...against fictions and other tall tales

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

On the (ir)relevance of the money multiplier model: The Fed view

It has long been known within the Federal Reserve System -- especially among economists who worked in the FRS in the 1970s and 1980s when much of the research agenda was directed at issues of monetary control -- that the money multiplier model of money stock determination is not the most realistic (or useful) way to understand how central banks conduct monetary policy.

Here is the former Fed Governor, the late Sherman Maisel, during a conference on the theme of 'Controlling Monetary Aggregates' in 1971:
It is clear that, as a matter of fact, the Federal Reserve does not attempt to increase the money supply by a given amount in any period by furnishing a fixed amount of reserves on the assumption that they would be multiplied to result in a given increase in money [...] 
Many unsophisticated comments and theories speak as if the Federal Reserve purchases a given quantity of securities, thereby creating a fixed amount of reserves, which through a multiplier determines a particular expansion in the money supply. Much of modern monetary literature is actually spent trying to dispel this naive elementary textbook view which leads people to talk as if (and perhaps to believe) the central bank determines the money supply exactly or even closely--in the short run-through its open market operations or reserve ratio. This incorrect view, however, seems hard to dislodge. (1971:153, 161)
Briefly, the money multiplier is basically a relationship between deposits (D) and reserves (R), D = mR, (or M = mB) where m is called the money multiplier (or M is money stock and B is the monetary base). According to the model, if banks keep excess reserves to a minimum and reserve requirements are applied to all deposits, then the multiplier can be constant and the central bank -- if it retains control of the volume of reserves -- can control the amount of deposits (Goodfriend and Hargraves, 1983:5). However, if the central bank does not exercise control over the amount of reserves, the multiplier model is inoperable and cannot be exploited for monetary control purposes.

The Classic Fed View

In the US, the Fed's inability to control the quantity of reserves in recent decades (before October 2008) is said to be because of the introduction of lagged reserve requirements in the late 1960s and the Fed's almost continuous use of an interest rate operating procedure.

Former St. Louis Fed economist, R. Alton Gilbert, discussed the impact of lagged reserve accounting on Fed operations in his article "Lagged Reserve Requirements: Implications for Monetary Control and Bank Reserve Management" (1980):
[Lagged reserve accounting] breaks the link between reserves available to the banking system in the current week and the amount of deposit liabilities that banks can create in the current week. If banks increase aggregate demand deposits liabilities in response to an increase in loan demand, they are under no immediate pressure to reduce their deposit liabilities...Under LRA, the Federal Reserve tends to adjust total reserves each week in response to the total deposit liabilities that banks created two weeks earlier. (1980:12)
With lagged reserve requirements in effect the volume of reserves is determined by banking system demand. Reserve demand is simply accommodated and required reserves serve only to enlarge the demand for reserves at any given level of deposits. Under LRA, the change in R occurs as a result of changes in D, the exact opposite of the money multiplier model.

Former Richmond Fed economist, Marvin Goodfriend, discussed the relevance of the money multiplier model when lagged reserve requirements are in effect in his paper "A model of money stock determination with loan demand and a banking system balance sheet constraint(1982):
...[T]he discussion has shown that the money multiplier is not generally a complete model of money stock determination and is actually irrelevant to money stock determination for some monetary control procedures. Specifically, the money multiplier is irrelevant to determination of the monetary aggregates if lagged reserve requirements are in effect. (1982:15)
As for the other institutional factor relating to the Fed's use of an interest rate operating procedure, Robert Hetzel of the Richmond Fed highlighted the following in his paper "A Critique of Theories of Money Stock Determination(1986):
Deposits and reserve demand are determined simultaneously with credit creation. As a consequence of defending its rate target, the monetary authority, by creating an infinitely elastic supply of reserves, accommodates whatever reserve demand emerges...In a regime of rate targeting, neither the quantity of reserves nor the desired reserves-deposits ratio of the banking system exercises a causal role in the determination of the money stock (1986:6) [...]
Interest rate smoothing by the monetary authority makes reserves and the money stock endogenous...Since [Chester] Phillips (1921), reserves-money multiplier formulas have been derived from a model of the banking sector summarized in the multiple expansion of deposits produced by an injection of reserves. The existence of markets for bank reserves, however, renders this model untenable. Phillips' model assumes that the individual bank is constrained by the quantity of its reserves and that its asset acquisition and deposit creation are driven by discrepancies between actual and desired reserves. Given the existence of markets for bank reserves, such as the fed funds and CD markets, however, individual banks are constrained by the price, rather than the quantity, of reserves they hold. (1986:20) (emphasis added)
A succinct and detailed discussion of the problems associated with multiplier models of money stock determination is found in the excellent article "Understanding the remarkable survival of multiplier models of money stock determination(1992) by former Fed economist, Raymond Lombra:
Assuming textbook authors reveal their intellectual and pedagogical preferences and beliefs, a careful survey of the leading intermediate textbooks in money and banking and macroeconomics reveals a uniform and virtually universal consensus – the multiplier model of money stock determination is widely viewed as the most appropriate and presumably most correct approach to the topic...Since such consensus is not, in general, an enduring characteristic of monetary economics, one is tempted to “let sleeping dogs lie”. The problem is that the multiplier model, whether viewed from an analytical or empirical perspective, is at best a misleading and incomplete model and at worst a completely misspecified model. (Lombra, 1992:305) (emphasis added)
Lombra's article is especially useful because it groups together the different critiques of the multiplier approach into two categories (the article discusses a third set of critiques relating to the predictive accuracy of multiplier models but this issue is less relevant for this post). 

The first set of critiques identified by Lombra is that the multiplier model "is not structural but rather is a reduced-form", a point first made in the 1960s by proponents of the "New View" (including James Tobin in "Commercial banks as creators of "money")*. Lombra summarizes this critique as follows:
Succinctly stated, the critique emphasizes that the multiplier approach abstracts from the short-run dynamics of adjustments by banks and the public, leaves the role of interest rates implicit rather than explicit, and proceeds that the movements in the monetary base (or reserves) are orthogonal to fluctuations in the multiplier. The multiplier model, it is argued, implies that deposit expansion is quantity constrained through the Fed's control over the sources of bank reserves (chiefly, the Fed portfolio of securities). One of the most forceful and articulate crafters of the critique, Basil Moore, concludes that "as a result, the money multiplier framework is of no analytical or operational use".

The consensus view of the staff and policymakers within the Federal Reserve, as revealed in numerous publications, embraces much, if not all, of the critique advanced by Moore and others. In particular, the Fed adheres to the view that the system is equilibrated through the movements of interest rates, which through their effects on bank revenues and costs, determine banks' and the public's desired asset and liability positions. In this view, money is controlled by using open market operations to affect interest rates which in turn affect demand and thus the uses of bank reserves (chiefly, required reserves).  (307)
The second set of critiques discussed by Lombra concerns the issue of the endogeneity of reserves, that is, the notion that the quantity of reserves is in practice determined by the banking system:
This contention, which is related to the lagged reserve accounting scheme...and the Fed's interest rate operating procedure in effect for virtually all of the post-Accord period, implies the multiplier model is completely irrelevant for the determination of the money supply. (308)
Lombra's article concludes with a discussion on why, despite these important flaws, the multiplier approach continues to be popular among economists. The reason, he argues, is that when applied to longer term horizons the models track monetary growth reasonably well:
The model lives on with model-builders who are confirmed adherents to the Law of Parsimony and skilled in the use of Occam's Razor. The high correlations and identities so tightly linking reserves (or the base) and money over the longer run provide all the comfort most empiricists need to proceed as if the concerns noted above matter little. (312)
Still irrelevant?

Recently, Fed economists Seth Carpenter and Silva Demiralp concluded in their paper "Money, Reserves, and the Transmission of Monetary Policy: Does the Money Multiplier Exist?" that the money multiplier is not a useful means of assessing the implications of monetary policy for money growth or bank lending in the US.

Not only does their paper discuss the institutional factors that render the money multiplier inoperable (including those discussed above), it also demonstrates empirically that the relationships between reserves and money implied by the money multiplier model do not exist.

