...Archive for October 2009

Asset inflation, price inflation, and the great moderation

Commenter “reason” asks a question:

…it is not clear to me that it is well understood why inflation sometimes can be seen in consumer goods and sometimes is manifested in “asset price inflation”. Do you have any ideas on this mechanism? I know some people deny there is such a thing as “asset price inflation”. Do you have a theoretical basis for your ideas in this area?

I have a very simple answer to this question: Follow the money. Whether an economy generates asset price inflation or consumer price inflation depends on the details of to whom cash flows. In particular, cash flows to the relatively wealthy lead to asset price inflation, while cash-flows to the relatively poor lead to consumer price inflation.

Why? In Keynesian terms, poorer people have a higher marginal propensity to consume. The relatively poor include people who are cash-flow constrained — that is they cannot purchase what they wish to purchase for lack of green, so their marginal dollar gets immediately applied to the shopping list. Also, poorer people may be different, there may be a correlation between poverty and disorganization, lack of impulse control, inability to defer gratification etc. Think of Greg Mankiw’s Spenders/Savers model.

Except when the world seems very risky, no one holds cash for very long. Poorer people disproportionately use their cash to purchase goods, while richer people disproportionately “save” by purchasing financial assets. If the supply of both goods and financial assets is not perfectly elastic, then increases in demand will be associated with increases in price. If relative demand for goods and financial assets is a function of the distribution of cash, what price changes occur will be a function of who gets what. [1]

This tale of two inflations helps to explain how we arrived at the unequal, credit-centric economy we have today. Central bankers are notoriously allergic to “wage pressure” as a harbinger of rising prices. Wages have two distressing properties: First, they are sticky. They represent repeated and persistent cash flows that cannot be downward adjusted en masse except during a serious crisis or dislocation. Second, a substantial fraction of wages goes to lower quintiles of the income distribution, who have a high marginal propensity to consume. Central bankers are not evil scrooges — they have nothing against consumption by poor people. But funding that consumption by wages limits the effectiveness of monetary policy. They’d prefer that the marginal dollar bound for consumption flow from a more malleable source.

During the “Great Moderation” in the US a variety of structural changes helped to increase the potency of monetary policy:

  1. The wage share of GDP decreased significantly over the 1970s and 80s. Compensation did not decrease as much, but much of nonwage compensation is retirement savings that is saved rather than consumed.

  2. Wage inequality increased, such that a growing fraction of wages went to “savers” rather than “spenders”, limiting the direct impact of wage growth on consumption.

  3. The growth and “democratization” of consumer credit provided consumers with an alternative source of purchasing power that was sensitive to monetary policy.

Prior to the Great Moderation, central bankers had to provoke recessions in order to control inflation. Broad-based wage growth led to increases in nominal cashflows by “spenders” that could only be tempered by creating unemployment or other conditions under which workers would accept wage concessions. In the post-Reagan world, growth in the sticky component of disposable income shifted to the wealthy, who tend to save rather than spend their raises. The marginal dollar of consumer expenditure switched from wages to borrowed money. The great thing about consumption funded by credit expansion, from a central banker’s point of view, is that it is not sticky downward — no one who gets a loan today assumes that she will be able to expand her borrowing by the same amount every year. Credit-based consumption is susceptible to monetary policy with far less impact on employment than wage-based consumption. (One of Ben Bernanke’s many claims to fame is his characterization of the credit channel of monetary policy transmission.)

By the middle 2000s, the credit economy was the air we breathed, and conventional wisdom held (and continues to hold) that economic growth and credit expansion are synonymous. We had those peculiar debates about the difference between “consumption equality” and “income equality”, and which mattered more, since middle-class consumption had become significantly credit-financed. But from central bankers’ perspective, we had stumbled into a good place, one where output growth was channeled into asset price inflation, but provoked consumer price inflation only indirectly and via a channel policymakers could regulate. This benign regime faced two threats, however. First, asset price inflation is unstable — while on any given day, price moves are determined by the flow of funds into assets, over time prices can become so unreasonable relative to the the asset’s cash or service flows that arbitrageurs and nervous fundamentalists appear, creating the potential for a collapse. Second, credit expansion is unstable, as chronic borrowers may become unable to service existing debt, let alone borrow more to sustain aggregate demand. Unnervingly, sustaining consumption has required a secular downtrend in the policy interest rate, and eventually you hit that zero-bound. [2]

