I just saw this interesting article in Econbrowser called “New estimates of the effects of the minimum wage.” It is both good news, and bad news.
It is good news because it clarifies a debate about the effect of the minimum wage which has been raging for a long time, but without much actual data. This article summarizes a clever approach by a couple of academic economists to examine the actual effects of increasing the minimum wage. The research produces solid numbers and confirms some theories about the effects of the minimum wage.
The bad news is that the effect of the minimum wage is just what theory says it should be, but liberal politicians have insisted isn’t true in practice. And that’s a net negative effect on overall welfare, albeit divided between winners and losers. However, even that ought to be good news, because this analysis also means that we can reverse the policy and reap immediate gains in consumer welfare.
First, the theory: microeconomics tells us that an increase in the minimum wage, if it is above the equilibrium wage for some types of labor, should decrease employment while increasing the wages of those who actually retain their jobs. (The usual argument for increasing the minimum wage is that the people who earn minimum wage aren’t making enough to live on, and supporters tend to forget that if people lose their jobs because the minimum wage is raised, then those people are making even less.) We often say things are “Econ 101,” but this really is Econ 101 in the sense that it is taught in every introductory economics class. There is no excuse not to know this:
In the chart above, the supply of labor is S and the demand for labor is D. In the absence of a floor (minimum wage), the clearing wage and quantity of jobs is at the intersection; at a minimum wage of a, however, there is a shortage of jobs equal to c-b. If the minimum wage is raised to a’, then the shortage of jobs increases to c’-b’. The question for society is whether the increase in joblessness is an acceptable cost to accept, in order to increase the minimum wage from a to a’. (Of course, the political calculation might also include the fact that people who become unemployed will be supported by the welfare state, and potentially vote to preserve and expand those public institutions that constitute it).
The problem for those who argue against the minimum wage, or for it being increased, is that they can point out this economic truism until they are blue in the face, while the other side simply says “nuh-uh” and denies it is true with the same fervor that they insist that Obamacare has actually lowered premiums and deductibles. The façade only cracks, maybe, when actual data is presented that shows the argument to be bankrupt.
This academic study does that cleverly, by examining changes in employment and wages in states where the federal minimum wage was binding (because the state minimum wage was lower, or non-existent) and states where it was not binding (because the state minimum wage was higher, so the federal minimum wage didn’t matter). Their conclusion:
“Over the late 2000s, the average effective minimum wage rose by 30 percent across the United States. We estimate that these minimum wage increases reduced the national employment-to-population ratio by 0.7 percentage point.”
That’s the sterile conclusion. Now let’s count the cost. Between July 2007 and December 2009, the national employment-to-population ratio (which is similar to, but not the same as, the labor force participation rate) declined from 62.7% to 58.3%; it has since risen to 59.2%. As the chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows, the labor force participation rate (in yellow) shows a more gradual decline but no recovery – as has been well-documented.
Now, some numbers. In November, the Civilian noninstitutional population (the denominator for the employment-to-population rate) was reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to be 248,844,000. That means that if the authors are correct, the minimum wage has boosted the wages of unemployed workers at the bottom of the scale at the cost of about 1.74 million jobs (0.007 * 248,844,000).
Imagine what having another 1.74 million workers would do for GDP? Do you think it could make a difference for one of the worst recoveries on record?
It probably isn’t fair to assume that all of those 1.74 million workers is currently “unemployed” by the BLS definition. Many of them are likely not looking for work, in which case they would not be counted as unemployed. It is interesting to note, although surely spurious, that the series “Not in Labor Force, Want a Job Now” is about 1.7 million higher than would be expected given the unemployment rate (see chart, source BLS).
Alternatively, we could consider what it would mean to the Unemployment Rate if those 1.74 million workers were employed. This means they would also be in the Civilian Labor Force, so the participation rate (see above) would be 63.5% rather than 62.8%. If instead of coming from the “Not in Labor Force, Want a Job Now” group they came from the “Unemployed” group, the Unemployment Rate would be 4.7% instead of 5.8%. (Personally, I think that most of them are probably in the former category, as the Unemployment Rate has declined at approximately the rate we would expect from past recoveries, despite tepid GDP growth.) That is not inconsistent, of course, if GDP growth is lower because the labor force is simply smaller than it should be – and that is exactly the implication of this bit of research.
