Tag Archive for 'Scott Sumner'

Calm down people. Kocherlakota is still a hawk.

A certain kind of nerd is excited about this recent speech by Narayana Kocherlakota, the president of the Minneapolis arm of the Federal Reserve.  Watching him speak, some people think they saw a leopard not only change its spots, but but paint stripes on as well.

The reason?  Well, Kocherlakota is famously an inflation hawk (we do like our animal analogies, don’t we?), but in the speech he argued that the Fed should commit to keeping interest rates at “exceptionally low levels” until unemployment in America falls to 5.5% (it’s currently 8.3% and was last at 5.5% around May 2008) and, as a general rule, inflation hawks are not meant to care about unemployment.  They’re meant to focus, like a hawk, on inflation.  Here are Bloomberg, Joe Weisenthal, Neil Irwin, FT Alphaville, Felix Salmon, Tim Duy, Scott Sumner, Aki Ito and Brad DeLong (I don’t mean to suggest that these guys are all suggesting that Kocherlakota has become a dove — they’re just all worth reading).

Let’s look at his speech (I’m mixing his words up a little, but the words and their meaning are the same):

As long as longer-term inflation expectations are stable and that the Committee’s medium-term outlook for the annual inflation rate is within a quarter of a percentage point of its target of 2 percent, [the FMOC] should keep the fed funds rate extraordinarily low until the unemployment rate has fallen below 5.5 percent.

This is not the statement that a dove would make.  A dove would be speaking about giving weight to both unemployment and inflation in any decision rule.  A NGDP-targetter, if forced against their will to speak in this language, would speak of something close to a 50-50 weighting, for example.  But that’s not what Kocherlakota is saying here.  He is instead saying that the Fed should keep long-term expectations of inflation stable (presumably at 2%) and, in any event, freak out if inflation over the coming year is likely to be any higher than 2.25% and only then, when as an inflation hawk he has nothing to worry about, should the Fed be willing to look at unemployment.

These are still lexicographic preferences.  “Fight inflation first and ignore unemployment while you’re doing it,” he is saying.  “Then look at unemployment (but be prepared to ditch it if inflation so much as twitches).”

As I say, these are not the ideas of an inflation dove.

It does represent at least a slight shift, though.  As Tim Duy makes clear, last year he thought a core PCE inflation rate of 1.5% would be enough to trigger an increase in interest rates, whereas now he appears to be focusing on 2.25% in headline CPI inflation.  Those are different objects, though, so it’s not always apples-to-apples.

Instead, I perceive two main shifts in Kocherlakota’s viewpoint:

First, and most importantly, he has been convinced that much of America’s currently-high unemployment is because of deficient demand and not, as he used to hold, because of structural (i.e. supply-side) factors.  Here is a snippet from an interview he did with the FT:

“I’m putting less weight on the structural damage story,” said Mr Kocherlakota, arguing that recent research on unemployment pointed more towards “persistent demand shortfalls”. Either way, he said, “the inflation outlook is going to be pretty crucial in telling the difference between the two”.

The recent research he mentions, at least in part, will be this paper by Edward Lazear and James Spletzer presented recently at Jackson Hole.  Here’s the abstract:

The recession of 2007-09 witnessed high rates of unemployment that have been slow to recede. This has led many to conclude that structural changes have occurred in the labor market and that the economy will not return to the low rates of unemployment that prevailed in the recent past. Is this true? The question is important because central banks may be able to reduce unemployment that is cyclic in nature, but not that which is structural. An analysis of labor market data suggests that there are no structural changes that can explain movements in unemployment rates over recent years. Neither industrial nor demographic shifts nor a mismatch of skills with job vacancies is behind the increased rates of unemployment. Although mismatch increased during the recession, it retreated at the same rate. The patterns observed are consistent with unemployment being caused by cyclic phenomena that are more pronounced during the current recession than in prior recessions.

Second (and to some extent, this is just a corollary of the first), Kocherlakota is now emphasising that conditional on inflation being tightly restrained, he is happy to deploy (almost) any amount of stimulus to help improve the employment situation, whereas previously his emphasis was on how additional stimulus would lead to more inflation.

In other words, I read this speech as evidence that Kocherlakota’s underlying philosophy remains unchanged, but his perception of the problems to which he needs to apply that philosophy has changed.  That doesn’t make him a leopard changing it’s spots, that makes him principled, intelligent and open minded.

Naturally, Mark Thoma said all of this before me, and better than I could have.


Ryan Advent, over at the Economist’s Free Exchange, also has a comment worth reading. He expands a little on the two points I mention:

As Mr Kocherlakota points out, one advantage of the threshold approach (an advantage shared by NGDP targeting) is that it allows members to remain agnostic about the extent of structural unemployment in the economy. If unemployment is mostly structural, the inflation threshold will be crossed first; if not, the unemployment threshold will. Either way, the Fed has set its tolerances and adopted a policy to get there.

… which is something that I had originally meant to highlight in this post (honest!). Ryan continues:

(I will point out, however, that the threshold approach implies contracting in the fact of negative structural shocks and easing in the face of positive productivity shocks while NGDP targeting will generally pull in the opposite direction, more sensibly in my view.)

That’s the real debate, right there. Generally everyone agrees on what to do when faced with a demand shock, but how to deal with supply shocks continues to be a matter of considerable disagreement, no doubt to the frustration of both sides. That and how best to disentangle the data to identify whether a shock, or more correctly an assortment of shocks is, on net, mostly supply or mostly demand.

Monetary policy, fear of commitment and the power of infinity

This is a fascinating time to be thinking about monetary policy…

Like everybody else, central banks can do two things:  they can talk, or they can act.

Some people say that talk is cheap and, in any event, discretion implies bias.

