‘Draghi’s framework’ – a step in the right direction

It is no secret that I for years have been very critical about the ECB’s conduct of monetary policy. In fact I strongly believe that the mess we in Europe still are in mostly is due to monetary policy failure (even though I certainly do not deny Europe’s massive structural problems).

However, I do think that the ECB – and particularly ECB chief Mario Draghi – deserves some credit for the policy measures introduced today.

It is certainly not perfect, but neither is Fed or Bank of Japan policy, but for the first time since the beginning of the Great Recession soon seven years ago the ECB is in my view taking a major step in the right direction. It will not solve all of Europe’s problems – far from it – but I believe this will be quite helpful in curbing the strong deflationary pressures in the European economy.

The glass is half-full rather than half-empty

Below I will highlight a number of the things that I think is positive about today’s policy announcement.

1) The ECB’s nominal target has been made more clear

One thing that the Market Monetarists again and again have stressed is that central banks should be clear about their nominal targets. Even though I like other Market Monetarists prefer NGDP targeting I think that it should be welcomed that Mario Draghi and the ECB today was a lot clearer on the inflation target than ever before.

Furthermore, Draghi for the first time clearly acknowledged that the ECB was not living up to its commitment to ensure price stability interpreted as close to 2% inflation. By doing so Draghi quite clearly signaled that future possible changes in the amount of QE will dependent on the outlook for hitting the inflation target.

2) Draghi speaks in terms of market expectations

It was also notable that Draghi at the press conference following the monetary policy announcement again and again referred to the markets’ inflation expectations and he stressed that since market expectations for inflation are below 2% the ECB does not fulfil its target. That to me is quite a Market Monetarist – it is about ‘targeting the forecast’ more than anything else. At the time the ECB’s own forecasts played a much less prominent role in Draghi’s presentation. That I consider to be quite positive.

3) The ECB is using the right instrument

A major positive is that the ECB now finally seems to be focusing on the right instrument. The only mentioning of ‘interest rates’ was basically the announcement that the policy rates had been kept unchanged.

Furthermore, there was no talk about ‘credit policy’ and attempts to distort relative prices in the European fixed income markets.

Instead it was straight-forward about money base control. That I consider to be very positive. Now we have to hope that the ECB will continue to focus on money base growth rather than on interest rates. Furthermore, by focusing on money base growth (quantitative easing) the ECB signals clearly to the markets that there are no institutional or legal restrictions on the ECB’s ability/possibility to create money. That will make it significantly easier for the markets to trust the ECB to be committed to ensuring nominal stability.

4) The programme is fairly well ‘calibrated’

One can clearly debate what is the “right number” in terms of the necessary quantitative easing necessary to take the euro zone out of the deflationary mess. I have earlier argued that the ECB essentially should target 10% M3 growth in a number of years to undo past monetary policy sins (see here, here and here.)

The programme announced by the ECB – essentially 60bn euros QE per months until September 2016 is not in any way big enough to undo past sins, however, it is nonetheless sizable.

In fact if we assume that the trend in M3 growth we have seen during 2014 is maintained during 2015-16 and we add 60bn euros extra to that every single month until September 2016 then the pick-up in M3 growth will be substantial. In fact already by the end of this year M3 growth could hit 10% and remain at 8-9% all through 2016.

This is of course is under an assumption that there is no decline in the money-multiplier. I believe that is a fair assumption. In fact one can easily argue that it is likely that the money-multiplier will likely increase in response to the ECB money base expansion.

Hence, even though we will not close the ‘gap’ from past mistakes it looks likes ECB’s QE programme could provide quite substantial monetary stimulus and likely large enough to significantly lift nominal GDP growth during 2015 and 2016, which in turn likely will bring euro inflation back in line with the ECB’s 2% inflation target.

That said, the ECB has essentially failed to hit its inflation target since 2008 (leaving out negative supply shocks) and one can therefore argue that even 10% M3 growth will not be enough to lift inflation to 2% given the markets’ lack of trust in ECB’s willingness to do everything to provide nominal stability. Therefore, commitment on the ECB’s part to continue some form of QE also after September 2016 therefore might be necessary (more on that below.)

