Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Do Umbrellas Cause Rain?

In a recent speech Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota argues that low interest rates could ultimately be dangerous in that they could lead to deflation. His argument seems bizarre to me. I’ll go through it piece by piece.
The fed funds rate is roughly the sum of two components: the real, net-of-inflation, return on safe short-term investments and anticipated inflation.
OK, so far, so good. This is just the definition of the real return: it’s the return that’s anticipated after accounting for inflation.
Monetary policy does affect the real return on safe investments over short periods of time. But over the long run, money is, as we economists like to say, neutral.
I’ll agree to that, although I shall subsequently quibble with his definition of “neutral.”
This means that no matter what the inflation rate is and no matter what the FOMC does, the real return on safe short-term investments averages about 1-2 percent over the long run.
Not necessarily true. (The long-run real return on safe short-term investments depends on a lot of things besides what the FOMC does, and we can’t say a priori that it will remain in that range.) But I’ll accept it for the sake of argument.
Long-run monetary neutrality is an uncontroversial, simple, but nonetheless profound proposition.
True, as far as it goes, but in his subsequent statement he’s actually talking about superneutrality – the proposition that the growth rate of the money stock (rather than its absolute size) doesn’t affect real activity – which is not entirely uncontroversial. But let’s grant superneutrality, for the sake of argument.
In particular, it implies that if the FOMC maintains the fed funds rate at its current level of 0-25 basis points for too long, both anticipated and actual inflation have to become negative. Why? It’s simple arithmetic. Let’s say that the real rate of return on safe investments is 1 percent and we need to add an amount of anticipated inflation that will result in a fed funds rate of 0.25 percent. The only way to get that is to add a negative number—in this case, –0.75 percent.
Here Kocherlakota seems either disingenuous or irrational. It’s true that, in a long run equilibrium where the funds rate remains near zero, it also must be the case that there is negative inflation (provided that money retains any value at all). But how do we get to that long run equilibrium? And would we ever get to that equilibrium?

Suppose that the Fed were to keep the funds rate near zero but people began to be dissatisfied with that rate and began anticipating the 1% to 2% long-run real rate. What would happen? People would stop lending short-term money to the government at the near zero rate and instead start lending money elsewhere – for longer terms and to riskier borrowers. The more this continued, the easier it would get to borrow money. The easier it got to borrow, the more people would buy with the borrowed money, and the higher the prices of those purchases would go. And prices would continue going higher until...when?

Prices would continue going higher until they were so high that they were expected to fall. At that point, there would be expected deflation, and we would be at the long run equilibrium. There would be deflation, but it would necessarily be preceded by rising prices – that is, inflation.

However, there is no reason to expect that we would ever get to that long run equilibrium. Instead, if the Fed kept interest rates too low, we would move toward another long-run equilibrium – which Kocherlakota ignores – where money becomes worthless. In that case, the Fed could continue targeting near zero interest rates, but the rates would be meaningless, since nobody would be willing to sell anything, so there would be no reason to borrow money. Now I doubt we would actually get anywhere near that long-run equilibrium, because I think the Fed would raise interest rates long before money became worthless. But the dynamics of market responses will tend to drive toward the worthless-money equilibrium rather than the deflation equilibrium. Why would people ever start to think prices will fall after they start rising rapidly?
To sum up, over the long run, a low fed funds rate must lead to consistent—but low—levels of deflation.
OK, that is (almost) pure nonsense. It’s true that a low fed funds rate can exist, in long run equilibrium, only if people expect deflation (or if money is worthless). But the causation goes in the opposite direction. People lend at a low interest rate because they expect deflation. People carry umbrellas because they expect rain. An equilibrium with umbrellas must include a significant possibility of rain, but we don’t say that carrying umbrellas must “lead to” rain. If we take away people’s umbrellas, it will not prevent rain, and if we require people to carry umbrellas, it will not cause rain.
The good news is that it is certainly possible to eliminate this eventuality through smart policy choices. Right now, the real safe return on short-term investments is negative because of various headwinds in the real economy. Again, using our simple arithmetic, this negative real return combined with the near-zero fed funds rate means that inflation must be positive. Eventually, the real economy will improve sufficiently that the real return to safe short-term investments will normalize at its more typical positive level. The FOMC has to be ready to increase its target rate soon thereafter.

