Is Bitcoin the New Gold?

As we discuss in the chapter, initially, bitcoin was thought of as a way to buy and sell goods and services. Some stores accepted bitcoin and allowed customers to make payment by scanning a bar code with a phone. Some websites offered merchants a way to process purchases made with bitcoins in a manner similar to the way merchants process credit card payments.

In practice, though, swings in the value of bitcoin have been much too large to make it a good substitute for cash, checks, or credit cards in everyday transactions. For instance, at the beginning of 2015, one bitcoin was worth about $300. Over the following five years, the price of bitcoin rose as high at $17,000 before falling to about $8,000 at the beginning of 2020. During 2021, the volatility of bitcoin prices increased, rising as high as $62,000 in April and falling as low as $30,000 in July before rising back above $60,000 in October. (The following chart shows movements in the price of bitcoin from early July to mid-October 2021; the vertical axis shows the price as dollars per bitcoin.)

Some economists have suggested that rather being a medium of exchange, like dollar bills, bitcoin has become a speculative asset, like gold. Bitcoin shares with gold the characteristic that ultimately its total supplied is limited. The supply of Bitcoin can’t increase beyond 21 million, a limit that is expected to be reached in 2030. The gold stock slowly increases as mines produce more gold, although the output of mines is small compared with the existing stock of gold. Some investors and speculators are reassured that, in contrast to the assets in M1 and M2 that can increase as much as the Fed chooses, gold and bitcoin have limits on how much they can increase.

Will Bitcoin Be a Good Hedge Against Inflation? Can It Be Useful in Diversifying a Portfolio?

Some investors and speculators believe that the limited quantities of gold and bitcoin available make them good hedges against inflation—that is, they believe that the prices of gold and bitcoin will reliably increase during periods of inflation.  In fact, though, gold has proven to be a poor hedge against inflation because in the long run the price of gold has not reliably increased faster than the inflation rate. There is no good economic reason to expect that over the long run bitcoin would be a good inflation hedge either.

From a broader perspective than as just an inflation hedge, some economists argue that gold has a role to play in an investor’s portfolio—which is the collection of assets, such as stocks and bonds, that an investor owns. Investors can reduce the financial risk they face through diversification, or spreading their wealth among different assets. For instance, an investor who only holds Apple stock in her portfolio is subject to more risk than an investor with the same dollar amount invested in a portfolio that holds the stocks of multiple firms as well as non-stock investments. An investor obtains the benefits of diversification best by adding assets to her portfolio that are not well correlated with the assets she already owns—that is the prices of the assets she adds to her portfolio don’t typically move in the same direction as the prices of the assets she already owns.

For instance, during a typical recession sales of consumer staples, like baby diapers and laundry detergent, hold up well, while sales of consumers durables, like automobiles, usually decline significantly. So adding shares of stock in Proctor & Gamble to a portfolio that already has many shares of General Motors achieves diversification and reduces financial risk because movements in the price of shares of Proctor & Gamble are likely not to be highly correlated with movements in the price of shares of General Motors.

Studies have shown that during some periods movements in gold prices are not correlated with movements in prices of stocks or bonds. In other words, gold prices may rise during a period when stock prices are declining. As a result, an investor may want to add gold to her portfolio to diversify it. To this point, bitcoin hasn’t been around long enough to draw firm conclusions about whether adding bitcoin to a portfolio provides significant diversification, although some investors believes that it does. 

Finance professionals are divided in their opinions on whether bitcoin is a good substitute for gold in a financial portfolio. In an interview, billionaire investor Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s hedge fund, noted that while he believes that bitcoin may serve as a hedge against inflation, but if he could only hold gold or bitcoin, “I would choose gold.” His preference for gold is due in part to his belief that the federal government may increase regulation of bitcoin and that regulators might eventually even decide to ban it. A businessinsider.com survey of 10 financial experts found them divided with five preferring gold as an investment and five preferring bitcoin.

