Archive for the 'Paul Krugman' Category

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.

My Milton Friedman Problem

In my previous post , I discussed Keynes’s perplexing and problematic criticism of the Fisher equation in chapter 11 of the General Theory, perplexing because it is difficult to understand what Keynes is trying to say in the passage, and problematic because it is not only inconsistent with Keynes’s reasoning in earlier writings in which he essentially reproduced Fisher’s argument, it is also inconsistent with Keynes’s reasoning in chapter 17 of the General Theory in his exposition of own rates of interest and their equilibrium relationship. Scott Sumner honored me with a whole post on his blog which he entitled “Glasner on Keynes and the Fisher Effect,” quite a nice little ego boost.

After paraphrasing some of what I had written in his own terminology, Scott quoted me in responding to a dismissive comment that Krugman recently made about Milton Friedman, of whom Scott tends to be highly protective. Here’s the passage I am referring to.

PPS.  Paul Krugman recently wrote the following:

Just stabilize the money supply, declared Milton Friedman, and we don’t need any of this Keynesian stuff (even though Friedman, when pressured into providing an underlying framework, basically acknowledged that he believed in IS-LM).

Actually Friedman hated IS-LM.  I don’t doubt that one could write down a set of equilibria in the money market and goods market, as a function of interest rates and real output, for almost any model.  But does this sound like a guy who “believed in” the IS-LM model as a useful way of thinking about macro policy?

Low interest rates are generally a sign that money has been tight, as in Japan; high interest rates, that money has been easy.

It turns out that IS-LM curves will look very different if one moves away from the interest rate transmission mechanism of the Keynesians.  Again, here’s David:

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

Please do.  Krugman reads Glasner’s blog, and if David keeps posting on this stuff then Krugman will eventually realize that hearing a few wisecracks from older Keynesians about various non-Keynesian traditions doesn’t make one an expert on the history of monetary thought.

I wrote a comment on Scott’s blog responding to this post in which, after thanking him for mentioning me in the same breath as Keynes and Fisher, I observed that I didn’t find Krugman’s characterization of Friedman as someone who basically believed in IS-LM as being in any way implausible.

Then, about Friedman, I don’t think he believed in IS-LM, but it’s not as if he had an alternative macromodel. He didn’t have a macromodel, so he was stuck with something like an IS-LM model by default, as was made painfully clear by his attempt to spell out his framework for monetary analysis in the early 1970s. Basically he just tinkered with the IS-LM to allow the price level to be determined, rather than leaving it undetermined as in the original Hicksian formulation. Of course in his policy analysis and historical work he was not constained by any formal macromodel, so he followed his instincts which were often reliable, but sometimes not so.

So I am afraid that my take may on Friedman may be a little closer to Krugman’s than to yours. But the real point is that IS-LM is just a framework that can be adjusted to suit the purposes of the modeler. For Friedman the important thing was to deny that that there is a liquidity trap, and introduce an explicit money-supply-money-demand relation to determine the absolute price level. It’s not just Krugman who says that, it’s also Don Patinkin and Harry Johnson. Whether Krugman knows the history of thought, I don’t know, but surely Patinkin and Johnson did.

Scott responded:

I’m afraid I strongly disagree regarding Friedman. The IS-LM “model” is much more than just the IS-LM graph, or even an assumption about the interest elasticity of money demand. For instance, suppose a shift in LM also causes IS to shift. Is that still the IS-LM model? If so, then I’d say it should be called the “IS-LM tautology” as literally anything would be possible.

When I read Friedman’s work it comes across as a sort of sustained assault on IS-LM type thinking.

To which I replied:

I think that if you look at Friedman’s responses to his critics the volume Milton Friedman’s Monetary Framework: A Debate with his Critics, he said explicitly that he didn’t think that the main differences among Keynesians and Monetarists were about theory, but about empirical estimates of the relevant elasticities. So I think that in this argument Friedman’s on my side.

