Posts Tagged 'FDR'

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.

Robert Waldmann, WADR, Maybe You Really Should Calm Down

Responding to this recent post of mine, Robert Waldmann wrote a post of his own with a title alluding to an earlier post of mine responding to a previous post of his. Just to recapitulate briefly, the point of the post which seems to have provoked Professor Waldmann was to refute the allegation that the Fed and the Bank of Japan are starting a currency war by following a policy of monetary ease in which they are raising (at least temporarily) their inflation target. I focused my attention on a piece written by Irwin Stelzer for the Weekly Standard, entitled not so coincidentally, “Currency Wars.” I also went on to point out that Stelzer, in warning of the supposedly dire consequences of starting a currency war, very misleadingly suggested that Hitler’s rise to power was the result of an inflationary policy followed by Germany in the 1930s.

Here is how Waldmann responds:

I do not find any reference to the zero lower bound in this post.  Your analysis of monetary expansion does not distinguish between the cases when the ZLB holds and when it doesn’t.  You assume that the effect of an expansion of the money supply on domestic demand can be analyzed ignoring that detail. I think it is clear that the association between the money supply and domestic demand has been different in the USA since oh September 2008 than it was before.  This doesn’t seem to me to be a detail which can be entirely overlooked in any discussion of current policy.

Actually, I don’t think that, in principle, I disagree with any of this. I agree that the zero lower bound is relevant to the analysis of the current situation. I prefer to couch the analysis in terms of the Fisher equation making use of the equilibrium condition that the nominal rate of interest must equal the real rate plus expected inflation. If the expected rate of deflation is greater than the real rate, equilibrium is impossible and the result is a crash of asset prices, which is what happened in 2008. But as long as the real rate of interest is negative (presumably because of pessimistic entrepreneurial expectations), the rate of inflation has to be sufficiently above real rate of interest for nominal rates to be comfortably above zero. As long as nominal rates are close to zero and real rates are negative, the economy cannot be operating in the neighborhood of full-employment equilibrium. I developed the basic theory in my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations” available on SSRN, and provided some empirical evidence (which I am hoping to update soon) that asset prices (as reflected in the S&P 500) since 2008 have been strongly correlated with expected inflation (as approximated by the TIPS spread) even though there is no strong theoretical reason for asset prices to be correlated with expected inflation, and no evidence of correlation before 2008. Although I think that this is a better way than the Keynesian model to think about why the US economy has been underperforming so badly since 2008, I don’t think that the models are contradictory or inconsistent, so I don’t deny that fiscal policy could have some stimulative effect. But apparently that is not good enough for Professor Waldmann.

Also, I note that prior to his [Stelzer's] “jejune dismissal of monetary policy,” Stelzer jenunely dismissed fiscal policy.  You don’t mention this at all.  Your omission is striking, since the evidence that Stelzer is wrong to dismiss fiscal policy is overwhelming (not overwhelming enough to overwhelm John Taylor but then mere evidence couldn’t do that).  In contrast, the dismissal of monetary policy when an economy is in a liquidity trap is consistent with the available evidence.

It seems to me that Waldmann is being a tad oversensitive. Stelzer’s line was “stimulus packages don’t work very well, and monetary policy produces lots of fiat money but not very many jobs.” What was jejune was not the conclusion that fiscal policy and monetary policy aren’t effective; it was his formulation that monetary expansion produces lots of fiat money but not many jobs, a formulation which, I believe, was intended to be clever, but struck me as being not clever, but, well, jejune. So I did not mean to deny that fiscal policy could be effective at the zero lower bound, but I disagree that the available evidence is consistent with the proposition that monetary policy is ineffective in a liquidity trap. In 1933, for example, monetary policy triggered the fastest economic expansion in US history, when FDR devalued the dollar shortly after taking office, an expansion unfortunately prematurely terminated by the enactment of FDR’s misguided National Industrial Recovery Act. The strong correlation between inflation expectations and stock prices since 2008, it seems to me, also qualifies as evidence that monetary policy is not ineffective at the zero lower bound. But if Professor Waldmann has a different interpretation of the significance of that correlation, I would be very interested in hearing about it.

Instead of looking at the relationship between inflation expectations and stock prices, Waldmann wants to look at the relationship between job growth and monetary policy:

I hereby challenge you to show data on US “growth”  meaning (I agree with your guess) mostly employment growth since 2007 to someone unfamiliar with the debate and ask that person to find the dates of shifts in monetary policy.  I am willing to bet actual money (not much I don’t have much) that the person will not pick out QEIII or operation twist.    I also guess that this person will not detect forward guidance looking at day to day changes in asset prices.

I claim that the null that nothing special happened the day QEIV was announced or any of the 4 plausible dates of announcement of QE2 (starting with a FOMC meeting, then Bernanke’s Jackson Hole speech then 2 more) can’t be rejected by the data. This is based on analysis by two SF FED economists who look at the sum of changes over three of the days (not including the Jackson Hole day when the sign was wrong) and get a change (of the sign they want) whose square is less than 6 times the variance of daily changes (of the 10 year rate IIRC).  IIRC 4.5 times.  Cherry picking and not rejecting the null one wants to reject is a sign that one’s favored (alternative) hypothesis is not strongly supported by the data.

I think that the way to pick out changes in monetary policy is to look at changes in inflation expectations, and I think that you can find some correlation between changes in monetary policy, so identified, and employment, though it is probably not nearly as striking as the relationship between asset prices and inflation expectations. I also don’t think that operation twist had any positive effect, but QE3 does seem to have had some. I am not familiar with the study by the San Francisco Fed economists, but I will try to find it and see what I can make out of it. In the meantime, even if Waldmann is correct about the relationship between monetary policy and employment since 2008, there are all kinds of good reasons for not rushing to reject a null hypothesis on the basis of a handful of ambiguous observations. That wouldn’t necessarily be the calm and reasonable thing to do.


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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