Summer 2008 Redux?

Nearly 14 years ago, in the summer of 2008, as a recession that started late in 2007 was rapidly deepening and unemployment rapidly rising, the Fed, mainly concerned about rising headline inflation fueled by record-breaking oil prices, kept its Fed Funds target at the 2% level set in May (slightly reduced from the 2.25% target set in March), lest inflation expectations become unanchored.

Let’s look at what happened after the Fed Funds target was reduced to 2.25% in March 2008. The price of crude oil (West Texas Intermediate) rose by nearly 50% between March and July, causing CPI inflation (year over year) between March and August to increase from 4% to 5.5%, even as unemployment rose from 5.1% in March to 5.8% in July. The PCE index, closely watched by the Fed as more indicative of underlying inflation than the CPI, showed inflation rising even faster than did the CPI.

Not only did the Fed refuse to counter rising unemployment and declining income and output by reducing its Fed Funds target, it made clear that reducing inflation was a more urgent goal than countering economic contraction and rising unemployment. An unchanged Fed Funds target while income and employment are falling, in effect, tightens monetary policy, a point underscored by the Fed as it emphasized its intent, despite the uptick in inflation caused by rising oil prices, to keep inflation expectations anchored.

The passive tightening of monetary policy associated with an unchanged Federal Funds target while income and employment were falling and the price of oil was rising led to a nearly 15% decline in the price of between mid-July and the end of August, and to a concurrent 10% increase in the dollar exchange rate against the euro, a deflationary trend also refelcted in an increase in the unemployment rate to 6.1% in August.

Evidently pleased with the deflationary impact of its passive tightening of monetary policy, the Fed viewed the falling price of oil and the appreciation of the dollar as an implicit endorsement by the markets, notwithstanding a deepening recession in a financially fragile economy, of its hard line on inflation. With major financial institutions weakened by the aftereffects of bad and sometimes fraudulent investments made in the expectation of rising home prices that then began falling, many debtors (both households and businesses) had neither sufficient cash flow nor sufficient credit to meet their debt obligations. Perhaps emboldened by the perceived market endorsement of its hard line on inflation, When the Lehman Brothers investment bank, heavily invested in subprime mortgages, was on the verge of collapse in the second week of September, the Fed, perhaps emboldened by the perceived approval of its anti-inflation hard line by the markets, refused to provide, or arrange for, emergency financing to enable Lehman to meet obligations coming due, triggering a financial panic stoked by fears that other institutions were at risk, causing an almost immediate freeze up of credit facilities in financial centers in the US and around the world. The rest is history.

Why bring up this history now? I do so, because I see troubling parallels between what happened in 2008 and what is happening now, parallels that make me concerned that a too narrow focus on preventing inflation expectations from being unanchored could lead to unpleasant and unnecessary consequences.

First, in 2008, the WTI price of oil rose by nearly 50% between March and July, while in 2021-22 the WTI oil price rose by over 75% between December 2021 and April 2022. Both episodes of rising oil prices clearly depressed real GDP growth. Second, in both 2008 and 2021-22, the rising oil price caused actual, and, very likely, expected rates of inflation to rise. Third, in 2008, the dollar appreciated from $1.59/euro on July 15 to $1.39/euro on September 12, while, in 2022, the dollar has appreciated from $1.14/euro on February 11 to $1.05/euro on April 29.

In 2008, an inflationary burst, fed in part by rapidly rising oil prices, led to a passive tightening of monetary policy, manifested in dollar appreciation in forex markets, plunging an economy, burdened with a fragile financial system carrying overvalued assets, and already in recession, into a financial crisis. This time, even steeper increases in oil prices, having fueled an initial burst of inflation during the recovery from a pandemic/supply-side recession, were later reinforced by further negative supply shocks stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The complex effects of both negative supply-shocks and excess aggregate demand have caused monetary policy to shift from ease to restraint, once again manifested in dollar appreciation in foreign-exchange markets.

In September 2008, the Fed, focused narrowly on inflation, was oblivious to the looming financial crisis as deflationary forces, amplified by the passive monetary tightening of the preceding two months, were gathering. This time, although monetary tightening to reign in excess aggregate demand is undoubtedly appropriate, signs of ebbing inflationary pressure are multiplying, and many forecasters are predicting that inflation will subside to 4% or less by year’s end. Modest further tightening to reduce aggregate demand to a level consistent with a 2% inflation rate might be appropriate, but the watchword for policymakers now should be caution.

While there is little reason to think that the US economy and financial system are now in as precarious a state as they were in the summer of 2008, a decision to raise the target Fed Funds rate by more than 50 basis points as a demonstration of the Fed’s resolve to hold the line on inflation would certainly be ill-advised, and an increase of more than 25 basis points would now be imprudent.

The preliminary report on first-quarter 2022 GDP, presented a mixed picture of the economy. A small drop in real GDP seems like an artefact of technical factors, and an upward revision seems likely with no evidence yet of declining employment or slack in the labor market. While noiminal GDP growth declined substantially in the first quarter from the double-digit growth rate in 2021, it is above the rate consistent with the 2% inflation rate that remains the Fed’s policy target. However, given the continuing risks of further negative supply-side shocks while the war in Ukraine continues, the Fed should not allow the nominal growth rate of GDP to fall below the 5% rate that ought to remain the short-term target under current conditions.

If the Fed is committed to a policy target of 2% average inflation over a suitably long time horizon, the rate of nominal GDP growth need not fall below 5% before normal peacetime economic conditions have been restored. Until a return to normalcy, avoiding the risk of reducing nominal GDP growth below a 5% rate should have priority over quickly reducing inflation to the targeted long-run average rate. To do otherwise would increase the risk that inadvertent policy mistakes in an uncertain economic environment might cause sufficient financial distress to tip the economy into recession and even another financial crisis. Better safe than sorry.

Why I’m not Apologizing for Calling Recent Inflation Transitory

I’ve written three recent blogposts explaining why the inflation that began accelerating in the second half of 2021 was likely to be transitory (High Inflation Anxiety, Sic Transit Inflatio del Mundi, and Wherein I Try to Calm Professor Blanchard’s Nerves). I didn’t deny that inflation was accelerating and likely required a policy adjustment, but I also didn’t accept that the inflation threat was (or is) as urgent as some, notably Larry Summers, were suggesting.

In my two posts in late 2021, I argued that Summers’s concerns were overblown, because the burst of inflation in the second half of 2021 was caused mainly by increased consumer spending as consumers began drawing down cash and liquid assets accumulated when spending outlets had been unavailable, and was exacerbated by supply bottlenecks that kept output from accommodating increased consumer demand. Beyond that, despite rising expectations at the short-end, I minimized concerns about the unanchoring of inflation expectations owing to the inflationary burst in the second half of 2021, in the absence of any signs of rising inflation expectations in longer-term (5 years or more) bond prices.

Aside from criticizing excessive concern with what I viewed as a transitory burst of inflation not entirely caused by expansive monetary policy, I cautioned against reacting to inflation caused by negative supply shocks. In contrast to Summers’s warnings about the lessons of the 1970s when high inflation became entrenched before finally being broken — at the cost of the worst recession since the Great Depression, by Volcker’s anti-inflation policy — I explained that much of 1970s inflation was caused by supply-side oil shocks, which triggered an unnecessarily severe monetary tightening in 1974-75 and a deep recession that only modestly reduced inflation. Most of the decline in inflation following the oil shock occurred during the 1976 expansion when inflation fell to 5%. But, rather than allow a strong recovery to proceed on its own, the incoming Carter Administration and a compliant Fed, attempting to accelerate the restoration of full employment, increased monetary expansion. (It’s noteworthy that much of the high unemployment at the time reflected the entry of baby-boomers and women into the labor force, one of the few occasions in which an increased natural rate of unemployment can be easily identified.)

The 1977-79 monetary expansion caused inflation to accelerate to the high single digits even before the oil-shocks of 1979-80 led to double-digit inflation, setting the stage for Volcker’s brutal disinflationary campaign in 1981-82. But the mistake of tightening of monetary policy to suppress inflation resulting from negative supply shocks (usually associated with rising oil prices) went unacknowledged, the only lesson being learned, albeit mistakenly, was that high inflation can be reduced only by a monetary tightening sufficient to cause a deep recession.

Because of that mistaken lesson, the Fed, focused solely on the danger of unanchored inflation expectations, resisted pleas in the summer of 2008 to ease monetary policy as the economy was contracting and unemployment rising rapidly until October, a month after the start of the financial crisis. That disastrous misjudgment made me doubt that the arguments of Larry Summers et al. that tight money is required to counter inflation and prevent the unanchoring of inflation expectations, recent inflation being largely attributable, like the inflation blip in 2008, to negative supply shocks, with little evidence that inflation expectations had, or were likely to, become unanchored.

My first two responses to inflation hawks occurred before release of the fourth quarter 2021 GDP report. In the first three quarters, nominal GDP grew by 10.9%, 13.4% and 8.4%. My hope was that the Q4 rate of increase in nominal GDP would show a further decline from the Q3 rate, or at least show no increase. The rising trend of inflation in the final months of 2021, with no evidence of a slowdown in economic activity, made it unlikely that nominal GDP growth in Q4 had not accelerated. In the event, the acceleration of nominal GDP growth to 14.5% in Q4 showed that a tightening of monetary policy had become necessary.

Although a tightening of policy was clearly required to reduce the rate of nominal GDP growth, there was still reason for optimism that the negative supply-side shocks that had amplified inflationary pressure would recede, thereby allowing nominal GDP growth to slow down with no contraction in output and employment. Unfortunately, the economic environment deteriorated drastically in the latter part of 2021 as Russia began the buildup to its invasion of Ukraine, and deteriorated even more once the invasion started.

The price of Brent crude, just over $50/barrel in January 2021, rose to over $80/barrel in November of 2021. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine rose steadily during 2021, so it is not easy to determine the extent to which those increasing tensions were causing oil prices to rise and to what extent they rose because of increasing economic activity and inflationary pressure on oil prices. Brent crude fell to $70 in December before rising to $100/barrel in February on the eve of the invasion, briefly reaching $130/barrel shortly thereafter, before falling back to $100/barrel. Aside from the effect on energy prices, generalized uncertainty and potential effects on wheat prices and the federal budget from a drawn-out conflict in Ukraine have caused inflation expectations to increase.

