Lower (supply) inflation is NOT a reason to ease US monetary policy

Here are two news stories from today:

U.S. import prices fell in April due to a drop in oil costs, a positive sign for household finances that also pointed to benign inflation pressures.

Import prices slipped 0.5 percent last month, the biggest decline since December, the Labor Department said on Tuesday. March’s data was revised to show a 0.2 percent decline instead of the previously reported 0.5 percent drop.”

And the second one:

“U.S. producer prices recorded their largest drop in three years in April while a reading of manufacturing in New York indicated contraction.

Producer prices slid as gasoline and food costs tumbled, pointing to weak inflation pressures that should give the Federal Reserve latitude to keep monetary policy very accommodative.”

Now some might of course think that this would make Market Monetarists scream for the Federal Reserve to step up monetary easing. However, that would be extremely wrong. There are certainly good reasons for the fed to ease monetary policy, but a drop in inflation caused by a positive supply shock – lower import prices – is certainly not one of them.

At the core of Market Monetarist thinking is that central banks should not react to supply shock – positive or negative. Hence, we are arguing that central banks should target the level of nominal GDP – not inflation.

Therefore, imagine that the fed indeed was targeting the the NGDP level and NGDP was “on track” and a positive supply shock hit. Then the fed would maintain monetary conditions completely unchanged – keeping NGDP on track – and allowed the positive supply shock to feed through to lower inflation (and higher real GDP). This is benign inflation and as such very welcomed as it do not reflect a deflationary and recessionary demand shock. Furthermore, some Market Monetarists like David Beckworth and myself also believe that monetary easing in response to positive supply shocks risks leading to economic misallocation and what Austrian economists call relative inflation.

Lower (supply) inflation is no reason for more QE
…but the fed needs to focus on defining its target

One can certainly argue that NGDP growth is too weak to catch up with the pre-crisis NGDP trend, but on the other hand it is also pretty clear that US NGDP growth is fairly robust. So instead of stepping up quantitative easing in response to lower import prices the fed instead should focus on becoming much more clear on what it wants to achieve. Hence, there is still considerable uncertainty about what the fed really wants to achieve.

Therefore, the fed should become more clear on its target. Preferably of course the fed should adopt an NGDP level target and decide whether the present growth rate of the money base is strong enough to achieve that or not. Regarding that I don’t think that the present policy with a not clearly defined target and the present growth rate of the money base is enough to return NGDP to the pre-crisis trend, but it is nonetheless likely to keep NGDP growing 4-5% and that is likely enough to maintain the present speed of recovery in real GDP and the US labour market. I think that is far too unambitious, but it is certainly better than what we are seeing in Europe.

The paradox – the positive supply shock is “pushing” central banks to do the right thing for the wrong reasons

The paradox, however, is that the recent drop in global commodity prices have pushed down headline inflation around the world and central banks have over the last couple of weeks been responding by cutting interest rates. Hence, Central banks in the eurozone, India, Australia, South Korea, Poland and Israel have all cut rates in recent weeks. While there certainly is very good reasons for monetary easing in nearly all of these countries it a paradox that these central banks now seem to have been “shocked” into easing monetary policy in response to a positive supply shock rather than in response to weak demand growth.

It would clearly be wrong to criticize these central banks for doing the right thing – easing monetary policy – but I also believe that it is important to stress that had monetary policy in these countries been “right” then these central banks would likely have been making a policy mistakes by easing monetary policy at the moment.

In that regard it is of course also important that central banks’ (apparent mental) inability to differentiate between supply and demand shocks often has lead central banks to tight monetary policy in response to negative supply. The ECB’s catastrophic rate hikes in 2011 is a very good example of this. Paradoxically we might be happy at the moment that the ECB’s tendency to react to supply shocks might push the ECB into stepping up monetary easing.

Finally I should stress that the recent decline in inflation globally is certainly not only caused by a positive supply. In fact I have long argued that we are likely heading for deflation in the euro zone due to excessively tight monetary policy. So my discussion above should mostly be seen as an attempt to stress the need for understanding the difference between demand and supply for the conduct of monetary policy. Unfortunately many central bankers seem unable to understand these important difference.

—-

Update: Market Monetarists think alike – I just realized that Marcus Nunes did a post yesterday that made the exact same argument as me.

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9 Comments

  1. Benjamin Cole

     /  May 16, 2013

    Technically, both Lars and Marcus are right.

    But, the public is the public. They understand that inflation is low (at one percent on the PCE, y-o-y).

    Thus, even within the current regime, there is plenty of room for far more-aggressive stimulus from the Fed.

    I concur that NGDP targeting is the way to go. But for now, I just want the Fed to blow the doors off of the printing plant. People have been unemployed for years.

    Reply
  2. Ravi

     /  May 17, 2013

    Great post. Unfortunately it seems that central bank watchers need to become oil experts to understand the bankers’ tightening/easing bias.

    Reply
  3. The Fed is targeting core PCE inflation, not inflation as such. This strips the supply inflation effects.
    And eventually it is quite close to NGDP targeting.

    Reply
    • George,

      First of all there is a very large difference between PCE core and NGDP. Second, core PCE inflation is not a good measure of demand inflation. Third, I and other Market Monetarists are advocating LEVEL targeting. Inflation targeting – like targeting PCE core inflation – completely misses that point.

      That said, the fed has moved closer to NGDP targeting, but only because it has moved AWAY from inflation targeting.

      Reply
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