Archive for the 'expectations' Category

Paul Krugman and Roger Farmer on Sticky Wages

I was pleasantly surprised last Friday to see that Paul Krugman took favorable notice of my post about sticky wages, but also registering some disagreement.

[Glasner] is partially right in suggesting that there has been a bit of a role reversal regarding the role of sticky wages in recessions: Keynes asserted that wage flexibility would not help, but Keynes’s self-proclaimed heirs ended up putting downward nominal wage rigidity at the core of their analysis. By the way, this didn’t start with the New Keynesians; way back in the 1940s Franco Modigliani had already taught us to think that everything depended on M/w, the ratio of the money supply to the wage rate.

That said, wage stickiness plays a bigger role in The General Theory — and in modern discussions that are consistent with what Keynes said — than Glasner indicates.

To document his assertion about Keynes, Krugman quotes a passage from the General Theory in which Keynes seems to suggest that in the nineteenth century inflexible wages were partially compensated for by price level movements. One might quibble with Krugman’s interpretation, but the payoff doesn’t seem worth the effort.

But I will quibble with the next paragraph in Krugman’s post.

But there’s another point: even if you don’t think wage flexibility would help in our current situation (and like Keynes, I think it wouldn’t), Keynesians still need a sticky-wage story to make the facts consistent with involuntary unemployment. For if wages were flexible, an excess supply of labor should be reflected in ever-falling wages. If you want to say that we have lots of willing workers unable to find jobs — as opposed to moochers not really seeking work because they’re cradled in Paul Ryan’s hammock — you have to have a story about why wages aren’t falling.

Not that I really disagree with Krugman that the behavior of wages since the 2008 downturn is consistent with some stickiness in wages. Nevertheless, it is still not necessarily the case that, if wages were flexible, an excess supply of labor would lead to ever-falling wages. In a search model of unemployment, if workers are expecting wages to rise every year at a 3% rate, and instead wages rise at only a 1% rate, the model predicts that unemployment will rise, and will continue to rise (or at least not return to the natural rate) as long as observed wages did not increase as fast as workers were expecting wages to rise. Presumably over time, wage expectations would adjust to a new lower rate of increase, but there is no guarantee that the transition would be speedy.

Krugman concludes:

So sticky wages are an important part of both old and new Keynesian analysis, not because wage cuts would help us, but simply to make sense of what we see.

My own view is actually a bit more guarded. I think that “sticky wages” is simply a name that we apply to a problematic phenomenon for ehich we still haven’t found a really satisfactory explanation for. Search models, for all their theoretical elegance, simply can’t explain the observed process by which unemployment rises during recessions, i.e., by layoffs and a lack of job openings rather than an increase in quits and refused offers, as search models imply. The suggestion in my earlier post was intended to offer a possible basis of understanding what the phrase “sticky wages” is actually describing.

Roger Farmer, a long-time and renowned UCLA economist, also commented on my post on his new blog. Welcome to the blogosphere, Roger.

Roger has a different take on the sticky-wage phenomenon. Roger argues, as did some of the commenters to my post, that wages are not sticky. To document this assertion, Roger presents a diagram showing that the decline of nominal wages closely tracked that of prices for the first six years of the Great Depression. From this evidence Roger concludes that nominal wage rigidity is not the cause of rising unemployment during the Great Depression, and presumably, not the cause of rising unemployment in the Little Depression.

farmer_sticky_wagesInstead, Roger argues, the rise in unemployment was caused by an outbreak of self-fulfilling pessimism. Roger believes that there are many alternative equilibria and which equilibrium (actually equilibrium time path) we reach depends on what our expectations are. Roger also believes that our expectations are rational, so that we get what we expect, as he succinctly phrases it “beliefs are fundamental.” I have a lot of sympathy for this way of looking at the economy. In fact one of the early posts on this blog was entitled “Expectations are Fundamental.” But as I have explained in other posts, I am not so sure that expectations are rational in any useful sense, because I think that individual expectations diverge. I don’t think that there is a single way of looking at reality. If there are many potential equilibria, why should everyone expect the same equilibrium. I can be an optimist, and you can be a pessimist. If we agreed, we would be right, but if we disagree, we will both be wrong. What economic mechanism is there to reconcile our expectations? In a world in which expectations diverge — a world of temporary equilibrium — there can be cumulative output reductions that get propagated across the economy as each sector fails to produce its maximum potential output, thereby reducing the demand for the output of other sectors to which it is linked. That’s what happens when there is trading at prices that don’t correspond to the full optimum equilibrium solution.

So I agree with Roger in part, but I think that the coordination problem is (at least potentially) more serious than he imagines.

Big Ideas in Macroeconomics: A Review

Steve Williamson recently plugged a new book by Kartik Athreya (Big Ideas in Macroeconomics), an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, which tries to explain in relatively non-technical terms what modern macroeconomics is all about. I will acknowledge that my graduate training in macroeconomics predated the rise of modern macro, and I am not fluent in the language of modern macro, though I am trying to fill in the gaps. And this book is a good place to start. I found Athreya’s book a good overview of the field, explaining the fundamental ideas and how they fit together.

Big Ideas in Macroeconomics is a moderately big book, 415 pages, covering a very wide range of topics. It is noteworthy, I think, that despite its size, there is so little overlap between the topics covered in this book, and those covered in more traditional, perhaps old-fashioned, books on macroeconomics. The index contains not a single entry on the price level, inflation, deflation, money, interest, total output, employment or unemployment. Which is not to say that none of those concepts are ever mentioned or discussed, just that they are not treated, as they are in traditional macroeconomics books, as the principal objects of macroeconomic inquiry. The conduct of monetary or fiscal policy to achieve some explicit macroeconomic objective is never discussed. In contrast, there are repeated references to Walrasian equilibrium, the Arrow-Debreu-McKenzie model, the Radner model, Nash-equilibria, Pareto optimality, the first and second Welfare theorems. It’s a new world.

The first two chapters present a fairly detailed description of the idea of Walrasian general equilibrium and its modern incarnation in the canonical Arrow-Debreu-McKenzie (ADM) model.The ADM model describes an economy of utility-maximizing households and profit-maximizing firms engaged in the production and consumption of commodities through time and space. There are markets for commodities dated by time period, specified by location and classified by foreseeable contingent states of the world, so that the same physical commodity corresponds to many separate commodities, each corresponding to different time periods and locations and to contingent states of the world. Prices for such physically identical commodities are not necessarily uniform across times, locations or contingent states.The demand for road salt to de-ice roads depends on whether conditions, which depend on time and location and on states of the world. For each different possible weather contingency, there would be a distinct market for road salt for each location and time period.

The ADM model is solved once for all time periods and all states of the world. Under appropriate conditions, there is one (and possibly more than one) intertemporal equilibrium, all trades being executed in advance, with all deliveries subsequently being carried out, as time an contingencies unfold, in accordance with the terms of the original contracts.

Given the existence of an equilibrium, i.e., a set of prices subject to which all agents are individually optimizing, and all markets are clearing, there are two classical welfare theorems stating that any such equilibrium involves a Pareto-optimal allocation and any Pareto-optimal allocation could be supported by an equilibrium set of prices corresponding to a suitably chosen set of initial endowments. For these optimality results to obtain, it is necessary that markets be complete in the sense that there is a market for each commodity in each time period and contingent state of the world. Without a complete set of markets in this sense, the Pareto-optimality of the Walrasian equilibrium cannot be proved.

Readers may wonder about the process by which an equilibrium price vector would actually be found through some trading process. Athreya invokes the fiction of a Walrasian clearinghouse in which all agents (truthfully) register their notional demands and supplies at alternative price vectors. Based on these responses the clearinghouse is able to determine, by a process of trial and error, the equilibrium price vector. Since the Walrasian clearinghouse presumes that no trading occurs except at an equilibrium price vector, there can be no assurance that an equilibrium price vector would ever be arrived at under an actual trading process in which trading occurs at disequilibrium prices. Moreover, as Clower and Leijonhufvud showed over 40 years ago (“Say’s Principle: What it Means and What it Doesn’t Mean”), trading at disequilibrium prices may cause cumulative contractions of aggregate demand because the total volume of trade at a disequilibrium price will always be less than the volume of trade at an equilibrium price, the volume of trade being constrained by the lesser of quantity supplied and quantity demanded.

In the view of modern macroeconomics, then, Walrasian general equilibrium, as characterized by the ADM model, is the basic and overarching paradigm of macroeconomic analysis. To be sure, modern macroeconomics tries to go beyond the highly restrictive assumptions of the ADM model, but it is not clear whether the concessions made by modern macroeconomics to the real world go very far in enhancing the realism of the basic model.

Chapter 3, contains some interesting reflections on the importance of efficiency (Pareto-optimality) as a policy objective and on the trade-offs between efficiency and equity and between ex-ante and ex-post efficiency. But these topics are on the periphery of macroeconomics, so I will offer no comment here.

In chapter 4, Athreya turns to some common criticisms of modern macroeconomics: that it is too highly aggregated, too wedded to the rationality assumption, too focused on equilibrium steady states, and too highly mathematical. Athreya correctly points out that older macroeconomic models were also highly aggregated, so that if aggregation is a problem it is not unique to modern macroeconomics. That’s a fair point, but skirts some thorny issues. As Athreya acknowledges in chapter 5, an important issue separating certain older macroeconomic traditions (both Keynesian and Austrian among others) is the idea that macroeconomic dysfunction is a manifestation of coordination failure. It is a property – a remarkable property – of Walrasian general equilibrium that it achieves perfect (i.e., Pareto-optimal) coordination of disparate, self-interested, competitive individual agents, fully reconciling their plans in a way that might have been achieved by an omniscient and benevolent central planner. Walrasian general equilibrium fully solves the coordination problem. Insofar as important results of modern macroeconomics depend on the assumption that a real-life economy can be realistically characterized as a Walrasian equilibrium, modern macroeconomics is assuming that coordination failures are irrelevant to macroeconomics. It is only after coordination failures have been excluded from the purview of macroeconomics that it became legitimate (for the sake of mathematical tractability) to deploy representative-agent models in macroeconomics, a coordination failure being tantamount, in the context of a representative agent model, to a form of irrationality on the part of the representative agent. Athreya characterizes choices about the level of aggregation as a trade-off between realism and tractability, but it seems to me that, rather than making a trade-off between realism and tractability, modern macroeconomics has simply made an a priori decision that coordination problems are not a relevant macroeconomic concern.

