US Monetary History – The QRPI perspective: 1970s

I am continuing my mini-series on US monetary history through the lens of my decomposition of supply inflation and demand inflation based on what I inspired by David Eagle have termed a Quasi-Real Price Index (QRPI). In this post I take a closer look at the 1970s.

The economic history of the 1970s is mostly associated with two major oil price shocks – OPEC’s oil embargo of 1973 and the 1979-oil crisis in the wake of the Iranian revolution. The sharp rise in oil prices in the 1970s is often mentioned as the main culprit for the sharp increase in US inflation in that period. However, below I will demonstrate that rising oil prices actually played a relatively minor role in the increase in US inflation in that period.

The graph below shows the decomposition of US inflation in 1970s. As I describe in my previous post demand inflation had already started to inch up in the second half of 1960s and was at the start of the 1970s already running at around 5%.

After a drop in demand inflation around the relatively mild 1969-70 recession demand inflation once again started to pick up from 1971 and reached nearly 10% at the beginning of 1973. This was well before oil prices had picked up. In fact if anything supply inflation helped curb headline inflation in 1970-71.

The reason for the drop in supply inflation might be partly explained by the Nixon administration’s use of price and wage controls to curb inflationary pressures. These draconian measures can hardly be said to have been successful and to the extent it helped curb inflation in the short-term it provided Federal Reserve chairman Arthur Burns with an excuse to allow the monetary driven demand inflation to continue to accelerate. It is well known that Burns – wrongly – was convinced that inflation primarily was a cost-push phenomenon and that he in the early 1970 clearly was reluctant to tighten monetary policy because he had the somewhat odd idea that if he tightened monetary policy it would signal that inflation was out control and that would undermine the wage controls. Robert Hetzel has a very useful discussion of this in his “The Monetary Policy of the Federal Reserve”.

As a result of Burn’s mistaken reluctance to tighten monetary policy demand inflation kept inching up and when then the oil crisis hit in 1974 headline inflation was pushed above 10%. However, at that point almost half of the inflation still could be attributed to demand inflation and hence to overly loose monetary policies.

Headline inflation initially peaked in 1974 and as oil prices stopped rising headline inflation gradually started to decline. However, from 1976 demand inflation again started inching and that pushed up headline inflation once again.

In 1979 Paul Volcker became Federal Reserve chairman and initiated the famous Volcker disinflation. Scott Sumner has argued that Volcker didn’t really tighten monetary policy before 1981. I agree with Scott that that is the conclusion that if you look at market data such as bond yields and the US stock market. Both peaked in 1981 rather than 1979 indicating that Volcker didn’t really initiate monetary tightening before Ronald Reagan became president in 1981. However, my measure for demand inflation tells a slightly different story.

Hence, demand inflation actually peaked already in the first quarter of 1979 and dropped more than 5%-point over the next 12 month. However, as demand inflation started to decline the second oil crisis of the decade hit and that towards 1980 pushed headline US inflation up towards 13%.

So there is no doubt that rising oil prices indeed did contribute to inflation in the US in the 1970s, however, my decomposition of the inflation data clearly shows that the primary reason for the high and increase through the decade was the Federal Reserve’s overly loose monetary policy.

Finally it should be noted that the 1970s-data show some strength and weaknesses in my decomposition method. It is clearly a strength that the measure shows the impact of the oil price shocks, but it is also notable that these shocks takes 3-4 years to play out. So while oil prices spiked fast in for example 1974 and then settle at a higher level the supply shock to inflation seems to be more long lasting. This indicates some stickiness in prices that my decomposition method does not fully into account. As one of my commentators “Integral” has noted in an earlier comment it is a weakness with this decomposition method that it does not take into account the upward-sloping short-run AS curve, but rather it is assumed that all supply shocks shifts the vertical long-run AS curve left and right. I hope I will be able to address this issue in future posts.

In my next post I will have a closer look at how Paul Volcker beat the “Great Inflation”.

A method to decompose supply and demand inflation

It is a key Market Monetarist position that there is good and bad deflation and therefore also good and bad inflation. (For a discussion of this see Scott Sumner’s and David Beckworth’s posts here and here). Basically one can say that bad inflation/deflation is a result of demand shocks, while good inflation/deflation is a result of supply shocks. Demand inflation is determined by monetary policy, while supply inflation is independent of whatever happens to monetary policy.

The problem is that the only thing that normally can be observed is “headline” inflation, which of course mostly is a result of both supply shocks and changes in monetary policy. However, inspired by David Eagle’s work on Quasi-Real Indexing (QRI) I will here suggest a method to decompose monetary policy induced changes in consumer prices from supply shock driven changes in consumer prices. I use US data since 1960 to illustrate the method.

