H. L. Mencken comments on the ECB

I just found this wonderful quote from the American journalist and freethinker Henry Louie Mencken on “Puritanism” (“A Mencken Chrestomathy” (1949):

“The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” (from “A Mencken Chrestomathy” 1949)

He could have been talking about European monetary policy or maybe even the majority of Swedish central bank board members…at least Gustav Cassel would have agreed.

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Beckworth and Sumner – testimony on Capital Hill

Have a look at our two friends David Beckworth and Scott Sumner talking in Washington DC – see here.

Just back from two weeks of vacation in Malaysia – it is healthy to get away from the markets for a sometime, but I will be back to traveling soon again. Friday I will be in Stockholm talking about monetary policy failure to hedge funds and next week I will be back in Iceland on the invitation of the Icelandic bank Islandsbanki. So it is back to work…

Time for a comeback to the SOMC – but it should be a monetarist SOMC and not an Austrian SOMC

I have always been a huge fan of the Shadow Open Market Committee (SOMC). However, it is having a much less prominent role in US monetary policy debate today than used to be the case in the good old days. A reason is that the SOMC played a very important role in as a counterweight to the Federal Open Market Committee when the Federal Reserve really did a bad job back in the 1970s. However, during most of the Volcker-Greenspan period the conduct of monetary policy in the US became much closer to what was being advocated by the SOMC members. That led to the SOMC to becoming less interesting as constant critique of the Federal Reserve and the SOMC star therefore faded somewhat both in the media and in academia.

However, now it should be time for a comeback for the SOMC as the performance of the Federal Reserve over the past four years would certainly not have been praised by monetarist lighthouse Karl Brunner who founded the SOMC in 1973. Unfortunately for me the SOMC has been as – if not more -disappointing as the FOMC over the past four years. Hence, most SOMC members of the past four years seem to have taken a rather Austrian and often also an overtly (partisan) politicized view of the crisis rather than a monetarist view of the crisis and it is notable that the majority of SOMC members have failed to endorse the Market Monetarist revolution – which in my view is the second monetarist counter-revolution.

The SOMC over the past four years has not been the intellectual monetarist force that it used to be in 1970s. That role instead has been played by Market Monetarist bloggers – most notably of course by Scott Sumner. However, that could change in the future. In fact why are Scott Sumner, David Beckworth or Josh Hendrickson not already members of the SOMC?

That siad in someway we are getting there. A notable exception to the present “the Fed is going to create hyper-inflation”-view on the SOMC is Peter Ireland. In my view Pete’s 2010 paper on the Great Recession is a basically Market Monetarist account of the causes of the Great Recession. In his paper Pete shows how the crisis was caused by the fed’s overly tight monetary policy. In the words of Bob Hetzel – it was monetary policy failure rather than market failure that caused the Great Recession. Unfortunately the majority of member on the SOMC don’t seem to agree with Pete on this.

Pete’s membership of the SOMC is clear positive and I am therefore also happy to recommend his latest paper – Refocusing the fed – which he presented at the latest SOMC meeting on November 20. I agree with 99.9% of what is in Pete’s paper. My only regret is that Pete does not endorse NGDP level targeting in his paper, but instead maintains the SOMC “party line” and endorses inflation targeting.

While I am critical of what have been the “majority view” on the SOMC over the past four years I remain an admirer of most of the members of the SOMC and I do think that the SOMC is a great institution and I would hope that more countries would have similar institutions, but I also hope that the SOMC in the coming years will move more in a Market Monetarist direction.

The “Export Price Norm” saved Australia from the Great Recession

Milton Friedman once said never to underestimate the importance of luck of nations. I believe that is very true and I think the same goes for central banks. Some nations came through the shock in 2008-9 much better than other nations and obviously better policy and particularly better monetary policy played a key role. However, luck certainly also played a role.

I think a decisive factor was the level of key policy interest rate at the start of the crisis. If interest rates already were low at the start of the crisis central banks were – mentally – unable to ease monetary policy enough to counteract the shock as most central banks did operationally conduct monetary policy within an interest rate targeting regime where a short-term interest rate was the key policy instrument. Obviously there is no limits to the amount of monetary easing a central bank can do – the money base after all can be expanded as much as you would like – but if the central bank is only using interest rates then they will have a problem as interest rates get close to zero. Furthermore, it played a key role whether demand for a country’s currency increased or decreased in response to the crisis. For example the demand for US dollars exploded in 2008 leading to a “passive tightening” of monetary policy in the US, while the demand for for example Turkish lira, Swedish krona or Polish zloty collapsed.

