Don’t bet on a real appreciation of the renminbi

It rarely happens, but Scott Sumner and I do sometimes disagree on something.

Not surprisingly this time it is on a (mostly) non-monetary matter – the long-term outlook for the Chinese economy.

In my recent post I argued that China might NEVER become the largest economy in the world. Scott – a self-proclaimed Sinophile – strongly disagree with my claim. Here is Scott:

I have several problems with this argument.  First, if Lars really feels PPP is wrong, and that we should use nominal figures, then he should not be talking about China having recently grown at 7 to 7.5% per year.  In PPP terms China may have been growing at 7.5% vs. 2% in the US, but in nominal terms the gap is far wider, due to the Balassa-Samuelson effect.  China’s real exchange rate has appreciated strongly over the past decade.  So if Lars is right that nominal exchange rates are the right test, then China’s been catching up to the US at a rate far faster than either Lars or I assume. And in that case China’s nominal growth could slow dramatically and yet still be growing far faster than the US (where trend NGDP growth is now about 3%, in my view.)  Lars avoids this problem by assuming the Balassa-Samuelson effect will suddenly come to a screeching halt, whereas I think the yuan is headed to 4 to the dollar.  He also assumes a 3% RGDP growth rate for the US, whereas I believe it will be closer to 1.2%, growing over time to perhaps 2% in a few decades.

Other than it is a bit paradoxical that Scott aka Mr. NGDP is so eager to dismiss using nominal terms rather than real terms when it comes to comparing the absolute size of an economy the real disagreement comes down to whether there is a Balassa-Samuelson effect or not. According to the the BS effect relatively poorer countries – such as China – will see its exchange rate appreciate in real terms relative to richer countries such as the US.

In my China-post I assumed that there was no BS effect – and that the relative exchange rate between China and the US in the future would be determined by the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). This assumption of course means that there is no difference whether we use real or nominal growth rates in GDP when comparing the relative size of the Chinese and the US economy (both measured in US dollars).

I acknowledged in my post that my no-BS effect assumption was a bit brave and I would happily agree that there is nothing theoretically wrong with the Balassa-Samuelson effect. However, I would also say that having worked professionally with forecasting Emerging Markets currencies for nearly 15 years I would be extremely skeptical about its importance of it from an empirical perspective. I will return to that below.

Scott often argues that the markets is the best thing we have to predict the future. I strongly agree with that. Despite of that Scott makes a bold prediction on the outlook for the Chinese renminbi.

Hence, Scott not only predicts a real appreciation of the renminbi, but he also argues “I think the yuan is headed to 4 to the dollar” – hence significant nominal appreciation.

That is an extremely bold prediction given USD/CNY today is trading around 6.15. Said in another way Scott is basically predicting a 50% appreciation of the renminbi! This is in direct contrast to what the markets are predicting. If we for example are looking at a 1-year forward for USD/CHY the market is now predicting around 2% depreciation of the renminbi. So we should ask Scott – do you believe markets are efficient or not?

A look at South Korea and Taiwan tells us we should not expect Chinese real appreciation

There is also another way to think about whether or not we will see a real Chinese appreciation or not in the coming decades and that is by looking at the experience of similar countries. China’s transition and its catching-up process is often compared to South Korea and Taiwan. Therefore, I have looked that the historical development in in the South Korean won and Taiwan dollar.

I have chosen 1990 as my “reference year”. The reason is that at that time South Korea’s and Taiwan’s GDP/capita relative to the US were more or less where Chinese GDP/capita is today compared to the US.

Lets first have a look at South Korea.

Real won.jpg

The first thing we see it that PPP seems to have been a pretty good “predictor” of the long-term development in the won over the long-term. I have calculated PPP based on the relative development in the GDP deflators in South Korea and the US.

But lets return to the question of real appreciation. Has there been a real appreciation of the won (against the dollar) since 1990? The answer is NO. In fact there has been a slight depreciation of the won in real terms.

But of course South Korea went through a major crisis in 1997 so it might be special. So lets instead look at Taiwan.

real TWD

Guess what? Since 1990 the Taiwan dollar has actually depreciated significantly in real terms against the US dollar. Maybe exactly because it has appreciated in the years ahead of 1990.

No matter the reason both the Taiwanese and the South Korean experience tell us that real currency appreciation is no given or automatic part of the catching up process for economies like South Korea, Taiwan or China.

A closer look at the renminbi’s recent real appreciation

In his comment Scott makes the following comment China’s recent appreciation of the renminbi:

“China’s real exchange rate has appreciated strongly over the past decade”

The graph below shows that Scott’s claim is correct.

Real CNY

But the graph also shows that the renminbi was more or less flat against the dollar in real terms from the early 1990s until 2005-6. Hence, we had at least 15 years of economic catch-up without any real appreciation of the CNY at all. Hence, again it is fair to argue that real appreciation does not automatically follow from economic catch-up. The period from 1990 to 2006 shows that quite clearly.

Furthermore, we want to ask ourself whether the real appreciation over the past decade really is a result of economic transition and catching up or something else. Hence, it is quite clear that over this period the People’s Bank of China have tried to curb inflationary pressures by undertaking a managed strengthening of the renminbi against the dollar – both in nominal and real terms. That process might now be coming to an end as the Chinese economy has slowed rather dramatically and inflationary pressures clearly have eased as well – particularly since 2011-12.

