I was at the ASSAs in Chicago this past weekend.  One of the most interesting panels I went to was this one, on Advances in Open Economy Macroeconomics. Among other big names, Ken Rogoff was there, as the discussant for a rather strange paper by Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas and Helene Rey.
The Gourinchas and Rey paper, like much of mainstream macro these days, made a big deal of how different everything is at the zero lower bound. Rogoff wasn’t having it. Here’s a rough transcript of what he said:
The obsession with the zero lower bound is encouraging all kinds of wacko ideas. People are saying that at the ZLB, productivity increases are bad (Eggertsson/Krugman/Summers), protectionism is good (Eichngreen), price flexibility is bad, and so on.
But there is an emerging literature that says economists are taking the zero lower bound too literally. In fact, getting negative rates is not that hard. So before you take seriously these, let’s say, very creative ideas, it would be simpler to think about getting rid of the zero bound.
There are lots of ways to do it. I talk about some in my book, but people already understood this back in the 1930s. There was Robert Eisler’s proposal to have banks accept cash deposits at a discount, for instance, which would have effectively created negative rates. If Keynes had read Eisler, he might have gone in a different direction.  It’s a very old idea — Kublai Khan did something similar. There will be pushback from the financial sector, of course, who think negative rates will be costly for them, but fundamentally it is not hard to do.
These rather striking comments crystallized something in my mind. What is the big deal about the ZLB? For mainstream macroeconomists, including Gourinchas and Rey in this paper, the reason the ZLB matters is that it prevents the central bank form setting an interest rate low enough to keep output at potential.  It’s precisely this that makes inapplicable the conventional analysis of a nonmonetary problem of allocating scarce resources between alternative ends, and requires thinking about other entry points. If the central bank can’t solve the problem of aggregate demand then you have to take it seriously, with all the wacko and/or creative stuff that follows.
In the dominant paradigm, this is a specific technical problem of getting interest rates below zero. Solve that, and we are back in the comfortable Walrasian world. But for those of us on the heterodox side, it is never the case that the central bank can reliably keep output at potential — maybe because market interest rates don’t respond to the policy rate, or because output doesn’t respond to interest rates, or because the central bank is pursuing other objectives, or because there is no well-defined level of “potential” to begin with. (Or, in reality, all four.) So what people like Gourinchas and Rey, or Paul Krugman, present as a special, temporary state of the economy, we see as the general case.
One way of looking at this is that the ZLB is a device to allow economists like Krugman and Gourinchas and Rey — who whatever their scholarly training, are aware of the concrete reality around them — to make Keynesian arguments without forfeiting their academic respectability. You can understand why someone like Rogoff sees that as cheating. We’ve spent decades teaching that the fundamental constraint on the economy is the real endowment of resources and technology; that saving boosts growth; that trade is always win-win; that money and finance matter only in the short run (and the short run is tolerably short). The practical problem of negative policy rates doesn’t let you forget all of that.
Which, if you turn it around, perhaps reflects well on the ZLB crowd. Maybe they want to forget all that? Maybe, you could say, they take the zero lower bound seriously because they don’t take it literally. That is, they treat it as a hard constraint precisely because they are aware that it is only a stand-in for a deeper reality.
 The big annual economics conference. It stands for Allied Social Sciences Association — the disciplinary imperialism is right there in the name.
 This was an odd thing for Rogoff to say, since of course while Keynes didn’t discuss Eisler as far as I know, he talks at length about the similar proposals for depreciating cash of Silvio Gesell and Major Douglas. Notoriously he says these “brave cranks and heretics” have more to offer than Marx.
 Gourinchas and Rey are reality-based enough to say “the policy rate,” not “the interest rate.”
EDIT: Added the seriously-but-not-literally phrasing as suggested by Steve Roth on Twitter.
Aviation in the 21st century. I’m typing this sitting on a plane, en route to LA. The plane is a Boeing 737-800. The 737 is the best-selling commercial airliner on earth; reading its Wikipedia page should raise some serious doubts about the idea that we live in an era of accelerating technological change. I’m not sure how old the plane I’m sitting on is, but it could be 15 years; the 800-series was introduced in its present form in the late 1990s. With airplanes, unlike smartphones, a 20-year old machine is not dramatically — is not even noticeably — different from the latest version. The basic 737 model was first introduced in 1967. There have been upgrades since then, but to my far from expert eyes it’s striking how little changed tin 50 years. The original 737 carried 120 passengers, at speeds of 800 km/h on trips of up to 3,000 km, using 6 liters of fuel per kilometer; this model carries 160 passengers (it’s longer) at speeds of 840 km/h on trips of 5,500 km, using 5 liters of fuel per kilometer. Better, sure, but probably the main difference you’d actually notice from a flight 50 years ago is purely social: no smoking. In any case it’s pretty meager compared that with the change from 50 years earlier, when commercial air travel didn’t exist. The singularity is over; it happened on or about December 1910.
Unnatural rates. Here’s an interesting post on the New York Fed’s Liberty Street blog challenging the ideas of “natural rates” of interest and unemployment. good: These ideas, it seems to me, are among the biggest obstacles to thinking constructively about macroeconomic policy. Obviously it’s example of, well, naturalizing economic outcomes, and in particular it’s the key ideological element in presenting the planning by the central bank as simply reproducing the natural state of the economy. But more specifically, it’s one of the most important ways that economists paper over the disconnect between the the economic-theory world of rational exchange, and the real world of monetary production. Without the natural rate, it would be much hard to pretend that the sort of models academic economists develop at their day jobs, have any connection to the real-world problems the rest of the world expects economists to solve. Good to see, then, some economists at the Fed acknowledging that the natural rate concepts (and its relatives like the natural rate of unemployment) is vacuous, for two related reasons. First, the interest rate that will bring output to potential depends on a whole range of contingent factors, including other policy choices and the current level of output; and second, that potential output itself depends on the path of demand. Neither potential output nor the natural rate reflects some deep, structural parameters. They conclude:
the risks associated with monetary easing are asymmetric. That is, excessive easing can be reversed, but excessive tightening may cause irreversible damage to the economy’s potential output.
In the research described in this blog, we focus on the effect of recessions on human capital. Recessions may affect potential output through other channels as well, such as lower capital accumulation, lower labor force participation, slow productivity growth, and so forth. Our research would suggest that to the extent that these mechanisms are operative, a monetary policy that seeks to track measured natural rates—of unemployment, interest rates, and so forth—might be insufficiently accommodative to engineer a full and quick recovery after a large recession. Such policies fall short because in a world with hysteresis, “natural” rates are endogenous. Policy should set these rates, not track them.
Also on a personal level, it’s nice to see that the phrases “potential output,” “other channels,” “lower labor force particiaption,” and “slow productivity growth” all link back to posts on this very blog. Maybe someone is listening.
More me being listened to: Here is a short interview I did with KCBS radio in the Bay area, on what’s wrong with economics. And here is a nice writeup by Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing of “Disgorge the Cash,” my Roosevelt paper on shareholder payouts and investment.
Still disgorging. Speaking of that: There were two new working papers out from the NBER last week on corporate finance, governance and investment. I’ve only glanced at them (end of semester crunch) but they both look like important steps forward for the larger disgorge the cash/short-termism argument. Here are the abstracts:
Lee, Shin and Stultz – Why Does Capital No Longer Flow More to the Industries with the Best Growth Opportunities?
