Interest Rates and Expectations: Responses and Further Thoughts

Some good questions asked in comments to yesterday’s post.

Random Lurker doubts whether there is a strict inverse relationship between interest rates and bond values. Indeed there is not, apart from perpetuities (bonds with an infinite maturity, where the principle is never repaid.) I should have been clearer in the post, I was talking about perpetuities just as a simplification of the general case of long assets. But I would argue it’s a reasonable simplification. If you think that the importance of interest rates is primarily for the valuation (rather than the financing) of capital goods, and you think that capital goods are effectively infinitely lived, then an analysisis in terms of perpetuities is the strcitly correct way to think about it. (Both assumptions are defensible, as a first approximation, and Keynes seems to have held both.) On the other hand, if you are thinking in terms of financing conditions for long but not infinitely lived assets, the perpetuity is only an approximation, but for long maturities it’s a reasonably close one. For example, a 30 year bond loses 14% of its value when interest rates rise from 5% to 6%, compared with a 20% loss for a perpetuity. Qualitatively the story will hold as long as the interest rates that matter are much longer than the timescale of business cycles.

Max is confused about my use of “bull” and “bear.” Again, I should have been clearer: I am using the terms in the way that Keynes did, to refer to bullishness and bearishness about bond prices, not about the economy in general.

Finally, the shortest but most substantive comment, from Chris Mealy:

Forcing Bill Gross to lose billions in slow motion is a crazy way to get to full employment.

It is! And that is kind of the point.

I wrote this post mainly to clarify my own thinking, not to make any policy or political argument. But obviously the argument that comes out of this is that while monetary policy can help stabilize demand, it’s very weak at restoring demand once it’s fallen – and not just because short rates can’t go below zero, or because central banks are choosing the wrong target. (Although it is certainly true, and important, that central bankers are not really trying to reduce unemployment.)

Here is the thing: expectations of returns on investment are also conventional and moderately elastic. Stable full employment requires both that expected sales are equal to expenditure at full employment, and that interest rates are such that the full employment level of output is chosen by profit-maximizing businesses. But once demand has fallen – and especially if it has remained depressed for a while – expected sales fall, so the interest rate that would have been low enough to prevent the fall in activity is no longer low enough to reverse it. This is why you temporarily need lower rates than you will want when the economy recovers. But the expectation of long rates returning to their old level will prevent them from falling in the first place. “The power of the central bank to affect the long rate is limited by the opinions about its normal level inherited from the past.” This is why monetary policy cannot work in a situation like this without Bill Gross first losing billions – it’s the only way to change his opinion.

Leijonhufvud:

Suppose that a situation arises in which the State of Expectation happens to be “appropriate”… but that the long rate is higher than “optimal,” so that asset demand prices are too low for full employment… Then it seems quite reasonable to demand that the Central Bank should go to great lengths in trying to reduce the interest rate… If, however, the actual interest rate equals the “optimal” rate consistent with the suggested “neutral state,” while asset prices are too low due to a State of Expectation which is “inappropriately pessimistic”-what then? 

Consider what would happen if, in this situation, the long bond rate were forced down to whatever level was necessary to equate ex ante rates of saving and investment at full employment. This would mean that prices of bonds-assets with contractually fixed long receipt streams-would shoot up while equity prices remained approximately constant instead of declining. Through a succession of short periods, with aggregate money expenditures at the full employment level, initial opinions about the future yield on capital would be revealed as too pessimistic. Anticipated returns to capital go up. The contractually fixed return streams on bonds remain the same, and it now becomes inevitable that bond-holders take a capital loss (in real terms). 

The Central Bank now has two options. (a) It may elect to stand by [leaving rates at very low levels.] …  Since the situation is one of full employment, inflation must result and the “real value” of nominally fixed contracts decline. (b) It may choose … to increase market rate sufficiently to prevent any rise in [inflation]. Bond-holders lose again, since this means a reduction in the money value of bonds.

In other words, in our world of long-lived assets, if you rely only on monetary policy to get you out of depression, Bill Gross has to lose money. On a theoretical level, the fact that the lifetime of capital goods is long relative to the period over which we can reliably treat “fundamentals” as fixed means that the Marshallian long run, in which the capital stock is fully adjusted, does not apply to any actual economy. (This fact has many important implications beyond the scope of these posts.)

The key point for our purposes is that, in the slump, investment demand is lower than it will be once the economy recovers. So if the interest rate falls enough to end the recession, then you must have either a rise in rates or inflation once the slump ends. But either of those will mean losses for bondholders, anticipation of which will prevent long rates from falling the first place. Only if you successfully fool bond market participants can monetary policy produce recovery on a timescale significantly less than average asset life. The alternative is to prove the pessimistic expectations of entrepreneurs wrong by directly raising incomes, but that seems to be off the table.

This point is obvious, but it’s strangely ignored, perhaps because discussion of monetary policy is almost entirely focused on how optimal policy can prevent slumps from occurring in the first place. The implicit assumption of Krugman’s ISLM analysis, for instance, is that investment demand has permanently fallen, presumably unrelatedly to demand conditions themselves. So the new low rate is permanently appropriate. But — I feel it’s it’s safe to say — Krugman, and certainly market participants, don’t really believe this. But if policy is going to be reversed, on a timescale significantly shorter than the duration of the assets demand for which is supposed to be affected by monetary policy, then policy will not work at all.

At this point, though, it would seem that we have proven too much. The question becomes not, why isn’t monetary policy working now, but, How did monetary policy ever work? I can think of at least four answers, all of which probably have some truth to them.

 1. It didn’t. The apparent stability of economies with active central banks is due to other factors. Changes in the policy not been stabilizing, or have even been destabilizing. This is consistent with the strand of the Post Keynesian tradition that emphasizes the inflationary impact of rate increases, since short rates are a component of marginal costs; but it is also basically the view of Milton Friedman and his latter-day epigones in the Market Monetarist world. I’m sympathetic but don’t buy it; I think the evidence is overwhelming that high interest rates are associated with low income/output, and vice versa.

2. The focus on long-lived goods is a mistake. The real effect of short rates is not via long rates, but on stuff that is financed directly by short borrowing, particularly inventories and working capital.  I’m less sure about this one, but Keynes certainly did not think it was important; for now let’s follow him. A variation is income distribution, including corporate cashflow. Bernanke believes this. I’m doubtful that it’s the main story, but I presume there is something in it; how much is ultimately an empirical question.

 3. The answer suggested by the analysis here: Monetary policy works well when the required interest rate variation stays within the conventional “normal” range. In this range, there are enough bulls and bears for the marginal bond buyer to expect the current level of interst to continue indefinitely, so that bond prices are not subject to stabilizing speculation and there is no premium for expected capital losses or gains; so long rates should move more or less one for one with short rates. This works on a theoretical level, but it’s not obvious that it particularly fits the data.

