Links for October 6

More methodenstreit. I finally read the Romer piece on the trouble with macro. Some good stuff in there. I’m glad to see someone of his stature making the  point that the Solow residual is simply the part of output growth that is not explained by a production function. It has no business being dressed up as “total factor productivity” and treated as a real thing in the world. Probably the most interesting part of the piece was the discussion of identification, though I’m not sure how much it supports his larger argument about macro.  The impossibility of extracting causal relationships from statistical data would seem to strengthen the argument for sticking with strong theoretical priors. And I found it a bit odd that his modus ponens for reality-based macro was accepting that the Fed brought down output and (eventually) inflation in the early 1980s by reducing the money supply — the mechanisms and efficacy of conventional monetary policy are not exactly settled questions. (Funnily enough, Krugman’s companion piece makes just the opposite accusation of orthodoxy — that they assumed an increase in the money supply would raise inflation.) Unlike Brian Romanchuk, I think Romer has some real insights into the methodology of economics. There’s also of course some broadsides against the policy  views of various rightwing economists. I’m sympathetic to both parts but not sure they don’t add up to less than their sum.

David Glasner’s interesting comment on Romer makes in passing a point that’s bugged me for years — that you can’t talk about transitions from one intertemporal equilibrium to another, there’s only the one. Or equivalently, you can’t have a model with rational expectations and then talk about what happens if there’s a “shock.” To say there is a shock in one period, is just to say that expectations in the previous period were wrong. Glasner:

the Lucas Critique applies even to micro-founded models, those models being strictly valid only in equilibrium settings and being unable to predict the adjustment of economies in the transition between equilibrium states. All models are subject to the Lucas Critique.

Here’s another take on the state of macro, from the estimable Marc Lavoie. I have to admit, I don’t care for way it’s framed around “the crisis”. It’s not like DSGE models were any more useful before 2008.

Steve Keen has his own view of where macro should go. I almost gave up on reading this piece, given Forbes’ decision to ban on adblockers (Ghostery reports 48 different trackers in their “ad-light” site) and to split the article up over six pages. But I persevered and … I’m afraid I don’t see any value in what Keen proposes. Perhaps I’ll leave it at that. Roger Farmer doesn’t see the value either.

In my opinion, the way forward, certainly for people like me — or, dear reader, like you — who have zero influence on the direction of the economics profession, is to forget about finding the right model for “the economy” in the abstract, and focus more on quantitative description of concrete historical developments. I expressed this opinion in a bunch of tweets, storified here.

 

The Gosplan of capitalism. Schumpeter described banks as capitalism’s equivalent of the Soviet planning agency — a bank loan can be thought of as an order allocating part of society’s collective resources to a particular project.  This applies even more to the central banks that set the overall terms of bank lending, but this conscious direction of the economy has been hidden behind layers of ideological obfuscation about the natural rate, policy rules and so on. As DeLong says, central banks are central planners that dare not speak their name. This silence is getting harder to maintain, though. Every day there seems to be a new news story about central banks intervening in some new credit market or administering some new price. Via Ben Bernanke, here is the Bank of Japan announcing it will start targeting the yield of 10-year Japanese government bonds, instead of limiting itself to the very short end where central banks have traditionally operated. (Although as he notes, they “muddle the message somewhat” by also announcing quantities of bonds to be purchased.)  Bernanke adds:

there is a U.S. precedent for the BOJ’s new strategy: The Federal Reserve targeted long-term yields during and immediately after World War II, in an effort to hold down the costs of war finance.

And in the FT, here is the Bank of England announcing it will begin buying corporate bonds, an unambiguous step toward direct allocation of credit:

The bank will conduct three “reverse auctions” this week, each aimed at buying the bonds from particular sectors. Tuesday’s auction focuses on utilities and industries. Individual companies include automaker Rolls-Royce, oil major Royal Dutch Shell and utilities such as Thames Water.

 

Inflation or socialism. That interventions taken in the heat of a crisis to stabilize financial markets can end up being steps toward “a more or less comprehensive socialization of investment,” may be more visible to libertarians, who are inclined to see central banks as a kind of socialism already. At any rate, Scott Sumner has been making some provocative posts lately about a choice between “inflation or socialism”. Personally I don’t have much use for NGDP targeting — Sumner’s idée fixe — or the analysis that underlies it, but I do think he is onto something important here. To translate the argument into Keynes’ terms, the problem is that the minimum return acceptable to wealth owners may be, under current conditions, too high to justify the level of investment consistent with the minimum level of growth and employment acceptable to the rest of society. Bridging this gap requires the state to increasingly take responsibility for investment, either directly or via credit policy. That’s the socialism horn of the dilemma. Or you can get inflation, which, in effect, forces wealthholders to accept a lower return; or put it more positively, as Sumner does, makes it more attractive to hold wealth in forms that finance productive investment.  The only hitch is that the wealthy — or at least their political representatives — seem to hate inflation even more than they hate socialism.

 

The corporate superorganism.  One more for the “finance-as-socialism” files. Here’s an interesting working paper from Jose Azar on the rise of cross-ownership of US corporations, thanks in part to index funds and other passive investment vehicles.

The probability that two randomly selected firms in the same industry from the S&P 1500 have a common shareholder with at least 5% stakes in both firms increased from less than 20% in 1999Q4 to around 90% in 2014Q4 (Figure 1).1 Thus, while there has been some degree of overlap for many decades, and overlap started increasing around 2000, the ubiquity of common ownership of large blocks of stock is a relatively recent phenomenon. The increase in common ownership coincided with the period of fastest growth in corporate profits and the fastest decline in the labor share since the end of World War II…

A common element of theories of the firm boundaries is that … either firms are separately owned, or they combine. In stock market economies, however, the forces of portfolio diversification lead to … blurring firm boundaries… In the limit, when all shareholders hold market portfolios, the ownership of the firms becomes exactly identical. From the point of view of the shareholders, these firms should act “in unison” to maximize the same objective function… In this situation the firms have in some sense become branches of a larger corporate superorganism.

The same assumptions that generate the “efficiency” of market outcomes imply that public ownership could be just as efficient — or more so in the case of monopolies.

The present paper provides a precise efficiency rationale for … consumer and employee representation at firms… Consumer and employee representation can reduce the markdown of wages relative to the marginal product of labor and therefore bring the economy closer to a competitive outcome. Moreover, this provides an efficiency rationale for wealth inequality reduction –reducing inequality makes control, ownership, consumption, and labor supply more aligned… In the limit, when agents are homogeneous and all firms are commonly owned, … stakeholder representation leads to a Pareto efficient outcome … even though there is no competition in the economy.

As Azar notes, cross-ownership of firms was a major concern for progressives in the early 20th century, expressed through things like the Pujo committee. But cross-ownership also has been a central theme of Marxists like Hilferding and Lenin. Azar’s “corporate superorganism” is basically Hilferding’s finance capital, with index funds playing the role of big banks. The logic runs the same way today as 100 years ago. If production is already organized as a collective enterprise run by professional managers in the interest of the capitalist class as a whole, why can’t it just as easily be managed in a broader social interest?

 

Global pivot? Gavyn Davies suggests that there has been a global turn toward more expansionary fiscal policy, with the average rich country fiscal balances shifting about 1.5 points toward deficit between 2013 and 2016. As he says,

This seems an obvious path at a time when governments can finance public investment programmes at less than zero real rates of interest. Even those who believe that government programmes tend to be inefficient and wasteful would have a hard time arguing that the real returns on public transport, housing, health and education are actually negative.

I don’t know about that last bit, though — they don’t seem to find it that hard.

 

Taylor rule toy. The Atlanta Fed has a cool new gadget that lets you calculate the interest rate under various versions of the Taylor Rule. It will definitely be useful in the classroom. Besides the obvious pedagogical value, it also dramatizes a larger point — that macroeconomic variables like “inflation” aren’t objects simply existing in the world, but depend on all kinds of non-obvious choices about measurement and definition.

 

The new royalists. DeLong summarizes the current debates about monetary policy:

1. Do we accept economic performance that all of our predecessors would have characterized as grossly subpar—having assigned the Federal Reserve and other independent central banks a mission and then kept from them the policy tools they need to successfully accomplish it?

2. Do we return the task of managing the business cycle to the political branches of government—so that they don’t just occasionally joggle the elbows of the technocratic professionals but actually take on a co-leading or a leading role?

3. Or do we extend the Federal Reserve’s toolkit in a structured way to give it the tools it needs?

This is a useful framework, as is the discussion that precedes it. But what jumped out to me is how he reflexively rejects option two. When it comes to the core questions of economic policy — growth, employment, the competing claims of labor and capital — the democratically accountable, branches of government must play no role. This is all the more striking given his frank assessment of the performance of the technocrats who have been running the show for the past 30 years: “they—or, rather, we, for I am certainly one of the mainstream economists in the roughly consensus—were very, tragically, dismally and grossly wrong.”

I think the idea that monetary policy is a matter of neutral, technical expertise was always a dodge, a cover for class interests. The cover has gotten threadbare in the past decade, as the range and visibility of central bank interventions has grown. But it’s striking how many people still seem to believe in a kind of constitutional monarchy when it comes to central banks. They can see people who call for epistocracy — rule by knowers — rather than democracy as slightly sinister clowns (which they are). And they can simultaneously see central bank independence as essential to good government, without feeling any cognitive dissonance.

 

Did extending unemployment insurance reduce employment? Arin Dube, Ethan Kaplan, Chris Boone and Lucas Goodman have a new paper on “Unemployment Insurance Generosity and Aggregate Employment.” From the abstract:

We estimate the impact of unemployment insurance (UI) extensions on aggregate employment during the Great Recession. Using a border discontinuity design, we compare employment dynamics in border counties of states with longer maximum UI benefit duration to contiguous counties in states with shorter durations between 2007 and 2014. … We find no statistically significant impact of increasing unemployment insurance generosity on aggregate employment. … Our point estimates vary in sign, but are uniformly small in magnitude and most are estimated with sufficient precision to rule out substantial impacts of the policy…. We can reject negative impacts on the employment-to-population ratio … in excess of 0.5 percentage points from the policy expansion.

