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August 29, 2010

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Krugman vs. Holtz-Eakin: Has the Fed Done Enough?

Posted: 29 Aug 2010 01:05 AM PDT

The discussion starts around the 2:00 minute mark. Via C&L

Holtz-Eakin is encouraging us to balance the budget even though the economy is still relatively weak, and in doing so, to make the same mistake we made during the Great Depression. A quick look at recent data, and all the talk about the chance of a double dip we've been hearing, shows that we are anything but certain we we will be back at full employment anytime soon. Recovery from a financial crisis is often a long, drawn out process, and that may be true this time as well, but that means the economy needs more help over a longer period, not a premature return to austerity that risks sending the economy back into recession.

Why would we want to risk sending the economy back into a recession by beginning to balance the budget before the economy is growing robustly on its own? Republicans believe some sort of confidence effect from the decline in the deficit -- one that cannot actually be observed in the data but is, nevertheless, asserted to be there anyway -- will somehow more than offset the certain decline in demand from the reduction in the government deficit. But the problem is that the decline in demand will have it's own confidence effect on businesses, one that is negative, more certain, and likely much larger than any positive effects from deficit reduction.

And is anyone else getting tired of the "Obama is creating business uncertainty" argument from the Party that is creating most of the uncertainty and uneasiness about what crazy things might happen should they be elected? It worked out so well for the economy the last time they were in power and emphasized growth above all else. We're still trying to get out of that sinkhole -- talk about creating uncertainty. In any case, as noted by Paul Krugman on the video, there's nothing at all to indicate that businesses are, in fact, holding back due to uncertainties created by the administration's policies. Businesses face lots of uncertainties due to lack of demand for their products, and perhaps over what might change if Republicans take power, something that can hardly be blamed on the administration. But balancing the budget as Holtz-Eakin would have us do would reduce demand and cause fewer paying customers to walk through their doors. That makes the uncertainty problem worse, not better.

Putting it more succinctly, the Party in power when we got into this mess wants to be given another chance so it can try policies that failed during the Great Depression. And some people think that's a good idea.

Stock and Watson: Inflation is Likely to Fall Even Further

Posted: 29 Aug 2010 12:58 AM PDT

Ben Bernanke certainly knows that the work of James Stock and Mark Watson is worth taking seriously. So why take this risk?:

Slack Could Lead to Sharper Inflation Decline, by Jon Hilsenrath, RTE: Inflation could fall much further in the next year, thanks to the enormous slack that built up in the U.S. economy during recession... Harvard University's James Stock and Princeton's Mark Watson — two respected econometricians... — project that the Federal Reserve's favored measure of inflation could fall by 0.8 percentage points by the second quarter of 2011 from its 2010 second quarter rate of 1.5%, based on relationships they've drawn from past recessionary cycles.
Some measures of inflation are already below the Fed's unofficial target of 1.5% to 2%. A decline to near zero, if it materialized, would likely be greeted with alarm at the Fed and would give officials added incentive to take new steps to forestall such a move. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said at the same conference today that the Fed is on guard against further disinflation. ...

links for 2010-08-28

Posted: 28 Aug 2010 11:01 PM PDT

"Why We Need a Second Stimulus"

Posted: 28 Aug 2010 05:17 PM PDT

Laura Tyson makes the case for more stimulus spending:

Why We Need a Second Stimulus, by Laura Tyson, Commentary, NY Times: Our national debate about fiscal policy has become skewed, with far too much focus on the deficit and far too little on unemployment. There is too much worry about the size of government, and too little appreciation for how stimulus spending has helped stabilize the economy and how more of the right kind of government spending could boost job creation and economic growth. By focusing on the wrong things, we are in serious danger of failing to do the right things to help the economy recover from its worst labor market crisis since the Great Depression. ... [...continue reading...]

