There is a couple of topics that have been on my mind lately and they have made me want to write this post. In the post I will claim that inflation targeting is a soft-version of what economists have called the fear-of-floating. But before getting to that let me run through the topics on my mind.
1) Last week I did a presentation for a group of Norwegian investors and even thought the topic was the Central and Eastern European economies the topic of Norwegian monetary politics came up. I am no big expert on the Norwegian economy or Norwegian monetary policy so I ran for the door or rather I started to talk about an other large oil producing economy, which I know much better – The Russian economy. I essentially re-told what I recently wrote about in a blog post on the Russian central bank causing the 2008/9-crisis in the Russian economy, by not allowing the ruble to drop in line with oil prices in the autumn of 2008. I told the Norwegian investors that the Russian central bank was suffering from a fear-of-floating. That rang a bell with the Norwegian investors – and they claimed – and rightly so I think – that the Norwegian central bank (Norges Bank) also suffers from a fear-of-floating. They had an excellent point: The Norwegian economy is booming, domestic demand continues to growth very strongly despite weak global growth, asset prices – particularly property prices – are rising strongly and unemployment is very low and finally do I need to mention that Norwegian NGDP long ago have returned to the pre-crisis trend? So all in all if anything the Norwegian economy probably needs tighter monetary policy rather than easier monetary policy. However, this is not what Norges Bank is discussing. If anything the Norges Bank has recently been moving towards monetary easing. In fact in March Norges Bank surprised investors by cutting interest rates and directly cited the strength of the Norwegian krone as a reason for the rate cut.
2) My recent interest in Jeff Frankel’s idea that commodity exporters should peg their currency to the price of the main export (PEP) has made me think about the connect between floating exchange rates and what monetary target the central bank operates. Frankel in one of his papers shows that historically there has been a rather high positive correlation between higher import prices and monetary tightening (currency appreciation) in countries with floating exchange rates and inflation targeting. The mechanism is clear – strict inflation targeting central banks an increase in import prices will cause headline inflation to increase as the aggregate supply curve shots to the left and as the central bank does not differentiate between supply shocks and nominal shocks it will react to a negative supply shock by tightening monetary policy causing the currency to strengthen. Any Market Monetarist would of course tell you that central banks should not react to supply shocks and should allow higher import prices to feed through to higher inflation – this is basically George Selgin’s productivity norm. Very few central banks allow this to happen – just remember the ECB’s two ill-fated rate hikes in 2011, which primarily was a response to higher import prices. Sad, but true.
3) Scott Sumner tells us that monetary policy works with long and variable leads. Expectations are tremendously important for the monetary transmission mechanism. One of the main channels by which monetary policy works in a small-open economy - with long and variable leads - is the exchange rate channel. Taking the point 2 into consideration any investor would expect the ECB to tighten monetary policy in responds to a negative supply shock in the form of a increase in import prices. Therefore, we would get an automatic strengthening of the euro if for example oil prices rose. The more credible an inflation target’er the central bank is the stronger the strengthening of the currency. On the other hand if the central bank is not targeting inflation, but instead export prices as Frankel is suggesting or the NGDP level then the currency would not “automatically” tend to strengthen in responds to higher oil prices. Hence, the correlation between the currency and import prices strictly depends on what monetary policy rule is in place.
These three point leads me to the conclusion that inflation targeting really just is a stealth version of the fear-of-floating. So why is that? Well, normally we would talk about the fear-of-floating when the central bank acts and cut rates in responds to the currency strengthening (at a point in time when the state of the economy does not warrant a rate cut). However, in a world of forward-looking investors the currency tends move as-if we had the old-fashioned form of fear-of-floating – it might be that higher oil prices leads to a strengthening of the Norwegian krone, but expectations of interest rate cuts will curb the strengthen of NOK. Similarly the euro is likely to be stronger than it otherwise would have been when oil prices rise as the ECB again and again has demonstrated the it reacts to negative supply shocks with monetary easing.
Exchange rates are not truly floating when we target inflation
And this lead me to my conclusion. We cannot fundamentally say that currencies are truly floating as long as central banks continue to react to higher import prices due to inflation targeting mandates. We might formally have laid behind us the days of managed exchange rates (at least in North America and Europe), but de facto we have reintroduced it with inflation targeting. As a consequence monetary policy becomes excessively easy (tight) when import prices are dropping (increasing) and this is the recipe for boom-bust. Therefore, floating exchange rates and inflation targeting is not that happy a couple it often is made out to be and we can fundamentally only talk about truly floating exchange rates when monetary policy cease to react to supply shocks.
Therefore, the best way to ensure true exchange rates flexibility is through NGDP level targeting and if we want to manage exchange rates then at least do it by targeting the export price rather than the import price.