Posts Tagged 'Wall Street Journal'

Who Sets the Real Rate of Interest?

Understanding economics requires, among other things, understanding the distinction between real and nominal variables. Confusion between real and nominal variables is pervasive, constantly presenting barriers to clear thinking, and snares and delusions for the mentally lazy. In this post, I want to talk about the distinction between the real rate of interest and the nominal rate of interest. That distinction has been recognized for at least a couple of centuries, Henry Thornton having mentioned it early in the nineteenth century. But the importance of the distinction wasn’t really fully understood until Irving Fisher made the distinction between the real and nominal rates of interest a key element of his theory of interest and his theory of money, expressing the relationship in algebraic form — what we now call the Fisher equation. Notation varies, but the Fisher equation can be written more or less as follows:

i = r + dP/dt,

where i is the nominal rate, r is the real rate, and dP/dt is the rate of inflation. It is important to bear in mind that the Fisher equation can be understood in two very different ways. It can either represent an ex ante relationship, with dP/dt referring to expected inflation, or it can represent an ex post relationship, with dP/dt referring to actual inflation.

What I want to discuss in this post is the tacit assumption that usually underlies our understanding, and our application, of the ex ante version of the Fisher equation. There are three distinct variables in the Fisher equation: the real and the nominal rates of interest and the rate of inflation. If we think of the Fisher equation as an ex post relationship, it holds identically, because the unobservable ex post real rate is defined as the difference between the nominal rate and the inflation rate. The ex post, or the realized, real rate has no independent existence; it is merely a semantic convention. But if we consider the more interesting interpretation of the Fisher equation as an ex ante relationship, the real interest rate, though still unobservable, is not just a semantic convention. It becomes the theoretically fundamental interest rate of capital theory — the market rate of intertemporal exchange, reflecting, as Fisher masterfully explained in his canonical renderings of the theory of capital and interest, the “fundamental” forces of time preference and the productivity of capital. Because it is determined by economic “fundamentals,” economists of a certain mindset naturally assume that the real interest rate is independent of monetary forces, except insofar as monetary factors are incorporated in inflation expectations. But if money is neutral, at least in the long run, then the real rate has to be independent of monetary factors, at least in the long run. So in most expositions of the Fisher equation, it is tacitly assumed that the real rate can be treated as a parameter determined, outside the model, by the “fundamentals.” With r determined exogenously, fluctuations in i are correlated with, and reflect, changes in expected inflation.

Now there’s an obvious problem with the Fisher equation, which is that in many, if not most, monetary models, going back to Thornton and Wicksell in the nineteenth century, and to Hawtrey and Keynes in the twentieth, and in today’s modern New Keynesian models, it is precisely by way of changes in its lending rate to the banking system that the central bank controls the rate of inflation. And in this framework, the nominal interest rate is negatively correlated with inflation, not positively correlated, as implied by the usual understanding of the Fisher equation. Raising the nominal interest rate reduces inflation, and reducing the nominal interest rate raises inflation. The conventional resolution of this anomaly is that the change in the nominal interest rate is just temporary, so that, after the economy adjusts to the policy of the central bank, the nominal interest rate also adjusts to a level consistent with the exogenous real rate and to the rate of inflation implied by the policy of the central bank. The Fisher equation is thus an equilibrium relationship, while central-bank policy operates by creating a short-term disequilibrium. But the short-term disequilibrium imposed by the central bank cannot be sustained, because the economy inevitably begins an adjustment process that restores the equilibrium real interest rate, a rate determined by fundamental forces that eventually override any nominal interest rate set by the central bank if that rate is inconsistent with the equilibrium real interest rate and the expected rate of inflation.

It was just this analogy between the powerlessness of the central bank to hold the nominal interest rate below the sum of the exogenously determined equilibrium real rate and the expected rate of inflation that led Milton Friedman to the idea of a “natural rate of unemployment” when he argued that monetary policy could not keep the unemployment rate below the “natural rate ground out by the Walrasian system of general equilibrium equations.” Having been used by Wicksell as a synonym for the Fisherian equilibrium real rate, the term “natural rate” was undoubtedly adopted by Friedman, because monetarily induced deviations between the actual rate of unemployment and the natural rate of unemployment set in motion an adjustment process that restores unemployment to its “natural” level, just as any deviation between the nominal interest rate and the sum of the equilibrium real rate and expected inflation triggers an adjustment process that restores equality between the nominal rate and the sum of the equilibrium real rate and expected inflation.

