Policy wonks, pitchforks, and the contradictions of capitalism

Yves Smith has asked, not entirely gently, that I reconcile differences in my outrage towards health-care chicanery and what she perceives as “a clever defense of abuses by the powerful” in the sphere of finance. This post is a second response; the first is here. In a nutshell, Smith wonders, why so much outrage for rapacious hospitals when I give a pass to rapacious banks?

The premise of the question is mistaken. I’ve been writing interfluidity for about seven years, and precisely one post has been specifically devoted to health care. Mostly I’ve blogged about finance. Many, many of my posts about finance express outrage toward self-dealing and rapacity in finance, including both private sector banks and their public sector enablers. I’ve not been as prodigious or relentless a critic as Smith. No one on the planet has, and I mean that as a completely unalloyed compliment. But I can’t cop to the crime of giving finance a pass, and I don’t think any fair reader of this blog could characterize me as doing so. I hope that readers who wish to play judge and jury will read the posts that angered Smith, and check out many other posts as well. If you think my posts on opacity somehow mark a change in my politics or my views on finance, you are wrong.

But there is a different sort of inconsistency that I think Smith has correctly honed in on by juxtaposing the health care and the opacity pieces. Let’s consider the health care paragraph she excerpted:

As soon as you delve into the policy wonkery in cases like this, you are submitting to a conspiracy by the powerful against the many. The greater the sphere of disagreeable things that are “complicated”, the more it is possible to construct intricate and inscrutable bureaucracies to “arbitrate”. There will be think-tanks and policy papers, funded by people who are well-meaning (in a narrow, idiotically un-self-aware way) but very rich and powerful. The conclusions of which will be earnest and carefully researched but confined to a window not very upsetting to the very rich and powerful. Undoing the ability of plutocrat hospital “CEOs”, or bankers or lobbyists or whatever, to continue the sort of ass-rape to which their lifestyles have grown accustomed will not be on the table. A good society depends on an active public, first and foremost. A society that has allowed the predations of the powerful to become purely private matters mediated via “markets”, courts, academies, and bureaucracies, that has delegated “activism” to a mostly protected professional class, is nothing more than a herd hoping that today it is somebody else who will be slaughtered.

The majority of this blog could be characterized as “policy wonkery”. interfluidity is constantly, in my own words, “submitting to a conspiracy by the powerful against the many” by speaking the language of the wonk, using modes of argument and accepting norms of evidence set by “academies and bureaucrats” who are, per my own analysis, ultimately bought and paid-for. [*] The opacity thesis is, from a moralist’s perspective, perhaps the very worst genre of policy wonkery — the argument that suggests what normal people consider virtue is wrong for clever, counterintuitive reasons. There is an inconsistency between claiming that “[o]utrage and shame are primary” and arguing that “[s]ocieties that lack opaque, faintly fraudulent, financial systems fail to develop and prosper“.

I don’t have a good answer, except to say that the true art of politics lies in reconciling this sort of contradiction. It’s a dilemma I’ve considered at some length. A society governed by technocrats, which chooses what seems “optimal” according to some expert’s criteria without regard to morality, will not (and ought not) survive. Human beings are moral animals. Institutions cannot thrive without being supported and rationalized by a widely-shared ideology. On the other hand, simply following intuitions about morality can lead to technocratically untenable choices. A society that eschews violence might be well and good, until a neighboring tribe makes a different choice. A successful society must find an intersection, some set of institutions that are both technocratically effective and reinforced by a moral ideology. My opacity thesis claims we face a mismatch, which in the past we resolved by devaluing transparency and tolerating a degree of misbehavior in the shadows. I don’t say we should go back to that. But I do argue that it was an arrangement which, however distasteful, served important functions. My own attitude towards finance is the same outrage I bring to health care. I believe we ought to restructure finance into something we can live with morally. I oppose the technocratic impulse to sweep sinning under a rug while doubling down on ever-less-plausible “regulatory” palliations of predation.

But I think finance will prove a harder sphere to bring into line with moral ideas even than health care. “Opacity” is just the tip of the iceberg. The financial sector is where the growing social and economic contradictions of our society go to get papered over. How can we reconcile increasing polarization in wealth and income with our pretensions of being a middle-class society? We’ll invent a special purpose vehicle, stoke a bubble, make it work somehow. If, er, ownership of the means of production, including market-value-weighted labor power, is increasingly concentrated, how can we maintain demand without redistribution? We can lend, even though many of the people without purchasing power now are unlikely to earn a lot later.

We rely upon the financial sector to tell us sweet lies. We impose starkly contradictory requirements on financiers (“lend prudently!”, “support the economy!”), pay them incredible amounts of money when they somehow make it work, and are shocked, shocked that they evolve elaborate schemes to fudge things. I am not excusing anything. We gladly put drug kingpins into jail, even though we understand that high consumer demand plus aggressive criminalization makes the emergence of kingpins inevitable. While we have this cesspool, we’ll need to aggressively police it. But we won’t find our way to a “clean” financial sector until we resolve the contradictions that render dissembling essential to our social peace and economic development.


[*] On “norms of evidence”, Smith and other commenters have me dead to rights. I offered a very sweeping thesis that is internally consistent and that comports with my understanding of finance and history. That is weak evidentiary tea. I ought not to have written, in the second post of the series,

We must give the devil her due. It pissed a lot of readers off and pisses me off too, but the argument I offered in the previous post is true.
I have no right or ability to adjudicate the history of the world.

Opaque finance, again, and solutions

There a few people whose work I more respect than Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism. She is a tireless researcher, remarkably immune to the bleary-eyed depression I experience when digging through the obfuscatory minutia of financial industry predation. I have and will continue to hold Smith in very high regard, whatever her regard for me.

However, in a recent post, I think I have been treated unfairly. I think no fair reading of my financial opacity piece, alone or with its two followups, could characterize my position as “extoll[ing] deception and theft”. The first piece is not satirical, in the sense of advancing a position which its author does not hold. But it is hyperbolic and sardonic, in the sense of laughing into ones execution. I think it is true that the business of banking, in order to effectively perform its social function of mobilizing resources at scale, necessarily involves a degree of deception. It must work to persuade a variety of stakeholders that their claims are very close to risk-free when in fact they cannot all be. That a degree of deception, or at least obfuscation, is inherent to banking does not justify all possible misbehavior. If you must lie for some greater good, you are especially bound to put the proceeds of the lie towards the greater good, and not just run off with the cash. Nothing justifies the sort of looting to which no one has called attention more assiduously than Smith. However, the opacity built into the very structure of modern banking systems, irreducibly if they are to perform the work we now delegate to them, renders it nearly impossible to prevent the pillage. Far from hagiography, in my mind this thesis is bitter eulogy for the hope that a banking system like ours can be “reformed”. I think that we need to find other, very different, means of performing the functions that status quo banks currently perform, so that we can encourage the institutions that currently dominate to wither into obscurity. I know this is a tall order.

That existing institutions are difficult to police doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do our best while we are stuck with them. It certainly doesn’t mean that when we discover violations of the rules we impose to manage this conundrum, the violators shouldn’t be held accountable. On the contrary, ordinary principles of deterrence suggest that difficult-to-uncover crimes should be punished much more harshly than crimes for which detection is likely. I have never advocated any lenience. I think we should expose and punish relentlessly. But I don’t think we’ll get very far, because bankers will respond with capital strikes, motivated both by both cynical politics and genuine fear. Without alternatives, we will find ourselves unable to tolerate credit slowdowns, and we’ll end up with politicians who help engineer cover-ups. Over the short term, we are addicted to bubbles and bezzles. Over the long term, opaque finance makes important contributions to economic development. We need new institutions that replace existing banks, or we will lack leverage to effectively police the old ones.

This is a judgment call about which reasonable people can disagree. Smith thinks that finance prior to the 1980s worked well, and represents a model to which we can return. Carolyn Sissoko, who knows more about the history of banking than I ever will, thinks eliminating limited liability for banks will resolve the problem. I enthusiastically support that reform, but believe it would leave us in a painful state of macroeconomic withdrawal absent other changes. I think we are in a bind.