Media advisory with synopsis is here.

 

On other blogs, other wonders

Larry Summers: Low laborforce participation is mainly about weak demand, not demographics or other supply-side factors.

Nancy Folbre on Greg Mankiw’s claims that the one percent deserves whatever it gets.

At Crooked Timber, John Quiggin makes some familiar — but correct and important! — points about privatization of public services.

In the Baffler, Sam Kriss has some fun with the new atheists. I hadn’t encountered Kierkegaard’s parable of the madman who tells everyone who will listen “the world is round!” but it fits perfectly.

A valuable article in the Washington Post on cobalt mining in Africa. Tracing out commodity chains is something we really need more of.

Buzzfeed on Blue Apron. The reality of the robot future is often, as here, just that production has been reorganized to make workers less visible.

At Vox, Rachelle Sampson has a piece on corporate short-termism. Supports my sense that this is an area where there may be space to move left in a Clinton administration.

Sven Beckert has edited a new collection of essays on the relationship between slavery and the development of American capitalism. Should be worth looking at — his Empire of Cotton is magnificent.

At Dissent, here’s an interesting review of Jefferson Cowie’s and Robert Gordon’s very different but complementary books on the decline of American growth.

Interest Rates and Bank Spreads

So the Fed decided not to raise rates this weeks. And as you’ve probably seen, this provoked an angry response from representatives of financial institutions. The owners and managers of money have been demanding higher interest rates for years now, and were clearly hoping that this week they’d finally start getting them.

As Paul Krugman points out, it’s not immediately obvious why money-owners are so hostile to low rates:

I’ve tried to understand demands that rates go up despite the absence of inflation pressure in terms of broad class interests. And the trouble is that it’s not at all clear where these interests lie. The wealthy get a lot of interest income, which means that they are hurt by low rates; but they also own a lot of assets, whose prices go up when monetary policy is easy. You can try to figure out the net effect, but what matters for the politics is perception, and that’s surely murky.

But, he has a theory:

What we should be doing …  is focusing not on broad classes but on very specific business interests. … Commercial bankers really dislike a very low interest rate environment, because it’s hard for them to make profits: there’s a lower bound on the interest rates they can offer, and if lending rates are low that compresses their spread. So bankers keep demanding higher rates, and inventing stories about why that would make sense despite low inflation.

I certainly agree with Krugman that in thinking about the politics of monetary policy, we should pay attention to the narrow sectoral interests of the banks as well as the broader interests of the owning class. But I’m not sure this particular story makes sense. What he’s suggesting is that the interest rate on bank lending is more strongly affected by monetary policy than is the interest rate on bank liabilities, so that bank spreads are systematically wider at high rates than at low ones.

This story might have made sense in the 1950s and 1960s, when bank liabilities consisted mostly of transactions deposits that paid no interest. But today, non-interest bearing deposits compose less than a quarter of commercial bank liabilities. Meanwhile, bank liabilities are much shorter-term than their assets (that’s sort of what it means to be a bank) so the interest rates on their remaining liabilities tend to move more closely with the policy rate than the interest rates on their assets. So it’s not at all obvious that bank spreads should be narrower when rates are low; if anything, we might expect them to be wider.

Luckily, this is a question we can address with data. Historically, have higher interest rates been associated with a wider spread for commercial banks, or a narrower one? Or have interest rate changes left bank spreads unchanged? To answer this, I looked at total interest income and total interest payments for commercial banks, both normalized by total assets. These are reported in a convenient form, along with lots of other data on commercial banks, in the FDIC’s Historical Statistics on Banking.

The first figure here shows annual interest payments and interest costs for commercial banks on the vertical axis, and the Federal funds rate on the horizontal axis. It’s annual data, 1955 through 2014. The gap between the blue and red points is a measure of the profitability of bank loans that year. [1] The blue and red lines are OLS regression lines.

Fig. 1: Commercial Bank Interest Paid and Received, as a Share of Assets, and the Federal Funds Rate

If Krugman’s theory were correct, the gap between the blue and red lines should be wider on the right, when interest rates are high, and narrower on the left, when they’re low. But in fact, the lines are almost exactly parallel. The gap between banks’ interest earnings and their funding costs is always close to 3 percent of assets, whether the overall level of rates is high or low. The theory that bank lending is systematically less profitable in a low-interest environment does not seem consistent with the historical evidence. So it’s not obvious why commercial banks should care about the overall level of interest rates one way or the other.

Here’s another way of looking at the same thing. Now we have interest received by commercial banks on the vertical axis, and interest paid on the horizontal axis. Again, both are scaled by total bank assets. To keep it legible, I’ve limited it to the years 1985-2014; anyway the earlier years are probably less relevant for today’s banking system. The diagonal line shows the average spread between the lending rate and the funding rate for this period. So points above the line are years when bank loans are unusually profitable, and points below are years when loans are less profitable than usual.

commbank2
Fig 2: Commercial Bank Interest Paid and Received, as a Percent of Assets

Here again, we see that there is no systematic relationship between the level of interest rates and the profitability of bank loans. Over the whole range of interest rates, spreads are clustered close to the diagonal. What we do see, though, is that the recent period of low interest rates has seen a steady narrowing of bank spreads. Since 2010, the average interest rate received by commercial banks has fallen by one full percentage point, while their average funding cost has fallen by a bit under half a point.

On the face of it, this might seem to support Krugman’s theory. But I don’t think it’s actually telling us anything about the effects of low interest rates as such. Rather, it reflects the fact that bank borrowing is much shorter term than bank lending. So a sustained fall in interest rates will always first widen bank spreads, and then narrow them again as lending rates catch up with funding costs. And in fact, the recent decline in bank spreads has simply brought them back to where they were in 2007. (Or in 1967, for that matter.) No doubt there are still a few long-term loans from the high-rate period that have not been refinanced and are still sitting profitably on banks’ books; but after seven years of ZIRP there can’t be very many. There’s no reason to think that continued low rates will continue to narrow bank spreads, or that higher rates will improve them. On the contrary, an increase in rates would almost certainly reduce lending profits initially, since banks’ funding rates will rise more quickly than their lending rates.

Now, on both substantive and statistical grounds, we might prefer to look at changes rather than levels. So the next two figures are the same as the previous ones, but using the year over year change rather than absolute level of interest rates. In the first graph, years with the blue above the red are years of widening spreads, while red above blue indicates narrowing spreads. In the second graph, the diagonal line indicates an equal change in bank lending and funding rates; points above the line are years of widening spreads, and points below the line are years of narrowing spreads. Again, I’ve limited it to 1985-2014.

Fig. 3: Year over Year Change in Commercial Bank Interest Received and Paid, as a Share of Assets, and the Federal Funds Rates

 

Fig. 4: Year over Year Change in Commercial Bank Interest Received and Paid, as a Share of Assets

 

Both figures show that rising rates are associated with narrower commercial bank spreads — that is, less profitable loans, not more profitable. (Note the steeper slope of the red line than the blue one in Figure 3.) Again, this is not surprising — since banks borrow short and lend long, their average funding costs change more quickly than their average lending rates do. The most recent three tightening episodes were all associated with narrower spreads, not wider ones. Over 2004-2006, banks’ funding costs rose by 1.5 points while the average rate on their loans rose by only 1.3 points. In 1999-2000, funding costs rose by 0.55 points while loan rates rose by 0.45 points. And in 1994-1996, bank funding costs rose by 0.6 points while loan rates rose by 0.4 points. Conversely, during the period of falling rates in 2007-2008, bank funding costs fell by 1.7 points while average loan rates fell by only 1.4 points. Admittedly, these are all rather small changes — what is most striking about banking spreads is their stability.  But the important thing is that past tightening episodes have consistently reduced the lending profits of commercial banks. Not increased them.

Thinking about the political economy of support for higher rates, as Krugman is doing, is asking the right question. And the idea that the narrow interests of commercial banks could be important here, is reasonable on its face. But the idea that higher rates are associated with higher lending spreads, just doesn’t seem to be supported by the data. Unfortunately, I don’t have a simple alternative story. As the late Bob Fitch used to say, 90 percent of what happens in the world can be explained by vulgar Marxism. But banks’ support for hard money may fall in the other 10 percent.

 

 

UPDATE: For what it’s worth, here are the results of regressions of average interest received by commercial banks and of and their average funding costs, on the Federal Funds rate. Both interest flows are normalized by total assets.

Full Period (1955-2014) 1955-1984 1985-2014
Coefficient r2 Coefficient r2 Coefficient r2
Funding 0.51 0.77 0.56 0.85 0.61 0.92
(0.04) (0.04) (0.03)
Lending 0.54 0.69 0.61 0.85 0.67 0.89
(0.05) (0.05) (0.04)
Funding 0.30 0.67 0.22 0.60 0.42 0.86
(0.03) (0.03) (0.03)
Lending 0.30 0.67 0.25 0.63 0.39 0.79
(0.03) (0.04) (0.04)

Again, we don’t see any support for the hypothesis that spreads systematically rise with interest rates. Depending on the period and on whether you look at levels or changes, you can see a slightly stronger relationship of the Federal Funds rate with either bank lending rates of funding costs; but none of these differences would pass a standard significance test.

Two positive conclusions come out of this. First, all the coefficients are substantially, and significantly, below 1. In other words,  the policy rate is passed through far from completely to market rates, even in the interbank market, which should be most closely linked to it. Second, looking at the bottom half of the table, we see that changes in the policy rate have a stronger affect on both the funding and lending rates (at least over a horizon of a year) today than they did in the postwar decades. This is not surprising, given the facts that non-interest-bearing deposits provided most bnk funding in the earlier period, and that monetary policy then worked through more limits on the quantity of credit than interest rates per se. But it’s interesting to see it so clearly in the data.

 

UPDATE 2: Krugman seems to be doubling down on the bank spreads theory. I hope he looks a bit at the historical data before committing too hard to this story.

 

VERY LATE UPDATE: In the table above, the first set of rows is levels; the second is year-over-year changes.