Eagle’s simple equation of exchange

David Eagle in a number of his papers QRI starts out with the equation of exchange:

(1) M*V=P*Y

Eagle rewrites this to what he calls a simple equation of exchange:

(2) N=P*Y where N=M*V

This can be rewritten to

(3) P=N/Y

(3) Shows that consumer prices (P) are determined by the relationship between nominal GDP (N), which is determined by monetary policy (M*V) and by supply factors (Y, real GDP).

We can rewrite as growth rates:

(4) p=n-y

Where p is US headline inflation, n is nominal GDP growth and y is real GDP growth.

Introducing supply shocks

If we assume that we can separate underlining trend growth in y from supply shocks then we can rewrite (4):

(5) p=n-(yp+yt)

Where yp is the permanent growth in productivity and yt is transitory (shocks) changes in productivity.

Defining demand and supply inflation

We can then use (5) to define demand inflation pd:

(6) pd=n- yp

And supply inflation, ps, can then be defined as

(7) ps=p-pd (so p= ps+pd)

Below is shown the decomposition of US inflation since 1960. In the calculation of demand inflation I have assumed a constant growth rate in yp around 3% y/y (or 0.7% q/q). More advanced methods could of course be used to estimate yp (which is unlikely to be constant over time), but it seems like the long-term growth rate of GDP has been pretty stable around 3% of the last couple of decade. Furthermore, slightly higher or lower trend growth in RGDP does not really change the overall results.

We can of course go back from growth rates to the level and define a price index for demand prices as a Quasi-Real Price Index (QRPI). This is the price index that the monetary authorities can control.

The graph illustrates the development in demand inflation and supply inflation. There graph reveals a lot of insights to US monetary policy – for example that the increase in inflation in the 1970s was driven by demand inflation and hence caused by the Federal Reserve rather than by an increase in oil prices. Second and most interesting from today’s perspective demand inflation already started to ease in 2006 and in 2008 we saw a historically sharp drop in the Quasi-Real Price Index. Hence, it is very clear from our measure of the Quasi-Real Price Index that US monetary policy turning strongly deflationary already in early 2008 – and before (!) the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Lets target a 2% growth path for QRPI

It is clear that many people (including many economists) have a hard time comprehending NGDP level targeting. However, I am pretty certain that most people would agree that the central bank should target something it can actually directly influence. The Quasi-Real Price Index is just another modified price index (in the same way as for example core inflation) so why should the Federal Reserve not want to target a path level for QRPI with a growth path of 2%? (the clever reader will of course realise that will be exactly the same as a NGDP path level target of 5% – under an assumption of long term growth of RGDP of 3%).

In the coming days I will have a look at the QRPI and US monetary history since the 1960s through the lens of the decomposition of inflation between supply inflation and demand inflation.

David Eagle on “Nominal Income Targeting for a Speedier Economic Recovery”

I am continuing my mini-review of the research done by Dale Domian and David Eagle. The next paper in the “series” is a truly excellent paper on an empirical investigation of the impact of different monetary policy targets (inflation targeting, Price Level Targeting and Nominal Income Targeting) on the speed of recovery in the US economy.

Here is the abstract of the paper “Nominal Income Targeting for a Speedier Economic Recovery”:

“Using panelled time-series event studies of U.S. recessions since 1948, this paper studies the speed at which the unemployment rate recovers from a recession. This paper identifies recessions (such as the 1990s and 2001 recessions) as ones consistent with inflation targeting, whereas other recessions are more consistent with nominal-income targeting. We then find that the unemployment recovery time is significantly faster for those recessions consistent with nominal-income targeting than for those recessions consistent with inflation targeting. We then discuss the theoretical superiority of nominal income targeting from a Pareto-efficient micro foundations standpoint. Also, by studying the time path of nominal aggregate spending, we find definite empirical evidence of the “let bygones be bygones” property of inflation targeting.”

The paper is extremely innovative in its method. The characteristics of the three types of targeting are used to identify what type of targeting the Federal Reserve (implicitly) has used during different recessions since World War II.

It is then shown that in those recessions the Fed has targeted nominal income the recovery was speedier than in those periods when the Fed targeted inflation.

The very innovative methods in my view clearly should inspire Market Monetarists to adopt these methods in future research to test and demonstrate the merits of Nominal Income Targeting.

