«April 2011 Cordelius Ilgmann Centrum für angewandte Wirtschaftsforschung University of Muenster Am Stadtgraben 9 D-48143 Münster Germany ...»
Silvio Gesell: ‘a strange, unduly neglected’
Centrum für angewandte Wirtschaftsforschung
University of Muenster
Am Stadtgraben 9
Given the renewed interest in negative interest rates as method for removing the floor to
nominal interest rates, this article offers a concise review of Gesell’s life, work and its place in the
history of economic thought. It provides a brief biographical sketch of Gesell, demonstrating both his relative prominence as a social reformer during the interwar years as well as his close affiliation with anarchism. The article then gives a concise summary of Gesell’s theory of effective demand and interest as expounded in the Natural Economic Order, the former being neglected by most scholars working on the subject. Finally, it is demonstrated that Keynes endorsement of Gesell as ‘a strange, unduly neglected prophet’ is another piece of evidence for rejecting Hick’s classic interpretation of the General Theory. If one takes Keynes extensive discussion of Gesell’s theory of interest as a key for understanding the General Theory, Keynes main innovation of General Theory becomes a monetary theory of interest based on uncertainty that results in liquidity preference. The limited literature on Keynes’ link to Gesell, published mainly in the 1940s, has however been widely ignored in the debate about the General Theory.
History of Economic Thought, Theory of Interest, Negative Interest Rates, John Maynard Keynes, Silvio Gesell JEL Codes: B19, B22, B31, E49, The author is indebted to Dr. Brian Bloch for his comprehensive editing of the manuscript and to Prof. Dr. Ulrich van Suntum for suggesting Gesell as a research topic and for his helpful advice.
Introduction When the financial crisis engulfed the world economy in 2007/2008, central banks around the world were quick to respond by lowering nominal interest rates drastically. However, when the financial turmoil after the bankruptcy of Lehman hit the real economy in 2009, most developed countries were already close to the zero bound to nominal interest rates, at which conventional monetary policy becomes useless in lowering real interest rates and stimulating effective demand.
Worse, if deflation persists in such an environment, the real interest rate on money surges in the middle of the recession. 2 Thus, the monetary authorities turned to what was labelled ‘unconventional’ monetary policy, a combination of ‘qualitative and quantitative easing’ (Buiter, 2008a), policies with which central banks affect asset prices and financial conditions by balance sheet policy in contrast to conventional interest rate policy. Although it is hard to argue that these policies were ineffective in avoiding a deflationary crisis, they have some potentially serious side-effects such as a distortion of competition as they favour some borrowers over others or the financing of public debt with the ensuing risk of inflation (Borio and Disyatat, 2010, pp. 85-86).
Given this dilemma, some prominent economists have advocated a different solution. For example, Gregory Mankiw (2009), in an article in the New York Times, reflected on the possibility of negative interest rates via a periodic taxation or partial confiscation of base money. Seeing the nominal value of their money balances shrinking over time, money holders would be willing to lend out their money even at negative lending rates if these are still higher than the implied negative return on their money holdings. If the asymmetry in the domain over which the interest rate can be set by the monetary authorities is removed by such a scheme, central banks would in fact be able to combat recession and deflation via conventional monetary policy, avoiding the perils associated with balance sheet operations. Indeed, in an internal study, the Federal Reserve Bank specified the ideal This can be interpreted as deflationary spiral ‘where inflation and expected inflation fall, nominal interest rates at some point come up against the zero bound, real interest rates rise, aggregate demand and expected inflation fall even further, real rates rise by yet more, and so on’ (Yates, 2004, p. 427).
interest rate at minus five percent (Guha, 2009) and the Swedish Central bank actually cut its deposit rate to minus 0.25 % at the height of the crisis (Sveriges Riksbank, 2009). Hence, the financial crisis started a monetary policy debate that took place mainly in the blogosphere, in parliamentary or congressional evidence or in speeches (see for further references Buiter, 2009, p. 216). What had been the domain of few monetary economists came to the attention of a wider audience. 3 Substantial negative rates are today an impossibility because in the current monetary regime there is a limit to the negative rate which can be set, which is given by the zero nominal interest rate on cash (coins and notes) and their storage costs. This floor to rates is called the zero bound to nominal interest rates. It exists because coins and notes are bearer instruments as opposed to registered instruments such as bank accounts (Buiter, 2009, p. 214). Indeed, deducting negative interest from commercial bank reserves or any form of registered account is as trivial as collecting positive interest (Buiter & Panigirtzoglou, 2003, p. 730). However, this cannot be done with coins and bank notes, because these are anonymous bearer bonds and their transfer is not registered. Forcing the anonymous holders of notes 4 to pay the interest due is thus impossible, at least with the current form of money. Hence, any attempt to levy negative interest on registered accounts above the carry and storage costs of notes would cause substitution of the former by the latter, given that they are perfect substitutes in the provision of liquidity. Thus, if one wishes to set negative nominal interest rates, it is necessary to submit the whole monetary base to negative interest rates, including of course notes.
In this context, a handful of authors have taken up the idea of a periodic tax on money as a means of overcoming the zero bound on interest rates, which renders monetary policy useless in fighting deflation and recession, as for example, in Goodfriend (2000), Buiter and Panigirtzoglou See for further references Buiter (2009, p. 5). A review of monetary policy at the zero bound is given by Ullersma (2002) and Yates (2004).
In the literature, coins are not considered in the analysis since they are only available in small denomination and thus storing large sums of money in coins would incur high storage cost and thus allow for a relatively high negative rate of interest (Goodfriend, 2000, pp. 1015).
