Archive for July 2016


Nonmarketable perpetual bond bleg

James Alexander directed me to a very interesting Bloomberg article:

Ben S. Bernanke, who met Japanese leaders in Tokyo this week, had floated the idea of perpetual bonds during earlier discussions in Washington with one of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s key advisers. . . .

He noted that helicopter money — in which the government issues non-marketable perpetual bonds with no maturity date and the Bank of Japan directly buys them — could work as the strongest tool to overcome deflation, according to Honda. Bernanke noted it was an option, he said.

Though Honda said he thought Japan was already engaged in a strategy that involved helicopter money, he wanted to convey the idea to Abe and asked Bernanke to meet with the premier in Japan. While this didn’t happen in the spring, Bernanke joined central bank chief Haruhiko Kuroda over lunch this Monday and on Tuesday he attended a gathering with Abe and key officials, including Koichi Hamada, another influential economic adviser.

Bernanke at the Tuesday meeting said Japan should carry on with Abenomics policies by supplementing monetary policy with fiscal stimulus, according to Hamada. Bernanke told Abe that the BOJ still has instruments to further ease monetary policy, said Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s top government spokesman. The central bank didn’t reveal what Kuroda and Bernanke discussed.

I understand perpetual bonds (aka consols), but I don’t get the “non-marketable” part.  If the Japanese fiscal authorities financed their deficit with marketable consols, and the BOJ bought them in the free market, you’d have an ordinary open market purchase.  It would not be a helicopter drop unless tied to a simultaneous fiscal expansion.  But if tied to fiscal stimulus it would be a helicopter drop even if the bonds were not perpetual.  So is it the “non-marketable” aspect that makes it a helicopter drop?

If these bonds became a large share of the BOJ balance sheet, and if Japan ever exited the liquidity trap and rates rose above zero, then the BOJ might have to sell off the perpetual bonds to prevent hyperinflation.  But you can’t sell “non-marketable” securities—is that the idea?

Bond traders, stock investors and economists have been mulling the possible implications of Bernanke’s visit and the next steps to come in Abenomics. Amid intense speculation about the chances of helicopter money, and the certainty of further fiscal stimulus ordered by the prime minister, Japanese shares have rallied for four consecutive days while the yen has weakened.

Fiscal stimulus makes a currency appreciate, so the recent depreciation is more likely due to the anticipated monetary expansion.

PS.  A few months back Bryan Caplan suggested that governments issue marketable consols as a way of out the liquidity trap.  It’s impossible for the yield on consols to fall to zero:

Step 2: The central bank uses standard open market operations to bid up the price of consols until nominal GDP starts rising at the desired rate.

Notice: With regular bonds, the difference between 1% interest and .1% interest seems trivial.  With consols, it’s massive.  A fall from 1% to .1% multiplies the sale price of a consol by a factor of ten!  There is an even bigger difference between a 1% interest rate and a .01% interest rate.  That multiplies the sale price a hundred-fold.  Can we really imagine that this massive increase in the public’s net worth won’t translate into higher consumption and investment?  And if not .01%, how about .00001%?

The only limit, as far as I can tell, is that the central bank might inadvertently retire its national debt.  When the bond price gets high enough, everyone sells.  But this seems like a remote possibility.

I like this idea even better than the non-marketable approach.  I’m not certain that retiring the entire debt is a “remote” possibility, but then I don’t feel I have good intuition in this area.  If it is a remote possibility, then Bryan’s idea would seem to eliminate the zero bound problem.

Bernanke on Brexit

Scott Freelander recently asked me about a Bernanke post, which appears to be guilty of reasoning from a price change:

The U.K. economic slowdown to come will be exacerbated by falling asset values (houses, commercial real estate, stocks) and damaged confidence on the part of households and businesses. Ironically, the sharp decline in the value of the pound may be a bit of a buffer here as, all else equal, it will make British exports more competitive.

Here I’d probably cut Bernanke a bit more slack than Scott, as the phrase “all else equals” seems a nod in the direction of the dangers of reasoning from a price change.  The pound fell sharply when the Brexit vote was announced, because of an anticipated decline in the demand for pounds.  Brexit will reduce the foreign demand for British goods, services and assets.  Since one needs pounds to buy British stuff, this reduces the value of the pound, as well as the quantity of exports. Think of it as a leftward shift in the demand for pounds, on an S&D diagram. Bernanke presumably meant that British exports fall by less than if the BoE had pegged the pound, while demand was shifting left.  That is correct.

