Archive for the 'liquidity trap' Category

Interest on Reserves and Credit Deadlock

UPDATE (2/25/2022): George Selgin informs me that in the final version (his book Floored) of the Cato working paper which I discuss below he modified the argument that I criticize that paying interest on reserves caused banks to raise their lending rates to borrowers and that he now generally agrees with my argument that paying interest on reserves did not cause banks to raise the interest rates they charged borrowers. George also points out that I did misstate his position slightly. He did not argue, as I wrote, that paying interest on reserves caused banks to raise interest rates to borrowers; his argument was that banks would accept a reduced percentage of loan applications at the prevailing rate of interest.

The economic theory of banking has a long and checkered history reflecting an ongoing dialectic between two views of banking. One view, let’s call it the reserve view, is that the circulating bank liabilities, now almost exclusively bank deposits, are created by banks after they receive deposits of currency (either metallic or fiat). Rather than hold the currency in their vaults as “safe deposits,” banks cleverly (or in the view of some, deceitfully or fraudulently) lend out claims to their reserves in exchange for the IOUs of borrowers, from which they derive a stream of interest income.

The alternative view of banking, let’s call it the anti-reserve view (in chapter 7 of my new book Studies in the History of Monetary Theory, I trace the two views David Hume and Adam Smith) bank liabilities are first issued by established money lenders, probably traders or merchants, widely known to be solvent and well-capitalized, whose debts are widely recognized as reliable and safe. Borrowers therefore prefer to exchange their own debt for that of the lenders, which is more acceptable in exchange than their own less reliable debt. Lenders denominate their IOUs in terms of an accepted currency so that borrowers can use the lender’s IOU instead of the currency. To make their IOUs circulate like currency, lenders promise to redeem their IOUs on demand, so they must either hold, or have immediate access to, currency.

These two views of banking lead to conflicting interpretations of the hugely increased reserve holdings of banks since the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Under the reserve view, reserves held by banks are the raw material from which deposits are created. Because of the inflationary potential of newly created deposits, a rapid infusion of reserves into the banking system is regarded as an inflationary surge waiting to happen.

On the anti-reserve view, however, causation flows not from reserves to deposits, but from deposits to reserves. Banks do not create deposits because they hold redundant reserves; they hold reserves because they create deposits, the holding of reserves being a the cost of creating deposits. Being a safe asset enabling banks to satisfy instantly, and without advance notice, demands for deposit redemption, reserves are held only as a precaution.

All businesses choose the forms in which to hold the assets best-suited to their operations. Manufactures own structures, buildings and machines used in producing the products they sell as well as holding inventories of finished or semi-finished outputs and inputs into the production process, as well as liquid capital like bank deposits, and other interest or income-generating assets. Banks also hold a variety of real assets (e.g., buildings, vaults, computers and machines) and a variety of financial assets. An important class of those financial assets are promissory notes of borrowers to whom banks have issued loans by creating deposits. In the ordinary course of business, banks accumulate reserves when new or existing customers make deposits, and when net positive clearings with other banks cause an inflow of reserves. The direction and the magnitude of the flow of reserves into, or out of, a bank are not beyond its power to control. Nor does a bank lack other means than increasing lending to reduce its holdings of unwanted reserves.

While reserves are the safest, most liquid, and most convenient asset that banks can hold, non-interest-bearing reserves provide banks with no pecuniary yield, so holding reserves rather than interest-bearing assets, or assets expected to appreciate involve a sacrifice of income that must be offset by the safety, liquidity and convenience provided by reserves. When the Fed began paying interest on reserves in October 2008, the holding of reserves no longer required foregoing a pecuniary yield offered by alternative assets. The next safest and most liquid class of assets available to banks is short-term Treasury notes, which do provide at least a small nominal interest return. Until October 2008, there was an active overnight market for reserves — the Federal Funds market — in which banks with excess reserves could lend to banks with insufficient reserves, thereby enabling the banking system as a whole to minimize the aggregate holding of excess (i.e., not legally required) reserves.

Legally required reserves being unavailable to banks to satisfy redemption demands without incurring a penalty for non-compliance with the legal reserve requirement, required reserves provide banks with little safety or liquidity. So, to obtain the desired safety and liquidity, banks must hold excess reserves. The cost (foregone interest) of holding excess reserves banks can be minimized by holding interest-bearing Treasuries easily exchanged for reserves and by lending or borrowing as needed in the overnight Fed Funds market. In normal conditions, the banking system can operate efficiently with excess reserves equal to only about one percent of total deposits.

