DRI-180 for week of 2-15-15: The Midnight Ride of the Interest-Rate Alarmists

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The Midnight Ride of the Interest-Rate Alarmists

In every Middlesex village and farm – and these days, the word “Middlesex” carries a decided double meaning – the alarm is being sounded. Interest rates will rise. The only question is when.

For six years, the question has been “if,” not “when.” At first, interest rates were held down by “stimulus” – the combination of fiscal and monetary policy embodied in the multi-billion (or trillion, depending on how one counts) dollar program enacted in the early days of the Obama administration in 2009. Then, when the “zero lower bound” beckoned, the QE series of quantitative expansions in monetary “stimulus” helped enforce a continuing ZIRP (Zero Interest Rate Policy).

Now, we have reached a point at which some middle-school youths have no memory of what a real interest rate looked or felt like. And quite a few adults in financial and policymaking circles have no desire to relive their old memories, either. They have mounted up, a la Paul Revere, to cry “The rate hike is coming! The rate hike is coming!”

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed (“Why the Alarms About a Slight Rate Hike?” WSJ, 02/18/2015), author Omid Malekan quotes several of these alarmists. “Charles Evans, president of the Chicago Fed and a voting member of the board that determines rate policy, said last month that raising rates too soon would be a ‘catastrophe.’ Former CEO of General Electric Jack Welch, during a Feb. 4 interview on CNBC, called a possible spring rate hike ‘ludicrous.’ Billionaire investor Warren Buffett told Fox Business Network on the same day that he didn’t think a rate increase this year would be ‘feasible.'”

Malekan’s view of these modern-day midnight riders is droll. “Catastrophe. Ludicrous. Not feasible. Really?” For the previous five decades, Malekan notes, the benchmark overnight Fed funds rate averaged 5.7%, ranging from a high of 19% in the early 1980s down to 1% in the early 2000s. But for most of the five-decade reference period – including the Vietnam War, most of the Cold War, the stagflation of the 1960s and 70s and two serious recessions in the 70s and 80s – that 5.7% figure wasn’t far off the mark. But “since December 2008 the fed-funds rate has been kept close to zero.”

And what would the Fed’s proposed interest-rate hike, anathematized as unthinkable by its critics, do? It “would take the fed-funds rate from near zero to about 0.25%, and no that isn’t a misplaced decimal point. We aren’t talking about 2.5%, which would still be less than half the 1954-2007 average. We are talking about 0.25%, which would mean the Fed’s monetary policy would be rolled back from full pedal-to-the-metal to a fraction above pedal-to-the-metal. On a historical chart of the fed-funds rate, the proposed hike would barely be visible to the naked eye. Does that sound like inviting catastrophe?”

The fact that Malekan can mine humor from ZIRP and QE is testimony to the human capacity for finding fun in the darkest of circumstances. After all, one of the most popular motion-picture comedies of all time poked fun at nuclear war and ended with the destruction of the planet. A rise of one-quarter basis point in interest is hardly that apocalyptic, so a little black humor isn’t out of place. But the underlying issues make this no laughing matter.

Hamlet or Waiting for Godot?

For free-market economists, the last six years have been a living nightmare. Like many nightmares, this one has been murky and hard to follow. It has many features of Shakespearian tragedy. The Fed often seems to be playing the role of Hamlet, as when it cannot make up its mind whether or when to raise interest rates. At other times, economic policy takes on the surrealism of a Samuel Johnson play. The QE sequence and the long wait for the return of normality to monetary policy casts the Open Market Committee as the characters from Waiting For Godot – waiting for someone or something they aren’t sure they know or want.

One of the alarmists cited above is actually an Open Market Committee member and Fed policymaker. This just adds to the atmosphere of surrealism surrounding economic policy. But it jibes with the ambivalent reactions that the Fed itself has displayed to its own rate-hike proposal.

The exasperation of Fed watchers is captured in another Wall Street Journal op-ed (“A Muddle of Mixed Messages From the Fed,” WSJ, 02/19/2015) by two members of the Shadow Open Market Committee, Charles W. Calomiris and Peter Ireland. The SOMC is a group of economic and finance professors whose avocation is criticizing the Fed’s monetary-policy actions.

These two men begin by noting that the conventional index of market expectations is the futures market. Interest-rate futures indicate that markets do not believe the Fed will follow through on its stated intention to raise interest rates discretely over the next two years, beginning in mid-2015. Instead, markets expect rates to rise more slowly beginning later this year. Why does this divergence exist? Because the Fed has been giving mixed signals; Fed leaders say one thing (“rates will rise beginning in June”) but hint otherwise (by implying in various forums that both labor markets in particular and the overall economy in general are still shaky). Market participants believe the hints that Janet Yellen and other Fed officials are dropping, not the official policy statements issuing from the agency.

The Fed is legendary for using language reminiscent of the Delphic Oracle as a means of preserving its policy flexibility. While this is politically and bureaucratically useful to the agency, it is economically harmful. If market participants plan for one type of monetary policy and interest-rate environment but later experience a different one, their plans will be adversely affected. The very essence and purpose of interest rates is to coordinate the plans of savers and investors over time, so this confusion cannot be a good thing.

Without saying it in so many words, the two authors also accuse the Fed of reverting to old-line Keynesian habits. This wouldn’t be surprising in view of Chairwoman Janet Yellen’s left-wing Keynesian ideological slant. The hoary Phillips Curve tradeoff between inflation and unemployment has apparently been resuscitated with the Fed’s pathological fear of deflation, insistence on a 2% annual rate of inflation as a positive goal and Ahab-like pursuit of the ever-receding goal of “full employment.” Calomiris and Ireland insist that falling oil prices are not something to be feared and cannot – in and of themselves – cause a deflationary Depression. Only a sudden and severe decline in the money supply can do that. In effect, they are invoking the spirit of Milton Friedman’s famous dictum, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon” – only in reverse gear.

The Fed’s problem is that Keynesians like Yellen were trained to believe that the interest-rate hike they are now advertising will torpedo an economic expansion – and the existence of a current expansion is the ostensible justification for the interest-rate hike in the first place. As the two authors point out, “even with a hike beginning in midyear, interest rates would remain very low and still well below the inflation rate, implying a negative real interest rate. Prior rate hikes in similar circumstances in 1994 and 2004 did not throw the economy into recession.

Calomiris and Ireland also resurrect another Friedmanism – his famous reference to the “long and variable lags” with which changes in the monetary policy affect the economy. Since 2011, the broad measure of the money supply, M2, has increased at an annual rate of over 6%. The two men see the excess reserves of banks gradually being absorbed into the economy after long sitting idle on deposit at the Fed. This will eventually – sooner rather than later – ratchet the annual rate of inflation toward and above the Fed’s target rate of 2% and completely offset the downward price momentum created by the decline in oil prices. Why, they complain, doesn’t the Fed own up to this?

Thus, the Fed’s case in favor of its announced policy is vastly stronger than the Fed pretends. The Fed is acting as though it doesn’t believe in its own policy.

The Crowning Irony

As if all this weren’t enough to leave any sensible observer groggy, we are forced to acknowledge that the Fed’s critics – fans of interest-rate hikes who are itching to “get back to a normal monetary policy” – suffer from their own blind spot.

Ironically, Calomiris, Ireland and Malekan are so dumbfounded by the Fed’s progressive march away from monetary reality that they haven’t noticed how far into the swamp that march has taken us. Having marched in, we can’t just turn around and march back out again and expect that the exit will be as smooth as the entry.

Calomiris and Ireland cite the interest-rate hikes of 1994 and 2004 as precedent for the one upcoming in June. But the previous increases did not take place in an economy staggering under the public and private debt load we carry today. Malekan cites the quarter-basis-point increase derisively; who’s afraid of a big, bad quarter point, anyhow, he laughs? Hell, we used to live with real interest rates of 5.4% in the old days. So we did, but then the federal-government debt wasn’t $14 trillion, either. We weren’t forced to finance federal-government debt with short-term debt instruments to hold down the rate. If we had to pay even halfway realistic interest rates on our current debt, the federal-government budget would be eaten alive. Suddenly, the U.S. would become Europe – no, it would become Greece, facing a full-blown fiscal crisis that would instantly become a political crisis.

Oh. Well, then – maybe it’s right to be so cautious, after all. Come to think of it, maybe we shouldn’t increase rates at all. Maybe we’re just stuck. You know, life really isn’t so bad. After all, unemployment has declined to the neighborhood of 5%. The economy is growing – slowly, but it’s growing. Let’s just stay where we are, then. Why is the Fed even talking about increasing rates?

From Op-ed Page to Front Page

Let’s jump from the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal to the front page. The headline for 02/19/2015 reads: “Borrowers Flock to Subprime Loans.” Uh-oh; déjà vu all over again. “Loans to consumers with low credit scores have reached the highest level since the start of the financial crisis, driven by a boom in car lending and a new crop of companies extending credit. Almost four of every 10 loans to autos, credit cards and personal borrowing in the U.S. went to subprime customers in the first 11 months of 2014,” based on data supplied by Equifax.

In other words, the ultra-low interest rates stage-managed by the Fed have paved the way for a new financial crisis. The lead-in to the article didn’t even mention student loans, probably because the category of “subprime” is not meaningful for that type of loan. The auto-loan, credit-card and personal-finance industries are different from real estate. Banks no longer face the same risk exposures as they did in the early years of this millennium. Various elements of this impending crisis differ from the mortgage-finance-dominated crisis that preceded it. To be sure, history does not repeat itself – but it does rhyme, in the words of one sage observer.

It has now penetrated even the thick skulls of Federal Reserve policymakers, though, that asset bubbles are not born spontaneously. They are generated by bad government policies, with interest-rate manipulation prominent among those. It cannot have escaped notice that fixed investment during the six years of ZIRP and QE has fallen to anemic levels. Apparently, it is not so much low interest rates that promote healthy levels of investment as real, genuine interest rates – that is, interest rates that actually reflect and coordinate the desires of savers and investors.

Savers are people who plan savings today and on an ongoing basis to provide for future consumption. Investors are people who plan investments today and on an ongoing basis to provide the future productive capacity that makes future consumption possible. Interest rates coordinate the activities of these two groups of market participants over differing future time periods. This serves to coordinate intertemporal production and consumption in a manner analogous to the way that the prices of goods and services coordinate production and consumption over short-term time periods. (In this connection, “short-term” refers to time periods too short for interest rates to play the major role.)

