Teaching money/macro in 90 minutes

A few weeks ago I gave a 90-minute talk to some high school and college students in a summer internship program at UC Irvine.  Most (but not all) had taken basic intro to economics.  I need to boil everything down to 90 minutes, including money, prices, business cycles, interest rates, the Great Recession, how the Fed screwed up in 2008, and why the Fed screwed up in 2008.  Not sure if that’s possible, but here’s the outline I prepared:

1.  The value of money (15 minutes)

2.  Money and prices  (20 minutes)

3.  Money and business cycles (25 minutes)

4.  Money and interest rates (15 minutes)

5.  Q&A (15 minutes)

Intro

Inflation is currently running at about 2%.  It’s averaged 2% since 1990.  That’s not a coincidence, the Fed targets inflation at 2%.  But it’s also not normal.  Inflation was much higher in the 1980s, and still higher in the 1970s.  In the 1800s, inflation averaged zero and there were years like 1921 and 1930-32 where it was more like negative 10%!

We need to figure out how the Fed has succeeded in targeting inflation at 2%, then why this was the wrong target, and finally how this mistake (as well as a couple freshman-level errors) led to the Great Recession.

1. Value of Money  

Like any other product, the real value of money changes over time.

But . . . the nominal price of money stays constant, a dollar always costs $1

Value of money = 1/P (where P is price level (CPI, etc.))

Thus if price level doubles, value of a dollar falls in half.

Analogy:

Year      Height    Unit of measure   Real height

1980      1 yard           1.0                1 yard

2018      6 feet            1/3               2 yards

Switching from yards to feet makes the average size of things look three times larger.  This is “size inflation”.  But this boy’s measured height increased 6-fold, which means he even grew (2 times) taller in real terms.

Year      Income    Price level  Value of money   Real Income

1980     $30,000        1.0               1.0               $30,000

2018    $180,000       3.0               1/3               $60,000

The dollar lost 2/3rds of its purchasing power between 1980 and 2018, as the average thing costs three times as much.  This is “price inflation”.  But some nominal values increase by more than three times, such as this person’s income, which means the income doubled in real terms, or in purchasing power.

Punch line:  Don’t try to explain inflation by picking out items that increased in price especially fast, say rents or gas prices, rather think of inflation as a change in the value of money.  Focus on what determines the value of money . . .

2.  Money and the Price Level

. . . which, in a competitive market is supply and demand:

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 7.11.51 PM

Demand for Money: How much cash people prefer to hold.

Who determines how much money you carry in your wallet?  You?  Are you sure?  Is that true for everyone?

Who determines the average cash holding of everyone in the economy?  The Fed.

How can we reconcile these two perceptions?  They are both correct, in a sense.

Helicopter drop example:  Double money supply from $200 to $400/capita

==> Excess cash balances

==>attempts to get rid of cash => spending rises => AD rises => P rises

==>eventually prices double.  Back in equilibrium.

Now it takes $400 to buy what $200 used to buy.  You determine real cash holdings (the purchasing power in your wallet), while the Fed determines average nominal cash holdings (number of dollars).

Punch line:  Fed can control the price level (value of money), by controlling the money supply.

What if money demand changes?  No problem, adjust money supply to offset the change.

Fed has used this power to keep inflation close to 2% since 1991.  Before they tried, inflation was all over the map.  After they tried, they succeeded in keeping the average rate close to 2%.  That success would have been impossible if Fed did not control price level.

But, inflation targeting is not optimal:

3.  Money and business cycles

Suppose I do a study and find that on average, 40 people go to the movies when prices are $8, and 120 people attend on average when prices are $12.  Is this consistent with the laws of supply and demand?  Yes, completely consistent. But many students have trouble seeing this.

Explanation:  When the demand for movies rises, theaters respond with higher prices.  The two data points lie along a single upward-sloping supply curve.

Implication:  Never reason from a price change.  A rise in prices doesn’t tell us what’s happening in a market.  It could be more demand or less supply.  The same is true of the overall price level.  Higher inflation might indicate an overheating economy (too much AD), or a negative supply shock:

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 7.26.42 PM

In mid-2008, the Fed saw inflation rise sharply and worried the economy was overheating.  It was reasoning from a price change. In fact, prices rose rapidly because aggregate supply was declining.  It should have focused on total spending, aka “aggregate demand”, for evidence of overheating:

M*V = P*Y = AD = NGDP

This represents total spending on goods and services.  Unstable NGDP causes business cycles.

Example: mid-2008 to mid-2009, when NGDP fell 3%:Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 7.43.04 PM

Here we assume that nominal GDP was $20 trillion in 2008, and then fell in 2009, causing a deep recession and high unemployment.

Musical chairs model:  NGDP is the total revenue available to businesses to pay wages and salaries.  Because wages are “sticky”, or slow to adjust, a fall in NGDP leads to fewer jobs, at least until wages can adjust.  This is a recession.