With functionally efficient capital markets, we expect capital to flow more to the industries with the best growth opportunities. As a result, these industries should invest more and see their assets grow more relative to industries with the worst growth opportunities. We find that industries that receive more funds have a higher industry Tobin’s q until the mid-1990s, but not since then. Since industries with a higher funding rate grow more, there is a negative correlation not only between an industry’s funding rate and industry q but also between capital expenditures and industry q since the mid-1990s. We show that capital no longer flows more to the industries with the best growth opportunities because, since the middle of the 1990s, firms in high q industries increasingly repurchase shares rather than raise more funding from the capital markets.
We analyze private fixed investment in the U.S. over the past 30 years. We show that investment is weak relative to measures of profitability and valuation… We use industry-level and firm-level data to test whether under-investment relative to Q is driven by (i) financial frictions, (ii) measurement error (due to the rise of intangibles, globalization, etc), (iii) decreased competition (due to technology or regulation), or (iv) tightened governance and/or increased short-termism. We do not find support for theories based on risk premia, financial constraints, or safe asset scarcity, and only weak support for regulatory constraints. Globalization and intangibles explain some of the trends at the industry level, but their explanatory power is quantitatively limited. On the other hand, we find fairly strong support for the competition and short-termism/governance hypotheses. Industries with less entry and more concentration invest less, even after controlling for current market conditions. Within each industry-year, the investment gap is driven by firms that are owned by quasi-indexers and located in industries with less entry/more concentration. These firms spend a disproportionate amount of free cash flows buying back their shares.
I’m especially glad to see Philippon taking this question up. His Has Finance Become Less Efficient is kind of a classic, and in general he somehow seems to manages to be both a big-time mainstream finance guy and closely attuned to observable reality. A full post on the two NBER papers soon, hopefully, once I’ve had time to read them properly.
“Sets” how, exactly? Here’s a super helpful piece from the Bank of France on the changing mechanisms through which central banks — the Fed in particular — conduct monetary policy. It’s the first one in this collection — “Exiting low interest rates in a situation of excess liquidity: the experience of the Fed.” Textbooks tell us blandly that “the central bank sets the interest rate.” This ignores the fact that there are many interest rates in the economy, not all of which move with the central bank’s policy rate. It also ignores the concrete tools the central bank uses to set the policy rate, which are not trivial or transparent, and which periodically have to adapt to changes in the financial system. Post-2008 we’ve seen another of these adaptations. The BoF piece is one of the clearest guides I’ve seen to the new dispensation; I found it especially clarifying on the role of reverse repos. You could probably use it with advanced undergraduates.
Zoltan Pozsar’s discussion of the same issues is also very good — it adds more context but is a bit harder to follow than the BdF piece.
When he’s right, he’s right. I have my disagreements with Brad DeLong (doesn’t everyone?), but a lot of his recent stuff has been very good. Here are a couple of his recent posts that I’ve particularly liked. First, on “structural reform”:
The worst possible “structural reform” program is one that moves a worker from a low productivity job into unemployment, where they then lose their weak tie social network that allows them to get new jobs. … “Structural reforms” are extremely dangerous unless you have a high-pressure economy to pull resources out of low productivity into high productivity sectors.
The view in the high councils of Europe is that, when there is a high-pressure economy, politicians will not press for “structural reform”: there is no obvious need, and so why rock the boat? Politicians kick every can they can down the road, and you can only try “structural reform” when unemployment is high–and thus when it is likely to be ineffective if not destructive.
This gets both the substance and the politics right, I think. Although one might add that structural reform also often means reducing wages and worker power in high productivity sectors as well.
If the Federal Reserve wants to have the ammunition to fight the next recession when it happens, it needs the short-term safe nominal interest rate to be 5% or more when the recession hits. I believe that is very unlikely to happen without substantial fiscal expansion. … In the world that Janet Yellen sees, “fiscal policy is not needed to provide stimulus to get us back to full employment.” But fiscal stimulus is needed to create a situation in which full employment can be maintained…. if we do not shift to a more expansionary fiscal policy–and the higher neutral rate of interest that it brings–now, what do we envision will happen when the next recession arrives?
This is the central point of my WCEG working paper — that output is jointly determined by the interest rate and the fiscal balance, so the “natural rate” depends on the current stance of fiscal policy. Plus the argument that, in a world where the zero lower bound is a potential constraint — or more broadly, where the expansionary effects of monetary policy are limited — what is sometimes called “crowding out” is a feature, not a bug. Totally right, but there’s one more step I wish DeLong would take. He writes a lot, and it’s quite possible I’ve missed it, but has he ever followed this argument to its next logical step and concluded that the fiscal surpluses of the 1990s were, in retrospect, a bad idea?
Farmer on government debt. Also on government budgets, here are some sensible observations on the UK’s, from Roger Farmer. First, the British public deficit is not especially high by historical standards; second, past reductions in debt-GDP ratios were achieved by growth raising the denominator, not surpluses reducing the numerator; and third, there is nothing particularly desirable about balanced budgets or lower debt ratios in principle. Anyone reading this blog has probably heard these arguments a thousand times, but it’s nice to get them from someone other than the usual suspects.
Deviation and trend. I was struck by this slide from the BIS. The content is familiar; what’s interesting is that they take the deviation of GDP from the pre-criss trend as straightforward evidence of the costs of the crisis, and not a demographic-technological inevitability.
Cap and dividend. In Jacobin, James Boyce and Mark Paul make the case for carbon permits. I used to take the conventional view on carbon pricing — that taxes and permits were equivalent in principle, and that taxes were likely to work better in practice. But Boyce’s work on this has convinced me that there’s a strong case for preferring dividends. A critical part of his argument is that the permits don’t have to be tradable — short-term, non transferrable permits avoid a lot of the problems with “cap and trade” schemes.
Why teach the worst? In a post at Developing Economics, New School grad student Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven forthrightly makes the case for teaching “the worst of mainstream economics” to non-economists. As it happens, I don’t agree with her arguments here. I don’t think there’s a hard tradeoff between teaching heterodox material we think is true, and teaching orthodox material students will need in future classes or work. I think that with some effort, it is possible to teach material that is both genuinely useful and meaningful, and that will serve students well in future economics class. And except for students getting a PhD in economics themselves — and maybe not even them — I don’t think “learning to critique mainstream theories” is a very pressing need. But I like the post anyway. The important thing is that all of us — especially on the heterodox side — need to think more of teaching not as an unfortunate distraction, but as a core part of our work as economists. She takes teaching seriously, that’s the important thing.
Apple in the balance of payments. From Brad Setser, here’s a very nice example of critical reading of the national accounts. Perhaps even more than in other areas of accounts, the classification of different payments in the balance of payments is more or less arbitrary, contested, and frequently changed. It’s also shaped more directly by private interests — capital flight, tax avoidance and so on often involve moving cross-border payments from one part of the BoP to another. So we need to be even more scrupulously attentive with BoP statistics than with others to how concrete social reality gets reflected in the official numbers. The particular reality Setser is interested in is Apple’s research and development spending in the US, which ought to show up in the BoP as US service exports. But hardly any of it does, because — as he shows — Apple arranges for almost all its IP income to show up in low-tax Ireland instead. To me, the fundamental lesson here is about the relation between statistical map and economic territory. But as Setser notes, there’s also a more immediate policy implication:
Trade theory says that if the winners from globalization compensate the losers from globalization, everyone is better off. But I am not quite sure how that is supposed to happen if the winners are in some significant part able to structure their affairs so that a large share of their income is globally (almost) untaxed.
