Austere Illusions: The doctrine of imposing present pain for future benefit has a long history – stretching all the way back to Adam Smith and his praise of “parsimony.” It is particularly vociferous in “hard times.” In 1930, US President Herbert Hoover was advised by his treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon:
Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate. It will purge the rottenness out of the system...People will...live a more moral life...and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.
To “liquidationists” of Mellon’s ilk, the pre-2008 economy was full of cancerous growths – in banking, in housing, in equities – which need to be cut out before health can be restored. Their position is clear: the state is a parasite, sucking the lifeblood of free enterprise. Economies gravitate naturally to a full-employment equilibrium, and, after a shock, do so fairly quickly if not impeded by misguided government action. This is why they are fierce opponents of Keynesian interventionism.
Eschaton: Not Too Late For The Helicopters: A big tragedy of the last few years is the failure to recognize that being in a low inflation world at the zero lower bound was a tremendous opportunity to massively enhance human welfare in this country. Mailing out 10 grand checks to everyone would have been an egalitarian massive boost to the economic well-being of huge numbers of people. Instead, the Fed has goosed asset prices, mostly benefiting the rich. Trickle down through another means, but still trickle down. Better than doing nothing, probably, but there were other ways.
How can you oppose a social-democratic economic policy that had the endorsement of Robert A. Heinlein?
Brad DeLong: It is far too soon to end expansion:
It was in 1829 that John Stuart Mill made the key intellectual leap in figuring out how to fight what he called “general gluts”: he saw that what had happened was an enormous excess demand for particular financial assets was driving an enormous excess supply of goods and services – and if you relieved the excess demand in finance you would cure the excess supply of labour. When the government relieves an excess demand for liquid money by printing up cash and swapping it out for government bonds, we call that expansionary monetary policy. When the government relieves an excess demand for bonds by printing up more Treasuries and selling them to finance its own purchases of goods and services, we call that expansionary fiscal policy. And when it prints up cash and bonds and swaps them for risky private financial assets, or when it guarantees private assets and so raises the supply of high-quality and reduces the supply of low-quality bonds, we call that banking policy.
An Article IV consultation for a reserve-currency sovereign that might actually matter:
Osborne braced for IMF verdict on UK economy: George Osborne is braced for the International Monetary Fund's verdict on Britain's economic prospects amid speculation it will urge him to change course. On Wednesday, the IMF presents its annual healthcheck on the UK and the international body is expected to suggest that deficit reduction should be slowed amid anaemic growth. The “Article IV” report is expected to recommend Mr Osborne change his plans and borrow more to invest in infrastructure or cut taxes. Previously, the IMF was among the strongest backers of the Chancellor's economic strategy, but has gradually changed its tone in response to dwindling growth forecasts.
If I have the right numbers in my head (which I may not), Apple currently makes $40 billion a year in profits, has $150 billion in free cash, and has a market value of $500 billion. That's a (price-cash)/earnings ratio of 7.75.
In what way is that divorced from fundamentals? Sounds like the market thinks that Apple has a very good franchise with a half-life of seven years, which seems about right to me. But if you told me the franchise was twelve years, I would not be surprised. And if you told me Apple was going to pull a Microsoft or a GM and burn all of its cash and its future earnings in a vain attempt to preserve a franchise beyond its natural life, I would not be surprised either. Apple's fundamentals are uncertain, but it does not seem to me that its market price is or was disconnected from them…
Muhammed El-Erian writes:
We should listen to what gold is really telling us: Like Apple, valuation has become divorced from fundamentals….
On Whose Research is the Case for Austerity Mistakenly Based?: Several of my colleagues on the Harvard faculty have recently been casualties in the cross-fire between fiscal austerians and stimulators…. Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff… the statistical relationship between debt and growth…. Niall Ferguson… “suggested that Keynes was perhaps indifferent to the long run because he had no children, and that he had no children because he was gay.”
Ryan Avent watches Karl Smith remind Tyler Cowen that people respond to market prices, and piles on himself:
The euro crisis: Der Elefant im Raum: TYLER COWEN writes on the euro-zone economy:
Would the new helicopter drop money be kept in periphery banks and lent out to stimulate business investment? Or does the new money flee say Portugal because Portuguese banks are not safe enough, Portuguese loans are not lucrative and safe enough, and Portuguese mattresses are too cumbersome? The former scenario implies that monetary policy should be potent. The latter scenario implies that the helicopter drop will be for naught and the fiscal policy multiplier also will be low, on the upside at the very least (fiscal cuts still might cause a lot of damage on the downside). I call this the liquidity leak, rather than the liquidity trap.
