How do we measure the adequacy of pre-modern monetary supply?

How do we measure the adequacy of pre-modern monetary supply?



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In a comment to a response to another question, P. Geerkens made the offhand comment that:

the monetary supply of Europe was grossly inadequate until New World silver arrived.

I'm intrigued. How do we measure whether the pre-modern money supply was adequate. How do we collect the data to measure concepts like deflation? If we assume that an inadequate monetary supply causes a rise in barter, how do we measure the rise in barter? Is there a significant rise in the search for precious metals? A change in the rate of debasement? Can we detect the expected responses to deflation (deferred consumption of goods, changes in loan rates, etc.)

  • Where do we get the underlying numbers to reach these conclusions?
  • What is the methodology?

Although this question may lie on the boundary between economics and history, I'm asking about the historical methods; I understand deflation and how to measure it; I'm interested in how historians approach the specifically historical side of the problem.


The Great Bullion Famine, in mid-fifteenth century Europe, was a shortage of precious metals. It was largely driven by an unfavourable balance of trade with the Middle and Far East due to the shortage of goods, other than precious metals, with which to purchase goods such as spices, silk and cotton.

Numerous factors may have caused the Great Bullion Famine. In the 14th century, the Black Death ravaged Europe, killing over half of its population, and leaving many areas heavily depopulated and unable to meet previous levels of economic production. In addition, Europe had a long-running precious metal deficit in its trade with the Middle East and Asia, ever since the days of the Roman Empire. This is due to the fact that products from China and India such as spices, silks, and cotton, were very rare or completely unavailable in Europe, and thus highly valued - but Europe lacked as many goods to trade back to the east, and so relied on precious metals, which were always in demand due to their use in coinage, bullion, and luxury goods. This meant that in exchange for renewable eastern goods, Europe was trading away its non-renewable precious metals. Additionally, the price of goods was very low in Europe, making the trade deficit worse.

Note that Western Europe suffered a massive deflation during and subsequent to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Exacerbating the (already long running) precious metal deficit with the East was the specie hoarding characteristic of deflation - a positive feedback loop. Feudalism is an indicator of this as monarchs resorted to paying retainers with land instead of specie, and tenants likewise paid rent with labour and commodity produce.

All this while the precious metal mines of Europe were in decline. Flooding and the lack of technology to deal with it prevented mining deeper where the veins were still rich.

Over the course of this millennium we see two significant upticks in economic activity, associated with two significant quantitative easings resulting from de-hoarding activities:

  • Viking raids of Western Europe from circa 800 to 1000 C.E. put large quantities of precious metals hoarded by monasteries and churches back into circulation.
  • The Fourth Crusade's sack of Constantinople in 1204 puts 900,000 silver marks (~450,000 pounds) into circulation.

More detail behind these links on Medieval Silver and Gold and on Medieval money.

For those inclined to think deeper on the associated economics and politics of the millennium 453-1453 - the growth and popularity of mercantilism in the centuries immediately following this period becomes more understandable:

Mercantalism: a national economic policy designed to maximize the trade of a nation and, historically, to maximize the accumulation of gold and silver


Sketch answer: Money can be used for small scale trade (grocery shopping), wages, long distance trade and to store value. I differ two scales of trade because I believe the needs of a merchant managing shipping between Venice and Damascus are different enough from those of a piper buying bread & beer. We can look at these four uses for a given time and place:

  • Shopping: Did people usually pay directly in coin, or did they use tally sticks, buckskins, or other forms of cashless payment?
  • Wages: Was labor paid in goods or coin? Was labor even wage labor or managed differently, like corvee?
  • Trade: IOUs between traders? I read somewhere that these where used extensively in pre-modern times, don't have the source now.
  • Store of value: From an older answer by Samuel Russel, about European middle ages:

    A few families would have concentrated wealth, but this wouldn't be liquid capital, it would be static textiles used for display, or cloths. We know this from the viciousness with which churchmen and nobles forced "sumptuary" laws on rich town dwellers to stop them from wearing hats too big, cloaks with too many folds, or shoes that were too long.

In a medieval society, there were fewer less transactions requiring money: Up until the 19th century, the majority (one figure: 80%) of a poor person's income would be spent on food. When the majority (ballpark: 80% for middle ages, likely too low) are peasants, producing their own food plus tax, you have ~60% of likely transactions taking place within one household. Money supply becomes more important, the more transactions take place between people who don't know each other & the less closed an economy is.

When investigating this question, I believe you arrive quickly at a chicken and egg question - did changed, modernized social relationships necessitate more money (and thus encourage the plunder of the new world) or did the money supply fuel an economic transformation? This would be economic theory and I won't go into that here. But I think if you look at the use (or not!) of cashless payment system, you have a hint of the people then and there saw their money supply as adequate.


"Adequacy" is not a technical term and will be hard to apply without reflecting modern biases.

Estimations of historical inflation expectations (see the 2016 paper by Carola Conces Binder) could be part of a judgment on monetary adequacy. Tracking trends of cash transactions against bartering and home production is difficult because those mostly go unrecorded.

Some risk factors and coindicators for inadequate money supplies are:

  • issuance of scrip
  • periods of inflation with little coinage
  • transactors complaining about sparse cash
  • businesspeople storing more of their worth in goods
  • being in a colony or frontier with no local coinage

The statement is, on its face, absurd. "Monetary supply" is an inappropriate term to describe the economic workings of the era. In today's economy, there are practically as many definitions of "monetary supply" as there are economists (or, at least, statistical agencies), and there is no meaningful definition for the term in a pre-modern context. I suppose that the author here simply meant coinage, but then he falls into a different fallacy.

Gold and silver coins are a convenient means to store and transfer value. However, they are far from the only means and historically have rarely been the dominant means. Credit, ranging in sophistication from tokens and tally sticks to bills of exchange; paper money; commodity money, ranging from measures of grain in ancient Mesopotamia to pelts in colonial America; and other tokens such as wampum and cowries; all compete with gold and silver in the "marketplace of money". Gold and silver have advantages in this marketplace - they are durable, portable and broadly fungible - but they are hardly irreplaceable. Rather than to say that the supply was inadequate, it would be better to say that there was unmet demand for gold and silver in the European marketplace.

The great question is, thus, to what degree did the influx of American silver increase the money supply, as opposed to simply displacing other forms of exchange. Unfortunately, most of the other forms of exchange are all but invisible to the historian. We can hardly do better than guess at the number of tally sticks and I.O.U.'s used in the past, or estimate how that number has changed. Researchers interested in the question scour the most basic documents of the era - particularly banking and shipping records and contracts of all kinds. It is a complex question and you'll find plenty of spirited disagreements in the literature.


How do we measure the adequacy of pre-modern monetary supply? - History

The role of government in the American economy extends far beyond its activities as a regulator of specific industries. The government also manages the overall pace of economic activity, seeking to maintain high levels of employment and stable prices. It has two main tools for achieving these objectives: fiscal policy, through which it determines the appropriate level of taxes and spending and monetary policy, through which it manages the supply of money.
Much of the history of economic policy in the United States since the Great Depression of the 1930s has involved a continuing effort by the government to find a mix of fiscal and monetary policies that will allow sustained growth and stable prices. That is no easy task, and there have been notable failures along the way.
But the government has gotten better at promoting sustainable growth. From 1854 through 1919, the American economy spent almost as much time contracting as it did growing: the average economic expansion (defined as an increase in output of goods and services) lasted 27 months, while the average recession (a period of declining output) lasted 22 months. From 1919 to 1945, the record improved, with the average expansion lasting 35 months and the average recession lasting 18 months. And from 1945 to 1991, things got even better, with the average expansion lasting 50 months and the average recession lasting just 11 months.
Inflation, however, has proven more intractable. Prices were remarkably stable prior to World War II the consumer price level in 1940, for instance, was no higher than the price level in 1778. But 40 years later, in 1980, the price level was 400 percent above the 1940 level.
In part, the government's relatively poor record on inflation reflects the fact that it put more stress on fighting recessions (and resulting increases in unemployment) during much of the early post-war period. Beginning in 1979, however, the government began paying more attention to inflation, and its record on that score has improved markedly. By the late 1990s, the nation was experiencing a gratifying combination of strong growth, low unemployment, and slow inflation. But while policy-makers were generally optimistic about the future, they admitted to some uncertainties about what the new century would bring.