Sources: Jade Scipioni, “Bitcoin vs. Gold: Here’s What Billionaire Ray Dalio Thinks,” cnbc.com, August 4, 2021; and Isabelle Lee and Will Daniel, “Bitcoin vs. Gold: 10 Experts Told Us Which Asset They’d Rather Hold for the Next 10 Years, and Why,” businessinsider.com, February 20, 2021.

What’s Going on with Inflation?

   The U.S. inflation rate has accelerated. As the following figure shows, in mid-2021, inflation, measured as the percentage change in the CPI from the same month in the previous year (the blue line), rose above 5 percent for the first time since the summer of 2008.

As we discuss in an Apply the Concept in Chapter 25, Section 25.5 (Chapter 15, Section 15.5 of Macroeconomics), the Fed prefers to measure inflation using the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index. The PCE price index is a measure of the price level similar to the GDP deflator, except it includes only the prices of goods and services from the consumption category of GDP. Because the PCE price index includes more goods and services than the CPI, it is a broader measure of inflation. As the red line in the figure shows, inflation as measured by the PCE price index is generally lower than inflation measured by the CPI. The difference is particularly large during periods in which CPI inflation is especially high, as it was during 2008, 2011, and 2021.

Prices of food and energy are particularly volatile, so the measure of inflation the Fed focuses on most closely is the PCE price index, excluding food and energy prices (the green line in figure). The figure shows that this measure of inflation is more stable than either of the other two measures. For instance, during June 2021, measured by the CPI, inflation was 5.3 percent, but was 3.5 percent when measured by the PCE, excluding food and energy.

In the summer of 2021, even inflation measured by the PCE, excluding food and energy, is running well above the Fed’s long-run target rate of 2 percent. Why is inflation increasing? Most economists and policymakers believe that two sets of factors are responsible:

  1. Increases in aggregate demand. Consumption spending (see the first figure below) has increased as the economy has reopened and people have returned to eating in restaurants, going to the movies, working out in gyms, and spending at other businesses that were closed or operating at reduced capacity. Households have been able to sharply increase their spending because household saving (see the second figure below) soared during the pandemic in response to payments from the federal government, including supplemental unemployment insurance payments and checks sent directly to most households. The increase in federal government expenditures that helped fuel the increase in aggregate demand is shown in the third figure below.

Fed policy has also been strongly expansionary, with the target for the federal funds kept near zero and the Fed continuing its substantial purchases of Treasury notes and mortgage-backed securities. The continuing expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet through the summer of 2021 is shown in the last of the figures below. The Fed’s asset purchases have help keep interest rates low and provided banks with ample funds to loan to households and firms. 

2. Reductions in aggregate supply. The pandemic disrupted global supply chains, reducing the goods available to consumers.  In the summer of 2021, not all of these supply chain issues had been resolved. In particular, a shortage of computer chips had reduced output of motor vehicles. New cars, trucks, SUVs, and minivans were often selling above their sticker prices. High prices for new vehicles led many consumers to increase their demand for used vehicles, driving up their prices. Between July 2020 and July 2021, prices of new vehicles rose 6.4 percent and prices for used vehicles rose an extraordinary 41.7 percent.

Supply issues also exist in some service industries, such as restaurants and hotels, that have had difficulty hiring enough workers to fully reopen. 

Economists and policymakers differ as to whether high inflation rates are transitory or whether the U.S. economy might be entering a prolonged period of higher inflation. Most Federal Reserve policymakers argue that the higher inflation rates in mid-2021 are transitory. For instance, in a statement following its July 28, 2021 meeting, the Federal Open Market Committee noted that: “Inflation has risen, largely reflecting transitory factors.”  Although the statement also noted that inflation is “on track to moderately exceed 2 percent for some time.”

