Monday, December 4, 2023

Touching Base

Because my domain registry reminded me that I'm forwarding, I wanted to make sure it still exists, and that Google doesn't delete it for inactivity. Wow, it's been almost 4 years now since I posted! Maybe I'll start again, seeing how the microblogging world has become so fractured and messy. I can talk about my NGDP token on the Chia network. But I don't have time to go into that now, so this is just a placeholder.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Nothing in Particular

This is me just making sure I still know how to post on this blog. Maybe I can still write more than 280 characters at a time.  I see that everything here, even my bio, is out of date.  And you only have to scroll down three posts to find one that subsequent experience has rendered embarrassingly wrong in its implications.  And the comments sections are overrun with so much spam that a real comment would wither and die from lack of water.  And I no longer look like my profile picture (in part because I never wear a tux anymore, but I think age has something to do with it too).

And I've made a career transition away from economics.

But economic times have gotten interesting again—horribly, horribly interesting.  So maybe I'll have something to say here.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Is the Fed's Floor Falling Out?

David Beckworth has a piece up at Alt-M arguing that Trump's fiscal policy is causing problems for the "floor" system the Fed now uses to implement monetary policy.  Under the floor system, the Fed sets the rate of interest it pays on bank reserves, and it can then keep the banking system flush with cash without overstimulating the economy, since banks will prefer to hold excess cash as reserves.  It only works if the interest rate on reserves is above the rate banks can earn in the private market, otherwise they will drain their reserves to buy other assets.  A loose fiscal policy, David argues, is raising market rates through Treasury borrowing, thereby making it hard to maintain the floor system.

I take a different view: the Fed's current predicament, I would argue, says only a little about current fiscal policy but a lot about past monetary policy.  In particular, it says that, contrary to much conventional market wisdom at the time, monetary policy was too tight during the zero interest rate period.  But I'll get to that.

First, let's ask: is the floor system really in danger? I would say, no, or rather, it is only in danger if the Fed doesn't really like it.  In principle there is no particular problem with continuing the floor system if the Fed wishes to do so.

The floor system always depends on having an adequate supply of base money.  If there's not enough base money, the market rate rises, and the intended floor is no longer binding.  How much base money is enough?  That's something the Fed has to make an educated guess about.  If it's expecting a normal fiscal policy and instead gets a big tax cut paired with a lot of new spending, then it will find that its educated guess was wrong and the required amount of base money is more than it expected.  That's what's happening now.

But the situation is easily remedied. If the Fed wishes to continue the floor system, it simply has to create more base money through open market operations.  Or alternatively, it can raise the interest rate on reserves so that it is no longer in danger of being below the market interest rate.  But the Fed doesn't seem inclined to do the latter: there is no particular sign that interest rate pressure from fiscal policy is causing it to adopt a faster schedule for raising rates.

And the Fed has good reason not to raise rates more quickly.  We can debate about the particulars, but overall the Fed sees no strong sign that the economy is about to overheat, and even if it did, there's a case for allowing the inflation rate to rise temporarily to compensate for years of undershooting the target.  But surely fiscal policy is stimulating the US economy.  Presumably the Fed feels that this stimulus is appropriate for now, and in the absence of such fiscal stimulus, the Fed would be providing its own stimulus by slowing the increases in the interest rate it pays on reserves.

And in that case it would end up in the same predicament it is in now.  Interest rates overall would be lower, but market interest rates would still be rising more quickly than the Fed's floor rate.

So what is special about the Fed's current predicament?  Why do people suggest that the floor system is in trouble, rather than just saying the Fed needs to create more base money through open market operations, as one would normally do when the current floor is becoming problematic?

I think the answer is clear: the Fed created so much base money via open market operations during the zero interest rate period—via the Large Scale Asset Purchases (LSAP's), or Quantitative Easing (QE), as they were commonly known—that it figured it wouldn't have to create much more any time in the near future. It's kind of like when I spend $400 at the supermarket and then think, "I'll never have to go shopping again." It always turns out that I have to resume my market operations sooner than expected.

