All posts tagged bubbles

Book review: The Midas Paradox: Financial Markets, Government Policy Shocks, and the Great Depression, by Scott B Sumner.

This is mostly a history of the two depressions that hit the U.S. in the 1930s: one international depression lasting from late 1929 to early 1933, due almost entirely to problems with an unstable gold exchange standard; quickly followed by a more U.S.-centered depression that was mainly caused by bad labor market policies.

It also contains some valuable history of macroeconomic thought, doing a fairly good job of explaining the popularity of theories that are designed for special cases (such as monetarism and Keynes’ “general” theory).

I was surprised at how much Sumner makes the other books on this subject that I’ve read seem inadequate.
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[See my previous post for context.]

I started out to research and write a post on why I disagreed with Scott Sumner about NGDP targeting, and discovered an important point of agreement: targeting nominal wages forecasts would probably be better than targeting either NGDP or CPI forecasts.

One drawback to targeting something other than CPI forecasts is that we’ve got good market forecasts of the CPI. It’s certainly possible to create markets to forecast other quantities that the Fed might target, but we don’t have a good way of predicting how much time and money those will require.

Problems with NGDP targets

The main long-term drawback to targeting NGDP (or other measures that incorporate the quantity of economic activity) rather than an inflation-like measure is that it’s quite plausible to have large changes in the trend of increasing economic activity.

We could have a large increase in our growth rate due to a technology change such as uploaded minds (ems). NGDP targeting would create unpleasant deflation in that scenario until the Fed figured out how to adjust to new NGDP targets.

I can also imagine a technology-induced slowdown in economic growth, for example: a switch to open-source hardware for things like food and clothing (3-d printers using open-source designs) could replace lots of transactions with free equivalents. That would mean a decline in NGDP without a decline in living standards. NGDP targeting would respond by creating high inflation. (This scenario seems less likely and less dangerous than the prior scenario).

Basil Halperin has some historical examples where NGDP targeting would have produced similar problems.

Problems with inflation forecasts?

Critics of inflation targeting point to problems associated with oil shocks or with strange ways of calculating housing costs. Those cause many inflation measures to temporarily diverge from what I want the Fed to focus on, which is the problem of sticky wages interacting with weak nominal wages to create unnecessary unemployment.

Those problems with measuring inflation are serious if the Fed uses inflation that has already happened or uses forecasts of inflation that extend only a few months into the future.

Instead, I recommend using multi-year CPI forecasts based on several different time periods (e.g. in the 2 to 10 year range), and possibly forecasts for time periods that start a year or so in the future (this series shows how to infer such forecasts from existing markets). In the rare case where forecasts for different time periods say conflicting things about whether the Fed is too tight or loose, I’d encourage the Fed to use its judgment about which to follow.

The multi-year forecasts have historically shown only small reactions to phenomena such as the large spike in oil prices in mid 2008. I expect that pattern to continue: commodity price spikes happen when markets get evidence of their causes/symptoms (due to market efficiency), not at predictable future times. The multi-year forecasts typically tell us mainly whether the Fed will persistently miss its target.

Won’t using those long-term forecasts enable the Fed to make mistakes that it corrects (or over-corrects) for shorter time periods? Technically yes, but that doesn’t mean the Fed has a practical way to do that. It’s much easier for the Fed to hit its target if demand for money is predictable. Demand for money is more predictable if the value of money is more predictable. That’s one reason why long-term stability of inflation (or of wages or NGDP) implies short-term stability.

It would be a bit safer to target nominal wage rate forecasts rather than CPI forecasts if we had equally good markets forecasting both. But I expect it to be easier to convince the public to trust markets that are heavily traded for other reasons, than it is to get them to trust a brand new market of uncertain liquidity.

NGDP targeting has been gaining popularity recently. But targeting market-based inflation forecasts will be about as good under most conditions [1], and we have good markets that forecast the U.S. inflation rate [2].

Those forecasts have a track record that starts in 2003. The track record seems quite consistent with my impressions about when the Fed should have adopted a more inflationary policy (to promote growth and to get inflation expectations up to 2% [3]) and when it should have adopted a less inflationary policy (to avoid fueling the housing bubble). It’s probably a bit controversial to say that the Fed should have had a less inflationary policy from February through July or August of 2008. But my impression (from reading the stock market) is that NGDP futures would have said roughly the same thing. The inflation forecasts sent a clear signal starting in very early September 2008 that Fed policy was too tight, and that’s about when other forms of hindsight switch from muddled to saying clearly that Fed policy was dangerously tight.

Why do I mention this now? The inflation forecast dropped below 1 percent two weeks ago for the first time since May 2008. So the Fed’s stated policies conflict with what a more reputable source of information says the Fed will accomplish. This looks like what we’d see if the Fed was in the process of causing a mild recession to prevent an imaginary increase in inflation.

