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Posts Tagged ‘liquidity trap’

End of the era of liquidity traps?

The linked article below from The Economist looks at whether the election of Donald Trump, the effects of the Brexit vote and policies being pursued elsewhere in the world mark a new macroeconomic era. We may be about to witness rising inflation and the end of the era of tight fiscal policy and loose monetary policy. We might see a return of a more Keynesian approach to macreconomic policy.

According to the article, since the financial crisis of 2008, we have been witnessing economies stuck in a liquidity trap. In such cases, there is little scope for further reductions in interest rates. And increases in money supply, in the form of quantitative easing, tend to be held in idle balances, rather than being spent on goods and services. The idle balances take the form of increased bank reserves to rebuild their capital base and increased purchases of assets such as shares and property.

Even if people did believe that monetary policy would work to boost aggregate demand and result in higher inflation, then they would also believe that any such boost would be temporary as central banks would then have to tighten monetary policy to keep inflation within the target they had been set. This would limit spending increases, keeping the economy in the liquidity trap.

With a liquidity trap, fiscal policy is likely to be much more effective than monetary policy in boosting aggregate demand. However, its scope to pull an economy out of recession and create sustained higher growth depends on the extent to which governments, and markets, can tolerate higher budget deficits and growing debt. With governments seeking to claw down deficits and ultimately debt, this severely limits the potential for using fiscal policy.

With the election of Donald Trump, we might be entering a new era of fiscal policy. He has promised large-scale infrastructure spending and tax cuts. Although he has also promised to reduce the deficit, he is implying that this will only occur when the economy is growing more rapidly and hence tax revenues are increasing.

Is Donald Trump a Keynesian? Or are such promises merely part of campaigning – promises that will be watered down when he takes office in January? We shall have to wait and see whether we are about to enter a new era of macroeconomic policy – an era that has been increasingly advocated by international bodies, such as the IMF and the OECD (see the blog post, OECD goes public).

Slumponomics: Trump and the political economy of liquidity traps The Economist (10/11/16)


  1. Explain what is meant by ‘the liquidity trap’.
  2. Why is monetary policy relatively ineffective in a liquidity trap? Use a diagram to support your argument.
  3. Why is fiscal policy (in the absence of public-sector deficit targets) relatively effective in a liquidity trap? Again, use a diagram to support your argument.
  4. Examine how the Japanese government attempted to escape the liquidity trap? (Search this site for ‘Abenomics’.)
  5. In what ways may the depreciation of the pound since the Brexit vote help the UK to escape the liquidity trap?
  6. Could a different form of quantitative easing, known as ‘helicopter money’, whereby government or private spending is financed directly by new money, allow countries to escape the liquidity trap? (Search this site for ‘helicopter money’.)
  7. Why may a political upheaval be necessary for a country to escape the liquidity trap?
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Brazil: suffering from an old economic problem in the new world

The article below looks at the economy of Brazil. The statistics do not look good. Real output fell last year by 3.8% and this year it is expected to fall by another 3.3%. Inflation this year is expected to be 9.0% and unemployment 11.2%, with the government deficit expected to be 10.4% of GDP.

The article considers Keynesian economics in the light of the case of Brazil, which is suffering from declining potential supply, but excess demand. It compares Brazil with the case of most developed countries in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Here countries have suffered from a lack of demand, made worse by austerity policies, and only helped by expansionary monetary policy. But the effect of the monetary policy has generally been weak, as much of the extra money has been used to purchase assets rather than funding a growth in aggregate demand.

Different policy prescriptions are proposed in the article. For developed countries struggling to grow, the solution would seem to be expansionary fiscal policy, made easy to fund by lower interest rates. For Brazil, by contrast, the solution proposed is one of austerity. Fiscal policy should be tightened. As the article states:

Spending restraint might well prove painful for some members of Brazilian society. But hyperinflation and default are hardly a walk in the park for those struggling to get by. Generally speaking, austerity has been a misguided policy approach in recent years. But Brazil is a special case. For now, anyway.

The tight fiscal policies could be accompanied by supply-side policies aimed at reducing bureaucracy and inefficiency.

