|Milton Friedman’s alleged license plate, showing the equation of exchange|
The excruciatingly large revisions that U.S. first quarter GDP growth underwent from the BEA’s advance estimate (+0.1%, April 30, 2014) to its preliminary estimate (-1.0%, May 29, 2014) and then its final estimate (-2.9%, June 25m, 2014) left me scratching my head. Isn’t there a more timely and accurate measure of spending in an economy?
One interesting set of data I like to follow is the Fedwire Fund Service’s monthly, quarterly, and yearly statistics. Fedwire, a real time gross settlement interbank payment mechanism run by the Federal Reserve*, is probably the most important financial utility in the U.S., if not the world. Member banks initiate Fedwire payments on their own behalf or on behalf of their clients using the Fedwire common currency: Fed-issued reserves. Whenever you wire a payment to another bank in order to settle a purchase, you’re using Fedwire. Since a large percentage of U.S. spending is transacted via Fedwire, why not use this transactions data as a proxy for U.S. spending?
Some might say that using Fedwire data is an old-fashioned approach to measuring spending. Irving Fisher wrote out one of the earliest versions of the equation of exchange, MV=PT, where T measures the “volume of trade” or “real expenditure” and P is the price at which this trade is conducted. Combined together, PT amounts to the sum of all exchanges in an economy. More specifically, Fisher’s T included all exchanges of goods where his chosen meaning for a good was broadly defined as any sort of wealth or property. That’s a pretty wide net, including everything from lettuce to publicly-traded equities to land.
Practically speaking, Fisher wrote that it was “utterly impossible to secure data for all exchanges” and therefore his statistical approximation of T was limited to the quantities of trade in 44 articles of internal commerce (including pig iron, rice, hogs, boots & shoes), 23 articles of import and 25 of export, sales of equities, railroad freight carried, and letters through the post office. This mishmash of items included everything from wholesale goods to securities to and consumption goods. Using Fedwire transactions to track total spending is very much in the spirit of Fisher, since any sort of transaction can be conducted through the interbank payments system, including financial transactions.
Nowadays we are no longer taught the Fisherian transactions version of the equation of exchange MV=PT but rather the income approach, or MV=PY. What is the difference between the two? Y is a much smaller number than T. This is because it represents GDP, or only those goods and services that are qualified as final, where “final” indicates items bought by a final user. T, on the other hand, includes not only the set of final goods and services Y but also all spending on second hand goods, stocks and bonds, existing homes, transfer payments, and more. Whereas GDP measures final goods in order to avoid double counting, T measures final and intermediate goods, thus counting the same good twice, thrice, or even more if the good changes hands more often than that.
A good illustration of the difference in size between Y and T is to chart them. The total yearly value of Fedwire transactions, which are about as good a measure of PT that we have (but by no means perfect), exceeds nominal GDP (or PY) by a factor of 40 or so, as the chart below shows. Specifically, nominal GDP came in at $17 trillion or so in 2013 whereas the total value of Fedwire transactions clocked in at $713 trillion.
So why do we focus these days on PY and not Fisher’s PT? We can find some clues by progressing a little further through the history of economic thought to John Keynes (is it a travesty to omit his middle name?). In his Treatise on Money, Keynes was unimpressed with Fisher’s cash transactions standard, as he referred to it, because PT failed to capture the most important human activities:
Human effort and human consumption are the ultimate matters from which alone economic transactions are capable of deriving any significant; and all other forms of expenditure only acquire importance from their having some relationship, sooner or later, to the efforts of producers or to the expenditure of consumers.
Keynes proposed to “break away from the traditional method” of tabulating the total quantity of money “irrespective of the purposes on which it was employed” and focus instead on the narrow range of trade in current consumption and investment output. Keynes’s PY measure (the actual variables he chose was PO where O is current output) would be a “more powerful instrument of analysis than their predecessor, when we are considering what kind of monetary and business events will produce what kind of consequences.”
And later down the line, Milton Friedman, who renewed the quantity theory tradition in the 1950s and 60s, had this to say about the shift from PT to PY:
Despite the large amount of empirical work done on the transactions equations, notably by Irving Fisher and Carl Snyder ( Fisher 1911 pp 280-318, Fisher 1919, Snyder 1934), the ambiguity of the concept of “transactions” and the “general price level”, particularly those arising from the mixture of current and capital transactions—were never satisfactorily resolved. The more recent development of national income accounting has stressed income transactions rather than gross transactions and has explicitly and satisfactorily dealt with the conceptual and statistical problems of distinguishing between changes in prices and changes in quantities. As a result, the quantity theory has more recently tended to be expressed in terms of income rather than of transactions
So there are evidently problems with PT, but what are the advantages? Assuming we use Fedwire transactions as the proxy for PT (and again, Fedwire is by no means a perfect measure of T, as I’ll go on to show later) the data is immediate and unambiguous. It doesn’t require hordes of government statisticians to laboriously compile, recompile, and check, but arises from the regular functioning of Fedwire payments mechanism. There are no revisions to the data after the fact. And rather than being limited to periods of time of a month or a quarter, there’s no reason we couldn’t see Fedwire data on a weekly, daily, or even real time level of granularity if the Fed chose to publish it.
