Tyler Cowen on the gold standard

Here is Tyler Cowen on the gold standard:

“The most fundamental argument against a gold standard is that when the relative price of gold is go up, that creates deflationary pressures on the general price level, thereby harming output and employment. There is also the potential for radically high inflation through gold, though today that seems like less a problem than it was in the seventeenth century.

Why put your economy at the mercy of these essentially random forces? I believe the 19th century was a relatively good time to have had a gold standard, but the last twenty years, with their rising commodity prices, would have been an especially bad time. When it comes to the next twenty years, who knows?

Whether or not there is “enough gold,” and there always will be at some price, the transition to a gold standard still involves the likelihood of major price level shocks, if only because the transition itself involves a repricing of gold. A gold standard, by the way, is still compatible with plenty of state intervention.”

I fully agree – I think it would be an extremely bad idea to introduce a gold standard today. That does not mean that the gold standard does not have some merits. It has – the gold standard will for example significantly reduce discretion in monetary policy and I surely prefer rules to discretion in monetary policy. Furthermore, I think that exchange rate based monetary policy also has some merits as it can “circumvent” the financial sector. Monetary policy is not conducted via a credit channel, but via a exchange rate channel – that makes a lot of sense in a situation will a financial crisis.

However, why gold? Why not silver? Or Uranium? Or rather a basket of commodities. Robert Hall has suggested a method that I fundamentally think has a lot of merit – the ANCAP standard, which is a basket of Ammonium Nitrate, Copper, Aluminum and Plywood. Why these commodities? Because as Robert Hall shows they have been relatively highly correlated with the general cost of living. I am not sure that these commodities are the best for a basket – I in fact think it would make more sense to use a even broader basket like the so-called CRB index, but that is not important – the important thing is that the best commodity standard is not one with one commodity (like gold), but rather a number of commodities so to reduce the volatility of the basket.

Furthermore, it makes very little sense to me to keep the exchange rate completely fixed against the the commodity basket. As I have advocated in a number of earlier posts I think a commodity-exchange rates based NGDP targeting regime could make sense for small open economies – and maybe even for large economies. Anyway, the important thing is that we can learn quite a bit from discussing exchange rate and commodity based monetary standards. Therefore, I think the Market Monetarists should engage gold standard proponents in in 2012. We might have more in common than we think.

Now I better stop blogging for this year – the guests will be here in a second and my wife don’t think it is polite to write about monetary theory while we have guests;-)

Happy new year everybody!

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Scott wins Ezra Klein’s Wonky awards

This is from Ezra Klein’s “first-annual Wonky awards”:

Central bank of the year: Sweden’s Riksbank. It’s hard to avoid noticing that Sweden has dodged the economic woes that are ailing most of the world. Part of the credit here goes to deputy governor Lars Svensson, who spearheaded Sweden’s extremely aggressive monetary policy. In 2009, the Riksbank — Sweden’s central bank — was the first bank to experiment with a negative interest rate. And it had assets on its balance sheet equal to a stunning 25 percent of GDP, a sign of how much cash it was injecting into the economy, compared with just 15 percent for the Federal Reserve. The bold moves worked: Sweden has been growing at a decent clip.

Central bank dissenter of the year: Charles Evans. While some on the Federal Reserve’s board of governors are worried that the central bank is doing too much and risking inflation, Evans has argued that the Fed isn’t doing enough to boost the economy. The president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Evans is one of the few bankers who seems to recognize that 9 percent unemployment should, as he put it, set policymakers’ hair on fire as much as a slight uptick in inflation usually does.

Central bank harassers of the year: Though Rep. Ron Paul is the Federal Reserve’s loudest critic, it’s Bloomberg News that may, unexpectedly, have been the biggest thorn in Ben Bernanke’s side. Through a FOIA request, the news agency found out how individual banks took advantage of cheap lending from the Fed during the height of the financial crisis, ultimately reaping some $13 billion in profit from the loans. The new details sparked a huge tide of criticism against the Fed’s lack of transparency.

Most influential-yet-obscure economic blogger: Scott Sumner. Be honest, how many people had even heard of Nominal GDP level targeting before this year? No one. But as the economy stagnated, and policymakers seemed increasingly incapable of mitigating the pain, many analysts started reading Sumner’s blog with interest. So far, the Federal Reserve has rejected his idea for NGDP target—under which the Fed would essentially target a combination of real output plus inflation rather than focus on curbing inflation alone—but the notion has attracted support from everyone from Paul Krugman to Tyler Cowen to Goldman Sachs. And much of that has to do with Sumner’s near-monomaniacal focus on the topic.