Finally let us again return to the examples of South Korea and Taiwan. The graph below shows the real exchanges of South Korea, Taiwan and China (against the US dollar). ‘Year zero’ is 1990 for South Korea and Taiwan, while ‘year zero’ is 2014 for China. Hence, the graph is “calibrated” so all three countries are at a similar income level versus the US in ‘year zero’.

Real KRW TWD CNY

 

I think the graph is quite telling – the appreciation of the renminbi over the past decade has been fairly similar in size to the appreciation in the in won and the Taiwanese dollar in the decade ahead of 1990. However, as also illustrated above that real appreciation didn’t continue. In fact a decade later both KRW and TWD had depreciated more than 10% in real terms against the US dollar.

This of course is not a prediction for what will happen – it is just an illustration that based on the experience of Taiwan and South Korea there is no reason to expect continued real appreciation of the renminbi.

So my message to Scott is – don’t bet on a real appreciation of the renminbi!

PS Scott uses the term yuan and I here have used the term renminbi. Renminbi is the official name for the Chinese currency and yuan is the main unit of currency.

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China might NEVER become the biggest economy in the world

It is often assumed that given China’s remarkable growth rates over the past three decades – around 10% real GDP per year – China is on the way to soon becoming the largest economy in the world. In fact earlier this year it got a lot of media attention that when the World Bank argued that China already had overtaken the US as the largest in economy in the world. However, the argument was completely bogus as it was based on Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) rather than on actual exchange rates (To be fair we should blame the media rather than the World Bank for this interpretation of the data).

PPP based measures of GDP (per capita) might make sense if we want to measure how much an average citizen can buy for given an average income, however, it does not make sense when we want to measure the size of the economy. There we have to use measures based on actual exchange rates and if we do that then it turns out that the Chinese economy is still significantly smaller than the US economy. Hence, total Chinese GDP today is around 10 trillion USD, while US GDP is around bn 17-18 trillion USD. Said in another way the US economy is still nearly double the size of the Chinese economy.

And what I will argue in this post is that China might never overtake the US as the biggest economy in the world.

Chinese growth set to slow dramatically in the coming decades

There is a broad consensus among long-term macroeconomic forecasters that the Chinese economy is likely to slow significantly in the coming quarters – starting today!

There are overall three reasons why this is the case:

1) The catching-up process means less and less: A very large part of China fantastic growth performance over the past three decades is due to a “natural” catching up process. When poor economies – like the Chinese economy three decades ago – is freed up a catching up process is started. This means a lot for low-income economies, but as income levels increase the catching up process slows down. This is already the case for China.

2) Investment growth is likely to slow significantly: Fixed investments as share of GDP in China is extremely high – well above 40% of GDP. This is at least 10-15 %-point more than in other countries with a similar GDP/capita level. This to some extent reflect capital misallocation in the Chinese economy as investment decision in the Chinese economy to a large extent still is a result of quasi-central planing. It is therefore natural to expect investment growth to slow quite significantly in the coming decades.

3) China is facing serious demographic challenges: You can blame the Communist Party’s one-child policy or come up with other explanations but the fact is that the Chinese labour force is now already in decline and the decline will continue in the coming decades and soon the Chinese population will be in outright decline.

So from a growth-accounting perspective we have it all – less Total Factor Productivity growth – as the catch-up process slows, a slower increase in the capital stock and finally a declining labour force.

It is therefore hardly surprising that most long-term forecasts made for the Chinese economy forecast a rather significant slowdown in Chinese growth in the coming decades (See for example here.)

Closing in on the US, but China might never make it

It is commonly argued that trend growth presently is around 7-7.5% in China, however, it is equally common to argue that we will see a slowdown in real GDP growth to an average of around 5-6% in the coming 10-15 years. But the real slowdown comes after 2030 where the Chinese economy is expected by most long-term forecasters to start to approaching Japanese style growth rates and outright negative trend-growth should not be ruled out in the 2050s based on reasonable expectations about demographics, the investment ratio and the catching-up process.

Obviously it is difficult to make any macroeconomic forecasts. However, I would actually argue that it in many ways it is easier to make forecast 10-20 years ahead than 1-2 years ahead. When we do short-term forecast the shocks will always mess up our forecasts, but over a 10-20 years horizon the positive and negative shocks tend to even out. Furthermore, in the long-run it is all about supply side factors and with the growth rate of the labour force being a major factor we already know quite a bit. Hence, we have a pretty good idea about the growth of the Chinese labour force in 15-20 years as the people entering the labour force as young adults in 15 or 20 years already have been born.

I have gone through a number of studies of the long-term growth perspectives for the Chinese economy and based on that we can make a simple “simulation” of how the level of Chinese real GDP will develop from now and until 2060. I should stress it is not a forecast as such and lets therefore just stick with the term “simulation” of future Chinese real GDP under reasonable assumptions about the development in technology and in productions factors.

The graph below illustrates my argument that China might never overtake the US as the largest economy in the world. Here is my assumptions (and they can certainly debated, but they are not much different from the “consensus” forecasts for long-term growth in China and the US). I assume that trend real GDP growth in China over the next 15 years will be 6% – slowing from presently 7.5% to 4.5% in 2030. Hereafter the negative demographics in China really kick in and as a result trend growth drops to an average of just 2% for the period 2030-2060.

