Archive for the 'QE' Category

The Sky Is Not Falling . . . Yet

Possibly responding to hints by ECB president Mario Draghi of monetary stimulus, stocks around the world are up today; the S&P 500 over 1900 (about 2% above yesterday’s close). Anyone who wants to understand why stock markets have been swooning since the end of 2015 should take a look at this chart showing TIPS_FREDthe breakeven TIPS spread on 10-year Treasuries over the past 10 years.

Let’s look at the peak spread (2.56%) reached in early July 2008, a couple of months before the onset of the financial crisis in September. Despite mounting evidence that the economy was contracting and unemployment rising, the Fed, transfixed by the threat of Inflation (manifested in rising energy prices) and a supposed loss of Fed credibility (manifested in rising inflation expectations), refused to continue reducing its interest-rate target lest the markets conclude that the Fed was not serious about fighting inflation. That’s when all hell started to break loose. By September 14, the Friday before the Lehman bankruptcy, the breakeven TIPS spread had fallen to 1.95%. It was not till October that the Fed finally relented and reduced its target rate, but nullified whatever stimulus the lower target rate might have provided by initiating the payment of interest on reserves. As you can see the breakeven spread continued to fall almost without interruption till reaching lows of about 0.10% by the end of 2008.

There were three other episodes of falling inflation expectations which are evident on the graph, in 2010, 2011 and 2012, each episode precipitating a monetary response (so-called quantitative easing) by the Fed to reverse the fall in inflation expectations, thereby avoiding an untimely end to the weak recovery from the financial crisis and the subsequent Little Depression.

Despite falling inflation expectations during the second half of 2014, the lackluster expansion continued, a possible sign of normalization insofar as the momentum of recovery was sustained despite falling inflation expectations (due in part to a positive oil-supply shock). But after a brief pickup in the first half of 2015, inflation expectations have been falling further in the second half of 2015, and the drop has steepened over the past month, with the breakeven TIPS spread falling from 1.56% on January 5 to 1.28% yesterday, a steeper decline than in July 2008, when the TIPS spread on July 3 stood at 2.56% and did not fall to 2.30% until August 5.

I am not saying that the market turmoil of the past three weeks is totally attributable to falling inflation expectations; it seems very plausible that the bursting of the oil bubble has been a major factor in the decline of stock prices. Falling oil prices could affect stock prices in at least two different ways: 1) the decline in energy prices itself being deflationary – at least if monetary policy is not specifically aimed at reversing those deflationary effects – and 2) oil and energy assets being on the books of many financial institutions, a decline in their value may impair the solvency of those institutions, causing a deflationary increase in the demand for currency and reserves. But even if falling oil prices are an independent cause of market turmoil, they interact with and reinforce deflationary pressures; the only way to counteract those deflationary pressures is monetary expansion.

And with inflation expectations now lower than they have been since early 2009, further reductions in inflation expectations could put us back into a situation in which the expected yield from holding cash exceeds the expected yield from holding real capital. In such situations, with nominal interest rates at or near the zero lower bound, a perverse Fisher effect takes hold and asset prices have to fall sufficiently to make people willing to hold assets rather than cash. (I explained this perverse adjustment process in this paper, and used it to explain the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath.) The result is a crash in asset prices. We haven’t reached that point yet, but I am afraid that we are getting too close for comfort.

The 2008 crisis. was caused by an FOMC that was so focused on the threat of inflation that they ignored ample and obvious signs of a rapidly deteriorating economy and falling inflation expectations, foolishly interpreting the plunge in TIPS spreads and the appreciation of the dollar relative to other currencies as an expression by the markets of confidence in Fed policy rather than as a cry for help.

