interest rates

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On Negative Rates

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 29/10/2020 - 3:09pm in

Negative interest rates – weird, right?

In the five thousand years that interest rates have been recorded, they’ve never hit zero before.  Today, there’s some $15 trillion in negative-yielding bonds — admittedly down from $17 trillion last year, but still a very substantial fraction of the global bond market outside the US. At first it was only shorter bonds that were negative, but today German bunds are negative all the way out to 30 years. What’s going on? Does this mean it would be profitable to bulldoze the Rockies for farmland? Will it cause the extinction of the banking system? And more fundamentally, if the interest rate reflects the cost of a good today in terms of the same good next year, why would it ever be negative? Why would people place a higher value on stuff in the future than on stuff today?

Personally, I don’t think they’re so weird. And the reason I think that is that interest rates are not, in fact, the price of goods today in terms of goods tomorrow. It is, rather, the price of a financial asset that promises a certain schedule of money payments. Negative rates are only a puzzle in the real-exchange perspective that dominates economics, where we can safely abstract from money when discussing interest rates. In the money view, where interest transactions are swap of assets, or of a stream of money payments, nothing particularly strange about them. 

(I should say up front that this post is an attempt to clarify my own thinking. I think what I’m writing here is right, but I’m open to hearing why it’s wrong, or incomplete. It’s not a finished or settled position, and it’s not backed up by any larger body of work. At best, like most of what I wrote, it is informed by reading a lot of Keynes.)

The starting point for thinking about negative rates is to remember that these are market prices. Government is not setting a negative yield by decree, someone is voluntarily holding all those negative-yielding bonds. Or more precisely, someone is buying a bond at a price high enough, relative to the payments it promises, to imply a negative yield. 

Take the simplest example — a government bond that promises a payment of $100 at some date in the future, with no other payments in between. (A zero-coupon bond, in other words.) If the bond sells today for less than $100, the interest rate on it is positive. If the bond sells today for more than $100, the interest rate is negative. Negative yields exist insofar market participants value such a bond at greater than $100. 

So now we have to ask, what are the sources of demand for government bonds?

A lot of confusion is created, I think, by asking this question the wrong way. People think about saving, and about trading off spending today against spending tomorrow. This after all is the way an economics training encourages you to think about interest rates — as a shorthand for any exchange between present and future. Any transaction that involves getting less today in return for more tomorrow incorporates the interest rate as part of the price — at a high enough level of abstraction, they’re all the same thing. The college wage premium, say, is just as much an interest rate from this perspective as the yield on the bond. 

If we insist on thinking of interest rates this way, we would have to explain negative yields in terms of a society-wide desire to defer spending, and/or the absence of any store of wealth that even maintains its value, let alone increases it. Either of those would indeed be pretty weird!

(Or, it would be the equivalent of people paying more for a college education than the total additional wages they could expect to earn from it, or people paying more for a house than the total cost of renting an identical one for the rest of their lives. Which are both things that might happen! But also, that would be generally seen as something going wrong in the economic system.)

Since economists (and economics-influenced people) are so used to thinking of interest as reflecting a tradeoff between present and future, a kind of inter-temporal exchange rate, it’s worth an example to clarify why it isn’t. Imagine a typical household credit transaction, a car loan. The household acquires means to pay for the acquisition of a car, and commits to a schedule of payments to the bank; the bank gets the opposite positions. Is the household giving up future consumption in order to consume now? No. At every period, the value the household gets from the use of the car will exceed the payments the household is making for it — otherwise, they wouldn’t be doing it. If anything, since the typical term of a car loan is six or seven years while a new car should remain in service for a decade or more, the increased consumption comes in the future, when the car is paid off and still delivering transport services. Credit, in general, finances assets, not consumption. The reason car loans are needed is not to shift consumption from the future to the present, but because use of the transportation services provided by the car are tightly bound up with ownership of the car itself.

Nor, of course, is the lender shifting present consumption to the future. The lender itself, being a bank, does not consume. And no one else needs to forego or defer consumption for the banks to make the auto loan either. No one needs to deposit savings in a bank before it makes a loan; the lent money is endogenous, created by banks in the course of lending it. Whatever factors limit the willingness of the bank to extend additional auto loans — risk; liquidity; capital; regulation; transaction costs — a preference for current consumption is not among them. 

The intertemporal-exchange way of looking at government bonds would make sense if the only way to acquire one was to forego an equal amount of consumption, so that bond purchases were equivalent to saving in an economic sense. Then understanding the demand for government bonds, would be the same as understanding the desire to save, or defer consumption. But of course government bonds are not part of some kind of economy-wide savings equilibrium like that. First of all, the purchasers of bonds are not households, but banks and other financial actors. Second, the purchase of the bond does not entail a reduction in current spending, but a swap of assets. And third, the owners of bonds do not hold them in order to finance some intended real expenditure in the future, but rather for some combination of benefits from owning them (liquidity, safety, regulation) and an expectation of monetary profit. 

From the real-exchange perspective, there is one intertemporal price — the interest rate —  just as there is one exchange rate between any given pair of countries. From the money view perspective, there are many different interest rates, corresponding to the different prices of different assets promising future payments. Many of the strong paradoxes people describe from negative rates only exist if rates are negative across the board. But in reality, rates do not move in lockstep. We will set aside for now the question of how strong the arbitrage link between different assets actually is.

We can pass over these questions because, again, government bonds are not held for income. They are not held by households or the generic private sector. They are overwhelmingly held by banks and bank-like entities for some combination of risk, liquidity and regulatory motives, or by a broader set of financial institutions for return. Note for later: Return is not the same as income!

Let’s take the first set of motivations first. 

If you are a bank, you may want to hold some fraction of your assets as government bonds in order to reduce the chance your income will be very different from what you expected; reduce the chance that you will find yourself unable to make payments that you need or want to make (since it’s easy to sell the bonds as needed); and/or to reduce the chance that you’ll fall afoul of regulation  (which presumably is there because you otherwise might neglect the previous two goals).

The key point here is that these are benefits of holding bonds that are in addition to whatever return those bonds may offer. And if the ownership of government bonds provides substantial benefits for financial institutions, it’s not surprising they would be willing to pay for those services.