It’s like the game of musical chairs.  If you take away a couple chairs, then when the music stops several contestants will end up sitting on the floor.

The Fed needs to keep NGDP growing about 4%/year, by adjusting M to offset any changes in V (velocity of circulation).

Punch line:  Don’t focus in inflation, NGDP growth is the key to the business cycle

Why did the Fed mess up in 2008? Two episodes of reasoning from a price change:

1.  The 2008 supply shock inflation was wrongly viewed as an overheating economy.

2.  Low interest rates were wrongly viewed as easy money.

4.  Money and Interest Rates

Below is the short and long run effects of an increase in the money supply, and then a decrease in the money supply.  Notice that easy money causes rates to initially fall, then rise much higher.  Vice versa for a tight money policy.

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 7.26.56 PMWhen the money supply increases, rates initially decline due to the liquidity effect. The opposite occurs when the money supply is reduced.

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 7.43.15 PMHowever, in the long run, interest rates go the opposite way due to the income and Fisher effects:

Income effect: Expansionary monetary policy leads to higher growth in the economy, more demand for credit, and higher interest rates.

Fisher effect:  Expansionary monetary policy leads to higher inflation, which causes lenders to demand higher interest rates.

In 2008, the Fed thought lower rates represented the liquidity effect from an easy money policy.

Actually, during 2008 we were seeing the income and Fisher effects from a previous tight money policy.

Don’t assume that short run means “right now” and long run means “later”.  What’s happening right now is usually the long run effect of monetary policies adopted earlier.

Punchline:  Don’t assume low rates are easy money and vice versa.  Focus on NGDP growth to determine stance of monetary policy.  That’s what matters.

(I actually ended up covering about 90% of what I intended to cover, skipping the yardstick metaphor.)

Paraguay politics

Let’s consider Paraguay, a country that has traditionally been dominated by two parties, the Colorados and the Liberals.  I’ll make up a hypothetical set of facts, and you tell me the most plausible way to interpret this imaginary scenario:

1.  Manuel Suarez of the Colorado Party is elected president.

2.  Almost all Liberals view Suarez as a dishonest, vindictive demagogue.

3.  The leading Colorado intellectuals and pundits view Suarez as a dishonest, vindictive demagogue.

4.  Roughly 80% of former leaders of the Colorado party (who are now retired from politics) view Suarez as a dishonest, vindictive demagogue.

5.  Roughly 10% of current Colorado politicians criticize Suarez as if he were a dishonest, vindictive demagogue.

6.  In private, most Colorado politicians view Suarez as a dishonest, vindictive demagogue, even while supporting him publicly in order to please their constituents.

7.  Most Colorado voters do not view Suarez as a dishonest, vindictive demagogue.  These voters support Suarez on virtually all issues, regardless of whether his views represent traditional Colorado positions.

Suppose you were a French, Australian or Egyptian political scientist, examining the political situation in Paraguay.  You have no emotional tie to either the Colorados or the Liberals.  You are examining the situation as dispassionately as one might study an ant farm.  Which hypothesis would you regard as most plausible:

A.  Suarez is a dishonest, vindictive demagogue.

B.  Suarez is not a dishonest, vindictive demagogue.  Rather he’s very much misunderstood by the elites in Asuncion, of both parties, who follow him most closely.  Only his cult-like following among ordinary voters of one political party see him for what he is.

Screen Shot 2018-08-19 at 12.44.58 PM

PS.  AP had a good piece on how GOP politicians view the Trump cult.  I almost broke out laughing when I read the concluding paragraph:

“The Trump phenomenon is going to end at some point in time. That might be six years, that might be two years, that might be sooner. No one knows,” the former Ohio GOP chairman said. “When it does end, it’s the job of a lot of us … to make sure that the party is still populated by good, honest, decent candidates and officeholders who we can continue to be proud of.”

“still”?

Reveal, depress, destroy: Three types of contagion

The term ‘contagion’ is used quite a bit in the financial press, but what does it actually mean?  There are at least three very different types of contagion, each with its own policy implications:

1.  An economic crisis in one country might reveal a weakness that was not previously apparent to the international investment community.  Thus in the late 1990s, the gradual rise of China and the strengthening US dollar was slowly weakening the position of export-oriented nations in Southeast Asia, which had fixed their currencies to the US dollar and also accumulated dollar-denominated debts.  When Thailand got into trouble in mid-1997, investors looked around and noticed similarities in places like Malaysia and Indonesia.  It wasn’t so much that Thailand directly caused problems in those countries (in the way a US recession might directly cause problems for Canada); rather it revealed weaknesses that were already there.

