What a Liquidity Trap Looks Like in Pictures

I want to follow up a little on my discussion of the liquidity trap that we are have been in. Brad Delong has an excellent post today called “Four Years After the Wakeup Call”.  In it he shows some graphs which illustrate very well our the liquidity trap.

Delong first serves us two graphs on the Federal Funds rate since early 2007:

The daily gyrations of the usually-placid Federal Funds market starting in late 2007 told us all that banks were really worried that other banks had jumped the shark and turned themselves insolvent.

FRED Graph  St Louis Fed 7


The Federal Funds rate is the interest rate that banks pay to each other when they borrow reserves from each other.  Despite the name, the rate isn’t set by The Fed. It’s set by market supply-and-demand.  It’s a large and brisk market.  When the Fed Funds rate is high (or at least rising), we can infer that banks need and are desperate for reserves, typically because they have profitable opportunities to make loans based on those reserves. When The Fed Funds rate is low and/or dropping, it means that a lot of banks have excess cash on their hands and don’t see any useful or profitable ways to use that money. In other words, a low Fed Funds rate means banks are willing to lend their reserves to other banks because it’s better than nothing and they don’t see any good ways to loan out the money. At the same time, a low rate also shows that few banks are interested in borrowing – again because they don’t see much useful to do with it.  While The Federal Reserve doesn’t set the funds rate, it does set the interest rate for the alternative: direct borrowing from The Fed.

What we see from the first graph is that things were cruising along in early 2007 and then mid- to late 2007 (August to be exact), the rate starts dropping.  We’re moving toward a recession.  Banks are finding it harder to make good loans so they don’t want to borrow more reserves.  Banks start hoarding their cash and assets.  So instead of balance sheets that are full of loans, bonds, and securities, the banks decide they want/need more cash.  Their reserves grow in order to provide a cushion for what was then being seen as the inevitable losses on mortgages and mortgage securities.  Things appear to stablize and then in Sept 2008 comes the Lehman moment.  Fed Funds rate goes virtually to zero.  It’s been stuck there ever since.  Banks have plenty of reserves. They have the cash to lend.  There’s no willingness to lend (banks don’t see many credit-worthy borrowers) and there’s little interest or demand to borrow.

The Federal Reserve has responded during the same period by creating new base money like crazy.  [NOTE: Contrary to the fears of the inflation-fearful crowd, it’s not really “money” until it’s in circulation with the public. It’s only bank reserves – the monetary base.  It creates the ability to create money for the public, but that would necessitate having a bank lend it first. ]  Again Delong shows up graphically just how The Fed has been willing to create new monetary base:

And while the Federal Reserve has taken the monetary base to previously-unimaginable levels–up from $900 billion to $1.7 trillion in late 2008, up to $2 trillion in let 209, and up to $2.7 trillion in early 2011–it has never adopted Milton Friedman’s recommended policy that it start buying bonds for cash and keep buying bonds for cash until nominal spending is on the path that the Federal Reserve wants it to be on:

FRED Graph  St Louis Fed 5

We only need one more graph: GDP.  More precisely a comparison of GDP to an estimate of what GDP could be if we were at full employment and operating at our long-term trend.  Again Delong:

And so right now nominal GDP is $15 trillion/year when it ought to be $16.7 trillion/year:

FRED Graph  St Louis Fed 6

I’ll save inserting the employment graph here.  I’m sure you all know what it looks like. Same story.

And that story is that we had signs of trouble 4 years ago.  Three years ago things went really into the tank.  The economy seriously declined until mid-2009. Ever since then, it’s struggled to hold on.  There really isn’t any recovery.  It’s just going sideways.  We have, in effect, taken a huge chunk of the economy, a huge number of workers, put them on the sideline and said “we’re not interested in you participatin anymore.  We don’t want or need your contribution. We’re happy being smaller”.

