Archive for the 'inflation' Category



What Gives? Has the Market Stopped Loving Inflation?

One of my few, and not very compelling, claims to fame is a (still unpublished) paper (“The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations“) that I wrote in late 2010 in which I used the Fisher Equation relating the real and nominal rates of interest via the expected rate of inflation to explain what happens in a financial panic. I pointed out that the usual understanding that the nominal rate of interest and the expected rate of inflation move in the same direction, and possibly even by the same amount, cannot be valid when the expected rate of inflation is negative and the real rate is less than expected deflation. In those perilous conditions, the normal equilibrating process, by which the nominal rate adjusts to reflect changes in inflation expectations, becomes inoperative, because the nominal rate gets stuck at zero. In that unstable environment, the only avenue for adjustment is in the market for assets. In particular, when the expected yield from holding money (the expected rate of deflation) approaches or exceeds the expected yield on real capital, asset prices crash as asset owners all try to sell at the same time, the crash continuing until the expected yield on holding assets is no longer less than the expected yield from holding money. Of course, even that adjustment mechanism will restore an equilibrium only if the economy does not collapse entirely before a new equilibrium of asset prices and expected yields can be attained, a contingency not necessarily as unlikely as one might hope.

I therefore hypothesized that while there is not much reason, in a well-behaved economy, for asset prices to be very sensitive to changes in expected inflation, when expected inflation approaches, or exceeds, the expected return on capital assets (the real rate of interest), changes in expected inflation are likely to have large effects on asset values. This possibility that the relationship between expected inflation and asset prices could differ depending on the prevalent macroeconomic environment suggested an empirical study of the relationship between expected inflation (as approximated by the TIPS spread on 10-year Treasuries) and the S&P 500 stock index. My results were fairly remarkable, showing that, since early 2008 (just after the start of the downturn in late 2007), there was a consistently strong positive correlation between expected inflation and the S&P 500. However, from 2003 to 2008, no statistically significant correlation between expected inflation and asset prices showed up in the data.

Ever since then, I have used this study (and subsequent informal follow-ups that have consistently generated similar results) as the basis for my oft-repeated claim that the stock market loves inflation. But now, guess what? The correlation between inflation expectations and the S&P 500 has recently vanished. The first of the two attached charts plots both expected inflation, as measured by the 10-year TIPS spread, and the S&P 500 (normalized to 1 on March 2, 2009). It is obvious that two series are highly correlated. However, you can see that over the last few months it looks as if the correlation has been reversed, with inflation expectations falling even as the S&P 500 has been regularly reaching new all-time highs.

TIPS_S&P500_new

Here is a second chart that provides a closer look at the behavior of the S&P 500 and the TIPS spread since the beginning of March.

TIPS_S&P500_new_2

So what’s going on? I wish I knew. But here is one possibility. Maybe the economy is finally emerging from its malaise, and, after four years of an almost imperceptible recovery, perhaps the overall economic outlook has improved enough so that, even if we haven’t yet returned to normalcy, we are at least within shouting distance of it. If so, maybe asset prices are no longer as sensitive to inflation expectations as they were from 2008 to 2012. But then the natural question becomes: what caused the economy to reach a kind of tipping point into normalcy in March? I just don’t know.

And if we really are back to normal, then why is the real rate implied by the TIPS negative? True, the TIPS yield is not really the real rate in the Fisher equation, but a negative yield on a 10-year TIPS does not strike me as characteristic of a normal state of affairs. Nevertheless, the real yield on the 10-year TIPS has risen by about 50 basis points since March and by 75 basis points since December, so something noteworthy seems to have happened. And a fairly sharp rise in real rates suggests that recent increases in stock prices have been associated with expectations of increasing real cash flows and a strengthening economy. Increasing optimism about real economic growth, given that there has been no real change in monetary policy since last September when QE3 was announced, may themselves have contributed to declining inflation expectations.

What does this mean for policy? The empirical correlation between inflation expectations and asset prices is subject to an identification problem. Just because recent developments may have caused the observed correlation between inflation expectations and stock prices to disappear, one can’t conclude that, in the “true” structural model, the effect of a monetary policy that raised inflation expectations would not be to raise asset prices. The current semi-normal is not necessarily a true normal.

So my cautionary message is: Don’t use the recent disappearance of the correlation between inflation expectations and asset prices to conclude that it’s safe to abandon QE.

How Did Bernanke Scare the Markets?

On Wednesday Ben Bernanke appeared before the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress to give his semi-annual report to Congress on the Economic Outlook. The S&P 500 opened the day about 1% higher than at Tuesday’s close, but by early afternoon had already given back all their gains, before closing 1% lower than the day before, an interday swing of 2%, pretty clearly caused by Bernanke’s testimony. The Nikkei average fell by 7%. Bernanke announced no major change in monetary policy, but he did hint that the FOMC was considering scaling back its asset purchases “in light of incoming information.” So what was it that Bernanke said that was so scary?

Let’s have a look.

Bernanke began with a summary of economic conditions, giving himself two cheers for recent improvements in the job market. He continued by explaining how, despite some minimal and painfully slow improvements, the job market remains in bad shape:

Despite this improvement, the job market remains weak overall: The unemployment rate is still well above its longer-run normal level, rates of long-term unemployment are historically high, and the labor force participation rate has continued to move down. Moreover, nearly 8 million people are working part time even though they would prefer full-time work. High rates of unemployment and underemployment are extraordinarily costly: Not only do they impose hardships on the affected individuals and their families, they also damage the productive potential of the economy as a whole by eroding workers’ skills and–particularly relevant during this commencement season–by preventing many young people from gaining workplace skills and experience in the first place. The loss of output and earnings associated with high unemployment also reduces government revenues and increases spending on income-support programs, thereby leading to larger budget deficits and higher levels of public debt than would otherwise occur.

Bernanke then shifted to the inflation situation:

Consumer price inflation has been low. The price index for personal consumption expenditures rose only 1 percent over the 12 months ending in March, down from about 2-1/4 percent during the previous 12 months. This slow rate of inflation partly reflects recent declines in consumer energy prices, but price inflation for other consumer goods and services has also been subdued. Nevertheless, measures of longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable and continue to run in the narrow ranges seen over the past several years. Over the next few years, inflation appears likely to run at or below the 2 percent rate that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) judges to be most consistent with the Federal Reserve’s statutory mandate to foster maximum employment and stable prices.

