The fiscal cliff and the Bernanke-Evans rule in a simple static IS/LM model

Sometimes simple macroeconomic models can help us understand the world better and even though I am not uncritical about the IS/LM model it nonetheless has some interesting features which from time to time makes it useful for policy analysis (if you are careful).

However, a key problem with the IS/LM model is that the model does not take into account – in its basic textbook form – the central bank’s policy rule. However, it is easy to expand the model to include a monetary policy rule.

I will do exactly that in this post and I will use the Federal Reserve’s new policy rulethe Bernanke-Evans rule – to analysis the impact of the so-called fiscal cliff on a (very!) stylised version of the US economy.

We start out with the two standard equations in the IS/LM model.

The money demand function:

(1) m=p+y-α×r

Where m is the money supply/demand, p is prices and y is real GDP. r is the interest rate and α is a coefficient.

Aggregate demand is defined as follows:

(2) y=g-β×r

Aggregate demand y equals public spending and private sector demand (β×r), which is a function of the interest rate r. β is a coefficient. It is assumed that private demand drops when the interest rate increases.

This is basically all you need in the textbook IS/LM model. However, we also need to define a monetary policy rule to be able to say something about the real world.

I will use a stylised version of the Bernanke-Evans rule based on the latest policy announcement from the Fed’s FOMC. The FOMC at it latest meeting argued that it basically would continue to expand the money base (in the IS/LM the money base and the money supply is the same thing) to hit a certain target for the unemployment rate. That means that we can define a simple Bernanke-Evans rule as follows:

(3) m=λ×U

One can think of U as either the unemployment rate or the deviation of the unemployment rate from the Fed’s unemployment target. λ is a coefficient that tells you how aggressive the fed will increase the money supply (m) if U increases.

We now need to model how the labour market works. We simply assume Okun’s law holds (we could also have used a simple production function):

(4) U=-δ×y

This obviously is very simplified as we totally disregard supply side issues on the labour market. However, we are not interested in using this model for analysis of such factors.

It is easy to solve the model. We get the LM curve from (1), (3) and (4):

LM: r= y×(1+δ×λ)⁄α+(1/α)×p

And we get the IS curve by rearranging (2):

IS: r =(1/β)×g-(1/β)×y

Under normal assumptions about the coefficients in the model the LM curve is upward sloping and the IS curve is downward sloping. This is as in the textbook version.

Note, however, that the slope of the LM does not only depend on the money demand’s interest rate elasticity (α), but also on how aggressive  (λ) the fed will react to an increase in unemployment.

The Sumner Critique applies if λ=∞

The fact that the slope of the LM curve depends on λ is critical. Hence, if the fed is fully committed to its unemployment target and will do everything to fulfill (as the FOMC signaled when it said it would step up QE until it hit its target) then λ equals infinity (∞) .

Obviously, if λ=∞ then the LM curve is vertical – as in the “monetarist” case in the textbook version of the IS/LM model. However, contrary to the “normal” the LM curve we don’t need α to be zero to ensure a vertical LM curve.

Hence, under a strict Bernanke-Evans rule where the fed will not accept any diviation from its unemployment target (λ=∞) the (government) budget multiplier is zero and the so-called Sumner Critique therefore applies: Fiscal policy cannot increase or decrease output (y) or the unemployment (U) as any fiscal “shock” (higher or lower g) will be fully offset by the fed’s actions.

The Bernanke-Evans rule reduces risks from the fiscal cliff

It follows that if the fed actually follows through on it commitment to hit its (still fuzzy) unemployment target then in the simple model outlined above the risk from a negative shock to demand from the so-called fiscal cliff is reduced greatly.

This is good news, but it is also a natural experiment of the Sumner Critique. Imagine that we indeed get a 4% of GDP tightening of fiscal policy next year, but at the same time the fed is 100% committed to hitting it unemployment target (that unemployment should drop) then if unemployment then increases anyway then Scott Sumner (and myself) is wrong – or the fed didn’t do it job well enough. Both are obviously very likely…

I am arguing that I believe the model presented above is the correct model of the US economy. The purpose has rather been to demonstrate the critical importance of a the monetary policy rule even in a standard textbook keynesian model and to demonstrate that fiscal policy is much less important than normally assumed by keynesians if we take the monetary policy rule into account.

“Conditionality” is ECB’s term for the Sumner Critique

Some time ago Scott Sumner did a number of blog posts on fiscal policy and why he believes that the budget multiplier is zero. At the time I was somewhat frustrated that the amount of time Scott was using to focus on an issue that I found quite obvious. However, I now found myself doing exactly the same thing – I can’t let go of the game played by central banks against governments and impact this has on the economic policy mix. This is maybe because I find empirical evidence for the so-called Sumner Critique popping up everywhere.

The Sumner Critique basically says that the central bank can always overrule any impact of expansionary fiscal policy on aggregate demand by tightening monetary policy and if the central bank is targeting for example inflation or nominal GDP then it will do so. Therefore, under inflation targeting or NGDP targeting the budget multiplier will always be zero even if the world is Keynesian.

Last week’s policy announcement from the ECB gives further (quasi) empirical support for the Sumner Critique. Hence, the ECB announced that it would conduct what it calls “Outright Monetary Transactions” (OMT) – that is it would (or rather could) buy euro government bonds.

But see here what the ECB said about the conditions for OMT:

“A necessary condition for Outright Monetary Transactions is strict and effective conditionality attached to an appropriate European Financial Stability Facility/European Stability Mechanism (EFSF/ESM) programme. Such programmes can take the form of a full EFSF/ESM macroeconomic adjustment programme or a precautionary programme (Enhanced Conditions Credit Line), provided that they include the possibility of EFSF/ESM primary market purchases. The involvement of the IMF shall also be sought for the design of the country-specific conditionality and the monitoring of such a programme.

The Governing Council will consider Outright Monetary Transactions to the extent that they are warranted from a monetary policy perspective as long as programme conditionality is fully respected, and terminate them once their objectives are achieved or when there is non-compliance with the macroeconomic adjustment or precautionary programme.

Following a thorough assessment, the Governing Council will decide on the start, continuation and suspension of Outright Monetary Transactions in full discretion and acting in accordance with its monetary policy mandate.”

The important term here is “conditionality”. The ECB’s condition for buying government bonds is that the individual euro zone country has a EFSF/ESM macroeconomic adjustment programme. Such a programme is basically a pledge of a given government to tighten fiscal policy. In other words – the ECB could buy for example Spanish government bonds, but the condition would be that the Spanish government should tighten fiscal policy.

Therefore, what the ECB is doing is basically asking the Spanish government and other euro zone governments to be the “Stackelberg leader”: First you tighten fiscal policy and then we will ease monetary policy.