 

[1] This measure is not quite the same as the spread — for that, we would want to divide bank interest costs by their liabilities, or their interest-bearing liabilities, rather than their assets. But this measure, rather than the spread in the strict sense, is what’s relevant for the question we’re interested in, the effect of rate changes on bank lending profits. Insofar as bank loans are funded with equity, lending will become more profitable as rates rise, even if the spread is unchanged. For this reason, I refer to banks average funding costs, rather than average borrowing costs.

Mixed Messages from The Fed and the Bond Markets

It’s conventional opinion that the Fed will begin to raise its policy rate by the end of 2015, and continue raising rates for the next couple years. In the FT, Larry Summers argues that this will be a mistake. And he observes that bond markets don’t seem to share the conventional wisdom: “Long term bond markets are telling us that real interest rates are expected to be close to zero in the industrialised world over the next decade.”

The Summers column inspired me to take a look at bond prices and flesh out this observation. It is straightforward to calculate how much the value of a bond change in response to a change in interest rates. So by looking at the current yields on bonds of different maturities, we can see what expectations of future rate changes are consistent with profit-maximizing behavior in bond markets. [1]

The following changes shows the yields of Treasury bonds of various maturities, and the capital loss for each bond from a one-point rise in yield over the next year. (All values are in percentage points.)

Maturity Yield as of July 2015 Value Change from 1-Point Rise
30 year 3.07 -17.1
20 year 2.77 -13.9
10 year 2.32 -8.4
5 year 1.63 -4.6
1 year 0.30 -0.0

So if the 30-year rate rises by one point over the next year, someone who just bought a 30-year bond will suffer a 17 percent capital loss.

It’s clear from these numbers that Summers is right. If, over the next couple of years, interest rates were to “normalize” to their mid-90s levels (about 3 points higher than today), long bonds would lose half their value. Obviously, no one would hold bonds at today’s yields if they thought there was an appreciable chance of that happening.

We can be more precise. For any pair of bonds, the ratio of the difference in yields to the difference in capital losses from a rate increase, is a measure of the probability assigned by market participants to that increase. For example, purchasing a 20-year bond rather than a 30-year bond means giving up 0.3 percentage points of yield over the next year, in return for losing only 14 percent rather than 17 percent if there’s a general 1-point increase in rates. Whether that looks like a good or bad tradeoff will depend on how you think rates are likely to change.

For any pair of bonds, we can calculate the change in interest rates (across the whole yield curve) that would keep the overall return just equal between them. Using the average yields for July, we get:

30-year vs 20-year: +0.094%

30-year vs. 10-year: +0.086%

30-year vs. 5-year: +0.115%

20-year vs. 10-year +0.082%

20-year vs. 5 year: + 0.082%

Treasury bonds seem to be priced consistent with an expected tenth of a percent or so increase in interest rates over the next year.

In other words: If you buy a 30 year bond rather than a 20-year one, or a 20-year rather than 10-year, you will get a higher interest rate. But if it turns out that market rates rise by about 0.1 percentage points (10 basis points) over the next year, the greater capital losses on longer bonds will just balance their higher yields. So if you believe that interest rates in general will be about 10 basis points higher a year from now than they are now, you should be just indifferent between purchasing Treasuries of different maturities. If you expect a larger increase in rates, long bonds will look overpriced and you’ll want to sell them; if you expect a smaller increase in rates than this, or a decrease, then long bonds will look cheap to you and you’ll want to buy them. [2]

A couple of things to take from this.

First, there is the familiar Keynesian point about the liquidity trap. When long rates are low, even a modest increase implies very large capital losses for holders of long bonds. Fear of these losses can set a floor on long rates well above prevailing short rates. This, and not the zero lower bound per se, is the “liquidity trap” described in The General Theory.

Second,  compare the implied forecast of a tenth of a point increase in rates implied by today’s bond prices, to the forecasts in the FOMC dot plot. The median member of the FOMC expects an increase of more than half a point this year, 2 points by the end of 2016, and 3 points by the end of 2017. So policymakers at the Fed are predicting a pace of rate increases more than ten times faster than what seems to be incorporated into bond prices.

FOMC dotplot

If the whole rate structure moves in line with the FOMC forecasts, the next few years will see the biggest losses in bond markets since the 1970s. Yet investors are still holding bonds at what are historically very low yields. Evidently either bond market participants do not believe that Fed will do what it says it will, or they don’t believe that changes in policy rate will have any noticeable effect on longer rates.

And note: The belief that long rates unlikely to change much, may itself prevent them from changing much. Remember, for a 30-year bond currently yielding 3 percent, a one point change in the prevailing interest rate leads to a 17 point capital loss (or gain, in the case of a fall in rates). So if you have even a moderately strong belief that 3 percent is the most likely or “normal” yield for this bond, you will sell or buy quickly when rates depart much from this. Which will prevent such departures from happening, and validate beliefs about the normal rate. So we shouldn’t necessarily expect to see the whole rate structure moving up and down together. Rather, long rates will stay near a conventional level (or at least above a conventional floor) regardless of what happens to short rates.

This suggests that we shouldn’t really be thinking about a uniform shift in the rate structure. (Though it’s still worth analyzing that case as a baseline.) Rather, an increase in rates, if it happens, will most likely be confined to the short end. The structure of bond yields seems to fit this prediction. As noted above, the yield curve at longer maturities implies an expected rate increase on the order of 10 basis points (a tenth of a percentage point), the 10-year vs 5 year, 10 year vs 1 year, and 5 year vs 1 year bonds imply epected increases of 18, 24 and 29 basis points respectively. This is still much less than dot plot, but it is consistent with idea that bond markets expect any rate increase to be limited to shorter maturities.

In short: Current prices of long bonds imply that market participants are confident that rates will not rise substantially over the next few years. Conventional wisdom, shared by policymakers at the Fed, says that they will. The Fed is looking at a two point increase over the next year and half, while bond rates imply that it will take twenty years. So either Fed won’t do what it says it will, or it won’t affect long rates, or bondholders will get a very unpleasant surprise. The only way everyone can be right is if trnasmission from policy rate to long rates is very slow — which would make the policy rate an unsuitable tool for countercyclical policy.

This last point is something that has always puzzled me about standard accounts of monetary policy. The central bank is supposed to be offsetting cyclical fluctuations by altering the terms of loan contracts whose maturities are much longer than typical business cycle frequencies. Corporate bonds average about 10 years, home mortgages, home mortgages of course close to 30. (And housing seems to be the sector most sensitive to policy changes.) So either policy depends on systematically misleading market participants, to convince them that cyclical rate changes are permanent; or else monetary policy must work in some completely different way than the familiar interest rate channel.

 

 

[1] In the real world things are more complicated, both because the structure of expectations is more complex than a scalar expected rate change over the next period, and because bonds are priced for their liquidity as well as for their return.

[2] I should insist in passing, for my brothers and sisters in heterodoxy, that this sort of analysis does not depend in any way on “consumers” or “households” optimizing anything, or on rational expectations. We are talking about real markets composed of profit-seeking investors, who certainly hold some expectations about the future even if they are mistaken.

The Rentier Would Prefer Not to Be Euthanized

Here’s another one for the “John Bull can stand many things, but he cannot stand two percent” files. As Krugman says, there’s an endless series of these arguments that interest rates must rise. The premises are adjusted as needed to reach the conclusion. (Here’s another.) But what are the politics behind it?

I think it may be as simple as this: The rentiers would prefer not to be euthanized. Under capitalism, the elite are those who own (or control) money. Their function is, in a broad sense, to provide liquidity. To the extent that pure money-holders facilitate production, it is because money serves as a coordination mechanism, bridging gaps — over time and especially with unknown or untrusted counterparties — that would otherwise prevent cooperation from taking place. [1] In a world where liquidity is abundant, this coordination function is evidently obsolete and can no longer be a source of authority or material rewards.

More concretely: It may well be true that markets for, say, mortgage-backed securities are more likely to behave erratically when interest rates are very low. But in a world of low interest rates, what function do those markets serve? Their supposed purpose is to make it easier for people to get home loans. But in a world of very low interest rates, loans are, by definition, easy to get. Again, with abundant liquidity, stocks may get bubbly. But in a world of abundant liquidity, what problem is the existence of stock markets solving? If anyone with a calling to run a business can readily start one with a loan, why support a special group of business owners? Yes, in a world where bearing risk is cheap, specialist risk-bearers are likely to go a bit nuts. But if risk is already cheap, why are we employing all these specialists?

The problem is, the liquidity specialists don’t want to go away. From finance’s point of view, permanently low interest rates are removing their economic reason for being — which they know eventually is likely to remove their power and privileges too. So we get all these arguments that boil down to: Money must be kept scarce so that the private money-sellers can stay in business.

It’s a bit like Dr. Benway in Naked Lunch:

“Now, boys, you won’t see this operation performed very often and there’s a reason for that…. You see it has absolutely no medical value. No one knows what the purpose of it originally was or if it had a purpose at all. Personally I think it was a pure artistic creation from the beginning. 

“Just as a bull fighter with his skill and knowledge extricates himself from danger he has himself invoked, so in this operation the surgeon deliberately endangers his patient, and then, with incredible speed and celerity, rescues him from death at the last possible split second….

Interestingly, Dr. Benway was worried about technological obsolescence too. “Soon we’ll be operating by remote control on patients we never see…. We’ll be nothing but button pushers,” etc. The Dr. Benways of finance like to fret about how robots will replace human labor. I wonder how much of that is a way of hiding from the knowledge that what cheap and abundant capital renders obsolete, is the capitalist?

EDIT: I’m really liking the idea of Larry Summers as Dr. Benway. It fits the way all the talk when he was being pushed for Fed chair was about how great he would be in a financial crisis. How would everyone known how smart he was — how essential — if he hadn’t done so much to create a crisis to solve?

[1] Capital’s historic role as a facilitator of cooperation is clearly described in chapter 13 of Capital.

Where Do Interest Rates Come From?

