European central bankers are obsessing about everything else than monetary policy

While it is becoming increasingly clear that Europe is falling into a Japanese style deflationary trap European central bankers continue to refuse to talk about the need for monetary easing to curb deflationary pressures. Instead they seem to be focused on everything else. We have been through it all – the ECB has concerned itself with who was Prime Minister in Greece and Italy about Spanish fiscal policy, rising oil prices in 2011 and about “financial stability”. And believe it or not it has become fashionable for European central bankers to call for higher wages in Germany!

This is from Reuters (on Sunday):

The European Central Bank supports Germany‘s Bundesbank in its appeals for higher wage deals in Germany, Der Spiegel magazine quoted ECB Chief Economist Peter Praet as saying on Sunday.

Low wage agreements were needed in some crisis-hit countries in the euro zone to bolster competitiveness, the magazine quoted Praet as saying.

By contrast, in countries like Germany where “inflation is low and the labour market is in good shape”, higher earnings increases were appropriate, Der Spiegel reported him to have said.

This would help bring average wage developments in the euro zone in line with the ECB’s inflation target of close to 2 percent, his argument continued, said Der Spiegel.

The Bundesbank historically has been a strong advocate of wage restraint, but with euro zone inflation stuck below 1 percent and consumer prices rising just 1.0 percent in June in Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, some fear deflation.

Bundesbank Chief Economist Jens Ulbrich has been widely reported by German media to have encouraged German trade unions to take a more aggressive stance in wage negotiations given low levels of inflation.

First of all one should ask the question why European central bankers in this way would interfere in the determination of prices (wages). The job of the central bank is to provide a nominal anchor – not to have a view on relative prices.

Second you got to wonder what textbook European central bank economists have been reading. It seems like they have completely missed the difference between the supply side and the demand side of the economy.

We know from earlier that ECB Chief Economist Praet seems to have a bit of a problem differentiating between supply and demand shocks. Apparently this is a general problem for Eureopan central bankers – or at least Bundesbank’ Jens Ulbrich suffers from the same problem.

What Ulbrich seems to be arguing is that we should solve Europe’s deflationary problem by basically engineering a negative supply shock to the German economy. The same kind of logic has been used as an argument for the recent misguided increase in German minimum wages.

Hence, it seems like both Praet and Ulbrich actually acknowledge that there is a deflationary problem in Europe, but at the same time they very clearly fail to understand that this is a monetary phenomenon. As a consequence they come up with very odd “solutions” for the problem.

This can be easily demonstrated in a simple Cowen-Tabarak style AS/AD framework – see the graph below.

wage shock

ECB’s overly tight monetary policy has caused aggregate demand to drop shifting the AD curve from AD to AD’, which has caused a drop in inflation to below 2% (likely also soon below 0%).

The Bundesbank now wants to deal with this problem not by doing the obvious – easing monetary policy aggressive – but instead by causing a negative supply shock. Obviously if German labour unions are given further monopoly powers and/or the German minimum wage is increased then that is a negative supply shock – wages increase without an increase in productivity or demand for labour. This causes the AS curve to shift left from AS to AS’.

The result of course would be higher inflation, but real GDP growth would drop further (to y” in the graph). Or said in another way it seems like the Bundebank are advocating “solving” Europe deflationary problem by increasing the structural problems on the German labour market.

Obviously Jens Ulbrich likely would argue that this is not what he means (his reasoning seems to follow a typical 1970s style “Keynesian” macroeconometric model where there is no money and no supply side – higher wage growth cause demand to increase), but that doesn’t matter as the outcome of an exogenous negative supply shock to the German economy would be bad news for Europe rather than good news.

Stop micromanaging the European economy – and do monetary easing

It is about time that European central bankers stop obsessing about matters that have nothing to do with monetary policy – whether it is fiscal policy, financial stability or labour market conditions. They can and not should try to influence these matters. The ECB should just take these matters as given when they conduct monetary policy, but it not for them to influence these matters.

The Bundesbank or the ECB should not have a view on what the level of the public deficit in Spain is or the how much German wages should increase. The first is for the Spanish government to decide on and the second is for German employers and labour unions to negotiate. It is becoming very hard to argue for central bank independence when central bankers (mis)use this independence to interfere in non-monetary matters.