A similar argument applies to Athreya’s defense of rational expectations and the use of equilibrium in modern macroeconomic models. I would not deny that there are good reasons to adopt rational expectations and full equilibrium in some modeling situations, depending on the problem that theorist is trying to address. The question is whether it can be appropriate to deviate from the assumption of a full rational-expectations equilibrium for the purposes of modeling fluctuations over the course of a business cycle, especially a deep cyclical downturn. In particular, the idea of a Hicksian temporary equilibrium in which agents hold divergent expectations about future prices, but markets clear period by period given those divergent expectations, seems to offer (as in, e.g., Thompson’s “Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory“) more realism and richer empirical content than modern macromodels of rational expectations.

Athreya offers the following explanation and defense of rational expectations:

[Rational expectations] purports to explain the expectations people actually have about the relevant items in their own futures. It does so by asking that their expectations lead to economy-wide outcomes that do not contradict their views. By imposing the requirement that expectations not be systematically contradicted by outcomes, economists keep an unobservable object from becoming a source of “free parameters” through which we can cheaply claim to have “explained” some phenomenon. In other words, in rational-expectations models, expectations are part of what is solved for, and so they are not left to the discretion of the modeler to impose willy-nilly. In so doing, the assumption of rational expectations protects the public from economists.

This defense of rational expectations plainly belies betrays the methodological arrogance of modern macroeconomics. I am all in favor of solving a model for equilibrium expectations, but solving for equilibrium expectations is certainly not the same as insisting that the only interesting or relevant result of a model is the one generated by the assumption of full equilibrium under rational expectations. (Again see Thompson’s “Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory” as well as the classic paper by Foley and Sidrauski, and this post by Rajiv Sethi on his blog.) It may be relevant and useful to look at a model and examine its properties in a state in which agents hold inconsistent expectations about future prices; the temporary equilibrium existing at a point in time does not correspond to a steady state. Why is such an equilibrium uninteresting and uninformative about what happens in a business cycle? But evidently modern macroeconomists such as Athreya consider it their duty to ban such models from polite discourse — certainly from the leading economics journals — lest the public be tainted by economists who might otherwise dare to abuse their models by making illicit assumptions about expectations formation and equilibrium concepts.

Chapter 5 is the most important chapter of the book. It is in this chapter that Athreya examines in more detail the kinds of adjustments that modern macroeconomists make in the Walrasian/ADM paradigm to accommodate the incompleteness of markets and the imperfections of expectation formation that limit the empirical relevance of the full ADM model as a macroeconomic paradigm. To do so, Athreya starts by explaining how the Radner model in which a less than the full complement of Arrow-Debreu contingent-laims markets is available. In the Radner model, unlike the ADM model, trading takes place through time for those markets that actually exist, so that the full Walrasian equilibrium exists only if agents are able to form correct expectations about future prices. And even if the full Walrasian equilibrium exists, in the absence of a complete set of Arrow-Debreu markets, the classical welfare theorems may not obtain.

To Athreya, these limitations on the Radner version of the Walrasian model seem manageable. After all, if no one really knows how to improve on the equilibrium of the Radner model, the potential existence of Pareto improvements to the Radner equilibrium is not necessarily that big a deal. Athreya expands on the discussion of the Radner model by introducing the neoclassical growth model in both its deterministic and stochastic versions, all the elements of the dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) model that characterizes modern macroeconomics now being in place. Athreya closes out the chapter with additional discussions of the role of further modifications to the basic Walrasian paradigm, particularly search models and overlapping-generations models.

I found the discussion in chapter 5 highly informative and useful, but it doesn’t seem to me that Athreya faces up to the limitations of the Radner model or to the implied disconnect between the Walraisan paradigm and macroeconomic analysis. A full Walrasian equilibrium exists in the Radner model only if all agents correctly anticipate future prices. If they don’t correctly anticipate future prices, then we are in the world of Hicksian temporary equilibrium. But in that world, the kind of coordination failures that Athreya so casually dismisses seem all too likely to occur. In a world of temporary equilibrium, there is no guarantee that intertemporal budget constraints will be effective, because those budget constraint reflect expected, not actual, future prices, and, in temporary equilibrium, expected prices are not the same for all transactors. Budget constraints are not binding in a world in which trading takes place through time based on possibly incorrect expectations of future prices. Not only does this mean that all the standard equilibrium and optimality conditions of Walrasian theory are violated, but that defaults on IOUs and, thus, financial-market breakdowns, are entirely possible.

In a key passage in chapter 5, Athreya dismisses coordination-failure explanations, invidiously characterized as Keynesian, for inefficient declines in output and employment. While acknowledging that such fluctuations could, in theory, be caused by “self-fulfilling pessimism or fear,” Athreya invokes the benchmark Radner trading arrangement of the ADM model. “In the Radner economy, Athreya writes, “households and firms have correct expectations for the spot market prices one period hence.” The justification for that expectational assumption, which seems indistinguishable from the assumption of a full, rational-expectations equilibrium, is left unstated. Athreya continues:

Granting that they indeed have such expectations, we can now ask about the extent to which, in a modern economy, we can have outcomes that are extremely sensitive to them. In particular, is it the case that under fairly plausible conditions, “optimism” and “pessimism” can be self-fulfilling in ways that make everyone (or nearly everyone) better off in the former than the latter?

Athreya argues that this is possible only if the aggregate production function of the economy is characterized by increasing returns to scale, so that productivity increases as output rises.

[W]hat I have in mind is that the structure of the economy must be such that when, for example, all households suddenly defer consumption spending (and save instead), interest rates do not adjust rapidly to forestall such a fall in spending by encouraging firms to invest.

Notice that Athreya makes no distinction between a reduction in consumption in which people shift into long-term real or financial assets and one in which people shift into holding cash. The two cases are hardly identical, but Athreya has nothing to say about the demand for money and its role in macroeconomics.

If they did, under what I will later describe as a “standard” production side for the economy, wages would, barring any countervailing forces, promptly rise (as the capital stock rises and makes workers more productive). In turn, output would not fall in response to pessimism.

What Athreya is saying is that if we assume that there is a reduction in the time preference of households, causing them to defer present consumption in order to increase their future consumption, the shift in time preference should be reflected in a rise in asset prices, causing an increase in the production of durable assets, and leading to an increase in wages insofar as the increase in the stock of fixed capital implies an increase in the marginal product of labor. Thus, if all the consequences of increased thrift are foreseen at the moment that current demand for output falls, there would be a smooth transition from the previous steady state corresponding to a high rate of time preference to the new steady state corresponding to a low rate of time preference.

Fine. If you assume that the economy always remains in full equilibrium, even in the transition from one steady state to another, because everyone has rational expectations, you will avoid a lot of unpleasantness. But what if entrepreneurial expectations do not change instantaneously, and the reduction in current demand for output corresponding to reduced spending on consumption causes entrepreneurs to reduce, not increase, their demand for capital equipment? If, after the shift in time preference, total spending actually falls, there may be a chain of disappointments in expectations, and a series of defaults on IOUs, culminating in a financial crisis. Pessimism may indeed be self-fulfilling. But Athreya has a just-so story to tell, and he seems satisfied that there is no other story to be told. Others may not be so easily satisfied, especially when his just-so story depends on a) the rational expectations assumption that many smart people have a hard time accepting as even remotely plausible, and b) the assumption that no trading takes place at disequilibrium prices. Athreya continues:

Thus, at least within the context of models in which households and firms are not routinely incorrect about the future, multiple self-fulfilling outcomes require particular features of the production side of the economy to prevail.

Actually what Athreya should have said is: “within the context of models in which households and firms always predict future prices correctly.”

In chapter 6, Athreya discusses how modern macroeconomics can and has contributed to the understanding of the financial crisis of 2007-08 and the subsequent downturn and anemic recovery. There is a lot of very useful information and discussion of various issues, especially in connection with banking and financial markets. But further comment at this point would be largely repetitive.

Anyway, despite my obvious and strong disagreements with much of what I read, I learned a lot from Athreya’s well-written and stimulating book, and I actually enjoyed reading it.

G. L. S. Shackle and the Indeterminacy of Economics

A post by Greg Hill, which inspired a recent post of my own, and Greg’s comment on that post, have reminded me of the importance of the undeservedly neglected English economist, G. L. S. Shackle, many of whose works I read and profited from as a young economist, but which I have hardly looked at for many years. A student of Hayek’s at the London School of Economics in the 1930s, Shackle renounced his early Hayekian views and the doctoral dissertation on capital theory that he had already started writing under Hayek’s supervision, after hearing a lecture by Joan Robinson in 1935 about the new theory of income and employment that Keynes was then in the final stages of writing up to be published the following year as The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. When Shackle, with considerable embarrassment, had to face Hayek to inform him that he could not finish the dissertation that he had started, no longer believing in what he had written, and having been converted to Keynes’s new theory. After hearing that Shackle was planning to find a new advisor under whom to write a new dissertation on another topic, Hayek, in a gesture of extraordinary magnanimity, responded that of course Shackle was free to write on whatever topic he desired, and that he would be happy to continue to serve as Shackle’s advisor regardless of the topic Shackle chose.

Although Shackle became a Keynesian, he retained and developed a number of characteristic Hayekian ideas (possibly extending them even further than Hayek would have), especially the notion that economic fluctuations result from the incompatibility between the plans that individuals are trying to implement, an incompatibility stemming from the imperfect and inconsistent expectations about the future that individuals hold, at least some plans therefore being doomed to failure. For Shackle the conception of a general equilibrium in which all individual plans are perfectly reconciled was a purely mental construct that might be useful in specifying the necessary conditions for the harmonization of individually formulated plans, but lacking descriptive or empirical content. Not only is a general equilibrium never in fact achieved, the very conception of such a state is at odds with the nature of reality. For example, the phenomenon of surprise (and, I would add, regret) is, in Shackle’s view, a characteristic feature of economic life, but under the assumption of most economists (though not of Knight, Keynes or Hayek) that all events can be at least be forecasted in terms of their underlying probability distributions, the phenomenon of surprise cannot be understood. There are some observed events – black swans in Taleb’s terminology – that we can’t incorporate into the standard probability calculus, and are completely inconsistent with the general equilibrium paradigm.

