Friday, November 24, 2023

Pro Dollarization

With President Milei's election in Argentina, dollarization is suddenly on the table. I'm for it. Here's why. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Thursday, November 16, 2023


Sunday Nov 19 6-7 PM I will be giving the "Association Lecture" at the Southern Economics Association conference in New Orleans. The topic naturally is "The Fiscal Theory of the Price Level." If you're curious, and will be at the conference, stop by. I now have a pretty good condensed talk about fiscal theory! 

Sunday, November 5, 2023

Lukianoff and Schlott on Cancellation

Last week I was honored to be moderator for a discussion with Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott on their new book "Canceling the American Mind" at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco.  Link here, if the embed above doesn't work 

Here are my questions. I shared them with Greg and Rickki ahead of time, so the actual questions are a bit shorter. But this may give you some interesting background, and I think they're good questions to ponder in general.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Prices vs. inflation and a mortgage puzzle

Mickey Levy's excellent WSJ oped leaves some thoughts. 

Inflation has fallen, though I still suspect it may get stuck around 3-4%. But prices "are 18.9% higher than its [their] pre-pandemic level." And some important prices have risen even more. "Rental costs continue to rise in lagged response to the 46.1% surge in home prices."  Those who are taking a victory lap about the end of inflation (the rate of change of prices) are befuddled by continuing consumer (and voter) anger. 

Well, prices are not the same thing as inflation.

Evergreen expectations


A lovely plot from the always interesting Torsten Slok. The graph shows the actual federal funds rate, together with the path of "expected" funds rate implicit in fed funds futures market prices. (Roughly speaking the futures contract is a bet on where the Fed funds rate will be at various dates in the future. If you want to bloviate about what the Fed will do, it's easy to put your money where your mouth is!) 

A lot of graphs look like this, including the Fed's "dot plot" projections of where interest rates will go, inflation forecasts, and longer term interest rate forecasts based on the yield curve (yields on 10 year bonds imply a forecast of one year bonds over the 10 year period.) Just change the labels. 

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Leonhardt on investment

 David Leonhardt's pean to investment in the Sunday NY Times Magazine starts well:

A cross-country trip today typically takes more time than it did in the 1970s. The same is true of many trips within a region or a metropolitan area....Door to door, cross-country journeys often last 10 or even 12 hours.

Friday, October 20, 2023

Bhattacharya on Covid censorship

A week ago Jay Bhattacharya gave a great talk at the weekly Stanford Classical Liberalism workshop. (Link in case the embed doesn't work.) He detailed the story of government+media Covid censorship, along with the dramatic injunction in the Missouri v. Biden case. The discovery in that case alone, detailing how the administration used the threat of arbitrary regulatory retaliation to get tech companies to censor covid information -- along with other matters, including the Hunter Biden laptop -- is astonishing. We now know what they did, no matter what judges say about its technical legality. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Political prisoner dilemma

This is a draft oped. It didn't make it as events in Israel are now consuming attention. But sooner or later we need to elect a president and live with the results. I went light on the economics, but you can see the basic game theory of the analysis. It amplifies some comments I made on Goodfellows. 


 If, as it appears, the election will come down to Trump vs. Biden, the US is headed for a constitutional crisis, and the social, and political chaos that implies. Like prisoners of the economists’ dilemma, there seems no easy way out. 

Whichever wins, the others’ partisans will pronounce the president to be fundamentally illegitimate. In turn, Illegitimacy justifies and emboldens scorched-earth tactics, more norm-busting and institution-destruction.

Friday, October 13, 2023

Heterogeneous Agent Fiscal Theory

Today, I'll add an entry to my occasional reviews of interesting academic papers. The paper: "Price Level and Inflation Dynamics in Heterogeneous Agent Economies," by Greg Kaplan, Georgios Nikolakoudis and Gianluca Violante. 

One of the many reasons I am excited about this paper is that it unites fiscal theory of the price level with heterogeneous agent economics. And it shows how heterogeneity matters. There has been a lot of work on "heterogeneous agent new-Keynesian" models (HANK). This paper inaugurates heterogeneous agent fiscal theory models. Let's call them HAFT. 

