Tag Archive for 'Inflation'


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. 🙂


Output gaps, inflation and totally awesome blogosphere debates

I love the blogosphere.  It lets all sorts of debates happen that just can’t happen face to face in the real world.  Here’s one that happened lately:

James Bullard, of the St. Louis Fed, gave a speech in which (I believe) he argued that wealth effects meant that potential output was discretely lower now after the crash of 2006-2008.  David Andolfato and Tyler Cowen both liked his argument.

Scott Sumner, Noah Smith, Paul Krugman, Matt Yglesias, Mark Thoma and Tim Duy (apologies if I missed anyone) all disagreed with it for largely the same reason:  A bubble is a price movement and prices don’t affect potential output, if for no other reason then because potential output is defined as the output that would occur if prices didn’t matter.

Brad DeLong also disagreed on the same grounds, but was willing to grant that a second-order effect through labour-force participation may be occurring, although that was not the argument that Bullard appeared to be making.

In response, Bullard wrote a letter to Tim Duy, in which he revised his argument slightly, saying that it’s not that potential output suddenly fell, but that it was never so high to start with.  We were overestimating potential output during the bubble period and are now estimating it more accurately.

The standard reply to this, as provided by by Scott SumnerTim DuyMark Thoma and Paul Krugman, takes the form of:  If actual output was above potential during the bubble, then where was the resulting inflation?  What is so wrong with the CBO’s estimate of potential output (which shows very little output gap during the bubble period)?

Putting to one side discussions of what the output gap really is and how to properly estimate it (see, for example, Menzie Chinn here, here and here), I’ve always felt a sympathy with the idea that Bullard is advocating here.  Although I do not have a formal model to back it up, here is how I’ve generally thought of it:

  • Positive output gaps (i.e. actual output above potential) do not directly cause final-good inflation.  Instead, they cause wage inflation, which raises firms’ marginal costs, which causes final-good inflation.
  • Globalisation in general, and the rise of China in particular, meant that there was — and remains — strong, competition-induced downward pressure on the price of internationally tradable goods.
  • That competition would induce domestic producers of tradable goods to either refuse wage increases or go out of business.
  • Labour is not (or at least is very poorly) substitutable.  Somebody trained as a mechanic cannot do the work of an accountant.
  • Therefore, the wages of workers in industries producing tradable goods stayed down, while the wages of workers in industries producing non-tradable goods were able to rise.
  • Indeed, we see in the data that both price and wage inflation in non-tradable industries have been consistently higher than those in tradable sectors over the last decade and, in some cases, very much higher.

The inflation was there.  It was just limited to a subset of industries … like the financial sector.

(Note that I’m implicitly assuming fixed, or at least sticky, exchange rates)

As it happens, I also — like Tyler Cowen — have a sneaking suspicion that temporary (nominal) demand shocks can indeed have effects that are observationally equivalent to (highly) persistent (real) supply shocks.  That’s a fairly controversial statement, but backing it up will have to wait for another post …


Bitcoin

Update 11 September 2014: My views on digital currencies, including Bitcoin, have evolved somewhat since this post. Interested readers might care to read two new Bank of England articles on the topic. I was a co-author on both.

Original post is below …

Discussion of it is everywhere at the moment.

The Economist has a recent — and excellent — write-up on the idea.  My opinion, informed in no small part by Tyler Cowen’s views (herehere and here) is this:

  • Technically, it’s magnificent.  It overcomes some technical difficulties that used to be thought insurmountable.
  • As a medium of exchange, it’s an improvement over previous currencies (through the anonymity) for at least some transactions
  • As a store of value (i.e. as a store of wealth), it offers nothing [see below]
  • There are already many, many well-established assets that represent excellent stores of value, whatever your opinion on inflation and other artefacts of government policy
  • Therefore people will, at best, store their wealth in other assets and change them into bitcoins purely for the purpose of conducting transactions
  • As a result, the fundamental value of a bitcoin rests only in the superiority of its transactional system; for all other purposes, its value is zero
  • For 99.999% of all transactions by all people everywhere, the transaction anonymity is in no way superior to handing over physical cash or doing a recorded electronic transfer
  • Therefore, as a first approximation, bitcoin has a fundamental value of zero to almost everybody and of only slightly more than zero to some people

This thing is only ever going to be interesting or useful to drug dealers and crypto-fetishists.  Of those, I believe that drug dealers will ultimately lose interest because of a lack of liquidity in getting their “money” out of bitcoins and into hard cash.  That only leaves one group …

A note on money as a store-of-value:  When an asset pays out nothing as a flow profit (e.g. cash, gold, bitcoin), then that asset’s value as a store-of-value [1][2] is ultimately based on a) the surety that it’ll still exist in the future and b) your ability to convert it in the future to stuff you want to consume.  Requirement a) means that bread is a terrible store of value — it’ll all rot in a week.  Requirement b) means that a good store of value must be expected to have strong liquidity in the future.  In other words, there must be expected future demand for the stuff.  If you think your government’s policies are going to create inflation, putting your wealth in, say, iron ore, will be an excellent store of value because the economy at large will (pretty much) always generate demand for the stuff.

