Archive for the 'monetary policy' Category



A New Paper Shows Just How Right Hawtrey and Cassel Were

I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email a couple of weeks ago from someone I don’t know, a graduate student in economics at George Mason University, James Caton. He sent me a link to a paper (“Good as Gold?: A Quantitative Analysis of Hawtrey and Cassel’s Theory of Gold Demand and the Gold Price Level During the Interwar Period”) that he recently posted on SSRN. Caton was kind enough to credit me and my co-author Ron Batchelder, as well as Doug Irwin (here and here) and Scott Sumner, for reviving interest in the seminal work of Ralph Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel on the interwar gold standard and the key role in causing the Great Depression played by the process of restoring the gold standard after it had been effectively suspended after World War I began.

The thesis independently, but cooperatively, advanced by Hawtrey and Cassel was that under a gold standard, fluctuations in the gold price level were sensitive to variations in the demand for gold reserves by the central banks. The main contribution of Caton’s paper is to provide econometric evidence of the tight correlation between variations in the total gold holdings of the world’s central banks and the gold price level in the period between the end of World War I (1918) to the start of Great Depression (1930-32). Caton uses a variation on a model used by Scott Sumner in his empirical work on the Great Depression to predict changes in the value of gold, and, hence, changes in the gold price level of commodities. If central banks in the aggregate are adding to their gold reserves at a faster rate than the rate at which the total world stock of gold is growing, then gold would be likely to appreciate, and if central banks are adding to their gold reserves at a slower rate than that at which the world stock is growing, then gold would be likely to depreciate.

So from the published sources, Caton constructed a time series of international monetary gold holdings and the total world stock of gold from 1918 to 1932 and regressed the international gold price level on the international gold reserve ratio (the ratio of monetary gold reserves to the total world stock of gold). He used two different measures of the world gold price level, the Sauerback-Statist price index and the gold price of silver. Based on his regressions (calculated in both log-linear and log-quadratic forms and separately for the periods 1918-30, 1918-31, 1918-32), he compared the predicted gold price level against both the Sauerback-Statist price index and the gold price of silver. The chart below shows his result for the log-linear regression estimated over the period 1918-30.

Caton_Regressions

Pretty impressive, if you ask me. Have a look yourself.

Let me also mention that Caton’s results also shed important light on the puzzling behavior of the world price level immediately after the end of World War I. Unlike most wars in which the wartime inflation comes to an abrupt end after the end of the war, inflation actually accelerated after the end of the war. The inflation did not actually stop for almost two years after the end of the war, when a huge deflation set in. Caton shows that the behavior of the price level was largely determined by the declining gold holdings of the Federal Reserve after the war ended. Unnerved by the rapid inflation, the Fed finally changed policy, and began accumulating gold rapidly in 1920 by raising the discount rate to an all-time high of 7 percent. Although no other countries were then on the gold standard, other countries, unwilling, for the most part, to allow their currencies to depreciate too much against the dollar, imported US deflation.

Jim is also a blogger. Check out his blog here.

Update: Thanks to commenter Blue Aurora for pointing out that I neglected to provide a link to Jim Caton’s paper.  Sorry about that. The link is now embedded.

Keynes on the Fisher Equation and Real Interest Rates

Almost two months ago, I wrote a post (“Who Sets the Real Rate of Interest?”) about the Fisher equation, questioning the idea that the Fed can, at will, reduce the real rate of interest by printing money, an idea espoused by a lot of people who also deny that the Fed has the power to reduce the rate of unemployment by printing money. A few weeks later, I wrote another post (“On a Difficult Passage in the General Theory“) in which I pointed out the inconsistency between Keynes’s attack on the Fisher equation in chapter 11 of the General Theory and his analysis in chapter 17 of the liquidity premium and the conditions for asset-market equilibrium, an analysis that led Keynes to write down what is actually a generalized version of the Fisher equation. In both of those posts I promised a future post about how to understand the dynamic implications of the Fisher equation and the relationship between Fisher equation and the Keynesian analysis. This post is an attempt to make good on those promises.

As I observed in my earlier post, the Fisher equation is best understood as a property of equilibrium. If the Fisher equation does not hold, then it is reasonable to attribute the failure to some sort of disequilibrium. The most obvious, but not the only, source of disequilibrium is incorrectly expected inflation. Other sources of disequilibrium could be a general economic disorder, the entire economic system being (seriously) out of equilibrium, implying that the real rate of interest is somehow different from the “equilibrium” rate, or, as Milton Friedman might put it, that the real rate is different from the rate that would be ground out by the system of Walrasian (or Casselian or Paretian or Fisherian) equations.

Still a third possibility is that there is more than one equilibrium (i.e., more than one solution to whichever system of equations we are trying to solve). If so, as an economy moves from one equilibrium path to another through time, the nominal (and hence the real) rate of that economy could be changing independently of changes in expected inflation, thereby nullifying the empirical relationship implied (under the assumption of a unique equilibrium) by the Fisher equation.

