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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Clashing Over Commerce


Doug Irwin's new book on the history of U.S. trade policy, Clashing Over Commerce, is now available for purchase. You may recall that I interviewed him about the book in this recent podcast. The podcast is embedded below. My colleague Dan Griswold has a nice review of the book over at National Review.  I learned a lot from the book and my conversation with Doug. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Hypothermia, Inflation, and the Fed's Epistemological Jam

Imagine you fall into a freezing lake and get hypothermia. You are rushed to the ER and receive good service initially, but your body temperature continues to remain below 98.6 Fahrenheit. The doctor says he is not sure why you are so cold. It is a puzzle to him and everything he thought he knew about body temperatures seems to be wrong. He says not to worry, though, as he turns on the air-conditioner. All should be well soon, he thinks, once the room starts to cool down. 

The doctor leaves your room and comes back to check on you after 15 minutes. He finds that your body temperature has dropped even more and that you are shivering. He concludes the room was not cool enough so he dials up the air conditioner even more to really get the cold air blowing. 

The doctor leaves and returns after another 15 minutes have passed. You are now unconscious, turning blue, and barely clinging to life. The doctor is now even more baffled about body temperature. Oh well, he concludes, there must be some transitory one-off factors affecting your body temperature. Not much the doctor can do about them as he heads out the room and dials up the AC a bit more. Eventually you die.

This story is an analogy of how the Fed has been handling inflation over the past decade. Just like falling into a freezing lake is a shock to your body temperature, that Great Recession was a shock to the inflation rate. And just like you being stabilized in the ER, the economy was initially stabilized by the Fed. After being stabilized, though, your body temperature never fully recovered just like the inflation rate never returned on a consistent basis to 2%. And just like the doctor seems to have forgotten the basics of body temperature, the Fed seems to have forgotten the basics of inflation. Moreover, the doctor is adding to his own confusion by turning up the air conditioner to cooler temperatures just like the Fed is increasingly perplexed as to why inflation remains low as it pushes up interest rates. 

If the hypothermia story seems absurd to you then the recent Fed behavior toward inflation should also be absurd to you. FOMC members are increasing puzzled by the stubbornly low inflation rate and yet continue to talk up rate hikes on the top of ones they have already done. 

Caroline Baum has a piece at MarketWatch on this tension. First, she notes the FOMC's inflation confusion:
[T]he most significant take away — the new news, if you will — was Yellen’s response to an audience question on why inflation remained so low at a time when the unemployment rate was hovering just above 4%. 
After running through a “whole range of idiosyncratic kind of factors, most of which may be temporary/transitory things that affect inflation,” Yellen admitted she was “no longer certain” about inflation’s eventual rise. “My colleagues and I are not certain that it is transitory,” she said, referring to the chronic undershoot of the 2% inflation target. 
Not transitory? Will this turn out to be another “conundrum” for the Fed? At her Sept. 20 press conference, Yellen elevated the chronic inflation undershoot to a “mystery,” a term Powell invoked at his confirmation hearing
She then explains what the Fed is doing in response to this inflation mystery:
So what’s the Fed’s approach to dealing with the chronic inflation undershoot? Why, raise interest rates and pare the balance sheet. 
If this seems counterintuitive, it is. I have written that the Fed should either put up — run a more expansionary monetary policy to boost inflation — or shut up. Policy makers can’t continue to fret over low, stable inflation, on the one hand, and, on the other, implement policies that, all things equal, will slow economic growth and depress inflation further.
David Harrison makes a similar point over at the Wall Street Journal 
[Fed] officials remain perplexed by the past year’s surprising weakness in inflation. And yet there is something truly strange about that. How can the Fed continue to expect rate increases when it has no idea what’s going on with inflation? How can you know the economy will behave in a way that justifies rate increases while simultaneously admitting you don’t know how the economy is behaving? 
The central bank appears to have put itself in an epistemological jam.
I like the epistemological jam framing a lot. The Fed is speaking out of both sides of it mouth. The Fed claims it does not understand the persistently low inflation and yet Fed officials make statements like this to justify the rate hikes:


Call me crazy, but if the Fed feels it needs to raise interest rates because it is "worried about trends that could push inflation above [its] 2% objective" then maybe, just maybe its past rate hikes and signaling of future rate hikes might explain the low inflation over the past decade. Who knows, maybe monetary policy matters for long-run inflation trends after all. Or as Aaron Klein says:

Monday, November 27, 2017

Abenomics Update

So a quick update on that grand monetary experiment in Japan known as Abenomics. 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his party were returned to power in a decisive October election. This means the Bank of Japan will continue to expand the monetary base, peg the 10-year government bond at 0%, and strive for 2% inflation. 

