Thursday, January 31, 2008

Monster Really Scares Me

Just as I finished leaving a comment (not yet accepted as of this writing) on Paul Krugman's blog arguing that UI claims for January remain on balance in the "good news" column and that the personal consumption report is not bad news given what we already knew about retail sales, I learned that the Monster Employment Index (which measures online help wanted advertising) fell by a whopping 9 points (from 169 to 160) in January, after falling an even more whopping (but less surprising given the usual seasonal pattern) 14 points in December and a not so whopping (but still significant because the index has never dropped 3 months in a row before) 5 points in November. That makes a total drop of 28 points, or about 15%, over 3 months. Before December 2007, the index had never fallen by more than 3% over any 3 month period (since it began in October 2003). And note that the 15% drop comes as newspaper help wanted advertising is scraping against an all time low (since 1951, when the Conference Board's index began, but note that in December, it rose slightly from the all-time low in November). Over the past week or two, I had been starting to think that the odds were shifting against recession. Now I'm not so sure. In any case I think we can rule out the possibility that 2008 will turn out unexpectedly to be a year of normal growth. And I'm not so worried about import prices now; I think they'll be offset by a slowing of domestic inflation.

[UPDATE3: OK, now I found the post on Paul Krugman's blog where he said that someone else edits the comments. (I missed it the first time, because it was in an update that I didn't read.) And I notice that one of my comments on an earlier post has suddenly appeared. I guess they decided I was a respectable commenter after all.]

[UPDATE2: I removed the previous update, because Paul Krugman (or whoever approves comments for his blog) did approve my comment. (See link at the top.) I had assumed it wasn't going to be approved, because there were later comments comments already approved, but I guess these things don't necessarily go in order.]

[UPDATE: [removed] ]

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Not Such a Weak Report

Reading between the lines of the 4th quarter advance GDP report, I estimate that nonresidential final sales rose at about a 3% annual rate, which is about where I see the potential growth rate (and faster than the potential growth rate that the Fed sees). It thus appears that, in the 4th quarter, fundamental weakness was still localized in the residential construction industry, which will eventually get as small as it's going to get and stop bringing down GDP. While this report doesn't allow one to rule out the possibility that a recession began during the quarter, and it certainly doesn't foreclose the possibility of a recession beginning in 2008, it does, in my opinion, line up on balance as evidence against the likelihood of one.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

When does monetary policy become ineffective?

Mark Thoma* leaves a succinct comment on my previous post:
Where we differ is the point at which monetary policy loses its effectiveness - I think that happens way before i-rates hit zero.
It’s an interesting point, because it is a position that many economists (including Keynes himself) seem to have held over the years, but one which, as far as I can tell, has never made much sense.**

I should be more specific: It may make sense if you measure monetary policy in certain ways, but not if you measure monetary policy in the way that is reasonable given how today’s central banks set policy. One might be (but in my opinion shouldn’t be) inclined to measure monetary policy in terms of the volume of open market operations, or some similar measure. In that case, it is quite true that a volume of operations that was effective when the interest rate was 5% is no longer likely to be effective when the interest rate is 1%. And certainly the people responsible for conducting those operations do need to be concerned with the volume. But for us, as economists and such, who can and should view monetary policy with some degree of abstraction, it makes little sense to concern ourselves with the volume of such operations. The transaction costs associated with open market operations are tiny (and not proportional to volume anyhow); the market for Treasury bills to be purchased is vast and quite liquid; the absolute size of an open market operation is of little importance, except inasmuch as it affects other variables, such as interest rates. Moreover, the same argument applies to other “quantitative” measures of monetary policy, such as changes in bank reserves and changes in monetary aggregates.

