On the appalling state of US macro economic debate (and the US economy) - an outsider's view

Since this blog entry is about the US, I have chosen to write this entry in English. The regular Swedish programming will return shortly.

UPDATE: Added a couple of sentences on the credit crunch versus liquidity trap discussion. The new paragraph found below reads "An economy can be in a situation in which a certain minor sector of the economy experiences a credit crunch, while the rest of the economy experiences a liquidity trap. However, if major sectors are in a credit crunch, the economy as a whole can not be considered to be in a liquidity trap."

UPDATE 2: In a new entry, here, I discuss today's entry by Paul Krugman, in which he takes issue with bloggers like me, who discuss whether the US is in a liquidity trap. To avoid a debate on definitions, I try to move beyond the word "liquidity trap" and look at the existing situation.

In US macro economic debate, there is currently a lot of focus on the benefits of various forms of stimulus and on what the state of the economy actually is.

The debate has degenerated into a political cage match in which normally very articulate professors make very crude and naive comments. It seems that economists currently do not believe in presenting a reasonably balanced picture based on modern economic research by researchers belonging to different schools of thought. Instead, most economists seem to present an extremely simple picture, based on a very narrow set of assumptions that fit their own political view, without caring at all about any research results pointing to other realities.

Much criticism of conservative economists has been offered by Paul Krugman. In this blog entry Professor Krugman says that he is appaled by how a few named economists are behaving.

"Needless to say, everyone I’ve mentioned is politically conservative. That’s their right: economists are citizens too. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that all of them have decided on political grounds that they don’t want a spending-based fiscal stimulus — and that these political considerations have led them to drop their usual quality-control standards when it comes to economic analysis. Has there been any comparable outbreak of mass bad economics from good liberal economists? I can’t think of one, although maybe that’s my own politics showing. In any case, what’s happening now is pretty disturbing."

Professor Krugman has not seen the same kind of behavior from liberal economists, but I would argue that he has displayed this very behavior himself.

I am writing this as an outsider to the US macro economic debate. I normally blog about Swedish macro economics and monetary policy. Our political spectrum is not comparable to the US one, but by US standards I'm politically liberal. When it comes to macro economic issues I view myself as a moderate, being influenced greatly by a number of economists of different traditions and political views, and from my standpoint, it does seem like Professor Krugman is worthy of the same criticism that he launches on others.

Professor Krugman has taken an extremely positive stance towards using government spending to end the current US recession. He has not been discussing the problems with such a stimulus at all, probably believing that it's enough to just present one side of the coin and let the "other guys" present their side of the coin, and that that could lead to a meaningful debate.

If you believe that it's your job to argue for one side of the argument without regards to the problems related to what you argue for, you are not a scientist but a politician. The debate Professor Krugman is taking part in is clearly a political debate, not a scientific one, and the arguments he makes has nothing to do with economic research or science, but only with politics.

He presents some extremely naive models that discard some of the fundamentals of macro economic analysis and science, without so much as mentioning why he would find this suitable to disregard.

One example is the model he presents regarding optimal fiscal policy in a liquidity trap, in which he argues that crowding-out during a liquidity trap is zero or extremely low until you reach full employment, and then exactly when the last person has been employed to reach full employment, the crowding-out effect soars instantly as the fed starts hiking the interest rate. In his own words he says that:

"If G is low, so that monetary policy cannot achieve full employment, the marginal cost of an additional unit of G is low, because the additional government purchases don't crowd out private spending. Once G is high enough to bring full employment, however, any further rise in government purchases will be offset by a rise in the interest rate, so that extra G does come at the expense of C, implying a jump in the marginal cost. As the figure suggests, there should be a fairly wide range of situations in which the optimal level of G is precisely the level at which the marginal cost jumps – that is, the optimal fiscal expansion is one that brings the economy right to full employment."

This is at best naive. One of the fundamental differences between micro economics and macro economics is that events that are binary in the micro world, become continuous functions in a macro world. In the micro world a single employee at a certain point in time is either fully employed or not. In the larger world of many people, many business sectors, many regions and many skill sets, you will always find some groups of people that see full employment, some groups that have more than full employment, some groups that are very far from full employment. For every stimulus dollar that is spent, the risk that the next dollar will affect a "tight" resource that would be used by the private sector if the government didn't use it, increases. This is an obvious risk that you can not disregard.

