(Note : This was earlier written as part of the previous post, so it begins abruptly where that one leaves off. It got so long that I split the post into two. I am beginning to think that even very knowledgeable economists may have fundamentally mischaracterized Sims when they see him as someone primarily useful for empirical techniques)
I found Chris Sims much more exciting - digging into his work was a whole new level of education. This dude should really have been blogging! First of all there is the fact that his VAR, SVAR models and techniques require as few structural assumptions about the economy as needed. This I now believe is an important objection to all mainstream/blogosphere macro that tackles policy issues - why the need to presume unidirectional causality arguments? (If logical causality was to become the dominant paradigm in macro, shouldnt we all be Austrians by now?)
Indeed, Scott Sumner's critique of VAR as possibly misidentifying nominal shocks and reversing causality looks exactly wrong at first cut - that's precisely the kind of pitfall that VAR models seem to be trying to avoid. Second, and more importantly, Sims is almost wholly free of policy and worldview biases in the issues that he tackles. This is absolutely remarkable - almost unique - in a macroeconomist who writes most frequently on monetary issues. Lastly, Sims is about so much more than the empirical techniques! Reading even 2 or 3 of his papers is proof enough.
Here are a few gems I found in Sims's research:
1) Limits to inflation targeting - "Inflation targeting may do more harm than good if there is a substantial chance that the central bank cannot in fact control inflation. .........These considerations suggest that in those countries where inflation control has in the past been most difficult, inflation targeting may be least useful......."
2) Central banks are not really independent, sometimes not even monetary in countries with structural deficits
3) IS/LM critique (this one actually has several great sections worth reproducing in full)-
"Since the equations he wrote down did not include an explicit role for
expectations, the ISLM codification of Keynesian orthodoxy could plausibly ignore
them, and did so. This not only distorted Keynes’s thinking, it ironically weakened
Keynesian orthodoxy in the face of the rational expectations critique"
"A coherent Keynesian approach, accounting for endogenous expectations, implies very
strong effects of monetaryand fiscal policy and leads to greater attention to the
role of the government budget constraint in making the effects of monetary policy
conditional on prevailing fiscal responses, and vice versa"
"If money illusion, lack of foresight, and decision-making inertia are important
in macroeconomic dynamics, it seems more likely that they are important in labor
markets than in the majority (value-weighted) of investment and savings decisions"
"It is useful to recognize where we are introducing non-neutrality into a model and to bear in mind the limitations of non-neutrality assumptions. But it was one of Keynes’s central
insights that in this respect a little ad hockery is not too high a price to pay for
maintaining a model’s grip on reality"
"That an interest rate increase engineered by the central bank could exacerbate rather than reduce inflation, is commonly recognized in current policy discussions ... " (Is this mechanism at work in India these days?)
5) When does monetary policy determine the price level, when does fiscal policy. What to do at the zero lower bound.
6) Government bonds are like equity; TBTF bonds are almost like government bonds; Berkshire Hathaway is almost like a government
7) The biggest risks that the European Monetary Union faces : this one is beyond outstanding. It has so many great ideas that I can't even select properly. It describes most mechanisms at work in the Eurozone today, comprehensively. Oh, and it's written in 1999. Which makes it single best macro prediction I have encountered yet.
Phew, that's not a few, that's a lot. And there are many more. Chris Sims has basically tackled almost every major macro/monetary policy and theory conundrum head on in his career, and has outlined mechanisms that almost completely describe the macroeconomic funk (he does abstract out of finance and default) that developed economies find themselves in these days. He's done this about 10-15 years ago. He handles fiscal & monetary policy symmetrically, recognises the areas of overlap between the two, handles disequilibrium as well as rational expectations with equal ease, creates models that have monetary as well as fiscal non-neutralities, looks at open economy dynamics and explicitly recognises and models various deficit financing as well as budgetary constraint choices. Most importantly, he twists theories to suit facts.
And you're telling me that he is a VAR technician?
I feel almost obliged to link to an early 90's critique by Larry Summers of empirical macroeconomics, of exactly the kind of epitomised by Sargent & Sims. Summers is more appreciative of Sims's VAR models than of Sargent's 'deep parameter estimations'. I had enjoyed reading the piece earlier, agreeing with the basic philosophy though I had no real idea about the details. But I now think that Summers critique is basically summarized as 'empirical macroeconomics has not been useful yet' and I am less convinced. 'Yet' can be key. And as Noah Smith says here, the lack of conclusions from VAR models may be a feature not a bug. Could it be that the theoretical as well as 'pragmatic empirical' macro that Summers prefers pretends to tell us more than it really does?
I read one criticism somewhere that VARs are models with linear dynamics and as such may be unhelpful in describing the fundamental non-linearity of the macroeconomy. This sounds more reasonable to me. But then what do I know.
Either way, I found digging into Sims's work a mind-opening, nearly mind-bending endeavour. I invite everyone interested to do the same. You can begin with this interview here.
(Update : Have corrected some formatting/typo issues in this post as well as the previous one. )