Archive for the 'financial crisis' Category

Larry Summers v. John Taylor: No Contest

It seems that an announcement about who will be appointed as Fed Chairman after Janet Yellen’s terms expires early next year is imminent. Although there are sources in the Administration, e.g., the President, indicating that Janet Yellen may be reappointed, the betting odds strongly favor Jerome Powell, a Republican currently serving as a member of the Board of Governors, over the better-known contender, John Taylor, who has earned a considerable reputation as an academic economist, largely as author of the so-called Taylor Rule, and has also served as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers and the Treasury in previous Republican administrations.

Taylor’s support seems to be drawn from the more militant ideological factions within the Republican Party owing to his past criticism of Fed’s quantitative-easing policy after the financial crisis and little depression, having famously predicted that quantitative easing would revive dormant inflationary pressures, presaging a return to the stagflation of the 1970s, while Powell, who has supported the Fed’s policies under Bernanke and Yellen, is widely suspect in the eyes of the Republican base as a just another elitist establishmentarian inhabiting the swamp that the new administration was elected to drain. Nevertheless, Taylor’s academic background, his prior government service, and his long-standing ties to the US and international banking and financial institutions make him a less than ideal torch bearer for the true-blue (or true-red) swamp drainers whose ostensible goal is less to take control of the Fed than to abolish it. To accommodate both the base and the establishment, it is possible that, as reported by Breitbart, both Powell and Taylor will be appointed, one replacing Yellen as chairman, the other replacing Stanley Fischer as vice-chairman.

Seeing no evidence that Taylor has a sufficient following for his appointment to provide any political benefit, I have little doubt that it will be Powell who replaces Yellen, possibly along with Taylor as Vice-Chairman, if Taylor, at the age of 71, is willing to accept a big pay cut, just to take the vice-chairmanship with little prospect of eventually gaining the top spot he has long coveted.

Although I think it unlikely that Taylor will be the next Fed Chairman, the recent flurry of speculation about his possible appointment prompted me to look at a recent talk that he gave at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Conference on the subject: Are Rules Made to be Broken? Discretion and Monetary Policy. The title of his talk “Rules versus Discretion: Assessing the Debate over Monetary Policy” is typical of Taylor’s very low-key style, a style that, to his credit, is certainly not calculated to curry favor with the Fed-bashers who make up a large share of a Republican base that demands constant attention and large and frequently dispensed servings of red meat.

I found several things in Taylor’s talk notable. First, and again to his credit, Taylor does, on occasion, acknowledge the possibility that other interpretations of events from his own are possible. Thus, in arguing that the good macroeconomic performance (“the Great Moderation”) from about 1985 to 2003, was the result of the widespread adoption of “rules-based” monetary policy, and that the subsequent financial crisis and deep recession were the results of the FOMC’s having shifted, after the 2001 recession, from that rules-based policy to a discretionary policy, by keeping interest rates too low for too long, Taylor did at least recognize the possibility that the reason that the path of interest rates after 2003 departed from the path that, he claims, had been followed during the Great Moderation was that the economy was entering a period of inherently greater instability in the early 2000s than in the previous two decades because of external conditions unrelated to actions taken by the Fed.

The other view is that the onset of poor economic performance was not caused by a deviation from policy rules that were working, but rather to other factors. For example, Carney (2013) argues that the deterioration of performance in recent years occurred because “… the disruptive potential of financial instability—absent effective macroprudential policies—leads to a less favourable Taylor frontier.” Carney (2013) illustrated his argument with a shift in the tradeoff frontier as did King (2012). The view I offer here is that the deterioration was due more to a move off the efficient policy frontier due to a change in policy. That would suggest moving back toward the type of policy rule that described policy decisions during the Great Moderation period. (p. 9)

But despite acknowledging the possibility of another view, Taylor offers not a single argument against it. He merely reiterates his own unsupported opinion that the policy post-2003 became less rule-based than it had been from 1985 to 2003. However, later in his talk in a different context, Taylor does return to the argument that the Fed’s policy after 2003 was not fundamentally different from its policy before 2003. Here Taylor is assuming that Bernanke is acknowledging that there was a shift in from the rules-based monetary policy of 1985 to 2003, but that the post-2003 monetary policy, though not rule-based as in the way that it had been in 1985 to 2003, was rule-based in a different sense. I don’t believe that Bernanke would accept that there was a fundamental change in the nature of monetary policy after 2003, but that is not really my concern here.

