The U.S. economy has been growing slowly but steadily since the trough of the Great Recession in June 2009. Deep recessions are typically followed by sharp recoveries. Not so this time.
More recently, there is the mystery of low inflation. The Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the core PCE index, has consistently fallen short of its target rate of 2 percent. In July 2017, it came in at a 1.41-percent annual rate. For the Fed, improved growth in employment and the falling unemployment rate should foreshadow a higher inflation rate. The rationale for this is the old Phillips Curve. The reality is that the model is flawed.
That would eventually result in a higher inflation rate. That has not happened. There is still the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet and its creation of a huge stockpile of excess reserves. For years, monetary economists expected those reserves to translate into money creation through bank lending and deposit creation. That would eventually result in a higher inflation rate. That has not happened, a conundrum that has generated a considerable literature.
George Selgin has written several pieces on the topic, most recently his Congressional testimony. In his testimony, Selgin recounts how the Fed began paying interest on bank reserves (both required and excess). Other things equal, that would incentivize banks to hold additional reserves over and above what they would otherwise do. In Selgin’s words, paying IOR was intended to get banks “to hoard reserves.” The move was “an anti-stimulus measure.” Presumably, the Fed did this to keep its expansion of the balance sheet from generating inflation.
The two policies (balance-sheet expansion and IOR) jointly diverted savings from commercial banks to central banks, and thus from more productive to less productive uses. The two policies were a form of financial repression. In Selgin’s words:
The Fed’s current operating system, with its above-market interest rate on reserves and bloated balance-sheet, is very financially repressive. That is one reason for the continuing post-crisis ‘productivity slowdown.’ Yet the same system, far from at least improving basic monetary control, has prevented the Fed for 5 years running from meeting the 2% inflation target it set in 2012.
To summarize Selgin’s argument, first, the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet and the payment of interest on reserves redirected credit toward favored groups (the Treasury and the housing industry) and away from other sectors. It substituted government allocation of credit for market allocation. Second, it contributed to the post-crisis productivity slowdown. And, third, it is the cause of low inflation.
I will examine the arguments in seriatim.
Selgin is surely correct about the first issue. Along with others, I have made the same argument myself.
Selgin would be hard-pressed to defend his second contention. First and foremost, the slowdown in productivity growth predates the economic crisis and recovery. One study dates the slowdown beginning at the end of 2004. Second, the slowdown has occurred in dozens of advanced economies and is a general phenomenon.
Additionally, macroeconomic factors affecting productivity are such things as the size of government and inflation. A recent study finds that both macro factors are negatively related to productivity growth. So, to the extent the Fed kept the lid on inflation, it contributed positively to productivity growth. Thus, there is no apparent linkage between post-2008 monetary policy and an earlier slowdown in productivity growth.
On the issue of low inflation, I don’t know how to read Selgin’s testimony. The Fed has continually missed its inflation target on the low side. Is that a good or bad thing? One can only answer that in terms of an economic model. Lee Hoskins, former president of the Cleveland Fed, has long argued that zero inflation should mean just that: zero inflation with deviations above and below that rate occurring equally often. Selgin has defended productivity-driven deflation in the past. So, maybe zero is too high. Again, the question can be answered only with an economic model.
I now look at the stance of monetary policy in more detail. Has monetary policy been too loose, too tight or about right? Measured by interest rates, monetary policy looks pretty loose. Nominal interest rates have been very low, near zero for a long time, while inflation rates have been low but positive. So, real interest rates have been very low or even negative.
Judged by the growth rate of money, the answer is more complicated. Money growth, as measured by the growth rate of the M2 money supply, has been normal in this economic recovery. There is no obvious break from the trend rate of the growth of money in the past. (Similar stories can be told for narrower and broader measures of money.) Whether because of, or despite unorthodox monetary policy, the supply of money has been expanding much as it has in the past. So, measured by the growth rate of M2, monetary policy has not been obviously tight. It is not the source of low inflation.
I would suggest the rise in money demand, and concomitant fall in velocity, reflect a flight to liquidity by the public. What has not behaved normally, however, is velocity. M2 has fallen to a record low level. And it has fallen very sharply from its peak in the 1990s.
If there is a monetary story in the current recovery, it is on the demand side. Movements in velocity, rather than in the supply of money, seemed to have financed the hi-tech boom. Velocity began its decline before the dotcom bust. After a recovery in the 2000s, it began a decline before the economic crisis. I associate the movements in velocity with the rise and fall of shadow banking. But establishing that would require a separate study. For now, call it velocity’s dance.
I would suggest the rise in money demand, and concomitant fall in velocity, reflect a flight to liquidity by the public. The accumulation of reserves by banks reflects a similar scramble for liquidity. IOR influenced how banks satisfied their demand for liquidity but did not create the demand. Banks and the nonbank public both scrambled for liquidity in the wake of the financial crisis. And the demand has not abated in the recovery and expansion.
Credit for business has not been crimped. Measures of credit growth seem normal when compared to past recoveries, For instance, after a slow start (and initial decline), commercial and industrial loans have grown as in past recoveries.
If the Fed can be faulted, it is for not factoring in the large swings in velocity over the last three decades. For a class of models, comprising monetarist, Austrian, and Keynesian approaches, stabilizing MV (level or growth rate) is a central bank’s responsibility. It would have been no easy task to offset the rise of shadow banking in the 1990s. It would likely have required not just an activist monetary policy, but also regulatory intervention. The tenor of the times went in the opposite direction, however. The Greenspan Fed was for light regulation, and legislation (Gramm-Bliley-Leach) was designed to regularize shadow banking. These actions may have been justified from a regulatory perspective, but they had unintended monetary consequences.
As to the current recovery and expansion, different approaches provide different answers to whether monetary policy was expansionary, contractionary or just right. That reflects an unsettled state of monetary theory.
Monetary economists should also take note of arguments advanced by Jerry Jordan and others that, under the new operating procedures, the Fed cannot influence aggregate economic activity. That is a more fundamental and long-run issue.
Finally, what can we say of the weak economic expansion in the post-crisis era? I suspect that monetary theory cannot explain it, certainly not entirely. That suggests a role for a different explanation, possibly a microeconomic one.
Reprinted from ThinkMarkets