I have indexed Chinese real GDP at 55 in 2014 – reflecting that Chinese GDP (in USD) is around 55% of US GDP. In my simulation I have assumed that US trend real GDP growth is 3%. This is probably slightly optimistic compared to the “consensus” among long-term forecasters, but it is basically the growth rate we rather consistently have seen in the US economy since the early 1960s. The American demographic challenges are somewhat smaller than is the case for China and I find it rather likely that the US gradually will adjust immigration policies so meet these challenges (I certainly hope so…)

It is important to stress that I here assume that the there is no real appreciation or depreciation in the USD/RMB exchange rate (no Balassa-Samuelson effect). Hence, the exchange rate development is determined by relative inflation in the US and China. This might twist the results slightly against China. On the other hand I have also assumed that the output gap is zero in both countries. In fact the output gap in the US is still negative, while the output gap in China likely is close to zero or even positive. This twists the results against the US. Lets just (completely unreasonably) say that these factors even out each other.

China will NEVER catch up

So there you go. You see under these – simplistic – assumptions the Chinese economy will continue to gain on the US economy over the next two decades. However, under these assumptions (and I again stress it is assumptions) it will be close (around 90%), but no cigar for the Chinese economy – the Chinese economy will never be the largest economy in the world – or at least not in my life time and I do plan to live to at least 2060.

Furthermore, starting around 2040 China will stop catching up and instead see its economy decline relative to the US and in 2060 we will be more or less back where we started with Chinese GDP being around 60% of US GDP.

Now you might say that these results are too negative in terms of China or too positive in terms of the US and that might very well be the case. However, I do think that my simulations illustrate that China is not automatically set for global economic and financial domination. So while China – for a period – might become a bigger economy than the US – if we for example assumption 2.5% US trend growth rather than 3% – the negative demographics will start to kick in soon and that will ensure that the US economy will remain the biggest economy in the world – also in 50 years. This also means that it is quite hard to imagine in my view that the “financial centre” of the world will move to China and I find it extremely hard to imagine that the Chinese renminbi will take over of the role as the leading reserve currency of the world from the US dollar.

But there is no reason to cry for the Chinese

So China might never become the biggest economy in the world. However, that should really not be important for the Chinese. It might be for Chinese policy makers, but the average Chinese should instead celebrate the fact that outlook for his/her income level remains very bright and income growth for the individual Chinese is likely to remain very high in the coming decades. So the discussion above should not really be seen as being “bearish” on China. In fact I am rather optimistic about the Chinese “miracle” continuing in the coming decades. We should celebrate that, but we might never be able to celebrate the day the Chinese economy overtakes the US in absolute size.

The risk of Chinese monetary policy failure

Back in October 2012 I wrote a blog post on what I called “My favourite Chinese monetary graph. In this post I am returning to this topic as I think the monetary developments in China has become increasing worrying.

My focus was on the development in M1:

Imagine a 4% inflation target – this year’s Chinese inflation target – trend real GDP growth 10-11% and money-velocity growth between -1% and 0% then the money supply (M1) should grow by 15-16% to ensure the inflation target  in the medium term. This is more or less a description of Chinese monetary policy over the past decade.

Over the past decade People’s Bank of China has been targeting M1 (and M2) growth exactly around 15-16% (give and take a bit…). Overall the PBoC has managed to hit its money supply target(s) and that has more or less ensured nominal stability in in China over the past decade.

I find it useful to track the growth of M1 versus two idealized targets path of 15% and 16% going back to 2000. This is my favourite graph for the Chinese economy.

This is how the updated M1 graph looks today:

M1 China Feb 2014

Back in October 2012 the actual level of M1 had just broken below the 16% trend line and since then M1 has kept inching downward compared to both the 16% and 15% trend lines and recently we have broken 15% tend line. This is obviously a very crude measure of monetary conditions in China, but I nonetheless think that the indication is pretty clear – monetary conditions are clearly getting tighter in China and I think it is fair to say that monetary conditions are disinflationary rather than inflationary.

Since my October 2012-post distress has clearly increased in the Chinese money markets and growth worries have certainly increased. Furthermore, given it is hard to ignore the connection between the continued tightening of monetary conditions in China and the turmoil we have seen in Emerging Markets over the past 6-12 months – after all China is a global monetary superpower.

It is time to ease Chinese monetary conditions 

I think that is totally appropriate that the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) initiated monetary tightening in early 2010 and overall the tightening has been warranted – even though it has had negative market implications for particularly some Emerging Markets. However, it is obviously not the task of the PBoC to conduct monetary policy for Brazil or Turkey for that matter. However, I think it is now pretty clear that Chinese monetary conditions has become too tight for China.

However, the PBoC has been extremely reluctant to step up monetary easing. In my view there are overall two reasons for this. First, PBoC obviously is worried that it could “reflate the bubble”. Second, the Chinese policy makers clearly seem to think that Chinese trend real GDP growth has declined and I would certainly agree that Chinese trend growth likely is closer to 7-8% y/y than to 10%.

So there likely has been good reason for a more cautious monetary policy approach in China, but if we indeed assume that Chinese trend growth has declined to for example 7-8% and money velocity on average decline 0-1% per year and the PBoC wants to hit 2-4%  inflation over the medium-term then M1 needs to growth by at least 9-13% (7+0+2 and 8+1+4).

Since October 2012 – when I put out my original post – Chinese M1 has actually averaged 9%, which is in the lower end of the range I think is necessary to avoid monetary policy to becoming excessively tight. Furthermore, it should be noted that the increased financial distress in China over the past year likely is pushing down both money velocity and the Chinese money multiplier, which in itself is disinflationary.

