How Large Is the Shadow Cast by Recessions?

Macroeconomics: How Large Is the Shadow Cast by Recessions?

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Clueless DeLong Was Clueless About What Was Coming in 2007 and 2008: Hoisted from the Archives

From November 2008: Why I Was Wrong… Calculated Risk issues an invitation:

Calculated Risk: Hoocoodanode?: Earlier today, I saw Greg “Bush economist” Mankiw was a little touchy about a Krugman blog comment. My reaction was that Mankiw has some explaining to do. A key embarrassment for the economics profession in general, and Bush economists Greg Mankiw and Eddie Lazear in particular, is how they missed the biggest economic story of our times…. This was a typical response from the right (this is from a post by Professor Arnold Kling) in August 2006:

Apparently, the echo chamber of left-wing macro pundits has pronounced a recession to be imminent. For example, Nouriel Roubini writes, “Given the recent flow of dismal economic indicators, I now believe that the odds of a U.S. recession by year end have increased from 50% to 70%.” For these pundits, the most dismal indicator is that we have a Republican Administration. They have been gloomy for six years now…

Sure Roubini was early (I thought so at the time), but show me someone who has been more right! And this brings me to Krugman’s column: Lest We Forget

Why did so many observers dismiss the obvious signs of a housing bubble, even though the 1990s dot-com bubble was fresh in our memories? Why did so many people insist that our financial system was “resilient,” as Alan Greenspan put it, when in 1998 the collapse of a single hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management, temporarily paralyzed credit markets around the world? Why did almost everyone believe in the omnipotence of the Federal Reserve when its counterpart, the Bank of Japan, spent a decade trying and failing to jump-start a stalled economy?

One answer to these questions is that nobody likes a party pooper…. There’s also another reason the economic policy establishment failed to see the current crisis coming. The crises of the 1990s and the early years of this decade should have been seen as dire omens, as intimations of still worse troubles to come. But everyone was too busy celebrating our success in getting through those crises to notice…

[I]n addition to looking forward, I think certain economists need to do some serious soul searching. Instead of leaving it to us to guess why their analysis was so flawed, I believe the time has come for Mankiw, Kling, and many other economists to write a post titled “Why I was wrong”…

And I respond:

Let me say what things I was “expecting,” in the sense of anticipating that it was they were both likely enough and serious enough that public policymakers should be paying significant attention to guarding the risks that it would create:

(1) A collapse of the dollar produced by a panic flight by investors who recognized the long-term consequences of the U.S. trade deficit.


(2) A fall back of housing prices halfway from their peak to pre-2000 normal price-rental ratios.

I was not expecting (2) plus:

(3) the discovery that banks and mortgage companies had made no provision for how the loans they made would be renegotiated or serviced in the event of a housing-price downturn.

(4) the discovery that the rating agencies had failed in their assessment of lower-tail risk to make the standard analytical judgment: that when things get really bad all correlations go to one.

(5) the fact that highly-leveraged banks working on the originate-and-distribute model of mortgage securitization had originated but had not distributed: that they had, collectively, held on to much too much of the risks that they were supposed to find other people to handle—selling the systemic risk they had created, but not all of it, and buying the systemic risk that their peers had created.

(6) the panic flight from all risky assets–not just mortgages–upon the discovery of the problems in the mortgage market.

(7) the engagement in regulatory arbitrage which had left major banks even more highly leveraged than I had thought possible.

(8) the failure of highly-leveraged financial institutions to have backup plans for recapitalization in place in the case of a major financial crisis.

(9) the Bush administration’s (and the Federal Reserve’s!) sticking to a private-sector solution for the crisis for months after it had become clear that such a solution was no longer viable.

We could have interrupted this chain that has gotten us here at any of a number of places. And I still am trying to figure out why we did not.

Hoisted from the 2007 Archives: Clueless Brad DeLong Was Clueless: Central Banking and the Great Moderation

Hoisted from the 2007 Archives: Wow! I had no clue in mid-2007 what was about to come down.

