Saturday, February 8, 2014

Why Monetary Policy Should Ignore Financial Stability

Financial stability is apparently the new hot reason to tighten monetary policy, and in this article for Quartz I go in on some reasons for why this is a horrible idea. An excerpt
Janet Yellen’s confirmation hearing showed signs that US monetary policy will soon adopt a third mandate. She said: “Overall, the Federal Reserve has sharpened its focus on financial stability and is taking that goal into consideration when carrying out its responsibilities for monetary policy.” While Yellen has traditionally downplayed this mission, the December FOMC meeting minutes also revealed a growing chorus of FOMC participants who believe that monetary policy should do more than just ensure full employment and price stability. Rather, they believe that monetary policy should look out for bubbles and pop them before they jeopardize financial stability. 
At first glance, this sounds like a good idea. After all, who wants financial instability? 
But back in 2002, Bernanke outlined several reasons why tightening monetary policy in response to bubbles is unlikely to work in practice. First, there’s no reason to believe that the Fed can accurately identify bubbles in advance. Second, even if a bubble appears, it’s not clear that raising short term interest rates could pop it. Third, even if monetary policy ends up bringing asset prices down, it is likely to do so only through hurting the livelihoods of average Americans.
Something that should be added, though, is that I still believe research on how monetary policy affects financial stability can be useful. Such research can help us better understand how monetary policy transmission might work, and what things regulators should look out for as the monetary policy landscape changes. However, none of this is any reason why the central bank should base the stock of money on the caprices of the financial markets.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Milken Institute Review: China's Latest Growing Pain

After writing a Quartz article on Chinese regional development over the Summer, the Milken Institute Review approached me to write a longer article on the history of Chinese regional inequality, and what the Chinese government can do going forward. My basic argument was that the last decade of growth, unlike the decade prior to that, was one of convergence among provinces. However, to ensure that this can continue going forward, it will be important to continue the process of urbanization and expansion of social services. Read more here.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Quartz: "Stop the taper talk—the Fed has actually done too little"

In light of the recent monetary/fiscal policy debate, here's an excerpt of my take from the end of November on monetary offset in the context of the Taper on Quartz:

In its recent minutes, it appears that the US Federal Reserve has been preparing to taper. Yet given the outsize role the Fed has played in supporting the recovery, that would almost certainly be a mistake. Unemployment has been ticking down, yet long-term unemployment is still very high and labor force participation is still low. While the recovery has made progress, it is still not guaranteed, and the Fed’s accommodation will be critical if the economy is to secure the gains it has made. 
The key to understanding the argument is to understand a concept central to economic analysis: the counterfactual. Counterfactuals are alternative histories of what could have been. In military history they are the answers to questions like “What would have happened if Napoleon had won the battle of Waterloo?” In this case, the key counterfactual is “What would have happened to the economy if the Fed hadn’t done quantitative easing?” Throughout this recovery, the federal government has been tightening its belt. Indeed, as MKM Partners chief economist Michael Darda has repeatedly noted, net government outlays have fallen for two consecutive quarters during this recovery, making the recent bout of austerity the biggest since the Korean War demobilization. Had the Fed not offset such a large contraction in spending, the US almost certainly would have been sent into another recession.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Reply to Steve Williamson -- Why Dynamic Stories are Important

Steve Williamson caused a firestorm in the blogosphere over his modeling results that helicopter drops in liquidity traps reduce the inflation rate. While hist first few posts were filled with mathematical equations, he was gracious enough in a recent post to present a story of what's going on in the model (my emphasis is bolded)
Next, conduct a thought experiment. What happens if there is an increase in the aggregate stock of liquid assets, say because the Treasury issues more debt? This will in general reduce liquidity premia on all assets, including money and short term debt. But we're in a liquidity trap, and the rates of return on money and short-term government debt are both minus the rate of inflation. Since the liquidity payoffs on money and short-term government debt have gone down, in order to induce asset-holders to hold the money and the short-term government debt, the rates of return on money and short-term government debt must go up. That is, the inflation rate must go down. Going in the other direction, a reduction in the aggregate stock of liquid assets makes the inflation rate go up.
Translated further, Steve's story is as follows:
  1. The central bank prints more money
  2. People don't want to hold onto that money
  3. To make sure people hold onto that money, the inflation rate must fall (to make holding money more attractive)
  4. Hence, printing money lowers the inflation rate.
Any cursory scholar of monetary economics should find that counterintuitive. I would suggest that it's counterintuitive because it's, well, wrong. In particular, the jump from (2) to (3) isn't clear at all. If everybody receives a helicopter drop, and nobody wants to spend it, then how does inflation fall? Or in the words of Paul Krugman: "How does this requirement translate into an incentive for producers of goods and services — remember, we’re talking about stuff going on in the real economy — to raise prices less or cut them?"

On the other hand, a much more realistic view would be a "monetary disequilibrium" or otherwise stated as David Hume's price specie flow mechanism as described by David Hume in his essay "On Money". At the moment that people get more money, the inflation rate is fixed. Hence the rate of return isn't high enough to hold money, and so people spend that money. This causes prices to rise and generates inflation.

Here's the fundamental problem with Steve's model: he acts as if equilibrium conditions are enough to explain causality. Sure, in equilibrium it must be that the inflation rate must equal the liquidity value of holding onto money. But that can happen in two ways. Either the inflation rate could fall (Steve's story), or people could hold less cash lower real cash balances, thereby raising the marginal value of their liquidity holdings. Dynamic stories matter, and if you can't explain how you get to equilibrium, you may end up on the wrong side of truth.

