Why Are Corporations Hoarding all that Cash?

One of the ongoing puzzles of this joyless recovery (to give it the benefit of the doubt) has been the huge accumulation of cash by corporations. The puzzle is that the huge cash hoards that companies are sitting on are being generated by high earnings, high earning reflected in – or, perhaps more accurately, anticipated by — rising stock prices since the stock market bottomed out in March 2009. So one would think that the high earnings would have encouraged these highly profitable companies to expand output, building new capacity and hiring new workers, rather than accumulate all that cash. But the growth in cash holdings by companies has dwarfed the growth in new capital spending and employment. So what gives?

Corporations, obviously, are not all the same, so that any simple broad generalizations about what they are doing and why are very questionable. A disproportionate share of the newly accumulated cash is in the hands of large companies, especially in the telecommunications sector, the most notorious case being Apple, whose hoard is reportedly close to 200 billion dollars. Let me also observe that the increase in cash holding by corporations has been increasing for a long time, especially since the mid-1990s, tapering off in the mid-2000s before dipping during the financial crisis. But the upward trend resumed and accelerated after the crisis.

Here are some of the reasons that I have seen mentioned or have thought of myself for all this corporate cash hoarding.

A basic proposition of the theory of the demand for money is that an increase in uncertainty increases the demand for money. It is certain that the financial crisis was associated with increased uncertainty, raising the demand for money during and, owing to residual effects of the crisis, after the crisis. One might wonder why, if the demand for money increased during the crisis, corporate cash holdings decreased. The answer is that cash flows during the crisis were drastically reduced, requiring companies to expend cash even though they would have preferred to squirrel it away. The crisis was a period of extreme disequilibrium, and corporations (like many other economic agents) were forced way off their demand curves. So some part of the increase in corporate cash holdings can probably be attributed to a general increase in overall macroeconomic uncertainty. However, macroeconomic conditions has been fairly stable now for the last two or three years, at least in the US. So, although one could argue that the general macroeconomic environment is more uncertain than it was before the crisis, it would be hard to argue that uncertainty has not been gradually diminishing over the past few years, even as corporate cash hoards have continued to grow rapidly.

Some people – I don’t have to name them, you know who they are – like to say that the increase in uncertainty is all, or perhaps only mostly, due to the policies of the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve, especially, but not only, Obamacare and quantitative easing. But Obamacare was enacted in 2010, and it has been implemented gradually since then, coming more or less fully into effect this year. So the uncertainty associated with Obamacare should have been decreasing over time. Quantitative easing has been in effect in one form or another for most of the past four years, so people have gotten used to it. There is now uncertainty about when and how it will come to an end, but there is no sign that concerns about its gradual termination are causing any major market disturbances. So one can’t easily attribute the continuing increase in corporate cash-holding to uncertainty caused by Obamacare or quantitative-easing.

There are also microeconomic sources of uncertainty that are specific to particular sectors or industries, accounting for faster rates of increase in cash-holding by particular types of corporations, but the increase in cash-holding has not been confined to any single group of corporations, though large multi-national corporations, especially technology, media, and telecommunications companies have shown the largest increases in cash holdings. A study by economists at the St. Louis Fed suggested that R&D intensive corporations, being subject to high uncertainty owing to the unpredictable outcomes of their R&D activities, have been increasing their cash holdings more rapidly than less R&D intensive corporations. As R&D expenditures increase as a share of total investment, total cash holding by corporations would be expected to increase. But, again, this explanation can account for a long-term trend towards increased corporate cash holding, but not for the surge in corporate cash holding since 2009.

Let’s think again about why a profitable company is holding a lot of cash. So what can a profitable company do with all that cash gushing into its coffers? Well, 1) it can just hold on to the cash, 2) it could invest in new plant and equipment, (we’ll come back to this in a moment), 3) it could go out and buy other companies, 4) it could pay bonuses to some or all of the employees (guess which ones) of the company, or 5) it could return the cash to the owners of the company by paying dividends or by repurchasing stock.

As promised, let’s now think a bit more about option 2). There are broadly speaking three categories of capital investment. First, there is capital investment that replaces old and depreciating equipment with new and possibly improved equipment, but does not alter the firm’s structure or methods of production. It simply allows the company to keep doing what it has been doing, but perhaps a little bit more efficiently. Second, there is capital investment that aims to alter the structure of production, by adopting a new method or technique of production. Third, there is capital investment intended to increase the total productive capacity of the firm, enabling the firm to expand its output and increase its sales.

Notice that the first category is necessary for any firm unless it is about to go out of business. A firm may postpone such investment if it is not currently profitable, but it can’t postpone it for long without compromising the viability of the firm. Capital replacement is important, but to a large extent it is automatic, not being sensitive to relatively small changes in economic incentives.

The second category does depend importantly on the relative profitability of different techniques, and these decisions require pretty careful and detailed assessments by corporate management to decide which ones will be profitable and should be undertaken and which ones are unlikely to be profitable or involve too much risk to be undertaken. I note parenthetically that it is only a subset (probably a small subset) of this category that is sensitive to the interest-rate mechanism that looms so large in Austrian business-cycle theory. To presume that this probably small sub-category of interest-sensitive investment is what drives the business cycle involves a huge, and empirically unsupported, assumption.

The third – and undoubtedly the largest — category depends primarily not on calculations about the relative cost and profitability of different techniques, but on expectations about future demand for the firm’s output. If firms believe that they can increase sales at current prices, they will expand capacity to produce more output. If they don’t invest in increased capacity, they will probably lose market share to their competitors.

So, if corporations have been accumulating cash rather than investing in new plant and equipment to expand output – the sort of investment that would involve major expenditures and a significant drawdown of cash hoards — the most obvious explanation seems to be that firms don’t expect future demand at current prices to increase enough to justify such investments. A surge in corporate cash holding is an indication that corporate expectations about future demand are not very optimistic. Mildly pessimistic expectations about future demand are not inconsistent with high current profitability and rising stock prices.

