Archive for July, 2011

Why the Stock Market Loves Inflation

Scott Sumner just posted an item on his blog pointing out how the stock market rallied today when Ben Bernanke testified that the Fed would take action to stimulate the economy if needed. Bloomberg reports:

The greenback fell the most in six months versus the euro as Bernanke said central bank is prepared to take additional action, including buying more government bonds, if the economy appears to be in danger of stalling. The Australian and New Zealand dollars led earlier gains against the currency after China’s economic growth exceeded analysts’ estimates. The euro advanced as Italian and Spanish bonds rose for a second day.

“The markets are weighing the trade-off between the potential for liquidity injections and worsening in global growth prospects,” said Aroop Chatterjee, a currency strategist at Barclays Plc in New York. “For the time being liquidity is winning out. Bernanke’s comments may take some of the focus off what markets have been trading on, which have been largely linked to European news.”

The dollar weakened 1.4 percent against the euro to $1.4166 at 12:38 p.m. in New York, its biggest drop since Jan. 13. It reached $1.3837 yesterday, the strongest level since March 11.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index rose 1.2 percent and the yield on 10-year Treasuries increased seven basis points to 2.95 percent.

The weakening of the dollar and the increase in the 10-year Treasury both suggest an increase in inflation expectations. If stock prices are increasing in the face of increased interest rates at which future earnings must be discounted it can only mean that investors are expecting earnings to increase faster than prices. In other words, investors expect that inflation under current conditions will increase earnings in real terms. That relationship between expected inflation and the expected growth of earning seems to have prevailed, as I showed in my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations,” since early in 2008 when inflation expectations started to falter as the economic downturn started. My data analysis only went as far as the end of 2010. The last six months show basically the same relationship except for a while when oil prices spiked in February because of the Libyan situation. I hope to revise and update the paper sometime this summer.

Scott writes:

But you might ask “weren’t the high inflation 1970s really bad for stocks?” Yes they were. Just like in the story of the three little bears, the stock market doesn’t want too much inflation, nor too little. Something for the inflation hawks to think about.

That is not quite how I would put it. Whether the market likes inflation or not depends on how high real interest rates are. If real interest rates are high, then markets can tolerate deflation. But when the real rate is already low and for sure if it’s negative, deflation, or even the very low inflation we have now, is very damaging and holds back the recovery. In the 1970s, however, nominal interest rates were at double-digit levels. At those levels, inflation provides little or no stimulus to growth, and has all sorts of negative side effects. In addition, there were supply side shocks in the 1970s, which should properly have been accommodated by monetary easing. Stock prices fell in response to the supply-side shocks not only because inflation was too high.

Sarah Palin, Economist

Who knew?

Reporter Peter J. Boyer in the current issue of Newsweek magazine:


[Sarah] Palin has also become conversant on the subject of quantitative easing, the inflationary effects of which she illustrated with a personal anecdote. “I was ticked off at Todd yesterday,” she said. “He walks into a gas station as we’re driving over from Minnesota. He buys a Slim Jim—we’re always eating that jerky stuff—for $2.69. I said, ‘Todd, those used to be 99 cents, just recently!’ And he says, ‘Man, the dollar’s worth nothing anymore.’ A jug of milk and a loaf of bread and a dozen eggs—every time I walk into that grocery store, a couple of pennies more.”

Why Is This Recovery Different from all Others?

I have mentioned a couple of times in previous posts that I was working on a comparison of the anemic recovery from our Little Depression to recoveries from previous post-World War II recessions.  The comparison actually involved getting my hands dirty with some data, doing some actual, but low-level, empirical work.  My results seem interesting enough to share, even if they are not exactly the sort of thing that one would publish in an econ journal.  The exposition may be slightly more technical than is customary for blogs, but I hope that some readers may be willing to at least skim through to the end to get a sense of what I have done.  So here it goes.

