Posts Tagged 'Sumner critique'

Markets in Confusion

I have been writing a lot lately about movements in the stock market and in interest rates, trying to interpret those movements within the framework I laid out in my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations.” Last week I pointed out that, over the past three months, the close correlation, manifested from early 2008 to early 2013, between inflation expectations and the S&P 500 seems to have disappeared, inflation expectations declining at the same time that real interest rates, as approximated by the yield on the 10-year TIPS, and the stock market were rising.

However, for the past two days, the correlation seems to have made a strong comeback. The TIPS spread declined by 8 basis points, and the S&P 500 fell by 2%, over the past two days. (As I write this on Wednesday evening, the Nikkei average is down 5% in early trading on Thursday in Japan.) Meanwhile, the recent upward trajectory of the yield on TIPS has become even steeper, climbing 11 basis points in two days.

Now there are two possible interpretations of an increase in real interest rates. One is that expected real growth in earnings (net future corporate cash flows) is increasing. But that explanation for rising real interest rates is hard to reconcile with a sharp decline in stock prices. The other possible interpretation for a rise in real interest rates is that monetary policy is expected to be tightened, future interest rates being expected to rise when the monetary authority restricts the availability of base money. That interpretation would also be consistent with the observed decline in inflation expectations.

For almost three weeks since Bernanke testified to Congress last month, hinting at the possibility that the Fed would begin winding down QE3, markets have been in some turmoil, and I conjecture that the turmoil is largely due to uncertainty caused by the possibility of a premature withdrawal from QE. This suggests that we may have entered into a perverse expectational reaction function in which any positive economic information, such as the better-than-expected May jobs report, creates an expectation that monetary stimulus will be withdrawn, thereby counteracting the positive expectational boost of the good economic news. This is the Sumner critique with a vengeance — call it the super-Sumner critique. Not only is the government-spending multiplier zero; the private-investment multiplier is also zero!

Now I really like this story, and the catchy little name that I have thought up for it is also cute. But candor requires me to admit that I detect a problem with it. I don’t think that it is a fatal problem, but maybe it is. If I am correct that real interest rates are rising because the odds that the Fed will tighten its policy and withdraw QE are increasing, then I would have expected that expectations of a Fed tightening would also cause the dollar to rise against other currencies in the foreign-exchange markets. But that has not happened; the dollar has been falling for the past few weeks, and the trend has continued for the last two days also. The only explanation that I can offer for that anomaly is that a tightening in US monetary policy would be expected to cause other central banks to tighten their policies even more severely than the Fed. I can understand why some tightening by other central banks would be expected to follow from a Fed tightening, but I can’t really understand why the reaction would be more intense than the initial change. Of course the other possibility is that different segments of the markets are being dominated by different expectations, in which case, there are some potentially profitable trading strategies that could be followed to take advantage of those differences.

It wasn’t so long ago that we were being told by opponents of stimulus programs that the stimulus programs, whether fiscal or monetary, were counterproductive, because “the markets need certainty.” Well, maybe the certainty that is needed is the certainty that the stimulus won’t be withdrawn before it has done its job.

PS I apologize for not having responded to any comments lately. I have just been swamped with other obligations.

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Scott Sumner, Meet Robert Lucas

I just saw Scott Sumner’s latest post. It’s about the zero fiscal multiplier. Scott makes a good and important point, which is that, under almost any conditions, fiscal policy cannot be effective if monetary policy is aiming at a policy objective that is inconsistent with that fiscal policy. Here’s how Scott puts it in his typical understated fashion.

From today’s news:

The marked improvement in the labor market since the U.S. central bank began its third round of quantitative easing, or QE3, has added an edge to calls by some policy hawks to dial down the stimulus. The roughly 50 percent jump in monthly job creation since the program began has even won renewed support from centrists, raising at least some chance the Fed could ratchet back its buying as early as next month.

I hope I don’t have to do any more of these.  The fiscal multiplier theory is as dead as John Cleese’s parrot.  The growth in jobs didn’t slow with fiscal austerity, it sped up!  And the Fed is saying that any job improvement due to fiscal stimulus will be offset with tighter money.  They talk like the multiplier is zero, and their actions produce a zero multiplier.

This is classic Sumner, and he deserves credit for rediscovering an argument that Ralph Hawtrey made in 1925, but was ignored and then forgotten until Sumner figured it out for himself. When I went through Hawtrey’s analysis in my recent series of posts on Hawtrey and Keynes, Scott immediately identified the identity between what Hawtrey was saying and what he was saying. So up to this point, I am with Scott all the way. But then he loses me, by asking the following question

Has there ever been a more decisive refutation of a major economic theory?

What’s wrong with that question? Well, it seems to me to fly in the face of another critique by another famous economist whom, I think, Scott actually knows: Robert Lucas. Almost 40 years ago, Lucas published a paper about the Phillips Curve in which he argued that the existence of an empirical relationship between inflation and unemployment, even if empirically well-founded, was not a relationship that policy makers could use as a basis for their policy decisions, because the expectations (of low inflation or stable prices) under which the negative relationship between inflation and unemployment was observed would break down once policy makers used that relationship to try to reduce unemployment by increasing inflation. That simple point, dressed up with just enough mathematical notation to obscure its obviousness, helped Lucas win the Noble Prize, and before long became widely known as the Lucas Critique.

