Most people do “national accounting economics” – including most Austrians

Yesterday, I did a presentation about  monetary explanations for the Great Depression (See my paper here) at a conference hosted by the Danish Libertas Society. The theme of the conference was Austrian economics so we got of to an interesting start when I started my presentation with a bashing of Austrian business cycle theory – particularly the Rothbardian version (you know that has given me a headache recently).

The debate at the conference reminded me that most people – economists and non-economists – have a rather simple keynesian model in their heads or rather a simple national account model in their head.

We all the know the basic national account identity:

(1) Y=C+I+G+X-M

It is notable that most people are not clear about whether Y is nominal or real GDP. In the standard keynesian textbook model it is of course not important as prices (P) are assumed to be fixed and equal to one.

The fact that most people see the macroeconomics in this rather standard keynesian formulation means that they fail to understand the nominal character of recessions and hence nearly by construction they are unable to comprehend that the present crisis is a result of monetary policy mistake.

Whether austrian, keynesian or lay-person the assumption is that something happened on the righthand side of (1) and that caused Y to drop. The Austrians claim that we had an unsustainable boom in investments (I) caused by too low interest rates and that that boom ended in a unavoidable drop I. The keynesians (of the more traditional style) on the other hand claim that private consumption (C) and investments (I) is driven by animal spirits –  both in the boom and the bust.

What both keynesians and austrians completely fail to realise is the importance of money. The starting point of macroeconomic analysis should not be (1), but rather the equation of exchange:

(2) MV=PY

I have earlier argued that when we teach economics we should start out we money-free and friction-free micro economy. Then we should add money, move to aggregated prices and quantities and price rigidities. That is what we call macroeconomics.

If we can make people understand that the starting point of macroeconomic analysis should be (2) and not (1) then we can also convince them that the present recession (as all other recessions) is caused by a monetary contraction rather than drop in C or I. The drop in C and I are consequences rather the reasons for the recessions.

In this regard it is also important to note that Austrian Business Cycle Theory as formulated by Hayek or Rothbard basically is keynesian in nature in the sense that it is not really monetary theory. The starting point is that interest rates impact the capital structure and investments and that impacts Y – first as a boom and then as a bust. This is also why it is hard to convince Austrians that the present crisis is caused by tight money. (You could also choose to see Austrian business cycle theory as a growth theory that explain secular swings in real GDP, but that is not a business cycle theory).

Austrians and keynesians disagree on the policy response to the crisis. The Austrians want “liquidation” and the keynesians want to use fiscal policy (G) to fill the hole left empty by the drop in C and I in (1). This might actually also explain why “Austrians” often resort to quasi-moralist arguments against monetary or fiscal easing. In the Austrian model it would actually “work” if fiscal or monetary policy was eased, but that is politically unacceptable so you need to come up with some other objection. Ok, that is maybe not fair, but that is at least the feeling you get when you listen to populist part of the “Austrian movement” which is popular especially among commentators and young libertarians around the world – the Ron Paul crowd so to speak.

If people understood that our starting point should be (2) rather than (1) then people would also get a much better understanding of the monetary transmission mechanism. It is not about changes in interest rates to change C or I or changes in the exchange rate to change net exports (X-M). (Note of course in (1) M means imports and in (2) M means money). If we focus on (2) rather than (1) we will understand that a devaluation impact nominal demand by changes in M or V – it is really not about “competitiveness” – its about money.

So what we really want is a textbook that starts out with Arrow–Debreu in microeconomics and then move on (2) and macroeconomics. Imagine if economics students were not introduce to the mostly irrelevant national account identity (1) before they had a good understand on the equation of exchange (2)? Then I am pretty sure that we would not have these endless discussions about fiscal policy and most economists would then readily acknowledge that recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.


PS I am of course aware this partly is a caricature of both the Austrian and the keynesian position. New Keynesians are more clever than just relying on (1), but nonetheless fails really to grasp the importance of money. And then some modern day Austrians like Steve Horwitz fully appreciate that we should start out with (2) rather than (1). However, I am not really sure that I would consider Steve’s macro model to be a Austrian model. There is a lot more Leland Yeager and Clark Warburton in Steve’s model than there is Rothbard or Hayek. That by the way is no critique, but rather why I generally like Steve’s take on the world.

PPS Take a Scott Sumner’s discussion of Bank of England’s inflation. You will see Scott is struggling with the BoE’s research departments lack of understanding nominal vs real. Basically at the BoE they also start out with (1) rather than (2) and that is a central bank! No surprise they get monetary policy wrong…

I am blaming Murray Rothbard for my writer’s block

I have promised to write an article about monetary explanations for the Great Depression for the Danish libertarian magazine Libertas (in Danish). The deadline was yesterday. It should be easy to write it because it is about stuff that I am very familiar with. Friedman’s and Schwartz’s “Monetary History”, Clark Warburton’s early monetarist writings on the Great Depression. Cassel’s and Hawtrey’s account of the (insane) French central bank’s excessive gold demand and how that caused gold prices to spike and effective lead to an tigthening of global monetary conditions. This explanation has of course been picked up by my Market Monetarists friends – Scott Sumner (in his excellent, but unpublished book on the Great Depression), Clark Johnson’s fantastic account of French monetary history in his book “Gold, France and the Great Depression, 1919-1932” and super star economic historian Douglas Irwin.

