Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Monetary Policy: Canada and the United States

Since the financial crisis, monetary policy has been strikingly different in Canada and the U.S. The first chart shows overnight nominal interest rates - the overnight money market rate in Canada and fed funds rate in the U.S.
The fed funds rate has been below 0.25% since late 2008, but the Bank of Canada achieved liftoff in mid-2010, and the overnight rate in Canada has been at 1% since then. What about central bank balance sheets?
In Canada the size of the balance sheet increased modestly during the last recession, then declined somewhat. Currently total assets held by the Bank of Canada are slightly less than 5% of GDP. But, as is well-known, successive rounds of quantitative easing (QE) have increased the size of the Fed's balance sheet substantially, to close to 25% of GDP. As is also well-known, QE has lengthened the average maturity of the assets on the Fed's balance sheet. Currently, about 2/3 of the Fed's Treasury security holdings exceed 5 years to maturity, and the Fed holds a large quantity of long-maturity mortgage-backed securities. The next chart shows the composition of the Bank of Canada's portfolio of Canadian government debt.
In contrast to the Fed, which has reduced its holdings of Treasury bills to zero, the Bank of Canada still holds a large fraction of its assets as T-bills, though this fraction has come down since before the financial crisis. However, most of the shift in the Bank of Canada's portfolio was out of T-bills and into government bonds with maturity less than three years. Before the financial crisis, the Bank held about 2/3 of its portfolio of government debt in maturities less than three years, and that is roughly the case currently.

So, since the end of 2007, the Bank of Canada has increased the size of its balance sheet by a small amount, and lengthened the maturity of its government securities, also by a very small amount. There's really not much going on relative to the large QE intervention that occurred in the U.S., which included the purchase of a large quantity of asset-backed securities. Thus, the conventional view, given the currently higher overnight nominal interest rate in Canada, would be that Canadian monetary policy is substantially tighter than in the U.S. So, if I were a strong believer in the persistent real effects of monetary policy, if I thought that lower nominal interest rates meant higher inflation, and if I think that QE works as advertised, I might think that: (i) real economic activity should be depressed in Canada relative to the U.S., and (ii) inflation should be lower in Canada than in the the U.S. Is that what happened? First, real GDP:
The U.S. lost some ground to the U.S. during the recession, but growth in the recovery phase has been roughly similar. Next, the PCE deflator:
Again, there is a level effect in Canada vs. the U.S., relative to 2007Q4, but in the recovery phase the PCE inflation rate is roughly the same in the two countries, though somewhat higher in Canada in the last couple of years.

So, if you were to ask your average macroeconomist to back out monetary policy in Canada and the U.S. by looking at the last two charts, that person might tell you that it was about the same. But we know it wasn't.

I have seen a lot of stories recently about the effects of monetary policy on asset prices - bubbly talk, basically. If we take those stories seriously, we might expect to see more asset value appreciation in the U.S. than in Canada. In the stock market, that is certainly the case. The next chart shows the S&P 500 index, and a comparable measure for Canada.
But, not so for the housing market (these house price measures are not really comparable - Case/Shiller compared to a new house price index for Canada; but that's the best I could do):

So, maybe monetary policy - conventional or unconventional - isn't as big a deal as some people think it is.

Monday, June 2, 2014


From a post by Brad DeLong on Krusell and Smith's comment on Piketty's "Capital in the Twenty-First Century:"
As time passes, it seems to me that a larger and larger fraction of Piketty's critics are making arguments that really make no sense at all--that I really do not understand how people can believe them, or why anybody would think that anybody else would believe them. Today we have Per Krusell and Tony Smith assuming that the economy-wide capital depreciation rate δ is not 0.03 or 0.05 but 0.1--and it does make a huge difference...
From page 43 of Piketty's book:
This depreciation is substantial, today on the order of 10 percent of GDP in most countries...

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Change of Venue

I will shortly be taking up a full-time position in the Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The Federal Reserve System has always been good to me, in spite of the grief I give the Fed from time to time. I'm looking forward to working with a first-class group of economic researchers, under superb leadership. We all intend to collectively move the institution forward to even bigger and better things.