Under these circumstances, it makes little sense to tighten policy suddenly. The appropriate policy strategy is to lean toward restraint and announce that the aim of policy is to reduce the rate of GDP growth gradually until a sustainable 4-5% rate of nominal GDP growth consistent with an inflation rate of about 2-3% a year is reached. The overnight rate of interest being the primary instrument whereby the Fed can either increase or decrease the rate of nominal GDP growth, it is unnecessary, and probably unwise, for the Fed to announce in advance a path of interest-rate increases. Instead, the Fed should communicate its target range for nominal GDP growth and condition the size and frequency of future rate increases on the deviations of the economy from that targeted growth path of nominal GDP.

Previous monetary policy mistakes that caused either recessions or excessive inflation have for more than half a century resulted from using interest rates or some other policy instrument to control inflation or unemployment rather than to moderate deviations from a stable growth rate in nominal GDP. Attempts to reduce inflation by maintaining or increasing already high interest rates until inflation actually fell needlessly and perversely prolonged and deepened recessions. Monetary conditions ought be eased as soon as nominal GDP growth falls below the target range for nominal GDP growth. Inflation automatically tends to fall in the early stages of recovery from a recession, and nothing is gained, and much harm is done, by maintaining a tight-money policy after nominal GDP growth has fallen below the target range. That’s the great, and still unlearned, lesson of monetary policy.

On the Labor Supply Function

The bread and butter of economics is demand and supply. The basic idea of a demand function (or a demand curve) is to describe a relationship between the price at which a given product, commodity or service can be bought and the quantity that will bought by some individual. The standard assumption is that the quantity demanded increases as the price falls, so that the demand curve is downward-sloping, but not much more can be said about the shape of a demand curve unless special assumptions are made about the individual’s preferences.

Demand curves aren’t natural phenomena with concrete existence; they are hypothetical or notional constructs pertaining to individual preferences. To pass from individual demands to a market demand for a product, commodity or service requires another conceptual process summing the quantities demanded by each individual at any given price. The conceptual process is never actually performed, so the downward-sloping market demand curve is just presumed, not observed as a fact of nature.

The summation process required to pass from individual demands to a market demand implies that the quantity demanded at any price is the quantity demanded when each individual pays exactly the same price that every other demander pays. At a price of $10/widget, the widget demand curve tells us how many widgets would be purchased if every purchaser in the market can buy as much as desired at $10/widget. If some customers can buy at $10/widget while others have to pay $20/widget or some can’t buy any widgets at any price, then the quantity of widgets actually bought will not equal the quantity on the hypothetical widget demand curve corresponding to $10/widget.

Similar reasoning underlies the supply function or supply curve for any product, commodity or service. The market supply curve is built up from the preferences and costs of individuals and firms and represents the amount of a product, commodity or service that would be willing to offer for sale at different prices. The market supply curve is the result of a conceptual summation process that adds up the amounts that would be hypothetically be offered for sale by every agent at different prices.

The point of this pedantry is to emphasize the that the demand and supply curves we use are drawn on the assumption that a single uniform market price prevails in every market and that all demanders and suppliers can trade without limit at those prices and their trading plans are fully executed. This is the equilibrium paradigm underlying the supply-demand analysis of econ 101.

Economists quite unself-consciously deploy supply-demand concepts to analyze labor markets in a variety of settings. Sometimes, if the labor market under analysis is limited to a particular trade or a particular skill or a particular geographic area, the supply-demand framework is reasonable and appropriate. But when applied to the aggregate labor market of the whole economy, the supply-demand framework is inappropriate, because the ceteris-paribus proviso (all prices other than the price of the product, commodity or service in question are held constant) attached to every supply-demand model is obviously violated.

Thoughtlessly applying a simple supply-demand model to analyze the labor market of an entire economy leads to the conclusion that widespread unemployment, when some workers are unemployed, but would have accepted employment offers at wages that comparably skilled workers are actually receiving, implies that wages are above the market-clearing wage level consistent with full employment.

The attached diagram for simplest version of this analysis. The market wage (W1) is higher than the equilibrium wage (We) at which all workers willing to accept that wage could be employed. The difference between the number of workers seeking employment at the market wage (LS) and the number of workers that employers seek to hire (LD) measures the amount of unemployment. According to this analysis, unemployment would be eliminated if the market wage fell from W1 to We.

Applying supply-demand analysis to aggregate unemployment fails on two levels. First, workers clearly are unable to execute their plans to offer their labor services at the wage at which other workers are employed, so individual workers are off their supply curves. Second, it is impossible to assume, supply-demand analysis requires, that all other prices and incomes remain constant so that the demand and supply curves do not move as wages and employment change. When multiple variables are mutually interdependent and simultaneously determined, the analysis of just two variables (wages and employment) cannot be isolated from the rest of the system. Focusing on the wage as the variable that needs to change to restore full employment is an example of the tunnel vision.

Keynes rejected the idea that economy-wide unemployment could be eliminated by cutting wages. Although Keynes’s argument against wage cuts as a cure for unemployment was flawed, he did have at least an intuitive grasp of the basic weakness in the argument for wage cuts: that high aggregate unemployment is not usefully analyzed as a symptom of excessive wages. To explain why wage cuts aren’t the cure for high unemployment, Keynes introduced a distinction between voluntary and involuntary unemployment.

Forty years later, Robert Lucas began his effort — not the first such effort, but by far the most successful — to discredit the concept of involuntary unemployment. Here’s an early example:

Keynes [hypothesized] that measured unemployment can be decomposed into two distinct components: ‘voluntary’ (or frictional) and ‘involuntary’, with full employment then identified as the level prevailing when involuntary employment equals zero. It seems appropriate, then, to begin by reviewing Keynes’ reasons for introducing this distinction in the first place. . . .

Accepting the necessity of a distinction between explanations for normal and cyclical unemployment does not, however, compel one to identify the first as voluntary and the second as involuntary, as Keynes goes on to do. This terminology suggests that the key to the distinction lies in some difference in the way two different types of unemployment are perceived by workers. Now in the first place, the distinction we are after concerns sources of unemployment, not differentiated types. . . .[O]ne may classify motives for holding money without imagining that anyone can subdivide his own cash holdings into “transactions balances,” “precautionary balances”, and so forth. The recognition that one needs to distinguish among sources of unemployment does not in any way imply that one needs to distinguish among types.

Nor is there any evident reason why one would want to draw this distinction. Certainly the more one thinks about the decision problem facing individual workers and firms the less sense this distinction makes. The worker who loses a good job in prosperous time does not volunteer to be in this situation: he has suffered a capital loss. Similarly, the firm which loses an experienced employee in depressed times suffers an undesirable capital loss. Nevertheless, the unemployed worker at any time can always find some job at once, and a firm can always fill a vacancy instantaneously. That neither typically does so by choice is not difficult to understand given the quality of the jobs and the employees which are easiest to find. Thus there is an involuntary element in all unemployment, in the sense that no one chooses bad luck over good; there is also a voluntary element in all unemployment, in the sense that however miserable one’s current work options, one can always choose to accept them.

Lucas, Studies in Business Cycle Theory, pp. 241-43

Consider this revision of Lucas’s argument:

The expressway driver who is slowed down in a traffic jam does not volunteer to be in this situation; he has suffered a waste of his time. Nevertheless, the driver can get off the expressway at the next exit to find an alternate route. Thus, there is an involuntary element in every traffic jam, in the sense that no one chooses to waste time; there is also a voluntary element in all traffic jams, in the sense that however stuck one is in traffic, one can always take the next exit on the expressway.

What is lost on Lucas is that, for an individual worker, taking a wage cut to avoid being laid off by the employer accomplishes nothing, because the willingness of a single worker to accept a wage cut would not induce the employer to increase output and employment. Unless all workers agreed to take wage cuts, a wage cut to one employee would have not cause the employer to reconsider its plan to reduce in the face of declining demand for its product. Only the collective offer of all workers to accept a wage cut would induce an output response by the employer and a decision not to lay off part of its work force.

But even a collective offer by all workers to accept a wage cut would be unlikely to avoid an output reduction and layoffs. Consider a simple case in which the demand for the employer’s output declines by a third. Suppose the employer’s marginal cost of output is half the selling price (implying a demand elasticity of -2). Assume that demand is linear. With no change in its marginal cost, the firm would reduce output by a third, presumably laying off up to a third of its employees. Could workers avoid the layoffs by accepting lower wages to enable the firm to reduce its price? Or asked in another way, how much would marginal cost have to fall for the firm not to reduce output after the demand reduction?

Working out the algebra, one finds that for the firm to keep producing as much after a one-third reduction in demand, the firm’s marginal cost would have to fall by two-thirds, a decline that could only be achieved by a radical reduction in labor costs. This is surely an oversimplified view of the alternatives available to workers and employers, but the point is that workers facing a layoff after the demand for the product they produce have almost no ability to remain employed even by collectively accepting a wage cut.

That conclusion applies a fortiori when decisions whether to accept a wage cut are left to individual workers, because the willingness of workers individually to accept a wage cut is irrelevant to their chances of retaining their jobs. Being laid off because of decline in the demand for the product a worker is producing is a much situation from being laid off, because a worker’s employer is shifting to a new technology for which the workers lack the requisite skills, and can remain employed only by accepting re-assignment to a lower-paying job.

Let’s follow Lucas a bit further:

Keynes, in chapter 2, deals with the situation facing an individual unemployed worker by evasion and wordplay only. Sentences like “more labor would, as a rule, be forthcoming at the existing money wage if it were demanded” are used again and again as though, from the point of view of a jobless worker, it is unambiguous what is meant by “the existing money wage.” Unless we define an individual’s wage rate as the price someone else is willing to pay him for his labor (in which case Keynes’s assertion is defined to be false to be false), what is it?

Lucas, Id.

I must admit that, reading this passage again perhaps 30 or more years after my first reading, I’m astonished that I could have once read it without astonishment. Lucas gives the game away by accusing Keynes of engaging in evasion and wordplay before embarking himself on sustained evasion and wordplay. The meaning of the “existing money wage” is hardly ambiguous, it is the money wage the unemployed worker was receiving before losing his job and the wage that his fellow workers, who remain employed, continue to receive.

Is Lucas suggesting that the reason that the worker lost his job while his fellow workers who did not lose theirs is that the value of his marginal product fell but the value of his co-workers’ marginal product did not? Perhaps, but that would only add to my astonishment. At the current wage, employers had to reduce the number of workers until their marginal product was high enough for the employer to continue employing them. That was not necessarily, and certainly not primarily, because some workers were more capable than those that were laid off.