Since my opacity posts, I have been thinking more macroeconomically, and trying to come up with solutions. I do have some ideas. I think we should we rely less on personal savings and more on a basic income for insurance by ordinary households against economic risk. I think “risk-free” savings should be placed directly with the state, rather than via the Rube Goldberg machine of bank deposits and a state guarantee. Quantities of truly risk-free savings should be carefully rationed. Beyond that ration, systemic risk should be borne by savers via toleration of inflation. I think we should regulate aggregate demand (in practice, probably target NGDP) by modulating the flow of transfers to the public (“quantitative easing for the people“, “monetary policy for the 21st Century“, “helicopter drops“), and emphatically not by adjusting the price or regulatory scrutiny of bank credit. To replace the role of banks in ensuring sufficient availability of investment capital, the state should subsidize investment by riding along, directly and explicitly, with very simply constituted private investment funds that meet certain criteria. (The state would do so as a senior creditors or via some form of matching equity. However, we will have to be wary of letting more explicit state involvement politicize the investment process. A legal, commercially-viable abortion clinic or gun range should have the same access to government supported, privately allocated credit as a flower shop. The criteria for government co-investment should be as mechanical as possible to prevent quid-pro-quos where politicians exchange investment subsidies for promises of having favored projects funded.)

I don’t know whether any of this will ever become politically possible. In the meantime we are stuck with a system that has “criminogenic” built into its very roots. I don’t applaud this; I can barely live with it. But I do think it is a fact. We’ve got to police the system we have with as much muscle and tenacity as we possibly can. No one contributes to that more than Yves Smith does, and for that I thank her very much.


Note: In her post, Smith asked me to comment about differences in my treatment of health care and finance. I think there’s something interesting to talk about there. That will be a second post.

If you do want to evaluate my opacity theory, I ask that you include the third piece of the series in your reading list, which is written with more care and gentler rhetoric than the first two. The first two posts probably were too belligerently written. Still, this series really did feel like violating a taboo.

Hidden profits, hidden rents

Evan Soltas has a very good post on the explosive growth of the financial industry since the end of World War II. As a share of GDP, in terms of profits, and in terms of payroll, postwar America has been truly been a golden age for bankers, brokers, and fund managers.

In fact, it’s even better than it looks!

Soltas begins with a graph:

The graph above shows that the financial industry now makes roughly half of all nonfarm corporate profits in the U.S., a share which has risen five-fold since the end of World War II.

“Profit” is always something of a sticky subject. We talk about it all the time, like we have any idea what it means. Usually we don’t. There is, for example, the distinction between “accounting profit” and “economic profit”. Accounting profit is what a firm, under generally accepted accounting principles, can claim to be the earnings that accrue to shareholders. Economic profit is revenue that exceeds the true cost, defined as the value of the next-best opportunity, of all inputs. According to theory, in a competitive market, economic profits should be relentlessly pushed toward zero while accounting profits should stay positive but very near the broad market return on capital placed at comparable risk.

In general, only accounting profit is measured while only economic profit is interesting. When we think of economic profit, we need not restrict ourselves to shareholders, who represent just one class of claimants on an enterprise. Suppose there is an industry whose firms about break even in accounting terms, but whose unionized workers, even those without hard-to-find skills, capture salaries much larger than they likely would outside of the industry. Is the industry “profitable”?

In an economic sense, it is very profitable. It generates sales that far exceed the opportunity cost of its inputs. But for institutional reasons, those profits are captured by workers rather than accruing to equityholders, and so are missed by accounting measures. It’s pretty clear that, in its heyday, the US auto industry was like this. The industry generated a great deal more “value” than was captured by its shareholders. The internal negotiations between firm stakeholders over the distribution of economic profit has no bearing on the existence of that profit.

The financial industry is not heavily unionized, but the lack of a union doesn’t mean the struggle over the distribution of economic profit goes away, with shareholders automatically winning. In many industries, economic profit is far higher than accounting profit, with the difference captured by various sorts of insiders. And there is no industry in which the distribution of economic profit to employees is more institutionalized than in finance, where at large banks roughly half of firm revenue get distributed to employees, largely in the form of bonuses. Now, one can argue that the form in which compensation contracts are negotiated says little about whether the level of that compensation exceeds the opportunity cost of the work to recipients. Perhaps bank employees earn higher salaries on average than they could elsewhere as compensation for the bearing much of the risk of firm performance by accepting low base salaries and uncertain bonuses. But.

Economic profit creates an incentive for new entrants. Indeed, given how difficult it often is to measure the true cost of inputs, the best way to observe economic profit is to look for people banging at the door. And people do seem to be banging on the door in finance. Famously large fractions of Ivy league graduates — who can do anything, for whom “the world is their oyster” — end up taking finance jobs, despite very often having no specialized training in the field. I hope it will be uncontroversial to suggest that finance jobs are coveted. Those low base salaries delivered with a variable upside are, it turns out, not so low when compared with salaries in other industries. It is true that much of the “economic profit” earned by bank employees is delivered as a claim on a high-mean-value probability distribution rather than as a certain paycheck. But the opportunity cost of the input is mostly covered by the base. [1]

To the degree that financial firms’ economic profit is unusually captured by employees rather than shareholders, accounting-based estimates of finance’s profit share, like the one that Soltas presents above, will badly underestimate the share of economic profit captured by finance industry stakeholders as a whole. [2]

That an industry captures a lot of economic profit need not be a bad thing. After all, economic profit represents “value added”, the degree to which outputs are worth much more to people than inputs. However, we often divide economic profit into two components, the usually-transient good kind that results from innovations which leave firms a step ahead of their competition, and bad “rents” that result from capturing subsidies and/or restricting competition. To be fair, most successful firms get some of their economic profit both ways. But you’d need a great deal of faith in empirically invisible new value to explain the persistent and growing profit captured by finance, if its source isn’t predominantly rents. And, indeed, Soltas enumerates some of those:

Let’s run though the explicit subsidies: the mortgage-interest deduction and other homebuyer credits, student loan aid, federal guarantees on debt, the preferential tax rates on capital gains and dividends, interest on reserves at the Fed, and the FDIC guarantee. The financial industry also benefits from substantial implicit regulatory subsidies such as “too-big-too-fail.”

That’s a very good list. I’d add one more: the Federal Reserve’s policy of stabilizing the purchasing power of currency. Though stock markets and fancy derivatives get lots of press, most of the abnormal profits in finance are, I think, earned in debt markets. Financial firms borrow money and lend money. They underwrite debt issued by others and structure that borrow and lend. Financial rents seem related to scale and concentration. Debt-based financial intermediation is amenable to economies of scale in ways that equity-based funding is not. Rating agencies can get away with classifying debt products like beef, USDA Triple-A, and trillions of investment dollars flow accordingly. Investors are more idiosyncratic and more cautious with equities. “Too big to fail” is primarily a quality of credit markets — no one thinks that any bank is too big to suffer a stock-price decline. When financial firms extract rents via explicit government support, it is usually in order to ensure that bank creditors are made whole.

But debt finance exists in competition with equity finance. If I’m right that debt finance is a more fertile source of industry rents than equity, then ways that the state tilts the scale towards debt funding are part of the problem. Along with Felix Salmon, James Surowiecki, and many others, I’ve argued against the bias towards debt embedded in the tax system. But stabilizing prices also increases the relative attractiveness of debt. Absent price-level stabilization, the business cycle risk borne by diversified equity investors is somewhat counterbalanced by reduced risk from inflation, as price increases pass through to earnings and dividends over the medium term. If recessions tended to be inflationary, as they would for example under an NGDP target, this pass-through would amount to a very desirable countercyclical feature. Debt, on the other hand, would lose value in real terms during inflationary recessions. (For lower quality debt this loss would be partially offset by reduced risk of default.) The current practice of targeting inflation makes default-risk-free debt a nearly no-lose proposition regardless of macroeconomic performance, while accentuating the exposure of equities to business cycle risk.