Monday, August 28, 2023

Interest rates and inflation part 3: Theory

This post takes up from two previous posts (part 1;  part 2), asking just what do we (we economists) really know about how interest rates affect inflation. Today, what does contemporary economic theory say? 

As you may recall, the standard story says that the Fed raises interest rates; inflation (and expected inflation) don't immediately jump up, so real interest rates rise; with some lag, higher real interest rates push down employment and output (IS); with some more lag, the softer economy leads to lower prices and wages (Phillips curve). So higher interest rates lower future inflation, albeit with "long and variable lags." 

Higher interest rates -> (lag) lower output, employment -> (lag) lower inflation. 

In part 1, we saw that it's not easy to see that story in the data. In part 2, we saw that half a century of formal empirical work also leaves that conclusion on very shaky ground. 

As they say at the University of Chicago, "Well, so much for the real world, how does it work in theory?" That is an important question. We never really believe things we don't have a theory for, and for good reason. So, today, let's look at what modern theory has to say about this question. And they are not unrelated questions. Theory has been trying to replicate this story for decades. 

The answer: Modern (anything post 1972) theory really does not support this idea. The standard new-Keynesian model does not produce anything like the standard story.  Models that modify that simple model to achieve something like result of the standard story do so with a long list of complex ingredients. The new ingredients are not just sufficient, they are (apparently) necessary to produce the desired dynamic pattern. Even these models do not  implement the verbal logic above. If the pattern that high interest rates lower inflation over a few years is true, it is by a completely different mechanism than the story tells. 

I conclude that we don't have a simple economic model that produces the standard belief. ("Simple" and "economic" are important qualifiers.) 

The simple new-Keynesian model 

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Interest rates and inflation part 2: Losing faith in VARs

(This post continues part 1 which just looked at the data. Part 3 on theory is here

When the Fed raises interest rates, how does inflation respond? Are there "long and variable lags" to inflation and output?  

There is a standard story: The Fed raises interest rates; inflation is sticky so real interest rates (interest rate - inflation) rise; higher real interest rates lower output and employment; the softer economy pushes inflation down. Each of these is a lagged effect. But despite 40 years of effort, theory struggles to substantiate that story (next post), it's had to see in the data (last post), and the empirical work is ephemeral -- this post.  

The vector autoregression and related local projection are today the standard empirical tools to address how monetary policy affects the economy, and have been since Chris Sims' great work in the 1970s. (See Larry Christiano's review.) 

I am losing faith in the method and results. We need to find new ways to learn about the effects of monetary policy. This post expands on some thoughts on this topic in "Expectations and the Neutrality of Interest Rates," several of my papers from the 1990s* and excellent recent reviews from Valerie Ramey and  Emi Nakamura and Jón Steinsson, who  eloquently summarize the hard identification and computation troubles of contemporary empirical work.

Maybe popular wisdom is right, and economics just has to catch up. Perhaps we will. But a popular belief that does not have solid scientific theory and empirical backing, despite a 40 year effort for models and data that will provide the desired answer, must be a bit less trustworthy than one that does have such foundations. Practical people should consider that the Fed may be less powerful than traditionally thought, and that its interest rate policy has different effects than commonly thought. Whether and under what conditions high interest rates lower inflation, whether they do so with long and variable but nonetheless predictable and exploitable lags, is much less certain than you think. 

Monday, August 7, 2023

Blinder, supply shocks, and nominal anchors

An a recent WSJ oped (which I will post here when 30 days have passed), I criticized the "supply shock" theory of our current inflation. Alan Blinder responds in WSJ letters 

First, Mr. Cochrane claims, the supply-shock theory is about relative prices (that’s true), and that a rise in some relative price (e.g., energy) “can’t make the price of everything go up.” This is an old argument that monetarists started making a half-century ago, when the energy and food shocks struck. It has been debunked early and often. All that needs to happen is that when energy-related prices rise, many other prices, being sticky downward, don’t fall. That is what happened in the 1970s, 1980s and 2020s.