And finally Scott:

This would probably be easier if you provided some examples of monetary ideas that are in conflict with IS-LM. Or indeed any ideas that are in conflict with IS-LM. I worry that people are interpreting IS-LM too broadly.

For instance, do Keynesians “believe” in MV=PY? Obviously yes. Do they think it’s useful? No.

Everyone agrees there are a set of points where the money market is in equilibrium. People don’t agree on whether easy money raises interest rates or lowers interest rates. In my view the term “believing in IS-LM” implies a belief that easy money lowers rates, which boosts investment, which boosts RGDP. (At least when not at the zero bound.) Friedman may agree that easy money boosts RGDP, but may not agree on the transmission mechanism.

People used IS-LM to argue against the Friedman and Schwartz view that tight money caused the Depression. They’d say; “How could tight money have caused the Depression? Interest rates fell sharply in 1930?”

I think that Friedman meant that economists agreed on some of the theoretical building blocks of IS-LM, but not on how the entire picture fit together.

Oddly, your critique of Keynes reminds me a lot of Friedman’s critiques of Keynes.

Actually, this was not the first time that I provoked a negative response by writing critically about Friedman. Almost a year and a half ago, I wrote a post (“Was Milton Friedman a Closet Keynesian?”) which drew some critical comments from such reliably supportive commenters as Marcus Nunes, W. Peden, and Luis Arroyo. I guess Scott must have been otherwise occupied, because I didn’t hear a word from him. Here’s what I said:

Commenting on a supremely silly and embarrassingly uninformed (no, Ms. Shlaes, A Monetary History of the United States was not Friedman’s first great work, Essays in Positive Economics, Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money, A Theory of the Consumption Function, A Program for Monetary Stability, and Capitalism and Freedom were all published before A Monetary History of the US was published) column by Amity Shlaes, accusing Ben Bernanke of betraying the teachings of Milton Friedman, teachings that Bernanke had once promised would guide the Fed for ever more, Paul Krugman turned the tables and accused Friedman of having been a crypto-Keynesian.

The truth, although nobody on the right will ever admit it, is that Friedman was basically a Keynesian — or, if you like, a Hicksian. His framework was just IS-LM coupled with an assertion that the LM curve was close enough to vertical — and money demand sufficiently stable — that steady growth in the money supply would do the job of economic stabilization. These were empirical propositions, not basic differences in analysis; and if they turn out to be wrong (as they have), monetarism dissolves back into Keynesianism.

Krugman is being unkind, but he is at least partly right.  In his famous introduction to Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money, which he called “The Quantity Theory of Money:  A Restatement,” Friedman gave the game away when he called the quantity theory of money a theory of the demand for money, an almost shockingly absurd characterization of what anyone had ever thought the quantity theory of money was.  At best one might have said that the quantity theory of money was a non-theory of the demand for money, but Friedman somehow got it into his head that he could get away with repackaging the Cambridge theory of the demand for money — the basis on which Keynes built his theory of liquidity preference — and calling that theory the quantity theory of money, while ascribing it not to Cambridge, but to a largely imaginary oral tradition at the University of Chicago.  Friedman was eventually called on this bit of scholarly legerdemain by his old friend from graduate school at Chicago Don Patinkin, and, subsequently, in an increasingly vitriolic series of essays and lectures by his then Chicago colleague Harry Johnson.  Friedman never repeated his references to the Chicago oral tradition in his later writings about the quantity theory. . . . But the simple fact is that Friedman was never able to set down a monetary or a macroeconomic model that wasn’t grounded in the conventional macroeconomics of his time.

As further evidence of Friedman’s very conventional theoretical conception of monetary theory, I could also cite Friedman’s famous (or, if you prefer, infamous) comment (often mistakenly attributed to Richard Nixon) “we are all Keynesians now” and the not so famous second half of the comment “and none of us are Keynesians anymore.” That was simply Friedman’s way of signaling his basic assent to the neoclassical synthesis which was built on the foundation of Hicksian IS-LM model augmented with a real balance effect and the assumption that prices and wages are sticky in the short run and flexible in the long run. So Friedman meant that we are all Keynesians now in the sense that the IS-LM model derived by Hicks from the General Theory was more or less universally accepted, but that none of us are Keynesians anymore in the sense that this framework was reconciled with the supposed neoclassical principle of the monetary neutrality of a unique full-employment equilibrium that can, in principle, be achieved by market forces, a principle that Keynes claimed to have disproved.

