The defence lines for the war on cash

The Cato Institute has recently published a paper by Jeff Hummel, called “Should Governments Restrict Cash?” As you should expect it’s an excellent overview of the topic and contains multiple astute insights. Hummel considers the two main cases for abolishing cash - (1) to crackdown on criminal activities; and (2) as a means to conduct monetary policy. He notes that some economists stress the former (Larry Summers) and some the latter (Willem Buiter) and his central target is someone who advocates both - Kenneth Rogoff.

Hummel persuasively argues that the burden of proof should fall on those who want to abolish cash to demonstrate that the benefits of doing so would outweigh the costs. And I think he’s right to point out that thus far they’ve neglected a number of important insights. Such as:

  • Actual welfare analysis needs to take place which distinguishes between wealth creating black market activity and wealth destroying illegal activity.

  • Inflation is a tax on real money balances and therefore is currently used as a tax on illegal activity. Therefore going cashless would alter the tax rate facing criminals.

  • The highest denominated banknotes provide the highest amounts of seigniorage. Abolishing them would therefore impact public finances.

  • The US Dollar is a global public good and affects welfare in dollarised countries as well as non-dollarised countries. There’s no evidence to say that restricting the ability of Russian criminal gangs to use US banknotes would compensate for depriving normal Russian families of diversifying from Ruble holdings.

I’m open minded about the so called “war on cash” and conscious of the fact that my instinctive support for anonymous forms of payment cuts against the potential for central banks to solve coordination problems in systems where they are in fact the monopoly provider or currency. However Hummel nicely presents where the defense lines are and since they’re yet to be breached it seems clear that monetary economists have an obligation to protect people’s rights to use cash.

Why r* matters

In an interesting post, Eric Lonergen provides a nihilistic reflection on the relevance of r*. He points out that there's "no simple link between growth and real policy rates" when you look at cross-sectional global data, and that the habit of assuming the long run equilibrium real interest is 2% is lazy. I agree with his claim that the determination of r is "strikingly vague" and that the yield curve, the cost of equity, the term premium and credit spreads are important indicators that shouldn't all be subsumed into r*. But that is because r* is unique and important. 

He writes,

As a practitioner, and a global investor, I gradually came to the conclusion that demographic factors (notably youth dependency), GDP per capita, and changing risk properties were the most important variables in determining the centre of gravity for policy rates and government bond yields.

However consider the Beckworth/Selgin estimate of r*. They use a Ramsey growth model to define the real natural rate as the sum of productivity growth, population growth, and the household rate of time preference. Such factors are indeed the important determinants of "the centre of gravity", but that's exactly what r* is

Shadow banks

“Shadow Banks” permit credit intermediation outside of the conventional banking system. Typical examples include

  • Insurance companies
  • Pension funds

While shadow banks are not part of the central bank regulatory system (and therefore eligible for  liquidity provision) they are still regulated depending on their specific functions.

As the chart below shows shadow banking really took off prior to the global financial crisis. Since then commercial banks have continued on trend whilst shadow banks have leveled out


The growth in shadow banking is likely driven by:

  • Regulatory arbitrage (as a result of harsher regulatory requirements on conventional banks)
  • Search for yield (money being funneled into riskier investment funds)

Quick thoughts on balance sheet recessions

The basic "balance sheet recession" (Koo 2011) story begins with a debt-fuelled asset price bubble, for example:

  • Japan housing 1992
  • US housing 2007

The main argument is that when the bubble bursts the value of people’s assets collapses, but the value of their liabilities remain. Their balance sheets are “under water”.

In this situation, people need to engage in balance sheet repair. This involves private sector deleveraging (increase savings, pay off debt); or firms trying to reduce debt rather than maximise profit. Collectively, this reduces AD and generates a prolonged slump.