A rational-expectations model allows for stochastic variables (e.g., will it be rainy or sunny two weeks from tomorrow), but those variables are assumed to be drawn from distributions known by the agents, who can also correctly anticipate the future prices conditional on any realization (at a precisely known future moment in time) of a random variable. Thus, all outcomes correspond to expectations conditional on all future realizations of random variables; there are no surprises and no regrets. For a model to be correct and determinate in this sense, it must have accounted fully for all the non-random factors that could affect outcomes. If any important variable(s) were left out, the predictions of the model could not be correct. In other words, unless the model is properly specified, all causal factors having been identified and accounted for, the model will not generate correct predictions for all future states and all possible realizations of random variables. And unless the agents in the model can predict prices as accurately as the fully determined model can predict them, the model will not unfold through time on an equilibrium time path. This capability of forecasting future prices contingent on the realization of all random variables affecting the actual course of the model through time, is called rational expectations, which differs from perfect foresight only in being unable to predict in advance the realizations of the random variables. But all prices conditional on those realizations are correctly expected. Which is the more demanding assumption – rational expectations or perfect foresight — is actually not entirely clear to me.

Now there are two ways to think about rational expectations — one benign and one terribly misleading. The benign way is that the assumption of rational expectations is a means of checking the internal consistency of a model. In other words, if we are trying to figure out whether a model is coherent, we can suppose that the model is the true model; if we then posit that the expectations of the agents correspond to the solution of the model – i.e., the agents expect the equilibrium outcome – the solution of the model will confirm the expectations that have been plugged into the minds of the agents of the model. This is sometimes called a fixed-point property. If the model doesn’t have this fixed-point property, then there is something wrong with the model. So the assumption of rational expectations does not necessarily involve any empirical assertion about the real world, it does not necessarily assert anything about how expectations are formed or whether they ever are rational in the sense that agents can predict the outcome of the relevant model. The assumption merely allows the model to be tested for latent inconsistencies. Equilibrium expectations being a property of equilibrium, it makes no sense for equilibrium expectations not to generate an equilibrium.

But the other way of thinking about rational expectations is as an empirical assertion about what the expectations of people actually are or how those expectations are formed. If that is how we think about rational expectations, then we are saying people always anticipate the solution of the model. And if the model is internally consistent, then the empirical assumption that agents really do have rational expectations means that we are making an empirical assumption that the economy is in fact always in equilibrium, i.e., that is moving through time along an equilibrium path. If agents in the true model expect the equilibrium of the true model, the agents must be in equilibrium. To break out of that tight circle, either expectations have to be wrong (non-rational) or the model from which people derive their expectations must be wrong.

Of course, one way to finesse this problem is to say that the model is not actually true and expectations are not fully rational, but that the assumptions are close enough to being true for the model to be a decent approximation of reality. That is a defensible response, but one either has to take that assertion on faith, or there has to be strong evidence that the real world corresponds to the predictions of the model. Rational-expectations models do reasonably well in predicting the performance of economies near full employment, but not so well in periods like the Great Depression and the Little Depression. In other words, they work pretty well when we don’t need them, and not so well when we do need them.

The relevance of the rational-expectations assumption was discussed a year and a half ago by David Levine of Washington University. Levine was an undergraduate at UCLA after I had left, and went on to get his Ph.D. from MIT. He later returned to UCLA and held the Armen Alchian chair in economics from 1997 to 2006. Along with Michele Boldrin, Levine wrote a wonderful book Aginst Intellectual Monopoly. More recently he has written a little book (Is Behavioral Economics Doomed?) defending the rationality assumption in all its various guises, a book certainly worth reading even (or especially) if one doesn’t agree with all of its conclusions. So, although I have a high regard for Levine’s capabilities as an economist, I am afraid that I have to criticize what he has to say about rational expectations. I should also add that despite my criticism of Levine’s defense of rational expectations, I think the broader point that he makes that people do learn from experience, and that public policies should not be premised on the assumption that people will not eventually figure out how those policies are working, is valid.

In particular, let’s look at a post that Levine contributed to the Huffington Post blog defending the economics profession against the accusation that the economics profession is useless as demonstrated by their failure to predict the financial crisis of 2008. To counter this charge, Levine compared economics to physics — not necessarily the strategy I would have recommended for casting economics in a favorable light, but that’s merely an aside. Just as there is an uncertainty principle in physics, which says that you cannot identify simultaneously both the location and the speed of an electron, there’s an analogous uncertainty principle in economics, which says that the forecast affects the outcome.

The uncertainty principle in economics arises from a simple fact: we are all actors in the economy and the models we use determine how we behave. If a model is discovered to be correct, then we will change our behavior to reflect our new understanding of reality — and when enough of us do so, the original model stops being correct. In this sense future human behavior must necessarily be uncertain.

Levine is certainly right that insofar as the discovery of a new model changes expectations, the model itself can change outcomes. If the model predicts a crisis, the model, if it is believed, may be what causes the crisis. Fair enough, but Levine believes that this uncertainty principle entails the rationality of expectations.

The uncertainty principle in economics leads directly to the theory of rational expectations. Just as the uncertainty principle in physics is consistent with the probabilistic predictions of quantum mechanics (there is a 20% chance this particle will appear in this location with this speed) so the uncertainty principle in economics is consistent with the probabilistic predictions of rational expectations (there is a 3% chance of a stock market crash on October 28).

This claim, if I understand it, is shocking. The equations of quantum mechanics may be able to predict the probability that a particle will appear at given location with a given speed, I am unaware of any economic model that can provide even an approximately accurate prediction of the probability that a financial crisis will occur within a given time period.

Note what rational expectations are not: they are often confused with perfect foresight — meaning we perfectly anticipate what will happen in the future. While perfect foresight is widely used by economists for studying phenomena such as long-term growth where the focus is not on uncertainty — it is not the theory used by economists for studying recessions, crises or the business cycle. The most widely used theory is called DSGE for Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium. Notice the word stochastic — it means random — and this theory reflects the necessary randomness brought about by the uncertainty principle.

I have already observed that the introduction of random variables into a general equilibrium is not a significant relaxation of the predictive capacities of agents — and perhaps not even a relaxation, but an enhancement of the predictive capacities of the agents. The problem with this distinction between perfect foresight and stochastic disturbances is that there is no relaxation of the requirement that all agents share the same expectations of all future prices in all possible future states of the world. The world described is a world without surprise and without regret. From the standpoint of the informational requirements imposed on agents, the distinction between perfect foresight and rational expectations is not worth discussing.

In simple language what rational expectations means is “if people believe this forecast it will be true.”

Well, I don’t know about that. If the forecast is derived from a consistent, but empirically false, model, the assumption of rational expectations will ensure that the forecast of the model coincides with what people expect. But the real world may not cooperate, producing an outcome different from what was forecast and what was rationally expected. The expectation of a correct forecast does not guarantee the truth of the forecast unless the model generating the forecast is true. Is Levine convinced that the models used by economists are sufficiently close to being true to generate valid forecasts with a frequency approaching that of the Newtonian model in forecasting, say, solar eclipses? More generally, Levine seems to be confusing the substantive content of a theory — what motivates the agents populating theory and what constrains the choices of those agents in their interactions with other agents and with nature — with an assumption about how agents form expectations. This confusion becomes palpable in the next sentence.

By contrast if a theory is not one of rational expectations it means “if people believe this forecast it will not be true.”

I don’t what it means to say “a theory is not one of rational expectations.” Almost every economic theory depends in some way on the expectations of the agents populating the theory. There are many possible assumptions to make about how expectations are formed. Most of those assumptions about how expectations are formed allow, though they do not require, expectations to correspond to the predictions of the model. In other words, expectations can be viewed as an equilibrating variable of a model. To make a stronger assertion than that is to make an empirical claim about how closely the real world corresponds to the equilibrium state of the model. Levine goes on to make just such an assertion. Referring to a non-rational-expectations theory, he continues:

Obviously such a theory has limited usefulness. Or put differently: if there is a correct theory, eventually most people will believe it, so it must necessarily be rational expectations. Any other theory has the property that people must forever disbelieve the theory regardless of overwhelming evidence — for as soon as the theory is believed it is wrong.

It is hard to interpret what Levine is saying. What theory or class of theories is being dismissed as having limited usefulness? Presumably, all theories that are not “of rational expectations.” OK, but why is their usefulness limited? Is it that they are internally inconsistent, i.e., they lack the fixed-point property whose absence signals internal inconsistency, or is there some other deficiency? Levine seems to be conflating the two very different ways of understanding rational expectations (a test for internal inconsistency v. a substantive empirical hypothesis). Perhaps that’s why Levine feels compelled to paraphrase. But the paraphrase makes it clear that he is not distinguishing between the substantive theory and the specific expectational hypothesis. I also can’t tell whether his premise (“if there is a correct theory”) is meant to be a factual statement or a hypothetical? If it is the former, it would be nice if the correct theory were identified. If the correct theory can’t even be identified, how are people supposed to know which theory they are supposed to believe, so that they can form their expectations accordingly? Rather than an explanation for why the correct rational-expectations theory will eventually be recognized, this sounds like an explanation for why the correct theory is unknowable. Unless, of course, we assume that the rational expectations are a necessary feature of reality in which case, people have been forming expectations based on the one true model all along, and all economists are doing is trying to formalize a pre-existing process of expectations formation that already solves the problem. But the rest of his post (see part two here) makes it clear that Levine (properly) does not hold that extreme position about rational expectations.

So in the end , I find myself unable to make sense of rational expectations except as a test for the internal consistency of an economic model, and, perhaps also, as a tool for policy analysis. Just as one does not want to work with a model that is internally inconsistent, one does not want to formulate a policy based on the assumption that people will fail to understand the effects of the policy being proposed. But as a tool for understanding how economies actually work and what can go wrong, the rational-expectations assumption abstracts from precisely the key problem, the inconsistencies between the expectations held by different agents, which are an inevitable, though certainly not the only, cause of the surprise and regret that are so characteristic of real life.

The Microfoundations Wars Continue

I see belatedly that the battle over microfoundations continues on the blogosphere, with Paul Krugman, Noah Smith, Adam Posen, and Nick Rowe all challenging the microfoundations position, while Tony Yates and Stephen Williamson defend it with Simon Wren-Lewis trying to serve as a peacemaker of sorts. I agree with most of the criticisms, but what I found most striking was the defense of microfoundations offered by Tony Yates, who expresses the mentality of the microfoundations school so well that I thought that some further commentary on his post would be worthwhile.