As a consequence the ECB has basically said that the fiscal multiplier should be zero – the ECB will “neutralize” any impact on aggregate demand of changes in fiscal policy. This is better news than it might sound. Obviously European monetary policy is much too tight in the euro zone and I would have liked to see a lot more action from the ECB. However, one could understand “conditionality” to mean that the ECB will fill the possible hole in aggregate demand from fiscal consolidation in euro zone – monetary policy will be eased in response to fiscal tightening. That is good news.

However, the crucial problem of course is that the euro zone needs higher aggregate demand and therefore I would have been much happier if the ECB had announced a clear plan to increase aggregate demand (or rather nominal GDP) – it did not do that. However, if the ECB at least will try to counteract the possible negative impact on aggregate demand from fiscal consolidation then that is good news. One could of course say that this is a completely natural consequence of the ECB’s inflation targeting regime – if fiscal tightening reduces aggregate demand then the ECB should ease monetary policy to avoid inflation undershooting the inflation targeting.

Concluding, “conditionality” is another term for the Sumner Critique and it is in my view yet another illustration that expansionary fiscal policy is unlikely to bring us out of this crisis if central banks is not playing along.

Related posts:

In New Zealand the Sumner Critique is official policy
Policy coordination, game theory and the Sumner Critique
The fiscal cliff and why fiscal conservatives should endorse NGDP targeting
The Bundesbank demonstrated the Sumner critique in 1991-92
“Meantime people wrangle about fiscal remedies”
Please keep “politics” out of the monetary reaction function
Is Matthew Yglesias now fully converted to Market Monetarism?
Mr. Hollande the fiscal multiplier is zero if Mario says so
Maybe Jens Weidmann and Francios Hollande should switch jobs
There is no such thing as fiscal policy

Greece is not really worse than Germany (if you adjust for lack of growth)

Market Monetarists have stressed it again and again – the European crisis is primarily a monetary crisis rather than a financial crisis and a debt crisis. Tight monetary conditions is reason for the so-called debt crisis. Said in another way it is the collapse in nominal GDP relative to the pre-crisis trend that have caused European debt ratios to skyrocket in the last four years.

That is easily illustrated – just see the graph below:

I have simply plotted the change in public debt to GDP from 2007 to 2012 (2012 are European Commission forecasts) against the percentage change in nominal GDP since 2007.

The conclusion is very clear. The change in public debt ratios across the euro zone is nearly entirely a result of the development in nominal GDP.

The “bad boys” the so-called PIIGS – Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain (and Slovenia) are those five (six) countries that have seen the most lackluster growth (in fact decline) in NGDP in the euro zone. These countries are obviously also the countries where debt has increased the most and government bond yields have skyrocketed.

This should really not be a surprise to anybody who have taken Macro 101 – public expenditures tend to increase and tax revenues drop in cyclical downturns. So higher budget deficits normally go hand in hand with weaker growth.

The graph interestingly enough also shows that the debt development in Greece really is no different from the debt development in Germany if we take the difference in NGDP growth into account. Greek nominal GDP has dropped by around 10% since 2007 and that pretty much explains the 50%-point increase in public debt since 2007. Greece is smack on the regression line in the graph – and so is Germany. The better debt performance in Germany does not reflect that the German government is more fiscally conservative than the Greek government. Rather it reflects a much better NGDP growth performance. So maybe we should ask the Bundesbank what would have happened to German public debt had NGDP dropped by 10% as in Greece. My guess is that the markets would not be too impressed with German fiscal policy in that scenario. It should of course also be noted that you can argue that the Greek government really has not anything to reduce the level of public debt – if it had than the Greece would be below to the regression line in the graph and it is not.

There are two outliers in the graph – Ireland and Estonia. The increase in Irish debt is much larger than one should have expected judging from the size of the change in NGDP in Ireland. This can easily be explained – it is simply the cost of the Irish banking rescues. The other outlier is Estonia where the increase in public debt has been much smaller than one should have expected given the development in nominal GDP. In that sense Estonia is really the only country in the euro zone, which have improved its public finances in any substantial fashion compared to what would have been the case if fiscal austerity had not been undertaken. The tightening of fiscal policy measured in this way is 20-25% of GDP. This is a truly remarkable tightening of fiscal policy.

Imagine, however, for one minute that Greece had undertaken a fiscal tightening of a similar magnitude as Estonia and assume at the same time that it would have had no impact on NGDP (the keynesians are now screaming) then the Greek budget situation would still have been horrendous – public debt would have not increase by 50% %-point of GDP but “only” by 30%-point. Greece would still be in deep trouble. This I think demonstrates that it is near impossible to undertake any meaningful fiscal consolidation when you see the kind of collapse in NGDP that you have seen in Greece.

Concluding, the European debt crisis is not really a debt crisis. It is a monetary crisis. The ECB has allowed euro zone nominal GDP to drop well-below its pre-crisis trend and that is the key reason for the sharp rise in public debt ratios. I am not saying that Europe do not have other problems. In fact I think Europe has serious structural problems – too much regulation, too high taxes, rigid labour markets, underfunded pension systems etc. However, these problems did not cause the present crisis and even though I think these issues need to be addressed I doubt that reforms in these areas will be enough to drag us out of the crisis. We need higher nominal GDP growth. That will be the best cure. Now we are only waiting on Draghi to deliver.

PS The graph above also illustrate how badly wrong Arthur Laffer got it on fiscal policy in his recent Wall Street Journal article – particular in his claim that Estonia had been got conducting keynesian fiscal stimulus. See here, here and here.

The fiscal cliff and why fiscal conservatives should endorse NGDP targeting

One of the hottest political topics in the US today is the so-called fiscal cliff. The fiscal cliff is the expected significant fiscal tightening, which will kick in January 2013 when the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 expires – unless a deal is struck to postpone the tightening. The fiscal cliff is estimated to amount to 4% of GDP – hence a very substantial fiscal tightening.

So how much should we worry about the fiscal cliff? Keynesians claim that we should worry a lot. The Market Monetarist would one the other hand argue that the impact of the fiscal cliff will very much depend on the response of the Federal Reserve to the possible fiscal tightening. If the Fed completely ignores the impact of the fiscal cliff on aggregate demand – if there will be any – then it would be naive to argue that there would be no impact at all on aggregate demand – after all a 4% tightening of fiscal policy in one year is very substantial.

On the other hand if the Federal Reserve had an NGDP target then the impact would likely be minimal as the Fed “automatically” would fill any “hole” in aggregate demand created by the tightening of fiscal policy to keep nominal GDP on track. This of course is the Sumner critique – the fiscal multiplier will be zero under NGDP targeting or inflation targeting for that matter.

