ECB: “We’re not sure we can get out of it”

When Milton Friedman turned 90 years back in 2002 Ben Bernanke famously apologized for the Federal Reserve’s role in the Great Depression:

Let me end my talk by abusing slightly my status as an official representative of the Federal Reserve. I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.

On Twiiter Ravi Varghese has paraphrased Bernanke to describe the role of the ECB in the present crisis:

“You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But we’re not sure we can get out of it.”

Brilliant…follow Ravi on Twiiter here (and follow me here).

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efficientforecast.com has the only data the FOMC needs

Justin Ivring did it! With some help from his body Kenneth D’Amica he has set up a new website efficientforecast.com, which shows a real-time forecast for next year’s expected US NGDP growth. The forecast is based on financial market data. I think it is tremendously promising and look very much forward to start to follow the data on the website.

I certainly looking forward to following efficientforecast.com during this week’s FOMC policy announcement. We will know in real-time whether or not monetary policy has been tightened or not.

This is really the only data the FOMC would need to look at in the future. I am not kidding. The FOMC should announce that it would like to see a market forecast of 6% or 7% NGDP growth next year and that it will conduct monetary policy in such a fashion as to ensure this target until a certain level for NGDP is hit. Thereafter after it should be made clear that the FOMC will keep market expectations for NGDP at 4 or 5%.

Finally, I strongly recommend to financial market reporters and commentators to get acquainted with efficientforecast.com. It will make your reporting on fed comments much easier. Just imagine the following statement “Bernanke said blah, blah, blah…NGDP expectations dropped by XXbp indicating a tightening of monetary conditions on the back of Bernanke’s statement. Fed policy is still overly tight compared with the objective of…Analysts said that the fed needs to communicate more aggressively to push back NGDP expectations to the fed target.” 

Good job Justin and Kenneth!

PS See more on the construction of the data and relevant links to Justin’s work here.

This is why we need an NGDP futures market

Until recently the global financial markets were on an one-way trip to recovery. Basically since the Federal Reserve in September implicitly announced the Bernanke-Evans rule investors have been betting on an US economic recovery – higher real and nominal GDP growth – and the Bank of Japan’s decisive actions to implement a 2% inflation target also have helped the sentiment. However, the picture has become a lot more confusing in recent weeks as turmoil has returned to the global financial markets.

The key problem is that we do not exactly know why there has been a sharp spike in market volatility. There is a number of competing theories. The most popular theory is that this is all Ben Bernanke’s fault as he has announced the “tapering” of quantitative easing – that according to the critiques has caused markets to price in tighter monetary conditions in the future and that is the reason why bond yields are rising while inflation expectations and stock markets are declining. A competing theory is that the real reason for this is not really Bernanke, but rather monetary tightening in China, which is forcing Chinese investors to liquidate investments – including in US Treasuries. I have a lot of sympathy for the later theory even though I think it is also right that Bernanke’s comments over the past months have been having an negative impact.

So why is it important what is the cause of these market moves? It’s it enough to note that all indications are that we globally are now seeing a contraction in aggregate demand and central banks should respond to that by easing monetary conditions? Yes and no. Yes because it is clear that monetary conditions are indeed getting tighter everywhere. However, no because that was not necessarily clear until last week.

Low inflation expectations is necessarily not a monetary easing

Interestingly enough it seems like everybody have become Market Monetarists recently in the sense that they think that it is the fed that is driving the markets via (bad) communication and the commentators are exactly looking at market indicators monetary conditions – for example market expectations for inflation.

And it is of course the sharp drop in inflation expectations, which is causing a lot of concern and I obviously agree that central banks should keep an very close eye on inflation expectations as an indicator for monetary conditions. HOWEVER, we should never forget that inflation expectations could drop either because of tighter monetary conditions or because of a positive supply shock.

