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September 24, 2009

Economist's View - 5 new articles

Fed Watch: Rushing to the Exits?

Tim Duy is worried that the inflation hawks on the FOMC are gaining too much influence:

Rushing to the Exits?, by Tim Duy: A missive from a former colleague prompted me to reconsider the Fed's behavior in light of their most recent forecast and the evolution of economic data. That in turn started to shed light on some little pieces of information sitting on my computer that I knew were important, but just couldn't quite see how they fit. And has left me somewhat concerned that the Fed may be more likely than I believed to stifle the pace of the recovery by, at a minimum, halting the growth of policy accommodation.

The Fed gave and took at the September FOMC meeting. Policymakers reiterated support for their near zero rate policy, while offering a slightly hawkish nuance that was noted by Jon Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal:

Today's Federal Open Market Committee statement included a nuanced tip of the hat to hawks on the central bank's policy making committee who think the Fed is putting too much weight on the argument that the economy's substantial slack will drive down inflation.

Slack is the economy's productive capacity that doesn't get utilized — unemployed workers, empty hotel rooms, unsold homes, idle factory floors, etc. When there's a lot of slack, it puts downward pressure on prices in the short-run. It's one very important reason why the Fed has felt comfortable assuring markets that it is likely to keep interest rates exceptionally low for a long time. Because slack is likely to keep inflation low, the Fed will keep rates low.

But Fed officials have been engaged in an intense debate in recent months about how much slack matters. Some hawks believe other factors are more important ingredients in near-term inflation. One of those other factors is inflation expectations — if investors, businessmen and consumers expect more inflation, they could cause it by demanding higher prices and wages in anticipation. The Fed indirectly acknowledged this argument in the September statement: "With substantial resource slack likely to continue to dampen cost pressures and with longer-term inflation expectations stable, the Committee expects that inflation will remain subdued for some time."

In previous recent statements, it hasn't mentioned inflation expectations. It focused mostly on slack. Here's how the Fed put it in August: "Substantial resource slack is likely to dampen cost pressures, and the Committee expects that inflation will remain subdued for some time."

The practical implication of this little wording change? Keep an eye on measures of inflation expectations, such as inflation-protected Treasury bonds and University of Michigan surveys of consumers. They have been stable. But if they start rising, the Fed's inflation view could change and tilt it toward a more hawkish stance.

The shift in wording, then, appears to be the result of some more hawkish FOMC members, illuminating the smidgen of truth behind a rumor that was circulating earlier this month. From Across the Curve:

I was not planted here at my work station yesterday but roaming through the myriad of emails I receive it seems that one of the reasons for the weakness yesterday was a report by an advisory firm, Smick Medley, that the Federal Reserve at its upcoming meeting would comment on and discus raising rates sooner rather than later.

Given the FOMC's own forecast, any consideration of tightening seems silly:


While the Fed may find it necessary to raise the estimate of GDP growth for this year on the back of a relatively sharp inventory correction, unemployment is almost certain to exceed the range for this year, and even if it didn't, it remains unacceptably high through 2011. Moreover, the downward pressure on pricing has increased in recent months, bringing the core-PCE forecasts into question:


On top of this, the concern of some hawks that inflation expectations will suddenly trigger a wage price spiral seems simply silly unless one can explain how, given current institutional arrangements in the US, price increase will translate into wage increases. Indeed, unit labor costs are giving you the exact opposite story:


And employment compensation for the private sector is likewise trending down:


Sure, one could turn to the commodity markets for inflation signals, but I think the critical price there is oil, which is finding the $72 mark extremely challenging to break through. That may have something to do with reports that quantity supplied to running well ahead of quantity demanded:

Crude oil declined for a second day in New York after a U.S. government report showed a larger-than- expected increase in fuel stockpiles in the world's largest energy-consuming nation.

Gasoline stockpiles in the U.S. surged 5.4 million barrels last week, the Energy Department said. That's more than the 500,000-barrel increase forecast in a Bloomberg News survey of analysts. Diesel and heating oil inventories jumped 2.9 million barrels, double what was expected. Crude oil supplies climbed 2.86 million barrels last week.

"The market has a glut of crude oil and refined products right now," Victor Shum, a senior principal at consultants Purvin & Gertz Inc. in Singapore, said in a Bloomberg Television interview. "If we get a big correction in equities, the loss of optimism in that demand recovery will continue to drive down prices."