At a recent Brookings conference, Ben Bernanke argued that the Fed had been following a policy rule—including in the “too low for too long” period. But the rule that Bernanke had in mind is not a rule in the sense that I have used it in this discussion, or that many others have used it.

Rather it is a concept that all you really need for effective policy making is a goal, such as an inflation target and an employment target. In medicine, it would be the goal of a healthy patient. The rest of policymaking is doing whatever you as an expert, or you as an expert with models, thinks needs to be done with the instruments. You do not need to articulate or describe a strategy, a decision rule, or a contingency plan for the instruments. If you want to hold the interest rate well below the rule-based strategy that worked well during the Great Moderation, as the Fed did in 2003-2005, then it’s ok, if you can justify it in terms of the goal.

Bernanke and others have argued that this approach is a form of “constrained discretion.” It is an appealing term, and it may be constraining discretion in some sense, but it is not inducing or encouraging a rule as the language would have you believe. Simply having a specific numerical goal or objective function is not a rule for the instruments of policy; it is not a strategy; in my view, it ends up being all tactics. I think there is evidence that relying solely on constrained discretion has not worked for monetary policy. (pp. 16-17)

Taylor has made this argument against constrained discretion before in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (May 2, 2015). Responding to that argument I wrote a post (“Cluelessness about Strategy, Tactics and Discretion”) which I think exposed how thoroughly confused Taylor is about what a monetary rule can accomplish and what the difference is between a monetary rule that specifies targets for an instrument and a monetary rule that specifies targets for policy goals. At an even deeper level, I believe I also showed that Taylor doesn’t understand the difference between strategy and tactics or the meaning of discretion. Here is an excerpt from my post of almost two and a half years ago.

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 [now almost six] 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?

This is such an obvious point – and I am hardly the only one to have made it – that Taylor’s continuing failure to respond to it is simply inexcusable. In his apologetics for the Taylor rule and for legislation introduced (no doubt with his blessing and active assistance) by various Republican critics of Fed policy in the House of Representatives, Taylor repeatedly insists that the point of the legislation is just to require the Fed to state a rule that it will follow in setting its instrument with no requirement that Fed actually abide by its stated rule. The purpose of the legislation is not to obligate the Fed to follow the rule, but to merely to require the Fed, when deviating from its own stated rule, to provide Congress with a rationale for such a deviation. I don’t endorse the legislation that Taylor supports, but I do agree that it would be desirable for the Fed to be more forthcoming than it has been in explaining the reasoning about its monetary-policy decisions, which tend to be either platitudinous or obfuscatory rather than informative. But if Taylor wants the Fed to be more candid and transparent in defending its own decisions about monetary policy, it would be only fitting and proper for Taylor, as an aspiring Fed Chairman, to be more forthcoming than he has yet been about the obvious, and rather scary, implications of following the Taylor Rule during the period since 2003.

If Taylor is nominated to be Chairman or Vice-Chairman of the Fed, I hope that, during his confirmation hearings, he will be asked to explain what the implications of following the Taylor Rule would have been in the post-2003 period.

As the attached figure shows PCE inflation (excluding food and energy prices) was 1.9 percent in 2004. If inflation in 2004 was less than the 2% inflation target assumed by the Taylor Rule, why does Taylor think that raising interest rates in 2004 would have been appropriate? And if inflation in 2005 was merely 2.2%, just barely above the 2% target, what rate should the Fed Funds rate have reached in 2005, and how would that rate have affected the fairly weak recovery from the 2001 recession? And what is the basis for Taylor’s assessment that raising the Fed Funds rate in 2005 to a higher level than it was raised to would have prevented the subsequent financial crisis?

Taylor’s implicit argument is that by not raising interest rates as rapidly as the Taylor rule required, the Fed created additional uncertainty that was damaging to the economy. But what was the nature of the uncertainty created? The Federal Funds rate is merely the instrument of policy, not the goal of policy. To argue that the Fed was creating additional uncertainty by not changing its interest rate in line with the Taylor rule would only make sense if the economic agents care about how the instrument is set, but if it is an instrument the importance of the Fed Funds rate is derived entirely from its usefulness in achieving the policy goal of the Fed and the policy goal was the 2% inflation rate, which the Fed came extremely close to hitting in the 2004-06 period, during which Taylor alleges that the Fed’s monetary policy went off the rails and became random, unpredictable and chaotic.

