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. 


Evan Soltas said...


This is interesting. I think we agree on this completely. The metaphor I find best is actually a high-school prom.

Suppose that everyone has one person he or she wants to ask to dance, but that asking them is risky, because they might get refused. If they know there are more songs coming -- i.e. they have a lot of opportunities to ask their love interests -- then nobody asks because nobody is going to box the other out, so everyone is OK waiting.

What the Fed has done is put the song "Last Dance" on. Now everyone realizes a few things: (1) this is their last chance; (2) this is everyone else's last chance to ask; (3) if they don't get out on to the dance floor now, and ask the person, someone will take their love interest away from them.

The result is that by telling everyone that you're cutting the prom short, you might actually be able to get a greater total amount of dancing, as measured by people dancing times the number of songs during which they dance.

The translation out of metaphor is that raising interest rates can result in a higher total volume of investment in a fixed period if everyone expects everyone else to act now before it's too late.

Of course, it could work the other way -- cutting the prom short eliminates some dances that might have otherwise happened, just as raising interest rates will discourage some investments. What will determine the sign is be whether the investments induced by the "Last Dance" effect are greater than those discouraged by higher interest rates. That will depend on the set of investment opportunities.

The best one-off strategy for the DJ aka central bank, however, is to play "Last Dance" and then surprise everyone with a few more songs. That way, everyone is on the dance floor and nobody is forced off. And, speaking from some experience, this sort of strategy is played often.

Andy Harless said...

Yes, good metaphor, Evan.

Diego Espinosa said...


You write, "Someday the optimism will be back."

I think this is the problem with your story. We are at the ZLB. The economy has been growing for four years. The stock market has more than doubled and is at an above-average P/E. High Yield spreads are normal. All financial markets are functioning normally. Corporate profits are at record highs. Non-structures business investment has enjoyed a robust recovery. Businesses are clearly investing in new projects. Job growth is lackluster but constant.

Does that all sound like a situation in which rates need to be below zero because, "optimism hasn't come back yet"?

kristenvpyszczyk said...

I agree with this as well--I saw the Fed's tapering talk as an attempt to get large firms to invest cash rather than holding it and using it for stock repurchases that improve balance sheets but benefit few. A potential adverse effect of tapering could be to cause reluctance to invest among small firms that believe interest rates will rise in the near future, but perhaps that signals a need to review loan policies for small businesses instead. In general, my take on it is that the money is not going where it needs to go, and this is an attempt to get it moving.

I am happy to see an alternative perspective on this topic, since much of mainstream coverage has portrayed the Fed's move as irresponsible--except, of course, for the inflation hawks!

The main problem now is that the Fed itself seems unsure of the message it wants to convey, which has made the talk of tapering seem like a major PR fumble. Either way, the coming weeks will likely provide some much-needed clarity on the subject.

Andy Harless said...


The line you quoted wasn't meant so much as a reference to the concrete present but to the abstract situation of being in a depression (which was "recently" the case but may no longer be the case). So to some extent I agree with you: the camel's back is breaking. You're clearly one of the people who is convinced it won't hold, but not everyone is convinced. That's where I would take issue with you: if people in general were already optimistic, they wouldn't have been willing to hold T-notes at 2% yields. A lot of people lost money in the recent bond market rout, and I would have to say those people were either non-optimistic or clueless (or maybe they were just hoping to find greater fools?). If there's a real recovery going on, there's no way bonds at those yields could have outperformed cash over the intermediate time horizon, because the Fed would eventually have to tighten.

Diego Espinosa said...

A good point. One has to search for explanations. Mine, though imperfect, has to do with financial frictions, agency, and information.

Forward guidance signals low s.t. rate volatility and encourages carry. For carry traders, the real yield is irrelevant; only the spread matters. The expected spread is a function of rate vol; rate vol is suppressed by forward guidance.

QE signals a future large buyer for term Treasuries. This encourages speculators to frontrun that buyer, taking yields down in the process.

Both carry and frontrunning are trades that have to be unwound. Due to agency effects, money managers focus on near-term gains rather than future risk. In other words, they don't have to pay back bonuses.

David Beckworth said...

Andy, interesting post. You sound a lot like Andy Farmer in this paper:

o. nate said...

Sure, everyone wants to be the prescient guy who borrowed at low rates right before they went up, but OTOH no one wants to be the unlucky guy who loaned a bunch of money at low rates right before they went up. From the data I've seen, it's the second effect that's winning out:
"New bond issuance (investment-and speculative-grade) in the United States fell to $45 billion last month, the lowest total since December 2011, after averaging $92 billion per month from January to May of this year."

罗臻 said...

this is true for a growing credit cycle, but if we are now in a deleveraging cycle, the optimists will be destroyed. the people will learn the opposite behavior, rushing for the exits instead of rushing to borrow, and the bottom will be hit when only 'fools' are optimistic. most people will count themselves winners if they didn't go bankrupt.

Yichuan Wang said...


This is a pretty cool application of the well established effectiveness of a temporary investment tax cut. Think of a fully employed economy with firms deciding on how to accumulate capital over time. The intuition is the same. The temporary investment tax credit has a higher impact on investment relative to the permanent tax credit because firms bring more of their future investment into the present. This means that if the tax credit has been permanent for a while, the government can create an extra burst of investment by saying that the tax credit will end in the next period.

To liken it to your monetary argument, we just need to add Keynesian effects as a result of the tax credit. Then declaring an end to the tax credit has two effects on investment. First, it changes the "classical" incentives for investment towards more investment. Second, it reduces investment by lowering future growth expectations, as per the Keynesian effect.

I feel like this is perfectly symmetric with the Fed taper, and helps to demonstrate how you would formally model your argument.

For a formal paper on these investment effects, see:


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