Brazil and the new old normal: There is more than one kind of economic mess to be in The Economist, Free Exchange Economics (12/10/16)


  1. Explain what is meant by ‘crowding out’.
  2. What is meant by the ‘liquidity trap’? Why are many countries in the developed world currently in a liquidity trap?
  3. Why have central banks in the developed world found it difficult to stimulate growth with policies of quantitative easing?
  4. Under what circumstances would austerity policies be valuable in the developed world?
  5. Why is crowding out of fiscal policy unlikely to occur to any great extent in Europe, but is highly likely to occur in Brazil?
  6. What has happened to potential GDP in Brazil in the past couple of years?
  7. What is meant by the ‘terms of trade’? Why have Brazil’s terms of trade deteriorated?
  8. What sort of policies could the Brazilian government pursue to raise growth rates? Are these demand-side or supply-side policies?
  9. Should Brazil pursue austerity policies and, if so, what form should they take?
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A respectful debate about austerity versus stimulus

There has been an interesting debate recently about whether the austerity policies being pursued in the UK are the correct ones. What would have happened if the government had pursued a more expansionary policy? Would the increase in borrowing, at least in the short term, have triggered a financial crisis?

Without austerity policies, would the eurozone crisis have led to a collapse in investor confidence in the UK, especially if Greece had been forced out of the euro?

On the one side, Kenneth Rogoff argues that increasing the UK’s budget deficit would have been dangerous and could have led to a flight from the pound. Generally, but with some reservations, he supports the fiscal policies that have been pursued by the Coalition.

I am certainly not arguing that the UK or other advanced countries handled the post-crisis period perfectly. There should have been more infrastructure spending, even more aggressive monetary policy and probably more ruthless bank restructuring. But there has to be a balance between stimulus and stability. To assume we always knew things would calm down, and to retrospectively calibrate policy advice accordingly, is absurd

Paul Krugman and Simon Wren-Lewis challenge Rogoff’s arguments. Paul Krugman uses a version of the IS-LM model to analyse the effect of a loss of international confidence in the UK following problems in the eurozone and worries about excessive UK borrowing.

In the model, the LM curve (labelled MP in Krugman’s diagrams) illustrates the effect of an increase in real GDP on interest rates with a particular monetary policy (e.g. an inflation target or a Taylor rule, which involves a mix of two policy objectives: an inflation target and real GDP). As GDP rises, putting upward pressure on inflation, so the central bank will raise interest rates. Hence, like the traditional LM curve, the monetary-policy related LM curve will slope upwards, as shown in the diagram.

Initial equilibrium GDP is Y0. The rate of interest is at the minimum level, r0 (i.e. the rate of 0.5% that the Monetary Policy Committee has set since January 2009). This, in the model, is the liquidity trap, where any increase in money supply (a rightward shift in the LM curve) will have no effect on interest rates or GDP.

In Rogoff’s analysis of a crisis triggered by excessive borrowing and problems in the eurozone, the IS curve will shift to the left (as illustrated by curve IS1) as capital flows from the UK and confidence collapses. Real GDP will fall to Y1. This will be the outcome of fiscal expansion in the world of the early 2010s.

Krugman argues that the opposite will occur. The outflow of capital will drive down the exchange rate. This will lead to an increase in exports and a decrease in imports. Aggregate demand thus rises and the IS curve will shift to the right (e.g. to IS2 in the diagram. Real GDP will rise (e.g. to Y2 in the diagram). If the rise in aggregate demand is sufficient, the economy will rise out of the liquidity trap and interest rates will rise (e.g. to r2 in the diagram).

Not surprisingly, Rogoff challenges this analysis, as you will see if you read his second paper below. He doesn’t criticise the model per se, but challenges Krugman’s assumptions. For example, a depreciation of sterling by some 20% since 2008 doesn’t seem to have had a major effect in stimulating exports (see the chart in the news item, A balancing act). And exports could well have declined if the eurozone economy had collapsed, given that exports to the eurozone account for around 44% of total UK exports.

Rogoff’s assumptions in turn can be challenged. Simon Wren-Lewis argues that, provided a credible long-term plan for deficit reduction is in place, maintaining a fiscal stimulus in the short run, to keep the recovery going that was beginning to emerge in 2010, would help to increase investor confidence, not undermine it. And, with a policy of quantitative easing, which involves the Bank of England buying central government debt, there is no problem of a lack of demand for UK gilts by the private sector.

What is clear from this debate is the willingness of both sides to accept points made by the other. It is an extremely civilised debate. In fact, it could be seen as a model of how academic debate should be conducted. There is none of the ‘shouting’ that has charaterised much of the pro- and anti-austerity lobbying since the financial crisis burst onto the world stage.

