Archive for the Category Monetary Theory

 
 

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.)

Josh Hendrickson on the Labor Standard of Value

If you asked me to name the five greatest works of macroeconomics during the 20th century, I might produce something like the following list (in chronological order):

1.  Fisher’s Purchasing Power of Money

2.  Friedman and Schwartz’s Monetary History

3.  Friedman’s 1968 AEA Presidential address

4.  The “Lucas Critique” paper

5.  Earl Thompson’s 1982 labor standard of value paper

(BTW, Krugman’s 1998 expectations trap paper might well make the top 10.)

Most economists would replace Thompson’s paper with something like the General Theory by Keynes.  In this post I explained why this 2 page never published paper that looks like something out of the Middle Ages is so important. (Please look at the link; the paper’s formatting is hilarious.)  Thompson’s student David Glasner did some excellent work on this idea in the late 1980s.

Josh Hendrickson has a new Mercatus paper which explains the logic behind the Thompson proposal.  Although Josh’s paper is very clear and well written, I can’t resist adding a few comments, as I fear that the extremely unconventional nature of Thompson’s idea might make it hard for some people to grasp the significance.

Josh starts off with an analogy to a gold standard regime, and then discusses the well-known drawbacks of that approach.  With a gold standard regime, any necessary changes in the real or relative price of gold can only occur through changes in the overall price level (or more importantly NGDP), which can be disruptive to the economy.

Here I’d like to emphasize the importance of the issue of sticky prices.  Adjustments in the overall price level can be costly because many nominal wages and prices tend to be sticky, or slow to change over time.  In contrast, gold prices are very flexible, changing second by second to assure that the gold market stays in equilibrium.  Under a gold standard, the nominal price of gold is fixed, and thus the ability of gold prices to quickly adjust is in a sense “wasted”.  Instead, we ask stickier prices to adjust when the real price of gold needs to change.

When reading Josh’s paper, try to keep sticky wages in the back of your mind.  Whenever the aggregate nominal wage level needs to adjust unexpectedly, some wages will be slow to change, and will be out of equilibrium for a certain period of time.  If there is downward wage inflexibility, especially a reluctance to cut nominal wages, then labor market disequilibrium can persist for years.

Normally, when we think of a government program aimed at fixing a price (gasoline, rents, etc.) we think of a market that is pushed out of equilibrium.  Nominal wage targeting is different.  Under Thompson’s proposed regime, individual nominal wages are still free to change, but monetary policy is adjusted until labor market participants do not want to change the aggregate average nominal wage rate.  In that case, the aggregate average nominal wage should stay at the equilibrium level (although of course individual wages might still occasionally move a bit above or below equilibrium.)

Under our current system, a sudden fall in nominal wage growth actually leaves the aggregate nominal wage too high, as some wages have not yet adjusted downwards.  We’d like to prevent that, by providing enough money so that the aggregate average nominal wage does not need to adjust.

My second comment has to do with the mechanism that Josh discusses:

Suppose that the central bank promised to buy and sell gold on demand at its current market price, but guaranteed that an ounce of gold would buy a fixed quantity of labor, on average. This is a promise to keep an index of nominal wages constant.

This approach is called indirect convertibility, a subject that Bill Woolsey discussed in a series of papers published in the 1990s.  I have a couple brief comments.  First, this sort of scheme need not involve gold at all.  Second it’s essentially a form of “futures targeting”, which is something I’ve done a lot of work on myself.  Indeed, this idea was independently discovered by numerous economists during the 1980s, but Thompson was the first.

If you are having trouble understanding the logic behind the indirect convertibility mechanism for a labor standard, think about the fact that aggregate wage data comes out with a lag, and hence you need to target a future announcement of the wage index.  To assure that monetary policy is set at a position where expected future wages are stable, you need a futures market mechanism where investors could profit any time aggregate wages are expected to move.  Their attempts to profit from wage changes nudge monetary policy back to the stance likely to keep average wages stable.

In addition, the specific proposal discussed by Josh involves a stable wage level, but given political realities it’s more likely the actual target would creep upward at 2% to 3%/year.

