Archive for the 'Paul Krugman' Category

Memo to Tom Sargent: Economics Is More than Just Common Sense

Paul Krugman was really not very happy with his fellow Nobel Laureate Tom Sargent this week, posting two consecutive rebuttals (here and here) to a 2006 commencement speech (five years before getting the prize) that Sargent gave at UC Berkeley.

Let’s look at what Sargent had to say. All of it.

I remember how happy I felt when I graduated from Berkeley many years ago. But I thought the graduation speeches were long. I will economize on words.

Economics is organized common sense. Here is a short list of valuable lessons that our beautiful subject teaches.

1. Many things that are desirable are not feasible.

2. Individuals and communities face trade-offs.

3. Other people have more information about their abilities, their efforts, and their preferences than you do.

4. Everyone responds to incentives, including people you want to help. That is why social safety nets don’t always end up working as intended.

5. There are tradeoffs between equality and efficiency.

6. In an equilibrium of a game or an economy, people are satisfied with their choices. That is why it is difficult for well-meaning outsiders to change things for better or worse.

7. In the future, you too will respond to incentives. That is why there are some promises that you’d like to make but can’t. No one will believe those promises because they know that later it will not be in your interest to deliver. The lesson here is this: before you make a promise, think about whether you will want to keep it if and when your circumstances change. This is how you earn a reputation.

8. Governments and voters respond to incentives too. That is why governments sometimes default on loans and other promises that they have made.

9. It is feasible for one generation to shift costs to subsequent ones. That is what national government debts and the U.S. social security system do (but not the social security system of Singapore).

10. When a government spends, its citizens eventually pay, either today or tomorrow, either through explicit taxes or implicit ones like inflation.

11. Most people want other people to pay for public goods and government transfers (especially transfers to themselves).

12. Because market prices aggregate traders’ information, it is difficult to forecast stock prices and interest rates and exchange rates.

I was mainly struck by two things about this speech:

First, the brevity of the speech is attributed to empathy toward the limited attention span of the audience, but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that Sargent was responding to the incentive to shirk the challenging responsibility of a commencement speaker to say something meaningful and memorable, instead patching together a list of truisms and platitudes interspersed with a few potentially problematic assertions, without distinguishing between the platitudinous and the problematic.

Second, the complacent tone, audible especially in the sentence: “Economics is organized common sense.” At the same time Sargent says that economics is a beautiful subject. It would be interesting to find out what it is about the organization of common sense that seems beautiful to Sargent, but let us not probe too deeply into Sargent’s thought processes. Nearly three years ago, just after starting this blog, I observed that common sense is not enough to do economics right. Things are not always what they seem to be. The earth is not really flat and the sun doesn’t really revolve around the earth. Our common sense has to be taught how to perceive reality, which means that we have to think more carefully about the world than just accepting what common sense tells us must be so.

That’s why reading Sargent, I couldn’t help but think of what John Stuart Mill, who very likely had an IQ even higher than Tom Sargent, said 165 years ago in his great treatise Principles of Political Economy.

Happily, there is nothing in the laws of Value which remains for the present or any future writer to clear up; the theory of the subject is complete.

So, in the spirit of not just taking things at face value, let me offer some brief comments on Sargent’s 12 maxims.

1 Many things that are desirable are not feasible. Comment: And the feasibility of many of those things that are desirable is uncertain. In fact, mention of uncertainty — a rather important feature of reality, or so it would seem to my common sense  — is conspicuous by its absence.

2 Individuals and communities face tradeoffs. Comment: Tradeoffs don’t necessarily exist in situations when individuals or communities are not optimizing. Even though every individual is optimizing, the community may not be.

3 Other individuals have more information about their abilities, their efforts, and their preferences than you do. Nitpicky Comment: Very badly written. Evidently he means that other individuals have more information about themselves than you have about them, but it could be interpreted to mean that they have more information about themselves than you have about yourself, some people being more self-aware than others.

4 Everyone responds to incentives, including people you want to help. That is why social safety nets don’t always working as intended. Comment: None, but see 11 below.