In 2008, the Fed at least had the excuse of rising energy prices and headline inflation above its then informal 2% target for not cutting interest rates to provide serious monetary stimulus to a collapsing economy. This time, despite failing for over three years to meet its now official 2% inflation target, Dr. Yellen and her FOMC colleagues show no sign of thinking about anything other than when they can show their mettle as central bankers by raising interest rates again. Now is not the time to worry about raising interest rates. Dr. Yellen’s problem is now to show that her top – indeed her only – priority is to ensure that the Fed’s 2% inflation target will be met, or, if need be, exceeded, in 2016 and that the growth in nominal income in 2016 will be at least as large as it was in 2015. Those are goals that are eminently achievable, and if the FOMC has any credibility left after its recent failures, providing such assurance will prevent another unnecessary and destructive financial crisis.

The 2008 financial crisis ensured the election of Barak Obama as President. I shudder to think of who might be elected if we have another crisis this year.

Martin Feldstein Just Won’t Stop

Martin Feldstein has been warning about the disasters that would befall us thanks to Fed policy for over five years. His November 2, 2010 op-ed piece in the Financial Times (“QE2 is risky and should be limited”) provoked me to write this letter to the editor in response. Feldstein continued assailing QE in 2013 in a May 9 contribution to the Wall Street Journal to which (having become a blogger in 2011) I responded with this post. Stock prices having dropped steeply so far in 2016, Feldstein seems to think now — five years after pronouncing, with the S&P 500 at 1188, stocks overvalued — is a good time for a victory lap.

The sharp fall in share prices last week was a reminder of the vulnerabilities created by years of monetary policy. While chaos in the Chinese stock market may have been the triggering event, it was inevitable that the artificially high prices of U.S. stocks would eventually decline. Even after last week’s market fall, the S&P 500 stock index remains 30% above its historical average. There is no reason to think the correction is finished.

One would like to know by what criterion Feldstein thinks he can discern when stock prices are “artificially high.” Unlike Scott Sumner, I don’t accept the efficient market hypothesis, but I do agree with Scott that it takes a huge dose of chutzpah to claim to know when the entire market is “artificially” high, and an even bigger dose to continue making the claim more or less continuously for over five years even as prices nearly double. And just what does it mean, I wonder, for the S&P 500 index to be 30% above its historical average? Does it mean that PE ratios are 30% above their historical average? Well PE ratios reflect the rates at which expected future profits are discounted. If discount rates are below their historical average, as they surely are, why shouldn’t PE ratios be above their historical average? Well, because Feldstein believes that discount rates are being held down – artificially held down – by Fed policy. That makes high PE ratios are artificially high. Here’s how Feldstein explains it:

The overpriced share values are a direct result of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing (QE) policy. Beginning in November 2008 and running through October 2014, the Fed combined massive bond purchases with a commitment to keep short-term interest rates low as a way to hold down long-term interest rates. Chairman Ben Bernanke explained on several occasions that the Fed’s actions were intended to drive up asset prices, thereby increasing household wealth and consumer spending.

The strategy worked well. Share prices jumped 30% in 2013 alone and house prices rose 13% in that year. The resulting rise in wealth increased consumer spending, leading to higher GDP and lower unemployment.

I have to pause here to note that Feldstein is now actually changing his story a bit from the one he used to tell, because in his 2013 Wall Street Journal piece he said this about how well Bernanke’s strategy of holding down interest rates was working.

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.

So in 2013, Feldstein dismissed the possibility that the increase in stock prices had had a significant effect on consumer spending. In my 2013 blog post responding to Feldstein, I noted his failure to understand the sophisticated rationale for QE as opposed to the simplistic one that he (and, in fairness, Bernanke himself) attributed to it.

[A]ll 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 instance, 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.

But now Feldstein says that QE really was effective, even though in 2013 he dismissed as inconsequential the mechanism by which QE could have been effective, failing to acknowledge that there was an alternative mechanism by which QE might work. Nevertheless, in today’s op-ed, Feldstein confirms that he still believes that the only way QE can be effective is via the discredited portfolio-balance mechanism.

But excessively low interest rates have caused investors and lenders, in their reach for yield, to accept excessive risks in equities and fixed-income securities, in commercial real estate, and in the overall quality of loans. There is no doubt that many assets are overpriced, and as the Fed normalizes interest rates these prices will fall. It is difficult to know if this will cause widespread financial and economic declines like those seen in 2008. But the persistence of very low interest rates contributes to that systemic risk and to the possibility of economic instability.