You can argue that smart government stimulus can limit the crowding-out effect, but saying that "additional government purchases don't crowd out private spending" without explaining how this would magically be the case just because an increase in G would not mean increased interest rates is not what I expect from a first class economist. He fully ignores the fact that inflation pressures would arrive well before full employment unless the government spending is perfectly assigned to regions, sectors and skill sets with available resources. This is an assumption that is as naive as the idea that all people are rational.

Professor Krugman is also discussing only one side of the issue when it comes to where the economy is today. Professor Krugman is taking the fact that the US is in a liquidity trap for granted, and that the US is wrestling with the zero-lower-bound for interest rates, even though there are obvious reasons for why you would argue that the US is not in or near a liquidity trap.

A liquidity trap is essentially a situation in which economic actors will hoard cash rather than make purchases and long-term investments, even though they get no interest on the cash they hoard and they can borrow money at nominal interest rates at or near 0%.

Neither of these two basic attributes of a liquidity trap are accurate when it comes to the current US situation.

First of all, the economic actors are not exposed to 0% interest rates. No final loans to private individuals or companies are made at or near a 0% interest rate. We do not know what would happen if people could borrow at rates near 0%, but if you believe the US is truly in a liquidity trap you must believe that the US savings rate would increase rapidly even in the event of people getting 0% on their savings and being able to borrow at something like 0.5%. Until we can actually see interest rates near 0% for actual private borrowers, we can't possibly be in a liquidity trap, although we might be at the risk of ending up in one.

Secondly, the savings rate, although rising, is still historically low, which means that people are not hoarding cash to a great degree. The demand for cash and cash-like instruments like treasury bills seems to be related to deleveraging by financial firms forced by big losses, and not by people who believe cash will be a good investment at a 0% nominal yield because the deflation will be big enough to create a large real return.

There is another phenomenon, that is not a liquidity trap, but that can also create disinflation and even short-lived deflation. The phenomenon is a credit crunch. In a credit crunch credit becomes hard and/or expensive to come by, and this dampens the willingness to borrow, spend and invest. The difference between a liquidity trap and a credit crunch is that in a liquidity trap people have ample access to cheap credit and still choose to not borrow money, while in a credit crunch people do not borrow money either because they can't or because they view borrowing as too expensive. The basic attributes of these two phenomena are such that they are mutually exclusive. In a credit crunch you have limited access to cheap credit, in a liquidity trap you have ample access to nearly free credit; you can't really have both.

An economy can be in a situation in which a certain minor sector of the economy experiences a credit crunch, while the rest of the economy experiences a liquidity trap. However, if major sectors are in a credit crunch, the economy as a whole can not be considered to be in a liquidity trap.

To me it is quite clear that ths US is currently in a credit crunch and not in a liquidity trap, although nothing guarantees that one doesn't give way for the other; when the credit crunch is over and people get good access to cheap or free credit, we will see if people refuse to borrow money.

So, if the US has a credit crunch, what can be done on the structural level to stop this, and can these solutions lower the risk of future credit bubbles and credit crunches? This is a huge area of debate and I will not be able to get into all the details in this blog entry. However, I do want to give some reflections based on the experiences from Sweden.

I think one key issue that is not very visible in US macro economic debate, but which is obvious to an outsider, is the fact that US credit markets are organized in a way that makes effective central bank intervention extremely difficult.

First of all, mortgages are essentially fixed rate products, and with fixed I mean mortgages with interest rates that reset less often than every 3 months. Yet, the Federal Reserve does not target the long term interest rates, but the overnight fed funds rate. Changing the overnight fed funds rate has a relatively small effect on the actual rates that real people can find when getting a mortgage, even if they choose an ARM product.

