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12. Fisher’s Commodity Standard
The more the view regains ground that general business fluctuations are to be explained by reference to the credit policy of the banks, the more eagerly are ways sought for by which to eliminate the alternation of boom and depression in economic life. It was the aim of the Currency School to prevent the periodical recurrence of general economic crises by setting a maximum limit to the issue of uncovered banknotes. An obvious further step is to close the gap that was not reckoned with in their theory and consequently not provided for in their policy by limiting the issue of fiduciary media in whatever form, not merely that of banknotes. If this were done, it would no longer be possible for the credit-issuing banks to underbid the equilibrium rate of interest and introduce into circulation new quantities of fiduciary media with the immediate consequence of an artificial stimulus to business and the inevitable final consequence of the dreaded economic crisis.
Whether a decisive step such as this will actually be taken apparently depends upon the kind of credit policy that is followed in the immediate future by the banks in general and by the big central banks-of-issue in particular. It has already been shown that it is impossible for a single bank by itself, and even for all banks in a given country or for all the banks in several countries, to increase the issue of fiduciary media, if the other banks do not do the same. The fact that tacit agreement to this effect among all the credit issuing banks of the world has been achieved only with difficulty, and, even at that, has only effected what is after all but a small increase of credit, has constituted the most effective protection in recent times against excesses of credit policy. In this respect, we cannot yet33 know how circumstances will shape. If it should prove easier now for the credit-issuing banks to extend their circulation, then failure to adopt measures for limiting the issue of fiduciary media will involve the greatest danger to the stability of economic life.
During the years immediately preceding the Great War, the objective exchange value of gold fell continuously. From 1896 onward, the commodity price level rose continuously. This movement, which is to be explained on the one hand by the increased production of gold and on the other hand by the extended employment of fiduciary media, became still more pronounced after the outbreak of the war. Gold disappeared from circulation in a series of populous countries and flowed into the diminishing region within which it continued to perform a monetary function as before. Of course, this resulted in a decrease in the purchasing power of gold. Prices rose, not only in the countries with an inflated currency, but also in the countries that had remained on the gold standard. If the countries that nowadays have a paper currency should return to gold, the objective exchange value of gold would rise; the gold prices of commodities and services would fall. This effect might be modified if the gold-exchange variety of standard were adopted instead of a gold currency; but if the area within which gold is employed as money is to be extended again, it is a consequence that can hardly be eliminated altogether It would only come to stop when all countries had again adopted the gold standard. Then perhaps the fall in the value of gold which lasted for nearly thirty years might set in again.
The prospect is not a particularly pleasant one. It is hardly surprising in the circumstances that the attention of theorists and politicians should have been directed with special interest to a proposal that aims at nothing less than the creation of a money with the most stable purchasing power possible.
The fundamental idea of Fisher's scheme for stabilizing the purchasing power of money is the replacement of the gold standard by a "commodity" standard. Previous proposals concerning the commodity standard have conceived it as supplementing the precious-metal standard. Their intention has been that monetary obligations which did not fall due until after a certain period of time should be dischargeable, by virtue either of general compulsory legislation or of special contractual agreements between the parties, not in the nominal sum of money to which they referred, but by payment of that sum of money whose purchasing power at the time when the liability was discharged was equal to the purchasing power of the borrowed sum of money at the time when the liability was incurred. Otherwise they have intended that the precious metal should still fulfill its monetary office; the tabular standard was to have effect only as a standard of deferred payments. But Fisher has more ambitious designs. His commodity standard is not intended merely to supplement the gold standard, but to replace it altogether. This end is to be attained by means of an ingenious combination of the fundamental concept of the gold-exchange standard with that of the tabular standard.