I was an early fan of Abenomics, but have become a bit more skeptical over time. Others, like Noah Smith, are convinced it is working and are glad to see it continue. Mike Bird of the Wall Street Journal is also a fan. They make a reasonable argument that the real side of the economy has benefited from the Bank of Japan's policies. 

Maybe so, but what about the nominal side of the economy? Yes, we ultimately care about the real side, but the central bank can only directly affect the nominal economy. Its influence on the real economy is a by-product of this influence. Moreover, getting the nominal side of the economy to rapidly expand is needed to offset the real burden of the growing stock of nominal debt. 

So how is the nominal side of the economy doing? Okay, but not great. Inflation is above zero but nowhere near its 2% target. This is true even if we look at core measures of inflation that account for the 2014 changes in the consumption tax. Below is a chart from the Bank of Japan:


Nominal GDP (NGDP) in Japan--a measure of total nominal demand--does show more progress under Abenomics than with the original QE of 2001-2006:


This progress of NGDP is an improvement, but if we step back and look at it from a broader historical perspective it is actually underwhelming. All Abenomics has done is return NGDP to a flat trend growth path. Nominal demand growth in Japan is still far below what it was before the 1990s. This has big implication for Japan's debt burden and suggests its real growth could be higher.


So why is Abenomics failing to pack a big punch? There is both an economic and a political answer. The former is a technical one that can be summarized in the chart below. It shows the actual monetary base and its permanent portion. (The permanent portion is proxied by currency and coins in circulation since they tend to drive the long-run path of the monetary base.)


The expected path of the permanent part of the monetary base and by implication the expected path of the price level is what drives current inflation. If the expansion of the monetary base under Abenomics is expected to be unwound in the future then it should have little effect on the price level today. The permanent portion of the base suggests it will be unwound. (I have a forthcoming paper that explains in more detail why this permanent-temporary distinction matters so much.)

Another way of saying this is that market participants expect the Bank of Japan to do what it did after the initial QE program--reverse it. Michael Woodford, in his 2012 Jackson Hole speech, commented on the 2001-2006 episode:
The Japanese monetary base resumed a path that was close to a continuation of its trend prior to the QE period; hence, market participants who had continued to hold expectations about the long-run Japanese monetary base that were unchanged as a result of the QE policy would not have been that far off in their prediction (p. 241).
Woodford also notes that this experience comes “fairly close to providing an illustration of the kind of policy to which the irrelevance results of Krugman (1998) and Eggertson and Woodford (2003) should apply". This is the economic answer and the reason I have become more skeptical of Abenomics.

The political answer, in my view, is that the Bank of Japan will not make its monetary expansions permanent and significantly increase the inflation rate is because politically it cannot do so. Japan has an aging population that holds a lot of government debt and lives off of fixed income. Raising the inflation rate would harm them and create a political firestorm. I believe this is what ultimately is keeping Japan from getting robust nominal demand growth. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Monetary Regime Change Update

I recently made the case that we got a monetary regime change in 2008 that explains the stubbornly low inflation since that time:
A monetary regime change has occurred that has lowered the growth rate and growth path of nominal demand. Since the recovery started in 2009Q3, NGDP growth has averaged 3.4 percent. This is below the 5.4 percent of 1990-2007 period (blue line in the figure below) or a 5.7 percent for the entire Great Moderation period of 1985-2007. Macroeconomic policy has dialed back the trend growth of nominal spending by 2 percentage points. That is a relatively large decline. This first development can be seen in the figure below.


