Archive for the 'Ben Bernanke' Category

Martin Wolf Reviews Adam Tooze on the 2008 Financial Crisis

The eminent Martin Wolf, a fine economist and the foremost financial journalist of his generation, has written an admiring review of a new book (Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World) about the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing decade of aftershocks and turmoil and upheaval by the distinguished historian Adam Tooze. This is not the first time I have written a post commenting on a review of a book by Tooze; in 2015, I wrote a post about David Frum’s review of Tooze’s book on World War I and its aftermath (Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the World Order 1916-1931). No need to dwell on the obvious similarities between these two impressive volumes.

Let me admit at the outset that I haven’t read either book. Unquestionably my loss, but I hope at some point to redeem myself by reading both of them. But in this post I don’t intend to comment at length about Tooze’s argument. Judging from Martin Wolf’s review, I fully expect that I will agree with most of what Tooze has to say about the crisis.

My criticism – and I hesitate even to use that word – will be directed toward what, judging from Wolf’s review, Tooze seems to have been left out of his book. I am referring to the role of tight monetary policy, motivated by an excessive concern with inflation, when what was causing inflation was a persistent rise in energy and commodity prices that had little to do with monetary policy. Certainly, the failure to fully understand the role of monetary policy during the 2006 to 2008 period in the run-up to the financial crisis doesn’t negate all the excellent qualities that the book undoubtedly has, nevertheless, leaving out that essential part of the story that is like watching Hamlet without the prince.

Let me just offer a few examples from Wolf’s review. Early in the review, Wolf provides a clear overview of the nature of the crisis, its scope and the response.

As Tooze explains, the book examines “the struggle to contain the crisis in three interlocking zones of deep private financial integration: the transatlantic dollar-based financial system, the eurozone and the post-Soviet sphere of eastern Europe”. This implosion “entangled both public and private finances in a doom loop”. The failures of banks forced “scandalous government intervention to rescue private oligopolists”. The Federal Reserve even acted to provide liquidity to banks in other countries.

Such a huge crisis, Tooze points out, has inevitably deeply affected international affairs: relations between Germany and Greece, the UK and the eurozone, the US and the EU and the west and Russia were all affected. In all, he adds, the challenges were “mind-bogglingly technical and complex. They were vast in scale. They were fast moving. Between 2007 and 2012, the pressure was relentless.”

Tooze concludes this description of events with the judgment that “In its own terms, . . . the response patched together by the US Treasury and the Fed was remarkably successful.” Yet the success of these technocrats, first with support from the Democratic Congress at the end of the administration of George W Bush, and then under a Democratic president, brought the Democrats no political benefits.

This is all very insightful and I have no quarrel with any of it. But it mentions not a word about the role of monetary policy. Last month I wrote a post about the implications of a flat or inverted yield curve. The yield curve usually has an upward slope because short-term rates interest rates tend to be lower than long-term rates. Over the past year the yield curve has been steadily flattening as short term rates have been increasing while long-term rates have risen only slightly if at all. Many analysts are voicing concern that the yield curve may go flat or become inverted once again. And one reason that they worry is that the last time the yield curve became flat was late in 2006. Here’s how I described what happened to the yield curve in 2006 after the Fed started mechanically raising its Fed-funds target interest rate by 25 basis points every 6 weeks starting in June 2004.

The Fed having put itself on autopilot, the yield curve became flat or even slightly inverted in early 2006, implying that a substantial liquidity premium had to be absorbed in order to keep cash on hand to meet debt obligations. By the second quarter of 2006, insufficient liquidity caused the growth in total spending to slow, just when housing prices were peaking, a development that intensified the stresses on the financial system, further increasing the demand for liquidity. Despite the high liquidity premium and flat yield curve, total spending continued to increase modestly through 2006 and most of 2007. But after stock prices dropped in August 2007 and home prices continued to slide, growth in total spending slowed further at the end of 2007, and the downturn began.

Despite the weakening economy, the Fed remained focused primarily on inflation. The Fed did begin cutting its Fed Funds target from 5.25% in late 2007 once the downturn began, but the Fed’s reluctance to move aggressively to counter a recession that worsened rapidly in spring and summer of 2008 because the Fed remain fixated on headline inflation which was consistently higher than the Fed’s 2% target. But inflation was staying above the 2% target simply because of an ongoing supply shock that began in early 2006 when the price of oil was just over $50 a barrel and rose steadily with a short dip late in 2006 and early 2007 and continuing to rise above $100 a barrel in the summer of 2007 and peaking at over $140 a barrel in July 2008.

The mistake of tightening monetary policy in response to a supply shock in the midst of a recession would have been egregious under any circumstances, but in the context of a seriously weakened and fragile financial system, the mistake was simply calamitous. And, indeed, the calamitous consequences of that decision are plain. But somehow the connection between the focus of the Fed on inflation while the economy was contracting and the financial system was in peril has never been fully recognized by most observers and certainly not by the Federal Reserve officials who made those decisions. A few paragraphs later, Wolf observes.

Furthermore, because the banking systems had become so huge and intertwined, this became, in the words of Ben Bernanke — Fed chairman throughout the worst days of the crisis and a noted academic expert — the “worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression”. The fact that the people who had been running the system had so little notion of these risks inevitably destroyed their claim to competence and, for some, even probity.

I will not agree or disagree with Bernanke that the 2008 crisis was the worse than 1929-30 or 1931 or 1933 crises, but it appears that they still have not fully understood their own role in precipitating the crisis. That is a story that remains to be told. I hope we don’t have to wait too much longer.

Advertisements

What’s so Bad about the Gold Standard?

Last week Paul Krugman argued that Ted Cruz is more dangerous than Donald Trump, because Trump is merely a protectionist while Cruz wants to restore the gold standard. I’m not going to weigh in on the relative merits of Cruz and Trump, but I have previously suggested that Krugman may be too dismissive of the possibility that the Smoot-Hawley tariff did indeed play a significant, though certainly secondary, role in the Great Depression. In warning about the danger of a return to the gold standard, Krugman is certainly right that the gold standard was and could again be profoundly destabilizing to the world economy, but I don’t think he did such a good job of explaining why, largely because, like Ben Bernanke and, I am afraid, most other economists, Krugman isn’t totally clear on how the gold standard really worked.

Here’s what Krugman says:

[P]rotectionism didn’t cause the Great Depression. It was a consequence, not a cause – and much less severe in countries that had the good sense to leave the gold standard.

That’s basically right. But I note for the record, to spell out the my point made in the post I alluded to in the opening paragraph that protectionism might indeed have played a role in exacerbating the Great Depression, making it harder for Germany and other indebted countries to pay off their debts by making it more difficult for them to exports required to discharge their obligations, thereby making their IOUs, widely held by European and American banks, worthless or nearly so, undermining the solvency of many of those banks. It also increased the demand for the gold required to discharge debts, adding to the deflationary forces that had been unleashed by the Bank of France and the Fed, thereby triggering the debt-deflation mechanism described by Irving Fisher in his famous article.

Which brings us to Cruz, who is enthusiastic about the gold standard – which did play a major role in spreading the Depression.

