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Friday, July 21, 2017

Assorted Musings

Some Assorted Musings:

1.  I have a new policy brief at the Mercatus Center that makes the case for a Nominal GDP level target from the knowledge problem perspective. It is a non-technical paper meant to be accessible by policy makers and lay people. It echoes some of the  more technical arguments made in this paper by Josh Hendrickson and myself. 

 2. George Selgin testified this week before the House Financial Services Committee as part of the hearing Monetary Policy v. Fiscal Policy: Risks to Price Stability and the Economy. His testimony is a tour de force through the issue of interest on excess reserves

3.  Scott Sumner pushes back against all the macro moralists waving their finger at Germany for running current account surpluses. He argues it is mistaken to blame Germany's current account surplus for dragging down global demand growth. 

4. Is any part of potential GDP endogenous to the level of aggregate nominal demand? This is a question we have looked at before on this blog. A new paper reexamines this issue and concludes the answer is yes. Below are the key figures from the paper. The first one shows the standard CBO potential GDP estimates over time against a new estimate. Matthew Klein reports on the paper. 



Wednesday, July 5, 2017

An Alternative to Raising the Inflation Target

Ramesh Ponnuru and I have a new article in the National Review where we make the case that a better alternative to a higher inflation target is a NGDP level target:
Does the U.S. economy need more inflation? A group of 22 progressive economists has written a letter to the Federal Reserve urging it to appoint a blue-ribbon commission to study whether the central bank should raise its target for inflation above its current 2 percent. Fed chairman Janet Yellen, in her press conference following the latest interest-rate increase, called it “one of the most important questions” facing the organization. The economists’ advice shouldn’t be rejected out of hand, but it should be rejected. They make some valid points in their diagnosis of the ills of the current monetary regime. But the Fed can and should address these problems without raising inflation...  
These arguments for a higher inflation target are reasonably strong if you accept the premise that keeping inflation stable should be the Fed’s principal task in the first place. There is, however, a superior alternative. That alternative would stabilize the growth of nominal spending: the total amount of dollars spent throughout the economy...  
This policy would capture the benefits of inflation targeting...A key difference between the two policies is that a nominal-spending target would allow inflation to fluctuate over the short term in response to movements in productivity. 
In general, a nominal GDP level target allows for more inflation flexibility than is currently seen in practice while keeping the growth path of nominal demand stable. This rule would also improve over  current approaches by better risk-sharing in the financial system, better aligning of the Fed's interest interest rate with the natural interest rate, and better maintenance of money neutrality. Finally, its an target that invokes the imagery of Chuch Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Monetary Disequilibrium



This week on the podcast I had a great time talking the monetary disequilibrium view of business cycles with Steve Horwitz. This perspective sees the deviation between desired and actual money holdings as the cause of business cycles.  Since money is the one asset on every market, all one needs to do is disrupt monetary equilibrium and you have disrupted every other market. This is not true for any other asset. The monetary disequilibrium view, in short, takes money seriously.

This understanding is different than the dominant view today that sees business cycles being the result of deviations between the expected paths of the natural and actual real interest rate. After the show I asked Steve if there was mapping between these these two views and he said yes. The views should be complementary. Nonetheless, the monetary disequilibrium view rarely get a hearing so I was really glad to do this interview with Steve. 

I have also posted below a presentation I used to give my undergraduates on monetary disequilibrium. It provides some of the graphs Steve mentioned in the interview. Finally, I highly recommend Leland Yeager's book The Fluttering Veil: Essays on Monetary Disequilibrium. Yeager was a leading advocate of this view and his book provides an accessible introduction to the topic. [Update: for those wanting a formal treatment see this Josh Hendrickson paper (ungated version)]

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Musings on June's FOMC Meeting

The FOMC decided today to raise its target interest rate so that it now sits in the 1.00-1.25 percent range. This move was largely expected and the FOMC continues to signal via its economic projections that it wants one more interest rate hike this year. Nothing terribly new here, but there were several developments today that caught my attention and are worth considering.

First, the FOMC released a surprisingly detailed plan of how it will unwind its balance sheet later this year. Fed chair Janet Yellen also said during the press conference these plans could be "put in effect relatively soon" if the data come in as expected. The announcement today can be seen as part of the FOMC's ongoing efforts to get the markets ready for the shrinking of its balance sheet. 

To shed light on this development, recall that the main theory the Fed used to justify the the large scale asset purchases was the portfolio channel. It says the Fed's purchase of safe assets would force investors to rebalance their portfolios toward riskier assets. This rebalancing, in turn, would reduce risk premiums, lower long-term interest rates, and push up asset prices. In turn, these developments would support the recovery.

A key step in this story was the Fed reducing the relative supply of safe assets to the public. One way to see it is through the growth of the Fed's share of marketable treasury securities. This can be seen in the figure below. 


In addition to the QE programs, the figure reveals a rather striking development. Since about September 2014 the Fed's share of marketable treasury securities has been falling. This has been a passive development for the Fed--it has maintained a fixed level of treasury holdings while total government debt has grown--but it is effectively QE in reverse. Per the portfolio channel, this reverse QE should have caused long-term treasury yields to rise. Instead, they have more or less been falling over this period:


Put differently, the Fed has been effectively shrinking its balance sheet for several years now and it has been much ado about nothing. Whatever influence QE had, its seems to be dwarfed by other economic forces driving long-term treasury yields.

