Tag Archive for 'Recession'

On interest rates

In what Tyler Cowen calls “Critically important stuff and two of the best recent economics blog posts, in some time,” Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong have got some interesting thoughts on US interest rates.  First Krugman:

On the face of it, there’s no reason to be worried about interest rates on US debt. Despite large deficits, the Federal government is able to borrow cheaply, at rates that are up from the early post-Lehman period … but well below the pre-crisis levels:


Underlying these low rates is, in turn, the fact that overall borrowing by the nonfinancial sector hasn’t risen: the surge in government borrowing has in fact, less than offset a plunge in private borrowing.

So what’s the problem?

Well, what I hear is that officials don’t trust the demand for long-term government debt, because they see it as driven by a “carry trade”: financial players borrowing cheap money short-term, and using it to buy long-term bonds. They fear that the whole thing could evaporate if long-term rates start to rise, imposing capital losses on the people doing the carry trade; this could, they believe, drive rates way up, even though this possibility doesn’t seem to be priced in by the market.

What’s wrong with this picture?

First of all, what would things look like if the debt situation were perfectly OK? The answer, it seems to me, is that it would look just like what we’re seeing.

Bear in mind that the whole problem right now is that the private sector is hurting, it’s spooked, and it’s looking for safety. So it’s piling into “cash”, which really means short-term debt. (Treasury bill rates briefly went negative yesterday). Meanwhile, the public sector is sustaining demand with deficit spending, financed by long-term debt. So someone has to be bridging the gap between the short-term assets the public wants to hold and the long-term debt the government wants to issue; call it a carry trade if you like, but it’s a normal and necessary thing.

Now, you could and should be worried if this thing looked like a great bubble — if long-term rates looked unreasonably low given the fundamentals. But do they? Long rates fluctuated between 4.5 and 5 percent in the mid-2000s, when the economy was driven by an unsustainable housing boom. Now we face the prospect of a prolonged period of near-zero short-term rates — I don’t see any reason for the Fed funds rate to rise for at least a year, and probably two — which should mean substantially lower long rates even if you expect yields eventually to rise back to 2005 levels. And if we’re facing a Japanese-type lost decade, which seems all too possible, long rates are in fact still unreasonably high.

Still, what about the possibility of a squeeze, in which rising rates for whatever reason produce a vicious circle of collapsing balance sheets among the carry traders, higher rates, and so on? Well, we’ve seen enough of that sort of thing not to dismiss the possibility. But if it does happen, it’s a financial system problem — not a deficit problem. It would basically be saying not that the government is borrowing too much, but that the people conveying funds from savers, who want short-term assets, to the government, which borrows long, are undercapitalized.

And the remedy should be financial, not fiscal. Have the Fed buy more long-term debt; or let the government issue more short-term debt. Whatever you do, don’t undermine recovery by calling off jobs creation.

The point is that it’s crazy to let the rescue of the economy be held hostage to what is, if it’s an issue at all, a technical matter of maturity mismatch. And again, it’s not clear that it even is an issue. What the worriers seem to regard as a danger sign — that supposedly awful carry trade — is exactly what you would expect to see even if fiscal policy were on a perfectly sustainable trajectory.

Then DeLong:

I am not sure Paul is correct when he says that the possible underlying problem is merely “a technical matter of maturity mismatch.” The long Treasury market is thinner than many people think: it is not completely implausible to argue that it is giving us the wrong read on what market expectations really are because long Treasuries right now are held by (a) price-insensitive actors like the PBoC and (b) highly-leveraged risk lovers borrowing at close to zero and collecting coupons as they try to pick up nickles in front of the steamroller. And to the extent that the prices at which businesses can borrow are set by a market that keys off the Treasury market, an unwinding of this “carry trade”–if it really exists–could produce bizarre outcomes.

Bear in mind that this whole story requires that the demand curve slope the wrong way for a while–that if the prices for Treasury bonds fall carry traders lose their shirts and exit the market, and so a small fall in Treasury bond prices turns into a crash until someone else steps in to hold the stock…

For reference, here are the time paths of interest rates for a variety of term lengths and risk profiles (all taken from FRED):


To my own mind, I’m somewhat inclined to agree with Krugman.  While I do believe that the carry trade is occurring, I suspect that it’s effects are mostly elsewhere, or at least that the carry trade is not being played particularly heavily in long-dated US government debt relative to other asset markets.

Notice that the AAA and BAA 30-year corporate rates are basically back to pre-crisis levels and that the premium they pay over 30-year government debt is also back to typical levels.  If the long-dated rates are being pushed down to pre-crisis levels solely by increased supply thanks to the carry trade, then we would surely expect the quantity of credit to also be at pre-crisis levels.  But new credit issuance is down relative to the pre-crisis period.  Since the price is largely unchanged, that means that both demand and supply of credit have shrunk – the supply from fear in the financial market pushing money to the short end of the curve and the demand from the fact that there’s been a recession.

