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CAUTION Accounting Identity Handle with Care

About three years ago, early in my blogging career, I wrote a series of blog posts (most or all aimed at Scott Sumner) criticizing him for an argument in a blog post about the inefficacy of fiscal stimulus that relied on the definitional equality of savings and investment. Here’s the statement I found objectionable.

Wren-Lewis seems to be . . . making a simple logical error (which is common among Keynesians.)  He equates “spending” with “consumption.”  But the part of income not “spent” is saved, which means it’s spent on investment projects.  Remember that S=I, indeed saving is defined as the resources put into investment projects.  So the tax on consumers will reduce their ability to save and invest.

I’m not going to quote any further from that discussion. If you’re interested here are links to the posts that I wrote (here, here, here, here, here, and this one in which I made an argument so obviously false that, in my embarrassment, I felt like giving up blogging, and this one in which I managed to undo, at least partially, the damage of the self-inflicted wound). But, probably out of exhaustion, that discussion came to an inconclusive end, and Scott and I went on with our lives with no hard feelings.

Well, in a recent post, Scott has again invoked the savings-equals-investment identity, so I am going to have to lodge another protest, even though I thought that, aside from his unfortunate reference to the savings-investment identity, his post made a lot of sense. So I am going to raise the issue one more time – we have had three years to get over our last discussion – hoping that I can now convince Scott to stop using accounting identities to make causal statements.

Scott begins by discussing the simplest version of the income-expenditure model (aka the Keynesian cross or 45-degree model), while treating it, as did Keynes, as if it were interchangeable with the national-accounting identities:

In the standard national income accounting, gross domestic income equals gross domestic output.  In the simplest model of all (with no government or trade) you have the following identity:

NGDI = C + S = C + I = NGDP  (it also applies to RGDI and RGDP)

Because these two variables are identical, any model that explains one will, ipso facto, explain the other.

There is a lot of ground to cover in these few lines. First of all, there are actually three relevant variables — income, output, and expenditure – not just two. Second aggregate income is not really the same thing as consumption and savings. Aggregate income is constituted by the aggregate earnings of all factors of production. However, an accounting identity assures us that all factor incomes accruing to factors of production, which are all ultimately owned by the households providing services to business firms, must be disposed of either by being spent on consumption or by being saved. Aggregate expenditure is different from aggregate income; expenditure is constituted not by the earnings of households, but by their spending on consumption and by the spending of businesses on investment, the purchase of durable equipment not physically embodied in output sold to households or other businesses. Aggregate expenditure is very close to but not identical with aggregate output. They can differ, because not all output is sold, some of it being retained within the firm as work in progress or as inventory. However, in an equilibrium situation in which variables were unchanging, aggregate income, expenditure and output would all be equal.

The equality of these three variables can be thought of as a condition of macroeconomic equilibrium. When a macroeconomic system is not in equilibrium, aggregate factor incomes are not equal to aggregate expenditure or to aggregate output. The inequality between factor incomes and expenditure induces further adjustments in spending and earnings ultimately leading to an equilibrium in which equality between those variables is restored.

So what Scott should have said is that because NGDI and NGDP are equal in equilibrium, any model that explains one will, ipso facto, explain the other, because the equality between the two is the condition for finding a solution to the model. It therefore follows that savings and investment are absolutely not the same thing. Savings is the portion of household earnings from providing factor services that is not spent on consumption. Investment is what business firms spend on plant and equipment. The two magnitudes are obviously not the same, and they do not have to be equal. However, equality between savings and investment is, like the equality between income and expenditure, a condition for macroeconomic equilibrium. In an economy not in equilibrium, savings does not equal investment. But the inequality between savings and investment induces adjustments that, in a stable macroeconomic system, move the economy toward equilibrium. Back to Scott:

Nonetheless, I think if we focus on NGDI we are more likely to be able to think clearly about macro issues.  Consider the recent comment left by Doug:

Regarding Investment, changes in private investment are the single biggest dynamic in the business cycle. While I may be 1/4 the size of C in terms of the contribution to spending, it is 6x more volatile. The economy doesn’t slip into recession because of a fluctuation in Consumption. Changes in Investment drive AD.

This is probably how most people look at things, but in my view it’s highly misleading. Monetary policy drives AD, and AD drives investment. This is easier to explain if we think in terms of NGDI, not NGDP.  Tight money reduces NGDI.  That means the sum of nominal consumption and nominal saving must fall, by the amount that NGDI declines.  What about real income?  If wages are sticky, then as NGDI declines, hours worked will fall, and real income will decline.

So far we have no reason to assume that C or S will fall at a different rate than NGDI. But if real income falls for temporary reasons (the business cycle), then the public will typically smooth consumption.  Thus if NGDP falls by 4%, consumption might fall by 2% while saving might fall by something like 10%.  This is a prediction of the permanent income hypothesis.  And of course if saving falls much more sharply than gross income, investment will also decline sharply, because savings is exactly equal to investment.

First, I observe that consumption smoothing and the permanent-income hypothesis are irrelevant to the discussion, because Scott does not explain where any of his hypothetical numbers come from or how they are related. Based on commenter Doug’s suggestion that savings is ¼ the size of consumption, one could surmise that a 4% reduction in NGDP and a 2% reduction in consumption imply a marginal propensity to consumer of 0.4. Suppose that consumption did not change at all (consumption smoothing to the max), then savings, bearing the entire burden of adjustment, would fall through the floor. What would that imply for the new equilibrium of NGDI? In the standard Keynesian model, a zero marginal propensity to consume would imply a smaller effect on NGDP from a given shock than you get with an MPC of 0.4.

It seems to me that Scott is simply positing numbers and performing calculations independently of any model, and then tells us that the numbers have to to be what he says they are because of an accounting identity. That does not seem like an assertion not an argument, or, maybe like reasoning from a price change. Scott is trying to make an inference about how the world operates from an accounting identity between two magnitudes. The problem is that the two magnitudes are variables in an economic model, and their values are determined by the interaction of all the variables in the model. Just because you can solve the model mathematically by using the equality of two variables as an equilibrium condition does not entitle you to posit a change in one and then conclude that the other must change by the same amount. You have to show how the numbers you have posited are derived from the model.

If two variables are really identical, rather than just being equal in equilibrium, then they are literally the same thing, and you can’t draw any inference about the real world from the fact that they are equal, there being no possible state of the world in which they are not equal. It is only because savings and investment are not the same thing, and because in some states of the world they are not equal, that we can make any empirical statement about what the world is like when savings and investment are equal. Back to Scott:

This is where Keynesian economics has caused endless confusion.  Keynesians don’t deny that (ex post) less saving leads to less investment, but they think this claim is misleading, because (they claim) an attempt by the public to save less will boost NGDP, and this will lead to more investment (and more realized saving.)  In their model when the public attempts to save less (ex ante), it may well end up saving more (ex post.)

