Archive for the 'John Cochrane' Category

John Cochrane, Meet Richard Lipsey and Kenneth Carlaw

Paul Krugman wrote an uncharacteristically positive post today about John Cochrane’s latest post in which Cochrane dialed it down a bit after writing two rather heated posts (here and here) attacking Alan Blinder for a recent piece he wrote in the New York Review of Books in which Blinder wrote dismissively quoted Cochrane’s dismissive remark about Keynesian economics being fairy tales that haven’t been taught to graduate students since the 1960s. I don’t want to get into that fracas, but I was amused to read the following paragraphs at the end of Cochrane’s second post in the current series.

Thus, if you read Krugman’s columns, you will see him occasionally crowing about how Keynesian economics won, and how the disciples of Stan Fisher at MIT have spread out to run the world. He’s right. Then you see him complaining about how nobody in academia understands Keynesian economics. He’s right again.

Perhaps academic research ran off the rails for 40 years producing nothing of value. Social sciences can do that. Perhaps our policy makers are stuck with simple stories they learned as undergraduates; and, as has happened countless times before, new ideas will percolate up when the generation trained in the 1980s makes their way to to top of policy circles.

I think we can agree on something. If one wants to write about “what’s wrong with economics,” such a huge divide between academic research ideas and the ideas running our policy establishment is not a good situation.

The right way to address this is with models — written down, objective models, not pundit prognostications — and data. What accounts, quantitatively, for our experience?  I see old-fashioned Keynesianism losing because, having dramatically failed that test once, its advocates are unwilling to do so again, preferring a campaign of personal attack in the popular press. Models confront data in the pages of the AER, the JPE, the QJE, and Econometrica. If old-time Keynesianism really does account for the data, write it down and let’s see.

So Cochrane wants to take this bickering out of the realm of punditry and put the conflicting models to an objective test of how well they perform against the data. Sounds good to me, but I can’t help but wonder if Cochrane means to attribute the academic ascendancy of RBC/New Classical models to their having empirically outperformed competing models? If so, I am not aware that anyone else has made that claim, including Kartik Athreya who wrote the book on the subject. (Here’s my take on the book.) Again just wondering – I am not a macroeconometrician – but is there any study showing that RBC or DSGE models outperform old-fashioned Keynesian models in explaining macro-time-series data?

But I am aware of, and have previously written about, a paper by Kenneth Carlaw and Richard Lipsey (“Does History Matter?: Empirical Analysis of Evolutionary versus Stationary Equilibrium Views of the Economy”) in which they show that time-series data for six OECD countries provide no evidence of the stylized facts about inflation and unemployment implied by RBC and New Keynesian theory. Here is the abstract from the Carlaw-Lipsey paper.

The evolutionary vision in which history matters is of an evolving economy driven by bursts of technological change initiated by agents facing uncertainty and producing long term, path-dependent growth and shorter-term, non-random investment cycles. The alternative vision in which history does not matter is of a stationary, ergodic process driven by rational agents facing risk and producing stable trend growth and shorter term cycles caused by random disturbances. We use Carlaw and Lipsey’s simulation model of non-stationary, sustained growth driven by endogenous, path-dependent technological change under uncertainty to generate artificial macro data. We match these data to the New Classical stylized growth facts. The raw simulation data pass standard tests for trend and difference stationarity, exhibiting unit roots and cointegrating processes of order one. Thus, contrary to current belief, these tests do not establish that the real data are generated by a stationary process. Real data are then used to estimate time-varying NAIRU’s for six OECD countries. The estimates are shown to be highly sensitive to the time period over which they are made. They also fail to show any relation between the unemployment gap, actual unemployment minus estimated NAIRU and the acceleration of inflation. Thus there is no tendency for inflation to behave as required by the New Keynesian and earlier New Classical theory. We conclude by rejecting the existence of a well-defined a short-run, negatively sloped Philips curve, a NAIRU, a unique general equilibrium, short and long-run, a vertical long-run Phillips curve, and the long-run neutrality of money.

Cochrane, like other academic macroeconomists with a RBC/New Classical orientation seems inordinately self-satisfied with the current state of the modern macroeconomics, but curiously sensitive to, and defensive about, criticism from the unwashed masses. Rather than weigh in again with my own criticisms, let me close by quoting another abstract – this one from a paper (“Complexity Eonomics: A Different Framework for Economic Thought”) by Brian Arthur, certainly one of the smartest, and most technically capable, economists around.

This paper provides a logical framework for complexity economics. Complexity economics builds from the proposition that the economy is not necessarily in equilibrium: economic agents (firms, consumers, investors) constantly change their actions and strategies in response to the outcome they mutually create. This further changes the outcome, which requires them to adjust afresh. Agents thus live in a world where their beliefs and strategies are constantly being “tested” for survival within an outcome or “ecology” these beliefs and strategies together create. Economics has largely avoided this nonequilibrium view in the past, but if we allow it, we see patterns or phenomena not visible to equilibrium analysis. These emerge probabilistically, last for some time and dissipate, and they correspond to complex structures in other fields. We also see the economy not as something given and existing but forming from a constantly developing set of technological innovations, institutions, and arrangements that draw forth further innovations, institutions and arrangements.