But I didn’t finnish the paper yet. I simply have a writer’s block. Well, that is not entirely true as I have no problem writing these lines. But I have a problem writing about the Austrian school’s explanation for the Great Depression and I particularly have a problem writing about Murray Rothbard’s account of the Great Depression. I have been rereading his famous book “America’s Great Depression” and frankly speaking – it is not too impressive. And that is what gives me the problem – I do not want to be too hard on the Austrian explanation of the Great Depression, but dear friends the Austrians are deadly wrong about the Great Depression – maybe even more wrong than Keynes! Yes, even more wrong than Keynes – and he was certainly very wrong.

So what is the problem? Well, Rothbard is arguing that US money supply growth was excessive during the 1920s. Rothbard’s own measure of the money supply  apparently grew by 7% y/y on average from 1921 to 1929. That according to Rothbard was insanely loose monetary policy. But was it? First of all, money supply growth was the strongest in the early years following the near-Depression of 1920-21. Hence, most of the “excessive” growth in the money supply was simply filling the gap created by the Federal Reserve’s excessive tightening in 1920-21. Furthermore, in the second half of the 1920s money supply started to slow relatively fast. I therefore find it very hard to argue as Rothbard do that US monetary policy in anyway can be described as being very loose during the 1920s. Yes, monetary conditions probably became too loose around 1925-7, but that in no way can explain the kind of collapse in economic activity that the world and particularly the US saw from 1929 to 1933 – Roosevelt finally did the right thing and gave up the gold standard in 1933 and monetary easing pulled the US out of the crisis (later to return again in 1937). Yes dear Austrians, FDR might have been a quasi-socialist, but giving up the gold standard was the right thing to do and no we don’t want it back!

But why did the money supply grow during the 1920s? Rothbard – the libertarian freedom-loving anarchist blame the private banks! The banks were to blame as they were engaging in “pure evil” – fractional reserve banking. It is interesting to read Rothbard’s account of the behaviour of banks. One nearly gets reminded of the Occupy Wall Street crowd. Lending is seen as evil – in fact fractional reserve banking is fraud according to Rothbard. How a clever man like Rothbard came to that conclusion continues to puzzle me, but the fact is that the words “prohibit” and “ban” fill the pages of Rothbard’s account of the Great Depression. The anarchist libertarian Rothbard blame the Great Depression on the fact that US policy makers did not BAN fractional reserve banking. Can’t anybody see the the irony here?

Austrians like Rothbard claim that fractional reserve banking is fraud. So the practice of private banks in a free market is fraud even if the bank’s depositors are well aware of the fact that banks do not hold 100% reserve? Rothbard normally assumes that individuals are rational and it must follow from simple deduction that if you get paid interest rates on your deposits then that must mean that the bank is not holding 100% reserves otherwise the bank would be asking you for a fee for keeping your money safe. But apparently Rothbard do not think that individuals can figure that out. I could go on and on about how none-economic Rothbard’s arguments are – dare I say how anti-praxeological Rothbard’s fraud ideas are. Of course fractional reserve banking is not fraud. It is a free market phenomenon. However, don’t take my word for it. You better read George Selgin’s and Larry White’s 1996 article on the topic “In Defense of Fiduciary Media – or, We are Not Devo(lutionists), We are Misesians”. George and Larry in that article also brilliantly shows that Rothbard’s view on fractional reserve banking is in conflict with his own property right’s theory:

“Fractional-reserve banking arrangements cannot then be inherently or inescapably fraudulent. Whether a particular bank is committing a fraud by holding fractional reserves must depend on the terms of the title-transfer agreements between the bank and its customers.

Rothbard (1983a, p. 142) in The Ethics of Liberty gives two examples of fraud, both involving blatant misrepresentations (in one, “A sells B a package which A says contains a radio, and it contains only a pile of scrap metal”). He concludes that “if the entity is not as the seller describes, then fraud and hence implicit theft has taken place.” The consistent application of this view to banking would find that it is fraudulent for a bank to hold fractional reserves if and only if the bank misrepresents itself as holding 100percent reserves, or if the contract expressly calls for the holding of 100 percent reserves.’ If a bank does not represent or expressly oblige itself to hold 100 percent reserves, then fractional reserves do not violate the contractual agreement between the bank and its customer (White 1989, pp. 156-57). (Failure in practice to satisfy a redemption request that the bank is contractually obligated to satisfy does of course constitute a breach of contract.) Outlawing voluntary contractual arrangements that permit fractional reserve-holding is thus an intervention into the market, a restriction on the freedom of contract which is an essential aspect of private property rights.”

Another thing that really is upsetting to me is Rothbard’s claim that Austrian business cycle theory (ABCT) is a general theory. That is a ludicrous claim in my view. Rothbard style ABCT is no way a general theory. First of all it basically describes a closed economy as it is said that monetary policy easing will push down interest rates below the “natural” interest rates (sorry Bill, Scott and David but I think the idea of a natural interest rates is more less useless). But what determines the interest rates in a small open economy like Denmark or Sweden? And why the hell do Austrians keep on talking about the interest rate? By the way interest rates is not the price of money so what do interest rates and monetary easing have to do with each other? Anyway, another thing that mean that ABCT certainly not is a general theory is the explicit assumption in ABCT – particularly in the Rothbardian version – that money enters the economy via the banking sector. I wonder what Rothbard would have said about the hyperinflation in Zimbabwe. I certainly don’t think we can blame fractional reserve banking for the hyperinflation in Zimbabwe.