I agree that Keynesian economics has caused a lot of confusion about savings and investment, largely because Keynes, who, as a philosopher and a mathematician, should have known better, tied himself into knots by insisting that savings and investment are identical, while at the same time saying that their equality was brought about, not by variations in the rate of interest, but by variations in income. Hawtrey, Robertson, and Haberler, among others, pointed out the confusion, but Keynes never seemed to grasp the point. Textbook treatments of national-income accounting and the simple Keynesian cross still don’t seem to have figured this out. But despite his disdain for Keynesian economics, Scott still has to figure it out, too. The best place to start is Richard Lipsey’s classic article “The Foundations of the Theory of National Income: An Analysis of Some Fundamental Errors” (a gated link is available here).

Scott begins by sayings that Keynesians don’t deny that (ex post) less saving leads to less investment. I don’t understand that assertion at all; Keynesians believe that a desired increase in savings, if desired savings exceeded investment, leads to a decrease in income that reduces saving. But the abortive attempt to increase savings has no effect on investment unless you posit an investment function (AKA an accelerator) that includes income as an independent variable. The accelerator was later added to the basic Keynesian model Hicks and others in order to generate cyclical fluctuations in income and employment, but non-Keynesians like Ralph Hawtrey had discussed the accelerator model long before Keynes wrote the General Theory. Scott then contradicts himself in the next sentence by saying that Keynesians believe that by attempting to save less, the public may wind up saving more. Again this result relies on the assumption of an accelerator-type investment function, which is a non-Keynesian assumption. In the basic Keynesian model investment is determined by entrepreneurial expectations. An increase (decrease) in thrift will be self-defeating, because in the new equilibrium income will have fallen (risen) sufficiently to reduce (increase) savings back to the fixed amount of investment entrepreneurs planned to undertake, entrepreneurial expectations being held fixed over the relevant time period.

I more or less agree with the rest of Scott’s post, but Scott seems to have the same knee-jerk negative reaction to Keynes and Keynesians that I have to Friedman and Friedmanians. Maybe it’s time for both of us to lighten up a bit. Anyway in honor of Scott’s recent appoint to the Ralph Hawtrey Chair of Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, I will just close with this quotation from Ralph Hawtrey’s review of the General Theory (chapter 7 of Hawtrey’s Capital and Employment) about Keynes’s treatment of savings and investment as identically equal.

[A]n essential step in [Keynes’s] train of reasoning is the proposition that investment and saving are necessarily equal. That proposition Mr. Keynes never really establishes; he evades the necessity doing so by defining investment and saving as different names for the same thing. He so defines income to be the same thing as output, and therefore, if investment is the excess of output over consumption, and saving is the excess of income over consumption, the two are identical. Identity so established cannot prove anything. The idea that a tendency for investment and saving to become different has to be counteracted by an expansion or contraction of the total of incomes is an absurdity; such a tendency cannot strain the economic system, it can only strain Mr. Keynes’s vocabulary.

A Keynesian Postscript on the Bright and Shining, Dearly Beloved, Depression of 1920-21

In his latest blog post Paul Krugman drew my attention to Keynes’s essay The Great Slump of 1930. In describing the enormity of the 1930 slump, Keynes properly compared the severity of the 1930 slump with the 1920-21 episode, noting that the price decline in 1920-21 was of a similar magnitude to that of 1930. James Grant, in his book on the Greatest Depression, argues that the Greatest Depression was so outstanding, because, in contrast to the Great Depression, there was no attempt by the government in 1920-21 to cushion the blow. Instead, the powers that be just stood back and let the devil take the hindmost.

Keynes had a different take on the difference between the Greatest Depression and the Great Depression:

First of all, the extreme violence of the slump is to be noticed. In the three leading industrial countries of the world—the United States, Great Britain, and Germany—10,000,000 workers stand idle. There is scarcely an important industry anywhere earning enough profit to make it expand—which is the test of progress. At the same time, in the countries of primary production the output of mining and of agriculture is selling, in the case of almost every important commodity, at a price which, for many or for the majority of producers, does not cover its cost. In 1921, when prices fell as heavily, the fall was from a boom level at which producers were making abnormal profits; and there is no example in modern history of so great and rapid a fall of prices from a normal figure as has occurred in the past year. Hence the magnitude of the catastrophe.

In diagnosing what went wrong in the Great Depression, Keynes largely, though not entirely, missed the most important cause of the catastrophe, the appreciation of gold caused by the attempt to restore an international gold standard without a means by which to control the monetary demand for gold of the world’s central banks — most notoriously, the insane Bank of France. Keynes should have paid more attention to Hawtrey and Cassel than he did. But Keynes was absolutely on target in explaining why the world more easily absorbed and recovered from a 40% deflation in 1920-21 than it was able to do in 1929-33.

Making Sense of the Phillips Curve

In a comment on my previous post about supposedly vertical long run Phillips Curve, Richard Lipsey mentioned a paper he presented a couple of years ago at the History of Economics Society Meeting: “The Phillips Curve and the Tyranny of an Assumed Unique Macro Equilibrium.” In a subsequent comment, Richard also posted the abstract to his paper. The paper provides a succinct yet fascinating overview of the evolution macroeconomists’ interpretations of the Phillips curve since Phillips published his paper almost 60 years ago.

The two key points that I take away from Richard’s discussion are the following. 1) A key microeconomic assumption underlying the Keynesian model is that over a broad range of outputs, most firms are operating under conditions of constant short-run marginal cost, because in the short run firms keep the capital labor ratio fixed, varying their usage of capital along with the amount of labor utilized. With a fixed capital-labor ration, marginal cost is flat. In the usual textbook version, the short-run marginal cost is rising because of a declining capital-labor ratio, requiring an increasing number of workers to wring out successive equal increments of output from a fixed amount of capital. Given flat marginal cost, firms respond to changes in demand by varying output but not price until they hit a capacity bottleneck.

The second point, a straightforward implication of the first, is that there are multiple equilibria for such an economy, each equilibrium corresponding to a different level of total demand, with a price level more or less determined by costs, at any rate until total output approaches the limits of its capacity.

Thus, early on, the Phillips Curve was thought to be relatively flat, with little effect on inflation unless unemployment was forced down below some very low level. The key question was how far unemployment could be pushed down before significant inflationary pressure would begin to emerge. Doctrinaire Keynesians advocated driving unemployment down as low as possible, while skeptics argued that significant inflationary pressure would begin to emerge even at higher rates of unemployment, so that a prudent policy would be to operate at a level of unemployment sufficiently high to keep inflationary pressures in check.

Lipsey allows that, in the 1960s, the view that the Phillips Curve presented a menu of alternative combinations of unemployment and inflation from which policymakers could choose did take hold, acknowledging that he himself expressed such a view in a 1965 paper (“Structural and Deficient Demand Unemployment Reconsidered” in Employment Policy and the Labor Market edited by Arthur Ross), “inflationary points on the Phillips Curve represent[ing] disequilibrium points that had to be maintained by monetary policy that perpetuated the disequilibrium by suitable increases in the rate of monetary expansion.” It was this version of the Phillips Curve that was effectively attacked by Friedman and Phelps, who replaced it with a version in which the equilibrium rate of unemployment is uniquely determined by real factors, the natural rate of unemployment, any deviation from the natural rate resulting in a series of adjustments in inflation and expected inflation that would restore the natural rate of unemployment.

