Archive for January, 2016

How not to Win Friends and Influence People

Last week David Beckworth and Ramesh Ponnuru wrote a very astute op-ed article in the New York Times explaining how the Fed was tightening its monetary policy in 2008 even as the economy was rapidly falling into recession. Although there are a couple of substantive points on which I might take issue with Beckworth and Ponnuru (more about that below), I think that on the whole they do a very good job of covering the important points about the 2008 financial crisis given that their article had less than 1000 words.

That said, Beckworth and Ponnuru made a really horrible – to me incomprehensible — blunder. For some reason, in the second paragraph of their piece, after having recounted the conventional narrative of the 2008 financial crisis as an inevitable result of housing bubble and the associated misconduct of the financial industry in their first paragraph, Beckworth and Ponnuru cite Ted Cruz as the spokesman for the alternative view that they are about to present. They compound that blunder in a disclaimer identifying one of them – presumably Ponnuru — as a friend of Ted Cruz – for some recent pro-Cruz pronouncements from Ponnuru see here, here, and here – thereby transforming what might have been a piece of neutral policy analysis into a pro-Cruz campaign document. Aside from the unseemliness of turning Cruz into the poster-boy for Market Monetarism and NGDP Level Targeting, when, as recently as last October 28, Mr. Cruz was advocating resurrection of the gold standard while bashing the Fed for debasing the currency, a shout-out to Ted Cruz is obviously not a gesture calculated to engage readers (of the New York Times for heaven sakes) and predispose them to be receptive to the message they want to convey.

I suppose that this would be the appropriate spot for me to add a disclaimer of my own. I do not know, and am no friend of, Ted Cruz, but I was a FTC employee during Cruz’s brief tenure at the agency from July 2002 to December 2003. I can also affirm that I have absolutely no recollection of having ever seen or interacted with him while he was at the agency or since, and have spoken to only one current FTC employee who does remember him.

Predictably, Beckworth and Ponnuru provoked a barrage of negative responses to their argument that the Fed was responsible for the 2008 financial crisis by not easing monetary policy for most of 2008 when, even before the financial crisis, the economy was sliding into a deep recession. Much of the criticism focuses on the ambiguous nature of the concepts of causation and responsibility when hardly any political or economic event is the direct result of just one cause. So to say that the Fed caused or was responsible for the 2008 financial crisis cannot possibly mean that the Fed single-handedly brought it about, and that, but for the Fed’s actions, no crisis would have occurred. That clearly was not the case; the Fed was operating in an environment in which not only its past actions but the actions of private parties and public and political institutions increased the vulnerability of the financial system. To say that the Fed’s actions of commission or omission “caused” the financial crisis in no way absolves all the other actors from responsibility for creating the conditions in which the Fed found itself and in which the Fed’s actions became crucial for the path that the economy actually followed.

Consider the Great Depression. I think it is totally reasonable to say that the Great Depression was the result of the combination of a succession of interest rate increases by the Fed in 1928 and 1929 and by the insane policy adopted by the Bank of France in 1928 and continued for several years thereafter to convert its holdings of foreign-exchange reserves into gold. But does saying that the Fed and the Bank of France caused the Great Depression mean that World War I and the abandonment of the gold standard and the doubling of the price level in terms of gold during the war were irrelevant to the Great Depression? Of course not. Does it mean that accumulation of World War I debt and reparations obligations imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles and the accumulation of debt issued by German state and local governments — debt and obligations that found their way onto the balance sheets of banks all over the world, were irrelevant to the Great Depression? Not at all.

Nevertheless, it does make sense to speak of the role of monetary policy as a specific cause of the Great Depression because the decisions made by the central bankers made a difference at critical moments when it would have been possible to avoid the calamity had they adopted policies that would have avoided a rapid accumulation of gold reserves by the Fed and the Bank of France, thereby moderating or counteracting, instead of intensifying, the deflationary pressures threatening the world economy. Interestingly, many of those objecting to the notion that Fed policy caused the 2008 financial crisis are not at all bothered by the idea that humans are causing global warming even though the world has evidently undergone previous cycles of rising and falling temperatures about which no one would suggest that humans played any causal role. Just as the existence of non-human factors that affect climate does not preclude one from arguing that humans are now playing a key role in the current upswing of temperatures, the existence of non-monetary factors contributing to the 2008 financial crisis need not preclude one from attributing a causal role in the crisis to the Fed.

So let’s have a look at some of the specific criticisms directed at Beckworth and Ponnuru. Here’s Paul Krugman’s take in which he refers back to an earlier exchange last December between Mr. Cruz and Janet Yellen when she testified before Congress:

Back when Ted Cruz first floated his claim that the Fed caused the Great Recession — and some neo-monetarists spoke up in support — I noted that this was a repeat of the old Milton Friedman two-step.

