Posts Tagged 'Brad Delong'

The Well-Defined, but Nearly Useless, Natural Rate of Interest

Tyler Cowen recently posted a diatribe against the idea monetary policy should be conducted by setting the interest rate target of the central bank at or near the natural rate of interest. Tyler’s post elicited critical responses from Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman among others. I sympathize with Tyler’s impatience with the natural rate of interest as a guide to policy, but I think the scattershot approach he took in listing, seemingly at random, seven complaints against the natural rate of interest was not the best way to register dissatisfaction with the natural rate. Here’s Tyler’s list of seven complaints.

1 Knut Wicksell, inventor of the term “natural rate of interest,” argued that if the central bank set its target rate equal to the natural rate, it would avoid inflation and deflation and tame the business cycle. Wicksell’s argument was criticized by his friend and countryman David Davidson who pointed out that, with rising productivity, price stability would not result without monetary expansion, which would require the monetary authority to reduce its target rate of interest below the natural rate to induce enough investment to be financed by monetary expansion. Thus, when productivity is rising, setting the target rate of interest equal to the natural rate leads not to price stability, but to deflation.

2 Keynes rejected the natural rate as a criterion for monetary policy, because the natural rate is not unique. The natural rate varies with the level of income and employment.

3 Early Keynesians like Hicks, Hansen, and Modigliani rejected the natural rate as well.

4 The meaning of the natural rate has changed; it was once the rate that would result in a stable price level; now it’s the rate that results in a stable rate of inflation.

5 Friedman also rejected the natural rate because there is no guarantee that setting the target rate equal to the natural rate will result in the rate of money growth that Freidman believed was desirable.

6 Sraffa debunked the natural rate in his 1932 review of Hayek’s Prices and Production.

7 It seems implausible that the natural rate is now negative, as many exponents of the natural rate concept now claim, even though the economy is growing and the marginal productivity of capital is positive.

Let me try to tidy all this up a bit.

The first thing you need to know when thinking about the natural rate is that, like so much else in economics, you will become hopelessly confused if you don’t keep the Fisher equation, which decomposes the nominal rate of interest into the real rate of interest and the expected rate of inflation, in clear sight. Once you begin thinking about the natural rate in the context of the Fisher equation, it becomes obvious that the natural rate can be thought of coherently as either a real rate or a nominal rate, but the moment you are unclear about whether you are talking about a real natural rate or a nominal natural rate, you’re finished.

Thus, Wicksell was implicitly thinking about a situation in which expected inflation is zero so that the real and nominal natural rates coincide. If the rate of inflation is correctly expected to be zero, and the increase in productivity is also correctly expected, the increase in the quantity of money required to sustain a constant price level can be induced by the payment of interest on cash balances. Alternatively, if the payment of interest on cash balances is ruled out, the rate of capital accumulation (forced savings) could be increased sufficiently to cause the real natural interest rate under a constant price level to fall below the real natural interest rate under deflation.

In the Sraffa-Hayek episode, as Paul Zimmerman and I have shown in our paper on that topic, Sraffa failed to understand that the multiplicity of own rates of interest in a pure barter economy did not mean that there was not a unique real natural rate toward which arbitrage would force all the individual own rates to converge. At any moment, therefore, there is a unique real natural rate in a barter economy if arbitrage is operating to equalize the cost of borrowing in terms of every commodity. Moreover, even Sraffa did not dispute that, under Wicksell’s definition of the natural rate as the rate consistent with a stable price level, there is a unique natural rate. Sraffa’s quarrel was only with Hayek’s use of the natural rate, inasmuch as Hayek maintained that the natural rate did not imply a stable price level. Of course, Hayek was caught in a contradiction that Sraffa overlooked, because he identified the real natural rate with an equal nominal rate, so that he was implicitly assuming a constant expected price level even as he was arguing that the neutral monetary policy corresponding to setting the market interest rate equal to the natural rate would imply deflation when productivity was increasing.

I am inclined to be critical Milton Friedman about many aspects of his monetary thought, but one of his virtues as a monetary economist was that he consistently emphasized Fisher’s  distinction between real and nominal interest rates. The point that Friedman was making in the passage quoted by Tyler was that the monetary authority is able to peg nominal variables, prices, inflation, exchange rates, but not real variables, like employment, output, or interest rates. Even pegging the nominal natural rate is impossible, because inasmuch as the goal of targeting a nominal natural rate is to stabilize the rate of inflation, targeting the nominal natural rate also means targeting the real natural rate. But targeting the real natural rate is not possible, and trying to do so will just get you into trouble.

So Tyler should not be complaining about the change in the meaning of the natural rate; that change simply reflects the gradual penetration of the Fisher equation into the consciousness of the economics profession. We now realize that, given the real natural rate, there is, for every expected rate of inflation, a corresponding nominal natural rate.

Keynes made a very different contribution to our understanding of the natural rate. He was that there is no reason to assume that the real natural rate of interest is unique. True, at any moment there is some real natural rate toward which arbitrage is forcing all nominal rates to converge. But that real natural rate is a function of the prevailing economic conditions. Keynes believed that there are multiple equilibria, each corresponding to a different level of employment, and that associated with each of those equilibria there could be a different real natural rate. Nowadays, we are less inclined than was Keynes to call an underemployment situation an equilibrium, but there is still no reason to assume that the real natural rate that serves as an attractor for all nominal rates is independent of the state of the economy. If the real natural rate for an underperforming economy is less than the real natural rate that would be associated with the economy if it were in the neighborhood of an optimal equilibrium, there is no reason why either the real natural rate corresponding to an optimal equilibrium or the real natural rate corresponding to the current sub-optimal state of economy should be the policy rate that the monetary authority chooses as its target.

Finally, what can be said about Tyler’s point that it is implausible to suggest that the real natural rate is negative when the economy is growing (even slowly) and the marginal productivity of capital is positive? Two points.

First, the marginal productivity of gold is very close to zero. If gold is held as bullion, it is being held for expected appreciation over and above the cost of storage. So the ratio of the future price of gold to the spot price of gold should equal one plus the real rate of interest. If you look at futures prices for gold you will see that they are virtually the same as the spot price. However, storing gold is not costless. According to this article on, storage costs for gold range between 0.5 to 1% of the value of gold, implying that expected rate of return to holding gold is now less than -0.5% a year, which means that the marginal productivity of real capital is negative. Sure there are plenty of investments out there that are generating positive returns, but those are inframarginal investments. Those inframarginal investments are generating some net gain in productivity, and overall economic growth is positive, but that doesn’t mean that the return on investment at the margin is positive. At the margin, the yield on real capital seems to be negative.

If, as appears likely, our economy is underperforming, estimates of the real natural rate of interest are not necessarily an appropriate guide for the monetary authority in choosing its target rate of interest. If the aim of monetary policy is to nudge the economy onto a feasible growth path that is above the sub-optimal path along which it is currently moving, it might well be that the appropriate interest-rate target, as long as the economy remains below its optimal growth path, would be less than the natural rate corresponding to the current sub-optimal growth path.


Neo-Fisherism and All That

A few weeks ago Michael Woodford and his Columbia colleague Mariana Garcia-Schmidt made an initial response to the Neo-Fisherian argument advanced by, among others, John Cochrane and Stephen Williamson that a central bank can achieve its inflation target by pegging its interest-rate instrument at a rate such that if the expected inflation rate is the inflation rate targeted by the central bank, the Fisher equation would be satisfied. In other words, if the central bank wants 2% inflation, it should set the interest rate instrument under its control at the Fisherian real rate of interest (aka the natural rate) plus 2% expected inflation. So if the Fisherian real rate is 2%, the central bank should set its interest-rate instrument (Fed Funds rate) at 4%, because, in equilibrium – and, under rational expectations, that is the only policy-relevant solution of the model – inflation expectations must satisfy the Fisher equation.