Congrats Scott, you are becoming a super star…correction you ARE a super star

HT David Levey and Doug Irwin

Guess what Greenspan said on November 17 1992

This is then Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan at the meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee on November 1992:

“Let me put it to you this way. If you ask whether we are confirming our view to contain the success that we’ve had to date on inflation, the answer is “yes.” I think that policy is implicit among the members of this Committee, and the specific instruments that we may be using or not using are really a quite secondary question. As I read it, there is no debate within this Committee to abandon our view that a non-inflationary environment is best for this country over the longer term. Everything else, once we’ve said that, becomes technical questions. I would say in that context that on the basis of the studies, we have seen that to drive nominal GDP, let’s assume at 4-1/2 percent, in our old philosophy we would have said that [requires] a 4-1/2 percent growth in M2. In today’s analysis, we would say it’s significantly less than that. I’m basically arguing that we are really in a sense using [unintelligible] a nominal GDP goal of which the money supply relationships are technical mechanisms to achieve that. And I don’t see any change in our view…and we will know they are convinced (about “price stability”) when we see the 30-year Treasury at 5-1/2 percent.

So in 1992 the chairman of the Federal Reserve was targeting 4.5% NGDP growth and 30-years yields at 5.5% and calling it “price stability”. Imagine Ben Bernanke would announce tomorrow that he would conduct open market operations until he achieved the exact same target(s)?

PS I got this from Robert Hetzel’s great book on the history of the Fed “Monetary Policy of the Federal Reserve – A History”.


The Economist comments on Market Monetarism

The Economist has an interesting article on Market Monetarists as well as would the magazine calls “Heterodox economics” – Market Monetarism, Austrianism and “Modern Monetary Theory” (MMT).

I am happy to see this:

“Mr Sumner’s blog not only revealed his market monetarism to the world at large (“I cannot go anywhere in the world of economics…without hearing his name,” says Mr Cowen). It also drew together like-minded economists, many of them at small schools some distance from the centre of the economic universe, who did not realise there were other people thinking the same way they did. They had no institutional home, no critical mass. The blogs provided one. Lars Christensen, an economist at a Danish bank who came up with the name “market monetarism”, says it is the first economic school of thought to be born in the blogosphere, with post, counter-post and comment threads replacing the intramural exchanges of more established venues.” (Please have a look at my paper on Market Monetarism)

There is no doubt that Scott is at the centre of the Market Monetarist movement. To me he is the Milton Friedman of the day – a pragmatic revolutionary. Scott does not always realise this but his influence can not be underestimated. Our friend Bill Woolsey is also mentioned in the article. But I miss mentioning of for example David Beckworth.

One thing I would note about the Economist’s article is that the Austrianism presented in the article actually is quite close to Market Monetarism. Hence, Leland Yeager (who calls himself a monetarist) and one of the founders of the Free Banking school Larry White are quoted on Austrianism. Bob Murphy is not mentioned. Thats a little on unfair to Bob I think. I think that both Yeager’s and White’s is pretty close to MM thinking. In fact Larry White endorses NGDP targeting as do other George Mason Austrians like Steven Horwitz. I have written the GMU Austrians about earlier. See here and here.

And see this one:

“Austrians still struggle, however, to get published in the principal economics journals. Most economists do not share their admiration for the gold standard, which did not prevent severe booms and busts even in its heyday. And their theory of the business cycle has won few mainstream converts. According to Leland Yeager, a fellow-traveller of the Austrian school who once held the Mises chair at Auburn, it is “an embarrassing excrescence” that detracts from the Austrians’ other ideas. While it provides insights into booms and their ending, it fails to explain why things must end quite so badly, or how to escape when they do. Low interest rates no doubt helped to inflate America’s housing bubble. But this malinvestment cannot explain why 21.8m Americans remain unemployed or underemployed five years after the housing boom peaked.”

Market Monetarists of course provide that insight – overly tight monetary policy – and it seems like Leland Yeager agrees.

It would of course have been great if the Economist had endorsed Market Monetarism, but it is great to see that Market Monetarism now is getting broad coverage in the financial media and there is no doubt that especially Scott’s advocacy is beginning to have a real impact – now we can only hope that they read the Economist at the Federal Reserve and the ECB.


See also the comments on the Economists from Scott Sumner, Marcus NunesDavid BeckworthLuis Arroyo (in Spanish) and Tyler Cowen.

US Monetary History – The QRPI perspective: The Volcker disinflation

I am continuing my mini-series on modern US monetary history through the lens of my decomposition of supply inflation and demand inflation based on what I inspired by David Eagle have termed a Quasi-Real Price Index (QRPI). In this post I will have a look at the early 1980s and what have been termed the Volcker disinflation.

When Paul Volcker became Federal Reserve chairman in August 1979 US inflation was on the way to 10% and the fight against inflation had more or less been given up and there was certainly no consensus even among economists that inflation was a monetary phenomenon. Volcker set out to defeat inflation. Volcker is widely credited with achieving this goal and even though one can question US monetary policy in a number of ways in the period that Volcker was Fed chairman there is no doubt in mind my that Volcker succeed and by doing so laid the foundation for the great stability of the Great Moderation that followed from the mid-80s and lasted until 2008.