Market Monetarists of course argue that central banks should not respond to supply shocks – positive or negative – and I would in fact argue that the drop in inflation expectations we have seen recently in the US (and other places) is to a large extent driven by a positive supply shock. That is good news for  real GDP growth. That is consistent with higher real bond yields and it not necessarily a problem (David Beckworth has been making that argument here). Hence, if the drop in inflation expectations had instead been primarily caused by tighter US monetary conditions then we should have expected to see the US stock markets plummet and the dollar should have strengthened.

That is of course what we have seen over the past week or so, but not in the month leading up to that. In that period the dollar was actually weakening moderately and the US stock market was holding up fairly well. That to me is an indication that the drop in inflation expectations have not only been about tighter US monetary condition.

Instead I think that we have seen a serious tightening of Chinese monetary condition and that has caused global commodity prices to drop. That is of course a negative demand shock in China, but it is a positive supply shock to the US economy. If that ONLY had been the case then it would be hard to the argument from a Market Monetarist perspective that the Federal Reserve should move to ease monetary conditions further. See my arguments from mid-May against monetary easing in responds to positive supply shocks here.

Avoid the confusion – set up an NGDP futures market

Sometimes it is pretty easy to “read” the markets to get an understanding of what is going on – it is for example pretty clear right now that Chinese monetary conditions are getting a lot tighter, but it is harder to say how much tighter US monetary conditions really have gotten over the past month or so and the bond market is certainly not a good indicator on its own (liquidity/flow effects vs expectational effects).

Hence, what should be the appropriate US monetary response? There is a significant difference between the appropriate respond to what is primarily a supply shock and what is primarily a demand shock. And it is of course not only me who is slightly confused about what is going on in the markets. Policy makers are likely to be at least as confused (likely a lot more…).

The best way to avoid any confusion is of course to set-up a market for exactly what the central bank is targeting. Hence, for an inflation targeting central bank there is of course inflation-linked bonds. However, that is not really a good guide for monetary policy if you want to avoid responding to supply shocks. Instead what we really need is NGDP-linked bonds. In the case of the US the US Treasury therefore should issue such bonds.

Had we had an US NGDP-linked bond now it would be very easy to see whether or not the markets where indeed pricing in tighter US monetary conditions and whether or not this should be a cause for concern. Furthermore, that would get us away from the constant discussion about whether higher bond yields is an indication of tighter or easier monetary conditions (it can in fact be both).

And finally if the there was an US NGDP-linked government bond then the fed could leave the time of “tapering” complete to the markets (See more on that here).

HT Cthorm

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PS Scott Sumner and Evan Soltas have similar discussions

Leave it to the market to decide on “tapering”

The rally in the global stock markets has clearly run into trouble in the last couple of weeks. Particularly the Nikkei has taken a beating, but also the US stock market has been under some pressure.

If one follows the financial media on a daily basis it is very clear that there is basically only one reason being mentioned for the decline in global stock markets – the possible scaling back of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing.

This is three example from the past 24 hours. First CNBC:

“Stocks posted sharp declines across the board Wednesday, with the Dow ending below 15,000, following weakness in overseas markets and amid concerns over when the Fed will start tapering its bond-buying program on the heels of several mixed economic reports.”

And this is from Bloomberg:

“U.S. stocks fell, sending the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index to a one-month low, as jobs and factory data missed estimates and investors speculated whether the Federal Reserve will taper bond purchases.”

And finally Barron’s:

“Fear that the central bank may start scaling back its $85 billion in monthly bond purchases has helped trigger a sharp increase in market volatility over the last couple of weeks both here and overseas.”

I believe that what we are seeing in the financial markets right now is telling us a lot about how the monetary transmission mechanism works. Market Monetarists say that money matters and markets matter. The point is that the markets are telling us a lot about the expectations for future monetary policy. This is of course also why Scott Sumner likes to say that monetary policy works with long and variable LEADS.

Hence, what we are seeing now is that US monetary conditions are being tightened even before the fed has scaled back asset purchases. What is at work is the Chuck Norris effect. It is the threat of “tapering” that causes US stock markets to decline. Said in another way Ben Bernanke has over the past two weeks effectively tightened monetary conditions. I am not sure that that was Bernanke’s intension, but that has nonetheless been the consequence of his (badly timed) communication.

