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.

Inflationeering

As BusinessWeek asked way back in 2005 before the bubble burst:

Wondering why inflation figures are so tame when real estate prices are soaring? There is a simple explanation: the Consumer Price Index factors in rising rents, not rising home prices.

Are we really getting a true reading on inflation when home price appreciation isn’t added into the mix? I think not.

I find the idea that house price appreciation and depreciation is not factored into inflation figures stunning. For most people it’s their single biggest lifetime expenditure, and for many today mortgage payments are their single biggest monthly expenditure. And rental prices (which are substituted for house prices) are a bad proxy. While house prices have fallen far from their mid-00s peak, rents have continued to increase:

Statisticians in Britain are looking to plug the hole. From the BBC:

A new measure of inflation is being proposed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

It wants to create a version of the Consumer Prices Index that includes housing costs, to be called CPIH.

The ONS wants to counteract criticisms that the main weakness of the CPI is that it does not reflect many costs of being a house owner, which make up 10% of people’s average spending.

While a welcome development (and probably even more welcome on the other side of the Atlantic) it doesn’t make up for the fact that the explosive price increases during the boom years were never included. And it isn’t just real estate — equities was another market that massively inflated without being counted in official inflation statistics. It would have been simple at the time to calculate the effective inflation rate with these components included. A wiser economist than Greenspan might have at least paid attention to such information and tightened monetary policy to prevent the incipient bubbles from overheating.

Of course, with inflation statistics calculated in the way they are (price changes to an overall basket of retail goods) there will always be a fight over what to include and what not to include.

A better approach is to include everything. Murray Rothbard defined inflation simply as any increase to the money supply; if the money is printed, it is inflation. This is a very interesting idea, because it can reflect things like bubble reinflation that are often obscured in official data. The Fed has tripled the monetary base since 2008, but this increase in the monetary base has been offset against the various effects of the 2008 crash, which triggered huge price falls in housing and equities which were only stanched when the money printing started.

Critics of the Austrian approach might say that it does not take into account how money is used, but simply how much money there is. An alternative approach which takes into account all economic activity is nominal GDP targeting, whereby monetary policy either tightens or loosens to achieve a nominal GDP target. If the nominal target is 1%, and GDP is growing at 7%, monetary policy will tighten toward 1% nominal growth. If GDP is growing at a negative rate (say -2%), then the Fed will print and buy assets ’til nominal GDP is growing at 1%. While most of the proponents of this approach today tend to be disgruntled Keynesians like Charles Evans who advocate a consistent growth rate of around 5% (which right now would of course necessitate the Fed to print big and buy a lot of assets, probably starting with equities and REITs), a lower nominal GDP target — of say, 1% or 2% — would certainly be a better approach to the Fed’s supposed price stability mandate than the frankly absurd and disturbing status quo of using CPI, which will always be bent and distorted by what is included or not included. And for the last 40 years monetary policy would have been much, much tighter even if the Fed had been pursuing the widely-cited 5% nominal GDP target.

I don’t think CPI can be fixed. It is just too easy to mismeasure inflation that way. Do statisticians really have the expertise to determine which inflations to count and which to ignore? No; I don’t think they do. Statisticians will try, and by including things like house prices it is certainly an improvement. But if we want to be realistic, we must use a measure that reflects the entire economy.

Negative Real Interest Rates

Paul Krugman thinks negative real interest rates are a policy tool to stimulate recovery:

To preview the conclusions briefly: in a country with poor long-run growth prospects – for example, because of unfavorable demographic trends – the short-term real interest rate that would be needed to match saving and investment may well be negative; since nominal interest rates cannot be negative, the country therefore “needs” expected inflation.

The theory here is that aggregate demand is being lowered by the (unproductive) hoarding of cash and treasuries. Therefore, the best way to get the economy flowing again is to make holding assets like cash and treasuries expensive, by creating inflation. This is what creates negative real rates — when the rate of inflation exceeds the rate of interest. Under such circumstances, hoarders should — in theory — draw down their Treasury and cash holdings and invest in more productive endeavours offering higher rates of return.

Negative real rates are a blunt axe used to bludgeon creditors including China who hold shedloads of cash and Treasuries. This could be a dangerous policy, because America is not energy-independent, and nor is it manufacturing-independent: it depends upon global oil, trade routes, and global manufacturing to function. That’s why America spends more than the rest of the world put together on its military. American agriculture is dependent on imported oil. American transportation is dependent on imported oil. Bludgeoning other powers — who have the power to upset the apple cart a little — could be seen as much like a game of Russian roulette.

