Archive for the 'fiscal policy' Category

Barro and Krugman Yet Again on Regular Economics vs. Keynesian Economics

A lot of people have been getting all worked up about Paul Krugman’s acerbic takedown of Robert Barro for suggesting in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2011 that increased government spending would not stimulate the economy. Barro’s target was a claim by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that every additional dollar spent on food stamps would actually result in a net increase of $1.84 in total spending. This statement so annoyed Barro that, in a fit of pique, he wrote the following.

Keynesian economics argues that incentives and other forces in regular economics are overwhelmed, at least in recessions, by effects involving “aggregate demand.” Recipients of food stamps use their transfers to consume more. Compared to this urge, the negative effects on consumption and investment by taxpayers are viewed as weaker in magnitude, particularly when the transfers are deficit-financed.

Thus, the aggregate demand for goods rises, and businesses respond by selling more goods and then by raising production and employment. The additional wage and profit income leads to further expansions of demand and, hence, to more production and employment. As per Mr. Vilsack, the administration believes that the cumulative effect is a multiplier around two.

If valid, this result would be truly miraculous. The recipients of food stamps get, say, $1 billion but they are not the only ones who benefit. Another $1 billion appears that can make the rest of society better off. Unlike the trade-off in regular economics, that extra $1 billion is the ultimate free lunch.

How can it be right? Where was the market failure that allowed the government to improve things just by borrowing money and giving it to people? Keynes, in his “General Theory” (1936), was not so good at explaining why this worked, and subsequent generations of Keynesian economists (including my own youthful efforts) have not been more successful.

Sorry to brag, but it was actually none other than moi that (via Mark Thoma) brought this little gem to Krugman’s attention. In what is still my third most visited blog post, I expressed incredulity that Barro could ask where Is the market failure about a situation in which unemployment suddenly rises to more than double its pre-recession level. I also pointed out that Barro had himself previously acknowledged in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that monetary expansion could alleviate a cyclical increase in unemployment. If monetary policy (printing money on worthless pieces of paper) can miraculously reduce unemployment, why is out of the question that government spending could also reduce unemployment, especially when it is possible to view government spending as a means of transferring cash from people with unlimited demand for money to those unwilling to increase their holdings of cash? So, given Barro’s own explicit statement that monetary policy could be stimulative, it seemed odd for him to suggest, without clarification, that it would be a miracle if fiscal policy were effective.

Apparently, Krugman felt compelled to revisit this argument of Barro’s because of the recent controversy about extending unemployment insurance, an issue to which Barro made only passing reference in his 2011 piece. Krugman again ridiculed the idea that just because regular economics says that a policy will have adverse effects under “normal” conditions, the policy must be wrongheaded even in a recession.

But if you follow right-wing talk — by which I mean not Rush Limbaugh but the Wall Street Journal and famous economists like Robert Barro — you see the notion that aid to the unemployed can create jobs dismissed as self-evidently absurd. You think that you can reduce unemployment by paying people not to work? Hahahaha!

Quite aside from the fact that this ridicule is dead wrong, and has had a malign effect on policy, think about what it represents: it amounts to casually trashing one of the most important discoveries economists have ever made, one of my profession’s main claims to be useful to humanity.

Krugman was subsequently accused of bad faith in making this argument because he, like other Keynesians, has acknowledged that unemployment insurance tends to increase the unemployment rate. Therefore, his critics argue, it was hypocritical of Krugman to criticize Barro and the Wall Street Journal for making precisely the same argument that he himself has made. Well, you can perhaps accuse Krugman of being a bit artful in his argument by not acknowledging explicitly that a full policy assessment might in fact legitimately place some limit on UI benefits, but Krugman’s main point is obviously not to assert that “regular economics” is necessarily wrong, just that Barro and the Wall Street Journal are refusing to acknowledge that countercyclical policy of some type could ever, under any circumstances, be effective. Or, to put it another way, Krugman could (and did) easily agree that increasing UI will increases the natural rate of unemployment, but, in a recession, actual unemployment is above the natural rate, and UI can cause the actual rate to fall even as it causes the natural rate to rise.

Now Barro might respond that all he was really saying in his 2011 piece was that the existence of a government spending multiplier significantly greater than zero is not supported by the empirical evidenc. But there are two problems with that response. First, it would still not resolve the theoretical inconsistency in Barro’s argument that monetary policy does have magical properties in a recession with his position that fiscal policy has no such magical powers. Second, and perhaps less obviously, the empirical evidence on which Barro relies does not necessarily distinguish between periods of severe recession or depression and periods when the economy is close to full employment. If so, the empirical estimates of government spending multipliers are subject to the Lucas critique. Parameter estimates may not be stable over time, because those parameters may change depending on the cyclical phase of the economy. The multiplier at the trough of a deep business cycle may be much greater than the multiplier at close to full employment. The empirical estimates for the multiplier cited by Barro make no real allowance for different cyclical phases in estimating the multiplier.

PS Scott Sumner also comes away from reading Barro’s 2011 piece perplexed by what Barro is really saying and why, and does an excellent job of trying in vain to find some coherent conceptual framework within which to understand Barro. The problem is that there is none. That’s why Barro deserves the rough treatment he got from Krugman.