Unfortunately, the recently released minutes of December’s Federal Open Market Committee meeting made no mention of financial-industry risks caused by persistent low interest rates for years to come. There was also no suggestion that the Fed might raise interest rates more rapidly to put a damper on the reach for yield that has led to mispriced assets. Instead the FOMC stressed that the federal-funds rate will creep up very slowly and remain below its equilibrium value even after the economy has achieved full employment and the Fed’s target rate of inflation.

Simply asserting that interest rates are “excessively low” is just question begging. What evidence is there that interest rates are excessively low? Interest rates for Treasuries at maturities of two years or more are lower today, after the Fed raised rates in December than they were for much of 2015. Under the Feldstein view of the world, the Fed had been holding down interest rates before December, so why are they lower now than they were before the Fed stopped suppressing them? The answer of course is that the Fed controls only one interest rate in a very narrow sliver of the entire market economy. Interest rates are embedded in a huge, complex and interconnected array of prices for real capital assets, and financial instruments. The structure of all those prices embodies and reflects the entire spectrum of interest rates affecting the economy. It is simply delusional to believe that the Fed can have more than a marginal effect on interest rates, except insofar as it can affect expectations about future prices – about the future value of the dollar. In the absence of evidence that the Fed is affecting inflation expectations, it is a blatant and demonstrable fallacy to maintain that the Fed is forcing interest rates to deviate from equilibrium values that would, but for Fed intervention, otherwise obtain. No doubt, there are indeed many assets that are overpriced, but, for all Professor Feldstein knows, there are just as many that are underpriced.

So Professor Feldstein might really want to take to heart a salutary maxim of Ludwig Wittgenstein: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

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.

 

The Irrelevance of QE as Explained by Three Bank of England Economists

An article by Michael McLeay, Amara Radia and Ryland Thomas (“Money Creation in the Modern Economy”) published in the Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin has gotten a lot of attention recently. JKH, who liked it a lot, highlighting it on his blog, and prompting critical responses from, among others, Nick Rowe and Scott Sumner.

Let’s look at the overview of the article provided by the authors.

In the modern economy, most money takes the form of bank deposits. But how those bank deposits are created is often misunderstood: the principal way is through commercial banks making loans. Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.

The reality of how money is created today differs from the description found in some economics textbooks:

• Rather than banks receiving deposits when households save and then lending them out, bank lending creates deposits.

• In normal times, the central bank does not fix the amount of money in circulation, nor is central bank money ‘multiplied up’ into more loans and deposits.

I start with a small point. What the authors mean by a “modern economy” is unclear, but presumably when they speak about the money created in a modern economy they are referring to the fact that the money held by the non-bank public has increasingly been held in the form of deposits rather than currency or coins (either tokens or precious metals). Thus, Scott Sumner’s complaint that the authors’ usage of “modern” flies in the face of the huge increase in the ratio of base money to broad money is off-target. The relevant ratio is that between currency and the stock of some measure of broad money held by the public, which is not the same as the ratio of base money to the stock of broad money.

I agree that the reality of how money is created differs from the textbook money-multiplier description. See my book on free banking and various posts I have written about the money multiplier and endogenous money. There is no meaningful distinction between “normal times” and “exceptional circumstances” for purposes of understanding how money is created.

Although commercial banks create money through lending, they cannot do so freely without limit. Banks are limited in how much they can lend if they are to remain profitable in a competitive banking system. Prudential regulation also acts as a constraint on banks’ activities in order to maintain the resilience of the financial system. And the households and companies who receive the money created by new lending may take actions that affect the stock of money — they could quickly ‘destroy’ money by using it to repay their existing debt, for instance.

I agree that commercial banks cannot create money without limit. They are constrained by the willingness of the public to hold their liabilities. Not all monies are the same, despite being convertible into each other at par. The ability of a bank to lend is constrained by the willingness of the public to hold the deposits of that bank rather than currency or the deposits of another bank.