The Fed did not begin paying interest on reserves until October 2008, less than a month after a financial panic and crisis brought the US and the international financial system to the brink of a catastrophic meltdown. The solvency of financial institutions and banks having been impaired by a rapid loss of asset value, distinguishing between solvent and insolvent counterparties became nearly impossible, putting almost any economic activity dependent on credit at risk of being unwound.

In danger of insolvency and desperate for liquidity, banks tried to hoard reserves and increase holdings of Treasury debt. Though yielding minimal interest, Treasury notes serve as preferred collateral in the Fed Funds market, enabling borrowers to offer lenders nearly zero-risk overnight or short-term lending opportunities via repurchase agreements in which Treasury notes are sold spot and repurchased forward at a preset price reflecting an implied interest rate on the loan.

Increased demand for Treasuries raised their prices and reduced their yields, but declining yields and lending rates couldn’t end the crisis once credit markets became paralyzed by pervasive doubts about counterparty solvency. Banks stopped lending to new customers, while hesitating, or even refusing, to renew or maintain credit facilities for existing customers, and were themselves often unable to borrow reserves without posting Treasuries as collateral for repo loans.

After steadfastly refusing to reduce its Fed Fund target rate and ease credit conditions, notwithstanding rapidly worsening economic conditions, during the summer of 2008, an intransigent stance from which it refused to budge even after the financial panic erupted in mid-September. While Treasury yields were falling as the markets sought liquidity and safety, chaotic market conditions caused overnight rates in the Fed Funds market to fluctuate erratically. Finally relenting in October as credit markets verged on collapse, the Fed reduced its Fed Funds target rate by 50 basis points. In the catastrophic conditions of October 2008, the half-percent reduction in the Fed Funds target was hardly adequate.

To prevent a system-wide catastrophe, the Fed began lending to banks on the security of assets of doubtful value or to buy assets — at book, rather than (unknown) market, value – that were not normally eligible to be purchased by the Fed. The resulting rapid expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet and the creation of bank reserves (Fed liabilities) raised fears (shared by the Fed) of potential future inflation. 

Fearing that its direct lending to banks and its asset purchases were increasing bank reserves excessively, thereby driving the Fed Funds rate below its target, the Fed sought, and received, Congressional permission to begin paying interest on bank reserves so that banks would hold the newly acquired reserves, rather use the reserves to acquire assets like borrower IOUs, lest total spending and aggregate demand increase. Avoiding such a potentially inflationary increase in aggregate demand had been the chief policy objective of the Fed throughout 2008 even as the economy slid into deep recession just prior to the start of the financial crisis, and the Fed was sticking to that policy.

Struggling to contain a deepening financial crisis while adhering to a commitment to a 2-percent inflation target, the Fed experimented for almost two months with both its traditional Fed Funds target and its new policy of paying interest on bank reserves. The Fed eventually settled on a target for the Fed Funds rate between zero and .25% while paying .25% interest on reserves, thereby making it unnecessary for banks with accounts at the Fed to borrow, and making them unwilling to lend, reserves in the Fed Funds market. Thanks to the massive infusion of reserves into the banking system, the panic was quelled and the immediate financial crisis receded, but the underlying weakness of an economy was aggravated and continued to deepen; the liquidity and solvency problems that triggered the crisis were solved, but the aggregate-demand deficiency was not.

In his excellent historical and analytical account of how and why the Fed adopted its policy of paying interest on reserves, George Selgin credits the idea that had the Fed not paid interest to banks on their reserves, they would have used those reserves to increase lending, thereby providing stimulus to the economy. (Update: as noted above, the argument I criticize was made in Cato Working Paper not in the published version of George’s book, and he informs me that he modified the argument in the published version and now disavows it.) Although I agree with George that paying interest on bank reserves reduced aggregate demand, I disagree with his argument that the reduction in aggregate demand was caused by increased interest charged to borrowers owing to the payment of interest on reserves.

George believes that, by paying interest on reserves, the Fed increased the attractiveness of holding reserves relative to higher-yielding assets like the IOUs of borrowers. And, sure enough, after the Fed began paying interest on reserves, the share of bank loans in total bank assets declined by about the same percentage as the share of reserves in total bank assets.

