Tag: Federal Reserve

Ricardo Paging Alan Blinder

I almost hesitate to suggest that anyone actually read Alan Blinder’s defense of Keynesian economics in today’s Wall Street Journal, except that the piece lays out clearly in my mind why Blinder is so wrong.  The only part you really need to read is:

In sum, you may view any particular public-spending program as wasteful, inefficient, leading to “big government” or objectionable on some other grounds. But if it’s not financed with higher taxes, and if it doesn’t drive up interest rates, it’s hard to see how it can destroy jobs.

So in Blinder’s world, deficits are explicitly not future taxes, despite what I believe is a fairly strong consensus among economists that some form of Ricardian equivalence holds (see John Seater’s literature review and conclusion, “despite its nearly certain invalidity as a literal description of the role of public debt in the economy, Ricardian equivalence holds as a close approximation.”).  Perhaps Blinder is blind to the fact that deficits are so much a part of the public debate today because households absolutely see those deficits as future taxes.

I also think Blinder misses that fact that crowding out can occur without raising interest rates.  As Cato scholar Steve Hanke points out, the Fed’s current policies have basically killed the interbank lending market, which has encouraged banks to load up on Treasuries and Agencies, rather than lend to the productive elements of the economy.  While I sadly don’t expect most mainstream macroeconomists to focus on the link between the banking sector and the macroeconomy, Blinder has no excuse; he served on the Fed board.

As I have argued elsewhere, banks are indeed lending, but to the government, not the private sector.  The simplistic notion that crowding out can only occur via higher interest rates, as if price is ever the only margin along which a decision is made, has done serious harm to macroeconomics.  But then if macroeconomists actually understood the mechanics of financial markets, then we might not be in this mess in the first place.

Is Housing Holding Back Inflation?

Today the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the consumer price index (CPI) numbers for April, which generally gives us the best picture of inflation.  The headline number is that between April 2010 and April 2011, consumer prices increased 3.2 percent, as measured by the CPI.  Obviously this is well above 2 percent, the number Ben Bernanke defines as “price stability.”  Setting aside the reasonableness of that definition, there is definitely some mild inflation in the economy.

Also of interest in the April numbers is that if you subtract housing, which makes up over 40% of the weight of the CPI, then prices increased 4.2 percent — twice Bernanke’s measure of stability.  What has always been problematic of the housing component is that its largest piece is an estimate of what owners would pay themselves if they rented their own residence.  This estimate makes up about a fourth of the CPI.  As the chart below demonstrates, for much of 2010, the direction in this number was actually negative, which held down CPI over the last year.  The current annualized figure for owner’s rent is 0.9 from April 2010 to April 2011.  Oddly enough, this is below the actual increase in rents, which was 1.3.  For most homeowners, the real cost of housing — their mortgage payment — has likely been flat, not decreasing.  So whatever benefit there has been to declining housing costs, most consumers are unlikely to feel any benefit from those declines, if they are actually real.

While the primary driver of CPI has been energy costs, food prices have also garnered considerable attention.  Excluding food from the CPI does not change the headline number, although this is due to the fact that the cost of eating out has been rising considerably slower than the cost of eating at home.  So as along as you’ve been eating out every night, you’ve apparently been fine.  This touches upon what is one of the less recognized features of current inflation trends:  the regressive nature of these prices increases.  If you rent, then you’ve seen costs increase more than if you own.  If you mostly eat at home, then you’ve seen prices increase more than if you dine out a lot.  If you have a lot of leisure time, the you’ve gained by the decrease in reaction prices.  While I don’t think one’s position on inflation should be driven purely by distributional concerns, the fact that working middle-income households have been hit harder by recent inflation trends than higher-income households should cut against the claims that inflation is somehow good for the poor or working class.

Can We Rely on Inflation Expectations?

The Wall Street Journal has pointed out that in his recent press conference Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke used the words “inflation expectations” (or some variation) 21 times. His argument is that we need not worry about inflation because we will see it coming, and then the Fed will do something about it. Such an argument relies heavily on the ability of inflation expectations to predict inflation. Which of course raises the question, just how predictive are inflation expectations?

The graph below compares inflation, as measured by CPI, and inflation expectations, as measured by the University of Michigan consumer survey, the longest times series we have on inflation expectations.