In my country, most mortgages have interest rates that reset every 3 months or more often. Some are even adjusted on a daily or weekly basis. With a policy rate (the repo rate) currently at 2%, most people pay somewhere between 2.4% and 3.5% interest rates on their mortgages. With every change in the repo rate, a majority of mortgage holders immediately or almost immediately see their rate change. This means that there is a very strong and immediate effect to rate changes. If the Swedish repo rate would be set to 0%, Swedish mortgage holders with good credit could actually get rates as low as 0,4%. You can not find rates like that in the US. In the same way, when the central bank hikes rates, the effect is also rapid. This makes it much easier for the Swedish central bank to stop credit bubbles before they get out of hand, and to stop credit crunches and liquidity traps with conventional monetary policy. The 0-lower-bound is not an issue that becomes relevant until actual mortgage rates are very near zero.

For the fed to have the same effect they need to go to unconventional monetary policy, which brings with it  a risk of creating large long-term imbalances. When Greenspan warned in 2003 that the Fed might intervene to lower longer term interest rates to stop deflation, the side effect was that long term interest rates fell below the market expectations for future short term interest rates. When you prepare the market for unconventional monetary policy to cut long-term interest rates, the market might keep pricing that chance in even in the long term, which means that low long term rates might live on long after the need for the stimulus is gone.

During much of the boom years, long term interest rates didn't react as much to the rate hikes as the Fed wanted them to, which meant that while the Federal Reserve increased their policy rate from 1% to 5.25%, long term mortgage rates moved very little.

As long as such a large chunk of credit in the US is based on a fixed interest rate, the central bank can not effectively apply conventional monetary policy to stop credit bubbles and credit crunches.

In the long term I do believe that stability is best achieved by moving credit to adjustable interest rates, to relieve the Federal Reserve of the need for wild fed funds rate swings and unconventional monetary policy.

But what can you do to get people to use mortgages with interest rates that reset at least every 3 months? Well, what makes people use these mortgages in Sweden? I believe that a few factors are of major importance.

First of all, I believe that prepayment penalties are key. In Sweden, if you pay off a fixed-rate mortgage before it expires, you have to pay for the interest rate differential between the fixed rate you're paying and the fixed rate the lender can get in the market by investing the money you lent in an equal investment. With 10 years left on a mortgage, this can work out to a very hefty sum. This means that the borrower who chooses to repay his mortgage in advance has to take all the costs of his prepayment and that the borrowers who do keep their mortgage until expiry, do not have to share the burden of other people making prepayments.

I understand full and well that prepayment fees are looked upon as something borderline evil in the US, but I believe they play a vital role both in making sure that borrowers actually pay for the mortgage they use, and to discourage people from getting fixed rate mortgages.

Secondly, I do believe that there should be no closing costs or points involved in getting a mortgage. This means that, as long as your mortgage is not a fixed rate mortgage, you can move your loan to another lender at any point in time, with zero cost. This promotes competition and promotes the use of adjustable rate products.

To make this work, you can not just implement these two things, or you would risk actually increasing the instability of the system. You also need to make mortgage recourse loans. You need to make sure that mortgage decisions are based on the verified income of the borrower, and not only on the assets of the borrower. With adjustable rates the income analysis becomes a lot more important since you have to take possible future interest rate hikes into account. If the property itself can not be used as the sole reason for why you can get a mortgage, the risk of credit bubbles decrease substantially.

Also, you need to make sure that you can not borrow nearly 100% of the property value. Finally, one thing that is desperately needed is new and strong regulation on what sort of mortgages that can be securitized. This also means that we can rather easily find solutions to how to get the other things to happen. New laws regarding the creation of mortgage backed securities could require that any mortgage packaged into an MBS fulfill the requirements I mention. It would be illegal to market mortgage based securities if they do not fully consist of recourse mortgages with prepayment penalties, no closing costs, a verified income that is high enough to handle the mortgage and a reasonable loan-to-value.

If this was to be implemented in the US, I believe the the federal reserve would have the tools necessary to better ensure sane credit availability and avoid the current boom and bust cycle.

Permalink     33 Comments


Att kolla på Krugman och sen räkna ut debatten som dålig är väl att ta i lite för mycket. Massor med kända och okända ekonomer har gjort tänkvärda inlägg i debatten. Fama, Mankiw, Barro och Mankiw för att nämna några.

