Argentina’s peso plunges

When I have written about monetary policy in Argentina I rarely have had anything positive to say. However, today I will have to say that the Argentine central bank made a sensible decision – even though it mostly looks like a coincidence.

This is from FT.com:

Argentina’s peso suffered its biggest one-day fall since the financial crisis of 2002 on Thursday, after the central bank stopped intervening in currency markets in an effort to preserve foreign exchange reserves that have fallen by almost a third over the past year.

The peso, whose long-running decline has accelerated since November, plunged 17.5 per cent to 8.1842 pesos to the dollar, according to Bloomberg data, although a lack of liquidity made it difficult to gauge its true level.

That is still at some distance from the black market rate that most Argentines use, which stood at around 12.85 to the dollar on Thursday.

Intervention and currency controls have kept the Argentine peso artificially strong for years – or rather the official peso rate has been much stronger than the real market rate – the black market rate. By allowing the peso to weaken today the peso at least has been allowed to move closer to the true market value. Hence, the market distortions have been reduced today. That is good news.
That said, the fact the peso as dropped so sharply today reflects an underlining problem – the total lack of nominal stability in Argentina. What policy makers in Argentina needs to do is of course as fast as possible to moved towards a rule-based monetary policy.
There are numerous options for providing nominal stability, but one thing is clear if the present polices are not changed fundamentally then the peso collapse is likely to continue.
…And as I was wrapping up this blog post the Argentine central bank is back! It is apparently intervening to strengthen the peso. Never expect central bankers to learn anything.
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See also my recent post on Cachanosky and Ravier’s proposal for a dollar-based Free Banking monetary reform in Argentina.
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A dollar-based Free Banking system: The way to nominal stability in Argentina

Inflation is skyrocketing in Argentina and the country seems unable to ever maintaining any form of nominal stability. In my view the problem with lack of nominal stability in Argentina is, however, not fundamentally monetary – it is rather a constitutional problem. Hence, it seems like the country’s politicians are able to make the decisions that are necessary to maintain monetary stability.

So even though I am quite critical about different suggestions for dollarization in different countries I for some time have thought that in the case of Argentina there is no reason to try to come up with an “optimal” monetary regime. In many ways Argentina is economically-politically a failed state. Hence,  simply getting rid of the Argentine peso might be the least horrible solution.

Nicolas Cachanosky and Adrian O. Ravier in a new very interesting paper – A Proposal of Monetary Reform for Argentina: Flexible Dollarization and Free Banking - has an interesting proposal for dollarization in Argentina.

Here is the abstract:

Argentina’s economy and monetary institutions are, once again, experiencing a serious crisis. In this document, we propose a monetary reform for Argentina that consists of flexible dollarization plus a free banking regime. By flexible dollarization, we mean that the peso should be replaced with the U.S. dollar as a first step, but the market should have the freedom to interact with any selected currency. Therefore, the country does not become attached the U.S. dollar; on the contrary, it becomes a free currency country. By free banking, we mean giving financial institutions permission to issue their own banknotes convertible into U.S. dollars or any other currency or commodity of their choice.

It should be noted that the problems of the Argentine economy go beyond those of monetary policy. This proposal should not be understood as a sufficient reform to fix the Argentinean economy but as a necessary one. This proposal should also not be understood as a monetary panacea but as a monetary framework that is still superior to one provided by the Argentine central bank BCRA and Argentine policy makers to their country.

There is only major problem with the suggestion – Argentine policy makers seem unable to make sensible decisions. That said, ideas matter. In fact they matter a lot so hopefully one day some visionary Argentine reformist government will pick-up Cachanosky-Ravier monetary reform plan.

HT Anthony Evans

A textbook graph that even Augusto Costa and Cristina Kirchner should be able to understand

Argentina is an economic basket case. It is that simple. The country never seems to be able to emerge from its problems. The key reason is that the country is extremely weak constitutionally and institutionally and as a result the country has some of the worst policy makers in Latin America (if not in the world).

