Tag Archives: john maynard keynes

Free Trade And Balanced Budgets

Wikileaks has released “The Podesta Emails” which show Hillary Rodham Clinton’s political positions best explained by an NYT article:

[Clinton] embraced unfettered international trade and praised a budget-balancing plan that would have required cuts to Social Security, according to documents posted online Friday by WikiLeaks.

The tone and language of the excerpts clash with the fiery liberal approach she used later in her bitter primary battle with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and could have undermined her candidacy had it become public.

Neoliberalism, the “New Consensus” and pre-Keynesian economics stand exactly for this idea: free trade and balanced-budgets. John Maynard Keynes’ true followers starting with Joan Robinson stood exactly in dissent against the idea of free trade and balanced budgets. Keynes himself understood the trouble with free trade, as can be seen by reading his chapter on Mercantilism in the General Theory, but didn’t emphasize it enough. Unlike what others see, Joan Robinson stood for her opposition to free trade more than anything else.

According to the New Consensus of economics, fiscal policy is impotent and hence budget should be balanced. Free trade will lead to convergence of fortunes of nations according to this view. Instead what we see is polarization. In my previous post, I quoted a top advisor who conceded how economists had been wrong about fiscal policy. But the damage seems to have done. Progressive and Keynesian ideas have a long battle ahead.

Needless to say Donald Trump is not the alternative. So there’s a lot of fight ahead for economists in years ahead to overthrow the new consensus. Macroeconomics makes a difference in people’s life, and it’s a battle worth fighting.

On The Blogs

Two things caught my attention in the last two days.

First is the claim by Roger Farmer:

The Keynesian economics of the General Theory is static.

That’s the strangest critique of the GT I have ever seen. How is the GT static? John Maynard Keynes highlighted how a fall in the propensity to consume reduces output. His mechanism was quite dynamic. He was arguing that a fall in the propensity to consume will reduce consumption and hence firms’ sales and hence production and hence employment and hence consumption and so on. Keynes did not explicitly write down a mathematical model like as done for example in the book Monetary Economics by Wynne Godley and Marc Lavoie. But his arguments were quite dynamic in nature. So was his argument about how investment creates saving. And also the Keynesian multiplier. “Stock-flow consistent” models are quite close to Keynes’ spirit.

The second is this paragraph from Michael Pettis:

… This is one of the most fundamental errors that arise from a failure to understand the balance of payments mechanisms. As I explained four years ago in an article for Foreign Policy, “it may be correct to say that the role of the dollar allows Americans to consume beyond their means, but it is just as correct, and probably more so, to say that foreign accumulations of dollars force Americans to consume beyond their means.” As counter-intuitive as it may seem at first, the US does not need foreign capital because the US savings rate is low. The US savings rate is low because it must counterbalance foreign capital inflows, and this is true out of arithmetical necessity, as I showed in a May, 2014 blog entry.

Oh boy! That’s confusing accounting identities with behaviour. A simple way to show how inaccurate this is by using standard Keynesian analysis. Assume US households reduce the propensity to consume. This leads to a fall in output and income and hence a fall in imports and an increase in the current account balance of payments (assuming exports are exogenous to the model). This can be seen more precisely in a stock-flow consistent model.

Pettis’ arguments are in response to Stephen Roach’s recent article on US balance of payments and I discussed that recently here.  Both Roach and Pettis are incorrect.

Balance of payments is important and in my opinion, the most important thing in Economics. Michael Pettis gets the attention because he realizes the importance of balance of payments in the economic dynamics of the world. However looked more closely, many of his arguments appear vacuous.

Kalecki And Keynes, Part 2

Continuing from the previous post, Kalecki And Keynes …

The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money was published in January, 1936.

Meanwhile, … , Michal Kalecki had found the same solution.

His book, Essays in the Theory of Business Cycles, published in Polish in 1933, clearly states the principle of effective demand in mathematical form. At the same time he was already exploring the implications of the analysis for the problem of a country’s balance of trade, along the same lines that I followed in drawing riders from the General Theory in essays published in 1937.