When the interest rates prevailing in the market are not real interest rates but the artificial interest rates controlled by a central authority, that means that rates are not performing their vital coordinative function. And that means that future investments fail because investors were responding to a false market signal, one that told them that savers wanted more future goods and services in the future than were actually wanted. Having been burned very badly by this process just a few years ago, investors evidently aren’t about to be suckered again. They’re sitting things out, waiting for markets to normalize so they can invest in a market environment that works instead of one that fails. (The exceptions are situations in which “the fix is in;” when investors can get subsidies from government or are sure they will be bailed out in case of failure.)

If this comes as a surprise, it shouldn’t. Over a 70-year period, the Soviet Union tried to live without functioning capital markets. Any mention of interest rates was verboten in Communist circles, but after a while the need for intertemporal coordination in production was so crying that Soviet planners had to invent the concept of an interest rate. But they couldn’t call their invention an interest rate without risking execution, so they called it an “efficiency index.” Alas, merely calling it that did not actually give it the coordinative properties possessed by genuine market interest rates and the Soviet economy collapsed under the weight of its failures in the late 1980s. Similarly, the Chinese Communist economy got nowhere until, in desperation, Deng Xiaoping liberated market forces sufficiently to allow flexible prices and interest rates to prevail in an independent, competitive sector of the Chinese economy. And it was this sector that thrived and promoted Chinese economic growth, while the official, government-controlled sector stagnated.

More and more, respected commentators and observers across the spectrum are speaking out about the untenable status quo into which the Fed has forced us. The speech usually takes the form of grumbling about the need for return to a “more normal” policy. Of course, the problem is that any sort of normal policy is now impossible given the box we are in, but the point is that recognition of the harm caused by ZIRP and QE is becoming general.

So the Fed can’t just sit tight either, much as it would like to. The pressure to change the status quo has built up and is growing by the day. If the Fed continues to stall, it will be obvious to all and sundry that its so-called political independence is a fiction and that its policy is aimed at saving the government’s skin by preserving deficit finance and stalling off fiscal reform.

Actually, the proper metaphor for our current dilemma is probably that of a man riding a tiger. Once the man is atop the tiger, he faces a pair of impossible, or at least wildly unattractive, options. If he gets off, the tiger will kill and eat him. But if he stays on, he will be scratched, clawed and whipsawed to death eventually. Really, the question he must be asking himself as he tries desperately to hang on is: How in the world did I ever get myself in this position?

That question is purely academic to the man on the tiger but vitally important to us as we contemplate the Fed’s dilemma. How in the world did the Fed every get itself in this no-win situation? What made it seem attractive for the Fed to follow a policy that now seems disastrous? Alternatively, what made it seem necessary?

The Keynesian Link With ZIRP: Keynes’ Embrace of Marx

Close students of John Maynard Keynes know that Keynesian economic theory was mostly the work of Keynes’ followers. Students like Nicholas Kaldor, Piero Sraffa, Joan Robinson, Richard Kahn and John Hicks made numerous contributions to the theory that eventually dominated macroeconomics textbooks for some four decades and still survives today in skeletal form.

Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson once observed that Keynes’ General Theory was a work of genius in spite of its poor organization, confusing theoretical structure and intermittent moments of inspiration. Even more pertinent to our present predicament is that the second half of The General Theory leaves economics behind and takes up the cause of social policy.

Keynes faulted capitalism for its preoccupation with what he called the “fetish of liquidity.” It was the capitalist’s insistence on liquidity that underlay the speculative demand for money, which created idle balances that thwarted the expenditure of money necessary to purchase the short-term full-employment level of output. The payment of interest similarly thwarted the level of investment requisite for long-term full-employment. Capitalism would have to be supplanted with a kind of quasi-socialism in order for the market order to be preserved.

The linchpin of this new, stable market order would be a government-directed investment policy specifically intent on driving the rate of interest to zero by injecting fiat money as necessary.Only then would long-term investment would be maximized because the marginal efficiency of investment would be zero. (Another way of characterizing this outcome would be to say that all possible benefit would be squeezed out of investment.) Reading this second section of the General Theory makes it clear that Keynes was the original impetus behind ZIRP.

Keynes’ antipathy towards capitalism and the charging of interest brought him into general sympathy with Marx. Although they reached their respective conclusions by different routes, they both fervently sought the negation of capital markets and the castration of capitalism. Keynes felt he was preserving the institution of private property while Marx sought to destroy it, but in practice Keynesianism and Marxism have had similar effects on free markets and private property.

Should we be surprised, then, that Keynesians in Japan and the U.S. unveiled ZIRP to the world? Certainly not. ZIRP was the deep-seated secret desire of their hearts, the long-denied, long-awaited desideratum for which the financial crisis finally provided the pretext.

Reconsidering the Financial Rescue

Malekan no doubt echoed the views of most when he blandly observed that “although at the time few could argue with the need for such extraordinary Fed action.” He then went on to insist that things were different now and ZIRP and QE had outlived their usefulness and were no longer needed. But our full analysis suggests something quite different. If the Fed’s actions got us into a box from which there is no escape, then the only answer to the dilemma we face today is: Don’t get ourselves into this situation in the first place.

That means that we shouldn’t have ratcheted up federal-government debt with the Obama stimulus – or, for that matter, the Bush stimulus that preceded it. That conclusion will not resonate with most observers, given the overwhelming consensus that we had to do something to prevent the recurrence of a 1930s-style Depression and that massive government stimulus was the only thing to do. But we certainly aren’t forced to take that consensus verdict at face value now, six years after the fact. Six years ago, we felt under time pressure to do something fast, before it was too late. Now we have the luxury of retrospective review.

Neither stimulus lifted the U.S. economy out of recession. The Obama stimulus had hardly been spent when the U.S. economy officially emerged from recession in June, 2009. The unemployment rate declined with painful slowness in the six years after the stimulus, notwithstanding that academic students of economics are taught that the only theoretical rationale for preferring stimulative policies is that they act faster than waiting for markets to eliminate unemployment on their own. There is compelling evidence that the decline in unemployment resulted mostly from long-term departures from the labor force and elimination of unemployment-benefit extensions rather than from job creation. Malekan remarks that “the fact that there is a debate about a quarter-point rate hike tells us that extraordinarily low interest rates have mostly failed to deliver a robust recovery. That people opposed to even the tiniest increase in rates are resorting to hyperbole tells us that they too know this.” And what did we get for what Malekan calls “modest benefits,” but what we can see are really almost no benefits but a flock of trouble? We are riding a tiger with no way out of the fix that confronts us.

Although the reflex action of critics and commentators was to blame the financial crisis and the Great Recession on the usual suspects – greedy capitalists, Wall Street and deregulation – the passage of time has produced numerous studies decisively refuting this emotive response. The roster of government failures at the local, state and federal level was so lengthy that no single study has comprehensively included them all. That lengthy list is the only bit of evidence implying that things could have been worse than they actually were. Everything else – a priori logic and the long history of recessions since the founding of the republic – leads us to think that if left alone to recover, the U.S. economy would be vastly better off now than it actually is.

James Grant has recently written at book length about the severe U.S. recession of 1920-1921, which lasted no more than eighteen months despite no countercyclical government action at all. This is a template for government (in-) action in the face of impending recession. We have tried every form of preventive, stimulative and recuperative remedy the mind of man can devise and they have all failed. Maybe, if we’re lucky, we will someday have the chance to try the free-market cure.

DRI-135 for week of 1-4-15: Flexible Wages and Prices: Economic Shock Absorbers

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Flexible Wages and Prices: Economic Shock Absorbers

At the same times that free markets are becoming an endangered species in our daily lives, they enjoy a lively literary existence. The latest stimulating exercise in free-market thought is The Forgotten Depression: 1921 – The Crash That Cured Itself. The author is James Grant, well-known in financial circles as editor/publisher of “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer.” For over thirty years, Grant has cast a skeptical eye on the monetary manipulations of governments and central banks. Now he casts his gimlet gaze backward on economic history. The result is electrifying.

The Recession/Depression of 1920-1921

The U.S. recession of 1920-1921 is familiar to students of business cycles and few others. It was a legacy of World War I. Back then, governments tended to finance wars through money creation. Invariably this led to inflation. In the U.S., the last days of the war and its immediate aftermath were boom times. As usual – when the boom was the artifact of money creation – the boom went bust.

Grant recounts the bust in harrowing detail.  In 1921, industrial production fell by 31.6%, a staggering datum when we recall that the U.S. was becoming the world’s leading manufacturer. (The President’s Conference on Unemployment reported in 1929 that 1921 was the only year after 1899 in which industrial production had declined.) Gross national product (today we would cite gross domestic product; neither statistic was actually calculated at that time) fell about 24% in between 1920 and 1921 in nominal dollars, or 9% when account is taken of price changes. (Grant compares this to the figures for the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009, which were 2.4% and 4.3%, respectively.) Corporate profits nosedived commensurately. Stocks plummeted; the Dow Jones Industrial average fell by 46.6% between the cyclical peak of November, 1919 and trough of August, 1921. According to Grant, “the U.S. suffered the steepest plunge in wholesale prices in its history (not even eclipsed by the Great Depression),” over 36% within 12 months. Unemployment rose dramatically to a level of some 4,270,000 in 1921 – and included even the President of General Motors, Billy Durant. (As the price of GM’s shares fell, he augmented his already-sizable shareholdings by buying on margin – ending up flat broke and out of a job.) Although the Department of Labor did not calculate an “unemployment rate” at that time, Grant estimates the nonfarm labor force at 27,989,000, which would have made the simplest measure of the unemployment rate 15.3%. (That is, it would have undoubtedly included labor-force dropouts and part-time workers who preferred full-time employment.)

A telling indicator of the dark mood enveloping the nation was passage of the Quota Act, the first step on the road to systematic federal limitation of foreign immigration into the U.S. The quota was fixed at 3% of foreign nationals present in each of the 48 states as of 1910. That year evidently reflected nostalgia for pre-war conditions since the then-popular agricultural agitation for farm-price “parity” sought to peg prices to levels at that same time.

In the Great Recession and accompanying financial panic of 2008 and subsequently, we had global warming and tsunamis in Japan and Indonesia to distract us. In 1920-1921, Prohibition had already shut down the legal liquor business, shuttering bars and nightclubs. A worldwide flu pandemic had killed hundreds of thousands. The Black Sox had thrown the 1919 World Series at the behest of gamblers.