As said, for the US we got monetary tightening, but for Turkey, Sweden and Poland the drop in money was automatic monetary easing. That was luck and nothing else. The three mentioned countries in fact should give reason to be careful about cheering too much about the “good” central banks – The Turkish central bank has done a miserable job on communication, the Polish central bank might have engineered a recession by hiking interest rates earlier this year and the Swedish central bank now seems to be preoccupied with “financial stability” and household debt rather than focusing on it’s own stated inflation target.

In a recent post our friend and prolific writer Lorenzo wrote an interesting piece on Australia and how it has been possible for the country to avoid recession for 21 years. Lorenzo put a lot of emphasis on monetary policy. I agree with that – as recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomena – the key reason has to be monetary policy. However, I don’t want to give the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) too much credit. After all you could point to a number of monetary policy blunders in Australia over the last two decades that potentially could have ended in disaster (see below for an example).

I think fundamentally two things have saved the Australian economy from recession for the last 21 years.

First of all luck. Australia is a commodity exporter and commodity prices have been going up for more than a decade and when the crisis hit in 2008 the demand for Aussie dollars dropped rather than increased and Australia’s key policy rate was relatively high so the RBA could ease monetary policy aggressively without thinking about using other instruments than interest rates. The RBA was no more prepared for conducting monetary policy at the lower zero bound than the fed, the ECB or the Bank of England, but it didn’t need to be as prepared as interest rates were much higher in Australia to begin with – and the sharp weakening of the Aussie dollar obviously also did the RBA’s job easier. In fact I think the RBA is still completely unprepared for conducting monetary policy in a zero interest rate environment. I am not saying that the RBA is a bad central bank – far from it – but it is not necessarily the example of a “super central bank”. It is a central bank, which has done something right, but certainly also has been more lucky than for example the fed or the Bank of England.

Second – and this is here the RBA deserves a lot of credit – the RBA has been conducting it’s inflation targeting regime in a rather flexible fashion so it has allowed occasional overshooting and undershooting of the inflation target by being forward looking and that was certainly the case in 2008-9 where it did not panic as inflation was running too high compared to the inflation target.

One of the reasons why I think the RBA has been relatively successful is that it effectively has shadowed a policy of what Jeff Frankel calls PEP (Peg the currency to the Export Price) and what I (now) think should be called an “Export Price Norm” (EPN). EPN is basically the open economy version of NGDP level targeting.

If the primary factor in nominal demand changes in the economy is exports – as it tend to be in small open economies and in commodity exporting economies – then if the central bank pegs the price of the currency to the price of the primary exports then that effectively could stabilize aggregate demand or NGDP growth. This is in fact what I believe the RBA – probably unknowingly – has done over the last couple of decades and particularly since 2008. As a result the RBA has stabilized NGDP growth and therefore avoided monetary shocks to the economy.

Under a pure EPN regime the central bank would peg the exchange rate to the export price. This is obviously not what the RBA has done. However, by it’s communication it has signalled that it would not mind the Aussie dollar to weaken and strengthen in response to swings in commodity prices – and hence in swings in Australian export prices. Hence, if one looks at commodity prices measured by the so-called CRB index and the Australian dollar against the US dollar over the last couple of decades one would see that there basically has been a 1-1 relationship between the two as if the Aussie dollar had been pegged to the CRB index. That in my view is the key reason for the stability of NGDP growth over the past two decade. The period from 2004/5 until 2008 is an exception. In this period the Aussie dollar strengthened “too little” compared to the increase in commodity prices – effectively leading to an excessive easing of monetary conditions – and if you want to look for a reason for the Australian property market boom (bubble?) then that is it.

This is how close the relationship is between the CRB index and the Aussie dollar (indexed at 100 in 2008):

However, when the Great Recession hit and global commodity prices plummet the RBA got it nearly perfectly right. The RBA could have panicked and hike interest rates to curb the rise in headline consumer price inflation (CPI inflation rose to around 5% y/y) caused by the weakening of the Aussie dollar. It did not do so, but rather allowed the Aussie dollar to weaken significantly. In fact the drop in commodity prices and in the Aussie dollar in 2008-9 was more or less the same. This is in my view is the key reason why Australia avoided recession – measured as two consecutive quarters of negative growth – in 2008-9.

But the RBA could have done a lot better

So yes, there is reason to praise the RBA, but I think Lorenzo goes too far in his praise. A reason why I am sceptical is that the RBA is much too focused on consumer price inflation (CPI) and as I have argued so often before if a central bank really wants to focus on inflation then at least the central bank should be focusing on the GDP deflator rather on CPI.

