Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ramesh Ponnuru on the 'test' of Market Monetarism

Ramesh Ponnuru has an article in the National Review where he revisits the 'test' of Market Monetarism put forth by Paul Krugman and Mike Konczal in 2013. Here is Ramesh:

The story begins in late 2012. The Federal Reserve had begun its third round of monetary expansion following the economic crisis of 2008. Keynesian economists were sounding an alarm about the deficit-cutting measures — a combination of tax increases and spending cuts — that were scheduled to take effect at the start of 2013. Rapid deficit reduction, they warned, would harm the economy. A letter from 350 economists referred to “automatic ‘sequestration’ spending cuts everyone agrees should be stopped to prevent a double-dip recession.”
It is worth  noting that these concerns about a double-dip recession were translated into explicit forecasts about the number of jobs that would be lost. Estimates ranged from 660,000 to 1,800,000 jobs would be lost as can be seen be below:

Estimate of Sequester Impact on Employment
Promoted by
Congressional Budget Office
750,000 to 1,600,000 jobs lost
Here and here
Macroeconomic Advisers
700,000 jobs lost
Bipartisian Policy Center
1,000,000 jobs lost
1,800,000 jobs lost
Economic Policy Institute
660,000 jobs lost

Now back to Ramesh:
David Beckworth, a professor of economics now at Western Kentucky University, and I challenged this view. In an op-ed for The Atlantic’s website, we wrote that the Federal Reserve could offset any negative effect that deficit reduction might have on the economy.


In April, the liberal economics writer Mike Konczal resurrected an op-ed that Beckworth and I had written for The New Republic in 2011 making the same basic argument about the power of monetary policy, which is associated with a school of thought sometimes called “market monetarism.” He wrote: “We rarely get to see a major, nationwide economic experiment at work, but so far 2013 has been one of those experiments — specifically, an experiment to try and do exactly what Beckworth and Ponnuru proposed... Krugman concurred with Konczal, writing that “we are in effect getting a test of the market monetarist view right now” and “the results aren’t looking good for the monetarists.”

Read the rest to learn how the 'test' turned out.  Here is my own take on how the test turned out.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Fool Me Once, Shame on You; Fool Me Twice Shame on Me.

Update: Here is the second half of my interview which aired on Tuesday.

On Friday I was interviewed by Erin Ade on Boom Bust. We discussed why the Eurozone is not an optimal currency area--low labor mobility, limited fiscal transfers, differing regional business cycles--and why this means a one-size-fits all monetary policy is bound to make problems for this monetary union. 

This discussion was a follow-up to a recent post where I illustrated the challenges of a one-size-fits-all monetary policy by plotting Taylor rules for the Eurozone's core and periphery economies. These Taylor rules prescribe very different interest rates for these two regions since the Euro's inception, yet there is only one interest rate target. What to do? The chart below, which was used on Boom Bust, reveals what the ECB did in practice:

Note that the ECB policy rate (grey) and the core Taylor rule rate (green) track each other relatively closely. This means the ECB adjusted its interest rate target in a manner more consistent with the core economies. It also means the ECB policy was destabilizing for the periphery. For example, it was far too easy for the periphery prior to 2008--helping fuel the run up in debt, soaring asset prices, and current account deficits in those economies--while after that time it has been far too tight. For the core, ECB policy has been about right since 2010. This explains, in part, the ECB's reluctance to ease since then.

Interestingly, this is not the first time European monetary policy has served to stabilize the core economies while destabilizing the periphery. The first go-round occurred in 1992 under the European Monetary System (EMS). Under this arrangement, each country had their own currency but was pegged to the German Deutsche Mark. This meant European monetary policy was effectively set by the Bundesbank in Germany. Unsurprisingly, what was good monetary policy for Germany--the core economy--was not necessarily good for the periphery. 

This became apparent in 1992 when Germany, worried about overheating from the spending on its reunification, decided to tighten monetary policy. To maintain their pegs, the EMS countries had to follow suit and tighten too. For many countries, though, this was hard to do because their economies were already weakening. Monetary policy, in other words, was tightening in order to stabilize the core economy even though the periphery needed easing. In the United Kingdom and Italy the pain of this tightening proved to much and they were forced to leave the EMS. Other periphery countries like Spain and Portugal limped along.

