I hate to seem to be beating up on Brad DeLong. Seriously.
As I’ve said before, he is one of the few economists willing to admit error and not try later to minimize or recant his admission (unlike, say, Greenspan). And he seems genuinely perplexed and remorseful. This puts his heads and shoulders above a lot of his colleagues, at least the sort whose opinion carries weight in policy circles.
Even with DeLong making an earnest effort to figure out why he went wrong, his latest musings, via a Bloomberg op-ed, “Sorrow and Pity of Another Liquidity Trap,” show how hard it is for economist to unlearn what they think they know. And as the great philosopher Will Rogers warned us, “It’s not what you know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know that ain’t so.”
So it’s important to regard DeLong as an unusually candid mainstream economist, and treat his exposition as reasonably representative if you could somehow get his peers to take a hard, jaundiced look at how wrong they have been of late.
DeLong’s mea culpa is about how he and his colleagues refused to take the idea that the US could fall into a liquidity trap seriously. As an aside, this is already a troubling admission, since many observers, including yours truly, though the Fed was in danger of creating precisely that sort of problem if if dropped the Fed funds rate below 2%. It would leave itself no wriggle room if the crisis continued and it had to lower rates further into the territory where further reductions would not motivate changes in behavior. That’s assuming we were in a “normal” environment. But the big abnormality is that we are in what Richard Koo calls a balance sheet recession. And as we will discuss below, Keynes (and Minsky) had a very keen appreciation of the resulting behavior changes, but those ideas were abandoned by Keynesians (it is key to remember that Keynesianism contains significant distortions and omissions from Keynes’ thinking.
But notice how he starts his piece:
There is only one real law of economics: the law of supply and demand. If the quantity supplied goes up, the price goes down…
We’re on target to have $10.7 trillion outstanding by mid- 2012 — doubling the Treasury debt held by the public in just four years. Supply and demand tells us that a steep rise in Treasury borrowings should produce a commensurate fall in Treasury bond prices and thus higher interest rates — and that increase should crowd out other forms of interest-sensitive spending, slowing productivity growth…
Eventually the market’s appetite for Treasury bonds at high prices and low interest rates had to reach its limit, right? Supply and demand isn’t just a good idea — it’s the law.
No, it’s NOT the law, it’s a belief and it often is not operative. I would have liked to give it longer-form treatment in ECONNED, but the discussion there should suffice for our purposes:
But it is actually difficult to prove anything conclusively in economics. In fact, some fundamental constructs are taken on what amounts to faith. Consider the most basic image in economics: a chart with a downward sloping demand curve and the upward sloping supply curve, the same sort found in Krugman’s diagram. Deidre McCloskey points out that the statistical attempts to prove the relationship have had mixed results. That is actually not surprising, since one can think of lower prices leading to more purchases (the obvious example of sales) but also higher prices leading to more demand. Price can be seen as a proxy for quality. A price that looks suspiciously low can produce a “something must be wrong with it” reaction. For instance, some luxury goods dealers, such as jewelers, have sometimes been able to move inventory that was not selling by increasing prices. Elevated prices may also elicit purchases when the customer expects them to rise even further. Recall that some people who bought houses near the peak felt they had to do so then or risk being priced out of the market. Some airline companies locked in the high oil prices of early 2008 fearing further price rises.
The theoretical proof is also more limited than the simplified picture suggests. Demand curves are generally downward sloping, but in particular cases or regions, per the examples above, they may not be. Yet how often do you see a caveat added to models that use a simple declining line to represent the demand functions? Not only is it absent from popular presentations, it is seldom found in policy papers or in blogs written by and for economists. McCloskey argues that economists actually rely on introspection, thought experiments, case examples, and “the lore of the marketplace,” to support the supply/demand model.
DeLong then argues that he and presumably his colleagues ignored the notions of John Hicks, the English economist who formalized the idea of Keynes’ General Theory and turned it into a special case of neoclassical economics. Keynes himself repudiated it, as did Hicks in his eighties.
