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Saturday, October 24, 2015

'Central Banks Are Not Agricultural Marketing Boards'

Brad DeLong:

Central Banks Are Not Agricultural Marketing Boards: Depression Economics, Inflation Economics and the Unsustainability of Friedmanism: Insofar as there is any thought behind the claims of John Taylor and others that the Federal Reserve is engaged in “price controls” via its monetary policy actions. ...

Insofar as one did want to think, and so construct an argument that the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy operations are destructive and in some ways analogous to “price controls”, the argument would go something like this:

The Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee’s operations are like those of an agriculture marketing board–a government agency that sets the price for, say, some agricultural product like butter or milk. Some of what is offered for sale at that price that is not taken up by the private market, and the rest is bought by the government to keep the price at its target. And the next month the government finds it must buy more. And more. And more.

Such policies produce excess supplies that then must be stored or destroyed: they produce butter mountains, and milk lakes.

The resources used to produce the butter mountains and milk lakes is wasted–it could be deployed elsewhere more productively. The taxes that must be raised to pay for the purchase of the butter and milk that makes up the mountains and the lakes discourages enterprise and employment elsewhere in the economy, and makes us poorer. Taxes are raised (at the cost of an excess burden on taxpayers) and then spent to take the products of the skill and energy of workers and… throw them away. Much better, the standard argument goes, to eliminate the marketing board, let the price find its free-market equilibrium value, provide incentives for people to move out of the production of dairy products into sectors where private demand for their work exists, and keep taxes low.

Now you can see that a central bank is exactly like an agricultural marketing board, except for the following little minor details:

  1. An agricultural marketing board must impose taxes to raise the money finance its purchases of butter and milk. A central bank simply prints–at zero cost–the money to finance its purchase of bonds.
  2. The butter mountains and milk lakes that the agricultural marketing board owns cannot be sold without pushing the price down below its free-market equilibrium and thus negating the purpose of the board. A central bank does not want to sell its bond mountains, but merely to collect interest and hold them to maturity, at which point they are simply money mountains.
  3. The butter mountains and milk lakes are useless for the agricultural marketing board: all it can do with them is simply watch them rot away. The bond mountain turns into a money mountain–seigniorage–which the central bank then gives to the government, which lowers taxes as a result.

So a central bank is exactly like an agricultural marketing board–NOT!!! They are identical–except that they are completely different.

But, somewhat smarter John Taylor and others might say, a central bank is like an agricultural marketing board. The extra money it puts into circulation when its bonds mature and it transfers profits to the government devalue and debauch the currency. It raises the real resources needed to finance its bond purchases by levying an “inflation tax” on money holders–by reducing the value of their cash just as an income tax reduces the (after-tax) value of incomes.

And I would agree, if the inflation comes. ...

But what if the inflation does not come? What if our economy’s phase is one of not Inflation Economics but Depression Economics, in which the central bank is not pushing the interest rate below its Wicksellian natural rate but is instead stuck trying to manage a situation in which the Wicksellian natural rate of interest is less than zero?

Then the analogies break down completely. Money-printing is then not an inflationary tax but instead a utility-increasing provision of utility services. Bond purchases do not create an overhang that cannot be sold without creating an opposite distortion from the optimal price but instead push the temporal slope of the price system toward what a benevolent central planner would want the temporal slope of the price level to be. ...

And let me offer all kudos to those like David Beckworth, Scott Sumner, and Jim Pethokoukis who are trying to convince their political allies of these points that I regard as basic and Wicksellian–cutting-edge macro from 125 years ago. But I think that Paul Krugman is right when he believes that they are going to fail. ...

    Posted by on Saturday, October 24, 2015 at 10:31 AM in Economics, Monetary Policy | Permalink  Comments (9)


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