Building a Blogosphere in Cambridge

Jonathon Hazell

Until recently, I hadn’t noticed how many policy blogs there are in and around Cambridge University. There are big-name policy wonks blogging out of Cambridge, like Puffles the Dragon Fairy. There are the student bloggers – off the top of my head, the outstanding ones are the guys  at Forward Forum, though we also read Thomas Simpson’s blog, and several others. There are the whole host of policy- and politics-related societies putting out great work – here we’re thinking about the CSEP’s Plurality blog, the Cambridge Libertarians, Cambridge Labour’s Red Letter Blog and CUCA (though admittedly the last seems suspiciously empty …). Further afield, we have our partner student thinktank over at Harvard, and a new student think tank run out of Oxford, both producing excellent posts in the same sort of area. There’s even a rogue pseudonymous writer who just started blogging for us. And these are just the blogs that spring to mind – there are plenty more putting out similar and valuable writing.

But my main point is this: no matter how good the content, it’s really easy not to notice these blogs – I’d be willing to bet that almost no one in Cambridge reads most of the aforementioned. And it’s all too easy for these blogs not to be aware of each other. This puts a cap on how good Cambridge policy blogging can get in two ways. Firstly, it means that relatively few people get exposed to content they might be very interested in reading. And secondly it means that reactive, fast-moving policy debates – which are, surely, one of the best features of the blogging medium – can’t happen around the Cambridge blogs, because writers simply aren’t aware of each other’s existence. And it isn’t as if policy blogging doesn’t have the potential to be very popular around Cambridge. Take the example of our own blog – we started less than six months ago, and yet some posts are already drawing more traffic than the average Varsity comment piece. To our mind this is good evidence that blogging could become much more popular. So we want to try and change the existing state of affairs to do more for blogging in Cambridge. We want to disseminate policy writing as far as possible, and get bloggers of different leanings and expertise to argue with each other. In short, we want to create a Cambridge blogosphere.

In terms of how this would hopefully work in practice, the idea is fairly idiot proof. The TWS blog would curate links from anyone who writes about policy, and wants to be read more widely. For that matter if you blog about culture, literature, sport or whatever else, we’re still more than happy to take you on. We’d distribute these over our blog and social media, whenever we have enough. We might even (very occasionally) link to TCS or Varsity, though the thought of Greg Hill stalking our comment thread is maybe a bit much. This is a tried-and-tested model – it’s the way link curators such as Mark Thoma, Tyler Cowen and Brad DeLong built the econo-blogosphere, or how LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog brought together UK public policy writing.

So I’ll end this post with a plea. If you write a blog; or your friend writes a blog; or your society has a blog; or you read something somewhere that vaguely resembles a blog post; please get in touch with us, or get them to get in touch with us. Thanks!

Programming note:

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BLOG WARS!!!!; or, T-Simps Smackdown Watch

Jonathon Hazell

‘T-Simps’, the nom de plume of a Cambridge undergraduate called Thomas Simpson, has a go at the paper Felix Nugee and I wrote and presented the day before yesterday on what we call ‘helicopter money’. I encourage you to skim over it if you haven’t already, before returning to luxuriate participate in its demolition discussion. Snark aside, it’s a great piece, and raises a lot of salient and controversial points. Highly recommended reading, and no doubt the start of an excellent blog. It’s just quite nice to have some conflict in the Cambridge blogosphere – or indeed to have a Cambridge blogosphere at all.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at Thomas’s arguments.  From the top ….

(1) Negative interest rates can be a thing

Well, duh. Central banks can cut interest rates to negative infinity and beyond if they so choose. They have not and never will, because it would be pointless. This is because when interest rates are negative on any given security (say the bank balances which UK banks hold with the Bank of England), there’s almost no reason not to just withdraw its value into physical cash, which has a strictly better interest rate of zero. I say almost because there are costs to storing all that cash – think Fort Knox, bank vaults etc. Thomas rightly points out that Sweden has introduced negative interest rates. And the ECB might do the same. But no one – or almost no one – seems to think this would be more than marginally effective. Because once the cost of holding bank balances with the BoE at negative interest rates exceeds the costs of holding all that money in physical form, banks will withdraw it all. It’s that simple. In fact this is why when we are at the zero lower bound we call it a ‘liquidity trap’. Central banks are trapped by the fact that they can provide unlimited liquidity (i.e. money) without changing interest rates at all. Outsourcing to Barry Ritholtz on Sweden:

“Governor Stefan Ingves was quick to point out that benefits from negative interest rates did not seem to be observable. He did not get into the costs associated with negative interest rates, but he did affirm that it was unlikely that Sweden would use them again.”

