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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 Euro Debate: Back to Square One

November 20, 2017 2 comments

I was glad to write a preface for the Italian translation (La moneta rinnegata) of Martin Sandbu’s latest effort (Europe’s Orphan). A somewhat shorter version can be found on the website of LuissOpen.

In a few sentences, I believe that the interest of the book lies in two points:

  • First, its rebuttal of the “flawed euro” narrative. This narrative is shared by euro skeptics and federalists (including myself more often than not), and it fatally hurts the capacity of the latter to win the argument. If the euro is flawed, and if a political union is not in the cards, then it is hard to argue against XX-exiters with arguments other than fear. And fear (Brexit docet) does not work.
  • Second, Sandbu shows masterfully something I have also been saying, much less effectively: institutions (and money is one) do not make policies. People do. None of the policy mistakes that disseminate the euro crisis Via Crucis  was inevitable. In the piece for LuissOpen I notice that institutions may still bias the choice in certain directions (think of the Stability Pact), but in spite of that I join Sandbu in believing that the Euro is the scapegoat for policies that could and should have been different. La moneta rinnegata, indeed.

I would add something, that came to my mind after I had sent out the piece. Sandbu puts at the center of his narrative the issue of debt restructuring. It is the refusal of EU creditors to consider forgiveness for a debt that was anyway never to be repaid, that led to self-defeating austerity. Sharing the burden (debt relief) would have entailed lower costs and eventually, would have increased resilience and more sustainable public finances. The IMF recognized this fundamental contradiction, but the other creditors (must notably Germany) did not.

And they still don’t. I believe that the whole debate about risk sharing versus risk reduction, that shapes the discussion on EMU reforms, replicates the fault lines we saw at work for debt crisis management. On one side those who believe that market mechanisms or policy constraints, alone, cannot dampen the centrifugal forces that are inevitably built in any monetary union. On the other, those who believe that the collective convergence will happen once each member behaves, so that enhanced rules and firewalls are all that is needed for the euro to thrive.

Thus Sandbu’s book helps making sense of what happened, but also to assess the proposals for the future. Refusal to share costs linked to the debt crisis turned out to be a huge mistake. We should avoid making another one by refusing to fight divergence through risk sharing.