The foregoing seems to make a strong prima facie case that the recession of 1920 turned into the depression of 1921. That was the judgment of the general public and contemporary commentators. Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce under Republican President Warren G. Harding, who followed wartime President Woodrow Wilson in 1920, compiled many of the statistics Grant cites while chairman of the President’s Conference on Unemployment. He concurred with that judgment. So did the founder of the study of business cycles, the famous institutional economist Wesley C. Mitchell, who influenced colleagues as various and eminent as Thorstein Veblen, Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek and John Kenneth Galbraith. Mitchell referred to “…the boom of 1919, the crisis of 1920 and the depression of 1921 [that] followed the patterns of earlier cycles.”

By today’s lights, the stage was set for a gigantic wave of federal-government intervention, a gargantuan stimulus program. Failing that, economists would have us believe, the economy would sink like a stone into a pit of economic depression from which it would likely never emerge.

What actually happened in 1921, however, was entirely different.

The Depression That Didn’t Materialize

We may well wonder what might have happened if the Democrats had retained control of the White House and Congress. Woodrow Wilson and his advisors (notably his personal secretary, Joseph Tumulty) had greatly advanced the project of big government begun by Progressive Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. During World War I, the Wilson administration seized control of the railroads, the telephone companies and the telegraph companies. It levied wage and price controls. The spirit of the Wilson administration’s efforts is best characterized by the statement of the Chief Price Controller of the War Industries Board, Robert Brookings. “I would rather pay a dollar a pound for [gun]powder for the United States in a state of war if there was no profit in it than pay the DuPont Company 50 cents a pound if they had 10 cents profit in it.” Of course, Mr. Brookings was not actually himself buying the gunpowder; the government was only representing the taxpayers (of whom Mr. Brookings was presumably one). And their attitude toward taxpayers was displayed by the administration’s transformation of an income tax initiated at insignificant levels in 1913 and to a marginal rate of 77% (!!) on incomes exceeding $1 million.

But Wilson’s obsession with the League of Nations and his 14 points for international governance had not only ruined his health, it had ruined his party’s standing with the electorate. In 1920, Republican Warren G. Harding was elected President. (The Republicans had already gained substantial Congressional majorities in the off-year elections of 1918.) Except for Hoover, the Harding circle of advisors was comprised largely of policy skeptics – people who felt there was nothing to be done in the face of an economic downturn but wait it out. After all, the U.S. had endured exactly this same phenomenon of economic boom, financial panic and economic bust before in 1812, 1818, 1825, 1837, 1847, 1857, 1873, 1884, 1890, 1893, 1903, 1907, 1910 and 1913. The U.S. economy had not remained mired in depression; it had emerged from all these recessions – or, in the case of 1873, a depression. If the 19th-century system of free markets were to be faulted, it would not be for failure to lift itself out of recession or depression, but for repeatedly re-entering the cycle of boom and bust.

There was no Federal Reserve to flood the economy with liquidity or peg interest rates at artificially low levels or institute a “zero interest-rate policy.” Indeed, the rules of the gold-standard “game” called for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates to stem the inflation that still raged in the aftermath of World War I. Had it not done so, a gold outflow might theoretically have drained the U.S. dry.  The Fed did just that, and interest rates hovered around 8% for the duration. Deliberate deficit spending as an economic corrective would have been viewed as madness. As Grant put it, “laissez faire had its last hurrah in 1921.”

What was the result?

In the various individual industries, prices and wages and output fell like a stone. Auto production fell by 23%. General Motors, as previously noted, was particularly hard hit. It went from selling 52,000 vehicles per month to selling 13,000 to 6,150 in the space of seven months. Some $85 million in inventory was eventually written off in losses.

Hourly manufacturing wages fell by 22%. Average disposable income in agriculture, which comprised just under 20% of the economy, fell by over 55%. Bankruptcies overall tripled to nearly 20,000 over the two years ending in 1921. In Kansas City, MO, a haberdashery shop run by Harry Truman and Eddie Jacobson held out through 1920 before finally folding in 1921. The resulting personal bankruptcy and debt plagued the partners for years. Truman evaded it by taking a job as judge of the Jackson County Court, where his salary was secure against liens. But his bank accounts were periodically raided by bill collectors for years until 1935, when he was able to buy up the remaining debt at a devalued price.

In late 1920, Ford Motor Co. cut the price of its Model T by 25%. GM at first resisted price cuts but eventually followed suit. Farmers, who as individuals had no control over the price of their products, had little choice but to cut costs and increase productivity – increasing output was an individual’s only way to increase income. When all or most farmers succeeded, this produced lower prices. How much lower? Grant: “In the second half of [1920], the average price of 10 leading crops fell by 57 percent.” But how much more food can humans eat; how many more clothes can they wear? Since the price- and income-elasticities of demand for agricultural goods were less than one, this meant that agricultural revenue and incomes fell.

As noted by Wesley Mitchell, the U.S. slump was not unique but rather part of a global depression that began as a series of commodity-price crashes in Japan, the U.K., France, Italy, Germany, India, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands and Australia. It encompassed commodities including pig iron, beef, hemlock, Portland cement, bricks, coal, crude oil and cotton.

Banks that had speculative commodity positions were caught short. Among these was the largest bank in the U.S., National City Bank, which had loaned extensively to finance the sugar industry in Cuba. Sugar prices were brought down in the commodity crash and brought the bank down with them. That is, the bank would have failed had it not received sweetheart loans from the Federal Reserve.

Today, the crash of prices would be called “deflation.” So it was called then and with much more precision. Today, deflation can mean anything from the kind of nosediving general price level seen in 1920-1921 to relatively stable prices to mild inflation – in short, any general level of prices that does not rise fast enough to suit a commentator.

But there was apparently general acknowledgment that deflation was occurring in the depression of 1921. Yet few people apart from economists found that ominous. And for good reason. Because after some 18 months of panic, recession and depression – the U.S. economy recovered. Just as it had done 14 times previously.

 

It didn’t merely recover. It roared back to life. President Harding died suddenly in 1923, but under President Coolidge the U.S. economy experienced the “Roaring 20s.” This was an economic boom fueled by low tax rates and high productivity, the likes of which would not be seen again until the 1980s. It was characterized by innovation and investment. Unfortunately, in the latter stages, the Federal Reserve forgot the lessons of 1921 and increases the money supply to “keep the price level stable” and prevent deflation in the face of the wave of innovation and productivity increases. This helped to usher in the Great Depression, along with numerous policy errors by the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations.

Economists like Keynes, Irving Fisher and Gustav Cassel were dumbfounded. They had expected deflation to flatten the U.S. economy like a pancake, increasing the real value of debts owed by debtor classes and discouraging consumers from spending in the expectation that prices would fall in the future. Not.

There was no economic stimulus. No TARP, no ZIRP, no QE. No wartime controls. No meddlesome regulation a la Theodore Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson. The Harding administration and the Fed left the economy alone to readjust and – mirabile dictu – it readjusted. In spite of the massive deflation or, much more likely, because of it.

The (Forgotten) Classical Theory of Flexible Wages and Prices

James Grant wants us to believe that this outcome was no accident. The book jacket for the Forgotten Depression bills it as “a free-market rejoinder to Bush’s and Obama’s Keynesian stimulus applied to the 2007-9 recession,” which “proposes ‘less is more’ with respect to federal intervention.”

His argument is almost entirely empirical and very heavily oriented to the 1920-1921 depression. That is deliberate; he cites the 14 previous cyclical contractions but focuses on this one for obvious reasons. It was the last time that free markets were given the opportunity to cure a depression; both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt supervised heavy, continual interference with markets from 1929 through 1941. We have much better data on the 1920-21 episode than, say, the 1873 depression.

Readers may wonder, though, whether there is underlying logical support for the result achieved by the deflation of 1921. Can the chorus of economists advocating stimulative policy today really be wrong?

Prior to 1936, the policy chorus was even louder. Amazing as it now seems, it advocated the stance taken by Harding et al. Classical economists propounded the theory of flexible wages and prices as an antidote to recession and depression. And, without stating it in rigorous fashion, that is the theory that Grant is following in his book.

Using the language of modern macroeconomics, the problems posed by cyclical downturns are unemployment due to a sudden decline in aggregate (effective) demand for goods and services. The decline in aggregate demand causes declines in demand for all or most goods; the decline in demand for goods causes declines in demand for all or most types of labor. As a first approximation, this produces surpluses of goods and labor. The surplus of labor is defined as unemployment.

The classical economists pointed out that, while the shock of a decline in aggregate demand could cause temporary dislocations such as unsold goods and unemployment, this was not a permanent condition. Flexible wages and prices could, like the shock absorbers on an automobile, absorb the shock of the decline in aggregate demand and return the economy to stability.

Any surplus creates an incentive for sellers to lower price and buyers to increase purchases. As long as the surplus persists, the downward pressure on price will remain. And as the price (or wage) falls toward the new market-clearing point, the amount produced and sold (or the amount of labor offered and purchases) will increase once more.

Flexibility of wages and prices is really a two-part process. Part one works to clear the surpluses created by the initial decline in aggregate demand. In labor markets, this serves to preserve the incomes of workers who remain willing to work at the now-lower market wage. If they were unemployed, they would have no wage, but working at a lower wage gives them a lower nominal income than before. That is only part of this initial process, though. Prices in product markets are decreasing alongside the declining wages. In principle, fully flexible prices and wages would mean that even though the nominal incomes of workers would decline, their real incomes would be restored by the decline of all prices in equal proportion. If your wage falls by (say) 20%, declines in all prices by 20% should leave you able to purchase the same quantities of goods and services as before.

The emphasis on real magnitudes rather than nominal magnitudes gives rise to the name given to the second part of this process. It is called the real-balance effect. It was named by the classical economist A. C. Pigou and refined by later macroeconomist Don Patinkin.

When John Maynard Keynes wrote his General Theory of Employment Interest and Income in 1936, he attacked classical economists by attacking the concepts of flexible wages and prices. First, he attacked their feasibility. Then, he attacked their desirability.