So we’ve had monetary stimulus efforts, we’ve had low interest rates, we’ve had the central bank create base money.  There’s plenty of cash out there.  But it’s all in the banks. It’s in deposit accounts. It’s in reserves.  It’s not working. It’s not being used to buy things. It’s not being used for consumption or investment. It’s just sitting around impotent.  That’s a liquidity trap.

Mainstream economic theory, the stuff called “New Classical” or “New Keynesian” (never confuse “New Keynesian” as being “Keynesian”), says keeping interest rates this low for this long would /should fix everything by now.  For over 30 years now, the dominant, orthodox view in the academic and professional world of economists has been that monetary policy exercised by a wise central bank can fix all.  Any weakness in the economy can be solved via lowering interest rates and having the central bank create new bank reserves.  These “modern” theories told us that the concept of a “liquidity trap” was nonsense, a relic of some past era and/or the invention of some crank called Keynes.  These theories claimed that everybody was perfectly rational, all markets (particularly financial markets) were efficient, and uncertainty/risk about the future was unimportant.  They were wrong. We are left with the ideas of the mid-20th century, the stuff that we were told to forget about.  Again Delong:

Four years ago nearly all mainstream economists would have said that, even though the situation appeared serious, by now the economy would be back to normal. …

Very few of us thought that it would be long and nasty…

And as it turned out to be long and nasty, recent economic theories of macroeconomics have fallen like tropical rain forests. The–already implausible–claims that downturns had real causes? Fallen. The claim that downturns lasted only as long as workers misperceived their real wage? Fallen. The claim that the labor market cleared in a small number of years? Fallen. Those of us who believed that the long run came soon, that the cause of downturns was transitory price-level misperceptions, or that downturns had real causes need now to be looking for new jobs, or at least new theories.

And we are left with the live macroeconomic theories being those of the 1960s, at the latest. This is embarrassing for those of us who want to belong to a profession that is a progressive science, rather than an analogue of medieval barbering.

So what would the economic theories of the 1960s and before tell us to do?

  • Milton Friedman: monetary expansion, and more monetary expansion–quantitative easing as deep and as broad as necessary to get nominal GDP back to its trend.
  • John Maynard Keynes (or at least one of the moods of Keynes): have the government borrow and buy stuff, and keep buying stuff until real economic activity is back to some normal trend value.
  • Jacob Viner: Why choose? Do both! Print lots of money and have the government use it to buy stuff and hire people.

The odd thing is that none of those three recommended policies–all of which are sponsored by economists with the purest of purebred pedigrees–have been followed.

It’s time to do two things.  At the policy level we need to go back and try the policies that we understood back in the 50’s and 60’s (economy did pretty well back then, BTW).  Some serious, bold attempts at effective government spending would be nice instead of the weak, too-small, too-timid, niggling efforts dominated by tax cuts we’ve been doing.  And even on the monetary front, it would be more useful to do as Friedman suggested: actually have The Fed keep buying bonds for cash (real circulating money instead of just bank reserves) and keep it up until people start spending it.

On the economics side, we need to get past the perfect rationality and rational expectations stuff (and it’s absurd mathematics) that has dominated the profession.  It would be a good idea to take a more serious look at the heterodox ideas and theories that actually did foresee the crash, the ones based upon realistic models of human behavior and models instead of the perfectly rational, knows-the-future home economicus of the New Classical and New Keynesian models.  We need to seriously look at ideas of Modern Monetary Theorists (MMT), Minsky, the Post-Keynesians, and the behavioral economists.



What to Call This Unpleasantness? Little Depression or Workers’ Depression?

Brad Delong has had enough.  So have I.

“The Little Depression”

Back in late 2008 people asked me: is this a recession or a depression? I said that I would call it a depression if the unemployment rate kissed 12%. I said that I would call it a depression if the unemployment rate stayed above 10% for a year.

Neither of those has come to pass. But the unemployment rate has kissed 10%, and has stayed at or above 9% for two years now.

So I am moving the goalposts. I am adopting a suggestion in comments of Full Employment Hawk . Henceforth, I will call the current unpleasantness not “The Great Recession,” but rather “The Little Depression.”