Karl Smith gives the correct response:
What Tyler calls a liquidity leak, I call markets at work. The ECB provides enough stimulus to get all of the Eurozone going but it all leaks to Germany. Fine. The German market heats up. German wages and rents rise. Retired German doctors start considering the virtues of a flat in Lisbon overlooking the harbor. German consultancies hold seminars on “How to make your Mediterranean town competitive in the new German Outsourcing Model.” This is the way things are supposed to work. The idea that a more competitive and efficient Germany should not command higher wages and rents is bizarre; and is only called inflation because the Eurozone, in its heart-of-hearts, doesn’t actually believe its one monetary union where the richer parts are distinguished principally by the fact that they have more money.
The Mythical 70s: It’s actually even worse than Matt [O'Brien] says. For the 1970s such people remember as a cautionary tale bears little resemblance to the 1970s that actually happened. In elite mythology, the origins of the crisis of the 70s, like the supposed origins of our current crisis, lay in excess: too much debt, too much coddling of those slovenly proles via a strong welfare state. The suffering of 1979-82 was necessary payback. None of that is remotely true. There was no deficit problem: government debt was low and stable or falling as a share of GDP during the 70s… a runaway welfare state more broadly just wasn’t an issue — hey, these days right-wingers complaining about a nation of takers tend to use the low-dependency 70s as a baseline.
What we did have was a wage-price spiral… exacerbated by big oil shocks… a case of self-fulfilling expectations, and the problem was to break the cycle.
So why did we need a terrible recession? Not to pay for our past sins, but simply as a way to cool the action…. Was there a better way? Ideally, we should have been able to get all the relevant parties in a room and say, look, this inflation has to stop; you workers, reduce your wage demands, you businesses, cancel your price increases, and for our part, we agree to stop printing money so the whole thing is over. That way, you’d get price stability without the recession. And in some small, cohesive countries that is more or less what happened. (Check out the Israeli stabilization of 1985). But America wasn’t like that, and the decision was made to do it the hard, brutal way. This was not a policy triumph! It was, in a way, a confession of despair….
No, America didn’t return to vigorous productivity growth — that didn’t happen until the mid-1990s. 60-year-old men should remember that a decade after the Volcker disinflation we were still very much in a national funk; remember the old joke that the Cold War was over, and Japan won? So it would be bad enough if we were basing policy today on lessons from the 70s. It’s even worse that we’re basing policy today on a mythical 70s that never was.
One thing going on is that the 1980s did see (a) a reduction in the progressively of taxation and (b) the start of the huge surge in overclass income. For overclass people--or people who are now part of the overclass and who then identified with the overclass like Michael Kinsley--the 1980s were pretty good (as, by the way, were the 2000s up until 2007).
Kenneth Rogoff: This is a truly inspired paper on Japan's ongoing "Great Recession," although I have to keep pinching myself to ask if its main thesis can really be true. Is the equilibrium (full-employment) medium-term real interest rate for Japan actually negative, so that un- less the Bank of Japan (BOJ) resigns itself to sustained inflation, the zero bound on nominal interest rates will present serious problems? Has the BOJ so thoroughly convinced the public of its anti-inflation credibility that it has lost the power to rekindle inflation now that Japan needs it?
A response to Roger Altman: Roger Altman of Evercore partners is a friend of mine, a distinguished public servant and a respected financial expert. But his column “Blame bond markets, not politicians, for austerity” is, in my view, gravely mistaken. Let me quote the first two paragraphs, since they go to the heart of the matter:
Criticism of austerity has reached ferocious levels in Europe. Increasingly, it carries a moral tone, portraying the stronger north, especially Germany, as forcing harsh policies on to weaker nations. Opponents of austerity argue that the north is demanding fiscal tightening and labour market reforms from these stricken states in exchange for vital lending from entities such as the European Central Bank. They see it as kicking economies when they’re down.