5 There are tradeoffs between equality and efficiency. Comment: This is so vague and so simplistic as to be useless.

6 In an equilibrium of a game or an economy, people are satisfied with their choices. That is why it is difficult for well-meaning outsiders to change things for better or worse. Comment: What kind of equilibrium are we talking about? Not every equilibrium is a social optimum. How do we know that equilibrium is an appropriate way of analyzing a social state? In an equilibrium, can there be surprises? Regrets? If we observe people being surprised and being regretful, does that mean they are deluded or misinterpreting their feelings? What is the common sense understanding that one should attach to such frequently observed states of mind?

7. In the future, you too will respond to incentives. That is why there are some promises that you’d like to make but can’t. No one will believe those promises because they know that later it will not be in your interest to deliver. The lesson here is this: before you make a promise, think about whether you will want to keep it if and when your circumstances change. This is how you earn a reputation. Comment: None.

8. Governments and voters respond to incentives too. That is why governments sometimes default on loans and other promises that they have made. Comment: None.

9. It is feasible for one generation to shift costs to subsequent ones. That is what national government debts and the U.S. social security system do (but not the social security system of Singapore). Comment: The circumstances under which generational shifts occur and the magnitude of those shifts are not so clear. Also, if the growth of knowledge and productivity, which are not necessarily tied to the amount of current saving, is likely to make future generations substantially better off than the current generation, it is not obvious that imposing a debt burden on future generations is an unjust choice.

10. When a government spends, its citizens eventually pay, either today or tomorrow, either through explicit taxes or implicit ones like inflation. Comment: Depends on what governments spend on.

11. Most people want other people to pay for public goods and government transfers (especially transfers to themselves). Comment: Why most? Who does want to pay for public goods and who doesn’t want to receive transfers? I thought that everyone responds to incentives. See 4 above.

12. Because market prices aggregate traders’ information, it is difficult to forecast stock prices and interest rates and exchange rates. Comment: None.

 

 

 

 

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

Paul Krugman and Roger Farmer on Sticky Wages

I was pleasantly surprised last Friday to see that Paul Krugman took favorable notice of my post about sticky wages, but also registering some disagreement.

[Glasner] is partially right in suggesting that there has been a bit of a role reversal regarding the role of sticky wages in recessions: Keynes asserted that wage flexibility would not help, but Keynes’s self-proclaimed heirs ended up putting downward nominal wage rigidity at the core of their analysis. By the way, this didn’t start with the New Keynesians; way back in the 1940s Franco Modigliani had already taught us to think that everything depended on M/w, the ratio of the money supply to the wage rate.

That said, wage stickiness plays a bigger role in The General Theory — and in modern discussions that are consistent with what Keynes said — than Glasner indicates.

To document his assertion about Keynes, Krugman quotes a passage from the General Theory in which Keynes seems to suggest that in the nineteenth century inflexible wages were partially compensated for by price level movements. One might quibble with Krugman’s interpretation, but the payoff doesn’t seem worth the effort.

But I will quibble with the next paragraph in Krugman’s post.

But there’s another point: even if you don’t think wage flexibility would help in our current situation (and like Keynes, I think it wouldn’t), Keynesians still need a sticky-wage story to make the facts consistent with involuntary unemployment. For if wages were flexible, an excess supply of labor should be reflected in ever-falling wages. If you want to say that we have lots of willing workers unable to find jobs — as opposed to moochers not really seeking work because they’re cradled in Paul Ryan’s hammock — you have to have a story about why wages aren’t falling.

Not that I really disagree with Krugman that the behavior of wages since the 2008 downturn is consistent with some stickiness in wages. Nevertheless, it is still not necessarily the case that, if wages were flexible, an excess supply of labor would lead to ever-falling wages. In a search model of unemployment, if workers are expecting wages to rise every year at a 3% rate, and instead wages rise at only a 1% rate, the model predicts that unemployment will rise, and will continue to rise (or at least not return to the natural rate) as long as observed wages did not increase as fast as workers were expecting wages to rise. Presumably over time, wage expectations would adjust to a new lower rate of increase, but there is no guarantee that the transition would be speedy.

Krugman concludes:

So sticky wages are an important part of both old and new Keynesian analysis, not because wage cuts would help us, but simply to make sense of what we see.