Note that I am not making any assumptions about the how the economy works. Even if we assume we are in a Keynesian world, where the “impulse” to aggregate demand from a fiscal tightening would be negative an NGDP targeting regime would ensure that the world would look like a “classical world” (fiscal policy will have no impact on aggregate demand). This by the way would also be the case under inflation targeting – which of course is closer to the actual policy the Fed is conducting.

Said in another we should expect that if fiscal policy indeed would be strongly negative for aggregate demand in the US and push inflation sharply down then the likelihood of more aggressive monetary easing from the Fed would increase and hence sharply reduce any negative effect on aggregate demand (note that nominal GDP is really just another word for aggregate demand – at least according to Market Monetarists like myself). Therefore, we should probably be significantly less worried than some Keynesians seem to be.

Furthermore, it is notable that the US stock market continues rise and inflation expectations have been inching up recently. This is not exactly an indication that the US is facing a sharp drop in aggregate demand in 2013. We can obviously not know why the markets seem so relatively relaxed about the fiscal cliff, but I would think that the reason is that the markets are pricing in a combination of a political compromise that significantly reduces the fiscal tightening in 2013 and also is pricing an increased likelihood of QE3 becoming a reality.

So the conclusion is that Keynesian fears about the scale of the shock to aggregate demand is somewhat overblown as a combination of the Sumner critique and political logrolling will probably reduce the negative shock. We, however, can’t be sure about that so wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to worry about this issue? NGDP level targeting could seriously reduce the worries about fiscal shocks.

Fiscal conservatives should endorse NGDP targeting

Both in the US and the euro zone calls for scaling back fiscal consolidation have been growing larger and politicians like the French President Hollande and from Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong have even demanded fiscal stimulus. To me it is pretty simple – the state of public finances in most euro zone countries and the US is horrible so I fundamentally don’t think that most countries can afford much fiscal stimulus. That said, I also think that the calls for austerity is somewhat hysterical and I find it rather unlikely that the markets would react very negative if the US budget deficit became 1-2 percentage points of GDP larger next year – just look at US treasury yields it is not so that the markets are telling us that the US economy is on the verge of bankruptcy. The markets are often wrong, but government default rarely happens out of the blue.

However, from a public choice perspective we should probably think that the deeper a country falls into recession the more likely it is that the wider public will vote for politicians like Hollande and policy makers are more and more likely to start listening to economists like Paul Krugman. That unfortunately will do very little to ending the crisis. Fiscal stimulus is not the answer to our problems – monetary easing is.

So fiscal conservatives are likely going to face more and more resistance – whether we like it or not. On the other hand if the central bank was operating a credible NGDP level target then fiscal conservatives could argue that negative impact of fiscal consolidation would be met by an easing of monetary policy to keep NGDP on track. Therefore there would be no reasons to worry about fiscal tightening hitting growth and increasing unemployment.

Even better imagine that the Federal Reserve tomorrow announced that it would do as much monetary easing needed to bring back NGDP to its pre-crisis trend by for example raising  NGDP by 15% from the present level by the end of 2013. Do you then think anybody would worry about a fiscal tightening of 4% of GDP? I think not.

Therefore, the conclusion is clear to me. Fiscal conservatives should endorse NGDP level targeting as it completely would undermine any Keynesian arguments for postponing fiscal consolidation. Furthermore, a commitment to keep NGDP on track would also likely make fiscal consolidation much less unpopular and therefore the likelihood of success would also increase.

Finally I would highlight two historical examples of successful fiscal consolidation. In the mid-1990s both the US and the UK undertook significant successful fiscal reforms that led to a significant improvement in the public finances. Both was undertaken while monetary conditions was eased significantly. As a result there was very little opposition to fiscal consolidation at the time and there was basically no negative impact on US and UK growth. In fact both economies grew robustly through out the fiscal consolidation phase. This of course is the opposite of the German experience from the early 1990s where the Bundesbank completely “neutralized” any stimulus from fiscal expansion in connection with the Germany reunification (See my earlier post on that topic here.)

PS Above I have not given any attention to the supply side effects of the “scheduled” tax hikes that follows as a result of the US fiscal cliff. NGDP level targeting would not deal with that problem and the issue should certainly not be ignored. Tax hikes can never increase the long-term growth potential of any economy, but the issue is not going to have any visible impact on real GDP growth in 2013 or 2014 for that matter. Supply side effects mostly work with long and variable lags. Furthermore, I am not arguing that one should ignore the fiscal cliff just because the Fed has the power to counteract it. After all the Fed’s performance in recent years has not exactly been impressive so a political compromise would probably be helpful for US growth in 2013 – at least it would reduce some risks of the US falling back into recession.

PPS this is my blog post #400 (including guest posts) since I started blogging last year.

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Related posts:
Market Monetarism vs Krugmanism
Guest blog: NGDP Targeting is NOT just for Central Banks! (David Eagle)
The Bundesbank demonstrated the Sumner critique in 1991-92
“Meantime people wrangle about fiscal remedies”
Please keep “politics” out of the monetary reaction function
Is Matthew Yglesias now fully converted to Market Monetarism?
Mr. Hollande the fiscal multiplier is zero if Mario says so
Maybe Jens Weidmann and Francios Hollande should switch jobs
There is no such thing as fiscal policy

The Bundesbank demonstrated the Sumner critique in 1991-92

I have recently written a number of posts (here and here) in which I have been critical about Arthur Laffer’s attempt to argue against fiscal stimulus. As I have stressed in these posts I do not disagree with his skepticism about fiscal stimulus, but with his arguments (and particularly his math). It is therefore only fair that I try to illustrate my view on fiscal stimulus and why fiscal stimulus (on it own) is unlikely to work.

My view of fiscal policy is similar to that view Scott Sumner as articulated in what has been called the “Sumner critique”. According to the Sumner critique if the central bank for example targets inflation or nominal GDP any action by the government to “stimulate” aggregate demand will only work if it does not go counter to the central bank’s nominal target.

Imagine that the central bank is targeting 2% inflation and inflation and expected inflation is at exactly 2%. Now the government in an attempt to spur growth increases the government spending by 10%. In a normal AS-AD model that would shift the AD-curve to the right from AD to AD’ as illustrated in the graph below.

The increase in government spending will initially increase real GDP (output) from Y to Y’, but also push up the price level from P to P’ and hence increase inflation.

However, as the central bank is a strict ECB type inflation targeter it will have to act to the increase in inflation by tightening monetary policy to push back the price level to P (yes, yes I am “confusing” the level of prices and growth in prices, but bare with me – I might just have written the whole thing in growth rates or argued that the central bank targets the price level).

