Archive for the 'monetary policy' Category

Monetary Theory on the Neo-Fisherite Edge

The week before last, Noah Smith wrote a post “The Neo-Fisherite Rebellion” discussing, rather sympathetically I thought, the contrarian school of monetary thought emerging from the Great American Heartland, according to which, notwithstanding everything monetary economists since Henry Thornton have taught, high interest rates are inflationary and low interest rates deflationary. This view of the relationship between interest rates and inflation was advanced (but later retracted) by Narayana Kocherlakota, President of the Minneapolis Fed in a 2010 lecture, and was embraced and expounded with increased steadfastness by Stephen Williamson of Washington University in St. Louis and the St. Louis Fed in at least one working paper and in a series of posts over the past five or six months (e.g. here, here and here). And John Cochrane of the University of Chicago has picked up on the idea as well in two recent blog posts (here and here). Others seem to be joining the upstart school as well.

The new argument seems simple: given the Fisher equation, in which the nominal interest rate equals the real interest rate plus the (expected) rate of inflation, a central bank can meet its inflation target by setting a fixed nominal interest rate target consistent with its inflation target and keeping it there. Once the central bank sets its target, the long-run neutrality of money, implying that the real interest rate is independent of the nominal targets set by the central bank, ensures that inflation expectations must converge on rates consistent with the nominal interest rate target and the independently determined real interest rate (i.e., the real yield curve), so that the actual and expected rates of inflation adjust to ensure that the Fisher equation is satisfied. If the promise of the central bank to maintain a particular nominal rate over time is believed, the promise will induce a rate of inflation consistent with the nominal interest-rate target and the exogenous real rate.

The novelty of this way of thinking about monetary policy is that monetary theorists have generally assumed that the actual adjustment of the price level or inflation rate depends on whether the target interest rate is greater or less than the real rate plus the expected rate. When the target rate is greater than the real rate plus expected inflation, inflation goes down, and when it is less than the real rate plus expected inflation, inflation goes up. In the conventional treatment, the expected rate of inflation is momentarily fixed, and the (expected) real rate variable. In the Neo-Fisherite school, the (expected) real rate is fixed, and the expected inflation rate is variable. (Just as an aside, I would observe that the idea that expectations about the real rate of interest and the inflation rate cannot occur simultaneously in the short run is not derived from the limited cognitive capacity of economic agents; it can only be derived from the limited intellectual capacity of economic theorists.)

The heretical views expressed by Williamson and Cochrane and earlier by Kocherlakota have understandably elicited scorn and derision from conventional monetary theorists, whether Keynesian, New Keynesian, Monetarist or Market Monetarist. (Williamson having appropriated for himself the New Monetarist label, I regrettably could not preserve an appropriate symmetry in my list of labels for monetary theorists.) As a matter of fact, I wrote a post last December challenging Williamson’s reasoning in arguing that QE had caused a decline in inflation, though in his initial foray into uncharted territory, Williamson was actually making a narrower argument than the more general thesis that he has more recently expounded.

Although deep down, I have no great sympathy for Williamson’s argument, the counterarguments I have seen leave me feeling a bit, shall we say, underwhelmed. That’s not to say that I am becoming a convert to New Monetarism, but I am feeling that we have reached a point at which certain underlying gaps in monetary theory can’t be concealed any longer. To explain what I mean by that remark, let me start by reviewing the historical context in which the ruling doctrine governing central-bank operations via adjustments in the central-bank lending rate evolved. The primary (though historically not the first) source of the doctrine is Henry Thornton in his classic volume The Nature and Effects of the Paper Credit of Great Britain.

Even though Thornton focused on the policy of the Bank of England during the Napoleonic Wars, when Bank of England notes, not gold, were legal tender, his discussion was still in the context of a monetary system in which paper money was generally convertible into either gold or silver. Inconvertible banknotes – aka fiat money — were the exception not the rule. Gold and silver were what Nick Rowe would call alpha money. All other moneys were evaluated in terms of gold and silver, not in terms of a general price level (not yet a widely accepted concept). Even though Bank of England notes became an alternative alpha money during the restriction period of inconvertibility, that situation was generally viewed as temporary, the restoration of convertibility being expected after the war. The value of the paper pound was tracked by the sterling price of gold on the Hamburg exchange. Thus, Ricardo’s first published work was entitled The High Price of Bullion, in which he blamed the high sterling price of bullion at Hamburg on an overissue of banknotes by the Bank of England.

But to get back to Thornton, who was far more concerned with the mechanics of monetary policy than Ricardo, his great contribution was to show that the Bank of England could control the amount of lending (and money creation) by adjusting the interest rate charged to borrowers. If banknotes were depreciating relative to gold, the Bank of England could increase the value of their notes by raising the rate of interest charged on loans.

The point is that if you are a central banker and are trying to target the exchange rate of your currency with respect to an alpha currency, you can do so by adjusting the interest rate that you charge borrowers. Raising the interest rate will cause the exchange value of your currency to rise and reducing the interest rate will cause the exchange value to fall. And if you are operating under strict convertibility, so that you are committed to keep the exchange rate between your currency and an alpha currency at a specified par value, raising that interest rate will cause you to accumulate reserves payable in terms of the alpha currency, and reducing that interest rate will cause you to emit reserves payable in terms of the alpha currency.

So the idea that an increase in the central-bank interest rate tends to increase the exchange value of its currency, or, under a fixed-exchange rate regime, an increase in the foreign exchange reserves of the bank, has a history at least two centuries old, though the doctrine has not exactly been free of misunderstanding or confusion in the course of those two centuries. One of those misunderstandings was about the effect of a change in the central-bank interest rate, under a fixed-exchange rate regime. In fact, as long as the central bank is maintaining a fixed exchange rate between its currency and an alpha currency, changes in the central-bank interest rate don’t affect (at least as a first approximation) either the domestic money supply or the domestic price level; all that changes in the central-bank interest rate can accomplish is to change the bank’s holdings of alpha-currency reserves.

It seems to me that this long well-documented historical association between changes in the central-bank interest rates and the exchange value of currencies and the level of private spending is the basis for the widespread theoretical presumption that raising the central-bank interest rate target is deflationary and reducing it is inflationary. However, the old central-bank doctrine of the Bank Rate was conceived in a world in which gold and silver were the alpha moneys, and central banks – even central banks operating with inconvertible currencies – were beta banks, because the value of a central-bank currency was still reckoned, like the value of inconvertible Bank of England notes in the Napoleonic Wars, in terms of gold and silver.