My own view is actually a bit more guarded. I think that “sticky wages” is simply a name that we apply to a problematic phenomenon for ehich we still haven’t found a really satisfactory explanation for. Search models, for all their theoretical elegance, simply can’t explain the observed process by which unemployment rises during recessions, i.e., by layoffs and a lack of job openings rather than an increase in quits and refused offers, as search models imply. The suggestion in my earlier post was intended to offer a possible basis of understanding what the phrase “sticky wages” is actually describing.

Roger Farmer, a long-time and renowned UCLA economist, also commented on my post on his new blog. Welcome to the blogosphere, Roger.

Roger has a different take on the sticky-wage phenomenon. Roger argues, as did some of the commenters to my post, that wages are not sticky. To document this assertion, Roger presents a diagram showing that the decline of nominal wages closely tracked that of prices for the first six years of the Great Depression. From this evidence Roger concludes that nominal wage rigidity is not the cause of rising unemployment during the Great Depression, and presumably, not the cause of rising unemployment in the Little Depression.

farmer_sticky_wagesInstead, Roger argues, the rise in unemployment was caused by an outbreak of self-fulfilling pessimism. Roger believes that there are many alternative equilibria and which equilibrium (actually equilibrium time path) we reach depends on what our expectations are. Roger also believes that our expectations are rational, so that we get what we expect, as he succinctly phrases it “beliefs are fundamental.” I have a lot of sympathy for this way of looking at the economy. In fact one of the early posts on this blog was entitled “Expectations are Fundamental.” But as I have explained in other posts, I am not so sure that expectations are rational in any useful sense, because I think that individual expectations diverge. I don’t think that there is a single way of looking at reality. If there are many potential equilibria, why should everyone expect the same equilibrium. I can be an optimist, and you can be a pessimist. If we agreed, we would be right, but if we disagree, we will both be wrong. What economic mechanism is there to reconcile our expectations? In a world in which expectations diverge — a world of temporary equilibrium — there can be cumulative output reductions that get propagated across the economy as each sector fails to produce its maximum potential output, thereby reducing the demand for the output of other sectors to which it is linked. That’s what happens when there is trading at prices that don’t correspond to the full optimum equilibrium solution.

So I agree with Roger in part, but I think that the coordination problem is (at least potentially) more serious than he imagines.

Barro and Krugman Yet Again on Regular Economics vs. Keynesian Economics

A lot of people have been getting all worked up about Paul Krugman’s acerbic takedown of Robert Barro for suggesting in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2011 that increased government spending would not stimulate the economy. Barro’s target was a claim by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that every additional dollar spent on food stamps would actually result in a net increase of $1.84 in total spending. This statement so annoyed Barro that, in a fit of pique, he wrote the following.

Keynesian economics argues that incentives and other forces in regular economics are overwhelmed, at least in recessions, by effects involving “aggregate demand.” Recipients of food stamps use their transfers to consume more. Compared to this urge, the negative effects on consumption and investment by taxpayers are viewed as weaker in magnitude, particularly when the transfers are deficit-financed.

Thus, the aggregate demand for goods rises, and businesses respond by selling more goods and then by raising production and employment. The additional wage and profit income leads to further expansions of demand and, hence, to more production and employment. As per Mr. Vilsack, the administration believes that the cumulative effect is a multiplier around two.

If valid, this result would be truly miraculous. The recipients of food stamps get, say, $1 billion but they are not the only ones who benefit. Another $1 billion appears that can make the rest of society better off. Unlike the trade-off in regular economics, that extra $1 billion is the ultimate free lunch.

How can it be right? Where was the market failure that allowed the government to improve things just by borrowing money and giving it to people? Keynes, in his “General Theory” (1936), was not so good at explaining why this worked, and subsequent generations of Keynesian economists (including my own youthful efforts) have not been more successful.