One other point.  I recall one recent example where the pound fell a couple of cents on expansionary talk from Mark Carney.  That can be viewed as a positive shift in the supply of pounds, which would indeed boost exports.

Here’s another example that Scott noticed, from the same post:

In the United States, the economic recovery is unlikely to be derailed by the market turmoil, so long as conditions in financial markets don’t get significantly worse: The strengthening of the dollar and the declines in U.S. equities are relatively moderate so far. Moreover, the decline in longer-term U.S. interest rates (including mortgage rates) partially offsets the tightening effects of the dollar and stocks on financial conditions. However, clearly the Fed and other U.S. policymakers will remain cautious until the effects of the British vote are better sorted out.

Long-term rates probably fell due to a decline in expected NGDP growth after Brexit (or maybe a greater preference for safe assets).  Presumably Bernanke meant that the drop in long-term interest rates would be more expansionary than if the Fed had pegged those rates by selling T-bonds, right as expected NGDP growth in the US was declining.  Again I’m cutting Bernanke some slack, as he’s obviously a brilliant economist and in his memoir I recall him saying that rising long-term interest rates during QE could actually be a sign that it was working.  So I think his views are not far apart from mine.

Nonetheless, I’m pretty fanatic on the “never reason from a price change issue”, and I feel that even while Bernanke is aware of all the points I just made, talking about the effect of lower interest rates and lower exchange rates can tend to mislead the public.  In another recent post I said:

I certainly agree with the 38 out of 40 economists who view anti-trade deficit arguments as reflecting ignorance of the most basic ideas in EC101. And yet, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, guess who else is ignorant of EC101?

Since April, Treasury has been applying a quantitative framework to determine if a country is managing its currency inappropriately for competitive advantage–that is, keeping it undervalued. Japan already meets two of the three criteria–a bilateral trade surplus with the U.S. over $20 billion, and a current account surplus greater than 3 percent of GDP–and will meet the third if intervention exceeds ¥10 trillion in a twelve-month period. This is not a high threshold historically–Japan sold ¥14 trillion in 2011 and ¥35 trillion in 2003-4.

So apparently those highly educated bureaucrats at the Treasury, with their 6 figure incomes and their posh DC lifestyles, are actually a part of the ignorant masses that are pushing Trump-style populism. And in fact they are pushing nonsense, the “quantitative framework” has no more support in economic theory than astrology has in high-level physics. So if the public has been reading articles for decades and decades about how our Treasury officials valiantly try to protect us from evil Asian exporters, is it any wonder that the now are susceptible to the arguments of right and left wing populists?

I worry when experts talk about the expansionary impact of a lower exchange rate, or a lower interest rate.  This recent Forbes piece is an example of what may result:

After Friday’s market close, people remarked that both the bond market and the stock market were at all time highs.

It’s not supposed to work that way.  Now, it is a common misconception that bonds always are negatively correlated with stocks.  Actually, over the long term, they have a correlation of zero with stocks.  But they spend most of their time in one of two regimes, either strongly positively correlated or strongly negatively correlated.  Over time it works out to be zero.  Yet here we are, with stocks and bonds on the highs.

David Zervos, market strategist at Jefferies, commented that “Central banks may finally be taking this too far.”  I think central banks started taking things too far in 1913, but yes, with nearly every financial asset in the stratosphere, you could easily come to the conclusion that there has been too much monetary easing.  I am not the first to say that central banks are addicted to higher asset prices.  It’s hard to imagine a scenario where they willingly let the markets deflate.

We’ve been having a lot of bubbles in recent years (a feature of a world populated with central banks), from the dot-com bubble in 2000 to the housing bubble in 2007 to what people are calling the “central bank bubble” or “the everything bubble” now.  Chances are, this could be the biggest bubble of all, and perhaps the most dangerous.

A few years ago, I predicted that in the future there would be almost non-stop complaints about bubbles.  People would see them everywhere.  That’s because low interest rates are the new normal, and thus P/E ratios, price to rent ratios, etc., will be higher than in the past.  It will look like there are bubbles everywhere, but of course bubbles don’t actually exist.

Part of the problem is that the public thinks it’s been told that low rates are easy money, which should boost asset prices.  So they see this as a central bank phenomenon, even though the lowest rates are in places (like Switzerland) where money has been tightest, and the higher rates are in easier money places like Australia.  The public misreads posts like the Bernanke example I just cited, and learns the wrong lesson.  That why I want economists to stop talking about the causal impact of a change in interest rates, inflation or exchange rates, and start talking in terms of the causal impact of changes in NGDP growth, where expected NGDP growth represents the stance of monetary policy.