Flexible wages were not observed in reality because workers would not consent to downward revisions in wages, Keynes maintained. Did Keynes really believe that workers preferred to be unemployed and earn zero wages at a relatively high market wage rather than work and earn a lower market wage? Well, he said that workers oriented their thinking toward the nominal wage rather than the real wage and thus did not perceive that they had regained their former position with lower prices and a lower wage. (This became known as the fallacy of money illusion.) His followers spent decades trying to explain what he really meant or revising his words or simply ignoring his actual words. (It should be noted, however, that Keynes was English and trade unions exerted vastly greater influence on prevailing wage levels in England that they did in the U.S. for at least the first three-quarters of the 20th century. This may well have biased Keynes’ thinking.)

Keynes also decried the assumption of flexible prices for various reasons, some of which continue to sway economists today. The upshot is that macroeconomics has lost touch with the principles of price flexibility. Even though Keynes’ criticisms of the classical economists and the price system were discredited in strict theory, they were accepted de facto by macroeconomists because it was felt that flexible wages and prices would take too long to work, while macroeconomic policy could be formulated and deployed relatively quickly. Why make people undergo the misery of unemployment and insolvency when we can relieve their anxiety quickly and compassionately by passing laws drafted by macroeconomists on the President’s Council of Economic Advisors?

Let’s Compare

Thanks to James Grant, we now have an empirical basis for comparison between policy regimes. In 1920-1921, the old-fashioned classical medicine of deflation, flexible wages and prices and the real-balance effect took 18 months to turn a panic, recession and depression into a rip-roaring recovery that lasted 8 years.

Fast forward to December, 2007. The recession has begun. Unfortunately, it is not detected until September, 2008, when the financial panic begins. The stimulus package is not passed until January, 2009 – barely in time for the official end of the recession in June, 2009. Whoops – unemployment is still around 10% and remains stubbornly high until 2013. Moreover, it only declines because Americans have left the labor force in numbers not seen for over thirty years. The recovery, such as it is, is so anemic as to hardly merit the name – and it is now over 7 years since the onset of recession in December, 2007.

 

It is no good complaining that the stimulus package was not large enough because we are comparing it with a case in which the authorities did nothing – or rather, did nothing stimulative, since their interest-rate increase should properly be termed contractionary. That is exactly what macroeconomists call it when referring to Federal Reserve policy in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, when they blame Fed policy and high interest rates for prolonging the Depression. Shouldn’t they instead be blaming the continual series of government interventions by the Fed and the federal government under Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt? And we didn’t even count the stimulus package introduced by the Bush administration, which came and went without making a ripple in term of economic effect.

Economists Are Lousy Accident Investigators 

For nearly a century, the economics profession has accused free markets of possessing faulty shock absorbers; namely, inflexible wages and prices. When it comes to economic history, economists are obviously lousy accident investigators. They have never developed a theory of business cycles but have instead assumed a decline in aggregate demand without asking why it occurred. In figurative terms, they have assumed the cause of the “accident” (the recession or the depression). Then they have made a further assumption that the failure of the “vehicle’s” (the economy’s) automatic guidance system to prevent (or mitigate) the accident was due to “faulty shock absorbers” (inflexible wages and prices).

Would an accident investigator fail to visit the scene of the accident? The economics profession has largely failed to investigate the flexibility of wages and prices even in the Great Depression, let alone the thirty-odd other economic contractions chronicled by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The work of researchers like Murray Rothbard, Vedder and Galloway, Benjamin Anderson and Harris Warren overturns the mainstream presumption of free-market failure.

The biggest empirical failure of all is one ignored by Grant; namely, the failure to demonstrate policy success. If macroeconomic policy worked as advertised, then we would not have recessions in the first place and could reliably end them once they began. In fact, we still have cyclical downturns and cannot use policy to end them and macroeconomists can point to no policy successes to bolster their case.

Now we have this case study by James Grant that provides meticulous proof that deflation – full-blooded, deep-throated, hell-for-leather deflation in no uncertain terms – put a prompt, efficacious end to what must be called an economic depression.

Combine this with the 40-year-long research project conducted on Keynesian theory, culminating in its final discrediting by the early 1980s. Throw in the existence of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory, which combines the monetary theory of Ludwig von Mises and interest-rate theory of Knut Wicksell with the dynamic synthesis developed by F. A. Hayek. This theory cannot be called complete because it lacks a fully worked out capital theory to complete the integration of monetary and value theory. (We might think of this as the economic version of the Unified Field Theory in the natural sciences.) But an incomplete valid theory beats a discredited theory every time.

In other words, free-market economics has an explanation for why the accident repeatedly happens and why its effects can be mitigated by the economy’s automatic guidance mechanism without the need for policy action by government. It also explains why the policy actions are ineffective at both remedial and preventive action in the field of accidents.

James Grant’s book will take its place in the pantheon of economic history as the outstanding case study to date of a self-curing depression.

DRI-186 for week of 1-5-14: The Secular Stagnation of Macroeconomic Thought

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The Secular Stagnation of Macroeconomic Thought

The topic du jour in economic-policy circles is “secular stagnation,” thanks to two recent speeches on that topic by high-powered macroeconomist Lawrence Summers. The term originated just after World War II when Keynesian economists, particularly Alvin Hansen, used it to justify their forecast of the high unemployment and low growth that ostensibly awaited the U.S. after the war.

Now, nearly 70 years later, it is back. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, monetary economist John Taylor likened its re-emergence to a vampire arising from his crypt. There is indeed something ghoulish about the propensity of Keynesian economists to ransack outdated textbooks in search of conceptual support for their latest brainstorm.

The backstory behind secular stagnation is only half the story, though. The other half is the insight it offers into the mindset of its patrons.

The Birth of the Secular Stagnation Hypothesis

As World War II drew to a close, economists gradually turned their attention to a problem that had intermittently occupied them since the late 1930s. The Great Depression had soured the profession on the workings of free markets. The publication of John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory of Employment Interest and Money had suggested a new framework for economic analysis that placed emphasis on unemployment and its elimination. While war mobilization had made this issue moot, the return of servicemen and readjustment to a peacetime economy brought it back to prominence.

Many Keynesians foresaw a return to mass unemployment and Depression. The leading American exponent, Alvin Hansen, developed a specific hypothesis along those lines. Keynes had posited a simple theory of aggregate consumption: consumption was a stable, linear function of income. These properties implied that, over time, it might become progressively more difficult to maintain full employment.

A numerical example using the simple Keynesian macroeconomic model will clarify this point. Y = real income or output, which is the sum of C (Consumption), I (Investment) and G (net Government spending). Further, C is a linear function of Y; that is, C = a + bY, where the “a” term reflects the influence on Consumption of factors other than real income and “b” (the slope of the Consumption function depicted diagrammatically) is the marginal propensity to consume from additional income acquired. Assume, purely for expository purposes, that a = 50, b = .75, I = 100 and G = 100. If Y = 1000, then C = 50 + .75 (1000) = 800. The influence of technology, which improves from year to year, will cause productivity to increase and output to increase over time, all other things equal. Assume, again purely for illustrative purposes, that this increase is 5%. In that case, the full employment level of income will increase from 1000 to 1050. But C does not increase by 5% to 840; it increases only to 837.50. In order to preserve full employment (according to Keynesian logic), the sum of I and G will have to increase by 212.50, an increase of 6.25% over its previous value of 200 – which is more than 5%. Over time, this putative annual shortfall in Consumption would get larger and larger, requiring successively larger doses of I and G to keep us at full employment.

Already we can see the germ of logic behind Hansen’s secular stagnation hypothesis, which is that Consumption over time will fall farther and farther behind the level necessary to preserve full employment. (The word “secular” does not reflect its customary meaning of “non-religious or worldly” but rather its technical economic meaning of “a long time series of indefinite duration.”) Underconsumption is a theme dear to the hearts of Keynesian economists. In this case, it depends as a first approximation on the algebraic structure of the simple Keynesian model, in which Consumption is a simple linear function of income (Y).

There was much more to the analysis than this. In principle, Consumption might increase for reasons unrelated to income. But Hansen predicted just the opposite. He believed the primary source of autonomous increases in Consumption was population growth, and he foresaw a sharp in U.S. population growth after the war. He was equally pessimistic about increases in autonomous Investment because he thought the highest-returning investments had already been tapped. Thus, by default, government deficit spending was the only possible remedy for progressively worsening unemployment and stagnating economic growth – hence the term “secular stagnation.”

The Gruesome Death of the Secular Stagnation Hypothesis

Alvin Hansen was known as the “American Keynes.” Presumably this was because of the apostolic fervor with which he preached Keynesian gospel. In this case, he shared something else with Keynes: the thoroughness with which history repudiated his ideas.

Hansen predicted population decline. Instead, the U.S. experienced the biggest baby boom in history. Among other effects, this produced an explosion of household investment in consumer durables such as homes, automobiles and appliances. The shortages and government-imposed rationing of World War II had generated a pent-up demand that burst its boundaries in the postwar climate.

Rather than unemployment and depression, the U.S. enjoyed one of its biggest expansions ever in 1946. This eventually created problems when, during the Korean War, the Truman administration preferred to fund the war via money creation rather than employing the borrowing that had financed most defense expenditures during World War II. The result was inflation, which the Administration countered with wage and price controls.

The U.S. had borrowed to the max in its conquest over the Axis powers, with debt climbing to its highest level as a percentage of national output. In his recent book, David Stockman pointed out the important role played by the Eisenhower Administration in paying down this debt and returning a semblance of sanity to federal-government spending.

This combination of private-sector buoyancy and government fiscal retrenchment left no need or room for the Keynesian remedy proposed by Hansen. As the 1950s unfolded, economic theoreticians on all sides of the spectrum delivered the coup de grace to the secular stagnation hypothesis.

In 1957, Milton Friedman presented his “permanent income” hypothesis of consumption spending, which fleshed out the individual utility-maximizing theory of consumer behavior with the picture of a consumer whose spending is governed by an estimation of lifetime or “permanent” income. He or she will tend to dissave by borrowing when young and by drawing down accumulated assets when old, meanwhile accumulating assets via saving in prime earning years. It is not actual or realized income so much as this individualized conception of expected normal income that influences consumption spending.

Keynesian Franco Modigliani developed his own theory of “life cycle” consumption, rather broadly similar to Friedman’s, within the same time frame. Left-wing economist James Duesenberry developed a “relative income” hypothesis stating that consumption was influenced by the consumer’s income relative to that of others. While there were important theoretical and practical differences between the three theories, they all rejected the simple Keynesian linear dependence of consumption on income. And this drove a stake through the heart of the secularly widening gap between consumption and income. The slats had been kicked out from under the secular-stagnation platform.

