The Austrian bust: HIGHER inflation and relative deflation

I have been thinking about an issue that puzzles me – it is about inflation in an Austrian School style bust.

Here is the story. If we think about a stylized Austrian school boom-bust then the story more or less is that easy money leads to an unsustainable boom that eventually – for some reason – will lead to a bust.

What people often fail to realize is that the Austrian business cycle theory basically is a supply side story.

Austrians will hate it, but you can tell much of the story within an AS/AD framework. The graph below is an illustration of this.

AS AD - AS shift rightwards

What happens is that the central bank cuts interest rates below the Wicksellian natural interest rate. Investors are tricked into thinking that it is the natural interest rates that has fallen and as a result investments are increased. Austrians will of course object by saying “it is not a overinvestment theory, but a malinvestment theory”. Yes, that is right, but that is not relevant for the question I want to look at here.

The boom happens not because of higher demand, but because of over (and mal) investment. The production capacity of the economy is hence expanded – the AS curve shifts to the right during the Austrian boom and production increases from Y1 to Y2. We ignore the demand effects – so we keep the AD unchanged – as the Austrians really are not paying much attention to this part of the story anyway (and yes, I am aware the there is relative demand story – private consumption vs investments).

Notice what happens with the price level initially. Prices drop from P1 to P2. Obviously that would not necessarily have to be the case if the AD curve also have shifted to the right as well (but that is not important for the story here). However, this pretty well illustrates the Austrian story that “headline” inflation will not necessarily increase during the boom. What happens – and we can obviously not realize that by just looking at AD and AS curves – is that we get what Austrians call relative inflation. Some prices rise, but the aggregate price level does not necessarily increase.

So far so good. I know Austrian economists would say that I told the story in the “wrong way”, but I guess they will agree on the main points – Austrian Business Cycle Theory is mostly about the supply side of the economy and that the aggregate price level will not necessarily have to increase during the boom phase.

Now we turn to the bust phase…

At some point investors realise that they have made a mistake – the natural interest rate has not really dropped. Therefore, what they thought were good and profitable investments are not really that great. So as a result investors cut back investments – after the “bubble” have bursted a large part of the production capacity in the economy is worthless. This is a negative supply shock! The AS shift back leftwards.

AS AD - AS shift leftwards

What is the result of this? Well, it is simple – the price level increases from P2 to P1. We get higher inflation. This might seem counterintuitive to most people – that the bust leads to higher rather lower inflation – but remember this is due fact that the Austrian boom-bust cycle primarily is a supply side story.

‘Benign’ inflation should be welcomed

And this brings me to what I really wanted to say. An increase inflation should be welcomed if it reflects a rational and undistorted reaction to investors realising that they have made a mistake. That is exactly what happens in an Austrian style bust. We might get relative deflation/disinflation, but the aggregate price level increases due to the negative supply shock.

Therefore, when Austrians often argue that the bust should be allowed to play out without any interference from the government or the central bank then that logically mean that they should welcome an increase in inflation in the bust phase of the business cycle. That obvious is not that same saying that monetary policy should be eased in the bust phase, but inflation should nonetheless be allowed to increase as we get “benign” inflation.

However, in my view that would mean that it would be wrong from an Austrian perspective for the central bank to tighten monetary policy in response to rise in (supply) inflation during the bust. Those Austrian economists who favour NGDP level targeting – like Anthony Evans and Steve Horwitz – would likely agree, but what about the “internet Austrian”? And what about Bob Murphy or Joe Salerno?

Obviously the story I have told above is a caricature of the Austrian Business Cycle theory, but I think there is a relevant discussion here that need to be addressed. Is the aggregate price level likely to rise in the bust phase as natural consequence of market forces being allowed to run it cause?

The reason that I think this debate is important is that some Austrians spend a lot of time arguing that the deflationary tendencies that we see for example in Europe at the moment are a natural and necessary bursting and deflating of a bubble. However, IF we indeed were in the bust phase of a Austrian style business cycle then we would not be seeing deflationary tendencies. We would in fact be seeing the opposite – we would see HIGHER inflation, but at the same time relative deflation.

