A Harrodian Perspective on Secular Stagnation

I’ve mentioned before, I think a useful frame to think about the secular stagnation debate through is what’s become known as Harrod’s growth model. [1] My presentation here is a bit different from his.

Start with the familiar equation:

S – I + T – G = X – M

Private savings minus private investment, plus taxes minus government spending, equal exports minus imports. [2] If the variables refer to the actual, realized values, then this is an accounting identity, always true by definition. Anything that is produced must be purchased by someone, for purposes of consumption, investment, export or provision of public services. (Unsold goods in a warehouse are a form of investment.) If the variables refer to expected or intended values, which is how Harrod used them, then it is not an identity but an equilibrium condition. It describes the condition under which businesses will be “satisfied that they have produced neither more nor less than the right amount.”

The next step is to rearrange the equation as S – (G – T) – (X – M) = I. We will combine the government and external balances into A = (G – T) + (X – M). Now divide through by Y, writing  s = S/Y and a = A/Y. This gives us:

s – a = I/Y

Private savings net of government and foreign borrowing, must equal private investment. Next, we decompose investment. Logically, investment must either provide the new capital goods required for a higher level of output, or replace worn-out or obsolete capital goods, or be a shift toward a more capital-intensive production technique. [3] So we write:

s – a = gk + dk + delta-k

where g is the growth rate of the economy, k is the current capital-output ratio, d is the depreciation rate (incorporating obsolescence as well as physical wearing-out) and delta-k is the change in the capital-output ratio.

What happens if this doesn’t hold? Realized net savings and investment are always equal. So if desired savings and desired investment are different, that means that somebody’s expectations were not fulfilled. For a situation to arise in which desired net savings are greater than desired investment, either people must have saved less than they wish they had in retrospect, or businesses must have investment more than they wish they had in retrospect. Either way, expenditure in the next period will fall.

What prevents output from falling to zero, in this case? Remember, some consumption is linked to current income, but some is not. This means that when income falls, consumption falls less than proportionately. Which is equivalent to saying that when income falls, there is also a fall in the fraction of income that is saved. In other words, if the marginal propensity to save out of income is less than one, then s — which, remember, is average saving rate — must be a positive function of the current level of output. So the fall in output resulting from a situation in which s > I/Y will eventually cause s to fall sufficiently to bring desired saving into equality with desired investment. The more sensitive is consumption to current income, the larger the fall in income required; if investment is also sensitive to current income, then a still larger fall in income will be required. (If investment is more sensitive than saving to current income, this adjustment process will not work and the decline in output will continue until investment reaches zero.) This is simply the logic of the Keynesian multiplier.

In addition to current income, saving is also a function of the profit rate. Saving is higher out of profits than out of wages, partly because profit recipients are typically richer than wage-earners, but also because are large fraction of profits remain within the business sector and are not available for consumption. [4] Finally, saving is usually assumed to be a function of the interest rate. The desired capital output ratio may also be a function of the interest rate. All the variables are of course also subject to longer term social, technological and economic influences.

So we write

s(u, i, p) – a = gk + dk + delta-k(i, p)

where u is the utilization rate (i.e. current output relative to some measure of trend or potential), i is some appropriate interest rate, and p is the profit share. s is a positive function of utilization, interest rates and the profit share, and delta-k is a negative function of the interest rate and a positive function of the profit rate. Since the profit share and interest rate are normally positive functions of the current level of output, their effects on savings are stabilizing — they reduce the degree to which output must adjust to maintain equality of desired net savings equal and investment. The effect of interest rates on investment is also stabilizing, while the effect of the profit share on investment (as well as any direct effect of utilization on investment, which we are not considering here) are destabilizing.

How does this help make sense of secular stagnation?

In modern consensus macroeconomics, it is implicitly assumed that savings and/or investment are sufficiently sensitive to interest rates that equilibrium can be normally be maintained entirely by changes in interest rates, with only short-term adjustments of output while interest rates move to the correct level. The secular stagnation idea — in both its current and original 1940s edition, as well as the precursor ideas about underconsumption going back to at least J. A. Hobson — is that at some point interest rate adjustment may no longer be able to play this role. In that case, desired investment will not equal desired saving at full employment, so there will be a persistent output gap.

There are a number of reasons that s – a might rise over time. As countries grow richer, the propensity to consume may fall simply because people’s people’s desires for goods and services are finite. This was what Keynes and Alvin Hansen (who coined the term “secular stagnation”) believed. Desired saving may also rise as a result of an upward redistribution of income, or a shift from wage income to profit income, or an increase in the share of profits retained by firms. [5] Unlike the progressive satiation of consumption demand, these three factors could in principle just as easily evolve in the other direction. Finally, government deficits or net exports might decline — but again, they might also increase.