The fact is, I think, that Keynes wanted to get labor markets out of the way in chapter 2 so that he could get on to the demand theory which really interested him.

More wordplay. Is it fact or opinion? Well, he says that thinks it’s a fact. In other words, it’s really an opinion.

This is surely understandable, but what is the excuse for letting his carelessly drawn distinction between voluntary and involuntary unemployment dominate aggregative thinking on labor markets for the forty years following?

Mr. Keynes, really, what is your excuse for being such an awful human being?

[I]nvoluntary unemployment is not a fact or a phenomenon which it is the task of theorists to explain. It is, on the contrary, a theoretical construct which Keynes introduced in the hope it would be helpful in discovering a correct explanation for a genuine phenomenon: large-scale fluctuations in measured, total unemployment. Is it the task of modern theoretical economics to ‘explain’ the theoretical constructs of our predecessor, whether or not they have proved fruitful? I hope not, for a surer route to sterility could scarcely be imagined.

Lucas, Id.

Let’s rewrite this paragraph with a few strategic word substitutions:

Heliocentrism is not a fact or phenomenon which it is the task of theorists to explain. It is, on the contrary, a theoretical construct which Copernicus introduced in the hope it would be helpful in discovering a correct explanation for a genuine phenomenon the observed movement of the planets in the heavens. Is it the task of modern theoretical physics to “explain” the theoretical constructs of our predecessors, whether or not they have proved fruitful? I hope not, for a surer route to sterility could scarcely be imagined.

Copernicus died in 1542 shortly before his work on heliocentrism was published. Galileo’s works on heliocentrism were not published until 1610 almost 70 years after Copernicus published his work. So, under Lucas’s forty-year time limit, Galileo had no business trying to explain Copernican heliocentrism which had still not yet proven fruitful. Moreover, even after Galileo had published his works, geocentric models were providing predictions of planetary motion as good as, if not better than, the heliocentric models, so decisive empirical evidence in favor of heliocentrism was still lacking. Not until Newton published his great work 70 years after Galileo, and 140 years after Copernicus, was heliocentrism finally accepted as fact.

In summary, it does not appear possible, even in principle, to classify individual unemployed people as either voluntarily or involuntarily unemployed depending on the characteristics of the decision problem they face. One cannot, even conceptually, arrive at a usable definition of full employment

Lucas, Id.

Belying his claim to be introducing scientific rigor into macroeocnomics, Lucas restorts to an extended scholastic inquiry into whether an unemployed worker can really ever be unemployed involuntarily. Based on his scholastic inquiry into the nature of volunatriness, Lucas declares that Keynes was mistaken because would not accept the discipline of optimization and equilibrium. But Lucas’s insistence on the discipline of optimization and equilibrium is misplaced unless he can provide an actual mechanism whereby the notional optimization of a single agent can be reconciled with notional optimization of other individuals.

It was his inability to provide any explanation of the mechanism whereby the notional optimization of individual agents can be reconciled with the notional optimizations of other individual agents that led Lucas to resort to rational expectations to circumvent the need for such a mechanism. He successfully persuaded the economics profession that evading the need to explain such a reconciliation mechanism, the profession would not be shirking their explanatory duty, but would merely be fulfilling their methodological obligation to uphold the neoclassical axioms of rationality and optimization neatly subsumed under the heading of microfoundations.

Rational expectations and microfoundations provided the pretext that could justify or at least excuse the absence of any explanation of how an equilibrium is reached and maintained by assuming that the rational expectations assumption is an adequate substitute for the Walrasian auctioneer, so that each and every agent, using the common knowledge (and only the common knowledge) available to all agents, would reliably anticipate the equilibrium price vector prevailing throughout their infinite lives, thereby guaranteeing continuous equilibrium and consistency of all optimal plans. That feat having been securely accomplished, it was but a small and convenient step to collapse the multitude of individual agents into a single representative agent, so that the virtue of submitting to the discipline of optimization could find its just and fitting reward.

Three Propagation Mechanisms in Lucas and Sargent with a Response from Brad DeLong

UPDATE (4/3/2022): Reupping this post with the response to my query sent by Brad DeLong.

I’m writing this post in hopes of eliciting some guidance from readers about the three propagation mechanisms to which Robert Lucas and Thomas Sargent refer in their famous 1978 article, “After Keynesian Macroeconomics.” The three propagation mechanisms were mentioned to parry criticisms of the rational-expectations principle underlying the New Classical macroeconomics that Lucas and Sargent were then developing as an alternative to Keynesian macroeconomics. I am wondering how subsequent research has dealt with these propagation mechanisms and how they are now treated in current macro-theory. Here is the relevant passage from Lucas and Sargent:

A second line of criticism stems from the correct observation that if agents’ expectations are rational and if their information sets include lagged values of the variable being forecast, then agents’ forecast errors must be a serially uncorrelated random process. That is, on average there must be no detectable relationships between a period’s forecast error and any previous period’s. This feature has led several critics to conclude that equilibrium models cannot account for more than an insignificant part of the highly serially correlated movements we observe in real output, employment, unemployment, and other series. Tobin (1977, p. 461) has put the argument succinctly:

One currently popular explanation of variations in employment is temporary confusion of relative and absolute prices. Employers and workers are fooled into too many jobs by unexpected inflation, but only until they learn it affects other prices, not just the prices of what they sell. The reverse happens temporarily when inflation falls short of expectation. This model can scarcely explain more than transient disequilibrium in labor markets.

So how can the faithful explain the slow cycles of unemployment we actually observe? Only by arguing that the natural rate itself fluctuates, that variations in unemployment rates are substantially changes in voluntary, frictional, or structural unemployment rather than in involuntary joblessness due to generally deficient demand.

The critics typically conclude that the theory only attributes a very minor role to aggregate demand fluctuations and necessarily depends on disturbances to aggregate supply to account for most of the fluctuations in real output over the business cycle. “In other words,” as Modigliani (1977) has said, “what happened to the United States in the 1930’s was a severe attack of contagious laziness.” This criticism is fallacious because it fails to distinguish properly between sources of impulses and propagation mechanisms, a distinction stressed by Ragnar Frisch in a classic 1933 paper that provided many of the technical foundations for Keynesian macroeconometric models. Even though the new classical theory implies that the forecast errors which are the aggregate demand impulses are serially uncorrelated, it is certainly logically possible that propagation mechanisms are at work that convert these impulses into serially correlated movements in real variables like output and employment. Indeed, detailed theoretical work has already shown that two concrete propagation mechanisms do precisely that.

One mechanism stems from the presence of costs to firms of adjusting their stocks of capital and labor rapidly. The presence of these costs is known to make it optimal for firms to spread out over time their response to the relative price signals they receive. That is, such a mechanism causes a firm to convert the serially uncorrelated forecast errors in predicting relative prices into serially correlated movements in factor demands and output.

A second propagation mechanism is already present in the most classical of economic growth models. Households’ optimal accumulation plans for claims on physical capital and other assets convert serially uncorrelated impulses into serially correlated demands for the accumulation of real assets. This happens because agents typically want to divide any unexpected changes in income partly between consuming and accumulating assets. Thus, the demand for assets next period depends on initial stocks and on unexpected changes in the prices or income facing agents. This dependence makes serially uncorrelated surprises lead to serially correlated movements in demands for physical assets. Lucas (1975) showed how this propagation mechanism readily accepts errors in forecasting aggregate demand as an impulse source.

A third likely propagation mechanism has been identified by recent work in search theory. (See, for example, McCall 1965, Mortensen 1970, and Lucas and Prescott 1974.) Search theory tries to explain why workers who for some reason are without jobs find it rational not necessarily to take the first job offer that comes along but instead to remain unemployed for awhile until a better offer materializes. Similarly, the theory explains why a firm may find it optimal to wait until a more suitable job applicant appears so that vacancies persist for some time. Mainly for technical reasons, consistent theoretical models that permit this propagation mechanism to accept errors in forecasting aggregate demand as an impulse have not yet been worked out, but the mechanism seems likely eventually to play an important role in a successful model of the time series behavior of the unemployment rate. In models where agents have imperfect information, either of the first two mechanisms and probably the third can make serially correlated movements in real variables stem from the introduction of a serially uncorrelated sequence of forecasting errors. Thus theoretical and econometric models have been constructed in which in principle the serially uncorrelated process of forecasting errors can account for any proportion between zero and one of the steady state variance of real output or employment. The argument that such models must necessarily attribute most of the variance in real output and employment to variations in aggregate supply is simply wrong logically.

My problem with the Lucas-Sargent argument is that even if the deviations from a long-run equilibrium path are serially correlated, shouldn’t those deviations be diminishing over time after the initial disturbance. Can these propagation mechanisms account for amplification of the initial disturbance before the adjustment toward the equilibrium path begins? I would gratefully welcome any responses.

David Glasner has a question about the “rational expectations” business-cycle theories developed in the 1970s:

David GlasnerThree Propagation Mechanisms in Lucas & Sargent: ‘I’m… hop[ing for]… some guidance… about… propagation mechanisms… [in] Robert Lucas and Thomas Sargent[‘s]… “After Keynesian Macroeconomics.”… 

The critics typically conclude that the theory only attributes a very minor role to aggregate demand fluctuations and necessarily depends on disturbances to aggregate supply…. [But] even though the new classical theory implies that the forecast errors which are the aggregate demand impulses are serially uncorrelated, it is certainly logically possible that propagation mechanisms are at work that convert these impulses into serially correlated movements in real variables like output and employment… the presence of costs to firms of adjusting their stocks of capital and labor rapidly…. accumulation plans for claims on physical capital and other assets convert serially uncorrelated impulses into serially correlated demands for the accumulation of real assets… workers who for some reason are without jobs find it rational not necessarily to take the first job offer that comes along but instead to remain unemployed for awhile until a better offer materializes…. In principle the serially uncorrelated process of forecasting errors can account for any proportion between zero and one of the [serially correlated] steady state variance of real output or employment. The argument that such models must necessarily attribute most of the variance in real output and employment to variations in aggregate supply is simply wrong logically…

My problem with the Lucas-Sargent argument is that even if the deviations from a long-run equilibrium path are serially correlated, shouldn’t those deviations be diminishing over time after the initial disturbance? Can these propagation mechanisms account for amplification of the initial disturbance before the adjustment toward the equilibrium path begins? I would gratefully welcome any responses…

In some ways this is of only history-of-thought interest. For Lucas and Prescott, at least, had within five years of the writing of “After Keynesian Macroeconomics” decided that the critics were right: that their models of how mistaken decisions driven by serially-uncorrelated forecast errors could not account for the bulk of the serially correlated business-cycle variance of real output and employment, and they needed to shift to studying real business cycle theory instead of price-misperceptions theory. The first problem was that time-series methods generated shocks that came at the wrong times to explain recessions. The second problem was that the propagation mechanisms did not amplify but rather damped the shock: at best they produced some kind of partial-adjustment process that extended the impact of a shock on real variables to N periods and diminished its impact in any single period to 1/N. There was no… what is the word?…. multiplier in the system.

