A Tract on Monetary Reform: Chapter III - III. The Seasonal Fluctuation by@jmkeynes

A Tract on Monetary Reform: Chapter III - III. The Seasonal Fluctuation

Thus the Theory of Purchasing Power Parity tells us that movements in the rate of exchange between the currencies of two countries tend, subject to adjustment in respect of movements in the “equation of exchange,” to correspond pretty closely to movements in the internal price levels of the two countries each expressed in their own currency. It follows that the rate of exchange can be improved in favour of one of the countries by a financial policy directed towards a lowering of its internal price level relatively to the internal price level of the other country. On the other hand a financial policy which has the effect of raising the internal price level must result, sooner or later, in depressing the rate of exchange.
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John Maynard Keynes

Creator of Keynesian. English economist whose ideas fundamentally changed the theory and practice of macroeconomics

A Tract on Monetary Reform, by John Maynard Keynes is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. Chapter III: III. The Seasonal Fluctuation.

III. The Seasonal Fluctuation

Thus the Theory of Purchasing Power Parity tells us that movements in the rate of exchange between the currencies of two countries tend, subject to adjustment in respect of movements in the “equation of exchange,” to correspond pretty closely to movements in the internal price levels of the two countries each expressed in their own currency. It follows that the rate of exchange can be improved in favour of one of the countries by a financial policy directed towards a lowering of its internal price level relatively to the internal price level of the other country. On the other hand a financial policy which has the effect of raising the internal price level must result, sooner or later, in depressing the rate of exchange.

The conclusion is generally drawn, and quite correctly, that budgetary deficits covered by a progressive inflation of the currency render the stabilisation of a country’s exchanges impossible; and that the cessation of any increase in the volume of currency, due to this cause, is a necessary pre-requisite to a successful attempt at stabilising.

The argument, however, is often carried further than this, and it is supposed that, if a country’s budget, currency, foreign trade, and its internal and external price levels are properly adjusted, then, automatically, its foreign exchange will be steady. So long, therefore, as the exchanges fluctuate—thus the argument runs—this in itself is a symptom that an attempt to stabilise would be premature. When, on the other hand, the basic conditions necessary for stabilisation are present, the exchange will steady itself. In short, any deliberate or artificial scheme of stabilisation is attacking the problem at the wrong end. It is the regulation of the currency, by means of sound budgetary and bank-rate policies, that needs attention. The proclamation of convertibility will be the last and crowning stage of the proceedings, and will amount to little more than the announcement of a fait accompli.

 Dr. R. Estcourt, criticising one of my articles in The Annalist for June 12, 1922, writes: “The arrangement would not last for any appreciable period unless, as a preliminary, the Governments took the necessary steps to balance their budgets. If that were done, the so-called stabilisation speedily would become unnecessary; exchange would stabilise itself at pre-war rates.” This passage puts boldly an opinion which is widely held.

There is a certain force in this mode of reasoning. But in one important respect it is fallacious.

Even though foreign trade is properly adjusted, and the country’s claims and liabilities on foreign account are in equilibrium over the year as a whole, it does not follow that they are in equilibrium every day. Indeed, it is well known that countries which import large quantities of agricultural produce do not find it convenient, if they are to secure just the quality and the amount which they require, to buy at an equal rate throughout the year, but prefer to concentrate their purchases on the autumn period. Thus, quite consistently with equilibrium over the year as a whole, industrial countries tend to owe money to agricultural countries in the second half of the year, and to repay in the first half. The satisfaction of these seasonal requirements for credit with the least possible disturbance to trade was recognised before the war as an important function of international banking, and the seasonal transference of short-term credits from one centre to another was carried out for a moderate commission.

Whilst the fact of seasonal pressure is well ascertained, the exact analysis of it is a little complicated. Food arrivals into Great Britain, for example, are nearly 10 per cent heavier in the third and fourth quarters of the year than in the first and second, and reach their maximum in the fourth quarter. (These and the following figures are based on averages for the pre-war period 1901–1913 worked out by the Cambridge and London Economic Service). Raw material imports are more than 20 per cent heavier in the fourth and first quarters than in the second and third, and reach their maximum in the three months November to January. Thus the fourth quarter of the year is the period at which there are heavy imports of both food and raw materials. Manufactured exports, on the other hand, are distributed through the year much more evenly, and are about normal during the last quarter. Allowing for the fact that imports are paid for, generally speaking, before they arrive, these dates correspond pretty closely with the date at which seasonal pressure is actually experienced by the dollar-sterling exchange. In France, since the war, imports in the last quarter of the year seem to have been quite 50 per cent heavier than, for example, in the first quarter. In Italy the third quarter seems to be the slackest, and the last quarter, again, a relatively heavy period. When we turn to the statistics for the United States we find the other side of the picture. August and September are the months of heavy wheat export; October to January those of heavy cotton export. The strength of the dollar exchanges in the early autumn is further increased by the financial pressure in the United States during the crop-moving period, which leads to a withdrawal of funds from foreign centres to New York.

It was possible for this service to be rendered cheaply because, with the certainty provided by convertibility, the price paid for it did not need to include any appreciable provision against risk. A somewhat higher rate of discount in the temporarily debtor country, together with a small exchange profit provided by the slight shift of the exchanges within the gold points, was quite sufficient.

