Monday, September 1, 2014
13

四面楚歌的央行行长

芝加哥—可怜的本·伯南克!作为美国联邦储备委员会主席,在最近一段时间里,他比其他任何央行行长更加积极地试图使用货币政策刺激经济。他已将短期利率调低到了极限水平。他已经采用了创新性货币宽松办法。他一次又一次地重复说,通胀压力能够被控制,他的主要担忧在于美国失业率。但激进派经济学家仍然炮轰伯南克做得不够。

他们还想伯南克怎么样呢?提高目标通胀率,他们说,这样世界就太平了。当然,这将与美联储的立场背道而驰,后者一直在努力让公众相信它将把通胀维持在2%左右。这一立场的可信度是美联储采取积极举措的基础:很难想象,美联储将其资产负债表扩张到让公众不再相信其通胀目标的程度会怎么样。既然如此,那些经济学家为什么还希望美联储牺牲掉好不容易得来的成果呢?

答案在于他们对持续高失业根源的看法:过高的真实利率。此种逻辑十分简单。2008年金融危机爆发以前,消费者利用上涨的房价大量举债,撑起了美国的需求。如今,这些负债累累的家庭不再能够通过借钱来应付开支了。

总需求的一大重要源头已经蒸发殆尽。随着消费者不再买东西,真实(经通胀调整的)利率应该下降以鼓励节俭家庭增加支出。但真实利率没有降到位,因为名义利率不可能低于零。美联储可以通过增加通胀率将真实利率拉低到远低于零的水平,从而强迫节俭家庭停止储蓄、开始消费。随着需求的增加,企业将开始招聘新人,一切都睡随之好起来。

与将通胀作为降低长期债务的办法(以投资者蒙受损失为代价)比起来,这是个完全不同的逻辑,但一样站不住脚。首先,低利率在信贷宽松时也许能够刺激支出,但在今天的环境下传统储蓄者会不会出去花钱很难说。以快要退休的员工为例。他之所以储蓄,是为了存足够的钱退休后用。自2007年以来,储蓄的回报率低得可怜,利率持续保持低位可能促使他储蓄更多的钱。

低利率也可能促使他(或他的退休基金)购买高风险长期债券。这些债券的定价本来就较为激进,当利率最终开始升高时,买入操作可能会给他带来损失。事实上,美国很可能正走在失业问题未了、退休危机即来的路上。

其次,我的同事苏菲(Amir Sufi)与合作者米安(Atif Mian)指出,在美国,家庭过度负债和需求下降都是本地化的。拉斯维加斯的理发师之所以失业,部分是因为家庭在房地产繁荣中背上的债务负担太过沉重,部分则是因为许多当地建筑工人和地产经纪丢掉了工作。即便我们可以强迫传统无债务储蓄者增加支出,也不能保证拉斯维加斯有足够多的这类人。

如果这批无债务储蓄者生活在纽约市——那里并未经历大规模枯荣循环——那么真实利率的降低将能鼓励已然充足的纽约市理发支出,但不能鼓励严重不足的拉斯维加斯理发支出。换句话说,即使真实利率能起作用,作为一种刺激工具,它也不够精准。

第三,我们对公众如何形成关于央行未来行动的预期一无所知。如果美联储宣布可以接受4%的通胀率,那么公众是会把这当做美联储在虚张声势,还是认为既然通胀目标可以提高一次,那么就能提高第二次?公众预期会指向通胀率大大提高吗?增加的风险升水如何影响长期利率?美国要经历怎样的衰退才能将通胀压回适宜水平?

所有这些问题的答案都是:我们实在不知道。既然进一步降低真实利率的好处并不确定,那么为此将央行信誉置于风险之中绝不是负责任的做法。

最后,利率低于零是不是美国高失业的主要原因还未可知。传统凯恩斯主义摩擦(比如难以降低某些行业的工资和福利)以及非传统摩擦(比如当你无法卖掉(或买到)房子时就没办法搬家)或许也起着同样重要的作用

我们不能忽视高企的失业率。显然,改善负债家庭以较低的当前利率获得再融资的能力有助于减少他们的债务负担,对借款人因房价大跌而导致按揭严重资不抵债者(即未偿还按揭高于住房价值)给予一定的按揭债务减记也可以起到相同的效果。

在这方面还可以做得更多。好消息是,在偿还和减记的双重作用下,家庭债务正在下降。但同样重要的是认识到可持续复苏之路并不在于重塑不负责任、无法负担的危机前支出水平,这样做会导致副作用,在建筑业和金融业形成不可持续的就业改善。

美国的储蓄率只有GDP的4%左右,平均而言,美国家庭的储蓄绝非过剩。有效的政策在于改善全国劳动力的能力,从而让他们获得可持续的工作和稳定的收入。这需要时间,但是可以找到的最佳选择。

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  1. CommentedRay DAMANI

    Surely, you mean the people are under siege?

    The CBs have taken ordinary people and their savings in order to save bankers and their bonuses, and to bury the malfeasance of politicians!

  2. CommentedCharlie Savelle

    Although we might say that the pre-crises spending was irresponsible, it's clear that a strong fiscal stimulus should be instituted, something analgous to the defense spending for the second World War, which as Joseph Stiglitz has pointed out helped the US shift from an agricultural, to an industrial driven economy. The average citizen, as the author has pointed out is not in a position to spend, nor would monetary policy encourage them to spend, nor it even desirable that they do so we're either left with a painfully slow shift, as the poor face necessary austerity and learn to live simpler, and try to shift the next generation with meagre resources appropriately, or we deploy a strong fiscal stimulus to encourage cheap education, and help the poor by providing them with necessary fundamentals like healthcare--of course we could help pay for it through taxes on the rich who haev enough to save above average, which would be a way of forcing savers to spend, and have the dual effect of leaving less capital for possibly harmful financial wizardy.

  3. CommentedGary Palmero

    Real interest rates are not high with the nominal short term rate close to zero. This can only occur if prices are falling and since the consumer price index in the US is rigged because it does not include food, fuel, education,taxes and insurance costs, most consumers believe the CPI is understated. Strapped borrowers are not deterred by any interest rates, they simply cannnot borrow.

    However, government agencies are borrowing with abandon since service costs are low relative to notational debt with the borrowers operating under the belief that they can roll over debt indefinitely. This will end when interest rates rise, or MOST LIKELY, when notational debt reaches the excess point where the borrowing window is shut.

    I suggest that short term interest rates be raised in publicly announced increments to two per cent. Japan should go first since it is in most need of stimulating its savers and other advanced nations can follow. It is better to stimulate consumer spending for savers by raising their income than by forcing them to spend at the point of a gun (by inflation) and that won't work anyway.

    We need to think creatively out of the box and this is my suggestion.

  4. CommentedGordon Tolleson

    Some of you may get upset with me but Mr. Rajan does not truly address the unemployment problem. Corporations are flush with liquidity but are not willing to hire. The reason is the uncertainty of what this administration will do next. As a business owner I am in the same boat. I am not going to go into the details of planning and knowing what the cost of hiring a new employee.

    Housing is a problem and the bottom is still not in and until the market itself settles in some parts of the country, housing will continue to fall. Going back to 2006 prices is another 5 to 8 years away in the current environment.

    The banks should have been allowed to fail instead of transferring their bad debt onto the public taxpayers.

    I am sorry but the banks brought us to this point including the Fed. Of course people using their homes like ATM's was not good either.

  5. Commentedjames durante

    Doesn't any of the demand problem have to do with that full grown elephant in the room, extreme wealth and income inequality in the US? The top 1% now have something like 40% of the wealth and 25% of the income. Their shares keep increasing. Slashing tax rates on the wealthiest, undermining unions, shipping out jobs.... Economics is politics and vice versa.

  6. CommentedJohn Doe

    Respectfully, Raghuram Rajan doesn't understand the first thing about how the American economy works.

    He really needs to start from the beginning with Keynes. We are exactly where Keynes said capitalist economies are most vulnerable: when the average (not great) capitalist (better word entrepreneur) faces a wall of fear. The job of the Government, including the Fed., is to restore confidence so that the average capitalist will not fear borrowing and spending what little cash they have.

    Brad DeLong periodically puts the exact quote up on his web site. Rajan needs to make an enlarged copy, set it on his desk, and think about it for the rest of his life, doing nothing else, so that he does no further damage.

    That means that until real estate prices return to 2006 levels we are screwed.

    Why? Home equity is the source of capital (via 2nd deeds of trust) for most businesses. Banks can not lend to businesses unless their owners have equity in their homes that can be used as security for loans. Rajan says he teaches finance. He appears to know nothing about United States banking.

    Most all small business lending in the United States is secured by home equity. If you want business lending to expand, the only way to do such is to raise home values.

    This also permits consumers to borrower and spend, if they choose, but that is coincidential, not causative.

  7. Commentedsrinivasan gopalan

    a credit-backed society always faces challenges and the US is no exception to this canon. In a country where saving rate is deplorably low and people simply get carried away by borrowing binges, the end to any crisis hinges on return to values of conservation and harbouring savings impulses to provide for rainy days. Dr. Raghuram Rajan, a celebrated economist hailing from a country which preached simple living and high thinking, has rightly pitched for "sensible policies in improving the capabilities of the workforces across the country". But in a debt-driven economy of gargantuan size such homilies cannot gain currency unless the authorities preach austerity and saner fiscal course so that people take a cue from their leaders and reshape their way of living to drive development that is sustainable and endurable over the long haul. g.srinivasan

  8. CommentedDavid Doney

    Dr. Rajan does not discuss the likely cause of our high unemployment, which is trade with low-wage countries leading to a $650 billion U.S. goods trade deficit.

    Using $50,000 per job as a rough approximation, this is about 13 million jobs, versus our jobs shortfall of around 15 million jobs.

    If a wealth country allows its corporations to source their labor overseas in a low labor country without penalty (such as a tax on the wage differential) eventually the jobs engine of the wealthy country will sputter and die. Economists widely agree that globalization has caused U.S. real wages to stop growing for most of the workforce. But they have yet to agree that it is actually killing jobs engine.

    In the U.S., we created 15-21 million net new jobs each decade from 1970-2000, then only 2 million net new jobs 2000-2009.

    Take away the housing bubble and we've had about 1% annual GDP growth since 2000, according to Niall Ferguson.

    How many dots must there be before someone in authority will connect them?

    Protectionism and devaluation of the currency are key policy prescriptions to eliminate this trade deficit, or significant wage reductions (e.g., 30% across the board).

  9. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    Raghuram in his seminal analysis ‘The true Lessons of the Recession- The West Can’t Borrow and spend Its way to Recovery’ in the Foreign Affairs May-June 2012 issue had taken the debate to its logical conclusion; In the section ‘Disrupting the Status Quo’ the statistics are alarming, “In the United States, 35 percent of
    those aged 25 to 54 with no high school diploma have no job, and high school dropouts are three times as likely to be unemployed as university graduates. What is more, Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 are less likely to have a degree than those between 45 and 54, even though degrees have become more valuable in the labor market.”

    The dysfunctional lock between education growth and technology growth and the shifting of growth driver from conventional labor markets to technology linked markets had taken the unemployment situation to the current dimensions. This cannot have a solution in monetary policy through credit induced spending. The issue is one of investments in those sectors which would bridge the gap we have just talked about; for that America must decide where the public spending must be directed and for that the state capacity on revenues must be first better prepared and augmented, not enfeebled by tax cuts.

    Procyon Mukherjee

  10. CommentedAnil Maheshwari

    I agree with the policy recommendation. The discussion needs to shift from monetary policy to the discussion om real work. Working hard and winning real battles is critical in changing the economic situation in the US. Building superior skills and a strong work ethic is critical for young people, as well as those in mid-career. It requires inspiration, focus, and being heads down. It may not guarantee material success, but doing one's best and winning in our field often leads to happiness and joy.

  11. CommentedAtul Bhardwaj

    Most of the economists willingly want to remain trapped in the vicious cycle of inflation and interest rates. They just don't want to think of a world beyond these twin parameters.
    There is far too much of inequality in the world and the root cause of it is money and its manipulation. Just as the civilization advanced from pre-modernity to modernity through what Nietzsche identified as the death of god, similarly, to move into post modernity the civilization would have to kill something. The death of money and its progeny, the banking system seems to be the only solution to usher in a more egalitarian era.

  12. CommentedShiang Peow Foo

    Mr. Kerridge's comments are uncalled for and unfair to Indians. Please do not generalize and oversimplify by saying " Indians who received education in ideologically biased and technically focused economics typical of the USA become brainwashed.".

    By the way, I am a Chinese.

  13. CommentedKonrad Kerridge

    I honestly think that Indians who received education in ideologically biased and technically focused economics typical of the USA become brainwashed. They seem unable to question this version of orthodox economics - neoliberalism - that arose in the 1970s and 1980s and was popular under Reagan. It seems that their lack of previous training in questioning ideas in India, and then being overawed by America means that they swallowed what they were fed hook line and sinker. Bhagwati is another one. Ideas of the 1980s. Now ossified and the cause of many of the inequalities, poverty, low growth and crises of today. Where other economists...of western origin or of East Asian origin have been better able to move forward and embrace more contemporary thinking on economic development.

      CommentedMarco Hauptmeier

      The comment below by Mr Kerridge is racist. He would have done better if he would have engaged with Raghuram Rajan's commentary in a substantive manner.

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