Archive for the Category Praising Krugman


David Beckworth interviews Paul Krugman

Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Krugman is a brilliant economist. David Beckworth’s interview with Krugman is probably my favorite so far in the series, even though on the policy issues I tend to agree more with earlier interviewees such as Bullard.  (Interestingly, these two agreed on a number of issues, despite being far apart on the political spectrum.)

There’s no transcript, so I’ll rely on memory, and then leave a few observations after each point:

1.  When discussing his famous 1998 paper, Krugman said the hard part was determining the implication of an “expectations trap” for policymakers.

This is a very good point, and most people underestimate this problem.  Krugman himself has changed his views as to the paper’s implication, in the years since it was published.

2.  He indicated that when trying to exit a liquidity trap, you don’t need to just convince the central bankers, you also need to convince the public.

I have a “build it and they will come” attitude here.  If the central bank adopts an effective policy response, I think the public will believe it.  The real problem has been the failure of central banks to be willing to adopt “do whatever it takes” policies.

3.  He suggested that price level targeting might not be enough—you might need a higher inflation target if the equilibrium real interest rate fell to very low levels, and stayed there.

Here my view is different.  A liquidity trap should not be viewed as zero nominal interest rates, but rather the zero bound on eligible assets that the central bank has not yet purchased.  Imagine a policy of targeting the price level with CPI futures. That policy will work regardless of how low the equilibrium interest rate falls, as low as the central bank has the ability to adjust its balance sheet to base money demand.  Ditto for exchange rate targeting (i.e. Singapore). Liquidity traps are not times when fiscal policy is needed, they are times when bigger central bank balance sheets are needed.

Krugman cites Japan’s falling population.  On the one hand that might reduce Japan’s equilibrium real interest rate.  But it also reduces aggregate supply, which is inflationary.

4.  Krugman noted that elite policymakers don’t think that an inflation target of higher than 2% is responsible.

My immediate reaction was “Hmmm, where did they get that idea.”  To his credit, Krugman later joked “I may have set back policy by decades with that credibly promise to be irresponsible remark.”

5.  The first QE in the US and Europe helped to restore confidence to economies that had been destabilized by private sector financial turmoil.

My reaction is that that financial turmoil was at least partly caused by bad monetary policy, which was causing NGDP growth expectations to plummet.

6.  Krugman points out that Congress would have objected to a higher inflation target.

I think that’s right, but other options like PL targeting and NGDP targeting we at least possibilities.  More importantly, the Fed could have kept the inflation target at 2% and done far more in the realm of “concrete steppes”.

7.  Krugman’s ideal policy back in 2009 would have been enough fiscal stimulus to get inflation up to 4%, followed by standard monetary policy to stabilize the economy after that (presumably something like policy during the Great Moderation, except with a high enough inflation target to prevent hitting the zero bound.)

That might work, but if you raised the inflation target to 4%, then I doubt you’d even need fiscal stimulus.

8.  On whether 2% was a target or a ceiling, Krugman actually seemed less cynical than David (which might surprise people given their personalities).

I tend to agree with Krugman on this point, but I also believe that David has the better argument, and this is one place where Krugman struggled a bit to refute it. He talked about central bankers wanting to go back to the old days of Volcker, when they fought a heroic battle against inflation, and he also talked about the Fed as an institution having a bias toward fighting inflation.  Of course you could view those observations as supporting David’s claim about 2% being a ceiling, and I sensed that Krugman saw that as well.

9.  Krugman suggested that he had mixed feelings about NGDP targeting, worrying that it might allow too much inflation volatility.