In other words, the job market, despite minimal improvements, is a disaster, and inflation is below target, and inflation expectations “continue to in the narrow ranges seen over the past several years.” What does that mean? It means that since the financial crisis of 2008, inflation expectations have consistently remained at their lowest levels in a half century. Why is any increase in inflation expectations above today’s abnormally low levels unacceptable? Bernanke then says that inflation appears likely to run at or below the 2% rate that FOMC believes is most consistent with the Fed’s mandate to foster maximum employment and stable prices. Actually it appears likely that inflation is likely to run below the 2% rate, perhaps by 50 to 100 basis points. For Bernanke to disguise the likelihood that inflation will persistently fail to reach the Fed’s own nominal 2% target, by artfully saying that inflation is likely to run “at or below” the 2% target, is a deliberate deception. Thus, although he is unwilling to say so explicitly, Bernanke makes it clear that he and the FOMC are expecting, whether happily or not is irrelevant, inflation to continue indefinitely at less than the 2% annual target, and will do nothing to increase it.

You get the picture? The job market, five and a half years after the economy started its downturn, is in a shambles. Inflation is running well below the nominal 2% target, and is expected to remain there for as far as the eye can see. And what is the FOMC preoccupied with? Winding down its asset purchases “in light of incoming information.” The incoming information is clearly saying – no it’s shouting – that the asset purchases ought to be stepped up, not wound down. Does Bernanke believe that, under the current circumstances, an increased rate of inflation would not promote a faster recovery in the job market? If so, on the basis of what economic theory has he arrived at that belief? With inflation persistently below the Fed’s own target, he owes Congress and the American people an explanation of why he believes that faster inflation would not hasten the recovery in employment, and why he and the FOMC are not manifestly in violation of their mandate to promote maximum employment consistent with price stability. But he is obviously unwilling or unable to provide one.

Why did Bernanke scare the markets? Well, maybe, just maybe, it was because his testimony was so obviously incoherent.

Wherein I Try to Help Robert Waldmann Calm Down

Brad Delong kindly posted a long extract from my previous post (about Martin Feldstein) on his blog. The post elicited a longish comment from Robert Waldmann who has been annoyed with me for a while, because, well, because he seem to think that I have an unnatural obsession with monetary policy. Now it’s true that I advocate monetary easing, and think monetary policy, properly administered, could help get our economy moving again, but it’s not as if I have said that fiscal policy can’t work or shouldn’t be tried. So I don’t exactly understand why Waldmann keeps insisting that he won’t calm down. Anyway, let’s have a look at Waldmann’s comment.

After making a number of very cogent criticisms of the Feldstein piece that I criticized, Waldman continues:

On the other hand I also disagree with Glasner. This is the usual and I will not calm down.

Well, you maybe you should reconsider.

Then, quoting from my post on Feldstein,

“does he believe the Fed incapable of causing the price level to increase?” Obviously not (it made no sense to type the question) as he fears higher inflation.

That’s true, I started by asking why Feldstein believed a 20% increase in commodity prices was a bubble. I pointed out in my next sentence that if the Fed was causing inflation, then the increase in commodity prices was not a bubble.

I wish for higher inflation, but, unlike Glasner, I don’t hope for it. the Fed has made gigantic efforts to stimulate and inflation is well below the 2% target. What would it take to convince Glasner that the Fed can’t cause higher prices right now ? It seems to me that his faith is completely impervious to data.

OK, fair question. My point is that the Fed is still committed to a 2% inflation target. If the Fed said that it was aiming to increase the price level by 10% within a year and would take whatever steps necessary to raise prices by 10% and failed, that would be a fair test of the theory that the Fed can control the price level. But if the Fed is saying that it’s aiming at a 2% annual increase in the price level, and its undershooting its target, but isn’t even saying that it will do more to increase the rate of inflation, I don’t see that the proposition that the Fed can control the price level has been refuted by the evidence. The gigantic efforts that Waldmann references have all been undertaken in the context of a monetary regime that is committed to not letting the rate of inflation exceed 2%.

Continuing to quote from my post, Waldmann writes:

“Rising asset prices indicate the expectation of QE is inducing investors to shift out of cash into real assets”

Note the clear assumption. QE is the only possible cause of any change in asset prices. Glasner assumes that nothing else changes or that nothing else matters. He basically assumes that there is nothing under the sun but monetary policy.

I think I am being entirely fair to him. I think that, in fact, he assumes not only that monetary policy affects macroeconomic developments but that it is the only thing which affects macroeconomic developments. He has made this very clear when debating me. I think his identifying assumption is indefensible.

Sorry, but where is that clear assumption made? I said that rising asset prices could be attributed to an expectation that QE would increase the rate of inflation. My empirical study showed a strong correlation between inflation expectations and asset values, a correlation not present in the data before 2008. I didn’t say and my empirical study never suggested that asset prices depend on nothing else but inflation expectations, so I am at a loss to understand why Waldmann thinks that that is what I was assuming. What I do say is that monetary policy can affect the price level, not that monetary policy is the only thing that can affect the price level.

Waldmann concludes with a question:

I am curious as to whether there is another possible interpretation of Glasner.

The answer, Professor Waldmann, is yes! Why won’t you take “yes” for an answer? I hope that helps calm you down. It should.

PS I am sorry that I have not responded to comments recently. I have just been too busy. Perhaps over the weekend.

Martin Feldstein Is at It Again

Martin Feldstein writes in the Wall Street Journal (“The Federal Reserve’s Policy Dead End”)

Quantitative easing . . . is supposed to stimulate the economy by increasing share prices, leading to higher household wealth and therefore to increased consumer spending. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has described this as the “portfolio-balance” effect of the Fed’s purchase of long-term government securities instead of the traditional open-market operations that were restricted to buying and selling short-term government obligations.

Here’s how it is supposed to work. When the Fed buys long-term government bonds and mortgage-backed securities, private investors are no longer able to buy those long-term assets. Investors who want long-term securities therefore have to buy equities. That drives up the price of equities, leading to more consumer spending.

What Feldstein fails to ask, much less answer, is why anyone is willing to pay more for the stocks than they are worth (based on expectations of the future net cash flows generated by the underlying assets) just because they have excess cash in their pockets. Feldstein is covertly attributing irrationality to investors, although to be fair, he intimates, and has previously asserted explicitly, that the increase in stock prices since QE started was a bubble. And to be fair one more time, he is accurately characterizing Ben Bernanke’s explanation of how QE is supposed to work.

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.

Again, all 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 instances, 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. I explained the underlying theory in my paper “The Fisher Effect under Deflationary Expectations,” which also provided supporting empirical evidence showing of a strong positive correlation since 2008 between inflation expectations as measured by the TIPS spread and stock prices, a correlation not predicted by conventional theory and not observed in the data until 2008.

