Sunday, October 19, 2014

Alvin Hansen on Monetary Policy

The more you read in the history of macroeconomics and monetary theory, the more you find that current debates are reprises of arguments from 50, 100 or 200 years ago.

I’ve just been reading Perry Mehrling’s The Money Interest and the Public Interest, which  is one of the two best books I know of on this subject. (The other is Arie Arnon’s Monetary Theory and Policy Since David Hume and Adam Smith.) About a third of the book is devoted to Alvin Hansen, and it inspired me to look up some of Hansen’s writings from the 1940s and 50s. I was especially struck by this 1955 article on monetary policy. It not only anticipates much of current discussions of monetary policy — quantitative easing, the maturity structure of public debt, the need for coordination between the fiscal and monetary policy, and more broadly, the limits of a single interest rate instrument as a tool of macroeconomic management — but mostly takes them for granted as starting points for its analysis. It’s hard not to feel that macro policy debates have regressed over the past 60 years.

The context of the argument is the Treasury-Federal Reserve Accord of 1951, following which the Fed was no longer committed to maintaining fixed rates on treasury bonds of various maturities. [1] The freeing of the Fed from the overriding responsibility of stabilizing the market for government debt, led to scholarly and political debates about the new role for monetary policy. In this article, Hansen is responding to several years of legislative debate on this question, most recently the 1954 Senate hearings which included testimony from the Treasury department, the Fed Board’s Open Market Committee, and the New York Fed.

Hansen begins by expressing relief that none of the testimony raised
the phony question whether or not the government securities market is "free." A central bank cannot perform its functions without powerfully affecting the prices of government securities.
He then expresses what he sees as the consensus view that it is the quantity of credit that is the main object of monetary policy, as opposed to either the quantity of money (a non-issue) or the price of credit (a real but secondary issue), that is, the interest rate.
Perhaps we could all agree that (however important other issues may be) control of the credit base is the gist of monetary management. Wise management, as I see it, should ensure adequate liquidity in the usual case, and moderate monetary restraint (employed in conjunction with other more powerful measures) when needed to check inflation. No doubt others, who see no danger in rather violent fluctuations in interest rates (entailing also violent fluctuations in capital values), would put it differently. But at any rate there is agreement, I take it, that the central bank should create a generous dose of liquidity when resources are not fully employed. From this standpoint the volume of reserves is of primary importance.
Given that the interest rate is alsoan object of policy, the question becomes, which interest rate?
The question has to be raised: where should the central bank enter the market -short-term only, or all along the gamut of maturities?
I don’t believe this is a question that economists asked much in the decades before the Great Recession. In most macro models I’m familiar with, there is simply “the interest rate,” with the implicit assumption that the whole rate structure moves together so it doesn’t matter which specific rate the monetary authority targets. For Hansen, by contrast, the structure of interest rates — the term and "risk” premiums — is just as natural an object for policy as the overall level of rates. And since there is no assumption that the whole structure moves together, it makes a difference which particular rate(s) the central bank targets. What’s even more striking is that Hansen not only believes that it matters which rate the central bank targets, he is taking part in a conversation where this belief is shared on all sides.
Obviously it would make little difference what maturities were purchased or sold if any change in the volume of reserve money influenced merely the level of interest rates, leaving the internal structure of rates unaffected. … In the controversy here under discussion, the Board leans toward the view that … new impulses in the short market transmit themselves rapidly to the longer maturities. The New York Reserve Bank officials, on the contrary, lean toward the view that the lags are important. If there were no lags whatever, it would make no difference what maturities were dealt in. But of course the Board does not hold that there are no lags.
Not even the most conservative pole of the 1950s debate goes as far as today's New Keynesian orthodoxy that monetary policy can be safely reduced to the setting of a single overnight interest rate.

The direct targeting of long rates is the essential innovation of so-called quantitative easing. [2] But to Hansen, the idea that interest rate policy should directly target long as well as short rates was obvious. More than that: As Hansen points out, the same point was made by Keynes 20 years earlier.
If the central bank limits itself to the short market, and if the lags are serious, the mere creation of large reserves may not lower the long-term rate. Keynes had this in mind when he wrote: "Perhaps a complex offer by the central bank to buy and sell at stated prices gilt-edged bonds of all maturities, in place of the single bank rate for short-term bills, is the most important practical improvement that can be made in the technique of monetary management. . . . The monetary authority often tends in practice to concentrate upon short-term debts and to leave the price of long-term debts to be influenced by belated and imperfect re- actions from the price of short-term debts." ' Keynes, it should be added, wanted the central bank to deal not only in debts of all maturities, but also "to deal in debts of varying degrees of risk," i.e., high grade private securities and perhaps state and local issues.
That's a quote from The General Theory, with Hansen's gloss.