Concluding, I think there is little doubt that Chinese monetary conditions are becoming excessively tight – so far it is probably not catastrophic, but I can’t help thinking that the risk of nasty credit events increase significantly when economies go from a boom to a disinflationary weak growth scenario – said in another way I really fear is a “secondary deflation”.

PS A look at M2 growth would likely paint a slightly less scary picture.

PPS The growth rate of M1 in January 2014 was extremely weak (1.2% y/y). I am not certain what to make of the numbers, but it was what really got me to write this blog post.

Indian superstar economists, Egyptian (not so liberal!) dictators, the Great Deceleration and Taliban banking regulation – Some more unfocused musings

While the vacation is over for the Christensen family I have decided to continue with my unfocused musings. I am not sure how much I will do of this kind of thing in the future, but it means that I will write a bit more about other things than just monetary issues. My blog will still primarily be about money, but my readers seem to be happy that I venture into other areas as well from time to time. So that is what I will do.

Two elderly Indian economists and the most interesting debate in economics today

In recent weeks an very interesting war of words has been playing out between the two giants of Indian economic thinking – Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen. While I don’t really think that they two giants have been behaving themselves in a gentlemanly fashion the debate it is nonetheless an extremely interesting and the topic the are debate – how to increase the growth potential of the Indian economy – is highly relevant not only for India but also for other Emerging Markets that seem to have entered a “Great Deceleration” (see below).

While Bhagwati has been arguing in favour of a free market model Sen seems to want a more “Scandinavian” development model for India with bigger government involvement in the economy. I think my readers know that I tend to agree with Bhagwati here and in that regard I will also remind the readers that the high level of income AND the high level of equality in Scandinavia were created during a period where all of the Scandinavian countries had rather small public sectors. In fact until the mid-1960s the role of government in Scandinavia was more limited than even in the US at the same time.

Anyway, I would recommend to anybody interested in economic development to follow the Bhagwati-Sen debate.
Nupur Acharya has a good summery of the debate so and provides some useful links. See here.

By the way this is Bhagwati’s new book – co-authored with Arvind Panagariya.

Bhagwati

The Economics of Superstar Economists

Both Bhagwati and Sen are what we call Superstar economists. Other superstar economists are people like Tyler Cowen and Paul Krugman. Often these economists are also bloggers. I could also mention Nouriel Roubini as a superstar economist.

I have been thinking about this concept for a while  and have come to the conclusion that superstar economists is the real deal and are extremely important in today’s public debate about economics. They may or may not be academics, but the important feature is that they have an extremely high public profile and are very well-paid for sharing their views on everything – even on topics they do not necessarily have much real professional insight about (yes, Krugman comes to mind).

In 1981 Sherwin Rosen wrote an extremely interesting article on the topic of The Economic of Superstars. Rosen’s thesis is that superstars – whether in sports, cultural, media or the economics profession for that matter earn a disproportional high income relative to their skills. While, economists or actors with skills just moderately below the superstar level earn significantly less than the superstars.

I think this phenomenon is increasingly important in the economics profession. That is not to say that there has not been economic superstars before – Cassel and Keynes surely were superstars of their time and so was Milton Friedman, but I doubt that they were able to make the same kind of money that Paul Krugman is today.  What do you think?

The Great Deceleration – 50% structural, 50% monetary

The front page of The Economist rarely disappoints. This week is no exception. The front page headline (on the European edition) is “The Great Deceleration” and it is about the slowdown in the BRIC economies.

I think the headline is very suiting for a trend playing out in the global economy today – the fact that many or actually most Emerging Markets economies are loosing speed – decelerating. While the signs of continued recovery in the developed economies particularly the US and Japan are clear.

The Economist rightly asks the question whether the slowdown is temporary or more permanent. The answer from The Economist is that it is a bit of both. And I agree.

There is no doubt that particularly monetary tightening in China is an extremely important factor in the continued slowdown in Emerging Markets growth – and as I have argued before China’s role as monetary superpower is rather important.

However, it is also clear that many Emerging Markets are facing structural headwinds – such as negative demographics (China, Russia and most of the rest of Central and Eastern Europe), renewed “Regime Uncertainty” (Egypt, Turkey and partly South Africa) and old well-known structural problems (for example the protectionism of India and Brazil).  Maybe it would be an idea for policy makers in Emerging Markets to read Bhagwati and Panagariya’s new book or even better Hernando de Soto’s “The Mystery of Capital – Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else”

Egypt – so much for “liberal dictators”

While vacationing I wrote a bit Hayek’s concept of the “liberal dictator” and how that relates to events in Egypt (see here and here). While I certainly think that the concept a liberal dictatorship is oxymoronic to say the least I do acknowledge that there are examples in history of dictators pursuing classical liberal economic reforms – Pinochet in Chile is probably the best known example – but in general I think the idea that a man in uniform ever are going to push through liberal reforms is pretty far-fetched. That is certainly also the impression one gets by following events in Egypt. Just see this from AFP:

With tensions already running high three weeks after the military ousted president Mohamed Morsi, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s call for demonstrations raises the prospect of further deadly violence.

…Sisi made his unprecedented move in a speech broadcast live on state television.

“Next Friday, all honourable Egyptians must take to the street to give me a mandate and command to end terrorism and violence,” said the general, wearing dark sunglasses as he addressed a military graduation ceremony near Alexandria.