Britain should not take its credit status for granted Scholars at Harvard from Financial Times, Kenneth Rogoff (3/10/13)
Ken Rogoff on UK austerity mainly macro, Simon Wren-Lewis (3/10/13)
Phantom Crises (Wonkish) The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman (3/10/13)
Three Wrongs do not make a Right Scholars at Harvard from Financial Times, Kenneth Rogoff (7/10/13)
Is George Osborne really a hero of global finance? The Guardian, Robert Skidelsky (24/10/13)


  1. Explain how the policy-dependent LM curve illustrated in the diagram is derived.
  2. What would cause the policy-dependent LM curve to shift?
  3. Explain what is meant by the ‘liquidity trap’. Why does being in a liquidity trap make monetary policy ineffective?
  4. How would you determine whether or not the UK is currently in a liquidity trap?
  5. How is the level of (a) public-sector debt and (b) private sector debt owed overseas likely to affect the confidence of investors concerning the effects of an expansionary fiscal policy?
  6. Compare the UK’s total external debt with that of other countries (see the following tables from Principal Global Indicators, hosted by the IMF: External debt and Short-term external debt).
  7. What insurance policy (if any) does the UK have to protect against market panic about the viability of UK debt?
  8. What areas of agreement are there between Rogoff on the one side and Krugman and Wren-Lewis on the other?
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Keynes versus the Classics: a new version of an old story

The ‘Classical’ Treasury view of the 1920s and 30s was that extra government spending or tax cuts were not the solution to depression and mass unemployment. Instead, it would crowd out private expenditure if the money supply were not allowed to rise as it would drive up interest rates. But if money supply were allowed to rise, this would be inflationary. The solution was to reduce budget deficits to increase confidence in public finances and to encourage private investment. Greater price and wage flexibility were the answer to markets not clearing.

Keynes countered these arguments by arguing that the economy could settle in a state of mass unemployment, with low confidence leading to lower consumer expenditure, lower investment, lower incomes and lower employment. The situation would be made worse, not better, by cuts in public expenditure or tax rises in an attempt to reduce the budget deficit. The solution was higher public expenditure to stimulate aggregate demand. This could be achieved by fiscal and monetary policies. Monetary policy alone could, however, be made ineffective by the liquidity trap. Extra money might simply be held rather than spent.

This old debate has been reborn since the financial crisis of 2007/8 and the subsequent deep recession and, more recently, the lack of recovery. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The articles below consider the current situation. Many economists, but certainly not all, take a Keynesian line that austerity policies to reduce public-sector deficits have been counter-productive. By dampening demand, such policies have reduced national income and slowed the recovery in both investment and consumer demand. This has at best slowed the rate of deficit reduction or at worst even increased the deficit, with lower GDP leading to a reduction in tax receipts and higher unemployment leading to higher government social security expenditure.

Although monetary policy has been very loose, measures such as record low interest rates and quantitative easing have been largely ineffective in stimulating demand. Economies are stuck in a liquidity trap, with banks preferring to build their reserves rather than to increase lending. This is the result partly of a lack of confidence and partly of pressure on them to meet Basel II and III requirements of reducing their leverage.

But despite the call from many economists to use fiscal policy and more radical monetary policy to stimulate demand, most governments have been pre-occupied with reducing their deficits and ultimately their debt. Their fear is that rising deficits undermine growth – a fear that was given weight by, amongst others, the work of Reinhart and Rogoff (see the blog posts Reinhart and Rogoff: debt and growth and It could be you and see also Light at the end of the tunnel – or an oncoming train?.

But there is some movement by governments. The new Japanese government under Shinzo Abe is following an aggressive monetary policy to drive down the exchange rate and boost aggregate demand (see A J-curve for Japan?) and, more recently, the European Commission has agreed to slow the pace of austerity by giving the Netherlands, France, Spain, Poland, Portugal and Slovenia more time to bring their budget deficits below the 3% of GDP target.

Of course, whether or not expansionary fiscal and/or monetary policies should be used to tackle a lack of growth does not alter the argument that supply-side policies are also required in order to increase potential economic growth.