Sometime in the 1960s the Phillips curve came to be thought of as providing a stable trade-off between inflation and unemployment. When Lipsey did adopt this trade-off version, as for example Lipsey (1965), inflationary points on the Phillips curve represented disequilibrium points that had to be maintained by monetary policy that perpetuated the disequilibrium by suitable increases in the rate of monetary expansion. In the new Classical interpretation that began with Edmund Phelps (1967), Milton Friedman (1968) and Lucas and Rapping (1969), each point was an equilibrium point because demands and supplies of agents were shifted from their full-information locations when they misinterpreted the price signals. There was, however, only one full-information equilibrium of income, Y*, and unemployment, U*.

The Friedman-Phelps argument was made as inflation rose significantly in the late 1960s, and the mild 1969-70 recession reduce inflation by only a smidgen, setting the stage for Nixon’s imposition of his disastrous wage and price controls in 1971 combined with a loosening of monetary policy by a compliant Arthur Burns as part of Nixon’s 1972 reelection strategy. When the hangover to the 1972 monetary binge was combined with a quadrupling of oil prices by OPEC in late 1973, the result was a simultaneous increase in inflation and unemployment – stagflation — a combination widely perceived as a decisive refutation of Keynesian theory. To cope with that theoretical conundrum, the Keynesian model was expanded to incorporate the determination of the price level by deriving an aggregate supply and aggregate demand curve in price-level/output space.

Lipsey acknowledges a crucial misstep in constructing the Aggregate Demand/Aggregate Supply framework: assuming a unique macroeconomic equilibrium, an assumption that implied the existence of a unique natural rate of unemployment. Keynesians won the battle, providing a perfectly respectable theoretical explanation for stagflation, but, in doing so, they lost the war to Friedman, paving the way for the malign ascendancy of New Classical economics, with which New Keynesian economics became an effective collaborator. Whether the collaboration was willing or unwilling is unclear and unimportant; by assuming a unique equilibrium, New Keynesians gave up the game.

I was so intent in showing that this AD-AS construction provided a simple Keynesian explanation of stagflation, contrary to the accusation of the New Classical economists that stagflation provided a conclusive refutation of Keynesian economics that I paid too little attention to the enormous importance of the new assumption introduced into Keynesian models. The addition of an expectations-augmented Philips curve, negatively sloped in the short run but vertical in the long run, produced a unique macro equilibrium that would be reached whatever macroeconomic policy was adopted.

Lipsey does not want to go back to the old Keynesian paradigm; he prefers a third approach that can be traced back to, among others, Joseph Schumpeter in which the economy is viewed “as constantly evolving under the impact of endogenously generated technological change.” Such technological change can be vaguely foreseen, but also gives rise to genuine surprises. The course of economic development is not predetermined, but path-dependent. History matters.

I suggest that the explanation of the current behaviour of inflation, output and unemployment in modern industrial economies is provided not by any EWD [equilibrium with deviations] theory but by evolutionary theories. These build on the obvious observation that technological change is continual in modern economies (decade by decade at least since 1760), but uneven (tending to come in spurts), and path dependent (because, among other reasons, knowledge is cumulative with one advance enabling another). These changes are generated endogenously by private-sector, profit-seeking agents competing in terms of new products, new processes and new forms of organisation, and by public sector activities in such places as universities and government research laboratories. They continually alter the structure of the economy, causing waves of serially correlated investment expenditure that are a major cause of cycles, as well as driving the long-term growth that continually transforms our economic, social and political structures. In their important book As Time Goes By, Freeman and Louça (2001) trace these processes as they have operated since the beginnings of the First Industrial Revolution.

A critical distinction in all such theories is between risk, which is easily handled in neoclassical economics, and uncertainty, which is largely ignored in it except to pay it lip service. In risky situations, agents with the same objective function and identical knowledge will chose the same alternative: the one that maximizes the expected value of their profits or utility. This gives rise to unique predictable behaviour of agents acting under specified conditions. In contrast in uncertain situations, two identically situated and motivated agents can, and observably do, choose different alternatives — as for example when different firms all looking for the same technological breakthrough chose different lines of R&D — and there is no way to tell in advance of knowing the results which is the better choice. Importantly, agents typically make R&D decisions under conditions of genuine uncertainty. No one knows if a direction of technological investigation will go up a blind alley or open onto a rich field of applications until funds are spend investigating the route. Sometimes trivial expenses produce results of great value while major expenses produce nothing of value. Since there is no way to decide in advance which of two alternative actions with respect to invention or innovation is the best one until the results are known, there is no unique line of behaviour that maximises agents’ expected profits. Thus agents are better understood as groping into an uncertain future in a purposeful, profit- or utility-seeking manner, rather than as maximizing their profits or utility.

This is certainly the right way to think about how economies evolve over time, but I would just add that even if one stays within the more restricted framework of Walrasian general equilibrium, there is simply no persuasive theoretical reason to assume that there is a unique equilibrium or that an economy will necessarily arrive at that equilibrium no matter how long we wait. I have discussed this point several times before most recently here. The assumption that there is a natural rate of unemployment “ground out,” as Milton Friedman put it so awkwardly, “by the Walrasian system of general equilibrium equations” simply lacks any theoretical foundation. Even in a static model in which knowledge and technology were not evolving, the natural rate of unemployment is a will o the wisp.

Because there is no unique static equilibrium in the evolutionary world in which history matters, no adjustment mechanism is required to maintain it. Instead, the constantly changing economy can exist over a wide range of income, employment and unemployment values, without behaving as it would if its inflation rate were determined by an expectations-augmented Phillips curve or any similar construct centred on unique general equilibrium values of Y and U. Thus there is no stable long-run vertical Phillips curve or aggregate supply curve.

Instead of the Phillips curve there is a band as shown in Figure 4 [See below]. Its midpoint is at the expected rate of inflation. If the central bank has a credible inflation target that it sticks to, the expected rate will be that target rate, shown as πe in the figure. The actual rate will vary around the expected rate depending on a number of influences such as changes in productivity, the price of oil and food, but not significantly on variations in U or Y. At either end of this band, there may be something closer to a conventional Phillips curve with prices and wages falling in the face of a major depression and rising in the face of a major boom financed by monetary expansion. Also, the whole band will be shifted by anything that changes the expected rate of inflation.

phillips_lipsey

Lipsey concludes as follows:

So we seem to have gone full circle from early Keynesian view in which there was no unique level of income to which the economy was inevitably drawn, through a simple Phillips curve with its implied trade off, to an expectations-augmented Phillips curve (or any of its more modern equivalents) with its associated unique level of national income, and finally back to the early non-unique Keynesian view in which policy makers had an option as to the average pressure of aggregate demand at which the economy could be operated.