It should not be surprising, then, that the Fed's announcement today about how it plans to shrink its balance sheet and Janet Yellen's follow-up comments did not create another taper tantrum. Yes, the Fed has been conditioning the market for the eventual reduction for several months, but maybe the bigger story here is that QE really did not have that big of an effect on interest rates and the recovery in the first place. Jim Hamilton reaches a similar conclusion:
[T]oday’s evidence seems to reinforce the conclusion that many have drawn about the effects of the Fed’s large-scale asset purchases–whatever effects these may have had on long-term interest rates were likely less important than other fundamentals. That appeared to be the case on the way to building up the Fed’s balance sheet, and so far appears to be the case in the long process of bringing the balance sheet back down.
To be clear, QE1 probably had a meaningful effect since it was applied in the midst of the financial crisis. However, I am becoming less convinced that QE2 and QE3 mattered much except for signaling purposes. As I have written elsewhere, the fundamental flaw with these programs was that they were beholden to the Fed's desire for rigidly low inflation and therefore consigned to be temporary monetary injections. Which leads me to the other development that really caught my attention.

Second, during the FOMC press conference, Fed chair Janet Yellen once again attributed the unexpectedly low inflation in recent months to one-off events.  She specifically attributed the below-target inflation to lower prices for cell phones and pharmaceutical. Here was my real-time response on twitter:


Yep, either the Fed is the most unlucky institution in the world or the Fed has a problem. I think the latter. The Fed appears to have begun having a problem with 2 percent inflation around the time of the Great Recession. This can be seen in the FOMC's summary of economic projections (SEPs) figure below. It shows for each FOMC meeting where SEPs were provided to the public the central tendency forecast of the core PCE inflation rate over the next year. The horizon for these forecasts depend on the time of the year they were released and range from one year to almost two years out. The forecast horizons are long enough, in other words, for the FOMC to have meaningful influence on the inflation rate.


The figure shows that since 2008, the FOMC has consistently forecasted at most 2 percent inflation. Note that The FOMC’s description of the SEP states (emphasis added) “Each participant's projections are based on his or her assessment of appropriate monetary policy. Longer-run projections represent each participant's assessment of the rate to which each variable would be expected to converge under appropriate monetary policy…” As former FOMC member Naranaya Kocherlakota notes, this means the projections reflect what members think inflation should be if they had complete control over monetary policy over the forecast horizon. It reveals their preferences for the future path of monetary policy. Consequently, the central tendency of FOMC members since 2008 indicates that they see the optimal inflation rate not at 2 percent, but at a range between 1 and 2  percent. 

The actual performance of the Fed's preferred inflation measure, the PCE deflator, has been consistent with this view. It has averaged about 1.5 percent since the recovery started in mid-2009. That is a revealed preference, not a series of accidents caused by bad  luck.

To be clear,  the Fed has only been explicitly targeting inflation at 2 percent since 2012, but many studies have shown it to be implicitly doing so since the 1990s. So this truly has been an eight-year plus problem for the Fed and one that makes Janet Yellen's remarks all the more disappointing to hear. One would think after almost a decade of undershooting 2 percent inflation there might be an acknowledgement from the FOMC like the one that came from Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari (my bold):
[O]ver the past five years, 100 percent of the medium-term inflation forecasts (midpoints) in the FOMC’s Summary of Economic Projections have been too high: We keep predicting that inflation is around the corner. How can one explain the FOMC repeatedly making these one-sided errors? One-sided errors are indeed rational if the consequences are asymmetric. For example, if you are driving down the highway alongside a cliff, you will err by steering away from the cliff, because even one error in the other direction will cause you to fly over the cliff. In a monetary policy context, I believe the FOMC is doing the same thing: Based on our actions rather than our words, we are treating 2 percent as a ceiling rather than a target. I am not necessarily opposed to having an inflation ceiling...  I am opposed to stating we have a target but then behaving as though it were a ceiling.
It is time for the FOMC to come clean on what it really wants to do with inflation. Until it does so continue to expect confusion and  repeated questions to Fed officials over the Fed's inflation target.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Is the United States Becoming Less of an Optimal Currency Area?

It took the United States roughly 150 years to become an optimal currency area (OCA), according to economic historian Hugh Rockoff. This long journey meant that it was not until the late 1930s that a one-size-fits-all monetary policy made sense for the U.S. economy. Since then the U.S. economy has often been held up as the best example of a currency union that meets the OCA criteria. This especially was the case when comparisons have been made to the Eurozone, like in this classic Blanchard and Katz (1992) paper.  But all is not well in this land of the OCA.

Declining Labor Mobility
Since the 1980s there has been a decline in labor mobility across the United States.  This can be see in the figure below:

A number of explanations have been given for this decline, but in my view the best one is found in David Schleicher's paper titled "Stuck! The Law and Economics of Residential Stability". Schleicher makes the case that land-use regulations, occupational licensing, non-compete clauses, and other regulations are making it harder for individuals to pick-up and move to better jobs.  A spate of recent news stories reinforces how consequential the these labor market constraints are for many people. Schleicher notes that they are particularly onerous for those individuals that need to move the most, the folks from lower socioeconomic groups most affected by regional economic shocks. 

The recent Autor et al. papers on the China shock vividly illustrate this point. On the surface these papers speak to how big and persistent the China shock was on certain local U.S. economies. But their deeper finding, in my view, is that they point to declining labor mobility in the United States. For they show the China shock had little effect on local population flows in the affected communities. That is, the unemployed in the affected regions did not readily move away to jobs elsewhere. 

The above papers are consistent with a recent IMF study that revisited the Blanchard and Katz (1992) paper and concluded the following (my bold):
[A] given regional shock has triggered less interstate net migration, and a larger response of regional unemployment and participation in the short-run. That is, following the same negative shock to labor demand, affected workers have more and more tended to either drop out of the labor force or remain unemployed instead of relocate...
Tyler Cowen's new book, The Complacent Class, also speaks to this development. His argument is that U.S. culture has become increasingly risk averse. The higher risk aversion explains the growth of the labor market constraints listed in the Schleichner paper as well as the declining desire to pick up and move to better opportunities.

Implications for the United States as an OCA
So why does the decline in labor mobility matter for the U.S. economy? To answer this question, recall that the Fed is doing a one-size-fits-all monetary policy for fifty different state economies. That is, the Fed is applying the same monetary conditions to states that often have very different economies, both structurally and cyclically. For example, Michigan and Texas have had very different trajectories for their economies. Does it really makes sense for them both to get the same monetary policy? 

