Demand Matters

Markets are about supply and demand. Scarcely a more banal thing could be said in economics, and yet some of the time it seems like free-market economists look only at supply. Glance over policy recommendations from a free-marketeer and you’ll often see only tools for freeing up supply—labour market deregulation, planning reform, a bonfire of the quangos, an end to unbalancing subsidies or tax breaks, liberalisation of trade barriers. These are all fantastic things, which we definitely need. And even through the visor of the AS/AD model, even in a slump, these can make things better both by cutting prices and by raising wealth. But either deliberately or unconsciously, these economists are completely avoiding the demand side.

Is this because there are no doctrinaire libertarian things that can be done on the demand side? I’ve certainly heard many policies like quantitative easing called “socialism” by fellow travellers, but I’d like to think that my libertarian-leaning friends were more thoughtful than instinctively dismissing ideas they see as ideologically impure out of hand.

And further than that, there are things we can do to make the demand side more libertarian, at least if we don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. School voucher systems are not decried for their “socialism” by libertarians despite the fact that under these systems schools are still paid for and run by the state. Monetary policies that are more free market (and more sensible) than our current one should be looked upon in the same way. It’s not the case that anything short of abolishing the central bank is “socialism”—unless we want to completely devalue the word. And even if an intermediate policy were a form of “socialism” or “central planning”, the realistic alternative is not a free market in money, but an abysmal central plan!

What are these intermediate policies that free-marketeers seem to be ignoring? Firstly there is nominal income targeting, which relies on markets both to stabilise demand and to allocate that demand among competing industries according to consumer preferences; and secondly counter-cyclical taxes, which rise automatically in good times and fall in bad times. Those are both thoroughly libertarian and entirely focused on demand.

In fact, the two most important libertarian economists of the 20th century—Friedrich A. Hayek and Milton Friedman—both endorsed demand-side policy, in the right circumstances. Friedman blamed the US Great Depression on the Federal Reserve, allowing a massive collapse in the money supply and aggregate demand. Hayek said that after the inevitable collapse of a misallocated capital structure there could also be “secondary deflations”, where aggregate demand collapses and there is a costly adjustment period. Both would support monetary policy to deal with this issue—stabilising demand, so as to avoid painful adjustments from big inflationary or deflationary shocks. If money is non-neutral in the boom, why would it be neutral in the downturn?

One response libertarians might make is that Say’s Law shows there is nothing we can do about demand. But Say’s Law clearly doesn’t hold in the short-run, and Austrian economists who rightly critique the assumptions economists often make about equilibria should be absolutely clear of this. In the short-run, a dip in aggregate demand—absent any response from the government, central bank, or hypothetical free banks working together—necessitates a period of deflation. But we know that (at least nominal) wages are sticky-downwards, meaning that calling for an adjustment to the new equilibrium means calling for years of the grave evil of unemployment foisted on millions. Say’s Law reasserts itself in the medium- to long-run, and by then the misery and destruction of potential wealth has all already happened.

What libertarians are missing is that the relentless focus on supply is leaving them almost completely out of the conversation, and thus leading to worse policy than necessary. If free marketeers were talking about the best things to do on the demand side, as well as on the supply side, then there would be less of the all-eggs-in-one-basket big project spending stimulus, and more diverse market-oriented ways of countering the demand shortfall.

Kick the ‘wise men’ out of the Bank of England

In today’s City AM, newly-minted ASI fellow Lars Christensen (aka The Market Monetarist) writes on the ‘Carney rule’. The Carney announcement is a tiny step in the right direction, he says, but as long as the ‘wise men’ of the Monetary Policy Committee are running monetary policy, policy will be erratic and unpredictable, preventing adequate planning by firms and adding to market panic in economic downturns. Instead, we should have a strict rules-based system of nominal GDP targeting:

A much better rule would have been to commit to stabilising the level of nominal GDP (NGDP), a measure of aggregate demand, keeping market expectations of NGDP growth on a 4 or 5 per cent growth path. This should be combined with an open-ended commitment to expanding the money base to hit this target. This would avoid the nitty-gritty of the Carney Rule and be clearer and easier to communicate to markets.

Monetary policy based on the discretion of “wise men” leads to market uncertainty and panicky jolts as investors react to tiny changes in central bankers’ pronouncements. Replacing the MPC with rules-based policy would bring discipline and predictability to the Bank of England far beyond what was outlined yesterday.