“Perhaps [then] Keynesians were too hasty in following the New Classical economists in accepting the view that follows from static [and all EWD] models that stable rates of wage and price inflation are poised on the razor’s edge of a unique NAIRU and its accompanying Y*. The alternative does not require a long term Phillips curve trade off, nor does it deny the possibility of accelerating inflations of the kind that have bedevilled many third world countries. It is merely states that industrialised economies with low expected inflation rates may be less precisely responsive than current theory assumes because they are subject to many lags and inertias, and are operating in an ever-changing and uncertain world of endogenous technological change, which has no unique long term static equilibrium. If so, the economy may not be similar to the smoothly functioning mechanical world of Newtonian mechanics but rather to the imperfectly evolving world of evolutionary biology. The Phillips relation then changes from being a precise curve to being a band within which various combinations of inflation and unemployment are possible but outside of which inflation tends to accelerate or decelerate. Perhaps then the great [pre-Phillips curve] debates of the 1940s and early 1950s that assumed that there was a range within which the economy could be run with varying pressures of demand, and varying amounts of unemployment and inflation[ary pressure], were not as silly as they were made to seem when both Keynesian and New Classical economists accepted the assumption of a perfectly inelastic, one-dimensional, long run Phillips curve located at a unique equilibrium Y* and NAIRU.” (Lipsey, “The Phillips Curve,” In Famous Figures and Diagrams in Economics, edited by Mark Blaug and Peter Lloyd, p. 389)

The Near Irrelevance of the Vertical Long-Run Phillips Curve

From a discussion about how much credit Milton Friedman deserves for changing the way that economists thought about inflation, I want to nudge the conversation in a slightly different direction, to restate a point that I made some time ago in one of my favorite posts (The Lucas Critique Revisited). But if Friedman taught us anything it is that incessant repetition of the same already obvious point can do wonders for your reputation. That’s one lesson from Milton that I am willing to take to heart, though my tolerance for hearing myself say the same darn thing over and over again is probably not as great as Friedman’s was, which to be sure is not the only way in which I fall short of him by comparison. (I am almost a foot taller than he was by the way). Speaking of being a foot taller than Friedman, I don’t usually post pictures on this blog, but here is one that I have always found rather touching. And if you don’t know who the other guy is in the picture, you have no right to call yourself an economist.

friedman_&_StiglerAt any rate, the expectations augmented, long-run Phillips Curve, as we all know, was shown by Friedman to be vertical. But what exactly does it mean for the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve to be vertical? Discussions about whether the evidence supports the proposition that the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is vertical (including some of the comments on my recent posts) suggest that people are not clear on what “long-run” means in the context of the expectations-augmented Phillips Curve and have not really thought carefully about what empirical content is contained by the proposition that the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is vertical.

Just to frame the discussion of the Phillips Curve, let’s talk about what the term “long-run” means in economics. What it certainly does not mean is an amount of calendar time, though I won’t deny that there are frequent attempts to correlate long-run with varying durations of calendar time. But all such attempts either completely misunderstand what the long-run actually represents, or they merely aim to provide the untutored with some illusion of concreteness in what is otherwise a completely abstract discussion. In fact, what “long run” connotes is simply a full transition from one equilibrium state to another in the context of a comparative-statics exercise.

If a change in some exogenous parameter is imposed on a pre-existing equilibrium, then the long-run represents the full transition to a new equilibrium in which all endogenous variables have fully adjusted to the parameter change. The short-run, then, refers to some intermediate adjustment to the parameter change in which some endogenous variables have been arbitrarily held fixed (presumably because of some possibly reasonable assumption that some variables are able to adjust more speedily than other variables to the posited parameter change).

Now the Phillips Curve that was discovered by A. W. Phillips in his original paper was a strictly empirical relation between observed (wage) inflation and observed unemployment. But the expectations-augmented long-run Phillips Curve is a theoretical construct. And what it represents is certainly not an observable relationship between inflation and unemployment; it rather is a locus of points of equilibrium, each point representing full adjustment of the labor market to a particular rate of inflation, where full adjustment means that the rate of inflation is fully anticipated by all economic agents in the model. So what the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is telling us is that if we perform a series of comparative-statics exercises in which, starting from full equilibrium with the given rate of inflation fully expected, we impose on the system a parameter change in which the exogenously imposed rate of inflation is changed and deduce a new equilibrium in which the fully and universally expected rate of inflation equals the alternative exogenously imposed inflation parameter, the equilibrium rate of unemployment corresponding to the new inflation parameter will not differ from the equilibrium rate of unemployment corresponding to the original inflation parameter.

Notice, as well, that the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is not saying that imposing a new rate of inflation on an actual economic system would lead to a new equilibrium in which there was no change in unemployment; it is merely comparing alternative equilibria of the same system with different exogenously imposed rates of inflation. To make a statement about the effect of a change in the rate of inflation on unemployment, one has to be able to specify an adjustment path in moving from one equilibrium to another. The comparative-statics method says nothing about the adjustment path; it simply compares two alternative equilibrium states and specifies the change in endogenous variable induced by the change in an exogenous parameter.

So the vertical shape of the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve tells us very little about how, in any given situation, a change in the rate of inflation would actually affect the rate of unemployment. Not only does the expectations-augmented long-run Phillips Curve fail to tell us how a real system starting from equilibrium would be affected by a change in the rate of inflation, the underlying comparative-statics exercise being unable to specify the adjustment path taken by a system once it departs from its original equilibrium state, the expectations augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is even less equipped to tell us about the adjustment to a change in the rate of inflation when a system is not even in equilibrium to begin with.

The entire discourse of the expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve is completely divorced from the kinds of questions that policy makers in the real world usually have to struggle with – questions like will increasing the rate of inflation of an economy in which there is abnormally high unemployment facilitate or obstruct the adjustment process that takes the economy back to a more normal unemployment rate. The expectations-augmented, long-run Phillips Curve may not be completely irrelevant to the making of economic policy – it is good to know, for example, that if we are trying to figure out which time path of NGDP to aim for, there is no particular reason to think that a time path with a 10% rate of growth of NGDP would probably not generate a significantly lower rate of unemployment than a time path with a 5% rate of growth – but its relationship to reality is sufficiently tenuous that it is irrelevant to any discussion of policy alternatives for economies unless those economies are already close to being in equilibrium.

Did David Hume Discover the Vertical Phillips Curve?

In my previous post about Nick Rowe and Milton Friedman, I pointed out to Nick Rowe that Friedman (and Phelps) did not discover the argument that the long-run Phillips Curve, defined so that every rate of inflation is correctly expected, is vertical. The argument I suggested can be traced back at least to Hume. My claim on Hume’s behalf was based on my vague recollection that Hume distinguished between the effect of a high price level and a rising price level, a high price level having no effect on output and employment, while a rising price level increases output and employment.

