Archive for the 'liquidity trap' Category

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.

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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.

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