The secular stagnation hypothesis had already been proved to be a resounding flop in practice. Now it was shown to be wrong in theory as well. Before Keynesian economics had even been adopted on a wholesale basis, it had suffered its first crushing defeat.

The Rise of the Undead: Secular Stagnation Rises from the Crypt

Broadway impresarios sometimes revive past productions, but they invariably choose to revive hit plays rather than flops. Based on its first run, secular stagnation would not seem to be a prime candidate for revival. Nevertheless, Lawrence Summers mounted a new version of the concept and took it out of town for a tryout in two recent speeches, supplemented by comments on subsequent blog posts.

In his first speech, made to the International Monetary Fund Research Council, Summers grappled with the theoretical issues involved in resurrecting Hansen’s ancient bogeyman. Paraphrasing Clemenceau on war and generals, Summers mused that “finance is too important to be left to financiers.” The U.S. quickly recovered from the financial panic of 2008-09, but the ensuing four years brought astonishingly little progress when measured in standard macroeconomic metrics like employment and output growth. Although the term “secular stagnation” has long been neglected by his profession, Summers now finds it “not…without relevance” in understanding our current situation.

If the U.S. suffered a mass power blackout, output would fall precipitously. It would be idiotic for economists to object that electricity constitutes “only 4%” of total output – obviously, its importance is not indicated by its fraction of total output. Similarly, finance should be viewed in the same light – as the intermediating, lubricating force that enables the bulk of our goods and services. If a power blackout did occur, we would naturally expect restoration of service to be followed by a catch-up period of increased output, rather than the sort of prolonged stagnation we have actually experienced after the financial crisis. So why hasn’t it happened?

Summers’ explanation to the IMF audience was technical – that the “natural rate of interest” is negative; e.g., below zero. “We may need to think about we manage an economy in which the zero nominal interest rate is a chronic and systemic inhibitor of economic activity, holding our economies back, below their potential.” Summers means that the practical inability to charge negative rates of interest – e.g., subsidize loans rather than charge money for them – is what is chaining the U.S. economy down.

In his second speech and follow-up blog  comments, Summers elaborated on the policy implications of his musings. “Our economy is constrained by lack of demand rather than lack of supply. Increasing our capacity to produce will not translate into increased output unless there is more demand for goods and services.” Of course, this is the old-time Keynesian religion of underconsumption, set to the background music of Cole Porter’s “Everything Old is New Again.” Secular stagnation has been brought down from the attic, fumigated with a dusting of demographics (the declining U.S. birth rate) to remove the stench of disgrace left by Hansen.

We need to “end the disastrous trends toward less and less government spending and employment each year.” In other words, the problem is not that we overspent and created too much sovereign debt in 2008-09; the problem is that we spent too little – and then cut spending after that. We should replace coal-first power plants – that will necessitate a huge program of capital spending to keep the power on. Following Keynes, Summers stresses the importance of supporting domestic demand by improving the trade balance.

Just as this program begins to sound suspiciously like a hair of the dog that bit us – or maybe the entire hair coat – Summers removes all doubt. It is “a chimera to rely on regulation” to pop asset bubbles in the face of the monetary excess necessary to underpin his program.

At the close of his first speech, Summers provided the only saving grace with the caveat: “This may all be madness and I may not have this right at all.”

Krugman’s Endorsement of Summers: For This We Need Economists?

Summers’ revival of the secular stagnation hypothesis was the talk of policymaking circles. Half of the talk was probably devoted to wondering what Summers was saying; the other half to wondering why he was saying it. Perhaps trying to be helpful, Summers’ partner in Keynesian crime Paul Krugman weighed in with his own interpretation of Summers’ remarks.

Inevitably, Krugman’s own views crept in to his discussion. The result was a blog post that could scarcely be believed even when read. (Readers with broad minds and strong stomachs are referred to “Secular Stagnation, Coalmines, Bubbles, and Larry Summers,” 11/16/2013, on the Krugman archive.)

Krugman begins with an uncharacteristic (and unrepeated) touch of humility. Noting the similarity between his own previous published diagnosis of our economic ills and Summers’ current one, he admits that Summers’ is “much clearer…more forceful, and altogether better.”

According to Krugman, he and Summers both view the U.S. economy as stuck in a “liquidity trap.” This is another Keynesian illustration of market pathology. As Keynes originally described the concept, a liquidity trap existed during an economic depression so intense that monetary policy was rendered impotent. Governments use banks as their tool for creating money; securities sold to the public are snapped up by banks, which in turn use them as the basis for making loans to businesses. But banks cannot force businesses to take out loans. If businesses decide that conditions are so bad that investing is too risky no matter how low the borrowing rate of interest, then monetary policymakers are helpless. In contrast, fiscal policy labors under no such constraint, since the government can always spend money for stimulative purposes. In a liquidity trap, though, monetary policy is likened to “pushing on a string” – a fruitless effort.

Krugman carries this notion further by identifying it with Summers’ evocation of a negative equilibrium interest rate. Investment demand is so weak and the desire to save so strong that the two are equilibrated only when “the” interest rate is below zero. In this climate, Krugman maintains, “the normal rules of economic policy don’t apply…virtue becomes vice and prudence becomes folly. Saving hurts the economy – it even hurts investment thanks to the paradox of thrift.” Krugman hereby drags in Keynesian anachronism #3. The so-called “paradox of thrift” states that the attempt to save more results in less saving because ex ante increases in saving will reduce income and employment, thus preventing the saving that consumers are trying to do, while reducing consumption as well. The only problem with this is that we have actually realized increases in saving and income at the same time, which is diametrically opposite to the effects predicted by the concept.

But these are trifles compared to the powerhouse contentions Krugman has coming up. Summers outlined a general program of public spending to increase demand and frankly admitted the futility of suppressing bubbles caused by the money creation necessary to finance the spending. Is Krugman troubled by this? Not merely “no,” but “Hell, no.”

“While productive spending is best, unproductive spending is still better than nothing…this isn’t just true of public spending. Private spending that is wholly or partially wasteful is also a good thing, unless it somehow stores up trouble for the future.” And how could that possibly happen? (See “Europe, Sovereign Debt of; Europe, Financial Crises of; Europe, Bailouts Multiply Across; Europe, Political Protests Blanket.”)

Krugman continues with an example of wasteful spending by U.S. corporations that produced virtually no payoff after three years. “Nevertheless, the resulting investment boom would have given us several years of much higher employment, with no real waste, since the resources employed would have otherwise been idle.[emphasis added] F.A. Hayek characterized Keynesian economics as the negation of the market, a description well befitting this rationalization. In Krugman’s world, the labor market and relative prices might as well not exist, for all the effect they have. Microeconomics either does not exist or operates on a different plane of existence than the macroeconomic plane on which the statistical construct of aggregate demand wields its decisive influence. For this we need economists?

Krugman now arrives at “the radical part of Larry’s presentation” – as if the foregoing weren’t radical enough! He straightforwardly, even proudly admits what Summers guardedly suggests – that asset bubbles are a good thing. In fact, according to Krugman, U.S. prosperity has been built on bubbles for quite a while. “We now know that the economy of 2003-2007 was built on a bubble.” Krugman is being coy here since he made a celebrated statement in 2002 calling for the Federal Reserve to create a bubble in the housing market. Oddly enough, this attracted almost no attention at the time and has brought him no adverse reaction since then. “You can say the same about the latter part of the 90s expansion; and… about the later years…of the Reagan expansion, which was driven …by runaway thrift institutions and a large bubble in commercial real estate.”

Krugman’s recall of history is curiously defective, especially considering that he was employed in the Reagan Administration at the time, albeit in a minor position. The 1986 tax reform law was, and still is, pinpointed for tax-law changes that helped pop a real-estate bubble largely built on tax-deductibility. The political Left is fond of criticizing Reagan for claiming to have lowered taxes in the early 80s while actually raising them later on. The Left is even fonder of excoriating Reagan and Paul Volcker for ending inflation on the backs of the poor by killing off inflation by stopping monetary expansion too abruptly. Now Krugman is criticizing Reagan for doing just the opposite!

Krugman’s piece de resistance is his riposte to future critics who will object to the runaway inflation that the Summers/Krugman project will promote. Krugman unblinkingly admits that inflation “expropriates the gains of savers,” but replies that “in a liquidity trap, saving may be a personal virtue but it’s a social vice.” And in an economy facing secular stagnation, the liquidity trap is “the norm. Assuring people they can get a positive rate of interest on safe assets means promising them something the market doesn’t want to deliver.”

Krugman implicitly and explicitly assumes that markets are as dysfunctional as life-support patients with no respirator. But when he needs a justification for deep-sixing the life savings of hundreds of millions of people, he suddenly pulls out “the market” and gives its ostensible verdict a personal blessing of moral authority. Yet in this very same blog post, he cavalierly dismisses his critics as “a lot of people [opponents of Krugman] want economics to be a morality play and they don’t care how many people suffer in the process” [!!] For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the long-running debate between Krugman and his critics, those critics are free-market economists who want bubbles to end with unsustainable businesses being liquidated rather than bailed out, and the business cycle to be cut short rather than prolonged indefinitely with each iteration worse than the previous one.

Intellectual Stagnation, Not Economic

At this point, it is all too clear that secular stagnation has taken place. But the stagnation is intellectual, not economic. Keynesian economists are framing policy arguments using terms like “secular stagnation,” “liquidity trap” and “paradox of thrift.” These recondite terms went out of fashion over thirty years ago, along with the paleo-Keynesian economic theory that spawned them. They survive in the 20th-century textbooks and graduate-school memories of economists now approaching retirement.

The shocking character of the Summers/Krugman hypothesis doesn’t derive from its vintage, though. Its anti-economic character – relative prices are irrelevant, waste is a good thing, markets are worthless except when economic managers need a pretext for arbitrary action – is professionally repellent. Even more frightening is the hubris on display. Summers is a disgusting sight, standing up in front of an audience at the International Monetary Fund, pontificating with grandiose gravity about “managing an economy” – as if he were the CEO of a U.S. economy of some 315 million people and tens of thousands of businesses.