Sorry to brag, but it was actually none other than moi that (via Mark Thoma) brought this little gem to Krugman’s attention. In what is still my third most visited blog post, I expressed incredulity that Barro could ask where Is the market failure about a situation in which unemployment suddenly rises to more than double its pre-recession level. I also pointed out that Barro had himself previously acknowledged in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that monetary expansion could alleviate a cyclical increase in unemployment. If monetary policy (printing money on worthless pieces of paper) can miraculously reduce unemployment, why is out of the question that government spending could also reduce unemployment, especially when it is possible to view government spending as a means of transferring cash from people with unlimited demand for money to those unwilling to increase their holdings of cash? So, given Barro’s own explicit statement that monetary policy could be stimulative, it seemed odd for him to suggest, without clarification, that it would be a miracle if fiscal policy were effective.

Apparently, Krugman felt compelled to revisit this argument of Barro’s because of the recent controversy about extending unemployment insurance, an issue to which Barro made only passing reference in his 2011 piece. Krugman again ridiculed the idea that just because regular economics says that a policy will have adverse effects under “normal” conditions, the policy must be wrongheaded even in a recession.

But if you follow right-wing talk — by which I mean not Rush Limbaugh but the Wall Street Journal and famous economists like Robert Barro — you see the notion that aid to the unemployed can create jobs dismissed as self-evidently absurd. You think that you can reduce unemployment by paying people not to work? Hahahaha!

Quite aside from the fact that this ridicule is dead wrong, and has had a malign effect on policy, think about what it represents: it amounts to casually trashing one of the most important discoveries economists have ever made, one of my profession’s main claims to be useful to humanity.

Krugman was subsequently accused of bad faith in making this argument because he, like other Keynesians, has acknowledged that unemployment insurance tends to increase the unemployment rate. Therefore, his critics argue, it was hypocritical of Krugman to criticize Barro and the Wall Street Journal for making precisely the same argument that he himself has made. Well, you can perhaps accuse Krugman of being a bit artful in his argument by not acknowledging explicitly that a full policy assessment might in fact legitimately place some limit on UI benefits, but Krugman’s main point is obviously not to assert that “regular economics” is necessarily wrong, just that Barro and the Wall Street Journal are refusing to acknowledge that countercyclical policy of some type could ever, under any circumstances, be effective. Or, to put it another way, Krugman could (and did) easily agree that increasing UI will increases the natural rate of unemployment, but, in a recession, actual unemployment is above the natural rate, and UI can cause the actual rate to fall even as it causes the natural rate to rise.

Now Barro might respond that all he was really saying in his 2011 piece was that the existence of a government spending multiplier significantly greater than zero is not supported by the empirical evidenc. But there are two problems with that response. First, it would still not resolve the theoretical inconsistency in Barro’s argument that monetary policy does have magical properties in a recession with his position that fiscal policy has no such magical powers. Second, and perhaps less obviously, the empirical evidence on which Barro relies does not necessarily distinguish between periods of severe recession or depression and periods when the economy is close to full employment. If so, the empirical estimates of government spending multipliers are subject to the Lucas critique. Parameter estimates may not be stable over time, because those parameters may change depending on the cyclical phase of the economy. The multiplier at the trough of a deep business cycle may be much greater than the multiplier at close to full employment. The empirical estimates for the multiplier cited by Barro make no real allowance for different cyclical phases in estimating the multiplier.

PS Scott Sumner also comes away from reading Barro’s 2011 piece perplexed by what Barro is really saying and why, and does an excellent job of trying in vain to find some coherent conceptual framework within which to understand Barro. The problem is that there is none. That’s why Barro deserves the rough treatment he got from Krugman.

The Internal Contradiction of Quantitative Easing

Last week I was struggling to cut and paste my 11-part series on Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade into the paper on that topic that I am scheduled to present next week at the Southern Economic Association meetings in Tampa Florida, completing the task just before coming down with a cold which has kept me from doing anything useful since last Thursday. But I was at least sufficiently aware of my surroundings to notice another flurry of interest in quantitative easing, presumably coinciding with Janet Yellen’s testimony at the hearings conducted by the Senate Banking Committee about her nomination to succeed Ben Bernanke as Chairman of Federal Reserve Board.