The figure above also speaks to the second part of this regime change: aggregate demand growth was not allowed to bounce back at a higher growth rate during the recovery like it has in past recessions. Historically, Fed policy allowed aggregate demand to run a bit hot after a recession before settling it back down to its trend growth rate.  This kept the growth path of NGDP stable. You can see this if the figure above by noting how the growth rate (black line) typically would temporarily go above the trend (red line) after a recession.  
Had macroeconomic policy allowed aggregate demand growth to follow its typical bounce-back pattern after a recession, we would have seen something like the blue line in the figure. This line is a dynamic forecast from a simple autoregressive model based on the Great Moderation period. This naive forecast shows one would have expected NGDP growth to have reached as much as 8 percent during the recovery before settling back down to its average. Instead we barely got over 3 percent growth. This is why NGDP has never caught back up to its pre-crisis trend path.  
Again, these two developments are, in my view, the real story behind the drop in trend inflation. And to be clear, I think both the Fed's unwillingness to allow temporary overshooting and the safe asset shortage problem have contributed to it. 
I went on to say this is the monetary regime change no one asked for. It is also one that many observers seem to miss in their analysis of Fed policy since the crisis.  

Well, I was on twitter discussing long-term treasury yields and monetary policy with Tim Duy and Joel Wertheimer. I decided to whip up some charts comparing 1-year head NGDP forecasts from the Philadelphia Fed's Survey of Professional Forecasters against 10-year treasury yields. The results, in my view, are consistent with the claim that there was a monetary regime change in 2008. 

First, here is the chart for the 1980:Q1-2007:Q4 period. It shows a fairly strong relationship between expected NGDP growth and long-term treasury yields:


The next figure shows the relationship for the period since 2008:Q1. Say goodbye to that relationship:

Just to be robust, I took out the outliers in the above chart (which are for the periods 2008:Q4-2009:Q2) and got the following chart:


So something has changed in the relationship between expected NGDP growth and long-term treasury yields. The monetary regime change story outlined above coincides closely with this breakdown. Here is one way to connect these two developments. Before 2008 the Fed allowed its tightening to follow the pace of recovery, whereas afterwards the Fed has tended to get ahead of the recovery in its desired and actual rate hikes. If so, the Fed's tightening post-2008 would have slowed down the recovery and lowered the expected future path of short-term interest rates. This overreacting by the Fed would have kept long-term interest rates from rising with expected rises in NGDP growth. This type of behavior would also be consistent with a monetary regime change where only low rates of NGDP growth and inflation are tolerated. This is what appears to have happened in 2008. 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Financial Regulatory Laffer Curve

Lawrence J. White has an interesting article where he considers the optimal size of our financial regulatory structure. He acknowledges that the structure it is "maddenly complex" and that it "easy to make a case for drastic simplification." Larry also notes, however, that there are benefits to having some regulatory diversity. We need to recognize this tradeoff, he contends, when considering the simplification of our financial regulatory system. 

To help us better understand this tradeoff, Larry lays out the case for reducing the number of financial regulators:
Regulatory decisions could be made faster, especially in a crisis, when policymakers need timely access to sensitive, proprietary information, and must coordinate actions both domestically and internationally. There would be fewer “turf wars” that can delay decisions. There would be less duplication and redundancy and less need for coordination among separate regulatory agencies... Regulatory costs would decrease, both for government (and thus for taxpayers) and for regulated firms. And there would be fewer opportunities for a race to the bottom, whereby a financial services firm tries to avoid (or reduce the burden of) regulation by “forum shopping” among regulators with parallel responsibilities who must compete for regulatees (their fee-paying clients). There also would be fewer incentives for one regulator to impede competition from financial firms under a different regulator.
He then discusses the costs to streamlining the number of financial regulators:
But there are also potential downsides. To see this, let’s really go to the limit:  Suppose that there were only a single regulator for all of the financial system. And suppose someone has a new idea for the kinds of financial services that could be made available, or for how certain services can be more effectively delivered to users. 
With a single regulator, there is an obvious risk: If that regulator has the authority to reject the idea and does so before it is implemented, the game is over. There is no place else for the innovator to turn (except, perhaps, to regulators in another country).  But with multiple regulators, there is an increased chance that—if the idea is worthwhile—one or more of the regulators will see the merit in the idea. 
In essence, an important assumption that underlies the potential benefits to simplification is that regulators will “get it right”: that they won’t make mistakes. By contrast, the argument for multiple regulators is an argument for diversity: that in a world where mistakes can be made, having some diversity can reduce the costs of error and increase the likelihood that worthwhile ideas will be able to take root.
This is good economic analysis. It recognizes the tradeoff to simplifying the U.S. financial regulatory structure. Mark Calabria, Norbert Michel, and Hester Pierce similarly note this tradeoff in their call to reform U.S. financial regulation. They see the need for reform, but also want to avoid going to a single 'super' regulator for the reasons outlined above. 