If you calculate the absolute difference between the observed yearly PCE inflation rate (excluding food and energy prices) and the 2% target from 1985 to 2003 (Taylor’s golden age of monetary policy) the average yearly deviation was 0.932%. From 2004 to 2015, the period of chaotic monetary policy in Taylor’s view, the average yearly deviation between PCE inflation and the 2% target was just 0.375%. So when was monetary policy more predictable? Even if you just look at the last 12 years of the golden age (1992 to 2003), the average annual deviation was 0.425%.

The name Larry Summers is in the title of this post, but I haven’t mentioned him yet, so let me explain where Larry Summers comes into the picture. In his talk, Taylor mentions a debate about rules versus discretion that he and Summers had at the 2013 American Economic Association meetings and proceeds to give the following account of the key interchange in that debate.

Summers started off by saying: “John Taylor and I have, it will not surprise you . . . a fundamental philosophical difference, and I would put it in this way. I think about my doctor. Which would I prefer: for my doctor’s advice, to be consistently predictable, or for my doctor’s advice to be responsive to the medical condition with which I present? Me, I’d rather have a doctor who most of the time didn’t tell me to take some stuff, and every once in a while said I needed to ingest some stuff into my body in response to the particular problem that I had. That would be a doctor who’s [sic] [advice], believe me, would be less predictable.” Thus, Summers argues in favor of relying on an all-knowing expert, a doctor who does not perceive the need for, and does not use, a set of guidelines, but who once in a while in an unpredictable way says to ingest some stuff. But as in economics, there has been progress in medicine over the years. And much progress has been due to doctors using checklists, as described by Atul Gawande.

Of course, doctors need to exercise judgement in implementing checklists, but if they start winging it or skipping steps the patients usually suffer. Experience and empirical studies show that checklist-free medicine is wrought with dangers just as rules-free, strategy-free monetary policy is. (pp. 15-16)

Taylor’s citation of Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto, is pure obfuscation. To see how off-point it is, have a look at this review published in the Seattle Times.

“The Checklist Manifesto” is about how to prevent highly trained, specialized workers from making dumb mistakes. Gawande — who appears in Seattle several times early next week — is a surgeon, and much of his book is about surgery. But he also talks to a construction manager, a master chef, a venture capitalist and the man at The Boeing Co. who writes checklists for airline pilots.

Commercial pilots have been using checklists for decades. Gawande traces this back to a fly-off at Wright Field, Ohio, in 1935, when the Army Air Force was choosing its new bomber. Boeing’s entry, the B-17, would later be built by the thousands, but on that first flight it took off, stalled, crashed and burned. The new airplane was complicated, and the pilot, who was highly experienced, had forgotten a routine step.

For pilots, checklists are part of the culture. For surgical teams they have not been. That began to change when a colleague of Gawande’s tried using a checklist to reduce infections when using a central venous catheter, a tube to deliver drugs to the bloodstream.

The original checklist: wash hands; clean patient’s skin with antiseptic; use sterile drapes; wear sterile mask, hat, gown and gloves; use a sterile dressing after inserting the line. These are all things every surgical team knows. After putting them in a checklist, the number of central-line infections in that hospital fell dramatically.

Then came the big study, the use of a surgical checklist in eight hospitals around the world. One was in rural Tanzania, in Africa. One was in the Kingdom of Jordan. One was the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. They were hugely different hospitals with much different rates of infection.

Use of the checklist lowered infection rates significantly in all of them.

Gawande describes the key things about a checklist, much of it learned from Boeing. It has to be short, limited to critical steps only. Generally the checking is not done by the top person. In the cockpit, the checklist is read by the copilot; in an operating room, Gawande discovered, it is done best by a nurse.

Gawande wondered whether surgeons would accept control by a subordinate. Which was stronger, the culture of hierarchy or the culture of precision? He found reason for optimism in the following dialogue he heard in the hospital in Amman, Jordan, after a nurse saw a surgeon touch a nonsterile surface:

Nurse: “You have to change your glove.”

Surgeon: “It’s fine.”

Nurse: “No, it’s not. Don’t be stupid.”