Readers should not notice much difference in what I do here. I have to be a little more careful, I have to respect blackout periods around FOMC meetings, and sometimes I'll know things that I'm not permitted to tell you. You'll notice a disclaimer at the top of the page. That's essentially what appears (except for the "potshots") in the published work of Fed employees. The idea here is the same. What I write here need have nothing to do with the St. Louis Fed's position, the Federal Reserve System's position, the Board of Governors position, etc., on anything. But I don't intend to shy away from discussing policy issues.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Secular Stagnation and Forgotten Monetary Economics

Since Larry Summers's talk at the IMF in November, there has been some blog discussion of "secular stagnation." The secular stagnation idea seems to have originated with Alvin Hansen (AER, 1939), but I assure you that reading that will not enlighten you as to why we may or may not have entered a period of secular stagnation.

I have been as puzzled as anyone about secular stagnation and what it might mean, and I'm not sure that Paul Krugman's latest post on the topic helps much. There are three dimensions of aggregate economic data that Krugman wants us to think about, and he argues that these reflect aspects of secular stagnation. The first is the decline in the real rate of return on short-term government debt that has occurred since 1980. On this, I think it helps to broaden our perspective a bit, and look at a longer time series. The next chart shows the 3-month T-bill rate, minus the pce inflation rate (year over year) for the period 1948-2014.
If we take this as a measure of the real interest rate, we can see the decline in the real rate from 1980 to the present, which Krugman wants to draw our attention to. But, given the fact that the average real rate over the sample we're looking at is 1.13% (as shown in the chart) the 1980-2000 period is not the best benchmark we could choose, as the real rate was well above the sample average for most of that period. The real rate has certainly been low - on average - since 2000, but it was also low in the 1950s and the 1970s. So, in terms of this measure of the real rate, the low real rates we have been observing are not unprecedented, and there appears to be no particular reason for us to extrapolate low real rates into the future for a long period of time. Indeed, there are good reasons to think that the real rate should continue to increase. This is important, as it seems to be a key part of the Summers/Krugman narrative on secular stagnation. Summers and Krugman think that there is something that will keep the real rate low for an extended period of time and that - in Old Keynesian or New Keynesian fashion - this requires an extended period of time during which the central bank's nominal policy interest rate should be at the zero lower bound.

The other two aspects of the data that Krugman wants to focus on are the drop in household debt since the last recession, and the drop in the growth rate of the population aged 20-64. Through back-of-the-envelope calculations, Krugman translates what he sees in the data into a drop in the demand for consumption and investment of 7% of GDP, which I'm assuming he thinks will persist indefinitely. Of course, if we look at these observations through the lens of conventional long-run economics, the view for the future is anything but gloomy. Krugman is thinking that the increase in the savings rate as the result of low household debt, and the drop in the working-age population growth rate are bad news. But the Solow growth model - which forms the basis for modern growth theory, and which we teach to undergraduates (see Chapter 7 of this fine intermediate macro book) - tells us that an increase in the savings rate and a decline in the population growth rate will lead to a short run increase in the growth rate of per capita real income and a long run level increase in per capita real income. That seems like a good thing. So Krugman must have some kind of unconventional long-run economics in mind. But what is it?

I've been meaning to read "A Model of Secular Stagnation," by Gauti Eggertsson and Neil Mehrotra (E/M), which Gauti posted last month, but other things got in the way. E/M seems to have Krugman's blessing, and Simon Wren-Lewis provides some explanation, for those who might not be familiar with what E/M are doing. As far as I know E/M is the only attempt at making rigorous economic sense of what Summers and Krugman have been talking about.

So what is in the paper? E/M construct a 3-period-lived overlapping generations (OG) model to address the problem. Stripping their model down to essentials, suppose the population at each date consists of the young, the middle-aged, and the old, and that the total population grows at rate g. To start with, this is an endowment economy in which the young and old are endowed with nothing, and each middle-aged person has an endowment of y units of a perishable consumption good. Each person wants to consume in all periods of life, has time-separable utility, and discount factor B. Assuming that there are no assets in this economy - no money, no government bonds, no capital - the only exchange in this model is in a credit market in which the young are borrowers and the middle-aged are lenders. The young borrow, pay back their loans in middle-age, and use the returns on their loans to the young to consume in old age.

