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20.1 The Quantity Theory

Learning Objective

  1. What is the quantity theory of money and how was it improved by Milton Friedman?

The rest of this book is about monetary theory, a daunting-sounding term. It’s not the easiest aspect of money and banking, but it isn’t terribly taxing either so there is no need to freak out. We’re going to take it nice and slow. And here’s a big hint: you already know most of the outcomes because we’ve discussed them already in more intuitive terms. In the chapters that follow, we’re simply going to provide you with more formal ways of thinking about how the money supply determines output (Y*) and the price level (P*).

We’ve already discussed the money supply at some length in the chapters above, so we’ll start our theorizing with the demand for money, specifically John Maynard Keynes’s liquidity preference theory and Milton Friedman’s modern quantity theory of money. Building on the work of earlier scholars, including Irving Fisher of Fisher Equation fame, the late, great Friedman treats money like any other asset, concluding that economic agents (individuals, firms, governments) want to hold a certain quantity of real, as opposed to nominal, money balances. If inflation erodes the purchasing power of the unit of account, economic agents will want to hold higher nominal balances to compensate, to keep their real money balances constant. The level of those real balances, Friedman argued, was a function of permanent income (the present discounted value of all expected future income), the relative expected return on bonds and stocks versus money, and expected inflation.

More formally,

M d /P: f(Yp<+>, rbrm<−>, rsrm<−>,  π e rm<−>)


Md/P = demand for real money balances (Md = money demand; P = price level)

f means “function of” (not equal to)

Yp = permanent income

rb – rm = the expected return on bonds minus the expected return on money

rs – rm = the expected return on stocks (equities) minus the expected return on money

πe – rm = expected inflation minus the expected return on money

<+> = varies directly with

<−> = varies indirectly with

So the demand for real money balances, according to Friedman, increases when permanent income increases and declines when the expected returns on bonds, stocks, or goods increases versus the expected returns on money, which includes both the interest paid on deposits and the services banks provide to depositors.

Stop and Think Box

As noted in the text, money demand is where the action is these days because, as we learned in previous chapters, the central bank determines what the money supply will be, so we can model it as a vertical line. Earlier monetary theorists, however, had no such luxury because, under a specie standard, money was supplied exogenously. What did the supply curve look like before the rise of modern central banking in the twentieth century?

The supply curve sloped upward, as most do. You can think of this in two ways, first, by thinking of interest on the vertical axis. Interest is literally the price of money. When interest is high, more people want to supply money to the system because seigniorage is higher. So more people want to form banks or find other ways of issuing money, extant bankers want to issue more money (notes and/or deposits), and so forth. You can also think of this in terms of the price of gold. When its price is low, there is not much incentive to go out and find more of it because you can earn just as much making cheesecake or whatever. When the price of gold is high, however, everybody wants to go out and prospect for new veins or for new ways of extracting gold atoms from what looks like plain old dirt. The point is that early monetary theorists did not have the luxury of concentrating on the nature of money demand; they also had to worry about the nature of money supply.

This all makes perfectly good sense when you think about it. If people suspect they are permanently more wealthy, they are going to want to hold more money, in real terms, so they can buy caviar and fancy golf clubs and what not. If the return on financial investments decreases vis-à-vis money, they will want to hold more money because its opportunity cost is lower. If inflation expectations increase, but the return on money doesn’t, people will want to hold less money, ceteris paribus, because the relative return on goods (land, gold, turnips) will increase. (In other words, expected inflation here proxies the expected return on nonfinancial goods.)

Key Takeaways

  • According to Milton Friedman, demand for real money balances (Md/P) is directly related to permanent income (Yp)—the discounted present value of expected future income—and indirectly related to the expected differential returns from bonds, stocks (equities), and goods vis-à-vis money (rb – rm, rs – rm, πe – rm ), where inflation (π) proxies the return on goods.
  • Because he believed that the return on money would increase (decrease) as returns on bonds, stocks, and goods increased (decreased), Friedman did not think that interest rate changes mattered much.