Links for July 17, 2017

The action is on the asset side. Arjun Jayadev, Amanda Page-Hoongrajok and I have a new version of our state-local balance sheets paper up at Washington Center for Equitable Growth. It’s moderately improved from the version posted here a few months ago. I’ll have a blogpost up in the next day or two laying out the arguments in more detail. In the meantime, here’s the abstract:

This paper … makes two related arguments about the historical evolution of state-local debt ratios over the past 60 years. First, there is no consistent relationship between state and local budget deficits and changes in state and local government debt ratios. In particular, the 1980s saw a shift in state and local budgets toward surplus but nonetheless saw rising debt ratios. This rise in debt is fully explained by a faster pace of asset accumulation as a result of increased pressure to prefund future expenses… Second, budget imbalances at the state level are almost entirely accommodated on the asset side – both in the aggregate and cross-sectionally, larger state-local deficits are mainly associated with reduced net asset accumulation rather than with greater credit-market borrowing. …

 

What recovery? One of the central questions of U.S. macroeconomic policy right now is whether the slow growth of output and employment over the past decade are the result of supply-side factors like demographics and an exhaustion of new technologies, or whether — despite low measured unemployment — we are still well short of potential output. Later this month, I’ll have a paper out from the Roosevelt Institute making the case for the latter — that there is still substantial space for more expansionary policy. Some of my argument is anticipated by this post from Simon Wren-Lewis, which briefly lays out several ways in which a demand shortfall can have lasting effects on the economy’s productive capacity — discouraged workers leaving the labor force; reduced investment by business; and slower technical progress, because a slack economy is less favorable for innovation. He concludes: “There is no absence of ideas about how a great recession and a slow recovery could have lasting effects. If there is a problem, it is more that this simple conceptualization” — textbook model in which demand has only short-run effects — “has too great a grip on the way many people think.”

Along the same lines, here is a nice post from Adam Ozimek on the “mystery” of low wage growth. The mystery is that despite low unemployment, annual wage growth (as measured by the Employment Costs Index) has remained relatively low – 2 to 2.5 percent, rather than the 3 to 3.5 percent we’d expect based on historical patterns. (Ozimek doesn’t mention it, but total compensation growth — including benefits — is even lower, less than one percent for the year ending March 2017.) But, he points out, this historical relationship is based on measured unemployment; if we use the employment-population ratio instead, then recent wage gains are exactly where you’d expect historically. So the behavior of wages is another piece of evidence that the official unemployment rate is underestimating the degree of labor market slack, and that the fall in the employment-population ratio reflects — at least in part — weak demand rather than the inevitable result of worse demographics (or better video games).

 

The bondholders’ view of the world.  Matthew Klein has a very enjoyable post at FT Alphaville taking apart the claim (from three prominent academics) that “The French Revolution began with the bankruptcy of the ancient regime.” This is, of course, supposed to illustrate the broader dangers of allowing sovereigns to stiff bondholders. But in fact, as Klein points out, the old regime did not default on in its loans — Louis XVI went to great lengths to avoid bankruptcy, precisely because he was afraid of the reaction of creditors. Further: It was the monarchy’s efforts to avoid default — highly unpopular taxes and spending cuts, then the calling of the Estates General to legitimate them — that set in motion the events that led to the Revolution. So the actual history — in which a government was overthrown after choosing austerity over bankruptcy — has been reversed 180 degrees to fit the prevailing myth of our times: that good and bad political outcomes all depend on the grace of the bond markets. As Klein says, this might seem like a small mistake, but it is deeply revealing about how ideology operates: “ Whoever introduced it must have been working off what he thought was common knowledge that didn’t need to be checked. There is no citation.”

Klein’s piece is also, in passing, a nice response to that silly Jacob Levy post which argues that democracy and popular sovereignty are myths and that modern states have always been ruled by the bondholders. Levy offers zero evidence for this claim; his post is of interest only as a signpost for where elite discourse may be heading.

 

Don’t blame Germany. Here is a very useful paper from Enno Schroeder and Oliver Piceck estimating the effects of an increase in German demand on other European economies. They use an input-output model to estimate the effect of an increase in spending in Germany on output and employment in each of the other 10 largest euro-area countries. One of the things I really like about this is that it does not depend on either econometrics or on any kind of optimization; rather, it is simply based on the observable data of the distribution of consumption spending and of intermediate inputs by various industries over different industries and countries, along with the fraction of household income consumed in various countries. This lets them answer the question: If spending in Germany increased by a certain amount and the composition of spending otherwise remained unchanged, what would the effect be on total spending in various European countries? Yes, they ignore possible price changes; but I don’t think it’s any less reasonable than the conventional approach, which goes to the opposite extreme and assumes prices are everything. And even if you want to add a price story, this approach gives you a useful baseline to build on.