This is an important debate, but critics are forgetting a key point. It was not Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, or other political leaders who pushed austerity onto Italy, Spain, Greece and the others. It was private lenders, beginning in the autumn of 2011, who declined to finance further borrowing by those countries. Then they stopped financing portions of their banking systems. In other words, markets triggered the Eurozone crisis, not politicians. The fiscal and banking restructuring that followed was the price of rebuilding market confidence.
Escaping liquidity traps: Lessons from the UK’s 1930s escape: The UK escaped a liquidity trap in the 1930s and enjoyed a strong economic recovery. This column argues that what drove this recovery was ‘unconventional’ monetary policy implemented not by the Bank of England but by the Treasury. Thus, Neville Chamberlain was an early proponent of ‘Abenomics’. This raises the question: is inflation targeting by an independent central bank appropriate at a time of very low nominal-interest rates?
Druckenmiller noted everyone is saying, "love the market long term, looking for a correction." He believes the opposite, loves market short-term, but hates it long term. Strongly disagrees with quantitative easing by Bernanke now. Only agreed with the first QE. "His bond buying is controlling the most important price in the US economy." Says it will end badly, despite money-printing being beneficial to financial assets currently. When Fed slightly tightens, that will hurt things he says. Bernanke completely ignored strong economic data in January and February, but with slightly soft data later, he printed even more money. Expects a "melt-up" in the short-term, due to Fed's current policy…. Bernanke is “running the most inappropriate monetary policy in history.”
In February 2012, a number of hedge fund traders noted one particular index--CDX IG 9--that seemed to be underpriced. It seemed to be cheaper to buy credit default protection on the 125 companies that made the index by buying the index than by buying protection on the 125 companies one by one. This was an obvious short-term moneymaking opportunity: Buy the index, sell its component short, in short order either the index will rise or the components will fall in value, and then you will be able to quickly close out your position with a large profit.
Quantitative easing… is supposed to stimulate the economy by increasing share prices, leading to higher household wealth and therefore to increased consumer spending. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has described this as the “portfolio-balance” effect of the Fed’s purchase of long-term government securities instead of the traditional open-market operations that were restricted to buying and selling short-term government obligations. Here’s how it is supposed to work. When the Fed buys long-term government bonds and mortgage-backed securities, private investors are no longer able to buy those long-term assets. Investors who want long-term securities therefore have to buy equities. That drives up the price of equities, leading to more consumer spending….
And Robert Skidelsky explains what John Maynard "We'll Keep Dancing 'Till We Die" Keynes really meant by "In the long run we are all dead":
Apropos nothing at all I thought I might address the suggestion, sometimes raised, that John Maynard Keynes’s “love” for Carl Melchior, German representative at Versailles, might substantively have influenced Keynes’s position on what reparations the Germans ought to pay. Keynes made early calculations for what Germany should pay in reparations in October, 1918. In “Notes on an Indemnity,” he presented two sets of figures – one “without crushing Germany” and one “with crushing Germany”.
Little more than quotes from Skidelsky's three-volume Keynes biography strung together, with a little commentary and occasional quibbling…
J. Bradford DeLong Professor of Economics, U.C. Berkeley
Econ 115 Lecture
September 29, 2009
5,562 words: September 29, 2009
John Maynard Keynes:
The Great Slump of 1930: This is a nightmare, which will pass away with the morning. For the resources of nature and men's devices are just as fertile and productive as they were. The rate of our progress towards solving the material problems of life is not less rapid. We are as capable as before of affording for everyone a high standard of life… and will soon learn to afford a standard higher still. We were not previously deceived.
But to-day we have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand. The result is that our possibilities of wealth may run to waste for a time — perhaps for a long time…
Seven Myths about Keynesian Economics: The claim that Keynesians are indifferent to the long-run is one of many myths about Keynesian economics…. This has it backwards. Conservatives who oppose Keynesian economics are not concerned enough about short-run economic problems, particularly unemployment, and failing to address our short-run problems can bring long-run harm…. Keynesians care very much about the long run, but they do not go along with the idea that neglecting short-run issues is the best way to solve our long-run problems.
Mark Thoma sends us to Tim Duy:
14,000 - Tim Duy's Fed Watch: Seems like just yesterday Japanese policymakers were looking to push the Nikkie to 13,000. It even seemed like a overreaching at the time…. Today the Nikkei pushed past 14,000. Note too that the 10-year Japanese government bond holds well below 1 percent - fears that aggressive policy would cause rates to skyrocket are once again proved unfounded.