Let me remind you of some earlier words of wisdom from Bernanke:

The imperfect reliability of money growth as an indicator of monetary policy is unfortunate, because we don’t really have anything satisfactory to replace it. As emphasized by Friedman (in his eleventh proposition) and by Allan Meltzer, nominal interest rates are not good indicators of the stance of policy, as a high nominal interest rate can indicate either monetary tightness or ease, depending on the state of inflation expectations. Indeed, confusing low nominal interest rates with monetary ease was the source of major problems in the 1930s, and it has perhaps been a problem in Japan in recent years as well. The real short-term interest rate, another candidate measure of policy stance, is also imperfect, because it mixes monetary and real influences, such as the rate of productivity growth. In addition, the value of specific policy indicators can be affected by the nature of the operating regime employed by the central bank, as shown for example in empirical work of mine with Ilian Mihov.

The absence of a clear and straightforward measure of monetary ease or tightness is a major problem in practice. How can we know, for example, whether policy is “neutral” or excessively “activist”? I will return to this issue shortly. . . .

Do contemporary monetary policymakers provide the nominal stability recommended by Friedman? The answer to this question is not entirely straightforward. As I discussed earlier, for reasons of financial innovation and institutional change, the rate of money growth does not seem to be an adequate measure of the stance of monetary policy, and hence a stable monetary background for the economy cannot necessarily be identified with stable money growth. Nor are there other instruments of monetary policy whose behavior can be used unambiguously to judge this issue, as I have already noted. In particular, the fact that the Federal Reserve and other central banks actively manipulate their instrument interest rates is not necessarily inconsistent with their providing a stable monetary background, as that manipulation might be necessary to offset shocks that would otherwise endanger nominal stability.

Ultimately, it appears, one can check to see if an economy has a stable monetary background only by looking at macroeconomic indicators such as nominal GDP growth and inflation. On this criterion it appears that modern central bankers have taken Milton Friedman’s advice to heart.  [emphasis added]

That last sentence seemed true in 2003, but obviously not today.  What happened?


Bond yields are not particularly low, conditional on NGDP growth

Matt O’Brien has a good article on low bond yields, in the Washington Post:

Bond yields aren’t always the most exciting thing in the world, but they are right now.

In fact, you’ll probably be telling your grandkids about them one day. That’s because the yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury bond plunged to an all-time low of 1.37 percent on Tuesday. Not only that, but it’s done so at a time when unemployment is a relatively normal 4.7 percent. This isn’t, to say the least, what’s supposed to happen. But it is what’s happening, here and everywhere else, because the world economy is turning Japanese. Which, as we’ll get to in a minute, means that future generations might have a harder time believing that rates were ever this high rather than this low.

Let’s compare bond yields to a previous period when unemployment was this low, the first quarter of 2006 (which was the peak of the housing boom).  In February 2006, 10-year bond yields were about 4.55%, more than 300 basis points above the current level.  So why are bond yields now so low?

Everything is relative.  Most of us were taught that nominal variables don’t matter; you need to look at real variables.  With interest rates you need to normalize by subtracting NGDP growth.  Back in the first quarter of 2006, NGDP had grown at a 6.51% over the previous 4 quarters.  The most recent data shows a 3.29% growth over the past 4 quarters.  So NGDP growth has slowed by over 300 basis points.  Hmm, does that sound familiar?

To be fair, by 2006 interest rates were already pretty low by historical standards.  In the distant past the 10-year bond yield was often closer to the NGDP growth rate.  By the early 2000s, however, we were already in the new world of low interest rates.  The declines since then reflect slower NGDP growth, nothing more.  If you want higher interest rates, ask the Fed to give us higher NGDP growth.  It’s that simple.

The rest of the world has only made this more true. That’s because zero interest rates in one country exert a kind of gravitational pull on interest rates in another. They’re “contagious,” as economists Gauti Eggertsson, Neil Mehrotra, Sanjay Singh and Larry Summers put it. Here’s why: if you have zero interest rates and are expected to for a while, then capital will flow into my economy every time I even consider raising my own. Money, after all, moves to where it thinks it can get the best return. But on a less happy note, this will push my currency up so much that my exports will start to lose competitiveness. And that, in turn, will slow my economy down enough that I won’t actually have to raise rates. Instead, I’ll keep them around zero — just like yours. The same kind of thing happens any time there’s any financial turbulence in the world. Investors stampede into the safe haven that is U.S. government debt, pushing down yields and pushing out expectations of rate hikes.