Furthermore, David Eagle demonstrates in a numbers of his papers that Nominal Income Targeting (NGDP targeting) is Pareto optimal. Hence, contrary to most Market Monetarists who focus on the macroeconomic advantages of NGDP Targeting Dr. Eagle demonstrates the microeconomic advantages and has a clear welfare perspective on NGDP Targeting. I think this is a tremendous strength in his (and Domian’s) research. Eagle’s and Domian’s research in many ways remind me of George Selgin’s argument for the so-called Productivity Norm.

I certainly hope that Eagle and Domian will continue to pursue research in this area (and the related area of Quasi-Real Indexing) and I hope that the future will lead to exchange of ideas between Eagle and Domian and the Market Monetarists. Maybe one day they might even join the “club”.

A simple housing rescue package – QRI Mortgages and NGDP targeting

This is from Eagle’s and Domian’s paper “Quasi-Real-Indexed Mortgages to the Rescue”:

“With the U.S. Federal Government owning so many mortgages through its bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, there may be a unique opportunity for the government to provide a principal break to mortgage holders in return for converting the mortgages to QRIMs. Based on a old January 2009 estimate, the principal reduction would be about 7.8%. With a principal reduction of 7.8% and QRIM payments being 22% below traditional mortgage payments, we are talking about approximately 30% reduction in the monthly mortgage payments relative to the traditional mortgage payment.

Some readers might consider this a government give away. However, if the central bank was trying to target nominal aggregate demand (nominal income targeting), then the fact that nominal GDP is 7.8% below its target means that the central bank will be trying in the future to get nominal GDP back up to its nominal GDP target. To do so, the central bank will need to increase nominal GDP 7.8% in addition to the long-run growth rate in real GDP and the “targeted” inflation rate of 2.5%. Thus, if the central bank was committed to a nominal-GDP target, then if the central bank meets its target eventually, then nominal GDP will recover which means that through quasi-indexing, the principal will also recover.”

I am certainly no expert on the US housing market, but to me this seems like a great idea for a US housing rescue package.

——–

Note:

QRIMs are Quasi-Real-Indexed Mortgages which “index mortgage payments to one and only one of the two causes of inflation. That cause is aggregate-demand-caused inflation. QRIMs share an advantage of its cousin Price-Level-Adjusted Mortgages (PLAMs) in that the initial mortgage payments are smaller than with conventional mortgages making the mortgages more affordable.”  

Quasi-Real indexing – indexing for Market Monetarists

This morning when I was looking for something else on the internet I by coincidence came across Dr. David Eagle’s website. Dr. Eagle is an Associate Professor of Finance at the Eastern Washington University.

I regret to say that I had never heard of David Eagle before and I have never seen any of his research before and I had never heard about an idea that he has developed with Dr. Dale L. Domian a Professor of Finance in the School of Administrative Studies at York University. The idea is what Eagle and Domian call Quasi-Real Indexing (QRI).

I am quite delighted, however, that I have now come across Eagle’s and Domian’s research and I am happy to share some of it with my readers. I think their work on QRI will be of interest Market Monetarists and QRI could be a interesting and useful supplement to NGDP targeting.

The idea behind QRI is that normal inflation indexing of wage contacts, bonds etc. is imperfect as it does not differentiate between the causes of inflation. Hence, it is crucial whether inflation is caused by demand or supply shocks. A parallel discussion to this is George Selgin’s discussion of the so-called productivity norm, which also argues that one should differentiate between the causes of inflation (or deflation).

Here is Eagle and Domian (from the abstract in a recent working paper: “Immunizing our Economies against Recessions – A Microfoundations Investigation”)

“We find that, instead of using derivatives or expensive fiscal stimuli, we can achieve recession protection through indexing wages, mortgages, bonds, etc., to changes in nominal GDP but not to aggregate-supply-caused inflation. This type of indexing we call, “quasi-real indexing.”

Hence, the idea is to shield economic agents from swings in nominal GDP. This can be done as Market Monetarists argue with NGDP targeting (something Eagle and Domian agrees on and support), but also with QRI.

Here is a bit more on QRI (from another paper “Unsticking those Sticky Wages To Mitigate Recessions Without Expensive Fiscal Stimuli”):

The conventional form of inflation indexing, also known as cost of living adjustments (COLAs), is based on price changes no matter what the cause… there are two and only two determinants of inflation: (1) aggregate demand as measured by nominal GDP, and (2) aggregate supply as measured by real GDP. QRI is linked to only one of these causes — nominal GDP, but not to real GDP. Because QRI is based on a cause, not the price level itself. QRI is proactive; if the price level is sticky as most economists believes, then QRI can respond to changes in nominal GDP prior to the price level being affected by those changes.”