This may be clearer if we think about checking accounts. Scare stories about negative rates often ask what happens when households have to pay for the privilege of lending money to the bank. Will they withdraw it all as cash and keep it under the mattress? But of course, paying the bank to lend it money is the situation most people have always been in. Even before the era of negative rates, lots of people held money in checking accounts that carried substantial fees (explicit and otherwise) and paid no interest, or less than the cost of the fees. And of course unbanked people have long paid exorbitant amounts to be able to make electronic payments. In general, banks have no problem getting people to hold negative-yield assets. And why would they? The payments services offered by banks are valuable. The negative yield just reflects people’s willingness to pay for them.

In the national accounts, the difference between the interest that bank depositors actually receive and a benchmark rate that they in some sense should receive is added to their income as “imputed interest”, which reflects the value of the services they are getting from their low- or no- or negative-interest bank accounts. In 2019, this imputed interest came to about $250 billion for households and another $300 billion for non financial corporations. These nonexistent interest payments are, to be honest, an odd and somewhat misleading thing to include in the national accounts. But their presence reflects the genuine fact that people hold negative and more broadly below-market yield assets in large quantities because of other benefits they provide. 

Turned around this way, the puzzle is why government debt ever has a positive yield. The fundamental form of a bond sale is the creating of pair of offsetting assets and liabilities. The government acquires an asset in the form of a deposit, which is the liability of the bank; and the bank acquires an asset in the form of a bond, which is the liability of the government. Holding the bond has substantial benefits for the bank, while holding the deposit has negligible benefits for the government. So why shouldn’t the bank be the one that pays to make the transaction happen?

One possible answer is the cost of financing the holding. But, it is normally assumed that the interest rate paid by banks follows the policy rate. There’s no obvious reason for the downward shift in rates to affect spread between bank deposits and government bonds.  Of course some bank liabilities will carry higher rates, but again, that was true In the past too.

Another possible answer is the opportunity cost of not holding positive-yield asset. Again, this assumes that other yields don’t move down too. More fundamentally, it assumes a fixed size of bank balance sheets, so that holding more of one asset means less of another. In a world with with a fixed or exogenous money stock, or where regulations and monetary policy create the simulacrum of one, there is a cost to the bank of holding government debt, namely the income from whatever other asset it might have held instead. Many people still have this kind of mental model in thinking about government debt. (It’s implicit in any analysis of interest rates in terms of saving.) But in a world of endogenous credit money, holding more government debt doesn’t reduce a bank’s ability to acquire other assets. Banks’ ability to expand their balance sheets isn’t unlimited, but what limits it is concerns about risk or liquidity, or regulatory constraints. All of these may be relaxed by government debt holdings, so holding more government bonds may increase the amount of other assets banks can hold, not reduce it. In this case the opportunity cost would be negative. 

So why aren’t interest rates on government debt usually negative? As a historical matter, I suppose the reasons we haven’t seen negative yields in the past are, first, that under the gold standard, government bonds were not at the top of the hierarchy of money and credit, and governments had to pay to access higher-level money; in some contexts government debt may have been lower in the hierarchy than bank money as well. Second, in the postwar era the use of the interest rate for demand control has required central banks to ensure positive rates on public  as well as private debt. And third, the safety, liquidity and regulatory benefits of government debt holdings for the financial system weren’t as large or as salient before the great financial crisis of 2007-2009. 

Even if negative yields aren’t such a puzzle when we think about the sources of bank demand for government debt, we still have the question of how low they can go. Analytically, we would have to ask, how much demand is there for the liquidity, safety and regulatory-compliance services provided by sovereign debt holdings, and to what extent are there substitute sources for them?

But wait, you may be saying, this isn’t the whole story. Bonds are held as assets, not just as reserves for banks and bank-like entities. Are there no bond funds, are there no bond traders?

These investors are the second source of demand for government bonds. For them, return does matter. The goal of making a profit from holding the bond is the second motivation mentioned earlier.

The key point to recognize here is that return and yield are two different things. Yield is one component of return. The other is capital gains. The market price of a bond changes if interest rates change during the life of the bond, which means that the overall return on a negative-yielding bond can be positive. This would be irrelevant if bonds were held to maturity for income, but of course that is not bond investment works. 

For foreign holders, return also includes gains or losses from exchange rate changes, but we can ignore that here. Most foreign holders presumably hold government bonds as foreign exchange reserves, which is a subset of the safety/liquidity/regularity benefits discussed above. 

To understand how negative yielding bonds could offer positive returns, we have to keep in mind what is actually going on with bond prices, including negative rates. The borrower promises one or more payments of specified amounts at specified dates in the future. The purchaser then offers a payment today in exchange for that stream of future payments. What we call an interest rate is a description of the relationship between the promised payments and the immediate payment. We normally think of interest as something paid over a period of time, but strictly speaking the interest rate is a price today for a contract today. So unlike in the checking account case, the normal negative-rates situation is not the lender paying the borrower. 

Here’s an example. Suppose I offer to pay you $100 30 years from now. This is, formally, a zero-coupon 30-year bond. How much will you pay for this promse today? 

If you will pay me $41 for the promise, that is the same as saying the interest rate on the loan is 3 percent. (41 * 1.03 ^ 30 = 100). So an interest rate of 3 percent is just another way of saying that the current market price of a promise of $100 30 years from now is $41. 

If you will pay me $55 for the promise, that’s the same as an interest rate of 2 percent. If you’ll pay me $74, that’s the same as an interest rate of 1 percent.

If you’ll pay me $100 for the promise, that is of course equivalent to an interest rate of 0. And if you’ll pay me $135 for the promise of $100 30 years from now, that’s the equivalent of an interest of -1 percent. 

When we look at things this way, there is nothing special about negative rates. There is just continuous range of prices for an asset. Negative rates refer to the upper part of the range but nothing in particular changes at the boundary between them. Nothing magical or even noticeable happens when the price of an asset (in this case that promise of $100) goes from $99 to $101, any different from when it went from $97 to $99. The creditor is still paying the borrower today, the borrower is still paying the creditor in the future.

Now the next step: Think about what happens when interest rates change. 

