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Could Central Banks do More during the Crisis?

September 7, 2018 3 comments

I rarely disagree with Martin Sandbu’s Free Lunch. But today’s piece on central banks is one of these cases.

In short, Martin argues that while the main culprit for the slow recovery is fiscal policy, almost everywhere too timid if not outright procyclical (we are all on board on that!), the mistakes of fiscal authorities do not exempt central banks from bearing part of the responsibility. In particular, he dismisses the claim that it was technically impossible to lower long-term interest rates further, and/or bring policy rates even more into negative territory.

I agree with this point. Interest rates could have been lowered further. Nevertheless, I think that this would have made very little difference, because after 2008 central banks were essentially pushing on a string.  This point of disagreement between us can be traced to a different view about what is the liquidity trap.

I recently published a book, La Scienza inutile (a general public account of a century of debates in macroeconomics. For the moment it is in Italian and in French, English translation in progress), in which I discuss the different notions of liquidity trap. Here is the quote (sorry, a bit too long):

 The first source of trouble that Keynes considers is the most extreme, the so-called liquidity trap: `There is the possibility, […] that, after the rate of interest has fallen to a certain level, liquidity-preference may become virtually absolute in the sense that almost everyone prefers cash to holding a debt which yields so low a rate of interest. In this event the monetary authority would have lost effective control over the rate of interest’ (Keynes 1936, p.207). In slightly more technical terms, the interest elasticity of money demand is near-infinite: no matter how much liquidity the central bank injects into the economy, it is entirely hoarded by agents and hence it leaks out of the system in its entirety. Monetary expansion is not effective in lowering interest rates.

There may be different reasons why the economy enters a liquidity trap. Keynes argued, by looking at the great depression, that this usually happens at very low (but not necessarily nil) levels of the interest rate, because in this case agents would expect interest rates to rise in the future and thus would be willing to hold any extra amount of money and postpone the purchase of bonds to the moment when interest rates will be up again. More recently the liquidity trap has been defined as a situation in which the interest rate that equates savings and investment is negative, and therefore cannot be attained by the central bank (the so-called Zero Lower Bound, or ZLB; see e.g. Krugman 2000). This latter definition leaves some room for monetary policy effectiveness: if the central bank manages to trigger the expectation of positive inflation, the real interest rate (the nominal interest rate minus the inflation rate) will become negative and lead to the full employment equilibrium.

So, if we think in terms of ZLB, it exists a real interest rate at which the output gap would be closed. If that interest rate is negative, then it is harder to reach, as central banks need to raise inflation expectations and try to push short term rates as much as possible in negative territory, which requires boldness and creativity (we have seen this). But, once again I agree with Martin on that, this can be done. If instead private expenditure becomes irresponsive to interest rates, the ‘Keynes definition’, then there is little central banks could do. I had noticed, back in 2016, that while it succeeded in easing credit conditions, EMU Quantitative Easing seemed to have done little to boost confidence and expected demand (the ultimate driver of firm’s credit needs). The EMU most recent Bank Lending Survey seems to confirm the prediction of the time. Both chart 4 (enterprises) and chart 12 (households) depict a flat demand for loans, that picks up only when the EMU economic outlook brightens.

This is by no means hard evidence (I am not aware of any papers thoroughly investigating the impact of QE on credit demand). But stylized facts seem to acquit central bankers.

 

 

ps

The two works cited in the quote:

Keynes, J. M. (1936). The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. London: McMillan.

Krugman, P. (2000). Thinking About the Liquidity Trap. Journal of the Japanese and International Economies 14(4), 221–237.

The Magic Trick of Inflation Targeting

February 9, 2016 3 comments

FT Alphaville‘s Matthew Klein goes back to the issue of financial stability and monetary policy. A recent speech of Bank of Canada’s Timothy Lane is the occasion for Klein to reassess monetary policy before the crisis, when policy makers (in particular he refers to Ben Bernanke, but the Fed chair was in good company) dismissed fears of asset price bubbles, thus failing recognize, and to counter, the buildup of the crisis.

What I find interesting in Lane’s speech is the acknowledgement that monetary policy alone is vastly insufficient to attain the many interrelated objectives of today’s policy makers. This in turn calls for reassessing the drift of academic economists (in the 1990s and 2000s) towards  a vision of the world in which all policy objectives could be attained by “Maestros“, almighty technocrats skillfully using monetary levers to reach multiple objectives at once.

With a few colleagues we recently challenged the “conventional wisdom” that inflation targeting central banks can effectively attain financial stability as well, simply by “leaning against the wind”. We highlighted that this violation of Timbergen’s principle (“one instrument per policy objective”) is allowed by an analytical trick, a “divine coincidence”, buried within the hypotheses of the standard model. Asessing policy analysis in a framework in which low and stable inflation goes hand in hand with low unemployment and stable asset prices, will lead to conclude that (what a surprise!!) targeting inflation helps attaining all these objectives at once. Our work (among others) shows that price and financial stability exhibit no stable correlation; similarly, the debate on the “return of the Phillips Curve” (if ever it left) shows that a tradeoff usually exists between inflation and unemployment objectives. Thus, in the end, inflation targeting is mostly effective in, well… targeting inflation.  There is no magics here. The Consensus buried Timbergen way too soon.

The debate on the effective use of instruments to attain sometimes conflicting objectives is particularly interesting in general and, I argue, relevant for the EMU. As the readers of this blog know, I have been obsessed by the excessive focus of (mainly) European economists and policy makers on monetary policy. Especially in the current situation of liquidity trap, the stubborn refusal to fully deploy fiscal policy can only be explained by ideological anti-Keynesianism.