So far, so good for Abenomics. Now the question is will policymakers back off soon after seeing such positive results? We have seen such stop-go policy in Japan in the past when attention turns back toward the size of the deficit. Are Japanese policymakers in it for the long-haul?
Keynes, Keynesians, the Long Run, and Fiscal Policy: One dead giveaway that someone pretending to be an authority on economics is in fact faking it is misuse of the famous Keynes line about the long run. Here’s the actual quote:
But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.
At last night's Kansas State's debate, I said that Alan Reynolds had been warning of an outbreak of inflation from Bernanke's monetary policies for 3.5 years now, and it had not happened. "Not me", he said. "You must be thinking of some other guy."
Paul Krugman appears, bringing the refreshments in the form of a reference…
Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff (2013):
Austerity is not the only answer to a debt problem: To be clear, no one should be arguing to stabilise debt, much less bring it down, until growth is more solidly entrenched – if there remains a choice, that is. Faced with, at best, haphazard access to international capital markets and high borrowing costs, periphery countries in Europe face more limited alternatives. Nevertheless, given current debt levels, enhanced stimulus should only be taken selectively and with due caution. A higher borrowing trajectory is warranted, given weak demand and low interest rates, where governments can identify high-return infrastructure projects. Borrowing to finance productive infrastructure raises long-run potential growth, ultimately pulling debt ratios lower. We have argued this consistently since the outset of the crisis.
David Romer: Short-Run Fluctuations (January 2013 version).
Three things struck me of especial note last night:
First, Reynolds's willingness to throw George W. Bush completely over the side--not even any of Nooners's "he was incompetent, and flawed, and a failure, but he was a regular guy--not somebody who thought he was smarter than you--and in a way we miss him". None of that.
Second, Reynolds's praise for Bill Clinton--twelve years after Clinton left office. I now look forward to hearing Alan Reynolds praise Barack Obama for his attempts to start reining-in Medicare spending via the ACA and the IPAB come... 2029. But it would be nice if we could during that forward in time to the present--it would be really nice if we could have brung his praise of Clinton forward in time to 1993 when we really could have used it...
Third, the extent to which those who don't know IS-LM are blind persons in the country of the one-eyed. Reynolds said: "In fiscal policy the government prints bonds, in monetary policy the government--the central bank--buys bonds, if one of these is stimulative, how can the other be?" And he was genuinely puzzled.
The euro crisis: The Frankfurt veto: AUSTERITY has been under fire from all corners, lately: from IMF reports showing painfully high multipliers on fiscal cuts, to challenges to the Reinhart-Rogoff debt-threshold research, to the European Commission, whose president, Jose Manuel Barroso, noted this week that austerity in Europea has "reached its limits". Even the data itself appears to be rebelling. Eurostat released updated figures this week on euro-area fiscal statistics, which show remarkably little progress toward fiscal goals; Germany was the only European Union economy to run a fiscal surplus in 2012. But despite this, yields on peripheral sovereign debt continued their long march down. Soaring borrowing costs apparently weren't about indebtedness at all, but about uncertainty over the European Central Bank's willingness to act as lender of last resort.
George Soros Comment On Hans-Werner Sinn: Hans-Werner Sinn has deliberately distorted and obfuscated my argument. I was arguing that the current state of integration within the eurozone is inadequate: the euro will work only if the bulk of the national debts are financed by Eurobonds and the banking system is regulated by institutions that create a level playing field within the eurozone.
Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy: Rethinking and reforms are both taking place. But we still do not know the final destination, be it for the redefinition of monetary policy, or the contours of financial regulation, or the role of macroprudential tools. We have a general sense of direction, but we are largely navigating by sight. I shall take six examples….
Brad: R&R, Hamilton, and many other serious, bright, empirical economists that are not part of your "faction" frequently argue "interest rates may be low now, but they could rise quickly." (Similarly, stock prices may be high now, but they could fall, particularly if long-term interest rates rise.) And in the next breath, they argue that because debt levels are slower and more costly to adjust than asset prices, the prudent course is to slow the growth of debt now.
What say you to this? In your title, you speak of "Risk". Theirs is (I think) a risk-management argument. Surely it deserves acknowledgement.
