The Price of Money and Other Errors
The next time someone tells you that the interest rate is the price of money, ask him what he thinks a reasonable interest rate is and offer to buy some money from him—at ten cents on the dollar if the rate he suggests is ten percent. As that example illustrates, the interest rate is not the price of money. The price of money is what you must give up to get it. If apples cost fifty cents each, the price of money is two apples. More generally, the price of money is the inverse of the price level—when prices are high, that means that money is not worth very much.
The interest rate is the rent of money measured in money. Suppose you borrow a hundred dollars at ten percent. If the price of a dollar is two apples, you are borrowing the price of two hundred apples and paying the price of twenty apples a year in interest. If the money supply doubles, prices double, including the price of an apple, you are borrowing the price of a hundred apples and paying the price of ten apples a year in interest. If you prefer, you could do the same real transaction as before by borrowing two hundred dollars and paying twenty dollars a year interest, still at ten percent.
As this example suggests, there is no connection between the amount of money in circulation and the interest rate. There is a connection between the rate of change of the amount of money in circulation and the interest rate, but it goes in the opposite of the direction implied by the error I am discussing. When the money supply is increasing and prices are rising, nominal interest rates are high, not low, because lenders must be compensated for the fact that they will be paid back in dollars worth less than the ones they lent.
Much of the confusion here comes from the multiple meanings of the term "money." When we say someone has lots of money, we don't usually mean that he has a lot of green paper or a large balance in his checking account; we mean that he is wealthy. His wealth might be in money, it might be in valuable real estate, it might be in stocks and bonds. If there is lots of money in that sense—more precisely, if lots of people have wealth they would like to lend out—that will tend to lower interest rates. But that has nothing to do with the amount of money in circulation.
What brings up this particular confusion at the moment is the attempt to link the current crisis with the events that led to the Great Depression. Those events produced a sharp drop in the money supply, due to banks going broke and depositors either losing or withdrawing their deposits. Given the nature of a fractional reserve system, replacing a mix of currency and deposits with just currency reduces the total amount of money in circulation, in that case by a lot. The problem could have been prevented if the Federal Reserve System had kept those banks from failing, which was part of the purpose it had been set up for, a purpose that had been served earlier by the private arrangements among banks that it effectively replaced.
That series of events cannot happen now because the FDIC insures bank deposits. What we are observing is not a drop in the money supply. It is a loss of wealth, as firms discover that their assets, in particular mortgages and securities backed by mortgages, are worth less than they thought. That explains why the proposed bailout is enormously greater than would be required to prevent a run on bank deposits. $700 billion is roughly half the total money supply of the U.S. (M1—currency plus checking accounts and similar assets)--and about half of that is currency, which isn't going to vanish whatever happens to the banks. The total wealth of the economy is enormously greater than the total amount of money in the economy, and the bailout is a response not to a reduction in the amount of money but a reduction in the amount of wealth.
That also explains why the bailout has very little to do with preventing another Great Depression. The U.S. money supply at the moment is at or near its all time high, and it is hard to see how anything likely to happen, with or without a bailout, will reduce it by much. The mechanism that set off the Great Depression isn't happening.
What is happening is the failure of lots of firms. The failure of a firm doesn't wipe out wealth, except to the extent that the firm itself—its firm culture, web of relationships and such—has some value. When a firm fails, that is at least some evidence that that value was negative, which is why nobody chose to buy out the firm and keep it going. The ordinary assets of the firm—its buildings, land, stocks, bonds, mortgages, and whatever it owns—don't vanish when the firm fails, they get sold to someone else.
The bailout is not a way of preventing the loss of value. The loss (or transfer) of value occurred when people made bad mortgage loans. What happened more recently was the recognition of that loss. All the bailout can do is to shift the loss from some people to others, from the stockholders and creditors of firms that are now effectively bankrupt to the taxpayers.
All of which comes back to confusion over the meaning of "money."