The logic underlying this argument is that, at the margin, an optimizing bank equates the anticipated yield from holding every asset in its portfolio. If the expected return at margin from bank loans exceeds the expected return from reserves, an optimizing bank will increase its lending until the marginal return from lending no longer exceeds the marginal return from holding reserves. When the Fed began paying interest on reserves, the expected return at the margin from holding reserves increased and exceeded the expected return at the margin from bank loans, giving banks an incentive to increase their holdings of reserves relative to their holdings of bank loans. Presumably this means that banks would try to increase their holdings of bank reserves and reduce their lending.

At least two problems undercut this logic. First, as explained above, the yield from holding an asset can be pecuniary – a yield of interest, of dividends, or appreciation – or a flow of services. Clearly, the yield from holding reserves is primarily the service flow associated with the safety, liquidity and convenience provided by reserves. Before October 2008, reserves provided no pecuniary yield, either in explicit interest or expected appreciation, the optimal quantity of reserves held was such that, at the margin, the safety, liquidity and convenience generated by reserves was just sufficient to match the pecuniary return from the loan assets expected by an optimizing bank.

After the Fed began paying interest on reserves, the combined pecuniary and service return from holding reserves exceeded the return from banks’ loan assets. So, banks therefore chose to increase their holdings of reserves until the expected pecuniary and service yield from reserves no longer exceeded the expected return from loan assets. But as banks increased their reserve holdings, the marginal service flow provided by reserves diminished until the marginal pecuniary plus service yield was again equalized across the assets held in banks’ asset portfolios. But that does not imply that banks reduced their lending or the value of the loan assets in their portfolios compared to the value of loan assets held before interest was paid on reserves; it just means that optimal bank portfolios after the Fed began paying interest on bank reserves contained more reserves than previously.

Indeed, because reserves provided a higher pecuniary yield and more safety, liquidity and convenience than holding Treasuries, banks were willing to add reserves to their portfolios without limit, because holding reserves became costless. The only limit on the holding of bank reserves was the willingness of the Fed to create more reserves by buying additional assets from the private sector. The proceeds of sales would be deposited in the banking system. The yield on the acquired assets would accrue to the Fed, and that yield would be transferred to the banking system by way of interest paid on those reserves.

So, if I don’t think that paying interest on bank reserves caused banks to raise interest rates on loans, why do I think that paying interest on bank reserves reduced aggregate demand and slowed the recovery from the Little Depression (aka Great Recession)?

The conventional story, derived from the reserve view, is that if banks have more reserves than they wish to hold, they try to dispose of their excess reserves by increasing their lending to borrowers. But banks wouldn’t increase lending to borrowers unless the expected profitability of such lending increased; no increase in the quantity of non-interest-bearing reserves of the banks would have increased the profitability of bank lending unless consumer confidence or business optimism increased, neither of which depends in a straightforward way on the quantity of reserves held by banks.

In several published papers on classical monetary theory which were revised and republished in my new book Studies in the History of Monetary Theory (chapters 2-5 and 7 see front matter for original publication information), I described a mechanism of bank lending and money creation. Competitive banks create money by lending, but how much money they create is constrained by the willingness of the public to hold the liabilities (deposits) emitted in the process of lending.

The money-lending, deposit-creation process can be imperfectly described within a partial-equilibrium, marginal-revenue, marginal-cost framework. The marginal revenue from creating money corresponds to the spread between a bank’s borrowing rate (the interest rate paid on deposits) and its lending rate (the interest rate charged borrowers). At the margin, this spread equals the bank’s cost of intermediation, which includes the cost of holding reserves. The cost of intermediation increases as the difference between the yields on Treasuries and reserves increase, and as the quantity of reserves held increases.

So, in the basic model I work with, paying interest on reserves reduces the cost of creating deposits, thereby tending to increase the amount of lending by banks, contrary to Selgin’s argument that paying interest on reserves reduces bank lending by inducing banks to raise interest rates on loans.

But, in a recession — and even more so in a financial crisis or panic — the cost of intermediation increases, causing banks to reduce their lending, primarily by limiting or denying the extension of credit to new and existing customers. Of course, in a recession, businesses and households demand fewer loans to finance spending plans, and instead seek credit with which to meet current obligations coming due. As banks’ costs of intermediation rise, they inevitably curtail lending, increasing the share of reserves in banks’ total assets.