(2001; 2003), Fukao (2005) and Buiter (2005a,b; 2007; 2009). In doing so, they trace the origin of the proposal back to Silvio Gesell, a prominent social reformer of the interwar period, whose thoughts inspired a social movement that exists to this day. He was the first to propose negative nominal interest rates by imposing a periodic tax on money, which was to be collected via stamps that were to be purchased from the monetary authorities and had to be affixed to bank notes if they were to remain legal tender. Today, there are technically more elaborate ways of imposing this tax on notes (Goodfriend, pp. 1016-1017) and a periodic tax is not the only feasible alternative. 6 Nevertheless, only if the zero bound is removed, central banks will be able to set negative interest rates to revive borrowing and to stimulate demand via interest rate policy in times of recession and deflation.
Neither the problem nor the proposed solution is new at all. During the Great Depression, two of the most prominent economist of the period, Irving Fisher and John Maynard, were also concerned about the effectiveness of monetary policy in a deflationary crisis. Fisher (1933a) for his part noted that debt-deflation leads to a fall in nominal interest rates while at least the real interest rate on money holdings rises, a fact that leads to hoarding and slowing down of the velocity of circulation of money, which in turn further depresses prices and economic activity. In this context, Fisher (1933b) advocated the introduction of stamp scrip, money whose nominal value would shrink over time. This would reduce the real interest rate on money and increase its velocity of circulation, thereby reflating the economy (Pavanelli, 2004, pp. 293-295). However, while Fisher remained critical of Gesell’s theory, 7 Keynes took the opposite stand. He thought stamp scrip to be ‘not feasible’ in the way Gesell proposed it, but insisted that ‘the idea behind stamped money is sound’ (Keynes, 1936, p.
357). In fact, Keynes (1936. pp. 353-358) devoted five entire pages to the theory of Gesell whom he Gesell (1958, pp. 266-276) proposed that a stamp worth a thousandth of the note’s face value had to be attached to it once a week, amounting to an annual depreciation rate of approximately 5 %.
Buiter (2007; 2009b) has even proposed two more rather simple ways for removing the zero bound: decoupling the numeráire and payment function of currency and abolishing coins and notes completely.
Fisher stated that ‘there is much in Gesell's philosophy to which, as an economist, I cannot subscribe, especially his theory of interest; but Stamp Scrip, I believe, can, in the present emergency, be made at least as useful an invention as Manuel Garcia's [a singer] laryngoscope’ (Fisher, 1933, pp. 17 [my emphasis]). This is not surprising since Fisher anchored his theory of interest on time preference (Fisher, 1930).
characterised as a ‘strange, unduly neglected prophet whose work contains flashes of deep insight and who only failed to reach down to the essence of the matter ’ (Keynes, 1936, p. 353).
Given that today’s proponents of negative interest rates have little to say about Gesell’s merits as theorist, one wonders why Keynes extensively praised this German autodidactic economist for his theoretical insights. 8 It seems rather unlikely that this was just another detour 9 as some might claim.
Indeed, Keynes closes his chapter Notes on Mercantilism by stating yet again that Gesell belongs to ‘the brave army of heretics, who, following their intuitions, have preferred to see the truth obscurely and imperfectly rather than to maintain error, […]’ (Keynes, 1936, p. 371). Even more, Gesell is the only theorist explicitly mentioned in the conclusion – hardly a supplementary chapter – of the General Theory and yet again Keynes (1936, p. 379) agrees with him on ultimate end of state intervention: the creation of an economy in which the free forces of production can be employed at maximum output. 10 Given the extended and positive nature of these remarks, it is unlikely that they came out of the clear blue sky. 11 Indeed, it is far more likely that Keynes used the repeated references to Gesell – and other monetary heretics such as Malthus – to highlight the parts of his analysis where he differed from what he called ‘classical economics’. 12 This is supported by the fact that Keynes (1936, p. 353) claimed that the significance of Gesell’s intuitions become only evident to him once he had reached his own conclusions in his own way. Therefore, although not impossible, it seems unlikely that Gesell had a direct influence on Keynes thinking. Rather – I believe – Keynes referred to Gesell in order to highlight the new ideas he advanced. Indeed, if one reads the Preface of Keynes (1936) refers to Gesell on pages p. 32, pp. 353-358, p. 371, p. 379. In general, these remarks are very positive in tone, e. g. he judged Gesell’s dialogue between Robinson Crusoe and a stranger in which Gesell expounds the logic of his argument to be ‘a most excellent economic parable – as good as anything of the kind that has been written’ (Keynes, 1936, p. 356). Keynes (1936, p. 355) also maintained that The Natural Economic Order was written in a ‘cool, scientific language’, but also with ‘emotional devotion to social justice’ and a ‘moral quality’ that is visible in the preface of Gesell’s main work.
See Darity (1995, pp. 34-39) for Gesell’s moral qualities in the eyes of Keynes.
Hansen (1953, p. 155; 159) famously stated that chapter 17 The Essential Properties of Interest And Money of the General Theory is ‘simply a detour’ and ‘that not much would have been lost had it not been written’. Given that the books is called The General Theory of Employment, Interest And Money [my emphasis], such an interpretation seems rather odd.
See Keynes (1936, p. 379) and the discussion below.
As George Garvy (1975, p. 392) put it: ‘One wonders why Keynes devoted five pages to the life and theories of a typical monetary crank, whose name has in the meantime lapsed into oblivion, […].’ I am indebted to an anonymous referee for suggesting this interpretation.
the General Theory, it seems that Keynes was rather not concerned about the consistency or truthfulness of his new ideas which he thought to be ‘extremely simple and obvious’, but rather whether it would be possible to escape from the old ones (Keynes, 1936, p. viii). Hence, studying Gesell’s theory and Keynes embracing comments on them allows us to better distinguish the novel parts of Keynes analysis.