So, if the ability of the central bank to use its power over the nominal rate to control the real rate of interest is as limited as the conventional interpretation of the Fisher equation suggests, here’s my question: When critics of monetary stimulus accuse the Fed of rigging interest rates, using the Fed’s power to keep interest rates “artificially low,” taking bread out of the mouths of widows, orphans and millionaires, what exactly are they talking about? The Fed has no legal power to set interest rates; it can only announce what interest rate it will lend at, and it can buy and sell assets in the market. It has an advantage because it can create the money with which to buy assets. But if you believe that the Fed cannot reduce the rate of unemployment below the “natural rate of unemployment” by printing money, why would you believe that the Fed can reduce the real rate of interest below the “natural rate of interest” by printing money? Martin Feldstein and the Wall Street Journal believe that the Fed is unable to do one, but perfectly able to do the other. Sorry, but I just don’t get it.

Look at the accompanying chart. It tracks the three variables in the Fisher equation (the nominal interest rate, the real interest rate, and expected inflation) from October 1, 2007 to July 2, 2013. To measure the nominal interest rate, I use the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds; to measure the real interest rate, I use the yield on 10-year TIPS; to measure expected inflation, I use the 10-year breakeven TIPS spread. The yield on the 10-year TIPS is an imperfect measure of the real rate, and the 10-year TIPS spread is an imperfect measure of inflation expectations, especially during financial crises, when the rates on TIPS are distorted by illiquidity in the TIPS market. Those aren’t the only problems with identifying the TIPS yield with the real rate and the TIPS spread with inflation expectations, but those variables usually do provide a decent approximation of what is happening to real rates and to inflation expectations over time.


Before getting to the main point, I want to make a couple of preliminary observations about the behavior of the real rate over time. First, notice that the real rate declined steadily, with a few small blips, from October 2007 to March 2008, when the Fed was reducing the Fed Funds target rate from 4.75 to 3% as the economy was sliding into a recession that officially began in December 2007. The Fed reduced the Fed Funds target to 2% at the end of April, but real interest rates had already started climbing in early March, so the failure of the FOMC to reduce the Fed Funds target again till October 2008, three weeks after the onset of the financial crisis, clearly meant that there was at least a passive tightening of monetary policy throughout the second and third quarters, helping create the conditions that precipitated the crisis in September. The rapid reduction in the Fed Funds target from 2% in October to 0.25% in December 2008 brought real interest rates down, but, despite the low Fed Funds rate, a lack of liquidity caused a severe tightening of monetary conditions in early 2009, forcing real interest rates to rise sharply until the Fed announced its first QE program in March 2009.

I won’t go into more detail about ups and downs in the real rate since March 2009. Let’s just focus on the overall trend. From that time forward, what we see is a steady decline in real interest rates from over 2% at the start of the initial QE program till real rates bottomed out in early 2012 at just over -1%. So, over a period of three years, there was a steady 3% decline in real interest rates. This was no temporary phenomenon; it was a sustained trend. I have yet to hear anyone explain how the Fed could have single-handedly produced a steady downward trend in real interest rates by way of monetary expansion over a period of three years. To claim that decline in real interest rates was caused by monetary expansion on the part of the Fed flatly contradicts everything that we think we know about the determination of real interest rates. Maybe what we think we know is all wrong. But if it is, people who blame the Fed for a three-year decline in real interest rates that few reputable economists – and certainly no economists that Fed critics pay any attention to — ever thought was achievable by monetary policy ought to provide an explanation for how the Fed suddenly got new and unimagined powers to determine real interest rates. Until they come forward with such an explanation, Fed critics have a major credibility problem.

So please – pleaseWall Street Journal editorial page, Martin Feldstein, John Taylor, et al., enlighten us. We’re waiting.

