Leland Yeager at 90 – happy birthday

Today Leland Yeager is turning 90. Happy birthday!

Leland Yeager is an amazing scholar. My friend Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard put it very well in a comment on Facebook:

Such a good scholar and a very nice man. Who speaks Danish. And 10-20 other languages.”

Yes, Pete is right – Yeager speaks an incredible number of languages – but I of course mostly appreciates Yeager’s contribution to monetary thinking.

Leland_Yeager

I consider Yeager (with Clark Warburton) to have been one of the founding father of what we could call Disequilibrium Monetarism and I think that Yeager has written the best ever monetarist “textbook”. As I have put it earlier:

One could of course think I would pick something by Friedman and I certainly would recommend reading anything he wrote on monetary matters, but in fact my pick for the best monetarist book would probably be Leland Yeager’s “Fluttering Veil”.

In terms of something that is very readable I would clearly choose Friedman’s “Money Mischief”, but that is of course a collection of articles and not a textbook style book. Come to think of it – we miss a textbook style monetarist book.

I actually think that one of the most important things about a monetarist (text)book should be a description of the monetary transmission mechanism. The description of the transmission mechanism is very good in (Keynes’) Tract, but Yeager is even better on this point.

Friedman on the other hand had a bit of a problem explaining the monetary transmission mechanism. I think his problem was that he tried to explain things basically within a IS/LM style framework and that he was so focused on empirical work. One would have expected him to do that in “Milton Friedman’s Monetary Framework: A Debate with His Critics”, but I think he failed to do that. In fact that book is is probably the worst of all of Friedman’s books. It generally comes across as being rather unconvincing.

Yeager not only provides very good insight into understanding the monetary transmission mechanism, but he also in my view provides a key insight to understanding what happened in 2008. This is from The Fluttering Veil: (David Beckworth has earlier used the same quote)

Say’s law, or a crude version of it, rules out general overproduction: an excess supply of some things in relation to the demand for them necessarily constitutes an excess demand for some other things in relation to their supply…

The catch is this: while an excess supply of some things necessarily mean an excess demand for others, those other things may, unhappily, be money. If so, depression in some industries no longer entails boom in others…

[T]the quantity of money people desire to hold does not always just equal the quantity they possess. Equality of the two is an equilibrium condition, not an identity. Only in… monetary equilibrium are they equal. Only then are the total value of goods and labor supplied and demanded equal, so that a deficient demand for some kinds entails and excess demand for others.

Say’s law overlooks monetary disequilibrium. If people on the whole are trying to add more money to their total cash balances than is being added to the total money stock (or are trying to maintain their cash balances when the money stock is shrinking), they are trying to sell more goods and labor than are being bought. If people on the whole are unwilling to add as much money to their total cash balances as is being added to the total money stock (or are trying to reduce their cash balances when the money stock is not shrinking), they are trying to buy more goods and labor than are being offered.

The most striking characteristic of depression is not overproduction of some things and underproduction of others, but rather, a general “buyers’ market,” in which sellers have special trouble finding people willing to pay more for goods and labor. Even a slight depression shows itself in the price and output statistics of a wide range of consumer-goods and investment-goods industries. Clearly some very general imbalance must exist, involving the one thing–money–traded on all markets. In inflation, an opposite kind of monetary imbalance is even more obvious.

This is exactly what happened in 2008 – dollar demand rose sharply, but the Federal Reserve failed to ensure monetary equilibrium by not sufficiently increasing the supply of base money. That caused the Great Recession.

Finally I would also note that Yeager in his article (with Robert Greenfield)  Money and Credit confused: An Appraisal of Economic Doctrine and Federal Reserve Procedure explained the very crucial difference between money and credit. 

In a great tribute (published yesterday) to Yeager Bill Woolsey – Market Monetarist and student of Yeager – explains:

Yeager was certainly aware that a banking system might respond to depressed economic conditions by reducing the quantity of money rather than holding it steady.    This points to an additional major emphasis of his work–the distinction between money and credit.   For Yeager, money is the medium of exchange.   The quantity is the amount that exists and the demand is the amount that people would like to hold.   Credit, on the other hand, involves borrowing and lending.   Banks can lend money into existence, expanding the quantity of money even if there is no one who wants to hold the additional balances.   And those wishing to hold additional money balances have no directly reason to show up at a bank seeking to borrow.   The interest rate that clears credit markets does not necessarily keep the quantity of money equal to the demand to hold it.    It is the price level for goods and services, along with the prices of resources, including nominal wages, that must adjust to keep the real quantity  of money equal to the demand to hold it.

One could only hope that the central bankers in Frankfurt would study Yeager (and Woolsey!) to understand this crucial difference between money and credit and then we might get monetary easing – to ensure monetary equilibrium rather than the numerous odd credit policies we have seen in recent years. The problem is not a “broken transmission mechanism”, but monetary disequilibrium. No one explains that better than Leland Yeager.

I could – and should – write a lot more on Leland Yeager (for example on his contribution to international trade and international monetary theory), but I will leave it for that for now.

But you shouldn’t stop reading yet. Kurt Schuler over at freebanking.org has collected a number of excellent tributes to Leland Yeager from a number of his friends, colleagues and former students. Here is the impressive list:

Thomas D. Willett
David Tuerck
Roger Koppl
Warren Coats
Kenneth Elzinga
Jim Dorn
Robert Greenfield
Kurt Schuler

Money and credit confused…again, again and again

The debate over the latest policy actions from the ECB has once again reminded me about one of the oldest failures in monetary debate – the confusion 0f  money and credit. This has been very visible in the discussion about monetary policy over the past six years both in Europe and the US.