5) The programme is quasi-open-ended

Given the considerations above it is also very important that the ECB QE programme apparently is of a quasi-open-ended nature. So while the ECB plans for the program to end in September 2016 it should be noted that the ECB in its statements today said that the programme will run until “at least” September 2016. Hence, this is likely a signal that the programme could and will be extended if needed to meet the ECB’s 2% inflation target.

The quasi-open-ended nature of the programme opens the door for the ECB to communicate in terms of two dimensions – how long the programme will run and the monthly growth rate of the money base. That in turn could potentially – if we make a very optimistic assessment – bring us to a situation where the ECB becomes focused on money base control rather than interest rate targeting.

So overall the more I digest the details in the ECB new QE programme the more upbeat I have become about it. That is not to say that the program is perfect – far from it, but it is nonetheless in my view the biggest and most positive step undertaken by the ECB since crisis hit in 2008.

Things can still go badly wrong – and we are not out of the crisis yet

There is a lots of things that can go wrong – there is for example a clear risk that massive German resistance against the programme will undermine the credibility of the programme or that the ECB now thinks everything is fine and that no more work on the programme is needed. Therefore, to ensure success the ECB needs to work on the details of the QE programme in the coming weeks and months.

In the coming days I will try to write a couple of blog posts where I will try to come with recommendations on how to improve the ‘Draghi framework’. Particularly I will stress that the ECB needs to move closer to a purely rule-based framework rather than a discretionary framework. We are still someway away from that.

PS The markets’ judgement of the ECB’s new QE programme has been positive – European (and US) stocks are up, inflation expectations are up and the euro is weaker on the day. However, the markets’ reaction is significantly smaller than one could have hoped for given the scale of the programme. This illustrates just how big problems the ECB still has with its credibility. It will take time and hard work from the ECB to change that perception – seeing is believing.

PPS I was very happy today to see that the ECB did not just introduce yet another acronym for some new useless credit policies.

What the SNB should have done

I have got a lot of questions about what I think about the Swiss central bank’s (SNB) decision last week to give up its ‘floor’ on EUR/CHF – effectively revaluing the franc by 20% – and I must admit it has been harder to answer than people would think. Not because I in anyway think it was a good decision – I as basically everybody else thinks it was a terrible decision – but because I so far has been unable to understand how what I used to think of as one of the most competent central banks in the world is able to make such an obviously terrible decision.

One thing is that the SNB might have been dissatisfies with how it’s policy was working – and I would agree that the policy in place until last week had some major problems and I will get back to that – but what worries me is that the SNB instead of replacing its 120-rule with something better seems simply to have given up having any monetary policy rule at all.

It is clear that the SNB’s official inflation target (0-2%) really isn’t too important to the SNB. Or at least it is a highly asymmetrical target where the SNB apparently have no problems if inflation (deflation!) undershoots the target on the downside. At least it is hard to think otherwise when the SNB last week effectively decided to revalue the Swiss franc by 20% in a situation where we have deflation in Switzerland.

Try to imagine how this decision was made. One day somebody shows up in the office and says “we are facing continued deflation. That is what the markets, professional forecasters and our own internal forecasts are telling us very clearly. So why not test economic theory – lets implement a massive tightening of monetary conditions and see what will happens”. And what happened? Everybody in the SNB management screamed “Great idea! Lets try it. What can go wrong?”

Yes, I am still deeply puzzled how this happened. Switzerland is not exactly facing hyperinflation – in fact it is not even facing inflation. Rather deflation will now likely to deepen significantly and Switzerland might even fall into recession.

What was wrong with the ‘old’ policy?

When the SNB implemented its policy to put a ‘floor’ under EUR/CHF back in 2011 I was extremely supportive about it because I thought it was a clever and straightforward way to curb deflationary pressures in the Swiss economy coming from the escalating demand for Swiss franc. That said over the past year or so I have become increasingly sceptical about the policy because I think it was only a partial solution and it has become clear to me that the SNB had failed to articulate what it really wanted to achieve with the policy. Unfortunately I didn’t put these concerns into writing – at least not publicly.