Arjun and Jayadev and I have a working paper up at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth on the conflict between conventional macroeconomic policy and Lerner-style functional finance. Here’s the accompanying blogpost, cross-posted from the WCEG blog.
One pole of current debates about U.S. fiscal policy is occupied by the “functional finance” position—the view usually traced back to the late economist Abba Lerner—that a government’s budget balance can be set at whatever level is needed to stabilize aggregate demand, without worrying about the level of government debt. At the other pole is the conventional view that a government’s budget balance must be set to keep debt on a sustainable trajectory while leaving the management of aggregate demand to the central bank. Both sides tend to assume that these different policy views come from fundamentally different ideas about how the economy works.
A new working paper, “Lost in Fiscal Space,” coauthored by myself and Arjun Jayadev, suggests that, on the contrary, the functional finance and the conventional approaches can be understood in terms of the same analytic framework. The claim that fiscal policy can be used to stabilize the economy without ever worrying about debt sustainability sounds radical. But we argue that it follows directly from the standard macroeconomic models that are taught to undergraduates and used by policymakers.
Here’s the idea. There are two instruments: first, the interest rate set by the central bank; and second, the fiscal balance—the budget surplus or deficit. And there are two targets: the level of aggregate demand consistent with acceptable levels of inflation and unemployment; and a stable debt-to-GDP ratio. Each instrument affects both targets—output depends on both the interest rate set by monetary authorities and on the fiscal balance (as well as a host of other factors) while the change in the debt depends on both new borrowing and the interest paid on existing debt. Conventional policy and functional finance represent two different choices about which instrument to assign to which target. The former says the interest rate instrument should focus on demand and the fiscal-balance instrument should focus on the debt-ratio target, the latter has them the other way around.
Does it matter? Not necessarily. There is always one unique combination of interest rate and budget balance that delivers both stable debt and price stability. If policy is carried out perfectly then that’s where you will end up, regardless of which instrument is assigned to which target. In this sense, the functional finance position is less radical than either its supporters or its opponents believe.
In reality, of course, policies are not followed perfectly. One common source of problems is when decisions about each instrument are made looking only at the effects on its assigned target, ignoring the effects on the other one. A government, for example, may adopt fiscal austerity to bring down the debt ratio, ignoring the effects this will have on aggregate demand. Or a central bank may raise the interest rate to curb inflation, ignoring the effects this will have on the sustainability of the public debt. (The rise in the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio in the 1980s owes more to Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker’s interest rate hikes than to President Reagan’s budget deficits.) One natural approach, then, is to assign each target to the instrument that affects it more powerfully, so that these cross-effects are minimized.
So far this is just common sense; but when you apply it more systematically, as we do in our working paper, it has some surprising implications. In particular, it means that the metaphor of “fiscal space” is backward. When government debt is large, it makes more sense, not less, to use active fiscal policy to stabilize demand—and leave the management of the public debt ratio to the central bank. The reason is simple: The larger the debt-to-GDP ratio, the more that changes in the ratio depend on the difference in between the interest rate and the growth rate of GDP, and the less those changes depend on current spending and revenue (a point that has been forcefully made by Council of Economic Advisers Chair Jason Furman). This is what we see historically: When the public debt is very large, as in the United States during and immediately after the Second World War, the central bank focused on stabilizing the public debt rather than on stabilizing demand, which means responsibility for aggregate demand fell to the budget authorities.
We hope this paper will help clarify what’s at stake in current debates about U.S. fiscal policy. The question is not whether it’s economically feasible to use fiscal policy as our primary instrument to manage aggregate demand. Any central bank that is able to achieve its price stability and full employment mandates is equally able to keep the debt-to-GDP ratio constant while the budget authorities manage demand. The latter task may even be easier, especially when debt is already high. The real question is who we, as a democratic society, trust to make decisions about the direction of the economy as a whole.
UPDATE: Nick Rowe has an interesting response here. (And an older one here, with a great comments thread following it.)
There’s been even more ink spilled lately than usual over the reasons monetary policy seems to have lost its mojo, and what it would take to get it back. Admittedly a lot of it is the same dueling pronouncements over whether helicopter money must always or can never work, but with the volume turned up a notch.
From my point of view, the conceptual issues here are simpler than you’d guess from the shouting. It comes down to two questions. First, how much control does the central bank have over the terms on which various economic units can adjust their balance sheets by selling assets or issuing new liabilities? And second, how many units would increase their spending on goods and services if they could more easily make the required balance sheet adjustments? Obviously, these questions are not straightforward. And they have to be answered jointly — to be effective, monetary policy has to reach not just the elasticity of the financial system in general, but its elasticity at the points where it meets financially-constrained units. But in principle, it’s simple enough.
The whole question, it seems to me, is made more confusing than it needs to be by two bad habits of economists. First is the tendency to think of the economy as a tightly articulated system, with just a few degrees of freedom. (This is one way of describing the focus on equilibrium.) To an economist, the economy is like a pool of water, where a disturbance to any part of it leads to a rapid adjustment of the whole system to a final state that can be described on the basis of a few parameters, without any information about specific components. What’s the alternative? The economy is like a pile of rocks: Disturbances may remain local rather than being transmitted to the whole system; less information about the structure can be derived from a few global parameters and more depends on the contingent states of the individual components; and stability is the result not of rapid adjustment, but rather of buffers that make adjustment unnecessary. Economists’ fixation on tightly-articulated systems tempts us to think about a single parameter (the interest rate, the money supply) changing uniformly through the economy (and often over all of time), and economic units fully adjusting their behavior in response. It leads to a focus on the ultimate endpoint of an adjustment process rather than its next step. This yields stronger, and often paradoxical, conclusions than you would reach if you imagined beliefs and behavior changing locally and incrementally.
The second vice is economists’ incorrigible tendency to mistake the map for the territory. Like the first, this leads us to overvalue formal logical analysis at the expense of the concrete and historical. It also leads us to take an abstract representation that was adopted to clarify a particular question in a particular context, and treat it as an object in itself, as if it descried a self-contained world. Anyone who’s spent time around economists will have noticed their habit of regarding any label on a variable in an equation, as a physical object out there in the world. There’s nothing wrong — it should go without saying — with formal, logical analysis; as Marx said, abstraction is the social scientist’s equivalent of the microscope or telescope. The difference is that economists treat models as toy train sets rather than as tools. In the case of monetary policy, it works like this. The central bank adopts a policy tool which, in the institutional context at the time, gives them adequate control over the overall pace of credit expansion. Economists abstract from the — genuinely, but only for the moment — irrelevant details of exactly how this instrument works, and postulate a direct connection with the economic outcome it is meant to control. To make communication with other economists easier, they often also construct a model where just exactly the intervention carried out by the central bank is what’s needed to restore the Walrasian optimum. This may be harmless enough as long as the policy framework persists. But the dogmatic insistence that “the central bank sets the money supply” or “the central bank sets the interest rate” is a source of endless confusion when the instrument is changing to something else.
So coming back to the concrete situation, how much can the Fed influence the expansion of bank balance sheets, and how much is expenditure on current production held down by the inelasticity of bank balance sheets? In the idealized financial world of circa 1950, the answer was simple. Commercial bank liabilities were deposits; deposits expanded through investment loans to business and households; and the total volume of deposits was strictly limited by the reserves made available by the Fed. The situation today is more complicated. But we have a better chance of making sense of it if we don’t get distracted by brain teasers about “M”.
