Declines in demand and how to disaggregate them

by on August 18, 2010 at 7:18 am in Economics | Permalink

Let’s say that housing and equity values fall and suddenly people realize they are less wealthy for the foreseeable future.  The downward shift of demand will bundle together a few factors:

1. A general decline in spending.

2. A disproportionate and permanent demand decline for the more income- and wealth-elastic goods, a category which includes many consumer durables and also luxury goods.  (Kling on Leamer discusses relevant issues.)

3. A disproportionate and temporary demand decline for consumer durables, which will largely be reversed once inventories wear out or maybe when credit constraints are eased.

Those are sometimes more useful distinctions than “AD” vs. “sectoral shocks,” because AD shifts consist of a few distinct elements.

If you see #1 as especially important, you will be relatively optimistic about monetary and fiscal stimulus.  If you see #2 as especially important, you will be relatively pessimistic.  You can call #2 an “AD shift” if you wish, but reflation won’t for the most part bring those jobs back.  People need to be actually wealthier again, in real terms, for those spending patterns to reemerge in a sustainable way.  Stimulus proponents regularly conflate #1 and #2 and cite “declines in demand” as automatic evidence for #1 when they might instead reflect #2.

If you see #3 as especially important, and see capital markets as imperfect in times of crisis, you will consider policies such as the GM bailout to be more effective than fiscal stimulus in its ramp-up forms.

Sectoral shift advocates like to think in terms of #2, but if #3 lurks the shifts view can imply a case for some real economy interventions.  I read Arnold Kling as wanting to dance with #2 but keep his distance from #3.  But if permanent sectoral shifts are important, might not the temporary shifts (we saw the same whipsaw patterns in international trade) be very important too?  Can we embrace #2 without also leaning into #3?

I wish to ask this comparative question without having to also rehearse all of the ideological reasons for and against real economy bailouts.  It gets at why the GM bailout has gone better than the fiscal stimulus, a view which you can hold whether you favor both or oppose both.

Note there also (at least) two versions of the sectoral shift view and probably both are operating.  The first cites #2.  The second claims some other big change is happening, such as the move to an internet-based economy.  If both are happening at the same time, along with some #1 and some #3, that probably makes the recalculation problem especially difficult.

I see another real shock as having been tossed into the mix, namely that liquidity constraints have forced many firms to identify and fire the zero and near-zero marginal productivity workers.

There’s also the epistemic problem of whether we have #2 or #3 and whether we trust politics to tell the difference.

The Germans had lots of #3 (temporary whacks to their export industries) and treated them as such, whether consciously or not, and with good success.  Arguably Singapore falls into that camp as well.  The U.S. faces more serious identification problems, whether at the level of policy or private sector adjustment.  We have not been able to formulate policy simply by assuming that we face a lot of #3.

I would have more trust in current applied policy macroeconomics if we could think through more clearly the relative importances of #1, 2, and 3.  And when I hear the phrase “aggregate demand,” immediately I wonder whether it all will be treated in aggregate fashion; too often it is.

Lord August 18, 2010 at 8:19 am

I don’t think 2 means what you think it means. Was the increase in housing prices over the last decade an increase in real wealth? Was its fall a decrease in real wealth? Reflation may not restore the dream of ever increasing housing prices, but that does not mean it cannot increase prices or lower debt service (though this is difficult without default since values are so far below debt). Real is so often a figment of our collective imagination, it can take much less than we imagine.

Lee Kelly August 18, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Yes. Exactly!

Andrew August 19, 2010 at 5:12 am

For my money, the best blog post of the year.

saltmanSPIFF April 12, 2011 at 8:36 pm

@Lord: You have the right of it, I think. Real estate at the consumer level takes on the aspects of a localized market (vs. the securitized mortgage market, which has a more national feel, a la Arnold Kling) and thus is subject to more behavioral heuristics than formal modeling. If people see a pattern of increasing home prices, they feel more wealthy, whether they really are or not. Conversely, if those prices are unsustainable and the bursting bubble wipes out a large share of their equity value, they feel less wealthy, whether they really are or not. Reflation could very well lead to a short-run wealth effect which would set the stage for the burst all over again. In the end, it’s all about heuristics-based expectations in localized markets.

Philo April 12, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Of course, the response to 2. (and 3.) will be “recalculation.” But recalculation takes place *all the time*; why think it is especially severe *now*? Looking back in history, the events having fallen into place, we underestimate the recalculation-in-the-face-of-uncertainty that was occurring. It always seems to us that the future is more unsettling that it ever was before, but this is mostly illusion. As for 1.: Since prices are sticky, a decline in spending implies a decline in production, thus an increase in unemployment. This evil can and should be avoided by a monetary policy loose enough to prevent the decline in spending (indeed, to continue a smooth upward path). Whether 1. is overwhelmingly important or only somewhat important, this is obvious.

Jon April 12, 2011 at 8:37 pm

I don’t think firms spent any time or effort identifying specific workers to let go at all. The layoffs were so massive and enormous they couldn’t have put much dicernment into them. The laid off were just in the wrong job at the wrong time. Consider: entire companies have gone under (Circuit City, Lehmann,…), and other companies have closed entire factories, offices and retail outlets with 100% job loss for those employees. Reshuffle the deck and repeat and today’s unemployed might still be working while their employed coworkers would be out on the steeet instead. Also, I thought the notion that GDP is back to where it was in 2007 has been well debunked, so these people were not “zero marginal product”. We really did lose their production. Arguably many of them were doing things we no longer wanted done, or at least not to the same extent, but that doesn’t mean they were not productive when we did want their products.

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