These conclusions should, however, be viewed with caution given that the period under investigation in the paper ends in 2008, just prior to the Fed's shift toward the use of unconventional monetary policies.

Interestingly, Robert Hetzel now believes that the money multiplier model has actually gained relevance since the Fed started with its large-scale asset purchases in 2008.

Here is an excerpt from Hetzel's recent book, The Great Recession:
Starting in mid-December 2008 when the FOMC lowered its funds-rate target to near zero with payment of interest on bank reserves, the textbook reserves-money multiplier framework became relevant for the determination of the money stock. The reason is that the Fed's instrument then became its asset portfolio, the left side of its balance sheet, which determined the monetary base, the right side of its balance sheet. As a result, from December 2008 onward, the nominal (dollar) money stock was determined independently of the demand for real money. Although the reserves-money multiplier increased because of the increased demand by banks for excess reserves, the Fed retained control of M2 growth. Even if banks hold onto increases in excess reserves, the money stock increases one-for-one with open market purchases. (2012:237) (emphasis added)
In other words, Hetzel is saying that, as a result of its ability to determine the monetary base (B), the Fed now exercises considerable control over the change in deposits (D). And by doing so, Hetzel is suggesting that the Fed -- in one way or another -- is currently exploiting the money multiplier framework.

Here's a chart that appears to support Hetzel's claim:

The chart shows that since 2008 changes in B -- resulting from Fed asset purchases -- are clearly associated with changes in M**. For the period prior to 2008, there is no such relationship.

Hetzel's claim about the relevance of the multiplier approach could help to explain why some commentators have found causal relationships between changes in the monetary base and other variables for the period since December 2008.

For instance, Market Monetarist proponent Mark Sadowski recently pointed to empirical evidence that changes in the monetary base have had some causal role since December 2008:
I’ve done Granger causality tests on the monetary base over the period since December 2008 and find that the monetary base Granger causes the real broad dollar index, the S&P 500, the DJIA, commercial bank deposits, commercial bank loans and leases, the PCEPI, and 5-year inflation expectations as measured by TIPS.
So what's the bottom line? Does this mean the money multiplier model is now relevant?

On the one hand, I'm not convinced the model is entirely applicable (for instance, the textbook treatment implies that banks keep excess reserves to a minimum, which is obviously not the case today). On the other hand, it's unlikely that Hetzel is somehow wrong here.

Fortunately, I don't think it matters much one way or another, unless perhaps you are a Fed technician or an econometrician. What does matter is that the Fed currently exercises control over the monetary base. This, in itself, is a significant development for understanding the policy options now available to the Fed.

One thing is for sure, this recent development provides an excellent illustration of a crucial point often highlighted in Raymond Lombra's work:
The specific procedures ("policy rule") employed by the Fed and the reserve accounting regulations governing bank reserve management play a crucial role in determining causal relationships and system dynamics. (1992:309)

* The 'New View' focused on the role of assets, both real and financial, and the relative price mechanism in monetary analysis. From an operational standpoint, it contended that the Fed has little control over the money stock and that the money stock plays only a minor role in the transmission mechanism linking Fed actions to the real sectors of the economy.

** It's clear that the monetary base is not pulled upward due to increased deposit creation by banks.


Carpenter, S and S. Demiralp, Money, Reserves, and the Transmission of Monetary Policy: Does the Money Multiplier Exist?", Finance and Economics Discussion Series Divisions of Research & Statistics and Monetary Affairs, Federal Reserve Board, Washington, D.C.2010

Gilbert, R.A., Lagged Reserve Requirements: Implications for Monetary Control and Bank Reserve Management", Monthly Review, Federal Reserve Bank of St.Louis, 1980:

Goodfriend, M., A model of money stock determination with loan demand and a banking system balance sheet constraint", Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond Working Paper, 1982

Goodfriend, M. and M. Hargraves, A historical assessment of the rationales and functions of reserve requirements, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond Working Paper, 83-1, 1983

Hetzel, R., A Critique of Theories of Money Stock Determination, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond Working Paper, 86-6, 1986

Hetzel, R., The Great Recession: Policy Failure or Market Failure, Cambridge University Press, 2012

Lombra, Raymond. Understanding the remarkable survival of multiplier models of money stock determination, Eastern Economics Journal, Vol 18, No 3, 1992

Maisel, S., Controlling Monetary Aggregates, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Conference Proceedings, 1971

Tobin, J., Commercial banks as creators of "money" 1963

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Deficit spending got the US out of the Great Depression: Paul Samuelson on helicopter money

Paul Samuelson, circa 2008 (see here at 1:31):
I'm full of sensible heresies. How do you think we got out -- in Roosevelt's time -- got out of that depression? How do you think the pernicious Adolf Hitler -- inheriting about the same, at least one third unemployment -- got out of it? And both of us got out of it in about the same number of years as you are getting to 1939. If you look at Mrs Schwartz's analysis of that, it's completely remote from the truth. 
This is not how it happened, but this is equivalent to how it happened: somebody invented helicopters. And somebody went to the printing press and printed-off millions and billions of legal tender. And then those helicopters flew over the poorer rural regions and the slums of the city. And it wasn't a problem of whether the money was going to be saved or wasn't going to be spent. It had nothing to do with pump-priming...It had nothing to do with jump-starting. [...] It was not a Federal Reserve operation.[...] 
Now, Mrs Schwartz and her collaborator, who's name I forgot at this moment [laughter], would say "well that helped to keep the M up". That's a joke! [The banker] didn't go out and start making new loans. He acquired more Treasury certificates, which had a yield of essentially zero. 
So we never got out of the Great Depression? Yes, we did. We did it essentially by deficit spending [...] 
The rest of this excellent discussion is well worth a careful listen.

Addendum : An ingenious reader has created a direct link to this excerpt on You Tube (see here). 2013-11-07

Sunday, 3 November 2013

The Old Keynesian prescription to get out of a deep recession

In my previous post, I highlighted an article that shows the most promising unconventional monetary policies for boosting ailing economies right now are overt monetary financing and the policy measures advocated by neo-chartalists.

It's worth mentioning that, from a practical standpoint, this is essentially what the traditional, Keynesian IS-LM model would prescribe in a context of high public debt combined with nominal interest rates at the zero lower bound.

A good example of the application of IS-LM toward this end is Robert Gordon's analysis of the difficulties facing Japanese policymakers in the 1990s:
If monetary policy is impotent because it cannot reduce the interest rate any further, a fiscal stimulus is required to end the slump and bring back the output ratio back to its desired level [...]
The low level of the Japanese interest rate created a policy dilemma in Japan. Monetary policy could not push interest rates appreciably lower, yet fiscal policymakers felt constrained in achieving a large fiscal stimulus by the high existing level of the fiscal deficit in Japan and by the fact that the public debt in Japan had reached 100 percent of real GDP. 
However, the IS-LM model suggests a way out of the Japanese policy dilemma... [:] a combined monetary and fiscal policy stimulus that shifts the LM and IS curves rightward by the same amount can boost real GDP without any need for a decline in interest rates [...]
Also, with such a combined policy there is no need for a further increase in the national debt held by the public, since to achieve its monetary expansion, the central bank can buy the government bonds issued as a result of the increased fiscal deficit [...]
Why did the Bank of Japan resist what seemed to be the obvious solution, which was that the Bank buy up the government bonds issued as a result of the fiscal stimulus? This solution, sometimes called "monetizing the debt", would be the real-world equivalent of shifting the LM curve rightward along with the IS curve, in contrast to the increased interest rates that would result if the IS curve were pushed rightward without a corresponding rightward LM movement. Bank of Japan policymakers retreated into the traditional fear of central bankers that monetizing the debt would undermine the Bank's independence and credibility, two goals that are embedded in the structure of beliefs of central bankers. In fact, as a result of rapid inflation after World War II, the Bank is legally banned from buying bonds directly from government, although it is still able to purchase government bonds indirectly through financial markets. 
The traditional reason for the historic reluctance of central bankers to monetize the debt and conduct a simultaneous monetary and fiscal expansion has been fear of inflation. Yet Japan's problem in the late 1990s was deflation, not inflation [...]
While the prescription of the IS-LM model in favor of a combined monetary-fiscal expansion seemed clear, implementing this policy recommendation was blocked by the reluctance of the Bank of Japan's to give up its historic commitment to price stability. (137-138) (emphasis added)
One final word. This type of policy solution goes back a long way. A variant of this mechanism -- minus the IS-LM language -- is even found in (Keynesian) Lorie Tarshis's textbook published in 1947.