There are quite a few people who consider a large public corporation too unwieldy to manage effectively. The difficulty of one economist managing an entire economy must increase not merely linearly but exponentially, considering the interaction and feedback effects involved. At least Summers had the minimal presence of mind to recognize that he might be mistaken. Krugman, in contrast, displays the same mindset as his intellectual antecedent, John Maynard Keynes. Several biographers and friends – including F.A. Hayek, with whom his relations were cordial despite their opposing views – remarked that Keynes was obsessed with his own preeminence as a public intellectual rather than with mastery of economic theory as such. Hayek remarked that Keynes may have been the most brilliant man he ever encountered but was a bad economist. Summers and Krugman show no signs of possessing the intellectual diversity and flexibility of Keynes – only his arrogance and deep-seated need for personal attention.

There is another shocking aspect to this latest policy flap. Summers/Krugman are in the anomalous position of criticizing the results of their own policies. That is, even they cannot credibly maintain that we have lived under a regime of laissez-faire or tight fiscal or monetary discipline for the last five years. They can only insist that not enough was done. Of course, this is the standard big-government lament; when big-government fails, try bigger government. But in this case, they are telling us that the results they formerly called bad were really good and we should expect no more from them in the future. The friendliest left-winger would have to acknowledge that Summers/Krugman are confessing failure and telling us that this is the best we can do. Notice, for example, that neither man stressed the very short-term nature of their policy prescription or promised that once their strategy of fiscal inebriation reached its apogee, we could let the market take over. No, theirs was a counsel of despair reminiscent of late 1970s malaise.

You can’t get any more stagnant than that.

DRI-221 for week of 12-8-13: What’s (Still) Wrong with Economics?

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

What’s (Still) Wrong with Economics?

Taking stock is an end-of-year tradition. This space devotes the remainder of the year to explaining the value of economics, so it’s fitting and proper to don a hair shirt and break out the penance whips as 2013 fades into the distance. What’s wrong with economics? Why doesn’t its productivity justify its title of queen of the social sciences – and what could be done about that?

This omnibus indictment demands an orderly presentation, organized by subject area.

Teaching: Although the motto of the Econometric Society is “science is measurement,” a better operational definition is “science is knowing what the hell you’re talking about.” On that score, economics has a lot to answer for. A science is only as good as its practitioners, who regurgitate what they are taught. Teaching is the first place to lay blame for the shortcomings of economics as a science.

In the past, economics has seldom been taught at the secondary level. That is changing, but only slowly. The subject is so difficult to master and absorption is such an osmotic process that an early start would vastly improve results. It would also force an improvement in the standard mode of teaching.

At the college level, economics is taught by teaching the same formal theory that Ph. D. students are required to master. Granted, college freshmen begin at the most basic level using far simpler tools, but they learn the same techniques. As the successful business economist Leif Olsen (among others) has pointed out, the tacit premise of college economics instruction is that all students will go on to study for their doctorate in the subject.

That is absurd. It forces textbooks to concentrate on force-feeding students bits (or chunks) of technique, supposedly to insure that all students are exposed to the tools and reasoning used by working economists. The use of the word “exposed” in this context should call to mind a disreputable man clothed only in a raincoat, accosting impressionable females in a public park. That captures both the thoroughness and duration of the exposure to each technical refinement, as well as the depth of understanding and relative appeal to the emotions and intellect on the part of the students.

What is needed here is textbooks and teachers that cover much less ground but do it much more thoroughly. Only a tiny fraction of students seek, let alone obtain, the Ph. D. The rest need to grasp the basic logic behind supply and demand, opportunity cost and the role of markets in coordinating the dispersed knowledge of humanity. This requires intensive study of basics – something that would also benefit today’s eventual doctoral candidates, many of whom never learn those basics. The only textbook serving this need that comes quickly to mind is The Economic Way of Thinking, by the late Paul Heyne.

In addition to the benefits accruing to undergraduate education, other advantages would follow from this superior approach. As it now stands, graduate students in economics are hamstrung by the subject’s austere formalism. The mathematical approach is now so rigorous at the highest levels of economics that the subject bears a stronger resemblance to engineering or physics than to the political economy practiced by classical economists in the 18th and 19th centuries. If this so-called rigor added value in form of precision to the practice of economics, it would be worth its cost in pain and hardship.

Alas, it doesn’t. Even worse, graduate students have to spend so much time grappling with mathematics that they lack the time to absorb the basic elements underlying the mathematics. Often, the mathematical models must eliminate the basic elements in order make the mathematics tractable. We are then left with the anomaly of an economic theory that must truncate or amputate its economic content in order to satisfy certain abstract scientific criteria. This obsession with formalism has substituted bad science for good economics – the worst kind of tradeoff.

The reader might wonder who benefits from the status quo, since beneficiaries have not been evident in the telling thus far. The current system creates a narrow road to academic success for career economists. They must fight their way through the undergraduate curriculum, then labor as part-time teachers and research assistants while taking their own graduate courses. Writing the Ph. D. dissertation can take years, after which they have a short time (usually six years) in which to write publishable research and get it placed in the small number of peer-reviewed economics journals. If they succeed in all this, they may end up with tenure at an American university. This will entitle them to job security and opportunity for advancement and a sizable income. If they fail – well, there’s always the private sector, where a small number of economists attain comparable career success. It is the survivors of this process, the tenured faculty at major American colleges and universities, who benefit from the system as it exists.

Perhaps this privileged few are an extraordinarily productive lot? Well, there are a tiny handful of the professoriate who produce research output that might reasonably be classed as valuable. Most articles published in professional journals, though, are virtually worthless. Nobody would pay any significant money to sponsor them directly. That’s not all. In addition to the arid mathematics employed by the theoretical research, there is also the statistical technique used to generate empirical articles. For several decades, the primary desideratum in statistical economics has been to obtain “statistically significant” results between the variable(s) in the economic model and the variable we are trying to understand. If questioned about this, the average person would probably define this criterion as “a large enough effect or impact to be worth measuring, or large enough to make us think what we are measuring has an important influence on what we are studying.”

Wrong! “Statistical significance” is a term of art that means something else – something that is more qualitative than quantitative. Essentially, it means that there is a likelihood that the relationship between the model variable(s) and the variable of interest is not due to random chance but is, rather, systematic. Another way of putting it would be to say that statistical significance answers a binary, “yes-no” question instead of the question we are usually most interested in. The big question, the one we most want the answer to, is usually a “how much” question. How much influence does one variable have on another; how great is the importance of one variable on another? The question answered by statistical significance is interesting and useful, but it is not the one we care about the most. Yet it is almost the only one the social sciences have cared about for decades. And, believe it or not, it is apparent that many economists do not even realize the mistake in emphasis they have been making.

Yet it is not the small number of beneficiaries or even their ghastly mistakes that indicts the current system. Rather, it is economic theory itself, which insists that people benefit from consumption rather than production. It is consumers of economics – students and the general public – who should be reaping rewards. The benefits earned by tenured professors are not bad if they are earned by providing comparable benefits to consumers rather than merely reaping monopoly profits from an exclusionary process. But students are lowest on the totem pole on any major university campus. Tenured faculty members teach as little as possible, usually only two courses per semester. Teaching is little rewarded and often poorly done by tenured and non-tenured faculty alike. Academic lore is filled with stories of award-winning teachers who neglected research for teaching and were dumped by their university in spite of their teaching accomplishments.

The late Nobel laureate James Buchanan characterized the position of academic economists today to “a kind of dole;” that is, they are living off the taxpayer rather than earning their keep. Administrators are fellow beneficiaries of the system, although they are pilot fish riding the backs of all academicians, not merely economists.

The Public: Consumers of economics include not merely those who study the subject in school but also the general public. Economists advise businesses on various subjects, including the past, present and future level of economic activity overall and within specific sectors, industries and businesses. They provide expert witness services in forensics by estimating business valuation, damage and loss in litigation, by representing the various parties in regulatory proceedings and particularly in antitrust litigation. Economists are the second-most numerous profession in government employment, behind lawyers.

For some seventy years, economists have played an important role in the making of economic policy. One might expect that economists would play the most important role; who is qualified to decide economic policy if not economists? In fact, modern governments place politicians and bureaucrats ahead of everybody when it comes to policymaking regardless of expertise. This has created a situation in which we were better off with no economic policy at all than with an economic policy run by non-economists. Still, the recent efforts of professional economists do not paint the profession in a favorable light, either.

The problem with public perception of economics and economists is that they have come to regard economics as synonymous with “macroeconomics;” that is, with forecasting and policymaking aimed at economic statistical aggregates like employment, gross domestic product and interest rates in the plural. This is the unfortunate byproduct of the Keynesian Revolution that overtook economics in the 1930s and reigned supreme until the late 1970s. The overarching Keynesian premise was that only such an aggregative focus could cure the recurrent recessions and depressions that Keynesians ascribed to the inherent instability and even stagnation of a private economy left to its own devices.

It is ironic that every premise on which Keynes based his conclusions was subsequently rejected by the four decades of extensive and intensive research devoted to the subject. It is even more ironic that the conclusion reached by the profession was that attention needed to be focused on developing “microfoundations of macroeconomics,” since it was the very notion of microeconomics that Keynes rejected in the first place. And the crowning irony was that, while Keynes ideas filtered down into the textbook teaching of economics and even into media presentation of economic news and concepts to the general public, the rejection of Keynesian economics never reached the news media or the general public. Textbooks were revised (eventually), but without the fanfare that accompanied the “Keynesian Revolution.”

So it was that when the financial crisis of 2008 and ensuing Great Recession of 2009 reacquainted America with economic depression, Keynesian economists could reemerge from the subterranean depths of intellectual isolation like zombies from a George Romero movie without triggering screams of horror from the public. Only those with very long memories and a healthy quotient of temerity stood up to ask why discredited economic policies had suddenly acquired cachet.

When the Nobel Foundation began awarding quasi-Nobel prizes for economics in the late 1960s, a good deal of grumbling was heard in the ranks of the hard sciences. Economics wasn’t a real science, they maintained stubbornly. A real science is cumulative; it creates a body of knowledge that grows larger over time owing to its revealed truth and demonstrated value in application. Economics just recycles the same ideas, they scoffed, which go in and out of fashion like women’s hemlines rather than being proved or disproved.