The upshot is this: the Fed thought it was doing a huge, huge thing with those LSAP's, but with the benefit of today's hindsight, it turns out they weren't so huge.  (Despite my $400 grocery purchase, I'm already running out of sandwich bread, and I don't have time to go shopping today.)  The Fed could have done a lot more.  And maybe if it had done more, the recovery would have been faster.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Record Job Openings Not As Impressive As It Sounds

I'm seeing a lot of headlines about a record high number of job openings.  While it's technically true that the number of job openings (as reported in the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics) is at a record high, this statement needs lots and lots and lots of qualification.

The most important qualification is that the data only go back to December 2000.  If you were paying attention at the time, you remember that the dotcom bubble had already burst, and the US economy was heading into a recession.  And the subsequent housing boom wasn't really a broad hiring boom, so the JOLTS data don't give us an appropriate comparison for record job openings.

The second qualification is that the US economy has gotten larger over time, and the raw number of job openings largely reflects this scale increase rather than a boom in hiring.  The job openings rate is 4%, which is high for the series but has already been hit twice (July 2015 and July 2016).

The third qualification is that the jump in job openings in April was mostly in hotel and restaurant businesses, so it isn't a broad-based increase.

To put April's report in perspective, I estimated the job openings rate going back to 1951.  Prior to 1997, the estimates are based on the Conference Board's newspaper Help Wanted Index, normalized by total non-farm payrolls.  From 1997 to 2000, I adjusted the Help Wanted Index to reflect the increasing market share of online job advertising.  And I linked these data with the JOLTS data (which I use since December 2000) to allow interpreting the earlier data in terms of job openings rate.

From this chart it looks like today's 4% is historically typical.  Others may link the data differently and have somewhat different results, but in any case we're not in an unprecedented job opening boom.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Despite Tasci and Ice, I Still See an Increase in Structural Unemployment

[Update: Corrected an error in my analysis, though it oddly turns out to have very little effect on the relevant results.  Corrections are in italics.  I had fit the equation with AR(1) for the wrong time period, ending in 2005 instead of 2014.  Note that all fits should now be 12/2000 to 6/2014, the period of available JOLTS data.]

Back in 2010, there was a jump in US job openings (from an extremely low level) that was not accompanied by a commensurate decline in the unemployment rate.  Some saw this pattern as an indication of increased structural unemployment, with job openings becoming harder to fill from a given pool of unemployed.  At the time, I argued that it was not so:  job openings arise, and it takes time for them to reduce the unemployment rate; necessarily, there is a period when the unemployment rate remains higher than what would earlier have been associated with that number of job openings.   Then in 2012, I changed my mind.  A closer look at the data, including the additional two years that had passed, showed that, for a given number of job openings, the amount of hiring had declined.  That shift in the “matching function” suggested a change in the underlying relationship between unemployment and job openings, not just a temporary dynamic effect associated with the time it takes to fill new openings.

Recently some research has come out of the Cleveland Fed (cited approvingly by Paul Krugman) purporting to show that I was right the first time.  Specifically, Murat Tasci and Jessica Ice conclude that “there is no shift” in the Beveridge curve (the empirical relationship between job openings and unemployment).  They show that, in the years since that initial jump in job openings, the unemployment rate has fallen faster, and vacancies (job openings) have risen more slowly, ostensibly leading them back to the relation they had before the apparent shift in 2010.

I must say, first of all, that I don’t quite see their charts even appearing to show what they claim.  It’s true that, in vacancy-unemployment space, the point for 2014Q2 is very close to the point for 2008Q3; so, in a sense, any shift that was purported to have happened after 2008Q3 would now seem to have been an illusion.  But when I look at their chart, it looks like the shift actually happened between 2008Q2 and 2008Q3, when the unemployment rate rose and the vacancy rate failed to fall.  For the first two quarters of 2008, the not-yet-Great Recession looked much like the previous recession; then in 2008Q3 it appeared to shift to a new locus.  That apparent shift has not been reversed.