Scott Sumner offered the following comment, leaving it as an exercise for the reader to figure out what he meant by “didn’t quite get there.”:

As you know Friedman is one of the few areas where we disagree. Here I’ll just address one point, the expectations augmented Phillips Curve. Although I love Hume, he didn’t quite get there, although he did discuss the simple Phillips Curve.

I wrote the following response to Scott referring to the quote that I was thinking of without quoting it verbatim (because I couldn’t remember where to find it):

There is a wonderful quote by Hume about how low prices or high prices are irrelevant to total output, profits and employment, but that unexpected increases in prices are a stimulus to profits, output, and employment. I’ll look for it, and post it.

Nick Rowe then obligingly provided the quotation I was thinking of (but not all of it):

Here, to my mind, is the “money quote” (pun not originally intended) from David Hume’s “Of Money”:

“From the whole of this reasoning we may conclude, that it is of no manner of consequence, with regard to the domestic happiness of a state, whether money be in a greater or less quantity. The good policy of the magistrate consists only in keeping it, if possible, still encreasing; because, by that means, he keeps alive a spirit of industry in the nation, and encreases the stock of labour, in which consists all real power and riches.”

The first sentence is fine. But the second sentence is very clearly a problem.

Was it Friedman who said “we have only advanced one derivative since Hume”?

OK, so let’s see the whole relevant quotation from Hume’s essay “Of Money.”

Accordingly we find, that, in every kingdom, into which money begins to flow in greater abundance than formerly, everything takes a new face: labour and industry gain life; the merchant becomes more enterprising, the manufacturer more diligent and skilful, and even the farmer follows his plough with greater alacrity and attention. This is not easily to be accounted for, if we consider only the influence which a greater abundance of coin has in the kingdom itself, by heightening the price of Commodities, and obliging everyone to pay a greater number of these little yellow or white pieces for everything he purchases. And as to foreign trade, it appears, that great plenty of money is rather disadvantageous, by raising the price of every kind of labour.

To account, then, for this phenomenon, we must consider, that though the high price of commodities be a necessary consequence of the encrease of gold and silver, yet it follows not immediately upon that encrease; but some time is required before the money circulates through the whole state, and makes its effect be felt on all ranks of people. At first, no alteration is perceived; by degrees the price rises, first of one commodity, then of another; till the whole at last reaches a just proportion with the new quantity of specie which is in the kingdom. In my opinion, it is only in this interval or intermediate situation, between the acquisition of money and rise of prices, that the encreasing quantity of gold and silver is favourable to industry. When any quantity of money is imported into a nation, it is not at first dispersed into many hands; but is confined to the coffers of a few persons, who immediately seek to employ it to advantage. Here are a set of manufacturers or merchants, we shall suppose, who have received returns of gold and silver for goods which they sent to CADIZ. They are thereby enabled to employ more workmen than formerly, who never dream of demanding higher wages, but are glad of employment from such good paymasters. If workmen become scarce, the manufacturer gives higher wages, but at first requires an encrease of labour; and this is willingly submitted to by the artisan, who can now eat and drink better, to compensate his additional toil and fatigue.

He carries his money to market, where he, finds everything at the same price as formerly, but returns with greater quantity and of better kinds, for the use of his family. The farmer and gardener, finding, that all their commodities are taken off, apply themselves with alacrity to the raising more; and at the same time can afford to take better and more cloths from their tradesmen, whose price is the same as formerly, and their industry only whetted by so much new gain. It is easy to trace the money in its progress through the whole commonwealth; where we shall find, that it must first quicken the diligence of every individual, before it encrease the price of labour. And that the specie may encrease to a considerable pitch, before it have this latter effect, appears, amongst other instances, from the frequent operations of the FRENCH king on the money; where it was always found, that the augmenting of the numerary value did not produce a proportional rise of the prices, at least for some time. In the last year of LOUIS XIV, money was raised three-sevenths, but prices augmented only one. Corn in FRANCE is now sold at the same price, or for the same number of livres, it was in 1683; though silver was then at 30 livres the mark, and is now at 50. Not to mention the great addition of gold and silver, which may have come into that kingdom since the former period.

From the whole of this reasoning we may conclude, that it is of no manner of consequence, with regard to the domestic happiness of a state, whether money be in a greater or less quantity. The good policy of the magistrate consists only in keeping it, if possible, still encreasing; because, by that means, he keeps alive a spirit of industry in the nation, and encreases the stock of labour, in which consists all real power and riches. A nation, whose money decreases, is actually, at that time, weaker and more miserable than another nation, which possesses no more money, but is on the encreasing hand. This will be easily accounted for, if we consider, that the alterations in the quantity of money, either on one side or the other, are not immediately attended with proportionable alterations in the price of commodities. There is always an interval before matters be adjusted to their new situation; and this interval is as pernicious to industry, when gold and silver are diminishing, as it is advantageous when these metals are encreasing. The workman has not the same employment from the manufacturer and merchant; though he pays the same price for everything in the market. The farmer cannot dispose of his corn and cattle; though he must pay the same rent to his landlord. The poverty, and beggary, and sloth, which must ensue, are easily foreseen.

So Hume understands that once-and-for-all increases in the stock of money and in the price level are neutral, and also that in the transition from one price level to another, there will be a transitory effect on output and employment. However, when he says that the good policy of the magistrate consists only in keeping it, if possible, still increasing; because, by that means, he keeps alive a spirit of industry in the nation, he seems to be suggesting that the long-run Phillips Curve is actually positively sloped, thus confirming Milton Friedman (and Nick Rowe and Scott Sumner) in saying that Hume was off by one derivative.

While I think that is a fair reading of Hume, it is not the only one, because Hume really was thinking in terms of price levels, not rates of inflation. The idea that a good magistrate would keep the stock of money increasing could not have meant that the rate of inflation would indefinitely continue at a particular rate, only that the temporary increase in the price level would be extended a while longer. So I don’t think that Hume would ever have imagined that there could be a steady predicted rate of inflation lasting for an indefinite period of time. If he could have imagined a steady rate of inflation, I think he would have understood the simple argument that, once expected, the steady rate of inflation would not permanently increase output and employment.

At any rate, even if Hume did not explicitly anticipate Friedman’s argument for a vertical long-run Phillips Curve, certainly there many economists before Friedman who did. I will quote just one example from a source (Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty) that predates Friedman by about eight years. There is every reason to think that Friedman was familiar with the source, Hayek having been Friedman’s colleague at the University of Chicago between 1950 and 1962. The following excerpt is from p. 331 of the 1960 edition.

