Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 25 October 2016

More on "Relative Overpopulation" and "the Natural Rate of Interest"

As friends know, we have been running a series of posts on the connection between capitalism as "relative overpopulation" and the meaning of "the natural rate of interest" in the context of the recent debate over "secular stagnation" of capitalism. Our discussion has been followed up recently - is it only a coincidence? - by two illustrious writers in the London Financial Times, whom we respect quite a lot: - Gavyn Davies and John Authers. Here are their articles published this week, well after we had already drawn at length the nexus between "relative overpopulation" and the decline of the so-called "natural rate of interest". Indeed, the substance of our thesis is that there is no meaning attached to "the natural rate of interest" as a bourgeois economic concept, first introduced by Knut Wicksell one hundred years ago, except as a means of hiding the vital and essential dependence between "capitalist enterprise, industry and markets" and "relative overpopulation" of the reserve army of labour power. And this is, of course, an explicitly and exquisitely "political" link that the "natural rate of interest" concept wishes to hide from view - and, with it, the equally explicit and not-so-exquisite political role of central banking in setting "monetary" interest rates...Enjoy!

Gavyn Davies Opinion in Financial Times:

James Carville won the Presidency for Bill Clinton in 1992 with a sign in the campaign’s headquarters saying “The economy, stupid”. Maybe there should be a sign in the Federal Reserve saying “Demography, stupid”.
Central bankers, like investors, have usually tended to ignore or underplay the influence of demographic factors over the short and medium term. The size and age distribution of the population changes very gradually, and in a fairly predictable manner, so sizable shocks to asset prices from demographic changes do not happen very often.
That does not mean that demography is unimportant. The cumulative effects can be very large over long periods of time. Apart from technology, there is a case for arguing that demography is the only thing that matters in the very long run. But demographic changes usually emerge very slowly, so they do not trigger sudden fluctuations in the determinants of asset prices, notably the economic cycle and monetary policy.
However, there are exceptions to this rule, and we may be living through an important exception at the present time. It seems that the Federal Reserve is starting to recognise that the decline in the equilibrium interest rate in the US (r*) has been driven not by temporary economic “headwinds” that will reverse quickly over the next few years, but instead has been caused by longer term factors, including demographic change.
Because these demographic forces are unlikely to reverse direction very rapidly, the conclusion is that equilibrium and actual interest rates will stay lower for longer than the Fed has previously recognised. Of course, the market has already reached this conclusion, but it is important that the Fed is no longer fighting the market to anything like the same extent as it did in 2014-15. This considerably reduces the risk of a sudden hawkish shift in Fed policy settings in coming years.
Furthermore, greater recognition of the permanent effects of demography on the equilibrium real interest rate has important implications for inflation targets, the fiscal stance and supply side economic policy. These considerations are now entering the centre of the debate about macro-economic policy.
The relationship between demography, growth and interest rates has been studied by economists ever since the days of Malthus, but it has played relatively little role in mainstream macro-economic discussion in the last few decades. Recently, however, several important studies (summarised below) have emerged from central bank economists, emphasising the link between demography, GDP growth and r*.
These links are obviously related to the work of Lawrence Summers on “secular stagnation”, and more particularly to the work of Alvin Hansen on population growth in the 1930s. The different forms of secular stagnation have become increasingly influential among policy makers. Last week, Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer accorded an important role to demography in an important speech on the causes of the decline in r*. Since Fischer was among the most hawkish members of the Fed’s Board when he wanted to “normalise” interest rates last year, this could mark a significant change in the thinking of the FOMC.
Why is there a link between r* and demography? Remember that the equilibrium real rate of interest is that which ensures that savings and investment in the economy are equal in the long run. If ex ante savings exceed investment, r* declines, and vice versa. Since the savings behaviour of households is clearly affected by the age distribution of the population, and the investment behaviour of the corporate sector is affected by the labour supply, it is obvious that demography matters a lot for the determination of r*.
In recent work, three aspects of the population statistics have emerged as important in explaining the decline in r* in the developed economies. These are:
  • The growth rate in the labour supply.
    Most models (though not all) produce a relationship between real GDP growth and r*, and also allow GDP growth to be impacted by a change in the supply of labour. The labour force is now slowing down rapidly in most advanced economies. Since the capital stock is fairly fixed for lengthy periods, this will increase the capital/labour ratio in the economy, and the “abundance” of capital will both reduce the rate of return on capital, and the attractiveness of new investment projects. This reduces real interest rates.
  • The dependency ratio within the population.
    When the number of dependents (young and old people) relative to those of working age is low, the savings rate in the economy tends to rise, because workers save more than retirees. When the bulk of the baby boomers were in the labour force before 2000, this caused a large rise in savings in the advanced economies, which triggered a drop in r*. This will shortly start to reverse as the baby boomers retire.
  • The life expectancy of the population.
    If lifespans are expected to lengthen, while the retirement age remains unchanged, then people will choose to save more while they are in employment (or delay expenditure when retired, which is more difficult) in order to remain comfortably off until they die. This increases the savings ratio and reduces r*.
Although recent economic studies do not completely agree about the relative importance of these three factors [1], there is a consensus that, together, they have accounted for a significant part of the decline in r* since 1980. For the world as a whole (including emerging markets), Bank of England authors calculate that demographic composition and labour supply growth has reduced r* by about 1 per cent in the past 30 years. Carvalho, Ferrero and Nechio estimate that the demographic transition has reduced r* by 1.5 percentage points in developed economies since 1990. And Federal Reserve authors, in a significant recent paper, conclude that their demographic model accounts for 1.25 percentage points decline in r* and trend GDP growth since 1980. They say this is “essentially all” of the decline in these variable in the US over this period. Stanley Fischer quoted this estimate with approval in his speech last week. Although the retirement of the baby boomers may soon start to cause a drop in the US savings ratio, other demographic factors are expected to keep r* abnormally low for a long time to come. The Federal Reserve authors calculate that the current level of the underlying equilibrium real interest rate, based on the state of demography alone, is only 0.5 per cent. This compares with the latest FOMC estimate of 0.9 per cent for r*. That official estimate includes several economic forces other than demography that are also keeping interest rates down, so r* may well be reduced further in coming FOMC meetings. In any event, as investors and policy makers absorb the latest macro-economic research, demography may assume an increasingly important role in their thinking about fiscal and monetary policy. I will return to the policy and financial market implications on another occasion.——————————————————————————————————Footnote [1]There are also other ways in which characteristics of the population can affect r*. For example, ever since Kuznets, it has been suggested that a larger, faster growing or younger population can result in faster productivity growth, which is uniformly regarded as a key determinant of r*. Some economists therefore believe that the aging of the population in recent years has reduced productivity growth and consequently r*.