Well, that’s half — or maybe a quarter — right. The gold standard did play a major role in spreading the Depression. But the role was not just major; it was dominant. And the role of the gold standard in the Great Depression was not just to spread it; the role was, as Hawtrey and Cassel warned a decade before it happened, to cause it. The causal mechanism was that in restoring the gold standard, the various central banks linking their currencies to gold would increase their demands for gold reserves so substantially that the value of gold would rise back to its value before World War I, which was about double what it was after the war. It was to avoid such a catastrophic increase in the value of gold that Hawtrey drafted the resolutions adopted at the 1922 Genoa monetary conference calling for central-bank cooperation to minimize the increase in the monetary demand for gold associated with restoring the gold standard. Unfortunately, when France officially restored the gold standard in 1928, it went on a gold-buying spree, joined in by the Fed in 1929 when it raised interest rates to suppress Wall Street stock speculation. The huge accumulation of gold by France and the US in 1929 led directly to the deflation that started in the second half of 1929, which continued unabated till 1933. The Great Depression was caused by a 50% increase in the value of gold that was the direct result of the restoration of the gold standard. In principle, if the Genoa Resolutions had been followed, the restoration of the gold standard could have been accomplished with no increase in the value of gold. But, obviously, the gold standard was a catastrophe waiting to happen.

The problem with gold is, first of all, that it removes flexibility. Given an adverse shock to demand, it rules out any offsetting loosening of monetary policy.

That’s not quite right; the problem with gold is, first of all, that it does not guarantee that value of gold will be stable. The problem is exacerbated when central banks hold substantial gold reserves, which means that significant changes in the demand of central banks for gold reserves can have dramatic repercussions on the value of gold. Far from being a guarantee of price stability, the gold standard can be the source of price-level instability, depending on the policies adopted by individual central banks. The Great Depression was not caused by an adverse shock to demand; it was caused by a policy-induced shock to the value of gold. There was nothing inherent in the gold standard that would have prevented a loosening of monetary policy – a decline in the gold reserves held by central banks – to reverse the deflationary effects of the rapid accumulation of gold reserves, but, the insane Bank of France was not inclined to reverse its policy, perversely viewing the increase in its gold reserves as evidence of the success of its catastrophic policy. However, once some central banks are accumulating gold reserves, other central banks inevitably feel that they must take steps to at least maintain their current levels of reserves, lest markets begin to lose confidence that convertibility into gold will be preserved. Bad policy tends to spread. Krugman seems to have this possibility in mind when he continues:

Worse, relying on gold can easily have the effect of forcing a tightening of monetary policy at precisely the wrong moment. In a crisis, people get worried about banks and seek cash, increasing the demand for the monetary base – but you can’t expand the monetary base to meet this demand, because it’s tied to gold.

But Krugman is being a little sloppy here. If the demand for the monetary base – meaning, presumably, currency plus reserves at the central bank — is increasing, then the public simply wants to increase their holdings of currency, not spend the added holdings. So what stops the the central bank accommodate that demand? Krugman says that “it” – meaning, presumably, the monetary base – is tied to gold. What does it mean for the monetary base to be “tied” to gold? Under the gold standard, the “tie” to gold is a promise to convert the monetary base, on demand, at a specified conversion rate.

Question: why would that promise to convert have prevented the central bank from increasing the monetary base? Answer: it would not and did not. Since, by assumption, the public is demanding more currency to hold, there is no reason why the central bank could not safely accommodate that demand. Of course, there would be a problem if the public feared that the central bank might not continue to honor its convertibility commitment and that the price of gold would rise. Then there would be an internal drain on the central bank’s gold reserves. But that is not — or doesn’t seem to be — the case that Krugman has in mind. Rather, what he seems to mean is that the quantity of base money is limited by a reserve ratio between the gold reserves held by the central bank and the monetary base. But if the tie between the monetary base and gold that Krugman is referring to is a legal reserve requirement, then he is confusing the legal reserve requirement with the gold standard, and the two are simply not the same, it being entirely possible, and actually desirable, for the gold standard to function with no legal reserve requirement – certainly not a marginal reserve requirement.

On top of that, a slump drives interest rates down, increasing the demand for real assets perceived as safe — like gold — which is why gold prices rose after the 2008 crisis. But if you’re on a gold standard, nominal gold prices can’t rise; the only way real prices can rise is a fall in the prices of everything else. Hello, deflation!

Note the implicit assumption here: that the slump just happens for some unknown reason. I don’t deny that such events are possible, but in the context of this discussion about the gold standard and its destabilizing properties, the historically relevant scenario is when the slump occurred because of a deliberate decision to raise interest rates, as the Fed did in 1929 to suppress stock-market speculation and as the Bank of England did for most of the 1920s, to restore and maintain the prewar sterling parity against the dollar. Under those circumstances, it was the increase in the interest rate set by the central bank that amounted to an increase in the monetary demand for gold which is what caused gold appreciation and deflation.

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.

Bernanke’s Continuing Confusion about How Monetary Policy Works

TravisV recently posted a comment on this blog with a link to his comment on Scott Sumner’s blog flagging two apparently contradictory rationales for the Fed’s quantitative easing policy in chapter 19 of Ben Bernanke’s new book in which he demurely takes credit for saving Western Civilization. Here are the two quotes from Bernanke:

1              Our goal was to bring down longer-term interest rates, such as the rates on thirty-year mortgages and corporate bonds. If we could do that, we might stimulate spending—on housing and business capital investment, for example…..Similarly, when we bought longer-term Treasury securities, such as a note maturing in ten years, the yields on those securities tended to decline.

2              A new era of monetary policy activism had arrived, and our announcement had powerful effects. Between the day before the meeting and the end of the year, the Dow would rise more than 3,000 points—more than 40 percent—to 10,428. Longer-term interest rates fell on our announcement, with the yield on ten-year Treasury securities dropping from about 3 percent to about 2.5 percent in one day, a very large move. Over the summer, longer-term yields would reverse and rise to above 4 percent. We would see that increase as a sign of success. Higher yields suggested that investors were expecting both more growth and higher inflation, consistent with our goal of economic revival. Indeed, after four quarters of contraction, revised data would show that the economy would grow at a 1.3 percent rate in the third quarter and a 3.9 percent rate in the fourth.

Over my four years of blogging — especially the first two – I have written a number of posts pointing out that the Fed’s articulated rationale for its quantitative easing – the one expressed in quote number 1 above: that quantitative easing would reduce long-term interest rates and stimulate the economy by promoting investment – was largely irrelevant, because the magnitude of the effect would be far too small to have any noticeable macroeconomic effect.

In making this argument, Bernanke bought into one of the few propositions shared by both Keynes and the Austrians: that monetary policy is effective by operating on long-term interest rates, and that significant investments by business in plant and equipment are responsive to relatively small changes in long-term rates. Keynes, at any rate, had the good sense to realize that long-term investment in plant and equipment is not very responsive to changes in long-term interest rates – a view he had espoused in his Treatise on Money before emphasizing, in the General Theory, expectations about future prices and profitability as the key factor governing investment. Austrians, however, never gave up their theoretical preoccupation with the idea that the entire structural profile of a modern economy is dominated by small changes in the long-term rate of interest.

