Posts Tagged ‘liquidity trap’

How do you do it?

16 November 2011

Count me among the skeptics who believe the Fed has pretty much already done all it can to pull the economy out of the deep hole that it’s in. Zero short-term interest rates, purchases of longer-term bonds to keep long-term rates at historic lows, backstopping various asset markets, emergency loans to banks, etc. It’s helped avert a Second Great Depression, which is nothing to sneeze at. Some economists who I usually agree with are convinced that aggressive new policies could pull us out of the current Little Depression, too. They’re smarter than I am, but they have yet to convince me that these policies could work.

The tonic du jour is nominal GDP targeting, by which the Fed would try to reach a certain level of nominal GDP — say, $16. 3 trillion (the current level of potential GDP assuming that, as I’ve read, current GDP is 7% below its potential. Do the math and that’s a $1.1 trillion gap between current and potential GDP). Christina Romer, Obama’s first head of the Council of Economic Advisors, recently backed this approach in a New York Times op-ed. Scott Sumner has been pushing it all along, and there’s now a whole new school of macroeconomics, “market monetarism,” which revolves around nominal GDP targeting. (Economists: see here for Ed Dolan’s helpful explanation of how nominal GDP targeting is a form of Milton Friedman-style monetarism.)

Now, once the Fed announces this new target, how does it actually get there? Romer provides the clearest answer I’ve seen yet:

‘Though announcing the new framework would help, it probably wouldn’t be enough to close the nominal G.D.P. gap anytime soon. The Fed would need to take additional steps. These might include further quantitative easing, more forceful promises about short-term interest rates, and perhaps moves to lower the exchange rate. . . .’

‘Nominal G.D.P. targeting would make it more likely that the Fed would take these aggressive actions.’

That’s clear, but so is weak tea. None of these actions sound all that different from what the Fed is already doing. Proponents of nominal GDP targeting seem to be counting on a huge “announcement effect,” i.e., that people will hear about the Fed’s commitment to raising GDP and will assume that Fed will make it happen. Yet the Fed’s goals already include maximum sustainable employment, which is the employment rate you’d have at potential GDP, so why should this change the public’s behavior? (Although there is a difference between monetary policy goals, like low unemployment, and targets, which now include interest rates, it’s a rather subtle one. I don’t see why it would move markets.)

Another popular tonic is a higher inflation target. Right now the Fed’s unofficial but almost universally acknowledged inflation target is 2%, and for the past few years the core inflation rate has been below or near 2%. When inflation is very low, real interest rates (nominal interest rates minus inflation) can still be high even when nominal rates are also low. In the U.S. in the early 1930s, for example, nominal rates plunged toward 0%, but deflation was raging, so real interest rates were actually quite high. Economic historian Nick Crafts, in a Financial Times op-ed, says that Britain’s recovery from the Great Depression was greatly aided by a combination of low nominal interest rates and rising inflation rates — i.e., negative real interest rates — which promoted homebuilding. Crafts says targeting a higher inflation rate — say, 4% — could do the trick today.

Again, I just don’t see how you get there. Would I like to see lower real interest rates? Sure. But for 4% inflation to happen, a lot of other things have to happen first. Banks need to loan out their excess reserves, people and businesses need to buy stuff with those loans, the money needs to be redeposited in banks,  more loans need to be made, etc. That’s how monetary policy works — when it works. Right now, the banks have over a trillion dollars in excess reserves that they’re just sitting on. Banks are not eager to lend, and businesses and households are not eager to borrow. Classic liquidity trap.

Nominal GDP targeting and higher inflation targets sound radical, but are they? Chicago Fed President Charles Evans said in a speech this week that he viewed the 2% inflation target as a medium-run target, not a short-run target, saying that as long as inflation averaged out to 2% over a multi-year period, higher inflation rates would be acceptable in the short term. That statement is consistent with either a nominal GDP target (shoot for low inflation when real GDP is high, tolerate higher inflation when real GDP is low) or an inflation target (let inflation rise when unemployment is high), which suggests that neither of those policies is all that new. Both seem to promise much more than they could ever deliver.

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We’re caught in a trap

15 November 2011

This just in: The Federal Reserve does not control the universe.