The confusion of money and credit again and again has caused central banks to make the wrong decisions implementing credit policies and mistaking it for monetary easing.

I should really write a blog post on this, but it has already been done. Our friend and Market Monetarist blogger Bill Woolsey did it back in 2009. Bill used to be a student of Leland Yeager who back in 1986 wrote the ultimate paper on this issue with Robert Greenfield - Money and Credit confused: An Appraisal of Economic Doctrine and Federal Reserve Procedure.

I stole this from Bill’s 2009 post Money and Credit Confused. Bill explains the crucial differences between money and credit very well:

Money is the medium of exchange. The quantity of money is the amount of money that exists at a point in time.

The demand for money is the amount of money that people want to hold at a point in time. To hold money is to not spend it.

The supply of credit is the amount of funds people want to lend during a period of time.

The demand for credit is the amount of funds that people want to borrow during a period of time.

An increase in the demand for money is not the same thing as an increase in the demand for credit.

An increase in the demand for credit means that households and firms want to borrow more. While it is possible that they want to borrow money in order to hold it, the more likely scenario is that they borrow in order to increase spending on some good or service, including, perhaps some other financial asset.

An increase in the demand for money could result in an increase in the demand for credit. People might borrow money in order to hold it. However, the more likely scenario is that people demanding more money will reduce expenditure out of current income, purchasing fewer other assets, goods, or services. Of course, they could also sell other assets.

An increase in the supply of credit isn’t the same thing as an increase in the quantity of money. While it is possible that new money is lent into existence, raising the quantity of money over a period of time while augmenting the supply of credit, it is also possible for the supply of credit to rise without an increase in the quantity of money. Purchases of new corporate bonds by households or firms, for example, adds to the supply of credit without adding to the quantity of money.

Because shifts in the share of the total supply of credit associated with money creation are possible, the quantity of money can rise over a period of time when the supply of credit is shrinking.

There are relationships between the supply and demand for money and the supply and demand for credit, both in disequilibrium and equilibrium. But money and credit are not the same thing.

As Bill notes – the first rule of monetary policy is not to confuse money and credit. Unfortunately central bankers do it all the time.

 —-

Update: A friend of mine thinks the ultimate discussion is not Yeager, but this one: Currie, Lauchlin. “Treatment of Credit in Contemporary Monetary Theory.” Journal of Political Economy 41 (February 1933), 58-79.

Will anybody read this post if I put “data revisions” in the headline?

Opponents of NGDP level targeting often argue that nominal GDP is problematic as national account data often is revised and hence one would risk targeting the wrong data and that that could lead to serious policy mistakes. I in general find this argumentation flawed and find that it often based on a misunderstanding about what NGDP level targeting is about.

First of all let me acknowledge that macroeconomic data in general tend to undergo numerous revisions and often the data quality is very bad. That goes for all macroeconomic data in all countries. Some have for example argued that the seasonal adjustment of macroeconomic data has gone badly wrong in many countries after 2008. Furthermore, it is certainly not a nontrivial excise to correct data for different calendar effects – for example whether Easter takes place in February or March. Therefore, macroeconomic data are potentially flawed – not only NGDP data. That said, in many countries national account numbers – including GDP data – are often revised quite dramatically.

However, what critics fail to realise is that Market Monetarists and other proponents NGDP level targeting is arguing to target the present or history level of NGDP, but rather the future NGDP level. Therefore, the real uncertainty is not data revisions but about the forecasting abilities of central banks. The same is of course the case for inflation targeting – even though it often looks like the ECB is targeting historical or present inflation the textbook version of inflation forecasting clearly states that the central bank should forecast future inflation. In that sense future NGDP is not harder to forecast than future inflation.

I believe, however, there is pretty strong evidence that central banks in general are pretty bad forecasters and the forecasts are often biased in one or the other direction. There is therefore good reason to believe that the market is better at predicting nominal variables such as NGDP and inflation than central banks. Therefore, Market Monetarists – and Bill Woolsey and Scott Sumner particular – have argued that central banks (or governments) should set up futures markets for NGDP in the same way the so-called TIPS market in the US provides a market forecast for inflation. As such a market is a real-time “forecaster” and there will be no revisions and as the market would be forecasting future NGDP level the market would also provide an implicit forecast for data revisions – unlike regular macroeconomic forecasts. By using NGDP futures to guide monetary policy the central banks would not have to rely on potentially bias in-house forecasts and there would be no major problem with potential data revisions.

Furthermore, arguing that NGDP data can be revised might point to a potential (!) problem with NGDP, but at the same time if one argues that national account data in general is unreliable then it is also a problem for an inflation targeting central bank. The reason is that most inflation targeting central banks historical have use a so-called Taylor rule (or something similar) to guide monetary policy – to see whether interest rates should be increased or lowered.

We can write a simple Taylor rule in the following way:

R=a(p-pT)+b(y-y*)

Where R is the key policy interest rate, a and b are coefficients, p is actual inflation pT is the inflation target, y is real GDP and y* is potential GDP.

Hence, it is clear that a Taylor rule based inflation target also relies on national account data – not NGDP, but RGDP. And even more important the Taylor rule dependent on an estimate of potential real GDP.