The ECB is failing badly on this at the moment has the risk of falling into a deflationary trap is increase day by day. So why do the Bundesbank and the ECB just not focus on solving that issue? Depressingly the problem is very easy to solve – also without worsening German labour market conditions.

PS The argument for higher wage growth and tight money is very similar to what caused the so-called Recession in the Depression in the US in 1937. The Roosevelt administration got increasingly concerned in 1936-37 that inflation was picking up while wage growth remained weak. The Roosevelt administration feared this would cause real wage to drop, which would cause private consumption to drop and unemployment to increase. This obviously is a very primitive form of Keynesianism (but something Keynes did in fact advocate) and today it should be clear to everybody that political attempts to cause real wages to outpace productivity will lead to higher rather than lower unemployment. And this is what happened in 1937 – the FDR administration troed push up real wages by increasing nominal wage growth and tightening monetary policy caused the recession in 1937.

PPS Unfortunately the Abe government in Japan seems to suffering from the same illusion that “engineering” a rise in real wage – without a similar rise in productivity – can help the Japanese economy.

 

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The “Weidmann rule” and the asymmetrical budget multiplier (is the euro zone 50% keynesian?)

During Christmas and New Years I have been able to (nearly) not think about monetary policy and economics, but I nonetheless came across some comments from Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann from last week, which made me think about the connection between monetary policy rules and fiscal austerity in the euro zone. I will try address these issues in this post.  

This is Jens Weidmann:

“The euro zone is recovering only gradually from the harshest economic crisis in the post-war period and there are few price risks. This justifies the low interest rate…Low price pressure however cannot be a licence for arbitrary monetary easing and we must be sure to raise rates at the right time should inflation pressure mount.”

It is the second part of the quote, which is interesting. Here Weidmann basically spells out his preferred reaction function for the ECB and what he is saying is that he bascially wants an asymmetrical monetary policy rule – when inflation drops below the ECB’s 2% inflation target the ECB should not “arbitrary” cut its key policy rate, but when inflation pressures increase he wants the ECB to act imitiately.

It is not given that the ECB actually has such a policy rule, but given the enormous influence of the Bundesbank on ECB policy making it is probably reasonable to assume that that is the case. That in my view would mean that Summer Critique does not apply (fully) to the euro zone and as a result we can think of the euro zone as being at least 50% “keynesian” in the sense that fiscal shocks will not be fully offset by monetary policy. As a result it would be wrong to assume that the budget multiplier is zero in the euro zone – or rather it is not always zero. The budget multiplier is asymmetrical.

Let me try to illustrate this within a simple AS/AD framework.

First we start out with a symmetrical policy rule – an inflation targeting ECB. Our starting point is a situation where inflation is at 2% – the ECB’s official inflation target – and the ECB will move to offset any shock (positive and negative) to aggregate demand to keep inflation (expectations) at 2%. The graph below illustrates this.

ASAD AD shock

If the euro zone economy is hit by a negative demand shock in the form of for example fiscal tightening across the currency union the AD curve inititally shifts to the left (from AD to AD’). This will push inflation below the ECB’s 2% inflation target. As this happens the ECB will automatically move to offset this shock by easing monetary policy. This will shift the AD curve back (from AD’ to AD). With a credible monetary policy rule the markets would probably do most of the lifting.

The Weidmann rule – asymmetry rules

However, the Weidmann rule as formulated above is not symmetrical. In Weidmann’s world a negative shock to aggregate demand – for example fiscal tightening – will not automatically be offset by monetary policy. Hence, in the graph above the negative shock aggregate demand (from AD to AD’) will just lead to a drop in real GDP growth and in inflation to below 2%. Given the ECB’s official 2% would imply the ECB should move to offset the negative AD shock, but that is not the case under the Weidmann rule. Hence, under the Weidmann rule a tightening of fiscal policy will lead to drop in aggregate demand. This means that the fiscal multiplier is positive, but only when the fiscal shock is negative.