It’s a good question.  In late 2008 when people were asking me, I said I wasn’t sure.  It would either be “The Great Recession” or “The Lesser Depression”, I said.  Eventually I fell in line with most commentators and referred to it as “Great Recession”.  But with the continuing bad, very bad, news on employment, wages, and growth, I’m with Brad.  We need to call this what it is.  It’s not been a “Great Recession”.  Recessions are events when the central bank says things have gotten out of hand, they raise interest rates, and everybody sobers up.  Then after an appropriate time of perhaps 6-12 months, the growth machine fires up and we start to regain lost territory.  This is different. We aren’t regaining lost ground and people are suffering.

What most folks are calling the “Great Recession” I think we ought to call the “Panic of 2008”.  It was, after all, a good old-fashioned financial panic updated with 21st century technology and corporate forms. It lasted roughly the time period the NBER says was the recession.

What has me going though is the continuing poor conditions for the millions of Americans.  This unpleasantness has gone on too long and been too severe to call it recession.  It’s a depression of some form.  The problem here is how to distinquish it semantically from the Great Depression of 1929-1940, or the Long Depression of 1873-1896.  My personal preference is for Workers’ Depression.  I think it sums it up.  For the banks and rentier classes, it’s good times again.  It’s only for working stiffs that things continue so ugly.  But if people want to use “Little Depression”, I could go along for the sake of clarity.

Why the Austerity Talk?

Brad DeLong is as puzzled as I, but is more eloquent in expressing it.  In so doing he does my classes a favor in expressing a quick version of the history of addressing macro economic crises.

For nearly 200 years economists from John Stuart Mill through Walter Bagehot and John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman to Ben Bernanke have known that a depression caused by a financial panic is not properly treated by starving the economy of government purchases and of money. So why does “austerity” have such extraordinary purchase on the minds of North Atlantic politicians right now?

Let me speak as a card-carrying neoliberal, as a bipartisan technocrat, as a mainstream neoclassical macroeconomist–a student of Larry Summers and Peter Temin and Charlie Kindleberger and Barry Eichengreen and Olivier Blanchard and many others.

We put to one side issues of long-run economic growth and of income and wealth distribution, and narrow our focus to the business cycle–to these grand mal seizures of high unemployment that industrial market economies have been suffering from since at least 1825. Such episodes are bad for everybody–bad for workers who lose their jobs, bad for entrepreneurs and equity holders who lose their profits, bad for governments that lose their tax revenue, and bad for bondholders who see debts owed them go unpaid as a result of bankruptcy. Such episodes are best avoided.

From my perspective, the technocratic economists by 1829 had figured out why these semi-periodic grand mal seizures happened. In 1829 Jean-Baptiste Say published his Course Complet d’Economie Politique… in which he implicitly admitted that Thomas Robert Malthus had been at least partly right in his assertions that an economy could suffer from at least a temporary and disequliibrium “general glut” of commodities. In 1829 John Stuart Mill wrote that one of what was to appear as his Essays on Unsettled Questions in Political Economy in which he put his finger on the mechanism of depression.

Semi-periodically in market economies, wealth holders collectively come to the conclusion that their holdings of some kind or kinds of financial assets are too low. These financial assets can be cash money as a means of liquidity, or savings vehicles to carry purchasing power into the future (of which bonds and cash money are important components), or safe assets (of which, again, cash money and bonds of credit-worthy governments are key components)–whatever. Wealth holders collectively come to the conclusion that their holdings of some category of financial assets are too small. They thus cut back on their spending on currently-produced goods and services in an attempt to build up their asset holdings. This cutback creates deficient demand not just for one or a few categories of currently-produced goods and services but for pretty much all of them. Businesses seeing slack demand fire workers. And depression results.