In other words, the basic rule underlying the checklist is simply: don’t be stupid. It has nothing to do with whether doctors should exercise judgment, or “winging it,” or “skipping steps.” What was Taylor even thinking? For a monetary authority not to follow a Taylor rule is not analogous to a doctor practicing checklist-free medicine.

As it happens, I have a story of my own about whether following numerical rules without exercising independent judgment makes sense in practicing medicine. Fourteen years ago, on the Friday before Labor Day, I was exercising at home and began to feeling chest pains. After ignoring the pain for a few minutes, I stopped and took a shower and then told my wife that I thought I needed to go to the hospital, because I was feeling chest pains – I was still in semi-denial about what I was feeling – my wife asked me if she should call 911, and I said that that might be a good idea. So she called 911, and told the operator that I was feeling chest pains. Within a couple of minutes, two ambulances arrived, and I was given an aspirin to chew and a nitroglycerine tablet to put under my tongue. I was taken to the emergency room at the hospital nearest to my home. After calling 911, my wife also called our family doctor to let him know what was happening and which hospital I was being taken to. He then placed a call to a cardiologist who had privileges at that hospital who happened to be making rounds there that morning.

When I got to the hospital, I was given an electrocardiogram, and my blood was taken. I was also asked to rate my pain level on a scale of zero to ten. The aspirin and nitroglycerine had reduced the pain level slightly, but I probably said it was at eight or nine. However, the ER doc looked at the electrocardiogram results and the enzyme levels in my blood, and told me that there was no indication that I was having a heart attack, but that they would keep me in the ER for observation. Luckily, the cardiologist who had been called by my internist came to the ER, and after talking to the ER doc, looking at the test results, came over to me and started asking me questions about what had happened and how I was feeling. Although the test results did not indicate that I was having heart attack, the cardiologist quickly concluded that what I was experiencing likely was a heart attack. He, therefore, hinted to me that I should request to be transferred to another nearby hospital, which not only had a cath lab, as the one I was then at did, but also had an operating room in which open heart surgery could be performed, if that would be necessary. It took a couple of tries on his part before I caught on to what he was hinting at, but as soon as I requested to be transferred to the other hospital, he got me onto an ambulance ASAP so that he could meet me at the hospital and perform an angiogram in the cath lab, cancelling an already scheduled angiogram.

The angiogram showed that my left anterior descending artery was completely blocked, so open-heart surgery was not necessary; angioplasty would be sufficient to clear the artery, which the cardiologist performed, also implanting two stents to prevent future blockage.  I remained in the cardiac ICU for two days, and was back home on Monday, when my rehab started. I was back at work two weeks later.

The willingness of my cardiologist to use his judgment, experience and intuition to ignore the test results indicating that I was not having a heart attack saved my life. If the ER doctor, following the test results, had kept me in the ER for observation, I would have been dead within a few hours. Following the test results and ignoring what the patient was feeling would have been stupid. Luckily, I was saved by a really good cardiologist. He was not stupid; he could tell that the numbers were not telling the real story about what was happening to me.

We now know that, in the summer of 2008, the FOMC, being in the thrall of headline inflation numbers allowed a recession that had already started at the end of 2007 to deteriorate rapidly, pr0viding little or no monetary stimulus, to an economy when nominal income was falling so fast that debts coming due could no longer be serviced. The financial crisis and subsequent Little Depression were caused by the failure of the FOMC to provide stimulus to a failing economy, not by interest rates having been kept too low for too long after 2003. If John Taylor still hasn’t figured that out – and he obviously hasn’t — he should not be allowed anywhere near the Federal Reserve Board.


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.


(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.

Why Fed Inflation-Phobia Mattered

Last week I posted an item summarizing Matthew O’Brien’s article about the just-released transcripts of FOMC meetings in June, August and September of 2008. I spiced up my summary by quoting from and commenting on some of the more outrageous quotes that O’Brien culled from the transcripts, quotes showing that most of the FOMC, including Ben Bernanke, were obsessing about inflation while unemployment was rising rapidly and the economy contracting sharply. I especially singled out what I called the Gang of Four — Charles Plosser, Jeffrey Lacker, Richard Fisher, and Thomas Hoenig, the most militant inflation hawks on the FOMC — noting that despite their comprehensive misjudgments of the 2008 economic situation and spectacularly wrongheaded policy recommendations, which they have yet to acknowledge, much less apologize for, three of them (Plosser, Lacker, and Fisher) continue to serve in their Fed positions, displaying the same irrational inflation-phobia by which they were possessed in 2008. Paul Krugman also noticed O’Brien’s piece and remarked on the disturbing fact that three of the Gang of Four remain in their policy-making positions at the Fed, doing their best to keep the Fed from taking any steps that could increase output and employment.