The crux of the Lucas Critique is that economic theory posits deep structural relationships governing economic activity. These structural relationships are necessarily sensitive to the expectations of decision makers, so that no observed empirical relationship between economic variables is invariant to the expectational effects of the policy rules governing policy decisions. Observed relationships between economic variables are useless for policy makers unless they understand those deep structural relationships and how they are affected by expectations.

But now Scott seems to be turning the Lucas Critique on its head by saying that the expectations that result from a particular policy regime — a policy regime that has been subjected to withering criticism by none other than Scott himself – refutes a structural theory (that government spending can increase aggregate spending and income) of how the economy works. I don’t think so. The fact that the Fed has adopted and tenaciously sticks to a perverse reaction function cannot refute a theory in which the Fed’s reaction function is a matter of choice not necessity.

I agree with Scott that monetary policy is usually the best tool for macroeconomic stabilization. But that doesn’t mean that fiscal policy can never ever promote recovery. Even Ralph Hawtrey, originator of the “Treasury view” that fiscal policy is powerless to affect aggregate spending, acknowledged that, in a credit deadlock, when expectations are so pessimistic that the monetary authority is powerless to increase private spending, deficit spending by the government financed by money creation might be the only way to increase aggregate spending. That, to be sure, is a pathological situation. But, with at least some real interest rates, currently below zero, it is not impossible to suppose that we are, or have been, in something like a Hawtreyan credit deadlock. I don’t say that we are in one, just that it’s possible that we are close enough to being there that we can’t confidently exclude the possibility, if only the Fed would listen to Scott and stop targeting 2% inflation, of a positive fiscal multiplier.

With US NGDP not even increasing at a 4% annual rate, and the US economy far below its pre-2008 trendline of 5% annual NGDP growth, I don’t understand why one wouldn’t welcome the aid of fiscal policy in getting NDGP to increase at a faster rate than it has for the last 5 years. Sure the economy has been expanding despite a sharp turn toward contractionary fiscal policy two years ago. If fiscal stimulus had not been withdrawn so rapidly, can we be sure that the economy would not have grown faster? Under conditions such as these, as Hawtrey himself well understood, the prudent course of action is to err on the side of recklessness.

They Come not to Praise Market Monetarism, but to Bury It

For some reason – maybe he is still annoyed with Scott Sumner – Paul Krugman decided to channel a post by Mike Konczal purporting to show that Market Monetarism has been refuted by the preliminary first quarter GDP numbers showing NGDP increasing at a 3.7% rate and real GDP increasing at a 2.5% rate in Q1. To Konczal and Krugman (hereinafter K&K) this shows that fiscal policy, not monetary policy, is what matters most for macroeconomic performance. Why is that? Because the Fed, since embarking on its latest splurge of bond purchasing last September, has failed to stimulate economic activity in the face of the increasingly contractionary stance of fiscal policy since them (the fiscal 2013 budget deficit recently being projected to be $775 billion, a mere 4.8% of GDP).

So can we get this straight? GDP is now rising at about the same rate it has been rising since the start of the “recovery” from the 2007-09 downturn. Since September monetary policy has become easier and fiscal policy tighter. And that proves what? Sorry, I still don’t get it. But then again, I was always a little slow on the uptake.

Marcus Nunes, the Economist, Scott Sumner, and David Beckworth all weigh in on the not very devastating K&K onslaught. (Also see this post by Evan Soltas written before the fact.) But let me try to cool things down a bit.

If we posit that we are still in something akin to a zero-lower-bound situation, there are perfectly respectable theoretical grounds on which to recommend both fiscal and monetary stimulus. It is true that monetary policy, in principle, could stimulate a recovery even without fiscal stimulus — and even in the face of fiscal contraction — but for monetary policy to be able to be that effective, it would have to operate through the expectations channel, raising price-level expectations sufficiently to induce private spending. However, for good or ill, monetary policy is not aiming at more than a marginal change in inflation expectations. In that kind of policy environment, the potential effect of monetary policy is sharply constrained. Hence, the monetary theoretical case for fiscal stimulus. This is classic Hawtreyan credit deadlock (see here and here).

If monetary policy can’t do all the work by itself, then the question is whether fiscal policy can help. In principle it could if the Fed is willing to monetize the added debt generated by the fiscal stimulus. But there’s the rub. If the Fed has to monetize the added debt created by the fiscal stimulus — which, for argument’s sake, let us assume is more stimulative than equivalent monetary expansion without the fiscal stimulus — what are we supposed to assume will happen to inflation and inflation expectations?

Here is the internal contradiction – the Sumner critique, if you will – implicit in the Keynesian fiscal-policy prescription. Can fiscal policy work without increasing the rate of inflation or inflation expectations? If monetary policy alone cannot work, because it cannot break through the inflation targeting regime that traps us at the 2 percent inflation ceiling, how is fiscal policy supposed to work its way around the 2% inflation ceiling, except by absolving monetary policy of the obligation to keep inflation at or below the ceiling? But if we can allow the ceiling to be pierced by fiscal policy, why can’t we allow it to be pierced by monetary policy?

Perhaps K&K can explain that one to us.


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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