On the right side of the equation, growth may fall for exogenous reasons, slowing population growth being the most obvious. This factor has been emphasized in recent discussions. Depreciation is hardly mentioned in today’s secular stagnation debate, but it is prominent in the parallel discussion of underconsumption in the Marxist tradition. The important point here is to remember that depreciation refers not only to the physical wearing-out or using-up of capital goods, but also to capital goods displaced by competition or obsolescence. In competitive capitalism, businesses invest not only to increase aggregate capacity, but to win market share from each other. Much of depreciation represents capital that goes out of use not because it has ceased to be physically productive, but because it is attached to businesses that have lost out in the competitive struggle. Under conditions of monopoly, the struggle over market share is suppressed, so effective depreciation rates, and hence desired investment, will be lower. Physical depreciation does also exist, and will change as the production technology changes. If there is a secular tendency toward longer-lived means of production, that will pull down desired investment. As for delta-k, it is clearly the case that the process of industrialization involves a large upward shift in the capital-output ratio. But it’s hard to imagine it continuing to rise indefinitely; there are reasons (like the shift toward services) to think it might reach a peak and then decline.

So for secular, long-term trends tending to raise desired saving relative to desired investment we have: (1) the progressive satiation of consumption demand; (2) slowing population growth; (3) increasing monopoly power; and (4) the end of the industrialization process. Factors that might either raise or lower desired savings relative to investment are: (5) changes in the profit share; (6) changes in the fraction of profits retained in the business sector; (7) changes in the distribution of income; (8) changes in net exports; (9) changes in government deficits; and (10) changes in the physical longevity of capital goods. Finally, there are factors that will tend to raise desired investment relative to desired saving. The include: (11) consumption as status competition (this may offset or even reverse the effect of greater inequality on consumption); (12) social protections (public pensions, etc.) that reduce the need for precautionary and lifecycle saving; (13) easier access to credit, for consumption and/or investment; and (14) major technological changes that render existing capital goods obsolete, increasing the effective depreciation rate. These final four factors will offset any tendency toward secular stagnation.

It’s a long list, but I think it’s close comprehensive. Different versions of the stagnation story emphasize various of these factors, and their relative importance has varied in different times and places. I don’t think there is any a priori basis for saying that any of them are more or less important in general.

One problem with this conversation, from my point of view, is that people have a tendency to pick out a couple items from this list as the story, without considering the whole question systematically. For instance, there’s a very popular story in left Keynesian circles that makes it all about (7), offset for a while by (13) and perhaps (11). I don’t doubt that greater income inequality has increased desired private saving. It may be that this is the main factor at work here. But people should not be confidently asserting it is before clearly posing the question and analyzing the full range of possible answers.

In a future post we will think about how to assess the relative importance of these factors empirically.

[1] While the model itself is simple, the interpretation of it — the question it’s intended to answer — is quite controversial. Harrod himself intended it as a model of economic dynamics — that is, describing the system’s transition from one state to another in historical time. As it entered mainstream economics (via the criticism of Samuelson) and also much of structuralist work, it instead became treated as a model of economic growth — that is, of a long-run equilibrium one of whose variables happens to be the growth rate rather than the level of growth. It seems to me that while Harrod clearly was interested in dynamics, not growth in the current sense, the classic article is in fact ambivalent. In particular, Harrod is simply inconsistent in his definition of g: sometimes it is the change in output from one period to the next, while at other times it is the normal or usual change in output expected by business. Furthermore, as Joan Robinson pointed out, his famous knife-edge results depend on using the average savings rate as a parameter, which only makes sense if we are describing a long-run equilibrium. In the short period, it’s the marginal savings rate that is stable, while the average savings rate varies with output. So while it is true that Harrod thought he was writing about economic dynamics, the model he actually wrote is inconsistent. One way to resolve this inconsistency is to treat it as a model of equilibrium long-run growth, as Samuelson did; the other way, which I take here, is to treat it as a Keynesian short-run model in which the current, usual or expected growth rate appears as a parameter.  
[2] Strictly speaking it should be the current account balance rather than the trade balance but there’s no harm in ignoring cross-border income flows here.
[3] I am writing here in terms of a quantifiable capital stock, which I have deep misgivings about. But it makes the exposition much simpler. 
[4] This is true even in the “disgorge the cash” era, because much of the higher payouts from corporations go to financial institutions rather to households, and thus stay in the business sector.
[5] On the other hand, in a world where investment is constrained by funding, a higher share of profits retained will raise investment as well as savings, leaving its overall effect ambiguous.

EDIT: I think I’ve been misled by reading too much of the Keynesian classics from the 1930s and 40s. The dynamic I describe in this post is correct for that period, but not quite right for the US economy today. Since 1980, the average private savings rate has moved countercyclically, rather than procyclically as it did formerly and as I suggest here. So the mechanism that prevents booms and downturns from continuing indefinitely is no longer — as Keynes said, and I unthinkingly repeated — the behavior of private savings, but rather of the government and external balances. I can’t remember seeing anything written about this fundamental change in business cycle dynamics, which is a bit surprising, but it’s unambiguous in the data.

Fortunately we are interested here in longer term changes rather than cyclical dynamics, so the main argument of this post and the sequel shouldn’t be too badly undermined.