Here again, he struggled a bit in his reply.  At one point he tried to suggest a scary counterfactual of 1% RGDP growth and 4% inflation, and then immediately seemed to realize that a few minutes earlier he had advocated 4% inflation.  In my view Krugman missed the point here.  A period of 1% RGDP trend growth is precisely when you are likely to see the sort of low equilibrium real interest rate that Krugman himself thinks calls for 4% inflation target.  Admittedly I am relying a bit on a sort of “divine coincidence” of RGDP trend growth and equilibrium real interest rates moving together, but I also think there are strong labor market reasons to prefer NGDP targeting. Krugman said something about menu costs of inflation, but surely he cares more about unemployment than menu costs, and labor market stability is almost certainly more closely correlated with NGDP than inflation. Indeed an awareness of that fact (in my view) largely explains why central banks have “flexible” inflation targets.

Like most other mainstream economists, Krugman doesn’t seem aware of all the arguments for NGDP targeting made by market monetarists, and even earlier by George Selgin.  We still have work to do.

Overall a great interview.  Krugman said, “I don’t really know” more often than one might expect from reading his NYT columns, which is to his credit.

I used to think his bashing of the GOP was exaggerated, but now it seems on target.  I say he’s finally got it right, whereas Krugman would presumably say that Trump proves that he was right all along.


Did the US cause the Great Japanese deflation?

Commenter Jim Glass provided another Paul Krugman op ed, this one from 2001 2011:

Nonetheless, Mr. Koizumi is right about one thing: Japan cannot go on like this. Swelling public debt will eventually threaten the government’s solvency; the festering financial problems of the banks will soon require a government bailout that will swell that debt even further. Something must be done. But the actions Mr. Koizumi has proposed could tip Japan into full-blown depression.

There is an answer to this dilemma, one that has become almost orthodoxy among economists who have tried to think seriously about Japan’s plight. This answer involves unconventional monetary expansion, with the Bank of Japan buying dollars, euros and long-term government bonds; it also involves accepting and indeed promoting mild inflation and a weak yen. I could explain why this would probably work, but what’s the point? It’s not about to happen.

For the real tragedy right now is that however innovative and open-minded Mr. Koizumi may be, he will fail unless other important players — mainly the Bank of Japan, but also the U.S. Treasury Department — are prepared to learn from Andrew Mellon’s mistake. And all the evidence is that they are not. The head of the Bank of Japan insists that the country’s continuing slump is the result of inadequate reform — that is, insufficient purging of the rottenness. And although the details are in dispute, the U.S. Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, appears to have warned Japan not to let the yen weaken too much.

Poor Japan. It is the victim of those who refuse to learn from the past, and thereby condemn others to repeat it.

So even three years after the famous 1998 liquidity trap paper, Krugman was still favoring monetary stimulus over fiscal stimulus for countries at the zero bound. But I’d like to focus on the comment regarding our Treasury officials.  Krugman’s right that they have consistently warned the Japanese not to engage in “currency manipulation”.  What our Treasury doesn’t understand is that all central banks manipulate currencies—-that’s their job!  The only question is how.  And don’t say “It’s OK to manipulate the purchasing power of a currency but not the foreign exchange value.”  If the manipulation is done via central bank policy, then the two types of manipulation are identical. For decades, the US Treasury has been (unknowingly) warning the Japanese not to manipulate their economy out of deflation.

Ironically, a healthier Japanese economy would also be good for the US, boosting our exports and creating good jobs.  Pity that we are so dense.

PS.  Over at Econlog you’ll find a Trump post that is perhaps a bit less “unhinged” than usual.  At least I hope so.

When did Krugman change? And why?

Paul Krugman frequently suggests that his famous 1998 article (“It’s Baaack, Japan’s Slump and the Return of the Liquidity Trap”) led him to rethink the role of monetary and fiscal policy.  He says that the “expectations trap” model in that paper convinced him that monetary policy might be ineffective at the zero bound, and that fiscal policy might then become necessary.

Previously I’ve pointed to a 1999 Krugman essay that advocated monetary stimulus for Japan, and was quite dismissive of the idea of fiscal stimulus.  While cleaning out my office, I came across a Krugman editorial from the year 2000, which made similar arguments:

Japan has the dubious distinction of being the first major nation since the 1930’s to experience a “liquidity trap,” in which even cutting the interest rate all the way to zero doesn’t induce enough business investment to restore full employment. The result is an economy that has been depressed since the early 90’s, and that in 1998 seemed to be on the verge of a catastrophic deflationary spiral.