What determines the level of interest rates? It seems like a simple question, but I don’t think economics — orthodox or heterodox — has an adequate answer.

One problem is that there are many different interest rates. So we have two questions: What determines the overall level of interest rates, and what determines the spreads between different interest rates? The latter in turn we can divide into the question of differences in rates between otherwise similar loans of different lengths (term spreads), differences in rates between otherwise similar loans denominated in different currencies, and all the remaining differences, grouped together under the possibly misleading name risk spreads.

In any case, economic theory offers various answers:

1. The orthodox answer, going back to the 18th century, is that the interest rate is a price that equates the desire to save with the desire to borrow. As reformulated in the later 19th century by Bohm-Bawerk, Cassel, etc., that means: The interest rate is the price of goods today relative to goods tomorrow. The interest rate is the price that balances the gains from deferring consumption with our willingness to do so. People generally prefer consumption today to consumption in the future, and because it will be possible to produce more in the future than today, so the interest rate is (normally) positive. This is a theory of all transactions that exchange spending in one period for spending (or income) in another, not specifically a theory of the interest rate on loans.

The Wicksell variant of this, which is today’s central-bank orthodoxy, is that there is a well-defined natural interest rate in this sense but that for some reason markets get this one price wrong.

2. An equally old idea is that the interest rate is the price of money. In Hume’s writings on money and interest, for instance, he vacillates between this and the previous story. It’s not a popular view in the economics profession but it’s well-represented in the business world and among populists and monetary reformers,. In this view, money is just another input to the production process, and the interest rate is its price. A creditor, in this view, isn’t someone deferring consumption to the future, but someone who — like a landlord — receives an income thanks to control of a necessary component of the production process. A business, let’s say, that needs to maintain a certain amount of working capital in the form of money or similarly liquid assets, may need to finance it with a loan on which it pays interest. Interest payments are in effect the rental price of money, set by supply and demand like anything else. As I say, this has never been a respectable view in economic theory, but you can find it in more empirical work, like this paper by Gabriel Chodorow-Reich, where credit is described in exactly these terms as an input to current production.

3. Keynes’ liquidity-preference story in The General Theory. Here again the interest rate is the price of money. But now instead of asking how much the marginal business borrower will pay for the use of money, we ask how much the marginal wealth owner needs to be compensated to give up the liquidity of money for a less-liquid bond. The other side of the market is given by a fixed stock of bonds; evidently we are dealing with a short enough period that the flow of new borrowing can be ignored, and the bond stock treated as exogenously fixed. With no new borrowing, the link from the interest rate is liked to the real economy because it is used to discount the expected flow of profits from new investment — not by business owners themselves, but by the stock market. It’s an oddly convoluted story.

4. A more general liquidity-preference story. Jorg Bibow, in a couple of his essential articles on the Keynesian theory of liquidity preference, suggests that many of the odd features of the theory are due to Keynes’ decision to drop the sophisticated analysis of the financial system from The Treatise on Money and replace it with an assumption of an exogenously fixed money stock. (It’s striking that banks play no role in in the General Theory.) But I’m not sure how much simpler this “simplification” actually makes the story, or whether it is even logically coherent; and in any case it’s clearly inapplicable to our modern world of bank-created credit money. In principle, it should be possible to tell a more general version of the liquidity preference story, where, instead of wealth holders balancing the income from holding a bond against the liquidity from holding “money,” you have banks balancing net income against incremental illiquidity from simultaneously extending a loan and creating a deposit. I’m afraid to say I haven’t read the Treatise, so I don’t know how much you can find that story there. In any case it doesn’t seem to have been developed systematically in later theories of endogenous money, which typically assume that the supply of credit is infinitely elastic except insofar as it’s limited by regulation.

5. The interest rate is set by the central bank. This is the orthodox story when we turn to the macro textbook. It’s also the story in most heterodox writers. From Wicksell onward, the whole discussion about interest rates in a macroeconomic context is about how the central bank can keep the interest rate at the level that keeps current expenditure at the appropriate level, and what happens if it fails to do so. It is sometimes suggested that the optimal or “natural” interest rate chosen by the central bank should be the the Walrasian intertemporal exchange rate — explicitly by Hayek, Friedman and sometimes by New Keynesians like Michael Woodford, and more cautiously by Wicksell. But the question of how the central bank sets the interest rate tends to drop out of view. Formally, Woodford has the central bank set the interest rate by giving it a monopoly on lending and borrowing. This hardly describes real economies, of course, but Woodford insists that it doesn’t matter since central banks could control the interest rate by standing ready to lend or borrow unlimited amounts at thresholds just above and below their target. The quite different procedures followed by real central banks are irrelevant. [1]

A variation of this (call it 5a) is where reserve requirements bind and the central bank sets the total quantity of bank credit or money. (In a world of bind reserve requirements, these will be equivalent.) In this case, the long rate is set by the demand for credit, given the policy-determined quantity. The interbank rate is then presumably bid up to the minimum spread banks are willing to lend at. In this setting causality runs from long rates to short rates, and short rates don’t really matter.

6. The interest rate is set by convention. This is Keynes’ other theory of the interest rate, also introduced in the General Theory but more fully developed in his 1937 article “Alternative Theories of the Rate of Interest.” The idea here is that changes in interest rates imply inverse changes in the price of outstanding bonds. So from the lenders’ point of view, the expected return on a loan includes not only the yield (as adjusted for default risk), but also the capital gain or loss that will result if interest rates change while the loan is still on their books. The longer the term of the loan, the larger these capital gains or losses will be. I’ve discussed this on the blog before and may come back to it in the future, but the essential point is that if people are very confident about the future value of long rates (or at least that they will not fall below some floor) then the current rate cannot get very far from that future expected rate, no matter what short rates are doing, because as the current long rate moves away from the expected long rate expected capital gains come to dominate the current yield. Take the extreme case of a perpetuity where market participants are sure that the rate will be 5% a year from now. Suppose the short rate is initially 5% also, and falls to 0. Then the rate on the perpetuity will fall to just under 4.8% and no lower, because at that rate the nearly 5% spread over the short rate just compensates market participants for the capital loss they expect when long rates return to their normal level. (Obviously, this is not consistent with rational expectations.) These kinds of self-stabilizing conventional expectations are the reason why, as Bibow puts it, “a liquidity trap … may arise at any level of interest.” A liquidity trap is an anti-bubble, if you like.

What do we think about these different stories?

I’m confident that the first story is wrong. There is no useful sense in which the interest rate on debt contracts — either as set by markets or as target by the central bank — is the price of goods today in terms of goods tomorrow. The attempt to understand interest rates in terms of the allocation across time of scarce means to alternative ends is a dead end. Some other intellectual baggage that should overboard with the “natural” rate of interest are the “real”rate of interest, the idea of consumption loans, and the intertemporal budget constraint.

But negative criticism of orthodoxy is too easy. The real work is to make a positive case for an alternative. I don’t see a satisfactory one here.

The second and third stories depend on the existence of “money” as a distinct asset with a measurable, exogenously fixed quantity. This might be a usable assumption in some historical contexts — or it might not — but it clearly does not describe modern financial systems. Woodford is right about that.

The fifth story is clearly right with respect short rates, or at least it was until recently. But it’s incomplete. As an empirical matter, it is true that interbank rates and similar short market rates closely follow the policy rate. The question is, why? The usual answer is that the central bank is the monopoly supplier of base money, and base money is used for settlement between banks. This may be so, but it doesn’t have to be. Plenty of financial systems have existed without central banks, and banks still managed to make payments to each other somehow. And where central banks exist, they don’t always have a monopoly on interbank settlement. During the 19th century, the primary tool of monetary policy at the Bank of England was the discount rate — the discount off of face value that the bank would pay for eligible securities (usually trade credit). But if the discount rate was too high — if the bank offered too little cash for securities — private banks would stop discounting securities at the central bank, and instead find some other bank that was willing to give them cash on more favorable terms. This was the problem of “making bank rate effective,” and it was a serious concern for 19th century central banks. If they tried to raise interest rates too high, they would “lose contact with the market” as banks simply went elsewhere for liquidity.

Obviously, this isn’t a problem today — when the Fed last raised policy rates in the mid-2000s, short market rates rose right along with it. Or more dramatically, Brazil’s central bank held nominal interest rates around 20 percent for nearly a decade, while inflation averaged around 8 percent. [2] In cases like these, the central bank evidently is able to keep short rates high by limiting the supply of reserves. But why in that case doesn’t the financial system develop private substitutes for reserves? Mervyn King blandly dismisses this question by saying that “it does not matter in principle whether the disequilibrium in the money market is an aggregate net shortage or a net surplus of funds—control of prices or quantities carries across irrespective of whether the central bank is the monopoly supplier or demander of its own liabilities.” [3] Clearly, the central bank cannot be both the monopoly supplier and the monopoly demander of reserves, at least not if it wants to have any effect on the rest of the world. The relevant question — to which King offers no answer — is why there are no private substitutes for central bank reserves. Is it simply a matter of legal restrictions on interbank settlements using any other asset? But then why has this one regulatory barrier remained impassable while banks have tunneled through so many others? Anyway, going forward the question may be moot if reserves remain abundant, as they will if the Fed does not shrink its balance sheet back to pre-crisis levels. In that case, new tools will be required to make the policy rate effective.

The sixth story is the one I’m most certain of. First, because it can be stated precisely in terms of asset market equilibrium. Second, because it is consistent with what we see historically. Long term interest rates are quite stable over very long periods. Third, it’s consistent with what market participants say: It’s easy to find bond market participants saying that some rate is “too low” and won’t continue, regardless of what the Fed might think. Last, but not least from my point of view, this view is clearly articulated by Keynes and by Post Keynesians like Bibow. But while I feel sure this is part of the story, it can’t be the whole story. First, because even if a conventional level of interest rates is self-stabilizing in the long run, there are clearly forces of supply and demand in credit markets that push long rates away from this level in the short run. This is even more true if what convention sets is less a level of interest rates, than a floor. And second, because Keynes also says clearly that conventions can change, and in particular that a central bank that holds short rates outside the range bond markets consider reasonable for long enough, will be able to change the definition of reasonable. So that brings us back to the question of how it is that central banks are able to set short rates.