EDIT 2: Of course this change has been written about, what was I thinking. For example, Andrew Glyn, Capitalism Unleashed:

From Marx to Keynes at least, consumption was viewed as an essentially passive component of the growth process. Capital accumulation, investment spending on machinery and buildings, was the essential driving force on the demand as well as on the supply side. It was the capitalists’ access to finance which allowed capital spending to exceed the previous period’s savings and fuelled the expansion of demand; future profits ensured that such borrowing was repaid with a real return. Deficit spending by the government could, in wartime for example, impart a similar impulse to demand, at least till capital markets took fright at the growing debt interest burden and worries about inflation. However household consumption, some two-thirds of aggregate demand, was seen as playing the role of sustaining the current output level rather than driving it up. Savings ratios often fell during recessions, as consumers attempted to maintain spending in the face of falling incomes. Indeed, Milton Friedman criticized the Keynesians for exaggerating the dependence of consumption on current income and ignoring the extent to which savings could be used to ‘smooth’ out the path of consumption. More recently, rather than acting as a stabilizing influence, sharp falls in the savings ratio have occurred during expansions. By boosting consumption proportionately more than the rise in incomes this has intensified upswings, with the danger of sharp falls in demand if savings rebound sharply when the expansion slackens and pessimism builds up.

Debt and Demand

One interesting issue in the ongoing secular stagnation debate is the relationship between debt and aggregate demand. In particular, there’s been a revival of the claim that there is something like a one to one relationship between changes in the ratio of debt to income, and final demand for goods and services.

I would like to reframe this claim a bit, drawing on my recent work with Arjun Jayadev. [1] In a nutshell: Changes in debt-income ratios reflect a number of macroeconomic variables, and until you have a specific story about which of those variables is driving the debt-income ratio, you can’t say what relationship to expect between that ratio and demand. We show in our paper that the entire post-1980 rise in household debt ratios can be explained, in an accounting sense, by higher real interest rates. Conversely, if the interest rates faced by households are lower in the future, debt-income ratios will decline without any fall in demand for real goods and services.

You might not know it from the current discussion, but there is an existing literature on these questions. The relationship between leverage — especially household debt — and aggregate demand was explored in a number of papers around the time of the last US credit crisis, in the late 1980s. Perhaps I’ll write a proper review of this material at some point; a short list would include Benjamin Friedman (1984 and 1986), Caskey and Fazzari (1991), Alfred Eichner (1991) and Tom Palley (1994 and 1997). It’s unfortunate that these earlier papers don’t get referred to in today’s discussion of debt and demand, by either mainstream or heterodox writers. [2]

For most of these writers, the important point was that the effect of debt on demand is two-faced: new borrowing can finance additional expenditure on real goods and services, but on the other hand debt service payments (in the presence of credit constraints) subtract from the funds available for current expenditure. Eichner, for instance, uses the equation E = F + delta-D – DS, or aggregate expenditure equals cashflow plus debt growth minus debt service payments.

More generally, to think systematically about the relationship between debt and household expenditure, we need to start from a consistent set of accounts. The first principle of financial accounting is that, for any economic unit, total sources of funds must equal total uses of funds. There are many ways of organizing accounts, at the level of the individual household or firm, at the level of the sector, or at the level of the nation, but this equality must always hold. You can slice up sources and uses of funds however you like, but total money coming in must equal total money going out.

The standard financial accounts for the United States are the Flow of Funds, maintained by the Federal Reserve. A number of alternative accounting frameworks are reflected in the social accounting matrixes developed by the late Wynne Godley and Lance Taylor and their students and collaborators.

Here’s one natural way of organizing sources and uses of funds for the household sector:

compensation of employees
capital income
transfer receipts
net borrowing 
consumption (including consumer durables)
residential investment
tax payments
interest payments
net acquisition of financial assets

The items before the equal sign are sources of funds; the items after are uses. [3] The first two uses of funds are included in GDP measured as income, while the latter two are not. Similarly, the first two uses of funds are included in GDP measured as expenditure, while the latter three are not.

When we look at the whole balance sheet, it is clear that borrowing cannot change in isolation. An increase in one source of funds must be accompanied by some mix of increase in some use(s) of funds, and decrease in other sources of funds. So if we want to talk about the relationship between borrowing and GDP, we need a story about what other items on the balance sheet are changing along with it. One possible story is that changes in borrowing are normally matched by changes in consumption, or in residential investment. This is the implicit story behind the suggestion that lower household borrowing will reduce final demand dollar for dollar. But there is no reason in principle why that has to be the main margin that household borrowing adjusts on, and as we’ll see, historically it often has not been.

So far we have been talking about the absolute levels of borrowing and other flows. But in general, we are not interested in the absolute level of borrowing, but on the ratio of debt to income. It’s common to speak about changes in borrowing and changes in debt-income ratios as if they were synonyms. [4]  But they are not. The debt-income ratio has a denominator as well as a numerator. The denominator is nominal income, so the evolution of the ratio depends  not only on household borrowing, but on real income growth and inflation. Faster growth of nominal income — whether due to real income growth or inflation — reduces the debt-income ratio, just as much as lower borrowing does.

In short: For changes in the debt-income ratio to be reflected one for one in aggregate demand, two things must be true. First, changes in the ratio must be due mainly to variation in the numerator, rather than the denominator. And second, changes in the numerator must be due mainly to variation in consumption and residential investment, rather than variation in other balance sheet items. How true are these things with respect to the rise in debt-income ratios over the past 30 years?