While Selgin attributes the increasing share of reserves in banks’ assets to the payment of interest on reserves, a more plausible explanation of the increase is that it results from the increased intermediation costs associated with recession and a financial crisis, which more than offset the cost reduction from paying interest on reserves.

Although paying interest on reserves was a major innovation, in a sense it was just a continuation of the policy approach adopted by the Fed in 2004 when started gradually raising its Fed Funds target rate to 5.25% in June 2006, where it stood until July 2007. Combined with the bursting of the housing bubble in 2006, the 5.25% Fed Funds target produced a gradual slowdown that led the Fed to reduce its target, but always too little and too late, as the economy slid into recession at the end of 2007. So, the payment of interest on reserves, intended to ensure that the reserves would not trigger a surge in spending, was entirely consistent with the restrictive policy orientation of the Fed before the financial panic and crisis of 2008, which continued during and after the crisis. That policy was largely responsible for the unusually weak economic recovery and expansion in the decade after the crisis, when banks willingly absorbed all the reserves created by the Fed.

The specific point on which I disagree with Selgin is his belief that paying interest on bank reserves discouraged banks from increasing their lending despite the increase in their reserves. I maintain that paying interest on reserves did not discourage banks from lending, but instead altered their incentive to hold reserves versus holding Treasuries. That decision was independent of the banks’ lending decisions. The demand for loans to finance spending plans by businesses and households was declining because of macroeconomic conditions in a recessionary economy during a financial crisis and recession and the subsequent slow recovery.

Had the Fed not paid interest on reserves while purchasing assets to provide liquidity to the banking system, I am doubtful that banks would have provided credit for increased private spending. If no interest were paid on reserves, it seems more likely that banks would have used the additional reserves created by the Fed to purchase Treasuries than to increase lending, driving up their prices and reducing their yields. Instead of receiving interest of .25% on their reserves, banks would have received slightly less interest on short-term Treasuries. So, without interest on reserves, banks would have received less interest income, and incurred slightly more risk, than they actually did. The Fed, on the other hand, would have had a net increase in revenue by not paying more interest to banks than it received from the Treasuries sold by the banks to the Fed.

The only plausible difference between paying interest on reserves and not doing so that I can see is that the Fed, by paying interest on reserves, lent credibility to its commitment to keep inflation at, or below, its 2-percent target. The Fed’s own justification for seeking permission to pay interest on reserves, as Selgin (Floored, p. 18) documented with a passage from Bernanke’s memoir , was that not doing so might result in an inflationary increase in lending by banks trying to shed their excess reserves. Because I believe that expectations of inflation have a tendency to be self-fulfilling, I don’t dismiss the idea that paying interest on reserves helped the Fed anchor inflation expectations at or near its 2-percent inflation target.

Economic conditions after the financial crisis of 2008-09 were characterized by an extreme entrepreneurial pessimism that Ralph Hawtrey called a credit deadlock, conditions akin to, but distinct from, the more familiar Keynesian phenomenon of a liquidity trap. The difference is that a credit deadlock results from pessimism so intense that entrepreneurs (and presumably households as well) are unwilling, regardless of the interest rate on loans, to undertake long-term spending plans (capital investment by businesses or consumer-durables purchases by households) requiring credit financing. In a liquidity trap, such spending plans might be undertaken at a sufficiently low interest rate, but the interest rate cannot fall, bear speculators cashing in their long-term bond holdings as soon as long-term bond prices rise to a level that speculators regard as unsustainable. To me, at least, the Hawtreyan credit deadlock seems a more plausible description of conditions in 2008-09 than the Keynesian liquidity trap.

In a Hawtreyan credit deadlock, the capacity of monetary policy to increase spending and aggregate demand is largely eliminated. Here’s Hawtrey’s description from the 1950 edition of his classic work Currency and Credit.

If the banks fail to stimulate short-term borrowing, they can create credit by themselves buying securities in the investment market. The market will seek to use the resources thus placed in it, and it will become more favourable to new flotations and sales of securities. But even so and expansion of the flow of money is not ensured. If the money created is to move and to swell the consumers’ income, the favourable market must evoke additional capital outlay. That is likely to take time and conceivably capital outlay may fail to respond. A deficiency of demand for consumable goods reacts on capital outlay, for when the existing capacity of industries is underemployed, there is little demand for capital outlay to extend capacity. . .

