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“Make America Keynesian Again”

Today I was asked to do an interview with a Danish radio station about Donald Trump and about whether one could say anything positive about him or rather about his economic agenda. I declined to do the interview. I frankly speaking has nothing positive to say about Trump.

To me Donald Trump is an absolutely vile person and and his views on immigration and trade are completely the opposite of mine. However, I have also in the run up to the election in presentations and comments stressed that the presidential election from an overall financial market perspective would not be a big deal and judging from the market reaction today this indeed seems to be the case.

Reading the markets

But what exactly are the markets telling us today about the economic consequences of a Trump presidency combined with the fact that GOP now has the majority in both the House and the Senate?

First, of all we should concluded that the markets are fairly relaxed about the outcome of the election. This to me is an indication that Trump really will never be able (or seriously want to) implement many of the bizarre “promises” on trade and immigration he made during the election campaign.

Second the markets certainly do not expect the outcome of the election to cause a US recession or a global economic crisis. After all US stock markets are in fact trading in positive territory today. We get the same message from the currency markets where the dollar is little changed over the past 24 hours.

The Republican Keynesians

However, there is one market where we have seen a significant reaction to the outcome of the election and that is in the bond market. Just take a look at the graphs below.

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The first graph is the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds and the second graph is 2-year yields.

We see that the 10-yield has increased around 10bp overnight. This certainly is a significant reaction, but it is equally notable that 2-yields in fact is slightly down.

What this is telling me is that more than anything else the markets expect Trump to be an old-school Keynesian. We know that Trump has already promised to increase Federal spending on infrastructure and he has of course also promised major tax cuts. With the Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate he should be able to deliver on some of these promises.

In fact there would be nothing unusual about having a Republican president who is also a “keynesian” (yes, I know he has no clue about what that is). In fact historically public spending has grown faster under Republican administrations than under Democrat administrations. Just take a look at the graphs below.

Since the Second World War public spending has grown by around a quarter of a percent per year faster when the president has been Republican than when there has been a Democrat president.

The picture is even more clear when we look at Federal government investments:

…and on the budget deficit:

So based on history we can certainly say that Republican presidents tend to be less fiscally conservative than Democrat presidents and judging from the action in the bond markets today there is little reason to believe that Trump should be any different from former Republican presidents.

And what will Trump spend money on? There is little doubt what the markets think – infrastructure! This is from Trump’s victory speech:

We are going to fix our inner cities, and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” he said. “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.

And see what effect that kind of speech had on copper prices today:

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Keynesian president + Keynesian Fed chair = No monetary offset

So it seems like the markets expect Trump to push for an expansionary fiscal policy agenda and this is visible in the bond market. However, it is also notable that it is only long-term bond yields, which have increased while 2-year yields haven’t increased overnight.

That tells me that the markets do not expect the Federal Reserve to (fully) offset the impact on nominal demand from a more expansionary fiscal policy.

This effectively means that an easier fiscal policy stance will cause monetary conditions to be eased. The reason is that if fiscal policy is eased then that will push up the equilibrium interest rate level. If the Fed does not hike interest rates to reflect this then it will automatically ease monetary policy by keeping the fed funds rate below the equilibrium interest rate.

This of course is the standard result in a New Keynesian model when interest rates are at the Zero Lower Bound (see for example here).

Does this mean that the so-called Sumner Critique does not apply? According to the Sumner Critique an easing of fiscal policy will not have (net) impact on aggregate demand if the central bank has an inflation target (or a nominal GDP) as the central bank will act to offset any impact on aggregate demand from a easier fiscal policy.

However, the Sumner Critique does not necessarily apply if the central bank’s inflation target is not credible and/or central bank is not willing to “enforce” it. And this seems relevant to the present situation. Hence, US core inflation continue to be below the Fed’s inflation target so one can certainly argue that there is room for an increase in aggregate demand without the Federal Reserve having to tighten monetary conditions.

Obviously the Fed could have done this on it own by for example not signaling a rate hike in December or signaling that it would re-introduce quantitative easing if inflation once again started to trend downwards.

However, the Fed clearly has “mental” problems with this. It is clear that most key Fed policy makers are worried about the consequences of keeping interest rates “low for longer” and more QE clearly seems to be a no-go.

In other words the Fed has put itself in a situation where further monetary easing is off the table and this is of course the reason why a number of Fed officials in the last couple of months have called for old-school keynesian fiscal stimulus.