Fast-forward to 2014. Today we find Benjamin Friedman — one of the smartest and most interesting orthodox economists on these issues — arguing that the one great change in central bank practices in the wake of the Great Recession is intervention in a range of securities beyond the shortest-term government debt. As far as I can tell, he has no idea that this “profound” innovation in the practice of monetary policy was already proposed by Keynes in 1936. But then, as Friedman rightly notes, “Macroeconomics is a field in which theory lags behind experience and practice, not the other way around.”

Even more interesting, the importance of the rate structure as a tool of macroeconomic policy was recognized not only by the Federal Reserve, but by the Treasury in its management of debt issues. Hansen continues:
Monetary policy can operate on two planes: (1) controlling the credit base - the volume of reserve balances- and (2) changing the interest rate structure. The Federal Reserve has now backed away from the second. The Treasury emphasized in these hearings that this is its special bailiwick. It supports, so it asserts, the System's lead, by issuing short- terms or long-terms, as the case may be, according to whether the Federal Reserve is trying to expand or contract credit … it appears that we now have (whether by accident or design) a division of monetary management between the two agencies- a sort of informal cartel arrangement. The Federal Reserve limits itself to control of the volume of credit by operating exclusively in the short end of the market. The Treasury shifts from short-term to long-term issues when monetary restraint is called for, and back to short-term issues when expansion is desired.
This is amazing. It’s not that Keynesians like Hansen  propose that Treasury should issue longer or shorter debt based on macroeconomic conditions. Rather, it is taken for granted that it does choose maturities this way. And this is the conservative side in the debate, opposed to the side that says the central bank should manage the term structure directly.

Many Slackwire readers will have recently encountered the idea that the maturities of new debt should be evaluated as a kind of monetary policy. It's on offer as the latest evidence for the genius of Larry Summers. Proposing that Treasury should issue short or long term debt based on goals for the overall term structure of interest rates, and not just on minimizing federal borrowing costs, is the main point of Summers’ new Brookings paper, which has attracted its fair share of attention in the business press. No reader of that paper would guess that its big new idea was a commonplace of policy debates in the 1950s. [3]

Hansen goes on to raise some highly prescient concerns about the exaggerated claims being made for narrow monetary policy.
The Reserve authorities are far too eager to claim undue credit for the stability of prices which we have enjoyed since 1951. The position taken by the Board is not without danger, since Congress might well draw the conclusion that if monetary policy is indeed as powerful as indicated, nonmonetary measures [i.e. fiscal policy and price controls] are either unnecessary or may be drawn upon lightly.
This is indeed the conclusion that was drawn, more comprehensively than Hansen feared. The idea that setting an overnight interest rate is always sufficient to hold demand at the desired level has conquered the economics profession “as completely as the Holy Inquisition conquered Spain,” to coin a phrase. If you talk to a smart young macroeconomist today, you’ll find that the terms “aggregate demand was too low” and “the central bank set the interest rate too high” are used interchangeably. And if you ask, which interest rate?, they react the way a physicist might if you asked, the mass of which electron?

Faced with the argument that the inflation of the late 1940s, and price stability of the early 1950s, was due to bad and good interest rate policy respectively, Hansen offers an alternative view:
I am especially unhappy about the impli- cation that the price stability which we have enjoyed since February-March 1951 (and which everyone is justifiably happy about) could quite easily have been purchased for the entire postwar period (1945 to the present) had we only adopted the famous accord earlier …  The postwar cut in individual taxes and the removal of price, wage, and other controls in 1946 … did away once and for all with any really effective restraint on consumers. Under these circumstances the prevention of price inflation … [meant] restraint on investment. … Is it really credible that a drastic curtailment of investment would have been tolerated any more than the continuation of wartime taxation and controls? … In the final analysis, of course,  the then prevailing excess of demand was confronted with a limited supply of productive resources.
Inflation always comes down to this mismatch between “demand,” i.e. desired expenditure, and productive capacity.

Now we might say in response to such mismatches: Well, attempts to purchase more than we can produce will encourage increased capacity, and inflation is just a temporary transitional cost. Alternatively, we might seek to limit spending in various ways. In this second case, there is no difference of principle between an engineered rise in the interest rate, and direct controls on prices or spending. It is just a question of which particular categories of spending you want to hold down.