To frame the question in a tractable way, we need to simplify the balance sheet, combining some items to focus on the ones we care about. In our paper, Arjun and I were interested in debt ratios, not aggregate demand, so we grouped together all the non-credit flows into a single variable, which we called the household primary deficit. We defined this as all uses of funds except interest payments, minus all sources of funds except borrowing.

Here, I do things slightly differently. I divide changes in debt into those due to nominal income growth, those due to expenditures that contribute to aggregate demand (consumption and residential investment), and those due to non-demand expenditure (interest payments and net acquisition of financial assets.) For 1985 and later years, I also include the change in debt-income ratios attributable to default. (We were unable to find good data on household level defaults for earlier years, but there is good reason to think that household defaults did not occur at a macroeconomically significant level between the Depression and the Great Recession.) This lets us answer the question directly: historically, how closely have changes in household debt-income ratios been linked to changes in aggregate demand?

Figure 1 shows the trajectory of household debt for the US since 1929, along with federal debt and non financial business debt. (All are given as fractions of GDP.) As we can see, there have been three distinct episodes of rising household debt ratios since World War II: one in the decade or so immediately following the war, one in the mid-1980s, and one in the first half of the 2000s.

Figure 1: US debt-GDP ratios, 1929-2011

Figure 2 shows the annual change in the debt ratio, along with the decomposition described above. All variables are expressed as deviations from the 1950-2010 average. The heavy black line is the change in the debt-income ratio. The solid red line is final-demand expenditure, i.e. non-interest consumption plus residential investment. The dashed and dotted blue lines show the contributions of nominal income growth and non-demand expenditure, respectively. And the purple line with diamonds shows the contribution of defaults. (Defaults are measured relative to the 1985-2010 average.)

Figure 2: Decomposition of changes in the household debt-income ratio, 1949-2011

It’s clear from this figure that there is an important element of truth to the Keen-Krugman view that there is a tight link between the debt-incoem ratio and demand. There is evidently a close relationship between household demand and changes in the debt ratio, especially with respect to short-term variation. But that view is also missing something important. In some periods, there are substantial divergences between final demand from household and changes in the debt ratio. In particular, the increase in the household debt ratio in the 1980s (by about 20 points of GDP) took place during a period when consumption and residential investment by households were near their lowest levels since World War II. The increase in household debt after 1980 has often been described as some kind of “consumption binge”; this is the opposite of the truth.

The ambiguous relationship between household debt and aggregate demand can be seen in Table 1, which compares the periods of rising household debt with the intervening periods of stable or falling debt. The numbers are annual averages; to facilitate comparisons between periods, the averages for sub periods are again expressed as deviations from the 1950-2010 mean. (Or from the 1985-2010 mean, in the case of defaults.) The numbers are the contributions to the change i the debt-income ratio, so a positive value for nominal income growth indicates lower inflation and/or growth than the postwar average.

Table 1: Decomposition of changes in the household debt-income ratio, selected periods

Change in debt-income ratio Contribution of nominal income growth Aggregate-demand expenditure Non-demand   expenditure Defaults
1950-2010 mean 1.5 -4.9 89.1 17.7 -0.9
Difference from mean:
1949-1963 1.3 2.3 2.9 -4.3 N/A
1964-1983 -1.6 -1.4 -1.8 1.1 N/A
1984-1989 1.4 -0.3 -2.1 3.8 0.4
1990-1998 -0.5 0.3 -0.8 0.3 0.2
1999-2006 3.2 -1.2 3.1 1.7 0.1
2007-2010 -3.5 1.7 -1.4 -2.0 -1.3

What we see here is that while the first and third episodes of rising debt are indeed associated with higher than average household expenditure on real goods and services, the 1980s episode is not. The rise in debt in the 1980s is explained by a rise in non-demand expenditures. Specifically, it is entirely due to the rise in interest payments, which doubled from 3-4 percent of household income in the 1950s and 1960s to over 8 percent in the late 1980s. (Interest payments continued around this level up to the Great Recession, falling somewhat only in the past few years. The reason “non-demand expenditures” is lower after 1990 is because the household sector sharply reduced net acquisition of financial assets.) Also, note that while the housing booms of 1949-1963 and 1999-2006 saw almost identical levels of household expenditure on real goods and services, the household debt ratio rose nearly twice as fast in the more recent episode. The reason, again, is because of much higher interest payments in the 2000s compared with the immediate postwar period. Finally, as I’ve pointed out on this blog before, the deleveraging since 2008 would have been impossible without elevated household defaults, which approached 4 percent of outstanding household debt in 2009-2010 — partly offset by the sharp fall in household income in 2009, which raised the debt-income ratio.

Figure 3, from our paper, offers another way of looking at this. The heavy black line is the actual trajectory of the household debt-income ratio. The other lines show counterfactual scenarios in which non-interest household expenditures are at their historical levels, but growth, inflation and/or interest rates are held constant at their 1946-1980 average levels.

