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.



Income Distribution Does Matter. It’s Wrong Now and Stopping Growth.

When people think about “income distribution” there’s a tendency to think of it only in terms of what different people or households have available to spend.  In other words, we focus on the fairness or equity of whether some households should only have a small amount of money to live off of vs. others who get a large amount of money to live off of.  The debates then often deteriorate into whether or not the households put forth effort (“worked”) for their income and therefore “earned” it.

But there’s more to the issue of income distribution.  A household’s income is not just determined by how much “effort” it’s willing to make or how much “investment” it’s made in the past.  So a household’s income isn’t just how much you work and what education/qualifications you have.  The general level of wages matters too.  And that’s determined at the macro level by institutional arrangements in society.

The nature of production is that it requires both capital and labor.  The joint product is then sold.  This is called productivity.  Part of the income distribution question is “how is the value from joint productivity split up between payments to capital and payments to workers”.

In the U.S. during the Golden Era, the period of World War II until the mid-1970’s, the social contract and institutional arrangements were that the benefits of increased productivity were split evenly between both capital and labor.  Both benefitted.  Starting around 1980 that deal was cancelled.  The social contract has increasingly moved to all gains from improved productivity going to capital and none to labor.  As a result, labor’s share of national income has consistently declined.  The Great Recession was a major blow.  It’s this change in the social contract that is the root source of the frustration and pain felt by so many households.

Garth Brazelton at Economics Revival explains why this matters now.  He explains why we are still in a recession, or at least why the 90% or so of us that work for  a living as opposed to living off of interest and profits are still in recession:

Who cares about double-dip. We never left. Why? because you can’t get out of a recession without consumers/labor income growth. While productivity has grown over the last few years, labor’s share of national income continues to plummet. This implies that others (capitalists / profit-makers) are ‘out of their recession’ but consumers and laborers are not.

The BLS has a nice publication here.

Ordinarily a low cyclical labor share isn’t necessarily a problem because firms can use profits to invest in new business ventures a eventually lower the unemployment rate and provide more compensation in a recovery. The problem here of course is that firms are too busy paying off past debts from poor decisions made a decade ago, or two skittish to do anything substantial with their profits at the moment. So that, in combination with the low labor share of income is like a double-whammy for consumers and laborers who see the haves continue to have and the have-nots continuing to have nothing.

Learning From the Past – Or Maybe Not.

It looks like we are going to repeat the past.  In this case, it’s 1937.  In 1937 the general discussion in U.S. politics had turned to concerns about debt and deficits.  The conservative view that opposed  both the New Deal and efforts to alleviate the Great Depression began to get the upper hand.  Keep in mind that the economy had not fully recovered from the Great Depression and Great Crash of 1929.  But the economy had been growing some in 1933-36 due largely to the New Deal and government deficit spending.  The spending effort was too weak though and the economy struggled to grow.  By 1937 it still hadn’t recovered to pre-crash levels.  But politicians began to claim that deficits were bad and that all that was needed was “belt-tightening” by government.  The result was disastrous.  The economy plunged downward again and only began to resume a growth path once Europe went to war and started placing orders for food, equipment and materiel.

Sound familiar?  We had a great crash three years ago.  We stopped the downward spiral in 2009 due largely to a federal government stimulus program.  But the program was too small relative to the size of the recession. Worse  yet, the stimulus was 40% made up of tax cuts which in a financial crisis are no help.  Even worse, the federal increase in spending barely offset the decline in state and local government spending.  Result: we stopped the crash. We ended the decline. But there hasn’t been enough true stimulus to really recover.  Now in 2011 the stimulus spending is being withdrawn and government spending is declining.  Government employment is dropping significantly every month, putting a severe drag on aggregate demand.

Even the central bank appears to have lost the history lessons.  Reuters ran a story recently called “That 1937 Feeling All Over Again” (bold emphasis mine):

(Reuters) – Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, an expert on the Great Depression, once promised that the central bank would never repeat its 1937 mistake of rushing to tighten monetary policy too soon and prolonging an economic slump.

He has been true to his word, keeping interest rates near zero since late 2008 and more than tripling the size of the Fed’s balance sheet to $2.85 trillion. But cutbacks in government spending may end up having a similarly chilling effect on the economy, and there is little Bernanke can do to counter that.

Back in 1937, the U.S. economy had been growing rapidly for three years, thanks in large part to government programs aimed at ending the deep recession that began in 1929.

Then the central bank clamped down hard on lending, and federal government spending dropped 10 percent. The economy contracted again in 1938. The jobless rate soared.

“Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again,” Bernanke said back in 2002 at a conference honoring legendary economist Milton Friedman’s 90th birthday.

Bernanke convenes the Fed’s next policy-setting meeting on Tuesday, facing growing concern that the United States may be slipping into another recession while Europe staggers toward a deeper debt crisis. Standard & Poor’s decision on Friday to lower the U.S. credit rating adds yet another element of uncertainty.

His options are limited.

Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, said the Fed could promise to keep interest rates near zero or its balance sheet swollen for even longer than investors anticipate. Or it could buy even more U.S. government debt.

“It is hard to see any of these options as ‘game changers,'” Gault said. “The Fed would be doing them not because it could be sure they would make a huge difference, but because it would feel the need to do something.”

Gault put the odds of another recession at 40 percent.

“Having said that, there are still plenty of headwinds, like Europe. I am also very encouraged to see the upward revisions to the previous months. This report pulls us back from the ledge a little bit.”


Full employment is one of the Fed’s prescribed goals, and it is clearly falling short. Government spending cuts are making matters worse. Friday’s employment report showed a net loss of 37,000 government jobs last month.

State and local governments with balanced budget rules had little choice but to cut jobs in order to make ends meet. The federal government has no such restriction, but its spending outside of defense fell at a 7.3 percent annual rate in the second quarter, crimping economic growth.

Michael Feroli, an economist with JPMorgan in New York, said he had held out some hope that Congress would approve some form of additional fiscal support in the coming months, but the debt ceiling fight showed lawmakers dead set against that.

“It now looks likely that growth could hit a pothole early next year,” Feroli said.


And as we all witnessed with the debt-ceiling debate fiasco, both parties in Washington D.C are battling to see who can be seen as the budget cutter.  It’s 1937 all over. Let’s

The Great Recession Was Even Worse Than Thought

In yesterday’s release of the 2nd quarter 2011 GDP numbers for the U.S., the BEA also revised some past numbers.  This is not an unusual event.  It’s routine. But the news and revisions this year were disturbing and sobering.

First, a little about how GDP numbers are reported.  In this day and age of instant info when stock markets report numbers within seconds, we tend to think we should get all our data that quickly.  But it’s a really tough job.  Think about it.  GDP is the total market value of all the goods and services produced in a period of time.  For the U.S., that’s a lot of stuff.  There’s over 300 million of us buying things, making things, providing services, etc. The BEA has to add all that up.  Actually it’s got to find out what we did before it can add them up.  Some of the activity must be estimated.  Hard data on a lot of production isn’t even available until months or even years afterward.  In addition, to estimate real GDP from nominal GDP (nominal is what’s observable at current prices), they have to collect immense data on prices of nearly everything.  Looked at this way,they do a pretty good job.

So what happens is that each quarter they release three “estimates” of GDP and growth rates.  The first version is released at the end of the month after the quarter closes. This is the “advance” estimate.  That’s what we got yesterday, on July 29, for the quarter ending June 30.  Next month in late August they will issue a  revision of this number based on more and better information. Then in late September comes the “final” estimate based on even better analyses.  Then they start over in October with the 3rd quarter “advance” estimate, etc.  But in July each year, the BEA takes the opportunity to revise any of the data for the previous year, and at times for several previous years.  There’s nothing sinister here, just more time allows a better, more precise estimate.  And that brings me to yesterday’s news.

The BEA revised GDP numbers back to 2003.  Most of the numbers from 2003-2007 were pretty much unchanged, but from 2007 there’s a significant revision, a significant downward revision. The change shows that the Great Recession (what I prefer to call the Lesser Depression or Workers’ Depression) in 2007-2009 was much worse than previously reported. Instead of losing close to 5% of GDP in the recession, we lost close to 6% of GDP.  Calculated Risk shows the revisions graphically:

The following graph shows the current estimate of real GDP and the pre-revision estimate (blue). I’ll have more later on GDP.

Real GDP

The revisions also mean (as the graph shows) that we aren’t back to where we were in 4th quarter 2007 yet.  In other words, it’s almost four years after the recession began and we still have an economy that’s producing less goods and services than we did back then.  Keep in mind that our population is close to 3.5% larger now than it was then.  Kind of explains the bad the feelings you’ve been having, huh?

Another implication of the revision is that it clearly shows that the government policy response has been grossly inadequate.  The Obama stimulus program, which was clearly too small to deal with even the recession as we thought it was then, was definitely much, much too little.  Given what we now know of the size and scope of the recession, the government stimulus program needed to be at least twice, perhaps three times, as big as it was.  And, it needed to be more focused on stimulating demand through actual spending instead of having 40% of the money be tax cuts that wouldn’t be saved and wouldn’t help the economy.

