Archive for the Category Quantitative Easing


Bad grammar or bad thinking?

Here’s a typical AP story:

The boldest move left would be a third round of large-scale purchases of Treasurys. But critics say this would raise the risk of future inflation. And many doubt it would help much, because Treasury yields are already near historic lows.

Let’s play around with this story.  How else could we convey the information:

The boldest move left would be a third round of large-scale purchases of Treasurys.  But critics say this would raise aggregate demand.  And many doubt it would raise aggregate demand, because Treasury yields are already near historic lows.

But then the conjunction “and” would be bad grammar.  You’d want to say “on the other hand.”  How about this:

The boldest move left would be a third round of large-scale purchases of Treasurys. Supporters say this would raise expectations of future inflation, and lower real interest rates.  And many doubt it would help much, because Treasury yields are already near historic lows.

Again the “and” is wrong, because if it does raise inflation expectations then the liquidity trap argument is bogus.  And how about fiscal policy:

The boldest move left for Congress would be a payroll tax cut.  But critics say this would raise the risk of future inflation.  And many doubt it would help much, because workers would simply save the tax cuts.

Of course one never sees reporters talk this way.  Never.  Not once.   One never sees reporters discuss both monetary and fiscal policy from the perspective of the standard AS/AD model, where monetary and fiscal stimulus are just two ways of boosting AD.  No, they seem to have some other model in their minds.  What is that model?  Your guess is as good as mine.  It’s not new or old Keynesian.  It’s not new classical or RBC.  It’s not Austrian or monetarist or MMT.  But it has become the standard model for talking about stimulus.

Am I being picky here?  Surely a bit of confused reasoning in the press would not actually impact important policy decisions involving $100s of billions of dollars.  OK, so some reporters don’t understand that fiscal stimulus is just as inflationary as monetary stimulus.  It’s not like you see the GOP leadership bashing the Fed for even thinking about providing additional monetary stimulus at zero cost to the budget, and then weeks later turning around and signalling an intention to massively cut payroll taxes.

Oh wait .  .  .

Ed Balls almost sounds disappointed

***Bruce Bartlett sent me a link to the now famous Goldman Sachs endorsement of NGDP targeting.***

And now back to my regular post  . . .

It’s amusing to analyze all this from a market monetarist perspective:

LONDON””The Bank of England’s decision to restart its bond-buying program will give the U.K. government breathing room to continue its austerity drive, which has come under increasing fire amid sluggish growth.

But the legacy of this round of so-called quantitative easing will depend on a number of factors. Neither the government nor the central bank has much control over many of them””including inflation and the euro-zone crisis.

. . .

Treasury chief George Osborne welcomed the decision, calling it a “positive move” for the British economy. The bank’s own research suggests that when it spent £200 billion in 2009 and 2010, that helped to lift GDP by 1.5% to 2%.

Mr. Osborne’s austerity measures have achieved much of what they aimed at””in particular, calming market fears about Britain’s ability to pay its debts. That has reduced government interest rates to record lows even as other European nations have watched their cost of capital balloon.

But that has come at a cost, with billions of pounds of spending cuts and tax increases taking demand out of the economy and raising unemployment. The central bank’s latest move gives the economy a boost the government won’t provide at present, though it also provides fodder for critics to say the bank is bailing out the government because the economy hasn’t rebounded.

“The Bank of England has been left with no choice but to step in and try to offset the contractionary effects of George Osborne’s budget plans,” said Ed Balls, the opposition Labour Party’s finance spokesman.

Most economists still back the government’s austerity moves, and so do the ratings companies. But as economic data have worsened, critics outside opposition politics have stepped forward as well.

The biggest danger to Britain may be the debt crisis in the euro zone, which the U.K. isn’t a member of. Another danger often driven from abroad is inflation, which typically increases with quantitative-easing programs. The bank’s announcement is a bet that the major threat to the U.K. is renewed recession, not rising prices. The bank has forecast that inflation will peak at 5% next month before falling rapidly.

Others aren’t so sure. U.K. factory-gate prices rose in September at the strongest annual rate in almost three years, data released Friday showed, while the average monthly increase in consumer prices in Britain is 0.23%””an annualized rate of nearly 3%””according to AXA IM.

I was particularly amused by the Ed Balls quotation. Balls seems to think it’s the fiscal authority’s job to control NGDP growth, and the BOE is having to step in because the Conservatives aren’t doing their job. Of course it’s the fiscal authority’s duty to focus on the optimal levels of spending and taxes, and the monetary authority’s job to make sure they can do in in an environment of stable NGDP growth. Since when is the term “bailing out” applied to a central bank trying hard to do its job?

The BOE hasn’t been doing a great job of maintaining NGDP growth, although they are not doing as poorly as some other central banks. But Britain also has structural problems, which show up in a rather unpleasant RGDP/price level split. Meanwhile roughly 100% of Keynesians point to low British RGDP growth as evidence that monetary policy can’t offset fiscal austerity, even though the relevant variable is NGDP, not RGDP. The low RGDP growth actually supports the structural problem hypothesis. If I was as sarcastic as Paul Krugman, I might say:

The fact that these guys don’t even get the implications of their own models right tells us that the problem runs deeper than believing too much in abstract math.