You probably don’t need a lot of further confirmation of the fact that Argentina has horrible policy makers, but try to take a look at this story from Bloomberg anyway:

Argentina’s government pledged that a new system of price controls introduced today won’t lead to the shortages that have crippled other countries’ attempts to enforce cost-cuts for consumers.

The government will use computer software to monitor prices on 194 products in the Greater Buenos Aires area, Commerce Secretary Augusto Costa said today in a press conference. The “voluntary” agreement comprises 10 supermarket chains and 65 suppliers and will incorporate other regions of the country during January, Costa said.

The accord follows a similar agreement in June when the government froze the price of 500 goods on supermarket shelves in a bid to rein in the region’s second-fastest inflation. Government and consumer vigilance along with fines and the threat of closure will stop supermarkets from reducing stocks and creating shortages, Costa said. About 1 in 5 products can’t be found on supermarket shelves in Venezuela where more than 100 products are price controlled.

“The prices we are agreeing today are viable prices — they’re reasonable from the point of view of production, distribution and commercialization,” Costa said. “They’re prices that will guarantee adequate supply but that won’t allow for disproportionate and unjustifiable costs that we’ve detected in certain cases.”

I sometimes get the impression that nobody in Argentina studied any economics (I know good Argentine economists so I know that that is not true) so maybe we should help the policy makers with a simple graph that explains what happens when you introduce price controls (a price ceiling). See here.

512px-Binding-price-ceiling

I stole the graph from Wikipieda, but you can find a similar graph in any intermediate microeconomic textbook. I suggest that Augusto Costa and his boss president Cristina Kirchner try to get hold of such textbook very soon so this foolishness can come to an end once and for all!

The Kuroda recovery will be about domestic demand and not about exports

There has been a lot of focus on the fact that USD/JPY has now broken above 100 and that the slide in the yen is going to have a positive impact on Japanese exports. In fact it seems like most commentators and economists think that the easing of monetary policy we have seen in Japan is about the exchange rate and the impact on Japanese “competitiveness”. I think this focus is completely wrong.

While I strongly believe that the policies being undertaken by the Bank of Japan at the moment is likely to significantly boost Japanese nominal GDP growth – and likely also real GDP in the near-term – I doubt that the main contribution to growth will come from exports. Instead I believe that we are likely to see is a boost to domestic demand and that will be the main driver of growth. Yes, we are likely to see an improvement in Japanese export growth, but it is not really the most important channel for how monetary easing works.

The weaker yen is an indicator of monetary easing – but not the main driver of growth

I think that the way we should think about the weaker yen is as a indicator for monetary easing. Hence, when we seeing the yen weakeN, Japanese stock markets rallying and inflation expectations rise at the same time then it is pretty safe to assume that monetary conditions are indeed becoming easier. Of course the first we can conclude is that this shows that there is no “liquidity trap”. The central bank can always ease monetary policy – also when interest rates are zero or close to zero. The Bank of Japan is proving that at the moment.

Two things are happening at the moment in the Japan. One, the money base is increasing dramatically. Second and maybe more important money-velocity is picking up significantly.

Velocity is of course picking up because money demand in Japan is dropping as a consequence of households, companies and institutional investors expect the value of the cash they are holding to decline as inflation is likely to pick up. The drop in the yen is a very good indicator of that.

And what do you do when you reduce the demand for money? Well, you spend it, you invest it. This is likely to be what will have happen in Japan in the coming months and quarters – private consumption growth will pick-up, business investments will go up, construction activity will accelerate. So it is no wonder that equity analysts feel more optimistic about Japanese companies’ earnings.

Hence, the Bank of Japan (and the rest of us) should celebrate the sharp drop in the yen as it is an indicator of a sharp increase in money-velocity and not because it is helping Japanese “competitiveness”.

The focus on competitiveness is completely misplaced

I have in numerous earlier posts argued that when a country is going through a “devaluation” as a consequence of monetary easing the important thing is not competitiveness, but the impact on domestic demand.

