Archive for the Category Crisis of 2008


About that “malinvestment”

When I first started blogging, a number of Austrian commenters told me the real problem was not tight money.  Rather there had been “malinvestment” in housing, especially in the “sand states”.  The recession was the price we had to pay for all of this poorly thought out investment.

That theory never even made sense in 2009.  If the problem was malinvestment in housing, then resources would have shifted to the other 95% of the economy. Instead, output fell in almost all sectors.  (I’m referring to 2008-09; resources did shift to other sectors during the 2006-07 construction slump.)

Today it makes even less sense. The NYT has an article on the housing market in North Las Vegas, which was the epicenter of the bust. It’s now booming:

Amazon has opened two huge centers in North Las Vegas for distributing goods and handling returns, bringing thousands of jobs. A third facility is on the way. Sephora, the cosmetics company, recently broke ground here for a giant warehouse.

With nearly a quarter-million people, North Las Vegas is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. It’s also young — the average resident is just 33 years old.

The Times reports that prices are soaring and homes typically sell in three days.

I agreed that there had been some excessive housing construction in the inland portion of the sand states, perhaps because builders expected the US population in 2050 to be 50 million higher than is now predicted.  (Recall that 2006 was the year of the immigration crackdown.)  But I argued that these cities were fast growing, and this problem was relatively mild.  In my view the malinvestment is better termed “too early investment”—some houses were built a few years before they were needed.  The Austrian counterargument was that these houses would remain empty for decades, and eventually depreciate sharply (in a physical sense.)  It looks like I was closer to the truth.

I would add that Kevin Erdmann’s take on the crisis is being increasingly confirmed by events:

Jazzmine Guiberteaux moved here a few years ago from Oakland, Calif. — one of many California real estate refugees who headed to Nevada in search of more space and cheaper housing. But she is increasingly being priced out.

A 35-year-old mother of two, with another child on the way, she works in a clothing shop and drives for Uber to earn extra cash. She has had to move three times in five years.

Ms. Guiberteaux’s previous landlord terminated her month-to-month lease on Mother’s Day. It took her 10 days to get a new place. “The rent is higher,” she said. “But it’s in a better neighborhood.”

When Kevin’s book comes out in a few months, it may end up being the most important housing book of the decade.

BTW, the NYT has this picture of a downtrodden resident, who is forced to rent rather than own:
Screen Shot 2018-09-14 at 8.34.30 PM

You can see the picture more clearly in the NYT article. I couldn’t help but notice the Pottery Barn look.  The downtrodden have certainly come a long way from the 1960s, when the NYT carried pictures of shacks in Appalachia and slums in the Bronx.

I know, I’m a heartless out of touch elitist who doesn’t understand how much people are suffering.

PS.  Ten years after Lehman, market monetarists should feel really good about how things are playing out.  Not only is the boom in the housing market tending to confirm the MM/Erdmann view of the world, but more and more policymakers are talking in terms that sound suspiciously market monetarist.  Clare Zempel directed me to an article discussing Janet Yellen’s take on what we should do next time:

Elaborating on how the central bank should think about what to do if rates have to be cut to zero again in the future and can’t go any lower, she said the Fed should promise now that it will keep rates low enough to let a hot economy make up for lost time.

Does that remind you of anything?  Hint, here’s my new California license plate, which I picked up a few days ago:

Screen Shot 2018-09-11 at 2.08.35 PMOh, and NGDP just keeps chugging along at a fairly stable rate.

There may be no blogging tomorrow, as I plan to attend a 13-hour film in crime-ridden Santa Ana.  Wish me luck.


GOP banking policy bleg

For millennials, the 2008 financial crisis was the defining economic shock of their lifetime.  I believe I know how the Democrats think about his issue.  But what about the GOP?  For some bizarre reason, I have no idea what policy stance the GOP favors as a way of avoiding a repeat of 2008.  If a student asked me to describe the GOP position, I’d wouldn’t know what to say.  That’s not true of any other major public policy issue.  I may not always agree, but at least I know where the GOP stands on abortion, tax cuts, coal burning, etc.  I know they are split on trade.  But I know nothing of their views on banking reform.