Fiscal Policy -- Budget and Taxes

The growth of government since the 1930s has been accompanied by steady increases in government spending. In 1930, the federal government accounted for just 3.3 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, or total output of goods and services excluding imports and exports. That figure rose to almost 44 percent of GDP in 1944, at the height of World War II, before falling back to 11.6 percent in 1948. But government spending generally rose as a share of GDP in subsequent years, reaching almost 24 percent in 1983 before falling back somewhat. In 1999 it stood at about 21 percent.
The development of fiscal policy is an elaborate process. Each year, the president proposes a budget, or spending plan, to Congress. Lawmakers consider the president's proposals in several steps. First, they decide on the overall level of spending and taxes. Next, they divide that overall figure into separate categories -- for national defense, health and human services, and transportation, for instance. Finally, Congress considers individual appropriations bills spelling out exactly how the money in each category will be spent. Each appropriations bill ultimately must be signed by the president in order to take effect. This budget process often takes an entire session of Congress the president presents his proposals in early February, and Congress often does not finish its work on appropriations bills until September (and sometimes even later).
The federal government's chief source of funds to cover its expenses is the income tax on individuals, which in 1999 brought in about 48 percent of total federal revenues. Payroll taxes, which finance the Social Security and Medicare programs, have become increasingly important as those programs have grown. In 1998, payroll taxes accounted for one-third of all federal revenues employers and workers each had to pay an amount equal to 7.65 percent of their wages up to $68,400 a year. The federal government raises another 10 percent of its revenue from a tax on corporate profits, while miscellaneous other taxes account for the remainder of its income. (Local governments, in contrast, generally collect most of their tax revenues from property taxes. State governments traditionally have depended on sales and excise taxes, but state income taxes have grown more important since World War II.)
The federal income tax is levied on the worldwide income of U.S. citizens and resident aliens and on certain U.S. income of non-residents. The first U.S. income tax law was enacted in 1862 to support the Civil War. The 1862 tax law also established the Office of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue to collect taxes and enforce tax laws either by seizing the property and income of non-payers or through prosecution. The commissioner's powers and authority remain much the same today.
The income tax was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1895 because it was not apportioned among the states in conformity with the Constitution. It was not until the 16th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1913 that Congress was authorized to levy an income tax without apportionment. Still, except during World War I, the income tax system remained a relatively minor source of federal revenue until the 1930s. During World War II, the modern system for managing federal income taxes was introduced, income tax rates were raised to very high levels, and the levy became the principal sources of federal revenue. Beginning in 1943, the government required employers to collect income taxes from workers by withholding certain sums from their paychecks, a policy that streamlined collection and significantly increased the number of taxpayers.
Most debates about the income tax today revolve around three issues: the appropriate overall level of taxation how graduated, or "progressive" the tax should be and the extent to which the tax should be used to promote social objectives.
The overall level of taxation is decided through budget negotiations. Although Americans allowed the government to run up deficits, spending more than it collected in taxes during the 1970s, 1980s, and the part of the 1990s, they generally believe budgets should be balanced. Most Democrats, however, are willing to tolerate a higher level of taxes to support a more active government, while Republicans generally favor lower taxes and smaller government.
From the outset, the income tax has been a progressive levy, meaning that rates are higher for people with more income. Most Democrats favor a high degree of progressivity, arguing that it is only fair to make people with more income pay more in taxes. Many Republicans, however, believe a steeply progressive rate structure discourages people from working and investing, and therefore hurts the overall economy. Accordingly, many Republicans argue for a more uniform rate structure. Some even suggest a uniform, or "flat," tax rate for everybody. (Some economists -- both Democrats and Republicans -- have suggested that the economy would fare better if the government would eliminate the income tax altogether and replace it with a consumption tax, taxing people on what they spend rather than what they earn. Proponents argue that would encourage saving and investment. But as of the end of the 1990s, the idea had not gained enough support to be given much chance of being enacted.)
Over the years, lawmakers have carved out various exemptions and deductions from the income tax to encourage specific kinds of economic activity. Most notably, taxpayers are allowed to subtract from their taxable income any interest they must pay on loans used to buy homes. Similarly, the government allows lower- and middle-income taxpayers to shelter from taxation certain amounts of money that they save in special Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) to meet their retirement expenses and to pay for their children's college education.
The Tax Reform Act of 1986, perhaps the most substantial reform of the U.S. tax system since the beginning of the income tax, reduced income tax rates while cutting back many popular income tax deductions (the home mortgage deduction and IRA deductions were preserved, however). The Tax Reform Act replaced the previous law's 15 tax brackets, which had a top tax rate of 50 percent, with a system that had only two tax brackets -- 15 percent and 28 percent. Other provisions reduced, or eliminated, income taxes for millions of low-income Americans.

Fiscal Policy and Economic Stabilization

In the 1930s, with the United States reeling from the Great Depression, the government began to use fiscal policy not just to support itself or pursue social policies but to promote overall economic growth and stability as well. Policy-makers were influenced by John Maynard Keynes, an English economist who argued in The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936) that the rampant joblessness of his time resulted from inadequate demand for goods and services. According to Keynes, people did not have enough income to buy everything the economy could produce, so prices fell and companies lost money or went bankrupt. Without government intervention, Keynes said, this could become a vicious cycle. As more companies went bankrupt, he argued, more people would lose their jobs, making income fall further and leading yet more companies to fail in a frightening downward spiral. Keynes argued that government could halt the decline by increasing spending on its own or by cutting taxes. Either way, incomes would rise, people would spend more, and the economy could start growing again. If the government had to run up a deficit to achieve this purpose, so be it, Keynes said. In his view, the alternative -- deepening economic decline -- would be worse.
Keynes's ideas were only partially accepted during the 1930s, but the huge boom in military spending during World War II seemed to confirm his theories. As government spending surged, people's incomes rose, factories again operated at full capacity, and the hardships of the Depression faded into memory. After the war, the economy continued to be fueled by pent-up demand from families who had deferred buying homes and starting families.
By the 1960s, policy-makers seemed wedded to Keynesian theories. But in retrospect, most Americans agree, the government then made a series of mistakes in the economic policy arena that eventually led to a reexamination of fiscal policy. After enacting a tax cut in 1964 to stimulate economic growth and reduce unemployment, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) and Congress launched a series of expensive domestic spending programs designed to alleviate poverty. Johnson also increased military spending to pay for American involvement in the Vietnam War. These large government programs, combined with strong consumer spending, pushed the demand for goods and services beyond what the economy could produce. Wages and prices started rising. Soon, rising wages and prices fed each other in an ever-rising cycle. Such an overall increase in prices is known as inflation.
Keynes had argued that during such periods of excess demand, the government should reduce spending or raise taxes to avert inflation. But anti-inflation fiscal policies are difficult to sell politically, and the government resisted shifting to them. Then, in the early 1970s, the nation was hit by a sharp rise in international oil and food prices. This posed an acute dilemma for policy-makers. The conventional anti-inflation strategy would be to restrain demand by cutting federal spending or raising taxes. But this would have drained income from an economy already suffering from higher oil prices. The result would have been a sharp rise in unemployment. If policy-makers chose to counter the loss of income caused by rising oil prices, however, they would have had to increase spending or cut taxes. Since neither policy could increase the supply of oil or food, however, boosting demand without changing supply would merely mean higher prices.
President Jimmy Carter (1973-1977) sought to resolve the dilemma with a two-pronged strategy. He geared fiscal policy toward fighting unemployment, allowing the federal deficit to swell and establishing countercyclical jobs programs for the unemployed. To fight inflation, he established a program of voluntary wage and price controls. Neither element of this strategy worked well. By the end of the 1970s, the nation suffered both high unemployment and high inflation.
While many Americans saw this "stagflation" as evidence that Keynesian economics did not work, another factor further reduced the government's ability to use fiscal policy to manage the economy. Deficits now seemed to be a permanent part of the fiscal scene. Deficits had emerged as a concern during the stagnant 1970s. Then, in the 1980s, they grew further as President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) pursued a program of tax cuts and increased military spending. By 1986, the deficit had swelled to $221,000 million, or more than 22 percent of total federal spending. Now, even if the government wanted to pursue spending or tax policies to bolster demand, the deficit made such a strategy unthinkable.
Beginning in the late 1980s, reducing the deficit became the predominant goal of fiscal policy. With foreign trade opportunities expanding rapidly and technology spinning off new products, there seemed to be little need for government policies to stimulate growth. Instead, officials argued, a lower deficit would reduce government borrowing and help bring down interest rates, making it easier for businesses to acquire capital to finance expansion. The government budget finally returned to surplus in 1998. This led to calls for new tax cuts, but some of the enthusiasm for lower taxes was tempered by the realization that the government would face major budget challenges early in the new century as the enormous post-war baby-boom generation reached retirement and started collecting retirement checks from the Social Security system and medical benefits from the Medicare program.
By the late 1990s, policy-makers were far less likely than their predecessors to use fiscal policy to achieve broad economic goals. Instead, they focused on narrower policy changes designed to strengthen the economy at the margins. President Reagan and his successor, George Bush (1989-1993), sought to reduce taxes on capital gains -- that is, increases in wealth resulting from the appreciation in the value of assets such as property or stocks. They said such a change would increase incentives to save and invest. Democrats resisted, arguing that such a change would overwhelmingly benefit the rich. But as the budget deficit shrank, President Clinton (1993-2001) acquiesced, and the maximum capital gains rate was trimmed to 20 percent from 28 percent in 1996. Clinton, meanwhile, also sought to affect the economy by promoting various education and job-training programs designed to develop a highly skilled -- and hence, more productive and competitive -- labor force.

