Five, Ten or Even Thirty Years

Neel Kashkari is clearly a very smart guy. He’s been an invaluable voice for sanity at the Fed these past few years. Doesn’t he see that something has gone very wrong here?

Kashkari:

When people borrow money to buy a house, or businesses take out a loan to build a new factory, they don’t really care about overnight interest rates. They care about what interest rates will be for the term of their loan: 5, 10 or even 30 years. [*] Similarly, when banks make loans to households and businesses, they also try to assess where interest rates will be over the length of the loan when they set the terms. Hence, expectations about future interest rates are enormously important to the economy. When the Fed wants to stimulate more economic activity, we do that by trying to lower the expected future path of interest rates. When we want to tap the brakes, we try to raise the expected future path of interest rates.

Here’s the problem: recession don’t last 5, 10 or even 30 years. Per the NBER, they last a year to 18 months.

Mainstream theory says we have a long run dictated by supply side — technology, demographics, etc. On average the output gap is zero, or at least, it’s at a stable level. On top of this are demand disturbances or shocks — changes in desired spending — which produce the businesses cycle, alternating periods of high unemployment and normal growth or rising inflation. The job of monetary policy is to smooth out these short-term fluctuations in demand; it absolves itself of responsibility for the longer-run growth path.

If policy responding to demand shortfalls lasting a year or two, how is that supposed to work if policy shifts have to be maintained for 5, 10 or even 30 years to be effective?

If the Fed is faced with rising inflation in 2005, is it supposed to respond by committing itself to keeping rates high even in 2010, when the economy is sliding into depression? Does anyone think that would have been a good idea? (I seriously doubt Kashkari thinks so.) And if it had made such a commitment in 2005, would anyone have worried about breaking it in 2010? But if the Fed can’t or shouldn’t make such a commitment, how is this vision of monetary policy supposed to work?

If monetary policy is only effective when sustained for 5, 10 or even 30 years, then monetary policy is not a suitable tool for managing the business cycle. Milton Friedman pointed this out long ago: It is impossible for countercyclical monetary policy to work unless the lags with which it takes effect are decidedly shorter than the frequency of the shocks it is supposed to respond to. The best you can do, in his view, is maintain a stable money supply growth that will ensure stable inflation over the long run.

Meanwhile, conventional monetary policy rules like the Taylor rule are defined based on current macroeconomic conditions — today’s inflation rate, today’s output gap, today’s unemployment rate. There’s no term in there for commitments the Fed made at some point in the past. The Taylor rule seems to describe the past two or three decades of monetary policy pretty well. Now, Kashkari says the Fed can influence real activity only insofar as it is setting policy over the next 5, 10 or even 30 year’s based on today’s conditions. But what the Fed actually will do, if the Taylor rule continues to be a reasonable guide, is to set monetary policy based on conditions over the next 5, 10 or even 30 years. So if Kashkari takes his argument seriously, he must believe that monetary policy as it is currently practiced is not effective at all.

In the abstract, we can imagine some kind of rule that sets policy today as some kind of weighted average of commitments made over the past 5, 10 or even 30 years. Of course neither economic theory nor official statements describe policy this way. Still, in the abstract, we can imagine it. But in practice? FOMC members come and go; Kashkari is there now, he’ll be gone next year. The chair and most members are appointed by presidents, who also come and go, sometimes in unpredictable ways. Whatever Kashkari thinks is the appropriate policy for 2022, 2027 or 2047, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be there to carry it out. Suppose that in 2019 Fed chair Kevin Warsh  looks at the state of the economy and says, “I think the most appropriate policy rate today is 4 percent”. Is it remotely plausible that that sentence continues “… but my predecessor made a commitment to keep rates low so I will vote for 2 percent instead”? If that’s the reed the Fed’s power over real activity rests on it, it’s an exceedingly thin one. Even leaving aside changes of personnel, the Fed has no institutional capacity to make commitments about future policy. Future FOMC members will make their choices based on their own preferred models of the economy plus the data on the state of the economy at the time. If monetary policy only works through expectations of policy 5, 10 or even 30 years from now, then monetary policy just doesn’t work.

There are a few ways you can respond to this.

One is to accept Kashkari’s premise — monetary policy is only effective if sustained over many years — and follow it to its logical conclusion: monetary policy is not useful for stabilizing demand over the business cycle. Two possible next steps: Friedman’s, which concludes that stabilizing demand at business cycle frequencies is not a realistic goal for policy, and the central bank should focus on the long-term price level; and Abba Lerner’s, which concludes that business cycles should be dealt with by fiscal policy instead.

The second response is to start from the fact — actual or assumed — that monetary policy is effective at smoothing out the business cycle, in which case Kashkari’s premise must be wrong. Evidently the effect of monetary policy on activity today does not depend on beliefs about what policy will be 5, 10 or even 30 years from now. This is not a hard case to make. We just have to remember that there is not “an” interest rate, but lots of different credit markets, with rationing as well as prices, with different institutions making different loans to different borrowers. Policy is effective because it targets some particular financial bottleneck. Perhaps stocks or inventories are typically financed short-term and changes in their financing conditions are also disproportionately likely to affect real activity; perhaps mortgage rates, for institutional reasons, are more closely linked to the policy rate than you would expect from “rational” lenders; perhaps banks become more careful in their lending standards as the policy rate rises. One way or another, these stories depend on widespread liquidity constraints and the lack of arbitrage between key markets. Generations of central bankers have told stories like these to explain the effectiveness of monetary policy. Remember Ben Bernanke? His article Inside the Black Box is a classic of this genre, and its starting point is precisely the inadequacy of Kashkari’s interest rate story to explain how monetary policy actually works. Somehow or other policy has to affect the volume of lending on a short timeframe than it can be expected to move long rates. Going back a bit further, the Fed’s leading economist of the 1950s, Richard Roosa, was vey clear that neither the direct effect of Fed policy shifts on longer rates, nor of interest rates on real activity, could be relied on. What mattered rather was the Fed’s ability to change the willingness of banks to make loans. This was the “availability doctrine” that guided monetary policy in the postwar years. [2] If you think monetary policy is generally an effective tool to moderate business cycles, you have to believe something like this.

Response three is to accept Kashkari’s premise, yet also to believe that monetary works. This means you need to adjust your view of what policy is supposed to be doing. Policy that has to be sustained for 5, 10 or even 30 years to be effective, is no good for responding to demand shortfalls that last only a year or two at most. It looks better if you think that demand may be lacking for longer periods, or indefinitely. If shifts in demand are permanent, it’s not such a problem that to be effective policy shifts must also be permanent, or close to it. And the inability to make commitments is less of a problem in this case; now if demand is weak today, theres a good chance it will be weak in 5, 10 or even 30 years too; so policy will be persistent even if it’s only based on current conditions. Obviously this is inconsistent with an idea that aggregate demand inevitably gravitates toward aggregate supply, but that’s ok. It might indeed be the case that demand deficiencies an persist indefinitely, requiring an indefinite maintenance of lower rates. There’s a good case that something like this response was Keynes’ view. [3] But while this idea isn’t crazy, it’s certainly not how central banks normally describe what they’re doing. And Kashkari’s post doesn’t present itself as a radical reformulation of monetary policy’s goals, or mention secular stagnation or anything like that.

I don’t know which if any of these responses Kashkari would agree with. I suppose it’s possible he sincerely believes that policy is only effective when sustained for 5, 10 or even 30 years, and simply hasn’t noticed that this is inconsistent with a mission of stabilizing demand over business cycles that turn much more quickly. Given what I’ve read of his I feel this is unlikely. It also seems unlikely that he really thinks you can understand monetary policy while abstracting from banks, finance, credit and, well, money — that you can think of it purely in terms of an intertemporal “interest rate,” goods today vs goods tomorrow, which the central bank can somehow set despite controlling neither preferences nor production possibilities. My guess: When he goes to make concrete policy, it’s on the basis of some version of my response two, an awareness that policy operates through the concrete financial structures that theory abstracts from. And my guess is he wrote this post the way he did because he thought the audience he’s writing for would be more comfortable with a discussion of the expectations of abstract agents, than with a discussion of the concrete financial structures through which monetary policy is transmitted. It doesn’t hurt that the former is much simpler.

Who knows, I’m not a mind reader. But it doesn’t really matter. Whether the most progressive member of the FOMC has forgotten everything his predecessors knew about the transmission of monetary policy, or whether he merely assumes his audience has, the implications are about the same. “The Fed sets the interest rate” is not the right starting point for thinking about monetary policy manages aggregate demand.

 

[1] This is a weird statement, and seems clearly wrong. My wife and I just bought a house, and I can assure you we were not thinking at all about what interest rates would be many years from now. Why would we? — our monthly payments are fixed in the contract, regardless of what happens to rates down the road. Allowing the buyer to not care about future interest rates is pretty much the whole point of the 30-year fixed rate mortgage. Now it is true that we did care, a little, about interest rates next year (not in 5 years). But this was in the opposite way that Kashkari suggests — today’s low rates are more of an inducement to buy precisely if they will not be sustained, i.e. if they are not informative about future rates.

I think what may be going on here is a slippage between long rates — which the borrower does care about — and expected short rates over the length of the loan. In any case we can let it go because Kashkari’s argument does work in principle for lenders.

[2] Thanks to Nathan Tankus for pointing this article out to me.

[3] Leijonhufvud as usual puts it best:

Keynes looked forward to an indefinite period of, at best, unrelenting deflationary pressure and painted it in colors not many shades brighter than the gloomy hues of the stagnationist picture. But these stagnationist fears were based on propositions that must be stated in terms of time-derivatives. Modern economies, he believed, were such that, at a full employment rate of investment, the marginal efficiency of capital would always tend to fall more rapidly than the long rate of interest. … When he states that the long rate “may fluctuate for decades about a level which is chronically too high” one should … see this in the historical context of the “obstinate maintenance of misguided monetary policies” of which he steadily complained.

Readings: A Couple New Papers on Fiscal Policy

From the NBER working paper series — essential reading if you want to follow what the mainstream of the profession is up to — here are a couple interesting recent papers on fiscal policy. They offer some genuinely valuable insights, while also demonstrating the limits of orthodoxy.

Geographic Cross-Sectional Fiscal Spending Multipliers: What Have We Learned?
Gabriel Chodorow-Reich
NBER Working Paper No. 23577

Gabriel Chodorow-Reich has a useful new entry in the burgeoning literature on the empirics of fiscal multipliers — a review of the now-substantial work on state-level multipliers. Most of these papers are based on spending under the 2009 stimulus (the ARRA) — since many components of its spending were set by formulas not responsive to local economic conditions, cross-state variation can reasonably be considered exogenous. (Another reason the ARRA features so heavily in these papers is, of course, that the revival of mainstream interest in fiscal multipliers is mostly a post-crisis phenomenon.) Other studies estimate local multipliers based on  other public spending with plausibly exogenous regional variation, such as that involved in a military buildup or response to a natural disaster.

