Fiscal and monetary policy in a liquidity trap

Not bad, but let’s take it up to the next level.

Comments below:

Fiscal and monetary policy in a liquidity trap

By Martin Wolf

With floating fx, it’s always a ‘liquidity trap’ in that adding liquidity to a system necessarily not liquidity constrained is moot.

Part 1

What is the correct approach to fiscal and monetary policy when an economy is depressed and the central bank’s rate of interest is close to zero? Does the independence of the central bank make it more difficult to reach the right decisions? These are two enormously important questions raised by current circumstances in the US, the eurozone, Japan and the UK.

With floating fx, it’s always about a fiscal adjustment, directly or indirectly.

Broadly speaking, I can identify three macroeconomic viewpoints on these questions:
1. The first is the pre-1930 belief in balanced budgets and the gold standard (or some other form of a-political money).

Yes, actual fixed fx policy, where the monetary system is continuously liquidity constrained by design.

2. The second is the religion of balanced budgets and managed money, with Milton Friedman’s monetarism at the rules-governed end of the spectrum and independent inflation-targeting central banks at the discretionary end.

Yes, the application of fixed fx logic to a floating fx regime.

3. The third demands a return to Keynesian ways of thinking, with “modern monetary theory” (in which monetary policy and central banks are permanently subservient to fiscal policy) at one end of the policy spectrum, and temporary resort to active fiscal policy at the other.

MMT recognizes the difference in monetary dynamics between fixed and floating fx regimes.

In this note, I do not intend to address the first view, though I recognise that it has substantial influence, particularly in the Republican Party. I also do not intend to address Friedman’s monetarism, which has lost purchase on contemporary policy-makers, largely because of the views that the demand for money is unstable and the nature of money ill-defined. Finally, I intend to ignore “modern monetary theory” which would require a lengthy analysis of its own.

This leaves us with the respectable contemporary view that the best way to respond to contemporary conditions is via fiscal consolidation and aggressive monetary policy, and the somewhat less respectable view that aggressive fiscal policy is essential when official interest rates are close to zero.

Two new papers bring light from the second of these perspectives. One is co-authored by Paul McCulley, former managing director of Pimco and inventor of the terms “Minsky moment” and “shadow banking”, and Zoltan Pozsar, formerly at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and now a visiting scholar at the International Monetary Fund.* The other is co-authored by J. Bradford DeLong of the university of California at Berkeley, and Lawrence Summers, former US treasury secretary and currently at Harvard university. **

Unfortunately, and fully understood, is the imperative for you to select from ‘celebrity’ writers regardless of the quality of the content.

The paper co-authored by Mr McCulley and Mr Pozsar puts the case for aggressive fiscal policy. The US, they argue, is in a “liquidity trap”: even with official interest rates near zero, the incentive for extra borrowing, lending and spending in the private sector is inadequate.

An output gap is the evidence that total spending- public plus private- is inadequate. And yes, that can be remedied by an increase in private sector borrowing to spend, and/or a fiscal adjustment by the public sector towards a larger deficit via either an increase in spending and/or tax cut, depending on one’s politics.

The explanation for this exceptional state of affairs is that during the credit boom and asset-price bubble that preceded the crisis, large swathes of the private sector became over-indebted. Once asset prices fell, erstwhile borrowers were forced to reduce their debts. Financial institutions were also unwilling to lend. They needed to strengthen their balance sheets. But they also confronted a shortage of willing and creditworthy borrowers.

Yes, for any reason if private sector spending falls short of full employment levels, a fiscal adjustment can do the trick.

This raises an interesting question:

Is it ‘better’, for example, to facilitate the increase in spending through a private sector credit expansion, or through a tax cut that allows private sector spending to increase via increased income, or through a government spending increase?

The answer is entirely political. The output gap can be closed with any/some/all of those options.

In such circumstances, negative real interest rates are necessary, but contractionary economic conditions rule that out.

I see negative nominal rates as a tax that will reduce income and net financial assets of the non govt sectors, even as it may increase some private sector credit expansion. And the reduction of income and net financial assets works to reduce the credit worthiness of the non govt sectors reducing their ability to borrow to spend.

Instead, there is a danger of what the great American economist, Irving Fisher called “debt deflation”: falling prices raise the real burden of debt, making the economic contraction worse.

Yes, though he wrote in the context of fixed fx policy, where that tends to happen as well, though under somewhat different circumstances and different sets of forces.

A less extreme (and so more general) version of the idea is “balance-sheet recession”, coined by Richard Koo of Nomura. That is what Japan had to manage in the 1990s.