About two weeks ago while I was in the final stages of talking myself into starting this blog, I saw a short piece (in the weekend (June 24) edition of the Wall Street Journal) by editorial writer Stephen Moore, touting a report (“Uncharted Depths”) of the Republican staff of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, purporting to show that, on every metric, this recovery is by far the weakest recovery since World War II.

Disdaining any pretense of objectivity, Mr. Moore, in his second paragraph, highlighted the finding of the JEC report that employment is still 5 percent below what it was at the start of the downturn 38 months ago.  “This,” Moore continued, “compares to an average rise in employment of 3.7% over the same period in prior post-WWII recessions.” But the latest downturn was both deeper and longer-lasting than any post-WWII recession.  So for Mr. Moore et al. to compare, on the one hand, employment 38 months ago at the start of the downturn with employment now, and on the other hand, employment at the start of previous recessions with employment 38 months later, is to bias the comparison of the recoveries from the get-go.  Obviously, if one downturn is deeper and longer-lasting than another, the ratio of employment (or any other cyclical variable) in the bigger downturn a given length of time after it began relative to employment when the downturn started will be less than the same ratio in the smaller downturn even if, once underway, the recoveries are equally strong.  But, obviously, the point of the exercise for Mr. Moore and the authors of the JEC report was not to perform a fair and balanced comparison;  it was to inflict damage in a political battle.

Nevertheless, their bias notwithstanding, Mr. Moore et al. had the germ of an interesting idea.  So I decided to try to redo their comparison of recoveries from post-WWII downturns, while also taking into account the length and severity of the downturn preceding the recoveries.  So for each of the 10 stand-alone downturns (i.e., excluding the 1980 recession, overtaken a year and a half after it began by the steep 1981-82 recession), I took the peak quarterly real GDP at or before the downturn and real GDP 13 quarters after the downturn started.  (After the 1957-58 downturn, another recession started 11 quarters later, so I compared the peak quarterly GDP before the downturn with peak GDP 11 quarters later.)  I also calculated the difference between the peak quarterly GDP before the downturn and the lowest quarterly GDP after the downturn, as well as the percentage of months in which the economy was in recovery for each (with the above-mentioned exception) 14-quarter downturn-recovery cycle.

So I amassed data for the following 10 post-WWII downturns and subsequent recoveries:  1948-49, 1953, 1957-58, 1960-61, 1969-70, 1973-75, 1981-82, 1993, 2001, 2007-09.  The data consisted in the percentage increase in real GDP 13 quarters after the start of each downturn over the peak GDP at or before the downturn, the percentage decline in real GDP at the depth of the downturn from peak GDP at or before the downturn, and the percentage of each downturn-recovery cycle (measured in terms of months) in which the economy was recovering.

With these data, I performed a simple statistical analysis, an ordinary least-squares regression, dropping the constant term from the regression (thereby greatly improving its fit).  Ordinary least squares estimation produced the following equation:

% increase in RGDP = .95 X (% fall in RGDP) + 16.18 X (% of cycle in expansion)

The equation says that the percentage change in real GDP 13 quarters after the start of the downturn relative to peak real GDP at or before the downturn can be broken down into two components.  The first component equals .95 of the percentage reduction in real GDP during the downturn (measuring the depth of the downturn).  (This means that reducing the fall of real GDP during the downturn was associated with an increase in the growth of GDP over the 13 quarters following the downturn of about 0.95%.)  The second component is 16.18 times the percentage of the 14-quarter cycle in which the economy was recovering (measuring the length of the downturn).  (This means that a 10-percentage point increase in the percentage of the cycle in which the economy was expanding was associated with an increase in the growth of GDP over the 14-quarter cycle of about 1.62%.)

The r-squared of the regression, measuring how much of the variation in the increase in real GDP is accounted for by the regression, is .855, which is not too bad, actually.  Using the regression coefficients, I calculated the implied increase in GDP 13 quarters after the start of each of the 10 recessions and plotted those predicted values against the actual values in following chart.  What is noteworthy about the chart is that although the current recovery is obviously the weakest of the 10 post-WWII recoveries, it is not, contrary to Mr. Moore and associates, the worst post-WWII under-achiever.  Relative to the depth and duration of the earlier recession, the current recovery is no worse, perhaps even slightly better, than the recoveries from the 1990-91 and 2001 recessions.  The other under-achiever, as one might have guessed, is the truncated recovery to the 1957-58 downturn.

