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July 7, 2014

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Latest Posts from Economist's View


Paul Krugman: Beliefs, Facts, and Money

Posted: 07 Jul 2014 01:57 AM PDT

"Faith-based economics":

Beliefs, Facts and Money, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ...On the eve of the Great Recession, many conservative pundits and commentators — and quite a few economists — had a worldview that combined faith in free markets with disdain for government. Such people were briefly rocked back on their heels by the revelation that the "bubbleheads" who warned about housing were right, and the further revelation that unregulated financial markets are dangerously unstable. ...
Above all, there were many dire warnings about the evils of "printing money." ... Reality, however, declined to cooperate. Although the Fed continued on its expansionary course ... inflation stayed low...which was exactly what economists on the other side of the divide had predicted would happen. ...
So those who got it wrong went back to the drawing board, right? Hahahahaha.
In fact, hardly any of the people who predicted runaway inflation have acknowledged that they were wrong... Some have offered lame excuses; some, following in the footsteps of climate-change deniers, have gone down the conspiracy-theory rabbit hole, claiming that we really do have soaring inflation, but the government is lying about the numbers (and by the way, we're not talking about random bloggers or something; we're talking about famous Harvard professors.) Mainly, though, the currency-debasement crowd just keeps repeating the same lines, ignoring its utter failure in prognostication.
You might wonder why monetary theory gets treated like evolution or climate change. Isn't the question of how to manage the money supply a technical issue, not a matter of theological doctrine?
Well, it turns out that money is indeed a kind of theological issue. Many on the right are hostile to any kind of government activism... — if you concede that the Fed can sometimes help the economy by creating "fiat money," the next thing you know liberals will confiscate your wealth and give it to the 47 percent. Also, let's not forget that quite a few influential conservatives, including Mr. Ryan, draw their inspiration from Ayn Rand novels in which the gold standard takes on essentially sacred status.
And if you look at the internal dynamics of the Republican Party, it's obvious that the currency-debasement, return-to-gold faction has been gaining strength even as its predictions keep failing.
Can anything reverse this descent into dogma? A few conservative intellectuals have been trying to persuade their movement to embrace monetary activism, but they're ever more marginalized. ... When faith — including faith-based economics — meets evidence, evidence doesn't stand a chance.

Fed Watch: Inflation Hysteria Redux

Posted: 07 Jul 2014 01:25 AM PDT

Tim Duy:

Inflation Hysteria Redux, by Tim Duy: I am in general agreement with Calculated Risk on this point:

I also think the economy is picking up, and I agree that as slack diminishes, we will probably see real wage growth and an uptick in inflation.

Moreover, note that this is largely consistent with the Federal Reserve's outlook as well. Recall St. Louis Federal Reserve President John Williams from April, via Bloomberg:

Williams, who forecast the Fed will start raising interest rates in the second half of next year, said inflation has "bottomed out" and will gradually accelerate to the central bank's 2 percent target. He said prices have been held down by temporary forces such as a slowdown in health care costs.

The Federal Reserve has consistently predicted higher inflation, and consistently been surprised that that inflation has not yet arrived despite rapidly falling unemployment rates. It would appear, however, that their forecasts are finally coming true. Hence, I also agree with Calculated Risk when he says:

On inflation: I'm sympathetic to people like Joe Weisenthal at Business Insider who is looking for signs of inflation increasing; I'm starting to look for signs of real wage increases and inflation too. I just think inflation isn't a concern right now (Weisenthal was correct on inflation over the last several years in contrast to the people who were consistently wrong on inflation).

It is enough to simply say that inflation is coming. That in and of itself is insufficient. Any inflation call needs to be placed in the context of magnitude and expected monetary policy response. Regarding both, follow Calculated Risk's warning:

Monetary policy can't halt the violence in Iraq or make it rain in California - and this is why it is important to track various core measures of inflation.