Again, the good news is that we can help the country and the downtrodden “structurally” unemployed with the same simple policy: reverse all increases in the Minimum Wage that have happened since 2007.
There are many funny stories out about disinflation these days. The meme has gotten amazing momentum, even more than it usually does at this time of year (see my post last month, “Seasonal Allergies“). One of the most amusing has been the idea that the decision by the Bank of Japan to greatly increase its quantitative easing would be disinflationary in the U.S., because the yen would decline so sharply against the dollar, and dollar strength is generally assumed to be disinflationary.
The misunderstanding of the dollar effect is amazing, considering how easy it is to disprove. Sure, I understand the alarm at the dollar’s recent robust strength. Of course, such a large and rapid move must be disinflationary, right? Because who could forget the inflationary spiral of 2002-2008 in this country, when the value of the dollar fell 25%?
For the record, when the dollar hit its high in February 2002, core inflation was at 2.6%. It declined to 1.1% in 2003, before rebounding to 2.9% in 2006 and was at 2.3% in April 2008, when the dollar reached its pre-crisis low. That is, the dollar’s protracted and large decline caused essentially no meaningful change in core inflation. Indeed, without the housing bubble, core inflation would have declined markedly over this period.
Now, headline inflation rose during that period, because energy prices rose. This may or may not be the result of the dollar, or the causality may run at least partly the other way (because the dollar was cheaper, and oil is priced in dollars, oil got comparatively cheaper in foreign currencies, leading to greater demand). But what is very clear is that the underlying rate of inflation was not impacted by the dollar.
The bifurcation of inflation into core inflation and energy inflation (or food and energy inflation, if you like, but most of the volatility comes from energy inflation) is a critical point for both investors and policymakers. Much ink has recently been spilled about how the Saudi decision to lower the price of oil to better compete with U.S. shale supply, and the burgeoning shale supply itself, is disinflationary. But it isn’t, and it is important to understand why. Inflation is a rate of change measure, and more to the point a change in prices is not inflation per se unless it is persistent. Policymakers don’t focus on core inflation because they don’t care about food or energy or think that we don’t buy them; they focus on core inflation because it is more persistent than food or energy inflation.
So if gasoline prices aren’t merely in their usual seasonal dip, but actually continue lower for another year, it will result in headline inflation that is lower than core inflation over that period. But once it reaches a new equilibrium level, that downward pressure on headline inflation will abate, and it will re-converge with core.
Oil prices, in fact, are almost always a growth story rather than an inflation story, and some of the big monetary policy crack-ups of the past have occurred when the Fed addressed oil price spikes (plunges) with tighter (looser) monetary policy. In fact, if any policy response is warranted it would probably be the opposite of this, since higher oil prices cause slower broad economic growth and lower oil prices cause faster broad economic growth. (However, long time readers will know that I don’t believe monetary policy can affect growth significantly anyway.)
Back, briefly, to the BOJ balance sheet expansion story. This was a very significant event for global inflation, assuming as always that the body follows through with their stated intention. Money printing anywhere causes the equilibrium level of nominal prices globally to rise. To the extent that this inflation is to be felt idiosyncratically only in Japan, then the decline of the currency will offset the effect of this global increase in prices so that ex-Japan prices are steady while prices in Japan rise…which is the BOJ’s stated intent. Movements in foreign exchange are best understood as allocating global inflation between trading partners. However, for money-printing in Japan to lead to disinflation ex-Japan, the movement in the currency would have to over-react to the money printing. If markets are perfectly efficient, in other words, the movement in currency should cause the BOJ’s idiosyncratic actions to be felt only within Japan. There are arbitrage opportunities otherwise (although it is very slow and risky arbitrage – better thought of as arbitrage in an economic sense than in a trading sense).
Of course, if the BOJ money-printing is not idiosyncratic – if other central banks are also printing – then prices should rise around the world and currencies shouldn’t move. This is why the Fed was able to get away with increasing M2 significantly without cratering the dollar: everyone was doing it. What is interesting is that the global price level has not yet fully reflected the rise in the global money supply, because of the decline in global money velocity (which is due in turn to the decline in global interest rates). This is the story that is currently being written, and will be the big story of the next few years.
The inflation market offers such wonderful opportunities for profit since so few people understand the dynamics of inflation, much less of the inflation market.