It was stunning to watch in real time in the early 1980s. As Paul Volcker hit the economy on the head with the monetary-stringency brick, repeatedly, quarter after quarter; as his serially correlated and hence easily anticipated policy moves had large and highly serially correlated effects on output; Robert Lucas and company simply… pretended it was not happening: that monetary policy was not having major effects on output and employment in the first half of the 1980s, and that it was not the case thjat the monetary policies that were having such profound real impacts had no plausible interpretation as “surprises” leading to “misperceptions”. Meanwhile, over in the other corner, Robert Barro was claiming that he saw no break in the standard pattern of federal deficits from the Reagan administration’s combination of tax cuts plus defense buildup.

Those of us who were graduate students at the time watched this, and drew conclusions about the likelihood that Lucas, Prescott, and company had good enough judgment and close enough contact with reality that their proposed “real business cycle” research program would be a productive one—conclusions that, I think, time has proved fully correct.

Behind all this, of course, was this issue: the “microfoundations” of the Lucas “island economy” model were totally stupid: people are supposed to “misperceive” relative prices because they know the nominal prices at which they sell but do not know the nominal prices at which they buy, hence people confuse a monetary shock-generated rise in the nominal price level with an increase in the real price of what they produce, and hence work harder and longer and produce more? (I forget who it was who said at the time that the model seemed to require a family in which the husband worked and the wife went to the grocery store and the husband never listened to anything the wife said.) These so-called “microfoundations” could only be rationally understood as some kind of metaphor. But what kind of metaphor? And why should it have any special status, and claim on our attention?

Paul Krugman’s judgment on the consequences of this intellectual turn is even harsher than mine:

What made the Dark Ages dark was the fact that so much knowledge had been lost, that so much known to the Greeks and Romans had been forgotten by the barbarian kingdoms that followed. And that’s what seems to have happened to macroeconomics in much of the economics profession. The knowledge that S=I doesn’t imply the Treasury view—the general understanding that macroeconomics is more than supply and demand plus the quantity equation — somehow got lost in much of the profession. I’m tempted to go on and say something about being overrun by barbarians in the grip of an obscurantist faith…

I would merely say that it has left us, over what is now two generations, with a turn to DSGE models—Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium—that must satisfy a set of formal rhetorical requirements that really do not help us fit the data, and that it gave many, many people an excuse not to read and hence a license to remain ignorant of James Tobin.

Brad

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Hayek Refutes Banana Republican Followers of Scalia Declaring War on Unenumerated Rights

Though overshadowed by the towering obnoxiousness of their questioning of Judge Katanji Brown Jackson in her confirmation hearings last week, the Banana Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee signaled that their goals for remaking American Constitutional Jurisprudence extend far beyond overturning the Roe v. Wade; they will be satisfied with nothing less than the evisceration of all unenumerated Constitutional rights that the Courts have found over the past two centuries. The idea that rights exist only insofar as they are explicitly recognized and granted by written legislative or Constitutional enactment, as understood at the moment of enactment, is the bedrock on which Justice Scalia founded his jurisprudential doctrine.

The idea was clearly rejected by the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, which in its second sentence declared:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Clearly the Declaration believed that individual rights exist independently of any legislative or Constitutional enactment. Moreover the three rights listed by the Declaration: rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not exhaustive, but are only among a longer list of unenumerated rights endowed to individuals by their Creator. Rejecting the idea, of natural or moral rights to which individuals are entitled by virtue of their humanity, Scalia adopted the positivist position that all law is an expression of the will of the sovereign, which, in the United States, is in some abstract sense “the people” as expressed through the Constitution (including its Amendments), and through legislation by Congress and state legislatures.

Treating Scalia’s doctrine as controlling, the Banana Republicans regard all judicial decisions that invalidate legislative enactments based on the existence of individual rights not explicitly enumerated in the Constitution as fundamentally illegitimate and worthy of being overruled by suitably right-thinking judges.

Not only is Scalia’s doctrine fundamentally at odds with the Declaration of Independence, which has limited legal force, it is directly contradicted by the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution which states:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

So, the Ninth Amendment explicitly negates the Scalian doctrine that the only rights to which individuals have a legal claim are those explicitly enumerated by the Constitution. Scalia’s jurisprudential predecessor, Robert Bork, whose originalist philosophy Scalia revised and restated in a more palatable form, dismissed the Ninth Amendment as unintelligible, and, therefore, essentially a nullity. Scalia, himself, was unwilling to call it unintelligible, but came up with the following, hardly less incoherent, rationale, reeking of bad faith, for relegating the Ninth Amendment to the ash heap of history:

He should apply the Ninth Amendment as it is written. And I apply it rigorously; I do not deny or disparage the existence of other rights in the sense of natural rights. That’s what the framers meant by that. Just because we’ve listed some rights of the people here doesn’t mean that we don’t believe that people have other rights. And if you try to take them away, we will revolt. And a revolt will be justified. It was the framers’ expression of their belief in natural law. But they did not put it in the charge of the courts to enforce.

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/reading-the-text-an-interview-with-justice-antonin-scalia-of-the-u-s-supreme-court/

If Scalia had been honest, he would have said “He cannot apply the Ninth Amendment as it is written. And I rigorously do not apply it.” I mean what could Scalia, or any judge in thrall to Scalian jurisprudence, possibly do with the Ninth Amendment after saying: “But [the framers] did not put [the Ninth Amendment] in the charge of the courts to enforce”? After all, according to the estimable [sarcasm alert] Mr. Justice Scalia, the Ninth Amendment was added to the Constitution to grant the citizenry — presumably exercising their Second Amendment rights and implementing Second Amendment remedies — a right to overthrow the government that the framers were, at that very moment, ordaining and establishing.

In The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek provided an extended analysis of the U. S. Constitution and why a Bill of Rights was added as a condition of its ratification in 1788. His discussion of the Ninth Amendment demolishes Scalia’s nullification of the Ninth Amendment. Here is an extended quotation:

Hayek The Constitution of Liberty, pp. 185-86

Eight Recurring Ideas in My Studies in the History of Monetary Theory

In the introductory chapter of my book Studies in the History of Monetary Theory: Controversies and Clarifications, I list eight main ideas to which I often come back in the sixteen subsequent chapters. Here they are:

  1. The standard neoclassical models of economics textbooks typically assume full information and perfect competition. But these assumptions are, or ought to be, just the starting point, not the end, of analysis. Recognizing when and why these assumptions need to be relaxed and what empirical implications follow from relaxing those assumptions is how economists gain practical insight into, and understanding of, complex economic phenomena.
  2. Since the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, much, if not most, of the financial instruments actually used as media of exchange (money) have been produced by private financial institutions (usually commercial banks); the amount of money that is privately produced is governed by the revenue generated and the cost incurred by creating money.
  3. The standard textbook model of international monetary adjustment under the gold standard (or any fixed-exchange rate system), the price-specie-flow mechanism, introduced by David Hume mischaracterized the adjustment mechanism by overlooking that the prices of tradable goods in any country are constrained by the prices of those tradable goods in other countries. That arbitrage constraint on the prices of tradable goods in any country prevents price levels in different currency areas from deviating, regardless of local changes in the quantity of money, from a common international level.
  4. The Great Depression was caused by a rapid appreciation of gold resulting from the increasing monetary demand for gold occasioned by the restoration of the international gold standard in the 1920s after the demonetization of gold in World War I.
  5. If the expected rate of deflation exceeds the real rate of interest, real-asset prices crash and economies collapse.
  6. The primary concern of macroeconomics as a field of economics is to explain systemic failures of coordination that lead to significant lapses from full employment.
  7. Lapses from full employment result from substantial and widespread disappointment of agents’ expectations of future prices.
  8. The only – or at least the best — systematic analytical approach to the study of such lapses is the temporary-equilibrium approach introduced by Hicks in Value and Capital.

Here is a list of the chapter titles

1. Introduction

Part One: Classical Monetary Theory

2. A Reinterpretation of Classical Monetary Theory

3. On Some Classical Monetary Controversies

4. The Real Bills Doctrine in the Light of the Law of Reflux

5. Classical Monetary Theory and the Quantity Theory

6. Monetary Disequilibrium and the Demand for Money in Ricardo and Thornton

7. The Humean and Smithian Traditions in Monetary Theory

8. Rules versus Discretion in Monetary Policy Historically Contemplated

9. Say’s Law and the Classical Theory of Depressions

Part Two: Hawtrey, Keynes, and Hayek

10. Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade: A Centenary Retrospective

11. Hawtrey and Keynes

12. Where Keynes Went Wrong

13. Debt, Deflation, the Gold Standard and the Great Depression

14. Pre-Keynesian Monetary Theories of the Great Depression: Whatever Happened to Hawtrey and Cassel? (with Ronald Batchelder)

15. The Sraffa-Hayek Debate on the Natural Rate of Interest (with Paul Zimmerman)

16. Hayek, Deflation, Gold and Nihilism

17. Hayek, Hicks, Radner and Four Equilibrium Concepts: Intertemporal, Sequential, Temporary and Rational Expectations

Wherein I Try to Calm Professor Blanchard’s Nerves

Olivier Blanchard is rightly counted among the most eminent macroeconomists of our time, and his pronouncements on macroeconomic matters should not be dismissed casually. So his commentary yesterday for the Peterson Institute of International Economics, responding to a previous policy brief, by David Reifschneider and David Wilcox, arguing that the recent burst of inflation is likely to recede, bears close attention.

Blanchard does not reject the analysis of Reifschneider and Wilcox outright, but he argues that they overlook factors that could cause inflation to remain high unless policy makers take more aggressive action to bring inflation down than is recommended by Reifschneider and Wilcox. Rather than go through the details of Blanchard’s argument, I address the two primary concerns he identifies: (1) the potential for inflation expectations to become unanchored, as they were in the 1970s and early 1980s, by persistent high inflation, and (2) the potential inflationary implications of wage catchup after the erosion of real wages by the recent burst of inflation.