So for Bernanke’s theory of how QE would be effective to be internally consistent, he would have had to buy into a hyper-Austrian view of how the economy works, which he obviously doesn’t and never did. Sometimes internal inconsistency can be a sign that being misled by bad theory hasn’t overwhelmed a person’s good judgment. So I say even though he botched the theory, give Bernanke credit for his good judgment. Unfortunately, Bernanke’s confusion made it impossible for him to communicate a coherent story about how monetary policy, undermining, or at least compromising, his ability to build popular support for the policy.

Of course the problem was even deeper than expecting a marginal reduction in long-term interest rates to have any effect on the economy. The Fed’s refusal to budge from its two-percent inflation target, drastically limited the potential stimulus that monetary policy could provide.

I might add that I just noticed that I had already drawn attention to Bernanke’s inconsistent rationale for adopting QE in my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations” written before I started this blog, which both Scott Sumner and Paul Krugman plugged after I posted it on SSRN.

Here’s what I said in my paper (p. 18):

If so, the expressed rationale for the Fed’s quantitative easing policy (Bernanke 2010), namely to reduce long term interest rates, thereby stimulating spending on investment and consumption, reflects a misapprehension of the mechanism by which the policy would be most likely to operate, increasing expectations of both inflation and future profitability and, hence, of the cash flows derived from real assets, causing asset values to rise in step with both inflation expectations and real interest rates. Rather than a policy to reduce interest rates, quantitative easing appears to be a policy for increasing interest rates, though only as a consequence of increasing expected future prices and cash flows.

I wrote that almost five years ago, and it still seems pretty much on the mark.

Cluelessness about Strategy, Tactics and Discretion

In his op-ed in the weekend Wall Street Journal, John Taylor restates his confused opposition to what Ben Bernanke calls the policy of constrained discretion followed by the Federal Reserve during his tenure at the Fed, as vice-chairman under Alan Greenspan from 2003 to 2005 and as Chairman from 2005 to 2013. Taylor has been arguing for the Fed to adopt what he calls the “rules-based monetary policy” supposedly practiced by the Fed while Paul Volcker was chairman (at least from 1981 onwards) and for most of Alan Greenspan’s tenure until 2003 when, according to Taylor, the Fed abandoned the “rules-based monetary rule” that it had followed since 1981. In a recent post, I explained why Taylor’s description of Fed policy under Volcker was historically inaccurate and why his critique of recent Fed policy is both historically inaccurate and conceptually incoherent.

Taylor denies that his steady refrain calling for a “rules-based policy” (i.e., the implementation of some version of his beloved Taylor Rule) is intended “to chain the Fed to an algebraic formula;” he just thinks that the Fed needs “an explicit strategy for setting the instruments” of monetary policy. Now I agree that one ought not to set a policy goal without a strategy for achieving the goal, but Taylor is saying that he wants to go far beyond a strategy for achieving a policy goal; he wants a strategy for setting instruments of monetary policy, which seems like an obvious confusion between strategy and tactics, ends and means.

Instruments are the means by which a policy is implemented. Setting a policy goal can be considered a strategic decision; setting a policy instrument a tactical decision. But Taylor is saying that the Fed should have a strategy for setting the instruments with which it implements its strategic policy.  (OED, “instrument – 1. A thing used in or for performing an action: a means. . . . 5. A tool, an implement, esp. one used for delicate or scientific work.”) This is very confused.

Let’s be very specific. The Fed, for better or for worse – I think for worse — has made a strategic decision to set a 2% inflation target. Taylor does not say whether he supports the 2% target; his criticism is that the Fed is not setting the instrument – the Fed Funds rate – that it uses to hit the 2% target in accordance with the Taylor rule. He regards the failure to set the Fed Funds rate in accordance with the Taylor rule as a departure from a rules-based policy. But the Fed has continually undershot its 2% inflation target for the past three years. So the question naturally arises: if the Fed had raised the Fed Funds rate to the level prescribed by the Taylor rule, would the Fed have succeeded in hitting its inflation target? If Taylor thinks that a higher Fed Funds rate than has prevailed since 2012 would have led to higher inflation than we experienced, then there is something very wrong with the Taylor rule, because, under the Taylor rule, the Fed Funds rate is positively related to the difference between the actual inflation rate and the target rate. If a Fed Funds rate higher than the rate set for the past three years would have led, as the Taylor rule implies, to lower inflation than we experienced, following the Taylor rule would have meant disregarding the Fed’s own inflation target. How is that consistent with a rules-based policy?

It is worth noting that the practice of defining a rule in terms of a policy instrument rather than in terms of a policy goal did not originate with John Taylor; it goes back to Milton Friedman who somehow convinced a generation of monetary economists that the optimal policy for the Fed would be to target the rate of growth of the money supply at a k-percent annual rate. I have devoted other posts to explaining the absurdity of Friedman’s rule, but the point that I want to emphasize now is that Friedman, for complicated reasons which I think (but am not sure) that I understand, convinced himself that (classical) liberal principles require that governments and government agencies exercise their powers only in accordance with explicit and general rules that preclude or minimize the exercise of discretion by the relevant authorities.

Friedman’s confusions about his k-percent rule were deep and comprehensive, as a quick perusal of Friedman’s chapter 3 in Capitalism and Freedom, “The Control of Money,” amply demonstrates. In practice, the historical gold standard was a mixture of gold coins and privately issued banknotes and deposits as well as government banknotes that did not function particularly well, requiring frequent and significant government intervention. Unlike, a pure gold currency in which, given the high cost of extracting gold from the ground, the quantity of gold money would change only gradually, a mixed system of gold coin and banknotes and deposits was subject to large and destabilizing fluctuations in quantity. So, in Friedman’s estimation, the liberal solution was to design a monetary system such that the quantity of money would expand at a slow and steady rate, providing the best of all possible worlds: the stability of a pure gold standard and the minimal resource cost of a paper currency. In making this argument, as I have shown in an earlier post, Friedman displayed a basic misunderstanding of what constituted the gold standard as it was historically practiced, especially during its heyday from about 1880 to the outbreak of World War I, believing that the crucial characteristic of the gold standard was the limitation that it imposed on the quantity of money, when in fact the key characteristic of the gold standard is that it forces the value of money – regardless of its material content — to be equal to the value of a specified quantity of gold. (This misunderstanding – the focus on control of the quantity of money as the key task of monetary policy — led to Friedman’s policy instrumentalism – i.e., setting a policy rule in terms of the quantity of money.)