PS Of course, there is a perfectly obvious explanation for the three-year long decline in real interest rates, but not one very attractive to critics of QE. Either the equilibrium real interest rate has been falling since 2009, or the equilibrium real interest rate fell before 2009, but nominal rates adjusted slowly to the reduced real rate. The real interest rate might have adjusted more rapidly to the reduced equilibrium rate, but that would have required expected inflation to have risen. What that means is that sometimes it is the real interest rate, not, as is usually assumed, the nominal rate, that adjusts to the expected rate of inflation. My next post will discuss that alternative understanding of the implicit dynamics of the Fisher equation.


Fear Is Contagious

Ever the optimist, I was hoping that yesterday’s immediate, sharply negative, reaction to the FOMC statement and Ben Bernanke’s press conference was only a mild correction, not the sign of a major revision in expectations. Today’s accelerating slide in stock prices, coupled with continuing rises declines in bond prices, across the entire yield curve, shows that the FOMC, whose obsession with inflation in 2008 drove the world economy into a Little Depression, may now be on the verge of precipitating yet another downturn even before any real recovery has taken place.

If 2008-09 was a replay of 1929-30, then we might be headed back to a reprise of 1937, when a combination of fiscal austerity and monetary tightening, fed by exaggerated, if not irrational fears of inflation, notwithstanding the absence of a full recovery from the 1929-33 downturn, caused a second downturn, nearly as sharp as that of 1929-30.

Nothing is inevitable. History does not have to repeat itself. But if we want to avoid a repeat of 1937, we must avoid repeating the same stupid mistakes made in 1937. Don’t withdraw – or talk about withdrawing — a stimulus that isn’t even generating the measly 2% inflation that the FOMC says its targeting, even while the unemployment rate is still 7.6%. And as Paul Krugman pointed out in his blog today, the labor force participation rate has barely increased since the downturn bottomed out in 2009. I reproduce his chart below.


Bernanke claims to be maintaining an accommodative monetary policy and is simply talking about withdrawing (tapering off), as conditions warrant, the additional stimulus associated with  the Fed’s asset purchases. That reminds me of the stance of the FOMC in 2008 when the Fed, having reduced interest rates to 2% in March, kept threatening to raise interest rates during the spring and summer to counter rising commodity prices, even as the economy was undergoing, even before the onset of the financial crisis, one of the fastest contractions since World War II. Yesterday’s announcement, making no commitment to ensure that the Fed’s own inflation target would be met, has obviously been understood by the markets to signal the willingness of the FOMC to tolerate even lower rates of inflation than we have now.

In my post yesterday, I observed that the steep rise in nominal and real interest rates (at least as approximated by the yield on TIPS) was accompanied by only a very modest decline in inflation expectations (as approximated by the TIPS spread). Well, today, nominal and real interest rates (as reflected in TIPS) rose again, but with the breakeven 10-year TIPS spread falling by 9 basis points, to 1.95%. Meanwhile, the dollar continued to appreciate against the euro, supporting the notion that the markets are reacting to a perceived policy change, a change in exactly the wrong direction. Oh, and by the way, the price of gold continued to plummet, reaching $1280 an ounce, the lowest in almost three years, nearly a third less than its 2011 peak.

But for a contrary view, have a look at theeditorial (“Monetary Withdrawal Symptom”) in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, as well as an op-ed piece by an asset fund manager, Romain Hatchuel, (“Central Banks and the Borrowing Addiction”). Both characterize central banks as drug pushers who have induced hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people around the world to become debt addicts. Hatchuel sees some deep significance in the fact that total indebtedness has, since 1980, increased as fast as GDP, while from 1950 to 1980 total indebtedness increased at a much slower rate.

Um, if more people are borrowing, more people are lending, so the mere fact that total indebtedness has increased faster in the last 30 years than it did in the previous 30 years says nothing about debt addiction. It simply says that more people have been gaining access to credit markets in recent years than had access to credit markets in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. If we are so addicted to debt, how come real interest rates are so low? If a growing epidemic of debt addiction started in 1980, shouldn’t real interest rates have been rising steadily since then? Guess what? Real interest rates have been falling steadily since 1982. The Wall Street Journal strikes (out) again.