The Vampire Theory of Inflation

The FOMC issued an opaque statement yesterday observing that the economy is continuing to expand at “a moderate pace,” though unemployment remains too high while inflation is falling. The statement attributes the weakness of the recovery, at least in part, to fiscal tightening, perhaps suggesting that the Fed would not, under these circumstances, tighten monetary policy if fiscal policy were eased.

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in March suggests that economic activity has been expanding at a moderate pace. Labor market conditions have shown some improvement in recent months, on balance, but the unemployment rate remains elevated. Household spending and business fixed investment advanced, and the housing sector has strengthened further, but fiscal policy is restraining economic growth. Inflation has been running somewhat below the Committee’s longer-run objective, apart from temporary variations that largely reflect fluctuations in energy prices. Longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.

Notice despite the neutral, matter-of-fact tone of the statement, there are two factually inaccurate, or at least misleading, assertions about inflation. First, while the assertion “inflation has been running somewhat below the Committee’s longer-run objective,” is not objectively false, the assertion ignores the steady downward trend in inflation for the past year, while sewing confusion with a gratuitous diversionary reference to “temporary variations that largely reflect fluctuations in energy prices.” By almost any measure, inflation is now running closer to 1% than to the Fed’s own 2% target.

Second, the statement asserts that longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable. Oh really? If we take the 10-year TIPS spread as a proxy for long-term inflation expectations, inflation expectations have been falling steadily since the mid-January to mid-March time frame, when the breakeven rate fluctuated in a narrow range between 2.5% and 2.6%, to a spread of 2.3% yesterday, the lowest since early September of last year.

The FOMC continues:

Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability. The Committee expects that, with appropriate policy accommodation, economic growth will proceed at a moderate pace and the unemployment rate will gradually decline toward levels the Committee judges consistent with its dual mandate. The Committee continues to see downside risks to the economic outlook. The Committee also anticipates that inflation over the medium term likely will run at or below its 2% objective.

Well, here is my question.  If the FOMC “seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability,” and the FOMC itself anticipates that inflation over the medium term will likely be less than 2%, why, under the FOMC’s own definition of price stability as 2% inflation, is the FOMC proposing to do nothing — not a single wretched thing — to hit its own inflation target?

Under both elements of its dual mandate, the FOMC is unambiguously obligated to increase the rate of monetary accommodation now being provided. The FOMC asserts that unemployment is elevated; it also asserts, notwithstanding a pathetic attempt to disguise  that obvious fact, that inflation is below its target. Both conditions require increased monetary expansion. There is now no trade-off between inflation and unemployment, and no conflict between the Fed’s two mandates. So why can’t the Fed do what it is plainly obligated to do by current legislation? Pointing a finger at the President and Congress cannot absolve the Fed of its own legal obligation not to tolerate an inflation rate below that consistent with price stability when unemployment is elevated. Is there no one capable of extracting from the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board an explanation of this dereliction of duty?

Interestingly enough, I happened to catch a piece (“Should we bring inflation back from the dead?”) on American Public Radio’s “Marketplace” last evening. After asking David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Kevin Jacques of Baldwin Wallace University about the potential benefits of moderate inflation in the current environment, reporter David Gura turned to Marvin Goodfriend, formerly of the Richmond Fed, and now at Carnegie-Mellon, for a contrary view. Here is how Goodfriend explained why more inflation would not be a good thing.

Of course, resurrecting inflation is not risk-free. Economist Marvin Goodfriend says this kind of thinking could lead the economy to overheat: “If a little inflation is good, maybe a little more inflation is better.” It is something that is hard to control.

Goodfriend tells his students at Carnegie Mellon University to remember something.

“Inflation doesn’t die,” he says. “It’s like a vampire.”

You can vanquish it with “determined policy,” Goodfriend explains. Inflation will creep back into its coffin. And then, when you least expect it, it can come back with a vengeance.

Whew! Talk about sophisticated economic analysis. But then again, Goodfriend’s students at Carnegie-Mellon are super bright, aren’t they? Could this be what Bernanke and his colleagues are thinking? The vampire theory of inflation? Say it ain’t so, Ben.

They Come not to Praise Market Monetarism, but to Bury It

For some reason – maybe he is still annoyed with Scott Sumner – Paul Krugman decided to channel a post by Mike Konczal purporting to show that Market Monetarism has been refuted by the preliminary first quarter GDP numbers showing NGDP increasing at a 3.7% rate and real GDP increasing at a 2.5% rate in Q1. To Konczal and Krugman (hereinafter K&K) this shows that fiscal policy, not monetary policy, is what matters most for macroeconomic performance. Why is that? Because the Fed, since embarking on its latest splurge of bond purchasing last September, has failed to stimulate economic activity in the face of the increasingly contractionary stance of fiscal policy since them (the fiscal 2013 budget deficit recently being projected to be $775 billion, a mere 4.8% of GDP).

So can we get this straight? GDP is now rising at about the same rate it has been rising since the start of the “recovery” from the 2007-09 downturn. Since September monetary policy has become easier and fiscal policy tighter. And that proves what? Sorry, I still don’t get it. But then again, I was always a little slow on the uptake.

Marcus Nunes, the Economist, Scott Sumner, and David Beckworth all weigh in on the not very devastating K&K onslaught. (Also see this post by Evan Soltas written before the fact.) But let me try to cool things down a bit.