The government’s answer has been to prop up demand with deficit spending; over the past few years Japan has been frantically building bridges to nowhere and roads it doesn’t need.

In the short run this policy works: in the first half of 1999, powered by a burst of public works spending, the Japanese economy grew fairly rapidly. But deficit spending on such a scale cannot go on much longer. Japan’s government is already deeply in debt (about twice as deep, relative to national income, as the U.S. was before our own budget turned around). For the policy to do more than buy a little time, the recovery must become “self-sustaining”: consumers and businesses have to start spending enough to allow the government to return to fiscal responsibility without provoking a new recession.

Carping critics (like me) warned that there was no good reason to think this would happen. Sure enough, it hasn’t; as the big public works projects of early 1999 have wound down, so has the economy. . . .

Although the Bank of Japan has already reduced the short-term interest rate to zero, Western economists have pointed out that there are other things it can and should do: buy longer-term bonds, announce a positive target for inflation to encourage businesses to borrow. Indeed, textbook economics tells us that to adhere to conventional monetary rules in the face of a liquidity trap is not prudent; it is irresponsible. (Full disclosure: I personally have been the most visible and vociferous advocate of inflation targeting).

But the current government has actually slowed the pace of reform, and the Bank of Japan — which only recently acquired Federal Reserve-style autonomy — has adamantly refused to do anything unconventional. (When I was in Japan in December, I witnessed an argument between former B.O.J. officials and current officials of the Ministry of Finance. The former declared that it would be wrong to do anything risky; the latter reminded them, to no avail, that the current policy of running up huge debts to finance public works is already very risky.)

Of course Krugman turned out to be absolutely correct.  The fiscal stimulus never got Japan out of the liquidity trap, and it was only in 2013 that Japan finally adopted a 2% inflation target—and then prices started rising.  Krugman was very worried about Japanese debt levels when their national debt was less than 150% of GDP—now it’s 250%.  All those “bridges to nowhere” were a monumental waste of money, when a 2% inflation target back in 2000 would have been far more effective.

Later in 2000, Krugman wrote more articles on Japan, which criticized the BOJ decision to raise rates.  Again, Krugman turned out to be completely correct—Japan fell back into recession and had to cut rates again.

So when did Krugman become “Krugman”?   It seems like the turning point was around 2002, when he started advocating fiscal stimulus for the US:

Not many people realize that in some ways Japanese economic policy responded quite effectively to a sustained slump. It’s easy to make fun of the country’s enormous spending on public works — all those bridges to nowhere in particular, highways with no traffic, and so on. Without question enormous sums have been wasted. But it’s also clear that all that spending pumped money into the economy, preventing what might otherwise have been a full-fledged depression.

So what will be the U.S. equivalent? Right now we are in effect following the reverse policy: slashing domestic spending in the face of an economic slump. Some of this is taking place at the federal level; the Bush administration is nickel-and-diming public spending wherever it can, shaving a billion here, a billion there off everything from veterans’ benefits and homeland security to Medicare payments. More important, the federal government is doing nothing to help as state and local governments, their revenues savaged by recession, make deep cuts in spending on everything that isn’t urgently necessary, and many things that are.

This is a radically different Paul Krugman from the 1999-2000 version:

1.  Now Krugman is making things up—for instance suggesting that Bush had adopted a contractionary fiscal policy, when Bush’s policy was actually quite expansionary (huge tax cuts, massive increases on federal spending on education, homeland security, Medicare drug benefit, military build-up.)  This is a more ideological Krugman than the neoliberal of 2000.