Obviously this is not what we are seeing in the US and Europe today – inflation in both the US and the euro zone is well-below what it was during the “boom years”. That mean that we are not in the bust phase of an Austrian style boom-bust. There might very well have been a boom-bust initially (I believe that was the case in some European countries for example), but we have long ago moved to another phase – and that is what Hayek termed secondary deflation – a downturn in the economy caused by an monetary contraction.

PS Take a look at what happened in the US in 2007-8. Overall inflation did in fact increase as the economy was slowing, while we at the same time had relative deflation in the form of falling property prices. However, starting in the Autumn of 2008 we clearly saw across the board deflationary tendencies – here it is pretty clear that we entered a secondary deflationary phase caused by a monetary contraction. This is consistent with an Austrian interpretation of the Great Recession, but it is not a story I have heard many (any??) Austrians tell. And of course it is not necessarily the story I would tell – even though I think there is a lot of truth in it.

PPS The graphs above could indicate that both production and prices shifts back to the initial starting point during the bust. That obviously would not have to be the case as I here have ignored the shift in the AD curve and as any Austrian would note the AS/AD framework is not telling us anything about relative prices.

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Bob Murphy on Minimum wages and a textbook graph to illustrate it

One of the unfortunate consequences of this crisis is increased political backing for “reforms” that have negative impact on aggregate supply. In the US in the 1930s it was the horrible National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and in today’s US it is higher minimum wages. I find it incredible that anybody seriously would question the negative supply side consequences of higher minimum wages. This is not a political issue, but a simple question of understanding the laws of supply and demand.

Anyway Bob Murphy explains it well in this Youtube video.

Of course you can also just look at a standard textbook graph. It should be pretty easy to understand.

Minimum wage

W eq is the equilibrium wage that would emerge in an unregulated labour market with no minimum wage. In such a market employment would be N eq.

W min is the minimum wage, which is higher than the equilibrium wage (W eq). In such a world the demand for labour will be only N2, while the supply of labour will be N1. The difference between the N2 and N1 obviously is the level of unemployment caused by the minimum wage.

You really don’t need anything else than that to understand this issue…Or as Paul Krugman once said:

“So what are the effects of increasing minimum wages? Any Econ 101 student can tell you the answer: The higher wage reduces the quantity of labor demanded, and hence leads to unemployment.”

PS Paul Krugman apparently no longer thinks that a higher minimum wage increases unemployment, but I will leave that to David Henderson to explain.

Bob Murphy on fiscal austerity – he is nearly right

Bob Murphy has a very good discussion on Econlib about “What Economic Research Says About Fiscal Austerity and Higher Tax Rates”.

Bob has a very good discussion about why the traditional keynesian thinking on monetary policy is wrong and has a good discussion about what Bob terms “Expansionary Austerity”, but what also have been termed expansionary fiscal contractions.

Bob among other points to Giavazz and Pagano’s pathbreaking 1990 study “Can Severe Fiscal Contractions Be Expansionary? Tales of Two Small European Countries.”  Giavazz and Pagano in their paper highlight two cases of expansionary fiscal contractions. That is Denmark 1982-1985 and Ireland 1987-89. In both cases fiscal policy was tightened and the public deficit reduced dramatically and in both cases – contrary to what (paleo?) Keynesian theory would predicted – the economy expanded.

The Danish and Irish cases are hence often highlighted when the case is made that fiscal policy can be tightened without leading to a recession. I fully share this view. However, where a lot of the literature on expansionary fiscal contractions – including Bob’s mini survey of the literature – fails is that the role of monetary policy is not discussed. In fact I would argue that Denmark was a case of an expansionary monetary contraction – a the introduction of new strict pegged exchange rate regime strongly reduced inflation expectations (I might return to that issue in a later post…).

In all the cases I know of where there has been expansionary fiscal contractions monetary policy has been kept accommodative in the since that nominal GDP – which of course is determined by the central bank – is kept “on track”. This was also the case in the Danish and Irish cases where NGDP grew strong through the fiscal consolidation period.

