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The Well-Defined, but Nearly Useless, Natural Rate of Interest

Tyler Cowen recently posted a diatribe against the idea monetary policy should be conducted by setting the interest rate target of the central bank at or near the natural rate of interest. Tyler’s post elicited critical responses from Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman among others. I sympathize with Tyler’s impatience with the natural rate of interest as a guide to policy, but I think the scattershot approach he took in listing, seemingly at random, seven complaints against the natural rate of interest was not the best way to register dissatisfaction with the natural rate. Here’s Tyler’s list of seven complaints.

1 Knut Wicksell, inventor of the term “natural rate of interest,” argued that if the central bank set its target rate equal to the natural rate, it would avoid inflation and deflation and tame the business cycle. Wicksell’s argument was criticized by his friend and countryman David Davidson who pointed out that, with rising productivity, price stability would not result without monetary expansion, which would require the monetary authority to reduce its target rate of interest below the natural rate to induce enough investment to be financed by monetary expansion. Thus, when productivity is rising, setting the target rate of interest equal to the natural rate leads not to price stability, but to deflation.

2 Keynes rejected the natural rate as a criterion for monetary policy, because the natural rate is not unique. The natural rate varies with the level of income and employment.

3 Early Keynesians like Hicks, Hansen, and Modigliani rejected the natural rate as well.

4 The meaning of the natural rate has changed; it was once the rate that would result in a stable price level; now it’s the rate that results in a stable rate of inflation.

5 Friedman also rejected the natural rate because there is no guarantee that setting the target rate equal to the natural rate will result in the rate of money growth that Freidman believed was desirable.

6 Sraffa debunked the natural rate in his 1932 review of Hayek’s Prices and Production.

7 It seems implausible that the natural rate is now negative, as many exponents of the natural rate concept now claim, even though the economy is growing and the marginal productivity of capital is positive.

Let me try to tidy all this up a bit.

The first thing you need to know when thinking about the natural rate is that, like so much else in economics, you will become hopelessly confused if you don’t keep the Fisher equation, which decomposes the nominal rate of interest into the real rate of interest and the expected rate of inflation, in clear sight. Once you begin thinking about the natural rate in the context of the Fisher equation, it becomes obvious that the natural rate can be thought of coherently as either a real rate or a nominal rate, but the moment you are unclear about whether you are talking about a real natural rate or a nominal natural rate, you’re finished.

Thus, Wicksell was implicitly thinking about a situation in which expected inflation is zero so that the real and nominal natural rates coincide. If the rate of inflation is correctly expected to be zero, and the increase in productivity is also correctly expected, the increase in the quantity of money required to sustain a constant price level can be induced by the payment of interest on cash balances. Alternatively, if the payment of interest on cash balances is ruled out, the rate of capital accumulation (forced savings) could be increased sufficiently to cause the real natural interest rate under a constant price level to fall below the real natural interest rate under deflation.

In the Sraffa-Hayek episode, as Paul Zimmerman and I have shown in our paper on that topic, Sraffa failed to understand that the multiplicity of own rates of interest in a pure barter economy did not mean that there was not a unique real natural rate toward which arbitrage would force all the individual own rates to converge. At any moment, therefore, there is a unique real natural rate in a barter economy if arbitrage is operating to equalize the cost of borrowing in terms of every commodity. Moreover, even Sraffa did not dispute that, under Wicksell’s definition of the natural rate as the rate consistent with a stable price level, there is a unique natural rate. Sraffa’s quarrel was only with Hayek’s use of the natural rate, inasmuch as Hayek maintained that the natural rate did not imply a stable price level. Of course, Hayek was caught in a contradiction that Sraffa overlooked, because he identified the real natural rate with an equal nominal rate, so that he was implicitly assuming a constant expected price level even as he was arguing that the neutral monetary policy corresponding to setting the market interest rate equal to the natural rate would imply deflation when productivity was increasing.

I am inclined to be critical Milton Friedman about many aspects of his monetary thought, but one of his virtues as a monetary economist was that he consistently emphasized Fisher’s  distinction between real and nominal interest rates. The point that Friedman was making in the passage quoted by Tyler was that the monetary authority is able to peg nominal variables, prices, inflation, exchange rates, but not real variables, like employment, output, or interest rates. Even pegging the nominal natural rate is impossible, because inasmuch as the goal of targeting a nominal natural rate is to stabilize the rate of inflation, targeting the nominal natural rate also means targeting the real natural rate. But targeting the real natural rate is not possible, and trying to do so will just get you into trouble.

So Tyler should not be complaining about the change in the meaning of the natural rate; that change simply reflects the gradual penetration of the Fisher equation into the consciousness of the economics profession. We now realize that, given the real natural rate, there is, for every expected rate of inflation, a corresponding nominal natural rate.

Keynes made a very different contribution to our understanding of the natural rate. He was that there is no reason to assume that the real natural rate of interest is unique. True, at any moment there is some real natural rate toward which arbitrage is forcing all nominal rates to converge. But that real natural rate is a function of the prevailing economic conditions. Keynes believed that there are multiple equilibria, each corresponding to a different level of employment, and that associated with each of those equilibria there could be a different real natural rate. Nowadays, we are less inclined than was Keynes to call an underemployment situation an equilibrium, but there is still no reason to assume that the real natural rate that serves as an attractor for all nominal rates is independent of the state of the economy. If the real natural rate for an underperforming economy is less than the real natural rate that would be associated with the economy if it were in the neighborhood of an optimal equilibrium, there is no reason why either the real natural rate corresponding to an optimal equilibrium or the real natural rate corresponding to the current sub-optimal state of economy should be the policy rate that the monetary authority chooses as its target.

Finally, what can be said about Tyler’s point that it is implausible to suggest that the real natural rate is negative when the economy is growing (even slowly) and the marginal productivity of capital is positive? Two points.

First, the marginal productivity of gold is very close to zero. If gold is held as bullion, it is being held for expected appreciation over and above the cost of storage. So the ratio of the future price of gold to the spot price of gold should equal one plus the real rate of interest. If you look at futures prices for gold you will see that they are virtually the same as the spot price. However, storing gold is not costless. According to this article on Bloomberg.com, storage costs for gold range between 0.5 to 1% of the value of gold, implying that expected rate of return to holding gold is now less than -0.5% a year, which means that the marginal productivity of real capital is negative. Sure there are plenty of investments out there that are generating positive returns, but those are inframarginal investments. Those inframarginal investments are generating some net gain in productivity, and overall economic growth is positive, but that doesn’t mean that the return on investment at the margin is positive. At the margin, the yield on real capital seems to be negative.

If, as appears likely, our economy is underperforming, estimates of the real natural rate of interest are not necessarily an appropriate guide for the monetary authority in choosing its target rate of interest. If the aim of monetary policy is to nudge the economy onto a feasible growth path that is above the sub-optimal path along which it is currently moving, it might well be that the appropriate interest-rate target, as long as the economy remains below its optimal growth path, would be less than the natural rate corresponding to the current sub-optimal growth path.

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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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