I will not comment about why companies are not using their cash to buy other companies or to pay more and bigger bonuses to employees, but I do want to say something about why companies aren’t paying higher dividends to stockholders or buying back stock. One reason that they are not increasing dividend payments is that dividends are not tax-deductible. The non-deductibility of dividends is a terrible flaw in our corporate tax code. (See this post about Hyman Minsky’s opinion of the corporate income tax.) It penalizes giving the owners of companies the ability to decide how to allocate their capital, locking up capital in existing corporations because capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than dividends.

Now it would still be possible for corporations with excess cash to repurchase stock, allowing stockholders to be taxed at the lower rate on capital gains instead of the higher rate on dividends. But for multinational corporations, there is another obstacle to returning cash to stockholders either by paying dividends or by stock repurchase: cash now held overseas would be subject to the 35% corporate tax rate on either dividends or stock repurchases, imposing a huge penalty on returning idle cash to stockholders. So, instead of the cash being made available to millions of stockholders to spend or invest as they wish, creating new demand for output or providing capital to firms seeking new financing, the money is now effectively embargoed in corporate treasuries. What a waste.

Just How Infamous Was that Infamous Open Letter to Bernanke?

There’s been a lot of comment recently about the infamous 2010 open letter to Ben Bernanke penned by an assorted group of economists, journalists, and financiers warning that the Fed’s quantitative easing policy would cause inflation and currency debasement.

Critics of that letter (e.g., Paul Krugman and Brad Delong) have been having fun with the signatories, ridiculing them for what now seems like a chicken-little forecast of disaster. Those signatories who have responded to inquiries about how they now feel about that letter, notably Cliff Asness and Nial Ferguson, have made two arguments: 1) the letter was just a warning that QE was creating a risk of inflation, and 2) despite the historically low levels of inflation since the letter was written, the risk that inflation could increase as a result of QE still exists.

For the most part, critics of the open letter have focused on the absence of inflation since the Fed adopted QE, the critics characterizing the absence of inflation despite QE as an easily predictable outcome, a straightforward implication of basic macroeconomics, which it was ignorant or foolish of the signatories to have ignored. In particular, the signatories should have known that, once interest rates fall to the zero lower bound, the demand for money becoming highly elastic so that the public willingly holds any amount of money that is created, monetary policy is rendered ineffective. Just as a semantic point, I would observe that the term “liquidity trap” used to describe such a situation is actually a slight misnomer inasmuch as the term was coined to describe a situation posited by Keynes in which the demand for money becomes elastic above the zero lower bound. So the assertion that monetary policy is ineffective at the zero lower bound is actually a weaker claim than the one Keynes made about the liquidity trap. As I have suggested previously, the current zero-lower-bound argument is better described as a Hawtreyan credit deadlock than a Keynesian liquidity trap.

Sorry, but I couldn’t resist the parenthetical history-of-thought digression; let’s get back to that infamous open letter.

Those now heaping scorn on signatories to the open letter are claiming that it was obvious that quantitative easing would not increase inflation. I must confess that I did not think that that was the case; I believed that quantitative easing by the Fed could indeed produce inflation. And that’s why I was in favor of quantitative easing. I was hoping for a repeat of what I have called the short but sweat recovery of 1933, when, in the depths of the Great Depression, almost immediately following the worst financial crisis in American history capped by a one-week bank holiday announced by FDR upon being inaugurated President in March 1933, the US economy, propelled by a 14% rise in wholesale prices in the aftermath of FDR’s suspension of the gold standard and 40% devaluation of the dollar, began the fastest expansion it ever had, industrial production leaping by 70% from April to July, and the Dow Jones average more than doubling. Unfortunately, FDR spoiled it all by getting Congress to pass the monumentally stupid National Industrial Recovery Act, thereby strangling the recovery with mandatory wage increases, cost increases, and regulatory ceilings on output as a way to raise prices. Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory!

Inflation having worked splendidly as a recovery strategy during the Great Depression, I have believed all along that we could quickly recover from the Little Depression if only we would give inflation a chance. In the Great Depression, too, there were those that argued either that monetary policy is ineffective – “you can’t push on a string” — or that it would be calamitous — causing inflation and currency debasement – or, even both. But the undeniable fact is that inflation worked; countries that left the gold standard recovered, because once currencies were detached from gold, prices could rise sufficiently to make production profitable again, thereby stimulating multiplier effects (aka supply-side increases in resource utilization) that fueled further economic expansion. And oh yes, don’t forget providing badly needed relief to debtors, relief that actually served the interests of creditors as well.

So my problem with the open letter to Bernanke is not that the letter failed to recognize the existence of a Keynesian liquidity trap or a Hawtreyan credit deadlock, but that the open letter viewed inflation as the problem when, in my estimation at any rate, inflation is the solution.

Now, it is certainly possible that, as critics of the open letter maintain, monetary policy at the zero lower bound is ineffective. However, there is evidence that QE announcements, at least initially, did raise inflation expectations as reflected in TIPS spreads. And we also know (see my paper) that for a considerable period of time (from 2008 through at least 2012) stock prices were positively correlated with inflation expectations, a correlation that one would not expect to observe under normal circumstances.

So why did the huge increase in the monetary base during the Little Depression not cause significant inflation even though monetary policy during the Great Depression clearly did raise the price level in the US and in the other countries that left the gold standard? Well, perhaps the success of monetary policy in ending the Great Depression could not be repeated under modern conditions when all currencies are already fiat currencies. It may be that, starting from an interwar gold standard inherently biased toward deflation, abandoning the gold standard created, more or less automatically, inflationary expectations that allowed prices to rise rapidly toward levels consistent with a restoration of macroeconomic equilibrium. However, in the current fiat money system in which inflation expectations have become anchored to an inflation target of 2 percent or less, no amount of money creation can budge inflation off its expected path, especially at the zero lower bound, and especially when the Fed is paying higher interest on reserves than yielded by short-term Treasuries.

