Almost two months ago, I wrote a post (“Who Sets the Real Rate of Interest?”) about the Fisher equation, questioning the idea that the Fed can, at will, reduce the real rate of interest by printing money, an idea espoused by a lot of people who also deny that the Fed has the power to reduce the rate of unemployment by printing money. A few weeks later, I wrote another post (“On a Difficult Passage in the General Theory“) in which I pointed out the inconsistency between Keynes’s attack on the Fisher equation in chapter 11 of the General Theory and his analysis in chapter 17 of the liquidity premium and the conditions for asset-market equilibrium, an analysis that led Keynes to write down what is actually a generalized version of the Fisher equation. In both of those posts I promised a future post about how to understand the dynamic implications of the Fisher equation and the relationship between Fisher equation and the Keynesian analysis. This post is an attempt to make good on those promises.
As I observed in my earlier post, the Fisher equation is best understood as a property of equilibrium. If the Fisher equation does not hold, then it is reasonable to attribute the failure to some sort of disequilibrium. The most obvious, but not the only, source of disequilibrium is incorrectly expected inflation. Other sources of disequilibrium could be a general economic disorder, the entire economic system being (seriously) out of equilibrium, implying that the real rate of interest is somehow different from the “equilibrium” rate, or, as Milton Friedman might put it, that the real rate is different from the rate that would be ground out by the system of Walrasian (or Casselian or Paretian or Fisherian) equations.
Still a third possibility is that there is more than one equilibrium (i.e., more than one solution to whichever system of equations we are trying to solve). If so, as an economy moves from one equilibrium path to another through time, the nominal (and hence the real) rate of that economy could be changing independently of changes in expected inflation, thereby nullifying the empirical relationship implied (under the assumption of a unique equilibrium) by the Fisher equation.
Now in the canonical Fisherian theory of interest, there is, at any moment of time, a unique equilibrium rate of interest (actually a unique structure of equilibrium rates for all possible combinations of time periods), increasing thrift tending to reduce rates and increasing productivity of capital tending to raise them. While uniqueness of the interest rate cannot easily be derived outside a one-commodity model, the assumption did not seem all that implausible in the context of the canonical Fisherian model with a given technology and given endowments of present and future resources. In the real world, however, the future is unknown, so the future exists now only in our imagination, which means that, fundamentally, the determination of real interest rates cannot be independent of our expectations of the future. There is no unique set of expectations that is consistent with “fundamentals.” Fundamentals and expectations interact to create the future; expectations can be self-fulfilling. One of the reasons why expectations can be self-fulfilling is that often it is the case that individual expectations can only be realized if they are congruent with the expectations of others; expectations are subject to network effects. That was the valid insight in Keynes’s “beauty contest” theory of the stock market in chapter 12 of the GT.
There simply is no reason why there would be only one possible equilibrium time path. Actually, the idea that there is just one possible equilibrium time path seems incredible to me. It seems infinitely more likely that there are many potential equilibrium time paths, each path conditional on a corresponding set of individual expectations. To be sure, not all expectations can be realized. Expectations that can’t be realized produce bubbles. But just because expectations are not realized doesn’t mean that the observed price paths were bubbles; as long as it was possible, under conditions that could possibly have obtained, that the expectations could have been realized, the observed price paths were not bubbles.
Keynes was not the first economist to attribute economic fluctuations to shifts in expectations; J. S. Mill, Stanley Jevons, and A. C. Pigou, among others, emphasized recurrent waves of optimism and pessimism as the key source of cyclical fluctuations. The concept of the marginal efficiency of capital was used by Keynes to show the dependence of the desired capital stock, and hence the amount of investment, on the state of entrepreneurial expectations, but Keynes, just before criticizing the Fisher equation, explicitly identified the MEC with the Fisherian concept of “the rate of return over cost.” At a formal level, at any rate, Keynes was not attacking the Fisherian theory of interest.
So what I want to suggest is that, in attacking the Fisher equation, Keynes was really questioning the idea that a change in inflation expectations operates strictly on the nominal rate of interest without affecting the real rate. In a world in which there is a unique equilibrium real rate, and in which the world is moving along a time-path in the neighborhood of that equilibrium, a change in inflation expectations may operate strictly on the nominal rate and leave the real rate unchanged. In chapter 11, Keynes tried to argue the opposite: that the entire adjustment to a change in expected inflation is concentrated on real rate with the nominal rate unchanged. This idea seems completely unfounded. However, if the equilibrium real rate is not unique, why assume, as the standard renditions of the Fisher equation usually do, that a change in expected inflation affects only the nominal rate? Indeed, even if there is a unique real rate – remember that “unique real rate” in this context refers to a unique yield curve – the assumption that the real rate is invariant with respect to expected inflation may not be true in an appropriate comparative-statics exercise, such as the 1950s-1960s literature on inflation and growth, which recognized the possibility that inflation could induce a shift from holding cash to holding real assets, thereby increasing the rate of capital accumulation and growth, and, consequently, reducing the equilibrium real rate. That literature was flawed, or at least incomplete, in its analysis of inflation, but it was motivated by a valid insight.