If you try to raise rates with a tight money policy, it will fail for the reasons outlined in Eggertsson, et al.  If you try to raise interest rates with an easy money policy that raises NGDP growth up to 5%, then you will succeed.

The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond has fallen 0.3 percentage points since Britain voted to leave the European Union two weeks ago, and almost a full percentage point since the Fed raised rates last December.

Last December, there was a vigorous debate between those who wanted the Fed to raise rates because low rates could lead to asset price bubbles, and those of us who said that argument was wrong.  Can we now all agree that those who favored raising rates because a low rate environment could lead to excessive risk taking were wrong?  Put aside the question of whether low rates lead to asset price bubbles, the entire premise of the argument was that the Fed’s action would lead to higher rates over time.  We now know that this was false, longer term rates are far lower than in December, as are expected future short-term rates.

The paradox is that the economy can only handle higher rates if the Fed says it won’t raise them. Anything else will create so much turmoil that the Fed won’t even be able to pretend it’s going to increase interest rates as much as it was before. That’s why long-term rates actually fell after the Fed raised short-term rates at the end of last year.

If you want peace, prepare for war.

If you want to be happy, don’t try to be happy.

If you want higher interest rates, tell the Fed to cut interest rates.

When Janet Yellen retires, how about appointing a Zen Master to chair the Fed?  (I propose Nick Rowe.)

PS.  I was recently interviewed by the French magazine Atlantico.

PPS.  I also have a new Econlog post.


Three views on Fed independence

While reading an excellent new book by Peter Conti-Brown, I came across this interesting observation:

Liberals like Tobin, Galbraith, and Harris weren’t the only ones who thought a policy separation problematic. Milton Friedman, the great monetary theorist on the right, thought central bank independence much less desirable than a straightforward monetary policy rule that increased the money supply at an agreed-on rate.

I’d never quite thought of things that way.  He suggests that back in the 1960s, many liberal economists favored a supportive Fed.  Let’s think about three ways the Fed could have interacted with the fiscal authorities during the Kennedy/Johnson fiscal expansion:

1.  The Fed could have supported the fiscal authorities by holding interest rates at a low level, despite the fiscal stimulus.

2.  The Fed could have maintained a neutral policy, with a 4% money supply growth rule.

3.  The Fed could have sabotaged fiscal stimulus with a 2% inflation target.

Policy #1 would be the most expansionary.  The second option would also be somewhat expansionary, as fiscal stimulus would push up nominal interest rates, and also velocity.

Under option #3, however, monetary policy would be not at all stimulative, and would essentially neutralize the impact of fiscal stimulus.  And I find that to be a rather odd way of looking at things.  In this framework, Milton Friedman’s monetarism is the “moderate” position.  (Quite a contrast to the rules vs. discretion debate, where Friedman took an extreme position.)  Even more surprisingly, you find Keynesians at each extreme.  The older 1960s Keynesians favored a supportive monetary policy, and the new Keynesians of the 1990s wanted monetary policy to sabotage fiscal policy, in order to keep inflation at 2%.

Once I started looking at things this way, I noticed an uncanny similarity to the three ways that one could categorize monetary policy interrelationships under an international gold standard.  In my book on the Great Depression, I did not look at the interaction of monetary and fiscal policy, but rather the way various central banks reacted to moves at the dominant central bank.  For instance, in the late 1800s the Bank of England was dominant.  Other central banks could be supportive, neutral, or sabotage discretionary actions by the BoE.  In 1930, Keynes argued that they tended to be supportive:

During the latter half of the nineteenth century the influence of London on credit conditions throughout the world was so predominant that the Bank of England could almost have claimed to be the conductor of the international orchestra. By modifying the terms on which she was prepared to lend, aided by her own readiness to vary the volume of her gold reserves and the unreadiness of other central banks to vary the volumes of theirs, she could to a large extent determine the credit conditions prevailing elsewhere. (1930 [1953], II, pp. 306–07, emphasis added)

Here’s how I interpreted this issue in my book on the Depression:

If Keynes were correct then the Bank of England would have had enormous leverage over the world’s money supply.[1] For example, assume the Bank of England doubled its gold reserve ratio. This would represent a contractionary policy, which would then lead to a gold inflow to Britain. If other countries wished to avoid an outflow of gold they would have had to adopt equally contractionary monetary policies. In that case the change in the Bank of England’s gold reserve ratio would have generated a proportional shift in the world gold reserve ratio.

Although it is unreasonable to assume that foreign gold stocks were not allowed to change at all, during the interwar period some countries did not allow significant fluctuations in their monetary gold stocks.[1] Other central banks may have varied their gold holdings, but not in response to discretionary policy decisions taken by the Bank of England. Thus it is quite possible that the estimates in Table 13.5 significantly understate the ability of central banks to engage in discretionary monetary policies.