You can judge for yourself, but I am pretty skeptical that this is going to lead to anything good – and certainly not to (classical) liberal reforms.

Just take a look at this guy – is that the picture of a reformer? I think not.

Dictator

Banking regulation and the Taliban

Vince Cable undoubtedly is one of the most outspoken and colourful ministers in the UK government. This is what he earlier this week had to say in an interview with Finance Times about Bank of England and banking regulation:

“One of the anxieties in the business community is that the so called ‘capital Taliban’ in the Bank of England are imposing restrictions which at this delicate stage of recovery actually make it more difficult for companies to operate and expand.”

While one can certainly question Mr. Cable’s wording it is hard to disagree that the aggressive tightening of capital requirements by the Bank of England is hampering UK growth. Or rather if one looks at tighter capital requirements on banks then it is effectively an tax on production of “private” money. In that sense tighter capital requirements are counteracting the effects of the quantitative easing undertaken by the BoE. Said in another way – the tight capital requirements the more quantitative easing is needed to hit the BoE’s nominal targets.

That is not to say that there are not arguments for tighter capital requirements particularly if one fears that banks that get into trouble in the future “automatically” will be bailed out by the taxpayers and the system so to speak is prone to moral hazard. Hence, higher capital requirements in that since is a “second best” to a strict no-bailout regime.

However, the tightening of capital requirements clearly is badly timed given the stile very fragile recovery in the UK economy. Therefore, I think that the Bank of England – if it wants to go ahead with tightening capital requirements – should link this the performance of the UK economy. Hence, the BoE should pre-annonce that mandatory capital and liquidity ratios for UK banks and financial institutions in general will dependent on the level of nominal GDP. So as the economy recovers capital and liquidity ratios are gradually increased and if there is a new setback in economy capital and liquidity ratios will automatically be reduced. This would put banking regulation in sync with the broader monetary policy objectives in the UK.

 

PBoC governor Zhou Xiaochuan should give Jeff Frankel a call (he is welcome to call me as well)

Jeffrey Frankel of course is a long-term advocate of NGDP targeting, but recently he has started to advocate that if central banks continue to target inflation then they should target producer prices (the GDP deflator) rather than consumer prices. As anybody who reads this blog knows I tend to agree with this position.

Jeff among other places has explained his position in his 2012 paper “Product Price Targeting—A New Improved Way of Inflation Targeting”In this paper Jeff explains why it makes more sense for central banks to target product prices rather than consumer prices.

Terms of trade volatility poses a serious challenge to the inflation targeting (IT) approach to monetary policy. IT had been the favoured monetary regime in many quarters. But the shocks of the last five years have shown some serious limitations to IT, much as the currency crises of the late 1990s showed some serious limitations to exchange rate targeting. There are many variations of IT: focusing on headline versus core CPI, price level versus inflation, forecasted inflation versus actual, and so forth. Some interpretations of IT are flexible enough to include output in the target at relatively short horizons. But all orthodox interpretations focus on the CPI as the choice of price index. This choice may need rethinking in light of heightened volatility in prices of commodities and, therefore, in the terms of trade in many countries.

A CPI target can lead to anomalous outcomes in response to terms of trade fluctuations. Textbook theory says it is helpful for exchange rates to accommodate terms-of-trade shocks. If the price of imported oil rises in world markets, a CPI target induces the monetary authority to tighten money
enough to appreciate the currency—the wrong direction for accommodating an adverse movement in the terms of trade. If the price of the export commodity rises in world markets, a CPI target prevents monetary tightening consistent with appreciation as called for in response to an improvement in the terms of trade. In other words, the CPI target gets it exactly backward.

An alternative is to use a price index that reflects a basket of goods that the country in question produces, including those exported, in place of an index that reflects the basket of goods consumed, including those imported. It could be an index of export prices alone or a broader index of all goods produced domestically. I call the proposal to use a broad output-based price index as the anchor for monetary policy Product Price Targeting (PPT).

It is clear that Jeff’s PPT proposal is related to his suggestion that commodity exporters should target export prices – what he calls Peg-the-Export-Price (PEP) and I have termed the Export Price Norm (EPN). A PPT or PEP/EPN is obviously closer to the the Market Monetarist ideal of targeting the level of nominal GDP than a “normal” inflation target based on consumer prices is. In that regard it should be noted that the prices in nominal GDP is the GDP deflator, which is the price of goods produced in the economy rather than the price of goods consumed in the economy.

The Chinese producer price deflation

The reason I am writing about Jeff PPT’s proposal this morning is that I got reminded of it when I saw an article on CNBC.com on Chinese producer prices today. This is from the article:

The deflationary spiral in China’s producer prices that has plagued factories in the mainland for 16 consecutive months highlights the weakening growth momentum in the world’s second largest economy, said economists…

…The producer price index (PPI) dropped 2.7 percent in June from the year ago period, official data showed on Tuesday, compared to a fall of 2.9 percent in May. Producer prices in China have been declining since February 2012, weighed down by falling commodity prices, overcapacity and weakening demand.

…China’s consumer inflation, however, accelerated in June, driven by a rise in food prices.

China’s consumer price index (CPI) rose 2.7 percent in June from a year earlier, slightly higher than a Reuters forecast of 2.5 percent, and compared to a 2.1 percent tick up in the previous month. However, June’s reading is well under the central bank’s 3.5 percent target for 2013.

