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.

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The Cantillon Effect

Expansionary monetary policy constitutes a transfer of purchasing power away from those who hold old money to whoever gets new money. This is known as the Cantillon Effect, after 18th Century economist Richard Cantillon who first proposed it. In the immediate term, as more dollars are created, each one translates to a smaller slice of all goods and services produced.

How we measure this phenomenon and its size depends how we define money. This is illustrated below.

Here’s GDP expressed in terms of the monetary base:

Here’s GDP expressed in terms of M2:

And here’s GDP expressed in terms of total debt:

What is clear is that the dramatic expansion of the monetary base that we saw after 2008 is merely catching up with the more gradual growth of debt that took place in the 90s and 00s.

While it is my hunch that overblown credit bubbles are better liquidated than reflated (not least because the reflation of a corrupt and dysfunctional financial sector entails huge moral hazard), it is true the Fed’s efforts to inflate the money supply have so far prevented a default cascade. We should expect that such initiatives will continue, not least because Bernanke has a deep intellectual investment in reflationism.

This focus on reflationary money supply expansion was fully expected by those familiar with Ben Bernanke’s academic record. What I find more surprising, though, is the Fed’s focus on banks and financial institutions rather than the wider population.

It’s not just the banks that are struggling to deleverage. The overwhelming majority of nongovernment debt is held by households and nonfinancials:

The nonfinancial sectors need debt relief much, much more than the financial sector. Yet the Fed shoots off new money solely into the financial system, to Wall Street and the TBTF banks. It is the financial institutions that have gained the most from these transfers of purchasing power, building up huge hoards of excess reserves:

There is a way to counteract the Cantillon Effect, and expand the money supply without transferring purchasing power to the financial sector (or any other sector). This is to directly distribute the new money uniformly to individuals for the purpose of debt relief; those with debt have to use the new money to pay it down (thus reducing the debt load), those without debt are free to invest it or spend it as they like.

Steve Keen notes:

While we delever, investment by American corporations will be timid, and economic growth will be faltering at best. The stimulus imparted by government deficits will attenuate the downturn — and the much larger scale of government spending now than in the 1930s explains why this far greater deleveraging process has not led to as severe a Depression — but deficits alone will not be enough. If America is to avoid two “lost decades”, the level of private debt has to be reduced by deliberate cancellation, as well as by the slow processes of deleveraging and bankruptcy.

In ancient times, this was done by a Jubilee, but the securitization of debt since the 1980s has complicated this enormously. Whereas only the moneylenders lost under an ancient Jubilee, debt cancellation today would bankrupt many pension funds, municipalities and the like who purchased securitized debt instruments from banks. I have therefore proposed that a “Modern Debt Jubilee” should take the form of “Quantitative Easing for the Public”: monetary injections by the Federal Reserve not into the reserve accounts of banks, but into the bank accounts of the public — but on condition that its first function must be to pay debts down. This would reduce debt directly, but not advantage debtors over savers, and would reduce the profitability of the financial sector while not affecting its solvency.

Without a policy of this nature, America is destined to spend up to two decades learning the truth of Michael Hudson’s simple aphorism that “Debts that can’t be repaid, won’t be repaid”.

The Fed’s singular focus on the financial sector is perplexing and frustrating, not least because growth remains stagnant, unemployment remains elevated, industrial production remains weak and America’s financial sector remains a seething cesspit of corruption and moral hazard, where segregated accounts are routinely raided by corrupt CEOs, and where government-backstopped TBTF banks still routinely speculate with the taxpayers’ money.

The corrupt and overblown financial sector is the last sector that deserves a boost in purchasing power. It’s time this ended.