 4. The most interesting possibility, to me: When countercylclical monetary policy seemed effective, it really was, but  on different principles. Autonomous demand and interest rates were normally at a level *above* full employment, and stabilization was carried out via direct controls on credit creation, such as reserve requirements. A variation on this is that monetary policy has only ever worked through the housing market.

Regardless of the historical issue, the most immediately interesting question is how and whether monetary policy can work now. And here, we can safely say that channels 2,3 and 4, even if real, are exhausted. So in the absence of fiscal policy, it really does come down to the capacity of sustained low short rates to bring expected long rates down. Sorry, Bill Gross!

UPDATE: I was just reading this rightly classic paper by Chari, Kehoe and McGrattan. They’re pure freshwater, everything I hate. But New Keynesians are just real business cycle theorists with a bad conscience, which means the RBCers pwn them every time in straight-up debate. As here.I’m not interested in that, though, though the paper is worth reading if you want the flavor of what “modern macro” is all about. Rather, I’m interested in this subsidiary point in their argument:

as is well-known, during the postwar period, short rates and long rates have a very similar secular pattern. … Second, a large body of work in …finance has shown that the level of the long rate is well-accounted for by the expectations hypothesis. … Combining these two features of the data implies that when the Fed alters the current short rate, private agents signi…ficantly adjust their long-run expectations of the future short rate, say, 30 years into the future. At an intuitive level, then, we see that Fed policy has a large random walk component to it.

In what sense this is true, I won’t venture to guess. It seems, at least, problematic, given that they also think that “interest rates … should be kept low on average.” The important point for my purposes, tho, is just that even the ultra-orthodox agree, that for a change in monetary policy to be effective, it has to be believed to be permanent. “If that which is at all were not forever…”

Interest Rates and (In)elastic Expectations

[Apologies to any non-econ readers, this is even more obscure than usual.]

Brad DeLong observed last week that one of the most surprising things about the Great Recession is how far long-term interest rates have followed short rates toward zero.

I have gotten three significant pieces of the past four years wrong. Three things surprised and still surprise me: (1.) The failure of central banks to adopt a rule like nominal GDP targeting, or it’s equivalent. (2.) The failure of wage inflation in the North Atlantic to fall even farther than it has–toward, even if not to, zero. (3.) The failure of the yield curve to sharply steepen: federal funds rates at zero I expected, but 30-Year U.S. Treasury bond nominal rates at 2.7% I did not. 

… The third… may be most interesting. 

Back in March 2009, the University of Chicago’s Robert Lucas confidently predicted that within three years the U.S. economy would be back to normal. A normal U.S. economy has a short-term nominal interest rate of 4%. Since the 10-Year U.S. Treasury bond rate tends to be one percentage point more than the average of expected future short-term interest rates over the next decade, even five expected years of a deeply depressed economy with essentially zero short-term interest rates should not push the 10-Year Treasury rate below 3%. (And, indeed, the Treasury rate fluctuated around 3 to 3.5% for the most part from late 2008 through mid 2011.) But in July of 2011 the 10-Year U.S. Treasury bond rate crashed to 2%, and at the start of June it was below 1.5%.  [

The possible conclusions are stark: either those investing in financial markets expect … [the] current global depressed economy to endure in more-or-less its current state for perhaps a decade, perhaps more; or … the ability of financial markets to do their job and sensibly price relative risks and returns at a rational level has been broken at a deep and severe level… Neither alternative is something I would have or did predict, or even imagine.

I also am surprised by this, and for similar reasons to DeLong. But I think the fact that it’s surprising has some important implications, which he does not draw out.

Here’s a picture:

The dotted black line is the Federal Funds rate, set, of course, by the central bank. The red line is the 10-year Treasury; it’s the dip at the far right in that one that surprises DeLong (and me). The green line is the 30-year Treasury, which behaves similarly but has fallen by less. Finally, the blue line is the BAA bond rate, a reasonable proxy for the interest rate faced by large business borrowers; the 2008 financial crisis is clearly visible. (All rates are nominal.) While the Treasury rates are most relevant for the expectations story, it’s the interest rates faced by private borrowers that matter for policy.

The recent fall in 10-year treasuries is striking. But it’s at least as striking how slowly and incompletely they, and corporate bonds, respond to changes in Fed policy, especially recently. It’s hard to look at this picture and not feel a twinge of doubt about the extent to which the Fed “sets” “the” interest rate in any economically meaningful sense. As I’ve mentioned here before, when Keynes referred to the “liquidity trap,” he didn’t mean the technical zero lower bound to policy rates, but its delinking from the economically-important long rates. Clearly, it makes no difference whether or not you can set a policy rate below zero if there’s reason to think that longer rates wouldn’t follow it down in any case. And I think there is reason to think that.

The snapping of the link between monetary policy and other rates was written about years ago by Benjamin Friedman, as a potential; it figured in my comrade Hasan Comert’s dissertation more recently, as an actuality. Both of them attribute the disconnect to institutional and regulatory changes in the financial system. And I agree, that’s very important. But after reading Leijonhufvud’s On Keynesian Economics and the Economics of Keynes [1], I think there may be a deeper structural explanation.

As DeLong says, in general we think that long interest rates should be equal to the average expected short rates over their term, perhaps plus a premium. [2] So what can we say about interest rate expectations? One obvious question is, are they elastic or inelastic? Elastic expectations change easily; in particular, unit-elastic expectations mean that whatever the current short rate is, it’s expected to continue indefinitely. Inelastic expectations change less easily; in the extreme case of perfectly inelastic interest rate expectations, your prediction for short-term interest rates several years from now is completely independent of what they are now.

Inelastic interest-rate expectations are central to Keynes’ vision of the economy. (Far more so than, for instance, sticky wages.) They are what limit the effectiveness of monetary policy in a depression or recession, with the liquidity trap simply the extreme case of the general phenomenon. [3] His own exposition is a little hard to follow, but the simplest way to look at it is to recall that when interest rates fall, bond prices rise, and vice versa. (In fact they are just two ways of describing the same thing.) So if you expect a rise in interest rates in the future that means you’ll expect a capital loss if you hold long-duration bonds, and if you expect a fall in interest rates you’ll expect a capital gain.  So the more likely it seems that short-term interest rates will revert to some normal level in the future, the less long rates should follow short ones.

This effect gets stronger as we consider longer maturities. In the limiting case of a perpetuity — a bond that makes a fixed dollar period every period forever — the value of the bond is just p/i, where p is the payment in each period and i is the interest rate. So when you consider buying a bond, you have to consider not just the current yield, but the possibility that interest rates will change in the future. Because if they do, the value of the bonds you own will rise or fall, and you will experience a capital gain or loss. Of course future interest rates are never really known. But Keynes argued that there is almost always a strong convention about the normal or “safe” level of interest.