But to be fair, I should also observe that missing from Krugman’s take down of Friedman was any mention that in the original HIcksian IS-LM model, the price level was left undetermined, so that as late as 1970, most Keynesians were still in denial that inflation was a monetary phenomenon, arguing instead that inflation was essentially a cost-push phenomenon determined by the rate of increase in wages. Control of inflation was thus not primarily under the control of the central bank, but required some sort of “incomes policy” (wage-price guidelines, guideposts, controls or what have you) which opened the door for Nixon to cynically outflank his Democratic (Keynesian) opponents by coopting their proposals for price controls when he imposed a wage-price freeze (almost 42 years ago on August 15, 1971) to his everlasting shame and discredit.

Scott asked me to list some monetary ideas that I believe are in conflict with IS-LM. I have done so in my earlier posts (here, here, here and here) on Earl Thompson’s paper “A Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory” (not that I am totally satisfied with Thompson’s model either, but that’s a topic for another post). Three of the main messages from Thompson’s work are that IS-LM mischaracterizes the monetary sector, because in a modern monetary economy the money supply is endogenous, not exogenous as Keynes and Friedman assumed. Second, the IS curve (or something corresponding to it) is not negatively sloped as Keynesians generally assume, but upward-sloping. I don’t think Friedman ever said a word about an upward-sloping IS curve. Third, the IS-LM model is essentially a one-period model which makes it difficult to carry out a dynamic analysis that incorporates expectations into that framework. Analysis of inflation, expectations, and the distinction between nominal and real interest rates requires a richer model than the HIcksian IS-LM apparatus. But Friedman didn’t scrap IS-LM, he expanded it to accommodate expectations, inflation, and the distinction between real and nominal interest rates.

Scott’s complaint about IS-LM seems to be that it implies that easy money reduces interest rates and that tight money raises rates, but, in reality, it’s the opposite. But I don’t think that you need a macro-model to understand that low inflation implies low interest rates and that high inflation implies high interest rates. There is nothing in IS-LM that contradicts that insight; it just requires augmenting the model with a term for expectations. But there’s nothing in the model that prevents you from seeing the distinction between real and nominal interest rates. Similarly, there is nothing in MV = PY that prevented Friedman from seeing that increasing the quantity of money by 3% a year was not likely to stabilize the economy. If you are committed to a particular result, you can always torture a model in such a way that the desired result can be deduced from it. Friedman did it to MV = PY to get his 3% rule; Keynesians (or some of them) did it to IS-LM to argue that low interest rates always indicate easy money (and it’s not only Keynesians who do that, as Scott knows only too well). So what? Those are examples of the universal tendency to forget that there is an identification problem. I blame the modeler, not the model.

OK, so why am I not a fan of Friedman’s? Here are some reasons. But before I list them, I will state for the record that he was a great economist, and deserved the professional accolades that he received in his long and amazingly productive career. I just don’t think that he was that great a monetary theorist, but his accomplishments far exceeded his contributions to monetary theory. The accomplishments mainly stemmed from his great understanding of price theory, and his skill in applying it to economic problems, and his great skill as a mathematical statistician.

1 His knowledge of the history of monetary theory was very inadequate. He had an inordinately high opinion of Lloyd Mints’s History of Banking Theory which was obsessed with proving that the real bills doctrine was a fallacy, uncritically adopting its pro-currency-school and anti-banking-school bias.

2 He covered up his lack of knowledge of the history of monetary theory by inventing a non-existent Chicago oral tradition and using it as a disguise for his repackaging the Cambridge theory of the demand for money and aspects of the Keynesian theory of liquidity preference as the quantity theory of money, while deliberately obfuscating the role of the interest rate as the opportunity cost of holding money.