A Keynesian Victory, but Austerity Stands Firm The New York Times, Business Day, Eduardo Porter (21/5/13)
With Austerity Under Fire, Countries Seek a More Balanced Solution Knowledge@Wharton (22/5/13)
Keynes, Say’s Law and the Theory of the Business Cycle History of Economics Review 25.1-2, Steven Kates (1996)
Is Lord Keynes back in Brussels? The Conversation, Fabrizio Carmignani (31/5/13)
Keynes’s Biggest Mistake The New York Times, Business Day, Bruce Bartlett (7/5/13)
Keynes’s Not So Big Mistake The New York Times, The Conscience of a Liberal blog, Paul Krugman (7/5/13)
The Chutzpah Caucus The New York Times, The Conscience of a Liberal blog, Paul Krugman (5/5/13)
Keynes and Keynesianism The New York Times, Business Day, Bruce Bartlett (14/5/13)
Japan Is About To Prove Keynesian Economics Entirely Wrong Forbes, Tim Worstall (11/5/13)
The poverty of austerity exposed Aljazeera, Paul Rosenberg (24/5/13)
Britain is a lab rat for George Osborne’s austerity programme experiment The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/5/13)
Eurozone retreats from austerity – but only as far as ‘austerity lite’ The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/5/13)
Europe’s long night of uncertainty Daily Times (Pakistan), S P Seth (29/5/13)
Abenomics vs. bad economics The Japan Times Gregory Clark (29/5/13)
European countries to be allowed to ease austerity BBC News (29/5/13)
U.K. Should Restore Growth, Rebalance Economy IMF Survey (22/5/13)
Now everyone is a Keynesian again – except George Osborne The Observer, William Keegan (2/6/13)
Austerity Versus Growth (III): Fiscal Policy And Debt Sustainability Social Europe Journal, Stefan Collignon (30/5/13)


  1. Explain what is meant by Say’s Law and its implication for macroeconomic policy.
  2. Why have many governments, including the UK government, been reluctant to pursue expansionary fiscal policies?
  3. What is meant by the liquidity trap? What is the way out of this trap?
  4. In the first article above, Eduardo Porter argues that ‘moral views are getting in the way of reason’. What does he mean by this?
  5. Explain what are meant by the ‘paradox of thrift’ and the ‘fallacy of composition’. How are these two concepts relevant to the debate over austerity policies?
  6. What are the dangers in pursuing aggressive Keynesian policies?
  7. What are the dangers in not pursuing aggressive Keynesian policies?
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The political dynamite of calm economic reflection

In a carefully argued article in the New Statesman, the UK Business Secretary, Vince Cable, considers the slow recovery in the economy and whether additional measures should be adopted. He sums up the current state of the economy as follows:

The British economy is still operating at levels around or below those before the 2008 financial crisis and roughly 15 per cent below an albeit unsustainable pre-crisis trend. There was next to no growth during 2012 and the prospect for 2013 is of very modest recovery.

Unsurprisingly there is vigorous debate as to what has gone wrong. And also what has gone right; unemployment has fallen as a result of a million (net) new jobs in the private sector and there is vigorous growth of new enterprises. Optimistic official growth forecasts and prophets of mass unemployment have both been confounded.

He argues that supply-side policies involving “a major and sustained commitment to skills, innovation and infrastructure investment” are essential if more rapid long-term growth is to be achieved. This is relatively uncontroversial.

But he also considers the claim that austerity has kept the economy from recovering and whether policies to tackle the negative output gap should be adopted, even if this means a short-term increase in government borrowing.

But crude Keynesian policies of expanding aggregate demand are both difficult to implement and may not take into account the particular circumstance of the current extended recession – or depression – in the UK and in many eurozone countries. World aggregate demand, however, is not deficient. In fact it is expanding quite rapidly, and with the sterling exchange rate index some 20% lower than before the financial crisis, this should give plenty of opportunity for UK exporters.

Yet expanding UK aggregate demand is proving difficult to achieve. Consumers, worried about falling real wages and large debts accumulated in the years of expansion, are reluctant to increase consumption and take on more debts, despite low interest rates. In the light of dampened consumer demand, firms are reluctant to invest. This makes monetary policy particularly ineffective, especially when banks have become more risk averse and wish to hold higher reserves, and indeed are under pressure to do so.

So what can be done? He argues that there is “some scope for more demand to boost output, particularly if the stimulus is targeted on supply bottlenecks such as infrastructure and skills.” In other words, he advocates policies that will simultaneously increase both aggregate demand and aggregate supply. Monetary policy, involving negative real interest rates and quantitative easing, has helped to prevent a larger fall in real aggregate demand and a deeper dive into recession, but the dampened demand for money and the desire by banks to build their reserves has meant a massive fall in the money multiplier. Perhaps monetary policy needs to be more aggressive still (see the blog post, Doves from above), but this may not be sufficient.

Which brings Dr Cable to the political dynamite! He advocates an increase in public investment on infrastructure (schools and colleges, hospitals, road and rail projects and housing, and considers whether this should be financed, not by switching government expenditure away from current spending, but by borrowing more.

Such a strategy does not undermine the central objective of reducing the structural deficit, and may assist it by reviving growth. It may complicate the secondary objective of reducing government debt relative to GDP because it entails more state borrowing; but in a weak economy, more public investment increases the numerator and the denominator.