Note that the logic above means that the relationship between short and long rates will be different when rates are relatively high vs. when they are relatively low. The lower are rates, the greater the capital loss from an increase in rates. As long rates approach zero, the potential capital loss from an increase approaches infinity.

Let’s make this concrete. If we write i_s for the short interest rate and i_l for the long interest rate, B for the current price of long bonds, and BE for the expected price of long bonds a year from now, then for all assets to be willing held it must be the case that i_l = i_s – (BE/B – 1), that is, interest on the long bond will need to be just enough higher (or lower) than the short rate to cancel out the capital loss (or gain) expected from holding the long bond. If bondholders expect the long run value of bond prices to be the same as the current value, then long and short rates should be the same. [*] Now for simplicity let’s assume we are talking about perpetuities (the behavior of long but finite bonds will be qualitatively similar), so B is just 1/i_l. [4] Then we can ask the question, how much do short rates have to fall to produce a one point fall in long rates.

Obviously, the answer will depend on expectations. The standard economist’s approach to expectations is to say they are true predictions of the future state of the world, an approach with some obvious disadvantages for those of us without functioning time machines. A simpler, and more empirically relevant, way of framing the question, is to ask how expectations change based on changes in the current state of the world — which unlike the future, we can observe. Perfectly inelastic expectations mean that your best guess about interest rates at some future date is not affected at all by the current level of interest rates; unit-elastic expectations mean that your best guess changes one for one with the current level. An of course there are all the possibilities in between. Let’s quantify this as the subjective annual probability that a departure of interest rates from their current or “normal” level will subsequently be reversed. Now we can calculate the exact answer to the question posed above, as shown in the next figure.

For instance, suppose short rates are initially at 6 percent, and suppose this is considered the “normal” level, in the sense that the marginal participant in the bond market regards an increase or decrease as equally likely. Then the long rate will also be 6 percent. Now we want to get the long rate down to 5 percent. Suppose interest rate expectations are a bit less than unit elastic — i.e. when market rates change, people adjust their views of normal rates by almost but not quite as much. Concretely, say that the balance of expectations is that there is net 5 percent annual chance that rates will return to their old normal level. If the long rate does rise back to 6 percent, people who bought bonds at 5 percent will suffer a capital loss of 20 percent. A 5 percent chance of a 20 percent loss equals an expected annual loss of 1 percent, so long rates will need to be one point higher than short rates for people to hold them. [5] So from a starting point of equality, for long rates to fall by one point, short rates must fall by two points. You can see that on the blue line on the graph. You can also see that if expectations are more than a little inelastic, the change in short rates required for a one-point change in long rates is impossibly large unless rates are initially very high.

It’s easy enough to do these calculations; the point is that unless expectations are perfectly elastic, we should always expect long rates to change less than one for one with short rates; the longer the rates considered, the more inelastic expectations, and the lower initial rates, the less responsive long rates will be. At the longest end of the term structure — the limiting case of a perpetuity — it is literally impossible for interest rates to reach zero, since that would imply an infinite price.

This dynamic is what Keynes was talking about when he wrote:

If . . . the rate of interest is already as low as 2 percent, the running yield will only offset a rise in it of as little as 0.04 percent per annum. This, indeed, is perhaps the chief obstacle to a fall in the rate of interest to a very low level . . . [A] long-term rate of interest of (say) 2 percent leaves more to fear than to hope, and offers, at the same time, a running yield which is only sufficient to offset a very small measure of fear.

Respectable economists like DeLong believe that there is a true future path of interest rates out there, which current rates should reflect; either the best current-information prediction is of government policy so bad that the optimal interest rate will continue to be zero for many years to come, or else financial markets have completely broken down. I’m glad the second possibility is acknowledged, but there is a third option: There is no true future course of “natural” rates out there, so markets adopt a convention for normal interest rates based on past experience. Given the need to take forward-looking actions without true knowledge of the future, this is perfectly rational in the plain-English sense, if not in the economist’s.

A final point: For Keynes — a point made more clearly in the Treatise than in the General Theory — the effectivness of monetary policy depends critically on the fact that there are normally market participants with differing expectations about future interest rates. What this means is that when interest rates rise, people who think the normal or long-run rate of interest is relatively low (“bulls”) can sell bonds to people who think the normal rate is high (“bears”), and similarly when interest rates fall the bears can sell to the bulls. Thus the marginal bond will be held held by someone who thinks the current rate of interest is the normal one, and so does not require a premium for expected capital gains or losses. This is the same as saying that the market as a whole behaves as if expectations are unit-elastic, even though this is not the case for individual participants. [6] But when interest rates move too far, there will no longer be enough people who think the new rate is normal to willingly hold the stock of bonds without an interest-rate risk premium. In other words, you run out of bulls or bears. Keynes was particularly concerned that an excess of bear speculators relative to bulls could keep long interest rates permanently above the level compatible with full employment. The long rate, he warned,

may fluctuate for decades about a level which is chronically too high for full employment; – particularly if it is the prevailing opinion that the rate of interest is self-adjusting, so that the level established by convention is thought to be rooted in objective grounds much stronger than convention, the failure of employment to attain an optimum level being in no way associated, in the minds either of the public or of authority, with the prevalence of an inappropriate range of rates of interest’.

If the belief that interest rates cannot fall below a certain level is sufficiently widespread, it becomes self-fulfilling. If people believe that long-term interest rates can never persistently fall below, say, 3 percent, then anyone who buys long bonds much below that is likely to lose money. And, as Keynes says, this kind of self-stabilizing convention is more likely to the extent that people believe that it’s not just a convention, but that there is some “natural rate of interest” fixed by non-monetary fundamentals.

So what does all this mean concretely?

1. It’s easy to see inelastic interest-rate expectations in the data. Long rates consistently lag behind short rates. During the 1960s and 1970s, when rates were secularly rising, long rates were often well below the Federal Funds rate, especially during tightening episodes; during the period of secularly falling rates since 1980, this has almost never happened, but very large term spreads have become more common, especially during loosening episodes.

2. For the central bank to move long rates, it must persuade markets that changes in policy are permanent, or at least very persistent; this is especially true when rates are low. (This is the main point of this post.) The central bank can change rates on 30-year bonds, say, only by persuading markets that average rates over the next 30 years will be different than previously believed. Over small ranges, the existence of varying beliefs in the bond market makes this not too difficult (since the central bank doesn’t actually have to change any individual’s expectations if bond sales mean the marginal bondholder is now a bull rather than a bear, or vice versa) but for larger changes it is more difficult. And it becomes extremely difficult to the extent that economic theory has taught people that there is a long run “natural” rate of interest that depends only on technology and time preferences, which monetary policy cannot affect.