There are lots of good reasons to reduce our dependence on the institution of debt in favor of more equity-like arrangements. Evolving towards a smaller financial industry less capable of capturing rents is another reason. Using the power of the state to stabilize the inflation rate is a bad idea, also for lots of reasons, including that the practice encourages debt finance and powerful banks.


[1] Even to the degree that supernormal paychecks are compensation for risk-bearing, part of the compensation should be recategorized as a return on shadow equity, rather than as a cost of labor input. One can decompose a bankers’ variable compensation into a cash payment plus funds that might have been paid but are instead invested on the employee’s behalf into the firm or a subdivision thereof. Much of bankers’ bonuses, the part that is compensation for bearing firm risk rather than paying for labor, should be viewed as a return on shadow equity that doesn’t show up in the formal equity accounts. When banks recruit employees to finance the firm with deferred compensation and then pay a performance-based return on that advance, it is quite similar to issuing new shares or outcome-contingent securities. The return eventually paid on those securities in excess of the original amount deferred ought to be considered distributed profit rather than labor compensation.

To highlight the murkiness of the dividing line between compensation and profit, consider two employees. One employee is paid at the beginning of the year in the form of firm stock, which will not “vest” (be made available) until the end of the year. The other is paid 20% less, but gets conventional cash payments and will receive an end-of-year bonus based on firm performance. Suppose the firm’s stock rises by 10% over the year, and our cash-paid employee receives a bonus worth 40% of her base salary. If you do the math, you’ll find that the cost to the firm of the two employees is almost the same. Both employees bore similar (although not identical) risk. Yet on the books, the first employee’s compensation will be smaller than that of the second employee, with the difference reflected in the earnings of the firm. Rewriting the first employees explicitly equity-based contract into a reduced-compensation-plus-bonus contract changes little of substance, but reduces the firm’s accounting profit (and tax basis!). Since compensation-plus-bonus is common in financial firms, reported profits are low relative to an world in which the variable basis for the compensation was recorded as equity. Yet recording the compensation as equity more accurately captures the division between compensation for labor and the compensation for risk-bearing that defines accounting profit.

Note that this analysis is unchanged if the motivation for the variable payment is to encourage performance, and is based on outcomes close to the employee, rather than firm-level performance. The employee is then compensated in equity in smaller, riskier subdivisions of the firm (and might require a higher salary “in stock” to compensate), but that does not alter the opportunity cost of her own employment or the fact that proceeds from good outcomes represent economic profit.

[2] Finance is unusual but not unique — see also health care, education, and government, together the “information asymmetry industry“.

Shame.

So, of course you should go read Steven Brill’s excellent article on health care price gouging. Or maybe you shouldn’t. It’s very long. Not everybody has to be a fucking policy intellectual, or even au courant in the “public affairs” covered by Time. You don’t have to read much (or, God forbid, write) about policy to be a good person and a good citizen.

But citizenship does carry burdens. Like this:

By the time Steven D. died at his home in Northern California the following November, he had lived for an additional 11 months. And Alice had collected bills totaling $902,452. The family’s first bill — for $348,000 — which arrived when Steven got home from the Seton Medical Center in Daly City, Calif., was full of all the usual chargemaster profit grabs: $18 each for 88 diabetes-test strips that Amazon sells in boxes of 50 for $27.85; $24 each for 19 niacin pills that are sold in drugstores for about a nickel apiece. There were also four boxes of sterile gauze pads for $77 each. None of that was considered part of what was provided in return for Seton’s facility charge for the intensive-care unit for two days at $13,225 a day, 12 days in the critical unit at $7,315 a day and one day in a standard room (all of which totaled $120,116 over 15 days). There was also $20,886 for CT scans and $24,251 for lab work.

Does Alice have neighbors? Does she have friends? Where were they, what did they — and by that I mean we in some earnest and patronizing way — do about this?

The burden of citizenship is to share in, and hold people to account for, the injustices experienced by our neighbors. Alice was fucking ripped off to the tune of any semblance of economic and financial security she might ever have had at the very moment that her husband was dying of cancer. This is beyond awful. This is mortal sin in any religion worth the name. This is pure evil.

Our problem is not a matter of shitty policy arrangements. We have plenty of those. Whatever. Policy is a third-order pile of bullshit. Our problem is that it is a sick excuse for a society when this sort of ass-rape is relegated by custom and practice into the sphere of the “private”, the sort of bureaucratic struggle one quietly hires professionals to deal with and hides as much as possible from friends and coworkers. Ass-rape of the more literal sort is also a private affair, in the first order. We insist upon it being public, because a society whose customs tolerated the maintenance of its first-order privacy would be a miserable, detestable place in which the powerful quietly ass-raped the powerless and were never held to account. The difference between literal ass-rape and what happened to Alice and Steven D. is not that ass-rape is criminal while health-care price-gouging, although regrettable, is not. To say that is to confuse cause for effect. Literal ass-rape is criminal because we-the-people as a broad-based mass are disgusted by it and insist upon it being a public and criminal matter rather than a quiet tragedy and struggle. When we hear about a Joe Paterno who overlooks this requirement, we literally hound the motherfucker to death. Perhaps unfairly, in any particular case — pitchforks are simultaneously sharp and blunt instruments! The sheer fear of which is why the powerful create laws. But where laws aren’t there, the pitchforks must always be. A society that expects laws to substitute for, rather than channel, public outrage, is a society not long for this world in any form worthy of the name. Outrage and shame are primary.

As soon as you delve into the policy wonkery in cases like this, you are submitting to a conspiracy by the powerful against the many. The greater the sphere of disagreeable things that are “complicated”, the more it is possible to construct intricate and inscrutable bureaucracies to “arbitrate”. There will be think-tanks and policy papers, funded by people who are well-meaning (in a narrow, idiotically un-self-aware way) but very rich and powerful. The conclusions of which will be earnest and carefully researched but confined to a window not very upsetting to the very rich and powerful. Undoing the ability of plutocrat hospital “CEOs”, or bankers or lobbyists or whatever, to continue the sort of ass-rape to which their lifestyles have grown accustomed will not be on the table. A good society depends on an active public, first and foremost. A society that has allowed the predations of the powerful to become purely private matters mediated via “markets”, courts, academies, and bureaucracies, that has delegated “activism” to a mostly protected professional class, is nothing more than a herd hoping that today it is somebody else who will be slaughtered.

Is that who we are?

Update History:

  • 22-Feb-2012, 8:50 p.m. PST: “economical economic“; “while although regrettable”; “its it being”; “that laws will to substitute”

Persnickety followups on inequality and demand

Teaser: The following graphs are from “Inequality and Household Finance During the Consumer Age“, by Barry Cynamon and Steven Fazzari. “Demand rates” are expressed as fractions of “spendable income”. There’s more on this paper at the end of the post.


I am always outclassed by my correspondents and commenters. The previous post on inequality and demand was no exception. I want to follow up on a few scattered bits of that conversation. I apologize as always for all the great writing, in comment threads and in e-mails, that I fail to respond to.

First, I want to make a methodological point. Several commenters (e.g. beowulf, JKH, Mark Sadowski) point to discrepencies between measures of income and saving used by various empirical studies and those used in national accounting statements (e.g. NIPA). In particular, there is the question of whether unspent capital gains (realized or unrealized) should count as saving. NIPA accounts quite properly do not treat capital gains as income.

But what is proper in one context is not proper in another. NIPA accounts attempt to characterize the production, consumption, and investment of real resources in the consolidated aggregate economy. A capital gain represents a revaluation of an existing resource, not a new resource, and so properly should not be treated as income.