This 0.3% overstates the potential contribution of quantitative easing to the annual growth of GDP, since some of the increase in the value of household equities resulted from new saving and the resulting portfolio investment rather than from the rise in share prices. More important, the rise in equity prices also reflected a general increase in earnings per share and an increase in investor confidence after 2009 that the economy would not slide back into recession.

Earnings per share of the Standard & Poor’s 500 stocks rose 50% in 2010 and a further 9% in 2011, driving the increase in share prices. The S&P price-earnings ratio actually fell to 17 at the start of 2013 from 21 at the start of 2010, showing the importance of increased earnings rather than an increased demand for equities.

In other words, QE helped to improve earnings, thus validating the expectations that caused the increase in stock prices.

In short, it isn’t at all clear that the Fed’s long-term asset purchases have raised equity values as the portfolio balance theory predicted. Even if it did account for the entire rise in equity values, the increase in household equity wealth would have only a relatively small effect on consumer spending and GDP growth.

Feldstein continues to attack a strawman, albeit one presented to him by Ben Bernanke.

Mr. Bernanke has emphasized that the use of unconventional monetary policy requires a cost-benefit analysis that compares the gains that quantitative easing can achieve with the risks of asset-price bubbles, future inflation, and the other potential effects of a rapidly growing Fed balance sheet. I think the risks are now clear and the benefits are doubtful. The time has come for the Fed to recognize that it cannot stimulate growth and that a stronger recovery must depend on fiscal actions and tax reform by the White House and Congress.

Feldstein’s closing comment reminded me of a piece that he wrote two and a half years ago in the Financial Times entitled “QE2 is risky and should be limited.” Here are the first and last paragraphs of the FT contribution.

The Federal Reserve’s proposed policy of quantitative easing is a dangerous gamble with only a small potential upside benefit and substantial risks of creating asset bubbles that could destabilise the global economy. Although the US economy is weak and the outlook uncertain, QE is not the right remedy.

The truth is there is little more that the Fed can do to raise economic activity. What is required is action by the president and Congress: to help homeowners with negative equity and businesses that cannot get credit, to remove the threat of higher tax rates, and reduce the out-year fiscal deficits. Any QE should be limited and temporary.

I was not yet blogging in 2010, but I was annoyed enough by Feldstein to write this letter to the editor.

Sir, Arguing against quantitative easing, Martin Feldstein (“QE2 is risky and should be limited“, Comment, November 3) asserts that Federal Reserve signals that it would engage in QE, having depressed long-term interest rates, are fuelling asset and commodities bubbles that will burst once interest rates return to normal levels.

In fact, since Ben Bernanke made known his intent to ease monetary policy on August 29, longer-term rates have edged up. So rising asset and commodities prices are due not to falling long-term rates, but to expectations of rising future revenue streams. Investors, evidently, anticipate either rising output, rising prices or, most likely, some of both.

Why Mr Feldstein considers the recent modest rise in commodities and asset prices (the S&P is still more than 20 per cent below its 2007 all-time high) to be a bubble is not clear. Does he believe that with 15m US workers unemployed, expectations of increased output are irrational? Or does he believe the Fed incapable of causing the price level to increase? It would be odd if it were the latter, because Mr Feldstein goes on to insist that QE is dangerous because it may cause an “unwanted rise in inflation”?

Perhaps Mr Feldstein thinks that expectations of rising prices and rising output are inconsistent with expectations that interest rates will not rise sharply in the future, so that asset prices must take a hit when interest rates finally do rise. But he acknowledges that expectations of future inflation may allow real rates to fall into negative territory to reflect the current dismal economic climate. Since August 29, rates on inflation-adjusted Tips bonds have fallen below zero. Rising asset prices indicate the expectation of QE is inducing investors to shift out of cash into real assets, presaging increased real investment and a pick-up in recovery.

Why then is inflation “unwanted”? Mr Feldstein maintains that it would jeopardise the credibility of the Fed’s long-term inflation strategy. But it is not clear why Fed credibility would be jeopardised more by a temporary increase, than by a temporary decrease, in inflation, or, indeed, why credibility would be jeopardised at all by a short-term increase in inflation to compensate for a prior short-term decrease? The inflexible conception of inflation targeting espoused by Mr Feldstein, painfully articulated in Federal Open Market Committee minutes, led the Fed into a disastrous tightening of monetary policy between March and October 2008, while the US economy was falling into a deepening recession because of a misplaced concern that rising oil and food prices would cause inflation expectations to run out of control.

Two years later, Mr Feldstein, having learnt nothing and forgotten nothing, is urging the Fed to persist in its earlier mistake because of a neurotic concern that inflation expectations may soar amid massive unemployment and idle resources.

Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Hawtrey Reviews Cassel

While doing further research on Ralph Hawtrey, I recently came across a brief 1933 review written by Hawtrey in the Economic Journal of a short book by Gustav Cassel, The Crisis in the World Monetary System. Sound familiar? The review provides a wonderfully succinct summary of the views of both Cassel and Hawtrey of the causes of, and the cure for, the Great Depression. The review can still be read with pleasure and profit. It can also be read with wonder. It is amazing that something written 80 years ago about the problem of monetary disorder can have such relevance to the problems of today. Here is the review in full. And pay special attention to the last paragraph.

The delivery of a series of three lectures at Oxford last summer has given Professor Cassel an opportunity of fulfilling his function of instructing public opinion in the intricacies of economic theory, especially of monetary theory in their application to current events. This little book of just under 100 pages is the result. As admirers of Professor Cassel will expect, it is full of wisdom, expressed with an admirable clarity and simplicity.

He points out that so long as the policy of economising gold, recommended at the Genoa Conference, was carried out, it was possible to prevent any considerable rise in the value of gold. “The world reaped the fruits of this policy in an economic development in which most countries had their share and which for some countries meant a great deal of prosperity” (p. 27).

Progress up to 1928 was normally healthy; it was not more rapid than was usual in the pre-war period. It was interrupted in 1929 by the fall of prices, for which in Professor Cassel’s view the responsibility rests on the central banks. “The course of a ship is doubtless the combined result of wind, current and navigation, and each of these factors could be quoted as independent causes of the result that the ship arrives at a certain place.” But it is navigation that is within human control, and consequently the responsibility rests on the captain. So a central bank, which has the monopoly of supplying the community with currency, bears the responsibility for variations in the value of the currency (pp. 46-7).

Under a gold standard the responsibility becomes international, but “if some important central banks follow a policy which must lead, say, to a violent increase in the value of gold, the behaviour of such banks must be regarded as the cause of this movement” (p. 48).