But I’m not that sarcastic.

The conservative Fed

Most people agree that the Fed is a conservative institution. But conservative in what sense? Temperamentally, or ideologically? A temperamentally conservative Fed is reluctant to go out on a limb and try new techniques. An ideologically conservative Fed abhors greater than 2% inflation in much the same way that a vampire abhors sunlight. It turns out that it matters a lot whether the Fed is temperamentally conservative, ideologically conservative, or both.

In recent posts, Ryan Avent and Matt Yglesias have criticized the widespread view among Keynesians that the Fed is out of ammunition. People like Larry Summers are skeptical about whether the Fed could stimulate the economy, because doing so would require them to boost inflation. These Keynesians have tended to recommend fiscal stimulus as the only way to boost aggregate demand.

In my view there are two flaws with this argument. First, some Keynesians seem to believe that fiscal stimulus can work without raising inflation expectations, whereas monetary stimulus is only effective at the zero bound if the Fed succeeds in convincing the public that higher inflation is on the way.  But both fiscal and monetary policy work through higher AD.  And unless the SRAS curve is completely flat, higher AD means higher inflation. The markets know this; hence fiscal stimulus will be expected to work if and only if it boosts inflation expectations.  Yes, the early Keynesians believed the SRAS was flat when the economy had lots of slack, but after watching how sensitive oil prices are to growth expectations, I can’t imagine that anyone still believes in a flat SRAS curve.

So if fiscal stimulus is to work, it must boost inflation expectations. This is why we need to know the Fed’s motives. Will the Fed attempt to squash the higher inflation resulting from fiscal stimulus, or will they allow inflation expectations to rise?  Most Keynesians seem to have assumed the Fed was temperamentally conservative. That they were reluctant to make the sort of bold moves required to boost AD at the zero bound, but wouldn’t stand in the way of fiscal stimulus. And in fairness, there are statements by Bernanke that seems to support that assumption. But the actions of the Fed strongly suggest otherwise. Consider Fed policy since 2008:

1. The Fed started paying IOR for the first time in its history.

2. The Fed got involved in bailing out the banking system to an unprecedented extent.

3. The Fed got heavily involved in buying MBSs (QE1)

4. The Fed did QE2, with longer term bonds

5. The Fed did Operation Twist

That doesn’t seem like a timid or cautious Fed to me, that seems quite aggressive. Not at all temperamentally conservative. Now let’s consider evidence for ideological conservatism. Here’s Ryan Avent:

According to the Cleveland Fed’s estimates, 10-year inflation expectations haven’t risen above 2.1% since the end of 2008. At least three times during that span, the Fed has halted or reversed its easing, first by ending its initial asset purchases, then by allowing its balance sheet to contract naturally as securities matured, and then by ending the asset purchases known as QE2. Expectations have remained in check because the Fed has opted not to continue policies that would raise them. The myth of Fed helplessness is just that.

I think that’s exactly right. Ryan is describing a temperamentally ambitious Fed willing to try all sorts of unconventional policies, but which pulls back whenever inflation threatens to exceed 2%. My question to the Keynesians is:

How does fiscal stimulus overcome an ideologically conservative Fed?

I think they have in mind a scenario where the Fed won’t take affirmative moves to kill a recovery, such as raising interest rates. And that may be right. (We’ll see when we actually get a recovery—the FDR-era Fed, the BOJ, and the ECB all raised rates prematurely.) But that’s not the right question. The problem is that the Fed needs to do extraordinary things just to keep inflation from falling well below 2%. And it seems like when inflation rises to 2%, they stop doing those things. That’s ideological conservatism. It may be unintentional on the Fed’s part (I believe it is unintentional on Bernanke’s part) but it means the Fed is not just failing to do its part, it’s actually sabotaging fiscal stimulus.

PS. I’d also note that with an ideologically conservative Fed the most effective fiscal policies (for reducing unemployment) are not at all what progressives would like.  You’d need to lower employer-side payroll taxes, lower minimum wages, cut back on the maximum duration of UI benefits, in order to shift aggregate supply to the right. It’s interesting that a Fed dominated by Republicans does policies that make conservative fiscal policy the only effective option. Morgan Warstler’s fantasy.

Statsguy on the environmental impact of Fed/ECB policy

Here’s Statsguy from the comment section of an earlier post:

I would add only this: The Fed (and ECB) are doing tremendous STRUCTURAL damage by over-targeting (rear-looking) headline inflation. That doesn’t mean I don’t think headline inflation is important (it’s quite real, particularly if you’re in the lower income strata), but it’s counterproductive.

