Ian Rowell
Junior Sophister

There is a consensus that monetarism, as applied in the English speaking economies in the early 1980s, was a failure, and criticism of the attempts to apply it has led monetarists to distance themselves from the actions taken in their name. Many opponents of monetarism would argue that the costs incurred by the reduction of inflation in the early 1980s were exceptionally high and that the policy should not have been tried. In this essay, however, I intend to concern myself more with the criticism made by policy-makers, not that monetarism was too costly, but that it proved impracticable because the relationships on which monetarism relied turned out to be unstable. In their turn, monetarists replied that their policies had not been implemented as they had advised. In this essay, I will describe that debate, focussing on both the choice of targets and the instruments used.


Monetarism is the belief that the sole objective of macroeconomic stabilisation policy should be the control of inflation, and that output growth should be achieved through microeconomic (or supply-side) policy. Monetarists rely on the stability of V, the velocity of money, in the definitional equation MV=PY. They claim that money demand (and hence V) is a function of several variables, exogenous to the model, and that the function can be relied upon to evolve more slowly than the other components of the equation. Therefore, for policy purposes V may be regarded as stable. They also argue that M is exogenous, and that changes in M cause changes in PY. Finally, they believe that the economy is on average at the natural rate of unemployment and Y is exogenous. This means that, in the long term, changes in M are the sole cause of changes in P and the relationship is stable. The empirical work of Milton Friedman and Anna Schwarz confirmed just such a stable relationship between M and P. The implication of this theory is that the authorities, being unable to anticipate short-term fluctuations in real income, should set growth in M equal to long-run income growth plus an acceptable rate of inflation. This will be the best automatic stabilizer, and the knowledge of the existence of such a policy rule will force wage- and price-setters to moderate their claims.

In order to implement a monetarist policy, the government must set a target for some measure of the money supply and pursue this target through some policy instrument interest rates, monetary base operations or regulation of the financial sector. It is necessary that there should exist (i) a stable relationship between the measure of money chosen and the price level, and (ii) a predictable relationship between the monetary aggregate in question and the instrument used to influence it. Most of the debate between monetarists over the means of controlling inflation reduces to finding instruments and aggregates which obey these two criteria.

Particular debate has taken place over point (i): which monetary aggregates have a stable relationship with the price level? Instability of this relationship can be attributed to three main causes. Firstly, the relationship is stochastic and when implementing such a policy one must allow for errors in an individual year. Secondly, even in the long term V may be unstable due to institutional changes which affect the money demand function. Thirdly, some monetary aggregates may not cause changes in the price level and may in the past only have exhibited a stable relationship with PY because the causality went the other way. The problem in implementing monetarism is to trade off the instability caused by institutional change, which mainly affects broader measures of money, against the instability caused by the absence of causality, which mainly affects narrower measures. Many of the failures of supposedly monetarist policies in Britain and the US in the 1980s can be attributed to one or other of these problems.


In Britain, the Medium Term Financial Strategy of the Conservative government from 1979 to 1985 consisted of targeting the broad money aggregate sterling M3 ([[sterling]]M3), which contained currency and all bank accounts except those denominated in foreign currencies. Until 1982 it was the sole target. [[sterling]]M3 was chosen for two reasons. Firstly, by an accounting identity, a large component of it was the PSBR, and thus government policy had a predictable influence upon it. ( This was especially important since one of the main means of reducing the money supply was to be fiscal rectitude. ) The second reason for choosing [[sterling]]M3 was that it had given advance warning of the Heath inflation of the 1970s, where other aggregates ( notably M1 ) had not.

A broadly stable velocity was observed for [[sterling]]M3 through the 1960s and 1970s, rising slightly over time. It was thought to have a predictable relationship with inflation. However, it turned out not to have when tried for policy. The target was overshot in every year except 1982-3, and yet inflation turned out to have fallen dramatically. In the early 1980s, narrower monetary indicators were showing that policy was far tighter than [[sterling]]M3 indicated. By 1983, it was clear that the velocity of circulation had fallen rapidly as soon as policy began to be applied. Many conservatives, who had hoped for a more gradual approach to the reduction of inflation, blamed the breakdown in stability for the overtightness of policy. Unemployment in Britain rose from 1.3m to 2.2m in 1980. But monetarists had always warned there would be short-term costs and output and employment would recover later. A more serious criticism, from their point of view, was advanced by the monetary authorities: that monetarism was impossible to apply.