This is also telling us that Market Monetarists are right when we say that both interest rates and money supply data are unreliable indicators of monetary conditions – at least when they are used on their own. Market indicators are much better indicators of monetary conditions.

Hence, when the US stock market drops, the dollar strengthens and implied market expectations of inflation decline it is a very clear signal that US monetary conditions are becoming tighter. And this is of course exactly what have happened over the last couple of weeks – ever since Bernanke started to talk about “tapering”. The Bernanke triggered the tightening, but the markets are implementing the tigthening.

Leave it to the market to decide when the we should have “tapering”

I think it is pretty fair to say that Market Monetarists are not happy about what we are seeing playing out at the moment in the US markets or the global markets for that matter. The reason is that we are now effectively getting monetary tightening. This is certainly premature monetary tightening – unemployment is still significantly above the fed’s unofficial 6.5% “target”, inflation is well-below the fed’s other unofficial target – 2% inflation – and NGDP growth and the level NGDP is massively below where we would like to see it.

It is therefore hardly the market’s perception of where the economy is relative to the fed’s targets that now leads markets to price in monetary tightening, but rather it is Bernanke’s message of possible “tapering” of assets purchases, which has caused the market reaction.

This I believe this very well illustrates three problems with the way the fed conducts monetary policy.

First of all, there is considerable uncertainty about what the fed is actually trying to target. We have an general idea that the fed probably in some form is following an Evans rule – wanting to continue to expand the money base at a given speed as long as US unemployment is above 6.5% and PCE core inflation is below 3%. But we are certainly not sure about that as the fed has never directly formulated its target.

Second, it is clear that the fed has a clear instrument preference - the fed is uncomfortable with conducting monetary policy by changing the growth rate of the money base and would prefer to return to a world where the primary monetary policy instrument is the fed funds target rate. This means that the fed is tempted to start “tapering” even before we are certain that the fed will succeed in hitting its target(s). Said, in another way the monetary policy instrument is both on the left hand and the right hand side of the fed’s reaction function. By the way this is exactly what Brad DeLong has suggested is the case. Brad at the same time argues that that means that the fiscal multiplier is positive. See my discussion of that here.

Third the fed’s policy remains extremely discretionary rather than being rule based. Hence, Bernanke’s sudden talk of “tapering” was a major surprise to the financial markets. This would not have been the case had the fed formulated a clear nominal target and explained its “reaction function” to markets.

Market Montarists of course has the solution to these problems. First of all the fed should clearly formulate a clear nominal target. We obviously would prefer an NGDP level target, but nearly any nominal target – inflation targeting, price level targeting or NGDP growth targeting – would be preferable to the present “target uncertainty”.

Second, the fed should leave it to the market to decide on when monetary policy should be tightened (or eased) and leave it to the market to actually implement monetary policy. In the “perfect world” the fed would target a given price for an NGDP-linked bond so the implied market expectation for future NGDP was in line with the targeted level of NGDP.

Less can, however, do it – the fed could simply leave forecasting to either the markets (policy futures and other forms of prediction markets) or it could conduct surveys of professional forecasters and make it clear that it will target these forecasts. This is Lars E. O. Svensson’s suggestion for “targeting the forecast” (with a Market Monetarist twist).

Concluding, the heightened volatility we have seen in the US stocks markets over the last two weeks is mostly the result of monetary policy failure – a failure to formulate a clear target, a failure to be clear on the policy instrument and a failure of making it clear how to implement monetary policy.

Bernanke don’t have to order the printing of more money. We don’t need more or less QE. What is needed is that Bernanke finally tells us what he is really targeting and then he should leave it to the market to implement monetary policy to hit that target.

PS I could have addressed this post to Bank of Japan and governor Kuroda as well. Kuroda is struggling with similar troubles as Bernanke. But he could start out by reading these two posts: “Mr. Kuroda please ‘peg’ inflation expectations to 2% now” and “A few words that would help Kuroda hit his target”. Kuroda should also take a look at what Marcus Nunes has to say.