How do these local multipliers translate into the national multiplier we are usually more interested in? There are two main differences, pointing in opposite directions. On the one hand, states are more open than the US as a whole (or than other large countries, though perhaps not more than small European countries). This means more spillover of demand across borders, meaning a smaller multiplier. On the other hand, since states don’t conduct their own monetary policy (and since the US banking system is no longer partitioned by state) the usual channels of crowding out don’t operate at the state level. This implies a bigger multiplier. It’s hard to say which of these effects is bigger in general, but when interest rates are constrained, by the zero lower bound for example, crowding out doesn’t happen by that channel at the national level either. So at the zero lower bound, Chodorow-Reich argues, the national multiplier should be unambiguously greater than the average state multiplier.

Based on the various studies he discusses (including a couple of his own), he estimates a state-level multiplier of 1.8.  He subtracts an arbitrary tenth of a point to allow for financial crowding out even at the ZLB, giving a value of 1.7 as a lower bound for the national multiplier. This is toward the high end of existing estimates. For whatever reason, Chodorow-Reich makes no effort to even guess at the impact of the greater openness of state-level economies. But if we suppose that the typical import share at the state level is double the national import share, then a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that a state-level multiplier of 1.7 implies a national multiplier somewhere above 2.0. [1]

It’s a helpful paper, offering some more empirical support for the new view of fiscal policy that seems to be gradually displacing the balanced-budget orthodoxy of the past generation. But it must be said that it is one of those papers that presents some very interesting empirical results and is evidently attempting to deal with a concrete, policy-relevant question about economic reality — but that seems to devote a disproportionate amount of energy to making its results intelligible within mainstream theory. We’ll really have made progress when this kind of work can be published without a lot of apologies for the use of “non-Ricardian agents.”

The Dire Effects of the Lack of Monetary and Fiscal Coordination
Francesco Bianchi, Leonardo Melosi
NBER Working Paper No. 23605

The subordination of real-world insight to theoretical toy-train sets is much worse in this paper. But there is a genuine insight in it — that when you have a fiscal authority targeting the debt-GDP ratio and a monetary authority targeting inflation (or equivalently, unemployment or the output gap), then when they are independent their actions can create destabilizing feedback loops. In the simple case, suppose the monetary authority responds to higher inflation by raising interest rates. This raises debt service costs, forcing the fiscal authority to reduce spending or raise taxes to meet its debt target. The contractionary effect of this fiscal shift will have to be offset by the central bank lowering rates. This process may converge toward the unique combination of fiscal balance and interest rate at which both inflation and debt ratio are at their desired levels. But as Arjun Jayadev and I have shown, it can also diverge, with the interactions the actions of each authority provoking more and more violent responses from the other.

I’m glad to see some mainstream people recognizing this problem. As the authors note, the basic point was made by Michael Woodford. (Unsurprisingly, they don’t cite this recent paper by Peter Skott and Soon Ryoo, which carefully works through the possible dynamics between the two policy rules. [2]) The implications, as the NBER authors correctly state, are, first, that fiscal policy and monetary policy have to be seen as jointly affecting both the output gap and the public debt; and that if preventing a rising debt ratio is an important goal of policy, holding down interest rates and/or allowing a higher inflation rate are useful tools for achieving it. Unfortunately, the paper doesn’t really develop these ideas — the meat of it is a mathematical exercise showing how these results can occur in the world of a representative agent maximizing its utility over infinite time, if you set up the frictions just right.

 

[1] For the simplest case, suppose the multiplier is equal to (1-m)[1/(1-mpc)], where m is the marginal propensity to import and mpc is the marginal propensity to consume. Then if the state level import propensity is 0.4 and the state level multiplier is 1.7, that implies an mpc of 0.65. Combine that with a national import propensity of 0.2 and you get a national multiplier of 2.3.

[2] The paper was published in Metroeconomica in 2016, but I’m linking to the unpaywalled 2015 working paper version.

 

What Does Crowding Out Even Mean?

Paul Krugman is taking some guff for this column where he argues that the US economy is now at potential, or full employment, so any shift in the federal budget toward deficit will just crowd out private demand.

Whether higher federal spending (or lower taxes) could, in present conditions, lead to higher output is obviously a factual question, on which people may read the evidence in different ways. As it happens, I don’t agree that current output is close to the limits of current productive capacity. But that’s not what I want to write about right now. Instead I want to ask: What concretely would crowding out even mean right now?

Below, I run through six possible meanings of crowding out, and then ask if any of them gives us a reason, even in principle, to worry about over-expansionary policy today. (Another possibility, suggested by Jared Bernstein, is that while we don’t need to worry about supply constraints for the economy as a whole, tax cuts could crowd out useful spending due to some unspecified financial constraint on the federal government. I don’t address that here.) Needless to say, doubts about the economic case for crowding-out are in no way an argument for the specific deficit-boosting policies favored by the new administration.

The most straightforward crowding-out story starts from a fixed supply of private savings. These savings can either be lent to the government, or to business. The more the former takes, the less is left for the latter. But as Keynes pointed out long ago, this simple loanable-funds story assumes what it sets out to prove. The total quantity of saving is fixed only if total income is fixed. If higher government spending can in fact raise total income, it will raise total saving as well. We can only tell a story about government and business competing for a given pool of saving if we have already decided for some other reason that GDP can’t change.

The more sophisticated version, embodied in the textbook ISLM model, postulates a fixed supply of money, rather than saving. [1] In Hicks’ formulation, money is used both for transactions and as the maximally liquid store of wealth. The higher is output, the more money is needed for transactions, and the less is available to be held as wealth. By the familiar logic of supply and demand, this means that wealthholders must be paid more to part with their remaining stock of money. The price wealthholders receive to give up their money is interest; so as GDP rises, so does the interest rate.

Unlike the loanable funds story with fixed saving, this second story does give a logically coherent account of crowding out. In a world of commodity money, if such ever was, it might even be literally true. But in a world of bank-created credit money, it’s at best a metaphor. Is it a useful metaphor? That would require two things. First, that the interest rate (whichever one we are interested in) is set by the financial system. And second, that the process by which this happens causes rates to systematically rise with demand. The first premise is immediately rejected by the textbooks, which tell us that “the central bank sets the interest rate.” But we needn’t take this at face value. There are many interest rates, not just one, and the spreads between them vary quite a bit; logically it is possible that strong demand could lead to wider spreads, as banks stretch must their liquidity further to make more loans. But in reality, the opposite seems more likely. Government debt is a source of liquidity for private banks, not a use of it; lending more to the government makes it easier, not harder, for them to also lend more to private borrowers. Also, a booming economy is one in which business borrowers are more profitable; marginal borrowers look safer and are likely to get better terms. And rising inflation, obviously, reduces the real value of outstanding debt; however annoying this is to bankers, rationally it makes them more willing to lend more to their now less-indebted clients. Wicksell, the semi-acknowledged father of modern central banking theory, built his big book around the premise that in a credit-money system, inflation would give private banks no reason to raise interest rates.

And in fact this is what we see. Interest rate spreads are narrow in booms; they widen in crises and remain wide in downturns.

So crowding out mark two, the ISLM version, requires us to accept both that central banks cannot control the economically relevant interest rates, and that private banks systematically raise interest rates when times are good. Again, in a strict gold standard world there might something to this — banks have to raise rates, their gold reserves are running low — but if we ever lived in that world it was 150 or 200 years ago or more.

A more natural interpretation of the claim that the economy is at potential, is that any further increase in demand would just  lead to inflation. This is the version of crowding out in better textbooks, and also the version used by MMT folks. On a certain level, it’s obviously correct. Suppose the amount of money-spending in an economy increases. Then either the quantity of goods and services increases, or their prices do. There is no third option: The total percent increase in money spending, must equal the sum of the percent increase in “real” output and the percent increase in average prices. But how does the balance between higher output and higher prices play out in real life? One possibility is that potential output is a hard line: each dollar of spending up to there increases real output one for one, and leaves prices unchanged; each dollar of spending above there increases prices one for one and leaves output unchanged. Alternatively, we might imagine a smooth curve where as spending increases, a higher fraction of each marginal dollar translates into higher prices rather than higher output. [2] This is certainly more realistic, but it invites the question of which point exactly on this curve we call “potential”. And it awakens the great bane of postwar macro – an inflation-output tradeoff, where the respective costs and benefits must be assessed politically.

Crowding out mark three, the inflation version, is definitely right in some sense — you can’t produce more concrete use values without limit simply by increasing the quantity of money borrowed by the government (or some other entity). But we have to ask first, positively, when we will see this inflation, and second, normatively, how we value lower inflation vs higher output and income.

In the post-1980s orthodoxy, we as society are never supposed to face these questions. They are settled for us by the central bank. This is the fourth, and probably most politically salient, version of crowding out: higher government spending will cause the central bank to raise interest rates. This is the practical content of the textbook story, and in fact newer textbooks replace the LM curve — where the interest rate is in some sense endogenous — with a straight line at whatever interest rate is chosen by the central bank. In the more sophisticated textbooks, this becomes a central bank reaction function — the central bank’s actions change from being policy choices, to a fundamental law of the economic universe. The master parable for this story is the 1990s, when the Clinton administration came in with big plans for stimulus, only to be slapped down by Alan Greenspan, who warned that any increase in public spending would be offset by a contractionary shift by the federal reserve. But once Clinton made the walk to Canossa and embraced deficit reduction, Greenspan’s fed rewarded him with low rates, substituting private investment in equal measure for the foregone public spending. In the current contest, this means: Any increase in federal borrowing will be offset one for one by a fall in private investment —  because the Fed will raise rates enough to make it happen.

This story is crowding out mark four. It depends, first, on what the central bank reaction function actually is — how confident are we that monetary policy will respond in a direct, predictable way to changes in the federal budget balance or to shifts in demand? (The more attention we pay to how the monetary sausage gets made, the less confident we are likely to be.) And second, on whether the central bank really has the power to reliably offset shifts in fiscal policy. In the textbooks this is taken for granted but there are reasons for doubt. It’s also not clear why the actions of the central bank should be described as crowding out by fiscal policy. The central bank’s policy rule is not a law of nature. Unless there is some other reason to think expansionary policy can’t work, it’s not much of an argument to say the Fed won’t allow it. We end up with something like: “Why can’t we have deficit-financed nice things?” “Because the economy is at potential – any more public spending will just crowd out private spending.” “How will it be crowded out exactly?” “Interest rates will rise.” “Why will they rise?” “Because the federal reserve will tighten.” “Why will they tighten?” “Because the economy is at potential.”

