Roger Farmer on NGDP futures targeting
By Scott Sumner
I had the good fortune of meeting Roger Farmer last year, when he was still teaching at UCLA. We had a great discussion of Keynes’s ideas. (I seem to recall we both thought he was misunderstood, and that the General Theory focused more on wages and nominal spending, rather than prices and real GDP.)
Unfortunately I’ve been so busy with two book projects that I haven’t had much time to revisit his work, which includes a fascinating recent book called “Prosperity for All”. Cloud Yip recently interviewed Farmer as part of his “Where is the General Theory for the 21st Century?” series, and the interview included this interesting passage:
When they started intervening in the MBS market, the stock market began to rise. When they stopped intervening in the MBS market, the stock market slowed down again. A policy of this kind can and should be pursued in the future. There is more than one way to intervene and I am not sure which is the best way. I have advocated intervention in the equity markets, but others, Scott Sumner and Bob Shiller, for example, have advocated instead that we create a market for GDP futures. That market doesn’t exist yet. If it did exist, it would be a good substitute for operating in the stock market.
Q: Do you think that the central banks buying and selling NGDP futures would be a better policy, compared to interventions in the stock market?
F: If you could create a thick enough market for NGDP futures, then yes. There is a lot of skepticism over whether that would be feasible.
The reason for both kinds of interventions is related to the connection between the asset markets and consumption. Traditional Keynesians think, or thought, that consumption depends on income. In the 1950s and the 1960s, with the work of Milton Friedman on the Permanent Income Hypothesis and Franco Modigliani on the Life Cycle Hypothesis, we learned instead that consumption does not depend on income, it depends primarily on wealth.
The asset markets are highly developed in western economies, and those people who would be buying and selling NGDP futures will also be buying and selling stocks. Arbitrage opportunities would cause interventions in one of those markets to spill over to all of them.
When wealth fluctuates and stays up or down persistently, those wealth changes feed into consumption, and consumption feeds into employment. Asset price fluctuations, caused by animal spirits, become self-fulfilling. In my view, intervention in the asset markets operates through wealth effects. I remain eclectic as to the best way to intervene in these markets to stabilize asset price movements.
I don’t agree with everything in Farmer’s book (I am more sympathetic to natural rate models, for instance), but it’s exactly the sort of thought provoking, outside the box work that we need more of. The last thing the profession needs is a new DSGE model with a slight twist, which tells us almost nothing about how the profession was so far off base in 2008.
One of the things I like best about Farmer’s work is the focus on asset prices. I believe that an increased focus on asset prices offers a way forward for macro in the 21st century.
PS. Bloomberg recently quoted me in a piece on liberal/conservative opposition to appointing Kevin Warsh as Fed chair:
“It is not obvious why he would be a good choice,” said Scott Sumner, the director of the monetary policy program at the Mercatus Center, a free-market oriented research center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. “He was given a chance to do a good job at a lower level, and did poorly.”
Reporters must boil down long interviews to single quotes, so let me mention that I also pointed to the fact that he did not have any qualifications for a job in monetary policy when he was appointed to the Fed in 2006. I’m not someone obsessed with credentials, and I’d be willing to support someone lacking normal credentials if there was some other evidence of their ability. What’s so troublesome about Warsh is that he did very poorly in his time on the Federal Reserve Board. No credentials and a poor track record—do we give that man the most important economic policymaking position in the world, or keep the woman who is highly talented and is doing a decent job in getting the economy close to the Fed’s inflation/employment targets?