The Neo-Fisherians believe that, by way of this insight, they have overturned at least two centuries of standard monetary theory, dating back at least to Henry Thornton, instructing the monetary authorities to raise interest rates to combat inflation and to reduce interest rates to counter deflation. According to the Neo-Fisherian Revolution, this was all wrong: the way to reduce inflation is for the monetary authority to reduce the setting on its interest-rate instrument and the way to counter deflation is to raise the setting on the instrument. That is supposedly why the Fed, by reducing its Fed Funds target practically to zero, has locked us into a low-inflation environment.

Unwilling to junk more than 200 years of received doctrine on the basis, not of a behavioral relationship, but a reduced-form equilibrium condition containing no information about the direction of causality, few monetary economists and no policy makers have become devotees of the Neo-Fisherian Revolution. Nevertheless, the Neo-Fisherian argument has drawn enough attention to elicit a response from Michael Woodford, who is the go-to monetary theorist for monetary-policy makers. The Woodford-Garcia-Schmidt (hereinafter WGS) response (for now just a slide presentation) has already been discussed by Noah Smith, Nick Rowe, Scott Sumner, Brad DeLong, Roger Farmer and John Cochrane. Nick Rowe’s discussion, not surprisingly, is especially penetrating in distilling the WGS presentation into its intuitive essence.

Using Nick’s discussion as a starting point, I am going to offer some comments of my own on Neo-Fisherism and the WGS critique. Right off the bat, WGS concede that it is possible that by increasing the setting of its interest-rate instrument, a central bank could, move the economy from one rational-expectations equilibrium to another, the only difference between the two being that inflation in the second would differ from inflation in the first by an amount exactly equal to the difference in the corresponding settings of the interest-rate instrument. John Cochrane apparently feels pretty good about having extracted this concession from WGS, remarking

My first reaction is relief — if Woodford says it is a prediction of the standard perfect foresight / rational expectations version, that means I didn’t screw up somewhere. And if one has to resort to learning and non-rational expectations to get rid of a result, the battle is half won.

And my first reaction to Cochrane’s first reaction is: why only half? What else is there to worry about besides a comparison of rational-expectations equilibria? Well, let Cochrane read Nick Rowe’s blogpost. If he did, he might realize that if you do no more than compare alternative steady-state equilibria, ignoring the path leading from one equilibrium to the other, you miss just about everything that makes macroeconomics worth studying (by the way I do realize the question-begging nature of that remark). Of course that won’t necessarily bother Cochrane, because, like other practitioners of modern macroeconomics, he has convinced himself that it is precisely by excluding everything but rational-expectations equilibria from consideration that modern macroeconomics has made what its practitioners like to think of as progress, and what its critics regard as the opposite .

But Nick Rowe actually takes the trouble to show what might happen if you try to specify the path by which you could get from rational-expectations equilibrium A with the interest-rate instrument of the central bank set at i to rational-expectations equilibrium B with the interest-rate instrument of the central bank set at i ­+ ε. If you try to specify a process of trial-and-error (tatonnement) that leads from A to B, you will almost certainly fail, your only chance being to get it right on your first try. And, as Nick further points out, the very notion of a tatonnement process leading from one equilibrium to another is a huge stretch, because, in the real world there are “no backs” as there are in tatonnement. If you enter into an exchange, you can’t nullify it, as is the case under tatonnement, just because the price you agreed on turns out not to have been an equilibrium price. For there to be a tatonnement path from the first equilibrium that converges on the second requires that monetary authority set its interest-rate instrument in the conventional, not the Neo-Fisherian, manner, using variations in the real interest rate as a lever by which to nudge the economy onto a path leading to a new equilibrium rather than away from it.

The very notion that you don’t have to worry about the path by which you get from one equilibrium to another is so bizarre that it would be merely laughable if it were not so dangerous. Kenneth Boulding used to tell a story about a physicist, a chemist and an economist stranded on a desert island with nothing to eat except a can of food, but nothing to open the can with. The physicist and the chemist tried to figure out a way to open the can, but the economist just said: “assume a can opener.” But I wonder if even Boulding could have imagined the disconnect from reality embodied in the Neo-Fisherian argument.

Having registered my disapproval of Neo-Fisherism, let me now reverse field and make some critical comments about the current state of non-Neo-Fisherian monetary theory, and what makes it vulnerable to off-the-wall ideas like Neo-Fisherism. The important fact to consider about the past two centuries of monetary theory that I referred to above is that for at least three-quarters of that time there was a basic default assumption that the value of money was ultimately governed by the value of some real commodity, usually either silver or gold (or even both). There could be temporary deviations between the value of money and the value of the monetary standard, but because there was a standard, the value of gold or silver provided a benchmark against which the value of money could always be reckoned. I am not saying that this was either a good way of thinking about the value of money or a bad way; I am just pointing out that this was metatheoretical background governing how people thought about money.

Even after the final collapse of the gold standard in the mid-1930s, there was a residue of metalism that remained, people still calculating values in terms of gold equivalents and the value of currency in terms of its gold price. Once the gold standard collapsed, it was inevitable that these inherited habits of thinking about money would eventually give way to new ways of thinking, and it took another 40 years or so, until the official way of thinking about the value of money finally eliminated any vestige of the gold mentality. In our age of enlightenment, no sane person any longer thinks about the value of money in terms of gold or silver equivalents.

But the problem for monetary theory is that, without a real-value equivalent to assign to money, the value of money in our macroeconomic models became theoretically indeterminate. If the value of money is theoretically indeterminate, so, too, is the rate of inflation. The value of money and the rate of inflation are simply, as Fischer Black understood, whatever people in the aggregate expect them to be. Nevertheless, our basic mental processes for understanding how central banks can use an interest-rate instrument to control the value of money are carryovers from an earlier epoch when the value of money was determined, most of the time and in most places, by convertibility, either actual or expected, into gold or silver. The interest-rate instrument of central banks was not primarily designed as a method for controlling the value of money; it was the mechanism by which the central bank could control the amount of reserves on its balance sheet and the amount of gold or silver in its vaults. There was only an indirect connection – at least until the 1920s — between a central bank setting its interest-rate instrument to control its balance sheet and the effect on prices and inflation. The rules of monetary policy developed under a gold standard are not necessarily applicable to an economic system in which the value of money is fundamentally indeterminate.

Viewed from this perspective, the Neo-Fisherian Revolution appears as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the present confused state of monetary theory in which the price level and the rate of inflation are entirely subjective and determined totally by expectations.

Just How Infamous Was that Infamous Open Letter to Bernanke?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Krugman on Minsky, IS-LM and Temporary Equilibrium

Catching up on my blog reading, I found this one from Paul Krugman from almost two weeks ago defending the IS-LM model against Hyman Minsky’s criticism (channeled by his student Lars Syll) that IS-LM misrepresented the message of Keynes’s General Theory. That is an old debate, and it’s a debate that will never be resolved because IS-LM is a nice way of incorporating monetary effects into the pure income-expenditure model that was the basis of Keynes’s multiplier analysis and his policy prescriptions. On the other hand, the model leaves out much of what most interesting and insightful in the General Theory — precisely the stuff that could not easily be distilled into a simple analytic model.

Here’s Krugman:

Lars Syll approvingly quotes Hyman Minsky denouncing IS-LM analysis as an “obfuscation” of Keynes; Brad DeLong disagrees. As you might guess, so do I.

There are really two questions here. The less important is whether something like IS-LM — a static, equilibrium analysis of output and employment that takes expectations and financial conditions as given — does violence to the spirit of Keynes. Why isn’t this all that important? Because Keynes was a smart guy, not a prophet. The General Theory is interesting and inspiring, but not holy writ.