Under our current inflation-targeting monetary regime, the expectation of low inflation seems to have become self-fulfilling. Without an explicit increase in the inflation target or the price-level target (or the NGDP target), the Fed cannot deliver the inflation that could provide a significant economic stimulus. So the problem, it seems to me, is not that we are stuck in a liquidity trap; the problem is that we are stuck in an inflation-targeting monetary regime.

 

Currency Wars: The Next Generation

I saw an interesting news story on the Bloomberg website today. The title sums it up pretty well. “Currency Wars Evolve With Goal of Avoiding Deflation.” Just as Lars Christensen predicted recently, nervous — and misguided — talk about currency wars is spreading fast. Here’s what it says on Bloomberg:

Currency wars are back, though this time the goal is to steal inflation, not growth.

Brazil Finance Minister Guido Mantega popularized the term “currency war” in 2010 to describe policies employed at the time by major central banks to boost the competitiveness of their economies through weaker currencies. Now, many see lower exchange rates as a way to avoid crippling deflation.

Now, as I have pointed out many times (e.g., here, here, and most recently here), “currency war” in the sense used by Mantega, also known as “currency manipulation” or “exchange-rate protection” involves the simultaneous application of exchange-rate intervention by the monetary authority to reduce the nominal exchange rate together with a tight monetary policy aimed at creating a chronic domestic excess demand for money, thereby forcing domestic households and businesses to restrict expenditure to build up their holdings of cash to desired levels, resulting in a chronic balance of payments surplus and the steady accumulation of foreign-exchange reserves by the central bank. So the idea that quantitative easing had anything to do with “currency war” in this sense was a nonsensical notion based on a complete failure to understand the difference between a nominal and a real exchange rate.

“This beggar-thy-neighbor policy is not about rebalancing, not about growth,” David Bloom, the global head of currency strategy at London-based HSBC Holdings Plc, which does business in 74 countries and territories, said in an Oct. 17 interview. “This is about deflation, exporting your deflationary problems to someone else.”

Bloom puts it in these terms because, when one jurisdiction weakens its exchange rate, another’s gets stronger, making imported goods cheaper. Deflation is a both a consequence of, and contributor to, the global economic slowdown that’s pushing the euro region closer to recession and reducing demand for exports from countries such as China and New Zealand.

Well, by definition of an exchange rate (a reciprocal relationship) between two currencies, if one currency appreciates the other depreciates correspondingly. If the euro depreciates relative to the dollar, prices of the same goods will rise measured in euros and fall measured in dollars. The question is what has been causing the euro to depreciate relative to the dollar. The notion of a currency war is meaningless if the change in exchange rates is not at least in part being driven by a deliberate policy choice. So what kind of policy choices are we talking about?

Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said last month he’d welcome a lower exchange rate to help meet his inflation target and may extend the nation’s unprecedented stimulus program to achieve that. Like his Japanese counterpart, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has acknowledged the need for a weaker euro to avoid deflation and make exports more competitive, though he’s denied targeting the exchange rate specifically.

After the Argentine peso, which is plunging following a debt default and devaluation, the yen will be the biggest loser among major currencies by the end of 2015, according to median strategist forecasts compiled by Bloomberg as of yesterday. A 6 percent decline is predicted, which would build on a 5.5 percent slide since June.

The euro is also expected to be among the 10 biggest losers, with strategists seeing a 4.8 percent drop. The yen traded at 107.21 per dollar 10:18 a.m. in New York, while the euro bought $1.2658.

Notice that there is no mention of the monetary policy that goes along with the exchange-rate target. Since the goal of the monetary policy is to produce inflation, one would imagine that the mechanism is monetary expansion. If the Japanese and the Europeans want their currencies to depreciate against the dollar, they can intervene in foreign-exchange markets and buy up dollars with newly printed euros or yen. That would tend to cause euros and yen to depreciate against the dollar, but would also tend to raise prices of goods in terms of euros and yen. How does that export deflation to the US?

At 0.3 percent in September, annual inflation in the 18-nation bloc remains a fraction of the ECB’s target of just under 2 percent. Gross-domestic-product growth flat-lined in the second quarter, while Germany, Europe‘s biggest economy, reduced its 2014 expansion forecast this month to 1.2 percent from 1.8 percent.

Disinflationary pressures in the euro area are starting to spread to its neighbors and biggest trading partners. The currencies of Switzerland, Hungary (HUCPIYY), Denmark, the Czech Republic and Sweden are forecast to fall from 3.8 percent to more than 6 percent by the end of next year, estimates compiled by Bloomberg show, partly due to policy makers’ actions to stoke prices.

“Deflation is spilling over to central and eastern Europe,” Simon Quijano-Evans, the London-based head of emerging-markets research at Commerzbank AG, said yesterday by phone. “Weaker exchange rates will help” them tackle the issue, he said.

Hungary and Switzerland entered deflation in the past two months, while Swedish central-bank Deputy Governor Per Jansson last week blamed his country’s falling prices partly on rate cuts the ECB used to boost its own inflation. A policy response may be necessary, he warned.

If the Swedish central bank thinks that it is experiencing deflation, it has tools with which to prevent deflation from occurring. It is bizarre to suggest that a rate cut by ECB could be causing deflation in Sweden.

While not strictly speaking stimulus measures, the Swiss, Danish and Czech currency pegs — whether official or unofficial — have a similar effect by limiting gains versus the euro.

The Swedes could very easily adopt a similar currency peg to avoid any appreciation of the Swedish krona against the euro.

Measures like these are necessary because, even after a broad-based dollar rally, eight of the Group of 10 developed-nation currencies remain overvalued versus the dollar, according to a purchasing-power parity measure from the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development.

If these currencies are overvalued relative to the dollar, according to a PPP measure, they are under deflationary pressure even at current exchange rates. That means that exchange rate depreciation via monetary expansion is essential to counteracting deflationary pressure.

