A few weeks ago Michael Woodford and his Columbia colleague Mariana Garcia-Schmidt made an initial response to the Neo-Fisherian argument advanced by, among others, John Cochrane and Stephen Williamson that a central bank can achieve its inflation target by pegging its interest-rate instrument at a rate such that if the expected inflation rate is the inflation rate targeted by the central bank, the Fisher equation would be satisfied. In other words, if the central bank wants 2% inflation, it should set the interest rate instrument under its control at the Fisherian real rate of interest (aka the natural rate) plus 2% expected inflation. So if the Fisherian real rate is 2%, the central bank should set its interest-rate instrument (Fed Funds rate) at 4%, because, in equilibrium – and, under rational expectations, that is the only policy-relevant solution of the model – inflation expectations must satisfy the Fisher equation.
The Neo-Fisherians believe that, by way of this insight, they have overturned at least two centuries of standard monetary theory, dating back at least to Henry Thornton, instructing the monetary authorities to raise interest rates to combat inflation and to reduce interest rates to counter deflation. According to the Neo-Fisherian Revolution, this was all wrong: the way to reduce inflation is for the monetary authority to reduce the setting on its interest-rate instrument and the way to counter deflation is to raise the setting on the instrument. That is supposedly why the Fed, by reducing its Fed Funds target practically to zero, has locked us into a low-inflation environment.
Unwilling to junk more than 200 years of received doctrine on the basis, not of a behavioral relationship, but a reduced-form equilibrium condition containing no information about the direction of causality, few monetary economists and no policy makers have become devotees of the Neo-Fisherian Revolution. Nevertheless, the Neo-Fisherian argument has drawn enough attention to elicit a response from Michael Woodford, who is the go-to monetary theorist for monetary-policy makers. The Woodford-Garcia-Schmidt (hereinafter WGS) response (for now just a slide presentation) has already been discussed by Noah Smith, Nick Rowe, Scott Sumner, Brad DeLong, Roger Farmer and John Cochrane. Nick Rowe’s discussion, not surprisingly, is especially penetrating in distilling the WGS presentation into its intuitive essence.
Using Nick’s discussion as a starting point, I am going to offer some comments of my own on Neo-Fisherism and the WGS critique. Right off the bat, WGS concede that it is possible that by increasing the setting of its interest-rate instrument, a central bank could, move the economy from one rational-expectations equilibrium to another, the only difference between the two being that inflation in the second would differ from inflation in the first by an amount exactly equal to the difference in the corresponding settings of the interest-rate instrument. John Cochrane apparently feels pretty good about having extracted this concession from WGS, remarking
My first reaction is relief — if Woodford says it is a prediction of the standard perfect foresight / rational expectations version, that means I didn’t screw up somewhere. And if one has to resort to learning and non-rational expectations to get rid of a result, the battle is half won.
And my first reaction to Cochrane’s first reaction is: why only half? What else is there to worry about besides a comparison of rational-expectations equilibria? Well, let Cochrane read Nick Rowe’s blogpost. If he did, he might realize that if you do no more than compare alternative steady-state equilibria, ignoring the path leading from one equilibrium to the other, you miss just about everything that makes macroeconomics worth studying (by the way I do realize the question-begging nature of that remark). Of course that won’t necessarily bother Cochrane, because, like other practitioners of modern macroeconomics, he has convinced himself that it is precisely by excluding everything but rational-expectations equilibria from consideration that modern macroeconomics has made what its practitioners like to think of as progress, and what its critics regard as the opposite .
But Nick Rowe actually takes the trouble to show what might happen if you try to specify the path by which you could get from rational-expectations equilibrium A with the interest-rate instrument of the central bank set at i to rational-expectations equilibrium B with the interest-rate instrument of the central bank set at i + ε. If you try to specify a process of trial-and-error (tatonnement) that leads from A to B, you will almost certainly fail, your only chance being to get it right on your first try. And, as Nick further points out, the very notion of a tatonnement process leading from one equilibrium to another is a huge stretch, because, in the real world there are “no backs” as there are in tatonnement. If you enter into an exchange, you can’t nullify it, as is the case under tatonnement, just because the price you agreed on turns out not to have been an equilibrium price. For there to be a tatonnement path from the first equilibrium that converges on the second requires that monetary authority set its interest-rate instrument in the conventional, not the Neo-Fisherian, manner, using variations in the real interest rate as a lever by which to nudge the economy onto a path leading to a new equilibrium rather than away from it.
The very notion that you don’t have to worry about the path by which you get from one equilibrium to another is so bizarre that it would be merely laughable if it were not so dangerous. Kenneth Boulding used to tell a story about a physicist, a chemist and an economist stranded on a desert island with nothing to eat except a can of food, but nothing to open the can with. The physicist and the chemist tried to figure out a way to open the can, but the economist just said: “assume a can opener.” But I wonder if even Boulding could have imagined the disconnect from reality embodied in the Neo-Fisherian argument.
Having registered my disapproval of Neo-Fisherism, let me now reverse field and make some critical comments about the current state of non-Neo-Fisherian monetary theory, and what makes it vulnerable to off-the-wall ideas like Neo-Fisherism. The important fact to consider about the past two centuries of monetary theory that I referred to above is that for at least three-quarters of that time there was a basic default assumption that the value of money was ultimately governed by the value of some real commodity, usually either silver or gold (or even both). There could be temporary deviations between the value of money and the value of the monetary standard, but because there was a standard, the value of gold or silver provided a benchmark against which the value of money could always be reckoned. I am not saying that this was either a good way of thinking about the value of money or a bad way; I am just pointing out that this was metatheoretical background governing how people thought about money.
Even after the final collapse of the gold standard in the mid-1930s, there was a residue of metalism that remained, people still calculating values in terms of gold equivalents and the value of currency in terms of its gold price. Once the gold standard collapsed, it was inevitable that these inherited habits of thinking about money would eventually give way to new ways of thinking, and it took another 40 years or so, until the official way of thinking about the value of money finally eliminated any vestige of the gold mentality. In our age of enlightenment, no sane person any longer thinks about the value of money in terms of gold or silver equivalents.
But the problem for monetary theory is that, without a real-value equivalent to assign to money, the value of money in our macroeconomic models became theoretically indeterminate. If the value of money is theoretically indeterminate, so, too, is the rate of inflation. The value of money and the rate of inflation are simply, as Fischer Black understood, whatever people in the aggregate expect them to be. Nevertheless, our basic mental processes for understanding how central banks can use an interest-rate instrument to control the value of money are carryovers from an earlier epoch when the value of money was determined, most of the time and in most places, by convertibility, either actual or expected, into gold or silver. The interest-rate instrument of central banks was not primarily designed as a method for controlling the value of money; it was the mechanism by which the central bank could control the amount of reserves on its balance sheet and the amount of gold or silver in its vaults. There was only an indirect connection – at least until the 1920s — between a central bank setting its interest-rate instrument to control its balance sheet and the effect on prices and inflation. The rules of monetary policy developed under a gold standard are not necessarily applicable to an economic system in which the value of money is fundamentally indeterminate.
Viewed from this perspective, the Neo-Fisherian Revolution appears as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the present confused state of monetary theory in which the price level and the rate of inflation are entirely subjective and determined totally by expectations.