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Home / Real-World Economics Review / Modern macro-economists: money is not ‘neutral’. Bordo, Meissner, Sufi and Mian do a good job.

Modern macro-economists: money is not ‘neutral’. Bordo, Meissner, Sufi and Mian do a good job.

Summary:
Hardcore neoclassical economist John Taylor has edited a new handbook of macro-economics. The good news: the sands are shifting. After 2008, more attention has been paid to the obvious fact that we’re living in a monetary world. Guess what: it  turns out that money is non-neutral after all. Two examples (summaries below): (A) Bordo and Meissner claim that whenever a country has a large banking sector it has a choice, during a financial crisis. It can bail out the banks or it can try to mitigate the crisis and prevent unemployment to increase to extreme levels. And (B): Mian and Sufi’s work implicates that the ‘representative consumer’ is bogus: differences between renters and house owners in combination with data on indebtedness and house price booms and busts explain a lot of the

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Hardcore neoclassical economist John Taylor has edited a new handbook of macro-economics. The good news: the sands are shifting. After 2008, more attention has been paid to the obvious fact that we’re living in a monetary world. Guess what: it  turns out that money is non-neutral after all. Two examples (summaries below):

(A) Bordo and Meissner claim that whenever a country has a large banking sector it has a choice, during a financial crisis. It can bail out the banks or it can try to mitigate the crisis and prevent unemployment to increase to extreme levels.

And (B): Mian and Sufi’s work implicates that the ‘representative consumer’ is bogus: differences between renters and house owners in combination with data on indebtedness and house price booms and busts explain a lot of the severity of the 2008 crisis.

Bordo and Meissner:

(A) Interconnections between banking crises and fiscal crises have a long history. We document the long-run evolution from classic banking panics toward modern banking crises where financial guarantees are associated with crisis resolution. Recent crises feature a feedback loop between bank guarantees and bank holdings of local sovereign debt thereby linking financial to fiscal crises. Earlier examples include the crises in Chile (early 1980s), Japan (1990), Sweden and Finland (1991), and the Asian crisis (1997). We discuss the evolution in economic theorizing on crises since the 1950s, and then provide an overview of the long-run evolution of connections between different types of crises. Next we explore the empirics of financial crises. We discuss the methodological issue of crisis measurement encompassing the definition, dating, and incidence of financial crises. Leading datasets differ markedly in terms of their historical frequency of crises leading to classification uncertainty. There is a range of estimates of output losses from financial crises in the literature, and these are also dependent upon definitions. We find economically significant output losses from various types of crises using a consistent methodology across time and datasets. Predicting crises also remains a challenge. We survey the Early Warnings Indicators literature finding that a broad range of variables are potential predictors. Credit booms have been emphasized recently, but other factors still matter. Finally, we identify a new policy trilemma. Countries can have two of the following three choices: a large financial sector, fiscal bailouts devoted to financial crises, and discretionary fiscal policy aimed at raising demand during the recessions induced by financial crises.

Mian and Sufi:

B. This chapter reviews empirical estimates of differential income and consumption growth across individuals during recessions. Most existing studies examine the variation in income and consumption growth across individuals by sorting on ex ante or contemporaneous income or consumption levels. We build on this literature by showing that differential shocks to household net worth coming from elevated household debt and the collapse in house prices play an underappreciated role. Using zip codes in the United States as the unit of analysis, we show that the decline in numerous measures of consumption during the Great Recession was much larger in zip codes that experienced a sharp decline in housing net worth. In the years prior to the recession, these same zip codes saw high house price growth, a substantial expansion of debt by homeowners, and high consumption growth. We discuss what models seem most consistent with this striking pattern in the data, and we highlight the increasing body of macroeconomic evidence on the link between household debt and business cycles. Our main conclusion is that housing and household debt should play a larger role in models exploring the importance of household heterogeneity on macroeconomic outcomes and policies.

Both these studies indicates that the hypothesis of neutral money is bonkers. There are many other reasons why this is the case, but these two studies already suffice to state this.

Add to these empirical findings differences between employed and unemployed, the rich and the poor, the young and the old and you might get an idea why people introduced the concept of the representative consumer: it enabled them to neglect such issues (if you want to model 4% unemployment using the statistical definition of unemployment, i.e. zero hours of gainful employment, you have to model at least 25 ‘representative consumers’, when you want to model unemployment using changes of 1% you will need at least 100 people).

Merijn T. Knibbe
Economic historian, statistician, outdoor guide (coastal mudflats), father, teacher, blogger. Likes De Kift and El Greco. Favorite epoch 1890-1930.

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