In a speech at the end of July, Fed Governor Lael Brainard expanded on the Fed’s reasoning:

“Recent high inflation readings reflect supply–demand mismatches in a handful of sectors that are likely to prove transitory…. I am attentive to the risk that inflation pressures could broaden or prove persistent, perhaps as a result of wage pressures, persistent increases in rent, or businesses passing on a larger fraction of cost increases rather than reducing markups, as in recent recoveries. I am particularly attentive to any signs that currently high inflation readings are pushing longer-term inflation expectations above our 2 percent objective.”

“Currently, I do not see such signs. Most measures of survey- and market-based expectations suggest that the current high inflation pressures are transitory, and underlying trend inflation remains near its pre-COVID trend…. Many of the forces currently leading to outsized gains in prices are likely to dissipate by this time next year. Current tailwinds from fiscal support and pent-up consumption are likely to shift to headwinds, and some of the outsized price increases associated with acute supply bottlenecks may ease or partially reverse as those bottlenecks are resolved.”

Brainard’s remarks highlight a point that we make in Chapter 27, Section 27.1 (Chapter 17, Section 17.1 of Macroeconomics): The expectations of households and firms of future inflation play an important part in determining current inflation. Inflation can rise above and fall below the expected inflation rate in response to changes in the labor market—which affect the wages firms pay and, therefore, the firms’ costs—as well as in response to fluctuations in aggregate supply resulting from positive or negative supply shocks—such as the pandemic’s negative effects on aggregate supply. Fed Chair Jerome Powell has argued that with households and firms’ expectations still well-anchored at around 2 percent, inflation was unlikely to remain above that level in the long run.

Some economists are less convinced that households and firms will continue to expect 2 percent inflation if they experience higher inflation rates through the end of 2021. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board summed up this view: “One risk for the Fed is that more months of these price increases will become what consumers and businesses come to expect. To use the Fed jargon, prices would no longer be ‘well-anchored.’ That may be happening.”

As we discuss in Chapter 27, Sections 27.2 and 27.3 (Macroeconomics, Chapter 17, Sections 17.2 and 17.3), during the late 1960s and early 1970s, higher rates of inflation eventually increased households and firms’ expectations of the inflation rate, leading to an acceleration of inflation that was difficult for the Fed to reverse. 

Earlier this year, Olivier Blanchard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, formerly a professor of economics at MIT and director of research at the International Monetary Fund, raised the possibility that overly expansionary monetary and fiscal policies might result in the Fed facing conditions similar to those in the 1970s. The Fed would then be forced to choose between two undesirable policies:

“If inflation were to take off, there would be two scenarios: one in which the Fed would let inflation increase, perhaps substantially, and another—more likely—in which the Fed would tighten monetary policy, perhaps again substantially. Neither of these two scenarios is ideal. In the first, inflation expectations would likely become deanchored, cancelling one of the major accomplishments of monetary policy in the last 20 years and making monetary policy more difficult to use in the future. In the second, the increase in interest rates might have to be very large, leading to problems in financial markets. I would rather not go there.”

In a recent interview, Lawrence Summers of Harvard University, who served as secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration, made similar points: 

“We have inflation that since the beginning of the year has been running at a 5 percent annual rate. …. Starting at high inflation, we’ve got an economy that’s going to grow at extremely high rates for the next quarter or two. … I think we’re going to find ourselves with a new normal of inflation above 3 percent. Then the Fed is either going to have to be inconsistent with all the promises and commitments it’s made [to maintain a target inflation rate of 2 percent] or it’s going to have to attempt the task of slowing down the economy, which is rarely a controlled process.”

Clearly the pandemic and the resulting policy responses have left the Fed in a challenging situation.