The version of his theory set out in prose (published in ‘Polska Gospodarcza’ No. 43, X, 1935) could very well be used today as an introduction to the theory of employment.

He opens by attacking the orthodox theory at the most vital point – the view that unemployment could be reduced  by cutting money wage rates. And he shows (a point that Keynesians came to much later, and under his influence) that , of monopolistic influences prevent prices from falling when wage costs are lowered, the situation is still worse, because reduced purchasing power causes a fall in sales on consumption goods …

Michal Kalecki’s claim to priority of publication is indisputable.

– Joan Robinson, Kalecki And Keynes in Essays In Honour Of Michal Kalecki, 1964. 

Kalecki And Keynes

Michal Kalecki swam into my ken just after the publication of the General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, in 1936. The small group who had been working with Maynard Keynes during the gestation of the book understood what it was about, but amongst the public as a whole it was still a mystery. Kalecki, however, knew it all. He had taken a year’s leave from the institute where he was working in Warsaw to write the theory of employment but Keynes’ book came out, and got all the glory. Michal never made any claim for himself and I made it my business to blow his trumpet for him, but most of the profession (including Keynes) just thought that I was being kind to a lame duck. Only since the publication of his essays written in Polish from 1933 to 1935 has it been generally recognized that he had already worked out all the essentials of what became known as Keynes’ theory (Selected Essays on the Dynamics of the Capitalist Economy, Cambridge University Press, 1971). He showed that it is investment, not private saving, that brings about capital accumulation; that a government deficit, in a slump, will increase employment; that cutting wages only makes the slump worse; that the rate of interest depends upon supply and demand of the stock of money, not on the flow of saving, and that it is the forward-looking expectation of profits that induces firms to accumulate.

The question of glory did not seem to me to be important. As Michal was the first to admit, his ideas would have taken a long time to establish while with Keynes they burst upon the world as a revolution. But I was deeply impressed by the fact that two thinkers of such different background and habits of thought could arrive at the same diagnosis of the economic situation. Logic is the same for everybody; the same logical structure, if it is not fudged, can support quite different ideologies, but for most social scientists ideology leaks into the logic and corrupts it.

In the natural sciences, it is common enough for the same discovery to come almost simultaneously from two independent sources. The general development of a subject throws up a new problem and two equally original minds find the same answer, which turns out to be validated by further work. In the history of economic thought, the case of the discovery of the theory of employment by Keynes and Kalecki is unique.

– Joan Robinson in PORTRAIT: Michal Kalecki, Challenge, Vol. 20, No. 5, November/December, 1977, pp. 67-69, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40719591

Being Keynesian In The Short Term And Classical In The Long Term

I am not. But the post is about the possibility. The title is borrowed from a paper by Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy.

Steve Roth has an article titled Note To Economists: Saving Doesn’t Create Savings. If you follow his blog regularly, his pieces read

The definition of saving is wrong. Saving is equal to income minus expenditure.

That’s not an exaggeration. He actually says it:

… Since saving = income – expenditures, [aggregate] saving must equal zero.

Steve Keen on Twitter supports Steve Roth.

Steve Keen Tweet

What’s with economists’ dislike for national accounts?

Steve Roth uses the phrase “savings” as a stock. Obviously his claim is just wrong as we know from national accounts:

Change in net worth = Saving + Holding Gains.

(with netting in holding gains).

Steve Keen doesn’t use saving as a stock but as a flow and a plural of saving. But Steve Keen’s point is also wrong. National saving is equal to the sum of saving of all economic units, such as households, firms, government etc. Even the household sector’s propensity to save collectively matters. That’s what macroeconomics is all about.

Now moving the more important point: is it possible that a higher propensity to consume reduces the long run rate of accumulation?

There are several Post-Keynesian economists who have considered the possibility. Of course it should be contrasted with supply side neoclassical economics. A few are Basil Moore, Wynne Godley, Marc Lavoie, and Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy as mentioned at the beginning of this post.