Monetary policy acts as the ultimate limit on money creation. The Bank of England aims to make sure the amount of money creation in the economy is consistent with low and stable inflation. In normal times, the Bank of England implements monetary policy by setting the interest rate on central bank reserves. This then influences a range of interest rates in the economy, including those on bank loans.

Monetary policy is certainly a constraint on money creation, but I don’t understand why it is somehow more important (the constraint of last resort?) than the demand of the public to hold money. Monetary policy, in the framework suggested by this article, affects the costs borne by banks in creating deposits. Adopting Marshallian terminology, we could speak of the two blades of a scissors. Which bade is the ultimate blade? I don’t think there is an ultimate blade. In this context, the term “normal times” refers to periods in which interest rates are above the effective zero lower bound (see the following paragraph). But the underlying confusion here is that the authors seem to think that the amount of money created by the banking system actually matters. In fact, it doesn’t matter, because (at least in the theoretical framework being described) the banks create no more and no less money that the amount that the public willingly holds. Thus the amount of bank money created has zero macroeconomic significance.

In exceptional circumstances, when interest rates are at their effective lower bound, money creation and spending in the economy may still be too low to be consistent with the central bank’s monetary policy objectives. One possible response is to undertake a series of asset purchases, or ‘quantitative easing’ (QE). QE is intended to boost the amount of money in the economy directly by purchasing assets, mainly from non-bank financial companies.

Again the underlying problem with this argument is the presumption that the amount of money created by banks – money convertible into the base money created by the central bank – is a magnitude with macroeconomic significance. In the framework being described, there is no macroeconomic significance to that magnitude, because the value of bank money is determined by its convertibility into central bank money and the banking system creates exactly as much money as is willingly held. If the central bank wants to affect the price level, it has to do so by creating an excess demand or excess supply of the money that it — the central bank — creates, not the money created by the banking system.

QE initially increases the amount of bank deposits those companies hold (in place of the assets they sell). Those companies will then wish to rebalance their portfolios of assets by buying higher-yielding assets, raising the price of those assets and stimulating spending in the economy.

If the amount of bank deposits in the economy is the amount that the public wants to hold, QE cannot affect anything by increasing the amount of bank deposits; any unwanted bank deposits are returned to the banking system. It is only an excess of central-bank money that can possibly affect spending.

As a by-product of QE, new central bank reserves are created. But these are not an important part of the transmission mechanism. This article explains how, just as in normal times, these reserves cannot be multiplied into more loans and deposits and how these reserves do not represent ‘free money’ for banks.

The problem with the creation of new central-bank reserves by QE at the zero lower bound is that, central-bank reserves earn a higher return than alternative assets that might be held by banks, so any and all reserves created by the central bank are held willingly by the banking system. The demand of the banking for central bank reserves is unbounded at the zero-lower bound when the central bank pays a higher rate of interest than the yield on the next best alternative asset the bank could hold. If the central bank wants to increase spending, it can only do so by creating reserves that are not willingly held. Thus, in the theortetical framework described by the authors, QE cannot possibly have any effect on any macroeconomic variable. Now that’s a problem.

Does Macroeconomics Need Financial Foundations?

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

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

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

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

For laughs: Sumner once tried to defend the childish textbook model of banks lending out reserves and it ended in a colossal embarrassment in the comments section http://www.themoneyillusion.com/?p=5893

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

To which Kaminska graciously replied:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Williamson Gets Stuck at the Zero Lower Bound

Stephen Williamson started quite a ruckus on the econblogosphere with his recent posts arguing that, contrary to the express intentions of the FOMC, Quantitative Easing has actually caused inflation to go down. Whether Williamson’s discovery will have any practical effect remains to be seen, but in the meantime, there has been a lot head-scratching by Williamson’s readers trying to figure out how he reached such a counterintuitive conclusion. I apologize for getting to this discussion so late, but I have been trying off and on, amid a number of distractions, including travel to Switzerland where I am now visiting, to think my way through this discussion for the past several days. Let’s see if I have come up with anything enlightening to contribute.