A country that spends and spends and spends and does not tax sufficiently will eventually run into debt-generated trouble. Its nominal interest rates will rise as bondholders fear inflation. Its business leaders will hunker down and try to move their wealth out of the corporations they run for fear of high future taxes on business. Real interest rates will rise because of policy uncertainty, and make many investments that are truly socially productive unprofitable. When inflation takes hold, the web of the division of labor will shrink from a global web he'd together by thin monetary ties to a very small web solidified by social bonds of trust and obligation--and a small division of labor means low productivity. All of this is bound to happen. Eventually. If a government spends and spends and spends but does not tax sufficiently.
But can this happen as long as interest rates remain low? As long as stock prices remain buoyant? As long as inflation remains subdued. My faction of economists--including Larry Summers, Laura Tyson, Paul Krugman, and many many others--believe that it will not. As long as stock prices are buoyant, business leaders are not scared of future taxes or of policy uncertainty. As long as interest rates remain low, there is no downward pressure on public investment. And as long as inflation remains low, the extra debt that governments are issuing is highly-prized as a store of value, helps savers sleep more easily at night, and provides a boost to the economy as it assists deleveraging and raises the velocity of spending.
And we are live at Project Syndicate: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-impact-of-public-debt-on-economic-growth.
A country that spends and spends and spends and does not tax sufficiently will eventually run into debt-generated trouble. Its nominal interest rates will rise as bondholders fear inflation. Its business leaders will hunker down and try to move their wealth out of the corporations they run for fear of high future taxes on business. Real interest rates will rise because of policy uncertainty, and make many investments that are truly socially productive unprofitable. When inflation takes hold, the web of the division of labor will shrink from a global web he'd together by thin monetary ties to a very small web solidified by social bonds of trust and obligation--and a small division of labor means low productivity.
All of this is bound to happen.
If a government spends and spends and spends but does not tax sufficiently.
But can this happen as long as interest rates remain low? As long as stock prices remain buoyant? As long as inflation remains subdued?
The world wisely edges away from talk of a currency war: The diplomatic communiqués that follow international summits are rarely noteworthy. They have to be acceptable to everyone, so tend toward the lowest common denominator. But the Group of 20’s most recent communiqué, following its meeting on the sidelines of the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, contains one sentence of consequence. “Monetary policy,” it reads, “should be directed toward domestic price stability and continuing to support economic recovery according to the respective mandates of central banks”.
The significance of this addition should not be overlooked. It means that the Bank of Japan is to be applauded, not criticised, for the aggressive asset-purchase programme it has adopted in the effort to hit its 2 per cent inflation target.
It also implies that the Federal Reserve’s heavy use of quantitative easing and forward guidance are entirely appropriate given its dual mandate to pursue low inflation and high employment – more so now that other instruments that could be used to achieve those goals, notably fiscal policy, are currently unavailable.
This is a significant advance from the “currency war” rhetoric that prevailed earlier this year. Back then, the BoJ's new policies were impugned as an effort to depreciate the yen and gain an export advantage. The BoJ and Fed were criticised for unleashing a torrent of capital flows into emerging markets. Now, in contrast, officials in other countries, while still less than fully comfortable about the consequences, realise that they would be even worse off had the Fed and the BoJ responded to them. Capital inflows and local currency appreciation may be uncomfortable for emerging markets but renewed recession in the US and Japan, which could be induced by premature abandonment of easing, would be worse.
You do Mervyn King a very bad service indeed, David, when you claim that he understood the economy he was dealing with as Governor of the Bank of England, and backed the Tory-Salad austerity coalition anyway.
David Ignatius on April 24, 2013:
Mervyn King’s hard lessons in Keynesian economics: King is… one of those mild-mannered Englishmen who can dominate a room the moment he begins to speak, with a wry humor that can amuse, charm and eviscerate at will…. King… said events have shown that “purely monetary stimulus will not be enough…. Monetary policy is pushing on a string. It has some effect but less than we might have thought.”… For King, the past decade reinforced the lessons Keynes drew from the 1930s… the psychological quirkiness of investors… monetary policy could not persuade frightened people to spend and invest…. King couldn’t fix the British economy, but he did understand it.