Vilken data stöder du dig på när du säger att det är en credit crunch? Utlåningen till den icke-finansiella sektorn och privatpersoner har inte minskat.

Posted by SAJ on januari 26, 2009 at 12:35 fm CET #


Du har rätt i att det görs tänkvärda inlägg i debatten. Krugman är dock inte vem som helst, utan den senaste nobelpristagaren, och han är långt ifrån ensam om att skriva extremt politiska inlägg.

Ett tydligt tecken på att det existerar en credit crunch är den dramatiska utvecklingen för räntespreadarna samt stora svårigheter gällande möjligheten för företagssektorn att genomföra emissioner av diverse olika räntebärande papper. Man kan också i Federal Reserves "Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey on Bank Lending Practices" från i oktober utläsa att banktjänstemän blivit betydligt hårdare i sina kreditbedömningar, även om jag anser att det är svagare bevisning än spreadarna, emissionsvolymerna och emissionsvillkoren.

Posted by Sloped Mind on januari 26, 2009 at 12:44 fm CET #

Tack för en bra sajt.
En fråga dock, är du helt säker på att det inte kan finnas credit crunch och liquidity trap samtidigt? Jag anser att det har funnits tecken på liquidity trap också, eller vad skall man annars kalla det när företag och banker investerar i amerikanska stadspapper till 0% ränta, dvs i realiteten en negativ värdeutveckling? Det förekom i alla fall för någon månad sedan.

Posted by MrNisse on januari 26, 2009 at 09:21 fm CET #

Nice post. I had made similar remarks, more ironic on my blog http://mgiannini.blogspot.com. Although I may share some of Prof. Krugman's "political" positions, I underlined that he is contributing to the same appaling level of the debate. For instance his haste conclusions "make it bigger" and/or "make it quicker" are not always justified. I think that this kind of U.S. macro economic debate is not giving a good image of economists profession but it contributes to explain why we screwed our economies up in the past years.

Posted by M.G. in Progress on januari 26, 2009 at 09:46 fm CET #


man kan möjligen tänka sig att det skulle kunna förekomma en credit crunch för en del av ekonomin samtidigt som man har en liquidity trap i en annan, men jag är ganska skeptisk till en sådan tanke. Med en liquidity trap så hjälper inte billigare krediter, men om man har en credit crunch i en del av ekonomin så innebär det att man inte löpt linan ut vad gäller billig kredit-tillgång och man står inte vid nollränta, så frågan om huruvida noll-ränta räcker blir hypotetisk.

Att korta amerikanska statspapper handlas till 0% ränta tror jag är ett resultat av två saker: Federal Reserve har fixerat korträntan nära 0% och man kommer att hålla den där. Statspapper är säkra och ska därmed ge ungefär den ränta som förväntas framöver. Ännu viktigare är dock den hävstångsminskning som sker inom finans-sektorn, där aktörer pressade av extrema förluster flyr från osäkra tillgångar och köper säkra.

Man kan se 0-räntan på statspapper som en naturlig spegelbild av den credit crunch som existerar för den privata sektorn. Pengarna som inte lånas ut till den privata sektorn måste ta sig någonstans - och pengar finns det gott om, och då hamnar de ofta i statspapper.

Posted by Sloped Mind on januari 26, 2009 at 09:52 fm CET #

Tack för att du benar ut det teoretiska. Skrämmande är att det politiska ska använda teorin i praktiken utan att riktigt förstå den. Dessutom verka i en brutalt komplex världssituation.
Jag undrar hur uthållig och självständig USA kan vara i sin räntesättning om trovärdigheten eller ekonomin brakar mer än man törs tänka. Vart går gränsen för FED att låna upp av sig själv? om nu det skulle bli svårt från tidigare långivare. Finns det något exempel i historien?

Posted by Snobben on januari 26, 2009 at 10:51 fm CET #

Good post. What you said needed to be said.