Suppose I paid $135 for a promise of $100 thirty years from now, as in the example above. Again, this equivalent to an interest rate of -1 percent. Now it’s a year later, so I have a promise of $100 29 years from now. At an interest rate of -1 percent, that is worth $133.50. (The fact that the value of the bond declines over time is another way of seeing that it’s a negative interest rate.) But now suppose that, in the meantime, market interest rates have fallen to -2 percent. That means a promise of $100 29 years from now is now worth $178. (178 * 0.98 ^ 29 = 100.) So my bond has increased in value from $135 to $178, a capital gain of one-third! So if I think it is even modestly more likely that interest rates will fall than that they’ll rise over the next year, the expected return on that negative-yield bond is actually positive.

Suppose that it comes to be accepted that the normal, usual yield on say, German 10-year bunds is -1 percent. (Maybe people come to agree that the liquidity, risk and regulatory benefits of holding them are worth the payment of 1 percent of their value a year. That seems reasonable!) Now, suppose that the yield starts to move toward positive territory – for concreteness, say the current yield reaches 0, while people still expect the normal yield to be -1 percent. This implies that the rise to 0 is probably transitory. And if the ten-year bund returns to a yield of -1 percent, that implies a capital gain on the order of 10 percent for anyone who bought them at zero. This means that as soon as the price begins to rise toward zero, demand will rise rapidly. And the bidding-up of the price of the bund that happens in response to the expected capital gains, will ensure that the yield never in fact reaches zero, but stops rising before gets much above -1 percent. 

Bond pricing is a technical field, which I have absolutely no expertise in. But this fundamental logic has to be an important factor in decisions by investors (as opposed to financial institutions) who hold negative-yielding bonds in their portfolios. The lower you expect bond yields to be in the future, the higher the expected return on a bond with a given yield today. If a given yield gets accepted as usual or normal, then expected capital gains will rise rapidly when the yield rises above that — a dynamic that will ensure that the actual yield does not in fact depart far from the normal one. Capital gains are a bigger part of the return the lower the current yield is. So while high-yielding bonds can see price moves in response to fundamentals (or at least beliefs about them), these self-confirming expectations (or conventions) are likely to dominate once yields fall to near zero. 

These dynamics disappear when you think in terms of an intertemporal equilibrium where future yields are known and assets are held to maturity. When we think of trading off consumption today for consumption tomorrow, we are implicitly imagining something equivalent to holding bond to maturity. And of course if you have a model with interest rates determined by some kind of fundamentals by a process known to the agents in the model — what is called model-consistent or rational expectations — than it makes to sense to say that people could believe the normal or “correct” level of interest rates is anything other than what it is. So speculation is excluded by assumption.

Keynes understand all this clearly, and the fact that the long-term interest rate is conventionally determined in this way is quite important to his theory. But he seems never to have considered the possibility of negative yields. As a result he saw the possibility of capital gains as disappearing as interest rates got close to zero. This meant that for him, the conventional valuation was not symmetrical, but operated mainly as a floor. But once we allow the possibility of negative rates, conventional expectations can prevent a rise in interest rates just as easily as a fall. 

In short, negative yields are a puzzle and a problem in the real exchange paradigm that dominates economic conversation, in which the “interest rate” is the terms on which goods today exchange for goods in the future. But from the money view, where the interest rate is the (inverse of) the price of an asset yielding a flow of money payments, there is nothing especially puzzling about negative rates. It just implies greater demand for the relevant assets. A corollary is that while there should be a single exchange rate between now and later, the prices of different assets may behave quite differently. So while many of the paradoxes people pose around negative rates assume that all rates go negative together, in the real world the average rate on US credit cards, for example, is still about 15 percent — the same as it was 20 years ago. 

In the future, the question people may ask is not how interest rates could be negative, but why was it that the government for so long paid the banks for the valuable services its bonds offered them? 

“Monetary Policy in a Changing World”

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 18/09/2020 - 6:52am in

While looking for something else, I came across this 1956 article on monetary policy by Erwin Miller. It’s a fascinating read, especially in light of current discussions about, well, monetary policy in a changing world. Reading the article was yet another reminder that, in many ways, debates about central banking were more sophisticated and far-reaching in the 1950s than they are today.

The recent discussions have been focused mainly on what the goals or targets of monetary policy should be. While the rethinking there is welcome — higher wages are not a reliable sign of rising inflation; there are good reasons to accept above-target inflation, if it developed — the tool the Fed is supposed to be using to hit these targets is the overnight interest rate faced by banks, just as it’s been for decades. The mechanism by which this tool works is basically taken for granted — economy-wide interest rates move with the rate set by the Fed, and economic activity reliably responds to changes in these interest rates. If this tool has been ineffective recently, that’s just about the special conditions of the zero lower bound. Still largely off limits are the ideas that, when effective, monetary policy affects income distribution and the composition of output and not just its level, and that, to be effective, monetary policy must actively direct the flow of credit within the economy and not just control the overall level of liquidity.

Miller is asking a more fundamental question: What are the institutional requirements for monetary policy to be effective at all? His answer is that conventional monetary policy makes sense in a world of competitive small businesses and small government, but that different tools are called for in a world of large corporations and where the public sector accounts for a substantial part of economic activity. It’s striking that the assumptions he already thought were outmoded in the 1950s still guide most discussions of macroeconomic policy today.1

From his point of view, relying on the interest rate as the main tool of macroeconomic management is just an unthinking holdover from the past — the “normal” world of the 1920s — without regard for the changed environment that would favor other approaches. It’s just the same today — with the one difference that you’ll no longer find these arguments in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.2

Rather than resort unimaginatively to traditional devices whose heyday was one with a far different institutional environment, authorities should seek newer solutions better in harmony with the current economic ‘facts of life.’ These newer solutions include, among others, real estate credit control, consumer credit control, and security reserve requirements…, all of which … restrain the volume of credit available in the private sector of the economy.

Miller has several criticisms of conventional monetary policy, or as he calls it, “flexible interest rate policies” — the implicit alternative being the wartime policy of holding key rates fixed. One straightforward criticism is that changing interest rates is itself a form of macroeconomic instability. Indeed, insofar as both interest rates and inflation describe the terms on which present goods trade for future goods, it’s not obvious why stable inflation should be a higher priority than stable interest rates.