This means that the Sumner Critique does not hold under the Weidman rule. Fiscal consolidation will indeed have a negative impact on aggregate demand (nominal spending). In that sense the keynesians are right – fiscal consolidation in the euro zone has likely had an negative impact on euro zone growth if the ECB consistently has followed a Weidmann rule. Whether that is the case or not is ultimately an empirical question, but I must admit that I increasingly think that that is the case. The austerity drive in the euro zone has likely been deflationary. However, it is important to note that this is only so because of the conduct of monetary policy in the euro area. Had the ECB instead had an fed style Evans rule with a symmetrical policy rule then the Sumner Critique would have applied also for the euro area.

The fact that the budget multiplier is positive could be seen as an argument against fiscal austerity in the euro zone. However, interestingly enough it is not an argument for fiscal stimulus.  Hence, according to Jens Weidmann the ECB “must be sure to raise rates at the right time should inflation pressure mount”. Said in another way if the AD curve shifts to the right – increasing inflation and real GDP growth then the ECB should offset this with higher interest rates even when inflation is below the ECB’s 2% inflation target.

This means that there is full monetary offset if fiscal policy is eased. Therefore the Sumner Critique applies under fiscal easing and the budget multiplier is zero.

The Weidmann rule guarantees deflation 

Concluding, with the Weidmann rule fiscal tightening will be deflationary – inflation will drop as will real GDP growth. But fiscal stimulus will not increase aggregate demand. The result of this is that if we assume the shocks to aggregate demand are equally distributed between positive and negative demand shocks the consequence will be that we over time will see the difference between nominal GDP in the US and the euro become larger and larger exactly because the fed has a symmetrical monetary policy rule (the Evans rule), while the ECB has a asymmetrical monetary policy rule (the Weidmann rule).

This is of course exactly what we have seen over the past five years. But don’t blame fiscal austerity – blame the Weidmann rule.

NGDP euro zone USA

PS I should really acknowledge that this is a variation over a theme stressed by Larry Summers and Brad Delong in their paper Fiscal Policy in a Depressed Economy. See my discussion of that paper here.

The fiscal cliff and why fiscal conservatives should endorse NGDP targeting

One of the hottest political topics in the US today is the so-called fiscal cliff. The fiscal cliff is the expected significant fiscal tightening, which will kick in January 2013 when the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 expires – unless a deal is struck to postpone the tightening. The fiscal cliff is estimated to amount to 4% of GDP – hence a very substantial fiscal tightening.

So how much should we worry about the fiscal cliff? Keynesians claim that we should worry a lot. The Market Monetarist would one the other hand argue that the impact of the fiscal cliff will very much depend on the response of the Federal Reserve to the possible fiscal tightening. If the Fed completely ignores the impact of the fiscal cliff on aggregate demand – if there will be any – then it would be naive to argue that there would be no impact at all on aggregate demand – after all a 4% tightening of fiscal policy in one year is very substantial.

On the other hand if the Federal Reserve had an NGDP target then the impact would likely be minimal as the Fed “automatically” would fill any “hole” in aggregate demand created by the tightening of fiscal policy to keep nominal GDP on track. This of course is the Sumner critique – the fiscal multiplier will be zero under NGDP targeting or inflation targeting for that matter.

Note that I am not making any assumptions about the how the economy works. Even if we assume we are in a Keynesian world, where the “impulse” to aggregate demand from a fiscal tightening would be negative an NGDP targeting regime would ensure that the world would look like a “classical world” (fiscal policy will have no impact on aggregate demand). This by the way would also be the case under inflation targeting – which of course is closer to the actual policy the Fed is conducting.

Said in another we should expect that if fiscal policy indeed would be strongly negative for aggregate demand in the US and push inflation sharply down then the likelihood of more aggressive monetary easing from the Fed would increase and hence sharply reduce any negative effect on aggregate demand (note that nominal GDP is really just another word for aggregate demand – at least according to Market Monetarists like myself). Therefore, we should probably be significantly less worried than some Keynesians seem to be.

Furthermore, it is notable that the US stock market continues rise and inflation expectations have been inching up recently. This is not exactly an indication that the US is facing a sharp drop in aggregate demand in 2013. We can obviously not know why the markets seem so relatively relaxed about the fiscal cliff, but I would think that the reason is that the markets are pricing in a combination of a political compromise that significantly reduces the fiscal tightening in 2013 and also is pricing an increased likelihood of QE3 becoming a reality.