The deadlock then is complete, and, unless it is to continue unbroken till some fortuitous circumstance restarts activity, recourse must be had to directly inflationary expedients, such as government expenditures far in excess of revenue, or a deliberate depreciation of the foreign exchange value of the money unit.

In this passage, Hawtrey, originator of the widely reviled “Treasury View” (also see chapters 10-11 of my Studies in the History of Monetary Theory) that denied the efficacy of fiscal policy as a countercyclical tool, acknowledged the efficacy of fiscal policy in a credit deadlock, while monetary policy could be effective only through currency devaluation or depreciation, though I would add that in monetary policy could also be effective by inducing or creating expectations of inflation.

The long, but painfully slow, recovery from the 2008-09 financial crisis lent credence to Hawtrey’s description of credit deadlock, and my own empirical findings of the unusual positive correlation between changes in inflation expectations and changes in the S&P 500 supports the idea that increasing inflation expectations are a means whereby monetary policy can enable an escape from credit deadlock.

Repeat after Me: Inflation’s the Cure not the Disease

Last week Martin Feldstein triggered a fascinating four-way exchange with a post explaining yet again why we still need to be worried about inflation. Tony Yates responded first with an explanation of why money printing doesn’t work at the zero lower bound (aka liquidity trap), leading Paul Krugman to comment wearily about the obtuseness of all those right-wingers who just can’t stop obsessing about the non-existent inflation threat when, all along, it was crystal clear that in a liquidity trap, printing money is useless.

I’m still not sure why relatively moderate conservatives like Feldstein didn’t find all this convincing back in 2009. I get, I think, why politics might predispose them to see inflation risks everywhere, but this was as crystal-clear a proposition as I’ve ever seen. Still, even if you managed to convince yourself that the liquidity-trap analysis was wrong six years ago, by now you should surely have realized that Bernanke, Woodford, Eggertsson, and, yes, me got it right.

But no — it’s a complete puzzle. Maybe it’s because those tricksy Fed officials started paying all of 25 basis points on reserves (Japan never paid such interest). Anyway, inflation is just around the corner, the same way it has been all these years.

Which surprisingly (not least to Krugman) led Brad DeLong to rise to Feldstein’s defense (well, sort of), pointing out that there is a respectable argument to be made for why even if money printing is not immediately effective at the zero lower bound, it could still be effective down the road, so that the mere fact that inflation has been consistently below 2% since the crash (except for a short blip when oil prices spiked in 2011-12) doesn’t mean that inflation might not pick up quickly once inflation expectations pick up a bit, triggering an accelerating and self-sustaining inflation as all those hitherto idle balances start gushing into circulation.

That argument drew a slightly dyspeptic response from Krugman who again pointed out, as had Tony Yates, that at the zero lower bound, the demand for cash is virtually unlimited so that there is no tendency for monetary expansion to raise prices, as if DeLong did not already know that. For some reason, Krugman seems unwilling to accept the implication of the argument in his own 1998 paper that he cites frequently: that for an increase in the money stock to raise the price level – note that there is an implicit assumption that the real demand for money does not change – the increase must be expected to be permanent. (I also note that the argument had been made almost 20 years earlier by Jack Hirshleifer, in his Fisherian text on capital theory, Capital Interest and Investment.) Thus, on Krugman’s own analysis, the effect of an increase in the money stock is expectations-dependent. A change in monetary policy will be inflationary if it is expected to be inflationary, and it will not be inflationary if it is not expected to be inflationary. And Krugman even quotes himself on the point, referring to

my call for the Bank of Japan to “credibly promise to be irresponsible” — to make the expansion of the base permanent, by committing to a relatively high inflation target. That was the main point of my 1998 paper!

So the question whether the monetary expansion since 2008 will ever turn out to be inflationary depends not on an abstract argument about the shape of the LM curve, but about the evolution of inflation expectations over time. I’m not sure that I’m persuaded by DeLong’s backward induction argument – an argument that I like enough to have used myself on occasion while conceding that the logic may not hold in the real word – but there is no logical inconsistency between the backward-induction argument and Krugman’s credibility argument; they simply reflect different conjectures about the evolution of inflation expectations in a world in which there is uncertainty about what the future monetary policy of the central bank is going to be (in other words, a world like the one we inhabit).