Stated differently: The economy is in a liquidity trap (macroeconomists). Or, monetary policy has shot its wad (Pres. Obama to economic adviser Christina Romer in their first meeting, according to Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men). Krugman has been saying this for three years now, and so have a lot of other economists. But until today, I had yet to hear it from a Fed official. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has called for Congress to pursue a more expansionary policy fiscal policy, thus implying but not explicitly saying that the Fed has done just about all it can. But in a speech today, Chicago Fed President and Federal Open Market Committee member Charles Evans had the guts to state the obvious:

I largely agree with economists such as Paul Krugman, Mike Woodford and others who see the economy as being in a liquidity trap: Short-term nominal interest rates are stuck near zero, even while desired saving still exceeds desired investment. This situation is the natural result of the abundance of caution exercised by many households and businesses that still worry that they have inadequate buffers of assets to cushion against unexpected shocks. Such caution holds back spending below the levels of our productive capacity. For example, I regularly hear from business contacts that they do not want to risk hiring new workers until they actually see an uptick in demand for their products. Most businesses do not appear to be cutting back further at the moment, but they would rather sit on cash than take the risk of further expansion.”

Evans went on to suggest a number of measures the Fed should still take, like buying up more mortgage-backed securities to get the housing market going (I’m still on the fence on that one — yes, this is the economy’s weakest sector, but how do you do this without reinflating the housing bubble?), while keeping mum on the subject of whether this would do anything more than just nudge the economy forward, as opposed to bringing us anywhere near full employment. I suppose the question is moot, as long as nobody else is willing to act. Congress is not only unwilling to consider fiscal stimulus but seems to be on the verge of massive budget cuts, either by following the “super committee’s” blueprint or letting an autopilot crash the plane.

Hat tip to Judith Osofsky for today’s video:

Bummer in the summer (updated)

22 June 2011

In today’s press conference Bernanke acknowledges the obvious: the economy is worse than we thought and likely to stay that way into 2012.  The Fed lowered its official economic growth forecasts and raised its unemployment rate forecasts for 2011-2012. After almost two years of slow but steady recovery and myriad positive straws that one could grasp, the last couple of months have brought mostly lousy news, notably the latest jobs report, which showed a gain of just 54,000 jobs last month, only about a quarter or a sixth as many as we’d need to get unemployment down to normal levels in five years or so.

It’s notable that the imminent end of the Fed’s quantitative easing, all $600 billion of which will be over by the end of the month, brings few calls for another round — everyone seems to agree that we’re in a liquidity trap, in which further monetary stimulus fails to stimulate, because interest rates are already practically 0%, banks are not eager to lend, and companies are not eager to invest in new capital.*

Our best hope, it seems to me, is an almost nihilistic one: the economy somehow recovers on its own, through black-box mechanisms that we still don’t really understand. Business confidence returns, hiring finally picks up, and the economy roars forth. This may be a vain hope, but the “animal spirits” of investors (and consumers) that Keynes wrote about in The General Theory are not really visible, despite the several monthly surveys of business sentiment that are out there.

Our next best hope is another fiscal stimulus. It won’t be like the first one, which is about to run out and was too small anyway, not with a Republican majority in the House that believes spending = death and doesn’t even want to avert a financial crisis by raising the debt ceiling unless the Democrats agree to massive long-term spending cuts. But I could see the two parties agreeing on a big set of tax cuts, which is the usual form that a fiscal stimulus takes anyway (e.g., 1964, 1981, 2001).  That has a couple of disadvantages: (1) the “multiplier” effect of a tax cut on GDP is typically empirically estimated to be smaller than that of a spending increase of equal size, because not all of a tax cut gets spent; (2) tax cuts are hard to reverse, as everyone hates seeing their taxes go up, so they could make the long-term debt problem much worse. Still, it’s probably the only politically viable option for a fiscal stimulus.

* The last part of that statement (companies are not eager to invest in new capital) is less true than I had thought. As the Wall Street Journal article linked to below notes, a survey of banks indicated that small businesses were demanding more loans, at least in the first quarter of the year.

UPDATE: This Associated Press article from the next day’s newspapers adds some helpful detail. The headline from the Syracuse Post-Standard’s version of that article says it all: “Slow Economy a Puzzle: Fed chief flummoxed, says troubles could last a while.” My quick take:

(1) The economy has long been in a liquidity trap (Krugman’s definition, i.e., a slump in which monetary policy is no longer effective).

(2) Bernanke has long suspected this himself, but as Fed Chairman he feels obligated to try to stimulate the economy through monetary policy, via unusual, unprecedented channels “that just might work” like QE2.

(3) QE2 has failed to measurably stimulate the economy, because the economy was in a liquidity trap.

(4) Liquidity trap or not, it’s not easy for the Fed to just throw in the towel, so a QE3 might well happen. But I doubt the Street will get all that excited about it, considering what a dud QE2 seems to have been.