E/M add to this a borrowing constraint. There is an exogenous quantity d, which is the maximum amount that a borrower can commit to repay in the next period. Then they follow Woodford in treating this as a "cashless economy" in which zero money balances are held at all dates, and there are prices of goods in terms of money that support that equilibrium. Then, in a fashion familiar to everyone who has seen short-run New Keynesian models, wage/price rigidity is imposed - here in the form of permanent wage rididity - and then the model behaves much like in Eggertsson and Krugman's paper, except in a long run context. There are paradoxes of thrift, toil, and flexibility, more government spending is a good thing, etc.

For what I want to do, a 3-period OG model is not the best vehicle, as it has "startup" problems. Once we introduce other assets, it won't have nicely behaved equilibria. The following model will give us almost exactly the same thing as the E/M model does, but it's more tractable. Suppose an initial group of old people (who will come in handy later) who live only one period, with everyone else being two-period-lived. At each date there is a group of young and a group of old, and the total population grows at rate g. There is heterogeneity in each generation. A fraction a of economic agents are lenders who receive y units of the consumption good when young and 0 when old, and a fraction 1-a of borrowers who receive 0 when young and y when old. We'll assume log utility and discount factor B, as in E/M.

Unconstrained Cashless Economy
Without other assets in this economy, we just have a sequence of two-period Fisherian economies in which there is an intragenerational credit market with real interest rate r. With no borrowing constraints, the equilibrium interest rate is

(1) r = (1-a)/aB - 1

So, the real interest rate is determined by the discount factor and the ratio of borrowers to lenders. We can have a very low real rate if there are many lenders and few borrowers.

Constrained Cashless Economy
Now impose a binding borrowing constraint d on what a borrower can repay in old age. Then, the real interest rate is

(2) r = [(1-a)d(1+B)]/(Bya) - 1

So, in this case, the real interest rate is lower the lower is d, i.e. the tighter is the borrowing constraint. This is of course standard behavior in models with borrowing constraints - e.g. incomplete markets models.

E/M want to argue - in standard Woodford fashion - that for economic agents to be content with holding zero money balances in equilibrium, we must have

r >= -i/(1+i),

where i is the inflation rate. So if r is very low, then i must be very high so that the real rate of return on money does not exceed the real rate of interest.

So, now we have a problem. Woodford constructed his cashless economies so as to focus his attention on a sticky price friction. In doing so he was implicitly (or sometimes explicitly) stating that other types of monetary frictions do not matter much, or were safely ignored for the problems he was interested in. To show that a cashless economy made sense technically, Woodford constructed simple examples where this works, for example with money in the utility function (and separability) or by taking the "cashless limit" in an economy where money is used in transactions. It's not clear how this works in the context of this OG model, as of course these models were constructed and used, for example by Samuelson and Peter Diamond, as models in which outside assets (money and government debt) could matter.

Indeed, there are two potential inefficiencies that exist in this model (depending in part on how we define inefficiency). One is due to the borrowing constraint - a standard credit friction. The other is a standard dynamic inefficiency. And both of those frictions are things that we often use, in various contexts, to motivate a role for government and central bank liabilities.

Monetary Economy
Following up on that thought, suppose that we introduce a fixed stock of money, M, which is the collective endowment of the first period old. Then, we can construct equilibria in which this money is valued. But, the "cashless" equilibria we already worked out (equations 1 and 2) are also equilibria - what we call the "nonmonetary equilibria," for which money is not accepted in exchange because it is not accepted in exchange, and it thus has zero value. But what we are interested in are monetary equilibria, and we will restrict attention to stationary ones - equilibria where consumption allocations are constant across generations.

First, in the unconstrained case with no borrowing constraint, in the monetary equilibrium we are interested in,

(3) r = -i/(1+i) = g,

and this equilibrium exists if and only if

(4) B(1+g) > (1-a)/a

Then, either the monetary equilibrium exists, and it's Pareto optimal, or (4) does not hold, in which case the nonmonetary equilibrium is Pareto optimal. So, without the borrowing constraint, a fixed stock of money solves the dynamic inefficiency problem.