Chuck Norris beats Wolfgang Schäuble

So far it is has been a remarkable week in the global financial markets. The ’deposit grab’ in Cyprus undoubtedly has shocked international investors and confidence in the ability of euro zone policy makers has dropped to an all-time low.

Despite of the ‘Cyprus shock’ global stock markets continue to climb higher – yes, yes we have seen a little more volatility, but the overall picture is that of a continued global stock market rally. That is surely remarkable when one takes into account the scale of the policy blunder committed by the EU in Cyprus and the likely long-lasting damage done to the confidence in EU policy makers.

I therefore think it is fair to conclude that so far Chuck Norris has beaten German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Or said, in another way the Chuck Norris effect has been at work all week and that has clearly been a key reason why we have not (yet?) seen global-wide or even European-wide contagion from the disaster in Cyprus.

Just to remind my readers – the Chuck Norris effect of course is the effect that monetary policy not only works through expanding the money base, but also through guiding expectations.

When I early this week expressed my worries (or rather mostly my anger) over the EU’s handling of the situation in Cyprus a fixed income trader who is a colleague of mine comforted me by saying “Lars, you have now for half a year been saying that the Fed and the Bank of Japan are more or less doing the right thing so shouldn’t we expect the Fed and BoJ to offset any shock from the euro zone?” (I am paraphrasing a little – after all we were talking on a trading floor)

The message from the trader was clear. Yes, the EU is making a mess of things, but with the Bernanke-Evans rule in place and the Bank of Japan’s newfound commitment to a 2% inflation target we should expect that any shock from the euro zone to the US and Japanese economies would be ‘offset’ by the Fed and the BoJ by stepping up quantitative easing.

The logic is basically is that if an European shock pushes up US unemployment up we should expect the Fed to do even more QE and if that same shock leads to a strengthening of the yen (that mostly happens when global risk aversion increases) then the BoJ would also do more QE to try to meet its 2% inflation target. Said in another way any increase in demand for US dollar and yen is likely to be met by an increase in the supply of dollars and yen. In that sense the money base is ‘elastic’ in a similar sense as it would be under NGDP targeting. It is less perfect, but it nonetheless seems to be working – at least for now.

The fact that markets now expect the supply of dollars and yens to be at least quasi-elastic in itself means that the markets are not starting to hoard dollars and yen despite the ‘Cyprus shock’. This is the Chuck Norris effect at work – the central banks doesn’t have to do anything else that to reaffirm their commitment to their targets. This is exactly what the Federal Reserve did yesterday and what the new governor of Bank of Japan Kuroda is expected to do later today at his first press conference.

So there is no doubt – Chuck Norris won the first round against Wolfgang Schäuble and other EU policy makers. Thank god for that.

 

The graph Bernanke should look at before ‘exiting’ anything

Here is the Federal Reserve’s mandate:

“The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Open Market Committee shall maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates.”

I don’t think it is the greatest mandate in the world, but it is the Fed’s mandate nonetheless.

I tried to estimate a simple reaction function for the fed based on “employment” (rate, Civilian Employment-Population ratio) and “prices” (PCE core inflation).  The estimation period is 1990 to 2007. 2008-13 is forecast.

Mankiw rule

Take a look at the forecast. The model is “forecasting” that the Fed funds target rate should be -7%!

I will leave it to my readers to judge whether the fed should ‘exit’ its quantitative easing programmes or not.

Bernanke knows why ‘currency war’ is good news – US lawmakers don’t

I stole this from Scott Sumner:

Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) asks whether all the major central banks easing might diminish the benefits and lead to trade protectionism.

“We don’t view monetary policy aimed at domestic goals a currency war,” [Bernanke] says. Easing policy can be “mutually beneficial” to other countries such as China, which depends on domestic demand in the U.S.

It’s a “positive-sum game, not a zero-sum game,” Bernanke says.

I don’t think Bernanke is reading this blog, but I feel like quoting myself:

Monetary easing is not a negative or a zero sum game. In a quasi-deflationary world monetary easing is a positive sum game.