It’s also a protean work that contains a lot of different ideas, not necessarily consistent with each other. Still, when I read Minsky putting into Keynes’s mouth the claim that

Only a theory that was explicitly cyclical and overtly financial was capable of being useful

I have to wonder whether he really read the book! As I read the General Theory — and I’ve read it carefully — one of Keynes’s central insights was precisely that you wanted to step back from thinking about the business cycle. Previous thinkers had focused all their energy on trying to explain booms and busts; Keynes argued that the real thing that needed explanation was the way the economy seemed to spend prolonged periods in a state of underemployment:

[I]t is an outstanding characteristic of the economic system in which we live that, whilst it is subject to severe fluctuations in respect of output and employment, it is not violently unstable. Indeed it seems capable of remaining in a chronic condition of subnormal activity for a considerable period without any marked tendency either towards recovery or towards complete collapse.

So Keynes started with a, yes, equilibrium model of a depressed economy. He then went on to offer thoughts about how changes in animal spirits could alter this equilibrium; but he waited until Chapter 22 (!) to sketch out a story about the business cycle, and made it clear that this was not the centerpiece of his theory. Yes, I know that he later wrote an article claiming that it was all about the instability of expectations, but the book is what changed economics, and that’s not what it says.

This all seems pretty sensible to me. Nevertheless, there is so much in the General Theory — both good and bad – that isn’t reflected in IS-LM, that to reduce the General Theory to IS-LM is a kind of misrepresentation. And to be fair, Hicks himself acknowledged that IS-LM was merely a way of representing one critical difference in the assumptions underlying the Keynesian and the “Classical” analyses of macroeconomic equilibrium.

But I would take issue with the following assertion by Krugman.

The point is that Keynes very much made use of the method of temporary equilibrium — interpreting the state of the economy in the short run as if it were a static equilibrium with a lot of stuff taken provisionally as given — as a way to clarify thought. And the larger point is that he was right to do this.

When people like me use something like IS-LM, we’re not imagining that the IS curve is fixed in position for ever after. It’s a ceteris paribus thing, just like supply and demand. Assuming short-run equilibrium in some things — in this case interest rates and output — doesn’t mean that you’ve forgotten that things change, it’s just a way to clarify your thought. And the truth is that people who try to think in terms of everything being dynamic all at once almost always end up either confused or engaging in a lot of implicit theorizing they don’t even realize they’re doing.

When I think of a temporary equilibrium, the most important – indeed the defining — characteristic of that temporary equilibrium is that expectations of at least some agents have been disappointed. The disappointment of expectations is likely to, but does not strictly require, a revision of disappointed expectations and of the plans conditioned on those expectations. The revision of expectations and plans as a result of expectations being disappointed is what gives rise to a dynamic adjustment process. But that is precisely what is excluded from – or at least not explicitly taken into account by – the IS-LM model. There is nothing in the IS-LM model that provides any direct insight into the process by which expectations are revised as a result of being disappointed. That Keynes could so easily think in terms of a depressed economy being in equilibrium suggests to me that he was missing what I regard as the key insight of the temporary-equilibrium method.

Of course, there are those who argue, perhaps most notably Roger Farmer, that economies have multiple equilibria, each with different levels of output and employment corresponding to different expectational parameters. That seems to me a more Keynesian approach, an approach recognizing that expectations can be self-fulfilling, than the temporary-equilibrium approach in which the focus is on mistaken and conflicting expectations, not their self-fulfillment.

Now to be fair, I have to admit that Hicks, himself, who introduced the temporary-equilibrium approach in Value and Capital (1939) later (1965) suggested in Capital and Growth (p. 65) that both the Keynes in the General Theory and the temporary-equilibrium approach of Value and Capital were “quasi-static.” The analysis of the General Theory “is not the analysis of a process; no means has been provided by which we can pass from one Keynesian period to the next. . . . The Temporary Equilibrium model of Value and Capital, also, is quasi-static in just the same sense. The reason why I was contented with such a model was because I had my eyes fixed on Keynes.

Despite Hicks’s identification of the temporary-equilibrium method with Keynes’s method in the General Theory, I think that Hicks was overly modest in assessing his own contribution in Value and Capital, failing to appreciate the full significance of the method he had introduced. Which, I suppose, just goes to show that you can’t assume that the person who invents a concept or an idea is necessarily the one who has the best, or most comprehensive, understanding of what the concept means of what its significance is.

Nick Rowe Teaches Us a Lot about Apples and Bananas

Last week I wrote a post responding to a post by Nick Rowe about money and coordination failures. Over the weekend, Nick posted a response to my post (and to one by Brad Delong). Nick’s latest post was all about apples and bananas. It was an interesting post, though for some reason – no doubt unrelated to its form or substance – I found the post difficult to read and think about. But having now read, and I think, understood (more or less), what Nick wrote, I confess to being somewhat underwhelmed. Let me try to explain why I don’t think that Nick has adequately addressed the point that I was raising.

That point being that while coordination failures can indeed be, and frequently are, the result of a monetary disturbance, one that creates an excess demand for money, thereby leading to a contraction of spending, and thus to a reduction of output and employment, it is also possible that a coordination failure can occur independently of a monetary disturbance, at least a disturbance that could be characterized as an excess demand for money that triggers a reduction in spending, income, output, and employment.

Without evaluating his reasoning, I will just restate key elements of Nick’s model – actually two parallel models. There are apple trees and banana trees, and people like to consume both apples and bananas. Some people own apple trees, and some people own banana trees. Owners of apple trees and owners of banana trees trade apples for bananas, so that they can consume a well-balanced diet of both apples and bananas. Oh, and there’s also some gold around. People like gold, but it’s not clear why. In one version of the model, people use it as a medium of exchange, selling bananas for gold and using gold to buy apples or selling apples for gold and using gold to buy bananas. In the other version of the model, people just barter apples for bananas. Nick then proceeds to show that if trade is conducted by barter, an increase in the demand for gold, does not affect the allocation of resources, because agents continue to trade apples for bananas to achieve the desired allocation, even if the value of gold is held fixed. However, if trade is mediated by gold, the increased demand for gold, with prices held fixed, implies corresponding excess supplies of both apples and bananas, preventing the optimal reallocation of apples and bananas through trade, which Nick characterizes as a recession. However, if there is a shift in demand from bananas to apples or vice versa, with prices fixed in either model, there will be an excess demand for bananas and an excess supply of apples (or vice versa). The outcome is suboptimal because Pareto-improving trade is prevented, but there is no recession in Nick’s view because the excess supply of one real good is exactly offset by an excess demand for the other real good. Finally, Nick considers a case in which there is trade in apple trees and banana trees. An increase in the demand for fruit trees, owing to a reduced rate of time preference, causes no problems in the barter model, because there is no impediment to trading apples for bananas. However, in the money model, the reduced rate of time preference causes an increase in the amount of gold people want to hold, the foregone interest from holding more having been reduced, which prevents optimal trade with prices held fixed.

Here are the conclusions that Nick draws from his two models.

Bottom line. My conclusions.

For the second shock (a change in preferences away from apples towards bananas), we get the same reduction in the volume of trade whether we are in a barter or a monetary economy. Monetary coordination failures play no role in this sort of “recession”. But would we call that a “recession”? Well, it doesn’t look like a normal recession, because there is an excess demand for bananas.

For both the first and third shocks, we get a reduction in the volume of trade in a monetary economy, and none in the barter economy. Monetary coordination failures play a decisive role in these sorts of recessions, even though the third shock that caused the recession was not a monetary shock. It was simply an increased demand for fruit trees, because agents became more patient. And these sorts of recessions do look like recessions, because there is an excess supply of both apples and bananas.

Or, to say the same thing another way: if we want to understand a decrease in output and employment caused by structural unemployment, monetary coordination failures don’t matter, and we can ignore money. Everything else is a monetary coordination failure. Even if the original shock was not a monetary shock, that non-monetary shock can cause a recession because it causes a monetary coordination failure.

Why am I underwhelmed by Nick’s conclusions? Well, it just seems that, WADR, he is making a really trivial point. I mean in a two-good world with essentially two representative agents, there is not really that much that can go wrong. To put this model through its limited endowment of possible disturbances, and to show that only an excess demand for money implies a “recession,” doesn’t seem to me to prove a great deal. And I was tempted to say that the main thing that it proves is how minimal is the contribution to macroeconomic understanding that can be derived from a two-good, two-agent model.