If we posit that we are still in something akin to a zero-lower-bound situation, there are perfectly respectable theoretical grounds on which to recommend both fiscal and monetary stimulus. It is true that monetary policy, in principle, could stimulate a recovery even without fiscal stimulus — and even in the face of fiscal contraction — but for monetary policy to be able to be that effective, it would have to operate through the expectations channel, raising price-level expectations sufficiently to induce private spending. However, for good or ill, monetary policy is not aiming at more than a marginal change in inflation expectations. In that kind of policy environment, the potential effect of monetary policy is sharply constrained. Hence, the monetary theoretical case for fiscal stimulus. This is classic Hawtreyan credit deadlock (see here and here).

If monetary policy can’t do all the work by itself, then the question is whether fiscal policy can help. In principle it could if the Fed is willing to monetize the added debt generated by the fiscal stimulus. But there’s the rub. If the Fed has to monetize the added debt created by the fiscal stimulus — which, for argument’s sake, let us assume is more stimulative than equivalent monetary expansion without the fiscal stimulus — what are we supposed to assume will happen to inflation and inflation expectations?

Here is the internal contradiction – the Sumner critique, if you will – implicit in the Keynesian fiscal-policy prescription. Can fiscal policy work without increasing the rate of inflation or inflation expectations? If monetary policy alone cannot work, because it cannot break through the inflation targeting regime that traps us at the 2 percent inflation ceiling, how is fiscal policy supposed to work its way around the 2% inflation ceiling, except by absolving monetary policy of the obligation to keep inflation at or below the ceiling? But if we can allow the ceiling to be pierced by fiscal policy, why can’t we allow it to be pierced by monetary policy?

Perhaps K&K can explain that one to us.

David Laidler on Hawtrey and the Treasury View

My recent post on Hawtrey and the Treasury View occasioned an exchange of emails with David Laidler about Hawtrey, the Treasury View. and the gold standard. As usual, David made some important points that I thought would be worth sharing. I will try to come back to some of his points in future posts, but for now I will just refer to his comments about Hawtrey and the Treasury View.

David drew my attention to his own discussion of Hawtrey and the Treasury View in his excellent book Fabricating the Keynesian Revolution (especially pp. 112-28). Here are some excerpts.

It is well known that Hawtrey was a firm advocate of using the central bank’s discount rate – bank rate, as it is called in British terminology – as the principal instrument of monetary policy, and this might at first sight seem to place him in the tradition of Walter Bagehot. However, Hawtrey’s conception of the appropriate target for policy was very different from Bagehot’s, and he was well aware of the this difference. Bagehot had regarded the maintenance of gold convertibility as the sine qua non of monetary policy, and as Hawtrey told reader of his Art of Central Banking, “a central bank working the gold standard must rectify an outflow of gold by a restriction of credit and an inflow of gold by a relaxation of credit. Under Hawtrey’s preferred scheme, on the other hand,

substantially the plan embodied in the currency resolution adopted at the Genoa Conference of 1922, . . . the contral banks of the world [would[ regulated credit with a view to preventing undue fluctuations in the purchasing power of gold.

More generally he saw the task of central banking as being to mitigate that inherent instability of credit which was the driving force of economic fluctuations, by ensuring, as far as possible, that cumulative expansions and contractions of bank deposits were eliminated, or, failing that, when faced by depression, to bring about whatever degree of monetary expansion might be required to restore economic activity to a satisfactory level. (pp. 122-23)

Laidler links Hawtrey’s position about the efficacy of central bank policy in moderating economic fluctuations to Hawtrey’s 1925 paper on public-works spending and employment, the classic statement of the Treasury View.

Unlike the majority of his English . . . contemporaries, Hawtrey thus had few doubts about the ultimate powers of conventional monetary policy to stimulate the economy, even in the most depressed circumstances. In parallel with that belief . . . he was skeptical about the powers of government-expenditure programs to have any aggregate effects on income and employment, except to the extent that they were financed by money creation. Hawtrey was, in fact, the originator of the particular version of “the Treasury view” of those matters that Hicks . . . characterized in terms of a vertical-LM-curve version of the IS-LM framework.

Hawtrey had presented at least the bare bones of that doctrine in Good and Bad Trade (1913), but his definitive exposition is to be found in his 1925 Economica paper. . . . [T]hat exposition was cast in terms of a system in which, given the levels of money wages and prices, the levels of output and employment were determined by the aggregate rate of low of expenditure on public works can be shown to imply an increase in the overall level of effective demand, the consequences must be an equal reduction in the expenditure of some other sector. . . .

That argument by Hawtrey deserves more respect than it is usually given. His conclusions do indeed follow from the money-growth-driven income-expenditure system with which he analysed the cycle. They follow from an IS-LM model when the economy is operating where the interest sensitivity of the demand for money in negligible, so that what Hicks would later call “the classical theory” is relevant. If, with the benefit of hindsight, Hawtrey might be convicted of over-generalizing from a special case, his analysis nevertheless made a significant contribution in demonstrating the dangers inherent in Pigou’s practice of going “behind the distorting veil of money” in order to deal with such matters. Hawtrey’s view, that the influence of public-works expenditures on the economy’s overall rate of flow of money expenditures was crucial to their effects on employment was surely valid. (pp.125-26)

Laidler then observes that no one else writing at the time had identified the interest-sensitivity of the demand for money as the relevant factor in judging whether public-works expenditure could increase employment.