The zero lower bound on interest rates is most definitely a problem.[1] And this is why we need to reform. Or as Gotham City’s Caped Crusader once put it:

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2)        It’s not about the state of financial intermediaries. It’s about expectations of future nominal income

I’m confused about this point on a number of levels. Firstly, we have absolutely no problem with nominal GDP level targeting (NGDPLT). In fact, I think (and Felix agrees) that NGDPLT would be a wonderful initiative. It is, however, a different argument – one that we’d fully support, but well outside the scope of our proposal (I seem to remember Felix making this point in our seminar). Most of the people who support NGDPLT (e.g. Michael WoodfordDavid Beckworth [2]) are very keen on seeing the two policies as complements, as are we.

But that notwithstanding, it is simply not true to claim that you could fix a broken financial system solely by stabilising future expectations of nominal income, which is I think the main line of Thomas’ and others’ arguments. It requires a world that is fundamentally at odds with what happened during the financial crisis. It is a world in which banks were willing to borrow from other banks, because they were not afraid that whatever collateral they received might be worthless in a few days time. It is a world in which banks were willing to lend to other banks because they were not worried about the prospect of them going bust. It is a world in which hot money didn’t take flight from the banking system and leave them without funds to lend at all. It is not the world we’ve been living in for the last five years. Instead, it is a world with a financial system that chose to stop lending because of future expectations, and was not forced to stop lending because of current financial panic. When Northern Rock had depositors queuing outside its cash machines in 2007, when RBS was scrabbling around to fund itself after buying the basket case that was ABN Amro in 2008, whatever the Bank of England might have done to the future economy was irrelevant – they simply did not have the balance sheets in place to lend out to the real economy. And so Felix and I remain sure that the financial system was sufficiently bust over the crisis that, we need other ways to target the real economy, which don’t rely on merely stabilising nominal income expectations and trusting to the health of the banking sector.

3)        Can QE or forward guidance cause bubbles?

Admittedly I’m not entirely convinced of this point myself, and lots of evidence points against the UK currently being in a bubble. But I’m certainly concerned about the possibility – and who wouldn’t be? We know from the last five years that the small tail risk chance of a bubble is worth weighing, because the consequences are so catastrophic. But Thomas claims to be confused about it, so I’ll try and point him in the right direction. The gist of the battleground here is this: when QE and forward guidance happens, what happens to long-term interest rates? And if long-term interest rates fall, why would that cause a bubble?

This next bit is quite tedious, but it’s Thomas’ argument as best I can make it. There’s supposedly an effect that says interest rates should go down. Some people call this the ‘liquidity effect’. The idea here is that QE or forward guidance lowers the path of future short-term interest rates, and this makes long rates fall. There are also a couple of effects that putatively act in the opposite direction. These are called the ‘inflation’ and ‘income’ effects. These reflect the fact that in the long run, if the economy picks up because of the stimulus, inflation and growth should rise, so the central bank will eventually raise interest rates.

Now I have no idea which of these effects dominate. I have no idea whether any of them are correct. They could both all be powerful or all be weak. We could have totally the wrong model of the economy and financial markets and how monetary policy works (and the evidence seems to be pretty clear that we do). This Scott Sumner bloke who Thomas brings up doesn’t have a clue either. And armchair theorising won’t get you there. You have to actually look at interest rates to figure out what’s going on. I took the precaution of actually doing this:

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So the bulk of QE took place in the October 2011 to July 2012 phase – right next to that nice big cliff in the middle. We had a bit in November 2009, just before the slightly smaller valley to the left. The rest took place in the flattish 2009-2010 phase. But you might say that just eyeballing interest rates isn’t particularly persuasive. Fortunately some very smart people have already done much more careful analysis. Paul Tucker, BoE deputy governor is probably the best the UK has on this front. And he like others finds that unconventional monetary policy has acted to lower long-term interest rates. Which, you know, accords well with just about every piece of serious econometric work on the subject.

So why is this a problem? The issue is that when long term interest rates fall, financial intermediaries who need to make some kind of fixed return on their investments (think pension funds who need to provide steady returns to people drawing down pensions) take on riskier propositions that pay a higher yield. In the parlance, they ‘reach for yield’. And this could create problems further down the road when either (a) these risks all blow up in their face or (b) they all unwind the risky investments when interest rates normalise. In fact there’s a very good case to be made (and Jeremy Stein of the Fed makes it) that this was in large part a reason behind the erratic movements in interest rates over the summer. Now I hasten to add that we don’t have a very good idea of whether or not this ‘reach for yield’ thing matters at all. But one lesson we’ve learnt about finance over the last five years is that trying to poke institutions into overleveraging themselves is something that we should do our best to avoid if we can.