Now in the canonical Fisherian theory of interest, there is, at any moment of time, a unique equilibrium rate of interest (actually a unique structure of equilibrium rates for all possible combinations of time periods), increasing thrift tending to reduce rates and increasing productivity of capital tending to raise them. While uniqueness of the interest rate cannot easily be derived outside a one-commodity model, the assumption did not seem all that implausible in the context of the canonical Fisherian model with a given technology and given endowments of present and future resources. In the real world, however, the future is unknown, so the future exists now only in our imagination, which means that, fundamentally, the determination of real interest rates cannot be independent of our expectations of the future. There is no unique set of expectations that is consistent with “fundamentals.” Fundamentals and expectations interact to create the future; expectations can be self-fulfilling. One of the reasons why expectations can be self-fulfilling is that often it is the case that individual expectations can only be realized if they are congruent with the expectations of others; expectations are subject to network effects. That was the valid insight in Keynes’s “beauty contest” theory of the stock market in chapter 12 of the GT.

There simply is no reason why there would be only one possible equilibrium time path. Actually, the idea that there is just one possible equilibrium time path seems incredible to me. It seems infinitely more likely that there are many potential equilibrium time paths, each path conditional on a corresponding set of individual expectations. To be sure, not all expectations can be realized. Expectations that can’t be realized produce bubbles. But just because expectations are not realized doesn’t mean that the observed price paths were bubbles; as long as it was possible, under conditions that could possibly have obtained, that the expectations could have been realized, the observed price paths were not bubbles.

Keynes was not the first economist to attribute economic fluctuations to shifts in expectations; J. S. Mill, Stanley Jevons, and A. C. Pigou, among others, emphasized recurrent waves of optimism and pessimism as the key source of cyclical fluctuations. The concept of the marginal efficiency of capital was used by Keynes to show the dependence of the desired capital stock, and hence the amount of investment, on the state of entrepreneurial expectations, but Keynes, just before criticizing the Fisher equation, explicitly identified the MEC with the Fisherian concept of “the rate of return over cost.” At a formal level, at any rate, Keynes was not attacking the Fisherian theory of interest.

So what I want to suggest is that, in attacking the Fisher equation, Keynes was really questioning the idea that a change in inflation expectations operates strictly on the nominal rate of interest without affecting the real rate. In a world in which there is a unique equilibrium real rate, and in which the world is moving along a time-path in the neighborhood of that equilibrium, a change in inflation expectations may operate strictly on the nominal rate and leave the real rate unchanged. In chapter 11, Keynes tried to argue the opposite: that the entire adjustment to a change in expected inflation is concentrated on real rate with the nominal rate unchanged. This idea seems completely unfounded. However, if the equilibrium real rate is not unique, why assume, as the standard renditions of the Fisher equation usually do, that a change in expected inflation affects only the nominal rate? Indeed, even if there is a unique real rate – remember that “unique real rate” in this context refers to a unique yield curve – the assumption that the real rate is invariant with respect to expected inflation may not be true in an appropriate comparative-statics exercise, such as the 1950s-1960s literature on inflation and growth, which recognized the possibility that inflation could induce a shift from holding cash to holding real assets, thereby increasing the rate of capital accumulation and growth, and, consequently, reducing the equilibrium real rate. That literature was flawed, or at least incomplete, in its analysis of inflation, but it was motivated by a valid insight.

In chapter 17, after deriving his generalized version of the Fisher equation, Keynes came back to this point when explaining why he had now abandoned the Wicksellian natural-rate analysis of the Treatise on Money. The natural-rate analysis, Keynes pointed out, presumes the existence of a unique natural rate of interest, but having come to believe that there could be an equilibrium associated with any level of employment, Keynes now concluded that there is actually a natural rate of interest corresponding to each level of employment. What Keynes failed to do in this discussion was to specify the relationship between natural rates of interest and levels of employment, leaving a major gap in his theoretical structure. Had he specified the relationship, we would have an explicit Keynesian IS curve, which might well differ from the downward-sloping Hicksian IS curve. As Earl Thompson, and perhaps others, pointed out about 40 years ago, the Hicksian IS curve is inconsistent with the standard neoclassical theory of production, which Keynes seems (provisionally at least) to have accepted when arguing that, with a given technology and capital stock, increased employment is possible only at a reduced real wage.

But if the Keynesian IS curve is upward-sloping, then Keynes’s criticism of the Fisher equation in chapter 11 is even harder to make sense of than it seems at first sight, because an increase in expected inflation would tend to raise, not (as Keynes implicitly assumed) reduce, the real rate of interest. In other words, for an economy operating at less than full employment, with all expectations except the rate of expected inflation held constant, an increase in the expected rate of inflation, by raising the marginal efficiency of capital, and thereby increasing the expected return on investment, ought to be associated with increased nominal and real rates of interest. If we further assume that entrepreneurial expectations are positively related to the state of the economy, then the positive correlation between inflation expectations and real interest rates would be enhanced. On this interpretation, Keynes’s criticism of the Fisher equation in chapter 11 seems indefensible.

That is one way of looking at the relationship between inflation expectations and the real rate of interest. But there is also another way.