Why would Keynes not like this treatment? Keynes, himself a successful speculator, did not think financial markets had any propensity to equilibrium, and there is separately reason to think the equilibrium assumption that the discipline has embraced to make its mathematics “tractable” is bollocks. The equilibrium assumption (more accurately, ergodicity) makes it impossible to incorporate any phenomena that are destabilizing, such as ones with positive (self-reinforcing feedback loops. Yet as we discuss short form in ECONNED (and George Cooper gives an elegant layperson treatment in The Origin of Financial Crises: Central Banks, Credit Bubbles, and the Efficient Market Fallacy), financial markets have no propensity to equilibrium. They are inherently prone to boom-bust cycles.
Even though Hicks’ story, via DeLong, bears some resemblance to Keynes’ liquidity preferences idea, it posits different causal channels that render them fundamentally different. In really simple terms, there is a “loanable funds” market in which borrowers and savers meet to determine the price of lending. Keynes argued that investors could have a change in liquidity preferences, which is econ-speak for they get freaked out and run for safe havens, which in his day was to pull it out of the banking system entirely. Hicks endeavored to show that the loanable funds and liquidity preferences theories were complementary, since he contended that Keynes ignored the bond market (loanable funds) while his predecessors ignored money markets.
But that’s a deliberate misreading. Keynes saw the driver as the change in the mood of capitalists; the shift in liquidity preferences was an effect. (In addition, Keynes held that changes with respect to existing portfolio positions, meaning stocks of held assets, would tend to swamp flow effects captured by loanable funds models.)
Making money cheaper is not going to make anyone want to take risk if they think the fundamental outlook is poor. Except for finance-intensive firms (which for the most part is limited to financial services industry incumbents), the cost of money is usually not the driver in business decisions, Market potential, the absolute level of commitment required, competitor dynamics and so on are what drive the decision; funding cost might be a brake. So the idea that making financing cheaper in and of itself is going to spur business activity is dubious, and it has been borne out in this crisis, where banks complain that the reason they are not lending is lack of demand from qualified borrowers. Surveys of small businesses, for instance, show that most have been pessimistic for quite some time.
If you want to put it in more technical terms, what is happening is a large and sustained fall in what Keynes called the marginal efficiency of capital. Companies are not reinvesting at a rate sufficient rate to sustain growth, let alone reduce unemployment. Rob Parenteau and I discussed the drivers of this phenomenon in a New York Times op-ed on the corporate savings glut last year: that managers and investors have short term incentives, and financial reform has done nothing to reverse them. Add to that that in a balance sheet recession, the private sector (both households and businesses) want to reduce debt, which is tantamount to saving. Lowering interest rates is not going to change that behavior. And if you try to generate inflation in this scenario, when individuals and companies are feeling stresses, all you do is reduce their real spending (and savings power) and further reduce demand (and hence economic activity).
If DeLong wanted to treat this issue in their conventional Hicks models, a shift down in the marginal efficiency of capital would be represented as a shift down and to the left of the IS schedule in interest rate/GDP space, not as changes in the slope of the LM schedule, which is what liquidity trap arguments focus on. Rob Parenteau has a very helpful discussion of the shortcomings of the Hicks model in “Employing Krugman’s Cross: Farewell, Mr. Hicks?”
Marshall Auerback, by e-mail, points out that liquidity trap thinking is based on the idea that banks lend out of bank reserves. It has been shown empirically that banks lend first and reserve creation follows (that is, when needed, central banks accommodate loan creation):
The liquidity trap idea seems to be predicated on the silly idea that banks lend out reserves and failure to do so is symptomatic of a liquidity trap. But idea that the build up of bank reserves represent a pot of funds that the banks will eventually loan out completely misunderstands the role of bank reserves. But as Randy Wray, Bill Mitchell, Scott Fullwiler, Stephanie Kelton and a host of others have noted before banks do not loan out reserves. Reserves facilitate the payments system – that is, the system that assures the millions of transactions between banks (as customers write cheques and deposit them throughout the banking system).
Banks do not make loans on the basis of the reserves they hold. They respond to demands from credit-worthy customers and have in mind what it will cost them to make the loans under current conditions. When the transactions that follow the creation of a loan transpire it might be that the is short of reserves to ensure the payments clear. It has various options. It can seek funds from wholesale markets (other banks or other lenders), use deposits (not an overnight option really) or, ultimately, it can source the funds from the central bank.
