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

From November 2008: Why I Was Wrong… http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2008/11/why-i-was-wrong.html: 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.

or:

(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 http://www.bradford-delong.com/2007/07/central-banking.html: http://www.businessday.co.za/articles/topstories.aspx?ID=BD4A507305 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… http://www.bradford-delong.com/2007/07/subprime-mess-i.html

…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…

Has Academic Thinking About Countercyclical Fiscal Policy Changed?

Has academic thinking about countercyclical fiscal policy changed recently? I would not say that thinking has changed. I would say that there is a good chance that thinking is changing–that academia is swinging back to a recognition that monetary policy cannot do the stabilization policy by itself, at least not under current circumstances. But it may not be.

If things are swinging back, it is as a result of a whole bunch of extraordinary surprises.

Back in 2007 we thought we understood the macroeconomic world, at least in its broad outlines and essentials. It has become very clear to us since 2007 that that is not the case. Right now we have a large number of competing diagnoses about where we were most wrong. We clearly were very wrong about the abilities of major money center banks to manage their derivatives books, or even to understand to understand what their derivatives books were. We clearly did not fully understand how those markets should be properly regulated.

Right now, however:

  • We have people who think the key flaw in the world economy today is an extraordinary shortage of safe assets. Nobody trusts private sector enterprises to do the risk transformation properly. Probably people will not again trust private sector enterprises for at least a generation.

  • We have those who think the problem is an excessive debt load where–I think we should distinguish between debt for which there is nothing safer, the debt of sovereigns that possess exorbitant privilege, and all other debts.

  • We have those who think we are undergoing a necessary deleveraging.

  • We have those who look for causes in the demography.

  • And then there is Larry Summers, as the third coming of British turn-of-the 20th century economist John Hobson. (The second coming was Alvin Hansen in the 1930s.) And the question: just what is Larry talking about?

    • Is Larry talking about the inevitable consequences of the coming of the demographic transition and of the end of Robert Gordon’s long second Industrial Revolution of extremely rapid economic growth?

    • Or is he talking a collapse of the ability of financial markets to do the risk transformation–to actually shrink the equity risk premium from its current absurd level down to something more normal?

If you look at asset prices now, you confront the minus two percent real return on the debt of sovereigns that possess exorbitant privilege with what Justin Lahart of the Wall Street Journal tells me is now a 5.5% real earnings yield on the U.S. stock market as a whole. That 7.5% per year equity premium is a major derangement of asset prices. It makes it very difficult for us to use our standard tools to think about what good policy would be…

Fiscal Policy in the New Normal: IMF Panel

European Fiscal Policy: And All Does Not Go Merry as a Marriage Bell

I find myself thinking of Ludger Schuknecht’s very powerful and apposite comments about just what, even if you believe–as I do–that there are substantial spillovers for Germany and for the world for Germany to use its fiscal space for expansionary policies right now, it is supposed to use its fiscal space for…

The fiscal space is in Germany. The infrastructure needs are in Sicily. This is in the end the political and also the political-economic dealbreaker. It does speak to necessary reforms of the European Union so that things like this do not happen again.

I remember Maury Obstfeld saying once that at the start of the 1990s California and New York had no problem using the United States’s fiscal space to transfer 25% of a year’s Texas GDP to Texas to clean up the Savings and Loan financial crisis mess. This just was not an issue in American politics or political economy. Texas had bet wrongly on the real estate sector via lax regulation–both at the federal and state level–and financial engineering. It was regarded as a proper use of America’s fiscal space to spend money on this and pull Texas out of what was a shallow national but would have been a very deep regional recession.

The fact that the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee at the time was from Texas may, however, have had something to do with it.

The American institutions then were, somehow, a better set of institutions for dealing with this kind of crisis. That there was an alignment of interests, and that the prosperity of each would redound to the prosperity of all in the long even if not always in the short run was taken for granted.

In fact, perhaps, Europe’s institutions today are inferior along some aspects of this dimension than Europe’s institutions in the past. Back in 1200, say, the question of how Germany should use its fiscal space, if in fact the desired location of spending was in Sicily, was finessed. A Germany Hohenstaufen princeling would be married to a Viking-Sicilian princess, and she would then bring Sicily along with her into the Holy Roman Empire as her dowry, and Germany–at least Germany’s rulers–would have an obvious interest in upgrading Sicily’s infrastructure.