The money substitutes that are current under a gold-exchange standard are redeemable either in gold or in bills on countries that are on the gold standard. Fisher wishes to retain redemption in gold, but in such a way that the currency units are no longer to be converted into a fixed weight of gold, but into the quantity of gold that corresponds to the purchasing power of the monetary unit at the time of the inauguration of the scheme. The dollar—according to the model bill worked out by Fisher for the United States—ceases to be a fixed quantity of gold of variable purchasing power and becomes a variable quantity of gold of invariable purchasing power. Calculations based on price statistics are used month by month for the construction of an index number which indicates by how much the purchasing power of the dollar has risen or fallen in comparison with the preceding month. Then, in accordance with this change in the value of money, the quantity of gold that represents one dollar is increased or diminished. This is the quantity of gold for which the dollar is to be redeemed at the banks entrusted with this function, and this is the quantity of gold for which they have to pay out one dollar to anybody who demands it.
Fisher's plan is ambitious and yet simple. Perhaps it is unnecessary to state that it is in no way dependent upon Fisher's particular theory of money, whose inadequacy as regards certain crucial matter has already been indicated.34
There is no need to criticize Fisher's scheme again with reference to the considerable dubiety attaching to the scientific correctness of index numbers and to the possibility of turning them to practical account in eliminating those unintended modifications of long-term contracts that arise from variations in the value of money.35 In Fisher's scheme, the function of the index number is to serve as an indicator of variations in the purchasing power of the monetary unit from month to month. We may suppose that for determining changes in the value of money over very short periods—and in the present connection the month may certainly be regarded as a very short period—index numbers could be employed with at least sufficient exactitude for practical purposes. Yet even if we assume this, we shall still be forced to conclude that the execution of Fisher's scheme could not in any way ameliorate the social consequences of variations in the value of money.
But before we enter upon this discussion, it is pertinent to inquire what demands the proposal makes concerning business practice.
If it is believed that the effects of variations in the value of money on long-term credit transactions are compensated by variations in the rate of interest, then the adoption of a commodity standard based on the use of index numbers as a supplement to the gold standard must be regarded as superfluous. But, in any case, this is certainly not true of gradual variations in the value of money of which neither the extent nor even the direction can be foreseen; the depreciation of gold which has gone on since toward the end of the nineteenth century has hardly found any expression at all in variations in the rate of interest. Thus, if it were possible to find a satisfactory solution of the problem of measuring variations in the value of money, the adoption of a tabular for long-term credit transactions (the decision as to the employment of the index being left to the parties to each particular contract) could by no means be regarded as superfluous. But the technical difficulties in the way are so great as to be insurmountable. The scientific inadequacy of all methods of calculating index numbers means that there can be no "correct" one and therefore none that could command general recognition. The choice among the many possible methods which are all equally inadequate from the purely theoretical point of view is an arbitrary one. Now since each method will yield a different result, the opinions of debtors and creditors concerning them will differ also. The different solutions adopted, in the law or by the administrative authority responsible for calculating the index numbers, as the various problems arise will constitute a new source of uncertainty in long-term credit transactions—an uncertainty that might affect the foundations of credit transactions more than variations in the value of gold would.
All this would be true of Fisher's proposals also insofar as they concern long-term credit transactions. Insofar as they concern short-term credit transactions, it must be pointed out that even under the present organization of the monetary system future fluctuations of the value of money are not ignored. The difficulty about taking account of future variations in the value of money in long-term credit transactions lies in the impossibility of foreknowing the direction and extent of long-period variations even with only relative certainty. But for shorter periods, over weeks and even over periods of a few months, it is possible to a certain extent to foretell the movement of the commodity-price level; and this movement consequently is allowed for in all transactions involving short-term credit. The money-market rate of interest, as the rate of interest in the market for short-term investments is called, expresses among other things the opinion of the business world as to imminent variations in commodity prices. It rises with the expectation of a rise in prices and falls with the expectation of a fall in prices. In those commercial agreements in which interest is explicitly allowed for there would be no particular difficulty under Fisher's scheme in making the necessary adjustment of business technique; the only adjustment that would be necessary in the new circumstances would be to leave out of account all considerations of variations in the commodity-price level in future calculations of the rate of interest. But the matter is somewhat more complicated in those transactions in which an explicit rate of interest does not appear, but is allowed for implicitly in some other terms of the agreement.