I have for example earlier demonstrated that Swedish growth outpaced Danish growth in 2009-10 not because the Swedish krona depreciated strongly against the Danish krone (which is pegged to the euro), but because the Swedish Riksbank was able to ease monetary policy, while the Danish central bank effectively tightened monetary conditions due to the Danish fixed exchange rate policy. As a consequence domestic demand did much better in Sweden in 2009-10 than in Denmark, while – surprise, surprise – Swedish and Danish exports more or less grew at the same pace in 2009-10 (See graphs below).

Similarly I have earlier shown that when Argentina gave up its currency board regime in 2002 the major boost to growth did not primarly come from exports, but rather from domestic demand. Let me repeat a quote from Mark Weisbrot’s and Luis Sandoval’s 2007-paper on “Argentina’s economic recovery”:

“However, relatively little of Argentina’s growth over the last five years (2002-2007) is a result of exports or of the favorable prices of Argentina’s exports on world markets. This must be emphasized because the contrary is widely believed, and this mistaken assumption has often been used to dismiss the success or importance of the recovery, or to cast it as an unsustainable “commodity export boom…

During this period (The first six months following the devaluation in 2002) exports grew at a 6.7 percent annual rate and accounted for 71.3 percent of GDP growth. Imports dropped by more than 28 percent and therefore accounted for 167.8 percent of GDP growth during this period. Thus net exports (exports minus imports) accounted for 239.1 percent of GDP growth during the first six months of the recovery. This was countered mainly by declining consumption, with private consumption falling at a 5.0 percent annual rate.

But exports did not play a major role in the rest of the recovery after the first six months. The next phase of the recovery, from the third quarter of 2002 to the second quarter of 2004, was driven by private consumption and investment, with investment growing at a 41.1 percent annual rate during this period. Growth during the third phase of the recovery – the three years ending with the second half of this year – was also driven mainly by private consumption and investment… However, in this phase exports did contribute more than in the previous period, accounting for about 16.2 percent of growth; although imports grew faster, resulting in a negative contribution for net exports. Over the entire recovery through the first half of this year, exports accounted for about 13.6 percent of economic growth, and net exports (exports minus imports) contributed a negative 10.9 percent.

The economy reached its pre-recession level of real GDP in the first quarter of 2005. As of the second quarter this year, GDP was 20.8 percent higher than this previous peak. Since the beginning of the recovery, real (inflation-adjusted) GDP has grown by 50.9 percent, averaging 8.2 percent annually. All this is worth noting partly because Argentina’s rapid expansion is still sometimes dismissed as little more than a rebound from a deep recession.

…the fastest growing sectors of the economy were construction, which increased by 162.7 percent during the recovery; transport, storage and communications (73.4 percent); manufacturing (64.4 percent); and wholesale and retail trade and repair services (62.7 percent).

The impact of this rapid and sustained growth can be seen in the labor market and in household poverty rates… Unemployment fell from 21.5 percent in the first half of 2002 to 9.6 percent for the first half of 2007. The employment-to-population ratio rose from 32.8 percent to 43.4 percent during the same period. And the household poverty rate fell from 41.4 percent in the first half of 2002 to 16.3 percent in the first half of 2007. These are very large changes in unemployment, employment, and poverty rates.”

And if we want to go further back in history we can look at what happened in the US after FDR gave up the gold standard in 1933. Here the story was the same – it was domestic demand and not net exports which was the driver of the sharp recovery in growth during 1933.

These examples in my view clearly shows that the focus on the “competitiveness channel” is completely misplaced and the ongoing pick-up in Japanese growth is likely to be mostly about domestic demand rather than about exports.

Finally if anybody still worry about “currency war” they might want to rethink how they see the impact of monetary easing. When the Bank of Japan is easing monetary policy it is likely to have a much bigger positive impact on domestic demand than on Japanese exports. In fact I would not be surprised if the Japanese trade balance will worsen as a consequence of Kuroda’s heroic efforts to get Japan out of the deflationary trap.

HT Jonathan Cast

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PS Scott Sumner also comments on Japan.