First, you declare that the Fed could have prevented a disaster — the Great Depression in Friedman’s case, the Great Recession this time around. This is an arguable position, although Friedman’s claims about the 30s look a lot less convincing now that we have tried again to deal with a liquidity trap. But then this morphs into the claim that the Fed caused the disaster. See, government is the problem, not the solution! And the motivation for this bait-and-switch is, indeed, political.

Now come Beckworth and Ponnuru to make the argument at greater length, and it’s quite direct: because the Fed “caused” the crisis, things like financial deregulation and runaway bankers had nothing to do with it.

As regular readers of this blog – if there are any – already know, I am not a big fan of Milton Friedman’s work on the Great Depression, and I agree with Krugman’s criticism that Friedman allowed his ideological preferences or commitments to exert an undue influence not only on his policy advocacy but on his substantive analysis. Thus, trying to make a case for his dumb k-percent rule as an alternative monetary regime to the classical gold standard regime generally favored by his libertarian, classical liberal and conservative ideological brethren, he went to great and unreasonable lengths to deny the obvious fact that the demand for money is anything but stable, because such an admission would have made the k-percent rule untenable on its face as it proved to be when Paul Volcker misguidedly tried to follow Friedman’s advice and conduct monetary policy by targeting monetary aggregates. Even worse, because he was so wedded to the naïve quantity-theory monetary framework he thought he was reviving – when in fact he was using a modified version of the Cambride/Keynesian demand for money, even making the patently absurd claim that the quantity theory of money was a theory of the demand for money – Friedman insisted on conducting monetary analysis under the assumption – also made by Keynes — that quantity of money is directly under the control of the monetary authority when in fact, under a gold standard – which means during the Great Depression – the quantity of money for any country is endogenously determined. As a result, there was a total mismatch between Friedman’s monetary model and the institutional setting in place at the time of the monetary phenomenon he was purporting to explain.

So although there were big problems with Friedman’s account of the Great Depression and his characterization of the Fed’s mishandling of the Great Depression, fixing those problems doesn’t reduce the Fed’s culpability. What is certainly true is that the Great Depression, the result of a complex set of circumstances going back at least 15 years to the start of World War I, might well have been avoided largely or entirely, but for the egregious conduct of the Fed and Bank of France. But it is also true that, at the onset of the Great Depression, there was no consensus about how to conduct monetary policy, even though Hawtrey and Cassel and a handful of others well understood how terribly monetary policy had gone off track. But theirs was a minority view, and Hawtrey and Cassel are still largely ignored or forgotten.

Ted Cruz may view the Fed’s mistakes in 2008 as a club with which to beat up on Janet Yellen, but for most of the rest of us who think that Fed mistakes were a critical element of the 2008 financial crisis, the point is not to make an ideological statement, it is to understand what went wrong and to try to keep it from happening again.

Krugman sends us to Mike Konczal for further commentary on Beckworth and Ponnuru.

Is Ted Cruz right about the Great Recession and the Federal Reserve? From a November debate, Cruz argued that “in the third quarter of 2008, the Fed tightened the money and crashed those asset prices, which caused a cascading collapse.”

Fleshing that argument out in the New York Times is David Beckworth and Ramesh Ponnuru, backing and expanding Cruz’s theory that “the Federal Reserve caused the crisis by tightening monetary policy in 2008.”

But wait, didn’t the Federal Reserve lower rates during that time?

Um, no. The Fed cut its interest rate target to 2.25% on March 18, 2008, and to 2% on April 20, which by my calculations would have been in the second quarter of 2008. There it remained until it was reduced to 1.5% on October 8, which by my calculations would have been in the fourth quarter of 2008. So on the face of it, Mr. Cruz was right that the Fed kept its interest rate target constant for over five months while the economy was contracting in real terms in the third quarter at a rate of 1.9% (and growing in nominal terms at a mere 0.8% rate)

Konczal goes on to accuse Cruz of inconsistency for blaming the Fed for tightening policy in 2008 before the crash while bashing the Fed for quantitative easing after the crash. That certainly is a just criticism, and I really hope someone asks Cruz to explain himself, though my expectations that that will happen are not very high. But that’s Cruz’s problem, not Beckworth’s or Ponnuru’s.

Konczal also focuses on the ambiguity in saying that the Fed caused the financial crisis by not cutting interest rates earlier:

I think a lot of people’s frustrations with the article – see Barry Ritholtz at Bloomberg here – is the authors slipping between many possible interpretations. Here’s the three that I could read them making, though these aren’t actual quotes from the piece:

(a) “The Federal Reserve could have stopped the panic in the financial markets with more easing.”

There’s nothing in the Valukas bankruptcy report on Lehman, or any of the numerous other reports that have since come out, that leads me to believe Lehman wouldn’t have failed if the short-term interest rate was lowered. One way to see the crisis was in the interbank lending spreads, often called the TED spread, which is a measure of banking panic. Looking at an image of the spread and its components, you can see a falling short-term t-bill rate didn’t ease that spread throughout 2008.

And, as Matt O’Brien noted, Bear Stearns failed before the passive tightening started.