Since today’s central banks (and the Fed in particular) generally define their policy stance in terms of an interest rate, the reasonable way to measure that stance is in terms of an interest rate. Now one might argue (but again, I don’t think one should) that a proportional change in the interest rate that was effective when the interest rate was high will no longer be effective when the interest rate is low. For example, if the interest rate is 8% and you lop off one fourth of it, making the interest rate 6%, that could be quite an effective policy move; but if the interest rate is 1% and you lop off one fourth of that, making the interest rate 0.75%, that is not likely to be very effective at all by comparison. But central banks don’t measure interest rates proportionally, they measure them in…usually 25 basis point increments. And a 75 basis point cut by the Fed, for example, is considered a big move whether the interest rate starts at 8% or at 3%. The sensible question, it seems to me, is whether the effect of a given cut – defined in basis points – will be diminished when interest rates are already low.

If anything, I would argue, the exact opposite should be true. Monetary policy works largely by affecting the discounted value of expected returns on capital assets. When the Fed cuts interest rates, all other things being equal, stocks are worth more, houses are worth more, factories are worth more, machines are worth more, contemplated investment projects are worth more, and so on. The more the value of an asset rises relative to the cost of producing it, the more it becomes profitable to employ people in producing that asset. And theory says this effect should get stronger the lower are interest rates to begin with.

To see the point, consider a world where the risk premium is not an issue and where the Fed sets long-term interest rates. And just to make it clear, consider the extreme case where “long-term” means perpetual. In that case, the value of an asset that produces a fixed stream of returns equals the value of the periodic return divided by the interest rate. Thus if the Fed were to reduce the interest rate from 5% to 4%, it would increase the value of such an asset by 20%. But if the Fed were to reduce the interest rate from 1% to 0%, it would increase the value of the asset by…well, you do the math. In the enterprise of producing an infinitely valuable asset, it is of course profitable to employ as many people as you possibly can, at whatever wage they might require. In the real world, where the Fed controls only short-term rates, and where there is a risk premium associated with most assets, the effect is not so dramatic, but the difference in the effectiveness of policy when interest rates are low vs. high should certainly be in the same direction.

If, therefore, we may define “monetary policy” as the manipulation of an interest rate by a central bank, then we should expect that monetary policy gains more effectiveness the closer the interest rate comes to zero. And indeed, technically, there is no point at which monetary policy, thus defined, “loses its effectiveness.” There is, of course, a point at which additional stimulative monetary policy becomes impossible to practice, namely, the precise point when the interest rate reaches zero.***

* As far as I know, this is the real Mark Thoma – by which I mean the one that writes Economist’s View – not someone else of the same name. As an aside, though, it occurs to me that there is no shared authentication between Blogger and Typepad, so one doesn’t really know such things for sure. If I wanted to, I could probably post comments on other people’s blogs while pretending to be Brad DeLong or Barry Ritholtz. Or one of them could pretend to be me – though it's hard to think of any reason why they might want to.

** Please do not fear, Gentle Reader, that I have entertained for even a brief moment the abominable heresy that St. Maynard may have held a view that was in any way unreasonable. (Indeed, at the very thought, I must ask you to excuse me while I make the sign of the Keynesian cross over my chest.) Rather, I merely posit that there are certain inherent difficulties in communication between the Truly Awakened and ordinary sentient beings such as we. Interpreting the words of our lord**** in accordance with the mere shadows that form our limited experience, it is we who may have fallen into error. I’m personally intrigued by an alternative exegesis preached to me once by radical political economist Stephen Marglin, who suggests that Keynes was referring not to a lack of effectiveness per se but to the political difficulties in implementing a very low interest rate policy in an economy where the rentier class is loath to give up the income it receives in the form of interest.

***Strictly speaking, this is not quite true. Interest rates on some Treasury bills went below zero in 1938. Apparently, there are some people out there who like their Treasury bills so much that they won’t give them up even if you offer a premium to redemption value.

****I trust that the lower case L keeps me safe from the charge of blasphemy. Surely the lord I have in mind was indeed ours. To whom, after all, could Keynes belong***** if not to the Keynesians.