An example of a case of purchase on credit will assist the discussion of this point. Let us assume that in such a case the index number over a period of five successive months rises each month in arithmetical progression by one percent of the index number proper to the first month, as shown in the following table:
|Month||Index No.||Quantity of fine gold for which a dollar may be redeemed, in hundredths of a gramme|
A person who had bought commodities in February on three months' credit would have to pay back in May .048 of a gram of fine gold for every dollar over and above the gold content of the dollars in which he had made the bargain. Now according to present practice, the terms of the transaction entered into in February would make allowance for the expected general rise of prices; in the purchase then determined the views held by the buyer and the seller as to immediate probabilities concerning future prices would already be expressed. Now since under Fisher's plan the purchase price would still have to be settled by payment of the agreed number of dollars, this rise of prices would be allowed for a second time. Clearly this will not do. In other words, the present ordinary practice concerning purchases on credit and other credit transactions must be modified.
All that a person will have to do after the introduction of the commodity standard, who would have bought a commodity in January on three months' credit at $105 under a simple gold standard, is to take account of the expected fluctuations in the value of gold in a different way in order not to buy dearer than he would have bought in gold dollars. If he correctly foresees these fluctuations as amounting to three dollars, then he would have to agree to pay a purchase price of only (160 × 105)/164.8 dollars = 101.94 dollars. Fisher's project makes a different technique necessary in business; it cannot be claimed that this technique would be any simpler than that used under the pure gold standard. Both with and without Fisher's plan it is necessary for buyers and sellers to allow for variations in the general level of prices as well as for the particular variations in the prices of the commodities in which they deal; the only difference is in the method by which they evaluate the result of their speculative opinion.
We can thus see what value Fisher's scheme has as far as the consequences of variations in the value of money arising in connection with credit transactions are concerned. For long-term credit transactions, in which Fisher's scheme is no advance on the old and oft-discussed tabular standard which has never been put into execution because of its disadvantages, the use of the commodity standard as a supplement to the gold standard is impracticable because of the fundamental inadequacy of all methods of calculating index numbers. For short-term credit transactions, in which variations in the value of money are already taken account of in a different way, it is superfluous.
But variations in the objective exchange value of money have another kind of social consequence, arising from the fact that they are not expressed simultaneously and uniformly with regard to all commodities and services. Fisher's scheme promises no relief at all from consequences of this sort; Fisher, indeed, never refers to this kind of consequence of variations in the value of money and seems to be aware only of such effects as arise from their reactions on debt relationships contracted in terms of money.
However it may be calculated, an index number expresses nothing but an average of price variations. There will be prices that change more and prices that change less than the calculated average amount; and there will even be prices that change in the opposite direction. All who deal in those commodities whose prices change differently from the average will be affected by variations in the objective exchange-value of gold in the way already referred to (part 2, chap. 12, secs. 3 and 4), and the adjustment of the value of the dollar to the average movement of commodity prices as expressed in the chosen index number will be quite unable to affect this. When the value of gold falls, there will be persons who are favored by the fact that the rise in prices begins earlier for the commodities that they sell than for the commodities that they have to buy; and on the other hand there will be persons whose interests suffer because of the fact that they must continue to sell the commodities in which they deal at the lower prices corresponding to earlier circumstances although they already have to buy at the higher prices. Even the execution of Fisher's proposal could not cause the variations in the value of money to occur simultaneously and uniformly in relation to all other economic goods.
Thus, the social consequences of variations in the value of money could not be done away with even with the help of Fisher's commodity standard.
- 33. [It should be remembered that this was written in 1924. H.E.B.]
- 34. See pp. 143 f. Fisher particularly refers to this independence (Stabilizing the Dollar [New York, 1920], p. 90) and Anderson similarly affirms it, although in his book The Value of Money he has most severely criticized Fisher's version of the quantity theory of money. See Anderson, The Fallacy of "The Stabilized Dollar" (New York, 1920), pp. 6 f.
- 35. See pp. 187 ff. and 201 ff.