Posts Tagged 'David Wilcox'

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.


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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