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Three Propagation Mechanisms in Lucas and Sargent with a Response from Brad DeLong

UPDATE (4/3/2022): Reupping this post with the response to my query sent by Brad DeLong.

I’m writing this post in hopes of eliciting some guidance from readers about the three propagation mechanisms to which Robert Lucas and Thomas Sargent refer in their famous 1978 article, “After Keynesian Macroeconomics.” The three propagation mechanisms were mentioned to parry criticisms of the rational-expectations principle underlying the New Classical macroeconomics that Lucas and Sargent were then developing as an alternative to Keynesian macroeconomics. I am wondering how subsequent research has dealt with these propagation mechanisms and how they are now treated in current macro-theory. Here is the relevant passage from Lucas and Sargent:

A second line of criticism stems from the correct observation that if agents’ expectations are rational and if their information sets include lagged values of the variable being forecast, then agents’ forecast errors must be a serially uncorrelated random process. That is, on average there must be no detectable relationships between a period’s forecast error and any previous period’s. This feature has led several critics to conclude that equilibrium models cannot account for more than an insignificant part of the highly serially correlated movements we observe in real output, employment, unemployment, and other series. Tobin (1977, p. 461) has put the argument succinctly:

One currently popular explanation of variations in employment is temporary confusion of relative and absolute prices. Employers and workers are fooled into too many jobs by unexpected inflation, but only until they learn it affects other prices, not just the prices of what they sell. The reverse happens temporarily when inflation falls short of expectation. This model can scarcely explain more than transient disequilibrium in labor markets.

So how can the faithful explain the slow cycles of unemployment we actually observe? Only by arguing that the natural rate itself fluctuates, that variations in unemployment rates are substantially changes in voluntary, frictional, or structural unemployment rather than in involuntary joblessness due to generally deficient demand.

The critics typically conclude that the theory only attributes a very minor role to aggregate demand fluctuations and necessarily depends on disturbances to aggregate supply to account for most of the fluctuations in real output over the business cycle. “In other words,” as Modigliani (1977) has said, “what happened to the United States in the 1930’s was a severe attack of contagious laziness.” This criticism is fallacious because it fails to distinguish properly between sources of impulses and propagation mechanisms, a distinction stressed by Ragnar Frisch in a classic 1933 paper that provided many of the technical foundations for Keynesian macroeconometric models. Even though the new classical theory implies that the forecast errors which are the aggregate demand impulses are serially uncorrelated, it is certainly logically possible that propagation mechanisms are at work that convert these impulses into serially correlated movements in real variables like output and employment. Indeed, detailed theoretical work has already shown that two concrete propagation mechanisms do precisely that.

One mechanism stems from the presence of costs to firms of adjusting their stocks of capital and labor rapidly. The presence of these costs is known to make it optimal for firms to spread out over time their response to the relative price signals they receive. That is, such a mechanism causes a firm to convert the serially uncorrelated forecast errors in predicting relative prices into serially correlated movements in factor demands and output.

A second propagation mechanism is already present in the most classical of economic growth models. Households’ optimal accumulation plans for claims on physical capital and other assets convert serially uncorrelated impulses into serially correlated demands for the accumulation of real assets. This happens because agents typically want to divide any unexpected changes in income partly between consuming and accumulating assets. Thus, the demand for assets next period depends on initial stocks and on unexpected changes in the prices or income facing agents. This dependence makes serially uncorrelated surprises lead to serially correlated movements in demands for physical assets. Lucas (1975) showed how this propagation mechanism readily accepts errors in forecasting aggregate demand as an impulse source.

A third likely propagation mechanism has been identified by recent work in search theory. (See, for example, McCall 1965, Mortensen 1970, and Lucas and Prescott 1974.) Search theory tries to explain why workers who for some reason are without jobs find it rational not necessarily to take the first job offer that comes along but instead to remain unemployed for awhile until a better offer materializes. Similarly, the theory explains why a firm may find it optimal to wait until a more suitable job applicant appears so that vacancies persist for some time. Mainly for technical reasons, consistent theoretical models that permit this propagation mechanism to accept errors in forecasting aggregate demand as an impulse have not yet been worked out, but the mechanism seems likely eventually to play an important role in a successful model of the time series behavior of the unemployment rate. In models where agents have imperfect information, either of the first two mechanisms and probably the third can make serially correlated movements in real variables stem from the introduction of a serially uncorrelated sequence of forecasting errors. Thus theoretical and econometric models have been constructed in which in principle the serially uncorrelated process of forecasting errors can account for any proportion between zero and one of the steady state variance of real output or employment. The argument that such models must necessarily attribute most of the variance in real output and employment to variations in aggregate supply is simply wrong logically.

My problem with the Lucas-Sargent argument is that even if the deviations from a long-run equilibrium path are serially correlated, shouldn’t those deviations be diminishing over time after the initial disturbance. Can these propagation mechanisms account for amplification of the initial disturbance before the adjustment toward the equilibrium path begins? I would gratefully welcome any responses.

David Glasner has a question about the “rational expectations” business-cycle theories developed in the 1970s:

David GlasnerThree Propagation Mechanisms in Lucas & Sargent: ‘I’m… hop[ing for]… some guidance… about… propagation mechanisms… [in] Robert Lucas and Thomas Sargent[‘s]… “After Keynesian Macroeconomics.”… 

The critics typically conclude that the theory only attributes a very minor role to aggregate demand fluctuations and necessarily depends on disturbances to aggregate supply…. [But] even though the new classical theory implies that the forecast errors which are the aggregate demand impulses are serially uncorrelated, it is certainly logically possible that propagation mechanisms are at work that convert these impulses into serially correlated movements in real variables like output and employment… the presence of costs to firms of adjusting their stocks of capital and labor rapidly…. accumulation plans for claims on physical capital and other assets convert serially uncorrelated impulses into serially correlated demands for the accumulation of real assets… workers who for some reason are without jobs find it rational not necessarily to take the first job offer that comes along but instead to remain unemployed for awhile until a better offer materializes…. In principle the serially uncorrelated process of forecasting errors can account for any proportion between zero and one of the [serially correlated] steady state variance of real output or employment. The argument that such models must necessarily attribute most of the variance in real output and employment to variations in aggregate supply is simply wrong logically…

My problem with the Lucas-Sargent argument is that even if the deviations from a long-run equilibrium path are serially correlated, shouldn’t those deviations be diminishing over time after the initial disturbance? Can these propagation mechanisms account for amplification of the initial disturbance before the adjustment toward the equilibrium path begins? I would gratefully welcome any responses…

In some ways this is of only history-of-thought interest. For Lucas and Prescott, at least, had within five years of the writing of “After Keynesian Macroeconomics” decided that the critics were right: that their models of how mistaken decisions driven by serially-uncorrelated forecast errors could not account for the bulk of the serially correlated business-cycle variance of real output and employment, and they needed to shift to studying real business cycle theory instead of price-misperceptions theory. The first problem was that time-series methods generated shocks that came at the wrong times to explain recessions. The second problem was that the propagation mechanisms did not amplify but rather damped the shock: at best they produced some kind of partial-adjustment process that extended the impact of a shock on real variables to N periods and diminished its impact in any single period to 1/N. There was no… what is the word?…. multiplier in the system.

It was stunning to watch in real time in the early 1980s. As Paul Volcker hit the economy on the head with the monetary-stringency brick, repeatedly, quarter after quarter; as his serially correlated and hence easily anticipated policy moves had large and highly serially correlated effects on output; Robert Lucas and company simply… pretended it was not happening: that monetary policy was not having major effects on output and employment in the first half of the 1980s, and that it was not the case thjat the monetary policies that were having such profound real impacts had no plausible interpretation as “surprises” leading to “misperceptions”. Meanwhile, over in the other corner, Robert Barro was claiming that he saw no break in the standard pattern of federal deficits from the Reagan administration’s combination of tax cuts plus defense buildup.

Those of us who were graduate students at the time watched this, and drew conclusions about the likelihood that Lucas, Prescott, and company had good enough judgment and close enough contact with reality that their proposed “real business cycle” research program would be a productive one—conclusions that, I think, time has proved fully correct.