The problem is that the central bank can’t do much, for three reasons:

  1. People don’t want to borrow because they are focused on balance sheet repair (therefore low interest rates aren’t enticing)
  2. People draw down bank deposits to pay debt (money supply contracts and the money multiplier becomes 0)
  3. Lenders themselves (i.e. banks) have their own balance sheet problems

Reinhart and Rogoff provided empirical support, showing that recoveries following financial crises are inherently weaker. However this has been challenged by Nelson and Lopez-Salido (2009):

“We find that the regularity that recoveries are systematically slower in the aftermath of financial crises does not hold for the postwar United States. The pace of the expansion after recessions seems to reflect deliberate aggregate demand policy. A weak lending outlook does not appear to pose an insurmountable obstacle to the functioning of stimulative aggregate demand policies”

Scott Sumner provides an alternative (simple) explanation to balance sheet recessions:

  • Recession caused by tight money
  • Tight money reduces nominal income (one might ask why recipients of debt repayments don’t spend it, but this implies there’s an excess money demand problem)
  • Since most debts are nominal, this implies bigger declines in spending in more highly indebted areas

In other words, weak NGDP growth explains things perfectly well

  • “the weak economic recovery is a failure of policy to fully restore aggregate demand, nothing more” (David Beckworth)
  • “increase in government deficits may introduce the uncertainty that causes deleveraging to occur” (Vuk Vukovic)

And even Allan Meltzer (1995, p.67)

  • A further reason to doubt the importance of bank lending as an independent channel propagating the Great Depression is that the decline in bank lending can be readily explained as a response to the decline in nominal GDP… there is no need for any separate explanation of the decline in bank lending

To conclude, we should factor in the structural problems at the onset of the crisis (i.e. not simply an AD shock out of nowhere) and the regime uncertainty caused by big players (government and central bank).

Koo, Richard, C., 2011, “The world in balance sheet recession: causes, cure and politics” Real-World Economics Review, Issue 58

Austrian economics and the yield curve

Two quick views on Austrian economics and the yield curve...

According to Sean Corrigan*, a primary cause of the inverted yield curve is what Hayek referred to as “investment that raises the demand for capital” 

Interestingly, Cowen (1997, p.92-94) argued that the existence of the yield curve negates ABC – he assumes that the long term rate signifies the amount of real savings. In his dissertation (which provides a capital-based macroeconomic model to explain why yield curves tend to inverse one year before a recession), Cwik attempted to refute Cowen (see p.98)**.

* Corrigan, S., “The ABC(T) of the Crisis” Tangible Ideas, Sept/Oct 2010

** Cwik, P.F. “An investigation of inverted yield curves and economic downturns

The mortgage burden

I was reading Bernanke & Gertler's (1995) classic, "Inside the Black Box: The Credit Channel of Monetary Policy Transmission" and was interested in their treatment of the "mortgage burden". Following Boldin (1994) they define it thus: "the ratio of mortgage payments to income for the median new home buyer." I've tried to track down the Boldin article to see this in more detail, but can't find a link

Anyway, I wondered what it would look like for the UK in the lead up to the global financial crisis and asked on Twitter. Neal Hudson kindly shared this chart:




Annual monetary thoughts, 2017

I've not been paying close attention to monetary policy this year - I felt that arguments about the pros and cons of interest rate rises had been done to death, so when the MPC raised to 0.5% in November it barely registered.

But with uncertainty surrounding Brexit likely to dominate macro policy over the next year, I wanted to present an overview of the monetary foundations. 

CPI has recently gone above the 3% letter writing threshold, and it's trajectory is a concern. 


The RPI tells a similar story, although the CPIH seems to show that the main inflation pressures might have already passed through. 

The December Inflation Attitudes Survey has revealed an uptick in inflation expectations, with the median response for 5 years time reaching 3.5%. It will be important to monitor whether policy decisions curtail this view. However other key indicators suggest policy may be too tight.


As the chart above shows broad money (M4ex) growth has steadily fallen since last summer, and current growth of 4.2% is probably too low. Divisia measures have fallen from 12.5% this time last year, to 9.8% now.

Industrial production was at 3.5% in October, stronger than the US but weaker than the Euro area. 

NGDP growth is currently 3.4%, suggesting that the back end of 2016 wasn't a return to consistent ~4% growth but more of a blip. This is a big concern and if it falls below 3 the Bank of England should take note. 


So what's the implication for interest rates? My rough estimate of the natural rate is currently 2.1%, whilst a classic Taylor rule suggests rates should be 4.6%. So policy rates still feel artificially low. But if inflation is passing through, and AD continues to fall, choppy waters may lie ahead. 

The natural rate and EMH

I've just read an interesting paper by Philip Pilkington (then of Kingston University, now of GMO), called "Endogenous Money and the Natural Rate of Interest: The Reemergence of Liquidity Preference and Animal Spirits in the Post-Keynesian Theory of Capital Markets". In it, he argues that the concept of "a" natural rate of interest implicitly assumes that the EMH holds.

