Friday, November 30, 2018


Lawrence Summers accepts the Butler
Award from the New York Association
 for Business Economics, November 29.
On Friday, November 29, 2018 the New York Association for Business Economics NYABE) presented The William F. Butler Award to former Treasury Secretary Dr. Lawrence H. Summers, the President Emeritus of, and the Charles W. Eliot University Professor at, Harvard University. 

Summers has been close to the center of the economics profession for his entire professional career. He was a strong candidate for the position of Chairman of the Fed under Obama before the President settled on Janet Yellen.

My notes on the lunch talk, which is on the record to the press, at the Cornell Club in New York City, follow. This is not a transcript; I did not use a tape recorder. The portions in quotes were more carefully written down, but may not be verbatim. The unnumbered questions in bold face were from Alan Goldman, the current President of the NYABE, of which I was President in 2002-2003.

I am glad to receive an award from business economists. The best opinions on the current economic outlook come from the business economics community. “I do not believe there is anywhere you can go on this planet than to business economists to get a better take on the business cycle.”

What were your best calls as Secretary of the Treasury?

“I was quite good around the [2007-2009] fiscal crisis. I said what we fear most is the lack of fear among banks.”  “I said that banks were dangerously undercapitalized and needed an infusion of funds and a stimulus was in order.”

“I said declaration of victory over green sprouts in 2009 was massively premature.”

What were your worst calls?

Five years ago my call on China was not so good. It was premature.

I recommended in the 1990s that we help the Russians with their economy, using as an analogy the Marshall Plan. The Russian economy did not develop the way it did in Europe after WW2. My idea did not prove out.

In the mid-1990s and 2000s, I was wrong on my productivity projections.

The jury is still out on the secular stagnation theory for the US economy that I proposed in 2013 based on Alvin Hansen’s work. Structural changes raised the saving rate, lowered the investment propensity. I said we needed more investment incentives. I was accused of recommending an “imprudent fiscal policy.” The problem is we had a bubble at the end of the 1990s, then a recession after 2001, and then the Internet bubble. I felt we had to encourage more investment,

Since 2013, fiscal policy has indeed been more expansionary and the Fed has been easier than the market had previously expected. Growth was harder to obtain. We had bigger bubbles, but less growth. I called it secular stagnation, a change that lowered the long-term rate of unemployment.

Real interest rates in Japan and Europe were even lower than in the United States. Growth continues to be low by historical standards. This supports the secular stagnation theory. I am more sure of it today than in 2013. What are the prospects for a recession? Over the next two years, I would say 50 percent, but I wouldn't argue with 35 percent. I would wonder at anyone projecting a probability of either as low as 15 percent or as high as 90 percent. The problem is that the Fed putting interest rates down to zero again is not going to help.

If I were Chairman of the Fed today, I wouldn't take a position much different from Jay Powell, so far, i.e., tending toward dovish. But I would differ in three ways:
  • I would focus on the 2 percent inflation target and I would observe that in the last ten years the Fed has always erred on the downside of this target. With only 3.7 percent unemployment, when if not now should we err on the upside?
  • I would be sceptical of balance sheet manipulation. QE works only in the early stages or when it has signaling consequences. The cumulative impact of duration from debt offsets the QE. I would put less emphasis on balance sheet size.
  • I would deemphasize the fetish for information provision and transparency. Stick with the "a strong dollar is in our national interest" mantra and deliver a consistent message, with less emphasis on disagreements within the FOMC.
Q1 (from the floor). What about the labor force participation rate? Americans are aging into retirement. More workers are more credibly facing competition from overseas, from robots [the Internet], from the gig economy.

Q2. Should the Fed go to negative interest rates? A negative rate is not likely to produce stimulus. They are "unworldly".

Q3. Could secular stagnation be overcome by innovation? I'm looking at demand, not supply side. I am agnostic about [Northwestern Professor] Bob Gordon's argument, which is supply side. 

Q4. What will Trump tax reform accomplish? The reforms have helped the well off, but is financed by deficits and is therefore contractionary. Damages our ability to invest in infrastructure. Traffic congestion is terrible in NYC; took me 40 minutes to go 1.5 miles.

Q5. Should bankers have gone to jail after 2008? Stupidity is not a crime. By containing the crisis [bailing out the banks] we have had less populism that we would otherwise have had. "There must have been crimes" is not a credible claim. However, bankers were allowed to just resign rather than being  made accountable. That was an error.

Q6. Are the tariffs and trade tensions slowing the world economy? Not so much that as the traditional cycle of fear and greed.

Q7. What topics in economics are not being studied enough? "Relative to its social importance, business economics is overemphasized." I would like to see more study of regional economics. What could public policy do, for example, in West Virginia? Also, structural questions need more study – creation of local infrastructure, development economics. This is insufficiently studied in the United States, in favor of financial topics.


Professor Summers is a careful and clear speaker; I am a long-hand and therefore selective note-taker. If I have misquoted or misinterpreted anything he said, please send a note to me at john [at] and I will look at it again.

In identifying his worst calls, Summers did not go back 19 years to his support of the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. This lifted some of the restrictions on banks' involvement in insurance and investment services that were imposed in the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act. Glass-Steagall was a brilliant deal, part of the New Deal, that traded commercial bank deposit insurance for regulations of banks and other financial institutions to keep "shadow banks" from playing with government-insured deposits. Critics of Summers for his support of Gramm-Leach-Bliley include former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

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