I wrote this a month or two ago and didn’t post it for some reason. As a critical post, it really ought to have links to examples of the positions being criticized; but at this point it doesn’t seem worth the trouble.
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.
“Huge foreign demand for Treasuries”. Via Across the Curve, here’s the Wall Street Journal:
The global hunger for U.S. government debt is intensifying as investors seek better returns from the negative yields and record-low rates found in Japan and Europe. On Thursday, an auction of 30-year Treasury debt attracted some of the highest demand ever from overseas buyers…
Thirty-year bonds typically attract a specialized audience, largely pension funds and other investors trying to buy assets to match long-term liabilities. There are few viable alternatives for such buyers around the world. The frenzy of buying has sparked warnings about the potential of large losses if interest rates rise. …
One auction is hardly dispositive, but that huge foreign demand is worth keeping in mind when we think about the US fiscal and external deficits. A point that Ryan Cooper also makes well.
You get the debt, I get the cash. When I pointed out Minsky’s take on Trump on this blog a few months ago, there were some doubts. How exactly, did Trump extract equity from his businesses? Why didn’t the other investors sue? In its fascinating long piece on Trump’s adventures in Atlantic City, the Times answers these questions in great detail. Rread the whole thing. But if you don’t, Trump himself has the tl;dr:
“Early on, I took a lot of money out of the casinos with the financings and the things we do,” he said in a recent interview. “Atlantic City was a very good cash cow for me for a long time.”
Unto the tenth generation. If you are going to make an argument for Britain leaving the euro, it seems to me that Steve Keen has the right one. The fundamental issue is not the direct economic effects of membership in the EU (which are probably exaggerated in any case.) The issue is the political economy. First, the EU lacks democratic legitimacy, it effectively shifts power away from elected national governments, while Europe-wide democracy remains an empty shell. And second, European institutions are committed to an agenda of liberalization and austerity.
From the other side, we get this:
I wish I knew where this sort of thing came from. Maybe Brexit would reduce employment in the UK, maybe it wouldn’t — this is not the sort of thing that can be asserted as an unambiguous matter of fact. Whether it’s EU membership or taxes or trade or the minimum wage, everyone claims their preferred policy will lead to higher living standards than the alternatives. Chris Bertram seems like a reasonable person, I doubt that, in general, he wishes suffering on the children of people who see policy questions differently than he does. But on this one, disagreement is impermissible. Why?
I like hanging out in coffeehouses. Over at Bloomberg, Noah Smith offers a typology of macroeconomics:
The first is what I call “coffee-house macro,” and it’s what you hear in a lot of casual discussions. It often revolves around the ideas of dead sages — Friedrich Hayek, Hyman Minsky and John Maynard Keynes.
The second is finance macro. This consists of private-sector economists and consultants who try to read the tea leaves on interest rates, unemployment, inflation and other indicators in order to predict the future of asset prices (usually bond prices). It mostly uses simple math, … always includes a hefty dose of personal guesswork.
The third is academic macro. This traditionally involves professors making toy models of the economy — since the early ’80s, these have almost exclusively been DSGE models … most people outside the discipline who take one look at these models immediately think they’re kind of a joke.
The fourth type I call Fed macro…
It’s fair to say a lot of us here in the coffeehouses were pleased by this piece. Obviously, you can quibble with the details of his list. But it gets a couple of big things right. First, the fundamental problem with academic macroeconomics is not that it’s a study of the concrete phenomena of “the economy” that has gone wrong in some way, but a self-contained activity. The purpose of models isn’t to explain anything, it’s just to satisfy the aesthetic standards of the profession. As my friend Suresh put it once, the best way to think about economics is a kind of haiku with Euler equations. I think a lot of people on the left miss this — they think that you can criticize economic by pointing out some discrepancy with the real world. But that’s like saying that chess is flawed because in medieval Europe there were many more knights than bishops.
The other thing I think Noah’s piece gets right is there is no such thing as “economic orthodoxy.” There are various different orthodoxies — the orthodoxy of the academy, the orthodoxy of business and finance, the orthodoxy of policymakers — and they don’t agree with each other. On some important dimensions they hardly even make contact.
Are there really excess reserves? I’ve just been reading Zoltan Pozsar’s Global Money Notes for Credit Suisse. Man they are good. If you’re interested in money, finance, central banks, monetary policy, any of that, you should be reading this guy. Anyway, in this one he makes a provocative argument that I think is right:
Contrary to conventional wisdom, there are no excess reserves – not one penny. Labelling the trillions of reserves created as a byproduct of QE as “excess” was appropriate only until the Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR) went live, but not after. …
Before the LCR, banks were required to hold reserves only against demand deposits issued in the U.S. … As banks went about their usual business of making loans and creating deposits, they routinely fell short of reserve requirements. To top up their reserve balances, banks with a shortfall of reserves … borrowed fed funds from banks with a surplus of reserves… These transactions comprised the fed funds market.
Under the LCR, banks are required to hold reserves (and more broadly, high-quality liquid assets) not only against overnight deposits, but all short-term liabilities that mature in less than 30 days, regardless of whether those liabilities were issued by a bank subsidiary, a broker-dealer subsidiary or a holding company onshore or offshore …
The idea is this: Under the new Basel III rules, which the US has adopted, banks are required to hold liquid assets equal to their total liabilities due in 30 days or less. This calculation is supposed to include liabilities of all kinds, across all the bank’s affiliates and subsidiaries, inside and outside the US. Most of this requirement must be satisfied with a short list of “Tier I” assets, which includes central bank reserves. So reserves that are excess with respect to the old (effectively moot) reserve requirements, will not be to the extent that they are held to satisfy these new rules.
Pozsar’s discussion of these issues is extremely informative. But his “no one penny” language may be a bit exaggerated. While the exact rules are still being finalized, it looks like current reserve holdings could still be excessive under LCR. Whie banks have to hold unencumbered liquid assets equal to thier short-term liabilities, the fraction that has to be reserves specifically is still being determined — Pozsar suggests the most likely fraction is 15 percent. He gives data for six big banks, four of which hold more reserves than required by that standard — though on the other hand, five of the six hold less total Tier I liquid assets than they will need. (That’s the “max” line in the figure — the “min” line is 15 percent.) But even if current reserve holdings turn out to be more than is required by LCR, it’s clear that there are far less excess reserves than one would think using the old requirements.
Pozsar draws several interesting conclusions from these facts. First, the Federal Funds rate is dead for good as a tool of policy. (I wonder how long it will take textbook writers to catch up.) Second, central bank balance sheets are not going to shrink back to “normal” any time in the foreseeable future. Third, this is a step along the way to the Fed becoming the world’s central bank, de facto in even in a sense de jure. (Especially in conjunction with the permanent swap lines with other central banks, another insitutional evolution that has not gotten the attention it deserves.) A conclusion that he does not draw, but perhaps should have, is that this is another reason not to worry about demand for Treasury debt. There are good prudential reasons for requiring banks to hold government liabilities, but in effect it is also a form of financial repression.
