Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Remembering the Real Milton Friedman

Today is Milton Friedman's 100th birthday and much is being said about him. One question that continues to come up in this conversation is what would Milton Friedman do today?  I have addressed that question many times, but for the sake of those who may have missed those posts here is an edited recap:
First,  Milton Friedman advocated large scale asset purchases for Japan.  Here is an exchange he had with David Laidler in 2000:
David Laidler: Many commentators are claiming that, in Japan, with short interest rates essentially at zero,  monetary policy is as expansionary as it can get, but has had no stimulative effect on the economy. Do you have a view on this issue?
Milton Friedman: Yes, indeed. As far as Japan is concerned, the situation is very clear. And it’s a good example. I’m glad you brought it up, because it shows how unreliable interest rates can be as an indicator of appropriate monetary policy. During the 1970s, you had the bubble period. Monetary growth was very high. There was a so-called speculative bubble in the stock market. In 1989, the Bank of Japan stepped on the brakes very hard and brought money supply down to negative rates for a while. The stock market broke. The economy went into a recession, and it’s been in a state of quasi recession ever since. Monetary growth has been too low. Now, the Bank of Japan’s argument is, “Oh well, we’ve got the interest rate down to zero; what more can we do?” It’s very simple. They can buy long-term government securities, and they can keep buying them and providing high-powered money until the high powered money starts getting the economy in an expansion. What Japan needs is a more expansive domestic monetary policy.
Milton Friedman's call here for purchasing long-term government bonds as a way to push the Japanese economy out of its quasi-recession is similar to the Fed's justification for QE2 and Operation Twist.  The only meaningful difference is that Friedman was advocating a continual, sustained purchase of securities until a robust recovery began.  The Fed, on the other hand, has been applying a piecemeal approach (i.e. QE2, Operation Twist, long-term interest rate forecasts) that in someways creates more uncertainty.  For example, when will the Fed do the next QE?  No one, even the Fed, knows for sure.
Second, not only did Friedman call for large-scale asset purchases (LSAPs) but he also provided theoretical reasons for doing so.  His main argument was that LSAPs created portfolio effects that in turn affected aggregate nominal spending. Edward Nelson, probably the foremost authority on Friedman's monetary views, has an excellent article that summarizes Friedman's view on LSAPs and its implications for the portfolio channel.  Anyone who wants to make claims about Friedman's monetary views should read this article first.
Third, Milton Friedman was very clear that one should never look to the level of short-term interest rates as a guide to monetary policy.  Some observers point to low interest rates as indicating the Fed has kept monetary policy super loose.  Friedman called this the interest rate fallacy. In order to truly understand the implication of interest rates one needs to first know the level of the natural interest rate.  Only if interest rates are lower than their natural rate level is monetary policy stimulative. Too many observers miss this point and thus fall prey to Friedman's interest rate fallacy. 
Finally, Friedman would have preferred that monetary stimulus be done in a more systematic, rule-based manner.  Instead of announcing successive, politically costly rounds of QE the Fed could have announced a nominal level target from the start and said asset purchases will continue until the level target was hit.  There would have been no need to announce a large dollar size of the asset purchases up front that attracts so much criticism.  There would also have been no need to announce successive rounds of QE that make it appear the previous rounds did not work.  More importantly, it would have more firmly shaped nominal expectations in a manner conducive to economic recovery.  The question is what type of systematic level target would Friedman have supported?  This 2003 WSJ article indicates he might have liked a nominal GDP level target.

P.S. Even if one inovkes Milton Friedman's old keep-the-money-supply steady view, one still ends up with the conclusion that monetary policy is too tight.


  1. But the Edward Nelson article claims that the Fed's actions were Friedmanite and adequate, despite IOR!

  2. Excellent blogging.

    Yes, Milton Friedman, by now iconic, has been improperly adopted as a mascot by people who are unFriedmanlike in their actual policies.

    He was foursquare for monetary expansionism, and even inflation, when called for (as in Japan, and the USA and Europe today).

    Friedman also

    1. Supported progressive consumption taxes to finance military outlays
    2. Supported pollution taxes
    3. Detested gold nuts
    4. Was against the homeowner mortgage interest tax deduction
    5. Would have hated ethanol
    6. Would be against the huge and sustaining empire of federal rural infrastructure subsidies.

    That is the Milton Friedman you never heard of....

  3. Thanks Benjamin. Good to hear from you again.