PPS An important non-competitiveness impact of the weaker yen is that it is telling consumers and investors that inflation is likely to increase. Again the important thing is the signal about monetary policy, which is rather more important than the impact on competitiveness.

Blame del Pont for the nightmarish rise in Argentine inflation

This is from MercoPress today (Saturday)):

For a third consecutive day the ‘blue’ dollar which trades in Argentina’s informal market established a new record and after having brushed 10 Pesos in earlier trading finally closed Friday at 9.84 (buying price) and 9.88 (selling price) Pesos.

This means the price of the greenback in Argentina’s informal market, as people flock to get rid of their local currency, has soared 44 cents in a week and the gap with the ‘official’ rate which ended trading on Friday at 5.20 Pesos selling price, has reached 90%.

“There are plenty of buyers, but people wanting to sell dollars are scarcer and scarcer. Nobody wants to get rid of the dollars in Argentina, not even tourists”, said Buenos Aires city financial quarter money traders.

“Despite the rain we’re literally flooded with demands for dollars and we have been forced to work on weekends. Because of inflation, people collect their salaries and rush to turn them into foreign currency”, added the money traders…

…With the latest advance, the ‘blue’ dollar in Argentina has ballooned 44.49% since the beginning of the year, while the official rate has only increased 5.5%. The rush on the dollar is reflected in the Central bank’s international reserves which lost 911 million last month and now stand at 39.535 billion, which is the lowest in six years.

The situation called for an urgent meeting at midday convened by President Cristina Fernandez and the cabinet chief Juan Manuel Abal Medina together with Economy minister Hernan Lorenzino, Deputy minister Axel Kicillof, Domestic Trade Secretary Guillermo Moreno, the president of the Central bank, Mercedes Marcó del Pont and the head of the tax revenue office Ricardo Echegaray.

The collapse of the peso should be no surprise to anybody who have studied Milton Friedman. Unfortunately Argentina’s central bank governor Mercedes Marcó del Pont hates Milton Friedman, but she loves printing money to finance public spending.

Paradoxically one can say that del Pont at the moment is providing a very good demonstration that monetary policy “works”. First, she is showing that printing a lot of money will eventually lead to inflation and second that expectations are tremendously important in the conduct of monetary policy.

As Argentines know that del Pont has no plan of stopping her “money printing mission” they also know that inflation will accelerate further in the future. That of course is the reason why the are dumping the peso to buying dollars. The consequence of course is a sharp increase in money-velocity. Therefore, Argentine prices now very likely increasing at a much faster rate the the growth of the money supply.

The Argentine government is refusing to recognize the connection between del Pont’s nightmarish monetary policy and the spike in inflation. Instead the Argentine government is fighting inflation in two other ways.

First, the government simply is cheating on the numbers. Nobody thinks that the official Argentine inflation numbers are correct. In fact in a recent highly embarrassing interview with Greek TV Argentina’s economic minister Hernan Lorenzino was completely unable to explain what the level of inflation is in Argentina. Lorenzino called the Argentine inflation statistics “complex”. Well, it might be “complex” to Lorenzino, but understanding the inflation process is extremely simple – when you print more money than is demanded then you get inflation.

Second, the government has introduced draconian price controls. But as Milton Friedman would have explained to del Pont and the Argentine government – price controls cannot curb the inflation pressures, but it is a very effective mechanism to empty the shops for goods to buy and that is of course exactly what is happening in Argentina right now. See more on the rise of price controls in Latin America in this excellent article from Steve Hanke.

I have recently argued that based on the collapse in the blackmarket peso exchange rate inflation might already have surpassed 100%. That might or might not be the case, but the escalation in the sell-off in the peso is a very clear indication of a complete collapse in average Argentine’s trust in the value of the currency. Normally when we see such a collapse of confidence in the currency inflation will spike dramatically. In fact I would argue that if Del Pont continues her misguided monetary policies for much longer then Argentina clearly risks hyperinflation. We don’t have hyperinflation at the moment, but inflation is certainly extremely high and is accelerating very fast.

