Friday, January 9, 2015

Don't Worry, Be Happy: Falling Treasury Yields Edition

Long-term treasury interest rates are falling again with the 10-year treasury briefly dipping below 2% this week. Some observers see this decline in yields as an omen for the U.S. economy:
The United States economy is accelerating... Yet a huge bond market with a strong track record for predicting economic problems is flashing a warning sign right now.The prices of Treasury bonds are rallying fiercely. The slide in oil prices has elevated concerns about growth in the global economy, and investors, as they do in times of stress and uncertainty, are seeking out the safety of government bonds. 
The rally in global government debt is pushing their yields, which move in the opposite direction from their price, to astonishing lows... “Make no mistake, these low levels of rates are challenging the notion that we are going to see robust and constant growth,” said George Goncalves, a bond market analyst with Nomura. In other words, the bond market is raising the specter that a period of economic growth that may have already felt lackluster to many Americans could be on the verge of losing steam. 
So is this dire view of the falling interest warranted? I am not convinced that it is, but before I explain why it is worth noting that even monetary authorities are bewildered by it. According to the Wall Street Journal's Jon Hilsenrath (AKA the "Fed Wire"), Fed officials are not sure how to interpret what is going on with yields: 
Falling long-term interest rates pose a quandary for Federal Reserve officials... If falling yields are a reflection of diminishing inflation prospects, as is typically the case, it ought to prompt the Fed to hold off on raising short-term interest rates in the months ahead. If, on the other hand, lower long-term rates are a reflection of investors pouring money into U.S. dollar assets, flows that could spark a U.S. asset price boom, it might prompt the Fed to push rates higher sooner or more aggressively than planned. 
[...] 
The Fed’s next policy meeting is three weeks away. It is clear officials will spend a considerable time debating the correct response to a perplexing lurch down in long-term rates.
The worried market observers and the perplexed Fed officials should take a deep breath. The Adrian, Crump, and Moench (2013) method of decomposing treasury yields paints a far more benign story, one that signals the U.S. recovery is on a solid footing.

To see why, we first need to recall that long-term interest rates can be broken down as follows:
(1) long-term interest rate = average short-term interest rate expected over same horizon + term premium
The term premium is the added compensation investors require for the risk of holding long-term treasuries over short-term ones. For example, if investors are worried that the Eurozone crisis is about to flare up again and desire to hold more U.S. treasuries, they will demand less compensation to hold the long-term securities. This will drive down the term premium. The term premium is also the component of the long-term interest rate the Fed was trying to manipulate with its large-scale asset purchases. 

The other component, the average short-term interest rate, is a nominal interest rate and via the Fisher relationship can be further decomposed into a real interest rate and an expected inflation:
(2) long-term interest rate = (average expected real short-term interest rate over same horizon + average expected inflation over same horizon) +  term premium
This average expected real short-term interest rate is often called the real risk-free interest rate since it is free of investor's risk considerations, the Fed's tinkering with risk premiums, and the expected path of inflation. This interest rate measure, consequently, tracks the fundamentals of the economy and is equivalent to the average expected path of the 'natural interest rate'. 

By looking at these components we can make sense of what is driving the fall in yields. We can also look to the real risk-free interest to see what it implies about the health of the U.S. economy. The Adrian, Crump, and Moench (2013) decomposition of the 10-year treasury yield into these components is below:




What we see is that changes in inflation expectations and the term premium are both behind the decline in the 10-year treasury interest rate. This suggest that there may be concerns about future inflation--though this might also be reflect the temporary drop in inflation from declining oil prices--and that there has been a rush into treasuries because of the worries about the Eurozone and China.

But there is more. After being negative for several years, the real risk-free interest rate has been steadily climbing and is now positive. This only happens when the economic outlook improves as seen in the figure below. It shows a close relationship between the real risk-free interest rate and the business cycle:




So the upward trend of the real risk-free rate implies we are in the midst of a solid recovery in the United States. This interpretation is supported by the spate of positive economic news shows. Yes, the economic problems in Europe and China could eventually harm the U. S. economy.  But for now the U.S. economy seems to be in the clear. 

So be careful when interpreting long-term treasury yields. They might be signalling a robust recovery even if they are falling.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Solving the ZLB Problem without Eliminating Cash

Should the Federal Reserve should eliminate cash as a way to avoid the zero lower bound (ZLB) problem? Ken Rogoff says yes in a recent paper. John Cochrane, on the other hand, is not ready to give up cash and is convinced that even if we did it would not solve the ZLB problem. Who is right?