I have not always been impressed with Bernanke and he has certainly made his fair share of mistakes, but he certainly is more knowledgable about monetary policy than Republican lawmakers.

 

Bernanke says Friedman would have approved of Fed’s recent actions – I think is he more or less right

Ben Bernanke today in a speech further tried to explain the Fed’s recent policy actions. As Scott Sumner says in a comment: “The Fed seems to be getting a bit more market monetarist each day”. That might be slightly too optimistic of what is going on at the Fed and I remain frustrated about about two things in how Bernanke is communicating. First he is focusing on real variables (the labour market) rather than on nominal variables. Second, his discussion of the monetary transmission mechanism is overly focused on yields and interest rates rather than on money creation. That said, I continue to believe that the Fed is moving in the right direction. Bernanke’s speech today is further prove of that and I must say I feel increasingly optimistic that this will pull the US economy out of the crisis.

I am particularly encouraged by the following comments from Bernanke (my bold):

“In the category of communications policy, we also extended our estimate of how long we expect to keep the short-term interest rate at exceptionally low levels to at least mid-2015. That doesn’t mean that we expect the economy to be weak through 2015. Rather, our message was that, so long as price stability is preserved, we will take care not to raise rates prematurely. Specifically, we expect that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy will remain appropriate for a considerable time after the economy strengthens. We hope that, by clarifying our expectations about future policy, we can provide individuals, families, businesses, and financial markets greater confidence about the Federal Reserve’s commitment to promoting a sustainable recovery and that, as a result, they will become more willing to invest, hire and spend.”

Bernanke is beginning more clearly to spell out how his monetary policy rule looks like. This is what is needed is he whats to get the help from the Chuck Norris effect to reestablish nominal stability and pull the US economy out of this crisis.

Interestingly enough Bernanke was asked after his speech today whether he thinks Friedman would have supported the fed’s recent actions. Bernanke was stated that he was a “big fan” of Milton Friedman and then said that “I think he would’ve supported what we are doing”. I think Bernanke is broadly speaking correct. I am very sure that Friedman would have had the same reservation that I note about, but I am also pretty sure that he would have made the same recommendation regarding the US economy today as he did regarding the Japanese economy in 1997:

“The answer is straightforward: The Bank of Japan can buy government bonds on the open market, paying for them with either currency or deposits at the Bank of Japan, what economists call high-powered money. Most of the proceeds will end up in commercial banks, adding to their reserves and enabling them to expand their liabilities by loans and open market purchases. But whether they do so or not, the money supply will increase.

There is no limit to the extent to which the Bank of Japan can increase the money supply if it wishes to do so. Higher monetary growth will have the same effect as always. After a year or so, the economy will expand more rapidly; output will grow, and after another delay, inflation will increase moderately. A return to the conditions of the late 1980s would rejuvenate Japan and help shore up the rest of Asia.

Japan’s recent experience of three years of near zero economic growth is an eerie, if less dramatic, replay of the great contraction in the United States. The Fed permitted the quantity of money to decline by one-third from 1929 to 1933, just as the Bank of Japan permitted monetary growth to be low or negative in recent years. The monetary collapse was far greater in the United States than in Japan, which is why the economic collapse was far more severe. The United States revived when monetary growth resumed, as Japan will.

The Fed pointed to low interest rates as evidence that it was following an easy money policy and never mentioned the quantity of money. The governor of the Bank of Japan, in a speech on June 27, 1997, referred to the “drastic monetary measures” that the bank took in 1995 as evidence of “the easy stance of monetary policy.” He too did not mention the quantity of money. Judged by the discount rate, which was reduced from 1.75 percent to 0.5 percent, the measures were drastic. Judged by monetary growth, they were too little too late, raising monetary growth from 1.5 percent a year in the prior three and a half years to only 3.25 percent in the next two and a half.

After the U.S. experience during the Great Depression, and after inflation and rising interest rates in the 1970s and disinflation and falling interest rates in the 1980s, I thought the fallacy of identifying tight money with high interest rates and easy money with low interest rates was dead. Apparently, old fallacies never die.”