Below you see my decomposition of US inflation in the 1980s between demand inflation (which the central bank controls) and supply inflation.

As the graph shows – and as I spelled out in my earlier post on the 1970s inflationary outburst – the main cause of the rise in US inflation in 1970s was excessive loose monetary policy. This was particularly the case in late 1970s and when Volcker became Fed chairman demand inflation was well above 10%.

Volcker early on set out to reduce inflation by implementing (quasi) money supply targeting. It is obviously that the Volcker’s Fed had some operational problems with this strategy and it effectively (unfairly?) undermined the idea of a monetary policy based on Friedman style money supply targeting, but it nonetheless clearly was what brought inflation down.

The first year of Volcker’s tenure undoubtedly was extremely challenging and Volcker hardly can say to have been lucky with the timing. More or less as he became Fed chairman the second oil crisis hit and oil prices spiked dramatically in the wake of the Iranian revolution in 1979. The spike in oil prices boosted supply inflation dramatically and that pushed headline inflation well above 10% – hardly a good start point for Volcker.

Quasi-Real Price Index and the decomposition of the inflation data seem very clearly to illustrate all the key factors in the Volcker disinflation:

1)   Initially Volker dictated disinflation by introducing money supply targeting. The impact on demand inflation seems to have been nearly immediate. As the graph shows demand inflation dropped sharply in1980 and the only reason headline inflation did not decrease was the sharp rise in oil prices that pushed up supply inflation.

2)   The significant monetary tightening sent the US economy into recession in 1980 and this lead Volcker & Co. to abandon the policy of monetary tightening and “re-eased” monetary policy in the summer of 1980. Again the impact seems to have been immediate – demand inflation picked up sharply going into 1981.

3)   Over the summer the Fed moved to hike interest rates dramatically and slow money supply growth sharply. That caused demand inflation to ease off significantly and inflation had finally been beaten.

4)   The Fed allowed demand inflation to pick up once again in 1984-85, but at that time Volcker was more lucky as supply factors helped curb headline inflation.

The zigzagging in monetary policy in the early 1980s is clearly captured by my decomposition of inflation. To me shows how relatively useful these measures are and I think they could be help tools for both analysts and central bankers.

This post in no way is a full account of the Volcker disinflation. Rather it is meant as an illustration of the Quasi-Real Price Index and my suggested decomposition of inflation.

My two main sources on modern US monetary history is Robert Hetzel’s “The Monetary Policy and the Federal Reserve – A History” and Allan Meltzer’s “A History of the Federal Reserve”. However, for a critical account of the first years of the Volcker disinflation I can clearly recommend our friend David Glasner’s “Free Banking and Monetary Reform”. I am significantly less critical about money supply targeting than David, but I think his account of the Volcker disinflation clear give some insight to the problems of money supply targeting.

The Integral Reviews: Paper 1 – Koenig (2011)

I am always open to accept different guest blogs and I therefore very happy that “Integral” has accepted my invitation to do a number of reviews of different papers that are relevant for the discussion of monetary theory and the development of Market Monetarism.

“Integral” is a regular commentator on the Market Monetarist blogs. Integral is a pseudonym and I am familiar with his identity.

We start our series with Integral’s review of Evan Koeing’s paper “Monetary Policy, Financial Stability, and the Distribution of Risk”. I recently also wrote a short (too short) comment on the paper so I am happy to see Integral elaborating on the paper, which I believe is a very important contribution to the discussion about NGDP level targeting. Marcus Nunes has also earlier commented on the paper.

Lars Christensen

The Integral Reviews: Papers 1 – Koenig (2011)
By “Integral”

Reviewed: Evan F. Koenig, “Monetary Policy, Financial Stability, and the Distribution of Risk.” FRB Dallas Working Paper No.1111

Consider the typical debt-deflation storyline. An adverse shock pushes the price level down (relative to expected trend) and increases consumers’ real debt load. This leads to defaults, liquidation, and general disruption of credit markets. This is often-times used as justification for the central bank to target inflation or the price level, to mitigate the effect of such shocks on financial markets.

Koenig takes a twist on this view that is quite at home to Market Monetarists: he notes that since nominal debts are paid out of nominal income, any adverse shock to income will lead to financial disruption, not just shocks to the price level. One conclusion he draws out is that the central bank can target nominal income to insulate the economy against debt-deflation spirals.

He also makes a theoretical point that will resonate well with Lars’ discussion of David Eagle’s work. Recall that Eagle views NGDP targeting as the optimal way to prevent the “monetary veil” from damaging the underlying “real” economy, which he views as an Arrow-Debreu type general equilibrium economy. Koenig makes a similar observation with respect to financial risk (debt-deflation) and in particular the distribution of risk.