Other people point out that things like central bankers’ concern for their reputation mean that it’s perfectly possible to promise today to implement history-dependent policy tomorrow. Some cheeky people like to point out that this amounts to saying that, when in a slump, a central bank should “credibly commit to being irresponsible” in the future.

In fact, some people argue (pdf) that, in my words, “all monetary policy is, fundamentally, about expectations of the future.”  But if that’s the case, why act at all? Why not just talk and stay away from being a distorting influence in the markets?

There are two reasons: First, since since talk is cheap, credibility requires that people know that you can and, if necessary, will act to back it up (talk softly and carry a big stick). Second, because if you can convince people with actions today, you don’t need to explicitly tell them what your policy rule will be tomorrow and central bankers love discretion because no rule can ever capture what to do in every situation and well, hey … a sense of mystery is sexy.

OMO stands for “Open Market Operation”. It’s how a central bank acts.  Some scallywags like to say that when a central bank talks, it’s an “Open Mouth Operation.” Where it gets fun (i.e. complicated) is that often a central bank’s action can be just a statement if the stick they’re carrying to back it up is big enough.

In regular times, a typical central bank action will be to announce an interest rate and a narrow band on either side of it. In theory, it could be any interest rate at all, but in practice they choose the interest rate for overnight loans between banks. They then commit to accepting in or lending out infinite amounts of money if the interest rate leaves that narrow band. Infinity is a very big stick indeed, so people go along with them.

So what should a central bank do when overnight interest rates are at (or close to) zero and the central bank doesn’t want to take them lower, but more stimulus is needed?

Woodford-ites say that you’ve got to commit, baby. Drop down to one knee, look up into the economy’s eye and give the speech of your life. Tell ’em what you promise to do tomorrow. Tell ’em that you’ll never cheat.  Pinky-swear it … and pray that they believe you.

Monetarists, on the other hand, cough politely and point out that the interest rate on overnight inter-bank loans is just a price and there are plenty of other prices out there. The choice of the overnight rate was an arbitrary one to start with, so arbitrarily pick another one!

Of course, the overnight rate wasn’t chosen arbitrarily. It was chosen because it’s the price that is the furthest away from the real economy and, generally speaking, central bankers hate the idea of being involved in the real economy almost as much as they love discretion. They watch it, of course. They’re obsessed by it. They’re guided by it and, by definition, they’re trying to influence it, but they don’t want to be directly involved. A cynic might say that they just don’t want to get their hands dirty, but a realist would point out that no matter the pain and joy involved in individual decisions in the economy, a cool head and an air of abstraction are needed for policy work and, in any event, a central banker is hardly an industrialist and is therefore entirely unqualified to make decisions at the coalface.

But as every single person knows, commitment is scary, even when you want it, so the whole monetarist thing is tempting. Quantitative Easing (QE) is a step along that monetarist approach, but the way it’s been done is different to the way that OMOs usually work. There has been no target price announced and while the quantities involved have been big (even huge), they have most definitely been finite. The result? Well, it’s impossible to really tell because we don’t know how bad things would have been without the QE. But it certainly doesn’t feel like a recovery.

Some transmission-mechanism plumbers think that the pipes are clogged (see also me).

Woodford-ites say that it’s because there’s no love, baby. Where’s the commitment?

Monetarists say that infinity is fundamentally different to just a really big number.

Market monetarists, on the other hand (yes, I’m sure you were wondering when I’d get to them), like to argue that the truth lies in between those last two. They say that it’s all about commitment (and without commitment it’s all worthless), but sometimes you need an infinitely big stick to convince people. They generally don’t get worked up about how close the central bank’s actions are to the real economy and they’re not particularly bothered with concrete steps.

So now we’ve got some really interesting stuff going on:

The Swiss National Bank (a year ago) announced a price and is continuing to deploy the power of infinity.

The European Central Bank has switched to infinity, but is not giving a price and is not giving any forward guidance.

The Federal Reserve has switched to infinity and is giving some forward guidance on their policy decision rule.

The Bank of England is trying to fix the plumbing.

It really is a fascinating time to be thinking about this stuff.

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 …

Some brief thoughts on QE2

  • Instead of speaking about “the interest rate” or even “the yield curve”, I wish people would speak more frequently about the yield surface:  put duration on the x-axis, per-period default risk on the y-axis and the yield on the z-axis.  Banks do not just borrow short and lend long; they also borrow safe and lend risky.
  • Liquidity is not uniform over the duration-instantaneous-default-risk space.   Liquidity is not even monotonic over the duration-instantaneous-default-risk space.
  • There is still a trade-off for the Fed in wanting lower interest rates for long-duration, medium-to-high-risk borrowers to spur the economy and wanting a steep yield surface to help banks with weak balance sheets improve their standing.
  • By keeping IOR above the overnight rate, the Fed is sterilising their own QE (the newly-injected cash will stay parked in reserve accounts) and the sole remaining effect, as pointed out by Brad DeLong, is through a “correction” for any premiums demanded for duration risk.
  • Nevertheless, packaging the new QE as a collection of monthly purchases grants the Fed future policy flexibility, as they can always declare that it will be cut off after only X months or will be extended to Y months.
  • It seems fairly clear to me that the announcement was by-and-large expected and so “priced in” (e.g. James Hamilton), but there was still something of a surprise (it was somewhat greater easing than was expected) (e.g. Scott Sumner).
  • Menzie Chinn thinks there is a bit of a puzzle in that while bond markets had almost entirely priced it in, fx-rate markets (particularly USD-EUR) seemed to move a lot.  I’m not entirely sure that I buy his argument, as I’m not entirely sure why we should expect the size of the response to a monetary surprise to be the same in each market.