An Occasional Letter From The Collection Agency
An interpretation of The Deflation Bias and Committing to Being Irresponsible by
G B Eggertsson
This is going to be a long letter. It will attempt to explain the rational behind the current and future US Federal Reserve intentions from the point of view of Central Bank thinking. Firstly, you will need a coffee, a comfortable chair and an open mind.
I am going to take you on a journey which will require many explanations. You will have to concentrate but you will be rewarded by gaining knowledge of what the Fed is doing, why its doing it and how it will affect the future.
I intend to make extensive use of Federal Reserve material and will be quoting extensively. Remember, the views and assumptions you see in this article are not necessarily in agreement with mine. This is an attempt to get inside the thinking of the Fed.
Without doubt the current methods being employed by the Fed are on a par with those seen in the 1930's. There is fear at the Fed felt specifically with Ben Bernanke that, through inaction or policy mistakes, another re-occurrence of a deflationary recession/depression is allowed to happen again. We remember Bernanke apologising for the mistakes in the 1930's and promising (Friedman) that they wouldn't allow it to happen again. It is my intention to show that this fear is the main driving force behind recent Fed actions and will shape the future path of monetary policy in the future.
The Federal Reserve Makes a Choice.
We can assume that Bernanke is fully aware of the risks and is shaping policy to ensure an outcome that will be neither a Japanese '90s or '30s America scenario. He has studied both periods extensively and probably feels he can chart a course through the hard times and ensure an equitable outcome.
To do this he will try to enact Fed mechanisms that allow counterbalancing forces to be released to combat any deflationary threat. We know that this is his course of action because of decisions already made and suggestions put forward.
Is Bernanke following a Keynesian or Friedman (monetarist) approach in the solution of the current problems? (Here we have to assume that Bernanke sees a problem, current use of new Fed Facilities would reinforce this view).
Although this sound a rather academic based question, it is central to understanding Bernanke's approach. From G B Eggertsson "The Deflation Bias and Committing to Being Irresponsible" the fundamental question is:
- "Can the government lose control over the general price level so that no matter how much money it prints, it's actions have no effect on inflation or output? Economists have debated this question ever since Keynes' General Theory. Keynes answered yes, Friedman and the monetarists said no."
Remember, I do not intend to get into the rights and wrongs of Keynesian/Monetarist approaches here, I am attempting to uncover the path that Bernanke has chosen. If Bernanke was following a Keynesian approach then any attempt to improve liquidity would be doomed to fail:
As GB Eggertsson put it:
- "Keynes argued that increasing the money supply has no effect at low nominal interest rates. This has been coined as the liquidity trap."
If Bernanke had been following a Keynesian solution then he would have believed that any increase in money supply would have been ineffective. Yet we see constant attempts to increase liquidity flows. It is clear then that the policies evolving to combat the threat of credit and liquidity contraction are monetarist based. This makes Bernanke's apology the first signpost on his intended path.
Many attribute Bernanke with the nickname "Helicopter Ben" in reference to remarks he made in a speech about how to combat deflation. It is oft used by those who rail against inflation to paint Bernanke as an inflationist. However, this is misplaced. Bernanke was in fact quoting Friedman. What many don't realise is that there is an assumption the Friedman was invoking Keynes in this approach. This isn't true. Keynes did not believe such an approach could work with low nominal interest rates whereas Friedman believed that changes to both fiscal and monetary policy could allow government control of prices.
Therefore we cannot look at the actions of the Federal Reserve alone. Any action by the Fed would, according to monetarists, be futile without support from the Government. It also supposes that deflation is caused by a negative demand shock that the then current policies where unable to combat. Indeed the current circumstances in credit markets are seen as a Minsky Event, an unexpected shock to the financial system.
However, it would appear that the Fed and the Government were already enacting policies prior to the credit market dislocation last summer. What happened after the dislocation was not an attempt to stop the problem occurring but was the second required tranche of policy that could only be enacted when the problem surfaced.
Let me explain why, for the Fed and Government, there was no "Minsky Moment" but rather a progression of an already foreseen problem. To do this we need to look at why the Japanese Government and Bank of Japan failed to break out of a deflationary scenario. Again I quote from G B Eggertsson:
- "The deflation bias is closely related, and in some sense, a formalization of, a common objection to Krugman's policy proposal for the BOJ. To battle deflation he suggested that the BOJ should announce an inflation target of 5% for 15 years. Responding to this proposal, Kunio Okina, director of the Institute for Monetary Studies at the BOJ, said in DJN (1999): "Because short-term interest rates are already at zero setting an inflation target of say 2% would not carry much credibility." Similar objections were raised by economists such as, e.g., Dominiguez (1998), Woodford (1999), and Svensson (2001)"
At face value the remarks above would seem to support the Keynesian approach, that at low nominal interest rates, Government deficit spending and quantative easing failed to ignite the inflation required to break out of a deflationary spiral.