Figure 3: Counterfactual scenarios for the evolution of household-debt income ratios, 1946-2010

All these counterfactual scenarios show a spike in the 2000s: People really did borrow to pay for new houses! But the counterfactual scenarios also show lower overall trends of household debt, indicating that slower income growth, lower inflation and higher interest rates all contributed to the rise of household debt post-1980, independent of changes in borrowing behavior. Most interestingly, the red line shows that new borrowing after 1980 was lower than new borrowing in the 1950s, 60s and 70s; if households had engaged in the exact same spending on consumption, residential investment and financial assets as they actually did, but inflation, growth and interest rates had remained at their pre-1980 levels, the household debt-income ratio would have trended gradually downward.

To the extent that rising debt-income ratios after 1980 were the result of higher interest rates and disinflation, they were not contributing to aggregate demand. And if lower interest rates and and, perhaps, higher inflation and/or higher default rates bring down debt ratios in the future, deleveraging will not be a headwind for demand. 

It is customary to see rising debt as the result of private choices to finance higher expenditures by issuing new credit-market liabilities. But historically, it is equally correct to see rising debt as the result of political choices that increase the real value of existing liabilities.

[1] I’m pleased to report that a version of this paper has been accepted for publication by American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics. This has caused some adjustment in my view of the permeability of the “mainstream-heterodox” divide.

[2] This neglect of the earlier literature is especially puzzling since several of the protagonists of the 1990-era discussion are active in the sequel today. Steve Fazzari, for instance, in his several superb recent papers (with Barry Cynamon) on household debt, does not refer to his own 1991 paper, tho it is dealing with substantially the same questions. 

[3] Only a few minor items are left out. This grouping of sources and uses of funds essentially follows Lance Taylor’s social accounting matrices, as presented in Reconstructing Macroeconomics and elsewhere. Neither the NIPAs nor the Flow of Funds present household accounts in exactly this way. The Flow of Funds groups all three sources of household income together, treats consumer durables as a separate category of household investment, and treats interest payments as consumption. The NIPAs treat residential investment and mortgage interest payments as their own sector, separate from the household sector, and omits borrowing and net acquisition of financial assets. The NIPAs also include a number of noncash items, of which the most important is the imputed flow of housing services from the owner-occupied housing sector to the household sector and the corresponding imputed rental payments from the household sector to the owner-occupied residential sector.

[4] For example, a recent paper on the causes of “The Rise in U.S. Household Indebtedness” begins with the sentence, “During the past several decades in the United States, signi ficant changes have occurred in household saving and borrowing behavior,” with no sign of realizing that this is a different question than the one posed by the title.

The Interest Rate, the Interest Rate, and Secular Stagnation

In the previous post, I argued that the term “interest rate” is used to refer to two basically unrelated prices: The exchange rate between similar goods at different periods, and the yield on a credit-market instrument. Why does this distinction matter for secular stagnation?

Because if you think the “natural rate of interest,” in the sense of the credit-market rate that brings aggregate expenditure to a desired level in some real-world economic situation, should be the time-substitution rate that would exist in a model that somehow corresponds to that situation, when the two are in fact unrelated — well then, you are going to end up with a lot of irrelevant and misleading intuitions about what that rate should be.

In general, I do think the secular stagnation conversation is a real step forward. So it’s a bit frustrating, in this context, to see Krugman speculating about the “natural rate” in terms of a Samuelson-consumption loan model, without realizing that the “interest rate” in that model is the intertemporal substitution rate, and has nothing to do with the Wicksellian natural rate. This was the exact confusion introduced by Hayek, which Sraffa tore to pieces in his review, and which Keynes went to great efforts to avoid in General Theory. It would be one thing if Krugman said, “OK, in this case Hayek was right and Keynes was wrong.” But in fact, I am sure, he has no idea that he is just reinventing the anti-Keynesian position in the debates of 75 years ago.

The Wicksellian natural rate is the credit-market rate that, in current conditions, would bring aggregate expenditure to the level desired by whoever is setting monetary policy. Whether or not there is a level of expenditure that we can reliably associate with “full employment” or “potential output” is a question for another day. The important point for now is “in current conditions.” The level of interest-sensitive expenditure that will bring GDP to the level desired by policymakers depends on everything else that affects desired expenditure — the government fiscal position, the distribution of income, trade propensities — and, importantly, the current level of income itself. Once the positive feedback between income and expenditure has been allowed to take hold, it will take a larger change in the interest rate to return the economy to its former position than it would have taken to keep it there in the first place.

There’s no harm in the term “natural rate of interest” if you understand it to mean “the credit market interest rate that policymakers should target to get the economy to the state they think it should be in, from the state it in now.”And in fact, that is how working central bankers do understand it. But if you understand “natural rate” to refer to some fundamental parameter of the economy, you will end up hopelessly confused. It is nonsense to say that “We need more government spending because the natural rate is low,” or “we have high unemployment because the natural rate is low.” If G were bigger, or if unemployment weren’t high, there would be a different natural rate. But when you don’t distinguish between the credit-market rate and time-substitution rate, this confusion is unavoidable.

