Monthly Archives: June 2008

The Fed Meeting, Redux

Perhaps we should offer Ben Bernanke a do-over. On Wednesday the FOMC decided to hold interest rates steady despite the fact that global inflationary pressures are heating up. The statement released by the Fed hinted that they may raise rates in the future, but simultaneously talked of the weakening labor market and the perils of the credit markets. In doing so, the statement sent shivers down the spines of both those who are worried about inflation and those who are worried about rate hikes.

As an inflation hawk, I have been a bit careless with my recommendations to raise interest rates and I have not sufficiently answered those who are concerned with unemployment and the fragility of the economy. Thus, allow me to elaborate.

In a recent Bloomberg interview, Nobel laureate Ned Phelps wondered aloud whether or not the Fed understands anything about modern monetary policy. What Phelps was communicating is the fact that the Federal Reserve seems unable to distinguish between transitory changes in unemployment and those driven by structural changes in the economy. As Phelps rightly pointed out, the collapse of housing boom has created a restructuring within the economy. It is highly probable therefore that the natural rate of unemployment has risen. If so, any attempt by the Federal Reserve to combat rising unemployment with lower interest rates will prove to be futile. In light of such thinking, it is quite understandable that talk of rising unemployment in the FOMC statement was particularly troubling.

Worries about the credit markets are similarly overblown. So long as the Fed stands ready to serve as lender of last resort, a task they have admirably performed thus far, further crisis should remain averted even in the midst of higher interest rates.

Bernanke and the FOMC made a mistake by not raising interest rates on Wednesday (as indicated by the rising prices of gold, oil, and other commodities). The rise in unemployment is not temporary and therefore need not be of concern to the Fed. In the meantime, global inflation and inflationary expectations are on the rise. Let’s hope that the Fed doesn’t make the same mistake when August rolls around.

Bubble Talk

Recently, there has been a great deal of talk regarding oil prices and the possibility of a bubble. Predictions of $200 oil are now becoming more common. Folks like Paul Krugman don’t believe that prices are out of line with fundamentals. However, given the fact that oil prices have risen over 100% in the past 52 weeks, this must mean that something is wrong. Either we had the price wrong last year or the price is wrong this year. Arnold Kling therefore poses the following question:

Early in 2007, the price of oil was $60 a barrel. Recently, it has been above $130 a barrel. Which of the following does Paul Krugman believe:

(a) market fundamentals justified $60 a barrel then, and they justify $130 a barrel now; or

(b) market fundamentals justified a much higher price in 2007?

I believe that (b) is more likely to be true, meaning that we had what Tyler Cowen calls an “anti-bubble” in oil.

We know that Krugman does not believe that today’s oil price is out of line with fundamentals. Krugman’s view, in effect, is that if speculators artificially boost the price of oil, then supply will exceed demand, and the excess has to go somewhere. Where are the inventories?

This view ought to hold in reverse. If speculators artificially kept the price of oil too low early in 2007, then demand should have exceeded supply and inventories should have vanished. Yet they did not. So is Krugman forced by his model to conclude that the price of oil of $60 also reflected fundamentals?

Meanwhile, James Hamilton answers:

Where are the inventories? China already burned them.

So where do I come down on this question? I believe that we are in the midst of an oil price bubble. Let’s look at some of the facts:

1. As I have previously stated, the fact that oil prices are rising must faster than the real rate of interest (which may, in fact, be below zero) is causing oil companies to leave the black stuff in the ground.

2. Changes in daily futures prices for oil exhibit positive long-run persistence, which can suggest behavior consistent with herding.

3. The Federal Reserve is incredibly accommodative at the moment.

In my mind, there are too many factors that are pushing the price up that are beyond what the fundamentals would dictate.

Rates Hold Steady

FOMC statement:

The Federal Open Market Committee decided today to keep its target for the federal funds rate at 2 percent.

Recent information indicates that overall economic activity continues to expand, partly reflecting some firming in household spending. However, labor markets have softened further and financial markets remain under considerable stress. Tight credit conditions, the ongoing housing contraction, and the rise in energy prices are likely to weigh on economic growth over the next few quarters.

The Committee expects inflation to moderate later this year and next year. However, in light of the continued increases in the prices of energy and some other commodities and the elevated state of some indicators of inflation expectations, uncertainty about the inflation outlook remains high.

The substantial easing of monetary policy to date, combined with ongoing measures to foster market liquidity, should help to promote moderate growth over time. Although downside risks to growth remain, they appear to have diminished somewhat, and the upside risks to inflation and inflation expectations have increased. The Committee will continue to monitor economic and financial developments and will act as needed to promote sustainable economic growth and price stability.

Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Ben S. Bernanke, Chairman; Timothy F. Geithner, Vice Chairman; Donald L. Kohn; Randall S. Kroszner; Frederic S. Mishkin; Sandra Pianalto; Charles I. Plosser; Gary H. Stern; and Kevin M. Warsh. Voting against was Richard W. Fisher, who preferred an increase in the target for the federal funds rate at this meeting. [Emphasis added.]

Despite the comments on inflation, I don’t think that this is an indication of an increase in August. Balanced with the talk of the credit markets and softening labor market, the comments on inflation do not stand out as being sufficiently hawkish to indicate a coming rate hike.

An Inflation Conspiracy?

Those of us who have been hawkish on inflation have been lonely for several months now. However, recent data has suggested that the Federal Reserve may soon start raising rates again. Nevertheless, there are a group of individuals who believe that the inflation numbers are actually worse. Our friend Barry Ritholtz has been leading the charge claiming that BLS data is understating inflation and unemployment (some have referred to these claims as conspiracy theories). I think that Barry is correct to assert that inflation is worse than the numbers indicate, however, I do not think that the numbers are the problem.

The real problem is that our focus is always on the overall price level rather than relative prices. Commodity prices are on the rise, and will continue to be, so long as the world remains awash in liquidity and real interest rates remain low. The former stokes the demand fire and the latter provides a disincentive for discovery and investment. Looking at the overall price level, it seems as though inflation is quite modest all things considered (albeit above most economists comfort level). The reason that inflation seems so much worse than the numbers indicate is because the prices of things that most consumers consider necessities, like gasoline and food, are experiencing the most rapid increases. In an economy where homeowners were (are?) more leveraged than they have ever been, they are now seeing their wealth decline due to falling home prices while simultaneously experiencing an increase in the costs of food and gasoline.

The world has largely been awash in liquidity for the better part of this decade. Despite this increase in liquidity, price indices have largely been held down by the rapid productivity growth beginning at the end of the 1990s and continuing through the first half of this decade. These low levels of inflation, however, were providing incorrect signals to central banks and fears of deflation reinforced the easy money policies. The proverbial chickens, however, are now coming home to roost. Productivity has begun to slow and can no longer be counted on to hold down prices.

What can the Fed do?

The best solution that the Fed can provide is to begin raising the Federal funds rate. Aggressively raising rates should start to reign in liquidity and lower inflation expectations. Higher real interest rates should provide the incentive for an increase in oil production and reigning in liquidity should reduce demand thereby putting downward pressure on oil prices and likely other commodities as well. Critics may charge that the economy cannot cope with higher interest rates. However, so long as the Fed stands ready to act as lender of last resort (a role they have performed well thus far), the U.S. economy should be able to weather the storm.

There may not be an inflation conspiracy, but inflation is a much bigger problem than the numbers indicate. It is time for the Fed to reverse course and start raising interest rates.

A Final Word on Uncertainty

Gabriel responds in the comments to the previous post (my thoughts are in bold):

So, what are you _practically_ going to do about it? A stylized model that you might think is literally wrong is better than no model at all.

I staunchly disagree with this assertion.  To paraphrase Keynes, “I’d rather be somewhat correct than completely wrong.”  That point, however, is not as important as your first question.  Practically, there are many things that we can do about it.  The work of Roman Frydman and Michael Goldberg in Imperfect Knowledge Economics represents a step in the right direction as does the work of the complexity theorists who are devising models with realistic expectations.

The world might be non-ergodic (I happen to think that it’s not, properly conceived, but whatever) but even if it isn’t, it might still make sense to model it as if it were.

I disagree here as well.  To quote Frydman and Goldberg (ibid, 4):

“To construct such models, which we refer to as fully predetermined,  contemporary economists mus fully prespecify how market participants alter their decisions and how resulting aggregate outcomes unfold over time.  By design, contemporary models rule out the importance of individual creativity in coping with inherently imperfect knowlege and unforeseen changes in the social context.”

Even if the world is ergodic, individuals do not possess the perfect knowledge assumed by rational expectations (a non-ergodic world would undoubtedly imply imperfect knowledge).  The a priori assumptions that we use in the current choice-theoretic framework are flawed.  This need not suggest that we abandon such modeling, but rather modify it to be more in touch with reality.