In the Neo-Fisherite world, central banks rarely peg exchange rates against each other, and there is no longer any outside standard of value to which central banks even nominally commit themselves. In a world without the metallic standard of value in which the conventional theory of central banking developed, do the propositions about the effects of central-bank interest-rate setting still obtain? I am not so sure that they do, not with the analytical tools that we normally deploy when thinking about the effects of central-bank policies. Why not? Because, in a Neo-Fisherite world in which all central banks are alpha banks, I am not so sure that we really know what determines the value of this thing called fiat money. And if we don’t really know what determines the value of a fiat money, how can we really be sure that interest-rate policy works the same way in a Neo-Fisherite world that it used to work when the value of money was determined in relation to a metallic standard? (Just to avoid misunderstanding, I am not – repeat NOT — arguing for restoring the gold standard.)

Why do I say that we don’t know what determines the value of fiat money in a Neo-Fisherite world? Well, consider this. Almost three weeks ago I wrote a post in which I suggested that Bitcoins could be a massive bubble. My explanation for why Bitcoins could be a bubble is that they provide no real (i.e., non-monetary) service, so that their value is totally contingent on, and derived from (or so it seems to me, though I admit that my understanding of Bitcoins is partial and imperfect), the expectation of a positive future resale value. However, it seems certain that the resale value of Bitcoins must eventually fall to zero, so that backward induction implies that Bitcoins, inasmuch as they provide no real service, cannot retain a positive value in the present. On this reasoning, any observed value of a Bitcoin seems inexplicable except as an irrational bubble phenomenon.

Most of the comments I received about that post challenged the relevance of the backward-induction argument. The challenges were mainly of two types: a) the end state, when everyone will certainly stop accepting a Bitcoin in exchange, is very, very far into the future and its date is unknown, and b) the backward-induction argument applies equally to every fiat currency, so my own reasoning, according to my critics, implies that the value of every fiat currency is just as much a bubble phenomenon as the value of a Bitcoin.

My response to the first objection is that even if the strict logic of the backward-induction argument is inconclusive, because of the long and uncertain duration of the time elapse between now and the end state, the argument nevertheless suggests that the value of a Bitcoin is potentially very unsteady and vulnerable to sudden collapse. Those are not generally thought to be desirable attributes in a medium of exchange.

My response to the second objection is that fiat currencies are actually quite different from Bitcoins, because fiat currencies are accepted by governments in discharging the tax liabilities due to them. The discharge of a tax liability is a real (i.e. non-monetary) service, creating a distinct non-monetary demand for fiat currencies, thereby ensuring that fiat currencies retain value, even apart from being accepted as a medium of exchange.

That, at any rate, is my view, which I first heard from Earl Thompson (see his unpublished paper, “A Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory” pp. 23-25 for a derivation of the value of fiat money when tax liability is a fixed proportion of income). Some other pretty good economists have also held that view, like Abba Lerner, P. H. Wicksteed, and Adam Smith. Georg Friedrich Knapp also held that view, and, in his day, he was certainly well known, but I am unable to pass judgment on whether he was or wasn’t a good economist. But I do know that his views about money were famously misrepresented and caricatured by Ludwig von Mises. However, there are other good economists (Hal Varian for one), apparently unaware of, or untroubled by, the backward induction argument, who don’t think that acceptability in discharging tax liability is required to explain the value of fiat money.

Nor do I think that Thompson’s tax-acceptability theory of the value of money can stand entirely on its own, because it implies a kind of saw-tooth time profile of the price level, so that a fiat currency, earning no liquidity premium, would actually be appreciating between peak tax collection dates, and depreciating immediately following those dates, a pattern not obviously consistent with observed price data, though I do recall that Thompson used to claim that there is a lot of evidence that prices fall just before peak tax-collection dates. I don’t think that anyone has ever tried to combine the tax-acceptability theory with the empirical premise that currency (or base money) does in fact provide significant liquidity services. That, it seems to me, would be a worthwhile endeavor for any eager young researcher to undertake.

What does all of this have to do with the Neo-Fisherite Rebellion? Well, if we don’t have a satisfactory theory of the value of fiat money at hand, which is what another very smart economist Fischer Black – who, to my knowledge never mentioned the tax-liability theory — thought, then the only explanation of the value of fiat money is that, like the value of a Bitcoin, it is whatever people expect it to be. And the rate of inflation is equally inexplicable, being just whatever it is expected to be. So in a Neo-Fisherite world, if the central bank announces that it is reducing its interest-rate target, the effect of the announcement depends entirely on what “the market” reads into the announcement. And that is exactly what Fischer Black believed. See his paper “Active and Passive Monetary Policy in a Neoclassical Model.”

I don’t say that Williamson and his Neo-Fisherite colleagues are correct. Nor have they, to my knowledge, related their arguments to Fischer Black’s work. What I do say (indeed this is a problem I raised almost three years ago in one of my first posts on this blog) is that existing monetary theories of the price level are unable to rule out his result, because the behavior of the price level and inflation seems to depend, more than anything else, on expectations. And it is far from clear to me that there are any fundamentals in which these expectations can be grounded. If you impose the rational expectations assumption, which is almost certainly wrong empirically, maybe you can argue that the central bank provides a focal point for expectations to converge on. The problem, of course, is that in the real world, expectations are all over the place, there being no fundamentals to force the convergence of expectations to a stable equilibrium value.

In other words, it’s just a mess, a bloody mess, and I do not like it, not one little bit.

The Irrelevance of QE as Explained by Three Bank of England Economists

An article by Michael McLeay, Amara Radia and Ryland Thomas (“Money Creation in the Modern Economy”) published in the Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin has gotten a lot of attention recently. JKH, who liked it a lot, highlighting it on his blog, and prompting critical responses from, among others, Nick Rowe and Scott Sumner.

Let’s look at the overview of the article provided by the authors.

In the modern economy, most money takes the form of bank deposits. But how those bank deposits are created is often misunderstood: the principal way is through commercial banks making loans. Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.