Methodology aside, their results are interesting and a bit surprising: They find that the spillovers from Germany to other European countries are surprisingly small.

Our main finding suggests that if Germany’s final demand were to exogenously increase by one percent of GDP, then France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal’s GDP would grow by around a 0.1 percent, their unemployment rates would be reduced by a bit over 0.1 points, and their trade balances would improve by approximately 0.04 points. The spillover effects on Greece are significantly smaller.

Given how much larger Germany is than most of these countries, and how tightly integrated European economies are understood to be, these are surprisingly small numbers. It seems that a large proportion of German demand still falls on domestic goods, while imports come largely from the euro area — particularly, in the case of intermediate goods, from the former Warsaw Pact countries. As a result, even

if a German demand boom were to materialize, France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal would not benefit much in terms of growth and external adjustment. The real beneficiaries would be small neighbors (e.g. Austria and Luxembourg) and emerging economies in Eastern Europe that are well integrated into German supply chains (e.g. Czech Republic and Poland).

Of course, this doesn’t mean that more expansionary policy in Germany isn’t desirable for other reasons. (For one thing, German workers badly need raises.) But for the balance of payments problems in Southern Europe, other solutions are needed.

 

Today’s conventional is yesterday’s unconventional, and vice versa. Here is a useful NBER paper from Mark Carlson and Burcu Duygan-Bump on the conduct of monetary policy in the 1920s. As they point out, much of today’s “unconventional” policy apparatus was standard at that point, including large purchases of a range of securities — quantitative easing avant le lettre. As I’ve written on this blog before (here and here and here) discussion of monetary policy is made needlessly confusing by economists’ habit of treating the policy instrument as having a direct, immediate link to macroeconomic outcomes, which can be derived from first principles. Whereas anyone who reads even a little history of central banking finds that the ultimate goal of control over the pace of credit expansion has been pursued by a wide range of instruments and intermediate targets in different settings.

Also on the mechanics of monetary policy, I liked these two posts from the New York Fed’s Liberty Street Economics blog. They do something which should be standard but isn’t — walk through step by step the balance sheet changes associated with various central bank policy shifts. In my experience, teaching monetary policy in terms of balance sheet changes is much more straightforward than with the supply-and-demand diagrams that are the basic analytic tool in most textbooks. The curves at best are metaphors; the balance sheets tell you what actually happens.

Posts in Three Lines

I haven’t been blogging much lately. I’ve been doing real work, some of which will be appearing soon. But if I were blogging, here are some of the posts I might write.

*

Lessons from the 1990s. I have a new paper coming out from the Roosevelt Institute, arguing that we’re not as close to potential as people at the Fed and elsewhere seem to believe, and as I’ve been talking with people about it, it’s become clear that your priors depend a lot on how you think of the rapid growth of the 1990s. If you think it was a technological one-off, with no value as precedent — a kind of macroeconomic Bush v. Gore — then you’re likely to see today’s low unemployment as reflecting an economy working at full capacity, despite the low employment-population ratio and very weak productivity growth. But if you think the mid-90s is a possible analogue to the situation facing policymakers today, then it seems relevant that the last sustained episode of 4 percent unemployment led not to inflation but to employers actively recruiting new entrants to the laborforce among students, poor people, even prisoners.

Inflation nutters. The Fed, of course, doesn’t agree: Undeterred by the complete disappearance of the statistical relationship between unemployment and inflation, they continue to see low unemployment as a threatening sign of incipient inflation (or something) that must be nipped in the bud. Whatever other effects rate increases may have, the historical evidence suggests that one definite consequence will be rising private and public debt ratios. Economists focus disproportionately on the behavioral effects of interest rate changes and ignore their effects on the existing debt stock because “thinking like an economist” means, among other things, thinking in terms of a world in which decisions are made once and for all, in response to “fundamentals” rather than to conditions inherited from the past.