In my view Australia saw what Hayekian economists call “relative inflation” in the years prior to 2008. Yes, inflation measured by CPI was relatively well-behaved, but looking at the GDP deflator inflationary pressures were clearly building and because the RBA was overly focused on CPI – rather than aggregate demand/NGDP growth or the GDP deflator – monetary policy became excessively easy and the had the RBA not had the luck (and skills?) it had in 2008-9 then the monetary induced boom could have turned into a nasty bust. The same story is visible from studying nominal GDP growth – while NGDP grew pretty steadily around 6% y/y from 1992 to 2002, but from 2002 to 2008 NGDP growth escalated year-by-year and NGDP grew more than 10% in 2008. That in my view was a sign that monetary policy was becoming excessive easy in Australia. In that regard it should be noted that despite the negative shock in 2008-9 and a recent fairly marked slowdown in NGDP growth the actual level of NGDP is still somewhat above the 1992-2002 trend level.

George Selgin has forcefully argued that there is good and bad deflation. Bad deflation is driven by negative demand shocks and good deflation is driven by positive supply shocks. George as consequence of this has argued in favour of what he has called a “productivity norm” – effectively an NGDP target.

I believe that we can make a similar argument for commodity exporters. However, here it is not a productivity shock, but a “wealth shock”. Higher global commodity prices is a positive “wealth shock” for commodity exporters (Friedman would say higher permanent income). This is similar to a positive productivity shock. The way to ensure such “wealth shock” is transferred to the consumers in the economy is through benign consumer price deflation (disinflation) and you get that through a stronger currency, which reduces import prices. However, a drop in global commodity prices is a negative demand shock for a commodity exporting country and that you want to avoid. The way to do that is to allow the currency to weaken as commodity prices drop. This is why the Export Price Norm makes so much sense for commodity exporters.

The RBA effective acted as if it had an (variation of the) Export Price Norm in 2008-9, but certainly failed to do so in the boom years prior to the crisis. In those pre-crisis years the RBA should have tightened monetary policy conditions much more than it did and effectively allowed the Aussie dollar to strengthen more than it did. That would likely have pushed CPI inflation well-below the RBA’s official inflation (CPI) target of 2-3%. That, however, would have been just fine – there is no harm done in consumer price deflation generated by positive productivity shocks or positive wealth shocks. When you become wealthier it should show up in low consumer prices – or at least a slower growth of consumer price inflation.

So what should the RBA do now?

The RBA managed the crisis well, but as I have argued above the RBA was also fairly lucky and there is certainly no reason to be overly confident that the next shock will be handled equally well. I therefore think there are two main areas where the RBA could improve on it operational framework – other than the obvious one of introducing an NGDP level targeting regime.

First, the RBA should make it completely clear to investors and other agents in the economy what operational framework the RBA will be using if the key policy rate where to hit zero.

Second, the RBA should be more clear in it communication about the link between changes in commodity prices (measured in Aussie dollars) and aggregate demand/NGDP and that it consider the commodity-currency link as key element in the Australian monetary transmission mechanism – explicitly acknowledging the importance of the Export Price Norm.

The two points above could of course easily be combined. The RBA could simply announce that it will continue it’s present operational framework, but if interest rates where to drop below for example 1% it would automatically peg the Aussie dollar to the CRB index and then thereafter announce monetary policy changes in terms of the changes to the Aussie dollar-CRB “parity”.

Australian NGDP still remains somewhat above the old trend and as such monetary policy is too loose. However, given the fact that we have been off-trend for a decade it probably would make very little sense to force NGDP back down to the old trend. Rather the RBA should announce that monetary policy is now “neutral” and that it in the future will keep NGDP growth around a 5% or 6% trend (level targeting). Using the trend level starting in for example 2007 in my view would be a useful benchmark.

It is pretty clear that Australian monetary conditions are tightening at the moment, which is visible in both weak NGDP growth and the fact that commodity prices measured in Australian dollars are declining. Furthermore, it should be noted that GDP deflator growth (y/y) turned negative earlier in the year – also indicating sharply tighter monetary conditions. Furthermore, NGDP has now dropped below the – somewhat arbitrary – 2007-12 NGDP trend level. All that could seem to indicate that moderate monetary easing is warranted.

Concluding, the RBA did a fairly good job over the past two decades, but luck certainly played a major role in why Australia has avoided recession and if the RBA wants to preserve it’s good reputation in the future then it needs to look at a few details (some major) in the how it conducts its monetary policy.

PS I could obviously tell the same story for other commodity exporters such as Norway, Canada, Russia, Brazil or Angola for that matter and these countries actually needs the lesson a lot more than the RBA (maybe with the exception of Canada).

