Monthly Archives: September 2014

What Do We Want Out of Macroeconomics?

Mark Thoma recently wrote a piece on the failures of macroeconomics and the need for new thinking in macroeconomics. His main criticisms are as follows:

  1. Existing macroeconomic models failed to give warning about the financial crisis.
  2. The models failed to give us policy guidance.
  3. There is too much emphasis on representative agents.
  4. Macroeconomists did not think questions about financial markets were worth asking.
  5. During the Great Moderation, economists didn’t spend enough time thinking about why things were going well.
  6. In 2003, Robert Lucas proclaimed that depression-prevention policy had been solved and this sentiment was shared by others of importance within the profession thereby making it more difficult to get work on such topics published.

I should note that Thoma also criticizes the critics. He argues that the scorn leveled at dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models is misplaced. These models and techniques were developed to answer specific questions. Thus, we should expect them to answer the questions they ask, but we shouldn’t necessarily expect more than that.

Nonetheless, I would like to consider his criticisms point-by-point.

  • Points 1 and 2 above are not (necessarily) fair criticisms of macroeconomics.
  • While I agree that there is too much emphasis on representative agents in RBC models and New Keynesian models, there is considerable work in macroeconomics involving heterogeneous agents.
  • Economists were actually thinking quite a bit about financial markets.
  • Economists were actually thinking quite a bit about the Great Moderation (including yours truly).
  • This discussion of Robert Lucas and his 2003 lecture is unfair to Lucas.

In his first two points, Thoma makes two distinct statements. First, he argues that modern macroeconomics does not equip us with models to explain the financial crisis and recession. Second, he argues that because of these models, economists were able to provide zero guidance to policymakers.

Macroeconomists think about recessions as coming from some exogenous shock. By definition, a shock is unknown and unpredictable. According to Thoma, a successful macroeconomic program would be one that provides models that explain what happens after the shock and provides policy guidance in the event that the policy. The implication thus seems to be that if we economists had the right models, we would know what was going to happen and could prevent the recession from being severe by enacting the necessary policy response.

This certainly sounds reasonable. Nonetheless, I actually think that this is a high bar for what we should expect from macroeconomics and macroeconomists. To understand why, consider the following example. Suppose there is some exogenous shock to the economy. There are two possible scenarios. In Scenario 1, macroeconomists have models that describe how the shock will affect the economy and the proper policy response. In Scenario 2, macroeconomists have no such models.

In Scenario 1, we avoid a severe recession. In Scenario 2, we could possibly have a severe recession. However, note something very important about our example. Given this logic, the only time that we would have a severe recession is when macroeconomists are ill-prepared to explain what is likely to happen and to provide a policy response. Thus, given Thoma’s expectations about macroeconomics, we should conclude that macroeconomics has failed every single time there is a severe recession. This seems like a very high bar.

As a result, I do not think that this is a fair criticism of macroeconomics. No matter how much we know, our knowledge will be imperfect and so long as our knowledge is imperfect we are going to have severe recessions.

This point is important because Thoma argues that the reason that we lacked a proper policy response to severe recessions was because people like Robert Lucas thought we didn’t need to study such things. However, this is a very uncharitable view of what Lucas stated in his lecture (read it here). Thoma quotes Krugman who quotes Lucas as saying “depression prevention has been solved.” Sure enough, the quote is there in the introduction. Lucas said it. Lucas then spends the rest of the paper comparing the welfare costs of business cycles to the welfare benefits of supply-side policies. However, if you read all the way through to the conclusion, you will note that Lucas actually has something to say about macroeconomic stabilization policies:

If business cycles were simply efficient responses of quantities and prices to unpredictable shifts in technology and preferences, there would be no need for distinct stabilization or demand management policies and certainly no point to such legislation as the Employment Act of 1946. If, on the other hand, rigidities of some kind prevent the economy from reacting efficient to nominal or real shocks, or both, there is a need to design suitable policies and to assess their performance. In my opinion, this is the case: I think that the stability of monetary aggregates and nominal spending in the postwar United States is a major reason for the stability of aggregate production and consumption during these years, relative to the experience of the interwar period and the contemporary experience of other economies. If so, this stability must be seen in part as an achievement of the economists, Keynesian and monetarist, who guided economic policy over these years.

The question I have addressed in this lecture is whether stabilization policies that go beyond the general stabilization of spending that characterizes the last 50 years, whatever form they might take, promise important increase in welfare. The answer to this question is no.