In a world with complete, perfect capital markets, agents will sign Arrow-Debreu state-contingent contracts to fully insure themselves against future risk (think shocks). Money is a veil in the sense that fluctuations in the price level, and monetary policy more generally, have no effect on the distribution of risk. However, the real world is much incomplete in this regard and it is difficult to imagine that one could perfectly insure against future income, price, or nominal income uncertainty. Koenig thus dispenses of complete Arrow-Debreau contracts and introduces a single debt instrument, a nominal bond. This is where the central bank comes in.

Koenig considers two policy regimes: one in which the central bank commits to a pre-announced price-level target and one in which the central bank commits to a pre-announced nominal-income target. While the price-level target neutralizes uncertainty about the future price level, it provides no insulation against fluctuations in future output. He shows that a price level target will have adverse distributional consequences: harming debtors but helping creditors. Note that this is exactly the outcome that a price-level target is supposed to avoid. By contrast a central bank policy of targeting NGDP fully insulates the economy from the combination of price and income fluctuations. It will not only have no adverse distributional consequences, it obtain a consumption pattern across debtors and creditors which is identical to that which is obtained when capital markets are complete.

At an empirical level, Koenig documents that loan delinquency is more closely related to surprise changes in NGDP than in P, providing corroborating evidence that it is nominal income, not the price level, which matters for thinking about the sustainability of the nominal debt load.

Koenig’s conclusion is succinct:

“If there are complete markets in contingent claims, so that agents can insure themselves against fluctuations in aggregate output and the price level, then “money is a veil” as far as the allocation of risk is concerned: It doesn’t matter whether the monetary authority allows random variation in the price level or nominal value of output. If such insurance is not available, monetary policy will affect the allocation of risk. When debt obligations are fixed in nominal terms, a price-level target eliminates one source of risk (price-level shocks), but shifts the other risk (real output shocks) disproportionately onto debtors. A more balanced risk allocation is achieved by allowing the price level to move opposite to real output. An example is presented in which the risk allocation achieved by a nominal-income target reproduces exactly the allocation observed with complete capital markets. Empirically, measures of financial stress are much more strongly related to nominal-GDP surprises than to inflation surprises. These theoretical and empirical results call into question the debt-deflation argument for a price-level or inflation target. More generally, they point to the danger of evaluating alternative monetary policy rules using representative-agent models that have no meaningful role for debt.”

“The Great Recession: Market Failure or Government Failure?” BUY IT NOW!

Robert Hetzel’s new book “The Great Recession: Market Failure or Government Failure?” is now available for pre-order at Amazon.com (and Amazon.co.uk). Did you order it!? Needless to say I have ordered my version and hope it will arrive in my mailbox sometime around my birthday in early March!

Here is that official book description:

“Since publication of Robert L. Hetzel’s The Monetary Policy of the Federal Reserve (Cambridge University Press, 2008), the intellectual consensus that had characterized macroeconomics has disappeared. That consensus emphasized efficient markets, rational expectations, and the efficacy of the price system in assuring macroeconomic stability. The 2008-2009 recession not only destroyed the professional consensus about the kinds of models required to understand cyclical fluctuations but also revived the credit-cycle or asset-bubble explanations of recession that dominated thinking in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. These “market-disorder” views emphasize excessive risk taking in financial markets and the need for government regulation. The present book argues for the alternative “monetary-disorder” view of recessions. A review of cyclical instability over the last two centuries places the 2008-2009 recession in the monetary-disorder tradition, which focuses on the monetary instability created by central banks rather than on a boom-bust cycle in financial markets.”

I am very much looking forward to reading this book that I am pretty sure will have a very significant impact on the understanding of the causes of the Great Recession among economists and is likely to become a piece that economic historians will study in the future.

If you can’t wait then I recommend you to read Hetzel’s fantastic paper on the causes of the Great Recession: “Monetary Policy in the 2008–2009 Recession”


Chain of events in the boom-bust

In my recent post on “boom, bust and bubbles” I tried to sketch a monetary theory of bubbles. In this post I try to give an overview of what in my view seems to be the normal chain of events in boom-bust and in the formation of bubbles. This is not a theory, but rather what I consider to be some empirical regularities in the formation and bursting of bubbles – and the common policy mistakes made by central banks and governments.