Gordon, R., Macroeconomics, Eighth Edition, 2000.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Which unconventional monetary policies hold most promise?

Kudos to Biagio Bossone, Chairman of the Group of Lecce and former central banker (and circuit theorist par excellence), for his first-rate analysis (see here: part 1 and part 2) of the different types of unconventional monetary policy measures that have been implemented and proposed in the last few years!

Bossone's piece does a fantastic job of presenting the different policy proposals into six distinct categories based on their implied transmission channel and the degree of cooperation between the fiscal and monetary authorities that is required in order to implement the proposed measures.

The main take-away from the analysis is that Bossone finds the proposals that aim to boost aggregate demand via fiscal actions are the most promising. According to Bossone, the benefits of fiscal measures (with or without actions by the monetary authority) are that their effect is more direct than policy measures such as quantitative easing (which works indirectly via its impact on interest rates) or forward guidance (which works indirectly via its effect on the public's expectations on future interest rates).

In the concluding paragraph, Bossone writes,
...this result vindicates the proposed measures to expand the money supply via overt monetary financing or neo-chartalism, which aims to inject new money independently of central banks' interest-rate policies, especially if these are limited by the zero lower bound.

Bossone, B., Unconventional monetary policies revisited, Part 1 and Part 2, Vox, October 2013

Thursday, 15 August 2013

James Tobin on why deflation isn't a cure for unemployment

There's been a lot written lately on why the Pigou effect (i.e., increase in output and employment caused by an increase in consumption due to a rise in the real balances of wealth) isn't a foolproof way around the problem of the zero lower bound. It reminded me of these lines by James Tobin:
Suppose all dollar prices and wages are lower by x per cent. Will aggregate demand for products and for labour be greater? Maybe, because with the same quantity of currency and bank reserves, interest rates could be lower and encourage businesses and households to spend. But in depressions, interest rates may be already as low as they can be; after all, the interest rate on currency cannot be less than zero. Anyway, as Keynes observed, lowering the overall price level cannot reduce interest rates more than the central bank could on its own, with much less social trauma. 
Another possibility, stressed by Professor Pigou, is that owners of assets denominated in dollars feel richer after the purchasing power of the dollar has increased; therefore, they buy more goods. The trouble is that debtors with dollar obligations are correspondingly poorer. There is a small excess of privately owned credits over private debts, the monetary issues and near-money obligations of the central government. But this net credit may not be sufficient to offset the likelihood that increased private debt burdens deter spending more than the corresponding gains in the purchasing power of creditors encourage it. So argued Irving Fisher, my revered predecessor at Yale. Even if Pigou, rather than Fisher, is right, the direct effect of the price level on demand is not an equilibrating mechanism of any practical importance. Certainly, the big deflation during the Great Depression did no good. 
A serious drawback to deflation (or disinflation) as an adjustment mechanism is its perverse effect on aggregate demand. Even if lower prices stimulate demand once prices have fallen, the process of falling prices is destabilizing. If you expect falling prices, you will postpone purchases, preferring to hold money rather than buy goods. For this reason, Keynes and Fisher rejected concerted deflation as a remedy for depression and unemployment. 

Tobin, J., "Business cycles and economic growth: Current controversies about theory and policy", Bulletin, the American Academy of Arts and Science, Vol. XLVII, No.3, December 1993.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Bankers as public servants

An insightful anecdote by a reader of the American Scholar on how banking has changed during his lifetime:
Good Fences Make Good Bankers” by William J. Quirk (Spring 2013) reminds me of an experience I had in the 1950s. A final-year law student interviewing for a position with a major bank in Ohio, I had the temerity to ask the interviewer what kind of financial future I might expect in a legal career with a bank. He paused and in measured tones told me that if I was concerned with financial success, I should not go into banking. Banking, he said earnestly, was a quasi-public-service industry, and its primary mission was to protect the funds of its depositors and assist its borrowing customers
Can you picture a bank interviewer, with a straight face, uttering these same words to a young job applicant today? (italics added)


Shapiro, Fred., "Bankers as public servants", American Scholar, Summer 2013.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Janet Yellen most prescient among colleagues

Economist James Tobin once wrote that every policymaker thinks and makes decisions based a model of the economy. Tobin explained that the model need not be a complicated one; it just needs to provide a useful framework for understanding the economy and how it evolves, as well as assist the policymaker in decision-making:
There is really no substitute for making policy backwards, from the desired feasible paths of the objective variables that really matter to the mixture of policy instruments that can bring them about. [...]  
The procedure requires a model -- there is no getting away from that. Models are highly imperfect , but they are indispensable. The model used for policymaking need not be any of the well-known forecasting models. It should represent the policymaker's beliefs about the way the world works...Any policymaker or advisor who think he is not using a model is kidding both himself and us...
This week, the Wall Street Journal published the results of an interesting study examining the statements of 14 policymakers made during the course of the recovery concerning the economy and its outlook. According to the WSJ, the statements of Janet Yellen have been the most prescient (see this clip). In other words, her model of the economy has been very effective at helping her anticipate the economy's prospects during the last few years. According to Jan Hilsenrath of the WSJ, one of the authors of the study, Yellen
...had a model of the economy that worked in this case. She has a model that says when there's a lot of slack in the economy, when there is a lot of unemployment, when there is a lot of idle factories, you don't get a lot of inflation. And that model worked this time around. [...] 
Her fans who want her to become the next Fed chair would argue she's been right before. She was issuing some warnings in 2006 about the housing bubble. She was talking in the 1990s -- you know, when you go to transcripts of Fed meetings -- about froth in the financial markets.
One interesting fact is that Janet Yellen was a student of Tobin (and a good one too).
When Janet L. Yellen was a graduate student in economics at Yale University, classmates quickly figured out that the best way to decipher Professor James Tobin's lectures was to borrow her notes. And long after Yellen received her PhD in 1971, the Yellen Notes--as they became known--served as the unofficial textbook for generations of graduate students. ''She has a genius for expressing complicated arguments simply and clearly,'' says Nobel winner Tobin.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

"You want to make sure you have sustainable economic growth? Invest in your kids"

Those words are from Art Rolnick, former senior VP of the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis. They're from a recently released video entitled The Raising of America - Are we Crazy about our Kids?

The basic message of the video is that investing in early childhood pays off in the long run. Here's what economist James Heckman has to say about one of the studies that concluded high-quality early childhood learning is beneficial to a child's performance later in life:
"What did we learn? Many things. It's very successful in terms of the economic performance of the children. For each dollar invested you get back somewhere between 7 and 10 percent rate of return per year over the lifetime of the child. Which is a huge rate of return."
Behind this impressive rate of return are large amount of statistics showing that the children who were enrolled in a high-quality early childhood program performed significantly better in school (and later in life) than those who weren't:
"They found that the children that were in the high-quality program were less likely to be retained in the first grade, were less likely to need "special ed", were more likely to be literate by the sixth grade, graduate high school, get a job, pay taxes and start a family. And the crime rate between the two groups -- the randomized group and the control group -- the crime rate goes down by 50 percent. So those look like pretty good outcomes."
A very smart production.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Does the concentration of finance matter?

It may sound like a strange question in light of all the talk about "too big to fail" during the last few years. But, believe or not, the idea that bank concentration has an impact on real economic activity isn't the standard view. Here's from a recent blog post by NY Fed economists Mary Amiti and David Weinstein:
The notion that financial institutions are large relative to the size of economies is not something that plays a prominent role in traditional economic theory. Macroeconomic textbooks tend to treat economies as composed of representative firms that are infinitesimal in size compared to any given market. As a result, positive and negative idiosyncratic shocks [movement in bank loan supply net of borrower characteristics and general credit conditions] to financial institutions cancel out due to the law of large numbers. 
However, this representation stands in stark contrast with the reality of concentration in financial markets. A striking regularity is that a few banks account for a substantial share of an economy’s loans.
Starting from this basis, Amiti and Weinstein have examined Japanese aggregate bank lending data and other aggregates and were able to demonstrate the following: banks matter, bank concentration matters, bank lending matters. No small feat.