Admittedly, the German Emperor might then decide that he would rather spend time in his palace in Palermo than in Burg Hohenstaufen twenty miles east of Stuttgart.

Somehow, national borders and national communities constrain us in Europe in ways that are not the wisest today…

Fiscal Policy in the New Normal: IMF Panel

Should We Use Expansionary Fiscal Policy Now Even If the Economy Is at Full Employment? Yes!

When should you use fiscal policy to expand demand even if the economy is at full employment?

First, when you can see the next recession coming: that would be a moment to try to see if you could push the next recession further off.

Second, if it would help you prepare you to better fight the next recession whenever it comes.

The second applies now whether we are near full employment or not. Under any sensible interpretation of where we are now, using some of our fiscal space would put upward pressure on interest rates and so open up enormous amounts of potential monetary space to fight the next recession. It would do so whether or not it raised output and employment today as long as it succeeded in raising the neutral interest rate–and if a large enough fiscal expansion does not raise the neutral interest rate, we do not understand the macroeconomy and should simply go home.

Fiscal Policy in the New Normal: IMF Panel

Note to Self: Regulatory Uncertainty and Housing Finance

The U.S. Treasury seized Fannie and Freddie in 2008, and said that housing finance would be differently organized in the future.

Private Residential Fixed Investment FRED St Louis Fed

It is now more than eight years later. There is still no plan for how housing finance is going to be different. Would you make a thirty-year fixed nominal rate loan to anyone in such an environment?

I think it is a miracle that Wells Fargo is willing to make mortgage loans.

I think that U.S. residential investment is one place where regulatory uncertainty may genuinely be having massive effects. We now have had nine years of seriously depressed residential construction–nine years’ worth of household formation of pent up demand. And yet U.S. residential construction continues to be substantially subnormal. Housing prices have recovered to 2004 mid-boom levels. Yet construction has not.

Note to Self: Inadequate Musings on Elements of Rogoff’s Debt Supercycle Hypothesis

Real Gross Domestic Product for European Union 28 countries © FRED St Louis Fed

It is, once again, time for me to think about Ken Rogoff’s hypothesis: his claim that right now the world economy as a whole is depressed because we are in the down phase of a debt supercycle–dealing with a debt overhang.

I have never been able to make enough sense of Rogoff’s perspective here to find it convincing.

I should, however, warn people that when I fail to see the point of something that Ken Rogoff has written, the odds are only one in four that I am right. The odds are three in four that he is right, and I have missed something important:

One way to view the situation is that there have been four serious diagnoses of the ills of the Global North. They are:

  • A Bernanke global savings-glut.
  • A Krugman-Blanchard return to “depression economics”.
  • A Rogoffian-Minskyite crisis of overleverage and debt overhang
  • A Summers secular-stagnation chronic crisis.

The policies recommended by the different diagnoses do differ.

  • A Bernanke global savings-glut chronic crisis requires shifts in global governance that reduce incentives to run large trade surpluses and a redistribution of world income to those with lower marginal propensities to save.
  • A Krugman-Blanchard return to “depression economics” requires larger automatic stabilizers, a higher inflation target, and perhaps a return of fiscal policy to preeminence
  • A Rogoffian-Minskyite temporary crisis of overleverage and of excessive underwater debt requires debt writedowns and financial-intermediary recapitalizations.
  • A Summers secular-stagnation chronic crisis of insufficiently-profitable risk-adjusted investment opportunities requires a shift in responsibility for long-run expenditure from private to government–” a more-or-less comprehensive socialization of investment”, as some guy once wrote.

Let me put the other three to the side, and focus on Rogoff here…

A principal implication of Rogoff’s hypothesis is that, if it is true, that there is no complete and quick fix : recovery is inevitably a lengthy process–although good policies can accelerate and bad policies retard full recovery.

