Kelly Evans of The Wall Street Journal has taken a lot of heat from advocates of nominal GDP targeting over her Monday column on the subject. (To her credit, she has engaged with Scott Sumner on the subject in the comments section of his blog post responding to her column.) While I’m also an advocate of NGDP targeting, and I agree with many of their criticisms, I think there are certain points on which her argument is being too quickly dismissed. In particular, both Scott Sumner and Karl Smith point to the following passage:
One worrying aspect of GDP growth prior to 2007 was that it came even as real household incomes stagnated. Assuming that boom-era growth rates were sustainable, and not fueled by a surge in house prices and a credit boom that simply pulled forward demand from the future, is a huge leap in logic.
I think there is some confusion on both sides regarding this point, and to clear it up we need to make a distinction between the demand side and the supply side. Usually when economists talk about “sustainable” growth, they’re referring to the supply side: some growth rates are not sustainable because they deplete the supply of resources too quickly. (In particular, an output growth rate is not sustainable if it exceeds the sum of population growth and labor productivity growth, because we would eventually run out of willing and qualified workers and end up in a wage-price spiral.) But here Kelly Evans seems to be referring to demand sustainability rather than supply sustainability.
Is demand sustainability, in this aggregate sense, a meaningful concept? Many economists would say no, because aggregate demand – demand for everything except money itself – is really just the inverse of the demand for money (or for financial assets in general), and there is no limit on the sustainability of the supply of money: we can always print more. And indeed we can always print more money, but the problem is, will we? Aggregate demand sustainability isn’t meaningful in an absolute sense, but it is meaningful if we condition on the growth of some nominal quantity such as the money supply, the price level, or nominal GDP. A certain level of aggregate demand may not be sustainable at a given rate of inflation, or at a given rate of NGDP growth, and thus there is no guarantee that the trajectory of nominal aggregate demand prior to 2007 was sustainable.
When Kelly Evans refers to a “boom that simply pulled forward demand from the future,” Karl Smith interprets this to mean that people were living above their means. But this is a supply-side interpretation: their means (supply) were not sufficient to sustain the pattern of consumption. I believe that the relevant interpretation is a demand-side one: people were choosing (demanding) a certain pattern of consumption based on false information. To say that their demand was “pulled forward from the future” is to say that they would, had they known the truth, have preferred to consume in the future rather than in the present (or in some cases, that their lenders, had they known the truth, would have preferred that the borrowers consume in the future instead of borrowing from them and consuming in the present).
The underlying problem over the past decade is excessive patience: everyone (by which I mean, mostly, the Chinese) wants to defer their expenditures into the future at the same time. But everyone can’t do that at the same time. In a perfect world, we would solve this problem by allowing prices to drop temporarily, far enough to convince enough people to take advantage of the low prices by spending today instead of in the future. But in the real world, price adjustment doesn’t happen quickly, and it often causes more problems than it solves.
So how do you get people to shift their expenditures into the present? One way is by fooling them. Make them think they’re richer than they really are. Make them think there are ultra-safe assets available to safeguard their future spending capacity. Find the people who want to spend today but don’t have any money, and make someone else think it’s safe to lend them money. But this solution is…unsustainable.
The sustainable solution, in theory at least, is to generate an expected inflation rate high enough that – at some positive interest rate – enough people will choose to spend money today instead of in the future. But that solution may not be on the table. Inflation rates much higher than 2% are heavily frowned upon by…just about everyone, it seems, except a few economists. Is 2% high enough? Who knows?
NGDP targeting is another solution, but is it sustainable? As I discussed at the end of my last blog post, and as Nick Rowe expands upon, NGDP (level) targeting would eventually succeed in raising demand, because every time it failed, it would then promise a yet more aggressive (and therefore more inflationary) policy. But what happens after it succeeds? Unless people have become less patient, we’re back where we started: everyone tries to shift expenditures into the future at the same time. The economy gets depressed again, and the cycle repeats.
Disclosure: Through my investment and management role in a Treasury directional pooled investment vehicle and through my role as Chief Economist at Atlantic Asset Management, which generally manages fixed income portfolios for its clients, I have direct or indirect interests in various fixed income instruments, which may be impacted by the issues discussed herein. The views expressed herein are entirely my own opinions and may not represent the views of Atlantic Asset Management. This article should not be construed as investment advice, and is not an offer to participate in any investment strategy or product.