For the record, Thomas’ point about targeting foreign currency is an excellent one. But I digress ….

3) Income inequality

Not even sure how to argue this point. We have a choice between (a) a way of stimulating the recovery by raising the incomes of the few and hoping they trickle down; or (b) raising the incomes of the many. The latter is preferable on this basis. Period. Sure, QE may have raised asset prices because it raises current and future profits. But this is basically the point Felix and I made – poor people don’t own assets so they don’t benefit from this.

Whew. Almost there. I need to sleep.

4) Will helicopter money work at all?

This is a very important point – and one we communicated very badly in the paper and also when we presented it, as Thomas rightly points out. The point made is this; we hope that by design helicopter money would function like a temporary tax cut. So what if consumers simply saved the money or paid down debts, instead of using it to boost spending? We have two answers to that. Firstly, recoveries after financial crises are generally slow because consumers are paying down debts – or ‘repairing balance sheets’ in the jargon. One of the better aspects of helicopter money is that if consumers chose to use it to get rid of these debts, it would accelerate the process of balance sheet repair, and speed the UK along the path towards recovery. That aside, though, if consumers are busy saving or paying down debts with their helicopter-dropped money, the idiot-proof solution is to simply give them even more money. Which is the crux of our explanation.

I guess that’s pretty much everything. A series of very important criticisms from Thomas, but ones which Felix and I think our policy is broadly robust to. People who have made it this far in either of our posts may have also realised that the debate is something of a proxy argument over what Thomas calls ‘market monetarism’. I happen to take a much glummer view of that particular school of thought than he does (having once been a devout myself), but this is an argument for future blogging wars.


[1] There are some racier proposals to introduce negative interest rates on money itself, especially by Miles Kimball and Willem Buiter. This is a different thing entirely.

[2] Respectively, the man famous for working out all of the interesting ideas of the obscure school of thought known as ‘market monetarism’ about a decade before it existed; and the most financially literate and arguably most incisive of the aforementioned market monetarists.

Helicopter Money – a Proposal for Macroeconomic Reform

On Monday at 6PM, Felix Nugee and Jonathon Hazell are presenting their paper on ‘helicopter money’, proposing to reform macroeconomic policy. We have discussants Ryan Avent of the Economist and their Free Exchange blog, and Martin Weale of the Monetary Policy Committee. Felix and Jonathon blog about why we need their proposal, below. 

Update: The draft copy of the paper can now be found here https://wilberforcesocietyblog.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/helicopter-money.pdf

In 2008, we saw a massive financial crisis in the UK, and then a steep fall in spending across the economy. The result was a deep recession and a sluggish recovery at best. The combined action of the Bank of England and the Treasury wasn’t enough to change this. We put together a paper for TWS to try and answer two questions – what prevented the government response from being stronger; and, bearing in mind these issues, what an optimal stimulus policy would look like. The UK economy is finally growing again, and maybe further stimulus is finally no longer needed.  But beyond this we want to look at how to prevent Britain’s worst economic performance in a century from happening again:

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It’s not all that unlikely that we could face the same problems in the future. Therefore we need a set of institutional reforms, to put in a framework to deal with any repeat of the last five years. This is ultimately the goal of our paper, designing a proposal called ‘helicopter money’. We propose to give the Bank of England the power to make lump sum cash payments to British households during a slump, so that consumers would go out and spend the money, boosting demand and ending recessions. The Bank would figuratively drop bundles of cash from a helicopter, so that people would use them to buy goods and services.

Our proposal is not quite new. In one form or another, top commentators at the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist have all mooted the idea. A few leading policymakers, in particular Lord Adair Turner are enthusiastic. However, to our knowledge there is not yet a piece of work that takes the wealth of important, rapidly-evolving academic ideas relating to helicopter money, and brings them together into an accessible proposal which more people can understand. Nor, we feel, is there a work that fully sketches out the political economy of helicopter money – only in this way can we understand what the optimal institutional design is, an issue which many discussants puzzle over or pass by. If we want a genuinely forward-looking reform to deal with future crises, this last step is necessary.