James Pethokoukis uses the same quote in his comment on Bernanke – and I have used the quote earlier in discussing what Friedman would have said about European monetary policy. While I think that the situation in the euro zone today is very similar to the situation in Japan 1997 I would also argue that the US economy is in somewhat better shape today that Japan in the late 1990s. This of course means that some caution is warranted regarding monetary easing in the US, but to me at least the risks on US inflation still remain on the downside.

Again see the Friedman’s quote above and what Bernanke said today (quoted from Joe Weisenthal on Business Insider):

“We didn’t allow the fact that interest rates were very low to fool us into thinking that monetary policy was accommodative enough.”

It is very nice to see that Bernanke now finally is recognizing this. I would hope a all of his central banking colleagues around the world – particularly in Europe would understand this.

Finally I don’t think the Fed is all there yet. NGDP level targeting is much preferable to what the Fed is now trying to implement. Furthermore, I would hope Bernanke and his colleagues would try to get a bit more of a monetarist perspective on the monetary transmission mechanism instead of the continued focus on interest rates.

PS George Selgin has a slightly related blog post on freebanking.org discussing Austrians’ and Market Monetarists’ view of “Intermediate Spending Booms”

Update: Matt O’Brien has an excellent piece on Narayana Kocherlakota amazing transformation,

Bernanke, Obama and the political business cycle – and some research ideas

This week I attended a presentation by my good friend and professor of political science at the University Copenhagen Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard about the upcoming US presidential elections. In his presentation Peter presented some of his models for predicting the outcome of US presidential elections.

Peter’s thesis is that what determines the US presidential election primarily is the economic situation in the US in the 8 quarters prior to the election. Peter’s models are inspired by Douglas Hibbs’ so-called “bread and peace” models.

If Peter is right – and I think he is – then the US president and his party will have an incentive to manipulate the business cycle to peak just prior to the elections. This is of course also is what inspired a large theoretical and empirical literature on the so-called political business cycles (PBC).

Most PBC models focus on fiscal policy. In William Nordhaus’ traditional PBC model the government would increase public spending and/or cut taxes prior to the elections and as Nordhaus assumed a traditional keynesian model of the world the government would hence be able to manipulate the business cycle.

The fact that Nordhaus assumed a rather naive keynesian model of the world obviously is also a big problem with the model and with the integration of rational expectations in macroeconomic models in 1980s and 1990s it also became increasingly clear that even though Nordhaus’ traditional PBC model is intuitively appealing it did not stand the test of time.

The biggest problem with the traditional PBC models, however, is they disregarded the importance of monetary policy. Hence, it might be that a government or a president can increase public spending prior to an election to try to get reelected, but how will the central bank react to that? Obviously if the central bank is under political control the government can just dictate to the central bank to play along and to ease monetary policy prior to the elections.

However, it is not given that the central bank is under the control of the government. In fact the central bank might even be hostile to the government and favour the opposition and in that case the central bank might actually itself be involved in manipulating the business cycle to achieve a certain political outcome which would be in contrast to what the government would like to see. In an earlier post I have described how the Bundesbank in the early 1990s punished the Helmut Kohl’s government for overly easy fiscal policy following the German reunification. This hardly helped Kohl’s government, but the Bundesbank was nonetheless unsuccessful in its indirect attempt to oust Kohl.

Did Bernanke just ensure Obama’s reelection?

During Peter’s presentation he highlighted that political prediction markets such – as the Iowa Electronic Markets – are better at predicting the outcome of US presidential elections than opinion polls. I certainly agree with Peter on this issue and therefore one of my first thoughts just after the FOMC announced it new policy action on September 13 was to think about how this influences Obama’s reelection chances.

If Peters models are right that higher real GDP growth increases the likelihood that Obama will be reelected and if I am right that I think Bernanke’s actions will likely spur real GDP growth in the short-run then the answer must be that Bernanke just helped Obama get reelected.