It is true that the idea of a systematic interest sensitivity of the demand for money had been worked out by Lavington in the early 1920s, but it is also true that none of Hawtrey’s critics . . . saw its critical relevance to this matter during that decade and into the next. Indeed, Hawtrey himself came as close as any of them did before 1936 to developing a more general, not to say correct, argument about thte influence of the monetary system on the efficacy of public-works expenditure. . . . And he argued that once an expansion got under way, increased velocity would indeed accompany it. However, and crucially, he also insisted that “if no expansion of credit at all is allowed, the conditions which produce increased rapidity of circulation cannot begin to develop.”

Hindsight, illuminated by an IS-LM diagram with an upward-sloping LM curve, shows that the last step of his argument was erroneous, but Hawtrey was not alone in holding such a position. The fact is that in the 1920s and early 1930s, many advocates of public-works expenditures were careful to note that their success would be contingent upon their being accommodated by appropriate monetary measures. For example, when Richard Kahn addressed that issue in his classic article on the employment multiplier, he argued as follows:

It is, however, important to realize that the intelligent co-operation of the banking system is being taken for granted. . . . If the increased circulation of notes and the increased demand for working capital that may result from increased employment are made the occasion for a restriction of credit, then any attempt to increase employment . . . may be rendered nugatory. (pp. 126-27)

Thus, Laidler shows that Hawtrey’s position on the conditions in which public-works spending could increase employment was practically indistinguishable from Richard Kahn’s position on the same question in 1931. And I would emphasize once again that, inasmuch as Hawtrey’s 1925 position was taken when the Bank of England policy was setting its lending rate at the historically high level of 5% to encourage an inflow of gold and allow England to restore the gold standard at the prewar parity, Hawtrey was correct, notwithstanding any tendency of public-works spending to increase velocity, to dismiss public-works spending as a remedy for unemployment as long as bank rate was not reduced.

Hawtrey v. Keynes on the Rate of Interest that Matters

In my previous post, I quoted Keynes’s remark about the “stimulus and useful suggestion” he had received from Hawtrey and the “fundamental sympathy and agreement” that he felt with Hawtrey even though he nearly always disagreed with Hawtrey in detail. One important instance of such simultaneous agreement about principle and disagreement about detail involves their conflicting views about whether it is the short-run rate of interest (bank rate) or the long-run rate of interest (bond rate) that is mainly responsible for the fluctuations in investment that characterize business cycles, the fluctuations that monetary policy should therefore attempt to control.

Already in 1913 in his first work on monetary theory, Good and Bad Trade, Hawtrey had identified the short-term interest rate as the key causal variable in the business cycle, inasmuch as the holdings of inventories that traders want to hold are highly sensitive to the short-term interest rates at which traders borrow to finance those holdings. Increases in the desired inventories induce output increases by manufacturers, thereby generating increased incomes for workers and increased spending by consumers, further increasing the desired holding of stocks by traders. Reduced short-term interest rates, according to Hawtrey, initiated a cumulative process leading to a permanently higher level of nominal income and output. But Keynes disputed whether adjustments in the desired stocks held by traders were of sufficient size to account for the observed fluctuations in income and employment. Instead, Keynes argued, it was fluctuations in fixed-capital investment that accounted for the fluctuations in income and employment characteristic of business cycles. In his retrospective (1969) on the differences between Hawtrey and Keynes, J. R. Hicks observed that “there are large parts of the Treatise [on Money] which are a reply to Currency and Credit Hawtrey’s 1919 book on monetary theory and business cycles. But despite their differences, Hicks emphasized that Hawtrey and Keynes

started from common ground, not only on the need for policy, but in agreement that the instrument of policy was the rate of interest, or “terms of credit,” to be determined, directly or indirectly, by a Central Bank. But what rate of interest? It was Hawtrey’s doctrine that the terms of bank lending had a direct eSect on the activity of trade and industry; traders, having more to pay for credit, would seek to reduce their stocks, being therefore less willing to buy and more willing to sell. Keynes, from the start (or at least from the time of the Treatise 1930) rejected this in his opinion too simple view. He substituted for it (or began by substituting for it) an alternative mechanism through the long rate of interest. A change in the terms of bank lending affected the long rate of interest, the terms on which business could raise long-term capital; only in this roundabout way would a change in the terms of bank lending affect the activity of industry.

I think we can now see, after all that has happened, and has been said, since 1930, that the trouble with both of these views (as they were presented, or at least as they were got over) was that the forces they purported to identify were not strong enough to bear the weight that was put upon them. This is what Keynes said about Hawtrey (I quote from the Treatise):

The whole emphasis is placed on one particular kind of investment, namely, investment by dealers and middlemen in liquid goods-to which a degree of sensitivity to changes in Bank Rate is attributed which certainly does not exist in fact…. [Hawtrey] relies exclusively on the increased costs of business resulting from dearer money. [He] admits that these additional costs will be too small materially to affect the manufacturer, but assumes without investigation that they do materially affect the trader…. Yet probably the question whether he is paying S or 6 per cent for the accommodation he receives from his banker influences the mind of the dealer very little more than it influences the mind of the manufacturer as compared with the current and prospective rate of take-off for the goods he deals in and his expectations as to their prospective price-movements. [Treatise on Money, v. I, pp. 193-95.]