He raises the question of whether the balance of risks has changed: away from the risk of increased short-term borrowing causing a collapse of confidence to the risk of lack of growth causing a deterioration in public finances and this causing a fall in confidence. As we saw in the blog post Moody Blues, the lack of growth has already caused one ratings agency (Moody’s) to downgrade the UK’s credit rating. The other two major agencies, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch may well follow suit.

The day after Dr Cable’s article was published, David Cameron gave a speech saying that the government would stick to its plan of deficit reduction. Not surprisingly commentators interpreted this as a split in the Coalition. Carefully argued economics from Dr Cable it might have been, but political analysts have seen it as a hand grenade, as you will see from some of the articles below.

When the facts change, should I change my mind? New Statesman, Vince Cable (6/3/13)
Keynes would be on our side New Statesman, Vince Cable (12/1/11)
Exclusive: Vince Cable calls on Osborne to change direction New Statesman, George Eaton (67/3/13)
Vince Cable: Borrowing may not be as bad as slow growth BBC News (7/3/13)
Vince Cable makes direct challenge to Cameron over economic programme The Guardian, Nicholas Watt (7/3/13)
Vince Cable Says George Osborne Must Change Course And Borrow More To Revive Growth Huffington Post, Ned Simons (6/3/13)
David Cameron and Vince Cable at war over route to recovery Independent, Andrew Grice (6/3/13)
Vince Cable: Borrowing may not be as bad as slow growth BBC News, James Landale (6/3/13)
David Cameron: We will hold firm on economy BBC News (7/3/13)
David Cameron: We will hold firm on economy BBC News (7/3/13)
Clegg Backs Cable Over Controversial Economy Comments LBC Radio, Nick Clegg (7/3/13)
It’s plain what George Osborne needs to do – so just get on and do it The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (6/3/13)
Vince Cable’s plan B: a “matter of judgement” BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (7/3/13)
George Osborne needs to turn on the spending taps The Guardian, Phillip Inman (12/3/13)


  1. Why has monetary policy proved ineffective in achieving a rapid recovery from recession?
  2. Distinguish between discretionary fiscal policy and automatic fiscal stabilisers.
  3. Why has the existence of automatic fiscal stabilisers meant that the public-sector deficit has been difficult to bring down?
  4. In what ways has the balance of risks in using discretionary fiscal policy changed over the past three years?
  5. In what ways is the depression of the late 2000s/early 2010s (a) similar to and (b) different from the Great Depression of the early 1930s?
  6. In what ways is the structure of public-sector debt in the UK different from that in many countries in the eurozone? Why does this give the government more scope for expansionary fiscal policy?
  7. Why does the Office of Budget Responsibility’s estimates of the tax and government expenditure multipliers suggest that “if fiscal policy is to work in a Keynesian manner, it needs to be targeted carefully, concentrating on capital projects”?
  8. Why did Keynes argue that monetary policy is ineffective at the zero bound (to use Dr Cable’s terminology)? Are we currently at the zero bound? If so what can be done?
  9. Has fiscal tightening more than offset loose monetary policy?
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Pushing on a string

With the UK and eurozone economies in recession and with business and consumer confidence low, the Bank of England and the ECB have sprung into action.

The ECB has cut its main refinancing rate from 1% to an all-time low of 0.75%. Meanwhile, the Bank of England has embarked on a further round of quantitative easing (QE). The MPC voted to inject a further £50 billion through its asset purchase scheme, bring the total to £375 billion since QE began in March 2009.

And it is not just in Europe that monetary policy is being eased. In Australia and China interest rates have been cut. In the USA, there have been further asset purchases by the Fed and it is expected that the Japanese central bank will cut rates very soon, along with those in Korea, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

But with consumers seeming reluctant to spend and businesses being reluctant to invest, will the new money in the UK and elsewhere actually be lent and spent? Or will it simply sit in banks, boosting their liquidity base, but doing little if anything to boost aggregate demand?

And likewise in the eurozone, will a 25 basis point reduction in interest rates (i.e. a 0.25 percentage point reduction) do anything to boost borrowing and spending?

It is like pushing on a string – a term used by Keynesians to refer to the futile nature of monetary policy when people are reluctant to spend. Indeed the evidence over the past few years since QE started is that despite narrow money having risen massively, M4 lending has declined (see chart).

For a PowerPoint of the chart, click here.