An army with only a signal corps. What are those other effects, though? Arguments for doubting central bankers’ control over macroeconomic outcomes have only gotten stronger than they were in the 2000s, when they were already strong; at the same time, when the ECB says, “let the government of Spain borrow at 2 percent,” it carries only a little less force than the God of genesis. I think we exaggerate power of central banks over real economy, but underestimate their power over financial markets (with the corollary that economists — heterodox as much as mainstream — see finance and real activity as much more tightly linked than they are).

It’s easy to be happy if you’re heterodox. This spring I was at a conference up at the University of Massachusetts, the headwaters of American heterodox economics, where I did my Phd. Seeing all my old friends reminded me what good prospects we in the heterodox world have – literally everyone I know from grad school has a good job. If you are wondering whether your prospects would be better at a nowhere-ranked heterodox economics program like UMass or a top-ranked program in some other social science, let me assure you, it’s the former by a mile — and you’ll probably have better drinking buddies as well.

The euro is not the gold standard. One of the topics I was talking about at the UMass conference was the euro which, I’ve argued, was intended to create something like a new gold standard, a hard financial constraint on governments. But that that was the intention doesn’t mean its the reality — in practice the TARGET2 system means that national central banks don’t face any binding constraint , unlike under the gold standard the central bank is “outside” the national monetary membrane. In this sense the euro is structurally more like Keynes’ proposals at Bretton Woods, it’s just not Keynes running it.

Can jobs be guaranteed? In principle I’m very sympathetic to the widespread (at least among my friends on social media) calls for a job guarantee. It makes sense as a direction of travel, implying a commitment to a much lower unemployment rate, expanded public employment, organizing work to fit people’s capabilities rather than vice versa, and increasing the power of workers vis-a-vis employers. But I have a nagging doubt: A job is contingent by its nature – without the threat of unemployment, can there even be employment as we know it?

The wit and wisdom of Haavelmo. I was talking a while back about Merijn Knibbe’s articles on the disconnect between economic theory and the national accounts with my friend Enno, and he mentioned Trygve Haavelmo’s 1944 article on The Probability Approach in Econometrics, which I’ve finally gotten around to reading. One of the big points of this brilliant article is that economic variables, and the models they enter into, are meaningful only via the concrete practices through which the variables are measured. A bigger point is that we study economics in order to “become master of the happenings of real life”: You can contribute to economics in the course of advancing a political project, or making money in financial markets, or administering a government agency (Keynes did all three), but you will not contribute if you pursue economics as an end in itself.

Coney Island. Laura and I took the boy down to Coney Island a couple days ago, a lovely day, his first roller coaster ride, rambling on the beach, a Cyclones game. One of the wonderful things about Coney Island is how little it’s changed from a century ago — I was rereading Delmore Schwartz’s In Dreams Begin Responsibilities the other day, and the title story’s description of a young immigrant couple walking the boardwalk in 1909 could easily be set today — so it’s disconcerting to think that the boy will never take his grandchildren there. It will all be under water.

Rogoff on the Zero Lower Bound

I was at the ASSAs in Chicago this past weekend. [1] 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. [2] 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. [3] 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.

 

[1] The big annual economics conference. It stands for Allied Social Sciences Association — the disciplinary imperialism is right there in the name.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

Thoughts and Links for December 21, 2016

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.

And:

Gutierrez and Philippon – Investment-less Growth: An Empirical Investigation

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.

Second, criticizing Yellen’s opposition to more expansionary policy,which she says is no longer needed to get the economy back to full employment.

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.

 

Lost in Fiscal Space

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking about Monetary Policy

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.

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.

Links for June 15, 2016

“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:

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 9.52.44 PM

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.

Merijn Knibbe also likes the Bloomberg piece. (He’s doing very good work exploring these same cleavages.) Noah follows up on his blog. Justin Wolfers rejects basically everything taught as macroeconomics in grad school. DeLong makes a distinction between good and bad academic economics which to me, frankly, looks like wishful thinking. Brian Romanchuk has some interesting thoughts on this conversation.

 

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.

Liquid assets as a share of short-term liabilities. Source: Credit Suisse
Liquid assets as a share of short-term liabilities, selected banks. Source: Credit Suisse

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.

Links for May 11

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.

Links for April 21

 

The coup in Brazil. My friend Laura Carvalho has a piece in the Times, briefly but decisively making the case that, yes, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff is a coup. Also worth reading on Brazil: Matias VernengoMarc Weisbrot and Glenn Greenwald.

 

The bondholder’s view of the world 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 the Fed. 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.