I think the fundamental answer lies behind door number 4. I think there should be a way of describing interest rates as the price of liquidity, where liquidity refers to the capacity to honor one’s promises, and not just to some particular asset. In this sense, the scarce resource that interest is pricing is trust. And monetary policy then is at root indistinguishable from the lender of last resort function — both are aspects of the central bank’s role of standing in as guarantor for commitments within the financial system.  You can find elements of this view in the Keynesian literature, and in earlier writers going back to Thornton 200-plus years ago. But I haven’t seen it stated systematically in way that I find satisfactory.

UPDATE: For some reason I brought up the idea of the interest rate as the price of money without mentioning the classic statement of this view by Walter Bagehot. Bagehot uses the term “price of money” or “value of money” interchangeably with “discount rate” as synonyms for the interest rate. The discussion in chapter 5 of Lombard Street is worth quoting at length:

Many persons believe that the Bank of England has some peculiar power of fixing the value of money. They see that the Bank of England varies its minimum rate of discount from time to time, and that, more or less, all other banks follow its lead, and charge much as it charges; and they are puzzled why this should be. ‘Money,’ as economists teach, ‘is a commodity, and only a commodity;’ why then, it is asked, is its value fixed in so odd a way, and not the way in which the value of all other commodities is fixed? 

There is at bottom, however, no difficulty in the matter. The value of money is settled, like that of all other commodities, by supply and demand… A very considerable holder of an article may, for a time, vitally affect its value if he lay down the minimum price which he will take, and obstinately adhere to it. This is the way in which the value of money in Lombard Street is settled. The Bank of England used to be a predominant, and is still a most important, dealer in money. It lays down the least price at which alone it will dispose of its stock, and this, for the most part, enables other dealers to obtain that price, or something near it. … 

There is, therefore, no ground for believing, as is so common, that the value of money is settled by different causes than those which affect the value of other commodities, or that the Bank of England has any despotism in that matter. It has the power of a large holder of money, and no more. Even formerly, when its monetary powers were greater and its rivals weaker, it had no absolute control. It was simply a large corporate dealer, making bids and much influencing—though in no sense compelling—other dealers thereby. 

But though the value of money is not settled in an exceptional way, there is nevertheless a peculiarity about it, as there is about many articles. It is a commodity subject to great fluctuations of value, and those fluctuations are easily produced by a slight excess or a slight deficiency of quantity. Up to a certain point money is a necessity. If a merchant has acceptances to meet to-morrow, money he must and will find today at some price or other. And it is this urgent need of the whole body of merchants which runs up the value of money so wildly and to such a height in a great panic…. 

If money were all held by the owners of it, or by banks which did not pay an interest for it, the value of money might not fall so fast. … The possessors would be under no necessity to employ it all; they might employ part at a high rate rather than all at a low rate. But in Lombard Street money is very largely held by those who do pay an interest for it, and such persons must employ it all, or almost all, for they have much to pay out with one hand, and unless they receive much with the other they will be ruined. Such persons do not so much care what is the rate of interest at which they employ their money: they can reduce the interest they pay in proportion to that which they can make. The vital point to them is to employ it at some rate… 

The fluctuations in the value of money are therefore greater than those on the value of most other commodities. At times there is an excessive pressure to borrow it, and at times an excessive pressure to lend it, and so the price is forced up and down.

The relevant point in this context is the explicit statement that the interest, or discount, rate is set by the supply and demand for money. But there are a couple other noteworthy things. First, the concept of supply and demand is one of monopolistic competition, in which lenders are not price takers, but actively trade off markup against market share. And second, that the demand for money (i.e. credit) is highly inelastic because money is needed not only or mainly to purchase goods and services, but first and foremost to meet contractual money commitments.

[1] See Perry Mehrling’s useful review. Most of the text of Woodford’s textbook can be downloaded for free here. The introduction is nontechnical and is fascinating reading if you’re interested in this stuff.

[2] Which is sort of a problem for Noah Smith’s neo-Fisherite view.

[3] in the same speech, King observes that “During the 19th century, the Bank of England devoted considerable attention to making bank rate ‘effective’.” His implication is that central banks have always been able to control interest rates. But this is somewhat misleading, from my point of view: the Bank devoted so much attention to making its rate “effective” precisely because of the occasions when it failed to do so.

Secular Stagnation, Progress in Economics

It’s the topic of the moment. Our starting point is this Paul Krugman post, occasioned by this talk by Lawrence Summers.

There are two ways to understand “secular stagnation.” One is that the growth rate of income and output will be slower in the future. The other is that there will be a systematic tendency for aggregate demand to fall short of the economy’s potential output. It’s the second claim that we are interested in.

For Krugman, the decisive fact about secular stagnation is that it implies a need for persistently negative interest rates. That achieved, there is no implication that growth rates or employment need to be lower in the future than in the past. He  is imagining a situation where current levels of employment and growth rates are maintained, but with permanently lower interest rates.

We could also imagine a situation where full employment was maintained by permanently higher public spending, rather than lower interest rates. Or we could imagine a situation where nothing closed the gap and output fell consistently short of potential. What matters is that aggregate expenditure by the private sector tends to fall short of the economy’s potential output, by a growing margin. For reasons I will explain down the road, I think this is a better way of stating the position than a negative “natural rate” of interest.

I think this conversation is a step forward for mainstream macroeconomic thought. There are further steps still to take. In this post I describe what, for me, are the positive elements of this new conversation. In subsequent posts, I will talk about the right way of analyzing these questions more systematically — in terms of a Harrod-type growth model — and  about the wrong way — in terms of the natural rate of interest.

The positive content of “secular stagnation”

1. Output is determined by demand.

The determination of total output by total expenditure is such a familiar part of the macroeconomics curriculum that we forget how subversive it is. It denies the logic of scarcity that is the basis of economic analysis and economic morality. Since Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, it’s been recognized that if aggregate expenditure determines aggregate income, then, as Krugman says, “vice is virtue and virtue is vice.”

A great deal of the history of macroeconomics over the past 75 years can be thought of as various efforts to expunge, exorcize or neutralize the idea of demand-determined income, or at least to safely quarantine it form the rest of economic theory. One of the most successful quarantine strategies was to recast demand constraints on aggregate output as excess demand for money, or equivalently as the wrong interest rate. What distinguished real economies from the competitive equilibrium of Jevons or Walras was the lack of a reliable aggregate demand “thermostat”. But if a central bank or other authority set that one price or that one quantity correctly, economic questions could again be reduced to allocation of scarce means to alternative ends, via markets. Both Hayek and Friedman explicitly defined the “natural rate” of interest, which monetary policy should maintain, as the rate that would exist in a Walrasian barter economy. In postwar and modern New Keynesian mainstream economics, the natural rate is defined as the market interest rate that produces full employment and stable prices, without (I think) explicit reference to the intertemporal exchange rate that is called the interest rate in models of barter economies. But he equivalence is still there implicitly, and is the source of a great deal of confusion.

I will return to the question of what connection there is, if any, between the interest rates we observe in the world around us, and what a paper like Samuelson 1958 refers to as the “interest rate.” The important thing for present purposes is:

Mainstream economic theory deals with the problems raised when expenditure determines output, by assuming that the monetary authority sets an interest rate such that expenditure just equals potential output. If such a policy is followed successfully, the economy behaves as if it were productive capacity that determined output. Then, specifically Keynesian problems can be ignored by everyone except the monetary-policy technicians. One of the positive things about the secular stagnation conversation, from my point of view, is that it lets Keynes back out of this box.

That said, he is only partway out. Even if it’s acknowledged that setting the right interest rate does not solve the problem of aggregate demand as easily as previously believed, the problem is still framed in terms of the interest rate.

2. Demand normally falls short of potential

Another strategy to limit the subversive impact of Keynes has been to consign him to the sublunary domain of the short run, with the eternal world of long run growth still classical. (It’s a notable — and to me irritating — feature of macroeconomics textbooks that the sections on growth seem to get longer over time, and to move to the front of the book.) But if deviations from full employment are persistent, we can’t assume they cancel out and ignore them when evaluating an economy’s long-run trajectory.

One of the most interesting parts of the Summers talk came when he said, “It is a central pillar of both classical models and Keynesian models, that it is all about fluctuations, fluctuations around a given mean.” (He means New Keynesian models here, not what I would consider the authentic Keynes.) “So what you need to do is have less volatility.” He introduces the idea of secular stagnation explicitly as an alternative to this view that demand matters only for the short run. (And he forthrightly acknowledges that Stanley Fischer, his MIT professor who he is there to praise, taught that demand is strictly a short-run phenomenon.) The real content of secular stagnation, for Summers, is not slower growth itself, but the possibility that the same factors that can cause aggregate expenditure to fall short of the economy’s potential output can matter in the long run as well as in the short run.

Now for Summers and Krugman, there still exists a fundamentals-determined potential growth rate, and historically the level of activity did fluctuate around it in the past. Only in this new era of secular stagnation, do we have to consider the dynamics of an economy where aggregate demand plays a role in long-term growth. From my point of view, it’s less clear that anything has changed in the behavior of the economy. “Secular stagnation” is only acknowledging what has always been true. The notion of potential output was never well defined. Labor supply and technology, the supposed fundamentals, are strongly influenced by the level of capacity utilization. As I’ve discussed before, once you allow for Verdoorn’s Law and hysteresis, it makes no sense to talk about the economy’s “potential growth rate,” even in principle. I hope the conversation may be moving in that direction. Once you’ve acknowledged that the classical allocation-of-scarce-means-to-alternative-ends model of growth doesn’t apply in present circumstances, it’s easier to take the next step and abandon it entirely.

3. Bubbles are functional

One widely-noted claim in the Summers talk is that asset bubbles have been a necessary concomitant of full employment in the US since the 1980s. Before the real estate bubble there was the tech bubble, and before that there was the commercial real estate bubble we remember as the S&L crisis. Without them, the problem of secular stagnation might have posed itself much earlier.