The following articles look at the conundrum

Draghi-King Push May Mean Bigger Step Into Zero-Rate Era BloombergBusinessweek, Simon Kennedy (4/7/12)
QE and rate cut as central banks play stimulus card Independent, Ben Chu (6/7/12)
QE is welcome, but not enough Independent, Leader (6/7/12)
Interest rates cut to spur growth China Daily, Wang Xiaotian, Ding Qingfen and Gao Changxin (6/7/12)
Rate cuts shake global confidence Sydney Morning Herald, Eric Johnston, Clancy Yeates and Peter Cai (7/7/12)
Global Policy Easing Presses Asia to Cut Rates BloombergBusinessweek, Sharon Chen and Justina Lee (6/7/12)
Economic slowdown raises alarm in China, Europe Globe and Mail, Kevin Carmichael (5/7/12)
Bank of England sets sail with QE3 BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (5/7/12)
The twilight of the central banker The Economist (26/6/12)
The case for truly bold monetary policy Financial Times, Martin Wolf (28/6/12)


  1. Is the world economy in a liquidity trap?
  2. What advice would you give politicians around the world seeking to boost consumer and business confidence?
  3. Are we witnessing “The twilight of the central banker”? (See The Economist article above.)
  4. Explain the following extracts from the Martin Wolf article: “In a monetary system, based on fiat (or man-made) money, the state guarantees the money supply in the interests of the public. In normal times, however, actual supply is a byproduct of lending activities of banks. It is, in brief, the product of privately operated printing presses… In the last resort, the power to create money rests properly with the state. When private sector supply is diminishing, as now, the state not only can, but should, step in, with real urgency.”
  5. Should monetary policy in the UK be combined with fiscal policy in providing a stimulus at a time when the government can borrow ultra cheaply from the Bank of England? Does this apply to other governments around the world?
  6. Why did Asian share prices fall despite the stimulus?
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Anyone got a crystal ball?

With the deepening euro crisis, the slide back into recession in many developed countries and the slowing down of fast-growing developing countries, such as China and India, confidence is waning.

But just as pessimism increases, so too does uncertainty. The global economy is getting more and more difficult to forecast. So should economists give up trying to forecast? Should we rely on guesswork and hunch, or looking into crystal balls?

Bank of England representatives have been appearing before the Treasury Select Committee. And they have reiterated the consensus that things are getting more difficult to forecast. As Mervyn King said in his evidence:

There is just enormous uncertainty out there. I have no idea what is going to happen in the euro area.

And this uncertainty is making people cautious, which, in turn, damages recovery. As Dr King went on to say:

There is no doubt that with the additional uncertainty this year there’s evidence of people behaving in a very defensive way, being unwilling to invest and of course the most extreme example of that would be if we were to get to a liquidity trap where essentially the main assets people wanted to hold were claims on the central bank.

Part of the reason for the uncertainty about global growth prospects is uncertainty about what European leaders will decide about the future of the eurozone. Another is uncertainty about how people will respond to the uncertainty of others. But predicting how others will predict is very difficult as they will themselves be predicting what others will predict. This dilemma was observed by Keynes when observing how investors on the stock market behaved, all trying to predict what others will do, and is known as the Keynesian Beauty Contest dilemma (see also).

So are governments and central banks powerless to counteract the uncertainty and pessimism? Can they restore confidence and growth? Members of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee believe that further action can be taken to stimulate aggregate demand. Further quantitative easing and cuts in interest rates could help as, according to Dr King, we are not yet in a liquidity trap.

UK Economic Outlook Uncertain Amid Euro Zone Crisis – BOE NASDAQ, Ilona Billington (26/6/12)
BOE King: UK Not In Liquidity Trap; No Limit On QE Market News International (26/6/12)
BOE King: Unity On Loose Policy; Not Half Way Through Crisis Market News International (26/6/12)
Full Text Of BOE MPC Dale At Treasury Select Committee Market News International (26/6/12)
Recovery still five years away, Mervyn King warns The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (26/6/12)
Governor pessimistic on recovery ShareCast, Michael Millar (26/6/12)
Bank’s King says ‘pessimistic’ about worsening economy BBC News (26/6/12)
UK economic outlook getting worse, warns Bank of England Guardian, Phillip Inman (26/6/12)


  1. Why is it worth economists forecasting, even if those forecasts rarely turn out to be totally accurate?
  2. Why is it particularly difficult in current circumstances to forecast the state of the macroeconomy 12 months hence – let alone in two or three years?
  3. In what ways is the global macroeconomic situation deteriorating? What can national governments do about it?
  4. What limits the effectiveness of government action to deal with the current situation?
  5. What is meant by the liquidity trap? Are we close to being in such a situation today?
  6. Explain what is meant by the Keynesian Beauty Contest? How is this relevant today in explaining economic uncertainty and the difficulty of forecasting the economy?
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Macroeconomic debate

The history of macroeconomic thought has been one of lively debate between different schools.