So what are the prediction markets saying? Well, there is no question that Obama’s election chances have increased significantly in recently. Political pundits talk about Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democrats’ convention or Romney’s not too elegant comments about Democrat voters. However, both Peter and I know that that is not really what is important. To us it is as James Carville used to say “It’s the economy, stupid”

Just have a look at the market pricing of Obama’s reelection chances – this is data from intrade.com:

I think it is pretty clear – the Federal Reserve’s actions on September 13 have helped increase the likelihood of Obama getting reelected. Whether this is good or bad is a separate matter, but it certainly illustrates that if you want to be elected president in the US you want to have fed on your side.

This is not major news – for example former Fed chairman Arthur Burn’s rather scary account  “Inside the Nixon Administration” – of his meetings with President Nixon shows that Nixon certainly was well-aware that the fed’s actions could do a lot to increase his reelection chances and that he put a lot of pressure on Burns to ease monetary policy prior to 1972 presidential elections (See my earlier post on Nixon and Burns here and Burton Abrams’ excellent discussion of the same topic here.)

This is of course also why you want to depoliticize monetary policy and get it as far away from political influence as possible – if politicians gets to control monetary policy the likelihood that they will misuse that power certainly is very high. Here the keyword is depoliticize – you in general don’t want central banks to interfere in politics for good or for bad. The central bank should just take fiscal policy as a given and respond to it only to the extent that it has an impact of it’s monetary policy target. That also includes that the central bank should not punish governments for bad policies either – as the ECB seem to be doing.

In the case of the present situation in the US it is therefore paradoxical that the Obama administration apparently has done so little to influence the decisions at the fed. So even though the Obama administration has appointed numerous Fed policy makers it does not look as if any attempt has been made to appoint Fed officials that would press for monetary easing – which obviously would have been in Obama’s interest (note this is an uneducated outsider’s guess…). This might be because the president’s main economic advisors are staunch keynesians who have little time for monetary policy matters. So if Obama is not reelected he might want to blame Larry Summers for past sins. It is equally a paradox that the fact that the Fed now seems to be moving in the direction of a more ruled based policy is what likely will help Obama get reelected.

Ideas for future research 

When I started thinking about writing this blog post I actually started out with a research idea and I want to get back to that. One of the reasons that the literature on political business cycles has not produced any general conclusions or strong empirical results is in my view that models predictions are so dependent on what assumptions are made about the institutional set-up. Is the central bank for example independent or not? Will monetary policy counteract or accommodate pre-election spending?

I therefore think that there is scope for new research on particularly central bank’s institutional structures and how that might influence the political business cycle.

In the case of the US and the Federal Reserve I think it would be very interesting to study how different FOMC member’s partisan affiliations influence their voting during the election cycle. Would for example FOMC member appointed by the president vote for easier monetary policies prior to presidential elections? And will FOMC members from certain Fed districts vote in a way favorable to the dominant political affiliation of the given fed district?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think it could be a rather interesting research project…

PS Peter’s model predicts that it will be 50/50 on who wins that presidential elections. If he is right then the present market pricing which clear favours Obama is wrong. Do you trust the models of a political scientist more than the market? I am sure that Peter would be on the side of the market…

PPS I should stress that I think that Bernanke and his colleagues with its latest actions have moved closer to a rule based monetary policy, which in itself should reduce the risk of political motivated monetary policy and I in general think that it is positive. That, however, does not change the fact that that might also have helped Obama. Whether that is a positive or negative side-effect dependents on your (party) political views and I luckily don’t have to have a view on who should win the US presidential elections…

PPPS Obviously the best way to avoid political business cycles is a strongly rule based monetary policy – such as NGDP level targeting, fixed exchange rates, a gold standard or free banking…some of these options I like better than others.

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Related post – Se how the ECB also has had significant impact on Obama’s reelection changes:“Will Draghi’s LTRO get Obama reelected?”

The fiscal cliff and the Bernanke-Evans rule in a simple static IS/LM model

Sometimes simple macroeconomic models can help us understand the world better and even though I am not uncritical about the IS/LM model it nonetheless has some interesting features which from time to time makes it useful for policy analysis (if you are careful).