Complexity economics sees the economy as in motion, perpetually “computing” itself — perpetually constructingitself anew. Where equilibrium economics emphasizes order, determinacy, deduction, and stasis, complexity economics emphasizes contingency, indeterminacy, sense-making, and openness to change. In this framework time, in the sense of real historical time, becomes important, and a solution is no longer necessarily a set of mathematical conditions but a pattern, a set of emergent phenomena, a set of changes that may induce further changes, a set of existing entities creating novel entities. Equilibrium economics is a special case of nonequilibrium and hence complexity economics, therefore complexity economics is economics done in a more general way. It shows us an economy perpetually inventing itself, creating novel structures and possibilities for exploitation, and perpetually open to response.

HT: Mike Norman

John Cochrane Explains Neo-Fisherism

In a recent post, John Cochrane, responding to an earlier post by Nick Rowe about Neo-Fisherism, has tried to explain why raising interest rates could plausibly cause inflation to rise and reducing interest rates could plausibly cause inflation to fall, even though almost everyone, including central bankers, seems to think that when central banks raise interest rates, inflation falls, and when they reduce interest rates, inflation goes up.

In his explanation, Cochrane concedes that there is an immediate short-term tendency for increased interest rates to reduce inflation and for reduced interest rates to raise inflation, but he also argues that these effects (liquidity effects in Keynesian terminology) are transitory and would be dominated by the Fisher effects if the central bank committed itself to a permanent change in its interest-rate target. Of course, the proviso that the central bank commit itself to a permanent interest-rate peg is a pretty important qualification to the Neo-Fisherian position, because few central banks have ever committed themselves to a permanent interest-rate peg, the most famous attempt (by the Fed after World War II) to peg an interest rate having led to accelerating inflation during the Korean War, thereby forcing the peg to be abandoned, in apparent contradiction of the Neo-Fisherian view.

However, Cochrane does try to reconcile the Neo-Fisherian view with the standard view that raising interest rates reduces inflation and reducing interest rates increases inflation. He suggests that the standard view is strictly a short-run relationship and that the way to target inflation over the long-run is simply to target an interest rate consistent with the desired rate of inflation, and to rely on the Fisher equation to generate the actual and expected rate of inflation corresponding to that nominal rate. Here’s how Cochrane puts it:

We can put the issue more generally as, if the central bank does nothing to interest rates, is the economy stable or unstable following a shock to inflation?

For the next set of graphs, I imagine a shock to inflation, illustrated as the little upward sloping arrow on the left. Usually, the Fed responds by raising interest rates. What if it doesn’t?  A pure neo-Fisherian view would say inflation will come back on its own.

cochrane1

Again, we don’t have to be that pure.

The milder view allows there may be some short run dynamics; the lower real rates might lead to some persistence in inflation. But even if the Fed does nothing, eventually real interest rates have to settle down to their “natural” level, and inflation will come back. Mabye not as fast as it would if the Fed had aggressively tamed it, but eventually.

cochrane2

By contrast, the standard view says that inflation is unstable. If the Fed does not raise rates, inflation will eventually careen off following the shock.

cochrane3

Now this really confuses me. What does a shock to inflation mean? From the context, Cochrane seems to be thinking that something happens to raise the rate of inflation in the short run, but the persistence of increased inflation somehow depends on an underlying assumption about whether the economy is stable or unstable. Cochrane doesn’t tell us what kind of shock to inflation he is talking about, and I can imagine only two possibilities, either a nominal shock or a real shock.

Let’s say it’s a nominal shock. What kind of nominal shock might Cochrane have in mind? An increase in the money supply? Well, presumably an increase in the money supply would cause an increase in the price level, and a temporary increase in the rate of inflation, but if the increase in the money supply is a once-and-for-all increase, the system must revert, after a temporary increase, back to the old rate of inflation. Or maybe, Cochrane is thinking of a permanent increase in the rate of growth in the money supply. But in that case, why would the rate of inflation come back on its own as Cochrane suggests it would? Well, maybe it’s not the money supply but money demand that’s changing. But again, one would normally assume that an appropriate change in central-bank policy could cope with such a scenario and stabilize the rate of inflation.

Alright, then, let’s say it’s a real shock. Suppose some real event happens that raises the rate of inflation. Well, like what? A supply shock? That raises the rate of inflation, but since when is the standard view that the appropriate response by the central bank to a negative supply shock is to raise the interest-rate target? Perhaps Cochrane is talking about a real shock that reduces the real rate of interest. Well, in that case, the rate of inflation would certainly rise if the central bank maintained its nominal-interest-rate target, but the increase in inflation would not be temporary unless the real shock was temporary. If the real shock is temporary, it is not clear why the standard view would recommend that the central bank raise its target rate of interest. So, I am sorry, but I am still confused.

