Thursday, January 28, 2010

Monetary Comparison 2: Don't Drink and Derive

In a discussion about the Hayek/Keynes rap below over at Sumner's blog, I noticed a line in the rap that got me thinking a bit more about Sumner's story that monetary policy was tight in 2008. The video makes the Austrian point that easy money leads to an overheated economy until "the grasping for resources reveals there's too few" (4:45-4:50).
In other words, monetary policy was really loose until it was really tight.
I wrote to him: So the Hayekians (pop, real, snarky, trolling, or any other brand) ought to agree with your story that monetary policy was tight, even though they disagree with your proposed solution. Had the Fed loosened policy further in 2008, it wouldn’t have prevented anything, just prolonged the bubble, making way for a bigger bust.
The thing that I don’t see in the data for their story is a run up of inflation. I’ve never been able to take a steady, reliable 2% inflation rate and see a serious inflation throwing all price signals out of whack; top that with lowered inflation expectations you blog about at the time of the crash for a nice little cherry. I also don’t see the massive factor price adjustments in late 2008 that would have to be there. Does anyone else see it in the data? The only thing we see from the financial and monetary stimuli so far overshoots the government’s worst case scenario without stimulus (ala Mankiw’s plot).
A couple over-analyzed-analogy comments:

Bartenders are enablers, but they don’t force anyone to drink. Their job is to meet the volume of drink requests with sufficient alcohol. They don’t pour a row of shots and see who buys them, and the more they pour, the drunker they make everyone else. Getting drunk is largely demand driven.
Though I am a confirmed teetotaler, even I agree that most people don’t go crazy over a beer after work. In order to believe that steady 2% inflation (or even decreasing inflation) is a massive monetary stimulus that will give everyone a hangover, akin to the colorful bacchanalian festival in the film, you have to believe some pretty interesting things about how the body processes alcohol.
Sumner responds ironically:

I can’t wait to see the mother of all bubbles burst in Australia. They have a lot of bad karma by now, not letting NGDP fall since 1991.
I agree with you, I just don’t understand how mild, predictable, inflation would be such a problem. Good drinking analogy.
Another commenter expounds on Austrian theory:
A better way to think of it is not the run up in inflation, but the mis-alignment of savings and borrowing. If high growth is being financed out of high aggregate borrowing coming from high aggregate savings rate, then you don’t necessarily get a big bust. If the high growth is being financed out of borrowing that is financed from money creation, four things happen (and do usually).
1) It is paid off with the creation of new wealth
2) It is paid off with the devaluation of real assets (like houses)
3) It is paid off with the devaluation of real assets (like debt, and money)
4) If its paid off by creation of new debt
(1) always happens on its own, (2) is what deflationists like Rothbard maximize. (3) is what monetarists to maximize, (4) Keynesians end up doing this, by using government debt.
The dilemma
Choosing (1) is very slow, so for the short term the others still come into play
Choosing (2) is extremely painful in the short term, and causes large amounts of instability and political harm.
Choosing (3) delays the problem and continues lowering savings
Choosing (4) ends up levering up more debt

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