Therefore let me now try to explain what I think was wrong with the ‘old’ policy – the 120-floor on EUR/CHF.

At the core of the problem is that the SNB really never made it clear to itself or to the markets what ultimate nominal target it has. Was the SNB targeting the exchange rate, was it targeting a money market interest rate (the key policy rate) or was it targeting inflation? In fact it was trying to do it all.

And we all know that you cannot do that – it is the Tinbergen rule. You cannot have more targets than you have instruments. The SNB only has one instrument – the money base – so it will have to focusing on only one nominal target. The SNB never articulated clearly to the markets, which of the three targets – the exchange, the interest rate or inflation – had priority over the others.

This might work in short periods and it did. As long as the markets thought that the SNB would be willing to lift the EUR/CHF-floor even further (devalue) to hit its 2% inflation target there was no downward (appreciation) pressure on EUR/CHF and here the credibility of the policy clearly helped.

Hence, there is no doubt that the markets used to think that the floor could be moved up – the Swissy could be devalued further – to ensure that Switzerland would not fall into deflation. However, by its actions it has become increasingly clear to the markets that the SNB was not about to lift the floor to fight deflationary pressures. As a consequence the credibility of the floor-policy has increasingly been tested and the SNB has had to intervene heavily in the FX market to “defend” the 120-floor.

A proposal for a credible, rule-based policy that would work

My proposal for a policy that would work for the SNB would be the following:

First, the SNB should make it completely clear what its money policy instrument is and what intermediate and ultimate monetary policy target it has. It is obvious that the core monetary policy instrument is the money base – the SNB’s ability to print money. Second, in a small-open economy particularly when interest rates are at the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB) it can be useful to use the exchange rate as an intermediate target – a target the central bank uses to hit its ultimate target. This ultimate target could be a NGDP level target, a price level target or an inflation target.

Second, when choosing its intermediate target it better rely on the support of the markets – so the SNB should announce that it will adjust its intermediate target to always hit its ultimate target (for example the inflation target.)

In this regard I think it would make a lot of sense using the exchange rate – for example EUR/CHF or a basket of currencies – as an intermediate and adjustable target. By quasi-pegging EUR/CHF to 120 the SNB left the impression that the FX ‘target’ was the ultimate rather than an intermediate target of monetary policy.

By stating clearly that the exchange rate ‘target’ is only a target implemented to hit the ultimate target – for example 2% inflation – then there would never be any doubt about what the SNB would trying to do with monetary policy.

I think the best way to introduce such an intermediate target would have been to announced that for example the EUR/CHF floor had been increased to for example 130 – to signal monetary policy was too tight at 120 – but also that the SNB would allow EUR/CHF to fluctuate around a +/-10% fluctuation band.

At the same time the SNB should announce that it in the future would use the ‘mid-point’ of the fluctuation band as the de facto ‘instrument’ for implementing monetary policy so to signal that the mid-point could be changed always to hit the ultimate monetary policy target – for example 2% (expected) inflation.

That would mean that if inflation expectations were below 2% then the Swiss franc would tend to depreciate within the fluctuation band as the market (rightly) would expect the SNB to move the mid-point of the band to ensure that it would hit the inflation target.

This would also mean that there would be a perfect ‘ordering’ of targets and instruments. The expectations for inflation relative to the inflation target would both determine the expectations for the development in the exchange and what intermediate target SNB would set for EUR/CHF. This would mean that under normal circumstances where SNB’s regime is credible the market would effectively implement SNB policy through movements in the exchange rate within the fluctuation band.

As a consequence the SNB would rarely have to do anything with the money base. Of course one can of course think of periods where the SNB’s credibility is tested – for example if a spike global risk aversion causes massive inflows into CHF and push the CHF stronger even if inflation expectations are below the inflation target. That said the SNB would never have to give up “defending” CHF against strengthening as the SNB after all has the ability to print all the money it needs to defend the peg.