With floating fx they are all balance sheet recessions. There is no other type of recession.

This is how the McCulley-Pozsar paper makes the point: “deleveraging is a beast of burden that capitalism cannot bear alone. At the macroeconomic level, deleveraging must be a managed process: for the private sector to deleverage without causing a depression, the public sector has to move in the opposite direction . . . by effectively viewing the balance sheets of the monetary and fiscal authorities as a consolidated whole.

Correct, in the context of today’s floating fx. With fixed fx that option carries the risk of rising rates for the govt and default/devaluation.

“Fiscal austerity does not work in a liquidity trap and makes as much sense as putting an anorexic on a diet. Yet ‘diets’ are the very prescriptions that fiscal ‘austerians’ have imposed (or plan to impose) in the US, UK and eurozone. Austerians fail to realise, however, that everyone cannot save at the same time and that, in liquidity traps, the paradox of thrift and depression are fellow travellers that are functionally intertwined.”

Agreed for floating fx. Fixed fx is another story, where forced deflation via austerity does make the maths work, though most often at an impossible social cost.

Confronted by this line of argument, austerians (a term coined by Rob Parenteau, a research associate at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College), make three arguments:

1. additional borrowing will add heavily to future debt and so be an unreasonable burden on future generations;
2. increased borrowing will crowd out private borrowing;
3. bond investors will stop buying and push yields up.

Which does happen with fixed fx policy.

In a liquidity trap, none of these arguments hold.

With floating fx, none of these hold in any scenario.

Experience over the last four years (not to mention Japan’s experience over the past 20 years) has demonstrated that governments operating with a (floating) currency do not suffer a constraint on their borrowing. The reason is that the private sector does not wish to borrow, but wants to cut its debt, instead. There is no crowding out.

Right, because floating fx regimes are by design not liquidity constrained.

Moreover, adjustment falls on the currency, not on the long-term rate of interest.

Right, and again, unlike fixed fx.

In the case of the US, foreigners also want to lend, partly in support of their mercantilist economic policies.

Actually, they want to accumulate dollar denominated financial assets, which we call lending.

Note that both reserve balances at the Fed and securities account balances at the Fed (treasury securities) are simply dollar deposits at the Fed.

Alas, argue Mr McCulley and Mr Pozsar, “held back by concerns borne out of these orthodoxies, . . . governments are not spending with passionate purpose. They are victims of intellectual paralysis borne out of inertia of dogma . . . As a result, their acting responsibly, relative to orthodoxy, and going forth with austerity may drag economies down the vortex of deflation and depression.”

Right. Orthodoxy happens to be acting as if one was operating under a fixed fx regime even though it’s in fact a floating fx regime.

Finally, they note, “the importance of fiscal expansion and the impotence of conventional monetary policy measures in a liquidity trap have profound implications for the conduct of central banks. This is because in a liquidity trap, the fat-tail risk of inflation is replaced by the fat-tail risk of deflation.”

The risk of excess aggregate demand is replaced by the risk of inadequate aggregate demand.

And the case can be made that lower rates reduce aggregate demand via the interest income channels, as the govt is a net payer of interest.

In this situation, we do not need independent central banks that offset – and so punish – fiscally irresponsible governments. We need central banks that finance – and so encourage – economically responsible (though “fiscally irresponsible”) governments.

Not the way I would say it but understood.

When private sector credit growth is constrained, monetisation of public debt is not inflationary.

While I understand the point, note that ‘monetisation’ is a fixed fx term not directly applicable to floating fx in this context.

Indeed, it would be rather good if it were inflationary, since that would mean a stronger recovery, which would demand swift reversal of the unorthodox policy mix.

The conclusion of the McCulley-Pozsar paper is, in brief, that aggressive fiscal policy does work in the unusual circumstances of a liquidity trap, particularly if combined with monetisation. But conventional wisdom blocks full use of the unorthodox tool kit. Historically, political pressure has destroyed such resistance. Political pressure drove the UK off gold in 1931. But it also brought Hitler to power in Germany in 1933. The eurozone should take note.

Remarkably, in the circumstances of a liquidity trap, enlarged fiscal deficits are likely to reduce future levels of privately held public debt rather than raise them.

As if that aspect matters?

The view that fiscal deficits might provide such a free lunch is the core argument of the paper by DeLong and Summers, to which I will turn in a second post.

Free lunch entirely misses the point.

Why does the size the balances in Fed securities accounts matter as suggested, with floating fx policy?