Unanchored Inflation Expectations and the Added Cost of a Delayed Response to Inflation

Blanchard cites a forthcoming book by Alan Blinder on soft and hard landings from inflation in which Blinder examines nine Fed tightening episodes in which tightening was the primary cause of a slowdown or a recession. Based on the historical record, Blinder is optimistic that the Fed can manage a soft landing if it needs to reduce inflation. Blanchard doesn’t share Blinder’s confidence.

[I]n most of the episodes Blinder has identified, the movements in inflation to which the Fed reacted were too small to be of direct relevance to the current situation, and the only comparable episode to today, if any, is the episode that ended with the Volcker disinflation of the early 1980s.

I find that a scary comparison. . . .

[I]t shows what happened when the Fed got seriously “behind the curve” in 1974–75. . . . It then took 8 years, from 1975 to 1983, to reduce inflation to 4 percent.

And I find Blanchard’s comparison of the 1975-1983 period with the current situation problematic. First, he ignores the fact that the 1975-1983 episode did not display a steady rate of inflation or a uniform increase in inflation from 1975 until Volcker finally tamed it by way of the brutal 1981-82 recession. As I’ve explained previously in posts on the 1970s and 1980s (here, here, and here), and in chapters 7 and 8 of my book Studies in the History of Monetary Theory the 1970s inflation was the product of a series of inflationary demand-side and supply-shocks and misguided policy responses by the Fed, guided by politically motivated misconceptions, with little comprehension of the consequences of its actions.

It would be unwise to assume that the Fed will never embark on a similar march of folly, but it would be at least as unwise to adopt a proposed policy on the assumption that the alternative to that policy would be a repetition of the earlier march. What commentary on the 1970s largely overlooks is that there was an enormous expansion of the US labor force in that period as baby boomers came of age and as women began seeking and finding employment in steadily increasing numbers. The labor-force participation rate in the 1950s and 1960s fluctuated between about 58% to about 60%, mirroring fluctuations in the unemployment rate. Between 1970 and 1980 the labor force participation rate rose from just over 60% to just over 64% even as the unemployment rate rose from about 5% to over 7%. The 1970s were not, for the most part, a period of stagflation, but a period of inflation and strong growth interrupted by one deep recession (1974-75) and bookended by two minor recessions (1969-70) and (1979-80). But the rising trend of unemployment during the decade was largely attributable not to stagnation but to a rapidly expanding labor force and a rising labor participation rate.

The rapid increase in inflation in 1973 was largely a policy-driven error of the Nixon/Burns collaboration to ensure Nixon’s reelection in 1972 without bothering to taper the stimulus in 1973 after full employment was restored just in time for Nixon’s 1972 re-election. The oil shock of 1973-74 would have justified allowing a transitory period of increased inflation to cushion the negative effect of the increase in energy prices and to dilute the real magnitude of the nominal increase in oil prices. But the combined effect of excess aggregate demand and a negative supply shock led to an exaggerated compensatory tightening of monetary policy that led to the unnecessarily deep and prolonged recession in 1974-75.

A strong recovery ensued after the recession which, not surprisingly, was associated with declining inflation that fell below 5% in 1976. However, owing to the historically high rate of unemployment, only partially attributable to the previous recession, the incoming Carter administration promoted expansionary fiscal and monetary policies, which Arthur Burns, hoping to be reappointed by Carter to another term as Fed Chairman, willingly implemented. Rather than continue on the downward inflationary trend inherited from the previous administration, inflation resumed its upward trend in 1977.

Burns’s hopes to be reappointed by Carter were disappointed, but his replacement G. William Miller made no effort to tighten monetary policy to reverse the upward trend in inflation. A second oil shock in 1979 associated with the Iranian Revolution and the taking of US hostages in Iran caused crude oil prices over the course in 1979 to more than double. Again, the appropriate monetary-policy response was not to tighten monetary policy but to accommodate the price increase without causing a recession.

However, by the time of the second oil shock in 1979, inflation was already in the high single digits. The second oil shock, combined with the disastrous effects of the controls on petroleum prices carried over from the Nixon administration, created a crisis atmosphere that allowed the Reagan administration, with the cooperation of Paul Volcker, to implement a radical Monetarist anti-inflation policy. The policy was based on the misguided presumption that keeping the rate of growth of some measure of the money stock below a 5% annual rate would cure inflation with little effect on the overall economy if it were credibly implemented.

Volcker’s reputation was such that it was thought by supporters of the policy that his commitment would be relied upon by the public, so that a smooth transition to a lower rate of inflation would follow, and any downturn would be mild and short-lived. But the result was an unexpectedly deep and long-lasting recession.

The recession was needlessly prolonged by the grave misunderstanding of the causal relationship between the monetary aggregates and macroeconomic performance that had been perpetrated by Milton Friedman’s anti-Keynesian Monetarist counterrevolution. After triggering the sharpest downturn of the postwar era, the Monetarist anti-inflation strategy adopted by Volcker was, in the summer of 1982, on the verge of causing a financial crisis before Volcker announced that the Fed would no longer try to target any of the monetary aggregates, an announcement that triggered an immediate stock-market boom and, within a few months, the start of an economic recovery.

Thus, Blanchard is wrong to compare our current situation to the entire 1975-1983 period. The current situation, rather, is similar to the situation in 1973, when an economy, in the late stages of a recovery with rising inflation, was subjected to a severe supply shock. The appropriate response to that supply shock was not to tighten monetary policy, but merely to draw down the monetary stimulus of the previous two years. However, the Fed, perhaps shamed by the excessive, and politically motivated, monetary expansion of the previous two years, overcompensated by tightening monetary policy to counter the combined inflationary impact of its own previous policy and the recent oil price increase, immediately triggering the sharpest downturn of the postwar era. That is the lesson to draw from the 1970s, and it’s a mistake that the Fed ought not repeat now.

The Catch-Up Problem: Are Rapidly Rising Wages a Ticking Time-Bomb

Blanchard is worried that, because price increases exceeded wage increases in 2021, causing real wages to fall in 2021, workers will rationally assume, and demand, that their nominal wages will rise in 2022 to compensate for the decline in real wages, thereby fueling a further increase in inflation. This is a familiar argument based on the famous short-run Phillips-Curve trade-off between inflation and unemployment. Reduced unemployment resulting from the real-wage reduction associated with inflation will cause inflation to increase.

This argument is problematic on at least two levels. First, it presumes that the Phillips Curve represents a structural relationship, when it is merely a reduced form, just as an observed relationship between the price of a commodity and sales of that commodity is a reduced form, not a demand curve. Inferences cannot be made from a reduced form about the effect of a price change, nor can inferences about the effect of inflation be made from the Phillips Curve.

But one needn’t resort to a somewhat sophisticated argument to see why Blanchard’s fears that wage catchup will lead to a further round of inflation are not well-grounded. Blanchard argues that business firms, having pocketed windfall profits from rising prices that have outpaced wage increases, will grant workers compensatory wage increases to restore workers’ real wages, while also increasing prices to compensate themselves for the increased wages that they have agreed to pay their workers.

I’m sorry, but with all due respect to Professor Blanchard, that argument makes no sense. Evidently, firms have generally enjoyed a windfall when market conditions allowed them to raise prices without raising wages. Why, if wages finally catch up to prices, will they raise prices again? Either firms can choose, at will, how much profit to make when they set prices or their prices are constrained by market forces. If Professor Blanchard believes that firms can simply choose how much profit they make when they set prices, then he seems to be subscribing to Senator Warren’s theory of inflation: that inflation is caused by corporate greed. If he believes that, in setting prices, firms are constrained by market forces, then the mere fact that market conditions allowed them to increase prices faster than wages rose in 2021 does not mean that, if market conditions cause wages to rise at a faster rate than they did in 2022, firms, after absorbing those wage increases, will automatically be able to maintain their elevated profit margins in 2022 by raising prices in 2022 correspondingly.

The market conditions facing firms in 2022 will be determined by, among other things, the monetary policy of the Fed. Whether firms are able to raise prices in 2022 as fast as wages rise in 2022 will depend on the monetary policy adopted by the Fed. If the Fed’s monetary policy aims at gradually slowing down the rate of increase in nominal GDP in 2022 from the 2021 rate of increase, firms overall will not easily be able to raise prices as fast as wages rise in 2022. But why should anyone expect that firms that enjoyed windfall profits from inflation in 2021 will be able to continue enjoying those elevated profits in perpetuity?

Professor Blanchard posits simple sectoral equations for the determination of the rate of wage increases and for the rate of price increases given the rate of wage increases. This sort of one-way causality is much too simplified and ignores the fundamental fact all prices and wages and expectations of future prices and wages are mutually determined in a simultaneous system. One can’t reason from a change in a single variable and extrapolate from that change how the rest of the system will adjust.

Robert Lucas and the Pretense of Science

F. A. Hayek entitled his 1974 Nobel Lecture whose principal theme was to attack the simple notion that the long-observed correlation between aggregate demand and employment was a reliable basis for conducting macroeconomic policy, “The Pretence of Knowledge.” Reiterating an argument that he had made over 40 years earlier about the transitory stimulus provided to profits and production by monetary expansion, Hayek was informally anticipating the argument that Robert Lucas famously repackaged two years later in his famous critique of econometric policy evaluation. Hayek’s argument hinged on a distinction between “phenomena of unorganized complexity” and phenomena of organized complexity.” Statistical relationships or correlations between phenomena of disorganized complexity may be relied upon to persist, but observed statistical correlations displayed by phenomena of organized complexity cannot be relied upon without detailed knowledge of the individual elements that constitute the system. It was the facile assumption that observed statistical correlations in systems of organized complexity can be uncritically relied upon in making policy decisions that Hayek dismissed as merely the pretense of knowledge.

Adopting many of Hayek’s complaints about macroeconomic theory, Lucas founded his New Classical approach to macroeconomics on a methodological principle that all macroeconomic models be grounded in the axioms of neoclassical economic theory as articulated in the canonical Arrow-Debreu-McKenzie models of general equilibrium models. Without such grounding in neoclassical axioms and explicit formal derivations of theorems from those axioms, Lucas maintained that macroeconomics could not be considered truly scientific. Forty years of Keynesian macroeconomics were, in Lucas’s view, largely pre-scientific or pseudo-scientific, because they lacked satisfactory microfoundations.