Money in the U.S. Economy

While the budget remained enormously important, the job of managing the overall economy shifted substantially from fiscal policy to monetary policy during the later years of the 20th century. Monetary policy is the province of the Federal Reserve System, an independent U.S. government agency. "The Fed," as it is commonly known, includes 12 regional Federal Reserve Banks and 25 Federal Reserve Bank branches. All nationally chartered commercial banks are required by law to be members of the Federal Reserve System membership is optional for state-chartered banks. In general, a bank that is a member of the Federal Reserve System uses the Reserve Bank in its region in the same way that a person uses a bank in his or her community.
The Federal Reserve Board of Governors administers the Federal Reserve System. It has seven members, who are appointed by the president to serve overlapping 14-year terms. Its most important monetary policy decisions are made by the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), which consists of the seven governors, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and presidents of four other Federal Reserve banks who serve on a rotating basis. Although the Federal Reserve System periodically must report on its actions to Congress, the governors are, by law, independent from Congress and the president. Reinforcing this independence, the Fed conducts its most important policy discussions in private and often discloses them only after a period of time has passed. It also raises all of its own operating expenses from investment income and fees for its own services.
The Federal Reserve has three main tools for maintaining control over the supply of money and credit in the economy. The most important is known as open market operations, or the buying and selling of government securities. To increase the supply of money, the Federal Reserve buys government securities from banks, other businesses, or individuals, paying for them with a check (a new source of money that it prints) when the Fed's checks are deposited in banks, they create new reserves -- a portion of which banks can lend or invest, thereby increasing the amount of money in circulation. On the other hand, if the Fed wishes to reduce the money supply, it sells government securities to banks, collecting reserves from them. Because they have lower reserves, banks must reduce their lending, and the money supply drops accordingly.
The Fed also can control the money supply by specifying what reserves deposit-taking institutions must set aside either as currency in their vaults or as deposits at their regional Reserve Banks. Raising reserve requirements forces banks to withhold a larger portion of their funds, thereby reducing the money supply, while lowering requirements works the opposite way to increase the money supply. Banks often lend each other money over night to meet their reserve requirements. The rate on such loans, known as the "federal funds rate," is a key gauge of how "tight" or "loose" monetary policy is at a given moment.
The Fed's third tool is the discount rate, or the interest rate that commercial banks pay to borrow funds from Reserve Banks. By raising or lowering the discount rate, the Fed can promote or discourage borrowing and thus alter the amount of revenue available to banks for making loans.
These tools allow the Federal Reserve to expand or contract the amount of money and credit in the U.S. economy. If the money supply rises, credit is said to be loose. In this situation, interest rates tend to drop, business spending and consumer spending tend to rise, and employment increases if the economy already is operating near its full capacity, too much money can lead to inflation, or a decline in the value of the dollar. When the money supply contracts, on the other hand, credit is tight. In this situation, interest rates tend to rise, spending levels off or declines, and inflation abates if the economy is operating below its capacity, tight money can lead to rising unemployment.
Many factors complicate the ability of the Federal Reserve to use monetary policy to promote specific goals, however. For one thing, money takes many different forms, and it often is unclear which one to target. In its most basic form, money consists of coins and paper currency. Coins come in various denominations based on the value of a dollar: the penny, which is worth one cent or one-hundredth of a dollar the nickel, five cents the dime, 10 cents the quarter, 25 cents the half dollar, 50 cents and the dollar coin. Paper money comes in denominations of $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100.
A more important component of the money supply consists of checking deposits, or bookkeeping entries held in banks and other financial institutions. Individuals can make payments by writing checks, which essentially instruct their banks to pay given sums to the checks' recipients. Time deposits are similar to checking deposits except the owner agrees to leave the sum on deposit for a specified period while depositors generally can withdraw the funds earlier than the maturity date, they generally must pay a penalty and forfeit some interest to do so. Money also includes money market funds, which are shares in pools of short-term securities, as well as a variety of other assets that can be converted easily into currency on short notice.
The amount of money held in different forms can change from time to time, depending on preferences and other factors that may or may not have any importance to the overall economy. Further complicating the Fed's task, changes in the money supply affect the economy only after a lag of uncertain duration.

Monetary Policy and Fiscal Stabilization

The Fed's operation has evolved over time in response to major events. The Congress established the Federal Reserve System in 1913 to strengthen the supervision of the banking system and stop bank panics that had erupted periodically in the previous century. As a result of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Congress gave the Fed authority to vary reserve requirements and to regulate stock market margins (the amount of cash people must put down when buying stock on credit).
Still, the Federal Reserve often tended to defer to the elected officials in matters of overall economic policy. During World War II, for instance, the Fed subordinated its operations to helping the U.S. Treasury borrow money at low interest rates. Later, when the government sold large amounts of Treasury securities to finance the Korean War, the Fed bought heavily to keep the prices of these securities from falling (thereby pumping up the money supply). The Fed reasserted its independence in 1951, reaching an accord with the Treasury that Federal Reserve policy should not be subordinated to Treasury financing. But the central bank still did not stray too far from the political orthodoxy. During the fiscally conservative administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961), for instance, the Fed emphasized price stability and restriction of monetary growth, while under more liberal presidents in the 1960s, it stressed full employment and economic growth.
During much of the 1970s, the Fed allowed rapid credit expansion in keeping with the government's desire to combat unemployment. But with inflation increasingly ravaging the economy, the central bank abruptly tightened monetary policy beginning in 1979. This policy successfully slowed the growth of the money supply, but it helped trigger sharp recessions in 1980 and 1981-1982. The inflation rate did come down, however, and by the middle of the decade the Fed was again able to pursue a cautiously expansionary policy. Interest rates, however, stayed relatively high as the federal government had to borrow heavily to finance its budget deficit. Rates slowly came down, too, as the deficit narrowed and ultimately disappeared in the 1990s.
The growing importance of monetary policy and the diminishing role played by fiscal policy in economic stabilization efforts may reflect both political and economic realities. The experience of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s suggests that democratically elected governments may have more trouble using fiscal policy to fight inflation than unemployment. Fighting inflation requires government to take unpopular actions like reducing spending or raising taxes, while traditional fiscal policy solutions to fighting unemployment tend to be more popular since they require increasing spending or cutting taxes. Political realities, in short, may favor a bigger role for monetary policy during times of inflation.
One other reason suggests why fiscal policy may be more suited to fighting unemployment, while monetary policy may be more effective in fighting inflation. There is a limit to how much monetary policy can do to help the economy during a period of severe economic decline, such as the United States encountered during the 1930s. The monetary policy remedy to economic decline is to increase the amount of money in circulation, thereby cutting interest rates. But once interest rates reach zero, the Fed can do no more. The United States has not encountered this situation, which economists call the "liquidity trap," in recent years, but Japan did during the late 1990s. With its economy stagnant and interest rates near zero, many economists argued that the Japanese government had to resort to more aggressive fiscal policy, if necessary running up a sizable government deficit to spur renewed spending and economic growth.

A New Economy?

Today, Federal Reserve economists use a number of measures to determine whether monetary policy should be tighter or looser. One approach is to compare the actual and potential growth rates of the economy. Potential growth is presumed to equal the sum of the growth in the labor force plus any gains in productivity, or output per worker. In the late 1990s, the labor force was projected to grow about 1 percent a year, and productivity was thought to be rising somewhere between 1 percent and 1.5 percent. Therefore, the potential growth rate was assumed to be somewhere between 2 percent and 2.5 percent. By this measure, actual growth in excess of the long-term potential growth was seen as raising a danger of inflation, thereby requiring tighter money.
The second gauge is called NAIRU, or the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment. Over time, economists have noted that inflation tends to accelerate when joblessness drops below a certain level. In the decade that ended in the early 1990s, economists generally believed NAIRU was around 6 percent. But later in the decade, it appeared to have dropped to about 5.5 percent.
Perhaps even more importantly, a range of new technologies -- the microprocessor, the laser, fiber-optics, and satellite -- appeared in the late 1990s to be making the American economy significantly more productive than economists had thought possible. "The newest innovations, which we label information technologies, have begun to alter the manner in which we do business and create value, often in ways not readily foreseeable even five years ago," Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said in mid-1999.
Previously, lack of timely information about customers' needs and the location of raw materials forced businesses to operate with larger inventories and more workers than they otherwise would need, according to Greenspan. But as the quality of information improved, businesses could operate more efficiently. Information technologies also allowed for quicker delivery times, and they accelerated and streamlined the process of innovation. For instance, design times dropped sharply as computer modeling reduced the need for staff in architectural firms, Greenspan noted, and medical diagnoses became faster, more thorough, and more accurate.
Such technological innovations apparently accounted for an unexpected surge in productivity in the late 1990s. After rising at less than a 1 percent annual rate in the early part of the decade, productivity was growing at about a 3 percent rate toward the end of the 1990s -- well ahead of what economists had expected. Higher productivity meant that businesses could grow faster without igniting inflation. Unexpectedly modest demands from workers for wage increases -- a result, possibly, of the fact that workers felt less secure about keeping their jobs in the rapidly changing economy -- also helped subdue inflationary pressures.
Some economists scoffed at the notion American suddenly had developed a "new economy," one that was able to grow much faster without inflation. While there undeniably was increased global competition, they noted, many American industries remained untouched by it. And while computers clearly were changing the way Americans did business, they also were adding new layers of complexity to business operations.
But as economists increasingly came to agree with Greenspan that the economy was in the midst of a significant "structural shift," the debate increasingly came to focus less on whether the economy was changing and more on how long the surprisingly strong performance could continue. The answer appeared to depend, in part, on the oldest of economic ingredients -- labor. With the economy growing strongly, workers displaced by technology easily found jobs in newly emerging industries. As a result, employment was rising in the late 1990s faster than the overall population. That trend could not continue indefinitely. By mid-1999, the number of "potential workers" aged 16 to 64 -- those who were unemployed but willing to work if they could find jobs -- totaled about 10 million, or about 5.7 percent of the population. That was the lowest percentage since the government began collecting such figures (in 1970). Eventually, economists warned, the United States would face labor shortages, which, in turn, could be expected to drive up wages, trigger inflation, and prompt the Federal Reserve to engineer an economic slowdown.
Still, many things could happen to postpone that seemingly inevitable development. Immigration might increase, thereby enlarging the pool of available workers. That seemed unlikely, however, because the political climate in the United States during the 1990s did not favor increased immigration. More likely, a growing number of analysts believed that a growing number of Americans would work past the traditional retirement age of 65. That also could increase the supply of potential workers. Indeed, in 1999, the Committee on Economic Development (CED), a prestigious business research organization, called on employers to clear away barriers that previously discouraged older workers from staying in the labor force. Current trends suggested that by 2030, there would be fewer than three workers for every person over the age of 65, compared to seven in 1950 -- an unprecedented demographic transformation that the CED predicted would leave businesses scrambling to find workers.
"Businesses have heretofore demonstrated a preference for early retirement to make way for younger workers," the group observed. "But this preference is a relic from an era of labor surpluses it will not be sustainable when labor becomes scarce." While enjoying remarkable successes, in short, the United States found itself moving into uncharted economic territory as it ended the 1990s. While many saw a new economic era stretching indefinitely into the future, others were less certain. Weighing the uncertainties, many assumed a stance of cautious optimism. "Regrettably, history is strewn with visions of such `new eras' that, in the end, have proven to be a mirage," Greenspan noted in 1997. "In short, history counsels caution."