Hence, once the government announces an increase in government spending the central bank would announce that it would reduce the money base (or the growth rate in the money base) to counteract any impact on inflation from the “fiscal stimulus”. The reduction in the money base would push the AD curve back to AD.

This is the Sumner critique – the government can not beat the central bank when it comes to aggregate demand. The central bank will ultimately determine aggregate demand and if the central bank targets for example inflation, the price level or nominal GDP then fiscal policy will have no impact on aggregate demand and note that this is even the case in a situation where unemployment is above the natural rate of unemployment. Hence, we have full crowding out even in a model with sticky prices and wages and underutilization of production factors (involuntary keynesian unemployment).

Furthermore, if the inflation target is credible then investors will realise that any fiscal expansion will be counteracted by a monetary contraction. Therefore, once the fiscal expansion is announce the markets would react by starting to price in a monetary contraction – leading to a strengthening of the country’s currency, falling stock markets and lower inflation expectations – this on its own would counteract the increase in aggregate demand. This is the Chuck Norris effect in fiscal policy.

Obviously in the real world neither monetary policy nor fiscal policy is ever 100% credible and there will always be some uncertainty about the scale and commitment to fiscal expansion and uncertainty about the central bank’s reaction to the fiscal stimulus. However, anybody who have follow developments in the euro zone over the past two years will realise that “promises” of fiscal austerity have been led to a rally in the stock markets (and fixed income markets in the PIIGS countries) as the markets have priced in the impact on aggregate demand of the expected monetary easing from the ECB. This is the reverse Sumner critique – fiscal tightening will not lead to a drop in aggregate demand if the markets expect the central bank to “cover” the short-fall in aggregate demand.

Hence, I think that the Sumner critique is highly relevant for the discussion of fiscal policy today both in Europe and the US. Below I will try to illustrate the Sumner critique with an episode from recent economic history – the German reunification.

The Bundesbank took all the fun out of German reunification 

After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 West Germany and East Germany was reunified. Due to the nature of the collapse of communism in East Germany the reunification of Germany happened extremely fast. Hence, most economic-political decisions were highly influenced by political expediency and geo-political and electoral concerns rather than by rational economic considerations.

One such decisions was the imitate political unification of the two Germanys. In fact East Germany was “absorbed” into West Germany. That for example mend that all social benefits and pensions etc., which were available to West German immediately (or more or less so) became available to East Germans and more or less from day one the benefit levels became the same in the entire unified Germany. This obviously led to a rather sharp increase in German government spending. The unification obviously also led to other forms of increases in public spending – for example the Capital was moved from Bonn to Berlin.

It is always hard to estimate how large a fiscal expansion is as the budget situation is not only influenced by discretionary changes in fiscal policy, but also by so-called automatic stabilizers. However, judging from calculation made by the Bundesbank (in the 1990s) the fiscal expansion due to reunification was substantial. In 1989 the cyclical adjusted budget surplus was around 1% of GDP. However, after unification the budget swung into a deficit. In 1990 the cyclical adjusted budget deficit was 2.5% GDP and in 19991 it had increased to 4.2% of GDP. Hence, the fiscal expansion from 1989 to 1991 amounted to more than 5% of GDP. This by any measure is a substantial fiscal easing.

It is very hard to assess what impact this strong fiscal easing had on the German economy – among other things because the Germany of 1989 was not the same country as the Germany of 1990 and 1991. Furthermore, this fiscal easing coincided with significant monetary easing as it controversially was decided to exchange one East Mark for one West Mark. That led to a rather substantial initial increase in the unified Germany’s money supply. However, while it can be hard to assess the direct impact on growth from the fiscal expansion it is much easier to assess the German Bundesbank’s reaction to it.

The Bundesbank was horrified by the scale of fiscal expansion and the potential inflationary consequences and the Bundesbank did not led anybody doubt that it would have to tighten monetary policy to counteract any inflationary consequences of the unification. Secondly, it also pushed strongly for the German government to fast tighten fiscal policy to reduce the budget deficit. Hence, market participants from an early stage would have had to expect that the Bundesbank would tighten monetary policy and that it would “force” the government to tighten fiscal policy. This in many ways is the exact same thing we see in the eurozone today, where the Bundesbank dominated ECB is telling policy makers if you don’t tighten fiscal policy then we will effectively allow monetary conditions to become tighter.

Already in 1991 the Bundesbank moved to counteract perceived inflationary risks and started tightening monetary policy. In a series of aggressive interest rate hikes the Bundesbank increased its key policy rate to nearly 10% in 1992. In that regard it should be noted that the Bundesbank hiked interest rates at a time when global growth was weak due among other things a spike in global oil prices in connection with the first Gulf war. Furthermore, the Bundesbank also put significant pressure on the German government to tighten fiscal policy, which it did in 1992.

There is no doubt that the Bundesbank wanted to demonstrate its independence to the government and probably for exactly that reason chose to be even more aggressive in its monetary tightening that was warranted even according to its own thinking. As a consequence of disagreement between the German government and the Bundesbank the governor of the Bundesbank at the time Karl Otto Pöhl resigned in October 1991 after having initiated monetary tightening.

The monetary tightening in 1991-92 not only sent Germany into a deep and prolonged recession it also was the direct cause of the so-called EMS crisis in 1992-93.

This particular episode in German (and European) monetary history is a powerful illustration of the Sumner critique. It is pretty clear that even substantial fiscal easing (around 5% of GDP) did not have long lasting impact on growth in Germany due to the Bundesbank’s counteractions to curb the perceived (!) inflationary risks.  I do not claim to have proven that the fiscal multiplier is zero, but I hope I have demonstrated that it is that it is unlikely to be positive if the central bank does not play along.

In the case of Germany in the early 1990s the fiscal multiplier was probably even negative as the Bundesbank decided to punish the German government for what it perceived as irresponsible policies. Anybody who is following the political struggle among European governments and European central bankers would have to acknowledge that it is very similar to the situation in Germany after the reunification.

Consequently I think it can be concluded that monetary policy will never be able to lift aggregate demand if the central bank refuse to do so – and that will often be the case if the central bank is worried about its credibility and independence.

I am no Calvinist and I tend to think that some of the calls from certain economists for austerity is rather hysterical given our problems particular in Europe primarily are monetary, however, I do think that the Sumner critique is highly relevant and we under normal circumstances (that is circumstances where the central bank for example pursues an inflation target) should expect the fiscal multiplier to be close to zero.

We all of course also know there are numerous other problems with fiscal easing – for example any temporary increase in public spending seem to become permanent and that is hard good for long-term growth in any economy, but that discussion is more or less irrelevant for the present crisis, which in my view mostly a result of misguided monetary policies rather than failed fiscal policies.