Lucas’s methodological program for macroeconomics was thus based on two basic principles: reductionism and formalism. First, all macroeconomic models not only had to be consistent with rational individual decisions, they had to be reduced to those choices. Second, all the propositions of macroeconomic models had to be explicitly derived from the formal definitions and axioms of neoclassical theory. Lucas demanded nothing less than the explicit assumption individual rationality in every macroeconomic model and that all decisions by agents in a macroeconomic model be individually rational.

In practice, implementing Lucasian methodological principles required that in any macroeconomic model all agents’ decisions be derived within an explicit optimization problem. However, as Hayek had himself shown in his early studies of business cycles and intertemporal equilibrium, individual optimization in the standard Walrasian framework, within which Lucas wished to embed macroeconomic theory, is possible only if all agents are optimizing simultaneously, all individual decisions being conditional on the decisions of other agents. Individual optimization can only be solved simultaneously for all agents, not individually in isolation.

The difficulty of solving a macroeconomic equilibrium model for the simultaneous optimal decisions of all the agents in the model led Lucas and his associates and followers to a strategic simplification: reducing the entire model to a representative agent. The optimal choices of a single agent would then embody the consumption and production decisions of all agents in the model.

The staggering simplification involved in reducing a purported macroeconomic model to a representative agent is obvious on its face, but the sleight of hand being performed deserves explicit attention. The existence of an equilibrium solution to the neoclassical system of equations was assumed, based on faulty reasoning by Walras, Fisher and Pareto who simply counted equations and unknowns. A rigorous proof of existence was only provided by Abraham Wald in 1936 and subsequently in more general form by Arrow, Debreu and McKenzie, working independently, in the 1950s. But proving the existence of a solution to the system of equations does not establish that an actual neoclassical economy would, in fact, converge on such an equilibrium.

Neoclassical theory was and remains silent about the process whereby equilibrium is, or could be, reached. The Marshallian branch of neoclassical theory, focusing on equilibrium in individual markets rather than the systemic equilibrium, is often thought to provide an account of how equilibrium is arrived at, but the Marshallian partial-equilibrium analysis presumes that all markets and prices except the price in the single market under analysis, are in a state of equilibrium. So the Marshallian approach provides no more explanation of a process by which a set of equilibrium prices for an entire economy is, or could be, reached than the Walrasian approach.

Lucasian methodology has thus led to substituting a single-agent model for an actual macroeconomic model. It does so on the premise that an economic system operates as if it were in a state of general equilibrium. The factual basis for this premise apparently that it is possible, using versions of a suitable model with calibrated coefficients, to account for observed aggregate time series of consumption, investment, national income, and employment. But the time series derived from these models are derived by attributing all observed variations in national income to unexplained shocks in productivity, so that the explanation provided is in fact an ex-post rationalization of the observed variations not an explanation of those variations.

Nor did Lucasian methodology have a theoretical basis in received neoclassical theory. In a famous 1960 paper “Towards a Theory of Price Adjustment,” Kenneth Arrow identified the explanatory gap in neoclassical theory: the absence of a theory of price change in competitive markets in which every agent is a price taker. The existence of an equilibrium does not entail that the equilibrium will be, or is even likely to be, found. The notion that price flexibility is somehow a guarantee that market adjustments reliably lead to an equilibrium outcome is a presumption or a preconception, not the result of rigorous analysis.

However, Lucas used the concept of rational expectations, which originally meant no more than that agents try to use all available information to anticipate future prices, to make the concept of equilibrium, notwithstanding its inherent implausibility, a methodological necessity. A rational-expectations equilibrium was methodologically necessary and ruthlessly enforced on researchers, because it was presumed to be entailed by the neoclassical assumption of rationality. Lucasian methodology transformed rational expectations into the proposition that all agents form identical, and correct, expectations of future prices based on the same available information (common knowledge). Because all agents reach the same, correct expectations of future prices, general equilibrium is continuously achieved, except at intermittent moments when new information arrives and is used by agents to revise their expectations.

In his Nobel Lecture, Hayek decried a pretense of knowledge about correlations between macroeconomic time series that lack a foundation in the deeper structural relationships between those related time series. Without an understanding of the deeper structural relationships between those time series, observed correlations cannot be relied on when formulating economic policies. Lucas’s own famous critique echoed the message of Hayek’s lecture.

The search for microfoundations was always a natural and commendable endeavor. Scientists naturally try to reduce higher-level theories to deeper and more fundamental principles. But the endeavor ought to be conducted as a theoretical and empirical endeavor. If successful, the reduction of the higher-level theory to a deeper theory will provide insight and disclose new empirical implications to both the higher-level and the deeper theories. But reduction by methodological fiat accomplishes neither and discourages the research that might actually achieve a theoretical reduction of a higher-level theory to a deeper one. Similarly, formalism can provide important insights into the structure of theories and disclose gaps or mistakes the reasoning underlying the theories. But most important theories, even in pure mathematics, start out as informal theories that only gradually become axiomatized as logical gaps and ambiguities in the theories are discovered and filled or refined.

The resort to the reductionist and formalist methodological imperatives with which Lucas and his followers have justified their pretentions to scientific prestige and authority, and have used that authority to compel compliance with those imperatives, only belie their pretensions.

Interest on Reserves and Credit Deadlock

UPDATE (2/25/2022): George Selgin informs me that in the final version (his book Floored) of the Cato working paper which I discuss below he modified the argument that I criticize that paying interest on reserves caused banks to raise their lending rates to borrowers and that he now generally agrees with my argument that paying interest on reserves did not cause banks to raise the interest rates they charged borrowers. George also points out that I did misstate his position slightly. He did not argue, as I wrote, that paying interest on reserves caused banks to raise interest rates to borrowers; his argument was that banks would accept a reduced percentage of loan applications at the prevailing rate of interest.

The economic theory of banking has a long and checkered history reflecting an ongoing dialectic between two views of banking. One view, let’s call it the reserve view, is that the circulating bank liabilities, now almost exclusively bank deposits, are created by banks after they receive deposits of currency (either metallic or fiat). Rather than hold the currency in their vaults as “safe deposits,” banks cleverly (or in the view of some, deceitfully or fraudulently) lend out claims to their reserves in exchange for the IOUs of borrowers, from which they derive a stream of interest income.

The alternative view of banking, let’s call it the anti-reserve view (in chapter 7 of my new book Studies in the History of Monetary Theory, I trace the two views David Hume and Adam Smith) bank liabilities are first issued by established money lenders, probably traders or merchants, widely known to be solvent and well-capitalized, whose debts are widely recognized as reliable and safe. Borrowers therefore prefer to exchange their own debt for that of the lenders, which is more acceptable in exchange than their own less reliable debt. Lenders denominate their IOUs in terms of an accepted currency so that borrowers can use the lender’s IOU instead of the currency. To make their IOUs circulate like currency, lenders promise to redeem their IOUs on demand, so they must either hold, or have immediate access to, currency.

These two views of banking lead to conflicting interpretations of the hugely increased reserve holdings of banks since the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Under the reserve view, reserves held by banks are the raw material from which deposits are created. Because of the inflationary potential of newly created deposits, a rapid infusion of reserves into the banking system is regarded as an inflationary surge waiting to happen.

On the anti-reserve view, however, causation flows not from reserves to deposits, but from deposits to reserves. Banks do not create deposits because they hold redundant reserves; they hold reserves because they create deposits, the holding of reserves being a the cost of creating deposits. Being a safe asset enabling banks to satisfy instantly, and without advance notice, demands for deposit redemption, reserves are held only as a precaution.

All businesses choose the forms in which to hold the assets best-suited to their operations. Manufactures own structures, buildings and machines used in producing the products they sell as well as holding inventories of finished or semi-finished outputs and inputs into the production process, as well as liquid capital like bank deposits, and other interest or income-generating assets. Banks also hold a variety of real assets (e.g., buildings, vaults, computers and machines) and a variety of financial assets. An important class of those financial assets are promissory notes of borrowers to whom banks have issued loans by creating deposits. In the ordinary course of business, banks accumulate reserves when new or existing customers make deposits, and when net positive clearings with other banks cause an inflow of reserves. The direction and the magnitude of the flow of reserves into, or out of, a bank are not beyond its power to control. Nor does a bank lack other means than increasing lending to reduce its holdings of unwanted reserves.

While reserves are the safest, most liquid, and most convenient asset that banks can hold, non-interest-bearing reserves provide banks with no pecuniary yield, so holding reserves rather than interest-bearing assets, or assets expected to appreciate involve a sacrifice of income that must be offset by the safety, liquidity and convenience provided by reserves. When the Fed began paying interest on reserves in October 2008, the holding of reserves no longer required foregoing a pecuniary yield offered by alternative assets. The next safest and most liquid class of assets available to banks is short-term Treasury notes, which do provide at least a small nominal interest return. Until October 2008, there was an active overnight market for reserves — the Federal Funds market — in which banks with excess reserves could lend to banks with insufficient reserves, thereby enabling the banking system as a whole to minimize the aggregate holding of excess (i.e., not legally required) reserves.

Legally required reserves being unavailable to banks to satisfy redemption demands without incurring a penalty for non-compliance with the legal reserve requirement, required reserves provide banks with little safety or liquidity. So, to obtain the desired safety and liquidity, banks must hold excess reserves. The cost (foregone interest) of holding excess reserves banks can be minimized by holding interest-bearing Treasuries easily exchanged for reserves and by lending or borrowing as needed in the overnight Fed Funds market. In normal conditions, the banking system can operate efficiently with excess reserves equal to only about one percent of total deposits.

The Fed did not begin paying interest on reserves until October 2008, less than a month after a financial panic and crisis brought the US and the international financial system to the brink of a catastrophic meltdown. The solvency of financial institutions and banks having been impaired by a rapid loss of asset value, distinguishing between solvent and insolvent counterparties became nearly impossible, putting almost any economic activity dependent on credit at risk of being unwound.

In danger of insolvency and desperate for liquidity, banks tried to hoard reserves and increase holdings of Treasury debt. Though yielding minimal interest, Treasury notes serve as preferred collateral in the Fed Funds market, enabling borrowers to offer lenders nearly zero-risk overnight or short-term lending opportunities via repurchase agreements in which Treasury notes are sold spot and repurchased forward at a preset price reflecting an implied interest rate on the loan.

Increased demand for Treasuries raised their prices and reduced their yields, but declining yields and lending rates couldn’t end the crisis once credit markets became paralyzed by pervasive doubts about counterparty solvency. Banks stopped lending to new customers, while hesitating, or even refusing, to renew or maintain credit facilities for existing customers, and were themselves often unable to borrow reserves without posting Treasuries as collateral for repo loans.

