Monetary disorder in Central Europe (and some supply side problems)

Last week we got GDP numbers for Q2 in both the Czech Republic and Hungary. Both countries plunged deeper into recession and as it is the case in most other countries in Europe the cause of the misery is monetary disorder. This is documented in two news pieces of research. One on Hungary by Steve Hanke and one the Czech Republic by myself.

Both pieces of research are actually more traditional monetarist in nature than market monetarist as the focus in both papers are on the lackluster growth in the broad money supply rather than on nominal GDP or on market pricing. However, the same analysis could easily have been conducted by looking at nominal GDP rather than the money supply.

Even though the two countries are similar in many ways – population size (around 10 million), economic development (transitional economies, middle income economies) and monetary policy regimes (inflation targeting and floating exchange rates) – there are also many differences such as the level of indebtedness (Hungary is high indebted and the Czech Republic have low levels of public and private debt).

I think both countries are highly interesting in terms of understanding the present global crisis. The Czech Republic is in a deep recession and is showing no signs of recovery and seems to be caught in a disinflationary trap. While many argue that the present global crisis is a “balance sheet recession” or a natural hangover after a too wild party that can hardly be argued for the Czech Republic. The country has quite low levels of private and public debt and the banking sector is quite healthy compared to most European economies. So it is hard to argue that the Czech recession is the result of too much debt or a bursting property market bubble. There is really only one cause: A failed monetary policy. I try to document that in the paper I have written in my day-job as head of Emerging Markets research at Danske Bank. Read the paper “Time for the CNB to take bold action” here.

I have for some time seen Hungary as the odd man out in Europe as Hungary’s main problem at the moment in my view is not monetary, but rather a deeper structural problem. Hungary has basically not seen any economic growth since 2006 and despite of that inflation has continued to run well above the Hungarian central bank’s inflation target of 3%. This to me is an indication of significant supply side problems in the Hungarian economy. The main supply side problem in Hungary is massive political uncertainty and a highly erratic conduct of economic policy. Hence, political uncertainty has dominated all economic decisions in Hungary for at least a decade. Hungary is probably the best example in Europe of what Robert Higgs has called “regime uncertainty”. Regime uncertainty basically mean that political and institutional uncertainty – such as uncertainty about tax rules – hampers investments and general entrepreneurial activity and therefore lowers productivity growth. Regime uncertainty therefore is a supply side phenomena. I strongly believe that this is at the core of Hungary’s lack of growth in that last 6 years. That said, I also agree that particular since 2010 monetary conditions have become tighter in Hungary and the monetary contraction has become especially nasty in the last six months of so.

In his new piece at Cato@Liberty Steve Hanke discusses particular the monetary developments in Hungary in the last couple of quarters. I especially like Steve’s discussion of the policy mix in Hungary – that is fiscal policy versus monetary policy:

“When monetary and fiscal policies move in opposite directions, the economy will follow the direction taken by monetary (not fiscal) policy – money dominates. For doubters, just consider Japan and the United States in the 1990s. The Japanese government engaged in a massive fiscal stimulus program, while the Bank of Japan embraced a super-tight monetary policy. In consequence, Japan suffered under deflationary pressures and experienced a lost decade of economic growth.

In the U.S., the 1990s were marked by a strong boom. The Fed was accommodative and President Clinton was super-austere – the most tight-fisted president in the post-World War II era. President Clinton chopped 3.9 percentage points off federal government expenditures as a percent of GDP. No other modern U.S. President has even come close to Clinton’s record.”

This is of course is two examples of the so-called Sumner critique, which I discussed in recent post on German monetary and fiscal policy after the German reunification.

I agree with Steve – the reason for lack of growth in the Hungarian economy is not due to fiscal tightening. It is due to supply side problems – massive regime uncertainty – and recently also due to an unwarranted tightening of monetary conditions.

So yes, the recent drop in economic activity in both the Czech Republic and Hungary is certainty due to a renewed monetary contraction, but while I think the “fix” is it pretty simple for the Czech Republic (ease monetary policy aggressively and soon) I am more skeptical that monetary easing alone will provide a lot of longer lasting help for the Hungarian economy. Hungary desperately needs to improve the general investor climate and implement real supply side reforms and most of all there is a need to reduce regime uncertainty. One might add that the tight monetary conditions in the Czech Republic likely is also creating supply side problems as the Czech government has reacted to the deterioration of public finances caused by low growth by sharply increasing taxes. Supply side problems and tight monetary policy is hardly a combination that gets you out of recession.

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  1. Mats

     /  August 20, 2012

    Hej Lars,
    if “regime uncertainty basically mean that political and institutional uncertainty – such as uncertainty about tax rules – hampers investments and general entrepreneurial activity and therefore lowers productivity growth. Regime uncertainty therefore is a supply side phenomena,” then I must ask you if the Euro-Zone perifery, esp. Greece, doesn’t also suffer grom regime uncertainty. Perhaps partly caused by and aggravated by foolish ECB monetary policies. If that is the case and if such uncertainity proves ‘sticky’, isn’t there a big risk that the much asked for monetary easing in esp. Greece will translate into more inflation – as in Hungary, rather than a real GDP growth?

    • Mats, there is clearly a risk that monetary easing in the euro zone will increase inflation in some countries like Greece without increasing real GDP growth. That said, in my view that should not be important for the conduct of euro zone monetary policy. If we look at the entire euro area then there in my view is no doubt that monetary policy is too tight. The fact that nominal GDP is way below the pre-crisis trend it the best prove of that.

      Furthermore, in terms of Greece it is obvious that the country is also suffering structural problems – however, there is also in my view a massive demand problem due to too tight monetary conditions.

      I think the conclusion must be that we also can have a monetary version of regime uncertainty, which likely is deflationary rather than inflationary. High uncertainty about the outlook for monetary policy likely lead to increased money demand. So if for example the ECB defined a clear nominal target it would likely lead to a drop in money demand and hence increase nominal GDP.

  2. Benjamin Cole

     /  August 21, 2012

    Nice bit of blogging. Yes, in the end, monetary policy is dominant, which is why we Market Monetarists are so concerned that we prevail.

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