I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today

Was it Popeye’s friend, Wimpy, who kept asking for a hamburger on credit? Today’s credit markets are anything but robust, with reduced demand and supply for borrowed funds. Always eager to find obscure terms for modern dilemmas, economists refer to this condition as a liquidity trap. With a little prodding from Facebook friend and neighbor, Patrick, we’ll give the concept a once over.

Jumping to the conclusion (and resisting the academic approach of a slow, careful warm-up) there is bad news and good news about liquidity traps. The bad news is that they make it difficult for the Federal Reserve to execute monetary policy. Creating 100s of billions of dollars has a muted impact on our economic recovery. The good news is that the liquidity trap dampens the significant inflation we might expect with the creation of all that money.

OK, back to the beginning. During times of slow or no growth and high unemployment the Federal Reserve can create/inject money, largely by increasing reserves that banks have in their accounts with the Fed. They can do this by buying U.S. treasury bonds on the open market, or even by buying troubled/toxic assets from banks. This increase in the supply of money allows interest rates to fall, which in term spurs demand for more consumption and investment. This is classic monetary policy. With mild downturns this is often enough to increase growth and kick start the economy. For the most recent 2007-2009 recession the Fed took these actions, a number of times in a number of ways, and those actions were not sufficient. Now the target short term interest rate – the Fed Funds rate – is essentially at zero. The Fed can’t lower the interest rates any further. Here’s a graph of the Fed Funds rate since 1980. The big peak at the beginning of the graph was the result of aggressive Fed action to contain inflation. Now, though, the rate has sunk to the very floor.

Fed Funds Rate - St. Louis FRED databaseFed Funds Rate – St. Louis FRED database

One thing that is happening is that while reserves are building up in our financial system, the banks are holding on to them rather than increasing their lending. Some argue that the banks are using the added funds to improve their balance sheets, which were hurt by the dramatic loss in value of securitized mortgages and other derivative assets, and to build up enough cash to pay executive bonuses. The banks argue that demand for credit by qualified borrowers is low. I don’t put much credence in the latter explanation.  One apt analogy for this situation is that the Fed is trying to push on the end of a string, in order to get the economy going.

There is another layer to the liquidity trap concept, and that has to do with the buying public’s (people and business) expectation for inflation. The theory goes that if buyers expect inflation in the future, they will increase buying now. They expect the value of their cash or savings to go down during inflationary times, so they seek to use it now, while its value is still high. This works with traditional monetary policy where an injection of money would be expected to increase inflationary pressures.

On the other hand if purchasers believe that inflation will be controlled, then there is less pressure to buy now. That’s what is happening now. Despite what some politicians suggest, inflation is not right around the corner, and buyers are in no hurry to convert their cash into goods. We see evidence of this with the continuing low interest rates on U.S. bonds. Expectations of high inflation would push those interest rates up. Low inflation expectations, even in the face of increasing money supply is another symptom of a liquidity trap.

This scenario played out, to grim effect, in Japan in the 1990s, as their central bank poured money into the banking system and no one responded. Their “lost decade” was one of almost zero growth.

This paper by a New York Federal Reserve staff economist explains things in more detail, complete with impenetrable equations.

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