The point is that you can get various levels of bank reserves depending on how the central bank pursues its liquidity management in order to hit its target policy rate. None of those levels have any particular operational significance.
The mainstream then argue that if the central bank mops up these reserves it will be less inflationary than if it leaves them in the system. This view is based on the spurious – banks lend reserves argument. The inflation risk associated with government spending is the same whether the government issues debt to match its deficit or not. The inflation risk arises from the impact of the spending on the state of capacity in the economy.
This is why fiscal stimulus is vastly more effective than monetary policy at times like these: it has a direct impact on overall conditions, by stimulating demand. Government spending creates more income for businesses and ultimately, consumers. Everyone’s income is ultimately someone else’s spending. If government increase spending, it will increase the incomes of at least some people in the economy, and the improvement in their fortunes (if they believe the new income level will be sustained) will lead them to spend more, improving the affairs of yet more people.
But let’s take DeLong’s supply and demand theory at face value, since it isn’t inoperative, it is just not as neat, tidy, and iron-clad as he believes. DeLong seem to think that there is a discrete market for Treasuries (I’m exaggerating to make a point). But bonds are fungible. While there are some dedicated Treasury buyers, many investors will look at Treasuries as an alternative to other high quality bonds, depending on the yield and perceived risks. And many investors also shift their risk allocations, both from stocks to bonds, and within bonds, from risky to less risky bonds. We’ve seen a far more extreme version of this pattern of late, with a significant proportion of active investors switching from “risk on” to “risk off trades.
So why would investors want more Treasuries? First, in a deflationary environment, the place to be is cash, cash equivalents, and high quality bonds. Deflationary expectations would spike demand for Treasuries. Thus all the austerian policies at the state level alone, which is producing a substantial undertow, would boost demand for Treasuries.
But second, DeLong seems unaware of the fact that there has been a long-standing shortage of collateral for repo. Treasuries had once been the only acceptable collateral for repo. Again, from ECONNED:
Brokers and traders often need to post collateral for derivatives as a way of assuring performance on derivatives contracts…
Due to the strength of this demand, as early as 2001, there was evidence of a shortage of collateral. The Bank for International Settlements warned that the scarcity was likely to result in “appreciable substitution into collateral having relatively higher issuer and liquidity risk.”
That is code for “dealers will probably start accepting lower-quality collateral for repos.” And they did, with that collateral including complex securitized products that banks were obligingly creating.
As time went on, repos grew much faster than the economy overall. While there are no official figures on the size of the market, repos by primary dealers, the banks and securities firms that can bid for Treasury securities at auctions, rose from roughly $1.8 trillion in 1996 to $7 trillion in 2008. Experts estimate that adding in repos by other financial firms would increase the total to $10 trillion, although that somewhat exaggerates the amount of credit extended through this mechanism, since repos and reverse repos may be double counted. The assets of the traditional regulated deposit-taking U.S. banks are also roughly $10 trillion, and there is also double counting in that total (financial firms lend to each other).
In other words, this largely unregulated credit market was becoming nearly as important a funding source as traditional banking.21 By 2004, it had become the largest market in the world, surpassing the bond, equity, and foreign exchange markets.
Now I must confess I have not tried to update the BIS chart. But I have a sneaking suspicion that while derivatives outstandings took a hit in the crisis, between a rise in risk aversion and a concerted effort in credit default swaps land to reduce the notional amount outstanding by netting out offsetting positions, that the old pattern of derivatives outstanding growing more rapidly than the economy has resumed. And now that no one is terribly interested in using AAA rated CDOs as collateral for repo, Treasuries are probably even more important as repo collateral than they were before the meltdown. I’d welcome informed reader input on these issues.
Mind you, it is not as if anything here is esoteric; in fact, it has been said by quite a few economists. It just seems to have no impact on the orthodoxy that dominates policy discussions, even for those like DeLong who recognize that the results of fealty to these ideas have been disastrous.