According to the OCA, the answer is yes under certain circumstances. The OCA says it makes sense for regional economies to share a common monetary policy if they (1) share similar business cycles or (2) have in place economic shock absorbers such as fiscal transfers, labor mobility, and flexible prices. If (1) is true then a one-size-fits-all monetary policy is obviously reasonable. If (2) is true a regional economy can be on a different business cycle than the rest of currency union and still do okay inside it. The shock absorbers ease the pain of a central bank applying the wrong monetary policy to the regional economy. 

For example, assume Michigan is in a slump and the Fed tightens because the rest of the U.S. economy is overheating. Michigan can cope with the tightening via fiscal transfers (e.g. unemployment insurance), labor mobility (e.g. people leave Michigan for Texas), and flexible prices (workers take a pay cut and are rehired). 

To be clear, a regional economy is not making a discrete choice between (1) and (2) but more of a trade off between them. Michigan, for example, can afford to have its economy a little less correlated with the U.S. economy if its shock absorbers are growing and vice versa. There is a continuum of trade offs that constitutes a threshold where it makes sense for a regional economy to be a part of a currency union. That threshold is the OCA frontier in the figure below: 



Circling back to the original OCA question, the decline in labor mobility documented above matters because it means that certain regions in the United States are becoming less resilient to shocks.This is especially poignant given the findings in Blanchard and Katz (1992) that interstate labor mobility has been the main shock absorber for regional shocks. Consequently, monetary policy shocks may prove to be more painful than before for some states. Unless increased fiscal transfers and price flexibility make up for the decline in labor mobility, the implication is clear: the U.S. is gradually moving away from being an OCA.

As it turns out, I have a 2010 paper in the Journal of Macroeconomics where I examined whether the U.S. economy is an OCA. Looking at state data for the Great Moderation period, I concluded that there might have been some gain for the Rust and Energy Belts regions having their own currency during this period. There also would have been additional costs so I do not actually endorse the break up of the dollar zone in the article. However, what is interesting in retrospect is that period I examined in the article coincides with the decline in interstate labor mobility. It is no coincidence, then, that I got the results I did.

The policy implications seem clear. Policy makers at the local, state, and federal level need to push policies that increase labor market mobility. There is a lot of work to do on this front, but it is important to do so to keep the United States an OCA. The Schleichner paper provides some suggestions and is good starting point for discussion.

Related Links
(1) I interviewed David Schleichner about his paper in a recent podcast.
(2) See Alex Tabarrok's take on the decline in labor mobility

Friday, May 26, 2017

China vs the Trilemma, Price Level Path, Balance Sheet Confusion, and FOMC Debates

Here are some assorted macro musings from the past week:

1.  Been there, done that, and it did not end well China edition. Once again, China forgets there is a macroeconomic trilemma. From the Wall Street Journal:
China’s central bank is effectively anchoring the yuan to the dollar, a policy twist that has helped stabilize the currency in a year of political transition and market jitters about China’s economic management.... 
The newfound tranquility may not last: The focus seen in recent weeks on stability against the dollar, whether it goes up or down, means pressure on the yuan to weaken could get dangerously bottled up, potentially bring bouts of sharp devaluation.
Pegging an exchange rate, tinkering with domestic monetary policy, and allowing some capital flows can be a dangerous game to play. Chinese officials should stare long and hard at the picture below and recall how by ignoring it they created a crisis back 2015



2. St. Louis Fed President James Bullard notices the U.S. economy is falling off of its trend price level path in a recent speech.




In short, the Fed’s normalization plan calls for it to prop-up banks’ demand for cash, as a prelude to reducing the supply of cash! That means tightening and more tightening. The rub, of course, is that conditions may never justify so much tightening. What's more, no plan for Fed normalization can work that would prevent the Fed from meeting its overarching inflation and employment targets.

4. Peter Ireland on what we can learn from the FOMC debates as seen in the latest minutes. Among other things, Peter notes the following:
Digging into the details of the FOMC’s debate reminds us, as well, of important lessons from economy history. Participants who warn that low unemployment today raises the risk of higher inflation in the future are organizing their thoughts around the idea of the Phillips curve, which describes an inverse relation between those two variables. One lesson from history, however, is that while data do often support the existence of a statistical Phillips curve, its fit is not nearly strong enough to serve as a fully reliable guide for monetary policymaking. The limitations of the Phillips curve approach became clear, for example, during the 1970s, when chronically high unemployment was accompanied by rising, not falling, inflation. Today, we may be seeing something similar: unemployment is below 4.5 percent, yet inflation continues to run below the Fed’s long-run target.     
In fact, as other participants in the debate point out, inflation has been below target for the past eight years. If one accepts Milton Friedman’s famous dictum, summarizing historical experience that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon,” it is difficult to escape the conclusion that, despite an extended period of very low interest rates, Federal Reserve policy over this period has been insufficiently, not overly, accommodative. This echoes another lesson from the past. Milton Friedman, Anna Schwartz, Allan Meltzer, and Karl Brunner all concluded, likewise, that very low interest rates during the 1930s accompanied, and indeed were the product of, monetary policy that was consistently too restrictive.  

Friday, May 19, 2017

Bad Optics: the Fed's Balance Sheet Edition

Despite the all Fed talk about shrinking its balance sheets, many observers are hoping the Fed keeps it large.  They want the Fed to maintain a large balance sheet for various reasons: it earns a positive return for the government; it provides a financial stability tool via provisions of safe assets; it needs to remain big and accommodative until the economy really starts roaring. There are also complications to shrinking the Fed balance sheet.

Whatever you make of these arguments they all ignore an important political-economy consideration: a large Fed balance sheet makes for bad optics because of interest paid on excess reserve (IOER). 