The Fed doesn't target core inflation. They target headline inflation. But they also believe that headline inflation will revert to core, and as such tend to be more concerned with core inflation in excess of 2%. Consider the history of core inflation since 1985:

INFLATION2

I included a 25pb "forecast error" band around the Federal Reserve stated 2% target for PCE inflation; no one believes they can consistently hit 2% in the short-term, hence it is a medium term target. The most obvious feature is that for the last twenty years, core measures of inflation have more often than not been at or below the the upper range of the Fed's error band, especially for core-PCE inflation. Average core-PCE inflation: 1.7%. Average core-CPI inflation: 2.2%. Indeed, if core-PCE were the target, it is fairly clear that the Fed would have been on average undershooting its objective for the past two decades.
It is simply difficult for me to become too worried about inflation given the history of the past twenty years - twenty years in which the US economy was at times substantially outperforming the current environment no less. Underlying inflation simply has not be a problem.
It was not a problem because the Federal Reserve tightened policy multiple times to preempt inflation. Expect the same during this cycle as well - the Fed will begin to gradually raise interest rates sometime next year, and they will maintain a gradual pace of tightening as long as they believe core-PCE will consistently average 2.25% or less. Currently, I anticipate the first rate hike will occur in the second quarter of 2015. If the unemployment rate falls to 5.5% by the end of this year, I would expect the first hike to be in the first quarter of 2015.
What about headline inflation? Headline inflation is at the mercy of the Middle East and the weather, leaving it more volatile than core:

INFLATION

Average PCE inflation since 1994: 1.9%. Average CPI inflation since 1994: 2.4%. Arguably a pretty good track record. It is really no wonder that it is so difficult to motivate the inflation lectures in Principles of Macroeconomics. All the students are twenty or less years old. They simply have no experience with inflation as a troubling 1970s-style phenomenon.
How will headline inflation influence monetary policy? If you combine headline inflation well in excess of 2.25% (I suspect something more like 3%) with tight labor markets and rapid wage/unit labor cost growth, I think the Fed will accelerate the pace of tightening (indeed, the second two conditions alone would probably do the trick). If we experience high headline inflation in the context of weak wage growth, expect the gradual pace of tightening to continue. Under those circumstances, the Fed will believe that headline inflation will depress demand and lessen inflationary pressures endogenously.
Bottom Line: If you are making a short-term bet on higher headline inflation, primarily you are making a bet on energy and food. That bet is about the Middle East and weather, not monetary policy. I don't have an opinion on that bet. If you are betting on inflation over the medium-term, primarily you are making a bet on higher core inflation. More to the point, you are betting against the Fed. You are essentially betting that the Fed will not do what it has done since Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volker - tighten policy in the face of credible inflationary pressures. I would think twice, maybe three times before making that bet.

Links for 7-07-14

Posted: 07 Jul 2014 12:06 AM PDT

'Keynesian Yellen versus Wicksellian BIS'

Posted: 06 Jul 2014 10:55 AM PDT

Gavyn Davies:

Keynesian Yellen versus Wicksellian BIS, by Gavyn Davies: The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) caused a splash last weekend with an annual report that spelled out in detail why it disagrees with central elements of the strategy currently being adopted by its members, the major national central banks. On Wednesday, Fed Chair Janet Yellen mounted a strident defence of that strategy in her speech on "Monetary Policy and Financial Stability". She could have been speaking for any of the major four central banks, all of which are adopting basically the same approach [1].
Rarely will followers of macro-economics have a better opportunity to compare and contrast the two distinct intellectual strands in the subject...
Paul Krugman correctly points out that the BIS has been wrong in the past about the threat of inflation. Furthermore, their supply-led analysis of the real economy probably underestimates the pervasive importance of demand shocks during most economic cycles (see Mark Thoma). But the risk of financial instability is another matter entirely. It is optimistic to believe that macro-prudential policy alone will be able to handle this threat. The contrasting needs of the real economy and the financial sector present a very real dilemma for monetary policy.
The BIS was right about the dangers of risky financial behaviour prior to the crash. That caused the greatest demand shock for a century. Keynesians, including the Chair of the Federal Reserve, should be more ready to recognise that the same could happen again.