It hit me when reading these two pieces this financial regulatory tradeoff could be summarized with a Laffer curve-type framework. I sketched it out below with the rate of financial innovation on the vertical axis and the number of financial regulators on the horizontal axis. The number of financial regulators ranges from 1 (a single 'super' regulator) to N. The optimal number of financial regulators is the peak of this curve.

The framework should be uncontroversial. What is controversial is where we are at on the financial regulatory Laffer curve. Are we closer to point A or point B? I suspect we are closer to point B.


Friday, October 20, 2017

The Other Side of the Fed's Balance Sheet

Who controls the Fed's balance sheet? The answer may seem obvious. The Fed, after all, determines the size of its balance sheet. It also controls what happens to the asset side of its balance sheet. Its power over the liability side, however, is limited.

This diminished control arises because the public's demand for currency, bank regulations, and U.S. Treasury cash balances all influence the composition of the Fed's liabilities.1 These are exogenous forces that have the potential to create some economic bumps on the road ahead as the Fed normalizes the size of its balance sheet. 

So far, though, little attention has been paid to these liability-side issues. Most focus has been given to the asset side of the Fed's balance sheet. This focus, in my view, is misguided. I see the real dangers lurking on the liability side of the Fed's balance sheet--the very side where the Fed has less control. 

This post, then, is attempt to direct some attention to the liability side of the Fed's balance sheet. In it, I first explain how the public's demand for currency, bank regulations, and the U.S. Treasury cash balances are beyond the Fed's control but affect its balance sheet. I then explain how these forces and current Fed policy could interact in a disruptive manner.  

The Public's Demand for Currency
Consider first the public's demand for currency. It grows as the dollar size of economy grows. This growing demand for currency is met by banks turning reserves into currency. Some of this growing demand for currency comes from foreigners and some from domestic residents. As seen in the figure below, both have grown over the past decade. In total, currency grew from around $800 billion in 2007 to $1.58 trillion today. The almost $800 billion increase in currency means, ceteris paribus, a similar-sized decline in reserves over the same period.


This development matters because the nearly $800 billion loss of reserves and gain in currency, though fairly predictable, was largely beyond the Fed's control. Put differently, the Fed controls the initial level and form of bank reserves, but it loses control over time. If the Fed were trying to stabilize a certain level of reserves--say to keep its floor system working--this steady growth of currency demand makes it harder. This is a powerful force with which the Fed has to contend. 

Now the currency demand growth may be seen as plus since it reduces the amount of balance sheet reduction required going forward. But it also poses some challenges that I will discuss later. For now, note that the growth in currency demand is an exogenous force that steadily tugs at the composition of the liability side of the Fed's balance sheet. 

New Bank Regulations
There have been a lot of new bank regulations since the crisis, but here I want to focus specifically on the liquidity coverage ratio (LCR). It requires banks to hold enough "high-quality liquid assets" (HQLA) to withstand 30 days of cash outflow. Unsurprisingly, the LCR has increased demand for HQLA assets. In particular, it has increased demand for bank reserves and treasury securities which can be held at full value (other assets, like GSEs can be held but at a discount). The LCR was implemented in January 2015.

Per the LCR, bank reserves and treasuries are equally safe and banks should be indifferent between holding them for regulatory reasons. Per the banks, however, they are not the same. The IOER paid on excess reserves has been consistently higher than the yield on short-term treasury bills as seen below. This raises the demand for bank reserves relative to treasury securities.  