This is also a good illustration of Noah’s point about the disconnect between academic economics and policy/finance economics. Academic economists are obsessed with “the” interest rate, which they map to the entirely unrelated intertemporal price called “interest rate” in the Walrasian system. Fundamentally what central banks do is determine the pace of credit expansion, which historically has involved a great variety of policy tools. Yes, for a while the tool of choice was an overnight interbank rate. But not anymore. And whatever the mix of immediate targets and instruments will be going forward, it’s a safe bet it won’t return to what it was in the past.
My dinner with Axel. Last fall, Arjun Jayadev and I had a series of conversations with Axel Leijonhufvud at his home in California; videos and transcript are now up at the INET site, along with a collection of his writings. I’m very grateful to have had this chance to talk with him; Leijonhufvud is one of two or three economists who’ve most influenced my thinking. He’s also a charming and delightful storyteller, which I hope comes through in the interviews. I’ll be writing something soon, I hope, about Axel’s work and its significance, but in the meantime, check out the interview.
The mind of Draghi. This speech by Mario Draghi offers a nice glimpse into the thinking of central bankers circa 2016. The fundamental point is the idea of a long run “real” or “natural” rate of interest, which policy cannot affect. This idea, and the corollary that the economic world we actually observe is in some sense a false, unreal, artificial or “distorted” sublunary version of the true ideal, is, I think, the central site of tension between economic ideology and economic reality today. But there are other particular points of interest in the speech. First, the frank acknowledgement that the big problem with zero rates is that they reduce the profitability of financial institutions. (By the same logic, Draghi should want to do away with public education since it reduces the profitability of private schools, and with law enforcement since it reduces the profitability of private security firms.) And second, the claim that one reason for the problem of low interest rates is … excessive government debt!
A temporary period of policy rates being close to zero or even negative in real terms is not unprecedented by any means. Over the past decades, however, we have seen long-term yields trending down in real terms as well, independent of the cyclical stance of monetary policy.
The drivers behind this have been, among others, rising net savings as ageing populations plan for retirement, relatively less public capital expenditure in a context of high public indebtedness, and a slowdown in productivity growth reducing the profitability of investment.
Yes, for years we have been warned that excessive government debt is that interest rates will get too high, increasing borrowing costs for the government and crowding out of private investment. But now it turns out that excessive government debt is also responsible for rates that are too low. Truly, to be a central banker in these times one must be a Zen master.
Business cycle measurement ahead of theory … or heading in an entirely different direction. I’m very excited about a series of posts Merijn Knibbe is doing for the World Economics Association. They are on the incompatibility of the concepts used in the construction of national accounts and other macroeconomic data, with the concepts used in macroeconomic theory. I’ve wanted for a while to make the case for a consistent economic nominalism, meaning that we should treat the money payments we actually observe as fundamental or primitive, and not merely as manifestations of some deeper “real” economy. Knibbe is now doing it. The first installment is here.
Kaminska on “deglobalization”. Izabella Kaminska is always worth reading, but this piece from last week is even more worth reading than usual. I particularly like her point that the international role of the dollar means that the US is to the world as Germany is to the eurozone:
the dollarisation of the global economy … has created a sort of worldwide Eurozone effect, wherein every country whose own currency isn’t strong or reputable enough to be used for trade settlement with commodity producers is at the mercy of dollar flows into its own country. Just like Greece, they can’t print the currency that affords them purchasing power on the global market.
The logical corollary, which she doesn’t quite spell out, is that the US, thanks to its willingness to run trade deficits that supply dollars to the rest of the world, has fulfilled its international role much more responsibly than Germany has.
The bondholder’s view of theworld. Normally we are told that when interest rates on public debt rise, that’s a sign of the awesome power of bond markets, passing judgement on governments that they find unsound. Now we learn from this Bloomberg piece that when interest rates on public debt fall, that too is a sign of the awesome power of bond markets. Sub-1 percent rates on Irish 10-year bonds are glossed as: “Bond Market to Periphery Politicians: You Don’t Matter.” The point is that even without a government, Ireland can borrow for next to nothing. Now, you might think that if the “service” bond markets offer is available basically for free, to basically anyone — the takeaway of the piece — then it’s the bond markets that don’t matter. Well then you, my friend, will never make it as a writer of think pieces in the business press.
The bondholder’s view, part two. Brian Romanchuk says what needs to be said about some surprisingly credulous comments by Olivier Blanchard on Japan’s public debt.
Anyone who thinks that hedge funds have the balance sheet capacity to “fund” a G7 nation does not understand how financial markets are organised. There has been a parade of hedge funds shorting the JGB market (directly or indirectly) for decades, and the negative yields on JGB’s tells you how well those trades worked out.
The prehistory of Trumpism. Here is a nice piece by my University of Chicago classmate Rick Perlstein on the roots of Trump’s politics in the civil-rights-backlash politics of fear and resentment of Koch-era New York. (Also.) I’ve been wishing for a while that Trump’s role in the Central Park Five case would get a more central place in discussions of his politics, so I’m glad to see Rick take that up. It’s also smart to link it to the Death Wish/Taxi Driver/Bernie Goetz white-vigilante politics of the era. (Random anecdote: I first saw Taxi Driver at the apartment of Ken Kurson, who was at the U of C around the same time as Rick and I. He now edits the Trump-in-law owned New York Observer.) On the other hand, Trump’s views on monetary policy are disturbingly sane:
“The best thing we have going for us is that interest rates are so low,” says Trump, comparing the U.S. to a homeowner refinancing their mortgage. “There are lots of good things that could be done that aren’t being done, amazingly.”
The new normal at theFed. Here’s a useful piece from Tracy Alloway criticizing the idea that central banks will or should return to the pre-2008 status quo. It’s an easy case to make but she makes it well. This is a funny moment to be teaching monetary policy. Textbooks give a mix of the way things were 40 years ago (reserve requirements, the money multiplier) and the way things were 10 years ago (open market operations, the federal funds rate). And the way things are now? Well…
Me at the Jacobin. The Jacobin put up the transcript of an interview I did with Michel Rozworski a couple months ago, around the debates over potential output and the possibilities for fiscal stimulus. It’s a good interview, I feel good about it. Now, Noah Smith (on twitter) raises the question, when you say “the people running the show”, who exactly are you referring to? It’s a fair question. But I think we can be confident there is a ruling class, and try to understand its intentions and the means through which they are carried out, even if we’re still struggling to describe the exact process through which those intentions are formed.
Me on Bloomberg TV. Joe Weisenthal invited me to come on “What’d You Miss” last week, to talk about that BIS paper on bank capital and shareholder payouts. Here’s a helpful post by Matthew Klein on the same topic. And here is the Fed paper I mention in the interview, on the high levels of bank payouts to shareholders during 2007-2009, when banks faced large and hard to predict losses from the crisis and, in many cases, were simultaneously being supported in various ways by the Fed and the Treasury.
Some links, on short-termism, trade, the Fed and other things.
Senators Tammy Baldwin and Jeff Merkley have introduced a bill to limit activist investors’ ability to push for higher payouts. The bill, which is cosponsored by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, would strengthen the 13D disclosure requirements for hedge funds and others acquiring large positions in a corporation. This is obviously just one piece of a larger agenda, but it’s good to see the “short-termism’ conversation leading to concrete proposals.
I’m pleased to be listed as one of the supporters of the bill, but I think the strongest endorsement is this furious reaction from a couple of hedge fund dudes. It’s funny how they take it for granted that shareholder democracy is on the same plane as democracy democracy, but my favorite bit is, “Shareholders do not cause bad management, just as voters do not cause bad politicians.” This sounds to me like an admission that shareholders are functionless parasites — if they aren’t responsible for the quality of management, what are we paying them all those dividends for?