The notion that exchange-rate depreciation to avoid deflation is a beggar-thy-neighbor policy or a warlike act could not be more wrong. If exchange-rate depreciation by one country causes retaliation by other countries that try to depreciate their currencies even more, that would be a virtuous cycle, not a vicious one.

In his book Trade Depression and the Way Out, Hawtrey summed it up beautifully over 80 years ago, as I observed in this post.

In consequence of the competitive advantage gained by a country’s manufacturers from a depreciation of its currency, any such depreciation is only too likely to meet with recriminations and even retaliation from its competitors. . . . Fears are even expressed that if one country starts depreciation, and others follow suit, there may result “a competitive depreciation” to which no end can be seen.

This competitive depreciation is an entirely imaginary danger. The benefit that a country derives from the depreciation of its currency is in the rise of its price level relative to its wage level, and does not depend on its competitive advantage. If other countries depreciate their currencies, its competitive advantage is destroyed, but the advantage of the price level remains both to it and to them. They in turn may carry the depreciation further, and gain a competitive advantage. But this race in depreciation reaches a natural limit when the fall in wages and in the prices of manufactured goods in terms of gold has gone so far in all the countries concerned as to regain the normal relation with the prices of primary products. When that occurs, the depression is over, and industry is everywhere remunerative and fully employed. Any countries that lag behind in the race will suffer from unemployment in their manufacturing industry. But the remedy lies in their own hands; all they have to do is to depreciate their currencies to the extent necessary to make the price level remunerative to their industry. Their tardiness does not benefit their competitors, once these latter are employed up to capacity. Indeed, if the countries that hang back are an important part of the world’s economic system, the result must be to leave the disparity of price levels partly uncorrected, with undesirable consequences to everybody. . . .

The picture of an endless competition in currency depreciation is completely misleading. The race of depreciation is towards a definite goal; it is a competitive return to equilibrium. The situation is like that of a fishing fleet threatened with a storm; no harm is done if their return to a harbor of refuge is “competitive.” Let them race; the sooner they get there the better.

The only small quibble that I have with Hawtrey’s discussion is his assertion that a fall in the real wage is necessary to restore equilibrium. A temporary fall in real wages may be part of the transition to equilibrium, but that doesn’t mean that the real wage at the end of the transition must be less than it was at the start of the process.

Can We All Export Our Way out of Depression?

Tyler Cowen has a post chastising Keynesians for scolding Germany for advising their Euro counterparts to adopt the virtuous German example of increasing their international competitiveness so that they can increase their exports, thereby increasing GDP and employment. The Keynesian response is that increasing exports is a zero-sum game, so that, far from being a recipe for recovery, the German advice is actually a recipe for continued stagnation.

Tyler doesn’t think much of the Keynesian response.

But that Keynesian counter is a mistake, perhaps brought on by the IS-LM model and its impoverished treatment of banking and credit.

Let’s say all nations could indeed increase their gross exports, although of course the sum of net exports could not go up.  The first effect is that small- and medium-sized enterprises would be more profitable in the currently troubled economies.  They would receive more credit and the broader monetary aggregates would go up in those countries, reflating their economies.  (Price level integration is not so tight in these cases, furthermore much of the reflation could operate through q’s rather than p’s.)  It sometimes feels like the IS-LM users have a mercantilist gold standard model, where the commodity base money can only be shuffled around in zero-sum fashion and not much more can happen in a positive direction.

The problem with Tyler’s rejoinder to the Keynesian response, which, I agree, provides an incomplete picture of what is going on, is that he assumes that which he wants to prove, thereby making his job just a bit too easy. That is, Tyler just assumes that “all nations could indeed increase their gross exports.” Obviously, if all nations increase their gross exports, they will very likely all increase their total output and employment. (It is, I suppose, theoretically possible that all the additional exports could be generated by shifting output from non-tradables to tradables, but that seems an extremely unlikely scenario.) The reaction of credit markets and monetary aggregates would be very much a second-order reaction. It’s the initial assumption–  that all nations could increase gross exports simultaneously — that is doing all the heavy lifting.

Concerning Tyler’s characterization of the IS-LM model as a mercantilist gold-standard model, I agree that IS-LM has serious deficiencies, but that characterization strikes me as unfair. The simple IS-LM model is a closed economy model, with an exogenously determined price level. Such a model certainly has certain similarities to a mercantilist gold standard model, but that doesn’t mean that the two models are essentially the same. There are many ways of augmenting the IS-LM model to turn it into an open-economy model, in which case it would not necessarily resemble the a mercantilist gold-standard model.

Now I am guessing that Tyler would respond to my criticism by asking: “well, why wouldn’t all countries increase their gross exports is they all followed the German advice?”

My response to that question would be that the conclusion that everybody’s exports would increase if everybody became more efficient logically follows only in a comparative-statics framework. But, for purposes of this exercise, we are not starting from an equilibrium, and we have no assurance that, in a disequilibrium environment, the interaction of the overall macro disequilibrium with the posited increase of efficiency would produce, as the comparative-statics exercise would lead us to believe, a straightforward increase in everyone’s exports. Indeed, even the comparative-statics exercise is making an unsubstantiated assumption that the initial equilibrium is locally unique and stable.

Of course, this response might be dismissed as a mere theoretical possibility, though the likelihood that widespread adoption of export-increasing policies in the midst of an international depression, unaccompanied by monetary expansion, would lead to increased output does not seem all that high to me. So let’s think about what might happen if all countries simultaneously adopted export-increasing policies. The first point to consider is that not all countries are the same, and not all are in a position to increase their exports by as much or as quickly as others. Inevitably, some countries would increase their exports faster than others. As a result, it is also inevitable that some countries would lose export markets as other countries penetrated export markets before they did. In addition, some countries would experience declines in domestic output as domestic-import competing industries were forced by import competition to curtail output. In the absence of demand-increasing monetary policies, output and employment in some countries would very likely fall. This is the kernel of truth in the conventional IS-LM analysis that Tyler tries to dismiss. The IS-LM framework abstracts from the output-increasing tendency of export-led growth, but the comparative-statics approach abstracts from aggregate-demand effects that could easily overwhelm the comparative-statics effect.