Behind all this, of course, was this issue: the “microfoundations” of the Lucas “island economy” model were totally stupid: people are supposed to “misperceive” relative prices because they know the nominal prices at which they sell but do not know the nominal prices at which they buy, hence people confuse a monetary shock-generated rise in the nominal price level with an increase in the real price of what they produce, and hence work harder and longer and produce more? (I forget who it was who said at the time that the model seemed to require a family in which the husband worked and the wife went to the grocery store and the husband never listened to anything the wife said.) These so-called “microfoundations” could only be rationally understood as some kind of metaphor. But what kind of metaphor? And why should it have any special status, and claim on our attention?

Paul Krugman’s judgment on the consequences of this intellectual turn is even harsher than mine:

What made the Dark Ages dark was the fact that so much knowledge had been lost, that so much known to the Greeks and Romans had been forgotten by the barbarian kingdoms that followed. And that’s what seems to have happened to macroeconomics in much of the economics profession. The knowledge that S=I doesn’t imply the Treasury view—the general understanding that macroeconomics is more than supply and demand plus the quantity equation — somehow got lost in much of the profession. I’m tempted to go on and say something about being overrun by barbarians in the grip of an obscurantist faith…

I would merely say that it has left us, over what is now two generations, with a turn to DSGE models—Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium—that must satisfy a set of formal rhetorical requirements that really do not help us fit the data, and that it gave many, many people an excuse not to read and hence a license to remain ignorant of James Tobin.

Brad

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Hayek Refutes Banana Republican Followers of Scalia Declaring War on Unenumerated Rights

Though overshadowed by the towering obnoxiousness of their questioning of Judge Katanji Brown Jackson in her confirmation hearings last week, the Banana Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee signaled that their goals for remaking American Constitutional Jurisprudence extend far beyond overturning the Roe v. Wade; they will be satisfied with nothing less than the evisceration of all unenumerated Constitutional rights that the Courts have found over the past two centuries. The idea that rights exist only insofar as they are explicitly recognized and granted by written legislative or Constitutional enactment, as understood at the moment of enactment, is the bedrock on which Justice Scalia founded his jurisprudential doctrine.

The idea was clearly rejected by the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, which in its second sentence declared:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Clearly the Declaration believed that individual rights exist independently of any legislative or Constitutional enactment. Moreover the three rights listed by the Declaration: rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not exhaustive, but are only among a longer list of unenumerated rights endowed to individuals by their Creator. Rejecting the idea, of natural or moral rights to which individuals are entitled by virtue of their humanity, Scalia adopted the positivist position that all law is an expression of the will of the sovereign, which, in the United States, is in some abstract sense “the people” as expressed through the Constitution (including its Amendments), and through legislation by Congress and state legislatures.

Treating Scalia’s doctrine as controlling, the Banana Republicans regard all judicial decisions that invalidate legislative enactments based on the existence of individual rights not explicitly enumerated in the Constitution as fundamentally illegitimate and worthy of being overruled by suitably right-thinking judges.

Not only is Scalia’s doctrine fundamentally at odds with the Declaration of Independence, which has limited legal force, it is directly contradicted by the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution which states:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

So, the Ninth Amendment explicitly negates the Scalian doctrine that the only rights to which individuals have a legal claim are those explicitly enumerated by the Constitution. Scalia’s jurisprudential predecessor, Robert Bork, whose originalist philosophy Scalia revised and restated in a more palatable form, dismissed the Ninth Amendment as unintelligible, and, therefore, essentially a nullity. Scalia, himself, was unwilling to call it unintelligible, but came up with the following, hardly less incoherent, rationale, reeking of bad faith, for relegating the Ninth Amendment to the ash heap of history:

He should apply the Ninth Amendment as it is written. And I apply it rigorously; I do not deny or disparage the existence of other rights in the sense of natural rights. That’s what the framers meant by that. Just because we’ve listed some rights of the people here doesn’t mean that we don’t believe that people have other rights. And if you try to take them away, we will revolt. And a revolt will be justified. It was the framers’ expression of their belief in natural law. But they did not put it in the charge of the courts to enforce.

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/reading-the-text-an-interview-with-justice-antonin-scalia-of-the-u-s-supreme-court/

If Scalia had been honest, he would have said “He cannot apply the Ninth Amendment as it is written. And I rigorously do not apply it.” I mean what could Scalia, or any judge in thrall to Scalian jurisprudence, possibly do with the Ninth Amendment after saying: “But [the framers] did not put [the Ninth Amendment] in the charge of the courts to enforce”? After all, according to the estimable [sarcasm alert] Mr. Justice Scalia, the Ninth Amendment was added to the Constitution to grant the citizenry — presumably exercising their Second Amendment rights and implementing Second Amendment remedies — a right to overthrow the government that the framers were, at that very moment, ordaining and establishing.

In The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek provided an extended analysis of the U. S. Constitution and why a Bill of Rights was added as a condition of its ratification in 1788. His discussion of the Ninth Amendment demolishes Scalia’s nullification of the Ninth Amendment. Here is an extended quotation:

Hayek The Constitution of Liberty, pp. 185-86

Eight Recurring Ideas in My Studies in the History of Monetary Theory

In the introductory chapter of my book Studies in the History of Monetary Theory: Controversies and Clarifications, I list eight main ideas to which I often come back in the sixteen subsequent chapters. Here they are:

  1. The standard neoclassical models of economics textbooks typically assume full information and perfect competition. But these assumptions are, or ought to be, just the starting point, not the end, of analysis. Recognizing when and why these assumptions need to be relaxed and what empirical implications follow from relaxing those assumptions is how economists gain practical insight into, and understanding of, complex economic phenomena.
  2. Since the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, much, if not most, of the financial instruments actually used as media of exchange (money) have been produced by private financial institutions (usually commercial banks); the amount of money that is privately produced is governed by the revenue generated and the cost incurred by creating money.
  3. The standard textbook model of international monetary adjustment under the gold standard (or any fixed-exchange rate system), the price-specie-flow mechanism, introduced by David Hume mischaracterized the adjustment mechanism by overlooking that the prices of tradable goods in any country are constrained by the prices of those tradable goods in other countries. That arbitrage constraint on the prices of tradable goods in any country prevents price levels in different currency areas from deviating, regardless of local changes in the quantity of money, from a common international level.
  4. The Great Depression was caused by a rapid appreciation of gold resulting from the increasing monetary demand for gold occasioned by the restoration of the international gold standard in the 1920s after the demonetization of gold in World War I.
  5. If the expected rate of deflation exceeds the real rate of interest, real-asset prices crash and economies collapse.
  6. The primary concern of macroeconomics as a field of economics is to explain systemic failures of coordination that lead to significant lapses from full employment.
  7. Lapses from full employment result from substantial and widespread disappointment of agents’ expectations of future prices.
  8. The only – or at least the best — systematic analytical approach to the study of such lapses is the temporary-equilibrium approach introduced by Hicks in Value and Capital.

Here is a list of the chapter titles

1. Introduction

Part One: Classical Monetary Theory

2. A Reinterpretation of Classical Monetary Theory

3. On Some Classical Monetary Controversies

4. The Real Bills Doctrine in the Light of the Law of Reflux

5. Classical Monetary Theory and the Quantity Theory

6. Monetary Disequilibrium and the Demand for Money in Ricardo and Thornton

7. The Humean and Smithian Traditions in Monetary Theory

8. Rules versus Discretion in Monetary Policy Historically Contemplated

9. Say’s Law and the Classical Theory of Depressions

Part Two: Hawtrey, Keynes, and Hayek

10. Hawtrey’s Good and Bad Trade: A Centenary Retrospective

11. Hawtrey and Keynes

12. Where Keynes Went Wrong

13. Debt, Deflation, the Gold Standard and the Great Depression

14. Pre-Keynesian Monetary Theories of the Great Depression: Whatever Happened to Hawtrey and Cassel? (with Ronald Batchelder)

15. The Sraffa-Hayek Debate on the Natural Rate of Interest (with Paul Zimmerman)

16. Hayek, Deflation, Gold and Nihilism

17. Hayek, Hicks, Radner and Four Equilibrium Concepts: Intertemporal, Sequential, Temporary and Rational Expectations

Wherein I Try to Calm Professor Blanchard’s Nerves

Olivier Blanchard is rightly counted among the most eminent macroeconomists of our time, and his pronouncements on macroeconomic matters should not be dismissed casually. So his commentary yesterday for the Peterson Institute of International Economics, responding to a previous policy brief, by David Reifschneider and David Wilcox, arguing that the recent burst of inflation is likely to recede, bears close attention.