PPS Sometimes Market Monetarist bloggers – including myself – probably sound like “if we where only running things then everything would be better”. I would stress that I don’t think so. I am fully aware of the institutional and political constrains that every central banker in the world faces. Furthermore, one could easily argue that central banks by construction will never be able to do a good job and will always be doomed to fail (just ask Pete Boettke or Larry White). As everybody knows I have a lot of sympathy for that view. However, we need to have a debate about monetary policy and how we can improve it – at least as long as we maintain central banks. And I don’t think the answer is better central bankers, but rather I want better institutions. It is correct it makes a difference who runs the central banks, but the institutional framework is much more important and a discussion about past and present failures of central banks will hopefully help shape the ideas to secure more sound monetary systems in the future.

PPPS I should say this post was inspired not only by Lorenzo’s post and my long time thinking the that the RBA had been lucky, but also by Saturos’ comments to my earlier post on Malaysia. Saturos pointed out the difference between the GDP deflator and CPI in Australia to me. That was an important import to this post.

BoJ might become the first central bank in the world to introduce NGDP targeting

I stole this from Britmouse (who got it from Bloomberg):

Abe advocates increased monetary easing to reverse more than a decade of falling prices and said he would consider revising a law guaranteeing the independence of the Bank of Japan. (8301) In an economic policy plan issued yesterday, the LDP said it would pursue policies to attain 3 percent nominal growth.

Talk about good news! Shinzo Abe of course is the leader of Japan’s main opposition party the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). LDP is favourite to win the upcoming Japanese parliament elections – so soon Japan might have a Prime Minister who favours NGDP targeting.

So how could this be implemented? Well, Lars E. O. Svensson has a solution and I am pretty sure he would gladly accept the job if Abe offered him to become new Bank of Japan governor. After all he does not seem to happy with his colleagues at the Swedish Riksbank at the moment.

PS I would love to get in contact with any Japanese economist interested in NGDP targeting – please drop me a mail (lacsen@gmail.com)

PPS I can recommend vacation in Langkawi Malaysia – this is lunch time blogging in the shadow of the palms

Update: Oops – Scott also comments on this story.

The fiscal cliff is good news

When I started this blog I set out to write about monetary policy issues – primarily from a none-US perspective – and furthermore I am on vacation with my family in Malaysia so writing this blog post goes against everything I should do – however, after listen to five minutes of debate about the ”fiscal cliff” on CNBC tonight I simply have to write this: What is your problem? Why are you so scared about fiscal consolidation? After all this is what the fiscal cliff is – a 4-5% improvement of public finances as share of GDP.

The point is that the US government is running clearly excessive public deficits and the public debt has grown far too large so isn’t fiscal tightening exactly what you need? I think it is and the fiscal cliff ensures that. Yes, I agree tax hikes are unfortunate from a supply side perspective, but cool down a bit – it is going to have only a marginally negative impact on the long-term US growth perspective that the Bush tax cuts expiries. But more importantly the fiscal cliff would mean cuts in US defense spending. The US is spending more on military hardware than any other country in the world. It seems to me that US policy makers have not realized that the Cold War is over. You don’t need to spend 5% of GDP on bombs. In fact I believe that if the entire 4-5% fiscal consolidation were done, as cuts to US defense spending the world would probably be a better place. But that is not my choice – and it is the peace-loving libertarian rather than the economist speaking (here is a humorous take on the sad story of war). What I am saying is that the world is not coming to an end if the US defense budget is cut marginally. Paradoxically US conservatives this time around are against budget consolidation. Sad – but true.

Since September the Federal Reserve has had the Bernanke-Evans rule in place. That means basically means that the Fed will step up monetary easing in response to any increase in unemployment. Hence, if the full fiscal cliff leads to any increase in unemployment the fed will counteract that with monetary easing. So effectively the fiscal cliff means fiscal tightening and monetary easing. This of course would also be the case if the fed was a strict inflation targeting central bank – that directly follows from the Sumner critique.

Fiscal consolidation and monetary easing is this is exactly what the US had in 1990s – the best period for the US economy since WWII. By at that time a Democrat President also had to work with a Republican dominated Congress.

So no, I don’t understand what there is to fear. Lower public spending and easier monetary policy is the right medine for the US economy (yes and please throw in some structural reforms as well). If that is the fiscal cliff please bring it on. It will be good for America and good for the world. And it might even be a more peaceful world.


PS if you are really concerned about the fiscal cliff just agree on this:

1) Cut US defense spending to 2% of GDP

2) NO tax hikes

3) Commit the fed to bring back NGDP to the pre-crisis trend level through QE

Update: My version (second and third!) version of this post had an incredible amount of typos – sorry for that. I have now cleaned it up a bit.