After steadfastly refusing to reduce its Fed Fund target rate and ease credit conditions, notwithstanding rapidly worsening economic conditions, during the summer of 2008, an intransigent stance from which it refused to budge even after the financial panic erupted in mid-September. While Treasury yields were falling as the markets sought liquidity and safety, chaotic market conditions caused overnight rates in the Fed Funds market to fluctuate erratically. Finally relenting in October as credit markets verged on collapse, the Fed reduced its Fed Funds target rate by 50 basis points. In the catastrophic conditions of October 2008, the half-percent reduction in the Fed Funds target was hardly adequate.

To prevent a system-wide catastrophe, the Fed began lending to banks on the security of assets of doubtful value or to buy assets — at book, rather than (unknown) market, value – that were not normally eligible to be purchased by the Fed. The resulting rapid expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet and the creation of bank reserves (Fed liabilities) raised fears (shared by the Fed) of potential future inflation. 

Fearing that its direct lending to banks and its asset purchases were increasing bank reserves excessively, thereby driving the Fed Funds rate below its target, the Fed sought, and received, Congressional permission to begin paying interest on bank reserves so that banks would hold the newly acquired reserves, rather use the reserves to acquire assets like borrower IOUs, lest total spending and aggregate demand increase. Avoiding such a potentially inflationary increase in aggregate demand had been the chief policy objective of the Fed throughout 2008 even as the economy slid into deep recession just prior to the start of the financial crisis, and the Fed was sticking to that policy.

Struggling to contain a deepening financial crisis while adhering to a commitment to a 2-percent inflation target, the Fed experimented for almost two months with both its traditional Fed Funds target and its new policy of paying interest on bank reserves. The Fed eventually settled on a target for the Fed Funds rate between zero and .25% while paying .25% interest on reserves, thereby making it unnecessary for banks with accounts at the Fed to borrow, and making them unwilling to lend, reserves in the Fed Funds market. Thanks to the massive infusion of reserves into the banking system, the panic was quelled and the immediate financial crisis receded, but the underlying weakness of an economy was aggravated and continued to deepen; the liquidity and solvency problems that triggered the crisis were solved, but the aggregate-demand deficiency was not.

In his excellent historical and analytical account of how and why the Fed adopted its policy of paying interest on reserves, George Selgin credits the idea that had the Fed not paid interest to banks on their reserves, they would have used those reserves to increase lending, thereby providing stimulus to the economy. (Update: as noted above, the argument I criticize was made in Cato Working Paper not in the published version of George’s book, and he informs me that he modified the argument in the published version and now disavows it.) Although I agree with George that paying interest on bank reserves reduced aggregate demand, I disagree with his argument that the reduction in aggregate demand was caused by increased interest charged to borrowers owing to the payment of interest on reserves.

George believes that, by paying interest on reserves, the Fed increased the attractiveness of holding reserves relative to higher-yielding assets like the IOUs of borrowers. And, sure enough, after the Fed began paying interest on reserves, the share of bank loans in total bank assets declined by about the same percentage as the share of reserves in total bank assets.

The logic underlying this argument is that, at the margin, an optimizing bank equates the anticipated yield from holding every asset in its portfolio. If the expected return at margin from bank loans exceeds the expected return from reserves, an optimizing bank will increase its lending until the marginal return from lending no longer exceeds the marginal return from holding reserves. When the Fed began paying interest on reserves, the expected return at the margin from holding reserves increased and exceeded the expected return at the margin from bank loans, giving banks an incentive to increase their holdings of reserves relative to their holdings of bank loans. Presumably this means that banks would try to increase their holdings of bank reserves and reduce their lending.

At least two problems undercut this logic. First, as explained above, the yield from holding an asset can be pecuniary – a yield of interest, of dividends, or appreciation – or a flow of services. Clearly, the yield from holding reserves is primarily the service flow associated with the safety, liquidity and convenience provided by reserves. Before October 2008, reserves provided no pecuniary yield, either in explicit interest or expected appreciation, the optimal quantity of reserves held was such that, at the margin, the safety, liquidity and convenience generated by reserves was just sufficient to match the pecuniary return from the loan assets expected by an optimizing bank.

After the Fed began paying interest on reserves, the combined pecuniary and service return from holding reserves exceeded the return from banks’ loan assets. So, banks therefore chose to increase their holdings of reserves until the expected pecuniary and service yield from reserves no longer exceeded the expected return from loan assets. But as banks increased their reserve holdings, the marginal service flow provided by reserves diminished until the marginal pecuniary plus service yield was again equalized across the assets held in banks’ asset portfolios. But that does not imply that banks reduced their lending or the value of the loan assets in their portfolios compared to the value of loan assets held before interest was paid on reserves; it just means that optimal bank portfolios after the Fed began paying interest on bank reserves contained more reserves than previously.

Indeed, because reserves provided a higher pecuniary yield and more safety, liquidity and convenience than holding Treasuries, banks were willing to add reserves to their portfolios without limit, because holding reserves became costless. The only limit on the holding of bank reserves was the willingness of the Fed to create more reserves by buying additional assets from the private sector. The proceeds of sales would be deposited in the banking system. The yield on the acquired assets would accrue to the Fed, and that yield would be transferred to the banking system by way of interest paid on those reserves.

So, if I don’t think that paying interest on bank reserves caused banks to raise interest rates on loans, why do I think that paying interest on bank reserves reduced aggregate demand and slowed the recovery from the Little Depression (aka Great Recession)?

The conventional story, derived from the reserve view, is that if banks have more reserves than they wish to hold, they try to dispose of their excess reserves by increasing their lending to borrowers. But banks wouldn’t increase lending to borrowers unless the expected profitability of such lending increased; no increase in the quantity of non-interest-bearing reserves of the banks would have increased the profitability of bank lending unless consumer confidence or business optimism increased, neither of which depends in a straightforward way on the quantity of reserves held by banks.

In several published papers on classical monetary theory which were revised and republished in my new book Studies in the History of Monetary Theory (chapters 2-5 and 7 see front matter for original publication information), I described a mechanism of bank lending and money creation. Competitive banks create money by lending, but how much money they create is constrained by the willingness of the public to hold the liabilities (deposits) emitted in the process of lending.

The money-lending, deposit-creation process can be imperfectly described within a partial-equilibrium, marginal-revenue, marginal-cost framework. The marginal revenue from creating money corresponds to the spread between a bank’s borrowing rate (the interest rate paid on deposits) and its lending rate (the interest rate charged borrowers). At the margin, this spread equals the bank’s cost of intermediation, which includes the cost of holding reserves. The cost of intermediation increases as the difference between the yields on Treasuries and reserves increase, and as the quantity of reserves held increases.

So, in the basic model I work with, paying interest on reserves reduces the cost of creating deposits, thereby tending to increase the amount of lending by banks, contrary to Selgin’s argument that paying interest on reserves reduces bank lending by inducing banks to raise interest rates on loans.

But, in a recession — and even more so in a financial crisis or panic — the cost of intermediation increases, causing banks to reduce their lending, primarily by limiting or denying the extension of credit to new and existing customers. Of course, in a recession, businesses and households demand fewer loans to finance spending plans, and instead seek credit with which to meet current obligations coming due. As banks’ costs of intermediation rise, they inevitably curtail lending, increasing the share of reserves in banks’ total assets.

While Selgin attributes the increasing share of reserves in banks’ assets to the payment of interest on reserves, a more plausible explanation of the increase is that it results from the increased intermediation costs associated with recession and a financial crisis, which more than offset the cost reduction from paying interest on reserves.

Although paying interest on reserves was a major innovation, in a sense it was just a continuation of the policy approach adopted by the Fed in 2004 when started gradually raising its Fed Funds target rate to 5.25% in June 2006, where it stood until July 2007. Combined with the bursting of the housing bubble in 2006, the 5.25% Fed Funds target produced a gradual slowdown that led the Fed to reduce its target, but always too little and too late, as the economy slid into recession at the end of 2007. So, the payment of interest on reserves, intended to ensure that the reserves would not trigger a surge in spending, was entirely consistent with the restrictive policy orientation of the Fed before the financial panic and crisis of 2008, which continued during and after the crisis. That policy was largely responsible for the unusually weak economic recovery and expansion in the decade after the crisis, when banks willingly absorbed all the reserves created by the Fed.

The specific point on which I disagree with Selgin is his belief that paying interest on bank reserves discouraged banks from increasing their lending despite the increase in their reserves. I maintain that paying interest on reserves did not discourage banks from lending, but instead altered their incentive to hold reserves versus holding Treasuries. That decision was independent of the banks’ lending decisions. The demand for loans to finance spending plans by businesses and households was declining because of macroeconomic conditions in a recessionary economy during a financial crisis and recession and the subsequent slow recovery.

Had the Fed not paid interest on reserves while purchasing assets to provide liquidity to the banking system, I am doubtful that banks would have provided credit for increased private spending. If no interest were paid on reserves, it seems more likely that banks would have used the additional reserves created by the Fed to purchase Treasuries than to increase lending, driving up their prices and reducing their yields. Instead of receiving interest of .25% on their reserves, banks would have received slightly less interest on short-term Treasuries. So, without interest on reserves, banks would have received less interest income, and incurred slightly more risk, than they actually did. The Fed, on the other hand, would have had a net increase in revenue by not paying more interest to banks than it received from the Treasuries sold by the banks to the Fed.

The only plausible difference between paying interest on reserves and not doing so that I can see is that the Fed, by paying interest on reserves, lent credibility to its commitment to keep inflation at, or below, its 2-percent target. The Fed’s own justification for seeking permission to pay interest on reserves, as Selgin (Floored, p. 18) documented with a passage from Bernanke’s memoir , was that not doing so might result in an inflationary increase in lending by banks trying to shed their excess reserves. Because I believe that expectations of inflation have a tendency to be self-fulfilling, I don’t dismiss the idea that paying interest on reserves helped the Fed anchor inflation expectations at or near its 2-percent inflation target.