Now, the standard view that Cochrane is disputing is actually derived from Wicksell, and Wicksell’s cycle theory is in fact based on the assumption that the central bank keeps its target interest rate fixed while the natural rate fluctuates. (This, by the way, was also Hayek’s assumption in his first exposition of his theory in Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle.) When the natural rate rises above the central bank’s target rate, a cumulative inflationary process starts, because borrowing from the banking system to finance investment is profitable as long as the expected return on investment exceeds the interest rate on loans charged by the banks. (This is where Hayek departed from Wicksell, focusing on Cantillon Effects instead of price-level effects.) Cochrane avoids that messy scenario, as far as I can tell, by assuming that the initial position is one in which the Fisher equation holds with the nominal rate equal to the real plus the expected rate of inflation and with expected inflation equal to actual inflation, and then positing an (as far as I can tell) unexplained inflation shock, with no change to the real rate (meaning, in Cochrane’s terminology, that the economy is stable). If the unexplained inflation shock goes away, the system must return to its initial equilibrium with expected inflation equal to actual inflation and the nominal rate equal to the real rate plus inflation.

In contrast, the Wicksellian assumption is that the real rate fluctuates with the nominal rate and expected inflation unchanged. Unless the central bank raises the nominal rate, the difference between the profit rate anticipated by entrepreneurs and the rate at which they can borrow causes the rate of inflation to increase. So it does not seem to me that Cochrane has in any way reconciled the Neo-Fisherian view with the standard view (or at least the Wicksellian version of the standard view).

PS I would just note that I have explained in my paper on Ricardo and Thornton why the Wicksellian analysis (anticipated almost a century before Wicksell by Henry Thornton) is defective (basically because he failed to take into account the law of reflux), but Cochrane, as far as I can tell, seems to be making a completely different point in his discussion.

John Cochrane on the Failure of Macroeconomics

The state of modern macroeconomics is not good; John Cochrane, professor of finance at the University of Chicago, senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, and adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute, writing in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, thinks macroeconomics is a failure. Perhaps so, but he has trouble explaining why.

The problem that Cochrane is chiefly focused on is slow growth.

Output per capita fell almost 10 percentage points below trend in the 2008 recession. It has since grown at less than 1.5%, and lost more ground relative to trend. Cumulative losses are many trillions of dollars, and growing. And the latest GDP report disappoints again, declining in the first quarter.

Sclerotic growth trumps every other economic problem. Without strong growth, our children and grandchildren will not see the great rise in health and living standards that we enjoy relative to our parents and grandparents. Without growth, our government’s already questionable ability to pay for health care, retirement and its debt evaporate. Without growth, the lot of the unfortunate will not improve. Without growth, U.S. military strength and our influence abroad must fade.

Macroeconomists offer two possible explanations for slow growth: a) too little demand — correctable through monetary or fiscal stimulus — and b) structural rigidities and impediments to growth, for which stimulus is no remedy. Cochrane is not a fan of the demand explanation.

The “demand” side initially cited New Keynesian macroeconomic models. In this view, the economy requires a sharply negative real (after inflation) rate of interest. But inflation is only 2%, and the Federal Reserve cannot lower interest rates below zero. Thus the current negative 2% real rate is too high, inducing people to save too much and spend too little.

New Keynesian models have also produced attractively magical policy predictions. Government spending, even if financed by taxes, and even if completely wasted, raises GDP. Larry Summers and Berkeley’s Brad DeLong write of a multiplier so large that spending generates enough taxes to pay for itself. Paul Krugman writes that even the “broken windows fallacy ceases to be a fallacy,” because replacing windows “can stimulate spending and raise employment.”

If you look hard at New-Keynesian models, however, this diagnosis and these policy predictions are fragile. There are many ways to generate the models’ predictions for GDP, employment and inflation from their underlying assumptions about how people behave. Some predict outsize multipliers and revive the broken-window fallacy. Others generate normal policy predictions—small multipliers and costly broken windows. None produces our steady low-inflation slump as a “demand” failure.

Cochrane’s characterization of what’s wrong with New Keynesian models is remarkably superficial. Slow growth, according to the New Keynesian model, is caused by the real interest rate being insufficiently negative, with the nominal rate at zero and inflation at (less than) 2%. So what is the problem? True, the nominal rate can’t go below zero, but where is it written that the upper bound on inflation is (or must be) 2%? Cochrane doesn’t say. Not only doesn’t he say, he doesn’t even seem interested. It might be that something really terrible would happen if the rate of inflation rose about 2%, but if so, Cochrane or somebody needs to explain why terrible calamities did not befall us during all those comparatively glorious bygone years when the rate of inflation consistently exceeded 2% while real economic growth was at least a percentage point higher than it is now. Perhaps, like Fischer Black, Cochrane believes that the rate of inflation has nothing to do with monetary or fiscal policy. But that is certainly not the standard interpretation of the New Keynesian model that he is using as the archetype for modern demand-management macroeconomic theories. And if Cochrane does believe that the rate of inflation is not determined by either monetary policy or fiscal policy, he ought to come out and say so.