In the US, the Federal Reserve attempted to implement monetarism between 1979 and 1982. They targeted the narrow monetary aggregate M1 through a form of Monetary Base Control (MBC). MBC entailed controlling the money supply through the non-borrowed reserve base rather than short-term interest rates. Although the year-on-year M1 targets were met, this policy was unsuccessful, since (i) the volatility of different measures of the money supply actually increased and (ii) as in Britain, the velocity of circulation fell. Inflation was thus reduced more quickly than expected and monetarists were blamed for the resulting recession. The theme of this essay, however, is to focus on the debate within monetarism. The Federal Reserve concluded that monetarism was impracticable and reverted to controlling borrowed reserves.[29] In Britain, Canada, the US and Austrailia previously stable velocities all broke down in the early 1980s. The reason for this breakdown is the source of the controversy between policy-makers and theorists.

The Policy-Makers Criticisms

In both Britain and the US the authorities blamed institutional change for the breakdown in stability. Abandoning the [[sterling]]M3 target in 1985, Nigel Lawson attributed the targeting failures to money demand shifts because of financial innovation. It was monetarisms misfortune to be first tried in Britain at a time of rapid institutional change, and by a government which believed in deregulating the financial markets. A number of developments destabilised the relationship. Firstly, the government abolished the corset, a restriction on bank lending which, significantly, Denis Healy had imposed to help him control broad money growth. Secondly, domestic legislation had increased the competition between banks and building societies for deposits, which led to the development of accounts which became more attractive relative to other kinds of financial assets, increasing [[sterling]]M3. Thirdly, high short-term interest rates increased the use of many accounts as vehicles for savings rather than for transactions demand, and that component of [[sterling]]M3 grew as interest rates rose. So there was a breakdown in (i) the stability of the relationship between the aggregate and inflation, and (ii) the stability of the relationship between the interest rate and the aggregate. Similar explanations were advanced by Chairman Paul Volcker of the Federal Reserve for the Feds abandonment of MBC in 1982. He blamed the unwinding of All Savers Certificates and changes in Individual Retirement Accounts for shifting money demand.

Why did such instability not show up in Friedmans and Schwartzs work; on which the assumption of the stability of V was based? Did money demand functions only begin to be unstable in the early 1980s? An explanation is provided by Laidler. He notes that Friedman and Schwartz used definitions of monetary aggregates which incorporated institutional changes, rather than representing them as a separate term in the model they were testing. So stability of V in the face of money demand changes depends on the definition of monetary aggregates. It should be said, however, in Friedmans defence, that velocity of circulation changed far more slowly over the period he tested than when monetarism was applied.

The Monetarists Reply

Monetarists disclaim responsibility for the breakdown in stable relationships, criticizing both the instruments used and the choice of aggregate. I will deal firstly with their criticisms of the instruments. They claimed that the type of MBC used by the Fed was unlikely to be effective in controlling the money supply. The Fed operated a form of MBC where a targeted non-borrowed reserves. The accounting for reserve requirements was on a lagged basis; in other words, banks were forced to require reserves to meet reserve requirements based on their position two weeks before. They could do this by borrowing reserves from the Fed through its discount window, given the level of non-borrowed reserves that the Fed had. Monetarists opposed the lagged accounting and control only of non-borrowed reserves, arguing that they gave too much freedom to banks. This led to far greater fluctuations in the money supply than under full MBC.

The monetarists also blame the Fed for shifting the relationship between M and P. They claim that intervention by the Federal Reserve, in the form of deposit rate ceilings, shifted the money demand function. In addition, they claim that the instability of the money supply growth, which they attribute to the Fed (see above), caused uncertainty among the public and induced them to demand more of M1. Both these effects on M1 imply increases in speculative demand but not in transactions demand, and so the relationship between inflation and the monetary aggregate in question was shifted.

American monetarists regard the British experiment with incredulity. The choice of instrument was the biggest difference between monetarism as espoused in Chicago and as practised in Britain. Friedman said that when one does not know the interest-rate sensitivity of money demand, MBC is a more precise instrument than the interest rate. The Americans did not recognise as monetarism the use of interest rates to control inflation. The instrument is a very ambiguous one theoretically. If one is using the interest rate, it can be argued that one is controlling the money stock through reducing money demand not money supply, which is not a monetarist policy since it assumes that the money stock is supply-determined.[30]

The second criticism made by the monetarists of policies used in Britain and the US was the choice of aggregate. Friedman claimed that the Feds M1 target was broader than, and thus conceptually different from, the M1 used in his empirical work with Anna Schwartz. As a result it contained much money not used for transactions purposes, and did not have a stable link with inflation. In general, broader aggregates are more subject to shifts in money demand. He says the Feds M2 was conceptually equivalent to his M1, and its M1 to his M0.