The key ideas that Williamson relies on to derive his result are the standard ones of a real and a nominal interest rate that are related to each other by way of the expected rate of inflation (though Williamson does not distinguish between expected and annual inflation, that distinction perhaps not existing in his rational-expectations universe). The nominal rate must equal the real rate plus the expected rate of inflation. One way to think of the real rate is as the expected net pecuniary return (adjusted for inflation) from holding a real asset expressed as a percentage of the asset’s value, exclusive of any non-pecuniary benefits that it might provide (e.g., the aesthetic services provided by an art object to its owner). Insofar as an asset provides such services, the anticipated real return of the asset would be correspondingly reduced, and its current value enhanced compared to assets providing no non-pecuniary services. The value of assets providing additional non-pecuniary services includes a premium reflecting those services. The non-pecuniary benefit on which Williamson is focused is liquidity — the ease of buying or selling the asset at a price near its actual value — and the value enhancement accruing to assets providing such liquidity services is the liquidity premium.

Suppose that there are just two kinds of assets: real assets that generate (or are expected to do so) real pecuniary returns and money. Money provides liquidity services more effectively than any other asset. Now in any equilibrium in which both money and non-money assets are held, the expected net return from holding each asset must equal the expected net return from holding the other. If money, at the margin, is providing net liquidity services provided by no other asset, the expected pecuniary yield from holding money must be correspondingly less than the expected yield on the alternative real asset. Otherwise people would just hold money rather than the real asset (equivalently, the value of real assets would have to fall before people would be willing to hold those assets).

Here’s how I understand what Williamson is trying to do. I am not confident in my understanding, because Williamson’s first post was very difficult to follow. He started off with a series of propositions derived from Milton Friedman’s argument about the optimality of deflation at the real rate of interest, which implies a zero nominal interest rate, making it costless to hold money. Liquidity would be free, and the liquidity premium would be zero.

From this Friedmanian analysis of the optimality of expected deflation at a rate equal to the real rate of interest, Williamson transitions to a very different argument in which the zero lower bound does not eliminate the liquidity premium. Williamson posits a liquidity premium on bonds, the motivation for which being that bonds are useful by being readily acceptable as collateral. Williamson posits this liquidity premium as a fact, but without providing evidence, just an argument that the financial crisis destroyed or rendered unusable lots of assets that previously were, or could have been, used as collateral, thereby making Treasury bonds of short duration highly liquid and imparting to them a liquidity premium. If both bonds and money are held, and both offer the same zero nominal pecuniary return, then an equal liquidity premium must accrue to both bonds and money.

But something weird seems to have happened. We are supposed to be at the zero lower bound, and bonds and money are earning a liquidity premium, which means that the real pecuniary yield on bonds and money is negative, which contradicts Friedman’s proposition that a zero nominal interest rate implies that holding money is costless and that there is no liquidity premium. As best as I can figure this out, Williamson seems to be assuming that the real yield on real (illiquid) capital is positive, so that the zero lower bound is really an illusion, a mirage created by the atypical demand for government bonds for use as collateral.

As I suggested before, this is an empirical claim, and it should be possible to provide empirical support for the proposition that there is an unusual liquidity premium attaching to government debt of short duration in virtue of its superior acceptability as collateral. One test of the proposition would be to compare the yields on government debt of short duration versus non-government debt of short duration. A quick check here indicates that the yields on 90-day commercial paper issued by non-financial firms are very close to zero, suggesting to me that government debt of short duration is not providing any liquidity premium. If so, then the expected short-term yield on real capital may not be significantly greater than the yield on government debt, so that we really are at the zero lower bound rather than at a pseudo-zero lower bound as Williamson seems to be suggesting.

Given his assumption that there is a significant liquidity premium attaching to money and short-term government debt, I understand Williamson to be making the following argument about Quantitative Easing. There is a shortage of government debt in the sense that the public would like to hold more government debt than is being supplied. Since the federal budget deficit is rapidly shrinking, leaving the demand for short-term government debt unsatisfied, quantitative easing at least provides the public with the opportunity to exchange their relatively illiquid long-term government debt for highly liquid bank reserves created by the Fed. By so doing, the Fed is reducing the liquidity premium. But at the pseudo-zero-lower bound, a reduction in the liquidity premium implies a reduced rate of inflation, because it is the expected rate of inflation that reduces the expected return on holding money to offset the liquidity yield provided by money.