One of the things which continually fascinates me is how the inflation trade has become sort of a “risk on” kind of trade, in that when the market is pricing in better growth expectations, reflected in rising equity prices, inflation expectations move with the same rhythm. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows the 10-year inflation breakeven rate versus the S&P 500 index. Note how closely they ebb and flow together, at least until the latest swoon in inflation expectations.
Your knee-jerk reaction might be that this is a spurious correlation caused by the fact that (a) bond yields tend to rise when growth expectations rise and (b) when bond yields rise, the components of bond yields – including both real rates and expected inflation – tend to rise. But look at the chart below (source: Bloomberg), covering the same period but this time charting stocks versus real yields.
If anything, real yields ought to be more correlated to movements in equities than inflation expectations, since presumably real economic growth is directly related to the real growth rates embedded in equity prices. But to my eyes at least, the correlation between real interest rates and equity prices, for which there is a plausible causal explanation, doesn’t look nearly as good as the relationship between stocks and inflation expectations.
It doesn’t make any sense that long-term inflation expectations should be so closely related to equity prices. I know I have mentioned before – in fact, regular readers are probably sick of me pointing it out – that there is no causal relationship between growth and inflation. Really, it is worse than that: one really needs to torture the data to find any connection at all, causal or not. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows quarterly real GDP in yellow against core inflation in white.
I’ve pointed out before that the big recession in ’08-09 saw almost no deceleration in core inflation (and none at all if you remove housing from core inflation), but it’s hard to find a connection anywhere. The next chart (source: Bloomberg) makes the point a different way, simply plotting core inflation (y-axis) against real GDP (x-axis) quarterly back to 1980.
In case anyone out there is protesting that there should be a lagged relationship between growth and inflation, I am happy to report that I was able to get an r-squared as higher as 0.257 with a lag of 12 quarters. Unfortunately, the lag goes the wrong way: high inflation precedes high growth, not vice-versa. And I don’t know anyone who proffers a reasonable explanation of a causality running in that direction. Lags the other way fail to produce any r-squared over 0.1.
So, how to explain the fact that since the end of August we have seen 10-year real rates rise 29 basis points while 10-year breakevens were falling 12bps (producing a net rise in nominal rates of only 17bps)? The explanation is simple: the market is wrong to treat breakevens as a “risk on/risk off” sort of trade. Breakevens have cheapened far too much. I don’t know if that means that TIPS yields have risen too much, or nominal yields have risen too little (I rather expect the former), but the difference is too narrow. The short end of the US curve (1 year inflation swaps are at 1.44%) implies either that core inflation will decline markedly from its already-depressed level well below median inflation, or that energy prices will decline sharply and much further than implied by gasoline futures.
I think that one of the reasons US inflation has been under pressure is that it is currently at a very large spread versus European inflation, and earlier this month it was at the highest level in at least a decade (see chart, source Enduring Investments).
This may look like an appealing short, perhaps, but based on our internal analysis and some historical relationships we track we actually believe the spread is too low by about 50bps. And think about it this way: if Europe really is in the process of inheriting Japan’s lost decade, then 10-year expectations for the US ought to be much, much higher than in Europe. I don’t really think Europe will end up there, because the ECB seems to be trying to do the right thing, but it is not unreasonable to think that there should be a hefty premium to US inflation over Europe.
 Of course, the correlation of levels won’t be very good because stocks have an upward bias over time while inflation expectations do not. To run the correlation, you’d have to de-trend stocks but I’m trying to make a visceral point here rather than a quantitative one.
While we wait for our Employment Report tomorrow, there is plenty of excitement overseas.
The dollar continued to strengthen today, with the dollar index reaching the highest level since the middle of last year (see chart, source Bloomberg).
As with the rest of the dollar’s strengthening move, it was really not any of our own doing. The dollar is simply, and I suspect very temporarily, the best house in a bad neighborhood right now. In the UK, the Scots are about to vote for independence, or not, but it will be a close vote regardless. In Japan, the Yen is weakening again as the Bank of Japan continues to ease and Kuroda continues to jawbone against his currency.
In Europe this morning, the ECB surprised many observers by cutting its benchmark rate to the low, low rate of just 5 basis points (0.05%), and lowered the deposit rate to -0.2%…meaning that if a bank wants to leave money sitting at the ECB, it is forced to pay the ECB to hold it. A negative deposit rate is akin to the Fed setting interest on excess reserves at a negative figure, something that makes great sense if the point of quantitative easing is to get money into the economy. In the Fed’s case, it turns out that the real point was to de-lever the banks forcibly, so it didn’t care that the reserves were sitting inert, but in the ECB’s case they would really like to see inflation higher (core inflation for the whole Eurozone is under 1%) so it is important that any increase in the balance sheet of the central bank is reflected in actual currency in circulation.