On the issue of bank concentration and aggregate lending, they found that
...if markets are dominated by a few financial institutions, cuts in lending due to some change in financial conditions in just a small number of banks have the potential to substantially affect aggregate lending. Moreover, if firms find it hard to find good substitutes for loans like issuing equity or debt, then it is possible for their investment rates to fall as well. 
As for their take on banks' impact on the real economy, the conclusion to their paper (on which their blog post in based) gives a good summary:
Our paper contributes to this literature by providing the first evidence that shocks to the supply of credit affect firm investment rates. We find that even after controlling for firm credit shocks, loan supply shocks are a significant determinant of firm-level investment of loan-dependent firms. This result is particularly surprising because our sample is comprised of listed companies that have, by definition, access to equity markets. Moreover, the fact that so much lending is intermediated through a few financial institutions means that idiosyncratic shocks hitting large financial institutions can move aggregate lending and investment. We show that about 40 percent of the movement in these variables can be attributed to these granular bank shocks. This means that the idiosyncratic fates of large financial institutions are an important determinant of investment and real economic activity.
And the implication for policy, according to Amiti and Weinstein, is significant. Here is the relevant excerpt of their blog post on this point:
...[P]olicymakers without detailed information on the major financial institutions are likely to have a difficult time understanding the causes of lending and investment fluctuations. A large portion of Japan’s aggregate economic fluctuations can be traced to the country’s banking problems. 
While many researchers have focused on the implications of banks being “too big to fail,” we show that even if large banks do not fail, granular bank shocks can have substantial impacts on aggregate investment. 
For example, reductions in bank capital at large financial institutions can cause investment declines by firms that would like to borrow, while recapitalization of the right institutions can stimulate investment. In sum, this study shows that what happens to large financial institutions is important for understanding aggregate investment behavior. 
While their paper looks specifically at Japanese data, the authors suggest that the overall conclusions are relevant to the situation in the US given that it too has a very concentrated banking sector.

Amiti, Mary and David Weinstein, How much do banks shocks affect investment: Evidence from matched bank-firm loan data, NY Fed staff paper 604, March 2013

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Robert Gordon on the death of innovation and end of growth

This TED talk by Robert Gordon (Northwestern) is a must-see (do it, it's only 12 minutes long). You may recall that a paper by Gordon created quite a stir in the news a few months ago because of the bleak outlook it gives regarding future economic growth in the US.

In the talk, Gordon counters the commonly-held idea that economic growth is a continuous process. He makes the case that the rapid growth experienced during the last two and half centuries may have been an anomaly rather than the start of a new, everlasting historical trend.

According to Gordon, economic growth in the coming decades will slow as a result of six headwinds that will reduce future productivity and income growth. In the end, the impact of these six headwinds will leave long-term growth at half or less of the (near) 2 percent annual rate experienced between the mid-1800s and today.

The six negative headwinds that make up Gordon's "exercise in subtraction" are demography, education, inequality, globalization, energy and debt (for more, see Gordon, 2013).

My take on this issue is that I'm generally optimistic about the prospect of continued future growth but becoming somewhat pessimistic about the ability of governments to take the appropriate steps to encourage the type of innovation and technological advancements that promote robust long-term economic growth.*

As I've mentioned before, the current preoccupation of politicians and policymakers with slashing spending and reducing public debt levels is likely going to be detrimental to long-term growth. I doubt there are many growth theorists out there who would argue that trillions of dollars in lost output (as witnessed by the huge amount of idle resources, including unemployed workers) and cuts to public investment are beneficial to a nation's long-term growth prospects.

A few years ago, (the great) economist Albert Wojnilower summed up the problem that's emerged in the US with respect to government support for innovation in a 2011 interview as follows:
Gail Foster: What about the long term? There are many, maybe even a majority, who believe that we are possibly in a temporary innovation funk — maybe not so temporary. In other words, while it may be possible to be encouraged about the short term, we are just getting back to where we were before the recession, and there is not much that is economically exciting to look forward to. Would you agree?
Albert Wojnilower: I wouldn’t sell the future short. There is no lack of new business opportunities (cell phones, Facebook, electric cars, energy innovation, services that cater to aging societies). The question is, where will they be invented, used and exploited? And to whom will the benefits be distributed? The United States has traditionally been a leader in this important growth process; now it is a laggard. The shift in the U.S.’s relative position is a matter of ideology, not economics.
GF: What do you mean by ideology?
AW: The United States has adopted a free-market, small-government ideology, ostensibly copying what we did in the distant past. The difference today is that there is no frontier. Most opportunities tread on someone else’s toes (as in property rights). There is less space for greenfield experimentation. The small-government mentality means that there is no effective arbitrator of the trade-offs to break the log jam. Many of our newest “innovations” have occurred outside the traditional economic sectors — for example, creating a new sector that today we refer to as technology. Major inventions have been made by civil servants, at little personal benefit. The United States has usually been pragmatic on these matters, but now it appears to be headed in a much more dogmatic direction...
GF: Would it be fair to say that you are an optimist with respect to human ingenuity but not human nature?
AW: Yes, indeed.
* For a more optimistic view, see Baily et al, the TED talk by Eric Brynjolffson and this debate between Robert Gordon and Eric Brynjolffson

Gordon, Robert, US Productivity Growth: The slowdown has returned after a temporary revival, International Productivity Monitor, Spring 2013.

Baily, Martin.N. James Manyika and Shalabh Gupta, US Productivity Growth: An optimistic perspective, International Productivity Monitor,  Spring 2013.

Fosler, Gail and Albert Wojnilower, Interview: Are we out of the woods yet, Gail Foster Group LLC. February 9, 2011.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Impact of the US Payroll tax cut...and tax hike

This is a very informative (and short) piece by economists at the NY Fed on the effect of the 2011 US payroll tax cut and its recent expiration.

Here's a good summary:
Overall, our analysis suggests that the payroll tax cut during 2011-12 led to a substantial increase in consumer spending and facilitated the consumer deleveraging process. Based on consumers’ responses to our recent survey, expiration of the tax cuts is likely to lead to a substantial reduction in spending as well as contribute to a slowdown or possibly a reversal in the paydown of consumer debt. These effects are also likely to be heterogeneous, with groups that are more credit and liquidity constrained more likely to be adversely affected. Such nuances may be lost in the aggregate macroeconomic statistics, but they’re important for policymakers to consider as they debate fiscal policy.

Zafar, B., van der Klaauw, W., My Two (Per)cents: How are American Workers dealing with the Payroll Tax Hike, Federal Bank of New Work, Liberty Street Blog.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

A kind word for Paul

Paul Krugman's recent posts on the abuse use by politicians of economic studies as a way to support ideologically-driven fiscal austerity have been right on. Here's from his latest:
...the important story isn’t about the sins of the economists; it’s about our warped economic discourse, in which important people seize on academic work that fits their preconceptions. Even if you don’t think Reinhart-Rogoff made much difference to actual policy, the meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of their reputation speaks volumes about why this slump goes on and on.
I made a similar point in an earlier column when I wrote that austerity was a
...prepackaged "solution to a problem" that fits with today's dominant policy-making ideology, which holds that governments have little or no purpose other than catering to financial interests and leaving the path clear for free-market actors to find solutions to every problem facing society.
...[F]iscal austerity is simply another example of a "solution looking for a problem", an empty and empirically ineffectual idea with no clear rationale other than giving the appearance that "something is being done".
This is why I continue to think that the ones who are really responsible for austerity are the politicians who support this view. Economic studies were used to provide cover for these leaders' preferred set of policy choices.

Anyway, there's no matching Prof. Krugman's performance these last few months. Not only have his forecasts been right on, but his retrospective look at why things unfolded the way they did has been downright flawless.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Moving past the 90 percent threshold: Focusing on growth

Now that the proposition of a 90 percent threshold (of public debt-to-GDP above which countries' economic growth would significantly slow) associated with the work of Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff has been refuted, it's important that the debate now turn to the critical issue of how best to achieve growth moving forward.