This claim can be understood in several different, but not mutually exclusive, senses. It may be (1) interest rates sufficiently low to produce full employment, are also low enough to provoke a bubble. It may be (2) asset bubbles are an important channel by which monetary policy affects real activity. Or it may be (3) bubbles are a substitute for the required negative interest rates. I am not sure which of these claims Summers intends. All three are plausible, but it is still important to distinguish them. In particular, the first two imply that if interest rates could fall enough to restore full employment, we would have even more bubbles — in the first case, as an unintended side effect of the low rates, in the second, as the channel through which they would work. The third claim implies that if interest rates could fall enough to restore full employment, it would be possible to do more to restrain bubbles.

An important subcase of (1) comes when there is a minimum return that owners of money capital can accept. As Keynes said (in a passage I’m fond of quoting),

The most stable, and the least easily shifted, element in our contemporary economy has been hitherto, and may prove to be in future, the minimum rate of interest acceptable to the generality of wealth-owners.[2] If a tolerable level of employment requires a rate of interest much below the average rates which ruled in the nineteenth century, it is most doubtful whether it can be achieved merely by manipulating the quantity of money.  Cf. the nineteenth-century saying, quoted by Bagehot, that “John Bull can stand many things, but he cannot stand 2 per cent.”

If this is true, then asking owners of money wealth to accept rates of 2 percent, or perhaps much less, will face political resistance. More important for our purposes, it will create an inclination to believe the sales pitch for any asset that offers an acceptable return.

Randy Wray says that Summers is carrying water here for his own reputation and his masters in Finance. The case for bubbles as necessary for full employment justifies his past support for financial deregulation, and helps make the case against any new regulation in the future. That may be true. But I still think he is onto something important. There’s a long-standing criticism of market-based finance that it puts an excessive premium on liquidity and discourages investment in long-lived assets. A systematic overestimate of the returns from fixed assets might be needed to offset the systematic overestimate of the costs of illiquidity.

Another reason I like this part of Summers’ talk is that it moves us toward recognizing the fundamental symmetry between between monetary policy conventionally defined, lender of last resort operations and bank regulations. These are different ways of making the balance sheets of the financial sector more or less liquid. The recent shift from talking about monetary policy setting the money stock to talking about setting interest interest rates was in a certain sense a step toward realism, since there is nothing in modern economies that corresponds to a quantity of money. But it was also a step toward greater abstraction, since it leaves it unclear what is the relationship between the central bank and the banking system that allows the central bank to set the terms of private credit transactions. Self-interested as it may be, Summers call for regulatory forbearance here is an intellectual step forward. It moves us toward thinking of what central banks do neither in terms of money, nor in terms of interest rates, but in terms of liquidity.

Finally, note that in Ben Bernanke’s analysis of how monetary policy affects output, asset prices are an important channel. That is an argument for version (2) of the bubbles claim.

4. High interest rates are not coming back

For Summers and Krugman, the problem is still defined in terms of a negative “natural rate” of interest. (To my mind, this is the biggest flaw in their analysis.) So much of the practical discussion comes down to how you convince or compel wealth owners to hold assets with negative yields. One solution is to move to permanently higher inflation rates. (Krugman, to his credit, recognizes that this option will only be available when or if something else raises aggregate demand enough to push against supply constraints.) I am somewhat skeptical that capitalist enterprises in their current form can function well with significantly higher inflation. The entire complex of budget and invoicing practices assumes that over some short period — a month, a quarter, even a year — prices can be treated as constant. Maybe this is an easy problem to solve, but maybe not. Anyway, it would be an interesting experiment to find out!

More directly relevant is the acknowledgement that interest rates below growth rates may be a permanent feature of the economic environment for the foreseeable future. This has important implications for debt dynamics (both public and private), as we’ve discussed extensively on this blog. I give Krugman credit for saying that with i < g, it is impossible for debt to spiral out of control; a deficit of any level, maintained forever, will only ever cause the debt-GDP ratio to converge to some finite level. (I also give him credit for acknowledging that this is a change in his views.) This has the important practical effect of knocking another leg out from the case for austerity. It’s been a source of great frustration for me to see so many liberal, “Keynesian” economists follow every argument for stimulus with a pious invocation of the need for long-term deficit reduction. If people no longer feel compelled to bow before that shrine, that is progress.

On a more abstract level, the possibility of sub-g or sub-zero interest rates helps break down the quarantining of Keynes discussed above. Mainstream economists engage in a kind of doublethink about the interest rate. In the context of short-run stabilization, it is set by the central bank. But in other contexts, it is set by time preferences and technological tradeoff between current and future goods. I don’t think there was ever any coherent way to reconcile these positions. As I will explain in a following post, the term “interest rate” in these two contexts is being used to refer to two distinct and basically unrelated prices. (This was the upshot of the Sraffa-Hayek debate.) But as long as the interest rate observed in the world (call it the “finance” interest rate) behaved similarly enough to the interest rate in the models (the “time-substitution” interest rate), it was possible to ignore this contradiction without too much embarrassment.

There is no plausible way that the “time substitution” interest rate can be negative. So the secular stagnation conversation is helping reestablish the point — made by Keynes in chapter 17 of the General Theory, but largely forgotten — that the interest rates we observe in the world are something different. And in particular, it is no longer defensible to treat the interest rate as somehow exogenous to discussions about aggregate demand and fiscal policy. When I was debating fiscal policy with John Quiggin, he made the case for treating debt sustainability as a binding constraint by noting that there are long periods historically when interest rates were higher than growth rates. It never occurred to him that it makes no sense to talk about the level of interest rates as an objective fact, independent of the demand conditions that make expansionary fiscal policy desirable. I don’t mean to pick on John — at the time it wasn’t clear to me either.

Finally, on the topic of low interest forever, I liked Krugman’s scorn for the rights of interest-recipients:

How dare anyone suggest that virtuous individuals, people who are prudent and save for the future, face expropriation? How can you suggest steadily eroding their savings either through inflation or through negative interest rates? It’s tyranny!
But in a liquidity trap saving may be a personal virtue, but it’s a social vice. And in an economy facing secular stagnation, this isn’t just a temporary state of affairs, it’s the norm. Assuring people that they can get a positive rate of return on safe assets means promising them something the market doesn’t want to deliver – it’s like farm price supports, except for rentiers.

It’s a nice line, only slightly spoiled by the part about “what the market wants to deliver.” The idea that it is immoral to deprive the owners of money wealth of their accustomed returns is widespread and deeply rooted. I think it lies behind many seemingly positive economic claims. If this conversation develops, I expect we will see more open assertions of the moral entitlement of the rentiers.

Don’t Touch the Yield

There’s a widespread idea in finance and economics land that there’s something wrong, dangerous, even unnatural about persistently low interest rates.

This idea takes its perhaps most reasonable form in arguments that the fundamental cause of the Great Financial Crisis was rates that were “far too low for far too long,” and that continued low interest rates, going forward, will only encourage speculation and new asset bubbles. Behind, or anyway alongside, these kinds of claims is a more fundamentally ideological view, that owners of financial assets are morally entitled to their accustomed returns, and woe betide the society or central banker that deprives them of the fruit of their non-labor. You hear this when certain well-known economists describe low rates as the “rape and plunder” of bondowners, or when Jim Grant says that the real victims of the recession are investors in money-market funds.

I want to look today at the “reaching for yield” version of this argument, which Brad Delong flagged as PRIORITY #1 RED FLAG OMEGA for the econosphere after it was endorsed by the Federal Reserve’s Jeremy Stein. [1] In DeLong’s summary:

Bankers want profits. … And a bank has costs above and beyond the returns on its portfolio. For each dollar of deposits it collects, a bank must spend 2.5 cents per year servicing those deposits. In normal times, when interest rates are well above 2.5 percent per year, banks have a normal, sensible attitude to risk and return. They will accept greater risk only if they come with returns higher enough to actually diminish the chances of reporting a loss. But when interest rates fall low enough that even the most sensible portfolio cannot reliably deliver a return on the portfolio high enough to cover the 2.5 cent per year cost of managing deposits, a bank will “reach for yield” and start writing correlated unhedged out-of-the-money puts so that it covers its 2.5 percent per year hurdle unless its little world blows up. Banks stop reducing their risk as falling returns mean that diversification and margin can no longer be counted on to manage them but instead embrace risks. 

It is Stein’s judgment that right now whatever benefits are being provided to employment and production by the Federal Reserve’s super-sub-normal interest rate policy and aggressive quantitative easing are outweighed by the risks being run by banks that are reaching for yield. 

Now on one level, this just seems like a non-sequitur. “Banks holding more risky assets” is, after all, just another way of saying “banks making more loans.” In fact, it’s hard to see how monetary policy is ever supposed to work if we rule out the possibility of shifting banks’ demand for risky private assets. [1] An Austrian, I suppose, might follow this logic to its conclusion and reject the idea of monetary policy in general; but presumably not an Obama appointee to the Fed.

But there’s an even more fundamental problem, not only with the argument here but with the broader idea — shared even by people who should know better — that low interest rates hurt bank profits. It’s natural to think that banks receive interest payments, so lower interest means less money for the bankers. But that is wrong.

Banks are the biggest borrowers as well as the biggest lenders in the economy, so what matters is not the absolute level of interest rates, but the spread — the difference between the rate at which banks borrow and the rate at which they lend. A bank covers its costs as reliably borrowing at 1 percent and lending at 4, as it does borrowing at 3 percent and lending at 6. So if we want to argue that monetary policy affects the profitability of bank lending, we have to argue that it has a differential effect on banks funding costs and lending rates.

For many people making the low-rates-are-bad-for-banks argument, this differential effect may come from a mental model in which the main bank liabilities are non-interest-bearing deposits. Look at the DeLong quote again — in the world it’s describing, banks pay a fixed rate on their liabilities. And at one point that is what the real world looked like too.