Second, Mr. Cochrane claims, the supply-shock theory “predicts that the price level, not the inflation rate, will return to where it came from—that any inflation should be followed by a period of deflation.” No. Not unless the prices of the goods afflicted by supply shocks return to the status quo ante and persistent inflation doesn’t creep into other prices. Neither has happened in this episode.

When economists disagree about fairly basic propositions, there must be an unstated assumption about which they disagree. If we figure out what it is, we can think more productively about who is right. 

I think the answer here is simple: To Blinder there is no "nominal anchor." In my analysis, there is. This is a question about which one can honorably disagree. (WSJ opeds have a hard word limit, so I did not have room for nuance on this issue.) 

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Rangvid on housing inflation

(This post is an interlude between history and VARs) 

Jesper Rangvid has a great blog post today on different inflation measures. 

CPI and PCE core inflation (orange and gray) are how the US calculates inflation less food and energy, but including housing. We do an economically sophisticated measure that tries to measure the "cost of housing" by rents for those who rent, plus how much a homeowner pays by "renting" the house to him or herself. You can quickly come up with the plus and minus of that approach, especially for looking at month to month trends in inflation. Europe in the "HICP core" line doesn't even try and leaves owner occupied housing out altogether. 

Jesper's point: if you measure inflation Europe's way, US inflation is already back to 2%. The Fed can hang out a "mission accomplished" banner. (Or, in my view, a "it went away before we really had to do anything serious about it" banner.) And, since he writes to a European audience, Europe has a long way to go. 

A few deeper (and slightly grumpier) points: 

Saturday, August 5, 2023

Interest rates and inflation -- part 1

Today I begin a three part series exploring interest rates and inflation. (Part 2 empirical work, Part 3 theory) 

How does the Fed influence inflation? Is the recent easing of inflation due to Fed policy, or happening on its own? To what extent should we look just to the Fed to bring inflation under control going forward? 

The standard story: The Fed raises the interest rate. Inflation is somewhat sticky. (Inflation is sticky. This is important later.) Thus the real interest rate also rises. The higher real interest rate softens the economy. And a softer economy slowly lowers inflation. The effect happens with "long and variables lags," so a higher interest rate today lowers inflation only a year or so from now. 

interest rate -> (lag) softer economy -> (lag) inflation declines

This is a natural heir to the view Milton Friedman propounded in his 1968 AEA presidential address, updated with interest rates in place of money growth. A good recent example is Christina and David Romer's paper underlying her AEA presidential address, which concludes of current events that as a result of the Fed's recent interest-rate increases, "one would expect substantial negative impacts on real GDP and inflation in 2023 and 2024."

This story is passed around like well worn truth. However, we'll see that it's actually much less founded than you may think. Today, I'll look at simple facts. In my next post, I'll look at current empirical work, and we'll find that support for the standard view is much weaker than you might think. Then, I'll look at theory. We'll find that contemporary theory (i.e. for the last 30 years) is strained to come up with anything like the standard view. 

Here's the history of interest rates and inflation. We're looking to see if high real interest rates push inflation down. 

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Fitch is right

(Updated to fix numbers.) Fitch is right to downgrade the US. Read the sober report. But there are a few other reasons, or emphasis they might have added. 

  • The inflationary default

Inflation is the economic equivalent of a partial default. The debt was sold under a 2% inflation target, and people expected that or less inflation. The government borrowed and printed $5 Trillion with no plan to pay it back, devaluing the outstanding debt as a result. Cumulative inflation so far means debt is repaid in dollars that are worth 10% less than if inflation had been* 2%. That's economically the same as a 10% haircut. 

Thursday, July 27, 2023

On the 2% inflation target

Project Syndicate asked Mike Boskin, Brigitte Granville,  Ken Rogoff and me whether 2% is the right inflation target. See the link for the other views. I pretty much agree with them in the short run -- don't mess with it -- but took a different long run view. Apparently Volcker and Greenspan were fans of price level targeting and hoped to get there eventually, which is the sort of long run approach I took here. 

I also emphasize that any inflation target is (of course) a joint target of fiscal as well as monetary policy. Fiscal policy needs to commit to repay debt at the inflation target. 