I had no idea of how the money-center universal banks had exposed themselves to housing derivatives, how strongly the right-wing noise machine would lobby against the Federal Reserve’s undertaking its proper lender-of-last-resort job, or how hesitant and ineffective the Federal Reserve would turn out to be in the summer and fall of 2008:

Central Banking and the Great Moderation IT HAS been 20 years since Alan Greenspan became chairman of the US Federal Reserve. The years since then have seen the fastest global average income growth rate of any generation, as well as remarkably few outbreaks of mass unemployment-causing deflation or wealth-destroying inflation. Only Japan’s lost decade-and-a-half and the hardships of the transition from communism count as true macroeconomic catastrophes of a magnitude that was depressingly common in earlier decades. This “great moderation” was not anticipated when Greenspan took office.

US fiscal policy was then thoroughly deranged — much more so than it is now. India appeared mired in stagnation. China was growing, but median living standards were not clearly in excess of those of China’s so-called “golden years” of the early 1950s, after land redistribution and before forced collectivisation turned the peasantry into serfs. European unemployment had just taken another large upward leap, and the “socialist” countries were so incompatible with rational economic development that their political systems would collapse within two years. Latin America was stuck in its own lost decade after the debt crisis at the start of the 1980s.

Of course, the years since 1987 have not been without big macroeconomic shocks. America’s stock market plummeted for technical reasons that year. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 shocked the world oil market. Europe’s fixed exchange rate mechanism collapsed in 1992. The rest of the decade was punctuated by the Mexican peso crisis of 1994, the east Asian crisis of 1997-98, and troubles in Brazil, Turkey, and elsewhere, and the new millennium began with the collapse of the dotcom bubble in 2000 and the economic fallout from the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001.

So far, none of these events — aside from Japan starting in the early 1990s and the failures of transition in the lands east of Poland — has caused a prolonged crisis. Economists have proposed three explanations for why macroeconomic catastrophes have not caused more human suffering over the past generation. First, some economists argue that we have just been lucky, because there has been no structural change that has made the world economy more resilient.

Second, central bankers have finally learned how to do their jobs. Before 1985, according to this theory, central bankers switched their objectives from year to year. One year, they might seek to control inflation, but the previous year they sought to reduce unemployment, and next year they might try to lower the government’s debt refinancing costs, and the year after that they might worry about keeping the exchange rate at whatever value their political masters preferred.

The lack of far-sighted decision-making on the part of central bankers meant that economic policy lurched from stop to go; to accelerate to slow down. When added to the normal shocks that afflict the world economy, this source of destabilising volatility created the unstable world before 1987 that led many to wonder why somebody like Greenspan would want the job.

The final explanation is that financial markets have calmed down. Today, the smart money in financial markets takes a long-term view that asset prices are for the most part rational expectations of discounted future fundamental values. Before 1985, by contrast, financial markets were overwhelmingly dominated by the herd behaviour of short-term traders, people who sought not to identify fundamentals, but to predict what average opinion would expect average opinion to be, and to predict it before average opinion did.

When I examine these issues, I see no evidence in favour of the first theory. Our luck has not been good since 1985. On the contrary, I think our luck — measured by the magnitude of the private sector and other shocks that have hit the global economy — has, in fact, been relatively bad. Nor do I see any evidence at all in favour of the third explanation. It would be nice if our financial markets were more rational than those of previous generations. But I don’t see any institutional changes that have made them so.

So my guess is that we would be well-advised to put our money on the theory that our central bankers today are more skilled, more far-sighted, and less prone to either short-sightedly jerking themselves around or being jerked around by political masters who unpredictably change the objectives they are supposed to pursue year after year. Long may this state of affairs continue.

And Felix Salmon had little clue either:

Felix Salmon (2007): Subprime Mess: It’s Not Derivatives’ Fault: “I’m sure it’s been happening a lot in idle conversation…

…but it’s still disheartening to see it happening in on the front page of a WSJ section: confusing illiquidity problems in the subprime market with more theoretical worries about derivatives…. Scott Patterson… should know better, in his Ahead of the Tape column….

There is no indication whatsoever here that Patterson understands that the illiquid securities which are causing so much trouble in the “subprime-mortgage crackup” aren’t derivatives…. CDOs are securities–not derivatives–which are very, very rarely traded. As a result, they’re often “marked to model” rather than being marked to market. That seems to be the problem that Patterson’s column is concerned about, and it’s silly for him to be complaining about derivatives in this regard.

