So like many other fellow bloggers, amateur economists, savant economists, and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, I have my copy of Capital. This time the author is Thomas Piketty and not Mr. Marx though. I am yet to read the book- not sure if I will ever get to it amidst semester ending, grading and fulfilling research requirements. So I wanted to get a quick take on what macroeconomists have to say about the book. Not surprisingly, Steve Williamson had a post- but he was yet to read the book. So I guess we will have to wait for his critical comments or not as he is more into figuring out what Fed should be doing! Meanwhile this following comment by Tony on Steve’s post provides a good critical view:
Piketty’s book does not contain explicit references (to the best of my knowledge) to the two-decade-old body of work on macroeconomics and inequality beginning with Huggett and Aiyagari. Neither does the book’s online appendix, but if you follow the links provided in this appendix to other papers that Piketty and co-authors have written you will find references to some of this work. (That does not count as a citation in my book but it shows at least that Piketty is evidently aware of some of this work.) But for reasons that are unclear to me Piketty does not seem persuaded by papers like Castaneda, Diaz-Gimenez, and Rios-Rull (JPE, 2003) which match most of the facts about U.S. income and wealth inequality with parameters calibrated more-or-less reasonably. Instead in his book (which I have still not yet finished) and in a very recent paper (April 2014) with Zucman he seems to favor fairly mechanical models with multiplicative shocks to individual wealth accumulation. These models generate power laws for the upper tails with coefficients that evidently depend on the now-infamous “r-g” (i.e., the difference between the interest rate and the growth rate). But he does not make much of an attempt to calibrate them as do Benhabib et al (Econometrica et al, 2011). My overall impression so far is that Piketty does not really engage the existing literature on income and wealth inequality. Maybe this is because he focuses almost exclusively on the upper upper right tail of the wealth distribution (not just the top 1% but the top 0.1%). Krusell and Smith and Castaneda et al and others do a pretty good job of matching the top 1% but perhaps (and I am not sure about this) less well on the top 0.1%. But then in his book he makes bizarre statements like “the profession [has an] undue enthusiasm for simplistic mathematical models based on so-called representative agents”. He knows this is not true! (He was even a discussant for Quadrini and Rios-Rull’s forthcoming chapter on “Inequality in Macroeconomics” in the Handbook of Income Distribution.) Inexcusable.
There is also this article from 2012 on VOX that might interest you. And as the famous econblogger Noah Smith once tweeted: stop spelling Piketty as Picketty ;)
I came across this news item from CNBC about Bernanke and Rajan face-off and that was enough to break the long blogging hiatus! Rajan raises an important question that should be addressed given today’s closely connected economic systems. In the context of unconventional monetary policies, he asks “If the policy hurts the rest of the world more than it helps the United States, should this policy be pursued?” This question is important because there has been a lot of debate about the domestic impact of Fed’s QE policies , but not much has been said about the effects of such policies on emerging market economies. In fact, Rajan puts it quite bluntly when he criticizes “the Fed for failing to mention turmoil in emerging economies in its January 2014 policy statement, sending “the probably unintended message that those markets were on their own,” a sentiment reinforced by public comments by regional Fed bank presidents.” (Source)
While some macroeconomists and even the new Fed Chairman continue to argue about the favorable effects of QE and the eventual low interest rate regime, there has been a convincing argument against it made by New Monetarists like Stephen Williamson here and more informally here. The infromal argument in short goes somewhat like this: if money competes as means of payments with other assets playing similar role (shadow banking) and if QE is increasing their prices, then the only way money can retain value is if inflation goes down. So we have an imminent danger of Japaneese style stagnation as the lowering of interest rates and increase in value of money creates a liquidity trap. This is quite apparent in the data and hence quite surprising that Fed continues to neglect it when it comes to policy making. Thus, given that the benefits of QE for the US itself are circumspect or unclear at best, Rajan’s criticism seems valid and timely. Of course, Bernanke did not take it well- he does not want any blemish on his legacy! Not sure what to think of his argument about QE being demand augmenting as suggested by required exchange rate intervention.
Notwithstanding this face-off between two first rate scholar central bankers, something definitely needs to be thought about policy making in an interconnected world economy-especially in case of the US who supplies the world’s most prominent reserve currency and the general shortage of safe assets as argued by Caballero. It looks like there was some talk about this in Kansas City Fed in 2012, the Jackson Hole symposium in 2013, and very recently at the IMF. Rajan’s proposal in this regard seems interesting and worth researching. He sees “merit in assigning the International Monetary Fund or a similar institution the responsibility of assessing the spillover effects of major central banks policies – much as the World Trade Organization does with trade rules – but acknowledged this isn’t politically viable.”
