Bond market vigilantes

Government bond holders were the playground bullies of the 80s and 90s. They would threaten governments and central banks with bond sales to get what they wanted – usually fiscal discipline and lower inflation. Bond vigilantes – a self-appointed nickname – was presumably a way to sound more like Batman and less like thugs. Like everyone who picks their own nickname, they had high opinions of themselves:

“Bond Investors Are The Economy’s Bond Vigilantes.” I concluded: “So if the fiscal and monetary authorities won’t regulate the economy, the bond investors will. The economy will be run by vigilantes in the credit markets.”

The guy who coined the name in 1983

These threats worked because selling government bonds causes their price to fall, and the yield – the interest rate – to rise. A government bond is just an IOU from the state, so higher interest rates make it more expensive for governments to borrow. Higher interest rates in government bond markets also usually increase interest rates elsewhere in the economy, slowing down growth. Governments, especially smaller, fiscally precarious ones, had reason to be afraid.

Their reputation was cemented when Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville said: “I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the President or the Pope or a .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everyone.”

Quantitative easing mostly killed off the bond vigilantes. Central banks have bought trillions in government bonds since the GFC, making the threat of a bond vigilante sell-off mute. Sell all you want, the central bank will hoover it up.

Or did it? The deluge of fiscal and monetary stimulus, vaccines, and the beginnings of a recovery have some worried about inflation – a concern I’ve discussed previously. Bond holders hate inflation because it erodes the value of their (usually) fixed coupon payment. Because they hate inflation, bond holders tend to be wary of government spending. A world where governments are planning trillions of new spending has the vigilantes reaching their capes and masks. The FT reports:

It’s probably premature. Bond yields have slumped again after reaching record highs last week. The Reserve Bank of Australia brought forward bond purchases in response to yields rising. It’s hard to fight a central bank.

Bond vigilantes bring together history, macroeconomics, markets, and superheroes in a neat bundle. I recommend further reading:

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No end in sight for the debate over inflation

The debate over the Biden’s administrations proposed stimulus I discussed a few weeks ago is still going. If you wanted to keep up to date, here are some useful links:

The debate still hinges around three technical questions:

  • How large is the output gap? This is the gap between what an economy can theoretically produce, and what it is producing today. Think of the gap as representing idle factories or unemployed workers. The larger the gap, the more stimulus can be applied before you hit ‘supply limits,’ and cause inflation.
  • How effective will the stimulus be? Stimulus does not automatically create the demand which fills the output gap. Instead of buying a new TV, people might save the money they receive, or use it to pay down debts. Those who are concerned expect most of the stimulus to be spent, those who are more sanguine, the opposite.
  • How will inflation behave if it arrives? Both camps agree there is likely to be some inflation, but they disagree over how it will evolve. Those in favour of the stimulus as it stands expect inflation to steadily increase, perhaps even to 2% or 3%. They see this as a good thing, given inflation has been below target for almost a decade. There is little risk of it getting out of control because the Fed can always raise rates in the last instance.

    Pessimists are concerned that if inflation starts growing, it could quickly get out of control. Instead of growing to 2% or 3% and stabilising, expectations might change, causing inflation to continue higher. If the Fed has to react by rapidly raising rates, it could have negative consequences for the financial sector and the wider economy.

This says nothing about the politics around the stimulus. Biden does not want to run the risk of delivering an underpowered stimulus as Obama did after the GFC.

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What do jobless men do all day?

From a new study in the AEI by Nicholas Eberstadt and Evan Abramsky: “What do prime-age ‘NILF’ men do all day?” (thanks to Marginal Revolution)

Some excerpts:





A few quick thoughts:

We don’t know why these men are not in the labour force. Does an absence of paid work/income support cause screen time and anomie, or is there a third (and fourth and fifth) factor at work here.

Is this the way things are or the way things must be? Where the paper sees anomie and alienation naturally following from the absence of work, I see it as contingent. We live in a society which extols paid work and demonises the unemployed. Should we be surprised that those who inhabit such a stigmatised rung of society are not a garden bed for the flowering of the human spirit?

A towering infrastructure of education, encouragement, and coercion has been required for people to accept that they must organise their identity and time around the eight hours a day, forty hours a week, they spend in contractual labour. Were we to reach a point where that became economically superfluous, we would need to develop a new infrastructure to encourage and educate people to live as they chose.