Calculating Consequences: The Utilitarian Approach

Imagine that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency gets wind of a plot to set off a dirty bomb in a major American city. Agents capture a suspect who, they believe, has information about where the bomb is planted. Is it permissible for them to torture the suspect into revealing the bomb's whereabouts? Can the dignity of one individual be violated in order to save many others?

Greatest Balance of Goods Over Harms
If you answered yes, you were probably using a form of moral reasoning called "utilitarianism." Stripped down to its essentials, utilitarianism is a moral principle that holds that the morally right course of action in any situation is the one that produces the greatest balance of benefits over harms for everyone affected. So long as a course of action produces maximum benefits for everyone, utilitarianism does not care whether the benefits are produced by lies, manipulation, or coercion.

Many of us use this type of moral reasoning frequently in our daily decisions. When asked to explain why we feel we have a moral duty to perform some action, we often point to the good that will come from the action or the harm it will prevent. Business analysts, legislators, and scientists weigh daily the resulting benefits and harms of policies when deciding, for example, whether to invest resources in a certain public project, whether to approve a new drug, or whether to ban a certain pesticide.

Utilitarianism offers a relatively straightforward method for deciding the morally right course of action for any particular situation we may find ourselves in. To discover what we ought to do in any situation, we first identify the various courses of action that we could perform. Second, we determine all of the foreseeable benefits and harms that would result from each course of action for everyone affected by the action. And third, we choose the course of action that provides the greatest benefits after the costs have been taken into account.

The principle of utilitarianism can be traced to the writings of Jeremy Bentham, who lived in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Bentham, a legal reformer, sought an objective basis that would provide a publicly acceptable norm for determining what kinds of laws England should enact. He believed that the most promising way of reaching such an agreement was to choose that policy that would bring about the greatest net benefits to society once the harms had been taken into account. His motto, a familiar one now, was "the greatest good for the greatest number."

Over the years, the principle of utilitarianism has been expanded and refined so that today there are many variations of the principle. For example, Bentham defined benefits and harms in terms of pleasure and pain. John Stuart Mill, a great 19th century utilitarian figure, spoke of benefits and harms not in terms of pleasure and pain alone but in terms of the quality or intensity of such pleasure and pain. Today utilitarians often describe benefits and harms in terms of the satisfaction of personal preferences or in purely economic terms of monetary benefits over monetary costs.

Utilitarians also differ in their views about the kind of question we ought to ask ourselves when making an ethical decision. Some utilitarians maintain that in making an ethical decision, we must ask ourselves: "What effect will my doing this act in this situation have on the general balance of good over evil?" If lying would produce the best consequences in a particular situation, we ought to lie. Others, known as rule utilitarians, claim that we must choose that act that conforms to the general rule that would have the best consequences. In other words, we must ask ourselves: "What effect would everyone's doing this kind of action have on the general balance of good over evil?" So, for example, the rule "to always tell the truth" in general promotes the good of everyone and therefore should always be followed, even if in a certain situation lying would produce the best consequences. Despite such differences among utilitarians, however, most hold to the general principle that morality must depend on balancing the beneficial and harmful consequences of our conduct.

Problems With Utilitarianism
While utilitarianism is currently a very popular ethical theory, there are some difficulties in relying on it as a sole method for moral decision-making. First, the utilitarian calculation requires that we assign values to the benefits and harms resulting from our actions and compare them with the benefits and harms that might result from other actions. But it's often difficult, if not impossible, to measure and compare the values of certain benefits and costs. How do we go about assigning a value to life or to art? And how do we go about comparing the value of money with, for example, the value of life, the value of time, or the value of human dignity? Moreover, can we ever be really certain about all of the consequences of our actions? Our ability to measure and to predict the benefits and harms resulting from a course of action or a moral rule is dubious, to say the least.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty with utilitarianism is that it fails to take into account considerations of justice. We can imagine instances where a certain course of action would produce great benefits for society, but they would be clearly unjust. During the apartheid regime in South Africa in the last century, South African whites, for example, sometimes claimed that all South Africans—including blacks—were better off under white rule. These whites claimed that in those African nations that have traded a whites-only government for a black or mixed one, social conditions have rapidly deteriorated. Civil wars, economic decline, famine, and unrest, they predicted, will be the result of allowing the black majority of South Africa to run the government. If such a prediction were true—and the end of apartheid has shown that the prediction was false—then the white government of South Africa would have been morally justified by utilitarianism, in spite of its injustice.

If our moral decisions are to take into account considerations of justice, then apparently utilitarianism cannot be the sole principle guiding our decisions. It can, however, play a role in these decisions. The principle of utilitarianism invites us to consider the immediate and the less immediate consequences of our actions. Given its insistence on summing the benefits and harms of all people, utilitarianism asks us to look beyond self-interest to consider impartially the interests of all persons affected by our actions. As John Stuart Mill once wrote:

The happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not. (one's) own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.

In an era today that some have characterized as "the age of self-interest," utilitarianism is a powerful reminder that morality calls us to look beyond the self to the good of all.

The views expressed do not necessarily represent the position of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. We welcome your comments, suggestions, or alternative points of view.

This article appeared originally in Issues in Ethics V2 N1 (Winter 1989)


How We Should Measure Economic Progress

Silver: How will our notions of GDP, productivity, and economic growth change because of all of this? Should our economy be measured on the same metrics we have traditionally used, or do we need a new way of measuring economic progress?

Rogoff: As services become a larger and larger share of the economy, it was becoming more and more difficult to measure output even before COVID-19, and now the challenges are so much greater. Measuring prices and inflation is equally a challenge during a period of lightening-fast change, such as this. How do we measure inflation when a lot of goods suddenly become unavailable? In classic price measurement theory, new goods can have huge value, so I suppose losing existing ones should be thought of as effectively very inflationary. I suspect there'll be economic historians arguing about this in 10 or 15 years.

A lot of the trends in the last 40 years have been due to globalization, and especially the rise of China. Trends such as declining interest rates, very low inflation and deflation, and rising standards of living, very much owe to globalization. What will happen when it goes into reverse?

True, there are legitimate complaints about inequality within rich countries. The best remedy would be to tax the rich more, and provide more transfers and services to lower-income people. But make no mistake, if we look at the world as a whole—and treat every citizen of the Earth equally—globalization has been the best thing that ever happened to equality. If the United States leads a generalized pullback in globalization, it risks putting hundreds of millions of people back into poverty.

The rich countries will certainly lose some future growth, but if de-globalization goes too far, growth could easily be negative for a sustained period. True, the United States may not suffer nearly as badly from de-globalization as many other countries the United States can do a lot of things by itself. It is a very diversified economy, with huge natural resources. On the other hand, for small countries, de-globalization will be a disaster.

Maybe New Zealand will do OK because it exports milk and mutton, final consumer goods. But for small countries that have become part of a global supply chain, this is a disaster. It is also a disaster for small island countries that depend on tourism, as do many large countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece. I find it odd that anyone talks about a V-shaped recovery because this isn't a classical demand shock. It's not just a health shock. It's also a political shock.


If You Want To Know The Real Rate Of Inflation, Don't Bother With The CPI

Common sense tells us the Consumer Price Index is not an adequate measure of inflation. For the second year in a row the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) remained under 2 percent. On average, consumer prices increased 1.5 percent, according to the government. However, the government has incentives to keep this statistic as low as possible. In fact, the CPI doesn’t even measure inflation, rather a range of consumer spending behaviors. The CPI is perhaps one of the most important government statistics because it affects a number of public programs and is used as a benchmark to set public policy. But it’s accuracy is questionable, especially when compared with other agency’s inflation measures.

Why does the government want low inflation numbers?

The CPI is tied to the incomes of about 80 million Americans, specifically: Social Security beneficiaries, food stamp recipients, military and federal Civil Service retirees and survivors, and children on school lunch programs. The higher the CPI, the more money the government needs to spend on these income payments to keep pace with the cost of living. However, this same government is about $17 trillion in debt. If the CPI is low, the less money the government needs to spend on cost of living adjustments, something seniors are astutely aware of.