In my cursory reading of the latest discussions, I didn’t find see a lot that has not already been said, so I will take that as an opportunity to restate some points that I have previously made on this blog. But before I do that, I can’t help observing (not for the first time either) that the two main arguments made by critics of QE do not exactly coexist harmoniously with each other. First, QE is ineffective; second it is dangerous. To be sure, the tension between these two claims about QE does not prove that both can’t be true, and certainly doesn’t prove that both are wrong. But the tension might at least have given a moment’s pause to those crying that Quantitative Easing, having failed for five years to accomplish anything besides enriching Wall Street and taking bread from the mouths of struggling retirees, is going to cause the sky to fall any minute.

Nor, come to think of it, does the faux populism of the attack on a rising stock market and of the crocodile tears for helpless retirees living off the interest on their CDs coexist harmoniously with the support by many of the same characters opposing QE (e.g., Freedomworks, CATO, the Heritage Foundation, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page) for privatizing social security via private investment accounts to be invested in the stock market, the argument being that the rate of return on investing in stocks has historically been greater than the rate of return on payments into the social security system. I am also waiting for an explanation of why abused pensioners unhappy with the returns on their CDs can’t cash in the CDs and buy dividend-paying-stocks? In which charter of the inalienable rights of Americans, I wonder, does one find it written that a perfectly secure real rate of interest of not less than 2% on any debt instrument issued by the US government shall always be guaranteed?

Now there is no denying that what is characterized as a massive program of asset purchases by the Federal Reserve System has failed to stimulate a recovery comparable in strength to almost every recovery since World War II. However, not even the opponents of QE are suggesting that the recovery has been weak as a direct result of QE — that would be a bridge too far even for the hard money caucus — only that whatever benefits may have been generated by QE are too paltry to justify its supposedly bad side-effects (present or future inflation, reduced real wages, asset bubbles, harm to savers, enabling of deficit-spending, among others). But to draw any conclusion about the effects of QE, you need some kind of a baseline of comparison. QE opponents therefore like to use previous US recoveries, without the benefit of QE, as their baseline.

But that is not the only baseline available for purposes of comparison. There is also the Eurozone, which has avoided QE and until recently kept interest rates higher than in the US, though to be sure not as high as US opponents of QE (and defenders of the natural rights of savers) would have liked. Compared to the Eurozone, where nominal GDP has barely risen since 2010, and real GDP and employment have shrunk, QE, which has been associated with nearly 4% annual growth in US nominal GDP and slightly more than 2% annual growth in US real GDP, has clearly outperformed the eurozone.

Now maybe you don’t like the Eurozone, as it includes all those dysfunctional debt-ridden southern European countries, as a baseline for comparison. OK, then let’s just do a straight, head-to-head matchup between the inflation-addicted US and solid, budget-balancing, inflation-hating Germany. Well that comparison shows (see the chart below) that since 2011 US real GDP has increased by about 5% while German real GDP has increased by less than 2%.

US_Germany_RGDP

So it does seem possible that, after all, QE and low interest rates may well have made things measurably better than they would have otherwise been. But don’t expect to opponents of QE to acknowledge that possibility.

Of course that still leaves the question on the table, why has this recovery been so weak? Well, Paul Krugman, channeling Larry Summers, offered a demographic hypothesis in his column Monday: that with declining population growth, there have been diminishing investment opportunities, which, together with an aging population, trying to save enough to support themselves in their old age, causes the supply of savings to outstrip the available investment opportunities, driving the real interest rate down to zero. As real interest rates fall, the ability of the economy to tolerate deflation — or even very low inflation — declines. That is a straightforward, and inescapable, implication of the Fisher equation (see my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations”).

So, if Summers and Krugman are right – and the trend of real interest rates for the past three decades is not inconsistent with their position – then we need to rethink revise upwards our estimates of what rate of inflation is too low. I will note parenthetically, that Samuel Brittan, who has been for decades just about the most sensible economic journalist in the world, needs to figure out that too little inflation may indeed be a bad thing.

But this brings me back to the puzzling question that causes so many people to assume that monetary policy is useless. Why have trillions of dollars of asset purchases not generated the inflation that other monetary expansions have generated? And if all those assets now on the Fed balance sheet haven’t generated inflation, what reason is there to think that the Fed could increase the rate of inflation if that is what is necessary to avoid chronic (secular) stagnation?