The figure below explains why. Using data from the Federal Reserve's H8 report, the figure shows the cash assets of "large domestically-chartered" banks and "foreign-related" banks.  The figure reveals the cash assets of these two bank categories combined tracks excess reserves fairly closely. They are, in other words, the main holders of excess reserves and consequently the main recipients of the IOER payment. 


Think about the implications: the banks that were bailed out during the crisis and the banks owned by foreigners are getting most of the IOER payment. This is a perfect storm of financial villains for both the political left and the right. That is why I agree with Ramesh Ponnuru that it politically naive to think the Fed can maintain a large balance. 

And note, the bad optics will only look worse if the Fed's balance sheet does not shrink as interest rates go up. For the IOER payment will go up too. Imagine Fed Chair Janet Yellen having to explain to Congress the growing dollar payments going to these banks.

That is not to say it will be easy to shrink the Fed's balance sheet. There will be big challenges as I have noted elsewhere. But the bad optics do mean that it is likely the Fed will be forced to shrink its balance sheet. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Talking Monetary Policy with Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman joined me for the latest Macro Musings podcast. It was a fun show and we covered a lot of ground from liquidity traps to secular stagnation to fighting the last war over inflation. Paul and I have had conversations in the blogosphere since the 2008 crisis so it was real treat to finally chat with him in person.

In our conversation there were two issues brought up that deserved more time, in my view, than we could give on the show. So I want to address them in this post.

The first one is the important distinction between temporary and permanent monetary base injections. This distinction came up up in our discussion on what it takes to reflate an economy in a zero lower bound (ZLB) environment. Krugman's 1998 paper showed that to do so requires a permanent increase in the monetary base whereas a temporary one will not work. This 'irrelevance result' was further developed by Eggertson and Woodford (2003) who showed that QE programs that are temporary in nature will not spur rapid aggregate demand growth. Others have since built upon this point and there is also earlier monetarist literature that makes a similar argument (source). Here is an excerpt from a Michael Woodford FT piece in 2011 that nicely summarizes this view1:
The economic theory behind QE has always been flimsy. The original argument, essentially, was that the absolute level of prices in an economy is determined only by a central bank's supply of base money. Because of this, at least in the long run, any increase in supply must raise prices proportionally. It followed that, in the short run, QE must also have an effect on spending levels, that will eventually tend to raise prices, even if the channels by which this occurs are obscure.  
The problem is that, for this theory to apply, there must be a permanent increase in the monetary base. Yet after the Bank of Japan's experiment with QE, the added reserves were all rapidly withdrawn in early 2006. More worryingly for Mr Bernanke, whatever the long-run effects would have been, there was no increase in nominal growth over the five years of the experiment.  
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.
Woodford acknowledges the Fed's large scale assets purchases can help when financial markets freeze up like during QE1, but beyond that will not create the kind of robust aggregate demand growth required to quickly escape a ZLB environment.

For me, the implication of this understanding is that the Fed should have aimed to return the price level (or nominal income) to its previously-expected growth path following the crisis. Krugman, on the other hand, is worried that might not be enough if secular stagnation is real. He, consequentially, prefers a permanently higher inflation rate whereas my approach would imply only a temporary one. In short, I want a level target for monetary policy whereas Krugman wants a higher inflation target.

I also want to be clear as to exactly what is a permanent monetary base injection. First, it is an (exogenous) injection beyond that warranted by normal money demand growth. That is, an increase above the regular growth created by currency demand, required reserves, and other normal (endogengous) sources of monetary base growth. Second, the actual permanent increase need not be very large given the long-run unitary relationship between the monetary base and the price level (after controlling for real growth). Third,  the permanent increase does not mean the monetary base injection is permanent throughout eternity. Only that it is permanent to the extent the current economic conditions that warranted the injection continues to hold. New economic developments may call for additional permanent changes to the monetary base. Finally, most central banks cannot credibly commit to such permanent increases in the monetary base, as evidenced by the record-low inflation in advanced economies since the crisis.  For more on these points see this recent paper of mine.

The second issue is my suggestion that fiscal policy could be used to stabilize the money supply. This came up near the end of the podcast when we started discussing the safe asset shortage problem. The key idea here is that the money supply properly measured includes both retail and institutional money assets. The Center for Financial Stability (CFS) has estimated such a measure. It is the Divisia M4 money supply which includes athe retail money assets in M2 plus institutional money assets. The latter include repos, commercial paper, institutional money market funds, and large-time deposits. 

As Gary Gorton and others have shown, there was a bank run on these institutional money assets during the financial crisis that led to a sizable and persistent reduction in their supply. This can be seen in the figure below which uses the M4 component data from the CFS:


This persistent shortfall in the privately-produced institutional money assets seen above was partially offset by the rise in treasury bills.  More of the shortfall could, in theory, be offset by the issuance of additional treasury bills. That was the point I was trying to make. The big question here is could the U.S. Treasury issue enough treasury bills to fill the institutional money asset shortfall without jeopardizing its risk-free status? I do not know. But it is one possible solution to the safe asset shortage problem.

The chart below builds upon the last figure by plotting the institutional money assets along side the retail money assets (or M2). Together they make up the M4 money supply. The figure reveals that even though the M4 money supply is now past its pre-crisis peak, is still far below its pre-crisis trend path. It never has fully recovered from the Great Recession. This could be part of the story for the weak recovery and, arguably, treasury could help.



Related Links
Permanent versus Temporary Monetary Base Injections: Implications for Past and Future Fed Policy
Scott Sumner on Paul Krugman's podcast

1 The Michael Woodford article ran in the Financial Times on August 26 and was titled "Bernanke Should Clarify Policy and Shrink QE3"

Friday, May 12, 2017

Dollar Domination, Robot Monetary Overloads, and Closing the AD Gap

Some assorted musings:

1. From this week's podcast with Ethan Ilzetzki comes this amazing figure. It shows that approximately 70% of world GDP is tied to the dollar. The implication is staggering: the FOMC is setting monetary conditions for much of the world.