Suppose we take the central bank out of the picture. Suppose we allow supply constraints to bind on their own, instead of being anticipated by the central planners at the Fed. What would happen as demand pushed up against the limits of productive capacity? One answer, again, is rising inflation. But we shouldn’t expect prices to all rise in lockstep. Supply constraints don’t mean that production growth halts at once; rather, bottlenecks develop in specific areas. So we should expect inflation to begin with rising prices for inputs in inelastic supply — land, oil, above all labor. Textbook models typically include a Phillips curve, with low unemployment leading to rising wages, which in turn are passed on to higher prices.

But why should they be passed on completely? It’s easy to imagine reasons why prices don’t respond fully or immediately to changes in wages. In which case, as I’ve discussed before, rising wages will result in an increase in the wage share. Some people will object that such effects can only be temporary. I’m not sure this makes sense — why shouldn’t labor, like anything else, be relatively more expensive in a world where it is relatively more scarce? But even if you think that over the long-term the wage share is entirely set on the supply side, the transition from one “fundamental” wage share to another still has to involve a period of wages  rising faster or slower than productivity growth — which in a Phillips curve world, means a period above or below full employment.

We don’t hear as much about the labor share as the fundamental supply constraint, compared with savings, inflation or interest rates. But it comes right out of the logic of standard models. To get to crowding out mark five, though, we have to take one more step. We have to also postulate that demand in the economy is profit-led — that a distributional shift from profits toward wages reduces desired investment by more than it increases desired consumption. Whether (or which) real economies display wage-led or profit-led demand is a subject of vigorous debate in heterodox macro. But there’s no need to adjudicate that now. Right now I’m just interested in what crowding out could possibly mean.

Demand can affect distribution only if wage increases are not fully passed on to prices. One reason this might happen is that in an open economy, businesses lack pricing power; if they try to pass on increased costs, they’ll lose market share to imports. Follow that logic to its endpoint and there are no supply constraints — any increase in spending that can’t be satisfied by domestic production is met by imports instead. For an ideal small, open economy potential output is no more relevant than the grocery store’s inventory is for an individual household when we go shopping. Instead, like the household, the small open economy faces a budget constraint or a financing constraint — how much it can buy depends on how much it can pay for.

Needless to say, we needn’t go to that extreme to imagine a binding external constraint. It’s quite reasonable to suppose that, thanks to dependence on imported inputs and/or demand for imported consumption goods, output can’t rise without higher imports. And a country may well run out of foreign exchange before it runs out of domestic savings, finance or productive capacity. This is the idea behind multiple gap models in development economics, or balance of payments constrained growth. It also seems like the direction orthodoxy is heading in the eurozone, where competitiveness is bidding to replace inflation as the overriding concern of macro policy.

Crowding out mark six says that any increase in demand from the government sector will absorb scarce foreign exchange that will no longer be available to private sector. How relevant it is depends on how inelastic import demand is, the extent to which the country as a whole faces a binding budget or credit constraint and, what concrete form that constraint faces — what actually happens if international creditors are stiffed, or worry they might be? But the general logic is that higher spending will lead to a higher trade deficit, which at some point can no longer be financed.

So now we have six forms of crowding out:

1. Government competes with business for fixed saving.

2. Government competes with business for scarce liquidity.

3. Increased spending would lead to higher inflation.

4. Increased spending would cause the central bank to raise interest rates.

5. Overfull employment would lead to overfast wage increases.

6. Increased spending would lead to a higher trade deficit.

The next question is: Is there any reason, even in principle, to worry about any of these outcomes in the US today? We can decisively set aside the first, which is logically incoherent, and confidently set aside the second, which doesn’t fit a credit-money economy in which government liabilities are the most liquid asset. But the other four certainly could, in principle, reflect real limits on expansionary policy. The question is: In the US in 2017, are higher inflation, higher interest rates, higher wages or a weaker balance of payments position problems we need to worry about? Are they even problems at all?

First, higher inflation. This is the most natural place to look for the costs of demand pushing up against capacity limits. In some situations you’d want to ask how much inflation, exactly, would come from erring on the side of overexpansion, and how costly that higher inflation would be against the benefits of lower unemployment. But we don’t have to ask that question right now, because inflation is by conventional measures, too low; so higher inflation isn’t a cost of expansionary policy, but an additional benefit. The problem is even worse for Krugman, who has been calling for years now for a higher inflation target, usually 4 percent. You can’t support higher inflation without supporting the concrete action needed to bring it about, namely, a period of aggregate spending in excess of potential. [2] Now you might say that changing the inflation target is the responsibility of the Fed, not the fiscal authorities. But even leaving aside the question of democratic accountability, it’s hard to take this response seriously when we’ve spent the last eight years watching the Fed miss its existing target; setting a new higher target isn’t going to make a difference unless something else happens to raise demand. I just don’t see how you can write “What do we want? Four percent! When do we want it? Now!” and then turn around and object to expansionary fiscal policy on the grounds that it might be inflationary.

OK, but what if the Fed does raise rates in response to any increase in the federal budget deficit, as many observers expect? Again, if you think that more expansionary policy is otherwise desirable, it would seem that your problem here is with the Fed. But set that aside, and assume our choice is between a baseline 2018-2020, and an alternative with the same GDP but with higher budget deficits and higher interest rates. (This is the worst case for crowding out.) Which do we prefer? In the old days, the low-deficit, low-interest world would have been the only respectable choice: Private investment is obviously preferable to whatever government deficits might finance. (And to be fair, in the actual 2018-2020, they will mostly be financing high-end tax cuts.) But as Brad DeLong points out, the calculation is different today. Higher interest rates are now a blessing, not a curse, because they create more running room for the Fed to respond to a downturn. [3] In the second scenario, there will be some help from conventional monetary policy in the next recession, for whatever it’s worth; in the first scenario there will be no help at all. And one thing we’ve surely learned since 2008 is the costs of cyclical downturns are much larger than previously believed. So here again, what is traditionally considered a costs of pushing past supply constraints turns out on closer examination to be a benefit.

Third, the danger of more expansionary policy is that it will lead to a rise in the wage share. You don’t hear this one as much. I’ve suggested elsewhere that something like this may often motivate actual central bank decisions to tighten. Presumably it’s not what someone like Krugman is thinking about. But regardless of what’s in people’s heads, there’s a serious problem here for the crowding-out position. Let’s say that we believe, as both common sense and the textbooks tells us, that the rate of wage growth depends on the level of unemployment. Suppose  we define full employment in the conventional way as the level of unemployment that leads to nominal wage growth just equal to productivity growth plus the central bank’s inflation target. Then by definition, any increase in the wage share requires a period of overfull employment — of unemployment below the full employment level. This holds even if you think the labor share in the long run is entirely technologically determined. A forteori it holds if you think that the wage share is in some sense political, the result of the balance of forces between labor and capital.

Again, I’m simply baffled how someone can believe at the same time that the rising share of capital in national income is a problem, and that there is no space for expansionary policy once full employment is reached. [4] Especially since the unemployment target is missed so often from the other side. If you have periods of excessively high unemployment but no periods of excessively low unemployment, you get a kind of ratchet effect where the labor share can only go down, never up. I think this sort of cognitive dissonance happens because economics training puts aggregate demand in one box and income distribution in another. But this sort of hermetic separation isn’t really sustainable. The wage share can only be higher in the long run if there is some short-run period in which it rises.

Finally, the external constraint. It is probably true that more expansionary fiscal policy will lead to bigger trade deficits. But this only counts as crowding out if those deficits are in some sense unsustainable. Is this the case for the US? There are a lot of complexities here but the key point is that almost all our foreign liabilities (and all of the government’s) are denominated in dollars, and almost all our imports are invoiced in dollars. Personally, I think the world is still more likely to encounter a scarcity of dollar liquidity than a surfeit, so the problem of an external constraint doesn’t even arise. But let’s say I’m wrong and we get the worst-case scenario where the world is no longer willing to hold more dollar liabilities. What happens? Well, the value of the dollar falls. At a stroke, US foreign liabilities decline relative to foreign assets (which are almost all denominated in their home currencies), improving the US net international investment position; and US exports get cheaper for the rest of the world, improving US competitiveness. The problem solves itself.

Imagine a corporation with no liabilities except its stock, and that also paid all its employers and supplies in its own stock and sold its goods for its own stock. How could this business go bankrupt? Any bad news would instantly mean its debts were reduced and its goods became cheaper relative to its competitors’. The US is in a similar position internationally. And if you think that over the medium term the US should be improving its trade balance then, again, this cost of over-expansionary policy looks like a benefit — by driving down the value of the dollar, “irresponsible” policy will set the stage for a more sustainable recovery. The funny thing is that in other contexts Krugman understands this perfectly.

So as far as I can tell, even if we accept that the US economy has reached potential output/full employment, none of the costs for crossing this line are really costs today. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’m missing something. but it really is incumbent on anyone who argues there’s no space for further expansionary policy to explain what concretely would be the results of overshooting.

In short: When we ask how close the economy is to potential output, full employment or supply constraints, this is not just a factual question. We have to think carefully about what these terms mean, and whether they have the significance we’re used to in today’s conditions. This post has been more about Krugman than I intended, or than he deserves. A very large swathe of established opinion shares the view that the economy is close to potential in some sense, and that this is a serious objection to any policy that raises demand. What I’d like to ask anyone who thinks this is: Do you think higher inflation, a higher “natural” interest rate, a higher wage share or a weaker dollar would be bad things right now? And if not, what exactly is the supply constraint you are worried about?

 

[1] The LM in ISLM stands for liquidity-money. It’s supposed to be the combination of interest rates and output levels at which the demand for liquidity is satisfied by a given stock of money.

[2] OK, some people might say the Fed could bring about higher inflation just by announcing a different target. But they’re not who I’m arguing with here.

[3] Krugman himself says he’d “be a lot more comfortable … if interest rates were well clear of the ZLB.” How is that supposed to happen unless something else pushes demand above the full employment level at current rates?

[4] It would of course be defensible to say that the downward redistribution from lower unemployment would be outweighed by the upward redistribution from the package of tax cuts and featherbedding that delivered it. But that’s different from saying that a more expansionary stance is wrong in principle.

Lost in Fiscal Space

Arjun and Jayadev and I have a working paper up at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth on the conflict between conventional macroeconomic policy and Lerner-style functional finance. Here’s the accompanying blogpost, cross-posted from the WCEG blog.

