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September 12, 2014

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Latest Posts from Economist's View


Paul Krugman: The Inflation Cult

Posted: 12 Sep 2014 12:24 AM PDT

What accounts for the survival of the inflationistas?:

The Inflation Cult, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Wish I'd said that! Earlier this week, Jesse Eisinger..., writing on The Times's DealBook blog, compared people who keep predicting runaway inflation to "true believers whose faith in a predicted apocalypse persists even after it fails to materialize." Indeed. ... And the remarkable thing is that these always-wrong, never-in-doubt pundits continue to have large public and political influence.
There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear. ... I've written before about how the wealthy tend to oppose easy money, perceiving it as being against their interests. But that doesn't explain the broad appeal of prophets whose prophecies keep failing.
Part of that appeal is clearly political; there's a reason why ... Mr. Ryan warns about both a debased currency and a government that redistributes from "makers" to "takers." Inflation cultists almost always link the Fed's policies to complaints about government spending. They're completely wrong about the details — no, the Fed isn't printing money to cover the budget deficit — but it's true that governments whose debt is denominated in a currency they can issue have more fiscal flexibility, and hence more ability to maintain aid to those in need...
And anger against "takers" — anger that is very much tied up with ethnic and cultural divisions — runs deep. Many people, therefore, feel an affinity with those who rant about looming inflation... I'd argue, the persistence of the inflation cult is an example of the "affinity fraud" crucial to many swindles, in which investors trust a con man because he seems to be part of their tribe. In this case, the con men may be conning themselves as well as their followers, but that hardly matters.
This tribal interpretation of the inflation cult helps explain the sheer rage you encounter when pointing out that the promised hyperinflation is nowhere to be seen. It's comparable to the reaction you get when pointing out that Obamacare seems to be working, and probably has the same roots.
But what about the economists who go along with the cult? They're all conservatives, but aren't they also professionals who put evidence above political convenience? Apparently not.
The persistence of the inflation cult is, therefore, an indicator of just how polarized our society has become, of how everything is political, even among those who are supposed to rise above such things. And that reality, unlike the supposed risk of runaway inflation, is something that should scare you.

Links for 9-12-14

Posted: 12 Sep 2014 12:06 AM PDT

What Is It Good For? Absolutely Nothing.

Posted: 11 Sep 2014 04:01 PM PDT

I've been looking for the perfect anti-war screed, but so far haven't found it.

So let me just say, I hate war, and I don't care if it's Bush or Obama giving the orders.

That is all.

'The Economics of Digital Currencies'

Posted: 11 Sep 2014 09:42 AM PDT

The Bank of England examines bitcoin:

Overview Digital currencies represent both innovations in payment systems and a new form of currency. This article examines the economics of digital currencies and presents an initial assessment of the risks that they may, in time, pose to the Bank of England's objectives for monetary and financial stability. A companion piece provides an introduction to digital currency schemes, including some historical context for their development and an outline of how they work.
From the perspective of economic theory, whether a digital currency may be considered to be money depends on the extent to which it acts as a store of value, a medium of exchange and a unit of account. How far an asset serves these roles can differ, both from person to person and over time. And meeting these economic definitions does not necessarily imply that an asset will be regarded as money for legal or regulatory purposes. At present, digital currencies are used by relatively few people. For these people, data suggest that digital currencies are primarily viewed as stores of value — albeit with significant volatility in their valuations (see summary chart) — and are not typically used as media of exchange. At present, there is little evidence of digital currencies being used as units of account.
This  article argues that the incentives embedded in the current design of digital currencies pose impediments to their widespread usage. A key attraction of such schemes at present is their low transaction fees. But these fees may need to rise as usage grows and may eventually be higher than those charged by incumbent payment systems.
Most digital currencies incorporate a pre-determined path towards a fixed eventual supply. In addition to making it extremely unlikely that a digital currency, as currently designed, will achieve widespread usage in the long run, a fixed money supply may also harm the macroeconomy: it could contribute to deflation in the prices of goods and services, and in wages. And importantly, the inability of the money supply to vary in response to demand would likely cause greater volatility in prices and real activity. It is important to note, however, that a fixed eventual supply is not an inherent requirement of digital currency schemes.
Digital currencies do not currently pose a material risk to monetary or financial stability in the United Kingdom, given the small size of such schemes. This could conceivably change, but only if they were to grow significantly. The Bank continues to monitor digital currencies and the risks they pose to its mission.

'Scotland and the SNP: Fooling Yourselves and Deceiving Others'

Posted: 11 Sep 2014 09:04 AM PDT

Simon Wren-Lewis on Scottish independence:

Scotland and the SNP: Fooling yourselves and deceiving others: There are many laudable reasons to campaign for Scottish independence. But how far should those who passionately want independence be prepared to go to achieve that goal? Should they, for example, deceive the Scottish people about the basic economics involved? That seems to be what is happening right now. The more I look at the numbers, the clearer it becomes that over the next five or ten years there would more, not less, fiscal austerity under independence. ...
Scotland's fiscal position would be worse as a result of leaving the UK for two main reasons. First, demographic trends are less favourable. Second, revenues from the North Sea are expected to decline. ...
The SNP do not agree with this analysis. The main reason in the near term is that they have more optimistic projections for North Sea Oil. ... So how do the Scottish government get more optimistic numbers? John McDermott examines the detail here, but perhaps I can paraphrase his findings: whenever there is room for doubt, assume whatever gives you a higher number. ... It is basically fiddling the analysis to get the answer you want. Either wishful thinking or deception. ...
Is this deception deliberate? I suspect it is more the delusions of people who want something so much they cast aside all doubts and problems. This is certainly the impression I get from reading a lot of literature...
When I was reading this literature, I kept thinking I had seen this kind of thing before: being in denial about macroeconomic fundamentals because they interfered with a major institutional change that was driven by politics. Then I realised what it was: the formation of the Euro in 2000. Once again economists were clear and pretty united about what the key macroeconomic problem was ('asymmetric shocks'), and just like now this was met with wishful thinking that somehow it just wouldn't happen. It did, and the Eurozone is still living with the consequences.
So maybe that also explains why I feel so strongly this time around. I have no political skin in this game: a certain affection for the concept of the union, but nothing strong enough to make me even tempted to distort my macroeconomics in its favour. If Scotland wants to make a short term economic sacrifice in the hope of longer term gains and political freedom that is their choice. But they should make that choice knowing what it is, and not be deceived into believing that these costs do not exist. 

