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David Andolfatto

David Andolfatto

The views and opinions expressed by me in this blog are my own and should in no way be attributed to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, or to the Federal Reserve System.

Articles by David Andolfatto

A conversation with Eric Tymoigne on MMT vs SMT

September 5, 2019

There are a lot of moving parts to the MMT program. I want to focus on one of these parts today: the relation between monetary and fiscal policy.
One thing I find appealing about MMT scholars is their attention to monetary history and
institutional details. I’ve learned a lot from them in this regard.
But as is often the case with details, one has to worry about whether they help
shed light on a specific question of interest, or whether they sometimes let us not see
the forest for the trees. And in terms of the broader picture, since I grew up
in that branch of macroeconomics that tries to take money, banking, and debt
seriously (i.e., not standard NK theory), I sometimes have a hard time understanding what all the fuss is
about. Much of standard monetary theory (SMT) seems perfectly

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Blanchard and Farmer on the Phillips Curve

July 27, 2019

In case you missed it, there’s an interesting (and slightly wonkish) debate going on between Olivier Blanchard and Roger Farmer concerning the theoretical relevance of the Phillips curve. Roger fired the opening salvo by presenting a macroeconomic model he claims fits the data well and yet makes no use of the Phillips curve. Farmer, in Laplace-like fashion, declared "he had no use for that hypothesis." Blanchard predictably, and understandably, came to the defense of the orthodoxy:

On Farmer. One cannot just ignore an equation (the Phillips curve), and replace it by another. 😩 Does anybody doubt that if the Fed decreased u rate down to 1%, it would not lead to more inflation? P curve relation is complex and shifting, but it is there. Sorry Roger… https://t.co/ewy09sTg7i
— Olivier

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Does the Phillips Curve Live in Europe?

July 15, 2019

There’s been much talk about the Phillips curve lately, especially in the wake of Jay Powell’s recent testimony before Congress. Many people are proclaiming the death of the Phillips curve. I think that many people making these proclamations are probably wrong–or, more likely–they are correct, but for the wrong reasons.What exactly is being proclaimed dead here? Are people referring to the absence of any statistical correlation between inflation and unemployment? Or are they referring to the theory that the unemployment rate (beyond some "natural" rate) causes inflation? These are two conceptually different notions of the Phillips curve. The fact that the Phillips curve is "flat" does not in itself negate the Phillips curve theory of inflation. This is because monetary policy and other

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The Phillips Curve in Recession and Recovery

June 21, 2019

The Phillips curve can mean one of two conceptually distinct things (which are sometimes confused). First, the Phillips curve may simply refer to a statistical property of the data–for example, what is the correlation between inflation and unemployment (either unconditionally, or controlling for a set of factors)? Second, the Phillips curve may refer to a theoretical mechanism–why does inflation and unemployment exhibit the statistical properties it does?The presumption among many is that statistical Phillips curves tend to be negatively sloped, suggesting a trade-off between inflation and unemployment. A standard theoretical interpretation of this negative relationship is that a high level of unemployment means that aggregate demand is low, so that firms feel less inclined to increase

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Is the U.S. budget deficit sustainable?

May 26, 2019

The U.S. federal budget deficit for 2018 came in just shy of $800 billion, or about 4% of the gross domestic product (the primary deficit, which excludes the interest expense of the debt, was about 3% of GDP).

As the figure above shows, the present level of deficit spending (as a ratio of GDP) is not too far off from where has been in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s also not too far off from where it was in the early 2000s (although, the peaks back then were associated with recessions).Of course, the question people are asking is whether deficits of this magnitude can be sustained into the foreseeable future without economic consequences (like higher inflation). In this post, I suggest that the answer to this question is yes, but just barely. If I am correct, then any new government

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Is the ZLB an economic or legal constraint?

