Archive for the 'Investment' Category

Aug 26 2009

Inflation: a threat to fear now or a distant concern?

Fidelity Investments – Inflation: A Threat or Not? by Dirk Hofschire

I was surprised to receive an email from the company that manages my personal investments directing me to an article that I would be able to use in class. But this analysis by a vice president of Fidelity Investments offers and excellent, concise examination of the threat posed by inflation in America today. I will use excerpts from the article and present the ideas in a graphical form to help students better understand the situation faced by the US as it struggles to emerge from its deep recession.

Hofschire sets out to answer four questions about inflation:

1. Is inflation accelerating?
2. Why is higher inflation expected?
3. Why hasn’t inflation occurred yet?
4. When will inflation return?
5. How high will inflation go?

1. Is in flation accellerating:

In short, NO.

In June, the U.S. consumer price index (CPI) declined 1.2% (on a year-over-year basis), representing the biggest fall in prices since 1950.1 Much of the decline is attributable to the steep drop in energy prices over the past year, which may reverse itself in the second half of 2009 if crude-oil prices remain near current levels. However, core CPI—which excludes food and energy—was less than 1.8% in June, demonstrating little inflationary pressure in general

A combination of weak aggregate demand and low resource costs for firms has kept price levels down.  While total spending has falling (leftward shift of AD), firms’ costs of production have fallen (rightward shift of AS). Since total output fell we can see that national income (Y) is less in 2009 than in 2008. Since price level has fallen, we can see deflation.

Diagram 1:

25 8 blog post graphs_1

2. Why is higher inflation expected?

With little evidence of economic strength or cost-push inflation today, the concern now is that the monetarist economic view of the world sees inflation clouds on the horizon. The godfather of modern monetarist economic thought, Milton Friedman, once stated, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” What Friedman meant was that money—specifically changes in the supply and use of currency—was the primary driver for changes to price levels in an economy. Friedman informally defined inflation as “too much money chasing too few goods and services.” As a result, an excessive increase in the amount or use of money relative to economic output is the textbook prescription for inflation.

The inflation described above, and feared by Friedman and today’s monetarists is not of the cost-push type, rather the demand-pull variety. As the vast quantities of money injected by the US Fed work their way through the banking system and into the pockets of consumers and the hands of firm managers, eventually demand for America’s goods and services will rise. But in the current recession, the production of those goods and services has stagnated, meaning that once all this money starts getting spent, the competition among buyers for the limited output of producers will drive prices up.

Diagram 2:

25 8 blog post graphs_2

3. Why hasn’t inflation occurred yet?

…there remains considerable downward pressure on prices still in place, due to growing slack in the economy (i.e. underutilized resources, such as labor) and continued deleveraging by consumers and financial firms with heavy debt loads. With the unemployment rate at its highest level in 26 years and consumers saving more and spending less, there is little upward pressure on wages or prices for consumer goods.

Yes, the money supply has increased, which according to our answer to number 2 should lead to inflation. But not if the new money isn’t being spent! Banks with money from the Fed are holding onto their excess reserves instead of loaning them out, due to a prevailing lack of confidence in borrowers ability to repay loans during these hard economic times. If all the money the Central Bank is injecting in the economy is sitting idle, and resources such as labor, land and capital are under-employed, then there is little fear of cost-push nor demand-pull inflation.  Diagram 1 illustrates why inflation hasn’t occured yet.

The excess bank reserves thus represent both the potential for future inflation as well as the explanation for why rapid money growth has yet to create current inflation.

In short, money must be spent to drive inflation up. When households prefer savings to consumption and banks prefer liquidity to risk, inflation is only a distant fear.

4. When will inflation return?

Interestingly, the answer to this question can be summed up as: “hopefully sooner rather than later”. Despite popular belief, some inflation is considered a positive sign of economic growth. Just as deflation is the purveyor of doom and gloom (unemployment, uncertainty, low consumer and investor confidence, credit crunch, etc) inflation is a sign of health returning to the economy (improved confidence, rising employment, looser credit markets, expectations of future growth). Central Bankers like Bernanke will surely be showered with praise, while congressman will be quick to give credit to the fiscal stimulus package.

