Saturday, September 23, 2017

A Brief History of Microfoundations (plus afterthoughts)

Google the origin of microfoundations

Romain Plassard:
Robert W. Clower’s article “A Reconsideration of the Microfoundations of Monetary Theory” (1967) deeply influenced the course of modern monetary economics.

One particularly influential call for microfoundations was Robert Lucas, Jr.'s critique of traditional macroeconometric forecasting models.

Barney and Felin:
However, there is little consensus on what microfoundations are and what they are not.

J.E King (PDF):
It is widely believed by both mainstream and heterodox economists that macroeconomic theory must be based on microfoundations (MIFs). I argue that this belief is unfounded and potentially dangerous.



Economic forecasting has always seemed odd to me. Different than my way of foretelling the economy.

Lucas I think said that when you change the rules, peoples' behavior will change, yadda yadda, and so you have to have microfoundations. Okay. And lately there is "behavioral" economics, I guess to account for the "peoples' behavior will change" part, and to relax the microfoundations.

I just look at monetary balances. Debt per dollar. Private debt relative to public debt. Things like that. If the ratios get out of whack, the economy gets out of whack. This has nothing to do with human behavior or changing it. Monetary balances over time.

If debt-per-dollar is too high, we have to lower it. My prediction is: After we lower it, the economy will improve. My prediction tells you what needs to be done.

Lucas says you have to do forecasting right or your prediction will be wrong. Behavioralists say yeah but doing it right is not the way Lucas said.

My opinion, these guys don't even know what needs to be done.

Friday, September 22, 2017


Bruegel: Europe’s fourfold union: Updating the 2012 vision

The depiction of the euro area/European Union (EU) as a ‘fourfold union’ (financial union, fiscal union, economic union, political union) emerged in the first half of 2012 at the height of the euro-area crisis. It was primarily shaped by the recognition of the bank-sovereign vicious circle and the need to break it to ensure the survival of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU).

The bank-sovereign vicious circle? Okay...

And the need to break it? Okay...

To ensure the survival of Economic and Monetary Union? Why?

This framing of EMU and EU integration is inevitably simplistic but its four-part categorisation remains relevant and useful when assessing current and future challenges to European integration.

Fuck European integration.

Political union, a more intangible notion, might have advanced further than many observers realise, even as national politics remain paramount for the vast majority of EU citizens.


A near-term agenda to strengthen EMU, for which decisions could be made in the course of 2018 and without any treaty change, should rest on a balance of further risk-sharing and enhanced market discipline, building on the significant risk reduction achieved over the last half-decade.

Without any treaty change.

And definitely without any participatory democracy.

Complementary initiatives should include, on the fiscal side, a reform of the accounting and auditing framework that applies to euro-area member states, and on the (structural) economic side, a new architecture of sector-specific EU authorities to enforce the single market in regulated industries.

Without any treaty change.

A more ambitious vision would have to include the European pooling of selected tax revenue streams to support an incipient fiscal union.

"Even as national politics remain paramount".

This whole thing is driven by wealth, praised by policymakers who can't solve their own nations' problems, and supported by a dying middle class desperate for economic recovery.

Economic problems demand economic solutions. You cannot solve economic problems with political solutions.

// See also: Delian League

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Final definitions of Money and Credit

In an old PDF, Joe Salerno defines money: the final means of payment in all transactions.

At EconomicsHelp, Pettinger defines credit: any form of deferred payment.

These two definitions work. And they work together.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

In case you don't get it...

David Beckworth, in The Knowledge Problem in Monetary Policy at Mercatus:

Inflation is caused by both supply and demand shocks. Monetary policy can only productively address the latter, but discerning which type of shock has caused inflation in a particular instance is almost impossible for Fed officials to do in real time.

In case you don't get it, Beckworth draws a picture:

See the two circles at the top of the picture? How do we know there are only two circles? It's an assumption. Maybe the picture should look like this:

What could be in that third circle? Here's a thought: policy. Maybe it's policy that's causing the inflation problem. And maybe the solution is not to tighten or loosen, but to try something else with the money. Something like keeping an eye on the ratio of credit to money.

Imagine that.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Beckworth gets it

Milton Friedman quoted JS Mill. I requote it often:

There cannot, in short, be intrinsically a more insignificant thing, in the economy of society, than money ... [Money] only exerts a distinct and independent influence of its own when it gets out of order.

Here's Friedman himself:

Money is so crucial an element in the economy, yet also largely an invisible one, that even what appear to be insignificant changes in the monetary structure can have far-reaching and unanticipated effects.

David Beckworth explains:

... money is the one asset that is a part of every transaction. Whether the transaction is the sale of a physical or financial asset, a good, or a service, money is always a part of the exchange. It reaches into every market. Consequently, destabilizing money destabilizes all markets.

"Money is the one asset that is a part of every transaction." Memorize that.