The only thing to be happy about – from a distance – is that del Pont at the moment is proving to the world that there is no such thing as a liquidity trap. A central bank can always increase inflation by printing more money than is being demanded. In Argentina the demand for pesos has collapsed, while at the same time the supply of pesos is exploding.

If del Pont had bothered studying Milton Friedman she would have known that that will cause a massive rise in inflation. Unfortunately it seems like del Pont never studied monetary theory or monetary history, but she is unfortunately giving every Argentine a horrific lesson in central bank incompetence.

This should teach you not to mess with Milton Friedman

This is Argentine central bank governor Mercedes Marcó del Pont in an interview on March 26 2012:

“We’re recovering the sovereign capacity to formulate and implement economic policy”, said Marcó del Pont who anticipated some pictures will be coming down from the bank’s hall of fame “beginning with Milton Friedman.”

Now take a look at what have happened to the Argentine peso since these “brilliant” comments.

Peso crash

I leave it to my readers to figure out whether del Pont made a massive policy mistake when she ordered Uncle Milty’s picture removed….

 

PS take a look at this very interesting interview with the Argentine Minister of Economy Hernán Lorenzino about Argentine inflation. Lets just say Mr. Lorenzino seems a bit unsecure about how to present the “facts”

Argentina’s inflation might already have surpassed 100%

There is no doubt that the main monetary policy problem in world over the last five years has been overly tight monetary policy – particularly in the US and the euro zone. However, there are certainly also central banks of the world that have erred on the other side.

Hence, Iran is flirting with hyperinflation and the policies of the petro-socialist regime in Venezuela has sparked runaway inflation. Furthermore, there is no doubt that inflation in Argentina is increasingly getting out of control and that is the topic for this blog post.

Officially inflation in Argentina is around 11%. However, anybody who has just a minimum of knowledge about the Argentine economy knows that the Argentine inflation numbers are as real as Mickey Mouse. Inflation in Argentina is not 11%, but much higher.

According to an alternative measure of inflation the so-called Congressional Index, which is a price index based on private surveys inflation is more likely around 24-25%.

But inflation is likely even higher than that. Surveys of inflation expectations indicate that inflation is running around 30%.

However, I think that it might be even worse than that. One thing that is strongly distorting all of these measures is the extensive price controls that have been put in place in recent years in Argentina. These controls undoubtedly have “helped” curb inflation. However, the underlying reasons for the sharp increase in inflation cannot be removed by draconian price controls. It might have postponed inflation from rising further in the short-run, but sooner or later the underlying inflationary pressures will be translated into actual inflation.

A Hankeian measure of Argentina’s near-hyperinflation

The world’s foremost expert on super high inflation and hyperinflation in my view is Steve Hanke. Steve has suggested to use black market exchange rates as a proxy for inflation when official data is none-existent or manipulated. Steve suggests using the black market exchange rate rather than the official exchange rate when capital and currency controls distort the official exchange rate (as is presently the case in Argentina).

This is Steve (his case is Zimbabwe):

The principle of purchasing power parity (PPP) should be able to come to our rescue. PPP states that the ratio of the price levels between two countries is equal to the exchange rate between their currencies. Changes in the exchange rate and the ratio of the price levels move in lock step with one another, with the linkage between the exchange rate and price level maintained by price arbitrage.

…But does PPP hold during periods of hyperinflation? If not, we cannot use changes in the Zimbabwe dollar/U.S. dollar exchange rate to estimate Zimbabwe’s inflation rate. There is a consensus among economists that, over relatively short periods of time and at relatively low inflation rates, the link between exchange rates and price levels is loose. But as inflation rates increase, the link becomes tighter.