Also note that Josh argues that a labor standard is a vastly superior approach for achieving the goals of recent “job guarantee” proposals, put forth by progressives.  I agree.

PS.  I have a new Mercatus Bridge post discussing a WSJ article that called for monetary reform aimed at stable money.

PPS.  My recent post at Econlog on the usefulness of the yield spread got zero comments, which surprised me given all the recent focus on that variable.

Maybe it’s my jet lag . . .

and my cold . . . but I just don’t get this Conor Sen Bloomberg article:

Trump Wants the Fed to Roll Back the U.S. Economy

Higher interest rates could revive manufacturing and exports. That will hurt consumers and workers.

I’m only at the subtitle, but already lost.  How do higher interest rates boost manufacturing and exports?  And if they did, why would that hurt workers?

One of the main ways the Fed has won its credibility on inflation has been setting interest rates higher, sometimes much higher, than the inflation rate. This was most extreme in 1984, when short-term interest rates spent much of the year over 10 percent while consumer price inflation (stripping out food and energy) finished the year under 5 percent.  When investors and savers can get a “free lunch” by earning a high inflation-adjusted return in Treasuries, they’re incentivized to do so rather than invest in new production or consuming goods and services, both of which would put upward pressure on inflation.

This is reasoning from a price change.  Real rates were high in the mid-1980s precisely because growth was strong.  And buying Treasuries is not an alternative to producing consumer and investment goods.  That’s mixing up financial investment with physical investment.  For instance, suppose America had a massive corporate investment boom financed by corporate bonds.  Then you’d see lots of bond buying and lots of physical investment at the same time.  They are not alternatives.  A better argument would have been that Reagan’s fiscal deficits crowded out private investment.

But this has broader distortionary effects in the economy. On a global level, if investors can earn a high real interest rate on U.S. assets, they’re going to do so, which all else equal will drive the dollar higher in foreign exchange markets than it otherwise would be. The dollar being artificially higher will make U.S. exports less competitive in global markets, leading to larger trade deficits.

Distortionary?  Artificial?  Sorry, but Volcker and Greenspan were targeting inflation at about 4% from 1982-90.  There was nothing “artificial” about the resulting interest rates, they were simply the result of market forces.  The Fed does not set the real interest rate over an extended period of time.  Again, the fiscal deficits might have played a role (although even that factor was probably less important than widely believed at the time.)

In other words, the Fed established its credibility on inflation over the past few decades by setting real interest rates at a high level, which helped to orient the economy around financial activities, consumption and imports rather than production, labor and exports.

These are not either/or scenarios.  Consumption is not an alternative to production, labor etc.  Consumption is an alternative to investment.  Indeed consumption often booms during periods of high employment, such as the late 1960s and the late 1990s.  The same is true of financial activities.  And production is an alternative to leisure, not an alternative to consumption.  And real interest rates have not in fact been high over the “past few decades”.  They were high in the 1980s and have been low since 2001.

Trump wants a different model. It’s what his tariff threats seek to accomplish: making the U.S. economy more production-oriented rather than consumption-oriented. And he wants monetary policy to help do the same thing. If the Fed stops increasing interest rates over the next few quarters, then we’ll never get those high real interest rates in this economic cycle that we’ve gotten in past cycles. This should put downward pressure on the dollar, making U.S. exports more competitive, but at the cost of cheaper imports for U.S. consumers.

Where to begin?  How does downward pressure on the dollar lead to cheaper imports for U.S. consumers?  How does Trump’s tariff model lead to a more “production-oriented” economy?  Are low tariff countries like Singapore, Switzerland and Germany not production-oriented?  And how can monetary policy make the US more production-oriented? Isn’t money neutral in the long run? Where’s the long run aggregate supply curve in this model?

Update:  Several commenters suggested I misinterpreted the phrase “at the cost of cheaper imports”.  Perhaps it was meant to imply that imports would get more expensive.  I.e., “at the cost of more expensive imports for consumers”.

In the long run, if trade and monetary policy leads the U.S. economy to be somewhat less consumption-oriented and more investment-oriented, that’s something we can handle.