Inflation at first merely produces conditions in which more people make profits and in which profits are generally larger than usual. Almost everything succeeds, there are hardly any failures. The fact that profits again and again prove to be greater than had been expected and that an unusual number of ventures turn out to be successful produces a general atmosphere favorable to risk-taking. Even those who would have been driven out of business without the windfalls caused by the unexpected general rise in prices are able to hold on and to keep their employees in the expectation that they will soon share in the general prosperity. This situation will last, however, only until people begin to expect prices to continue to rise at the same rate. Once they begin to count on prices being so many per cent higher in so many months’ time, they will bid up the prices of the factors of production which determine the costs to a level corresponding to the future prices they expect. If prices then rise no more than had been expected, profits will return to normal, and the proportion of those making a profit also will fall; and since, during the period of exceptionally large profits, many have held on who would otherwise have been forced to change the direction of their efforts, a higher proportion than usual will suffer losses.

The stimulating effect of inflation will thus operate only so long as it has not been foreseen; as soon as it comes to be foreseen, only its continuation at an increased rate will maintain the same degree of prosperity. If in such a situation price rose less than expected, the effect would be the same as that of unforeseen deflation. Even if they rose only as much as was generally expected, this would no longer provide the expectational stimulus but would lay bare the whole backlog of adjustments that had been postponed while the temporary stimulus lasted. In order for inflation to retain its initial stimulating effect, it would have to continue at a rate always faster than expected.

This was certainly not the first time that Hayek made the same argument. See his Studies in Philosophy Politics and Economics, p. 295-96 for a 1958 version of the argument. Is there any part of Friedman’s argument in his 1968 essay (“The Role of Monetary Policy“) not contained in the quote from Hayek? Nor is there anything to indicate that Hayek thought he was making an argument that was not already familiar. The logic is so obvious that it is actually pointless to look for someone who “discovered” it. If Friedman somehow gets credit for making the discovery, it is simply because he was the one who made the argument at just the moment when the rest of the profession happened to be paying attention.

Nick Rowe Goes Bonkers over Milton Friedman

Nick Rowe, usually a very cool guy, recently wrote a gushing post about the awesomeness of Milton Friedman. How uncool of him. As followers of this blog may know, even though I like free markets, am skeptical of big government programs, believe that the business cycle is largely a monetary phenomenon, I am not a fan of Milton Friedman. So I am going to offer some comments about Nick’s panegyric to Friedman.

I can’t think of any economist living today who has had as much influence on economics and economic policy as Milton Friedman had, and still has. Neither on the right, nor on the left.

Bob Lucas and Ned Prescott have not had as much influence on modern macroeconomics as Milton Friedman? I am less of a fan of  Lucas and Prescott than I am of Friedman, but surely Nick can’t be serious.

If you had a time machine, went back to (say) 1985, picked up Milton Friedman, brought him forward to 2015, and showed him the current debate over macroeconomic policy, he could immediately join right in. Is there anything important that would be really new to him?

We are all Friedman’s children and grandchildren. The way that New Keynesians approach macroeconomics owes more to Friedman than to Keynes: the permanent income hypothesis; the expectations-augmented Phillips Curve; the idea that the central bank is responsible for inflation and should follow a transparent rule. The first two Friedman invented; the third pre-dates Friedman, but he persuaded us it was right. Using the nominal interest rate as the monetary policy instrument is non-Friedmanite, but the new-fangled “Quantitative Easing” is just a silly new name for Friedmanite base-control.

Certainly Friedman looms large, and New Keynesianism is indeed a way of rationalizing the price and wage stickiness that Friedman, like so many others, relied on to account for the correlation between downward cyclical movements in nominal GDP, or in its rate of growth, and real GDP. To be sure the permanent-income hypothesis was a great achievement, for it wasn’t just Friedman’s, but the expectations-augmented Phillips Curve was anticipated by far too many people (including David Hume) for Friedman to be given very much credit. He certainly gave an influential statement of the reasoning behind the expectations-augmented Phillips Curve, but that hardly counts as a breakthrough. So of the three key elements of New Keynesianism for which Nick credits Friedman only one was (co-)invented by Friedman; the other two were promoted by Friedman, and he certainly influenced the profession, but they were ideas already out there, when he picked them up. And just what does Nick mean by “Friedmanite base-control?” That Friedman invented open-market operations? Good grief!

Then Nick waxes nostalgic:

We easily forget how daft the 1970’s really were, and some ideas were much worse than pet rocks. (Marxism was by far the worst, of course, and had a lot of support amongst university intellectuals, though not much in economics departments.) When inflation was too high, and we wanted to bring inflation down, many (most?) macroeconomists advocated direct controls on prices and wages.

And governments in Canada, the US, the UK (there must have been more) actually implemented direct controls on prices and wages to bring inflation down. Milton Friedman actually had to argue against price and wage controls and against the prevailing wisdom that inflation was caused by monopoly power, monopoly unions, a grab-bag of sociological factors, and had nothing to do with monetary policy.

Many economists unfortunately either supported, or did not forthrightly oppose, wage and price controls when they were imposed successively in the US, UK and Canada in the early 1970s. And Friedman was certainly right to oppose them, and deserves credit for speaking out eloquently against them. But their failure became palpable to most economists, and it is not as if Friedman required any special insight to see the underlying fallacy that Nick nicely articulates. He was just straightforwardly applying Econ 101.

Imagine if I argued today: “Inflation is dangerously low. In order to increase inflation, governments should pass a law saying that all firms must raise all prices and wages by a minimum of 2% a year, unless they apply for and get special permission from the Prices and Incomes Board to raise them by less.” What are the chances my policy proposal would be accepted?

I hope zero, but are we indebted to Friedman for any argument against wage and price controls that was not understood by economists long before Friedman appeared on the scene?

Friedman had a mountain to move, and he moved it. And because he already moved it, we simply cannot have a Friedman today.

Great men like Friedman require a great job to do, or else they can’t become great men. They also require an aristocracy, oligarchy, or monarchy, where only a few voices can get heard, or else they can’t become one of the few voices. The internet actually makes it harder to create great public intellectuals, which is probably a good thing, simply because it’s harder to stand out as great, when there’s lots of competition.

The right won the economics debate; left and right are just haggling over details. The big debate is no longer about economics (sadly for me); and it won’t be held on the pages of the New York Times or in the economics journals.

Actually I agree with Nick that Friedman was a great man and a great economist. He did make a difference, but the difference was not mainly the result of any important theoretical discoveries or contributions, his theory of the consumption function being his main theoretical contribution. Otherwise, he was a great applied and empirical economist, specializing in US monetary history, but his knowledge of the history of monetary theory was sketchy, causing him to make huge blunders in describing the quantity theory of money as a theory of the demand for money, and in suggesting that his 1956 restatement of the quantity theory was inspired by an imagined Chicago oral tradition, when, in fact, his restatement was a reworking of the Cambridge theory of the demand for money that Keynes had turned into his theory of liquidity preference. He hardly cited the work of earlier monetary theorists, aside from Keynes and Irving Fisher, completely ignoring the monetary theory of Hawtrey and Hawtrey’s monetary explanation of the Great Depression, which preceded Friedman’s by some 30 years. Friedman also wrote a famous paper repackaging a slightly dumbed down version of Karl Popper’s philosophy of science as the methodology of positive economics, without acknowledging Popper, an omission that he seems never to have been called on. But his industriousness and diligence were epic, he had a fine intellect and a true mastery of microeconomic theory, coupled with great empirical and statistical insight when applying theory. His ability to express himself cogently and forcefully in writing and in speech was remarkable, and he had a gift for strategic simplification, which unfortunately often led him to convenient oversimplification. Nor do I doubt that he was sincerely motivated by an idealistic dedication to his conception of free-market principles, which he expounded and defended tirelessly.