Keynes understood clearly that it makes no sense to speak of the “natural rate of interest” as a fundamental characteristic of an economy, independent of the current state of aggregate demand:

In my Treatise on Money I defined what purported to be a unique rate of interest, which I called the natural rate of interest — namely, the rate of interest which, in the terminology of my Treatise, preserved equality between the rate of saving (as there defined) and the rate of investment. I believed this to be a development and clarification of Wicksell’s “natural rate of interest”, which was, according to him, the rate which would preserve the stability if some, not quite clearly specified, price-level. 

I had, however, overlooked the fact that in any given society there is, on this definition, a different natural rate of interest for each hypothetical level of employment. And, similarly, for every rate of interest there is a level of employment for which that rate is the “natural” rate, in the sense that the system will be in equilibrium with that rate of interest and that level of employment. Thus it was a mistake to speak of the natural rate of interest or to suggest that the above definition would yield a unique value for the rate of interest irrespective of the level of employment. I had not then understood that, in certain conditions, the system could be in equilibrium with less than full employment. 

I am now no longer of the opinion that the concept of a “natural” rate of interest, which previously seemed to me a most promising idea, has anything very useful or significant to contribute to our analysis. It is merely the rate of interest which will preserve the status quo; and, in general, we have no predominant interest in the status quo as such.

EDIT: In response to Nick Edmonds in comments, I’ve tried to restate the argument of these posts in simpler and hopefully clearer terms:

Step 1 is to recognize that in a model like Samuelson’s, “interest rate” just means any contract that allows you to make a payment today and receive a flow of income in the future. It would be the exact same model, capturing the exact same features of the economy, if we wrote “profit rate” or “house price-to-rent ratio” instead of “interest rate.” Any valid intuition the model gives us, applies to ALL asset yields, not just to the the credit-instrument yields that we call “interest rates” in every day life.

Step 2 is to think about the other factors that enter into real-world asset yields, besides the intertemporal exchange rate Samuelson is interested in — risk, liquidity, carrying costs and depreciation, and expected capital gains. Since all real-world asset yields incorporate at least one of these factors, none correspond exactly to Samuelson’s intertemporal interest rate.

Step 3 is to realize that not only are credit-instrument yields not exactly the Samuelson “interest rate,” they aren’t even approximately it. The great majority of credit market transactions we see in real economies are not exchanges of present income for future income, but exchanges of two different claims on future income. So the intertemporal interest rate enters on both sides and cancels out.

At that point, we have established that the “interest rate” the monetary authority is targeting is not the “interest rate” Samuelson is writing about.

Step 4 is then to ask, what does it mean to say that some particular credit-market interest rate is the “natural” one? That is where the dependence on fiscal policy, income distribution, etc. come in. But those factors are not part of the argument for why the credit-market rate is not even approximately the intertemporal rate.

The Interest Rate and the Interest Rate

We will return to secular stagnation. But we need to clear some ground first. What is an interest rate?

Imagine you are in a position to acquire a claim on a series of payments  in the future. Since an asset is just anything that promises a stream of payments in the future, we will say you are thinking of buying of an asset. What will you look at to make your decision?

First is the size of the payments you will receive, as a fraction of what you pay today. We will call that the yield of the asset, or y. Against that we have to set the risk that the payments may be different from expected or not occur at all; we will call the amount you reduce your expected yield to account for this risk r. If you have to make regular payments beyond the purchase of the asset to receive income from it (perhaps taxes, or the costs of operating the asset if it is a capital good) then we also must subtract these carrying costs c. In addition, the asset may lose value over time, in which case we have to subtract the depreciation rate d. (In the case of an asset that only lasts one period — a loan to be paid back in full the next period, say — d will be equal to one.) On the other hand, owning an asset can have benefits beyond the yield. In particular, an asset can be sold or used as collateral. If this is easy to do, ownership of the asset allows you to make payments now, without having to waiting for its yield in the future. We call the value of the asset for making unexpected payments its liquidity premium, l. The market value of long-lasting assets may also change over time; assuming resale is possible, these market value changes will produce a capital gain g (positive or negative), which must be added to the return. Finally, you may place a lower value on the payments from the asset simply because they take place in the future; this might be because your needs now are more urgent than you expect them to be then, or simply because you prefer income in the present to income in the future. Either way, we have to subtract this pure time-substitution rate i.

So the value of an asset costing one unit (of whatever numeraire) will be 1 + y – r – c – d + l + g – i.

(EDIT: On rereading, this could use some clarification:

Of course all the terms can take on different (expected) values in different time periods, so they are vectors, not scalars. But if we assume they are constant, and that the asset lasts forever (i.e. a perpetuity), then we should write its equilibrium value as: V = Y/i, where Y is the total return in units of the numeraire, i.e. Y = V(y – r – c + l + g) and i is the discount rate. Divide through both sides by V/i and we have i = y – r – c + l + g. We can now proceed as below.)

In equilibrium, you should be just indifferent between purchasing and not purchasing this asset, so we can write:

y – r – c – d + l + g – i = 0, or

(1) y = r + c + d – l – g + i

So far, there is nothing controversial.