2.  Greg Ip argues our robot fears are misplaced. If anything, we do not have enough robots destroying jobs:
From Silicon Valley to Davos, pundits have been warning that millions of individuals will be thrown out of work by the rapid advance of automation and artificial intelligence. As economic forecasts go, this idea of a robot apocalypse is certainly chilling. It’s also baffling and misguided. Baffling because it’s starkly at odds with the evidence, and misguided because it completely misses the problem: robots aren’t destroying enough jobs...  
This calls for a change in priorities. Instead of worrying about robots destroying jobs, business leaders need to figure out how to use them more, especially in low-productivity sectors.
Okay, what industries fit this description? Greg mentions the usual suspects: education, healthcare, and leisure and hospitality. Here is another one: central banking. It has not changed much in many decades and probably has low productivity. So maybe the hidden message of Greg's article is we need to get robots running the Fed?  My answer: sure, but only if they are targeting a NGDP futures market as proposed by Scott Sumner. This approach, after all, is fairly automatic by design and therefore conducive to our robot overlords taking over the Fed.

3. The CBO estimates the full-employment level of aggregate demand. They unfortunately call it "potential nominal GDP' which is horrific since the potential is truly infinite--think Zimbabwe's NGDP in 2008--so ignore the official name. The idea behind the measure is reasonable: what level of aggregate nominal spending is consistent with full employment. Here is the series lined up against actual aggregate demand as measured by NGDP. 


The figure indicates there was a sharp collapse in aggregate demand during the crisis and the full-employment level has only slowly converged to it. Therefore, there was both a sharp decline in aggregate demand (a cyclical shock) and a downward adjustment in the full-employment trend level of aggregate demand (a structural shock). This understanding is consistent with the recent Fernald et al. (2017) BPEA paper that found that there was both a demand shortfall (that ended by mid-2016) and a decline in potential real GDP. So the CBO's full-employment level of aggregate demand seems quantitatively reasonable.  


For fun, I plotted the difference between the full employment level and actual aggregate demand--the AD gap--against the latest hip labor market indicator. It is the working-age employment rate (a termed coined by Jordan Weissmann) which is more commonly known as the employment-to-population rate for prime-age workers (25-54 year olds). Nick Bunker has been a tireless advocate for using this measure to replace the unemployment rate as the headline labor market indicator. 

So how does the working-age employment rate measure up against the AD gap? Not too bad according to the figure below. The relationship is not perfect, but it is strong enough to indicate that the continued upward recovery of the working-age employment rate over the past few years has been largely due to cyclical factors. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Remembering All of Allan Meltzer's Work

Allan Meltzer passed away this week. He is probably best known for his multi-volume history of the Federal Reserve, the 'Meltzer Commission' that aimed to reform the IMF, and most recently his critique of Fed policy since the Great Recession. There was, however, much more to Allan Meltzer than just these developments.

One of the most important contributions, in my view, was his work with Karl Brunner during the 'Monetarist Counterrevolution'. This counterrevolution took place in the 1960s and 1970s and pushed backed against the dominant view of the time that monetary policy did not matter. Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz spearheaded this movement, but it was Meltzer and Brunner who did the most to show why money mattered. They worked hard to show the mechanism through which monetary policy could actually affect the economy. This was no small feat since at the time many economists did not believe in monetary policy. Their insights now permeate modern macroeconomics.

Sadly, however, I suspect many observers will only remember Allan for his critique of Fed policy since 2008. While I disagreed with him on this issue, he was so much more than that one issue. So I hope readers will look at his entire life's work when judging him.

My appreciation for him grew over the past few years for several reasons. First, I got to the chance to interview him before a live audience for my podcast. It was a great interview. He was incredibly sharp, witty, and funny. I can only hope I am that lucid and spry when I hit my late 80s. 

Second, I came to appreciate his work with Karl Brunner on the monetary transmission mechanism as I was working a recent paper. As an example, below is an excerpt from a 1987 article. Read it and see if you can find any relevance for Fed's QE programs (my bold):
The adjustment of reserve positions to transitory change by buying and selling Federal funds (or by borrowing or repaying loans at the central bank) has negligible effects on the interest rates and asset prices relevant for household and business decisions.  A perceived permanent change in the monetary base initiates very different responses and has different costs.  The banks' balance sheet adjustments involve all portfolio items.  The responses by the banks change the money stock, affect interest rates on a variety of assets and the prices of real assets.  The public responds to changing relative costs and returns between loan liabilities and real assets.  The adjustment to a perceived permanent change is reinforced by changes in price expectations or adjustment of the current expected return to capital whenever permanent increase in the base are sufficiently large or persistent.
Meltzer and Brunner, in short, are saying that expected changes in the monetary base have to be permanent to have any meaningful effect.  This is a widely understood point now, one that if ignored leads to the QE "irrelevance results" of Krugman (1998) and Eggertson and Woodford (2003). This understanding explains why the Fed's QE programs failed to generate a robust recovery.  The monetary base injections under them were always meant to be temporary and this limited how much kick they could generate. Put differently, the Fed's temporary monetary injections were never going to create a fast escape from a ZLB environment. (For those interested, I further explain this point in a recent working paper.)

What is remarkable to me is that Meltzer and Brunner understood this principle long before QE was tried in Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Eurozone, and Japan again. His work continues to shed light on current policy debates.

Examples like this one is why Allan Meltzer's life work deserves to be remembered. He is a giant and will be missed. Rest in Peace Allan.   

Friday, April 28, 2017

Macro Musings Podcast: Josh Zumbrum

My latest Macro Musing podcast is with Josh Zumbrum. Josh is a national economics correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. He joined me to talk about the angst facing the economics profession in this current environment. We also talked about the future of economic journalism, economic facts, and what really drives inflation.

It was fascinating conversation throughout. You can listen to the podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes, or your favorite podcast app. You can also listen via the embedded player above. And remember to subscribe since more episodes are coming.