On this point, one important aspect to keep in mind is that the uses toward which public debt is directed and the composition of public debt tend to have a significant impact on a country's economic growth.

A recent study by the IMF entitled "Public Debt and Growth" appears to support this view. The study, which examined the public debt dynamics in over 30 countries, found that, although the elasticity of growth with respect to public debt is -0.02, the elasticity of other variables that positively impacts growth offsets this number. For instance, as Iyanatul Islam has noted, the study shows that the elasticity of growth to initial years of schooling is above 2.0.

In other words, it's quite likely that public debt directed toward productive uses has the effect of supporting growth by cancelling out some of the negative effects associated with high public debt that impede growth.

These are the sort of issues policymakers should be discussing moving forward. I think it would go a long way to help us get out of the economic doldrums we're facing today.


Manmohan and Jaejoon, Public Debt and Growth, IMF, July 2010

Monday, 22 April 2013

Are investors seeing the writing on the wall?

John Carney reports that Wall Street is now showing signs of turning against fiscal austerity.

Apparently, the Reinhart-Rogoff fiasco has something to do with it. Perhaps.

Or is it the realization that the narrowing US federal budget deficit since the start of the sequester in early March may signal the end of bountiful corporate profits?

As I've explained before, contrary to conventional wisdom, business profits are actually positively impacted by government budget deficits. Here is my take from a macro accounting standpoint:
Proof of this direct, positive relationship between government deficits and business profits is best demonstrated by manipulating the basic national income accounting identity in a manner consistent with the approach of economists John Maynard Keynes and Michal Kalecki. The following arithmetic demonstrates that government deficits have a positive effect on business profits.

Let Y=Total Output; C=Consumption; I=Investment; G=Government Expenditures; X=Exports; M=Imports; T=Taxes; R=Retained Earnings by Firms; Hs=Household Net Savings

Let the combination of the above (X - M) = Current Account Balance or Net Exports; (G - T) = Government Deficit; (Hs + R) = (Y - T - C) = Total Net Private Savings

To start off, here is the basic national income identity, as taught in all macroeconomic textbooks:
Y = C + I + G + (X - M)

Subtract taxes (from both sides of the equation) to achieve an equation "net" of taxes:
Y - T = C + I + G + (X - M) - T

Rearrange the equation to isolate total net private savings on the left side and to subtract taxes from government expenditures:
Y - T - C = I + (G - T) + (X - M)

Since (Y - T - C) can be broken down into household net savings (Hs) and retained earnings by firms (R), the equation can be stated as follows (see Krugman, 1994:313):
(Hs + R) = I + (G + T) + (X - M) 

...and can be rearranged as such:
R = (I - Hs) + (G - T) + (X - M)

In plain English, this translates into:
Firms' Retained Earnings = Investment - Household Savings + Government Deficits + Net Exports

The above equation clearly demonstrates that business profits are positively impacted by government deficits, net exports and private sector investment.* Household net savings, on the other hand, have the effect of reducing firms' retained earnings. Similarly, balanced budgets and government surpluses have either no impact on profits or have the effect of reducing them.
Now, it's true that under normal circumstances other factors such as household consumption and saving behavior and trade flows can significantly affect how these variables interact. However, in the current context where household spending has been largely subdued by deleveraging concerns, and exports weakened by sluggish growth in Europe, the UK and elsewhere around the world, the budget deficit consists of an important source of demand and (from a national accounts perspective) of corporate profits.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Nod to the St. Louis Fed: NIPA tables now on FRED

This is news worth sharing for all those policy wonks out there. The St. Louis Fed has added over 10,000 new data series from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) National Income and Product Account tables to its excellent FRED database and research tool. FRED now counts over 70,000 series of data.

The addition of these new series means the days of cutting and pasting NIPA data from the BEA website unto an Excel worksheet to create charts are over. (As everyone now knows, using Excel worksheet to handle data can be risky business...)

Also, since I'm on the topic of FRED, I'll also mention that the St. Louis Fed added earlier this year data for US federal deficits and surpluses as a percent of GDP. This saves us the extra step of calculating the fraction of GDP every time we produce charts of the US government's fiscal position.

To those who don't use FRED, I should mention that it offers a very simple research tool for data analysis and for creating charts that are useful for socio-economic and financial analysis. I highly recommend it. It's free (although I seem to recall you must register).

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Inequality in the recent business cycle

This is a good speech by Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin of the Federal Reserve (also available in audio here). It was given during the Hyman Minsky Conference held at the Levy Institute earlier this week.

The speech focuses on the obstacles to recovery associated with household debt deleveraging and the decline in wealth for low-income households since the financial crisis. That low- and middle-income households held a disproportionate share of wealth in housing prior to the crisis meant they were highly exposed by the decline in house prices.

Raskin notes:
...[W]hile total household net worth fell 15 percent in real terms between 2007 and 2010, median net worth fell almost 40 percent. This difference reflects the amplified effect that housing had on wealth changes in the middle of the wealth distribution. The unexpected drop in house prices on its own reduced both households' wealth and their access to credit, likely leading them to pull back their spending. In particular, underwater borrowers and heavily indebted households were left with little collateral, which limited their access to additional credit and their ability to refinance at lower interest rates. Indeed, some studies have shown that spending has declined more for indebted households
Although later in the speech Governor Raskin discusses the Fed's strategy to address these issues (mainly by the use of unconventional monetary policies aimed at lowering long-term interest and mortgage rates), there is unfortunately no mention of the possible role of the Fed's current quantitative easing (QE) strategy in amplifying wealth inequality via the use of unconventional policies.

Since the start of the Fed's asset purchases programs (i.e., QE), we have seen stock indexes recover their losses while the decline in house prices has stayed flat (see charts below - Note: Increases in the monetary base is a good indicator of the magnitude of QE). In a context where the Fed is also hoping QE to sustain economic activity through the "wealth effect" channel (whereby a rise in asset prices causes investors to feel more secure about their wealth and, consequently, spend more), it's only normal to question whether current strategy is contributing (albeit unintentionally) to the wealth gap.

Source: Federal Reserve

Source: Federal Reserve

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Public investment and productivity growth: How to provide properly for the future

Just as I was thinking about the moral aspects of economic policy, here comes Paul Krugman with a fantastic commentary on how governments today are shortchanging future generations by not taking advantage of record low interest rates and not spending on productivity-enhancing public investments:
Fiscal policy is, indeed, a moral issue, and we should be ashamed of what we’re doing to the next generation’s economic prospects. But our sin involves investing too little, not borrowing too much — and the deficit scolds, for all their claims to have our children’s interests at heart, are actually the bad guys in this story. 
So true. This reminds me of something the late economist Robert Eisner wrote:
...balancing the budget at the expense of our public investment in the future is one way that we really borrow from our children - and never pay them back. (1996)
The reason for this is that the "deficit equals bad" crowd is completely oblivious to the fact that public investment adds to the stock of productive assets that help to enhance private sector productivity in the long run. And public spending on infrastructure, education, basic research and the development of new technology is essential to achieve the level of productivity necessary to improve our standard of living in the future.

And at a time when we are facing an aging population, increasing our future productivity growth should be a (if not the number one) priority.

A good explanation for this is provided by Francis Cavanaugh, former senior US Treasury Department economist and former CEO of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, who argues that
Significant productivity increases will be necessary as a diminished labor force is called on to support an expanded group of retirees. Without such increased production per worker, a shortage of goods will lead to price increases, and it is likely that the baby boomers will suffer a significant decline in the purchasing power of their retirement dollars. Inflation could soon decimate their retirement savings. That's the economic reality; if you're not working, you're dependent on the productivity of those who are. (1996)
In other words, the best protection against the potential losses that come with an aging population is to take measures today aimed at increasing the productivity growth of tomorrow. This should be the long term goal of policymakers right now.

So Prof. Krugman is right: contrary to what most politicians and commentators believe about how to improve our long-run prospect, slashing government spending is exactly the wrong thing to do at this time. 