(Final?) Notes on the Reinhart/Rogoff Saga: As pointed out elsewhere, the claim that the UMASS paper actually supports R&R’s alleged core finding of a significant relationship between high debt and slow growth is flat wrong. Yes, the midpoint average growth rate of high-debt countries (over 90 percent of GDP) is lower than the average growth of lower-debt countries, but the differences are not statistically significant…. More importantly, the real argument all along has been two-way causality: data showing that there is lower growth at high debt levels does not show that high debt causes low growth…. Arin Dube demonstrated this very well in his note on Reinhart and Rogoff’s entire data-set, and for the U.S. John Irons and I did the same with Granger causality tests on the U.S. data in July 2010, nearly three years ago. Paul Krugman kindly referred to our results in his blog saying “John Irons and Josh Bivens have the best takedown yet of the Reinhart-Rogoff paper (pdf) claiming that debt over 90 percent of GDP leads to drastically slower growth.” So the causality problem has been well known for some time.
By the way, we compiled the data we used ourselves because emails to Reinhart and Rogoff requesting their data went unreturned. Perhaps if they had shared their data at that time their actual weighting procedure would have become clear much sooner and even their spreadsheet error could have been corrected. Kudos to the UMASS authors for being more persistent than us and for the work they did.
Lastly, Reinhart and Rogoff argue against the thesis that slow-growth causes debt rather than vice-versa based simply on the fact that high-debt episodes are often long-lived…. [T]he simple point is that “downturns in the business cycle” seems to be an intentionally narrow claim being put forward by Reinhart and Rogoff…. [O]ne could argue (if one was feeling tendentious) that budget deficits in 2010, 2011 and 2012 were not driven at all by the economy being in outright recession in those years (hence not driven by “downturns in the business cycle”), since the economy wasn’t in an official recession. Yet these deficits were certainly driven by a shortfall of aggregate demand. A clue that this is indeed what is going on in lots of the Reinhart and Rogoff data is their other persistent finding that the slower growth associated with (again, associated with, not caused by) high-debt in their data is not durably associated with high interest rates….
Finally, I’d just like to add that another problem with the larger R&R narrative that both their book and their paper have constructed. This narrative presents financial crises as consigning economies to slow growth through some iron law of nature—and their 90 percent debt threshold is clearly intended to imply that efforts to use fiscal stimulus to combat this slow growth in the wake of the U.S. housing bubble’s burst will be thwarted. But this narrative is wrong…. [P]olicy failure, not “debt” or “financial crisis” should be clearly identified as the stumbling block to full recovery.
 I say “alleged core finding” because the real core finding was the claim that a 90 percent debt/GDP ratio was a clear tipping point over which growth slowed. This is obviously the finding that stuck in the public debate, and the authors themselves just helped to push this impression.
Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff:
Debt, Growth and the Austerity Debate - NYTimes.com: IN May 2010, we published an academic paper, “Growth in a Time of Debt.” Its main finding, drawing on data from 44 countries over 200 years, was that in both rich and developing countries, high levels of government debt — specifically, gross public debt equaling 90 percent or more of the nation’s annual economic output — was associated with notably lower rates of growth.
Given debates occurring across the industrialized world, from Washington to London to Brussels to Tokyo, about the best way to recover from the Great Recession, that paper, along with other research we have published, has frequently been cited — and, often, exaggerated or misrepresented — by politicians, commentators and activists across the political spectrum.
Paul Krugman (2012): Economics in the Crisis:
To say the obvious: we’re now in the fourth year of a truly nightmarish economic crisis. I like to think that I was more prepared than most for the possibility that such a thing might happen; developments in Asia in the late 1990s badly shook my faith in the widely accepted proposition that events like those of the 1930s could never happen again. But even pessimists like me, even those who realized that the age of bank runs and liquidity traps was not yet over, failed to realize how bad a crisis was waiting to happen – and how grossly inadequate the policy response would be when it did happen.
And the inadequacy of policy is something that should bother economists greatly – indeed, it should make them ashamed of their profession, which is certainly how I feel. For times of crisis are when economists are most needed. If they cannot get their advice accepted in the clinch – or, worse yet, if they have no useful advice to offer – the whole enterprise of economic scholarship has failed in its most essential duty.
Keith Hennessy on Bush and the financial crisis: How Involved Was George W. Bush in the Fall of 2008?: As most of us recall, George W. Bush was president of the United States during the crucial year of 2008 when the economy slid into recession and a series of panics and runs gripped the shadow banking system. As we also recall, Bush did not play a significant public-facing role in the response. Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain said a lot, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was visible, America got to know the previously obscure figure of New York Fed President Timothy Geithner, and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson was frequently on television. But Bush was president, and one assumes he was doing something. But what, exactly?