Yates’s post was prompted by a Twitter exchange between Yates and Adam Posen after Posen tweeted that microfoundations have no merit, an exaggeration no doubt, but not an unreasonable one. Noah Smith chimed in with a challenge to Yates to defend the proposition that microfoundations do have merit. Hence, the title (“Why Microfoundations Have Merit.”) of Yates’s post. What really caught my attention in Yates’s post is that, in trying to defend the proposition that microfounded models do have merit, Yates offers the following methodological, or perhaps aesthetic, pronouncement .

The merit in any economic thinking or knowledge must lie in it at some point producing an insight, a prediction, a prediction of the consequence of a policy action, that helps someone, or a government, or a society to make their lives better.

Microfounded models are models which tell an explicit story about what the people, firms, and large agents in a model do, and why.  What do they want to achieve, what constraints do they face in going about it?  My own position is that these are the ONLY models that have anything genuinely economic to say about anything.  It’s contestable whether they have any merit or not.

Paraphrasing, I would say that Yates defines merit as a useful insight or prediction into the way the world works. Fair enough. He then defines microfounded models as those models that tell an explicit story about what the agents populating the model are trying to do and the resulting outcomes of their efforts. This strikes me as a definition that includes more than just microfounded models, but let that pass, at least for the moment. Then comes the key point. These models “are the ONLY models that have anything genuinely economic to say about anything.” A breathtaking claim.

In other words, Yates believes that unless an insight, a proposition, or a conjecture, can be logically deduced from microfoundations, it is not economics. So whatever the merits of microfounded models, a non-microfounded model is not, as a matter of principle, an economic model. Talk about methodological authoritarianism.

Having established, to his own satisfaction at any rate, that only microfounded models have a legitimate claim to be considered economic, Yates defends the claim that microfounded models have merit by citing the Lucas critique as an early example of a meritorious insight derived from the “microfoundations project.” Now there is something a bit odd about this claim, because Yates neglects to mention that the Lucas critique, as Lucas himself acknowledged, had been anticipated by earlier economists, including both Keynes and Tinbergen. So if the microfoundations project does indeed have merit, the example chosen to illustrate that merit does nothing to show that the merit is in any way peculiar to the microfoundations project. It is also bears repeating (see my earlier post on the Lucas critique) that the Lucas critique only tells us about steady states, so it provides no useful information, insight, prediction or guidance about using monetary policy to speed up the recovery to a new steady state. So we should be careful not to attribute more merit to the Lucas critique than it actually possesses.

To be sure, in his Twitter exchange with Adam Posen, Yates mentioned several other meritorious contributions from the microfoundations project, each of which Posen rejected because the merit of those contributions lies in the intuition behind the one line idea. To which Yates responded:

This statement is highly perplexing to me.  Economic ideas are claims about what people and firms and governments do, and why, and what unfolds as a consequence.  The models are the ideas.  ‘Intuition’, the verbal counterpart to the models, are not separate things, the origins of the models.  They are utterances to ourselves that arise from us comprehending the logical object of the model, in the same way that our account to ourselves of an equation arises from the model.  One could make an argument for the separateness of ‘intuition’ at best, I think, as classifying it in some cases to be a conjecture about what a possible economic world [a microfounded model] would look like.  Intuition as story-telling to oneself can sometimes be a good check on whether what we have done is nonsense.  But not always.  Lots of results are not immediately intuitive.  That’s not a reason to dismiss it.  (Just like most of modern physics is not intuitive.)  Just a reason to have another think and read through your code carefully.

And Yates’s response is highly perplexing to me. An economic model is usually the product of some thought process intended to construct a coherent model from some mental raw materials (ideas) and resources (knowledge and techniques). The thought process is an attempt to embody some idea or ideas about a posited causal mechanism or about a posited mutual interdependency among variables of interest. The intuition is the idea or insight that some such causal mechanism or mutual interdependency exists. A model is one particular implementation (out of many other possible implementations) of the idea in a way that allows further implications of the idea to be deduced, thereby achieving an enhanced and deeper understanding of the original insight. The “microfoundations project” does not directly determine what kinds of ideas can be modeled, but it does require that models have certain properties to be considered acceptable implementations of any idea. In particular the model must incorporate a dynamic stochastic general equilibrium system with rational expectations and a unique equilibrium. Ideas not tractable given those modeling constraints are excluded. Posen’s point, it seems to me, is not that no worthwhile, meritorious ideas have been modeled within the modeling constraints imposed by the microfoundations project, but that the microfoundations project has done nothing to create or propagate those ideas; it has just forced those ideas to be implemented within the template of the microfoundations project.

None of the characteristic properties of the microfoundations project are assumptions for which there is compelling empirical or theoretical justification. We know how to prove the existence of a general equilibrium for economic models populated by agents satisfying certain rationality assumptions (assumptions for which there is no compelling a priori argument and whose primary justifications are tractability and the accuracy of the empirical implications deduced from them), but the conditions for a unique general equilibrium are way more stringent than the standard convexity assumptions required to prove existence. Moreover, even given the existence of a unique general equilibrium, there is no proof that an economy not in general equilibrium will reach the general equilibrium under the standard rules of price adjustment. Nor is there any empirical evidence to suggest that actual economies are in any sense in a general equilibrium, though one might reasonably suppose that actual economies are from time to time in the neighborhood of a general equilibrium. The rationality of expectations is in one sense an entirely ad hoc assumption, though an inconsistency between the predictions of a model, under the assumption of rational expectations, with the rationally expectations of the agents in the model is surely a sign that there is a problem in the structure of the model. But just because rational expectations can be used to check for latent design flaws in a model, it does not follow that assuming rational expectations leads to empirical implications that are generally, or even occasionally, empirically valid.

Thus, the key assumptions of microfounded models are not logically entailed by any deep axioms; they are imposed by methodological fiat, a philosophically and pragmatically unfounded insistence that certain modeling conventions be adhered to in order to count as “scientific.” Now it would be one thing if these modeling conventions were generating new, previously unknown, empirical relationships or generating more accurate predictions than those generated by non-microfounded models, but evidence that the predictions of microfounded models are better than the predictions of non-microfounded models is notably lacking. Indeed, Carlaw and Lipsey have shown that micro-founded models generate predictions that are less accurate than those generated by non-micofounded models. If microfounded theories represent scientific progress, they ought to be producing an increase, not a decrease, in explanatory power.

The microfoundations project is predicated on a gigantic leap of faith that the existing economy has an underlying structure that corresponds closely enough to the assumptions of the Arrow-Debreu model, suitably adjusted for stochastic elements and a variety of frictions (e.g., Calvo pricing) that may be introduced into the models depending on the modeler’s judgment about what constitutes an allowable friction. This is classic question-begging with a vengeance: arriving at a conclusion by assuming what needs to be proved. Such question begging is not necessarily illegitimate; every research program is based on some degree of faith or optimism that results not yet in hand will justify the effort required to generate those results. What is not legitimate is the claim that ONLY the models based on such question-begging assumptions are genuinely scientific.

This question-begging mentality masquerading as science is actually not unique to the microfoundations school. It is not uncommon among those with an exaggerated belief in the powers of science, a mentality that Hayek called scientism. It is akin to physicalism, the philosophical doctrine that all phenomena are physical. According to physicalism, there are no mental phenomena. What we perceive as mental phenomena, e.g., consciousness, is not real, but an illusion. Our mental states are really nothing but physical states. I do not say that physicalism is false, just that it is a philosophical position, not a proposition derived from science, and certainly not a fact that is, or can be, established by the currently available tools of science. It is a faith that some day — some day probably very, very far off into the future — science will demonstrate that our mental processes can be reduced to, and derived from, the laws of physics. Similarly, given the inability to account for observed fluctuations of output and employment in terms of microfoundations, the assertion that only microfounded models are scientific is simply an expression of faith in some, as yet unknown, future discovery, not a claim supported by any available scientific proof or evidence.

Stephen Williamson Gets Stuck at the Zero Lower Bound

Stephen Williamson started quite a ruckus on the econblogosphere with his recent posts arguing that, contrary to the express intentions of the FOMC, Quantitative Easing has actually caused inflation to go down. Whether Williamson’s discovery will have any practical effect remains to be seen, but in the meantime, there has been a lot head-scratching by Williamson’s readers trying to figure out how he reached such a counterintuitive conclusion. I apologize for getting to this discussion so late, but I have been trying off and on, amid a number of distractions, including travel to Switzerland where I am now visiting, to think my way through this discussion for the past several days. Let’s see if I have come up with anything enlightening to contribute.

The key ideas that Williamson relies on to derive his result are the standard ones of a real and a nominal interest rate that are related to each other by way of the expected rate of inflation (though Williamson does not distinguish between expected and annual inflation, that distinction perhaps not existing in his rational-expectations universe). The nominal rate must equal the real rate plus the expected rate of inflation. One way to think of the real rate is as the expected net pecuniary return (adjusted for inflation) from holding a real asset expressed as a percentage of the asset’s value, exclusive of any non-pecuniary benefits that it might provide (e.g., the aesthetic services provided by an art object to its owner). Insofar as an asset provides such services, the anticipated real return of the asset would be correspondingly reduced, and its current value enhanced compared to assets providing no non-pecuniary services. The value of assets providing additional non-pecuniary services includes a premium reflecting those services. The non-pecuniary benefit on which Williamson is focused is liquidity — the ease of buying or selling the asset at a price near its actual value — and the value enhancement accruing to assets providing such liquidity services is the liquidity premium.

Suppose that there are just two kinds of assets: real assets that generate (or are expected to do so) real pecuniary returns and money. Money provides liquidity services more effectively than any other asset. Now in any equilibrium in which both money and non-money assets are held, the expected net return from holding each asset must equal the expected net return from holding the other. If money, at the margin, is providing net liquidity services provided by no other asset, the expected pecuniary yield from holding money must be correspondingly less than the expected yield on the alternative real asset. Otherwise people would just hold money rather than the real asset (equivalently, the value of real assets would have to fall before people would be willing to hold those assets).

Here’s how I understand what Williamson is trying to do. I am not confident in my understanding, because Williamson’s first post was very difficult to follow. He started off with a series of propositions derived from Milton Friedman’s argument about the optimality of deflation at the real rate of interest, which implies a zero nominal interest rate, making it costless to hold money. Liquidity would be free, and the liquidity premium would be zero.