Of course this is the ability that has been tested recently, but I believe that the appreciation pressure on CHF has been greatly increased by the SNB failure to move up the target in response to the clear undershooting of he inflation target. Hence, the reluctance to respond to deflationary pressures really has undermined the peg.

Had the SNB moved up the EUR/CHF peg to 130 or 140 six months ago then there would not have been the appreciation pressures on the CHF we have seen and the SNB would not have had to expand its balance sheet as much as have been the case.

The ‘regime’ I have outlined above is any many ways similar to Singapore’s monetary regime where the monetary authorities use the exchange rate rather than interest rates to implement monetary policy. In such a regime the central bank allows interest rates to be completely market determined and the central bank would have no policy interest rate.

This would have that clear advantage that there would never be any doubt what target the SNB would be trying to hit and how to hit it. This of course is contrary to the ‘old’ regime where the SNB effectively tried to have both an exchange rate target, an interest rate target and the inflation target. This inherent internal contradiction in the system I believe is the fundamental reason why SNB’s management felt it had to give it up.

Unfortunately the SNB so far has failed to put something else instead of the old regime and we now seem to be in a state of complete monetary policy discretion.

I hope that the SNB soon will realise that monetary policy should be rule-based and transparent. My suggestion above would be such a regime.

Update: I realise that I really should have dedicated this blog post to Irving Fischer, Lars E. O. Svensson, Bennett McCallum, Robert Hetzel and Michael Belongia. Their work on monetary and exchange policy greatly influenced the thinking in the post.

Guess what ‘currency’ underperformed the rouble in 2014

2014 wasn’t exactly a great year for the Russian rouble. However, there is a ‘currency’, which performed worse than the rouble in 2014…Bitcoin

RUB Bitcoin

Great news! Scott Sumner Joins the Mercatus Center at George Mason University

Great news – it has just been published that Scott Sumner will join the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and become Ralph G. Hawtrey Chair in Monetary Policy.

This is from Mercatus Center’s press release:

Arlington, VA, January 13, 2015 – The Mercatus Center at George Mason University welcomes Professor Scott Sumner as the Ralph G. Hawtrey Chair in Monetary Policy.

“Scott has significantly improved our understanding of the causes of the Great Recession, starting in 2008, and more generally he has brought the notion of a rules-based approach to monetary policy back into favor,” says Mercatus General Director Tyler Cowen. “With his establishment of the Program on Monetary Policy at Mercatus, we can look forward to a robust research program focused on these and other areas.”

Sumner, named one of Foreign Policy’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers,” is a professor of economics at Bentley University and best known for his research on the Great Depression, prediction markets, and monetary policy. He is the author of the influential economics blog The Money Illusion, where he has written extensively about the need for rules-based monetary policy, particularly the concept of nominal GDP targeting.

“The Mercatus Center has developed a reputation as a world-class research center that academics, policymakers, and the media can turn to for answers, grounded in social-science research, to pressing problems facing the country and the world today,” says Sumner. “That is why I am so pleased to be directing the Mercatus Center’s new Program on Monetary Policy. I look forward to building this platform into a vital resource on issues concerning monetary-policy reform, including rules-based Fed policy and nominal GDP targeting.”

Everything about this is great. The Mercatus Center is an outstanding institution and Scott will make it even better.

PS Scott also comments on his new career.

 

 

Differences in central banker pay illustrates why the euro is not an “optimal currency area”

Bloomberg has a great story on differences in the pay of different central bank governors within the euro area.

This graph is from the Bloomberg story:

cb pay

As the graph illustrates there is a massive difference between how much the different euro zone central bank governors are paid. These differences probably very well reflect the general differences in income levels within the euro area.

Normally we would say that a core condition for being a “Optimal Currency Area” is that the income (productivity) level of different countries/regions within the currency area should be on a fairly similar level. The pay differences of euro zone central bankers illustrates quite well that this core condition is not fulfilled within the euro area.

PS  This is from the Bloomberg story: “The economic turmoil has also crimped earnings at the Greek central bank. Governor Yannis Stournaras gets 7,342 euros a month after taxes following two rounds of voluntary cuts by his predecessor, by 20 percent and 30 percent.”

