Krugman’s blog, 6/1/15

There were two posts yesterday.  The first was “The Case of the Missing Minsky:”

Gavyn Davis has a good summary of the recent IMF conference on rethinking macro; Mark Thoma has further thoughts. Thoma in particular is disappointed that there hasn’t been more of a change, decrying

the arrogance that asserts that we have little to learn about theory or policy from the economists who wrote during and after the Great Depression.

Maybe surprisingly, I’m a bit more upbeat than either. Of course there are economists, and whole departments, that have learned nothing, and remain wholly dominated by mathiness. But it seems to be that economists have done OK on two of the big three questions raised by the economic crisis. What are these three questions? I’m glad you asked.

As I see it, it makes sense to think of what happened in terms of three phases. First, a buildup of vulnerability, with rising leverage and an increasingly fragile financial system. Second, the acute phase of crisis, with bank runs or their functional equivalent, collapsing liquidity, and more. Then a long period of depressed employment and activity, which still isn’t over.

The questions then are how and why each of these things can/did happen. I think of these as the Minsky question — why do economies grow vulnerable over time ; the Bagehot question — why does all hell break loose now and then; and the Keynes question — how economies can stay depressed, and how such depressed economies work.

On the Keynes question, it’s true that we haven’t had a radical change in thinking, but that’s mainly because the old thinking still works pretty well. That is, the answer for people asking who would be the new Keynes turns out to be that Keynes is the new Keynes. Or maybe that’s Hicks — anyway, IS-LMish analysis worked well, and the economists who made fools of themselves were those who rejected the time-tested approaches.

What is new is that we have had a flowering of empirical work, and have much more econometric evidence on monetary and especially fiscal policy, price behavior, and more than we used to. Look, for example, at Nakamura/Steinsson’s survey, or at the Blanchard work on multipliers in the euro area. So this is a happy story: the existing framework worked fairly well, and is now buttressed by a lot of really good empirical evidence.

On the Bagehot question, economists were initially caught flat-footed, for two reasons: failure to realize that shadow banking had recreated the risk of bank runs, and failure to appreciate the problems of leverage because there is no room for such problems in representative-agent models. But it wasn’t very hard to fix these problems, or at least apply workable patches. Once you realized thatrepo was the new bank deposits, the basic crisis framework was already there; and there was already enough existing analysis of balance-sheet constraints and all that to make creation of a somewhat messy, inelegant, but usable set of models quite easy.

And here too we have seen a flowering of empirical work, e.g. Mian and Sufi on household debt.

Where we have not, as far as I can tell, made much progress is the Minsky question. Why did the system become so vulnerable? Was it deregulation (or failure of regulation to keep up with institutional change)? Simple forgetting, as memories of past crises faded? Excessively loose policy? I have views, but I have to admit that there isn’t a lot of either fresh thinking or hard evidence here.

Why is Minsky still mostly missing? Partly because asking how we got here may be less urgent than the question of what we do now. But also, I’d guess, because it’s hard. Bubbles, excessive leverage, and all that probably have a lot to do with the limits of rationality, and behavioral economics doesn’t provide anything like as much guidance as it should.

Still, I’m relatively positive in my assessment of the state of macroeconomics. Against mathiness and political ideology, the gods themselves contend in vain, but that’s not a problem with the models.

Yesterday’s second post was “The Finnish Disease:”

A followup to my post inspired by troubles in Finland: it’s worth emphasizing just how bad Finland’s performance has been. For Finns, the great depression they remember is the slump at the beginning of the 1990s, driven by a combination of a bursting housing bubble and the collapse of the Soviet Union next door. The result was a very nasty slump, and a delayed recovery. But this time, although the slump in per capita GDP never got quite as deep, has been far more persistent:

Depressed Finns
Depressed Finns OECD

Why can’t Finland recover this time? Debt is not a problem; borrowing costs are very low. But it’s all about the euro straitjacket. In 1990 the country could and did devalue, achieving a rapid gain in competitiveness. This time not, so that there is no quick way to adjust to adverse shocks:

This shouldn’t come as a surprise; it’s the core of the classic Milton Friedman argument for flexible exchange rates, and in turn for the tradeoff at the core of optimum currency area theory. The trouble in Finland is what everyone expected to go wrong with the euro.

What’s going on in Greece represents a whole additional level of hurt, which nobody saw coming. But it’s important, I think, to realize that even countries that didn’t borrow a lot, didn’t experience large capital inflows, basically did nothing wrong by the official criteria, are nonetheless suffering in a major way.

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