3 His theory of international monetary adjustment was a naïve version of the Humean Price-Specie-Flow mechanism, ignoring the tendency of commodity arbitrage to equalize price levels under the gold standard even without gold shipments, thereby misinterpreting the significance of gold shipments under the gold standard.

4 In trying to find a respectable alternative to Keynesian theory, he completely ignored all pre-Keynesian monetary theories other than what he regarded as the discredited Austrian theory, overlooking or suppressing the fact that Hawtrey and Cassel had 40 years before he published the Monetary History of the United States provided (before the fact) a monetary explanation for the Great Depression, which he claimed to have discovered. And in every important respect, Friedman’s explanation was inferior to and retrogression from Hawtrey and Cassel explanation.

5 For example, his theory provided no explanation for the beginning of the downturn in 1929, treating it as if it were simply routine business-cycle downturn, while ignoring the international dimensions, and especially the critical role played by the insane Bank of France.

6 His 3% rule was predicated on the implicit assumption that the demand for money (or velocity of circulation) is highly stable, a proposition for which there was, at best, weak empirical support. Moreover, it was completely at variance with experience during the nineteenth century when the model for his 3% rule — Peel’s Bank Charter Act of 1844 — had to be suspended three times in the next 22 years as a result of financial crises largely induced, as Walter Bagehot explained, by the restriction on creation of banknotes imposed by the Bank Charter Act. However, despite its obvious shortcomings, the 3% rule did serve as an ideological shield with which Friedman could defend his libertarian credentials against criticism for his opposition to the gold standard (so beloved of libertarians) and to free banking (the theory of which Friedman did not comprehend until late in his career).

7 Despite his professed libertarianism, he was an intellectual bully who abused underlings (students and junior professors) who dared to disagree with him, as documented in Perry Mehrling’s biography of Fischer Black, and confirmed to me by others who attended his lectures. Black was made so uncomfortable by Friedman that Black fled Chicago to seek refuge among the Keynesians at MIT.

The Reinhart-Rogoff Rally

In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, Paul Krugman explains “How the Case for Austerity Has Crumbled,” focusing at length on the infamous Reinhart-Rogoff 90% debt-to-GDP threshold, and how it became a sort of banner, especially in the US and Europe, for the worldwide austerity caucus. Aside from some quibbles, I don’t have much to criticize in Krugman’s treatment, though I am puzzled by his Figure 1, showing, insofar as I can understand it, that government spending increased sharply in 2008 and tapered off thereafter. But Krugman asserts:

[A]fter a brief surge in 2009, government spending began falling in both Europe and the United States.

In his Figure 1 (reproduced below), Krugman identifies his zero year as 2007 (“zero year is the before global recession (2007 in the current slump) and spending is compared with its level in that base year.”) But government spending equals 100 in year -1 and increases sharply in year 0. So his figure indicates that spending increased in 2008 not 2009. It therefore seems to me that the horizontal axis in Figure 1 was mislabeled.

Krugman_government_spending

The 90% debt-to-GDP threshold was derived from a paper, “Growth in Time of Debt,” by Reinhart and Rogoff. After other researches had repeatedly failed to replicate its results, Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Polin identified a coding error, missing data, and an unconventional weighting of summary statistics by Reinhart and Rogoff, the three together accounting for the existence of the otherwise inexplicable 90% threshold in the paper.

Despite several attempts Reinhart and Rogoff to minimize the misleading implications of their paper, the 90% threshold, which never had any theoretical credibility, is now thoroughly discredited; any citation of  it as authoritative would rightly invite scorn and ridicule.

Krugman comments:

At this point, then, austerity economics is in a very bad way. Its predictions have proved utterly wrong; its founding academic documents haven’t just lost their canonized status, they’ve become the objects of much ridicule. But as I’ve pointed out, none of this (except that Excel error) should have come as a surprise: basic macroeconomics should have told everyone to expect what did, in fact, happen, and the papers that have now fallen into disrepute were obviously flawed from the start.