Clearly the two move together. For instance, the correlation between current inflation and expectations is almost 1 (its 0.93), while the correlation between inflation and actual inflation a year later is slightly less at 0.81. The relationship declines as we move further into the future. So yes, consumer expectations appear a reasonable predictor of the direction of inflation. However, they don’t appear to be a great predictor of the magnitude or the frequency of changes. For instance, the standard deviation of actual inflation is about twice that of expected inflation. As one can easily see from the chart, expectations are quite sticky and rarely pick up the extremes. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, expectations did move up, but then never reached the heights actually experienced, nor did consumers ever actually expect deflation during the recent financial crisis (if we are going to base policy on expectations, we should at least be consistent about it).

For about the last decade we also have market based measures of inflation, based upon inflation-indexed bonds. The TIPS measure tends to be less correlated with actual inflation, but does a better job of capturing the extremes. Although interesting enough, TIPS was already predicting that deflation would be short-lived before we even experienced any deflation.

The point is that while expectations are useful for qualitatively purposes, they do not have a strong record of recording the extremes. Given that most of us expect some positive level of inflation, the real debate is over how much. In this regard, either survey or market-based expectations are likely to be both a lagging indicator and an under-estimate of actual inflation.

Wednesday Links

Response to Joe Weisenthal’s Critique of My Politico Opinion Piece

Yesterday I had an op-ed in Politico suggesting that U.S. lawmakers should consider not raising the federal debt limit (at least for now). I argued that freezing the ceiling would assure investors that the United States is serious about reducing its debt, and that it would serve as a commitment device for lawmakers and President Obama to forge and follow a serious debt-reduction strategy.

A financial website writer named Joe Weisenthal strongly disagreed with my column. He seems to misunderstand several of the points that I was making, and so I offer the following response to his comments:

From Weisenthal’s post:

Another day, another economist advocating that the US default on its debt.

The latest is Jagadeesh Gokhale of the Cato Institute, who has a big piece advocating an immediate freeze of the debt ceiling.

It’s so convoluted, we hardly know where to begin, but let’s just address a few sloppy parts.

Many knowledgeable federal officials, like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, as well as left-leaning lawmakers, insist that the answer lies in lifting the debt limit. They warn Congress about the dire consequences if it fails to do so. President Barack Obama has chimed in — though he voted against raising it when he was a senator.

They all assert that failing to increase the debt limit could sharply undermine the economic recovery.

But that view could be wrong. A temporarily frozen debt limit could instead signal U.S. lawmakers’ resolve to get our fiscal house in order. It may even reassure investors about long-term U.S. economic prospects.

This line about “reassuring investors” is nonsense. Investors are already reassured, which is why interest rates have only fallen amidst all the squawking from the political class about this “crisis.”

From the start, Weisenthal doesn’t follow my argument. I am not concerned about the state of market confidence today, but what it would be if the debt limit were frozen. The contrarian view that I expressed in my op-ed is that participants would interpret a debt-limit freeze positively, just as they appear to have interpreted the recent downgrade of the U.S. economic outlook by Standard and Poor’s positively — U.S. equities, U.S. treasuries, and the dollar are up less than 48 hours after S&P’s downgrade announcement.

He also misunderstands why interest rates have declined. It is because of the Federal Reserve’s sustained intervention in bond markets, not because there is little investor concern over the United States’ long-term fiscal outlook.

Returning to Weisenthal’s post:

He then gets to the discussion of a default.

…the current prospect of a technical default, from failing to increase the debt limit, would not be due to any real national insolvency. Given today’s low interest rates, the federal government could easily raise the resources needed to meet today’s contractual government obligations.

This doesn’t make any sense. How do “low interest rates” matter to the government in a situation where it’s legally unable to borrow?

Here, Weisenthal misunderstands what it means to freeze the debt limit. It does not mean, as he believes, that the government is “legally unable to borrow.” It only means that the government cannot issue any additional debt beyond the limit. But the government can (and will) continue to roll over its existing debt, and must do so at current interest rates, which makes those rates relevant to the discussion.

More Weisenthal:

Anyway, here’s the biggest whopper of them all:

How might investors really view this ersatz U.S. debt crisis? If some lawmakers’ refusal to vote for increasing the debt limit without also passing prudential fiscal policies resulted in a technical U.S. default, it would demonstrate their significant political strength.