"The Manufacturing Fallacy"

Posted: 28 Aug 2010 12:22 PM PDT

I have put up a few posts on the loss of US manufacturing, many of which claimed it was to the detriment of the US. However, I meant to explore ideas, not endorse a position, though there were those who objected to even raising the issue and asking these questions. My inclination is toward open borders coupled with more social support -- much more than we have presently -- for those who are on the losing end of international reallocations (yeah, I know, fire away in comments...). I also believe that the degree to which you create the proper foundation through education, infrastructure, etc. influences the nature of those reallocations. In any case, I want to let Jagdish Bhagwati push pack a bit in the other direction:

The Manufacturing Fallacy, by Jagdish Bhagwati, Commentary, Project Syndicate: Economists long ago put to rest the error that Adam Smith made when he argued that manufacturing should be given primacy in a country's economy. Indeed, in Book II of The Wealth of Nations, Smith condemned as unproductive the labors of "churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc." We may agree with Smith (and Shakespeare) about the uselessness of lawyers perhaps, but surely not about Olivier, Falstaff, and Pavarotti. But the manufacturing fetish recurs repeatedly, the latest manifestation being in the United States in the wake of the recent crisis.
In mid-1960's Great Britain, Nicholas Kaldor, the world-class Cambridge economist and an influential adviser to the Labour Party, raised an alarm over "deindustrialization." His argument was that an ongoing shift of value added from manufacturing to services was harmful, because manufactures were technologically progressive, whereas services were not. ...
Kaldor's argument was based on the erroneous premise that services were technologically stagnant. ... In fact, the dubious notion that we should select economic activities based on their presumed technical innovativeness has been carried even further, in support of the argument that we should favor semiconductor chips over potato chips. While rejection of this presumption landed Michael Boskin, Chairman of President George H.W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, in rough political waters, the presumption prompted a reporter to go and check the matter... It turned out that semiconductors were being fitted onto circuit boards in a mindless, primitive fashion, whereas potato chips were being produced through a highly automated process (which is how Pringles chips rest on each other perfectly). ...
While these episodes ... died early deaths, the same cannot be said for the latest revival of the "manufactures fetish" in the US and Great Britain. The latest flirtation with supporting manufactures has come from the current crisis ... and is therefore likely to have greater prospects for survival. The fetish is particularly rampant in the US, where the Democrats in Congress have gone so far as to ally themselves with lobbyists for manufactures to pass legislation that would provide protection and subsidies to increase the share of manufactures in GDP.
Because of the financial crisis, many politicians have accepted the argument, in a virtual throwback to Adam Smith, that financial services are unproductive – even counterproductive – and need to be scaled back by governmental intervention. It is then inferred that this means that manufactures must be expanded. But this does not follow. Even if you wanted to curtail financial services, you could still focus on the multitude of non-financial services.
Diesel engines and turbines are not the only alternatives; many services, like professional therapy, nursing, and teaching are available. The case for a shift to manufacturing remains unproven, because it cannot be proved.

The Correspondence Principle

Posted: 28 Aug 2010 09:49 AM PDT

Rajiv Sethi, who I've come to trust to get things right, has a nice summary of the recent controversy over the relationship between interests rate and inflation:

Lessons from the Kocherlakota Controversy, by Rajiv Sethi: In a speech last week the President of the Minneapolis Fed, Narayana Kocherlakota, made the following rather startling claim:

Long-run monetary neutrality is an uncontroversial, simple, but nonetheless profound proposition. In particular, it implies that if the FOMC maintains the fed funds rate at its current level of 0-25 basis points for too long, both anticipated and actual inflation have to become negative. Why? It's simple arithmetic. Let's say that the real rate of return on safe investments is 1 percent and we need to add an amount of anticipated inflation that will result in a fed funds rate of 0.25 percent. The only way to get that is to add a negative number—in this case, –0.75 percent.

To sum up, over the long run, a low fed funds rate must lead to consistent—but low—levels of deflation.

The proposition that a commitment by the Fed to maintain a low nominal interest rate indefinitely must lead to deflation (rather than accelerating inflation) defies common sense, economic intuition, and the monetarist models of an earlier generation. This was was pointed out forcefully and in short order by Andy Harless, Nick Rowe, Robert Waldmann, Scott Sumner, Mark Thoma, Ryan Avent, Brad DeLongKarl Smith, Paul Krugman and many other notables.

But Kocherlakota was not without his defenders. Stephen Williamson and Jesus Fernandez-Villaverde both argued that his claim was innocuous and completely consistent with modern monetary economics. And indeed it is, in the following sense: the modern theory is based on equilibrium analysis, and the only equilibrium consistent with a persistently low nominal interest rate is one in which there is a stable and low level of deflation. If one accepts the equilibrium methodology as being descriptively valid in this context, one is led quite naturally to Kocherlakota's corner.