Failure of the alternatives

Of course to figure out why we need reform, the first step must be to discover why the status quo isn’t working. Before 2007, central banks steered the aggregate economy through varying the short-term interest rate, thereby affecting consumption, investment, and future growth and inflation expectations. The Bank of England was a “Flexible Inflation Targeter”, a role it performed very successfully – growth was high, unemployment and inflation low, from the 1990s to the eve of the financial crisis. However, when interest rates reach their zero lower bound (ZLB), theory and common sense indicate that the power of monetary policy to stimulate is constrained. This is because central banks cannot cut interest rates below zero, stopping their ability to add stimulus through that channel. This is the famous ‘liquidity trap’ phenomenon, where interest rate policy is powerless, like ‘pushing on a string’. A good demonstration of how problematic this is comes from recent work by economists Cynthia Wu and Dora Xia. They try to calculate what the MPC would have cut rates to, had the ZLB on interest rates not been an issue. The results aren’t pretty:

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The ‘shadow rate’ estimates the level of rate cuts then would be preferred by the MPC in the absence of the ZLB 

Clearly, then, the ZLB is a major problem – and stops standard monetary policy from eliminating the kinds of problems we’ve seen in recent years. So where do we turn when trying to fight recessions? Fiscal policy – cutting taxes or raising government expenditure to boost spending – is the other obvious option. But it is also quite problematic. We cover several reasons in the paper, but above all the problem is politicisation. Ideologically driven decisions to alter the size of the state can be flown under the flag of fiscal policy. Take the Bush era tax cuts – passed after the collapsing of the dotcom bubble ostensibly as a recession-fighting measure and pilloried by economists, they have now mostly been made permanent and totally restructured the American tax burden. Closer to home, the obvious example is austerity. This is not the place to retread the argument, but to our minds (and that of the OBR), austerity has been a total disaster for growth.  And David Cameron himself admits to using austerity to shape the British state for the long run:

“We are sticking to the task [of austerity]. But that doesn’t just mean making difficult decisions on public spending. It also means something more profound. It means building a leaner, more efficient state. We need to do more with less. Not just now, but permanently.”

Obviously when these sorts of explicitly political decisions have such a high cost, we can’t rely on politicians and fiscal policy to dig us out of any future economic mess.

What about unconventional monetary policy? The response by the Bank of England to the ZLB was to develop Quantitative Easing (QE) and forward guidance. The jury is out on how effective these have been – we try to take a look the costs and benefits in our paper. All we would say in this post is that the impact has almost certainty been small, and the costs far from trivial. But tellingly, almost no one argues that the sort unconventional monetary policy used by the Bank constitutes an ideal framework for the long run.

Helicopter Money

So clearly we need some new macroeconomic tools. Enter our proposal, helicopter money. Abstractly, a sum of money, chosen by the Bank to provide the right amount of stimulus, is dropped by helicopter to every household in the country.  In reality, of course, the Bank would simply credit every household with the given amount. In very simple terms, helicopter money is like a big lump sum tax cut by the government, financed by money instead of bonds – in each case, the policy move is a cash rebate to households. Clearly, then, it would be a powerful way of boosting overall spending in the economy, and stopping recessions. The post is running long, and we don’t want to give away exactly why we like it so much as a policy. But in our paper and seminar, we defend the idea that this is a roughly optimal way to prevent recessions. Come along to find out why!

The ECB Rate Cut

The ECB cuts interest rates, and looks like it’s doing something powerful to prevent a deflationary bust in the Eurozone. We try to explain why it’s a weak move, over on Pieria:

“The reasoning is that the rate cut will lower short-term money market interest rates, and therefore shift the cost of funding downwards across the entire yield curve, giving a boost to spending in the Eurozone at a time when it is sorely needed. …. [In fact] it is a way of appearing to deliver major monetary stimulus without doing much at all. It allows the ECB to carry on doing close to the minimum necessary to stimulate the Eurozone, even as it fails on its own terms – the Eurozone is on course to enter a disinflationary bust, with core inflation heading well below its (already highly conservative) mandate of an inflation rate just below 2%.”

Read on here

Debunking austerity – how big were the costs to growth?

Jonathon Hazell

One of the best things about conference season is that it gives you a good insight into which of last year’s policies each party thought were popular, and which need to be quietly binned. The result? Both main parties seem to agree that austerity is a vote winner. Consider: Labour pivoted to the ‘cost of living crisis’, whereas the Conservatives think voters austerity so much that they have decided to propose semi-permanent austerity, spending and tax cuts be damned. George Osborne sees vindication in recent output growth. However as Simon Wren-Lewis notes, a single quarter’s good performance is weak success at best, pointing out that:

‘We could close down half the economy for a year. The next year economic growth would be fantastic. Only a fool would argue that this showed that closing down half the economy for a year was a great idea.’