The reality of how money is created today differs from the description found in some economics textbooks:

• Rather than banks receiving deposits when households save and then lending them out, bank lending creates deposits.

• In normal times, the central bank does not fix the amount of money in circulation, nor is central bank money ‘multiplied up’ into more loans and deposits.

I start with a small point. What the authors mean by a “modern economy” is unclear, but presumably when they speak about the money created in a modern economy they are referring to the fact that the money held by the non-bank public has increasingly been held in the form of deposits rather than currency or coins (either tokens or precious metals). Thus, Scott Sumner’s complaint that the authors’ usage of “modern” flies in the face of the huge increase in the ratio of base money to broad money is off-target. The relevant ratio is that between currency and the stock of some measure of broad money held by the public, which is not the same as the ratio of base money to the stock of broad money.

I agree that the reality of how money is created differs from the textbook money-multiplier description. See my book on free banking and various posts I have written about the money multiplier and endogenous money. There is no meaningful distinction between “normal times” and “exceptional circumstances” for purposes of understanding how money is created.

Although commercial banks create money through lending, they cannot do so freely without limit. Banks are limited in how much they can lend if they are to remain profitable in a competitive banking system. Prudential regulation also acts as a constraint on banks’ activities in order to maintain the resilience of the financial system. And the households and companies who receive the money created by new lending may take actions that affect the stock of money — they could quickly ‘destroy’ money by using it to repay their existing debt, for instance.

I agree that commercial banks cannot create money without limit. They are constrained by the willingness of the public to hold their liabilities. Not all monies are the same, despite being convertible into each other at par. The ability of a bank to lend is constrained by the willingness of the public to hold the deposits of that bank rather than currency or the deposits of another bank.

Monetary policy acts as the ultimate limit on money creation. The Bank of England aims to make sure the amount of money creation in the economy is consistent with low and stable inflation. In normal times, the Bank of England implements monetary policy by setting the interest rate on central bank reserves. This then influences a range of interest rates in the economy, including those on bank loans.

Monetary policy is certainly a constraint on money creation, but I don’t understand why it is somehow more important (the constraint of last resort?) than the demand of the public to hold money. Monetary policy, in the framework suggested by this article, affects the costs borne by banks in creating deposits. Adopting Marshallian terminology, we could speak of the two blades of a scissors. Which bade is the ultimate blade? I don’t think there is an ultimate blade. In this context, the term “normal times” refers to periods in which interest rates are above the effective zero lower bound (see the following paragraph). But the underlying confusion here is that the authors seem to think that the amount of money created by the banking system actually matters. In fact, it doesn’t matter, because (at least in the theoretical framework being described) the banks create no more and no less money that the amount that the public willingly holds. Thus the amount of bank money created has zero macroeconomic significance.

In exceptional circumstances, when interest rates are at their effective lower bound, money creation and spending in the economy may still be too low to be consistent with the central bank’s monetary policy objectives. One possible response is to undertake a series of asset purchases, or ‘quantitative easing’ (QE). QE is intended to boost the amount of money in the economy directly by purchasing assets, mainly from non-bank financial companies.

Again the underlying problem with this argument is the presumption that the amount of money created by banks – money convertible into the base money created by the central bank – is a magnitude with macroeconomic significance. In the framework being described, there is no macroeconomic significance to that magnitude, because the value of bank money is determined by its convertibility into central bank money and the banking system creates exactly as much money as is willingly held. If the central bank wants to affect the price level, it has to do so by creating an excess demand or excess supply of the money that it — the central bank — creates, not the money created by the banking system.

QE initially increases the amount of bank deposits those companies hold (in place of the assets they sell). Those companies will then wish to rebalance their portfolios of assets by buying higher-yielding assets, raising the price of those assets and stimulating spending in the economy.

If the amount of bank deposits in the economy is the amount that the public wants to hold, QE cannot affect anything by increasing the amount of bank deposits; any unwanted bank deposits are returned to the banking system. It is only an excess of central-bank money that can possibly affect spending.

As a by-product of QE, new central bank reserves are created. But these are not an important part of the transmission mechanism. This article explains how, just as in normal times, these reserves cannot be multiplied into more loans and deposits and how these reserves do not represent ‘free money’ for banks.

The problem with the creation of new central-bank reserves by QE at the zero lower bound is that, central-bank reserves earn a higher return than alternative assets that might be held by banks, so any and all reserves created by the central bank are held willingly by the banking system. The demand of the banking for central bank reserves is unbounded at the zero-lower bound when the central bank pays a higher rate of interest than the yield on the next best alternative asset the bank could hold. If the central bank wants to increase spending, it can only do so by creating reserves that are not willingly held. Thus, in the theortetical framework described by the authors, QE cannot possibly have any effect on any macroeconomic variable. Now that’s a problem.

Why Fed Inflation-Phobia Mattered

Last week I posted an item summarizing Matthew O’Brien’s article about the just-released transcripts of FOMC meetings in June, August and September of 2008. I spiced up my summary by quoting from and commenting on some of the more outrageous quotes that O’Brien culled from the transcripts, quotes showing that most of the FOMC, including Ben Bernanke, were obsessing about inflation while unemployment was rising rapidly and the economy contracting sharply. I especially singled out what I called the Gang of Four — Charles Plosser, Jeffrey Lacker, Richard Fisher, and Thomas Hoenig, the most militant inflation hawks on the FOMC — noting that despite their comprehensive misjudgments of the 2008 economic situation and spectacularly wrongheaded policy recommendations, which they have yet to acknowledge, much less apologize for, three of them (Plosser, Lacker, and Fisher) continue to serve in their Fed positions, displaying the same irrational inflation-phobia by which they were possessed in 2008. Paul Krugman also noticed O’Brien’s piece and remarked on the disturbing fact that three of the Gang of Four remain in their policy-making positions at the Fed, doing their best to keep the Fed from taking any steps that could increase output and employment.

However, Krugman went on to question the idea — suggested by, among others, me — that it was the Fed’s inflation phobia that produced the crash of 2008. Krugman has two arguments for why the Fed’s inflation phobia in 2008, however silly, did not the cause of the crash.