But as Timothy Lane’s speech suggests, the problem extends beyond the current exceptional circumstances. As normal times will (eventually) resume, we should go back to Timbergen and acknowledge that monetary policy alone cannot cure all ills. Fiscal policy and effective regulation need to be used as aggressively as interest rates and monetary instruments to manage business cycle fluctuation. A trivial and yet often forgotten lesson from the old times.

What is Mainstream Economics?

November 29, 2013 14 comments

Paul Krugman and Simon Wren-Lewis have been widely criticized (for example here) as defending  “mainstream” economics that spectacularly failed during the crisis (and before).

My (very short) take on this: I do believe that Krugman has a point, a very good one, when claiming that standard textbook analysis is (almost) all you need to understand the current crisis, and to implement the correct policy solutions.
The point is what we define as “textbook analysis”. Krugman refers to IS-LM models. But these, that starting in the 1980s virtually disappeared from graduate curricula because supposedly too simplistic, not grounded on optimization, not intertemporal, and so on and so forth.
I personally was exposed to these ideas in my undergraduate studies in Italy, and I still teach them (besides using them to discuss the crisis with my students). But they were nowhere to be found during my graduate studies at Columbia (certainly not a freshwater school). None of the macro I studied in graduate school (Real Business Cycle models, or their fixed-price variant proposed by New Keynesians) as interesting as it was intellectually, could give me insight on the crisis. I simply do not need to use it.

The IS-LM model with minor amendments (most notably properly accounting for expectations to deal among other things with liquidity traps) remains a powerful tool to understand current phenomena. The problem is that it is not mainstream at all. What bothers me in Krugman’s post is the word “standard”, not “textbook analysis”.

Does Central Bank Independence Need Inflation Targeting?

January 22, 2013 1 comment

Two articles on today’s Financial Times  puzzle me. The first (Weidmann warns of currency war risk) offers yet another example of how economic analysis sometimes leaves the way to ideological beliefs. The Bundesbank’s president argues (as he already did in the past) that giving up inflation targeting hampers central bank independence. How? Why? He does not bother explaining.

What I think he has in mind is that once the objective of the central bank goes beyond strict inflation targeting, monetary policy needs an arbitrage between often conflicting objectives (typically unemployment and inflation). It is the essence of the dual mandate. This of course moves monetary policy out of the realm of technocratic choice, and makes it a political institution (Stephen King explains it nicely). I would argue that this is normal once we abandon the ideal-type of frictionless neoclassical economics, and we accept that we may have a tradeoff between inflation and unemployment.  But this is not the issue here. The issue, and the puzzle, is why transforming the choice from technocratic to political, should necessarily lead to giving up independence. Read more

Austerity and Ideology

January 8, 2013 6 comments

Wolfgang Munchau has another interesting editorial on austerity, in yesterday’s Financial Times. He argues that the US may become the next paying member of the austerity club, thus making the perspective of another lost decade certain.

Munchau’s article could be the n-th plea against austerity, as one can by now read everywhere (except in Berlin or in Brussels; but this is another story). What caught my attention are two paragraphs in particular.

Read more…

Economic Theories and Technocratic Governments

November 21, 2012 4 comments

The upcoming Italian elections triggered an interesting debate on the choices ahead, and on the role of technocratic governments. A few days ago the Italian journalist Barbara Spinelli published on the daily La Repubblica a masterly analysis (in Italian) of the difficulties faced by a political sphere that seems incapable, or unwilling, to reclaim from technocrats the task of governing, by which I mean the right/duty to choose between policies with different economic and social consequences.

To an economist, Spinelli’s analysis is a source of further thoughts on the role of choice in economic theory and policy, with important consequences not only for Italy but also for the path that the European construction will walk in the coming years.

Read more…

On Fiscal Rules and the Need for Reforming the Stability Pact

February 27, 2012 1 comment

I recently wrote a paper with Jerome Creel and Paul Hubert, in which we try to assess the impact of the different fiscal rules that are being discussed for reforming the Eurozone governance. For our simulations we took into account the standard Keynesian positive effects of deficit spending: Government expenditure substitutes missing private demand, and hence supports economic activity. But we also embedded a negative effect of deficit and debt, that goes through increased interest rates (the famous spreads). High interest rates make it harder for the private sector to finance spending, and hence depress aggregate demand and growth. We assessed the performance of the rules in terms of average growth over the next 20 years.

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(Bad) Arguments Against Debt Monetization

November 21, 2011 3 comments

I think it is useful to list, and assess, the main arguments advanced against an enhanced role of the ECB as a lender/buyer of last resort. I can think of four of them: credibility, inflation, irrelevance, ineffectiveness.

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A Sad Day

October 19, 2011 2 comments

A few days ago Pierangelo Garegnani passed away. A good summary of his contribution to the debate on economic theory can be found here, and a slightly more technical one here.

He has been my first teacher. It is thanks to him that I understood, very young, that the Keynesian principle of effective demand is not a simple special case of the neoclassical theory. Just a few weeks ago I went back to his 1979 CJE controversy on effective demand with Joan Robinson that is surprisingly actual.

But, above all, he taught me rigour, attention to the internal consistency of an argument, and love for economic theory, meant as a conceptual lens to make sense of a complex reality. I had lost him of sight, for a number of reasons of no interest. But his lesson has been invaluable along all my career, and will continue to be. A Maestro…

It is a sad day.