Williamson argues that by reducing the liquidity premium on holding money, QE has been the cause of the steadily declining rate of inflation over the past three years. This is a very tricky claim, because, even if we accept Williamson’s premises, he is leaving something important out of the analysis. Williamson’s argument is really about the effect of QE on expected inflation in equilibrium. But he pays no attention to the immediate effect of a change in the liquidity premium. If people reduce their valuation of money, because it is providing a reduced level of liquidity services, that change must be reflected in an immediate reduction in the demand to hold money, which would imply an immediate shift out of money into other assets. In other words, the value of money must fall. Conceptually, this would be an instantaneous, once and for all change, but if Williamson’s analysis is correct, the immediate once and for all changes should have been reflected in increased measured rates of inflation even though inflation expectations were falling. So it seems to me that the empirical fact of observed declines in the rate of inflation that motivates Williamson’s analysis turns out to be inconsistent with the implications of his analysis.

Bhide and Phelps v. Reality

I don’t know who Amar Bhide (apologies for not being able to insert an accent over the “e” in his last name) is, but Edmund Phelps is certainly an eminent economist and a deserving recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in economics. Unfortunately, Professor Phelps attached his name to an op-ed in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, co-authored with Bhide, consisting of little more than a sustained, but disjointed, rant about the Fed and central banking. I am only going to discuss that first part of the op-ed that touches on the monetary theory of increasing the money supply through open-market operations, and about the effect of that increase on inflation and inflation expectations. Bhide and Phelps not only get the theory wrong, they seem amazingly oblivious to well-known facts that flatly contradict their assertions about monetary policy since 2008. Let’s join them in their second paragraph.

Monetary policy might focus on the manageable task of keeping expectations of inflation on an even keel—an idea of Mr. Phelps’s [yes that same Mr. Phelps whose name appears as a co-author] in 1967 that was long influential. That would leave businesses and other players to determine the pace of recovery from a recession or of pullback from a boom.

Nevertheless, in late 2008 the Fed began its policy of “quantitative easing”—repeated purchases of billions in Treasury debt—aimed at speeding recovery. “QE2” followed in late 2010 and “QE3” in autumn 2012.

One can’t help wondering what planet Bhide and Phelps have been dwelling on these past four years. To begin with, the first QE program was not instituted until March 2009 after the target Fed funds rate had been reduced to 0.25% in December 2008. Despite a nearly zero Fed funds rate, asset prices, which had seemed to stabilize after the September through November crash, began falling sharply again in February, the S&P 500 dropping from 869.89 on February 9 to 676.53 on March 9, a decline of more than 20%, with inflation expectations as approximated, by the TIPS spread, again falling sharply as they had the previous summer and fall.

Apart from their confused chronology, their suggestion that the Fed’s various quantitative easings have somehow increased inflation and inflation expectations is absurd. Since 2009, inflation has averaged less than 2% a year – one of the longest periods of low inflation in the entire post-war era. Nor has quantitative easing increased inflation expectations. The TIPS spread and other measures of inflation expectations clearly show that inflation expectations have fluctuated within a narrow range since 2008, but have generally declined overall.

The graph below shows the estimates of the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank of 10-year inflation expectations since 1982. The chart shows that the latest estimate of expected inflation, 1.65%, is only slightly above its the low point, reached in March, over the past 30 years. Thus expected inflation is now below the 2% target rate that the Fed has set. And to my knowledge Professor Phelps has never advocated targeting an annual inflation rate less than 2%. So I am unable to understand what he is complaining about.

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Bhide and Phelps continue:

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said in November 2010 that this unprecedented program of sustained monetary easing would lead to “higher stock prices” that “will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending.”