The Fisher equation tells us that, in equilibrium, the nominal rate equals the sum of the prospective real rate and the expected rate of inflation. Usually that’s not a problem, because the prospective real rate tends to be positive, and inflation (at least since about 1938) is almost always positive. That’s the normal case. But there’s also an abnormal (even pathological) case, where the sum of expected inflation and the prospective real rate of interest is less than zero. We know right away that such a situation is abnormal, because it is incompatible with equilibrium. Who would lend money at a negative rate when it’s possible to hold the money and get a zero return? The nominal rate of interest can’t be negative. So if the sum of the prospective real rate (the expected yield on real capital) and the expected inflation rate (the negative of the expected yield on money with a zero nominal interest rate) is negative, then the return to holding money exceeds the yield on real capital, and the Fisher equation breaks down.

In other words, if r + dP/dt < 0, where r is the real rate of interest and dP/dt is the expected rate of inflation, then r < -dP/dt. But since i, the nominal rate of interest, cannot be less than zero, the Fisher equation does not hold, and must be replaced by the Fisher inequality

i > r + dP/dt.

If the Fisher equation can’t be satisfied, all hell breaks loose. Asset prices start crashing as asset owners try to unload their real assets for cash. (Note that I have not specified the time period over which the sum of expected inflation and the prospective yield on real capital are negative. Presumably the duration of that period is not indefinitely long. If it were, the system might implode.)

That’s what was happening in the autumn of 2008, when short-term inflation expectations turned negative in a contracting economy in which the short-term prospects for investment were really lousy and getting worse. The prices of real assets had to fall enough to raise the prospective yield on real assets above the expected yield from holding cash. However, falling asset prices don’t necessary restore equilibrium, because, once a panic starts it can become contagious, with falling asset prices reinforcing the expectation that asset prices will fall, depressing the prospective yield on real capital, so that, rather than bottoming out, the downward spiral feeds on itself.

Thus, for an economy at the zero lower bound, with the expected yield from holding money greater than the prospective yield on real capital, a crash in asset prices may not stabilize itself. If so, something else has to happen to stop the crash: the expected yield from holding money must be forced below the prospective yield on real capital. With the prospective yield on real capital already negative, forcing down the expected yield on money below the prospective yield on capital requires raising expected inflation above the absolute value of the prospective yield on real capital. Thus, if the prospective yield on real capital is -5%, then, to stop the crash, expected inflation would have to be raised to over 5%.

But there is a further practical problem. At the zero lower bound, not only is the prospective real rate not observable, it can’t even be inferred from the Fisher equation, the Fisher equation having become an inequality. All that can be said is that r < -dP/dt.

So, at the zero lower bound, achieving a recovery requires raising expected inflation. But how does raising expected inflation affect the nominal rate of interest? If r + dP/dt < 0, then increasing expected inflation will not increase the nominal rate of interest unless dP/dt increases enough to make r + dP/dt greater than zero. That’s what Keynes seemed to be saying in chapter 11, raising expected inflation won’t affect the nominal rate of interest, just the real rate. So Keynes’s criticism of the Fisher equation seems valid only in the pathological case when the Fisher equation is replaced by the Fisher inequality.

In my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations,” I found that a strongly positive correlation between inflation expectations (approximated by the breakeven TIPS spread on 10-year Treasuries) and asset prices (approximated by S&P 500) over the time period from spring 2008 through the end of 2010, while finding no such correlation over the period from 2003 to 2008. (Extending the data set through 2012 showed the relationship persisted through 2012 but may have broken down in 2013.) This empirical finding seems consistent with the notion that there has been something pathological about the period since 2008. Perhaps one way to think about the nature of the pathology is that the Fisher equation has been replaced by the Fisher inequality, a world in which changes in inflation expectations are reflected in changes in real interest rates instead of changes in nominal rates, the most peculiar kind of world described by Keynes in chapter 11 of the General Theory.

Why Hawtrey and Cassel Trump Friedman and Schwartz

This year is almost two-thirds over, and I still have yet to start writing about one of the two great anniversaries monetary economists are (or should be) celebrating this year. The one that they are already celebrating is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Monetary History of the United States 1867-1960 by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz; the one that they should also be celebrating is the 100th anniversary of Good and Bad Trade by Ralph Hawtrey. I am supposed to present a paper to mark the latter anniversary at the Southern Economic Association meetings in November, and I really have to start working on that paper, which I am planning to do by writing a series of posts about the book over the next several weeks.