Professor Cassel further apportions a heavy share of the responsibility for the breakdown to war debts and reparations. “The payment of war debts in conjunction with the unwillingness to receive payment in the normal form of goods led to unreasonable demands on the world’s monetary stocks; and the claimants failed to use in a proper way the gold that they had accumulated” (pp. 71-2).

Just as a reminder, if you have made it this far, don’t stop without reading the next and final paragraph.

Finally, for a remedy, “the best thing that the gold standard countries could do for a rapid economic recovery would be immediately to start an inflation of their currencies. If this inflation were the outcome of a deliberate and well-conceived policy it could be controlled, and the consequent rise of the general level of commodity prices could be kept within such limits as were deemed desirable for the restoration of a necessary equilibrium between different groups of prices, wages, and commercial debts” (p. 94).

Let’s read that again:

If inflation were the outcome of a deliberate and well-conceived policy, it could be controlled, and the consequent rise of the general level of commodity prices could be kept within such limits as were deemed desirable for the restoration of a necessary equilibrium between different groups of prices, wages, and commercial debts.

Robert Waldmann, WADR, Maybe You Really Should Calm Down

Responding to this recent post of mine, Robert Waldmann wrote a post of his own with a title alluding to an earlier post of mine responding to a previous post of his. Just to recapitulate briefly, the point of the post which seems to have provoked Professor Waldmann was to refute the allegation that the Fed and the Bank of Japan are starting a currency war by following a policy of monetary ease in which they are raising (at least temporarily) their inflation target. I focused my attention on a piece written by Irwin Stelzer for the Weekly Standard, entitled not so coincidentally, “Currency Wars.” I also went on to point out that Stelzer, in warning of the supposedly dire consequences of starting a currency war, very misleadingly suggested that Hitler’s rise to power was the result of an inflationary policy followed by Germany in the 1930s.

Here is how Waldmann responds:

I do not find any reference to the zero lower bound in this post.  Your analysis of monetary expansion does not distinguish between the cases when the ZLB holds and when it doesn’t.  You assume that the effect of an expansion of the money supply on domestic demand can be analyzed ignoring that detail. I think it is clear that the association between the money supply and domestic demand has been different in the USA since oh September 2008 than it was before.  This doesn’t seem to me to be a detail which can be entirely overlooked in any discussion of current policy.

Actually, I don’t think that, in principle, I disagree with any of this. I agree that the zero lower bound is relevant to the analysis of the current situation. I prefer to couch the analysis in terms of the Fisher equation making use of the equilibrium condition that the nominal rate of interest must equal the real rate plus expected inflation. If the expected rate of deflation is greater than the real rate, equilibrium is impossible and the result is a crash of asset prices, which is what happened in 2008. But as long as the real rate of interest is negative (presumably because of pessimistic entrepreneurial expectations), the rate of inflation has to be sufficiently above real rate of interest for nominal rates to be comfortably above zero. As long as nominal rates are close to zero and real rates are negative, the economy cannot be operating in the neighborhood of full-employment equilibrium. I developed the basic theory in my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations” available on SSRN, and provided some empirical evidence (which I am hoping to update soon) that asset prices (as reflected in the S&P 500) since 2008 have been strongly correlated with expected inflation (as approximated by the TIPS spread) even though there is no strong theoretical reason for asset prices to be correlated with expected inflation, and no evidence of correlation before 2008. Although I think that this is a better way than the Keynesian model to think about why the US economy has been underperforming so badly since 2008, I don’t think that the models are contradictory or inconsistent, so I don’t deny that fiscal policy could have some stimulative effect. But apparently that is not good enough for Professor Waldmann.

Also, I note that prior to his [Stelzer’s] “jejune dismissal of monetary policy,” Stelzer jenunely dismissed fiscal policy.  You don’t mention this at all.  Your omission is striking, since the evidence that Stelzer is wrong to dismiss fiscal policy is overwhelming (not overwhelming enough to overwhelm John Taylor but then mere evidence couldn’t do that).  In contrast, the dismissal of monetary policy when an economy is in a liquidity trap is consistent with the available evidence.

It seems to me that Waldmann is being a tad oversensitive. Stelzer’s line was “stimulus packages don’t work very well, and monetary policy produces lots of fiat money but not very many jobs.” What was jejune was not the conclusion that fiscal policy and monetary policy aren’t effective; it was his formulation that monetary expansion produces lots of fiat money but not many jobs, a formulation which, I believe, was intended to be clever, but struck me as being not clever, but, well, jejune. So I did not mean to deny that fiscal policy could be effective at the zero lower bound, but I disagree that the available evidence is consistent with the proposition that monetary policy is ineffective in a liquidity trap. In 1933, for example, monetary policy triggered the fastest economic expansion in US history, when FDR devalued the dollar shortly after taking office, an expansion unfortunately prematurely terminated by the enactment of FDR’s misguided National Industrial Recovery Act. The strong correlation between inflation expectations and stock prices since 2008, it seems to me, also qualifies as evidence that monetary policy is not ineffective at the zero lower bound. But if Professor Waldmann has a different interpretation of the significance of that correlation, I would be very interested in hearing about it.

Instead of looking at the relationship between inflation expectations and stock prices, Waldmann wants to look at the relationship between job growth and monetary policy:

I hereby challenge you to show data on US “growth”  meaning (I agree with your guess) mostly employment growth since 2007 to someone unfamiliar with the debate and ask that person to find the dates of shifts in monetary policy.  I am willing to bet actual money (not much I don’t have much) that the person will not pick out QEIII or operation twist.    I also guess that this person will not detect forward guidance looking at day to day changes in asset prices.

I claim that the null that nothing special happened the day QEIV was announced or any of the 4 plausible dates of announcement of QE2 (starting with a FOMC meeting, then Bernanke’s Jackson Hole speech then 2 more) can’t be rejected by the data. This is based on analysis by two SF FED economists who look at the sum of changes over three of the days (not including the Jackson Hole day when the sign was wrong) and get a change (of the sign they want) whose square is less than 6 times the variance of daily changes (of the 10 year rate IIRC).  IIRC 4.5 times.  Cherry picking and not rejecting the null one wants to reject is a sign that one’s favored (alternative) hypothesis is not strongly supported by the data.

