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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.