What has not yet been commented on as far as I know is the extent to which the discrediting of the Reinhart-Rogoff 90% threshold has had tangible economic consequences.

When the Herndon, Ash, and Pollin paper was posted on the internet about 5 weeks ago on April 15, the S&P 500 closed at 1552.36. The S&P 500 began 2013 at 1426.19, surpassing1500 on January 25. From January 25 until April 15, the S&P 500 fluctuated in the 1500 to 1550 range, only occasionally rising above or falling below those limits. On April 16 and 17, the S&P 500 rose and then fell by about 20 points, closing at 1552.01 on Wednesday April 17. On Thursday April 18, Krugman wrote his New York Times column “The Excel Depression,” the S&P 500 fell to an intraday low of 1536.03 before closing at 1541.61. The S&P 500 has subsequently risen 17 of the next 21 trading days, closing at 1667.47 on last Friday, an increase of almost 126 points, or more than 8%.

I suggest that the most important economic news since April 15 may have been the collapse of the austerity caucus following the public exposure of the Reinhart-Rogoff 90% threshold as a fraud, so that the markets are no longer worried (or, at least, are less worried than before) about the risks that further fiscal tightening will offset the Fed’s modest steps in the direction of monetary ease.

Another positive development has been the decline in the CPI in both March and April, reflecting fortuitous supply-side expansions associated with declining energy and commodity prices. With falling inflation expectations caused by positive supply-side (as opposed to negative demand-side) forces, real interest rates have risen sharply, the 10-year TIPS yield rising from -.69% on April 15 to -.31% on May 17. That increase in real interest rates presumably corresponds to an increase in expected future real incomes. So the economic outlook has gotten a little less bleak over the past month. Call it a reverse Reinhart-Rogoff effect.

They Come not to Praise Market Monetarism, but to Bury It

For some reason – maybe he is still annoyed with Scott Sumner – Paul Krugman decided to channel a post by Mike Konczal purporting to show that Market Monetarism has been refuted by the preliminary first quarter GDP numbers showing NGDP increasing at a 3.7% rate and real GDP increasing at a 2.5% rate in Q1. To Konczal and Krugman (hereinafter K&K) this shows that fiscal policy, not monetary policy, is what matters most for macroeconomic performance. Why is that? Because the Fed, since embarking on its latest splurge of bond purchasing last September, has failed to stimulate economic activity in the face of the increasingly contractionary stance of fiscal policy since them (the fiscal 2013 budget deficit recently being projected to be $775 billion, a mere 4.8% of GDP).

So can we get this straight? GDP is now rising at about the same rate it has been rising since the start of the “recovery” from the 2007-09 downturn. Since September monetary policy has become easier and fiscal policy tighter. And that proves what? Sorry, I still don’t get it. But then again, I was always a little slow on the uptake.

Marcus Nunes, the Economist, Scott Sumner, and David Beckworth all weigh in on the not very devastating K&K onslaught. (Also see this post by Evan Soltas written before the fact.) But let me try to cool things down a bit.

If we posit that we are still in something akin to a zero-lower-bound situation, there are perfectly respectable theoretical grounds on which to recommend both fiscal and monetary stimulus. It is true that monetary policy, in principle, could stimulate a recovery even without fiscal stimulus — and even in the face of fiscal contraction — but for monetary policy to be able to be that effective, it would have to operate through the expectations channel, raising price-level expectations sufficiently to induce private spending. However, for good or ill, monetary policy is not aiming at more than a marginal change in inflation expectations. In that kind of policy environment, the potential effect of monetary policy is sharply constrained. Hence, the monetary theoretical case for fiscal stimulus. This is classic Hawtreyan credit deadlock (see here and here).

