Published for www.johnbtaylorsblog.blogspot.com, July 31st, 2012
We can still learn much from Milton Friedman, who was born 100 years ago today. Here I focus on his role in the macroeconomic debates of the 1960s and 1970s, because they are so similar to the debates raging again today.
Friedman, Samuelson, and Rules Versus Discretion
First, go back to the early 1960s. The Keynesian school was coming to Washington led more than anyone else by Paul Samuelson who advised John F. Kennedy during the 1960 election campaign and recruited people like Walter Heller and James Tobin to serve on Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisers. In fact, the Keynesian approach to macro policy received its official Washington introduction when Heller, Tobin, and their colleagues wrote the Kennedy Administration’s first Economic Report of the President, published in 1962.
The Report made an explicit case for discretion rather than rules: “Discretionary budget policy, e.g. changes in tax rates or expenditure programs, is indispensable…. In order to promote economic stability, the government should be able to change quickly tax rates or expenditure programs, and equally able to reverse its actions as circumstances change.” As for monetary policy a “discretionary policy is essential, sometimes to reinforce, sometimes to mitigate or overcome, the monetary consequences of short-run fluctuations of economic activity.”
In that same year Milton Friedman published Capitalism and Freedom (1962) giving the competing view on role of government which he then continued to espouse through the 1960s and beyond. He argued that “the available evidence . . . casts grave doubt on the possibility of producing any fine adjustments in economic activity by fine adjustments in monetary policy—at least in the present state of knowledge . . . There are thus serious limitations to the possibility of a discretionary monetary policy and much danger that such a policy may make matters worse rather than better . . . The basic difficulties and limitations of monetary policy apply with equal force to fiscal policy . . . Political pressures to ‘do something’ . . . are clearly very strong indeed in the existing state of public attitudes. The main moral to be had from these two preceding points is that yielding to these pressures may frequently do more harm than good. There is a saying that the best is often the enemy of the good, which seems highly relevant . . . The attempt to do more than we can will itself be a disturbance that may increase rather than reduce instability.”
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Published for www.johnbtaylorsblog.blogspot.com, July 26th, 2012
Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal ran front page stories yesterday reporting that the Fed is yet again about to take action. “Fragile Economy Said to Push Fed to Weigh Action” said the Times. “Fed Moves Closer to Action” said the Journal. Both stories report that the benefits of such actions in the past have exceeded the costs, but there is precious little evidence for this. In an interview in the latest issue of MONEY Magazine I was asked about this:
What’s your assessment of the Federal Reserve’s recent actions to help spur the economy? The Fed has engaged in extraordinarily loose monetary policy, including two round s of so-called quantitative easing. These large scale purchases of mortgages and Treasury debt were aimed at lifting the value of those securities, thereby bringing down interest rates. I believe quantitative easing has been ineffective at best, and potentially harmful.
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Published for www.johntaylorsblog.blogspot.com, July 9th, 2012
As the 2012 campaign season gains steam we are beginning to hear the same economic claims we heard two years ago during the mid-term election. In 2010 much of the debate was about (1) whether the 2009 stimulus package was a success or a failure, and (2) whether the large deficit and rapidly growing federal debt were nothing to worry about or a serious danger. At least as indicated by the outcome of the 2010 election, those who argued the failure and danger side carried the day, with increased stimulus spending, growing debt and a slow economy at the top of voters’ concerns, which resulted in an unprecedented political shift in Congress. In my view, the economic facts were also consistent with the failure and danger position, and are even more so today.
Nevertheless, the same old claims that the debt-increasing stimulus was a success are being made again. In my view they should still be challenged and debated. An example was on yesterday’sABC’s This Week, where Steve Rattner claimed that there is a bipartisan consensus of economists that the 2009 stimulus was a success, referring to a 2010 working paper by Mark Zandi and Alan Blinder as evidence. Rattner’s claim went unchallenged on the show, but it should have been challenged because it is false.
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Published for WSJ Online, July 4th, 2012
At its annual meeting of the world’s central bankers in Switzerland last week, the Bank for International Settlements—the central bank of central banks—warned about the harmful “side effects” of current monetary policies “in the major advanced economies” where “policy rates remain very low and central bank balance sheets continue to expand.” These policies “have been fueling credit and asset price booms in some emerging economies,” the BIS reported, noting the “significant negative repercussions” unwinding these booms will have on advanced economies.
The BIS emphasizes the view that international capital flows stirred up by monetary policy were a primary factor leading to the preceding crisis and that these flows would lead to the next one. This is in stark contrast to the “global saving glut” hypothesis—which says that the funds pouring into the U.S. in the previous decade originated largely from the surplus of exports over imports in emerging market economies.