Anybody who have ever seriously worked with trying to estimate potential GDP will readily acknowledge how hard it is to estimate and there are numerous methods to estimate potential GDP and the different methods – for example production function or HP filters – that would lead to quite different results. So here we both have the problem with data revisions AND the problem with estimating potential GDP from data that might be revised.

This is particularly important right now as many economists have argued that potential GDP has dropped in the both the US and the euro zone on the back of the crisis. If that is in fact the case then for a given inflation target monetary policy will have to be tighter than if there has not been a drop in potential GDP. Whether or not that has been a case is impossible to know – we might know it in 5 or 10 years, but now it is impossible to say whether euro zone trend growth is 1.2% or 2.2%. Who knows? That is a massive challenge to inflation targeting central bankers.

Contrary to this changes in potential GDP or for that matter short-term supply shocks (for example higher oil prices) will have no impact on the conduct on monetary policy as the NGDP targeting central bank will not concern itself with the split between real GDP growth and inflation.

An example of the problems of how we measure inflation is the ECB two catastrophic interest rate hikes in 2011. The ECB twice hiked interest rates and in my view caused a massive escalation of the euro crisis. What the ECB reacted to was a fairly steep increase in headline consumer prices. However, in hindsight (and for some of us also in real-time) it is (was) pretty clear that there was not a real increase in inflationary pressures in the euro zone. The increase in headline consumer price inflation was caused by supply shocks and higher indirect taxes, which is evident from comparing the GDP deflator (which showed no signs of escalating inflationary pressures) with consumer prices inflation. Again, there would have been no mixing up of demand and supply shocks if the ECB had targeted the NGDP level instead. From that it was very clear that monetary conditions were very tight in 2011 and got even tighter as the ECB moved to hike interest rates. Had the ECB focused on the NGDP level then it would obviously have realised that what was needed was monetary easing and not monetary tightening and had the ECB acted on that then the euro crisis likely would already have been over.

It should also be noted that even though NGDP numbers tend to be revised that does not mean that the quality of the numbers as such are worse than inflation data. In fact inflation data are often of a very dubious character. An example is the changes in the measurement of consumers prices in the US after the so-called Boskin report came out in 1996. The report concluded that US inflation data overestimated inflation by more than 1% – and therefore equally underestimated real GDP growth. Try to plug that into the Taylor rule above. That means that p is lower and y* is higher – both would lead to the conclusion that interest rates should be lowered. Some have claimed that the revisions made to the measurement of consumer prices in the US caused the Federal Reserve to pursue an overly easy monetary stance in the end of the 1990s, which caused the dot-com bubble. I have some sympathy for this view and at least I know that had the Fed been following a strict NGDP level targeting regime at the end of the 1990s then it would have tighten monetary faster and more aggressively than it did in particularly 1999-2000 as the Fed would have disregarded the split between prices and real GDP and instead focused on the escalation of NGDP growth.

Concluding, yes national account numbers – including NGDP numbers – are often revised and that creates some challenges for NGDP targeting. However, the important point is that present and historical data is not important, but rather the expectation of the future NGDP, which an NGDP futures market (or a bookmaker for that matter) could provide a good forecast of (including possible data revisions). Contrary to this inflation targeting central banks also face challenges of data revisions and particularly a challenge to separate demand shocks from supply shocks and estimating potential GDP.
Therefore, any critique of NGDP targeting based on the “data revision”-argument is equally valid – or even more so – in the case of inflation targeting. Hence, worries about data quality is not an argument against NGDP targeting, but rather an argument for scrapping inflation targeting – the ECB with its unfortunate actions proved that in both 2008 and 2011.

Patri Friedman on Market Monetarism

Here is Patri Friedman on his blog “Patri’s Peripatetic Peregrinations”:

“I sent a friend an intro to market monetarism (a modern, blogosphere-inspired adjustment to the traditional monetarism my grandfather helped create). He was surprised I believed that printing money could be good, rather than agreeing with the Austrians.”

I am happy to see that Patri has read my paper on Market Monetarism.

There is of course nothing wrong in thinking that “printing money could be good” (under certain circumstances). In fact this is completely in line with what Patri’s grandfather Milton Friedman argued in terms of the Great Depression and the Japanese crisis.

Patri in his post also discusses how a “helicopter drop” could happen in a world of digital cash. Interestingly enough this discussion is similar to a recent internal Market Monetarist debate between Nick Rowe, Bill Woolsey and Scott Sumner about whether money is a medium of exchange or a medium of account. See for example here, here and here. Kurt Schuler also has contributed to the discussion. Finally Miles Kimball similarly has a very interesting post on the case for electronic money.

Patri’s discussion of digital cash to some extent also relates to my own discussion of monetary reform in Africa and the development of mobile based money (See for example here, herehere and here).

Anyway, I am happy to Patri seems to be showing some sympathy for Market Monetarism.

HT Lasse Birk Olesen

An empirical – not a theoretical – disagreement with George, Larry and Eli

Last week George Selgin warned us (the Market Monetarists) about getting to excited about the recent actions of the Federal Reserve. Now fellow Free Banker Larry White raises a similar critique in a post on freebanking.org.

Here is Larry:

“While saluting Sumner 2009…I favor an alternative view of 2012: the weak recovery today has more to do with difficulties of real adjustment. The nominal-problems-only diagnosis ignores real malinvestments during the housing boom that have permanently lowered our potential real GDP path. It also ignores the possibility that the “natural” rate of unemployment has been hiked by the extension of unemployment benefits. And it ignores the depressing effect of increased regime uncertainty.”

