Tag Archive for 'Ben Bernanke'

Glenn Stevens is not quite God

Alan Kohler has a piece on Crikey talking about electricity prices in Australia.  It’s an interesting piece and well worth a read, but it’s got a crucial economics mistake.  After talking about the politics and such, Alan gets down to brass tacks, telling us that:

  • Over the last two years, electricity prices in Australia have risen by 48% on average; and
  • Indeed, over the last five years, electricity prices have risen by more than 80% on average; but
  • Over the last twelve months, overall inflation has only been 1.5%, the lowest in three years.

He finishes by explaining:

That’s because the increase in power prices has been almost entirely offset by the high Australian dollar, which has produced tradeable goods deflation of 1.4% over the past year. In other words, thanks to the high Australian dollar we are getting a big improvement in energy infrastructure without an overall drop in living standards.

And thank goodness for fast rising power prices — without that, we’d have deflation. It’s true!

But it’s not true, and it’s not true for a very important reason.

Back in 1997, in the guts of of the Great Moderation (the time from the mid ’80s to the start of 2007 when US aggregate volatility was low) and before the real estate boom that presaged the financial crisis of 2007/2008, Paul Krugman famously wrote (this Economist piece is the best reference I could find in the two minutes I spent looking on Google) that unemployment was whatever Alan Greenspan wanted it to be, “plus or minus a random error reflecting the fact that he is not quite God.”

It’s popular to argue that Ben Bernanke lacks that power now that America has interest rates at zero. I disagree (see here and here), but I appreciate the argument.

Australia has no such problem. Interest rates are still strictly positive and the RBA has plenty of room to lower them if they wish.

So I have no qualms at all in saying that inflation in Australia is whatever Glenn Stevens (the governor of the RBA) wants it to be, plus or minus a random error to reflect the fact that he’s not quite God.

If the various state grids had all been upgraded a decade ago and electricity prices were currently stable, then interest rates would currently be lower too. They would be lower because that would ensure faster growth in general and a lower exchange rate, both of which would lead to higher inflation, thereby offsetting the lower inflation in electricity prices.

There’s a famous argument in economics called the Lucas Critique, named for the man that came up with it, that points out simply that if you change your policy, economic agents will change their actions in response.  It applies in reverse, too, though.  If economic agents change their actions, policy will change!

Alan Kohler ought to know this. Indeed, I suspect that Alan Kohler does know this, but it’s a slippery concept to keep at the front of your mind all the time and, besides, it would make it hard to write exciting opinion pieces. 🙂

Nassim Taleb takes bat, ball; goes home

The author of The Black Swan doesn’t approve of the looming reappointment of Ben Bernanke as chairman of the US Federal Reserve.  Writing in the Huffington Post, he says:

What I am seeing and hearing on the news — the reappointment of Bernanke — is too hard for me to bear. I cannot believe that we, in the 21st century, can accept living in such a society. I am not blaming Bernanke (he doesn’t even know he doesn’t understand how things work or that the tools he uses are not empirical); it is the Senators appointing him who are totally irresponsible — as if we promoted every doctor who caused malpractice. The world has never, never been as fragile. Economics make[sic] homeopath and alternative healers look empirical and scientific.

No news, no press, no Davos, no suit-and-tie fraudsters, no fools. I need to withdraw as immediately as possible into the Platonic quiet of my library, work on my next book, find solace in science and philosophy, and mull the next step. I will also structure trades with my Universa friends to bet on the next mistake by Bernanke, Summers, and Geithner. I will only (briefly) emerge from my hiatus when the publishers force me to do so upon the publication of the paperback edition of The Black Swan.


That’s quite a god complex Taleb’s got going on there (“he doesn’t even know he doesn’t understand how things work”).