That sounds easy—but it’s not. When real returns are normalized, inflationary expectations could well be negative, and there may still be a considerable amount of structural unemployment. If the FOMC hews too closely to conventional thinking, it might be inclined to keep its target rate low. That kind of reaction would simply re-enforce the deflationary expectations and lead to many years of deflation.
That is pretty much the same nonsense as above, except for one thing: perhaps people believe that the Fed knows more about the likely inflation rate than outside forecasters do. If so, people could interpret the continued low interest rates as a signal that the Fed expects deflation, and the deflation could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If that’s what Kocherlakota means, then he isn’t insane – but he’s still wrong.

The Fed does have a little more information than the public does. For example, it has a better idea of how its own policies will react in the future. And perhaps it has slightly better forecasts than the public. And maybe it has a little bit of inside information about the economy. People may take Fed policies as a signal of its expectations for future inflation, and may react accordingly, but this effect is likely to be far outweighed by the actions of people who disagree with the Fed – or who find the Fed’s expectations irrelevant to their own projects – and want to take advantage of its low interest rate policy.

What does it mean to say that “the real economy will improve sufficiently that the real return to safe short-term investments will normalize at its more typical positive level”? It means there will be opportunities for real investment that have more attractive expected returns. Even if the Fed’s actions lead people to increase slightly their expectations of falling prices, people will also notice these real investment opportunities and will start investing in those rather than in safe short-term investments. Or they’ll take money and spend it on consumer purchases in anticipation of continued employment. Either way, there will be more purchases made, which will tend to drive up prices, and the deflation prophecy will not fulfill itself.

Ultimately, as people notice the economy improving, they will come to expect rising rather than falling prices, no matter what the Fed does. Ultimately, the effect of having the Fed keep interest rates too low for too long will be inflation, not deflation. Of course, the Fed will notice this and then raise interest rates to slow down the economy and stop the inflation rate from rising further, so it shouldn’t be a big problem.

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.


Anonymous said...

Two things: the MN Fed publishes articles which are dumbed-down Chicago School BS. Fox Buisness cites them all the time. Complete BS on my tax dollar.

Second, the Fed Chairman has argued that money is not neutral. See his Great Depression essays. Ddoes nay read at the MN Fed?

Anonymous said...

What is the background of the MN Fed President? If he were to travel to Arizona would he be deported?

The MN Fed President sounds like he is from another time and place, namely England in the 1930's when the Bank of England embarked on a program to further deflate a weakened eonomy. That worked well.

Robert said...

Yes the quoted argument by Kocherlakota is genuinely weird.
The strangest thing is that, before his Fed appointment, Kocherlakota studied monetary theory and analysed monetary and non-monetary equilibria at length.

He certainly doesn't believe in superneutrality -- it isn't a property of many models which he has presented (as far as I know it isn't a property of any model which he has ever considered worthy of his attention).

I am shocked by the quoted argument.

Anonymous said...

You are shocked by his argument but you aren't shocked by the naked racism in the above post ?

What is the background of the MN Fed President? If he were to travel to Arizona would he be deported?


Anonymous said...

Didn't Bullard also make the same argument in his recent "Seven Perils..." speech?

JKH said...

My simple way of thinking about this is that the Fed controls the short term policy rate. It may change the policy rate as a function of other developments, but it still controls the policy rate. The question here then is not too much different than considering the effects of the Fed for whatever reason choosing to set the short term policy rate permanently at zero.

It seems to me that the independent variable is inflation expectations. The real rate embedded in the Fed funds rate of zero then pops out as the residual of a controlled nominal rate. If the Fed holds the short term policy rate at zero, and inflation expectations become positive, then the short term real rate is forced negative – by the Fed.

The yield curve then does what it wants to do (unless the Fed takes steps to control that). E.g. it may reflect increasing inflation expectations. It may also reflect the risk of the Fed reverting from a presumed permanently zero nominal policy rate, with a revised policy for inflation control, thereby projecting an increasing real rate as a balancing component within the nominal term yield. The second factor is more indicative of the Fed’s actual operations than the permanently zero rate assumption.

Richard H. Serlin said...

"Long-run monetary neutrality is an uncontroversial, simple, but nonetheless profound proposition."

First off, as Keynes said...The long run may be decades of unnecessary suffering with a depression to get there. Plus, that depression destroys real human capital, productive capacity, and lowers scientific and technical advancement, all of which lowers our wealth level – long run.

Stephen Williamson said...


You're making no sense. What Narayana is arguing is just standard monetary theory. If the central bank targets the nominal interest rate at a low enough rate forever, you have to get deflation. By arguing against this you're making yourself look silly. By the way, Narayana, was born in the US. His mother is American, his father was Indian (thus the name), and he grew up in Winnipeg. A brilliant man.

Anonymous said...

No Stephen, it is you and Narayana that are making no sense. Many would go as far as to say that the two of you are completely barking mad.