A second, more practical problem is that to the extent that a large part of outstanding debt is owed by the public sector, the income effects of interest rate changes will become more important than the price effects. In a world of large public debts, conventional monetary policy will affect mainly the flow of interest payments on existing debt rather than new borrowing. Or as Miller puts it,

If government is compelled to borrow on a large scale for such reasons of social policy — i.e., if the expenditure programs are regarded as of such compelling social importance that they cannot be postponed merely for monetary considerations — then it would appear illogical to raise interest rates against government, the preponderant borrower, in order to restrict credit in the private sphere.

Arguably, this consideration applied more strongly in the 1950s, when government accounted for the majority of all debt outstanding; but even today governments (federal plus state and local) accounts for over a third of total US debt. And the same argument goes for many forms of private debt as well.

As a corollary to this argument — and my MMT friends will like this — Miller notes that a large fraction of federal debt is held by commercial banks, whose liabilities in turn serve as money. This two-step process is, in some sense, equivalent to simply having the government issue the money — except that the private banks get paid interest along the way. Why would inflation call for an increase in this subsidy?


The continued existence of a large amount of that bank-held debt may be viewed as a sop to convention, a sophisticated device to issue needed money without appearing to do so. However, it is a device which requires that a subsidy (i.e., interest) be paid the banks to issue this money. It may therefore be argued that the government should redeem these bonds by an issue of paper money (or by an issue of debt to the central bank in exchange for deposit credit). … The upshot would be the removal of the governmental subsidy to banks for performing a function (i.e., creation of money) which constitutionally is the responsibility of the federal government.

Finance franchise, anyone?

This argument, I’m sorry to say, does not really work today — only a small fraction of federal debt is now owned by commercial banks, and there’s no longer a link, if there ever was, between their holdings of federal debt and the amount of money they create by lending. There are still good arguments for a public payments system, but they have to be made on other grounds.

The biggest argument against using a single interest rate as the main tool of macroeconomic management is that it doesn’t work very well. The interesting thing about this article is that Miller doesn’t spend much time on this point. He assumes his readers will already be skeptical:

There remains the question of the effectiveness of interest rates as a deterrent to potential private borrowing. The major arguments for each side of this issue are thoroughly familiar and surely demonstrate most serious doubt concerning that effectiveness.

Among other reasons, interest is a small part of overall cost for most business activity. And in any situation where macroeconomic stabilization is needed, it’s likely that expected returns will be moving for other reasons much faster than a change in interest rates can compensate for. Keynes says the same thing in the General Theory, though Miller doesn’t mention it.3 (Maybe in 1956 there wasn’t any need to.)

Because the direct link between interest rates and activity is so weak, Miller notes, more sophisticated defenders of the central bank’s stabilization role argue that it’s not so much a direct link between interest rates and activity as the effect of changes in the policy rate on banks’ lending decisions. These arguments “skillfully shift the points of emphasis … to show how even modest changes in interest rates can bring about significant credit control effects.”

Here Miller is responding to arguments made by a line of Fed-associated economists from his contemporary Robert Roosa through Ben Bernanke. The essence of these arguments is that the main effect of interest rate changes is not on the demand for credit but on the supply. Banks famously lend long and borrow short, so a bank’s lending decisions today must take into account financing conditions in the future. 4 A key piece of this argument — which makes it an improvement on orthodoxy, even if Miller is ultimately right to reject it — is that the effect of monetary policy can’t be reduced to a regular mathematical relationship, like the interest-output semi-elasticity of around 1 found in contemporary forecasting models. Rather, the effect of policy changes today depend on their effects on beliefs about policy tomorrow.

There’s a family resemblance here to modern ideas about forward guidance — though people like Roosa understood that managing market expectations was a trickier thing than just announcing a future policy. But even if one granted the effectiveness of this approach, an instrument that depends on changing beliefs about the long-term future is obviously unsuitable for managing transitory booms and busts.

A related point is that insofar as rising rates make it harder for banks to finance their existing positions, there is a chance this will create enough distress that the Fed will have to intervene — which will, of course, have the effect of making credit more available again. Once the focus shifts from the interest rate to credit conditions, there is no sharp line between the Fed’s monetary policy and lender of last resort roles.

A further criticism of conventional monetary policy is that it disproportionately impacts more interest-sensitive or liquidity-constrained sectors and units. Defenders of conventional monetary policy claim (or more often tacitly assume) that it affects all economic activity equally. The supposedly uniform effect of monetary policy is both supposed to make it an effective tool for macroeconomic management, and helps resolve the ideological tension between the need for such management and the belief in a self-regulating market economy. But of course the effect is not uniform. This is both because debtors and creditors are different, and because interest makes up a different share of the cost of different goods and services.

In particular, investment, especially investment in housing and other structures, is mo sensitive to interest and liquidity conditions than current production. Or as Miller puts it, “Interest rate flexibility uses instability of one variety to fight instability of a presumably more serious variety: the instability of the loanable funds price-level and of capital values is employed in an attempt to check commodity price-level and employment instability.” (emphasis added)

The point that interest rate changes, and monetary conditions generally, change the relative price of capital goods and consumption goods is important. Like much of Miller’s argument, it’s an unacknowledged borrowing from Keynes; more strikingly, it’s an anticipation of Minsky’s famous “two price” model, where the relative price of capital goods and current output is given a central role in explaining macroeconomic dynamics.

If we take a step back, of course, it’s obvious that some goods are more illiquid than others, and that liquidity conditions, or the availability of financing, will matter more for production of these goods than for the more immediately saleable ones. Which is one reason that it makes no sense to think that money is ever “neutral.”5

Miller continues:

In inflation, e.g., employment of interest rate flexibility would have as a consequence the spreading of windfall capital losses on security transactions, the impairment of capital values generally, the raising of interest costs of governmental units at all levels, the reduction in the liquidity of individuals and institutions in random fashion without regard for their underlying characteristics, the jeopardizing of the orderly completion of financing plans of nonfederal governmental units, and the spreading of fear and uncertainty generally.

Some businesses have large debts; when interest rates rise, their earnings fall relative to businesses that happen to have less debt. Some businesses depend on external finance for investment; when interest rates rise, their costs rise relative to businesses that are able to finance investment internally. In some industries, like residential construction, interest is a big part of overall costs; when interest rates rise, these industries will shrink relative to ones that don’t finance their current operations.

In all these ways, monetary policy is a form of central planning, redirecting activity from some units and sectors to other units and sectors. It’s just a concealed, and in large part for that reason crude and clumsy, form of planning.