Anyway, I just needed to get this out so I can get on with writing the article that I promised would be done yesterday!

PS Dear GMU style Austrians – you know I am not talking about you. Clever Austrians like Steve Horwitz would of course not argue against fractional reserve banking and I am sure that he thinks that Friedman’s and Schwartz’s account of the Great Depression makes more sense than “America’s Great Depression”.

PPS not everything Rothbard claims in “America’s Great Depression” is wrong – only his monetary theory and its application to the Great Depression. To quote Selgin again: “To add to the record, I had the privilege of getting to know both Murray and Milton. Like most people who encountered him while in their “Austrian” phase, I found Murray a blast, not the least because of his contempt for non-Misesians of all kinds. Milton, though, was exceedingly gracious and generous to me even back when I really was a self-styled Austrian. For that reason Milton will always seem to me the bigger man, as well as the better monetary economist.”

PPPS David Glasner also have a post discussing the Austrian school’s view of the Great Depression.

Update: Steve Horwitz has a excellent comment on this post over at Coordination Problem and Peter Boettke – also at CP – raises some interesting institutional questions concerning monetary policy and is asking the question whether Market Monetarists have been thinking about these issues (We have!).

Forget about the “Credit Channel”

One thing that has always frustrated me about the Austrian business cycle theory (ABCT) is that it is assumes that “new money” is injected into the economy via the banking sector and many of the results in the model is dependent this assumption. Something Ludwig von Mises by the way acknowledges openly in for example “Human Action”.

If instead it had been assumed that money is injected into economy via a “helicopter drop” directly to households and companies then the lag structure in the ABCT model completely changes (I know because I many years ago wrote my master thesis on ABCT).

In this sense the Austrians are “Creditist” exactly like Ben Bernanke.

But hold on – so are the Keynesian proponents of the liquidity trap hypothesis. Those who argue that we are in a liquidity trap argues that an increase in the money base will not increase the money supply because there is a banking crisis so banks will to hold on the extra liquidity they get from the central bank and not lend it out. I know that this is not the exactly the “correct” theoretical interpretation of the liquidity trap, but nonetheless the “popular” description of the why there is a liquidity trap (there of course is no liquidity trap).

The assumption that “new money” is injected into the economy via the banking sector (through a “Credit Channel”) hence is critical for the results in all these models and this is highly problematic for the policy recommendations from these models.

The “New Keynesian” (the vulgar sort – not people like Lars E. O. Svensson) argues that monetary policy don’t work so we need to loosen fiscal policy, while the Creditist like Bernanke says that we need to “fix” the problems in the banking sector to make monetary policy work and hence become preoccupied with banking sector rescue rather than with the expansion of the broader money supply. (“fix” in Bernanke’s thinking is something like TARP etc.). The Austrians are just preoccupied with the risk of boom-bust (could we only get that…).

What I and other Market Monetarist are arguing is that there is no liquidity trap and money can be injected into the economy in many ways. Lars E. O. Svensson of course suggested a foolproof way out of the liquidity trap and is for the central bank to engage in currency market intervention. The central bank can always increase the money supply by printing its own currency and using it to buy foreign currency.

At the core of many of today’s misunderstandings of monetary policy is that people mix up “credit” and “money” and they think that the interest rate is the price of money. Market Monetarists of course full well know that that is not the case. (See my Working Paper on the Market Monetarism for a discussion of the difference between “credit” and “money”)

As long as policy makers continue to think that the only way that money can enter into the economy is via the “credit channel” and by manipulating the price of credit (not the price of money) we will be trapped – not in a liquidity trap, but in a mental trap that hinders the right policy response to the crisis. It might therefore be beneficial that Market Monetarists other than just arguing for NGDP level targeting also explain how this practically be done in terms of policy instruments. I have for example argued that small open economies (and large open economies for that matter) could introduce “exchange rate based NGDP targeting” (a variation of Irving Fisher’s Compensated dollar plan).

Divisia Money and “A Subjectivist Approach to the Demand for Money”

Recently Scott Sumner have brought up William Barnett’s new book “Getting it Wrong: How Faulty Monetary Statistics Undermine the Fed, the Financial System, and the Economy”. The theme in Barnett’s book is basically that “normal” money supply numbers where subcomponents of the money supply is added up with equal weight give wrong measure of the “real” money supply. Instead Barnett’s recommend using a so-called Divisia Money method of the money supply.

Here is a William Barnett’s discription of divisia money (from the comment section on Scott’s blog):

“Unlike the Fed’s simple-sum monetary aggregates, based on accounting conventions, my Divisia monetary aggregates are based on microeconomic aggregation theory. The accounting distinction between assets and liabilities is irrelevant and is not the same for all economic agents demanding monetary services in the economy. What is relevant is market data not accounting data.”

