The Jedi mind trick – Matt O’Brien’s insightful version of the Chuck Norris effect

Our friend Matt O’Brien has a great new comment on the Atlantic.com. Matt is one of the most clever commentators on monetary matters in the US media.

In Matt’s new comment he set out to explain the importance of expectations in the monetary transmission mechanism.

Here is Matt:

“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” That’s what Obi-Wan Kenobi famously tells a trio of less-than-with-it baddies in Star Wars when — spoiler alert! — they actually were the droids they were looking for. But thanks to the Force, Kenobi convinces them otherwise. That’s a Jedi mind trick — and it’s a pretty decent model for how central banks can manipulate expectations. Thanks to the printing press, the Fed can create a self-fulfilling reality. Even with interest rates at zero.

Central banks have a strong influence on market expectations. Actually, they have as strong an influence as they want to have. Sometimes they use quantitative easing to communicate what they want. Sometimes they use their words. And that’s where monetary policy basically becomes a Jedi mind trick.

The true nature of central banking isn’t about interest rates. It’s about making and keeping promises. And that brings me to a confession. I lied earlier. Central banks don’t really buy or sell short-term bonds when they lower or raise short-term interest rates. They don’t need to. The market takes care of it. If the Fed announces a target and markets believe the Fed is serious about hitting that target, the Fed doesn’t need to do much else. Markets don’t want to bet against someone who can conjure up an infinite amount of money — so they go along with the Fed.

Don’t underestimate the power of expectations. It might sound a like a hokey religion, but it’s not. Consider Switzerland. Thanks to the euro’s endless flirtation with financial oblivion, investors have piled into the Swiss franc as a safe haven. That sounds good, but a massively overvalued currency is not good. It pushes inflation down to dangerously low levels, and makes exports uncompetitive. So the Swiss National Bank (SNB) has responded by devaluing its currency — setting a ceiling on its value at 1.2 Swiss francs to 1 euro. In other words, the SNB has promised to print money until its money is worth what it wants it to be worth. It’s quantitative easing with a target. And, as Evan Soltas pointed out, the beauty of this target is that the SNB hasn’t even had to print money lately, because markets believe it now. Markets have moved the exchange rate to where the SNB wants it.”

This is essentially the Star Wars version of the Chuck Norris effect as formulated by Nick Rowe and myself. The Chuck Norris effect of monetary policy: You don’t have to print more money to ease monetary policy if you are a credible central bank with a credible target.

It is pretty simple. It is all about credibility. A central bank has all the powers in the world to increase inflation and nominal GDP (remember MV=PY!) and if the central bank clearly demonstrates that it will use this power to ensure for example a stable growth path for the NGDP level then it might not have to do any (additional) money printing to achieve this. The market will simply do all the lifting.

Imagine that a central bank has a NGDP level target and a shock to velocity or the money supply hits (for example due to banking crisis) then the expectation for future NGDP (initially) drops below the target level. If the central bank’s NGDP target is credible then market participants, however, will know that the central bank will react by increasing the money base until it achieves it’s target. There will be no limits to the potential money printing the central bank will do.

If the market participants expect more money printing then the country’s currency will obviously weaken and stock prices will increase. Bond yields will increase as inflation expectations increase. As inflation and growth expectations increase corporations and household will decrease their cash holdings – they will invest and consume more. The this essentially the Market Monetarist description of the monetary transmission mechanism under a fully credible monetary nominal target (See for example my earlier posts here and here).

This also explains why Scott Sumner always says that monetary policy works with long and variable leads. As I have argued before this of course only is right if the monetary policy is credible. If the monetary target is 100% credible then monetary policy basically becomes endogenous. The market reacts to information that the economy is off target. However, if the target is not credible then the central bank has to do most of the lifting itself. In that situation monetary policy will work with long and variable lags (as suggested by Milton Friedman). See my discussion of lag and leads in monetary policy here.

During the Great Moderation monetary policy in the euro zone and the US was generally credible and monetary policy therefore was basically endogenous. In that world any shock to the money supply will basically be automatically counteracted by the markets. The money supply growth and velocity tended to move in opposite directions to ensure the NGDP level target (See more on that here). In a world where the central bank is able to apply the Jedi mind trick the central bankers can use most of their time golfing. Only central bankers with no credibility have to work hard micromanaging things.

“I FIND YOUR LACK OF A TARGET DISTURBING”

So the reason European central bankers are so busy these days is that the ECB is no longer a credible. If you want to test me – just have a look at market inflation expectations. Inflation expectations in the euro zone have basically been declining for more than a year and is now well below the ECB’s official inflation target of 2%. If the ECB had an credible inflation target of 2% do you then think that 10-year German bond yields would be approaching 1%? Obviously the ECB could solve it’s credibility problem extremely easy and with the help of a bit Jedi mind tricks and Chuck Norris inflation expectations could be pegged at close to 2% and the euro crisis would soon be over – and it could do more than that with a NGDP level target.

Until recently it looked like Ben Bernanke and the Fed had nailed it (See here – once I believed that Bernanke did nail it). Despite an escalating euro crisis the US stock market was holding up quite well, the dollar did not strengthen against the euro and inflation expectations was not declining – clear indications that the Fed was not “importing” monetary tightening from Europe. The markets clearly was of the view that if the euro zone crisis escalated the Fed would just step up quantitative ease (QE3). However, the Fed’s credibility once again seems to be under pressures. US stock markets have taken a beating, US inflation expectations have dropped sharply and the dollar has strengthened. It seems like Ben Bernanke is no Chuck Norris and he does not seem to master the Jedi mind trick anymore. So why is that?

Matt has the answer:

“I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but nothing quite as strange as the Fed’s reluctance to declare a target recently. Rather than announce a target, the Fed announces how much quantitative easing it will do. This is planning for failure. Quantitative easing without a target is more quantitative and less easing. Without an open-ended commitment that shocks expectations, the Fed has to buy more bonds to get less of a result. It’s the opposite of what the SNB has done.

Many economists have labored to bring us this knowledge — including a professor named Ben Bernanke — and yet the Fed mostly ignores it. I say mostly, because the Fed has said that it expects to keep short-term interest rates near zero through late 2014. But this sounds more radical than it is in reality. It’s not a credible promise because it’s not even a promise. It’s what the Fed expects will happen. So what would be a good way to shift expectations? Let’s start with what isn’t a good way.”

I agree – the Fed needs to formulate a clear nominal target andit needs to formulate a clear reaction function. How hard can it be? Sometimes I feel that central bankers like to work long hours and want to micromanage things.

UPDATE: Marcus Nunes and Bill Woolsey also comments on Matt’s piece..

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6 Comments

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