Or as Miller puts it, conventional monetary policy

discriminates between those who have equity funds for purchases and those who must borrow to make similar purchases. … In so far as general restrictive action successfully reduces the volume of credit in use, some of those businesses and individuals dependent on bank credit are excluded from purchase marts, while no direct restraint is placed on those capable of financing themselves.

In an earlier era, Miller suggests, most borrowing was for business investment; most investment was externally financed; and business cycles were driven by fluctuations in investment. So there was a certain logic to focusing on interest rates as a tool of stabilization. Honestly, I’m not sure if that was ever true.But I certainly agree that by the 1950s — let alone today — it was not.

In a footnote, Miller offers a more compelling version of this story, attributing to the British economist R. S. Sayers the idea of

sensitive points in an economy. [Sayers] suggests that in the English economy mercantile credit in the middle decades of the nineteenth century and foreign lending in the later decades of that century were very sensitive spots and that the bank rate technique was particularly effective owing to its impact upon them. He then suggests that perhaps these sensitive points have given way to newer ones, namely, stock exchange speculation and consumer credit. Hence he concludes that central bank instruments should be employed which are designed to control these newer sensitive areas.

This, to me, is a remarkably sophisticated view of how we should think about monetary policy and credit conditions. It’s not an economywide increase or decrease in activity, which can be imagined as a representative household shifting their consumption over time; it’s a response of whatever specific sectors or activities are most dependent on credit markets, which will be different in different times and places. Which suggests that a useful education on monetary policy requires less calculus and more history and sociology.

Finally, we get to Miller’s own proposals. In part, these are for selective credit controls — direct limits on the volume of specific kinds of lending are likely to be more effective at reining in inflationary pressures, with less collateral damage. Yes, these kinds of direct controls pick winners and losers — no more than conventional policy does, just more visibly. As Miller notes, credit controls imposed for macroeconomic stabilization wouldn’t be qualitatively different from the various regulations on credit that are already imposed for other purposes — tho admittedly that argument probably went further in a time when private credit was tightly regulated than in the permanent financial Purge we live in today.

His other proposal is for comprehensive security reserve requirements — in effect generalizing the limits on bank lending to financial positions of all kinds. The logic of this idea is clear, but I’m not convinced — certainly I wouldn’t propose it today. I think when you have the kind of massive, complex financial system we have today, rules that have to be applied in detail, at the transaction level, are very hard to make effective. It’s better to focus regulation on the strategic high ground — but please don’t ask me where that is!

More fundamentally, I think the best route to limiting the power of finance is for the public sector itself to take over functions private finance currently provides, as with a public payments system, a public investment banks, etc. This also has the important advantage of supporting broader steps toward an economy built around human needs rather than private profit. And it’s the direction that, grudgingly but steadily, the response to various crises is already pushing us, with the Fed and other authorities reluctantly stepping in to perform various functions that the private financial system fails to. But this is a topic for another time.

Miller himself is rather tentative in his positive proposals. And he forthrightly admits that they are “like all credit control instruments, likely to be far more effective in controlling inflationary situations than in stimulating revival from a depressed condition.” This should be obvious — even Ronald Reagan knew you can’t push on a string. This basic asymmetry is one of the many everyday insights that was lost somewhere in the development of modern macro.

The conversation around monetary policy and macroeconomics is certainly broader and more realistic today than it was 15 or 20 years ago, when I started studying this stuff. And Jerome Powell — and even more the activists and advocates who’ve been shouting at him — deserves credit for the Fed;s tentative moves away from the reflexive fear of full employment that has governed monetary policy for so long. But when you take a longer look and compare today’s debates to earlier decades, it’s hard not to feel that we’re still living in the Dark Ages of macroeconomics

Uncovering uncovered interest parity: exchange rates, yield curves and business cycles

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 13/07/2020 - 6:00pm in

Simon Lloyd and Emile Marin

The textbook uncovered interest parity (UIP) condition states that the expected change in the exchange rate between two countries over time should be equal to the interest rate differential at that horizon. While UIP appears to hold at longer horizons (around 5-10 years), it is regularly rejected at shorter ones (0-4 years). In a recent paper, we argue that interest rates at other maturities — captured in the slope of the yield curve — reflect information about the pricing of ‘business cycle risks’, which can help explain departures from UIP. A country with a relatively steep yield curve slope will tend to experience a depreciation in excess of the UIP benchmark, at business cycle frequencies especially.

Uncovered interest parity

Underpinned by a number of assumptions (including risk neutrality and rational expectations), UIP predicts that the currencies of countries with relatively high interest rates today should depreciate over time, and vice versa for low interest rate economies. This adjustment acts to equalise returns on domestic and foreign assets measured in a common currency.

However, an overwhelming share of empirical evidence rejects the UIP condition, typically using short-horizon interest rates and exchange rate moves of around 4 years or less, giving rise to the UIP puzzle (a.k.a the Fama puzzle). At these tenors, the currencies of high-yield countries tend to excessively appreciate (or insufficiently depreciate), complicating the forecasting of exchange rates. On the other hand, a body of evidence has failed to reject the hypothesis at longer horizons, out to around 10 years.

A role for the yield curve?

The failure of UIP at short-horizons is especially puzzling in light of its long-horizon success. But the stark textbook prediction — that the expected k-period exchange rate change should be proportional to the differential between k-period yields — is the result of strong assumptions, including that of risk neutrality. In reality, investors can buy a range of assets in a variety of currencies and across a spectrum of maturities. When investors are risk averse (ie concerned about uncertainty in the future), interest rate differentials and exchange rates will reflect investors’ perceptions of risks, as well as expected returns. From a cross-country perspective, exchange rate risk premia, which arise to compensate investors for risk, should therefore be predictable by information contained in the entire yield curve. In other words: k-period exchange rate changes are likely to be related to a range of interest differentials, not only the k-period tenor, along the yield curve that influence risk-averse investors’ portfolio choice.