Because Friedman wanted to convince his friends in the Mont Pelerin Society (his egregious paper “Real and Pseudo Gold Standards” was originally presented at a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society), who largely favored the gold standard, that (classical) liberal principles did not necessarily entail restoration of the gold standard, he emphasized a distinction between what he called the objectives of monetary policy and the instruments of monetary policy. In fact, in the classical discussion of the issue by Friedman’s teacher at Chicago, Henry Simons, in an essay called “Rules versus Authorities in Monetary Policy,” Simons also tried to formulate a rule that would be entirely automatic, operating insofar as possible in a mechanical fashion, even considering the option of stabilizing the quantity of money. But Simons correctly understood that any operational definition of money is necessarily arbitrary, meaning that there will always be a bright line between what is money under the definition and what is not money, even though the practical difference between what is on one side of the line and what is on the other will be slight. Thus, the existence of near-moneys would make control of any monetary aggregate a futile exercise. Simons therefore defined a monetary rule in terms of an objective of monetary policy: stabilizing the price level. Friedman did not want to settle for such a rule, because he understood that stabilizing the price level has its own ambiguities, there being many ways to measure the price level as well as theoretical problems in constructing index numbers (the composition and weights assigned to components of the index being subject to constant change) that make any price index inexact. Given Friedman’s objective — demonstrating that there is a preferable alternative to the gold standard evaluated in terms of (classical) liberal principles – a price-level rule lacked the automatism that Friedman felt was necessary to trump the gold standard as a monetary rule.

Friedman therefore made his case for a monetary rule in terms of the quantity of money, ignoring Simons powerful arguments against trying to control the quantity of money, stating the rule in general terms and treating the selection of an operational definition of money as a mere detail. Here is how Friedman put it:

If a rule is to be legislated, what rule should it be? The rule that has most frequently been suggested by people of a generally liberal persuasion is a price level rule; namely, a legislative directive to the monetary authorities that they maintain a stable price level. I think this is the wrong kind of a rule [my emphasis]. It is the wrong kind of a rule because it is in terms of objectives that the monetary authorities do not have the clear and direct power to achieve by their own actions. It consequently raises the problem of dispersing responsibilities and leaving the authorities too much leeway.

As an aside, I note that Friedman provided no explanation of why such a rule would disperse responsibilities. Who besides the monetary authority did Friedman think would have responsibility for controlling the price level under such a rule? Whether such a rule would give the monetary authorities “too much leeway” is of course an entirely different question.

There is unquestionably a close connection between monetary actions and the price level. But the connection is not so close, so invariable, or so direct that the objective of achieving a stable price level is an appropriate guide to the day-to-day activities of the authorities. (p. 53)

Friedman continues:

In the present state of our knowledge, it seems to me desirable to state the rule in terms of the behavior of the stock of money. My choice at the moment would be a legislated rule instructing the monetary authority to achieve a specified rate of growth in the stock of money. For this purpose, I would define the stock of money as including currency outside commercial banks plus all deposits of commercial banks. I would specify that the Reserve System shall see to it [Friedman’s being really specific there, isn’t he?] that the total stock of money so defined rises month by month, and indeed, so far as possible day by day, at an annual rate of X per cent, where X is some number between 3 and 5. (p. 54)

Friedman, of course, deliberately ignored, or, more likely, simply did not understand, that the quantity of deposits created by the banking system, under whatever definition, is no more under the control of the Fed than the price level. So the whole premise of Friedman’s money supply rule – that it was formulated in terms of an instrument under the immediate control of the monetary authority — was based on the fallacy that quantity of money is an instrument that the monetary authority is able to control at will.

I therefore note, as a further aside, that in his latest Wall Street Journal op-ed, Taylor responded to Bernanke’s observation that the Taylor rule becomes inoperative when the rule implies an interest-rate target below zero. Taylor disagrees:

The zero bound is not a new problem. Policy rule design research took that into account decades ago. The default was to move to a stable money growth regime not to massive asset purchases.

Taylor may regard the stable money growth regime as an acceptable default rule when the Taylor rule is sidelined at the zero lower bound. But if so, he is caught in a trap of his own making, because, whether he admits it or not, the quantity of money, unlike the Fed Funds rate, is not an instrument under the direct control of the Fed. If Taylor rejects an inflation target as a monetary rule, because it grants too much discretion to the monetary authority, then he must also reject a stable money growth rule, because it allows at least as much discretion as does an inflation target. Indeed, if the past 35 years have shown us anything it is that the Fed has much more control over the price level and the rate of inflation than it has over the quantity of money, however defined.

This post is already too long, but I think that it’s important to say something about discretion, which was such a bugaboo for Friedman, and remains one for Taylor. But the concept of discretion is not as simple as it is often made out to be, especially by Friedman and Taylor, and if you are careful to pay attention to what the word means in ordinary usage, you will see that discretion does not necessarily, or usually, refer to an unchecked authority to act as one pleases. Rather it suggests that a certain authority to make a decision is being granted to a person or an official, but the decision is to be made in light of certain criteria or principles that, while not fully explicit, still inform and constrain the decision.

The best analysis of what is meant by discretion that I know of is by Ronald Dworkin in his classic essay “Is Law a System of Rules?” Dworkin discusses the meaning of discretion in the context of a judge deciding a “hard case,” a case in which conflicting rules of law seem to be applicable, or a case in which none of the relevant rules seems to fit the facts of the case. Such a judge is said to exercise discretion, because his decision is not straightforwardly determined by the existing set of legal rules. Legal positivists, against whom Dworkin was arguing, would say that the judge is able, and called upon, to exercise his discretion in deciding the case, meaning, that by deciding the case, the judge is simply imposing his will. It is something like the positivist view that underlies Friedman’s intolerance for discretion.

Countering the positivist view, Dworkin considers the example of a sergeant ordered by his lieutenant to take his five most experienced soldiers on patrol, and reflects on how to interpret an observer’s statement about the orders: “the orders left the sergeant a great deal of discretion.” It is clear that, in carrying out his orders, the sergeant is called upon to exercise his judgment, because he is not given a metric for measuring the experience of his soldiers. But that does not mean that when he chooses five soldiers to go on patrol, he is engaging in an exercise of will. The decision can be carried out with good judgment or with bad judgment, but it is an exercise of judgment, not will, just as a judge, in deciding a hard case, is exercising his judgment, on a more sophisticated level to be sure than the sergeant choosing soldiers, not just indulging his preferences.

If the Fed is committed to an inflation target, then, by choosing a setting for its instrumental target, the Fed Funds rate, the Fed is exercising judgment in light of its policy goals. That exercise of judgment in pursuit of a policy goal is very different from the arbitrary behavior of the Fed in the 1970s when its decisions were taken with no clear price-level or inflation target and with no clear responsibility for hitting the target.

Ben Bernanke has described the monetary regime in which the Fed’s decisions are governed by an explicit inflation target and a subordinate commitment to full employment as one of “constrained discretion.” When using this term, Taylor always encloses it in quotations markets, apparently to suggest that the term is an oxymoron. But that is yet another mistake; “constrained discretion” is no oxymoron. Indeed, it is a pleonasm, the exercise of discretion usually being understood to mean not an unconstrained exercise of will, but an exercise of judgment in the light of relevant goals, policies, and principles.

PS I apologize for not having responded to comments recently. I will try to catch up later this week.

Just How Infamous Was that Infamous Open Letter to Bernanke?

There’s been a lot of comment recently about the infamous 2010 open letter to Ben Bernanke penned by an assorted group of economists, journalists, and financiers warning that the Fed’s quantitative easing policy would cause inflation and currency debasement.