I think that the way to pick out changes in monetary policy is to look at changes in inflation expectations, and I think that you can find some correlation between changes in monetary policy, so identified, and employment, though it is probably not nearly as striking as the relationship between asset prices and inflation expectations. I also don’t think that operation twist had any positive effect, but QE3 does seem to have had some. I am not familiar with the study by the San Francisco Fed economists, but I will try to find it and see what I can make out of it. In the meantime, even if Waldmann is correct about the relationship between monetary policy and employment since 2008, there are all kinds of good reasons for not rushing to reject a null hypothesis on the basis of a handful of ambiguous observations. That wouldn’t necessarily be the calm and reasonable thing to do.

Charles Goodhart on Nominal GDP Targeting

Charles Goodhart might just be the best all-around monetary economist in the world, having made impressive contributions to both monetary theory and the history of monetary theory, to monetary history, and the history of monetary institutions, especially of central banking, and to the theory and, in his capacity as chief economist of the Bank of England, practice of monetary policy. So whenever Goodhart offers his views on monetary policy, it is a good idea to pay close attention to what he says. But if there is anything to be learned from the history of economics (and I daresay the history of any scientific discipline), it is that nobody ever gets it right all the time. It’s nice to have a reputation, but sadly reputation provides no protection from error.

In response to the recent buzz about targeting nominal GDP, Goodhart, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics and an adviser to Morgan Stanley along with two Morgan Stanley economists, Jonathan Ashworth and Melanie Baker, just published a critique of a recent speech by Mark Carney, Governor-elect of the Bank of England, in which Carney seemed to endorse targeting the level of nominal GDP (hereinafter NGDPLT). (See also Marcus Nunes’s excellent post about Goodhart et al.) Goodhart et al. have two basic complaints about NGDPLT. The first one is that our choice of an initial target level (i.e., do we think that current NGDP is now at its target or away from its target and if so by how much) and of the prescribed growth in the target level over time would itself create destabilizing uncertainty in the process of changing to an NGDPLT monetary regime. The key distinction between a level target and a growth-rate target is that the former requires a subsequent compensatory adjustment for any deviation from the target while the latter requires no such adjustment for a deviation from the target. Because deviations will occur under any targeting regime, Goodhart et al. worry that the compensatory adjustments required by NGDPLT could trigger destabilizing gyrations in NGDP growth, especially if expectations, as they think likely, became unanchored.

This concern seems easily enough handled if the monetary authority is given say a 1-1.5% band around its actual target within which to operate. Inevitable variations around the target would not automatically require an immediate rapid compensatory adjustment. As long as the monetary authority remained tolerably close to its target, it would not be compelled to make a sharp policy adjustment. A good driver does not always drive down the middle of his side of the road, the driver uses all the space available to avoid having to make an abrupt changes in the direction in which the car is headed. The same principle would govern the decisions of a skillful monetary authority.

Another concern of Goodhart et al. is that the choice of the target growth rate of NGDP depends on how much real growth,we think the economy is capable of. If real growth of 3% a year is possible, then the corresponding NGDP level target depends on how much inflation policy makers believe necessary to achieve that real GDP growth rate. If the “correct” rate of inflation is about 2%, then the targeted level of NGDP should grow at 5% a year. But Goodhart et al. are worried that achievable growth may be declining. If so, NGDPLT at 5% a year will imply more than 2% annual inflation.

Effectively, any overestimation of the sustainable real rate of growth, and such overestimation is all too likely, could force an MPC [monetary policy committee], subject to a level nominal GDP target, to soon have to aim for a significantly higher rate of inflation. Is that really what is now wanted? Bring back the stagflation of the 1970s; all is forgiven?

With all due respect, I find this concern greatly overblown. Even if the expectation of 3% real growth is wildly optimistic, say 2% too high, a 5% NGDP growth path would imply only 4% inflation. That might be too high a rate for Goodhart’s taste, or mine for that matter, but it would be a far cry from the 1970s, when inflation was often in the double-digits. Paul Volcker achieved legendary status in the annals of central banking by bringing the US rate of inflation down to 3.5 to 4%, so one needs to maintain some sense of proportion in these discussions.

Finally, Goodhart et al. invoke the Phillips Curve.

[A]n NGDP target would appear to run counter to the previously accepted tenets of monetary theory. Perhaps the main claim of monetary economics, as persistently argued by Friedman, and the main reason for having an independent Central Bank, is that over the medium and longer term monetary forces influence only monetary variables. Other real (e.g. supply-side) factors determine growth; the long-run Phillips curve is vertical. Do those advocating a nominal GDP target now deny that? Do they really believe that faster inflation now will generate a faster, sustainable, medium- and longer-term growth rate?

While it is certainly undeniable that Friedman showed, as, in truth, many others had before him, that, for an economy in approximate full-employment equilibrium, increased inflation cannot permanently reduce unemployment, it is far from obvious (to indulge in bit of British understatement) that we are now in a state of full-employment equilibrium. If the economy is not now in full-employment equilibrium, the idea that monetary-neutrality propositions about money influencing only monetary, but not real, variables in the medium and longer term are of no relevance to policy. Those advocating a nominal GDP target need not deny that the long-run Phillips Curve is vertical, though, as I have argued previously (here, here, and here) the proposition that the long-run Phillips Curve is vertical is very far from being the natural law that Goodhart and many others seem to regard it as. And if Goodhart et al. believe that we in fact are in a state of full-employment equilibrium, then they ought to say so forthrightly, and they ought to make an argument to justify that far from obvious characterization of the current state of affairs.

Having said all that, I do have some sympathy with the following point made by Goodhart et al.

Given our uncertainty about sustainable growth, an NGDP target also has the obvious disadvantage that future certainty about inflation becomes much less than under an inflation (or price level) target. In order to estimate medium- and longer-term inflation rates, one has first to take some view about the likely sustainable trends in future real output. The latter is very difficult to do at the best of times, and the present is not the best of times. So shifting from an inflation to a nominal GDP growth target is likely to have the effect of raising uncertainty about future inflation and weakening the anchoring effect on expectations of the inflation target.

That is one reason why in my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I advocated Earl Thompson’s proposal for a labor standard aimed at stabilizing average wages (or, more precisely, average expected wages). But if you stabilize wages, and productivity is falling, then prices must rise. That’s just a matter of arithmetic. But there is no reason why the macroeconomically optimal rate of inflation should be invariant with respect to the rate of technological progress.