Before answering these questions, let us recall the nature of the ZLB problem. It occurs when the market-clearing level of nominal short-term interest rates turn negative while actual short-term interest rates get stuck at 0%. This happens because individuals would rather hold paper currency at 0% than invest their money at a negative interest rate. The ZLB, in short, is a price floor that prevents interest rates from clearing the output market. And like any price floor, the ZLB creates a glut. In this case, it is an economy wide-glut better known as a recession.

So why not get rid of cash, as suggested by Ken Rogoff? John Cochrane gives several reasons why getting rid of cash may not be such a good idea. First, doing so would hurt the people who depend the most on cash: the poor who do not have access to or do not trust the formal banking system, the foreigners who need hard currency (e.g. Zimbabwe), and those wanting anonymity in their transactions. I share these concerns. Are harming these groups really worth beating the infrequent ZLB?

You might take an utilitarian approach and say yes, but even then it would be wrong. For one does not need to eliminate cash to solve the ZLB problem. As Miles Kimball has argued for the past few years, all that is needed is to make electronic (deposit) money the sole unit of account and turn the current fixed exchange rate between cash and deposits into a crawling peg based on the state of the economy. When the economy falls into a slump and the central bank needs to set a negative interest rate target to restore full employment, the peg would adjust so that paper currency would lose value relative to electronic money such that folks would not rush to it as interest rates go negative. This would effectively impose the same penalty on cash and deposits and kick start the monetary hot potato. Once the economy started improving, the crawling peg would start adjusting toward parity.

Now this is where John Cochrane's second objection comes into play. He worries that even if the Federal Reserve did lower short-term interest rates to a significantly negative value (say -5%) it still would probably not work because individuals would cleverly find other assets that would earn a 0% nominal return. Here is Cochrane:
[Q]uiz question for your economic classes: Suppose we have substantially negative interest rates -- -5% or -10%, say, and lasting a while. But there is no currency. How else can you ensure yourself a zero riskless nominal return?    
Here are the ones I can think of:    
(1) Prepay taxes. The IRS allows you to pay as much as you want now, against future taxes.  
(2) Gift cards. At a negative 10% rate, I can invest in about $10,000 of Peets' coffee cards alone. There is now apparently a hot secondary market in gift cards, so large values and resale could take off.  
(3) Likewise, stored value cards, subway cards, stamps. Subway cards are anonymous so you could resell them.  
(4) Prepay bills. Send $10,000 to the gas company, electric company, phone company.  
(5) Prepay rent or mortgage payments.  
(6) Businesses: prepay suppliers and leases. Prepay wages, or at least pre-fund benefits that workers must stay employed to earn.  
Cochrane should be more optimistic here. For all of these options only move the negative interest rate problem from one party to another. Here, the issuers of the 0% yielding assets have inherited the negative interest rate problem. They have effectively borrowed money at 0% and must decide if they want to deposit the funds at -5% in their banks or invest in something with a higher yield like riskier financial assets or capital expenditures. Obviously, the former option is not sustainable so they will opt for the latter one. But the latter option implies more risk taking and spending--the old monetary "hot potato" at work! So even in these cases the negative interest rate is still doing its intended job. Bill Woolsey makes this point in his response to Cochrane:
I am going to start with Cochrane's second example.  People could supposedly get a riskless zero nominal rate of return by purchasing gift cards... Under usual circumstances, when a retailer sells a card it is getting a loan... a zero interest loan. And so, now the retailer has the money. What do they do with it? If the interest rate on money is sufficiently negative, then the retailer will find borrowing money at a zero interest rate and then paying to hold it  unattractive. Of course, perhaps the retailer can invest by purchasing assets that have a positive yield. Or maybe they will accumulate inventory to be prepared for the greater sales when the cards are spent. It doesn't matter. As long as the retailer doesn't hold the money, the lower (below zero) nominal interest rate has done its job. 
[...] 
And what does Walmart do with the money it receives?  If it holds it, that is a problem. But that is what the below zero interest rate on money aims to deter. If Walmart purchases other assets or purchases inventories of goods, constructs new buildings, or whatever, the problem is solved. 
Consider Cochrane's fourth example--pre-paying utilities... [I]f the utility companies allowed people to [prepay and] have credit balances on their accounts and didn't charge any fee, the question remains, what does the utility do with the money? All the negative yield on money is supposed to do is reduce the amount people want to hold. If the utility spends the money on other financial assets or spends it to construct a new plant, the negative yield on money has done its job. 
Cochrane also says that people could prepay their mortgages or their rent... what are the monetary consequences?   Paying down bank mortgages tends to contract the quantity of money.  However, any single bank receiving such repayments will accumulate reserves.   And the interest rate on that form of money is negative as well... Banks are motivated to purchase other assets due to these negative yields on reserves.
Scott Sumner and JP  Koning make similar arguments. The good news here is the John Cochrane can take solace in knowing the ZLB can be tackled without eliminating cash via Miles Kimball's approach and it can be effective in restoring full employment. Negative nominal interest rates will still get the monetary hot potato going.   