An alternative form of interdependence occurs when countries refuse to allow gold flows to influence their domestic money supplies. If one country reduces its gold reserve ratio, other countries can offset or “sterilize” this policy by raising their own gold reserve ratios. Complete sterilization would occur if the other countries raised their gold reserve ratios enough to prevent any change in the world money supply.

If central bank policies are interdependent, then there are a variety of ways in which a change in one country’s gold reserve ratio might impact the world gold reserve ratio:

  1. d(ln r)/d(ln ri) = 0 (the complete sterilization case)
  2. d(ln r)/d(ln ri) = Gi/G (the policy independence case)
  3. d(ln r)/d(ln ri) = 1 (the extreme Keynesian case)

In Table 13.5 the estimated impact of central bank policy changes was computed under the “policy independence” assumption (i.e., that a change in one country’s gold reserve ratio had no impact on gold reserve ratios in other countries).

[1] There also may have been an asymmetrical response, with central banks being more reluctant to allow gold outflows than gold inflows. Note that the unwillingness of central banks to vary their gold holdings does not necessarily imply an unwillingness to freely exchange currency for gold. They could set their discount rate at a level to prevent gold flows.

[1] McCloskey and Zecher (1976) criticized Keynes’s assertion by noting that the Bank of England held a gold stock equal to only 0.5 percent of total world reserves. This would seem too small to allow the Bank of England any significant influence over the world money supply (or price level). There are several problems with their criticism. They have assumed that central banks were indifferent between holding gold or Bank of England notes as reserves. Yet many countries placed great importance on their gold stocks, and in some cases laws specified a minimum gold reserve ratio. Thus the relevant size variable is the ratio of England’s monetary gold stock to the world’s monetary gold stock, not the ratio of England’s gold stock to total world reserves. More importantly, McCloskey and Zecher ignored Keynes’s assumption that other central banks were unwilling to vary their reserves of gold (as the rules of the game required).

These three cases offer an interesting parallel to the three types of fiscal/monetary coordination discussed above.  The “extreme Keynesian case” (relying on his 1930 hypothesis) is equivalent to the supportive central bank preferred by 1960s Keynesians.  The policy independence case occurs if countries follow the “rules of the game”, i.e. they must allow their money supplies to move in proportion to their monetary gold stocks.  This case is obviously similar to Friedman’s money supply rule.  And the complete sterilization case is equivalent to a central bank that sabotages fiscal actions. Indeed another term I could have used for “monetary offset” is “monetary sterilization of fiscal policy”.

PS.  This post is rather tangential to the main thrust of the Conti-Brown book.  I also have a new post on his book at Econlog, which gives a better sense of the book’s focus.

The most important election this fall?

You can make a pretty good argument that the most important elections this fall are the various state referenda over pot legalization.  If they pass in California and elsewhere, the momentum to legalize pot will become unstoppable.  But coming up fast is the Italian referendum on constitutional reform, which will be held sometime before the end of October.  Over at Econlog, I have a new post discussing how this referendum has taken on much greater importance after the Brexit vote, and could trigger a major eurozone crisis.

Some commenters made much of the fact that European stocks rallied after the “knee jerk” post-Brexit plunge.  They scolded me for putting so much weight on the market’s instant analysis.  What they fail to understand is that all market moves are provisional—we do the best we can with the information we have.  And would I be out of line to point out that the brief rally in eurozone stocks has unraveled, and that they are back down to the levels of that supposed “knee jerk reaction”?  Of course further changes will occur, and I have no idea whether we are going up or down from here. But I’m confident that the 14% decline in Italian stocks since the Brexit vote is telling us something important about both the health of the Italian banking system, and the risks of the October vote.  Ditto for the global plunge in yields on safe bonds.

Given the recent fallout from Brexit, if things continue to get worse in Italy and the eurozone between now and October, it’s not hard to imagine an intense international focus on the Italian referendum, with a no vote seen as likely to lead to an unraveling of the euro.  I’m not saying that will happen (the risks still seem less that 50-50 to me).  But I find the timing of that momentous referendum kind of interesting, given the timing of our own election, and given the anti-EU views of one of our candidates.  At the very least this is something to watch for.

PS.  Note that the Italian political system appears incapable of doing anything, and thus the silver lining of a no vote is that this incompetence would continue.  Incompetence is normally a bad thing, but if you are dealing with a government that wants to exit the EU, it’s actually good.