The Greenspan/Bernanke doctrine can be summed up by three familiar words, “Yes We Can!” Greenspan famously concluded that we can “mop up” asset price bubbles after they burst, rather than interfering with the dynamic whereby asset price inflation substitutes for consumer price inflation. Bernanke devoted his life to studying the role of credit in monetary policy and the hazards of deflation and credit collapse, and he famously concluded that we have the technology to prevent “it” from happening here. We are watching his experiment play out, in real time and from inside the maze. The outcome is not yet known.

I have my own normative view of “the great moderation”, and it is not positive. I do not hope to see a return to the “good old days” of the 1990s and mid-2000s. But that isn’t because the moderation dynamic cannot work, in principle. In principle, we can periodically reset the stage with a money-funded jubilee. It’d go like this: When credit expansion reaches its natural limit, let the debtors default, but make creditors whole with new money. “Moral hazard”, rather than a problem, is the goal of the operation: Low marginal-propensity-to-consume “savers” are rewarded and encouraged to continue pouring their incomes into domestic financial assets, where any effect on goods price inflation is muted. Over several years, the balance sheets of debtors can be cured via some combination of bankruptcy, loan modifications, austerity, and youth. In the meantime, the Federal government adopts the role of consumer of last resort, in order to sustain nondeflationary levels of aggregate demand and limit unemployment. I think this is our current strategy. We are groping and stumbling towards the status quo ante, and it is not impossible that we will find it within a few years.

So what’s the problem? First, in exchange for apparent stability, the central-bank-backstopped “great moderation” has rendered asset prices unreliable as guides to real investment. I think the United States has made terrible aggregate investment decisions over the last 30 years, and will continue to do so as long as a “ride the bubble then hide in banks” strategy pays off. Under the moderation dynamic, resource allocation is managed alternately by compromised capital markets and fiscal stimulators, neither of which make remotely good choices. Second, by relying on credit rather than wages to fund middle-class consumption, the moderation dynamic causes great harm in the form of stress from unwanted financial risk, loss of freedom to pursue nonremunerative activities, and unnecessary catastrophes for isolated families. Finally, maintaining the dynamic requires active use of policy instruments to sustain an inequitable distribution of wealth and income in a manner that I view as unjust. In “good times”, central bankers actively suppress the median wage (while applauding increases in the mean wages driven by the upper tail). During the reset phase, policymakers bail out creditors. There is nothing “natural” or “efficient” about these choices.

The great moderation made aggregate GDP and employment numbers look good, and central bankers sincerely believed they were doing a good job. They were wrong. We need to build a system where changes in asset prices reflect the quality of real economic decisions, and where the playing field isn’t tilted against the poor and disorganized in the name of promoting price stability.


[1] “reason” asked about a “theoretical basis”. It’s important to note that my story betrays an anti-theoretical bias. In the perfect world of financial theory, the supply of financial assets should be infinitely price elastic at one true “fair price”, since arbitrageurs can increase supply indefinitely by selling an asset short if it is “overvalued” relative to the value of its future cash flows cash flows. In reality, the capacity of market actors to recognize, let alone to arbitrage away, mispricings is very limited. So cashflows to people more likely to invest than to consume can lead to diverse forms asset price inflation, depending on what sort of assets the cashflow receivers are interested in buying. Further, rather than causing arbitrageurs to short overvalued assets, as theory predicts, high asset prices often provoke entrepreneurs to increase supply by manufacturing similar assets as substitutes, which results in increased real investment in the overvalued sector (while short-selling should in theory help prevent overinvestment).

Also, while “clientele effects” play some role in theories of term structure and the effect of liquidity on asset prices, most theories of asset pricing don’t take seriously the idea that patterns of income or access to cash might affect prices. My view is that the asset pricing literature is descriptively wrong, for the most part, although it arguably has normative merit.