Abba Lerner (1943): "Functional Finance":
The first financial responsibility of the government (since nobody else can undertake that responsibility) is to keep the total rate of spending in the country on goods and services neither greater nor less than that rate which at the current prices would buy all the goods that it is possible to produce. If total spending is allowed to go above this there will be inflation, and if it is allowed to go below this there will be unemployment. The government can increase total spending by spending more itself or by reducing taxes so that taxpayers have more money left to spend. It can reduce total spending by spending less itself or by raising taxes….
Reinhart-Rogoff a Week Later: Why Does This Matter?: Well this is progress. We are seeing distancing by conservative writers on the Reinhart/Rogoff thesis. In Feburary, Douglas Holtz-Eakin wrote:
The debt hurts the economy already. The canonical work of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff and its successors carry a clear message: countries that have gross government debt in excess of 90% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are in the debt danger zone. Entering the zone means slower economic growth. Granted, the research is not yet robust enough to say exactly when and how a crisis will engulf the US, but there is no reason to believe that America is somehow immune. (h/t QZ.)
I really wish that Jonathan Portes had written this before I had to give my talk on economists as public intellectuals yesterday…
Not the Treasury view...: Which (macro)-economists are worth listening to?: [W]hen economists argue about the correct stance of policy, who should we (policymakers, commentators, and the general public) listen to?… I [had] pointed out that not only was the government's decision in 2010 to cut the deficit too quickly doing considerable economic damage, but that this was both predictable and predicted by economists such as Paul Krugman and Martin Wolf. Their response was essentially "how were we to know which economists to listen to? Others were saying the opposite".
Noahpinion: KrugTron the Invincible: If you grew up in the 80s you probably remember Voltron. Although the show often had convoluted plotlines, it would somehow always end with Voltron (a super-powerful robot formed from five mechanical lions) facing off against a monster called a "Robeast"…. [T]o a four-year-old, it was pure gold.
In the econ blogosphere, a similar dynamic has played out over the last few years. Each week a Robeast will show up, bellowing predictions of inflation and/or soaring interest rates. And each week, Paul Krugman… I mean, KrugTron, Defender of the Blogoverse, will strike down the monster with a successful prediction of… low inflation and continued low interest rates. Goldbugs, "Austrians", New Classical economists, and harrumphing conservatives of all stripes have eagerly gone head-to-head with KrugTron in the prediction wars, and have been summarily cloven in twain…. [H]ere's a quick (partial) episode guide: Krugman vs. Peter Schiff (see also here)… Krugman vs. Ron Paul… Krugman vs. Robert Murphy… Krugman vs. Niall Ferguson (see also here)… Krugman vs. Allan Meltzer… Krugman vs. a giant hive-mind of goldbugs.
Owen Zidar: Debt to GDP & Future Economic Growth:
The Non-Secret of Our Non-Success: The Non-Secret of Our Non-Success Chris Giles of the FT reports that central bankers are worried that they are “flying blind”; he quotes Lorenzo Bini-Smaghi, formerly of the ECB governing board, saying “We don’t fully understand what is happening in advanced economies.” Um, guys, that’s because you don’t want to understand. Nothing about our current situation, except maybe the absence of outright deflation, is at all surprising or mysterious.
We had a huge financial crisis, and the combination of a housing bust (on both sides of the Atlantic) and an overhang of household debt (also on both sides) has acted as a drag on private demand. Monetary policy quickly found itself up against the zero lower bound, while fiscal policy, after providing some stimulus, soon turned strongly contractionary….
A dose of reality for the dismal science: A casual perusal of 20th-century economic history, let alone more rigorous econometric analysis, turns up multiyear periods in the UK and US following the second world war, and in Belgium, Italy, and Japan in the past 20 years, when public debt was greater than 90 per cent of GDP but nothing much happened. Either stagnation in economies led to slowly rising debt levels, as in Italy or Japan of late, or growth returned and debt levels declined, as in the UK and US in the 1950s. The latter two escaped the black hole of debt without an austerity rocket booster…. [S]low growth is at least as much the cause of high debt as high debt causes growth to slow – which if you stop to think about it, as some of us did before this week, makes more sense. The current UK economy is exhibit A for such a dynamic…. On the other hand, public debt is sometimes incurred by spending on constructive things with a positive return, such as infrastructure and education. So it is common sense that slow growth is always bad for debt accumulation, but not all debt accumulation is bad for growth. Thus, the causality runs more dependably from growth to debt than vice versa….