*****Actually, I have nothing to say down here, but I got so fascinated with the idea of nested footnotes that I decided to push the concept one level further.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

What is the purpose of a fiscal stimulus?

In the course of thinking about my last post, I have come to a striking realization: the (primary) purpose of a fiscal stimulus is not, as commonly believed, to stimulate aggregate demand and thereby increase economic activity; the purpose is to prevent interest rates from going down.

If the purpose of a fiscal stimulus were to stimulate aggregate demand and thereby increase economic activity, then a fiscal stimulus would almost never be a good idea. Typically, when a fiscal stimulus is proposed, one will hear arguments against it from various economists, typically of the more conservative-leaning variety (as, for example, Andrew Samwick here). These arguments rest on the premise that the conventional reason for a fiscal stimulus is the true reason. They argue (in my opinion) convincingly that that reason is not a good one, and they conclude that a fiscal stimulus is a bad idea. Essentially, anything that fiscal policy can do, monetary policy can do better. And monetary policy will do it, because that’s the job of central bankers. And if you disagree with the central bank about whether we need a stimulus, it will do you no good to try to use fiscal policy unilaterally, because the central bank will act to offset the effect with higher interest rates.

There is one exception – one case where monetary policy (maybe) just doesn’t work: that is the case where the interest rate is zero. In that case, there is no opportunity for the central bank to stimulate the economy by reducing interest rates. And if the central bank tries to stimulate the economy just by increasing bank reserves, this may be ineffective, because banks, having obtained the funds at zero cost, will feel little pressure to make loans; they may simply hold all the extra reserves as free insurance against the prospect of unexpected cash needs. And moreover, their creditworthy customers may not be willing to borrow, even at extremely low interest rates, if they can’t think of anything good to do with the money. This may or may not have happened in Japan; it’s still controversial whether the Bank of Japan’s policy of “quantitative easing” had a major impact. Anyhow, it’s something to worry about.

But in the US, for example, the interest rate has not been zero since 1938. So this one exception does not apply. If you’re worried (like Paul Krugman) that the exception might apply at some point in the not too distant future, then your argument about today is not that the exception does apply, but that we need to take action to avoid the situation in which the exception would apply. In other words, you don’t want interest rates to go too far down. You want a fiscal stimulus to prevent interest rates from going down.

Alternatively, let’s say that you were calling for a fiscal stimulus (or perhaps a larger or better directed one than what we actually got) in 2001 and 2002 and that you had the foresight to see that a monetary stimulus would affect the economy by producing an excessive and ultimately destructive housing boom. If your foresight were that good, you would probably have seen also that the monetary stimulus would succeed in getting the economy going and getting the unemployment rate down. So you couldn’t advocate a fiscal stimulus for that purpose, which would already be served. Rather, you would advocate a fiscal stimulus to avoid an excessive housing boom – by preventing interest rates from going down.

Today it would be hard to argue that a monetary stimulus could spark another excessive housing boom. (It might, I think, spark some kind of a boom, but the boom will be more orderly and rational, given the “once bitten” status of the housing market, as well as the elimination of many of the prospects for creative financing.) But a monetary stimulus could have another bad effect – rising import prices due to sudden drop in the dollar. The way to avoid that effect is to keep US interest rates high enough to attract capital from abroad, which will prop up the dollar. And the way to do that is with fiscal policy – a policy to produce a demand for that capital, so that someone in the US will be willing to pay those interest rates. Again, the purpose of a fiscal stimulus is to prevent interest rates from going down.

[Update: pgl's response at Angry Bear makes me realize that my reference to "another bad effect – rising import prices" was misleading. Rising import prices are a good thing, in my opinion, in that they would help reduce the international imbalance (the large net inflow of goods to the US from Asia), but on balance, only a good thing if the prices rise slowly enough to avoid a dramatic deterioration of the output-inflation tradeoff (i.e. stagflation, or something like it). The argument for using a fiscal stimulus, and therefore having relatively higher interest rates, today is that higher rates would let the dollar fall gradually, thereby avoiding the shock from a sudden deterioration in the terms of trade. It would also avoid a sudden contractionary shock to the rest of the world's economy.]