What was not settled back in 1829 was what to do about this. Over the years since, mainstream technocratic economists have arrived at three sets of solutions:

  1. Don’t go there in the first place. Avoid whatever it is–whether an external drain under the gold standard or a collapse of long-term wealth as in the end of the dot-com bubble or a panicked flight to safety as in 2007-2008–that creates the shortage of and excess demand for financial assets.
  2. If you fail to avoid the problem, then have the government step in and spend on currently-produced goods and servicesin order to keep employment at its normal levels whenever the private sector cuts back on its spending.
  3. If you fail to avoid the problem, then have the government create and provide the financial assets that the private sector wants to hold in order to get the private sector to resume its spending on currently-produced goods and services.

There are a great many subtleties in how a government should attempt to do (1), (2), and (3). There is much to be said about when each is appropriate. There is a lot we need to learn about how attempts to carry out one of the three may interfere with or make impossible attempts to carry out the other branches of policy. But those are not our topics today.

Our topic today is that, somehow, all three are now off the table. There is right now in the North Atlantic no likelihood of reforms of Wall Street and Canary Wharf to accomplish (1) and diminish the likelihood and severity of a financial panic. There is right now in the North Atlantic no likelihood at all of (2): no political pressure to expand or even extend the anemic government-spending stimulus measures that have ben undertaken. And there is right now in the North Atlantic little likelihood of (3): the European Central Bank is actively looking for ways to shrink the supply of the financial assets it provides to the private sector, and the Federal Reserve is under pressure to do the same–both because of a claimed fear that further expansionary asset provision policies run the risk of igniting unwarranted inflation.

But there is no likelihood of unwarranted inflation that can be seen either in the tracks of price indexes or in the tracks of financial market readings of forecast expectations.

Nevertheless, you listen to the speeches of North Atlantic policymakers and you read the reports, and you hear things like:

“Obama said that just as people and companies have had to be cautious about spending, ‘government should have to tighten its belt as well…’”

Now there were—and perhaps there still are—people in the White House who took these lines out of speeches as fast as they could But the speechwriters keep putting them in, and President Obama keeps saying them, in all likelihood because he believes them.

And here we reach the limits of my mental horizons as a neoliberal, as a technocrat, as a mainstream neoclassical economist. Right now the global market economy is suffering a grand mal seizure of high unemployment and slack demand. We know the cures–fiscal stimulus via more government spending, monetary stimulus via provision by central banks of the financial assets the private sector wants to hold, institutional reform to try once gain to curb the bankers’ tendency to indulge in speculative excess under control. Yet we are not doing any of them. Instead, we are calling for “austerity.”

John Maynard Keynes put it better than I can in talking about a similar current of thought back in the 1930s:

It seems an extraordinary imbecility that this wonderful outburst of productive energy [over 1924-1929] should be the prelude to impoverishment and depression. Some austere and puritanical souls regard it both as an inevitable and a desirable nemesis on so much overexpansion, as they call it; a nemesis on man’s speculative spirit. It would, they feel, be a victory for the Mammon of Unrighteousness if so much prosperity was not subsequently balanced by universal bankruptcy.

We need, they say, what they politely call a ‘prolonged liquidation’ to put us right. The liquidation, they tell us, is not yet complete. But in time it will be. And when sufficient time has elapsed for the completion of the liquidation, all will be well with us again.

I do not take this view. I find the explanation of the current business losses, of the reduction in output, and of the unemployment which necessarily ensues on this not in the high level of investment which was proceeding up to the spring of 1929, but in the subsequent cessation of this investment. I see no hope of a recovery except in a revival of the high level of investment. And I do not understand how universal bankruptcy can do any good or bring us nearer to prosperity…

I do not understand it either. But many people do. And I do not understand why such people think as they do.


No do I understand why they think that way.  But I suspect that it has to do with political and rich elites preferring to have a more dominant share of a smaller pie than to rationally wanting to share a larger one.  As one of the commenters to Brad’s post put it:

We’ve been down this road before. “Auterity” is just a euphemism for getting the ignorant and foolish to support their own ruin in the name of wealth transference to the already wealthy by destroying government programs and services that benefit the middle class and needy.