What does the Fed think it’s doing?

  • It might be relying on interest rates to estimate what it’s policies will produce. Interest rates this low after 6.5 years of economic expansion resemble historical examples of loose monetary policy more than they resemble the stereotype of tight monetary policy [4].
  • The Fed could be following a version of the Taylor Rule. Given standard guesses about the output gap and equilibrium real interest rate [5], the Taylor Rule says interest rates ought to be rising now. The Taylor Rule has usually been at least as good as actual Fed policy at targeting inflation indirectly through targeting interest rates. But that doesn’t explain why the Fed targets interest rates when that conflicts with targeting market forecasts of inflation.
  • The Fed could be influenced by status quo bias: interest rates and unemployment are familiar types of evidence to use, whereas unbiased inflation forecasts are slightly novel.
  • Could the Fed be reacting to money supply growth? Not in any obvious way: the monetary base stopped growing about two years ago, M1 and MZM growth are slowing slightly, and M2 accelerated recently (but only after much of the Fed’s tightening).

Scott Sumner’s rants against reasoning from interest rates explain why the Fed ought to be embarrassed to use interest rates to figure out whether Fed policy is loose or tight.

Yet some institutional incentives encourage the Fed to target interest rates rather than predicted inflation. It feels like an appropriate use of high-status labor to set interest rates once every few weeks based on new discussion of expert wisdom. Switching to more or less mechanical responses to routine bond price changes would undercut much of the reason for believing that the Fed’s leaders are doing high-status work.

The news media storytellers would have trouble finding entertaining ways of reporting adjustments that consisted of small hourly responses to bond market changes. Whereas decisions made a few times per year are uncommon enough to be genuinely newsworthy. And meetings where hawks struggle against doves fit our instinctive stereotype for important news better than following a rule does. So I see little hope that storytellers will want to abandon their focus on interest rates. Do the Fed governors follow the storytellers closely enough that the storytellers’ attention strongly affects the Fed’s attention? Would we be better off if we could ban the Fed from seeing any source of daily stories?

Do any other interest groups prefer stable interest rates over stable inflation rates? I expect a wide range of preferences among Wall Street firms, but I’m unaware which preferences are dominant there.

Consumers presumably prefer that their banks, credit cards, etc have predictable interest rates. But I’m skeptical that the Fed feels much pressure to satisfy those preferences.

We need to fight those pressures by laughing at people who claim that the Fed is easing when markets predict below-target inflation (as in the fall of 2008) or that the Fed is tightening when markets predict above-target inflation (e.g. much of 2004).

P.S. – The risk-reward ratio for the stock market today is much worse than normal. I’m not as bearish as I was in October 2008, but I’ve positioned myself much more cautiously than normal.


[1] – They appear to produce nearly identical advice under most conditions that the U.S. has experienced recently.

I expect inflation targeting to be modestly safer than NGDP targeting. I may get around to explaining my reasons for that in a separate post.

[2] – The link above gives daily forecasts of the 5 year CPI inflation rate. See here for some longer time periods.

The markets used to calculate these forecasts have enough liquidity that it would be hard for critics to claim that they could be manipulated by entities less powerful than the Fed. I expect some critics to claim that anyway.

[3] – I’m accepting the standard assumption that 2% inflation is desirable, in order to keep this post simple. Figuring out the optimal inflation rate is too hard for me to tackle any time soon. A predictable inflation rate is clearly desirable, which creates some benefits to following a standard that many experts agree on.

[4] – providing that you don’t pay much attention to Japan since 1990.

[5] – guesses which are error-prone and, if a more direct way of targeting inflation is feasible, unnecessary. The conflict between the markets’ inflation forecast and the Taylor Rule’s implication that near-zero interest rates would cause inflation to rise suggests that we should doubt those guesses. I’m pretty sure that equilibrium interest rates are lower than the standard assumptions. I don’t know what to believe about the output gap.

Book review: Manias, Panics and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises 6th ed., by Charles P. Kindleberger and Robert Aliber.

The book starts with a good overview of how a typical bubble develops and bursts. But I found the rest of the book poorly organized. I often wondered whether the book was reporting a particular historical fact as an example of some broad pattern – if not, why weren’t they organized in something closer to chronological order? It has lots of information that is potentially valuable, but not organized into a useful story or set of references.

Book review: This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff.

This book documents better than any prior book the history of banking and government debt crises. Most of it is unsurprising to those familiar with the subject. It has more comprehensive data than I’ve seen before.

It is easier reading than the length would suggest (it has many tables of data, and few readers will be tempted to read all the data). It is relatively objective. That makes it less exciting than the more ideological writings on the subject.