So the conclusion is that Keynesian fears about the scale of the shock to aggregate demand is somewhat overblown as a combination of the Sumner critique and political logrolling will probably reduce the negative shock. We, however, can’t be sure about that so wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to worry about this issue? NGDP level targeting could seriously reduce the worries about fiscal shocks.

Fiscal conservatives should endorse NGDP targeting

Both in the US and the euro zone calls for scaling back fiscal consolidation have been growing larger and politicians like the French President Hollande and from Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong have even demanded fiscal stimulus. To me it is pretty simple – the state of public finances in most euro zone countries and the US is horrible so I fundamentally don’t think that most countries can afford much fiscal stimulus. That said, I also think that the calls for austerity is somewhat hysterical and I find it rather unlikely that the markets would react very negative if the US budget deficit became 1-2 percentage points of GDP larger next year – just look at US treasury yields it is not so that the markets are telling us that the US economy is on the verge of bankruptcy. The markets are often wrong, but government default rarely happens out of the blue.

However, from a public choice perspective we should probably think that the deeper a country falls into recession the more likely it is that the wider public will vote for politicians like Hollande and policy makers are more and more likely to start listening to economists like Paul Krugman. That unfortunately will do very little to ending the crisis. Fiscal stimulus is not the answer to our problems – monetary easing is.

So fiscal conservatives are likely going to face more and more resistance – whether we like it or not. On the other hand if the central bank was operating a credible NGDP level target then fiscal conservatives could argue that negative impact of fiscal consolidation would be met by an easing of monetary policy to keep NGDP on track. Therefore there would be no reasons to worry about fiscal tightening hitting growth and increasing unemployment.

Even better imagine that the Federal Reserve tomorrow announced that it would do as much monetary easing needed to bring back NGDP to its pre-crisis trend by for example raising  NGDP by 15% from the present level by the end of 2013. Do you then think anybody would worry about a fiscal tightening of 4% of GDP? I think not.

Therefore, the conclusion is clear to me. Fiscal conservatives should endorse NGDP level targeting as it completely would undermine any Keynesian arguments for postponing fiscal consolidation. Furthermore, a commitment to keep NGDP on track would also likely make fiscal consolidation much less unpopular and therefore the likelihood of success would also increase.

Finally I would highlight two historical examples of successful fiscal consolidation. In the mid-1990s both the US and the UK undertook significant successful fiscal reforms that led to a significant improvement in the public finances. Both was undertaken while monetary conditions was eased significantly. As a result there was very little opposition to fiscal consolidation at the time and there was basically no negative impact on US and UK growth. In fact both economies grew robustly through out the fiscal consolidation phase. This of course is the opposite of the German experience from the early 1990s where the Bundesbank completely “neutralized” any stimulus from fiscal expansion in connection with the Germany reunification (See my earlier post on that topic here.)

PS Above I have not given any attention to the supply side effects of the “scheduled” tax hikes that follows as a result of the US fiscal cliff. NGDP level targeting would not deal with that problem and the issue should certainly not be ignored. Tax hikes can never increase the long-term growth potential of any economy, but the issue is not going to have any visible impact on real GDP growth in 2013 or 2014 for that matter. Supply side effects mostly work with long and variable lags. Furthermore, I am not arguing that one should ignore the fiscal cliff just because the Fed has the power to counteract it. After all the Fed’s performance in recent years has not exactly been impressive so a political compromise would probably be helpful for US growth in 2013 – at least it would reduce some risks of the US falling back into recession.

PPS this is my blog post #400 (including guest posts) since I started blogging last year.

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Related posts:
Market Monetarism vs Krugmanism
Guest blog: NGDP Targeting is NOT just for Central Banks! (David Eagle)
The Bundesbank demonstrated the Sumner critique in 1991-92
“Meantime people wrangle about fiscal remedies”
Please keep “politics” out of the monetary reaction function
Is Matthew Yglesias now fully converted to Market Monetarism?
Mr. Hollande the fiscal multiplier is zero if Mario says so
Maybe Jens Weidmann and Francios Hollande should switch jobs
There is no such thing as fiscal policy

The Bundesbank demonstrated the Sumner critique in 1991-92

I have recently written a number of posts (here and here) in which I have been critical about Arthur Laffer’s attempt to argue against fiscal stimulus. As I have stressed in these posts I do not disagree with his skepticism about fiscal stimulus, but with his arguments (and particularly his math). It is therefore only fair that I try to illustrate my view on fiscal stimulus and why fiscal stimulus (on it own) is unlikely to work.