Cavanaugh, F., The truth about the national debt, Boston: HBSP, 1996

Eisner, R., "The balanced budget crusade", The Public Interest, Winter 1996

Friday, 29 March 2013

Josef Steindl on why austerity fails: A Keynesian-Kaleckian view of stagnation policy and the endogenous budget deficit

This policy of stagnation is likely to continue, since governments are preoccupied with inflation and the public debt. Budget deficits can only disappear if private investment soars again. This is unlikely in view of excess capacity, which would only disappear if there were fiscal expansion. Josef Steindl (1979)
Surely the person who wrote the statement above would have no difficulty explaining what's wrong with the world economy today.

Josef Steindl was a great Keynesian-Kaleckian economist who was a master in the art of national accounts analysis. He was a close associate of Michal Kalecki and authored several articles on the important role of government and private debt in the economy. A quick glance at some of the titles of Steindl's work reveals that his articles on these issues might be of some relevance right now. (For more on Josef Steindl, see Nina Shapiro's excellent article published last year in Monthly Review)

Steindl's work was aimed primarily at uncovering the causes of economic stagnation. According to Steindl's "stagnation theory", one reason why economies trend toward stagnation is due to the behavior of firms when they refuse to reduce prices sufficiently relative to wages during periods of low demand. Low wages relative to prices lead to a fall in demand for goods and services, which in turn compels firms to reduce investment and creates a vicious cycle of falling profits and further cost reduction and reduced investment (resulting in additional unused capacity and unemployment and falling demand).

Steindl also argued that economies stagnate as a result of "stagnation policy", ill-advised government austerity measures intended to reduce or eliminate budget deficits when the economy is weak. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Steindl argued that austerity policies only make matters worse under such circumstances.

Steindl criticized austerity because he understood that the government's financial balance in the modern era was largely an endogenous variable that is determined primarily by changes in the financial position of other sectors of the economy, not by the autonomous policy decisions of the fiscal authorities. It is the influence of government automatic stabilizers and the growing importance of both consumer credit and foreign trade in the modern economy that render the government's financial balance largely endogenous.

The core of Steindl's approach to macroeconomic analysis is intuitive and similar to that of other Keynesian economists, including James Tobin (1963), Robert Eisner (1986) and Wynne Godley, all of whom analyzed the workings of the economy by examining how different sectors of the economy interact with one another. He divided the economy into four sectors (the government, households, businesses and the foreign sector) and examined how money flowed between them.

Steindl's analysis focused on credit flows and on how changes in one sector impacted other sectors. In doing so, Steindl basically applied an elementary principle of accounting to national economies: for every borrower there must be a lender. His method relied heavily on the use of national accounts data to identify trends and changes in financial flows. According to Steindl,
[t]he instrument for analysing the circular relations in an economy are the national accounts. They are a double entry book-keeping for the society, whole groups like households, business or government being represented by separate accounts, as are also activities like investment, consumption and so on. The systematic development of national accounting received its great impetus from Keynes and his theory [...] It offers a convenient way between the sterility of the Walrasian general equilibrium and the limited scope of the partial analysis of Marshall, because it is couched in terms of variables which are statistically measurable and at the same time relevant for national economic policy.(1985)
Steindl understood that, in terms of national accounts, the government deficit finds its counterpart in the surplus of at least one other sector of the economy. Since the surpluses and deficits of the various sectors (government, households, foreign and business) must balance, Steindl recognized that a huge deficit in one sector is always offset by surpluses elsewhere.

The endogenous budget deficit and the fallacy of austerity

Steindl was critical of the ("pre-Keynesian") tendency of many economists to view government budget deficits as an irritant to be eliminated. According to him, deficits in the modern era accomplished the opposite: they helped to boost aggregate demand when the economy is weak.

As mentioned above, Steindl viewed the budget deficit as a passive symptom of a weak economy rather than a problem to be actively addressed: actively trying to eliminating budget deficits would only worsen the situation. Steindl recognized that the size of the budget deficit is largely determined by the spending flows occurring among the other sectors of the economy. In this sense, he viewed the budget deficit largely as an endogenous variable that can't be easily controlled by policymakers. On whether the government has the ability to control the size of the budget deficit by changing its level of expenditures and/or revenue, Steindl argued the following:
While it is possible, in principle, to control the volume of government spending or taxation, the same is not true for the budget deficit. This is determined by the level of GDP resulting from the interplay of lending and borrowing of the various sectors. Let me refer to the well-known identity

( I – SB) + (X – I) + (G – T) = (SH – H)

Which says that the budget deficit G – T together with the borrowing of business I – SB and of the outside world X – M equals the lending of households (i.e., excess of household saving SH over investment in dwelling houses H) of households SH – H.

Which of these sectors plays an active role depends on institutional circumstances. The budget deficit, in connection with Keynesian policies, used to be regarded as an active element, incurred on purpose by the government. In present circumstances it is more likely to play a passive role, and to be dominated by the other sectors. This is due to the large share of taxation in an additional GDP, to the strong and quick reactions of consumers to a change in income and to the fact that the foreign balance is more often dominated by outside influences than by domestic policy (by the GDP). In consequence attempts at reducing the budget deficit by retrenchment are mostly doomed to failure. [...]

If the foreign account is balanced, the budget deficit has simply to fill the gap between the household financial saving and the borrowing of business. This will apply to some approximation in countries where the role of the foreign balance is small as compared with that of other sectors. It will fully apply to all countries taken together because they form a closed system. For them the budget deficit given the financial surplus of the households, will be largely settled by the amount of private investment. On the other hand, in countries where the foreign balance can take large values it will, together with private investment, dominate the size (and sign) of the budget deficit. In both cases the budget deficit is predominantly suffered rather than contrived.

The conclusion is not pleasant to contemplate for the treasurer because it means that he can control the deficit, if at all, only by indirect routes: Business investment, and a fortiori the foreign balance, are not easy to control. (1983) (my emphasis)
That said, according to Steindl, there are circumstances in which the budget deficit can be made to decrease. Such favorable conditions are the same as those which lead to growth in private sector investment, namely, a satisfactory utilization of capacity and a growing market. In this regard, Steindl concludes that
[o]n certain conditions it would seem therefore that the best way to combat a deficit is to increase spending. The conditions are that there are unemployed resources, and that the additional spending is not drained away by imports. In these circumstances a policy of "reflation" should have a good chance of succeeding without adding to the budget deficit at all. On the one hand, the built-in stabilisers in modern welfare state are very strong. About half of the additional spending will come back to the treasury. On the other hand we have a modern destabiliser in the form of consumer's credit and durable goods consumption which will prevent the multiplier from being too low. This response of consumption will be very quick in contrast to the response of business investment which may take one or two years at least. In the interval business will merely accumulate additional saving. At the same time the consumers, owing to the expectation of a persistently higher level of income, will increase their spending on durables more than their disposable income has increased; they will therefore, taken all together, dissave (borrow) on balance, at the margin. (1983)
Now, it's important to point out that Steindl wrote the above at a time when growth in consumer credit could function as a way to counter the deflating effect of deficit reduction. Today, this is not the case, as consumers are seeking to repair their balance sheets following the financial crisis. This means that the only solution would be the one articulated in Steindl's quote found at the top of this post.

To conclude, there is growing appreciation these days among economists and commentators of the self-defeating nature of austerity and deficit reduction measures. The difficulties that many European nations are now facing in their quest to bring down deficits is consistent with Steindl's view that government austerity is exactly the wrong strategy for reducing the size of the budget deficit and bringing down debt during a period of slow growth.

PS: I recently stumbled upon this comment by economist Herbert Simon discussing Steindl's brand of economics:
It is pleasant, in an econometric world that has become idolatrous of mathematical "elegance," to encounter an author who thinks that mathematics is a tool - one of several - to aid in carrying out reasoning about economic matters.

Eisner, R., How Real is the Federal Budget? (New York: Free Press), 1986

Steindl, J., “The Role of Household Saving in the Modern Economy”, Banca Nazionale del Lavoro Quarterly Review, p.83, March, 1982

Steindl, J., "J.M. Keynes: Society and the Economist", Keynes' Relevance Today (London: MacMillan) 1985.