[2] There is a third threat: The increasing stock of assets leaves the system ever more vulnerable to “runs” into commodities or foreign assets. When the stock of assets is small, central banks can contain a run by serving as “market maker of last resort” and managing the cross-price between domestic financial assets and perceived safe havens. When the stock of effectively guaranteed financial assets is large relative to central bank reserves of whatever investors are fleeing to, the central bank may lack the ability to manage price volatility, which might be perceived as a violation of its price stability commitment and lead to further flight by domestic and foreign financial asset holders. This is the currency crisis/dollar collapse/gold bug scenario, and while a large stock of guaranteed assets increases its likelihood, it is by no means a foregone conclusion, especially for large states capable of employing a creative array of fiscal, diplomatic, and legal maneuvers to help manage and control market outcomes.

The shortest, best case for financial innovation

What we have now sucks.

Information is stimulus

Suppose that the Federal government were to offer sizable loan guarantees for any and all “green energy” companies. Any firm, including new entrants, would be eligible. The government would do some cursory due diligence, only to establish that the company in question would actually spend the capital it raised on real projects colorably linked to green energy (as opposed to, say, buying New Zealand dollars in a carry trade).

Wouldn’t such a program constitute a stimulus to the economy? If sufficient leverage is allowed, it would lead in short order to a bunch of entrepreneurs founding companies on just a shoestring of equity and a whole lot of cheap, guaranteed debt. Firms with even a small likelihood of success would constitute real options worth more than the sliver of private capital at risk, so arbitrageurs would rush to create them.

Such a program would be a pretty direct form of fiscal stimulus. Although politicians and financiers enjoy pretending otherwise, contingent liabilities are still liabilities, and offering loan guarantees to all comers for risky projects is, ex ante, just a way of financing a government expenditure equivalent to the expected losses of the program. We shouldn’t be surprised that an oddly financed stimulus would function as a stimulus.

But note that if, by good fortune, the artificially spurred new firms do surprisingly well and very few guarantees are actually paid, that wouldn’t eliminate the ex ante stimulus effect of the program. It is not the actual transfer of Federal money that serves as the stimulus. The stimulus comes only and precisely form the certainty the program provides to investors that capital spent will be repaid, with interest.

So, suppose that the government does nothing, but “the market” becomes certain (correctly or not) that green energy companies are a sure thing. As long as the cost of capital to such firms falls sufficiently, precisely the same dynamic would take hold. We’ve just watched it happen, twice. When capital became very cheap to internet firms, entrepreneurs understood (and discussed quite openly) that there was an attractive lottery on offer, so why not get in? During the structured credit bubble, the market became convinced that some classes of debt yielding more than the “risk-free” interest rate were certain to be repaid. Entrepreneurs (both speculative borrowers and financial engineers) saw the arbitrage, and found ways of offering those classes of debt. In both cases, if the market had been right, everyone would have been happy. But when the market was wrong, it was someone else’s cost. Many entrepreneurs walked away rich and happy. Others lost, but only a small amount relative to what they’d have made if things worked out differently. It was a good gamble for them ex ante.

Responding to Arnold Kling’s “recalculation theory“, Paul Krugman asks (as he has asked many times)

why [doesn’t], say, a housing boom — which requires shifting resources into housing — …produce the same kind of unemployment as a housing bust that shifts resources out of housing.

A housing boom, any kind of boom, is attended by an increase in certainty. Information is stimulus, confusion is contraction. A bust occurs when the market is unsure of everything, when market participants perceive better risk-adjusted return in holding government securities (or supply-inelastic commodities) than in financing real investment. Sectoral shifts per se have no clear implication with respect to variables like employment and output. But “hangovers” do happen, because powerful booms are periods when market participants make consequential decisions with great swagger and confidence, and busts are when we learn that despite their certainty, they were wrong. They are left not only impoverished and burdened by debt, but bereft of confidence in their ability to evaluate new opportunities. The best way to avoid the hangover is not to err so terribly in the first place. Easier said than done, perhaps, but that’s no reason to cop out. We can build a better financial system, one in which degrees of certainty are attached and removed from economic propositions dexterously, rather than clinging like giddy leeches until a collapse.