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

What is a stimulus

At the request of fellow commenter Robert D. Feinman, I’m expanding a comment from Economist’s View into a full blog post. Apropos of Paul Krugman’s column on the fiscal stimulus plan, Robert posted a comment asking:
What is "savings"? I understanding taking the check over to Walmart.

If I take the check and deposit it in my local bank what then? The bank loans out the money or buys notes from the Treasury (lending to the government). The money is then spent by the recipient. The difference is that in one case I determine how the money is "spent", in the other I delegate the spending to some one else. Why is one a stimulus and the other not?
In a later comment, I answered:
When you deposit the money in the bank, it doesn't actually get loaned out; it gets withdrawn by the Fed. That's an oversimplification, but it's roughly what happens. If you deposit money in the bank, it makes more money available in the banking system, which tends to push down the federal funds rate; but the Fed has a policy of controlling the federal funds rate, so it will act to offset your deposit by selling treasury bills (or, more precisely, probably, by buying fewer treasury bills than it otherwise would).

This raises the question of why we would need a fiscal stimulus in the first place, because if it wanted to, the Fed could just put more money in the banking system (causing the federal funds rate to fall), and there would be more loans and more purchases and we'd get the same stimulus. And the reason has to be something bad about low interest rates, but it's not clear exactly what. Maybe we're worried that low interest rates would weaken the dollar too much and cause an import price shock. Or maybe we're worried that interest rates will go down to zero (as they did in Japan), in which case banks might be unwilling to lend out the money that the Fed creates (since they wouldn't be taking any loss by just holding it, and the risks of lending might be too high).
I could add here that I think both of these considerations are things we should be worrying about right now.

Now that I think about it, though, the reason doesn’t have to be something bad about low interest rates; it could be, for example, the lag in effectiveness: one may imagine that tax rebates will be spent (if they are spent at all) more or less immediately, whereas if the money is in the banking system, it takes time to lend out, and it takes time for the borrowers to spend it.

When I actually say it, that argument doesn't sound very convincing, so I'll go back to "something bad about low interest rates," but I'll note that the "something bad" may also relate to policy lags. For example, if the "something bad" is an excessive housing boom, that also has a delayed economic stimulus effect, so that's a reason that the Fed can't do as big an initial stimulus with monetary policy as the government could do with fiscal policy.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Pigou Club on YouTube

This video was posted several months ago by Razela (i.r.l. Jamie Bernstein, but not apparently Leonard Bernstein's daughter of the same name) on YouTube, as a response to a video by Bill Richardson asking for ideas about energy.

She also has a blog with embedded videos, but I couldn't find this one on her blog.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

The Race Card

There’s a popular theory now (see for example Mark Kleiman here and here) that Clinton’s strategy is in South Carolina is essentially to lose and to blame the loss on near-universal black support for Obama, thus making Obama the black candidate – the one representing black people – and thereby making him unattractive to white voters in future primaries. I must say, the logic makes sense, but I just don’t understand the premise; it doesn’t ring true for me. Let me say that I am, as I avowed in an earlier post, an Obama supporter, certainly not an apologist for Clinton. And let me also say that I’m probably wrong: I’m no expert in political strategy, and when I say I don’t understand, I’m not trying to play Socrates; I’m genuinely curious. (Now that I think about it, if Socrates hadn’t actually been Socrates, he probably would have denied that he was trying to play Socrates too. But Socrates must have developed a reputation of being wise in philosophical matters, whereas I’m fairly safe from being considered wise in political matters.)