The comparisons between well governed and poorly governed countries show that governments can become mature enough that defaults on government debt and hyperinflation are rare or eliminated, but there is little different in banking crises between different types of government / economies.

They claim that international capital mobility has produced banking crises, but don’t convince me that they understand the causality behind the correlation. I’d guess that one causal factor is that the optimism that produces bubbles causes more investors to move money into countries they understand less well than their home country, which means their money is more likely to end up in reckless institutions.

The book ends with tentative guesses about which countries are about to become mature enough to avoid sovereign debt crises. Among the seven candidates is Greece, which is now looking like a poor guess less than a half year after it was published.

Up to two months ago, I was not too excited by the claims of a bubble in the Chinese stock market. Maybe the stocks that trade only in China were at bubble levels, but the ones that trade in the U.S. or Hong Kong still looked like mostly good investments.
Much has changed since then. On October 17, PetroChina rose 14.5%, more than doubling in about two months. That was a one day gain in market capitalization of almost $60 billion, and a two month gain of $247 billion (doubling the market capitalization). I’ve seen similar but less dramatic rises in smaller Chinese stocks that trade in the U.S., but less on the Hong Kong stock exchange.
By comparison, the largest rises in market capitalization that I’ve been able to find in the technology stock bubble of 1999-2000 were a $50 billion one day rise in Microsoft on December 15, 1999, and a $250 billion rise (doubling) in Cisco which took four months.
I’m not saying that Chinese stocks are clearly overvalued yet, and I’m still holding some stocks in smaller Chinese companies that I don’t feel much urgency about selling. But the unusually strong and long lasting Chinese economic expansion, combined with the unusually frothy action in the stock market, are what I’d expect to be causes and symptoms of a bubble.
Bubbles in the U.S. have peaked when real interest rates rise to higher than normal levels. The Chinese government is keeping real interest rates near zero, and seems to think it can keep nominal interest rates stable and reduce inflation. That would be an unusual accomplishment under most circumstances. When combined with a stock market bubble, I suspect it could only be accomplished with drastic restrictions on economic activity, which would involve instabilities that the Chinese government has been trying to avoid by stabilizing things such as interest rates.
Without a rise in interest rates or drastic restrictions of some sort, it’s hard to see what will stop the rise in Chinese stocks. So I’m guessing we’ll see a bigger bubble than the U.S. has experienced. It’s effects will likely extend well beyond China.

Last week in a ski lift line I overheard a college-aged guy bragging about how he was making money in the Florida housing market before going to college.
This kind of anecdotal evidence is not as reliable as I would like, but market bubbles rarely have conclusive evidence, so I feel a need to make use of all evidence. If housing market peaks are much like stock market peaks, this is definitely evidence that we are near at least a short-term peak in the housing market.

The rationalizations that I’m noticing from people who want to deny the existence of a housing bubble are becoming more obviously contrived.
Last spring, the strangest one I noticed was this Tyler Cowen post, which notes the unusual rent-buy ratios, then ignores that anomaly and devotes the rest of the post to questioning a weaker argument for the housing bubble theory.
This month I noticed someone on a private mailing list who had enough sense to realize that current housing prices probably depend on a continuation of unusually low and stable long-term interest rates expressed confidence that the “psychological consensus against inflation” would make that likely. If such a consensus existed, I would have expected to see people expressing concern that the Fed’s policy being too inflationary, when in fact I see people jumping at any excuse (e.g. a hurricane) to advocate a more inflationary policy. Plus I see politicians racing to expand the federal debt to levels that will give them massive incentives to inflate or default when the baby boomers retire.
Now Chris Hibbert comes up with some stranger rationalizations:

The worst historical cases that I know of were times when housing prices dropped 10 or 20 percent.

I thought he read Marginal Revolution regularly, but that comment suggests he is unaware of this description of Shiller’s apparently more accurate housing price history which includes what looks like a 50 percent drop in U.S. housing prices. But that deals with a national average, which gives you the kind of diversification you might get with a mutual fund. Chris’s real estate investments sound less diverse – is that safer?
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Greenspan and bubbles

According to an October 19 Bloomberg article, Greenspan said:

"Housing price bubbles presuppose an ability of market participants
to trade properties as they speculate about the future," and the
expense and difficulty of moving "are significant impediments to
speculative trading and an important restraint on the development of
housing price bubbles,"

I wonder how he would describe the Japanese real estate prices of the late 1980s.
It might not be a coincidence that the dollar has dropped against gold and other currencies the past couple of days.

I’m not yet willing to bet money that a significant housing bubble is developing in the U.S., but it wouldn’t take too much for me to decide it’s time for such a bet.