But I think you are mistaken on one point. A change in the rate of interest on an OLD (pre-existing) loan does not matter. (Or, it matters very little). It makes the borrower richer, and the lender poorer. The borrower will spend more, the lender will spend less. There are income effects only, but the borrowers' and lenders' income effects will approximately cancel out. It is only the rate of interest on NEW loans which creates a substitution effect. If the rate of interest on new loans goes down, people will want to borrow more, and lend less, so aggregate demand rises.

Also, I think that all US mortgages are already "open" (you have the right under the law to refinance if interest rates fall).

Posted by Nick Rowe on januari 26, 2009 at 11:27 fm CET #

Sloped mind,

Ännu en intressant och bra artikel.

Fannie och Freddys problem härstammar till stor del från att man kan "sätta om" lån till lägre ränta och "drev på" Köp-bubblan i USA ekonomin högst avsevärt då man tog-ut equity i sina fastigheter. Detta var inget unikt för Fanny och Freddie men de har väl mer än 50% av lånestocken så det har definitivt bidragit till köp-bubblan.

Tror att USA har minst lika effektiv transmission mechanism som sverige när det gäller FEDs ränte "policies"...det finns ju ARMs i USA också (en del av dessa missbrukades dock fundamentalt i sub-prime segementet

BTW...tror jag vet var du jobbar nu...:)

Posted by Magnus on januari 26, 2009 at 03:21 em CET #

M.G. in Progress & Nick Rowe,

Thank you for your comments! It's good to see some non-Swedish comments!


I think you're right in that the change of the interest rate for existing loans is small (there might be an effect arising from the fact that borrowers might spend the money they don't have to pay faster than the lender would cut its spending back, considering that a lot of mortgage debt is sitting in retirement funds, but I'm purely speculating here, as I have not seen studie suggesting this).

I didn't express this very well, and I thank you for pointing it out, but the effect I meant to focus on is that short term interest rates correlate much better with traditional central back policy rates than to long term interest rates, for obvious reasons. There is no way the federal reserve can use conventional monetary policy to push the "headline" mortgage rates down to the levels they want, and in 2004 through 2006 they failed to push the mortgage rates up to the levels they wanted, which was one factor behind the credit bubble.

The fact that you can refinance does not make a fundamental difference to the fact that the Federal Reserve can not effectively move mortgage rates as they would like, without unconventional monetary policy.

Posted by Sloped Mind on januari 26, 2009 at 04:24 em CET #

I think we can be in a liquidity trap and a credit crunch at the same time. While my post on this tries to say why, note that your post formed a good introduction to the material I was mulling over:


Posted by pgl on januari 26, 2009 at 05:22 em CET #

I disagree with your re-fi comments. Look no further than the U.S. 2003 re-fi boom for proof that Fed policy can affect the effective mortgage rate. Roughly a quarter of all outstanding mortgages were re-fi'd in that year (mostly into adjustable rate mortgages, but also into low-fixed rate ones). Probably 40% were re-fi'd between 2003 and 2004.

A fixed rate mortgage carries with it a put should rates fall below a certain level. The transaction costs of exercising that put WERE relatively low due to a highly efficient mortgage origination market. This means they enabled monetary policy transmission quite smoothly.

Now, of course, those same re-fi costs are much higher, or infinite in the case of no-money-down and stated-income buyers (as they cannot access re-fi's at any price). That's why the policy transmission mechanism has broken down, and not because of the inherent properties of fixed rate mortgage loans. But can you really call this a "breakdown"? After all, borrowers with poor capacity to repay should not be getting credit in an efficient credit market. Its fine to argue that the Fed would rather these markets not be efficient, so as to have a smoother transmission mechanism. However, inefficiency has a cost -- in the case the enabling of future credit losses from those poor credits.

In short, reducing the cost of credit to borrowers who cannot repay is a poor substitute for monetary policy as it just kicks the problem down the road.

Posted by David Pearson on januari 26, 2009 at 05:36 em CET #

Att Krugman är en politisk pundit kan väl knappast komma som en överraskning? Det är ganska långt mellan den nobelprisvinnande akademikerna Krugman och punditen Krugman. Nog om det.