Now, the obvious question is, how sure are we that long rates are what matters? I’ve been treating a perpetual bond as an approximation of the ultimate target of monetary policy, but is that reasonable? Well, one point on which Keynes and today’s mainstream agree is that the effect of interest rates on the economy comes through demand for long-lived assets — capital goods and housing. [7] According to the BEA, the average current-cost age of private fixed assets in the US is a bit over 21 years, which implies that the expected lifetime of a new fixed asset must be quite a bit more than that. For Keynes (Leijonhufvud stresses this point; it’s not so obvious in the original texts) the main effect of interest rates is not on the financing conditions for new fixed assets, as most mainstream and heterodox writers both assume, but on the discount rate used  of the assets. In that case the maturity of assets is what matters. On the more common view, it’s the maturity of the debt used to finance them, which may be a bit less; but the maturity of debt is usually matched to the maturity of assets, so the conclusion is roughly the same. The relevant time horizon for fixed assets is long enough that perpetuities are a reasonable first approximation. [8]

3. So if long rates are finally falling now, it’s only because an environment of low rates is being established as new normal. There’s a great deal of resistance to this, since if interest rates do return to their old normal levels, the capital losses to bondholders will be enormous. So to get long rates down, the Fed has to overcome intense resistance from bear speculators. Only after a great deal of money has been lost betting on a return of interest rates to old levels will market participants begin to accept that ultra-low rates are the new normal. The recent experience of Bill Gross of PIMCO (the country’s largest bond fund) is a perfect example of this story. In late 2010, he declared that interest rates could absolutely fall no further; it was the end of the 30-year bull market in bonds. A year later, he put his money where his mouth was and sold all his holdings of Treasuries. As it turned out, this was just before bond prices rose by 30 percent (the flipside of the fall in rates), a misjudgment that cost his investors billions. But Gross and the other “bears” had to suffer those kinds of losses for the recent fall in long rates to be possible. (It is also significant that they have not only resisted in the market, but politically as well.) The point is, outside a narrow range, changes in monetary policy are only effective when they cease to be perceived as just countercyclical, but as carrying information about “the new normal.” Zero only matters if it’s permanent zero.

4. An implication of this is that in a world where the lifespan of assets is much longer than the scale of business-cycle fluctuations, we cannot expect interest rates to be stationary if monetary policy is the main stabilization tool. Unless expectations are very elastic, effective monetary policy require secular drift in interest rates, since each short-term stabilization episode will result in a permanent change in interest rates. [9] You can see this historically: the fall in long rates in the 1990 and 2000 loosenings both look about equal to the permanent components of those changes. This is a problem for two reasons: First, because it means that monetary policy must be persistent enough to convince speculators that it does represent a permanent change, which means that it will act slower, and require larger changes in short rates (with the distortions those entail) than in the unit-elastic expectations case. And second, because if there is some reason to prefer one long-ru level of interest rates to another (either because you believe in a “natural” rate, or because of the effects on income distribution, asset price stability, etc.) it would seem that maintaining that rate is incompatible with the use of monetary policy for short-run stabilization. And of course the problem is worse, the lower interest rates are.

5. One way of reading this is that monetary policy works better when interest rates are relatively high, implying that if we want to stabilize the economy with the policy tools we have, we should avoid persistently low interest rates. Perhaps surprisingly, given what I’ve written elsewhere, I think there is some truth to this. If “we” are social-welfare-maximizing managers of a capitalist economy, and we are reliant on monetary policy for short-run stabilization, then we should want full employment to occur in the vicinity of nominal rates around 10 percent, versus five percent. (One intuitive way of seeing this: Higher interest rates are equivalent to attaching a low value to events in the future, while low interest rates are equivalent to a high value on those events. Given the fundamental uncertainty about the far future, choices in the present will be more stable if they don’t depend much on far-off outcomes.) In particular — I think it is a special case of the logic I’ve been outlining here, though one would have to think it through — very low interest rates are likely to be associated with asset bubbles. But the conclusion, then, is not to accept a depressed real economy as the price of stable interest rates and asset prices, but rather to “tune” aggregate demand to a higher level of nominal interest rates. One way to do this, of course, is higher inflation; the other is a higher level of autonomous demand, either for business investment (the actual difference between the pre-1980 period and today, I think), or government spending.

[1] The most invigorating economics book I’ve read in years. It’ll be the subject of many posts here in the future, probably.

[2] Why there should be a pure term premium is seldom discussed but actually not straightforward. It’s usually explained in terms of liquidity preference of lenders, but this invites the questions of (1) why liquidity preference outweighs “solidity preference”; and (2) why lenders’ preferences should outweigh borrowers’. Leijonhufvud’s answer, closely related to the argument of this post, is that the “excessively long” lifespan of physical capital creates chronic excess supply at the long end of the asset market. In any case, for the purpose of this post, we will ignore the pure premium and assume that long rates are simply the average of expected short rates.

[3] Keynes did not, as is sometimes suggested by MMTers and other left Keynesians, reject the effectiveness of monetary policy in general. But he did believe that it was much more effective at stabilizing full employment than at restoring full employment from a depressed state

[4] I will do up these equations properly once the post is done.

[5] I anticipate an objection to reasoning on the basis of an equilibrium condition in asset markets. I could just say, Keynes does it. But I do think it’s legitimate, despite my rejection of the equilibrium methodology more generally. I don’t think there’s any sense that human behavior can be described as maximizing some quantity called utility,” not even as a rough approximation; but I do think that capitalist enterprises can be usefully described as maximizing profit. I don’t think that expectations in financial markets are “rational” in the usual economists’ sense, but I do think that one should be able to describe asset prices in terms of some set of expectations.

[6] We were talking a little while ago with Roger Farmer, Rajiv Sethi, and others about the desirability of limiting economic analysis to equilibria, i.e. states where all expectations are fulfilled. This implies, among other things, that all expectations must be identical. Keynes’ argument for why long rates are more responsive to short rates within some “normal” range of variation is — whether you think it’s right or not — an example of something you just can’t say within Farmer’s preferred framework.

[7] Despite this consensus, this may not be entirely the case; and in fact to the extent that monetary policy is effective in the real world, other channels, like income distribution, may be important. But let’s assume for now that demand for long-lived assets is what matters.

[8] Hicks had an interesting take on this, according to Leijonhufvud. Since the production process is an integrated whole, “capital” does not consist of particular goods but of a claim on the output of the process as a whole. Since this process can be expected to continue indefinitely, capital should be generally assumed to be infinitely-lived. When you consider how much of business investment is motivated by maintaining the firm’s competitive position — market share, up to date technology, etc. — it does seem reasonable to see investment as buying not a particular capital good but more of the firm as a whole.

[9] There’s an obvious parallel with the permanent inflation-temporary employment tradeoff of mainstream theory. Except, I think mine is correct!

The Story of Q

More posts on Greece, coming right up. But first I want to revisit the relationship between finance and nonfinancial business in the US.