So when Lucas says that the depression-preventing policy problem has been solved, he actually provides examples of what he means by depression-prevention policies. According to Lucas preventing severe recessions occurs when policymakers stabilize the monetary aggregates and nominal spending. This is essentially the same depression-prevention policies advocated by Friedman and Schwartz. Given that view, he doesn’t think that trying to mitigate cyclical fluctuations will have as large of an effect on welfare as supply-side policies.

Nonetheless, Thoma’s quote and his remark imply that Lucas was wrong (i.e. that we haven’t actually solved depression-prevention). Of course, in order for Lucas to be wrong the following would have to be true: (1) Lucas says policy X prevents severe recessions, (2) We enacted policy X and still had a severe recession. In reality, however, we never got anything that looked like Lucas’s policy. The growth in monetary aggregates did not remain stable. In fact, broad money growth was negative. In addition, nominal spending did not remain stable. In fact, nominal spending declined for the first time since the Great Depression. We cannot conclude that Lucas was wrong about policy because we didn’t actually use the policies he advocates.

This brings me to a broader point. Thoma argues that Lucas’s thinking was indicative of the profession as a whole (or at least the gatekeepers of the profession). This ties directly into his argument that economists spent far too little time trying to explain the Great Moderation. This simply isn’t true. John Taylor, Richard Clarida, Mark Gertler, Jordi Gali, Ben Bernanke, and myself all argued that it was a change in monetary policy that caused the Great Moderation. Others, like Jonathan McCarthy and Egon Zakrajsek argued that improvements in inventory management due to innovations in information technology were a source of the Great Moderation. James Stock and Mark Watson argued that the Great Moderation was mostly result of good luck. Thus, to say that people didn’t care about understanding the Great Moderation is unfair.

Similarly, his criticism that economists simply didn’t care enough about financial markets is unfounded. Townsend’s work on costly state verification and the follow-up work by Steve Williamson, Tim Fuerst, Charles Carlstrom, Ben Bernanke, Mark Gertler, Simon Gilchrist, and others represents a long line of research on the role of financial markets. Carlstrom and Fuerst and well as Bernanke, Gertler, and Gilchrist found that financial markets can serve as a propagation mechanism for other exogenous shocks. These frameworks were so important in the profession that if you pick up Carl Walsh’s textbook on monetary economics there is an entire chapter dedicated to this sort of thing. It is therefore hard to argue the profession didn’t take financial markets seriously.

The same thing can be said about representative agent models. Like Thoma, I share the opinion that progress means moving away from representative agents. However, the profession began this process long ago. While the basic real business cycle model and the New Keynesian model still have representative agents, there has been considerable attention paid to heterogeneous agent models. Labor market and monetary search models contain heterogenous agents and not only get away from a representative agent framework, but also dispense with Walrasian market clearing.

But perhaps more important for this discussion is the work of the late Bruce Smith. Throughout his career, Smith was trying to integrate monetary models in which money and banking were actually essential to the model with growth and business cycle models. Look at a list of Smith’s work, which encompasses over 20 years of thinking about money, banking, and business cycles in frameworks with heterogeneous agents and in which money and banks are essential for trade to take place. It is hard to argue that the profession doesn’t take these issues seriously when one can establish such a long, quality research record doing so.

I agree with Thoma that we need to make progress in macroeconomics. We live in a complex and uncertain world and are tasked with trying to understand how millions of individual decisions produce equilibrium outcomes. It is a complex task and we do need to ask the right questions and develop frameworks to answer these questions. Nonetheless, to argue that macroeconomists aren’t already asking these questions and working on these tools does a disservice to macroeconomists and macroeconomics more generally.

On the Price of Money and Monetary Policy

It has become commonplace recently to discuss quantitative easing in the context of a comparison between the rates of return on T-bills with the interest rate paid on excess reserves. Money, however, is defined vaguely and the comparison of reserves with T-bills is a limiting case considering the scope of open market purchases conducted by the Federal Reserve in recent years. In all of the discussion, however, there is a neglected aspect of analysis and that aspect is in regards to the price of money.

Initially, it might seem odd to think about the “price of money.” Goods are priced in terms of money. So what is meant by the price of money? Often times, people think of the price of money as simply the reciprocal of the price of the good. In other words, if a banana costs 50 cents, then the price of a dollar is two bananas. Others see the price of hold money as an opportunity cost. In other words, by holding money, I am giving up some amount of rate of return. Thus, “the” interest rate is often considered the price of money. The interest rate, however, is not the price of money. The interest rate is the price of credit. So what is a meaningful definition of the price of money? Fortunately, the literature on monetary aggregation provides an answer to this question that is actually based on economic theory.