Good and Bad Trade was Hawtrey’s first publication about economics. He was 34 years old, and had already been working at the Treasury for nearly a decade. Though a Cambridge graduate (in mathematics), Hawtrey was an autodidact in economics, so it is really a mistake to view him as a Cambridge economist. In Good and Bad Trade, he developed a credit theory of money (money as a standard of value in terms of which to discharge debts) in the course of presenting his purely monetary theory of the business cycle, one of the first and most original instances of such a theory. The originality lay in his description of the transmission mechanism by which money — actually the interest rate at which money is lent by banks — influences economic activity, through the planned accumulation or reduction of inventory holdings by traders and middlemen in response to changes in the interest rate at which they can borrow funds. Accumulation of inventories leads to cumulative increases of output and income; reductions in inventories lead to cumulative decreases in output and income. The business cycle (under a gold standard) therefore was driven by changes in bank lending rates in response to changes in lending rate of the central bank. That rate, or Bank Rate, as Hawtrey called it, was governed by the demand of the central bank for gold reserves. A desire to increase gold reserves would call for an increase in Bank Rate, and a willingness to reduce reserves would lead to a reduction in Bank Rate. The basic model presented in Good and Bad Trade was, with minor adjustments and refinements, pretty much the same model that Hawtrey used for the next 60 years, 1971 being the year of his final publication.

But in juxtaposing Hawtrey with Friedman and Schwartz, I really don’t mean to highlight Hawtrey’s theory of the business cycle, important though it may be in its own right, but his explanation of the Great Depression. And the important thing to remember about Hawtrey’s explanation for the Great Depression (the same explanation provided at about the same time by Gustav Cassel who deserves equal credit for diagnosing and explaining the problem both prospectively and retrospectively as explained in my paper with Ron Batchelder and by Doug Irwin in this paper) is that he did not regard the Great Depression as a business-cycle episode, i.e., a recurring phenomenon of economic life under a functioning gold standard with a central bank trying to manage its holdings of gold reserves through manipulation of Bank Rate. The typical business-cycle downturn described by Hawtrey was caused by a central bank responding to a drain on its gold reserves (usually because expanding output and income increased the internal monetary demand for gold to be used as hand-to-hand currency) by raising Bank Rate. What happened in the Great Depression was not a typical business-cycle downturn; it was characteristic of a systemic breakdown in the gold standard. In his 1919 article on the gold standard, Hawtrey described the danger facing the world as it faced the task of reconstructing the international gold standard that had been effectively destroyed by World War I.

We have already observed that the displacement of vast quantities of gold from circulation in Europe has greatly depressed the world value of gold in relation to commodities. Suppose that in a few years’ time the gold standard is restored to practically universal use. If the former currency systems are revived, and with them the old demands for gold, both for circulation in coin and for reserves against note issues, the value of gold in terms of commodities will go up. In proportion as it goes up, the difficulty of regaining or maintaining the gold standard will be accentuated. In other words, if the countries which are striving to recover the gold standard compete with one another for the existing supply of gold, they will drive up the world value of gold, and will find themselves burdened with a much more severe task of deflation than they ever anticipated.

And at the present time the situation is complicated by the portentous burden of the national debts. Except for America and this country, none of the principal participants in the war can see clearly the way to solvency. Even we, with taxation at war level, can only just make ends meet. France, Italy, Germany and Belgium have hardly made a beginning with the solution of their financial problems. The higher the value of the monetary unit in which one of these vast debts is calculated, the greater will be the burden on the taxpayers responsible for it. The effect of inflation in swelling the nominal national income is clearly demonstrated by the British income-tax returns, and by the well-sustained consumption of dutiable commodities notwithstanding enormous increases in the rates of duty. Deflation decreases the money yield of the revenue, while leaving the money burden of the debt undiminished. Deflation also, it is true, diminishes the ex-penses of Government, and when the debt charges are small in proportion to the rest, it does not greatly increase the national burdens. But now that the debt charge itself is our main pre-occupation, we may find the continuance of some degree of inflation a necessary condition of solvency.

So 10 years before the downward spiral into the Great Depression began, Hawtrey (and Cassel) had already identified the nature and cause of the monetary dysfunction associated with a mishandled restoration of the international gold standard which led to the disaster. Nevertheless, in their account of the Great Depression, Friedman and Schwartz paid almost no attention to the perverse dynamics associated with the restoration of the gold standard, completely overlooking the role of the insane Bank of France, while denying that the Great Depression was caused by factors outside the US on the grounds that, in the 1929 and 1930, the US was accumulating gold.

We saw in Chapter 5 that there is good reason to regard the 1920-21 contraction as having been initiated primarily in the United States. The initial step – the sharp rise in discount rates in January 1920 – was indeed a consequence of the prior gold outflow, but that in turn reflected the United States inflation in 1919. The rise in discount rates produced a reversal of the gold movements in May. The second step – the rise in discount rates in June 1920 go the highest level in history – before or since [written in 1963] – was a deliberate act of policy involving a reaction stronger than was needed, since a gold inflow had already begun. It was succeeded by a heavy gold inflow, proof positive that the other countries were being forced to adapt to United States action in order to check their loss of gold, rather than the reverse.