In a study of the German hyperinflation of 1921–23, Jacob Frenkel  (1976) found that correlations between various German price indices and the German mark/U.S. dollar exchange rate were all close to one. Every 1 percent increase in the exchange rate was associated with a 1 percent increase in the price level. Frenkel’s empirical work strongly suggests that PPP holds when a country is hyperinflating. Additional evidence supporting the PPP principle during periods of very high or hyperinflation has been reported for a wide range of countries…

That PPP holds under conditions of very high inflation or hyperinflation should not be surprising. After all, under these conditions, the temporal dimension of price arbitrage is compressed and the long run effectively becomes the short run. For example, in July 2008, Zimbabwe’s inflation was 2,600 percent a month—equivalent to a 12 percent daily rate. That is per day—not per month, or per year. In these circumstances, arbitrage benefits per unit of time are relatively large and transaction costs can be overcome quickly. Accordingly, price arbitrage works to ensure that PPP holds.

Steve in his paper on Zimbabwe utilized PPP and the black market exchange rate to calculate the inflation rate in Zimbabwe. I have used the same method to make an estimate for Argentine inflation. The graph below shows the official price level and the price level implied by the black market rate for the Argentine peso against the US dollar (and the US price level).

Price Level Argentina

The graph is pretty clear – until  2007-8 the official price level more or less developed in line with the price level implied by PPP. However, ever since the price level implied by PPP has grown much faster than the official inflation rate.

This is a very a clear indication just how manipulated the official inflation data has become since 2007-8 and the graph also very clearly shows how steep an increase in prices we have seen in Argentina since early 2012.

Inflation might have surpassed 100%

There is no doubt that inflation has accelerated further in the last couple of months and this is clearly confirmed by my calculation of the PPP implied price level. Hence, over the past three months the PPP implied price level has increased by an annualized rate of 127%!

This is the reason why I would argue that it is likely that Argentine inflation already has surpassed 100% – maybe not on a year-on-year basis, but at least on a annualized basis over the last 3-6 months. This is not just high inflation, but rather an inflation rate that might very well turn into outright hyperinflation (more than 50% increase in prices per month) unless there is a dramatic change in economic policy in Argentina.

It is monetary policy failure – stop the press NOW!

There is no doubt that Argentina’s super high inflation is caused by excessive money supply growth and that is obviously also the case in Argentina where President Cristina Kirchner’s populist government has been funding excessive growth in public finances by letting the printing press running overtime.

Hence, there is only one way of stopping the runaway inflation in Argentina and that is by stopping the printing press. Unfortunately it has hard to be optimistic that inflation will be slowed anytime soon when Argentina’s central bank governor don’t believe that there is a connection between money supply growth and inflation. We live in an age of central banker ignorance.

I don’t care who becomes BoJ governor – I want better monetary policy rules

UPDATE: I have edited my post significantly – I misread what Scott really said. That is the result of writing blog posts very early in the morning after sleeping too little. Sorry Scott…

Scott Sumner has a blog post on who might become the next governor of Bank of Japan. Scott ends his post with the following comment:

Naturally I favor the least dovish of the three.

Note that Scott is saying “least dovish” (I missed “least” in my original post). But don’t we want a the most dovish BoJ governor? No, we want the most principled governor – or rather the governor most committed to a rule based monetary policy.

The debate over doves versus hawks is a debate among people who fundamentally think about monetary policy in a discretionary fashion. Market Monetarism is exactly the opposite. We are strongly against discretion in monetary policy (and fiscal policy for that matter).

The important thing is not who is BoJ governor – the important thing is that there are good institutions – good rules. As I have argued before – what we really want is a monetary constitution in spirit of Jim Buchanan. In that sense the BoJ governor should be replaced – as Milton Friedman suggested – by a ‘computer’ and not by the most ‘dovish’ candidate.

Market Monetarists would have been “hawks” in the 1970s in the sense that we would have argued that for example US monetary policy was far too easy and we are ‘doves’ now. But that is really a mistaken way to think about the issue. If we favour for example a 5% NGDP level target for the US today – then we would have been doves in 1974 or 1981. That would make us more or less dovish/hawkish at different times, but that debate is for people who favours discretionary monetary policies – not for Market Monetarists.