Now, to be fair, I must acknowledge that Tyler reaches a pretty balanced conclusion:

This interpretation of the meaning of zero-sum net exports is one of the most common economic mistakes you will hear from serious economists in the blogosphere, and yet it is often presented dogmatically or dismissively in a single sentence, without much consideration of more complex or more realistic scenarios.

That is a reasonable conclusion, but I think it would be just as dogmatic, if not more so, to rely on the comparative-statics analysis that Tyler goes through in the first part of his post without consideration of more complex or more realistic scenarios.

Let me also offer a comment on Scott Sumner’s take on Tyler’s post. Scott tries to translate Tyler’s analysis into macroeconomic terms to support Tyler’s comparative-statics analysis. Scott considers three methods by which exports might be increased: 1) supply-side reforms, 2) monetary stimulus aimed at currency depreciation, and 3) increased government saving (fiscal austerity). The first two, Scott believes, lead to increased output and employment, and that the third is a wash. I agree with Scott about monetary stimulus aimed at currency depreciation, but I disagree (at least in part) about the other two.

Supply-side reforms [to increase exports] boost output under either an inflation target, or a dual mandate.  If you want to use the Keynesian model, these reforms boost the Wicksellian equilibrium interest rate, which makes NGDP grow faster, even at the zero bound.

Scott makes a fair point, but I don’t think it is necessarily true for all inflation targets. Here is how I would put it. Because supply-side reforms to increase exports could cause aggregate demand in some countries to fall, and we have very little ability to predict by how much aggregate demand could go down in some countries adversely affected by increased competition from exports by other countries, it is at least possible that worldwide aggregate demand would fall if such policies were generally adopted. You can’t tell how the Wicksellian natural rate would be affected until you’ve accounted for all the indirect feedback effects on aggregate demand. If the Wicksellian natural rate fell, an inflation target, even if met, might not prevent a slowdown in NGDP growth, and a net reduction in output and employment. To prevent a slowdown in NGDP growth would require increasing the inflation target. Of course, under a real dual mandate (as opposed to the sham dual mandate now in place at the Fed) or an NGDP target, monetary policy would have to be loosened sufficiently to prevent output and employment from falling.

As far as government saving (fiscal austerity), I’d say it’s a net wash, for monetary offset reasons.

I am not sure what Scott means about monetary offset in this context. As I have argued in several earlier posts (here, here, here and here), attempting to increase employment via currency depreciation and increased saving involves tightening monetary policy, not loosening it. So I don’t see how fiscal policy can be used to depreciate a currency at the same time that monetary policy is being loosened. At any rate, if monetary policy is being used to depreciate the currency, then I see no difference between options 2) and 3).

But my general comment is that, like Tyler, Scott seems to be exaggerating the difference between his bottom line and the one that comes out of the IS-LM model, though I am certainly not saying that IS-LM is  last word on the subject.

Hicks on IS-LM and Temporary Equilibrium

Jan, commenting on my recent post about Krugman, Minsky and IS-LM, quoted the penultimate paragraph of J. R. Hicks’s 1980 paper on IS-LM in the Journal of Post-Keynesian Economics, a brand of economics not particularly sympathetic to Hicks’s invention. Hicks explained that in the mid-1930s he had been thinking along lines similar to Keynes’s even before the General Theory was published, and had the basic idea of IS-LM in his mind even before he had read the General Theory, while also acknowledging that his enthusiasm for the IS-LM construct had waned considerably over the years.

Hicks discussed both the similarities and the differences between his model and IS-LM. But as the discussion proceeds, it becomes clear that what he is thinking of as his model is what became his model of temporary equilibrium in Value and Capital. So it really is important to understand what Hicks felt were the similarities as well as the key differences between the temporary- equilibrium model, and the IS-LM model. Here is how Hicks put it:

I recognized immediately, as soon as I read The General Theory, that my model and Keynes’ had some things in common. Both of us fixed our attention on the behavior of an economy during a period—a period that had a past, which nothing that was done during the period could alter, and a future, which during the period was unknown. Expectations of the future would nevertheless affect what happened during the period. Neither of us made any assumption about “rational expectations” ; expectations, in our models, were strictly exogenous.3 (Keynes made much more fuss over that than I did, but there is the same implication in my model also.) Subject to these data— the given equipment carried over from the past, the production possibilities within the period, the preference schedules, and the given expectations— the actual performance of the economy within the period was supposed to be determined, or determinable. It would be determined as an equilibrium performance, with respect to these data.

There was all this in common between my model and Keynes'; it was enough to make me recognize, as soon as I saw The General Theory, that his model was a relation of mine and, as such, one which I could warmly welcome. There were, however, two differences, on which (as we shall see) much depends. The more obvious difference was that mine was a flexprice model, a perfect competition model, in which all prices were flexible, while in Keynes’ the level of money wages (at least) was exogenously determined. So Keynes’ was a model that was consistent with unemployment, while mine, in his terms, was a full employment model. I shall have much to say about this difference, but I may as well note, at the start, that I do not think it matters much. I did not think, even in 1936, that it mattered much. IS-LM was in fact a translation of Keynes’ nonflexprice model into my terms. It seemed to me already that that could be done; but how it is done requires explanation.

