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.

Why is the Fed Not Printing Like Crazy?

I try to read all sides of the economics blogosphere, and try and grasp the ideas of even those who I would seem to radically disagree with.

One thing that the anti-Fed side of the economics blogosphere seems to not fully appreciate is the depth of disappointment with Ben Bernanke from the pro-Fed side. For every anti-Fed post bemoaning Bernanke’s money printing, there is a pro-Fed post bemoaning Bernanke for not printing enough. Bernanke, it seems, is tied to everybody’s whipping post.

And in fairness to the pro-Fed side, the data shows that the Fed is not printing anywhere near as much as its own self-imposed interpretation of its mandate demands. (Of course, I fundamentally disagree that price stability should be interpreted as consistent inflation, but that is an argument for another day).

Scott Sumner notes:

Recall that the Fed tries to keep inflation close to 2.0% and unemployment close to about 5.6% (the Fed’s current estimate of the natural rate.)  One implication of the dual mandate is that they should try to generate above 2% inflation during periods of high unemployment, and below 2% during periods of low unemployment.

In July 2008 unemployment rose above 5.6%, and it’s averaged nearly 9% over the past 46 months.  So the Fed’s mandate calls for slightly higher than 2% inflation during this 46 month slump.  Last month I reported that the headline CPI had risen 4.6% in the 45 months since July 2008.  Now we have the May data, and the headline CPI has gone up 4.3% in the 46 months since July 2008.  So the annual inflation rate over that nearly 4 year period has fallen from a bit over 1.2%, to 1.1%.

Raw data:

Note that downward slope in inflation into 2012?

That’s the Fed not doing QE3 when everyone (especially gold prices) expected them to, and when their own self-imposed interpretation of their mandate calls for them to inflate more. And nobody can say that the Fed is out of bullets; central banks are never out of bullets — there was a time when a central bank was limited to the number of zeroes it could fit on a banknote, but in the era of digital currency, even that limit has been removed.

Here’s the younger Bernanke’s views on the subject:

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in 1932 with the mandate to get the country out of the Depression. In the end, the most effective actions he took were the same that Japan needs to take — namely, rehabilitation of the banking system and devaluation of the currency to promote monetary easing. But Roosevelt’s specific policy actions were, I think, less important than his willingness to be aggressive and to experiment— in short, to do whatever was necessary to get the country moving again. Many of his policies did not work as intended, but in the end FDR deserves great credit for having the courage to abandon failed paradigms and to do what needed to be done. Japan is not in a Great Depression by any means, but its economy has operated below potential for nearly a decade. Nor is it by any means clear that recovery is imminent. Policy options exist that could greatly reduce these losses. Why isn’t more happening?

To this outsider, at least, Japanese monetary policy seems paralyzed, with a paralysis that is largely self-induced. Most striking is the apparent unwillingness of the monetary authorities to experiment, to try anything that isn’t absolutely guaranteed to work. Perhaps it’s time for some Rooseveltian resolve in Japan.

And here’s Paul Krugman pulling a Bernanke on Bernanke:

Bernanke was and is a fine economist. More than that, before joining the Fed, he wrote extensively, in academic studies of both the Great Depression and modern Japan, about the exact problems he would confront at the end of 2008. He argued forcefully for an aggressive response, castigating the Bank of Japan, the Fed’s counterpart, for its passivity. Presumably, the Fed under his leadership would be different.

Instead, while the Fed went to great lengths to rescue the financial system, it has done far less to rescue workers. The U.S. economy remains deeply depressed, with long-term unemployment in particular still disastrously high, a point Bernanke himself has recently emphasized. Yet the Fed isn’t taking strong action to rectify the situation.

It really makes no sense — except in terms of politics. I really believe that we have reached a point where the Fed is afraid to do its job, for fear of being accused of helping Obama.

I am fairly certain the answer to why Bernanke isn’t increasing inflation when his former self and former colleagues say he should be is actually nothing to do with domestic politics, and everything to do with international politics.

Most of the pro-Fed blogosphere seems to live in denial of the fact that America is massively in debt to external creditors — all of whom are frustrated at getting near-zero yields (they can’t just flip bonds to the Fed balance sheet like the hedge funds) — and their views matter, very simply because the reality of China and other creditors ceasing to buy debt would be untenable.

Why else would the Treasury have thrown a carrot by upgrading the Chinese government to primary dealer status (the first such deal in history), cutting Wall Street’s bond flippers out of the deal?

As John Huntsman (in his days as ambassador to China) reported in a cable back to Washington, China is keen to stop buying low-yield treasuries and start buying other assets, but the US is desperately pushing China back toward treasuries:

The Shanghai-based Shanghai Media Group (SMG) publication, China Business News:

“The United States provoked a trade war again by imposing high anti-dumping duties on Chinese-made gift boxes and packaging ribbon. China has become the biggest victim of the U.S.’s abusive implementation of trade remedy measures.

The United States no longer sits still; it frequently uses evil tricks to force China to buy U.S. bonds.

A crucial move for the U.S. is to shift its crisis to other countries – by coercing China to buy U.S. treasury bonds with foreign exchange reserves and doing everything possible to prevent China’s foreign reserve from buying gold.

Today when the United States is determined to beggar thy neighbor, shifting its crisis to China, the Chinese must be very clear what the key to victory is.  It is by no means to use new foreign exchange reserves to buy U.S. Treasury bonds.  The issues of Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, trade and so on are all false tricks, while forcing China to buy U.S. bonds is the U.S.’s real intention.

And that, in a nutshell, is why Bernanke is not printing nearly as much as Krugman wishes. In my view only a brutal 2008-style collapse can bring on the kind of printing — QE3, NGDP targeting and beyond — that the pro-Fed blogosphere wishes to see, because it is only under those circumstances that China and other creditors will happily support it.

To a heavily-indebted nation, creditors have big leverage on monetary policy.