And even if oil broke through the $72 mark, if $150 oil couldn't trigger a wage-price spiral, what is $80 oil going to do? The Fed's seeming eagerness halt monetary accommodation also runs in contrast to forecasts that they really need to be doing much, much more to support growth. From Goldman Sachs (no link):

In recent months, we have argued that the zero lower bound (ZLB) on nominal interest rates represents a meaningful constraint on monetary policy in particular and economic policy in general. Specifically, combining a variant of the Taylor Rule for monetary policy with our forecast for growth and inflation, we have long concluded that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) would want to push its target for the federal funds rate significantly below zero – to levels of -6% or lower – if it had that option.

The -6% number suggests a much, much more aggressive expansion of the balance sheet, while the Fed in contrast is willing to let the current programs play themselves out over the course of the next six months.

So, given the unemployment outlook is sad, wage growth continues to deteriorate, core inflation is falling, and we seem to lack an institutional arrangement to force higher prices, should they even emerge, into higher wages, what is the Fed thinking? Should they really be worried about winding down programs? Are they really confident enough that an inventory correction that will undoubtedly spike GDP numbers will also translate into sustainable growth? Even knowing full while that after the last recession, the US economy languished despite the inventory correction, only to be revived on the back of the housing bubble? In effect, the Fed looks to be putting much weight on the cyclical story playing out, while ignoring the structural story of the necessity of asset bubbles to fuel growth. Pondering this, a little noticed Bloomberg report jumped to mind:

Federal Reserve policy makers are concerned about making "a colossal policy error" leading to higher inflation if they don't withdraw extraordinary monetary stimulus soon enough, said Laurence Meyer, vice chairman of Macroeconomic Advisers LLC and a former Fed governor.

"When you talk to committee members you see a little bit more angst than you'd expect," Meyer said in an interview yesterday at the Kansas City Fed's monetary policy conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. "In public they say they're confident they'll get it right, they're confident they have the tools to get it right. But when you talk to them in private there's some concern there."

So, added to the Medley rumor, the pieces start to fall together. Internally, perhaps a wide range of FOMC members believe, in their hearts if not in the data, that they have gone so far that the balance of risks have shifted toward inflation. But this is troubling; the basis for the inflation story falls entirely on the Fed's expansion of its balance sheet. Just a meager $1.3 trillion expansion give or take in the wake of an over $11 trillion decline in household wealth? And the bulk of that expansion is sitting in excess bank reserves? Not really much of an inflation story. But why else are they so eager to withdraw? Just to prove to critics they can? With much fanfare, from Bloomberg today:

The Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury said they're scaling back emergency programs aimed at combating the financial crisis, reducing support for firms that now have an easier time getting funding.

The central bank today said it will further shrink auctions of cash loans to banks and Treasury securities to bond dealers, reducing the combined initiatives to $100 billion by January from $450 billion. The Treasury has "begun the process of exiting from some emergency programs," the chief of the government's $700 billion financial-rescue fund said separately.

Bottom Line. The Fed is moving toward the exit as they look toward the conclusion of their securities purchases programs. But it is not clear that such a move is justified by their own forecasts or the inflation/wage/employment data. There may be an internal fear they have gone too far, a fear that the hawks can exploit. To be sure, I see no reason to expect the Fed will raise rates for a long time. And the Fed maintains it has policy flexibility, claiming to be ready to revive asset purchases should economic or financial conditions justify. But I now suspect the bar for renewed expansion of Fed accommodation may be much higher than I had anticipated. And that the dominant push for expansion would have to come from financial market conditions, while they would be willing to tolerate persistently high unemployment rates so long as U. Michigan inflation expectations say elevated, regardless of the actual inflation data.