HT:  Bill Woolsey

Maybe Robert Waldmann Should Calm Down

Robert Waldmann is unhappy with Matthew Yglesias for being hopeful that, Shinzo Abe, just elected prime minister of Japan, may be about to make an important contribution to the world economy, and to economic science, by prodding the Bank of Japan to increase its inflation target and by insisting that the BOJ actually hit the new target. Since I don’t regularly read Waldmann’s blog (not because it’s not worth reading — I usually enjoy reading it when I get to it – I just can’t keep up with that many blogs), I’m not sure why Waldmann finds Yglesias’s piece so annoying. OK, Waldmann’s a Keynesian and prefers fiscal to monetary policy, but so is Paul Krugman, and he thinks that monetary policy can be effective even at the zero lower bound. At any rate this is how Waldmann responds to Yglesias:

Ben Bernanke too has declared a policy of unlimited quantitative easing and increased inflation (new target only 2.5% but that’s higher than current inflation).  The declaration (which was a surprise) had essentially no effect on prices for medium term treasuries, TIPS or the breakeven.

I was wondering when you would comment, since you have confidently asserted again and again that if only the FOMC did what it just did, expected inflation would jump and then GDP growth would increase.

However, instead of noting the utter total failure of your past predictions (and the perfect confirmation of mine) you just boldly make new predictions.

Face fact,  like conventional monetary policy (in the US the Federal Funds rate) forward guidance is pedal to the metal.   It’s long past time for you to start climbing down.

I mention this, because just yesterday I happened across another blog post about what Bernanke said after the FOMC meeting.  This post by David Altig, executive VP and research director of the Atlanta Fed, was on the macroblog. Altig points out that, despite the increase in the Fed’s inflation threshold from 2 to 2.5%, the Fed increased neither its inflation target (still 2%) nor its inflation forecast (still under 2%). All that the Fed did was to say that it won’t immediately slam on the brakes if inflation rises above 2% provided that unemployment is greater than 6.5% and inflation is less than 2.5%. That seems like a pretty marginal change in policy to me.

Also have a look at this post from earlier today by Yglesias, showing that the Japanese stock market has risen about 5.5% in the last two weeks, and about 2% in the two days since Abe’s election. Here is Yglesias’s chart showing the rise of the Nikkei over the past two weeks.

abe-nomics

In addition, here is a news story from Bloomberg about rising yields on Japanese government bonds, which are now the highest since April.

Japan‘s bonds declined, sending 20- year yields to an eight-month high, as demand ebbed at a sale of the securities and domestic shares climbed.

The sale of 1.2 trillion yen ($14.3 billion) of 20-year bonds had the lowest demand in four months. Yields on the benchmark 10-year note rose to a one-month high as Japan’s Nikkei 225 Stock Average reached the most since April amid signs U.S. budget talks are progressing.

Finally, another item from Yglesias, a nice little graph showing the continuing close relationship between the S&P 500 and inflation expectations as approximated by the breakeven TIPS spread on 10-year Treasuries, a relationship for which I have provided (in a paper available here) a theoretical explanation as well as statistical evidence that the relationship did not begin to be observed until approximately the spring of 2008 as the US economy, even before the Lehman debacle, began its steep contraction. Here’s the graph.

yglesias_S&P500

HT: Mark Thoma

UPDATE:  Added a link above to the blog post by Altig about what Bernanke meant when he announced a 2.5% inflation threshold.

Negotiating the Fiscal Cliff

Last week I did a post based on a chart that I saw in an article in the New York Review of Books by Paul Krugman. Relying on an earlier paper by Robert Hall on the empirical evidence about the effectiveness of fiscal stimulus, Krugman used the chart to illustrate the efficacy of government spending as a stimulus to economic recovery. While Krugman evidently thought his chart was a pretty compelling visual aid in showing that fiscal stimulus really works, I didn’t find his chart that impressive, because there were relatively few years in which changes in government spending were clearly associated with large changes in growth, and a lot of years with large changes in growth, but little or no change in government spending.

In particular, the years in which government spending seemed to make a big difference were during and immediately after World War II. The 1930s, however, were associated with huge swings in GDP, but with comparatively minimal changes in government spending. Instead, changes in GDP in the 1930s were associated with big changes in the price level. The big increases in GDP in the early 1940s were also associated with big increases in the price level, the rapid rise in the price level slowing down only in 1943 after price controls were imposed in 1942. When controls were gradually lifted in 1946 and 1947, inflation increased sharply notwithstanding a sharp economic contraction, creating a spurious (in my view) negative correlation between (measured) inflation and the change in GDP. From 1943 to mid-1945, properly measured inflation was increasing much faster than official indices that made no adjustment for the shortages and quality degradation caused by the price controls. Similarly, the measured inflation from late 1945 through 1947, when price controls were being gradually relaxed and dismantled, overstated actual inflation, because increases in official prices were associated with the elimination of shortages and improving quality.

So in my previous post, I tried to do a quantitative analysis of the data underlying Krugman’s chart. Unfortunately, I only came up with a very rough approximation of his data. Using my rough approximation (constructing a chart resembling, but clearly different from, Krugman’s), I ran a regression estimating the statistical relationship between yearly changes in military spending (Krugman’s statistical instrument for fiscal stimulus) as a percentage of GDP and yearly changes in real GDP from 1929 to 1962. I then compared that statistical relationship to the one between annual changes in the price level and annual changes in real GDP over the same time period. After controlling for the mismeasurement of inflation in 1946 and 1947, I found that changes in the rate of inflation were more closely correlated to changes in real GDP over the 1929-1962 time period than were changes in military spending and changes in real GDP. Unfortunately, I also claimed (mistakenly)  that that regressing changes in real GDP on both changes in military spending and inflation (again controlling for mismeasurement of inflation in 1946-47) did not improve the statistical fit of the regression, and did not show a statistically significant coefficient for the military-spending term. That claim was based on looking at the wrong regression estimates.  Sorry, I blew that one.

Over the weekend, Mark Sadowski kindly explained to me how Krugman did the calculations underlying his chart, even generating the data for me, thereby allowing me to reconstruct Krugman’s chart and to redo my earlier regressions using the exact data. Here are the old and the new results.

OLD: dGDP = 3.60 + .70dG, r-squared = .295

NEW: dGDP = 3.26 + .51dG, r-squared = .433

So, according to the correct data set, the relationship between changes in government spending and changes in GDP is closer than the approximated data set that I used previously. However, the newly estimated coefficient on the government spending term is almost 30% smaller than the coefficient previously estimated using the approximated data set. In other words a one dollar increase in government spending generates an increase in GDP of only 50 cents. Increasing government spending reduces private spending by about half.