 

One pole of current debates about U.S. fiscal policy is occupied by the “functional finance” position—the view usually traced back to the late economist Abba Lerner—that a government’s budget balance can be set at whatever level is needed to stabilize aggregate demand, without worrying about the level of government debt. At the other pole is the conventional view that a government’s budget balance must be set to keep debt on a sustainable trajectory while leaving the management of aggregate demand to the central bank. Both sides tend to assume that these different policy views come from fundamentally different ideas about how the economy works.

A new working paper, “Lost in Fiscal Space,” coauthored by myself and Arjun Jayadev, suggests that, on the contrary, the functional finance and the conventional approaches can be understood in terms of the same analytic framework. The claim that fiscal policy can be used to stabilize the economy without ever worrying about debt sustainability sounds radical. But we argue that it follows directly from the standard macroeconomic models that are taught to undergraduates and used by policymakers.

Here’s the idea. There are two instruments: first, the interest rate set by the central bank; and second, the fiscal balance—the budget surplus or deficit. And there are two targets: the level of aggregate demand consistent with acceptable levels of inflation and unemployment; and a stable debt-to-GDP ratio. Each instrument affects both targets—output depends on both the interest rate set by monetary authorities and on the fiscal balance (as well as a host of other factors) while the change in the debt depends on both new borrowing and the interest paid on existing debt. Conventional policy and functional finance represent two different choices about which instrument to assign to which target. The former says the interest rate instrument should focus on demand and the fiscal-balance instrument should focus on the debt-ratio target, the latter has them the other way around.

Does it matter? Not necessarily. There is always one unique combination of interest rate and budget balance that delivers both stable debt and price stability. If policy is carried out perfectly then that’s where you will end up, regardless of which instrument is assigned to which target. In this sense, the functional finance position is less radical than either its supporters or its opponents believe.

In reality, of course, policies are not followed perfectly. One common source of problems is when decisions about each instrument are made looking only at the effects on its assigned target, ignoring the effects on the other one. A government, for example, may adopt fiscal austerity to bring down the debt ratio, ignoring the effects this will have on aggregate demand. Or a central bank may raise the interest rate to curb inflation, ignoring the effects this will have on the sustainability of the public debt. (The rise in the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio in the 1980s owes more to Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker’s interest rate hikes than to President Reagan’s budget deficits.) One natural approach, then, is to assign each target to the instrument that affects it more powerfully, so that these cross-effects are minimized.

So far this is just common sense; but when you apply it more systematically, as we do in our working paper, it has some surprising implications. In particular, it means that the metaphor of “fiscal space” is backward. When government debt is large, it makes more sense, not less, to use active fiscal policy to stabilize demand—and leave the management of the public debt ratio to the central bank. The reason is simple: The larger the debt-to-GDP ratio, the more that changes in the ratio depend on the difference in between the interest rate and the growth rate of GDP, and the less those changes depend on current spending and revenue (a point that has been forcefully made by Council of Economic Advisers Chair Jason Furman). This is what we see historically: When the public debt is very large, as in the United States during and immediately after the Second World War, the central bank focused on stabilizing the public debt rather than on stabilizing demand, which means responsibility for aggregate demand fell to the budget authorities.

We hope this paper will help clarify what’s at stake in current debates about U.S. fiscal policy. The question is not whether it’s economically feasible to use fiscal policy as our primary instrument to manage aggregate demand. Any central bank that is able to achieve its price stability and full employment mandates is equally able to keep the debt-to-GDP ratio constant while the budget authorities manage demand. The latter task may even be easier, especially when debt is already high. The real question is who we, as a democratic society, trust to make decisions about the direction of the economy as a whole.

UPDATE: Nick Rowe has an interesting response here. (And an older one here, with a great comments thread following it.)

How Should We Count Debt Owed to the Fed?

How big is US government debt? If you google this question looking for a number, your first hit is likely to be a site like this, giving a figure (as of June 2016) around $19.5 trillion, or a bit over 100 percent of GDP. That’s the total public debt as reported by the US Treasury.

If you are reading this blog, you probably don’t take that number at face value. You probably know the preferred number is federal debt held by the public. As of June 2016, that’s $14 trillion, or a bit over 70 percent of GDP. That’s the number more likely to be used in academic papers or by official bodies. (Wikipedia seems to mix the two numbers at random.)

Debt held by the public is meant to exclude debt the federal government owes to itself.  For the US, that means subtracting the $2.8 trillion in debt held by the Social Security trust fund, the $1.7 trillion held by by federal employee retirement funds, and $1 trillion various other federal trust funds. It leaves in, however, the debt held by the Federal Reserve.

I wonder how many people, the sort of people who read this blog, know that. I wonder how many people know that today, one fifth of the federal debt “held by the public” is actually held by the Fed. I certainly didn’t, until recently.

Here’s a breakdown of federal debt by who owns it. Total public debt is the whole thing. Debt held by the public is the heavy black line. Debt held by the Fed is the blue area just below that line. (Source is various series from the Financial Accounts.)

debt-holdingsAs you can see, the Fed accounts for quite a bit of federal debt holdings — $2.5 trillion, 16 percent of GDP, or 19 percent of debt “held by the public”.

There’s some other interesting stuff in there. Most obviously, the dramatic fall in the share of debt held by households and nonfinancial businesses (the orange area), and rise of the foreign share (yellow). In the 1950s Abba Lerner could talk with some plausibility about the demand-boosting effects of federal interest payments to households; but it’s silly to suggest — as some modern Lernerians do — that higher rates might boost demand through this channel today. The declining share of the financial sector (red) is also interesting. I’ve suggested that this was a factor in rising liquidity premiums and financial fragility. If, as Zoltan Pozsar argues, we’re seeing a lasting shift from “market liquidity” to “base liquidity” this may include a permanently larger share of federal debt on bank balance sheets.

But what about the Fed share? Should it be counted in debt held by the public, or not? I can’t find the reference at the moment, but I believe there is no consistent rule on this between countries. (As I recall, the UK excludes it.) In any case, the phenomenon of large central bank holdings of government debt is not unique to the US. Here, from the OECD (p. 41), are the shares of government debt held by central banks in various countries:

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 9.33.51 AM

If you want to say that debt held by the Fed definitely shouldn’t be counted, I won’t object. After all, any interest earnings on the debt are simply returned to the Treasury at the end of the year, so this debt literally represents payments the government is making to itself. But that’s not what I want to say. To be honest, I can see valid arguments on both sides — yes, the Fed is a part of government just as much as the Social Security Administration; but on the other hand, the Fed’s holdings were acquired in market purchases from the private sector, while the holdings of the various trust funds are nonmarketable securities that exist only as bookkeeping devices for future payments to beneficiaries. And if you think the Fed will reduce its holdings in the near future, then it makes sense to count them for any target you might have for holdings by the private sector. But of course, in that case how much you count them will depend on whether, when and how much you think the Fed will unwind its 2009-2013 balance sheet expansions. And this is my point: There is no true level of the federal debt. The “debt” is not an object out in the world. It is a way of talking about some set of the payment commitments by some set of economic units, sets whose boundaries are inherently arbitrary.

Again, debt “held by the public” does not include the notional debt in the Social Security Trust Fund, or in the various retirement funds for  federal employees. But what about the debt (currently about 5 percent of GDP) held by state and local governments in similar trust funds? Fundamentally, these represent commitments by the federal government to help with pension payments to retired state and local government employees. But this is the same commitment embodied in the Social Security Trust Fund. And on the other hand, the federal government has a vast number of payment commitments to state and local governments — transfers from the federal government make up more than a quarter of total state government revenue. Why count the commitments that happen to be recorded as debt holding in retirement funds as federal debt but not the rest of them?

For that matter, what about the future claims of Social Security recipients? They certainly represent payment commitments by the federal government. Lawrence Kotlikoff thinks there is no difference between the commitment to make future Social Security payments and the commitment to make payments on the debt, so we should add them up and say debt held by the public is over 200 percent of GDP. Other people want to add in public pensions of all kinds. Why not throw in Medicare, too? True, retirement benefits are not marketable, but checking your expected benefits at https://www.ssa.gov/myaccount is not much harder than checking your bank balance online. And for the MMT-inclined, don’t future Social Security benefits have as good a claim to be “net wealth” for the private sector as federal debt, maybe better?

One takeaway from all this is the point eloquently made by Merijn Knibbe, that one of the big problems in the economics profession today is the complete disconnect between theory and measurement. Most public discussions and economic models — and a lot of empirical work for that matter — treat “debt”  as an object that simply exists in the world. (It’s worth noting that the question of how exactly debt is defined, and who it is owed to, does get some attention in undergraduate econ textbooks, but none at all in graduate ones.) It seems to me that the large share of debt held by central banks is a case in point of how we have to make a conscious choice about which commitments we classify as “debt”, and recognize that the best place to draw the line is going to depend on the question we’re asking. We need to treat economic categories like debt not as primitives but as provisional shorthand, and we need to be constantly walking back and forth between our abstractions and the concrete phenomena they are trying to describe. You can’t, it seems to me, do useful scholarship on something like government debt, except on the basis of a deep engagement with the concrete practices and public debates that the term is part of.

More concretely: Whenever you take a functional finance line, someone is going to stand up and start demanding in a prosecutorial tone whether you really think government debt could rise to 10 times or 100 times GDP. How about 1,000 times? a million times? — until you say something noncommittal and move on to the next question (or mute them on Twitter). But of course the answer is, it depends. It depends, first, on the concrete institutional arrangements under which debt is held, which determine both economic impacts and financial constraints, if any.  (For example, whether the debt held by central banks should be counted as held by the public depends on when or if those positions will be unwound.) And it depends, second, on how we are counting debt.

Consider a trust fund holding federal debt. What the federal government has actually committed to is a stream of payments in the future which in turn will allow the fund to fulfill its own payment commitments. Converting that flow of future payments to a liability stock in the present depends on the discount rate we assign to them. But we can follow that same procedure for any future spending, whether or not it is officially recognized as someone’s asset. As Dean Baker likes to say, given that we don’t prefund education, the military, etc., pretty much all government spending could be called an unfunded liability for the federal government. How big a liability depends on the discount rate. If the discount rate is less than the nominal growth rate, then the present value of future spending grows without limit as we consider longer periods.

Here’s an exercise. Let’s go full Kotlikoff and call all future government spending a liability of taxpayers today. Say that federal spending is a constant 20 percent of GDP and nominal growth is 5 percent per year.  If we use the current 10-year Treasury rate of around 2 percent as our discount rate, then the present value of federal spending over the next 20 years works out to, let’s see, $10 quadrillion, or 55,000 percent of GDP. That’s $30 million per person. Whoa. Can I have a Time magazine cover story now? [No I cannot, because I am bad at math. See below.]