Along these lines, it is worth noting that another way of looking at the ZLB problem is that it creates excess money demand. That is, the ZLB prevents the desired money holdings of individuals from lining up with the supply of money. This is a big deal because, as Nick Rowe likes to reminds us, money is the only asset on every market. Disrupt the supply of or demand for this one asset and you will disrupt every market. In the case of excess money demand you get a recession. This 'monetary disequilibrium' view of the ZLB implies, therefore, that the real reason we may sometimes need negative nominal interest rates is to restore monetary equilibrium.

Related:
Miles and Scott's Excellent Adventure

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Farewell Secular Stagnation

Marc Andreessen recently looked at the arguments for and against secular stagnation. He cited my Washington Post article when examining the case against secular stagnation. One of the points I make in it is that the proponents of secular stagnation incorrectly invoke the long decline of real interest rates as prima facie evidence for their view. Where they go wrong is that they look at real interest rates without accounting for the long decline in the risk premium. Once the risk premium is stripped out of their real interest measure there is no downward trend in real interest rates. Rather, you get a stationary risk-neutral real interest rate measure that averages close to 2%. This can be seen in the figures below, drawn from my follow-up article with Ramesh Ponnuru:



Interestingly, this risk-neutral measure closely tracks the business cycle and suggests it was the severity of the Great Recession and not secular stagnation that explains the low interest rates over the past six years:


Given this business cycle-driven relationship, the recent spate of good economic news points to rising interest rates in 2015. In fact, the daily measure of the risk-neutral nominal 1-year and 10-year interest rates from Adrian, Crump, and Moench (2013) show just that. See the figure below and note that 2014 has seen a trend change in the path of neutral interest rates. If this continues--and the improved economic news suggests it will--then the Fed will have to raising its interest rate in 2015.



I bring all of this up as a way to motivate a prediction for 2015: secular stagnation will fade from the national conversation for the U.S. economy. Instead, the conversation will focus even more on how to handle the advent of an increasingly digitized, automated economy where productivity growth is rapid and neutral interest rates are rising. Secular stagnation, in other words, is about to experience the same fate it had when it was first pushed in the 1930s. Here is what Ramesh Ponnuru and I wrote about that experience:
"The business cycle was par excellence the problem of the nineteenth century. But the main problem of our times, and particularly in the United States, is the problem of full employment. . . . Not until the problem of the full employment of our productive resources from the long-run, secular standpoint was upon us, were we compelled to give serious consideration to those factors and forces in our economy which tend to make business recoveries weak and anaemic and which tend to prolong and deepen the course of depressions. This is the essence of secular stagnation— sick recoveries which die in their infancy and depressions which feed on themselves and leave a hard and seemingly immovable core of unemployment.” 
Thus wrote Alvin Hansen, a professor of economics at Harvard, in 1938. Slow population growth and the deceleration of technological progress, he argued, was leading to slow capital formation and weak economic growth. A program of public expenditures, though it had its dangers, was probably required to avoid this fate. 
Hansen’s article was of course spectacularly wrong as a guide to the next few decades. Instead of suffering through stagnation we entered an extended, broad-based, and massive economic boom. In hindsight we can see that his analysis, while thoughtful and intelligent, was unduly influenced by the depression he was living through, and can see as well that the depression was the result of specific policy mistakes rather than inexorable trends. Recent research by Alexander J. Field shows that the 1930s were actually a time of exceptionally high productivity growth. 
Hansen’s worry, some of his specific arguments, and his phrase “secular stagnation” are all making a comeback in our own day. Lawrence Summers, like Hansen an economics professor at Harvard, has sounded an alarm about the ability of industrial countries to achieve adequate economic growth. A new e-book, Secular Stagnation, includes chapters by Summers and other leading economists discussing the question. 
The fact that Hansen was wrong does not prove that contemporary stagnationists are. In this case, though, history is repeating itself rather exactly. We do not pretend to know what the future path of economic growth in the United States will be. But the case for stagnation is weak—and, as in the 1930s, it is getting undue credence because of a long slump caused by policy mistakes.
Farewell secular stagnation. Hello the second machine age.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Tinkering On the Margins