The estimated regression for changes in real GDP on inflation changed only slightly:

OLD: dGDP = 2.48 + .69dP, r-squared = .199

NEW: dGDP = 2.46 + .70dP, r-squared = .193

The estimated regression for changes in real GDP on inflation (controlled for mismeasurement of inflation in 1946 and 1947) also showed only a slight change:

OLD: dGDP = 2.76 + 1.28dP – 23.29PCON, r-squared = .621

NEW: dGDP = 3.02 + 1.25dP – 23.13PCON, r-squared = .613

Here are my old and new regressions for changes in real GDP on government spending as well as on inflation (controlled for mismeasurement of inflation in 1946-47). As you can see, the statistical fit of the regression improves by including both inflation and the change in government spending as variables (the adjusted r-squared is .648) and the coefficient on the government-spending term is positive and significant (t = 2.37). When I re-estimated the regression on Krugman’s data set, the statistical fit improved, and the coefficient on the government-spending variable remained positive and statistically significant (t = 3.45), but was about a third smaller than the coefficient estimated from the approximated data set.

OLD: dGDP = 2.27 + .49dG + 1.15dP – 13.36PCON, r-squared = .681

NEW: dGDP = 2.56 + .33dG + 1.00dP – 13.14PCON, r-squared = .728

So even if we allow for the effect of inflation on changes in output, and contrary to what I suggested in my previous post, changes in government spending were indeed positively and significantly correlated with changes in real GDP, implying that government spending may have some stimulative effect even apart from the effect of monetary policy on inflation. Moreover, insofar as government spending affects inflation, attributing price-level changes exclusively to monetary policy may underestimate the stimulative effect of government spending. However, if one wants to administer stimulus to the private sector rather than increase the size of the public sector at the expense of the private sector (the implication of a coefficient less than one on the government-spending term in the regression), there is reason to prefer monetary policy as a method of providing stimulus.

The above, aside from the acknowledment of Mark Sadowski’s assistance and the mea culpa for negligence in reporting my earlier results, is all by way of introduction to a comment on a recent post by my internet buddy Lars Christensen on his Market Moneterist blog in which he welcomes the looming fiscal cliff. Here’s how Lars puts it:

The point is that the US government is running clearly excessive public deficits and the public debt has grown far too large so isn’t fiscal tightening exactly what you need? I think it and the fiscal cliff ensures that. Yes, I agree tax hikes are unfortunate from a supply side perspective, but cool down a bit – it is going to have only a marginally negative impact on long-term US growth perspective that the Bush tax cuts experiences. But more importantly the fiscal cliff would mean cuts in US defense spending. The US is spending more on military hardware than any other country in the world. It seems to me like US policy makers have not realized that the Cold War is over. You don’t need to spend 5% of GDP on bombs. In fact I believe that if the entire 4-5% fiscal consolidation was done as cuts to US defence spending the world would probably be a better place. But that is not my choice – and it is the peace loving libertarian rather than the economist speaking (here is a humorous take on the sad story of war). What I am saying is that the world is not coming to an end if the US defense budget is cut marginally. Paradoxically the US conservatives this time around are against budget consolidation. Sad, but true.

I am not going to take the bait and argue with Lars about the size of the US defense budget. The only issue that I want to consider is what would happen as a result of the combination of a large cut in defense (and in other categories of) spending and an increase in taxes? It might not be catastrophic, but there seems to me to be a non-negligible risk that such an outcome would have a significant contractionary effect on aggregate demand at a time when the recovery is still anemic and requires as much stimulus as it can get. Lars argues that any contractionary effect caused by reduced government spending and increased taxes could be offset by sufficient monetary easing. I agree in theory, but in practice there are just too many uncertainties associated with how massive fiscal tightening would be received by public and private decision makers to rely on the theoretical ability of monetary policy in one direction to counteract fiscal policy in the opposite direction. This would be the case even if we knew that Bernanke and the FOMC would do the right thing. But, despite encouraging statements by Bernanke and other Fed officials since September, it seems more than a bit risky at this time and this place to just assume that the Fed will become the stimulator of last resort.

So, Lars, my advice to you is: be careful what you wish for.

PS Noah Smith has an excellent post about inflation today.

Paul Krugman on Fiscal Stimulus 1929-1962

UPDATE:  See my correction of an error in the penultimate paragraph.

Last week I read an article Paul Krugman published several months ago for the New York Review of Books just before his book End This Depression Now came out. The article was aimed not aimed at an audience of professional economists, and consisted of arguments that Krugman has been making regularly since the onset of the crisis just over four years ago. However, the following passage towards the end of the article caught my eye.

[S]ince the crisis began there has been a boom in research into the effects of fiscal policy on output and employment. This body of research is growing fast, and much of it is too technical to be summarized in this article. But here are a few highlights.

First, Stanford’s Robert Hall has looked at the effects of large changes in US government purchases—which is all about wars, specifically World War II and the Korean War. Figure 2 on this page [see below] compares changes in US military spending with changes in real GDP—both measured as a percentage of the preceding year’s GDP—over the period from 1929 to 1962 (there’s not much action after that). Each dot represents one year; I’ve labeled the points corresponding to the big buildup during World War II and the big demobilization just afterward. Obviously, there were big moves in years when nothing much was happening to military spending, notably the slump from 1929 to 1933 and the recovery from 1933 to 1936. But every year in which there was a big spending increase was also a year of strong growth, and the reduction in military spending after World War II was a year of sharp output decline.

Krugman did not explain his chart in detail, so I consulted the study by Robert Hall cited by Krugman. Hall’s insight was to focus not on government spending, just military spending, because other components of government spending are themselves influenced by the state of the economy, making it difficult to disentangle the effects of spending on the economy from the effects of the economy on spending. However, military spending is largely driven, especially in wartime (World War II and Korea), by factors unrelated to how the economy is performing. This makes military spending an appropriate instrument by which to identify and estimate the effect of government spending on the economy.

The problem with Krugman’s discussion is that, although using military expenditures allowed him to avoid the identification problem associated with the interdependency of government spending and the level of economic activity, he left out any mention of the behavior of the price level, which, many of us (and perhaps even Krugman himself) believe, powerfully affects the overall level of economic activity. Krugman artfully avoids any discussion of this relationship with the seemingly innocent observation “there were big moves in years when nothing much was happening to military spending, notably the slump from 1929 to 1933 and the recovery from 1933 to 1936.” But even this implicit acknowledgment of the importance of the behavior of the price level overlooks the fact that the huge wartime increase in military spending took place against the backdrop of rapid inflation, so that attributing economic expansion during World War II solely to the increase in government spending does not seem to warranted, because at least some of the increase in output would have been been forthcoming, even without increased military spending, owing to the rise in the price level.

It is not hard to compare the effects of inflation and the effects of military spending on economic growth over the time period considered by Krugman. One can simply take annual inflation each year from 1930 to 1962 and plot the yearly rates of inflation and economic growth that Krugman plotted on his figure. Here is my version of Krugman’s chart substituting inflation for the change in military spending as a percentage of GDP.