If monetary policy can’t do all the work by itself, then the question is whether fiscal policy can help. In principle it could if the Fed is willing to monetize the added debt generated by the fiscal stimulus. But there’s the rub. If the Fed has to monetize the added debt created by the fiscal stimulus — which, for argument’s sake, let us assume is more stimulative than equivalent monetary expansion without the fiscal stimulus — what are we supposed to assume will happen to inflation and inflation expectations?

Here is the internal contradiction – the Sumner critique, if you will – implicit in the Keynesian fiscal-policy prescription. Can fiscal policy work without increasing the rate of inflation or inflation expectations? If monetary policy alone cannot work, because it cannot break through the inflation targeting regime that traps us at the 2 percent inflation ceiling, how is fiscal policy supposed to work its way around the 2% inflation ceiling, except by absolving monetary policy of the obligation to keep inflation at or below the ceiling? But if we can allow the ceiling to be pierced by fiscal policy, why can’t we allow it to be pierced by monetary policy?

Perhaps K&K can explain that one to us.

The State We’re In

Last week, Paul Krugman, set off by this blog post, complained about the current state macroeconomics. Apparently, Krugman feels that if saltwater economists like himself were willing to accommodate the intertemporal-maximization paradigm developed by the freshwater economists, the freshwater economists ought to have reciprocated by acknowledging some role for countercyclical policy. Seeing little evidence of accommodation on the part of the freshwater economists, Krugman, evidently feeling betrayed, came to this rather harsh conclusion:

The state of macro is, in fact, rotten, and will remain so until the cult that has taken over half the field is somehow dislodged.

Besides engaging in a pretty personal attack on his fellow economists, Krugman did not present a very flattering picture of economics as a scientific discipline. What Krugman describes seems less like a search for truth than a cynical bargaining game, in which Krugman feels that his (saltwater) side, after making good faith offers of cooperation and accommodation that were seemingly accepted by the other (freshwater) side, was somehow misled into making concessions that undermined his side’s strategic position. What I found interesting was that Krugman seemed unaware that his account of the interaction between saltwater and freshwater economists was not much more flattering to the former than the latter.

Krugman’s diatribe gave Stephen Williamson an opportunity to scorn and scold Krugman for a crass misunderstanding of the progress of science. According to Williamson, modern macroeconomics has passed by out-of-touch old-timers like Krugman. Among modern macroeconomists, Williamson observes, the freshwater-saltwater distinction is no longer meaningful or relevant. Everyone is now, more or less, on the same page; differences are worked out collegially in seminars, workshops, conferences and in the top academic journals without the rancor and disrespect in which Krugman indulges himself. If you are lucky (and hard-working) enough to be part of it, macroeconomics is a great place to be. One can almost visualize the condescension and the pity oozing from Williamson’s pores for those not part of the charmed circle.

Commenting on this exchange, Noah Smith generally agreed with Williamson that modern macroeconomics is not a discipline divided against itself; the intetermporal maximizers are clearly dominant. But Noah allows himself to wonder whether this is really any cause for celebration – celebration, at any rate, by those not in the charmed circle.

So macro has not yet discovered what causes recessions, nor come anywhere close to reaching a consensus on how (or even if) we should fight them. . . .

Given this state of affairs, can we conclude that the state of macro is good? Is a field successful as long as its members aren’t divided into warring camps? Or should we require a science to give us actual answers? And if we conclude that a science isn’t giving us actual answers, what do we, the people outside the field, do? Do we demand that the people currently working in the field start producing results pronto, threatening to replace them with people who are currently relegated to the fringe? Do we keep supporting the field with money and acclaim, in the hope that we’re currently only in an interim stage, and that real answers will emerge soon enough? Do we simply conclude that the field isn’t as fruitful an area of inquiry as we thought, and quietly defund it?