Sources: Federal Reserve Open Market Committee, “Federal Reserve Press Release,” federalreserve.gov, July 28, 2021; Lael Brainard, “Assessing Progress as the Economy Moves from Reopening to Recovery,” speech at “Rebuilding the Post-Pandemic Economy” 2021 Annual Meeting of the Aspen Economic Strategy Group, Aspen, Colorado, federalreserve.gov, July 30, 2021; Wall Street Journal editorial board, “Powell Gets His Inflation,” Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2021; Olivier Blanchard, “In Defense of Concerns over the $1.9 Trillion Relief Plan,” piie.com, February 21, 2012; “Former Treasury Secretary on Consumer Prices, U.S. Role in Global Pandemic, Efforts,” wbur.org, August 22, 2021; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, https://fred.stlouisfed.org.

Glenn and Donald Kohn on the Report of the Task Force on Financial Stability

   Glenn co-chairs the Task Force on Financial Stability with Donald Kohn, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution and formerly vice-chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. The Task Force on Financial Stability was formed by the Initiative on Global Markets at the University of Chicago and the Hutchins Center on Fiscal & Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution to make recommendations intended to increase the stability of the U.S. financial system.

On June 29, 2021, the Task Force issued a report, which can be found HERE. Glenn and Donald Kohn discuss the reports findings in an opinion column published on bloomberg. com.

The Federal Reserve building in Washington, D.C.

Our Financial Early Warning System Is Broken

The U.S. financial system emerged from the reforms that followed the 2008 global crisis stronger than it had been going in. But the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 demonstrated how much was left undone: Although banks weathered the storm well, financial disruptions elsewhere — in money market funds, in the Treasury market — necessitated extraordinary measures to prevent an even greater economic disaster.

A group that we co-chair, the Task Force on Financial Stability, has just released a report on how to make the system more resilient. Among other things, we see the need for a structural change: Overhaul the agencies tasked with identifying and addressing threats outside traditional banks.

The Dodd-Frank financial reform of 2010 created two new entities focused on systemic risk. The Financial Stability Oversight Council, which included the Treasury Secretary and the heads of all the major financial regulatory agencies, was supposed to foster collaboration in finding and fixing dangerous buildups, wherever they might arise. And the Office of Financial Research, formed within Treasury and equipped with subpoena power, was supposed to provide the FSOC with the data and analysis needed to do the job well.

This financial early warning system didn’t operate as intended. The FSOC’s efforts to impose special scrutiny on certain systemically important non-bank institutions, such as insurance companies, ran into legal and political headwinds. Its member agencies often proved reluctant to encroach on one another’s turf, and the FSOC lacked the power to compel action. The OFR never subpoenaed anything, for fear of making enemies. Ultimately, the Trump administration deemphasized and defunded the whole apparatus.

As a result, the U.S. was much less prepared for the shock of the pandemic than it could have been. A rush to cash triggered runs on certain money-market mutual funds, threatened the flow of credit to everyone from homebuyers to municipalities, and — in a troubling departure from the usual “flight to quality” — caused the prices of Treasury securities to fall sharply. The Treasury and the Federal Reserve had to go to extreme lengths and pledge trillions of dollars to restore stability.

Regulators’ objective should not be merely to put out fires once they see smoke, but to prevent the dangerous accumulation of combustible material. New threats will emerge in unexpected ways; solutions will prompt unanticipated responses. So regulation must be dynamic, requiring an ongoing assessment process, not just periodic changes. To meet that challenge, we urge a restructuring of the FSOC and the OFR.

  1. Congress should give each FSOC member agency an explicit financial stability mandate, and require each to establish a similarly focused office to inform its rule making. This would force agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to consider systemic-risk issues that they can otherwise too often neglect.
  2. Only the Treasury Secretary should issue the FSOC’s annual report, avoiding the consensus-building process among member agencies that can weaken identification of risks and accountability for dealing with them. While each agency would write a separate appendix, the Secretary would bear ultimate responsibility. The report should include a look back at what risks were missed, why, and how they will be addressed. To ensure the subject gets adequate attention, a new under-secretary for financial stability should act as the secretary’s point person.
  3. The OFR should receive a clear new mandate to gather the data that policymakers need (and, today, often lack). To underscore its importance, it should be renamed the Comptroller for Data and Resilience — echoing the stature of the Comptroller of the Currency — and its head should have a voting seat at the FSOC, a level of authority that would help the government recruit talent and experience to the post.