Paul Krugman disagrees with a point I made in my last post. Specifically, he takes issue with my claim that a monetary regime change is needed for both monetary policy and fiscal policy to effective at the zero lower bound (ZLB). To make my case, I gave as an illustration a scenario where the U.S. Treasury Department does a helicopter drop that is offset by the Fed tightening once the helicopter drop starts to raise inflation. I also said a helicopter drop in the Eurozone would face a similar fate from the ECB. Krugman thinks this is wrong: 
What Beckworth seems to be saying is that the Fed and the ECB are at their inflation target, and would therefore tighten policy if the economy were to expand and inflation to rise. But they aren’t at their inflation targets! The Fed has been below target for a number of quarters; the ECB is way below target. 
Krguman's argument, then, is that fiscal policy could raise aggregate demand up to the point where it raises inflation to its target. So why not have a helicopter drop? Surely it would do some good, says Krugman.

Okay, let say for the sake of argument Krugman is correct about the Fed not being able to hit its inflation target. If so, this still only amounts to fiscal policy tinkering on the margins. The Fed's preferred inflation measures, the PCE deflator and core PCE deflator, have both averaged about 1.4% since 2009. So we are talking about 60 basis points of wiggle room for fiscal policy to work. Do we really think that within this narrow window fiscal policy could have generated enough aggregate demand growth to close the output gap? 

To help us see that this is just tinkering on the margins, let us revisit the point Krugman and I agreed on in our previous posts: a monetary regime change is needed to make monetary policy effective at the ZLB. One example of such a monetary regime change would be a price level target that returns the PCE to its pre-crisis trend path. To return the PCE to its targeted path would require a temporary burst of higher-than-normal inflation. The expectation of and realization of this inflation burst would be the catalyst that spurred robust aggregate demand growth. 

Now let us pretend the Fed actually implemented a price level target back in 2010 when it began QE2. Specifically, imagine the Fed had made QE2 conditional on the PCE returning to its 2002-2008 trend path. The figure below shows this scenario with three different paths back to the price level target. Note that each path represents differing rates--5%, 4%, and 3%--of 'catch-up' inflation and for each path there is a significant amount of time--16 months, 26 months, and 49 plus months--involved to catch up to trend.


What this illustrates is that to get the kind of robust aggregate demand growth needed to close the output gap back in 2010, there needed to be a sustained (but ultimately temporary) period of higher-than-normal inflation. Doing more fiscal policy to squeeze out the last 60 basis points of the Fed's 2% inflation target would not cut it. Again, it would be tinkering on the margins. If fiscal policy really wanted to close a large output gap at the ZLB it too needs the support of monetary regime change.

Now in the Eurozone it is true that the ECB is further from its inflation target so that would give fiscal policy more wiggle room. But there is also a larger output gap in the Eurozone. So I think the tinkering on the margins critique applies there too. The Eurozone also need a monetary regime change to make fiscal policy really pack a punch.

But there is more. I think a reasonable case can be made that inflation is actually in the range where the Fed wants it to be. If so, then even the wiggle room is gone. Krugman anticipated this response from me:
The Fed has been below target for a number of quarters; the ECB is way below target. And don’t say that the failure to raise inflation rates shows that they must be happy with where they are. The whole point of our previous discussion has been that monetary policy is ineffective under zero-interest conditions unless you are willing to change regimes! 
Yes, in general, we need a monetary regime for monetary policy to be effective at the ZLB. However, there is compelling evidence the Fed has been doing QE to keep inflation in a range where it is comfortable. In fact, a number of observers have come to the conclusion that the Fed does not have a 2% inflation target but a 2% inflation ceiling. They note that a 2% target would be an average, and the Fed should be willing to allow inflation go above 2% as often as it is below. But that is not the case as noted below: 
[I]t turns out that the Fed’s 2 percent target for core inflation is not a target, it’s an upper bound. 
That’s not supposed to be how it works. If you really think that around 2 percent inflation is right... you’re supposed to view 1 percent inflation as being just as bad as 3 percent; in a situation in which inflation is below the target rate, you’re supposed to see a rise in that rate as a good thing. And correspondingly, if you’re where we are now, with below target core inflation and high unemployment, all lights should be flashing green for expansion. 
Instead, however, it’s clear that below-target inflation is considered no big deal, but that the Fed is extremely averse to seeing inflation rise above target, even temporarily.
That comes from none other than Paul Krugman. If this understanding is correct, then the Fed actually is targeting a range of inflation and is not undershooting its target. I previously presented evidence that this range falls between 1% and 2%. Let me briefly review it.