Comparing recent experience to the previous business cycle, it’s clear that we’re seeing a very different pattern this time around, not just in the intensity of the recession but also in the relationship between vacancies and unemployment.  Tasci and Ice have perhaps succeeded in demolishing the view that the large increase in vacancies in early 2010 represented a shift in the underlying relationship, but to my mind, that view has always been a straw man.  In any case it’s not a view that I ever held:  my research seemed to suggest changes in August 2006 and July 2010, the latter happening just after the alleged jump, not before or during.

Anyhow, in the light of the recent work, I decided to update my research, and, as my title suggests, my overall view hasn’t changed from 2012, though the details are a little different.  In my 2012 post I presented a model of the Beveridge curve, and my updated results can be described in terms of that model, but for the sake of universality I’m going to present them in a more agnostic way.
Start with the conventional “matching function,” which gives new hires as a function of unemployment and vacancies.  Using the JOLTS data (and using the absolute levels of hires, openings, and unemployment, as I did in my 2012 post), we can try to fit a matching function of the from lnH = a + b*lnV + c*lnU.  When I do this, I invariably get a negative value for c (regardless of specification details such as the inclusion of terms for autocorrelated residuals).  No plausible theory of the matching function gives a negative value for c.  (Surely it’s easier, not harder, to find people to hire if there are more people looking for jobs.)  So I re-fit, leaving out the U term.  (To put this another way, I’m fitting the equation with the constraint that c is non-negative, and I find the constraint to be binding.)

So I fit the equation with c=0, and I get a=4.52 and b=0.48, which would imply that hires are approximately proportional to the square root of vacancies, the same result I got in 2012.  Also as in 2012, I find that the residuals are autocorrelated (a Durbin-Watson statistic of 0.5, far from the ideal 2.0), presumably because the relationship has shifted over time.  So again I fit with an AR(1) term, and again I find that this gets but this time it is not sufficient to get rid of the Durbin-Watson problem. (The Durbin-Watson statistic goes to 2.9, still far from where it should be.)  So I added an MA(1) term and an AR(2) term, and this finally seems to be enough to handle the serial correlation problem.  This time, with the AR(1) term ARMA(2,1) terms, a=5.71 a=5.68 (although this isn’t very meaningful because the value of “a” is effectively shifted by the AR(1) term ARMA(2,1) terms), and b=0.34 b=0.33, which would imply that hires are approximately proportional to the cube root of vacancies (but in a way that shifts over time).

The interesting part, though, is what the residuals look like, so here they are:

[Note: This is the corrected chart.  The picture that originally appeared here is still up on Twitter and looks pretty similar.]

A couple of things are pretty clear about this picture.  First, there was a shift that took place between 2005 and 2008.  (The shift seems to be gradual, but given the amount of noise, it’s plausible that the shift could have happened in certain particular months, or even in just one particular month.  From the chart, the most decisive part of shift seems to happen between November 2007 and January 2008, which, probably not coincidentally, was also the turning point of the business cycle.)  Second, the shift does not appear to have been reversed.  (If you look closely, you might see another shift in 2010, which then seems to be reversed in 2013, but both the shift and the reversal could easily be noise, and in any case the original 2005-2008 shift has clearly not reversed.)

So here’s my conclusion:  something really did happen to make the Beveridge curve shift, and it was a persistent change.  Whether it was genuinely “permanent” we of course don’t know yet (since the current business cycle, one hopes, has a way to go, and the shift could be reversed later in the cycle), and whether it was truly a “structural” change is a question that is above my pay grade.  But I’m going to go with my best guess based on the available data and say that it looks like there was an increase in structural unemployment associated with the 2008 recession (or with what preceded and/or followed it).

DISCLOSURE: Through my investment and management role in a Treasury directional pooled investment vehicle and through my role as Chief Economist at Atlantic Asset Management, which generally manages fixed income portfolios for its clients, I have direct or indirect interests in various fixed income instruments, which may be impacted by the issues discussed herein. The views expressed herein are entirely my own opinions and may not represent the views of Atlantic Asset Management. This article should not be construed as investment advice, and is not an offer to participate in any investment strategy or product

Friday, December 13, 2013

Stochastic Dynamic Inefficiency, Secular Stagnation, and the Natural Discounted Growth Rate

(I could have put a "wonkish" warning at the top, but come on, just look at the title!)