My view of fiscal policy is similar to that view Scott Sumner as articulated in what has been called the “Sumner critique”. According to the Sumner critique if the central bank for example targets inflation or nominal GDP any action by the government to “stimulate” aggregate demand will only work if it does not go counter to the central bank’s nominal target.

Imagine that the central bank is targeting 2% inflation and inflation and expected inflation is at exactly 2%. Now the government in an attempt to spur growth increases the government spending by 10%. In a normal AS-AD model that would shift the AD-curve to the right from AD to AD’ as illustrated in the graph below.

The increase in government spending will initially increase real GDP (output) from Y to Y’, but also push up the price level from P to P’ and hence increase inflation.

However, as the central bank is a strict ECB type inflation targeter it will have to act to the increase in inflation by tightening monetary policy to push back the price level to P (yes, yes I am “confusing” the level of prices and growth in prices, but bare with me – I might just have written the whole thing in growth rates or argued that the central bank targets the price level).

Hence, once the government announces an increase in government spending the central bank would announce that it would reduce the money base (or the growth rate in the money base) to counteract any impact on inflation from the “fiscal stimulus”. The reduction in the money base would push the AD curve back to AD.

This is the Sumner critique – the government can not beat the central bank when it comes to aggregate demand. The central bank will ultimately determine aggregate demand and if the central bank targets for example inflation, the price level or nominal GDP then fiscal policy will have no impact on aggregate demand and note that this is even the case in a situation where unemployment is above the natural rate of unemployment. Hence, we have full crowding out even in a model with sticky prices and wages and underutilization of production factors (involuntary keynesian unemployment).

Furthermore, if the inflation target is credible then investors will realise that any fiscal expansion will be counteracted by a monetary contraction. Therefore, once the fiscal expansion is announce the markets would react by starting to price in a monetary contraction – leading to a strengthening of the country’s currency, falling stock markets and lower inflation expectations – this on its own would counteract the increase in aggregate demand. This is the Chuck Norris effect in fiscal policy.

Obviously in the real world neither monetary policy nor fiscal policy is ever 100% credible and there will always be some uncertainty about the scale and commitment to fiscal expansion and uncertainty about the central bank’s reaction to the fiscal stimulus. However, anybody who have follow developments in the euro zone over the past two years will realise that “promises” of fiscal austerity have been led to a rally in the stock markets (and fixed income markets in the PIIGS countries) as the markets have priced in the impact on aggregate demand of the expected monetary easing from the ECB. This is the reverse Sumner critique – fiscal tightening will not lead to a drop in aggregate demand if the markets expect the central bank to “cover” the short-fall in aggregate demand.

Hence, I think that the Sumner critique is highly relevant for the discussion of fiscal policy today both in Europe and the US. Below I will try to illustrate the Sumner critique with an episode from recent economic history – the German reunification.

The Bundesbank took all the fun out of German reunification 

After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 West Germany and East Germany was reunified. Due to the nature of the collapse of communism in East Germany the reunification of Germany happened extremely fast. Hence, most economic-political decisions were highly influenced by political expediency and geo-political and electoral concerns rather than by rational economic considerations.

One such decisions was the imitate political unification of the two Germanys. In fact East Germany was “absorbed” into West Germany. That for example mend that all social benefits and pensions etc., which were available to West German immediately (or more or less so) became available to East Germans and more or less from day one the benefit levels became the same in the entire unified Germany. This obviously led to a rather sharp increase in German government spending. The unification obviously also led to other forms of increases in public spending – for example the Capital was moved from Bonn to Berlin.

It is always hard to estimate how large a fiscal expansion is as the budget situation is not only influenced by discretionary changes in fiscal policy, but also by so-called automatic stabilizers. However, judging from calculation made by the Bundesbank (in the 1990s) the fiscal expansion due to reunification was substantial. In 1989 the cyclical adjusted budget surplus was around 1% of GDP. However, after unification the budget swung into a deficit. In 1990 the cyclical adjusted budget deficit was 2.5% GDP and in 19991 it had increased to 4.2% of GDP. Hence, the fiscal expansion from 1989 to 1991 amounted to more than 5% of GDP. This by any measure is a substantial fiscal easing.