If we just want a ‘dovish’ BoJ governor then we should advocate that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gives Zimbabwean central bank governor Gideon Gono a call. He knows all about monetary easing – and so do the central bank governors of Venezuela and Argentina. But we all know that these people are ludicrously bad central bankers.  In similar fashion Janet Yellen would not be the Market Monetarist candidate for the Federal Reserve chairman just because she tends to favour monetary easing – in fact it seems like Yellen always favours monetary easing. In fact you should be very suspicious of the views of policy makers who will always be hawks or doves.

Gideon_Gono10

The reason that Mark Carney is a good choice for new Bank of England governor is exactly that he is not ‘dovish’ or ‘hawkish’, but that he tend to stress the need for a rule based monetary policy. That said, the important thing is not Mark Carney, but rather whether the UK government is serious about introducing NGDP level targeting or not.

Monetary policy is not primarily about having the right people for the job, but rather about having the best institutions. Obviously you want to have the best people for the job, but ultimately even Scott Sumner would be a horrible Fed governor if his mandate was wrong.

If the BoJ had a rule based monetary policy and used for example NGDP futures to conduct monetary policy then it wouldn’t matter who becomes BoJ governor – because the policy would be the same no matter what. We cannot rely on central bankers to do the ‘right thing’. Central bankers only do the right thing by chance. We need to tie their hands with a monetary constitution – with strong rules.

Related posts:

Forget about “hawks” and “doves” – what we need is a “monetary constitution”
NGDP targeting is not about ”stimulus”
NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy
Be right for the right reasons
Monetary policy can’t fix all problems
Boettke’s important Political Economy questions for Market Monetarists
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative
Lets concentrate on the policy framework
Boettke and Smith on why we are wasting our time
Scott Sumner and the Case against Currency Monopoly…or how to privatize the Fed
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative (we try again)

 

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.

Regime Uncertainty, the Balkans and the weak US recovery

Today I have been in Oslo, Norway for client meetings. The topic on the agenda is Central and Eastern Europe and particularly the investment climate in South Eastern Europe. That gives me reason to discuss a favourite topic of mine – “regime uncertainty – as defined by Robert Higgs – and why the present lacklustre recovery in the US economy is unlikely in anyway to be related to such regime uncertainty.

As an economist who have been working professionally with Emerging Markets for more than I decade I know about regime uncertainty. In fact I think you to some extent can define an Emerging Markets economy as an economy where regime uncertainty is a dominant factor in the economy.

Robert Higgs basically defines regime uncertainty as a lack of protection of property right and a lack of respect for the rule of law. This is a serious problem in many Emerging Markets – including in the South Eastern European countries, which has been the focus of my meetings today.

My favourite source for a numerical measure of these uncertainties is the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index. We can use the sub-index for “Rule of Law” in the Economic Freedom Index as a proxy for “regime uncertainty”.

Let’s as an example look at two random South Eastern European countries – Albania and Bulgaria. Here is what Heritage Foundation has to say about the “Rule of Law” in Albania:

Albania still lacks a clear property rights system, particularly for land tenure. Security of land rights remains a problem in coastal areas where there is potential for tourism development. Although significant reforms of the legal system are underway, the courts are subject to political pressures and corruption. Protection of intellectual property rights is weak. Albania is a major transit country for human trafficking and illegal arms and narcotics.”

And similarly for Bulgaria:

“Respect for constitutional provisions securing property rights and providing for an independent judiciary is somewhat lax. The judicial system is unable to enforce property rights effectively, and inconsistent application of the rule of law discourages private investments. Despite legal restrictions, government corruption and organized crime present a threat to Bulgaria’s border security.”

In my view the Heritage Foundation’s description of the lack of respect for the rule of law and property rights in Albania and Bulgaria is pretty close to the reality in these two countries. So there is no doubt that there in both countries are a considerably degree of regime uncertainty.

This heightened level of regime uncertainty very likely is having a considerably negative impact on both foreign direct investments and domestic investments in both countries and therefore on the long-term growth prospects of these countries. Who would for example invest in a sea sight hotel in Albania it might be stolen from you tomorrow or in a year – maybe even with the tacit support of government officials?