The problem with this criticism is that it assumes that the only way that the Fed can be effective is by altering the interest rate that it effectively sets on overnight loans. It ignores the relationship between the interest rate that the Fed sets and total spending. That relationship is not entirely obvious, but almost all monetary economists have assumed that there is such a relationship, even if they can’t exactly agree on the mechanism by which the relationship is brought into existence. So it is not enough to look at the effect of the Fed’s interest rate on Lehman or Bear Stearns, you also have to look at the relationship between the interest rate and total spending and how a higher rate of total spending would have affected Lehman and Bear Stearns. If the economy had been performing better in the second and third quarters, the assets that Lehman and Bear Stearns were holding would not have lost as much of their value. And even if Lehman and Bear Stearns had not survived, arranging for their takeover by other firms might have been less difficult.

But beyond that, Beckworth and Ponnuru themselves overlook the fact that tightening by the Fed did not begin in the third quarter – or even the second quarter – of 2008. The tightening may have already begun in as early as the middle of 2006. The chart below shows the rate of expansion of the adjusted monetary base from January 2004 through September 2008. From 2004 through the middle of 2006, the biweekly rate of expansion of the monetary base was consistently at an annual rate exceeding 4% with the exception of a six-month interval at the end of 2005 when the rate fell to the 3-4% range. But from the middle of 2006 through September 2008, the bi-weekly rate of expansion was consistently below 3%, and was well below 2% for most of 2008. Now, I am generally wary of reading too much into changes in the monetary aggregates, because those changes can reflect either changes in supply conditions or demand conditions. However, when the economy is contracting, with the rate of growth in total spending falling substantially below trend, and the rate of growth in the monetary aggregates is decreasing sharply, it isn’t unreasonable to infer that monetary policy was being tightened. So, the monetary policy may well have been tightened as early as 2006, and, insofar as the rate of growth of the monetary base is indicative of the stance of monetary policy, that tightening was hardly passive.

adjusted_monetary_base

(b) “The Federal Reserve could have helped the recovery by acting earlier in 2008. Unemployment would have peaked at, say, 9.5 percent, instead of 10 percent.”

That would have been good! I would have been a fan of that outcome, and I’m willing to believe it. That’s 700,000 people with a job that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. The stimulus should have been bigger too, with a second round once it was clear how deep the hole was and how Treasuries were crashing too.

Again, there are two points. First, tightening may well have begun at least a year or two before the third quarter of 2008. Second, the economy started collapsing in the third quarter of 2008, and the run-up in the value of the dollar starting in July 2008, foolishly interpreted by the Fed as a vote of confidence in its anti-inflation policy, was really a cry for help as the economy was being starved of liquidity just as the demand for liquidity was becoming really intense. That denial of liquidity led to a perverse situation in which the return to holding cash began to exceed the return on real assets, setting the stage for a collapse in asset prices and a financial panic. The Fed could have prevented the panic, by providing more liquidity. Had it done so, the financial crisis would have been avoided, and the collapse in the real economy and the rise in unemployment would have been substantially mitigate.

c – “The Federal Reserve could have stopped the Great Recession from ever happening. Unemployment in 2009 wouldn’t have gone above 5.5 percent.”

This I don’t believe. Do they? There’s a lot of “might have kept that decline from happening or at least moderated it” back-and-forth language in the piece.

Is the argument that we’d somehow avoid the zero-lower bound? Ben Bernanke recently showed that interest rates would have had to go to about -4 percent to offset the Great Recession at the time. Hitting the zero-lower bound earlier than later is good policy, but it’s still there.

I think there’s an argument about “expectations,” and “expectations” wouldn’t have been set for a Great Recession. A lot of the “expectations” stuff has a magic and tautological quality to it once it leaves the models and enters the policy discussion, but the idea that a random speech about inflation worries could have shifted the Taylor Rule 4 percent seems really off base. Why doesn’t it go haywire all the time, since people are always giving speeches?

Well, I have shown in this paper that, starting in 2008, there was a strong empirical relationship between stock prices and inflation expectations, so it’s not just tautological. And we’re not talking about random speeches; we are talking about the decisions of the FOMC and the reasons that were given for those decisions. The markets pay a lot of attention to those reason.

And couldn’t it be just as likely that since the Fed was so confident about inflation in mid-2008 it boosted nominal income, by giving people a higher level of inflation expectations than they’d have otherwise? Given the failure of the Evans Rule and QE3 to stabilize inflation (or even prevent it from collapsing) in 2013, I imagine transporting them back to 2008 would haven’t fundamentally changed the game.

The inflation in 2008 was not induced by monetary policy, but by adverse supply shocks, expectations of higher inflation, given the Fed’s inflation targeting were thus tantamount to predictions of further monetary tightening.

If your mental model is that the Federal Reserve delaying something three months is capable of throwing 8.7 million people out of work, you should probably want to have much more shovel-ready construction and automatic stabilizers, the second of which kicked in right away without delay, as part of your agenda. It seems odd to put all the eggs in this basket if you also believe that even the most minor of mistakes are capable of devastating the economy so greatly.

