Can The Fed Taper?

The Taper Tapir

Back in June, I correctly noted that it was severely unlikely that the Federal Reserve would taper its asset buying programs in September. I based this projection on the macroeconomic indicators on which the Federal Reserve bases its decisions — unemployment, and inflation. The Federal Reserve has a mandate from Congress to delivery a monetary policy that results in full employment, and low and stable inflation. With consumer price inflation significantly below the Fed’s self-imposed 2% goal, and with the rate of unemployment relatively high — currently well over 7% — I saw very little chance of the Fed effectively tightening by reducing his asset purchases.

There exists another school of thought that also correctly noted that the Fed would not taper. This other school, however, believes that the Fed cannot ever taper and that the Fed will destroy the dollar before it ceases its monetary activism. This view is summarised by the Misesian economist Pater Tanebrarum:

While it is true that the liquidation of malinvested capital would resume if the monetary heroin doses were to be reduced, the only alternative is to try to engender an ‘eternal boom’ by printing ever more money. This can only lead to an even worse ultimate outcome, in the very worst case a crack-up boom that destroys the entire monetary system.

So the Misesian view appears to be that the Fed won’t stop buying because doing so would result in a mass liquidation, and so the Fed will print all the way to hyperinflation.

Since talk of a taper began, rates certainly spiked as the market began to price in a taper. How far would an actual taper have pushed rates up? Well, it’s hard to say. But given that banks now have massive capital buffers in the form of excess reserves — as well as a guaranteed lender-of-last-resort resource at the Fed — it is hard to believe that an end to quantitative easing now would push us back into the depths of post-Lehman liquidation. Certainly, in the year preceding the announcement of QE Infinity — when unemployment was higher, and bank balance sheets frailer — there was no such fall back into liquidation. What a taper certainly would have amounted to is a relative tightening in monetary policy at a time when inflation is relatively low (sorry Shadowstats) and when unemployment is still relatively and stickily high. Whether or not we believe that monetary policy is effective in bringing down unemployment or igniting inflation, it is very clear that doing such a thing would be completely inconsistent with the Federal Reserve’s mandate and stated goals.

Generally, I find monetary policy as a means to control unemployment as rather Rube Goldberg-ish. Unemployment is much easier reduced through direct spending rather than trusting in the animal spirits of a depressed market to deliver such a thing, especially in the context of widespread deleveraging. But that does not mean that the Fed can never tighten again. While the depression ploughs on, the Fed will continue with or expand its current monetary policy measures. Whether or not these are effective, as Keynes noted, in the long run when the storm is over the ocean is flat. If by some luck — a technology shock, perhaps — there was an ignition of stronger growth, and unemployment began to fall significantly, the Fed would not just be able to tighten, it would have to to quell incipient inflationary pressure. Without luck and while the recovery remains feeble, it is true that it is hard to see the Fed tightening any time soon. Janet Yellen certainly believes that the Fed can do more to fight unemployment. This could certainly mean an increase in monetary activism. If she succeeds and the recovery strengthens and unemployment moves significantly downward, then Yellen will come under pressure to tighten sooner. 

In the current depressionary environment, the hyperinflation that the Misesians yearn for and see the Fed pushing toward is incredibly unlikely. The deflationary forces in the economy are stunningly huge. Huge quantities of pseudo-money were created in the shadow banking system before 2008, which are now being extinguished. The Fed would have had to double its monetary stimulus simply to push the money supply up to its long-term trend line. Wage growth throughout the economy is very stagnant, and the flow of cheap consumer goods from the East continues. So Yellen has the scope to expand without fearing inflationary pressure. The main concerns for inflation in my view are entirely non-monetary — geopolitical shocks, and energy shocks. Yet with ongoing deleveraging, any such inflationary shocks may actually prove helpful by decreasing the real burden of the nominal debt. Tightening or tapering in response to such shocks would be quite futile.

Sooner or later, the Fed will feel that the unemployment picture has significantly improved. That could be at 5% or even 6% so long as the job creation rate is strongly growing. At that point — perhaps by 2015  — tapering can begin. Tapering may slow the recovery to some extent not least through expectations. And that may be a good thing, guarding against the outgrowth of bubbles.