My view is therefore that that fiscal austerity certainly will not have to lead to a recession IF monetary policy ensures a stable growth rate of nominal GDP. This in my view mean that we will have to be a lot more skeptical about austerity for example in Spain or Greece being successful. Spain and Greece do not have their own monetary policy and therefore the countries cannot counteract possible contractionary effects of fiscal austerity with monetary policy. That of course does not mean that these countries should not tighten fiscal policy – in my view there is no other option – but it mean that austerity in these countries are not likely to have the same positive growth effects as in Denmark and Ireland in the 1980s.

Therefore, in my view the future research on expansionary fiscal contractions should focus on the policy mix – what happened to monetary policy during the periods of fiscal consolidation? -instead of just focusing on the fiscal part of the story.

All the cases of expansionary fiscal consolidations I have studied has been accompanied by a period of fairly high and stable NGDP growth and the unsuccessful periods have been accompanied by monetary contractions. My challenge to Bob would therefore be that he should find just one case of a expansionary fiscal contraction where NGDP growth was weak…

PS the discussion above it about the business cycle perspective. Obviously if we take a longer term perspective then supply side factors dominate demand side factors. In these cases I think is it fairly easy to demonstrate that cuts in public spending will increase potential or long-term real GDP growth. I am pretty sure that Bob and I fully agree on this issue – others might not…

 

 

Lets concentrate on the policy framework

Here is Scott Sumner:

I’ve noticed that when I discuss economic policy with other free market types, it’s easier to get agreement on broad policy rules than day-to-day discretionary decisions.

I have noticed the same thing – or rather I find that when pro-market economists are presented with Market Monetarist ideas based on the fact that we want to limit the discretionary powers of central banks then it is much easier to sell our views than when we just argue for monetary “stimulus”. I don’t want central bank to ease monetary policy. I don’t want central banks to tighten monetary policy. I simply want to central banks to stop distorting relative prices. I believe the best way to ensure that is with futures based NGDP targeting as this is the closest we get to the outcome that would prevail under a truly free monetary system with competitive issuance of money.

I have often argued that NGDP level targeting is not about monetary stimulus (See here, here and here) and argued that NGDP level targeting is the truly free market alternative (see here).

This in my view is the uniting view for free market oriented economists. We can disagree about whether monetary policy was too loose in the US and Europe prior to 2008 or whether it became too tight in 2008/9. My personal view is that both US and European monetary policy likely was (a bit!) too loose prior to 2008, but then turned extremely tight in 2008/09. The Great Depression was not caused by too easy monetary policy, but too tight monetary policy. However, in terms of policy recommendations is that really important? Yes it is important in the sense of what we think that the Fed or the ECB should do right now in the absence of a clear framework of NGDP targeting (or any other clear nominal target). However, the really important thing is not whether the Fed or the ECB will ease a little bit more or a little less in the coming month or quarter, but how we ensure the right institutional framework to avoid a future repeat of the catastrophic policy response in 2008/9 (and 2011!). In fact I would be more than happy if we could convince the ECB and the Fed to implement NGDP level target at the present levels of NGDP in Europe and the US – that would mean a lot more to me than a little bit more easing from the major central banks of the world (even though I continue to think that would be highly desirable as well).

What can Scott Sumner, George Selgin, Pete Boettke, Steve Horwitz, Bob Murphy and John Taylor all agree about? They want to limit the discretionary powers of central banks. Some of them would like to get rid of central banks all together, but as long as that option is not on the table they they all want to tie the hands of central bankers as much as possible. Scott, Steve and George all would agree that a form of nominal income targeting would be the best rule. Taylor might be convinced about that I think if it was completely rule based (at least if he listens to Evan Koeing). Bob of course want something completely else, but I think that even he would agree that a futures based NGDP targeting regime would be preferable to the present discretionary policies.

So maybe it is about time that we take this step by step and instead of screaming for monetary stimulus in the US and Europe start build alliances with those economists who really should endorse Market Monetarist ideas in the first place.

Here are the steps – or rather the questions Market Monetarists should ask other free market types (as Scott calls them…):

1) Do you agree that in the absence of Free Banking that monetary policy should be rule based rather than based on discretion?

2) Do you agree that markets send useful and appropriate signals for the conduct of monetary policy?

