Some Thoughts on Liquidity

The quantity theory relates not so much to money as to the whole array of financial assets exogenously supplied by the government. If the government debt is doubled in the absence of a government-determined monetary base the price level doubles just as well as in the case of a doubling of the monetary base in the absence of government debt. — Jurg Niehans, 1982

Seemingly lost in the discussion of monetary policies various QEs is a meaningful resolution of our understanding of the monetary transmission mechanism.  Sure, New Keynesians argue that forward guidance about the time path of the short term nominal interest rate is the mechanism, Bernanke argues that long term interest rates are the mechanism, and skeptics of the effectiveness of QE argue that it is the interest rate on excess reserves that is the mechanism.  I actually think that these are not the correct way to think about monetary policy.  For example, there are an infinite number of paths for the money supply consistent with a zero lower bound on interest rates.  Even in the New Keynesian model, which purportedly recuses money from monetary policy, the rate of inflation is pinned down by the rate of money growth (see Ed Nelson’s paper on this).  It follows that it is the path of the money supply that is more important to the central bank’s intermediate- and long-term goals.  In addition, it must be the case that the time path of the interest rate outlined by the central bank is consistent with expectations about the future time path of interest rates.  The mechanism advocated by Bernanke is also flawed because the empirical evidence suggests that long term interest rates just don’t matter all that much for investment.

The fact that I see the monetary transmission mechanism differently is because you could consider me an Old Monetarist dressed in New Monetarist clothes with Market Monetarist policy leanings (see why labels are hard in macro).  Given my Old Monetarist sympathies it shouldn’t be surprising that I think the aforementioned mechanisms are not very important.  Old Monetarists long favored quantity targets rather than price targets (i.e. the money supply rather than the interest rate).  I remain convinced that the quantity of money is a much better indicators of the stance of monetary policy.  The reason is not based on conjecture, but actual empirical work that I have done.  For example, in my forthcoming paper in Macroeconomic Dynamics, I show that many of the supposed problems with using money as an indicator of the stance of monetary policy are the result of researchers using simple sum aggregates.  I show that if one uses the Divisia monetary aggregates, monetary variables turn out to be a good indicator of policy.  In addition, changes in real money balances are a good predictor of the output gap (interestingly enough, when you use real balances as an indicator variable, the real interest rate — the favored mechanism of New Keynesians — is statistically insignificant).

Where my New Monetarist sympathies arise is from the explicit nature in which New Monetarism discusses and analyzes the role of money, collateral, bonds, and other assets.  This literature asks important macroeconomic questions using rich microfoundations (as an aside, many of the critics of the microfoundations of modern macro are either not reading the correct literature or aren’t reading the literature at all).  Why do people hold money?  Why do people hold money when other assets that are useful in transactions have a higher yield?  Using frameworks that explicitly provide answers to these questions, New Monetarists then ask bigger questions. What is the cost associated with inflation? What is the optimal monetary policy? How do open market operations work?  The importance of the strong microfoundations is that one is able to answer these latter questions by being explicit about the microeconomic assumptions.  Thus, it is possible to make predictions about policy with an explicit understanding of the underlying mechanisms.

An additional insight of the New Monetarist literature is that the way in which we define “money” has changed substantially over time.  A number of assets such as bonds, mortgage-backed securities, and agency securities are effectively money because of the shadow banking system and the corresponding prevalence of repurchase agreements.  As a result, if one cares about quantitative targets, then one must expand the definition of money.  David Beckworth and I have been working on this issue in various projects.  In our paper on transaction assets shortages, we suggest that the definition of transaction assets needs to be expanded to include Treasuries and privately produced assets that serve as collateral in repurchase agreements.  In addition, we show that the haircuts of private assets significantly reduced the supply of transaction assets and that this decline in transaction assets explains a significant portion of the decline in both nominal and real GDP observed over the most recent recession.

The reason that I bring this up is because this framework allows us not only to suggest a mechanism through which transaction assets shortages emerge and to examine the role of these shortages in the context of the most recent recession, but also because the theoretical framework can provide some insight into how monetary policy works.  So briefly I’d like to explain how monetary policy would work in our model and then discuss how my view of this mechanism is beginning to evolve and what the implications are for policy.