Larry’s point is certainly valid and Bill Woolsey has expressed a similar view:

“Targeting real variables is a potential disaster.  Expansionary monetary policy seeking an unfeasible  target for unemployment was the key error that generated the Great Inflation of the Seventies.  Employment or the employment/population ratio could have the same disastrous result.”

I have already in an earlier post addressed these issues. I agree with Bill (and George Selgin) that it potentially could be a disaster for central banks to target real variables and that is also why I think that an NGDP level target is much preferable to the rule the fed now seems to try to implementing. Both Larry and George think that the continued weak real GDP growth and high unemployment in the US might to a large extent be a result of supply side problems rather than as a result of demand side problems. Eli Dourado makes a similar point in a recent thoughtful blog post. Bill Woolsey has a good reply to Eli.

To me our disagreement is not theoretical – the disagreement is empirical. I fully agree that it is hard to separate supply shocks from demand shocks and that is exactly why central banks should not target real variable. However, the question is now how big the risk isthat the fed is likely to ease monetary policy excessively at the moment.

In my view it is hard to find much evidence that there has been a major supply shock to the US economy. Had there been a negative supply shock then one would have expected inflation to have increased and one would certainly not have expected wage growth to slow. The fact is that both wage growth and inflation have slowed significantly over the past four years. This is also what the markets are telling us – just look at long-term bond yields. I would not argue that there has not been a negative supply shock – I think there has been. For example higher minimum wages and increased regulation have likely reduced aggregate supply in the US economy, but in my view the negative demand shock is much more import. I am less inclined to the Austrian misallocation hypothesis as empirically significant.

A simple way to try to illustrate demand shocks versus supply shocks is to compare the development in real GDP with the development in prices. If the US primarily has been hit by a negative supply shock then we would have expect that real GDP to have dropped (relative to the pre-crisis trend) and prices should have increased (relative to the pre-crisis trend). On the other hand a negative demand shock will lead to a drop in both prices and real GDP (relative to pre-crisis trend).

The graph below shows the price level measured by the PCE core deflator – actual and the pre-crisis trend (log scale, 1993:1=100).

The next graph show the “price gap” which I define as the percentage difference between the actual price level and the pre-crisis trend.

Both graphs are clear – since the outbreak of the Great Recession in 2008 prices have grown slower than the pre-crisis trend (from 1993) and the price gap has therefore turned increasingly negative.

This in my view is a pretty clear indication that the demand shock “dominates” the possible supply shock.

Compare this with the early 1990s where prices grew faster than trend, while real GDP growth slowed. That was a clear negative supply shock.

That said, it is notable that the drop in prices (relative to the pre-crisis trend) has not been bigger when one compared it to how large the drop in real GDP has been, which could be an indication that White, Selgin and Dourado also have a point – there has probably also been some deterioration of the supply side of the US economy.

Monetary easing is still warranted

…but rules are more important than easing

I therefore think that monetary easing is still warranted in the US and I am not overly worried about the recent actions of the Federal Reserve will lead to bubbles or sharply higher inflation.

However, I have long stressed that I find it significantly more important that the fed introduce a proper rule based monetary policy – preferably a NGDP level target – than monetary policy is eased in a discretionary fashion.

Therefore, if I had the choice between significant discretionary monetary easing on the one hand and NGDP level targeting from the present level of NGDP (rather than from the pre-crisis trend level) I would certainly prefer the later. Nothing has been more harmful than the last four years of discretionary monetary policy in the US and the euro zone. To me the most important thing is that monetary policy is not distorting the workings of the price system and distort relative prices. Here I have been greatly inspired by Larry and George.

I have stressed similar points in numerous earlier posts:

NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative (we try again)
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

I think we Market Monetarists should be grateful to George, Larry and Eli for challenging us. We should never forget that targeting real variables is a very dangerous strategy for monetary policy and we should never put the need for “stimulus” over the need for a strictly ruled based monetary policy. And again I don’t think the disagreement is over theory or objectives, but rather over empirical issues.

As our disagreement primarily is empirical it would be interesting to hear what George, Larry and Eli think about the euro zone in this regard? Here it to me seem completely without question that the problem is nominal rather than real (even though the euro zone certainly has significant supply side problems, but they are unrelated to the crisis).

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Update: David Beckworth and George Selgin joins/continue the debate.

Our pal George tells us not to rest on our laurels

Even though George Selgin never said he was a Market Monetarists – he dislikes labels like that – he is awfully close to being a Market Monetarist and many of us are certainly Selginians. So when George speaks we all tend to listen.

Now George is telling us not to rest on our laurels after the Federal Reserve took “a giant leap” after it effectively announced an Evans style policy rule. I have called the Fed’s new rule the Bernanke-Evans rule. There is no doubt that the Market Monetarist bloggers welcomed fed’s latest policy announcement, but George is telling us not be carried away.

Here is George:

In the title of a recent post Scott Sumner jokingly wonders whether, having been credited by the press for badgering Ben Bernanke’s Fed until it at last cried “uncle!” by announcing QE3, he now needs to worry about going down in history as the guy who gave the U.S. its first episode of hyperinflation.

Well, probably not. But if Scott and the rest of the Market Monetarist gang don’t start changing their tune, they may well go down in history as the folks responsible for our next boom-bust cycle.