This is a post Keynesian perspective, resting on Keynes' view that there was no single rate of interest that would bring the loanable funds market to equilbrium. Rather, there's a multitude of interest rates that exist throughout the market. One might think that the risk-free rate serves as a benchmark upon which other rates relate, however these rates require a risk adjustment. Pilkington's point is that in order for savings and investment to be equal, "every lender is pricing in the risk of the borrower correctly - i.e. they are lending to the borrower at the "correct" or "natural" rate of interest given this specific borrower's risk". He goes on to argue that this requires an assumption that lenders are perfectly rational and have perfect information. If this isn't the case, he says, there's no reason to expect the natural rate to "channel investment in a manner that ensures a stable equilibrium growth path".

What caught my eye was a footnote where Pilkington points out a perceived contradiction amongst Austrians:

One might note the superficial similarities between what we have just described and the boom-bust cycle of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT). The key difference, however, is that the ABCT assumes that only central bank action can affect the money rate on interest. As we have seen, however, unless we assume perfect foresight on the part of savers/investors there is no logical reason to assume that they will set the money rate of interest in line with the natural rate. It would be interesting to consider how Austrian theorists, who generally recognize Knightian uncertainty as being operative in capital markets, would respond on this point. The only viable response to this so far as we can see is to advocate some form of the EMH and rational agents, but if Austrians were to do so it would no longer be clear what would distinguish them from, for example, New Classicals.

The Austrian point is that expectations don't need to be rational (in a RatEx sense) for there to be a tendancy towards equilibrium. The Austrian point is that the "saving" in the loanable funds market is - to paraphrase Roger Garrison's terminology - "saving for something". It thus bridges short run and long run models.

Keynesians emphasise the capacity for saving to not find its way into investment (i.e. the paradox of thrift can occur), whereas classical growth theorists argue that all unconsumed resources are necessarily channelled into investment uses. However the  critical difference between these views is simply the time scale: in the short run Keynesians are right, in the long run the classicals are. But the Austrian approach finds a convenient middle ground. Higher saving (because it's driven by a purposeful reason) means greater future consumption and therefore greater profits for entrepreneurs that ready those resources. Rather than implicitly rely on an assumption of Rational Expectations, this fully captures the radical uncertainty that characterises entrepreneurial decision making. Indeed this is precisely why disruptions to the natural rate (i.e. signal extraction problems) matter. I think the Austrian position is robust on this. The middle ground is solid.

For more on my take on the differences (but also similarities) between Austrians and the New Classicals, see here.

Taylor rule calculator: UK rates should be 4%

When I teach introductory classes on monetary economics, I follow Fernando Nechio's simplified version of the Taylor Rule:

Target rate = 1 + 1.5 x Inflation – 1 x Unemployment gap.

It is easy to remember and provides a decent back of the envelope. I've been looking for a decent online applet, and came across a script from Don't Quit Your Day Job. It nicely integrates with current data, allows you to adjust the coefficients, and shows everything on a chart (recent monetary difficulties are clearly expressed by the fact that the Taylor rule never drops below zero).

A recent WSJ article by Michael Derby (h/t Mike Bird) uses a tool from the Atlanta Fed to claim that rates for the US should now be 2.5% - 3% under a Taylor Rule. A very nice aspect of this is the ability to tweak the estimate of the natural rate (conventionally, but arbitrarily, set to 2%). Using a Laubach-Williams model this reduces the Taylor rule to just 0.72%, which is below the current Fed Funds target (see chart).

The classic version of the Taylor Rule (the one I use in my textbook) is as follows:

i=r+PT +a(PPT)+b(YY)

Using that, a current estimate for the UK is 4%:

You can download the spreadsheet here.

Visualising the price swarm

In his 1994 RAE homage to Arthur Marget, John Egger invokes the image of a price "swarm", as opposed to an overall level.

[t]here is no logical reason why a picture of changes in the height of a given "swarm" could not be obtained by simply plotting the individual prices in such a "swarm", and then generalising concerning the movements of the "swarm" on the basis of the picture of the movement of individuak prices thus obtained (1942, p.333)

I'd hoped that the Billion Prices Project would utilise some awesome Gapminder style visualisation tools to bring the swarm to life, but so far I've not seen any attempts. I was looking at the April CPI data though and figured I'd plot the breakdown. The chart below shows the all 12 inflation sub indices from Feb 2016-March 2017 (2015=100). The overall CPI level is shown as a line:

It's a start.