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My discussion above was among other things inspired by Jürg Bibow paper “On the ‘burden’ of German unification” (2003) and a discussion with chief economist in the Danish think tank CEPOS Mads Lundby Hansen

Related posts:

“Meantime people wrangle about fiscal remedies”
Please keep “politics” out of the monetary reaction function
Is Matthew Yglesias now fully converted to Market Monetarism?
Mr. Hollande the fiscal multiplier is zero if Mario says so
Maybe Jens Weidmann and Francios Hollande should switch jobs
There is no such thing as fiscal policy

More on Laffer’s math

I guess that most of my readers have noticed that I have been somewhat upset by Arthur Laffer’s attempt to demonstrate that fiscal stimulus doesn’t work. While I am certainly very skeptical about how fruitful fiscal stimulus will be I was not impressed with Laffer’s “evidence” that fiscal stiumulus does not work. I did, however, not plan to write more on this – as I certainly do not want to promote fiscal easing anywhere and find this fiscal issue somewhat boring and irrelevant for understanding the present crisis – but then I got an interesting email from Jim Allbery.

Jim is not an economist, but a software developer with a degree in math. Jim had been equally upset by the bad math in Laffer’s Wall Street Journal piece as I had been and Jim actually has taken a closer look at Laffer’s math. Jim sent me a note on his considerations about Laffer’s math. I think Jim’s note is rather interesting and Jim has kindly allowed me to publish it. So here is Jim’s comment on Bad Math in the WSJ

Finally, just to get my position clear. I believe there is a rather significant need for fiscal consolidation in both the US and the euro zone. There is therefore no room for fiscal easing in the US or in most euro zone countries. However, the fiscal position is being made worse by overly tight monetary policy, which seriously depresses growth in both the US and the euro zone. I therefore agree with Laffer that fiscal stimulus is not the way forward in the present situation. However, I am no Calvinist and I do not believe that our present problems are due to bad fiscal policies, but rather due to overly tight monetary policy.

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Related posts:

Arthur Laffer you’re embarrassing yourself
More on Laffer and Estonia – just to get the facts right
“Meantime people wrangle about fiscal remedies”
There is no such thing as fiscal policy

David Glasner’s posts on Laffer’s math:
Arthur Laffer, Anti-Enlightenment Economist
A Laffer Postscript

More on Laffer and Estonia – just to get the facts right

Arthur Laffer’s recent piece in the Wall Street Journal on fiscal stimulus has generated quite a stir in the blogosphere – with mostly Keynesians and Market Monetarists coming out and pointing to the blatant mistakes in Laffer’s piece. I on my part I was particularly appalled by the fact that Laffer said Estonia, Finland, Slovakia and Ireland had particularly Keynesian policies in 2008.  In my previous post I went through why I think Laffer’s “analysis” is completely wrong, however, I did not go into details why Laffer got the numbers wrong. I do not plan to go through all Laffer’s mistakes, but instead I will zoom in on Estonian fiscal policy since 2006 to do some justice to the fiscal consolidation implemented by the Estonian government in 2009-10.

In his WSJ article Laffer claims that the Estonian government has pursued fiscal stimulus in response to the crisis. Nothing of course could be further from the truth. One major problem with Laffer’s numbers is that he is using public spending as share of GDP to analyze the magnitude of change in fiscal policy. However, for a given level of public spending in euro (the currency today in Estonia) a drop in nominal GDP will naturally lead to an increase in public spending as share of GDP. This is obviously not fiscal stimulus. Instead it makes more sense to look at the level of public spending adjusted for inflation and this is exactly what I have done in the graph below. I also plot Estonian GDP growth in the graph. The data is yearly data and the source is IMF.

Lets start out by looking at pre-crisis public spending. In the years just ahead of the escalation of the crisis after the collapse of Lehman Brother in the autumn of 2008 public spending grew quite strongly – and hence fiscal policy was strongly expansionary. I at the time I was a vocal critique of the Estonian’s government fiscal policies.

There is certainly reason to be critical of the conduct of fiscal policy in Estonia in the boom-years 2005-8, but it does not in anyway explain what happened in 2008. Laffer looks at changes in fiscal policy from 2007 to 2009. The problem with this obviously that he is not looking at the right period. He is looking at the period while the Estonian economy was still growing strongly. Hence, while the Estonian economy already started slowing in 2007 it was not before the autumn of 2008 that the crisis really hit. Therefore, the first full crisis year was 2009 and it was in 2009 we got the first crisis budget.

So what happened in 2009? Inflation adjusted public spending dropped! This is what makes Estonia unique. The Estonian government did NOT implement Keynesian policies rather it did the opposite. It cut spending. This is clear from the graph (the blue line). It is also clear from the graph that the Estonian government introduced further austerity measures and cut public spending further in 2010. This is of course what Laffer calls “fiscal stimulus”. All other economists in the world would call it fiscal consolidation or fiscal tightening and it is surely not something that Keynesians like Paul Krugman would recommend. On the other hand I think the Estonian government deserves credit for its brave fiscal consolidation. The Estonian government estimates that the size of fiscal consolidation from 2008 to 2010 amounts to around 17% (!) of GDP. I think this estimate is more or less right – hardly Krugmanian policies.

And maybe it is here Laffer should have started his analysis. The Estonian government did the opposite of what Keynesians would have recommend and what happened? Growth picked up! I would not claim that that had much to do with the fiscal consolidation, but at least it is hard to argue based on the data that the fiscal consolidation had a massively negative impact on GDP growth. Laffer would have known that had he actually taken care to have proper look at the data rather than just fitting the data to his story.

Laffer of course could also have told the story about the years 2011 and 2012, where the Estonian government in fact did introduce (moderate) fiscal stimulus. And what was the result? Well, growth slowed! The result Laffer was looking for! Again he missed that story. I would of course not claim that fiscal policy caused GDP growth to slow in 20011-12, but at least it is an indication that fiscal stimulus will not necessary give a boost to growth.

I hope we now got the facts about Estonian fiscal policy right.

PS David Glasner has an excellent follow-up on Laffer’s data as well.

PPS If you really want to know what have driven Estonian growth – then you should have a look at the ECB. Both the boom and the bust was caused by the ECB. It is that simple – fiscal policy did not play the role claimed by Laffer or Krugman. It is all monetary and I might do post at that at a later stage.