Most readers of this blog are probably familiar with Tobin’s q. The idea is that if investment decisions are being made to maximize the wealth of shareholders, as theory and, sometimes, the law say they should be, then there should be a relationship between the value of financial claims on the firm and the value of its assets. Specifically, the former should be at least as great as the latter, since if investing another dollar in the firm does not increase its value to shareholders by at least a dollar, then that money would better have been returned to them instead.

As usual with anything interesting in macroeconomics, the idea goes back to Keynes, specifically Chapter 12 of the General Theory:

the daily revaluations of the Stock Exchange, though they are primarily made to facilitate transfers of old investments between one individual and another, inevitably exert a decisive influence on the rate of current investment. For there is no sense in building up a new enterprise at a cost greater than that at which a similar existing enterprise can be purchased; whilst there is an inducement to spend on a new project what may seem an extravagant sum, if it can be floated off on the Stock Exchange at an immediate profit. Thus certain classes of investment are governed by the average expectation of those who deal on the Stock Exchange as revealed in the price of shares, rather than by the genuine expectations of the professional entrepreneur.

It was this kind of reasoning that led Hyman Minsky to describe Keynes as having “an investment theory of the business cycle, and a financial theory of investment.” Axel Leijonhufvud, on the other hand, would warn us against taking the dramatis personae of this story too literally; the important point, he would argue, is the way in which investment responds to the shifts in the expected return on fixed investment versus the long-term interest rate. For better or worse, postwar Keynesians including the eponymous Tobin followed Keynes here in thinking of one group of decisionmakers whose expectations are embodied in share prices and another group setting investment within the firm. If shareholders are optimistic about the prospects for a business, or for business in general, the value of shares relative to the cost of capital goods will rise, a signal for firms to invest more; if they are pessimistic, share prices will fall relative to the cost of capital goods, a signal that further investment would be, from the point of view of shareholders, value-subtracting, and the cash should be disgorged instead.

There are various specifications of this relationship; for aggregate data, the usual one is the ratio of the value corporate equity to corporate net worth, that is, to total assets minus total liabilities. In any case, q fails rather miserably, both in the aggregate and the firm level, in its original purpose, predicting investment decisions. Here is q for nonfinancial corporations in the US over the past 60 years, along with corporate investment.

The orange line is the standard specification of q; the dotted line is equity over fixed assets, which behaves almost identically. The black line shows nonfinancial corporations’ nonresidential fixed investment as a share of GDP. As you can see, apart from the late 90s tech boom, there’s no sign that high q is associated with high investment, or low q with low investment. In fact, the biggest investment boom in postwar history, in the late 1970s, comes when q was at its low point. [*]

The obvious way of looking at this is that, contra Tobin and (at least some readings of) Keynes, stock prices don’t seem to have much to do with fixed investment. Which is not so strange, when you think about it — it’s never been clear why managers and entrepreneurs should substitute the stock market’s beliefs about the profitability of some new investment for their own, presumably better-informed, one. Just as well, given the unanchored gyrations of the stock market.

This is true as far as it goes, but there’s another way of looking at it. Because, q isn’t just uncorrelated with investment; for most of the period, at least until the 1990s, it’s almost always well below 1. This is even more surprising when you consider that a well-run firm with an established market ought to have a q above one, since it will presumably have intangible assets — corporate culture, loyal customers and so on — that don’t show up on the balance sheet. In other words, measured assets should seem to be “too low”. But in fact, they’re almost always too high. For most of the postwar period, it seems that corporations were systematically investing too much, at least from the point of view maximizing shareholder value.

I was talking with Suresh the other day about labor, and about the way labor organizing can be seen as a kind of assertion of a property right. Whether shareholders are “the” residual claimants of a firm’s earnings is ultimately a political question, and in times and places where labor is strong, they are not. Same with tenant organizing — you could see it as an assertion that long-time tenants have a property right in their homes, which I think fits most people’s moral intuitions.

Seen from this angle, the fact that businesses were investing “too much” during much of the postwar decades no longer is a sign they were being irrational or made a mistake; it just suggests that they were considering the returns to claimants other than shareholders. Though one wouldn’t what to read too much into it, it’s interesting in this light that for the past dozen years aggregate q has been sitting at one, exactly where loyal agents for shareholders would try to keep it. In liberal circles, the relatively low business investment of the past decade is often considered a sign of something seriously wrong with the economy. But maybe it’s just a sign that corporations have learned to obey their masters.

EDIT: In retrospect, the idea of labor as residual claimant does not really belong in this argument, it just confuses things. I am not suggesting that labor was ever able to compel capitalist firms to invest more than they wanted, but rather that “capitalists” were more divided sociologically before the shareholder revolution and that mangers of firms chose a higher level of investment than was optimal from the point of view of owners of financial assets. Another, maybe more straightforward way of looking at this is that q is higher — financial claims on a firm are more valuable relative to the cost of its assets — because it really is better to own financial claims on a productive enterprise today than in the pr-1980 period. You can reliably expect to receive a greater share of its surplus now than you could then.

[*] One of these days I really want to write something abut the investment boom of the 1970s. Nobody seems to realize that the highest levels of business investment in modern US history came in 1978-1981, supposedly the last terrible days of stagflation. Given the general consensus that fixed capital formation is at the heart of economic growth, why don’t people ask what was going right then?

Part of it, presumably, must have been the kind of sociological factors pointed to here — this was just before the Revolt of the Rentiers got going, when businesses could still pursue growth, market share and innovation for their own sakes, without worrying much about what shareholders thought. Part must have been that the US was still able to successfully export in a range of industries that would become uncompetitive when the dollar appreciated in the 1980s. But I suspect the biggest factor may have been inflation. We always talk about investment being encouraged by stuff that makes it more profitable for capitalists to hold their wealth in the form of capital goods. But logically it should be just as effective to reduce the returns and/or safety of financial assets. Since neither nominal interest rates nor stock prices tracked inflation in the 1970s, wealthholders had no choice but to accept holding a greater part of their wealth in the form of productive business assets. The distributional case for tolerating inflation is a bit less off-limits in polite conversation than it was a few years ago, but the taboo on discussing its macroeconomic benefits is still strong. Would be nice to try violating that.

Only Ever Equilibrium?

Roger Farmer has a somewhat puzzling guest post up at Noah Smith’s place, arguing that economics is right to limit discussion to equilibrium:

An economic equilibrium, in the sense of Nash, is a situation where a group of decision makers takes a sequence of actions that is best, (in a well defined sense), on the assumption that every other decision maker in the group is acting in a similar fashion. In the context of a competitive economy with a large number of players, Nash equilibrium collapses to the notion of perfect competition.  The genius of the rational expectations revolution, largely engineered by Bob Lucas, was to apply that concept to macroeconomics by successfully persuading the profession to base our economic models on Chapter 7 of Debreu’s Theory of Value… In Debreu’s vision, a commodity is indexed by geographical location, by date and by the state of nature.  Once one applies Debreu’s vision of general equilibrium theory to macroeconomics, disequilibrium becomes a misleading and irrelevant distraction. 

