Posts Tagged 'Roger Farmer'

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.

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Is John Cochrane Really an (Irving) Fisherian?

I’m pretty late getting to this Wall Street Journal op-ed by John Cochrane (here’s an ungated version), and Noah Smith has already given it an admirable working over, but, even after Noah Smith, there’s an assertion or two by Cochrane that could use a bit of elucidation. Like this one:

Keynesians told us that once interest rates got stuck at or near zero, economies would fall into a deflationary spiral. Deflation would lower demand, causing more deflation, and so on.

Noah seems to think this is a good point, but I guess that I am less easily impressed than Noah. Feeling no need to provide citations for the views he attributes to Keynesians, Cochrane does not bother either to tell us which Keynesian has asserted that the zero lower bound creates the danger of a deflationary spiral, though in a previous blog post, Cochrane does provide a number of statements by Paul Krugman (who I guess qualifies as the default representative of all Keynesians) about the danger of a deflationary spiral. Interestingly all but one of these quotations were from 2009 when, in the wake of the fall 2008 financial crisis, a nasty little relapse in early 2009 having driven the stock market to a 12-year low, the Fed finally launched its first round of quantitative easing, the threat of a deflationary spiral did not seem at all remote.

Now an internet search shows that Krugman does have a model showing that a downward deflationary spiral is possible at the zero lower bound. I would just note, for the record, that Earl Thompson, in an unpublished 1976 paper, derived a similar result from an aggregate model based on a neo-classical aggregate production function with the Keynesian expenditure functions (through application of Walras’s Law) excluded. So what’s Keynes got to do with it?

But even more remarkable is that the most famous model of a deflationary downward spiral was constructed not by a Keynesian, but by the grandfather of modern Monetarism, Irving Fisher, in his famous 1933 paper on debt deflation, “The Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions.” So the suggestion that there is something uniquely Keynesian about a downward deflationary spiral at the zero lower bound is simply not credible.

Cochrane also believes that because inflation has stabilized at very low levels, slow growth cannot be blamed on insufficient aggregate demand.

Zero interest rates and low inflation turn out to be quite a stable state, even in Japan. Yes, Japan is growing more slowly than one might wish, but with 3.5% unemployment and no deflationary spiral, it’s hard to blame slow growth on lack of “demand.”

Except that, since 2009 when the threat of a downward deflationary spiral seemed more visibly on the horizon than it does now, Krugman has consistently argued that, at the zero lower bound, chronic stagnation and underemployment are perfectly capable of coexisting with a positive rate of inflation. So it’s not clear why Cochrane thinks the coincidence of low inflation and sluggish economic growth for five years since the end of the 2008-09 downturn somehow refutes Krugman’s diagnosis of what has been ailing the economy in recent years.

And, again, what’s even more interesting is that the proposition that there can be insufficient aggregate demand, even with positive inflation, follows directly from the Fisher equation, of which Cochrane claims to be a fervent devotee. After all, if the real rate of interest is negative, then the Fisher equation tells us that the equilibrium expected rate of inflation cannot be less than the absolute value of the real rate of interest. So if, at the zero lower bound, the real rate of interest is minus 1%, then the equilibrium expected rate of inflation is 1%, and if the actual rate of inflation equals the equilibrium expected rate, then the economy, even if it is operating at less than full employment and less than its potential output, may be in a state of macroeconomic equilibrium. And it may not be possible to escape from that low-level equilibrium and increase output and employment without a burst of unexpected inflation, providing a self-sustaining stimulus to economic growth, thereby moving the economy to a higher-level equilibrium with a higher real rate of interest than the rate corresponding to lower-level equilibrium. If I am not mistaken, Roger Farmer has been making an argument along these lines.

Given the close correspondence between the Keynesian and Fisherian analyses of what happens in the neighborhood of the zero lower bound, I am really curious to know what part of the Fisherian analysis Cochrane finds difficult to comprehend.

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.


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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