...Archive for July 2010

The stickiest price

Here’s a question for the macroeconomists.

“Sticky prices” are the foundation of “Great Moderation” monetary policy, the core justification for why we have inflation stabilizing central banks. As the bedtime story (or DSGE model) goes, if only prices were perfectly flexible, markets would always clear and the great equilibrium in the sky would prevail and all would be right and well in the world. Hooray!

Unfortunately there are… rigidities. Shocks happen (economists are bashful about that other s-word), and prices fail to adjust instantaneously. Disequilibrium persists or oscillates and all kinds of complex dynamics occur, because the system, once outta whack, doesn’t get back in whack very quickly. Disequilibrium is followed by its terrible twin distortion, which shrieks through the night, ravaging the villagers with suboptimal resource utilization, most especially suboptimal utilization of the villagers themselves who are let to starve because their wage expectations are too damned sticky.

If my tone betrays a certain disdain for this account, that is because, in my view, central bankers have used it to harm people and blame the victims. The policy regime that we have crowed over from Volcker through Bernanke and Trichet “naturally” led to the conclusion that (1) central banks should stabilize inflation, so that predictable price adjustments are mostly sufficient to keep things in equilibrium; and (2) that central banks ought to focus especially on stabilizing the stickiest prices, leading to distinctions between overall and “core” inflation. Among the stickiest prices, of course, is the wage rate. In practice, from the mid 1980s right up through 2008, the one thing modern central bankers absolutely positively refused to tolerate was “inflation” of wages. God forbid there be an upcreep in unit labor costs, implying that a shift in the income share away from capital and towards workers. Central banks jack up interest rates right away, because what if the change in relative prices is a mistake? We wouldn’t want that to stick, oh no no no no no. But when the capital’s share of income shifted skyward while deunionization and globalization sapped worker bargaining power? Well, we learned the meaning of an asymmetric policy response.

Even today, now that it has all come apart, economists maintain a laser-like focus on the stickiness of wages. Why can’t Greece compete? Because its “cost structure” has grown too high. In English, that means people expect to be paid too much. The solution is “adjustment”: workers’ real wages must be reduced to restore competitiveness. American economists, following in the footsteps of Milton Friedman, trumpet the glory of floating currency regimes, with which one can reduce the wages of a whole nation of workers with a single devaluation (and without the workers having much opportunity to object). The Greeks, of course, must suffer, because they are part of a fixed currency regime, and workers and employers are unable to organize the universal wage collapse that would be good for them in the way of vegetables at the dinner table.

Now, not all economists are heartless. Left economists love workers. They urge governments to devalue if possible, to chop the broccoli into chocolate cake and hope that nobody gags. These economists rail against the fixed exchange rates, because nominal wages cuts usually occur only alongside the human tragedy of unemployment. They beg governments, if they can, to just borrow money and pay workers their accustomed wages (to do some important thing or another) and hope that things work out well.

But it is always about the workers. Workers are the core problem. Macroeconomic policy, as a practical matter, is mostly about finessing “rigidities” associated with workers’ stubborn wage expectations.

Yet there is an even stickier price in the economy, a price economists have mostly ignored although it is at least as ubiquitous as wages. The price of a past expenditure, the nominal cost of escaping a debt, is fixed in stone the moment a loan is made and then endures in time, perfectly rigid, while the economy fluctuates around it. It is certainly a price, but can only be made flexible via bankruptcy — a disruptive institution, rarely modeled by macroeconomists, and rarely deployed at scale. Surely, the price of manumission must be as nimble as the price of petrol if the economy is to keep its equilibrium while being battered and buffeted by shocks.

This is an odd way of putting things, but no great insight. Everyone knows that we are loaded to the gills with debt, the real burden of which has grown as the business cycle turned. Disinflation has left us teetering on the edge of mass default and deflationary spirals, distortion, depression, destruction. The holograph sputters to life and Princess Leia implores, “Help us Obi-wan Bernanke, you’re our only hope.”

So, macroeconomists: For at least 40 years sticky wages have been a central concern, perhaps the central practical concern, of your profession. (In the models, yes, it is abstract goods prices that are sticky. But in practice, it was always and obviously about sticky wages.) You justified ending Bretton Woods gold convertibility and moving to a floating-rate regime specifically in terms of frictions associated with innumerable downward wage adjustments. Your central triumph was “beating” the inflation of the 1970s. You pretended that was a painful but technocratic exercise in monetary policy, but the durability of “price stability” had everything to do with Reagan’s breaking of union power and a free-trade regime that put pressure on the wages of all but the special. (Economists are very special, of course.) Back in the Great Moderation, central bankers chose not to emphasize the role of these political choices in explaining their “success”. It was all about targeting the interest rates cleverly, just like the DSGE models say. It was “scientific”, “independent”.