Cochrane thinks that persistent low inflation and low growth together pose a problem for New Keynesian theories. Indeed it does, but it doesn’t seem that a radical revision of New Keynesian theory would be required to cope with that state of affairs. Cochrane thinks otherwise.

These problems [i.e., a steady low-inflation slump, aka “secular stagnation”] are recognized, and now academics such as Brown University’s Gauti Eggertsson and Neil Mehrotra are busy tweaking the models to address them. Good. But models that someone might get to work in the future are not ready to drive trillions of dollars of public expenditure.

In other words, unless the economic model has already been worked out before a particular economic problem arises, no economic policy conclusions may be deduced from that economic model. May I call  this Cochrane’s rule?

Cochrane the proceeds to accuse those who look to traditional Keynesian ideas of rejecting science.

The reaction in policy circles to these problems is instead a full-on retreat, not just from the admirable rigor of New Keynesian modeling, but from the attempt to make economics scientific at all.

Messrs. DeLong and Summers and Johns Hopkins’s Laurence Ball capture this feeling well, writing in a recent paper that “the appropriate new thinking is largely old thinking: traditional Keynesian ideas of the 1930s to 1960s.” That is, from before the 1960s when Keynesian thinking was quantified, fed into computers and checked against data; and before the 1970s, when that check failed, and other economists built new and more coherent models. Paul Krugman likewise rails against “generations of economists” who are “viewing the world through a haze of equations.”

Well, maybe they’re right. Social sciences can go off the rails for 50 years. I think Keynesian economics did just that. But if economics is as ephemeral as philosophy or literature, then it cannot don the mantle of scientific expertise to demand trillions of public expenditure.

This is political rhetoric wrapped in a cloak of scientific objectivity. We don’t have the luxury of knowing in advance what the consequences of our actions will be. The United States has spent trillions of dollars on all kinds of stuff over the past dozen years or so. A lot of it has not worked out well at all. So it is altogether fitting and proper for us to be skeptical about whether we will get our money’s worth for whatever the government proposes to spend on our behalf. But Cochrane’s implicit demand that money only be spent if there is some sort of scientific certainty that the money will be well spent can never be met. However, as Larry Summers has pointed out, there are certainly many worthwhile infrastructure projects that could be undertaken, so the risk of committing the “broken windows fallacy” is small. With the government able to borrow at negative real interest rates, the present value of funding such projects is almost certainly positive. So one wonders what is the scientific basis for not funding those projects?

Cochrane compares macroeconomics to climate science:

The climate policy establishment also wants to spend trillions of dollars, and cites scientific literature, imperfect and contentious as that literature may be. Imagine how much less persuasive they would be if they instead denied published climate science since 1975 and bemoaned climate models’ “haze of equations”; if they told us to go back to the complex writings of a weather guru from the 1930s Dustbowl, as they interpret his writings. That’s the current argument for fiscal stimulus.

Cochrane writes as if there were some important scientific breakthrough made by modern macroeconomics — “the new and more coherent models,” either the New Keynesian version of New Classical macroeconomics or Real Business Cycle Theory — that rendered traditional Keynesian economics obsolete or outdated. I have never been a devote of Keynesian economics, but the fact is that modern macroeconomics has achieved its ascendancy in academic circles almost entirely by way of a misguided methodological preference for axiomatized intertemporal optimization models for which a unique equilibrium solution can be found by imposing the empirically risible assumption of rational expectations. These models, whether in their New Keynesian or Real Business Cycle versions, do not generate better empirical predictions than the old fashioned Keynesian models, and, as Noah Smith has usefully pointed out, these models have been consistently rejected by private forecasters in favor of the traditional Keynesian models. It is only the dominant clique of ivory-tower intellectuals that cultivate and nurture these models. The notion that such models are entitled to any special authority or scientific status is based on nothing but the exaggerated self-esteem that is characteristic of almost every intellectual clique, particularly dominant ones.

Having rejected inadequate demand as a cause of slow growth, Cochrane, relying on no model and no evidence, makes a pitch for uncertainty as the source of slow growth.

Where, instead, are the problems? John Taylor, Stanford’s Nick Bloom and Chicago Booth’s Steve Davis see the uncertainty induced by seat-of-the-pants policy at fault. Who wants to hire, lend or invest when the next stroke of the presidential pen or Justice Department witch hunt can undo all the hard work? Ed Prescott emphasizes large distorting taxes and intrusive regulations. The University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan deconstructs the unintended disincentives of social programs. And so forth. These problems did not cause the recession. But they are worse now, and they can impede recovery and retard growth.

Where, one wonders, is the science on which this sort of seat-of-the-pants speculation is based? Is there any evidence, for example, that the tax burden on businesses or individuals is greater now than it was let us say in 1983-85 when, under President Reagan, the economy, despite annual tax increases partially reversing the 1981 cuts enacted in Reagan’s first year, began recovering rapidly from the 1981-82 recession?