Yet if another shock pushes unemployment up much further, then tapering will be off the table for a long time. Although Yellen will surely try, with the Fed already highly extended under such circumstances, the only effective option left for job creation will be fiscal policy.

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Minsky, the Lucas Critique, & the Great Moderation

Last week, I noted that the post-2008 world had provided an astonishingly good test for Milton Friedman’s notion that stabilising M2 growth was an effective antidote for economic depressions. Bernanke stabilised M2 growth, yet the depressive effects such as elevated unemployment, elevated long-term unemployment, and depressed growth still appeared, although not to such a great extent as was experienced in the 1930s. Friedman-style macro-stabilisation may have succeeded in reducing the damage, but in terms of preventing the onset of a depression Friedman’s ideas failed.

Of course, the onset of the post-2008 era was in many ways also a failure of the previous regime, and its so-called Great Moderation. Ben Bernanke in 2004 famously noted that “one of the most striking features of the economic landscape over the past twenty years or so has been a substantial decline in macroeconomic volatility”.  Bernanke saw successful monetary policy as a significant reason for this stabilisation:

The historical pattern of changes in the volatilities of output growth and inflation gives some credence to the idea that better monetary policy may have been a major contributor to increased economic stability. As Blanchard and Simon (2001) show, output volatility and inflation volatility have had a strong tendency to move together, both in the United States and other industrial countries. In particular, output volatility in the United States, at a high level in the immediate postwar era, declined significantly between 1955 and 1970, a period in which inflation volatility was low. Both output volatility and inflation volatility rose significantly in the 1970s and early 1980s and, as I have noted, both fell sharply after about 1984. Economists generally agree that the 1970s, the period of highest volatility in both output and inflation, was also a period in which monetary policy performed quite poorly, relative to both earlier and later periods (Romer and Romer, 2002). Few disagree that monetary policy has played a large part in stabilizing inflation, and so the fact that output volatility has declined in parallel with inflation volatility, both in the United States and abroad, suggests that monetary policy may have helped moderate the variability of output as well.

Bernanke’s presumptive successor, Janet Yellen explained in 2009 that from a Minskian perspective, this drop in visible volatility was itself symptomatic of underlying troubles beneath the surface:

One of the critical features of Minsky’s world view is that borrowers, lenders, and regulators are lulled into complacency as asset prices rise.It was not so long ago — though it seems like a lifetime — that many of us were trying to figure out why investors were demanding so little compensation for risk. For example, long-term interest rates were well below what appeared consistent with the expected future path of short-term rates. This phenomenon, which ended abruptly in mid-2007, was famously characterized by then-Chairman Greenspan as a “conundrum.” Credit spreads too were razor thin. But for Minsky, this behavior of interest rates and loan pricing might not have been so puzzling. He might have pointed out that such a sense of safety on the part of investors is characteristic of financial booms. The incaution that reigned by the middle of this decade had been fed by roughly twenty years of the so-called “great moderation,” when most industrialized economies experienced steady growth and low and stable inflation.

Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis can be thought of as an instance of the Lucas Critique applied to macro-stabilisation. Lucas’ contribution — earlier stated by Keynes — is that agents alter their behaviour and expectations in response to policy.  By enacting stabilisation policies, policy makers change the expectations and behaviour of economic agents. In the Minskian world, the promise and application of macro-stabilisation policies can lead to economic agents engaging in increasingly risky behaviour. A moderation is calm on the surface — strong growth, low inflation — but turbulent in the ocean deep where economic agents believing the hype of the moderation take risks they would otherwise not. In a Minskian world, these two things are not separate facts but deeply and intimately interconnected. Whichever way monetary policy swings, there will still be a business cycle. Only fiscal policy — direct spending on job creation that is not dependent on market mood swings — can bring down unemployment in such a context while the market recovers its lost panache.

The march of monetarists — following the lead of Scott Sumner — toward nominal GDP targeting, under which the central bank would target a level of nominal GDP, is a symptom of Friedman’s and the Great Moderation’s failure. If stabilising M2 growth had worked, nobody would be calling for stabilising other monetary aggregates like M4 growth, or stabilising the nominal level of economic activity in the economy. Sumner believes by definition, I think, that the policies enacted by Bernanke following 2008 were “too tight”, and that much more was needed.