Right now, the negative deposit rate isn’t so important since the ECB holds negligible deposits. But the negative deposit rate was step one; step two is to gin up the quantitative easing again. ECB President Draghi had promised several months ago to do so with ‘targeted LTRO’, and today he delivered by saying that the ECB has decided to begin TLTRO in October. The ECB will “purchase a broad portfolio of simple and transparent securities” even though some observers have noted that there aren’t a lot of asset-backed securities in the market to buy (but trust Wall Street on this: if there is a buyer of a few hundred billion Euros’ worth of such securities, those securities will be issued. Wall Street isn’t good at everything, but they’re darn good at finding ways to satisfy a motivated, huge buyer. (See “subprime MBS”).
This is significant, as I said it was when Draghi first mentioned this back in June. It is significant if they follow through, and at least at this point it appears they mean to do so. Now, Europe still needs to fight against the dampening effect on money velocity that lower interest rates are having, but at least they recognize the need to get M2 money growth above the 2.7% y/y rate it is at presently (which is, itself, above the 1.9% rate of the year ended April). Money growth in Europe is currently the lowest in the world, and – surprise! – deflation is the biggest threat in Europe. Go figure.
How does this affect inflation in the US?
Changes in the global money supply contributes to a global inflation process that underpins inflation rates around the world. The best way to think about the fluctuations in exchange rates, with respect to inflation, is that they allocate global inflation between countries (or, alternatively, you can think of inflation as being “global” plus “idiosyncratic”, where a country’s idiosyncratic inflationary or disinflationary policies affect the domestic inflation rate and the exchange rate with other countries). So, the ECB’s aggressive easing (when it happens) will have two main effects. First, it will tend to push up average inflation globally compared to what it would otherwise have been. Second, it will tend to weaken the Euro and strengthen the dollar so that inflation in Europe should rise relative to US inflation – all else being equal, which of course it is not.
With respect to this latter effect, I need to take pains to point out that it is a small effect, or rather than the relative movements in the currency need to be a lot bigger to be worth worrying about. A stronger dollar, in short, is not going to put much pressure on US inflation to be lower. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) shows a proxy we use for core commodities inflation, ex-medical, against the broad trade-weighted dollar lagged 9 months.
You can see that core commodities respond broadly to the dollar’s strength or weakness. A 5% rise (decline) in the dollar causes, nine months later, a 1% decline (rise) in core commodities inflation, ex-medical care commodities. Core ex-medical care commodities represents about 18% of the consumption basket, and the dollar’s effect outside of that part of the basket is indeterminate at best, so we can say that a 5% rise in the dollar causes inflation to decline about 0.18%.
In short, don’t waste a lot of time worrying that the 4% rise in the dollar this year will lead to deflation any time soon. Against that 18% of the consumption basket, we have 57% of the basket (core services) inflating at 2.6%, and over half of that consists of primary and owners’ equivalent rents, which are rising at 3.3% and 2.7% respectively and have a lot of upward momentum. Unless the dollar shoots dramatically higher, it should not affect overall prices very much.
So, the Fed’s tightening is almost done.
Chairman Yellen informed Congress that a “high degree” of easing is needed given the slack in the labor market. This is in keeping with the Fed’s ongoing thematic presentation of “tapering is not tightening,” but of course tapering is indeed tightening. Call it “easing less” if you like, but going from “providing lots of liquidity” to “providing less liquidity” to “providing no added liquidity” is tightening.
I would argue that providing no added liquidity – which is where the Fed is headed, with the taper due to be completed in the autumn – is neutral policy, not an easy policy. But the Fed, like many observers, confuses the level of interest rates with the degree of accommodation. That is confusing a price (the interest rate) with a flow, but it seems not to bother them very much. (I explain the distinction, which is crucial to monetary policymaking, in this article.)