The BIS should be taken seriously. It warned long in advance about the monetary excesses that led to the financial crisis of 2008.
The capital-flow story starts during extended periods of low interest rates, as in the U.S. Federal Reserve’s low rates from 2003 to 2005 and its current near-zero interest rate policy, which began in 2008 and is expected to last to 2014. These low interest rates cause investors to search elsewhere for yield, and they buy foreign securities—corporate as well as sovereign—for that reason. Global bond funds in the U.S. thus shift their portfolios to these higher-yielding foreign securities and investors move to funds that specialize in such securities.
Low U.S. interest rates also encourage foreign firms to borrow in dollars rather than in local currency. U.S. branch offices of foreign banks play a key part in this process: As of 2009, U.S. branches of over 150 foreign banks had raised $645 billion to make loans in their home countries, making special use of U.S. money-market funds, where about one half of these funds’ assets are liabilities of foreign banks.
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Published for www.johnbtaylorsblog.blogspot.com, July 4th, 2012
On Independence Day two years ago I wrote a piece
comparing America’s exploding debt projection (from the 2009 and 2010 Congressional Budget Office’s Long Term Budget Outlook) with the fireworks on the 4th of July. As I later put it in First Principles
(p. 101) the debt projection’s “soaring upward climb resembles the fireworks on America’s Independence Day. But rather than remind us of America’s founding, it portends America’s ending.” Here is the chart I was referring to, hoping that the Congress and the Administration would get their act together so CBO would be able to project something more responsible in 2011.
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Published for johntaylorsblog.blogspot.com, July 2nd, 2012
In a recent speech at Stanford (video here) former Wells Fargo Chairman and CEO Dick Kovacevich told the full story of how he was forced to take TARP funds even though Wells Fargo did not need or want the funds. The forcing event took place in October 2008 at a now well-known meeting at the U.S. Treasury with Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, as well as several other heads of major financial institutions.
In his speech, Kovacevich first described how he and the other bankers were told at that meeting that they had to accept the funds. He then paused and said to the Stanford audience: “You might ask why didn’t I just say no, and not accept TARP funds.” He then explained: “As my comments were heading in that direction, Hank Paulson turned to Chairman Bernanke, who was sitting next to him and said ‘Your primary regulator is sitting right here. If you refuse to accept these TARP funds, he will declare you capital deficient Monday morning.’ This was being said when we were a triple A rated bank. ‘Is this America?’ I said to myself.”
At that time Wells Fargo was in process of acquiring Wachovia and such a declaration would have killed the deal. According to Kovacevich: “It was truly a godfather moment. They made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.” It was also truly a deviation from the principles of economic freedom, such as those I have highlighted in my book First Principles—predicable policy, rule of law, reliance on markets, limited scope for government. One can debate whether those deviations were appropriate, but they were clearly deviations.
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Published for www.johnbtaylor.blogspot.com, June 24th, 2012
Each year the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) hosts the world’s central bankers–the BIS shareholders–at their Annual General Meeting in Basel, Switzerland. At the meeting held today, the BIS issued their Annual Report which addresses key monetary policy issues. BIS analyses often contain useful warnings, including their prescient warning in the years around 2003-2005 that monetary policy was too easy, which turned out to be largely correct, as the boom and the subsequent bust made so clear. So the Annual Report is always worth reading.
This is especially true of the Annual Report released today because it devotes a whole chapter to serious concerns about the harmful “side effects” of the current highly accommodative monetary policies “in the major advanced economies” where “policy rates remain very low and central bank balance sheets continue to expand.” Of course these are the policies now conducted at the Fed, the ECB, the Bank of Japan, and the Bank of England. The Report points out several side effects:
- First, the policies “may delay the return to a self-sustaining recovery.” In other words, rather than stimulating recovery as intended, the policies may be delaying recovery.
- Second, the policies “may create risks for financial and price stability globally.”
- Third, the policies create “longer-term risks to [central banks’] credibility and operational independence.”
- Fourth, the policies “have blurred the line between monetary and fiscal policies” another threat to central bank independence.
- Fifth, the policies “have been fueling credit and asset price booms in some emerging economies,” thereby raising risks that the unwinding of these booms “would have significant negative repercussions” similar to the preceding crisis, which in turn would feed back to the advanced economies.
The BIS analysis which leads to these concerns is summarized in a series of charts and tables contained in the fascinating chapter “The Limits of Monetary Policy,” which concludes with the warning that “central banks need to beware….”