And here is the official book discription of Barnett’s book:

“Blame for the recent financial crisis and subsequent recession has commonly been assigned to everyone from Wall Street firms to individual homeowners. It has been widely argued that the crisis and recession were caused by “greed” and the failure of mainstream economics. In Getting It Wrong, leading economist William Barnett argues instead that there was too little use of the relevant economics, especially from the literature on economic measurement. Barnett contends that as financial instruments became more complex, the simple-sum monetary aggregation formulas used by central banks, including the U.S. Federal Reserve, became obsolete. Instead, a major increase in public availability of best-practice data was needed. Households, firms, and governments, lacking the requisite information, incorrectly assessed systemic risk and significantly increased their leverage and risk-taking activities. Better financial data, Barnett argues, could have signaled the misperceptions and prevented the erroneous systemic-risk assessments.

When extensive, best-practice information is not available from the central bank, increased regulation can constrain the adverse consequences of ill-informed decisions. Instead, there was deregulation. The result, Barnett argues, was a worst-case toxic mix: increasing complexity of financial instruments, inadequate and poor-quality data, and declining regulation. Following his accessible narrative of the deep causes of the crisis and the long history of private and public errors, Barnett provides technical appendixes, containing the mathematical analysis supporting his arguments.”

Needless to say I have ordered the book at look forward to reading. I am, however, already relatively well-read in the Divisia money literature and I have always intuitively found the Divisia concept interesting and useful and which that more central bank around the world had studied and published Divisia money supply numbers and fundamentally I think Divisia money is a good supplement to studying market data as Market Monetarists recommend. Furthermore, it should be noted that the weight of the different subcomponents in Divisia money is exactly based on market pricing of the return (the transaction service) of different components of the money supply.

My interest in Divisia money goes back more than 20 years (I am getting old…) and is really based on an article by Steven Horwitz from 1990. In the article “A Subjectivist Approach to the Demand for Money” Steve among other thing discusses the concept of “moneyness”. This discussion I think provide a very good background for understanding the concept of Divisia Money. Steve does not discuss Divisia Money in the article, but I fundamentally think he provides a theoretical justification for Divisa Money in his excellent article.

Here is a bit of Steve’s discussion of “moneyness”:

“Hicks argues that money is held because investing in interest-earning assets involves transactions costs ; the act of buying a bond involves sacrificing more real resources than does acquiring money. It is at least possible that the interest return minus the transactions costs could be negative, making money’s zero return preferred.

While this approach is consistent with the observed trade-off between interest rates and the demand for money (see below), it does not offer an explanation of what money does, nor what it provides to its holder, only that other relevant substitutes may be worse choices. By immediately portraying the choice between money and near-moneys as between barrenness and interest, Hicks starts off on the wrong track. When one “objectifies” the returns fro111each choice this way, one is led to both ignore the yield on money held as outlined above and misunderstand the choice between holding financial and non-financial assets. The notion of a subjective yield on money can help to explain better the relationship between money and near-moneys.

One way in which money differs from other goods is that it is much harder to identify any prticular good as money because goods can have aspects of money, yet not be full-blooded moneys. What can be said is that financial assets have degrees of “moneyness” about them, and that different financial assets can be placed along a moneyness continium. Hayek argues that: “it would be more helpful…if “money”were an adjective describing a property which different things could possess to varying degrees. A pure money asset is then defined as the generally accepted medium of exchange. Items which can he used as lnedia of exchange, but are somewhat or very much less accepted are classified as near-moneys.

Nonetheless, money and near-moneys share an important feature Like all other objects of exchange, their desirability is based o n their utility yield. However in the case of near-moneys, that yield is not simply availability. Near-moneys do yield some availability services, but not to the degree of pure money. ‘The explanation is that by definition, near-moneys are not as generally acceptable and therefore cannot he available for all the same contingencies as pure money. For example, as White argues, a passbook savings account is not the same as pure money because, aside from being not directly transferrable (one has to go to the hank and make a withdrawal, unlike a demand deposit), it is not generally acceptable. Even a demand deposit is not quite as available as currency or coin is – some places will not accept checks. These kinds of financial assets have lower availability yields than pure money because they are simply not as marketable.”

If you read Steve’s paper and then have a look at the Divisia numbers – then I am pretty sure that you will think that the concept makes perfect sense.

And now I have written a far too long post – and you should not really have wasted your time on reading my take on this issue as the always insightful Bill Woolsey has a much better discussion of the topic here.

NGDP targeting would have prevented the Asian crisis

I have written a bit about boom, bust and bubbles recently. Not because I think we are heading for a new bubble – I think we are far from that – but because I am trying to explain why bubbles emerge and what role monetary policy plays in these bubbles. Furthermore, I have tried to demonstrate that my decomposition of inflation between supply inflation and demand inflation based on an Quasi-Real Price Index is useful in spotting bubbles and as a guide for monetary policy.

For the fun of it I have tried to look at what role “relative inflation” played in the run up to the Asian crisis in 1997. We can define “relative inflation” as situation where headline inflation is kept down by a positive supply shock (supply deflation), which “allow” the monetary authorities to pursue a easy monetary policies that spurs demand inflation.

Thailand was the first country to be hit by the crisis in 1997 where the country was forced to give up it’s fixed exchange rate policy. As the graph below shows the risks of boom-bust would have been clearly visible if one had observed the relative inflation in Thailand in the years just prior to the crisis.