When a problem affects the whole economy, like inflation or unemployment for example, one of the first things to consider is the money: "Is there a problem with the money?" Always. Even if the problem appears quite certainly to be "peak oil" or "too much immigration" or "China".

Sunday, September 17, 2017


You know about the Fed's 2% target for inflation. Since 2012 I think, that's been the official target.

Thomas Palley, in 1996, in The Atlantic, wrote:

most economists support policies of zero inflation achieved by high real interest rates

Myself, I'm no economist. But I think economists should be embarrassed to support any inflation other than zero. I think they should see the call for 2% as an admission of failure -- a failure of policy, and of the theory behind it.

Anyway, it occurs to me that using high real interest rates to achieve an inflation target has the unintended consequence of increasing aggregate financial costs to the economy. Let's say unintended.

Imagine an alternative way to fight inflation. If we design and implement tax policy to encourage the accelerated repayment of debt, we have a new way to limit aggregate demand. But the new policy includes the intentional consequence of reducing aggregate financial costs to the economy. It may not seem that way now, because private debt remains at such a high level. But as the new policy pushes down debt-to-everything-else ratios, the effect will soon become clear.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

When Palley and Taylor agree...

I switched on a computer that had been off for six months, and found something I didn't remember putting on the desktop: The Forces Making for an Economic Collapse (subtitle: Why a depression could happen) by Thomas I. Palley in the July 1996 issue of The Atlantic.

That's July of 1996.

I was going to quote Palley where he says a new Great Depression has become possible -- 1996, remember -- because it shows remarkable foresight. Instead, I'll file that under Recommended Reading and move on.

Here, Palley describes policy shortly before the "Goldilocks years" of the mid-to-late 1990s were to become obvious in hindsight:

... the Fed now interprets any sign of wage increases as incipient inflation, and responds by raising interest rates. Since wage increases are the means by which labor shares in productivity growth, this policy is tantamount to helping corporate and financial capital to gang up on labor.

The Federal Reserve vividly illustrated its new stance in 1994, when it raised interest rates six times. Just as the long-awaited economic recovery was picking up steam, the Fed slowed employment growth. It claimed that its action was necessary to prevent inflation from accelerating, but never produced compelling evidence of the danger of inflation...

The story since December 2015 is similar.

Palley didn't know it in July of 1996, but the economy was strong enough then to withstand a series of interest rate hikes and move ahead with vigor nonetheless.

We don't know it yet, but the economy today is probably strong enough again to withstand a series of interest rate hikes and still move ahead with vigor. And strong enough for the same reasons.

One more quote from Palley to emphasize the similarity between the 1990 recession and recovery, and the 2009 recession and recovery. While the '90 recession was still fresh in his mind, Palley wrote:

Just as the causes of the 1990 recession have been poorly explained, so have its prolonged nature and the weakness of the subsequent recovery. Economists consider the recession to have ended in the first quarter of 1991, but substantive recovery did not really begin until the second half of 1993. Thus for almost three years the economy was effectively dead in the water.

Dead in the water. We know about that. For crying out loud, even John Taylor in 2016 was saying "In several key ways the US economy resembles an economy at the bottom of a recession, ready for a restart".

Friday, September 15, 2017

Credit is not the same as money (even if you can't see it)

David Glasner at Uneasy Money: Milton Friedman Says that the Rate of Interest Is NOT the Price of Money: Don’t Listen to Him!

In the days before the internet, I wrote to Milton Friedman three times. He wrote back every time. That was great.

Not only that, but I could tell from Friedman's answers that he read and understood what I said. That's a rare and precious thing. For this reason I will always think of Milton Friedman as a great economist, no matter how many problems I have with his economics.

David Glasner quotes Friedman, from the Friedman Heller debate:
... the interest rate is not the price of money... The interest rate is the price of credit. The price of money is how much goods and services you have to give up to get a dollar.

That's it. That's it exactly. I had written to Milton Friedman, and my explanation for what I was thinking was: the interest rate is the price of money. Friedman wrote back to me, saying the interest rate is not the price of money; the interest rate is the price of credit; the price of money is what you have to give to get the money.

I remember, because I had to think about it for years before it made sense to me. Literally, for years.

It made sense, finally, when I realized that credit is not the same as money. Here's how I see it: I can get money two ways. Either I work for it, or I borrow it. If I work, I help to build this civilization and the money is my reward. If I borrow it, I'm going to have to pay it back, with interest.

Credit is not the same as money. The idea came to me direct from Milton Friedman. Having embraced the idea, I can easily see people who have not taken that idea to heart. People like David Glasner, who writes:
What is wrong with Friedman’s argument? Simply this: any asset has two prices, a purchase price and a rental price. The purchase price is the price one pays (or receives) to buy (or to sell) the asset; the rental price is the price one pays to derive services from the asset for a fixed period of time. The purchase price of a unit of currency is what one has to give up in order to gain ownership of that unit. The purchasing price of money, as Friedman observed, can be expressed as the inverse of the price level, but because money is the medium of exchange, there will actually be a vector of distinct purchase prices of a unit of currency depending on what good or service is being exchanged for money.

