Yep, This Is What A Liquidity Trap Looks Like

People, businesses, and banks simply aren’t investing in the sense of putting financial wealth to work in productive purposes with the intent to produce goods and thereby produce profits.  Instead, folks, the ones who have financial wealth that is, are just sitting on cash.  They’re putting it in the bank at record low interest rates. The banks don’t want the extra deposits and are trying to discourage it.  Meanwhile the banks are just turning around and putting the money on deposit at The Federal Reserve where it sits idle. This is called a liquidity trap.

Calculated Risk directs us to this report:

From Scott Reckard at the LA Times: Bank deposits soar despite rock-bottom interest rates

Americans are pumping money into bank accounts at a blistering pace this year, sending deposits to record levels near $10 trillion …

In the last three months, accounts at U.S. commercial banks have increased $429 billion, or 10%, almost double the increase for all of last year.

The large amount of cash only adds to expenses such as paying for deposit insurance premiums. … [banks] have slashed interest payments to discourage customers. Wells Fargo & Co. … halved its payments on one-year certificates of deposits to 0.1%; Citigroup … dropped its payment to a paltry 0.3%.

[Some banks are] stashing it in a safe but unrewarding place: Federal Reserve banks, which are paying them an interest rate of just 0.25% to tend the funds. Such deposits rose to more than $1.6 trillion at the end of August from about $1 trillion a year earlier, according to the Fed.

So why is this really significant?  Simple. Neo-classical/neo-liberal macro theories, the theories that conservatives have been relying on, basically say this can’t happen. It’s irrational and according to those models, people and firms never act irrationally.  So who or what theories say a liquidity trap is possible?  Keynesian theory.  Yes, the whole idea of a liquidity trap in which macro circumstances are such that firms and households would rather hold cash than put it to some productive investment purpose comes from Keynes.

A liquidity trap is also significant because it means that monetary policy, the raising/lowering of interest rates and the purchase/sale of bonds by the central bank, isn’t very effective in a liquidity trap. The Federal Reserve can make funds available for investment, but it can’t force banks to lend or firms to invest or households to spend.  Monetary policy in times of a liquidity trap has been likened to pushing on a string.  The string doesn’t really move much.  Again, neo-classical models don’t allow for the possibility of a liquidity trap.  Indeed they start with assumptions that pretty much exclude the possibility of there ever being one.  Models and theories that start with the assumption that “A” can never happen aren’t of any use in trying solve “A” when it really does show up.

Why do people seek money instead of useful investment in a liquidity trap?  Simple. There are two reasons why firms and people would seek to hold financial wealth as money instead of useful, profitable investments.

  • First, profitable investments require a growing economy and expectations of a growing economy.  If firms and people have no confidence that the economy will grow or that any growth will last, then they don’t invest. No need to expand capacity at the business if you won’t need the extra capacity.
  • Second, if you expect the economy to get worse and/or have deflation happen, then it makes enormous sense to be cash instead of things.  Cash actually is profitable and gains in real purchasing power when deflation happens.  So I would interpret from the above data that people, banks, and firms are expecting more deflation and not expecting inflation.

What to do in a liquidity trap?  Theoretically (and Krugman/Delong push this idea)  you could have the central bank (Federal Reserve) make some sort of commitment to higher future inflation.  But that’s in theory only.  It’s not been proven.  What’s experience say?  We have a choice.  Suffer through it, experience a prolonged depression that could easily last a generation, and make do with lower living standards for the vast majority but see the really wealthy become even more wealthy.  This is the story of the Long Depression in the late 1800’s.   Or, we could turn to aggressive fiscal policy. Keynesian style spending for job creation.  That’s been proven.  It worked in the 1930’s until it was abandoned in 1937, it worked in 1939-1940 with the start of WWII (not my choice of spending priorities), and it worked quite well in the 1950’s through the 1970’s in achieving a higher average annual growth rate in GDP than has been achieved since.

Unfortunately, too many economists, and the politicians that follow them, are so married to their ideologically-based models that they persist in the theory even when the facts contradict it.