Let's start with the concept of the natural real interest rate, which is already ubiquitous. The real interest-rate is the interest rate corrected for expected inflation, and the natural real interest rate is the real interest rate consistent with price stability.  (I leave the definition of price stability ambiguous because it depends on your theory of the price level and inflation, which is a whole 'nother blog post.)

Now market monetarists like Scott Sumner and Nick Rowe point to a deficiency in the natural real interest rate concept: the natural real interest rate depends on the expected real growth rate. And monetary policy affects the expected real growth rate, so if policymakers try to set the actual interest rate equal to the natural rate, they are chasing a moving target. To me, this criticism suggests that the appropriate approach is to adjust the nominal interest rate not for expected inflation but for expected nominal growth. (While we're at it, we can also replace "price stability" with "nominal growth stability" and be done with our futile attempts to measure the aggregate price level.)

Most economists think that the natural real interest rate is normally positive. I have my doubts, but never mind, because I'm ditching the whole concept. Once we start correcting for expected normal growth rather than expected inflation, we are clearly not dealing with a natural rate concept that can be presumed to be normally positive.  If we are talking about a risk-free interest rate, then the need for physical capital returns to compensate for risk would make it very hard to achieve a long-run growth rate [an equilibrium with the interest rate] as high as the [growth] interest rate, let alone higher. To come up with a number that's usually positive, I suggest that we reverse the sign. Instead of talking about a "natural growth-adjusted interest rate," let's talk about a "natural discounted growth rate."

We can also talk about an "actual discounted expected growth rate."  (The discount is "actual," determined by the observable interest rate, but the associated growth rate is only "expected" because it is not known with any confidence when the interest rate is set.) If the actual rate equals the natural rate, you get a normal employment level and nominal income growth stability (or price stability, if you insist). If the actual rate is higher, you get accelerating inflation. If the natural rate is higher, you get depressed economic conditions, with excess unemployment and deflationary pressure, if not actual deflation. (Wicksellians, please recall that I have reversed the signs compared to the usual natural rate theory.)

Now that I've defined the natural discounted growth rate, I can define "secular stagnation" in the context of an NGDP target. Secular stagnation means that the natural discounted growth rate exceeds the growth rate of the NGDP target path.  In other words, the target path would require a negative nominal interest rate.  Under a level targeting regime, an attempt to pursue such a path will result in either monetary instrument instability or a "zigzag" growth pattern in which recessions alternate with inflationary catch-up periods. Under a growth rate targeting regime, you'll just keep missing the target from below, much like most of the developed world's central banks today. 

But if you play with the numbers, you can probably convince yourself that secular stagnation, by my definition, seems unlikely. A reasonable NGDP target path growth rate is maybe 5%.  Do we really think that the potential growth rate exceeds the natural interest rate by more than five percentage points? It's remotely conceivable, but my guess would be that our problem today is not secular stagnation (in this sense) but a flawed monetary policy regime.

Now if the target nominal growth rate (and the associated possibility of secular stagnation) is one of our bookends for the natural discounted growth rate, the other bookend is pretty clear: it's zero. Some readers will immediately recognize zero as the criterion for dynamic efficiency. Ignoring the issue of risk for a moment, an economy with a strictly positive natural discounted growth rate would be dynamically inefficient. Overall welfare could be improved by instituting a stable Ponzi scheme that transfers consumption backward across generations.

Does my assertion that the natural discounted growth rate is almost certainly strictly positive imply that we actually live in a dynamically inefficient economy? In an important sense, I think it does.  The thorny issue here is risk, and some will argue that the relevant interest rate for dynamic inefficiency is not the risk-free rate.  But I disagree.  The US government can produce assets that are considered virtually risk free, and a stable Ponzi scheme operated by the US government could presumably produce such assets yielding any amount up to the growth rate.  At today’s Treasury interest rates, which are clearly less than expected growth rates, marginal investors are (we can presume, since the assets are freely traded) indifferent between these low-yielding Treasury securities and investments that represent newly created capital.  So, given the risk preferences of the marginal investor, the government could, by operating a stable Ponzi scheme, be producing assets that have a higher risk-adjusted return than newly created capital.  Given the risk preferences of the marginal investor, it’s inefficient for the government not to be producing such assets.