I just find it really hard to believe that the average Democrat – well, let’s say the average undecided Democrat – is enough of a racist to vote against a candidate just because that candidate is a black man with near-universal black support. I’m white, myself, and I don’t think I’m a racist, but I’m hardly the exemplar of politically correct non-racism, and I don’t have the sense that my attitude toward people of other races is much different from that of the average white Democrat. (I’m taking into account, of course, the way I imagine party alignments have changed, or in some cases even reversed, since 1965, but perhaps they haven’t changed as much as I thought?) Certainly, as much as the next white guy, I don’t want Willie Horton anywhere near me or my family. (For the record, though, I did vote for Dukakis.)

But I surely cannot imagine myself, assuming I were still on the fence, deciding to vote for Clinton because Obama looked too much like the representative of black people. If anything, for a perhaps slightly racist person like me who naturally doesn’t like to think of himself as being slightly racist, if I have other reasons to like a candidate, then the blacker he is, the better. After all, voting for Obama, the black candidate and the candidate of black people, shows that I’m not a racist, and gives the lie to all those bleedingheart liberals who might want to claim that I am. If Obama were just some candidate who technically happened to be black, there wouldn’t be nearly as much advantage in voting for him. And if I were the exemplar of politically correct non-racism, the advantage wouldn’t be there, because I would have no need to prove that I’m not a racist.

The comparison is made with Jesse Jackson, who was the black candidate when he ran and was not well-liked by white Democrats, particularly moderate white Democrats. But surely (am I being naïve here?) it was Jesse Jackson’s political opinions, not his race or his racial support, that turned off so many white voters. Clearly, Barrack Obama’s opinions are quite different from Jesse Jackson’s – if anything, to hear many of the liberal pundits tell it, the problem with Obama’s opinions is that they are too far from those of Jesse Jackson. Am I being naïve here? I knew some white people who supported Jesse Jackson, and I’m pretty sure it was because of his positions, not because of his race. And I knew some white people who opposed Jesse Jackson, and it sure seemed to me that they opposed him for the same reason that the others supported him.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Deficit is Good

I’ve said this before, but perhaps not in such bald terms. You can reasonably complain about the composition of expenditures or the composition of revenues under the fiscal policies of the last 7 years. But if you think the existence of a deficit – I mean a large deficit – has been a bad thing, you are just wrong. Back in 2006, I went into a lot of theoretical reasons why the deficit might be a good thing. But in the light of the housing crisis, it has become clear to me that there is a very simple reason why the deficit really has been a good thing: we have needed a fiscal stimulus this whole time (except maybe for, hmm, say February and March of 2006).

In fact we needed a much larger fiscal stimulus than what we had. Because we only had a relatively small fiscal stimulus, we had to rely on monetary policy to keep the economy going. That’s why we had a housing boom, and that’s why we are having a housing crash. Now I’ll grant you that policies such as better regulation could have reduced the severity of the boom and the subsequent crash. But that would have meant less aggregate demand arising from the housing sector (from the construction industry, mortgage equity withdrawal, etc.). And that would have meant a weaker economy. And as Paul Krugman suggests here, an economy with 63% of the population working was already nothing to write home about.

So…I’m not sure what to think about all the craziness that has been going on in the housing market. I’m not going to condone fraudulent mortgage originations or to say that it was a good thing that the bond rating agencies based their ratings on unreasonable assumptions. But all that was barely enough to keep our heads above water. I’m damn glad we’ve been running “large” budget deficits for the past 7 years. I’m glad Alan Greenspan made a ridiculous argument in 2001 about how terrible it would be to run out of Treasury bonds. It was the wrong argument, but the right conclusion.

I’m not glad about all the people that have died or been maimed in Iraq. Some things are clearly worse than a weak economy and a volatile housing market. But if the Iraq war hadn’t happened, I hope we would have found some other excuse to spend the money.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Obama and Abortion

I’m a Democrat, and as of Saturday, I am no longer “leaning toward Obama”; I am an Obama supporter. (Unfortunately, I’ll be out of town on primary night.)

