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Macro-economics of balance-sheet problems and the liquidity trap

CPB Background Document, 3 November 2015

Since 2010, nominal policy rates of central banks in most advanced economies have been close to zero. This is referred to as the zero lower bound on interest rates or as the liquidity trap. At the zero lower bound central banks can no longer lower nominal interest rates, which means that they cannot stabilise the business cycle and prevent deflationary pressures on prices by doing so. In addition, in many countries, homeowners, firms and banks have gotten into trouble due to bursts of real-estate bubbles, particularly in Ireland and Spain, but also in the Netherlands. This has caused balance-sheet problems.

In response, firms and households in many economies are reducing private debts that have been built up in the past. This process of deleveraging involves reductions in aggregate demand and downward pressure on prices. Moreover, balance-sheet problems may have contributed to the emergence of the liquidity trap, since debt reduction increases the supply of savings and pushes real interest rates down.

Both balance-sheet problems and the zero lower bound have a major impact on macro-economic outcomes and on the macro-economic impacts of government policy. The CPB Policy Brief Lessons learnt from seven years of stagnation in the Eurozone, by Lukkezen and Kool, discusses these issues and presents policy recommendations. This background document supports that study and analyses the economic consequences of balance-sheet problems and the liquidity trap in an IS/MP–AD/AS model (IS/MP: Investment Savings/Monetary Policy; AD/AS: aggregate demand/aggregate supply). This is a simple business-cycle model based on the IS/LM model (investment savings/liquidity preference – money supply), which is expanded with a Taylor-rule for monetary policy and a Philips-curve for aggregate supply. Our model describes a large, relatively closed economy, such as that of the Eurozone. Our model generates seven main findings.

First, when the economy experiences larger balance-sheet problems or is in a liquidity trap, the negative impact of lower aggregate demand on total output is larger than under normal conditions. Under normal conditions, the central bank would lower nominal interest rates after a negative demand shock so as to boost aggregate demand and to avoid declining inflation rates. Lower interest rates boost consumption, investments and exports (via depreciation of the exchange rate), which accommodates the aggregate demand shock. When balance-sheet problems are present, negative demand shocks reduce inflation, just as they would under normal conditions. However, lower inflation now increases the real value of debts, which exacerbates balance-sheet problems and depresses aggregate demand further. In a liquidity trap, lower inflation will lead to higher instead of lower real interest rates, since the central bank cannot lower the nominal interest rate any further when interest rates are zero. Higher real interest rates, in turn, reduce consumption, investment and exports, thereby further exacerbating the shortfall in aggregate demand and strengthening the downward pressure on inflation.

Second, when balance-sheet problems are very severe or when the zero lower bound remains binding, the economy does not automatically revert to its long-run macro-economic equilibrium, but may slide down into a (debt-)deflation spiral with economic stagnation. Unresolved debt problems and an ongoing liquidity trap may even land the economy in secular stagnation (Summers, 2014). The economy can only fully recover, and stagnation scenarios can only be avoided, when monetary policy is no longer constrained by the zero lower bound and balance-sheet problems have been sufficiently resolved.

Third, when balance-sheet problems are severe and the zero lower bound is binding, counter-cyclical fiscal policy is more desirable than under normal conditions. The reason is that fiscal policy multipliers are typically larger with balance-sheet problems and when the economy is in a liquidity trap. Expansionary fiscal policy will help to accelerate debt reduction via higher incomes and a more rapid increase (or less rapid decrease) in inflation, which erodes the real value of debts and lowers real interest rates. This will help to sustain aggregate demand. When the zero lower bound is binding, the central bank will not raise interest rates in response to expansionary fiscal policy. Furthermore, counter-cyclical fiscal policy is also more attractive under severe balance-sheet problems and a binding zero lower bound, because the risk of wrongly dosing or timing fiscal policy is smaller than under normal conditions. Under normal conditions, the economy will revert to its long-run equilibrium even without fiscal stimulus. Since it is difficult to determine the right amount of stimulus, and because it takes time to implement fiscal policy, there is a risk that fiscal policy becomes effective when it is no longer needed. These risks, however, are less relevant when balance-sheet problems are severe and when the economy reached the zero lower bound. The business cycle can be determined with less uncertainty, since the economy is typically in a slump as long as the interest rate is at the zero lower bound and the private sector is deleveraging. Since the economy does not automatically return to its long-run equilibrium, there is no real risk that fiscal stimulus comes to too late or causes unnecessary costs. Hence, the risk of excessive fiscal stimulus is small.

Fourth, monetary policy loses its power when the interest rate reaches the zero lower bound. Conventional monetary policy, here meaning lowering the nominal interest rate, is no longer feasible. Unconventional monetary policy may be useful to decrease nominal interest rates in the longer run or to raise inflation expectations. The resulting decrease the real interest rates, in turn, boosts consumption, investments and exports. However, central banks have difficulties making credible commitments to let future inflation rise. Furthermore, unconventional monetary policy may cause turbulence in financial markets.

Fifth, there is a ‘timidity paradox’: expansionary fiscal or monetary policy needs to be sufficiently aggressive to be effective when balance-sheet problems are severe and the economy is in a liquidity trap. Economic stagnation – caused by severe balance-sheet problems and an ongoing liquidity trap – can be avoided only when counter-cyclical policy is so powerful that all demand shortfalls are eliminated and the output gap is completely closed. Then, both inflation and aggregate demand will rise, balance-sheet problems will be alleviated, and the economy will automatically grow out of the zero lower bound. However, when policy stimulus is not large enough, the economic revival will only be temporary, and the economy will relapse again into a (debt-)deflation spiral.

Sixth, larger wage and price flexibility exacerbates short-term economic problems when balance-sheet problems are severe and the zero lower bound is binding. Under normal conditions, wage and price flexibility speed up the economic recovery after a reduction in aggregate demand. When wages and prices decline more quickly, the central bank will engage in more expansionary monetary policy, and thus lowers interest rates more aggressively. Hence, aggregate demand gets a stronger boost and the economy more quickly returns to its long-run equilibrium. However, with severe balance-sheet problems and a binding zero lower bound larger wage and price flexibility results in a ‘flexibility paradox’: larger declines in prices amplify debt–deflation dynamics and raise real interest rates (which the central bank is no longer able to reduce using monetary policy). Wage and price flexibility then hinder the economic recovery.

Seventh, similar reasoning applies to structural reforms. Normally, structural reforms speed up the economic recovery, both in the short and in the long run. In the short run, larger aggregate supply puts downward pressure on prices, allowing the central bank to cut interest rates. This boosts aggregate demand and results in a more rapid economic recovery. In the long run, structural reforms increase future household incomes and firm profits. This implies that households and firms are also more willing to consume and invest today. However, if interest rates are stuck at the zero lower bound or when balance-sheet problems are severe, the ‘paradox of toil’ may apply: structural reforms may damage the economy in the short run. Larger aggregate supply causes the output gap to increase. When aggregate demand does not sufficiently increase – because households and firms will be richer in the future – net deflationary pressures will increase, causing stronger (debt-)deflation dynamics.

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