3) Do you agree that the market should be used to do forecasting for central banks and to markets should be used to implement policies rather than to leave it to technocrats? For example through the use of prediction markets and futures markets. (See my comments on prediction markets and market based monetary policy here and here).

4) Do you agree that there is good and bad inflation and good and bad deflation?

5) Do you agree that central banks should not respond to non-monetary shocks to the price level?

6) Do you agree that monetary policy can not solve all problems? (This Market Monetarists do not think so – see here)

7) Do you agree that the appropriate target for a central bank should be to the NGDP level?

I am pretty sure that most free market oriented monetary economists would answer “yes” to most of these questions. I would of course answer “yes” to them all.

So I suggest to my fellow Market Monetarists that these are the questions we should ask other free market economists instead of telling them that they are wrong about being against QE3 from the Fed. In fact would it really be strategically correct to argue for QE3 in the US right now? I am not sure. I would rather argue for strict NGDP level targeting and then I am pretty sure that the Chuck Norris effect and the market would do most of the lifting. We should basically stop arguing in favour of or against any discretionary policies.

PS I remain totally convinced that when economists in future discuss the causes of the Great Recession then the consensus among monetary historians will be that the Hetzelian-Sumnerian explanation of the crisis was correct. Bob Hetzel and Scott Sumner are the Hawtreys and Cassels of the day.

The Economist comments on Market Monetarism

The Economist has an interesting article on Market Monetarists as well as would the magazine calls “Heterodox economics” – Market Monetarism, Austrianism and “Modern Monetary Theory” (MMT).

I am happy to see this:

“Mr Sumner’s blog not only revealed his market monetarism to the world at large (“I cannot go anywhere in the world of economics…without hearing his name,” says Mr Cowen). It also drew together like-minded economists, many of them at small schools some distance from the centre of the economic universe, who did not realise there were other people thinking the same way they did. They had no institutional home, no critical mass. The blogs provided one. Lars Christensen, an economist at a Danish bank who came up with the name “market monetarism”, says it is the first economic school of thought to be born in the blogosphere, with post, counter-post and comment threads replacing the intramural exchanges of more established venues.” (Please have a look at my paper on Market Monetarism)

There is no doubt that Scott is at the centre of the Market Monetarist movement. To me he is the Milton Friedman of the day – a pragmatic revolutionary. Scott does not always realise this but his influence can not be underestimated. Our friend Bill Woolsey is also mentioned in the article. But I miss mentioning of for example David Beckworth.

One thing I would note about the Economist’s article is that the Austrianism presented in the article actually is quite close to Market Monetarism. Hence, Leland Yeager (who calls himself a monetarist) and one of the founders of the Free Banking school Larry White are quoted on Austrianism. Bob Murphy is not mentioned. Thats a little on unfair to Bob I think. I think that both Yeager’s and White’s is pretty close to MM thinking. In fact Larry White endorses NGDP targeting as do other George Mason Austrians like Steven Horwitz. I have written the GMU Austrians about earlier. See here and here.

And see this one:

“Austrians still struggle, however, to get published in the principal economics journals. Most economists do not share their admiration for the gold standard, which did not prevent severe booms and busts even in its heyday. And their theory of the business cycle has won few mainstream converts. According to Leland Yeager, a fellow-traveller of the Austrian school who once held the Mises chair at Auburn, it is “an embarrassing excrescence” that detracts from the Austrians’ other ideas. While it provides insights into booms and their ending, it fails to explain why things must end quite so badly, or how to escape when they do. Low interest rates no doubt helped to inflate America’s housing bubble. But this malinvestment cannot explain why 21.8m Americans remain unemployed or underemployed five years after the housing boom peaked.”

Market Monetarists of course provide that insight – overly tight monetary policy – and it seems like Leland Yeager agrees.

It would of course have been great if the Economist had endorsed Market Monetarism, but it is great to see that Market Monetarism now is getting broad coverage in the financial media and there is no doubt that especially Scott’s advocacy is beginning to have a real impact – now we can only hope that they read the Economist at the Federal Reserve and the ECB.

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See also the comments on the Economists from Scott Sumner, Marcus NunesDavid BeckworthLuis Arroyo (in Spanish) and Tyler Cowen.

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