First there is debate between those who favour active government intervention (Keynesians) to manage aggregate demand and those who favour a rules-based approach of targeting some variable, such as the money supply (as advocated by monetarists) or the rate of inflation (as pursued by many central banks), or a hybrid rule, such as a Taylor rule that takes into account a weighted target of inflation and real output growth.

Second there is debate about the relative effectiveness of monetary and fiscal policy. Monetarists argue that monetary policy is relatively effective in determining aggregate demand, which in turn affects output in the short run but only prices in the long run. Keynesians argue that monetary policy can be weak in the short run if the economy is in recession. Quantitative easing may simply be accompanied by a decline in the velocity of circulation. It’s not enough to make more money available and keep interest rates close to zero; people must have the confidence to borrow and spend. Keynesians argue that in these circumstances fiscal policy is more effective.

Third there is the debate about the size of the state and the extent of government borrowing. Libertarians, following the views of economists such as Hayek, argue that reducing the size of the state and reducing government borrowing will create a more dynamic economy, where the private sector will expand to take up the slack created by a reduction in the size of the public sector. Their approach to policy involves a mixture of cutting deficits and market-orientated supply-side policy. Economists on the left, by contrast, argue that economic growth is best stimulated in the short term by increases in government spending and that supply-side policy needs to be interventionist, with the government investing in infrastructure, research and development, education and health. Such growth policies, they argue can be targeted on the poor and help to arrest the growing inequality in society.

These debates have been given added impetus by the global financial crisis in 2008 and the subsequent recession, slow recovery and possibility of a slide back into recession. The initial response of governments and central banks was to stimulate aggregate demand. Through combinations of expansionary fiscal policy, interest rates cut to virtually zero and programmes of quantitative easing, the world seemed set on a course for recovery. But one result of the policies was a massive expansion in government deficits and debt. This led to increasing criticisms from the right, and a move away from expansionary to austerity fiscal policies in order to contain debts that were increasingly being seen as unsustainable. And all the while the debates have raged.

The following podcast and articles look at the debates and how they have evolved. The picture painted is a more subtle and nuanced one than a stark ‘Keynes versus Hayek’, or ‘Keynesians versus monetarists’.

Keynes v Hayek: The debate continues BBC Today Programme, Nicholas Wapshott and Paul Ormerod (23/12/11)

Von Hayek Revisited – Warts and All CounterPunch, David Warsh (26/12/11)
Fed up with Bernanke Reuters, Nicholas Wapshott (20/12/11)
Paul Krugman Versus Milton Friedman Seeking Alpha, ‘Shareholders Unite’ (6/12/11)
Keynes Was Right New York Times, Paul Krugman (29/12/11)
Keynes, Krugman, and Austerity National Review Online, William Voegeli (3/1/12)
The Madness of Lord Keynes The American Spectator, Samuel Gregg (19/12/11)
Central Bankers vs. Natural Stock Market Cycles in 2012 The Market Oracle, David Knox Barker (28/12/11)
Now is the time to eat, drink and be merry Financial Times, Samuel Brittan (29/12/11)


  1. To what extent is quantitative easing consistent with (a) Keynesian and (b) monetarist approaches to macroeconomic policy?
  2. What is meant by the ‘liquidity trap’ and what are its implications for monetary policy? Have we witnessed a liquidity trap since the beginning of 2009?
  3. What are the arguments for and against an independent central bank?
  4. Explain Milton Friedman’s assertion ‘that it was the Fed’s failure in 1930 to pursue “open market operations” on the scale needed that deepened the slump’.
  5. What are the implications of growing government deficits and debt for policies to avoid a slide back into recession?
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Twisting and turning

As the prospects for the global recovery become more and more gloomy, so the need for a boost to aggregate demand becomes more pressing. But the scope for expansionary fiscal policy is very limited, given governments’ commitments around the world to deficit reduction.

This leaves monetary policy. In the USA, the Federal Reserve has announced a policy known as ‘Operation Twist’. This is a way of altering the funding of national debt, rather than directly altering the monetary base. It involves buying long-term government bonds in the market and selling shorter-dated ones (of less than three years) of exactly the same amount ($400bn). The idea is to drive up the price of long-term bonds and hence drive down their yield and thereby drive down long-term interest rates. The hope is to stimulate investment and longer-term borrowing generally.