How could monetary policy have any long run impact on the share of GDP going to investment?  Is Sen arguing that monetary policy has a long run impact on real interest rates?

I guess in Bloomberg world, high interest rates lead to more manufacturing and exports, which hurts workers.  Low interest rates lead to more production, which helps workers.  But consumers must pay the “cost” of cheaper imports from the weaker dollar.

Am I missing something?

HT: Ramesh Ponnuru

Trade shocks and demand shocks

Paul Krugman has an excellent piece on the potential effects of an all out trade war.  Likely Krugman, I think it unlikely that we actually go that far.  My view is that before that happened, Trump would become frightened by a sharp fall in stocks and negotiate some sort of face saving deal where he could claim “victory”.  (But when thinking about the stock market as a warning device, beware of the “circularity problem”.  The stock market won’t warn Trump if it thinks he would heed their warning.)

Here I’d like to add one additional downside to a trade war, the way trade policy can (and has) interacted with monetary policy.  A trade war might be even worse than Krugman estimates, if it leads to tighter monetary policy and falling NGDP.

You might think that Krugman has already factored falling NGDP into his estimate that a trade war could reduce RGDP by 2 to 3 percent.  But unless I’m mistaken, he’s using a general equilibrium approach that abstracts from demand shocks.  In other words, Krugman is showing that even in a world where the central bank stabilizes AD, a trade war could reduce RGDP by 2 to 3 percent by making the economy less efficient.  But what if the central bank does not stabilize AD? In that case you might get an ordinary recession, piled on top of the adverse supply shock produced by a trade war.  A recession slows the process of worker re-allocation into non-tradable sectors.

I can see two possible channels by which a trade war could reduce aggregate demand:

1.  Imagine the central bank is targeting interest rates.  If a trade war occurs, it’s likely that investment demand would fall, reducing the global equilibrium (i.e. “natural”) rate of interest.  If the central bank does not reduce the policy rate as quickly as the natural rate is falling, that would lead to (effectively) tighter money and falling NGDP.  (Think of this as a channel that operates if I’m wrong about monetary offset, and the Keynesians are right.)

2.  Imagine the central bank is targeting inflation.  If inflation is kept at 2% while RGDP growth is falling, then NGDP growth will also slow.  (Here the problem can occur even if monetary offset is operative, as long as they target inflation, not NGDP.)

Keep in mind that slower NGDP growth is always a problem, even if there are other problems at the same time.  Careful readers might recall that this is exactly what went wrong in 2008.  The Fed adopted IOR to prevent its liquidity injections aimed at rescuing banking from spilling out into more aggregate demand, out of fear of inflation.  They thought the banking crisis was “the real problem” when in fact there were two real problems, banking distress and falling NGDP.  The falling NGDP led directly to higher unemployment, and also as a side effect made the other “real problem”, i.e. banking distress, even worse.

In my research on the Great Depression I found that the biggest problem caused by Smoot-Hawley was not that it reduced the efficiency of the US economy (the direct effects were modest), or even the retaliation from abroad.  Rather the biggest problem was that Smoot-Hawley led to lower aggregate demand.  This occurred either because of a fall in the Wicksellian equilibrium rate (very bad news under a gold standard), or because it reduced the likelihood of international monetary cooperation, or both.

BTW, this is no surprise:

Fears of a looming trade war between the U.S. and China are paradoxically helping to increase the value of the U.S. dollar in global currency markets, analysts say, potentially undercutting a Trump administration policy goal.

This is what happens when you have a president who hires crackpot economists who don’t even know that the current account deficit is a saving/investment issue, not an import/export issue.

HT:  Tyler Cowen

Irving Fisher and George Warren

I am currently a bit over half way through an excellent book entitled “American Default“, by Sebastian Edwards. The primary focus of the book is the abrogation of the gold clause in debt contracts, which (I believe) is the only time the US federal government actually defaulted on its debt. But the book also provides a fascinating narrative of FDR’s decision to devalue the dollar in 1933-34.  I highly recommend this book, which I also discuss in a new Econlog post. Later I’ll do a post on the famous 1935 Court case on the gold clause.