So yeah. 20 percent of debt “held by the public” is actually owed to the Fed. An interesting fact which perhaps you did not know.

 

UPDATE: As commenter Matt points out below, the math in the next-to-last paragraph is wrong. The calculation as given yields $110  trillion, a measly 600 percent of GDP. On the other hand, if we stretch it out to the next 30 years, we get nearly $200 trillion, which is 1,000 percent of GDP or more than $600,000 per person. I guess that will do.

The Myth of Reagan’s Debt

BloomCounty
… or at least don’t blame him for increased federal debt.

 

Arjun and I have been working lately on a paper on monetary and fiscal policy. (You can find the current version here.) The idea, which began with some posts on my blog last year, is that you have to think of the output gap and the change in the debt-GDP ratio as jointly determined by the fiscal balance and the policy interest rate. It makes no sense to talk about the “natural” (i.e. full-employment) rate of interest, or “sustainable” (i.e. constant debt ratio) levels of government spending and taxes. Both outcomes depend equally on both policy instruments. This helps, I think, to clarify some of the debates between orthodoxy and proponents of functional finance. Functional finance and sound finance aren’t different theories about how the economy works, they’re different preferred instrument assignments.

We started working on the paper with the idea of clarifying these issues in a general way. But it turns out that this framework is also useful for thinking about macroeconomic history. One interesting thing I discovered working on it is that, despite what we all think we know,  the increase in federal borrowing during the 1980s was mostly due to higher interest rate, not tax and spending decisions. Add to the Volcker rate hikes the deep recession of the early 1980s and the disinflation later in the decade, and you’ve explained the entire rise in the debt-GDP ratio under Reagan. What’s funny is that this is a straightforward matter of historical fact and yet nobody seems to be aware of it.

Here, first, are the overall and primary budget balances for the federal government since 1960.  The primary budget balance is simply the balance excluding interest payments — that is, current revenue minus . non-interest expenditure. The balances are shown in percent of GDP, with surpluses as positive values and deficits as negative. The vertical black lines are drawn at calendar years 1981 and 1990, marking the last pre-Reagan and first post-Reagan budgets.

overall_primary

The black line shows the familiar story. The federal government ran small budget deficits through the 1960s and 1970s, averaging a bit more than 0.5 percent of GDP. Then during the 1980s the deficits ballooned, to close to 5 percent of GDP during Reagan’s eight years — comparable to the highest value ever reached in the previous decades. After a brief period of renewed deficits under Bush in the early 1990s, the budget moved to surplus under Clinton in the later 1990s, back to moderate deficits under George W. Bush in the 2000s, and then to very large deficits in the Great Recession.

The red line, showing the primary deficit, mostly behaves similarly to the black one — but not in the 1980s. True, the primary balance shows a large deficit in 1984, but there is no sustained movement toward deficit. While the overall deficit was about 4.5 points higher under Reagan compared with the average of the 1960s and 1970s, the primary deficit was only 1.4 points higher. So over two-thirds of the increase in deficits was higher interest spending. For that, we can blame Paul Volcker (a Carter appointee), not Ronald Reagan.

Volcker’s interest rate hikes were, of course, justified by the need to reduce inflation, which was eventually achieved. Without debating the legitimacy of this as a policy goal, it’s important to keep in mind that lower inflation (plus the reduced growth that brings it about) mechanically raises the debt-GDP ratio, by reducing its denominator. The federal debt ratio rose faster in the 1980s than in the 1970s, in part, because inflation was no longer eroding it to the same extent.

To see the relative importance of higher interest rates, slower inflation and growth, and tax and spending decisions, the next figure presents three counterfactual debt-GDP trajectories, along with the actual historical trajectory. In the first counterfactual, shown in blue, we assume that nominal interest rates were fixed at their 1961-1981 average level. In the second counterfactual, in green, we assume that nominal GDP growth was fixed at its 1961-1981 average. And in the third, red, we assume both are fixed. In all three scenarios, current taxes and spending (the primary balance) follow their actual historical path.

counterfactuals

In the real world, the debt ratio rose from 24.5 percent in the last pre-Reagan year to 39 percent in the first post-Reagan year. In counterfactual 1, with nominal interest rates held constant, the increase is from 24.5 percent to 28 percent. So again, the large majority of the Reagan-era increase in the debt-GDP ratio is the result of higher interest rates. In counterfactual 2, with nominal growth held constant, the increase is to 34.5 percent — closer to the historical level (inflation was still quite high in the early ’80s) but still noticeably less. In counterfactual 3, with interest rates, inflation and real growth rates fixed at their 1960s-1970s average, federal debt at the end of the Reagan era is 24.5 percent — exactly the same as when he entered office. High interest rates and disinflation explain the entire increase in the federal debt-GDP ratio in the 1980s; military spending and tax cuts played no role.

After 1989, the counterfactual trajectories continue to drift downward relative to the actual one. Interest on federal debt has been somewhat higher, and nominal growth rates somewhat lower, than in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, the tax and spending policies actually followed would have resulted in the complete elimination of the federal debt by 2001 if the previous i < g regime had persisted. But after the 1980s, the medium-term changes in the debt ratio were largely driven by shifts in the primary balance. Only in the 1980s was a large change in the debt ratio driven entirely by changes in interest and nominal growth rates.

So why do we care? (A question you should always ask.) Three reasons:

First, the facts themselves are interesting. If something everyone thinks they know — Reagan’s budgets blew up the federal debt in the 1980s — turns out not be true, it’s worth pointing out. Especially if you thought you knew it too.

Second is a theoretical concern which may not seem urgent to most readers of this blog but is very important to me. The particular flybottle I want to find the way out of is the idea that money is neutral,  veil —  that monetary quantities are necessarily, or anyway in practice, just reflections of “real” quantities, of the production, exchange and consumption of tangible goods and services. I am convinced that to understand our monetary production economy, we have to first understand the system of money incomes and payments, of assets and liabilities, as logically self-contained. Only then we can see how that system articulates with the concrete activity of social production. [1] This is a perfect example of why this “money view” is necessary. It’s tempting, it’s natural, to think of a money value like the federal debt in terms of the “real” activities of the federal government, spending and taxing; but it just doesn’t fit the facts.

Third, and perhaps most urgent: If high interest rates and disinflation drove the rise in the federal debt ratio in the 1980s, it could happen again. In the current debates about when the Fed will achieve liftoff, one of the arguments for higher rates is the danger that low rates lead to excessive debt growth. It’s important to understand that, historically, the relationship is just the opposite. By increasing the debt service burden of existing debt (and perhaps also by decreasing nominal incomes), high interest rates have been among the main drivers of rising debt, both public and private. A concern about rising debt burdens is an argument for hiking later, not sooner. People like Dean Baker and Jamie Galbraith have pointed out — correctly — that projections of rising federal debt in the future hinge critically on projections of rising interest rates. But they haven’t, as far as I know, said that it’s not just hypothetical. There’s a precedent.

 

[1] Or in other words, I want to pick up from the closing sentence of Doug Henwood’s Wall Street, which describes the book as part of “a project aiming to end the rule of money, whose tyranny is sometimes a little hard to see.” We can’t end the rule of money until we see it, and we can’t see it until we understand it as something distinct from productive activity or social life in general.

Four Questions about Fiscal Policy

Earlier this fall, I spent a pleasant few days at the 12th Post Keynesian Conference in Kansas City, including a long chat over beers with Robert Skidelsky. In addition to presenting some of my current work, I took part in an interesting roundtable discussion of functional finance with Steve Fazzari, Peter Skott, Marc Lavoie and Mario Seccarechia. Here is an edited version of what I said.

* * *

We all agree that fiscal policy is effective. If output is too low, by whatever standard, higher public spending or lower taxes will cause it to rise. And we all agree that the current level of public debt has no implications for the feasibility or desirability of fiscal policy, at least in a country like the United States. In the wider world that might be a controversial statement but in this room it is not.

It’s not productive to repeat points on which we all agree. So instead, I want to pose four questions about functional finance on which there is not a consensus. These aren’t questions I necessarily have (or expect to hear) good answers to at the moment, but ones that I hope will be the focus of future work. First, the political economy question. Why does the idea of a government financial constraint have such a tenacious hold on both the policy conversation and the economics profession? What function, what interest, does this idea serve? Second, how confident are we about the level of aggregate expenditure that policy should target? Is there a well-defined level of potential output that corresponds to both full employment and price stability? Third, what is the problem that we imagine fiscal policy to be solving? Is it stabilizing of output in the face of “shocks” of some kind, or is it adjusting the long term trend? And what are the sources for the variation in private demand to which policy must respond? Finally, if functional finance means that fiscal policy replaces monetary policy as the main tool for managing aggregate expenditure, what role does that leave for the interest rate?

1. The political economy question.  We all agree that in a country like the modern United States (or the EU as a whole), public budgets are never constrained by the willingness of the private sector to hold the government’s liabilities. There are a number of routes, both logical and empirical, to reach this conclusion, which I won’t repeat here. And yet both policymakers and academic economists are, with few exceptions, committed to the idea that government does face a financial constraint. I don’t think it’s a sufficient explanation that people are just stupid. I was on an earlier panel with Randy Wray, where he quoted Paul Samuelson describing the idea of a government financial constraint as “religion” that has no rational basis but is nonetheless “scares people … into behaving the way that civilized life requires.” [1] Randy focused, understandably, on the first half of that quote, the acknowledgement that a balanced budget is desirable only on ritual or aesthetic criteria. But what about the second part? What is the civilized life that benefits from this taboo?

The political salience of the balanced-budegt myth has been particularly clear in the debt-ceiling fights of the past few years.  You read John Cassidy in New Yorker: “Every country needs to pay its creditors or face ruin.” [2] This is framed as a statement of fact, but it really describes a political project. Creditors need to threaten countries with ruin if they are going to be obeyed. The threat doesn’t have to be real, but it does have to be believed.

The most important political use of the government budget constraint today is undoubtedly in the Euro area, where it seems clear that a central part of the elite motivation for the single currency was precisely to reimpose financial constraints on national governments. This view of the euro project was forcefully expressed by Massimo Pivetti in a 2013 article in Contributions to Political Economy. As he puts it, the ultimate effect of European countries’ renunciation of monetary sovereignty has been the dismantling of the social democratic order.