Meanwhile in Britain it looks as if the Bank of England is about to turn to another round of quantitative easing (QE2). The first round saw £200bn of asset purchases by the Bank between March 2009 and February 2010. Up to now, it has resisted calls to extend the programme. However, it is now facing increased pressure to change its mind, not only from commentators, but from members of the government too.

But will expansionary monetary policy work, given the gloom engulfing the world economy? Is there a problem of a liquidity trap, whereby extra money will not actually create extra borrowing and spending? Many firms, after all, are not short of cash; they are simply unwilling to invest in a climate of falling sales and falling confidence.

Articles on Operation Twist
Fed takes new tack to avoid U.S. economic slump Reuters, Mark Felsenthal and Pedro da Costa (21/9/11)
How the Fed Can Act When Washington Cannot Associated Press on YouTube (20/9/11)
Analysis: Fed’s twist moves hurts company pension plans Reuters, Aaron Pressman (21/9/11)
What is Operation Twist? Guardian, Phillip Inman (21/9/11)
Operation Twist in the Wind Asia Times, Peter Morici (23/9/11)
Operation Twist won’t kickstart the US economy Guardian, Larry Elliott (21/9/11)
Stock markets tumble after Operation Twist … and doubt Guardian, Julia Kollewe (22/9/11)
‘Twist’ is a sign of the Fed’s resolve Financial Times, Robin Harding (22/9/11)
All twist, no shout, from the Fed Financial Times blogs, Gavyn Davies (21/9/11)
Twisting in the wind? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (21/9/11)
Restraint or stimulus? Markets and governments swap roles BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (7/9/11)
FOMC Statement: Much Ado, Little Impact Seeking Alpha, Cullen Roche (21/9/11)
Why the Fed’s Operation Twist Will Hurt Banks International Business Times, Hao Li (21/9/11)
The Federal Reserve: Take that, Congress The Economist (21/9/11)

Articles on QE2
Bank of England’s MPC indicates QE2 is a case of if not when The Telegraph, Angela Monaghan (21/9/11)
Bank of England quantitative easing ‘boosted GDP’ BBC News (19/9/11)
Bank of England minutes indicate more quantitative easing on the cards Guardian, Julia Kollewe (21/9/11)

Fed and Bank of England publications
Press Release [on Operation Twist] Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (21/9/11) (Also follow links at the bottom of the Press Release for more details.)
Minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee Meeting, 7 and 8 September 2011 Bank of England (21/9/11) (See particularly paragraphs 29 to 32.)


  1. Explain what is meant by Operation Twist.
  2. What determines the extent to which it will stimulate the US economy?
  3. Why would quantitative easing increase the monetary base while Operation Twist would not? Would they both increase broad money? Explain.
  4. What is meant by the liquidity trap? Are central banks in such a trap at present?
  5. To what extent would a further round of quantitative easing in the UK drive up inflation?
  6. Why are monetary and fiscal policy as much about affecting expectations as ‘pulling the right levers’?
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Monetary policy in the USA – when what seems easy is really tight

This podcast is from the Library of Economics and Liberty’s EconTalk site. In it, Scott Sumner of Bentley University discusses with host Russ Roberts the role of monetary policy in the USA since 2007 and whether or not it was as expansionary as many people think.

In fact, Sumner argues that monetary policy was tight in late 2008 and that this precipitated the recession. He argues that the standard indicators of the tightness or ease of monetary policy, namely the rate of interest and the growth in the money supply, were misleading.

Sumner on Monetary Policy EconTalk podcast (9/11/09)


  1. Why is it important to look at the velocity of circulation of money when deciding the effect of interest rate changes or changes in the monetary base? Can the Fed’s failure to take velocity sufficiently into account be seen as a cause of the recession?
  2. Is there evidence of a liquidity trap operating in the USA in late 2008?
  3. How could the Fed have pursued a more expansionary policy, given that interest rates were eventually cut to virtually zero and the monetary base was expanded substantially?
  4. Why does Sumner argue that monetary policy should focus on influencing the growth in aggregate demand?
  5. How useful is the quantity equation, MV = PT (or MV = PY) in understanding the role and effectiveness of monetary policy?
  6. What is the Keynesian approach to monetary policy in a recession? How does this differ from the monetarist approach? Are both approaches focusing on the demand side and thus quite different from supply-side analysis of recession?
  7. Why is the consumer prices index (CPI) a poor indicator of a nominal shock to the economy? Should the central bank focus on nominal GDP, rather than CPI, as an indicator of the state of the economy and as a guide to the stance of monetary policy?
  8. What are the strengths and weaknesses of using a Taylor rule as a guide to monetary policy? Would nominal GDP futures be a better target for monetary policy?
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