Why should we police what people do with their own time? I know many professionals who spend their weekends wedged between a bottle and a baggie who will tell you that the working poor must be kept in place lest they do the same. If you believe in human freedom and human creative potential, you should want to limit unnecessary restrictions on it. When the economy reaches a point where it becomes unnecessary to compel the population into paid work each day, we should cease to do so for the same reason we no longer compel people to serve in the armed forces. If they choose to drink all day, and despite fair and accessible options otherwise, that is truly what they wish to do, I have no issue with it. Freedom-loving conservatives quickly become paternalistic statists at the prospect of more leisure for the masses.

The moralisation of work: We are constantly told about the dignity of labour, usually by those who work for high pay in air conditioned offices. I fail to see what is dignified about being compelled to spend the majority of your day doing something you would rather not, in conditions you would prefer be different, with people you sometimes dislike. I can say it no better than Bertrand Russell: “The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.”

The only reason to compel paid labour is that our collective economic prosperity requires it; the health of the tribe requires that we devote some portion of our time to the modern equivalent of hunting deer or harvesting wheat. Should a day arrive where robots can take our place in the fields, we should consign paid work to the dustbin of history as fast as we possibly can.

Competing visions of the future: Arguments in the vein of, “if we give people X (a good thing), they’ll just do Y (a bad thing), because they’re too uneducated / lazy / ignorant / selfish / unprepared, have been deployed against every social reform from the right-to-vote to the 8-hour work week. Those who use them are pessimistic about human potential, or our ability to realise it. I remain an optimist in both respects. I aspire to a world where people’s decisions about how they spend their time, and exercise their creative energy were not overly constrained by the need to feed, cloth, and house themselves. A world where that is possible will take some building, but as Oscar Wilde said, a map of the world which does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at.

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Central banks, climate change, and firing an AK-47 underwater (wonkish)

Barry Eichengreen has written a piece for Project Syndicate on how central banks can help tackle climate change and inequality.

The standard argument is that central banks do not possess the tools to combat these issues, and even if they did, doing so would call their independence into question, undermining their ability to fight inflation. Barry disagrees. He argues central banks have a swathe of regulatory tools that could be deployed, and this fact creates a moral responsibility to act given the existential nature of these issues.

As I read it, Eichengreen’s climate change proposal does not go beyond what most central banks have already expressed willingness to do: create a strict and consistent framework for disclosing climate risk, and then use that information when assessing risk in the financial sector. For example, banks who hold lots of assets with climate risk might have higher capital requirements, the same as if they hold lots of junk bonds or dodgy mortgages. There is no mention of using the balance sheet, or differentiating between the collateral a central bank accepts (as I discussed the other day).

His deeper point, that there is no shortage of tools for central banks to tackle important policy issues, is an important one.

Central banks often claim they do no possess the appropriate tools for tackling inequality or climate change. Look, they’ll say, interest rate changes take years to filter through the economy, and besides, the effects are too broad; it’s like trying to hit a target 500 meters away, with a shotgun, underwater.

An AK-47 – close enough

This is a bit disingenuous. The experience of the GFC and COVID-19 has shown that tools can be invented to fit our needs; swap lines, the paycheck protection program, the Main Street lending program, the multiple variations of quantitative easing. Central bankers may well be the only innovators in the world who do not post about their new creations on LinkedIn.

Even the boring old interest rate can be incredibly flexible, as Eric Lonergan’s proposal for dual (and discerning) interest rates shows.

The real problem is not so much a lack of tools, but the risk of becoming politicized (I’m going to write a whole post on politicization, because it is more nuanced than it first appears). That’s a legitimate concern, and one we should seriously discuss.

Economics is about optimization under conditions of scarcity, so any such discussion should be guided by the trade-offs associated with independence. What policy tools would be available were maintaining independence no longer a concern? What would the costs and benefits of any alternative arrangement be?

Please do read the whole thing.

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Is Green Quantitative Easing on the horizon?

Many forces are pushing central banks to change how they operate: low inflation; hesitant fiscal policy; climate change; anemic growth; financial instability. Low inflation claimed the first scalp, when it led the Federal Reserve to switch to an average inflation targeting regime. Climate change may be the next.

The FT reports that:

This is a big deal, even if it might sound like gibberish at first.

Right now, to stimulate the economy, central banks print money (it’s slightly more complicated) to buy government and corporate bonds from the private sector. The idea is that this lowers bond yields, which lowers interest rates, and moves money into other parts of the economy. In theory, interest rates for governments and corporations fall, and lending should increase to businesses and consumers, stimulating the economy. This is Quantitative Easing.