It all seems to have started in August. This is Janet Yellen at the Jackson Hole symposium on August 26:

Beyond monetary policy, fiscal policy has traditionally played an important role in dealing with severe economic downturns. A wide range of possible fiscal policy tools and approaches could enhance the cyclical stability of the economy.25 For example, steps could be taken to increase the effectiveness of the automatic stabilizers, and some economists have proposed that greater fiscal support could be usefully provided to state and local governments during recessions. As always, it would be important to ensure that any fiscal policy changes did not compromise long-run fiscal sustainability.

Finally, and most ambitiously, as a society we should explore ways to raise productivity growth. Stronger productivity growth would tend to raise the average level of interest rates and therefore would provide the Federal Reserve with greater scope to ease monetary policy in the event of a recession. But more importantly, stronger productivity growth would enhance Americans’ living standards. Though outside the narrow field of monetary policy, many possibilities in this arena are worth considering, including improving our educational system and investing more in worker training; promoting capital investment and research spending, both private and public; and looking for ways to reduce regulatory burdens while protecting important economic, financial, and social goals.

“Promoting capital investment” of course means government infrastructure spending.

Since August we have heard this again and again from Fed officials. This is Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer at the New York Economic Club on October 17:

Some combination of more encouragement for private investment, improved public infrastructure, better education, and more effective regulation is likely to promote faster growth of productivity and living standards.

Said in another way – the Fed chair and the Vice chairman are both old-school keynesians and now we will have a keynesian in the White House as well.

The consequence is that if we get massive government infrastructure investments then that will push up the equilibrium interest rate, which will allow the Fed to hike interest rates (which they for some reason so desperately want to) without really tightening monetary conditions if interest rates are increased slower than the increase in the equilibrium rate.

This means that we de facto could have a keynesian alliance between the Trump administration and the Federal Reserve, which would mean that will get both monetary and fiscal easing in 2017 and this might be what the markets now are realizing.

Just take a look at what have happened in 5-year/5-year inflation expectations over the paste 24 hours:

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Over the past 24 hours long-term inflation expectations hence have increased by nearly a quarter of a percentage point.

Hence, Donald Trump just eased US monetary conditions significantly by pushing down the difference between the Fed fund target rate and the equilibrium rate. Paul Krugman should love Donald Trump.

The Sumner Critique strikes back – A future conflict between the Fed and Trump?

Obviously this is only possible because the Federal Reserve has not been willing to ensure nominal stability by clearly defining its nominal target and has been overly eager to increase interest rates, but I do think that this keynesian stimulus implemented could increase aggregate demand in 2017 and likely push core inflation above 2%.

But if this happens then the keynesian alliance between the Federal Reserve and Trump Administration might very well get tested. Hence, if fiscal-monetary easing push unemployment below the natural rate of unemployment and inflation (and inflation expectations) start to accelerate above 2% then the Federal Reserve sooner or later will have to act and tighten monetary conditions, which could be setting the US economy up for a boom-bust scenario with the economy initially booming one-two years and then the Fed will kill the boom by hiking interest rates aggressively.

Knowing Trump’s temperament and persona that could cause a conflict between the Fed and the Trump administration.

This is of course pure speculation, but even though the Trump administration and the Fed for now seem to favouring the same policy mix – aggressive fiscal easing and gradual rate hikes (slower than the increase the in equilibrium rate) it is unlike that this kind of old-school keynesian stop-go policies will end well.

2017 – a year of inflation?

Given these factors and others I for the first time since 2008 think that we could see inflation increase more significantly in 2017 in the US. This is of course what we to some extent want, but I am concerned that we are getting higher inflation not because the Federal Reserve has moved towards a more rule-based monetary policy framework, which ensure nominal stability, but because we are moving back towards old-school keynesian stop-go demand “management”.

PS I apologize to serious (New) Keynesians about using the term “keynesian” here. I here use the term as to refer to the kind demand management policy, which so failed during the 1970s. They where inspired by Keynesian economic think and was as such keynesian. However, that is not say that present day keynesians would necessarily agree with these policies.

PPS See also my comment over at Geopolitical Intelligence Service on why the US is “Still the Greatest”– also after Trump has become president.

Update: Read my follow-up post here.