Might that not actually induce investors to buy long-term U.S. debt — reducing long-term interest rates and improving the U.S. investment climate?

Oy, where to begin? First of all, the notion that a “technical default” would induce investors to buy long-term U.S. debt is prima facie absurd.

Perhaps he knows something I don’t, but I don’t see this as absurd at all. I’d expect that a serious commitment by political leaders to get the nation’s fiscal affairs in order would inspire investor confidence in U.S. securities. If anything, it’s absurd to think that investors would be encouraged by Weisenthal’s preferred policy of the nation continuing to expand its borrowing without a plan to manage its debt.

Back to his post:

Second, as we stated above, longterm US interest rates are at historical lows, so the idea of needing to reduce them further to improve the US investment climate is rubbish. And finally, why do we want people to buy more long-term US debt? Ideally we want people going out and actually investing in things with their money: companies, employees, lending to corporations, etc. Aren’t debt hawks supposed to hate the idea of government borrowing crowding out private spending. [sic]

The problem with this comment is that today’s historically low interest rates are not a reflection of freely operating market forces. They result from the Fed’s massive interventions through its Quantitative Easing policy.  The Fed has increased its portfolio of market assets — now approaching a staggering $2.7 trillion — in part by purchasing treasuries with longer maturity than it used to purchase before 2008. Without that injection of liquidity (note to Ben Bernanke: I didn’t say the Fed is “printing money”), market rates would be much higher.

Weisenthal does rightly worry about the effect of U.S. government finance on other sectors of the financial market. Fortunately, investors are beginning to branch out beyond government securities. But even as the Fed has been purchasing so many Treasuries to keep interest rates artificially low and fund the government, it has also purchased private assets because investors have not been buying U.S. private assets as much as they used to. The Fed has been propping up particular U.S. sectors (e.g., securitized finance, insurance, auto, home, credit card loans) to keep them from failing. If you removed the Fed’s $2.7 trillion liquidity injection from markets, interest rates would be much higher today. (How the Fed should conduct monetary policy is a different topic, beyond the scope of this post.)

Government officials are afraid that investor exits from Treasuries (and U.S. assets in general, both government and private) will accelerate if the debt limit is frozen, as I mentioned in the Politico article. I’m suggesting that view might be incorrect.

Weisenthal concludes:

Basically, Gokhale is just throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall, failing to produce an argument, and hoping you don’t really get it. Sorry.

Respectfully, I think my argument is quite coherent, though I admit it’s not the conventional view offered by many other commentators. Indeed, that’s why I wrote the op-ed.

Wednesday Links

  • Please join us on Thursday, April 7 at 2:00 p.m. ET for “The Economic Impact of Government Spending,” featuring Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), former Sen. Phil Gramm, former IMF director of fiscal affairs department Vito Tanzi, and Ohio University economist and AEI adjunct scholar Richard Vedder. We encourage you to attend in person, but if you cannot, you can tune in online at our new live events hub.
  • The last time we saw a green energy economy was in the 13th century.
  • This isn’t quite what we meant by “defense spending.” For a refresher, see this itemized list of proposed cuts that could save taxpayers $150 billion annually.
  • Prosperity reigns where taxes are low and right to work prevails.”
  • In case you missed it last Friday, check out Cato director of financial regulation studies Mark A. Calabria discussing the Federal Reserve on FOX News’s Glenn Beck show:


End the Fed: More than Just a Bumper Sticker Slogan?

To put it mildly, the Federal Reserve has a dismal track record. It bears significant responsibility for almost every major economic upheaval of the past 100 years, including the Great Depression, the 1970s stagflation, and the recent financial crisis. Perhaps the most damning statistic is that the dollar has lost 95 percent of its value since the central bank was created.

Notwithstanding its poor performance, the Federal Reserve seems to get more power over time. But rather than rewarding the central bank for debasing the currency and causing instability, perhaps it’s time to contemplate alternatives. This new video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity dives into that issue, exposing the Fed’s poor track record, explaining how central banking evolved, and mentioning possible alternatives.

This video is the first installment of a multi-part series on monetary policy. Subsequent videos will examine possible alternatives to monopoly central banks, including a gold standard, free banking, and monetary rules to limit the Fed’s discretion.

As they say, stay tuned.