It’s true that the troubled Bear Stearns funds did invest in some derivatives–mainly bets on the direction of the ABX.HE index of subprime bonds. Those investments rose and fell in value very transparently, and were by far the easiest part of the Bear portfolio to unwind. So let’s not start blaming illiquid derivatives for Bear Stearns’ problems. Right now, illiquid derivatives are the least of anybody’s problems…

Did the Pace at Which We Lose Males 25-54 Accelerate?

Note to Self from Boston Harborside: Alan Krueger and Gabriel Chodorow-Reich both assure me that, to them, it does not look like the decline in prime-age male employment was materially accelerated by what I now call the Longer Depression. I don’t see it here:

Employment Rate Aged 25 54 Males for the United States© FRED St Louis Fed

Are the changes in the age distribution within the category of 25-54 year olds over the past 40 years large enough to make this chart misleading? I cannot see it. I know that one disputes labor numbers with Alan Krueger (or Gabriel Chodorow-Reich) at one’s peril. But it looks to me like we were losing 1.25%/decade as far as prime-age male employment was concerned. And that in the past decade we have lost 3.25%–25 years’ worth of the trend in 10…

Has Macro Policy Been Different since 2008?

3 Month Treasury Bill Secondary Market Rate FRED St Louis Fed

Was macro policy different after 2008? I interpret that to be the question: “Did macro policy follow the same rule after 2008 that people had presumed before 2008 it would follow in a true tail event?” To answer that question requires determining just what policy rule people back before 2008 thought that the U.S. government was following. Let me propose four candidates for our (implicit) pre-2008 macroeconomic policy rule:

  1. Limit fiscal policy to automatic stabilizers, and follow a Taylor rule with John Taylor’s coefficients (Taylor).
  2. Follow Milton Friedman’s advice and target velocity-adjusted money: if nominal GDP is below trend, print more money and buy bonds; if that does not restore nominal GDP to either the trend level or the trend growth rate (depending on whether your favorite flavor has or does not have base-drift sprinkles), repeat (Friedman).
  3. Use open market operations to manipulate the short-term safe nominal interest rate to stabilize inflation and unemployment as long as you are not at the zero lower bound. At the zero lower bound credibly promise to be irresponsible in the future in order to raise inflation expectations by enough to push the real interest rate down to its negative Wicksellian neutral rate value, and so restore real macroeconomic balance (Krugman).
  4. Use open market operations to manipulate the short-term safe nominal interest rate to stabilize inflation and unemployment as long as you are not at the zero lower bound. At the zero lower bound resort to expansionary fiscal policy and do as much of it as needed, at least as long as interest rates on long-term government debt remain low (Blinder).

Were there any other live candidates for “the policy rule” back before 2008?

Must-Read: Atif Mian and Amir Sufi

Must-Read: Atif Mian and Amir Sufi: Who Bears the Cost of Recessions? The Role of House Prices and Household Debt: “We… show… differential shocks to household net worth coming from elevated household debt and the collapse in house prices play an underappreciated role…

…Using zip codes in the United States as the unit of analysis, we show that the decline in numerous measures of consumption during the Great Recession was much larger in zip codes that experienced a sharp decline in housing net worth. In the years prior to the recession, these same zip codes saw high house price growth, a substantial expansion of debt by homeowners, and high consumption growth. We discuss what models seem most consistent with this striking pattern in the data, and we highlight the increasing body of macroeconomic evidence on the link between household debt and business cycles. Our main conclusion is that housing and household debt should play a larger role in models exploring the importance of household heterogeneity on macroeconomic outcomes and policies.

Must-read: Amir Sufi: “Household Debt, Redistribution, and Monetary policy during the Economic Slump”

Must-Read: Amir Sufi: Household Debt, Redistribution, and Monetary policy during the Economic Slump: “High-income and low-income individuals respond very differently to monetary policy shocks…

…as do savers and borrowers. Monetary policy has been especially weak in advanced economies over the past seven years because the redistribution channels of monetary policy have been severely hampered. Recognising the importance of such channels can guide central bankers on what monetary policies are most likely to be effective: the same policy may have different effects on the real economy depending on the distribution of debt capacity across individuals.