Monday, April 20, 2009

Has Greg Mankiw Jumped the Shark?

You be the judge. From his "Economic View" column in the New York Times yesterday, "It May Be Time for the Fed to Go Negative":

Imagine that the Fed were to announce that, a year from today, it would pick a digit from zero to 9 out of a hat. All currency with a serial number ending in that digit would no longer be legal tender. Suddenly, the expected return to holding currency would become negative 10 percent.

That move would free the Fed to cut interest rates below zero. People would be delighted to lend money at negative 3 percent, since losing 3 percent is better than losing 10.

Of course, some people might decide that at those rates, they would rather spend the money — for example, by buying a new car. But because expanding aggregate demand is precisely the goal of the interest rate cut, such an incentive isn’t a flaw — it’s a benefit.

Would your first response to this scenario be to buy a new car? I bet a lot of people would decide instead to buy gold, or to exchange their U.S. dollars for the currency of a country less likely to pick a number out of a hat and invalidate a tenth of its currency.

Later in his column, Mankiw offers a more reasonable way that the Fed could create negative real interest rates, by committing to a certain level of inflation (presumably one higher than the Fed's current 2% target). Is this the best way to spur aggregate demand though? If this is a balance sheet driven recession, as some observers have termed it, and the problem is that many consumers can't service their debts, why not deal with that more directly?

For those whose mortgages are underwater, restructuring them using John Hussman's idea of property appreciation rights might make make sense. That would lower monthly borrowing costs for those mortgagers and enable them to increase their discretionary spending. For mortgagers who aren't currently underwater, the idea of Glenn Hubbard and Christopher Mayer, to use the GSEs to lower mortgage rates down to their historic spread of about 1.6% above 10-year Treasuries might make sense. According to Yahoo! Finance, the average rate on 30-year fixed rate, conforming mortgages today is 4.88%; since 10-year Treasuries currently yield 2.75%, under the Mayer and Hubbard plan mortgage rates might average 4.35%. Refinancing higher-rate mortgages at 4.35% would also lower borrowing costs and enable tens of millions of Americans to increase their discretionary spending.

The image above, of the Happy Days character Fonzie (played by Henry Winkler) jumping the shark1 comes from Media Bistro.

1For those unfamiliar with the phrase, see the Urban Dictionary's definition of "jumping the shark".

1 comment:

A Einstein said...

Once it becomes apparent that inflation is going way up there will not be any lenders for fixed income mortgages at anywhere close to today's rates.