However, when we are studying distribution, what we are after is the relative capacity of different groups to command use of production. We must divide the economy into subgroups of some sort, and analyze interrelated dynamics of those subgroups’ accounts. Capital gains don’t represent changes in aggregate production, but they do shift the relative ability of different groups to appropriate that output when they wish to. When studying the aggregate economy, capital gains should be ignored or netted-out. But when studying distribution — “who owns what” — capital gains, as well as the dissaving or borrowing that funds those gains, are a critical part of the story. Research on how the distribution of household income affects consumption absolutely should include capital gains. There are details we can argue over. Unencumbered, realized capital gains should qualify almost certainly as income. Gains from favorable appraisal of an illiquid asset probably should not. Unrealized gains from liquid or hypothecable assets (stocks, real estate) are shades of gray. There is nothing usual about shades of gray. All spheres of accounting require estimation and judgment calls. Business accountants learn very quickly that simple ideas like “revenue” and “earnings” are impossible to pin down in a universally satisfactory way.

Similar issues arise in interpreting the excellent work of J.W. Mason and Arjun Jayadev on household debt dynamics, to which Mark Sadowski points in the comments. Mason and Jayadev decompose the evolution of the United States’ household sector’s debt-to-income ratio, breaking down changes into combinations of new borrowing and interest obligations (which increase debt-to-income) plus inflation and income growth (which decrease debt-to-income). It’s a wonderful, fascinating paper. If you’ve not done so already, I strongly recommend that you give it a read. It’s accessible; much of the tale is told in graphs. (A summary is available at Rortybomb, but you want to study especially Figure 7 of the original paper.)

One of Mason and Jayadev’s most interesting discoveries is that the period since the 1980s has been an “Era of Adverse Debt Dynamics”, a time during which household debt-to-income increased because of reductions in inflation, low income growth and a high effective interest rate on outstanding debt. [1] For most of the period from 1980 to 2000, the aggregate US household sector was not taking on new debt. Household sector debt-to-income deteriorated despite net paydown of imputed principal, because of adverse debt dynamics.

So, can a theory that claims borrowing by lower-income households supported demand over the same period possibly be right? Yes, it can. At any given time, some groups of people are repaying debt and others are taking it on. If, say, high income boomers are paying off their mortgages faster than low-income renters are borrowing to consume, new borrowing in aggregate will be negative even while new borrowing by poorer groups supports demand. (Remember how back at the turn of the millennium we were marveling over the “democratization of credit“?)

As always, when studying distributional questions, aggregate data is of limited use. That’s not to say that there is no information in aggregate data. It’s definitely more comfortable to tell the borrowed demand story about the 2000s, when, Mason and Jayadev show us, aggregated households were dramatically expanding their borrowing. But what we really want is research that disentagles the behavior of wealthy and nonwealthy households.

A working paper by Barry Cynamon and Steven Fazzari does just that. It tells a story quite similar to my take in the previous post, but backs that up with disaggregated data. The three graphs at the top of this post summarize the evidence, but of course you should read the whole thing. There is stuff to quibble over. But the paper is an excellent start.

I’ll end all this with an excerpt from the Cynamon and Fazzari paper that I think is very right. It addresses the question of why individuals would undermine their own solvency in ways that sustain aggregate spending:

It is difficult for standard models, most notably the life cycle model, to account for the long decline in the saving rate starting in the early 1980s. A multitude of economists propose explanations including wealth effects, permanent income hypothesis (high expected income) effect, and demographics, but along with many researchers we find those explanations unsatisfying. We argue that the decline in the saving rate can best be understood by recognizing the important role of uncertainty in household decision making and the powerful influence of the reference groups that to which those household decision makers turn for guidance. We propose that households develop an identity over time that helps them make consumption decisions by informing them about the consumption bundle that is normal.9 We define the consumption norm as the standard of consumption an individual considers normal based on his or her identity (Cynamon and Fazzari, 2008, 2012a). The household decision makers weigh two questions most heavily in making consumption and financial decisions. First, they ask “Is this something a person like me would own (durable good), consume (nondurable good), or hold (asset)?” Second, they ask “If I attempt to purchase this good or asset right now, do I have the means necessary to complete the transaction?” Increasing access to credit impacts consumption decisions by increasing the rate of positive responses to the second question directly, and also by increasing the rate of positive responses to the first question indirectly as greater access to credit among households in one’s reference group raises the consumption norm of the group. Rising income inequality also tends to exert upward pressure on consumption norms as each person is more likely to see aspects of costlier lifestyles displayed by others with more money.

People will put up with almost anything to live the sort of life their coworkers and friends, parents and children, consider “normal”. Over the last 40 years, for very many Americans, normal has grown increasingly unaffordable. And that created fantastic opportunities in finance.


[1] Mark Sadowski suggests that the stubbornly high effective interest rates reported by Mason and Jayadev are inconsistent with a claim that the secular decline in interest rates was used to goose demand. But that’s not quite right — it amounts to a confusion of average and marginal rates. At any given moment, most household sector debt was contracted some time ago. The effective interest rate faced by the household sector is an average of rates on all debt outstanding, and so lags headline “spot” interest rates. But incentives to borrow are shaped by interest rates currently available rather than rates on debt already contracted. Falling interest rates can increase individual households’ willingness to borrow much more quickly than they alter the aggregated sector’s effective rate.

In my first encounter with the Mason and Jayadev paper, I thought I saw in the stubbornly high effective rates evidence of a rotation from more-creditworthy to less creditworthy borrowers. (See comments here.) I’ve looked into that a bit more, and the evidence is not compelling: the stubbornly slow decline in household sector interest rates pretty closely mirrors the slow decline in the effective interest rate of the credit-risk-free Federal government. There’s a hint of spread expansion in the late 1990s, but nothing to persuade a skeptic.

Inequality and demand

I’d rather interfluidity take a break from haranguing Paul Krugman. But I think that the relationship between distribution and demand is a very big deal. I’ve just gotta weigh in.

Here’s Krugman:

Joe [Stiglitz] offers a version of the the “underconsumption” hypothesis, basically that the rich spend too little of their income. This hypothesis has a long history — but it also has well-known theoretical and empirical problems.

It’s true that at any given point in time the rich have much higher savings rates than the poor. Since Milton Friedman, however, we’ve know that this fact is to an important degree a sort of statistical illusion. Consumer spending tends to reflect expected income over an extended period. If you take a sample of people with high incomes, you will disproportionally include people who are having an especially good year, and will therefore be saving a lot; correspondingly, a sample of people with low incomes will include many having a particularly bad year, and hence living off savings. So the cross-sectional evidence on saving doesn’t tell you that a sustained higher concentration of incomes at the top will lead to higher savings; it really tells you nothing at all about what will happen.

So you turn to the data. We all know that personal saving dropped as inequality rose; but maybe the rich were in effect having corporations save on their behalf. So look at overall private saving as a share of GDP:

The trend before the crisis was down, not up — and that surge with the crisis clearly wasn’t driven by a surge in inequality.

So am I saying that you can have full employment based on purchases of yachts, luxury cars, and the services of personal trainers and celebrity chefs? Well, yes.

Let’s start with the obvious. The claim that income inequality unconditionally leads to underconsumption is untrue. In the US we’ve seen inequality accelerate since the 1980s, and until 2007 we had robust demand, decent growth, and as Krugman points out, no evidence of oversaving in aggregate. Au contraire, even.

And Krugman is correct to point out that simple cross-sectional studies of saving behavior are insufficient to resolve the question.

But that’s why we have social scientists! Unsurprisingly, more sophisticated reviews have been done. See, for example, “Why do the rich save so much?” by Christopher Carroll (ht rsj, Eric Schoenberg) and “Do the Rich Save More?”, by Karen Dynan, Jonathan Skinner, and Stephen Zeldes. These studies agree that the rich do in fact save more, and that they do so in ways that cannot be explained by any version of the permanent income hypothesis. Further, these studies probably understate the differences in savings behavior, because the “rich” they study tend to be members of the top quintile, rather than the top 1% that now accounts for a steeply increasing share of national income.

So how do we reconcile the high savings rates of the rich with the US experience of both rising inequality and strong demand over the “Great Moderation”? If, ceteris paribus, increasing inequality imposes a drag on demand, but demand remained strong, ceteris must not have been paribus.