What is being liquidated is but one of the most advanced experiences of civil coexistence the world has ever known—in fact, the greatest ever achievement of the bourgeois civilization. … 

Surrender of national sovereignty in the monetary and fiscal fields subscribed by European governments produced a situation of political ‘irresponsibility’, which greatly facilitated their declining commitment to high employment and the redistribution of income, as well as the priority given to reducing inflation, the gradual dismantling of the welfare state, and the privatization drive. …  [The euro] is an infernal machine: a machine born out of a deliberate continental project to undermine wage earners’ bargaining powers.

Wolfgang Streeck similarly argues that policies that result in rising debt are not the result of rising demands for redistribution and public services, but rather have been supported by the wealthy, precisely because “rising public debt can be utilized politically to argue for cutbacks in state spending and for privati­zation of public services.” You can find similar arguments by Perry Anderson (in The New Old World), Gindin and Panitch, and others. Financial constraint “disciplines” “irresponsible” policymakers — in other words, it makes them responsive to the interests of owners of financial assets. And I would stress the same fundamental point emphasized by Gindin and Panitch — the interest that counts here is not a direct pecuniary interest, defined within the economic system. It is the interest of wealthowners as a class in the perpetuation of a social order based on the accumulation of private wealth.

2. Next, I think we need to interrogate the notion of potential output more critically. The assumption of almost the entire functional finance literature — including my own work — is that there is a well-defined level of aggregate expenditure that policy should be targeting, which corresponds to full employment and full utilization of society’s resources. In the standard formula, once we see rising inflation, we know that this target has been reached and there should be no further expansionary policy. In this respect, there is no difference between functional finance and mainstream policy thought. The difference is about the tools used, not about the goal. Most importantly, both policy orthodoxy and functional finance assume that neither inflation nor employment is affected directly by macroeconomic policy, but only via the level of output. So output, inflation and employment can be treated as three indicators for a single target. [3]

It is not obvious, though, why the goals of full employment, price stability and steady output growth should always coincide. Now, in practice it may be that they generally do, or at least are close enough that this is not a big problem. One thing Arjun and I do in our paper is examine this question directly. We compute a number of different measures of the output gap from 1953 to the present. We compare output gaps based on the deviation of current output from trend, the level of unemployment, the level of inflation, and the change in inflation, as well as a measure combining unemployment and the change in inflation that corresponds to the Taylor rule. The interesting thing is that these different measures perform very similarly. The output and unemployment measures fit especially closely, with a simple correlation coefficient of 0.94.  In other words, the Okun relationship between output and unemployment is very stable, and the Phillips curve relationship between output or employment and inflation is also fairly stable. So the statement “When output is above trend, you will see rising inflation; when output is below trend, you will see high unemployment” does in fact seem to be a reliable generalization. (See figure below.)

The figure shows measures of the difference between current output and potential based on (1) trend GDP, as computed by the BEA; (2) the deviation of unemployment from its long-term average; (3) the average of the deviations of unemployment and inflation from their long-term averages; (4) the average of the deviation of unemployment from average and the year-over-year change in inflation; and (5) the year-over-year change in inflation. 

But even if these measures agree with each other for the US over the past 60 years, that doesn’t mean they will agree in other times and places. And in fact, we see that the inflation-change measure does not agree with the others for the post-2007 period, suggesting a much smaller negative output gap. (This is because inflation has stabilized at a low level, rather than continuing to fall.) And even if these measures do generally agree with each other, that doesn’t mean they are right, or that interpreting them is straightforward. In particular, we should ask if hysteresis might not be a more general phenomenon, and that the inflation that comes with output above potential isn’t better thought of as an adjustment cost. This brings me to the next question.

3. Is aggregate demand only an issue in the short run, or does it matter in the long run as well? In other words, is the problem to be solved by policy deviations of output around a trend that is determined on the supply side, or is the trend itself the object of policy?

If the former, shouldn’t we have a more positive theory about what these “shocks” are that policy is responding to. This has always struck me as one of the weirdest lacunae in mainstream macro. The entire problem of policy in this framework is responding to these shocks, so you would think that a central question would be where they come from, how large they are, whether there are identifiable factors that affect their distribution. But instead the existence of these vaguely defined “shocks” is just the unquestioned starting point of analysis. Now obviously there are reasons for this. Shocks, by definition, are changes in the state of the world that are not due to rational optimization, so if that’s your methodology, then “shocks” just means “things I have nothing to say about.” (And I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a logical inconsistency between the existence of unanticipated shocks and the idea of intertemporal equilibrium. But maybe not.) But on our side we don’t have that excuse. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to showing that changes in the government budget position can offset changes in desired private spending. We should try to explain why desired private spending varies so dramatically.

And what if demand matters in the long run, thanks to hysteresis (and what I call anti-hysteresis) in the laborforce, and Verdoorn-Kaldor changes in productivity growth? [4] In that case these questions are even more urgent. And we also have to face the political question that was banished from respectable macro in the 1980s: What is the desirable tradeoff between output and inflation? More broadly, if we can’t take a given path of potential output as given, how do we define the goals of macro policy?

4. What is the role of interest rate policy in a functional finance framework, given that it is no longer the primary tool for adjusting aggregate expenditure? On Thursday’s panel, we had three different answers to this question. Arjun and I say that if for whatever reason the public debt to GDP ratio is a concern for policymakers, adjusting the policy interest rate is in general sufficient to stabilize that ratio at some desired level. Peter Skott says that if we have some idea of the optimal long-run capital-output ratio (or perhaps more precisely, the optimal choice of technique), the interest rate can be set to achieve that. And Randy says that we shouldn’t worry about the debt-GDP ratio and that business investment decisions are not very responsive to the interest rate, so its main consequences are distributional. Since there is no social interest in providing a passive, risk-free income to rentiers, the nominal interest rate should be set to zero permanently.

[1] The quote is from an interview with Mark Blaug:  “I think there is an element of truth in the view that the superstition that the budget must be balanced at all times [is necessary]. Once it is debunked [that] takes away one of the bulwarks that every society must have against expenditure out of control. There must be discipline in the allocation of resources or you will have anarchistic chaos and inefficiency. And one of the functions of old fashioned religion was to scare people by sometimes what might be regarded as myths into behaving in a way that the long-run civilized life requires.”

[2] The title of the piece is “Why America Needs a Stock Market Crash.”

[3] This isn’t strictly correct, since an important component of functional finance in its modern UMKC form is a job guarantee or employer of last resort (ELR) policy. But given the stability of the Okun relationship, employment and output can safely be treated as a single target in practice. The problem is the relationship of employment and output, on the one hand, with inflation, on the other.

[4] As late as the 1980s, people like Tobin took it for granted that the reason that inflationary or deflationary gaps would not continue indefinitely, was that aggregate supply would adjust.

Michael Woodford on the Interdependence of Monetary and Fiscal Policy

(I started writing this post a couple weeks ago and gave up after it got unreasonably long. I don’t feel like finishing it, but rather than let it go to waste I’m putting it up as is. So be warned, it goes on for a long while and then just stops.)

I sat down and read the Michael Woodford article on monetary and fiscal policy I mentioned in the earlier post. It’s very interesting, both directly for what it says substantively, and indirectly for what it says about the modern consensus in economics.

(For those who don’t know, Michael Woodford is a central figure in mainstream New Keynsian macro. His book Interest and Prices is probably the most widely used New Keynesian macro text in top graduate programs.)

The argument of this article is that the question of what monetary policy rule is the best route to price stabilization, cannot be separated from what fiscal rule is followed by the budget authorities. Similarly, any target for the public debt cannot be reduced to a budget rule, but depends on the policy followed by the monetary authorities — though Woodford is not so interested in this side of the question.

This is not a new idea for readers of this blog. But it’s interesting to hear Woodford’s description of the orthodox view.

It is now widely accepted that the choice of monetary policy to achieve a target path of inflation can …, and ought, to be separated from .. the chice of fiscal policy.

Woodford rejects this view — he insists that fiscal policy matters for price stability, and monetary policy matters for the debt-GDP ratio. Most economists think that monetary policy is irrelevant for the debt-GDP ratio, he says,

because seignorage revenues are such a small fraction of total government revenues. … [This] neglects a more important channel … the effects of monetary policy upon the real value of outstanding government debt, through its effects on the price level and upon the real debt service required, … insofar as monetary policy can affect real as well as nominal rates.

There are two deeper issues in the background here, that help explain why orthodox economics ignores the importance of monetary policy for the debt ratio and fiscal policy for price stability. First is the idea, which we can trace from Wicksell through Hayek to Milton Friedman and on to today’s New Keynesians, that the “natural” interest rate in the sense of the interest rate consistent with price stability, must be the same as the “natural” interest rate in the sense of the Walrasian intertemporal rate that would exist in a frictionless, perfect-information economy that somehow corresponded to the economy that actually exists. Few economists are bold enough or naive enough to state this assumption explicitly, but it is fundamental to the project of reconciling orthodox monetary policy with a vision in which money is neutral in the long run. If you want the same interest rate to be “natural” in both senses, it’s a problem if the price-stability natural rate depends on something like fiscal policy, which is not reducible to tastes, technologies and endowments.

Second is the notion of the “long run” itself. For economists, this refers to a situation in which the endogenous variables have fully adjusted to the exogenous variables. This requires a clean (or anyway order-of-magnitude) separation between “fast” endogenous and “slow” exogenous variables; it also requires a sufficiently long time between disturbances.

Woodford, in the passage above, refers to the effects of changes in inflation and interest rates on the burden of the outstanding government debt. This is an important departure from orthodoxy, since in a true “long run” situation, debt would have fully adjusted to the prevailing interest and inflation rates. Woodford, in tune with the practical concerns of central bankers, rejects the ubiquitous methodological condition of modern macroeconomics, that we should only consider fully adjusted long run positions. His whole discussion of public debt, in this paper and elsewhere, rejects the usual working assumption that the existing levels of inflation and interest rates have prevailed since time immemorial. He explicitly analyzes changes in interest and inflation in the context of a historically given debt stock.

Woodford’s attitude toward the “natural” rate is more complicated. He certainly doesn’t take it for granted that the price-stability and Walrasian “natural” rates are the same. But a big part of his project — in Interest and Prices in particular — is precisely to develop a model in which they do turn out to coincide.

Let’s continue with the paper. Most economists believe that:

“Fiscal policy is thought to be unimportant for inflation… [because] inflation is a purely monetary phenomenon,” or else because “insofar as consumers have rational expectations, fiscal policy should have no effect on aggregate demand.”

Woodford rejects both of these claims. Even if people are individually rational, the system as a whole can be “non-Ricardian.” By this he means that changes in government spending will not be offset one for one by changes in private spending. “This happens essentially through the effects of fiscal disturbances upon private sector budget constraints and hence on aggregate demand.” For this reason, “A central bank charged with maintaining price stability cannot be indifferent as to how fiscal policy is set.”