Grexit, Germany and Googlenomics

The talk of Greece leaving the euro area – Grexit – is back. Will Grexit actually happen? I don’t know, but I do know that more and more people worry that it will in fact happen.

This is what Google Trends is telling us about Google searches for “Grexit“:

Grexit

And guess what? While this is happening euro zone inflation expectations have collapsed. In fact this week 5-year German inflation expectations turned negative! This mean that the fixed income markets now expect German inflation to be negative for the next five years!

It is hard to find any better arguments for massive quantitative easing within a rule-based framework in the euro zone (with or without Greece). And this is how it should be done.

PS it has been argued recently that euro zone bond yields have declined because the markets are pricing in QE from the ECB. Well, if that is the case why is inflation expectations collapsing? After all investors should not expect monetary easing to led to lower inflation (in fact deflation) – should they?

PPS I do realise that the drop in oil prices play a role here, but the markets (forwards) do not forecast a drop in oil prices over the coming five years so oil prices cannot explain the deflationary expectations in Europe.

Yet another year of asymmetrical monetary policy – revisiting the Weidmann rule

Nearly a year ago – January 2 – I wrote a blog post on what I termed the Weidmann rule. In the blog post I argued that the ECB is basically following a rule – named after Bundesbank boss Jens Weidmann – which is asymmetrical. The ECB will tighten monetary conditions in the event of a positive aggregate demand (velocity) shock, but will not ease in the event of a negative demand (velocity) shock to the euro zone economy.

This means that the ECB monetary policy set-up basically ensures that we are in a classical world when demand is picking (the budget multiplier is zero), but is in a basically keynesian world when we have negative demand shocks (the budget multiplier is positive). The world is not “naturally” keynesian, but the ECB’s policy regime makes the euro zone economy is essentially 50% keynesian.

A year ago I argued that the Weidman rule would be deflationary. Hence, “if we assume the shocks to aggregate demand are equally distributed between positive and negative demand shocks the consequence will be that we over time will see the difference between nominal GDP in the US and the euro become larger and larger exactly because the fed has a symmetrical monetary policy rule (the Evans rule), while the ECB has a asymmetrical monetary policy rule (the Weidmann rule).”

This is of course exactly what we have seen over the past year – US NGDP remains on its 4% path, while euro zone has averaged less than 1% over the past year and the gap between US and euro zone NGDP is therefore growing larger and larger.

Add to that that euro zone has seen as least two negative demand shocks in 2014. First of all and likely most important the Russian (Ukrainian) crisis, which is likely to lead to a double-digit contraction in Russian real GDP in 2015 and second renewed concerns over the political situation in Greece and other Southern European countries (particularly separatist worries in Spain). These shocks are so far not major shocks and with a proper monetary policy set-up would like have very limited impact on the European economy. However, we do not have a proper monetary policy set-up and therefore every even smaller negative demand shock will just push Europe deeper and deeper into a deflationary spiral.

It is correct that the ECB has done a bit to offset these shocks – which in quantity theoretical context essentially are negative velocity shocks – by cutting interest rates and indicated that we will get some sort of quantitative easing in 2015.

However, with the euro zone money base basically still contracting, M3 growth being lacklustre, inflation expectations declining and NGDP growth being very weak it is hard to argue that the ECB has done a lot. In fact it has not really done anything to even offset the negative velocity/demand shocks we have seen in 2015.

Therefore, we unfortunately have to conclude that the Weidmann rule still the name of the game in Frankfurt and all indications are that the Bundesbank remains strongly opposed to any quantitative easing.

What the ECB needs to do is of course to once and for all to demonstrate that it will indeed offset any shock to velocity – both negative and positive to ensure nominal stability. A 4% NGDP target rule would do the job (see here) and would be fully within ECB’s mandate.

PS These days Jens Weidmann is arguing that things will be a lot better in the euro zone because the drop in oil prices is a positive demand shock (yes, this is basically what he is saying) and that monetary easing therefore is not needed. In 2011 the Bundesbank of course was eager to see interest rate hikes in response to increased oil prices because the risk of “second-round effects” (horrible expression!). It is hard to get any better illustration of the just how asymmetrical the Bundesbank’s preferred monetary policy rule is.