I would pair Krugman’s chart with the following graph, which shows household borrowing as a fraction of GDP:


includes both consumer and mortgage debt, see “credit market instruments” in Table L.100 of the Fed’s Flow of Funds release

Household borrowing represents, in a very direct sense, a redistribution of purchasing power from savers to borrowers. [1] So if we worry that oversaving by the rich may lead to an insufficiency of purchases, household borrowing is a natural place to look for a remedy. Sure enough, we find that beginning in the early 1980s, household borrowing began a secular rise that continued until the financial crisis.

And this arrangement worked! Over the whole “Great Moderation“, inequality expanded while the economy grew and demand remained strong.

Rather than arguing over the (clearly false) claim that income inequality is always inconsistent with adequate demand, let’s consider the conditions under which inequality is compatible with adequate demand. Are those conditions sustainable? Are they desirable?

Suppose that the mechanism that reconciles inequality and adequate demand is household borrowing. Is that sustainable? After all, poorer households would have to borrow new purchasing power in every period in order to support demand for as long as inequality remains high. That’s jarring.

But quantities matter. Continual borrowing might be sustainable, depending on the amount of new borrowing required, the interest rate on the debt, and the growth rate of borrowers’ incomes. If the interest rate is lower than the growth rate of income to poorer households, then there is room for new borrowing every period while holding debt-to-income ratios constant. Even without much income growth, sufficiently low (and especially negative) interest rates can enable continual new borrowing at constant leverage.

If the drag on demand imposed by inequality is sufficiently modest, it can be papered over indefinitely by borrowing without much difficulty. But as the drag grows large and the quantity of new borrowing required increases, sustaining demand will become difficult for institutional reasons. Economically, there’s nothing wrong with letting real interest rates fall to very sharply negative values, if that’s what would be required to create demand. But that would require central banks to tolerate very high rates of inflation, or schemes to invalidate physical cash. It would piss off savers.

I think the behavior of real interest rates is the empirical fingerprint of the effect of inequality on demand:

Obviously, one can invent any number of explanations for the slow and steady decline in real rates that began with but has outlived the “Great Moderation”. My explanation is that growing inequality required ever greater inducement of ever less solvent households to borrow in order to sustain adequate demand, and central banks delivered. Other stories I’ve encountered don’t strike me as very plausible. Markets would have to be pretty inefficient, or bad news would have had to come in very small drips, if technology or demography is at the root of the decline.

It’s worth noting that these graphs almost certainly understate the decline in interest rates, at least through 2008. Concomitant with the reduction in headline yields, “financial engineering” brought credit spreads down, eventually beneath levels sufficient to cover the cost of defaults. This also helped support demand. John Hempton famously wrote that “banks intermediate the current account deficit.” We very explicitly ask banks to intermediate the deficit in demand, exhorting them to lend lend lend for macroeconomic reasons that are indifferent to microeconomic evaluations of solvency. We can have a banking system that performs the information work of credit analysis and lends appropriately, or we can have a banking system that overcomes deficiencies in demand. We cannot have both when great volumes of lending are continually required for structural reasons.

Paul Krugman argues that “you can have full employment based on purchases of yachts, luxury cars, and the services of personal trainers and celebrity chefs”. What about that? In theory it could happen, but there’s no evidence that it does happen in the real world. As we’ve seen, high income earners do save more than low income earners, and that is not merely an artifact of consumption smoothing.

If the rich did consume in quantities proportionate with their share of income, we would expect the yacht and celebrity chef sectors to become increasingly important components of the national economy. They have not. I’ve squinted pretty hard at the shares of value-added in BEA’s GDP-by-industry accounts, and can’t find any hint of it. I suppose personal trainers and celebrity chefs would fall under “Arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services”, a top-level category whose share of GDP did increased by 0.5% between 1990 and 2007. Attributing all of that expansion to the indulgences of the rich, more than 90% of the proportional-consumption expected increase in the top one percent’s consumption remains unaccounted. The share of the “water transportation” sector has not increased. If the rich do consume in proportion to their income, they pretty much consume the same stuff as the rest of us. Which would bring a whole new meaning to the phrase “fat cats”. Categories of output that have notably increased in share of value-added include “professional and business services” and “finance, insurance, real estate, rental, and leasing”. Hmm.

Casual empiricists often point to places like New York City as evidence that rich-people-spending can drive economic demand. Rich Wall-Streeters certainly bluster and whine enough about how their spending supports the local economy. New York is unusually unequal, and it hasn’t especially suffered from an absence of demand. QED, right? Unfortunately, this argument misses something else that’s pretty obvious about New York. It runs a current-account surplus. It is a huge exporter of services to the country and the world. Does New York’s robust aggregate demand come from the personal-training and fancy-restaurant needs of its wealthy upper crust, or from the fact that the rest of the world pays New Yorkers for a lot of the financial services and media they consume? China is very unequal, and rich Chinese have a well-known taste for luxury. But no one imagines that local plutocrats could replace all the world’s Wal-Mart customers and support full employment in the Middle Kingdom. Why is that story any more plausible for New York?

While it’s certainly true that rich people could drive demand by spending money on increasingly marginal goods, the fact of the matter is that they don’t. To explain observed behavior, you need a model where, in Christopher Carroll’s words, “wealth enters consumers’ utility functions directly” such that its “marginal utility decreases more slowly than that of consumption (and hence will be a luxury good relative to consumption)”. It’s not so hard to believe that people like to have money, even much more money than they ever plan to spend on their own consumption or care to pass onto their children. You can explain a preference for wealth in terms of status competition, or in terms of the power over others that wealth confers. I’ve argued that we desire wealth for its insurance value, which is inexhaustible in a world subject to systemic shocks. These motives are not mutually exclusive, and all of them are plausible. Why pick your poison when you can swallow the whole medicine cabinet?

If the world Krugman describes doesn’t exist, we could try to manufacture it. We could tax savings until the marginal utility of extra consumption comes to exceed the after-tax marginal utility of an extra dollar saved. This would shift the behavior of the very wealthy towards demand-supporting expenditures without our having to rely upon a borrowing channel. But politically, enacting such a tax might be as or more difficult than permitting sharply negative interest rates. (A tax on saving rather than income or consumption would be much the same as a negative interest rate.) Moreover, the scheme wouldn’t work if the value wealthy people derive from saving comes from supporting their place in a ranking against other savers (as it would under status-based theories, or in my wealth-as-insurance-against-systemic-risk story). As long as one’s competitors are taxed the same, rescaling the units doesn’t change the game.

So. Inequality is not unconditionally inconsistent with robust demand. But under current institutional arrangements, sustaining demand in the face of inequality requires ongoing borrowing by poorer households. As inequality increases and solvency declines, interest rates must fall or lending standards must be relaxed to engender the requisite borrowing. Eventually this leads to interest rates that are outright negative or else loan defaults and financial turbulence. If we insist on high lending standards and put a floor beneath real interest rates at minus 2%, then growing inequality will indeed result in demand shortfall and stagnation.

Of course, we needn’t hold institutional arrangements constant. If we had any sense at all, we’d relieve our harried bankers (the poor dears!) of contradictory imperatives to both support overall demand and extend credit wisely. We’d regulate aggregate demand by modulating the scale of a outright transfers, and let bankers make their contribution on the supply side, by discriminating between good investment projects and bad when making credit allocation decisions.


[1] Readers might object, reasonably, that since the banking system can create purchasing power ex nihilo, it’s misleading to include the clause “from savers”. But if we posit a regulatory apparatus that prevents the economy from “overheating”, that sets a cap on effective demand in obeisance of some inflation or nominal income target, then the purchasing power made available to borrowers is indirectly transferred from savers. The banking system would not have created new purchasing power for borrowers had savers not saved.