Don’t worry! I’m with you. I think unions are a poor means of supplying labor bargaining power, and wish them good riddance. I am proglobalization and free trade, or would be, if we had sense enough to subject our free trade to a balance constraint. I’ll keep your secrets. We’ll keep telling the little people that all we do is interest rates and blame whatever went wrong on Wall Street.

But here’s my question. Looking forward to the next thirty years, after we have decisively defeated wage rigidity by ensuring that the unemployed are numerous and miserable, don’t you think we should devote just a bit of our attention to tackling that other sticky price? As we reduce the bargaining power of labor, perhaps we should think about the bargaining power of creditors as well, so that if we get ourselves into a pickle where the “cost structure” of honoring debts is high, we have technocratic and politically acceptable means of managing the burden of loan contracts just as we’ve developed mechanisms to control wages.

In the 1970s and 80s, we threw away an international monetary regime and revamped the practice of central banking in order to give leaders the tools to push down hard on any upward creep in sticky wages. (Notice how there is never any talk of having Germany raise, rather than Greece reduce, its wages to “restore balance”?) Our new monetary system also made the price of escaping of some debt less sticky, specifically debt owed to international creditors foolish enough to lend in borrowers’ now-unredeemable currency. And that has helped, a lot! We’d be living in Mad Max USA already if dollar debts could be redeemed for anything other than more dollars.

But the job is not done. Domestic creditors, and international creditors who lend in their own money, still have sufficient bargaining power to make past prices stick, regardless of whether those prices remain appropriate. If renegotiating down labor contracts is hard, renegotiating down millions of debt contracts via bankruptcy is nearly impossible. Perhaps debts should be enforceable only in a pseudocurrency whose convertability to current dollars is routinely adjusted as a policy variable by the wise, technocratic central bank. Perhaps we should develop less disruptive means than bankruptcy for writing down or equitizing onerous debt. Perhaps since sticky-priced debt contracts have less rigid near substitutes called “equity”, macroprudential policy should heavily favor the latter. Put Trichet and Bernanke in a room together, and let ‘em figure it out. They’re brilliant, both of ‘em. Surely they can come up with something. But do they want to? Do they, as their models suggest, think that any pervasive sticky price is dangerous, or is it only uppity workers that trouble them?

A naive noneconomist might imagine that consistently suppressing one sticky price while assiduously supporting an even stickier price is not a way to avoid distortion, but a means of introducing it.

Isn’t it time macroeconomists stopped beating down wages and turned their attention to the stickiest price?

Preventing 2006

Brad DeLong periodically reproduces the following bit from Keynes:

While some part of the investment which was going on in the world at large was doubtless ill judged and unfruitful, there can, I think, be no doubt that the world was enormously enriched by the constructions of the quinquennium from 1925 to 1929; its wealth increased in these five years by as much as in any other ten or twenty years of its history….

Doubtless, as was inevitable in a period of such rapid changes, the rate of growth of some individual commodities could not always be in just the appropriate relation to that of others. But, on the whole, I see little sign of any serious want of balance such as is alleged by some authorities. The rates of growth [of different sectors]… seem to me, looking back, to have been in as good a balance as one could have expected them to be. A few more quinquennia of equal activity might, indeed, have brought us near to the economic Eldorado where all our reasonable economic needs would be satisfied….

It seems an extraordinary imbecility that this wonderful outburst of productive energy [over 1924–29] should be the prelude to impoverishment and depression. Some austere and puritanical souls regard it both as an inevitable and a desirable nemesis on so much overexpansion, as they call it; a nemesis on man’s speculative spirit. It would, they feel, be a victory for the mammon of unrighteousness if so much prosperity was not subsequently balanced by universal bankruptcy. We need, they say, what they politely call a ‘prolonged liquidation’ to put us right. The liquidation, they tell us, is not yet complete. But in time it will be. And when sufficient time has elapsed for the completion of the liquidation, all will be well with us again.

I do not take this view. I find the explanantion of the current business losses, of the reduction in output, and of the unemployment which necessarily ensues on this not in the high level of investment which was proceeding up to the spring of 1929, but in the subsequent cessation of this investment. I see no hope of a recovery except in a revival of the high level of investment. And I do not understand how universal bankruptcy can do any good or bring us nearer to prosperity…

I won’t comment on the “wonderful outburst of productive energy” Keynes attributed to the late 1920s. But I do have an opinions about the quinquennium from 2004 to 2008.