First, preventing the financial crisis would have taken a lot more than cutting the Fed funds rate to zero in September 2008 rather than December. We were in the midst of an epic housing bust, which was in turn causing a collapse in the value of mortgage-backed securities, which in turn was causing a collapse of confidence in financial firms. Cutting rates from very low to extremely low a few months earlier wouldn’t have stopped that collapse.

What was needed to end the run on Wall Street was a bailout — both the actual funds disbursed and the reassurance that the authorities would step in if necessary. And that wasn’t in the cards until, as Rick Mishkin observed in the transcripts, “something hit the fan.”

Second, even avoiding the financial panic almost surely wouldn’t have meant avoiding a prolonged economic slump. How do we know this? Well, what we actually know is that the panic was in fact fairly short-lived, ending in the spring of 2009. It doesn’t really matter which measure of financial stress you use, they all look like this:

Yet the economy didn’t come roaring back, and in fact still hasn’t. Why? Because the housing bust and the overhang of household debt are huge drags on demand, even if there isn’t a panic in the financial market.

Sorry, but, WADR, I have to disagree with Professor Krugman.

The first argument is not in my view very compelling, because the Fed’s inflation-phobia did not suddenly appear at the September 2008 FOMC meeting, or even at the June meeting, though, to be sure, its pathological nature at those meetings does have a certain breathtaking quality; it had already been operating for a long time before that. If you look at the St. Louis Fed’s statistics on the monetary base, you will find that the previous recession in 2001 had been preceded in 2000 by a drop of 3.6% in the monetary base. To promote recovery, the Fed increased the monetary base in 2001 (partly accommodating the increased demand for money characteristic of recessions) by 8.5%. The monetary base subsequently grew by 7% in 2002, 5.2% in 2003, 4.4% in 2004, 3.2% in 2005, 2.6% in 2006, and a mere 1.2% in 2007.

The housing bubble burst in 2006, but the Fed was evidently determined to squeeze inflation out of the system, as if trying to atone for its sins in allowing the housing bubble in the first place. From January to September 10, 2008, the monetary base increased by 3.3%. Again, because the demand for money typically increases in recessions, one cannot infer from the slight increase in the rate of growth of the monetary base in 2008 over 2006 and 2007 that the Fed was easing its policy stance. (On this issue, see my concluding paragraph.) The point is that for at least three years before the crash, the Fed, in its anti-inflationary zelotry, had been gradually tightening the monetary-policy screws. So it is simply incorrect to suggest that there was no link between the policy stance of the Fed and the state of the economy. If the Fed had moderated its stance in 2008 in response to ample evidence that the economy was slowing, there is good reason to think that the economy would not have contracted as rapidly as it did, starting, even before the Lehman collapse, in the third quarter of 2008, when, we now know, the economy had already begun one of the sharpest contractions of the entire post World War II era.

As for Krugman’s second argument, I believe it is a mistake to confuse a financial panic with a recession. A financial panic is an acute breakdown of the financial system, always associated with a period of monetary stringency when demands for liquidity cannot be satisfied owing to a contagious loss of confidence in the solvency of borrowers and lenders. The crisis is typically precipitated by a too aggressive tightening of monetary conditions by the monetary authority seeking to rein in inflationary pressures. The loss of confidence is thus not a feature of every business-cycle downturn, and its restoration no guarantee of a recovery. (See my post on Hawtrey and financial crises.) A recovery requires an increase aggregate demand, which is the responsibility of those in charge of monetary policy and fiscal policy. I confess to a measure of surprise that the author of End This Depression Now would require a reminder about that from me.

A final point. Although the macroeconomic conditions for an asset crash and financial panic had been gradually and systematically created by the Fed ever since 2006, the egregious Fed policy in the summer of 2008 was undoubtedly a major contributing cause in its own right. The magnitude of the policy error is evident in this graph from the St. Louis Fed, showing the dollar/euro exchange rate.

dollar_euro_exchange_rateFrom April to July, the exchange rate was fluctuating between $1.50 and $1.60 per euro. In mid-July, the dollar began appreciating rapidly against the euro, rising in value to about $1.40/euro just before the Lehman collapse, an appreciation of about 12.5% in less than two months. The only comparable period of appreciation in the dollar/euro exchange rate was in the 1999-2000 period during the monetary tightening prior to the 2001 recession. But the 2008 appreciation was clearly greater and steeper than the appreciation in 1999-2000. Under the circumstances, such a sharp appreciation in the dollar should have alerted the FOMC that there was a liquidity shortage (also evidenced in a sharp increase in borrowings from the Fed) that required extraordinary countermeasures by the Fed. But the transcript of the September 2008 meeting shows that the appreciation of the dollar was interpreted by members of the FOMC as evidence that the current policy was working as intended! Now how scary is that?

HT: Matt O’Brien

Exposed: Irrational Inflation-Phobia at the Fed Caused the Panic of 2008

Matthew O’Brien at The Atlantic has written a marvelous account of the bizarre deliberations of the Federal Open Market Committee at its meetings (June 25 and August 5) before the Lehman debacle on September 15 2008 and its meeting the next day on September 16. A few weeks ago, I wrote in half-seriousness a post attributing the 2008 financial crisis to ethanol because of the runup in corn and other grain prices in 2008 owing to the ethanol mandate and the restrictions on imported ethanol products. But ethanol, as several commenters pointed out, was only a part, probably a relatively small part, of the spike in commodities prices in the summer of 2008. Thanks to O’Brien’s careful reading of the recently released transcripts of the 2008 meetings of the FOMC, we now have a clear picture of how obsessed the FOMC was about inflation, especially the gang of four regional bank presidents, Charles Plosser, Richard Fisher, James Lacker, and Thomas Hoenig, supported to a greater or lesser extent by James Bullard and Kevin Warsh.

On the other hand, O’Brien does point out that two members of the FOMC, Eric Rosengren, President of the Boston Fed, and Fredric Mishkin of the Board of Governors, consistently warned of the dangers of a financial crisis, and consistently objected to and cogently punctured the hysterical inflation fears of the gang of four. It is somewhat, but only somewhat, reassuring that Janet Yellen was slightly more sensitive to the dangers of a financial crisis and less concerned about inflation than Ben Bernanke. Perhaps because he was still getting his feet wet as chairman, Bernanke seems to have been trying to articulate a position that could balance the opposing concerns of the FOMC membership, rather than leading the FOMC in the direction he thought best. While Yellen did not indulge the inflation phobia of the gang of four, she did not strongly support Rosengren and Mishkin in calling for aggressive action to avert the crisis that they clearly saw looming on the horizon.