The situation in 1929 was not dissimilar. Again, the initial climactic event – the stock market crash – occurred in the United States. The series of developments which started the stock of money on its accelerated downward course in late 1930 was again predominantly domestic in origin. It would be difficult indeed to attribute the sequence of bank failures to any major current influence from abroad. And again, the clinching evidence that the Unites States was in the van of the movement and not a follower is the flow of gold. If declines elsewhere were being transmitted to the United States, the transmission mechanism would be a balance of payments deficit in the United States as a result of a decline in prices and incomes elsewhere relative to prices and incomes in the United States. That decline would lead to a gold outflow from the United States which, in turn, would tend – if the United States followed gold-standard rules – to lower the stock of money and thereby income and prices in the United States. However, the U.S. gold stock rose during the first two years of the contraction and did not decline, demonstrating as in 1920 that other countries were being forced adapt to our monetary policies rather than the reverse. (p. 360)

Amazingly, Friedman and Schwartz made no mention of the accumulation of gold by the insane Bank of France, which accumulated almost twice as much gold in 1929 and 1930 as did the US. In December 1930, the total monetary gold reserves held by central banks and treasuries had increased to $10.94 billion from $10.06 billion in December 1928 (a net increase of $.88 billion), France’s gold holdings increased by $.85 billion while the holdings of the US increased by $.48 billion, Friedman and Schwartz acknowledge that the increase in the Fed’s discount rate to 6.5% in early 1929 may have played a role in triggering the downturn, but, lacking an international perspective on the deflationary implications of a rapidly tightening international gold market, they treated the increase as a minor misstep, leaving the impression that the downturn was largely unrelated to Fed policy decisions, let alone those of the IBOF. Friedman and Schwartz mention the Bank of France only once in the entire Monetary History. When discussing the possibility that France in 1931 would withdraw funds invested in the US money market, they write: “France was strongly committed to staying on gold, and the French financial community, the Bank of France included, expressed the greatest concern about the United States’ ability and intention to stay on the gold standard.” (p. 397)

So the critical point in Friedman’s narrative of the Great Depression turns out to be the Fed’s decision to allow the Bank of United States to fail in December 1930, more than a year after the stock-market crash, almost a year-and-a-half after the beginning of the downturn in the summer of 1929, almost two years after the Fed raised its discount rate to 6.5%, and over two years after the Bank of France began its insane policy of demanding redemption in gold of much of its sizeable holdings of foreign exchange. Why was a single bank failure so important? Because, for Friedman, it was all about the quantity of money. As a result Friedman and Schwartz minimize the severity of the early stages of the Depression, inasmuch as the quantity of money did not begin dropping significantly until 1931. It is because the quantity of money did not drop in 1928-29, and fell only slightly in 1930 that Friedman and Schwartz did not attribute the 1929 downturn to strictly monetary causes, but rather to “normal” cyclical factors (whatever those might be), perhaps somewhat exacerbated by an ill-timed increase in the Fed discount rate in early 1929. Let’s come back once again to the debate about monetary theory between Friedman and Fischer Black, which I have mentioned in previous posts, after Black arrived at Chicago in 1971.

“But, Fischer, there is a ton of evidence that money causes prices!” Friedman would insist. “Name one piece,” Fischer would respond. The fact that the measured money supply moves in tandem with nominal income and the price level could mean that an increase in money causes prices to rise, as Friedman insisted, but it could also mean that an increase in prices causes the quantity of money to rise, as Fischer thought more reasonable. Empirical evidence could not decide the case. (Mehrling, Fischer Black and the Revolutionary Idea of Finance, p. 160)

So Black obviously understood the possibility that, at least under some conditions, it was possible for prices to change exogenously and for the quantity of money to adjust endogenously to the exogenous change in prices. But Friedman was so ideologically committed to the quantity-theoretic direction of causality from the quantity of money to prices that he would not even consider an alternative, and more plausible, assumption about the direction of causality when the value of money is determined by convertibility into a constant amount of gold.

This obliviousness to the possibility that prices, under convertibility, could change independently of the quantity of money is probably the reason that Friedman and Schwartz also completely overlooked the short, but sweet, recovery of 1933 following FDR’s suspension of the gold standard in March 1933, when, over the next four months, the dollar depreciated by about 20% in terms of gold, and the producer price index rose by almost 15% as industrial production rose by 70% and stock prices doubled, before the recovery was aborted by the enactment of the NIRA, imposing, among other absurdities, a 20% increase in nominal wages. All of this was understood and explained by Hawtrey in his voluminous writings on the Great Depression, but went unmentioned in the Monetary History.

Not only did Friedman get both the theory and the history wrong, he made a bad move from his own ideological perspective, inasmuch as, according to his own narrative, the Great Depression was not triggered by a monetary disturbance; it was just that bad monetary-policy decisions exacerbated a serious, but not unusual, business-cycle downturn that had already started largely on its own. According to the Hawtrey-Cassel explanation, the source of the crisis was a deflation caused by the joint decisions of the various central banks — most importantly the Federal Reserve and the insane Bank of France — that were managing the restoration of the gold standard after World War I. The instability of the private sector played no part in this explanation. This is not to say that stability of the private sector is entailed by the Hawtrey-Cassel explanation, just that the explanation accounts for both the downturn and the subsequent prolonged deflation and high unemployment, with no need for an assumption, one way or the other, about the stability of the private sector.

Of course, whether the private sector is stable is itself a question too complicated to be answered with a simple yes or no. It is one thing for a car to be stable if it is being steered on a paved highway; it is quite another for the car to be stable if driven into a ditch.