When Prem Tinsulanonda became Thai Prime Minister in 1980 he started to implement economic reforms and most importantly he opened the Thai economy to trade and investments. That undoubtedly had a positive effect on the supply side of the Thai economy. This is quite visible in the decomposition of the inflation. From around 1987 to 1995 Thailand experience very significant supply deflation. Hence, if the Thai central bank had pursued a nominal income target or a Selgin style productivity norm then inflation would have been significantly lower than was the case. Thailand, however, had a fixed exchange rate policy and that meant that the supply deflation was “counteracted” by a significant increase in demand inflation in the 10 years prior to the crisis in 1997.

In my view this overly loose monetary policy was at the core of the Thai boom, but why did investors not react to the strongly inflationary pressures earlier? As I have argued earlier loose monetary policy on its own is probably not enough to create bubbles and other factors need to be in play as well – most notably the moral hazard.

Few people remember it today, but the Thai devaluation in 1997 was not completely unexpected. In fact in the years ahead of the ’97-devaluation there had been considerably worries expressed by international investors about the bubble signs in the Thai economy. However, the majority of investors decided – rightly or wrongly – ignore or downplay these risks and that might be due to moral hazard. Robert Hetzel has suggested that the US bailout of Mexico after the so-called Tequila crisis of 1994 might have convinced investors that the US and the IMF would come to the rescue of key US allies if they where to get into economic troubles. Thailand then and now undoubtedly is a key US ally in South East Asia.

What comes after the bust?

After boom comes bust it is said, but does that also mean that a country that have experience a bubble will have to go through years of misery as a result of this? I am certainly not an Austrian in that regard. Rather in my view there is a natural adjustment when a bubble bursts, as was the case in Thailand in 1997. However, if the central bank allow monetary conditions to be tightened as the crisis plays out that will undoubtedly worsen the crisis and lead to a forced and unnecessarily debt-deflation – what Hayek called a secondary deflation. In the case of Thailand the fixed exchange rate regime was given up and that eventually lead to a loosening of monetary conditions that pulled the

NGDP targeting reduces the risk of bubbles and ensures a more swift recovery

One thing is how to react to the bubble bursting – another thing is, however, to avoid the bubble in the first place. Market Monetarists in favour NGDP level targeting and at the moment Market Monetarists are often seen to be in favour of easier monetary policy (at least for the US and the euro zone). However, what would have happened if Thailand had had a NGDP level-targeting regime in place when the bubble started to get out of hand in 1988 instead of the fixed exchange rate regime?

The graph below illustrates this. I have assumed that the Thailand central bank had targeted a NGDP growth path level of 10% (5% inflation + 5% RGDP growth). This was more or less the NGDP growth in from 1980 to 1987. The graph shows that the actually NGDP level increased well above the “target” in 1988-1989. Under a NGDP target rule the Thai central bank would have tightened monetary policy significantly in 1988, but given the fixed exchange rate policy the central bank did not curb the “automatic” monetary easing that followed from the combination of the pegged exchange rate policy and the positive supply shocks.

The graph also show that had the NGDP target been in place when the crisis hit then NGDP would have been allowed to drop more or less in line with what we actually saw. Since 2001-2 Thai NGDP has been more or less back to the pre-crisis NGDP trend. In that sense one can say that the Thai monetary policy response to the crisis was better than was the case in the US and the euro zone after 2008 – NGDP never dropped below the pre-boom trend. That said, the bubble had been rather extreme with the NGDP level rising to more than 40% above the assumed “target” in 1996 and as a result the “necessary” NGDP was very large. That said, the NGDP “gap” would never have become this large if there had been a NGDP target in place to begin with.

My conclusion is that NGDP targeting is not a policy only for crisis, but it is certainly also a policy that significantly reduces the risk of bubbles. So when some argue that NGDP targeting increases the risks of bubble the answer from Market Monetarists must be that we likely would not have seen a Thai boom-bust if the Thai central bank had had NGDP target in the 1990s.

No balance sheet recession in Thailand – despite a massive bubble

It is often being argued that the global economy is heading for a “New Normal” – a period of low trend-growth – caused by a “balance sheet” recession as the world goes through a necessary deleveraging. I am very sceptical about this and have commented on it before and I think that Thai experience shows pretty clearly that we a long-term balance sheet recession will have to follow after a bubble comes to an end. Hence, even though we saw significant demand deflation in Thailand after the bubble busted NGDP never fell below the pre-boom NGDP trend. This is pretty remarkable when the situation is compared to what we saw in Europe and the US in 2008-9 where NGDP was allowed to drop well below the early trend and in that regard it should be noted that Thai boom was far more extreme that was the case in the US or Europe for that matter.

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.


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

Chain of events in the boom-bust

In my recent post on “boom, bust and bubbles” I tried to sketch a monetary theory of bubbles. In this post I try to give an overview of what in my view seems to be the normal chain of events in boom-bust and in the formation of bubbles. This is not a theory, but rather what I consider to be some empirical regularities in the formation and bursting of bubbles – and the common policy mistakes made by central banks and governments.