But there is also a rental price for money, and that rental price represents what you have to give up in order to hold a unit of currency in your pocket or in your bank account. What you sacrifice is the interest you pay to the one who lends you the unit of currency, or if you already own the unit of currency, it is the interest you forego by not lending that unit of currency to someone else who would be willing to pay to have that additional unit of currency in his pocket or in his bank account instead of in yours.

I have a problem with that. Glasner says there is always a rental price for holding money. If it's money you borrowed, he says, the rental price is the interest you pay on the loan. If it's money you earned, money you "own" as Glasner says, there is still an opportunity cost for holding it, and this is its "rental price".

But if the dollar in my pocket is borrowed, I can still choose to lend it out and collect interest on it. If I fail to do that, then by David Glasner's logic I am paying the rental price twice for that dollar, once for interest, and again for the lost opportunity.

So, looking at it Glasner's way, if the dollar in my pocket is my own, I am paying the rental price which is an opportunity cost. But if the dollar in my pocket is borrowed, the rental price I pay is opportunity cost plus interest cost. The cost (or "rental price") of a borrowed dollar is different from that of a dollar I own. Therefore, a borrowed dollar is different from an earned dollar.

An earned dollar is "money". A borrowed dollar is "credit". The opportunity cost for holding money applies to both money and credit. The interest cost applies only to credit.

Milton Friedman was right: The interest rate is the price of credit. David Glasner cannot see it, because he has not embraced the idea that credit is not the same as money.

One more point. I want to leave out the "opportunity cost" part and look at the rest. Glasner says:
But there is also a rental price for money, and that rental price represents what you have to give up in order to hold a unit of currency in your pocket or in your bank account. What you sacrifice is the interest you pay to the one who lends you the unit of currency ...

Glasner says that in order to hold a borrowed dollar, I have to pay interest to the lender. That's incorrect. I don't have to pay the interest because I'm holding the dollar. I have to pay the interest because I borrowed the dollar! Look what happens when I finally spend that dollar: The fellow who receives that dollar does not have to pay interest on it even if he holds that money. The interest obligation stays with the borrower.

The interest obligation is part of the same loan agreement that created the credit you could spend. That's what credit is: a "medium of exchange" dollar that moves through the economy, and a dollar of debt that stays with the borrower.

When you borrow a dollar you receive a dollar of money and a dollar of debt sandwiched together. When you spend it, you peel off the money layer, spend that part, and keep the rest. The borrower retains the debt. But the borrowed dollar, once spent, is freed of the debt obligation and is thereby transformed from credit to money.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

New Borrowing, minus Interest Paid (adjusted for inflation)

... changes in borrowing behavior have played a smaller role in the growth of household leverage than is widely believed. Rather, most of the increase can be explained in terms of “Fisher dynamics” — the mechanical result of higher interest rates and lower inflation after 1980.

The year-to-year change in household debt is a measure of the money households borrow into existence and spend into circulation. An increase in household debt is an injection of funds into the money used as a medium of exchange.

But, to state the obvious, an addition to debt adds to debt. And debt must be repaid with interest. Interest is a cost that takes money and moves it from the productive sector to the financial sector. While it remains in the financial sector, the money is not used as a medium of exchange -- not, at least, in the productive sector.

So we can say that an addition to debt increases the money available for spending, and interest payments reduce the money available for spending. If we take one year's addition to debt and subtract from it the payment of interest for that same year, we can calculate a "net change" in money available for spending due to household credit use. Figure it for a number of years, and we can make a graph showing the history of the net change over time.

But the values on such a graph will be influenced by the rate of inflation. The graph will be malformed because the rate of inflation varies. As we are thinking about growth, we must remove the inflation. We can remove it by the same calculation used to remove inflation from "nominal" GDP.

However, I want to use the CPI as the measure of inflation, rather than the Deflator, because we're looking at household debt and household interest costs.

All of this can be done at FRED with a minimum of fuss:

Graph #1: Net Change in the Medium of Exchange due to Household Debt

The description of the calculation (in the upper blue border of the graph) has been cut short by a devious and disappointing FRED. The full description is "(Households and Nonprofit Organizations; Credit Market Instruments; Liability, Level-Monetary interest paid: Households and nonprofit institutions)*(100/Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers: All Items)"
The plotted line shows the increase in debt, minus interest paid. The difference has been adjusted for inflation. Where the line is above zero, borrowing is greater than interest cost. Where the line is below zero, borrowing is less than interest cost.

Before 1980, the line is mostly above zero, indicating a net increase in the circulating medium, a boost for spending and growth.

Between 1980 and 2000 the line is mostly below zero, indicating a net decline in the circulating medium due to the cost of interest.

The graph supports JW Mason's statement.