So the problems in the Eurozone periphery since 2010 are an eerie Deja Vu of the 1992 EMS experience. In hindsight, then, it seems that the periphery should have known better than to try a second monetary marriage with the core economies. As the saying goes, fool me once shame on you; fool me twice shame on me. The core economies continue to have the upper hand when it comes to the conduct of monetary policy in the Europe. And it does not seem that this will change anytime soon. This is a lesson the periphery needs to learn.

Update: What this all means is that even if the current Greek crisis gets resolved, there will be more crises in the future for the Eurozone. It is unlikely that peripheral conturies will undergo the structural change needed to make them succeed in a Eurozone whose monetary policy favors the core. So at some point it seems likely that the history of the UK and Italy leaving the EMS in 1992 will be repeated in the Eurozone.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Negative Interest Rates, the ZLB, and True Capitalists

After six years of low interest rates many yields are now crossing the zero percent boundary. Interest rates in Europe and Australia have turned negative on some government and corporate bonds. The decline of these interest rates into negative territory has caused much consternation among two groups of observers.

The first group astonished by this development are those who believed interest rates were pegged by the 'zero lower bound' (ZLB). Interest rates were not supposed to go below zero percent because one could always hold physical cash and earn zero percent rather than holding bank accounts that earned a negative interest rate. Consequently, a breaching of the ZLB has been mind-blowing for some folks. Here, for example, is Matt Yglesias:
Something really weird is happening in Europe. Interest rates on a range of debt... have gone negative.In my experience, ordinary people are not especially excited about this. But among finance and economic types, I promise you that it's a huge deal — the economics equivalent of stumbling into a huge scientific discovery entirely by accident.
Paul Krugman similarly observes that crossing the ZLB is something he never expected. While many are surprised, the key idea behind the ZLB still holds. At some point it will become worthwhile to hold cash rather than bank deposits earning a negative return. It is just not at zero percent because of storage costs as recently noted by Evan Soltas and David Keohane. So if interest rates continue to fall they will eventually hit the effective lower bound and currency demand will soar.  

It is worth pointing out that JP Koning has been making this point about storage costs and the ZLB for a long time. For example, he had a post back in 2014 discussing the implications of the ECB's large €500 note for ZLB:
The ECB has differentiated itself from almost all other developed country central banks by issuing a mega-large note denomination, the €500 note... The €500 note creates a uniquely European problem because its large real value reduces the cost of storing cash and therefore raises the eurozone's lower bound. Think about it this way. To get $1 million in cash you need ten thousand $100 bills. With the €500 note, you need only 1,545 banknotes, or about one-eighth the volume of dollar notes required to get to $1 million. This means that owners of euros require less vault space for the same real quantity of funds, allowing them to reduce storage costs as well as shipping & handling expenses. In other words, the €500 note is far more convenient than the $100 note, the €100, the £100, the ¥10,000, or any other note out there (we'll ignore the Swiss). Thus if Draghi were to reduce rates to -0.25%, or even -0.35%, the existence of the not-so-inconvenient €500 very quickly begins to provide a very worthy alternative to negative yielding ECB deposits. The lower bound isn't so low anymore.

All the more reason to remove the €500 note in order to provide the ECB with further downward flexibility in interest rates. If the existence of the €500 note means that Draghi can't push rates below, say, -0.35% without mass cash conversion occurring... but the removal of said note from circulation allows him to drop that rate to -0.65% before the cash tipping point, then he's bought himself an extra three rate reductions by removing the €500.
So in addition to its problematic monetary policy, the ECB also has a €500 note that makes it harder for interest rates to reach their market-clearing levels. (Yes, this is a currency union that seems designed for failure.) Institutional details matter and JP Konign is one of the best on this when it comes to monetary policy. 

So the ZLB is still binding in spirit if not exactly at zero percent. Fortunately, there are ways to get around it without eliminating currency.