Now, whatever the Chairman thinks she’s saying, what she means is that the Fed isn’t going to be raising interest rates soon. This is partly because the main tool they had been planning to use, the reverse repo facility, isn’t as simple a solution as they believed at first. This isn’t terribly surprising; as I (and others) have been pointing out in presentations and articles for a while it isn’t trivially easy to drain $2 trillion in reverse repo transactions, even if you can do $2 billion with ease. The pattern is familiar, and should be mildly discomfiting:
- At first, the Fed thought to unwind the massive purchases of Treasuries by simply selling them. The original argument was that the Fed pushed rates lower by buying Treasuries, but selling them wouldn’t raise interest rates. This sort of perpetual motion machine never made much sense, and at some point it became clear that if the Treasury started to unwind the SOMA portfolio securities and rates rose, it would likely not be sufficient to drain all of the excess reserves, since the average selling price would most likely be lower than the average purchase price.
- The Fed then thought to just let the securities in the SOMA roll off. Then someone noticed that because of the TWIST program, the Fed doesn’t own many short-dated Treasuries, so that letting QE gradually drain itself would take more than a decade.
- No problem; we’ll just conduct massive reverse repo operations to drain a couple trillion dollars from the system. The link above shows that the Fed’s newly discovered skepticism on that matter; the website Sober Look recently had a good article on the topic as well.
None of this is surprising to people who actually have market experience; unfortunately, over the last decade or so the level of actual market expertise at the Federal Reserve has dropped significantly so they are re-discovering these things the hard way. Now, the focus is on interest on excess reserves (IOER) as the main tool for raising rates eventually.
All of this confusion is one reason that the Fed will move only slowly to ‘normalize’ interest rates. They’re simply not sure how they’ll do it. The problem with IOER is that we have no idea how sensitive the level of reserves it to the amount of interest paid on reserves…since we have never done this before. But to the Fed, that’s no problem because they don’t seem to care about reserves – they only care about the level of interest rates, which at the end of the day don’t matter nearly as much as the growth rate of the money supply.
And so US and UK money supply growth rates are both in the 6-7% range, and interestingly median inflation in the US recently accelerated to 2.3% while core inflation in the UK surprised everyone today by rising to 1.9% (as of April). Commercial bank credit growth in the US over the last 13 weeks has risen at a 10.4% pace, the highest rate since early 2008 (see chart, source Federal Reserve).
Slowing QE has not, evidently, slowed money supply growth, and this is one reason the Fed insists that tapering is not tightening. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that the Fed is right, but that they are wrong twice: first, tapering is tightening. Second, changing the pace of addition to reserves does not matter for growth in the money supply (and, hence, inflation) when there are enormous piles of inert reserves already. Picture a huge urn filled with coffee. The spigot at the bottom controls the pace at which coffee leaves the urn, and adding more coffee to the top of the urn has essentially no effect.
So money supply growth, and corporate loan growth, is currently not under control of the Fed in any way. Interest rates are under their control, but interest rates don’t cause changes in the money supply but rather the other way around. Here is another analogy: a robust harvest of corn pushes corn prices lower, but if the government officially sets the price of corn very low it does not cause a robust harvest of corn. This is exactly what the Fed is trying to do if they attempt to control the money supply by changing interest rates.
It actually is worse than this. Raising interest rates will tend to increase money velocity, a relationship which has held very well for the last two decades. I have written about this quite a bit in the past (see for one example this article from last September), but I – like many monetary economists – have often struggled with the fact that there was a regime shift in the early 1990s which messes up the beauty of this fit (see chart, source Enduring Investments).
We have recently resolved much of this problem in our own modeling. The following chart uses three (unstated here, but included in our quarterly inflation outlook to clients) inputs to model M2 velocity, and the regime shift is largely absent. Suffice to say that with a model that makes sense and fits a much wider range of history, we are even more confident now that any Fed move to hike interest rates, rather than to drain reserves, would be a mistake.
The bottom line is that it is good news that Yellen is not planning to hike interest rates soon. It is bad news that she is not planning to drain reserves any time soon. But the Fed is perilously close to making its big policy error of this cycle. Stay tuned.
As we wait to see whether the Fed slants its statement ever-so-slightly to the hawkish side or ever-so-slightly to the dovish side (not to mention whether Chairman Yellen repeats her blunt performance in the presser), it is probably worth a few moments to think about what the Fed ought to do.
