I’m not happy about having to criticize Frederic Mishkin’s money textbook. He was my teacher at Chicago and he seems like a great guy. I’ve used his text for roughly 20 years and it’s a fine book. Even worse, he was recently victimized by an unfair and misleading ambush interview. But I must pursue The Truth wherever it takes me.
One of my favorite things about Mishkin’s text was that it presented aggregate demand curve in two ways. At the beginning of chapter 22 it developed what is sometimes called the “monetarist” version of AD, which shows the curve as a fixed level of nominal GDP, i.e. a rectangular hyperbola in P-Y space. Only then does he present the so-called “Keynesian” version of AD, which is so hard to understand that I won’t even try to explain it. And if I can’t understand it, I’m pretty sure our undergraduate students can’t either. BTW, I have no idea why an AD curve shaped like a rectangular hyperbola is called “monetarist.” It has nothing to do with whether V is constant or not (although Mishkin implies it does.)
Thus I was very disappointed to see Mishkin drop the monetarist AD curve from the new edition. Textbook changes are usually made under the influence of criticism from professors at obscure community colleges, and perhaps that happened here as well. I guess most professors prefer to teach a model that no undergraduate is likely to understand, rather than a simple and elegant framework that partitions macro into two parts; models that explain changes in nominal spending, and models that explain how nominal shocks get partitioned into output and inflation. What could be simpler?
If I was a conspiracy buff, I would note that this change occurred right after the biggest fall in NGDP since 1938. If one used the monetarist framework, it might lead students to ask uncomfortable questions about why the monetary policymakers allowed M*V to fall so sharply. But I’m not a conspiracy buff.
Another thing I really liked about the 7th edition was the following question (on p. 368) about IOR:
10. The Fed has discussed the possibility of paying interest on reserves. If this occurred, what would happen to the level of e [the excess reserve ratio]?
I loved this question. And when it actually happened, I couldn’t wait to show my students how Mishkin’s book predicted the dire consequences of the Fed’s October 2008 decision to adopt IOR.
So you can imagine how disappointed I was to find the question mysteriously deleted from the 8th edition. If I was a conspiracy buff I’d wonder whether Mishkin was trying to hide something. Surely students who did this question would be inclined to ask why the Fed did a highly contractionary policy in the midst of the biggest fall in AD since 1938 (that is if they still understood that AD=NGDP, which is doubtful.)
You might ask whether I am being too suspicious, after all, authors extensively revise texts with each new edition. Times change, books need to reflect issues of current importance. Actually, one of the dirty little secrets of the publishing world is that new editions are almost identical to old editions. The publishers frequently revise editions so that they can sell new copies to students at $124 each, rather than have students buy old copies from previous students. And of course far from being an obsolete question, the IOR question could hardly have been timelier.
Fortunately I’m not a conspiracy buff, so I’m willing to give Mishkin a pass.
A year ago I did a long post discussing how Mishkin’s text provided a template for my critique of the conventional wisdom circa October 2008. I specifically cited 3 of the 4 key principles that Mishkin identified in his summary of the monetary policy transmission mechanism (pp. 610-11):
1. It is dangerous always to associate the easing or the tightening of monetary policy with a fall or a rise in short-term nominal interest rates.
2. Other asset prices besides those on short-term debt instruments contain important information about the stance of monetary policy because they are important elements in various monetary policy transmission mechanisms.
3. Monetary policy can be highly effective in reviving a weak economy even if short term rates are already near zero.
I had thought that all economists accepted these propositions, as they are taught in the number one undergraduate money text. And not just taught; they are the summation of the most important chapter in the text. And they also happen to be true. But I found out in late 2008 that very few economists accept these propositions.
I was anxious to get Mishkin’s new text, where he could take a sort of victory lap. He could show how the Fed made a huge mistake allowing all sorts of asset prices to crash in late 2008, which signaled ultra-tight money. But before I got the new edition, I read some articles where Mishkin seemed to be defending Bernanke’s moves. I guess I shouldn’t have been so naive. Mishkin and Bernanke are both center-right New Keynesians. Both served on the Federal Reserve Board. And of course Bernanke had also held similar views in the early 2000s, when he insisted that BOJ policy was far too tight, despite low rates. So if Bernanke did a complete flip flop, why should I be surprised if Mishkin did as well?
Still, there was the question of how he would reconcile his views of the 2008 crisis with those three key principles of monetary policy. I know what you are thinking—he dropped the key principles. No, those are far too important to eliminate. Did he refrain from discussing the crisis? No, how could he do that? Instead, he stated his view of the crisis just one page before the three principles that completely conflict with his view of the crisis. That takes chutzpah!
Here’s what he says about the crisis on page 609:
With the advent of the subprime financial crisis in the summer of 2007, the Fed began a very aggressive easing of monetary policy. The Fed dropped the fed funds rate from 5 1/4% to 0% over a fifteen-month period from September 2007 to December 2008.
Wait a minute; doesn’t he say just one page later than low rates don’t mean easy money—that you have to look at other asset prices? Yes, but perhaps Mishkin didn’t know about all the other asset markets (TIPS, stocks, commodities, forex, commercial real estate, etc), which all started screaming that money was too tight in late 2008, as rates were gradually cut from 2% to 0%.
After discussing the crisis, Mishkin continues (p 610):
The decline in the stock market and housing prices also weakened the economy, because it lowered household wealth. The decrease in household wealth led to restrained consumer spending and weaker investment, because of the resulting drop in Tobin’s q.
With all these channels operating, it is no surprise that despite the Fed’s aggressive lowering of the fed funds rate, the economy still took a bit [sic] hit.
So I guess he did know. But perhaps there is nothing more the Fed could have done once rates hit zero? Surely I can’t seriously claim that monetary policy can be highly effective once rates hit zero? Go back and read Mishkin’s third principle.
If I was a conspiracy buff, I’d say that Mishkin followed almost every other famous economist in assuming that Fed policy was easy during late 2008, despite plunging stock and commodity prices, soaring real interest rates on 5-year TIPS, plunging inflation expectations, a soaring dollar, and plunging real estate prices. And he assumed there was nothing the Fed could do about it because they had already cut rates to zero.
If I was a conspiracy buff, I’d wonder if he knew there was a contradiction, and erased any passages of the book that might alert students to the possibility that the Fed policy was actually tight (such as the IOR question) or that the sharp fall in M*V was the big problem in 2008–i.e. the monetarist view of AD.
If I was a conspiracy buff I’d even wonder if he was so nervous and distracted typing the last line I quoted that he misspelled ‘big’. That he was nervously looking ahead to the very next section in his textbook; the Lessons for Monetary Policy.
Fortunately I’m not a conspiracy buff. But now I understand why so many people believe Bush was behind 9/11, or LBJ was behind the Kennedy assassination, or FDR knew about Pearl Harbor before it happened, or the CIA overthrew Allende. It really is a lot of fun being a conspiracy buff. What a satisfying view of the world! Everything has an understandable cause, all loose ends tied up with a nice Christmas bow.
PS. Cowen and Tabarrok do AD the correct way.
PPS. In this earlier post I argued that confused professors probably forced Mankiw to remove the one question that actually taught S&D correctly, which showed students that one should not expect consumers to buy less after a rise in the price.
PPPS. BTW, I really do think Mishkin was treated unfairly in the interview. Keep in mind that this was done by a director who used Barney Frank to explain what went wrong in the sub-prime crisis.