Whether, such a solution is possible or not, the argument against activist monetary policy favoring low interest rates has never been stronger than now. As James Bullard suggests here, there is a strong evidence that low interest rates may have prolonged the recession that started in August 2007, when firms speculated in the international oil markets using the abundantly available cheap funds and literally engineered an oil price shock! Of course, real data available to Fed at that time did not reflect this and significantly understated the extent of actual recession. Talk about lags in policy making eh!
Despite the awful arctic cold wave, attending ASSA 2014 in Philadelphia was a delight as it is every year! The sheer amount of energy and enthusiasm that comes from such a large professional gathering is really unparalleled. Economists also seem to be getting better at entertaining themselves, if this year’s music and humor sessions are any indicator. But most off all, for me, the highlights were AEA/AFA luncheon with the recent Nobel Laureates Ms. Fama, Shiller and Hansen :) and continuing education series on Economic Growth.
Due to illness, Fama could not actually make it to the luncheon but he was ably represented by his long time coauthor Ken French. The conversations were well facilitated by Luigi Zingales of Chicago Booth. Some interesting highlights:
On bubbles: There is nothing called as bubbles- there is only volatility in asset prices.
Take on market efficiency: Bob Shiller thinks that efficiency of markets is only half truth but nonetheless a very significant one. Hansen responded by saying that the function of financial markets is aiding resource allocation in the economy. Hence, the more important question is about its role in promoting allocative efficiency. This, according to me, is one of the clearer statements of how economists should look at the process of financial intermediation.
While elaborating on the half truth comment, Shiller, who came across as an extremely soft spoken yet a very candid speaker, said that any profession should be wary of ‘group think’. This refers to the blind spots that professionals develop to obvious gaps in understanding a phenomenon as more and more people buy into the dominant thinking framework. That was a very interesting point.
Optimal Investment Strategy: If markets cannot be predicted, what should be the optimal investment strategy? According to Shiller, people should seek advice from paid professionals and there should be more of them available.
The second interesting session I attended was ” What Macroeconomists should know about finance?”. It was a panel discussion constituted by Markus Brunnermeier, Atif Mian, and Arvind Krishnamurthy. Some interesting points about macro-finance linkages that were made in this discussion were as follows:
1. Atif Mian: Debt matters for macro aggregates through:
- Asset Price Channel: asset prices declined faster in states where foreclosure laws are laxed.
- Aggregate Demand Channel: HH that suffer higher net wealth shocks cut back on spending. Higher level of leverage means that aggregate losses are going to be shared by levered households disproportionately. Decrease in demand leads to reduction in tradable and non tradable jobs.
- Financial Rigidity Channel: absence of state contingent debt. Rigidity in financial contracts. Hence, important question is why are private contracts not optimal from macro perspective.
- Endogenous risk = systemic risk
- Multiple asset prices- Do not respond in synchronous manner.
- Careful thought to Intermediary asset pricing is needed.
- Market segmentation: Importance looking at process of intermediation for macro.
- Changes in risk premia are not included in standard macro.
- Capital structure of financial firms is not irrelevant as macro assumes.
3. Markus Brunnermeier: Unfortunately I missed this presentation-I definitely blame it on cold weather ;)
The best part was the continuing education series on economic growth. Oded Galor and David Weil did an extremely good job of summarizing the existing research, commenting on intricacies of research designs and giving a clear picture of what we know about economic growth till now. Further, Galor’s Unified Growth Theory is a sure winner according to me. His paper on genetic diversity and comparative economic development was supremely exciting! You can access his research from his IDEAS page. You can access David’s research on health and economic growth here.
Update (January 11, 2014): Not sure why and how I missed this- Claudia Goldin’s Presidential address tops everything-you can watch it here.
Update (January 19, 2014): Interesting presentation on Railways and Famines in India. Check it out here.
This is fascinating stuff! John Cochranne urges us to call spade a spade and be done with it in this very interesting blog post: New vs Old Keynesian stimulus. Then you have Steve Williamson commenting on Cochranne here: John Cochranne and Keynesian Economics, while Nick Rowe adds his own views on these differences here: On understanding and spinning your own New Keynesian model.
You can find John’s extremely insightful paper here: New Keynesian Liquidity Trap.