Here is the story…

Chain of events in the boom-bust

– Positive supply shocks – often due to structural reforms that include supply side reforms and monetary stabilisation

– Supply side reforms leads to “supply deflation” – headline inflation drops both as a result of monetary stabiliisation and supply deflation. Real GDP growth picks up

First policy mistake: The drop in headline inflation leads the central bank to ease monetary policy (in a fixed exchange rate regime this happens “automatically”)

– Relative inflation: Demand inflation increases sharply versus supply inflation – this is often is visible in for example sharply rising property prices and a “profit bubble”

– Investors jump on the good story – fears are dismissed often on the background of some implicit guarantees – moral hazard problems are visible

– More signs of trouble: The positive supply shock starts to ease off – headline inflation increases due to higher “supply inflation”

– Forward-looking investors start to worry about the boom turning into a bust when monetary policy will be tightened

– Second policy mistake: Cheerleading policy makers dismisses fears of boom-bust and as a result they get behind the curve on events to come and encourage investors to jump on the bandwagon

– In a fixed exchange rate the exit of worried investors effectively lead to a tightening of monetary conditions as the specie-flow mechanism sharply reduces the money supply

– The bubble bursts: Demand inflation drops sharply – this will often be mostly visible in a collapse in property prices

– The drop in demand inflation triggers financial distress – money velocity drops and triggers a further tightening of monetary conditions

Third policy mistake: Policy makers realise that they made a mistake and now try to undo it “in hindsight” not realising that the setting has changed. Monetary conditions has already been tightened.

– Secondary deflation hits. Demand prices and NGDP drops below the pre-boom trend. Real GDP drops strongly, unemployment spikes

Forth policy mistake: Monetary policy is kept tight – often because a fixed exchange rate regime is defended or because the central bank believes that monetary policy already is loose because interest rates are low

– A “forced” balance sheet recession takes place (it is NOT a Austrian style balance sheet recession…) – overly tight monetary policy forces investors and households through an unnecessary Fisherian debt-deflation

– Real GDP growth remains lackluster despite the initial financial distress easing. This is NOT due to an unavoidable deleveraging, but is a result of too tight monetary policy, but also because the positive supply shock that sat the entire process in motion has eased off.

-The country emerges from crisis when prices and wages have adjusted down or more likely when monetary policy finally is ease – for fixed exchange rate countries when the peg is given up

Boom, bust and bubbles

Recently it has gotten quite a bit of attention that some investors believe that there is a bubble in the Chinese property market and we will be heading for a bust soon and the fact that I recently visited Dubai have made me think of how to explain bubbles and if there is such a thing as bubbles in the first bubbles.

I must say I have some experience with bubbles. In 2006 I co-authoured a paper on the Icelandic economy where we forecasted a bust of the Icelandic bubble – I don’t think we called it a bubble, but it was pretty clear that that is what we meant it was. And in 2007 I co-authored a number of papers calling a bust to the bubbles in certain Central and Eastern European economies – most notably the Baltic economies. While I am proud to have gotten it right – both Iceland and the Baltic States went through major economic and financial crisis – I nonetheless still feel that I am not entire sure why I got it right. I am the first to admit that there certainly quite a bit of luck involved (never underestimate the importance of luck). Things could easily have gone much different. However, I do not doubt that the fact that monetary conditions were excessive loose played a key role both in the case of Iceland and in the Baltic States. I have since come to realise that moral hazard among investors undoubtedly played a key role in these bubbles. But most of all my conclusion is that the formation of bubbles is a complicated process where a number of factors play together to lead to bubbles. At the core of these “accidents”, however, is a chain of monetary policy mistakes.

What is bubbles? And do they really exist? 

If one follows the financial media one would nearly on a daily basis hear about “bubbles” in that and that market. Hence, financial journalists clearly have a tendency to see bubbles everywhere – and so do some economists especially those of us who work in the financial sector where “airtime” is important. However, the fact is that what really could be considered as bubbles are quite rare. The fact that all the bubble-thinkers can mention the South Sea bubble or the Dutch Tulip bubble of 1637 that happened hundreds years ago is a pretty good illustration of this. If bubbles really were this common then we would have hundreds of cases to study. We don’t have that. That to me this indicates that bubbles do not form easily – they are rare and form as a consequence of a complicated process of random events that play together in a complicated unpredictable process.

I think in general that it is wrong to see any increase in assets prices that is later corrected as a bubble. Obviously investors make mistakes. We after all live in an uncertain world. Mistakes are not bubbles. We can only talk about bubbles if most investors make the same mistakes at the same time.

Economists do not have a commonly accepted description of what a bubble is and this is probably again because bubbles are so relatively rare. But let me try to give a definitions. I my view bubbles are significant economic wide misallocation of labour and capital that last for a certain period and then is followed by an unwinding of this misallocation (we could also call this boom-bust). In that sense communist Soviet Union was a major bubble. That also illustrates that distortion of  relative prices is at the centre of the description and formation of bubbles.

Below I will try to sketch a monetary based theory of bubbles – and here the word sketch is important because I am not actually sure that there really can be formulated a theory of bubbles as they are “outliers” rather than the norm in free market economies.