Although Hicks did not do so, it is worth quoting the rest of Keynes’s criticism of Hawtrey

The classical refutation of Hawtrey was given by Tooke in his examination of an argument very similar to Hawtrey’s, put forward nearly a hundred years ago by Joseph Hume. Before the crisis of 1836-37 the partisans of the “currency theory” . . . considered the influence of the Bank of England on the price level only operated through the amount of its circulation; but in 1839 the new-fangled notion was invented that Bank-rate also had an independent influence through its effect on “speculation.”

Keynes then quoted the following passage from Tooke:

There are, doubtless, persons, who, upon imperfect information, and upon insufficient grounds, or with too sanguine a view of contingencies in their favour, speculate improvidently; but their motive or inducement so to speculate is the opinion which, whether well or ill-founded, or whether upon their own view or upon the authority or example of other persons, they entertain the probability of an advance of price. It is not the mere facility of borrowing, or the difference between borrowing at 3 or at 6 percent that supplies the motive for purchasing, or even for selling. Few persons of the description here mentioned ever speculate but upon the confident expectation of an advance of price of at least 10 percent.

In his review of the Treatise, published in The Art of Central Banking, Hawtrey took note of this passage and Keynes’s invocation of Tooke’s comment on Joseph Hume.

This quotation from Tooke is entirely beside the point. My argument relates not to speculators . . . but to regular dealers or merchants. And as to these there is no evidence, in the following passage, that Tooke’s view of the effects of a rise in the rate of interest did not differ very widely from that which I have advocated. In volume v. of his History of Prices (p. 584) he wrote:

Inasmuch as a higher than ordinary rate of interest supposes a contraction of credit, such goods as are held by means of a large proportion of borrowed capital may be forced for sale by a difficulty in obtaining banking accommodation, the measure of which difficulty is in the rate of discount and perhaps in the insufficiency of security. In this view, and in this view only, a rate of interest higher than ordinary may be said to have an influence in depressing prices.

Tooke here concentrates on the effect of a high rate of interest in hastening sales. I should lay more emphasis on delaying purchases. But at any rate he clearly recognizes the susceptibility to credit conditions of the regular dealers in commodities.

And Hicks, after quoting Keynes’s criticism of Hawtrey’s focus on the short-term interest, followed up with following observation about Keynes:

Granted, but could not very much the same be said of Keynes’s own alternative mechanism? One has a feeling that in the years when he was designing the General Theory he was still clinging to it, for it is deeply embedded in the structure of his theory; yet one suspects that before the book left his hands it was already beginning to pass out. It has left a deep mark on the teaching of Keynesian economics, but a much less deep mark upon its practical influence. In the fight that ensued after the publication of the General Theory, it was quite clearly a casualty.

In other words, although Keynes in the Treatise believed that variation in the long-term interest rate could moderate business-cycle fluctuations by increasing or decreasing the amount of capital expenditure by business firms, Keynes in the General Theory was already advocating the direct control of spending through fiscal policy and minimizing the likely effectiveness of trying to control spending via the effect of monetary policy on the long-term interest rate. Hicks then goes on to observe that the most effective response to Keynes’s view that monetary policy operates by way of its effect on the long-term rate of interest came from none other than Hawtrey.

It had taken him some time to mount his attack on Keynes’s “modus operandi of Bank Rate” but when it came it was formidable. The empirical data which Keynes had used to support his thesis were derived from a short period only-the 1920′s; and Hawtrey was able to show that it was only in the first half of that decade (when, in the immediate aftermath of the War, the long rate in England was for that time unusually volatile) that an effect of monetary policy on the long rate, sufficient to give substantial support yo Keynes’s case, was at all readily detectable. Hawtrey took a much longer period. In A Century of Bank Rate which, in spite of the narrowness of its subject, seems to me to be one of his best books, he ploughed through the whole of the British experience from 1844 to the date of writing; and of any effect of Bank Rate (or of any short rate) upon the long rate of interest, sufficient to carry the weight of Keynes’s argument, he found little trace.

On the whole I think that we may infer that Bank Rate and measures of credit restriction taken together rarely, if ever, affected the price of Consols by more than two or three points; whereas a variation of }4 percent in the long-term rate of interest would correspond to about four points in the price of a 3 percent stock.

Now a variation of even less than 1/8 per cent in the long-term rate of interest ought, theoretically and in the long run, to have a definite effect for what it is worth on the volume of capital outlay…. But there is in reality no close adjustment of prospective yield to the rate of interest. Most of the industrial projects offered for exploitation at any time promise yields ever so far above the rate of interest…. [They will not be adopted until] promoters are satisfied that the projects they take up will yield a commensurate profit, and the rate of interest calculated on money raised will probably be no more than a very moderate deduction from this profit. [A Century of Bank Rate pp. 170-71]

Hicks concludes that, as regards the effect of the rate of interest on investment and aggregate spending, Keynes and Hawtrey cancelled each other out, thereby clearing the path for fiscal policy to take over as the key policy instrument for macroeconomic stabilization, a conclusion that Hawtrey never accepted. But Hicks adds an interesting and very modern-sounding (even 40 years on) twist to his argument.

When I reviewed the General Theory, the explicit introduction of expectations was one of the things which I praised; but I have since come to feel that what Keynes gave with one hand, he took away with the other. Expectations do appear in the General Theory, but (in the main) they appear as data; as autonomous influences that come in from outside, not as elements that are moulded in the course of the process that is being analysed. . . .