Next, suppose that there is a binding borrowing constraint. Then the real interest rate is the same as in equation (3), in the absence of other assets. But, suppose we introduce money, as before, as a fixed stock M of cash balances initially endowed to the old in the first period. As well, suppose the government can issue one-period government debt, and can tax lump-sum. But the government has some constraints on how it can tax, in that the young and old can be taxed differently, but all members of the same generation bear the same tax. So, suppose the government issues b units of government debt per young person each period, makes a lump-sum transfer b to each young person, and pays off the government debt (which is a perfect substitute for private loans) by taxing each old person lump-sum. Then, suppose that the government sets the level of government debt per young person at

b = y/[(1+g)(1+B)]

forever. If (4) holds, there exists a Pareto-efficient equilibrium with valued money, no matter how small d is, as that equilibrium has zero lending. It's the same equilibrium allocation we supported with no borrowing constraint and money as the only asset. If (4) does not hold, then we can obtain a Pareto efficient equilibrium in which money is not valued if the government sets the debt quantity according to:

b = (aBy)/[(1-a)(1+B)]

What's going on here? E/M write down a model with two inefficiencies: a dynamic inefficiency, and a credit friction. With sufficient flexibility in taxation, the government can solve both inefficiency problems with the appropriate provision of government liabilities. Why all the fuss with wage rigidity and zero-lower-bound "paradoxes" is not clear.

Another Model of Secular Stagnation
I can see what E/M and Summers/Krugman might be getting at though. The fact that real rates of return have been low since the financial crisis may be important, and could make a big difference for how monetary policy should proceed going forward. What elements would we want in such a model so that it can enlighten us about what is going on? It seems we would like to explain at a fundamental level why the real interest rate is low. This may reflect particular credit frictions, but we want to be explicit about what they are. Also, we would like to see a sufficient array of assets in this model. Perhaps some of these assets are used as collateral, which appears to have been important during and after the financial crisis. We also want to include the assets and liabilities that appear on both sides of the central bank's balance sheet. Otherwise, how can we analyze monetary policy in a sensible way? We also want the model to say something about liquidity traps in a low-real-interest-rate world.

I've got just the thing. The elements of the desired model I've sketched are right up the New Monetarist alley. We think of our research program originating, in part, with the work that Neil Wallace and his Minnesota students and coauthors did in the late 1970s and 1980s. Those people worked with various OG models - like the one that E/M study, and the one I was playing around with above. Of course we long ago moved on to other things. There's much current monetary research that uses versions of the Lagos-Wright model. I like this framework, not because it tells us much of anything new about monetary exchange, but because it admits a whole array of interesting financial and credit market behavior in a highly-tractable way. You can do much more with it than with an OG model.

So, here's an example. I didn't know until I read E/M that I had constructed a secular stagnation model, but according to them, that's exactly what my quantitative easing paper is. In that model there are banks, there's monetary policy, there's a collateral constraint (endogenous!), and you can have a negative real interest rate at the zero lower bound with positive inflation. There can be secular stagnation, in that the low real rate can persist forever, due to a shortage of collateral, and that collateral shortage is reflected in low output and inefficient exchange. The collateral shortage persists because of stupid fiscal policy, and the shortage can be mitigated with QE by the central bank. Cool, right? I think Krugman actually loves the thing, but can't bear to say it.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Equality, Monkeys, and Bananas

You may have heard this story. I got it from John Kennan, who claims it originated with computer scientists. There are some monkeys in a cage. Someone puts a banana at the other end of the cage. When one monkey goes for the banana, the other monkeys are sprayed with a fire hose. This is repeated a few times. Then, whenever one monkey makes a move for the banana, the other monkeys beat him/her up. After a while, one monkey is replaced. Of course, that monkey goes for the banana and the others beat him/her up. This keeps happening, and eventually none of the monkeys in the cage have ever seen a fire hose. But whenever a new monkey arrives and makes an attempt to get the banana, he/she gets beaten up. Asked why, the monkeys say: "That's the way we've always done it."

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Crazy Like Foxes

Chris House's discussion of Tom Sargent's principles, and some of the related blog discussion, is closely related to what I said here. What I think House is getting at is the following. Self-described blogosphere "progressive" economists have a political agenda. They want particular changes in economic policy, and they try to use mainstream economics to support their policy conclusions. But House thinks this group is going overboard. His argument, as I see it, is that the case is being overstated, and that some people are being demonized in the process, who should not be. Overstating the case propagates ideas that will come back to bite us in the future - truth may hurt, but it can only help us in the long run. And the demonization of individuals who constructed key elements of what we do as economists cannot help the profession - this only leads to distrust of the economics profession by lay people.