Update History:

  • 24-Jan-2012, 1:00 a.m. PST: Fixed a tense: “would have had to come”
  • 24-Jan-2012, 11:20 p.m. PST: God I need an editor. Not substantive changes (or at least none intended), but I’m trying to clean up a bit of the word salad: “in the world we actually live in in the real world“; “spending drives supports the local economy”; “It is a huge exporter of services to the rest of the country and the world.”;”pays New Yorkers of a wide variety of income levels for much a lot of the financial services, entertainment, and literature and media they consume?”; “Wal-Mart customers to sustain and support full employment”; “which is inexhaustible in a world subject to systemic shocks that people must compete to evade.” Also: Added link to NYO piece around “piss off savers”.

A confederacy of dorks

It is, to be sure, only a baby step towards world peace.

But it is a step! Market monetarists will lie with post-Keynesians, the parted waters will turn brackish, as we affirm, in unison: Paul Krugman and I are both inarticulate dorks. Further, it is agreed, that David Beckworth, Peter Dorman, Tim Duy, Scott Fullwiler, Izabella Kaminska, Josh Hendrickson, Merijn Knibbe, Ashwin Parameswaran, Cullen Roche, Nick Rowe, Scott Sumner, and Stephen Williamson are all dorks, albeit of a more articulate variety. I say the most articulate dorks of all are interfluidity‘s commenters.

To mark the great convergence, there will be feastings and huzzahs from all. Or at least from everyone but Paul Krugman and myself, since during feastings, it is the most inarticulate of the dorks who tend to find themselves on a spit. Wouldn’t you all prefer to eat plastic apples?

For those not tired of spectacle, let us continue our pathetic grope towards clarity. Paul Krugman asks two questions:

My questions involve whether interest on excess reserves changes any of the fundamentals of monetary policy and its relationship to the budget. That is, does IOER change the fact that the Federal Reserve has great power over aggregate demand except when market interest rates are near zero, and the related fact that when we’re not in a liquidity trap there is an important distinction between debt-financed and money-financed deficits?

My answer to both questions is no.

My answers are “no” and “depends how you define ‘liquidity trap'”. But brevity is the soul of wit, and I’ve a reputation for witlessness to maintain. So let me elaborate.

First, let’s make a distinction that sometimes gets lost. Paying interest on reserves (excess or otherwise) and operating under a “floor system” are not the same thing. A floor system does require that interest be paid on reserves, but that is not sufficient. A floor system also requires an abundance of reserves (relative to private sector demand), such that the central bank would be unable achieve its target interest rate without paying interest at or above the target. David Beckworth is right to emphasize the question of whether interest is paid on reserves at a lower or higher rate than the central bank’s target. (Beckworth phrases things in terms of the short-term T-bill rate, but the T-bill rate is capped by the expected path of the target rate, as long as the central bank’s control of interest rates remains credible and reserves are abundant.)

When a central bank effectively targets an interbank rate, but the rate of interest paid on reserves is less than the target rate, the following statements are all true: 1) base money must be “scarce” relative to private sector demand for transactional or regulatory purposes, so people accept an opportunity cost to hold it; 2) there is a direct link between the quantity of base money outstanding and short-term interest rates, they cannot be managed independently; and 3) the opportunity cost borne by the public is is mirrored by a seigniorage gain to the fisc — money is different from debt in the sense that it is cheaper for the sovereign to issue.

When the IOR rate is equal to or above the target rate, all of that breaks: base money may be abundant relative to private demand, the link between the quantity of base money and interest rates disappears, “printing money” is at least as costly to the fisc as issuing short-term debt.

When the IOR rate is below the target rate, we are in a “channel” or “corridor” system (of which traditional monetary policy is a special case, with IOR pinned at zero). When the IOR rate is at or above the target rate, we are in a “floor” system, under which the distinction between “printing money” and “issuing debt” largely vanishes.

Krugman and I can enjoy an ecstatic “kumbaya” on both of his questions (no visuals please!), if he is willing to define as a liquidity trap any circumstance in which the central bank pays interest on reserves at a level greater than or equal to its target interest rate.

I agree full stop that “the Federal Reserve has great power over aggregate demand except when market interest rates are near zero”, even in a floor system. But, as Nick Rowe correctly points out, the source of this power is the Fed’s ability to affect demand for, rather than the supply of, money. And not just for money! When the Fed sets interest rates, it alters demand for money and government debt as a unified aggregate. What keeps the Fed special under a floor system is an institutional difference. The Fed issues the debt it calls “reserves” at rates fixed by fiat, while Treasury rates float at auction. The Fed leads, then Treasury rates follow by arbitrage. The Fed is powerful by virtue of how it prices its debt, not because it is uniquely the supplier of base money.

None of this means (qua Nick Rowe) that “monetarism” is refuted. “Market monetarists”, for example, argue that level/path targets are better than rate targets; that targeting nominal income would be better than targeting the price level; and that “monetary policy” operates via a variety of channels, including expectations about future macro policy. I think they are correct on all counts. They may need to rethink stories that place the quantity of base money (as distinct from debt) at the indispensible heart of macro policy, but revising those stories would make the rest of their perspective stronger, not weaker. (I owe Scott Sumner more detailed comments, but those will have to wait.)

Nor does monetary management at the floor invalidate “mainstream Keynsianism”. The consolidated government/central-bank manages the quantity, maturity, and yield of the paper it emits, as well as patterns of spending and the taxation. Even under a floor system, it is coherent to argue, for example, that macro policy should be confined to rejiggering yield, except at the zero bound when it might be necessary to expand the quantity of liabilities. We give yield management the name “monetary policy” and quantity management the name “fiscal policy”.

Some post-Keynesians take the inverse view, that macro policy should prefer managing quantity to paying yield. They suggest operating under a floor system with IOR set at zero. That is equally coherent.

I really meant it when, in the initial post of this series, I said that there’s no grand ideological point here.

But it matters very much that we get the mechanics right. We’ll make consequential mistakes if we fail to revise intuitions that were formed when T-bills paid 10% and the monetary base paid zilch. Quantitative easing might still be inflationary via an expectations channel, by virtue of the intent it communicates. But the policy’s mechanical effect on the velocity of (base_money + govt_debt) is almost certainly contractionary when the Fed replaces short-term debt with higher-yielding reserves. (I don’t think we know what QE does when longer-term debt is purchased, other than complicate the work of pensions managers.) Izabella Kaminska’s deep point that “monetary policy” helped remedy a shortage of safe assets during the crisis makes no sense unless you get that money is now yieldy government debt rather than a hot potato to be shed. That condition is not inherently related to the number “zero”.

Perhaps I have sufficiently demonstrated that I am the least articulate dork of all, so let’s leave it there. Most of the posts cited in the first paragraph are far better than anything I’d ever write, so do read those. If you are a dork, that is.



Update: See also this conversation between Ashwin Parameswaran and Frances Coppola, which took place just before my series of posts began! Parameswaran tweeted on January 7:

In a world of interest-bearing money, money = govt bonds & The “liquidity trap” is a permanent condition, not a temporary affliction.

Thanks to Mike Sankowski, who mentioned this in a comment that I failed to follow up on.

Update II: More dorkishness! John Carney, Stephen Ewald, Scott Fullwiler, Robert P. Murphy, Negative Outlook, Nick Rowe, Michael Sankowski, Joshua Wojnilower

Update History:

  • 16-Jan-2012, 3:10 a.m. PST: Added bold update pointing to related, prior Parameswaran / Coppola conversation.
  • 16-Jan-2012, 3:45 a.m. PST: Added “the” before “velocity”.
  • 16-Jan-2012, 10:50 a.m. PST: Added second bold update, with more related links. Will keep adding names there without tracking that in the update history. Also added a link to Bryan Caplan’s great piece on velocity, where I use the term “velocity”.

Yet more on the floor with Paul Krugman

So, if you have been following this debate, you are a dork. To recap the dorkiness: I suggested that, from now on, the distinction between base money and short-term government debt will cease to matter in the US, because I think the Fed will operate under a “floor” system, under which the Fed no longer sets interest rates by altering the quantity of base money, but instead floods the world with base money while paying interest on reserves at the target rate. Paul Krugman objected, but I think he was misunderstanding me, so I tried to clarify. He’s responded again. Now I think that the points of miscommunication are very clear and remediable.