Related Links
Josh Zumbrum's web page at the Wall Street Journal
Josh Zumbrum's twitter account

Friday, April 21, 2017

Macro Musings Podcast: James Bullard

 
My latest Macro Musings podcast is with James Bullard. James is the President of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank and an accomplished economic scholar. He joined me for a great conversation on macroeconomics that covered everything from the determinants of inflation to the Fed's balance to the future path of monetary policy. We also discussed Jame's work on imperfect credit markets and how it provides a another justification for NGDP level targeting. 

This was a fascinating conversation throughout and the transcripts for the show are here. You can listen to the podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes, or your favorite podcast app. You can also listen via the embedded player above. And remember to subscribe since more episodes are coming.

Related Links
James Bullard's page at the St. Louis Federal Reserve

Friday, April 14, 2017

Macro Musings Podcast: Tyler Cowen

My latest Macro Musings podcast is with Tyler Cowen. Tyler is a professor of economics at George Mason University. He joined me to discuss his new book, The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. In it, Tyler argues that the restlessness and willingness to take risks have been key traits throughout American history has been waning. In the last few decades, American society has become more risk-averse and this has led to less innovation and dynamism in the economy. 

Tyler notes that this risk aversion has bled over into macroeconomic policy and may be a contributor to the slow recovery following the 2008 crisis.

This was a fun and fascinating conversation throughout. You can listen to the podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes, or your favorite podcast app. You can also listen via the embedded player above. And remember to subscribe since more episodes are coming.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Macro Musings Podcast: George Selgin



My latest Macro Musings podcast is with George Selgin. George the director of the Cato’s Institute for Monetary and Financial Alternatives and is a former professor of economics at the University of Georgia. 

 George joined me to talk about the normalization of Fed policy and his new proposal to reform open market operations.  It was interesting conversation throughout. 

You can listen to the podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes, or your favorite podcast app. You can also listen via the embedded player above. And remember to subscribe since more episodes are coming.

Monday, April 3, 2017

A Challenge to the Fed's Normalization Plans: the IOER-Treasury Yield Spread

Over at U.S. News and World Report, I have a new article up on the next big challenge facing the Fed: normalizing its balance sheet. Some excerpts:
This path to monetary policy normalization.... may be fraught with surprises and setbacks. Not only must the Fed avoid getting ahead of the recovery with its interest rate hikes, but it must delicately navigate the shrinking of a balance sheet that has grown fourfold since 2008. This latter task may prove to be especially daunting since it puts the Fed in unchartered waters. Never before has the Fed had to shrink its balance sheet...
I go on to discuss some of the many challenges the Fed may face in attempting to shrink its balance sheet. One of them is dealing with the potential stresses caused by the new regulatory demands of the liquidity coverage ratio running up against the spread between IOER and treasury bills:
The second reason the scaling back of the Fed's balance sheet may be challenging is that post-2008 regulation now requires banks to hold more liquid assets. Specifically, banks now have to hold enough high-quality liquid assets to withstand 30 days of cash outflow. This liquidity coverage ratio has increased demand for such assets of which bank reserves and treasury securities are considered the safest. So, in theory, as the Fed shrank its balance sheet, the banks could simply swap their excess reserves (that the Fed was pulling out of circulation) for treasury bills (that the Fed was putting into circulation). The challenge, as observed by George Selgin, is that the Fed's interest on excess reserves has been higher than the interest rate on treasury bills. This creates relatively higher demand for bank reserves. 
Banks would not want to give up the higher-earning bank reserves at the very moment the Fed was trying to pull them out of circulation. This tension could create an effective shortage of bank reserves and be disruptive to financial markets. The solution here would be for the Fed to lower the interest on excess reserves to the level of treasury bill interest rates.
The figure below illustrates this potential problem. It shows the Fed's upper and lower bounds on the federal funds, the effective federal funds rate, and the 4-week treasury bill interest rate. These upper and lower bounds have created a successful corridor system for the federal funds rate, but they have not been very good at bounding the 4-week treasury bill yield. Moreover, the spread between the IOER--the upper bound--and the 4-week treasury bill has persistently been sizable and gotten larger on average since the first interest rate hike in December 2015. It is hard to see why banks would want to swap their excess reserves for treasury bills given this spread. 


This is just one of the challenges the Fed faces in shrinking its balance sheet. Read the rest of the piece for the others I outline.

P.S. While it is easy to understand why the effective federal fund rates falls within the corridor, it is not clear why the 4-week treasury bill interest rate has not conformed to it. Arbitrage should push them closer together, so there must be some friction. One obvious one is the limited access to the Fed's balance sheet. Even with RRP, there are still only so many firms that can effectively tap into the Fed's balance sheet. I suspect that if the Fed further opened up its balance sheet some of this spread would disappear. Whether that is a desirable objective, however, is an altogether different question (though it is discussed in this weeks Macro Musings podcast).

Friday, March 31, 2017

Macro Musings Podcast: Steve Hanke



My latest Macro Musings podcast is with Steve Hanke. Steve is s a professor of applied economics at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He has advised many governments on economic policy, including helping the establishment of new currency regimes in Argentina, Estonia, Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ecuador, Lithuania, and Montenegro.

Steve also is the director of the troubled currency project at the Cato Institute and is the author of the  Hanke-Bushnell hyperinflation table.

Steve joined me to talk about his work on hyperinflation. It was interesting conversation throughout. You can listen to the podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes, or your favorite podcast app. You can also listen via the embedded player above. And remember to subscribe since more episodes are coming.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

Macro Musings Podcasts: Jeffrey Frankel


My latest Macro Musings podcast is with Jeffrey Frankel. Jeff is a professor and economist at Harvard University and directs the program on international finance and macroeconomics at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Jeff joined me to talk about the future of globalization, the dollar, the Plaza Accord, and more. It was a fascinating conversation throughout. 

