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Sticky Prices, Financial Frictions, and the Ben Bernanke Puzzle

Author(s): Stephen Williamson

Are New Keynesian models useful for monetary policy?

From New Monetarist Economics:

Noah Smith's Bloomberg post on the wonders of sticky price models caught my eye the other day. I'm going to use that as background for addressing issues on financial stability and monetary policy raised by Ben Bernanke.

First, Noah is more than a little confused about the genesis of sticky-price New Keynesian (NK) models. In particular, he thinks that Ball and Mankiw's "Sticky Price Manifesto" was a watershed in the NK revolution. Far from it. Keynesian economics went in several different directions after the theoretical and empirical revolution in macroeconomics. There was the coordination failure literature - Bryant, Diamond, and Cooper and John, for example. There was the sunspot literature. In addition, Mankiw, and Blanchard and Kiyotaki, among others, thought about menu costs. The "Sticky Price Manifesto" is in part a survey of the menu cost literature, but it reads like a religious polemic. You can get the idea from Ball and Mankiw's introduction to their paper:

There are two kinds of macroeconomists. One kind believes that price stickiness plays a central role in short-run economic fluctuations. The other kind doesn't... Those who believe in sticky prices are part of a long tradition in macroeconomics... By contrast, those who deny the importance of sticky prices depart radically from traditional macroeconomics. These heretics hold disparate views... heretics are united by their rejection of propositions that were considered well-established a generation or more ago. They believe that we mislead our undergraduates when we teach them models with sticky prices and monetary non-neutrality. A macroeconomist faces no greater decision than whether to be a traditionalist or a heretic. This paper explains why we choose to be traditionalists. We discuss the reasons, both theoretical and empirical, that we believe in models with sticky prices...

This is hardly illuminating. There are (were) only two kinds of macroeconomists? I've known (and knew in 1993) more kinds of macros than you can shake a stick at, and most of them don't (didn't) define themselves in terms of how they think about price stickiness. Further, they don't ponder choices about research programs as if, for example, they are living in 1925 in Northfield Minnesota, and choosing between lifetime paths as Roman Catholics or Lutherans. Why should we care what Ball and Mankiw think is going on in the minds of their staw-men opponents, or in the classrooms of those straw-men? Why should we care what Ball and Mankiw "believe?" Surely we are (were) much more interested in figuring out what we can learn from them about recent (at the time) developments in the menu cost literature.

Bob Lucas discussed Ball and Mankiw's paper at the Carnegie-Rochester conference where it was presented, and had this to say:

The cost of the ideological approach adopted by Ball and Mankiw is that one loses contact with the progressive, cumulative science aspect of macroeconomics. In order to recognize the existence and possibility of research progress, one needs to recognize deficiencies in traditional views, to acknowledge the existence of unresolved questions on which intelligent people can differ. For the ideological traditionalist, this acknowledgement is too risky. Better to deny the possibility of real progress, to treat new ideas as useful only in refuting new heresies, in getting us back where we were before the heretics threatened to spoil everything. There is a tradition that must be defended against heresy, but within that tradition there is no development, only unchanging truth.

Noah seems to think that Lucas was being unduly harsh, and that he was somehow feeling threatened by these "upstarts." It's pretty clear, actually, that Lucas just thinks it's a bad paper - religion, not science - and that Ball and Mankiw could do a lot better if they put their minds to it.

Where did NK come from? Which of the three threads in post-macro revolution Keynesian economics - coordination failures, sunspots, menu costs - morphs into Woodfordian NK models? To a first approximation, none of them. Perhaps NK owes a little to the menu cost approach, but it's really a direct offshoot of real business cycle theory. Take a Kydland and Prescott (1982) RBC model, eliminate some bells and whistles, add Dixit-Stiglitz monopolistic competition, and you have Rotemberg and Woodford's chapter from "Frontiers of Business Cycle Research." Add some price stickiness, and you have NK. So, NK basically leapfrogs most of the "Keynesian" literature from the 1980s. It's much more about RBC than about Ball and Mankiw.

Further, it's worth noting that Mike Woodford, the key player in NK macro, was at the University of Chicago from 1986 to 1992, the latter 3 years in the Department of Economics with - guess who - Bob Lucas. Indeed, they wrote a paper together. It's about - guess what - a kind of sticky price model with non-neutralities of money. Later on, Lucas wrote about sticky prices with Mike Golosov. So, I think we could make the case that the influence of Lucas on NK is huge, and that of Ball and Mankiw is tiny. Was it the case, as Noah contends, that Lucas was left, disappointed in the dust, by the purveyors of sticky price economics? Of course not - he was helping it along, and doing his own purveying.

How does a basic NK model - Woodford's "cashless" variety, for example - work? There is monopolistic competition, with multiple consumption goods, and the representative consumer supplies labor and consumes the goods. There's an infinite horizon, and we could add some aggregate shocks to total factor productivity (TFP) and preferences if we want. Without the price stickiness, in a competitive equilibrium there are relative prices that clear markets. There's no role for money or other assets (in exchange or as collateral), no limited commitment (everyone pays their debts) - no "frictions" essentially. Financial crises, for example, can't happen in this world. Then, what Woodford does is to add a numeraire object. This object is a pure unit of account, existing as something to denominate prices in terms of. We could call it "money," but let's call it "stardust," just for fun. So far, this wouldn't make any difference to our model, as it's only relative prices that matter - the competitive equilibrium relative prices and equilibrium quantities don't change as the result of adding stardust. What matters, though, is that Woodford assumes that firms in the model cannot change prices (at least sometimes) without bearing a cost. With Calvo pricing, that cost can either be zero or infinite, determined at random each period. Even better, the central bank now has some control over relative prices, as it has the power to determine the price of stardust tomorrow relative to stardust today.


Then, if there are aggregate shocks in this economy, we can do better with central bank intervention than without it. Shocks produce relative price distortions essentially identical to tax distortions, and central bank intervention can alter relative prices in beneficial ways, by reducing the distortions. Basically, it's a fiscal tax-wedge theory of monetary policy. Why monetary policy can do this job better than fiscal policy is not clear from the theory.

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