Once again, it’s not a matter of just three months, but even if it were, in the summer of 2008 the economy was at a kind of inflection point, and the failure to ease monetary policy at that critical moment led directly to a financial crisis with cascading effects on the real economy. If the financial crisis could have been avoided by preventing total spending from dropping far below trend in the third quarter, the crisis might have been avoided, and the subsequent loss of output and employment could have been greatly mitigated.

And just to be clear, I have pointed out previously that the free market economy is fragile, because its smooth functioning depends on the coherence and consistency of expectations. That makes monetary policy very important, but I don’t dismiss shovel-ready construction and automatic stabilizers as means of anchoring expectations in a useful way, in contrast to the perverse way that inflation targeting stabilizes expectations.

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The Sky Is Not Falling . . . Yet

Possibly responding to hints by ECB president Mario Draghi of monetary stimulus, stocks around the world are up today; the S&P 500 over 1900 (about 2% above yesterday’s close). Anyone who wants to understand why stock markets have been swooning since the end of 2015 should take a look at this chart showing TIPS_FREDthe breakeven TIPS spread on 10-year Treasuries over the past 10 years.

Let’s look at the peak spread (2.56%) reached in early July 2008, a couple of months before the onset of the financial crisis in September. Despite mounting evidence that the economy was contracting and unemployment rising, the Fed, transfixed by the threat of Inflation (manifested in rising energy prices) and a supposed loss of Fed credibility (manifested in rising inflation expectations), refused to continue reducing its interest-rate target lest the markets conclude that the Fed was not serious about fighting inflation. That’s when all hell started to break loose. By September 14, the Friday before the Lehman bankruptcy, the breakeven TIPS spread had fallen to 1.95%. It was not till October that the Fed finally relented and reduced its target rate, but nullified whatever stimulus the lower target rate might have provided by initiating the payment of interest on reserves. As you can see the breakeven spread continued to fall almost without interruption till reaching lows of about 0.10% by the end of 2008.

There were three other episodes of falling inflation expectations which are evident on the graph, in 2010, 2011 and 2012, each episode precipitating a monetary response (so-called quantitative easing) by the Fed to reverse the fall in inflation expectations, thereby avoiding an untimely end to the weak recovery from the financial crisis and the subsequent Little Depression.

Despite falling inflation expectations during the second half of 2014, the lackluster expansion continued, a possible sign of normalization insofar as the momentum of recovery was sustained despite falling inflation expectations (due in part to a positive oil-supply shock). But after a brief pickup in the first half of 2015, inflation expectations have been falling further in the second half of 2015, and the drop has steepened over the past month, with the breakeven TIPS spread falling from 1.56% on January 5 to 1.28% yesterday, a steeper decline than in July 2008, when the TIPS spread on July 3 stood at 2.56% and did not fall to 2.30% until August 5.

I am not saying that the market turmoil of the past three weeks is totally attributable to falling inflation expectations; it seems very plausible that the bursting of the oil bubble has been a major factor in the decline of stock prices. Falling oil prices could affect stock prices in at least two different ways: 1) the decline in energy prices itself being deflationary – at least if monetary policy is not specifically aimed at reversing those deflationary effects – and 2) oil and energy assets being on the books of many financial institutions, a decline in their value may impair the solvency of those institutions, causing a deflationary increase in the demand for currency and reserves. But even if falling oil prices are an independent cause of market turmoil, they interact with and reinforce deflationary pressures; the only way to counteract those deflationary pressures is monetary expansion.

And with inflation expectations now lower than they have been since early 2009, further reductions in inflation expectations could put us back into a situation in which the expected yield from holding cash exceeds the expected yield from holding real capital. In such situations, with nominal interest rates at or near the zero lower bound, a perverse Fisher effect takes hold and asset prices have to fall sufficiently to make people willing to hold assets rather than cash. (I explained this perverse adjustment process in this paper, and used it to explain the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath.) The result is a crash in asset prices. We haven’t reached that point yet, but I am afraid that we are getting too close for comfort.

The 2008 crisis. was caused by an FOMC that was so focused on the threat of inflation that they ignored ample and obvious signs of a rapidly deteriorating economy and falling inflation expectations, foolishly interpreting the plunge in TIPS spreads and the appreciation of the dollar relative to other currencies as an expression by the markets of confidence in Fed policy rather than as a cry for help.

In 2008, the Fed at least had the excuse of rising energy prices and headline inflation above its then informal 2% target for not cutting interest rates to provide serious monetary stimulus to a collapsing economy. This time, despite failing for over three years to meet its now official 2% inflation target, Dr. Yellen and her FOMC colleagues show no sign of thinking about anything other than when they can show their mettle as central bankers by raising interest rates again. Now is not the time to worry about raising interest rates. Dr. Yellen’s problem is now to show that her top – indeed her only – priority is to ensure that the Fed’s 2% inflation target will be met, or, if need be, exceeded, in 2016 and that the growth in nominal income in 2016 will be at least as large as it was in 2015. Those are goals that are eminently achievable, and if the FOMC has any credibility left after its recent failures, providing such assurance will prevent another unnecessary and destructive financial crisis.