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.

In which I respectfully disagree with Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman [Ideas, Princeton, Unofficial archive] has recently started using the phrase “jobless recovery” to describe what appears to be the start of the economic recovery in the United States [10 Feb, 21 Aug, 22 Aug, 24 Aug].  The phrase is not new.  It was first used to describe the recovery following the 1990/1991 recession and then used extensively in describing the recovery from the 2001 recession.  In it’s simplest form, it is a description of an economic recovery that is not accompanied by strong jobs growth.  Following the 2001 recession, in particular, people kept losing jobs long after the economy as a whole had reached bottom and even when employment did bottom out, it was very slow to come back up again.  Professor Krugman (correctly) points out that this is a feature of both post-1990 recessions, while prior to that recessions and their subsequent recoveries were much more “V-shaped”.  He worries that it will also describe the recovery from the current recession.

While Professor Krugman’s characterisations of recent recessions are broadly correct, I am still inclined to disagree with him in predicting what will occur in the current recovery.  This is despite Brad DeLong’s excellent advice:

  1. Remember that Paul Krugman is right.
  2. If your analysis leads you to conclude that Paul Krugman is wrong, refer to rule #1.

This will be quite a long post, so settle in.  It’s quite graph-heavy, though, so it shouldn’t be too hard to read. 🙂

Professor Krugman used his 24 August post on his blog to illustrate his point.  I’m going to quote most of it in full, if for no other reason than because his diagrams are awesome:

First, here’s the standard business cycle picture:


Real GDP wobbles up and down, but has an overall upward trend. “Potential output” is what the economy would produce at “full employment”, which is the maximum level consistent with stable inflation. Potential output trends steadily up. The “output gap” — the difference between actual GDP and potential — is what mainly determines the unemployment rate.

Basically, a recession is a period of falling GDP, an expansion a period of rising GDP (yes, there’s some flex in the rules, but that’s more or less what it amounts to.) But what does that say about jobs?

Traditionally, recessions were V-shaped, like this:


So the end of the recession was also the point at which the output gap started falling rapidly, and therefore the point at which the unemployment rate began declining. Here’s the 1981-2 recession and aftermath:


Since 1990, however, growth coming out of a slump has tended to be slow at first, insufficient to prevent a widening output gap and rising unemployment. Here’s a schematic picture:


And here’s the aftermath of the 2001 recession:


Notice that this is NOT just saying that unemployment is a lagging indicator. In 2001-2003 the job market continued to get worse for a year and a half after GDP turned up. The bad times could easily last longer this time.

Before I begin, I have a minor quibble about Prof. Krugman’s definition of “potential output.”  I think of potential output as what would occur with full employment and no structural frictions, while I would call full employment with structural frictions the “natural level of output.”  To me, potential output is a theoretical concept that will never be realised while natural output is the central bank’s target for actual GDP.  See this excellent post by Menzie Chinn.  This doesn’t really matter for my purposes, though.

In everything that follows, I use total hours worked per capita as my variable since that most closely represents the employment situation witnessed by the average household.  I only have data for the last seven US recessions (going back to 1964).  You can get the spreadsheet with all of my data here: US_Employment [Excel].  For all images below, you can click on them to get a bigger version.

The first real point I want to make is that it is entirely normal for employment to start falling before the official start and to continue falling after the official end of recessions.  Although Prof. Krugman is correct to point out that it continued for longer following the 1990/91 and 2001 recessions, in five of the last six recessions (not counting the current one) employment continued to fall after the NBER-determined trough.  As you can see in the following, it is also the case that six times out of seven, employment started falling before the NBER-determined peak, too.

Hours per capita fell before and after recessions

Prof. Krugman is also correct to point out that the recovery in employment following the 1990/91 and 2001 recessions was quite slow, but it is important to appreciate that this followed a remarkably slow decline during the downturn.  The following graph centres each recession around it’s actual trough in hours worked per capita and shows changes relative to those troughs:

Hours per capita relative to and centred around trough

The recoveries following the 1990/91 and 2001 recessions were indeed the slowest of the last six, but they were also the slowest coming down in the first place.  Notice that in comparison, the current downturn has been particularly rapid.

We can go further:  the speed with which hours per capita fell during the downturn is an excellent predictor of how rapidly they rise during the recovery.  Here is a scatter plot that takes points in time chosen symmetrically about each trough (e.g. 3 months before and 3 months after) to compare how far hours per capita fell over that time coming down and how far it had climbed on the way back up:


Notice that for five of the last six recoveries, there is quite a tight line describing the speed of recovery as a direct linear function of the speed of the initial decline.  The recovery following the 1981/82 recession was unusually rapid relative to the speed of it’s initial decline.  Remember (go back up and look) that Prof. Krugman used the 1981/82 recession and subsequent recovery to illustrate the classic “V-shaped” recession.  It turns out to have been an unfortunate choice since that recovery was abnormally rapid even for pre-1990 downturns.