So the IOER being greater than other short-term market rates raises the relative demand for bank reserves and the LCR, which is beyond the Fed's control, intensifies this demand. 

U.S. Treasury Cash Balance
The U.S. Treasury Department is also an exogenous force affecting the Fed balance sheet. There are several channels of influence, but here I want to focus on Treasury's cash balances that are deposited at various places. These deposits can broadly grouped into two categories: (1) interest-earning deposits held at private financial firms and (2) non-interest earning deposits held at the Fed in the Treasury General Account (TGA).

Prior to 2008, Treasury kept most of its cash balances outside the Fed. This earned interest for the taxpayers and also made life easier for the Fed since the TGA was small. After 2008, this pattern reversed: Treasury parked most of its cash balances at the Fed and vastly expanded their size. This can be seen in the figure below:


The main reason for this big shift in 2008 was that the IOER rate has been higher than short-term market interest rates. Here is why this matters. Treasury funds deposited at private banks become reserves that get redeposited at the Fed so that banks can earn IOER. The IOER payments going from the Fed to the banks are payments not going to Treasury. Moreover, the IOER payments exceed what Treasury can earn on their deposits at private banks because IOER exceeds short-term deposit rates.2 

Treasury, consequently, was losing income after IOER. Treasury officials quickly realized they could minimize this loss by pulling their funds out of private financial firms and instead park them at the Fed in the TGA.By doing so, however, Treasury officials were pulling out reserves from the banking system and therefore shrinking the aggregate level of bank reserves. This change in the composition of the liability side of the Fed's balance sheet was beyond the Fed's control. 

Putting it All Together
So we have we have currency demand growth, LCR, and the TGA all exogenously affecting reserves on the liability side of the Fed's balance sheet. In addition, the Fed is affecting the demand for reserves with IOER being greater than market interest rates. The Fed is also draining reserves via its balance sheet reduction program and its overnight reverse repo program (ON-RRP). The table below summarizes these developments.


The figure below shows how these forces have affected the growth of the liability side of the Fed's balance sheet so far:


Potential Disruptions Ahead
These developments matter because, as seen in the table, they are pushing the supply and demand for reserves in opposite directions. 

Bank reserves have been shrinking because of currency demand growth, the TGA, and ON-RRP. At the same time the demand for reserves has been elevated because IOER is greater than short-term market rates. Since 2015, this demand has been elevated because of the LCR. And now the Fed is about to further heighten this imbalance by draining reserves as it begins shrinking its balance sheet. 

The figure below shows this is more than just a theoretical concern. It shows the level of bank reserves since 2015 (when the LCR started) plotted against the spread between the overnight dollar libor rate and the 1-month treasury rate. There is a negative relationship which means as reserves fall the libor rises relative to the treasury bill rate. The increases are not terribly large and this only explain a third of the variation in the spread since 2015, but it does suggest further tightening will occur moving forward if nothing else changes as the Fed shrinks its balance sheet. 


So what should the Fed do? It could curtail the shrinking of its balance sheet, but that is not the path I would chose. The balance sheet reduction is already baked into market expectations and it should continue for other reasons outlined here

What it should do, in my view, is aim to bring the IOER closer to market interest rates. I am not sure how easy this task would be, but it would reduce the heightened demand for reserves, lower the TGA, and soften the bite of the LCR.  One way to help push the IOER closer to market rates would be for the Fed to announce a corridor system as the final destination for the Fed's balance sheet reduction. This has not happened yet, but it should be something the FOMC seriously considers.

1 There are some other exogenous forces on the liability side that I ignore here. The biggest one being foreign official accounts at the Fed. These, however, generally are not too large and therefore less consequential.
2 This was due both to IOER being greater than short-term market interest rates, but also because by law Treasury can only earn 25 basis points less than the federal funds rate at depository institutions. Treasury can also park funds in repos and in term deposits, but even these earn less than the IOER. See this NY Fed piece for more on Treasury cash balances.
3The IOER incentive to park funds in the TGA was reinforced by new Treasury policy in 2015 that raised the minimum size of the account to $150 billion.