Here is the story…

Chain of events in the boom-bust

- Positive supply shocks – often due to structural reforms that include supply side reforms and monetary stabilisation

- Supply side reforms leads to “supply deflation” – headline inflation drops both as a result of monetary stabiliisation and supply deflation. Real GDP growth picks up

- First policy mistake: The drop in headline inflation leads the central bank to ease monetary policy (in a fixed exchange rate regime this happens “automatically”)

- Relative inflation: Demand inflation increases sharply versus supply inflation – this is often is visible in for example sharply rising property prices and a “profit bubble”

- Investors jump on the good story – fears are dismissed often on the background of some implicit guarantees – moral hazard problems are visible

- More signs of trouble: The positive supply shock starts to ease off – headline inflation increases due to higher “supply inflation”

- Forward-looking investors start to worry about the boom turning into a bust when monetary policy will be tightened

- Second policy mistake: Cheerleading policy makers dismisses fears of boom-bust and as a result they get behind the curve on events to come and encourage investors to jump on the bandwagon

- In a fixed exchange rate the exit of worried investors effectively lead to a tightening of monetary conditions as the specie-flow mechanism sharply reduces the money supply

- The bubble bursts: Demand inflation drops sharply – this will often be mostly visible in a collapse in property prices

- The drop in demand inflation triggers financial distress – money velocity drops and triggers a further tightening of monetary conditions

- Third policy mistake: Policy makers realise that they made a mistake and now try to undo it “in hindsight” not realising that the setting has changed. Monetary conditions has already been tightened.

- Secondary deflation hits. Demand prices and NGDP drops below the pre-boom trend. Real GDP drops strongly, unemployment spikes

- Forth policy mistake: Monetary policy is kept tight – often because a fixed exchange rate regime is defended or because the central bank believes that monetary policy already is loose because interest rates are low

- A “forced” balance sheet recession takes place (it is NOT a Austrian style balance sheet recession…) – overly tight monetary policy forces investors and households through an unnecessary Fisherian debt-deflation

- Real GDP growth remains lackluster despite the initial financial distress easing. This is NOT due to an unavoidable deleveraging, but is a result of too tight monetary policy, but also because the positive supply shock that sat the entire process in motion has eased off.

-The country emerges from crisis when prices and wages have adjusted down or more likely when monetary policy finally is ease – for fixed exchange rate countries when the peg is given up

Boom, bust and bubbles

Recently it has gotten quite a bit of attention that some investors believe that there is a bubble in the Chinese property market and we will be heading for a bust soon and the fact that I recently visited Dubai have made me think of how to explain bubbles and if there is such a thing as bubbles in the first bubbles.

I must say I have some experience with bubbles. In 2006 I co-authoured a paper on the Icelandic economy where we forecasted a bust of the Icelandic bubble – I don’t think we called it a bubble, but it was pretty clear that that is what we meant it was. And in 2007 I co-authored a number of papers calling a bust to the bubbles in certain Central and Eastern European economies – most notably the Baltic economies. While I am proud to have gotten it right – both Iceland and the Baltic States went through major economic and financial crisis – I nonetheless still feel that I am not entire sure why I got it right. I am the first to admit that there certainly quite a bit of luck involved (never underestimate the importance of luck). Things could easily have gone much different. However, I do not doubt that the fact that monetary conditions were excessive loose played a key role both in the case of Iceland and in the Baltic States. I have since come to realise that moral hazard among investors undoubtedly played a key role in these bubbles. But most of all my conclusion is that the formation of bubbles is a complicated process where a number of factors play together to lead to bubbles. At the core of these “accidents”, however, is a chain of monetary policy mistakes.

What is bubbles? And do they really exist? 

If one follows the financial media one would nearly on a daily basis hear about “bubbles” in that and that market. Hence, financial journalists clearly have a tendency to see bubbles everywhere – and so do some economists especially those of us who work in the financial sector where “airtime” is important. However, the fact is that what really could be considered as bubbles are quite rare. The fact that all the bubble-thinkers can mention the South Sea bubble or the Dutch Tulip bubble of 1637 that happened hundreds years ago is a pretty good illustration of this. If bubbles really were this common then we would have hundreds of cases to study. We don’t have that. That to me this indicates that bubbles do not form easily – they are rare and form as a consequence of a complicated process of random events that play together in a complicated unpredictable process.

I think in general that it is wrong to see any increase in assets prices that is later corrected as a bubble. Obviously investors make mistakes. We after all live in an uncertain world. Mistakes are not bubbles. We can only talk about bubbles if most investors make the same mistakes at the same time.

Economists do not have a commonly accepted description of what a bubble is and this is probably again because bubbles are so relatively rare. But let me try to give a definitions. I my view bubbles are significant economic wide misallocation of labour and capital that last for a certain period and then is followed by an unwinding of this misallocation (we could also call this boom-bust). In that sense communist Soviet Union was a major bubble. That also illustrates that distortion of  relative prices is at the centre of the description and formation of bubbles.

Below I will try to sketch a monetary based theory of bubbles – and here the word sketch is important because I am not actually sure that there really can be formulated a theory of bubbles as they are “outliers” rather than the norm in free market economies.

The starting point – good things happen

In my view the starting point for the formation of bubbles actually is that something good happens. Most examples of “bubbles” (or quasi-bubbles) we can find with economic wide impact have been in Emerging Markets. A good example is the boom in the South East Asian economies in the early 1990s or the boom in Southern Europe and Central and Eastern European during the 2000s. All these economies saw significant structural reforms combined with some kind of monetary stabilisation, but also later on boom-bust.