PPPS Time also has an article on the “Laffer controversy”

Guest post – Keynes: Evidence for Monetary Policy Ineffectiveness? (Part 4, by Clark Johnson)

Guest post: Part 3 – Keynes: Evidence for Monetary Policy Ineffectiveness (continued)

By Clark Johnson

EQUILIBRIUM WITH UNEMPLOYMENT

Keynes essential claim in the General Theory was that unemployment could persist for years, even if wages and other factor costs were flexible.  The point was that even if factor costs fell, the marginal efficiency of capital might not recover because it was driven by market expectations — which were volatile, and trending downward.  Falling costs might even be taken, not as restorative, but as evidence of weak demand and sagging investment prospects.  Investment might then stay below the level needed to maintain full employment.  Keynes was not claiming that general equilibrium was maintained in the face of unemployment, as critics were later to assert.  He used the term “equilibrium” more modestly to mean that unemployment could persist, and that it was not self-correcting.

Keynes never really explained why he thought monetary policy worked mainly through its effect on interest rates, rather than directly on demand.  This paper suggests the hypothesis that he saw accumulation of physical capital as inexorably leading to lower capital efficiency and declining profits.  With this premise, an attempt to reboot investment by increasing money and prices – even if it succeeded in the short run — would just mean more rapid accumulation of capital, and hence more rapid decline in profits, in a self-reinforcing stagnationist circle.  This conclusion was falsifiable, and has been falsified.  To be fair, it pushes Keynes’ suppositions to the edge of what his text might support, and Keynes never wrote it down, not in so many words.

Keynes was more inclined to dodge the whole topic, either by indirection or deliberately.  The best example of his dodge on monetary factors comes near the beginning of the General Theory, where Keynes quotes John Stuart Mill’s description of Say’s Law, the classical doctrine according to which “supply creates its own demand.”  Keynes sets up Say’s Law as a counterpoint for his own theoretical grand design.  Keynes quoted Mill to demonstrate that “classical” economists thought it possible to “double the purchasing power” merely by “doub[ling] the supply of commodities in every market.”[1]  Astonishingly, Keynes then chopped off the rest of Mill’s paragraph, in which was included –

…money is a commodity; and if all commodities are supposed to be doubled in quantity, we must suppose money to be doubled too, and then prices would no more fall than values would.[2]

Algebraically, an excess supply in one market must be matched by an excess demand in another.  A shortfall of demand for goods implies a matching excess (unsatisfied) demand for money.  Mill and other Classics recognized this – it was not Mill but Keynes who typically neglected discussion of such monetary dynamics.  Mundell highlighted this omission decades ago:

…Keynes perpetrated an historical error in the economics profession lasting several years, a distortion of the classical position that to this day remains in the elementary textbooks.  By thus attacking the logic of the central feature of the classical theory through carelessness or mischievous omission of its essential parts, Keynes was able to win disciples over to the belief that there was a fatal logical defect, an absurd premise, in the classical system.[3]

With somewhat more effect, Keynes did provide a critique of the conventional Quantity Theory   of money – which he had himself endorsed in his earlier Tract on Monetary Reform.  In the Treatise, he argued the case over several chapters that some cost and other factor price increases were tied directly to increases in the quantity of money, while price increases that feed into profits might be less correlated with changes in the money supply.  Indeed, where demand for money increases, a higher quantity of money might even correlate with lower aggregate profits and hence with lower prices.[4] Slaying the Quantity Theory, so to speak, was important to many of Keynes’ early followers, in whose understanding it opened the way to an active role for the State and to deploying an array of fiscal “multipliers.”

It is otherwise less important.  Monetary economics has by now moved past the Quantity Theory, or growth of the money supply, as a policy marker.  Lars Svensson and Scott Sumner recommend that central banks stabilize expectations by targeting a steady rate of growth in Nominal GDP.  Svensson has written that Milton Friedman told him late in his life that monetarists should target nominal GDP rather than growth in the money supply.[5]  I would qualify their recommendation with the suggestion, given the dollar’s role as the world economy’s key liquid asset, that US monetary authorities should also target foreign exchange rates during financial crises, especially the dollar-euro rate.  But nothing about moving beyond the Quantity Theory makes monetary policy less important, or makes interest rates the only channel, or they main channel, through which it can be effective.

The historical illustrations in the opening section suggest that economic slumps and unemployment persisted because effective monetary expansion did not occur.  This was true even where interest rates were already very low and where the marginal efficiency of capital was falling sharply.  The de-stabilizing factor was inept monetary policy, or inability to change such arrangements as the international gold standard.  The irony is that Keynes, the acclaimed revolutionary of Depression economics, had so little to say about the uses of monetary policy when interest rates fell to historic lows and anticipated investment returns went even lower.  Perhaps this was because he sought changes in the relationship between State and Market for which considerations of monetary economics were a distraction.

But faced with the aftermath of the 2008 financial sector crisis and the ongoing Euro-zone crisis, we should avoid such distraction.


[1] General Theory, p. 18.

[2] J. S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 1909 edition; p. 558.)

[3] Mundell, Man and Economics, 1968; p. 110

[4] See also, General Theory, pp. 208-209.

[5] Lars E.O. Svensson, What have economists learned about monetary policy over the past 50 years?  January 2008.  At http://www.princeton.edu/svensson/papers/Buba%20709.pdf

Guest post – Keynes: Evidence for Monetary Policy Ineffectiveness? (Part 3, by Clark Johnson)

Guest post: Part 3 – Keynes: Evidence for Monetary Policy Ineffectiveness (continued)

By Clark Johnson

(See the first and second post in this series)

Arguments for Fiscal Activism 

a)    New Money and Money Demand

Keynes’ premise is not credible.  Monetary economics routinely identifies channels other than interest rates through which additional money creation can affect demand.  For example, Frederic Mishkin, former member of the Fed Board of Governors, has identified channels of exchange rates, financial asset prices, real estate prices, wealth effects on consumption, and increase in bank lending capacity (among others) through which demand can be increased.[1]  Pertinent here, Keynes himself sometimes made the argument that monetary expansion could boost demand directly, independent of impact on interest rates.

For example, in the Treatise chapter on “Monetary Factors,” Keynes noted that monetary stimulus might bring together a previously “unsatisfied fringe of would-be entrepreneur borrowers who were ready to borrow … even at the old terms [i.e., without lowering interest rates], and … an unemployed fringe of the factors of production [workers] to offer employment to additional quantity of the factors of production.”  In an additional impact, he wrote that “certain entrepreneurs may now be willing to increase their output even if this means making higher offers than before to the factors of production because (as the ultimate result of the influx of new money) they forsee profits.”[2]  As Keynes here demonstrates, the underlying goal of monetary expansion is to satisfy an unmet demand for money.  The consequence may be to lower interest rates, but it may also work by directly increasing demand for goods and services, and for credit to purchase them.