March 27, 2019

The so-called zero-lower-bound (ZLB) plays a prominent role in modern (and even older) macroeconomic theories. It is often introduced in a paper or at conference as a fact of life — an unavoidable property of the physical environment, like gravity. But is it correct to view it in this way? Or is the ZLB better thought of as legal constraint–something that can potentially be circumvented by policy?The Financial Services Regulatory Relief Act of 2006 allows the U.S. Federal Reserve (the Fed) to pay interest on reserve accounts that private banks hold at the Fed. Specifically, the Act states that:
Balances maintained at a Federal Reserve bank by or on behalf of a depository institution may receive earnings to be paid by the Federal Reserve bank at least once each calendar quarter, at a

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The Chicago Booth Survey on MMT

March 14, 2019

I want to say a few things about Chicago Booth’s recent survey questions posed to a set of economists; see here. The survey asked how strongly one believes in the following two statements:
Question A: Countries that borrow in their own currency should not worry about government deficits because they can always create money to finance their debt.

Question B: Countries that borrow in their own currency can finance as much real government spending as they want by creating money.

Not surprisingly, most economists surveyed disagreed with both statements. Fine. But, not fine, actually. Because the survey prefaced the two questions with 

Modern Monetary Theory

as if the the two statements constitute some core belief of MMT.  

Was any MMT proponent included in the survey? Don’t be

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Sustainable deficits

March 12, 2019

There’s been much welcome discussion of late concerning the sustainability of government budget deficits and whether the size of the public debt is anything to worry about. I’m not going to answer this question for you here today. But what I would like to do is describe a framework that economists frequently employ to help organize their thinking on the matter. I want to begin with some simple arithmetic and then move on to a bit of theory. I’ll let you judge whether the framework has any merit.Let’s start with some standard definitions.
G(t) = government spending (purchases and transfers) in year t.
T(t) = government tax revenue in year t.
R(t) = gross nominal interest rate on government debt paid in year t+1.
D(t) = nominal government debt in year t (including interest-bearing central

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Is Neo-Fisherism Nuts?

February 18, 2019

According to my friend and former colleague Steve Williamson, inflation is low in Japan because of the Bank of Japan’s policy of keeping its policy rate low. Accordingly, if the BOJ wants to hit its 2% inflation target, it should raise its policy rate and keep it persistently higher. This is what I’ve called the NeoFisherian proposition. It’s a provocative idea because it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. But is it correct? Does it serve as a practical guide for monetary policy? My feeling is that the answers to these questions are "no" and "no." In what follows, I explain why.At some point in their undergraduate career, students of macroeconomics are introduced to the Fisher equation. The Fisher equation usually stated as R = r + π or, in words:
Nominal Rate of Interest = Real

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When is more competition bad?

January 11, 2019

Contrary to popular belief, standard economic theory does not provide a theoretical foundation for the notion that "competition is everywhere and always good." It turns out that legislation that promotes competition among producers may improve consumer welfare. Or it may not. As so many things in economics (and in life), it all depends.I recently came across an interesting paper demonstrating this idea by Ben Lester, Ali Shourideh, Venky Venkateswaran, and Ariel Zetlin-Jones with the title "Screening and Adverse Selection in Frictional Markets," forthcoming in the Journal of Political Economy.The paper is written in the standard trade language. Like any trade language, it’s difficult to understand if you’re not in the trade! But I thought the idea sufficiently important that I asked Ben

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Racial Diversity in the Supply of U.S. Econ PhDs

December 25, 2018

This post is motivated by Eshe Nelson’s column "The Dismal Cost of Economics’ Lack of Racial Diversity." I was especially struck by this data — out of the 539 economics doctorates awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents (by U.S. institutions), only 18 of the recipients were African-American.

I thought it would be of some interest to see what the data looks like more broadly over other groups and over a longer period of time. I thank my research assistant, Andrew Spewak, for gathering this data (from the National Science Foundation). Let’s start with the raw numbers first. The data is aggregated into 5-year bins beginning in 1965 and up to 2014. The orange bars represent the number of econ PhDs awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents (by U.S. institutions) over a

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Does the Fed have a symmetric inflation target?