Traditionally, the orthodox view of inflation is that it is the result of the money supply growing at a different rate than real economic activity, the latter being independent of the money supply. This does allow for fiscal effects on the price level, but only insofar as public borrowing is monetized. In the familiar “fiscal dominance” scenario, the primary surplus or deficit is fixed by the budget authorities and if the implied issue of public debt is different from the desired holdings of the private sector, the central bank must finance the difference with seignorage. The resulting change in the money supply produces corresponding inflation.

As Woodford says, this is not a useful way of thinking about these issues in real economies, at least in developed countries like the United States. In reality, even when the central bank is subordinate to the budget authorities, as in wartime, this does not take the form of direct monetization of deficits. Rather, “fiscal dominance manifests itself through pressure on the central bank to use monetary policy to maintain the market value of government debt. A classic example is … U.S. monetary policy between 1942 and 1951. … Supporting the price of long-term [government] bonds seems to have been the central element of Fed policy through the late 1940s.” This policy did not affect the price level directly through the money supply, but rather because the target interest rate was too low during the war (although the resulting inflation did not show up until after 1945, due to price controls during the war itself), and too high during in 1948-1950, when the federal government was running large surpluses. In either case, Woodford emphasizes, the causality runs from interest rates, to the price level, to the money supply; the quantity of money plays no independent role.

The basic story Woodford wants to tell is the fiscal theory of the price level. If the stock of outstanding government bonds is greater than the public wants to hold at the prevailing interest rate, then the price of bonds should fall. Normally, this would mean an increase in rates. But if interest rates are pegged — or in other words, if the price of bonds relative to money is fixed — then the price of the whole complex of government liabilities falls. Which is another way of saying the price level rises. Another way of looking at this is that, if output is initially at potential and the volume of government debt rises  with no fall in its nominal price, this must

make households feel wealthier … and thus leads them to demand goods and services in excess of those the economy can supply. … Equilibrium is restored when prices rise to the point that the real value of nominal assets no longer exceeds the present value of expected future primary surpluses.

Of course, this begs the question of why government debt is voluntarily held at a positive price even when there is no reason to expect future primary surpluses. More broadly, it doesn’t explain why anyone wants to hold non-interest bearing government liabilities at all. Woodford could take a chartalist line, talk about tax obligations, but he doesn’t. But even then he’d haven’t of he wouldn’t have explained why people hold large stocks of government debt, which by definition is in excess of tax burden.  The natural answer is that government liabilities are a source of liquidity for the private sector. But if he says that, the rest of his argument is in trouble. First, if demand for government debt is about liquidity, then private actors should consider the terms on which other private actors will accept government liabilities. Second, if liquidity is valuable, then real outcomes will be different in a liquidity-abundant world than in a liquidity-scarce one. This is the fundamental problem with the idea that money is neutral. If money were truly neutral, in the sense that the exact same transactions happen in a world with money that would happen in a hypothetical moneyless world, then there would be no reason for money to be used at all.

Despite these serious logical problems, Woodford uses the orthodox apparatus to make some interesting points. For example, he argues that the reason the mid-century policy of fixing a nominal interest rate did not lead to price instability, was because of adjustments in the federal budget position. It is, he says, a puzzle how

a regime that … fixed nominal interest rates was consistent with relatively stable prices for so long. … According to the familiar Wicksellian view summarized by Friedman, an attempt to peg nominal interest rates should lead to either an inflationary or a deflationary spiral. … It is striking that people were willing to hold long-term Treasury securities at 2.5% during the temporary high inflation (25% annual rate) of 1946-1947; evidently there was little fear … [of] an explosive Wicksellian ‘cumulative process.’

Woodford is right that the consistency of fixed nominal interest rates with price stability even after the removal of wartime price controls is a problem for the simple Wicksell-monetarist view. Whether his preferred solution — an expectation of continued federal budget surpluses — is right, is a different question.

Turning to the other side, the dependence of the budget position on prevailing interest rates, Woodford gives an excellent critique of the prevailing notion of a government intertemporal budget constraint (ITBC), in which government spending must be adjusted so that the present value of future surpluses just equals today’s debt. It is widely believed, he says, that government must satisfy such a constraint, “just as in the case of households and firms. It would then follow that fiscal policy must necessarily be Ricardian,” that is, have no effect on the spending choices of rational, non-liquidity-constrained private actors. “It is true,” he continues, “that general equilibrium models always assume that households and firms optimize subject to a set of budget constraints that imply an intertemporal budget constraint, though they may be even more stringent (as it may not even be possible to borrow against all … future income.”

Note the careful phrasing: I’ve noticed this in Woodford’s other writing too, that he adopts rational expectations as a method without ever endorsing it as a positive claim about the world. Of course we shouldn’t talk about intertemporal budget constraints at all, it’s a meaningless concept for private as well as public borrowers, for reasons Woodford himself makes clear.

This is a nice part of the paper, Woodford’s treatment of the “transversality condition.” This, or the equivalent “no-Ponzi” condition, says that the debt of a government — or any other economic unit — must go to zero as time goes to infinity. The reason mainstream models require this condition is that they assume that in any given period, it is possible for anyone to borrow without limit at the prevailing interest rate. This invites the question: why not then consume an infinite amount forever with borrowed funds? The transversality condition says: You just can’t. It is still the case that at any moment, there is no limit on borrowing; but somehow or other, over infinite time net borrowing must come out to zero. This amounts to deal with the fact that one’s assumptions imply absurd conclusions by introducing another assumption, that absurd outcomes can’t happen. Woodford sees clearly that this does not offer a meaningful limit on fiscal policy:

What kind of constraint upon fiscal policy does this [theory] require? A mere commitment to “satisfy the transversality condition” is plainly unsuitable; this would place no constraints upon observable behavior over any finite time period, so that it is hard to see how the public should be convinced of the truth of such a commitment, in the absence of a commitment to some more specific constraint that happens to imply satisfaction of the transversality condition.

What Woodford doesn’t see, or at least doesn’t acknowledge, is that the transversality condition is equally meaningless as applied to private actors. Which means that you need some positive theory about what range of balance sheet positions are available in any given period — in other words a theory of liquidity. And, that the intertemporal budget constraint is meaningless, has no place in any positive economics.

But in any case, even if we accept the intertemporal budget constraint for private units, it is not applicable to sovereign governments since, (1) they are large relative to the economy and (2) they are not maximizing consumption. All that is needed is that someone ends up voluntarily holding the government’s debt. Even if the government is optimizing something, it is not doing so with respect to fixed prices — or fixed output, though Woodford never considers the possibility of unemployed real resources, a rather major limitation of all his work I’ve read.

Woodford notes, reasonably enough, that if the government issues more liabilities than the public wants to hold at the prevailing prices, then the price of government liabilities will fall; “but this is a condition for market equilibrium given the government’s policy, and not a precondition for the government to issue” new liabilities. In this respect, he suggests that the government is in the same position as a company that issues stock, or, more precisely, a company that repurchases shares rather than issuing dividends. (The formal argument that dividends and repurchases are interchangeable, for which Woodford cites Cochrane, is relevant for my “disgorge the cash” work.)

The advantage of this analogy [between the government a share-repurchasing corporation] is that it is clear in the stock case that the equation is an equilibrium condition that determines the share price, … and not a constraint on corporate policies. There is no requirement, enforced in financial markets, that the company generate earnings that validate whatever market valuation of its stock may happen to exist.

The government is different from the company only because prices happen to be “quoted in units of its liabilities.”

As a positive argument this is not useful, for two related reasons. First, it is still essentially a monetarist account of inflation, except with total government liabilities replacing “money.” And second, he deliberately leaves out any discussion of real effects of inflation. This means that he doesn’t give any explanation for price stability is important. More broadly, he doesn’t have any account of the inflation process that links up to real-world discussions. The article purports to be about a central bank following a Taylor rule, but the word “unemployment” does not occur in it. Nor does the word “liquidity”, inviting the question of why anyone holds money in the first place. As I mentioned earlier, this is a larger problem with the whole idea that money is neutral. In this case, Woodford suggests that one can fully explain inflation in a framework in which inflation is costless, and then introduce costs (to motivate policy) without the positive analysis being affected. Interest and Prices does not have this problem — it is carefully constructed precisely to ensure that conventional monetary policy is both welfare-optimizing, and produces an outcome identical to a Walrasian world without monetary frictions. But this isn’t general — the book’s central model is custom-designed to produce just that result.

The question raised by the article is: If both price stability and debt sustainability are functions of both the government budget and monetary policy, why do we have such a strong consensus in favor of stabilizing output solely via the interest rate, and adjusting the government budget position solely in view of the government debt? Woodford admits that in principle, price stability can be achieved in a “bond price-support regime” in which the government budget responds to shifts in private expenditure and the central bank is responsible only for interest payments on government debt. Formally, Woodford acknowledges, this type of regime should work just as well as the conventional “independent” central bank setup. The problem is that in practice

the nature of the legislative process in a democracy makes it unlikely that government budgets can subjected to the same degree of discipline as monetary policy actions. A nontrivial degree of random variation in the equilibrium price level would be inevitable under the price-support regime, both as a result of random disturbances to fiscal policy that could not be prevented, and as a result of inability to adjust fiscal policy with sufficient precision to offset the consequences of other real disturbances. 

There it is. The only argument for central bank independence is an argument against democracy. Woodford continues:

Controlling inflation through an interest-rate rule such as the Taylor rule represents a more practical alternative, both because it is more politically realistic to imagine monetary policy being subordinated wholly to this task, and because it is technically more feasible to “fine-tune” monetary policy actions as necessary to maintain consistency with stable prices.

The claim that interest rates can be adjusted more quickly than budgets is worth taking seriously. Though of course, one way of taking it seriously would be to contemplate arrangements under which taxes and spending could be adjusted more quickly. But look at the other point: The selling point of orthodoxy, says the pope of modern macroeconomics, is that policy can “subordinated wholly” to “controlling inflation.” Look at Europe today, and tell me they aren’t reaping what they sowed.

Alvin Hansen on Monetary Policy

The more you read in the history of macroeconomics and monetary theory, the more you find that current debates are reprises of arguments from 50, 100 or 200 years ago.

