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June 13, 2012

The armchair Fed historian

I enjoy researching economic history—some of my work with Steve Quinn on early central banking is here, here, and here.

The only problem with historical research, though, is that it tends to involve some real work—long hours spent with dusty archival volumes, consumption of lots of coffee and antihistamines, and a steady hand on the digital camera.

Just recently—and somewhat belatedly—I became aware of a Google application (thanks to Benjamin Guilbert's blog) that lets would-be economic historians breeze over the rough stuff and do some interesting research from their own computer keyboards. The application is called Ngrams, and here's how it works.

Basically, Ngrams counts occurrences of words in books that have been scanned by Google into its Google Books database. It then plots out the frequencies of these words as annual time series. These plots can then be used to measure how interest in a topic varies over time—to construct "cultural histories."

There are some limitations to this technique, mostly related to unavoidable issues in Google's database. For example, the dataset I chose to work with covers only English-language publications and stops in mid-2009. (See the Ngrams website for more detailed information.)

The six charts below represent a first attempt to use Ngrams to delve into the cultural history of the Federal Reserve.

Question 1: How popular is the Federal Reserve as a discussion topic compared with other central banks?

  • Search terms: Bank of England, Federal Reserve, Reichsbank, Bundesbank, Bank of Japan
  • Time period: 1900–2008

  • My interpretation: almost from its beginning in 1913, the Federal Reserve has been the primary focus of English-language writing on central banks.

Question: 2 The Fed was founded as a means to counteract banking panics. What has been the impact of the Fed on the discussion of panics?

  • Search term: bank panic
  • Time period: 1866–2008

  • My interpretation: that bank panics were widely discussed in the wake of three National Banking Era panics in 1873, 1893, and 1907, no surprise. Interest in bank panics peaked following the widespread bank failures of the early 1930s. This topic became less popular after World War II, but interest reawakened with the numerous savings and loan failures of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Question 3: One of the early policy goals of the Fed was to improve the efficiency of the check payment system. When did use of checks become the norm for ordinary Americans?

  • Search terms: pay envelope, pay check, paycheck
  • Time period: 19002008

  • My interpretation: in 1920, most people did not have checking accounts and were paid in envelopes stuffed with cash. By 1960, most households had checking accounts and were paid by "pay check," later contracted to "paycheck."

Question 4. What has been the impact of the Fed on people's concerns about inflation and unemployment?

  • Search terms: unemployment, inflation
  • Time period: 1900–2008

  • My interpretation: interest in unemployment shot up during the Great Depression, fell back in the postwar years, but resurged in the 1970s. Discussion of unemployment then falls steadily to the end of the sample in 2008. Inflation was rarely discussed until the United States left the gold standard in 1933. Interest in inflation remained below unemployment until inflation began to accelerate in the 1970s. Since about 1980, interest in these two topics has been almost identical.

Question 5: In the mind of the public, which policy goal should the Fed be most concerned with: price stability, financial stability, or employment?

  • Search terms: price stability, financial stability, Phillips curve (as an imperfect proxy for "employment"; note that the original article by William Phillips appeared in 1958)
  • Time period: 1900–2008

  • My interpretation: financial stability was paramount until after the 1951 Treasury-Fed Accord. Price stability then takes center stage until the turn of the 21st century but by 2008 had converged with financial stability. Interest in the Phillips curve seems to have peaked in the early 1980s.

Question 6: What has been the impact of two "big ideas" on monetary policy, proposed by Robert E. Lucas (1976) and John B. Taylor (1993)?

  • Search terms: Lucas critique, Taylor rule
  • Time period: 1970–2008

  • My interpretation: in his 1976 paper, Lucas argued that there were limits on the usefulness of statistical relationships (the Phillips curve in particular) in monetary policymaking. Partly in response to the Lucas critique, Taylor in 1993 proposed that central banks follow a simple rule in setting short-term interest rates. Interestingly, discussion of the Lucas critique peaked around the time of the publication of Taylor's paper. Interest in the Taylor rule was still growing at the end of the sample in 2008.

You may or may not agree with the choice of search terms or the interpretations of the search results, but you are welcome to conduct your own historical research with the same application—all from the comfort of your armchair, no digital camera required. We'll have more of these cultural histories to share in later posts.

Photo of Will RoberdsBy Will Roberds, research economist and senior policy adviser at the Atlanta Fed

June 13, 2012 in Employment, Federal Reserve and Monetary Policy, Inflation, Monetary Policy | Permalink


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That is a fantastic tool! Thanks for sharing. I especially found your search on the Lucas critique vs. Taylor rule surprising.

Posted by: Miraj Patel | June 13, 2012 at 02:24 PM

great post!

Posted by: dwb | June 13, 2012 at 06:51 PM

This is indeed a cool post. Glad that you shared this. thanks!

Posted by: business consulting | June 14, 2012 at 01:28 PM

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