The calculation could well be that China’s wealth is dependent on American stability — that interconnection has made the global system “too big to fail”. It is true that China is heavily invested in America — but assuming that that means America can thumb its nose at China’s interests seems naive. There are a lot of people in China desperate for a better standard of living. It would be naive to assume the Chinese government will forever carry the bag for America’s standard of living.

Paul Krugman believes that this would be good for America — that the transfer of dollars from West to East has effectively been a program of “quantitative diseasing”, and that if China liquidates she will effectively be conducting QE on behalf of the Fed, and thereby stimulating the American economy. Let’s flip that over: America — in continuing to buy Chinese goods and ship hoards of dollars to China — has been conducting “quantitative diseasing” of the dollar for most of the last 30 years. Maybe he’s right. But maybe not.

Forcing real rates even lower as a “policy tool” could be the spark that lights a bonfire, the straw that breaks the camel’s back. This denouement — that US Treasury debt is (in real-terms) a bad investment — could lead to all kinds of ramifications in the international financial system.

Possibly rather than moderating nominal debt values, or encouraging risk the inflationary road is a road to a trade war with America’s creditors, a trade war that a highly-dependent America — who controls neither her energy-intake nor her supply chains might struggle to win, even in the context of American military supremacy. 

QE Infinity

A lot of hot air has shot about the internet about nominal GDP targeting, the brainchild of Scott Sumner.

Some (including the usual suspect) have said that it’s Bernanke’s next big bazooka in the (ahem) “war on economic instability“.

What the growing recognition for nominal GDP targeting reflects is a wider awakening to something I have been talking about for a long time: Irving Fisher’s theory of debt deflation. When monetary circulation drops, prices tend to drop and nominal debts tend to become much harder to repay. Therefore, the nominal value of those debts rises: workers and businesses have to produce more to pay down debts. Inevitably, this leads to more defaults. This can lead to what I (and a few others) have termed a “default cascade” — one set of large defaults leads to deflation, leading more defaults, and eventually resulting in systemic failure.

Nominal GDP targeting gives the Federal Reserve the scope to buy assets until they hit a nominal GDP target, ensuring that no such debt deflation will occur. It is — in my opinion — the most powerful monetary tool yet-imagined for reinflating burst bubbles.

As Scott Sumner puts it:

Now why is Nominal GDP so important? That’s the total dollar value of income in the economy. And if you think about it, most debts are contracted in nominal terms. So in a sense, the economy’s dollar income is a good metric for measuring people’s ability to repay these previously contracted nominal debts.

QE was — in terms of reinflating bubbles — a blunt weapon. It shot off an arbitrary amount of newly-printed/digitally-created money, with the explicit target of lowering net interest rates (and the implicit bonus of combating debt deflation). Nominal GDP targeting flips this on its head.

The problem is that this focus on monetary means will not solve the larger systemic economic problems that America and the Western world face.

As I wrote yesterday:

The problem is that most of the problems inherent in America and the West are non-monetary. For a start, America is dependent on oil, much of which is imported — oil necessary for agriculture, industry, transport, etc, and America is therefore highly vulnerable to oil shocks and oil price fluctuations. Second, America destroys huge chunks of its productive capital policing the world, and engaging in war and “liberal interventionism”. Third, America ships even more capital overseas, into the dollar hoards of Arab oil-mongers, and Chinese manufacturers who supply America with a heck of a lot. Fourth, as Krugman and DeLong would readily admit, American infrastructure, education, and basic research has been weakened by decades of under-investment (in my view, the capital lost to military adventurism, etc, has had a lot to do with this).

In light of these real world problems, at best all that monetary policy can do is kick the can, in the hope of giving society and governments more time to address the underlying challenges of the 21st Century. When a central bank pumps, metrics (e.g. GDP and unemployment) can recover, under normal circumstances that is great. But with underlying challenges like the ones we face, a transitory money-printing-driven spike is often not enough to address the structural problems, and these problems soon cause more monetary and financial woe.

What I can say about nominal GDP targeting is that it is probably the best monetary tool for buying more time. But that is completely and totally useless if America fails to address the real problems in the mean time, and assumes that the energy, military and social problems (e.g. zombification) that are the real cause of long-term economic woe will just disappear.

A larger problem is that this “solution” will probably do more (by duplicating their dollar holdings) to annoy America’s creditors, including China and Russia, who have significant scope to cause America real economic problems through a trade war.