Streetwise Professor

August 28, 2018

Shed a Tear for Central Bankers Facing Obsolescence? Uhm, No. Jump for Joy.

Filed under: Economics,Financial crisis,History,Regulation — cpirrong @ 7:00 pm

Scott Sumner rightly skewers this central bankers’/macroeconomists’ angst:

That’s according to a paper presented Saturday by Harvard Business School economist Alberto Cavallo at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s annual symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Cavallo’s main finding was that competition from Amazon has led to a greater frequency of price changes at more traditional retailers like Walmart Inc., and also to more uniformity in pricing of the same items across different locations. He found that the shift has led to a greater influence of movements in the U.S. dollar exchange rate and gas prices on retail prices.

. . . .

The Cavallo study also showed that from 2008 to 2017, as online purchases accounted for an ever-growing share of total retail sales, the average duration of prices of goods sold at large U.S. retailers like Walmart fell from about 6.5 months to about 3.7 months.

The implications have subtle significance for monetary policy because so-called “sticky prices” — the notion that sellers aren’t able to change prices right away in response to changes in supply and demand — is precisely what gives interest rates power in mainstream models to have any effect on the economy at all. In those models, if prices adjust instantaneously in response to shocks, then there is no role for central bankers to guide supply and demand back into equilibrium.

“For monetary models and empirical work, my results suggest that the focus needs to move beyond traditional nominal rigidities,” Cavallo wrote. “Labor costs, limited information, and even ’decision costs’ (related to inattention and the limited capacity to process data) will tend to disappear as more retailers use algorithms to make pricing decisions.”

Come on.  The right response to Cavallo’s finding is NOT: “OH NOES! Monetary policy will be less effective when prices aren’t as sticky!”  The right response is: “Thank God we won’t need to rely on monetary policy–which can go horribly wrong because central bankers are humans operating with limited information and flawed theoretical understanding–to counteract shocks!”

Sticky prices create a potentially–and I emphasize potentially–beneficial role for monetary policy.  When prices are sticky, monetary shocks–including shocks to the demand for money–can have real effects.  Monetary authorities can in theory–and again I emphasize in theory–counteract these shocks and keep output closer to the optimum level.

However, the actual results often fall far short of the theoretical potential, because (as Sumner argues happened in 2007-2008, and Friedman and Schwartz argued happened regularly in US monetary history from 1867-1960) monetary authorities may misdiagnose economic conditions, and adopt a suboptimal policy, especially when they operate based on flawed heuristics, such as using the level of interest rates as a measure of whether monetary policy is tight or loose.

Thus, having more flexible pricing that allows nominal prices to adjust to shocks to the demand and supply of money makes us less reliant on central banking wizards–a very good thing, when they are often quite like the Wizard of Oz.

As Scott notes, more flexible/less-sticky prices do not eliminate the impact of monetary policy altogether, though for the most part that role should be less interventionist and more rule-based.

One nominal rigidity that more flexible goods prices won’t eliminate is that most debt will be denominated in nominal terms, and thus its real value will change with the prices of goods and services.  More flexible good prices may actually exacerbate the economic impact of nominal debt on real activity.  Although it is possible to imagine financial innovations that lead to more effective indexing or debt, whether the innovation is adopted widely remains to be seen, and there is room for doubt given the coordination issues involved.  Moreover.  there will still be a stock of existing nominal debt to work off even if new debt is indexed in more clever ways.

But even if nominal rigidities disappear, monetary shocks can still cause real fluctuations.  Remember that the Lucasian Rational Expectations models and their successors do not include rigid prices, yet they exhibit real responses to nominal shocks.  Indeed, that was the entire reason why Lucas and his contemporaries devised these models in the first place, as a way of resolving the Friedman conundrum: “money is a veil, but when the veil flutters, the economy stutters.”

In such a world, however, the role of central banks is much more limited.  In such a world, rule-based, rather than discretionary, policies that reduce the frequency and intensity of nominal shocks, are warranted.  That doesn’t leave much for central bankers to do.  They can’t be masters of the universe!

Central bankers no doubt look with dread on such a world.  That dread is implicit in the fretting over more flexible pricing reducing and perhaps eliminating the role of activist central bankers.  But their dread should be our joy.

 

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2 Comments »

  1. Central bankers still have one important function that has nothing to do with prices or any other economic metric: they enforce the rules of the national fiat cartels, lest they lose access to things like Fedwire and lender of last resort privileges. I would wager that retail banks spend more effort on tax reporting (on their customers’ activity) and KYC/AML compliance than on actual banking functions like, y’know, keeping the cash secure in the vault, balancing the books, processing transactions deposits and withdrawals, or even underwriting loans.

    Comment by M. Rad. — August 28, 2018 @ 9:48 pm

  2. As with the unexpected transition of dreaded “elavator music” to the almost cultural phenomena of “smooth jazz”, there is a time and place for economic theory to learn to adapt to a changing landscape that isn’t looking back.

    Comment by Carl Larry — August 29, 2018 @ 6:35 am

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