I recently talked about some of these issues with Adair Turner, and I thought I might write up my version of the story so far (just to be clear, Adair bears no responsibility for any errors or confusion in what follows). In brief, there is a case for believing that the problem of maintaining adequate aggregate demand is going to be very persistent – that we may face something like the “secular stagnation” many economists feared after World War II.
So, let’s start with the basic role of monetary policy in stabilizing the economy. Many, probably most macroeconomists – or at any rate those who think at all about policy – think of that role something like this:
Figure 1: Normal monetary policy
Here IS shows how overall real spending and hence the level of real GDP depends on the real interest rate. We think of the central bank as being able to set the real interest rate; its goal is to set that rate at a level that keeps the economy near potential output, which in turn is consistent with low and stable inflation. This is equivalent conceptually to setting the rate at the Wicksellian natural interest rate.
Not that long ago, macroeconomists were congratulating central bankers (and central bankers were, of course, congratulating themselves) over doing a pretty good job of getting this right. Inflation, occasional commodity shocks aside, was indeed low and stable, and from 1985 to 2007 the real economy was fairly stable too.
Inflation was good …
Then came catastrophe – and as so often happens, when the house collapses you find the skeletons that were lurking in the closet all along. The stability of prices and output masked an underlying unsustainable growth in leverage:
… but trouble was brewing: household liabilities as percent of GDP.
It was a Minsky moment waiting to happen, and happen it did. When the Minsky moment came, there was a rush to deleverage; this drove down overall demand for any given interest rate, and made the Wicksellian natural rate substantially negative, pushing us into a liquidity trap.
This meant that monetary policy could no longer do the job of stabilizing the economy: Central banks found themselves up against the zero lower bound. Fiscal policy could and should have helped, and automatic stabilizers did help mitigate the slump. But fiscal discourse went completely off the rails, and overall we had unprecedented austerity when we should have had stimulus.
So we’ve had an economic disaster – and our inability to avoid this disaster makes a mockery of all the self-congratulation of the years that preceded it. But how should pre-2008 policy have been different? And what should policy look like looking forward?
Read the whole article here.
Read the original article at The New York Times here.