Paul Krugman wrote a post over the weekend in response to the speech that Larry Summers gave at the IMF about the possible stagnation of the U.S. economy due to the zero lower bound (ZLB). The post gives a good summary of Summers’ speech and issues facing the economy due to the ZLB. A key argument in the post is that the economy has been fighting against a liquidity trap decades through successive economic bubbles.
So with all that household borrowing, you might have expected the period 1985-2007 to be one of strong inflationary pressure, high interest rates, or both. In fact, you see neither – this was the era of the Great Moderation, a time of low inflation and generally low interest rates. Without all that increase in household debt, interest rates would presumably have to have been considerably lower – maybe negative. In other words, you can argue that our economy has been trying to get into the liquidity trap for a number of years, and that it only avoided the trap for a while thanks to successive bubbles.
An argument that bubbles have been good for the economy is a counter intuitive claim that is likely to be met with heavy resistance, but that reaction is precisely why (according to Krugman’s logic) the economy is having trouble escaping the fallout of the housing bubble. Less serious bubbles in the past have been met with painful, yet short, recessions because the economy was able to essentially shrug off its past mistakes and move on to new productive investments. However, the housing bubble was a widespread phenomenon that has personally impacted a massive proportion of the population. Huge negative effects hit individual consumers much harder than previous bubbles, which has caused a fear of economic instability within the population that is unrivaled since the Great Depression.
People are now afraid of bubbles and are actively trying to prevent future bubbles from disrupting the economy. The response and fear of the public has lead to overwhelming support for financial reform like Dodd-Frank. The movement for financial reform might actually be impairing economic growth, as Krugman states:
He goes on to say that the officially respectable policy agenda involves “doing less with monetary policy than was done before and doing less with fiscal policy than was done before,” even though the economy remains deeply depressed. And he says, a bit fuzzily but bravely all the same, that even improved financial regulation is not necessarily a good thing – that it may discourage irresponsible lending and borrowing at a time when more spending of any kind is good for the economy.
It is a particularly terrifying idea that financial reform is harming the economy because it is discouraging irresponsible lending, which would help to create another bubble that leads us to a temporary recovery. It is plausible that the economy could stagnate, a la Japan, due to handcuffed monetary policy and regulation acting to prevent a bubble-fueled recovery. This one blog post by Krugman is perhaps the best argument yet for Miles Kimball’s idea of e-money (read Miles on e-money here).
The Summers speech/Krugman post has lead me to closely examine my beliefs on monetary policy and has convinced me that e-money offers the best alternative to the current policy regime. E-money can provide large social benefits by avoiding an arbitrary boundary on perhaps the one policy mechanism that economists understand very well. If Summers and Krugman are correct about the possibility of stagnation, support for e-money (or other similar policy alternatives) is almost a moral imperative for economists. It is the duty of economists to use the influence they hold to improve the economy and the lives of the people in it. I am now convinced that e-money is perhaps the best example of socially beneficial policy changes that can occur because of the influence of the economics profession.