Low interest rates are deflationary... riiiight.

Stop it before you make Nick Rowe off himself. He can't take much more of your idiocy.

Is it Tuesday? said...

I'm really somewhat stunned by this article. I thought it was accepted fact that umbrellas cause rain ... as does washing your car. In a similar vein (with a northern slant), shoveling your driveway will make the snow plow come past.

But then, I'm always smarter on Tuesday so maybe I just read this on the wrong day ...

Andy Harless said...


"If the central bank targets the nominal interest rate at a low enough rate forever, you have to get deflation."

That is true if the central bank has perfect credibility. But in the more realistic case where credibility is imperfect, hitting the target as a permanent goal would require the central bank to threaten to deviate from the target. In practice, an actual deviation from the target will be perceived as an action carrying out that threat (even if the threat hasn't been made explicitly) and will therefore tend to reinforce deflationary expectations.

And my implicit assumption in the post is that we all know the Fed doesn't have perfect credibility.

Chris of Stumptown said...

Agree w/ Anonymous that it seems Kocherlakota is making the same point that Bullard made in the 7 perils paper:


That is, that in normal times there is only one equilibrium rate of inflation. But there is a second equilibrium point at very low Fed funds with negative inflation. And this is a bad place to be.

Bullard outlines 7 general responses to this dilemma, one being that the central bank can avoid this trap by refusing to cut rates below this level. Seems like Kocherlakota falls into this camp.

Andy, what is your take on Bullard's paper? Do you disagree with Bullard as well, or are their positions different enough that you agree with Bullard and disagree with Kocherlakota?

Andy Harless said...


I do think it is essentially the same issue. See this post by Brad DeLong which deals with Bullard's argument.

Nick Rowe said...

I'm sure Narayana is a brilliant man. But even brilliant men sometimes make mistakes. We all do. And it is certainly not standard monetary theory to say that a nominal interest rate pegging central bank, which chooses to peg a higher nominal interest rate, will cause inflation to rise. Standard monetary theory says that inflation will fall, and fall without limit, if it does this forever.

It is nevertheless true, under standard monetary theory, that a central bank that targets the money supply, and chooses a higher growth rate of the money supply, will both cause inflation to rise and nominal interest rates to rise. But that is very different.

The first thought experiment assumes an endogenous money supply; the second an exogenous money supply.

jimcaserta said...

Isn't this also a critical assumption: "the real return on safe short-term investments averages about 1-2 percent over the long run." Is there anything that says this is constant? What if the real return is negative for a period? In 1979 you had inflation at 13%, but the fed funds rate was at 10%

His implication is that a low fed funds rate will not impact nominal rates, which for now they haven't. There are periods that it seems like short-term, they don't. 2004: FF=1%, CPI=3.3%, 2006: FF=5.25%, CPI=2.5%. So 2004 had negative real returns, while 2006 had overly high real returns. You could explain that by saying that money was flowing into the can't miss investment of housing in 2004, while it was flowing out of the terrible investment of housing in 2006. Or, something other than monetary policy is shaping short-term real returns.

Your accepting his assumption of safe returns is giving credit for a massive leap.

Kevin Donoghue said...

SW: If the central bank targets the nominal interest rate at a low enough rate forever, you have to get deflation.

AH: That is true if the central bank has perfect credibility.

I’m not sure that it’s true even in such a wonderland. Suppose there is some physical good, say a spherical cow which gives birth to spherical calves, giving the owner a 3% annual return in perpetuity. The central bank sets the nominal interest rate at 2%. Doesn’t the price of the cow have to jump over the moon? Are prices allowed to go to infinity in these freshwater models?

Catesby said...

Andy Harless: "I do think it is essentially the same issue. See this post by Brad DeLong which deals with Bullard's argument."

I agree w/ Chris and Anonymous that NK was echoing Bullard's argument, albeit in a very clumsy fashion (he also seems to imply that Benhabib et. al. is established standard theory). Delong discusses it, but I really don't think he dealt with it. I can't tell because his graphs are hard to decipher. They don't look like Bullard's graphs- in particular, they seem to put Japan's deflationary equilibrium to the left of the Fisher Relation (Wicksellian Balance), instead of on it, as Bullard does. Is he claiming there is some deflationary equilibrium that doesn't obey the Fisher equation? He then claims that the deflationary equilibrium (intersection of the policy rule with the Wicksellian Balance) isn't stable (Bullard's peril no. 2).

I'd like clarification on this, but isn't Delong essentially asserting that Japan is an oddity and there isn't a stable equilibrium like the one that NK appears to be describing?

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