Now it also occurred to me that some other factors might also help account for the variations in the strength of the recoveries to post-WWII downturns.  The most plausible or most interesting ones that I could think of were the rate of inflation (of course) and the tax rate.  There are multiple ways to measure these variables, but, for purposes of this exercise, the GDP price deflator and the top marginal tax rate seemed the most informative and relevant.

But a moment’s reflection is enough to make it obvious that it isn’t even worth trying to estimate a regression with the top marginal tax rate as a variable; the top marginal tax rate, having  started at about 90% percent in the late 1940s, falling to 70% in the 1964 and to 50% in 1982, 39.6% in 1993 and 35% in 2003, clearly tends to be positively correlated with the strength of a recovery, the weakest recoveries having all been registered when the top marginal rate was lowest and the strongest recovery (to the 1948-49 downturn) when the top marginal rate was at its maximum.  Hardly anyone would believe that there is a causal link between high tax rates and strong recoveries, so the observed correlation is, somehow or other, either purely random or coincidental, with some other, as yet unspecified, variable.  Nevertheless, the strong apparent correlation between high marginal tax rates and strong recoveries ought to suggest to those who argue that low taxes will solve any problem, that they may be overstating the miracle-working powers of low marginal tax rates, at least as a method of promoting cyclical recoveries.   Even the powerful recovery from the 1981-82 recession, when that famous tax-cutter Ronald Reagan was President, coincided with a top marginal rate of 50%, a rate that would now trigger howls of outrage from Reagan’s present-day acolytes.

But it did seem worthwhile to reestimate a regression including a variable for inflation.  In each downturn-recovery cycle, I compared the GDP price deflator in the last quarter of the downturn with the GDP deflator 13 quarters after the downturn started.   Doing so isolates inflation in the recovery, because I want to know if greater inflation is associated with a stronger recovery.  Taking the overall increase in the GDP deflator during the recovery, I calculated the implied annual rate of inflation over the entire recovery and estimated the regression using the natural logarithm of the average annual rate of inflation during the recovery.  I used the logarithm, because additional doses of inflation might well have a declining stimulative power, implying that the logarithm of the inflation rate would give a better fit than the inflation rate itself.  In fact, estimating the regression both ways, I found that, as expected, the logarithm of inflation gave a better fit than did inflation itself.

Here is the regression equation that I estimated:

%increase in RGDP = .94 X (%fall in RGDP) + 12.77 X (% of cycle in expansion) + 2.75 X (log of inflation)

The equation says that the percentage increase over the whole cyclical episode can be broken down into three components.  The first two are as they were previously, but with somewhat reduced coefficients.  The third component is 2.75 times the logarithm of the rate of inflation, which implies that a 1% increase in inflation was associated with an increased real GDP growth over the cycle of somewhat more than 1%.

The r-squared of the new regression is .881.  The adjusted r-squared, which takes into account the number of variables, rises from .82 with no inflation variable to .83 with an inflation variable.  Not spectacular, but still respectable.

As before, I also calculated the predicted values for real GDP growth in each cycle and plotted them against the actual values.  Those plots are in the chart below.

It is apparent that adjusting for the rate of inflation makes the current recovery seem a bit less of an under-achiever than when no account was taken of inflation.  In the previous chart, the current recovery performed only slightly less well relative to the prediction than did the recoveries after the 1990-91 and 2001 recessions.  In this chart, it does noticeably, though not very much, better than did the two previous recoveries, and also better than the 1973-75 recession (which makes sense inasmuch as inflation in that recession was driven largely by supply-side, not demand-side, factors).