The starting point – good things happen

In my view the starting point for the formation of bubbles actually is that something good happens. Most examples of “bubbles” (or quasi-bubbles) we can find with economic wide impact have been in Emerging Markets. A good example is the boom in the South East Asian economies in the early 1990s or the boom in Southern Europe and Central and Eastern European during the 2000s. All these economies saw significant structural reforms combined with some kind of monetary stabilisation, but also later on boom-bust.

Take for example Latvia that became independent in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After independence Latvia underwent serious structural reforms and the transformation from planned economy to a free market economy happened relatively fast. This lead to a massively positive supply shock. Furthermore, a quasi-currency board was implemented early on. The positive supply shock (which played out over years) and the monetary stabilisation through the currency board regime brought inflation down and (initially) under control. So the starting point for what later became a massive misallocation of resources started out with a lot of good things happening.

Monetary policy and “relative inflation”

As the stabilisation and reform phase plays out the initial problems start to emerge. The problem is that the monetary policies that initially were stabilising soon becomes destabilising and here the distinction between “demand inflation” and “supply inflation” is key (See my discussion decomposion demand and supply inflation here). Often countries in Emerging Markets with underdeveloped financial markets will choose to fix their currency to more stable country’s currency – for example the US dollar or in the old days the D-mark – but a policy of inflation targeting has also in recent years been popular.

These policies often succeed in bringing nominal stability to begin with, but because the central bank directly or indirectly target headline inflation monetary policy is eased when positive supply shocks help curb inflationary pressures. What emerges is what Austrian economists has termed “relative inflation” – while headline inflation remains “under control” demand inflation (the inflation created by monetary policy) increases while supply inflation drops or even turn into supply deflation. This is a consequence of either a fixed exchange rate policy or an inflation targeting policy where headline inflation rather than demand inflation is targeted.

My view on relative inflation has to a very large extent been influenced by George Selgin’s work – see for example George’s excellent little book “Less than zero” for a discussion of relative inflation. I think, however, that I am slightly less concerned about the dangers of relative inflation than Selgin is and I would probably stress that relative inflation alone can not explain bubbles. It is a key ingredient in the formation of bubbles, but rarely the only ingredient.

Some – George Selgin for example (see here) – would argue that there was a significant rise in relatively inflation in the US prior to 2008. I am somewhat skeptical about this as I can not find it in my own decompostion of the inflation data and NGDP did not really increase above it’s 5-5.5% trend in the period just prior to 2008. However, a better candidate for rising relative inflation having played a role in the formation of a bubble in my view is the IT-bubble in the late 1990s that finally bursted in 2001, but I am even skeptical about this. For a good discussion of this see David Beckworth innovative Ph.D. dissertation from 2003.

There are, however, much more obvious candidates. While the I do not necessarily think US monetary policy was excessively loose in terms of the US economy it might have been too loose for everybody else and the dollar’s role as a international reserve currency might very well have exported loose monetary policy to other countries. That probably – combined with policy mistakes in Europe and easy Chinese monetary policy – lead to excessive loose monetary conditions globally which added to excessive risk taking globally (including in the US).

The Latvian bubble – an illustration of the dangers of relative inflation

I have already mentioned the cases of Iceland and the Baltic States. These examples are pretty clear examples of excessive easy monetary conditions leading to boom-bust. The graph below shows my decompostion of Latvian inflation based on a Quasi-Real Price Index for Latvia.

It is very clear from the graph that Latvia demand inflation starts to pick up significantly around 2004, but headline inflation is to some extent contained by the fact that supply deflation becomes more and more clear. It is no coincidence that this happens around 2004 as that was the year Latvia joined the EU and opened its markets further to foreign competition and investments – the positive impact on the economy is visible in the form of supply deflation. However, due to Latvia’s fixed exchange rate policy the positive supply shock did not lead to a stronger currency, but rather to an increase in demand inflation. This undoubtedly was a clear reason for the extreme misallocation of capital and labour in the Latvian economy in 2005-8.

The fact that headline inflation was kept down by a positive supply shock probably help “confuse” investors and policy makers alike and it was only when the positive supply shock started to ease off in 2006-7 that investors got alarmed.

Hence, here a Selginian explanation for the boom-bust seems to be a lot more obvious than for the US.

The role of Moral Hazard – policy makers as “cheerleaders of the boom”

To me it is pretty clear that relative inflation will have to be at the centre of a monetary theory of bubbles. However, I don’t think that relative inflation alone can explain bubbles like the one we saw in the Latvia. A very important reason for this is the fact that it took so relatively long for investors to acknowledge that something wrong in the Latvian economy. Why did they not recognise it earlier? I think that moral hazard played a role. Investors full well understood that there was a serious problem with strongly rising demand inflation and misallocation of capital and labour, but at the same time it was clear that Latvia seemed to be on the direct track to euro adoption within a relatively few years (yes, that was the clear expectation in 2005-6). As a result investors bet that if something would go wrong then Latvia would probably be bailed out by the EU and/or the Nordic governments and this is in fact what happened. Hence, investors with rational expectations rightly expected a bailout of Latvia if the worst-case scenario played out.
The Latvian case is certainly not unique. Robert Hetzel has made a forcefull argument in his excellent paper “Should Increased Regulation of Bank Risk Taking Come from Regulators or from the Market?” that moral hazard played a key role in the Asian crisis. Here is Hetzel:

“In early 1995, the Treasury with the Exchange Stabilization Fund, the Fed with swap accounts, and the IMF had bailed out international investors holding Mexican Tesobonos (Mexican government debt denominated in dollars) who were fleeing a Mexico rendered unstable by political turmoil. That bailout created the assumption that the United States would intervene to prevent financial collapse in its strategic allies. Russia was included as “too nuclear” to fail. Subsequently, large banks increased dramatically their short-term lending to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea. The Asia crisis emerged when the overvalued, pegged exchange rates of these countries collapsed revealing an insolvent banking system. Because of the size of the insolvencies as a fraction of the affected countries GDP, the prevailing TBTF assumption that Asian countries would bail out their banking systems suddenly disappeared.”