I’m saying that, not because, like some monetary hawks, I’m dead certain that no substantial part of today’s unemployment is truly cyclical in the crucial sense of being attributable to slack demand. I have my doubts about the matter, to be sure: I think it’s foolish, first of all, to assume that 8.1% must include at least a couple percentage points of cyclical unemployment just because it’s more than that much higher than the postwar average… Still, for for the sake of what I wish to say here, I’m happy to concede that some more QE, aimed at further elevating the level of nominal GDP to restore it to some higher long-run trend value to which the recession itself and overly tight monetary policy have so far prevented it from returning, might do some good.

But although QE3 is in that case something that might do some real good up to a point, it hardly follows that Market Monetarists should treat it as a vindication of their beliefs. On the contrary: if they aim to be truly faithful to those beliefs, they ought to find at least as much to condemn as to praise in the FOMC’s recent policy announcement. And yes, they should be worried–very worried–that if they don’t start condemning the bad parts people will blame them for the consequences. What’s more, they will be justified in doing so.

So what are the bad parts? Two of them in particular stand out. First, the announcement represents a clear move by the Fed toward a more heavy emphasis on employment or “jobs” targeting:

If the outlook for the labor market does not improve substantially, the Committee will continue its purchases of agency mortgage-backed securities, undertake additional asset purchases, and employ its other policy tools as appropriate until such improvement is achieved in a context of price stability.

Yes, there’s that bit about fighting unemployment “in a context of price stability,” and yes, it’s all perfectly in accord with the Fed’s “dual mandate.” But monetarists have long condemned that mandate, and have done so for several good reasons, chief among which is the fact that it may simply be beyond the Fed’s power to achieve what some may regard as “full employment” if the causes of less-than-full employment are structural rather than monetary. The Fed should, according to this view, focus on targeting nominal values only, which can serve as direct indicators of whether money is or is not in short supply. Many old-fashioned monetarists favor a strict inflation target because they view inflation as such an indicator. Market Monetarists are I think quite right in favoring treating the level and growth rate of NGDP as better indicators. But the Fed, in insisting on treating the level of employment as an indicator of whether or not it should cease injecting base money into the economy, departs not only from Market Monetarism but from the broader monetarist lessons that were learned at such great cost during the 1970s. If Market Monetarists don’t start loudly declaring that employment targeting is a really dumb idea, they deserve at very least to get a Cease & Desist letter from counsel representing the estates of Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz telling them, politely but nonetheless menacingly, that they had better quit infringing the Monetarist trademark.

So what is George saying? Well, it is really quite obvious. Monetary policy should focus on nominal targets – such a price level target or a NGDP level target – rather than on real target like an unemployment target (as the fed now is doing). This is George’s position and it is also the position of traditional monetarists and more important it has always been the position of Market Monetarists like Sumner, Beckworth and myself.

So just to make it completely clear….

…It is STUPID to target real variables such as the unemployment rate 

There is no doubt of my position in that regard and that is also why I and other Market Monetarists are advocating NGDP level targeting. The central bank is fully in control the level of NGDP, but never real GDP or the level of unemployment.

With sticky prices and wages the central bank can likely reduce unemployment in the short run, but in the medium term the Phillips curve certainly is vertical and as a result monetary policy cannot permanently reduce the level of unemployment – supply side problems cannot be solved with demand side measures. That is very simple.

As a consequence I am also tremendously skeptical about the Federal Reserve’s so-called dual mandate. To quote myself:

” …I don’t think the Fed’s mandate is meaningful. The Fed should not try to maximize employment. In the long run employment is determined by factors completely outside of the Fed’s control. In the long run unemployment is determined by supply factors. In my view the only task of the Fed should be to ensure nominal stability and monetary neutrality (not distort relative prices) and the best way to do that is through a NGDP level target.”

Is the glass half empty or half full?

It is clear that it has never been a Market Monetarists position to advocate that the Fed or any other central bank should target labour market conditions, but this is really a question about whether the glass is half full or half empty. George is arguing that the glass is half empty, while his Market Monetarist pals argue it is half full.

The reasons why the Market Monetarists are arguing the glass is half full are the following:

1) The fed has become much more clear on what it wants to achieve with its monetary policy actions – we nearly got a rule. One can debate the rule, but it is certainly better than nothing and it will do a lot to stabilise and guide market expectations going forward. That will also make fed policy much less discretionary. Victory number one for the Market Monetarists!

2) The fed has become much more clear on its monetary policy instrument – it is a about increasing (or decreasing) the money base by buying Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS). To Market Monetarists it is not really important what you buy to increase the money base – the point is the monetary policy is conducted though changes in the money base rather than through changes in interest rates. This I think is another major monetarist victory!

3) The fed’s policy actions will be open-ended – the focus will no long be on how much QE the fed will do, but on what it will do and the fed will – if it follows through on its promises – do whatever it takes to fulfill its policy target.  Victory number three!

It is certainly not perfect, but it certainly is a major change compared to how the fed has conducted monetary policy over the past four years. We can of course not know whether the fed will change direction tomorrow or in a month or in a year, but we are certainly heading in the right direction. I am sure that George would agree that these three points are steps in the right direction.

But lets get to the “half empty” part – the fed’s new unemployment target. George certainly worries about it as do I and other Market Monetarists. Bill Woolsey makes this point very clear in a recent blog post. However, I think there is an empirical difference in how George see the US economy and how most Market Monetarists see it. In George’s view it is not given that the present level of unemployment in the US primarily is a result of demand side factors. On the other hand while most Market Monetarists acknowledge that part of the rise in US unemployment is due to supply side factors such as higher minimum wages we also strongly believe that the rise in unemployment has been caused by a contraction in aggregate demand. As a consequence we are less worried that the fed’s new unemployment target will cause problems in the short to medium term in the US.