This I think pretty well illustrates Jeff’s point. If the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) was a traditional – ECB style – inflation target’er focusing solely on consumer prices then it would be worried about the rise in inflation, while if the PBoC on the other hand had a producer price target then it would surely now move to ease monetary policy.

Measuring Chinese monetary policy “tightness” based on PPT

In the pre-crisis period from 2000 to 2007 Chinese producer prices on average grew 2.3% y/y. Therefore, lets say that the PBoC de facto has targeted a 2-2.5% level path for producer prices. The graph below compares the actual level of producer prices in China (Index 2000=100) with a 2% and a 2.5% path respectively.  We can see that producer prices started to decline during the second part of 2011 and dropped below the 2.5% path more or less at the same time and dropped below the 2% path in the last couple of months. So it is probably safe to say that based on a PPT measure Chinese monetary policy has become tighter over the past 18 months or so and have become excessively tight within the last couple of quarters.

PPI China

The picture that emerges from using a ‘Frankel benchmark’ for monetary policy “tightness” hence is pretty much in line with what we see from other indicators of monetary conditions – the money supply, NGDP, FX reserve accumulation and market indicators.

It therefore also seems fair to say that while monetary tightening probably was justified in early 2010 one can hardly justify further monetary tightening at this stage. In fact there are pretty good reasons – including PPT – that Chinese monetary policy has become excessive tight and I feel pretty confident that that is exactly what Jeff Frankel would tell governor Zhou if he gave him a call.

Angola should adopt an ‘Export-Price-Norm’ to escape the ‘China shock’

It might be a surprise to most people but one of the fastest growing economies in the world over the last 10-15 years has been Angola. A combination of structural reforms and a commodity boom have boosted growth in the oil-rich African country. However, Angola is, however, at a crossroad and the future of the boom might very well now be questioned.

It is monetary tightening in China, which is now threatening the boom. The reason for this is that Angola has received significant direct investments from China over the past decade and the rising oil prices have fueled oil exports. However, as the People’s Bank of China continues to tighten monetary conditions in China it will likely have two effects. First, it is likely to reduce Chinese investments – also into Angola. Second, the slowdown in the Chinese economy undoubtedly is a key reason for the decline in oil prices. Both things are obviously having a direct negative impact on the Angolan economy.

Angola’s monetary policy is likely to exacerbate the ‘China shock’ 

This is how the IMF describes Angola’s monetary regime:

Angola’s de facto exchange arrangement has been classified as “other managed” since October 2009. The Banco Nacional de Angola (BNA) intervenes actively in the foreign exchange market in order to sterilize foreign currency inflows in the form of taxes paid by oil companies. Auctions were temporarily suspended from April 20 to October 1, 2009 leading to the establishment of a formal peg. Since the resumption of auctions, the kwanza has depreciated. However, the authorities maintain strong control over the exchange rate, which is the main anchor for the monetary policy. The BNA publishes a daily reference rate, which is computed as the transactionweighted average of the previous day’s rates negotiated with commercial banks. Banks and exchange bureaus may deal among themselves and with their customers at rates that can be freely negotiated provided they do not exceed the reference rate by more than 4 percent.

Hence Angola de facto operates a pegged exchange rate regime and it is pretty clear in my view that this regime is likely to exacerbate the negative impact from the ‘China shock’.

The China shock is likely to lead to depreciation pressures on the Angolan kwanza in two ways. First the drop in global oil prices is likely to push down Angolan export prices – more or less by a one-to-one ratio. Second, the expected drop in Chinese investment activity is likely to also reduce Chinese direct investments into Angola. The depreciation pressures could potentially become very significant. However, if the Angolan central bank tries to maintain a quasi-pegged exchange rate then these depreciation pressures will automatically translate into a significant monetary tightening. The right thing to do is therefore obvious to allow (if needed) the kwanza to depreciate to adjust to the shock.

There are two ways of ensuring such depreciation. The first one is to simply to allow the kwanza to float freely. That however, would necessitate serious reforms to deepen the Angolan capital markets and the introduction of an nominal target – such as either an inflation target or an NGDP target. Even though financial markets reforms undoubtedly are warranted I have a hard time seeing that happening fast. Therefore, an alternative option – the introduction of a Export Price Norm (EPN) is – is clearly something the Angolan authorities should consider. What I call EPN Jeff Frankel originally termed Peg-the-Export-Price (PEP).

I have long been a proponent of the Export Price Norm for commodity exporting economies such as Russia, Australia or Angola (or Malaysia for that matter). The idea with EPN is that the commodity exporting economy pegs the currency to the price of the commodity it exports such as oil in the case of Angola. Alternatively the currency should be pegged to a basket of a foreign currency (for example the dollar) and the oil price. The advantage of EPN is that it will combine the advantages of both a floating exchange (an “automatic” adjustment to external shocks) and of a pegged exchange rate (a rule based monetary policy). Furthermore, for a country like Angola where nearly everything that is being produced in the country is exported the EPN will effectively be an quasi-NGDP target as export growth and aggregate demand growth (NGDP growth) will be extremely highly correlated. So by stabilizing the export price in local currency the central bank will effectively be stabilizing aggregate demand and NGDP.

Operationally it would be extremely simple for the Angolan central bank to implement an EPN regime as al it would take would be to target a basket of for example oil and US dollars, which would not be very different operationally than what it is already doing. Without having done the ‘math’ I would imagine that a 20% oil and 80% US dollar basket would be fitting. That would provide a lot of projection against the China shock.