The General Theory has comparable passages.  In Ch. 11, on the “Marginal Efficiency of Capital,” he linked changes in investment prospects to prior changes in prices.  He wrote, “the expectation of a fall in the value of money [i.e., inflation] stimulates investment, and hence employment generally, because it raises the schedule of the marginal efficiency of capital, i.e., the investment demand schedule.”  Consider that it is just this link between higher prices – as a result of the dollar depreciation — and the large increase in industrial production that Keynes minimized in his earlier-cited comments on the US recovery in 1933.  In Ch. 21, on the “Theory of Prices,” Keynes noted that “new money” could lead directly to increases in effective demand, which would be “divided between the rise of prices, the rise of wages, and the volume of output and employment.”[3]  Turning again to the illustrations in the Section 1, in three of them – the 1890s commodity deflation, the slump of 1930, and the near-depression of 1937-1938 — lack of “new money” was at the heart of the downturn.

The way Keynes understood monetary policy to work did not require him generally to reject monetary measures in order to boost aggregate demand.  Most likely, Keynes was instead motivated by a deeper structural view of the economic system in crisis, one driven by a transformative vision.  His views on monetary policy and his social philosophy came together in the forecast for a declining marginal efficiency of capital.

In Ch. 16 of the General Theory, Keynes anticipated a future “where capital goods would be so abundant” that the average marginal efficiency of capital would fall to zero.[4]  It was a logical extension of his view of financial markets, driven by fickle expectations, and of what in the early 1930s was growing “bear” sentiment.  He added in the final chapter, “Concluding Notes on the Social Philosophy Toward Which a General Theory Might Lead,” that such an abundance of capital would bring about the  “euthanasia of the rentier, of the functionless investor,” which he described as an “aim” of public policy, one perhaps to be realized “within one or two generations.”[5]   His notion was similar to the Marxian concept of a declining rate of profit — following accumulation of physical capital.  The stagnationist thesis, Keynesian or Marxian, resonated with the Left, especially during the depressionary Thirties.  It was a thesis about the real sector, about production and distribution, about capitalism and power.  Keynes’ proposed remedy was to scale back the reach of market relations, and to replace them with an expanded role for the State.  And there was no room in this vision for anything so apparently skin-deep as expansionary monetary policy to restore growth and boost the marginal efficiency of capital.  It is unusual to find a Marxian or Socialist economist who will consider monetary policy as other than a distraction.  Keynes’ own goals were more moderate – to overcome deficiency of demand and, thereby, to undermine the appeal of Communism and Fascism.[6]

Leaving the longer term horizon and returning to the causes of Depression in the early 1930s, Keynes wrote at the end of the General Theory:  “It is certain that the world will not much longer tolerate the unemployment which, apart from brief intervals of excitement, is associated – and in my opinion, inevitably associated – with present day capitalistic individualism.”[7] Had Keynes proposed monetary easing through open market operations, his inferred premise would have been that the capitalist system was structurally sound – merely that money demand was, for the moment, not being satisfied – hardly the stuff of a self-described revolution in economic thinking.

The case since the 1930s for a collapsing rate of profit following accumulation of capital has little evidence to support it.  Keynes underestimated potential demand for new investment, not to mention ongoing obsolescence of previous investment, in a world with seven billion people, most of them seeking to enhance their material comfort and social status.  A. C. Pigou, Keynes’ oft-times nemesis, dismissed the stagnationist thesis almost immediately, noting “An era that has witnessed the development of electrical apparatus, motor cars, aircraft, gramophone and wireless, to say nothing of tanks and other engines of war, is not one in which we can reasonably forecast a total disappearance of openings for new investment.”[8]

Keynes’ view that the world depression of the 1930s was caused by “capitalistic individualism” has done more damage.  As we have seen, the major downturns during the decade of depression were driven by gold standard rigidity, reserve shortages, inopportune central bank sterilization, and to a lesser extent by anti-market micro-economic policies associated with the New Deal.  Major economic boosts came from currency depreciations against gold and subsequent monetary ease.  The problem was not markets run amuck, irrational pessimism on stock exchanges, excessive capital accumulation, or lack of government stimulus.  Whatever the all-in contribution of the General Theory, it had the unfortunate consequence of diverting attention from the monetary dynamics that had brought depression.  Alas, Keynes’ legacy as received some three generations on has contributed to the confusion that fiscal stimulus is the best way to boost demand, while monetary policy is often perceived as either  ineffective or as just tinkering – when, some would have it — drastic structural change is necessary.


[1] Frederic S. Mishkin, The Channels of Monetary Transmission: Lessons for Monetary Policy, NBER Working Paper 5424, Feb. 1996.

[2] Treatise, Ch. 17 (i).

[3] General Theory, p. 298.

[4] General Theory, pp. 213f, 218.

[5] General Theory, p. 376.

[6] Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes 1883-1946: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman (2003), p. 538.

[7] General Theory, p. 381.

[8] Pigou quoted in Skidelsky, e.g., p. 539.

Guest post – Keynes: Evidence for Monetary Policy Ineffectiveness? (Part 2, by Clark Johnson)

Guest post: Part 2 – Keynes: Evidence for Monetary Policy Ineffectiveness (continued)

By Clark Johnson

(See the previous post in this series here)

a)    The 1937-38 Contraction in the US

A few years later, Keynes disregarded evidence of the role of monetary policy in triggering a sharp relapse into near-depression conditions in the US during 1937-1938.  The dollar depreciation of 1933 and the formal increase of the gold price to $35/ ounce in 1934 meant automatic revaluation of central bank gold stocks and gave impetus to increased gold exploration and production – concentrated, as it happened, in the Soviet Union.  (Keynes noted the irony that increased Soviet efficiency in mining of gold was bailing out world capitalism!) He also noted that new gold reserves were bringing increased effective demand to the world economy that might result in “abnormal profits.” [1]  Keynes understood (at least some of the time) the role of growing liquidity in the economic recovery of the mid-1930s.

In what now appears as one of the worst mis-steps in its history, the Federal Reserve, responded to rising wholesale prices in 1936 by deliberately sterilizing new gold inflows.[2]  A money supply measure (M2) that increased by 12 percent annually during 1934 -1936, suddenly turned flat and even slightly negative from about January 1937 to July 1938.[3]  Real GDP fell by 11 percent during this period, and industrial production fell by 30 percent.  Rather than sterilize gold, had the Fed intervened in financial markets to target a modest rate of increase in any of a number of variables – a price index, industrial production, either real or nominal GDP growth, even a money supply indicator – most of the 1937-1938 contraction could have been avoided.  By August 1938, the sterilization policy was jettisoned, and economic recovery resumed.