However, Krugman went on to question the idea — suggested by, among others, me — that it was the Fed’s inflation phobia that produced the crash of 2008. Krugman has two arguments for why the Fed’s inflation phobia in 2008, however silly, did not the cause of the crash.

First, preventing the financial crisis would have taken a lot more than cutting the Fed funds rate to zero in September 2008 rather than December. We were in the midst of an epic housing bust, which was in turn causing a collapse in the value of mortgage-backed securities, which in turn was causing a collapse of confidence in financial firms. Cutting rates from very low to extremely low a few months earlier wouldn’t have stopped that collapse.

What was needed to end the run on Wall Street was a bailout — both the actual funds disbursed and the reassurance that the authorities would step in if necessary. And that wasn’t in the cards until, as Rick Mishkin observed in the transcripts, “something hit the fan.”

Second, even avoiding the financial panic almost surely wouldn’t have meant avoiding a prolonged economic slump. How do we know this? Well, what we actually know is that the panic was in fact fairly short-lived, ending in the spring of 2009. It doesn’t really matter which measure of financial stress you use, they all look like this:

Yet the economy didn’t come roaring back, and in fact still hasn’t. Why? Because the housing bust and the overhang of household debt are huge drags on demand, even if there isn’t a panic in the financial market.

Sorry, but, WADR, I have to disagree with Professor Krugman.

The first argument is not in my view very compelling, because the Fed’s inflation-phobia did not suddenly appear at the September 2008 FOMC meeting, or even at the June meeting, though, to be sure, its pathological nature at those meetings does have a certain breathtaking quality; it had already been operating for a long time before that. If you look at the St. Louis Fed’s statistics on the monetary base, you will find that the previous recession in 2001 had been preceded in 2000 by a drop of 3.6% in the monetary base. To promote recovery, the Fed increased the monetary base in 2001 (partly accommodating the increased demand for money characteristic of recessions) by 8.5%. The monetary base subsequently grew by 7% in 2002, 5.2% in 2003, 4.4% in 2004, 3.2% in 2005, 2.6% in 2006, and a mere 1.2% in 2007.

The housing bubble burst in 2006, but the Fed was evidently determined to squeeze inflation out of the system, as if trying to atone for its sins in allowing the housing bubble in the first place. From January to September 10, 2008, the monetary base increased by 3.3%. Again, because the demand for money typically increases in recessions, one cannot infer from the slight increase in the rate of growth of the monetary base in 2008 over 2006 and 2007 that the Fed was easing its policy stance. (On this issue, see my concluding paragraph.) The point is that for at least three years before the crash, the Fed, in its anti-inflationary zelotry, had been gradually tightening the monetary-policy screws. So it is simply incorrect to suggest that there was no link between the policy stance of the Fed and the state of the economy. If the Fed had moderated its stance in 2008 in response to ample evidence that the economy was slowing, there is good reason to think that the economy would not have contracted as rapidly as it did, starting, even before the Lehman collapse, in the third quarter of 2008, when, we now know, the economy had already begun one of the sharpest contractions of the entire post World War II era.

As for Krugman’s second argument, I believe it is a mistake to confuse a financial panic with a recession. A financial panic is an acute breakdown of the financial system, always associated with a period of monetary stringency when demands for liquidity cannot be satisfied owing to a contagious loss of confidence in the solvency of borrowers and lenders. The crisis is typically precipitated by a too aggressive tightening of monetary conditions by the monetary authority seeking to rein in inflationary pressures. The loss of confidence is thus not a feature of every business-cycle downturn, and its restoration no guarantee of a recovery. (See my post on Hawtrey and financial crises.) A recovery requires an increase aggregate demand, which is the responsibility of those in charge of monetary policy and fiscal policy. I confess to a measure of surprise that the author of End This Depression Now would require a reminder about that from me.