In their paper Kaleckian Models of Growth in a Coherent Stock-Flow Monetary Framework: A Kaldorian View, Godley and Lavoie find this in their models (draft version here):

We quickly discovered that the model could be run on the basis of two stable regimes. In the first regime, the investment function reacts less to a change in the valuation ratio-Tobin’s q ratio-than it does to a change in the rate of utilization. In the second regime, the coefficient of the q ratio in the investment function is larger than that of the rate of utilization (γ3 > γ4). The two regimes yield a large number of identical results, but when these results differ, the results of the first regime seem more intuitively acceptable than those of the second regime. For this reason, we shall call the first regime a normal regime, whereas the second regime will be known as the puzzling regime. The first regime also seems to be more in line with the empirical results of Ndikumana (1999) and Semmler and Franke (1996), who find very small values for the coefficient of the q ratio in their investment functions, that is, their empirical results are more in line with the investment coefficients underlying the normal regime.

… In the puzzling regime, the paradox of savings does not hold. The faster rate of accumulation initially encountered is followed by a floundering rate, due to the strong negative effect of the falling q ratio on the investment function. The turnaround in the investment sector also leads to a turnaround in the rate of utilization of capacity. All of this leads to a new steady-state rate of accumulation, which is lower than the rate existing just before the propensity to consume was increased. Thus, in the puzzling regime, although the economy follows Keynesian or Kaleckian behavior in the short-period, long-period results are in line with those obtained in classical models or in neoclassical models of endogenous growth: the higher propensity to consume is associated with a slower rate of accumulation in the steady state. In the puzzling regime, by refusing to save, households have the ability over the long period to undo the short-period investment decisions of entrepreneurs (Moore, 1973). On the basis of the puzzling regime, it would thus be right to say, as Dumenil and Levy (1999) claim, that one can be a Keynesian in the short period, but that one must hold classical views in the long period.

So there is a possibility that a higher propensity to consume leads to a lower growth in the long run. I do not think this is generally true, but this could be possible in some economies.

Two conclusions. It’s counter-productive to mix the definition of saving and what’s called “net lending” in national accounts. It’s possible (which shouldn’t mean that it’s necessarily the case) that Keynes’ paradox of savings doesn’t hold in the long run. I don’t believe that’s the case but purely arguing using national accounts and/or changing definitions won’t do.

Last updated 12 Oct 2016, 1:13pm UTC. Broken link removed. 

Nick ROKE, Thrift, And Hoarding

The new issue of ROKE is out and celebrates 80 years of The General Theory. Nick Rowe has a new paper in the issue titled, Keynesian Parables Of Thrift And Hoarding. Requires access. Nick has a post on his blog where he welcomes comments.


I argue that Keynes missed seeing the importance of the distinction between saving in the form of money (‘hoarding’) and saving in all other forms (‘thrift’). It is excessive hoarding, not excessive thrift, that causes recessions and the failure of Say’s law. The same failure to distinguish hoarding from thrift continues from The General Theory into the IS–LM model and into New Keynesian macroeconomics. On this particular question, economists should follow Silvio Gesell rather than John Maynard Keynes. The rate of interest in New Keynesian models should be interpreted as a negative Gesellian tax (that is, a subsidy) on holding money issued by the central bank.

In my opinion, a part of it, the distinction between what’s called “hoarding” and “thrift” above is not something which Keynesians haven’t considered. In fact, in the sectoral balances approach, it is net lending and not saving whose behaviour is more highlighted.

A sector’s or an economic unit’s saving is defined as its disposable income less consumption expenditure.

S = YD − C

On the other hand, a sector’s net lending is defined as its disposable income less expenditure.

NL = YD − C − I

These things are not as straightforward as they look. Here’s an example. I can be both a saver and borrower. 

Let’s say, I start with no assets/liabilities, earn $1mn in a year, pay taxes of $200,000, have consumption expenditure of $100,000 and buy a house worth $5m by borrowing $4.3m from a bank.