Yesterday’s inflation figures, viewed in isolation, might be perceived as a one-off bad figure. I pointed out yesterday some reasons that this would be an unfortunate error. Keep in mind that anything the Fed does to address monetary policy will take some time to impact an economic process with momentum. That is to say that even if the Fed tightened today, core inflation over 3% is probably still going to happen. The real question is how high inflation goes, and how long it stays there. There is no longer any question about whether inflation is rising. (This has actually been true for a while, but people who were focused on core rather than median and didn’t look at the particulars of inflation, as well as those who focus on the “output gap” as preventing any possibility of inflation, have been able to ignore the signs for a while).
As an aside, the “output gap” crowd – who expected deflation in 2009-10, and didn’t get it, and now expect disinflation, but aren’t getting it – aren’t defeated yet. They’ll simply re-define the gap to fit the data, I am sure. When you get to choose your own observations and change the model to fit the observations, science is easy.
What concerns me about the Fed’s next steps here, and the state of the debate, is that the Federal Reserve seems overly focused on the level of interest rates, and how to adjust them, and not on the level of reserves or controlling the transactional money supply. For example, recently the IMF published a paper arguing that central banks should raise the long-term inflation target from 2% to 4% because with a 2% target it is too easy to get deflation and have interest rates pinned at zero, leaving the central bank powerless to stop deflation. It seems not to matter to the author that Japan only recently proved that it is money, and not interest rates, that matter when they were able to get out of deflation with an aggressive QE. And, after all, “Helicopter” Ben made the point years ago that deflation is easy to prevent if only the Fed prints money.
So the cult of interest rate manipulation concerns me. Another, and more influential, example (because after all, no one really believes the central bank will start targeting 4% inflation) is in the publication recently of “Monetary Policy with Abundant Liquidity: A New Operating Framework for the Federal Reserve,” co-authored by Brian Sack and Joseph Gagnon. Dr. Sack used to be head of the Fed’s Open Markets Desk, so his opinions have some weight in the institution. In this policy brief, he and his co-author suggest ways that the Fed could raise rates even without reducing the amount of excess reserves in the system. Their approach would, indeed, succeed in moving interest rates. But the proposal, in the authors’ words, “appropriately ignores the quantity of money.”
Considering that it is the quantity of money, not its price, that impacts inflation – as hundreds of years of monetary history have proven beyond any educated doubt – this is a frightening view. We are always looking for where the next policy error will come from; this is certainly a strong candidate.
There is a crucial misunderstanding here, and it is unfortunately a fundamental tenet of the interest rate cult. Interest rates are not the cause of money supply changes, but the result of them. The way the Fed operates tends to cause this confusion, because the Fed seems to adjust interest rates. But that is not in fact what happens. The Desk actually adjusts the level of reserves in the system, and reads the interest rate as an indication of whether reserves are at the right level (or at least, this was the way it used to be done, before the “environment of abundant liquidity”). The confusion has gradually developed, and the institution has contributed to the confusion by gradually altering its policy statements to obfuscate what is actually going on. The domestic policy directive of February 1989 said in part:
“In the implementation of policy for the immediate future, the Committee seeks to maintain the existing degree of pressure on reserve positions…somewhat greater reserve restraint would, or slightly lesser reserve restraint might, be acceptable in the intermeeting period. The contemplated reserve conditions are expected to be consistent with growth of M2 and M3 over the period from December through March at annual rates of about 2 and 3½ percent, respectively.”
Notice that the main focus here is how pressure on reserves leads to money supply growth. By 1994, the Fed was drawing the line to interest rates more explicitly. The press release following the February 4th, 1994 meeting said in part:
“Chairman Alan Greenspan announced today that the Federal Open Market Committee decided to increase slightly the degree of pressure on reserve positions. The action is expected to be associated with a small increase in short-term money market interest rates.”
The Federal Reserve eventually stopped talking about “reserve positions,” although that continued to be how interest rates were managed in fact. Here is what the Fed was saying in January 2007:
“The Federal Open Market Committee decided today to keep its target for the federal funds rate at 5-1/4 percent.”
Now, of course, the Fed not only sets the current level of interest rates but also gives us an expected path.
But again, even when the Fed was talking about the interest rate target, the Fed actually managed interest rates by managing reserves. By doing large system repos or matched sales, the supply of reserves was managed with respect to what the Fed thought the demand for reserves (which is unobservable in real time) was. If the resulting interest rate was too low or too high, then they added or subtracted to the supply reserves. And thus we get to the point that is crucial for understanding how monetary policy is conducted: the interest rate is a measurement of the pressure on reserves.