As I understand it, the down phase of what Ken Rogoff calls a debt supercycle can be generated by some or all of:

  • a collapse of market risk tolerance, or of trust in the credit channel, itself generated by one or more of:
    • a failure to mobilize society’s risk bearing capacity,
    • inadequate capitalization of financial intermediaries,
    • a collapse in the reputation of financial intermediaries: either trust that they are long-term greedy, or confidence in their competence, or both.
  • a rise in fundamental riskiness.
  • the past issue of too much risky debt.
  • the past issue of too much risky debt that has become or is now perceived to be risky.
  • a decline in expectations of how much future cash flow there will be available for potential debt servicing.

How long it takes to work off a debt supercycle and rebalance the economy depends on the speed of the processes of:

  • economic growth, which raises cash flow for potential debt servicing.
  • capital depreciation, which by raising the profit rate also raises cash flow for potential debt servicing.
  • debt write-offs.
  • the normal pace of debt amortization.
  • unexpected inflation writing down nominal debts.
  • other forms of financial repression.

As long as we remain in the down-phase of the debt supercycle, even low interest rates do little to encourage the investment spending needed to drive the economy to full employment. Why? Because investment spending requires not just positive expected value given the interest rate, but also the commitment of risk bearing capacity, which is absent because of the debt overhang.

My first reaction is that the right way to deal with this is to rebalance the economy by undertaking economic activities that do not require the deployment of risk bearing capacity to set them in motion. Governments with exorbitant privilege that have ample fiscal space should borrow and spend–most desirably on things that raise potential output in the future, but other worthwhile activities that create utility are also fine.

As I wrote: We have underemployment. We have interest rates on government debt and thus the debt amortization costs of the government far below any plausible rate of return on productive public investments (or, indeed, any plausible social rate of time discount geared to a sensible degree of risk aversion and the trend rate of technological progress). Under such circustances, at least reserve currency-issuing governments with exorbitant privilege should certainly be spending more, taxing less, and borrowing.

But Rogoff seems to disagree:

Kenneth Rogoff (2011): The Second Great Contraction: “Many commentators have argued that fiscal stimulus has largely failed… because it was not large enough…

…But, in a “Great Contraction,” problem number one is too much debt. If governments that retain strong credit ratings are to spend scarce resources effectively, the most effective approach is to catalyze debt workouts and reductions…. Governments could facilitate the write-down of mortgages in exchange for a share of any future home-price appreciation…. Europe could perhaps be persuaded to engage in a much larger bailout for Greece (one that is actually big enough to work), in exchange for higher payments in ten to fifteen years if Greek growth outperforms…

And:

Kenneth Rogoff (2015): world’s economic slowdown is a hangover not a coma: “Vastly increased quality infrastructure investment… a great idea. But… not… a permanently sustained blind spending binge…

…What if a diagnosis of secular stagnation is wrong? Then an ill-designed permanent rise in government spending might create the very disease it was intended to cure…. There can be little doubt that a debt super cycle lies behind a significant part of what the world has experienced over the past seven years. This resulted first in the US subprime crisis, then the eurozone periphery crisis, and now the troubles of China and emerging markets. The whole affair has strong precedent…. America’s experience–whether one looks at the trajectory of housing and equity prices, unemployment and output, or public debt–has uncannily tracked benchmarks from past systemic financial crises. This is not to say that secular factors are unimportant. Most financial crises have their roots in a slowing economy that can no longer sustain excessive debt burdens…

Rogoff seems to have a counter. He seems to think that borrow-and-spend by governments with fiscal space will, or perhaps may, lead, ultimately, to disaster. Why? Because the fiscal space was never really there. The increase in debt issue will transform even the government’s old safe debt into risky debt. And the overhang of risky debt will be increased, worsening the problem.

The counter to that, of course is helicopter money: money printing- and financial repression-financed expansionary fiscal policy rebalances the economy at full employment without any risk of incurring a larger overhang of risky debt further down the road.

And Rogoff’s response to that is… what?