MA vs. M1

MA has been a work in progress for some time, and so the usefulness in terms of telling a distinct story to other, alternative monetary aggregates, also changes. When I present the current version (but using data as of December 2013) I point out that it's roughly the size to M1. And indeed from 2009-2013 the growth rates have been pretty much the same. Which begs the question as to whether it has any additional explanatory power.

The chart below shows MA vs M1 growth going back even further though, and you can see some major differences. In particular in early 2008 MA started to contract however M1 growth skyrockets.

Given that my motivation for pursuing MA was that traditional aggregates weren't demonstrating a monetary tightening during the 2008 credit "crunch", this is an important point of difference. The trouble with narrow measures are that they are susceptible to reclassifications and data adjustments. That's probably what we're seeing here, but it's also evidence that MA and M1 tell different stories.

CPIH to replace CPI as UK inflation target

The ONS recently announced that the UK inflation target will effectively switch from CPI to CPIH. There's pros and cons to all inflation measures, and generally speaking a movement towards broader financial assets (such as housing) seems sensible. One concern, however, is the potential for changes in the inflation target to impact the monetary stance.

For example, from 1997 to 2003 the target was the Retail Price Index (RPIX). For most of this period, it was below the 2.5% target but was elevated throughout 2003, and by November hit 2.9%. Ordinarily, this would be a sign that monetary policy should be tightened, and that inflation was too high. However the CPI was only growing at 1.4%, significantly below the new target of 2%. All of a sudden, purely due to the change in policy, monetary policy appeared too tight. This became a non trivial driver of looser monetary policy.

The stylized facts of the crack-up boom

The Austrian boom phase provides the “illusion” of growth and there are structural reasons why it must unwind. As distinct from other schools of thoughts that rely on amorphous channels of “confidence”, the Austrian story contains the seeds of recession within the boom. To sum up the theory in a nutshell:

“True, governments can reduce the rate of interest in the short run. They can issue additional paper money. They can open the way to credit expansion by the banks. They can thus create an artificial boom and the appearance of prosperity. But such a boom is bound to collapse soon or late and to bring about a depression” Mises (1944) p.251

ABC rests on the claim that artificial credit expansion leads to unsustainable investment projects. Easy money and subsequent low interest rates encourage firms to borrow money and invest in interest-sensitive projects, and for consumers to consume rather than save. As Garrison (2001) points out this causes the economy to pull in two directions at once: cheap credit is fuelling malinvestment, whilst strong consumer demand leads to over consumption. The typical assumption is that this “tug of war” over the stock of real resources tends to be “won” by the business sector, because they are closer to the source of credit creation.

The problem stems from the separation of credit and prior production (i.e. savings). Credit allows us to draw upon expected future income streams; therefore if we use credit to fund investment we are anticipating that the value of those future goods will exceed the interest costs of the loans. But note that if we draw upon future income for present consumption, we’re merely engaged in capital consumption. The problem occurs when we systematically overestimate future incomes, and borrow against future income/profits that doesn’t materialise. Since the interest rate is the signal that provides coordination over time, Austrians tend to focus on the manipulation of it as the cause of these clusters of errors.

When outlining the stylised facts of an “Austrian” business cycle it is again necessary to be wary of the hindsight bias – having recently “experienced” a boom-bust cycle it would be tempting to claim too much. Indeed the intention of this post is not to explain every detail of the cycle, but instead to draw upon the “stylised facts” and compare them with real events. This section of the article is not theoretical, and therefore it is possible that competing explanations also provide a “fit” for the data.

Since most work on the Austrian business cycle theory is academic, there are surprisingly few accounts that commit to outlining how markets will look at various stages. However if this post sought to distil and/or blend existing work it would increase the potential for taking a selective view. Therefore the paucity of literature will be embraced, thus making it easy for readers to verify for themselves that this is a faithful and complete recounting of the sources used! I will rely on two main sources, each providing slightly different points of emphasis. I may be accused of being a little biased, and I can take that. This is, after all, my creed.

“I say “creed” because, for brevity, it is purposely expressed dogmatically and without proof. But it is not a creed in the sense that my faith in it does not rest on evidence and that I am not ready to modify it on presentation of new evidence. On the contrary, it is quite tentative. It may serve as a challenge to others and as raw material to help them work out a better product” (Fisher, 1933 p337).