First, the timing of the Fed's QE programs suggests that the FOMC initiates them when core inflation is under 2% and has been falling for at least six months. It also indicates the FOMC tends to end QE programs when core inflation is above 1% and has been rising for at least six months. This can be seen in the figure below:


Second, the central tendency ranges of inflation forecasts provided by members of the FOMC consistently show 2% as an upper bound. Below are projections for 1-year and 2-years out:



It is remarkable that FOMC members are predicting inflation no higher than 2% two years out. Since the FOMC has meaningful influence on inflation this far out, this forecast reflects FOMC members' beliefs about current and expected Fed policy. They see the Fed doing just enough to keep core PCE inflation under 2%.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen admitted as much in her last post-FOMC press conference:
But it’s important to point out that the Committee is not anticipating an overshoot of its 2 percent inflation objective (p.13)
In short, inflation is below 2% in the United States because the Fed is happy with it being there. Fiscal policy is not going to change that and even if it could it would amount to tinkering on the margin.

A stronger case can be made that inflation is below the ECB's target. However, it is not clear how much it is below target since the ECB's definition of price stability is inflation under 2%. So maybe there is some wiggle room for fiscal policy, but nothing close to what is needed to close the output gap. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Follow-Up to the Fed's Dirty Little Secret

My last post made the argument that monetary base injections at the zero lower bound (ZLB) can be effective if they are permanent. I also noted that this understanding is a standard view in macroeconomics and that it implies the Fed's QE programs were muted from the beginning given their temporary nature. The post generated further discussion from Paul Krugman, David Glasner, Scott Sumner, and Bill Woolsey. In addition, others responded in the comments sections of their blogs as well in twitter. I want to respond several of the issues raised in these discussions.

First, some commentators were confused by the notion of a permanent monetary base injection. What is important is the commitment to permanently expand the monetary base. The actual expansion may not be needed or be very small if this commitment is credible. To see this, imagine the Fed targets the growth path of nominal GDP (i.e. a NGDP level target). If the public believes the Fed will permanently expand the monetary base if NGDP is below its targeted growth path, then the public would have little reason to increase their holdings of liquid assets when shocks hit the economy. That is, if the public believes the Fed will prevent the shock from derailing total dollar spending they would not feel the need to rebalance their portfolios toward safe, liquid assets. This, in turn, would keep velocity from dropping and therefore require minimal permanent monetary injections by the Fed to hit its NGDP level target. Michael Woodford made this point in his famous 2012 Jackson Hole speech:
A commitment not to let the target path shift down means that, to the extent that the target path is undershot during the period of a binding lower bound for the policy rate, this automatically justifies anticipation of a (temporarily) more expansionary policy later, which anticipation should reduce the incentives for price cuts and spending cutbacks earlier, and so should tend to limit the degree of the undershooting
Based on this understanding, the Fed has taken the wrong approach. It could have had a much smaller balance sheet expansion with far more effect on the economy than what actually took place over the past six years. Instead, the Fed failed to take advantage of it and instead relied upon the segmented markets-portfolio channel to work its magic. 

This leads me to my second comment. My critique of the QE programs should not be construed to mean these large scale asset programs did nothing. There is plenty of empirical evidence they had positive but modest effects on the economy. My view is that they they put a floor under the economy and prevented it from getting worse. A casual reading of the evidence suggests the QE programs were turned on when core inflation started to drift toward 1% and turned off as it drifted toward 2%. So while they provided a floor on the economy, they were never allowed to reach their full potential as argued in my previous post. 