But, in fact, even within a two-good, two-agent model, it turns out there is room for a coordination problem, not considered by Nick, to occur. In his very astute comment on Nick’s post, Kevin Donoghue correctly pointed out that even trade between an apple grower and a banana grower depends on the expectations of each that the other will actually have what to sell in the next period. How much each one plants depends on his expectations of how much the other will plant. If neither expects the other to plant, the output of both will fall.

Commenting on an excellent paper by Backhouse and Laidler about the promising developments in macroeconomics that were cut short because of the IS-LM revolution, I made reference to a passage quoted by Backhouse and Laidler from Bjorn Hansson about the Stockholm School. It was the Stockholm School along with Hayek who really began to think deeply about the relationship between expectations and coordination failures. Keynes also thought about that, but didn’t grasp the point as deeply as did the Swedes and the Austrians. Sorry to quote myself, but it’s already late and I’m getting tired. I think the quote explains what I think is so lacking in a lot of modern macroeconomics, and, I am sorry to say, in Nick’s discussion of apples and bananas.

Backhouse and Laidler go on to cite the Stockholm School (of which Ohlin was a leading figure) as an example of explicitly dynamic analysis.

As Bjorn Hansson (1982) has shown, this group developed an explicit method, using the idea of a succession of “unit periods,” in which each period began with agents having plans based on newly formed expectations about the outcome of executing them, and ended with the economy in some new situation that was the outcome of executing them, and ended with the economy in some new situation that was the outcome of market processes set in motion by the incompatibility of those plans, and in which expectations had been reformulated, too, in the light of experience. They applied this method to the construction of a wide variety of what they called “model sequences,” many of which involved downward spirals in economic activity at whose very heart lay rising unemployment. This is not the place to discuss the vexed question of the extent to which some of this work anticipated the Keynesian multiplier process, but it should be noted that, in IS-LM, it is the limit to which such processes move, rather than the time path they follow to get there, that is emphasized.

The Stockholm method seems to me exactly the right way to explain business-cycle downturns. In normal times, there is a rough – certainly not perfect, but good enough — correspondence of expectations among agents. That correspondence of expectations implies that the individual plans contingent on those expectations will be more or less compatible with one another. Surprises happen; here and there people are disappointed and regret past decisions, but, on the whole, they are able to adjust as needed to muddle through. There is usually enough flexibility in a system to allow most people to adjust their plans in response to unforeseen circumstances, so that the disappointment of some expectations doesn’t become contagious, causing a systemic crisis.

But when there is some sort of major shock – and it can only be a shock if it is unforeseen – the system may not be able to adjust. Instead, the disappointment of expectations becomes contagious. If my customers aren’t able to sell their products, I may not be able to sell mine. Expectations are like networks. If there is a breakdown at some point in the network, the whole network may collapse or malfunction. Because expectations and plans fit together in interlocking networks, it is possible that even a disturbance at one point in the network can cascade over an increasingly wide group of agents, leading to something like a system-wide breakdown, a financial crisis or a depression.

But the “problem” with the Stockholm method was that it was open-ended. It could offer only “a wide variety” of “model sequences,” without specifying a determinate solution. It was just this gap in the Stockholm approach that Keynes was able to fill. He provided a determinate equilibrium, “the limit to which the Stockholm model sequences would move, rather than the time path they follow to get there.” A messy, but insightful, approach to explaining the phenomenon of downward spirals in economic activity coupled with rising unemployment was cast aside in favor of the neater, simpler approach of Keynes. No wonder Ohlin sounds annoyed in his comment, quoted by Backhouse and Laidler, about Keynes. Tractability trumped insight.

Unfortunately, that is still the case today. Open-ended models of the sort that the Stockholm School tried to develop still cannot compete with the RBC and DSGE models that have displaced IS-LM and now dominate modern macroeconomics. The basic idea that modern economies form networks, and that networks have properties that are not reducible to just the nodes forming them has yet to penetrate the trained intuition of modern macroeconomists. Otherwise, how would it have been possible to imagine that a macroeconomic model could consist of a single representative agent? And just because modern macroeconomists have expanded their models to include more than a single representative agent doesn’t mean that the intellectual gap evidenced by the introduction of representative-agent models into macroeconomic discourse has been closed.

Nick Rowe on Money and Coordination Failures

Via Brad Delong, I have been reading a month-old post by Nick Rowe in which Nick argues that every coordination failure is attributable to an excess demand for money. I think money is very important, but I am afraid that Nick goes a bit overboard in attempting to attribute every failure of macroeconomic coordination to a monetary source, where “monetary” means an excess demand for money. So let me try to see where I think Nick has gotten off track, or perhaps where I have gotten off track.

His post is quite a long one – over 3000 words, all his own – so I won’t try to summarize it, but the main message is that what characterizes money economies – economies in which there is a single asset that serves as the medium of exchange – is that money is involved in almost every transaction. And when a coordination failure occurs in such an economy, there being lots of unsold good and unemployed workers, the proper way to think about what is happening is that it is hard to buy money. Another way of saying that it is hard to buy money is that there is an excess demand for money.

Nick tries to frame his discussion in terms of Walras’s Law. Walras’s Law is a property of a general-equilibrium system in which there are n goods (and services). Some of these goods are produced and sold in the current period; others exist either as gifts of nature (e.g., land and other privately owned natural resources), as legacies of past production). Walras’s Law tells us that in a competitive system in which all transactors can trade at competitive prices, it must be the case that planned sales and purchases (including asset accumulation) for each individual and for all individuals collectively must cancel out. The value of my planned purchases must equal the value of my planned sales. This is a direct implication of the assumption that prices for each good are uniform for all individuals, and the assumption that goods and services may be transferred between individuals only via market transactions (no theft or robbery). Walras’s Law holds even if there is no equilibrium, but only in the notional sense that value of planned purchases and planned sales would exactly cancel each other out. In general-equilibrium models, no trading is allowed except at the equilibrium price vector.

Walras’ Law says that if you have a $1 billion excess supply of newly-produced goods, you must have a $1 billion excess demand for something else. And that something else could be anything. It could be money, or it could be bonds, or it could be land, or it could be safe assets, or it could be….anything other than newly-produced goods. The excess demand that offsets that excess supply for newly-produced goods could pop up anywhere. Daniel Kuehn called this the “Whack-a-mole theory of business cycles”.

If Walras’ Law were right, recessions could be caused by an excess demand for unobtanium, which has zero supply, but a big demand, and the government stupidly passed a law setting a finite maximum price per kilogram for something that doesn’t even exist, thereby causing a recession and mass unemployment.

People might want to buy $1 billion of unobtanium per year, but that does not cause an excess supply of newly-produced goods. It does not cause an excess supply of anything. Because they cannot buy $1 billion of unobtanium. That excess demand for unobtanium does not affect anything anywhere in the economy. Yes, if 1 billion kgs of unobtanium were discovered, and offered for sale at $1 per kg, that would affect things. But it is the supply of unobtanium that would affect things, not the elimination of the excess demand. If instead you eliminated the excess demand by convincing people that unobtanium wasn’t worth buying, absolutely nothing would change.

An excess demand for unobtanium has absolutely zero effect on the economy. And that is true regardless of the properties of unobtanium. In particular, it makes absolutely no difference whether unobtanium is or is not a close substitute for money.

What is true for unobtanium is also true for any good for which there is excess demand. Except money. If you want to buy 10 bonds, or 10 acres of land, or 10 safe assets, but can only buy 6, because only 6 are offered for sale, those extra 4 bonds might as well be unobtanium. You want to buy 4 extra bonds, but you can’t, so you don’t. Just like you want to buy unobtanium, but you can’t, so you don’t. You can’t do anything so you don’t do anything.