Steindl, Josef. “The Control of the Economy”, Banca Nazionale del Lavoro Quarterly Review, pp. 235-248, 1983

Shapiro, N., "Keynes, Steindl, and the Critique of Austerity Economics", Monthly Review, Vol 64, No.3, 2012

Simon, H., "Random Processes and the Growth of Firms: A Study of the Pareto Law" by Josef Steindl: Review, Journal of the American Statistical Association, Vol. 61, No. 316 (Dec., 1966), pp. 1232-1233

Tobin, J., Deficit, Deficit, Who's Got the Deficit, January 1963. New Republic, 1/19/63, Vol. 148 Issue 3, p10. 

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The BIS's new long series on private non-financial credit

The Bank for International Settlements has introduced a new data series on total non-financial credit (loans and debt securities) covering 40 economies and spanning an average period of 45 years. The new series are intended to improve comparisons between different countries and across time. One interesting aspect of these new series is that they account for credit from all sources, not only that extended by domestic banks.

Here is a short article that gives a good overview of the new series. It contains several BIS signature-style charts and, for illustration purposes, provides a look at the evolution of total private non-financial credit worldwide:
While total credit has generally risen substantially relative to GDP, levels and trends in private sector borrowing have varied across countries to a surprising degree. For instance, in several economies, total credit-to-GDP ratios already significantly exceeded 100% in the 1960s and 1970s. Equally, in a number of countries, the share of domestic bank credit in total credit has actually increased substantially over the last 40 years – that is, banks have become more, not less, important. And finally, sectoral breakdowns show that there has been a general shift towards more household credit. In some countries, households now borrow even more than corporates.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Is there a trade-off between employment and the household sector financial balance?

As Canadian policymakers try to get the household sector out of its financial deficit position, it's important to keep in mind that households are the sector that has been doing a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of boosting demand in recent decades.

Policymakers can attempt to get households to borrow less, but unless they can think of a way for another sector to offset the resulting reduced demand, it seems unlikely that the unemployment rate will remain at current low levels once households decide to reduce their net borrowing.

I posted these charts before but it's worth posting them again:

As household net borrowing increases, the rate of unemployment declines

A closer view of recent years

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Is there a moral aspect to economic policy?

From Ed Luce of the Financial Times (a good article):
Mr Bernanke’s grounding has given him the authority to dismiss those who view the meltdown through a moral lens and want to purge society for its excesses. Had he embraced this popular intuition, the US would now be following the UK into triple-dip recession. As Mr Bernanke noted in Texas shortly after Rick Perry, its governor, had all but threatened him with a lynch mob: “I am not a believer in the Old Testament theory of the business cycle.”
As a general rule, any argument pushing for less government intervention on moral grounds in a weak economy should be viewed with suspicion. "Less is more" can be an acceptable rule for making decisions of a personal nature but in the realm of economic policy, it's often just bad advice. This is largely because of the two-sided nature of any monetary transaction: your spending is my income, public sector spending is private sector income.

A few years ago, economist Ben Friedman examined how morality intersects with economics and public policy. His view is that government intervention, in terms of its impact on the lives of citizens through its role in fostering economic growth, 'less' is definitely 'less':
A commonly held view is that government policy should try, insofar as it can, to avoid interfering with private economic initiative: the expectation of greater profits is ample incentive for a firm to expand production, or build a new factory, while the prospect of higher wages is likewise sufficient to encourage workers to seek out training or invest in their own education...The best that government can do (so the story goes) is minimize taxes, or safety regulations...The "right" pace of economic growth is whatever the market - that is, the aggregate of all private decisions - would deliver on its own.

But this familiar view too is seriously incomplete. To the extent that economic growth brings not only higher private incomes but also greater openness, tolerance, and democracy -- benefits we value but that the market does not price -- and to the extent that these unpriced benefits outweigh any unpriced harm that might ensue, market forces alone will systematically provide too little growth. Calling for government to stand aside while the market determines our economic growth ignores the vital role of public policy: the right rate of economic growth is greater than the purely market-determined rate, and the role of government policy is to foster it. (2005:14)
The point here is that public policy positively influences a society's moral character when it helps to raise living standards, which in turn affect the attitude of people toward themselves and encourages greater openness and tolerance.

Also, on a separate yet related point, it's really hard to believe there's any good to be found in the popular view that government action should be avoided because it (allegedly) stifles private sector initiative. On this point, I think Bill White of the Bank for International Settlements makes a good point:
...faced with serious deflationary tendencies, all of the weapons in the macroeconomic arsenal should be used to their full effect to ensure that aggregate demand is maintained. The concept of "creative destruction" has a certain intuitive appeal, but it should be remembered that the phrase was coined well before the onset of the Great Depression.

Friedman, B., The moral consequences of economic growth, 2005, New York, Knopf

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Helicopter money: an operational view

Much has been written about Adair's Turner suggestion that central banks should consider financing public spending but I thought this short exchange between Adair Turner and economist Mario Seccareccia at an INET conference in 2011 is worth pointing out.

Here's Adair Turner's question:
[About Japan]...why wouldn't it been better still to do what Friedman said was the correct policy post facto in the 1930s, which is "helicopter money". Why wouldn't a better policy had been for the Japanese government to simply run fully, overtly, monetized deficits so that the last [inaudible] percent of GDP was not in the form of a debt contract held by the Japanese private sector but was in the form of absolute, categoric fiat money? (at 2:30 here)
This is Mario Seccareccia's response:
[About the] issue which had been raised about fiscal policy and the "helicopter drop" [vs conventional deficit spending]. That's a false dichotomy. I mean, deficit spending is -- in a sense -- monetization all the time. [Bond issuance is] how the central bank then behaves to clear or sterilize -- so to speak -- those reserves in the system in order to meet its interest rate policy. Period. There is no such thing as a "helicopter" doing this. It's always done through deficit spending fundamentally, I would argue. (at 9:00 here)
The point to remember when thinking about a central bank's ability to inject exogenous increases in reserve balances is that in a monetary regime such as Japan (and the UK for that matter) where the central bank targets an interest rate and the remuneration rate on reserves balances isn't set at the same level as its target interest rate, the central bank can't conduct offensive open market operations aimed at increasing the amount of reserve balances without simultaneously frustrating its goal of keeping its benchmark interest rate on target. Under such a regime the central bank's ability to control money growth is essentially limited to conducting defensive open market operations aimed at keeping its interest rate on target.

UPDATE: A very detailed look at the "helicopter drop" issue is found in Scott Fullwiler's article "Helicopter drops are fiscal operations" (2010). For a general discussion on offensive vs defensive open market operations, see Lombra, Herendeen and Torto, Money and the Financial System, page 425, 1980.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Steve Keen on interest and capitalism's main dilemma

A few fine words from Steve Keen:
Interviewer: On a broader topic, is interest a kind of rent in the classical sense? Is it income without a cost of production?  
Steve Keen: Absolutely. This is why...I see the main dilemma in capitalism as being the conflict between financial capital and industrial capital. Industrial capital is ultimately productive. And if you look at workers and capitalists, they both ultimately benefit out of the technological developments over time and demands over wages. If unemployment is not gigantic, they benefit out of the improvements in current technology and out of productivity at the time as well. The real albatross around the neck of capitalism is financial capital [inaudible] when you let it get beyond the level necessary to simply finance working capital in some new investment. And it’s what happens every time capitalists take over...
...The thing I think we’re both in agreement on is we have to stop people, and particularly social classes, becoming dependent upon unearned income. Ultimately the only way to get a functioning capitalist society—or a society in general—is to have one where the source of income is earned, not unearned. And when you look at land speculation, or you look at any other form of speculation, people are trying to get income without earning it. That’s the real dilemma in capitalism. And if we direct ourselves toward that particular principle then we’re both on the same side. (Renegade Economists, April 21, 2010, at 13:30)
There's lots of good insight here. A fine glimpse of "Keensian" economics.  And I totally agree with the general point of the last sentence: "...then we're both on the same side". There's plenty of commonalities out there. We just need to focus on these.