Here are some highlights from O’Brien’s brilliant piece:

[FOMC Meeting] June 24-25, 2008: 468 mentions of inflation, 44 of unemployment, and 35 of systemic risks/crises

Those numbers pretty much tell you everything you need to know about what happened during the disastrous summer of 2008 at the Fed

Rosengren wasn’t nearly as concerned with 5 percent headline inflation—and with good reason. He reminded his colleagues that “monetary policy is unlikely to have much effect on food and energy prices,” that “total [inflation] has tended to converge to core, and not the opposite,” and that there was a “lack of an upward trend of wages and salaries.”

In short, inflation was high today, but it wouldn’t be tomorrow. They should ignore it. A few agreed. Most didn’t.

Mishkin, Fed Governor Donald Kohn, and then-San Francisco Fed chief Janet Yellen comprised Team: Ignore Inflation. They pointed out that core inflation hadn’t actually risen, and that “inflation expectations remain reasonably well-anchored.” The rest of the Fed, though, was eager to raise rates soon, if not right away. Philadelphia Fed president Charles Plosser recognized that core inflation was flat, but still thought they needed to get ready to tighten “or our credibility could soon vanish.” Fed Governor Kevin Warsh said that “inflation risks, in my view, continue to predominate as the greater risk to the economy,” because he thought headline would get passed into core inflation.

And let us not forget Richard Fisher of the Dallas Fed who provided badly needed comic relief.

And then there was Dallas Fed chief Richard Fisher, who had a singular talent for seeing inflation that nobody else could—a sixth sense, if you will. He was allergic to data. He preferred talking to CEOs instead. But, in Fisher’s case, the plural of anecdote wasn’t data. It was nonsense. He was worried about Frito-Lays increasing prices 9 percent, Budweiser increasing them 3.5 percent, and a small dry-cleaning chain in Dallas increasing them, well, an undisclosed amount. He even half-joked that the Fed was giving out smaller bottles of water, presumably to hide creeping inflation?

By the way, I notice that these little bottles of water have gotten smaller—this will be a Visine bottle at the next meeting. [Laughter]

But it was another member of the Gang of Four who warned ominously:

Richmond Fed president Jeffrey Lacker suggested, that “at some point we’re going to choose to let something disruptive happen.”

Now to the August meeting:

[FOMC Meeting] August 5, 2008: 322 mentions of inflation, 28 of unemployment, and 19 of systemic risks/crises.

Despite evidence that the inflationary blip of spring and summer was winding down, and the real economy was weakening, the Gang of Four continued to press their case for tougher anti-inflation measures. But only Rosengren and Mishkin spoke out against them.

But even though inflation was falling, it was a lonesome time to be a dove. As the Fed’s resident Cassandra, Rosengren tried to convince his colleagues that high headline inflation numbers “appear to be transitory responses to supply shocks that are not flowing through to labor markets.” In other words, inflation would come down on its own, and the Fed should focus on the credit crunch instead. Mishkin worried that “really bad things could happen” if “a shoe drops” and there was a “nasty, vicious spiral” between weak banks and a weak economy. Given this, he wanted to wait to tighten until inflation expectations “actually indicate there is a problem,” and not before.

But Richard Fisher was in no mood to worry about horror stories unless they were about runaway inflation:

The hawks didn’t want to wait. Lacker admitted that wages hadn’t gone up, but thought that “if we wait until wage rates accelerate or TIPS measures spike, we will have waited too long.” He wanted the Fed to “be prepared to raise rates even if growth is not back to potential, and even if financial markets are not yet tranquil.” In other words, to fight nonexistent wage inflation today to prevent possible wage inflation tomorrow, never mind the crumbling economy. Warsh, for his part, kept insisting that “inflation risks are very real, and I believe that these are higher than growth risks.” And Fisher had more”chilling anecdotes”—as Bernanke jokingly called them—about inflation. This time, the culprit was Disney World and its 5 percent price increase for single-day tickets.

The FOMC was divided, but the inflation-phobes held the upper hand. Unwilling to challenge them, Bernanke appeased them by promising that his statement about future monetary policy after the meeting would be “be slightly hawkish—to indicate a slight uplift in policy.”

Frightened by what he was hearing, Mishkin reminded his colleagues of some unpleasant monetary history:

Remember that in the Great Depression, when—I can’t use the expression because it would be in the transcripts, but you know what I’m thinking—something hit the fan, [laughter] it actually occurred close to a year after the initial negative shock.

Mishkin also reminded his colleagues that the stance of monetary policy cannot be directly inferred from the federal funds rate.

I just very much hope that this Committee does not make this mistake because I have to tell you that the situation is scary to me. I’m holding two houses right now. I’m very nervous.

And now to the September meeting, the day after Lehman collapsed:

[FOMC meeting] September 16, 2008: 129 mentions of inflation, 26 of unemployment, and 4 of systemic risks/crises

Chillingly, Lacker and Hoenig did a kind of victory dance about the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Lacker had gotten the “disruptive” event he had wanted, and he was pretty pleased about it. “What we did with Lehman I obviously think was good,” he said, because it would “enhance the credibility of any commitment that we make in the future to be willing to let an institution fail.” Hoenig concurred that it was the “right thing,” because it would suck moral hazard out of the market.

The rest of the Gang of Four and their allies remained focused like a laser on inflation.

Even though commodity prices and inflation expectations were both falling fast, Hoenig wanted the Fed to “look beyond the immediate crisis,” and recognize that “we also have an inflation issue.” Bullard thought that “an inflation problem is brewing.” Plosser was heartened by falling commodity prices, but said, “I remain concerned about the inflation outlook going forward,” because “I do not see the ongoing slowdown in economic activity is entirely demand driven.” And Fisher half-jokingly complained that the bakery he’d been going to for 30 years—”the best maker of not only bagels, but anything with Crisco in it”—had just increased prices. All of them wanted to leave rates unchanged at 2 percent.

