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%.
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.