As the pandemic begins to recede, concern over financial stability should not. We don’t know what major shock will next hit the economy and financial system. But a process to scan for risks and adapt to them should be front and center.

Christopher Waller Confirmed by Senate as Federal Reserve Governor

Christopher Waller

On Thursday, December 3, Christopher Waller, executive vice president and research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, was confirmed by the Senate as a member of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors.  The Board of Governors has seven members and, under the Federal Reserve Act, is responsible for the monetary policy of the United States and for overseeing the operation of the Federal Reserve System.

Board members are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate to 14-year nonrenewable terms. The terms are staggered so that one expires every other January 31. Members frequently leave the Board before their terms expire to return to their previous occupations or to accept other positions in the government. The following table shows the current Board members, when their terms will expire, and which president appointed them.  Note that one seat on the Board is vacant. President Trump nominated Judy Shelton to fill this seat but it appears unlikely that she will be confirmed by the Senate before the change in administration takes place on January 20.

NameYear Term EndsAppointed to the Board by
Jerome Powell, ChairAs Chair: 2022
As Board member: 2028
As Chair: President Trump
As Board member: President Obama
Richard Clarida, Vice ChairAs Vice Chair and as Board member: 2022President Trump
Randal Quarles, Vice Chair for SupervisionAs Vice Chair for Supervision: 2021; As Board member: 2032President Trump
Michelle Bowman2034President Trump
Lael Brainard2026President Obama
Christopher Waller2030President Trump
Vacant

Information on the history and structure of the Board of Governors and on the backgrounds of current members can be found HERE on the Fed’s website.  An announcement of Waller’s confirmation can be found HERE on the website of the St. Louis Fed. A news story discussing Waller’s confirmation and the likely outcome of Shelton’s nomination, as well as some of the politics involved with current Fed nominations can be found HERE (those with a subscription to the Wall Street Journal may also want to read the article HERE).

Janet Yellen Nominated to Be Treasury Secretary

Janet Yellen

President-elect Joe Biden has nominated Janet Yellen to be treasury secretary. If confirmed by the Senate, Yellen would be the first woman to hold that post. She would also be the first person to have been both Federal Reserve Chair and treasury secretary. Yellen also served as President of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and as Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton administration. Prior to entering government service, Yellen was on the economics faculties of Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley. At the time of her nomination she was a Distinguished Fellow in Residence at the Brookings Institution.

A news story on her nomination can be read HERE. Her biography on the Brookings Institution web site is HERE (includes a video conversation from a few years ago with former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke). A speech she gave in 2018 reflecting on the 2007-2009 financial crisis can be read HERE.

9/11/20 Podcast – Authors Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien cover current events, Micro, and Macro! They discuss 9/11, the rising stock market, the challenges facing restaurants, as well as shifts in strategy for the Fed!

Authors Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien continue their weekly discussion about the effects of the Pandemic on the US Economy. They discuss the disconnect between stock market performance and the overall economy. Also, they look at the decision of restaurants to stay open despite struggling to breakeven due to limitations on indoor seating. The Fed’s pivot on the dual-mandate is also discussed as they announce more of their monetary policy focus will be on unemployment rather than inflation.

Over the next several weeks, we will be gearing up this podcast to become an essential listen during your week. Whether your interest is teaching or policy, you will learn from this discussion.

Just search Hubbard O’Brien Economics on Apple iTunes and subscribe!

Please listen & share!

4/17/20 Podcast – Glenn Hubbard & Tony O’Brien discuss the Federal Reserve response and toilet paper shortages.

On April 17th, Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien continued their podcast series by spending just under 30 minutes discuss varied topics such as the Federal Reserve’s monetary response, record unemployment numbers, panic buying of toilet paper as compared to bank runs, as well as recent books they’ve been reading with increased downtime from the pandemic.

