On 3 July the Swedish central bank, Riksbanken, cut its key policy rate by 50bp to 0.25%. Most analysts – and the markets – were taken by surprise by this decision. It was particularly surprising as Riksbanken’s governor Stefan Ingves had been voted down by a majority of Riksbanken’s board.
Most people – including myself – would say that when a central bank cuts it key policy rate more than expected, it is monetary easing, and it seemed that was how the market was interpreting Riksbanken’s move – the Swedish krona weakened significantly and Swedish share prices spiked. However, something was not as it should be – Swedish inflation expectations dropped (!) on the back of the rate decision, e.g. Swedish 2-year breakeven inflation dropped from around 0.85% before the rate decision to around 0.65% after the rate decision. This is a paradox – a Swedish paradox: when you cut rates you get lower inflation expectations. So judging from the inflation expectations Riksbanken had actually tightened monetary conditions rather than eased.
The Fisher equation and focusing on the wrong target
So what went wrong? The answer in my view is that Riksbanken is focusing on the wrong policy target. Hence, the bank communicates in terms of interest rates rather than inflation expectations. And yes, the interest rates are an intermediate target.
Riksbanken controls the Swedish money base and it can use this to control money market rates – in the short term. However, the so-called Tinbergen rule also tells us that a central bank can only hit one target if it has one instrument.
Therefore, if Riksbanken targets interest rates it cannot at the same time effectively target inflation (expectations). Unless it uses an additional “instrument”, such as credibility. If the market believes that Riksbanken will always adjust monetary parameters to ensure that it hits its 2% inflation target, it will be able to move the money market rate (temporarily) away from the ‘natural’ interest rates.
Hence, if Riksbanken’s inflation target is fully credible, inflation expectations will basically be pegged at 2%. However, if the inflation target is not credible, the story is very different, and as inflation expectations are presently well below 2%, it is very clear that the 2% inflation target is presently not credible and has not been credible for years.
A way to illustrate this is to have a look at the so-called Fisher equation:
(1) i = r + pe
i is the nominal interest rate, r is the real interest rate and pe is inflation expectations. When we talk about money market rates we can also see i as the policy rate.
It follows logically from (1) that if the inflation target is fully credible – that is, if pe is ‘fixed’ – a cut in i will ‘automatically’ lower r. On the other hand, if inflation expectations are not well-anchored, a cut in i might as well reduce pe.
I believe this is exactly what happened in Sweden on the back of Riksbanken’s surprise cut.
Not only is Riksbanken communicating in terms of interest rates (rather than inflation expectations) but it is also communicating in terms of the interest rate path. Hence, Riksbanken is not only announcing rate decisions but it is also communicating about future expected changes in the policy rate.
In that regard it is important that Riksbanken actually lowered its expectations for interest rates in two years even more than it lowered its present key policy rate. In other words, Riksbanken flattened the money market rate curve. So for a given real interest rate Riksbanken is actually indirectly telling the market that it expects inflation expectations to decline even further in the coming two years.
Obviously this is not what Riksbanken meant to say (I hope) but when it chooses to focus on interest rates rather than inflation expectations, this is what the market will focus on as well. Riksbanken’s interest rate focus therefore ‘overruled’ the focus on inflation expectations. In fact, in Riksbanken’s statement there was no reference to the market’s inflation expectations.
Lesson: central banks should focus on the ultimate policy target rather than the intermediate one
I think the lesson we can learn from thisis that central banks should not focus on intermediate targets – such as interest rates and the interest rate path – but should focus on the ultimate policy goal – in the case of Riksbanken expected inflation.
Imagine that Riksbanken had issued the following statement last week:
‘Inflation expectations are presently well below Riksbanken’s 2% inflation target. This is unsatisfactory and as a consequence the repo rate is now being cut by 0.5 percentage points to 0.25% and Riksbanken is fully committed to introducing further monetary easing if needed to ensure that market expectations will fully reflect its 2% inflation target. If needed the repo rate will be cut further and Riksbanken will actively intervene in the currency markets to ease monetary conditions through the FX channel until inflation expectations are at 2%’.
I think it is pretty clear that such a statement would have caused an immediate jump in (market) inflation expectations to 2%. This would obviously also have caused a significant drop in real interest rates – both as a result of the lower nominal rates AND, more importantly, through higher inflation expectations.
What a difference a few words make…
PS Riksbanken is not alone in terms of these problems. The ECB faces a similar problems, while the Fed and the Bank of Japan are focusing on the ultimate policy goal rather than on intermediate targets. However, during Operation Twist in 2011-12 the Fed was facing Riksbanken-style problems.
PPS In Swedish CPI there is an explicit (mortgage) interest rate component, weighing around 5% of total CPI (and hence, of course, incl when calculating breakeven inflation), implying that shorter breakeven inflation should indeed come down by some 0.3 p.p. if a full pass-through into mortgage rates from the cut. That, however, does not really change the point. The Riksbank is targeting CPI so it is really irrelevant why inflation is too low.
Related blog posts:
Committed to a failing strategy: low for longer = deflation for longer?
Riksbanken moves close to the ZLB – Now it is time to give Bennett McCallum a call
A scary story: The Zero Lower Bound and exchange rate dynamics