"The Baucus Free Rider Problem"

At CBS Money Watch:

The Baucus Free Rider Problem, by Mark Thoma

"The Crisis of Public Management"

Jeffrey Sachs says our public management systems need an overhaul:

The Failing U.S. Government--The Crisis of Public Management, by Jeffrey D. Sachs, Scientific American: The crisis of American governance goes much deeper than political divisions and ideology. The U.S. is in a crisis of policy implementation. Not only are Americans deeply divided on what to do about health care, budget deficits, financial markets, climate change and more, but government is also failing to execute settled policies effectively. Management systems linking government, business and civil society need urgent repair. The recent systems failures are legion and notorious. The 9/11 attacks might well have been prevented if the FBI and the intelligence agencies had cooperated more effectively... Hurricane Katrina caused mass devastation and loss of life because recommendations to bolster the levees ... and other protective measures were neglected for decades despite urgent expert warnings, and because the federal emergency relief effort failed... The U.S. occupation of Iraq was marked by massive ... corruption, incompetence, and implementation failures by U.S. agencies. On the economic front, the current financial crisis is a remarkable systems failure. Government regulatory agencies completely dropped the ball... The list, alas, goes on and on. Military procurement systems are ... broken... Public construction systems are failing... Roads, bridges, rail, water and sewerage systems and many dams are in dangerous disrepair...
We need a better scientific understanding of these pervasive systems failures. It is wrong to think that they illustrate the inevitable failure of government. Other governments around the world more successfully manage infrastructure investments, health systems and environmental resources, apparently with greater flexibility, less corruption, lower costs and better outcomes. America should be learning from their experiences. Several factors are at play. A key one has been the flawed privatization of public-sector regulatory functions. ... A second has been the collapse of planning functions within the federal government. ... A third, and paradoxical, factor is the chronic underfunding of government itself. ... The public is wary of putting more funds into government having witnessed one public sector failure after another. Yet without investing more resources in skilled public managers in health care, energy systems, and national security, we are probably doomed to remain stuck in the hands of vested interests and lobbies. Fourth, today's challenges cut across technical specialties, government departments and public and private sectors. ... Yet our government agencies are not designed to take a holistic approach. In short, we have arrived at a point where the challenges of sustainable development —including public health, infrastructure, energy and national security—require changes not only to policy but also to basic public management systems. In many crucial areas, tinkering will no longer suffice: we need an overhaul to regain government control over regulatory processes, reduce lobbying, restore public planning and ensure the adequate financing of skilled public managers, and align public management systems with holistic strategies.

As evidenced by the response to the recent crisis, I'd add a fifth item to the list, opposition to the construction of the kinds of technocratic institutions that are needed to manage public systems:

Conservative Interventionism: The US government especially, but other governments as well, have gotten themselves deeply involved in industrial and financial policy during this crisis. They have done this without constructing technocratic institutions like the 1930's Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the 1990's RTC, which played major roles in allowing earlier episodes of extraordinary government intervention into the industrial and financial ... economy ... without an overwhelming degree of corruption and rent seeking. The discretionary power of executives, in past crises, was curbed by new interventionist institutions constructed on the fly by legislative action.

That is how America's founders ... envisioned that things would work. They were suspicious of executive power, and thought that the president should have rather less discretionary power than the various King Georges of the time. ...

So I wonder: why didn't the US Congress follow the RFC/RTC model when authorizing George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's industrial and financial policies? Why haven't the technocratic institutions that we do have ... been given a broader role in this crisis?

"Dark Age in Macroeconomics?"

This is Nick Rowe (it's in response to Paul Krugman and follows up on one of Nick's previous posts):