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Yellen is transforming the US economy into her favourite textbook model

When you read the standard macroeconomic textbook you will be introduced to different macroeconomic models and the characteristics of these models are often described as keynesian and classical/monetarist. In the textbook version it is said that keynesians believe that prices and wages are rigid, while monetarist/classical economist believe wages and prices are fully flexible. This really is nonsense – monetarist economists do NOT argue that prices are fully flexible neither did pre-keynesian classical economists. As a result the textbook dictum between different schools is wrong.

I would instead argue that the key element in understanding the different “scenarios” we talk about in the textbook is differences in monetary regimes. Hence, in my view there are certain monetary policy rules that would make the world look “keynesian”, while other monetary policy rules would make the world look “classical”. As I have stated earlier – No ‘General Theory’ should ignore the monetary policy rule.

The standard example is fixed exchange rates versus floating exchange rates regimes. In a fixed exchange rate regime – with rigid prices and wages – the central bank will use monetary policy to ensure a fixed exchange and hence will not offset any shocks to aggregate demand. As a result a tightening of fiscal policy will cause aggregate demand to drop. This would make the world look “keynesian”.

On the other hand under a floating exchange rate regime with for example inflation targeting (or NGDP targeting) a tightening of fiscal policy will initially cause a drop in aggregate demand, which will cause a drop in inflation expectations, but as the central bank is targeting a fixed rate of inflation it will ease monetary policy to offset the fiscal tightening. This mean that the world becomes “classical”.

We here see that it is not really about price rigidities, but rather about the monetary regime. This also means that when we discuss fiscal multipliers – whether or not fiscal policy has an impact on aggregate demand – it is crucial to understand what monetary policy rule we have.

In this regard it is also very important to understand that the monetary policy rule is not necessarily credible and that markets’ expectations about the monetary policy rule can change over time as a result of the actions and communication of the central and that that will cause the ‘functioning’ the economy to change. Hence, we can imagine that one day the economy is “classical” (and stable) and the next day the economy becomes “keynesian” (and unstable).

Yellen is a keynesian – unfortunately

I fear that what is happening right now in the US economy is that we are moving from a “classical” world – where the Federal Reserve was following a fairly well-defined rule (the Bernanke-Evans rule) and was using a fairly well-defined (though not optimal) monetary policy instrument (money base control) – and to a much less rule based monetary policy regime where first of all the target for monetary policy is changing and equally important that the Fed’s monetary policy instrument is changing.

When I listen to Janet Yellen speak it leaves me with the impression of a 1970s style keynesian who strongly believes that inflation is not a monetary phenomena, but rather is a result of a Phillips curve relationship where lower unemployment will cause wage inflation, which in turn will cause price inflation.

It is also clear that Yellen is extraordinarily uncomfortable about thinking about monetary policy in terms of money creation (money base control) and only think of monetary policy in terms of controlling the interest rate. And finally Yellen is essentially telling us that she (and the Fed) are better at forecasting than the markets as she continues to downplay in the importance of the fact that inflation expectations have dropped markedly recently.

This is very different from the views of Ben Bernanke who at least at the end of his term as Fed chairman left the impression that he was conducting monetary policy within a fairly well-defined framework, which included a clear commitment to offset shocks to aggregate demand. As a result the Bernanke ensured that the US economy – like during the Great Moderation – basically became “classical”. That was best illustrated during the “fiscal cliff”-episode in 2013 where major fiscal tightening did not cause the contraction in the US economy forecasted by keynesians like Paul Krugman.

However, as a result of Yellen’s much less rule based approach to monetary policy I am beginning to think that if we where to have a fiscal cliff style event today (it could for example be a Chinese meltdown) then the outcome would be a lot less benign than in 2011.

How a negative shock would play with Yellen in charge of the Fed

Imagine that the situation in China continues to deteriorate and develop into a significant downturn for the Chinese economy. How should we expect the Yellen-fed to react? First of all a “China shock” would be visible in lower market inflation expectations. However, Yellen would likely ignore that.

She has already told us she doesn’t really trust the market to tell us about future inflation. Instead Yellen would focus on the US labour market and since the labour market is a notoriously lagging indicator the labour market would tell her that everything is fine – even after the shock hit. As a result she would likely not move in terms of monetary policy before the shock would show up in the unemployment data.