Of course, what the NGDP targeters seem to believe is that they can have their Great Moderation after all if only they are targeting the right variable. This view is shared by other groups, with varying clinical pathways. Followers of von Mises’ business cycle theory believe that an uninhibited market will not exhibit a business cycle, as they believe that the business cycle is a product of government artificially suppressing interest rates. Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis and its notion that stability is destabilising is a slap in the face to all such moderation hypotheses. The more successful the moderation, the more economic agents will gradually change their behaviour to engage in increasingly risky activities, and the more bubbles will form, eventually destabilising the system once again. Markets are inherently tempestuous.

Or at least that is the theory. It would be nice to see empirical confirmation that the moderation produced by Sumnerian NGDP targeting is just as fragile and breakable as the Great Moderation. Which, of course, requires some monetary regimes somewhere to practice NGDP targeting.

The Fed Shrugs

Since talk of the taper started, interest rates have been gradually rising. When Bernanke talked about the possibility of tapering QE in mid 2014 so long as growth and unemployment remain on track, rates leapt to their highest level since 2011:

10-year-treasury-1

A simple supply-demand analysis of Treasuries says that if the Fed buys less, ceteris paribus the price will fall and rates will rise. The Fed is implying it will buy less, and lo and behold markets are selling off on expectations that future demand will be lower. The analysis of those who say that quantitative easing is raising interest rates seems increasingly dubious to me.

The alternative analysis is that rates are rising on sentiment that the economy is improving. I wouldn’t rule that out, but the trouble is that the economy is still deeply depressed. GDP is still far below its pre-crisis trend. Broad monetary aggregates are still massively deflated. Lots and lots of working-age people who were working before 2008 still haven’t returned to the labour force:

062013krugman1-blog480

So while equities have returned to their pre-crisis heights — unsurprisingly, after all the financial sector is the Fed’s monetary transmission mechanism — the real economy, broadly speaking, hasn’t.

So it’s surprising to me that there is any talk of tapering. Headline unemployment is still 7.5%, and core inflation is just 1%, 1% below the Federal Reserve’s self-imposed target. Bernanke referred to disinflationary and deflationary forces in the economy as “transitory”, but any such diagnosis would seem to be the height of naïveté. The deflation of the shadow money supply and broad monetary aggregates is an ongoing structural transformation in the post-shadow-banking-bubble world. There is nothing “transitory” about it. If inflation was 3% or 4% and unemployment was below 6%, then talk of a taper would be expectable. Right now it just makes it seem like the Fed doesn’t have a clear framework. If QE3 was supposed to target unemployment, why is the Fed considering tapering when unemployment is still so high? Yes, the Fed’s internal DSGE models are saying that unemployment will continue to fall. Of course they do — these models have assumptions of clearing labour markets built into them! But right now inflation is below-mandate and unemployment is above mandate. Assuming away current conditions with the term “transitory” is basically saying that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.

Of course, at the zero-bound I think the Fed’s transmission mechanisms are relatively powerless in terms of any ability to stimulate employment or growth. It has taken the horse to water, but the horse hasn’t drunk. What the Fed can control with balance sheet monetary policy is interest rates on assets it buys. By shrugging, the Fed is signalling for a rise in government borrowing costs. That may be extremely premature.

Even After All The QE, The Money Supply Is Still Shrunken

Here are the broadest measures of the US money supply, M3 and M4 as estimated by the Center for Fiscal Stability:

Charts6_amfm1

With the total money supply still at an absolute level lower than its 2008 peak, it is obvious that the Federal Reserve in tripling the monetary base — an expansion by what is in comparison to other components of M4 a relatively small amount — has been battling staggering deflationary forces. And with the money supply still lower than the 2008 peak and far-below its pre-2008 trend, the Fed is arguably struggling in this battle (even though by the most widely-recognised measure, the CPI-U the Fed has kept the US economy out of deflation). 