I would prefer to have no Bank of England at all, with money emerging from the market as outlined by Hayek in 1976. Having said that, perfect is not the enemy of good — replacing the discretion of ‘experts’ with predictable, market-led rules would be a huge step in the right direction. If Carney’s new rule fails, it may come on to the agenda sooner than we think.

Mark Carney bottles it with baby steps

Mark Carney had the leeway to make radical change here but he’s bottled it with baby steps.

The ‘Carney rule’, promising low interest rates and the possibility of more quantitative easing (QE) until unemployment is low or inflation rises, is definitely an improvement on the current regime. It gives firms clearer guidance on the future stance of policy, removing some of the uncertainty in the world economy today. I expect it to deal with some of today’s demand shortage, and more importantly tomorrow’s expected demand shortage.

But unemployment and inflation come from both aggregate demand (which the bank can control) and aggregate supply (which it has essentially no control over). Since neither of these numbers distinguish between changes in supply or demand, the Bank is still fumbling in the dark with its guesses over whether a change in inflation comes from demand (which means it should react) or supply (which means it shouldn’t). This means firms are still left guessing, and it means that uncertainty still reigns.

What we really need is a truly rule-based system that takes discretion away from nine ‘wise men’ and uses market forecasts to create real stability. That system is nominal income targeting.

Despite its problems, QE might be right

John Butler has a great piece in yesterday’s City A.M. making the case against central bank interest rate interference. He uses the devastating insights of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek to show why central planning cannot work rationally for basic epistemic reasons. His example is of the Soviet shoe industry, constantly providing surfeits of boots in summer and sandals during winter.

Absent a pricing mechanism to match supply and demand, there was invariably either a glut or a shortage. And even when there was a glut, there were plenty of summer shoes, but a shortage of winter boots. By contrast, the largely capitalist West, responding to real price signals in real markets, did a pretty good job at producing, in sufficient quantities, a range of shoes that customers wanted, that fit, that they could afford.

Butler argues that in the significantly more important financial markets, which coordinate plans about saving and investment, together determining the future’s capital structure, the same rules apply. We need real prices to convey information and organise society into a rational economic order. He claims the monetary policies of many countries—cutting headline interest rates and buying hundreds of millions of bonds—distort market interest rates (the most important prices in the economy) and thereby drive capital to be used in suboptimal ways.

I think there’s a problem with his approach. Going with the title of this post—isn’t it possible that the free market interest rate is below zero? German bund yields have fallen below zero several times during the Euro crisis, despite no central bank engaging in any major programme to buy them up. In times with few good investment opportunities, lots of funds (saving rates have boomed during the bust), and lots of worrying risky areas, it makes sense that some safe assets would see crashing rates. Bond yields can fall below zero even in a zero inflation or deflationary environment, but that’s not true for many of the myriad interest rates in a modern economy. There is a zero lower bound on most rates, that is, no one would accept a nominal rate less than zero, as they could usually change the money into cash and put it under their mattress. But quantitative easing raises inflation expectations (and inflation), allowing real rates to go below zero, potentially clearing some otherwise stuck markets.

Now this isn’t necessarily telling on Butler’s argument. It might be that sometimes rates need to fall below zero, potentially justifying inflation above zero, but the QE needed to achieve this inflation distorts markets in general more than it benefits in these cases. Other things being equal, the extra demand from bond purchases means higher prices and lower yields on those bonds, and this would be expected to hit all substitute assets. This seems to hold even if the other effects of extra QE (higher inflation and demand growth (NGDP growth) expectations) work in the other direction, or even exactly balance out the demand effect of QE. Compared to the hypothetical situation where the central bank boosts growth expectations without buying up bonds, assets will be more expensive, or yield less.

Funds will look cheaper to firms than they “actually are” in the sense of their social cost as approximated by the information that would have been contained in the relevant market interest rates. Firms will tie up slightly more productive capital in improving capacity when society as a whole would seem to prefer slightly more devoted to consumption. This mispricing of loanable funds seems like it would have distortionary effects, with the size of the efficiency loss depending on the responsiveness of the supply of deposits and the demand for investment to their prices.

Before this starts to sounds one-sided against QE, there is one (big) consideration to take into account—the extra inflation and demand growth expectations that asset purchases create don’t just help some interest rates adjust, but also create the space for a vast number of relative price moves. Labour markets tend not to clear after demand shocks because wages take a long time to adjust downwards. The price of avoiding any interference could be deep, ongoing recessions. So a prudent central banker may need to risk some misallocation of resources into investment if they wish to avoid the probably worse cost of punishing unemployment and slashed living standards.