I think this makes quite a bit of sense – and it is pretty much how Market Monetarists think.

Everything Eagle and Domian write on the topic of QRI seems to be a bit of a gold mine for Market Monetarists thinking and their modelling could be helpful in the further theoretical development of Market Monetarism. See here for example:

”Many economists may criticize QRI because it only responds to aggregate-demand-caused inflation and not to aggregate-supply-caused inflation. They may cite the almost universally accepted goal in monetary policy and macroeconomic policy of minimizing an objective function involving inflation (or the price level) and output gap (or unemployment or output). In fact, this objective function has been institutionalized into the legislative mandate for the Federal Reserve… However, that objective function, which is an ad hoc assumption of economists, has blind economists from what microfoundations says should be the objective of monetary and macroeconomic policy. Later in this paper, we present Pareto-efficiency arguments why we should only adjust for aggregate-demand-caused inflation and not for aggregate-supply caused inflation. At this point in the paper, realize that at one time medical science considered all cholesterol as bad; now they consider there to be both good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. Up to now, economists have considered any inflation above the targeted inflation rate to be bad inflation. Our view, supported by microfoundations involving Pareto efficiency is that unexpected aggregate-demand-caused inflation (or deflation) is bad but aggregate-supply-caused inflation (or deflation) is necessarily for the economy to efficiently handle the lower (or higher) supply.”

This is exactly what Market Monetarist are saying – and this discussion gives an excellent input to for example the discussion of the Taylor rule versus NGDP targeting.

There are many aspects of QRI and as I state above I have only become familiar with the topic today so I will not go in to it all in this post. However, as I see it the (for now) small literature seems very interesting and the QRI could sheet a lot of light on the advantages of NGDP targeting and it also seems like QRI could be helpful in crisis resolution in both Europe and the US. In that regard Eagle’s and Domian’s papers on QRI linked bonds seem especially of interest.

I sincerely hope that my fellow Market Monetarist bloggers will have a look at Eagle’s and Domian’s interesting work on QRI and finally I would like to quote an appeal from David Eagle’s website posted on February 26 2009:

“I write this internet note with the hope that it gets to someone with influence. That someone could be a state or other local legislator struggling with how to cut their budget. That someone could be an administrator with a federal government trying to find some way to help their economy get through the current financial debacle. That someone could be working in a bank with the task of figuring out a way to refinance mortgages to avoid foreclosures and make it more affordable for homeowners to stay in their houses. That someone could work for a firm who is struggling to meet payroll in this time of lower demand for their product. That someone could even be President Obama as he struggles with many of these issues on the macroeconomic level. All these people are looking for ways to either better deal with the current recession or help others better deal with the current recession. I write this note, because I have a solution, a cheap solution, although the solution involves a major change in how businesses, governments, workers, lenders, and borrowers deal with each other. The solution is quasi-real indexing, a type of inflation indexing Dale Domian and I have designed.
Many of you will be skeptical and will ask, “What does inflation indexing have to do with the current recession?” A quick economic lesson will answer this question for you. Remember the debate between the Keynesian economists and the classical economists in the 1930s during the Great Depression. The classical economists criticized Keynesian economics by arguing that in the long run, prices and wages will adjust to return real output to its normal level. In response, John Maynard Keynes said, “In the long run, we all are dead!” The essence of Keynesian economics is that prices and wages are sticky, especially in the downward direction. Inflation indexing can then be very relevant if that indexing causes prices and wages to adjust very quickly.

However, the current recession makes this indexing really relevant. If most contracts were quasi-real indexed, then the current financial crisis would not be having such a negative effect on the overall economy.

Why is the financial crisis having such a negative effect on the economy? Because the financial crisis has caused nominal aggregate spending to decline. This can be explained relatively simply with one equation, N=PY, where N is the level of nominal aggregate spending, P is the general price level, and Y is real GDP. When N decreases, either P or Y must decrease. Prior to Keynesian economics, the classical economists thought that the decline in N would be felt by a decline in P, with no effect on Y. However, in the 1930s during the Great Depression, John M. Keynes challenged that premise, by arguing that in the short run, prices and wages would be sticky, which means that a drop in N will lead to a drop in Y. Even Milton Friedman and the Monetarists would not argue with this statement, but Friedman put the blame for the drop in N during the Great Depression on an over 30% decrease in the money supply between 1929 and 1933.

The important lesson to learn from the above paragraph is that a drop in nominal aggregate spending (N), as is occurring today, impacts the real output (Y) because prices and wages do not adjust much in the short run. This is where quasi-real indexing can help. If wages and some prices were quasi-real indexed, they will immediately respond to changes in nominal aggregate spending, one of the major causes of inflation. This is one of the advantages of quasi-real indexing over traditional inflation indexing — quasi-real indexing responds almost immediately to changes in nominal aggregate spending, rather than waiting for the price effects to occur.

