Some time ago Scott Sumner did a number of blog posts on fiscal policy and why he believes that the budget multiplier is zero. At the time I was somewhat frustrated that the amount of time Scott was using to focus on an issue that I found quite obvious. However, I now found myself doing exactly the same thing – I can’t let go of the game played by central banks against governments and impact this has on the economic policy mix. This is maybe because I find empirical evidence for the so-called Sumner Critique popping up everywhere.
The Sumner Critique basically says that the central bank can always overrule any impact of expansionary fiscal policy on aggregate demand by tightening monetary policy and if the central bank is targeting for example inflation or nominal GDP then it will do so. Therefore, under inflation targeting or NGDP targeting the budget multiplier will always be zero even if the world is Keynesian.
Last week’s policy announcement from the ECB gives further (quasi) empirical support for the Sumner Critique. Hence, the ECB announced that it would conduct what it calls “Outright Monetary Transactions” (OMT) – that is it would (or rather could) buy euro government bonds.
But see here what the ECB said about the conditions for OMT:
“A necessary condition for Outright Monetary Transactions is strict and effective conditionality attached to an appropriate European Financial Stability Facility/European Stability Mechanism (EFSF/ESM) programme. Such programmes can take the form of a full EFSF/ESM macroeconomic adjustment programme or a precautionary programme (Enhanced Conditions Credit Line), provided that they include the possibility of EFSF/ESM primary market purchases. The involvement of the IMF shall also be sought for the design of the country-specific conditionality and the monitoring of such a programme.
The Governing Council will consider Outright Monetary Transactions to the extent that they are warranted from a monetary policy perspective as long as programme conditionality is fully respected, and terminate them once their objectives are achieved or when there is non-compliance with the macroeconomic adjustment or precautionary programme.
Following a thorough assessment, the Governing Council will decide on the start, continuation and suspension of Outright Monetary Transactions in full discretion and acting in accordance with its monetary policy mandate.”
The important term here is “conditionality”. The ECB’s condition for buying government bonds is that the individual euro zone country has a EFSF/ESM macroeconomic adjustment programme. Such a programme is basically a pledge of a given government to tighten fiscal policy. In other words – the ECB could buy for example Spanish government bonds, but the condition would be that the Spanish government should tighten fiscal policy.
Therefore, what the ECB is doing is basically asking the Spanish government and other euro zone governments to be the “Stackelberg leader”: First you tighten fiscal policy and then we will ease monetary policy.
As a consequence the ECB has basically said that the fiscal multiplier should be zero – the ECB will “neutralize” any impact on aggregate demand of changes in fiscal policy. This is better news than it might sound. Obviously European monetary policy is much too tight in the euro zone and I would have liked to see a lot more action from the ECB. However, one could understand “conditionality” to mean that the ECB will fill the possible hole in aggregate demand from fiscal consolidation in euro zone – monetary policy will be eased in response to fiscal tightening. That is good news.
However, the crucial problem of course is that the euro zone needs higher aggregate demand and therefore I would have been much happier if the ECB had announced a clear plan to increase aggregate demand (or rather nominal GDP) – it did not do that. However, if the ECB at least will try to counteract the possible negative impact on aggregate demand from fiscal consolidation then that is good news. One could of course say that this is a completely natural consequence of the ECB’s inflation targeting regime – if fiscal tightening reduces aggregate demand then the ECB should ease monetary policy to avoid inflation undershooting the inflation targeting.
Concluding, “conditionality” is another term for the Sumner Critique and it is in my view yet another illustration that expansionary fiscal policy is unlikely to bring us out of this crisis if central banks is not playing along.
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There is no such thing as fiscal policy