Take for example Latvia that became independent in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After independence Latvia underwent serious structural reforms and the transformation from planned economy to a free market economy happened relatively fast. This lead to a massively positive supply shock. Furthermore, a quasi-currency board was implemented early on. The positive supply shock (which played out over years) and the monetary stabilisation through the currency board regime brought inflation down and (initially) under control. So the starting point for what later became a massive misallocation of resources started out with a lot of good things happening.

Monetary policy and “relative inflation”

As the stabilisation and reform phase plays out the initial problems start to emerge. The problem is that the monetary policies that initially were stabilising soon becomes destabilising and here the distinction between “demand inflation” and “supply inflation” is key (See my discussion decomposion demand and supply inflation here). Often countries in Emerging Markets with underdeveloped financial markets will choose to fix their currency to more stable country’s currency – for example the US dollar or in the old days the D-mark – but a policy of inflation targeting has also in recent years been popular.

These policies often succeed in bringing nominal stability to begin with, but because the central bank directly or indirectly target headline inflation monetary policy is eased when positive supply shocks help curb inflationary pressures. What emerges is what Austrian economists has termed “relative inflation” – while headline inflation remains “under control” demand inflation (the inflation created by monetary policy) increases while supply inflation drops or even turn into supply deflation. This is a consequence of either a fixed exchange rate policy or an inflation targeting policy where headline inflation rather than demand inflation is targeted.

My view on relative inflation has to a very large extent been influenced by George Selgin’s work – see for example George’s excellent little book “Less than zero” for a discussion of relative inflation. I think, however, that I am slightly less concerned about the dangers of relative inflation than Selgin is and I would probably stress that relative inflation alone can not explain bubbles. It is a key ingredient in the formation of bubbles, but rarely the only ingredient.

Some – George Selgin for example (see here) – would argue that there was a significant rise in relatively inflation in the US prior to 2008. I am somewhat skeptical about this as I can not find it in my own decompostion of the inflation data and NGDP did not really increase above it’s 5-5.5% trend in the period just prior to 2008. However, a better candidate for rising relative inflation having played a role in the formation of a bubble in my view is the IT-bubble in the late 1990s that finally bursted in 2001, but I am even skeptical about this. For a good discussion of this see David Beckworth innovative Ph.D. dissertation from 2003.

There are, however, much more obvious candidates. While the I do not necessarily think US monetary policy was excessively loose in terms of the US economy it might have been too loose for everybody else and the dollar’s role as a international reserve currency might very well have exported loose monetary policy to other countries. That probably – combined with policy mistakes in Europe and easy Chinese monetary policy – lead to excessive loose monetary conditions globally which added to excessive risk taking globally (including in the US).

The Latvian bubble – an illustration of the dangers of relative inflation

I have already mentioned the cases of Iceland and the Baltic States. These examples are pretty clear examples of excessive easy monetary conditions leading to boom-bust. The graph below shows my decompostion of Latvian inflation based on a Quasi-Real Price Index for Latvia.

It is very clear from the graph that Latvia demand inflation starts to pick up significantly around 2004, but headline inflation is to some extent contained by the fact that supply deflation becomes more and more clear. It is no coincidence that this happens around 2004 as that was the year Latvia joined the EU and opened its markets further to foreign competition and investments – the positive impact on the economy is visible in the form of supply deflation. However, due to Latvia’s fixed exchange rate policy the positive supply shock did not lead to a stronger currency, but rather to an increase in demand inflation. This undoubtedly was a clear reason for the extreme misallocation of capital and labour in the Latvian economy in 2005-8.

The fact that headline inflation was kept down by a positive supply shock probably help “confuse” investors and policy makers alike and it was only when the positive supply shock started to ease off in 2006-7 that investors got alarmed.

Hence, here a Selginian explanation for the boom-bust seems to be a lot more obvious than for the US.

The role of Moral Hazard - policy makers as “cheerleaders of the boom”

To me it is pretty clear that relative inflation will have to be at the centre of a monetary theory of bubbles. However, I don’t think that relative inflation alone can explain bubbles like the one we saw in the Latvia. A very important reason for this is the fact that it took so relatively long for investors to acknowledge that something wrong in the Latvian economy. Why did they not recognise it earlier? I think that moral hazard played a role. Investors full well understood that there was a serious problem with strongly rising demand inflation and misallocation of capital and labour, but at the same time it was clear that Latvia seemed to be on the direct track to euro adoption within a relatively few years (yes, that was the clear expectation in 2005-6). As a result investors bet that if something would go wrong then Latvia would probably be bailed out by the EU and/or the Nordic governments and this is in fact what happened. Hence, investors with rational expectations rightly expected a bailout of Latvia if the worst-case scenario played out.
The Latvian case is certainly not unique. Robert Hetzel has made a forcefull argument in his excellent paper “Should Increased Regulation of Bank Risk Taking Come from Regulators or from the Market?” that moral hazard played a key role in the Asian crisis. Here is Hetzel:

“In early 1995, the Treasury with the Exchange Stabilization Fund, the Fed with swap accounts, and the IMF had bailed out international investors holding Mexican Tesobonos (Mexican government debt denominated in dollars) who were fleeing a Mexico rendered unstable by political turmoil. That bailout created the assumption that the United States would intervene to prevent financial collapse in its strategic allies. Russia was included as “too nuclear” to fail. Subsequently, large banks increased dramatically their short-term lending to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea. The Asia crisis emerged when the overvalued, pegged exchange rates of these countries collapsed revealing an insolvent banking system. Because of the size of the insolvencies as a fraction of the affected countries GDP, the prevailing TBTF assumption that Asian countries would bail out their banking systems suddenly disappeared.”

I would further add that I think policy makers often act as “cheerleaders of the boom” in the sense that they would dismiss warnings from analysts and market participants that something is wrong in the economy and often they are being supported by international institutions like the IMF. This clearly “helps” investors (and households) becoming more rationally ignorant or even rationally irrational about the “obvious” risks (See Bryan Caplan’s discussion of rational ignorance and rational irrationality here.)

Policy recommendation: Introduce NGDP level targeting

Yes, yes we might as well get out our hammer and say that the best way to avoid bubbles is to target the NGDP level. So why is that? Well, as I argued above a key ingredient in the creation of bubbles was relative inflation – that demand inflation rose without headline inflation increasing. With NGDP level targeting the central bank will indirectly target a level for demand prices – what I have called a Quasi-Real Price Index (QRPI). This clearly would reduce the risk of misallocation due to confusion of demand and supply shocks.

It is often argued that central banks should in some way target asset prices to avoid bubbles. The major problem with this is that it assumes that the central bank can spot bubbles that market participants fail to spot. This is further ironic as it is exactly the central banks’ overly loose monetary policy which is likely at the core of the formation of bubbles. Further, if the central bank targets the NGDP level then the potential negative impact on money velocity of potential bubbles bursting will be counteracted by an increase in the money supply and hence any negative macroeconomic impact of the bubble bursting will be limited. Hence, it makes much more sense for central banks to significantly reduce the risk of bubbles by targeting the NGDP level than to trying to prick the bubbles.NGDP targeting reduces the risk of bubbles and also reduces the destabilising impact when the bubbles bursts.

Finally it goes without saying that moral hazard should be avoided, but here the solutions seems to be much harder to find and most likely involve fundamental institutional (some would argue constitutional) reforms.

But lets not worry too much about bubbles

As I stated above the bubbles are in reality rather rare and there is therefore in general no reason to worry too much about bubbles. That I think particularly is the case at the moment where overly tight monetary policy rather overly loose monetary policy. Furthermore, contrary to what some have argued the introduction – which effective in the present situation would equate monetary easing in for example the US or the euro zone – does not increase the risk of bubbles, but rather it reduces the risk of future bubbles significantly. That said, there is no doubt that the kind of bailouts that we have see of certain European governments and banks have increased the risk of moral hazard and that is certainly problematic. But again if monetary policy had follow a NGDP rule in the US and Europe the crisis would have been significantly smaller in the first place and bailouts would therefore not have been “necessary”.


PS I started out mentioning the possible bursting of the Chinese property bubble. I have no plans to write on that topic at the moment, but have a look at two rather scary comments from Patrick Chovanec:

“China Data, Part 1A: More on Property Downturn”
“Foreign Affairs: China’s Real Estate Crash”



The Compensated dollar and monetary policy in small open economies

It is Christmas time and I am spending time with the family so it is really not the time for blogging, but just a little note about something I have on my mind – Irving Fisher’s Compensated dollar plan and how it might be useful in today’s world – especially for small open economies.

I am really writing on a couple of other blog posts at the moment that I will return to in the coming days and weeks, but Irving Fisher is hard to let go of. First of all I need to finalise my small series on modern US monetary history through the lens of Quasi-Real Indexing and then I am working on a post on bubbles (that might in fact turn into a numbers of posts). So stay tuned for these posts.

Back to the Compensated dollar plan. I have always been rather skeptical about fixed exchange rate regimes even though I acknowledge that they have worked well in some countries and at certain times. My dislike of fixed exchange rates originally led me to think that then one should advocate floating exchange rates and I certainly still think that a free floating exchange rate regime is much preferable to a fixed exchange rate regime for a country like the US. However, the present crisis have made me think twice about floating exchange rates – not because I think floating exchange rates have done any harm in this crisis. Countries like Sweden, Australia, Canada, Poland and Turkey have all benefitted a great deal from having floating exchange rates in this crisis. However, exchange rates are really the true price of money (or rather the relative price of monies). Unlike the interest rate which is certainly NOT – contrary to popular believe – the price of money. Therefore, if we want to change the price of money then the most direct way to do that is through the exchange rate.