A final point. Although the macroeconomic conditions for an asset crash and financial panic had been gradually and systematically created by the Fed ever since 2006, the egregious Fed policy in the summer of 2008 was undoubtedly a major contributing cause in its own right. The magnitude of the policy error is evident in this graph from the St. Louis Fed, showing the dollar/euro exchange rate.

dollar_euro_exchange_rateFrom April to July, the exchange rate was fluctuating between $1.50 and $1.60 per euro. In mid-July, the dollar began appreciating rapidly against the euro, rising in value to about $1.40/euro just before the Lehman collapse, an appreciation of about 12.5% in less than two months. The only comparable period of appreciation in the dollar/euro exchange rate was in the 1999-2000 period during the monetary tightening prior to the 2001 recession. But the 2008 appreciation was clearly greater and steeper than the appreciation in 1999-2000. Under the circumstances, such a sharp appreciation in the dollar should have alerted the FOMC that there was a liquidity shortage (also evidenced in a sharp increase in borrowings from the Fed) that required extraordinary countermeasures by the Fed. But the transcript of the September 2008 meeting shows that the appreciation of the dollar was interpreted by members of the FOMC as evidence that the current policy was working as intended! Now how scary is that?

HT: Matt O’Brien

Does Macroeconomics Need Financial Foundations?

One of the little instances of collateral damage occasioned by the hue and cry following upon Stephen Williamson’s post arguing that quantitative easing has been deflationary was the dustup between Scott Sumner and financial journalist and blogger Izabella Kaminska. I am not going to comment on the specifics of their exchange except to say that the misunderstanding and hard feelings between them seem to have been resolved more or less amicably. However, in quickly skimming the exchange between them, I was rather struck by the condescending tone of Kaminska’s (perhaps understandable coming from the aggrieved party) comment about the lack of comprehension by Scott and Market Monetarists more generally of the basics of finance.

First I’d just like to say I feel much of the misunderstanding comes from the fact that market monetarists tend to ignore the influence of shadow banking and market plumbing in the monetary world. I also think (especially from my conversation with Lars Christensen) that they ignore technological disruption, and the influence this has on wealth distribution and purchasing decisions amongst the wealthy, banks and corporates. Also, as I outlined in the post, my view is slightly different to Williamson’s, it’s based mostly on the scarcity of safe assets and how this can magnify hoarding instincts and fragment store-of-value markets, in a Gresham’s law kind of way. Expectations obviously factor into it, and I think Williamson is absolutely right on that front. But personally I don’t think it’s anything to do with temporary or permanent money expansion expectations. IMO It’s much more about risk expectations, which can — if momentum builds — shift very very quickly, making something deflationary, inflationary very quickly. Though, that doesn’t mean I am worried about inflation (largely because I suspect we may have reached an important productivity inflection point).

This remark was followed up with several comments blasting Market Monetarists for their ignorance of the basics of finance and commending Kaminska for the depth of her understanding to which Kaminska warmly responded adding a few additional jibes at Sumner and Market Monetarists. Here is one.

Market monetarists are getting testy because now that everybody started scrutinizing QE they will be exposed as ignorant. The mechanisms they originally advocated QE would work through will be seen as hopelessly naive. For them the money is like glass beads squirting out of the Federal Reserve, you start talking about stuff like collateral, liquid assets, balance sheets and shadow banking and they are out of their depth.

For laughs: Sumner once tried to defend the childish textbook model of banks lending out reserves and it ended in a colossal embarrassment in the comments section

For you to defend your credentials in front of such “experts” is absurd. There is a lot more depth to your understanding than to their sandbox vision of the monetary system. And yes, it *is* crazy that journalists and bloggers can talk about these things with more sense than academics. But this [is] the world we live in.

To which Kaminska graciously replied:

Thanks as well! And I tend to agree with your assessment of the market monetarist view of the world.

So what is the Market Monetarist view of the world of which Kaminska tends to have such a low opinion? Well, from reading Kaminska’s comments and those of her commenters, it seems to be that Market Monetarists have an insufficiently detailed and inaccurate view of financial intermediaries, especially of banks and shadow banks, and that Market Monetarists don’t properly understand the role of safe assets and collateral in the economy. But the question is why, and how, does any of this matter to a useful description of how the economy works?