The point: Eighty years ago, Keynes suggested that what today is called quantitative easing should be a routine tool of monetary policy. Sixty years ago, Alvin Hansen believed that this insight had been accepted by all sides in macroeconomic debates, and that the importance of the term structure for macroeconomic activity guided the debt-issuance policies of Treasury as well as the market interventions of the Federal Reserve. Today, these seem like new discoveries. As the man says, the history of macroeconomics is mostly a great forgetting.

[1] I was surprised by how minimal the Wikipedia entry is. One of these days, I am going to start having students improve economics Wikipedia pages as a class assignment.

[2] What is “quantitative about this policy is that the Fed buys a a quantity of bonds, evidently in the hopes of forcing their price up, but does not announce an explicit target for the price. On the face of it, this is a strangely inefficient way to go about things. If the Fed announced a target for, say, 10-year Treasury bonds, it would have to buy far fewer of them — maybe none — since market expectations would do more of the work of moving the price. Why the Fed has hobbled itself in this way is a topic for another post.

[3] I am not the world’s biggest Larry Summers fan, to say the least. But I worry I’m giving him too hard a time in this case. Even if the argument of the paper is less original than its made out to be, it’s still correct, it’s still important, and it’s still missing from today’s policy debates. He and his coauthors have made a real contribution here. I also appreciate the Hansenian spirit in which Summers derides his opponents as "central bank independence freaks."


  1. I'm just an amateur but I read what Summers was saying in that paper in econoblogs before he presented it with his coauthors. They might have come across the idea - which seems sound to me - first at the blogs. I haven't read the paper so don't know if they credit anybody. You do say Hansen brought up the issue.

    Here's Roger Farmer who points to a paper by Hamiton and Wu in August:

    I forget who else blogged about it.

    But it makes sense to me even though I'm not the biggest Summers fan either. He was Obama's economic adviser, not the head of the Treasury who was Geithner.

    Since Summers won't come out and say it, who knows what happened. I would assume that the Fed knows what Treasury is doing and can compensate. If Treasury is "tightening" by altering term structures, why can't the Fed just loosen some more?

    It's the same with Obama's stimulus. In Summer's leaked memo to Obama, he lists all sorts of advice from various economists. "Senior Fed offficials" recommend $700 or so billion dollars in stimulus. So they'll just do $700 billion less of QE stimulus to compensate?

    I wonder if anywhere in the FOMC minutes they brought up what Geithner was doing.

    As you suggest in this post, I imagine a lot of this elite macro policymaking is more fly-by-the seat, haphazzard and uncoordinated - arbritary - than many of us would like to see or imagine.

    1. I haven't read the paper so don't know if they credit anybody. You do say Hansen brought up the issue.

      They don't credit Hansen. More importantly, they nowhere mention that what they are proposing was actual policy in the 1950s.

      He was Obama's economic adviser, not the head of the Treasury who was Geithner.

      Summers was previously Secretary of the Treasury, under Clinton. not sure why it matters?

      If Treasury is "tightening" by altering term structures, why can't the Fed just loosen some more?

      Because the Fed operates under a lot of political (and other) constraints. As you can see by picking up a newspaper, getting a majority of the FOMC on board for QE is a delicate negotiation. There's no reason to think that a shift in Treasury policy changes the political dynamic in an offsetting way. This is one reason why the monetarist view of central banks is unrealistic.

      So they'll just do $700 billion less of QE stimulus to compensate?

      I think the total impact of all QE has been quite a bit less than the equivalent of a shift in the primary balance $700 billion toward deficit.

      I imagine a lot of this elite macro policymaking is more fly-by-the seat, haphazzard and uncoordinated - arbritary - than many of us would like to see or imagine.

      Agreed. The puzzle is how so many people have convinced themselves that central banks are different.

  2. Good post. I went through Evsey Domar's 1944 paper on the burden of the debt. It's amazing how straightforward and useful the analysis was in that paper, when compared to recent analysis of fiscal policy. It's hard to see actual progress.

    I am somewhat skeptical about using the supply to adjust the term structure of interest rates. Interest rate markets are so deep, and the products so fungible, that it takes extremely radical shifts to make much of a difference. I did a lot of relative value analysis, and I never could make supply an important explanatory variable. You have to do things like stop issuing the 30-year bond entirely to make a difference.

    Also, coordination between the Fed and Treasury broke down in the 1960s, during Operation Twist. If they knew what they were doing in the 1940s and 1950s, they lost a lot of that knowledge by the 1960s.