Whether the pick-up in money velocity leads to significantly higher inflation depends on how quickly the Fed pulls the reins back on the extraordinary credit it is currently providing. In theory, the Fed can take actions to reduce the size of its balance sheet and move back to a more appropriate level of money. In practice, due to the unprecedented expansion in the Fed’s balance sheet, this will be a challenge.

Just as it was the Fed”s and government’s job to get the party started through expansionary monetary and fiscal policies, it is equally important for policymakers to calm the party down should the level of inflation begin to rise.

Diagram 3:

25 8 blog post graphs_3

5. How high will inflation go?

Given the high level of slack (i.e. underutilized resources) likely to remain in the economy during the next two years, there also could be offsetting deflationary pressures lingering in the system. For example, the unemployment rate is expected to rise above 10% and not peak until sometime in 2010. Industrial capacity utilization rates are at their lowest level on record, which means a lot of unused capacity in the manufacturing sector. This slack must tighten considerably before upward pressure is placed on wages and other prices.

As a result of this downward pressure on wages, which remain the largest expense for corporations, it would appear a 1970s-style, double-digit inflation outburst remains unlikely in the short to medium term. Average weekly earnings for U.S. workers rose more than 7% annually during the period from 1975-1981 in which consumer price inflation averaged more than 9% and peaked at 14% in 1980.5 It is hard to foresee wage gains of that magnitude reinforcing inflation pressures during the next couple of years.

The 1970’s was a period of high inflation in the US, caused primarily by higher costs for firms rather than increasing demand for output. This “cost-push” inflation is unlikely to occur in today’s climate due to the high levels of unemployment and under-employment of labor, land and capital resources. This does not mean inflation won’t happen, just that it’s unlikely to look like the cost-push variety of the 1970’s.

Diagram 4:

25 8 blog post graphs_4

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Jun 10 2009

The almighty bond market: Niall Ferguson’s concerns about the US deficit explained

Harvard Economist Niall Ferguson appeared on CNN’s GPS with Fareed Zakaria over the weekend. Ferguson has stood out among mainstream economists lately in his opposition to the US fiscal stimulus package, an $880 billion experiment in expansionary Keynesian policy. While economists like Paul Krugman argue that Obama’s plan is not big enough to fill America’s “recessionary gap”, Ferguson warns that the long-run effects of current and future US budget deficits could lead the US towards economic collapse. This blog post will attempt to explain Ferguson’s views in a way that high school economics students can understand.

Government spending in the US is projected to exceed tax revenues by $1.9 trillion this year, and trillions more over the next four years. An excess of spending beyond tax revenue is known as a budget deficit, and must be paid for by government borrowing. Where does the government get the funds to finance its deficits? The bond market. The core of Ferguson’s concerns about the future stability of the United States economy is the situation in the market for US government bonds. According to Ferguson:

One consequence of this crisis has been an enormous explosion in government borrowing, and the US federal deficit… is going to be equivelant to 1.9 trillion dollars this year alone, which is equivelant to nearly 13% of GDP… this is an excessively large deficit, it can’t all be attributed to stimulus, and there’s a problem. The problem is that the bond market… is staring at an incoming tidal wave of new issuance… so the price of 10-year treasuries, the standard benchmark government bond… has taken quite a tumble in the past year, so long-term interest rates, as a result, have gone up by quite a lot. That poses a problem, since part of the project in the mind of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is to keep interest rates down

There’s a lot of information in Ferguson’s statements above. To better understand him, some graphs could come in handy. Below is a graphical representation of the US bond market, which is where the US government supplies bonds, which are purchased by the public, commercial banks, and foreigners. Keep in mind, the demanders of US bonds are the lenders to the US government, which is the borrower. The price of a bond represents the amount the government receives from its lenders from the issuance of a new bond certificate. The yield on a bond represents the interest the lender receives from the government. The lower the price of a bond, the higher the yield, the more attractive bonds are to investors. Additionally, the lower the price of bonds, the greater the yield, thus the greater the amount of interest the US government must pay to attract new lenders.

crowding-out_11

Ferguson says that the price of US bonds has “taken a tumble”. The increase of supply has lowered bond prices, increasing their attractiveness to investors who earn higher interest on the now cheaper bonds. Below we can see the impact of an increase in the quantity demanded for government bonds on the market for private investment.

crowding-out_3

Financial crowding-out can occur as a result of deficit financed government spending as the nation’s financial resources are diverted out of the private sector and into the public sector. Granted, during a recession the demand for loanable funds from firms for private investment may be so low that there is no crowding out, as explained by Paul Krugman here.