The second group that finds the move into negative interest rates unsettling do so for a different reason. They see it as another step by central banks to artificially push down interest rates. This is problematic for some, like Bill Gross, because it means financial markets are being distorted. For others, like Robert Higgs, the low-interest rate policy is troubling because it is causing the immiseration of people living on interest income

In both cases the premise is that central banks are causing interest rates to remain low. But this premise assumes too much. It could be the case that central banks over the past six years were adjusting their interest rate targets to match where the market-clearing or 'natural' interest rate was going. That is, as the economy weakened interest rates naturally would have fallen and, given the severity of the crisis, may have gone well below zero. Central banks were simply attempting to follow the market-clearing interest rate down, but decided to stop at zero percent because they believed they could not go any further. Even though we now know monetary authorities had some wiggle room left beneath zero percent, they still would have been constrained by the effective lower bound had they kept pushing.

The irony of this is that the Bill Gross and Robert Higgs of the world, who usually are free-market advocates, should be in favor of allowing interest rates to fall when necessary. They believe in the power of prices to clear markets, so they should be open to the possibility that sometimes--in severe crises like the Great Depression or Great Recessions--interest rates may need to go negative in order to clear output markets. If so, it is incorrect for them to ascribe the low interest rates to Fed policy since it was simply chasing after a falling natural interest rate. 

This understanding also means that the effective lower bound on interest rates is a price floor that distorts markets. And any good capitalist worth his salt should be in favor of abolishing this price floor and allowing prices to work. On this point, Paul Krugman is a better capitalist than Bill Gross or Robert Higgs since Krugman believes interest rates are low because of the economy, not the Fed.

That the market-clearing interest rate turned negative over the past six has been borne out in multiple studies. One prominent study that shows this is a 2012 Peter Ireland paper in the Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking. Another example comes from Michael Darda of MKM Partners. He estimates the market clearing interest rate by looking at the historical relationship between the federal funds rate and slack in the prime-age working force plus a risk premium. His estimated market clearing interest rate--the estimated Wicksellian equilibrium nominal short rate--also shows a negative value over this period.

So be careful when thinking about interest rates. They may be negative for good reasons.

P.S. Ramesh Ponnuru and I make the same point about negative market-clearing rates on the pages of the National Review, though we suggest an alternative approach that would avoid hitting the ZLB in the first place. We are hoping to reach out to our fellow conservatives who fail to see this point. This understanding also has implications for the balance-sheet view of the recession.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Paul Krugman Needs a T-Shirt

Paul Krugman is frustrated (my bold):
In my own case, I’d guess that about 80 percent of what I’ve had to say about macroeconomics since the crisis was prefigured in my 1998 liquidity trap paper, which was classic MIT style — a stylized little model backed by and applied to real-world events, with lots of data used simply. (Seriously, skim that piece and you’ll see why I sometimes seem so frustrated: People keep rolling out arguments I showed were wrong all those years ago, or trotting out arguments I made back then as something new and somehow a challenge to conventional wisdom.)
Here is a carton figure from an earlier post where I manage to depict Krugman's frustration. Look closely at his t-shirt, it says it all. To be clear, I agree with the key point of Krugman's 1998 paper: for monetary policy to have a meaningful effect on a depressed economy it has to commit to permanent monetary injections. And that is something the Fed failed to do over the past six years.

P.S. Here is the shirt Scott Sumner is wearing. You can purchase it.

The Origins of the Eurozone Monetary Policy Crisis

I made the case in my last post that the Eurozone crisis was largely a monetary policy crisis. That is, had the ECB lowered interest rates sooner and begun its QE program six years ago the fate of the Eurozone would be more certain. Instead it raised interest rates in 2008 and 2011, waited until this year to begin QE, and allowed inflation expectations to drift down. In short, had the ECB been more Fed-like the Eurozone crisis would have been far milder.

This begs the question as to why the ECB failed to act more Fed-like. Why did it effectively keep monetary policy so tight for so long?