Krugman:

What Waldman is now saying is that in the future the Fed will manage monetary policy by varying the interest rate it pays on reserves rather than the size of the conventionally measured monetary base. That’s possible, although I don’t quite see why. But in his original post he argued that under such a regime “Cash and (short-term) government debt will continue to be near-perfect substitutes”.

Well, no — not if by “cash” you mean, or at least include, currency — which is the great bulk of the monetary base in normal times.

So, here’s one confusion. I agree with Krugman that zero-interest currency is inherently very different from interest-bearing paper, including both T-bills or interest-paying bank reserves. However, under a regime where cash can be redeemed at will for interest-bearing paper, that inherent difference disappears, and they trade as near-perfect substitutes.

Let’s try a more edible example. Plastic apples are inherently very different from organic apples. Only one of the two is yummy. But suppose there was an omnipotent orchard that, upon invocation of the phrase “apple-cadapplea”, converted plastic apples to fleshy ones and fleshy apples to plastic apples. Then choke-hazard-y, untasty, but easy-to-carry(!) plastic apples would suddenly trade as perfect substitutes for real apples. The two would still be inherently different. During periods when people travel a lot, they’ll drive up the quantity of plastic fruit as a fraction of the total, um, “apple base”. At everybody’s favorite snack time, the apple base will be nearly all flesh. But as an economic matter, at all times, they will trade as perfect substitutes. Because with a mere invocation of “apple-cadapplea” they are perfect substitutes, despite the fact that one is inherently tasty and the other a choke hazard.

Emitting plastic apples would then be equivalent to emitting real ones, and vice versa. Similarly, when cash is instantaneously interconvertible to interest-bearing debt at par, emitting cash is equivalent to emitting debt.

More Krugman, considering a “platinum coin” example:

what happens if and when the economy recovers, and market interest rates rise off the floor?

There are several possibilities:

  1. The Treasury redeems the coin, which it does by borrowing a trillion dollars.
  2. The coin stays at the Fed, but the Fed sterilizes any impact on the economy, either by (a) selling off assets or (b) raising the interest rate it pays on bank reserves
  3. The Fed simply expands the monetary base to match the value of the coin, an expansion that mainly ends up in the form of currency, without taking offsetting measures to sterilize the effect.

What Waldman is saying is that he believes that the actual outcome would be 2(b). And I think he’s implying that there’s really no difference between 2(b) and 3.

So, Waldman definitely is saying that he believes the actual outcome would be 2(b), and he agrees with Krugman’s analysis of what that implies. That expanding the base affects the Federal budget is part of how money and government debt are equivalent under a floor system.

But Waldman definitely does not at all believe that 2(b) and (3) are equivalent when the interest rate is positive. He’s not sure where he implied that, but he must have done, and is grateful for the opportunity to disimply it. An expansion of the currency unopposed either by offsetting asset sales or paying interest on reserves would have the simple effect of preventing the Fed from maintaining its target rate. That would mean the Fed could not use interest rate policy to manage inflation or NGDP.

But that is precisely why Krugman is a bit unhelpful when he concludes, “Short-term debt and currency are still not at all the same thing, and this is what matters.” It does not matter, once the Fed’s reaction function is taken into account. The Fed will do what it needs to do to retain control of its core macroeconomic lever. Its ability to pay interest on reserves means it has the power to offset a hypothetical issue of currency by the Treasury, regardless of its size. Krugman is right to argue that, above the zero bound, an “unsterilized” currency issue would be different from debt, that it would put downward pressure on interest rates and upward pressure on inflation. But that is precisely why it is inconceivable that the Fed would ever allow such a currency issue to go unsterilized! In a world where it is certain that the Fed will either pay IOR or sell assets in response, we can consider issuance of currency by the Treasury fully equivalent to issuing debt.

Update: I should clarify, in Krugman’s 3(b) 2(b) above, a central bank operating under a floor system needn’t actually raise the interest rate it pays on reserves to “sterilize” the new currency issue. It need only continue to pay its target rate on reserves, including the reserves generated from deposit of the new currency at the Fed. The total quantity of interest the Fed pays must rise (unless, unlikely, the private sector wants to hold all the new currency). But that is because of an expansion of the principle on which interest will be paid, rather than an increase in the rate itself.

Update History:

  • 16-Jan-2012, 5:00 a.m. PST: Added bold update clarifying that interest-paid must increase, but not the interest rate, to sterilize a new currency issue. Changed an “it’s” to “its” and “Krugman’s” to “Krugman” because, grammar.
  • 16-Jan-2012, 8:55 a.m. PST: Modified bold update to properly refer to “2(b)” rather than 3(b). Many thanks to commenter wh10!

Do we ever rise from the floor?

Paul Krugman has responded to my argument that the distinction between money and short-term debt has been permanently blurred. As far as I can tell, our disagreement is not about economics per se but about how we expect the Fed to behave going forward. Krugman suggests my view is based on a “slip of the tongue”, a confusion about what constitutes the monetary base. It is not, but if it seemed that way, I need to write more clearly. So I’ll try.

Let’s agree on a few basic points. By definition, the “monetary base” is the sum of physical currency in circulation and reserves at the Fed. The Fed has the power to set the size of the monetary base, but cannot directly control the split between currency and reserves, which is determined by those who hold base money. The Fed stands ready to interconvert currency and reserves on demand. Historically, as Krugman points out, the monetary base has been held predominantly in the form of physical currency.

However, since 2008, several things have changed:

  1. The Fed has dramatically expanded the size of the monetary base;
  2. The percentage of the monetary base held as reserves (rather than currency) has gone from a very small fraction to a majority;
  3. The Fed has started to pay interest on the share of the monetary base held as reserves.

Krugman’s view, I think, is that we are in a period of “depression economics” that will someday end, and then we will return to the status quo ante. The economy will perform well enough that the central bank will want to “tap the brakes” and raise interest rates. The Fed will then shrink the monetary base to more historically ordinary levels and cease paying interest on reserves.

I’m less sure about the “someday end” thing. The collapse of the “full employment” interest rate below zero strikes me as a secular rather than cyclical development, although good policy or some great reset could change that. Regardless, if and when the Fed does want to raise interest rates, I think that it will not do so by returning to its old ways. A permanent institutional change has occurred, which renders past experience of the scale and composition of the monetary base unreliable.

To understand the change that has occurred, I recommend “Divorcing money from monetary policy by Keister, Martin, and McAndrews. It’s a quick read, and quite excellent. Broadly speaking, it describes three “systems” that central banks can use to manage interest rates. Under the traditional system and the “channel” system, an interest-rate targeting central bank is highly constrained in its choice of monetary base. There is a unique quantity of money that, given private sector demand for currency and reserves, is consistent with its target interest rate. However, there is an alternative approach, the so-called “floor” system, which allows a central bank to manage the size of the monetary base independently of its interest rate policy.

Under the floor system, a central bank sets the monetary base to be much larger than would be consistent with its target interest rate given private-sector demand, but prevents the interbank interest rate from being bid down below its target by paying interest to reserve holders at the target rate. The target rate becomes the “floor”: it never pays to lend base money to third parties at a lower rate, since you’d make more by just holding reserves (converting currency into reserves as necessary). The US Federal Reserve is currently operating under something very close to a floor system. The scale of the monetary base is sufficiently large that the Federal Funds rate would be stuck near zero if the Fed were not paying interest on reserves. In fact, the effective Federal Funds rate is usually between 10 and 20 basis points. With a “perfect” floor, the rate would never fall below 25 bps. But because of institutional quirks (the Fed discriminates, it fails to pay interest to nonbank holders of reserves), the rate falls just a bit below the “floor”.

If “the crisis ends” (whatever that means) and the Fed reverts to its traditional approach to targeting interest rates, Krugman will be right and I will be wrong, the monetary base will revert to something very different than short-term debt. However, I’m willing to bet that the floor system will be with us indefinitely. If so, base money and short-term government debt will continue to be near-perfect substitutes, even after interest rates rise.