I wrote a twitter essayon why the US shouldn’t seek a more favorable trade balance.
Jordan Weissman thinks I was “a bit ungenerous” to Trump.
My Roosevelt Institute colleague Carola Blinder testified recentlyon reform of the Fed, making the critical point that we need to take monetary policy seriously as a political question. “Contrary to conventional thinking, the rules of central banking are not neutral: Both monetary policy and financial supervision have profound effects on income and wealth inequality … [and] are the product of political contestation and compromise.” Relatedly, Mark Thoma suggests that the Fed “cares more about the interests of the rich and powerful than it does the working class”; his solution, as far as I can tell, is to hope that it doesn’t.
Matt Bruenig has a useful post on employment by age group in the US v the Nordic countries. As he shows, the fraction of people 25-60 working there is much higher than the fraction here (though workers here put in more hours). This has obvious relevance for the arguments of the No We Can’t caucus that there’s no room for more stimulus, because demographics.
A reminder: “Ricardian equivalence” (debt and tax finance of government spending have identical effects on private behavior) was explicitly denied by David Ricardo, and the “Fisher effect” (persistent changes in inflation lead to equal movements of nominal interest rates, leaving real rates unchanged) was explicitly denied by Irving Fisher. One nice thing about this piece is it looks at how textbooks describe the relationship between the idea and its namesake. Interesting, Mankiw gets Fisher right, while Delong and Olney get him wrong: They falsely attribute to him the orthodox view that nominal interest rates track inflation one for one, when in fact he argued that even persistent changes in inflation are mostly not passed on to nominal rates.
Here is a fascinating review of some recent books on the Cold War conflicts in Angola. One thing the review brings out was how critical the support of Cuba was to South Africa’s defeat there, and how critical that defeat in turn was to the end of apartheid. We tend to take it for granted that history had to turn out as it did, but it’s worth asking if, in the absence of Castro’s commitment to Angola, white rule in South Africa might have ended much later, or not at all.
I have a new piece up at Jacobin on December’s rate hike. In my experience, the editing at Jacobin is excellent. But for better or worse, they don’t go for footnotes. So I’m reposting this here with the original notes. And also for comments, which Jacobin (perhaps wisely) doesn’t allow.
I conveyed some of the same views on “What’d You Miss?” on Bloomberg TV a couple weeks ago. (I come on around 13:30.)
To the surprise of no one, the Federal Reserve recently raised the federal funds rate — the interest rate under its direct control — from 0–0.25 percent to 0.25–0.5 percent, ending seven years of a federal funds rate of zero.
But while widely anticipated, the decision still clashes with the Fed’s supposed mandate to maintain full employment and price stability. Inflation remains well shy of the Fed’s 2 percent benchmark (its interpretation of its legal mandate to promote “price stability”) — 1.4 percent in 2015, according to the Fed’s preferred personal consumption expenditure measure, and a mere 0.4 percent using the consumer price index — and shows no sign of rising.
US GDP remains roughly 10 percent below the pre-2008 trend, so it’s hard to argue that the economy is approaching any kind of supply constraints. Set aside the fundamental incoherence of the notion of “price stability” (let alone of a single metric to measure it) — according to the Fed’s professed rulebook, the case for a rate increase is no stronger today than a year or two ago. Even the business press, for the most part, fails to see the logic for raising rates now.
Yet from another perspective, the decision to raise the federal funds rate makes perfect sense. The consensus view considers the main job of central banks to be maintaining price stability by adjusting the short-term interest rate. (Lower interest rates are supposed to raise private spending when inflation falls short of the central bank’s target, and higher interest rates are supposed to restrain spending when inflation rises above the target.) But this has never been the whole story.
More importantly, the central bank helps paper over the gap between ideals and reality — the distance between the ideological vision of the economy as a system of market exchanges of real goods, and the concrete reality of production in pursuit of money profits.
Central banks are thus, in contemporary societies, one of the main sites at which capitalism’s “Polanyi problem” is managed: a society that truly subjected itself to the logic of market exchange would tear itself to pieces. But the conscious planning that confines market outcomes within tolerable bounds has to be hidden from view because if the role of planning was acknowledged, it would undermine the idea of markets as natural and spontaneous and demonstrate the possibility of conscious planning toward other ends.
One particular problem for central bank planners is managing the pace of growth for the system as a whole. Fast growth doesn’t just lead to rising prices — left to their own devices, individual capitalists are liable to bid up the price of labor and drain the reserve army of the unemployed during boom times.  Making concessions to workers when demand is strong is rational for individual business owners, but undermines their position as a class.
Solving this coordination problem is one of modern central bankers’ central duties. They pay close attention to what is somewhat misleadingly called the labor market, and use low unemployment as a signal to raise interest rates.
So in this respect it isn’t surprising to see the Fed raising rates, given that unemployment rates have now fallen below 5 percent for the first time since the financial crisis.
Indeed, inflation targeting has always been coupled with a strong commitment to restraining the claims of workers. Paul Volcker is now widely admired as the hero who slew the inflation dragon, but as Fed chair in the 1980s, he considered rolling back the power of organized labor — in terms of both working conditions and wages — to be his number one problem.  Volcker described Reagan’s breaking of the air-traffic controllers union as “the single most important action of the administration in helping the anti-inflation fight.”
As one of Volcker’s colleagues argued, the fundamental goal of high rates was that
labor begins to get the point that if they get too much in wages they won’t have a business to work for. I think that really is beginning to happen now and that’s why I’m more optimistic. . . . When Pan Am workers are willing to take 10 percent wage cuts because the airlines are in trouble, I think those are signs that we’re at the point where something can really start to happen.
Volcker’s successors at the Fed approached the inflation problem similarly. Alan Greenspan saw the fight against rising prices as, at its essence, a project of promoting weakness and insecurity among workers; he famously claimed that “traumatized workers” were the reason strong growth with low inflation was possible in the 1990s, unlike in previous decades.
Testifying before Congress in 1997, Greenspan attributed the “extraordinary’” and “exceptional” performance of the nineties economy to “a heightened sense of job insecurity” among workers “and, as a consequence, subdued wages.”
As Greenspan’s colleague at the Fed in the 1990s, Janet Yellen took the same view. In a 1996 Federal Open Market Committee meeting, she said her biggest worry was that “firms eventually will be forced to bid up wages to retain workers.” But, she continued, she was not too concerned at the moment because
while the labor market is tight, job insecurity also seems alive and well. Real wage aspirations appear modest, and the bargaining power of workers is surprisingly low . . . senior workers and particularly those who have earned wage premia in the past, whether it is due to the power of their unions or the generous compensation policies of their employers, seem to be struggling to defend their jobs . . . auto workers are focused on securing their own benefits during their lifetimes but appear reconciled to accepting two-tier wage structures . . .
And when a few high-profile union victories, like the Teamsters’ successful 1997 strike at UPS, seemed to indicate organized labor might be reviving, Greenspan made no effort to hide his displeasure:
I suspect we will find that the [UPS] strike has done a good deal of damage in the past couple of weeks. The settlement may go a long way toward undermining the wage flexibility that we started to get in labor markets with the air traffic controllers’ strike back in the early 1980s. Even before this strike, it appeared that the secular decline in real wages was over.
