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.