Again, there’s no substantive dispute over the economics here. Krugman writes:

It’s true that the Fed could sterilize the impact of a rise in the monetary base by raising the interest rate it pays on reserves, thereby keeping that base from turning into currency. But that’s just another form of borrowing; it doesn’t change the result that under non-liquidity trap conditions, printing money and issuing debt are not, in fact, the same thing.

If the Fed adopts the floor system permanently, then the Fed will always “sterilize” the impact of a perpetual excess of base money by paying its target interest rate on reserves. As Krugman says, this prevents reserves from being equivalent to currency and amounts to a form of government borrowing. So, we agree: under the floor system, there is little difference between base money and short-term debt, at any targeted interest rate! Printing money and issuing debt are distinct only when there is an opportunity cost to holding base money rather than debt. If Krugman wants to define the existence of such a cost as “non-liquidity trap conditions”, fine. But, if that’s the definition, I expect we’ll be in liquidity trap conditions for a very long time! By Krugman’s definition, a floor system is an eternal liquidity trap.

Am I absolutely certain that the Fed will choose a floor system indefinitely? No. That is a conjecture about future Fed behavior. But, as I’ve said, I’d be willing to bet on it.

After all, the Fed need do nothing at all to adopt a floor system. It has already stumbled into it, so inertia alone makes its continuation likely. It would take active work to “unwind” the Fed’s large balance sheet and return to a traditional quantity-based approach to interest rate targeting.

Further, a floor system is very attractive to central bankers. It maximizes policy flexibility (and policymakers’ power) because it allows the central bank to conduct whatever quantitative or “qualitative” easing operations it deems useful without abandoning its interest rate target. Suppose, sometime in the future, there is a disruptive run on the commercial paper market, as happened in 2008. The Fed might wish to support that market, as it did during the financial crisis, even while targeting an interbank interest rate above zero. Under the floor system, the Fed retains the flexibility to do that, without having to offset its support with asset sales and regardless of the size of its balance sheet. Under the traditional or channel system, the Fed would have to stabilize the overall size of the monetary base even while purchasing lots of new assets. This might be operationally difficult, and may be impossible if the scale of support required is large.

The Fed could go back to the traditional approach and keep a switch to the floor system in its back pocket should a need arise. But why plan for a confidence-scarring regime shift when inertia already puts you where you want to be? Why go to the trouble of unwinding the existing surfeit of base money, which might be disruptive, when doing so solves no pressing problem?

From a central bankers’ perspective, there is little downside to a floor system. Grumps (like me!) might object to the very flexibility that renders the floor system attractive. But I don’t think the anti-bail-out left or hard-money right will succeed in rolling back operational flexibility that the Federal Reserve has already won and routinized. Every powerful interest associated with status quo finance prefers the Fed operate under the floor system. Paying interest on reserves at the Federal Funds rate eliminates the “tax” on banks and bank depositors associated with uncompensated reserves, and increases the Fed’s ability continue to do “special favors” for financial institutions (in the name of widows and orphans and “stability” of course).

Perhaps my read of the politics (and faith in inertia) will prove wrong. But the economics are simple, not at all based on a slip of the tongue and quite difficult to dispute. If the Fed sticks to the floor, base money and government debt will continue to be near perfect substitutes and theories of monetary policy that focus on demand for base money as distinct from short-term debt will be difficult to sustain. The Fed will still have an institutional “edge” over the Treasury in setting interest rates, because the Fed sets the interest rate on reserves by fiat, while short-term Treasury debt is priced at auction. When reserves are abundant, T-bill rates are effectively capped by the rate paid on reserves. Which means that, in our brave new future (which is now), reserves will likely remain a more attractive asset (for banks) than short-term Treasuries, so issuing base money (whether reserves or currency convertible on-demand to reserves by banks) will be less inflationary than issuing lower interest, less-transactionally-convenient debt.

There’s no such thing as base money anymore

Tim Duy has a great review of why platinum coin seigniorage was a bridge too far for Treasury and the Fed. I think he’s pretty much spot on.

However, with Greg Ip (whose objection Duy cites), I’d take issue with the following:

Ultimately, I don’t believe deficit spending should be directly monetized as I believe that Paul Krugman is correct — at some point in the future, the US economy will hopefully exit the zero bound, and at that point cash and government debt will not longer be perfect substitutes.

Note that there are two distinct claims here, both of which are questionable. Consistent with the “Great Moderation” trend, the so-called “natural rate” of interest may be negative for the indefinite future, unless we do something to alter the underlying causes of that condition. We may be at the zero bound, perhaps with interludes of positiveness during “booms”, for a long time to come.

But maybe not. Maybe we’ll see the light and enact a basic income scheme or negative income tax brackets. Maybe we’ll restore the dark, and engineer new ways of providing fraudulently loose credit. Either sort of change could bring “full employment” interest rates back above zero. Let’s suppose that will happen someday.

What I am fairly sure won’t happen, even if interest rates are positive, is that “cash and government debt will no[] longer be perfect substitutes.” Cash and (short-term) government debt will continue to be near-perfect substitutes because, I expect, the Fed will continue to pay interest on reserves very close to the Federal Funds rate. (I’d be willing to make a Bryan-Caplan-style bet on that.) This represents a huge change from past practice — prior to 2008, the rate of interest paid on reserves was precisely zero, and the spread between the Federal Funds rate and zero was usually several hundred basis points. I believe that the Fed has moved permanently to a “floor” system (ht Aaron Krowne), under which there will always be substantial excess reserves in the banking system, on which interest will always be paid (while the Federal Funds target rate is positive).

If Ip and I are right, Paul Krugman is wrong to say

It’s true that printing money isn’t at all inflationary under current conditions — that is, with the economy depressed and interest rates up against the zero lower bound. But eventually these conditions will end.

Printing money will always be exactly as inflationary as issuing short-term debt, because short-term government debt and reserves at the Fed will always be near-perfect substitutes. In the relevant sense, we will always be at the zero lower bound. Yes, there will remain an opportunity cost to holding literally printed money — bank notes, platinum coins, whatever — but holders of currency have the right to convert into Fed reserves at will (albeit with the unnecessary intermediation of the quasiprivate banking system), and will only bear that cost when the transactional convenience of dirty paper offsets it. In this brave new world, there is no Fed-created “hot potato”, no commodity the quantity of which is determined by the Fed that private holders seek to shed in order to escape an opportunity cost. It is incoherent to speak, as the market monetarists often do, of “demand for base money” as distinct from “demand for short-term government debt”. What used to be “monetary policy” is necessarily a joint venture of the central bank and the treasury. Both agencies, now and for the indefinite future, emit interchangeable obligations that are in every relevant sense money. [1]

I’ve no grand ideological point to make here. But I think a lot of debate and commentary on monetary issues hasn’t caught up with the fact that we have permanently entered a brave new world in which there is no opportunity cost to holding money rather than safe short-term debt, whether we are at the zero bound or not.


[1] Yes, there are small frictions associated with converting T-bills to reserves or cash for use as a medium of exchange. I think they are too small to matter. But suppose I’m wrong. Then nonusability as means of payment would mean a greater opportunity cost for T-bill holders than for reserve holders. That is, printing money outright would be less inflationary than issuing short-term debt! And for now, when Fed reserves pay higher interest rates than short-term Treasury bills, people concerned about inflation should doubly prefer “money printing” to short-term debt issuance! Quantiative easing is currently disinflationary in terms of any mechanical effect via the velocity of near-money, when the Fed purchases short-term debt (although it may be inflationary via some expectations channel, because of the intent that’s communicated). The mechanical effect of QE is less clear when the Fed purchases longer maturity debt, it would depend on how market participants trade-off the yield premium and interest rate risk, as well as on what long-term debt clienteles — pension funds etc. — choose to substitute for the scarcer assets. But it is not at all obvious that “printing money” to purchase even long maturity assets is inflationary when the Fed pays a competitive interest rate on reserves.


Thanks to Kid Dynamite for helping me think through some of these issues in correspondence (though he doesn’t necessarily agree with me on any of it!)