I hate getting into debates where different bloggers go back and forth forever and never reach any conclusion. I am not blogging to get into debates, however, I must admit that Steven Williamson’s recent posts on NGDP level targeting have provoked me quite a bit.
In his first post Williamson makes a number of claims, which I find highly flawed. However, Scott Sumner has already at length addressed most of these issues in a reply to Williamson so I don’t want to get into that (and as you guessed I am fully in agreement with Scott). However, Williamson’s reply to Scott is not less flawed than his initial post. Again I don’t want to go through the whole thing. However, one statement that Williamson makes I think is a very common mistake and I therefore think a comment is in order. Here is Williamson:
“The key problem under the current circumstances is that you can’t just announce an arbitrary NGDP target and hit it with wishful thinking. The Fed needs some tools, and in spite of what Ben Bernanke says, it doesn’t have them.”
This is a very odd comment coming from somebody who calls himself a (New) Monetarist. It is at the core of monetarism in the sense of Friedman, Brunner, Meltzer, Cagan, Schwartz, Warburton and Yeager etc. that nominal GDP is determined by the central bank and no monetarist has ever acknowledged that there is a liquidity trap. Williamson claims that he does not agree with everything Friedman said, but I wonder what Friedman said he agrees with. If you don’t believe that NGDP is determined by the central bank then it makes absolutely no sense to call yourself a monetarist.
Furthermore, if you don’t think that the Fed can hit an NGDP target how could you think it could hit an inflation target? Both changes in NGDP and in prices are monetary phenomena.
Anyway, let’s get back to the question whether the central bank can hit an NGDP target and what instruments could be used to hit that target.
The simplest way to do it is actually to use the exchange rate channel. Let’s assume that the Federal Reserve wants to increase the US NGDP level by 15% and that it wants to do it by the end of 2013.
Scott has suggested using NGDP futures to hit the NGDP target, but let’s assume that is too complicated to understand for the critics and the Fed. Instead the Fed will survey professional forecasters about their expectations for the level of NGDP by the end of 2013. The Fed will then announce that as long as the “consensus” forecast for NGDP is below the target the Fed will step up monetary easing. The Fed will do the survey once a month.
Let’s start out with the first announcement under this new regime. Initially the forecasters are skeptical and forecast NGDP to be 12% below target. As a consequence the Fed announces a Swiss style exchange target. It simply announces that it will intervene in the FX market buying unlimited amounts of foreign currency until the US dollar has weakened 20% in nominal effective terms (and yes, the Fed has the instruments to do that – it has the printing press to print dollars). I am pretty sure that Williamson would agree that that directly would increase US NGDP (if not I would love to see his model…).
The following month the forecasters will likely have moved their forecasts for NGDP closer to the target level. But we might still have too low a level of forecasted NGDP. Therefore, the Fed will the following month announce a further “devaluation” by lets say 5%. The process will continue until the forecasted level for NGDP equals the target level. If the consensus forecast starts to overshoot the target the Fed will simply announce that it will reverse the process and revalue the dollar.
Therefore there is certainly no reason to argue 1) that the Fed can not hit any NGDP target 2) that the Fed does not have an instrument. The exchange rate channel can easily do the job. Furthermore, if the Fed announces this policy then it is very likely that the market will be doing most of the lifting. The dollar would automatically appreciate and depreciate until the market expectations are equal to the NGDP target.
If you have heard all this before then it is because this a variation of Irving Fisher’s compensated dollar plan and Lars E. O. Svensson’s foolproof way out of a liquidity trap. And yes, I have previously suggested this for small open economies, but the Fed could easily use the same method to hit a given NGDP target.
Update: I should note that the example above is exactly that – an example. I use the example to illustrate that a central bank can always increase NGDP and that the exchange rate channel is an effective tool to achieve this goal. However, the numbers mentioned in my post are purely “fictional” and again it example rather than a policy recommendation. That said, I am pretty that if the Fed did exactly as what I suggest above the US would very fast bee out of this crisis. The same goes for the ECB.