The Social Cost of Finance

Noah Smith has a great post that bears on the topic that I have been discussing of late (here and here): whether the growth of the US financial sector over the past three decades had anything to do with the decline in the real rate of interest that seems to have occurred over the same period. I have been suggesting that there may be reason to believe that the growth in the financial sector (from about 5% of GDP in 1980 to 8% in 2007) has reduced the productivity of the rest of the economy, because a not insubstantial part of the earnings of the financial sector has been extracted from relatively unsophisticated, informationally disadvantaged, traders and customers. Much of what financial firms do is aimed at obtaining an information advantage from which profit can be extracted, just as athletes devote resources to gaining a competitive advantage. The resources devoted to gaining informational advantage are mostly wasted, being used to transfer, not create, wealth. This seems to be true as a matter of theory; what is less clear is whether enough resources have been wasted to cause a non-negligible deterioration in economic performance.

Noah underscores the paucity of our knowledge by referring to two papers, one by Robin Greenwood and David Scharfstein (recently published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives) and the other, a response by John Cochrane posted on his blog (see here for the PDF). The Greewood and Scharfstein paper provides theoretical arguments and evidence that tend to support the proposition that the US financial sector is too large. Here is how they sum up their findings.

First, a large part of the growth of finance is in asset management, which has brought many benefits including, most notably, increased diversification and household participation in the stock market. This has likely lowered required rates of return on risky securities, increased valuations, and lowered the cost of capital to corporations. The biggest beneficiaries were likely young firms, which stand to gain the most when discount rates fall. On the other hand, the enormous growth of asset management after 1997 was driven by high fee alternative investments, with little direct evidence of much social benefit, and potentially large distortions in the allocation of talent. On net, society is likely better off because of active asset management but, on the margin, society would be better off if the cost of asset management could be reduced.

Second, changes in the process of credit delivery facilitated the expansion of household credit, mainly in residential mortgage credit. This led to higher fee income to the financial sector. While there may be benefits of expanding access to mortgage credit and lowering its cost, we point out that the U.S. tax code already biases households to overinvest in residential real estate. Moreover, the shadow banking system that facilitated this expansion made the financial system more fragile.

In his response, Cochrane offers a number of reasons why Greenwood and Scharfstein are understating the benefits generated by active asset management. Here is a passage from Cochrane’s paper (quoted also by Noah) that I would like to focus on.

I conclude that information trading of this sort sits at the conflict of two externalities / public goods. On the one hand, as French points out, “price impact” means that traders are not able to appropriate the full value of the information they bring, so there can be too few resources devoted to information production (and digestion, which strikes me as far more important). On the other hand, as Greenwood and Scharfstein point out, information is a non-rival good, and its exploitation in financial markets is a tournament (first to use it gets all the benefit) so the theorem that profits you make equal the social benefit of its production is false. It is indeed a waste of resources to bring information to the market a few minutes early, when that information will be revealed for free a few minutes later. Whether we have “too much” trading, too many resources devoted to finding information that somebody already has in will be revealed in a few minutes, or “too little” trading, markets where prices go for long times not reflecting important information, as many argued during the financial crisis, seems like a topic which neither theory nor empirical work has answered with any sort of clarity.

Cochrane’s characterization of information trading as a public good is not wrong, inasmuch as we all benefit from the existence of markets for goods and assets, even those of us that don’t participate routinely (or ever) in those markets, first because the existence of those markets provides us with opportunities to trade that may, at some unknown future time, become very valuable to us, and second, because the existence of markets contributes to the efficient utilization of resources, thereby increasing the total value of output. Because the existence of markets is a kind of public good, it may be true that even more market trading than now occurs would be socially beneficial. Suppose that every trade involves a transaction cost of 5 cents, and that the transactions cost prevents at least one trade from taking place, because the expected gain to the traders from that trade would only be 4 cents. But since that unconsummated trade would also confer a benefit on third parties, by improving the allocation of resources ever so slightly, causing total output to rise by, say, 3 cents, it would be worth it to the rest of us to subsidize parties to that unconsummated trade by rebating some part of the transactions cost associated with that trade.

But here’s my problem with Cochrane’s argument. Let us imagine that there is some unique social optimum, or at least a defined set of Pareto-optimal allocations, which we are trying to attain, or to come as close as possible to. The existence of functioning markets certainly helps us come closer to the set of Pareto optimal allocations than if markets did not exist. Cochrane is suggesting that, by devoting more resources to the production of information (which in a basically free-market, private-property economy involves the creation private informational advantages) we get more trading, and with more trading we come closer to the set of Pareto-optimal allocations than with less trading. However, it seems plausible that the production of additional information and the increase in trading activity is subject to diminishing returns in the sense that eventually obtaining additional information and engaging in additional trades reduces the distance between the actual allocation and the set of Pareto-optimal allocations by successively smaller amounts. Otherwise, we would in fact reach Pareto optimality. So, as we devote more and more resources to producing information and to trading, the amount of public-good co-generation must diminish. But this means that the negative externality associated with using increasing amounts of resources to produce private informational advantages must at some point — and probably fairly quickly — overwhelm the public-good co-generated by increased trading.

So although Cochrane has a theoretical point that, without more evidence than we have now, we can’t necessarily be sure that the increase in resources devoted to finance has been associated with a net social loss, I am still inclined to suspect doubt strongly that, at the margin, there are net positive social benefits from adding resources to finance. In this regard, the paper (cited by Greenwood and Scharfstein) “The Allocation of Talent: Implications for Growth” by Kevin Murphy, Andrei Shleifer and Robert Vishny.

John Cochrane Misunderestimates the Fed

In my previous post, I criticized Ben Bernanke’s speech last week at the annual symposium on monetary policy at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It turns out that the big event at the symposium was not Bernanke’s speech but a 98-page paper by Michael Woodford, of Columbia University. Woodford’s paper was important, because he is widely considered the world’s top monetary theorist, and he endorsed the idea proposed by the intrepid, indefatigable and indispensable Scott Sumner that the Fed stop targeting inflation and instead target a steady growth path of nominal GDP. That endorsement constitutes a rather stunning turn of events in which Sumner’s idea (OK, Scott didn’t invent the idea, but he made a big deal out of it when nobody else was paying any attention) has gone from being a fringe idea to the newly emerging orthodoxy in monetary economics.

John Cochrane, however, is definitely not with the program, registering his displeasure in a blog post earlier this week. In this post, I am going to challenge two assertions that Cochrane makes. These aren’t the only ones that could be challenged, but it’s getting late.  The first assertion is that inflation can never bring about an increase in output.

Mike [Woodford]’s enthusiasm for deliberate inflation is even more puzzling to me.  Mike uses the word “stimulus,” never differentiating between real and nominal stimulus. Surely, we don’t want to cook up some inflation just for its own sake — we want to cook up some inflation because we think it will goose output. But why? Why especially will increasing expected inflation help? Because that is the aim of all the policies under discussion here — promising to keep rates low even once inflation rises, adopting “nominal GDP targets,” helicopter drops, or similar policies such as raising the inflation target.

I don’t put much faith in Phillips curves to start with  — the idea that deliberate inflation raises output. I put less faith in the idea floating around Jackson hole that a little inflation will set us permanently back on the trend line, not just be a little sugar rush and then back to sclerosis.

But it’s a rare Phillips curve in which raising expected inflation is a good thing.  It just gives you more inflation, with if anything less output and employment.

Cochrane is simply asserting that expected inflation cannot increase output and employment. The theoretical basis for that proposition is an argument, generally attributed to Milton Friedman and Edward Phelps, but advanced by others before them, that an increase in inflation cannot generate a permanent increase in employment. The problem with that theoretical argument is that it is a comparative statics result, thus, by assumption, starting from an initial equilibrium with zero inflation and positing an increase in the inflation parameter. The Friedman-Phelps argument shows that a new equilibrium corresponding to the higher rate of inflation has the same level of output and employment as the initial zero-inflation equilibrium, so that derivatives of output and employment with respect to inflation are both zero. That comparative-statics exercise is fine, but it’s irrelevant to the situation we have been in since 2008. We are not starting from equilibrium; we are starting from a disequlibrium in which output and employment are well below their equilibrium levels. The question is whether an increase in inflation, starting from an under-employment disequilibrium, would increase output and employment. The Friedman/Phelps argument tells us exactly nothing about that issue.

And aside from the irrelevance of the theoretical argument on which Cochrane is relying to the question whether inflation can reduce unemployment when employment is below its equilibrium level – I am here positing that it is possible for employment to be persistently below its equilibrium level – there is also the clear historical evidence that in 1933 a sharp increase in the US price level, precipitated by FDR’s devaluation of the dollar, produced a spectacular increase in output and employment between April and July of 1933 — the fastest four-month expansion of output and employment, combined with a doubling of the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, in US history. The increase in the price level, since it was directly tied to a very public devaluation of the dollar, and an explicit policy objective, announced by FDR, of raising the US price level back to where it had been in 1926, could hardly have been unanticipated.

The second assertion made by Cochrane that I want to challenge is the following.

Nothing communicates like a graph. Here’s Mike [Woodford]’s, which will help me to explain the view:

The graph is nominal GDP and the trend through 2007 extrapolated. (Nominal GDP is price times quantity, so goes up with either inflation or larger real output.)

Now, let’s be clear what a nominal GDP target is and is and is not. Many people (and a few persistent commenters on this blog!) urge nominal GDP targeting by looking at a graph like this and saying “see, if the Fed had kept nominal GDP on trend, we wouldn’t have had  such a huge recession. Sure, part of it might have been more inflation, but surely part of a steady nominal GDP would have been less recession.” This is NOT what Mike is talking about.

Mike recognizes, as I do, that the Fed can do nothing more to raise nominal GDP today. Rates are at zero. The Fed has did [sic] what it could. The trend line was not achievable.