Walras’ Law is wrong. Walras’ Law only works in an economy with one centralised market where all goods can be traded against each other at once. If the Walrasian auctioneer announced a finite price for unobtanium, there would be an excess demand for unobtanium and an excess supply of other goods. People would offer to sell $1 billion of some other goods to finance their offers to buy $1 billion of unobtanium. The only way the auctioneer could clear the market would be by refusing to accept offers to buy unobtanium. But in a monetary exchange economy the market for unobtanium would be a market where unobtanium trades for money. There would be an excess demand for unobtanium, matched by an equal excess supply of money, in that particular market. No other market would be affected, if people knew they could not in fact buy any unobtanium for money, even if they want to.

Now this is a really embarrassing admission to make – and right after making another embarrassing admission in my previous post – I need to stop this – but I have no idea what Nick is saying here. There is no general-equilibrium system in which there is any notional trading taking place for a non-existent good, so I have no clue what this is all about. However, even though I can’t follow Nick’s reasoning, I totally agree with him that Walras’s Law is wrong. But the reason that it’s wrong is not that it implies that recessions could be caused by an excess demand for a non-existent good; the reason is that, in the only context in which a general-equilibrium model could be relevant for macroeconomics, i.e., an incomplete-markets model (aka the Radner model) in which individual agents are forming plans based on their expectations of future prices, prices that will only be observed in future periods, Walras’s Law cannot be true unless all agents have identical and correct expectations of all future prices.

Thus, the condition for macroeconomic coordination is that all agents have correct expectations of all currently unobservable future prices. When they have correct expectations, Walras’s Law is satisfied, and all is well with the world. When they don’t, Walras’s Law does not hold. When Walras’s Law doesn’t hold, things get messy; people default on their obligations, businesses go bankrupt, workers lose their jobs.

Nick thinks it’s all about money. Money is certainly one way in which things can get messed up. The government can cause inflation, and then stop it, as happened in 1920-21 and in 1981-82. People who expected inflation to continue, and made plans based on those expectations,were very likely unable to execute their plans when inflation stopped. But there are other reasons than incorrect inflation expectations that can cause people to have incorrect expectations of future prices.

Actually, Nick admits that coordination failures can be caused by factors other than an excess demand for money, but for some reason he seems to think that every coordination failure must be associated with an excess demand for money. But that is not so. I can envision a pure barter economy with incorrect price expectations in which individual plans are in a state of discoordination. Or consider a Fisherian debt-deflation economy in which debts are denominated in terms of gold and gold is appreciating. Debtors restrict consumption not because they are trying to accumulate more cash but because their debt burden is go great, any income they earn is being transferred to their creditors. In a monetary economy suffering from debt deflation, one would certainly want to use monetary policy to alleviate the debt burden, but using monetary policy to alleviate the debt burden is different from using monetary policy to eliminate an excess demand for money. Where is the excess demand for money?

Nick invokes Hayek’s paper (“The Use of Knowledge in Society“) to explain how markets work to coordinate the decentralized plans of individual agents. Nick assumes that Hayek failed to mention money in that paper because money is so pervasive a feature of a real-world economy, that Hayek simply took its existence for granted. That’s certainly an important paper, but the more important paper in this context is Hayek’s earlier paper (“Economics and Knowledge“) in which he explained the conditions for intertemporal equilibrium in which individual plans are coordinated, and why there is simply no market mechanism to ensure that intertemporal equilibrium is achieved. Money is not mentioned in that paper either.

Hey, Look at Me; I Turned Brad Delong into an Apologist for Milton Friedman

It’s always nice to be noticed, so I can hardly complain if Brad Delong wants to defend Milton Friedman on his blog against my criticism of his paper “Real and Pseudo Gold Standards.” I just find it a little bit rich to see Friedman being defended against my criticism by the arch-Keynesian Brad Delong.

But in the spirit of friendly disagreement in which Brad criticizes my criticism, I shall return the compliment and offer some criticisms of my own of Brad’s valiant effort to defend the indefensible.

So let me try to parse what Brad is saying and see if Brad can help me find sense where before I could find none.

I think that Friedman’s paper has somewhat more coherence than David does. From Milton Friedman’s standpoint (and from John Maynard Keynes’s) you need microeconomic [I think Brad meant to say macroeconomic] stability in order for private laissez-faire to be for the best in the best of possible worlds. Macroeconomic stability is:

  1. stable and predictable paths for total spending, the price level, and interest rates; hence
  2. a stable and predictable path for the velocity of money; hence
  3. (1) then achieved by a stable and predictable path for the money stock; and
  4. if (3) is secured by institutions, then expectations of (3) will generate the possibility of (1) and (2) so that if (3) is actually carried out then eppur si muove

I agree with Brad that macroeconomic stability can be described as a persistent circumstance in which the paths for total spending, the price level, and (perhaps) interest rates are stable and predictable. I also agree that a stable and predictable path for the velocity of money is conducive to macroeconomic stability. But note the difference between saying that the time paths for total spending, the price level and (perhaps) interest rates are stable and predictable and that the time path for the velocity of money is stable and predictable. It is, at least possibly the case, that it is within the power of an enlightened monetary authority to provide, or that it would be possible to construct a monetary regime that could provide, stable and predictable paths for total spending and the price level. Whether it is also possible for a monetary authority or a monetary regime to provide a stable and predictable path for interest rates would depend on the inherent variability in the real rate of interest. It may be that variations in the real rate are triggered by avoidable variations in nominal rates, so that if nominal rates are stabilized, real rates will be stabilized, too. But it may be that real rates are inherently variable and unpredictable. But it is at least plausible to argue that the appropriate monetary policy or monetary regime would result in a stable and predictable path of real and nominal interest rates. However, I find it highly implausible to think that it is within the power of any monetary authority or monetary regime to provide a stable and predictable path for the velocity of money. On the contrary, it seems much more likely that in order to provide stability and predictability in the paths for total spending, the price level, and interest rates, the monetary authority or the monetary regime would have to tolerate substantial variations in the velocity of money associated with changes in the public’s demand to hold money. So the notion that a stable and predictable path for the money stock is a characteristic of macroeconomic stability, much less a condition for monetary stability, strikes me as a complete misconception, a misconception propagated, more than anyone else, by Milton Friedman, himself.

Thus, contrary to Brad’s assertion, a stable and predictable path for the money stock is more likely than not to be a condition not for macroeconomic stability, but of macroeconomic instability. And to support my contention that a stable and predictable path for the money stock is macroeconomically destabilizing, let me quote none other than F. A. Hayek. I quote Hayek not because I think he is more authoritative than Friedman – Hayek having made more than his share of bad macroeconomic policy calls (e.g. his 1932 defense of the insane Bank of France) – but because in his own polite way he simply demolished the fallacy underlying Friedman’s fetish with a fixed rate of growth in the money stock (Full Empoyment at Any Price).

I wish I could share the confidence of my friend Milton Friedman who thinks that one could deprive the monetary authorities, in order to prevent the abuse of their powers for political purposes, of all discretionary powers by prescribing the amount of money they may and should add to circulation in any one year. It seems to me that he regards this as practicable because he has become used for statistical purposes to draw a sharp distinction between what is to be regarded as money and what is not. This distinction does not exist in the real world. I believe that, to ensure the convertibility of all kinds of near-money into real money, which is necessary if we are to avoid severe liquidity crises or panics, the monetary authorities must be given some discretion. But I agree with Friedman that we will have to try and get back to a more or less automatic system for regulating the quantity of money in ordinary times. The necessity of “suspending” Sir Robert Peel’s Bank Act of 1844 three times within 25 years after it was passed ought to have taught us this once and for all.

He was briefer and more pointed in a later comment (Denationalization of Money).

As regards Professor Friedman’s proposal of a legal limit on the rate at which a monopolistic issuer of money was to be allowed to increase the quantity in circulation, I can only say that I would not like to see what would happen if it ever became known that the amount of cash in circulation was approaching the upper limit and that therefore a need for increased liquidity could not be met.

And for good measure, Hayek added this footnote quoting Bagehot:

To such a situation the classic account of Walter Bagehot . . . would apply: “In a sensitive state of the English money market the near approach to the legal limit of reserve would be a sure incentive to panic; if one-third were fixed by law, the moment the banks were close to one-third, alarm would begin and would run like magic.