To answer these questions it important to note that there were actually two stages to the Eurozone crisis. The first stage began in 2008 when the ECB raised interest rates just as the Eurzone economy began to weaken. This explicit tightening along with the subsequent failure of the ECB to offset the passive tightening of monetary policy through 2009 adversely affected all of the Eurozone. In this stage nominal spending--or aggregate demand--fell in both the core and periphery economies. Consequently, real economic activity also collapsed in both regions. This can be seen in the two figures below. The first figure shows nominal spending for the two regions while the second one reports real GDP growth and the change in the unemployment rate.1

The above two figures also point to the second stage of the Eurozone crisis which begins in 2010. The first figure shows that while aggregate demand continues to grow in the core regions (albeit below trend) after 2010, it actually falls in the periphery. Likewise, the second figure shows that for the 2010-2013 period real GDP growth rises and the unemployment rate falls for the core, while the opposite happens to the periphery. The core heals while the periphery bleeds during this stage.

What these figures suggest is that the first stage of the crisis was a Eurozone-wide monetary crisis, while the second stage was only a regional Eurozone monetary crisis. In other words, the first stage of the crisis was not that different than what happened in the United States during 2008-2009. And for the core economies as a whole the ECB was sort of Fed-like for them after 2010. It was, then, the periphery economies that suffered from the absence of Fed-like policy after 2010.

This notion is borne out by looking at Taylor rules fitted to these two regional economies. Following the work of Fernando Nechio, I created Taylor rules for these two regions and plotted them alongside the actual ECB policy interest rates:2

This figure shows that monetary policy was too tight in 2008-2009 for both regions, but afterwards it was too-tight only for the periphery. Hence, the second stage of crisis was a regional monetary policy crisis localized to the periphery.

The fact that second stage of the crisis was a regional one speaks to what I see is the real underlying reason for the monetary policy crisis: the Eurozone is an unequally yoked currency union. It has member states that have economies so vastly different that applying an one-size-fits-all monetary policy is bound to create problems.

The Taylor rules in the figure above vividly illustrate s this problem. It shows a persistent pattern of the ECB setting its interest rate target in a manner more consistent with the core economies. For example, when the Eurozone first formed in 1999 the core economies--particularly Germany--were struggling so the ECB lowered interest rates to accommodate them. Doing this, however, meant monetary policy was way too loose for the periphery as seen by the large gap between the red and dashed lines above. Monetary policy would continue to stay too loose for the periphery up through 2008. After the crisis, ECB policy has again been more consistent with the core economies, but this time it has meant monetary policy has been too tight for the periphery.

Think about what this means for the periphery. Countries like Greece, Ireland, and Spain were on average growing in nominal terms anywhere from about 8 to 15 percent between 1999 and 2004. The ECB policy rate during this time averaged near 2 percent. This large spread between the nominal growth of periphery and the low financing costs screamed leverage. It is no surprise there was a buildup of debt, soaring asset prices, and large current account deficits for these economies. Conversely, with persistently tight monetary policy since 2008 it is no wonder the periphery has been in a depression.

The importance of the ECB's monetary policy can be seen if we take the actual difference between the ECB policy rate and the Taylor Rule rate for each country--a measure of the stance of monetary policy--and see how it changed over the 2010-2013 period and then plot these values against the real GDP growth we get the following figure: 

There is a very strong relationship here that indicates how well Eurozone economies fared over the second stage of the crisis depended on the stance of monetary policy. Even if we throw Greece out we still get a good fit:

All of this points to the Eurozone monetary crisis being the product of a poorly designed currency union. It is, in other words, far from being an optimal currency area. From this perspective, the monetary policy crisis in Europe can be thought as a structural crisis that is not going to go away anytime soon. Even a more robust monetary policy by the ECB--say a nominal GDP level target--that kept the periphery from going into a depression might still not solve the structural problem. It might solve the periphery's problems while causing overheating and buildup of imbalances in the core economies. It seems to me, then, ECB monetary policy will continue to create problems for the Eurozone moving forward.

So look forward to more Eurozone crises. Or a breakup.3

1Fernando Nechio of the San Franciso Fed,  I define the core as Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, and the Netherlands while the periphery as Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
2 Like Fernando Nechio, I use the 1999 Taylor Rule. Here I use the harmonized core inflation and the IMF's output gap in the Taylor Rules.
3Alternatively, the periphery economies could reform their economies to be more like the core, but that does not seem likely. Nor does it seem likely that the shock absorbers needed in the Eurozone--increased labor and capital mobility and meaningful fiscal transfers--will be ever be forthcoming. Too much history.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Eurozone Counterfactual

Imagine the ECB had not raised its interest rate target in 2008 and 2011, but had lowered it. Also imagine the ECB began its open-ended QE program back in 2009. Would there now be a brighter future for the Eurozone? If the answer is yes, then the Eurozone economic debacle is at its core a monetary policy crisis.