It is difficult visually to compare the diagrams to see which one provides the more informative account of the fluctuations in economic growth over the 33 years in the sample. But it is not hard to identify the key difference between the two diagrams. In Krugman’s diagram, the variation in military spending provides no information about the variation in economic growth during the 1930s. There are is a cluster of points up and down the vertical axis corresponding to big positive and negative fluctuations in GDP with minimal changes in military spending. But large changes in GDP during the 1940s do correspond to changes in the same direction in military spending. Similarly, during the Korean War in the early 1950s, there was a positive correlation between changes in military spending. From the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, annual changes in GDP and in military spending were relatively small.

In my diagram plotting annual rates of inflation against annual changes in GDP, the large annual changes in GDP are closely related to positive or negative changes in the price level. In that respect, my diagram provides a more informative representation of the data than does Krugman’s. Even in World War II, the points representing the war years 1942 to 1945 are not far from a trend line drawn through the scatter of points. Where the diagram runs into serious trouble is that two points are way, way off to one side. Those are the years 1946 and 1947.

What was going on in those years? GDP was contracting, especially in 1946, and prices were rising rapidly, exactly contrary to the usual presumption that rising prices tend to generate increases in output. What was going on? It all goes back to 1942, when FDR imposed wartime price controls. This was partly a way of preventing suppliers from raising prices to the government, and also a general anti-inflation measure. However, the result was that there were widespread shortages, with rationing of a wide range of goods and services.  The officially measured rate of inflation from 1942 to 1945 was therefore clearly understated. In 1946 and 1947, controls were gradually relaxed and finally eliminated, with measured inflation rates actually increasing even though the economy was contracting.  Measured inflation in 1946 and 1947 therefore overstated actual inflation by an amount corresponding (more or less) to the cumulative understatement of inflation from 1942 to 1945. That the dots representing 1946 and 1947 are outliers is not because the hypothesized causal relationship between inflation and GDP was inoperative or reversed, but because of a mistaken measurement of what inflation actually was.

To get a better handle on the relative explanatory power of the government-spending and the inflation hypotheses in accounting for fluctuations in GDP than visual inspection of the data allows, one has to work with the underlying data. Unfortunately, when I tried to measure changes in military spending from 1929 to 1962, I could not reproduce the data underlying Krugman’s chart. That was not Krugman’s fault; I don’t doubt that he accurately calculated the relevant data from the appropriate sources. But when I searched for data on military spending since 1929, the only source that I found was this. So that is what I used. I assume that Krugman was using a different source from the one that I used, and he may also have defined his government spending variable in a different way from how I did. At any rate, when I did the calculation, I generated a chart that looked like the one below. It is generally similar to Krugman’s, but obviously not the same. If someone can explain why I did not come up with the same numbers for changes in government spending that Krugman did, I would be very much obliged and will redo my calculations. However, in the meantime, I am going to assume that my numbers are close enough to Krugman’s, so that my results would not be reversed if I used his numbers instead.

Taking my version of Krugman’s data, I ran a simple regression of the annual change in real GDP (dGDP) on the annual change in government (i.e., military spending) as a percentage of GDP (dG) from 1930 to 1962 (the data start in 1929, but the changes don’t start till 1930). The regression equation that I estimated was the following:

dGDP = 3.60 + .70dG, r-squared = .295.

This equation says that the percent increase in real GDP in any year is 3.6% plus seven-tenths of the percentage increase in government (i.e., military) spending for that year.

I then ran a corresponding regression of the annual change in real GDP on the annual change in the price level (dP, derived from my estimate of the GDP price deflator). The estimated regression was the following:

dGDP = 2.48 + .69dP, r-squared = .199.

The equation says that the percent increase in real GDP in any year is 2.48% plus .69 times that year’s rate of inflation.

Because the r-squared of the first equation is about 50% higher than that of the second, there would be good reason to prefer the first equation over the second were it not for the measurement problem that I mentioned above. I tried a number of ways of accounting for that measurement problem, but the simplest adjustment was simply to add two dummy variables, one for price controls during World War II and one for the lifting of price controls in 1946 and 1947. When I introduced both dummy variables into the equation, it turned out that the dummy variable for price controls during World War II was statistically insignificant, inasmuch as there was some measured inflation even during the World War II price controls. It was only the dummy variable controlling for the (mis)measured inflation associated with the lifting of price controls that was statistically significant. Here is the estimated regression:

dGDP = 2.76 + 1.28dP – 23.29PCON, r-squared = .621

I also tried attributing the inflation measured in 1946 and 1947 to the years 1942 to 1945, giving each of those years an inflation rate of about 9.7% and attributing zero inflation to the years 1946 and 1947. The regression equation that I estimated using that approach did not perform as well, based on a comparison of adjusted r-squares, as the simple equation with a single dummy variable. I also estimated equations using both the government spending variable and the inflation variable, and the two price-control dummies. That specification, despite two extra variables, had an r-squared less than the r-squared of the above equation. [Update 11/20/2012:  This was my mistake, because the best results were obtained using only a dummy variable for 1946 and 1947.  When the government spending and the inflation variables were estimated with a dummy for 1946-1947, the coefficients on both variables were positive and significant.]  So my tentative conclusion is that the best way to summarize the observed data pattern for the fluctuations of real GDP between 1929 and 1962 is with an equation with only an inflation variable and an added dummy variable accounting for the mismeasurement of inflation in 1946 and 1947.

Nevertheless, I would caution against reading too much into these results, even on the assumption that the provisional nature of the data that I have used has not introduced any distortions and that there are no other errors in my results. (Anyone who wants to check my results is welcome to email me at uneasymoney@hotmail.com, and I will send you the (Stata) data files that I have used.) Nor do I claim that government spending has no effect on real GDP. I am simply suggesting that for the time period between 1929 and 1962 in the US, there does not seem to be strong evidence that government spending significantly affected real GDP, once account is taken of the effects of changes in the price level. With only 33 observations, the effect of government spending, though theoretically present, may not be statistically detectable, at least not using a simple linear regression model. One might also argue that wartime increases in government spending contributed to the wartime inflation, so that the effect of government spending is masked by including a price-level variable. Be that as it may, Krugman’s (and Hall’s) argument that government spending was clearly effective in increasing real GDP in World War II and Korea, and would, therefore, be likely to be effective under other circumstances, is not as self-evidently true as Krugman makes it out to be. I don’t say that it is incorrect, but the evidence seems to be, at best, ambiguous.


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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