From this Friedmanian analysis of the optimality of expected deflation at a rate equal to the real rate of interest, Williamson transitions to a very different argument in which the zero lower bound does not eliminate the liquidity premium. Williamson posits a liquidity premium on bonds, the motivation for which being that bonds are useful by being readily acceptable as collateral. Williamson posits this liquidity premium as a fact, but without providing evidence, just an argument that the financial crisis destroyed or rendered unusable lots of assets that previously were, or could have been, used as collateral, thereby making Treasury bonds of short duration highly liquid and imparting to them a liquidity premium. If both bonds and money are held, and both offer the same zero nominal pecuniary return, then an equal liquidity premium must accrue to both bonds and money.

But something weird seems to have happened. We are supposed to be at the zero lower bound, and bonds and money are earning a liquidity premium, which means that the real pecuniary yield on bonds and money is negative, which contradicts Friedman’s proposition that a zero nominal interest rate implies that holding money is costless and that there is no liquidity premium. As best as I can figure this out, Williamson seems to be assuming that the real yield on real (illiquid) capital is positive, so that the zero lower bound is really an illusion, a mirage created by the atypical demand for government bonds for use as collateral.

As I suggested before, this is an empirical claim, and it should be possible to provide empirical support for the proposition that there is an unusual liquidity premium attaching to government debt of short duration in virtue of its superior acceptability as collateral. One test of the proposition would be to compare the yields on government debt of short duration versus non-government debt of short duration. A quick check here indicates that the yields on 90-day commercial paper issued by non-financial firms are very close to zero, suggesting to me that government debt of short duration is not providing any liquidity premium. If so, then the expected short-term yield on real capital may not be significantly greater than the yield on government debt, so that we really are at the zero lower bound rather than at a pseudo-zero lower bound as Williamson seems to be suggesting.

Given his assumption that there is a significant liquidity premium attaching to money and short-term government debt, I understand Williamson to be making the following argument about Quantitative Easing. There is a shortage of government debt in the sense that the public would like to hold more government debt than is being supplied. Since the federal budget deficit is rapidly shrinking, leaving the demand for short-term government debt unsatisfied, quantitative easing at least provides the public with the opportunity to exchange their relatively illiquid long-term government debt for highly liquid bank reserves created by the Fed. By so doing, the Fed is reducing the liquidity premium. But at the pseudo-zero-lower bound, a reduction in the liquidity premium implies a reduced rate of inflation, because it is the expected rate of inflation that reduces the expected return on holding money to offset the liquidity yield provided by money.

Williamson argues that by reducing the liquidity premium on holding money, QE has been the cause of the steadily declining rate of inflation over the past three years. This is a very tricky claim, because, even if we accept Williamson’s premises, he is leaving something important out of the analysis. Williamson’s argument is really about the effect of QE on expected inflation in equilibrium. But he pays no attention to the immediate effect of a change in the liquidity premium. If people reduce their valuation of money, because it is providing a reduced level of liquidity services, that change must be reflected in an immediate reduction in the demand to hold money, which would imply an immediate shift out of money into other assets. In other words, the value of money must fall. Conceptually, this would be an instantaneous, once and for all change, but if Williamson’s analysis is correct, the immediate once and for all changes should have been reflected in increased measured rates of inflation even though inflation expectations were falling. So it seems to me that the empirical fact of observed declines in the rate of inflation that motivates Williamson’s analysis turns out to be inconsistent with the implications of his analysis.

Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade, Part X: Financial Crises and Asset Crashes

After presenting his account of an endogenous cycle in chapters 14 and 15, Hawtrey focuses more specifically in chapter 16 on the phenomenon of a financial crisis, which he considers to be fundamentally a cyclical phenomenon arising because the monetary response to inflation is sharp and sudden rather than gradual. As Hawtrey puts it:

It is not easy to say precisely what constitutes a financial crisis, but broadly it may be defined to be an escape from inflation by way of widespread failures and bankruptcies instead of by a gradual reduction of credit money. (p. 201)

Hawtrey’s focus in his discussion of financial crises is on the investment in fixed capital, having already discussed the role of inventory investment by merchants and traders in his earlier explanation of how variations in the lending rates of the banking system can lead to cumulative expansions or contractions through variations in the desired holdings of inventories by traders and merchants. New investments in fixed capital are financed, according to Hawtrey, largely out of the savings of the wealthy, which are highly pro-cyclical. The demand for new investment projects by businesses is also pro-cyclical, depending on the expected profit of businesses from installing new capital assets, the expected profit, in turn, depending on the current effective demand.

The financing for new long-term investment projects is largely channeled to existing businesses through what Hawtrey calls the investment market, the most important element of which is the stock exchange. The stock exchange functions efficiently only because there are specialists whose business it is to hold inventories of various stocks, being prepared to buy those stocks from those wishing to sell them or sell those stock to those wishing to buy them, at prices that seem at any moment to be market-clearing, i.e, at prices that keep buy and sell orders roughly in balance. The specialists, like other traders and middlemen, finance their holdings of inventories by borrowing from banks, using the proceeds from purchases and sales – corresponding to the bid-ask spread  – to repay their indebtedness to the banks. Unlike commercial traders and merchants, the turnover of whose inventories is relatively predictable with little likelihood of large price swings, and can obtain short-term financing for a fixed term, stock dealers hold inventories that are not very predictable in their price and turnover, and therefore can obtain financing only on a day to day basis, or “at call.” The securities held by the stock dealer serves as collateral for the loan, and banks require the dealer to hold securities with a value exceeding some minimum percentage (margin) of the dealer’s indebtedness to the bank.

New investment financed by the issue of stock must ultimately be purchased by savers who are seeking profitable investment opportunities into which to commit their savings. Existing firms may sometimes finance new projects by issuing new stock, but more often they issue debt or retained earnings to finance investment. Debt financing can be obtained by issuing bonds or preferred stock or by borrowing from banks. New issues of stock have to be underwritten and marketed through middlemen who expect to earn a return on their underwriting or marketing function and must have financing resources sufficient to bear risk of holding a large stock of securities until they are sold to the public.

Now at a time of expanding trade and growing inflation, when there is a general expectation of high profits and at the same time there is a flood of savings seeking investment, an underwriter’s business yields a good profit at very little risk. But at the critical moment when the banks are compelled to intervene to reduce the inflation this is changed. There is a sudden diminution of profits which simultaneously checks the accumulation of savings and dispels the expectation of high profits. An underwriter may find that the diminution of savings upsets his calculations and leaves on his hands a quantity of securities for which before the tide turned he could have found a ready market and that the prospect of disposing of these securities grows less and less with the steady shrinkage in the demand for investments and the falling prospect of high dividends. . . . (pp. 210-11)

It will be seen, then, that of all the borrowers from the bans those who borrow for the purposes of the investment market are the most liable to failure when the period of good trade comes to an end. And as it happens, it is they who are most at the mercy of the banks in times of trouble. For it is their habit to borrow from day to day, and the bans, since they cannot call in loans to traders which will only mature after several weeks or months, are apt to try to reduce an excess of credit money by refusing to lend from day to day. If that happens, the investment market will suddenly have to find the money which the banks want. The total amount of ready money in the hands of the whole investment market will probably be quite small, and, except in so far as they can persuade the bans to wait (in consideration probably of a high rate of interest), they must raise money by selling securities. But there are limits to the amount that can be raised in this way. The demand for investments is very inelastic. The money offered at any time is ordinarily simply the amount of accumulated savings of the community till then uninvested. This total can only be added to by people investing sums which they would otherwise leave as part of their working balances of money, and they cannot be induced to increase their investments very much in this way, however low the price in proportion to the yield of the securities offered. Consequently when the banks curtail the accommodation which they give to the investment market and the investment market tries to raise money by selling securities, the prices of securities may fall heavily without attracting much additional money. Meanwhile the general fall in the prices of securities will undermine the position of the entire investment market, since the value of the assets held against their liabilities to the banks will be depreciated. If the banks insist on payment in such circumstances a multitude of failures on the Stock Exchange and in the investment market must follow. The knowledge of this will deter the banks from making the last turn of the screw if they can help it. But it may be that the banks themselves are acting under dire necessity. If they have let the creation of credit get beyond their control, if they are on the point of running short of the legal tender money necessary to meet the daily demands upon them, they must have no alternative but to insist on payment. When the collapse comes it is not unlikely that that some of the banks themselves will be dragged down by it. A bank which has suffered heavy losses may be unable any longer to show an excess of assets over liabilities, and if subjected to heavy demands may be unable to borrow to meet them.

The calling in of loans from the investment market enables the banks to reduce the excess of credit money rapidly. The failure of one or more banks, by annihilating the credi money based upon their demand liabilities, hastens the process still more. A crisis therefore has the effect of bringing a trade depression into being with striking suddenness. . . .

It should not escape attention that even in a financial crisis, which is ordinarily regarded as simply a “collapse of credit,” credit only plays a secondary part. The shortage of savings, which curtails the demand for investments, and the excess of credit money, which leads the banks to call in loans, are causes at least as prominent as the impairment of credit. And the impairment of credit itself is not a mere capricious loss of confidence, but is a revised estimate of the profits of commercial enterprises in general, which is based on the palpable facts of the market. The wholesale depreciation of securities at such a time is not due to a vague “distrust” but partly to the plain fact that the money values of the assets which they represent are falling and partly to forced sales necessitated by the sudden demand for money. . . .[T]he crisis dos not originate in distrust. Loss of credit in fact is only a symptom. (pp. 212-14)

Let me now go back to Hawtrey’s discussion in chapter 14 in which he considers the effect of expected inflation or deflation on the rate of interest (i.e., the Fisher effect). This discussion is one of the few, if not the only one, that I have seen that consders the special case in which expected deflation is actually greater than the real (or natural) rate of interest. In my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations” I suggested that such a situation would account for a sudden crash of asset values such as occurred in September and October of 2008.

It is in order to counteract the effect of the falling prices that the bankers fix a rate of interest lower than the natural rate by the rate at which prices are believed to be falling. If they fail to do this they will find their business gradually falling off and superfluous stocks of gold accumulating in their vaults. Here may digress for a moment to consider a special case. What if the rate of depreciation of prices is actually greater than the natural rate of interest? If that is so nothing that the bankers can do will make borrowing sufficiently attractive. Business will be revolving in a vicious circle; the dealers unwilling to buy in a falling market, the manufacturers unable to maintain their output in face of ever-diminishing orders, dealers and manufacturers alike cutting down their borrowings in proportion to the decline of business, demand falling in proportion to the shrinkage in credit money, and with the falling demand, the dealers more unwilling to buy than ever. This, which may be called “stagnation” of trade, is of course exceptional, but it deserves our attention in passing.

