Deflation is Here — And The Government is Poised to Make it Worse

Consumer prices may not be deflating as quickly as Labour’s electoral chances did earlier this month, but — even after £300 billion of quantitative easing — price deflation for the first time in more than half a century is finally here. The Bank of England continues to throw everything at keeping prices rising at close to their 2 percent target. Yet it’s not working. And this is not just about cheaper oil. Core inflation has also been dropping like a rock.

I argued that “deflation was looming” for Britain last year, and feel a little vindicated that it has come to pass. But I don’t feel at all gratified about the thing itself.

In a highly indebted economy such as Britain’s — where private debt dwarfs government debt — deflation is a dangerous thing. Past debts — and the interest rates paid on those debts — are nominally rigid. Unless specifically stipulated as being inflation-adjusted (like TIPS) they don’t scale to price changes in the broader economy.

Under positive rates of inflation, inflation assists in keeping debt under control, by shrinking the present amount of goods and services and labour that equate to a nominal amount of currency. Under deflation, the opposite process occurs, and the nominal value of currency — as well as that of historical debt — rises, making the debt harder to service and pay down, especially with the ongoing accumulation of interest.

On the face of it, that is good news for net savers and bad news for net debtors. But raising the difficulty of deleveraging and debt service can often be bad for both, because debtors who cannot pay default, bankrupting themselves and injuring their creditors. It can also depress the economy, as individuals and firms are forced to stop spending and investing and start devoting more and more of their income to the rising real cost of deleveraging.

With growth last quarter dropping to 0.3 percent from 0.6 percent, this process might very well already be under way. This raises the prospect of the nightmarish debt-deflationary spiral above.

The last thing that the economy needs under that circumstance is more money being sucked out of it through slashing public spending. Sucking money out of the economy will make deleveraging even more difficult for debtors, and slow growth further as individuals and firms adjust their spending plans to lower levels of national and individual income. Yet that is the manifesto that the country elected to power in the election earlier this month. And although Osborne and Cameron can get out of it — via offsetting cuts in spending with tax cuts — if they go through with their election promises, the prospect of recession, continued deflation and rising levels of unemployment loom clearly.

What the economy really needed in 2010 was a deep and long commitment to public stimulus to provide the economic growth needed to let the private sector deleverage. Unlike the public sector, which is a sovereign creditor borrowing in its own currency — the private sector is far from a secure debtor. Private borrowers can — unlike the central government — “become the next Greece” and run out of money.

With interest rates in the last parliament having sunk down to new historic lows, such a thing was affordable and achievable. Instead, by trying to do public deleveraging at the same time as the private sector was deleveraging Osborne, Cameron and Clegg chose a much rockier path, one in which private deleveraging and public deleveraging are slow and grinding. With private debt levels still very high, the country remains vulnerable to another deleveraging-driven recession.

On Trade Unions & Inequality

This chart is pretty wow:


Florence Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buitron of the International Monetary Fund have some ideas about how the correlation may have been caused:

The main channels through which labor market institutions affect income inequality are the following:

Wage dispersion: Unionization and minimum wages are usually thought to reduce inequality by helping equalize the distribution of wages, and economic research confirms this.

Unemployment: Some economists argue that while stronger unions and a higher minimum wage reduce wage inequality, they may also increase unemployment by maintaining wages above “market-clearing” levels, leading to higher gross income inequality. But the empirical support for this hypothesis is not very strong, at least within the range of institutional arrangements observed in advanced economies (see Betcherman, 2012; Baker and others, 2004; Freeman, 2000; Howell and others, 2007; OECD, 2006). For instance, in an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review of 17 studies, only 3 found a robust association between union density (or bargaining coverage) and higher overall unemployment.

Redistribution: Strong unions can induce policymakers to engage in more redistribution by mobilizing workers to vote for parties that promise to redistribute income or by leading all political parties to do so. Historically, unions have played an important role in the introduction of fundamental social and labor rights. Conversely, the weakening of unions can lead to less redistribution and higher net income inequality (that is, inequality of income after taxes and transfers).

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what has caused the major upswing in inequality since the 1980s.

Back in 2011 and 2012 my analysis tended to emphasize financialization and specifically the massive growth in credit creation that took place since the 1980s. I think this was a rather naive view to take.

I don’t think I was wrong to look at financialization. Obviously, unchecked credit creation is a plausible pathway for the rich to make themselves and their friends richer. I just think it was naive to not see financialization — like deunionization, like globalization, and like trends in housing wealth — as part of a broader pie.

My hypothesis is that what changed is that politicians decided that greed was good and that “industrial policy” was a dirty phrase. The political structures that emerged in the wake of the Great Depression and World War 2 which together greatly limited inequality — welfare states, nationalized industries, unionized workforces, constrictive financial regulations like Glass Steagall — were severely rolled back. This created an opening for the rich to get much richer very fast, which they did.