There are many economists who are trying to give meaning to uncertainty and imperfect knowledge in contemporary theory.  The work of Ned Phelps, Axel Leijonhufvud, Robert Clower, Arthur Okun, Armen Alchian and others were the first wave of such theorists and it has since spread to Roman Frydman, Michael Goldberg, Brian Arthur, Barkley Rosser, and countless others.  I would recommend reading Ned Phelps’s Nobel Prize lecture, specifically the sections on knowledge and uncertainty.

More on Radical Uncertainty

Gabriel Mihalache has criticized the views of myself and others on radical uncertainty as follows:

Some people wrongly interpreted Caplan’s point as being one about markets, so they jumped at a chance to criticize a set of complete, contingent markets, but a) this is not about markets, but rather about agents; and b) neoclassical economics can be done with incomplete markets or no markets at all!

Contingent claim markets are used in models of representative agents, so I am not sure where this criticism quite fits. The problem that I have with contingent claim markets and the use of representative agents in general equilibrium theory is far too expansive for a blog post. Similarly, I do not want to get bogged down with other elements of GE theory.

First, I would point out that the world is non-ergodic (to use a term of Doug North, Paul Davidson, and others). As the quote from Keynes in my previous post as well as the work of Schumpeter on creative destruction indicates that there is no probability distribution that exists for invention, innovation, etc. Similarly, as Doug North points out, economists treat uncertainty (as defined in the Knightian sense of the word) as though it is a rare case, when in fact, “it has been the underlying condition responsible for the evolving structure of human organization throughout history and pre-history” (Understanding the Process of Economic Change, Douglass C. North, p. 14).

Thus, ignoring the misuse of uncertainty in the general equilibrium framework, let’s use the classical example of risk and uncertainty from microeconomics. An actuarially fair insurance premium would be such that:

Premium = p*L

where p is the probability of the event and L is the loss. (We can expand this to include a risk premium, but it would not embolden our analysis). Of course, in reality, there are cases where both p and L are unknown. Suppose, for example, one wanted to purchase insurance against the risk of the price of a given commodity falling over an extended period of time. What is the likely price of that commodity 5 years hence? 3 years? 1 year? 3 months? What is the probability that the price will fall? As Keynes would say, “About these matter there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability…”

I am in no way trying to argue that models or risk and uncertainty should be abandoned. They are clearly useful in cases in which the probabilities and potential losses are explicitly known. However, we would do well to recognize that the world is not ergodic and that always and everywhere modeling it as such is an impediment to our understanding of complex human interaction.

Radical Uncertainty

Bryan Caplan has issued a challenge:

Austrian economists often attack the mainstream for ignoring something they call “radical uncertainty,” “sheer ignorance,” or sometimes “Knightian uncertainty.” A common Austrian slogan is that “Neoclassical economists study only cases where people know that they don’t know; we study cases where people don’t know that they don’t know.”

All of this sounds plausible until you press the Austrian to do one of two things:

1. Explain his point using standard probability language. What probability does “don’t know that you don’t know” correspond to? Zero? But if people really assigned p=0 to an event, than the arrival of counter-evidence should make them think that they are delusional, not than a p=0 event has occured.

2. Give a good concrete example.

Austrians (as well as Post Keynesians), I believe, are correct to criticize neoclassical theory in this manner. Neoclassical theory assumes that there is a market of complete contingent contracts with an assigned probability for each anticipated state. This undoubtedly does not reflect reality as there exist states for which no contract is traded. As Keynes explained in “The General Theory of Employment” in the QJE in 1937:

But at any given time facts and expectations were assumed [by the classical economists] to be given in a definite and calculable form; and risks, of which, though admitted, not much notice was taken, were supposed to be capable of an exact actuarial computation. The calculus of probability, though mention of it was kept in the background, was supposed to be capable of reducing uncertainty to the same calculable status as that of certainty itself.

Actually, however, we have, as a rule, only the vaguest idea of any by the most direct consequences of our acts … Thus the fact that our knowledge of the future is fluctuating, vague and uncertain, renders wealth a peculiarly unsuitable subject for the methods of the classical economic theory.

By uncertain knowledge, let me explain, I do not mean merely to distinguish what is known for certain from what is merely probable … The sense in which I am using the term is that in which the price of copper and the rate of interest twenty years hence, or the obsolescence of a new invention are uncertain. About these matter there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever. [Emphasis added.]

The infamous beauty contest described in the General Theory is also a particularly useful analogy for stock market activity and speculation. Of course Keynes was overly pessimistic, in my view, of our ability to form meaningful expectations. Roger Koppl, for example, bridges the gap between Keynes and reality in Big Players and the Economic Theory of Expectations by discussing the emergence of planning horizons, in which each point in the future grows evermore uncertain and therefore the more distant the period, the more open-ended one’s expectations must become. Nevertheless, Keynes’ views on probability theory and economics is much more grounded in reality than the Arrow-Debreu markets for contingent claims.