And if it turns out that China is not slowing and oil prices again will rise an EPN will just lead to an ‘automatic’ appreciation of the kwanza and monetary tightening of Angolan monetary conditions and in that way be a very useful tool in avoiding that skyrocketing oil prices and booming inward investments do not lead to the formation of for example property bubbles (many would argue that there already is a huge property bubble in the Angola economy – take a look 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

China is now targeting 9% NGDP growth

Did I get your attention? No China has not announced an NGDP level targeting regime, but did so in an indirect fashion. Let me explain why. The clever French economist Nicolas Goetzmann pointed me to this quote on ft.com:

“Speaking to several thousand current and retired Communist party officials in the Great Hall of the People, Mr Hu, who along with Premier Wen Jiabao has steered China for the past decade, also unveiled economic targets, saying the government would strive to double rural and urban incomes by the end of 2020.”

If you want to double the income level in China towards 2020 then that would mean 9% nominal GDP on average per year (Nicolas educated me on that as well). So de facto Mr. Hu just announced an 9% NGDP level target. And as Nicolas also convinced me – this is very good communication as it effectively is a level target rather than a growth target. If NGDP falls behind the target one year then growth will have to be higher the next year to hit the target in the 2020 income target.

Chinese officials seem to think that trend real GDP growth is likely to slow to around 7% in the coming decade – as the catch-up potential is reduced and China is facing demographic headwinds. That would effectively mean that China is now targeting a medium inflation rate around 2% (9%-7%).

As I have shown in an earlier post the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) more or less kept money supply (M1) growth around 15-16% for a little bit more than a decade. Obviously PBoC has to target a lower rate of money supply growth to hit a 9% NGDP target. Since 2000 M1 velocity has dropped around 1% so a M1 target consistent with a 9% NGDP target would likely mean 10% M1 growth. That is significantly faster than now, but also significantly lower than what used to be the case.

However, China is continuing to liberalize its financial markets and velocity is therefore likely to be less stable than it used to be the case, which will make money supply targeting much more challenging. Therefore the PBoC should obviously start to move towards NGDP targeting rather than money supply targeting. A really (really!) optimistic spin on Mr. Hu speech is that China indeed is moving in that direction.

Finally thanks to Nicolas for the pointer to Mr. Ho’s speech. If you like this post give the credit to Nicolas, but if you hated it blame me. Have a look at Nicolas blog (in French – I have understand nothing…) here.

Dangerous bubble fears

Here is Swedish central bank governor Stefan Ingves in an op-ed piece in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet last week:

“I also have to take responsibility for the long term consequences of today’s monetary policy…And there are risks associated with an all too low interest rate over a long period, which cannot be ignored.”

Said in another way if we keep interest rates too low we will get bubbles. So despite very clear signs that the Swedish economy is slowing Ingves would not like to ease monetary policy. Ingves in that sense is similar to many central bankers around the world. Many central bankers have concluded that the present crisis is a result of a bubble that bursted and the worst you could do is to ease monetary policy – even if the economic data is telling you that that is exactly what you should.

The sentiment that Ingves is expressing is similar to the view of the ECB and the fed in 2008/9: We just had a bubble and if we ease too aggressively we will get another one. Interestingly enough those central banks that did well in 2008/9 and eased monetary policy more aggressively and therefore avoided major crisis today seem to be most fearful about “bubbles”. Take the Polish central bank (NBP). The NBP in 2009 allowed the zloty to weaken significantly and cut interest rates sharply. That in my view saved the Polish economy from recession in 2009 – Poland was the only country in Europe with positive real GDP growth in 2009. However, today the story is different. NBP hiked interest rates earlier in the year and is now taking very long time in easing monetary policy despite very clear signs the Polish economy is slowing quite fast. In that sense you can say the NBP has failed this year because it did so well in 2009.

The People’s Bank of China in many ways is the same story – the PBoC eased monetary policy aggressively in 2009 and that pulled the Chinese economy out of the crisis very fast, but since 2010 the PBoC obviously has become fearful that it had created a bubble – which is probably did. To me Chinese monetary policy probably became excessively easy in early 2010 so it was right to scale back on monetary easing, but money supply growth has slowed very dramatically in the last two years and monetary policy now seem to have become excessively tight.

So the story is the same in Sweden, Poland and China. The countries that escaped the crisis did so by easing monetary conditions. As their exports collapsed domestic demand had to fill the gap and easier monetary policy made that possible. So it not surprising that these countries have seen property prices continuing to increase during the last four years and also have seen fairly strong growth in private consumption and investments. However, this now seem to be a major headache for central bankers in these countries.

I think these bubble fears are quite dangerous. It was this kind of fears that led the fed and the ECB to allow monetary conditions to become excessive tight in 2008/9. Riksbanken, NBP and the PBoC now risk making the same kind of mistake.

At the core of this problem is that central bankers are trying to concern themselves with relative prices. Monetary policy is very effective when it comes to determine the price level or nominal GDP, but it is also a very blunt instrument. Monetary policy cannot – and certainly should not – influence relative prices. Therefore, the idea that the central bank should target for example property prices in my view is quite a unhealthy suggestion.

Obviously I do not deny that overly easy monetary policy under certain circumstances can lead to the formation of bubbles, but it should not be the job of central bankers to prick bubbles.