In other words if 3 is secured by institutions, all hell breaks loose.

But let us follow Brad a bit further in his quixotic quest to make Friedman seem sensible.

Now there are two different institutional setups that can produce (3):

  1. a monetarist central bank committed to targeting a k% growth rate of the money stock via open-market operations; or
  2. a gold standard in which a Humean price-specie flow mechanism leads inflating countries to lose and deflating countries to gain gold, tightly coupled to a banking system in which there is a reliable and stable money multiplier, and thus in which the money stock grows at the rate at which the world’s gold stock grows (plus the velocity trend).

Well, I have just – and not for the first time — disposed of 1, and in my previous post, I have disposed of 2. But having started to repeat myself, why not continue.

There are two points to make about the Humean price-specie-flow mechanism. First, it makes no sense, as Samuelson showed in his classic 1980 paper, inasmuch as it violates arbitrage conditions which do not allow the prices of tradable commodities to differ by more than the costs of transport. The Humean price-specie-flow mechanism presumes that the local domestic price levels are determined by local money supplies (either gold or convertible into gold), but that is simply not possible if arbitrage conditions obtain. There is no price-specie-flow mechanism under the gold standard, there is simply a movement of money sufficient to eliminate excess demands or supplies of money at the constant internationally determined price level. Domestic money supplies are endogenous and prices are (from the point of view of the monetary system) exogenously determined by the value of gold and the exchange rates of the local currencies in terms of gold. There is therefore no stable money multiplier at the level of a national currency (gold or convertible into gold). Friedman’s conception a pure [aka real] gold standard was predicated on a fallacy, namely the price-specie-flow mechanism. No gold standard in history ever operated as Friedman supposed that it operated. There were a few attempts to impose by statutory requirement a 100% (or sometime lower) marginal reserve requirement on banknotes, but that was statutory intervention, not a gold standard, which, at any operational level, is characterized by a fixed exchange rate between gold and the local currency with no restriction on the ability of economic agents to purchase gold at the going market price. the market price, under the gold standard, always equaling (or very closely approximating) the legal exchange rate between gold and the local currency.

Friedman calls (2) a “pure gold standard”. Anything else that claims to be a gold standard is and must be a “pseudo gold standard”. It might be a pseudo gold standard either because something disrupts the Humean price-specie flow mechanism–the “rules of the game” are not obeyed–so that deficit countries do not reliably lose and surplus countries do not reliably gain gold. It might be a pseudo gold standard because the money multiplier is not reliable and stable–because the banking system does not transparently and rapidly transmute a k% shift in the stock of gold into a k% shift in the money stock.

Friedman’s calling (2) “a pure [real] gold standard,” because it actualizes the Humean price-specie-flow-mechanism simply shows that Friedman understood neither the gold standard nor the price-specie-flow mechanism. The supposed rules of the game were designed to make the gold standard function in a particular way. In fact, the evidence shows that the classical gold standard in operation from roughly 1880 to 1914 operated with consistent departures from the “rules of the game.” What allows us to call the monetary regime in operation from 1880 to 1914 a gold standard is not that the rules of the game were observed but that the value of local currencies corresponded to the value of the gold with which they could be freely exchanged at the legal parities. No more and no less. And even Friedman was unwilling to call the gold standard in operation from 1880 to 1914 a pseudo gold standard, because if that was a pseudo-gold standard, there never was a real gold standard. So he was simply talking nonsense when he asserted that during the 1920s there a pseudo gold standard in operation even though gold was freely exchangeable for local currencies at the legal exchange rates.

Or, in short, to Friedman a gold standard is only a real gold standard if it produces a path for the money stock that is a k% rule. Anything else is a pseudo gold standard.

Yes! And that is what Friedman said, and it is absurd. And I am sure that Harry Johnson must have told him so.

The purpose of the paper, in short, is a Talmudic splitting-of-hairs. The point is to allow von Mises and Rueff and their not-so-deep-thinking latter-day followers (paging Paul Ryan! Paging Benn Steil! Paging Charles Koch! Paging Rand Paul!) to remain in their cloud-cuckoo-land of pledging allegiance to the gold standard as a golden calf while at the same time walling them off from and keeping them calm and supportive as the monetarist central bank does its job of keeping our fiat-money system stable by making Say’s Law true enough in practice.

As such, it succeeds admirably.

Or, at least, I think it does…

Have I just given an unconvincing Straussian reading of Friedman–that he knows what he is doing, and that what he is doing is leaving the theoretical husk to the fanatics von Mises and Rueff while keeping the rational kernel for himself, and making the point that a gold standard is a good monetary policy only if it turns out to mimic a good monetarist fiat-money standard policy? That his apparent confusion is simply a way of accomplishing those two tasks without splitting Mont Pelerin of the 1960s into yet more mutually-feuding camps?

I really sympathize with Brad’s effort to recruit Friedman into the worthy cause of combating nonsense. But you can’t combat nonsense with nonsense.


John Cochrane on the Failure of Macroeconomics

The state of modern macroeconomics is not good; John Cochrane, professor of finance at the University of Chicago, senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, and adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute, writing in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, thinks macroeconomics is a failure. Perhaps so, but he has trouble explaining why.

The problem that Cochrane is chiefly focused on is slow growth.

Output per capita fell almost 10 percentage points below trend in the 2008 recession. It has since grown at less than 1.5%, and lost more ground relative to trend. Cumulative losses are many trillions of dollars, and growing. And the latest GDP report disappoints again, declining in the first quarter.

Sclerotic growth trumps every other economic problem. Without strong growth, our children and grandchildren will not see the great rise in health and living standards that we enjoy relative to our parents and grandparents. Without growth, our government’s already questionable ability to pay for health care, retirement and its debt evaporate. Without growth, the lot of the unfortunate will not improve. Without growth, U.S. military strength and our influence abroad must fade.

Macroeconomists offer two possible explanations for slow growth: a) too little demand — correctable through monetary or fiscal stimulus — and b) structural rigidities and impediments to growth, for which stimulus is no remedy. Cochrane is not a fan of the demand explanation.

The “demand” side initially cited New Keynesian macroeconomic models. In this view, the economy requires a sharply negative real (after inflation) rate of interest. But inflation is only 2%, and the Federal Reserve cannot lower interest rates below zero. Thus the current negative 2% real rate is too high, inducing people to save too much and spend too little.

New Keynesian models have also produced attractively magical policy predictions. Government spending, even if financed by taxes, and even if completely wasted, raises GDP. Larry Summers and Berkeley’s Brad DeLong write of a multiplier so large that spending generates enough taxes to pay for itself. Paul Krugman writes that even the “broken windows fallacy ceases to be a fallacy,” because replacing windows “can stimulate spending and raise employment.”

If you look hard at New-Keynesian models, however, this diagnosis and these policy predictions are fragile. There are many ways to generate the models’ predictions for GDP, employment and inflation from their underlying assumptions about how people behave. Some predict outsize multipliers and revive the broken-window fallacy. Others generate normal policy predictions—small multipliers and costly broken windows. None produces our steady low-inflation slump as a “demand” failure.

Cochrane’s characterization of what’s wrong with New Keynesian models is remarkably superficial. Slow growth, according to the New Keynesian model, is caused by the real interest rate being insufficiently negative, with the nominal rate at zero and inflation at (less than) 2%. So what is the problem? True, the nominal rate can’t go below zero, but where is it written that the upper bound on inflation is (or must be) 2%? Cochrane doesn’t say. Not only doesn’t he say, he doesn’t even seem interested. It might be that something really terrible would happen if the rate of inflation rose about 2%, but if so, Cochrane or somebody needs to explain why terrible calamities did not befall us during all those comparatively glorious bygone years when the rate of inflation consistently exceeded 2% while real economic growth was at least a percentage point higher than it is now. Perhaps, like Fischer Black, Cochrane believes that the rate of inflation has nothing to do with monetary or fiscal policy. But that is certainly not the standard interpretation of the New Keynesian model that he is using as the archetype for modern demand-management macroeconomic theories. And if Cochrane does believe that the rate of inflation is not determined by either monetary policy or fiscal policy, he ought to come out and say so.