All of this seems to me to be a side issue. Who cares if macroeconomists like each other or hate each other? Whether they get along or not, whether they treat each other nicely or not, is really of no great import. For example, it was largely at Milton Friedman’s urging that Harry Johnson was hired to be the resident Keynesian at Chicago. But almost as soon as Johnson arrived, he and Friedman were getting into rather unpleasant personal exchanges and arguments. And even though Johnson underwent a metamorphosis from mildly left-wing Keynesianism to moderately conservative monetarism during his nearly two decades at Chicago, his personal and professional relationship with Friedman got progressively worse. And all of that nastiness was happening while both Friedman and Johnson were becoming dominant figures in the economics profession. So what does the level of collegiality and absence of personal discord have to do with the state of a scientific or academic discipline? Not all that much, I would venture to say.

So when Scott Sumner says:

while Krugman might seem pessimistic about the state of macro, he’s a Pollyanna compared to me. I see the field of macro as being completely adrift

I agree totally. But I diagnose the problem with macro a bit differently from how Scott does. He is chiefly concerned with getting policy right, which is certainly important, inasmuch as policy, since early 2008, has, for the most part, been disastrously wrong. One did not need a theoretically sophisticated model to see that the FOMC, out of misplaced concern that inflation expectations were becoming unanchored, kept money way too tight in 2008 in the face of rising food and energy prices, even as the economy was rapidly contracting in the second and third quarters. And in the wake of the contraction in the second and third quarters and a frightening collapse and panic in the fourth quarter, it did not take a sophisticated model to understand that rapid monetary expansion was called for. That’s why Scott writes the following:

All we really know is what Milton Friedman knew, with his partial equilibrium approach. Monetary policy drives nominal variables.  And cyclical fluctuations caused by nominal shocks seem sub-optimal.  Beyond that it’s all conjecture.

Ahem, and Marshall and Wicksell and Cassel and Fisher and Keynes and Hawtrey and Robertson and Hayek and at least 25 others that I could easily name. But it’s interesting to note that, despite his Marshallian (anti-Walrasian) proclivities, it was Friedman himself who started modern macroeconomics down the fruitless path it has been following for the last 40 years when he introduced the concept of the natural rate of unemployment in his famous 1968 AEA Presidential lecture on the role of monetary policy. Friedman defined the natural rate of unemployment as:

the level [of unemployment] that would be ground out by the Walrasian system of general equilibrium equations, provided there is embedded in them the actual structural characteristics of the labor and commodity markets, including market imperfections, stochastic variability in demands and supplies, the costs of gathering information about job vacancies, and labor availabilities, the costs of mobility, and so on.

Aside from the peculiar verb choice in describing the solution of an unknown variable contained in a system of equations, what is noteworthy about his definition is that Friedman was explicitly adopting a conception of an intertemporal general equilibrium as the unique and stable solution of that system of equations, and, whether he intended to or not, appeared to be suggesting that such a concept was operationally useful as a policy benchmark. Thus, despite Friedman’s own deep skepticism about the usefulness and relevance of general-equilibrium analysis, Friedman, for whatever reasons, chose to present his natural-rate argument in the language (however stilted on his part) of the Walrasian general-equilibrium theory for which he had little use and even less sympathy.

Inspired by the powerful policy conclusions that followed from the natural-rate hypothesis, Friedman’s direct and indirect followers, most notably Robert Lucas, used that analysis to transform macroeconomics, reducing macroeconomics to the manipulation of a simplified intertemporal general-equilibrium system. Under the assumption that all economic agents could correctly forecast all future prices (aka rational expectations), all agents could be viewed as intertemporal optimizers, any observed unemployment reflecting the optimizing choices of individuals to consume leisure or to engage in non-market production. I find it inconceivable that Friedman could have been pleased with the direction taken by the economics profession at large, and especially by his own department when he departed Chicago in 1977. This is pure conjecture on my part, but Friedman’s departure upon reaching retirement age might have had something to do with his own lack of sympathy with the direction that his own department had, under Lucas’s leadership, already taken. The problem was not so much with policy, but with the whole conception of what constitutes macroeconomic analysis.