This is a more general problem. In politics austerity seems like a debate between partial truths, with recent events seeming to have austerians carrying the day.  But empirical economics has spent the last five years testing the claims of austerity, and fairly emphatically found the reverse.

Looking back on the 2010 general election campaign and after, the argument rested on two points:

1) Multipliers on government spending were small, so fiscal contraction would barely harm  overall demand

2) Austerity could be expansionary for growth due to business confidence effects,

This was taken to mean that the overall costs to growth were small.

Government spending multipliers

These are the fall in total demand associated with a given pound of tax rises or spending cuts.  Put simply, small government spending multipliers mean austerity will be relatively painless. When the OBR and the IMF forecast the economic effects of coalition spending plans, they used a multiplier of 0.4-0.5. However the balance of evidence suggests under current circumstances, multipliers are about three times as high, around 1.5. We know this because of a very public mea culpa from the IMF – their chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, released a study earlier this year working out multiplier values based on how overoptimistic IMF forecasts had been. These estimates are also consistent with the best historical evidence we have. So when we see that UK growth performing very badly relative to its OBR forecast in 2009, this is completely consistent with much more severe than anticipated effects from austerity (on which more below):

AusterityGraph1

So why were forecasters so over-optimistic in 2009? Normally monetary policy can offset the effects of a fiscal shock by cutting interest rates. Given that they have been at their zero lower bound since 2008, monetary policy has essentially been exhausted as a tool. The jury is still out on quantitative easing, but most studies over the last few years give it a much smaller and less certain impact than conventional rate cuts.

Expansionary austerity

The complementary argument put out (mostly by George Osborne)  in 2010 was about austerity boosting growth, through so-called ‘confidence effects’. The basic idea was that households and businesses were cutting back spending because of uncertainty over high public debt, potentially higher tax rates, or a sovereign debt crisis. Regardless of whether or not this is a sound analytical argument (and it is difficult to more than assert a theory of the mass psychology of households and businesses) it had some empirical backing from a paper by Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna, which the Treasury explicitly relied on to make their case. Alesina-Ardagna claimed that fiscal consolidation led to higher growth. However they did so on the basis of some quite flimsy statistical work. In a nutshell, if their result holds at all it is when output growth is strong (i.e. the opposite of the UK recently), and interest rates can be cut by central banks. The IMF debunked it in 2011 on that very basis, after controlling for whether fiscal contraction takes place at the peak or trough of the business cycle. This explains the massive underperformance of the Euro Area and the UK versus less contractionary countries:

AusterityGraph2

Costs to growth

Given the above, then, it’s no surprise that the best estimates of the costs of austerity have been huge.  Alan Taylor, one of the world’s pre-eminent macroeconomic historians, attempted to estimate the total cost to output of budget contraction since 2009 along with his co-author Oscar Jorda. The result? Austerity probably cost the UK 3% in terms of lost output. By the very nature of counterfactuals, we can never know if this figure is correct. But serious criticisms of the paper, including by the authors themselves, have tended to focus on the fact that they fail to control for interest rates being at the lower bound, when monetary policy is exhausted. In this light, 3% is probably a conservative estimate of the total cost of austerity. Given that there has been no comparably rigorous piece of contradictory analysis, this should be, at the very least, our base case.  Jorda and Taylor underline this in a graph:

AusterityGraph3

As important as the work above is the total absence of the reverse – serious and unrefuted empirical economic research coming out in favour of the pro-austerity arguments has been slim to none. Given the debates that sometimes mark out macroeconomics as a discipline, this speaks volumes.

So does writing against austerity equal staking out a political position? I would argue exactly the opposite. At least in terms of the cost to growth, the line that austerity is disastrous is apolitical. Rather, from a macroeconomic perspective it is a firmly refuted position, like the gold standard, or money supply targeting. And yet it doesn’t seem as if key political actors have updated their beliefs to fit this – it is for this reason that Simon Wren-Lewis  likens the debate to ‘climate change denial’.

Economics and politics seem to have reached opposite conclusions to the same debate. What does this say about the impact of economics on policymaking? And if the evidence isn’t enough to sway this particular political discussion, are we going to be permanently worse off?

Update: Turns out the OBR broadly agrees with Jorda and Taylor