I would further add that I think policy makers often act as “cheerleaders of the boom” in the sense that they would dismiss warnings from analysts and market participants that something is wrong in the economy and often they are being supported by international institutions like the IMF. This clearly “helps” investors (and households) becoming more rationally ignorant or even rationally irrational about the “obvious” risks (See Bryan Caplan’s discussion of rational ignorance and rational irrationality here.)

Policy recommendation: Introduce NGDP level targeting

Yes, yes we might as well get out our hammer and say that the best way to avoid bubbles is to target the NGDP level. So why is that? Well, as I argued above a key ingredient in the creation of bubbles was relative inflation – that demand inflation rose without headline inflation increasing. With NGDP level targeting the central bank will indirectly target a level for demand prices – what I have called a Quasi-Real Price Index (QRPI). This clearly would reduce the risk of misallocation due to confusion of demand and supply shocks.

It is often argued that central banks should in some way target asset prices to avoid bubbles. The major problem with this is that it assumes that the central bank can spot bubbles that market participants fail to spot. This is further ironic as it is exactly the central banks’ overly loose monetary policy which is likely at the core of the formation of bubbles. Further, if the central bank targets the NGDP level then the potential negative impact on money velocity of potential bubbles bursting will be counteracted by an increase in the money supply and hence any negative macroeconomic impact of the bubble bursting will be limited. Hence, it makes much more sense for central banks to significantly reduce the risk of bubbles by targeting the NGDP level than to trying to prick the bubbles.NGDP targeting reduces the risk of bubbles and also reduces the destabilising impact when the bubbles bursts.

Finally it goes without saying that moral hazard should be avoided, but here the solutions seems to be much harder to find and most likely involve fundamental institutional (some would argue constitutional) reforms.

But lets not worry too much about bubbles

As I stated above the bubbles are in reality rather rare and there is therefore in general no reason to worry too much about bubbles. That I think particularly is the case at the moment where overly tight monetary policy rather overly loose monetary policy. Furthermore, contrary to what some have argued the introduction – which effective in the present situation would equate monetary easing in for example the US or the euro zone – does not increase the risk of bubbles, but rather it reduces the risk of future bubbles significantly. That said, there is no doubt that the kind of bailouts that we have see of certain European governments and banks have increased the risk of moral hazard and that is certainly problematic. But again if monetary policy had follow a NGDP rule in the US and Europe the crisis would have been significantly smaller in the first place and bailouts would therefore not have been “necessary”.


PS I started out mentioning the possible bursting of the Chinese property bubble. I have no plans to write on that topic at the moment, but have a look at two rather scary comments from Patrick Chovanec:

“China Data, Part 1A: More on Property Downturn”
“Foreign Affairs: China’s Real Estate Crash”



Reuter’s Hayek vs Keynes debate

See the Reuters debate on Hayek vs Keynes.

This concept is a great idea. I would love to see a Cassel vs Hayek debate or a Cassel vs Keynes debate.

HT Michał Gamrot

Hayekian capital theory – the math geek version

When I wrote my master thesis many years ago the topic was a mathematical formalization of Austrian Business Cycle Theory. In hindsight I think it is incredible that I able to pull it off and I am still pretty happy with that master thesis. It, however, convinced me that Hayek’s version of Austrian Business Cycle theory was seriously flawed. Furthermore, the math in my modeling never really satisfied me. It was just not good enough.

Now somebody more clever than me have tried a similar exercise.Here is the abstract from a new paper from the talented Arash Molavi Vasséi:

“This paper provides a systematic translation of F.A. Hayek’s informal exposition of capital theory in Utility Analysis and Interest and The Pure Theory of Capital into a model. The underlying premise is that Hayek adopts infant versions of `modern’ analytical tools such that a rational reconstruction of his capital theory by established neoclassical tools is admissible. The major result is that Hayek’s capital theory contains a generalization of the Ramsey-Cass-Koopmans model. In concrete, Hayek provides the solution to an infinite-horizon deterministic social planner optimization problem in a one-sector economy such that the rate of pure time preference encapsulated in the discount factor increases in prospective utility. With respect to stability properties, he emphasizes that the system converges even in the special case of constant returns to per-capita accumulation.”

How cool is that? Pretty cool if you ask me, but take a look at the paper yourself.

PS Arash has promised me that his next project will be on NGDP targeting and/or Market Monetarism.
PPS I hope you all remember Arash’s clever discussion on (dis)equilibrium in Market Monetarism.

%d bloggers like this: