The Return of Inflationism?

by Mario Rizzo

The Fed has become desperate, not because the American economy is currently falling apart, but because the economy has stubbornly failed to respond well to the policies of the “best and the brightest.” And now, as if to welcome the impending chairmanship of Janet Yellen, stories are surfacing in various places about the growing consensus inside and outside of the Fed for inflation. There is not enough inflation to stimulate adequate economic growth. Just a little more, or maybe even a lot more (perhaps as high as 6 percent) is needed as Ken Rogoff of Harvard is suggesting.

The arguments being used today are not exactly the same as those of the 1970s, yet I have the feeling that I have been here before.  It is important to distinguish theory from what policy economics is about. Policy economics often comes down to rather simple ideas. The real world has a way of making a mockery of today’s sophisticated macroeconomic theory. For one thing, policy has to be relatively simple if it is to be transparent. Continue reading

The Euro: a Step Toward the Gold Standard?

by Andreas Hoffmann (University of Leipzig)

In a recent piece Jesus Huerta de Soto (2012) argues that the euro is a proxy for the gold standard. He draws several analogies between the euro and the classical gold standard (1880-1912). Like when “going on gold” European governments gave up monetary sovereignty by introducing the euro. Like the classical gold standard the common currency forces reforms upon countries that are in crisis because governments cannot manipulate the exchange rate and inflate away debt. Therefore, to limit state power and to encourage e.g. labor market reforms he views the euro as second best to the gold standard from a free market perspective. Therefore, we should defend it. He finds that it is a step toward the re-establishment of the classical gold standard.

There has been much criticism of the piece that mainly addresses the inflationary bias of the ECB. I actually agree with much of it. In particular, imperfect currency areas have the potential to restrict monetary nationalism. This can be welcomed just as customs unions that allow for free trade (at least in restricted areas). But I have some trouble with De Soto’s conclusions and the view that adhering to the euro (as did adhering to gold) gives an extra impetus for market reform – in spite of the mentioned e.g. labor market reforms in Spain. Continue reading

Cyprus

By Jerry O’Driscoll

 

Cyprus is the latest country to succumb to the financial rot in the European Union. Once a banking center, its citizens now cannot pay for their own imports. Exporters are demanding cash only for goods sent to Cypriote businesses. Credit has dried up. Businesses are closing because they have no goods to sell.

The economic crises in the various countries have fallen into two types. In the first type, highly indebted governments experienced fiscal crises and could no longer service their debts. Banks had lent to these governments and their condition was impaired by the value of the government bonds falling.  The economies went into recession, which was aggravated by higher taxes and enhanced collection of taxes. Greece is the poster child for a financial and economic crisis begat by a fiscal crisis. Continue reading

Easy Money, Slow Growth

by Jerry O’Driscoll

In today’s Wall Street Journal, John Taylor explains why the U.S. recovery has been tepid while money growth has been very rapid. The recovery has set records for its weak pace, while money growth has set records for its rapidity. Taylor supplies some of the numbers.

Taylor continues an argument he made at the November 2012 Cato Monetary conference. It is the Fed’s policy that is causing the anemic recovery. To quote, “while borrowers like near zero interest rates, there is little incentive for lenders to extend credit at that rate.” He analogizes the Fed’s fixing interest rates to a policy of price ceilings on housing rents. Lenders supply less credit at the lower interest rates, as landlords supply less housing services under rent controls.

Taylor also notes that the Fed’s policy interferes with the signaling of the price system. It distorts capital allocation. Any decently trained micro economist would understand this. Why cannot the backers of the Fed’s policy? Continue reading

Clarifications of the Austro-Wicksellian Business Cycle Theory

by Mario Rizzo

There has been a lively debate on forecasts of high inflation made by those worried about the Fed’s recent policy of quantitative easing. For details I refer the reader to Daniel Kuehn’s excellent blog. The question to which I address myself is solely “What do these predictions have to do with core Austrian Business Cycle Theory?” This is my answer.

We must start with a few general points. First, I am talking about the Austro-Wicksellian business cycle theory as developed by Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises and as synthesized by Roger Garrison in his book Time and Money. I cannot take responsibility for versions constructed by others.  It is not that I think the others are necessarily wrong (and I mean no disrespect to them), but I do not know with sufficient precision what all these others are saying in the name of “Austrian theory.”

Secondly, the Austro-Wicksellian theory begins with either an endogenous increase in credit through the banking system or with an “exogenous” increase initiated by a central bank. In the latter case, however, the theory itself has little to say about the extent to which increases in base money will manifest themselves in increases in bank credit to producers.  (This may not be much of an issue during a boom but may be an issue during a recession or in a recovery.)

Third, the theory is fundamentally one about the “upper turning point” in the cycle – it is a theory about why a credit-induced boom must come to an end. It is not a theory, for better or worse, about the “secondary” factors that develop consequent on the break-up of the boom. These include possible recessionary-problems relating to bank runs (there is an Austrian inspired banking literature, but that is not the cycle theory) or what exactly will get investment expectations to turn around.  As to deflation, Lawrence White has argued that the logic of the theory requires the avoidance of deflation in accordance with Hayek’s very early recommendation to keep M V from falling.  (Hayek departed from this in the Depression, and later admitted he was incorrect to do so.)

Now to more specific points:   Continue reading

Government Revenues from Low-Interest Rate Policies

by Andreas Hoffmann and Holger Zemanek*

Over the last two years Carmen Reinhart and Belen Sbrancia have published a series of papers on financial repression and its historical role in financing government debt. They show that throughout the Bretton Woods period governments in many advanced economies repressed financial markets to liquidate the high levels of debt that had been accumulated by the end of World War II.

During this period, low policy rates reduced debt servicing costs. Financial repression raised the attractiveness of government bonds relative to other investments. Inflation liquidated government debt. The authors report an annual debt liquidation effect for, e.g., the US and UK government debt of about 3 – 4 percent of GDP (Reinhart and Sbrancia 2011).

Today government debt levels in many countries are comparable to those after the Second World War II! After all, good politicians do not need a World War. There are plenty of other ways to spend. But in the light of the European debt crisis, governments are feeling the need to correct the spending-revenue misalignments in order to make debt-service sustainable. Continue reading

Money and Government

by Jerry O’Driscoll  

The 30th annual Cato monetary conference was held in Washington, D.C. on November 15th. The theme was “Money, Markets, and Government: The Next 30 Years.” It was heavily attended in Cato’s new state-of-the-art Hayek auditorium. Jim Dorn has ably directed it over its entire history.

Because of the conference’s breadth and depth, I can only provide some highlights.

Vernon Smith gave a brilliant Keynote Address on the history of bubbles. It was rich in slides, which filled the giant screen in the auditorium. It was a tour de force, and I look forward to seeing it in the Proceedings. Continue reading

“Modern Market” Monetarism?

by Mario Rizzo

Douglas Irwin, a very fine economist at Dartmouth College, has a very puzzling opinion piece in yesterday’s Financial Times. The root of the puzzle is that Irwin seems to accept what I consider the naïve monetarist view, yet calling it by a new name “market monetarism,” that the effectiveness of monetary policy largely revolves around portfolio adjustment effects that are induced by an increase in real balances. (Isn’t this warmed over Pigou, and 1970s monetarism?)

What seems to be new is the “Divisa monetary indexes” which weight the different components of the monetary aggregates by their monetary services. In principle, this is what Milton Friedman talked about in his course “Money: The Demand Side” in the early 1970s. He said then that he thought it would be a good idea to weight the various components of the money supply by their “degrees of moneyness.” He did wonder, as I recall, if these weights would be stable over time.

Now, by this new measure, monetary policy has been tight. In fact, the money supply is no higher today than in early 2008. Continue reading

Who Should Audit the Fed?

by Chidem Kurdas

A few days ago the House passed with a veto-proof majority the bill known as “audit the fed” or more plainly as H.R. 459, sponsored by Ron Paul.  If it became law, it would open the Federal Reserve’s policy deliberations and decisions, certain operations and dealings with foreign banks and governments to scrutiny by the Congressional Government Accountability Office. The GAO currently audits the Fed’s financials but not its policy making.

A number of House Democrats supported the bill, though party chieftains are against it.  The critics of the measure, prominently including Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, argue that it will open the way to political interference with monetary policy, which is best conducted on purely economic grounds.

Both sides have a valid point. Continue reading

Uncertainty and the Keynesians

by Chidem Kurdas

At the current economic juncture two camps offer diametrically opposed macro policy prescriptions. Economists on the Keynesian side such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman advocate further monetary easing by the Federal Reserve and massive new federal deficit spending. The opposing camp includes Austrians and monetarists. Among its distinguished members is Allan Meltzer, who in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed column argues against monetary stimulus and favors reduced government spending.

These correspond to two ways of understanding the sluggishness of the US economy,  explanations based on different time horizons Continue reading

DeLong, Friedman and Maximal Government

by Chidem Kurdas

The case made for minimal government by Milton and Rose Friedman in their 1979 book, Free to Choose, has been debunked,  according to Berkeley professor Brad DeLong.  Basically, he avers that the Friedman program has been tried and failed. As a commentary on Friedman, this is outrageously misleading. But Mr. DeLong  provides a revealing glimpse of the left-liberal mindset. Continue reading

No Way to Escape for the Swiss National Bank

by Andreas Hoffmann and Gunther Schnabl

It came as a surprise to many: the Swiss National Bank announced an exchange rate target. Accordingly, the Swiss franc will be held above the level of 1.20 francs per euro. Switzerland gives up a part of its sovereignty, when the ECB makes bad press in buying trash-rated euro area government bonds to support unsustainable national budgets.