Oppers (2002) will be used to provide the underlying contours and general description of what Austrian’s might expect to be occurring. Skousen (1988) will be utilised to make specific claims about key indicators and asset classes.

Phase A: The inflationary boom

During the boom it will not be clear that there is a problem, since superficially the main economic indicators will suggest that the economy is running smoothly – there will be robust increases in economic output, low inflation, and strong confidence. Oppers (2002) points to three issues that would concern Austrians, however:

  • “Strong investment demand in particular sectors (this could lead to stronger than warranted building up of production capacity)”
  • “An expansion that is driven by strong growth in credit, especially to enterprises”
  • “a diversion of resources away from the production of consumption goods towards capital goods, with an associated rise in consumer goods prices relative to those of capital goods”[5]

Following Skousen (1988) we can generate four empirical generalisations:

            A1: an increase in the money supply


It is this that drives the cycle, and is what pushes the interest rate below its “natural rate”. The fact that capital-intensive industries are stimulated leads to two related observations:

            A2: a rise in corporate profits and

            A3: a stock market boom



            A4: the producer price index rises faster than the consumer price index

 Phase B: The credit crisis

The credit crisis itself might be considered a “moment”, however we can attribute several observable events to this phase of the cycle. This is the point at which “earlier malinvestment becomes apparent” (Oppers 2002), or where the “illusion” of growth is revealed. Again, Oppers (2002) provides commentary:

  • “a capital stock that is badly matched to the structure of demand”
  • “excess capacity in certain sectors, and a lack of capacity in others”
  • “the slump would likely also be felt strongly… in the banking sector, which would see its loan portfolio deteriorate, as highly leveraged investment projects undertaken during the boom prove to be unprofitable”

According to Skousen (1988) this phase of the boom will manifest itself in the following ways:

            B1: The consumer price index begins to catch up with the producer price index


This leads investors to flee into inflation hedges, leading to:

B2: A rising gold price

B3: A rise in the price of commodities


The fourth impact will be

            B4: Rising pressure on interest rates 


And this stems from two forces. On the one hand the manifestation of consumer price inflation will likely lead to policy responses from the central banks. Also, higher interest rates will reflect the fact that banks seek to call in loans to preserve their balance sheets, reflecting

            B5: Banks and corporations scramble for funding


Phase C: The recession

During the recessionary phase the policy debate comes to the fore, as Oppers (2002) writes:

  • “they [Austrians] see demand-stimulating policies after the cyclical peak as merely postponing (and thus potentially aggravating) the correction of past excesses”
  • “an economy in recession does not respond well to expansionary monetary and fiscal policies”

However the recession itself is a fairly unambiguous phenomena, and we would expect to witness typical economic indicators:

            C1: Production of capital goods falls more sharply than consumer goods. (There is evidence that activities furthest from consumer spending were more severely affected by the recession. Whereas the service sector saw a year on year decline of 3.1%, industry fell by 12.5% whilst construction fell by 13.2% (Giles, C., and Pimlott, D., “UK economy shrinks most in 50 years” Financial Times, June 30th 2009)). As Hayek says,

“It is the decline in investment (or in the production of producer goods) and not the impossibility of selling consumer goods at remunerative prices, which characterises the beginning of the slump” (Hayek 1932)

C2: A fall in GDP

C3: A rise in unemployment

Since the demand for credit declines and central banks engage in expansionary monetary policy we would expect:

            C4: Falling pressure on interest rates


And finally:

C5: The producer price index falls by more than the consumer price index

We can also draw upon Fisher’s (1933) debt-deflation theory sand outline 9 stages of liquidation. These are, (i) distress selling; (ii) reduction in velocity of deposit currency; (iii) fall in the price level; (iv) fall in the net worth of businesses; (v) fall in profits; (vi) reductions in output and employment; (vii) reduction in confidence; (viii) hoarding and further reduction in velocity; (ix) fall in nominal interest rates, rises in real interest rates.

Phase D: The recovery

I think that “the recovery” is an analytically distinct phase to “the recession” even if in practice they tend to coincide. However in reality the likelihood that government responds proactively to “the recession” means that genuine recovery is often jettisoned in favour of a return to an inflationary boom. Despite this we may retain a fourth phase – after the adjustment costs have been borne, and the fruition becomes evident.

I find the evidence compelling.