In formal economics, from Bohm-Bawerk through Cassel, Fisher and Samuelson to today’s standard models, the practice is to simplify this relationship by assuming that we can safely ignore most of these terms. Risk, carrying costs and depreciation can be netted out of yields, capital gains must be zero on average, and liquidity is assumed not to matter or just ignored. So then we have:

(2) y = i

In these models, it doesn’t matter if we use the term “interest rate” to mean y or to mean i, since they are always the same.

This assumption is appropriate for a world where there is only one kind of asset — a risk-free contract that exchanges one good in the present for 1 + i goods in the future. There’s nothing wrong with exploring what the value of i would be in such a world under various assumptions.

The problem arises when we carry equation (2) over to the real world and apply it to the yield of some particular asset. On the one hand, the yield of every existing asset reflects some or all of the other terms. And on the other hand, every contract that involves payments in more than one period — which is to say, every asset — equally incorporates i. If we are looking for the “interest rate” of economic theory in the economic world we observe around us, we could just as well pick the rent-price ratio for houses, or the profit rate, or the deflation rate, or the ratio of the college wage premium to tuition costs. These are just the yields of a house, of a share of the capital stock, of cash and of a college degree respectively. All of these are a ratio of expected future payments to present cost, and should reflect i to exactly the same extent as the yield of a bond does. Yet in everyday language, it is the yield of the bond that we call “interest”, even though it has no closer connection to the interest rate of theory than any of these other yields do.

This point was first made, as far as I know, by Sraffa in his review of Hayek’s Prices and Production. It was developed by Keynes, and stated clearly in chapters 13 and 17 of the General Theory.

For Keynes, there is an additional problem. The price we observe as an “interest rate” in credit markets is not even the y of the bond, which would be i modified by risk, expected capital gains and liquidity. That is because bonds do not trade against baskets of goods. They trade against money. When we see a bond being sold with a particular yield, we are not observing the exchange rate between a basket of goods equivalent to the bond’s value today and baskets of goods equivalent to its yield in the future. We are observing the exchange rate between the bond today and a quantity of money today. That’s what actually gets exchanged. So in equilibrium the price of the bond is what equates the expected returns on the two assets:

(3) y_B – r_B + l_B + g_B – i = l_M – i

(Neither bonds nor money depreciate or have carrying costs, and money has no risk. If our numeraire is money then money also cannot experience capital gains. If our numeraire was a basket of goods instead, then -g would be expected inflation, which would appear on both sides and cancel out.)

What we see is that i appears on both sides, so it cancels out. The yield of the bond is given by:

(4) y_B  = r_B – g_B + (l_M – l_B)

The yield of the bond — the thing that in conventional usage we call the “interest rate” — depends on the risk of the bond, the expected price change of the bond, and the liquidity premium of money compared with the bond. Holding money today, and holding a bond today, are both means to enable you to make purchases in the future. So the intertemporal substitution rate i does not affect the bond yield.

(We might ask whether the arbitrage exists that would allow us to speak of a general rate of time-substitution i in real economies at all. But for present purposes we can ignore that question and focus on the fact that even if there is such a rate, it does not show up in the yields we normally call “interest rates”.)

This is the argument as Keynes makes it. It might seem decisive. But monetarists would reject it on the grounds that nobody in fact holds money as a store of value, so equation (3) does not apply. The bond-money market is not in equilibrium, because there is zero demand for money beyond that needed for current transactions at any price. (The corollary of this is the familiar monetarist claim that any change in the stock of  money must result in a proportionate change in the value of transactions, which at full employment means a proportionate rise in the price level.) From the other side, endogenous money theorists might assert that the money supply is infinitely elastic for any credit-market interest rate, so l_M is endogenous and equation (4) is underdetermined.

As criticisms of the specific form of Keynes’ argument, these are valid objections. But if we take a more realistic view of credit markets, we come to the same conclusion: the yield on a credit instrument (call this the “credit interest rate”) has no relationship to the intertemporal substitution rate of theory (call this the “intertemporal interest rate.”)

Suppose you are buying a house, which you will pay for by taking out a mortgage equal to the value of the house. For simplicity we will assume an amortizing mortgage, so you make the same payment each period. We can also assume the value of housing services you receive from the house will also be the same each period. (In reality it might rise or fall, but an expectation that the house will get better over time is obviously not required for the transaction to take place.) So if the purchase is worth making at all, then it will result in a positive income to you in every period. There is no intertemporal substitution on your side. From the bank’s point of view, extending the mortgage means simultaneously creating an asset — their loan to you — and a liability — the newly created deposit you use to pay for the house. If the loan is worth making at all, then the expected payments from the mortgage exceed the expected default losses and other costs in every period. And the deposits are newly created, so no one associated with the bank has to forego any other expenditure in the present. There is no intertemporal substitution on the bank’s side either.

(It is worth noting that there are no net lenders or net borrowers in this scenario. Both sides have added an asset and a liability of equal value. The language of net lenders and net borrowers is carried over from models with consumption loans at the intertemporal interest rate. It is not relevant to the credit interest rate.)

