Brad, Ben (Beckworth?) and Bob

I have been a bit too busy to blog recently and at the moment I am enjoying a short Easter vacation with the family in the Christensen vacation home in Skåne (Southern Sweden), but just to remind you that I am still around I have a bit of stuff for you. Or rather there is quite a bit that I wanted to blog about, but which you will just get the links and some very short comments.

First, Brad DeLong is far to hard on us monetarists when he tells his story about “The Monetarist Mistake”. Brad story is essentially that the monetarists are wrong about the causes of the Great Depression and he is uses Barry Eichengreen (and his new book Hall of Mirrors to justify this view. I must admit I find Brad’s critique a bit odd. First of all because Eichengreen’s fantastic book “Golden Fetters” exactly shows how there clearly demonstrates the monetary causes of the Great Depression. Unfortunately Barry does not draw the same conclusion regarding the Great Recession in Hall of Mirrors (I have not finished reading it all yet – so it is not time for a review yet) even though I believe that (Market) Monetarists like Scott Sumner and Bob Hetzel forcefully have made the argument that the Great Recession – like the Great Depression – was caused by monetary policy failure. (David Glasner has a great blog on DeLong’s blog post – even though I still am puzzled why David remains so critical about Milton Friedman)

Second, Ben Bernanke is blogging! That is very good news for those of us interested in monetary matters. Bernanke was/is a great monetary scholar and even though I often have been critical about the Federal Reserve’s conduct of monetary policy under his leadership I certainly look forward to following his blogging.

The first blog posts are great. In the first post Bernanke is discussing why interest rates are so low as they presently are in the Western world. Bernanke is essentially echoing Milton Friedman and the (Market) Monetarist message – interest rates are low because the economy is weak and the Fed can essentially not control interest rates over the longer run. This is Bernanke:

If you asked the person in the street, “Why are interest rates so low?”, he or she would likely answer that the Fed is keeping them low. That’s true only in a very narrow sense. The Fed does, of course, set the benchmark nominal short-term interest rate. The Fed’s policies are also the primary determinant of inflation and inflation expectations over the longer term, and inflation trends affect interest rates, as the figure above shows. But what matters most for the economy is the real, or inflation-adjusted, interest rate (the market, or nominal, interest rate minus the inflation rate). The real interest rate is most relevant for capital investment decisions, for example. The Fed’s ability to affect real rates of return, especially longer-term real rates, is transitory and limited. Except in the short run, real interest rates are determined by a wide range of economic factors, including prospects for economic growth—not by the Fed.

To understand why this is so, it helps to introduce the concept of the equilibrium real interest rate (sometimes called the Wicksellian interest rate, after the late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Swedish economist Knut Wicksell). The equilibrium interest rate is the real interest rate consistent with full employment of labor and capital resources, perhaps after some period of adjustment. Many factors affect the equilibrium rate, which can and does change over time. In a rapidly growing, dynamic economy, we would expect the equilibrium interest rate to be high, all else equal, reflecting the high prospective return on capital investments. In a slowly growing or recessionary economy, the equilibrium real rate is likely to be low, since investment opportunities are limited and relatively unprofitable. Government spending and taxation policies also affect the equilibrium real rate: Large deficits will tend to increase the equilibrium real rate (again, all else equal), because government borrowing diverts savings away from private investment.

If the Fed wants to see full employment of capital and labor resources (which, of course, it does), then its task amounts to using its influence over market interest rates to push those rates toward levels consistent with the equilibrium rate, or—more realistically—its best estimate of the equilibrium rate, which is not directly observable. If the Fed were to try to keep market rates persistently too high, relative to the equilibrium rate, the economy would slow (perhaps falling into recession), because capital investments (and other long-lived purchases, like consumer durables) are unattractive when the cost of borrowing set by the Fed exceeds the potential return on those investments. Similarly, if the Fed were to push market rates too low, below the levels consistent with the equilibrium rate, the economy would eventually overheat, leading to inflation—also an unsustainable and undesirable situation. The bottom line is that the state of the economy, not the Fed, ultimately determines the real rate of return attainable by savers and investors. The Fed influences market rates but not in an unconstrained way; if it seeks a healthy economy, then it must try to push market rates toward levels consistent with the underlying equilibrium rate.

It will be hard to find any self-described Market Monetarist that would disagree with Bernanke’s comments. In fact as Benjamin Cole rightly notes Bernanke comes close to sounding exactly as David Beckworth. Just take a look at these blog posts by David (here, here and here).

So maybe Bernanke in future blog posts will come out even more directly advocating views that are similar to Market Monetarism and in this regard it would of course be extremely interesting to hear his views on Nominal GDP targeting.

Third and finally Richmond Fed’s Bob Hetzel has a very interesting new “Economic Brief”: Nominal GDP: Target or Benchmark? Here is the abstract:

Some observers have argued that the Federal Reserve would best fulfi ll its mandate by adopting a target for nominal gross domestic product (GDP). Insights from the monetarist tradition suggest that nominal GDP targeting could be destabilizing. However, adopting benchmarks for both nominal and real GDP could offer useful information about when monetary policy is too tight or too loose.

It might disappoint some that Bob fails to come out and explicitly advocate NGDP level targeting. However, I am not disappointed at all as I was well-aware of Bob’s reservations. However, the important point here is that Bob makes it clear that NGDP could be a useful “benchmark”. This is Bob:

At the same time, articulation of a benchmark path for the level of nominal GDP would be a useful start in formulating and communicating policy as a rule. An explicit rule would in turn highlight the importance of shaping the expectations of markets about the way in which the central bank will behave in the future. A benchmark path for the level of nominal GDP would encourage the FOMC to articulate a strategy (rule) that it believes will keep its forecasts of nominal GDP aligned with its benchmark path. In recessions, nominal GDP growth declines significantly. During periods of inflation, it increases significantly.

The FOMC would then need to address the source of these deviations. Did they arise as a consequence of powerful external shocks? Alternatively, did they arise as a consequence either of a poor strategy (rule) or from a departure from an optimal rule?

That I believe is the closest Bob ever on paper has been to give his full endorsement of NGDP “targeting” – Now we just need Bernanke (and Yellen!) to tell us that he agrees.

——

UPDATE: This blog post should really have had the headline “Brad, Ben, Bob AND George”…as George Selgin has a new blog post on the new(ish) blog Alt-M and that is ‘Definitely Not “Ben Bernanke’s Blog”’

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2 Comments

  1. Warren Lammert

     /  April 3, 2015

    Worth reading!

    Bernanke sounds Austrian here quoting Wicksell.

    Misses of course the big picture which is that money and interest rates are evolved institutions, not engineered constructs that behave according to designed principles.

    Sent from my iPhone

    Reply
  2. “A benchmark path for the level of nominal GDP would encourage the FOMC to articulate a strategy (rule) that it believes will keep its forecasts of nominal GDP aligned with its benchmark path. In recessions, nominal GDP growth declines significantly. During periods of inflation, it increases significantly.”

    In this statement I believe Hetzel reveals why he thinks NGDP targeting potentially destabilizing: it is because like many he equates “stability: not with the absence of substantial deviations of output and employment from their “natural” levels, but with the absolute stability of output and the inflation rate or some combination thereof. In other words, he has doubts about NGDP targeting because he doesn’t understand it or the rationale behind it, which one can grasp only by first abandoning the naive view that central banks’ proper role is one of stabilizing even what is inherently or optimally unstable.

    Here is a good rule: to know if someone “gets” NGDP targeting,see what’s in their monetary policy loss function. If it is only deviations of real variables from their full-info levels, he or she get’s it. If not, not.

    Reply

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