But, particularly in an environment of global excess liquidity originating in too-easy monetary policies in major advanced economies, small open economies have incentives to stabilize exchange rates. Continue reading

Monetary Nationalism

by Jerry O’Driscoll

I recently read Money, Markets and Sovereignty by Benn Steil and Manuel Hinds. I highly recommend it. The jacket blurb accurately summarizes the book’s importance: “Benn Steil and Manuel Hinds offer the most powerful defense of economic liberalism since F. A. Hayek published The Road to Serfdom more than sixty years ago.”

Steil and Hinds focus on the institutional underpinnings of liberalism: the rule of law, globalization (free trade and free movement of capital) and commodity money. Their arguments on all points are powerful. Their argument on money runs against the grain of modern monetary theory. They rely heavily on history to buttress their arguments.

Reading the book motivated me to reread Hayek’s Monetary Nationalism and International Stability, upon which a good part of their monetary analysis is based. Though written in 1937, the book makes a powerful argument against the international monetary arrangements of the last 40 years: the 182 national fiat currencies.

Hayek argues the benefits of national fiat currency are largely illusory, and fiat money introduces problems unknown under the gold standard. For instance, Hayek, and Steil and Hinds explain why short-run capital flows can be destabilizing in a fiat money system, while they are stabilizing in a commodity standard. The two works follow the Misesian strategy of criticizing policies (or institutions) by demonstrating that they produce results different from or even the opposite of those intended by their advocates.

This year’s Cato monetary conference (November 16, 2011) will focus on monetary reform. Instead of a keynote address by a senior Fed official (a hallmark of past conferences), the opening address will be by Ron Paul. Panel I will be “Rethinking the Global Fiat Money System.” Chaired by Mary O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal, the panel will consist of Benn Steil, George Melloan and myself.

Stark quits ECB

by Andreas Hoffmann

This is good news for inflationists.

I am shocked that Jürgen Stark quit his job at the European Central Bank. Usually it is a good thing when central bankers quit their job – or at least it does not make a difference. But Jürgen Stark is known as an inflation hawk. Jürgen Stark – like the Mark writes Die Welt.

In my opinion, the main difference between the ECB and the Fed is that the ECB has people like Stark. Unfortunately, there are only a few.

He is opposed to cheap money policies. A while ago, he openly warned of rolling bubbles caused by too low interest rates in the media. Thus, he suggested a timely turn-around in interest rate policy. Recently he voted against further bond purchases of the ECB. More on this recent event can be found here.

Coming shortly after Axel Weber resigned due to his disagreement with Trichet’s policies, Europe’s anti-inflation block is now shattered. Something terrible must be going on at the ECB. I wonder where the ECB is heading?

Is the Fed Independent?

by Mario Rizzo

In today’s Wall Street Journal frequent contributor to ThinkMarkets, Jerry O’Driscoll, has an important opinion piece, “Why the Fed Is Not Independent.”

There has been much discussion recently of the importance of “preserving” Fed independence. But is the Fed independent? Independent of what? Jerry concentrates on the link between the Fed’s monetary policy and the Treasury’s fiscal policy.  Consider:

Today, however one parses the term, the Federal Reserve is not now independent. It has voluntarily relinquished the very independence it secured in 1951 by entering into a modern version of the bond support program. That is what the so-called zero interest rate policy amounts to, reinforced by the quantitative easing implemented through QE1 and QE2.

The Fed is committed to holding interest rates at a very low level by purchasing as much Treasury debt as necessary to maintain those interest rates. That is precisely the position the Fed found itself in before the 1951 accord.

Monetary policy once again is not independent of fiscal policy. None of the Fed’s critics can do as much harm to the institution’s independence as it has done to itself.

The whole article is quite interesting. It raises importance questions not only of economics but of politics as well.

Where is the Bubble?

by Jerry O’Driscoll  

The monetary analysis of the housing bubble focuses on the impact of low – even negative – real rates of interest on housing demand.  That theory suggests the Fed must be inflating new bubbles with its continued policy of a near-zero federal funds rate. Skeptics ask where are the bubbles?

In today’s Wall Street Journal Business World column, Holman Jenkins answers with “Plane Crazy.” He specifically points to the recently announced deal in which debt-burdened and unprofitable American Airlines will take delivery of 460 new planes.  How did American pull this off?

Boeing and Airbus will share the order and each will finance a substantial portion of the purchase. “Think about it this way: Two rival banks get together and offer you a ‘no-doc’ mortgage for 115% of the value of your home,” writes Jenkins. He characterizes this as an opportunity for a “go-for-broke shot at a turnaround” for American. It’s an offer the airline could not refuse.