Edit: Adjusted for a few comments from Nick Rowe

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Quartz: China can boost consumption by moving children and the elderly into cities

Here is a link to my fourth Quartz article, which was on Chinese urbanization and how it relates to the whole consumption/investment debate. An excerpt:
The first chapter of Chinese urbanization was a story of migrant workers. The next chapter will be about their families.

As China continues to grow, rich, effective urbanization will require more than just providing job opportunities. It will require new policy initiatives to bring more children and elderly from the countryside into the city. By doing so, the Chinese government can begin to address Chinese income inequality, rebalance the economy toward services and consumption, all the while setting the stage for further economic reforms.

According to population data from the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics, over the past 30 years the proportion of Chinese people living in cities has more than doubled from around 20% to over 50%. Most of the migration into the cities has been in the form of migrant laborers leaving the countryside in search of higher wages.

As a result, prime age laborers are overrepresented in the cities while children and the elderly are underrepresented. According to the 2009 population survey, the proportion of people in cities between the ages of 0-19 was about 2 percentage points lower than in the villages. This number was reversed for people between the ages of 20-39. When mothers and fathers move to the cities in search of higher wages, they leave their children behind to be taken care of by grandparents. As such, if urbanization is going to continue, it will need to bring these groups into the fold.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Quartz: Emerging markets need to stop focusing on their exchange rates

Here's a link to my 3rd Quartz article on how much of the emerging market sell-off was about monetary policy failures in the emerging markets themselves. In particular, by trying to maintain exchange rate policies, central banks in these countries overexpose themselves to foreign economic conditions. The highly positive response to the recent delay of taper serves as further evidence that many of these emerging economies need better ways of insulating themselves from foreign monetary shocks. Much of the work, draws on blog posts from Lars Christensen. His examples comparing monetary policy in Australia and South Africa versus policy in Brazil and Indonesia were particularly helpful. A few excerpts:

The sell-off in emerging markets is not an omen of a prolonged economic contraction. Although capital flows were also turbulent after the 2008 financial crisis, growth in emerging markets continued. Nor is this a sign of financial crisis. “One thing most people seem to agree on is that this is not a replay of the late 1990s,” writes Ryan Avent in the Economist. A combination of exchange rate flexibility and low external debt means that emerging markets are unlikely to experience the same level of carnage as was seen in the 1997. Rather, the sell-off is a statement about how monetary policy has been unable to stabilize output in emerging markets and the importance of monetary reform. 
...Since all capital controls eventually leak, emerging markets can commit to stabilizing either the exchange rate or domestic output—not both. Economists Joshua Aizenman, Menzie Chinn, and Hiro Ito (pdf) have shown that this tradeoff is real. In the 1972 to 2006 time period, “Greater monetary independence [was] associated with lower output volatility while greater exchange rate stability [implied] greater output volatility.” 
Between these two options, the answer should be clear. Central banks in emerging markets need to focus on domestic output, and not the exchange rate.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Some Noahpinion Posts: Gold, Macro, and Bubbles

I just wanted to remind my readers that I am spending this fall guest blogging at Noahpinion, and so far I have three posts up. 

First, I have one on the determinants of the value of gold. A key excerpt:
Gold glitters, but from an investment perspective it does little else. It is backed by neither cash flows (like stocks are) nor a value at maturity (like bonds are). It's just a metal that, historically, has always been highly valued: a value that exists beyond its role in jewelry or in industry. 
So what gives? Broadly speaking, when people make a bull case for gold, they tend to talk about two catalysts. First, they argue that because central banks are engaging in expansionary monetary policy, this will lead to massive levels of inflation that will drive gold prices higher. Second, they argue that gold is valuable because it acts like a panic button and serves as insurance against crisis. These in fact, were the primary motivators behind Paulson's famous bet on gold. In this post, I hope to show that the theory underlying (1) is flat out wrong, and that the logic behind (2) does not correspond to the actual challenging facing the world right now.
Second, I had a post on an elementary outline of general equilibrium theory as it applies to macro. I particularly enjoyed writing the post because I had the chance to play around with drawings to illustrate the theory. In the post, I argue:
Any macroeconomy can be broken down into two main markets: a real market for current goods and services, and a financial market for claims on future goods and services. For brevity, I will reduce the model for financial assets to the market for money, which, because of money's role as a store of value and medium of exchange, captures the notion of "claims on goods". To simplify further, I take all the markets for goods and reduce them down to one composite market, say, for apples. From this caricature, we can start thinking about how markets fit together.
Third, I had a post arguing that there is little evidence for a current bubble in stock prices. I think this was the weakest of the three posts, but I took a look at both forward and backwards PE ratios and concluded that the evidence did not smell of a crisis.
Without a doubt, QE has been an incredible boon for financial markets. Backed by QE3, the SP500 stock index has risen by more than 12% year to date. Yet in spite of this increase in the stock market, overall real economic conditions remain relatively stagnant. Year over year inflation as measured by the core PCE price index ticks in at only 1.2% YoY, and last quarter's real GDP grew by only 1.4% YoY. This disconnect is a bit unsettling, because it suggests that bullishness in the stock market has failed to translate into broader growth. On this basis, some commentators, such as Frances Coppola, have argued that quantitative easing does nothing for the broader economy and worsens economic inequalities. But this concern can be reduced to an even simpler question: Has recent stock market growth just been a bubble?