The use of equilibrium theory in economics has received a bad name for two reasons. 

First, many equilibrium environments are ones where the two welfare theorems of competitive equilibrium theory are true, or at least approximately true. That makes it difficult to think of them as realistic models of a depression, or of a financial collapse… Second, those macroeconomic models that have been studied most intensively, classical and new-Keynesian models, are ones where there is a unique equilibrium. Equilibrium, in this sense, is a mapping from a narrowly defined set of fundamentals to an outcome, where  an outcome is an observed temporal sequence of unemployment rates, prices, interest rates etc. Models with a unique equilibrium do not leave room for non-fundamental variables to influence outcomes… 

Multiple equilibrium models do not share these shortcomings… [But] a model with multiple equilibria is an incomplete model. It must be closed by adding an equation that explains the behavior of an agent when placed in an indeterminate environment. In my own work I have argued that this equation is a new fundamental that I call a belief function.

(Personally, I might just call it a convention.)

Some recent authors have argued that rational expectations must be rejected and replaced by a rule that describes how agents use the past to forecast the future. That approach has similarities to the use of a belief function to determine outcomes, and when added to a multiple equilibrium model of the kind I favor, it will play the same role as the belief function. The important difference of multiple equilibrium models, from the conventional approach to equilibrium theory, is that the belief function can coexist with the assumption of rational expectations. Agents using a rule of this kind, will not find that their predictions are refuted by observation. …

So his point here is that in a model with multiple equilibria, there is no fundamental reason why the economy should occupy one rather than another. You need to specify agents’ expectations independently, and once you do, whatever outcome they expect, they’ll be correct. This allows for an economy to experience involuntary unemployment, for example, as expectations of high or low income lead to increased or curtailed expenditure, which results in expected income, whatever it was, being realized. This is the logic of the Samuelson Cross we teach in introductory macro. But it’s not, says Farmer, a disequilibrium in any meaningful way:

If by disequilibrium, I am permitted to mean that the economy may deviate for a long time, perhaps permanently, from a social optimum; then I have no trouble with championing the cause. But that would be an abuse of the the term ‘disequilibrium’. If one takes the more normal use of disequilibrium to mean agents trading at non-Walrasian prices, … I do not think we should revisit that agenda. Just as in classical and new-Keynesian models where there is a unique equilibrium, the concept of disequilibrium in multiple equilibrium models is an irrelevant distraction.

I quote this at such length because it’s interesting. But also because, to me at least, it’s rather strange. There’s nothing wrong with the multiple equilibrium approach he’s describing here, which seems like a useful way of thinking about a number of important questions. But to rule out a priori any story in which people’s expectations are not fulfilled rules out a lot of other useful ways about thinking about important questions.

At INET in Berlin, the great Axel Leijonhufvud gave a talk where he described the defining feature of a crisis as the existence of inconsistent contractual commitments, so that some of them would have to be voided or violated.

What is the nature of our predicament? The web of contracts has developed serious inconsistencies. All the promises cannot possibly be fulfilled. Insisting that they should be fulfilled will cause a collapse of very large portions of the web.

But Farmer is telling us that economists not only don’t need to, but positively should not, attempt to understand crises in this sense. It’s an “irrelevant distraction” to consider the case where people entered into contracts with inconsistent expectations, which will not all be capable of being fulfilled. Farmer can hardly be unfamiliar with these ideas; after all he edited Leijonhufvud’s festschrift volume. So why is he being so dogmatic here?

I had an interesting conversation with Rajiv Sethi after Leijonhufvud’s talk; he said he thought that the inability to consider cases where plans were not realized was a fundamental theoretical shortcoming of mainstream macro models. I don’t disagree.

The thing about the equilibrium approach, as Farmer presents it, isn’t just that it rules out the possibility of people being systematically wrong; it rules out the possibility that they disagree. This strikes me as a strong and importantly empirically false proposition. (Keynes suggested that the effectiveness of monetary policy depends on the existence of both optimists and pessimists in financial markets.) In Farmer’s multiple equilibrium models, whatever outcome is set by convention, that’s the outcome expected by everyone. This is certainly reasonable in some cases, like the multiple equilibria of driving on the left or the right side of the road. Indeed, I suspect that the fact that people are irrationally confident in these kinds of conventions, and expect them to hold even more consistently than they do, is one of the main things that stabilizes these kind of equilibria. But not everything in economics looks like that.

Here’s Figure 1 from my Fisher dynamics paper with Arjun Jayadev:

See those upward slopes way over on the left? Between 1929 and 1933, household debt relative to GDP rose by abut 40 percent, and nonfinancial business debt relative to GDP nearly doubled. This is not, of course, because families and businesses were borrowing more in the Depression; on the contrary, they were paying down debt as fast as they could. But in the classic debt-deflation story, falling prices and output meant that incomes were falling even fast than debt, so leverage actually increased.

Roger Farmer, if I’m understanding him correctly, is saying that we must see this increase in debt-income ratios as an equilibrium phenomenon. He is saying that households and businesses taking out loans in 1928 must have known that their incomes were going to fall by half over the next five years, while their debt payments would stay unchanged, and chose to borrow anyway. He is saying not just that he believes that, but that as economists we should not consider any other view; we can rule out on methodological grounds the  possibility that the economic collapse of the early 1930s caught people by surprise. To Irving Fisher, to Keynes, to almost anyone, to me, the rise in debt ratios in the early 1930s looks like a pure disequilibrium phenomenon; people were trading at false prices, signing nominal contracts whose real terms would end up being quite different from what they expected. It’s one of the most important stories in macroeconomics, but Farmer is saying that we should forbid ourselves from telling it. I don’t get it.

What am I missing here?

Graeber Cycles and the Wicksellian Judgment Day

So it’s halfway through the semester, and I’m looking over the midterms. Good news: Learning has taken place.

One of the things you hope students learn in a course like this is that money consists of three things: demand deposits (checking accounts and the like), currency and bank reserves. The first is a liability of private banks, the latter two are liabilities of the central bank. That money is always someone’s liability — a debt — is often a hard thing for students to get their heads around, so one can end up teaching it a bit catechistically. Balance sheets, with their absolute (except for the exceptions) and seemingly arbitrary rules, can feel a bit like religious formula. On this test, the question about the definition of money was one of the few that didn’t require students to think.

But when you do think about it, it’s a very strange thing. What we teach as just a fact about the world, is really the product of — or rather, a moment in — a very specific historical evolution. We are lumping together two very different kinds of “money.” Currency looks like classical money, like gold; but demand deposits do not. The most obvious difference, at least in the context of macroeconomics, is that one is exogenous (or set by policy) and the other endogenous. We paper this over by talking about reserve requirements, which allow the central bank to set “the” money supply to determine “the” interest rate. But everyone knows that reserve requirements are a dead letter and have been for decades, probably. While monetarists like Nick Rowe insist that there’s something special about currency — they have to, given the logic of their theories — in the real world the link between the “money” issued by central banks and the “money” that matters for the economy has attenuated to imperceptible gossamer, if it hasn’t been severed entirely. The best explanation for how conventional monetary policy works today is pure convention: With the supply of money entirely in the hands of private banks, policy is effective only because market participants expect it to be effective.