Why? Essentially, we’re knee-capping the economy to drop AD to bring down the price of oil (in dollars), which in a sense is SUSTAINING THE OIL INTENSITY OF THE ECONOMY to a great[er] degree than is optimal. What do I mean by that? Simply this: if the price of oil went up (relative to labor and debt), then economic actors would accelerate substitution away from oil – that is, they would substitute more people and more technology for expensive oil. INSTEAD, we’re dropping oil use not by encouraging substitution to alternatives (including increasing labor intensity, which would help with unemployment) but by preserving the current oil intensity and reducing overall consumption (including reduction of consumption of non-oil-intense products, like digital “goods”). It’s dumb.

In a sense, that Fed policy is also encouraging developing economies to move toward a more oil-intense infrastructure than would otherwise exist if oil were priced higher. It is encouraging LESS drilling, LESS technological innovation in the drilling sector, LESS demand for fuel efficient vehicles, LESS investment in alternative transportation, and WORSE city planning.

I don’t have strong views on this issue, but it’s an interesting perspective.

2.  Off topic, but I was originally planning on doing a post criticizing Felix Salmon.  Fortunately, David Beckworth saved me the trouble.  I highly recommend the post.

3.  I get frustrated with a developing argument that it’s tough to address this AD problem because inflation is unpopular.  There are all sorts of flaws with this, which I have discussed elsewhere.  (Opinion polls on inflation are meaningless, and in the past the public has seemed far more satisfied with a bit higher inflation and a lot more jobs.)  But here’s what really frustrates me.  We are letting the Fed off the hook.  The Fed used the biggest debt crisis in world history as an opportunity to drive inflation (and inflation expectations) to the lowest levels in 50 years, to levels lower than their mandate, to 1% over the past three years.  And all along the way Bernanke kept insisting that they had more ammo, but just didn’t think more stimulus would be appropriate.  None of the recent posts claiming the Fed has a political problem because the public hates inflation have addressed this issue.  I guarantee that if interest rates were 8.5%, many unions, Congressmen and business people would be demanding rate cuts right now, inflation or no inflation.  The Fed is EXTREMELY lucky that 99.999% of people don’t have a clue as to how monetary policy works (beyond interest rates.)

4.  Totally off topic, but Matt Yglesias’s predictions are quite similar to my own.  I’m agnostic on his health cost argument, and would clarify his point that although China can grow fast for many years, the actual growth rate will likely slow somewhat.  But those are my forecasts.  However if they are wrong I’ll blame Yglesias, as he’s much smarter than me and should have known better.

PS.  Yesterday I finally answered lots of old comments from a week back.  The backlog was overwhelming.  I do eventually read all the comments, and answer most.  But after three years I am reaching the end of the road for these two:

A.  Liberals asking how monetary policy can work when rates are zero.

B.  Conservatives conceding QE2 raised inflation, but asking how more inflation can boost output.

I think I’ll just start directing people to FAQs.  The blog isn’t really set up for people who don’t understand the AS/AD model.  If they disagree with it fine, tell me why.  But faking ignorance by claiming not to understand how nominal shocks can have real effects is very annoying.

Happy now?

During the last 4 months of 2010 and early 2011 I got a lot of grief from the inflation hawks.  Yes, QE2 seems to have lowered unemployment from 9.8% to 8.8% in 4 months, but they were having to pay more at the pump (I assume these commenters had jobs.)  They warned that it was devaluing the dollar, leading to high inflation.

Unfortunately, in today’s world oil market with Chinese demand pushing production to near capacity, any recovery in the US (even an expected recovery) will push oil prices significantly higher.  And of course Libya was an additional bit of bad luck.  Payback for the good karma of the 1990s.

But this isn’t “inflation” in the 1970s sense.  Back then wages rose rapidly and every time you went out to buy a new car it cost almost twice the previous one.  This is an increase in the relative price of an important commodity, which strongly affects the headline CPI for a few months.  Even worse, our insane ethanol policies cause it to bleed over a bit into food prices.

Well now the inflation hawks have gotten their way.   Oil fell into the high 70s today.  The Fed did something completely trivial on Wednesday, and basically washed its hands of the responsibility to keep NGDP at an adequate level.  Both inflation and employment are now forecast to be far below the Fed’s implicit target over the next 5 years, and they don’t seem willing to do anything about it.  BTW, according to the Cleveland Fed the TIPS spreads I often point to actually slightly overstate expected inflation; they have a more complicated formula that I don’t understand very well.  It shows 10 year inflation expectations below 1.4%.  Five year expectations are even lower.

So that’s our choice.  Do we want to keep gas nice and cheap for those who have jobs, or do we want an economic recovery for the millions whose lives are being ruined by this recession.

And I’m not sure that even those with jobs benefit from these policies.  Every time I save a few pennies at the gas pump I lose many thousands of dollars off my retirement fund.  Economics is not a zero sum game.  When millions are producing no output, almost everyone will suffer.

HT:  Thanks to Lars Christensen for the Cleveland Fed data.