A third comment is that I do not think Paul Krugman, Simon Wren-Lewis, and other fiscal policy fans appreciate the implications of this critique for fiscal policy. We agree that monetary policy can only work at the ZLB with a commitment to a permanent monetary base injection. We also agree that it would require monetary policy to adopt something like a price level target--a monetary regime that would allow reflation of a depressed economy. But this is also true for fiscal policy to work, yet they push for more of it without calling for the needed regime change to make it work. Paul Krugman, for example, in his response to my post said this:
[E]ffective monetary policy in a liquidity trap requires both an actual and a perceived regime change, and that’s very hard to engineer. Japan may be pulling it off now, but only after 15 years of deflation — and even so the achievement is very fragile, vulnerable to fiscal tightening. Was there ever a realistic possibility of getting that in America, this time around? I wrote about this back in 2011, explaining why I devoted my efforts in 2009 to pushing for fiscal stimulus.
Okay, monetary regime change is hard. But why do we think that fiscal policy would work any better given the Fed's dedication to its low inflation target? For example, if the U.S. Treasury Department sent $5000 checks to every household and if they began to spend it as many helicopter drop advocates claim they would, then we would begin to see inflation go up. And at that point the Fed would tighten policy and snuff out the recovery. The response from the ECB to a similar helicopter drop in the Eurozone would be even more forceful. 

In other words, for the same reason QE was limited from the beginning it also true that fiscal policy was limited from the beginning. With highly-credible inflation targeting central banks, both monetary and fiscal policy require monetary regime change to work at the ZLB. So I am puzzled as to why Krugman put his energy into drumming up support for more fiscal policy rather than drumming up support for a change in monetary regimes.

My final comment is to respond to this from Paul Krugman:
David Beckworth has a good post pointing out that the Fed has been signaling all along that the big expansion in the monetary base is a temporary measure, to be withdrawn when the economy improves. And he argues that this vitiates the effectiveness of quantitative easing, citing many others with the same view. My only small peeve is that you might not realize from his list that I made this point sixteen years ago, which I think lets me claim dibs. Yes, I’m turning into one of those crotchety old economists who says in response to anything, “It’s trivial, it’s wrong, and I said it decades ago.”
Okay, I could have done a better job organizing that table in way to reflect his seminal contribution. I did, however, sort of acknowledge it in the cartoon at the bottom of the post. Look carefully at the message on his t-shirt.

Update: Paul Krugman responds to this post and I respond to him here.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Federal Reserve's Dirty Little Secret

The Fed has a dirty little secret, one it has closely guarded over the past six years of unconventional monetary policy. This secret has eluded many journalists, commentators, and economists and led to much confusion over monetary policy. If it were widely known it would create far more criticism of Fed policy. For Fed officials, then, it is a secret better left unsaid. So what is this dirty little secret? To answer this question, we need to review two underappreciated facts about the Fed's quantitative easing (QE) programs.  

The first underappreciated fact is that the large expansion of the monetary base under QE is temporary. The Fed has always planned to eventually return its balance sheet and, by implication, the monetary base back to the trend path it was on prior to the QE programs. This point has been communicated in several ways. First, the Fed issued exit strategy plans in its June, 2011 and September, 2014 FOMC meetings that point to a reduction in the monetary base. Here is an excerpt from the latter meeting:
The Committee intends to reduce the Federal Reserve’s securities holdings in a gradual and predictable manner...The Committee intends that the Federal Reserve will, in the longer run, hold no more securities than necessary to implement monetary policy efficiently and effectively. 
Second, Fed officials, including Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen, have reiterated these plans in speeches, talks, and Op-Eds. In short, the Fed's exit strategy was widely publicized.

Third, several official Fed studies have examined what these exit strategies mean for the Fed's balance sheet and find that it puts the future path of the monetary base close to its pre-crisis trend. This 2013 Board of Governors study, for example, shows this projected path:


Similarly, a 2014 New York Fed study comes up with this future path for the Fed's balance sheet: 


Fourth, the Fed signaled its intention to normalize the size of the monetary base by refusing to raise its inflation target even though some Fed officials believed it could have helped the economy. (See the last question in this exchange between former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Senator David Vitter where Bernanke acknowledges potential benefit of higher inflation). By explicitly committing to not raise the inflation target, the Fed was implicitly committing to only a temporary expansion of the monetary base.

Finally, and most importantly, bond markets have signaled they take seriously the Fed's commitment to normalizing the size of its balance sheet. This is evidenced by the relatively stable expected inflation implied by asset prices in the treasury market. If this group--the one that has the most skin in the game--believes the Fed's expansion of the monetary base expansion is temporary it should be a signal to the rest of us that the Fed is truly committed to doing so.

The second underappreciated fact is that in order for QE to have made a meaningful difference in aggregate demand growth at the zero lower bound (ZLB) the associated monetary base growth needed to be permanent. This understanding is the standard view in modern macroeconomics. The reasoning behind it is that a permanent expansion of the monetary base implies in the long-run a permanent rise in the price level (even with with interest on reserves as shown by Peter Ireland). In turn, a permanently higher price level in the future creates the incentive to start spending more in the present when goods are cheaper. Or, from a Wicksellian perspective, it would imply a temporary surge in expected inflation that would lower real interest rates to their market clearing level.