That makes gold an interesting case.  Since there isn’t really that much real economic demand for gold, using it as a store of value in period T must be based on a belief that people in period T+1 will believe that it will be a good store of value then.  But since we already know that it has very little intrinsic value to the economy, that implies that the T+1 people will have to believe that people in period T+2 will consider it a store of value, too.  The whole thing becomes an infinite recursion, with the value of gold as a store-of-value being based on a collective belief that it will continue to be a good store-of-value forever.

Bitcoin faces the same problem as gold.  For it to be a decent store-of-value, it will require that everybody believe that it will continue to be a decent store-of-value, and that everybody believe that everybody else believes it, and so on.  The world already has gold for that purpose (and gold has at least some real-economy demand to keep the expectation chain anchored).  I’m not at all sure that we can sustain two such assets.

[1] All currencies are assets.  They’re just don’t pay a return.  Then again, neither does gold.

[2] Yes, yes.  Saying that it’s “value as a store-of-value” is cumbersome.  It’s a definitional confusion analogous to free (as in beer) versus free (as in speech).


The contradictory joys of being the US Treasury Secretary (part 2)

In my last post, I highlighted the apparent contradictions between the USA having both a “strong dollar” policy and a desire to correct their trade deficit (“re-balancing”).  Tim Geithner, speaking recently in Tokyo, declared that there was no contradiction:

Geithner said U.S. efforts to boost exports aren’t in conflict with the “strong-dollar” policy. “I don’t think there’s any contradiction between the policies,” he said.

I then said:

The only way to reconcile what Geithner’s saying with the laws of mathematics is to suppose that his “strong dollar” statements are political and relate only to the nominal exchange rate and observe that trade is driven by the real exchange rate. But that then means that he’s calling for a stable nominal exchange rate combined with either deflation in the USA or inflation in other countries.

Which, together with Nouriel Roubini’s recent observation that the US holding their interest rates at zero is fueling “the mother of all carry trades” [Financial Times, RGE Monitor], provides for a delicious (but probably untrue) sort-of-conspiracy theory:

Suppose that Tim Geithner firmly believes in the need for re-balancing.  He’d ideally like US exports to rise while imports stayed flat (since that would imply strong global growth and new jobs for his boss’s constituents), but he’d settle for US imports falling.  Either way, he needs the US real exchange rate to fall, but he doesn’t care how.  Well, not quite.  His friend Ben Bernanke tells him that he doesn’t want deflation in America, but he doesn’t really care between the nominal exchange rate falling and foreign prices rising (foreign inflation).

The recession-induced interest rates of (effectively) zero in America are now his friend, because he’s going to get what he wants no matter what, thanks to the carry trade.  Private investors are borrowing money at 0% interest in America and then going to foreign countries to invest it at interest rates that are significantly higher than zero.  If the foreign central banks did nothing, that would push the US dollar lower and their own currencies higher and Tim gets what he wants.

But the foreign central banks want a strong dollar because (a) they’re holding gazzilions of dollars worth of US treasuries and they don’t want their value to fall; and (b) they’re not fully independent of their political masters who want to want to keep exporting.   So Tim regularly stands up in public and says that he supports a strong dollar.  That makes him look innocent and excuses the foreign central banks for doing what they were all doing anyway:  printing local money to give to the US-funded investors so as to keep their currencies down (and the US dollar up).

But that means that the money supply in foreign countries is climbing, fast, and while prices may be sticky in the short term, they will start rising soon enough.  Foreign inflation will lower the US real exchange rate and Tim still gets what he wants.

The only hope for the foreign central banks is that the demand for their currencies is a short-lived temporary blip.  In that case, defending their currencies won’t require the creation of too much local currency and they could probably reverse the situation fast enough afterward that they don’t get bad inflation. [This is one of the arguments in favour of central bank involvement in the exchange-rate market.  Since price movements are sluggish, they can sterilise a temporary spike and gradually back out the action before local prices react too much.]

But as foreign central banks have been discovering [1], free money is free money and the carry trade won’t go away until the interest rate gap is sufficiently closed:

Nov. 13 (Bloomberg) — Brazil, South Korea and Russia are losing the battle among developing nations to reduce gains in their currencies and keep exports competitive as the demand for their financial assets, driven by the slumping dollar, is proving more than central banks can handle.