To define the price of money, we first need to define what we mean by money. Money consists of a lot of different things. Currency is money, a checking account or a savings account is money, and some have argued that due to things like repurchase agreements, even T-bills can be considered money. So if all these things can be considered money, how can we begin to define the price of money. As it turns out, each different type of money has its own price and every definition of a monetary aggregate has a corresponding price index.

Before getting to this, let’s first take a detour through monetary theory.

Traditional courses on monetary theory often start with a discussion about fiat money. Why would anybody hold fiat currency? It is clearly dominated in rate of return. Thus, shouldn’t people hold something else, like capital? Monetary theory has a lot of different answers to this question. For example, currency is assumed to be more liquid than other assets (i.e. there are lower transaction costs associated with using currency than other assets) or individuals value the constant (zero) rate of return in comparison to a stochastic (perhaps negative) rate of return, etc. Regardless of the reason, the general theme is that there are characteristics that currency has and that other assets do not have. Those characteristics create a non-pecuniary yield.

This is not only true of a comparison of say currency and capital, but also true of a comparison of currency with other types of things that we often consider “money”, such as a checking account or savings account, or a certificate of deposit. While these other forms of money might bear interest, some places refuse to accept checks, getting money out of a savings account might require a trip to the bank, withdrawing money from a certificate of deposit requires a transaction fee, etc. Thus, there is a trade-off between money and non-money, but there is also a trade-off between different forms of money. Less liquid forms of money yield higher rates of return, but the transactions costs associated with spending that money are higher.

These characteristics of different types of money are important. The reason that they are important is because they highlight the fact that different types of money and different types of assets more generally are imperfect substitutes for one another, a characteristic that is important when thinking about monetary policy. In addition, consider the counterfactual. If all different types of money were perfect substitutes, then individuals would only hold the money asset with the highest rate of return.

So what does this have to do with the price of money?

When we think about money, it is important to think about money in the way that we think about durable goods. Money provides a flow of services over time. As a result, the proper way to think about the price of money is to think about money in terms of its user cost. As Barnett (1978) derived, the real user cost of a given monetary asset i at time t is given as

u_{it} = {{R_t - r_{it}}\over{1 + R_t}}

where u_{it} is the user cost of asset i at time t, R_t is some benchmark rate of return, and r_{it} is the rate of return of asset i. Thus, the user cost of holding a given type of money is the discounted present value of the opportunity cost of holding that asset rather than the benchmark asset that doesn’t provide any sort of monetary services. It is important to note that this captures the features of money describe above. An asset that is more liquid will have a lower rate of return and therefore a higher user cost. Nonetheless, individuals will be willing to hold assets with different user costs because the assets are imperfectly substitutable. The price of a monetary aggregate is then given by the share-weighted average of each of the components in a given monetary aggregate.

So why is this important for monetary policy?

A lot of the analysis of quantitative easing focuses on the fact that the Fed is now swapping an interest-bearing asset for another interest-bearing asset. From the perspective of a bank, reserves are more liquid than T-bills since banks can use reserves to settle payments, but not (directly) using T-bills. Thus, consider how monetary policy ordinarily works according to what Ben Bernanke refers to as the portfolio channel of monetary transmission. Suppose that we begin in equilibrium. A bank is holding a given amount of reserves and a given amount of T-bills. The Federal Reserve then purchases T-bills, reducing the supply of T-bills and the increasing the supply of reserves. Assuming that the bank was content with its allocation, it then decides to re-allocate its portfolio (i.e. get rid of the reserves by purchasing other stuff). This re-allocation then has real effects on the economy.

Some have argued that with the Federal Reserve paying interest on reserves, however, banks have no incentive to do this. In other words, the bank receiving the reserves actually gets a marginal increase in liquidity without sacrificing the rate of return. Thus, there is no reason to re-allocate and no corresponding real effects. However, this ignores the fact that quantitative easing has taken a variety of forms. Not all rounds of quantitative easing has entailed buying T-bills. Nevertheless, some have claimed that buying 10-year Treasury bonds instead of T-bills has no effect other than to change the slope of the yield curve.

Regardless of whether the critics of quantitative easing have been correct in the context of the argument above, there is one thing that hasn’t been discussed: the price of money. What effect do large scale purchases of MBS have on the price of money? Is the price of money more sensitive to the purchases of long term bonds or mortgage-backed securities? The counter-argument to the portfolio view espoused by Bernanke suggests quantities don’t matter because relative prices adjust without any corresponding real effects. However, even if we take that view as true, then it must be the case the price of money is changing. This would seem to matter since shocks to the price of money have been shown to have significant effects on real output.

Anyway, just some food for thought.