If I’m right, it would take a major political shift in the other direction to start reducing inequality.

How To Euthanize Rentiers (Wonkish)

In my last post, I established that the “rentier’s share” of interest — resulting from as Keynes put it the “power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity-value of capital” — can be calculated as the real-interest rate on lending to the monetary sovereign, typically known as the real risk free interest rate. That is because it is the rate that is left over after deducting for credit risk and inflation risk.

However, I have been convinced that my conclusion — that euthanizing rentiers should be an objective of monetary policy — is either wrong or impractical.

It would at very least require a dramatic shift in monetary policy orthodoxy. My initial thought was thus: the real risk-free interest rate (r) can be expressed as the nominal risk free interest rate minus the rate of inflation (r=n-i). To eliminate the rentier’s share, simply substitute 0 for r so that 0=n-i and n=i. In other words, have the central bank target a rate of inflation that offsets the expected future nominal risk free interest rate, resulting in a future real risk free interest rate as close to zero as possible.

There are some major problems with this. Presently, most major central banks target inflation. But they target a fixed rate of inflation of around 2 percent. The Fed explains its rationale:

Over time, a higher inflation rate would reduce the public’s ability to make accurate longer-term economic and financial decisions. On the other hand, a lower inflation rate would be associated with an elevated probability of falling into deflation, which means prices and perhaps wages, on average, are falling — a phenomenon associated with very weak economic conditions. Having at least a small level of inflation makes it less likely that the economy will experience harmful deflation if economic conditions weaken. The FOMC implements monetary policy to help maintain an inflation rate of 2 percent over the medium term.

Now, it is possible to argue that inflation targets should vary with macroeconomic conditions. For example, if you’re having a problem with deflation and getting stuck in a liquidity trap, a higher inflation target might be appropriate, as Jared Bernstein and Larry Ball argue. And on the other side of the coin, if you’re having a problem with excessive inflation — as occurred in the 1970s — it is arguable a lower inflation target than 2 percent may be appropriate.

But shifting to a variable rate targeting regime would be a very major policy shift, likely to be heavily resisted simply because the evidence shows that a fixed rate target results in more predictability, and therefore enhances “the public’s ability to make accurate longer-term economic and financial decisions”.

A second sticking point is the argument that such a regime would be trying to target a real-variable (the real risk free interest rate), which central banks have at best a very limited ability to do.

A third sticking point is Goodhart’s Law: “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” By making the future spread between the nominal risk free interest rate and inflation a target, the spread would lose any meaning as a measure.

A fourth sticking point is the possibility that such a severe regime change might create a regime susceptible to severe accelerative macroeconomic problems like inflationary and deflationary spirals.

And in this age of soaring inequality, the euthanasia of the rentier is simply too important an issue to hinge on being able to formulate a new workable policy regime and convince the central banking establishment to adopt it. Even if variable-rate inflation targeting or some alternative was actually viable, I don’t have the time, or the energy, or the inclination, or the expertise to try to do what Scott Sumner has spent over half a decade trying to do — change the way central banks work.

Plus, there is a much better option: make the euthanasia of the rentier a matter for fiscal policy and specifically taxation and redistribution. So here’s a different proposal: a new capital gains tax at a variable rate equal to the real risk-free interest rate, with the proceeds going toward business grants for poor people to start new businesses.

The Subtle Tyranny of Interest Rates

Interest rates are the price of credit. They are the price of access to capital.

Now, it is obvious that pricing credit is not tyrannical in and of itself. Interest compensates a lender for default risk and the risk of inflation eroding the purchasing power of the money that they lend.

The tyranny I am getting at is subtle. It is the tyranny that Keynes pointed to when he proposed a euthanasia of the rentier. Keynes proposed that low interest rates would:

mean the euthanasia of the rentier, and, consequently, the euthanasia of the cumulative oppressive power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity-value of capital.

Keynes pointed to an important feature of interest rates: the fact that capital has a cost is not just the result of default risk and the risk of inflation. It is also a result of the scarcity of capital.

Now, that is inevitable in a world where financial capital consists of metal that you dig up out of the ground.

But in our brave new state-backed fiat monetary system, why should capital be so scarce that those who have it can profit from its scarcity?

Obviously, central banks should not print money to the extent that it becomes worthless. But capital availability is absolutely critical to the advancement of society: the investment of capital is how societies become productive. It is how technology improves, and it is the key to wealth accumulation.

What Keynes didn’t specify was what exactly in the interest rate paid was the part that represented the “scarcity value” of capital.

Obviously, it doesn’t include the part that compensates for inflation, which is why we need to look at inflation-adjusted interest rates. And it isn’t the part that compensates for default risk. This is easily calculable too: it is the excess paid over lending to the monetary sovereign.