Update 2: David Glasner also comments on the fiscal issue – David agrees with me in theory, but is more worried about the what the fed will do in the real world. When David is saying something I always listen. David is a real voice of reason – often also of moderation. That said, I strongly believe the Sumner Critique is correct. NGDP is determined by monetary policy and not by fiscal policy – so if the fiscal cliff will lead to a recession the fed will be to blame and not the US politicians (they are to blame for a lot of other things…).

Argentina’s hidden inflation – another case of the horrors of price controls

In my previous post I discussed how price controls likely have created a wedge between inflation measured by CPI and by the GDP deflator in Malaysia. That made me think – can we find other examples of this in the world? And sure thing the story of Argentina’s inflation over the last decade seem to be more or less the same thing.

The graph below shows Argentine inflation measured by CPI and the GDP deflator since 2002. The difference is very easy to spot.

It is very clear that until 2005 the two measures of inflation tracks each other quite closely, but from 2005 a difference opens up. So what happened in 2005? Well, the story is exactly as in Malaysia – monetary policy is inflationary and the government tries to curb inflation not by printing less money, but by introducing price controls.

Here is a story from Bloomberg November 24 2005:

Argentine President Nestor Kirchner accused supermarkets of price fixing and said he would increase controls to slow a surge in inflation.

Kirchner, in a televised speech at the presidential palace, said agreements between supermarkets such as Coto CISA SA and Hipermercados Jumbo SA, a unit of Chilean retailer Cencosud SA, to increase prices would lead to 12 percent inflation next year. In the 12 months through October Argentina’s consumer prices rose 10.7 percent, the fastest rate of increase in 29 months.

“We will fight to defend consumers’ pockets,” Kirchner said, without specifying how he would slow price increases.

The accusation underscores the government’s concern over quickening inflation, which may increase poverty in a country where almost 50 percent of the population cannot afford to cover their food and other basic needs, said economist Rafael Ber of Argentine Research brokers in Buenos Aires.

Rising prices may also hurt the ability of Argentine producers to compete with foreign goods, Ber said.

Kirchner has already attacked private companies for increasing prices. In April, he called on consumers to boycott The Royal Dutch Shell Group after the energy company increased prices.

So there you go – price controls in response to inflation. That is never good news and the result has been the same in Argentina as in Malaysia (actually it is much worse) – shortages (See also my previous discussion of food shortages in Venezuela and Argentina here).

Price controls always have the same impact – shortages – and if you think Malaysia and Argentina are the only countries in the world to make this kind of policy mistakes think again. Here is from the US, where a Republican governor these days is experimenting with price controls and the result is the same as in Argentina and Malaysia – shortages!

PS it should be noted that the Argentine inflation data very likely is manipulated so there is more to it than just price controls – we also has a case of the books being cooked. See more on that here.

Malaysia should peg the renggit to the price of rubber and natural gas

The Christensen family arrived in Malaysia yesterday. It is vacation time! So since I am in Malaysia I was thinking I would write a small piece on Malaysian monetary policy, but frankly speaking I don’t know much about the Malaysian economy and I do not follow it on a daily basis. So my account of how the Malaysian economy is at best going to be a second hand account.

However, when I looked at the Malaysian data something nonetheless caught my eye. Looking at the monetary policy of a country I find it useful to compare the development in real GDP (RGDP) and nominal GDP (NGDP). I did the same thing for Malaysia. The RGDP numbers didn’t surprise me – I knew that from the research I from time to time would read on the Malaysian economy. However, most economists are still not writing much about the development in NGDP.

In my head trend RGDP growth is around 5% in Malaysia and from most of the research I have read on the Malaysian economy I have gotten the impression that inflation is pretty much under control and is around 2-3% – so I would have expected NGDP growth to have been around 7-8%. However, for most of the past decade NGDP growth in Malaysia has been much higher – 10-15%. The only exception is 2009 when NGDP growth contracted nearly 8%!

How could I be so wrong? Well, the most important explanation is that I don’t follow the Malaysian economy very closely on a daily basis. However, another much more important reason is the difference between how inflation is measured. The most common measure of inflation is the consumer price index (CPI). However, another measure, which is much closer to what the central bank controls is the GDP deflator – the difference between NGDP and RGDP.

In previous posts I have argued that if one looks at the GDP deflator rather than on CPI then monetary policy in Japan and the euro zone has been much more deflationary than CPI would indicate and the fact that the Bank of Japan and the ECB have been more focused on CPI than on the GDP deflator have  led to serious negative economic consequences. However, it turns out that the story of Malaysian inflation is exactly the opposite!