On a Difficult Passage in the General Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bhide and Phelps v. Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

cfimg8685191149364015372

Bhide and Phelps continue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HT: ChargerCarl

Watch out for that Fed Reaction Function

Scott Sumner had a terrific post today. The title said it all, but the rest of it wasn’t bad either.

The stock market wants fast economic growth, and they want the Fed to think economic growth is slow

Eureka!  Today we found out that NGDP (which the Fed looks at) grew at a 2.19% rate over the past 6 months and the more accurate NGDI grew by 5.06%.

Stocks soared on the news.

And shhhh!  Don’t anyone tell the Fed about NGDI!

Scott hit it right on the nose with that one.

It reminded me of something, so I went an looked it up in a book I happen to have at home.

Here’s what it says about Fed policy coming out of the 1981-82 recession.

The renewed stringency forced interest rates to rise slightly while driving the dollare ever higher and commodities prices ever lower. Yet the recovery, once under way, was too powerful to be slowed down perceptibly by the monetary pressure. . . .

The recovery continued in the first half of 1984. But the amazing strength of the recovery pulled the growth of M-1 above its targets, reviving fears that the Fed would have to tighten. Instead of being welcomed, each bit of favorable economic news – strong growth in real GNP, reduced unemployment, higher factory orders – was greeted with fear and trepidation in the financial markets, because such reports were viewed as portents of future tightening by the Fed. Those fears generated continuing increases in interest rates, appreciation of the dollar, and falling commodities prices. In the summer of 1984, monetary stringency and fears that the Fed would clamp down even more tightly to bring the growth of M-1 back within its targets were threatening to produce a credit crunch and abort the recovery.

With interest rates and the dollar’s exchange rate again starting to rise rapidly, and with commodity prices losing the modest gains they had made in the previous year, the recovery was indeed threatened. In late July of 1984, two years after the Fed had given up its earlier effort to meet its monetary targets, the conditions for a credit crunch, if not a full scale panic, were again developing. The most widely reported monetary aggregate, M-1, was above the upper limit of the Fed’s growth target, and economic growth in the second quarter of 1984 was reported to have been an unexpectedly strong 7.5%. Commodities prices were practically in free fall and the dollar was soaring.

Once again, however, a timely intervention by Mr. Volcker calmed the markets and put to rest fears that the Fed would strive to keep monetary growth within the announced target ranges. Appearing before Congress, he announced that he expected inflation to remain low [around 4%!!!] and that the Fed would maintain its policy without seeking any further tightening to bring monetary growth within the target range. This assurance stopped, at least for a brief spell, the dollar’s rise in foreign exchange markets and permitted a slight rebound in commodities prices. Mr. Volcker’s assurance that monetary policy would not be tightened encouraged the public to stop trying to build up precautionary balances. As a consequence, M-1 growth leveled off even as interest rates fell back somewhat.

All the while Monetarist were loudly protesting the conduct of monetary policy. Before the Fed abandoned its attempt to target M-1, Monetarists criticized the Fed for not keeping monetary growth steady enough. For a time, they even attributed the failure of interest rates to fall as rapidly as the rate of inflation in 1981, or to fall at all in the first half of 1982, to uncertainty created by too much variability in the rate of monetary growth. Later, when the Fed abandoned, at any rate deemphasized, monetary targets, they warned that inflation would soon start to rise again. In late 1982, just as the economy was hitting bottom, Milton Friedman was predicting the return of double-digit inflation [sound familiar?] before the next election.

What book did I get that from? OK, I admit it. It’s from my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, pp. 220-21. So we’ve been through this before. When the Fed adopts a crazy reaction function in which it won’t tolerate real growth above a certain threshold, which is what the Fed seems to have done, with the threshold at 3% or less, funny things start to happen.

How come no one is laughing?

PS I apologize again for not replying to comments lately. I am still trying to cope with my workload.

Fear Is Contagious

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

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

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

labor_participation

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

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

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

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

Bernanke Gives the Markets a Scare

Ben Bernanke held a press conference today at the conclusion of the FOMC meeting held yesterday and today. The stock market had risen by almost 2 percent on Monday and Tuesday, apparently in hopes that Bernanke would have something encouraging to say about Fed policy. They were obviously disappointed. The accompanying chart shows how the S&P 500 has fluctuated since last Thursday, the sharp drop today coincided with Bernanke’s press conference.

S&P500_6-13_6-19 S&P500_6-13_6-19

What was so disturbing to the markets? Well, Bernanke’s press conference triggered some sharp movements in the bond markets. The yield on the 10-year Treasury jumped by 13 basis points to 2.33%. I don’t have a chart of the intra-day fluctuation, but I am pretty sure almost all of the movement occurred after the press conference started. Meanwhile the yield on the 10-year TIPS jumped 15 basis points, from 0.14% to 0.29%, implying a 2-basis-point drop in the breakeven TIPS spread, to 2.04%. A two-basis-point change in inflation expectations is not very remarkable. So it seems that what drove the increase in yield was the increase in the real rate. But one has to be careful in identifying the TIPS spread with the real rate of interest, especially when one sees sudden changes in the market, changes that could reflect factors other than the real rate of interest, such as illiquidity in the TIPS market or increasing uncertainty about future inflation, even though expected inflation is not changing much.

