“The international deflation of 1891–96 directly compressed profits. The extent of actual price decline was less than for the two income deflations considered above. From 1890 through 1896, Sauerbeck’s British wholesale price index declined by 18 percent and The Economist’s index dropped by 14 percent. British money wages, however, actually rose by several percentage points, so the rise in real wages was striking. The rate of investment dropped sharply; new capital issues averaged £102 million during 1880–89 and £154 million during 1889-90 but fell to an average level of £70 million during 1891–96. (These data depict a trend; investment need not be financed through new issues.) The rate of saving was high and increased from perhaps £150 million annually in 1880 to £200 million annually in 1896. Aggregate savings deposits grew greatly during the 1890s, both at the Post Office and at private banks. As investment declined despite the increase in savings, the second term of the price equation turned negative, while the first term increased slightly but steadily — reflecting the rigidity of input costs.There are two issues here, although the second is more important for my purposes:
The pattern in the United States was similar. During 1893–96, the wholesale price index declined by 2.4 percent annually, compared to a decline of 1.1 percent annually during 1879–92. Unlike wages during the deflation of the 1870s, hourly wages were steady in nominal terms and hence rose in real terms. (Evidence on British and American wage levels during the 1890s undermines frequent assertions that wages were flexible during the period of the prewar gold standard.) Whereas the (nominal) volume of New York City bank clearings was steady during the deflation of the 1870s, it decreased abruptly during 1892–94. Tobin’s q declined moderately from 1892 through 1896, which was significant in part because it followed a full decade of stagnation in real stock prices. The annualized stock index level of 1881 was not exceeded until 1899.
The 1890s saw intense agitation for inflationary policies, and a central plank of William Jennings Bryan’s Democratic party platform of 1896 was that the gold standard should be abandoned in favor of bimetallism. When the Republicans won the election, the gold standard was again perceived as being secure. This conclusion was soon reinforced by rising world gold output and the beginning of a mild international inflation, which weakened the political attraction of bimetallism.” (Johnson 1997: 20).
(1) the idea that the 19th century was a period of relatively flexible wages, andFirst, it appears wages were not as flexible in the 1890s, during this later era of the gold standard, as some economists think.
(2) the effects of the price deflation from 1873 to 1896, and in particular on profits and the level of investment.
Secondly, it appears that profit deflation, from the price deflation, with relative wage rigidity, induced a fall in investment. That was part of the economic crisis in the 1890s.
Now some neoclassical Marshallian economists at Cambridge University had their own pre-Keynesian theory about the causes of the late 19th century economic problems in the 1880s.
John Neville Keynes, John Maynard Keynes’s father, gave his own evidence to the UK “Royal Commission on the Depression of Trade and Industry” (whose final report was published in 1886).
He saw price deflation as having the following undesirable effects, as described by Skidelsky:
“These linkages were brought out by Neville Keynes in his evidence to the Royal Commission on the Depression of Trade and Industry (1886). The depression in trade was ‘partly but not wholly due’ to the rise in the value of gold relative to other commodities. This discouraged enterprise for five reasons:So John Neville Keynes anticipated modern concerns about debt deflation and also identified profit deflation as one of the causes of decreased private investment during this period of deflation.(a) because a fall in price between the start and the completion of a transaction involved the trader in loss;Such evidence was not intended to challenge the now orthodox quantity theory, merely to point to the difficulties of adjusting from one price level to another. Its implication was that monetary policy should be used to raise prices, and thereafter stabilise the price level. Out of such considerations developed the movement for bimetallism, which was an attempt to increase the amount of legal tender money by obliging the central bank to mint both gold and silver on demand at a fixed ratio.” (Skidelsky 1983: 231).
(b) because the trader tended to exaggerate his own loss by not taking sufficient account of the general fall in prices,
(c) because the profits of enterprise were temporarily diminished on account of increased depreciation of fixed capital;
(d) because the ratio of profits to wages fell as a result of the fall in money wages lagging behind the fall in prices, and
(e) because the fall in prices increased the burden of debt, transferring wealth from borrowers to lenders.
Johnson, H. Clark. 1997. Gold, France, and the Great Depression, 1919–1932. Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
Skidelsky, R. J. A. 1983. John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed 1883–1920 (vol. 1). Macmillan, London.