Relevant:

Paul Krugman: Airbrushing Austerity: “Ken Rogoff weighs in on the secular stagnation debate, arguing basically that it’s Minsky, not Hansen…

…that we”re suffering from a painful but temporary era of deleveraging, and that normal policy will resume in a few years…. Rogoff doesn”t address the key point that Larry Summers and others, myself included, have made–that even during the era of rapid credit expansion, the economy wasn’t in an inflationary boom and real interest rates were low and trending downward–suggesting that we”re turning into an economy that “needs” bubbles to achieve anything like full employment. But what I really want to do right now is note… people who predicted soaring interest rates from crowding out right away now claim that they were only talking about long-term solvency… people who issued dire warnings about runaway inflation say that they were only suggesting a risk, or maybe talking about financial stability; and so on down the line…. In Rogoff’s version of austerity fever all that was really going on was that policymakers were excessively optimistic, counting on a V-shaped recovery; all would have been well if they had read their Reinhart-Rogoff on slow recoveries following financial crises. Sorry, but no….

David Cameron didn’t say “Hey, we think recovery is well in hand, so it’s time to start a modest program of fiscal consolidation.” He said “Greece stands as a warning of what happens to countries that lose their credibility.” Jean-Claude Trichet didn’t say “Yes, we understand that fiscal consolidation is negative, but we believe that by the time it bites economies will be nearing full employment”. He said: “As regards the economy, the idea that austerity measures could trigger stagnation is incorrect … confidence-inspiring policies will foster and not hamper economic recovery, because confidence is the key factor today.” I can understand why a lot of people would like to pretend, perhaps even to themselves, that they didn’t think and say the things they thought and said. But they did.

And this part of Ken Rogoff’s piece appears to me to be on the wrong track:

Ken Rogoff: Debt Supercycle, Not Secular Stagnation: “Robert Barro… has shown that in canonical equilibrium macroeconomic models…

…small changes in the market perception of tail risks can lead both to significantly lower real risk-free interest rates and a higher equity premium…. Martin Weitzman has espoused a different variant of the same idea based on how people form Bayesian assessments of the risk of extreme events…. Those who would argue that even a very mediocre project is worth doing when interest rates are low have a much tougher case to make. It is highly superficial and dangerous to argue that debt is basically free. To the extent that low interest rates result from fear of tail risks a la Barro-Weitzman, one has to assume that the government is not itself exposed to the kinds of risks the market is worried about, especially if overall economy-wide debt and pension obligations are near or at historic highs already. Obstfeld (2013) has argued cogently that governments in countries with large financial sectors need to have an ample cushion, as otherwise government borrowing might become very expensive in precisely the states of nature where the private sector has problems…

Ken Rogoff’s Hooverismo…: Hoisted from the Archives from Three Years Ago

NewImage

Just what is Ken Rogoff’s argument that the Cameron-Osborne-Clegg government in Great Britain was correct to hit the British economy over the head with the austerity hammer in the spring of 2010, anyway?

Simon Wren-Lewis opens: Ken Rogoff on UK austerity: “Ken Rogoff’s article… is a welcome return to sanity…

…Rogoff focuses on what was always the critical debate: was austerity necessary because financial markets might have stopped buying government debt…. As critical pieces go, you couldn’t have a friendlier one than this…. Rogoff agrees that it was a mistake to cut back on public sector investment…. He says that austerity critics “have some very solid points”…. His comment after putting the austerity critics’ case is “perhaps” or “maybe”…

But… But… But…

About the Rogoff argument: If markets stop buying government debt, then they are buying something else: by Walras’s Law, excess supply of government debt is excess demand for currently-produced goods and services and labor. That is not continued deflation and depression, that is a boom–it may well be a destructive inflationary boom, and it may be a costly boom, but it is the opposite problem of an deflationary depression

So, by continuity, somewhere between policies of austerity that that produce deflationary depression due to an excess demand for safe assets and policies of fiscal license that produce inflationary boom caused by an excess supply of government debt, there must be a sweet spot: enough new issues of government debt to eliminate the excess demand for safe assets and so cure the depression, but not so much in the way of new issues of government debt to produce destructive inflation, right? Why not aim for that sweet spot? Certainly Cameron-Osborne-Clegg were not aiming for that sweet spot, and the John Stuart Millian using the government’s powers to issue money and debt to balance supply and demand for financial assets and so make Say’s Law true in practice even though it is not true and theory?