Below is a table that highlights a few prominent economists who speak to the importance of permanent monetary base injections at the ZLB. Given this understanding, many of them advocate some form of level targeting (either a price level or NGDP level target) as way to credibly commit the central bank to permanently expanding the monetary base in a depressed economy.

Economist(s)
Permanent Monetary Base Injection Quote
Source
Michael Woodford
The economic theory behind QE has always been flimsy...The problem is that, for this theory to apply, there must be a permanent increase in the monetary base… The Fed has given no indication that the current huge increases in US bank reserves will be permanent. It has also promised not to allow inflation to rise above its normal target level. So for QE to be effective the Fed would have to promise both to make these reserves permanent and also to allow the temporary increase in inflation that would be required to permanently raise the price level in that proportion.
Source: Financial Times. See also his comments at this Vox article or the bottom of page 237 through 239 of his famous Jackson Hole article.
Lars Svensson
[I]n a liquidity trap… an expansion of the monetary base would increase inflation expectations and reduce the real interest rate only if it is seen as a permanent expansion.
Alan Auerback and Maurice Obstfeldt
[O]ur analysis shows... that credibly permanent open- market operations will be beneficial as a stabilization tool as well, even when the economy is expected to remain mired in a liquidity trap for some time. That is, under the same conditions on interest rates that make open- market operations attractive for fiscal purposes, a monetary expansion that markets perceive to be permanent will affect prices and, in the absence of fully flexible prices, output as well...Our analysis suggests that Japanese policymakers should underscore the permanence of past operations, perhaps through an announced inflation target range including positive rates, and may need to increase the monetary base even more.

Paul Krugman
[W]hen you’re at the zero lower bound, the size of the current money supply does not matter at all…what the models actually say is that doubling the current money supply and all future money supplies will double prices. If the short-term interest rate is currently zero, changing the current money supply without changing future supplies — and hence raising expected inflation — matters not at all… Central banks can change the monetary base now, but can they commit not to undo the expansion in the future, when inflation rises? Not obviously.
Source: The Conscience of a Liberal. See also his post on helicopter drops here.
Willem Buiter
A permanent helicopter drop of irredeemable fiat base money boosts demand both when Ricardian equivalence does not hold and when it holds. It makes the deficient demand version of secular stagnation a policy choice, not something driven by circumstances beyond national policy makers’ control. It boosts demand when nominal risk-free interest rates are positive and when they are zero – and even in a pure liquidity trap when nominal interest rates are zero forever
Scott Sumner
Monetary policy is never very effective if the injections are temporary, and (almost) always very effective if permanent.
Simon Wren-Lewis
Printing base money under quantitative easing does not imply hyperinflation because the expansion in the monetary base will be reversed once the recession is over.
Source: Mainly Macro. Also see his helicopter drop discussion here.

A good example of the importance of a permanent monetary base expansion at the ZLB can be seen in the Great Depression. As seen in the figures below, the monetary base grew rapidly between 1929 and early 1933 compared to previous growth. Yet during this time the money supply and nominal GDP continued to fall. The reason is that the monetary base was still tied to the gold standard and therefore not expected to be permanent. But that changed in 1933. FDR created what Christy Romer calls a "monetary regime shift" both by signalling a desire for a higher price level and by abandoning the gold standard which led to even more rapid monetary base expansion. This shift is apparent in the figures below. FDR's actions caused the public to expect a permanent monetary base expansion that would raise future nominal income. A sharp real recovery followed in 1933. Though this real recovery was later stalled by other New Deal programs, it did permanently raise aggregate demand.



By  now you have probably noticed an inherent tension between these two underappreciated facts. On the one hand, the Fed never intended the expansion of the monetary base under the QE programs to be permanent. On the other hand, the monetary base injections needed to be permanent for the QE programs to really spur aggregate demand growth. And therein lies the Fed's dirty little secret: the Fed's QE programs were muted from the beginning. They never could on their own create the amount of catch-up aggregate demand growth needed to restore full employment. So despite all the Fed has said over the past six years, it made an explicit policy choice to avoid fully restoring aggregate nominal expenditures. 