From today’s vantage point, we can see more than just a grain of truth in their disparagement – more like a boulder, in fact. What macroeconomist Alan Blinder referred to in a journal article as “the death and life of Keynesian economics” is a perfect case in point. Keynesian economics did not arise because it was a superior theory – research proved its theoretical inferiority. Not only that, it took decades to settle the point, which doesn’t exactly constitute a testimonial to the value of the subject or the lucidity of its doctrines. Keynesian economics did not triumph in the arena of practical application; that is, countries did not eliminate recessions and depressions using Keynesian policies, thereby proving their worth. Just the opposite; after decades of pinning his hopes on Keynesian economics, the British Labor Party leader James Cavenaugh renounced it in a celebrated denunciation in the mid-1970s.

No, Keynesian economics made a comeback because it was politically useful to the Obama administration. It enabled them to spend vast amounts of money and direct the spending to political supporters on the pretext that they were “stimulating the economy.” If economics had to justify its existence by pointing to the results of “economic policy,” economists would be thrown out into the street and forbidden to practice their craft.

In the early 1960s, Time Magazine put John Maynard Keynes on its cover and proclaimed the death of the business cycle. This obituary proved to be premature. Like Icarus, economists tried to fly too high. Their wings melted by the solar heat, the profession is now in freefall, putting up a bold front and proclaiming “so far, so good” as they plummet to Earth. The only remedy for this hubris is to straightforwardly admit that economics is not a hard, quantitatively predictive science in the mold of the natural sciences. Its fundamental insights are not quantitative at all but they are absolutely vital to our well-being. When combined with such other social sciences as law and political science, economics can explain patterns of human behavior involving choice. It can unlock the key to human progress by making the knowledge sequestered in billions of individual brains accessible in useful form for the mutual benefit of all. Thanks to economics, billions of people can live who would die without its insights. These benefits are anything but trivial.

Economics can even ameliorate the hardships imposed by the business cycle, as long as we do not expect too much and can resign ourselves to occasional recessions of limited length and severity. In this regard, success can be likened to hitting home runs in baseball. Trying to hit home runs by swinging too hard usually doesn’t work; making solid contact is the key to hitting homers. Many great home-run hitters, including Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks, were not large, powerful men who swung for the fences. They were wiry, muscular hitters who hit solid line drives. The economic analogue of this philosophy is to allow free markets to work and relative prices to govern the allocation of resources rather than trying to use government spending, taxes and money creation as a bludgeon to hammer the efforts of markets into a politically acceptable shape.

Remedies: In thinking about ways to right its wrongs, economics should take its own advice and fall back on free markets. Rather than trying to administratively reshape the academic status quo and tenure-based faculty system, for example, economists should simply support privatization of education. This is simply taking current professional support of tuition vouchers and charter schools to the next logical level. Tenure is a protected academic monopoly, unlikely to survive in a free private market. If it does, this will mean that it has unsuspected virtues; so much the better, then.

Recent decades have seen the rise of applied popular economics books written to bring economics to the masses. The best-known and most popular of these, Freakonomics, is among the least useful – but it is better than nothing. Better works have been submitted by economists like Steven Landsburg (The Armchair Economist) and David Friedman. Their worthy efforts have helped to turn the tide by correcting misapprehensions and redirecting focus away from macroeconomics. This is another good example of reform from within the profession that does not require economists to sacrifice their own well-being.

Perhaps the one missing link in economics today is leadership. Revolutions in scientific theory and practice are typically effected by individuals at the head of scientific movements. In economics, these have included men like Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, the Austrian economists of the 19th century, Alfred Marshall, Keynes and Milton Friedman. Today there is a leadership vacuum in the profession; nobody with the intellectual stature of Friedman remains to take the lead in reforming economics.

Given the woes of economics and economic theory, a new candidate seems unlikely to come riding over the horizon. It may be that economists will have to prop up an intellectual giant of the past to ride like El Cid against the ancient foes of ignorance, apathy, prejudice and vested interest. There is one outstanding candidate, the man who saved the 20th century in life and whose wide-ranging thought and multi-disciplinary theory is alone capable of midwiving a new sustainable economics of the future. That would be F.A. Hayek. Recent stirrings within the profession suggest a growing acknowledgment that Hayek’s economics have been too long neglected and explain the crisis, recession and current stagnation far better than anything offered by Keynes or his followers. There is no better body of work to serve as a model for what is wrong with economics and how to correct it than his.

DRI-234 for week of 11-17-13: Economists Start to See the Light – and Speak Up

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Economists Start to See the Light – and Speak Up

In order for dreadful economic policies to be ended, two things must happen. Economists must recognize the errors – then, having seen the light, they must say so publicly. For nearly five years, various economists have complained about Federal Reserve economic policies. Unfortunately, the complaints have been restrained and carefully worded to dilute their meaning and soften their effect. This has left the general public confused about the nature and degree of disagreement within the profession. It has also failed to highlight the radicalism of the Fed’s policies.

Two recent Wall Street Journal economic op-eds have broken this pattern. They bear unmistakable marks of acuity and courage. Both pieces focus particularly on the tactic of quantitative easing, but branch out to take in broader issues in the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy.

A Monetary Insider Kneels at the Op-Ed Confessional to Beg Forgiveness

Like many a Wall Street bigwig, Andrew Huszar has led a double life as managing director at Morgan Stanley and Federal Reserve policymaker. After he served seven years at the Fed from 2001-2008, good behavior won him a parole to Morgan Stanley. But when the Great Financial Crisis hit, TARP descended upon the landscape. This brought Huszar a call to return to public service in spring, 2009 as manager of the Fed’s program of mortgage-backed securities purchases. In “Confessions of a Quantitative Easer” (The Wall Street Journal, 11/12/2013), Huszar gives us the inside story of his year of living dangerously in that position.

Despite his misgivings about what he perceived as the Fed’s increasing subservience to Wall Street, Huszar accepted the post and set about purchasing $1.25 trillion (!) of mortgage-backed securities over the next year. This was the lesser-known half of the Fed’s quantitative-easing program, the little brother of the Fed’s de facto purchases of Treasury debt. “Senior Fed officials… were publicly acknowledging [past] mistakes and several of those officials emphasized to me how committed they were to a major Wall Street revamp.” So, he “took a leap of faith.”

And just what, exactly, was he expected to have faith in? “Chairman Ben Bernanke made clear that the Fed’s central motivation was to ‘affect credit conditions for households and businesses.'” Huszar was supposed to “quarterback the largest economic stimulus in U.S. history.”

So far, Huszar’s story seems straightforward enough. For over half a century, economists have had a clear idea of what it meant to stimulate an economy via central-bank purchases of securities. That idea has been to provide banks with an increase in reserves that simultaneously increases the monetary base. Under the fractional-reserve system of banking, this increase in reserves will allow banks to increase lending, causing a pyramidal increase in reserves, money, spending, income and employment. John Maynard Keynes himself was dubious about this use of monetary policy, at least during the height of a depression, because he feared that businesses would be reluctant to borrow in the face of stagnant private demand. However, Keynes’ neo-Keynesian successors gradually came to understand that the simple Keynesian remedy of government deficit spending would not work without an accompanying increase in the money stock – hence the need for reinforcement of fiscal stimulus with monetary stimulus.

Only, doggone it, things just didn’t seem to work out that way. Sure enough, the federal government passed a massive trillion-dollar spending measure that took effect in 2009. But “it wasn’t long before my old doubts resurfaced. Despite the Fed’s rhetoric, my program wasn’t helping to make credit any more accessible for the average American. The banks were only issuing fewer and fewer loans. More insidiously, whatever credit they were issuing wasn’t getting much cheaper. QE may have been driving down the wholesale cost for banks to make loans, but Wall Street was pocketing most of the extra cash.”

Just as worrisome was the reaction to the doubts expressed by Huszar and fellow colleagues within the Fed. Instead of worrying “obsessively about the costs versus the benefits” of their actions, policymakers seemed concerned only with feedback from Wall Street and institutional investors.

When QE1 concluded in April, 2010, Huszar observed that Wall Street banks and near-banks had scored a triple play. Not only had they booked decent profits on those loans they did make, but they also collected fat brokerage fees on the Fed’s securities purchases and saw their balance sheets enhanced by the rise in mortgage-security prices. Remember – the Fed’s keenness to buy mortgage-backed securities in the first place was due primarily to the omnipresence of these securities in bank portfolios. Indeed, mortgage-backed securities served as liquid assets throughout the financial system and it was their plummeting value during the financial crisis that caused the paralyzing credit freeze. Meanwhile, “there had been only trivial relief for Main Street.”

When, a few months later, the Fed announced QE2, Huszar “realized the Fed had lost any remaining ability to think independently from Wall Street. Demoralized, I returned to the private sector.”

Three years later, this is how Huszar sizes up the QE program. “The Fed keeps buying roughly $85 billion in bonds a month, chronically delaying so much as a minor QE taper. Over five years, its purchases have come to more than $4 trillion. Amazingly, in a supposedly free-market nation, QE has become the largest financial-market intervention by any government in world history.”

“And the impact? Even by the Fed’s sunniest calculations, aggressive QE over five years has generated only a few percentage points of U.S. growth. By contrasts, experts outside the Fed…suggest that the Fed may have [reaped] a total return of as little as 0.25% of GDP (i.e., a mere $40 billion bump in U.S. economic output).” In other words, “QE isn’t really working” –

except for Wall Street, where 0.2% of U.S. banks control 70% total U.S. bank assets and form “more of a cartel” than ever. By subsidizing Wall Street banks at the expense of the general welfare, QE had become “Wall Street’s new ‘too big to fail’ policy.”

The Beginning of Wisdom

Huszar’s piece gratifies on various levels. It answers one question that has bedeviled Fed-watchers: Do the Fed’s minions really believe the things the central bank says? The answer seems to be that they do – until they stop believing. And that happens eventually even to high-level field generals.

It is obvious that Huszar stopped drinking Federal Reserve Kool-Aid sometime in 2010. The Fed’s stated position is that the economy is in recovery – albeit a slow, fragile one – midwived by previous fiscal and monetary policies and preserved by the QE series. Huszar doesn’t swallow this line, even though dissent among professional economists has been muted over the course of the Obama years.

Most importantly, Huszar’s eyes have been opened to the real source of the financial crisis and ensuing recession; namely, government itself. “Yes, those financial markets have rallied spectacularly…but for how long? Experts…are suggesting that conditions are again ‘bubble-like.'”