It is doubtful, though, that quantitative easing boosted either wealth or confidence. The late University of Chicago economist Lloyd Metzler argued persuasively years ago that a central-bank purchase, in putting the price level onto a higher path, soon lowers the real value of household wealth—by roughly the amount of the purchase, in his analysis. (People swap bonds for money, then inflation occurs, until the real value of money holdings is back to where it was.)

There are three really serious problems with this passage. First, and most obvious to just about anyone who has not been asleep for the last four years, central-bank purchases have not put the price level on a higher path than it was on before 2008; the rate of inflation has clearly fallen since 2008. Or would Bhide and Phelps have preferred to allow the deflation that briefly took hold in the fall of 2008 to have continued? I don’t think so. But if they aren’t advocating deflation, what exactly is their preferred price level path? Between zero and 1.5% perhaps? Is their complaint that the Fed has allowed inflation to be a half a point too high for the last four years? Good grief.

Second, Bhide and Phelps completely miss the point of the Metzler paper (“Wealth, Saving and the Rate of Interest”), one of the classics of mid-twentieth-century macroeconomics. (And I would just mention as an aside that while Metzler was indeed at the University of Chicago, he was the token Keynesian in the Chicago economics department in 1940s and early 1950s, until his active career was cut short by a brain tumor, which he survived, but with some impairment of his extraordinary intellectual gifts. Metzler’s illness therefore led the department to hire an up-and-coming young Keynesian who had greatly impressed Milton Friedman when he spent a year at Cambridge; his name was Harry Johnson. Unfortunately Friedman and Johnson did not live happily ever after at Chicago.) The point of the Metzler paper was to demonstrate that monetary policy, conducted via open-market operations, could in fact alter the real interest rate. Money, on Metzler’s analysis, is not neutral even in the long run. The conclusion was reached via a comparative-statics exercise, a comparison of two full-employment equilibria — one before and one after the central bank had increased the quantity of money by making open-market purchases.

The motivation for the exercise was that some critics of Keynes, arguing that deflation, at least in principle, could serve as a cure for involuntary unemployment — an idea that Keynes claimed to have refuted — had asserted that, because consumption spending depends not only on income, but on total wealth, deflation, by increasing the real value of the outstanding money stock, would actually make households richer, which would eventually cause households to increase consumption spending enough to restore full employment. Metzler argued that if consumption does indeed depend on total wealth, then, although the classical proposition that deflation could restore full employment would be vindicated, another classical proposition — the invariance of the real rate of interest with respect to the quantity of money — would be violated. So Metzler’s analysis — a comparison of two full-employment equilbria, the first with a lower quantity of money and a higher real interest rate and the second with a higher quantity of money and lower real interest rate – has zero relevance to the post-2008 period, in which the US economy was nowhere near full-employment equilibrium.

Finally, Bhide and Phelps, mischaracterize Metzler’s analysis. Metzler’s analysis depends critically on the proposition that the reduced real interest rate caused by monetary expansion implies an increase in household wealth, thereby leading to increased consumption. It is precisely the attempt to increase consumption that, in Metzler’s analysis, entails an inflationary gap that causes the price level to rise. But even after the increase in the price level, the real value of household assets, contrary to what Bhide and Phelps assert, remains greater than before the monetary expansion, because of a reduced real interest rate. A reduced real interest rate implies an increased real value of the securities retained by households.

Under Metzler’s analysis, therefore, if the starting point is a condition of less than full employment, increasing the quantity of money via open-market operations would tend to increase not only household wealth, but would also increase output and employment relative to the initial condition. So it is also clear that, on Metzler’s analysis, apparently regarded by Bhide and Phelps as authoritative, the problem with Fed policy since 2008 is not that it produced too much inflation, as Bhide and Phelps suggest, but that it produced too little.

If it seems odd that Bhide and Phelps could so totally misread the classic paper whose authority they invoke, just remember this: in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, things aren’t always what they seem.

HT: ChargerCarl


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist at the Federal Trade Commission. Nothing that you read on this blog necessarily reflects the views of the FTC or the individual commissioners. Although I work at the FTC as an antitrust economist, most of my research and writing has been on monetary economics and policy and the history of monetary theory. 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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