In that regard it should be noted that the so-called Evans rule mean that the fed will ease monetary policy until US unemployment drops below 7% or PCE core inflation increases above 3%. Fundamentally I think that is quite a conservative policy. In fact one could even argue that that will not be nearly enough to bring NGDP back to a level which in anyway is comparable to the pre-crisis trend.

We should listen to our pal George and continue advocacy of NGDP level targeting 

The fact that I personally is not overly worried about a conservative Evans rule (7%/3%) will lead to a new boom-bust as George seem to suggest does, however, not mean that we should stop our advocacy. While we seem to have won first round we should make sure to win the next round as well.

It is therefore obvious that we should continue to strongly advocate NGDP level targeting and we should certainly also warn against the potential dangers of unemployment targeting.

Finally I would also argue that Market Monetarists should step up our campaign against moral hazard. There is no doubt the failed monetary policies over the past four years have led to an unprecedented increase in explicit and implicit government guarantees to banks and other nations. These guarantees obviously should be scaled back as fast as possible. A rule based monetary policy is the best policy to avoid that the scaling back of such too-big-to-fail procedures will lead to unwarranted financial distress. This should do a lot to ease George’s fears of another boom-bust episode playing out as the US and the global economy start to recover. (See also my earlier post on moral hazard and the risk of boom-bust here.)

Similarly if we are so lucky that the fed’s new policy set-up will be start of the end of the slump then Market Monetarists should be as eager to fight excessive monetary easing as we have been in fighting overly tight monetary policy. In that regard I would argue that I personally have a pretty solid track record as I was extremely critical about what I saw as overly easy monetary policy in the years just prior to the crisis hit in 2007-8 in countries like Iceland and the Central and Eastern European countries.

So George, there is no reason to worry – we don’t trust the fed more than you do…

PS I stole (paraphrased) my headline from one of George’s Facebook updates.

Update: Scott Sumner also comments on George’s post and George has a reply.

Josh Hendrickson has a related comment.

The Close Connection Between Evan Koenig and Market Monetarism

Evan Koenig – who is a long-time defender of NGDP targeting – is out with a new paper: “All in the Family: The Close Connection Between Nominal-GDP Targeting and the Taylor Rule”Evan of course is a Senior Economist and Vice President at the Dallas Fed.

Frankly speaking I have not yet have time to read the paper, but I wanted to share the link with my readers nonetheless.

Here is the abstract:

“The classic Taylor rule for adjusting the stance of monetary policy is formally a special case of nominal- gross-domestic-product (GDP) targeting. Suitably implemented, moreover, nominal-GDP targeting satisfies the definition of a flexible inflation targeting policy rule. However, nominal-GDP targeting would require more discipline from policymakers than some analysts think is realistic.”

So what Koeing is basically arguing that we should not see NGDP level targeting as something so fundamentally different from the Taylor rule – at least in relation to Federal Reserve’s mandate. I am not sure I totally agree, but I would certainly agree that if a Taylor rule can be said to be within the Fed’s mandate so can a NGDP level target.

I have two earlier posts relating to NGDP targeting and Fed’s mandate:

Let the Fed target a Quasi-Real PCE Price Index (QRPCE)

NGDP level targeting and the Fed’s mandate

I hope I will be able to read all of Evan’s paper in the coming days and I highly recommend to read Evan’s other papers on NGDP targeting. He has written a few. See here and here.

Our friend Bill Woolsey also has great post on on Evan’s paper.

NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative

Tyler Cown a couple of days ago put out a comment on “Why doesn’t the right-wing favor looser monetary policy?”

Tyler has three answers to his own question:

1. There is a widespread belief that inflation helped cause the initial mess (not to mention centuries of other macroeconomic problems, plus the problems from the 1970s, plus the collapse of Zimbabwe), and that therefore inflation cannot be part of a preferred solution.  It feels like a move in the wrong direction, and like an affiliation with ideas that are dangerous.  I recall being fourteen years of age, being lectured about Andrew Dickson White’s work on assignats in Revolutionary France, and being bored because I already had heard the story.

2. There is a widespread belief that we have beat a lot of problems by “getting tough” with them.  Reagan got tough with the Soviet Union, soon enough we need to get tough with government spending, and perhaps therefore we also need to be “tough on inflation.”  The “turning on the spigot” metaphor feels like a move in the wrong direction.  Tough guys turn off spigots.

3. There is a widespread belief that central bank discretion always will be abused (by no means is this view totally implausible).  “Expansionary” monetary policy feels “more discretionary” than does “tight” monetary policy.  Run those two words through your mind: “expansionary,” and “tight.”  Which one sounds and feels more like “discretion”?  To ask such a question is to answer it.


There is a lot of truth in what Tyler is saying. I especially like #2. There seem especially among US conservative and libertarian intellectuals a need to be “tough”. The dogma seems to be “no pain, no gain”. This obviously is an idiotic position. It seems like the tough guys have forgotten that sometimes there are indeed gains to be made with little or no pain. Just remember what the supply siders like Arthur Laffer taught us – sometimes you can cut tax rates and increase revenues. In fact most market reforms are exactly about that – economists call it a Pareto improvement. Unlike other monetary policy rules NGDP level targeting can actually be shown to ensure Pareto optimality (yes, yes I know it is based on questionable theoretical assumptions…)

Even though I like Tyler’s explanations to his question I think there is one big problem with his comment and that is his premise that Market Monetarists are advocating “expansionary” monetary policy. We are not – at least I am not and I don’t think Scott Sumner is. I have again and again argued that NGDP level targeting is not about “stimulus” and it is certainly not discretionary. Rather NGDP level targeting is about ensuring that monetary policy is “neutral” and does not distort the price system.