It’s important to recognize that, under a typical scenario, the marginal investor will end up worse off, in a material sense, from earning the growth rate, compared to earning the actual return on capital.  In a material sense, the economy is dynamically efficient.  But the concept of risk preferences models a subjective good – call it “security” – and we’re not producing enough of this good.  The history of interest rates and growth rates suggests that we have seldom produced enough security, but the deficiency today is clearly worse than usual.  

DISCLOSURE: Through my investment and management role in a Treasury directional pooled investment vehicle and through my role as Chief Economist at Atlantic Asset Management, which generally manages fixed income portfolios for its clients, I have direct or indirect interests in various fixed income instruments, which may be impacted by the issues discussed herein. The views expressed herein are entirely my own opinions and may not represent the views of Atlantic Asset Management. This article should not be construed as investment advice, and is not an offer to participate in any investment strategy or product. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Taper Paradox

Suppose you get invited to a party.  You don’t expect it to be a very good party, because the mood in town is pretty bleak:  most people likely won’t even show up, and those that do won’t be much fun.  So you decide, “Unless I hear something good about this party, I’m just going to stay home.”  

Then you get a call from a friend who is at the party, and he convinces you that it’s better than expected and you should come.  You assure him you’ll be there.  So you start getting ready, but you’re still in no hurry to get to the party.  

Then you get a call from the host:  “Joe tells me you’re coming.  That’s great.  Can I ask you a huge favor?  If you have some rum, can you bring it?  The party is starting to get lively, but we’re going to run out of rum soon, and the liquor stores are closed.  If someone doesn’t bring some rum, we may have to take away the punch bowl earlier than expected.”  You don’t have any rum, unfortunately, but you know you can get to the party quickly if you hurry.  Assuming you like rum punch, does the knowledge that the punch bowl might be taken away early make you more or less eager to get to the party quickly?

I may have strained the traditional punch bowl metaphor here, so let me try to tell the more complicated story in economic terms.  According to some theories, national economies (and the world economy, perhaps) exhibit multiple equilibria.  If everyone expects everyone else to spend a lot, then it’s rational to spend a lot (e.g. buy a new car in anticipation of keeping or getting a job, build a factory in anticipation of selling a lot of output, etc.).  If everyone expects everyone else not to spend a lot, then it’s not rational to spend a lot.  So depression and recovery become alternative self-fulfilling prophecies.  As FDR famously put it, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Normally, though, at least from the period from 1940 to 2007 in the US, fear itself isn’t a real problem.  Why not?  Because these equilibria depend on the interest rate, and the Fed controls the interest rate (at least in the short run), and usually the Fed can make the interest rate so low that the “bad,” low-demand equilibrium is no longer feasible.  A lot of projects that normally wouldn’t be worth doing (or purchases that wouldn’t be worth making) when demand is weak, become worthwhile even with low demand when they can be financed very cheaply.   But if people do these projects and make these purchases, demand won’t be weak.  So if the Fed keeps interest rates low enough, or even just credibly threatens to keep interest rates low enough, the low-demand equilibrium reduces itself to absurdity.

But recently we have faced the problem that interest rates can’t go below zero.  So we are back in FDR’s “fear itself” world, with multiple feasible equilibria.  In the low-demand equilibrium, the Fed struggles by keeping interest rates as low as it can get them, but that isn’t enough.  Barring more aggressively creative policies than the Fed has been willing to implement (retroactive NGDP level path targeting, anyone?), it just has to wait until people get more optimistic.  Or until people expect other people to get more optimistic.  Or until people expect other people to expect other people to get more optimistic.  Or until…well, you get the idea.  There’s reason to expect this optimism to come eventually, because capital depreciates (e.g. cars wear out, a growing population needs new places to live, etc.), so there will eventually be reason to expect higher demand.  But, as the Japanese have learned, the wait can be a very long one.