More urgent and important: In the spring of 2010 there was no sign of an inflationary boom with rising interest rates. There was no sign that there was going to be an inflationary boom soon. There was no sign that anybody in financial markets whose money moved market prices at the margin placed a weight greater than zero on any prospect of an inflationary boom at any time horizon out to thirty years.

Thus the question is: what do you do if there is no boom, are no signs of a boom, is no expectation that there will be a boom, is no excess supply of government debt right now, is no sign in the term structure of interest rates that people expect an excess supply of government debt in the near-future–if in fact looking out thirty years into the future via the term structure there is no sign that there will ever be any significant chance of an excess supply of government debt?

Ken Rogoff thinks that the answer is obvious: that you must then hit the economy on the head with the hammer of austerity to raise unemployment in order to guard against the threat of the invisible bond-market vigilantes, even though there is no sign of them–for, he says, they are invisible and silent as well. We must not try to infer expectations, probabilities, scenarios, and risks from market prices, but rather have St. Paul’s faith that austerity is necessary because of “the evidence of things not seen”.

The argument seems to be:

  1. We can’t trust financial markets that price the scenario in which people lose confidence in government finances at zero because financial markets are irrational–we cannot look at prices as indicators of when austerity might be appropriate, but must hit the economy on the head with the austerity brick and raise unemployment.

  2. Once interest rates rise as people lose confidence in government finances, it is then politically impossible for the government to run the primary surpluses needed–to cut spending and raise taxes–in order to service the debt without the implicit national bankruptcy of inflation

  3. Once interest rates rise as people lose confidence in government finances, it is not possible for the Bank of England to reduce the pound far enough to bring foreign-currency speculators who then expect the next bounce of the pound will be up into the market to reduce interest rates–or, at least, not possible without setting off an import price-driven inflationary spiral, and thus produce the implicit national bankruptcy of inflation.

  4. Greece! Argentina! You don’t want Britain to suffer the fate of Greece or Argentina, do you

Therefore, Rogoff argues, in order to guard against the possibility of a destructive fiscal dominance-inflation in the future, the Cameron-Osborne-Clegg government was wise to hit the British economy on the head with the austerity hammer and produce a longer, deeper, more destructive depression now.

Maybe the argument is really that the big policy mistake was made by Governor of the Bank of England–that Britain was in conditions of fiscal dominance, in which the Exchequer needed to balance the budget to preserve price stability and the Bank of England should have engaged in massive quantitative easing, aggressive forward interest- and exchange-rate guidance, and explicit raising of the inflation target in order to balance aggregate demand and potential supply, and that the unforgivable policy blunders were not Cameron-Osborne-Cleggs’ but King’s. But if that is what Rogoff means, it is not what he says.

So I am still left puzzled.

And so is Simon Wren-Lewis, who continues:

The argument here is all about insurance. The financial markets are unpredictable…. [What if] the Euro had collapsed[?] As Rogoff acknowledges, they might have run for cover into UK government debt, but… might have done the opposite…. The UK is not immune from the possibility of a debt crisis, so we needed to take out insurance against that possibility, and that insurance was austerity…. So let us agree that it was possible to imagine, particularly in 2010, that the markets might stop buying UK government debt. What does not follow is that austerity was an appropriate insurance policy….

Government needed to have a credible long term plan for debt sustainability…. I hope Rogoff would agree that in the absence of any risk coming from the financial markets, it is optimal to delay fiscal tightening until the recovery is almost complete. The academic literature is clear that, in the absence of default risk, debt adjustment should be very gradual, and that fiscal policy should not be pro-cyclical. So the insurance policy involves departing from this wisdom. This has a clear cost in terms of lost output, but an alleged potential benefit in reducing the chances of a debt crisis…. What the Rogoff piece does not address at all is that the UK already has an insurance policy, and it is called Quantitative Easing…. Rogoff says that, if the markets suddenly forsook UK government debt “UK leaders would have been forced to close massive budget deficits almost overnight.” With your own central bank this is not the case–you can print money instead…. We are talking about a government with a long-term feasible plan for debt sustainability, faced with an irrational market panic…. We never needed the much more costly, far inferior and potentially dubious additional insurance policy of austerity.