What is the point of all this?  Well, with only 10 observations, one would hardly want to put much reliance on any statistical result, so the main lesson is negative.  Although the current recovery is certainly very weak, in the sort of naïve comparison that Stephen Moore and associates were performing, the current recovery is actually less of an under-achiever,  given the length and depth of the preceding downturn and the very low rate of inflation, than either of the previous two recoveries.

To put a slightly finer point on it, if the rate of inflation in the current recovery had been equal to the rate of inflation in the recovery from the 1981-82 recession when Ronald Reagan was President, the corresponding increase in the predicted rate of growth would have been 3%.  According to Okun’s Law, adding 3% to real GDP would reduce the unemployment rate by 1%.  Do the data prove that that is what would have happened?  By no means.  Correlation is not causation.  But perhaps Mr. Moore and associates, so quick to draw conclusions from a simplistic, if not simple-minded, comparison of this recovery with earlier recoveries, should entertain the possibility that the data, apparently so compelling, may be telling a different story from the one they thought they were hearing.

HT:  Marcus Nunes

Schuler on the Ground for Opposing Monetary Easing

On the Free Banking blog, Kurt Schuler kindly takes note of my blogging debut, even throwing in a plug for my book.  Many thanks, Kurt.  But just to show that he is no pushover, Kurt takes exception to my comment about “the groundlessness of right-wing opposition to monetary easing.”

In his first post, Glasner speaks of “the groundlessness of right-wing opposition to monetary easing.” Whoa, fella. You accept Scott Sumner’s argument that the Federal Reserve didn’t respond fast enough to a large, sudden rise in demand for the monetary base in 2008. Eventually it did respond, and now the monetary base is about three times what it was just before the recession. Isn’t it equally conceivable that the Fed won’t respond fast enough if there is a large, sudden fall in demand for the monetary base? If so, the right-wing critics have a concern that may  become valid sooner than you expect. That being said, I look forward to reading further installments of the blog.

Where to begin?  OK, I not only accept Scott’s argument, I thought of it myself.  What is it that they say about great minds?  But actually the argument is slightly more complicated, and the historical component was laid out very nicely by Robert Hetzel in a piece in the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond Economic Quarterly in the spring 2009 issue.

But Kurt’s main point is that regardless of what happened in 2008, the big increase in the demand for the monetary base is eventually going to be reversed.  And what assurance do we have that all that extra cash sloshing around will not cause a rip-roaring inflation down the road?  I admit that anything is possible, but this is just the reasoning that led to a huge increase in required reserves in 1937 to mop up all that excess liquidity on bank balance sheets, triggering a renewed deflation just as the US economy seemed on the verge of recovery from the Great Depression.  I say let’s worry about the problem that we have now, and then take care of tomorrow’s problem then.  Now Kurt might say that solving today’s problem will inevitably lead to the problem tomorrow.  He might, but that’s not what he did say.  So, following my own dictum, I will not answer an argument he has not yet made.  Moreover, if the Fed would make explicit what price level trajectory it is aiming for, it would not have to worry as much about inflation from a temporary excess supply of base money as it does when its price-level objectives are opaque.

Finally, when I referred to right-wing opponents of monetary easing, I was not referring as much to free banking types like Kurt, who have opposed inflation consistently under more or less all conditions.  I may not agree with that position, but I don’t consider it groundless.  My criticism was directed more at those who are using inflation as just one more political argument in their arsenal, even though they were more than happy to accept a much higher rate of inflation than we now have during an earlier recovery when there was a different president of a different party in office.

Monetary Policy in Action

When I looked at the Financial Times this morning, I was struck by the following article entitled “Booming Sweden Raises Rates”.

Sweden is a small open economy, so the potential for monetary policy to be effective is limited.  But, it is still notable that by aggressively reducing its lending rate to zero and not paying interest on reserves, the Swedish Riksbank has promoted a recovery.  With the recovery come higher interest rates.  Not the other way around.  FOMC, please take note.

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.


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,836 other followers

Follow Uneasy Money on