Paul Krugman: Fear of Froth:
Carola Binder parses President Obama’s big interview with the Times, and thinks it hints at a Summers, or anyway non-Yellen appointment. Maybe; in any case, can I say just how really stupid it is for the White House to have allowed this show even to get started? Here we have Obama trying to reboot his economic message, and much of the reporting is instead focused on palace intrigue….
Here we are with inflation at a long-term low, many economists arguing that we need higher inflation expectations, and unemployment the overwhelming problem we face. Yet Obama appears if anything to give more emphasis to inflation-fighting than to unemployment reduction, and throws in stuff about bubbles; basically, he has a definite tight-money lean. I don’t know who it’s coming from. And this has, by the way, been true all along.
The full post:
Paul Krugman: Fear of Froth:
Carola Binder parses President Obama’s big interview with the Times, and thinks it hints at a Summers, or anyway non-Yellen appointment. Maybe; in any case, can I say just how really stupid it is for the White House to have allowed this show even to get started? Here we have Obama trying to reboot his economic message, and much of the reporting is instead focused on palace intrigue.
Anyway, the passage in question is striking; whatever it says about the Fed succession, it does give us a sense of how the people Obama listens to talk. And it’s not good:
And what I’m looking for is somebody who understands the Fed has a dual mandate, that that’s not just lip service; that it is very important to keep inflation in check, to keep our dollar sound, and to ensure stability in the markets. But the idea is not just to promote those things in the abstract. The idea is to promote those things in service of the lives of ordinary Americans getting better.
And when unemployment is still too high, and long-term unemployment is still too high, and there’s still weak demand in a lot of industries, I want a Fed chairman that can step back and look at that objectively and say, let’s make sure that we’re growing the economy, but let’s also keep an eye on inflation, and if it starts heating up, if the markets start frothing up, let’s make sure that we’re not creating new bubbles.
So, here we are with inflation at a long-term low, many economists arguing that we need higher inflation expectations, and unemployment the overwhelming problem we face. Yet Obama appears if anything to give more emphasis to inflation-fighting than to unemployment reduction, and throws in stuff about bubbles; basically, he has a definite tight-money lean. I don’t know who it’s coming from.
And this has, by the way, been true all along. Back in the fall of 2009 the word I got was that senior Administration officials believed that we were in a Treasury bubble,and that long-term interest rates — then around 3.5 percent — might soar any day now. This in turn was partly behind the disastrous “pivot” away from unemployment to deficits.
The bad news from that Times interview is that it suggests that the president is still listening to the people who were telling him, four years ago, to be afraid of surging rates unless we turned to fiscal austerity. Not good.
Paul Krugman, fall 2009: Interest rates: the phantom menace:
From various bat squeaks I’ve put together a view of what I think lies behind the surprising — and damaging — deficit squeamishness of the Obama administration….
On the face of it, there’s no reason to be worried about interest rates on US debt. Despite large deficits, the Federal government is able to borrow cheaply, at rates that are up from the early post-Lehman period, when market were pricing in a substantial probability of a second Great Depression, but well below the pre-crisis levels… the surge in government borrowing has in fact, less than offset a plunge in private borrowing.
So what’s the problem?
Well, what I hear is that officials don’t trust the demand for long-term government debt, because they see it as driven by a “carry trade”: financial players borrowing cheap money short-term, and using it to buy long-term bonds. They fear that the whole thing could evaporate if long-term rates start to rise, imposing capital losses on the people doing the carry trade; this could, they believe, drive rates way up, even though this possibility doesn’t seem to be priced in by the market.
What’s wrong with this picture?
First of all, what would things look like if the debt situation were perfectly OK? The answer, it seems to me, is that it would look just like what we’re seeing.
Bear in mind that the whole problem right now is that the private sector is hurting, it’s spooked, and it’s looking for safety. So it’s piling into “cash”, which really means short-term debt. (Treasury bill rates briefly went negative yesterday). Meanwhile, the public sector is sustaining demand with deficit spending, financed by long-term debt. So someone has to be bridging the gap between the short-term assets the public wants to hold and the long-term debt the government wants to issue; call it a carry trade if you like, but it’s a normal and necessary thing.
Now, you could and should be worried if this thing looked like a great bubble — if long-term rates looked unreasonably low given the fundamentals. But do they? Long rates fluctuated between 4.5 and 5 percent in the mid-2000s, when the economy was driven by an unsustainable housing boom. Now we face the prospect of a prolonged period of near-zero short-term rates — I don’t see any reason for the Fed funds rate to rise for at least a year, and probably two — which should mean substantially lower long rates even if you expect yields eventually to rise back to 2005 levels. And if we’re facing a Japanese-type lost decade, which seems all too possible, long rates are in fact still unreasonably high.
Still, what about the possibility of a squeeze, in which rising rates for whatever reason produce a vicious circle of collapsing balance sheets among the carry traders, higher rates, and so on? Well, we’ve seen enough of that sort of thing not to dismiss the possibility. But if it does happen, it’s a financial system problem — not a deficit problem. It would basically be saying not that the government is borrowing too much, but that the people conveying funds from savers, who want short-term assets, to the government, which borrows long, are undercapitalized.
And the remedy should be financial, not fiscal. Have the Fed buy more long-term debt; or let the government issue more short-term debt. Whatever you do, don’t undermine recovery by calling off jobs creation.
The point is that it’s crazy to let the rescue of the economy be held hostage to what is, if it’s an issue at all, a technical matter of maturity mismatch. And again, it’s not clear that it even is an issue. What the worriers seem to regard as a danger sign — that supposedly awful carry trade — is exactly what you would expect to see even if fiscal policy were on a perfectly sustainable trajectory.
And one last point: I just don’t think the inner circle gets how much danger we’re in from another vicious circle, one that’s real, not hypothetical. The longer high unemployment drags on, the greater the odds that crazy people will win big in the midterm elections — dooming us to economic policy failure on a truly grand scale.