And so is Paul Krugman: Phantom Crises:

Simon Wren-Lewis is puzzled by a Ken Rogoff column that sorta-kinda defends Cameron’s austerity policies. His puzzlement, which I share, comes at several levels. But I want to focus on… Rogoff’s assertion that Britain could have faced a southern Europe-style crisis, with a loss of investor confidence driving up interest rates and plunging the economy into a deep slump. As I’ve written before, I just don’t see how this is supposed to happen in a country with its own currency that doesn’t have a lot of foreign currency debt–especially if the country is currently in a liquidity trap, with monetary policy constrained by the zero lower bound on interest rates. You would think, given how many warnings have been issued about this possibility, that someone would have written down a simple model of the mechanics, but I have yet to see anything of the sort…. Suppose that investors turn on your country for some reason… a decline in capital inflows at any given interest rate, so that the currency depreciates. If you have a lot of foreign-currency-denominated debt, this could actually shift IS left through balance-sheet effects, as we learned in the Asian crisis. But that’s not the case for Britain; clearly, IS shifts right. If LM doesn’t shift, the interest rate will rise, but only because the loss of investor confidence is actually, through depreciation, having an expansionary effect….

My point is that… [the] claim that loss of foreign confidence causes a contractionary rise in interest rates just doesn’t come out of anything like a standard model. If you want to claim that it will happen nonetheless, show me the model!…

Furthermore, as Wren-Lewis says, even if there is somehow a squeeze on long-term bonds, why can’t the central bank just buy them up? Yes, this is “printing money”–but when you’re in a liquidity trap, that doesn’t matter. (Alternatively, you can take a consolidated view of the government and central bank balance sheets, in which case what we’re effectively doing is refinancing at the zero short-term rate.)…

And Matthew C. Klein: Ken Rogoff’s Latest Bad Argument for Austerity:

It’s been more than three years since the U.K.’s coalition government began aggressively raising taxes and cutting spending in an effort to reduce its deficit. Many economists now agree that this program retarded the recovery, producing a slump worse than the Great Depression. Yet Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff, in a column in the Financial Times, argues that those measures made sense as a form of insurance against the sort of crisis that has afflicted countries in the euro area such as Spain and Italy. His case has two parts, neither of which is convincing.

First, Rogoff implies that the U.K. was vulnerable to the same sorts of shocks that battered Spain and Italy…. The comparison is misleading, however. Unlike the 17 countries of the euro area, which share a single currency, the U.K. uses its own… totally different from the euro area….

Rogoff’s second point is that previous episodes of high indebtedness in the U.K. were special cases that should not inform today’s policy makers…. Rogoff dismisses the gradual repayment of the U.K.’s World War II-era debts because it was only made possible by persistent rapid inflation. That’s true, but Rogoff himself has repeatedly argued that the rich world needs more inflation, rather than less. In fact, at the bottom of his most recent column, Rogoff says that it was a mistake not to have pursued “even more aggressive monetary policy.”

IMF Panel: Fiscal Policy in the New Normal: (Partial) Transcript

I am (slowly) getting a cleaned-up transcript of this Bank-Fund Meeting cycle’s panel on “Fiscal Policy in the New Normal”:

Moderator: Vitor Gaspar. Panelists: Mitsuhiro Furusawa, Brad DeLong, Bill Morneau, Ludger Schuknecht, Arvind Subramanian

OVERVIEW: The global recovery has been anemic and future prospects have dimmed. Monetary policy has been stretched to extremes with quantitative easing and zero interest rates, yet investment remains subdued and deflationary pressures linger. Waning productivity, growing income inequality, and the longer-term implications of shifting demographics have led to repeated markdowns of medium-term growth potential. Should there be a pivot toward new ways of thinking about fiscal policy in a “new normal” of prolonged slow growth, in terms of both its countercyclical role and its effectiveness in boosting productivity and catalyzing longer-term inclusive growth?