As a consequence I also come to think that variations of Fisher’s proposal could be an idea for small open economies – especially as these countries typically have less developed financial markets and due to financial innovation – in especially Emerging Markets – have a hard time controlling the domestic money supply. Furthermore, a key advantage of using the exchange rate to conduct monetary policy is that there is no “lower zero bound” on the exchange rate as is the case with interest rates and the central bank can effectively “circumvent” the financial sector in the conduct of monetary policy – something which is likely to be an advantage when there is a financial crisis.

The Compensated dollar plan 

But lets first start out by revisiting Fisher’s compensated dollar plan. Irving Fisher first suggested the compensated dollar plan in 1911 in his book The Purchasing Power of Money. The idea is that the dollar (Fisher had a US perspective) should be fixed to the price of gold, but the price should be adjustable to ensure a stable level of purchasing power for the dollar (zero inflation). Fisher starts out by defining a price index (equal to what we today we call a consumer price index) at 100. Then Fisher defines the target for the central bank as 100 for this index – so if the index increases above 100 then monetary policy should be tightened – and vis-a-vis if the index drops. This is achieved by a proportional adjustment of  the US rate vis-a-vis the the gold prices. So it the consumer price index increase from 100 to 101 the central bank intervenes to strengthen the dollar by 1% against gold. Ideally – and in my view also most likely – this system will ensure stable consumer prices and likely provide significant nominal stability.

Irving Fisher campaigned unsuccessfully for his proposals for years and despite the fact that is was widely discussed it was not really given a chance anywhere. However, Sweden in the 1930s implemented a quasi-compensated dollar plan and as a result was able to stabilize Swedish consumer prices in the 1930s. This undoubtedly was the key reason why Sweden came so well through the Great Depression. I am very certain that had the US had a variation of the compensated dollar plan in place in 2008-9 then the crisis in the global economy wold have been much smaller.

Three reservations about the Compensated dollar plan

There is no doubt that the Compensated dollar plan fits well into Market Monetarist thinking. It uses market prices (the exchange rate and gold prices) in the conduct of monetary policy rather than a monetary aggregate, it is strictly ruled based and it ensures a strong nominal anchor.

From a Market Monetarists perspective I, however, have three reservations about the idea.

First, the plan is basically a price level targeting plan (with zero inflation) rather than a plan to target nominal spending/income (NGDP targeting). This is clearly preferable to inflation targeting, but nonetheless fails to differentiate between supply and demand inflation and as such still risk leading to misallocation and potential bubbles. This is especially relevant for Emerging Markets, which undergoes significant structural changes and therefore continuously is “hit” by a number of minor and larger supply shocks.

Second, the plan is based on a backward-looking target rather than on a forward-looking target – where is the price level today rather than where is the price level tomorrow? In stable times this is not a major problem, but in a time of shocks to the economy and the financial system this might become a problem. How big this problem is in reality is hard to say.

Finally third, the fact that the plan uses only one commodity price as an “anchor” might become a problem. As Robert Hall among other have argued it would be preferable to use a basket of commodities as an anchor instead and he has suggest the so-called ANCAP standard where the anchor is a basket of Ammonium Nitrate, Copper, Aluminum and Plywood.

Exchange rate based NGDP targeting for small-open economies

If we take this reservations into account we get to a proposal for an exchange rate based NGDP target regime which I believe would be particularly suiting for small open economies and Emerging Markets. I have in an earlier post spelled out the proposal – so I am repeating myself here, but I think the idea is worth it.

My suggestion is that it the the small open economy (SOE) announces that it will peg a growth path for NGDP (or maybe for nominal wages as data might be faster available than NGDP data) of for example 5% a year and it sets the index at 100 at the day of the introduction of the new monetary regime. Instead of targeting the gold price it could choose to either to “peg” the currency against a basket of other currencies – for example the 3-4 main trading partners of the country – or against a basket of commodities (I would prefer the CRB index which is pretty closely correlated with global NGDP growth).

Thereafter the central bank should every month announce a monthly rate of depreciation/appreciation of the currency against the anchor for the coming 24-36 month in the same way as most central banks today announces interest rate decisions. The target of course would be to “hit” the NGDP target path within a certain period. The rule could be fully automatic or there could be allowed for some discretion within the overall framework. Instead of using historical NGDP the central bank naturally should use some forecast for NGDP (for example market consensus or the central bank’s own forecast).

It could be done, but will anybody dare?

Central bankers are conservative people and they don’t go around and change their monetary policy set-up on a daily basis. Nonetheless it might be time for central banks around the world to reconsider their current set-up as monetary policy far from having been successfully in recent years. I believe Irving Fisher’s Compensated dollar plan is an excellent place to start and I have provided a (simple) proposal for how small-open economies might implement it.


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