But crowding out is not Ferguson’s only concern. The increase in interest rates caused by the US government’s issuance of new bonds could lead to a decrease in private investment in the US economy, inhibiting the nation’s long-run growth potential. But the bigger concern is one of America’s long-run economic stability. If the Obama administration does not put forth a viable plan for balancing its budget very soon, the demand for US government bonds could fall, which would further excacerbate the crowding-out effect, and eliminate the country’s ability to finance its government activities. In other words, such a loss of faith could plunge the United States into bankruptcy.

crowding-out_21

Fareed Zakaria asks Ferguson:

“Is it fair to say that this bad news, the fact that we can’t sell our debt as cheaply as we thought, overshadows all the good news that seems to be coming?”

Ferguson’s reply:

The green shoots that are out there (referring to the phrase economists and politicians have been using to describe the signs of recovery in the US economy) seem like tiny little weeds in the garden, and what’s coming in terms of the fiscal crisis in the United States is a far bigger and far worse story.

Finally Fareed asks the question everyone wants to know:”What the hell do we do?”

Ferguson:

One thing that can be done very quickly is for the president to give a speech to the American people and to the world explaining how the administration proposes to achieve stabilization of American public finance… the administration doesn’t have that long a honeymoon period, it has very little time in which it can introduce the American public to some harsh realities, particularly about entitlements and how much they are going to cost. If a signal could be sent really soon to the effect that the administration is serious about fiscal stabilization and isn’t planning on borrowing another $10 trillion between now and the end of the decade, then just conceivably markets could be reassured.

Ferguson is saying that only if the Obama administration begins taking serious steps towards balancing the US government’s budget can it hope to stave off an eventual loss of faith among America’s creditors (and thus a fall in demand for US bonds). It will be a while before tax revenues are high enough to finance the US budget. But if the country does not begin working towards such an end immediately, it may find itself unable to raise the funds to pay for such public goods as infrastructure, education, health care, national defense, medical research, as well as the wages of the millions of government employees. In other words, the US government could be bankrupt, and its downfall could mean the end of American economic power.

The power of the bond market should not be underestimated. America’s very future depends on continued faith in its financial stability and fiscal responsibility.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do you think the US government has such a huge budget deficit this year? ($1.9 trillion) Previously, the largest budget deficit on record was only around $400 billion.
  2. How does the issuance of new bonds by the US government lead to less money being available to private households and firms?
  3. Do you think investors will ever totally lose faith in US government bonds? Why or why not?
  4. In what way is the government’s huge budget deficit a “tax on teenagers”? In other words, how will today’s teenagers end up suffering because of the federal budget deficit?

To learn more about the power of the bond market, watch Niall Ferguson’s documentary, The Ascent of Money. The section on the bond market can be viewed here:

100 responses so far

May 14 2009

A must read for AP Macro teachers: Paul Krugman explains why deficit spending during a recession does NOT cause crowding-out

Liquidity preference, loanable funds, and Niall Ferguson (wonkish) – Paul Krugman Blog – NYTimes.com

Below is the loanable funds market at its current equilibrium, according to Krugman (I is investment demand for funds, S is the supply of loanable funds):
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In Krugman’s words:

In effect, we have an incipient excess supply of savings even at a zero interest rate. And that’s our problem.

So what does government borrowing do? It gives some of those excess savings a place to go — and in the process expands overall demand, and hence GDP. It does NOT crowd out private spending, at least not until the excess supply of savings has been sopped up, which is the same thing as saying not until the economy has escaped from the liquidity trap.

In AP Macroeconomics, we teach that deficit-financed government expenditure decreases the supply of loanable funds as savers take their money out of commercial banks and invest in the bond market due to the attractive interest rates on government debt. Less funds available for the private sector drives up interest rates and crowds out private investment.

If the economy is producing close to the full-employment level and interest rates are positive, the decrease in supply of loanable funds can indeed drive up equilibrium interest rates and lead to the “crowding-out” of private investment. Krugman points out in this article that when the economy is at the “zero-bound” (i.e. when nominal interest rates are as low as they can go) and the quantity supplied of savings is still greater than the quantity demanded for investment, the government can effectively borrow from the public, decreasing the supply and correcting the surplus of savings without driving up interest rates in the private market. Put another way, the equilibrium interest rate is below zero, but the “zero-bound” acts as a price floor in the loanable funds market, resulting in a surplus of savings.