Those who have pointed to massively inflationary forces in the American economy based on a tripling of the monetary base, or even expansion of M2 clearly do not understand that the Fed does not control the money supply. It controls the monetary base, which influences the money supply but the big money in the US economy is created endogenously through credit-creation by traditional banks and shadow banks. The Fed can lead the horse to water by expanding the monetary base, but in such depressionary economic conditions it cannot make the horse drink.

What does this imply? Well, either the monetary transmission mechanism is broken, or monetary policy at the zero bound is ineffectual.

What it also implies is that hyperinflation (and even high inflation) remains the remotest of remote possibilities in the short and medium terms. The overwhelming trend remains deflationary following the bursting of the shadow intermediation bubble in 2008, and to offset this powerful deflationary trend the Fed is highly likely to have to continue to prime the monetary pump Abenomics-style into the foreseeable future.

Negative Nominal Interest Rates?

A number of economists and economics writers have considered the possibility of allowing the Federal Reserve to drop interest rates below zero in order to make holding onto money costlier and encouraging individuals and firms to spend, spend, spend.

Miles Kimball details one such plan:

The US Federal Reserve’s new determination to keep buying mortgage-backed securities until the economy gets better, better known as quantitative easing, is controversial. Although a few commentators don’t think the economy needs any more stimulus, many others are unnerved because the Fed is using untested tools. (For example, see Michael Snyder’s collection of “10 Shocking Quotes About What QE3 Is Going To Do To America.”) Normally the Fed simply lowers short-term interest rates (and in particular the federal funds rate at which banks lend to each other overnight) by purchasing three-month Treasury bills. But it has basically hit the floor on the federal funds rate. If the Fed could lower the federal funds rate as far as chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues wanted, it would be much less controversial. The monetary policy cognoscenti would be comfortable with a tool they know well, and those who don’t understand monetary policy as well would be more likely to trust that the Fed knew what it was doing. By contrast, buying large quantities of long-term government bonds or mortgage-backed securities is seen as exotic and threatening by monetary policy outsiders; and it gives monetary policy insiders the uneasy feeling that they don’t know their footing and could fall into some unexpected crevasse at any time.

So why can’t the Fed just lower the federal funds rate further? The problem may surprise you: it is those green pieces of paper in your wallet. Because they earn an interest rate of zero, no one is willing to lend at an interest rate more than a hair below zero. In Denmark, the central bank actually set the interest rate to negative -.2 % per year toward the end of August this year, which people might be willing to accept for the convenience of a certificate of deposit instead of a pile of currency, but it would be hard to go much lower before people did prefer a pile of currency. Let me make this concrete. In an economic situation like the one we are now in, we would like to encourage a company thinking about building a factory in a couple of years to build that factory now instead. If someone would lend to them at an interest rate of -3.33% per year, the company could borrow $1 million to build the factory now, and pay back something like $900,000 on the loan three years later. (Despite the negative interest rate, compounding makes the amount to be paid back a bit bigger, but not by much.) That would be a good enough deal that the company might move up its schedule for building the factory.  But everything runs aground on the fact that any potential lender, just by putting $1 million worth of green pieces of paper in a vault could get back $1 million three years later, which is a lot better than getting back a little over $900,000 three years later.  The fact that people could store paper money and get an interest rate of zero, minus storage costs, has deterred the Fed from bothering to lower the interest rate a bit more and forcing them to store paper money to get the best rate (as Denmark’s central bank may cause people to do).

The bottom line is that all we have to do to give the Fed (and other central banks) unlimited power to lower short-term interest rates is to demote paper currency from its role as a yardstick for prices and other economic values—what economists call the “unit of account” function of money. Paper currency could still continue to exist, but prices would be set in terms of electronic dollars (or abroad, electronic euros or yen), with paper dollars potentially being exchanged at a discount compared to electronic dollars. More and more, people use some form of electronic payment already, with debit cards and credit cards, so this wouldn’t be such a big change. It would be a little less convenient for those who insisted on continuing to use currency, but even there, it would just be a matter of figuring out with a pocket calculator how many extra paper dollars it would take to make up for the fact that each one was worth less than an electronic dollar. That’s it, and we wouldn’t have to worry about the Fed or any other central bank ever again seeming relatively powerless in the face of a long slump.