What’s a Central Banker To Do?

The FOMC is meeting tomorrow and Wednesday, and it seems as if everyone is weighing in with advice for Ben Bernanke and company. But you can always count on the Wall Street Journal editorial page to dish up something especially fatuous when the topic turns to monetary policy and the Fed. This time the Journal turns to George Melloan, a former editor and columnist at the Journal, to explain why the market has recently turned “skittish” in anticipation that the Fed may be about to taper off from its latest venture into monetary easing.

Some of us have been arguing that recent Fed signals that it will taper off from quantitative easing have scared the markets, which are now anticipating rising real interest rates and declining inflation. Inflation expectations have been declining since March, but, until the latter part of May, that was probably a positive development, reflecting expectations of increased real output under the steady, if less than adequate, policy announced last fall. But the expectation that quantitative easing may soon be tapered off seems to have caused a further decline in inflation expectations and a further increase in real interest rates.

But Melloan sees it differently

We are in an age where the eight male and four female members of the FOMC are responsible for whether securities markets float or sink. Traders around the world who in better times considered a range of variables now focus on a single one, Federal Reserve policy. . . .

In the bygone days of free markets, stocks tended to move counter to bonds as investors switched from one to the other to maximize yield. But in the new world of government rigging, they often head in the same direction. That’s not good for investors.

Oh dear, where to begin? Who cares how many males and females are on the FOMC? Was the all-male Federal Reserve Board that determined monetary during the Great Depression more to Mr. Melloan’s liking? I discovered about three years ago that since early in 2008 there has been a clear correlation between inflation expectations and stock prices. (See my paper “The Fisher Effect Under Deflationary Expectations.“) That correlation was not created, as Melloan and his colleagues at the Journal seem to think, by the Fed’s various half-hearted attempts at quantitative-easing; it is caused by a dangerous conjuncture between low real rates of interest and low or negative rates of expected inflation. Real rates of interest are largely, but not exclusively, determined by entrepreneurial expectations of future economic conditions, and inflation expectations are largely, but not exclusively, determined by the Fed policy.

So the cure for a recession will generally require inflation expectations to increase relative to real interest rates. Either real rates must fall or inflation expectations (again largely under the control of the Fed) must rise. Thus, an increase in inflation expectations, when real interest rates are too high, can cause stock prices to rise without causing bond prices to fall. It is certainly true that it is not good for investors when the economy happens to be in a situation such that an increase in expected inflation raises stock prices. But that’s no reason not to reduce real interest rates. Using monetary policy to raise real interest rates, as Mr. Melloan would like the Fed to do, in a recession is a prescription for perpetuating joblessness.

Melloan accuses the Fed of abandoning free markets and rigging interest rates. But he can’t have it both ways. The Fed did not suddenly lose the power to rig markets last month when interest rates on long-term bonds rose sharply. Bernanke only hinted at the possibility of a tapering off from quantitative easing. The Fed’s control over the market is supported by nothing but the expectations of millions of market participants. If the expectations of traders are inconsistent with the Fed’s policy, the Fed has no power to prevent market prices from adjusting to the expectations of traders.

Melloan closes with the further accusation that Bernanke et al. hold “the grandiose belief . . . that the Fed is capable of superhuman feats, like running the global economy.” That’s nonsense. The Fed is not running the global economy. In its own muddled fashion, the Fed is trying to create market expectations about the future value of the dollar that will support an economic expansion. Unfortunately, the Fed seems not to have figured out that a rapid recovery is highly unlikely to occur unless something is done to sharply raise the near term expected rate of inflation relative to the real rate of interest.

What’s with Japan?

In my previous post, I pointed out that Ben Bernanke’s incoherent testimony on the US economy and Fed policy last Wednesday was followed, perhaps not coincidentally, by a 2% intraday drop in the S&P 500 and by a 7% drop in the Nikkei average. The drop in the Nikkei was also accompanied by a big drop in long-term bond prices, and by a big jump in the yen against all major currencies (almost 2% against the dollar).