An information-based approach to understanding why America let Lehman Brothers collapse but saved everyone afterwards

In addition to his previous comments on the bailouts [25 Aug27 Aug28 Aug], which I highlighted here, Tyler Cowen has added a fourth post [2 Sep]:

I side with Bernanke because an economy can withstand only so much major bank insolvency at once. Lots of major banks were levered up 30-1 or so. Their assets fell in value more than a modest amount and then they were insolvent, sometimes grossly so. (A three percent decline in asset values already puts you into insolvency range.) If AIG had gone into bankruptcy court, some major banks would have been even more insolvent. Or if Frannie securities had been allowed to find their non-bailout values. My guess is that at least 15 out of the top 20 U.S. banks would have been flat-out insolvent if, starting at the time of Bear Stearns, all we had done was loose monetary policy and no other bailouts. Subsequent contagion effects, and the shut down of short-term repo markets, and a run on money market funds, would have made even more financial institutions insolvent. The world as we know it then becomes very dire, both for credit reasons and deflation reasons (yes you can print up currency to keep measured M up and running but the economy still collapses). So we needed not just emergency lending but also resource transfers to banks, basically to put them back into the range of possible solvency.

I really like to see Tyler’s evolving attitudes here.  It lets me know that mere grad students are allowed to not be sure of themselves. 🙂  In any event, let me present my latest thoughts on the bailouts:

Imagine being Bernanke/Paulson two days before Lehman Brothers went down:  you know they’re going to go down if you don’t bail them out and you know that to bail them out creates moral hazard problems (i.e. increases the likelihood of a repeat of the entire mess in another 10 years).  You don’t know how close to the edge everyone else is, nor how large an effect a Lehman collapse will have on everyone else in the short-run (thanks, in no small part, to the fact that all those derivatives were sold over-the-counter), but you’re nevertheless almost certain that Lehman Brothers are not important enough to take down the whole planet.

In that situation, I think of the decision to let Lehman Brothers go down as an experiment to allow estimation of the system’s interconnectedness.  Suppose you’ve got a structural model of the U.S. financial system as a whole, but no empirical basis for calibrating it.  Normally you might estimate the deep parameters from micro models, but when derivatives were exempted from regulation in the 2000 Commodities Futures Modernization Act, in addition to letting firms do what they wanted with derivatives you also gave up having information about what they were doing.  So instead, what you need is a macro shock that you can fully identify so that at least you can pull out the reduced-form parameters.  Letting Lehman go was the perfect opportunity for that shock.

I’m not saying that Bernanke had an actual model that he wanted to calibrate (although if he didn’t, I really hope he has one now), but he will certainly have had a mental model.  I don’t even mean to suggest that this was the reasoning behind letting Lehman go.  That would be one hell of a (semi) natural experiment and a pretty reckless way to gather the information.  Nevertheless, the information gained is tremendously valuable, both in itself and to society as a whole because it is now, at least in part, public information.

To some extent, I feel like the ideal overall response to the crisis from the Fed and Treasury would have been to let everyone fail a little bit, but that isn’t possible — you can’t let an institution become a little bit bankrupt in the same way that you can’t be just a little bit pregnant.  To me, the best real-world alternative was to let one or two institutions die to put the frighteners on everyone and discover the degree of interconnectedness of the system and then save the rest, with the nature and scale of the subsequent bailouts being determined by the reaction to the first couple going down.  I would only really throw criticism at the manner of the saving of the rest (especially the secrecy) and even then I would be hesitant because:

(a) it was all terribly political and at that point the last thing Bernanke needed was a financially-illiterate representative pushing his or her reelection-centred agenda every step of the way (we don’t let people into a hospital emergency room when the doctor isn’t yet sure of what’s wrong with the patient);

(b) perhaps the calibration afforded by the collapse of Lehman Brothers convinced Bernanke-the-physician that short-term secrecy was necessay to “stop the bleeding” (although that doesn’t necessarily imply that long-term secrecy is warranted); and

(c) there was still inherent (i.e. Knightian) uncertainty in what was coming next on a day-to-day basis.

From tacit to (almost) explicit: inflation targetting at the Fed

From the latest press release of the US Federal Reserve Board:

The central tendency of FOMC participants’ longer-run projections, submitted for the Committee’s January 27-28 meeting, were:

  • 2.5 to 2.7 percent growth in real gross domestic output
  • 4.8 to 5.0 percent unemployment
  • 1.7 to 2.0 percent inflation, as measured by the price index for personal consumption expenditures (PCE).

Most participants judged that a longer-run PCE inflation rate of 2 percent would be consistent with the dual mandate; others indicated that 1-1/2 or 1-3/4 percent inflation would be appropriate.