Which brings me to the real point of this post: the problem with monetary policy since 2008 has been that the Fed has credibly adopted a 2% inflation target, a target that, it is generally understood, the Fed prefers to undershoot rather than overshoot. Thus, in operational terms, the actual goal is really less than 2%. As long as the inflation target credibly remains less than 2%, the argument about inflation risk is about the risk that the Fed will credibly revise its target upwards.

With the both Wickselian natural real and natural nominal short-term rates of interest probably below zero, it would have made sense to raise the inflation target to get the natural nominal short-term rate above zero. There were other reasons to raise the inflation target as well, e.g., providing debt relief to debtors, thereby benefitting not only debtors but also those creditors whose debtors simply defaulted.

Krugman takes it for granted that monetary policy is impotent at the zero lower bound, but that impotence is not inherent; it is self-imposed by the credibility of the Fed’s own inflation target. To be sure, changing the inflation target is not a decision that we would want the Fed to take lightly, because it opens up some very tricky time-inconsistency problems. However, in a crisis, you may have to take a chance and hope that credibility can be restored by future responsible behavior once things get back to normal.

In this vein, I am reminded of the 1930 exchange between Hawtrey and Hugh Pattison Macmillan, chairman of the Committee on Finance and Industry, when Hawtrey, testifying before the Committee, suggested that the Bank of England reduce Bank Rate even at the risk of endangering the convertibility of sterling into gold (England eventually left the gold standard a little over a year later)

MACMILLAN. . . . the course you suggest would not have been consistent with what one may call orthodox Central Banking, would it?

HAWTREY. I do not know what orthodox Central Banking is.

MACMILLAN. . . . when gold ebbs away you must restrict credit as a general principle?

HAWTREY. . . . that kind of orthodoxy is like conventions at bridge; you have to break them when the circumstances call for it. I think that a gold reserve exists to be used. . . . Perhaps once in a century the time comes when you can use your gold reserve for the governing purpose, provided you have the courage to use practically all of it.

Of course the best evidence for the effectiveness of monetary policy at the zero lower bound was provided three years later, in April 1933, when FDR suspended the gold standard in the US, causing the dollar to depreciate against gold, triggering an immediate rise in US prices (wholesale prices rising 14% from April through July) and the fastest real recovery in US history (industrial output rising by over 50% over the same period). A recent paper by Andrew Jalil and Gisela Rua documents this amazing recovery from the depths of the Great Depression and the crucial role that changing inflation expectations played in stimulating the recovery. They also make a further important point: that by announcing a price level target, FDR both accelerated the recovery and prevented expectations of inflation from increasing without limit. The 1933 episode suggests that a sharp, but limited, increase in the price-level target would generate a faster and more powerful output response than an incremental increase in the inflation target. Unfortunately, after the 2008 downturn we got neither.

Maybe it’s too much to expect that an unelected central bank would take upon itself to adopt as a policy goal a substantial increase in the price level. Had the Fed announced such a goal after the 2008 crisis, it would have invited a potentially fatal attack, and not just from the usual right-wing suspects, on its institutional independence. Price stability, is after all, part of dual mandate that Fed is legally bound to pursue. And it was FDR, not the Fed, that took the US off the gold standard.

But even so, we at least ought to be clear that if monetary policy is impotent at the zero lower bound, the impotence is not caused by any inherent weakness, but by the institutional and political constraints under which it operates in a constitutional system. And maybe there is no better argument for nominal GDP level targeting than that it offers a practical and civilly reverent way of allowing monetary policy to be effective at the zero lower bound.

Just How Infamous Was that Infamous Open Letter to Bernanke?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Aggregate Demand and Coordination Failures

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I have been writing less about monetary policy and more about theory and methodology than when I started blogging a little over three years ago. Now one reason for that is that I’ve already said what I want to say about policy, and, since I get bored easily, I look for new things to write about. Another reason is that, at least in the US, the economy seems to have reached a sustainable growth path that seems likely to continue for the near to intermediate term. I think that monetary policy could be doing more to promote recovery, and I wish that it would, but unfortunately, the policy is what it is, and it will continue more or less in the way that Janet Yellen has been saying it will. Falling oil prices, because of increasing US oil output, suggest that growth may speed up slightly even as inflation stays low, possibly even falling to one percent or less. At least in the short-term, the fall in inflation does not seem like a cause for concern. A third reason for writing less about monetary policy is that I have been giving a lot of thought to what it is that I dislike about the current state of macroeconomics, and as I have been thinking about it, I have been writing about it.