In other words, central banks today are like the Chinese emperor Wang Wei-Shao in the mid-1960s film Genghis Khan:

One of the film’s early scenes shows the exquisitely attired emperor, calligraphy brush in hand, elegantly composing a poem. With an ethereal self-assurace born of unquestioning confidence in the divinely ordained course of worldly affairs, he explains that the poem’s purpose is to express his displeasure at the Mongol barbarians who have lately been creating a disturbance on the empire’s western frontier, and, by so doing, cause them to desist.  

Today expressions of intentions by leaders of the world’s major central banks typically have immediate repercussions in financial markets… Central bankers’ public utterances … regularly move prices and yields in the financial markets, and these financial variables in turn affect non-financial economic activity… Indeed, a widely shared opinion today is that central bank need not actually do anything. … 

In truth the ability of central banks to affect the evolution of prices and output … [is] something of a mystery. … Each [explanation of their influence] … turns out to depend on one or another of a series of by now familiar fictions: households and firms need currency to purchase goods and services; banks can issue only reserve-bearing liabilities; no non-bank financial institutions create credit; and so on. 

… at a practical level, there is today [1999] little doubt that a country’s monetary policy not only can but does largely determine the evolution of its price level…, and almost as little doubt that monetary policy exerts significant influence over … employment and output… Circumstances change over time, however, and when they do the fictions that once described matters adequately may no longer do so. … There may well have been a time when the might of the Chinese empire was such that the mere suggestion of willingness to use it was sufficient to make potential invaders withdraw.

What looked potential a dozen years ago is now actual, if it wasn’t already then. It’s impossible to tell any sensible macroeconomic story that hinges on the quantity of outside money. The shift in our language from  money, which can be measured — that one could formulate a “quantity theory” of  — to discussions of liquidity, still a noun but now not a tangible thing but a property that adheres in different assets to different degrees, is a key diagnostic. And liquidity is a result of the operations of the financial system, not a feature of the natural world or a dial that can be set by the central bank. In 1820 or 1960 or arguably even in 1990 you could tell a kind of monetarist story that had some purchase on reality. Not today. But, and this is my point! it’s not a simple before and after story. Because, not in 1890 either.

David Graeber, in his magisterial Debt: The First 5,000 Years [1], describes a very long alternation between world economies based on commodity money and world economies based on credit money. (Graeber’s idiolect is money and debt; let’s use here the standard terms.) The former is anonymous, universal and disembedded, corresponds to centralized states and extensive warfare, and develops alongside those other great institutions for separating people from their social contexts, slavery and bureaucracy. [2] Credit, by contrast, is personal, particular, and unavoidably connected with specific relationships and obligations; it corresponds to decentralized, heterogeneous forms of authority. The alternations between commodity-money systems,with their transcendental, monotheistic religious-philosophical superstructures; and credit systems, with their eclectic, immanent, pantheistic superstructures, is, in my opinion, the heart of Debt. (The contrast between medieval Christianity, with its endless mediations by saints and relics and the letters of Christ’s name, and modern Christianity, with just you and the unknowable Divine, is paradigmatic.) Alternations not cycles, since there is no theory of the transition; probably just as well.

For Graeber, the whole half-millenium from the 16th through the 20th centuries is a period of the dominion of money, a dominion only now — maybe — coming to an end. But closer to ground level, there are shorter cycles. This comes through clearly in Axel Leijonhufvud’s brilliant short essay on Wicksell’s monetary theory, which is really the reason this post exists. (h/t David Glasner, I think Ashwin at Macroeconomic Resilience.) Among a whole series of sharp observations, Leijonhufvud makes the point that the past two centuries have seen several swings between commodity (or quasi-commodity) money and credit money. In the early modern period, the age of Adam Smith, there really was a (commodity) money economy, you could talk about a quantity of money. But even by the time of Ricardo, who first properly formalized the corresponding theory, this was ceasing to be true (as Wicksell also recognized), and by the later 19th century it wasn’t true at all. The high gold standard era (1870-1914, roughly) really used gold only for settling international balances between central banks; for private transactions, it was an age not of gold but of bank-issued paper money. [3]

If I somehow found myself teaching this course in the 18th century, I’d explain that money means gold, or gold and silver. But by the mid 19th century, if you asked people about the money in their pocket, they would have pulled out paper bills, not so unlike bills of today — except they very likely would have been bills issued by private banks.

The new world of bank-created money worried classical economists like Wicksell, who, like later monetarists, were strongly committed to the idea that the overall price level depends on the amount of money in circulation. The problem is that in a world of pure credit money, it’s impossible to base a theory of the price level on the relationship between the quantity of money and the level of output, since the former is determined by the latter. Today we’ve resolved this problem by just giving up on a theory of the price level, and focusing on inflation instead. But this didn’t look like an acceptable solution before World War II. For economists then — for any reasonable person — a trajectory of the price level toward infinity was an obvious absurdity that would inevitably come to a halt, disastrously if followed too far. Whereas today, that trajectory is the precise definition of price stability, that is, stable inflation. [4] Wicksell was part of an economics profession that saw explaining the price level as a, maybe the, key task; but he had no doubt that the trend was toward an ever-diminishing role for gold, at least domestically, leaving the money supply in the hands of the banks and the price level frighteningly unmoored.

Wicksell was right. Or at least, he was right when he wrote, a bit before 1900. But a funny thing happened on the way to the world of pure credit money. Thanks to new government controls on the banking system, the trend stopped and even reversed. Leijonhufvud:

Wicksell’s “Day of Judgment” when the real demand for the reserve medium would shrink to epsilon was greatly postponed by regime changes already introduced before or shortly after his death [in 1926]. In particular, governments moved to monopolize the note issue and to impose reserve requirements on banks. The control over the banking system’s total liabilities that the monetary authorities gained in this way greatly reduced the potential for the kind of instability that preoccupied Wicksell. It also gave the Quantity Theory a new lease of life, particularly in the United States.

But although Judgment Day was postponed it was not cancelled. … The monetary anchors on which 20th century central bank operating doctrines have relied are giving way. Technical developments are driving the process on two fronts. First, “smart cards” are circumventing the governmental note monopoly; the private sector is reentering the business of supplying currency. Second, banks are under increasing competitive pressure from nonbank financial institutions providing innovative payment or liquidity services; reserve requirements have become a discriminatory tax on banks that handicap them in this competition. The pressure to eliminate reserve requirements is consequently mounting. “Reserve requirements already are becoming a dead issue.”