PPS Tim Worstall has an excellent post on Jens Weidmann and the Bundesbank here.

Merry Christmas

Dear friends and readers,

Christmas is family time – also in the Christensen family so this will be a short post.

I just want to thank all my loyal readers and followers for following and commenting on my blog (and following me on Twitter and Facebook).

It gives me lots of joy writing my blog and it is getting me in contact with interesting people from all over the world. I am grateful for that. For those of you who are celebrating Christmas these days I wish you a Merry Christmas.

See you all soon!

PS I have the same wish-list as George Selgin (just replace George’s “Bitdollar” protocol with a NGDP futures market and add a wish number 11 that I want the ECB to do this)

Christmas_tree

The hawks should start advocating NGDP targeting to avoid embarrassment

Over the past six years the “hawks” among UK and US central bankers have been proven wrong. They have continued to argue that a spike in inflation was just around the corner because monetary policy was “high accommodative”. Obviously Market Monetarists have continued to argue that monetary policy has not been easy, but rather to tight in the US and the UK – at least until 2012-13.

The continued very low inflation continues to be an embarrassment for the hawks and looking into 2015-16 there are no indication that inflation is about to pick-up either in the US or in the UK.

That said, there might actually be good reasons for turning more hawkish right now – nominal GDP growth continues to pick up in both the UK and the US (I will ignore the euro zone in this blog post…)

The sharp drop in oil prices in recent months is likely to further push down headline inflation in the coming months. Central bankers should obviously completely ignore any drop in inflation caused by a positive supply shock, but with most hawks completely obsessed with inflation targeting a hawkish stance will become harder and harder to justify from an inflation targeting perspective exactly at the time when it actually might become more justified than at any time before in the past six years.

I would personally not be surprised if we get close to deflation in both the UK and the US in 2015 and maybe also in 2016 if we don’t get a rebound in oil prices, but I would also think that there is a pretty good chance that we could get 4-5% or maybe even higher nominal GDP growth in both the UK and US in 2015-16. And that would be a strong argument for a tighter monetary stance.

Hence, if strict inflation targeters would follow their own logic then they would be advocating monetary easing in 2015-16 in both Britain and the US, while those of us who are more focused on NGDP growth will likely see an increasing need for monetary tightening in 2015-16.

As a consequence if you are an old hawk who “feels” that there is a need for monetary tightening then you better stop looking at present inflation and instead start to focusing on expected NGDP growth.

But of course the idea that you are hawkish or dovish is in itself an idiotic idea. You should never be hawkish or dovish as that in itself means that you are likely advocating some sort of discretionary monetary policy. What should concern you should be the rules of the game – the monetary policy regime.

Importing monetary tightening – the case of Belarus

Everybody has been following events in the Russian markets this week, but fewer have kept an eye on Russia’s smaller neighbour Belarus, but the small country is seeing some serious contagion from Russia.

With the Belarusian rouble effectively pegged to the US dollar and the Russian rouble in a free fall speculation has been mounting in Belarus that the Belarusian rouble (BYR) could be devalued.

And then on Friday Belarusian central bank reacted to these pressures and hiked its key policy rate to 50%! Furthermore, the authorities tightened currency controls by imposing a 30 per cent tax on buying foreign currency.

Nothing is of course forcing the Belarusian authorities to do this other than the desire to keep the BYR pegged to the dollar. That commitment now means that we will get a very significant tightening of monetary conditions in Belarus and as nearly always when such a tightenning happens you will get a sharp drop in economic activity. Once again it seems like the Belarusian authorities are importing a crisis from Russia.

I am not saying that I am advocating a Belarusian devaluation, but it is also clear that given the huge dependence on Russia it is hard for Belarus to maintain a peg to the US dollar when the Russian rouble is in a free fall.

It looks like 2015 will be an “interesting” year for Belarus – we will have presidential elections in November 2015.

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