From the apparent impasse there is one way out – a drastic reduction of money wages. If at any time this step is taken the spell will be broken. Wholesale prices will fall abruptly, the expectation of a further fall will cease, dealers will begin to replenish their stocks, manufacturers to increase their output, dealers and manufacturers alike will borrow again, and the stock of credit money will grow. In fact the profit rate will recover, and will again equal or indeed exceed the natural rate. The market rate, however, will be kept below the profit rate, since in the preceding period of stagnation the bankers’ reserves will have been swollen beyond the necessary proportions, and the bankers will desire to develop their loan and discount business. It should be observed that this phenomenon of stagnation will only be possible where the expected rate of depreciation of prices of commodities happens to be high. As to the precise circumstances in which this will be so, it is difficult to arrive at any very definite conclusion. Dealers will be guided partly by the tendency of prices in the immediate past, partly by what they know of the conditions of production.

A remarkable example of trade stagnation occurred at the end of the period from 1873 to 1897, when there had been a prolonged falling off in the gold supply, and in consequence a continuous fall in prices. The rate of interest in London throughout the period of no less than seven years, ending with 1897, averaged only 1.5 percent, and yet superfluous gold went on accumulating in the vaults of the Bank of England. (pp. 186-87)

It seems that Hawtrey failed to see that the circumstances that he is describing here — an expected rate of deflation that exceeds the real rate of interest — would precipitate a crisis. If prices are expected to fall more rapidly than the expected yield on real capital, then the expected return on holding cash exceeds the expected return on holding real assets. If so, holders of real assets will want to sell their assets in order to hold cash, implying that asset prices must start falling. This is precisely the sort of situation that Hawtrey describes in the passages I quoted above from chapter 16, a crisis precipitated by the reversal of an inflationary credit expansion. Exactly why Hawtrey failed to see that the two processes that he describes in chapter 14 and in chapter 16 are essentially equivalent I am unable to say.

On a Difficult Passage in the General Theory

Keynes’s General Theory is not, in my estimation, an easy read. The terminology is often unfamiliar, and, so even after learning one of his definitions, I have trouble remembering what the term means the next time it’s used.. And his prose style, though powerful and very impressive, is not always clear, so you can spend a long time reading and rereading a sentence or a paragraph before you can figure out exactly what he is trying to say. I am not trying to be critical, just to point out that the General Theory is a very challenging book to read, which is one, but not the only, reason why it is subject to a lot of conflicting interpretations. And, as Harry Johnson once pointed out, there is an optimum level of difficulty for a book with revolutionary aspirations. If it’s too simple, it won’t be taken seriously. And if it’s too hard, no one will understand it. Optimally, a revolutionary book should be hard enough so that younger readers will be able to figure it out, and too difficult for the older guys to understand or to make the investment in effort to understand.

In this post, which is, in a certain sense, a follow-up to an earlier post about what, or who, determines the real rate of interest, I want to consider an especially perplexing passage in the General Theory about the Fisher equation. It is perplexing taken in isolation, and it is even more perplexing when compared to other passages in both the General Theory itself and in Keynes’s other writings. Here’s the passage that I am interested in.

The expectation of a fall in the value of money stimulates investment, and hence employment generally, because it raises the schedule of the marginal efficiency of capital, i.e., the investment demand-schedule; and the expectation of a rise in the value of money is depressing, because it lowers the schedule of the marginal efficiency of capital. This is the truth which lies behind Professor Irving Fisher’s theory of what he originally called “Appreciation and Interest” – the distinction between the money rate of interest and the real rate of interest where the latter is equal to the former after correction for changes in the value of money. It is difficult to make sense of this theory as stated, because it is not clear whether the change in the value of money is or is not assumed to be foreseen. There is no escape from the dilemma that, if it is not foreseen, there will be no effect on current affairs; whilst, if it is foreseen, the prices of exiting goods will be forthwith so adjusted that the advantages of holding money and of holding goods are again equalized, and it will be too late for holders of money to gain or to suffer a change in the rate of interest which will offset the prospective change during the period of the loan in the value of the money lent. For the dilemma is not successfully escaped by Professor Pigou’s expedient of supposing that the prospective change in the value of money is foreseen by one set of people but not foreseen by another. (p. 142)

The statement is problematic on just about every level, and one hardly knows where to begin in discussing it. But just for starters, it is amazing that Keynes seems (or, for rhetorical purposes, pretends) to be in doubt whether Fisher is talking about anticipated or unanticipated inflation, because Fisher himself explicitly distinguished between anticipated and unanticipated inflation, and Keynes could hardly have been unaware that Fisher was explicitly speaking about anticipated inflation. So the implication that the Fisher equation involves some confusion on Fisher’s part between anticipated and unanticipated inflation was both unwarranted and unseemly.

What’s even more puzzling is that in his Tract on Monetary Reform, Keynes expounded the covered interest arbitrage principle that the nominal-interest-rate-differential between two currencies corresponds to the difference between the spot and forward rates, which is simply an extension of Fisher’s uncovered interest arbitrage condition (alluded to by Keynes in referring to “Appreciation and Interest”). So when Keynes found Fisher’s distinction between the nominal and real rates of interest to be incoherent, did he really mean to exempt his own covered interest arbitrage condition from the charge?

But it gets worse, because if we flip some pages from chapter 11, where the above quotation is found, to chapter 17, we see on page 224, the following passage in which Keynes extends the idea of a commodity or “own rate of interest” to different currencies.

It may be added that, just as there are differing commodity-rates of interest at any time, so also exchange dealers are familiar with the fact that the rate of interest is not even the same in terms of two different moneys, e.g. sterling and dollars. For here also the difference between the “spot” and “future” contracts for a foreign money in terms of sterling are not, as a rule, the same for different foreign moneys. . . .

If no change is expected in the relative value of two alternative standards, then the marginal efficiency of a capital-asset will be the same in whichever of the two standards it is measured, since the numerator and denominator of the fraction which leads up to the marginal efficiency will be changed in the same proportion. If, however, one of the alternative standards is expected to change in value in terms of the other, the marginal efficiencies of capital-assets will be changed by the same percentage, according to which standard they are measured in. To illustrate this let us take the simplest case where wheat, one of the alternative standards, is expected to appreciate at a steady rate of a percent per annum in terms of money; the marginal efficiency of an asset, which is x percent in terms of money, will then be x – a percent in terms of wheat. Since the marginal efficiencies of all capital assets will be altered by the same amount, it follows that their order of magnitude will be the same irrespective of the standard which is selected.

So Keynes in chapter 17 explicitly allows for the nominal rate of interest to be adjusted to reflect changes in the expected value of the asset (whether a money or a commodity) in terms of which the interest rate is being calculated. Mr. Keynes, please meet Mr. Keynes.

I think that one source of Keynes’s confusion in attacking the Fisher equation was his attempt to force the analysis of a change in inflation expectations, clearly a disequilibrium, into an equilibrium framework. In other words, Keynes is trying to analyze what happens when there has been a change in inflation expectations as if the change had been foreseen. But any change in inflation expectations, by definition, cannot have been foreseen, because to say that an expectation has changed means that the expectation is different from what it was before. Perhaps that is why Keynes tied himself into knots trying to figure out whether Fisher was talking about a change in the value of money that was foreseen or not foreseen. In any equilibrium, the change in the value of money is foreseen, but in the transition from one equilibrium to another, the change is not foreseen. When an unforeseen change occurs in expected inflation, leading to a once-and-for-all change in the value of money relative to other assets, the new equilibrium will be reestablished given the new value of money relative to other assets.

But I think that something else is also going on here, which is that Keynes was implicitly assuming that a change in inflation expectations would alter the real rate of interest. This is a point that Keynes makes in the paragraph following the one I quoted above.

The mistake lies in supposing that it is the rate of interest on which prospective changes in the value of money will directly react, instead of the marginal efficiency of a given stock of capital. The prices of existing assets will always adjust themselves to changes in expectation concerning the prospective value of money. The significance of such changes in expectation lies in their effect on the readiness to produce new assets through their reaction on the marginal efficiency of capital. The stimulating effect of the expectation of higher prices is due, not to its raising the rate of interest (that would be a paradoxical way of stimulating output – insofar as the rate of interest rises, the stimulating effect is to that extent offset) but to its raising the marginal efficiency of a given stock of capital. If the rate of interest were to rise pari passu with the marginal efficiency of capital, there would be no stimulating effect from the expectation of rising prices. For the stimulating effect depends on the marginal efficiency of capital rising relativevly to the rate of interest. Indeed Professor Fisher’s theory could best be rewritten in terms of a “real rate of interest” defined as being the rate of interest which would have to rule, consequently on change in the state of expectation as to the future value of money, in order that this change should have no effect on current output. (pp. 142-43)

Keynes’s mistake lies in supposing that an increase in inflation expectations could not have a stimulating effect except as it raises the marginal efficiency of capital relative to the rate of interest. However, the increase in the value of real assets relative to money will increase the incentive to produce new assets. It is the rise in the value of existing assets relative to money that raises the marginal efficiency of those assets, creating an incentive to produce new assets even if the nominal interest rate were to rise by as much as the rise in expected inflation.

Keynes comes back to this point at the end of chapter 17, making it more forcefully than he did the first time.

In my Treatise on Money I defined what purported to be a unique rate of interest, which I called the natural rate of interest – namely, the rate of interest which, in the terminology of my Treatise, preserved equality between the rate of saving (as there defined) and the rate of investment. I believed this to be a development and clarification of of Wicksell’s “natural rate of interest,” which was, according to him, the rate which would preserve the stability of some, not quite clearly specified, price-level.

I had, however, overlooked the fact that in any given society there is, on this definition, a different natural rate for each hypothetical level of employment. And, similarly, for every rate of interest there is a level of employment for which that rate is the “natural” rate, in the sense that the system will be in equilibrium with that rate of interest and that level of employment. Thus, it was a mistake to speak of the natural rate of interest or to suggest that the above definition would yield a unique value for the rate of interest irrespective of the level of employment. . . .