In 1960, non-interest-bearing deposits made up over two-thirds of total bank liabilities. In a system like that, it’s natural to see the effect of monetary policy as mainly on the asset side of bank balance sheets. But today’s bank balance sheets look very different: commercial banks now pay interest on around 80 percent of their liabilities. So it’s much less clear, a priori, why policy changes should affect banks interest income more than their funding costs. Since banks borrow short and lend long (that’s sort of what it means to be a bank), and since monetary policy has its strongest effects at shorter maturities, one might even expect the effect on spreads to go the other way.

And in fact, when we look at the data, that is what we see.

Average interest rate paid (red) and received (blue) by commercial banks. Source: FDIC

The black line with diamonds is the Federal Funds rate, set by monetary policy. The blue line is the average interest rate charged by commercial banks on all loans and leases; the solid red line is their average funding cost; and the dotted red line is the average interest rate on commercial banks’ interest-bearing liabilities. [3] As the figure shows, in the 1950s and ’60s changes in the federal funds rate didn’t move banks’ funding costs at all, while they did have some effect on loan rates; the reach-for-yield story might have made sense then. But in recent decades, as banks’ pool of cheap deposit funding has dried up, bank funding costs have become increasingly sensitive to the policy rate.

Looking at the most recent cycle, the decline in the Fed Funds rate from around 5 percent in 2006-2007 to the zero of today has been associated with a 2.5 point fall in bank funding costs but only a 1.5 point fall in bank lending rates — in other words, a one point increase in spreads. The same relationship, though weaker, is present in the previous two cycles, but not before. More generally, the correlation of changes in the federal funds rate and changes in bank spreads is 0.49 for 1955-1980, but negative 0.38 for the years 1991-2001. So Stein’s argument fails at the first step. If low bank margins are the problem, then “super-sub-normal interest rate policy” is the solution.

Let’s walk through this again. The thing that banks care about is the difference between what it costs them to borrow, and what they can charge to lend. Wider spreads mean lending is more profitable, narrower spreads mean it’s less so. And if banks need a minimum return on their lending — to cover fixed costs, or to pay executives expected bonuses or whatever — then when spreads get too narrow, banks may be tempted to take underprice risk. That’s “reaching for yield.” So turning to the figure, the spread is the space between the solid red line and the solid blue one. As we can see, in the 1950s and ’60s, when banks funded themselves mostly with deposits, the red line — their borrowing costs — doesn’t move at all with the federal funds rate. So for instance the sharp tightening at the end of the 1960s raises average bank lending rates by several points, but doesn’t move bank borrowing rates at all. So in that period, a high federal funds rate means wide bank spreads, and a low federal funds rate means narrower spreads. In that context the “reaching for yield” story has a certain logic (which is not to say it would be true, or important.) But since the 1980s, the red line — bank funding costs — has become much more responsive to the federal funds rate, so this relationship between monetary policy and bank spreads no longer exists. If anything, as I said, the correlation runs in the opposite direction.

Short version: When banks are funded by non-interest bearing deposits, low interest rates can hurt their profits, which makes them have a sad face. But when banks pay interest on almost all their liabilities, as today, low rates make them have a happy face. [4] In which case there’s no reason for them to reach for yield.

Now, it is true that the Fed has also intervened directly in the long end, where one might expect the impact on bank lending rates to be stronger. This is specifically the focus of a speech by Stein last October, where he explicitly said that if the policy rate were currently 3 percent he would have no objection to lowering it, but that he was more worried about unconventional policy to directly target long rates. [5] He offers a number of reasons why a fall in long rates due an expectation of lower short rates in the future would be expansionary, but a fall in long rates due to a lower term premium might not be. Frankly I find all these explanations ad-hoc and hand-wavey. But the key point for present purposes is that unconventional policy does not involve the central bank setting some kind of regulatory ceiling on long rates; rather, it involves lowering long rates via voluntary transactions with lenders. The way the Fed lowers rates on long bonds is by raising their price; the way it raises their price is by buying them. It is true, simply as a matter of logic, that the only way that QE can lower the market rate on a loan from, say, 4 percent to 3.9 percent, is by buying up enough loans (or rather, assets that are substitutes for loans) that the marginal lender now values a 3.9 percent loan the same as the marginal lender valued a 4 percent loan before. If a lender who previously would have considered a loan at 4 percent just worth making, does not now consider a loan at 3.9 percent worth making, then the interest rate on loans will not fall. Despite what John Taylor imagines, the Fed does not reduce interest rates by imposing a ceiling by fiat. So the statement, “if the Fed lowers long rates, bank won’t want to lend” is incoherent: the only way the Fed can lower long rates is by making banks want to lend more.

Stein’s argument is, to be honest, a bit puzzling. If it were true that banks respond to lower rates not by reducing lending or accepting lower profit margins, but by redoubling their efforts to fraudulently inflate returns, that would seem to be an argument for radically reforming the bank industry, or at least sending a bunch of bankers to jail. Stein, weirdly, wants it to be an argument for keeping rates perpetually high. But we don’t even need to have that conversation. Because what matters to banks is not the absolute level of rates, but the spread between their borrowing rate and their lending rate. And in the current institutional setting, expansionary policy implies higher spreads. Nobody needs to be reaching for yield.

[1] The DeLong post doesn’t give a link, but I think he’s responding to this February 7 speech.
[2] As Daniel Davies puts it in comments to the DeLong post:

If the Federal Reserve sets out on a policy of lowering interest rates in order to encourage banks to make loans to the real economy, it is a bit weird for someone’s main critique of the policy to be that it is encouraging banks to make loans. If Jeremy Stein worked for McDonalds, he would be warning that their latest ad campaign carried a risk that it might increase sales of delicious hamburgers.

[3] Specifically, these are commercial banks’ total interest payments from loans and leases divided by the total stock of loans and leases, and total interest payments divided by total liabilities and interest-bearing liabilities respectively.

[4] Why yes, I have been hanging around with a toddler lately. 

[5] Interesting historical aside: Keynes’ conclusion in the 1930s that central bank intereventions could not restore full employment and that fiscal policy was therefore necessary, was not — pace the postwar Keynesian mainstream — based on any skepticism about the responsiveness of economic activity to interest rates in principle. It was, rather, based on his long-standing doubts about the reliability of the link from short rates to long rates, plus a new conviction that central banks would be politically unable or unwilling to target long rates directly.

Does the Fed Control Interest Rates?

Casey Mulligan goes to the New York Times to say that monetary policy doesn’t work. This annoys Brad DeLong:

THE NEW YORK TIMES PUBLISHES CASEY MULLIGAN AS A JOKE, DOESN’T IT? 

… The third joke is the entire third paragraph: since the long government bond rate is made up of the sum of (a) an average of present and future short-term rates and (b) term and risk premia, if Federal Reserve policy affects short rates then–unless you want to throw every single vestige of efficient markets overboard and argue that there are huge profit opportunities left on the table by financiers in the bond market–Federal Reserve policy affects long rates as well. 

Casey B. Mulligan: Who Cares About Fed Funds?: New research confirms that the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy has little effect on a number of financial markets, let alone the wider economy…. Eugene Fama of the University of Chicago recently studied the relationship between the markets for overnight loans and the markets for long-term bonds…. Professor Fama found the yields on long-term government bonds to be largely immune from Fed policy changes…

Krugman piles on [1]; the only problem with DeLong’s post, he says, is that

it fails to convey the sheer numbskull quality of Mulligan’s argument. Mulligan tries to refute people like, well, me, who say that the zero lower bound makes the case for fiscal policy. … Mulligan’s answer is that this is foolish, because monetary policy is never effective. Huh? 

… we have overwhelming empirical evidence that monetary policy does in fact “work”; but Mulligan apparently doesn’t know anything about that.

Overwhelming evidence? Citation needed, as the Wikipedians say.

Anyway, I don’t want to defend Mulligan — I haven’t even read the column in question — but on this point, he’s got a point. Not only that: He’s got the more authentic Keynesian position.

Textbook macro models, including the IS-LM that Krugman is so fond of, feature a single interest rate, set by the Federal Reserve. The actual existence of many different interest rates in real economies is hand-waved away with “risk premia” — market rates are just equal to “the” interest rate plus a prmium for the expected probability of default of that particular borrower. Since the risk premia depnd on real factors, they should be reasonably stable, or at least independent of monetary policy. So when the Fed Funds rate goes up or down, the whole rate structure should go up and down with it. In which case, speaking of “the” interest rate as set by the central bank is a reasonable short hand.

How’s that hold up in practice? Let’s see:

The figure above shows the Federal Funds rate and various market rates over the past 25 years. Notice how every time the Fed changes its policy rate (the heavy black line) the market rates move right along with it?

Yeah, not so much.

In the two years after June 2007, the Fed lowered its rate by a full five points. In this same period, the rate on Aaa bonds fell by less 0.2 points, and rates for Baa and state and local bonds actually rose. In a naive look at the evidence, the “overwhelming” evidence for the effectiveness of monetary policy is not immediately obvious.

Ah but it’s not current short rates that long rates are supposed to follow, but expected short rates. This is what our orthodox New Keynesians would say. My first response is, So what? Bringing expectations in might solve the theoretical problem but it doesn’t help with the practical one. “Monetary policy doesn’t work because it doesn’t change expectations” is just a particular case of “monetary policy doesn’t work.”

But it’s not at all obvious that long rates follow expected short rates either. Here’s another figure. This one shows the spreads between the 10-Year Treasury and the Baa corporate bond rates, respectively, and the (geometric) average Fed Funds rate over the following 10 years.

If DeLong were right that “the long government bond rate is made up of the sum of (a) an average of present and future short-term rates and (b) term and risk premia” then the blue bars should be roughly constant at zero, or slightly above it. [2] Not what we see at all. It certainly looks as though the markets have been systematically overestimating the future level of the Federal Funds rate for decades now. But hey, who are you going to believe, the efficient markets theory or your lying eyes? Efficient markets plus rational expectations say that long rates must be governed by the future course of short rates, just as stock prices must be governed by future flows of dividends. Both claims must be true in theory, which means they are true, no matter how stubbornly they insist on looking false.