Likewise in Britain the choice of aggregate was condemned by US monetarists as being too broad. A narrower measure would have been stabler. Friedman, testifying to a British Treasury Committee, said he had little hope for monetarism as it was being practised in Britain. In his memoirs, Nigel Lawson records the contempt of the Swiss-American monetary expert Karl Brunner for your M3. It was because [[sterling]]M3 was so ill-defined conceptually that its velocity of circulation is unreliable. The uncertain effect of interest rates on [[sterling]]M3 was due not to financial innovations but to the choice of an aggregate which contained a lot of money used for savings and with no clear link to transactions. Many of the effects of high interest rates on [[sterling]]M3 could have been predicted, claimed monetarists.

Is the monetarists defence plausible? Friedman can reasonably argue that what was applied in Britain was nothing like monetarism as he knew it. The aggregate was far different conceptually from anything he had recommended targeting and the use of the interest rate had never been advocated at all. (British monetarists, of course, like Alan Waters and Patrick Minford, have no such defence, since they initially supported the policy). In the United States the targeted aggregate was a lot narrower, and the criticism here looks a bit weak. Whether the American breakdown was the monetarists fault depends on the technicalities of MBC, and a conclusive answer to this question will only come if full MBC is applied. However, we can conclude from this debate that the reformulated monetarist position is as follows: to target a narrow aggregate and to use MBC to do so.

Narrower Aggregates?

However, there are severe problems with the targeting of narrow aggregates. This is best illustrated by what happened in the United Kingdom between 1985 and 1988. British monetarists like Walters and Minford began agitating for the use of MO, cash in circulation, which Lawson had already been looking at since 1982. It was chosen because of its excellent record as a predictor of inflation with a six-month lag. But such a narrow measure of money, as I have pointed out, also runs the risk of producing an unstable V. Causality cannot possibly run from the amount of cash in circulation to the level of economic activity since cash is such a small fraction of the total money stock. This is a particularly strong form of black box monetarism, relying on a statistical relationship without specifying the underlying theory. Statistical regularities with no causality behind them are apt to break down when used for policy.

Lawson is aware of this criticism, but in his memoirs rejects it in terms which make one doubt whether he believes in monetarism at all. He claims that M0s value was as an indicator of movements in nominal GDP. But such policy rests on the assumption that causality runs from PY to M, and this is not monetarism, but Keynesianism. The essence of monetarism is that changing the money supply changes nominal income and not the other way around. To summarize, either Lawson was using M0 as a target or he was targeting nominal income directly through interest rates. The former would inevitably fail, and targeting of M0, say Pearse and Tysome, may have impaired its efficiency as a predictor of inflation. ( Lawson himself records that a ... serious shortcoming was the failure of M0 to give a true early 1988 the beginning of the boom.) The latter policy conflicts with the basic tenets of monetarism, of which the raison detre is that the authorities cannot know in time what is happening to output.

MO was mistakenly used as a narrow aggregate because British monetarists had followed American monetarists in advocating a narrow target. However, the Americans were advocating that the target should be the monetary base itself (either reserves or reserves plus cash in circulation) which, unlike MO in the British financial system, has a clear causal relationship with nominal income through the multiplier.

No single aggregate?

Friedman has acknowledged that targeting any single aggregate incurs severe risks. Broader aggregates are liable to have their velocity shift, whereas with many narrower measures there may not exist causality. Moreover, Goodharts Law states that any statistical relationship will break down when used for policy purposes. This is because in a sophisticated financial system private agents will be able to substitute between instruments to avoid monetary rules. This suggests that control of all aggregates is required. But Friedman dislikes the Federal Reserves system, practised after 1982 of targeting several aggregates. That is why he has advocated targeting the monetary base directly, rather than any aggregate measure of money. In monetarist eyes, such a policy would have a clear effect on a number of aggregates, would reduce the risk of targeting any one, and yet would eliminate the discretion involved in looking at a number of these aggregates at the same time. This method relies upon the stability of the multiplier. It is true, as monetarists have claimed, that the multiplier is less vulnerable to the type of financial innovation which affects broad aggregates. However, as pointed out by Phillip Cagan, himself a monetarist, other developments like ATM machines could erode the influence of the monetary base. Transactions services, says Cagan, could be then provided by non-deposit-taking institutions, on which the government would have difficulty imposing reserve requirements. As electronic transactions replace currency, the authorities will be excluded more and more from the process of creating money. It was the development of ATM machines in Germany which led the German government to change from targeting the monetary base to targeting broader aggregates, with which ironically they have since had problems.