Government borrowing crowding out private investment is not something we can worry about during a recession, when low confidence and expectations have driven the supply of savings up and the demand for investment down. Public spending will divert funds from the private sector to the public sector, that’s true. But in today’s case, savings are sitting idle in the private sector, so government borrowing is putting those fund to use when the private sector has failed to do so.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does the supply of loanable funds (S in the graph above) slope upwards? Why does the demand for loanable funds (I in the graph) slope downwards?
  2. Deficit financed government spending decreases the supply of loanable funds. Why?
  3. Crowding-out is not the only possible down-side of deficit spending by the government. What are some other long-term effects of governments running budget deficits year after year?

26 responses so far

Feb 14 2009

Will the stimulus package “crowd-out” private investment and reduce long-run growth potential in America?

CBO Director’s Blog » Macroeconomic Effects of the Senate Stimulus Legislation

The February 9th edition of the excellent NPR show, Planet Money reported on a letter sent from the director of the Congressional Budget Office to the Senate, forecasting the short-run and long-run macroeconomic effects of the House Stimulus Package.

It turns out the director of the CBO has his own blog on which he published his letter to the Senate. Here are some highlights:

CBO estimates that the Senate legislation would raise output by between 1.4 percent and 4.1 percent by the fourth quarter of 2009; by between 1.2 percent and 3.6 percent by the fourth quarter of 2010; and by between 0.4 percent and 1.2 percent by the fourth quarter of 2011. CBO estimates that the legislation would raise employment by 0.9 million to 2.5 million at the end of 2009; 1.3 million to 3.9 million at the end of 2010; and 0.6 million to 1.9 million at the end of 2011…

Most of the budgetary effects of the Senate legislation would occur over the next few years. Even if the fiscal stimulus persisted, however, the short-run effects on output that operate by increasing demand for goods and services would eventually fade away. In the long run, the economy produces close to its potential output on average, and that potential level is determined by the stock of productive capital, the supply of labor, and productivity. Short-run stimulative policies can affect long-run output by influencing those three factors, although such effects would generally be smaller than the short-run impact of those policies on demand.

In contrast to its positive near-term macroeconomic effects, the Senate legislation would reduce output slightly in the long run, CBO estimates, as would other similar proposals. The principal channel for this effect is that the legislation would result in an increase in government debt.  To the extent that people hold their wealth in the form of government bonds rather than in a form that can be used to finance private investment, the increased government debt would tend to “crowd out” private investment—thus reducing the stock of private capital and the long-term potential output of the economy.

The negative effect of crowding out could be offset somewhat by a positive long-term effect on the economy of some provisions—such as funding for infrastructure spending, education programs, and investment incentives, which might increase economic output in the long run. CBO estimated that such provisions account for roughly one-quarter of the legislation’s budgetary cost. Including the effects of both crowding out of private investment (which would reduce output in the long run) and possibly productive government investment (which could increase output), CBO estimates that by 2019 the Senate legislation would reduce GDP by 0.1 percent to 0.3 percent on net.

The fascinating thing about this letter from the Congressional Budget Office to the Senate is that it mentions so many of the Macroeconomic principles we teach in both AP and IB Economics.

  • The nation’s potential output (PPC) is “determined by the stock of productive capital, the supply of labor, and productivity”.
  • Fiscal stimulus’ effects, while possibly significant in the short-run, may result in less long-run growth due to “crowding-out” of private investment as the public puts its savings into government debt and takes it out of the market for loanable funds.
  • A stimulus package should be made up of “funding for infrastructure spending, education programs, and investment incentives, which might increase economic output in the long run.” The negative effects of crowding-out could be offset through responsible government spending.

I find this letter to be surprisingly positive. The short-run forecast seems optimistic: as much as 3.6% GDP growth and as many as 3.9 million new jobs by the end of 2010. The negative growth effects of the stimulus resulting from increased government debt and the subsequent “crowding-out” of private investment are not predicted to set in until 2019.