Blanchard does not reject the analysis of Reifschneider and Wilcox outright, but he argues that they overlook factors that could cause inflation to remain high unless policy makers take more aggressive action to bring inflation down than is recommended by Reifschneider and Wilcox. Rather than go through the details of Blanchard’s argument, I address the two primary concerns he identifies: (1) the potential for inflation expectations to become unanchored, as they were in the 1970s and early 1980s, by persistent high inflation, and (2) the potential inflationary implications of wage catchup after the erosion of real wages by the recent burst of inflation.

Unanchored Inflation Expectations and the Added Cost of a Delayed Response to Inflation

Blanchard cites a forthcoming book by Alan Blinder on soft and hard landings from inflation in which Blinder examines nine Fed tightening episodes in which tightening was the primary cause of a slowdown or a recession. Based on the historical record, Blinder is optimistic that the Fed can manage a soft landing if it needs to reduce inflation. Blanchard doesn’t share Blinder’s confidence.

[I]n most of the episodes Blinder has identified, the movements in inflation to which the Fed reacted were too small to be of direct relevance to the current situation, and the only comparable episode to today, if any, is the episode that ended with the Volcker disinflation of the early 1980s.

I find that a scary comparison. . . .

[I]t shows what happened when the Fed got seriously “behind the curve” in 1974–75. . . . It then took 8 years, from 1975 to 1983, to reduce inflation to 4 percent.

And I find Blanchard’s comparison of the 1975-1983 period with the current situation problematic. First, he ignores the fact that the 1975-1983 episode did not display a steady rate of inflation or a uniform increase in inflation from 1975 until Volcker finally tamed it by way of the brutal 1981-82 recession. As I’ve explained previously in posts on the 1970s and 1980s (here, here, and here), and in chapters 7 and 8 of my book Studies in the History of Monetary Theory the 1970s inflation was the product of a series of inflationary demand-side and supply-shocks and misguided policy responses by the Fed, guided by politically motivated misconceptions, with little comprehension of the consequences of its actions.

It would be unwise to assume that the Fed will never embark on a similar march of folly, but it would be at least as unwise to adopt a proposed policy on the assumption that the alternative to that policy would be a repetition of the earlier march. What commentary on the 1970s largely overlooks is that there was an enormous expansion of the US labor force in that period as baby boomers came of age and as women began seeking and finding employment in steadily increasing numbers. The labor-force participation rate in the 1950s and 1960s fluctuated between about 58% to about 60%, mirroring fluctuations in the unemployment rate. Between 1970 and 1980 the labor force participation rate rose from just over 60% to just over 64% even as the unemployment rate rose from about 5% to over 7%. The 1970s were not, for the most part, a period of stagflation, but a period of inflation and strong growth interrupted by one deep recession (1974-75) and bookended by two minor recessions (1969-70) and (1979-80). But the rising trend of unemployment during the decade was largely attributable not to stagnation but to a rapidly expanding labor force and a rising labor participation rate.

The rapid increase in inflation in 1973 was largely a policy-driven error of the Nixon/Burns collaboration to ensure Nixon’s reelection in 1972 without bothering to taper the stimulus in 1973 after full employment was restored just in time for Nixon’s 1972 re-election. The oil shock of 1973-74 would have justified allowing a transitory period of increased inflation to cushion the negative effect of the increase in energy prices and to dilute the real magnitude of the nominal increase in oil prices. But the combined effect of excess aggregate demand and a negative supply shock led to an exaggerated compensatory tightening of monetary policy that led to the unnecessarily deep and prolonged recession in 1974-75.

A strong recovery ensued after the recession which, not surprisingly, was associated with declining inflation that fell below 5% in 1976. However, owing to the historically high rate of unemployment, only partially attributable to the previous recession, the incoming Carter administration promoted expansionary fiscal and monetary policies, which Arthur Burns, hoping to be reappointed by Carter to another term as Fed Chairman, willingly implemented. Rather than continue on the downward inflationary trend inherited from the previous administration, inflation resumed its upward trend in 1977.

Burns’s hopes to be reappointed by Carter were disappointed, but his replacement G. William Miller made no effort to tighten monetary policy to reverse the upward trend in inflation. A second oil shock in 1979 associated with the Iranian Revolution and the taking of US hostages in Iran caused crude oil prices over the course in 1979 to more than double. Again, the appropriate monetary-policy response was not to tighten monetary policy but to accommodate the price increase without causing a recession.

However, by the time of the second oil shock in 1979, inflation was already in the high single digits. The second oil shock, combined with the disastrous effects of the controls on petroleum prices carried over from the Nixon administration, created a crisis atmosphere that allowed the Reagan administration, with the cooperation of Paul Volcker, to implement a radical Monetarist anti-inflation policy. The policy was based on the misguided presumption that keeping the rate of growth of some measure of the money stock below a 5% annual rate would cure inflation with little effect on the overall economy if it were credibly implemented.

Volcker’s reputation was such that it was thought by supporters of the policy that his commitment would be relied upon by the public, so that a smooth transition to a lower rate of inflation would follow, and any downturn would be mild and short-lived. But the result was an unexpectedly deep and long-lasting recession.

The recession was needlessly prolonged by the grave misunderstanding of the causal relationship between the monetary aggregates and macroeconomic performance that had been perpetrated by Milton Friedman’s anti-Keynesian Monetarist counterrevolution. After triggering the sharpest downturn of the postwar era, the Monetarist anti-inflation strategy adopted by Volcker was, in the summer of 1982, on the verge of causing a financial crisis before Volcker announced that the Fed would no longer try to target any of the monetary aggregates, an announcement that triggered an immediate stock-market boom and, within a few months, the start of an economic recovery.

Thus, Blanchard is wrong to compare our current situation to the entire 1975-1983 period. The current situation, rather, is similar to the situation in 1973, when an economy, in the late stages of a recovery with rising inflation, was subjected to a severe supply shock. The appropriate response to that supply shock was not to tighten monetary policy, but merely to draw down the monetary stimulus of the previous two years. However, the Fed, perhaps shamed by the excessive, and politically motivated, monetary expansion of the previous two years, overcompensated by tightening monetary policy to counter the combined inflationary impact of its own previous policy and the recent oil price increase, immediately triggering the sharpest downturn of the postwar era. That is the lesson to draw from the 1970s, and it’s a mistake that the Fed ought not repeat now.

The Catch-Up Problem: Are Rapidly Rising Wages a Ticking Time-Bomb

Blanchard is worried that, because price increases exceeded wage increases in 2021, causing real wages to fall in 2021, workers will rationally assume, and demand, that their nominal wages will rise in 2022 to compensate for the decline in real wages, thereby fueling a further increase in inflation. This is a familiar argument based on the famous short-run Phillips-Curve trade-off between inflation and unemployment. Reduced unemployment resulting from the real-wage reduction associated with inflation will cause inflation to increase.

This argument is problematic on at least two levels. First, it presumes that the Phillips Curve represents a structural relationship, when it is merely a reduced form, just as an observed relationship between the price of a commodity and sales of that commodity is a reduced form, not a demand curve. Inferences cannot be made from a reduced form about the effect of a price change, nor can inferences about the effect of inflation be made from the Phillips Curve.

But one needn’t resort to a somewhat sophisticated argument to see why Blanchard’s fears that wage catchup will lead to a further round of inflation are not well-grounded. Blanchard argues that business firms, having pocketed windfall profits from rising prices that have outpaced wage increases, will grant workers compensatory wage increases to restore workers’ real wages, while also increasing prices to compensate themselves for the increased wages that they have agreed to pay their workers.