The government has a few resources at its disposal to manipulate the CPI. First, the Bureau of Labor Statistics operates under a veil of secrecy. The raw data used to calculate the CPI is not available to the public. When I asked why, I was told “so companies can’t compare prices.” This makes very little sense because companies can easily compare prices with data openly available on the internet. It also makes it impossible to audit their findings. Additionally, over the past 30 years, the government has changed the way it calculates inflation more than 20 times. These ‘methodological improvements’ to the CPI are said to give a more accurate measure of consumer prices. However, these changes could also be a convenient way to include or exclude certain products that give favorably low results, but there’s no way to know, given the lack of transparency.

So how is the CPI calculated?

Although this is not a transparent process, the BLS gives some insight on their website as to how it calculates the CPI. The economic assistants track about 80,000 consumer products each month known as the Market Basket of Goods. However,

“If the selected item is no longer available, or if there have been changes in the quality or quantity (for example, eggs sold in packages of ten when they previously were sold by the dozen) of the good or service since the last time prices were collected, the economic assistant selects a new item or records the quality change in the current item.”

This data is then plugged into a formula along with other factors including census information and consumer spending patterns. In other words, the CPI doesn’t measure changes in consumer prices, rather it measures the cost-of-living. Further, the government makes the assumption that consumer spending habits change as economic conditions change, including rising prices. So if prices rise and consumers substitute products, the CPI formula could hold a bias that doesn’t report rising prices. Not a very accurate way to measure inflation.

The CPI doesn’t even meet the government’s definition of inflation

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines inflation “as a process of continuously rising prices or equivalently, of a continuously falling value of money.”

As I outlined above, the CPI is not a measurement of rising prices, rather it tracks consumer spending patterns that change as prices change. The CPI doesn’t even touch the falling value of money. If it did the CPI would look much different.

The CPI doesn’t meet other government agency’s inflation measurements either

Franklin by Anthony Freda

The most obvious is the Federal Reserve’s measure of monetary inflation. M2 measures the supply of US dollars, which includes cash, checking deposits, saving deposits, and money market mutual funds. The more money that’s created and put into circulation, the less valuable it becomes. And the Fed has created a lot of money recently. The Fed’s unprecedented bond buying program, Quantitative Easing, created $116 million an hour for the entire year last year. It doesn’t make sense that the BLS’s measurement of inflation was only 1.5% last year, while at the same time, monetary inflation grew 4.9%.*

Another example where the BLS doesn’t meet other agency’s inflation measurements is the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to the BLS the average price of beef and veal increased 20 percent over the past five years. However, according to the USDA, beef prices have increased 26 percent over the past five years. I asked a statistician at the BLS about this discrepancy and he said “I would expect those numbers to be a little closer together.” When even the federal government gets different numbers on the same products, how could this possibly be an accurate measurement of inflation?

It’s important to have an accurate measure of inflation because consumers, especially those on fixed incomes, are negatively impacted by rising prices. Also, the federal government and the Federal Reserve use CPI trends to help set tax, monetary and fiscal policies, which affects economic growth. Given that the CPI is calculated secretly, is no where near comparable to monetary inflation, and doesn’t even meet its own definition of inflation, we should use our common sense to count the value of our cents, not the CPI.

*Footnote: On 01/07/2013 M2 was $10.452 trillion. On 01/06/2014 M2 grew to $10.962 trillion. That’s a 4.9% increase in the monetary base in just one year. Conversely, a 4.9% decrease in the value of the US dollar.


Comparing the CPI and RPI

Comparing the Retail Price Index (RPI) and the Consumer Price Index (CPI) raises the following issues:

Mathematical technique of calculation

The RPI uses an arithmetic average of price changes whereas the CPI uses a geometric average, which makes the CPI mathematically more precise. This is because it can continually capture the effects of changes in consumer spending patterns in response to inflation or deflation.

Adjustment

A potential problem with price indices is that they may not adjust quickly enough to reflect changes in spending. Indices are based on a sample of goods and services which are weighted according to how important the good is to the consumer. The importance of a good is based on how much of household income is spent on a product. For example, a typical household may spend 10% of their income on holidays, and therefore holidays will be given 10% of the weighting. But what happens if the cost of a holiday rises by 20%, as a result of a fall in Sterling? Consumers are likely to respond, and reduce their holiday spending. If they now spend only 5% of their income on holidays, the weighting used in the CPI index can be quickly adjusted to 5%. However, the older RPI could not be adjusted so quickly, and could not resolve the problem of changing spending patterns.

Because of this, and because the CPI does not include housing costs, or council taxes, the RPI gives a slightly higher rate than does the CPI. The CPI gives a higher weighting to energy costs, so change in oil prices have a bigger impact on the CPI inflation rate.

This means that the Bank of England, using the CPI, can set a target of 2% inflation, and not 2.5%. Despite this, the UK authorities still track the RPIx and RPIy.


Capital Allocation Decisions

Should the company issue or increase dividends? Should it build that new factory or hire more workers? These are the dilemmas facing managers of today's publicly-traded companies.

Every company follows a life cycle in the early stages of life, capital allocation decisions are pretty simple – most of the cash flows will be poured back into the growing business, and there probably isn't going to be much money left over. After many years of strong, steady earnings growth, companies find out that there is only so much market out there to be had. In other words, adding the next product to the shelf, or adding the next shelf for that matter, is only half as profitable per unit as the first things that were put on that shelf many years ago. Eventually, the company will reach a point where cash flows are strong, and there is extra cash "lying around." The first discussions then can begin about such things as:

  • Entering a new line of business – This requires higher initial outlays of cash, but could prove to be the most profitable course in the long run.
  • Increasing capacity of the core business – This can be confidently done until growth rates begin to decline.
  • Issuing or increasing dividends – The tried and true method.
  • Retiring debt – This increases financial efficiency, as equity financing will almost always be cheaper.
  • Investing or acquiring other companies or ventures – This should always be done cautiously, sticking to core competencies.
  • Buying back company stock.

Management makes these kinds of decisions by using the same metrics available to investors.


Using Fiscal Policy to Fight Recession, Unemployment, and Inflation

Fiscal policy is the use of government spending and tax policy to influence the path of the economy over time. Graphically, we see that fiscal policy, whether through changes in spending or taxes, shifts the aggregate demand outward in the case of expansionary fiscal policy and inward in the case of contractionary fiscal policy . We know from the chapter on economic growth that over time the quantity and quality of our resources grow as the population and thus the labor force get larger, as businesses invest in new capital, and as technology improves. The result of this is regular shifts to the right of the aggregate supply curves, as (Figure) illustrates.

The original equilibrium occurs at E0, the intersection of aggregate demand curve AD0 and aggregate supply curve SRAS0, at an output level of 200 and a price level of 90. One year later, aggregate supply has shifted to the right to SRAS1 in the process of long-term economic growth, and aggregate demand has also shifted to the right to AD1, keeping the economy operating at the new level of potential GDP. The new equilibrium (E1) is an output level of 206 and a price level of 92. One more year later, aggregate supply has again shifted to the right, now to SRAS2, and aggregate demand shifts right as well to AD2. Now the equilibrium is E2, with an output level of 212 and a price level of 94. In short, the figure shows an economy that is growing steadily year to year, producing at its potential GDP each year, with only small inflationary increases in the price level.


Aggregate demand and aggregate supply do not always move neatly together. Think about what causes shifts in aggregate demand over time. As aggregate supply increases, incomes tend to go up. This tends to increase consumer and investment spending, shifting the aggregate demand curve to the right, but in any given period it may not shift the same amount as aggregate supply. What happens to government spending and taxes? Government spends to pay for the ordinary business of government- items such as national defense, social security, and healthcare, as (Figure) shows. Tax revenues, in part, pay for these expenditures. The result may be an increase in aggregate demand more than or less than the increase in aggregate supply.

Aggregate demand may fail to increase along with aggregate supply, or aggregate demand may even shift left, for a number of possible reasons: households become hesitant about consuming firms decide against investing as much or perhaps the demand from other countries for exports diminishes.

For example, investment by private firms in physical capital in the U.S. economy boomed during the late 1990s, rising from 14.1% of GDP in 1993 to 17.2% in 2000, before falling back to 15.2% by 2002. Conversely, if shifts in aggregate demand run ahead of increases in aggregate supply, inflationary increases in the price level will result. Business cycles of recession and recovery are the consequence of shifts in aggregate supply and aggregate demand. As these occur, the government may choose to use fiscal policy to address the difference.

Monetary Policy and Bank Regulation shows us that a central bank can use its powers over the banking system to engage in countercyclical—or “against the business cycle”—actions. If recession threatens, the central bank uses an expansionary monetary policy to increase the money supply, increase the quantity of loans, reduce interest rates, and shift aggregate demand to the right. If inflation threatens, the central bank uses contractionary monetary policy to reduce the money supply, reduce the quantity of loans, raise interest rates, and shift aggregate demand to the left. Fiscal policy is another macroeconomic policy tool for adjusting aggregate demand by using either government spending or taxation policy.