My saving is $700,000 and my net lending is minus $4.3 million [ = ($1mn − $200,000) − $300,000 − $5m].

Of course, the fact that I am a net borrower doesn’t make me poor. My house is worth $5m and I have a liability of $4.3m which implies my net worth is $700,000.

However, my liquidity is low. If tomorrow the economy collapses and I lose my job, I will be in a bad situation. In short, negative net lending (or a negative financial balance) of an economic unit or a sector contributes to financial fragility.

There’s another important point: even though I am a saver, my saving rate is 7/8, I have contributed hugely to aggregate demand. This can happen at a sectoral level as well. So perhaps this is the reason why Nick Rowe makes this distinction.

So if we were to blindly believe in Keynes, we would have concluded wrongly by just looking at the saving rate. But it is a matter of emphasis: economists make ceteris paribus arguments and I do not think Keynes didn’t understand this. He was perhaps holding everything else constant and changing the propensity to consume to highlight an important fact. But in real life ceteris is never paribus. What Keynes was arguing was that saving is not necessarily a good thing at the macro level.

Back to sectoral balances. Since, a sector’s (such as the household sector’s) negative net lending (or negative financial balance) adds to its financial fragility, this process will reverse. Private expenditure relative to private disposable income will fall. But this has an effect of being a drain on aggregate demand. And this can cause a recession.

Nick Rowe would have argued that it is the demand for money which caused a recession. Till here, it’s the same as argued above, because private expenditure falling relative to income is due to economic units trying to increase their liquidity. (There’s a “paradox” here: all units trying to reduce their fragility causes more fragility!).

There is however a difference: a sector’s or economic units’ demand for “money” can also be independent to income/expenditure and is more related to asset allocation between various kinds of financial assets. But here it cannot be said to cause a fall in aggregate demand and output. So a higher demand for money per se cannot be said to cause a recession.

As I was finishing writing this, JKH put up a comment at Nick’s blog saying Keynes understood it. I reproduce the comment below.


There’s no question that Keynes appreciated the distinction between thrift and hoarding:

GT Chapter 9

“The rise in the rate of interest might induce us to save more, if our incomes were unchanged. But if the higher rate of interest retards investment, our incomes will not, and cannot, be unchanged. They must necessarily fall, until the declining capacity to save has sufficiently offset the stimulus to save given by the higher rate of interest. The more virtuous we are, the more determinedly thrifty, the more obstinately orthodox in our national and personal finance, the more our incomes will have to fall when interest rises relatively to the marginal efficiency of capital. Obstinacy can bring only a penalty and no reward. For the result is inevitable.”

GT Chapter 13

“The concept of hoarding may be regarded as a first approximation to the concept of liquidity-preference. Indeed if we were to substitute ‘propensity to hoard’ for ‘hoarding’, it would come to substantially the same thing. But if we mean by ‘hoarding’ an actual increase in cash-holding, it is an incomplete idea — and seriously misleading if it causes us to think of ‘hoarding’ and ‘not-hoarding’ as simple alternatives. For the decision to hoard is not taken absolutely or without regard to the advantages offered for parting with liquidity; — it results from a balancing of advantages, and we have, therefore, to know what lies in the other scale. Moreover it is impossible for the actual amount of hoarding to change as a result of decisions on the part of the public, so long as we mean by ‘hoarding’ the actual holding of cash. For the amount of hoarding must be equal to the quantity of money (or — on some definitions — to the quantity of money minus what is required to satisfy the transactions-motive); and the quantity of money is not determined by the public. All that the propensity of the public towards hoarding can achieve is to determine the rate of interest at which the aggregate desire to hoard becomes equal to the available cash. The habit of overlooking the relation of the rate of interest to hoarding may be a part of the explanation why interest has been usually regarded as the reward of not-spending, whereas in fact it is the reward of not-hoarding.”

Being the supreme macro-accountant (the first one really), he would be totally in tune with the general stock/flow consistency theme of the post-Keynesians.