The other difference is more fundamental; it concerns the length of the period. Keynes’ (he said) was a “short-period,” a term with connotations derived from Marshall; we shall not go far wrong if we think of it as a year. Mine was an “ultra-short-period” ; I called it a week. Much more can happen in a year than in a week; Keynes has to allow for quite a lot of things to happen. I wanted to avoid so much happening, so that my (flexprice) markets could reflect propensities (and expectations) as they are at a moment. So it was that I made my markets open only on a Monday; what actually happened during the ensuing week was not to affect them. This was a very artificial device, not (I would think now) much to be recommended. But the point of it was to exclude the things which might happen, and must disturb the markets, during a period of finite length; and this, as we shall see, is a very real trouble in Keynes. (pp. 139-40)

Hicks then explained how the specific idea of the IS-LM model came to him as a result of working on a three-good Walrasian system in which the solution could be described in terms of equilibrium in two markets, the third market necessarily being in equilibrium if the other two were in equilibrium. That’s an interesting historical tidbit, but the point that I want to discuss is what I think is Hicks’s failure to fully understand the significance of his own model, whose importance, regrettably, he consistently underestimated in later work (e.g., in Capital and Growth and in this paper).

The point that I want to focus on is in the second paragraph quoted above where Hicks says “mine [i.e. temporary equilibrium] was a flexprice model, a perfect competition model, in which all prices were flexible, while in Keynes’ the level of money wages (at least) was exogenously determined. So Keynes’ was a model that was consistent with unemployment, while mine, in his terms, was a full employment model.” This, it seems to me, is all wrong, because Hicks, is taking a very naïve and misguided view of what perfect competition and flexible prices mean. Those terms are often mistakenly assumed to meant that if prices are simply allowed to adjust freely, all  markets will clear and all resources will be utilized.

I think that is a total misconception, and the significance of the temporary-equilibrium construct is in helping us understand why an economy can operate sub-optimally with idle resources even when there is perfect competition and markets “clear.” What prevents optimality and allows resources to remain idle despite freely adjustming prices and perfect competition is that the expectations held by agents are not consistent. If expectations are not consistent, the plans based on those expectations are not consistent. If plans are not consistent, then how can one expect resources to be used optimally or even at all? Thus, for Hicks to assert, casually without explicit qualification, that his temporary-equilibrium model was a full-employment model, indicates to me that Hicks was unaware of the deeper significance of his own model.

If we take a full equilibrium as our benchmark, and look at how one of the markets in that full equilibrium clears, we can imagine the equilibrium as the intersection of a supply curve and a demand curve, whose positions in the standard price/quantity space depend on the price expectations of suppliers and of demanders. Different, i.e, inconsistent, price expectations would imply shifts in both the demand and supply curves from those corresponding to full intertemporal equilibrium. Overall, the price expectations consistent with a full intertemporal equilibrium will in some sense maximize total output and employment, so when price expectations are inconsistent with full intertemporal equilibrium, the shifts of the demand and supply curves will be such that they will intersect at points corresponding to less output and less employment than would have been the case in full intertemporal equilibrium. In fact, it is possible to imagine that expectations on the supply side and the demand side are so inconsistent that the point of intersection between the demand and supply curves corresponds to an output (and hence employment) that is way less than it would have been in full intertemporal equilibrium. The problem is not that the price in the market doesn’t allow the market to clear. Rather, given the positions of the demand and supply curves, their point of intersection implies a low output, because inconsistent price expectations are such that potentially advantageous trading opportunities are not being recognized.

So for Hicks to assert that his flexprice temporary-equilibrium model was (in Keynes’s terms) a full-employment model without noting the possibility of a significant contraction of output (and employment) in a perfectly competitive flexprice temporary-equilibrium model when there are significant inconsistencies in expectations suggests strongly that Hicks somehow did not fully comprehend what his own creation was all about. His failure to comprehend his own model also explains why he felt the need to abandon the flexprice temporary-equilibrium model in his later work for a fixprice model.

There is, of course, a lot more to be said about all this, and Hicks’s comments concerning the choice of a length of the period are also of interest, but the clear (or so it seems to me) misunderstanding by Hicks of what is entailed by a flexprice temporary equilibrium is an important point to recognize in evaluating both Hicks’s work and his commentary on that work and its relation to Keynes.

Aggregate Demand and Coordination Failures

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I have been writing less about monetary policy and more about theory and methodology than when I started blogging a little over three years ago. Now one reason for that is that I’ve already said what I want to say about policy, and, since I get bored easily, I look for new things to write about. Another reason is that, at least in the US, the economy seems to have reached a sustainable growth path that seems likely to continue for the near to intermediate term. I think that monetary policy could be doing more to promote recovery, and I wish that it would, but unfortunately, the policy is what it is, and it will continue more or less in the way that Janet Yellen has been saying it will. Falling oil prices, because of increasing US oil output, suggest that growth may speed up slightly even as inflation stays low, possibly even falling to one percent or less. At least in the short-term, the fall in inflation does not seem like a cause for concern. A third reason for writing less about monetary policy is that I have been giving a lot of thought to what it is that I dislike about the current state of macroeconomics, and as I have been thinking about it, I have been writing about it.

In thinking about what I think is wrong with modern macroeconomics, I have been coming back again and again, though usually without explicit attribution, to an idea that was impressed upon me as an undergrad and grad student by Axel Leijonhufvud: that the main concern of macroeconomics ought to be with failures of coordination. A Swede, trained in the tradition of the Wicksellian Stockholm School, Leijonhufvud immersed himself in the study of the economics of Keynes and Keynesian economics, while also mastering the Austrian literature, and becoming an admirer of Hayek, especially Hayek’s seminal 1937 paper, “Economics and Knowledge.”

In discussing Keynes, Leijonhufvud focused on two kinds of coordination failures.