You can listen to the podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes, or your favorite podcast app. You can also listen via the embedded player above. And remember to subscribe since more episodes are coming.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Macro Musings Podcast: Jason Furman


My latest Macro Musings podcast is with Jason Furman. Jason is currently a Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Previously, Jason spent eight years serving on President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, including the chair position from 2013-2017. Jason also worked on the Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton.

Jason joined me to talk about his time at the CEA. Among other things, we talk about fiscal policy, the fiscal multiplier, monetary policy offset, and the platinum coin. This was a super fun talk throughout. 

You can listen to the podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes, or your favorite podcast app. You can also listen via the embedded player above. And remember to subscribe since more episodes are coming.

Related Links
Jason Furman's Twitter Account
Jason Furman's Webpage

Monetary Policy Analysis is Hard: Inflation Edition

I have a new article at The Hill that responds to some of the buzz created  by the Cecchetti et al. (2017) paper that was delivered at the U.S. Monetary Policy Forum:
What causes inflation? Most people believe inflation is caused by central banks adjusting monetary conditions... But is this right? A recent study by some top economists has raised questions about this conventional wisdom.  
The study found that the standard indicators... [like] economic slack, inflation expectations, and money growth were, in fact, unrelated to inflation. These findings caused quite a stir and even led the Wall Street Journal to declare that “everything markets think they know about inflation might be wrong”. 
This understanding misses, in my view, the deeper and more important point of the Cecchetti et al. paper. As the authors note in a separate blog post, the lack of a relationship between the standard indicators and inflation is actually an indication that the Fed has done a good job in managing inflation:
While the USMPF report is titled Deflating Inflation Expectations, we do not conclude that expectations are unimportant. In fact, quite the opposite: the failure of measured inflation expectations to help forecast changes in inflation is probably a side effect of monetary policy’s success in stabilizing them. 
This point, though, is a subtle one that is often missed by observers and that is why I wrote my piece for The Hill. Drawing upon Nick Rowe's work, I used the following example to illustrate the idea:
Imagine that the Fed is a driver, the economy is a car, the gas pedal is monetary policy and the car's speed is the inflation rate. The Fed’s objective here is to keep the car moving steadily along at 65 miles per hour.  
When the car starts climbing hills, the Fed pushes further down on the gas pedal. When the car starts descending from the hills, the Fed lays off the gas pedal. Over many hills and miles, the Fed is able to maintain 65 MPH by making these adjustments to the gas pedal.  
 A child sitting in the backseat of the car who was oblivious to the hills but saw the many changes to the gas pedal would probably conclude the gas pedal has no bearing on the speed of the car. After all, no matter what happened to the gas pedal the car’s speed never changed.  
 As outside observers, we know better. We know the driver was adjusting the gas pedal just enough to offset the ups and downs of the hills so that a constant speed was maintained. In terms of our Fed analogy, monetary policy was adjusted just enough to offset the ups and downs of the economy so that a stable inflation rate was maintained.
So many people have failed to grasp this point, especially over the past eight years. The Fed got the inflation it wanted over this period by pushing the gas pedal--QE and low rates--just enough to offset the drag of the Great Recession on the price level. Although the Fed wanted a quick recovery, it wanted even more to maintain stable and low inflation. This is evident in their core inflation projections in the FOMC's Summary of Economic Projections (which always saw 2% as ceiling) and in the FOMC's revealed preferences.

This meant the FOMC was not willing to allow an inflation overshoot which, in addition to making their inflation target symmetric, would have allowed more rapid catch-up growth in aggregate demand. As I have said elsewhere, this was the Fed's Dirty Little Secret: its policies were never going to create a robust recovery given the Fed's asymmetric approach to inflation targeting.

But I digress, the point of this post is to remind us that analyzing monetary policy is hard. One cannot simply draw conclusions by looking at interest rates, output gaps, money growth and comparing them to inflation Depending on how the Fed is conducting monetary policy, these indicators should be uncorrelated with inflation if the Fed is doing its job.

Given the importance of this idea, I have excerpted an earlier post on this topic below the fold.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Macro Musings Podcast: Larry White

My latest Macro Musings podcast is with Larry White. Larry is a professor of economics at George Mason University where he specializes in monetary economics and monetary history.

Larry joined me to talk about India's demonetization's efforts and Austrian macroeconomics. This was fun and fascinating conversation throughout.You can listen to the podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes, or your favorite podcast app. You can also listen via the embedded player above. And remember to subscribe since more episodes are coming.

Related Links
Larry White's Homepage

Friday, March 3, 2017

Macro Musings Podcast: Tim Duy


My latest Macro Musing podcast is with Tim Duy. Tim is a professor of economics at the University of Oregon, a columnist for Bloomberg, and a former economist at the U.S. Department of Treasury. 

Tim is also a widely read Fed-watcher and he joined me to talk about Fed watching and the future of U.S. monetary policy. If you want to get into Fed watching this podcast is just for you. Tim shares his approach and what defines a successful Fed watcher. 

We also discussed some of Tim's recent comments about the normalization of Fed monetary policy. The FOMC plans to return to normal monetary policy by first raising it interest rate target and then by reducing the size of its balance sheet. Tim thinks this is a bad idea, as he has written in several Bloomberg articles. He would like to see a simultaneous raising of interest rates and shrinking of the Fed balance sheet as the Fed returns to normalcy. We discuss why he favors this approach.

This was a fascinating conversation throughout. You can listen to the podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes, or your favorite podcast app. You can also listen via the embedded player above. And remember to subscribe since more episodes are coming.