PS: I'm entering a busy period at work. Posting will be limited and mainly consist of short thoughts on and snippets from economists I find interesting.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Does the endogenous nature of money weaken the case for NGDP targeting?

One charge that's often directed against those who espouse nominal GDP targeting within a quantity theory framework (e.g., market monetarists) is that they fail to take into account the endogenous nature of money in their analyses.

In my view, such a charge is misplaced, as there are economists within the quantity-theory tradition who support NGDP targeting and who acknowledge the endogenous nature of the money supply.

Take, for instance, Robert Hetzel, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond and a strong advocate of NGDP targeting (and sometimes considered a precursor of today's market monetarists).  Hetzel has a deep understanding of the operational aspects of central banking and recognizes the implications for policy formulation posed by the endogenous nature of money.  Consider the following:

First, Hetzel understands that credit creation is at the root of deposit creation (i.e., "loans create deposits") and that the supply of reserve balances is demand-determined in a monetary regime where the central bank targets an interest rate.  Here is an excerpt from Hetzel's 1986 paper "A Critique of Theories of Money Stock Determination":
Deposits and reserve demand are determined simultaneously with credit creation. As a consequence of defending its rate target, the monetary authority, by creating an infinitely elastic supply of reserves, accommodates whatever reserve demand emerges...In a regime of rate targeting, neither the quantity of reserves nor the desired reserves-deposits ratio of the banking system exercises a causal role in the determination of the money stock (1986:6)
Second, Hetzel recognizes the inapplicability of the textbook money multiplier model of money stock determination in monetary regime where the central bank targets an interest rate and understands that the main constraint imposed on banks (for credit creation) under such a monetary regime is the price of reserve balances set by the central bank rather than their quantity:
Interest rate smoothing by the monetary authority makes reserves and the money stock endogenous...Since [Chester] Phillips (1921), reserves-money multiplier formulas have been derived from a model of the banking sector summarized in the multiple expansion of deposits produced by an injection of reserves.  The existence of markets for bank reserves, however, renders this model untenable.  Phillips' model assumes that the individual bank is constrained by the quantity of its reserves and that its asset acquisition and deposit creation are driven by discrepancies between actual and desired reserves.  Given the existence of markets for bank reserves, such as the fed funds and CD markets, however, individual banks are constrained by the price, rather than the quantity, of reserves they hold. (1986:20) (emphasis added)
Third, Hetzel recognizes the operational implications of endogenous money for monetary control. Consider the following excerpt from his 2004 article "How does the central bank control inflation?":
Because the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) uses the funds rate rather than the monetary base or bank reserves as its policy variable, money is endogenously determined. (2004:48) 
Stated differently, Hetzel recognizes that when the central bank uses an interest rate instrument the central bank cannot exogenously control the money supply:
[W]ith an interest rate as the policy variable, monetary control does not imply an exogenous money stock. (footnote at 48)...In the case of an interest rate instrument, the central bank privatizes control over reserves provision by turning the decision on the quantity of reserves over to the financial market...It takes direct control over the setting of the interest rate (55)
Finally, Hetzel understands that central bank purchases of government debt is not in itself inflationary.  Consider the following statement made recently by Hetzel during a presentation in Europe:
Somehow the Buba has this idea that if you buy government debt, that in itself is inflationary. Well, you gotta buy something to be able to create the monetary base that sustains money creation. So you gotta buy something. And you can buy baskets of government debt. But buying government debt is not inflationary. That's pursuing it far too much. (75 minutes)
So what differentiates Hetzel's views from the one of Keynesian-inspired economists who accept the endogenous nature of money (such as post-Keynesians)?

To answer this question and better understand how Hetzel is able to reconcile the above views with his attachment to the quantity-theory tradition, it's important to understand that Hetzel's framework for analyzing monetary policy relies on a natural rate (of interest) model, in which monetary control depends on how well the central bank can adjust its interest rate in a manner that tracks the natural rate of interest (i.e., the real interest rate that would exist in the absence of monetary disturbances*).  This is where Hetzel differs entirely from post-Keynesians.

In Hetzel's view, as mentioned above, in a context of endogenous money, the central bank doesn't control money creation via the textbook money multiplier process or by exogenous injections or withdrawals of base money.  Rather, Hetzel views money creation as the consequence of the central bank keeping its interest rate below the natural rate.  The reverse, money destruction, occurs when the central bank keeps its interest rate above the natural rate.  Hetzel explains the difference between his and the old monetarist description of money creation as follows:
The real world counterpart to the quantity theory conceptual experiment of an exogenous increase in money is a failure by the central bank to move its interest target in a way that tracks the natural rate (2004:51).
In other words, in Hetzel's quantity theory framework, money creation and the monetary transmission mechanism has little to do with adjusting the size of the monetary base or manipulating the textbook money multiplier in such a way as to expand the money supply by means of a multiple expansion of deposits.  (One exception is in today's case, where the Fed has the ability to control the amount of reserve balances.  In such a context, Hetzel considers the money multiplier model of money stock determination as relevant given that the money supply expands as a result of open-market purchases.)

So if it's not the money multiplier, what's the monetary transmission mechanism then?

Another point of divergence between Hetzel's view and the post-Keynesian view -- and this is important for understanding his framework for boosting NGDP (and thus enabling the central bank to hit its NGDP growth target) -- is that he holds a view emphasizing the central bank's ability to force portfolio rebalancing by the public and thereby control the public's dollar expenditures.  Liquidity or portfolio rebalancing involves the purchase by the public of illiquid assets such as consumer durables, equities, real estate, etc.  Hetzel explains the central bank's ability to foster portfolio rebalancing as follows:
Assume that the central bank purchases an illiquid asset, for example, shares in a mutual fund holding equities.  The public will rebalance its portfolio through the purchases of physical assets like land and equities.  The rise in their prices will raise their value as collateral and this facilitates the access to credit of the holders of these assets.  Increased liquidity from increased access to credit augments the portfolio rebalancing effect by decreasing the demand for the liquidity services of money.  The increase in the price of physical capital relative to its replacement cost stimulates investment. (2004:56)
There is no need to get into the other aspects of Hetzel's framework in support of NGDP targeting (e.g., role of central bank credibility and inflation expectations, establishment of a monetary rule...) since it is not altogether relevant to the basic point of this post, which is to say that the arguments about the irrelevance of the money multiplier or the endogenous nature of money that are sometimes made to counter the case in favor of NGDP targeting don't get to the core aspects of the debate, such as the issue of the natural rate.


The point of this post is simple: the arguments concerning the endogenous nature of money and the irrelevance of the textbook money multiplier do very little to challenge the case in favor of NGDP targeting (or inflation targeting, for that matter) and the general theoretical construct used by market monetarists.  As I've shown, the case for NGDP targeting can be made (at least theoretically) using a quantity theory approach that is consistent with the endogenous nature of money.

Therefore, from a debating standpoint, those who support a functional finance approach to economic policy (as I do) would gain more by focusing their efforts on challenging notions such as the natural rate of interest and in demonstrating the inadequacies of an approach to monetary policy whose monetary transmission mechanism relies largely on the portfolio balancing effect.  While the issue of the natural rate is largely a theoretical problem (Does it exist? Can it be measured?), the question of the portfolio balance effect is essentially an empirical issue (Is the portfolio rebalancing effect substantial? Can the central bank control it for policy purposes?)

As for the bloggers and economists who think that post-Keynesians and MMT economists are wrong about the endogenous nature of money and its implications for central bank operations, I would suggest they review the work of Robert Hetzel.  His take on these matters is in line with the post-Keynesian/MMT view.

* Another definition is "the real rate of interest consistent with keeping real aggregate demand in line with potential output" (see here).  Without getting into too many theoretical details, from a practical standpoint, central bankers tend to interpret decreases in rates of resource utilization (increases in the unemployment rate) as indicative of a real interest rate in excess of the natural rate (and vice-versa).


Hetzel, R., A critique of theories of money stock determination, Working Paper, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, 1986

Hetzel, R., How Do Central Banks Control Inflation?, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, 2004

Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, The natural rate of interest, FRBSF Economic Letter, October 2003