Nick Rowe, in his uniquely simple and elegant style, has identified the fallacy at work in Woodford’s and Cochrane’s view of monetary policy which views the short-term interest rate as the exclusive channel by which monetary policy can work. Thus, when you reach the zero lower bound, you (i.e., the central bank) have become impotent. That’s just wrong, as Nick demonstrates.

Rather than restate Nick’s argument, let me add some historical context. The discovery that the short-term interest rate set by the central bank is the primary tool of monetary policy was not made by Michael Woodford; it goes back to Henry Thornton, at least. It was a commonplace of nineteenth-century monetary orthodoxy. Except that in those days, the bank rate, as the English called it, was viewed as the instrument by which the Bank of England could control the level of its gold reserves, not the overall state of the economy, for which the Bank of England had no legal responsibility. It was Knut Wicksell who, at the end of the nineteenth century, first advocated using the bank rate as a tool for controlling the price level and thus the business cycle. J. M. Keynes and Dennis Robertson also advocated using the bank rate as an instrument for controlling the price level and the business cycle, but the most outspoken and emphatic exponent of using the bank rate as an instrument of macroeconomic control was Ralph Hawtrey. Keynes continued to advocate using the bank rate until the early 1930s, but he then began to advocate fiscal policy and public works spending as the primary weapon against unemployment. Hawtrey never wavered in his advocacy of the bank rate as a control mechanism, but even he acknowledged that could be circumstances under which reducing the bank rate might not be effective in stimulating the economy. Here’s how R. D. C. Black, in a biographical essay on Hawtrey, described Hawtrey’s position:

It was always a corollary of Hawtrey’s analysis that the economy, although lacking any automatic stabilizer, could nevertheless be effectively stabilized by the proper use of credit policy; it followed that fiscal policy in general and public works in particular constituted an unnecessary and inappropriate control mechanism. Yet Hawtrey was always prepared to admit that there could be circumstances in which no conceivable easing of credit would induce traders to borrow more and that in such a case government expenditure might be the only means of increasing employment.

This possibility of such a “credit deadlock” was admitted in all Hawtrey’s writings from Good and Bad Trade onwards, but treated as a most unlikely exceptional case. ln Capital and Emþloyment, however, he admitted “that unfortunately since 1930 it has come to plague the world, and has confronted us with problems which have threatened the fabric of civilisation with destruction.”

So indeed it had, and in the years that followed opinion, both academic and political, became increasingly convinced that the solution lay in the methods of stabilization by fiscal policy which followed from Keynes’s theories rather that in those of stabilization by credit policy which followed from Hawtrey’s.

However, a few paragraphs later, Black observes that Hawtrey understood that monetary policy could be effective even in a credit deadlock when reducing the bank rate would accomplish nothing.

Hawtrey was inclined to be sympathetic when Roosevelt adopted the so-called “Warren plan” and raised the domestic price of gold. Despairing of seeing effective international cooperation to raise and stabilize the world price level, Hawtrey now envisaged exchange depreciation as the only way in which a country like the United States could “break the credit deadlock by making some branches of economic activity remunerative.” Not unnaturally there were those, like Per Jacobsson of the Bank for International Settlements, who found it hard to reconcile this apparent enthusiasm for exchange depreciation with Hawtrey’s previous support for international stabilization schemes. To them his repiy was “the difference between what I now advocate and the programme of monetary stability is the difference between measures for treating a disease and measures for maintaining health when re-established. It is no use trying to stabilise a price ievel which leaves industry under-employed and working at a loss and makes half the debtors bankrupt.” Here, as always, Hawtrey was faithful to the logic of his system, which implied that if international central bank co-operation could not be achieved, each individual central bank must be free to pursue its own credit policy, without the constraint of fixed exchange rates.  [See my posts, “Hawtrey on Competitive Devaluations:  Bring It On, and “Hawtrey on the Short, but Sweet, 1933 Recovery.”]

Cochrane asserts that the Fed has no power to raise nominal income. Does he believe that the Fed is unable to depreciate the dollar relative to other currencies? If so, does he believe that the Fed is less able to control the exchange rate of the dollar in relation to, say, the euro than the Swiss National Bank is able to control the value of the Swiss franc in relation to the euro? Just by coincidence, I wrote about the Swiss National Bank exactly one year ago in a post I called “The Swiss Naitonal Bank Teaches Us a Lesson.”  The Swiss National Bank, faced with a huge demand for Swiss francs, was in imminent danger of presiding over a disastrous deflation caused by the rapid appreciation of the Swiss franc against the euro. The Swiss National Bank could not fight deflation by cutting its bank rate, so it announced that it would sell unlimited quantities of Swiss francs at an exchange rate of 1.20 francs per euro, thereby preventing the Swiss franc from appreciating against the euro, and preventing domestic deflation in Switzerland. The action confounded those who claimed that the Swiss National Bank was powerless to prevent the franc from appreciating against the euro.

If the Fed wants domestic prices to rise, it can debauch the dollar by selling unlimited quantities of dollars in exchange for other currencies at exchange rates below their current levels. This worked for the US under FDR in 1933, and it worked for the Swiss National Bank in 2011. It has worked countless times for other central banks. What I would like to know is why Cochrane thinks that today’s Fed is less capable of debauching the currency today than FDR was in 1933 or the Swiss National Bank was in 2011?

On Multipliers, Ricardian Equivalence and Functioning Well

In my post yesterday, I explained why if one believes, as do Robert Lucas and Robert Barro, that monetary policy can stimulate an economy in an economic downturn, it is easy to construct an argument that fiscal policy would do so as well. I hope that my post won’t cause anyone to conclude that real-business-cycle theory must be right that monetary policy is no more effective than fiscal policy. I suppose that there is that risk, but I can’t worry about every weird idea floating around in the blogosphere. Instead, I want to think out loud a bit about fiscal multipliers and Ricardian equivalence.

I am inspired to do so by something that John Cochrane wrote on his blog defending Robert Lucas from Paul Krugman’s charge that Lucas didn’t understand Ricardian equivalence. Here’s what Cochrane, explaining what Ricardian equivalence means, had to say:

So, according to Paul [Krugman], “Ricardian Equivalence,” which is the theorem that stimulus does not work in a well-functioning economy, fails, because it predicts that a family who takes out a mortgage to buy a $100,000 house would reduce consumption by $100,000 in that very year.

Cochrane was a little careless in defining Ricardian equivalance as a theorem about stimulus, when it’s really a theorem about the equivalence of the effects of present and future taxes on spending. But that’s just a minor slip. What I found striking about Cochrane’s statement was something else: that little qualifying phrase “in a well-functioning economy,” which Cochrane seems to have inserted as a kind of throat-clearing remark, the sort of aside that people are just supposed to hear but not really pay much attention to, that sometimes can be quite revealing, usually unintentionally, in its own way.

What is so striking about those five little words “in a well-functioning economy?” Well, just this. Why, in a well-functioning economy, would anyone care whether a stimulus works or not? A well-functioning economy doesn’t need any stimulus, so why would you even care whether it works or not, much less prove a theorem to show that it doesn’t? (I apologize for the implicit Philistinism of that rhetorical question, I’m just engaging in a little rhetorical excess to make my point a little bit more colorfully.)

So if a well-functioning economy doesn’t require any stimulus, and if a stimulus wouldn’t work in a well-functioning economy, what does that tell us about whether a stimulus works (or would work) in an economy that is not functioning well? Not a whole lot. Thus, the bread and butter models that economists use, models of how an economy functions when there are no frictions, expectations are rational, and markets clear, are guaranteed to imply that there are no multipliers and that Ricardian equivalence holds. This is the world of a single, unique, and stable equilibrium. If you exogenously change any variable in the system, the system will snap back to a new equilibrium in which all variables have optimally adjusted to whatever exogenous change you have subjected the system to. All conventional economic analysis, comparative statics or dynamic adjustment, are built on the assumption of a unique and stable equilibrium to which all economic variables inevitably return when subjected to any exogenous shock. This is the indispensable core of economic theory, but it is not the whole of economic theory.

Keynes had a vision of what could go wrong with an economy: entrepreneurial pessimism — a dampening of animal spirits — would cause investment to flag; the rate of interest would not (or could not) fall enough to revive investment; people would try to shift out of assets into cash, causing a cumulative contraction of income, expenditure and output. In such circumstances, spending by government could replace the investment spending no longer being undertaken by discouraged entrepreneurs, at least until entrepreneurial expectations recovered. This is a vision not of a well-functioning economy, but of a dysfunctional one, but Keynes was able to describe it in terms of a simplified model, essentially what has come down to us as the Keynesian cross. In this little model, you can easily calculate a multiplier as the reciprocal of the marginal propensity to save out of disposable income.

But packaging Keynes’s larger vision into the four corners of the Keynesian cross diagram, or even the slightly more realistic IS-LM diagram, misses the essence of Keynes’s vision — the volatility of entrepreneurial expectations and their susceptibility to unpredictable mood swings that overwhelm any conceivable equilibrating movements in interest rates. A numerical calculation of the multiplier in the simplified Keynesian models is not particularly relevant, because the real goal is not to reach an equilibrium within a system of depressed entrepreneurial expectations, but to create conditions in which entrepreneurial expectations bounce back from their depressed state. As I like to say, expectations are fundamental.

Unlike a well-functioning economy with a unique equilibrium, a not-so-well functioning economy may have multiple equilibria corresponding to different sets of expectations. The point of increased government spending is then not to increase the size of government, but to restore entrepreneurial confidence by providing assurance that if they increase production, they will have customers willing and able to buy the output at prices sufficient to cover their costs.

Ricardian equivalence assumes that expectations of future income are independent of tax and spending decisions in the present, because, in a well-functioning economy, there is but one equilibrium path for future output and income. But if, because the economy not functioning well, expectations of future income, and therefore actual future income, may depend on current decisions about spending and taxation. No matter what Ricardian equivalence says, a stimulus may work by shifting the economy to a different higher path of future output and income than the one it now happens to be on, in which case present taxes may not be equivalent to future taxes, after all.


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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