In February 1938, Keynes offered advice in a private letter to President Roosevelt that mentioned little of this.  He did acknowledge that addressing “credit and insolvency problems” was an essential step toward recovery, as this created a necessary “supply of credit” – while, one infers, demand for that credit would have to come from elsewhere.  This comment reflected Keynes’ ongoing view that expected returns on investment – the schedule of marginal efficiencies of capital — was independent of monetary policy.  He went on the recommend that the US could “maintain prosperity at a reasonable level” only through “large-scale recourse to … public works and other Investments aided by Government funds or guarantees.” [4]

Despite Keynes’ recommendations, the lesson of all four of the illustrations here is that increasing money balances – through open market purchases, or through new gold or foreign exchange reserves – does affect expected returns on investment in plant and equipment, in equities, and in real estate.

ARGUMENTS FOR FISCAL  ACTIVISM

We could stop here, having assembled evidence of Keynes’ dubious conclusions about relative un-importance of monetary factors in specific pivotal events.  Indeed, evidence from these cases points strongly in the opposite direction, toward the crucial role of such factors.  But the prominence of Keynes’ fiscalist legacy requires that we go further.   Evidence aside, what was Keynes’ argument?   In fact, he had a sequence of arguments.

In 1929, Keynes offered a comparative argument in favor of fiscal stimulus, and against monetary stimulus, specific to economic circumstances in Britain at the time.[5]  Keynes anticipated some portion of an argument Robert Mundell was to make decades later regarding the “policy mix,” that is, the appropriate mix of monetary and fiscal policy to meet both domestic output and external exchange rate targets.[6]  Britain in 1929 was on the international gold standard, hence was constrained externally by the need to maintain gold reserves.  The Bank of England could not simply create credit, because, Keynes reasoned, “such credit might find its way to foreign borrowers, with the result of a drain of gold out of the Bank.”  Hence Keynes proposed fiscal stimulus to increase domestic demand and employment, alongside monetary constraint to maintain Britain’s reserve and exchange rate targets.

This well-grounded argument also offers possible insight into the 1890s, where demand for gold reserves among central banks generated monetary contraction.  Keynes, as we saw, did not make that argument – but we can construct it post facto.  While the best solution might have been some international agreement to increase demand by modifying the international gold standard, a purely national approach could have looked to a fiscalist demand boost.  But Keynes soon abandoned this policy-mix argument.

a)    Removing external constraint on Monetary Policy

The US had freedom of action in monetary policy in 1933 and 1934.  By March 1933, the dollar had been floated against gold, hence removing the external policy constraint – and, in any event, the US had by then accumulated vast gold reserves.  In Keynes’ comments in January 1934, he had moved beyond his 1929 analysis.  His newer interest was to argue that fiscal activism was preferable to monetary expansion even if the latter was not constrained.

Keynes in the General Theory (Ch. 15, “Incentives to Liquidity,”) offered the argument that monetary policy was specifically unsuited to boost economic demand when interest rates approached zero percent.  In conditions where interest rates could not be lowered further, he reasoned, a condition of “absolute liquidity preference” held, later dubbed a “liquidity trap.”  He observed, “In this event, the monetary authority would have lost effective control over the rate of interest.”  This argument is cited endlessly by later-day Keynesians in support of a fiscalist agenda.  (For example, see the reference to Summers mentioned at the outset.)

But the argument establishes much less than Keynes needed for his fiscalist agenda.  Near-zero interest rates did not prevail in any of the four situations discussed earlier – yet Keynes wanted fiscal activism in all of them.  So his case against monetary activism went beyond situations of absolute liquidity preference.

As noted earlier, Keynes pointed to a collapse in the marginal efficiency of capital as the trigger for the “slump of 1930.”  The General Theory does much more to advance the concept that investment volume is unstable.   Much of Keynes’ vision for government intervention, including fiscal activism, follows from his discussion of the fickleness of financial markets (Ch. 12, “Long Term Expectations.”)  Noting the instability of private sector investment volume, he advocated a larger role by the government in stabilizing investment demand, often through direct outlays.

Keynes’ argument often shifted from the instability of the investment function to concern that investment was and would remain chronically weak – hence the conclusion that high unemployment was not self-correcting, but could persist for years.  In Ch. 17 on the “Essential Properties of Interest and Money,” Keynes noted situations where the:

…rate of interest declines more slowly, as output increases, than the marginal efficiencies of capital-assets measured in terms [of the same asset].[7]

As formulated in one of several instances in Ch. 22 (“Notes on the Trade Cycle”):

A more typical, and often the predominant, explanation of the crisis is, not primarily a rise in the rate of interest, but a sudden collapse in the marginal efficiency of capital.[8]

This pattern of falling marginal efficiencies of capital made Keynes increasingly skeptical of monetary remedies.[9]

A counter-argument is that adding liquidity – through open market purchases, gold inflows, or variations on these – might directly boost demand, and hence boost the marginal efficiency of capital, by increasing cash balances.  But Keynes usually argued, to the contrary, that monetary policy worked mainly through raising or lowering interest rates –this was certainly a premise of the “liquidity trap” argument in Ch. 15.  Further on, he wrote that “the primary effect of a change in the quantity of money on the quantity of effective demand is through its effect on the rate of interest.”[10]  In the Treatise chapter on “Control of Investment,” where he calls for open market operations a outrance, the goal is to bring “the market rate of interest … down to the limiting point.”  In 1937 articles on “finance,” where Keynes stressed the crucial role of monetary policy, he again emphasized the channel of lowering interest rates.[11]


[1] Keynes, “The Supply of Gold,” Economic Journal, Sept 1936.

[2] That is, coupling purchases of gold with offsetting sales of other central bank assets to drain liquidity

[3] Doug Irwin, Gold Sterilization and the Recession of 1937-1938,  NBER Working Paper No. 17595, Nov 2011.

[4] In Collected Works of JM Keynes, Vol 21, pp. 434-39.

[5] Keynes, “A Program of Expansion (General Election, May 1929),” in Essays on Persuasion (1931), p. 124f.

[6] For ex., Robert Mundell, The Dollar and the Policy Mix (1973)

[7]Keynes, General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), p. 236.

[8] General Theory, p. 315.

[9] Axel Leijonhufvud offers a variation on this argument with the comment that in in Ch. 37 of the Treatise “the assumption that entrepreneurs are right was dispensed with” – that is, entrepreneurs became, in Keynes’ judgment, excessively bearish.  In “Keynes and the Effectiveness of Monetary Policy,” Information and Coordination (1981).  Leijonhufvud argues that Keynes’ subsequent arguments therefore relied more on fiscal intervention.

[10] General Theory, p. 298.

[11] For ex.,Keynes, “The ‘Ex Ante’ Theory of the Rate of Interest,” Economic Journal 46 (1937)

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