I’m sorry, but with all due respect to Professor Blanchard, that argument makes no sense. Evidently, firms have generally enjoyed a windfall when market conditions allowed them to raise prices without raising wages. Why, if wages finally catch up to prices, will they raise prices again? Either firms can choose, at will, how much profit to make when they set prices or their prices are constrained by market forces. If Professor Blanchard believes that firms can simply choose how much profit they make when they set prices, then he seems to be subscribing to Senator Warren’s theory of inflation: that inflation is caused by corporate greed. If he believes that, in setting prices, firms are constrained by market forces, then the mere fact that market conditions allowed them to increase prices faster than wages rose in 2021 does not mean that, if market conditions cause wages to rise at a faster rate than they did in 2022, firms, after absorbing those wage increases, will automatically be able to maintain their elevated profit margins in 2022 by raising prices in 2022 correspondingly.

The market conditions facing firms in 2022 will be determined by, among other things, the monetary policy of the Fed. Whether firms are able to raise prices in 2022 as fast as wages rise in 2022 will depend on the monetary policy adopted by the Fed. If the Fed’s monetary policy aims at gradually slowing down the rate of increase in nominal GDP in 2022 from the 2021 rate of increase, firms overall will not easily be able to raise prices as fast as wages rise in 2022. But why should anyone expect that firms that enjoyed windfall profits from inflation in 2021 will be able to continue enjoying those elevated profits in perpetuity?

Professor Blanchard posits simple sectoral equations for the determination of the rate of wage increases and for the rate of price increases given the rate of wage increases. This sort of one-way causality is much too simplified and ignores the fundamental fact all prices and wages and expectations of future prices and wages are mutually determined in a simultaneous system. One can’t reason from a change in a single variable and extrapolate from that change how the rest of the system will adjust.

Robert Lucas and the Pretense of Science

F. A. Hayek entitled his 1974 Nobel Lecture whose principal theme was to attack the simple notion that the long-observed correlation between aggregate demand and employment was a reliable basis for conducting macroeconomic policy, “The Pretence of Knowledge.” Reiterating an argument that he had made over 40 years earlier about the transitory stimulus provided to profits and production by monetary expansion, Hayek was informally anticipating the argument that Robert Lucas famously repackaged two years later in his famous critique of econometric policy evaluation. Hayek’s argument hinged on a distinction between “phenomena of unorganized complexity” and phenomena of organized complexity.” Statistical relationships or correlations between phenomena of disorganized complexity may be relied upon to persist, but observed statistical correlations displayed by phenomena of organized complexity cannot be relied upon without detailed knowledge of the individual elements that constitute the system. It was the facile assumption that observed statistical correlations in systems of organized complexity can be uncritically relied upon in making policy decisions that Hayek dismissed as merely the pretense of knowledge.

Adopting many of Hayek’s complaints about macroeconomic theory, Lucas founded his New Classical approach to macroeconomics on a methodological principle that all macroeconomic models be grounded in the axioms of neoclassical economic theory as articulated in the canonical Arrow-Debreu-McKenzie models of general equilibrium models. Without such grounding in neoclassical axioms and explicit formal derivations of theorems from those axioms, Lucas maintained that macroeconomics could not be considered truly scientific. Forty years of Keynesian macroeconomics were, in Lucas’s view, largely pre-scientific or pseudo-scientific, because they lacked satisfactory microfoundations.

Lucas’s methodological program for macroeconomics was thus based on two basic principles: reductionism and formalism. First, all macroeconomic models not only had to be consistent with rational individual decisions, they had to be reduced to those choices. Second, all the propositions of macroeconomic models had to be explicitly derived from the formal definitions and axioms of neoclassical theory. Lucas demanded nothing less than the explicit assumption individual rationality in every macroeconomic model and that all decisions by agents in a macroeconomic model be individually rational.

In practice, implementing Lucasian methodological principles required that in any macroeconomic model all agents’ decisions be derived within an explicit optimization problem. However, as Hayek had himself shown in his early studies of business cycles and intertemporal equilibrium, individual optimization in the standard Walrasian framework, within which Lucas wished to embed macroeconomic theory, is possible only if all agents are optimizing simultaneously, all individual decisions being conditional on the decisions of other agents. Individual optimization can only be solved simultaneously for all agents, not individually in isolation.

The difficulty of solving a macroeconomic equilibrium model for the simultaneous optimal decisions of all the agents in the model led Lucas and his associates and followers to a strategic simplification: reducing the entire model to a representative agent. The optimal choices of a single agent would then embody the consumption and production decisions of all agents in the model.

The staggering simplification involved in reducing a purported macroeconomic model to a representative agent is obvious on its face, but the sleight of hand being performed deserves explicit attention. The existence of an equilibrium solution to the neoclassical system of equations was assumed, based on faulty reasoning by Walras, Fisher and Pareto who simply counted equations and unknowns. A rigorous proof of existence was only provided by Abraham Wald in 1936 and subsequently in more general form by Arrow, Debreu and McKenzie, working independently, in the 1950s. But proving the existence of a solution to the system of equations does not establish that an actual neoclassical economy would, in fact, converge on such an equilibrium.

Neoclassical theory was and remains silent about the process whereby equilibrium is, or could be, reached. The Marshallian branch of neoclassical theory, focusing on equilibrium in individual markets rather than the systemic equilibrium, is often thought to provide an account of how equilibrium is arrived at, but the Marshallian partial-equilibrium analysis presumes that all markets and prices except the price in the single market under analysis, are in a state of equilibrium. So the Marshallian approach provides no more explanation of a process by which a set of equilibrium prices for an entire economy is, or could be, reached than the Walrasian approach.

Lucasian methodology has thus led to substituting a single-agent model for an actual macroeconomic model. It does so on the premise that an economic system operates as if it were in a state of general equilibrium. The factual basis for this premise apparently that it is possible, using versions of a suitable model with calibrated coefficients, to account for observed aggregate time series of consumption, investment, national income, and employment. But the time series derived from these models are derived by attributing all observed variations in national income to unexplained shocks in productivity, so that the explanation provided is in fact an ex-post rationalization of the observed variations not an explanation of those variations.

Nor did Lucasian methodology have a theoretical basis in received neoclassical theory. In a famous 1960 paper “Towards a Theory of Price Adjustment,” Kenneth Arrow identified the explanatory gap in neoclassical theory: the absence of a theory of price change in competitive markets in which every agent is a price taker. The existence of an equilibrium does not entail that the equilibrium will be, or is even likely to be, found. The notion that price flexibility is somehow a guarantee that market adjustments reliably lead to an equilibrium outcome is a presumption or a preconception, not the result of rigorous analysis.

However, Lucas used the concept of rational expectations, which originally meant no more than that agents try to use all available information to anticipate future prices, to make the concept of equilibrium, notwithstanding its inherent implausibility, a methodological necessity. A rational-expectations equilibrium was methodologically necessary and ruthlessly enforced on researchers, because it was presumed to be entailed by the neoclassical assumption of rationality. Lucasian methodology transformed rational expectations into the proposition that all agents form identical, and correct, expectations of future prices based on the same available information (common knowledge). Because all agents reach the same, correct expectations of future prices, general equilibrium is continuously achieved, except at intermittent moments when new information arrives and is used by agents to revise their expectations.

In his Nobel Lecture, Hayek decried a pretense of knowledge about correlations between macroeconomic time series that lack a foundation in the deeper structural relationships between those related time series. Without an understanding of the deeper structural relationships between those time series, observed correlations cannot be relied on when formulating economic policies. Lucas’s own famous critique echoed the message of Hayek’s lecture.

The search for microfoundations was always a natural and commendable endeavor. Scientists naturally try to reduce higher-level theories to deeper and more fundamental principles. But the endeavor ought to be conducted as a theoretical and empirical endeavor. If successful, the reduction of the higher-level theory to a deeper theory will provide insight and disclose new empirical implications to both the higher-level and the deeper theories. But reduction by methodological fiat accomplishes neither and discourages the research that might actually achieve a theoretical reduction of a higher-level theory to a deeper one. Similarly, formalism can provide important insights into the structure of theories and disclose gaps or mistakes the reasoning underlying the theories. But most important theories, even in pure mathematics, start out as informal theories that only gradually become axiomatized as logical gaps and ambiguities in the theories are discovered and filled or refined.

The resort to the reductionist and formalist methodological imperatives with which Lucas and his followers have justified their pretentions to scientific prestige and authority, and have used that authority to compel compliance with those imperatives, only belie their pretensions.

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.

What’s Right and not so Right with Modern Monetary Theory

UPDATE (2/5/21: A little while ago I posted this tweet on Twitter

So I thought I would re-up this post from July 2020 about MMT in response to a tweet asking me what might be a better criticism of MMT.

I am finishing up a first draft of a paper on fiat money, bitcoins and cryptocurrencies that will be included in a forthcoming volume on bitcoins and cryptocurrencies. The paper is loosely based on a number of posts that have appeared on this blog since I started blogging almost nine years ago. My first post appeared on July 5, 2011. Here are some of my posts on and fiat money, bitcoins and cryptocurrencies (this, this, this, and this). In writing the paper, it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to include a comment on Modern Monetary Theory inasmuch as the proposition that the value of fiat money is derived from the acceptability of fiat money for discharging the tax liabilities imposed by the governments issuing those fiat moneys, which is a proposition that Modern Monetary Theorists have adopted from the chartalist school of thought associated with the work of G. F. Knapp. But there were clearly other economists before and since Knapp that have offered roughly the same explanation for the positive value of fiat money that offers no real non-monetary services to those holding such moneys. Here is the section from my draft about Modern Monetary Theory.

Although there’s a long line of prominent economic theorists who have recognized that acceptability of a fiat money for discharging tax liabilities, the proposition is now generally associated with the chartalist views of G. F. Knapp, whose views have been explicitly cited in recent works by economists associated with what is known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). While the capacity of fiat money to discharge tax liabilities is surely an important aspect of MMT, not all propositions associated with MMT automatically follow from that premise. Recognizing the role of the capacity of fiat money to discharge tax liabilities, Knapp juxtaposed his “state theory of money” from the metallist theory. The latter holds that the institution of money evolved from barter trade, because certain valuable commodities, especially precious metals became widely used as media of exchange, because, for whatever reason, they were readily accepted in exchange, thereby triggering the self-reinforcing network effects discussed above.[1]

However, the often bitter debates between chartalists and metallists notwithstanding, there is no necessary, or logical, inconsistency between the theories. Both theories about the origin of money could be simultaneously true, each under different historical conditions. Each theory posits an explanation for why a monetary instrument providing no direct service is readily accepted in exchange. That one explanation could be true does not entail the falsity of the other.

Taking chartalism as its theoretical foundation, MMT focuses on a set of accounting identities that are presumed to embody deep structural relationships. Because money is regarded as the creature of the state, the quantity of money is said to reflect the cumulative difference between government tax revenues and expenditures which are financed by issuing fiat money. The role of government bonds is to provide a buffer with which short-term fluctuations in the inflow of taxes (recurrently peaking at particular times of the year when tax payments become due) and government expenditures.

But the problem with MMT, shared with many other sorts of monetary theory, is that it focuses on a particular causal relationship, working through the implications of that relationship conditioned on a ceteris-paribus assumption that all other relationships are held constant and are unaffected by the changes on which the theory is focusing, regardless of whether the assumption can be maintained.

For example, MMT posits that increases in taxes are deflationary and reductions in taxes are inflationary, because an increase in taxes implies a net drain of purchasing power from the private sector to the government sector and a reduction in taxes implies an injection of purchasing power.[2] According to the MMT, the price level reflects the relationship between total spending and total available productive resources, At given current prices, some level of total spending would just suffice to ensure that all available resources are fully employed. If total spending exceeds that amount, the excess spending must cause prices to rise to absorb the extra spending.

This naïve theory of inflation captures a basic intuition about the effect of increasing the rate of spending, but it is not a complete theory of inflation, because the level of spending depends not only on how much the government spends and how much tax revenue it collects; it also depends on, among other things, whether the public is trying to add to, or to reduce, the quantity of cash balances being held. Now it’s true that an efficiently operating banking system tends to adjust the quantity of cash to the demands of the public, but the banking system also has demands for the reserves that the government, via the central bank, makes available to be held, and its demands to hold reserves may match, or fall short of, the amount that banks at any moment wish to hold.

There is an interbank system of reserves, but if the amount of reserves that the government central bank creates is systematically above the amount of reserves that banks wish to hold, the deficiency will have repercussions on total spending. MMT theorists insist that the government central bank is obligated to provide whatever quantity of reserves is demanded, but that’s because the demand of banks to hold reserves is a function of the foregone interest incurred by banks holding reserves. Given the cost of holding reserves implied by the interest-rate target established by the government central bank, the banking system will demand a corresponding quantity of reserves, and, at that interest rate, government central banks will supply all the reserves demanded. But that doesn’t mean that, in setting its target rate, the government central bank isn’t implicitly determining the quantity of reserves for the entire system, thereby exercising an independent influence on the price level or the rate of inflation that must be reconciled with the fiscal stance of the government.

A tendency toward oversimplification is hardly unique to MMT. It’s also characteristic of older schools of thought, like the metallist theory of money, the polar opposite from the MMT and the chartalist theory. The metallist theory asserts that the value of a metallic money must equal the value of the amount of the metal represented by any particular monetary unit defined in terms of that metal. Under a gold standard, for example, all monetary units represent some particular quantity of gold, and the relative values of those units correspond to the ratios of the gold represented by those units. The value of gold standard currency therefore doesn’t deviate more than trivially from the value of the amount of gold represented by the currency.

But, here again, we confront a simplification; the value of gold, or of any commodity serving as a monetary standard, isn’t independent of its monetary-standard function. The value of any commodity depends on the total demand for any and all purposes for which it is, or may be, used. If gold serves as money, either as coins actually exchanged or a reserves sitting in bank vaults, that amount of gold is withdrawn from potential non-monetary uses, so that the value of gold relative to other commodities must rise to reflect the diversion of that portion of the total stock from non-monetary uses. If the demand to hold money rises, and the additional money that must be created to meet that demand requires additional gold to be converted into monetary form, either as coins or as reserves held by banks, the additional derived demand for gold tends to increase the value of gold, and, as a result, the value of money.

Moreover, insofar as governments accumulate reserves of gold that are otherwise held idle, the decision about how much gold reserves to continue holding in relation to the monetary claims on those reserves also affects the value of gold. It’s therefore not necessarily correct to say that, under a gold standard, the value of gold determines the value of money. The strictly correct proposition is that, under a gold standard, the value of gold and the value of money must be equal. But the value of money causally affects the value of gold no less than the value of gold causally affects the value of money.

In the context of a fiat money, whose value necessarily reflects expectations of its future purchasing power, it is not only the current policies of the government and the monetary authority, but expectations about future economic conditions and about the future responses of policy-makers to those conditions that determine the value of a fiat money. A useful theory of the value of money and of the effect of monetary policy on the value of money cannot be formulated without taking the expectations of individuals into account. Rational-expectations may be a useful first step to in formulating models that explicitly take expectations into account, but their underlying suppositions of most rational-expectations models are too far-fetched – especially the assumption that all expectations converge on the “correct” probability distributions of all future prices – to provide practical insight, much less useful policy guidance (Glasner 2020).

So, in the end, all simple theories of causation, like MMT, that suggest one particular variable determines the value of another are untenable in any complex system of mutually interrelated phenomena (Hayek 1967). There are few systems in nature as complex as a modern economy; only if it were possible to write out a complete system of equations describing all those interrelationships, could we trace out the effects of increasing the income tax rate or the level of government spending on the overall price level, as MMT claims to do. But for a complex interrelated system, no direct causal relationship between any two variables to the exclusion of all the others is likely to serve as a reliable guide to policy except in special situations when it can plausibly be assumed that a ceteris-paribus assumption is likely to be even approximately true.

[1] The classic exposition of this theory of money was provided by Carl Menger (1892).

[2] In an alternate version of the tax theory of inflation, an increase in taxes increases the value of money by increasing the demand of money at the moment when tax liabilities come due. The value of money is determined by its value at those peak periods, and it is the expected value of money at those peak periods that maintains its value during non-peak periods. The problem with this version is that it presumes that the value of money is solely a function of its value in discharging tax liabilities, but money is also demanded to serve as a medium of exchange which implies an increase in value above the value it would have solely from the demand occasioned by its acceptability to discharge tax liabilities.

The Rises and Falls of Keynesianism and Monetarism

The following is extracted from a paper on the history of macroeconomics that I’m now writing. I don’t know yet where or when it will be published and there may or may not be further installments, but I would be interested in any comments or suggestions that readers might have. Regular readers, if there are any, will probably recognize some familiar themes that I’ve been writing about in a number of my posts over the past several months. So despite the diminished frequency of my posting, I haven’t been entirely idle.

Recognizing the cognitive dissonance between the vision of the optimal equilibrium of a competitive market economy described by Marshallian economic theory and the massive unemployment of the Great Depression, Keynes offered an alternative, and, in his view, more general, theory, the optimal neoclassical equilibrium being a special case.[1] The explanatory barrier that Keynes struggled, not quite successfully, to overcome in the dire circumstances of the 1930s, was why market-price adjustments do not have the equilibrating tendencies attributed to them by Marshallian theory. The power of Keynes’s analysis, enhanced by his rhetorical gifts, enabled him to persuade much of the economics profession, especially many of the most gifted younger economists at the time, that he was right. But his argument, failing to expose the key weakness in the neoclassical orthodoxy, was incomplete.

The full title of Keynes’s book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money identifies the key elements of his revision of neoclassical theory. First, contrary to a simplistic application of Marshallian theory, the mass unemployment of the Great Depression would not be substantially reduced by cutting wages to “clear” the labor market. The reason, according to Keynes, is that the levels of output and unemployment depend not on money wages, but on planned total spending (aggregate demand). Mass unemployment is the result of too little spending not excessive wages. Reducing wages would simply cause a corresponding decline in total spending, without increasing output or employment.

If wage cuts do not increase output and employment, the ensuing high unemployment, Keynes argued, is involuntary, not the outcome of optimizing choices made by workers and employers. Ever since, the notion that unemployment can be involuntary has remained a contested issue between Keynesians and neoclassicists, a contest requiring resolution in favor of one or the other theory or some reconciliation of the two.

Besides rejecting the neoclassical theory of employment, Keynes also famously disputed the neoclassical theory of interest by arguing that the rate of interest is not, as in the neoclassical theory, a reward for saving, but a reward for sacrificing liquidity. In Keynes’s view, rather than equilibrate savings and investment, interest equilibrates the demand to hold the money issued by the monetary authority with the amount issued by the monetary authority. Under the neoclassical theory, it is the price level that adjusts to equilibrate the demand for money with the quantity issued.

Had Keynes been more attuned to the Walrasian paradigm, he might have recast his argument that cutting wages would not eliminate unemployment by noting the inapplicability of a Marshallian supply-demand analysis of the labor market (accounting for over 50 percent of national income), because wage cuts would shift demand and supply curves in almost every other input and output market, grossly violating the ceteris-paribus assumption underlying Marshallian supply-demand paradigm. When every change in the wage shifts supply and demand curves in all markets for good and services, which in turn causes the labor-demand and labor-supply curves to shift, a supply-demand analysis of aggregate unemployment becomes a futile exercise.

Keynes’s work had two immediate effects on economics and economists. First, it immediately opened up a new field of research – macroeconomics – based on his theory that total output and employment are determined by aggregate demand. Representing only one element of Keynes’s argument, the simplified Keynesian model, on which macroeconomic theory was founded, seemed disconnected from either the Marshallian or Walrasian versions of neoclassical theory.

Second, the apparent disconnect between the simple Keynesian macro-model and neoclassical theory provoked an ongoing debate about the extent to which Keynesian theory could be deduced, or even reconciled, with the premises of neoclassical theory. Initial steps toward a reconciliation were provided when a model incorporating the quantity of money and the interest rate into the Keynesian analysis was introduced, soon becoming the canonical macroeconomic model of undergraduate and graduate textbooks.

Critics of Keynesian theory, usually those opposed to its support for deficit spending as a tool of aggregate demand management, its supposed inflationary bias, and its encouragement or toleration of government intervention in the free-market economy, tried to debunk Keynesianism by pointing out its inconsistencies with the neoclassical doctrine of a self-regulating market economy. But proponents of Keynesian precepts were also trying to reconcile Keynesian analysis with neoclassical theory. Future Nobel Prize winners like J. R. Hicks, J. E. Meade, Paul Samuelson, Franco Modigliani, James Tobin, and Lawrence Klein all derived various Keynesian propositions from neoclassical assumptions, usually by resorting to the un-Keynesian assumption of rigid or sticky prices and wages.

What both Keynesian and neoclassical economists failed to see is that, notwithstanding the optimality of an economy with equilibrium market prices, in either the Walrasian or the Marshallian versions, cannot explain either how that set of equilibrium prices is, or can be, found, or how it results automatically from the routine operation of free markets.

The assumption made implicitly by both Keynesians and neoclassicals was that, in an ideal perfectly competitive free-market economy, prices would adjust, if not instantaneously, at least eventually, to their equilibrium, market-clearing, levels so that the economy would achieve an equilibrium state. Not all Keynesians, of course, agreed that a perfectly competitive economy would reach that outcome, even in the long-run. But, according to neoclassical theory, equilibrium is the state toward which a competitive economy is drawn.

Keynesian policy could therefore be rationalized as an instrument for reversing departures from equilibrium and ensuring that such departures are relatively small and transitory. Notwithstanding Keynes’s explicit argument that wage cuts cannot eliminate involuntary unemployment, the sticky-prices-and-wages story was too convenient not to be adopted as a rationalization of Keynesian policy while also reconciling that policy with the neoclassical orthodoxy associated with the postwar ascendancy of the Walrasian paradigm.

The Walrasian ascendancy in neoclassical theory was the culmination of a silent revolution beginning in the late 1920s when the work of Walras and his successors was taken up by a younger generation of mathematically trained economists. The revolution proceeded along many fronts, of which the most important was proving the existence of a solution of the system of equations describing a general equilibrium for a competitive economy — a proof that Walras himself had not provided. The sophisticated mathematics used to describe the relevant general-equilibrium models and derive mathematically rigorous proofs encouraged the process of rapid development, adoption and application of mathematical techniques by subsequent generations of economists.

Despite the early success of the Walrasian paradigm, Kenneth Arrow, perhaps the most important Walrasian theorist of the second half of the twentieth century, drew attention to the explanatory gap within the paradigm: how the adjustment of disequilibrium prices is possible in a model of perfect competition in which every transactor takes market price as given. The Walrasian theory shows that a competitive equilibrium ensuring the consistency of agents’ plans to buy and sell results from an equilibrium set of prices for all goods and services. But the theory is silent about how those equilibrium prices are found and communicated to the agents of the model, the Walrasian tâtonnement process being an empirically empty heuristic artifact.

In fact, the explanatory gap identified by Arrow was even wider than he had suggested or realized, for another aspect of the Walrasian revolution of the late 1920s and 1930s was the extension of the equilibrium concept from a single-period equilibrium to an intertemporal equilibrium. Although earlier works by Irving Fisher and Frank Knight laid a foundation for this extension, the explicit articulation of intertemporal-equilibrium analysis was the nearly simultaneous contribution of three young economists, two Swedes (Myrdal and Lindahl) and an Austrian (Hayek) whose significance, despite being partially incorporated into the canonical Arrow-Debreu-McKenzie version of the Walrasian model, remains insufficiently recognized.

These three economists transformed the concept of equilibrium from an unchanging static economic system at rest to a dynamic system changing from period to period. While Walras and Marshall had conceived of a single-period equilibrium with no tendency to change barring an exogenous change in underlying conditions, Myrdal, Lindahl and Hayek conceived of an equilibrium unfolding through time, defined by the mutual consistency of the optimal plans of disparate agents to buy and sell in the present and in the future.

In formulating optimal plans that extend through time, agents consider both the current prices at which they can buy and sell, and the prices at which they will (or expect to) be able to buy and sell in the future. Although it may sometimes be possible to buy or sell forward at a currently quoted price for future delivery, agents planning to buy and sell goods or services rely, for the most part, on their expectations of future prices. Those expectations, of course, need not always turn out to have been accurate.

The dynamic equilibrium described by Myrdal, Lindahl and Hayek is a contingent event in which all agents have correctly anticipated the future prices on which they have based their plans. In the event that some, if not all, agents have incorrectly anticipated future prices, those agents whose plans were based on incorrect expectations may have to revise their plans or be unable to execute them. But unless all agents share the same expectations of future prices, their expectations cannot all be correct, and some of those plans may not be realized.

The impossibility of an intertemporal equilibrium of optimal plans if agents do not share the same expectations of future prices implies that the adjustment of perfectly flexible market prices is not sufficient an optimal equilibrium to be achieved. I shall have more to say about this point below, but for now I want to note that the growing interest in the quiet Walrasian revolution in neoclassical theory that occurred almost simultaneously with the Keynesian revolution made it inevitable that Keynesian models would be recast in explicitly Walrasian terms.

What emerged from the Walrasian reformulation of Keynesian analysis was the neoclassical synthesis that became the textbook version of macroeconomics in the 1960s and 1970s. But the seemingly anomalous conjunction of both inflation and unemployment during the 1970s led to a reconsideration and widespread rejection of the Keynesian proposition that output and employment are directly related to aggregate demand.

Indeed, supporters of the Monetarist views of Milton Friedman argued that the high inflation and unemployment of the 1970s amounted to an empirical refutation of the Keynesian system. But Friedman’s political conservatism, free-market ideology, and his acerbic criticism of Keynesian policies obscured the extent to which his largely atheoretical monetary thinking was influenced by Keynesian and Marshallian concepts that rendered his version of Monetarism an unattractive alternative for younger monetary theorists, schooled in the Walrasian version of neoclassicism, who were seeking a clear theoretical contrast with the Keynesian macro model.

The brief Monetarist ascendancy following 1970s inflation conveniently collapsed in the early 1980s, after Friedman’s Monetarist policy advice for controlling the quantity of money proved unworkable, when central banks, foolishly trying to implement the advice, prolonged a needlessly deep recession while central banks consistently overshot their monetary targets, thereby provoking a long series of embarrassing warnings from Friedman about the imminent return of double-digit inflation.


[1] Hayek, both a friend and a foe of Keynes, would chide Keynes decades after Keynes’s death for calling his theory a general theory when, in Hayek’s view, it was a special theory relevant only in periods of substantially less than full employment when increasing aggregate demand could increase total output. But in making this criticism, Hayek, himself, implicitly assumed that which he had himself admitted in his theory of intertemporal equilibrium that there is no automatic equilibration mechanism that ensures that general equilibrium obtains.

Sic Transit Inflatio Mundi

Larry Summers continues to lead the charge for a quick, decisive tightening of monetary policy by the Federal Reserve to head off an inflationary surge that, he believes, is about to overtake us. Undoubtedly one of the most capable economists of his generation, Summers also had a long career as a policy maker at the highest levels, so his advice cannot be casually dismissed. Even aside from Summers’s warning, the current economic environment fully justifies heightened concern caused by the recent uptick in inflation.

I am, nevertheless, not inclined to share Summers’s confidence in his oft-repeated predictions of resurgent inflation unless monetary policy is substantially tightened soon to prevent current inflation from being entrenched into the expectations of households and businesses. Summers’s’ latest warning came in a Washington Post op-ed following the statement by the FOMC and by Chairman Jay Powell that Fed policy would shift to give priority to maintaining price stability.

After welcoming the FOMC statement, Summers immediately segued into a critique of the Fed position on every substantive point.

There have been few, if any, instances in which inflation has been successfully stabilized without recession. Every U.S. economic expansion between the Korean War and Paul A. Volcker’s slaying of inflation after 1979 ended as the Federal Reserve tried to put the brakes on inflation and the economy skidded into recession. Since Volcker’s victory, there have been no major outbreaks of inflation until this year, and so no need for monetary policy to engineer a soft landing of the kind that the Fed hopes for over the next several years.

The not-very-encouraging history of disinflation efforts suggests that the Fed will need to be both skillful and lucky as it seeks to apply sufficient restraint to cause inflation to come down to its 2 percent target without pushing the economy into recession. Unfortunately, several aspects of the Open Market Committee statement and Powell’s news conference suggest that the Fed may not yet fully grasp either the current economic situation or the implications of current monetary policy.

Summers cites the recessions between the Korean War and the 1979-82 Volcker Monetarist experiment to support his anti-inflationary diagnosis and remedy. But none of the three recessions in the 1950s during the Eisenhower Presidency was needed to cope with any significant inflationary threat. There was no substantial inflation in the US during the 1950s, never reaching 3% in any year between 1953 and 1960, and rarely exceeding 2%.

Inflation during the late 1960 and 1970s was caused by a combination of factors, including both excess demand fueled by Vietnam War spending and politically motivated monetary expansion, plus two oil shocks in 1973-74 and 1979-80, an economic environment with only modest similarity to the current economic situation.

But the important lesson from the disastrous Volcker-Friedman recession is that most of the reduction in inflation following Volcker’s decisive move to tighten monetary policy in early 1981 did not come until a year and a half later, when with the US unemployment rate above 10%, Volcker finally abandoned the futile and counterproductive Monetarist policy of making the monetary aggregates policy instruments. Had it not been for the Monetarist obsession with controlling the monetary aggregates, a recovery could have started six months to a year earlier than it did, with inflation continuing on the downward trajectory as output and employment expanded.

The key point is that falling output, in and of itself, tends to cause rising, not falling, prices, so that postponing the start of a recovery actually delays, rather than hastens, the reduction of inflation. As I explained in another post, rather than focusing onthe monetary aggregates, monetary policy ought to have aimed to reduce the rate of growth of total nominal spending from well over 12% in 1980-81 to a rate of about 7%, which would have been consistent with the informal 4% inflation target that Volcker and Reagan had set for themselves.

The appropriate lesson to take away from the Volcker-Friedman recession of 1981-82 is therefore that a central bank can meet its inflation target by reducing the rate of increase in total nominal spending and income to the rate, given anticipated real expansion of capacity and productivity, consistent with its inflation target. The rate of growth in nominal spending and income cannot be controlled with a degree of accuracy, but rates of increase in spending above or below the target rate of increase provide the central bank with real time indications of whether policy needs to be tightened or loosened to meet the inflation target. That approach would avoid the inordinate cost of reducing inflation associated with the Volcker-Friedman episode.

A further aggravating factor in the 1981-82 recession was that interest rates had risen to double-digit levels even before Volcker embarked on his Monetarist anti-inflation strategy, showing how deeply embedded inflation expectations had become in the plans of households and businesses. By contrast, interest rates have actually been falling for months, suggesting that Summers’s warnings about inflation expectations becoming entrenched are overstated.

The Fed forecast calls for inflation to significantly subside even as the economy sustains 3.5 percent unemployment — a development without precedent in U.S. economic history. The Fed believes this even though it regards the sustainable level of unemployment as 4 percent. This only makes sense if the Fed is clinging to the idea that current inflation is transitory and expects it to subside of its own accord.

Summers’s factual assertion that the US unemployment rate has never fallen, without inflationary stimulus, to 3.5%, an argument predicated on the assumption that the natural (or non-accelerating- inflation rate of unemployment) is firmly fixed at 4% is not well supported by the data. In 2019 and early 2020, the unemployment rate dropped to 3.5% without evident inflationary pressure. In the late 1990s unemployment also dropped below 4% without inflationary pressure. So, the expectation that a 3.5% unemployment rate could be restored without inflationary pressure may be optimistic, but it’s hardly unprecedented.