VITOR GASPAR: Please take your seats. Good morning. Welcome to this panel discussion on fiscal policy in the “new normal”. I invite the audience to follow the event on Twitter; you can use the hashtag #IMFFiscal or #IMFMeetings. Both work.

I am very honored and pleased to have such a panel today to discuss fiscal policy. It is definitely very topical–we’re living in fiscal times. I expect the discussion to be very lively. Interventions will be short, brisk, and to the point. I expect the panelists to have views that, on occasion, will not coincide; and we will try to understand why that is the case. And so: what are the most important concentrations for fiscal policy in this “new normal”?

I am really privileged to have this fabulous panel today. On my left side I have Professor Brad DeLong. He is a professor at Berkeley, he is a colleague of our chief economist, he has one of the best websites on macroeconomic policy in general and fiscal policy in particular.

To the left of Brad we have Arvind Subramanian, chief economic advisor of the government of India. He is very well known here because he had a very distinguished career at the IMF as well as the Patterson Institute, and he is coming from one of the most dynamic economies of the world where public finance is transforming itself most rapidly.

And then we have the Minister of Finance of Canada Bill Morneau. And Canada has been pushing outward the envelope of best practices when it comes to fiscal economy, so we have a lot to learn.

And then my friend Ludger Shuknecht—we worked today at the European Central Bank. And as I was saying before, at the ECB Ludger was the fiscal man. The point is that obviously I was not.

Then we have our own Deputy Managing Director Furusawa, who has joined this role only recently, but he has a very distinguished career, both internationally and in Japan, most recently as an advisor to the Japanese Prime Minister.

Now let me address you at this time: we will have time to interact at the end, so please collect your thoughts on fiscal policy and be prepared, when time comes, to trigger your questions and interact with the panel.

Now let me just say a few words about what we mean by the “new normal”. What we have in mind is that the current macroeconomic situation is characterized by slow and shallow economic recovery after the global financial crisis, and we emphasize that without policy action it may well stay that way. That is what the Managing Director calls “the new mediocre”. And policy action is required to prevent “the new mediocre” from materializing.

The second element of this combination is that monetary policy in many advanced economies is very close to the effective lower bound, and inflation is too low, and investment remains subdued.

The third aspect is that fiscal policy is constrained by high levels of public debt in many advanced economies and some diverging market economies. And last, but not least, we have low productivity growth and growing income inequality in many countries; and that is a very hard combination, particularly if you have unfavorable demographics.

So the question for this panel is: do these characteristics of a “new normal” or perhaps the danger of a “new mediocre” require a different approach to fiscal policy? How should fiscal policy respond to this change? How it should behave at business cycle frequency? How can it foster long-term growth? And those questions are questions that of course are going to be answered with clarity by our panel.

But it will take a few minutes. So let’s start off immediately. And I will approach first, Brad, if you allow me. So in your opinion, and tell me from an academic viewpoint, has academic thinking about countercyclical fiscal policy changed recently?

BRAD DELONG: I would not say that thinking has changed. I would say that there is a good chance that thinking is changing. If so, it is as a result of a whole bunch of extraordinary surprises that have hit us all.

Back in 2007 we thought we understood the macroeconomic world, at least in its broad outlines and essentials. It has become very clear to us since 2007 that that is not the case. Right now we have a large number of competing diagnoses about where we were most wrong. We clearly were very wrong about the abilities of major money center banks to manage their derivatives books, or even to understand to understand what their derivatives books were. We clearly did not fully understand how those markets should be properly regulated.

Right now, however:

  • We have people who think the key flaw in the world economy today is an extraordinary shortage of safe assets. Nobody trusts private sector enterprises to do the risk transformation properly. Probably people will not again trust private sector enterprises for at least a generation.

  • We have those who think the problem is an excessive debt load where–I think we should distinguish between debt for which there is nothing safer, the debt of sovereigns that possess exorbitant privilege, and all other debts.

  • We have those who think we are undergoing a necessary deleveraging.

  • We have those who look for causes in the demography.

  • And then there is Larry Summers, as the third coming of British turn-of-the 20th century economist John Hobson. (The second coming was Alvin Hansen in the 1930s.) And the question: just what is Larry talking about?