In thinking about what I think is wrong with modern macroeconomics, I have been coming back again and again, though usually without explicit attribution, to an idea that was impressed upon me as an undergrad and grad student by Axel Leijonhufvud: that the main concern of macroeconomics ought to be with failures of coordination. A Swede, trained in the tradition of the Wicksellian Stockholm School, Leijonhufvud immersed himself in the study of the economics of Keynes and Keynesian economics, while also mastering the Austrian literature, and becoming an admirer of Hayek, especially Hayek’s seminal 1937 paper, “Economics and Knowledge.”

In discussing Keynes, Leijonhufvud focused on two kinds of coordination failures.

First, there is a problem in the labor market. If there is unemployment because the real wage is too high, an individual worker can’t solve the problem by offering to accept a reduced nominal wage. Suppose the price of output is $1 a unit and the wage is $10 a day, but the real wage consistent with full employment is $9 a day, meaning that producers choose to produce less output than they would produce if the real wage were lower, thus hiring fewer workers than they would if the real wage were lower than it is. If an individual worker offers to accept a wage of $9 a day, but other workers continue to hold out for $10 a day, it’s not clear that an employer would want to hire the worker who offers to work for $9 a day. If employers are not hiring additional workers because they can’t cover the cost of the additional output produced with the incremental revenue generated by the added output, the willingness of one worker to work for $9 a day is not likely to make a difference to the employer’s output and hiring decisions. It is not obvious what sequence of transactions would result in an increase in output and employment when the real wage is above the equilibrium level. There are complex feedback effects from a change, so that the net effect of making those changes in a piecemeal fashion is unpredictable, even though there is a possible full-employment equilibrium with a real wage of $9 a day. If the problem is that real wages in general are too high for full employment, the willingness of an individual worker to accept a reduced wage from a single employer does not fix the problem.

In the standard competitive model, there is a perfect market for every commodity in which every transactor is assumed to be able to buy and sell as much as he wants. But the standard competitive model has very little to say about the process by which those equilibrium prices are arrived at. And a typical worker is never faced with that kind of choice posited in the competitive model: an impersonal uniform wage at which he can decide how many hours a day or week or year he wants to work at that uniform wage. Under those circumstances, Keynes argued that the willingness of some workers to accept wage cuts in order to gain employment would not significantly increase employment, and might actually have destabilizing side-effects. Keynes tried to make this argument in the framework of an equilibrium model, though the nature of the argument, as Don Patinkin among others observed, was really better suited to a disequilibrium framework. Unfortunately, Keynes’s argument was subsequently dumbed down to a simple assertion that wages and prices are sticky (especially downward).

Second, there is an intertemporal problem, because the interest rate may be stuck at a rate too high to allow enough current investment to generate the full-employment level of spending given the current level of the money wage. In this scenario, unemployment isn’t caused by a real wage that is too high, so trying to fix it by wage adjustment would be a mistake. Since the source of the problem is the rate of interest, the way to fix the problem would be to reduce the rate of interest. But depending on the circumstances, there may be a coordination failure: bear speculators, expecting the rate of interest to rise when it falls to abnormally low levels, prevent the rate of interest from falling enough to induce enough investment to support full employment. Keynes put too much weight on bear speculators as the source of the intertemporal problem; Hawtrey’s notion of a credit deadlock would actually have been a better way to go, and nowadays, when people speak about a Keynesian liquidity trap, what they really have in mind is something closer to Hawtreyan credit deadlock than to the Keynesian liquidity trap.

Keynes surely deserves credit for identifying and explaining two possible sources of coordination failures, failures affecting the macroeconomy, because interest rates and wages, though they actually come in many different shapes and sizes, affect all markets and are true macroeconomic variables. But Keynes’s analysis of those coordination failures was far from being fully satisfactory, which is not surprising; a theoretical pioneer rarely provides a fully satisfactory analysis, leaving lots of work for successors.