South Korea Deputy Finance Minister Shin Je Yoon said yesterday the country will leave the level of its currency to market forces after adding about $63 billion to its foreign exchange reserves this year to slow the appreciation of the won.
[…]
Brazil’s real is up 1.1 percent against the dollar this month, even after imposing a tax in October on foreign stock and bond investments and increasing foreign reserves by $9.5 billion in October in an effort to curb the currency’s appreciation. The real has risen 33 percent this year.
[…]
“I hear a lot of noise reflecting the government’s discomfort with the exchange rate, but it is hard to fight this,” said Rodrigo Azevedo, the monetary policy director of Brazil’s central bank from 2004 to 2007. “There is very little Brazil can do.”

The central banks are stuck.  They can’t lower their own interest rates to zero (which would stop the carry trade) as that would stick a rocket under domestic production and cause inflation anyway.  The only thing they can do is what Brazil did a little bit of:  impose legal limits on capital inflows, either explicitly or by taxing foreign-owned investments.  But doing that isn’t really an option, either, because they want to be able to keep attracting foreign investment after all this is over and there’s not much scarier to an investor than political uncertainty.

So they have to wait until America raises it’s own rates.  But that won’t happen until America sees a turn-around in jobs and the fastest way for that to happen is for US exports to rise.

[1] Personally, I think the central bankers saw the writing on the wall the minute the Fed lowered US interest rates to (effectively) zero but their political masters were always going to take some time to cotton on.


The contradictory joys of being the US Treasury Secretary

Tim Geithner, speaking at the start of the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh:

Sept. 25 (Bloomberg) — Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said he sees a “strong consensus” among Group of 20 nations to reduce reliance on exports for growth and defended the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency.

“A strong dollar is very important in the United States,” Geithner said in response to a question at a press conference yesterday in Pittsburgh, where G-20 leaders began two days of talks.

Tim Geithner, speaking in Tokyo while joining the US President on a tour of Asian capitals:

Nov. 11 (Bloomberg) — U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said a strong dollar is in the nation’s interest and the government recognizes the importance it plays in the global financial system.

“I believe deeply that it’s very important to the United States, to the economic health of the United States, that we maintain a strong dollar,” Geithner told reporters in Tokyo today.
[…]
Geithner said U.S. efforts to boost exports aren’t in conflict with the “strong-dollar” policy. “I don’t think there’s any contradiction between the policies,” he said.

Which is hilarious.

There is no objective standard for currency strength [1].  A “strong (US) dollar” is a dollar strong relative to other currencies, so it’s equivalent to saying “weak non-US-dollar currencies”.  But when the US dollar is up and other currencies are down, that means that the US will import more (and export less), while the other countries will export more (and import less), which is the exact opposite of the re-balancing efforts.

The only way to reconcile what Geithner’s saying with the laws of mathematics is to suppose that his “strong dollar” statements are political and relate only to the nominal exchange rate and observe that trade is driven by the real exchange rate.  But that then means that he’s calling for a stable nominal exchange rate combined with either deflation in the USA or inflation in other countries.

Assuming my previous paragraph is true, 10 points to the person who can see the potential conspiracy theory [2] implication of Nouriel Roubini’s recent observation that the US holding their interest rates at zero is fueling “the mother of all carry trades” [Financial Times, RGE Monitor].

Hint:  If you go for the conspiracy theory, this story would make you think it was working.

Nov. 13 (Bloomberg) — Brazil, South Korea and Russia are losing the battle among developing nations to reduce gains in their currencies and keep exports competitive as the demand for their financial assets, driven by the slumping dollar, is proving more than central banks can handle.
[…]
Governments are amassing record foreign-exchange reserves as they direct central banks to buy dollars in an attempt to stem the greenback’s slide and keep their currencies from appreciating too fast and making their exports too expensive.
[…]
“It looked for a while like the Bank of Korea was trying to defend 1,200, but it looks like they’ve given up and are just trying to slow the advance,” said Collin Crownover, head of currency management in London at State Street Global Advisors

The answer to follow …

Update: The answer is in my next post.

[1] There better not be any gold bugs in the audience.  Don’t make me come over there and hurt you.

[2] Okay, not a conspiracy theory; just a behind-the-scenes-while-completely-in-the-open strategy of international power struggles.

[1] There better not be any gold bugs on this list.  Don’t make me
come over there and hurt you.

[2] Okay, not a conspiracy theory; just a behind-the-scenes-while-
completely-in-the-open strategy of international power struggles.