The answer, it seems to me is the following. If everyone believes that the Fed is committed to its inflation target — and not even the supposedly dovish Janet Yellen, bless her heart, has given the slightest indication that she favors raising the Fed’s inflation target, a target that, recent experience shows, the Fed is far more willing to undershoot than to overshoot – then Fed purchases of assets with currency are not going to stimulate additional private spending. Private spending, at or near the zero lower bound, are determined largely by expectations of future income and prices. The quantity of money in private hands, being almost costless to hold, is no longer a hot potato. So if there is no desire to reduce excess cash holdings, the only mechanism by which monetary policy can affect private spending is through expectations. But the Fed, having succeeded in anchoring inflation expectations at 2%, has succeeded in unilaterally disarming itself. So economic expansion is constrained by the combination of a zero real interest rate and expected inflation held at or below 2% by a political consensus that the Fed, even if it were inclined to, is effectively powerless to challenge.

Scott Sumner calls this monetary offset. I don’t think that we disagree much on the economic analysis, but it seems to me that he overestimates the amount of discretion that the Fed can actually exercise over monetary policy. Except at the margins, the Fed is completely boxed in by a political consensus it dares not question. FDR came into office in 1933, and was able to effect a revolution in monetary policy within his first month in office, thereby saving the country and Western Civilization. Perhaps Obama had an opportunity to do something similar early in his first term, but not any more. We are stuck at 2%, but it is no solution.

Eureka! Paul Krugman Discovers the Bank of France

Trying hard, but not entirely successfully, to contain his astonishment, Paul Krugman has a very good post (“France 1930, Germany 2013) inspired by Doug Irwin’s “very good” paper (see also this shorter version) “Did France Cause the Great Depression?” Here’s Krugman take away from Irwin’s paper.

[Irwin] points out that France, with its undervalued currency, soaked up a huge proportion of the world’s gold reserves in 1930-31, and suggests that France was responsible for about half the global deflation that took place over that period.

The thing is, France itself didn’t do that badly in the early stages of the Great Depression — again thanks to that undervalued currency. In fact, it was less affected than most other advanced countries (pdf) in 1929-31:

Krugman is on the right track here — certainly a hopeful sign — but he misses the distinction between an undervalued French franc, which, despite temporary adverse effects on other countries, would normally be self-correcting under the gold standard, and the explosive increase in demand for gold by the insane Bank of France after the franc was pegged at an undervalued parity against the dollar. Undervaluation of the franc began in December 1926 when Premier Raymond Poincare stabilized its value at about 25 francs to the dollar, the franc having fallen to 50 francs to the dollar in July when Poincare, a former prime minister, had been returned to office to deal with a worsening currency crisis. Undervaluation of the franc would have done no permanent damage to the world economy if the Bank of France had not used the resulting inflow of foreign exchange to accumulate gold, cashing in sterling- and dollar-denominated financial assets for gold. This was a step beyond classic exchange-rate protection (currency manipulation) whereby a country uses a combination of an undervalued exchange rate and a tight monetary policy to keep accumulating foreign-exchange reserves as a way of favoring its export and import-competing industries. Exchange-rate protection may have been one motivation for the French policy, but that objective did not require gold accumulation; it could have been achieved by accumulating foreign exchange reserves without demanding redemption of those reserves in terms of gold, as the Bank of France began doing aggressively in 1927. A more likely motivation for gold accumulation policy of the Bank of France seems to have been French resentment against a monetary system that, from the French perspective, granted a privileged status to the dollar and to sterling, allowing central banks to treat dollar- and sterling-denominated financial assets as official exchange reserves, thereby enabling issuers of dollar and sterling-denominated assets the ability to obtain funds on more favorable terms than issuers of instruments denominated in other currencies.