In a recent Working Paper, we test whether information in the entire yield curve, over and above interest rate differentials, can improve our understanding of exchange rate dynamics. We extend an otherwise standard regression test for UIP — a regression of k-period exchange rate changes (e_{t+k} - e_t) on k-period interest rate differentials (i_{t,k}-i_{t,k}^*) — by adding the relative slope and curvature of yield curves as explanatory variables:

\underbrace{e_{t+k} - e_t = \alpha_k + \beta_{1,k}\left( i_{t,k} - i_{t,k}^* \right)}_{\text{Standard UIP Regression}} + \underbrace{\beta_{2,k} S_t^R + \beta_{3,k} C_t^R}_{\text{Additional Terms}} +  u_{t,t+k}

where e_t is the exchange rate of the domestic economy versus the foreign economy, defined as the home price of one unit of foreign currency such that an increase in e_t corresponds to a domestic depreciation. S_t^R represents the difference between countries’ yield curve slopes (defined as the difference between 10-year and 6-month yields) and C_t^R measures differences in how curved countries’ yield curves are (measured as a combination of short, medium and long-term rates).

We estimate both the standard UIP and augmented regressions using data on six major currencies (Australia dollar, Canadian dollar, Swiss franc, euro, Japanese yen and Great British pound) vs US dollar, from 1980:01 to 2017:12, at a range of horizons k, from 6 months to 10 years.

Consistent with the existing empirical evidence, the UIP coefficient \beta _1,_k estimates from the standard UIP regressions (Figure 1) demonstrate the rejection of UIP at short horizons and the failure to reject it at longer horizons. At 6 to 36-month horizons, the estimate is negative, indicating that high short-term interest rate currencies tend to appreciate, instead of depreciate as UIP predicts. In contrast, longer-horizon estimates are positive and close to 1 — ie the k-period exchange rate change is proportional to the k-maturity interest rate differential. At these horizons, in line with UIP, high interest rate currencies tend to depreciate proportionally to interest rate differentials.

Figure 1: Coefficient depicting relationship between interest rate differentials and exchange rate changes at different horizons from standard UIP regression

Notes: UIP coefficient estimates from standard UIP regression measuring relationship between exchange rate changes and interest rate differentials at different horizons, from 6 months to 10 years. Red bars denote error bands.

Mirroring the UIP puzzle, interest rate differentials only explain a small proportion of exchange rate variation at short-to-medium horizons (Figure 2). This has contributed to the idea that exchange rates do not mirror macroeconomic fundamentals, a phenomenon dubbed the ‘exchange rate disconnect’. But augmenting the UIP regression with measures of the relative yield curve slope and curvature helps to increase the fit for exchange rates. The improvement is particularly pronounced at 3 to 5-year horizons, where interest rate differentials alone capture less than 3pct of variation in yields. The addition of relative slope and curvature almost treble the share of explained variation.

Figure 2: Proportion of exchange rate variation explained by interest rate differentials, and the relative yield curve slope and curvature

Notes: Fraction of exchange rate variation explained by a UIP condition (red) and the yield curve-augmented specification (black) at different horizons, from 6 months to 10 years.

Focusing on the contribution of the yield curve, Figure 3 plots how a 1pp increase in a country’s yield curve slope relative to the US affects exchange rates, in pct. The estimates reveal a tent-shaped relationship between exchange rates and the relative slope across horizons. At short horizons (6-months and 1-year) and longer-horizons (6 to 10-years), estimates suggest no relationship between the two. But at medium horizons (1.5 to 5.5-years), the relative slope and exchange rates tend to be positively related, with the relationship strongest at the 3.5-year horizon.

Figure 3: Coefficient depicting relationship between relative yield curve slope and exchange rate changes at different horizons

Notes: Relative slope coefficient estimates from yield curve-augmented specification (black) at different horizons, from 6 months to 10 years.

Exchange rates and the business cycle

The fact the positive relationship between exchange rates and the relative yield curve slopes is strongest at business cycle frequencies suggests that yield curve slopes reflects information about countries’ relative future economic prospects which are relevant for exchange rates. This is unsurprising when considering that the yield curve is often cited as a good predictor of future GDP growth.

To understand why a steep yield curve slope is associated with a subsequent exchange rate depreciation, consider two things. First, an exchange rate depreciation increases a domestic investors’ return on foreign assets when evaluated in domestic currency terms. Second, a steep yield curve today indicates that future economic prospects and returns are expected to be strong. Knowing better times lie ahead in the distant future, a risk-averse investor will value nearer-term returns relatively highly — wanting to reallocate returns from the distant future to nearer-term. When this desire is stronger for an investor in one country relative to another — reflected by a relatively steep yield curve — their valuation of nearer-term returns will be comparatively high. Reflecting the data, a transitory exchange rate depreciation is required in the nearer-term (relative to UIP) for currencies with a relatively steep yield curve, in order to reallocate returns in response to ‘business cycle risk’.

Yield curve inversions and the return of UIP

Although this relationship between yield curve slopes and exchange rates persists over time, we also show that yield curve inversions are associated with a change in exchange rate dynamics, consistent with evidence that the yield curve is a harbinger of downturns.

Figure 4 presents estimates of UIP coefficients \beta _1,_k over two different periods: periods in which yield curves are upward sloping — as they are on average — and periods in which they are inverted. Consistent with the UIP puzzle, the coefficient estimates are below 1 at short horizons. High interest rate currencies appreciate relative to the UIP. But during inversions, the coefficient reverses significantly in sign at short horizons (6 to 18-months). At these frequencies, high-yield currencies depreciate excessively relative to UIP when yield curves are inverted.

Figure 4: Relationship between interest rate differentials and exchange rate changes at different horizons when yield curves are upward sloping (black) and inverted (red)

Notes: UIP coefficient estimates at different horizons (from 6 months to 10 years) from UIP condition when domestic yield curves slope upwards (black) and when they invert (red). Grey shaded area and red bars denote error bands.

These novel results are difficult to reconcile in standard models, but in our working paper we interpret them through the lens of a literature studying ‘rare events’. Consider again the role of yield curve inversions as a harbinger of downturns. In such a ‘rare event’, investors’ return valuations can evolve in a non-linear fashion. With a domestic yield curve inversion signalling an increase in the likelihood of a domestic downturn, domestic risk-averse investors will value returns disproportionately highly relative to foreign investors. By the same reasoning as before, the exchange rate will depreciate in the near-term to reallocate returns.

These findings speak to a growing literature on the ‘New Fama Puzzle’, which highlight changes in exchange rate dynamics following the global financial crisis. In particular, our results suggest that these ‘flips’ in UIP coefficients are a more pervasive feature of exchange rate dynamics, arising around economic downturns more generally, rather than the global financial crisis specifically.