Hoarding is a stock/asset allocation of liquidity, interconnected with the determination of the interest rate, as he notes above. He correctly rejected the idea of the interest rate as being determined by an “equilibrium” of saving and investment. He maintained correctly that those two measures are continuously equivalent.

Recession dynamics are a flow phenomenon as he describes it, using reconciliation of income accounting at two different points in time.

The behavior of liquidity, hoarding, and the interest rate is stock behavior (including hoarding) within that saving flow dynamic (including thrift).

Kalecki And Keynes On Wages

The blogger writing for Social Democracy For The 21st Century: A Post Keynesian Perspective has an interesting post about Keynes’ view on wages.

I have a few points to add, which may not be contradictory to that post. It’s possible Keynes’ understanding changed from his discussions with Kalecki. In fact, Jan Toporowski, biographer of Michael Kalecki sees Kalecki’s position as far superior compared to that of Keynes. In an article titled Kalecki And Keynes On Wages, he says:

Both Kalecki and Keynes realised that their macroeconomic analysis depended critically on the inability of the labour market to be brought into equilibrium by changes in wages, as postulated by neoclassical theory. In 1939 therefore they wrote their explanation for this inability of free markets in capitalism to attain the equilibrium imagined by Robbins, in which all resources, including labour, are fully utilised. Keynes however got stuck on the effects of wages on the short-period equilibrium in an abstract Marshallian model. Kalecki was able to demonstrate more clearly the complex real income effects of wage changes.

Kalecki’s approach to the subject was much clearer, and free of Marshallian dilemmas applied to historical data.

Jan Toporowski

Jan Toporowski, Levy Institute, May 2011

In the article, Toporowski points out the debate between Keynes and John T. Dunlop, Lorie Tarshis and Michal Kalecki. He also quotes Keynes from the GT:

in the short period, falling money wages and rising real wages are each, for independent reasons, likely to accompany decreasing employment; labour being readier to accept wage-cuts when employment is falling off, yet real wages inevitably rising in the same circumstances on account of the increasing marginal return to a given capital equipment when output is diminished.

Keynes was not fully correct on this but it is interesting to note that he was almost there. Perhaps his own quote explains: he himself couldn’t escape from old ideas which ramify into every corner of our minds.

In his book Post-Keynesian Economics: New Foundations, pp 277-278, Marc Lavoie says:

Indeed, in several versions of post-Keynesian short-run model of employment, higher real wages are conducive to higher levels of employment.

In their biography, Michal Kalecki (Great Thinkers In Economics), Julio López G and Michaël Assous point out that it was Michal Kalecki who first figured this out before Dunlop-Tarshis-Kalecki (1939) in his 1938 paper The determinants of distribution of the national income, also published in Collected works of Michal Kalecki, Vol. I, edited by J. Osiatynsky, Oxford University Press, 1990.


Collected Works Of Michal Kalecki - Volume 1


So here’s Kalecki. It’s great and humble of him to call it the “Keynesian theory”, although he found something contrary to Keynes’ own point. But that’s the thing about Keynes – he said a lot of things which is contrary to his own revolutionary thoughts. Heterodox economists see it in a nicer way. Joan Robinson would have said, “Keynes should not have said that”. Keynes’ opponents would pounce on his several vulnerabilities. And then there’s the bastardization of Keynes’ work. Most of economics before the crisis simply states: “Keynes is wrong”.  Over to Kalecki:

Final remarks

1. There are certain ‘workers’ friends’ who try to persuade the working class to abandon the fight for wages in its own interest, of course. The usual argument used for this purpose is that the increase of wages causes unemployment, and is thus detrimental to the working class as a whole.

The Keynesian theory undermines the foundation of this argument. Our investigation above has shown that a wage increase may change employment in either direction, but that this change is unlikely to be important. A wage increase, however, affects to a certain extent the distribution of income: it tends to reduce the degree of monopoly and thus to raise real wages. On the other hand, ‘real’ capitalist incomes tend to fall off because of the relative shift of income from rentiers to corporations, which lowers capitalist propensity to consume.