I’ve just been reading Perry Mehrling’s The Money Interest and the Public Interest, which  is one of the two best books I know of on this subject. (The other is Arie Arnon’s Monetary Theory and Policy Since David Hume and Adam Smith.) About a third of the book is devoted to Alvin Hansen, and it inspired me to look up some of Hansen’s writings from the 1940s and 50s. I was especially struck by this 1955 article on monetary policy. It not only anticipates much of current discussions of monetary policy — quantitative easing, the maturity structure of public debt, the need for coordination between the fiscal and monetary policy, and more broadly, the limits of a single interest rate instrument as a tool of macroeconomic management — but mostly takes them for granted as starting points for its analysis. It’s hard not to feel that macro policy debates have regressed over the past 60 years.

The context of the argument is the Treasury-Federal Reserve Accord of 1951, following which the Fed was no longer committed to maintaining fixed rates on treasury bonds of various maturities. [1] The freeing of the Fed from the overriding responsibility of stabilizing the market for government debt, led to scholarly and political debates about the new role for monetary policy. In this article, Hansen is responding to several years of legislative debate on this question, most recently the 1954 Senate hearings which included testimony from the Treasury department, the Fed Board’s Open Market Committee, and the New York Fed.

Hansen begins by expressing relief that none of the testimony raised

the phony question whether or not the government securities market is “free.” A central bank cannot perform its functions without powerfully affecting the prices of government securities.

He then expresses what he sees as the consensus view that it is the quantity of credit that is the main object of monetary policy, as opposed to either the quantity of money (a non-issue) or the price of credit (a real but secondary issue), that is, the interest rate.

Perhaps we could all agree that (however important other issues may be) control of the credit base is the gist of monetary management. Wise management, as I see it, should ensure adequate liquidity in the usual case, and moderate monetary restraint (employed in conjunction with other more powerful measures) when needed to check inflation. No doubt others, who see no danger in rather violent fluctuations in interest rates (entailing also violent fluctuations in capital values), would put it differently. But at any rate there is agreement, I take it, that the central bank should create a generous dose of liquidity when resources are not fully employed. From this standpoint the volume of reserves is of primary importance.

Given that the interest rate is alsoan object of policy, the question becomes, which interest rate?

The question has to be raised: where should the central bank enter the market -short-term only, or all along the gamut of maturities?

I don’t believe this is a question that economists asked much in the decades before the Great Recession. In most macro models I’m familiar with, there is simply “the interest rate,” with the implicit assumption that the whole rate structure moves together so it doesn’t matter which specific rate the monetary authority targets. For Hansen, by contrast, the structure of interest rates — the term and “risk” premiums — is just as natural an object for policy as the overall level of rates. And since there is no assumption that the whole structure moves together, it makes a difference which particular rate(s) the central bank targets. What’s even more striking is that Hansen not only believes that it matters which rate the central bank targets, he is taking part in a conversation where this belief is shared on all sides.

Obviously it would make little difference what maturities were purchased or sold if any change in the volume of reserve money influenced merely the level of interest rates, leaving the internal structure of rates unaffected. … In the controversy here under discussion, the Board leans toward the view that … new impulses in the short market transmit themselves rapidly to the longer maturities. The New York Reserve Bank officials, on the contrary, lean toward the view that the lags are important. If there were no lags whatever, it would make no difference what maturities were dealt in. But of course the Board does not hold that there are no lags.

Not even the most conservative pole of the 1950s debate goes as far as today’s New Keynesian orthodoxy that monetary policy can be safely reduced to the setting of a single overnight interest rate.

The direct targeting of long rates is the essential innovation of so-called quantitative easing. [2] But to Hansen, the idea that interest rate policy should directly target long as well as short rates was obvious. More than that: As Hansen points out, the same point was made by Keynes 20 years earlier.

If the central bank limits itself to the short market, and if the lags are serious, the mere creation of large reserves may not lower the long-term rate. Keynes had this in mind when he wrote: “Perhaps a complex offer by the central bank to buy and sell at stated prices gilt-edged bonds of all maturities, in place of the single bank rate for short-term bills, is the most important practical improvement that can be made in the technique of monetary management. . . . The monetary authority often tends in practice to concentrate upon short-term debts and to leave the price of long-term debts to be influenced by belated and imperfect re- actions from the price of short-term debts.” ‘ Keynes, it should be added, wanted the central bank to deal not only in debts of all maturities, but also “to deal in debts of varying degrees of risk,” i.e., high grade private securities and perhaps state and local issues.

That’s a quote from The General Theory, with Hansen’s gloss.

Fast-forward to 2014. Today we find Benjamin Friedman — one of the smartest and most interesting orthodox economists on these issues — arguing that the one great change in central bank practices in the wake of the Great Recession is intervention in a range of securities beyond the shortest-term government debt. As far as I can tell, he has no idea that this “profound” innovation in the practice of monetary policy was already proposed by Keynes in 1936. But then, as Friedman rightly notes, “Macroeconomics is a field in which theory lags behind experience and practice, not the other way around.”

Even more interesting, the importance of the rate structure as a tool of macroeconomic policy was recognized not only by the Federal Reserve, but by the Treasury in its management of debt issues. Hansen continues:

Monetary policy can operate on two planes: (1) controlling the credit base – the volume of reserve balances- and (2) changing the interest rate structure. The Federal Reserve has now backed away from the second. The Treasury emphasized in these hearings that this is its special bailiwick. It supports, so it asserts, the System’s lead, by issuing short- terms or long-terms, as the case may be, according to whether the Federal Reserve is trying to expand or contract credit … it appears that we now have (whether by accident or design) a division of monetary management between the two agencies- a sort of informal cartel arrangement. The Federal Reserve limits itself to control of the volume of credit by operating exclusively in the short end of the market. The Treasury shifts from short-term to long-term issues when monetary restraint is called for, and back to short-term issues when expansion is desired.

This is amazing. It’s not that Keynesians like Hansen  propose that Treasury should issue longer or shorter debt based on macroeconomic conditions. Rather, it is taken for granted that it does choose maturities this way. And this is the conservative side in the debate, opposed to the side that says the central bank should manage the term structure directly.

Many Slackwire readers will have recently encountered the idea that the maturities of new debt should be evaluated as a kind of monetary policy. It’s on offer as the latest evidence for the genius of Larry Summers. Proposing that Treasury should issue short or long term debt based on goals for the overall term structure of interest rates, and not just on minimizing federal borrowing costs, is the main point of Summers’ new Brookings paper, which has attracted its fair share of attention in the business press. No reader of that paper would guess that its big new idea was a commonplace of policy debates in the 1950s. [3]

Hansen goes on to raise some highly prescient concerns about the exaggerated claims being made for narrow monetary policy.

The Reserve authorities are far too eager to claim undue credit for the stability of prices which we have enjoyed since 1951. The position taken by the Board is not without danger, since Congress might well draw the conclusion that if monetary policy is indeed as powerful as indicated, nonmonetary measures [i.e. fiscal policy and price controls] are either unnecessary or may be drawn upon lightly.

This is indeed the conclusion that was drawn, more comprehensively than Hansen feared. The idea that setting an overnight interest rate is always sufficient to hold demand at the desired level has conquered the economics profession “as completely as the Holy Inquisition conquered Spain,” to coin a phrase. If you talk to a smart young macroeconomist today, you’ll find that the terms “aggregate demand was too low” and “the central bank set the interest rate too high” are used interchangeably. And if you ask, which interest rate?, they react the way a physicist might if you asked, the mass of which electron?

Faced with the argument that the inflation of the late 1940s, and price stability of the early 1950s, was due to bad and good interest rate policy respectively, Hansen offers an alternative view:

I am especially unhappy about the impli- cation that the price stability which we have enjoyed since February-March 1951 (and which everyone is justifiably happy about) could quite easily have been purchased for the entire postwar period (1945 to the present) had we only adopted the famous accord earlier …  The postwar cut in individual taxes and the removal of price, wage, and other controls in 1946 … did away once and for all with any really effective restraint on consumers. Under these circumstances the prevention of price inflation … [meant] restraint on investment. … Is it really credible that a drastic curtailment of investment would have been tolerated any more than the continuation of wartime taxation and controls? … In the final analysis, of course,  the then prevailing excess of demand was confronted with a limited supply of productive resources.

Inflation always comes down to this mismatch between “demand,” i.e. desired expenditure, and productive capacity.

Now we might say in response to such mismatches: Well, attempts to purchase more than we can produce will encourage increased capacity, and inflation is just a temporary transitional cost. Alternatively, we might seek to limit spending in various ways. In this second case, there is no difference of principle between an engineered rise in the interest rate, and direct controls on prices or spending. It is just a question of which particular categories of spending you want to hold down.

The point: Eighty years ago, Keynes suggested that what today is called quantitative easing should be a routine tool of monetary policy. Sixty years ago, Alvin Hansen believed that this insight had been accepted by all sides in macroeconomic debates, and that the importance of the term structure for macroeconomic activity guided the debt-issuance policies of Treasury as well as the market interventions of the Federal Reserve. Today, these seem like new discoveries. As the man says, the history of macroeconomics is mostly a great forgetting.

[1] I was surprised by how minimal the Wikipedia entry is. One of these days, I am going to start having students improve economics Wikipedia pages as a class assignment.

[2] What is “quantitative about this policy is that the Fed buys a a quantity of bonds, evidently in the hopes of forcing their price up, but does not announce an explicit target for the price. On the face of it, this is a strangely inefficient way to go about things. If the Fed announced a target for, say, 10-year Treasury bonds, it would have to buy far fewer of them — maybe none — since market expectations would do more of the work of moving the price. Why the Fed has hobbled itself in this way is a topic for another post.

[3] I am not the world’s biggest Larry Summers fan, to say the least. But I worry I’m giving him too hard a time in this case. Even if the argument of the paper is less original than its made out to be, it’s still correct, it’s still important, and it’s still missing from today’s policy debates. He and his coauthors have made a real contribution here. I also appreciate the Hansenian spirit in which Summers derides his opponents as “central bank independence freaks.”

Functional Finance in Rome and Kansas City

Arjun and I have continued to work on our project on fiscal and monetary policy, which develops the simple — but strangely overlooked [1] — point that both the level of output and the trajectory of the public debt-GDP ratio are jointly determined by both the government budget balance and the interest rate set by the monetary authority. (An early stage in our thinking on this was the subject of a post on this blog last year.) Part of our argument is that the fiscal space metaphor is backward — that the case for countercyclical fiscal policy gets stronger, not weaker, when debt ratios are already high. I’m hoping there will be a working paper version of this soon. But in the meantime, the work is getting presented at various places — by me at the Eastern Economic Association this past spring, by both of us at the International Economics Association in June, by Arjun at an OECD conference in Rome earlier this week, and by me at the University of Missouri at Kansas City tomorrow. If you’re interested, here are our current slides.

[1] This paper by Michael Woodford, which I haven’t yet had time to read properly, seems to have a similar starting point but ends up somewhere quite different.