Bulgaria and Albania are just two examples of serious regime uncertainty, but many (most!) developing economies and Emerging Markets around the world have serious problems with regime uncertainty. Therefore, as an Emerging Markets economist I find this issue highly relevant. However, I should also stress that I believe regime uncertainty is a supply side phenomenon. Regime uncertainty hampers investment, which reduces the productive capacity of the economy and hence reduces productivity growth, but as aggregate demand in the economy is determined by monetary factors regime uncertainty – in Higgs’ sense – cannot be a demand phenomenon. Yes, regime uncertainty can impact the composition of demand but not aggregate demand in the economy.

The best way to illustrate that regime uncertainty is a supply side phenomenon is to look at three contemporary examples – Venezuela, Argentina and Iran. The regimes in all three countries obviously have very little respect for the rule of law and there is weak protection of property rights in all three countries. However, all three countries also are struggling with high – and to some extent even escalating – inflation. If regime uncertainty were a demand phenomenon then inflation would be low and falling in these countries. It is not.

When I listen to the present political-economic debate in the US many conservative and libertarians economists and commentators (who I would normally tend to agree with) point to regime uncertainty as a key reason for the weak US recovery. Frankly speaking while I acknowledge that there might have been a rise in regime uncertainty in the US – in frank I am certain there has been – I doubt that it in any meaningful way can be said to have had a notable and sizable negative impact on US investment activity. Furthermore, the US economy is showing all the signs of having a demand side problem rather than a supply side problem. If the US economy had undergone a serious negative supply shock then US inflation would has been increasing – as is the case in for example Iran. US inflation is not increasing – rather since 2008 US PCE core inflation has averaged a little more than 1% a year on average.

Furthermore, even though uncertainty about the outlook for US tax rules have increased and Obamacare likely have had a negative impact on the overall investor sentiment in the US it would be rather foolish to claim that property rights are not well-protected in the US.  This is what Heritage Foundation has to say about the rule of law in the US:

“Property rights are guaranteed, and the judiciary functions independently and predictably. Serious constitutional questions related to government-mandated health insurance have been under consideration in the courts. Corruption is a growing concern as the cronyism and economic rent-seeking associated with the growth of government have undermined institutional integrity.”

Even though Heritage Foundation highlights some negative factors the US can hardly be said to be Bulgaria and Albania. In fact the US is in the very top in the world when it comes to protection of property rights and the respect for the rule of law. I therefore doubt that US multinational companies like Apple of Coca Cola are seriously concerned about the rule of law in the US when you take into account that these companies have been seeing there strong sales and income growth in Emerging Markets like China, India, Russia and Brazil.

In fact I could understand if these US companies would be concerned about the present regime uncertainty in China in connection with the ongoing leadership change in the Chinese communist party, the crackdown on freedom of speech in Russia under president Putin’s leadership, the scaling back of economic reforms in India or the ad hoc nature of changes to taxation of inward investments into Brazil.

So while I certainly remain concerned about the regulatory developments in the US over the past decade (yes it started well before Obama became president) I doubt that the present lacklustre recovery can be blamed on these problems. The reason for the lacklustre recovery is rather monetary uncertainty rather than regime uncertainty. Since 2008 US monetary policy has moved away from a ruled based regime to a highly discretionary and to some extent highly unpredictable regime. That is the problem.

So yes, US companies are likely worried about regime uncertainty, but it likely worries about regime uncertainty in China or Brazil rather than regime uncertainty in the US.

A simple way to illustrate this is to look at the Heritage Foundation’s score for protection of property rights in some of the countries mentioned in this blog post. Heritage Foundation considers a score between 80 and 100 to be a “free country”. It is very clear from the graph that investors should worry (a lot) about the protection of property rights in Albania, Bulgaria or in the so-called BRIC economies, but I doubt that many international investors have sleepless nights over the whether or not property right will be well-protected in the US.

Finally I am as worried about the rise of interventionist economic policies in the US and in Europe as anybody else, but we should be right for the right reasons. Interventionist economic policies surely reduce the growth prospects in the US and Europe, but that is supply side concerns for the longer run and we can’t blame these failed policies for the weak recovery.

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