Critics of that letter (e.g., Paul Krugman and Brad Delong) have been having fun with the signatories, ridiculing them for what now seems like a chicken-little forecast of disaster. Those signatories who have responded to inquiries about how they now feel about that letter, notably Cliff Asness and Nial Ferguson, have made two arguments: 1) the letter was just a warning that QE was creating a risk of inflation, and 2) despite the historically low levels of inflation since the letter was written, the risk that inflation could increase as a result of QE still exists.

For the most part, critics of the open letter have focused on the absence of inflation since the Fed adopted QE, the critics characterizing the absence of inflation despite QE as an easily predictable outcome, a straightforward implication of basic macroeconomics, which it was ignorant or foolish of the signatories to have ignored. In particular, the signatories should have known that, once interest rates fall to the zero lower bound, the demand for money becoming highly elastic so that the public willingly holds any amount of money that is created, monetary policy is rendered ineffective. Just as a semantic point, I would observe that the term “liquidity trap” used to describe such a situation is actually a slight misnomer inasmuch as the term was coined to describe a situation posited by Keynes in which the demand for money becomes elastic above the zero lower bound. So the assertion that monetary policy is ineffective at the zero lower bound is actually a weaker claim than the one Keynes made about the liquidity trap. As I have suggested previously, the current zero-lower-bound argument is better described as a Hawtreyan credit deadlock than a Keynesian liquidity trap.

Sorry, but I couldn’t resist the parenthetical history-of-thought digression; let’s get back to that infamous open letter.

Those now heaping scorn on signatories to the open letter are claiming that it was obvious that quantitative easing would not increase inflation. I must confess that I did not think that that was the case; I believed that quantitative easing by the Fed could indeed produce inflation. And that’s why I was in favor of quantitative easing. I was hoping for a repeat of what I have called the short but sweat recovery of 1933, when, in the depths of the Great Depression, almost immediately following the worst financial crisis in American history capped by a one-week bank holiday announced by FDR upon being inaugurated President in March 1933, the US economy, propelled by a 14% rise in wholesale prices in the aftermath of FDR’s suspension of the gold standard and 40% devaluation of the dollar, began the fastest expansion it ever had, industrial production leaping by 70% from April to July, and the Dow Jones average more than doubling. Unfortunately, FDR spoiled it all by getting Congress to pass the monumentally stupid National Industrial Recovery Act, thereby strangling the recovery with mandatory wage increases, cost increases, and regulatory ceilings on output as a way to raise prices. Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory!

Inflation having worked splendidly as a recovery strategy during the Great Depression, I have believed all along that we could quickly recover from the Little Depression if only we would give inflation a chance. In the Great Depression, too, there were those that argued either that monetary policy is ineffective – “you can’t push on a string” — or that it would be calamitous — causing inflation and currency debasement – or, even both. But the undeniable fact is that inflation worked; countries that left the gold standard recovered, because once currencies were detached from gold, prices could rise sufficiently to make production profitable again, thereby stimulating multiplier effects (aka supply-side increases in resource utilization) that fueled further economic expansion. And oh yes, don’t forget providing badly needed relief to debtors, relief that actually served the interests of creditors as well.

So my problem with the open letter to Bernanke is not that the letter failed to recognize the existence of a Keynesian liquidity trap or a Hawtreyan credit deadlock, but that the open letter viewed inflation as the problem when, in my estimation at any rate, inflation is the solution.

Now, it is certainly possible that, as critics of the open letter maintain, monetary policy at the zero lower bound is ineffective. However, there is evidence that QE announcements, at least initially, did raise inflation expectations as reflected in TIPS spreads. And we also know (see my paper) that for a considerable period of time (from 2008 through at least 2012) stock prices were positively correlated with inflation expectations, a correlation that one would not expect to observe under normal circumstances.

So why did the huge increase in the monetary base during the Little Depression not cause significant inflation even though monetary policy during the Great Depression clearly did raise the price level in the US and in the other countries that left the gold standard? Well, perhaps the success of monetary policy in ending the Great Depression could not be repeated under modern conditions when all currencies are already fiat currencies. It may be that, starting from an interwar gold standard inherently biased toward deflation, abandoning the gold standard created, more or less automatically, inflationary expectations that allowed prices to rise rapidly toward levels consistent with a restoration of macroeconomic equilibrium. However, in the current fiat money system in which inflation expectations have become anchored to an inflation target of 2 percent or less, no amount of money creation can budge inflation off its expected path, especially at the zero lower bound, and especially when the Fed is paying higher interest on reserves than yielded by short-term Treasuries.

Under our current inflation-targeting monetary regime, the expectation of low inflation seems to have become self-fulfilling. Without an explicit increase in the inflation target or the price-level target (or the NGDP target), the Fed cannot deliver the inflation that could provide a significant economic stimulus. So the problem, it seems to me, is not that we are stuck in a liquidity trap; the problem is that we are stuck in an inflation-targeting monetary regime.

 

Stephen Williamson Defends the FOMC

Publication of the transcripts of the FOMC meetings in 2008 has triggered a wave of criticism of the FOMC for the decisions it took in 2008. Since the transcripts were released I have written two posts (here and here) charging that the inflation-phobia of the FOMC was a key (though not the sole) cause of the financial crisis in September 2008. Many other bloggers, Matt Yglesias, Scott Sumner, Brad Delong and Paul Krugman, just to name a few, were also sharply critical of the FOMC, though Paul Krugman at any rate seemed to think that the Fed’s inflation obsession was merely weird rather than catastrophic.

Stephen Williamson, however, has a different take on all this. In a post last week, just after the release of the transcripts, Williamson chastised Matt Yglesias for chastising Ben Bernanke and the FOMC for not reducing the Federal Funds target at the September 16 FOMC meeting, the day after Lehman went into bankruptcy. Williamson quotes this passage from Yglesias’s post.

New documents released last week by the Federal Reserve shed important new light on one of the most consequential and underdiscussed moments of recent American history: the decision to hold interest rates flat on Sept. 16, 2008. At the time, the meeting at which the decision was made was overshadowed by the ongoing presidential campaign and Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy filing the previous day. Political reporters were focused on the campaign, economic reporters on Lehman, and since the news from the Fed was that nothing was changing, it didn’t make for much of a story. But in retrospect, it looks to have been a major policy blunder—one that was harmful on its own terms and that set a precedent for a series of later disasters.

To which Williamson responds acidly:

So, it’s like there was a fire at City Hall, and five years later a reporter for the local rag is complaining that the floor wasn’t swept while the fire was in progress.

Now, in a way, I agree with Williamson’s point here; I think it’s a mistake to overemphasize the September 16 meeting. By September 16, the damage had been done. The significance of the decision not to cut the Fed Funds target is not that the Fed might have prevented a panic that was already developing (though I don’t rule out the possibility that a strong enough statement by the FOMC might have provided enough reassurance to the markets to keep the crisis from spiraling out of control), but what the decision tells us about the mindset of the FOMC. Just read the statement that the Fed issued after its meeting.

The Federal Open Market Committee decided today to keep its target for the federal funds rate at 2 percent.