Dark Age in Macroeconomics? A History of Taught approach, by Nick Rowe: (Or maybe the title should be: "Notes from the Phelps/Lucas Administration"; or "Notes to supplement our fading memories of the late 1970's".)
Is this a Dark Age in macroeconomics? In other words, have we collectively forgotten some (important) stuff that we used to understand?
I want to approach this question by looking at what was taught in the past to economics graduate students, so we can compare what is left out now to what was left out then.
I have a sample of one: my own lecture notes from grad school. I began my MA at UWO in 1977, and continued into the PhD. I took everything in macro/money that was offered. At the time, UWO was arguably the top Canadian department in macro/money (OK, Western grads would argue for; Queens grads would argue against), and would hold up well against anywhere in the world.
Macro 1 (David Laidler). Required course. Review and critique of ISLM (lags, stocks flows and the government budget constraint, are the IS and AD curves really demand curves? [no], the missing AS curve). Crowding out debate. Non-Walrasian macro (Barro and Grossman). Say's Law. Phillips Curve (up to Phelps and Friedman). Consumption function (Friedman/Modigliani). Demand for money. Investment demand.
Macro 2 (Michael Parkin). Required for those continuing to the PhD. (I can't resist quoting from the first page of my notes here: "Economics [is] Understand + Explain Phenomena using Rational models. How could Rational Behaviour [lead to] Disaster? Market Failure."). Review and critique of Neoclassical model of labour market. Lucas and Rapping (from the Phelps volume), and why their model was logically incoherent (Michael Parkin was right on this point). Mortensen's (also from Phelps volume) search theory of unemployment. Theories of implicit wage contracts (sticky wages). Theories of price adjustment (proto New-Keynesian). ISLM plus Phillips Curve (distinction between proto New-Keynesian and New Classical interpretations of Phillips Curve). Adaptive vs. Rational expectations. Policy Irrelevance Proposition ("[deviations of output from y* are] just noise, but obviously false").
Money 1 (Don Patinkin/Peter Howitt). Optional. Hume. Fisher. Lavington. Wicksell. Keynes' Tract, Treatise, and General Theory. Patinkin's Money interest and Prices. Are money and bonds net wealth? Commodity money. Solow/Swan growth model. Money and growth. Optimal quantity of money. Transactions costs. Baumol/Tobin and Miller/Orr models of demand for money.
Money 2 (Joel Fried). Optional. Microfoundations of money, Menger, Ostroy, Jones. Money in general equilibrium theory. Clower constraints. Transactions costs. Financial markets. Tobin. CAPM. Efficient Markets. Modigliani/Miller theorem. Term structure of interest rates. Tobin portfolio choice. Friedman and Monetarism. International finance. Dornbusch overshooting. Exogenous vs endogenous money. Canadian monetary policy.
Advanced Macro (Peter Howitt). Optional. (Lovely quote from the first page: "We are Aristotelian monks, trying to solve anomolies to stop future generations wasting their time doing the same thing.". Non-Walrasian disequilibrium theory (Clower, Leijonhufvud, Barro/Grossman, Malinvaud, Benassy, etc.). Stability. Catastrophe theory(!). Price adjustment under oligopoly. Optimal control theory. Inventories. Phelps/Winter price setting with transient monopoly power (from the Phelps volume, proto New-Keynesian).
(I learned some more money/macro in David Laidler's History of Thought class. But I was the only graduate student in that class, so I'm not going to count it. My colleague Calum Carmichael, who took the same course as an undergraduate, estimates that about one quarter of the Honours economics students took that class.)
I make the follow observations:
1. The Phelps volume was clearly very influential in the late 1970's. This supports Paul Krugman's memory, and my own.
2. The beginnings of the split between New Classical and New Keynesian approaches was already apparent in the late 1970's. I saw several references to the distinction between Fisher and Phelps on the interpretation of the Phillips Curve. (Fisherian market-clearing with misperceptions vs Phelpsian disequilibrium price adjustment). This too supports Paul Krugman's memory.
3. We received a very broad education in short run macroeconomics and monetary theory. Probably much broader than today's students. That tends to support the Dark Age hypothesis.
4. But there is one glaring omission from our education: we did lots of short run business cycle theory but almost no long run growth theory. We briefly covered the Solow growth model, but only as a prelude to money and growth. There was no interest in growth theory per se! If growth theory is important, and it is, that directly contradicts the Dark Age hypothesis. We barely touched on half of macro! The late 1970's were the Dark Age, for growth theory.
Why did we ignore growth theory?
Growth theory wasn't on the agenda. It wasn't that growth was unimportant; just that there seemed to be nothing important to say about it. All the exciting policy debates were about inflation and unemployment, not long run growth. All the exciting theoretical developments were about inflation and unemployment, not long run growth. "Endogenous" growth theories (a stupid misnomer, because growth is endogenous in Solow too, just with an extremely simple functional relationship to the exogenous variables, namely g=n) came later.
Fiscal policy has been off the agenda for much the same reasons, until recently.
(5. We spent surprisingly little time on open economy macroeconomics as well, for a Canadian school.)
OK. Let's compare notes!