Of course if you want to believe that the inherent risk premium on long bonds is four points higher today than it was in the 1950s, 60s and 70s (despite the fact that the default rate on Treasuries, now as then, is zero) and that the risk premium just happens to rise whenever the short rate falls, well, there’s nothing I can do to stop you.

But what’s the alternative? Am I really saying that players in the bond market are leaving huge profit opportunities on the table? Well, sometimes, maybe. But there’s a better story, the one I was telling the other day.

DeLong says that if rates are set by rational, profit-maximizing agents, then — setting aside default risk — long rates should be equal to the average of short rates over their term. This is a standard view, everyone learns it. but it’s not strictly correct. What profit-maximizing bond traders do, is set long rates equal to the expected future value of long rates.

I went through this in that other post, but let’s do it again. Take a long bond — we’ll call it a perpetuity to keep the math simple, but the basic argument applies to any reasonably long bond. Say it has a coupon (annual payment) of $40 per year. If that bond is currently trading at $1000, that implies an interest rate of 4 percent. Meanwhile, suppose the current short rate is 2 percent, and you expect that short rate to be maintained indefinitely. Then the long bond is a good deal — you’ll want to buy it. And as you and people like you buy long bonds, their price will rise. It will keep rising until it reaches $2000, at which point the long interest rate is 2 percent, meaning that the expected return on holding the long bond and rolling over short bonds is identical, so there’s no incentive to trade one for the other. This is the arbitrage that is supposed to keep long rates equal to the expected future value of short rates. If bond traders don’t behave this way, they are missing out on profitable trades, right?

Not necessarily. Suppose the situation is as described above — 4 percent long rate, 2 percent short rate which you expect to continue indefinitely. So buying a long bond is a no-brainer, right? But suppose you also believe that the normal or usual long rate is 5 percent, and that it is likely to return to that level soon. Maybe you think other market participants have different expectations of short rates, maybe you think other market participants are irrational, maybe you think… something else, which we’ll come back to in a second. For whatever reason, you think that short rates will be 2 percent forever, but that long rates, currently 4 percent, might well rise back to 5 percent. If that happens, the long bond currently trading for $1000 will fall in price to $800. (Remember, the coupon is fixed at $40, and 5% = 40/800.) You definitely don’t want to be holding a long bond when that happens. That would be a capital loss of 20 percent. Of course every year that you hold short bonds rather than buying the long bond at its current price of $1000, you’re missing out on $20 of interest; but if you think there’s even a moderate chance of the long bond falling in value by $200, giving up $20 of interest to avoid that risk might not look like a bad deal.

Of course, even if you think the long bond is likely to fall in value to $800, that doesn’t mean you won’t buy it for anything above that. if the current price is only a bit above $800 (the current interest rate is only a bit below the “normal” level of 5 percent) you might think the extra interest you get from buying a long bond is enough to compensate you for the modest risk of a capital loss. So in this situation, the equilibrium price of the long bond won’t be at the normal level, but slightly below it. And if the situation continues long enough, people will presumably adjust their views of the “normal” level of the long bond to this equilibrium, allowing the new equilibrium to fall further. In this way, if short rates are kept far enough from long rates for long enough, long rates will eventually follow. We are seeing a bit of this process now. But adjusting expectations in this way is too slow to be practical for countercyclical policy. Starting in 1998, the Fed reduced rates by 4.5 points, and maintained them at this low level for a full six years. Yet this was only enough to reduce Aaa bond rates (which shouldn’t include any substantial default risk premium) by slightly over one point.

In my previous post, I pointed out that for policy to affect long rates, it must include (or be believed to include) a substantial permanent component, so stabilizing the economy this way will involve a secular drift in interest rates — upward in an economy facing inflation, downward in one facing unemployment. (As Steve Randy Waldman recently noted, Michal Kalecki pointed this out long ago.) That’s important, but I want to make another point here.

If the primary influence on current long rates is the expected future value of long rates, then there is no sense in which long rates are set by fundamentals.  There are a potentially infinite number of self-fulfilling expected levels for long rates. And again, no one needs to behave irrationally for these conventions to sustain themselves. The more firmly anchored is the expected level of long rates, the more rational it is for individual market participants to act so as to maintain that level. That’s the “other thing” I suggested above. If people believe that long rates can’t fall below a certain level, then they have an incentive to trade bonds in a way that will in fact prevent rates from falling much below that level. Which means they are right to believe it. Just like driving on the right or left side of the street, if everyone else is doing it it is rational for you to do it as well, which ensures that everyone will keep doing it, even if it’s not the best response to the “fundamentals” in a particular context.

Needless to say, the idea that that long-term rate of interest is basically a convention straight from Keynes. As he puts it in Chapter 15 of The General Theory,

The rate of interest is a highly conventional … phenomenon. For its actual value is largely governed by the prevailing view as to what its value is expected to be. Any level of interest which is accepted with sufficient conviction as likely to be durable will be durable; subject, of course, in a changing society to fluctuations for all kinds of reasons round the expected normal. 

You don’t have to take Keynes as gospel, of course. But if you’ve gotten as much mileage as Krugman has out of the particular extract of Keynes’ ideas embodied in the IS-LM mode, wouldn’t it make sense to at least wonder why the man thought this about interest rates, and if there might not be something to it.

Here’s one more piece of data. This table shows the average spread between various market rates and the Fed Funds rate.

Spreads over Fed Funds by decade
10-Year Treasuries Aaa Corporate Bonds Baa Corporate Bonds State & Local Bonds
1940s 2.2 3.3
1950s 1.0 1.3 2.0 0.7
1960s 0.5 0.8 1.5 -0.4
1970s 0.4 1.1 2.2 -1.1
1980s 0.6 1.4 2.9 -0.9
1990s 1.5 2.6 3.3 0.9
2000s 1.5 3.0 4.1 1.8

Treasuries carry no default risk; a given bond rating should imply a fixed level of default risk, with the default risk on Aaa bonds being practically negligible. [3] Yet the 10-year treasury spread has increased by a full point and the corporate bond rates by about two points, compared with the postwar era. (Municipal rates have risen by even more, but there may be an element of genuine increased risk there.) Brad DeLong might argue that society’s risk-bearing capacity has decline so catastrophically since the 1960s that even the tiny quantum of risk in Aaa bonds requires two full additional points of interest to compensate its quaking, terrified bearers. And that this has somehow happened without requiring any more compensation for the extra risk in Baa bonds relative to Aaa. I don’t think even DeLong would argue this, but when the honor of efficient markets is at stake, people have been known to do strange things.

Wouldn’t it be simpler to allow that maybe long rates are not, after all, set as “the sum of (a) an average of present and future short-term rates and (b) [relatively stable] term and risk premia,” but that they follow their own independent course, set by conventional beliefs that the central bank can only shift slowly, unreliably and against considerable resistance? That’s what Keynes thought. It’s what Alan Greenspan thinks. [4] And also it’s what seems to be true, so there’s that.

[1] Prof. T. asks what I’m working on. A blogpost, I say. “Let me guess — it says that Paul Krugman is great but he’s wrong about this one thing.” Um, as a matter of fact…

[2] There’s no risk premium on Treasuries, and it is not theoretically obvious why term premia should be positive on average, though in practice they generally are.

[3] Despite all the — highly deserved! — criticism the agencies got for their credulous ratings of mortgage-backed securities, they do seem to be good at assessing corporate default risk. The cumulative ten-year default rate for Baa bonds issued in the 1970s was 3.9 percent. Two decades later, the cumulative ten-year default rate for Baa bonds issued in the 1990s was … 3.9 percent. (From here, Exhibit 42.)

[4] Greenspan thinks that the economically important long rates “had clearly delinked from the fed funds rate in the early part of this decade.” I would only add that this was just the endpoint of a longer trend.

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!

Low Interest Rates = Rape and Plunder

Via Mike Konczal, here is Carmen “Eight Centuries of Financial Folly” Reinhart indulging in a bit of folly of her own:

Reinhart is the toast of economic circles these days for speaking out about the newest way Western governments are using financial repression to liquidate their debts, particularly after a financial crisis. They’re doing this on the backs of savers, including pension funds… financial repression can lead to “the rape and plunder of pension funds,” Reinhart tells Institutional Investor. Financial repression consists of very low nominal interest rates combined with captive lending by large banks or pension funds to a government. The low, stable interest rate facilitates the servicing costs of large public debts. Sometimes modest inflation is added to the mix. This results in zero to negative real interest rates that reduce government debt. Hence, broadly defined, financial repression is a wealth transfer from savers to debtors using negative real interest rates — with the government as one of the key debtors. 

… Low interest rates are a fact of postcrash economic life, designed to kick-start greater borrowing. … “Financial repression is an expedient way of reducing debt,” she says. For banks as well as the government, debt overhang is a major economic problem. But every tax has costs, including distortionary effects. Because financial repression punishes savers, it’s unknown to what degree it inhibits savings.

Rape and plunder? Owners of financial wealth definitionally are savers? Low interest rates are a transfer to debtors? (Are high interest rates a transfer to creditors, then?) Financial asset-owners are morally entitled to low inflation and high interest rates? Not getting the risk-free, passive income you expected is “punishment”? RAPE and PLUNDER, seriously? This article is so exactly everything that I’m against that I’m kind of speechless. All I can do is point at it and say, But! Gha! But it’s! Bhehe!

* * *

In possibly related news, over at Crooked Timber, Daniel Davies contemplates the possibility that in Europe today, there might be a conflict of interests between debtors and creditors. But no there isn’t, he decides, default would be equally bad for everyone:

The example that comes to my mind of a defaulting debtor that isn’t a commodity producer is Germany and their experiences with default have been absolutely awful. Graham Greene’s The Third Man is a story about the aftermath of debt default in a non-commodity economy.

Um yeah. Central Europe, 1946. Let’s see, what has just happened? What’s just happened in Germany (or Austria, as the case may be)? Oh yes: They’ve suspended payment on their bonds.

As through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men. Some of them seem to think that they are financial instruments. It gives them a funny point of view.