Furthermore, Yellen would also be a lot less willing than Bernanke was to use money base control as the monetary policy instrument and rather use the interest rate as the monetary policy instrument. Given the fact that we are presently basically stuck at the Zero Lower Bound Yellen would likely conclude that she really couldn’t do much about the shock and instead argue that fiscal policy should be use to offset the “China shock”.

All this means that we now have introduced a new “rigidity” in the US economy. It is a “rigidity” in the Fed monetary policy rule, which means that monetary policy will not offset negative shocks to US aggregate demand.

If the market realizes this – and I believe that is actually what might be happening right now – then the financial markets might not work as the stabilizing factoring in the US economy that it was in 2013 during the fiscal cliff-event and as a result the US economy is becoming more “keynesian” and therefore also a less stable US economy.

Only a 50% keynesian economy

However, Yellen’s economy is only a 50% keynesian economy. Hence, imagine instead of a negative “China shock” we had a major easing of US fiscal policy, which would cause US aggregate demand to pick up sharply. Once that would cause US unemployment to drop Yellen would move to hike interest rates. Obviously the markets would realize this once the fiscal easing would be announced and as a result the pick up in aggregate demand would be offset by the expected monetary tightening, which would be visible in a stronger dollar, a flattening of the yield curve and a drop in equity prices.

In that sense the fiscal multiplier would be zero when fiscal policy is eased, but it would be positive when fiscal policy is tightened.

What Yellen should do 

I am concerned that Yellen’s old-school keynesian approach to monetary policy – adaptive expectations, the Phillips curve and reliance of interest rates as a policy instrument – is introducing a lot more instability in the US economy and might move us away from the nominal stability that Bernanke (finally) was able to ensure towards the end of his terms as Fed chairman.

But it don’t have to be like that. Here is what I would recommend that Yellen should do:

Introduce a clear target for monetary policy

  • Since Mid-2009 US nominal GDP has grown along a nearly straight 4% path (see here). Yellen should make that official policy as this likely also would ensure inflation close to 2% and overall stable demand growth, which would mean that shocks to aggregate demand “automatically” would be offset. It would so to speak make the US economy “classical” and stable.

Make monetary policy forward-looking

  • Instead of focusing on labour conditions and a backward-looking Phillips curve Yellen should focus on forward-looking indicators. The best thing would obviously be to look at market indicators for nominal GDP growth, but as we do not have those at least the Fed should focus on market expectations for inflation combined with surveys of future nominal GDP growth. The Fed should completely give up making its own forecasts and particularly the idea that FOMC members are making forecasts for the US economy seems to be counter-productive (today FOMC members make up their minds about what they want to do and then make a forecast to fit that decision).

Forget about interest rates – monetary policy is about money base control

  • With interest rates essentially stuck at the Zero Lower Bound it becomes impossible to ease monetary policy by using the interest rate “instrument”. In fact interest rates can never really be an “instrument”. It can be a way of communicating, but the actual monetary policy instrument will alway be the money base, which is under the full control of the Federal Reserve. It is about time that the Fed stop talking about money base control in discretionary terms (as QE1, QE2 etc.) and instead start to talk about setting a target for money base growth to hit the ultimate target of monetary policy (4% NGDP level targeting) and let interest rates be fully market determined.

I am not optimistic that the Fed is likely to move in this direction anytime soon and rather I fear that monetary policy is set to become even more discretionary and that the downside risks to the US economy has increased as Yellen’s communication is making it less likely that the markets will trust her to offset negative shocks to the US economy. The Keynesians got what they asked for – a keynesian economy.

PS I have earlier had a similar discussion regarding the euro zone. See here. That post was very much inspired by Brad Delong and Larry Summers’ paper Fiscal Policy in a Depressed Economy.

PPS I would also blame Stanley Fischer – who I regret to say thought would make a good Fed chairman – for a lot of what is happening right now. While Stanley Fischer was the governor of the Bank of Israel he was essentially a NGDP targeting central banker, but now he seems preoccupied with “macroprudential” analysis, which is causing him to advocate monetary tightening at a time where the US economy does not need it.

PPPS I realize that my characterization of Janet Yellen partly is a caricature, but relative to Ben Bernanke and in terms of what this means for market expectations I believe the characterization is fair.

If you want to hear me speak about these topics or other related topics don’t hesitate to contact my speaker agency Specialist Speakers – e-mail: roz@specialistspeakers.com. For US readers note that I will be “touring” the US in the end of October.

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