Monday, December 15, 2008

Do Macroeconomists Know Anything?

When I was in graduate school getting a Ph.D. in economics, I had the hardest time passing my macroeconomics comprehensive exam. I found much of the material counterintuitive, and the mathematics more difficult than in microeconomics or the field exams that I took.

Well, now I have my revenge. Macroeconomists, and those in policy circles they have trained, aren’t coming off looking too good right now. Here is Marketwatch on the Fed running out of interest-rate ammunition in its attempt to get the U.S. economy moving again:

Rates are already very low and are not playing much part in the credit crunch that is strangling the economy.

Investors should know that the Fed still has plenty of ways to stimulate the economy, even with rates near or at zero, economists said.

The bottom line on Fed policy is supply of money. The Fed typically targets the price of money, but, with the price so low, it will focus on increasing the quantity of money through its balance sheet.

Vince Reinhart, a former senior Fed staffer who is now at the American Enterprise Institute, said the Fed will make a promise in its policy statement "to use the balance sheet to help foster economic recovery and better-functioning markets."

Macroeconomics is premised on the idea that there is this single entity called “the economy,” and “the economy” can be treated the way a diseased organ is. But “the economy” is really the coordination of the conflicting desires of 300 million people (or, nowadays, six billion people). At any moment, changes will leave some people worse off, some better off. Even now, recent economic changes are operating in favor of some people. Lower oil prices are making truck drivers better off, lower home prices are making homes more affordable, etc.

If the collective sum of everyone’s changed circumstances is on balance negative at any moment, we can defensibly talk about the abstraction called a “recession” or “depression.” It is no fallacy of composition to say the economy right now is on balance terrible. But it is such a fallacy to suppose that the remedy lies in treating the entire “economy.” Undergraduate textbooks still speak of how “spending” and “the economy” respond to particular actions by the government, in the same way a doctor can say how a bacterial infection will respond to an antibiotic. But the economy is not an organ; it is not even a body, in which all the parts generally work together to advance the prospects of reproductive success. Instead, it is a network of people both competing and cooperating as they try to advance their interests, based on the rules of the game. The macroeconomic measures of trouble we are observing are really the sum of millions of microeconomic mistakes (in conjunction with a smaller number of successes). Those mistakes have to be liquidated, no matter how painful it is.

There is a reason that interest rates have failed to do the trick, and that is that what we face is not a liquidity problem but an information problem. People are not yet certain how many financial bombs remain unexploded, and the only way out is to let them blow up so we can learn what we need to learn as fast as possible. There is no magic tool in the Fed’s workshop – not interest rates, not the “balance sheet,” not anything else – that will do what rate cuts have failed to do. Nor can any crude stimulus package coming out of Washington, which operates on the mistaken premise that some mistakenly conjured aggregate abstraction called “spending” is too low. (Large cuts in taxes would be somewhat more effective, not, as even a now-and-then smart economist like Paul Krugman argues, because spending will go up, but because politicized decisions about resource use will be replaced – in fact, more than replaced, because of greater incentives to take risks – by market ones.) Washington can however easily make things worse by constantly rewriting the rules of the game – voiding debts if the borrowers have enough political strength, bailing out this guy but not that, announcing a big spending program and leaving it to the future to figure out how to pay for it – etc. Political uncertainty multiplies market uncertainty. The unpredictable effects of both Congressional and Fed responses to current circumstances are making things worse.

All macroeconomic problems are fundamentally microeconomic problems, and the continued defiance of this fact by our ruling classes is costing us a fortune.

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