First of all, I question the feasibility of even producing a negative rate of interest, even via electronic currency. Electronic currency has practically zero storage costs. What is to stop offshore or black market banking entities offering a non-negative interest rate? After all, it is not hard to offer a higher-than-negative rate of interest for the privilege of holding (and leveraging) currency. A true negative interest rate environment may prove as unattainable as division by zero.

But assuming that such a thing is achievable, I think that a negative rate of interest will completely undermine the entire economic system in clear and visible ways that I shall discuss below (“white swans”), and probably also — because such a system has never been tried, and it is a radical departure from the present norms — in unpredictable and emergent ways (“black swans”).

Money has historically had multiple functions; a medium of exchange, a unit of account, a store of purchasing power. To institute a zero interest rate policy is to disable money’s role as a store of purchasing power. But to institute a negative interest rate policy is to reverse money’s role as a store of purchasing power, and turn money into a drain on purchasing power.

Money evolved organically to possess all three of these characteristics, because all three characteristics have been economically important and useful. To try to strip currency of one of its essential functions is to risk the rejection of that currency.

How would I react in the case of negative nominal interest rates? I’d convert into a liquid medium that was not subject to a negative rate of interest. That could be a nonmonetary asset, a foreign currency, a digital currency or a precious metal. I would actively seek ways to opt out of using the negative-yielding currency at all — if I could get by using alternative currencies, digital currencies, barter, then I would.  I would only ever possess a negative-yielding currency for transactions (e.g. taxes) in which the other party insisted upon the negative-yielding currency, and would then only hold it for a minimal period of time. It seems only reasonable that other individuals — seeking to avoid a draining asset — would maximise their utility by rejecting the draining currency whenever and wherever possible.

In Kimball’s theory, this unwillingness to hold currency is supposed to stimulate the economy by encouraging productive economic activity and investment. But is that necessarily true? I don’t think so. So long as there are alternative stores of purchasing power, there is no guarantee that this policy would result in a higher rate of  economic activity.

And it will drive economic activity underground. While governments may relish the prospect of higher tax revenues (due to more economic activity becoming electronic, and therefore trackable and traceable), in the present depressionary environment recorded and taxable economic activity could even fall as more economic activity goes underground to avoid negative rates. Increasingly authoritarian measures might be taken — probably at great cost — to encourage citizens into using the negative-yielding legal tender.

Banking would be turned upside down. Lending at a negative rate of interest — and suffering from the likely reality that negative rates discourages deposits — banks would be forced to look to riskier or offshore or black market activities to achieve profits. Even if banks continued to lend at low positive rates, the negative rates of interest offered to depositors would surely lead to a mass depositor exodus (perhaps to offshore or black market banks offering higher rates), probably leading to liquidity crises and banking panics.

As Izabella Kaminska wrote in July:

The simple fact of the matter is that in a negative carry world – or a flat yield environment for that matter  there is no role or purpose for banks because banks are forced into economically destructive practices in order to stay profitable.

Additionally, a negative-yielding environment will result in reduced income for those on a fixed income. One interesting effect of the present zero-interest rate environment is that more elderly people — presumably starved of sufficient retirement income — are returning to the labour force, which is in turn crowding out younger inexperienced workers, who are suffering from very high rates of unemployment and underemployment. A negative-yielding environment would probably exacerbate this effect.

So on the surface, the possibility of negative nominal rates seems deeply problematic.

Japan has spent almost twenty years at the zero bound, in spite of multiple rounds of quantitative easing and stimulus. Yet Japan remains mired in depression. The fact remains that both conventional and unconventional monetary policy has proven ineffective in resuscitating Japanese growth. My hypothesis remains that the real issue is the weight of excessive total debt (Japan’s total debt load remains as precipitously high as ever) and that no amount of rate cuts, quantitative easing or unconventional monetary intervention will prove effective. I hypothesise that a return to growth for a depressionary post-bubble economy requires a substantial chunk of the debt load (and thus future debt service costs) being either liquidated, forgiven or (often very difficult and slow) paid down.