Let’s look at two other markets that moved sharply after Bernanke started talking this afternoon. The chart below shows the movement of dollar/euro exchange rate since Monday. The dollar weakened slightly on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday morning, but as soon as Bernanke got started the dollar shot up against the euro.

dollar_euro_exchange_rate

That should not necessarily be construed as a vote of confidence in Bernanke, even though it apparently pleased Bernanke et al. to think that the sharp run-up in the value of the dollar in August 2008 was a sign of confidence that Fed policy to keep inflation expectations anchored was working. It is hard to interpret today’s sharp increase in the value of the dollar as anything but an expectation of future tightening of monetary policy by the Fed. But then why did inflation expectations fall by only 2 basis points?

Another market that is supposed to be sensitive to inflation expectations is gold, though in my view the demand for gold is too irrational to provide any usable information about expectations. But I will suspend my disbelief in the rationality of gold traders for the time being to note that the price of gold has just fallen to a new low for the year, dropping below $1340 an ounce or almost 3% since yesterday. A fall in the value of gold is consistent with an increase in real interest rates or with a decline in inflation expectations, so take your pick.

Some people have suggested that declining inflation expectations and rising real interest rates are manifestations of a positive supply shock, also reflected in declining commodity prices. A positive supply shock would have provided the Fed with an opportunity to relax monetary policy further without risk of raising inflation or inflation expectations from current levels, which already are well below the Fed’s announced 2% target. If continued Fed easing was what the markets had been anticipating earlier in the week, reflected in a gently falling dollar exchange rate, even with inflation expectations stable or falling, then Bernanke’s announcement today constituted a tightening of policy relative to expectations. The tightening drove up the dollar and caused a further, albeit small, decline in inflation expectations. (But I should note that this interpretation depends on what may be an oversimplified identification of the TIPS spread with inflation expectations.)

At any rate, I don’t think that we have a clear understanding of what is driving markets at this point. Markets still seem to be in confusion. Today’s movements in the markets were sudden and sharp, but they were also fairly modest. A one or two percent movement in markets is hardly a major event. Nevertheless, by displaying an unseemly haste to withdraw the very modest monetary stimulus that the Fed has begrudgingly provided, Bernanke may have given the markets a bit of scare, reminding them how indifferent central bankers have been to the ongoing disaster of the Little Depression. The markets did not panic, but we may be flying into turbulence. Keep your seat belts fastened.

Markets in Confusion

I have been writing a lot lately about movements in the stock market and in interest rates, trying to interpret those movements within the framework I laid out in my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations.” Last week I pointed out that, over the past three months, the close correlation, manifested from early 2008 to early 2013, between inflation expectations and the S&P 500 seems to have disappeared, inflation expectations declining at the same time that real interest rates, as approximated by the yield on the 10-year TIPS, and the stock market were rising.

However, for the past two days, the correlation seems to have made a strong comeback. The TIPS spread declined by 8 basis points, and the S&P 500 fell by 2%, over the past two days. (As I write this on Wednesday evening, the Nikkei average is down 5% in early trading on Thursday in Japan.) Meanwhile, the recent upward trajectory of the yield on TIPS has become even steeper, climbing 11 basis points in two days.

Now there are two possible interpretations of an increase in real interest rates. One is that expected real growth in earnings (net future corporate cash flows) is increasing. But that explanation for rising real interest rates is hard to reconcile with a sharp decline in stock prices. The other possible interpretation for a rise in real interest rates is that monetary policy is expected to be tightened, future interest rates being expected to rise when the monetary authority restricts the availability of base money. That interpretation would also be consistent with the observed decline in inflation expectations.

For almost three weeks since Bernanke testified to Congress last month, hinting at the possibility that the Fed would begin winding down QE3, markets have been in some turmoil, and I conjecture that the turmoil is largely due to uncertainty caused by the possibility of a premature withdrawal from QE. This suggests that we may have entered into a perverse expectational reaction function in which any positive economic information, such as the better-than-expected May jobs report, creates an expectation that monetary stimulus will be withdrawn, thereby counteracting the positive expectational boost of the good economic news. This is the Sumner critique with a vengeance — call it the super-Sumner critique. Not only is the government-spending multiplier zero; the private-investment multiplier is also zero!

Now I really like this story, and the catchy little name that I have thought up for it is also cute. But candor requires me to admit that I detect a problem with it. I don’t think that it is a fatal problem, but maybe it is. If I am correct that real interest rates are rising because the odds that the Fed will tighten its policy and withdraw QE are increasing, then I would have expected that expectations of a Fed tightening would also cause the dollar to rise against other currencies in the foreign-exchange markets. But that has not happened; the dollar has been falling for the past few weeks, and the trend has continued for the last two days also. The only explanation that I can offer for that anomaly is that a tightening in US monetary policy would be expected to cause other central banks to tighten their policies even more severely than the Fed. I can understand why some tightening by other central banks would be expected to follow from a Fed tightening, but I can’t really understand why the reaction would be more intense than the initial change. Of course the other possibility is that different segments of the markets are being dominated by different expectations, in which case, there are some potentially profitable trading strategies that could be followed to take advantage of those differences.