First, there is a problem in the labor market. If there is unemployment because the real wage is too high, an individual worker can’t solve the problem by offering to accept a reduced nominal wage. Suppose the price of output is $1 a unit and the wage is $10 a day, but the real wage consistent with full employment is $9 a day, meaning that producers choose to produce less output than they would produce if the real wage were lower, thus hiring fewer workers than they would if the real wage were lower than it is. If an individual worker offers to accept a wage of $9 a day, but other workers continue to hold out for $10 a day, it’s not clear that an employer would want to hire the worker who offers to work for $9 a day. If employers are not hiring additional workers because they can’t cover the cost of the additional output produced with the incremental revenue generated by the added output, the willingness of one worker to work for $9 a day is not likely to make a difference to the employer’s output and hiring decisions. It is not obvious what sequence of transactions would result in an increase in output and employment when the real wage is above the equilibrium level. There are complex feedback effects from a change, so that the net effect of making those changes in a piecemeal fashion is unpredictable, even though there is a possible full-employment equilibrium with a real wage of $9 a day. If the problem is that real wages in general are too high for full employment, the willingness of an individual worker to accept a reduced wage from a single employer does not fix the problem.

In the standard competitive model, there is a perfect market for every commodity in which every transactor is assumed to be able to buy and sell as much as he wants. But the standard competitive model has very little to say about the process by which those equilibrium prices are arrived at. And a typical worker is never faced with that kind of choice posited in the competitive model: an impersonal uniform wage at which he can decide how many hours a day or week or year he wants to work at that uniform wage. Under those circumstances, Keynes argued that the willingness of some workers to accept wage cuts in order to gain employment would not significantly increase employment, and might actually have destabilizing side-effects. Keynes tried to make this argument in the framework of an equilibrium model, though the nature of the argument, as Don Patinkin among others observed, was really better suited to a disequilibrium framework. Unfortunately, Keynes’s argument was subsequently dumbed down to a simple assertion that wages and prices are sticky (especially downward).

Second, there is an intertemporal problem, because the interest rate may be stuck at a rate too high to allow enough current investment to generate the full-employment level of spending given the current level of the money wage. In this scenario, unemployment isn’t caused by a real wage that is too high, so trying to fix it by wage adjustment would be a mistake. Since the source of the problem is the rate of interest, the way to fix the problem would be to reduce the rate of interest. But depending on the circumstances, there may be a coordination failure: bear speculators, expecting the rate of interest to rise when it falls to abnormally low levels, prevent the rate of interest from falling enough to induce enough investment to support full employment. Keynes put too much weight on bear speculators as the source of the intertemporal problem; Hawtrey’s notion of a credit deadlock would actually have been a better way to go, and nowadays, when people speak about a Keynesian liquidity trap, what they really have in mind is something closer to Hawtreyan credit deadlock than to the Keynesian liquidity trap.

Keynes surely deserves credit for identifying and explaining two possible sources of coordination failures, failures affecting the macroeconomy, because interest rates and wages, though they actually come in many different shapes and sizes, affect all markets and are true macroeconomic variables. But Keynes’s analysis of those coordination failures was far from being fully satisfactory, which is not surprising; a theoretical pioneer rarely provides a fully satisfactory analysis, leaving lots of work for successors.

But I think that Keynes’s theoretical paradigm actually did lead macroeconomics in the wrong direction, in the direction of a highly aggregated model with a single output, a bond, a medium of exchange, and a labor market, with no explicit characterization of the production technology. (I.e., is there one factor or two, and if two how is the price of the second factor determined? See, here, here, here, and here my discussion of Earl Thompson’s “A Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory,” which I hope at some point to revisit and continue.)

Why was it the wrong direction? Because, the Keynesian model (both Keynes’s own version and the Hicksian IS-LM version of his model) ruled out the sort of coordination problems that might arise in a multi-product, multi-factor, intertemporal model in which total output depends in a meaningful way on the meshing of the interdependent plans, independently formulated by decentralized decision-makers, contingent on possibly inconsistent expectations of the future. In the over-simplified and over-aggregated Keynesian model, the essence of the coordination problem has been assumed away, leaving only a residue of the actual problem to be addressed by the model. The focus of the model is on aggregate expenditure, income, and output flows, with no attention paid to the truly daunting task of achieving sufficient coordination among the independent decision makers to allow total output and income to closely approximate the maximum sustainable output and income that the system could generate in a perfectly coordinated state, aka full intertemporal equilibrium.

This way of thinking about macroeconomics led to the merging of macroeconomics with neoclassical growth theory and to the routine and unthinking incorporation of aggregate production functions in macroeconomic models, a practice that is strictly justified only in a single-output, two-factor model in which the value of capital is independent of the rate of interest, so that the havoc-producing effects of reswitching and capital-reversal can be avoided. Eventually, these models were taken over by modern real-business-cycle theorists, who dogmatically rule out any consideration of coordination problems, while attributing all observed output and employment fluctuations to random productivity shocks. If one thinks of macroeconomics as an attempt to understand coordination failures, the RBC explanation of output and employment fluctuations is totally backwards; productivity fluctuations, like fluctuations in output and employment, are the not the results of unexplained random disturbances, they are the symptoms of coordination failures. That’s it, eureka! Solve the problem by assuming that it does not exist.

If you are thinking that this seems like an Austrian critique of the Keynesian model or the Keynesian approach, you are right; it is an Austrian critique. But it has nothing to do with stereotypical Austrian policy negativism; it is a critique of the oversimplified structure of the Keynesian model, which foreshadowed the reduction ad absurdum or modern real-business-cycle theory, which has nearly banished the idea of coordination failures from modern macroeconomics. The critique is not about the lack of a roundabout capital structure; it is about the narrow scope for inconsistencies in production and consumption plans.

I think that Leijonhufvud almost 40 years ago was getting at this point when he wrote the following paragraph near toward end of his book on Keynes.