The Fed’s commitment to keeping unemployment high enough to limit wage gains is hardly a secret — it’s right there in the transcripts of FOMC meetings, and familiar to anyone who has read left critics of the Fed like William Greider and Doug Henwood. The bluntness with which Fed officials take sides in the class war is still striking, though.
Of course, Fed officials deny they’re taking sides. They justify policies that keep workers too weak, disorganized, and traumatized to demand higher wages by focusing on the purported dangers of low unemployment. Lower unemployment, they say, leads to higher money wages, and higher money wages are passed on as higher prices, ultimately leaving workers’ real pay unchanged while eroding their savings.
So while it might look like naked class warfare to deliberately raise unemployment to keep wage demands “subdued”, the Fed assures us that it’s really in the best interests of everyone, including workers.
Keeping Wages in Check
The low-unemployment-equals-high-prices story has always been problematic. But for years its naysayers were silenced by the supposed empirical fact of the Phillips curve, which links low unemployment to higher inflation.
The shaky empirical basis of the Phillips curve was the source of major macroeconomic debates in the 1970s, when monetarists claimed that any departure from unemployment’s “natural” rate would lead inflation to rise, or fall, without limit. This “vertical Phillips curve” was used to deny the possibility of any tradeoff between unemployment and inflation — a tradeoff that, in the postwar era, was supposed to be managed by a technocratic state balancing the interests of wage earners against the interest of money owners.
In the monetarist view, there were no conflicting interests to balance, since there was just one possible rate of unemployment compatible with a stable price system (the “Non Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment”). This is still the view one finds in most textbooks today.
In retrospect, the 1970s debates are usually taken as a decisive blow against the “bastard Keynesian” orthodoxy of the 1960s and 1970s. They were also an important factor in the victory of monetarism and rational expectations in the economics profession, and in the defeat of fiscal policy in the policy realm.
But today there’s a different breakdown in the relationship between unemployment and inflation that threatens to dislodge orthodoxy once again. Rather than a vertical curve, we now seem to face a “horizontal” Phillips curve in which changes in unemployment have no consequences for inflation one way or another.
Despite breathless claims about the end of work, there hasn’t been any change in the link between output and employment; and low unemployment is still associated with faster wage growth. But the link between wage growth and inflation has all but disappeared.
This gap in the output-unemployment-wages-inflation causal chain creates a significant problem for central bank ideology.
When Volcker eagerly waited for news on the latest Teamsters negotiations, it was ostensibly because of the future implications for inflation. Now, if there is no longer any visible link between wage growth and inflation, then central bankers might stop worrying so much about labor market outcomes. Put differently, if the Fed’s goal was truly price stability, then the degree to which workers are traumatized would no longer matter so much.
But that’s not the only possibility. Central bankers might want to maintain their focus on unemployment and wages as immediate targets of policy for other reasons. In that case they’d need to change their story.
The current tightening suggests that this is exactly what’s happening. Targeting “wage inflation” seems to be becoming a policy goal in itself, regardless of whether it spurs price increases.
A recent piece by Justin Wolfers in the New York Times is a nice example of where conventional wisdom is heading: “It is only when nominal wage growth exceeds the sum of inflation (about 2 percent) and productivity growth (about 1.5 percent) that the Fed needs to be concerned. . .”
This sounds like technical jargon, but if taken seriously it suggests a fundamental shift in the objectives of monetary policy.
By definition, the change in the wage share of output is equal to the rise in money wages minus the sum of the inflation rate and the increase in labor productivity. To say “nominal wage growth is greater than the sum of inflation and productivity growth” is just a roundabout way of saying “the wage share is rising.” So in plain English, Wolfers is saying that the Fed should raise rates if and only if the share of GDP going to workers threatens to increase.
Think for a moment about this logic. In the textbook story, wage growth is a problem insofar as it’s associated with rising inflation. But in the new version, wage growth is more likely to be a problem when inflation stays low.
Wolfers is the farthest thing from a conservative ideologue. His declaration that the Fed needs to guard against a rise in the wage share is simply an expression of conventional elite wisdom that comes straight from the Fed. A recent post by several economists at the New York Fed uses an identical definition of “overheating” as wage growth in excess of productivity growth plus inflation.
Focusing on wage growth itself, rather than the unemployment-inflation nexus, represents a subtle but far-reaching shift in the aim of policy. According to official rhetoric, an inflation-targeting central bank should only be interested in the part of wage changes that co-varies with inflation. Otherwise changes in the wage share presumably reflect social or technological factors rather than demand conditions that are not the responsibility of the central bank.
To be fair, linking demand conditions to changes in the distribution between profits and wages, rather than to inflation, is a more realistic than the old orthodoxy that greater bargaining power for workers cannot increase their share of the product. 
But it sits awkwardly with the central bank story that higher unemployment is necessary to keep down prices. And it undermines the broader commitment in orthodox economics to a sharp distinction — both theoretically and policy-wise — between a monetary, demand-determined short run and a technology and “real”-resources-determined long run, with distributional questions firmly located in the latter.
There’s a funny disconnect in these conversations. A rising wage share supposedly indicates an overheating economy — a macroeconomic problem that requires a central bank response. But a falling wage share is the result of deep structural forces — unrelated to aggregate demand and certainly not something with which the central bank should be concerned. An increasing wage share is viewed by elites as a sign that policy is too loose, but no one ever blames a declining wage share on policy that is too tight. Instead we’re told it’s the result of technological change, Chinese competition, etc.
Logically, central bankers shouldn’t be able to have it both ways. In practice they can and do.
The European Central Bank (ECB) — not surprisingly, given its more overtly political role — has gone further down this road than the Fed. Their standard for macroeconomic balance appears to be shifting from the NAIRU (Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment) to the NAWRU (Non-Accelerating Wage Rate of Unemployment).
If the goal all along has been lower wage growth, then this is not surprising: when the link between wages and inflation weakens, the response is not to find other tools for controlling inflation, but other arguments for controlling wages.
Indeed finding fresh arguments for keeping wages in check may be the real content of much of the “competitiveness” discourse. Replacing price stability with elevating competitiveness as the paramount policy goal creates a convenient justification for pushing down wages even when inflation is already extremely low.
It’s interesting in this context to look back at the ransom note the ECB sent to the Spanish government during the 2011 sovereign debt crisis. (Similar letters were sent to the governments of other crisis-hit countries.) One of the top demands the ECB made as a condition of stabilizing the market for government debt was the abolition of cost-of-living (COLA) clauses in employment contracts — even if adopted voluntarily by private employers.
Needless to say this is far beyond the mandate of a central bank as normally understood.  But the most interesting thing is the rationale for ending COLA clauses. The ECB declared that cost-of-living clauses are “a structural obstacle to the adjustment of labour costs” and “contribute to hampering competitiveness.”
This is worth unpacking. For a central bank concerned with price stability, the obvious problem with indexing wages to prices (as COLA clauses do) is that it can lead to inflationary spirals, a situation in which wages and prices rise together and real wages remain the same.
But this kind of textbook concern is not the ECB’s focus; instead, the emphasis on labor costs shows an abiding interest in tamping down real wages. In the old central bank story, wage indexing was supposedly bad because it didn’t affect (i.e., raise) real wages and only led to higher inflation. In the new dispensation, wage indexing is bad precisely because it does affect real wages. The ECB’s language only makes sense if the goal is to allow inflation to erode real wages.