The Fed, in short, never chose to unload both barrels of its gun. And the QE barrel that it did unload depended on a portfolio channel that could only promise modest benefits at best. Had it committed to a permanent expansion of the monetary base via a level target, the Fed would have unloaded both barrels of its guns and made the QE programs far more effective.  Instead, the Fed opted for bird shot when it could have used a slug. This is the dirty little secret Fed officials would rather leave unsaid.

Update I: Permanent monetary base injections are also important for fiscal policy to generate aggregate demand growth. This point is often overlooked by advocates of helicopter drops. See Paul Krugman, Simon Wren-Lewis, and myself for more on this point. If you are going to do helicopter drops, you need to do it the right way.

Update II: This post should not be construed as me advocating a monetary aggregate or monetary base target for the Fed. I want to see the Fed adopt a NGDP level target which would imply a commitment by the Fed to permanently increase the monetary base if necessary to hit the target. The commitment is what matters, not whether it actually has to do so since a credible belief in it may cause the the public to do the heavy lifting via changes in velocity.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Inflation Targeting's Big Wrinkle

Inflation-targeting central banks are in an awkward position. Their objective is to stabilize the rate of inflation, but they now face a development that could jeopardize it: the surge in oil production that is driving down oil prices. The decline in oil prices is a much-needed boon to the global economy, but it may also mean inflation temporarily drops beneath its targeted value.  What to do? David Wessel calls this development a wrinkle for central bankers:
On balance, falling oil prices are welcomed by the world’s major central banks, but there is a wrinkle. Lower oil prices are good for growth in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. But they’ll also reduce the headline inflation rate at a time when the central banks, particularly the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank, are struggling toraise the underlying inflation rates in their economies and keep public and investor expectations of inflation from falling. That involves a lot of psychology as well as economics. While central bankers often look beyond volatile food and energy prices to gauge the underlying inflation rate, they know that ordinary consumers don’t. “It’s important that [the drop in oil prices] … doesn’t get embedded in inflation expectations,” the ECB’s Mario Draghi said last week.
This wrinkle has generated a lot discussion on how the Fed should respond. As noted by Cardiff Garcia, both Fed officials and commentators are divided over it. This wrinkle, in short, is adding some uncertainty about the future path of monetary policy.

The interesting thing about this wrinkle is that it is not a new problem. It is just the latest supply shock which always have been problematic for inflation-targeting central banks. Supply shocks push output and inflation in opposite directions and force central banks into these awkward positions. 

Supply shocks were an issue in 2002-2004 when the much-ballyhooed productivity boom (a positive supply shock) of that time made Fed officials worry about deflation. They consequently kept interest rates low even though the housing boom was taking off. Supply shocks were also an issue in the fall of 2008 when Fed officials were concerned about rising commodity prices (a negative supply shock) and, as a result, decided to do nothing at their September FOMC meeting despite the collapsing economy. 

Across the Atltantic, the ECB has struggled even more with supply shocks. The ECB raised interest rates multiple times in 2008 and 2011 in response to the commodity price shocks (negative supply shocks). Below is a figure from a Robert Hetzel paper on this crisis that shows how misguided the rate hikes were. They occurred even though spending was already falling. It is no wonder the Eurozone has struggled so much since 2008.


One can trace this wrinkle back further. Ben Bernanke, Mark Gertler, and Mark Watson argue the reason oil supply shocks have historically been tied to subsequent weak growth is not because of the shocks themselves, but because of how monetary policy responded to those shocks. That is, central banks typically responded to the inflation created by the supply shocks in a destabilizing manner. With the advent of inflation targeting in the early 1990s, this wrinkle has become institutionalized across most central banks.

Now in theory modern inflation targeting should be able to handle these shocks. For the modern practice is to do 'flexible inflation targeting' which aims for price stability over the medium term and therefore allows some wiggle room in responding to supply shocks. The problem, as demonstrated above, is that in practice it rarely works. Responding to supply shocks in real time requires exceptional judgement and usually some luck. In fact, as I note in this policy paper, some scholars think that the successes of inflation targeting prior to the crisis were due largely to luck. There were simply fewer supply shocks during the early years of inflation targeting. Going forward, this seems less likely given the rapid productivity changes of an increasingly digitized world. So this problem is not going away and is likely to get bigger.

What is needed, then,  is an approach to monetary policy that does not get hung up on supply shocks. It would fully offsets demand shocks, ignore supply shocks, while still maintaining a long-run nominal anchor...if only  there were such an approach. Oh wait, there is such an approach and it is called nominal GDP targeting.