It wasn’t so long ago that we were being told by opponents of stimulus programs that the stimulus programs, whether fiscal or monetary, were counterproductive, because “the markets need certainty.” Well, maybe the certainty that is needed is the certainty that the stimulus won’t be withdrawn before it has done its job.

PS I apologize for not having responded to any comments lately. I have just been swamped with other obligations.

What Gives? Has the Market Stopped Loving Inflation?

One of my few, and not very compelling, claims to fame is a (still unpublished) paper (“The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations“) that I wrote in late 2010 in which I used the Fisher Equation relating the real and nominal rates of interest via the expected rate of inflation to explain what happens in a financial panic. I pointed out that the usual understanding that the nominal rate of interest and the expected rate of inflation move in the same direction, and possibly even by the same amount, cannot be valid when the expected rate of inflation is negative and the real rate is less than expected deflation. In those perilous conditions, the normal equilibrating process, by which the nominal rate adjusts to reflect changes in inflation expectations, becomes inoperative, because the nominal rate gets stuck at zero. In that unstable environment, the only avenue for adjustment is in the market for assets. In particular, when the expected yield from holding money (the expected rate of deflation) approaches or exceeds the expected yield on real capital, asset prices crash as asset owners all try to sell at the same time, the crash continuing until the expected yield on holding assets is no longer less than the expected yield from holding money. Of course, even that adjustment mechanism will restore an equilibrium only if the economy does not collapse entirely before a new equilibrium of asset prices and expected yields can be attained, a contingency not necessarily as unlikely as one might hope.

I therefore hypothesized that while there is not much reason, in a well-behaved economy, for asset prices to be very sensitive to changes in expected inflation, when expected inflation approaches, or exceeds, the expected return on capital assets (the real rate of interest), changes in expected inflation are likely to have large effects on asset values. This possibility that the relationship between expected inflation and asset prices could differ depending on the prevalent macroeconomic environment suggested an empirical study of the relationship between expected inflation (as approximated by the TIPS spread on 10-year Treasuries) and the S&P 500 stock index. My results were fairly remarkable, showing that, since early 2008 (just after the start of the downturn in late 2007), there was a consistently strong positive correlation between expected inflation and the S&P 500. However, from 2003 to 2008, no statistically significant correlation between expected inflation and asset prices showed up in the data.

Ever since then, I have used this study (and subsequent informal follow-ups that have consistently generated similar results) as the basis for my oft-repeated claim that the stock market loves inflation. But now, guess what? The correlation between inflation expectations and the S&P 500 has recently vanished. The first of the two attached charts plots both expected inflation, as measured by the 10-year TIPS spread, and the S&P 500 (normalized to 1 on March 2, 2009). It is obvious that two series are highly correlated. However, you can see that over the last few months it looks as if the correlation has been reversed, with inflation expectations falling even as the S&P 500 has been regularly reaching new all-time highs.

TIPS_S&P500_new

Here is a second chart that provides a closer look at the behavior of the S&P 500 and the TIPS spread since the beginning of March.

TIPS_S&P500_new_2

So what’s going on? I wish I knew. But here is one possibility. Maybe the economy is finally emerging from its malaise, and, after four years of an almost imperceptible recovery, perhaps the overall economic outlook has improved enough so that, even if we haven’t yet returned to normalcy, we are at least within shouting distance of it. If so, maybe asset prices are no longer as sensitive to inflation expectations as they were from 2008 to 2012. But then the natural question becomes: what caused the economy to reach a kind of tipping point into normalcy in March? I just don’t know.

And if we really are back to normal, then why is the real rate implied by the TIPS negative? True, the TIPS yield is not really the real rate in the Fisher equation, but a negative yield on a 10-year TIPS does not strike me as characteristic of a normal state of affairs. Nevertheless, the real yield on the 10-year TIPS has risen by about 50 basis points since March and by 75 basis points since December, so something noteworthy seems to have happened. And a fairly sharp rise in real rates suggests that recent increases in stock prices have been associated with expectations of increasing real cash flows and a strengthening economy. Increasing optimism about real economic growth, given that there has been no real change in monetary policy since last September when QE3 was announced, may themselves have contributed to declining inflation expectations.

What does this mean for policy? The empirical correlation between inflation expectations and asset prices is subject to an identification problem. Just because recent developments may have caused the observed correlation between inflation expectations and stock prices to disappear, one can’t conclude that, in the “true” structural model, the effect of a monetary policy that raised inflation expectations would not be to raise asset prices. The current semi-normal is not necessarily a true normal.

So my cautionary message is: Don’t use the recent disappearance of the correlation between inflation expectations and asset prices to conclude that it’s safe to abandon QE.


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.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 264 other followers


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 264 other followers