For the past six months or so, ever since it became clear that Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic party would, after two decades of deflation, win the December elections on a platform of monetary expansion and a 2% inflation target, the Nikkei average has risen by over 50% while the yen has depreciated by 25% against the dollar. The Japanese stock-market boom also seems to have been accompanied by tangible evidence of increased output, as real Japanese GDP increased at a 3.5% annual rate in the first quarter.

The aggressive program of monetary expansion combined with an increased inflation target has made Japan the poster child for Market Monetarists, so it is not surprising that the tumble in the Nikkei average and in the Japanese long-term bonds were pointed to as warning signs that the incipient boom in the Japanese economy might turn out to be a flop. Scott Sumner and Lars Christensen, among others, effectively demolished some of the nonsensical claims made about the simultaneous drop in the Japanese stock and bond markets, the main point being that rising interest rates in Japan are a sign not of the failure of monetary policy, but its success. By looking at changes in interest rates as if they occurred in vacuum, without any consideration of the underlying forces accounting for those changes – either increased expected inflation or an increased rate of return on investment – critics of monetary expansion stumble into all sorts of fallacies and absurdities.

Nevertheless, neither Scott nor Lars addresses a basic problem: what exactly was happening on Black Thursday in Japan when stock prices fell by 7% while bond prices also fell? If bond prices fell, it could be either because expectations of inflation rose or because real interest rates rose. But why would either of those be associated with falling stock prices? Increased expected inflation would not tend to reduce the value of assets, because the future nominal value of cash flows would increase along with discount rates corresponding to the expected loss in the purchasing power of yen. Now there might be some second-order losses associated with increased expected inflation, but it is hard to imagine that they could come anywhere close to accounting for a 7% drop in stock prices. On the other hand, if the increase in interest rates reflects an increased real rate of return on investment, one would normally assume that the increased rate of return on investment would correspond to increased real future cash flows, so it is also hard to understand why a steep fall in asset values would coincide with a sharp fall in bond prices.

Moreover, the puzzle is made even more perplexing if one considers that the yen was appreciating sharply against the dollar on Black Thursday, reversing the steady depreciation of the previous six months. Now what does it mean for the yen to be appreciating against the dollar? Well, basically it means that expectations of Japanese inflation relative to US inflation were going down not up, so it is hard to see how the drop in bond prices could be attributed to inflation expectations in any event.

But let’s just suppose that the Japanese, having experienced the positive effects of monetary expansion and an increased inflation target over the past six months, woke up on Black Thursday to news of Bernanke’s incoherent testimony to Congress suggesting that the Fed is looking for an excuse to withdraw from its own half-hearted attempts at monetary expansion. And perhaps — just perhaps — the Japanese were afraid that a reduced rate of monetary expansion in the US would make it more difficult for the Japan to continue its own program of monetary expansion, because a reduced rate of US monetary expansion, with no change in the rate of Japanese monetary expansion, would lead to US pressure on Japan to prevent further depreciation of the yen against the dollar, or even pressure to reverse the yen depreciation of the last six months. Well, if that’s the case, I would guess that the Japanese would view their ability to engage in monetary expansion as being constrained by the willingness of the US to tolerate yen depreciation, a willingness that in turn would depend on the stance of US monetary policy.

In short, from the Japanese perspective, the easier US monetary policy is, the more space is available to the Japanese to loosen their monetary policy. Now if you think that this may be a bit far-fetched, you obviously haven’t been reading the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which periodically runs screeds about how easy US monetary policy is forcing other countries to adopt easy monetary policies.

That’s why Bernanke’s incoherent policy statement last Wednesday may have led to an expectation of a yen appreciation against the dollar, and why it also led to an expectation of reduced future Japanese cash flows. Reduced expectations of US monetary expansion and US economic growth imply a reduced demand for Japanese exports. In addition, the expectation of US pressure on Japan to reverse yen depreciation would imply a further contraction of Japanese domestic demand, further reducing expected cash flows and, consequently, Japanese asset prices. But how does this account for the drop in Japanese bond prices? Simple. To force an increase in the value of the yen against the dollar, the Bank of Japan would have to tighten money by raising Japanese interest rates.

PS Lars Christensen kindly informs me that he has a further discussion of Japanese monetary policy and the Nikkei sell-off here.

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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