While Malaysian inflation seems well-behaved and is growing around 2% the GDP deflator tells a completely different story. The graph below illustrates this.

As the graph shows inflation measured by the GDP deflator averaged nearly 7% in the 2004-2008 period. In the same period CPI inflation was around 3%. So why do we have such a massive difference between the two measures of inflation? The GDP deflator is basically the price level of domestically produced goods, while CPI is the price level of domestically consumed goods. The main difference between the two is therefore that CPI includes indirect taxes and import prices.

However, another difference that we seldom talk about is the difference between the domestic price and the export price of the same good. Hence, if the price of a certain good – for example natural gas - increased internationally, but not domestically then if the country is an natural gas producer – as Malaysia is – then the GDP deflator will increase faster than CPI.

I think this explains the difference between CPI and GDP deflator inflation Malaysia in the last 10-12 years – there is simply a large difference between the domestic price and the international price development of a lot of goods in Malaysia and the reason is price controls. The Malaysian government has implemented price controls on a number of goods, which is artificially keeping prices from rising on these goods.

The difference between CPI and the GDP deflator therefore is a reflection of a massive misallocation of economic resources in the Malaysian economy and inflation is in reality much larger than indicated by CPI. While the inflation is not showing up in CPI – due to price controls – it is showing up in shortages. As any economist knows if you limit prices from rising when demand outpaces supply then you will get shortages (Bob Murphy explains that quite well).

Here is an 2010 Malaysian news story:

PETALING JAYA: There is an acute shortage of sugar in the country.

Consumers and traders in several states have voiced their frustration in getting supply of the essential commodity, describing the shortage as the “worst so far”.

A check at several grocery shops here revealed that no sugar had been on sale for over a week…

…Fomca secretary-general Muhd Sha’ani Abdullah said it had received complaints in various areas including Kuantan, Muar, Klang and Temerloh since a month ago.

He said the problem was not due to retailers hoarding sugar but the smuggling of the item to other countries, especially Thailand.

Federation of Sundry Goods Merchants president Lean Hing Chuan said the shortage nationwide was caused by manufacturers halving production, adding that its members started noticing the slowdown in April.

“Factories might be slowing down their production to keep their costs down until subsidies for sugar are withdrawn,” Lean said.

I got this from the excellent local blog “Malaysia Economics” in which the economics of price controls is explained very well (See this post). By the way the author of Malaysia Economics has a lot of sympathy for Market Monetarism – so I am happy to quote his blog.

So while the problem in Japan and the euro zone is hidden deflation the problem in Malaysia is hidden inflation. The consequence of hidden inflation is always problems with shortages and as it is always the case with such shortages you will get problems with a ever increasing black economy with smuggling and corruption. This is also the case in Malaysia.

I believe the source of these problems has to be found in the Malaysian authorities response to the 1997 Asian crisis. Malaysia came out of the Asian crisis faster than most of other South East Asian countries due to among other things fairly aggressive monetary policy easing. Any Market Monetarist would tell you that that probably was the right response – however, the problem is that the Malaysian central bank (BNM) kept easing monetary policy well after the Malaysian economy had recovered from the crisis by keeping the Malaysian ringgit artificially weak.

The graph below clearly shows how the price level measured with the GDP deflator and CPI started to diverge in 1997-98.

As global commodity prices started to rise around a decade ago the price of a lot of Malaysia’s main export goods – such as rubber, petroleum and liquified natural gas – started to rise strongly. However, until 2005 the BNM kept the Malaysian ringgit more less fixed against the US dollar. Therefore, to keep the renggit from strengthen the BNM had to increase the money supply as Malaysian export prices were increasing. This obviously is inflationary.

There are to ways to curb such inflationary pressures. Either you allow your currency to strengthen or you introduce price controls. The one is the solution of economists – the other is the solution of politicians. After 2005 the BNM has moved closer to a floating renggit, but it is still has fairly tightly managed currency and the renggit has not strengthened nearly as much as the rise in export prices would have dictated. As a consequence inflationary pressures have remained high.

Two possible monetary policy changes for Malaysia

Overall I believe the the combination of price controls and overly easy monetary policy is damaging the for the Malaysian economy. As I see it there are two possible changes that could be made to Malaysian monetary policy. Both solutions, however, would have to involve a scrapping of price controls and subsidies in the Malaysian economy. The Malaysian government has been moving in that direction in the last couple of years and there clearly are fewer price controls today than just a few years ago.