I think that House, in his response to Paul Krugman, was overly gracious, to say the least. Here's what Krugman had to say. Krugman starts with this:
America, it goes without saying, has a powerful, crazy right wing. There’s nothing equivalent on the left — yes, there are individual crazy leftists, but nothing like the organized, lavishly financed madness on the right.
Is the far right wing of U.S. society "crazy?" Of course not. Out of respect for the mentally ill, we shouldn't fling words like "crazy" around lightly. The far right is quite rational, and they have well-defined goals. They want easy access to all manner of dangerous weapons; they do not want extended government participation in health care; etc. Is the far right powerful? Yes and no. They have indeed been successful in promoting lax gun control. But the United States now has in place an extended health care program with government participation. Democrats control the executive branch and the Senate, though the House is of course in control of the far right wing of the Republican party, and the left seems to be losing on the Supreme Court.

Krugman goes on to say this:
Which brings me to this critical piece by Chris House. A while back House declared that both Ed Prescott and yours truly say crazy things; when asked for an example of me saying something remotely equivalent to something like Prescott’s declaration that there is no evidence that Fed policy matters, he never did answer.

Now House takes me and Noah Smith to task for preaching to the left-wing echo chamber in what we wrote about the Tom Sargent speech that’s making the rounds. And once again I have to wonder whether he actually read what I wrote, or simply assumed that it must be over the top.
Why this produced such a polite reply from House is beyond me. Krugman is (groundlessly) accusing House of making claims without evidence, and stating things about Krugman's post without reading it. I read all this stuff myself, and I thought House was quite fair and careful. Here's some of what Krugman actually said in his two posts (here and here) concerning Tom Sargent's 2007 Berkeley graduation speech:
So why the sudden attention to Sargent’s 2007 speech? I think it’s fairly obvious: it’s essentially stealth anti-Keynesian propaganda, cloaked in the form of a widely respected and liked economist uttering what sound like eternal truths. But they aren’t, and the real goal here is to undermine the case for fighting unemployment in the here and now. There are virtues to that 2007 talk, but right now is no time for 2007 Sargent.
That paragraph actually is crazy - it reflects paranoia. As I explain here, Sargent's speech is a very terse set of innocuous, mainstream, economic ideas, that are entirely consistent with Krugman's thinking, Mike Woodford's thinking, Ed Prescott's thinking - whatever. Anti-Keynesian propaganda, untruths, conspiracy? Nonsense.

Now, back to Krugman's last missive on the matter. This casts "progressives," and particularly Krugman's blogosphere friends - DeLong, Thoma, Konczal, and Wren-Lewis - as poor downtrodden "voices in the wilderness" fighting against a set of powerful bullies. I have no objection to an organized fight against the forces that make firearms proliferate, and the promotion of broad-based health care in the United States, for example. What I object to are bad economic ideas, and the misrepresentation of sound academic work in economics. And I think that is part of what gets propagated by at least some members of what is being characterized as a "progressive" group here. I think Mark Thoma and Simon Wren-Lewis are honest and have good intentions, but Krugman and DeLong? Not so much.

In the final paragraph of this last post, Krugman states:
I won’t ever say anything I don’t believe to be true...
I don't have hard evidence for this, but I think that's a lie. Given Krugman's body of academic work, I do not believe he can honestly state that there are easy solutions to our economic problems that are at the fingertips of typical undergraduate students in economics 101. How could he think such a thing? There may be a few problems for which the answers are easy, but most of this is very difficult. To state otherwise doesn't help anyone.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Piketty and the Macroeconomists

I have not read a word of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. As far as I can understand from secondhand and thirdhand accounts, it has something to do with outrage about the wealthy, measuring the rate of return on capital, and how we can tax those worthless wealthy bastards. The quotes and reviews on Amazon use words including "pioneering," "explosive," "seminal," "magisterial," etc. Some people want to petition the Pope to put Piketty in line for sainthood. This is pretty exciting. I think I should buy the book, and would be happy to contribute to Piketty's wealth. Hopefully he won't be successful in taxing himself back into poverty.

Tyler Cowen points out that there is a body of research studying wealth inequality, which apparently Piketty does not reference. This surprises me. After all, Paul Krugman (a very serious, straightforward, and trustworthy scholar, if there ever was one) points out that:
...if you think you’ve found an obvious hole, empirical or logical, in Piketty, you’re very probably wrong. He’s done his homework!
This bears investigating, I think.