Strains in financial markets have increased significantly and labor markets have weakened further. Economic growth appears to have slowed recently, partly reflecting a softening of household spending. Tight credit conditions, the ongoing housing contraction, and some slowing in export growth are likely to weigh on economic growth over the next few quarters. Over time, the substantial easing of monetary policy, combined with ongoing measures to foster market liquidity, should help to promote moderate economic growth.

Inflation has been high, spurred by the earlier increases in the prices of energy and some other commodities. The Committee expects inflation to moderate later this year and next year, but the inflation outlook remains highly uncertain.

The downside risks to growth and the upside risks to inflation are both of significant concern to the Committee. The Committee will monitor economic and financial developments carefully and will act as needed to promote sustainable economic growth and price stability.

What planet were they living on? “The downside risks to growth and the upside risks to inflation are both of significant concern to the Committee.” OMG!

Williamson, however, sees it differently.

[T]he FOMC agreed to keep the fed funds rate target constant at 2%. Seems like this was pretty dim-witted of the committee, given what was going on in financial markets that very day, right? Wrong. At that point, the fed funds market target rate had become completely irrelevant.

Williamson goes on to point out that although the FOMC did not change the Fed Funds target, borrowings from the Fed increased sharply in September, so that the Fed was effectively easing its policy even though the target – a meaningless target in Williamson’s view – had not changed.

Thus, by September 16, 2008, it seems the Fed was effectively already at the zero lower bound. At that time the fed funds target was irrelevant, as there were excess reserves in the system, and the effective fed funds rate was irrelevant, as it reflected risk.

I want to make two comments on Williamson’s argument. First, the argument is certainly at odds with Bernanke’s own statement in the transcript, towards the end of the September 16 meeting, giving his own recommendation about what policy action the FOMC should take:

Overall I believe that our current funds rate setting is appropriate, and I don’t really see any reason to change…. Cutting rates would be a very big step that would send a very strong signal about our views on the economy and about our intentions going forward, and I think we should view that step as a very discrete thing rather than as a 25 basis point kind of thing. We should be very certain about that change before we undertake it because I would be concerned, for example, about the implications for the dollar, commodity prices, and the like.

So Bernanke clearly states that his view is that the current fed funds target was “appropriate.” He did not say that the fed funds rate is at the lower bound. Instead, he explains why he does not want to cut the fed funds rate, implying that he believed that cutting the rate was an option. He didn’t want to exercise that option, because he did not like the “very strong signal about our views on the economy and about our intentions going forward” that a rate cut would send. Indeed, he intimates that a rate cut of 25 basis points would be meaningless under the circumstances, suggesting an awareness, however vague, that a crisis was brewing, so that a cut in the target rate would have to be substantial to calm, rather than scare, the markets. (The next cut, three weeks later, was 50 basis points, and things only got worse.)

Second, suppose for argument’s sake, that Williamson is right and Bernanke (and almost everyone else) was wrong, that the fed funds target was meaningless. Does that mean that the Fed’s inflation obsession in 2008 is just an optical illusion with no significance — that the Fed was powerless to have done anything that would have increased expenditure and income, thereby avoiding or alleviating the crisis?

I don’t think so, and the reason is that, as I pointed out in my previous post, the dollar began appreciating rapidly in forex markets in mid-July 2009, the dollar euro exchange rate appreciating by about 12% and the trade-weighted value of the dollar appreciating by about 10% between mid-July and the week before the Lehman collapse. An appreciating that rapid was a clear sign that there was a shortage of dollar liquidity which was causing spending to drop all through the economy, as later confirmed by the sharp drop in third-quarter GDP. The dollar fell briefly in the days just before and after the Lehman collapse, then resuming its sharp ascent as the financial crisis worsened in September and October, appreciating by another 10-15%.

So even if the fed funds target was ineffectual, the Fed, along with the Treasury, still had it within their power to intervene in forex markets, selling dollars for euros and other currencies, thereby preventing the dollar from rising further in value. Unfortunately, as is clear from the transcripts, the FOMC thought that the rising dollar was a favorable development that would reduce the inflation about which it was so obsessively concerned. So the FOMC happily watched the dollar rise by 25% against other currencies between July and November as the economy tanked, because, as the September 16 statement of the FOMC so eloquently put it, “upside risks to inflation are . . . of significant concern to the Committee.” The FOMC gave us the monetary policy it wanted us to have.

Exposed: Irrational Inflation-Phobia at the Fed Caused the Panic of 2008

Matthew O’Brien at The Atlantic has written a marvelous account of the bizarre deliberations of the Federal Open Market Committee at its meetings (June 25 and August 5) before the Lehman debacle on September 15 2008 and its meeting the next day on September 16. A few weeks ago, I wrote in half-seriousness a post attributing the 2008 financial crisis to ethanol because of the runup in corn and other grain prices in 2008 owing to the ethanol mandate and the restrictions on imported ethanol products. But ethanol, as several commenters pointed out, was only a part, probably a relatively small part, of the spike in commodities prices in the summer of 2008. Thanks to O’Brien’s careful reading of the recently released transcripts of the 2008 meetings of the FOMC, we now have a clear picture of how obsessed the FOMC was about inflation, especially the gang of four regional bank presidents, Charles Plosser, Richard Fisher, James Lacker, and Thomas Hoenig, supported to a greater or lesser extent by James Bullard and Kevin Warsh.

On the other hand, O’Brien does point out that two members of the FOMC, Eric Rosengren, President of the Boston Fed, and Fredric Mishkin of the Board of Governors, consistently warned of the dangers of a financial crisis, and consistently objected to and cogently punctured the hysterical inflation fears of the gang of four. It is somewhat, but only somewhat, reassuring that Janet Yellen was slightly more sensitive to the dangers of a financial crisis and less concerned about inflation than Ben Bernanke. Perhaps because he was still getting his feet wet as chairman, Bernanke seems to have been trying to articulate a position that could balance the opposing concerns of the FOMC membership, rather than leading the FOMC in the direction he thought best. While Yellen did not indulge the inflation phobia of the gang of four, she did not strongly support Rosengren and Mishkin in calling for aggressive action to avert the crisis that they clearly saw looming on the horizon.

Here are some highlights from O’Brien’s brilliant piece:

[FOMC Meeting] June 24-25, 2008: 468 mentions of inflation, 44 of unemployment, and 35 of systemic risks/crises

Those numbers pretty much tell you everything you need to know about what happened during the disastrous summer of 2008 at the Fed

Rosengren wasn’t nearly as concerned with 5 percent headline inflation—and with good reason. He reminded his colleagues that “monetary policy is unlikely to have much effect on food and energy prices,” that “total [inflation] has tended to converge to core, and not the opposite,” and that there was a “lack of an upward trend of wages and salaries.”

In short, inflation was high today, but it wouldn’t be tomorrow. They should ignore it. A few agreed. Most didn’t.

