Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The recession was a consumer boycott

Robert Shiller, in a discussion paper few months ago, laid out the argument for economists paying closer attention to the "narratives" surrounding economics. To Shiller, popular narratives drive more of the fundamental economic outcomes than economists are typically willing to admit.

For example (one provided by Shiller), the 1921 recession following the end of World War I was, in part, driven by narrative. In contrast to the typical explanation of why it occurred (a central banker went on a long vacation), there are more fundamental reasons for the downturn, including a 50% increase in the price of oil (with wide-spread fear that oil production would peak in a few years) and-probably the most important-deflation expectations. Because consumers believed that prices would fall, they held back from making purchases.

This was the era of the "profiteer", the word used to describe price gouging. Thrift became a virtue, and there were calls to avoid buying anything other than the essentials. Consumer spending plummetted, leading Shiller to describe the recession as a "consumer boycott" lead by narrative, not by a traditional business cycle.

While the example above is buried deep in history, there is applicability to the present. Specifically, the rise in central bank communications. There have never been more speeches given by representatives of central banks than today. In a recent speech given by the Chief Economist of the Bank of England Andrew Haldane,  he calls for less complex and more accessible communication of monetary policy. Ostensibly, this is to increase transparency and trust with the public and describe their actions and intentions to markets.

Being clear and transparent about the goals and sought after outcomes is a legitimate strategy being pursued by central banks around the world, the "forward guidance" policy tool. That is meant to build trust and utilize that trust to instruct outcomes. In some ways, build and maintain a narrative of economic conditions.

This is where it becomes interesting for modern central bankers.

First, it is not quite that simple to construct a narrative. Note that the accessibility of monetary policy is low. The primary piece of material used by the Fed to communicate its strategy, the FOMC minutes, has an exceedingly low accessibility. This makes the communication outside of it far more important to the broader public and the maintenance of a given narrative.

Second, while the Fed (or other central banks) may wish to control the economic narrative, it may not be capable of doing so. Narratives, as pointed out by Shiller, have a life of their own.

What does this have to do with anything? One of the critical elements embedded within both the "narrative economics" theory and "forward guidance" is that the ability to avoid a repeat of a 1921 style, narrative driven retreat. It also shines a light on the need to carefully deconstruct popular narratives for their potential economic consequences. Further, it points to the potential consequences of shifts in the efficacy of forward guidance from central banks.