2.  Krugman says it’s easy to make fun of the Japanese public works, but doesn’t tell his readers that back in 1999 he was one of those people ruthlessly mocking the Japanese public works spending:

What continues to amaze me is this: Japan’s current strategy of massive, unsustainable deficit spending in the hopes that this will somehow generate a self-sustained recovery is currently regarded as the orthodox, sensible thing to do – even though it can be justified only by exotic stories about multiple equilibria, the sort of thing you would imagine only a professor could believe. Meanwhile further steps on monetary policy – the sort of thing you would advocate if you believed in a more conventional, boring model, one in which the problem is simply a question of the savings-investment balance – are rejected as dangerously radical and unbecoming of a dignified economy.

Will somebody please explain this to me?

One possibility is that Krugman turned left due to “Bush derangement syndrome.” In fairness, however, you could see a similar pattern in Ben Bernanke, who was a Republican during this period.  In 1999, Bernanke was also contemptuous of the view that the BOJ was out of ammunition, but by late 2008 Bernanke was also advocating fiscal stimulus.  Indeed right about the turn of the century there was a gradually shift to the left in many places.  Regulations started ramping up in the US (i.e. Sarbanes-Oxley).  The British Labour Party abandoned their fiscal austerity, as did the Dems in the US.  So perhaps Krugman was merely a part of this gradual change in the zeitgeist.  I haven’t changed, so I’m not well placed to understand what caused so many other people to become more sympathetic to fiscal stimulus and regulation.

My vision of macro

The following Venn diagram helps to explain how I visualize macro:

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 3.17.11 PMThere are three basic fields within macro:

1.  Equilibrium nominal

2.  Equilibrium real

3.  Disequilibrium sticky wage/price (interaction)

I’ll take these one at a time.

1. Within equilibrium nominal there are important concepts:

A.  The quantity theory of money

B.  The Fisher effect

C.  Purchasing power parity

The first suggests that a change in M will cause a proportionate change in P.  The second suggests that a change in inflation will cause an equal change in nominal interest rates.  The third suggests that a change in the inflation differential between two countries will cause an equal change in the rate of appreciation of the nominal exchange rate.

All three concepts implicitly hold something constant; either the real demand for money, the real interest rate, or the real exchange rate.  In all three cases the concept is most useful when the money supply and price level are changing very rapidly, especially if those changes persist for long periods of time.

2.  Equilibrium real macro can be thought of as looking at economic shocks that do not rely on wage/price stickiness.  These include changes in population, technology, capital, preferences, government policies, weather conditions, taxes, etc.  These can cause changes in the real demand for money, the real interest rate, the real exchange rate, the unemployment rate, real GDP, and many other real variables.

3.  Disequilibrium macro looks at nominal shocks that cause changes in real variables, but only because of wage/price stickiness.  Thus because prices are sticky, an increase in the money supply will temporarily cause higher real money demand, a lower real interest rate, and a lower real exchange rate.  These changes occur even if there is no fundamental real shock hitting the economy.  The effects are temporary, and go away once wages and prices have adjusted.

If wages and prices are sticky then an increase in the money supply will also cause a temporary rise in employment and real output.

And that’s basically all of macro.  (This is how I’d try to explain macro to a really bright person, if I were given only 15 minutes.)

I also believe that understanding the implications of this three part schema makes one a better macroeconomist. Talented macroeconomists like Paul Krugman tend to have good instincts as to which real world issues belong in each category. Here’s my own view on a few examples. For simplicity, I’ll denote these three areas: nominal, real, and interaction:

1.  Most business cycles in ancient times were real, with some interaction.  The 1500 to 1650 inflation was nominal.

2.  Recessions such as 1893, 1908, 1921 and 1982 were mostly interaction.

3.  The Great Depression was all three.

4.  The Great Inflation was mostly nominal, especially in high inflation countries.

5. The 1974 recession was more “real” than usual.  Ditto for the WWII output boom.

6.  The real approach works best for short run shocks to specific industries such as housing and oil, plus long run growth.  The nominal approach works best for high inflation rates and long run inflation.  The interaction approach works best for real GDP fluctuations in large diversified economies.