Expansionary Fiscal Policy

Expansionary fiscal policy increases the level of aggregate demand, through either increases in government spending or reductions in tax rates. Expansionary policy can do this by (1) increasing consumption by raising disposable income through cuts in personal income taxes or payroll taxes (2) increasing investment spending by raising after-tax profits through cuts in business taxes and (3) increasing government purchases through increased federal government spending on final goods and services and raising federal grants to state and local governments to increase their expenditures on final goods and services. Contractionary fiscal policy does the reverse: it decreases the level of aggregate demand by decreasing consumption, decreasing investment, and decreasing government spending, either through cuts in government spending or increases in taxes. The aggregate demand/aggregate supply model is useful in judging whether expansionary or contractionary fiscal policy is appropriate.

Consider first the situation in (Figure), which is similar to the U.S. economy during the 2008-2009 recession. The intersection of aggregate demand (AD0) and aggregate supply (SRAS0) is occurring below the level of potential GDP as the LRAS curve indicates. At the equilibrium (E0), a recession occurs and unemployment rises. In this case, expansionary fiscal policy using tax cuts or increases in government spending can shift aggregate demand to AD1, closer to the full-employment level of output. In addition, the price level would rise back to the level P1 associated with potential GDP.


Should the government use tax cuts or spending increases, or a mix of the two, to carry out expansionary fiscal policy? During the 2008-2009 Great Recession (which started, actually, in late 2007), the U.S. economy suffered a 3.1% cumulative loss of GDP. That may not sound like much, but it’s more than one year’s average growth rate of GDP. Over that time frame, the unemployment rate doubled from 5% to 10%. The consensus view is that this was possibly the worst economic downturn in U.S. history since the 1930’s Great Depression. The choice between whether to use tax or spending tools often has a political tinge. As a general statement, conservatives and Republicans prefer to see expansionary fiscal policy carried out by tax cuts, while liberals and Democrats prefer that the government implement expansionary fiscal policy through spending increases. In a bipartisan effort to address the extreme situation, the Obama administration and Congress passed an $830 billion expansionary policy in early 2009 involving both tax cuts and increases in government spending. At the same time, however, the federal stimulus was partially offset when state and local governments, whose budgets were hard hit by the recession, began cutting their spending.

The conflict over which policy tool to use can be frustrating to those who want to categorize economics as “liberal” or “conservative,” or who want to use economic models to argue against their political opponents. However, advocates of smaller government, who seek to reduce taxes and government spending can use the AD AS model, as well as advocates of bigger government, who seek to raise taxes and government spending. Economic studies of specific taxing and spending programs can help inform decisions about whether the government should change taxes or spending, and in what ways. Ultimately, decisions about whether to use tax or spending mechanisms to implement macroeconomic policy is a political decision rather than a purely economic one.

Contractionary Fiscal Policy

Fiscal policy can also contribute to pushing aggregate demand beyond potential GDP in a way that leads to inflation. As (Figure) shows, a very large budget deficit pushes up aggregate demand, so that the intersection of aggregate demand (AD0) and aggregate supply (SRAS0) occurs at equilibrium E0, which is an output level above potential GDP. Economists sometimes call this an “overheating economy” where demand is so high that there is upward pressure on wages and prices, causing inflation. In this situation, contractionary fiscal policy involving federal spending cuts or tax increases can help to reduce the upward pressure on the price level by shifting aggregate demand to the left, to AD1, and causing the new equilibrium E1 to be at potential GDP, where aggregate demand intersects the LRAS curve.


Again, the AD–AS model does not dictate how the government should carry out this contractionary fiscal policy. Some may prefer spending cuts others may prefer tax increases still others may say that it depends on the specific situation. The model only argues that, in this situation, the government needs to reduce aggregate demand.

Key Concepts and Summary

Expansionary fiscal policy increases the level of aggregate demand, either through increases in government spending or through reductions in taxes. Expansionary fiscal policy is most appropriate when an economy is in recession and producing below its potential GDP. Contractionary fiscal policy decreases the level of aggregate demand, either through cuts in government spending or increases in taxes. Contractionary fiscal policy is most appropriate when an economy is producing above its potential GDP.

Self-Check Questions

What is the main reason for employing contractionary fiscal policy in a time of strong economic growth?

To keep prices from rising too much or too rapidly.

What is the main reason for employing expansionary fiscal policy during a recession?

Review Questions

What is the difference between expansionary fiscal policy and contractionary fiscal policy?

Under what general macroeconomic circumstances might a government use expansionary fiscal policy? When might it use contractionary fiscal policy?

Critical Thinking Questions

How will cuts in state budget spending affect federal expansionary policy?

Is expansionary fiscal policy more attractive to politicians who believe in larger government or to politicians who believe in smaller government? Explain your answer.

Problems

Specify whether expansionary or contractionary fiscal policy would seem to be most appropriate in response to each of the situations below and sketch a diagram using aggregate demand and aggregate supply curves to illustrate your answer:

  1. A recession.
  2. A stock market collapse that hurts consumer and business confidence.
  3. Extremely rapid growth of exports.
  4. Rising inflation.
  5. A rise in the natural rate of unemployment.
  6. A rise in oil prices.

References

Alesina, Alberto, and Francesco Giavazzi. Fiscal Policy after the Financial Crisis (National Bureau of Economic Research Conference Report). Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2013.


Essay on Inflation: Types, Causes and Effects

Inflation and unemployment are the two most talked-about words in the contemporary society. These two are the big problems that plague all the economies. Almost everyone is sure that he knows what inflation exactly is, but it remains a source of great deal of confusion because it is difficult to define it unambiguously.

Inflation is often defined in terms of its supposed causes. Inflation exists when money supply exceeds available goods and services. Or inflation is attributed to budget deficit financing. A deficit budget may be financed by additional money creation. But the situation of monetary expansion or budget deficit may not cause price level to rise. Hence the difficulty of defining ‘inflation’.

Inflation may be defined as ‘a sustained upward trend in the general level of prices’ and not the price of only one or two goods. G. Ackley defined inflation as ‘a persistent and appreciable rise in the general level or average of prices’. In other words, inflation is a state of rising price level, but not rise in the price level. It is not high prices but rising prices that constitute inflation.

It is an increase in the overall price level. A small rise in prices or a sudden rise in prices is not inflation since these may reflect the short term workings of the market. It is to be pointed out here that inflation is a state of disequilibrium when there occurs a sustained rise in price level.

It is inflation if the prices of most goods go up. However, it is difficult to detect whether there is an upward trend in prices and whether this trend is sustained. That is why inflation is difficult to define in an unambiguous sense.

Let’s measure inflation rate. Suppose, in December 2007, the consumer price index was 193.6 and, in December 2008 it was 223.8. Thus the inflation rate during the last one year was 223.8 – 193.6/193.6 × 100 = 15.6%.

As inflation is a state of rising prices, deflation may be defined as a state of falling prices but not fall in prices. Deflation is, thus, the opposite of inflation, i.e., rise in the value or purchasing power of money. Disinflation is a slowing down of the rate of inflation.

Essay on the Types of Inflation:

As the nature of inflation is not uniform in an economy for all the time, it is wise to distinguish between different types of inflation. Such analysis is useful to study the distributional and other effects of inflation as well as to recommend anti-inflationary policies.

Inflation may be caused by a variety of factors. Its intensity or pace may be different at different times. It may also be classified in accordance with the reactions of the government toward inflation.

Thus, one may observe different types of inflation in the contemporary society:

(a) According to Causes:

This type of inflation is caused by the printing of currency notes.

Being profit-making institutions, commercial banks sanction more loans and advances to the public than what the economy needs. Such credit expansion leads to a rise in price level.

iii. Deficit-Induced Inflation:

The budget of the government reflects a deficit when expenditure exceeds revenue. To meet this gap, the government may ask the central bank to print additional money. Since pumping of additional money is required to meet the budget deficit, any price rise may be called deficit-induced inflation.

iv. Demand-Pull Inflation:

An increase in aggregate demand over the available output leads to a rise in the price level. Such inflation is called demand-pull inflation (henceforth DPI). But why does aggregate demand rise? Classical economists attribute this rise in aggregate demand to money supply.

If the supply of money in an economy exceeds the available goods and services, DPI appears. It has been described by Coulborn as a situation of “too much money chasing too few goods”.

Keynesians hold a different argu­ment.

They argue that there can be an autonomous increase in aggregate de­mand or spending, such as a rise in consumption demand or investment or government spending or a tax cut or a net increase in exports (i.e., C + I + G + X – M) with no increase in money supply. This would prompt upward adjustment in price. Thus, DPI is caused by both monetary factors (clas­sical argument) and non-monetary fac­tors (Keynesian argument).

DPI can be explained in terms of the following figure (Fig. 11.2) where we measure output on the horizontal axis and price level on the vertical axis. In Range 1, total spending is too short of full employment output, Yf. There is little or no rise in price level. As demand now rises, output will rise. The economy enters Range 2 where output approaches full employment situation.

Note that, in this region, price level begins to rise. Ultimately, the economy reaches full employment situation, i.e., Range 3, where output does not rise but price level is pulled upward. This is demand-pull inflation. The essence of this type of inflation is “too much spending chasing too few goods.”

Inflation in an economy may arise from the overall increase in the cost of production. This type of inflation is known as cost-push inflation (henceforth CPI). Cost of production may rise due to increase in the price of raw materials, wages, etc. Often trade unions are blamed for wage rise since wage rate is not market-determined. Higher wage means higher cost of production.