The 2008 financial crisis ensured the election of Barak Obama as President. I shudder to think of who might be elected if we have another crisis this year.

Martin Feldstein Just Won’t Stop

Martin Feldstein has been warning about the disasters that would befall us thanks to Fed policy for over five years. His November 2, 2010 op-ed piece in the Financial Times (“QE2 is risky and should be limited”) provoked me to write this letter to the editor in response. Feldstein continued assailing QE in 2013 in a May 9 contribution to the Wall Street Journal to which (having become a blogger in 2011) I responded with this post. Stock prices having dropped steeply so far in 2016, Feldstein seems to think now — five years after pronouncing, with the S&P 500 at 1188, stocks overvalued — is a good time for a victory lap.

The sharp fall in share prices last week was a reminder of the vulnerabilities created by years of monetary policy. While chaos in the Chinese stock market may have been the triggering event, it was inevitable that the artificially high prices of U.S. stocks would eventually decline. Even after last week’s market fall, the S&P 500 stock index remains 30% above its historical average. There is no reason to think the correction is finished.

One would like to know by what criterion Feldstein thinks he can discern when stock prices are “artificially high.” Unlike Scott Sumner, I don’t accept the efficient market hypothesis, but I do agree with Scott that it takes a huge dose of chutzpah to claim to know when the entire market is “artificially” high, and an even bigger dose to continue making the claim more or less continuously for over five years even as prices nearly double. And just what does it mean, I wonder, for the S&P 500 index to be 30% above its historical average? Does it mean that PE ratios are 30% above their historical average? Well PE ratios reflect the rates at which expected future profits are discounted. If discount rates are below their historical average, as they surely are, why shouldn’t PE ratios be above their historical average? Well, because Feldstein believes that discount rates are being held down – artificially held down – by Fed policy. That makes high PE ratios are artificially high. Here’s how Feldstein explains it:

The overpriced share values are a direct result of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing (QE) policy. Beginning in November 2008 and running through October 2014, the Fed combined massive bond purchases with a commitment to keep short-term interest rates low as a way to hold down long-term interest rates. Chairman Ben Bernanke explained on several occasions that the Fed’s actions were intended to drive up asset prices, thereby increasing household wealth and consumer spending.

The strategy worked well. Share prices jumped 30% in 2013 alone and house prices rose 13% in that year. The resulting rise in wealth increased consumer spending, leading to higher GDP and lower unemployment.

I have to pause here to note that Feldstein is now actually changing his story a bit from the one he used to tell, because in his 2013 Wall Street Journal piece he said this about how well Bernanke’s strategy of holding down interest rates was working.

But despite the Fed’s current purchases of $85 billion a month and an accumulation of more than $2 trillion of long-term assets, the economy is limping along with per capita gross domestic product rising at less than 1% a year. Although it is impossible to know what would happen without the central bank’s asset purchases, the data imply that very little increase in GDP can be attributed to the so-called portfolio-balance effect of the Fed’s actions.

Even if all of the rise in the value of household equities since quantitative easing began could be attributed to the Fed policy, the implied increase in consumer spending would be quite small. According to the Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds data, the total value of household stocks and mutual funds rose by $3.6 trillion between the end of 2009 and the end of 2012. Since past experience implies that each dollar of increased wealth raises consumer spending by about four cents, the $3.6 trillion rise in the value of equities would raise the level of consumer spending by about $144 billion over three years, equivalent to an annual increase of $48 billion or 0.3% of nominal GDP.

So in 2013, Feldstein dismissed the possibility that the increase in stock prices had had a significant effect on consumer spending. In my 2013 blog post responding to Feldstein, I noted his failure to understand the sophisticated rationale for QE as opposed to the simplistic one that he (and, in fairness, Bernanke himself) attributed to it.

[A]ll that is irrelevant, because the portfolio balance rationale for QE misrepresents the mechanism whereby QE can have any effect. That mechanism is primarily by preventing inflation expectations from dropping. Each one of the QE episodes has been initiated when expectations of inflation were dropping. In each instance, the announcement or even the expectation of QE succeeded in reversing the downward drift of inflation expectations, thereby contributing to expectations of increased profits and cash flows and thus allowing stock prices to recover from their deeply depressed levels after the 2007-09 downturn and panic.

But now Feldstein says that QE really was effective, even though in 2013 he dismissed as inconsequential the mechanism by which QE could have been effective, failing to acknowledge that there was an alternative mechanism by which QE might work. Nevertheless, in today’s op-ed, Feldstein confirms that he still believes that the only way QE can be effective is via the discredited portfolio-balance mechanism.