There are an ample number of other candidates for a bubble: gold, oil, farmland in the Midwest and perhaps the S&P. The entire world is awash in cheap dollars and much of the impact of the Fed’s policy has been to inflate bubbles overseas. That can be seen directly with the AA deal. More than half the order is going to Airbus, a European company.

The Fed’s easy-money policy was supposed to stimulate the U.S. economy and produce jobs for Americans. Fed policy has produced prosperity and jobs, just not in the United States.

“Faith-Based” Money

by Jerry O’Driscoll  

“The Weekend Interview” in the Wall Street Journal (A11) is with James Grant. A financial and monetary iconoclast, Grant favors gold over “faith-based” fiat money. He is a trenchant critic of the Fed’s low interest-rate policies for “suppressing the proper functioning of the price system.”  

There is an Austrian flavor to Grant’s commentary, as when he defends “good deflation” resulting from “progress.” Bad deflation occurs as the result of a credit crisis. “The Fed refuses to make that distinction.”  

Why does he like the gold standard? “The gold standard, he says, citing the ‘late, great’ libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, was the ‘people’s system. If you didn’t like the currency, you could exchange your paper for gold and that sent a message.'”  

He also denounces Wall Street bankers, who get the upside while the taxpayer takes the downside. He is describing moral hazard in layman’s terms.  

Holman Jenkins did the excellent interview. Read it and enjoy.

What Peter Diamond Doesn’t Understand

by Mario Rizzo

I read with interest Peter A. Diamond’s opinion piece in The New York Times, “When a Nobel Prize Isn’t Enough.” Professor Diamond, by all accounts a very competent economist at MIT, is complaining that he really IS qualified to be a member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. He really IS qualified to make decisions about monetary policy. He really IS qualified because he is an expert on labor markets. He really IS qualified because a top priority must be to lower the unemployment rate. And he IS qualified because he knows how to do this. 

I might have been forgiven if I had called this blog post, “Peter Diamond is a Crybaby.” Continue reading

Are market rates below the natural rate again?

by Andreas Hoffmann and Mario Rizzo

We know from Wicksell’s (1898) Interest and Prices, there is something important about the interest rate that balances saving and investment in an economy over time. This equilibrium interest rate is called the “natural rate of interest”. When market interest rates are below the natural rate, an unsustainable credit boom which distorts the production structure in the economy and inflation are the result.

In line with this idea, most economists agree – today – that the Fed held interest rates “too low for too long” following the burst of the dot-com bubble. As expected, this contributed to a credit boom in the US economy. With the emergence of the crisis, the Fed lowered interest rates to stabilize the price level, financial system and output. Yet, a year of recovery is over and interest rates are still low. What about the natural rate today? Continue reading

Does one size fit all?

by Andreas Hoffmann

In a recent article in the WSJ, David Wessel sees a “fundamental problem” in the euro zone’s one-size-fits-all policy.

We know from Mundell (1961) that a one-size-fits-all monetary policy cannot guarantee low inflation and unemployment in all members of a heterogeneous currency area, given e.g. labor markets are not fully flexible as in the euro area.

In general, capital market integration and free capital flows in two regions have the tendency to bring about convergence of real – not necessarily nominal – interest rates (assuming no risk premium) as capital is allocated to its best uses. But in a currency area, like the euro area, nominal interest rates are the same everywhere as they are set by a central authority. Thus, real interest rates can be zero or even negative in regions that experience higher inflation, while they are positive in regions with lower inflation. Then policy is too expansionary in some regions and too tight in others, while the average inflation rate may stay relatively stable at the target level. Continue reading

Easy Money, Emerging Market Miracles and the Revival of Industrial Policies

by Andreas Hoffmann and Gunther Schnabl

While most advanced economies continue to suffer from high unemployment and record debt levels, monetary expansions in the advanced economies feed a tsunami of carry trades, hiking asset and raw material prices and accelerating growth rates in emerging markets from Brazil over the Middle East to China. While capital inflows drive miraculous catch-ups in many corners of the world – having learnt the lesson for the recent mega-crisis – the monetary authorities in the emerging markets are aware of the risk of financial market exuberance. They aim to prevent inflation and bubbles by absorbing surplus liquidity and tightening credit growth.

Yet by doing so, they cause distortions in the real sectors of their economies, which are not on the radar screen of the now ballooning financial supervision bodies. Continue reading

Let Them Eat Chips

by Jerry O’Driscoll

In today’s Wall Street Journal, David Wessel (“Capital” column, A5) revisits the question of whether current Fed policy is inflationary. He correctly states the Fed’s position is that inflation is caused by expectations. Inflation will stay low if people expect it to stay low.  He quotes Fed Chairman Bernanke: “The state of inflation expectations greatly influences actual inflation and thus the central bank’s ability to achieve price stability.”  

The Fed chairman of course has the causation precisely backwards. Continue reading