I would maintain that in this respect Hawtrey is distinctly superior. In his analysis of the “psychological effect” of Bank Rate — it is not just a vague indication, it is analysis — he identifies an element which ought to come into any monetary theory, whether the mechanism with which it is concerned is Hawtrey’s, or any other. . . .

What is essential, on Hawtrey’s analysis, is that it should be possible (and should look as if it were possible) for the Central Bank to take decisive action. There is a world of difference . . . between action which is determinedly directed to imposing restraint, so that it gives the impression that if not effective in itself, it will be followed by further doses of the same medicine; and identically the same action which does not engender the same expectations. Identically the same action may be indecisive, if it appears to be no more than an adjustment to existing market conditions; or if the impression is given that it is the most that is politically possible. If conditions are such that gentle pressure can be exerted in a decisive manner, no more than gentle pressure will, as a rule, be required. But as soon as there is doubt about decisiveness, gentle pressure is useless; even what would otherwise be regarded as violent action may then be ineffective.  [p. 313]

There is a term which was invented, and then spoiled, by Pigou . . . on which I am itching to get my hand; it is the term announcement effect. . . . I want to use the announcement effect of an act of policy to mean the change which takes place in people’s minds, the change in the prospect which they think to be before them, before there is any change which expresses itself in transactions of any kind. It is the same as what Hawtrey calls “psychological effect”; but that is a bad term, for it suggests something irrational, and this is entirely rational. Expectations of the future (entirely rational expectations) [note Hicks's use of the term "rational expectations before Lucas or Sargent] are based upon the data that are available in the present. An act of policy (if it is what I have called a decisive action) is a significant addition to the data that are available; it should result, and should almost immediately result, in a shift in expectations. This is what I mean by an announcement effect.

What I learn from Hawtrey’s analysis is that the “classical” Bank Rate system was strong, or could be strong, in its announcement effects. Fiscal policy, at least as so far practised, gets from this point of view much worse marks. It is not simply that it is slow, being subject to all sorts of parliamentary and administrative delays; made indecisive, merely because the gap between announcement and effective operation is liable to be so long. This is by no means its only defect. Its announcement effect is poor, for the very reason which is often claimed to be one of its merits its selectivity; for selectivity implies complexity and an instrument which is to have a strong announcement effect should, above all, be simple. [p. 315]

Just to conclude this rather long and perhaps rambling selection of quotes with a tangentially related observation, I will note that Hawtrey’s criticism of Keynes’s identification of the long-term interest rate as the key causal and policy variable for the analysis of business cycles applies with equal force to Austrian business-cycle theory, which, as far as I can tell, rarely, if ever, distinguishes between the effects of changes in short-term and long-term rates caused by monetary policy.

HT: Alan Gaukroger

Robert Waldmann, WADR, Maybe You Really Should Calm Down

Responding to this recent post of mine, Robert Waldmann wrote a post of his own with a title alluding to an earlier post of mine responding to a previous post of his. Just to recapitulate briefly, the point of the post which seems to have provoked Professor Waldmann was to refute the allegation that the Fed and the Bank of Japan are starting a currency war by following a policy of monetary ease in which they are raising (at least temporarily) their inflation target. I focused my attention on a piece written by Irwin Stelzer for the Weekly Standard, entitled not so coincidentally, “Currency Wars.” I also went on to point out that Stelzer, in warning of the supposedly dire consequences of starting a currency war, very misleadingly suggested that Hitler’s rise to power was the result of an inflationary policy followed by Germany in the 1930s.

Here is how Waldmann responds:

I do not find any reference to the zero lower bound in this post.  Your analysis of monetary expansion does not distinguish between the cases when the ZLB holds and when it doesn’t.  You assume that the effect of an expansion of the money supply on domestic demand can be analyzed ignoring that detail. I think it is clear that the association between the money supply and domestic demand has been different in the USA since oh September 2008 than it was before.  This doesn’t seem to me to be a detail which can be entirely overlooked in any discussion of current policy.

Actually, I don’t think that, in principle, I disagree with any of this. I agree that the zero lower bound is relevant to the analysis of the current situation. I prefer to couch the analysis in terms of the Fisher equation making use of the equilibrium condition that the nominal rate of interest must equal the real rate plus expected inflation. If the expected rate of deflation is greater than the real rate, equilibrium is impossible and the result is a crash of asset prices, which is what happened in 2008. But as long as the real rate of interest is negative (presumably because of pessimistic entrepreneurial expectations), the rate of inflation has to be sufficiently above real rate of interest for nominal rates to be comfortably above zero. As long as nominal rates are close to zero and real rates are negative, the economy cannot be operating in the neighborhood of full-employment equilibrium. I developed the basic theory in my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations” available on SSRN, and provided some empirical evidence (which I am hoping to update soon) that asset prices (as reflected in the S&P 500) since 2008 have been strongly correlated with expected inflation (as approximated by the TIPS spread) even though there is no strong theoretical reason for asset prices to be correlated with expected inflation, and no evidence of correlation before 2008. Although I think that this is a better way than the Keynesian model to think about why the US economy has been underperforming so badly since 2008, I don’t think that the models are contradictory or inconsistent, so I don’t deny that fiscal policy could have some stimulative effect. But apparently that is not good enough for Professor Waldmann.