The fact that price controls are being eased is having a positive effect (and GDP deflator inflation and CPI inflation also is much more in line with each other than earlier). See for example this recent news story on how easing price controls on sugar has led to a sharp drop in smuggling of sugar. It is impossible to conduct monetary policy in a proper fashion if prices are massively distorted by price controls and regulations. The liberalization of price in Malaysia is therefore good news for monetary reform in Malaysia.

The first option for monetary reform is simply to allow the renggit to float completely freely and then target some domestic nominal variable like inflation (the GDP deflator!), the price level or preferably the NGDP level. This is more or less the direction BNM has been moving in since 2005, but we still seems to be far away from a truly freely floating renggit.

Another possibility is to move closer to policy closer to Jeff Frankel’s idea of Pegging the exchange rate to the Export Price (PEP). In many ways I think such a proposal would be suitable for Malaysia – especially in a situation where price controls have not been fully liberalized and where the authorities clearly are uncomfortable with a freely floating renggit.

A major advantage of PEP compared to a freely floating currency is that the central bank needs a lot less macroeconomic data to conduct monetary policy. This obviously would be an advantage in Malaysia where macroeconomic data still is distorted by price controls and subsidies. Second, PEP also means that monetary policy automatically would be rule based. Third, compared to a strict FX peg a variation of PEP would not lead to boom-bust cycles when export prices rise and fall as the currency would “automatically” appreciate and depreciate in line with changes in export prices.

Another reason why a variation of PEP might be a good solution for Malaysia is that the prices of the country’s main export goods such as rubber, petroleum and liquified natural gas are highly correlated with internationally traded commodity prices. Hence, it would be very easy to construct a real-time basket of international traded commodity prices that would be nearly perfectly correlated with Malaysian export prices.

The BNM is already managing the renggit against a basket of currencies. It would be very simply to include a basket of international traded commodity prices – which is correlated with Malaysian export prices (I have made a similar suggestion for Russia – see here). This I believe would give the same advantage as a floating exchange rate, but with less need for potentially distorted macroeconomic data while at the same time avoiding the disadvantages of a fixed exchange rate.

Had the BNM operated such a PEP style monetary policy over the last decade the renggit would had strengthened significantly more than was the case from 2000 until 2008. However, the renggit would have weaken sharply in 2008 when commodity prices plummeted at the onset of the Great Recession. Since 2009 the renggit would then had started strengthening again (more than has been the case). This in my view would have lead to a significantly more stable development in nominal GDP (and real GDP).

And price controls would not have been “needed”. Hence, while commodity prices were rising the renggit would also have been strengthening significantly more than actually was the case and as a consequences import prices would have dropped sharply and therefore push down consumer prices (CPI). Hence, the Malaysian consumers would have been the primary beneficiaries of rising export prices. In that sense my suggestion would have been a Malaysian version of George Selgin’s “productivity norm” – or rather a “export price norm” (maybe we should call PEP that in the future?).

But now I should be heading back to the pool – I am on vacation after all…

PS I got a challenge to my clever readers: Construct a basket of US dollars and oil prices (or rubber and natural gas) against the renggit that would have stabilized NGDP growth in Malaysia at 5-7% since 2000. I think it is possible…

Guest post: Thoughts on Policy Uncertainty (Alex Salter)

Even though I think the primary economic problem in the US and in Europe at the moment is weak aggregate demand due to overly tight monetary policy I certainly do not deny the fact that both the US and the euro zone face other very significant problems. Among these problems are considerable “regime uncertainty”. In fact I believe that regime uncertainty is the key economic problem in a number of countries such as Venezuela, Argentina and Hungary. I have in earlier posts (see links below) argued that regime uncertainty primarily should be seen as supply side phenomena. However, regime uncertainty can also be seen as a demand side problem.

In today’s guest post the young and talented Alex Salter discusses a framework in which to discuss regime uncertainty or policy uncertainty – both as a supply side and a demand side phenomena. I think Alex’s discussion is highly relevant  and is quite useful in understanding regime uncertain conceptually .

Enjoy Alex’s guest post.

Lars Christensen.

Guest post: Thoughts on Policy Uncertainty

By Alex Salter, George Mason University

There’s been some talk lately about policy uncertainty and its effect on economic activity.  It’s important to pin down just what economic effects we’re talking about here.  In particular, we need to decide whether policy uncertainty (also called ‘regime uncertainty’ by economist Robert Higgs, who was talking about it before it was in vogue) is a demand-side or a supply-side phenomenon.  I’ve seen arguments for both sides.

Here’s my take on it: In the short-run it’s a demand phenomenon.  But it has long-run supply consequences.