Having apprehended this much, why has Huszar’s mind stopped short of the full truth? Perhaps his background, lacking in formal economic training, made it harder for him to connect all the dots. His own verdict on the failings of QE should have driven him to the next stage of analysis and prompted him to ask certain key questions.

Why did banks “only issu[e] fewer and fewer loans”? After all, this is why QE stimulated Wall Street but not Main Street; monetary policy normally provides economic stimulus by inducing loans to businesses and (secondarily) consumers, but in this case those loans were conspicuous by their absence. The answer is that the Fed deliberately arranged to allow interest payments on excess reserves it held for its member banks. Instead of making risky loans, banks could make a riskless profit by holding excess reserves. This unprecedented state of affairs was deliberately stage-managed by the Fed.

Why has the Fed been so indifferent to the net effects of its actions, instead of “worry[ing] obsessively about the costs versus the benefits”? The answer is that the Fed has been lying to the public, to Congress and conceivably even to the Obama Administration about its goals. The purpose of its actions has not been to stimulate the economy, but rather to keep it comatose (for “its” own good) while the Fed artificially resuscitates the balance sheets of banks.

Why did the Fed suddenly start buying mortgage-backed securities after “never [buying] one mortgage bond…in its almost 100-year history”? Bank portfolios (more particularly, portfolios of big banks) have been stuffed to the gills with these mortgage-backed securities, whose drastic fall in value during the financial crisis threatened the banks with insolvency. By buying mortgage-backed securities like they were going out of style, the Fed increases the demand for those securities. This drives up their price. This acts as artificial respiration to bank balance sheets, just as Andrew Huszar relates in his op-ed.

The resume of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is dotted with articles extolling the role played by banks as vital sources of credit to business. Presumably, this – rather than pure cronyism, as vaguely hinted by Huszar – explains Bernanke’s obsession with protecting banks. (It was Bernanke, acting with the Treasury Secretary, who persuaded Congress to pass the enormous bailout legislation in late 2008.)

Why has “the Fed’s independence [been] eroding”? There is room for doubt about Bernanke’s motivations in holding both short-term and long-term interest rates at unprecedentedly low levels. These low interest rates have enabled the Treasury to finance trillions of dollars in new debt and roll over trillions more in existing debt at low rates. At the above-normal interest rates that would normally prevail in our circumstances, the debt service would devour most of the federal budget. Thus, Bernanke is carrying water for the Treasury. Reservoirs of water.

Clearly, Huszar has left out more than he has included in his denunciation of QE. Yet he has still been savaged by the mainstream press for his presumption. This speaks volumes about the tacit gag order that has muffled criticism of the Administration’s economic policies.

It’s About Time Somebody Started Yellin’ About Yellen

Kevin Warsh was the youngest man ever to serve as a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors when he took office in 2006. He earned a favorable reputation in that capacity until he resigned in 2011. In “Finding Out Where Janet Yellen Stands” (The Wall Street Journal, 11/13/2013), Warsh digs deeper into the views of the new Federal Reserve Board Chairman than the questions on everybody’s lips: “When will ‘tapering’ of the QE program begin? and “How long will the period of ultra-low interest rates last?” He sets out to “highlight – then question – some of the prevailing wisdom at the basis of current Fed policy.”

Supporters of QE have pretended that quantitative easing is “nothing but the normal conduct of monetary policy at the zero-lower-bound of interest rates.” Warsh rightly declares this to be hogwash. While central banks have traditionally lowered short-term interest rates to stimulate investment, “the purchase of long-term assets from the U.S. Treasury to achieve negative real interest rates is extraordinary, an unprecedented change in practice… The Fed is directly influencing the price of long-term Treasurys – the most important asset in the world, the predicate from which virtually all investment decisions are judged.”

Since the 1950s, modern financial theory as taught in orthodox textbooks has treated long-term U.S. government bonds as the archetypal “riskless asset.” This provides a benchmark for one end of the risk spectrum, a vital basis for comparison that is used by investment professionals and forensic economists in court testimony. Or rather, all this used to be true before Ben Bernanke unleashed ZIRP (the Zero Interest Rate Policy) on the world. Now all the finance textbooks will have to be rewritten. Expert witnesses will have to find a new benchmark around which to structure their calculations.

Worst of all, the world’s investors are denied a source of riskless fixed income. They can still purchase U.S. Treasurys, of course, but these are no longer the same asset that they knew and loved for decades. Now the risk of default must be factored in, just as it is for the bonds of a banana republic. Now the effects of inflation must be factored in to its price. The effect of this transformation on the world economy is incalculably, unfavorably large.

Ben Bernanke has repeatedly maintained that the U.S. economy would benefit from a higher rate of inflation. Or, as Warsh puts it, that “the absence of higher inflation is sufficient license” for the QE program. Once again, Warsh begs to differ. Here, he takes issue with Bernanke’s critics as much as with Bernanke himself. “The most pronounced risk of QE is not an outbreak of hyperinflation,” Warsh contends. “Rather, long periods of free money and subsidized credit are associated with significant capital misallocation and malinvestment – which do not augur well for long-term growth or financial stability.”

Déjà Va-Va-Vuum

Of all the hopeful signs to recently emerge, this is the most startling and portentous. For centuries – at least two centuries before John Maynard Keynes wrote his General Theory and in the years since – the most important effect of money on economic activity was thought to be on the general level of prices; i.e., on inflation. Now Warsh is breaking with this time-honored tradition. In so doing, he is paying long-overdue homage to the only coherent business-cycle theory developed by economists.

In the early 1930s, F.A. Hayek formulated a business-cycle theory that temporarily vied with the monetary theory of John Maynard Keynes for supremacy among the world’s economists. Hayek’s theory was built around the elements stressed by Warsh – capital misallocation and malinvestment caused by central-bank manipulation of the money supply and interest rates. In spite of Hayek’s prediction of the Great Depression in 1929 and of the failure of the Soviet economy in the 1930s, Hayek’s business-cycle theory was ridiculed by Keynes and his acolytes. The publication of Keynes’ General Theory in 1936 relegated Hayek to obscurity in his chosen profession. Hayek subsequently regained worldwide fame with his book The Road to Serfdom in 1944 and even won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974. Yet his business-cycle theory has survived only among the cult of Austrian-school economists that stubbornly refused to die out even as Keynesian economics took over the profession.

When Keynesian theory was repudiated by the profession in the late 1970s and 80s, the Austrian school remained underground. The study of capital theory and the concept of capital misallocation had gone out of favor in the 1930s and were ignored by the economics profession in favor of the less-complex modern Quantity Theory developed by Milton Friedman and his followers. Alas, monetarism went into eclipse in the 80s and 90s and macroeconomists drifted back towards a newer, vaguer version of Keynesianism.

The Great Financial Crisis of 2008, the subsequent Great Recession and our current Great Stagnation have made it clear that economists are clueless. In effect, there is no true Macroeconomic theory. Warsh’s use of the terms “capital misallocation” and “malinvestment” may be the first time since the 1930s that these Hayekian terms have received favorable mention from a prominent figure in the economic Establishment. (In addition to his past service as a Fed Governor, Warsh also served on the National Economic Council during the Bush Administration.)

For decades, graduate students in Macroeconomics have been taught that the only purpose to stimulative economic policies by government was to speed up the return to full employment when recession strikes. The old Keynesian claims that capitalist economies could not achieve full employment without government deficit spending or money printing were discredited long ago. But this argument in favor of artificial stimulus has itself now been discredited by events, not only in the U.S. and Europe but also in Japan. Not only that, the crisis and recession proceeded along lines closely following those predicted by Hayek – lavish credit creation fueled by artificially low interest rates long maintained by government central banks, coupled with international transmission of capital misallocation by flexible exchange rates. It is long past time for the economics profession to wrench its gaze away from the failed nostrums of Keynes and redirect its attention to an actual theory of business cycles with a demonstrated history of success. Warsh has taken the key first step in that direction.

The Rest of the Story

When a central bank deliberately sets out to debase a national currency, the shock waves from its actions reverberate throughout the national economy. When the economy is the world’s productive engine, those waves resound around the globe. Warsh patiently dissects current Fed policy piece by piece.

To the oft-repeated defense that the Fed is merely in charge of monetary policy, Warsh correctly terms the central bank the “default provider of aggregate demand.” In effect, the Fed has used its statutory mandate to promote high levels of employment as justification for assuming the entire burden of economic policy. This flies in the face of even orthodox, mainstream Keynesian economics, which sees fiscal and monetary policies acting in concert.

The United States is “the linchpin in the international global economy.” When the Fed adopts extremely loose monetary policy, this places foreign governments in the untenable position of having either to emulate our monetary ease or to watch their firms lose market share and employment to U.S. firms. Not surprisingly, politics pulls them in the former direction and this tends to stoke global inflationary pressures. If the U.S. dollar should depreciate greatly, its status as the world’s vehicle currency for international trade would be threatened. Not only would worldwide inflation imperil the solidity of world trade, but the U.S. would lose the privilege of seigniorage, the ability to run continual trade deficits owing to the world’s willingness to hold American dollars in lieu of using them to purchase goods and services.

The Fed has made much of its supposed fidelity to “forward guidance” and “transparency,” principles intended to allow the public to anticipate its future actions. Warsh observes that its actions have been anything but transparent and its policy hints anything but accurate. Instead of giving lip service to these cosmetic concepts, Warsh advises, the Fed should simply devote its energies to following correct policies. Then the need for advance warning would not be so urgent.

Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that we have so little confidence in the Fed’s ability to “drain excess liquidity” from the markets. We are not likely to give way in awed admiration of the Fed’s virtuosity in monetary engineering when its pronouncements over the past five years have varied from cryptic to highly unsound and its predictions have all gone wrong.

Is the Tide Turning?

To a drowning man, any sign that the waters are receding seems like a godsend. These articles appear promising not only because they openly criticize the failed economic policies of the Fed and (by extension) the Obama Administration, but because they dare to suggest that The Fed’s attempt to portray its actions as merely conventional wisdom is utterly bogus. Moreover, they imply or (in Kevin Warsh’s case) very nearly state that it is time to reevaluate the foundations of Macroeconomics itself.

Is the tide turning? Maybe or maybe not, but at last we can poke our heads above water for a lungful of oxygen. And the fresh air is intoxicating.