4/9/20 – UNWRITTEN Pearson Webinar with Glenn Hubbard and Jaylen Brown, Pearson Campus Ambassador.

During the initial UNWRITTEN webinar from Pearson, Glenn Hubbard had a conversation with Jaylen Brown, a Pearson Campus Ambassador as well as a student at University of Central Florida -also Glenn’s undergrad alma mater!

Over the 30-minute broadcast, they discussed topics of relevance to all students – real world outlook on jobs, supply and demand, and the policies aimed at relief. Glenn talks of recovery shaped like a Nike swoosh with a sharp decline and a slightly longer climb back to normalcy. Check out the full episode now posted on YouTube!

COVID-19 Update: How is Run on Toilet Paper Like a Run on Banks?

Supports:  Hubbard/O’Brien, Chapter 24, Money, Banks, and the Federal Reserve System; Macroeconomics Chapter 14; Essentials of Economics Chapter 16.

Apply the Concept: WHAT DO BANK RUNS TELL US ABOUT PANIC TOILET PAPER BUYING DURING THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC?

Here’s the key point:   Lack of confidence leads to panic buying, but a return of confidence leads to a return to normal buying.

In Chapter 24, Section 24.4 of the Hubbard and O’Brien Economics 8e text (Chapter 14, Section 14.4 of Macroeconomics 8e) we discuss the problem of bank runs that plagued the U.S. financial system during the years before the Federal Reserve began operations 1914.  During the 2020 coronavirus epidemic in the United States consumers bought most of the toilet paper available in supermarkets leaving the shelves bare.  Toilet paper runs turn out to be surprisingly similar to bank runs.

            First, consider bank runs.  The United States, like other countries, has a fractional reserve banking system, which means that banks keep less than 100 percent of their deposits as reserves.  During most days, banks will experience roughly the same amount of funds being withdrawn as being deposited. But if, unexpectedly, a large number of depositors simultaneously attempt to withdraw their deposits from a bank, the bank experiences a run that it may not be able to meet with its cash on hand. If large numbers of banks experience runs, the result is a bank panic that can shut down the banking system.

Runs on commercial banks in the United States have effectively ended due to the combination of the Federal Reserve acting as a lender of last resort to banks experiencing runs and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insuring bank deposits (currently up to $250,000 per person, per bank).  But consider the situation prior to 1914. As a depositor in a bank during that period, if you had any reason to suspect that your bank was having problems, you had an incentive to be at the front of the line to withdraw your money. Even if you were convinced that your bank was well managed and its loans and investments were sound, if you believed the bank’s other depositors thought the bank had a problem, you still had an incentive to withdraw your money before the other depositors arrived and forced the bank to close. In other words, in the absence of a lender of last resort or deposit insurance, the stability of a bank depends on the confidence of its depositors. In such a situation, if bad news—or even false rumors—shakes that confidence, a bank will experience a run.

Moreover, without a system of government deposit insurance, bad news about one bank can snowball and affect other banks, in a process called contagion. Once one bank has experienced a run, depositors of other banks may become concerned that their banks might also have problems. These depositors have an incentive to withdraw their money from their banks to avoid losing it should their banks be forced to close.

            Now think about toilet paper in supermarkets.  From long experience, supermarkets, such as Kroger, Walmart, and Giant Eagle, know their usual daily sales and can place orders that will keep their shelves stocked.  The same is true of online sites like Amazon. By the same token, manufacturers like Kimberly-Clark and Procter and Gamble, set their production schedules to meet their usual monthly sales.  Consumers buy toilet paper as needed, confident that supermarkets will always have some available.


Photo of empty supermarket shelves taken in Boston, MA in March 2020. Credit: Lena Buananno


But then the coronavirus hit and in some states non-essential businesses, colleges, and schools were closed and people were advised to stay home as much as possible.  Supermarkets remained open everywhere as did, of course, online sites such as Amazon.  But as people began to consider what products they would need if they were to remain at home for several weeks, toilet paper came to mind.

At first only a few people decided to buy several weeks worth of toilet paper at one time, but that was enough to make the shelves holding toilet paper begin to look bare in some supermarkets. As they saw the bare shelves, some people who would otherwise have just bought their usual number of rolls decided that they, too, needed to buy several weeks worth, which made the shelves look even more bare, which inspired more to people to buy several weeks worth, and so on until most supermarkets had sold out of toilet paper, as did Amazon and other online sites.

            Before 1914 if you were a bank depositor, you knew that if other depositors were withdrawing their money, you had to withdraw yours before the bank had given out all its cash and closed. In the coronavirus epidemic, you knew that if you failed to rush to the supermarket to buy toilet paper, the supermarket was likely to be sold out when you needed some.  Just as banks relied on the confidence of depositors that their money would be available when they wanted to withdraw it, supermarkets rely on the confidence of shoppers that toilet paper and other products will be available to buy when they need them.  A loss of that confidence can cause a run on toilet paper just as before 1914 a similar loss of confidence caused runs on banks.

            In bank runs, depositors are, in effect, transferring a large part of the country’s inventory of currency out of banks, where it’s usually kept, and into the depositors’ homes. Similarly, during the epidemic, consumers were transferring a large part of the country’s inventory of toilet paper out of supermarkets and into the consumers’ homes.  Just as currency is more efficiently stored in banks to be withdrawn only as depositors need it, toilet paper is more efficiently stored in supermarkets (or in Amazon’s warehouses) to be purchased only when consumers need it.

            Notice that contagion is even more of a problem in a toilet paper run than in a bank run.  People can ordinarily only withdraw funds from banks where they have a deposit, but consumers can buy toilet paper wherever they can find it. And during the epidemic there were news stories of people traveling from store to store—often starting early in the morning—buying up toilet paper.

            Finally, should the government’s response to the toilet paper run of 2020 be similar to its response to the bank runs of the 1800s and early 1900s? To end bank runs, Congress established   (1) the Fed—to lend banks currency during a run—and (2) the FDIC—to insure deposits, thereby removing a depositor’s fear that the depositor needed to be near the head of the line to withdraw money before the bank’s cash holdings were exhausted.

The situation is different with toilet paper. Supermarkets are eventually able to obtain as much toilet paper as they need from manufacturers. Once production increases enough to restock supermarket shelves, consumers—many of whom already have enough toilet paper to last them several weeks—stop panic buying and ample quantities of toilet paper will be available. Once consumers regain confidence that toilet paper will be available when they need it, they have less incentive to hoard it. Just as a lack of confidence leads to panic buying, a return of confidence leads to a return to normal buying.

Although socialist countries such as Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea suffer from chronic shortages of many goods, market economies like the United States experience shortages only under unusual circumstances like an epidemic or natural disaster.

Note: For more on bank panics, see Hubbard and O’Brien, Money, Banking, and Financial Markets, 3rd edition, Chapter 12 on which some of this discussion is based.

Sources: Sharon Terlep, “Relax, America: The U.S. Has Plenty of Toilet Paper,” Wall Street Journal, March 16, 2020; Matthew Boyle, “You’ll Get Your Toilet Paper, But Tough Choices Have to Be Made: Grocery CEO,” bloomberg.com, March 18, 2020; and Michael Corkery and Sapna Maheshwari, “Is There Really a Toilet Paper Shortage?” New York Times, March 13, 2020.

Question 

Suppose that as a result of their experience during the coronavirus pandemic, the typical household begins to store two weeks worth of toilet paper instead of just a few days worth as they had previously been doing.  Will the result be that toilet paper manufacturers permanently increase the quantity of toilet paper that they produce each week?

Instructors can access the answers to these questions by emailing Pearson at christopher.dejohn@pearson.com and stating your name, affiliation, school email address, course number.