This is very similar to my own experience, we also did very little growth theory (nothing beyond Solow-Swan, also as a prelude to looking at whether money was "superneutral"), and I didn't take any international at all - it wasn't part of the macro sequence (the international economy was not considered very important for understanding business cycle fluctuations). The emphasis was on short-run stabilization policy, monetary policy in particular. However, my experience was a bit different in that by the time I got to graduate school in the early 1980s, the split between saltwater and freshwater economists was well underway.

Paul Krugman says:

But by 1980 or 1981 it was basically clear to everyone that the Lucas project – the attempt to explain the evidently Keynesian behavior of the economy in terms of nothing but imperfect information – had failed. So what were macroeconomic theorists supposed to do?

The answer was that they split. One faction said, in effect, "OK: we can't explain what we think we see in terms of full maximization. So we have to assume that there are some limits to maximization – costs of changing prices, bounded rationality, whatever." That faction became New Keynesian, saltwater economics.

The other faction said, in effect, "OK: we can't explain what we think we see in terms of full maximization. So we must be interpreting the data wrong – things like changes in the money supply must not be driving recessions, because theory says they can't." That faction became real business cycle, freshwater economics.

Here's what I said about this just under two and a half years ago (edited slightly). As you can see, even though this was written well before Krugman's statement, it basically agrees with his assertion that everyone knew the New Classical model was in trouble by 1980 or 1981 (the Mishkin paper noted below was published, I believe, in 1982, but given the long publication lags the results were well known long before then). It also agrees with his comments that one faction, the New Keynesians, built upon the old Keynesian structure by giving it rational agents and microfoundations who operated in an environment beset with rigidities of one type or another (these rigidities prevent agents from fully neutralizing nominal shocks such as changes in the money supply), and the other faction reemerged as the real business cycle school:

I entered graduate school in 1980. Though it started with a pretty traditional IS-LM framework with some AD-AS thrown in, most of our time was spent learning the New Classical model. Much of the research effort at that time, at least the effort I was made aware of, was to try and punch holes in the result that comes out of the New Classical framework that only unanticipated money can affect real variables like output and employment.

This assault came on both theoretical and empirical fronts. Mishkin, for example, had published an empirical paper in the early 1980s that challenged work by Barro and others from the later 1970s supporting the New Classical model and its implication that only surprise money matters. On the theoretical front, the old Keynesian model -- which had been criticized for, among other things, lacking microeconomic foundations and lacking rational expectations -- was being reconstructed into the New Keynesian model. This model would eventually overcome theoretical objections that plagued the older Keynesian model, and it would also do a better job than the New Classical model of explaining the magnitude and persistence of business cycles and other features of the macroeconomic data. We learned some about Real Business Cycle models - but for the most part that work went on elsewhere and would surface later with more force as an alternative to the New Keynesian framework. But we were certainly made aware of the real business cycle model, e.g. arguments about reverse causality to explain statistical money income correlations. I'd say the same about growth theory - we did the Solow-Swan basics, but very little beyond that. Stabilization policy was the main issue we worried about at the time.

Does money matter? I thought so, that's what my dissertation was all about, it gave theoretical and empirical reasons to doubt the New Classical result that expected money does not affect output, but the issue of whether money matters was not settled until later. We now accept, for the most part, that the Fed can affect real interest rates and also affect the real economy, but at that time there was a very strong split within the profession on this issue. It wasn't until later that a general belief that anticipated monetary policy was a potentially useful stabilization tool surfaced in the profession. It's sometimes surprising to me today how complete the conversion on that issue has been, though it's certainly not 100%.

So, it wasn't generally agreed that money mattered, i.e. that money was a useful policy tool for stabilizing the real economy. But the Keynesian economics I learned at the time, which was in the implicit and explicit labor contracting framework for the most part, did say that money mattered. In fact, since the point was to challenge the New Classical result that money did not matter, the focus was mostly on monetary policy. As for fiscal policy, the Keynesian model we talked about - beyond the simple IS-LM version we learned at first - paid very little attention to fiscal policy, though papers such as Barro's "Are Bonds Net Wealth" were part of the conversation. Thus, when I went to graduate school - and this was partly due to who was teaching the courses - the primary focus was on whether and how changes in monetary policy affected the real economy.

In any case, even though it was a few years later than Nick's experience, we also spent considerable time on the ideas that Krugman notes have since been lost as we entered our recent "Dark Ages."

links for 2009-09-23

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