Att fokusera på spreadar under en finanskris är lite malplacerad då the flight to quality trycker ner den reala avkastningen på statspapper. Om man istället kollar på nivåer så ligger de för kommersiella papper under 2006 års nivåer. Utlåningen till icke-finansiella företag har inte minskat, tvärtom. Det går att läsa här: http://www.minneapolisfed.org/research/WP/WP666.pdf

Om vi har en credit crunch så är den inte särskilt allvarlig.

Posted by SAJ on januari 26, 2009 at 05:42 em CET #


Yes, I've updated the entry somewhat to reflect the fact that you could possibly see a credit crunch in a specific sector while being in a liquidity trap. MrNisse also made this comment in Swedish.

Posted by Sloped Mind on januari 26, 2009 at 06:40 em CET #

David Pearson,

I certainly do believe that the Fed can make people refi, but I do not belive that the Fed can make people refi to interest rates near 0% without extreme measures. In Sweden, this can actually be done, making the 0-lower-bound a much smaller problem.

I absolutely agree with what you say about reducing the cost of credit to borrowers who can not repay being a lousy substitute for good monetary policy. I believe very much in making lending standards tighter, especially when it comes to the income you need to take out a mortgage. If you move people to adjustable rates, this is extremely important. A huge problem with the US ARM market is that the lending standards have not been appropriate for a situation in which the interest rate changes dramatically. This needs to be fixed.

Posted by Sloped Mind on januari 26, 2009 at 06:46 em CET #

"The Fed's only option is effectively to 'print money' by crediting the reserve balances held by commercial banks at the central bank,"

There's no limit to the amount of money that the Fed can print and Congress can spend,"

"If it were another country, the U.S. should probably declare bankruptcy."

"The people who tell you they know what's going to happen in the next 12 months are either foolish or liar"

Posted by Copy on januari 26, 2009 at 08:03 em CET #


Ah, så du tror att du vet var jag jobbar! Maila mig på kontakt-adressen längst ner på sidan så säger jag om du har rätt eller fel.

Posted by Sloped Mind on januari 26, 2009 at 08:24 em CET #


Intressant artikel som jag inte hade sett! Tack för länken. Du skriver att flight-to-quality trycker ner statsräntorna. Detta är helt sant, men om vi nu har en flight to quality så betyder det också att pengarna flyr från något, och det är där vi ser en credit crunch. Den ser du bland annat i figurerna 6A och B i artikeln du länkar till.

Flight-to-quality är ett typiskt attribut för en credit crunch.

Flykten har minskat något sedan under den svagaste perioden i oktober, vilket jag bloggat om tidigare, här: http://www.slopedcurve.com/roller/makro/entry/ljuspunkter_mitt_i_finansm%C3%B6rkret

Det är också farligt att enbart se på lånevolymen när man fastställer ifall man har en credit crunch. En credit crunch handlar om utbudet av kredit, men volymerna påverkas av både utbud och efterfrågan. I svagare tider behöver fler låntagare använda sig av sina kreditmöjligheter och utan tuffare kreditvillkor skulle utlåningen sannolikt ha stigit extremt snabbt för tillfället.

Posted by Sloped Mind on januari 26, 2009 at 08:36 em CET #

Jag älskar att följa dessa intressanta diskussioner, trots att jag egentligen inte är insatt i alla detaljbegrepp ni använder utan bara är intresserad av om jag ska binda mina bolån eller inte.
jörgen sundberg

Posted by on januari 26, 2009 at 09:00 em CET #


Krugman weighs in on your claim but linking to my post. Check my update as I agree 100% with what Krugman has written!

Posted by pgl on januari 26, 2009 at 10:41 em CET #

Thanks for letting me know pgl!

I've written a new entry as a response.

Posted by Sloped Mind on januari 26, 2009 at 10:51 em CET #

In a liquidity trap, banks are unwilling to lend, so the central bank's newly-created liquidity is trapped behind unwilling lenders. (ur wikipedia.)

Så om man köper wikipedias definition är det visst möjligt att ha en credit crunch och en liquidity trap. Man kan till och med säga att det är just det som en liquidity trap innebär.

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