My view: 

No, 2% is not the right target. Central banks and governments should target the price level. That means not just pursuing 0% inflation, but also, when inflation or deflation unexpectedly raise or lower the price level, gently bringing the price level back to its target. (I say “and governments” because inflation control depends on fiscal policy, too.)

The price level measures the value of money. We don’t shorten the meter 2% every year. Confidence in the long-run price level streamlines much economic, financial, and monetary activity. The corresponding low interest rates allow companies and banks to stay awash in liquidity at low cost. A commitment to repay debt without inflation also makes government borrowing easier in times of war, recession, or crisis.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Electric vehicles, carbon taxes, supply and demand, virtue signals, and China

If you have not been paying attention, our government has decided that all electric vehicles are the solution to the climate problem. At least as long as they are made in the US with union labor and benefits. California has committed to banning the sale of anything else. In today's post, a few tidbits from my daily WSJ reading on the subject. 

From Holman Jenkins on electric cars:  

If the goal were to reduce emissions, the world would impose a carbon tax. Then what kind of EVs would we get? Not Teslas but hybrids like Toyota’s Prius. “A wheelbarrow full of rare earths and lithium can power either one [battery-powered car] or over 90 hybrids, but, uh, that fact seems to be lost on policymakers,” a California dealer recently emailed me.

[Note: that wheelbarrow of rare earths comes from multiple truckloads of actual rocks. Also see original for links.] 

...The same battery minerals in one Tesla can theoretically supply 37 times as much emissions reduction when distributed over a fleet of Priuses.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Writing tidbit

From Joseph Epstien's oped in the July 13 WSJ on Biden v Trump (please, dear Lord, no)

Each man has risen to the presidency thanks, mostly, to the unattractiveness of his electoral opponent. Each man was elected as a lesser-evil choice, yet both have succeeded in vastly polluting the tone of our country’s political life. Lesser-evil choices sometimes turn out to be evil enough.

Low and seedy are the corruptions of which Messrs. Trump and Biden have been accused: molesting women, entering into dubious financial dealings with foreign corporations and governments, cavalierly mishandling important documents, and more. 

My italics. I'm not here today on content, but just on writing. I make mental notes of little writing tricks that might embellish my prose.  

I liked the first one, just because it's such a beautiful catchy phrase. I'm not sure what the general principle is, but I'd like to come up with more prose like that. 

The second one has a clearer lesson. The usual rule is, write your sentences forward. Or, more likely, edit your sentences to be forwards. You should quickly turn that one around to "The corruptions of which Messrs. Trump and Biden have been accused are low and seedy." Or, better, through it changes the subject a bit, "Messrs. Trump and Biden have been accused of low and seedy corruptions." 99% of the time you should do that. 

But not this time. Look how beautiful that backward sentence is. There must be some biblical quote it refers to. Maybe readers can come up with the allusions. 

Don't do it all the time. But rules are made to be broken, if you really know what you're doing. Which Epstein clearly does. 

Freeman on Mills on IEA on battery powered cars

James Freeman's always excellent "best of the web" WSJ column today covers a Manhattan Institute report by Mark Mills itself referencing material deep in side an International Energy Agency report on battery powered electric cars. Like corn ethanol, this enthusiasm may also pass. 

The economic and environmental costs of batteries are slowly seeping out. One of my pet peeves in all of our command-and-control climate policy is that any comprehensive quantification of costs and benefits seems so rare, or at least so hidden. How many dollars for how many tons of carbon -- and especially the latter: how many tons of carbon, really, all in, including making the cars? (California only counts tailpipe emissions!) I have seen guesstimates that electric cars only breakeven in their carbon emissions at 50,000-70,000 miles. And, the point of the article, those estimates are likely undercounts especially if there is a huge expansion.  

Parts I found interesting and novel: 

For all of history, the costs of a metal in both dollar and environmental terms are dictated primarily by ore grades, i.e., the share of the rock dug up that contains the metal sought... Ore grade is what accounts for the differences in the cost per pound of gold, $15,000, and iron, $0.05. The former ore grades are typically below 0.001% and the latter over 50%.