As I have earlier argued that if the central bank is pursuing a policy of NGDP level targeting then (ideally) relatively prices would be unaffected by monetary policy and hence be equal to what they would have been in a pure barter economy.

This is what I have called Selgin’s Monetary Credo:

The goal of monetary policy ought to be that of avoiding unnatural fluctuations in output…while refraining from interfering with fluctuations that are “natural.” That means having a single mandate only, where that mandate calls for the central bank to keep spending stable, and then tolerate as optimal, if it does not actually welcome, those changes in P and y that occur despite that stability

Hence, what we line with George Selgin are arguing is the true Free Market alternative to the present monetary policy in for example the euro zone and the US. Contrary to for example the Taylor rule which anybody who has studied David Eagle or George Selgin would tell you is leading to distortions of relative prices. How can any conservative or libertarian advocate a monetary policy rule which distorts market prices?

Furthermore, Scott Sumner, Bill Woolsey and myself have suggested that not only should the central banks target the only non-distortionary policy rule (NGDP level targeting), but the central bank should also leave the implementation of this rule to the market through the use of predictions markets (e.g. NGDP futures). I have not seen conservative economists like John Taylor or Allan Meltzer showing such trust in the free market. (The gold bugs and Rothbard style Austrians do not even want to let the market decide on was level of reserves banks should hold…)

Of course there is a position which is even more Free Market and that is of course the Free Banking alternative. However, as I argued the Market Monetarist position and the Free Banking position are fundamentally not in conflict. In fact NGDP targeting could be seen as a privatisation strategy. Free Banking theorists like George Selgin of course understand this, but will John Taylor or Allan Meltzer go along with that idea? I think not…

But why do people get confused and think we want monetary stimulus? Well, it is probably partly our own fault because we argue that the present crisis particularly in the US and Europe is due to overly tight monetary policy and as a natural consequence we seem to be favouring “expansionary” monetary policy or “monetary stimulus”.  However, the point is that we argue that the ECB and Fed failed in 2008 and to a large extent have continued to fail ever since and that they need to undo their mistakes. But we mostly want the central bank to stop distorting relative prices and we would really just like to have a big nice “computer” called The Market to take care of the implementation of monetary policy. That is also what Milton Friedman favoured and what right-winger would be against that?

PS I assume that Tyler uses the term “right-winger” to mean somebody who is in favour of free markets. That is at least how I here use the term.

George Selgin outlines strategy for the privatisation of the money supply

I have earlier argued that NGDP targeting is a effectively emulating the outcome under a perfect Free Banking system and as such NGDP level targeting can be seen as a privatisation strategy. George Selgin has just endorsed this kind of idea in a presentation at the Italian Free Market think tank the Bruno Leoni Institute. The presentation is available on twitcam.

You can see the presentation here. You need a bit of patience if you are not Italian speaking, but George eventually switch to English. The presentation lasts around 45 minutes.

I will not go through all of George’s arguments – instead I recommend everybody to take a look at George’s presentation on your own. However, let me give a brief overview.

Basically George see a three step procedure for the privatisation of the money supply and how to go from the present fiat based monetary monopoly to what he calls a Free Banking system based on a Quasi Commodity Standard. Often Free Banking proponents tend to start out with some kind of gold standard – or at least assume that some sort of commodity standard is necessary for a Free Banking system to work. George does not endorse a gold standard. Rather he favours a privatisation strategy based on a NGDP targeting rule.

Essentially George spells out a three step procedure toward the privatisation of the money supply.

The first step (and this is especially directed towards the US Federal Reserve) is to move towards a much more flexible system provision of liquidity to the market than under the present US system where the Federal Reserve historically has relied on so-called primary dealers in the money market. George wants to abolish this system and instead wants the Fed to control the money base directly through open market operations. I fully endorse such a system. There is no reason why the monetary system and the banking system will have to be so closely intertwined as is the case in many countries. A system based on open market operations would also do away with the ad hoc nature of the many lending facilities that have been implemented in both the euro zone and the US since 2008.  George is essentially is saying what Market Monetarists have argued as well and that is that central banks should be less focused on “saving” the financial sector and more focused on ensuring the flow of liquidity (and yes, that is two very different things). George discusses these ideas in depth in his recent paper “L STREET:Bagehotian Prescriptions for a 21st-century Money Market”. I hope to return to a discussion of this paper at a later point.

The second step – and that should interest Market Monetarists – is that George comes out and strongly endorses NGDP targeting – or as George puts it a “stable rule for growth of aggregate (nominal) spending” and argues that central banks should do away with discretion in the conduct of monetary policy. George directly refers to Scott Sumner as he is making this argument. George’s preferred rate of growth of nominal spending is 2.5-3% – contrary to Scott’s suggestion of a 5% growth. That said, I am pretty sure that George would be happy if the Federal Reserve implemented Scott’s suggested rule. George is not religious about this. I on my part I am probably closer to George’s view than to Scott’s view, but again this is not overly important and practically a 5% growth rate would more or less be a return to the Great Moderation standard at least for the US. It should of course be noted that there is nothing new in the fact that George supports NGDP targeting – just read “Less than zero” folks! However, George in his presentation puts this nicely into the perspective of strategy to privatise the supply of money.