Inadequate demand calls for low interest rates to try to stimulate spending, but does the threat of financial instability necessarily call for higher rates? If so, which should prevail? As I see it (1) lack of demand is the bigger threat right now, (2) if financial instability looks like the bigger problem at some point in the future, then macroprudential policy targeted at the specific problem should be the first line of defense, (3) and, if it is "optimistic to believe that macro-prudential policy alone will be able to handle this threat," that is, if macroprudential policy alone is not enough to eliminate the threat, then, and only then, should interest rates by raised beyond where they would be given the state of aggregate demand.

As I said a few days ago:

"I think the macroprudential approach is correct. Using interest rates to deal with pockets of financial instability is too blunt of an instrument, e.g. it hits all industries, not just the ones where the instability is suspected and it may not directly address the particular problem generating the instability. It's much better to target the sectors where the problems exist, and to shape the policies to directly address the underlying problem(s)."

But let me conceded one point. If we wait until we can be sure that a dangerous bubble exists, and to see if macroprudential policy will be sufficient, it may be too late to raise interest rates to try to pop the bubble -- it may be past the point of no return. But I still prefer pricking the bubble with targeted policy rather than raising interest rates and causing a slowdown in a wide variety of markets, almost all of which are not a threat to the economy.

'Slump Stories and the Inflation Test'

Posted: 06 Jul 2014 09:52 AM PDT

Does evidence matter?:

Slump Stories and the Inflation Test: Noah Smith has another post on John Cochrane's anti-Keynesian screed... All the anti-Keynesian stories (except "uncertainty", which as Nick Rowe points out is actually a Keynesian story but doesn't know it) are supply-side stories; Cochrane even puts scare quotes around the word "demand". Basically, they're claiming that unemployment benefits, or Obamacare, or regulations, or something, are reducing the willingness of workers and firms to produce stuff.
How would you test this? In a supply-constrained economy, the kind of monetary policy we've had, with the Fed quintupling the size of its balance sheet over a short period of time, would be highly inflationary. Indeed, just about everyone on the right has been predicting runaway inflation year after year.
Meanwhile, if you had a demand-side view, and considered the implications of the zero lower bound, you declared that nothing of the sort would happen...
It seems to me that the failure of the inflation predicted by anti-Keynesians to appear — and the fact that this failure was predicted by Keynesian models — is a further big reason not to take what these people are saying seriously.

In a "supply-constrained economy" the price of inputs like labor should also rise, but that hasn't happened either.

'The Productivity Puzzle'

Posted: 06 Jul 2014 09:41 AM PDT

The opening lines of a relatively long discussion from Robin Harding at the FT of "the productivity puzzle":

US economy: The productivity puzzle, by Robin Harding: To glimpse the miracle of productivity growth there is nowhere better to look than the ... US Corn Belt. A hundred years ago, an army of farmers toiled to produce 30 bushels an acre; now only a few hands are needed to produce 160 bushels from the same land.
The rise of modern civilisation rested on this trend: for each person to produce ever more. For the past 120 years, as if bound by some inexorable law, output per head of population increased by about 2 per cent a year. That is, until now.
There is a fear – voiced by credible economists such as Robert Gordon... – that 2 per cent is no law but a wave that has already run its course. According to Prof Gordon's analysis, 2 per cent could easily become 1 per cent or even less, for the next 120 years. ...
Yet there are also techno-optimists, such as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee..., whose faith in new discoveries is such that they expect growth to accelerate, not decline.
Then there are more phlegmatic economists, whose answers are less exciting but also less speculative – and come in a bit below 2 per cent for growth in output per head.
The productivity question is of the greatest possible consequence for the US economy...

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