Even Keynes granted the advantages of PT data when he wrote that the “figures are available promptly without the necessity for any special calculation.” In Volume II of his Treatise, he took U.S. “bank clearings” data (presumably Fedwire data), and tried to remove those transactions arising from financial activity by excluding New York City, the nation’s chief financial centre, thus arriving at a measure of final spending that came closer to PY.
What are the other advantages of PT? While PT counts second-hand and existing sales, might that not be a good thing? Nick Rowe, writing in favour of PT, once made the point that it’s “not just new stuff that is harder to sell in a recession; it’s old stuff too. New cars and old cars. New houses and old houses. New paintings and old paintings. New furniture and antique furniture. New machine tools and old machine tools. New land and old land.” As for the inclusion of financial transactions, anyone who thinks asset price inflation or deflation is an important property of the economy (Austrians and Austrian fellow travelers no doubt) may prefer PT over PY since the latter is mute on the subject.
I’d be interested to hear in the comments the relative merits and demerits of PY and PT. Why don’t the CNBC talking heads ever mention Fedwire, whereas they can spend hours debating GDP? Why target nominal GDP, or PY, when we can target PT?
For now, let’s explore the Fedwire data a bit more. In the figure below I’ve charted the total value of Fedwire transactions (PT) for each quarter going back to 1992. I’ve overlaid nominal GDP (PY) on top of that and set the initial value of each to 100 for the sake of comparison.
It’s evident that the relative value of Fedwire transactions has been growing faster than nominal GDP. However, the financial crisis put a far bigger dent in PT than it did PY. Only in the last two quarters has PT been able to break to new levels whereas nominal GDP surpassed its 2008 peak by the second quarter of 2010. Is the financial sector dragging down PT? Or maybe people are spending less on used goods and/or existing homes?
Fedwire data is further split into price and quantity data. Below I’ve plotted the number of transactions, or T, completed on Fedwire each quarter. On top of that I’ve overlaid real GDP, or Y. The initial value of real GDP has been set to 16.6 million, or the number of transactions completed on Fedwire in 1992.
After growing at a relatively fast rate until 2007, the number of transactions T being carried out on Fedwire continues to stagnate below peak levels. In fact, last quarter represented the lowest number of transactions since the first quarter of 2012, a decline that coincided with the atrocious first quarter GDP numbers.
Finally, below I’ve plotted the average value of Fedwire transfer by quarter. On top of that I’ve overlaid the GDP deflator. To make comparison easier, I’ve taken the liberty of setting the initial value of the deflator at the 1992 opening value for Fedwire transaction size.
As the chart shows, the average size of Fedwire transfers really took off in 2007, peaked in late 2008 then stagnated until 2013, and has since re-accelerated upwards. In fact, we can attribute the entire rise in the quarterly value of transactions on Fedwire (the second chart) to the growth in transaction size, not the quantity of transactions. Fedwire data is telling us that inflation of the PT sort has finally reemerged.
A few technical notes on the Fedwire data before signing off. As I’ve already mentioned, Fedwire provides a less-than complete measure of PT. To begin with, it doesn’t include cash transactions (GDP does, or at least those that have been reported). This gap arises for the obvious reason that cash transactions aren’t conducted over Fedwire. Nor do cheque transactions appear on Fedwire, or at least they do so only indirectly. Check payments are netted against each other and canceled, with only the final amounts owed being settled between banks via Fedwire, these settlements representing just a tiny fraction of the total value of payments that have been conducted by check over any period of time.
The same goes for securities transactions. Fedwire data underestimates the true amount of financial transactions because trades are usually netted against each other by an exchange’s clearing house prior to final settlement via Fedwire. The transfer of reserves that enables the system to settle represents a small percent of the total value of trades that have actually occurred.
Another limitation is that Fedwire data doesn’t include wire payments that occur on competing payment systems. Fedwire isn’t a monopoly, after all, and competes with CHIPS. I believe that once all CHIPS payments have been cleared, final settlement occurs via a transfer of reserves on Fedwire, but this final transfer is a fraction of the size of total CHIPS payments. And finally, payments that occur between customers of the same bank are not represented in the Fedwire data. This is because these sorts of payments can be conducted by a transfer of book entries on the bank’s own balance sheet rather than requiring a transfer of reserves.
I’m sure I’m missing other reasons for why Fedwire data undershoots PT, feel free to point them out in the comments. Do Fedwire’s limitations cripple its value as an indicator PT? I think there’s still some value in looking at these numbers, as long as we’re aware of how they might come up short.
1. Canadian Large Value Transfer System Data, the Canadian equivalent to Fedwire
2. A paper exploring UK CHAPS data,the British equivalent to Fedwire: Income and Transactions Velocities in the UK
* ‘Real time’ means that payments are immediate and not subject to delay, while ‘gross settlement’ indicates that payments are not grouped together for processing but submitted individually upon being entered. Fedwire gets its name from the beginning of the last century, when payments were carried out over the wires, or the telegraph system.