Monday, December 15, 2008

Lessons on How to Beat Deflation Trap

As the United States is gearing up for additional massive efforts in both the areas of monetary and fiscal policy we need to listen to the experience of other nations who have gone through recent periods of economic distress. We need to understand, as well as possible, just how this modern recession/deflation thing works.

There is a very interesting interview with Masaaki Shirakawa, a governor of the Bank of Japan, in the Financial Times today ( One of the important things about this interview is the emphasis it puts on understanding what is happening in different sectors of the economy instead of just focusing on aggregate information. This has importance in understanding how recessions begin as well as for understanding the depth and length of recessions.

One of the problems with modern macroeconomics, as discussed in my review of Paul Krugman’s “The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008” appearing on Seeking Alpha on December 9, 2008, is that macroeconomists want to focus on aggregates and not what makes up the aggregates. For example, capital is defined by one of the most popular text books on macroeconomics as “the sum of all the machines, plants, and office buildings in the economy.” And, all these component parts are perfectly and costlessly interchangeable.

The difficulty with this is, according to Governor Shirakawa, is that it does not allow for an understanding of the “imbalances” and “dislocations” that evolve during an economic expansion or during asset bubbles. Thus, when the economy is expanding the monetary authority needs to “watch carefully whether the broadly defined imbalances are accumulating or not.”

Furthermore, during these times, risk-taking and financial leverage tend to expand dramatically. It is not just aggregate demand or supply that is important in understanding the evolution of the economy but also what is happening in various sectors of the economy and how the financial structure needs to unwind.

And, experience has shown that these imbalances occur even when things like the consumer price index is behaving well. “Very often in recent decades we experienced a situation in which imbalances are accumulating, despite the fact that the inflation rate is quite subdued.” He continues that “Inflation targeting is one part of a good framework to explain monetary policy. But if inflation targeting creates the social presumption that the central bank can look at consumer price inflation alone, then it might have some unintended effect of helping the creation of a bubble.” That is, asset prices in different markets, housing, stocks, and so forth, must be observed also.

Why is it important to understand this?

We need to understand this because it points to the fact that recessions or periods of deflation cannot be handled by just appeals to pumping up aggregate demand. We need to understand that the previous upswing created imbalances, bubbles, dislocations, over-investment and these previous decisions cannot just be dissolved by assuming that all capital investment is alike and that stimulating aggregate demand is not the only thing that needs to be done.

But, Governor Shirakawa argues, this does not mean that monetary or fiscal policies are not needed in combating deflation and turning the economy around. Both are a part of a sound strategy to get the economy going in the right direction.

What is also important is a focus on the imbalances and dislocations that were created in the previous run-up. The policy makers need to understand how the various sectors are working themselves out and what, if any, bumps in the road lie ahead.

For example, the prime example of the ‘asset bubble’ just experienced is the housing industry. Until the summer of 2006, the housing market was ‘riding high’ with housing prices and housing starts seeming like they would never stop. Yet they did and housing prices have dropped steadily ever since. How far will they drop? Some analysts say that housing prices must drop to at least 50% of their peak value. Also, the picture gets even darker when one observes that there are still two major clouds hanging over the future. Both are related to the ‘financial innovations’ of the 1990s…major amounts of Alt-A mortgages and the Payment-Option ARMS are going to re-price over the next two to three years. The peak in housing foreclosures and personal bankruptcies is not expected to arrive for at least a year from now.

Another example is the financial industry. Tremendous losses have already been taken by banks and others, yet more are expected. The reason for this is that the banks still don’t fully comprehend the extent of the write-downs they are going to have to take on existing assets. Then, there is the fact that the banks have not yet seen the extent of the write downs connected with credit cards, auto loans, high-yield securities, and commercial and industrial loans. And, this doesn’t even consider the possible adjustments that will need to be made in the mortgage area mentioned in the previous paragraph. Mutual funds and hedge funds now are restricting investors who want to get their money back. And, then we are starting to see some of the fraud schemes surface that were a part of the recent credit inflation.

A further example is the auto industry (which also applies to other areas of manufacturing in the United States). I think everyone can agree that there are massive areas of imbalance and dislocation in this industry. Who is at fault? The auto executives? The labor unions? The politicians? The consumer? Everybody else? I don’t believe that any one person or group can be singled out as the cause of the problems in this industry.

But, I think that we can all agree that the problems are massive. These problems have to do with technology, innovation, out-of-date facilities, inappropriate pricing of resources, and other excesses that have been built into the structure over many years. Regardless of whether or not there is a bailout of this industry, it is going to take many years for the auto industry (and, I would argue many other areas of manufacturing in the United States) to really join the 21st century. Obviously, aggregate demand policies are not going to take care of the restructuring that is needed here.

Shirakawa summarizes: “Based on our experience, the world economy or the US economy needs the elimination of excesses. Of course the exact excesses vary from country to country…In today’s US for instance, housing is excessive; household debt is also excessive—I don’t know by how much, but anyways ‘excessive’ is there.”

“Negative feedback is now at work and I cannot give you a precise answer (to how long the global crisis is to run). What is crucial is to avoid a situation in which the adjustment leads to a serious downturn in the economy.”

In conclusion, there is no quick fix. The ‘excesses’, ‘imbalances’ and ‘dislocations’ in each sector must work themselves out. Monetary and fiscal policy may be able to soothe the pain…but they will not eliminate it. I tend to agree with Governor Shirakawa

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