If viewed from this standpoint, strikes must have the full sympathy of ‘workers’ friends’. For a rise in wages tends to reduce the degree of monopoly, and thus to bring our imperfect system nearer to the ideal or free competition. On the other hand, it tends to increase the thriftiness of capitalists by causing a relative shift of income from rentiers to corporations. And ‘workers’ friends’ are usually admirers both of free competition and or thrift as a virtue of the capitalist class.

2. Another question may arise in connection with the Keynesian theory of wages. Is not the struggle of workers for higher wages idle if they lose whatever gain they may make in the form of a higher cost of living? We have shown that wage reduction causes a change in the distribution of the national income to the disadvantage of workers, and that in the event of an increase in wages the reverse occurs. This is not to deny, however, that changes in real wages are much smaller than those in money wages; but never the less they may be quite material, especially as we are dealing with averages which reflect only slightly great fluctuations in real wages in particular industries.

We noticed above the great stability of the relative share of manual labour in the national income. This is not in contradiction with the influence of money wages upon the distribution of the national income. On the contrary, the resistance to wage cuts prevents the degree of monopoly from rising in the slump to the extent it would if ‘free competition’ prevailed on the labour market. Although, in fact, the relative share of manual labour is more or less stable, this would not obtain if wages were very elastic.

It is quite true that the fight for wages is not likely to bring about fundamental changes in the distribution of the national income. Income and capital taxation are much more potent weapons to achieve this aim, for these taxes (as opposed to commodity taxes) do not affect prime costs, and thus do not tend to raise prices. But in order to redistribute income in this way, the government must have both the will and the power to carry it out, and this is unlikely in a capitalist system.

Keynes’ ‘Human’ Apple

The point needs emphasising because the art of thinking in terms of models is a difficult–largely because it is an unaccustomed–practice. The pseudo-analogy with the physical sciences leads directly counter to the habit of mind which is most important for an economist proper to acquire.

I also want to emphasise strongly the point about economics being a moral science. I mentioned before that it deals with introspection and with values. I might have added that it deals with motives, expectations, psychological uncertainties. One has to be constantly on guard against treating the material as constant and homogeneous in the same way that the material of the other sciences, in spite of its complexity, is constant and homogeneous. It is as though the fall of the apple to the ground depended on the apple’s motives, on whether it is worth while falling to the ground, and whether the ground wanted the apple to fall, and on mistaken calculations on the part of the apple as to how far it was from the centre of the earth.

But do not be reluctant to soil your hands, as you call it. I think it is most important. The specialist in the manufacture of models will not be successful unless he is constantly correcting his judgment by intimate and messy acquaintance with the facts to which his model has to be applied.

J. M. Keynes to Harrod, 10 July 1938

New Enhanced Financial Accounts In The Federal Reserve’s Flow Of Funds (Z.1) Report

The Federal Reserve produces quarterly data for the financial accounts of the United States (earlier called “flow of funds”). There are a few notable additions termed enhanced financial accounts, which are in the process of being added. Some additions are details about money market mutual funds, off-balance sheet items of depository institutions, such as unused commitments, letters of credit and derivatives. This is the chart from the Federal Reserve’s FEDS note Off-Balance Sheet Items of Depository Institutions in the Enhanced Financial Accounts


meisenzahl-fig1-20150828-624x652This data is probably not new but has been added in the report. Indeed it was one of the important points of Basil Moore’s book Horizontalists and Verticalists.

Basil Moore - Horizontalists And Verticalists - Loan Commitments

Moore has a sophisticated way of saying things (pages 24-25):

In making a loan commitment a bank should be viewed as a participant in forward rather than spot lending markets. Viewed as a seller of contingent claims, banks themselves obviously can excercise only limited control over the volume of their lending.

On page 186 of Moore’s book, he also notes that Keynes talks about this in his book A Treatise On Money:

Keynes insists that cash facilities of the public includes unused overdraft facilities, “of which we have no statistical record whatever” (JMK, 5, p. 37). He then concludes, “Thus the cash facilities, which are truly cash for the purposes of the theory of the value of money, by no means correspond to the bank deposits which are published” (JMK, 5, p. 38).