I always tell my students that humans are “short-run creatures living in a long-run world”. I have to admit, this short-run creature is inclined to think that a stimulus package that puts nearly 4 million people to work and turns the US Economy back onto a path towards growth within two years is probably worth the long-run risk of sluggish growth ten years down the road due to the decline in private investment resulting from the debt-financed spending today.

This letter from the CBO also seems to address a debate recently undertaken in the AP Economics teacher email list: whether deficit-financed government spending affects the supply of or the demand for loanable funds in the economy.

To the extent that people hold their wealth in the form of government bonds rather than in a form that can be used to finance private investment, the increased government debt would tend to “crowd out” private investment—thus reducing the stock of private capital and the long-term potential output of the economy.

This passage from the director’s letter indicates that it is the supply, not the demand for loanable funds that shifts, driving up real interest rates in the economy. Savers will take their money out of banks and other lending institutions and put it in government bonds, reducing the amount of capital available for private investment. This can be illustrated as a leftward shift of the supply of loanable funds.

Discussion questions:

  1. In evaluating the use of expansionary fiscal policy, we learn in IB Economics that the crowding-out of private investment will reduce the expansionary effect of increased government spending. Is crowding-out a problem during a recession? Why or why not?
  2. Discuss the following statement: “In order to finance its budget deficit, the US government must borrow from the private sector.” How does the government borrow from the American people?
  3. Will fiscal stimulus in the short-run lead to increased growth or decreased growth in the long-run? Discuss.

200 responses so far

Nov 05 2008

Up, up, and away! Why are the dollar and the yen on the rise?

Chart for JPY to USD (JPYUSD=X)In the last three months, the Japanese Yen has appreciated 15% against the US dollar. At the same, the dollar itself has appreciated 25% against the euro.

The appreciation of these two major currencies seems strange in a time when both country’s economies are experiencing major slowdowns. In most cases, currencies appreciate when one of two things happens:

  • If foreigners demand more of a country’s exports, demand for its currency drives up its value, causing appreciation.
  • If a country’s interest rates rise relative to other country’s, then demand for its currency rises as investors want to buy assets in that country to earn the higher interest rates.

Lately, however, the Yen and the Dollar have seen staggering rises in the absence of rising exports or rising interest rates in Japan or the US. So what IS causing the rapid and drastic appreciation of these two currencies? The Economist newspaper explains:

Many investors have been following a version of the “carry trade”, borrowing money in a low-yielding currency. All they had to do was earn a higher return from assets than the cost of their financing. Since the two big currencies with the lowest yields over the past year have been the dollar and the yen, those were the natural ones to borrow.

When asset prices fall, however, this strategy is disastrous. Investors dash to sell assets and repay their debts. Since those debts were incurred in dollars and yen, that means they have to buy back those two currencies—hence their sharp recent rises.

In the midst of today’s global financial meltdown, it seems that every day, phenomena new to mainstream economic theory are being witnessed. It would seem that from now on, when we learn about the determinants of exchange rates, we may have to take a look at the “carry trade” example.

In this case, it would seem, LOW interest rates combined with falling stock prices can lead to a currency’s appreciation. An investor looking to make a deal would borrow Yen from a Japanese bank charging low interest rates, convert it to, let’s say Brazilian real, to buy stocks in a Brazilian company. As long as the stocks gain value at a rate higher than the interest rate in Japan, the investor is making an easy profit. He can pay back the money he borrowed from Japan at the low interest rate, earn a high return on his investment in Brazil, and pocket the difference.

The problem arises when the value of the assets the investor has bought in Brazil begins to fall. With stock markets plummeting between 20-50% this year in most countries, asset values have fallen through the floor, meaning those investors who borrowed yen to buy foreign assets have rushed to sell the falling assets as quickly as possible to pay back their Japanese lenders before it’s too late. This causes a huge increase in demand for Yen on foreign exchange markets in a very short period, hence the yen’s appreciation.

Recently, the Yen and USD have managed to appreciate for a reason not conventionally understood. The rapid and drastic appreciation of these currencies is further exacerbating the weak aggregate demand in Japan and the US. A strong currency, while good for consumers for whom imports appear cheaper, can have debilitating effect on a country’s export sector. Not surprisingly, both the US Fed and the Japanese central bank have both cut interest rates in the last week in the hope of slowing their currency’s appreciation and protect export demand.

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