Cochrane thinks that persistent low inflation and low growth together pose a problem for New Keynesian theories. Indeed it does, but it doesn’t seem that a radical revision of New Keynesian theory would be required to cope with that state of affairs. Cochrane thinks otherwise.

These problems [i.e., a steady low-inflation slump, aka “secular stagnation”] are recognized, and now academics such as Brown University’s Gauti Eggertsson and Neil Mehrotra are busy tweaking the models to address them. Good. But models that someone might get to work in the future are not ready to drive trillions of dollars of public expenditure.

In other words, unless the economic model has already been worked out before a particular economic problem arises, no economic policy conclusions may be deduced from that economic model. May I call  this Cochrane’s rule?

Cochrane the proceeds to accuse those who look to traditional Keynesian ideas of rejecting science.

The reaction in policy circles to these problems is instead a full-on retreat, not just from the admirable rigor of New Keynesian modeling, but from the attempt to make economics scientific at all.

Messrs. DeLong and Summers and Johns Hopkins’s Laurence Ball capture this feeling well, writing in a recent paper that “the appropriate new thinking is largely old thinking: traditional Keynesian ideas of the 1930s to 1960s.” That is, from before the 1960s when Keynesian thinking was quantified, fed into computers and checked against data; and before the 1970s, when that check failed, and other economists built new and more coherent models. Paul Krugman likewise rails against “generations of economists” who are “viewing the world through a haze of equations.”

Well, maybe they’re right. Social sciences can go off the rails for 50 years. I think Keynesian economics did just that. But if economics is as ephemeral as philosophy or literature, then it cannot don the mantle of scientific expertise to demand trillions of public expenditure.

This is political rhetoric wrapped in a cloak of scientific objectivity. We don’t have the luxury of knowing in advance what the consequences of our actions will be. The United States has spent trillions of dollars on all kinds of stuff over the past dozen years or so. A lot of it has not worked out well at all. So it is altogether fitting and proper for us to be skeptical about whether we will get our money’s worth for whatever the government proposes to spend on our behalf. But Cochrane’s implicit demand that money only be spent if there is some sort of scientific certainty that the money will be well spent can never be met. However, as Larry Summers has pointed out, there are certainly many worthwhile infrastructure projects that could be undertaken, so the risk of committing the “broken windows fallacy” is small. With the government able to borrow at negative real interest rates, the present value of funding such projects is almost certainly positive. So one wonders what is the scientific basis for not funding those projects?

Cochrane compares macroeconomics to climate science:

The climate policy establishment also wants to spend trillions of dollars, and cites scientific literature, imperfect and contentious as that literature may be. Imagine how much less persuasive they would be if they instead denied published climate science since 1975 and bemoaned climate models’ “haze of equations”; if they told us to go back to the complex writings of a weather guru from the 1930s Dustbowl, as they interpret his writings. That’s the current argument for fiscal stimulus.

Cochrane writes as if there were some important scientific breakthrough made by modern macroeconomics — “the new and more coherent models,” either the New Keynesian version of New Classical macroeconomics or Real Business Cycle Theory — that rendered traditional Keynesian economics obsolete or outdated. I have never been a devote of Keynesian economics, but the fact is that modern macroeconomics has achieved its ascendancy in academic circles almost entirely by way of a misguided methodological preference for axiomatized intertemporal optimization models for which a unique equilibrium solution can be found by imposing the empirically risible assumption of rational expectations. These models, whether in their New Keynesian or Real Business Cycle versions, do not generate better empirical predictions than the old fashioned Keynesian models, and, as Noah Smith has usefully pointed out, these models have been consistently rejected by private forecasters in favor of the traditional Keynesian models. It is only the dominant clique of ivory-tower intellectuals that cultivate and nurture these models. The notion that such models are entitled to any special authority or scientific status is based on nothing but the exaggerated self-esteem that is characteristic of almost every intellectual clique, particularly dominant ones.

Having rejected inadequate demand as a cause of slow growth, Cochrane, relying on no model and no evidence, makes a pitch for uncertainty as the source of slow growth.

Where, instead, are the problems? John Taylor, Stanford’s Nick Bloom and Chicago Booth’s Steve Davis see the uncertainty induced by seat-of-the-pants policy at fault. Who wants to hire, lend or invest when the next stroke of the presidential pen or Justice Department witch hunt can undo all the hard work? Ed Prescott emphasizes large distorting taxes and intrusive regulations. The University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan deconstructs the unintended disincentives of social programs. And so forth. These problems did not cause the recession. But they are worse now, and they can impede recovery and retard growth.

Where, one wonders, is the science on which this sort of seat-of-the-pants speculation is based? Is there any evidence, for example, that the tax burden on businesses or individuals is greater now than it was let us say in 1983-85 when, under President Reagan, the economy, despite annual tax increases partially reversing the 1981 cuts enacted in Reagan’s first year, began recovering rapidly from the 1981-82 recession?

Hawtrey and the “Treasury View”

Mention the name Ralph Hawtrey to most economists, even, I daresay to most monetary economists, and you are unlikely to get much more than a blank stare. Some might recognize the name because of it is associated with Keynes, but few are likely to be able to cite any particular achievement or contribution for which he is remembered or worth remembering. Actually, your best chance of eliciting a response about Hawtrey might be to pose your query to an acolyte of Austrian Business Cycle theory, for whom Hawtrey frequently serves as a foil, because of his belief that central banks ought to implement a policy of price-level (actually wage-level) stabilization to dampen the business cycle, Murray Rothbard having described him as “one of the evil genius of the 1920s” (right up there, no doubt, with the likes of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Mussolini). But if, despite the odds, you found someone who knew something about Hawtrey, there’s a good chance that it would be for his articulation of what has come to be known as the “Treasury View.”

The Treasury View was a position articulated in 1929 by Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Conservative government headed by Stanley Baldwin, in a speech to the House of Commons opposing proposals by Lloyd George and the Liberals, supported notably by Keynes, to increase government spending on public-works projects as a way of re-employing the unemployed. Churchill invoked the “orthodox Treasury View” that spending on public works would simply divert an equal amount of private spending on other investment projects or consumption. Spending on public-works projects was justified if and only if the rate of return over cost from those projects was judged to be greater than the rate of return over cost from alternative private spending; public works spending could not be justified as a means by which to put the unemployed back to work. The theoretical basis for this position was an article published by Hawtrey in 1925 “Public Expenditure and the Demand for Labour.”

Exactly how Hawtrey’s position first articulated in a professional economics journal four years earlier became the orthodox Treasury View in March 1929 is far from clear. Alan Gaukroger in his doctoral dissertation on Hawtrey’s career at the Treasury provides much helpful background information. Apparently, Hawtrey’s position was elevated into the “orthodox Treasury View” because Churchill required some authority on which to rely in opposing Liberal agitation for public-works spending which the Conservative government and Churchill’s top Treasury advisers and the Bank of England did not want to adopt for a variety of reason. The “orthodox Treasury View” provided a convenient and respectable doctrinal cover with which to clothe their largely political opposition to public-works spending. This is not to say that Churchill and his advisers were insincere in taking the position that they did, merely that Churchill’s position emerged from on-the-spot political improvisation in the course of which Hawtrey’s paper was dredged up from obscurity rather than from applying any long-standing, well-established, Treasury doctrine. For an illuminating discussion of all this, see chapter 5 (pp. 234-75) of Gaukroger’s dissertation.