Overall, our results suggest that information in the entire yield curve, over and above spot interest rate differentials, can help to explain exchange rates. A country with a relatively steep yield curve slope will tend to experience a depreciation in excess of the UIP benchmark at business cycles frequencies. We argue that these dynamics arise because the yield curve slope captures information about risk-averse investors’ expectations of future economic prospects, which exchange rates respond to. Although the relationship between the relative yield curve slope and exchange rates is persistent, we also demonstrate that yield curve inversions signal changes in exchange rate dynamics, adding further nuance to the UIP puzzle.

Simon Lloyd works in the Bank’s Global Analysis Division and Emile Marin works at the University of Cambridge.

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White Paper: Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 05/07/2020 - 3:39am in

Warren Mosler email hidden; JavaScript is required
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Published online 4th July 2020


Full Document




The purpose of this white paper is to publicly present the fundamentals of MMT.

What is MMT?

MMT began largely a description of Federal Reserve Bank monetary operations, which are best thought of as debits and credits to accounts as kept by banks, businesses, and individuals.

Warren Mosler independently originated what has been popularized as MMT in 1992.  And while subsequent research has revealed writings of authors who had similar thoughts on some of MMT’s monetary understandings and insights, including Abba Lerner, George Knapp, Mitchell Innes, Adam Smith, and former NY Fed chief Beardsley Ruml, MMT is unique in its analysis of monetary economies, and therefore best considered as its own school of thought.












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The post White Paper: Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) appeared first on The Gower Initiative for Modern Money Studies.

Britain was not "nearly bust" in March

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 24/06/2020 - 2:49am in

"Britain nearly went bust in March, says Bank of England", reads a headline in the Guardian. In similar vein, the Telegraph's Business section reports "UK finances were close to collapse, says Governor":Eh, what? The Governor of the Bank of England says the UK nearly turned into Venezuela? Well, that's what the Telegraph seems to think: 

The Bank of England was forced to save the Government from potential financial collapse as markets seized up at the height of the coronavirus crisis, Governor Andrew Bailey has said. In his most explicit comments yet on the country's precarious position in mid-March, Mr Bailey said 'serious disorder' broke out after panicking investors sold UK government bonds in a desperate hunt for cash. It left Britain at risk of failing to auction off the gilts needed to fund crucial spending - and Threadneedle Street had to pump £200bn into markets to restore a semblance of order.

Reading this, you would think that the UK government's emergency gilt issues had triggered a sterling market meltdown, wouldn't you? If this is indeed what happened, then the Bank of England has strayed far beyond its mandate and compromised its independence. Why on earth the Governor would voluntarily admit this surely requires some explanation. After all, if it is true, it could cost him his job. The source for the Telegraph's extraordinary claim is this 51-minute podcast from Sky News, in which Sky's economics editor Ed Conway and former Chancellor Sajid Javid grill the Governor on his handling of monetary policy during the coronavirus crisis. The particular part of the interview that has raised eyebrows is in this clip, which I have transcribed here:

Bailey: We basically had a pretty near meltdown of some of the core financial markets….I got to Wednesday afternoon, and the markets team came down here, and you know it’s not good when they turn up en masse, and you know it’s not good when they say “we’ve got to talk”, and it wasn’t good. We were in a state of borderline disorderly, I mean it was disorderly in the sense that when you looked at the volatility in what was core markets, I mean core exchange rates, core government bond markets, we were seeing things that were pretty unprecedented certainly in recent times, and we were facing serious disorder.

Conway: How scary was that? What would have happened if the Bank hadn’t stepped in?

Bailey: “Oh I think the prospects would have been very bad. We would have had a situation in which in the worst element the Government would have struggled to fund itself in the short run”. 

So no, the market meltdown was not triggered by high government spending. The market meltdown was because of investors panicking about Covid. It did, however, threaten to cause a government debt crisis.

Or - did it? Government struggling to fund itself "in the short run" simply means that it might have needed to pay out money before it could raise it. Normally it would cover short-term cash needs by issuing Treasury bills, which are short-dated, highly liquid bonds with very low interest rates. But when markets are malfunctioning, it can't do this. And high-interest gilts or pandemic bonds would take time to issue. So it could potentially find itself short of ready cash for urgent spending. However, as I have explained before, not being able to raise immediate funds for an urgent purchase is not insolvency, it is illiquidity. Relieving temporary illiquidity is what central banks do, and have done since the time of Bagehot. Historically they have done so not only for banks, but also for governments. And in the UK, the Bank of England still bears this responsibliity. The Ways and Means overdraft (which was extended in April) is the living evidence of the Bank of England's role as liquidity provider of last resort for the UK Government. But it is simply a working capital overdraft, such as any solvent business would have. Using this overdraft in no way implies that the Government is "insolvent", "bust", "bankrupt" or any of the other inflammatory headlines that journalists like to use. And nor does it mean the Bank of England is financing government deficit spending on anything other than a very short-term basis. It simply smooths out cash flow. Conway's assertion that the Government was "within a whisker of insolvency" is total nonsense, as is the Guardian's claim that "Britain nearly went bust in March". The Government was not shut out of markets long-term, as an insolvent sovereign would be. It had short-term cash flow problems solely because markets were malfunctioning.  Indeed, in another part of the interview Bailey said exactly this (my emphasis):

Conway: At the time you were nervous about government not being able to finance itself. 

Bailey: Yes, because of market instability.

Bailey went on to explain that the reason why the Bank intervened was not because the Government was having funding difficulties, but because market instability was driving up interest rates across the entire economy, and indeed across the whole world:

How would this have played out if we hadn’t taken the action that we and other central banks took? I think you would have seen a risk premium enter into interest rates, I think markets would have priced in a risk premium, and it could have been quite substantial given the degree of instability we were seeing. That would have raised the effective borrowing cost throughout the economy. In terms of the Bank of England's objectives, that would have made it harder for us to achieve our objectives, both in terms of inflation and in terms of economic stability.