The Republic of the Central Banker
Does the official story matter? Perhaps not.
The period before the 2008 crisis was characterized by a series of fulsome tributes to the wisdom of central banking maestros, whose smug and uncritical tone must be causing some embarrassment in hindsight.
Liberals in particular seemed happy to declare themselves citizens of the republic of the central bankers. Cristina Romer — soon to head President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers — described the defeat of postwar Keynesian macroeconomics as a “glorious counterrevolution” and explained that
better policy, particularly on the part of the Federal Reserve, is directly responsible for the low inflation and the virtual disappearance of the business cycle . . . The story of stabilization policy of the last quarter century is one of amazing success. We have seen the triumph of sensible ideas and have reaped the rewards in terms of macroeconomic performance. The costly wrong turn in ideas and macropolicy of the 1960s and 1970s has been righted and the future of stabilization looks bright.
The date on which the “disappearance of the business cycle” was announced? September 2007, two months before the start of the deepest recession in fifty years.
Romer’s predecessor on Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers (and later Fed vice-chair) Alan Blinder was so impressed by the philosopher-kings at the central bank that he proposed extending the same model to a range of decisions currently made by elected legislatures.
We have drawn the line in the wrong place, leaving too many policy decisions in the realm of politics and too few in the realm of technocracy. . . . [T]he argument for the Fed’s independence applies just as forcefully to many other areas of government policy. Many policy decisions require complex technical judgments and have consequences that stretch into the distant future. . . . Yet in such cases, elected politicians make the key decisions. Why should monetary policy be different? . . . The justification for central bank independence is valid. Perhaps the model should be extended . . . The tax system would surely be simpler, fairer, and more efficient if . . . left to an independent technical body like the Federal Reserve rather than to congressional committees.
The misguided consensus a decade ago about central banks’ ability to preserve growth may be just as wrong about central banks’ ability to derail it today. (Or at least, to do so with the conventional tools of monetary policy, as opposed to the more aggressive iatrogenic techniques of the ECB.)
The business press may obsess over every movement of the Fed’s steering wheel, but we should allow ourselves some doubts that the steering wheel is even connected to the wheels.
The last time the Fed tightened was ten years ago; between June 2004 and July 2006, the federal funds rate rose from 1 percent to 5 percent. Yet longer-term interest rates — which matter much more for economic activity — did not rise at all. The Baa corporate bond rate and thirty-year mortgage, for instance, were both lower in late 2006 than they had been before the Fed started tightening.
And among heterodox macroeconomists, there is a strong argumentthat conventional monetary policy no longer plays an important role in the financial markets where longer-term interest rates are set. Which means it has at best limited sway over the level of private spending. And the largest impacts of the rate increase may not be in the US at all, but in the “emerging markets” that may be faced with a reversal of capital flows back toward the United States.
Yet whatever the concrete effects of the Fed’s decision to tighten, it still offers some useful insight into the minds of our rulers.
We sometimes assume that the capitalist class wants growth at any cost, and that the capitalist state acts to promote it. But while individual capitalists are driven by competition to accumulate endlessly, that pressure doesn’t apply to the class as a whole.
A regime of sustained zero growth, by conventional measures, might be difficult to manage. But in the absence of acute threats to social stability or external competition (as from the USSR during the postwar “Golden Age”), slow growth may well be preferable to fast growth, which after all empowers workers and destabilizes existing hierarchies. In China, 10 percent annual growth may be essential to the social contract, but slow growth does not — yet — seem to threaten the legitimacy of the state in Europe, North America, or Japan.
As Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch persuasively argue, even periodic crises are useful in maintaining the rule of money. They serve as reminders that the confidence of capital owners cannot be taken for granted. As Kalecki famously noted, the threat of a crisis when “business confidence” is shaken is a “powerful controlling device” for capitalists vis-à-vis the state. Too much success controlling crises is dangerous — it makes this threat less threatening.
So perhaps the most important thing about the Fed’s recent rate hike is that it’s a reminder that price stability and inflation management are always a pretext, or at best just one reason among others, for the managers of the capitalist state to control rapid growth and the potential gains for workers that follow. As the shifting justifications for restraining wage growth suggest, the republic of the central banker has always been run in the interests of money owners.
Some critics of the rate hike see it as a ploy to raise the profits of banks. In my opinion, this theory isn’t convincing. A better conspiracy theory is that it’s part of the larger project of keeping us all insecure and dependent on the goodwill of the owning class.
 The role of central banks in disguising the moment of conscious planning under capitalism and preserving the ideological fiction of spontaneous order is clearly visible in the way monetary policy is discussed by economists. From the concrete to the abstract. First, the “independent” status of central banks is supposed to place them outside the collective deliberation of democratic politics. Second, there is a constant attraction to the idea of a monetary policy “rule” that could be adopted once and for all, removing any element of deliberate choice even from the central bankers themselves. (Milton Friedman is only the best-known exponent of this idea, which is a central theme of discussion of central banks from the 18th century down to the present.) Third, in modern models, the “reaction function” of the central bank is typically taken as one of the basic equations of the model — the central bank’s reaction to a deviation of inflation from its chosen path has the same status as, say, the reaction of households to a change in prices. As Peter Dorman points out, there’s something very odd about putting policy inside the model this way. But it has the clear ideological advantage of treating the central bank as if it were simply part of the natural order of optimization by individual agents.
 The best analysis of the crisis of the 1970s in these terms remains Capitalism Since 1945, by Armstrong, Glyn and Harrison.
 The linked post by Peter Frase does an excellent job puncturing the bipartisan mythmaking around the Volcker and bringing out the centrality of his anti-labor politics. But it contains one important error. Frase describes the late-1970s crisis to which Volcker was responding as “capital refusing to invest, and labor refusing to take no for an answer.” The latter might be true but the former certainly is not: The late 1970s saw the greatest boom in business investment in modern US history; 1981 had the highest investment-GDP ratio since the records begin in 1929. High demand and negative real interest rates — which made machines and buildings more attractive than wealth in financial form — outweighed low profits, and investment boomed. (An oil boom in the southwest and generous tax subsidies also helped.) The problem Volcker was solving was not,as Frase imagines, that the process of accumulation was threatened by the refusal of unhappy money owners to participate. It was, in some ways, an even more threatening one — that real accumulation was proceeding fine despite the unhappiness of money owners. In the often-brilliant Buying Time, Wolfgang Streeck makes a similar mistake.
 More precisely, it’s a return to what Anwar Shaikh calls the classical Phillips curve found in the Marxist literature, for instance in the form of Goodwin cycles. (The Shaikh article is very helpful in systematically thinking through alternative relationships between nominal wages, the wage share and inflation.)
 It’s worth noting that in these cases the ECB got what it wanted, or enough of it, and did aggressively intervene to stabilize government debt markets and the banking systems in almost all the crisis countries. As a result, the governments of Spain, Italy and Portugal now borrow more cheaply than ever in history. As I periodicallypoint out, the direct cause of the crisis in Greece was the refusal of the ECB to extend it the same treatment. A common liberal criticism of the euro system is that it is too rigid, that it automatically applies a single policy to all its members even when their current needs might be different. But the reality is the opposite. The system, in the form of the ECB, has enormous discretion, and the crisis in Greece was the result of the ECB’s choice to apply a different set of policies there than elsewhere.