The unclear mix of statics and dynamics [in the General Theory] would seem to be main reason for later muddles. One cannot assume that what went wrong was simply that Keynes slipped up here and there in his adaptation of standard tools, and that consequently, if we go back and tinker a little more with the Marshallian toolbox his purposes will be realized. What is required, I believe, is a systematic investigation from the standpoint of the information problems stressed in this study, of what elements of the static theory of resource allocation can without further ado be utilized in the analysis of dynamic and historical systems. This, of course, would be merely a first step: the gap yawns very wide between the systematic and rigorous modern analysis of the stability of simple, “featureless,” pure exchange systems and Keynes’ inspired sketch of the income-constrained process in a monetary exchange-cum production system. But even for such a first step, the prescription cannot be to “go back to Keynes.” If one must retrace some step of past developments in order to get on the right track – and that is probably advisable – my own preference is to go back to Hayek. Hayek’s Gestalt-conception of what happens during business cycles, it has been generally agreed, was much less sound that Keynes’. As an unhappy consequence, his far superior work on the fundamentals of the problem has not received the attention it deserves. (pp. 401-02)

I don’t think that we actually need to go back to Hayek, though “Economics and Knowledge” should certainly be read by every macroeconomist, but we do need to get a clearer understanding of the potential for breakdowns in economic activity to be caused by inconsistent expectations, especially when expectations are themselves mutually dependent and reinforcing. Because expectations are mutually interdependent, they are highly susceptible to network effects. Network effects produce tipping points, tipping points can lead to catastrophic outcomes. Just wanted to share that with you. Have a nice day.

Franklin Fisher on the Stability(?) of General Equilibrium

The eminent Franklin Fisher, winner of the J. B. Clark Medal in 1973, a famed econometrician and antitrust economist, who was the expert economics witness for IBM in its long battle with the U. S. Department of Justice, and was later the expert witness for the Justice Department in the antitrust case against Microsoft, currently emeritus professor professor of microeconomics at MIT, visited the FTC today to give a talk about proposals the efficient sharing of water between Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. The talk was interesting and informative, but I must admit that I was more interested in Fisher’s views on the stability of general equilibrium, the subject of a monograph he wrote for the econometric society Disequilibrium Foundations of Equilibrium Economics, a book which I have not yet read, but hope to read before very long.

However, I did find a short paper by Fisher, “The Stability of General Equilibrium – What Do We Know and Why Is It Important?” (available here) which was included in a volume General Equilibrium Analysis: A Century after Walras edited by Pacal Bridel.

Fisher’s contribution was to show that the early stability analyses of general equilibrium, despite the efforts of some of the most best economists of the mid-twentieth century, e.g, Hicks, Samuelson, Arrow and Hurwicz (all Nobel Prize winners) failed to provide a useful analysis of the question whether the general equilibrium described by Walras, whose existence was first demonstrated under very restrictive assumptions by Abraham Wald, and later under more general conditions by Arrow and Debreu, is stable or not.

Although we routinely apply comparative-statics exercises to derive what Samuelson mislabeled “meaningful theorems,” meaning refutable propositions about the directional effects of a parameter change on some observable economic variable(s), such as the effect of an excise tax on the price and quantity sold of the taxed commodity, those comparative-statics exercises are predicated on the assumption that the exercise starts from an initial position of equilibrium and that the parameter change leads, in a short period of time, to a new equilibrium. But there is no theory describing the laws of motion leading from one equilibrium to another, so the whole exercise is built on the mere assumption that a general equilibrium is sufficiently stable so that the old and the new equilibria can be usefully compared. In other words, microeconomics is predicated on macroeconomic foundations, i.e., the stability of a general equilibrium. The methodological demand for microfoundations for macroeconomics is thus a massive and transparent exercise in question begging.

In his paper on the stability of general equilibrium, Fisher observes that there are four important issues to be explored by general-equilibrium theory: existence, uniqueness, optimality, and stability. Of these he considers optimality to be the most important, as it provides a justification for a capitalistic market economy. Fisher continues:

So elegant and powerful are these results, that most economists base their conclusions upon them and work in an equilibrium framework – as they do in partial equilibrium analysis. But the justification for so doing depends on the answer to the fourth question listed above, that of stability, and a favorable answer to that is by no means assured.

It is important to understand this point which is generally ignored by economists. No matter how desirable points of competitive general equilibrium may be, that is of no consequence if they cannot be reached fairly quickly or maintained thereafter, or, as might happen when a country decides to adopt free markets, there are bad consequences on the way to equilibrium.

Milton Friedman remarked to me long ago that the study of the stability of general equilibrium is unimportant, first, because it is obvious that the economy is stable, and, second, because if it isn’t stable we are wasting our time. He should have known better. In the first place, it is not at all obvious that the actual economy is stable. Apart from the lessons of the past few years, there is the fact that prices do change all the time. Beyond this, however, is a subtler and possibly more important point. Whether or not the actual economy is stable, we largely lack a convincing theory of why that should be so. Lacking such a theory, we do not have an adequate theory of value, and there is an important lacuna in the center of microeconomic theory.

Yet economists generally behave as though this problem did not exist. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is the view of the theory of Rational Expectations that any disequilibrium disappears so fast that it can be ignored. (If the 50-dollar bill were really on the sidewalk, it would be gone already.) But this simply assumes the problem away. The pursuit of profits is a major dynamic force in the competitive economy. To only look at situations where the Invisible Hand has finished its work cannot lead to a real understanding of how that work is accomplished. (p. 35)

I would also note that Fisher confirms a proposition that I have advanced a couple of times previously, namely that Walras’s Law is not generally valid except in a full general equilibrium with either a complete set of markets or correct price expectations. Outside of general equilibrium, Walras’s Law is valid only if trading is not permitted at disequilibrium prices, i.e., Walrasian tatonnement. Here’s how Fisher puts it.

In this context, it is appropriate to remark that Walras’s Law no longer holds in its original form. Instead of the sum of the money value of all excess demands over all agents being zero, it now turned out that, at any moment of time, the same sum (including the demands for shares of firms and for money) equals the difference between the total amount of dividends that households expect to receive at that time and the amount that firms expect to pay. This difference disappears in equilibrium where expectations are correct, and the classic version of Walras’s Law then holds.


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist at the Federal Trade Commission. Nothing that you read on this blog necessarily reflects the views of the FTC or the individual commissioners. Although I work at the FTC as an antitrust economist, most of my research and writing has been on monetary economics and policy and the history of monetary theory. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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