If there is any such rate of interest, which is unique and significant, it must be the rate which we might term the neutral rate of interest, namely, the natural rate in the above sense which is consistent with full employment, given the other parameters of the system; though this rate might be better described, perhaps, as the optimum rate. (pp. 242-43)

So what Keynes is saying, I think, is this. Consider an economy with a given fixed marginal efficiency of capital (MEC) schedule. There is some interest rate that will induce sufficient investment expenditure to generate enough spending to generate full employment. That interest rate Keynes calls the “neutral” rate of interest. If the nominal rate of interest is more than the neutral rate, the amount of investment will be less than the amount necessary to generate full employment. In such a situation an expectation that the price level will rise will shift up the MEC schedule by the amount of the expected increase in inflation, thereby generating additional investment spending. However, because the MEC schedule is downward-sloping, the upward shift in the MEC schedule that induces increased investment spending will correspond to an increase in the rate of interest that is less than the increase in expected inflation, the upward shift in the MEC schedule being partially offset by the downward movement along the MEC schedule. In other words, the increase in expected inflation raises the nominal rate of interest by less than increase in expected inflation by inducing additional investment that is undertaken only because the real rate of interest has fallen.

However, for an economy already operating at full employment, an increase in expected inflation would not increase employment, so whether there was any effect on the real rate of interest would depend on the extent to which there was a shift from holding money to holding real capital assets in order to avoid the inflation tax.

Before closing, I will just make two side comments. First, my interpretation of Keynes’s take on the Fisher equation is similar to that of Allin Cottrell in his 1994 paper “Keynes and the Keynesians on the Fisher Effect.” Second, I would point out that the Keynesian analysis violates the standard neoclassical assumption that, in a two-factor production function, the factors are complementary, which implies that an increase in employment raises the MEC schedule. The IS curve is not downward-sloping, but upward sloping. This is point, as I have explained previously (here and here), was made a long time ago by Earl Thompson, and it has been made recently by Nick Rowe and Miles Kimball.

I hope in a future post to work out in more detail the relationship between the Keynesian and the Fisherian analyses of real and nominal interest rates.

Bhide and Phelps v. Reality

I don’t know who Amar Bhide (apologies for not being able to insert an accent over the “e” in his last name) is, but Edmund Phelps is certainly an eminent economist and a deserving recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in economics. Unfortunately, Professor Phelps attached his name to an op-ed in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, co-authored with Bhide, consisting of little more than a sustained, but disjointed, rant about the Fed and central banking. I am only going to discuss that first part of the op-ed that touches on the monetary theory of increasing the money supply through open-market operations, and about the effect of that increase on inflation and inflation expectations. Bhide and Phelps not only get the theory wrong, they seem amazingly oblivious to well-known facts that flatly contradict their assertions about monetary policy since 2008. Let’s join them in their second paragraph.

Monetary policy might focus on the manageable task of keeping expectations of inflation on an even keel—an idea of Mr. Phelps’s [yes that same Mr. Phelps whose name appears as a co-author] in 1967 that was long influential. That would leave businesses and other players to determine the pace of recovery from a recession or of pullback from a boom.

Nevertheless, in late 2008 the Fed began its policy of “quantitative easing”—repeated purchases of billions in Treasury debt—aimed at speeding recovery. “QE2″ followed in late 2010 and “QE3″ in autumn 2012.

One can’t help wondering what planet Bhide and Phelps have been dwelling on these past four years. To begin with, the first QE program was not instituted until March 2009 after the target Fed funds rate had been reduced to 0.25% in December 2008. Despite a nearly zero Fed funds rate, asset prices, which had seemed to stabilize after the September through November crash, began falling sharply again in February, the S&P 500 dropping from 869.89 on February 9 to 676.53 on March 9, a decline of more than 20%, with inflation expectations as approximated, by the TIPS spread, again falling sharply as they had the previous summer and fall.

Apart from their confused chronology, their suggestion that the Fed’s various quantitative easings have somehow increased inflation and inflation expectations is absurd. Since 2009, inflation has averaged less than 2% a year – one of the longest periods of low inflation in the entire post-war era. Nor has quantitative easing increased inflation expectations. The TIPS spread and other measures of inflation expectations clearly show that inflation expectations have fluctuated within a narrow range since 2008, but have generally declined overall.

The graph below shows the estimates of the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank of 10-year inflation expectations since 1982. The chart shows that the latest estimate of expected inflation, 1.65%, is only slightly above its the low point, reached in March, over the past 30 years. Thus expected inflation is now below the 2% target rate that the Fed has set. And to my knowledge Professor Phelps has never advocated targeting an annual inflation rate less than 2%. So I am unable to understand what he is complaining about.

cfimg8685191149364015372

Bhide and Phelps continue:

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said in November 2010 that this unprecedented program of sustained monetary easing would lead to “higher stock prices” that “will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending.”

It is doubtful, though, that quantitative easing boosted either wealth or confidence. The late University of Chicago economist Lloyd Metzler argued persuasively years ago that a central-bank purchase, in putting the price level onto a higher path, soon lowers the real value of household wealth—by roughly the amount of the purchase, in his analysis. (People swap bonds for money, then inflation occurs, until the real value of money holdings is back to where it was.)

There are three really serious problems with this passage. First, and most obvious to just about anyone who has not been asleep for the last four years, central-bank purchases have not put the price level on a higher path than it was on before 2008; the rate of inflation has clearly fallen since 2008. Or would Bhide and Phelps have preferred to allow the deflation that briefly took hold in the fall of 2008 to have continued? I don’t think so. But if they aren’t advocating deflation, what exactly is their preferred price level path? Between zero and 1.5% perhaps? Is their complaint that the Fed has allowed inflation to be a half a point too high for the last four years? Good grief.

Second, Bhide and Phelps completely miss the point of the Metzler paper (“Wealth, Saving and the Rate of Interest”), one of the classics of mid-twentieth-century macroeconomics. (And I would just mention as an aside that while Metzler was indeed at the University of Chicago, he was the token Keynesian in the Chicago economics department in 1940s and early 1950s, until his active career was cut short by a brain tumor, which he survived, but with some impairment of his extraordinary intellectual gifts. Metzler’s illness therefore led the department to hire an up-and-coming young Keynesian who had greatly impressed Milton Friedman when he spent a year at Cambridge; his name was Harry Johnson. Unfortunately Friedman and Johnson did not live happily ever after at Chicago.) The point of the Metzler paper was to demonstrate that monetary policy, conducted via open-market operations, could in fact alter the real interest rate. Money, on Metzler’s analysis, is not neutral even in the long run. The conclusion was reached via a comparative-statics exercise, a comparison of two full-employment equilibria — one before and one after the central bank had increased the quantity of money by making open-market purchases.

The motivation for the exercise was that some critics of Keynes, arguing that deflation, at least in principle, could serve as a cure for involuntary unemployment — an idea that Keynes claimed to have refuted — had asserted that, because consumption spending depends not only on income, but on total wealth, deflation, by increasing the real value of the outstanding money stock, would actually make households richer, which would eventually cause households to increase consumption spending enough to restore full employment. Metzler argued that if consumption does indeed depend on total wealth, then, although the classical proposition that deflation could restore full employment would be vindicated, another classical proposition — the invariance of the real rate of interest with respect to the quantity of money — would be violated. So Metzler’s analysis — a comparison of two full-employment equilbria, the first with a lower quantity of money and a higher real interest rate and the second with a higher quantity of money and lower real interest rate – has zero relevance to the post-2008 period, in which the US economy was nowhere near full-employment equilibrium.

Finally, Bhide and Phelps, mischaracterize Metzler’s analysis. Metzler’s analysis depends critically on the proposition that the reduced real interest rate caused by monetary expansion implies an increase in household wealth, thereby leading to increased consumption. It is precisely the attempt to increase consumption that, in Metzler’s analysis, entails an inflationary gap that causes the price level to rise. But even after the increase in the price level, the real value of household assets, contrary to what Bhide and Phelps assert, remains greater than before the monetary expansion, because of a reduced real interest rate. A reduced real interest rate implies an increased real value of the securities retained by households.

Under Metzler’s analysis, therefore, if the starting point is a condition of less than full employment, increasing the quantity of money via open-market operations would tend to increase not only household wealth, but would also increase output and employment relative to the initial condition. So it is also clear that, on Metzler’s analysis, apparently regarded by Bhide and Phelps as authoritative, the problem with Fed policy since 2008 is not that it produced too much inflation, as Bhide and Phelps suggest, but that it produced too little.

If it seems odd that Bhide and Phelps could so totally misread the classic paper whose authority they invoke, just remember this: in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, things aren’t always what they seem.

HT: ChargerCarl

Who Sets the Real Rate of Interest?

Understanding economics requires, among other things, understanding the distinction between real and nominal variables. Confusion between real and nominal variables is pervasive, constantly presenting barriers to clear thinking, and snares and delusions for the mentally lazy. In this post, I want to talk about the distinction between the real rate of interest and the nominal rate of interest. That distinction has been recognized for at least a couple of centuries, Henry Thornton having mentioned it early in the nineteenth century. But the importance of the distinction wasn’t really fully understood until Irving Fisher made the distinction between the real and nominal rates of interest a key element of his theory of interest and his theory of money, expressing the relationship in algebraic form — what we now call the Fisher equation. Notation varies, but the Fisher equation can be written more or less as follows:

i = r + dP/dt,

where i is the nominal rate, r is the real rate, and dP/dt is the rate of inflation. It is important to bear in mind that the Fisher equation can be understood in two very different ways. It can either represent an ex ante relationship, with dP/dt referring to expected inflation, or it can represent an ex post relationship, with dP/dt referring to actual inflation.

What I want to discuss in this post is the tacit assumption that usually underlies our understanding, and our application, of the ex ante version of the Fisher equation. There are three distinct variables in the Fisher equation: the real and the nominal rates of interest and the rate of inflation. If we think of the Fisher equation as an ex post relationship, it holds identically, because the unobservable ex post real rate is defined as the difference between the nominal rate and the inflation rate. The ex post, or the realized, real rate has no independent existence; it is merely a semantic convention. But if we consider the more interesting interpretation of the Fisher equation as an ex ante relationship, the real interest rate, though still unobservable, is not just a semantic convention. It becomes the theoretically fundamental interest rate of capital theory — the market rate of intertemporal exchange, reflecting, as Fisher masterfully explained in his canonical renderings of the theory of capital and interest, the “fundamental” forces of time preference and the productivity of capital. Because it is determined by economic “fundamentals,” economists of a certain mindset naturally assume that the real interest rate is independent of monetary forces, except insofar as monetary factors are incorporated in inflation expectations. But if money is neutral, at least in the long run, then the real rate has to be independent of monetary factors, at least in the long run. So in most expositions of the Fisher equation, it is tacitly assumed that the real rate can be treated as a parameter determined, outside the model, by the “fundamentals.” With r determined exogenously, fluctuations in i are correlated with, and reflect, changes in expected inflation.