Well, this whole episode started when Stephen Williamson had a blog post arguing that QE was deflationary, and the reason it’s deflationary is that creating more high powered money provides the economy with more safe assets and thereby reduces the liquidity premium associated with safe assets like short-term Treasuries and cash. By reducing the liquidity premium, QE causes the real interest rate to fall, which implies a lower rate of inflation.

Kaminska thinks that this argument, which Market Monetarists find hard to digest, makes sense, though she can’t quite bring herself to endorse it either. But she finds the emphasis on collateral and safety and market plumbing very much to her taste. In my previous post, I raised what I thought were some problems with Williamson’s argument.

First, what is the actual evidence that there is a substantial liquidity premium on short-term Treasuries? If I compare the rates on short-term Treasuries with the rates on commercial paper issued by non-Financial institutions, I don’t find much difference. If there is a substantial unmet demand for good collateral, and there is only a small difference in yield between commercial paper and short-term Treasuries, one would think that non-financial firms could make a killing by issuing a lot more commercial paper. When I wrote the post, I was wondering whether I, a financial novice, might be misreading the data or mismeasuring the liquidity premium on short-term Treasuries. So far, no one has said anything about that, but If I am wrong, I am happy to be enlightened.

Here’s something else I don’t get. What’s so special about so-called safe assets? Suppose, as Williamson claims, that there’s a shortage of safe assets. Why does that imply a liquidity premium? One could still compensate for the lack of safety by over-collateralizing the loan using an inferior asset. If that is a possibility, why is the size of the liquidity premium not constrained?

I also pointed out in my previous post that a declining liquidity premium would be associated with a shift out of money and into real assets, which would cause an increase in asset prices. An increase in asset prices would tend to be associated with an increase in the value of the underlying service flows embodied in the assets, in other words in an increase in current prices, so that, if Williamson is right, QE should have caused measured inflation to rise even as it caused inflation expectations to fall. Of course Williamson believes that the decrease in liquidity premium is associated with a decline in real interest rates, but it is not clear that a decline in real interest rates has any implications for the current price level. So Williamson’s claim that his model explains the decline in observed inflation since QE was instituted does not seem all that compelling.

Now, as one who has written a bit about banking and shadow banking, and as one who shares the low opinion of the above-mentioned commenter on Kaminska’s blog about the textbook model (which Sumner does not defend, by the way) of the money supply via a “money multiplier,” I am in favor of changing how the money supply is incorporated into macromodels. Nevertheless, it is far from clear that changing the way that the money supply is modeled would significantly change any important policy implications of Market Monetarism. Perhaps it would, but if so, that is a proposition to be proved (or at least argued), not a self-evident truth to be asserted.

I don’t say that finance and banking are not important. Current spreads between borrowing and lending rates, may not provide a sufficient margin for banks to provide the intermediation services that they once provided to a wide range of customers. Businesses have a wider range of options in obtaining financing than they used to, so instead of holding bank accounts with banks and foregoing interest on deposits to be able to have a credit line with their banker, they park their money with a money market fund and obtain financing by issuing commercial paper. This works well for firms large enough to have direct access to lenders, but smaller businesses can’t borrow directly from the market and can only borrow from banks at much higher rates or by absorbing higher costs on their bank accounts than they would bear on a money market fund.

At any rate, when market interest rates are low, and when perceived credit risks are high, there is very little margin for banks to earn a profit from intermediation. If so, the money multiplier — a crude measure of how much intermediation banks are engaging in goes down — it is up to the monetary authority to provide the public with the liquidity they demand by increasing the amount of bank reserves available to the banking system. Otherwise, total spending would contract sharply as the public tried to build up their cash balances by reducing their own spending – not a pretty picture.

So finance is certainly important, and I really ought to know more about market plumbing and counterparty risk  and all that than I do, but the most important thing to know about finance is that the financial system tends to break down when the jointly held expectations of borrowers and lenders that the loans that they agreed to would be repaid on schedule by the borrowers are disappointed. There are all kinds of reasons why, in a given case, those jointly held expectations might be disappointed. But financial crises are associated with a very large cluster of disappointed expectations, and try as they might, the finance guys have not provided a better explanation for that clustering of disappointed expectations than a sharp decline in aggregate demand. That’s what happened in the Great Depression, as Ralph Hawtrey and Gustav Cassel and Irving Fisher and Maynard Keynes understood, and that’s what happened in the Little Depression, as Market Monetarists, especially Scott Sumner, understand. Everything else is just commentary.

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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