The Dems seem to favor something like Dodd-Frank.  I don’t like that approach, as it’s overly complex and avoids most of the key problems (subprime loans, FDIC, the GSEs etc.)  But what about the GOP?  It would be nice if they favored a more sensible approach, which might include higher capital requirements for banks (or convertible debt), abolishing the GSEs, reforming or abolishing FDIC, more expansionary monetary policy during periods such as the Great Recession.  Another option is to adopt the Canadian (big bank) system, which doesn’t have crises every few decades.  But I never see any evidence for GOP support of any of those options.  They favored tighter money during the Great Recession.  (Oddly many Republicans are now calling for easier money, even as inflation is much higher than in 2009.)  I see no evidence that the GOP has any interest in abolishing the GSEs or reforming FDIC.  They seem to favor small banks, which are the biggest flaw in our financial system.  The FT says the GOP is opposed to higher capital requirements, an option that seems greatly preferable to Dodd-Frank.

So what does the GOP actually favor?  The 2008 financial crisis happened during a Republican administration.  What lessons has the GOP learned?

I’m not being sarcastic, I’d actually like to know the GOP position on banking crises.

PS.  The Mexico trade deal is good news, despite being a very slight net negative.  There is a tiny bit more protection for industries, as well as tighter IP rules.  I see those as small negatives.  There will be freer trade in digital goods. The stock market hates protectionism and is rallying on the (good) news that Trump only cares about symbolic “wins”, not content (something I’ve been arguing for quite some time.)  Let’s hope there is a similar agreement with Canada and China.

As far as the “downtrodden workers” in the Rust Belt—this agreement says the administration doesn’t care about you.  The steel and aluminum tariffs will hurt manufacturing by more than the rules of origin changes will help.

PPS.  Hopefully the Dems will take the House and refuse to ratify the agreement.  But I suspect they’ll cave.

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)


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.


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.)

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.

Black swans

The Financial Times has a debate over recent Congressional attempts to loosen bank regulation.  Hal Scott supports looser regulation:

The Fed’s stress tests are effectively the binding constraint on bank capital and thus lending. They require banks to prove they could survive extreme adverse scenarios while still complying with global capital requirements. The process has two major deficiencies.

First, the Fed’s adverse scenarios are extreme to the point of incredulity. For example, the latest stress test assumes an increase of the unemployment rate from 4.1 to 10 per cent over seven quarters. That has not happened in the 70 years since today’s measure for unemployment was adopted. There is no open consultation with experts, industry or the general public as to whether these scenarios make sense.

Do we really want banks to hold enough capital to survive events that have no US historical precedent? If such an extreme economic event did occur, would any amount of capital be enough to withstand the panic it could trigger?

We absolutely do want to have banks be able to survive a recession that pushes unemployment up to 10%.  The unemployment rate hit 10% in 1982 and again in 2009 (albeit from a higher base than today.)  In the early 1930s, it rose from 3% to 25%.  After what happened in 2008, how can anyone seriously claim that we don’t want our banking system to be able to survive a recession that leads to 10% unemployment?  That makes no sense.

I don’t know enough about bank regulation to have an informed opinion on stress tests, but this argument actually makes me more likely to support the other side. I didn’t even have to read the arguments made by Lisa Donner, in opposition to loosening regulations.

Ideally we’d have a laissez faire banking regime.  But until we get rid of the GSEs, FDIC and TBTF, we probably need some sort of capital requirements and/or stress tests.  Since neither party favors removing moral hazard from banking, we are unfortunately stuck with regulation.

Off Topic:  The clown show continues:

Gary D. Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, had been lobbying for months alongside others, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and Rob Porter, the staff secretary who recently resigned under pressure from the White House, to kill, postpone, or at least narrow the scope of the measures, people familiar with the discussions said.

But in recent weeks, a group of White House advisers who advocate a tougher posture on trade has been in ascendance, including Robert Lighthizer, the country’s top trade negotiator, and Peter Navarro, a trade skeptic who had been sidelined but is now in line for a promotion.

The departure of Mr. Porter, who organized weekly trade meetings and coordinated the trade advisers, and the breakdown of the typical trade advisory process has helped create a chaotic situation in which those opposing factions are no longer kept in check. The situation had descended into utter chaos and an all-out war between various trade factions, people close to the White House said.

Trump just stabbed US manufacturers in the back.