Mishkin, Fed Governor Donald Kohn, and then-San Francisco Fed chief Janet Yellen comprised Team: Ignore Inflation. They pointed out that core inflation hadn’t actually risen, and that “inflation expectations remain reasonably well-anchored.” The rest of the Fed, though, was eager to raise rates soon, if not right away. Philadelphia Fed president Charles Plosser recognized that core inflation was flat, but still thought they needed to get ready to tighten “or our credibility could soon vanish.” Fed Governor Kevin Warsh said that “inflation risks, in my view, continue to predominate as the greater risk to the economy,” because he thought headline would get passed into core inflation.

And let us not forget Richard Fisher of the Dallas Fed who provided badly needed comic relief.

And then there was Dallas Fed chief Richard Fisher, who had a singular talent for seeing inflation that nobody else could—a sixth sense, if you will. He was allergic to data. He preferred talking to CEOs instead. But, in Fisher’s case, the plural of anecdote wasn’t data. It was nonsense. He was worried about Frito-Lays increasing prices 9 percent, Budweiser increasing them 3.5 percent, and a small dry-cleaning chain in Dallas increasing them, well, an undisclosed amount. He even half-joked that the Fed was giving out smaller bottles of water, presumably to hide creeping inflation?

By the way, I notice that these little bottles of water have gotten smaller—this will be a Visine bottle at the next meeting. [Laughter]

But it was another member of the Gang of Four who warned ominously:

Richmond Fed president Jeffrey Lacker suggested, that “at some point we’re going to choose to let something disruptive happen.”

Now to the August meeting:

[FOMC Meeting] August 5, 2008: 322 mentions of inflation, 28 of unemployment, and 19 of systemic risks/crises.

Despite evidence that the inflationary blip of spring and summer was winding down, and the real economy was weakening, the Gang of Four continued to press their case for tougher anti-inflation measures. But only Rosengren and Mishkin spoke out against them.

But even though inflation was falling, it was a lonesome time to be a dove. As the Fed’s resident Cassandra, Rosengren tried to convince his colleagues that high headline inflation numbers “appear to be transitory responses to supply shocks that are not flowing through to labor markets.” In other words, inflation would come down on its own, and the Fed should focus on the credit crunch instead. Mishkin worried that “really bad things could happen” if “a shoe drops” and there was a “nasty, vicious spiral” between weak banks and a weak economy. Given this, he wanted to wait to tighten until inflation expectations “actually indicate there is a problem,” and not before.

But Richard Fisher was in no mood to worry about horror stories unless they were about runaway inflation:

The hawks didn’t want to wait. Lacker admitted that wages hadn’t gone up, but thought that “if we wait until wage rates accelerate or TIPS measures spike, we will have waited too long.” He wanted the Fed to “be prepared to raise rates even if growth is not back to potential, and even if financial markets are not yet tranquil.” In other words, to fight nonexistent wage inflation today to prevent possible wage inflation tomorrow, never mind the crumbling economy. Warsh, for his part, kept insisting that “inflation risks are very real, and I believe that these are higher than growth risks.” And Fisher had more”chilling anecdotes”—as Bernanke jokingly called them—about inflation. This time, the culprit was Disney World and its 5 percent price increase for single-day tickets.

The FOMC was divided, but the inflation-phobes held the upper hand. Unwilling to challenge them, Bernanke appeased them by promising that his statement about future monetary policy after the meeting would be “be slightly hawkish—to indicate a slight uplift in policy.”

Frightened by what he was hearing, Mishkin reminded his colleagues of some unpleasant monetary history:

Remember that in the Great Depression, when—I can’t use the expression because it would be in the transcripts, but you know what I’m thinking—something hit the fan, [laughter] it actually occurred close to a year after the initial negative shock.

Mishkin also reminded his colleagues that the stance of monetary policy cannot be directly inferred from the federal funds rate.

I just very much hope that this Committee does not make this mistake because I have to tell you that the situation is scary to me. I’m holding two houses right now. I’m very nervous.

And now to the September meeting, the day after Lehman collapsed:

[FOMC meeting] September 16, 2008: 129 mentions of inflation, 26 of unemployment, and 4 of systemic risks/crises

Chillingly, Lacker and Hoenig did a kind of victory dance about the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Lacker had gotten the “disruptive” event he had wanted, and he was pretty pleased about it. “What we did with Lehman I obviously think was good,” he said, because it would “enhance the credibility of any commitment that we make in the future to be willing to let an institution fail.” Hoenig concurred that it was the “right thing,” because it would suck moral hazard out of the market.

The rest of the Gang of Four and their allies remained focused like a laser on inflation.

Even though commodity prices and inflation expectations were both falling fast, Hoenig wanted the Fed to “look beyond the immediate crisis,” and recognize that “we also have an inflation issue.” Bullard thought that “an inflation problem is brewing.” Plosser was heartened by falling commodity prices, but said, “I remain concerned about the inflation outlook going forward,” because “I do not see the ongoing slowdown in economic activity is entirely demand driven.” And Fisher half-jokingly complained that the bakery he’d been going to for 30 years—”the best maker of not only bagels, but anything with Crisco in it”—had just increased prices. All of them wanted to leave rates unchanged at 2 percent.

Again, only Eric Rosengren seemed to be in touch with reality, but no was listening:

[Rosengren] was afraid that exactly what did end up happening would happen. That all the financial chaos “would have a significant impact on the real economy,” that “individuals and firms will be become risk averse, with reluctance to consume or invest,” that “credit spreads are rising, and the cost and availability of financing is becoming more difficult,” and that “deleveraging is likely to occur with a vengeance.” More than that, he thought that the “calculated bet” they took in letting Lehman fail would look particularly bad “if we have a run on the money market funds or if the nongovernment tri-party repo market shuts down.” He wanted to cut rates immediately to do what they could to offset the worsening credit crunch. Nobody else did.

Like Bernanke for instance. Here is his take on the situation:

Overall I believe that our current funds rate setting is appropriate, and I don’t really see any reason to change…. Cutting rates would be a very big step that would send a very strong signal about our views on the economy and about our intentions going forward, and I think we should view that step as a very discrete thing rather than as a 25 basis point kind of thing. We should be very certain about that change before we undertake it because I would be concerned, for example, about the implications for the dollar, commodity prices, and the like.

OMG!

O’Brien uses one of my favorite Hawtrey quotes to describe the insanity of the FOMC deliberations:

In other words, the Fed was just as worried about an inflation scare that was already passing as it was about a once-in-three-generations crisis.

It brought to mind what economist R. G. Hawtrey had said about the Great Depression. Back then, central bankers had worried more about the possibility of inflation than the grim reality of deflation. It was, Hawtrey said, like “crying Fire! Fire! in Noah’s flood.”

In any non-dysfunctional institution, the perpetrators of this outrage would have been sacked. But three of Gang of Four (Hoenig having become a director of the FDIC in 2012) remain safely ensconced in their exalted positions, blithely continuing, without the slightest acknowledgment of their catastrophic past misjudgments, to exert a malign influence on monetary policy. For shame!

Fear Is Contagious

Ever the optimist, I was hoping that yesterday’s immediate, sharply negative, reaction to the FOMC statement and Ben Bernanke’s press conference was only a mild correction, not the sign of a major revision in expectations. Today’s accelerating slide in stock prices, coupled with continuing rises declines in bond prices, across the entire yield curve, shows that the FOMC, whose obsession with inflation in 2008 drove the world economy into a Little Depression, may now be on the verge of precipitating yet another downturn even before any real recovery has taken place.

