims. In fact, data from around that era, particularly on gold prices, isn’t easy to come by. But I have found a few examples.

For instance, Table Number 230 of the 1936 Statistical Abstract of the United States shows the supply of gold in the United States on June 30 of each year (going back annually to 1887, and with selected years before then). The data seems to originate with the Treasury and the Fed, though I haven’t been able to locate the contemporaneous originals.

Footnote 1 reads in part:

By a proclamation of the President dated Jan. 31, 1934 the weight of the gold dollar was reduced from 25.8 to 15 5/21 grains of gold, 0.9 fine. The value of gold is therefore based on $35 per fine ounce beginning June 1934; theretofore it is based on $20.67 per fine ounce.

In other words a couple months after Sumner and other economic historians believe the dollar had started losing value against gold, the Fed and/or the Treasury were reporting to the Census (which publishes the Statistical Abstract) that the price of gold was still exactly the same as it had been.)

Now, its possible the Census or the Fed or the Treasury made a mistake and it went uncorrected by the time of the 1936 Statistical Abstract. So one source is not enough, especially when Sumner and “all economic historians” agree it is wrong.

Which leads to a Fed document called Banking and Monetary Statistics 1914 – 1941. This is from the section on gold (bottom paragraph, left hand column, page 522)

All figures are in dollars, calculated at the rate of $20.67 per fine ounce of gold through January 1934 and $35 per fine ounce thereafter (except that the figures for the year 1934 in Table 159 are based upon the $35 gold price). The change in rate results from the fact that on January 31, 1934, the dollar was devalued by 40.94 per cent in terms of gold in accordance with a proclamation issued by the President.

If you’re curious, $35 – $20.67 = $14.33. $14.33 happens to be 40.94% of $35.

The document is chock full of tables that show, including other things, the monthly value of US gold holdings. Where dollar figures are involved, those tables also carry a helpful note indicating the price as $20.67 an ounce through January 1934, and $35 an ounce thereafter. Note that the Fed valued monthly holdings at $20.67 an ounce in April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December of 1933 when, all along, according to Scott Sumner who spent 20 years studying the era and “all economic historians,” insist the price of gold had been rising at the time.

I’ve stumbled on a few other sources as well but they don’t look any different. I’m just not seeing the series that shows the dollar price of gold rising during the months from April 1933 to January 1934.

So what is going on? I’m going to split the baby here and suggest that both Scott Sumner and “all economic historians” are right that there was a devaluation, and the Fed and the Treasury and the Statistical Abstract of the United States were (and are) right that there wasn’t. But the way in which they are right is very definitely not a good thing for Scott Sumner and “all economic historians.”

See, as I said above, I’m not an economic historian, but I did spend my formative years in South American in the 1970s and 1980s. As anyone who spent roughly the same years in the region as I did could tell you, or as any Zimbabwean can do today, during times of turmoil (which can last decades) the official exchange rate can come to bear no relationship with the actual price at which a currency trades against something that is considered more stable and more desirable to hold. Heck, you don’t have to track down someone from Arrgentina or Zimbabwe – ask any European who ever visited the Soviet Block and traded in some Western currency at the airport or the border about how unrealistic official exchange rates could be. In many an economic basket case, the likelihood that a transaction takes place at anything resembling the official exchange rate is similar to the probability that someone walks into a Chevrolet dealership and pays the MSRP, in cash.

And like the MSRP, the official exchange rate has a purpose. Yes, there’s always someone clueless or coerced enough to pay that price. But for the most part, its a fiction that either serves as a baseline for something or papers over something the government wants to really do, usually printing money. Its a handy excuse to get from point A to point B, and if the excuse doesn’t fly, another one will do.

My guess, and I’ll repeat that I’m not an economic historian, is that when FDR and Jones and Morgenthau were picking prices out of the air, it was in that vein. The country was in turmoil when FDR took office, and there were fears that if things got worse there would be an armed insurrection. It wasn’t a time for half measures. My guess is the mood in the White House at the time was best summarized by a quote decades later from the immortal John Candy, “There’s a time to think, and a time to act. And this, gentlemen, is no time to think.”

So what did the fiction of changing the price gold accomplish if nobody else believe that the price had actually changed? I suspect it meant, in practice, that the Reconstruction Finance Corporation could pay more than $20.67 an ounce for gold. And why would the RFC (which, I note, could borrow outside the budget) want to pay more than $20.67 an ounce for gold if that was the price everyone was accepting?

Think of the RFC the way you think of the Fed trying to bail out banks in recent years – loaning money at below market rates to banks who then used the money to buy Treasuries which paid higher rates. In effect, paying more than $20.67 an ounce was a way to funnel riskless profits to banks. (Of course, the RFC often replaced management, but things have gotten permissive as well as more sophisticated in recent decades.)

Which brings us back to Sumner and “all economic historians” being right, at least technically. Yes, the currency was being devalued throughout much of 1933, but no, it wasn’t. Not really. There were a series of fictional devaluations that served a specific purpose, but which nobody else made believe was real (and its possible which almost nobody else was aware were happening – don’t ask me, I’m not an economic historian). Pretending otherwise, and using that fictional data to do an analysis is the equivalent of trying to understand the East German economy in 1974 using the exchange rates a traveler would have received at Checkpoint Charlie during that year.

* The title comes from a book put out by Mad Magazine in the 1970s or 1980s. Sorry I can’t be more specific – it has been a while

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