In arguing in favour of nominal spending targeting George makes it clear that it is not about indirectly ensuring some stable inflation rate in the long run, but rather “stability of (nominal) spending is the ultimate goal”. I am sure Scott will be applauding loudly. Furthermore – and this is in my view extremely important – a rule to ensure stability of nominal spending will ensure that there is no excuse for ad hoc and discretionary policy. With liquidity provision based on a flexible framework of open market operations and NGDP targeting the money supply will effectively be endogenous and any increase in money demand will always be met by an increase in the the money supply. So even if a financial crisis leads to a sharp increase in money demand there will be no argument at all for discretionary changes in the monetary policy framework. (Recently I have been talking about whether pro-NGDP targeting keynesians like Paul Krugman are saying the same as Market Monetarists. My argument is that they are not – Paul Krugman probably would hate the suggestion that monetary discretion should be given up).

Market Monetarists should have no problem endorsing these two first steps. However, the third step and that is the total privation of the supply on money will be more hard to endorse for some Market Monetarists. Hence, Scott Sumner has not endorsed Free Banking – neither has Nick Rowe nor has Marcus Nunes. However, I guess Bill Woolsey, David Beckworth and myself probably have some (a lot?) sympathy for the idea of eventually getting rid of central banks altogether.

This, however, is a rather academic discussion and at least to me the discussion of NGDP targeting and changing of central bank operating procedures for now is much more important. That said, George discusses a privatisation of the money supply based on what he calls a Quasi Commodity Standard (QCS). QCS is inspired by the technological development of the so-called Bitcoins. I will not discuss this issue in depth here, but I hope to return to the discussion once George has spelled out the idea in a paper.

Once again – have a look at George’s presentation.

HT Blake Johnson

Allan Meltzer’s great advice for the Federal Reserve

Here is Allan Meltzer’s great advice on US monetary policy:

“Repeatedly, the message has been to reduce tax rates permanently… A permanent tax cut was supposed to do what previous fiscal efforts had failed to do — generate sustained expansion of the American economy. 

No one should doubt that an expansion is desirable for US… and the rest of the world…The US government has watched the economy stagnate much too long. A policy change is long overdue. 

The problem with the advice (about fiscal easing) is that few would, and none should, believe that the US can reduce tax rates permanently. US has run big budget deficits for the past five years and accumulated a large debt that must be serviced at considerably higher interest rates in the future … And the US must soon start to finance large prospective deficits for old age pensions and health care. There is no way to finance these current and future liabilities that will not involve higher future tax rates… 

It is wrong when somebody tells the American to maintain the value of the dollar…The fluctuating rate system should work both ways. Strong economies appreciate; weak economies depreciate. 

What is the alternative? Deregulation is desirable, but it will do its work slowly. If temporary tax cuts are saved, not spent, and permanent tax cuts are impossible, the US choice is between devaluation and renewed deflation. The deflationary solution runs grave risks. Asset prices would continue to fall. Investors anticipating further asset price declines would have every reason to hold cash and wait for better prices. The fragile banking system would face larger losses as asset prices fell. 

Monetary expansion and devaluation is a much better solution. An announcement by the Federal Reserve and the government that the aim of policy is to prevent deflation and restore growth by providing enough money to raise asset prices would change beliefs and anticipations. Rising asset prices, including land and property prices, would revive markets for these assets once the public became convinced that the policy would be sustained. 

The volume of “bad loans” at US banks is not a fixed sum. Rising asset prices would change some loans from bad to good, thereby improving the position of the banking system. Faster money growth would add to the banks’ ability to make new loans, encouraging business expansion.

This program can work only if the exchange rate is allowed to depreciate. Five years of lowering interest rates has shown that there is no way to maintain the exchange rate and generate monetary expansion…

…Some will see devaluation as an attempt by the US to expand through exporting. This is a half-truth. Devaluation will initially increase US exports and reduce imports. As the economy recovers, incomes will rise. Rising incomes are the surest way of generating imports of raw materials and sub-assemblies from US trading partners.

Let money growth increase until asset prices start to rise.”

I think Allan Meltzer as a true monetarist presents a very strong case for US monetary easing and at the same time acknowledges that fiscal policy is irrelevant. Furthermore, Meltzer makes a forceful argument that if monetary policy is eased then that would significantly ease financial sector distress. The readers of my blog should not be surprised that Allan Meltzer always have been one of my favourite economists.

Meltzer indirectly hints that he wants the Federal Reserve to target asset prices. I am not sure how good an idea that is. After all what asset prices are we talking about? Stock prices? Bond prices? Or property prices? Much better to target the nominal GDP target level, but ok stock prices do indeed tend to forecast the future NGDP level pretty well.

OK, I admit it…I have been cheating! Allan Meltzer did indeed write this (or most of it), but he as not writing about the US. He was writing about Japan in 1999 (So I changed the text a little). It would be very interesting hearing why Dr. Meltzer thinks monetary easing is wrong for the US today, but right for Japan in 1999. Why would Allan Meltzer be against a NGDP target rule that would bring the US NGDP level back to the pre-crisis trend and then there after target a 3%, 4% or 5% growth path as suggested by US Market Monetarists such as Scott Sumner, Bill Woolsey and David Beckworth?

 

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