Today, central banks do this without taking the environment into account. A corporate bond from Shell is the same as a corporate bond Vestas (they make wind turbines). For several years now, people have been saying that central banks should use Quantitative Easing in an environmentally conscious way. This mean that, when it buys a corporate bond from Shell, it should acknowledge that Shell is a polluter. When it buys a corporate bond from Vestas, it should acknowledge that Vestas is not a polluter. It could do so by charging a premium for example.

This has been fiercely resisted to date. The fact that the head of the French central bank, who has a seat on the ECB’s Governing Council, is in favour, speaks to how much the consensus is changing.

Please do read the whole thing

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Macro economists argue over higher inflation (again)

Prominent macro economists are divided over whether the Biden administration’s proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus bill is likely to stoke inflation and curb future investment.

In a Washington Post op-ed on Friday, former United States Secretary of the Treasury, Larry Summers, argued that the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill risked overstimulating the economy and stoking inflation. Summers argued the program, mostly short-term spending to counter the effects of the COVID-19, could also consume political and economic space required for the long-term investments.

“The Biden plan is a vital step forward, but we must make sure that it is enacted in a way that neither threatens future inflation and financial stability nor our ability to build back better through public investment,”said Summers.

On Saturday, former IMF Chief Economist, Olivier Blanchard, backed Summers in several tweets.

Critics argue their fears are overblown. Counter-arguments fall broadly into three categories: firstly, inflation is less responsive to employment than it once was, secondly, it is difficult to estimate what constitutes excess stimulus, and, thirdly, that long-term investments could pay for themselves.

Inflation is less responsive to employment than it once was

Summers op-ed comes at a time when a vocal minority of economists are warning of higher inflation due to the combination of loose monetary policy, fiscal stimulus, and household’s pent-up savings.

In contrast, Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman argues that stimulus is unlikely to cause unsustainable inflation. His argument hinges on the Phillips curve, the supposed inverse relationship between inflation and unemployment which has guided macroeconomic policy making since the 1960s. For decades, economists thought targeting low unemployment with stimulus would only accelerate inflation, as in-demand workers bargained for higher wages, and raised prices.

Krugman points to new research which suggests that the Philips curve is actually “flat,” and low unemployment is unlikely to significantly increase inflation. As long as the Federal Reserve keeps inflation expectations stable, there is little risk a “hot” economy will generate inflation by itself.

Markets show no sign of expecting higher inflation. According to David Beckworth, Senior Research Fellow at Mercatus, “Markets have skin in the game and have already priced in a large Biden relief package. And yet, no evidence of overheating as far as the eye can see.”

Others, like Slate’s Jordan Weissmann, argue that the structural conditions for inflation are weaker now than in the past. Global supply chains, alternatives to oil, weak unions, and independent central banks mean low unemployment is unlikely to translate into higher wages and prices quickly.

The difficulty in estimating the output gap

In a recession, government stimulus hopes to close the “output gap” between what economies can hypothetically produce – “potential output” – and reality. Theoretically, too much stimulus could exceed potential output and lead to inflation as companies scramble to meet outsized demand.

But for sceptics, measures of potential output are notoriously unreliable; it cannot be observed directly, only retrospectively. The Congressional Budget Office, which produces these estimates, has been wrong before. As a result, Summers’ critics treat his claim that the proposed stimulus will be excessive with caution. “Nobody actually knows what our potential output really is,” said Weissman.

Self-financing long-term investments

During Biden’s Presidential campaign, a $2 trillion dollar plan was announced to accelerate the transition to clean energy. For summers and others, the size of the COVID-19 package will exhaust the economic capital needed for those long-term investments.

Others have responded by arguing investments into climate, transport, and infrastructure pay for themselves. “Compared with other major infrastructure projects in U.S. history, and these projects will give back more than they cost,” said economist Noah Smith in a recent Bloomberg column

These debates take place in the shadow of the Obama administration. In 2009, concerns about debt led the administration to downsize its post-financial-crisis stimulus. For some, the slow recovery cost Obama control of the House in 2010.

The Biden administration wants to avoid a similar situation by going big straight out the gate. Summers’ role in rejecting proposals for a larger stimulus package in 2009 have made him a target for a new generation of progressive economists. Expect these debates to continue.

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