Again, only Eric Rosengren seemed to be in touch with reality, but no was listening:

[Rosengren] was afraid that exactly what did end up happening would happen. That all the financial chaos “would have a significant impact on the real economy,” that “individuals and firms will be become risk averse, with reluctance to consume or invest,” that “credit spreads are rising, and the cost and availability of financing is becoming more difficult,” and that “deleveraging is likely to occur with a vengeance.” More than that, he thought that the “calculated bet” they took in letting Lehman fail would look particularly bad “if we have a run on the money market funds or if the nongovernment tri-party repo market shuts down.” He wanted to cut rates immediately to do what they could to offset the worsening credit crunch. Nobody else did.

Like Bernanke for instance. Here is his take on the situation:

Overall I believe that our current funds rate setting is appropriate, and I don’t really see any reason to change…. Cutting rates would be a very big step that would send a very strong signal about our views on the economy and about our intentions going forward, and I think we should view that step as a very discrete thing rather than as a 25 basis point kind of thing. We should be very certain about that change before we undertake it because I would be concerned, for example, about the implications for the dollar, commodity prices, and the like.


O’Brien uses one of my favorite Hawtrey quotes to describe the insanity of the FOMC deliberations:

In other words, the Fed was just as worried about an inflation scare that was already passing as it was about a once-in-three-generations crisis.

It brought to mind what economist R. G. Hawtrey had said about the Great Depression. Back then, central bankers had worried more about the possibility of inflation than the grim reality of deflation. It was, Hawtrey said, like “crying Fire! Fire! in Noah’s flood.”

In any non-dysfunctional institution, the perpetrators of this outrage would have been sacked. But three of Gang of Four (Hoenig having become a director of the FDIC in 2012) remain safely ensconced in their exalted positions, blithely continuing, without the slightest acknowledgment of their catastrophic past misjudgments, to exert a malign influence on monetary policy. For shame!

Milton Friedman’s Dumb Rule

Josh Hendrickson discusses Milton Friedman’s famous k-percent rule on his blog, using Friedman’s rule as a vehicle for an enlightening discussion of the time-inconsistency problem so brilliantly described by Fynn Kydland and Edward Prescott in a classic paper published 36 years ago. Josh recognizes that Friedman’s rule is imperfect. At any given time, the k-percent rule is likely to involve either an excess demand for cash or an excess supply of cash, so that the economy would constantly be adjusting to a policy induced macroeconomic disturbance. Obviously a less restrictive rule would allow the monetary authorities to achieve a better outcome. But Josh has an answer to that objection.

The k-percent rule has often been derided as a sub-optimal policy. Suppose, for example, that there was an increase in money demand. Without a corresponding increase in the money supply, there would be excess money demand that even Friedman believed would cause a reduction in both nominal income and real economic activity. So why would Friedman advocate such a policy?

The reason Friedman advocated the k-percent rule was not because he believed that it was the optimal policy in the modern sense of phrase, but rather that it limited the damage done by activist monetary policy. In Friedman’s view, shaped by his empirical work on monetary history, central banks tended to be a greater source of business cycle fluctuations than they were a source of stability. Thus, the k-percent rule would eliminate recessions caused by bad monetary policy.

That’s a fair statement of why Friedman advocated the k-percent rule. One of Friedman’s favorite epigrams was that one shouldn’t allow the best to be the enemy of the good, meaning that the pursuit of perfection is usually not worth it. Perfection is costly, and usually merely good is good enough. That’s generally good advice. Friedman thought that allowing the money supply to expand at a moderate rate (say 3%) would avoid severe deflationary pressure and avoid significant inflation, allowing the economy to muddle through without serious problems.

But behind that common-sense argument, there were deeper, more ideological, reasons for the k-percent rule. The k-percent rule was also part of Friedman’s attempt to provide a libertarian/conservative alternative to the gold standard, which Friedman believed was both politically impractical and economically undesirable. However, the gold standard for over a century had been viewed by supporters of free-market liberalism as a necessary check on government power and as a bulwark of liberty. Friedman, desiring to offer a modern version of the case for classical liberalism (which has somehow been renamed neo-liberalism), felt that the k-percent rule, importantly combined with a regime of flexible exchange rates, could serve as an ideological substitute for the gold standard.

To provide a rationale for why the k-percent rule was preferable to simply trying to stabilize the price level, Friedman had to draw on a distinction between the aims of monetary policy and the instruments of monetary policy. Friedman argued that a rule specifying that the monetary authority should stabilize the price level was too flexible, granting the monetary authority too much discretion in its decision making.

The price level is not a variable over which the monetary authority has any direct control. It is a target not an instrument. Specifying a price-level target allows the monetary authority discretion in its choice of instruments to achieve the target. Friedman actually made a similar argument about the gold standard in a paper called “Real and Pseudo Gold Standards.” The price of gold is a target, not an instrument. The monetary authority can achieve its target price of gold with more than one policy. Unless you define the rule in terms of the instruments of the central bank, you have not taken away the discretionary power of the monetary authority. In his anti-discretionary zeal, Friedman believed that he had discovered an argument that trumped advocates of the gold standard .

Of course there was a huge problem with this argument, though Friedman was rarely called on it. The money supply, under any definition that Friedman ever entertained, is no more an instrument of the monetary authority than the price level. Most of the money instruments included in any of the various definitions of money Friedman entertained for purposes of his k-percent rule are privately issued. So Friedman’s claim that his rule would eliminate the discretion of the monetary authority in its use of instrument was clearly false. Now, one might claim that when Friedman originally advanced the rule in his Program for Monetary Stability, the rule was formulated the context of a proposal for 100-percent reserves. However, the proposal for 100-percent reserves would inevitably have to identify those deposits subject to the 100-percent requirement and those exempt from the requirement. Once it is possible to convert the covered deposits into higher yielding uncovered deposits, monetary policy would not be effective if it controlled only the growth of deposits subject to a 100-percent reserve requirement.

In his chapter on monetary policy in The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek effectively punctured Friedman’s argument that a monetary authority could operate effectively without some discretion in its use of instruments to execute a policy aimed at some agreed upon policy goal. It is a category error to equate the discretion of the monetary authority in the choice of its policy instruments with the discretion of the government in applying coercive sanctions against the persons and property of private individuals. It is true that Hayek later modified his views about central banks, but that change in his views was at least in part attributable to a misunderstanding. Hayek erroneoulsy believed that his discovery that competition in the supply of money is possible without driving the value of money down to zero meant that competitive banks would compete to create an alternative monetary standard that would be superior to the existing standard legally established by the monetary authority. His conclusion did not follow from his premise.