The second bolded sentence makes a nice point. Milton Friedman and his followers are regarded as opponents of regulation, supporters of laissez-faire, etc. But to the extent that the theory behind monetarism ever had any validity (or still has any validity in its present guises) it is precisely because of strict government control over credit creation. It’s an irony that textbooks gloss over when they treat binding reserve requirements and the money multiplier as if they were facts of nature.

(That’s more traditional textbooks. Newer textbooks replace the obsolete story that the central bank controls interest rates by setting the money supply with a new story that the central bank sets the interest rate by … look, it just does, ok? Formally this is represented by replacing the old upward sloping LM curve with a horizontal MP (for monetary policy) line at the interest rate chosen by the central bank. The old story was artificial and, with respect to recent decades, basically wrong, but it did have the virtue of recognizing that the interest rate is determined in financial markets, and that monetary policy has to operate by changing the supply of liquidity. In the up-to-date modern version, policy might just as well operate by calligraphy.)

So, in the two centuries since Heinrich van Storch lectured the young Grand Dukes of Russia on the economic importance of “precious metals and fine jewels,” capitalism has gone through two full Graeber cycles, from commodity money to credit money, back to (pseudo-)commodity money and now to credit money again. It’s a process that proceeds unevenly; both the reality and the theory of money are uncomfortable hybrids of the two. But reality has advanced further toward the pure credit pole than theory has.

This time, will it make it all the way? Is Leijonhufvud right to suggest that Wicksell’s Day of Judgment was deferred but not canceled, and now is at hand?

Certainly the impotence of conventional monetary policy even before the crisis is a serious omen. And it’s hard to imagine a breakdown of the credit system that would force a return to commodity money, as in, say, medieval China. But on the other hand, it is not hard to imagine a reassertion of the public monopoly on means of payment. Indeed, when you think about it, it’s hard to understand why this monopoly was ever abandoned. The practical advantages of smart cards over paper tokens are undeniable, but there’s no reason that the cards shouldn’t have been public goods just like the tokens were. (For Graeber’s spiritual forefather Karl Polanyi, money, along with land and labor, was one of the core social institutions that could not be treated as commodities without destroying the social fabric.) The evolution of electronic money from credit cards looks contingent, not foreordained. Credit cards are only one of several widely-used electronic means of payment, and there’s no obvious reason why they and not one of the ones issued by public entities should have been adopted universally. This is, after all, an area with extremely strong network externalities, where lock-in is likely. Indeed, in the Benjamin Friedman article quoted above, he explicitly suggests that subway cards issued by the MTA could just as easily have developed into the universal means of payment. After all, the “pay community” of subway riders in New York is even more extensive than the pay community of taxpayers, and there was probably a period in the 1990s when more people had subway cards in their wallets than had credit or debit cards. What’s more, the MTA actually experimented with distributing subway card-reading machines to retailers to allow the cards to be used like, well, money. The experiment was eventually abandoned, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason why it couldn’t have succeeded; even today, with debit/credit cards much more widespread than two decades ago, many campuses find it advantageous to use college-issued smart cards as a kind of local currency.

These issues were touched on in the debate around interchange fees that rocked the econosphere a while back. (Why do checks settle at par — what I pay is exactly what you get — but debit and credit card transactions do not? Should we care?) But that discussion, while useful, could hardly resolve the deeper question: Why have we allowed means of payment to move from being a public good to a private oligopoly? In the not too distant past, if I wanted to give you some money and you wanted to give me a good or service, we didn’t have to pay any third party for permission to make the trade. Now, most of the time, we do. And the payments are not small; monetarists used to (still do?) go on about the “shoe leather costs” of holding more cash as a serious reason to worry about inflation, but no sane person could imagine those costs could come close to five percent of retail spending. And that’s not counting the inefficiencies. This is a private sales tax that we allow to be levied on almost every transaction,  just as distortionary and just as regressive as other sales taxes but without the benefit of, you know, funding public services. The more one thinks about it, the stranger it seems. Why, of all the expansions of public goods and collective provision won over the past 100 or 200 years, is this the one big one that has been rolled back? Why has this act of enclosure apparently not even been noticed, let alone debated? Why has the modern equivalent of minting coinage — the prerogative of sovereigns for as long as there’ve been any — been allowed to pass into the hands of Visa and MasterCard, with neoliberal regimes not just allowing but actively encouraging it?

The view of the mainstream — which in this case stretches well to the left of Krugman and DeLong, and on the right to everyone this side of Ron Paul — is that, whatever the causes of the crisis and however the authorities should or do respond, eventually we will return to the status quo ante. Conventional monetary policy may not be effective now, but there’s no reason to doubt that it will one day get back to so being. I’m not so sure. I think people underestimate the extent to which modern central banking depended on a public monopoly on means of payment, a monopoly that arose — was established — historically, and has now been allowed to lapse. Christina Romer’s Berkeley speech on the glorious counterrevolution in macroeconomic policy may not have been anti-perfectly timed just because it was given months before the beginning of the worst recession in 70 years, but because it marked the end of the period in which the body of theory and policy that she was extolling applied.

[1] Information wants to be free. If there’s a free downloadable version of a book out there, that’s what I’m going to link to. But assuming some bank has demand deposits payable to you on the liability side of its balance sheet (i.e. you’ve got the money), this is a book you ought to buy.

[2] In pre-modern societies a slave is simply someone all of whose kinship ties have been extinguished, and is therefore attached only to the household of his/her master. They were not necessarily low in status or living standards, and they weren’t distinguished by being personally subordinated to somebody, since everyone was. And slavery certainly cannot be defined as a person being property, since, as Graeber shows, private property as we know it is simply a generalization of the law of slavery.

[3] A point also emphasized by Robert Triffin in his essential paper Myths and Realities of the So-Called Gold Standard.

[4] Which is a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks the fact that an economic process that involves some ratio diverging to infinity is by defintion unsustainable. Physiocrats thought a trajectory of the farming share of the population toward zeo was an absolute absurdity and that in practice it could certaily not fall below half. They were wrong; and more generally, capitalism is not an equilibrium process. There may be seven unsustainable processes out there, or even more, but you cannot show it simply by noting that the trend of some ratio will take it outside its historic range.

UPDATE: Nick Rowe has a kind of response which, while I don’t agree with it, lays out the case against regarding money as a liability very clearly. I have a long comment there, of which the tl;dr is that we should be thinking — both logically and chronologically — of central bank money evolving from private debt contracts, not from gold currency. I don’t know if Nick read the Leijonhufvud piece I quote here, but the point that it makes is that writing 100-odd years ago, Wicksell started from exactly the position Nick takes now, and then observed how it breaks down with modern (even 1900-era modern) financial systems.

Also, the comments below are exceptionally good; anyone who read this post should definitely read the comments as well.