Prices of commodities are thereby increased. A wage-price spiral comes into operation. But, at the same time, firms are to be blamed also for the price rise since they simply raise prices to expand their profit margins. Thus we have two important variants of CPI: wage-push inflation and profit-push inflation. Anyway, CPI stems from the leftward shift of the aggregate supply curve.

(b) According to Speed or Intensity:

i. Creeping or Mild Inflation:

If the speed of upward thrust in prices is very low then we have creeping inflation. What speed of annual price rise is a creeping one has not been stated by the economists? To some, a creeping or mild inflation is one when annual price rise varies between 2 p.c. and 3 p.c.

If a rate of price rise is kept at this level, it is considered to be helpful for economic development. Others argue that if annual price rise goes slightly beyond 3 p.c. mark, still then it is considered to be of no danger.

If the rate of annual price increase lies between 3 p.c. and 4 p.c., then we have a situation of walking inflation. When mild inflation is allowed to fan out, walking inflation appears. These two types of inflation may be described as ‘moderate inflation’.

Often, one-digit inflation rate is called ‘moderate inflation’ which is not only predictable, but also keep people’s faith on the monetary system of the country’. People’s confidence get lost once moderately maintained rate of inflation goes out of control and the economy is then caught with the galloping inflation.

iii. Galloping and Hyperinflation:

Walking inflation may be converted into running inflation. Running inflation is dangerous. If it is not controlled, it may ultimately be converted to galloping or hyperinflation. It is an extreme form of inflation when an economy gets shattered. “Inflation in the double or triple digit range of 20, 100 or 200 per cent a year is labelled galloping inflation”.

iv. Government’s Reaction to Infla­tion:

Inflationary situation may be open or suppressed. Because of ant-inflationary policies pursued by the government, inflation may not be an embarrassing one. For instance, an increase in income leads to an increase in consumption spending which pulls the price level up.

If the consumption spending is countered by the government via price control and rationing device, the inflationary situation may be called a suppressed one. Once the government curbs are lifted, the suppressed inflation becomes open inflation. Open inflation may then result in hyperinflation.

Essay on the Causes of Inflation:

Inflation is mainly caused by excess demand/or decline in aggregate supply or output. Former leads to a rightward shift of aggregate demand curve while the latter causes aggregate supply curve to shift leftward. Former is called demand-pull inflation (DPI) and the latter is called cost- push inflation (CPI).

Before describing the factors that lead to a rise in aggregate demand and a decline in aggregate supply, we like to explain “demand-pull” and “cost- push” theories of inflation.

Demand-Pull Inflation Theory:

There are two theoretical approaches to DPI —one is the classical and the other is the Keynesian.

According to classical economists or monetarists, inflation is caused by the increase in money supply which leads to a rightward shift in negative sloping aggregate demand curve.

Given a situation of full employment, classicists maintained that a change in money supply brings about an equi-proportionate change in price level. That is why monetrarists argue that inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.

Keynesians do not find any link between money supply and price level causing an upward shift in aggregate demand. According to Keynesians, aggregate demand may rise due to a rise in consumer demand or investment demand or government expenditure or net exports or the combination of these four.

Given full employment, such increase in aggregate demand leads to an upward pressure in prices. Such a situation is called DPI. This can be explained graphically.

Just like the price of a commodity, the level of prices is determined by the interaction of aggregate demand and aggregate supply. In Fig. 11.3, aggregate demand curve is negative sloping while aggregate supply curve before the full employment stage is positive sloping and becomes vertical after the full employment stage. AD1 is the initial aggregate demand curve that intersects the aggregate supply curve AS at point E1.

The price level thus determined is OP1. As aggregate demand curve shifts to AD2, price level rises to OP2. Thus, an increase in aggregate demand at the full employment stage leads to an increase in price level only, rather than the level of output. However, how much price level will rise following an increase in aggregate demand depends on the slope of the AS curve.

Causes of Demand-Pull Inflation:

DPI originates in the monetary sector. Monetarists’ argument that “only money matters” is based on the assumption that at or near full employment, excessive money supply will increase aggregate demand and will thus cause inflation.

An increase in nominal money supply shifts aggregate demand curve rightward. This enables people to hold excess cash balances. Spending of excess cash balances by them causes price level to rise. Price level will continue to rise until aggregate demand equals aggregate supply.

Keynesians argue that inflation originates in the non-monetary sector or the real sector. Aggregate demand may rise if there is an increase in consumption expenditure following a tax cut. There may be an autonomous increase in business investment or government expenditure. Governmental expenditure is inflationary if the needed money is procured by the government by printing additional money.

In brief, an increase in aggregate demand i.e., increase in (C + I + G + X – M) causes price level to rise. However, aggregate demand may rise following an increase in money supply generated by the printing of additional money (classical argument) which drives prices upward. Thus, money plays a vital role. That is why Milton Friedman believes that inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.

There are other reasons that may push aggregate demand and, hence, price level upwards. For instance, growth of population stimulates aggregate demand. Higher export earnings increase the purchasing power of the exporting countries.

Additional purchasing power means additional aggregate demand. Purchasing power and, hence, aggregate demand, may also go up if government repays public debt. Again, there is a tendency on the part of the holders of black money to spend on conspicuous consumption goods. Such tendency fuels inflationary fire. Thus, DPI is caused by a variety of factors.

Cost-Push Inflation Theory:

In addition to aggregate demand, aggregate supply also generates inflationary process. As inflation is caused by a leftward shift of the aggregate supply, we call it CPI. CPI is usually associated with the non-monetary factors. CPI arises due to the increase in cost of production. Cost of production may rise due to a rise in the cost of raw materials or increase in wages.

Such increases in costs are passed on to consumers by firms by raising the prices of the products. Rising wages lead to rising costs. Rising costs lead to rising prices. And rising prices, again, prompt trade unions to demand higher wages. Thus, an inflationary wage-price spiral starts.

This causes aggregate supply curve to shift leftward. This can be demonstrated graphically (Fig. 11.4) where AS1 is the initial aggregate supply curve. Below the full employment stage this AS curve is positive sloping and at full employment stage it becomes perfectly inelastic. Intersection point (E1) of AD1 and AS1 curves determines the price level.

Now, there is a leftward shift of aggregate supply curve to AS2. With no change in aggregate demand, this causes price level to rise to OP2 and output to fall to OY2.

With the reduction in output, employment in the economy declines or unemployment rises. Further shift in the AS curve to AS2 results in higher price level (OP3) and a lower volume of aggregate output (OY3). Thus, CPI may arise even below the full employment (Yf) stage.

Causes of CPI:

It is the cost factors that pull the prices upward. One of the important causes of price rise is the rise in price of raw materials. For instance, by an administrative order the government may hike the price of petrol or diesel or freight rate. Firms buy these inputs now at a higher price. This leads to an upward pressure on cost of production.

Not only this, CPI is often imported from outside the economy. Increase in the price of petrol by OPEC compels the government to increase the price of petrol and diesel. These two important raw materials are needed by every sector, especially the transport sector. As a result, transport costs go up resulting in higher general price level.

Again, CPI may be induced by wage-push inflation or profit-push inflation. Trade unions demand higher money wages as a compensation against inflationary price rise. If increase in money wages exceeds labour productivity, aggregate supply will shift upward and leftward. Firms often exercise power by pushing up prices independently of consumer demand to expand their profit margins.

Fiscal policy changes, such as an increase in tax rates leads to an upward pressure in cost of production. For instance, an overall increase in excise tax of mass consumption goods is definitely inflationary. That is why government is then accused of causing inflation.

Finally, production setbacks may result in decreases in output. Natural disaster, exhaustion of natural resources, work stoppages, electric power cuts, etc., may cause aggregate output to decline.

In the midst of this output reduction, artificial scarcity of any goods by traders and hoarders just simply ignite the situation.

Inefficiency, corruption, mismanagement of the economy may also be the other reasons. Thus, inflation is caused by the interplay of various factors. A particular factor cannot be held responsible for inflationary price rise.

Essay on the Effects of Inflation:

People’s desires are inconsistent. When they act as buyers they want prices of goods and services to remain stable but as sellers they expect the prices of goods and services should go up. Such a happy outcome may arise for some individuals “but, when this happens, others will be getting the worst of both worlds.” Since inflation reduces purchasing power it is bad.

The old people are in the habit of recalling the days when the price of say, meat per kilogram cost just 10 rupees. Today it is Rs. 250 per kilogram. This is true for all other commodities. When they enjoyed a better living standard. Imagine today, how worse we are! But meanwhile, wages and salaries of people have risen to a great height, compared to the ‘good old days’. This goes unusually untold.

When price level goes up, there is both a gainer and a loser. To evaluate the consequence of inflation, one must identify the nature of inflation which may be anticipated and unanticipated. If inflation is anticipated, people can adjust with the new situation and costs of inflation to the society will be smaller.

In reality, people cannot predict accurately future events or people often make mistakes in predicting the course of inflation. In other words, inflation may be unanticipated when people fail to adjust completely. This creates various problems.

One can study the effects of unanticipated inflation under two broad headings:

(i) Effect on distribution of income and wealth

(ii) Effect on economic growth.

(a) Effects of Inflation on Income and Wealth Distribution:

During inflation, usually people experience rise in incomes. But some people gain during inflation at the expense of others. Some individuals gain because their money incomes rise more rapidly than the prices and some lose because prices rise more rapidly than their incomes during inflation. Thus, it redistributes income and wealth.