In a previous post, I discussed how Hayek also memorably demolished Friedman’s argument that, although the k-percent rule might not be the theoretically best rule, it would at least be a good rule that would avoid the worst consequences of misguided monetary policies producing either deflation or inflation. John Taylor, accepting the Hayek Prize from the Manhattan Institute, totally embarrassed himself by flagarantly misunderstanding what Hayek was talking about. Here are the two relevant passages from Hayek. The first from his pamphlet, Full Employment at any Price?

I wish I could share the confidence of my friend Milton Friedman who thinks that one could deprive the monetary authorities, in order to prevent the abuse of their powers for political purposes, of all discretionary powers by prescribing the amount of money they may and should add to circulation in any one year. It seems to me that he regards this as practicable because he has become used for statistical purposes to draw a sharp distinction between what is to be regarded as money and what is not. This distinction does not exist in the real world. I believe that, to ensure the convertibility of all kinds of near-money into real money, which is necessary if we are to avoid severe liquidity crises or panics, the monetary authorities must be given some discretion. But I agree with Friedman that we will have to try and get back to a more or less automatic system for regulating the quantity of money in ordinary times. The necessity of “suspending” Sir Robert Peel’s Bank Act of 1844 three times within 25 years after it was passed ought to have taught us this once and for all.

Hayek in the Denationalization of Money, Hayek was more direct:

As regards Professor Friedman’s proposal of a legal limit on the rate at which a monopolistic issuer of money was to be allowed to increase the quantity in circulation, I can only say that I would not like to see what would happen if it ever became known that the amount of cash in circulation was approaching the upper limit and that therefore a need for increased liquidity could not be met.

And in a footnote, Hayek added.

To such a situation the classic account of Walter Bagehot . . . would apply: “In a sensitive state of the English money market the near approach to the legal limit of reserve would be a sure incentive to panic; if one-third were fixed by law, the moment the banks were close to one-third, alarm would begin and would run like magic.

So Friedman’s k-percent rule was dumb, really dumb. It was dumb, because it induced expectations that made it unsustainable. As Hayek observed, not only was the theory clear, but it was confirmed by the historical evidence from the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, it had to be reconfirmed one more time in 1982 before the Fed abandoned its own misguided attempt to implement a modified version of the Friedman rule.

George Selgin Relives the Sixties

Just two days before the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy, George Selgin offered an ironic endorsement of raising the inflation target, as happened during the Kennedy Administration, in order to reduce unemployment.

[T]his isn’t the first time that we’ve been in a situation like the present one. There was at least one other occasion when the U.S. economy, having been humming along nicely with the inflation rate of 2% and an unemployment rate between 5% and 6%, slid into a recession. Eventually the unemployment rate was 7%, the inflation rate was only 1%, and the federal funds rate was within a percentage point of the zero lower bound. Fortunately for the American public, some well-placed (mostly Keynesian) economists came to the rescue, by arguing that the way to get unemployment back down was to aim for a higher inflation rate: a rate of about 4% a year, they figured, should suffice to get the unemployment rate down to 4%–a much lower rate than anyone dares to hope for today.

I’m puzzled and frustrated because, that time around, the Fed took the experts’ advice and it worked like a charm. The federal funds rate quickly achieved lift-off (within a year it had risen almost 100 basis points, from 1.17% to 2.15%). Before you could say “investment multiplier” the inflation and unemployment numbers were improving steadily. Within a few years inflation had reached 4%, and unemployment had declined to 4%–just as those (mostly Keynesian) experts had predicted.

So why are these crazy inflation hawks trying to prevent us from resorting again to a policy that worked such wonders in the past? Do they just love seeing all those millions of workers without jobs? Or is it simply that they don’t care about job

Oh: I forgot to say what past recession I’ve been referring to. It was the recession of 1960-61. The desired numbers were achieved by 1967. I can’t remember exactly what happened after that, though I’m sure it all went exactly as those clever theorists intended.

George has the general trajectory of the story more or less right, but the details and the timing are a bit off. Unemployment rose to 7% in the first half of 1961, and inflation was 1% or less. So reducing the Fed funds rate certainly worked, real GDP rising at not less than a 6.8% annual rate for four consecutive quarters starting with the second quarter of 1961, unemployment falling to 5.5 in the first quarter of 1962. In the following 11 quarters till the end of 1964, there were only three quarters in which the annual growth of GDP was less than 3.9%. The unemployment rate at the end of 1964 had fallen just below 5 percent and inflation was still well below 2%. It was only in 1965, that we see the beginings of an inflationary boom, real GDP growing at about a 10% annual rate in three of the next five quarters, and 8.4% and 5.6% in the other two quarters, unemployment falling to 3.8% by the second quarter of 1966, and inflation reaching 3% in 1966. Real GDP growth did not exceed 4% in any quarter after the first quarter of 1966, which suggests that the US economy had reached or exceeded its potential output, and unemployment had fallen below its natural rate.

In fact, recognizing the inflationary implications of the situation, the Fed shifted toward tighter money late in 1965, the Fed funds rate rising from 4% in late 1965 to nearly 6% in the summer of 1966. But the combination of tighter money and regulation-Q ceilings on deposit interest rates caused banks to lose deposits, producing a credit crunch in August 1966 and a slowdown in both real GDP growth in the second half of 1966 and the first half of 1967. With the economy already operating at capacity, subsequent increases in aggregate demand were reflected in rising inflation, which reached 5% in the annus horribilis 1968.

Cleverly suggesting that the decision to use monetary expansion, and an implied higher tolerance for inflation, to reduce unemployment from the 7% rate to which it had risen in 1961 was the ultimate cause of the high inflation of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and, presumably, the stagflation of the mid- and late-1970s, George is inviting his readers to conclude that raising the inflation target today would have similarly disastrous results.