Tracking Keynes’ writing Moore concludes that although Keynes talked of unused overdraft facilities, he fails to recognize its importance in theory. Moore says (p. 203):

Keynes then returned to the issue of unused overdraft facilities, without, however, recognizing that this was the key to the endogeneity of the money stock:

[Keynes]: In Great Britain the banks pay great attention to the amount of their outstanding loans and deposits, but not to the amount of their customers’ overdraft faclities … it means that there is no effective pressure on the resources of the banking system until the finance is employed … there is no superimposed pressure resulting for planned activity over and above the pressure resulting from actual activity. (JMK, 14, pp. 222-23).

Honestly, I am not sure what Keynes is trying to say in all this. Moore is quite clear in his book. It’s still nice to know that Keynes discussed all this. Perhaps he wanted to say something more but couldn’t translate his thoughts in words. But if you can interpret Keynes, do tell me!

Disappointing Start, Mr. Bernanke

Ben Bernanke has a new blog at Brookings.

In his second post, Why are interest rates so low?, Bernanke “explains the rationale behind the Federal Reserve’s continued policies”. We should be thankful to Bernanke for his leadership qualities to have kept interest rates low to help the world economy recover from a crisis. The latest post however ends up just stating the standard neoclassical economics story: a hugely inaccurate way of looking at the world. Keynes himself debunked many such notions.

First he starts off with the notion of the Wicksellian interest rate.

To understand why this is so [“Why are interest rates so low?”], it helps to introduce the concept of the equilibrium real interest rate (sometimes called the Wicksellian interest rate, after the late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Swedish economist Knut Wicksell). The equilibrium interest rate is the real interest rate consistent with full employment of labor and capital resources, perhaps after some period of adjustment. Many factors affect the equilibrium rate, which can and does change over time. In a rapidly growing, dynamic economy, we would expect the equilibrium interest rate to be high, all else equal, reflecting the high prospective return on capital investments.

Full employment in the United States? When did this happen? Keynes himself rejected this (see here) (quote h/t Lars Syll).

Keynes said:

In my Treatise on Money I defined what purported to be a unique rate of interest, which I called the natural rate of interest—namely, the rate of interest which, in the terminology of my Treatise, preserved equality between the rate of saving (as there defined) and the rate of investment. I believed this to be a development and clarification of Wicksell’s ‘natural rate of interest’, which was, according to him, the rate which would preserve the stability of some, not quite clearly specified, price-level.

I had, however, overlooked the fact that in any given society there is, on this definition, a different natural rate of interest for each hypothetical level of employment. And, similarly, for every rate of interest there is a level of employment for which that rate is the ‘natural’ rate, in the sense that the system will be in equilibrium with that rate of interest and that level of employment. Thus it was a mistake to speak of the natural rate of interest or to suggest that the above definition would yield a unique value for the rate of interest irrespective of the level of employment. I had not then understood that, in certain conditions, the system could be in equilibrium with less than full employment.

I am now no longer of the opinion that the [Wicksellian] concept of a ‘natural’ rate of interest, which previously seemed to me a most promising idea, has anything very useful or significant to contribute to our analysis. It is merely the rate of interest which will preserve the status quo; and, in general, we have no predominant interest in the status quo as such.

Ben Bernanke then says:

Large deficits will tend to increase the equilibrium real rate (again, all else equal), because government borrowing diverts savings away from private investment.

This again confuses the direction of causality from saving to investment among other things. Bernanke himself is a witness to the fact that large US government deficits didn’t have such effects. Economists such as Paul Krugman have an explanation for this, claiming this is untrue when the economy is in a “liquidity trap” but think this is the case. A large deficit has the private sector net lending as the mirror image and there’s no reason for interest rates to necessarily rise because of large deficits. Ben Bernanke is simply repeating economists’ favourite “crowding out” argument.

Ben Shalom Bernanke. Huge disappointment.