Information is stimulus. As markets become more informed, money will be created and lent into the economy as surely as if the government printed and spent it. And stimulus is information, since governments do not spend randomly but do so in accordance with their own revealed certainties, which may or may not turn out to be wise. Poorly chosen stimulus and asset price bubbles are covert twins — only the identities of the people making bad decisions are different. Conversely good economic choices by governments can lead to outcomes as salutary as a healthy market. (See this very nice post by Bryan Caplan, and the articles cited.)

Information is a behavioral attribute, not an attribute of the external phenomena to which it may ostensibly refer. To say that an agent is informed means she behaves differently than an uninformed agent. Her behavior is less random, more predictable. To be informed does not imply ones information is accurate. (In general, accuracy is unknowable, both ex ante and ex post.) Information increases the volatility of outcomes, because it provokes larger and more concentrated bets than uncertain agents would take, creating large gains and losses depending on how adaptive the informed behavior turns out to be. It is often better, as a behavioral matter, to be uninformed than to be poorly informed.

But we do not always have the option of remaining uninformed. We cannot afford to hedge all of our bets. Whether via a great mis-recalculator in the sky or a political establishment largely captured by certain interests, new information will be manufactured. (I think it probable that government stimulus will substitute for market-generated information in the near term, as chastened capital market participants are more conscious of the hazards of certainty than policymakers are.) We will be spurred to take some actions and eschew others, and the structure of the economy will shift accordingly. Let’s hope those choices are good, and do our best to help make them that way.

Update: While I was writing… Arnold Kling offers related and excellent “Thoughts on Probability and Uncertainty.”

Update History:
  • 12-October-2009, 5:05 p.m. EDT: Added bold update re related Arnold Kling post.
  • Changed “of things worked out differently” to “if things worked out differently”.

Vanilla afterthoughts

Note: I use the word “state” in this post to mean “the state”, government generally, not state as opposed to federal government in the US. Thanks to Richard Serlin for pointing out the ambiguity.

Tyler Cowen writes

Now it’s dead, everyone else has been blogging it

The first thing to note is that vanilla is not dead. State-defined vanilla products are not an idea narrowly applicable to this moment’s consumer finance challenges. They are, or could become, an important part of the regulatory arsenal in a wide variety of contexts. They are a tool whose development people with libertarian impulses (including, though you may not believe it, me) should view with cautious enthusiasm. At its core, the purpose of defining a vanilla option is to offer an additional choice, a well-understood default that helps consumers to weigh the purported benefits of exotic alternatives against the uncertainty costs they carry. Libertarians might reasonably object to a requirement that private enterprises offer vanilla products (although the objection is less compelling for industries that are and will continue to be state subsidized and regulated). But first and foremost, vanilla products are about cajoling into existence products that, despite their complexity, can be credibly certified as functional and nontoxic. The idea is in the “libertarian paternalism” / “nudge” tradition of not-exactly-regulation which, however objectionable, is less objectionable than the unqualified paternalism that may result from continued dysfunction and crisis. (Tyler might note a familiar form to this argument.)

The crucial question is whether governments could deploy vanilla products well. Both Tyler and Ezra Klein make the usual sad-but-true public-choice argument that, while vanilla might be a good idea in theory, what compromised politicians and bureaucracies actually offer might, in practice, not be so great.

They are undoubtedly right to be worried. But public choice concerns should always be the beginning, not the end, of a conversation. It’s both incorrect and intellectually lazy to frame the argument as many “pro-market” commentators do (not Tyler or Ezra!), that sure, markets make mistakes, but politician-run governments make “worse” mistakes, so we are better off letting imperfect markets have free reign.

Governments and markets are dissimilar in the form and causes of their mistakes, and the badness of their errors is not uniformly rankable. Imagine that “what is to be done” is a radio signal being sent over two channels, both subject to maddening (but nonidentical) interference. A dumb strategy for extracting the signal would be to just decide that one channel is cleaner, and then throw away the other signal. Smarter strategies combine the information from both signals, and using information from each signal to help correct the errors of the other. There are domains where history and reason suggests that even terribly flawed markets provide a better signal than government. There are other domains where terribly flawed political processes generate a better signal than status quo markets. We should weight the different signals accordingly. But we should always be alert for opportunities to exploit the different strengths and weaknesses of markets and governments to produce better results than either could alone. How to do so, in real life rather than radioland, is an art. But vanilla products have the potential to be a masterpiece of the form. We have to insist on just one point.