The market meltdown was weakening central banks' hold on interest rates. They had to act, not to protect government finances but to prevent monetary conditions from tightening sharply, potentially triggering a dangerous debt deflationary spiral. The first responsibility of central banks in this crisis has been to prevent an exogenous shock to the real economy from triggering a financial crisis that would amplify the shock and significantly deepen the inevitable recession. That's what the exceptional interventions by central banks, including the Bank of England, since March have been all about. 
Bailey observed that although the UK Government was the largest borrower in the sterling market, it was far from the only one. Big corporations were borrowing enormous amounts, both in the market and from banks. Interest rates were rising on their bonds as well as government bonds. So the fact that the Government was the largest borrower was "actually largely irrelevant to that argument about a risk premium and an increase in the effective rate of interest."Bailey said that the £200bn of QE announced by the Bank of England the day after his crisis meeting with the markets team was to provide emergency liquidity to the whole market.  By injecting very large amounts of liquidity into the market, the Bank of England aimed to slake investors' thirst for cash and stop the fire sales that were driving up interest rates. And it succeeded. As a by-product of this action, the UK Government regained access to short-term market funding. But Bailey insists that ensuring the Government could fund itself was not the primary target. Regaining control of interest rates was. 
The market meltdown in March also affected banks. It's a measure of how far we have come since 2008 that Conway & Co made nothing of the fact that the Bank of England had to provide emergency liquidity support to banks. Keeping banks afloat when markets are melting down is all in a day's work for a central bank, these days. Nothing to look at at all. But if a central bank provides emergency liquidity support to a government struggling to raise short-term cash when markets are melting down, that means the government is bust, the central bank is captive and the country is Venezuela? How utterly absurd. 
I found the interviewers' constant focus on government financing a serious distraction from what was an important story about the Bank's vital responsibility for ensuring the smooth operation of financial markets. When financial markets melt down as they did in 2008, the whole world suffers. Central banks saw the same thing happening again in March 2020, and acted to stop it. And their action was extremely effective. It seemed to me that this was the story Bailey really wanted to tell, but the interviewers were intent on pushing him towards the issue of monetary financing and the Bank's independence. Sajid Javid, in particular, seemed to want Bailey to paint the Chancellor's handling of the crisis as irresponsible and profligate. Which genius at Sky News thought it was a good idea for the Chancellor who was forced out of his job without ever producing a Budget to discuss the performance of his successor with the Governor of the Bank of England?
Finally, it is extremely unfortunate that none of the media reports highlighted Bailey's strong endorsement of the Government's exceptional measures to support people through this crisis:

It's entirely necessary that the state has to step in at this point. In a shock of this nature, you can't leave it to individual citizens to find their way through it, "well, good luck" sort of thing. The state has to assert its role at this point, which it did. It wasn't easy, but it did it. 

Fiscal policy is pre-eminent. The Bank of England's job is to ensure the smooth functioning of markets and keep the economy as stable as possible so that the Government can support people through this crisis. And that is what it is doing - successfully. This, not "Britain nearly went bust", is what should be on the front page of every newspaper. 
Related reading:
Pandemic economics and the role of central banksThe End of Britain?

Textbook Teaching in Macro- and Monetary Economics

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/12/2019 - 1:57am in

An interview from Rethinking Economics:

Andrea, what is your experience with using textbooks when teaching macro and monetary economics?

I have long been teaching undergraduate courses in macro and monetary economics, and I always found the most popular textbooks only partially helpful. Hence, in those courses where I still have a textbook, I always complement the main text with a reading list and my own lecture notes.

Do you feel this position is shared by other economics instructors?

Read more on Rethinking Economics

Modern Monetary Nonsense?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 07/03/2019 - 4:17am in

This is my take on Rogoff’s “Modern Monetary Nonsense”

Rogoff: “A number of leading US progressives, who may well be in power after the 2020 elections, advocate using the Fed’s balance sheet as a cash cow to fund expansive new social programs, especially in view of current low inflation and interest rates.

Rogoff’s use of the expression “as a cash cow to fund” ignores the fact that the Fed is already the “cash cow” that makes all economy’s payments possible. The Fed lends to banks when they purchase banknotes, when they buy Federal Treasuries, or when they pay taxes on behalf of their clients. All “base money” needed to make payments comes from the Federal “cash cow” Reserve.


Rogoff then quotes, in agreement, Powell: “The idea that deficits don’t matter for countries that can borrow in their own currency I think is just wrong”.

Yet again, where is the exception? All countries whose institutions are politically stable are capable to borrow from residents in their own currency (This, by the way, is made possible by a loan of the central bank to the banks). Residents may then sell their Treasuries to foreigners, and the foreign sector may be willing to accumulate a stock of Treasuries if they desire to hold that particular currency. The consequence will be a higher value of that currency than otherwise, not any kind of enhanced ability of the government to borrow.


Again, Rogoff: “The US is lucky that it can issue debt in dollars, but the printing press is not a panacea.”

The luck is that they can buy from foreigners much more than what they sell, with no dollar depreciation. The printing press is not part of the picture.


Rogoff continues: “If investors become more reluctant to hold a country’s debt, they probably will not be too thrilled about holding its currency, either.”

Yes, but to put it more precisely, and with reference to national (federal) public debt and not to regional administrations’ debt (so this does not apply to the euro area), foreigners’ willingness to hold a country’s debt depends on their willingness to hold its currency. Holding public debt is the safest way to hold any currency.


Rogoff again: “If that country tries to dump a lot of it on the market, inflation will result.”

Rogoff leaves this unexplained. Dumping a currency (in the form of public debt or other assets denominated in that currency) will lower the value of that currency in the foreign exchange market. This may raise domestic prices if the country is highly dependent on imports that become more expensive with depreciation. Or may not. When China dumped euros at the time the ECB started its Asset Purchase Program, the foreign value of the euro went down but not much inflation followed.


And Rogoff: “While in “Japan […] most debt is held domestically, the US […] depends heavily on foreign buyers.”

The value of the dollar (not the financing of public debt) depends on foreign dollar holders. Foreigners hold dollars in various forms (public debt and private debt) and dollars are claims on the Fed and the U.S. government. When foreigners are tired to hold them, they can use them to purchase US goods, services, or real assets. But foreigners are not making Federal borrowing possible.


Finally, a light of truth from Rogoff: “QE, when it consists simply of buying government bonds, is smoke and mirrors. The Fed’s parent company, the US Treasury Department, could have accomplished much the same thing by issuing one-week debt, and the Fed would not have needed to intervene.”