The world economy was able to withstand the French gold-accumulation policy in 1927-28, because the Federal Reserve was tolerating an outflow of gold, thereby accommodating to some degree the French demand for gold. But after the Fed raised its discount rate to 5% in 1928 and 6% in February 1929, gold began flowing into the US as well, causing gold to start appreciating (in other words, prices to start falling) in world markets by the summer of 1929. But rather than reverse course, the Bank of France and the Fed, despite reductions in their official lending rates, continued pursuing policies that caused huge amounts of gold to flow into the French and US vaults in 1930 and 1931. Hawtrey and Cassel, of course, had warned against such a scenario as early as 1919, and proposed measures to prevent or reverse the looming catastrophe before it took place and after it started, but with little success. For a more complete account of this sad story, and the failure of the economics profession, with a very few notable exceptions, to figure out what happened, see my paper with Ron Batchelder “Pre-Keynesian Monetary Theories of the Great Depression: Whatever Happened to Hawtrey and Cassel?”

As Krugman observes, the French economy did not do so badly in 1929-31, because it was viewed as the most stable, thrifty, and dynamic economy in Europe. But France looked good only because Britain and Germany were in even worse shape. Because France was better off the Britain and Germany, and because its currency was understood to be undervalued, the French franc was considered to be stable, and, thus, unlikely to be devalued. So, unlike sterling, the reichsmark, and the dollar, the franc was not subjected to speculative attacks, becoming instead a haven for capital seeking safety.

Interestingly, Krugman even shows some sympathetic understanding for the plight of the French:

Notice, by the way, that the French weren’t evil or malicious here — they were just adhering to their hard-money ideology in an environment where that had terrible adverse effects on other countries.

Just wondering, would Krugman ever invoke adherence to a hard-money ideology as a mitigating factor in passing judgment on a Republican?

Krugman concludes by comparing Germany today with France in 1930.

Obviously the details are different, but I would argue that Germany is playing a somewhat similar role today — not as drastic, but with less excuse. For Germany is an economic hegemon in a way France never was; it has responsibilities, which it isn’t meeting.

Indeed, there are similarities, but there is a crucial difference in the mechanism by which damage is being inflicted: the world price level in 1930, under the gold standard, was determined by the value of gold. An increase in the demand for gold by central banks necessarily raised the value of gold, causing deflation for all countries either on the gold standard or maintaining a fixed exchange rate against a gold-standard currency. By accumulating gold, nearly quadrupling its gold reserves between 1926 and 1932, the Bank of France was a mighty deflationary force, inflicting immense damage on the international economy. Today, the Eurozone price level does not depend on the independent policy actions of any national central bank, including that of Germany. The Eurozone price level is rather determined by the policy choices of a nominally independent European Central Bank. But the ECB is clearly unable to any adopt policy not approved by the German government and its leader Mrs. Merkel, and Mrs. Merkel has rejected any policy that would raise prices in the Eurozone to a level consistent with full employment. Though the mechanism by which Mrs. Merkel and her government are now inflicting damage on the Eurozone is different from the mechanism by which the insane Bank of France inflicted damage during the Great Depression, the damage is just as pointless and just as inexcusable. But as the damage caused by Mrs. Merkel, in relative terms at any rate, seems somewhat smaller in magnitude than that caused by the insane Bank of France, I would not judge her more harshly than I would the Bank of France — insanity being, in matters of monetary policy, no defense.

HT: ChargerCarl

Krugman Predicts the Future History of Economic Thought

It’s always nice to have a Nobel Laureate rely on something you’ve written in making an argument of his own, so I would prefer not to turn around and criticize Paul Krugman for the very blog-post in which he cited my recent posts about Milton Friedman. Now there are obviously certain basic points about Friedman that Krugman and I agree on, e.g., that Friedman relied more heavily on the Keynesian theory of the demand for money than he admitted, and second that Friedman’s description of his theory of the demand for money as the expression of an oral tradition transmitted from an earlier generation of Chicago quantity theorists lacked any foundation. Although some people, including my friend Scott Sumner, seem resistant to acknowledging these points, I don’t think that they are really very controversial statements.

However, Krugman goes beyond this to make a stronger point, which is that Friedman, unlike Keynes, is no longer a factor in policy debates, because the policy position that Friedman advocated is no longer tenable. Here’s how Krugman explains the posthumous untenability of Friedman’s position.

[A]t this point both of Friedman’s key contributions to macroeconomics look hard to defend.