Interest rates, in other words, are like a thermometer that measures the temperature in the body. The doctor plies his trade on a feverish patient with an eye on the thermometer. He can’t see the microbes and antibodies, but the thermometer tells him (her) if he (she) is winning. In exactly the same way, the level of short-term interest rates tells the Fed if they have too many reserves or too few. But suppose the doctor lost sight of the real purpose of treatment? Suppose the doctor said “wow, this would be so much easier if I just put a little dial on the thermometer so that I could control the reading directly! Then I could just set it to the right temperature and I would be done.” We would all recognize that doctor as a quack, and the patient would probably die.
This approach, though, is what the Sack/Gagnon paper proposes. We want to control the temperature, so let’s introduce a thermometer that allows us to control the temperature! But this is wrong, because it is the reserve position that is critical to control; it is that which is out of control at the moment due to the presence of copious excess reserves; and the fact that the Fed can simply set the interest rate is irrelevant. (Why do we need a Fed? Why not have Congress set the legal interest rate at the “appropriate level” so that the Fed doesn’t even need to do open market operations?)
The Sack/Gagnon plan will clearly permit the movement of interest rates to wherever the Fed wants them to be. But it will not solve the root problem, which is that the level of required reserves is essentially out of the Fed’s control – which means the size of the money supply is out of its control as well. Excess reserves will continue to leak into transactional money, and inflation will continue to rise. Here is your error. The Fed is about to score an “own goal.”
We all have our hot button issues. It will not surprise you, probably, to learn that mine involves inflation. For the rant which follows, I apologize.
Reasonable people, smart people, learned people, can disagree on how precisely the Consumer Price Index captures the inflation in consumer prices. And indeed, over the one hundred years that the CPI has been published such disagreements have been played out among academics, politicians, labor leaders, and others. The debates have raged and many changes – some large, some small; some politically-driven, most not – have occurred in how prices have been collected and the index calculated. If you are interested, really interested, in the century-long history of the CPI, you can read a couple of histories here and here.
If someone is not interested in how CPI is calculated, in how and why changes were made in the methodological approach to calculating price change, then that’s fine. But if a person can’t spend the time to learn the very basics of this hundred-year debate, during which changes were made in the CPI with much public input, not in a smoky back room somewhere, then I wonder why such a person would spend time spewing conspiracy theories on the internet about how the CPI doesn’t include food and energy (um…it does), about how the CPI underestimates prices because it doesn’t account for changes in quality and quantity (um…it does), or about how sneaky methodological changes have caused the CPI to be understated by 7% per year for thirty years.
Recently, the CFA Institute’s monthly magazine for CFA Charterholders was duped into accepting an article that brings together some of the dumbest theories into one place. At some level, the article asks the “interesting” question about whether a consumer price index should include asset prices. Interesting, perhaps, but asked-and-answered: assets are not consumer goods but stores of value. If you are not consuming something, then why would you ever expect it to be included in a consumer price index? You might argue that we should include asset prices into some other sort of index that measures price increases. But we already do. They are called asset price indices, and you know them by names like the S&P 500, the NCREIF, and so on.
Worse, the magazine gives a great big stage to the person who has singlehandedly done more to confuse and anger people, to poison the well of knowledge about inflation, and to stir up the conspiracy theorists about inflation, than anyone else in the world – and all because he is selling an ‘analysis’ product to those people. I won’t mention his name here because I don’t want to advertise his product, but he claims that the CPI is understated by “about 7 percentage points each year.”
That this is being published in a magazine of the CFA Institute is almost enough for me to renounce my membership. It is offensively idiotic to claim that the CPI may be understated by 7% per year, and simple math (which CFA Charterholders were once required to be able to perform) can prove that. If inflation has risen at a pace of around 2.5% per year over the last 30 years, it implies the price level has risen about 110% (1.025^30-1). This seems more or less right. But if inflation had really been 9.5% per year, as claimed, then the cost of the average consumption basket would have risen about 1422% (1.095^30-1).
Can that be right? Well, Real Median Household Income, using the CPI to deflate nominal household income, has risen about 13% over the last 30 years. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Median_US_household_income.png But if we use the 9.5%-per-year CPI number, then real median household income has actually fallen 84%. If this was true, we would be living in absolute Third-World squalor compared to how things were in the salad days of 1984. You don’t have to be an economist to know the difference between a slightly-better standard of living and one in which you can afford 1/6th of what you could previously afford. You just need a brain.