'Trapped in the ''Dark Corners'''?

Posted: 11 Sep 2014 08:50 AM PDT

A small part of Brad DeLong's response to Olivier Blanchard. I posted a shortened version of Blanchard's argument a week or two ago:

Where Danger Lurks: Until the 2008 global financial crisis, mainstream U.S. macroeconomics had taken an increasingly benign view of economic fluctuations in output and employment. The crisis has made it clear that this view was wrong and that there is a need for a deep reassessment. ...
That small shocks could sometimes have large effects and, as a result, that things could turn really bad, was not completely ignored by economists. But such an outcome was thought to be a thing of the past that would not happen again, or at least not in advanced economies thanks to their sound economic policies. ... We all knew that there were "dark corners"—situations in which the economy could badly malfunction. But we thought we were far away from those corners, and could for the most part ignore them. ...
The main lesson of the crisis is that we were much closer to those dark corners than we thought—and the corners were even darker than we had thought too. ...
How should we modify our benchmark models—the so-called dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) models...? The easy and uncontroversial part of the answer is that the DSGE models should be expanded to better recognize the role of the financial system—and this is happening. But should these models be able to describe how the economy behaves in the dark corners?
Let me offer a pragmatic answer. If macroeconomic policy and financial regulation are set in such a way as to maintain a healthy distance from dark corners, then our models that portray normal times may still be largely appropriate. Another class of economic models, aimed at measuring systemic risk, can be used to give warning signals that we are getting too close to dark corners, and that steps must be taken to reduce risk and increase distance. Trying to create a model that integrates normal times and systemic risks may be beyond the profession's conceptual and technical reach at this stage.
The crisis has been immensely painful. But one of its silver linings has been to jolt macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy. The main policy lesson is a simple one: Stay away from dark corners.

And I responded:

That may be the best we can do for now (have separate models for normal times and "dark corners"), but an integrated model would be preferable. An integrated model would, for example, be better for conducting "policy and financial regulation ... to maintain a healthy distance from dark corners," and our aspirations ought to include models that can explain both normal and abnormal times. That may mean moving beyond the DSGE class of models, or perhaps the technical reach of DSGE models can be extended to incorporate the kinds of problems that can lead to Great Recessions, but we shouldn't be satisfied with models of normal times that cannot explain and anticipate major economic problems.

Here's part of Brad's response:

But… but… but… Macroeconomic policy and financial regulation are not set in such a way as to maintain a healthy distance from dark corners. We are still in a dark corner now. There is no sign of the 4% per year inflation target, the commitments to do what it takes via quantitative easing and rate guidance to attain it, or a fiscal policy that recognizes how the rules of the game are different for reserve currency printing sovereigns when r < n+g. Thus not only are we still in a dark corner, but there is every reason to believe that should we get out the sub-2% per year effective inflation targets of North Atlantic central banks and the inappropriate rhetoric and groupthink surrounding fiscal policy makes it highly likely that we will soon get back into yet another dark corner. Blanchard's pragmatic answer is thus the most unpragmatic thing imaginable: the "if" test fails, and so the "then" part of the argument seems to me to be simply inoperative. Perhaps on another planet in which North Atlantic central banks and governments aggressively pursued 6% per year nominal GDP growth targets Blanchard's answer would be "pragmatic". But we are not on that planet, are we?

Moreover, even were we on Planet Pragmatic, it still seems to be wrong. Using current or any visible future DSGE models for forecasting and mainstream scenario planning makes no sense: the DSGE framework imposes restrictions on the allowable emergent properties of the aggregate time series that are routinely rejected at whatever level of frequentist statistical confidence that one cares to specify. The right road is that of Christopher Sims: that of forecasting and scenario planning using relatively instructured time-series methods that use rather than ignore the correlations in the recent historical data. And for policy evaluation? One should take the historical correlations and argue why reverse-causation and errors-in-variables lead them to underestimate or overestimate policy effects, and possibly get it right. One should not impose a structural DSGE model that identifies the effects of policies but certainly gets it wrong. Sims won that argument. Why do so few people recognize his victory?

Blanchard continues:

Another class of economic models, aimed at measuring systemic risk, can be used to give warning signals that we are getting too close to dark corners, and that steps must be taken to reduce risk and increase distance. Trying to create a model that integrates normal times and systemic risks may be beyond the profession's conceptual and technical reach at this stage…

For the second task, the question is: whose models of tail risk based on what traditions get to count in the tail risks discussion?

And missing is the third task: understanding what Paul Krugman calls the "Dark Age of macroeconomics", that jahiliyyah that descended on so much of the economic research, economic policy analysis, and economic policymaking communities starting in the fall of 2007, and in which the center of gravity of our economic policymakers still dwell.

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