But excessively low interest rates have caused investors and lenders, in their reach for yield, to accept excessive risks in equities and fixed-income securities, in commercial real estate, and in the overall quality of loans. There is no doubt that many assets are overpriced, and as the Fed normalizes interest rates these prices will fall. It is difficult to know if this will cause widespread financial and economic declines like those seen in 2008. But the persistence of very low interest rates contributes to that systemic risk and to the possibility of economic instability.

Unfortunately, the recently released minutes of December’s Federal Open Market Committee meeting made no mention of financial-industry risks caused by persistent low interest rates for years to come. There was also no suggestion that the Fed might raise interest rates more rapidly to put a damper on the reach for yield that has led to mispriced assets. Instead the FOMC stressed that the federal-funds rate will creep up very slowly and remain below its equilibrium value even after the economy has achieved full employment and the Fed’s target rate of inflation.

Simply asserting that interest rates are “excessively low” is just question begging. What evidence is there that interest rates are excessively low? Interest rates for Treasuries at maturities of two years or more are lower today, after the Fed raised rates in December than they were for much of 2015. Under the Feldstein view of the world, the Fed had been holding down interest rates before December, so why are they lower now than they were before the Fed stopped suppressing them? The answer of course is that the Fed controls only one interest rate in a very narrow sliver of the entire market economy. Interest rates are embedded in a huge, complex and interconnected array of prices for real capital assets, and financial instruments. The structure of all those prices embodies and reflects the entire spectrum of interest rates affecting the economy. It is simply delusional to believe that the Fed can have more than a marginal effect on interest rates, except insofar as it can affect expectations about future prices – about the future value of the dollar. In the absence of evidence that the Fed is affecting inflation expectations, it is a blatant and demonstrable fallacy to maintain that the Fed is forcing interest rates to deviate from equilibrium values that would, but for Fed intervention, otherwise obtain. No doubt, there are indeed many assets that are overpriced, but, for all Professor Feldstein knows, there are just as many that are underpriced.

So Professor Feldstein might really want to take to heart a salutary maxim of Ludwig Wittgenstein: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Sumner on the Demand for Money, Interest Rates and Barsky and Summers

Scott Sumner had two outstanding posts a couple of weeks ago (here and here) discussing the relationship between interest rates and NGDP, making a number of important points, which I largely agree with, even though I have some (mostly semantic) quibbles about the details. I especially liked how in the second post he applied the analysis of Robert Barsky and Larry Summers in their article about Gibson’s Paradox under the gold standard to recent monetary experience. The two posts are so good and cover such a wide range of topics that the best way for me to address them is by cutting and pasting relevant passages and commenting on them.

Scott begins with the equation of exchange MV = PY. I personally prefer the Cambridge version (M = kPY) where k stands for the fraction of income that people hold as cash, thereby making it clear that the relevant concept is how much money want to hold, not that mysterious metaphysical concept called the velocity of circulation V (= 1/k). With attention focused on the decision about how much money to hold, it is natural to think of the rate of interest as the opportunity cost of holding non-interest-bearing cash balances. When the rate of interest rate rises, the desired holdings of non-interest-bearing cash tend to fall; in other words k falls (and V rises). With unchanged M, the equation is satisfied only if PY increases. So the notion that a reduction in interest rates, in and of itself, is expansionary is based on a misunderstanding. An increase in the amount of money demanded is always contractionary. A reduction in interest rates increases the amount of money demanded (if money is non-interest-bearing). A reduction in interest rates is therefore contractionary (all else equal).

Scott suggests some reasons why this basic relationship seems paradoxical.

Sometimes, not always, reductions in interest rates are caused by an increase in the monetary base. (This was not the case in late 2007 and early 2008, but it is the case on some occasions.) When there is an expansionary monetary policy, specifically an exogenous increase in M, then when interest rates fall, V tends to fall by less than M rises. So the policy as a whole causes NGDP to rise, even as the specific impact of lower interest rates is to cause NGDP to fall.

To this I would add that, as discussed in my recent posts about Keynes and Fisher, Keynes in the General Theory seemed to be advancing a purely monetary theory of the rate of interest. If Keynes meant that the rate of interest is determined exclusively by monetary factors, then a falling rate of interest is a sure sign of an excess supply of money. Of course in the Hicksian world of IS-LM, the rate of interest is simultaneously determined by both equilibrium in the money market and an equilibrium rate of total spending, but Keynes seems to have had trouble with the notion that the rate of interest could be simultaneously determined by not one, but two, equilibrium conditions.

Another problem is the Keynesian model, which hopelessly confuses the transmission mechanism. Any Keynesian model with currency that says low interest rates are expansionary is flat out wrong.

But if Keynes believed that the rate of interest is exclusively determined by money demand and money supply, then the only possible cause of a low or falling interest rate is the state of the money market, the supply side of which is always under the control of the monetary authority. Or stated differently, in the Keynesian model, the money-supply function is perfectly elastic at the target rate of interest, so that the monetary authority supplies whatever amount of money is demanded at that rate of interest. I disagree with the underlying view of what determines the rate of interest, but given that theory of the rate of interest, the model is not incoherent and doesn’t confuse the transmission mechanism.