Also, I note that prior to his [Stelzer's] “jejune dismissal of monetary policy,” Stelzer jenunely dismissed fiscal policy.  You don’t mention this at all.  Your omission is striking, since the evidence that Stelzer is wrong to dismiss fiscal policy is overwhelming (not overwhelming enough to overwhelm John Taylor but then mere evidence couldn’t do that).  In contrast, the dismissal of monetary policy when an economy is in a liquidity trap is consistent with the available evidence.

It seems to me that Waldmann is being a tad oversensitive. Stelzer’s line was “stimulus packages don’t work very well, and monetary policy produces lots of fiat money but not very many jobs.” What was jejune was not the conclusion that fiscal policy and monetary policy aren’t effective; it was his formulation that monetary expansion produces lots of fiat money but not many jobs, a formulation which, I believe, was intended to be clever, but struck me as being not clever, but, well, jejune. So I did not mean to deny that fiscal policy could be effective at the zero lower bound, but I disagree that the available evidence is consistent with the proposition that monetary policy is ineffective in a liquidity trap. In 1933, for example, monetary policy triggered the fastest economic expansion in US history, when FDR devalued the dollar shortly after taking office, an expansion unfortunately prematurely terminated by the enactment of FDR’s misguided National Industrial Recovery Act. The strong correlation between inflation expectations and stock prices since 2008, it seems to me, also qualifies as evidence that monetary policy is not ineffective at the zero lower bound. But if Professor Waldmann has a different interpretation of the significance of that correlation, I would be very interested in hearing about it.

Instead of looking at the relationship between inflation expectations and stock prices, Waldmann wants to look at the relationship between job growth and monetary policy:

I hereby challenge you to show data on US “growth”  meaning (I agree with your guess) mostly employment growth since 2007 to someone unfamiliar with the debate and ask that person to find the dates of shifts in monetary policy.  I am willing to bet actual money (not much I don’t have much) that the person will not pick out QEIII or operation twist.    I also guess that this person will not detect forward guidance looking at day to day changes in asset prices.

I claim that the null that nothing special happened the day QEIV was announced or any of the 4 plausible dates of announcement of QE2 (starting with a FOMC meeting, then Bernanke’s Jackson Hole speech then 2 more) can’t be rejected by the data. This is based on analysis by two SF FED economists who look at the sum of changes over three of the days (not including the Jackson Hole day when the sign was wrong) and get a change (of the sign they want) whose square is less than 6 times the variance of daily changes (of the 10 year rate IIRC).  IIRC 4.5 times.  Cherry picking and not rejecting the null one wants to reject is a sign that one’s favored (alternative) hypothesis is not strongly supported by the data.

I think that the way to pick out changes in monetary policy is to look at changes in inflation expectations, and I think that you can find some correlation between changes in monetary policy, so identified, and employment, though it is probably not nearly as striking as the relationship between asset prices and inflation expectations. I also don’t think that operation twist had any positive effect, but QE3 does seem to have had some. I am not familiar with the study by the San Francisco Fed economists, but I will try to find it and see what I can make out of it. In the meantime, even if Waldmann is correct about the relationship between monetary policy and employment since 2008, there are all kinds of good reasons for not rushing to reject a null hypothesis on the basis of a handful of ambiguous observations. That wouldn’t necessarily be the calm and reasonable thing to do.

Negotiating the Fiscal Cliff

Last week I did a post based on a chart that I saw in an article in the New York Review of Books by Paul Krugman. Relying on an earlier paper by Robert Hall on the empirical evidence about the effectiveness of fiscal stimulus, Krugman used the chart to illustrate the efficacy of government spending as a stimulus to economic recovery. While Krugman evidently thought his chart was a pretty compelling visual aid in showing that fiscal stimulus really works, I didn’t find his chart that impressive, because there were relatively few years in which changes in government spending were clearly associated with large changes in growth, and a lot of years with large changes in growth, but little or no change in government spending.

In particular, the years in which government spending seemed to make a big difference were during and immediately after World War II. The 1930s, however, were associated with huge swings in GDP, but with comparatively minimal changes in government spending. Instead, changes in GDP in the 1930s were associated with big changes in the price level. The big increases in GDP in the early 1940s were also associated with big increases in the price level, the rapid rise in the price level slowing down only in 1943 after price controls were imposed in 1942. When controls were gradually lifted in 1946 and 1947, inflation increased sharply notwithstanding a sharp economic contraction, creating a spurious (in my view) negative correlation between (measured) inflation and the change in GDP. From 1943 to mid-1945, properly measured inflation was increasing much faster than official indices that made no adjustment for the shortages and quality degradation caused by the price controls. Similarly, the measured inflation from late 1945 through 1947, when price controls were being gradually relaxed and dismantled, overstated actual inflation, because increases in official prices were associated with the elimination of shortages and improving quality.

So in my previous post, I tried to do a quantitative analysis of the data underlying Krugman’s chart. Unfortunately, I only came up with a very rough approximation of his data. Using my rough approximation (constructing a chart resembling, but clearly different from, Krugman’s), I ran a regression estimating the statistical relationship between yearly changes in military spending (Krugman’s statistical instrument for fiscal stimulus) as a percentage of GDP and yearly changes in real GDP from 1929 to 1962. I then compared that statistical relationship to the one between annual changes in the price level and annual changes in real GDP over the same time period. After controlling for the mismeasurement of inflation in 1946 and 1947, I found that changes in the rate of inflation were more closely correlated to changes in real GDP over the 1929-1962 time period than were changes in military spending and changes in real GDP. Unfortunately, I also claimed (mistakenly)  that that regressing changes in real GDP on both changes in military spending and inflation (again controlling for mismeasurement of inflation in 1946-47) did not improve the statistical fit of the regression, and did not show a statistically significant coefficient for the military-spending term. That claim was based on looking at the wrong regression estimates.  Sorry, I blew that one.