Policy uncertainty stems from uncertainty with respect to the future structure of property rights.  If I’m not sure what regulatory policy, tax liability, etc. for various economic activities will look like, then there’s a real option value to holding off on investing in an enterprise (Avinash Dixit has some really interesting papers on this).  This, of course, means lower investment spending than there would be otherwise.  The standard Aggregate Demand-Aggregate Supply (ADAS) framework provides a quick-and-dirty way of looking at this.

First off, let’s work in growth rates instead of levels.  I think it makes the analysis easier.  The AD curve is given by.  This is the dynamic form of the familiar quantity equation,.  The little g denotes growth rates.  Note that the AD curve shows all combinations of inflation and real income growth that map to a constant level of nominal income growth.

AS is, as usual, broken down into short-run and long-run components.  SRAS is a standard Lucas supply curve, which is an increasing function of inflation expectations.  LRAS depends on the real productive capacity of the economy; it is vertical to reflect long-run monetary neutrality.

In the short run, policy uncertainty manifests itself as reduced investment expenditure.  Assuming a constant level of money supply growth, this is essentially a negative velocity shock, and hence a negative AD shock, as shown below:

The economy, initially in long-run equilibrium at point a, moves to point b, below its long-run potential growth rate.

Ordinarily, the reduction in money flows throughout the economy would put downward pressure on prices, leading to disinflation (or outright deflation if the shock is big enough).  The SRAS curve would shift down as the economy adapted to the new expenditure pattern, bringing us back to long-run equilibrium with the same growth rate as point a, but lower equilibrium inflation.

However, this is not the whole story.  Policy uncertainty, by hampering investment spending, has lowered the rate of capital formation relative to what it would have been in the uncertainty-free counterfactual.  The old long-run growth rate, given by the position of the LRAS curve, is no longer sustainable due to this reduced rate of capital accumulation.  The long-run effects of policy uncertainty are reflected in a reduced potential growth rate for the economy, represented by an inward shift of the LRAS curve:

As I have drawn it, the inward LRAS shift meets the transition down AD’ (reflecting larger income growth relative to inflation growth over time, still yielding a constant level of nominal income growth).  The result is long-run equilibrium at point c.  Again, real income growth is permanently lower because regime uncertainty, by hampering capital formation, has reduced the economy’s real productive activity vis-à-vis the no-uncertainty world.

This is obviously an oversimplified (and overaggregated!) model, but I think it captures the short-run/long-run distinction well enough for the purposes of getting our thinking straight.  There are all sorts of bells and whistles you could add to this.  For example, you could look at what happens after the uncertainty plays out (property rights become better-defined, either at a permanently “stronger” or “weaker” level).  The new equilibrium would be different depending on how you model actor expectations (rational, adaptive, etc.)  The grad students out there might want to spice things up by examining this in a Ramsey-style model and playing with the dynamics.

Now that we’ve got our terminology squared away, we can proceed to the really interesting questions—namely, how regime uncertainty plays out at the micro level, with the accompanying distortions in relative prices (and thus resource misallocations).  There are all sorts of political economy implications to work through as well.


Related posts:

Regime Uncertainty, the Balkans and the weak US recovery
Papers about money, regime uncertainty and efficient religions
”Regime Uncertainty” – a Market Monetarist perspective
Monetary disorder in Central Europe (and some supply side problems)

Patri Friedman on Market Monetarism

Here is Patri Friedman on his blog “Patri’s Peripatetic Peregrinations”:

“I sent a friend an intro to market monetarism (a modern, blogosphere-inspired adjustment to the traditional monetarism my grandfather helped create). He was surprised I believed that printing money could be good, rather than agreeing with the Austrians.”

I am happy to see that Patri has read my paper on Market Monetarism.

There is of course nothing wrong in thinking that “printing money could be good” (under certain circumstances). In fact this is completely in line with what Patri’s grandfather Milton Friedman argued in terms of the Great Depression and the Japanese crisis.

Patri in his post also discusses how a “helicopter drop” could happen in a world of digital cash. Interestingly enough this discussion is similar to a recent internal Market Monetarist debate between Nick Rowe, Bill Woolsey and Scott Sumner about whether money is a medium of exchange or a medium of account. See for example here, here and here. Kurt Schuler also has contributed to the discussion. Finally Miles Kimball similarly has a very interesting post on the case for electronic money.

Patri’s discussion of digital cash to some extent also relates to my own discussion of monetary reform in Africa and the development of mobile based money (See for example here, herehere and here).

Anyway, I am happy to Patri seems to be showing some sympathy for Market Monetarism.

HT Lasse Birk Olesen


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