Tag Archive for 'Tyler Cowen'

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 random links

Several of these are via Tyler Cowen.

Reblog: Cranial Heat Sink

Hey, if you can retweet, you can reblog.  Jeff Ely:

Tyler Cowen tweeted:

Why do chess players hold their heads hard, with their hands, when they are thinking? If it works, why don’t more thinkers do it?

To prevent overheating of course.  You’ll notice that they typically extend their fingers and cover their foreheads which is the hottest part.  They are [unconsciously] maximizing surface area in order to increase heat dissipation.

Here is a suggestion for how to super-cool your cranium and over-clock your brain.  On a more serious note, here is a pipe that is surgically implanted in the skull of epileptics to reduce the intensity of seizures.

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.

The death throes of US newspapers?

Via Megan McArdle’s excellent commentary, I discovered the Mon-Fri daily circulation figures for the top 25 newspapers in the USA.  Megan’s words:

I think we’re witnessing the end of the newspaper business, full stop, not the end of the newspaper business as we know it. The economics just aren’t there. At some point, industries enter a death spiral: too few consumers raises their average costs, meaning they eventually have to pass price increases onto their customers. That drives more customers away. Rinse and repeat . . .


The numbers seem to confirm something I’ve thought for a while: we’re eventually going to end up with a few national papers, a la Britain, rather than local dailies. The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times (sorry, conservatives!) are weathering the downturn better than most, and it’s not surprising: business, politics, and national upper-middlebrow culture. But in 25 years, will any of them still be printing their product on the pulped up remains of dead trees? It doesn’t seem all that likely.

For those of you that like your information in pictoral form, here it is:

First, the data.  Look at the Mean/Median/Weighted Mean figures.  That really is an horrific collapse in sales.


Second, the distribution (click on the image for a full-sized version):


Finally, a scatter plot of year-over-year change against the latest circulation figures (click on the image for a full-sized version):

US_Newspaper_circulation_scatterplotAs Megan alluded in the second paragraph I quoted, there appears to be a weak relationship between the size of the paper and the declines they’ve suffered, with the bigger papers holding up better.  The USA Today is the clear exception to that idea.  Indeed, if the USA Today is excluded from the (already very small!) sample the R^2 becomes 30%.

To really appreciate just how devestating those numbers are, you need to combine it with advertising figures.  Since newspapers take revenue from both sales (circulation) and advertising, the fact that advertising revenue has also collapsed, as it always does in a recession, means that newspapers have taken not just one but two knives to the chest.

Here’s advertising expenditure in newspapers over recent years, taken from here:

Year Expenditure (millions of dollars) Year-over-year % change
2005 47,408
2006 46,611 -1.7%
2007 42,209 -9.2%
2008 34,740 -17.7%

Which is ugly.  Remember, also, that this expenditure is nominal.  Adjusted for inflation, the figures will be worse.

So what do you do when your ad sales and your circulation figures both fall by over 15%?  Oh, and you can’t really cut costs any more because, as Megan says:

For twenty years, newspapers have been trying to slow the process with increasingly desperate cost cutting, but almost all are at the end of that rope; they can’t cut their newsroom or production staff any further and still put out a newspaper. There just aren’t enough customers who are willing to pay for their product what it costs to produce it.

Which, in economics speak, means that the newspaper business has a large fixed cost component that isn’t particularly variable even in the long run.

Tyler Cowen, in an excellent post that demonstrates precisely why I read him daily, says:

I believe with p = 0.6 that the world is in for a “great disruption.”  It has come to MSM first but it will not end there.  In the longer run I am optimistic about the results of this change — computers will free up lots of human labor — but in the meantime it will have drastic implications for income redistribution, across both individuals and across economic sectors.  For a core metaphor, the internet displacing paid journalism and classified ads is a good place to start.  The value of newspapers has been sucked into Google.

[…]Once The Great Disruption becomes more evident, entertainment will be very very cheap.

Which may well be true, but will be cold comfort for all of those traditional journalists out there.