In chapter 17, after deriving his generalized version of the Fisher equation, Keynes came back to this point when explaining why he had now abandoned the Wicksellian natural-rate analysis of the Treatise on Money. The natural-rate analysis, Keynes pointed out, presumes the existence of a unique natural rate of interest, but having come to believe that there could be an equilibrium associated with any level of employment, Keynes now concluded that there is actually a natural rate of interest corresponding to each level of employment. What Keynes failed to do in this discussion was to specify the relationship between natural rates of interest and levels of employment, leaving a major gap in his theoretical structure. Had he specified the relationship, we would have an explicit Keynesian IS curve, which might well differ from the downward-sloping Hicksian IS curve. As Earl Thompson, and perhaps others, pointed out about 40 years ago, the Hicksian IS curve is inconsistent with the standard neoclassical theory of production, which Keynes seems (provisionally at least) to have accepted when arguing that, with a given technology and capital stock, increased employment is possible only at a reduced real wage.
But if the Keynesian IS curve is upward-sloping, then Keynes’s criticism of the Fisher equation in chapter 11 is even harder to make sense of than it seems at first sight, because an increase in expected inflation would tend to raise, not (as Keynes implicitly assumed) reduce, the real rate of interest. In other words, for an economy operating at less than full employment, with all expectations except the rate of expected inflation held constant, an increase in the expected rate of inflation, by raising the marginal efficiency of capital, and thereby increasing the expected return on investment, ought to be associated with increased nominal and real rates of interest. If we further assume that entrepreneurial expectations are positively related to the state of the economy, then the positive correlation between inflation expectations and real interest rates would be enhanced. On this interpretation, Keynes’s criticism of the Fisher equation in chapter 11 seems indefensible.
That is one way of looking at the relationship between inflation expectations and the real rate of interest. But there is also another way.
The Fisher equation tells us that, in equilibrium, the nominal rate equals the sum of the prospective real rate and the expected rate of inflation. Usually that’s not a problem, because the prospective real rate tends to be positive, and inflation (at least since about 1938) is almost always positive. That’s the normal case. But there’s also an abnormal (even pathological) case, where the sum of expected inflation and the prospective real rate of interest is less than zero. We know right away that such a situation is abnormal, because it is incompatible with equilibrium. Who would lend money at a negative rate when it’s possible to hold the money and get a zero return? The nominal rate of interest can’t be negative. So if the sum of the prospective real rate (the expected yield on real capital) and the expected inflation rate (the negative of the expected yield on money with a zero nominal interest rate) is negative, then the return to holding money exceeds the yield on real capital, and the Fisher equation breaks down.
In other words, if r + dP/dt < 0, where r is the real rate of interest and dP/dt is the expected rate of inflation, then r < –dP/dt. But since i, the nominal rate of interest, cannot be less than zero, the Fisher equation does not hold, and must be replaced by the Fisher inequality
i > r + dP/dt.
If the Fisher equation can’t be satisfied, all hell breaks loose. Asset prices start crashing as asset owners try to unload their real assets for cash. (Note that I have not specified the time period over which the sum of expected inflation and the prospective yield on real capital are negative. Presumably the duration of that period is not indefinitely long. If it were, the system might implode.)
That’s what was happening in the autumn of 2008, when short-term inflation expectations turned negative in a contracting economy in which the short-term prospects for investment were really lousy and getting worse. The prices of real assets had to fall enough to raise the prospective yield on real assets above the expected yield from holding cash. However, falling asset prices don’t necessary restore equilibrium, because, once a panic starts it can become contagious, with falling asset prices reinforcing the expectation that asset prices will fall, depressing the prospective yield on real capital, so that, rather than bottoming out, the downward spiral feeds on itself.
Thus, for an economy at the zero lower bound, with the expected yield from holding money greater than the prospective yield on real capital, a crash in asset prices may not stabilize itself. If so, something else has to happen to stop the crash: the expected yield from holding money must be forced below the prospective yield on real capital. With the prospective yield on real capital already negative, forcing down the expected yield on money below the prospective yield on capital requires raising expected inflation above the absolute value of the prospective yield on real capital. Thus, if the prospective yield on real capital is -5%, then, to stop the crash, expected inflation would have to be raised to over 5%.
But there is a further practical problem. At the zero lower bound, not only is the prospective real rate not observable, it can’t even be inferred from the Fisher equation, the Fisher equation having become an inequality. All that can be said is that r < –dP/dt.
So, at the zero lower bound, achieving a recovery requires raising expected inflation. But how does raising expected inflation affect the nominal rate of interest? If r + dP/dt < 0, then increasing expected inflation will not increase the nominal rate of interest unless dP/dt increases enough to make r + dP/dt greater than zero. That’s what Keynes seemed to be saying in chapter 11, raising expected inflation won’t affect the nominal rate of interest, just the real rate. So Keynes’s criticism of the Fisher equation seems valid only in the pathological case when the Fisher equation is replaced by the Fisher inequality.
In my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations,” I found that a strongly positive correlation between inflation expectations (approximated by the breakeven TIPS spread on 10-year Treasuries) and asset prices (approximated by S&P 500) over the time period from spring 2008 through the end of 2010, while finding no such correlation over the period from 2003 to 2008. (Extending the data set through 2012 showed the relationship persisted through 2012 but may have broken down in 2013.) This empirical finding seems consistent with the notion that there has been something pathological about the period since 2008. Perhaps one way to think about the nature of the pathology is that the Fisher equation has been replaced by the Fisher inequality, a world in which changes in inflation expectations are reflected in changes in real interest rates instead of changes in nominal rates, the most peculiar kind of world described by Keynes in chapter 11 of the General Theory.