The paper by Carlaw and Lipsey, which I referenced in my previous post, provides just one of many possible lines of attack against what modern macroeconomics has become. Without in any way suggesting that their criticisms are not weighty and serious, I would just point out that there really is no basis at all for assuming that the economy can be appropriately modeled as being in a continuous, or nearly continuous, state of general equilibrium. In the absence of a complete set of markets, the Arrow-Debreu conditions for the existence of a full intertemporal equilibrium are not satisfied, and there is no market mechanism that leads, even in principle, to a general equilibrium. The rational-expectations assumption is simply a deus-ex-machina method by which to solve a simplified model, a method with no real-world counterpart. And the suggestion that rational expectations is no more than the extension, let alone a logical consequence, of the standard rationality assumptions of basic economic theory is transparently bogus. Nor is there any basis for assuming that, if a general equilibrium does exist, it is unique, and that if it is unique, it is necessarily stable. In particular, in an economy with an incomplete (in the Arrow-Debreu sense) set of markets, an equilibrium may very much depend on the expectations of agents, expectations potentially even being self-fulfilling. We actually know that in many markets, especially those characterized by network effects, equilibria are expectation-dependent. Self-fulfilling expectations may thus be a characteristic property of modern economies, but they do not necessarily produce equilibrium.

An especially pretentious conceit of the modern macroeconomics of the last 40 years is that the extreme assumptions on which it rests are the essential microfoundations without which macroeconomics lacks any scientific standing. That’s preposterous. Perfect foresight and rational expectations are assumptions required for finding the solution to a system of equations describing a general equilibrium. They are not essential properties of a system consistent with the basic rationality propositions of microeconomics. To insist that a macroeconomic theory must correspond to the extreme assumptions necessary to prove the existence of a unique stable general equilibrium is to guarantee in advance the sterility and uselessness of that theory, because the entire field of study called macroeconomics is the result of long historical experience strongly suggesting that persistent, even cumulative, deviations from general equilibrium have been routine features of economic life since at least the early 19th century. That modern macroeconomics can tell a story in which apparently large deviations from general equilibrium are not really what they seem is not evidence that such deviations don’t exist; it merely shows that modern macroeconomics has constructed a language that allows the observed data to be classified in terms consistent with a theoretical paradigm that does not allow for lapses from equilibrium. That modern macroeconomics has constructed such a language is no reason why anyone not already committed to its underlying assumptions should feel compelled to accept its validity.

In fact, the standard comparative-statics propositions of microeconomics are also based on the assumption of the existence of a unique stable general equilibrium. Those comparative-statics propositions about the signs of the derivatives of various endogenous variables (price, quantity demanded, quantity supplied, etc.) with respect to various parameters of a microeconomic model involve comparisons between equilibrium values of the relevant variables before and after the posited parametric changes. All such comparative-statics results involve a ceteris-paribus assumption, conditional on the existence of a unique stable general equilibrium which serves as the starting and ending point (after adjustment to the parameter change) of the exercise, thereby isolating the purely hypothetical effect of a parameter change. Thus, as much as macroeconomics may require microfoundations, microeconomics is no less in need of macrofoundations, i.e., the existence of a unique stable general equilibrium, absent which a comparative-statics exercise would be meaningless, because the ceteris-paribus assumption could not otherwise be maintained. To assert that macroeconomics is impossible without microfoundations is therefore to reason in a circle, the empirically relevant propositions of microeconomics being predicated on the existence of a unique stable general equilibrium. But it is precisely the putative failure of a unique stable intertemporal general equilibrium to be attained, or to serve as a powerful attractor to economic variables, that provides the rationale for the existence of a field called macroeconomics.

So I certainly agree with Krugman that the present state of macroeconomics is pretty dismal. However, his own admitted willingness (and that of his New Keynesian colleagues) to adopt a theoretical paradigm that assumes the perpetual, or near-perpetual, existence of a unique stable intertemporal equilibrium, or at most admits the possibility of a very small set of deviations from such an equilibrium, means that, by his own admission, Krugman and his saltwater colleagues also bear a share of the responsibility for the very state of macroeconomics that Krugman now deplores.


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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