Rules vs Discretion

An alternative solution is that the authorities should target a broad aggregate, but with qualifications to allow for structural change. One possibility is that the authorities should severely regulate the financial markets. Indeed, countries following broad targets like Japan and the Netherlands were forced to restrict bank lending at certain times. In addition, one of the reasons for the backwardness of Germanys financial sector relative to her manufacturing industry is the governments control of financial innovations to ensure that they do not destabilize the relationships governing the determination of the price level. Another possibility is revision either of the target itself, or of the definitions of the monetary aggregate involved, to allow for institutional change. Chairmen of the Fed Volcker and Greenspan always believed in being allowed some discretion in implementing monetary policy. There are two possible objections. Firstly, changes of target signal to agents that the government is not determined about reducing inflation. A more fundamental criticism is that if you are a monetarist, you must be highly sceptical of the ability of governments to correct properly for shifts in money demand. This is Friedmans objection to the use of discretion in pursuing a target.

In my opinion, the monetarists place far too much importance on excluding discretion from government policy. The argument that discretion reduces agents confidence in the policy is flawed. It seems clear that what changed inflationary expectations in Britain and the United States was the recession, not the perception that the authorities were adhering to rules for monetary growth. Only the financial markets would have the sophistication to make the esoteric distinction between voluntarily committing oneself to rules and changing those rules to allow for changing circumstances. What matters to wage-setters is whether or not the authorities mean business on inflation.

The second monetarist argument in favour of fixed rules is that the authorities do not have the knowledge or the timing to offset shocks. The expectation of income is its trend value and there having been a shock to income in a previous period does not affect its expected value in the next period. Therefore, there is no point in the government reacting one period late. But although this is true of shocks to income, it does not hold for changes in money demand. Institutional change does not fluctuate around a certain value. Once a change is made, it applies to money demand in the future as well as the present. Therefore it may be possible for the government to react after the change has taken place and for this reaction to be of some use. When it comes to government action to correct for institutional change, lags are a nuisance but not at all fatal.

I believe the example of the Swiss and German authorities is the most hopeful for the future prospects of monetarism. They have often made important changes of target once they observed shifts in velocity, but they have successfully pursued monetary growth rules since the 1970s. The Swiss have varied between Monetary Base Control and short term interest rates as instruments; the Germans changed from a narrow to a broad aggregate; both changed the targeted growth rates frequently. Yet because it was done responsibly and credibly, it worked.


I have left out all mention of the exchange rate. Many people believe that it was Britains exchange rate in the early 1980s, which was high due to North Sea oil and the high short-term interest rates, which rought inflation down due to competitive pressures from abroad. I did not deal with the exchange rate as a possible tool to reduce inflation as since the demise of the Echange Rate Mechanism this looks unlikely to be useful for some time. So my analysis is incomplete, but I thihk I can conclude that monetarism is practicable. Whether or not it is desirable is another matter. It may be more appropriate to the United States, where the labour market adjusts more quickly to a monetary contraction than in Europe. However I believe that if policy-makers wish to control inflation then they should not judge monetarism by the experience of the 1980s. Laidler points out that Friedmans model was devised at a time of low inflation to keep it low. The same degree of precision could not be expected in combatting high inflation. Velocity does not remain stable when inflation is high. One of the components in Friedmans original equation describing the effects on velocity was inflation. Brunner and Meltzer are quoted by McCallum as blaming inflation for many of the financial innovations which shifted the demand function, and claiming that instability of V would not reoccur under the monetarist regime. This view is extreme, but it does suggest that the authorities might have found monetarism easier to practice if they had not given up as soon as inflation had fallen. Informal support is given to this view by the German experience. In the early 1980s they did not experience the fall in velocity which the English-speaking economies did. This may be due to their financial system, or to their experience, or to their lower inflation, but it does suggest that monetary relationships are not always subject to breakdown when used forpolicy.


Congdon, T (1989) British and American Monetarism compared in Hill, R Keynes, Money and Monetarism

Felderer, B and Homburg, S (1991) Macroeconomics and New Macroeconomics

Foot, M (1981) Monetary Targets in Griffiths & Wood Monetary Targets

Friedman, M (1984) Comment on the 1979-1982 Policy Experiment in American

Goodhart, D Techniques of Monetary Control

Economic Review

Gowland, D (1991) Money, Inflation and Unemployment

Laidler, D (1989) Taking Money Seriously

McCallum (1985) On Consequences & Criticisms of Money Targeting in Journal of Money Credit and Banking 1981

Pierce, D and Tysome, P (1985) Monetary Economics