I’m also pro-abortion. Not pro-choice: I’m one of those people that Hilary Clinton hasn’t met, who is actually pro-abortion. (I don’t think I’ll try to explain this any further, because my opinions are probably extreme enough to offend even the feminists and civil libertarians with whom I find common cause.)

You might wonder, given that I’m pro-abortion, why I would support Obama. After all, as Clinton’s campaign informed New Hampshire voters,
Obama refuses to stand up for a woman's right to choose and repeatedly voted `present' on important legislation. As a State Senator, Obama voted `present' on seven abortion bills, including critical late term abortion procedure, two parental notification laws and three 'born alive' bills.
You may recall that Bill Clinton once “did not volunteer” certain relevant information with respect to an answer he gave in deposition. (Coincidentally, the information he did not volunteer also concerned something could be considered a form of birth control.) In this case, Hilary did not volunteer certain relevant information.

The information she (or her campaign) did not volunteer is that, in the Illinois legislature, voting “present” is equivalent to voting “no,” because a majority of “yes” votes are required for a measure to pass. Granted, “present” and “no” are not exactly the same, but the difference in this case is not a substantive one. The Clinton campaign said that it decided to put out the information in the quotation above because “as Senator Obama has said, ‘voting records matter.’” Of course, when Senator Obama said that voting records matter, his point was that, if you want to ascertain a candidate’s position on specific issues, you should watch what the candidate does rather than just listening to what he says. Apparently, the Clinton campaign’s response to Obama’s suggestion to look at substance rather than just rhetoric was to exploit a non-substantive aspect of Obama’s record in such a way as to blatantly mislead the reader as to its substance.

When politicians lie about something I don’t have strong opinions about (like with whom Bill Clinton did or did not have sexual relations) it doesn’t bother me that much. When they make blatantly misleading statements about something that I do have a strong opinion about, that pisses me off.

I wonder if it’s too late to get an absentee ballot.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Obama and the Progressives

I'm just wondering if Senator Obama is pursuing a calculated strategy of saying things that get pundits on the left pissed at him. It probably won't help him win the nomination, but when and if he does win, it could help in the general election, and it could help even more in the process of governing. What better way, for example, to get the 8 or so Republican votes he will need to close debate on his health care plan in the Senate than by saying, "Paul Krugman hated this idea."

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Note to Congressional Democrats

(This means you, Senators Edwards and Clinton.)

If Congress passes a stimulus package full of new programs and all sorts of bells and whistles and tinsel and lights and stars and angels and golden balls with glitter on them, one that President Bush is almost certain to veto, and one that he, given his ideological preferences, could very easily justify vetoing, and indeed would have a hard time justifying singing signing, then it will be your fault, not his fault, if the recession turns out more severe than expected. I will hold you responsible. I suspect that voters will hold you responsible too.

If, on the other hand, Congress passes a simple if imperfect stimulus program that works on the revenue side -- say an across-the-board one-time tax rebate -- one that President Bush may not be happy with but will have a hard time justifying a veto, then if he does end up vetoing it, that will be his fault -- and all the more reason to elect a Democratic president. And if he signs it, well, I guess you'll just have to take the risk that the stimulus will actually work and that it will make things look a little better on election day than they otherwise would. A non-recessionary economy in 2008 -- seems to me that's a risk worth taking.

[Update: I should proofread these posts better. I don't think we're going to be seeing "Recession -- The Musical" any time soon.]

[Update2: ...and I should check my facts, too. Brock points out in the comments section that John Edwards is no longer in the Senate. Edwards does seem to have his own stimulus plan, though, and I hope he isn't thinking that it can wait until 2009 to be implemented. I guess I should include Senator Obama in my warning, too, but his suggestions have come closer to the sort of thing of which President Bush would have trouble justifying a veto, so I kind of felt he didn't need to be warned.]

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