A standard New Monetarist model employs the monetary search framework of Lagos and Wright (2005).  In this framework, economic agents interact in two different markets — a decentralized market and a centralized market.  The terms of trade negotiated in the decentralized market can illustrate the effect of monetary policy on the price level. (I am going to focus my analysis on nominal variables for the time being.  If you want to imagine these policy changes having real effects, just imagine that there is market segmentation between the decentralized market and centralized market such that there are real balance effects from changes in policy.)  In particular the equilibrium condition can be written quite generally as:

P = (M+B)/z(q)

where P is the price level, M is the money supply, B is the supply of bonds, and z is money demand as a function of consumption q.  I am abstracting from the existence of private assets, but the implications are similar to those of bonds.  There are a couple of important things to note here.  First, it is the interaction of the supply and demand for money that determines the price level.  Second, it is the total supply of transaction assets that determines the price level.  This is true regardless of how money is defined.  Third, note that as this equation is presented it is only the total supply of transaction assets that determine the price level and not the composition of those assets.  In other words, as presented above, an exchange of money for bonds does not change the price level.  Open market operations are irrelevant.  However, this point deserves further comment.  While I am not going to derive the conditions in a blog post, the equilibrium terms of trade in the decentralized market will only include the total stock of bonds in the event that all bonds are held for transaction purposes.  In other words, if someone is holding bonds, they are only doing so to finance a transaction.  In this case, money and bonds are perfect substitutes for liquidity.  This implication, however, implies that bonds cannot yield interest.  If bonds yield interest and are just as liquid as money, why would anyone hold money? New Monetarists have a variety of reasons why this might not be the case.  For example, it is possible that bonds are imperfectly recognizable (i.e. they could be counterfeit at a low cost). Alternatively, there might simply be legal restrictions that prevent bonds from being used in particular transactions or since bonds are book-entry items, they might not as easily circulate.  And there are many other explanations as well.  Any of these reasons will suffice for our purposes, so let’s assume that that is a fixed fraction v of bonds that can be used in transactions.  The equilibrium condition from the terms of trade can now be re-written:

P = (M + vB)/z(q)

It now remains true that the total stock of transaction assets (holding money demand constant) determines the price level.  It is now also true that open market operations are effective in influencing the price level.  To summarize, in order for money to circulate alongside interest-bearing government debt (or any other asset for that matter) that can be used in transactions, it must be the case that money yields more liquidity services than bonds.  The difference in the liquidity of the two assets, however, make them imperfect substitutes and imply that open market operations are effective.  It is similarly important to note that nothing has been said about the role of the interest rate.  Money and bonds are not necessarily perfect substitutes even when the nominal interest on bonds is close to zero. Thus, open market operations can be effective for the central bank even if the short term interest rate is arbitrarily close to zero.  In addition, this doesn’t require any assumption about expectations.

The ability of the central bank to hit its nominal target is an important point, but it is also important to examine the implications of alternative nominal targets.  Old Monetarists wanted to target the money supply.  While I’m not opposed to the central bank using money as an intermediate target, I think that there are much better policy targets.  Most central banks target the inflation rate.  Recently, some have advocated targeting the price level and, of course, advocacy for nominal income targeting has similarly been growing.  As I indicated above, my policy leanings are more in line with the Market Monetarist approach, which is to target nominal GDP (preferable the level rather than the growth rate).  The reason that I advocate nominal income targeting, however, differs from some of the traditional arguments.

We live in a world of imperfect information and imperfect markets. As a result, some people face borrowing constraints.  Often these borrowing constraints mean that individuals have to have collateral.  In addition, lending is often constrained by expected income over the course of the loan.  The fact that we have imperfect information, imperfect markets, and subjective preferences means that these debt contracts are often in nominal terms and that the relevant measure of income used in screening for loans is nominal income.  A monetary policy that targets nominal income can potentially play an important role in two ways.  First, a significant decline in nominal income can be potentially harmful in the aggregate.  While there are often claims that households have “too much debt” a collapse in nominal income can actually cause a significant increase and defaults and household deleveraging that reduces output in the short run.  Second, because banks have a dual role in intermediation and money creation, default and deleveraging can reduce the stock of transaction assets.  This is especially problematic in the event of a financial crisis in which the demand for such assets is rising.  Targeting nominal income would therefore potentially prevent widespread default and develeraging (holding other factors constant) as well as allow for the corresponding stability in the stock of privately-produced transaction assets.

Postscript:  Overall, this represents my view on money and monetary policy.  However, recently I have begun to think about the role and the effectiveness of monetary policy more deeply, particularly with regards to the recent recession.  In the example given above, it is assumed that the people using money and bonds for transactions are the same people.  In reality, this isn’t strictly the case.  Bonds are predominantly used in transactions by banks and other firms whereas money is used to some extent by firms, but its use is more prevalent among households.  David Beckworth and I have shown in some of our work together that significant recessions associated with declines in nominal income can be largely explained through monetary factors.  However, in our most recent work, it seems that this particular recession is unique.  Previous monetary explanations can largely be thought of as currency shortages in which households seek to turn deposits into currency and banks seek to build reserves.  The most recent recession seems to be better characterized as a collateral shortage, in particular with respect to privately produced assets.  If that is the case, this calls into question the use of traditional open market operations.  While I don’t doubt the usefulness of these traditional measures, the effects of such operations might be reduced in the present environment since OMOs effectively remove collateral from the system.  It would seem to me that the policy implications are potentially different.  Regardless, I think this is an important point and one worth thinking about.