But I think that Keynes’s theoretical paradigm actually did lead macroeconomics in the wrong direction, in the direction of a highly aggregated model with a single output, a bond, a medium of exchange, and a labor market, with no explicit characterization of the production technology. (I.e., is there one factor or two, and if two how is the price of the second factor determined? See, here, here, here, and here my discussion of Earl Thompson’s “A Reformulation of Macroeconomic Theory,” which I hope at some point to revisit and continue.)

Why was it the wrong direction? Because, the Keynesian model (both Keynes’s own version and the Hicksian IS-LM version of his model) ruled out the sort of coordination problems that might arise in a multi-product, multi-factor, intertemporal model in which total output depends in a meaningful way on the meshing of the interdependent plans, independently formulated by decentralized decision-makers, contingent on possibly inconsistent expectations of the future. In the over-simplified and over-aggregated Keynesian model, the essence of the coordination problem has been assumed away, leaving only a residue of the actual problem to be addressed by the model. The focus of the model is on aggregate expenditure, income, and output flows, with no attention paid to the truly daunting task of achieving sufficient coordination among the independent decision makers to allow total output and income to closely approximate the maximum sustainable output and income that the system could generate in a perfectly coordinated state, aka full intertemporal equilibrium.

This way of thinking about macroeconomics led to the merging of macroeconomics with neoclassical growth theory and to the routine and unthinking incorporation of aggregate production functions in macroeconomic models, a practice that is strictly justified only in a single-output, two-factor model in which the value of capital is independent of the rate of interest, so that the havoc-producing effects of reswitching and capital-reversal can be avoided. Eventually, these models were taken over by modern real-business-cycle theorists, who dogmatically rule out any consideration of coordination problems, while attributing all observed output and employment fluctuations to random productivity shocks. If one thinks of macroeconomics as an attempt to understand coordination failures, the RBC explanation of output and employment fluctuations is totally backwards; productivity fluctuations, like fluctuations in output and employment, are the not the results of unexplained random disturbances, they are the symptoms of coordination failures. That’s it, eureka! Solve the problem by assuming that it does not exist.

If you are thinking that this seems like an Austrian critique of the Keynesian model or the Keynesian approach, you are right; it is an Austrian critique. But it has nothing to do with stereotypical Austrian policy negativism; it is a critique of the oversimplified structure of the Keynesian model, which foreshadowed the reduction ad absurdum or modern real-business-cycle theory, which has nearly banished the idea of coordination failures from modern macroeconomics. The critique is not about the lack of a roundabout capital structure; it is about the narrow scope for inconsistencies in production and consumption plans.

I think that Leijonhufvud almost 40 years ago was getting at this point when he wrote the following paragraph near toward end of his book on Keynes.

The unclear mix of statics and dynamics [in the General Theory] would seem to be main reason for later muddles. One cannot assume that what went wrong was simply that Keynes slipped up here and there in his adaptation of standard tools, and that consequently, if we go back and tinker a little more with the Marshallian toolbox his purposes will be realized. What is required, I believe, is a systematic investigation from the standpoint of the information problems stressed in this study, of what elements of the static theory of resource allocation can without further ado be utilized in the analysis of dynamic and historical systems. This, of course, would be merely a first step: the gap yawns very wide between the systematic and rigorous modern analysis of the stability of simple, “featureless,” pure exchange systems and Keynes’ inspired sketch of the income-constrained process in a monetary exchange-cum production system. But even for such a first step, the prescription cannot be to “go back to Keynes.” If one must retrace some step of past developments in order to get on the right track – and that is probably advisable – my own preference is to go back to Hayek. Hayek’s Gestalt-conception of what happens during business cycles, it has been generally agreed, was much less sound that Keynes’. As an unhappy consequence, his far superior work on the fundamentals of the problem has not received the attention it deserves. (pp. 401-02)

I don’t think that we actually need to go back to Hayek, though “Economics and Knowledge” should certainly be read by every macroeconomist, but we do need to get a clearer understanding of the potential for breakdowns in economic activity to be caused by inconsistent expectations, especially when expectations are themselves mutually dependent and reinforcing. Because expectations are mutually interdependent, they are highly susceptible to network effects. Network effects produce tipping points, tipping points can lead to catastrophic outcomes. Just wanted to share that with you. Have a nice day.


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.

My new book Studies in the History of Monetary Theory: Controversies and Clarifications has been published by Palgrave Macmillan

Follow me on Twitter @david_glasner

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