Let me highlight a passage from the "Understanding Our Adversaries" evolution-of-economists'-views talk that I started giving three months ago, a passage based on work by Owen Zidar summarized by the graph above:
The argument [for fiscal contraction and against fiscal expansion in the short run] is now: never mind why, the costs of debt accumulation are very high. This is the argument made by Reinhart, Reinhart, and Rogoff: when your debt to annual GDP ratio rises above 90%, your growth tends to be slow.
This is the most live argument today. So let me nibble away at it. And let me start by presenting the RRR case in the form of Owen Zidar's graph.
First: note well: no cliff at 90%.
Second, RRR present a correlation--not a causal mechanism, and not a properly-instrumented regression. There argument is a claim that high debt-to-GDP and slow subsequent growth go together, without answering the question of which way causation runs. Let us answer that question.
The third thing to note is how small the correlation is. Suppose that we consider two cases: a multiplier of 1.5 and a multiplier of 2.5, both with a marginal tax share of 1/3. Suppose the growth-depressing effect lasts for 10 years. Suppose that all of the correlation is causation running from high debt to slower future growth. And suppose that we boost government spending by 2% of GDP this year in the first case. Output this year then goes up by 3% of GDP. Debt goes up by 1% of GDP taking account of higher tax collections. This higher debt then reduces growth by... wait for it... 0.006% points per year. After 10 years GDP is lower than it would otherwise have been by 0.06%. 3% higher GDP this year and slower growth that leads to GDP lower by 0.06% in a decade. And this is supposed to be an argument against expansionary fiscal policy right now?
The 2.5 multiplier case is more so. Spend 2% of GDP over each of the next three years. Collect 15% of a year's extra output in the short run. Taking account of higher tax revenues, debt goes up by 1% of GDP and we have the same ten-year depressing effect of 0.06% of GDP. 15% now. -0.06% in a decade. The first would be temporary, the second is permanent, but even so the costs are much less than the benefits as long as the economy is still at the zero lower bound.
And this isn’t the graph that you were looking for. You want the causal graph. That, worldwide, growth is slow for other reasons when debt is high for other reasons or where debt is high for other reasons is in this graph, and should not be. Control for country and era effects and Owen reports that the -0.06% becomes -0.03%. As Larry Summers never tires of pointing out, (a) debt-to-annual-GDP ratio has a numerator and a denominator, and (b) sometimes high-debt comes with high interest rates and we expect that to slow growth but that is not relevant to the North Atlantic right now. If the ratio is high because of the denominator, causation is already running the other way. We want to focus on cases of high debt and low interest rates. Do those two things and we are down to a -0.01% coefficient.
We are supposed to be scared of a government-spending program of between 2% and 6% of a year's GDP because we see a causal mechanism at work that would also lower GDP in a decade by 0.01% of GDP? That does not seem to me to compute.
Now tonight I have been nibbling the RRR result down. Presumably they are trying to see if it can legitimately be pushed up. This will be interesting to watch over the next several years, because RRR is the heart of the pro-austerity case right now.
How much of Reinhart/Rogoff has survived?: The work of Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff (RR) on public sector debt ratios, and their relationship with GDP growth, has been extraordinarily influential… had appeared to establish an important stylised fact: that debt ratios above 90 per cent were associated with much lower rates of GDP growth than debt ratios under 90 per cent. The sudden drop in growth at a debt ratio similar to that reached in many developed economies acted as a wake up call to governments and encouraged the adoption of austerity programmes.
This week, a paper by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin (HAP) argued that the RR stylised fact was based on simple statistical errors, including a spreadsheet error which RR have now acknowledged. Their critique of the original RR stylised fact promises to establish an alternative conventional wisdom, which is that high public debt ratios are never damaging for GDP growth. But the truth is more complicated than that, and far less certain….
Right now I am in the middle of a long project with Larry Summers on fiscal policy in a depressed economy. It has a lot of moving parts. Right now, however I am finding it difficult to make progress because it is not clear to me who the audience for this--who we should be trying to convince of what.
So let me, right now, try to spend tonight telling you what I think but rather what I think others think.