Edwards has an interesting discussion of the difference between Irving Fisher and George Warren.  While both favored a monetary regime where gold prices would be adjusted to stabilize the price level, they envisioned somewhat different mechanisms.  Warren focused on the gold market, similar to my approach in my Great Depression book.  Changes in the supply and demand for gold would influence its value.  Raising the dollar price of gold was equivalent to raising the nominal value of the gold stock.  Money played little or no role in Warren’s thinking.

Fisher took a more conventional “quantity theoretic” approach, where changes in the gold price would influence the money supply, and ultimately the price level.  Edwards seems more sympathetic to Fisher’s approach, which he calls a “general equilibrium perspective”.  Fisher emphasized that devaluation would only be effective if the Federal Reserve cooperated by boosting the money supply.

I agree that Warren’s views were a bit too simplistic, and that Fisher was the far more sophisticated economist.  Nonetheless, I do think that Warren is underrated by most economists.

To some extent, the dispute reflects the differences between the closed economy perspective championed by Friedman and Schwartz (1963), and the open economy perspective advocated by people like Deirdre McCloskey and Richard Zecher in the 1980s.  Is the domestic price level determined by the domestic money supply?  Or by the way the global supply and demand for gold shape the global price level, which then influences domestic prices via PPP?  In my view, Fisher is somewhere in between these two figures, whereas Warren is close to McCloskey/Zecher.  I’m somewhere between Fisher and Warren, but a bit closer to Warren (and McCloskey/Zecher).

There’s a fundamental tension in Fisher’s monetary theory, which combines the quantity of money approach with the price of money approach.  Why does Fisher favor adjusting the price of gold to stabilize the price level (a highly controversial move), as opposed to simply adjusting the money supply (a less controversial move)?  Presumably because he understands that under a gold standard it might not be possible to stabilize the price level merely through changes in the domestic quantity of money.  If prices are determined globally (via PPP), then an expansionary monetary policy will lead to an outflow of gold, and might fail to boost the price level.  Thus Fisher’s preference for a “Compensated Dollar Plan” rather than money supply targeting is a tacit admission that Warren’s approach is in some sense more fundamental than Friedman and Schwartz’s approach.

Warren’s approach also links up with certain trends in modern monetary theory, particularly the role of expectations.  During the 1933-34 period of currency depreciation, both wholesale prices and industrial production soared much higher, despite almost no change in the monetary base.  Even the increase in M1 and M2 was quite modest; nothing that would be expected to lead to the dramatic surge in nominal spending.  That’s consistent with Warren’s gold mechanism being more important that Fisher’s quantity of money mechanism.  In fairness, the money supply did rise with a lag, but that’s also consistent with the Warren approach, which sees gold policy as the key policy lever and the money supply as being largely endogenous.  You might argue that the policy of dollar devaluation eventually forced the Fed to expand the money supply, via the mechanism of PPP.

A modern defender of Warren (like me) would point to models by people like Krugman and Woodford, where it’s the expected future path of policy that determines the current level of aggregate demand.  Dollar devaluation was a powerful way of impacting the expected future path of the money supply, even if the current money supply was held constant.

This isn’t to say that Warren’s approach cannot be criticized. The US was such a big country that changes in the money supply had global implications.  When viewed from a gold market perspective, you could think of monetary injections (OMPs) as reducing the demand for gold (lowering the gold/currency ratio), which would reduce the value of gold, i.e. raise the price level.  A big country doing this can raise the global price level.  So Warren was too dismissive of the role of money.  Nonetheless, Warren’s approach may well have been more fruitful than a domestically focused quantity theory of money approach.

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PS.  Because currency and gold were dual “media of account”, it’s not clear to me that the gold approach is less of a general equilibrium approach, at least under a gold standard.  When the price of gold is not fixed, then you could argue that currency is the only true medium of account, and hence is more fundamental.  During 1933-34, policy was all about shaping expectations of where gold would again be pegged in 1934 (it ended up being devalued from $20.67/oz. to $35/oz.)

PPS.  There is a related post (with bonus coverage of Trump!) over at Econlog.