Excluding the 1981/82 recession on the basis that it’s recovery seems to have been driven by a separate process, we get quite a good fit for a simple linear regression:


Now, I’m the first to admit that this is a very rough-and-ready analysis.  In particular, I’ve not allowed for any autoregressive component to employment growth during the recovery.  Nevertheless, it is quite strongly suggestive.

Given the speed of the decline that we have seen in the current recession, this points us towards quite a rapid recovery in hours worked per capita (although note that the above suggests that all recoveries are slower than the preceding declines – if they were equal, the fitted line would be at 45% (the coefficient would be one)).

On China

Menzie Chinn emphasises that for the purposes of estimating country shares in global GDP, it is necessary to think of them in nominal terms.  On that basis, China is large, but only half the size of the Euro zone and well under half the size of America.  Therefore, he implies, an increase in demand from China won’t really contribute as much to global growth as people might be hoping.

Nevertheless, people do seem to be wondering about China as an engine of global growth in demand.  The reason is simple:  Despite a near catastrophic collapse in world trade, China’s economy is still growing while those of  other export-oriented countries like Japan or Germany are falling precipitously.

Clearly part of the reason for the continued Chinese growth, like in Australia, is the successful use of a fiscal stimulus to boost local demand (the Australian rebound was also helped by the fact that, by not manufacturing much, their decline in investment was offset by a fall in imports and (price) changes in natural resource exports occur with a significant lag).

Brad Setser has explored the Chinese stimulus a little.  He writes:

I initially underestimated the magnitude of China’s stimulus by focusing on the (fairly modest) change in the government’s fiscal balance. It is now clear that the majority of China’s stimulus has been off-budget: the huge increase in lending by state owned banks mattered far more than the change in the budget of the central government. The expected loss on these loans can be considered a form of fiscal stimulus.

Which is a fascinating way to conduct government business.

On the symmetry of employment contraction and recovery in US recessions

A couple of days ago I gave some graphs depicting movements in weekly hours worked per capita during US recessions since 1964.  Towards the end, I gave this graph:

Comparing US recessions in hours worked per capita, centred around their troughs

I thought it might be worthwhile to look at this idea further.  Here is the equivalent graph where movements in hours worked per capita are made relative to their actual troughs rather than their actual peaks:

Comparing US recessions in hours worked per capita, centred around and relative to their troughs

At a first glance, recoveries do appear to be somewhat symmetric to their corresponding contractions, although they do also appear to be a bit slower coming back up to falling down in the first place.

I then identified data pairs that are symmetric in time around each trough (e.g. 3 months before and after the trough) and put them in a scatter-plot:

Scatter plot of falls-to-come in weekly hours per capita against subsequent gains in recovery

Points along the 45-degree line here would represent recoveries that were perfectly symmetric with their preceding contraction.  Notice that for five of the six recessions shown, recoveries are in a fairly tight line below the 45-degree line.  By comparison, the recovery following the ’81-’82 recession was especially rapid – it came back up faster than it fell down.

Excluding the ’81-’82 recession on the basis that it’s recovery seems to have been driven by a separate process, a simple linear regression gives a remarkably good fit:


This is a very rough-and-ready analysis.  In particular, I’ve not allowed for any autoregressive component to employment growth during the recovery.  Nevertheless, it is suggestive.

There are more serious efforts in looking at this for the economy as a whole (rather than just hours worked).  James Hamilton is not convinced that it will occur this time.  The oddly rapid recovery in hours worked per capita following the ’81-’82 recession should give us reason to agree with Professor Hamilton, not disagree: it shows that the typical recovery is not guaranteed.  Look back at the scatter-plot of all the recessions.  Notice that the recovery following the ’69-’70 recession was actually quite slow.  It’s fitted line is y = 0.252 x.

For me, the big thing that makes me lean towards Professor Hamilton’s fears of a slower-than-typical recovery is the possibility of zombie banks, or as John Hempton argues, zombie borrowers.  Zombie borrowers should worry us because, if they exist, they are keeping hold of the capital that could (and should) be better placed elsewhere in the economy, which means that those more deserving would-be borrowers are not able to expand and employ more people.

As Hempton argues in the second of his posts, on this basis it is a Good Thing ™ that two of the three US car manufacturers have been forced into a bankruptcy-induced contraction.  Note that Ford only really managed to avoid the same fate by borrowing a huge amount just before the credit markets froze.  It probably needs (from the point of view of the economy as a whole) to follow the same process, whether inside or outside the courts.

But the car manufacturers are by no means the only candidates for the “zombie borrower” epithet.  The really big borrower behind all of the mess in the financial sector is the one at the bottom of all the “toxic” CDOs:  the underwater American households.