John Authers Article in Financial Times:

The Federal Reserve has an awful hunch. It suspects that the world’s shifting demographics, as longer lifespans and reduced birth rates combine to increase the proportion of the aged within western societies, have rendered central banks powerless to raise long-term interest rates.
That was the conclusion of a paper published this month by economists from the Fed’s research division, capping a debate that has intensified over the past year. Citing an example based on the changing age structure of the US population, they said: “The model suggests that low investment, low interest rates and low output growth are here to stay, suggesting that the US economy has entered a new normal.”
This has already created ripples. Last week Stanley Fischer, the Fed’s deputy chairman, said US interest rates were low in part for reasons beyond the central bank’s control, and added: “An increase in the average age of the population is likely pushing up household saving in the US economy.”
There is widespread agreement that the steady ageing of western populations over the past few decades — as the postwar baby boom generation neared retirement and birth rates among their children declined — has contributed to historically low interest rates. But there is an intense debate among investors and economists over how the pattern will play out.
All agree that society’s choices over how they treat the old will go beyond the obvious moral and social implications, but could also determine whether deepening inequality can be reversed, and whether the world can escape from low yields and low growth.
“The ageing issue is very emotional: who’s going to look after grandma?,” asks George Magnus, chief economic adviser at UBS. “As an economic issue it looks dark and impenetrable. But demographics is not destiny. We need political courage to do this, and we need more of it.” Measures such as later retirement, incentives for carers and part-time workers and more immigration can all mitigate the effect of an ageing population.

Impact on growth

The mechanics of how we arrived at this point are straightforward. People save most during their working years. This prompts them to buy bonds either directly or mostly through pension contributions, pushing down yields. Then in retirement they consume more than they save — and in the final few months of life tend to consume more, in expensive healthcare, than at any other time. Greater longevity has accentuated this by ensuring more people live to see an incapacitated and expensive old age. This tends to push yields upwards.