The best way to avoid that monetary policy do not create bubbles is that the central bank has a proper monetary target such as NGDP level targeting. Contrary to inflation targeting where positive supply shocks can lead to what Austrians call relative inflation there is not such a risk with NGDP level targeting.

Let’s assume that the economy is hit by a positive supply shock – for example lower import prices. That would push down headline inflation. An inflation targeting central bank – like Riksbanken and NBP – in that situation would ease monetary policy and as a result you would get relative inflation – domestic prices would increase relative to import prices and that is where you get bubbles in the property markets. Under NGDP level targeting the central bank would not ease monetary policy in response to a positive supply shock and inflation would drop ease, but the NGDP level would on the other hand remain on track.

However, the response to a demand shock – for example a drop in money velocity – would be symmetric under NGDP level targeting and inflation target. Both under IT and NGDP targeting the central bank would ease monetary policy. However, this is not what central banks that are concerned about “bubbles” are doing. They are trying to target more than one target. The first page in the macroeconomic textbook, however, tells you that you cannot have more policy targets than policy instruments. Hence, if you target a certain asset price – like property prices – it would mean that you effectively has abandoned your original target – in the case of Riksbanken and NBP that is the inflation target. So when governor Ingves express concern about asset bubbles he effective has said that he for now is not operating an inflation targeting regime. I am sure his colleague deputy governor Lars E. O. Svensson is making that argument to him right now.

I don’t deny that bubbles exist and I am not claiming that there is no bubbles in the Swedish, Polish or Chinese economies (I don’t know the answer to that question). However, I am arguing that monetary policy is a very bad instrument to “fight” bubbles. Monetary policy should not add to the risk of bubbles, but “bubble fighting” should not be the task of the central bank. The central bank should ensure nominal stability and let the market determine relative prices in the economy. Obviously other policies – such as tax policy or fiscal policy should not create moral hazard problems through implicit or explicit guarantees to “bubble makers”.

Japan has been in a 15 year deflationary environment with falling asset prices and a primary reason for that is the Bank of Japan’s insane fear of creating bubbles. I doubt that the Riksbank, NBP or the PBoC will make the same kind of mistakes, but bubbles have clearly led all three central banks to become overly cautious and as a result the Swedish, the Polish and the Chinese economy are now cooling too much.

I should stress that I do not suggest some kind of “fine tuning” policy, but rather I suggest that central banks should focus on one single policy target – and I prefer NGDP level targeting – and leave other issues to other policy makers. If central banks are concerned about bubbles they should convince politicians to implement policies that reduce moral hazard rather than trying to micromanage relative prices and then of course focus on a proper and forward looking monetary policy target like NGDP level targeting.

PS Note that I did not mention the interest rate fallacy, but I am sure Milton Friedman would have told governor Ingves about it.
PPS You can thank Scandinavian Airlines for this blog post – my flight from London to Copenhagen got cancelled so I needed to kill some time before my much later flight.

Related posts:

Boom, bust and bubbles
The luck of the ‘Scandies’
Four reasons why central bankers ignore Scott Sumner’s good advice

My favourite Chinese monetary graph

Imagine a 4% inflation target – this year’s Chinese inflation target – trend real GDP growth 10-11% and money-velocity growth between -1% and 0% then the money supply (M1) should grow by 15-16% to ensure the inflation target  in the medium term. This is more or less a description of Chinese monetary policy over the past decade.

Over the past decade People’s Bank of China has been targeting M1 (and M2) growth exactly around 15-16% (give and take a bit…). Overall the PBoC has managed to hit its money supply target(s) and that has more or less ensured nominal stability in in China over the past decade.

I find it useful to track the growth of M1 versus two idealized targets path of 15% and 16% going back to 2000. This is my favourite graph for the Chinese economy. See here:

From 2000 to 2008 M1 grew more or less in line with the 15-16% idealized paths. However, when the global crisis hit in late 2008 the PBoC reacted to the drop in velocity caused by the crisis by stepping up monetary easing and M1 growth accelerated dramatically.

This obviously is contrary to what happened in the US and the euro zone and this in my view is why the crisis was so relatively short-lived and benign in China.

However, the PBoC might have overdone it a bit on the “easy side” and that might have contributed to the formation of certain bubbles in the Chines economy and we all know the stories of Chinese “ghost cities”.

The PBoC undoubtedly has been aware of the risks associated with the monetary easing after 2008 and this undoubtedly is the key reason why the PBoC in 2010 started to slow money supply growth.

Given the speed of the slowdown from nearly 40% M1 growth at the peak in 2010 to less the 5% earlier this year it is hardly surprising that the Chinese economy has slowed quite a bit since 2010. Despite the sharp slowdown in M1 the PBoC has been reluctant in restarting money easing and M1 is still well below the 15-16% pre-crisis growth rates. However, as the graph shows the actual level of M1 is now back within the 15-16% path range and the PBoC therefore should no longer worry that it’s 4% inflation target will be jeopardized.

The PBoC might of course begin to suffer from the same bubble-scare that both the ECB and the fed suffered from in 2008 and that might of course postpone monetary easing, but a simple monetary analysis shows that there would be little medium-term inflation risks if the PBoC would bring back M1 to the 15-16%. For the sake of the global economy we can only hope that the PBoC is more monetarist than the their colleagues in the ECB and the fed.

PS from a Market Monetarist perspective we should note that the Chinese stock market has outperformed the global markets recently. That is an indication that Chinese monetary conditions indeed are getting easier. The September M1 and M2 data tell the same story.

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