It is very hard to assess what impact this strong fiscal easing had on the German economy – among other things because the Germany of 1989 was not the same country as the Germany of 1990 and 1991. Furthermore, this fiscal easing coincided with significant monetary easing as it controversially was decided to exchange one East Mark for one West Mark. That led to a rather substantial initial increase in the unified Germany’s money supply. However, while it can be hard to assess the direct impact on growth from the fiscal expansion it is much easier to assess the German Bundesbank’s reaction to it.

The Bundesbank was horrified by the scale of fiscal expansion and the potential inflationary consequences and the Bundesbank did not led anybody doubt that it would have to tighten monetary policy to counteract any inflationary consequences of the unification. Secondly, it also pushed strongly for the German government to fast tighten fiscal policy to reduce the budget deficit. Hence, market participants from an early stage would have had to expect that the Bundesbank would tighten monetary policy and that it would “force” the government to tighten fiscal policy. This in many ways is the exact same thing we see in the eurozone today, where the Bundesbank dominated ECB is telling policy makers if you don’t tighten fiscal policy then we will effectively allow monetary conditions to become tighter.

Already in 1991 the Bundesbank moved to counteract perceived inflationary risks and started tightening monetary policy. In a series of aggressive interest rate hikes the Bundesbank increased its key policy rate to nearly 10% in 1992. In that regard it should be noted that the Bundesbank hiked interest rates at a time when global growth was weak due among other things a spike in global oil prices in connection with the first Gulf war. Furthermore, the Bundesbank also put significant pressure on the German government to tighten fiscal policy, which it did in 1992.

There is no doubt that the Bundesbank wanted to demonstrate its independence to the government and probably for exactly that reason chose to be even more aggressive in its monetary tightening that was warranted even according to its own thinking. As a consequence of disagreement between the German government and the Bundesbank the governor of the Bundesbank at the time Karl Otto Pöhl resigned in October 1991 after having initiated monetary tightening.

The monetary tightening in 1991-92 not only sent Germany into a deep and prolonged recession it also was the direct cause of the so-called EMS crisis in 1992-93.

This particular episode in German (and European) monetary history is a powerful illustration of the Sumner critique. It is pretty clear that even substantial fiscal easing (around 5% of GDP) did not have long lasting impact on growth in Germany due to the Bundesbank’s counteractions to curb the perceived (!) inflationary risks.  I do not claim to have proven that the fiscal multiplier is zero, but I hope I have demonstrated that it is that it is unlikely to be positive if the central bank does not play along.

In the case of Germany in the early 1990s the fiscal multiplier was probably even negative as the Bundesbank decided to punish the German government for what it perceived as irresponsible policies. Anybody who is following the political struggle among European governments and European central bankers would have to acknowledge that it is very similar to the situation in Germany after the reunification.

Consequently I think it can be concluded that monetary policy will never be able to lift aggregate demand if the central bank refuse to do so – and that will often be the case if the central bank is worried about its credibility and independence.

I am no Calvinist and I tend to think that some of the calls from certain economists for austerity is rather hysterical given our problems particular in Europe primarily are monetary, however, I do think that the Sumner critique is highly relevant and we under normal circumstances (that is circumstances where the central bank for example pursues an inflation target) should expect the fiscal multiplier to be close to zero.

We all of course also know there are numerous other problems with fiscal easing – for example any temporary increase in public spending seem to become permanent and that is hard good for long-term growth in any economy, but that discussion is more or less irrelevant for the present crisis, which in my view mostly a result of misguided monetary policies rather than failed fiscal policies.

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My discussion above was among other things inspired by Jürg Bibow paper “On the ‘burden’ of German unification” (2003) and a discussion with chief economist in the Danish think tank CEPOS Mads Lundby Hansen

Related posts:

“Meantime people wrangle about fiscal remedies”
Please keep “politics” out of the monetary reaction function
Is Matthew Yglesias now fully converted to Market Monetarism?
Mr. Hollande the fiscal multiplier is zero if Mario says so
Maybe Jens Weidmann and Francios Hollande should switch jobs
There is no such thing as fiscal policy

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