I have seen references to the Treasury View for a very long time, probably no later than my first year in graduate school, but until a week or two ago, I had never actually read Hawtrey’s 1925 paper. Brad Delong, who has waged a bit of a campaign against the Treasury View on his blog as part of his larger war against opponents of President Obama’s stimulus program, once left a comment on a post of mine about Hawtrey’s explanation of the Great Depression, asking whether I would defend Hawtrey’s position that public-works spending would not increase employment. I think I responded by pleading ignorance of what Hawtrey had actually said in his 1925 article, but that Hawtrey’s explanation of the Great Depression was theoretically independent of his position about whether public-works spending could increase employment. So in a sense, this post is partly belated reply to Delong’s query.

The first thing to say about Hawtrey’s paper is that it’s hard to understand. Hawtrey is usually a very clear expositor of his ideas, but sometimes I just can’t figure out what he means. His introductory discussion of A. C. Pigou’s position on the wisdom of concentrating spending on public works in years of trade depression was largely incomprehensible to me, but it is worth reading, nevertheless, for the following commentary on a passage from Pigou’s Wealth and Welfare in which Pigou proposed to “pass behind the distorting veil of money.”

Perhaps if Professsor Pigou had carried the argument so far, he would have become convinced that the distorting veil of money cannot be put aside. As well might he play lawn tennis without the distorting veil of the net. All the skill and all the energy emanate from the players and are transmitted through the racket to the balls. The net does nothing; it is a mere limiting condition. So is money.

Employment is given by producers. They produce in response to an effective demand for products. Effective demand means ultimately money, offered by consumers in the market.

A wonderful insight, marvelously phrased, but I can’t really tell, beyond Pigou’s desire to ignore the “distorting veil of money,” how it relates to anything Pigou wrote. At any rate, from here Hawtrey proceeds to his substantive argument, positing “a community in which there is unemployment.” In other words, “at the existing level of prices and wages, the consumers’ outlay [Hawtrey’s term for total spending] is sufficient only to employ a part of the productive resources of the country.” Beyond the bare statement that spending is insufficient to employ all resources at current prices, no deeper cause of unemployment is provided. The problem Hawtrey is going to address is what happens if the government borrows money to spend on new public works?

Hawtrey starts by assuming that the government borrows from private individuals (rather than from the central bank), allowing Hawtrey to take the quantity of money to be constant through the entire exercise, a crucial assumption. The funds that the government borrows therefore come either from that portion of consumer income that would have been saved, in which case they are not available to be spent on whatever private investment projects they would otherwise have financed, or they are taken from idle balances held by the public (the “unspent margin” in Hawtrey’s terminology). If the borrowed funds are obtained from cash held by the public, Hawtrey argues that the public will gradually reduce spending in order to restore their cash holdings to their normal level. Thus, either way, increased government spending financed by borrowing must be offset by a corresponding reduction in private spending. Nor does Hawtrey concede that there will necessarily be a temporary increase in spending, because the public may curtail expenditures to build up their cash balances in anticipation of lending to the government. Moreover, there is always an immediate effect on income from any form of spending (Hawtrey understood the idea of a multiplier effect, having relied on it in his explanation of how an increase in the stock of inventories held by traders in response to a cut in interest rates would produce a cumulative increase in total income and spending), so if government spending on public works reduces spending elsewhere, there is no necessary net increase in total spending even in the short run. Here is how Hawtrey sums up the crux of his argument.

To show why this does not happen, we must go back to consider the hypothesis with which we started. We assumed that no additional bank credits are created. It follows that there is no increase in the supply of the means of payment. As soon as the people employed on the new public works begin to receive payment, they will begin to accumulate cash balances and bank balances. Their balances can only be provided at the expense of the people already receiving incomes. These latter will therefore become short of ready cash and will curtail their expenditures with a view to restoring their balances. An individual can increase his balance by curtailing his expenditure, but if the unspent margin (that is to say, the total of all cash balances and bank balances) remains unchanged, he can only increase his balance at the expense of those of his neighbours. If all simultaneously try to increase their balances, they try in vain. The effect can only be that sales of goods are diminished, and the consumers’ income is reduced as much as the consumers’ outlay. In the end the normal proportion between the consumers’ income and the unspent margin is restored, not by an increase in balances, but by a decrease in incomes. It is this limitation of the unspent margin that really prevents the new Government expenditure from creating employment. (pp. 41-42)

Stated in these terms, the argument suggests another possible mechanism by which government expenditure could increase total income and employment: an increase in velocity. And Hawtrey explicitly recognized it.

There is, however, one possibility which would in certain conditions make the Government operations the means of a real increase in the rapidity of circulation. In a period of depression the rapidity of circulation is low, because people cannot find profitable outlets for their surplus funds and they accumulate idle balances. If the Government comes forward with an attractive gild-edged loan, it may raise money, not merely by taking the place of other possible capital issues, but by securing money that would otherwise have remained idle in balances. (pp. 42-43)

In other words, Hawtrey did indeed recognize the problem of a zero lower bound (in later works he called it a “credit deadlock”) in which the return to holding money exceeds the expected return from holding real capital assets, and that, in such circumstances, government spending could cause aggregate spending and income to increase.

Having established that, absent any increase in cash balances, government spending would have stimulative effects only at the zero lower bound, Hawtrey proceeded to analyze the case in which government spending increased along with an increase in cash balances.

In the simple case where the Government finances its operations by the creation of bank credits, there is no diminution in the consumers’ outlay to set against the new expenditure. It is not necessary for the whole of the expenditure to be so financed. All that is required is a sufficient increase in bank credits to supply balances of cash and credit for those engaged in the new enterprise, without diminishing the balances held by the rest of the community. . . . If the new works are financed by the creation of bank credits, they will give additional employment. (p. 43)

After making this concession, however, Hawtrey added a qualification, which has provoked the outrage of many Keynesians.

What has been shown is that expenditure on public works, if accompanied by a creation of credit, will give employment. But then the same reasoning shows that a creation of credit unaccompanied by any expenditure on public works would be equally effective in giving employment.

The public works are merely a piece of ritual, convenient to people who want to be able to say that they are doing something, but otherwise irrelevant. To stimulate an expansion of credit is usually only too easy. To resort for the purpose to the construction of expensive public works is to burn down the house for the sake of the roast pig.

That applies to the case where the works are financed by credit creation. In the practical application of the policy, however, this part of the programme is omitted. The works are started by the Government at the very moment when the central bank is doing all it can to prevent credit from expanding. The Chinaman burns down his house in emulation of his neighbour’s meal of roast pork, but omits the pig.

Keynesians are no doubt offended by the dismissive reference to public-works spending as “a piece of ritual.” But it is worth recalling the context in which Hawtrey published his paper in 1925 (read to the Economics Club on February 10). Britain was then in the final stages of restoring the prewar dollar-sterling parity in anticipation of formally reestablishing gold convertibility and the gold standard. In order to accomplish this goal, the Bank of England raised its bank rate to 5%, even though unemployment was still over 10%. Indeed, Hawtrey did favor going back on the gold standard, but not at any cost. His view was that the central position of London in international trade meant that the Bank of England had leeway to set its bank rate, and other central banks would adjust their rates to the bank rate in London. Hawtrey may or may not have been correct in assessing the extent of the discretionary power of the Bank of England to set its bank rate. But given his expansive view of the power of the Bank of England, it made no sense to Hawtrey that the Bank of England was setting its bank rate at 5% (historically a rate characterizing periods of “dear money” as Hawtrey demonstrated subsequently in his Century of Bank Rate) in order to reduce total spending, thereby inducing an inflow of gold, while the Government simultaneously initiated public-works spending to reduce unemployment. The unemployment was attributable to the restriction of spending caused by the high bank rate, so the obvious, and most effective, remedy for unemployment was a reduced bank rate, thereby inducing an automatic increase in spending. Given his view of the powers of the Bank of England, Hawtrey felt that the gold standard would take care of itself. But even if he was wrong, he did not feel that restoring the gold standard was worth the required contraction of spending and employment.

From the standpoint of pure monetary analysis, notwithstanding all the bad press that the “Treasury View” has received, there is very little on which to fault the paper that gave birth to the “Treasury View.”

About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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