If these transactions are income-positive for all periods for both sides, why aren’t they carried to infinity? One reason is that the yields for the home purchaser fall as more homes are purchased. In general, you will not value the housing services from a second home, or the additional housing services of a home that costs twice as much, as much as you value the housing services of the home you are buying now. But this only tells us that for any given interest rate there is a volume of mortgages at which the market will clear. It doesn’t tell us which of those mortgage volume-interest rate pairs we will actually see.

The answer is on the liquidity side. Buying a house makes you less liquid — it means you have less flexibility if you decide you’d like to move elsewhere, or if you need to reduce your housing costs because of unexpected fall in income or rise in other expenses. You also have a higher debt-income ratio, which may make it harder for you to borrow in the future. The loan also makes the bank less liquid — since its asset-capital ratio is now higher, there are more states of the world in which a fall in income would require it to sell assets or issue new liabilities to meet its scheduled commitments, which might be costly or, in a crisis, impossible. So the volume of mortgages rises until the excess of housing service value over debt service costs make taking out a mortgage just worth the incremental illiquidity for the marginal household, and where the excess of mortgage yield over funding costs makes issuing a new mortgage just worth the incremental illiquidity for the marginal bank. (Incremental illiquidity in the interbank market may — or may not — mean that funding costs rise with the volume of loans, but this is not necessary to the argument.)

Monetary policy affects the volume of these kinds of transactions by operating on the l terms. Normally, it does so by changing the quantity of liquid assets available to the financial system (and perhaps directly to the nonfinancial private sector as well). In this way the central bank makes banks (and perhaps households and businesses) more or less willing to accept the incremental illiquidity of a new loan contract. Monetary policy has nothing to do with substitution between expenditure in the present period and expenditure in some future period. Rather, it affects the terms of substitution between more and less liquid claims on income in the same future period.

Note that changing the quantity of liquid assets is not the only way the central bank can affect the liquidity premium. Banking regulation, lender of last resort operations and bailouts also change the liquidity premium, by chaining the subjective costs of bank balance sheet expansion. An expansion of the reserves available to the banking system makes it cheaper for banks to acquire a cushion to protect themselves against the possibility of an unexpected fall in income. This will make them more willing to hold relatively illiquid assets like mortgages. But a belief that the Fed will take emergency action prevent a bank from failing in the event of an unexpected fall in income also increases its willingness to hold assets like mortgages. And it does so by the same channel — reducing the liquidity premium. In this sense, there is no difference in principle between monetary policy and the central bank’s role as bank supervisor and lender of last resort. This is easy to understand once you think of “the interest rate” as the price of liquidity, but impossible to see when you think of “the interest rate” as the price of time substitution.

It is not only the central bank that changes the liquidity premium. If mortgages become more liquid — for instance through the development of a regular market in securitized mortgages — that reduces the liquidity cost of mortgage lending, exactly as looser monetary policy would.

The irrelevance of the time-substitution rate i to the credit-market interest rate y_B becomes clear when you compare observed interest rates with other prices that also should incorporate i. Courtesy of commenter rsj at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, here’s one example: the Baa bond rate vs. the land price-rent ratio for residential property.

Both of these series are the ratio of one year’s payment from an asset, to the present value of all future payments. So they have an equal claim to be the “interest rate” of theory. But as we can see, none of the variation in credit-market interest rates (y_B, in my terms) show up in the price-rent ratio. Since variation in the time-substituion rate i should affect both ratios equally, this implies that none of the variation in credit-market interest rates is driven by changes in the time-substitution interest rate. The two “interest rates” have nothing to do with each other.

(Continued here.)

EDIT: Doesn’t it seem strange that I first assert that mortgages do not incorporate the intertemporal interest rate, then use the house price-rent ratio as an example of a price that should incorporate that rate? One reason to do this is to test the counterfactual claim that interest rates do, after all, incorporate Samuelson’s interest rate i. If i were important in both series, they should move together; if they don’t, it might be important in one, or in neither.

But beyond that, I think housing purchases do have an important intertemporal component, in a way that loan contracts do not. That’s because (with certain important exceptions we are all aware of) houses are not normally purchased entirely on credit. A substantial fraction of the price is paid is upfront. In effect, most house purchases are two separate transactions bundled together: A credit transaction (for, say, 80 percent of the house value) in which both parties expect positive income in all periods, at the cost of less liquid balance sheets; and a conceptually separate cash transaction (for, say, 20 percent) in which the buyer foregoes present expenditure in return for a stream of housing services in the future. Because house purchases must clear both of these markets, they incorporate i in way that loans do not. But note, i enters into house prices only to the extent that the credit-market interest rate does not. The more important the credit-market interest rate is in a given housing purchase, the less important the intertemporal interest rate is.

This is true in general, I think. Credit markets are not a means of trading off the present against the future. They are a means of avoiding tradeoffs between the present and the future.

Secular Stagnation, Progress in Economics

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

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

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

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

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

The positive content of “secular stagnation”

1. Output is determined by demand.

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

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

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

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

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

2. Demand normally falls short of potential

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

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

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

3. Bubbles are functional

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. High interest rates are not coming back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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