Speaking earlier in the day, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke observed:

These longer-term projections will inform the public of the Committee participants’ estimates of the rate of growth of output and the unemployment rate that appear to be sustainable in the long run in the United States, taking into account important influences such as the trend growth rates of productivity and the labor force, improvements in worker education and skills, the efficiency of the labor market at matching workers and jobs, government policies affecting technological development or the labor market, and other factors. The longer-term projections of inflation may be interpreted, in turn, as the rate of inflation that FOMC participants see as most consistent with the dual mandate given to it by the Congress–that is, the rate of inflation that promotes maximum sustainable employment while also delivering reasonable price stability.

(Hat tip: Calculated Risk)

The velocity of money and the credit crisis

This is another one for my students of EC102.

Possibly the simplest model of aggregate demand in an economy is this equation:


The right-hand side is the nominal value of demand, being the price level multiplied by the real level of demand.  The left-hand side has the stock of money multiplied by the velocity of money, which is the number of times the average dollar (or pound, or euro) goes around the economy in a given time span.  The equation isn’t anything profound.  It’s an accounting identity that is always true, because V is constructed in order to make it hold.

The Quantity Theory of Money (QTM) builds on that equation.  The QTM assumes that V and Y are constant (or at least don’t respond to changes in M) and observes that, therefore, any change in M must only cause a corresponding change in P.  That is, an increase in the money supply will only result in inflation.

A corresponding idea is that of Money Neutrality.  If money is neutral, then changes in the money supply do not have any effect on real variables.  In this case, that means that a change in M does not cause a change in Y.  In other words, the neutrality of money is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the QTM to hold; you also need the velocity of money to not vary with the money supply.

After years of research and arguing, economists generally agree today that money neutrality does not hold in the short run (i.e. in the short run, increasing the money supply does increase aggregate demand), but that it probably does hold in the long run (i.e. any such change in aggregate demand will only be temporary).

The velocity of money is an interesting concept, but it’s fiendishly difficult to tie down.

  • In the long-run, it has a secular upward trend (which is why the QTM doesn’t hold in the long run, even if money neutrality does).
  • It is extremely volatile in the short-run.
  • Since it is constructed rather than measured, it is a residual in the same way that Total Factor Productivity is a residual.  It is therefore a holding place for any measurement error in the other three variables.  This will be part, if not a large part, of the reason why it is so volatile in the short-run.
  • Nevertheless, the long run increases are pretty clearly real (i.e. not a statistical anomaly). We assume that this a result of improvements in technology.
  • Conceptually, a large value for V is representative of an efficient financial sector. More accurately, a large V is contingent on an efficient turn-around of money by the financial sector – if a new deposit doesn’t go out to a new loan very quickly, the velocity of money is low. The technology improvements I mentioned in the previous point are thus technologies specific to improving the efficiency of the finance industry.
  • As you might imagine, the velocity of money is also critically dependent on confidence both within and regarding banks.
  • Finally, the velocity of money is also related to the concept of fractional reserve banking, since we’re talking about how much money gets passed on via the banks for any given deposit.  In essence, the velocity of money must be positively related to the money multiplier.

Those last few points then feed us into the credit crisis and the recession we’re all now suffering through.

It’s fairly common for some people to blame the crisis on a global savings glut, especially after Ben Bernanke himself mentioned it back in 2005.  But, as Brad Setser says, “the debtor and the creditor tend to share responsibility for most financial crises. One borrows too much, the other lends too much.”

So while large savings in East-Asian and oil-producing countries may have been a push, we can use the idea of the velocity of money to think about the pull:

  1. There was some genuine innovation in the financial sector, which would have increased V even without any change in attitudes.
  2. Partially in response to that innovation, partially because of a belief that thanks to enlightened monetary policy aggregate uncertainty was reduced and, I believe, partially buoyed by the broader sense of victory of capitalism over communism following the fall of the Soviet Union, confidence both within and regarding the financial industry also rose.
  3. Both of those served to increase the velocity of money and, with it, real aggregate demand even in the absence of any especially loose monetary policy.
  4. Unfortunately, that increase in confidence was excessive, meaning that the increases in demand were excessive.
  5. Now, confidence both within and, in particular, regarding the banking sector has collapsed.  The result is a fall in the velocity of money (for any given deposit received, a bank is less likely to make a loan) and consequently, aggregate demand suffers.