Though no conclusive evidence can be cited, it can be asserted that following categories of people are affected by inflation differently:

i. Creditors and Debtors:

Borrowers gain and lenders lose during inflation because debts are fixed in rupee terms. When debts are repaid their real value declines by the price level increase and, hence, creditors lose. An individual may be interested in buying a house by taking a loan of Rs. 7 lakh from an institution for 7 years.

The borrower now welcomes inflation since he will have to pay less in real terms than when it was borrowed. Lender, in the process, loses since the rate of interest payable remains unaltered as per agreement. Because of inflation, the borrower is given ‘dear’ rupees, but pays back ‘cheap’ rupees.

However, if in an inflation-ridden economy creditors chronically loose, it is wise not to advance loans or to shut down business. Never does it happen. Rather, the loan- giving institution makes adequate safeguard against the erosion of real value.

ii. Bond and Debenture-Holders:

In an economy, there are some people who live on interest income—they suffer most.

Bondholders earn fixed interest income:

These people suffer a reduction in real income when prices rise. In other words, the value of one’s savings decline if the interest rate falls short of inflation rate. Similarly, beneficiaries from life insurance programmes are also hit badly by inflation since real value of savings deteriorate.

People who put their money in shares during inflation are expected to gain since the possibility of earning business profit brightens. Higher profit induces owners of firms to distribute profit among investors or shareholders.

iv. Salaried People and Wage-Earners:

Anyone earning a fixed income is damaged by inflation. Sometimes, unionized worker succeeds in raising wage rates of white-collar workers as a compensation against price rise. But wage rate changes with a long time lag. In other words, wage rate increases always lag behind price increases.

Naturally, inflation results in a reduction in real purchasing power of fixed income earners. On the other hand, people earning flexible incomes may gain during inflation. The nominal incomes of such people outstrip the general price rise. As a result, real incomes of this income group increase.

v. Profit-Earners, Speculators and Black Marketeers:

It is argued that profit-earners gain from inflation. Profit tends to rise during inflation. Seeing inflation, businessmen raise the prices of their products. This results in a bigger profit. Profit margin, however, may not be high when the rate of inflation climbs to a high level.

However, speculators dealing in business in essential commodities usually stand to gain by inflation. Black marketeers are also benefited by inflation.

Thus, there occurs a redistribution of income and wealth. It is said that rich becomes richer and poor becomes poorer during inflation. However, no such hard and fast generalizations can be made. It is clear that someone wins and someone loses from inflation.

These effects of inflation may persist if inflation is unanticipated. However, the redistributive burdens of inflation on income and wealth are most likely to be minimal if inflation is anticipated by the people.

With anticipated inflation, people can build up their strategies to cope with inflation. If the annual rate of inflation in an economy is anticipated correctly people will try to protect them against losses resulting from inflation.

Workers will demand 10 p.c. wage increase if inflation is expected to rise by 10 p.c. Similarly, a percentage of inflation premium will be demanded by creditors from debtors. Business firms will also fix prices of their products in accordance with the anticipated price rise. Now if the entire society “learns to live with inflation”, the redistributive effect of inflation will be minimal.

However, it is difficult to anticipate properly every episode of inflation. Further, even if it is anticipated it cannot be perfect. In addition, adjustment with the new expected inflationary conditions may not be possible for all categories of people. Thus, adverse redistributive effects are likely to occur.

Finally, anticipated inflation may also be costly to the society. If people’s expectation regarding future price rise become stronger they will hold less liquid money. Mere holding of cash balances during inflation is unwise since its real value declines. That is why people use their money balances in buying real estate, gold, jewellery, etc.

Such investment is referred to as unproductive investment. Thus, during inflation of anticipated variety, there occurs a diversion of resources from priority to non-priority or unproductive sectors.

B. Effect on Production and Economic Growth:

Inflation may or may not result in higher output. Below the full employment stage, inflation has a favourable effect on production. In general, profit is a rising function of the price level. An inflationary situation gives an incentive to businessmen to raise prices of their products so as to earn higher doses of profit.

Rising price and rising profit encourage firms to make larger investments. As a result, the multiplier effect of investment will come into operation resulting in higher national output. However, such a favourable effect of inflation will be temporary if wages and production costs rise very rapidly.

Further, inflationary situation may be associated with the fall in output, particularly if inflation is of the cost-push variety. Thus, there is no strict relationship between prices and output. An increase in aggregate demand will increase both prices and output, but a supply shock will raise prices and lower output.

Inflation may also lower down further production levels. It is commonly assumed that if inflationary tendencies nurtured by experienced inflation persist in future, people will now save less and consume more. Rising saving propensities will result in lower further outputs.

One may also argue that inflation creates an air of uncertainty in the minds of business community, particularly when the rate of inflation fluctuates. In the midst of rising inflationary trend, firms cannot accurately estimate their costs and revenues. Under the circumstance, business firms may be deterred in investing. This will adversely affect the growth performance of the economy.

However, slight dose of inflation is necessary for economic growth. Mild inflation has an encouraging effect on national output. But it is difficult to make the price rise of a creeping variety. High rate of inflation acts as a disincentive to long run economic growth. The way the hyperinflation affects economic growth is summed up here.

We know that hyperinflation discourages savings. A fall in savings means a lower rate of capital formation. A low rate of capital formation hinders economic growth. Further, during excessive price rise, there occurs an increase in unproductive investment in real estate, gold, jewellery, etc.

Above all, speculative businesses flourish during inflation resulting in artificial scarcities and, hence, further rise in prices. Again, following hyperinflation, export earnings decline resulting in a wide imbalance in the balance of payments account.

Often, galloping inflation results in a ‘flight’ of capital to foreign countries since people lose confidence and faith over the monetary arrangements of the country, thereby resulting in a scarcity of resources. Finally, real value of tax revenue also declines under the impact of hyperinflation. Government then experiences a shortfall in investible resources.

Thus, economists and policy makers are unanimous regarding the dangers of high price rise. But the consequence of hyperinflation is disastrous. In the past, some of the world economies (e.g., Germany after the First World War (1914-1918), Latin American countries in the 1980s) had been greatly ravaged by hyperinflation.

The German Inflation of 1920s was also Catastrophic:

During 1922, the German price level went up 5,470 per cent, in 1923, the situation worsened the German price level rose 1,300,000,000 times. By October of 1923, the postage of the lightest letter sent from Germany to the United States was 200,000 marks.

Butter cost 1.5 million marks per pound, meat 2 million marks, a loaf of bread 200,000 marks, and an egg 60,000 marks Prices increased so rapidly that waiters changed the prices on the menu several times during the course of a lunch!! Sometimes, customers had to pay double the price listed on the menu when they observed it first.

During October 2008, Zimbabwe, under the President-ship of Robert G. Mugabe, experienced 231,000,000 p.c. (2.31 million p.c.) as against 1.2 million p.c. price rise in September 2008—a record after 1923. It is an unbelievable rate. In May 2008, the cost of price of a toilet paper itself and not the costs of the roll of the toilet paper came to 417 Zimbabwean dollars.

Anyway, people are harassed ultimately by the high rate of inflation. That is why it is said that ‘inflation is our public enemy number one’. Rising inflation rate is a sign of failure on the part of the government.


ROE and DuPont Analysis

Though ROE can easily be computed by dividing net income by shareholders' equity, a technique called DuPont decomposition can break down the ROE calculation into additional steps. Created by the American chemicals corporation DuPont in the 1920s, this analysis reveals which factors are contributing the most (or the least) to a firm's ROE.

There are two versions of DuPont analysis, the first involving three steps:

​Alternatively, the five-step version is as follows:

ROE = EBT S × S A × A E × ( 1 − TR ) where: EBT = Earnings before tax S = Sales A = Assets E = Equity TR = Tax rate egin & ext = frac < ext> < ext> imes frac < ext> < ext> imes frac < ext> < ext> imes ( 1 - ext ) & extbf & ext = ext & ext = ext & ext = ext & ext = ext & ext = ext end ​ ROE = S EBT ​ × A S ​ × E A ​ × ( 1 − TR ) where: EBT = Earnings before tax S = Sales A = Assets E = Equity TR = Tax rate ​

Both the three- and five-step equations provide a deeper understanding of a company's ROE by examining what is changing in a company rather than looking at one simple ratio. As always with financial statement ratios, they should be examined against the company's history and its competitors' histories.

For example, when looking at two peer companies, one may have a lower ROE. With the five-step equation, you can see if this is lower because creditors perceive the company as riskier and charge it higher interest, the company is poorly managed and has leverage that is too low, or the company has higher costs that decrease its operating profit margin. Identifying sources like these leads to better knowledge of the company and how it should be valued.


How Contractionary Differs From Expansionary Policy

Expansionary monetary policy stimulates the economy. The central bank uses its tools to add to the money supply. It often does this by lowering interest rates. It can also use expansionary open market operations, called quantitative easing.

The result is an increase in aggregate demand. It boosts growth as measured by gross domestic product. It lowers the value of the currency, thereby decreasing the exchange rate.

Expansionary monetary policy deters the contractionary phase of the business cycle. But it is difficult for policymakers to catch this in time. As a result, you'll often see the expansionary policy used after a recession has started.


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