A vanilla product must be defined by a uniform contract that regulators write and publish and that varies in a single dimension.

Of course regulators would consult with industry and consumer groups, and of course industry lobbyists would struggle to capture the process and embed their spicy “tricks and traps” into our vanilla creme. But they’ll have a hard time doing so, as long as authorship and responsibility for the terms of the contract and its evolution over time rest with the regulatory agency.

Here’s why. If the contract is written by the regulator, when consumers get screwed, they get screwed by the regulator as much as by the firm that sold them the product. Think about the politics of that. Suppose Struggling-Mom-Of-Four finds her credit card interest rate skyrocket because she missed a phone bill, and the industry had slipped a universal default provision in the “vanilla” credit card terms. When that story gets on the local news channel, it’s no longer a just a story about megacorp screwing ordinary family. It’s a story of the government screwing Mom-Of-Four, directly and on behalf of megacorp. When megacorp screws someone via a private arrangement, the populist “do something!” impulse is blunted by concerns about liberty and contract and personal responsibility. Citizens are genuinely divided about when government interference in private affairs is justifiable, so politicians get conflicting signals from their constituents, and unconflicted signals from megacorp not to interfere.

But citizens are not at all conflicted that the government should intervene to prevent the government from screwing people. If a contract written and owned by regulators has not-well-understood characteristics that leave consumers surprised and unhappy, representatives’ “constitutent services” lines will ring off the hooks. Politicians that refuse to intervene against well-publicized injustices will be quite vulnerable, since they’ll lack the usual philosophical justifications to defend inaction. So politicians will act. State ownership of vanilla contracts provide dispersed consumers a means to challenge concentrated industries for ownership of regulators, by virtue of the hypersensitivity of elected representatives to charges that they fail protect their constituents from rapacious government.

Another benefit of a uniform, regulator-owned contract has to do with the legal system. Every contractual arrangement is attended by legal uncertainty. A freshly written contract is quantum mechanical — words imbue a probability distribution that collapses to determinacy only when observed at the tip of a judge’s gavel. (Usually no cats are killed.) Vanilla contracts offer an economy of scale in dispelling legal uncertainty. Disputes over vanilla arrangements would be quickly adjudicated, by public courts, not private arbitrators (binding arbitration would be a political nonstarter). Since there would only be one contract, legal precedents would be portable across providers. The characteristics of vanilla contacts would quickly become well-settled and widely known.

Vanilla contracts may or may not be dead this cycle, with respect to regulation of financial products. There are many other policy domains where vanilla contracts might be useful. I’d like a bit of vanilla with my health care, thank you very much. The Washington Post has an an excellent article about the too-little-discussed problem of tacit cherrypicking by insurers despite a formal “community rating” requirement (ht Dean Baker). This bit caught my eye:

A straightforward way to reduce gamesmanship is to standardize benefit packages, Precht wrote in a July report. One issue lawmakers must resolve is how much latitude to leave insurers over what they cover and how.

Sound familiar?

Extra vanilla

I realize I’m on time-delay, and that this is all so very last week. (When I am only a week behind, it’s like living in the future.) Anyway, here’s my RSS reader’s dump of vanilla related links, in reverse chronologil-ish order. As always, if I’ve missed you, that’s my lameness, not yours:

For the econgeeky, be sure to check out Karl Smith’s piece (via Mike Konczal), which describes the costs of tutti-frutti into familar microecon diagrams, and this very nice paper by Gabaix and Laibson, that formally models much of the problem vanilla products are intended to solve (via Mike Konczal, via Tyler Cowen, via Christopher Shea who outlines the argument in accessible terms).

Update History:
  • 06-October-2009, 11:10 p.m. EDT: Added note clarifying that by “state” I mean “the state”, not state-level government in the U.S. (and thanking Richard Serlin for pointing out the problem!)