The Short Run is Short

I’m a fan of Scott Sumner, NGDP level targeting, and many of the ideas of market monetarism in general. However, unlike many of those who support these ideas, I am pessimistic that QE3 will fix the economy, and I worry that too much celebration by market monetarists over the structure of easing will only serve to undermine what remains good in market monetarism if and when the economy fails to recover quickly. In particular, I think that many commentators fail to appreciate the mainstream macroeconomic distinction between short run and long run analysis, and that many economists overestimate how long the short run lasts.

The case for stimulus is based in monetary non-neutrality. If we double the money supply, the real productive capacity of the economy does not increase—real productive capacity has nothing to do with monetary factors. However, because people are tricked, and because some wages, prices, and contracts don’t adjust instantaneously, output may go up briefly. Business owners see an increase in nominal demand for their products and mistakenly assume that it is an increase in real demand. They see this as a profit opportunity, so they expand production. As prices, wages, and contracts adjust to the new money supply and their assumption is revealed to be false, they cut back on production to where they were before.

If we view the recession as a purely nominal shock, then monetary stimulus only does any good during the period in which the economy is adjusting to the shock. At some point during a recession, people’s expectations about nominal flows get updated, and prices, wages, and contracts adjust. After this point, monetary stimulus doesn’t help.

Obviously, there is no signal that is fired to let everyone know that the short run is over, so reasonable people can disagree about how long the short run lasts. But I think there is good reason to think that the short run is over—it is short, after all.

My first bit of evidence is corporate profits. They are at an all time high, around two-and-a-half times higher in nominal terms than they were during the late 1990s, our last real boom.

If you think that unemployment is high because demand is low and therefore business isn’t profitable, you are empirically mistaken. Business is very profitable, but it has learned to get by without as much labor.

A second data point is the duration of unemployment. Around 40 percent of the unemployed have been unemployed for six months or longer. And the mean duration of unemployment is even longer, around 40 weeks, which means that the distribution has a high-duration tail.

Now, do you mean to tell me that four years into the recession, for people who have been unemployed for six months, a year, or even longer, that their wage demands are sticky? This seems implausible.

A third argument I’ve heard a lot of is that mortgage obligations have remained high—sticky contracts—while income has gone down. Garett Jones endorses this as a theory of monetary non-neutrality, and I agree. In fact, I beat him to it. But just because debt can make money non-neutral in the short run does not mean that we are still in the short run.

In fact, there is good evidence that here too we are out of the short run. Household debt service payments as a percent of disposable personal income is lower than it has been at any point in the last 15 years.

Yes, this graph includes mortgage payments.

So what is the evidence that we are still in the short run? I think a lot of people assume that because unemployment remains above 8 percent, we must be in the short run. But this is just assuming the conclusion. There are structural hypotheses for higher unemployment, but even if unemployment is cyclical, it doesn’t mean that monetary adjustment has failed to occur—real sector recalculation may just take longer than monetary recalculation.

Again, I favor NGDP targeting, but it is most effective when it is done simultaneously with the nominal shock. Evan Soltas points to the case of Israel, and indeed, the Israelis did it right. But it seems like wishful thinking to assume that four to five years after a nominal shock, you can fix the economy with monetary stimulus.

I would be delighted to be wrong. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see a slight decrease in unemployment as the result of QE3. But I would be surprised if we experience a plummeting of unemployment in the next two years down to what we previously thought of as “normal” levels of around 5 percent. Yes, it is good that the Fed is now using the expectations channel, but it did it four to five years too late, and there’s little theory or evidence its failure can be easily reversed.

UPDATE: I reply to my critics here.

27 replies to “The Short Run is Short

  1. Pingback: Are we still in the short run?

  2. marris

    > If you think that unemployment is high because demand is low and therefore business isn’t profitable, you are empirically mistaken. Business is very profitable, but it has learned to get by without as much labor.

    Hmm… I’m not sure whether this is a brilliant insight or an incorrect one.

    My understanding of the standard Keynesian spiral story is that people don’t want to spend, and business investors, predicting low returns on investment, decide to slow investment spending.

    The author here points out that businesses are profitable… so is business investment up? Are companies actually spending lots of money on non-labor factors? Or is it the case that their capacity is still underutilized, even in this profitable environment?

    The debt repayment graph is also interesting. Does the falling repayment percent imply that we are no longer in Fisher-style debt deleveraging mode? The graph shows personal debt repayment. Is there similar data for business debt repayments?

  3. Patrick R. Sullivan

    ‘…I am pessimistic that QE3 will fix the economy….’

    So is Scott, he just said that the Fed already had enough bonds to hit a higher NGDP target, and has missed an opportunity with this announcement.

    But, eyeballing your corporate profits graph, it doesn’t look as though they are back to trend.

  4. Eli Post author

    Patrick, Scott is not one of the over-celebrators I had in mind. More his disciples.

    And corporate profits are back to trend only if trend is 15% growth per year. That doesn’t seem plausible.

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  6. Charlie

    Why are businesses sitting on so much cash? My explanation is that the real rate of interest is not low enough to clear the market. [All structural explanations can be grouped as disagreeing with that statement] So what happened when the Fed announced QE3? The real rate of interest went even lower (more negative, TIPS prices jumped). So it looks like, we are still suffering from monetary disequilibrium. That is, if expected inflation were higher, the real rate of interest would be lower and the market will clear.

    You can replace businesses with basically any unit and the story doesn’t change. Looking at TIPS, it fits the market monetarist story. The effect of this change is probably not that large though.

    Here is on measure of TIPS (if someone knows these markets better and can separate the shorter duration TIPS that would be helpful):

    http://finance.yahoo.com/echarts?s=TIP+Interactive#symbol=tip;range=20120910,20120919;compare=;indicator=volume;charttype=area;crosshair=on;ohlcvalues=0;logscale=off;source=undefined;

    Technical note: The market clearing real interest rate isn’t really independent of monetary policy, but if anything, it should be increasing in a marginal move like this one. That is, if anything it’s biasing against the observed effect (long rates that aren’t stuck at the zero bound should rose on this move).

  7. Jon Stokes

    If demand is so strong, then why are businesses sitting on record amounts of cash? Why aren’t they using that cash to expand their operations to meet all of this demand? You have to answer these questions before you can claim that we are not suffering from soft demand.

  8. Greg Kemnitz

    My guess is businesses don’t see a lot of good opportunities now, and this is anecdotally confirmed by my wife’s experience in the past couple of years: she’s a business broker, and the past two years are her worst years – by far – since she started in 1999. And we’re in what is held to be a regional bright spot in the economy in the heart of Silicon Valley. (Business brokers are basically real-estate agents for small businesses; if you want to buy or sell a restaurant – with or without land – you may work with a business broker.) Very few people are interested in buying restaurants or other small businesses, even if they have cash (and many do here).

    My guess is bigger businesses are both getting unusual profits due to lack of start-up competition and are keeping the cash because they don’t see much opportunities to be had by plowing the cash into expansion or new lines of business. What money they do spend is on productivity enhancement, driving up profits but maintaining or reducing employment.

  9. johnberk

    Very interesting post Greg Kemnitz. I think you are right that the starting line is set differently for big businesses (aka corporations) and smaller ones. The biggest difference is their ability to evade taxes. Huge amount of corporate profits derive from successful tax evasion and outsourcing (one of the recent trends in Canada is credit unions approach for escaping new mortgage rules).

    Another problem is that labor is no longer the best way how to increase your profits. If you want to be rich, focus on financial operations, not on creating something real!

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