2.  A financial crisis in a big country might depress the global Wicksellian equilibrium real interest rate.  For example, the US housing bust and banking crisis of 2007-08 triggered a global recession.  By itself, this doesn’t necessarily cause problems in other countries.  But if the foreign country is already at the zero bound (Japan), or if the foreign central bank is too slow to cut interest rates (ECB), then a lower global equilibrium interest rate might lead to tighter money in other countries.  Here I would say that the US triggered the Great Recession, but the Fed, ECB and BOJ jointly caused the Great Recession.

Similarly, under an international gold standard, the hoarding of gold in one country can depress nominal spending in other countries.  Indeed gold hoarding by the US and France was a principal cause of the Great Depression.

3.  A financial crisis in one country can affect other nations if they are linked via a fixed exchange rate regime or a single currency.  Consider Greece, which comprises less than 2% of eurozone GDP.  Fears that Greece might have to leave the eurozone caused significant stress in other Mediterranean nations.  If one country were to exit, investors might expect this to lead to an eventual breakup of the entire eurozone.  That would trigger a banking crisis, and would also lead major debtor nations such as Italy to default on their huge public debts.  This is why a small country like Greece could have such a big impact on eurozone asset markets; investors feared that a Grexit would destroy the eurozone.

So far, Turkey looks like it fits the “reveal” template best.  The greater the extent to which Turkey is viewed as a special case reflecting local conditions, the smaller the contagion effect.  If Turkey becomes seen as emblematic of much of the developing world, then contagion is more likely.

Trump derangement syndrome

It’s now enough to simply present the words of Trump and his associates.  First, John Kelly shows prosecutorial discretion:

On the recording, Mr. Kelly says Ms. Manigault Newman could be facing “pretty significant legal issues” over what he alleged was misuse of a government car. She denied misusing it.

“I’d like to see this be a friendly departure,” Mr. Kelly says on the tape. “There are pretty significant legal issues that we hope don’t develop into something that, that’ll make it ugly for you.”

“But I think it’s important to understand,” he adds, “that if we make this a friendly departure, we can all be, you know, you can look at, look at your time here in, in the White House as a year of service to the nation. And then you can go on without any type of difficulty in the future relative to your reputation.”

Then Trump explains the qualities he looks for in White House officials:

Screen Shot 2018-08-13 at 11.41.30 AMNow I understand what Trump meant by hiring the best people—he meant the people who a best at praising him.

 

The China Threat?

The normally sober Financial Times has a truly bizarre article on the perceived threat posed by China:

Marketing slogans aside, since at least the 1980s there has been no presumption that US companies had to operate in the national interest. Goods, capital, and labour could move where they liked — that is the definition of globalisation. Most people believed that if US companies did well, Americans would prosper. But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, the fortunes of US companies and consumers are now fundamentally disconnected.

The wealth gap alone wasn’t enough to persuade politicians from either party to rethink the rules. But China is. While tariffs are President Donald Trump’s personal preoccupation, fears over losing an economic and cultural war (and possibly a real one at some point) with China is a worry that is shared broadly in the US, no matter what circles you travel in.

In my entire life, I’ve never met a single person worried about losing a cultural war with China.  What does that even mean?  Are we worried that Americans will give up Hollywood films and start watching Chinese movies?

As far as losing an economic war, that reminds me of the absurd claims in the 1980s that Japan would overtake us.  By the early 2000s, those Japanophobes had become widely ridiculed.  Have we already forgotten that fiasco?  Is America condemned every 30 years to engage in hysterical fears about the “yellow peril”?  What “circles” does this reporter travel in?  I could sort of understand talk of a military threat, although the threat is to Taiwan and some uninhabited atolls, not the US, but a cultural and economic threat?

As far as the first paragraph, is the author unaware that for many decades US companies have been banned from selling sensitive technology with military applications to countries such as China?  Yes, it’s difficult to decide exactly which technologies meet that definition, and undoubtedly a fair bit of useful stuff slipped through, but it’s simply false to claim that companies had complete freedom to sell technology to China.

And how about the logic here:

But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, the fortunes of US companies and consumers are now fundamentally disconnected.

Let’s make the list even longer:

But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, having a democratic form of government does not guarantee consumers will do well.

But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, developing an internet does not guarantee consumers will do well.

But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, having private private property rights does not guarantee consumers will do well.

But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, having freedom of the press does not guarantee consumers will do well.

During Mao’s 27 years in office, China lacked a democratic form of government, private property rights, freedom of the press and an internet.

Therefore . . . ????

And BTW, American consumers have done fabulously well in recent decades, at least in terms of autos, TVs, phones, cameras, internet, entertainment choices, restaurant quality and choice, cheap clothing, etc., etc., etc.

PS.  I have a related post at Econlog.

PPS.  V.S. Naipaul, RIP.  Whatever you think of him, Naipaul had no patience for bullshit, from either colonialists or anti-colonialists.  I notice that his death is receiving relatively little attention in the mass media.  We lavish praise on warm and fuzzy people and shun those telling us things we don’t want to hear.  At one time or another, he said things that would annoy almost everyone (including me.)