Economic conditions after the financial crisis of 2008-09 were characterized by an extreme entrepreneurial pessimism that Ralph Hawtrey called a credit deadlock, conditions akin to, but distinct from, the more familiar Keynesian phenomenon of a liquidity trap. The difference is that a credit deadlock results from pessimism so intense that entrepreneurs (and presumably households as well) are unwilling, regardless of the interest rate on loans, to undertake long-term spending plans (capital investment by businesses or consumer-durables purchases by households) requiring credit financing. In a liquidity trap, such spending plans might be undertaken at a sufficiently low interest rate, but the interest rate cannot fall, bear speculators cashing in their long-term bond holdings as soon as long-term bond prices rise to a level that speculators regard as unsustainable. To me, at least, the Hawtreyan credit deadlock seems a more plausible description of conditions in 2008-09 than the Keynesian liquidity trap.

In a Hawtreyan credit deadlock, the capacity of monetary policy to increase spending and aggregate demand is largely eliminated. Here’s Hawtrey’s description from the 1950 edition of his classic work Currency and Credit.

If the banks fail to stimulate short-term borrowing, they can create credit by themselves buying securities in the investment market. The market will seek to use the resources thus placed in it, and it will become more favourable to new flotations and sales of securities. But even so and expansion of the flow of money is not ensured. If the money created is to move and to swell the consumers’ income, the favourable market must evoke additional capital outlay. That is likely to take time and conceivably capital outlay may fail to respond. A deficiency of demand for consumable goods reacts on capital outlay, for when the existing capacity of industries is underemployed, there is little demand for capital outlay to extend capacity. . .

The deadlock then is complete, and, unless it is to continue unbroken till some fortuitous circumstance restarts activity, recourse must be had to directly inflationary expedients, such as government expenditures far in excess of revenue, or a deliberate depreciation of the foreign exchange value of the money unit.

In this passage, Hawtrey, originator of the widely reviled “Treasury View” (also see chapters 10-11 of my Studies in the History of Monetary Theory) that denied the efficacy of fiscal policy as a countercyclical tool, acknowledged the efficacy of fiscal policy in a credit deadlock, while monetary policy could be effective only through currency devaluation or depreciation, though I would add that in monetary policy could also be effective by inducing or creating expectations of inflation.

The long, but painfully slow, recovery from the 2008-09 financial crisis lent credence to Hawtrey’s description of credit deadlock, and my own empirical findings of the unusual positive correlation between changes in inflation expectations and changes in the S&P 500 supports the idea that increasing inflation expectations are a means whereby monetary policy can enable an escape from credit deadlock.

What’s Right and not so Right with Modern Monetary Theory

UPDATE (2/5/21: A little while ago I posted this tweet on Twitter

So I thought I would re-up this post from July 2020 about MMT in response to a tweet asking me what might be a better criticism of MMT.

I am finishing up a first draft of a paper on fiat money, bitcoins and cryptocurrencies that will be included in a forthcoming volume on bitcoins and cryptocurrencies. The paper is loosely based on a number of posts that have appeared on this blog since I started blogging almost nine years ago. My first post appeared on July 5, 2011. Here are some of my posts on and fiat money, bitcoins and cryptocurrencies (this, this, this, and this). In writing the paper, it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to include a comment on Modern Monetary Theory inasmuch as the proposition that the value of fiat money is derived from the acceptability of fiat money for discharging the tax liabilities imposed by the governments issuing those fiat moneys, which is a proposition that Modern Monetary Theorists have adopted from the chartalist school of thought associated with the work of G. F. Knapp. But there were clearly other economists before and since Knapp that have offered roughly the same explanation for the positive value of fiat money that offers no real non-monetary services to those holding such moneys. Here is the section from my draft about Modern Monetary Theory.

Although there’s a long line of prominent economic theorists who have recognized that acceptability of a fiat money for discharging tax liabilities, the proposition is now generally associated with the chartalist views of G. F. Knapp, whose views have been explicitly cited in recent works by economists associated with what is known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). While the capacity of fiat money to discharge tax liabilities is surely an important aspect of MMT, not all propositions associated with MMT automatically follow from that premise. Recognizing the role of the capacity of fiat money to discharge tax liabilities, Knapp juxtaposed his “state theory of money” from the metallist theory. The latter holds that the institution of money evolved from barter trade, because certain valuable commodities, especially precious metals became widely used as media of exchange, because, for whatever reason, they were readily accepted in exchange, thereby triggering the self-reinforcing network effects discussed above.[1]

However, the often bitter debates between chartalists and metallists notwithstanding, there is no necessary, or logical, inconsistency between the theories. Both theories about the origin of money could be simultaneously true, each under different historical conditions. Each theory posits an explanation for why a monetary instrument providing no direct service is readily accepted in exchange. That one explanation could be true does not entail the falsity of the other.

Taking chartalism as its theoretical foundation, MMT focuses on a set of accounting identities that are presumed to embody deep structural relationships. Because money is regarded as the creature of the state, the quantity of money is said to reflect the cumulative difference between government tax revenues and expenditures which are financed by issuing fiat money. The role of government bonds is to provide a buffer with which short-term fluctuations in the inflow of taxes (recurrently peaking at particular times of the year when tax payments become due) and government expenditures.

But the problem with MMT, shared with many other sorts of monetary theory, is that it focuses on a particular causal relationship, working through the implications of that relationship conditioned on a ceteris-paribus assumption that all other relationships are held constant and are unaffected by the changes on which the theory is focusing, regardless of whether the assumption can be maintained.

For example, MMT posits that increases in taxes are deflationary and reductions in taxes are inflationary, because an increase in taxes implies a net drain of purchasing power from the private sector to the government sector and a reduction in taxes implies an injection of purchasing power.[2] According to the MMT, the price level reflects the relationship between total spending and total available productive resources, At given current prices, some level of total spending would just suffice to ensure that all available resources are fully employed. If total spending exceeds that amount, the excess spending must cause prices to rise to absorb the extra spending.

This naïve theory of inflation captures a basic intuition about the effect of increasing the rate of spending, but it is not a complete theory of inflation, because the level of spending depends not only on how much the government spends and how much tax revenue it collects; it also depends on, among other things, whether the public is trying to add to, or to reduce, the quantity of cash balances being held. Now it’s true that an efficiently operating banking system tends to adjust the quantity of cash to the demands of the public, but the banking system also has demands for the reserves that the government, via the central bank, makes available to be held, and its demands to hold reserves may match, or fall short of, the amount that banks at any moment wish to hold.

There is an interbank system of reserves, but if the amount of reserves that the government central bank creates is systematically above the amount of reserves that banks wish to hold, the deficiency will have repercussions on total spending. MMT theorists insist that the government central bank is obligated to provide whatever quantity of reserves is demanded, but that’s because the demand of banks to hold reserves is a function of the foregone interest incurred by banks holding reserves. Given the cost of holding reserves implied by the interest-rate target established by the government central bank, the banking system will demand a corresponding quantity of reserves, and, at that interest rate, government central banks will supply all the reserves demanded. But that doesn’t mean that, in setting its target rate, the government central bank isn’t implicitly determining the quantity of reserves for the entire system, thereby exercising an independent influence on the price level or the rate of inflation that must be reconciled with the fiscal stance of the government.

A tendency toward oversimplification is hardly unique to MMT. It’s also characteristic of older schools of thought, like the metallist theory of money, the polar opposite from the MMT and the chartalist theory. The metallist theory asserts that the value of a metallic money must equal the value of the amount of the metal represented by any particular monetary unit defined in terms of that metal. Under a gold standard, for example, all monetary units represent some particular quantity of gold, and the relative values of those units correspond to the ratios of the gold represented by those units. The value of gold standard currency therefore doesn’t deviate more than trivially from the value of the amount of gold represented by the currency.

But, here again, we confront a simplification; the value of gold, or of any commodity serving as a monetary standard, isn’t independent of its monetary-standard function. The value of any commodity depends on the total demand for any and all purposes for which it is, or may be, used. If gold serves as money, either as coins actually exchanged or a reserves sitting in bank vaults, that amount of gold is withdrawn from potential non-monetary uses, so that the value of gold relative to other commodities must rise to reflect the diversion of that portion of the total stock from non-monetary uses. If the demand to hold money rises, and the additional money that must be created to meet that demand requires additional gold to be converted into monetary form, either as coins or as reserves held by banks, the additional derived demand for gold tends to increase the value of gold, and, as a result, the value of money.

Moreover, insofar as governments accumulate reserves of gold that are otherwise held idle, the decision about how much gold reserves to continue holding in relation to the monetary claims on those reserves also affects the value of gold. It’s therefore not necessarily correct to say that, under a gold standard, the value of gold determines the value of money. The strictly correct proposition is that, under a gold standard, the value of gold and the value of money must be equal. But the value of money causally affects the value of gold no less than the value of gold causally affects the value of money.

In the context of a fiat money, whose value necessarily reflects expectations of its future purchasing power, it is not only the current policies of the government and the monetary authority, but expectations about future economic conditions and about the future responses of policy-makers to those conditions that determine the value of a fiat money. A useful theory of the value of money and of the effect of monetary policy on the value of money cannot be formulated without taking the expectations of individuals into account. Rational-expectations may be a useful first step to in formulating models that explicitly take expectations into account, but their underlying suppositions of most rational-expectations models are too far-fetched – especially the assumption that all expectations converge on the “correct” probability distributions of all future prices – to provide practical insight, much less useful policy guidance (Glasner 2020).

So, in the end, all simple theories of causation, like MMT, that suggest one particular variable determines the value of another are untenable in any complex system of mutually interrelated phenomena (Hayek 1967). There are few systems in nature as complex as a modern economy; only if it were possible to write out a complete system of equations describing all those interrelationships, could we trace out the effects of increasing the income tax rate or the level of government spending on the overall price level, as MMT claims to do. But for a complex interrelated system, no direct causal relationship between any two variables to the exclusion of all the others is likely to serve as a reliable guide to policy except in special situations when it can plausibly be assumed that a ceteris-paribus assumption is likely to be even approximately true.

[1] The classic exposition of this theory of money was provided by Carl Menger (1892).

[2] In an alternate version of the tax theory of inflation, an increase in taxes increases the value of money by increasing the demand of money at the moment when tax liabilities come due. The value of money is determined by its value at those peak periods, and it is the expected value of money at those peak periods that maintains its value during non-peak periods. The problem with this version is that it presumes that the value of money is solely a function of its value in discharging tax liabilities, but money is also demanded to serve as a medium of exchange which implies an increase in value above the value it would have solely from the demand occasioned by its acceptability to discharge tax liabilities.


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. 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.

My new book Studies in the History of Monetary Theory: Controversies and Clarifications has been published by Palgrave Macmillan

Follow me on Twitter @david_glasner

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