Finally, a perusal of the graph shows us two things.  First, we lopped off a big chunk of the economy in 2007-09.  That’s lost opportunity.  It’s lost income. And it’s the 10%+ unemployment rate.  But more disturbing is the fact that the so-called “recovery” since then, a recovery that hasn’t gotten us back to the beginning, is itself running out of steam.  The curve is flattening in 2011.  That’s because the rage in Washington by both Republicans and the President has been for budget-cutting.  Budget cutting is contractionary fiscal policy.  They’re trying to slow down the growth of an economy that’s pretty much already run out of steam.

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.

Income Inequality and Financial Crisis

The Great Recession of 2007-9, like the Great Depression in 1929-33, was triggered by a massive financial crisis: stock market crash, falling asset prices, bank failures, and liquidity crisis. One of the key triggers of instability in banking and the resulting financial crises is what economists call “over-leverage”, meaning too much (private) credit and too much (private) borrowing relative to incomes. When the crisis hits, people start to “de-leverage”, that is pay-off debts and/or write-them-off in bankruptcy.  The process of de-leveraging forces people to use more of their incomes to pay off debt and less on spending. The decline in spending causes a decline in GDP, leading to layoffs, and a downward spiral.

Many of us have been intuitively saying that this over-leveraging (over-borrowing and going into debt) is the result of rising income inequality. Now Michael Kumhoff and Romaine Ranciere have published a study and a formal model to explain how such a process works. They note:

Of the many origins of the global crisis, one that has received comparatively little attention is income inequality. This column provides a theoretical framework for understanding the connection between inequality, leverage and financial crises. It shows how rising inequality in a climate of rising consumption can lead poorer households to increase their leverage, thereby making a crisis more likely.

They further show the similarities between 1929 and 2008.  It’s striking. As income inequality increases, i.e. the rich get richer faster, the rest have to go further into debt to maintain lifestyle or lifestyle progress. Overall debt and leverage rises until a crisis happens and the crash begins.

Figure 1 plots the evolution of the share of total income commanded by the top 5% of households (ranked by income) against household debt to GNP or GDP ratios in the two decades preceding 1929 and 2008. The income share of the top 5% increased from 24% in 1920 to 34% in 1928, and from 22% in 1983 to 34% in 2007. During the same two periods, the ratio of household debt to GNP or to GDP increased dramatically. It almost doubled between 1920 and 1932, and also between 1983 and 2008, when it reached much higher levels than in 1932.

Figure 1. Income Inequality and Household Leverage


Excerpt is copyright by Voxeu.org, at Inequality, leverage and crises by Michael Kumhof Romain Rancière

“We do not expect substantial further declines in unemployment this year”

As I’ve feared, it looks like a long, slow recovery.  For employment, it hardly looks like a recovery at all.  Even if employmnent (# of jobs) grows by say 100,000 per month, that means no improvement in unemployment rate because population and workforce participation continue to grow. Also note the reference that inflation is NOT what we have to fear now.

Administration advisors Geithner, Orzag, and Romer advise in a Joint Statement:

Because of normal growth in the population and the fact that some workers are likely to reenter the labor force as the economy improves, it typically takes employment growth of somewhat over 100,000 per month to bring the unemployment rate down. Because we do not expect job growth substantially over 100,000 per month over the remainder of the year, we do not expect substantial further declines in unemployment this year. Indeed, the rate may rise slightly over the next few months as some workers return to the labor force, before beginning a steady downward trend. …

As the pace of job creation picks up in 2011 and 2012, there is likely to be greater progress in reducing unemployment. Nonetheless, because of the severe toll the recession has taken on the labor market, the unemployment rate is likely to remain elevated for an extended period. The forecast projects that in the fourth quarter of 2011, the unemployment rate will be 8.9 percent, and that by the fourth quarter of 2012, it will be 7.9 percent.

# Inflation. Because of the high levels of slack in the economy, we expect inflation to remain low and see little risk of substantial increases in inflation. At the same time, inflation expectations appear to be well anchored, and so we do not expect inflation to fall substantially further or turn into outright deflation. We project inflation (on a fourth-quarter-to-fourth-quarter basis, as measured by the GDP price index) of 1.0 percent in 2010, 1.4 percent in 2011, and 1.7 percent in 2012.

via Calculated Risk: Geithner, Orzag, Romer: “We do not expect substantial further declines in unemployment this year”.