7 responses to “Some Thoughts on Liquidity

  1. Very interesting. I think that the lack of collateral is just one of the conditionallity for MP. I thnik for example in Spanish problems. The low interest rate of ECB ave no meaning in Spain. The Money offered By ECB can not be Chaneled through Bank until the last borrowed. There is a double problem of demand side (lack of collaterate) and supply side (lack of Financial source for the Bank).

  2. “The most recent recession seems to be better characterized as a collateral shortage, in particular with respect to privately produced assets.”

    I asked David Beckworth to explain this a while back but he never got through to me.

    Bond and other financial asset prices are not sticky and will quickly adjust to accommodate an increased demand to hold transaction assets. So even if the private sector fails to produce new assets, the prices of existing “safe” private and government collateral assets will immediately rise to satisfy demand. How can we ever see a shortage of transactions assets that lasts for more than a few moments?

    • I think that I am using a different definition of shortage. I am not implying that the market doesn’t clear. I am talking about a shortage in terms of efficiency or planned purchases. Consider an example.

      Suppose that buyers and sellers meet to trade. In these meetings, the buyer consumes a quantity q, which is produced by the seller. Suppose that the buyer receives utility, u(q), from this trade. The seller bears a cost, c(q), of producing. For simplicity, let’s assume that whenever a buyer and a seller meet, the buyer uses transaction assets to purchase the good from the seller and that the quantity of transaction assets is just enough to compensate the seller for the cost of production. Now define the quantity that maximizes the buyers utility as q*, the quantity of money as M, and the nominal value of some private asset as p*A (where p is the price of the asset and A is the quantity of the asset).

      It follows from the assumptions above that the cost of producing the optimal quantity, q*, is c(q*). A seller will be willing to supply this quantity if they are justly compensated. Put differently, q* is feasible if

      M + pA >= c(q*)

      Thus, if the individual holds an amount of transaction assets that is greater than or equal to the amount needed to compensate the seller for the level of production q*, then the efficient level of consumption is feasible.

      Now suppose that buyers are holding an amount of transaction assets such that M + pA = c(q). Think of the private asset as a mortgage-backed security. A housing crisis hits. The demand for MBS falls. If we think of this is in the shortest of short runs, then the equilibrium price of MBS falls and the quantity is unchanged. If we think of the short run more generally, this implies that the equilibrium price and quantity both fall. In either case, it is now true that M + pA < c(q*). This means that the buyers no longer have a sufficient amount of liquidity to consume the quantity of the seller's good that maximizes their utility. This condition is what I am referring to when I say that there is a transaction asset shortage. It is not that the market does not clear, but rather that there is an insufficient supply of transaction assets for the buyer to consume the desired quantity.

      Broadly, this is how I interpret the Old Monetarist story of an excess demand for money.

      • Thanks. I see your point.

        Can the price of all assets fall? When I think of events like the housing crisis, I see changes in relative asset prices, not a fall in all asset prices. Sure, MBS fell in price but t-bonds rose so that on net, pA may have stayed constant. Anyone holding MBS as their transaction asset no longer had a sufficient amount of liquidity to consume the quantity of goods that maximized their utility, but anyone holding t-bonds had more than sufficient liquidity to consume and maximize utility.

  3. I find the analysis excellent. A fresh application of Micro theory is always useful. Liquidity as the predictor rather than simply a variable, it shows a true understanding of the subject matter. I question the comments that use the term “falling asset prices”. Assets always have the same value is a conclusion one would draw seeing liquidity as a determinant. Present Value of asset prices reduces when liquidity runs out – that liquidity provided the means to speculate or over pay for the asset…In this light, asset price reduction really means a return to their fair value…I’m no professor in economics, but I do appreciate the forum.

  4. Pingback: TheMoneyIllusion » Does liquidity matter? Wrong question.

  5. JP,

    You ask, “Can the price of all assets fall? When I think of events like the housing crisis, I see changes in relative asset prices, not a fall in all asset prices. Sure, MBS fell in price but t-bonds rose so that on net, pA may have stayed constant.”

    Sure, this is possible. However, I think what I really mean to say is that the aggregate value of assets fall (i.e. the price times the quantity of those assets). Thus, it’s often not just that the prices of these assets fall, but also that the quantities of these assets fall over time.

    In addition, while your suggestion is a theoretical possibility, I think the answer the this question requires empirics. David Beckworth and I have written a paper on this subject and when we look at the data on transaction assets, we find that there has been a sharp decline in the value of privately-produced transaction assets and that the corresponding change in publicly-produced assets hasn’t been enough to offset this decline.

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