However, a key problem with the IS/LM model is that the model does not take into account – in its basic textbook form – the central bank’s policy rule. However, it is easy to expand the model to include a monetary policy rule.

I will do exactly that in this post and I will use the Federal Reserve’s new policy rulethe Bernanke-Evans rule – to analysis the impact of the so-called fiscal cliff on a (very!) stylised version of the US economy.

We start out with the two standard equations in the IS/LM model.

The money demand function:

(1) m=p+y-α×r

Where m is the money supply/demand, p is prices and y is real GDP. r is the interest rate and α is a coefficient.

Aggregate demand is defined as follows:

(2) y=g-β×r

Aggregate demand y equals public spending and private sector demand (β×r), which is a function of the interest rate r. β is a coefficient. It is assumed that private demand drops when the interest rate increases.

This is basically all you need in the textbook IS/LM model. However, we also need to define a monetary policy rule to be able to say something about the real world.

I will use a stylised version of the Bernanke-Evans rule based on the latest policy announcement from the Fed’s FOMC. The FOMC at it latest meeting argued that it basically would continue to expand the money base (in the IS/LM the money base and the money supply is the same thing) to hit a certain target for the unemployment rate. That means that we can define a simple Bernanke-Evans rule as follows:

(3) m=λ×U

One can think of U as either the unemployment rate or the deviation of the unemployment rate from the Fed’s unemployment target. λ is a coefficient that tells you how aggressive the fed will increase the money supply (m) if U increases.

We now need to model how the labour market works. We simply assume Okun’s law holds (we could also have used a simple production function):

(4) U=-δ×y

This obviously is very simplified as we totally disregard supply side issues on the labour market. However, we are not interested in using this model for analysis of such factors.

It is easy to solve the model. We get the LM curve from (1), (3) and (4):

LM: r= y×(1+δ×λ)⁄α+(1/α)×p

And we get the IS curve by rearranging (2):

IS: r =(1/β)×g-(1/β)×y

Under normal assumptions about the coefficients in the model the LM curve is upward sloping and the IS curve is downward sloping. This is as in the textbook version.

Note, however, that the slope of the LM does not only depend on the money demand’s interest rate elasticity (α), but also on how aggressive  (λ) the fed will react to an increase in unemployment.

The Sumner Critique applies if λ=∞

The fact that the slope of the LM curve depends on λ is critical. Hence, if the fed is fully committed to its unemployment target and will do everything to fulfill (as the FOMC signaled when it said it would step up QE until it hit its target) then λ equals infinity (∞) .

Obviously, if λ=∞ then the LM curve is vertical – as in the “monetarist” case in the textbook version of the IS/LM model. However, contrary to the “normal” the LM curve we don’t need α to be zero to ensure a vertical LM curve.

Hence, under a strict Bernanke-Evans rule where the fed will not accept any diviation from its unemployment target (λ=∞) the (government) budget multiplier is zero and the so-called Sumner Critique therefore applies: Fiscal policy cannot increase or decrease output (y) or the unemployment (U) as any fiscal “shock” (higher or lower g) will be fully offset by the fed’s actions.

The Bernanke-Evans rule reduces risks from the fiscal cliff

It follows that if the fed actually follows through on it commitment to hit its (still fuzzy) unemployment target then in the simple model outlined above the risk from a negative shock to demand from the so-called fiscal cliff is reduced greatly.

This is good news, but it is also a natural experiment of the Sumner Critique. Imagine that we indeed get a 4% of GDP tightening of fiscal policy next year, but at the same time the fed is 100% committed to hitting it unemployment target (that unemployment should drop) then if unemployment then increases anyway then Scott Sumner (and myself) is wrong – or the fed didn’t do it job well enough. Both are obviously very likely…

I am arguing that I believe the model presented above is the correct model of the US economy. The purpose has rather been to demonstrate the critical importance of a the monetary policy rule even in a standard textbook keynesian model and to demonstrate that fiscal policy is much less important than normally assumed by keynesians if we take the monetary policy rule into account.

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