Nick seems to believe that because hardly any younger economists recognize then name J. K. Galbraith, and because no one any longer advocates imposing wage and price controls to control or speed up inflation, it is obvious that the right won the economics debate. I don’t entirely disagree with that, but I do think it is more complicated than that, the terms right and left being far too limited to portray a complex reality. Galbraith believed that the book he published in 1967 The New Industrial State was going to demonstrate the market economics was a snare and a delusion, because both the Soviet Union and the US were moving toward an economic system dominated by huge enterprises that engaged in long-term planning and were able to impose their plans on unwilling consumers and workers. The most devastating review of Galbraith’s book was published in the June 1968 edition of The Economic Journal by James Meade, an eminent British economist who had been a close disciple of Keynes at Cambridge, and was a kind of market socialist, or a self-described LibLaberal. The entire essay is worth reading, but I just want to highlight a few excerpts from it.

This argument for a national indicative plan is strangely overlooked by Professor Galbraith. Indeed, there is a great hiatus in his analysis of the economic system as a whole or, perhaps more accurately, in his implied analysis of what the economic system as a whole would be like when virtually the whole of it was controlled by large modern corporations. Professor Galbraith asserts that each modern corporation plans ahead the quantities of the various products which it will produce and the prices at which it will sell them; he assumes we will discuss this assumption later that as a general rule each corporation through its advertising and other sales activi-ties can so mould consumers’ demands that these planned quantities are actually sold at these planned prices. But he never explains why and by what mechanism these individual plans can be expected to build up into a coherent whole. . . .

In short, if all individual plans are to be simultaneously fulfilled they must in the first instance be consistent. But Professor Galbraith never considers this problem. It is a strange oversight in a modern professional economist-to overlook the problem of general, as contrasted with particular, equilibrium. (pp. 377-78)

Professor Galbraith writes always as if planning meant deciding in advance what should be produced and sold, in what quantities, at what cost and at what prices, and then taking effective steps to ensure that quantities and prices of inputs and outputs developed in precisely this way, and as if the market mechanism meant taking no thought for the morrow, taking no initiative in planning ahead the introduction of new products and processes, but just waiting for consumers to come to the firm and order a new car of such-and-such a bespoke design. It is by silly contrasts of this kind that Professor Galbraith pokes fun at his professional colleagues. (p. 382)

In the modern complex economy there are two major forces at work. One of these is that which Professor Galbraith rightly emphasises, namely the increased need for careful forward planning in a system which involves the commitment of large resources to inflexible uses over long periods of time.

But there is a second and equally important trend, which he entirely neglects: namely, the increased need in the modern industrial economy for a price mechanism, that is to say for reliance on a system of prices as a signaling device to indicate to producers and consumers what is and what is not scarce. This increased need for a price mechanism arises because in the modern industrial system input-output relationships have become so complex and the differentiation between products (many of which are the technically sophisticated inputs of other productive processes) has become so manifold that simple quantitative planning without a price or market mechanism becomes increasingly clumsy and inefficient. Moreover, this increased need for a signaling system through prices is occurring at a time when advances in mathematical economics and in the electronic and other technologies for measuring and metering have made a great extension of the price mechanism possible. Public authorities begin to make serious quantitative cost-benefit studies where previously pure hunches would have had to serve; and we nowadays seriously consider as, for example, in electronic metering devices for charging for the use of road space by motor vehicles-extensions of the use of pricing which would previously have been considered technologically impossible.

The particular brand of conventional wisdom which Professor Galbraith promotes in his recent book overlooks all these increased needs and opportunities for the use of the price mechanism. But many of the planned socialist societies are not falling into this error. Experiments which they are making in such devices as setting the maximisation of profit as the success criterion for the managers of socialised plants, in the direct use of the free market as in Yugoslavia, and generally in an increased reliance on price-mechanism indicators for many decentralised decisions constitute an undoubtedly significant development. The use of the price mechanism is, of course, not the same thing as the use of a market mechanism. A completely planned socialist economy could theoretically be run without any markets at all but with a complete system of “shadow prices” to measure relative scarcities and to be used as the decisive indicators for the adjustments to be made in the economy’s quantitative planned inputs and outputs. But in many, though not of course in all, cases an actual market mechanism will be found to be institutionally the best way of operating a price mechanism. There are many degrees and forms of such extensions of the market; for example, in some cases the prices at which transactions take place might be centrally controlled and adjusted, while in others they might be freely determined by supply and demand in the market. But in one form or an-other increased reliance on a price mechanism does imply increased reliance at least on something closely analogous to a market mechanism.

Professor Galbraith expressly denies that recent developments in the socialist countries have any significant connections with the use of the market as a controlling device. This denial would, by the uncouth, be called drivel-if I may be permitted to use Professor Galbraith’s own expression. But he has to hold this view simply because the socialist countries continue to plan while he, drawing no distinction between the price mechanism and a market mechanism, believes that one can have either planning or a market-price mechanism but not both. In fact, “planning and the price mechanism” not “planning or the price mechanism” should be a central theme of every modern economist’s work. (pp. 391-92)

In his 1977 Nobel Lecture, as Marcus Nunes informed us a few days ago, Meade explicitly advocated targeting nominal GDP writing as follows:

I have told this particular story simply to make the point that the choice between fiscal action and monetary action must often depend upon basic policy issues which should certainly be the responsibility of the government rather than of any independent monetary authority. Perhaps the best compromise is an independent monetary authority charged so to manage the money supply and the market rate of interest as to maintain the growth of total money income on its 5-per-cent-per-annum target path, after taking into account whatever fiscal policies the government may adopt.

So let me ask Nick the following: Was Meade right or left? And was he on the winning side or the losing side?

Credibility and the Central Bank Balance Sheet

Scott Sumner has been making the argument lately that a central bank with credibility can limit the growth of its balance sheet more effectively than a central bank that is not credible. The context for Scott’s claim is the chronic complaint by QE opponents that the Fed, by doing QE, has dangerously increased the size of its balance sheet, thereby creating an unacceptable risk of future inflation. Scott contends that if the Fed had been more credibly committed to its inflation target of 2%, the Fed would not have needed to create so many dollars in a futile effort to meet its inflation target. In other words, more credibility would mean a smaller balance sheet. That was a clever jujitsu move on Scott’s part, but does his argument really have a basis in economic logic?

