In the beginning, there was Keynesian economics; then came Post-Keynesian economics. After Post-Keynesian economics, came Modern Monetary Theory. And now it seems, John Taylor has discovered Post-Modern Monetary Theory.
What, you may be asking yourself, is Post-Modern Monetary Theory all about? Great question! In a recent post, Scott Sumner tried to deconstruct Taylor’s position, and found himself unable to determine just what it is that Taylor wants in the way of monetary policy. How post-modern can you get?
Taylor is annoyed that the Fed is keeping interest rates too low by a policy of forward guidance, i.e., promising to keep short-term interest rates close to zero for an extended period while buying Treasuries to support that policy.
And yet—unlike its actions taken during the panic—the Fed’s policies have been accompanied by disappointing outcomes. While the Fed points to external causes, it ignores the possibility that its own policy has been a factor.
At this point, the alert reader is surely anticipating an explanation of why forward guidance aimed at reducing the entire term structure of interest rates, thereby increasing aggregate demand, has failed to do so, notwithstanding the teachings of both Keynesian and non-Keynesian monetary theory. Here is Taylor’s answer:
At the very least, the policy creates a great deal of uncertainty. People recognize that the Fed will eventually have to reverse course. When the economy begins to heat up, the Fed will have to sell the assets it has been purchasing to prevent inflation.
Taylor seems to be suggesting that, despite low interest rates, the public is not willing to spend because of increased uncertainty. But why wasn’t the public spending more in the first place, before all that nasty forward guidance? Could it possibly have had something to do with business pessimism about demand and household pessimism about employment? If the problem stems from an underlying state of pessimistic expectations about the future, the question arises whether Taylor considers such pessimism to be an element of, or related to, uncertainty?
I don’t know the answer, but Taylor posits that the public is assuming that the Fed’s policy will have to be reversed at some point. Why? Because the economy will “heat up.” As an economic term, the verb “to heat up” is pretty vague, but it seems to connote, at the very least, increased spending and employment. Which raises a further question: given a state of pessimistic expectations about future demand and employment, does a policy that, by assumption, increases the likelihood of additional spending and employment create uncertainty or diminish it?
It turns out that Taylor has other arguments for the ineffectiveness of forward guidance. We can safely ignore his two throw-away arguments about on-again off-again asset purchases, and the tendency of other central banks to follow Fed policy. A more interesting reason is provided when Taylor compares Fed policy to a regulatory price ceiling.
[I]f investors are told by the Fed that the short-term rate is going to be close to zero in the future, then they will bid down the yield on the long-term bond. The forward guidance keeps the long-term rate low and tends to prevent it from rising. Effectively the Fed is imposing an interest-rate ceiling on the longer-term market by saying it will keep the short rate unusually low.
The perverse effect comes when this ceiling is below what would be the equilibrium between borrowers and lenders who normally participate in that market. While borrowers might like a near-zero rate, there is little incentive for lenders to extend credit at that rate.
This is much like the effect of a price ceiling in a rental market where landlords reduce the supply of rental housing. Here lenders supply less credit at the lower rate. The decline in credit availability reduces aggregate demand, which tends to increase unemployment, a classic unintended consequence of the policy.
When economists talk about a price ceiling what they usually mean is that there is some legal prohibition on transactions between willing parties at a price above a specified legal maximum price. If the prohibition is enforced, as are, for example, rent ceilings in New York City, some people trying to rent apartments will be unable to do so, even though they are willing to pay as much, or more, than others are paying for comparable apartments. The only rates that the Fed is targeting, directly or indirectly, are those on US Treasuries at various maturities. All other interest rates in the economy are what they are because, given the overall state of expectations, transactors are voluntarily agreeing to the terms reflected in those rates. For any given class of financial instruments, everyone willing to purchase or sell those instruments at the going rate is able to do so. For Professor Taylor to analogize this state of affairs to a price ceiling is not only novel, it is thoroughly post-modern.