But what is the position now? As always, the balance of payments must balance every day. As before, the balance of trade is spread unevenly through the year. Formerly the daily balance was adjusted by the movement of bankers’ funds, as described above. But now it is no longer a purely bankers’ business, suitably and sufficiently rewarded by an arbitrage profit. If a banker moves credits temporarily from one country to another, he cannot be certain at what rate of exchange he will be able to bring them back again later on. Even though he may have a strong opinion as to the probable course of exchange, his profit is no longer definitely calculable beforehand, as it used to be; he has learnt by experience that unforeseen movements of the exchange may involve him in heavy loss; and his prospective profit must be commensurate with the risk he runs. Even if he thinks that the risk is covered actuarially by the prospective profit, a banker cannot afford to run such risks on a large scale. In fact, the seasonal adjustment of credit requirements has ceased to be arbitrage banking business, and demands the services of speculative finance.

Under present conditions, therefore, a large fluctuation of the exchange may be necessary before the daily account can be balanced, even though the annual account is level. Where in the old days a banker would have readily remitted millions to and from New York, hundreds of thousands are now as much as the biggest institutions will risk. The exchange must fall (or rise, as the case may be) until either the speculative financier feels sufficiently confident of a large profit to step in, or the merchant, appalled by the rate of exchange quoted to him for the transaction, decides to forgo the convenience of purchasing at that particular season of the year, and postpones a part of his purchases.

The services of the professional exchange speculator, being discouraged by official and banking influences, are generally in short supply, so that a heavy price has to be paid for them, and trade is handicapped by a corresponding expense, in so far as it continues to purchase its materials at the most convenient season of the year.

The extent to which the exchange fluctuations which have troubled trade during the past three years have been seasonal, and therefore due, not to a continuing or increasing disequilibrium, but merely to the absence of a fixed exchange, is not, I think, fully appreciated.

During 1919 there was a heavy fall of the chief European exchanges due to the termination of the inter-Allied arrangements which had existed during the war. During 1922 there was a rise of the sterling exchange, which was independent of seasonal influences. During 1923 there has been a further non-seasonal collapse of the franc exchange due to certain persisting features of France’s internal finances and external policy. But the following table shows how largely recurrent the fluctuations have been during the four years since the autumn of 1919:—

Percentage of Dollar Parity

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On the experience of the past three years, francs and lire are at their best in April and May and at their worst between October and December. Sterling is not quite so punctual in its movements, the best point of the year falling somewhere between March and June and the worst between August and November.

The comparative stability of the highest and lowest quotations respectively in each year, especially in the case of Italy, is very striking, and indicates that a policy of stabilisation at some mean figure might have been practicable; whilst, on the other hand, the wide divergences between the highest and lowest are a measure of the expense and interference that trade has suffered.

These results correspond so closely to the facts of seasonal trade (see above, p. 108) that we may safely attribute most of the major fluctuations of the exchanges from month to month to the actual pressure of trade remittances, and not to speculation. Speculators, indeed, by anticipating the movements tend to make them occur a little earlier than they would occur otherwise, but by thus spreading the pressure more evenly through the year their influence is to diminish the absolute amount of the fluctuation. General opinion greatly overestimates the influence of exchange-speculators acting under the stimulus of merely political and sentimental considerations. Except for brief periods the influence of the speculator is washed out; and political events can only exert a lasting influence on the exchanges, in so far as they modify the internal price level, the volume of trade, or the ability of a country to borrow on foreign markets. A political event, which does not materially affect any of these facts, cannot exert a lasting effect on the exchanges merely by its influence on sentiment. The only important exception to this statement is where there exists on a large scale a long-period speculative investment in a country’s currency on the part of foreigners, as in the case of German marks. But such investments are comparable to borrowing abroad and exercise a different kind of influence altogether from a speculative transaction proper, which is opened with the intention of its being closed again within a short period. And even speculative investment in a currency, since it is bound to diminish sooner or later, cannot permanently prevent the exchanges from reaching the equilibrium justified by conditions of trading and relative price levels.

It follows that, whilst purely seasonal fluctuations do not interfere with the forces which determine the ultimate equilibrium of the exchanges, nevertheless stability of the exchange from day to day cannot be maintained merely by the fact of stability in these underlying conditions. It is necessary also that bankers should have a sufficiently certain expectation of such stability to induce them to look after the daily and seasonal fluctuations of the market in return for a moderate commission.

After recent experience it is unlikely that they will actually entertain any such expectation, even if the underlying facts were of a kind to justify it, with sufficient conviction to act, unless it is backed up by a guarantee on the part of the Central Authority (Bank or Government) to employ all their resources for the maintenance of the level of exchange at a stated figure. At present the declared official policy is to bring the franc and the lira (for example) back to par, so that operations favouring a fall of these currencies are not free from danger. On the other hand no steps are taken to make this policy effective, and the conditions of internal finance in France and Italy indicate that their exchanges may go much worse. Thus, since no one can have complete confidence whether they are to be a great deal better or very much worse, there must be a wide fluctuation before financiers will come in, purely from motives of self-interest, to balance the day-to-day fluctuations and the month-to-month fluctuations round about the unpredictable point of equilibrium.

If, therefore, the exchanges are not stabilised by policy, they will never come to an equilibrium of themselves. As time goes on and experience accumulates, the oscillations may be smaller than at present. Speculators may come in a little sooner, and importers may make greater efforts to spread their requirements more evenly over the year. But even so, there must be a substantial difference of rates between the busy season and the slack season, until the business world knows for certain at what level the exchanges in question are going to settle down. Thus a seasonal fluctuation of the exchanges (including the sterling-dollar exchange) is inevitable, even in the absence of any decided long-period tendency of an exchange to rise or to fall, unless the Central Authority, by a guarantee of convertibility or otherwise, takes special steps to provide against it.

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Keynes, John Maynard. 2021. A Tract on Monetary Reform. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/65278/65278-h/65278-h.htm#sec_10

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