If 2008-09 was a replay of 1929-30, then we might be headed back to a reprise of 1937, when a combination of fiscal austerity and monetary tightening, fed by exaggerated, if not irrational fears of inflation, notwithstanding the absence of a full recovery from the 1929-33 downturn, caused a second downturn, nearly as sharp as that of 1929-30.

Nothing is inevitable. History does not have to repeat itself. But if we want to avoid a repeat of 1937, we must avoid repeating the same stupid mistakes made in 1937. Don’t withdraw – or talk about withdrawing — a stimulus that isn’t even generating the measly 2% inflation that the FOMC says its targeting, even while the unemployment rate is still 7.6%. And as Paul Krugman pointed out in his blog today, the labor force participation rate has barely increased since the downturn bottomed out in 2009. I reproduce his chart below.

labor_participation

Bernanke claims to be maintaining an accommodative monetary policy and is simply talking about withdrawing (tapering off), as conditions warrant, the additional stimulus associated with  the Fed’s asset purchases. That reminds me of the stance of the FOMC in 2008 when the Fed, having reduced interest rates to 2% in March, kept threatening to raise interest rates during the spring and summer to counter rising commodity prices, even as the economy was undergoing, even before the onset of the financial crisis, one of the fastest contractions since World War II. Yesterday’s announcement, making no commitment to ensure that the Fed’s own inflation target would be met, has obviously been understood by the markets to signal the willingness of the FOMC to tolerate even lower rates of inflation than we have now.

In my post yesterday, I observed that the steep rise in nominal and real interest rates (at least as approximated by the yield on TIPS) was accompanied by only a very modest decline in inflation expectations (as approximated by the TIPS spread). Well, today, nominal and real interest rates (as reflected in TIPS) rose again, but with the breakeven 10-year TIPS spread falling by 9 basis points, to 1.95%. Meanwhile, the dollar continued to appreciate against the euro, supporting the notion that the markets are reacting to a perceived policy change, a change in exactly the wrong direction. Oh, and by the way, the price of gold continued to plummet, reaching $1280 an ounce, the lowest in almost three years, nearly a third less than its 2011 peak.

But for a contrary view, have a look at theeditorial (“Monetary Withdrawal Symptom”) in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, as well as an op-ed piece by an asset fund manager, Romain Hatchuel, (“Central Banks and the Borrowing Addiction”). Both characterize central banks as drug pushers who have induced hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people around the world to become debt addicts. Hatchuel sees some deep significance in the fact that total indebtedness has, since 1980, increased as fast as GDP, while from 1950 to 1980 total indebtedness increased at a much slower rate.

Um, if more people are borrowing, more people are lending, so the mere fact that total indebtedness has increased faster in the last 30 years than it did in the previous 30 years says nothing about debt addiction. It simply says that more people have been gaining access to credit markets in recent years than had access to credit markets in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. If we are so addicted to debt, how come real interest rates are so low? If a growing epidemic of debt addiction started in 1980, shouldn’t real interest rates have been rising steadily since then? Guess what? Real interest rates have been falling steadily since 1982. The Wall Street Journal strikes (out) again.

Bernanke Gives the Markets a Scare

Ben Bernanke held a press conference today at the conclusion of the FOMC meeting held yesterday and today. The stock market had risen by almost 2 percent on Monday and Tuesday, apparently in hopes that Bernanke would have something encouraging to say about Fed policy. They were obviously disappointed. The accompanying chart shows how the S&P 500 has fluctuated since last Thursday, the sharp drop today coincided with Bernanke’s press conference.

S&P500_6-13_6-19 S&P500_6-13_6-19

What was so disturbing to the markets? Well, Bernanke’s press conference triggered some sharp movements in the bond markets. The yield on the 10-year Treasury jumped by 13 basis points to 2.33%. I don’t have a chart of the intra-day fluctuation, but I am pretty sure almost all of the movement occurred after the press conference started. Meanwhile the yield on the 10-year TIPS jumped 15 basis points, from 0.14% to 0.29%, implying a 2-basis-point drop in the breakeven TIPS spread, to 2.04%. A two-basis-point change in inflation expectations is not very remarkable. So it seems that what drove the increase in yield was the increase in the real rate. But one has to be careful in identifying the TIPS spread with the real rate of interest, especially when one sees sudden changes in the market, changes that could reflect factors other than the real rate of interest, such as illiquidity in the TIPS market or increasing uncertainty about future inflation, even though expected inflation is not changing much.

Let’s look at two other markets that moved sharply after Bernanke started talking this afternoon. The chart below shows the movement of dollar/euro exchange rate since Monday. The dollar weakened slightly on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday morning, but as soon as Bernanke got started the dollar shot up against the euro.

dollar_euro_exchange_rate

That should not necessarily be construed as a vote of confidence in Bernanke, even though it apparently pleased Bernanke et al. to think that the sharp run-up in the value of the dollar in August 2008 was a sign of confidence that Fed policy to keep inflation expectations anchored was working. It is hard to interpret today’s sharp increase in the value of the dollar as anything but an expectation of future tightening of monetary policy by the Fed. But then why did inflation expectations fall by only 2 basis points?

Another market that is supposed to be sensitive to inflation expectations is gold, though in my view the demand for gold is too irrational to provide any usable information about expectations. But I will suspend my disbelief in the rationality of gold traders for the time being to note that the price of gold has just fallen to a new low for the year, dropping below $1340 an ounce or almost 3% since yesterday. A fall in the value of gold is consistent with an increase in real interest rates or with a decline in inflation expectations, so take your pick.

Some people have suggested that declining inflation expectations and rising real interest rates are manifestations of a positive supply shock, also reflected in declining commodity prices. A positive supply shock would have provided the Fed with an opportunity to relax monetary policy further without risk of raising inflation or inflation expectations from current levels, which already are well below the Fed’s announced 2% target. If continued Fed easing was what the markets had been anticipating earlier in the week, reflected in a gently falling dollar exchange rate, even with inflation expectations stable or falling, then Bernanke’s announcement today constituted a tightening of policy relative to expectations. The tightening drove up the dollar and caused a further, albeit small, decline in inflation expectations. (But I should note that this interpretation depends on what may be an oversimplified identification of the TIPS spread with inflation expectations.)

At any rate, I don’t think that we have a clear understanding of what is driving markets at this point. Markets still seem to be in confusion. Today’s movements in the markets were sudden and sharp, but they were also fairly modest. A one or two percent movement in markets is hardly a major event. Nevertheless, by displaying an unseemly haste to withdraw the very modest monetary stimulus that the Fed has begrudgingly provided, Bernanke may have given the markets a bit of scare, reminding them how indifferent central bankers have been to the ongoing disaster of the Little Depression. The markets did not panic, but we may be flying into turbulence. Keep your seat belts fastened.


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.

Archives

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

Join 1,907 other followers

Follow Uneasy Money on WordPress.com
Advertisements