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Published for johnbtaylorsblog.blogspot.com, June 19th, 2012
Three and half years ago, in February 2009, John Cogan, Volker Wieland, Tobias Cwik and I estimated what the impact of the 2009 stimulus package (ARRA) would be. Our estimates, obtained by simulating modern macroeconomic models, were much smaller than those of the Administration. Since then our estimates have been verified in research by a group of economists at central banks and international financial institutions who found that our simulations were in mid-range of their models.
Now, Wieland, Cogan and I, joined by Maik Wolters, are simulating modern macroeconomic models to evaluate a fiscal consolidation strategy to reduce the deficit and end the explosion of the debt. We are using two models which incorporate forward looking behavior, one with price and wage rigidities and one with more classical features. We have examined a gradual, credible strategy to reduce federal spending as a share of GDP—relative to current policy as assumed in the CBO alternative fiscal scenario baseline and starting in the first quarter of 2013—as shown in this chart.
Our initial findings, reported here, are that this strategy has a positive impact of GDP, in both the short run and the long run. The positive short run economic effects occur even in the model with price and wage rigidities for several reasons including that the lower spending (as a share of GDP) can reduce expected tax rates and permanent after-tax income compared to what would be expected under current policy. This stimulates consumption. The gradual nature of the government spending reduction, which allows time for private spending to adjust, avoids the negative aggregate demand effects that traditional Keynesian models emphasize.
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Published for www.johnbtaylorsblog.blogspot.com, May 26, 2012
Today the Wall Street Journal dedicated more than three-fourths of a page to publishing large excerpts from a 1980 memo to president-elect Ronald Reagan from George Shultz and other economists who had advised Reagan in the presidential campaign. In my view, that memo represents a watershed in the history of economics with great relevance today, and that is why I focused on it in my new book First Principles, where I explain why the economy prospers when policy adheres to the basic principles of economic freedom, but falters when policy deviates from those principles, as it is doing now. That original fifteen page 1980 memo was an important reason why policy veered back to the principles of economic freedom the 1980s and the 1990s. Here is how I describe the memo in First Principles:
Less than two weeks [after the 1980 election], on November 16, 1980, many of the economists who had worked together in the campaign wrote an extraordinary memo to Reagan entitled ‘Economic Strategy for the Reagan Administration.’ It began with a call for action: “Sharp change in present economic policy is an absolute necessity. The problems . . . an almost endless litany of economic ills, large and small, are severe. But they are not intractable. Having been produced by government policy, they can be redressed by a change in policy.”
The memo then outlined a set of reforms for tax policy, regulatory policy, the budget, and monetary policy. There were no temporary tax rebates, short-term public works projects, or other so-called stimulus packages. Rather there were sentences like “The need for a long-term point of view is essential to allow for the time, the coherence and the predictability so necessary for success.”
I believe it is instructive to compare this 1980 memo to President-elect Reagan with a similarly-timed fifty-seven page 2008 memo to President-elect Obama. The 2008 memo from Larry Summers was recently posted by Ryan Lizza on the New Yorker web page generating much political and economic debate. Both were written in times of great economic difficulties, but the contrast between the overall approaches to economic policy is striking. Most important, unlike the 1980 memo to Reagan, the 2008 memo focused mainly on short-term interventions and so-called stimulus packages. The recent debate in the press has been over whether the short-term stimulus package should have been larger. In contrast the 1980 memo did not even mention such short term stimulus packages, but rather focused on more permanent long-term strategies and policy predictability.
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Published for www.johnbtaylorsblog.blogspot.com, May 22, 2012
One of the most important things for students to learn in introductory economics is that differences in productivity are the main reason for differences in real wages over time and across countries.
In his presidential address this year before the American Economic Association, Princeton economist Orley Ashenfelter provides an interesting and novel way to calculate and compare real wages over time and across countries. He divides the nominal wage rate of McDonald’s workers ($/hour) by the price of a Big Mac ($/Big Mac) to get an estimate of Big Macs Per Hour (BMPH) which ranges from 3.09 in Japan to .35 in India. In other words it takes about 19 minutes of work at a McDonalds to earn enough buy a Big Mac in Japan and about 3 hours in India. As Ashenfelter puts it, the advantage of this approach is that “international comparisons of wages of McDonald’s crew members are free of interpretation problems stemming from differences in skill content or compensating wage differentials.” And by dividing the sample period in two–from 2000 to 2007 and from 2007 to 2011–he delves into macroeconomics and shows how devastating the financial crisis and the big recession have been to the economic prosperity of most people around the world.
Here is a terrific Big Macro video of an interview with Ashenfelter on Canadian public TV on the subject of his Big Mac studies. He explains in simple, candid, and interesting terms what is going on and why productivity makes such a difference.
Post published here