That’s probably why economists were so confused by 2008. Many people confuse aggregate demand with consumption. Thus they think low rates encourage people to “spend” and that this n somehow boosts AD and NGDP. But it doesn’t, at least not in the way they assume. If by “spend” you mean higher velocity, then yes, spending more boosts NGDP. But we’ve already seen that lower interest rates don’t boost velocity, rather they lower velocity.

But, remember that Keynes believed that the interest rate can be reduced only by increasing the quantity of money, which nullifies the contractionary effect of a reduced interest rate.

Even worse, some assume that “spending” is the same as consumption, hence if low rates encourage people to save less and consume more, then AD will rise. This is reasoning from a price change on steroids! When you don’t spend you save, and saving goes into investment, which is also part of GDP.

But this is reasoning from an accounting identity. The question is what happens if people try to save. The Keynesian argument is that the attempt to save will be self-defeating; instead of increased saving, there is reduced income. Both scenarios are consistent with the accounting identity. The question is which causal mechanism is operating? Does an attempt to increase saving cause investment to increase, or does it cause income to go down? Seemingly aware of the alternative scenario, Scott continues:

Now here’s were amateur Keynesians get hopelessly confused. They recall reading something about the paradox of thrift, about planned vs. actual saving, about the fact that an attempt to save more might depress NGDP, and that in the end people may fail to save more, and instead NGDP will fall. This is possible, but even if true it has no bearing on my claim that low rates are contractionary.

Just so. But there is not necessarily any confusion; the issue may be just a difference in how monetary policy is implemented. You can think of the monetary authority as having a choice in setting its policy in terms of the quantity of the monetary base, or in terms of an interest-rate target. Scott characterizes monetary policy in terms of the base, allowing the interest rate to adjust; Keynesians characterize monetary policy in terms of an interest-rate target, allowing the monetary base to adjust. The underlying analysis should not depend on how policy is characterized. I think that this is borne out by Scott’s next paragraph, which is consistent with a policy choice on the part of the Keynesian monetary authority to raise interest rates as needed to curb aggregate demand when aggregate demand is excessive.

To see the problem with this analysis, consider the Keynesian explanations for increases in AD. One theory is that animal spirits propel businesses to invest more. Another is that consumer optimism propels consumers to spend more. Another is that fiscal policy becomes more expansionary, boosting the budget deficit. What do all three of these shocks have in common? In all three cases the shock leads to higher interest rates. (Use the S&I diagram to show this.) Yes, in all three cases the higher interest rates boost velocity, and hence ceteris paribus (i.e. fixed monetary base) the higher V leads to more NGDP. But that’s not an example of low rates boosting AD, it’s an example of some factor boosting AD, and also raising interest rates.

In the Keynesian terminology, the shocks do lead to higher rates, but only because excessive aggregate demand, caused by animal spirits, consumer optimism, or government budget deficits, has to be curbed by interest-rate increases. The ceteris paribus assumption is ambiguous; it can be interpreted to mean holding the monetary base constant or holding the interest-rate target constant. I don’t often cite Milton Friedman as an authority, but one of his early classic papers was “The Marshallian Demand Curve” in which he pointed out that there is an ambiguity in what is held constant along the demand curve: prices of other goods or real income. You can hold only one of the two constant, not both, and you get a different demand curve depending on which ceteris paribus assumption you make. So the upshot of my commentary here is that, although Scott is right to point out that the standard reasoning about how a change in interest rates affects NGDP implicitly assumes that the quantity of money is changing, that valid point doesn’t refute the standard reasoning. There is an inherent ambiguity in specifying what is actually held constant in any ceteris paribus exercise. It’s good to make these ambiguities explicit, and there might be good reasons to prefer one ceteris paribus assumption over another, but a ceteris paribus assumption isn’t a sufficient basis for rejecting a model.

Now just to be clear, I agree with Scott that, as a matter of positive economics, the interest rate is not fully under the control of the monetary authority. And one reason that it’s not  is that the rate of interest is embedded in the entire price system, not just a particular short-term rate that the central bank may be able to control. So I don’t accept the basic Keynesian premise that monetary authority can always make the rate of interest whatever it wants it to be, though the monetary authority probably does have some control over short-term rates.

Scott also provides an analysis of the effects of interest on reserves, and he is absolutely correct to point out that paying interest on reserves is deflationary.

I will just note that near the end of his post, Scott makes a comment about living “in a Ratex world.” WADR, I don’t think that ratex is at all descriptive of reality, but I will save that discussion for another time.

Scott followed up the post about the contractionary effects of low interest rates with a post about the 1988 Barsky and Summers paper.

Barsky and Summers . . . claim that the “Gibson Paradox” is caused by the fact that low interest rates are deflationary under the gold standard, and that causation runs from falling interest rates to deflation. Note that there was no NGDP data for this period, so they use the price level rather than NGDP as their nominal indicator. But their basic argument is identical to mine.