The key point here is that the size of a bank’s balance sheet depends on the public’s demand to hold the liabilities of the bank. So for Scott to be right, credibility has to reduce the amount of base money issued by the central bank that the public wants to hold. So, if by credibility we mean the confidence with which the public expects the Fed to meet its announced inflation target, then, when the Fed is undershooting its inflation target so that enhanced credibility would be associated with a rise in expected inflation, enhancing credibility would indeed imply a reduction in the Fed’s balance sheet. However, if the Fed were overshooting its inflation target, enhancing credibility would imply an increase in the Fed’s balance sheet.

The credibility issue has become especially acute after the Swiss National Bank abandoned its peg to the euro last Thursday. To support the peg the Swiss National Bank was committed to buy euros without limit at a price of 1.2 swiss francs per euro, causing the balance sheet of the SNB to expand greatly. The main liability component of a central bank’s balance sheet is the monetary base; the Swiss monetary base has grown from 80bn francs when the peg was adopted in September 2011 to about 400bn francs at present. However, the Swiss monetary base has been in the neighborhood of 400bn francs for over a year, so even assuming that a new wave of demand for swiss francs, based on expectations of a falling euro and capital flight from Russia, had — or was about to — come crashing down on Switzerland, there is no reason to think that the peg had suddenly became unsustainable. Moreover, insofar as the bank was motivated by fears of euro depreciation, the bank could have seamlessly switched from a euro to a dollar peg, which might still be a face-saving way for the bank to reverse course.

So here’s the question: given that there was an international increase in the demand for Swiss francs, if the SNB wanted to limit the increase in the size of its balance sheet, associated with an increase in the international demand for francs, did dropping the euro peg imply a smaller balance sheet than the balance sheet it would have had with the peg maintained? Well, the answer is: it depends. By fooling the markets, and allowing the franc to appreciate by 20% over night, the bank avoided the increased demand for francs that would have occurred had the markets expected the peg to be dropped. So the SNB was able to achieve an unexpected increase in the value of the Swiss franc without encouraging an increase in the demand for francs based on expectations of future appreciation, and to that extent, the SNB was able to reduce the size of its balance sheet.

But another question immediately arises. Now that the franc has appreciated by about 20% after the euro peg was dropped, what will happen to the demand for Swiss francs? The speculative demand for francs based on expected future appreciation has probably been reduced by the sudden appreciation of the franc. However, Switzerland is now facing internal deflation, even if there is no further franc appreciation in foreign exchange markets, as the domestic Swiss price level adjusts to the new higher value of the franc. Oncoming Swiss deflation will increase the expected return to Swiss residents from holding francs while simultaneously reducing the expected return on physical capital in Switzerland, so a substantial shift out of real Swiss assets into cash is likely. Such a shift started immediately last week in the first two days after the peg was dropped, the Swiss stock market falling by about 10 percent, though Swiss equities did make up some of their losses in Monday’s trading. Given an increased Swiss demand to hold francs, the SNB will either have to increase the amount of base money, thereby increasing the size of its balance sheet, or it will have to allow the increased demand for francs to add to deflationary pressure, thereby causing further franc appreciation in the forex markets, attracting further inflows of foreign cash to acquire francs. If the SNB was uncomfortable with the euro peg, the SNB is likely to find out very soon that life without the euro peg or a substitute dollar peg is going to be even more unpleasant.

If your lot in life is to supply the internationally desirable currency of a small open economy – in other words if you are the Swiss National Bank – it is the height of folly to believe that you can place some arbitrary limit on the size of your balance sheet. The size of your balance sheet will ultimately be determined one way or another by the international demand to hold your currency. If you are unwilling to let your balance sheet expand in nominal terms by supplying the amount of cash foreigners demand as they try to exchange their currency for yours, you will only force up the value of your currency, which will make holding your currency even more attractive, at least until the currency appreciation and deflation that you have inflicted on your own economy cause your economy to go down in flames.

As an extended historical postscript, let me just mention the piece that Markus Brunnermeier and Harold James wrote for Project Syndicate, in which they astutely diagnose the political pressures that may have forced the SNB to abandon the euro peg.

The SNB was not forced to act by a speculative run. No financial crisis forced its hand, and, in theory, the SNB’s directorate could have held the exchange rate and bought foreign assets indefinitely. But domestic criticism of the SNB’s large buildup of exchange-rate reserves (euro assets) was mounting.

In particular, Swiss conservatives disliked the risk to which the SNB was exposed. Fearing that eurozone government bonds were unsafe, they agitated to require the SNB to acquire gold reserves instead, even forcing a referendum on the matter. Though the initiative to require a fixed share of gold reserves failed, the prospect of large-scale quantitative easing by the European Central Bank, together with the euro’s recent slide against the dollar, intensified the political pressure to abandon the peg.

Whereas economists have modeled financial attacks well, there has been little study of just when political pressure becomes unbearable and a central bank gives in. The SNB, for example, had proclaimed loyalty to the peg just days before ending it. As a result, markets will now hesitate to believe central banks’ statements about future policy, and forward guidance (a major post-crisis instrument) will be much more difficult.

There is historical precedent for the victory of political pressure, and for the recent Swiss action. In the late 1960s, the Bundesbank had to buy dollar assets in order to stop the Deutsche mark from rising, and to preserve the integrity of its fixed exchange rate. The discussion in Germany focused on the risks to the Bundesbank’s balance sheet, as well as on the inflationary pressures that came from the currency peg. Some German conservatives at the time would have liked to buy gold, but the Bundesbank had promised the Fed that it would not put the dollar under downward pressure by selling its reserves for gold.

In 1969, Germany unilaterally revalued the Deutsche mark. But that was not enough to stop inflows of foreign currency, and the Bundesbank was obliged to continue to intervene. It continued to reduce its interest rate, but the inflows persisted. In May 1971, the German government – against the wishes of the Bundesbank – abandoned the dollar peg altogether and floated the currency.

Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/swiss-central-bank-stops-swiss-franc-euro-peg-by-markus-brunnermeier-and-harold-james-2015-01#27qxR4lh9oqVIFft.99

This seems basically right to me, but I would point out a key difference between the 1971 episode and last week’s debacle. In 1971, the US was mired in the Vietnam War and an unstable domestic situation; to many observers, the US seemed to be in danger of a political crisis. US inflation was running at 4% a year, and its economy, just emerging from a recession, seemed in danger of stagnating. Germany, accumulating huge reserves of dollars, correctly viewed its own inflation rate of 4% as being imported from America. Totally dependent on the US for defense against the Soviet threat, Germany was in no position to demand that the US redeem its dollar obligations in gold. Given the deep German aversion to inflation, it was indeed politically impossible for the German government not to use its only available means of reducing inflation: allowing the deutschmark to appreciate against the dollar. It is much harder to identify any economic disadvantage that Switzerland has been suffering since it adopted the euro peg in 2011 that is in any way comparable to the pain of the 4% inflation that Germany had to tolerate in 1971 as a result of its dollar peg.


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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