There are compelling reasons to believe the answer to this counterfactual question is, in fact, yes. A comparison of total money spending growth in the United States and Eurozone is one of them. Unlike the ECB, the Fed did cut its target policy interest rate quickly and implement QE programs. Though these programs were flawed, the Fed was able to promote a stable growth path for total money spending because of them. And it did so despite a tightening of U.S. fiscal policy beginning in 2010. This suggest the ECB could have done the same for the Eurozone economy. Instead, it did not and the growth of Eurozone nominal GDP growth faltered.

Another reason to believe this counterfactual is to note that the aggressive monetary easing outlined above would have addressed, at least partially, a key problem in the Eurozone: the real appreciation of the periphery. Monetary easing would have done this by causing inflation to rise more in those parts of the Eurozone that were closer to full employment. These regions happened to be the core, particularly Germany. The price level, in other words, would have increased more in Germany than in the troubled periphery of the Eurozone. Good and services from the periphery would have become relatively cheaper.  This was one way to a real depreciation of the periphery. Instead, monetary easing was not tried and so a real depreciation occurred through painful deflation in the periphery.  

Now some observers will object and say the Eurozone crisis was actually a debt crisis. It was the consequence of irresponsible government spending policies that finally came home to roost. For some countries like Greece this was true, but for others it was not the case. Spain, for example, was actually running primary surpluses for several years leading up to the crisis. It was the crisis that worsened its debt position, not the other way around. This can be seen in the figure below. It shows Spain's debt-to-GDP ratio was falling until the crisis erupted. The flat-lining of nominal GDP growth closely matches the surge in Spain's debt-to-GDP ration. This is no coincidence.

This pattern holds up more generally across the Eurozone as seen in the next figure.

These figures point to the Eurozone crisis not being a debt crisis, but a monetary one.

Others will contend the Eurozone crisis is actually an austerity crisis. They point to a positive relationship between government spending and real GDP growth in the Eurozone. For example, the figure below replicates for 33 European countries a scatterplot produced by Paul Krugman that shows this relationship.1  This figure reveals a strong relationship between these two series with a R-squared of 63%.

However, if one pulls out non-Eurozone countries (red squares) this relationship disappears while it gets even stronger for the Eurozone countries (blue diamonds) with the R-squared going to 72%. This can be seen below:

This scatterplot suggests, then, that some omitted variable unique to the Eurozone over this time was affecting both regional economies and their level of government spending. The obvious candidate is the tight monetary policy of the Eurozone.

One, however, could reasonably object that the above scatterplot does a poor job reflecting austerity since it only looks at government spending. Austerity could also work through tax changes and more generally, through changes in the government budget balance. To account for this possibility and to control for the effects of the business cycle on fiscal policy, I plot below the 'structural budget balance' as a percent of potential GDP against real GDP growth for the 2010-2013. This measure comes from the IMF's Fiscal Monitor and includes all levels of government.

We see in this figure a positive and fairly strong relationship between the stance of fiscal policy and real GDP growth for the IMF group of advanced economies. However, like before, if we pull out non-Eurozone countries (red squares) this relationship largely disappears while it gets even stronger for the Eurozone countries (blue diamonds) as seen in the higher R-squared. 

So once again, the evidence points to something unique to the Eurozone that affects both the economy and  fiscal policy. The Eurozone's tight monetary policy over this period fits the billing. 

It is reasonable to conclude, then, that had the ECB had not raised its interest rate target in 2008 and 2011, but lowered it and had it started its open-ended QE program back in 2009 there would now be a much brighter future for the Eurozone. Instead, we now face the prospect of a Grexit for which the ECB has only itself to blame.

.1There is a slight difference between this figure and Krugman's. Here I use the entire 2010-2013 period as one data point for each of the 33 countries. Krugman actually uses each year from 2010-2013 for 33 countries as data points. I chose the former approach since it creates a cleaner scatterplot and actually improves the fit (i.e. higher R-squared).   

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.