The effects of demographical change on the labour market are also pronounced. When there is a bigger proportion of workers in the population, there is more competition for work. This pushes down labour’s negotiating power, and reduces both wages and inflation. Inflation is a critical driver of the bond market: when it is low, investors will accept a lower yield from their bonds. So again, a large population in work tends to push interest rates down, and a growing retired population should push them back up again.
The new Fed paper suggests that “demographic factors alone account for a 1.25 percentage point decline in the natural rate of real interest and real gross domestic product growth since 1980”. This is a huge claim, as it implies that demographics — rather than fiscal or monetary policy, technology or other changes in productivity — are responsible for virtually all of the decline in economic growth over the past 35 years.

As this period also saw increased savings activity as baby boomers scurried to get ready for retirement, slow economic growth was accompanied by long bull markets in both stocks and bonds in the US. Thus the phenomenon of ageing baby boomers helped to explain rising inequality. Increasing asset prices raises the wealth of those who already have savings, while a lack of bargaining power kept wages down for the rest.
But as the chart (top left) shows, the US, western Europe and Japan have all reached the “tipping point” when the numbers of people in work compared with old and young dependants has peaked and started to fall. In all three examples, that moment came just as the country suffered a major market crash. But the growing weight of the elderly in society has not, yet, started to push up interest rates, which remain at historically low and sometimes negative levels.
The Fed research paper suggests the effects could be permanent. It is common to blame either loose monetary policy or the overhang of debt from a crisis. But the Fed economists warned of a “risk that permanent effects of demographic factors could be misinterpreted as persistent but ultimately transitory downward pressure on the natural rate of interest and net savings stemming from the global financial crisis”.

In short, low yields may be unavoidable and much of the current policy debate may be misguided.
Their suggestion that the “scope to use conventional monetary policy to stimulate the economy during typical cyclical downturns is more limited than … in the past” makes deeply uncomfortable reading for central banks already throwing everything they have at obdurately low growth.
Investors and traders have taken note. Marc Chandler, who heads foreign exchange strategy for the investment bank Brown Brothers Harriman, says conventional theories suggest that monetary or fiscal policy can increase aggregate demand, while the demographic hypothesis is more sombre.
“America’s working population is unlikely to materially increase over the next 20 to 30 years,” he says. “That means that periods of low growth and interest rates will last for a long time and is the material basis for the new normal. Moreover, the demographic forces at work in the US are also present in many other countries in Europe and Asia.” 

1 comment:

  1. Both of these subjects,the natural rate of interest and relative overpopulation, are fascinating and I've enjoyed reading your take on them. However, I am not sure I understand what you think is the connection between the two. The former seems to be an aspect of capitalist ideology--how capitalism justifies itself morally--while the latter is a prognosis of capitalist society--what is happening to capitalism and where it is going. Does the natural rate of interest theory predict that demographic changes won't have and impact on the interest rate? It seems to me that it doesn't. The time preference theory views the interest rate as being determined by a trade between a group of people with a surplus of "present goods" and another group lacking present goods and willing to trade "future goods" (their labor). If the surplus of present goods among the savers grow, then there is more competition among savers to trade for the future goods of the laborers, and thus the interest rate falls absent either a growth in laborers or a growth in productivity (both of which mean the laborer group have more future goods to trade). This matches the demographic story we are seeing.

    Where I think I see a difference is what the theory sees as the consequences of low interest rates. If I were to tell my Austrian/libertarian friends that interest rates would remain low for the foreseeable future, they would say, "So what? That's the rate that satisfies society's time preferences." The question then is, what are the consequences of low interest rates according to an alternative, more political theory? I can think of two destabilizing responses to low interest rates: One, low rates don't provide enough return for the "savers"--who really invest to increase their wealth and not to balance their time preference--so instead of increasing their consumption, their response is to pursue speculative investments. With an abundance of speculative investments, the average rate of return on capital can actually become negative--an absurdity by the time preference theory! But then we see the other response to low interest rates, that money is hoarded and not invested at all, and all sorts of deflationary problems result. So is that what the natural interest rate theorists miss--the permanent crisis (secular stagnation) that results once demographic changes push the interest rate below a certain level?