Over the weekend, Mark Sadowski kindly explained to me how Krugman did the calculations underlying his chart, even generating the data for me, thereby allowing me to reconstruct Krugman’s chart and to redo my earlier regressions using the exact data. Here are the old and the new results.

OLD: dGDP = 3.60 + .70dG, r-squared = .295

NEW: dGDP = 3.26 + .51dG, r-squared = .433

So, according to the correct data set, the relationship between changes in government spending and changes in GDP is closer than the approximated data set that I used previously. However, the newly estimated coefficient on the government spending term is almost 30% smaller than the coefficient previously estimated using the approximated data set. In other words a one dollar increase in government spending generates an increase in GDP of only 50 cents. Increasing government spending reduces private spending by about half.

The estimated regression for changes in real GDP on inflation changed only slightly:

OLD: dGDP = 2.48 + .69dP, r-squared = .199

NEW: dGDP = 2.46 + .70dP, r-squared = .193

The estimated regression for changes in real GDP on inflation (controlled for mismeasurement of inflation in 1946 and 1947) also showed only a slight change:

OLD: dGDP = 2.76 + 1.28dP – 23.29PCON, r-squared = .621

NEW: dGDP = 3.02 + 1.25dP – 23.13PCON, r-squared = .613

Here are my old and new regressions for changes in real GDP on government spending as well as on inflation (controlled for mismeasurement of inflation in 1946-47). As you can see, the statistical fit of the regression improves by including both inflation and the change in government spending as variables (the adjusted r-squared is .648) and the coefficient on the government-spending term is positive and significant (t = 2.37). When I re-estimated the regression on Krugman’s data set, the statistical fit improved, and the coefficient on the government-spending variable remained positive and statistically significant (t = 3.45), but was about a third smaller than the coefficient estimated from the approximated data set.

OLD: dGDP = 2.27 + .49dG + 1.15dP – 13.36PCON, r-squared = .681

NEW: dGDP = 2.56 + .33dG + 1.00dP – 13.14PCON, r-squared = .728

So even if we allow for the effect of inflation on changes in output, and contrary to what I suggested in my previous post, changes in government spending were indeed positively and significantly correlated with changes in real GDP, implying that government spending may have some stimulative effect even apart from the effect of monetary policy on inflation. Moreover, insofar as government spending affects inflation, attributing price-level changes exclusively to monetary policy may underestimate the stimulative effect of government spending. However, if one wants to administer stimulus to the private sector rather than increase the size of the public sector at the expense of the private sector (the implication of a coefficient less than one on the government-spending term in the regression), there is reason to prefer monetary policy as a method of providing stimulus.

The above, aside from the acknowledment of Mark Sadowski’s assistance and the mea culpa for negligence in reporting my earlier results, is all by way of introduction to a comment on a recent post by my internet buddy Lars Christensen on his Market Moneterist blog in which he welcomes the looming fiscal cliff. Here’s how Lars puts it:

The point is that the US government is running clearly excessive public deficits and the public debt has grown far too large so isn’t fiscal tightening exactly what you need? I think it and the fiscal cliff ensures that. Yes, I agree tax hikes are unfortunate from a supply side perspective, but cool down a bit – it is going to have only a marginally negative impact on long-term US growth perspective that the Bush tax cuts experiences. But more importantly the fiscal cliff would mean cuts in US defense spending. The US is spending more on military hardware than any other country in the world. It seems to me like US policy makers have not realized that the Cold War is over. You don’t need to spend 5% of GDP on bombs. In fact I believe that if the entire 4-5% fiscal consolidation was done as cuts to US defence spending the world would probably be a better place. But that is not my choice – and it is the peace loving libertarian rather than the economist speaking (here is a humorous take on the sad story of war). What I am saying is that the world is not coming to an end if the US defense budget is cut marginally. Paradoxically the US conservatives this time around are against budget consolidation. Sad, but true.

I am not going to take the bait and argue with Lars about the size of the US defense budget. The only issue that I want to consider is what would happen as a result of the combination of a large cut in defense (and in other categories of) spending and an increase in taxes? It might not be catastrophic, but there seems to me to be a non-negligible risk that such an outcome would have a significant contractionary effect on aggregate demand at a time when the recovery is still anemic and requires as much stimulus as it can get. Lars argues that any contractionary effect caused by reduced government spending and increased taxes could be offset by sufficient monetary easing. I agree in theory, but in practice there are just too many uncertainties associated with how massive fiscal tightening would be received by public and private decision makers to rely on the theoretical ability of monetary policy in one direction to counteract fiscal policy in the opposite direction. This would be the case even if we knew that Bernanke and the FOMC would do the right thing. But, despite encouraging statements by Bernanke and other Fed officials since September, it seems more than a bit risky at this time and this place to just assume that the Fed will become the stimulator of last resort.

So, Lars, my advice to you is: be careful what you wish for.

PS Noah Smith has an excellent post about inflation today.


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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