In the U.S. and Britain, that would be the American and British governments. In the eurozone — for complicated political reasons — there is no monetary sovereign exactly, but we might measure it by looking at it in terms of the spread against German government borrowing, because Germany seems to be the nation calling the lion’s share of the shots.

Here’s the real interest rate on U.S. 10-year government borrowing (I chose the 10-year because it is a benchmark, although I would have preferred to use a harmonized rate from across the yield curve.):


So what are we really seeing? The general trend is that real interest rates on U.S. government borrowing are overwhelmingly positive, with a few periodical exceptions where real rates on borrowing went a bit negative. This bias toward positive real interest rates on lending to the monetary sovereign, I would argue, is the rentier’s profit resulting from the scarcity of financial capital.

Year over year, that is going to compound heavily. It is these rentiers, I would argue, who should be euthanized. Not because they should be resented for doing well out of the system.  No. They should be euthanized because of the opportunity cost of devoting resources to enriching rentiers, resources that could be deployed productively elsewhere.

And how to euthanize the rentiers? Because we have identified what the rentier’s share is, the answer is very simple: making a real interest rate of zero on lending to the monetary sovereign an objective of monetary policy.

Update: After much debate, I have decided that euthanizing rentiers is not a matter for monetary policy, but a matter for fiscal policy. I have written another post discussing this.

You should need a license to take out a mortgage

In The Atlantic, Moisés Naím points to a recent study that poses three simple questions on personal finance:

1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2 percent per year. After five years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow? A) more than $102; B) exactly $102; C) less than $102; D) do not know; refuse to answer.

2. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account is 1 percent per year and inflation is 2 percent per year. After one year, would you be able to buy A) more than, B) exactly the same as, or C) less than today with the money in this account?; D) do not know; refuse to answer.

3. Do you think that the following statement is true or false? “Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.” A) true; B) false; C) do not know; refuse to answer. [The Atlantic]

These questions were asked to people around the world, and the correct answers are A, C, and B. Did you get them all right? If you did — congratulations, you understand the basics of how interest ratesinflation, and portfolio diversification work. Most people surveyed around the world didn’t.

In Russia, 96 percent of those surveyed failed to answer the three questions correctly. In the U.S., 70 percent failed. The highest performing countries were Germany where 47 percent failed and Switzerland, where 50 percent did. But this isn’t rocket science. The questions reflected basic financial concepts that are essential for saving for the future, using credit cards, taking on a student loan, purchasing a home, investing, and building up a pension.

Worse than this, Americans also showed overconfidence in their abilities. Asked to rank their financial knowledge on a scale of 1 (very low) to 7 (very high), 70 percent of Americans surveyed ranked themselves at level 4 or higher. Yet only 30 percent answered the questions correctly.

These surveys provide some pretty scary food for thought, because uninformed, overconfident people are more prone to make bad decisions that endanger their own financial health and the wider economy. As this paper from the World Bank shows, individuals who are financially literate have better financial situations.


In defense of economic thinking

My colleague Damon Linker recently wrote a piece entitled “How economic thinking is ruining America,” arguing that political considerations such as community, loyalty, citizenship, and the common good have been “sacrificed on the altar of economic profit-seeking.”

As an economic thinker myself, I was bound to find some disagreement with Linker’s view. But there is also a fair amount of common ground. As Linker argues, the years since the 2008 recession have been rough: “Inequality is up, while growth, job creation, and middle class wages are running far below historic norms. That’s enough to drive even the cheeriest American to despair.”

One economic measure, of course, that is not down is corporate profits, which are at all-time highs relative to the size of the economy. The same thing is true for the incomes of the top 1 percent. So Linker is absolutely correct to argue that corporate profit-seeking has been allowed to override political and cultural loyalties and restraints. The middle class has been trampled into the dirt.

But is that really a product of economic thinking? Or is it a product of a broken political system that funnels insider access, tax cuts, and bailouts to the well-connected, while largely ignoring the concerns of the middle class?


Are teen pregnancies good for the economy?

At Pew Research Center, Eileen Patten points out that “[t]he teen birth rate in the U.S. is at a record low, dropping below 30 births per 1,000 teen females for the first time since the government began collecting consistent data on births to teens ages 15-19″:


What’s changed? “The short answer is that it is a combination of less sex and more contraception. Teenagers have a greater number of methods of contraceptives to choose from,” Bill Albert, the chief program officer of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, told TIME. He added, “The menu of contraceptive methods has never been longer.”

Reducing teenage pregnancy has long been a matter of policy for the federal government, and the latest trends represent a policy victory for successive administrations who have tried to achieve that goal. While liberals and conservatives manage to find ways to disagree on issue after issue, teen pregnancy is one point on which they largely agree. Though they diverge on the means — many conservatives advocate abstinence while liberals tend to favor contraception — both sides happily shake hands on the common goal of reducing teen pregnancy.