December 23, 2018

It’s well-known that the Fed has been undershooting its inflation 2% target every year since 2012 (ironically, the year it formally adopted a 2% inflation target). This has led some to speculate whether 2% is being viewed more as a ceiling, rather than a target, as it is with the ECB. The Fed, however, continues to insist that not only is 2% a target, it is a symmetric target.  But what does this mean, exactly? And how can we judge whether the Fed has a symmetric inflation target or not?These questions came to me while listening to Jay Powell’s recent press conference following the FOMC’s decision to follow through with a widely anticipated rate hike. At the 16:15 mark, reporter Binyamin Appelbaum (NY Times) asked Powell the following question:
BA: You’re about to undershoot your

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Working More for Less

December 6, 2018

I had an interested chat with a colleague of mine the other day about the labor market. In the course of conversation, he mentioned that he used to teach a class in labor economics. Naturally, an important lesson included the theory of labor supply. Pretty much the first question asked is how the supply of labor can be expected to change in response to a change in the return to labor (the real wage). My colleague said that for years he would preface the theoretical discussion with a poll. He would turn to the class and ask them to imagine themselves employed at some job. Then imagine having your wage doubled for a short period of time. How many of you would work more? (The majority of the class would raise their hands.) How many of you would not change your hours worked? (A minority of

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Does the Floor System Discourage Bank Lending?

December 3, 2018

David Beckworth has a new post up suggesting that the Fed’s floor system has discouraged bank lending by making interest-bearing reserves a relatively more attractive investment; see here. I’ve been hearing this story a lot lately, but I can’t say it makes a whole lot of sense to me.Here’s how I think about it. Consider the pre-2008 "corridor" system where the Fed targeted the federal funds rate. The effective federal funds rate (FFR) traded between the upper and lower bounds of the corridor–the upper bound given by the discount rate and the lower bound given by the zero interest-on-reserves (IOR) rate. The Fed achieved its target FFR by managing the supply of reserves through open-market operations involving short-term treasury debt.Consider a given target interest rate equal to (say)

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Smart Contracts and Asset Tokenization

November 8, 2018

Book of Smart Contracts 1959
In his 1959 classic Theory of Value, Gerard Debreu takes a deep dive into general (Walrasian) equilibrium theory. (Yes, I know, but please try to stay awake for at least a few more paragraphs.)He studies a very stark hypothetical scenario where people are imagined to gather at the beginning of time and formulate trading plans for a given vector of market prices (called out by some mysterious auctioneer). Commodities can take the form of different goods, like apples and oranges. But they can also be made time-contingent and state-contingent. An apple delivered tomorrow is different commodity than an apple delivered today. An orange delivered tomorrow in the event of rain is different commodity than an orange delivered tomorrow in the event of sunshine. And so

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What is the yield curve forecasting?

September 24, 2018

It’s well-known that in the United States, recessions are often preceded by an inversion of the yield curve. Is there any economic rationale for why this should be the case? Most yield curve analysis makes reference to nominal interest rates. Economic theory, however, stresses the relevance of real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates. (The distinction does not matter much for the U.S in recent decades, as inflation has remained low and stable). According to standard asset-pricing theory (which, unfortunately for present purposes, abstracts from liquidity premia), the real interest rate measures the rate at which consumption (a broad measure of material living standards) is expected to grow over a given horizon. A high 1-year yield signals that growth is expected to be high over a

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The Trust Machine: The Story of Bitcoin

July 7, 2018

I came across a presentation of Bitcoin the other day called The Trust Machine: The Story of Bitcoin.  I thought it was very nice and I encourage anyone who’s interested in Bitcoin to view it (less than 25 minutes). What I offer below are questions and comments that came to my mind as I listened to the narrative. I’d recommend listening to the entire presentation first and then reading my comments below. The bold numbers represent the corresponding time in the video to which the remark pertains.
1:04 Before Bitcoin, the only way to make electronic payments over the Internet was via your bank. However, over 2 billion people in the world do not have access to a bank account.  
Sure, but why is Bitcoin the best solution for this problem? Nobody was connected to their bank accounts

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Inflation and Unemployment (Part 2)

March 29, 2018

In my previous post (Inflation and Unemployment), I reviewed what I thought was a fair characterization of the way the Federal Reserve Board staff organize their thinking about inflation and unemployment, as well as how this view of the world was at least partly responsible for the "hawkish" overtone of current Fed policy. I also suggested that the inflation and unemployment dynamic might be better understood through the lens of an alternative theory that emphasized the supply and demand for money (broadly defined to include U.S. treasury debt).I want to thank Paul Krugman for taking the time to critique my post and draw attention to an important issue that concerns U.S. monetary policy makers today (see: Immaculate Inflation Strikes Again). I was only a little disappointed to learn that

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Inflation and unemployment

March 26, 2018

The FOMC decided on March 21 to increase the target band for the federal funds rate by 25 basis points, to a range of 1.50-1.75%. This despite inflation running persistently below the Fed’s 2% target, only moderate wage growth, and inflation expectations firmly anchored.

What is the FOMC thinking here? To be more precise, what is the dominant view within the FOMC that is driving the present tightening cycle? Remember, the FOMC is made up of 12 regional bank presidents plus 7 board of governors (at full strength) possessing a variety of views which are somehow aggregated into a policy rate decision. I think it’s fair to say that the dominant view, especially among Board members, is heavily influenced by the Board’s staff economists. So, maybe what I’m really asking is: what is the Board

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What anchors inflation?

March 19, 2018

Conventional wisdom is that a central bank can anchor the long-run rate of inflation to a target of its own choosing. This belief is evident where ever a government has charged its central bank with a "price stability" mandate (commonly interpreted nowadays as keeping a consumer price index growing on average at around 2% per annum over long periods of time).
What exactly is the mechanism by which a central bank is supposed to control the long-run rate of inflation (the growth rate of the price-level)? And is it really the case that a central bank can defend its preferred inflation target without any degree of fiscal support?
Asking these questions reminds me of the old joke of an economist as someone who sees something work in practice and then asks whether it might also work in theory.

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The recession of 2012-13 and the taper tantrum

February 22, 2018

I admit this is a rather strange title for a post, but bear with me. Every once in a while I reflect back on the so-called "taper tantrum" event in the summer of 2013 when Fed Chair Ben Bernanke made an off-the-cuff remark that the FOMC was thinking of maybe slowing down the pace QE3 asset purchases (see here). The stock market had a temporary sell-off, which turned out to be no big deal. What I find more interesting is how long bond yields rose sharply and persistently. Even more interesting, real bond yields behaved in this manner–see the figure below.

OK, so maybe the initial sell-off of bonds could be interpreted as the market being surprised that QE3 (an open-ended program) might terminate earlier than expected. But I just can’t believe that QE programs can have such persistent

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U.S. GDP Expenditure Components

February 19, 2018

One way to decompose the GDP is in terms of its expenditure components, Y ≡ C + I + G + NX. I like to write "≡" instead of "=" to remind myself that this decomposition is measurement, not theory.
 

In what follows, consumption is measured in terms of nondurables and services only–I add consumer durables with private investment. The data is inflation-adjusted, quarterly, and I report year-over-year percent changes. I’ll start with recent history (since 2010) and then later look at a longer sample (beginning in 1960).

 

Let me begin with GDP and consumption. I like to study consumption dynamics because I have some notion of Milton Friedman’s "permanent income hypothesis" in the back of my mind. The idea is that individuals base their expenditures on nondurable goods and services more

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Fiscal theories of the price-level

February 9, 2018

This post is me thinking out loud about how fiscal considerations may influence the price-level.  The question of what determines the price-level is an old one. It’s a question that economists struggle with to this day.

To begin, what do we mean by the price-level? Loosely, the price-level refers to the "cost-of-living," where cost is measured in units of money. Living refers to the flow of services consumed (destroyed) for the purpose of survival/enjoyment. (Note that the cost-of-living might alternatively be measured as the amount of labor one must expend per unit of consumption, but this would require a separate discussion.)
Measuring aggregate material living standards is challenging for two reasons. First, people consume a variety of goods and services. Suppose that the price of

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Blockchain: what it is, what it does, and why you probably don’t need one

January 21, 2018

Dilbert – by Scott AdamsInterest in blockchain is at a fever pitch lately. This is in large part due to the eye-popping price dynamics of Bitcoin–the original bad-boy cryptocurrency–which everyone knows is powered by blockchain…whatever that is. But no matter. Given that even big players like Goldman Sachs are getting into the act (check out their super slick presentation here: Blockchain–The New Technology of Trust) maybe it’s time to figure out what all the fuss is about. What follows is based on my slide deck which I recently presented at the Olin School of Business at a Blockchain Panel (I will link up to video as soon as it becomes available) Things are a little confusing out there I think in part because not enough care is taken in defining terms before assessing pros and

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Lowflation: Then and Now

January 10, 2018

The term "lowflation" was initially coined by economists at the IMF in 2014 (see here). It refers to an inflation rate that is persistently low (relative to some target) but positive. Here is what lowflation looks like in the United States:

How should we think about lowflation? I’ve written a bit on the subject here and here. Is the phenomenon unusual? Is it something we should worry about?As it turns out, the phenomenon is not unusual even in recent U.S. monetary history. The following diagram plots the PCE core inflation rate for the United States since 1960. The shaded areas represent "lowflation" episodes–periods in which PCE core inflation is below 2%.

The early 1960s was also an era of lowflation. So was the more recent period 1996-2003. The period 2004-2008 pf (slightly

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Fedcoin and blockchain

December 27, 2017

I see Campbell Harvey promoting the idea of Fedcoin here: "Bitcoin is Big. But Fedcoin is Bigger." I’m not sure I agree with his pitch for the idea.Let’s start with Harvey’s claim that
"Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are based on a complicated technology known as blockchain, which acts like a digital ledger of all transactions completed with the currency."
Complicated? Well, yes and no. As I explain here "Why the blockchain should be familiar to you," there’s a sense in which blockchain technology–a growing record of communal history existing on a distributed virtual ledger updated via a communal consensus algorithm–is an ancient innovation. Indeed, I claim that most of our small-group social interactions today still make extensive use of blockchain technology. Of course, the

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My perspective on the Bitcoin Project (collected works)

December 21, 2017

It’s true, I really did say that.It’s Christmas time and I’m in a giving mood. So I thought I’d collect all my writings and talks related to Bitcoin and blockchain in one easy-to-access spot.
Like many people, I first took notice of Bitcoin in 2013, after its price soared to over $1000, before plummeting significantly. Thank goodness I didn’t buy any back then (D’oh!). Many economists dismissed the phenomenon as just another bubble/scam. This was my initial instinct as well, but after checking under the hood, I discovered something intriguing and worth learning more about.

Bitcoin/blockchain is generally much better understood today than it was back then, although an air of mystery persists. But the concept is not very complicated at all, even if the underlying mechanics

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The Great American Slump (update)

December 18, 2017

I detect some chatter out there concerning the recent "unexpected" rise in the U.S. labor force participation rate. The discussion is related mainly to the question of whether the labor market has fully recovered from the effects of the Great Recession. I suggested back in 2010 (here) that American recovery dynamic might be a prolonged one, at least, taking the Great Canadian Slump as a model. I updated that analysis here in 2016. In light of the recent discussion, I thought I’d see where we stand today.Here is EPOP (employment-to-population ratio) for Canada (beginning in 1990) and the United States (beginning in 2008).  
The two series bear a striking resemblance 40 quarters (10 years) out. Here is what the picture looks like when we restrict attention to the prime-age (15-54)

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Interpreting the yield curve

November 27, 2017

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the flattening of the yield curve, what’s causing it, and what it portends. In this post, I describe a simple "neoclassical" theory of the yield curve and ask to what extent it serves as a useful guide for our thinking on the matter.
 
Let’s start by defining terms. Let I(m) denote the yield (market interest rate) on (say) a U.S. treasury bond with maturity m. So, I(1) denotes the yield on a one-year bond and I(10) denotes the yield on a ten-year bond. The slope (S) of the yield curve is given by the difference in yields between long and short bonds. In this example, S = I(10) – I(1). Here’s what the yield curve looks like for the U.S. since 1961.

Normally, the slope of the yield curve is positive. But occasionally, it turns negative — an

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Tyler Cowen on Central Bank Cryptocurrencies

November 25, 2017

I enjoy reading Tyler Cowen and have learned a lot from his columns. So before I criticize his most recent effort, I want to thank him for all his fine contributions! Unfortunately, I think he drops the ball a little bit on his most recent effort. No worries–we all do sooner or later. What follows are some thoughts that came to my mind as I read his most recent article entitled "Cryptocurrencies Don’t Belong in Central Banks." My (unedited/uncensored thoughts are recorded in blue…Tyler, take note: "uncensored"= risk-taking central banker!) 

Should central banks embrace cryptocurrencies, or even pioneer their own? In a nutshell, no. Crypto assets are an unusual innovation, still in flux and often poorly understood. Trying to centralize them in a bureaucracy is exactly the wrong way

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