Summers suggests that the Fed is confused because it expects the unemployment rate to fall back to the 3.5% rate of 2019 even while supposedly regarding a 4%, not a 3.5%, rate of unemployment as sustainable. According to Summers, reaching a 3.5% rate of unemployment would be possible only if the current increase in the inflation rate is temporary. But the bond market seems to share that view with the Fed given the recent decreases in the yields on Treasury bonds of 5 to 30 years duration. But Summers takes a different view.

In fact, there is solid reason to think inflation may accelerate. The consumer price index’s shelter component, which represents one-third of the index, has gone up by less than 4 percent, even as private calculations without exception suggest increases of 10 to 20 percent in rent and home prices. Catch-up is likely. More fundamentally, job vacancies are at record levels and the labor market is still heating up, according to the Fed forecast. This portends acceleration rather than deceleration in labor costs — by far the largest cost for the business sector.

Projecting how increases in rent and home prices that have already occurred will affect reported inflation in the future is a tricky exercise. It is certain that those effects will show up in the future, but those effects are already baked into those future inflation reports, so they provide an uneasy basis on which to conduct monetary policy. Insofar as inflation is a problem, it is a problem not because of short-term fluctuations in prices in specific goods, even home prices and rents, or whole sectors of the economy, but because of generalized and potentially continuing long-term trends affecting the whole structure of prices.

The current number of job vacancies reflects both the demand for, and the supply of, labor. The labor-force participation rate is still well below the pre-pandemic level, reflecting the effect of withdrawal from the labor force by workers afraid of contracting the COVID virus, or unable to find day care for children, or deterred from seeking by other pandemic-related concerns from seeking or accepting employment. Under such circumstances, the re-allocations associated with high job-vacancy rates are likely to enhance the efficiency and productivity of the workers that are re-employed, and need not exacerbate inflationary pressures.

Presumably, the Fed has judged that current aggregate-demand increases have less to do with observed inflation than labor-supply constraints or other supply-side bottlenecks whose effects on prices are likely self-limiting. This judgment is neither obviously right nor obviously wrong. But, for now at least, it is not unreasonable for the Fed to remain cautious before making a drastic policy change, neither committing itself to an immediate tightening, as Summers is proposing, nor doubling down on a commitment to its current accommodative stance.

Meanwhile, the pandemic-related bottlenecks central to the transitory argument are exaggerated. Prices for more than 80 percent of goods in the CPI have increased more than 3 percent in the past year.With the economy’s capacity growing 2 percent a year and the Fed’s own forecast calling for 4 percent growth in 2022, price pressures seem more likely to grow than to abate.

This argument makes no sense. We have, to be sure, gone through a period of actual broad-based inflation, so pointing out that 80% of goods in the CPI have increased in price by more than 3% in the past year is unsurprising. The bottleneck point is that supply constraints have prevented the real economy from growing as fast as nominal spending has grown. As I’ve pointed out recently, there’s an overhang of cash and liquid assets, accumulated rather than spent during the pandemic, which has amplified aggregate-demand growth since the economy began to recover from the pandemic, opening up previously closed opportunities for spending. The mismatch between the growth of demand and the growth of supply has been manifested in rising inflation. If the bottleneck theory of inflation is true, then the short-term growth potential of the economy is greater than the 2% rate posited by Summers. As bottlenecks are removed and workers that withdrew from the labor force during the pandemic are re-employed, the economy could easily grow faster than Summers is willing to acknowledge. Summers simply assumes, but doesn’t demonstrate, his conclusion.

This all suggests that policy will need to restrain demand to restore price stability.

No, it does not suggest that at all. It only suggests the possibility that demand may have to be restrained to keep prices stable. Recent inflation may have been a delayed response to an expansive monetary policy designed to prevent a contraction of demand during the pandemic. A temporary increase in inflation does not necessarily call for an immediate contractionary response. It’s too early to tell with confidence whether preventing future inflation requires, as Summers asserts, monetary policy to be tightened immediately. That option shouldn’t be taken off the table, but the Fed clearly hasn’t done so.

How much tightening is required? No one knows, and the Fed is right to insist that it will monitor the economy and adjust. We do know, however, that monetary policy is far looser today — in a high-inflation, low-unemployment economy — than it was about a year ago when inflation was below the Fed’s target and unemployment was around 8 percent. With relatively constant nominal interest rates, higher inflation and the expectation of future inflation have led to dramatic reductions in real interest rates over the past year. This is why bubbles are increasingly pervasive in asset markets ranging from crypto to beachfront properties and meme stocks to tech start-ups.

Summers, again, is just assuming, not demonstrating, his own preferred conclusion. A year ago, high unemployment was caused by the unique confluence of essentially simultaneous negative demand and supply shocks. The unprecedented coincidence of two simultaneous shocks posed a unique policy challenge to which the Fed has so far responded with remarkable skill. But the unfamiliar and challenging economic environment remains murky, and premature responses to unclear conditions may not yield the anticipated results. Undaunted by any doubt in his own reading of an opaque situation, Summers self-assurance is characteristic and impressive, but his argument is less than compelling.

The implication is that restoring monetary policy to a normal posture, let alone to applying restraint to the economy, will require far more than the three quarter-point rate increases the Fed has predicted for next year. This point takes on particular force once it is recognized that, contrary to Powell’s assertion, almost all economists believe there is a lag of about a year between the application of a rate change and its effect. Failure to restore policy neutrality next year means allowing two more years of highly inflationary monetary policy.

All of this suggests that even with its actions this week, the Fed remains well behind the curve in its commitment to fighting inflation. If its statements reflect its convictions, this is a matter of serious concern.

The idea that there is a one-year lag between applying a policy and its effect is hardly credible. The problem is not the length of the lag, but the uncertain effects of policy in a given set of circumstances. The effects of a change in the money stock or a change in the policy rate may not be apparent if they are offset by other changes. The ceteris-paribus proviso that qualifies every analysis of the effects of monetary policy is rarely satisfied in the real world; almost every policy action by the central bank is an uncertain bet. Under current circumstances, the Fed response to the recent increase in inflation seems eminently sensible: signal that the Fed is anticipating the likelihood that monetary policy will have to be tightened if the current rate of increase in nominal spending remains substantially above the rate consistent with the Fed’s average inflation target of 2%, but wait for further evidence before deciding about the magnitude of any changes in the Fed’s policy instruments.

My Paper “Between Walras and Marshall: Menger’s Third Way” Is Now Posted on SSRN

As regular readers of this blog will realize, several of my recent posts (here, here, here, here, and here) have been incorporated in my new paper, which I have been writing for the upcoming Carl Menger 2021 Conference next week in Nice, France. The paper is now available on SSRN.

Here is the abstract to the paper:

Neoclassical economics is bifurcated between Marshall’s partial-equilibrium and Walras’s general-equilibrium analyses. Given the failure of neoclassical theory to explain the Great Depression, Keynes proposed an explanation of involuntary unemployment. Keynes’s contribution was later subsumed under the neoclassical synthesis of the Keynesian and Walrasian theories. Lacking microfoundations consistent with Walrasian theory, the neoclassical synthesis collapsed. But Walrasian GE theory provides no plausible account of how GE is achieved. Whatever plausibility is attributed to the assumption that price flexibility leads to equilibrium derives from Marshallian PE analysis, with prices equilibrating supply and demand. But Marshallian PE analysis presumes that all markets, but the small one being analyzed, are at equilibrium, so that price adjustments in the analyzed market neither affect nor are affected by other markets. The demand and cost (curves) of PE analysis are drawn on the assumption that all other prices reflect Walrasian GE values. While based on Walrasian assumptions, modern macroeconomics relies on the Marshallian intuition that agents know or anticipate the prices consistent with GE. Menger’s third way offers an alternative to this conceptual impasse by recognizing that nearly all economic activity is subjective and guided by expectations of the future. Current prices are set based on expectations of future prices, so equilibrium is possible only if agents share the same expectations of future prices. If current prices are set based on differing expectations, arbitrage opportunities are created, causing prices and expectations to change, leading to further arbitrage, expectational change, and so on, but not necessarily to equilibrium.

Here is a link to the paper: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3964127

The current draft if preliminary, and any comments, suggestions or criticisms from readers would be greatly appreciated.


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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