    • Is Larry talking about the inevitable consequences of the coming of the demographic transition and of the end of Robert Gordon’s long second Industrial Revolution of extremely rapid economic growth?

    • Or is he talking a collapse of the ability of financial markets to do the risk transformation–to actually shrink the equity risk premium from its current absurd level down to something more normal?

If you look at asset prices now, you confront the minus two percent real return on the debt of sovereigns that possess exorbitant privilege with what Justin Lahart of the Wall Street Journal was telling me yesterday is now a 5.5% real earnings yield on the U.S. stock market as a whole. That 7.5% per year equity premium is a major derangement of asset prices. It makes it very difficult for us to use our standard tools to think about what good policy would be.

VITOR GASPAR: That’s excellent as a start-off. Ludger, could you give us the German perspective on the same question? Has fiscal policy evolved recently, and if so, how?


Moderator: Vitor Gaspar is Director of the Fiscal Affairs Department at the International Monetary Fund. Prior to joining the IMF, he held a variety of senior policy positions in Banco de Portugal, including most recently Special Adviser. He served as Minister of State and Finance of Portugal from 2011– 2013. He was head of the European Commission’s Bureau of European Policy Advisers from 2007–2010 and director-general of research at the European Central Bank from 1998 to 2004.

Mitsuhiro Furusawa is Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. Mr. Furusawa joined the IMF after a distinguished career in the Japanese government, including several senior positions in the Ministry of Finance in recent years. Immediately before coming to the Fund, he served as Special Advisor to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Special Advisor to the Minister of Finance.
Brad DeLong:

Brad DeLong is a Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a blogger at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. DeLong served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy from 1993 to 1995.

Bill Morneau is Canada’s Finance Minister. Previously, he led Morneau Shepell and was Pension Investment Advisor to Ontario’s Finance Minister. He is a former chair of the C. D. Howe Institute. He holds an MSc from the London School of Economics and an MBA from INSEAD.:

Ludger Schuknecht is Chief Economist at the German Ministry of Finance, and head of the Directorate General Fiscal Policy and International Financial and Monetary Policy. In his previous position as Senior Advisor in the Directorate General Economics of the European Central Bank, he contributed to the preparation of monetary policy decision making and the ECB positions in European policy coordination.

Arvind Subramanian is the Chief Economic Advisor to the government of India. He was Assistant Director in the Research Department of the IMF, served at the GATT, and taught at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. In 2011, Foreign Policy Magazine named him one of the top 100 global thinkers.


(Early) Monday DeLong Smackdown: Labor Force Participation Trends

Prime age male for brad pdf

Has the Longer Depression accelerated the trend of “losing” prime-age males, crowding what would have been a generation of the trend into a decade, as I suggested at the FRBB Conference and here in contradiction to what Alan Krueger and Gabriel Chodorow-Reich were saying? No. Or, rather, you could say it looked like that as of 2013 if you thought recovery was then substantially complete. You really cannot say that anymore.

The extremely sharp Gabriel Chodorow-Reich in Email:

Gabriel Chodorow-Reich: Prime age male by 5 year age bin: “Here is a figure and a table related to our back-and-forth…

…The figure shows the LFPR over time for 25-54 year-old men split into 5 year age bins. (The data are the published BLS data with no adjustments for population controls,  I have smoothed and deseasonalized by taking a trailing 12 month moving average.) The dashed lines are the OLS trends estimated using data from 1976-2007.

What I take from the figure is that except for the 25-29 and 30-34 groups, the 1976-2007 trend fits the 2016 value pretty well.  As I said in my discussion, I’m not a huge fan of blindly taking trends and extrapolating.  But for the question of whether 2007-16 is unusual this seems a reasonable approach.  

There is a large deviation from the prior trend for the 25-29 and 30-34 male age groups.  The table, which was in my discussion slides, focuses on this group.  The plurality of the decline in participation is due to increased schooling. This seems benign.  The increase in those reporting disability is less so.  Using 2000 as a benchmark, the transition rates back into employment for this group also seem more elastic to a tighter labor market, which is consistent with other evidence.

Prime age male for brad pdf

Cf.: My earlier post:

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. 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…

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