A second advantage of quasi-real indexing is that it does not filter out the inflation caused by aggregate-supply shocks. Why is this advantage? Realize that 30 years ago, medical professionals thought that all cholesterol was bad. Now, they have come to recognize that some cholesterol is good while other is bad. Our research indicates that aggregate-supply-caused inflation is actually good; only aggregate-demand-caused inflation is bad. Quasi-real indexation filters out the bad inflation while leaving the good inflation intact. When all wages, prices, mortgages, bonds, and other contracts are quasi-real indexed; the economy becomes immune to fluctuations to nominal aggregate spending. In this sense quasi-real indexation immunizes an economy against recessions caused by drops in nominal aggregate spending. It also protects workers, employers, lenders, and borrowers from the uncertainties caused by unexpected changes in nominal aggregate spending. Hence, quasi-real indexation improves the economic efficiency of an economy.

One concern in the current economy that is contributing to the financial crisis are mortgages. An objective of the Obama administration is to help households refinance their mortgages in such a way to make them more affordable for people to stay in their homes and avoid foreclosure. Quasi-real mortgages can do just that. Realize that quasi-real mortgages are a lot like Price-Level-Adjusted Mortgages (PLAMs), except quasi-real mortgages do not have the defect of increasing monthly mortgage payments when aggregate-supply-caused inflation occurs. The initial payment on both quasi-real mortgages and PLAMs is significantly lower than with a fixed-nominal-rate, fixed payment mortgage. The literature on mortgages calls this effect the “tilt” effect. For example, the initial payment on a 7.2%, fixed-rate, fixed-payment 30-year, $200,000 mortgage is $1357.58. However, the initial payment on a 3.6%, quasi-real 30-year, $200,000 mortgage is $909.29, which is over 30% less than under a traditional mortgage.

Wages are difficult to reduce in a recession, but they really should come down for economic efficiency. One reason why workers may be reluctant to give in to wage cuts is because of their fixed obligations like mortgages, although if they refinanced with a quasi-real mortgage, that would be less of an issue. A second reason why workers may be reluctant to give in to wage cuts is because once their wage is cut, they may think it will be difficult to get their wage raised when the economy returns to normal. That is part of the reason that quasi-real indexing would work so well; quasi-real indexing would automatically increase wages when the economy (nominal aggregate spending) recovers. Also, if nominal aggregate spending increases too much, leading to high inflation, the quasi-real indexing will take care of that, usually before the inflation took place.

Furthermore, employers may try to bring down wages down or make other cuts so that they are prepared for even bleaker times. However, quasi-real indexing of wages would do those reductions automaticly when nominal aggregate spending falls, so there would be no need for employers to bring down the wages below where they otherwise should be. Also, employees may be more willing to accept these wage cuts in return for quasi-real indexing being there to protect them in the future when the economy rebounds.

In the past, I have been frustrated with the publication barriers put up by economic journals, which have prevented me from getting my ideas exposed. With this note, I am bypassing those journals (although Dale and I will still try to publish in those journals). I hope that someone in Cyberland will find our message and investigate and try to contact us. Dale and I are currently writing more papers to help communicate these very important ideas. However, our previous papers were written at a very high theoretical level; we are now trying to bring these papers down to earth, making them more readable to more people. When we get those papers in more polished forms, I will try to make them available on this web site.”

Well Dr. Eagle – now I done a bit to spread your idea, which I find intriguing and I am sure my fellow Market Monetarist bloggers will take up the idea as well and discuss it. I don’t think QRI will take us out of this recession – we probably need NGDP level targeting for that – but I am pretty sure that the QRI literature will help us understand the present crisis better and could be very helpful in the crisis resolution.

PS When I read about Dr. Eagle’s frustrations I am reminded of how Scott Sumner felt back in 2009.

—-

Eagle’s and Domian’s papers on QRI and NGDP targeting:

Immunizing our Economies against Recessions — A Microfoundations Investigation

Unsticking those Sticky Wages To Mitigate Recessions Without Expensive Fiscal Stimuli

Nominal Income Targeting for a Speedier Economic Recovery

Quasi-Real-Indexed Mortgages to the Rescue

Using Quasi-Real Contracts to Help Mitigate Aggregate-Demand-Caused Recessions and Inflations

Quasi-real Government Bonds — Inflation Indexing With Safety 

%d bloggers like this: