Printing Money and Predictions in Print
I try not to make too many predictions on this blog. If I do the only prediction I’m likely to correctly make is that my predictions will be off. Jonah Lehrer shares the results of a big study that calls into question the ability of experts to accurately forecast.
How did the experts do? When it came to predicting the likelihood of an outcome, the vast majority performed worse than random chance. In other words, they would have done better picking their answers blindly out of a hat. Liberals, moderates and conservatives were all equally ineffective.
The reason so many experts were wrong was due to confirmation bias – they were confident they were right so they ignored evidence that undermined their preconceptions. While reading up on whether or not anyone should be concerned about inflation right now (due to Obama’s or the Fed’s policies) I feared ending up in that pitfall. So in my quest to find diverse viewpoints I discovered some older Art Laffer and others making predictions about future inflation because of Obama’s policies. Determined not to prove Lehrer wrong, who writes, “Famous experts were especially prone to overconfidence, which is why they tended to do the worst,” Laffer and gang’s predictions turned out to be almost exactly antithetical to reality.
On June 11, 2009, Laffer wrote a column Ehrlichianly titled, Get Ready for Inflation and Higher Interest Rates: The unprecedented expansion of the money supply could make the ’70s look benign. Now that we stand over a year later, let’s take a look at accuracy of some of his and other inflation Chicken Littles’ predictions.
It’s difficult to estimate the magnitude of the inflationary and interest-rate consequences of the Fed’s actions because, frankly, we haven’t ever seen anything like this in the U.S. To date what’s happened is potentially far more inflationary than were the monetary policies of the 1970s, when the prime interest rate peaked at 21.5% and inflation peaked in the low double digits.
His primary evidence for his fears is this chart:
But let’s now check out this updated chart (upper-right), courtesy of Martin Wolf, from a few days ago.
The rate of change in M1 has plummeted and the new data doesn’t look so scary or out of place with history now, does it? M2 (the money in circulation) also dropped to very low levels. We can also see US inflation rate/expectations (lower-left) hit negative levels and currently floats under 2 (below the Fed’s target rate). With all the current talk about QEII and deliberately raising inflation expectations, the inflation alarmists are back, but as Martin Wolf points out, even if we were to see inflation growing too fast (which there is currently no evidence for) we could always just scale it back.
The hysterics then add that it is impossible to shrink the Fed’s balance sheet fast enough to prevent excessive monetary expansion. That is also nonsense. If the economy took off, nothing would be easier. Indeed, the Fed explained precisely what it would do in its monetary report to Congress last July. If the worst came to the worst, it could just raise reserve requirements. Since many of its critics believe in 100 per cent reserve banking, why should they object to a move in that direction?
Mark Thoma at his blog, Economist’s View, discusses further some mistakes that people worried about the growth in currency are currently making. It’s worth reading but here is the graph that he uses, which shows that the currency in circulation is not outside the historical norm.
Over at the American Principles Project, a conservative Christian organization, Samuel Gregg (who cites Laffer) also worries (7 July 2009) Obama’s policies are going to lead to 1970s style inflation – he even mentions Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
More than one economist believes that it is only a matter of time before the third member of the 1970s trio – growing inflation – will be back to wreck havoc upon us.
Most amazingly, Gregg’s article stumbles onto an important insight about inflation. Since he takes for granted inevitable skyrocketing inflation, he spends the bulk of his article explaining why having to lower inflation will be so terrible.
Seriously fighting inflation entails a willingness to tolerate increasing unemployment. This is the price of reducing the excessive amounts of money sloshing through an economy.
So if lowering inflation will increase unemployment, what might raising inflation do? Yup, increase employment. Considering 15 million sit out of work right now, which is about 4 million people greater than the entire population of Greece, I think we could stand to raise the inflation rate a tad.
We can see that inflation expectations are low right now; it’s also worth going over some other measures of inflation and potential inflation. Here’s the Consumer Price Index.
And here is core inflation (which is the CPI minus volatile items like food and energy):
(By the way, you can have more fun data like this at the St. Louis Fed’s great website.)
Here’s our current core inflation overlaid with what happened in Japan (via Krugman):
Here’s the Treasury Maturity Spread (via DiA). Yup, also low.
Many alarmists point to rises in gold and other commodity prices. What about those? First it is important to remember that we don’t usually consider volatile commodities when looking at inflation because unpredictable spikes can occur. They’re also traded on world markets so judging US inflation can be thrown off because of that. Consider if a huge new supply (or disruption) of oil or gold was discovered that could suddenly change the price of those commodities, but that wouldn’t really represent a significant change in inflation. Commodities aren’t entirely useless (they’re not all constantly and extremely volatile) and inflation predictors keep using them, so let’s take look at some of them anyway.
On gold, many have been unnerved by the “record high” of its price. Yet, as David Leonhardt points out, it’s not true.
Gold is at a record only if you fail to adjust for inflation. And you should almost always adjust for inflation.
This isn’t simply a question of math. Anyone who says gold is at a record high (or who said oil was several years ago) is getting the story wrong. Why? Because $10 today is not more valuable than $9 a few decades ago. Claiming otherwise is tantamount to saying that 10 rupees is more valuable than $9 because 10 is a bigger number than 9.
Here’s a graph (via Krugman) that isolates commodity prices for us.
I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t really look like any historically high jump in commodity prices going on.
Everyone is entitled to make some bad predictions, but I’m not sure what Sarah Palin’s excuse is for her inability to predict the past. Here she is on grocery inflation.
“Everyone who ever goes out shopping for groceries knows that prices have risen significantly over the past year or so.”
The Wall Street Journal reporter who had the gall to question her responded.
The Nov. 4 Wall Street Journal article noted, in its first sentence, “the tamest year of food pricing in nearly two decades.” It does indeed report that supermarkets and restaurants are facing cost pressures that could push their retail prices higher — but it hasn’t happened yet on a large scale. Critics of the Fed’s quantitative easing policy are focused primarily on concerns about potential future inflation.
Let’s now take a look at few other predictions on inflation at about the time Laffer and Gregg wrote their pieces.
Paul Krugman (28 May 2009):
It’s important to realize that there’s no hint of inflationary pressures in the economy right now. Consumer prices are lower now than they were a year ago, and wage increases have stalled in the face of high unemployment. Deflation, not inflation, is the clear and present danger.
Seems he was correct.
Paul La Monica, CNNMoney Editor (4 June 2009):
So with all due respect to the Fed chair, he can talk as much as he wants about how he’s not too worried about inflation. But investors disagree. And Hoenig thinks that the Fed would be unwise to dismiss what’s going on with bond rates, currencies and commodities.
Score that one: Bernanke 1 – La Monica/Hoenig 0.
The Economist (22 Oct 2009):
In short, the likeliest triggers of an acute crisis—a lenders’ strike, a crash in the dollar or inflation—seem remote.
Cheers to the Brits on that one.
None of this should suggest that Krugman or The Economist is always correct or that La Monica, Laffer, and Gregg are always wrong (Palin I’m not so sure about). Remember Lehrer told us that “Liberals, moderates and conservatives were all equally ineffective.” But it does suggest to me that we shouldn’t keep listening to the same voices on a topic they’ve been so utterly wrong about until circumstances change (or they change) and indicate things might be different. For example, here’s Laffer -again in a WSJ Op-Ed- from 2 days ago.
Outlining his growth agenda he recommends,
2) Price stability. Congress should revise the Federal Reserve’s mandate, making it serve only the goal of price stability (and not also full employment). In addition, the Fed should follow a monetary rule, targeting either the quantity of money or the price level. There can be no prosperity without price stability. (my emphasis)
He’s still worried more about inflation than our current unemployment crisis. Can editors explain to me why we keep hearing more and more from those with such bad records? The inverse correlation between the voices of inflation alarmists and the actual inflation rate is surreal. We have plenty to worry about without concerning ourselves with phantoms and problems that only occur if we’re more successful.
I hope I’m not giving the impression that I think I know what will happen with our inflation rate or commodity prices. If I did I’d be in the markets right now, not writing blog posts. But what I can tell is that the bizarro Chicken Littles (“The ground is rising?!”) keep being wrong and the available data suggests we’re not in imminent danger of turning into Zimbabwe. So if you think Greece’s economy is bad and you realize that just because the overall health of our economy is better doesn’t mean that virtual unemployed nation we have living within our borders isn’t feeling real pain. Unconventional ways to further loosen monetary policy aren’t likely to solve all our problems but it could help alleviate a lot of needless suffering.
I’d rather not make a prediction, but I think we should put some money on this.