There’s a trick here, if you’re a prescient investor/entrepreneur.  Someday the demand will be back.   Someday the optimism will be back.  And the Fed will no longer have to struggle by keeping interest rates at levels that seem ridiculously low but still aren’t low enough.  But right now interest rates are still very low.  Suppose you could guess when the economy was about to recover and finance a project at the low “bad equilibrium” interest rates while subsequently benefitting from the demand that will come when the economy recovers.  You’d stand to make a lot of money.

So if, for whatever reason – even if it’s for no real reason at all – there’s a shift toward optimism, it’s like yelling fire in a crowded theater.  (If you don’t like my “punch bowl” cliché, I have plenty of others.)  Everyone wants to be that prescient investor/entrepreneur who finances cheaply in the bad equilibrium and gets windfall demand in the good equilibrium.  Once you make your mind up to go to the party, you want to make damn sure you get there before the punch runs out.  As we say in wonkspeak, systems with multiple equilibria often exhibit highly nonlinear dynamics.  There is a tipping point, a straw that breaks the camel’s back.  (Really, plenty of others.)

What happens, then, when the Fed starts to talk about tapering its bond purchases?  It depends.  If we take the camel’s back to represent economic depression, there are (at least) three possibilities.  If the camel’s back is already clearly broken, the tapering talk should already have been anticipated, and it will have little effect.  If the camel’s back is still strong, then the tapering talk will make it even stronger, fortifying the depression against the already ineffectual straws of optimism.  But suppose the camel’s back is just in the process of breaking: some people have concluded that it’s definitely not going to hold, some are getting very close to that conclusion, and some still need convincing.  What happens then?

I’m pretty sure it’s ambiguous, depends on how you set up and calibrate the model, etc..  I imagine someone has tried to model this formally, but I’m too lazy for that (and being a private sector economist, rather than an academic, I don’t get paid to do theoretical modeling).  In any case, it seems quite plausible to me that, under reasonable conditions that may approximate those we have faced over the past month, tapering talk could accelerate the shift from the bad equilibrium to the good one.  That acceleration would be consistent with the observation that the dramatic moves in the bond market have had only a little apparent impact on the stock market.  (If people are discounting the same cash flows at a much higher discount rate, stock prices should have gone down considerably, but they’ve barely declined at all, which suggests that expected cash flows have risen.)

Note that tapering talk implies that (1) the Fed, which may have better information than we do, is more optimistic than we thought and (2) if you were nearly convinced that the depression is over, you had to make up your mind and act on your belief as quickly as possible, or you would lose the opportunity to profit from it.  Given the existence of multiple equilibria, it’s quite possible that the Fed’s tapering talk has had the paradoxical effect of accelerating the recovery, which would explain why markets now seem to expect the Fed to start raising short-term rates sooner than the Fed itself has implied.

Do I think the Fed did the right thing by strategically engaging in verbal tightening at just the time that it would have a paradoxical effect?  No.  For one thing, the Fed obviously didn’t anticipate this response, and in any case the interpretation I’ve suggested here is highly speculative.  And even if my interpretation is right, and even if the Fed is cleverer than we think and actually intended it this way, I still don’t think they did the right thing.  Accelerating the recovery is a good thing, all other things equal, but it’s not the most important thing.  The most important thing is for the Fed to assure us, in no uncertain terms, that it will continue to support the recovery until there is no ambiguity left.  My guess is that, given what I imagine the Fed’s preferences to be, starting to tighten (verbally) now will turn out to have been the right thing to do.  But my guess, even if it is the best guess based on the information I have, is subject to a lot of uncertainty.  From the point of view of the recovery, mentioning the taper last week was a risky move, and even if the risk pays off, I don’t think it’s a risk the Fed should have taken.

DISCLOSURE: Through my investment and management role in a Treasury directional pooled investment vehicle and through my role as Chief Economist at Atlantic Asset Management, which generally manages fixed income portfolios for its clients, I have direct or indirect interests in various fixed income instruments, which may be impacted by the issues discussed herein. The views expressed herein are entirely my own opinions and may not represent the views of Atlantic Asset Management. This article should not be construed as investment advice, and is not an offer to participate in any investment strategy or product.