It was stupid. We were profoundly stupid. We mismanaged resources catastrophically, idiotically. We substantially oriented our economy around residential and retail development that was foreseeably excessive and poorly conceived. We encouraged ordinary consumers, rather than entrepreneurs, to take on debt, and let the credit thus created serve as the kitty in a gigantic casino of egoism. We saw the best minds of a generation destroyed by madness, glutted hysterical in suits, dragging themselves through the Street at dawn, looking for an angry bonus. We accelerated the unraveling of physical, social, and intellectual infrastructure that took a century to build and that we will desperately need some day, perhaps quite soon. We celebrated our stupidity. Based on some back-of-the-napkin theorizing, we turned virtues like planning and prudence into cost centers, and eliminated them. We idolized “the market” while at the same time reorganizing it so it would tell us exactly what some privileged groups found convenient to hear.

I am sure someone will shout “20/20 hindsight”. That’s bullshit. Everything I am saying now was obvious five years ago, and lots of smart people knew and understood it. Some of us even bought into “arbitrage” fairy tales and tried to profit from getting our views “impounded into market prices”. We learned to take a different Keynes quote seriously, the one about markets remaining irrational longer than you can remain solvent. [Shlieffer and Vishny's famous coinage, "the limits of arbitrage" is not strong enough, because it suggests that efficient arbitrage is the norm subject to some exceptions and limitations. It is more accurate to view efficient arbitrage as the unusual special case, in bond markets as well as in equity markets.]

John Hussman, in an excellent weekly note, has a very mean quote:

The true debate in economics is…between economists who care about the productivity of resource allocation and those who only pay lip service.

That is harsh, but not wrong. I’d draw the lines a bit more mildly, and say that the core argument is between people who think we are in a financial crisis that has engendered an economic crisis, and others (like me) who think that the financial crisis is the outgrowth of longstanding and continuing economic mistakes.

Don’t worry. Even if you think the economic problems preceded the financial crisis, you still get to be mad at bankers. I feel about the financial sector the same way I would feel about my morphine dealer after looking down to find piranha feeding between my ribs. It’s worse than that. It’s like you pay some guy to find the best swimming holes in the Amazon and not only is he clueless, but he anesthetizes you so you don’t notice when he screws up and he eventually starts taking kickbacks from the fish. The financial sector failed three times. First it screwed up real capital allocation, throwing money at housing and consumer lending rather than finding and funding projects that would situate us well going forward. Then it failed again by seeming to succeed, when a good financial system would quickly render poor investment decisions unmistakably noxious. It’s best not to find yourself swimming among piranha in the first place, but if it happens, you want the very first nibble to hurt like hell. Finally, the financial sector failed by keeping itself rich and its creditors whole, which, despite protestations to the contrary, amounts to a failure at an institutional level to understand how badly it fucked up and make corrections going forward.

If “malinvestment” (and related maldistribution) is at the root of our problems, does it follow that austerity is the solution going forward? Not at all. Past poor investment is a sunk cost, our task now is to maximize the usefulness of resources that we still have. Failing to use perishable resources, especially resources that decay with disuse, is terribly dumb. “Stimulus” and “austerity” are both simpleminded and poorly specified strategies. In theory, we have two overlapping systems, a financial system and a political system, whose shared purpose is to make information-dense decisions about how best to use or conserve our resources. It’s not clear how we should make these decisions when both systems seem badly broken. But you go to the future with the institutions you have, not the institutions you might want or wish to have at a later time.

As we evaluate financial reform and political change, we should keep in mind that it is not 2008 that we must struggle to prevent. It’s 2006 that was the worst of times, the piranha were feeding while we splashed and giggled in our water wings.


Some notes: If you didn’t catch the references, I’ve mutilated quotes from the Alan Ginsberg poem Howl and from former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the text, and sourced them only via links. Regarding my own experience trying to help “arbitrage away” the credit bubble, I was short US equities from around 2005 until late 2008. The market was irrational until I was almost, but not quite, insolvent. Eventually I took a decent profit, but it was sheer luck that the market didn’t remain irrational just a bit longer and force me from my positions at a terrible loss.

Update History:

  • 13-July-2010, 7:40 a.m. EDT: Added missing “what” as in “exactly what some privileged groups found convenient to hear”.