Any person who does even rudimentary research on the CPI – say, visiting http://www.inflationinfo.com and reading some of the hundreds of papers gathered there, or perusing the BLS website, or speaking with an actual inflation expert – cannot possibly think that this guy is anything other than a nut or a shill. It is a tragedy that the CFA Institute would publish such trash, and it tarnishes the CFA Institute brand. Let’s hope they publish an apologetic retraction in the next issue.
I also like to point out, when I am in rant mode over this (and, as an aside, let me thank the tolerant reader for allowing me to rant – this allows me to forever point people to this link when they bring up this guy), that if the CPI=9.5% number is right then you must also believe a bunch of other ridiculous things:
First: MIT is in on the conspiracy. The Billion Prices Project, which uses very different methodology from the BLS, figures inflation to be about the same as the BLS does. (Digressing for a bit, I think it’s also interesting that the BPP index has tracked Median CPI much better than headline CPI over the last year, when headline CPI has been dragged lower by one-off changes in medical care prices).
Second: Consumers consistently underestimate inflation, or else are serially optimistic about how it is likely to decline from 9.5% to something much lower. The University of Michigan survey of year-ahead inflation expectations – and every other consumer survey of inflation expectations – is much closer to reported inflation than to the shill’s numbers (see chart below, source Bloomberg). I’ve written elsewhere about why consumers might perceive slightly higher inflation than really occurs, but I cannot come up with a theory that explains why consumers would always say it’s much lower than what they are in fact seeing. Maybe we’re all stupid except for this guy with the website.
Third, and related to the prior point: Investors who pour money into inflation-indexed bonds must be complete morons, because they are locking up money for ten years at what is “really” -9% real yields (meaning that they are surrendering 62% of the real purchasing power of their wealth, rather than spending it immediately). We don’t see this behavior in countries where it is known that the official index is manipulated. For example, we know that in Argentina the inflation data really is rigged, and in September of last year long-dated inflation-linked bonds in Argentina were showing real yields of more than 20%. In recent months, the government of Argentina has begun to release figures that are much more realistic and real yields have plunged to around 10% as investors are giving the data more credibility. The upshot is that we have bona fide evidence that investors will base their demanded real yields on the difference between the inflation index they are being paid on and the inflation they think they are actually seeing. The fact that we don’t see TIPS real yields around 6% or 7% is evidence that investors are either really stupid, or they believe the CPI is at least approximately right.
Fourth, and related to that point: if inflation has really being running at 9.5%, then every asset is a losing proposition. There is no way to protect yourself against inflation. You’re not really getting wealthy as you ride stocks higher; you’re only losing more slowly. Since there is no asset class that has returned 10% over a long period of time, we are all doomed. The money is all going away. Especially housing, and real goods like hard commodities – there is nothing you can do that is much worse than holding real stuff, which is only going up in price a couple of percent per year over time while inflation is (apparently) ravaging everything we know and love. There is no winning strategy. Of course, the good news is that it turns out that the U.S. government is being extremely fiscally responsible, with the real deficit falling by 5% or more every year. Right.
I really should not let this bother me. It is good for me, as an investor with a brain, when mindless zombie minions follow this guy and do dumb things in the market. But I can’t help it. The Internet could be a tool for great good, allowing people access to accurate, timely information and the opportunity to learn things that they couldn’t otherwise. It allows this author to come into your mailbox, or onto your screen, to try to educate or illuminate or amuse you. But there is also so much detritus, so much rubbish, so much terribly erroneous information out there that does real harm to those who consume it. And perhaps this is why I get so exercised about this issue: I absolutely believe that people have a right to say and to believe whatever they want, no matter how stupid or dangerous. I am simply aghast, and deeply saddened, that so many people are so credulous that they believe what they read, without critical thought of their own. Everyone has a right to his/her opinion, but they are not all equally valid. There is no FDA for the Internet, so snake-oil salesmen run rampant among their eager marks.
I want my readers to think. If you all agree with me, then I know you’re not all thinking! Look, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that some minor improvements can be made to CPI. The number has been tweaked and improved for a hundred years, and it will be tweaked and improved some more in the future. It is in my opinion not reasonable to suppose that the number is completely made up and/or drastically incorrect. And that’s my opinion.