Well, that strikes me as quite an overreach. Certainly one should not ignore the history to which George is drawing our attention, but I think it is possible (and plausible) to imagine a far more benign course of events than the one that played itself out in the 1960s and 1970s. The key difference is that the ceilings on deposit interest rates that caused a tightening of monetary policy in 1966 to produce a mini-financial crisis, forcing the 1966 Fed to abandon its sensible monetary tightening to counter inflationary pressure, are no longer in place.

Nor should we forget that some of the inflation of the 1970s was the result of supply-side shocks for which some monetary expansion (and some incremental price inflation) was an optimal policy response. The disastrous long-term consequences of Nixon’s wage and price controls should not be attributed to the expansionary monetary policy of the early 1960s.

As Mark Twain put it so well:

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.

What Makes Deflation Good?

Earlier this week, there was a piece in the Financial Times by Michael Heise, chief economist at Allianz SE, arguing that the recent dip in Eurozone inflation to near zero is not a sign of economic weakness, but a sign of recovery reflecting increased competitiveness in the Eurozone periphery. Scott Sumner identified a systematic confusion on Heise’s part between aggregate demand and aggregate supply, so that without any signs that rapidly falling Eurozone inflation has been accompanied by an acceleration of anemic growth in Eurozone real GDP, it is absurd to attribute falling inflation to a strengthening economy. There’s not really much more left to say about Heise’s piece after Scott’s demolition, but, nevertheless, sifting through the rubble, I still want to pick up on the distinction that Heise makes between good deflation and bad deflation.

Nonetheless, bank lending has been on the retreat, bankruptcies have soared and disposable incomes have fallen. This is the kind of demand shock that fosters bad deflation: a financial crisis causes aggregate demand to shrink faster than supply, resulting in falling prices.

However, looking through the lens of aggregate supply, the difficulties of the eurozone’s periphery bear only a superficial resemblance to those plaguing Japan. In this case, falling prices are the result of a supply shock, through improved productivity or real wage reduction.

Low inflation or even deflation is testament to the fact that (painful) adjustment through structural reforms is finally working.

In other words, deflation associated with a financial crisis, causing liquidation of assets and forced sales of inventories, thereby driving down prices and engendering expectations of continuing price declines, is bad. However, the subsequent response to that deflationary shock – the elimination of production inefficiencies and the reduction of wages — is not bad, but good. Both responses to the initial deflationary contraction in aggregate demand correspond to a rightward shift of the aggregate supply curve, thereby tending to raise aggregate output and employment even while tending to causes a further reduction in the price level or the inflation rate.

It is also interesting to take note of the peculiar euphemism for cutting money wages adopted by Heise: internal devaluation. As he puts it:

The eurozone periphery is regaining competitiveness via internal devaluation. This could even be called “good deflation.”

Now in ordinary usage, the term “devaluation” signifies a reduction in the pegged value of one currency in terms of another. When a country devalues its currency, it is usually because that country is running a trade deficit for which foreign lenders are unwilling to provide financing. The cause of the trade deficit is that the country’s tradable-goods sector is not profitable enough to expand to the point that the trade deficit is brought into balance, or close enough to balance to be willingly financed by foreigners. To make expansion of its tradable-goods sector profitable, the country may resort to currency devaluation, raising the prices of exports and imports in terms of the domestic currency. With unchanged money wages, the increase in the prices of exports and imports makes expansion of the country’s tradable-goods sector profitable, thereby reducing or eliminating the trade deficit. What Heise means by “internal devaluation” in contrast to normal devaluation is a reduction in money wages, export and import prices being held constant at the fixed exchange.

There is something strange, even bizarre, about Heise’s formulation, because what he is saying amounts to this: a deflation is good insofar as it reduces money wages. So Heise’s message, delivered in an obscure language, apparently of his own creation, is that the high and rising unemployment of the past five years in the Eurozone is finally causing money wages to fall. Therefore, don’t do anything — like shift to an easier monetary policy — that would stop those blessed reductions in money wages. Give this much to Herr Heise, unlike American critics of quantitative easing who pretend to blame it for causing real-wage reductions by way of the resulting inflation, he at least is honest enough to criticize monetary expansion for preventing money (and real) wages from falling, though he has contrived a language in which to say this without being easily understood.

Actually there is a historical precedent for the kind of good deflation Heise appears to favor. It was undertaken by Heinrich Bruning, Chancellor of the Weimar Republic from 1930 to 1932, when, desperate to demonstrate Germany’s financial rectitude (less than a decade after the hyperinflation of 1923) he imposed, by emergency decree, draconian wage reductions aimed at increasing Germany’s international competitiveness, while remaining on the gold standard. The evidence does not suggest that the good deflation and internal devaluation adopted by Bruning’s policy of money-wage cuts succeeded in ending the depression. And internal devaluation was certainly not successful enough to keep Bruning’s government in office, its principal effect being to increase support for Adolph Hitler, who became Chancellor within less than nine months after Bruning’s government fell.

This is not to say that nominal wages should never be reduced, but the idea that nominal wage cuts could serve as the means to reverse an economic contraction has little, if any, empirical evidence to support it. A famous economist who supported deflation in the early 1930s believing that it would facilitate labor market efficiencies and necessary cuts in real wages, subsequently retracted his policy advice, admitting that he had been wrong to think that deflation would be an effective instrument to overcome rigidities in labor markets. His name? F. A. Hayek.

So there is nothing good about the signs of deflation that Heise sees. They are simply predictable follow-on effects of the aggregate demand shock that hit the Eurozone after the 2008 financial crisis, subsequently reinforced by the monetary policy of the European Central Bank, reflecting the inflation-phobia of the current German political establishment. Those effects, delayed responses to the original demand shock, do not signal a recovery.

What, then, would distinguish good deflation from bad deflation? Simple. If observed deflation were accompanied by a significant increase in output, associated with significant growth in labor productivity and increasing employment (indicating increasing efficiency or technological progress), we could be confident that the deflation was benign, reflecting endogenous economic growth rather than macroeconomic dysfunction. Whenever output prices are falling without any obvious signs of real economic growth, falling prices are a clear sign of economic dysfunction. If prices are falling without output rising, something is wrong — very wrong — and it needs fixing.

About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist at the Federal Trade Commission. Nothing that you read on this blog necessarily reflects the views of the FTC or the individual commissioners. Although I work at the FTC as an antitrust economist, most of my research and writing has been on monetary economics and policy and the history of monetary theory. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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