Perhaps ironically, Keynes’ views on uncertainty are greatly complemented by the work of F.A. Hayek. Whereas Keynes explicitly laid out a vision of why things go wrong, Hayek countered (although not directly) by explaining how things could go right. Hayek’s work on economics and knowledge (here and here, for example) details how, even in the presence of uncertainty and dispersed knowledge, markets serve coordinate behavior and produce efficient outcomes. Similarly, Hayek’s writing on expectations detail how an individual’s views evolve over time and adjust in response to confirmation (or lack thereof) of expectations. Overall, the market provides signals through prices as well as through the profit and loss mechanism and therefore individuals are able to evaluate their expectations and evolve accordingly. Thus, Keynes provides the outline for the radical uncertainty that individuals face and Hayek explains how individuals are able to overcome and cope with said uncertainty. As I have stated previously, this is a much better description of reality than Arrow-Debreu contingent claims.

As to Bryan’s questions, in assigning probabilities (p = x, for example) for events that people don’t know that they don’t know, it is irrelevant what value x takes on as long as their expectations are proven grossly incorrect ex post or the probability of such an event precludes the existence of a contingent contract for that event. Had one posed a question on September 10, 2001 regarding the probability of a terrorist attack the following day the mean probability would undoubtedly not have been equal to 1 (it would likely have been less than 0.01) and I would venture to guess that it is even unlikely that one would have received a single response of 100%. Similarly, for Tyler Cowen’s example of the arrival of the Spaniards.

Inflation and Why this “Feels” Like a Recession

Paul Krugman writes:

But as I said, this time around there’s no wage-price spiral in sight.

The inflation hawks point out that consumers are, for the first time in decades, telling pollsters that they expect a sharp rise in prices over the next year. Fair enough.

But where are the unions demanding 11-percent-a-year wage increases? (Where are the unions, period?) Consumers are worried about inflation, but you have to search far and wide to find workers demanding compensation in the form of higher wages, let alone employers willing to accept those demands. In fact, wage growth actually seems to be slowing, thanks to the weakness of the job market.

And since there isn’t a wage-price spiral, we don’t need higher interest rates to get inflation under control. When the surge in commodity prices levels off — and it will; the laws of supply and demand haven’t been repealed — inflation will subside on its own.

Krugman is right in pointing out that wages are not beginning (or in the midst of) an inflationary spiral. Krugman seems to blame the invisible presence of the unions. Their invisibility could be due to their declining power and/or the fact that inflation today is quite different than the 1970s, but not for reasons that Krugman emphasizes. In my view, it is not the case that invisibility of the labor unions is the cause of a different kind of inflation, but rather that a different kind of inflation is causing the invisibility of the unions.

During the 1970s, the inflation rate was rising at a much higher rate than is currently the case. Energy prices were high, but there were also a great deal of other prices on the rise as well. As Krugman points out:

In May 1981, the United Mine Workers signed a contract with coal mine operators locking in wage increases averaging 11 percent a year over the next three years. The union demanded such a large pay hike because it expected the double-digit inflation of the late 1970s to continue; the mine owners thought they could afford to meet the union’s demands because they expected big future increases in coal prices, which had risen 40 percent over the previous three years.

Where the current situation is different is that the rise in the price level is less diversified. Food and energy prices are leading the charge, while technology and globalization are putting downward pressure on other prices. The result is that despite the fact that prices of consumer staples are rising, the overall inflation rate remains low by historical standards. This may also explain Krugman’s claim that, “it feels like a recession to most people” even if it technically isn’t. When the economy is slowing and the prices of consumer staples are rising, it forces some belt-tightening.

What to do about the current situation, however, is somewhat more difficult. Krugman believes that there is too much risk involved in raising rates and precipitating further crisis in the financial markets. However, one must also bear in mind that the low rate policies in the wake of September 11 and afterward largely set the stage for the current credit crisis. In my view, thanks in large part to financial market innovation, inflation targeting has proven to be quite inept. In addition, targeting a rate of inflation and simultaneously ignoring the forces of globalization and productivity growth leads to an environment of easy money. The economy is (and has been) moving ever toward completely inside money of the variety described by Wicksell, which makes monetary policy and especially inflation targeting more difficult to conduct.

In any event, I am convinced that the Fed Funds rate is below the natural rate and leaving it there for some time will only lead to further asset price bubbles. If there are underlying problems in the financial market, we cannot ignore them by keeping rates low and hoping that they will go away.