Within the quote though is the important point of inflation expectations. It is here that the importance of Bernanke's discussion of a targeted inflation rate and subsequent Fed warnings about inflation expectations remaining anchored becomes central to the main thrust of policy direction.
As we have seen, since 2000 the US Government has run a deficit whilst enabling tax cuts and rebates. The Fed allowed looser lending standards and brought down interest rates, in response to a business led recession. Rather than attempt to hide any inflationary tendencies inherent in these policies, the Fed has become more vocal about inflation ranges with the rhetoric pointing to overshoots of the target range. Inflation expectations amongst business and consumers have, somewhat naturally, been kept high.
The Fed is often measured by its inflation fighting credentials. I believe this is misplaced. The Fed should be viewed as a credible deflation fighter. The Fed had to establish an inflation target, either implicit or within a range, to ensure that further inflation was to be expected in the future.
Why? It is all down to inflation expectations. Japan is unable to break out of its deflationary scenario because no one expects inflation to happen and therefore business, credit and the consumer act accordingly, ensuring demand is constantly put off to a later date. (Why buy today if it is cheaper to buy tomorrow).
Again, I quote from G B Eggertsson: (the Markov equilibrium is covered later in this letter)
- The third key result of the paper is that in a Markov equilibrium the government can eliminate deflation by deficit spending. Deficit spending eliminates deflation for the following reason: If the government cuts taxes and increases nominal debt, and taxation is costly, inflation expectations increase (i.e., the private sector expects higher money supply in the future). Inflation expectations increase because higher nominal debt gives the government an incentive to inflate to reduce the real value of the debt. To eliminate deflation the government simply cuts taxes until the private sector expects inflation instead of deflation. At zero nominal interest rates higher inflation expectations reduce the real rate of return, and thereby raise aggregate demand and the price level. The two main assumptions underlying this result is that there is some cost of taxation which makes this policy credible and that (2) monetary and fiscal policies are coordinated.
Because of raised inflation expectations, deficit spending by the US Government has the same effect as dropping money from helicopters. It is expected that because assets have been introduced into the economy inflation must rise. (It is useful to have a few members of the Fed that are inflation hawks and vocal in warning about increased spending leading to inflationary pressures).
However, if such funding is directed straight into current money supply it will not increase prices. Again I have to quote from G B Eggertsson:
- "Deficit spending has exactly the same effect as the government following Friedman's famous suggestion to "drop money from helicopters" to increase inflation. At zero nominal interest rates money and bonds are perfect substitutes. They are one and the same: A government issued piece of paper that carries no interest but has nominal value. It does not matter, therefore, if the government drops money from helicopters or issues government bonds. Friedman's proposal thus increases the price level through the same mechanism as deficit spending. Dropping money from helicopters, however, does not increase prices in a Markov equilibrium because it increases the current money supply. It creates inflation by increasing government debt which is defined as the sum of money and bonds. In a Markov equilibrium, it is government debt that determines the price level in a liquidity trap because it determines expectations about future money supply."
Dropping money from helicopters and cutting taxes are not the only options available and the following paragraph from Eggertsson may jog a few memories:
- "The government, however, can increase its debt in several ways. Cutting taxes and dropping money from helicopters are only two examples. The government can also increase debt by printing money (or issuing nominal bonds) and buying private assets, such as stocks, or foreign exchange. Ina Markov equilibrium, these operations increase prices and output because they change the inflation incentive of the government by increasing government debt (money & bonds). Hence, when the short-term nominal interest rate is zero, open market operations in real assets and/or foreign exchange increase prices through the same mechanism as deficit spending in a Markov equilibrium."
As an aside, you can see why this paper is central to my article. It is clear that a copy of it sits on Bernanke's desk.
It is becoming clear that Fed and US Govt policy have been in lockstep for some time and that the groundwork for fending off a deflationary attack was laid out over 7 years ago. The actions we have seen since August '07 are not the beginning of the attempted fix but the second stage.
The US Government has run an increasing deficit.
The Fed has allowed the movement of interest rates to compliment a notionally low interest rate environment. The withdrawal of M3 increased inflationary expectations.
The loosening of regulatory oversight allowed a wider use of debt and increased consumption.
Since mid 2007:
The US Government has explicitly talked of increasing govt debt through tax rebates and targeting relief at overburdened indebted homeowners through the expanded use of Govt Sponsored Enterprises.
The Fed cut interest rates aggressively below rates of inflation and introduced facilities to engender the outright purchase as well as the long and short term loans of cash and US Govt Bonds.
The US Treasury does not rule out making the new Fed facilities permanent.
I believe at this point I have made a good case that I have identified the policy and framework that the Federal Reserve and the US Govt are pursuing and that such policies are co-ordinated and have been in place for much longer than most suspect. It is the expectation that such actions are inflationary in nature that encourages spending and investment (Buy today because it will be more expensive tomorrow).
We now turn our attention to the future. To read the rest of The Occasional Letter, click here.