The Gibson Paradox referred to the tendency of prices and interest rates to be highly correlated under the gold standard. Initially some people thought this was due to the Fisher effect, but it turns out that prices were roughly a random walk under the gold standard, and hence the expected rate of inflation was close to zero. So the actual correlation was between prices and both real and nominal interest rates. Nonetheless, the nominal interest rate is the key causal variable in their model, even though changes in that variable are mostly due to changes in the real interest rate.

Since gold is a durable good with a fixed price, the nominal interest rate is the opportunity cost of holding that good. A lower nominal rate tends to increase the demand for gold, for both monetary and non-monetary purposes.  And an increased demand for gold is deflationary (and also reduces NGDP.)

Very insightful on Scott’s part to see the connection between the Barsky and Summers analysis and the standard theory of the demand for money. I had previously thought about the Barsky and Summers discussion simply as a present-value problem. The present value of any durable asset, generating a given expected flow of future services, must vary inversely with the interest rate at which those future services are discounted. Since the future price level under the gold standard was expected to be roughly stable, any change in nominal interest rates implied a change in real interest rates. The value of gold, like other durable assets, varied inversely with nominal interest rate. But with the nominal value of gold fixed by the gold standard, changes in the value of gold implied a change in the price level, an increased value of gold being deflationary and a decreased value of gold inflationary. Scott rightly observes that the same idea can be expressed in the language of monetary theory by thinking of the nominal interest rate as the cost of holding any asset, so that a reduction in the nominal interest rate has to increase the demand to own assets, because reducing the cost of holding an asset increases the demand to own it, thereby raising its value in exchange, provided that current output of the asset is small relative to the total stock.

However, the present-value approach does have an advantage over the opportunity-cost approach, because the present-value approach relates the value of gold or money to the entire term structure of interest rates, while the opportunity-cost approach can only handle a single interest rate – presumably the short-term rate – that is relevant to the decision to hold money at any given moment in time. In simple models of the IS-LM ilk, the only interest rate under consideration is the short-term rate, or the term-structure is assumed to have a fixed shape so that all interest rates are equally affected by, or along with, any change in the short-term rate. The latter assumption of course is clearly unrealistic, though Keynes made it without a second thought. However, in his Century of Bank Rate, Hawtrey showed that between 1844 and 1938, when the gold standard was in effect in Britain (except 1914-25 and 1931-38) short-term rates and long-term rates often moved by significantly different magnitudes and even in opposite directions.

Scott makes a further interesting observation:

The puzzle of why the economy does poorly when interest rates fall (such as during 2007-09) is in principle just as interesting as the one Barsky and Summers looked at. Just as gold was the medium of account during the gold standard, base money is currently the medium of account. And just as causation went from falling interest rates to higher demand for gold to deflation under the gold standard, causation went from falling interest rates to higher demand for base money to recession in 2007-08.

There is something to this point, but I think Scott may be making too much of it. Falling interest rates in 2007 may have caused the demand for money to increase, but other factors were also important in causing contraction. The problem in 2008 was that the real rate of interest was falling, while the Fed, fixated on commodity (especially energy) prices, kept interest rates too high given the rapidly deteriorating economy. With expected yields from holding real assets falling, the Fed, by not cutting interest rates any further between April and October of 2008, precipitated a financial crisis once inflationary expectations started collapsing in August 2008, the expected yield from holding money dominating the expected yield from holding real assets, bringing about a pathological Fisher effect in which asset values had to collapse for the yields from holding money and from holding assets to be equalized.

Under the gold standard, the value of gold was actually sensitive to two separate interest-rate effects – one reflected in the short-term rate and one reflected in the long-term rate. The latter effect is the one focused on by Barsky and Summers, though they also performed some tests on the short-term rate. However, it was through the short-term rate that the central bank, in particular the Bank of England, the dominant central bank during in the pre-World War I era, manifested its demand for gold reserves, raising the short-term rate when it was trying to accumulate gold and reducing the short-term rate when it was willing to reduce its reserve holdings. Barsky and Summers found the long-term rate to be more highly correlated with the price level than the short-term rate. I conjecture that the reason for that result is that the long-term rate is what captures the theoretical inverse relationship between the interest rate and the value of a durable asset, while the short-term rate would be negatively correlated with the value of gold when (as is usually the case) it moves together with the long-term rate but may sometimes be positively correlated with the value of gold (when the central bank is trying to accumulate gold) and thereby tightening the world market for gold. I don’t know if Barsky and Summers ran regressions using both long-term and short-term rates, but using both long-term and short-term rates in the same regression might have allowed them to find evidence of both effects in the data.

PS I have been too busy and too distracted of late to keep up with comments on earlier posts. Sorry for not responding promptly. In case anyone is still interested, I hope to respond to comments over the next few days, and to post and respond more regularly than I have been doing for the past few weeks.


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.

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