Now there’s an obvious problem with the Fisher equation, which is that in many, if not most, monetary models, going back to Thornton and Wicksell in the nineteenth century, and to Hawtrey and Keynes in the twentieth, and in today’s modern New Keynesian models, it is precisely by way of changes in its lending rate to the banking system that the central bank controls the rate of inflation. And in this framework, the nominal interest rate is negatively correlated with inflation, not positively correlated, as implied by the usual understanding of the Fisher equation. Raising the nominal interest rate reduces inflation, and reducing the nominal interest rate raises inflation. The conventional resolution of this anomaly is that the change in the nominal interest rate is just temporary, so that, after the economy adjusts to the policy of the central bank, the nominal interest rate also adjusts to a level consistent with the exogenous real rate and to the rate of inflation implied by the policy of the central bank. The Fisher equation is thus an equilibrium relationship, while central-bank policy operates by creating a short-term disequilibrium. But the short-term disequilibrium imposed by the central bank cannot be sustained, because the economy inevitably begins an adjustment process that restores the equilibrium real interest rate, a rate determined by fundamental forces that eventually override any nominal interest rate set by the central bank if that rate is inconsistent with the equilibrium real interest rate and the expected rate of inflation.

It was just this analogy between the powerlessness of the central bank to hold the nominal interest rate below the sum of the exogenously determined equilibrium real rate and the expected rate of inflation that led Milton Friedman to the idea of a “natural rate of unemployment” when he argued that monetary policy could not keep the unemployment rate below the “natural rate ground out by the Walrasian system of general equilibrium equations.” Having been used by Wicksell as a synonym for the Fisherian equilibrium real rate, the term “natural rate” was undoubtedly adopted by Friedman, because monetarily induced deviations between the actual rate of unemployment and the natural rate of unemployment set in motion an adjustment process that restores unemployment to its “natural” level, just as any deviation between the nominal interest rate and the sum of the equilibrium real rate and expected inflation triggers an adjustment process that restores equality between the nominal rate and the sum of the equilibrium real rate and expected inflation.

So, if the ability of the central bank to use its power over the nominal rate to control the real rate of interest is as limited as the conventional interpretation of the Fisher equation suggests, here’s my question: When critics of monetary stimulus accuse the Fed of rigging interest rates, using the Fed’s power to keep interest rates “artificially low,” taking bread out of the mouths of widows, orphans and millionaires, what exactly are they talking about? The Fed has no legal power to set interest rates; it can only announce what interest rate it will lend at, and it can buy and sell assets in the market. It has an advantage because it can create the money with which to buy assets. But if you believe that the Fed cannot reduce the rate of unemployment below the “natural rate of unemployment” by printing money, why would you believe that the Fed can reduce the real rate of interest below the “natural rate of interest” by printing money? Martin Feldstein and the Wall Street Journal believe that the Fed is unable to do one, but perfectly able to do the other. Sorry, but I just don’t get it.

Look at the accompanying chart. It tracks the three variables in the Fisher equation (the nominal interest rate, the real interest rate, and expected inflation) from October 1, 2007 to July 2, 2013. To measure the nominal interest rate, I use the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds; to measure the real interest rate, I use the yield on 10-year TIPS; to measure expected inflation, I use the 10-year breakeven TIPS spread. The yield on the 10-year TIPS is an imperfect measure of the real rate, and the 10-year TIPS spread is an imperfect measure of inflation expectations, especially during financial crises, when the rates on TIPS are distorted by illiquidity in the TIPS market. Those aren’t the only problems with identifying the TIPS yield with the real rate and the TIPS spread with inflation expectations, but those variables usually do provide a decent approximation of what is happening to real rates and to inflation expectations over time.

real_and_nominal_interest_rates

Before getting to the main point, I want to make a couple of preliminary observations about the behavior of the real rate over time. First, notice that the real rate declined steadily, with a few small blips, from October 2007 to March 2008, when the Fed was reducing the Fed Funds target rate from 4.75 to 3% as the economy was sliding into a recession that officially began in December 2007. The Fed reduced the Fed Funds target to 2% at the end of April, but real interest rates had already started climbing in early March, so the failure of the FOMC to reduce the Fed Funds target again till October 2008, three weeks after the onset of the financial crisis, clearly meant that there was at least a passive tightening of monetary policy throughout the second and third quarters, helping create the conditions that precipitated the crisis in September. The rapid reduction in the Fed Funds target from 2% in October to 0.25% in December 2008 brought real interest rates down, but, despite the low Fed Funds rate, a lack of liquidity caused a severe tightening of monetary conditions in early 2009, forcing real interest rates to rise sharply until the Fed announced its first QE program in March 2009.

I won’t go into more detail about ups and downs in the real rate since March 2009. Let’s just focus on the overall trend. From that time forward, what we see is a steady decline in real interest rates from over 2% at the start of the initial QE program till real rates bottomed out in early 2012 at just over -1%. So, over a period of three years, there was a steady 3% decline in real interest rates. This was no temporary phenomenon; it was a sustained trend. I have yet to hear anyone explain how the Fed could have single-handedly produced a steady downward trend in real interest rates by way of monetary expansion over a period of three years. To claim that decline in real interest rates was caused by monetary expansion on the part of the Fed flatly contradicts everything that we think we know about the determination of real interest rates. Maybe what we think we know is all wrong. But if it is, people who blame the Fed for a three-year decline in real interest rates that few reputable economists – and certainly no economists that Fed critics pay any attention to — ever thought was achievable by monetary policy ought to provide an explanation for how the Fed suddenly got new and unimagined powers to determine real interest rates. Until they come forward with such an explanation, Fed critics have a major credibility problem.

So please – pleaseWall Street Journal editorial page, Martin Feldstein, John Taylor, et al., enlighten us. We’re waiting.

PS Of course, there is a perfectly obvious explanation for the three-year long decline in real interest rates, but not one very attractive to critics of QE. Either the equilibrium real interest rate has been falling since 2009, or the equilibrium real interest rate fell before 2009, but nominal rates adjusted slowly to the reduced real rate. The real interest rate might have adjusted more rapidly to the reduced equilibrium rate, but that would have required expected inflation to have risen. What that means is that sometimes it is the real interest rate, not, as is usually assumed, the nominal rate, that adjusts to the expected rate of inflation. My next post will discuss that alternative understanding of the implicit dynamics of the Fisher equation.

Fear Is Contagious

Ever the optimist, I was hoping that yesterday’s immediate, sharply negative, reaction to the FOMC statement and Ben Bernanke’s press conference was only a mild correction, not the sign of a major revision in expectations. Today’s accelerating slide in stock prices, coupled with continuing rises declines in bond prices, across the entire yield curve, shows that the FOMC, whose obsession with inflation in 2008 drove the world economy into a Little Depression, may now be on the verge of precipitating yet another downturn even before any real recovery has taken place.

If 2008-09 was a replay of 1929-30, then we might be headed back to a reprise of 1937, when a combination of fiscal austerity and monetary tightening, fed by exaggerated, if not irrational fears of inflation, notwithstanding the absence of a full recovery from the 1929-33 downturn, caused a second downturn, nearly as sharp as that of 1929-30.

Nothing is inevitable. History does not have to repeat itself. But if we want to avoid a repeat of 1937, we must avoid repeating the same stupid mistakes made in 1937. Don’t withdraw – or talk about withdrawing — a stimulus that isn’t even generating the measly 2% inflation that the FOMC says its targeting, even while the unemployment rate is still 7.6%. And as Paul Krugman pointed out in his blog today, the labor force participation rate has barely increased since the downturn bottomed out in 2009. I reproduce his chart below.

labor_participation

Bernanke claims to be maintaining an accommodative monetary policy and is simply talking about withdrawing (tapering off), as conditions warrant, the additional stimulus associated with  the Fed’s asset purchases. That reminds me of the stance of the FOMC in 2008 when the Fed, having reduced interest rates to 2% in March, kept threatening to raise interest rates during the spring and summer to counter rising commodity prices, even as the economy was undergoing, even before the onset of the financial crisis, one of the fastest contractions since World War II. Yesterday’s announcement, making no commitment to ensure that the Fed’s own inflation target would be met, has obviously been understood by the markets to signal the willingness of the FOMC to tolerate even lower rates of inflation than we have now.

In my post yesterday, I observed that the steep rise in nominal and real interest rates (at least as approximated by the yield on TIPS) was accompanied by only a very modest decline in inflation expectations (as approximated by the TIPS spread). Well, today, nominal and real interest rates (as reflected in TIPS) rose again, but with the breakeven 10-year TIPS spread falling by 9 basis points, to 1.95%. Meanwhile, the dollar continued to appreciate against the euro, supporting the notion that the markets are reacting to a perceived policy change, a change in exactly the wrong direction. Oh, and by the way, the price of gold continued to plummet, reaching $1280 an ounce, the lowest in almost three years, nearly a third less than its 2011 peak.

But for a contrary view, have a look at theeditorial (“Monetary Withdrawal Symptom”) in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, as well as an op-ed piece by an asset fund manager, Romain Hatchuel, (“Central Banks and the Borrowing Addiction”). Both characterize central banks as drug pushers who have induced hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people around the world to become debt addicts. Hatchuel sees some deep significance in the fact that total indebtedness has, since 1980, increased as fast as GDP, while from 1950 to 1980 total indebtedness increased at a much slower rate.

Um, if more people are borrowing, more people are lending, so the mere fact that total indebtedness has increased faster in the last 30 years than it did in the previous 30 years says nothing about debt addiction. It simply says that more people have been gaining access to credit markets in recent years than had access to credit markets in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. If we are so addicted to debt, how come real interest rates are so low? If a growing epidemic of debt addiction started in 1980, shouldn’t real interest rates have been rising steadily since then? Guess what? Real interest rates have been falling steadily since 1982. The Wall Street Journal strikes (out) again.


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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