But while Williamson and Fernandez-Villaverde interpret the consistency of Kocherlakota's claim with the modern theory as a vindication of the claim, others might be tempted to view it as an indictment of the theory. Specifically, one could argue that equilibrium analysis unsupported by a serious exploration of disequilibrium dynamics could lead to some very peculiar and misleading conclusions. I have made this point in a couple of earlier posts, but the argument is by no means original. In fact, as David Andolfatto helpfully pointed out in a comment on Williamson's blog, the same point was made very elegantly and persuasively in a 1992 paper by Peter Howitt.

Howitt's paper is concerned with the the inflationary consequences of a pegged nominal interest rate, which is precisely the subject of Kocherlakota's thought experiment. He begins with an old-fashioned monetarist model in which output depends positively on expected inflation (via the expected real rate of interest), realized inflation depends on deviations of output from some "natural" level, and expectations adjust adaptively. In this setting it is immediately clear that there is a "rational expectations equilibrium with a constant, finite rate of inflation that depends positively on the nominal rate of interest" chosen by the central bank. This is the equilibrium relationship that Kocherlakota has in mind: lower interest rates correspond to lower inflation rates and a sufficiently low value for the former is associated with steady deflation. 

The problem arises when one examines the stability of this equilibrium. Any attempt by the bank to shift to a lower nominal interest rate leads not to a new equilibrium with lower inflation, but to accelerating inflation instead. The remainder of Howitt's paper is dedicated to showing that this instability, which is easily seen in the simple old-fashioned model with adaptive expectations, is in fact a robust insight and holds even if one moves to a "microfounded" model with intertemporal optimization and flexible prices, and even if one allows for a broad range of learning dynamics. The only circumstance in which a lower nominal rate results in lower inflation is if individuals are assumed to be "capable of forming rational expectations ab ovo".

Howitt places this finding in historical context as follows (emphasis added):

In his 1968 presidential address to the American Economic Association, Milton Friedman argued, among other things, that controlling interest rates tightly was not a feasible monetary policy. His argument was a variation on Knut Wicksell's cumulative process. Start in full employment with no actual or expected inflation. Let the monetary authority peg the nominal interest rate below the natural rate. This will require monetary expansion, which will eventually cause inflation. When expected inflation rises in response to actual inflation, the Fisher effect will put upward pressure on the interest rate. More monetary expansion will be required to maintain the peg. This will make inflation accelerate until the policy is abandoned. Likewise, if the interest rate is pegged above the natural rate, deflation will accelerate until the policy is abandoned. Since no one knows the natural rate, the policy is doomed one way or another.

This argument, which was once quite uncontroversial, at least among monetarists, has lost its currency. One reason is that the argument invokes adaptive expectations, and there appears to be no way of reformulating it under rational expectations... in conventional rational expectations models, monetary policy can peg the nominal rate... without producing runaway inflation or deflation... Furthermore... pegging the nominal rate at a lower value will produce a lower average rate of inflation, not the ever-higher inflation predicted by Friedman...

Thus the rational expectations revolution has almost driven the cumulative process from the literature. Modern textbooks treat it as a relic of pre-rational expectations thought... contrary to these rational expectations arguments, the cumulative process is not only possible but inevitable, not just in a conventional Keynesian macro model but also in a flexible-price, micro-based, finance constraint model, whenever the interest rate is pegged... the essence of the cumulative process lies not in an economy's rational expectations equilibria but in the disequilibrium adjustment process by which people try to acquire rational expectations... under a wide set of assumptions, the process cannot converge if the monetary authority keeps interest rates pegged and that the cumulative process is a manifestation of this nonconvergence. 

Thus the cumulative process should be regarded not as a relic but as an implication of real-time belief formation of the sort studied in the literature on convergence (or nonconvergence) to rational expectations equilibrium... Perhaps the most important lesson of the analysis is that the assumption of rational expectations can be misleading, even when used to analyze the consequences of a fixed monetary regime. If the regime is not conducive to expectational stability, then the consequences can be quite different from those predicted under rational expectations... in general, any rational expectations analysis of monetary policy should be supplemented with a stability analysis... to determine whether or not the rational expectations equilibrium could ever be observed. 

To this I would add only that a stability analysis is a necessary supplement to equilibrium reasoning not just in the case of monetary policy debates, but in all areas of economics. For as Richard Goodwin said a long time ago, an "equilibrium state that is unstable is of purely theoretical interest, since it is the one place the system will never remain."

[The title of the post refers to Samuelson's Correspondence Principle, and I want to make clear that I understand its limitations in the DSGE context. See, for example, the introduction to this paper for a discussion of its applicability to DSGE models with learning.]

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