7.  If one set of economists say the Japanese yen is too strong, and another set say it’s too weak, they are probably using different frameworks.  Those who say its too strong are using a nominal framework, and are likely worried about deflation.  A weaker yen would boost inflation.  Those who think the yen is too weak are using a real framework.  Rather than worry about deflation, they worry that Japan has a current account surplus.  These views seem to contradict, but it’s theoretically possible for both to be right.  Perhaps the nominal exchange rate for the yen is too strong, and the real exchange rate is too weak.  You would then weaken the nominal exchange rate by printing money, and strengthen the real exchange rate by reducing Japanese saving rates.  (I don’t favor the latter, just saying that’s the proper implication of the misguided worry about Japanese CA surpluses.)

8.  Don’t let your policy preferences drive your analysis.  Throughout all of my life, it’s been assumed that monetary shocks drive real output by causing changes in the unemployment rate.  Not changes in trend productivity growth or population growth or labor force participation or any number of other variables.  Money matters because it affects unemployment.  If the unemployment rate is telling you that monetary policy is no longer holding back growth, the proper response is not to double down on your belief that we need easier money and then look for new theories to justify it, but rather to conclude that whatever problems we still have are now “real”, not “interaction.”

A good macroeconomist knows that all three fields of macro are very important, and which models apply to each of the three fields, and which field is most applicable to each real world macro issue.

Rothwell on Autor, Dorn and Hanson

A number of people have asked me to comment on a new paper by Jonathan Rothwell, which criticizes a study by Autor, Dorn and Hanson (ADH) on the impact of Chinese imports on the US job market.

I conclude that the economic losses from trade are not as severe as the economics literature currently implies. Workers in the most import-exposed sectors face a risk of layoff and unemployment that is comparable to workers in other sectors, where competition comes almost exclusively from domestic businesses. While it is likely that less import competition would further lower the risk of displacement and boost wages for manufacturing workers, less competition would likely lead to a reduction in the ratio of product quality to price and a drop in consumer welfare. I accept the Autor et al. (2014) finding that import competition lowers wages for U.S. workers in the affected industries — but even still, I find that workers in the manufacturing sector continue to earn a sizable wage premium compared to those with similar experience and education levels in other sectors.

At the community level, these results should not be taken to mean that de-industrialization has been harmless to individuals or even communities. Rather, the results imply that deindustrialization as a result of Chinese import competition plays out no differently than deindustrialization as a result of other forces — such as domestic competition or technological change. Communities relying more heavily on industries facing import competition perform no  worse in this study on summary measures of economic development and consistently show higher growth rates in establishments. They seem to find ways to adapt, maintain wage growth and launch new enterprises.

That’s what I would have expected.  Not surprisingly, Autor, Dorn and Hanson contest Rothwell’s study.

Regardless of whether Rothwell is right or wrong, the press has done an extremely poor job in reporting the ADH study.  Trade economists already knew that specific industries, and even communities, can be hurt by import competition.  The press has suggested that the ADH study shows that China trade resulted in a net job loss to the US, a finding that really would be new.  But as Paul Krugman and I keep pointing out that’s just not so.  Their study is completely consistent with zero net job loss to the US.  That’s because the study looked at the period of 1990-2007, when monetary offset was fully engaged.  So there’s no plausible AD channel.  Of course you can make other arguments, but you can’t show aggregate effects with a cross-sectional study.

All the press coverage of ADH is much ado about nothing.  Maybe China did hurt the overall US labor market, but their study doesn’t show it.  I’m not surprised that the press ignores me, but I am a bit surprised they ignore Krugman, particularly since he has occasionally argued that China was stealing US jobs during the Great Recession.  No one can claim his critique of ADH was based on ideological bias.

PS.  Nor can Autor, Dorn and Hanson be accused of ideological bias.  For instance, they favor TPP.

PPS.  Before you try defending ADH based on non-AD channel arguments, you might consider that at various times in their paper they imply they do have an AD channel in mind.  For instance, when contrasting Germany’s trade surplus with the US trade deficit.