Related Links
Tim Duy Homepage

Friday, February 24, 2017

Macro Musings Podcast: Hester Peirce


My latest Macro Musings podcast is with Hester Peirce. Hestor is a Senior Research Fellow and director of the Financial Markets Working Group at the Mercatus Center. She previously served on Senator Richard Shelby’s staff on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. In that position, she worked on financial regulatory reform following the financial crisis of 2008 as well as oversight of the regulatory implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act. Hester also served at the Securities and Exchange Commission as a staff attorney and as counsel to Commissioner Paul S. Atkins.  Hester was also nominated by President Obama to be an SEC Commisioner.

Hester joined me to discuss a new book she co-edited with Ben Klutsey titled “Reframing Financial Regulation: Enhancing Stability and Protecting Consumers” This book covers a lot of topics on how to better regulate the financial system. 

We spent most of our time talking about how to improve the stability of the financial system. The laws and regulations emanating from Dodd-Frank (DF) were supposed to make the financial system safer, but a number of recent papers--Nissim and Calormiris (2014)Sarin and Summers (2016)Chousaks and Gorton (2017)--find the banking system weaker now and not meaningfully safer than pre-2008. Others, like Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari, are worried about financial institution that remain too big to fail (TBTF) since they still fund with too much debt. Moreover, it is not clear if the reforms made in DF, like living wills and the Financial Stability Oversight Council, will actually make much difference should the TBTF institutions get in trouble again. President Kashkari, consequently, has proposed a number of reforms to end TBTF.

Hester and I discussed these concerns as well as the possibility that DF has actually increased the fragility of the financial system. One area, in particular, that is creating new potential problems for financial stability is the new DF central clearinghouse utility for derivatives. These central clearinghouses or CCPs were created as a way to improve transparency about derivatives so that regulators and other observer would know what is happening in this part of the financial system. Ironically, however, they appear to be making the financial system more fragile. This is because the CCPs concentrate all the risk from formerly bilateral relationships into one financial firm, making it another TBTF institution. Put differently, DF has inadvertently created more Lehmans or AIGs. 

Now some of the clearinghouse existed before DF, but they have grown and absorbed more risk since DF. In fact, the Financial Stability Oversight Board has designated some of the CCPs as TBTF institutions that need to be monitored. Other reports have come out saying "clearing house push has created unforeseen systemic risk" or "U.S. Treasury warns clearinghouses could spread risk". So it is not clear whether DF on balance has increased the safety of the financial system.

Hester and I do discuss other issues that are covered in the book, but I wanted to highlight here what I see as one of the bigger issues still facing us eight years after the crisis.

If you are interested in the book, you can download it or individual chapters from here. This is a great resource to have as the new President and Congress consider revamping financial regulation.

This was a fascinating conversation throughout. You can listen to the podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes, or your favorite podcast app. You can also listen via the embedded player above. And remember to subscribe since more episodes are coming.

Related Links
Macro Musings podcast with Anat Admati (similar these covered).

Friday, February 17, 2017

Macro Musings Podcast: Sebastian Mallaby



My latest Macro Musings podcast is with Sebastian Mallaby. Sebastian is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing columnist to the Washington Post. Previously, he worked with the Financial Times and the Economist magazine and is the author of several books. He joined me to talk about his latest book “The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan”.

This was a fascinating conversation throughout. You can listen to the podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes, or your favorite podcast app. You can also listen via the embedded player above. And remember to subscribe since more episodes are coming.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Monetary Superpower: As Strong As Ever

In a forthcoming paper, Chris Crowe and I argue the Fed is a monetary superpower:
[A] defining feature of the US financial system is that its central bank, the Federal Reserve, has inordinate influence over global monetary conditions. Because of this influence, it shapes the growth path of global aggregate demand more than any other central bank does. This global reach of the Federal Reserve arises for three reasons. 
First, many emerging and some advanced economies either explicitly or implicitly peg their currency to the US dollar given its reserve currency status. Doing so, as first noted by Mundell (1963), implies these countries have delegated their monetary policy to the Federal Reserve as they have moved towards open capital markets over the past few decades. 
These “dollar bloc” countries, in other words, have effectively set their monetary policies on autopilot, exposed to the machinations of US monetary policy. Consequently, when the Federal Reserve adjusts its target interest rate or engages in quantitative easing, the periphery economies pegging to the dollar mostly follow suit with similar adjustments to their own monetary conditions.  
[...] 
The second reason for the global reach of US monetary policy is that a large and growing share of global credit is denominated in dollars. That means the Federal Reserve’s influence over the dollar’s value gives it influence over the external debt burdens of many countries.  
[...] 
The third reason for the extended reach of US monetary policy is that other  advanced- economy central banks are likely to be mindful of, and respond to, Federal Reserve policy given the large size of the dollar bloc...  These  findings imply that even  inflation- targeting central banks in advanced economies with developed financial markets are not immune from the influence of Federal Reserve policy. This has led Rey (2013, 2015) to argue that the standard macroeconomic trilemma view is incomplete. 
There is more in our article, but I wanted to share this excerpt because a new working paper from Ethan Ilzetzki, Carmen Reinhart, and Kenneth Rogoff sheds light on our claim that Fed is a monetary superpower. 

Specifically, this new paper shows that contrary to conventional wisdom exchange rate regimes across the world have not become significantly more flexible since the end of the Bretton Woods System. This surprising finding is backed up by a large cross-country data set that spans the period 1946-2015. Moreover, they show that the limited exchange rate flexibility has coincided with an expanding reach of the dollar. From their abstract:
Our central finding is that the US dollar scores (by a wide margin) as the world’s dominant anchor currency and, by some metrics, its use is far wider today than 70 years ago. 
Here is the key chart from their paper as it relates the monetary superpower argument. It shows the share of world GDP that has the dollar as its anchor currency:


What this graph implies is that about 70 percent of world GDP has its monetary policy effectively set by the FOMC! Given the size of the dollar bloc and its spillover effects, it is likely the Fed's total influence on global monetary conditions is even larger. 

This is staggering. It means that twelve Fed officials that meet in Washington D.C. largely determine global monetary conditions. The Fed is truly a monetary superpower. 

Related Links