First, on monetary policy . . . Friedman was still very much associated with the notion that the Fed can control the money supply, and controlling the money supply is all you need to stabilize the economy. In the wake of the 2008 crisis, this looks wrong from soup to nuts: the Fed can’t even control broad money, because it can add to bank reserves and they just sit there; and money in turn bears little relationship to GDP. And in retrospect the same was true in the 1930s, so that Friedman’s claim that the Fed could easily have prevented the Great Depression now looks highly dubious.

Krugman is making a tricky point. I agree that Friedman was wrong to focus entirely on the quantity of money in the Great Depression, but that’s because, under the gold standard then in place, the quantity of money was endogenous and prices exogenously determined by the gold standard. The Great Depression occurred because the international restoration of the gold standard in the late 1920s was driving up the value of gold and forcing deflation on all gold standard countries, not just the US, which is why leaving the gold standard or devaluation was a sure-fire way of starting a recovery even without expansionary fiscal policy, as evidenced by the spectacular recovery that started in April 1933 when FDR started devaluing the dollar. So Friedman was wrong about the nature of the monetary mechanisms then operating, but he wasn’t wrong about the ultimately monetary nature of the problem.

Second, on inflation and unemployment: Friedman’s success, with Phelps, in predicting stagflation was what really pushed his influence over the top; his notion of a natural rate of unemployment, of a vertical Phillips curve in the long run, became part of every textbook exposition. But it’s now very clear that at low rates of inflation the Phillips curve isn’t vertical at all, that there’s an underlying downward nominal rigidity to wages and perhaps many prices too that makes the natural rate hypothesis a very bad guide under depression conditions.

I don’t subscribe to the natural-rate hypothesis as a law of nature, but it did make an important contribution to the understanding of the limitations of macroeconomic policy. But even the strictest version of Friedman’s natural-rate hypothesis does not imply that, if the rate of unemployment is above the natural rate, an increase in the rate of inflation through expansionary monetary or fiscal policy would not hasten the transition back to the natural rate of unemployment. For an argument against expansionary monetary or fiscal policy in such circumstances, one has to resort to arguments other than those made by Friedman.

So Friedman’s economic analysis has taken a serious hit. But that’s not the whole story behind his disappearance; after all, all those economists who have been predicting runaway inflation still have a constituency after being wrong year after year.

Friedman’s larger problem, I’d argue, is that he was, when all is said and done, a man trying to straddle two competing world views — and our political environment no longer has room for that kind of straddle.

Think of it this way: Friedman was an avid free-market advocate, who insisted that the market, left to itself, could solve almost any problem. Yet he was also a macroeconomic realist, who recognized that the market definitely did not solve the problem of recessions and depressions. So he tried to wall off macroeconomics from everything else, and make it as inoffensive to laissez-faire sensibilities as possible. Yes, he in effect admitted, we do need stabilization policy — but we can minimize the government’s role by relying only on monetary policy, none of that nasty fiscal stuff, and then not even allowing the monetary authority any discretion.

At a fundamental level, however, this was an inconsistent position: if markets can go so wrong that they cause Great Depressions, how can you be a free-market true believer on everything except macro? And as American conservatism moved ever further right, it had no room for any kind of interventionism, not even the sterilized, clean-room interventionism of Friedman’s monetarism.

Well, inconsistency is in the eye of the beholder, and, anyway, it is surely appropriate to beware of that foolish consistency which is the hobgoblin of little minds. The Great Depression was the result of a complex pattern of events, and acknowledging the inability of free markets to cope with those events is not the same thing as agreeing that free markets caused the Great Depression.

So Friedman has vanished from the policy scene — so much so that I suspect that a few decades from now, historians of economic thought will regard him as little more than an extended footnote.

I suspect that Krugman is correct that the small-minded political right-wing of our time is no longer as willing to accept Milton Friedman as their pre-eminent economic authority figure as were earlier generations of political right-wingers in the last three or four decades of the twentieth century. But to extrapolate from that sociological factoid how future historians of economic thought will evaluate the contributions of Milton Friedman seems to me to be a bit of a stretch.


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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