Brad, Ben (Beckworth?) and Bob

I have been a bit too busy to blog recently and at the moment I am enjoying a short Easter vacation with the family in the Christensen vacation home in Skåne (Southern Sweden), but just to remind you that I am still around I have a bit of stuff for you. Or rather there is quite a bit that I wanted to blog about, but which you will just get the links and some very short comments.

First, Brad DeLong is far to hard on us monetarists when he tells his story about “The Monetarist Mistake”. Brad story is essentially that the monetarists are wrong about the causes of the Great Depression and he is uses Barry Eichengreen (and his new book Hall of Mirrors to justify this view. I must admit I find Brad’s critique a bit odd. First of all because Eichengreen’s fantastic book “Golden Fetters” exactly shows how there clearly demonstrates the monetary causes of the Great Depression. Unfortunately Barry does not draw the same conclusion regarding the Great Recession in Hall of Mirrors (I have not finished reading it all yet – so it is not time for a review yet) even though I believe that (Market) Monetarists like Scott Sumner and Bob Hetzel forcefully have made the argument that the Great Recession – like the Great Depression – was caused by monetary policy failure. (David Glasner has a great blog on DeLong’s blog post – even though I still am puzzled why David remains so critical about Milton Friedman)

Second, Ben Bernanke is blogging! That is very good news for those of us interested in monetary matters. Bernanke was/is a great monetary scholar and even though I often have been critical about the Federal Reserve’s conduct of monetary policy under his leadership I certainly look forward to following his blogging.

The first blog posts are great. In the first post Bernanke is discussing why interest rates are so low as they presently are in the Western world. Bernanke is essentially echoing Milton Friedman and the (Market) Monetarist message – interest rates are low because the economy is weak and the Fed can essentially not control interest rates over the longer run. This is Bernanke:

If you asked the person in the street, “Why are interest rates so low?”, he or she would likely answer that the Fed is keeping them low. That’s true only in a very narrow sense. The Fed does, of course, set the benchmark nominal short-term interest rate. The Fed’s policies are also the primary determinant of inflation and inflation expectations over the longer term, and inflation trends affect interest rates, as the figure above shows. But what matters most for the economy is the real, or inflation-adjusted, interest rate (the market, or nominal, interest rate minus the inflation rate). The real interest rate is most relevant for capital investment decisions, for example. The Fed’s ability to affect real rates of return, especially longer-term real rates, is transitory and limited. Except in the short run, real interest rates are determined by a wide range of economic factors, including prospects for economic growth—not by the Fed.

To understand why this is so, it helps to introduce the concept of the equilibrium real interest rate (sometimes called the Wicksellian interest rate, after the late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Swedish economist Knut Wicksell). The equilibrium interest rate is the real interest rate consistent with full employment of labor and capital resources, perhaps after some period of adjustment. Many factors affect the equilibrium rate, which can and does change over time. In a rapidly growing, dynamic economy, we would expect the equilibrium interest rate to be high, all else equal, reflecting the high prospective return on capital investments. In a slowly growing or recessionary economy, the equilibrium real rate is likely to be low, since investment opportunities are limited and relatively unprofitable. Government spending and taxation policies also affect the equilibrium real rate: Large deficits will tend to increase the equilibrium real rate (again, all else equal), because government borrowing diverts savings away from private investment.

If the Fed wants to see full employment of capital and labor resources (which, of course, it does), then its task amounts to using its influence over market interest rates to push those rates toward levels consistent with the equilibrium rate, or—more realistically—its best estimate of the equilibrium rate, which is not directly observable. If the Fed were to try to keep market rates persistently too high, relative to the equilibrium rate, the economy would slow (perhaps falling into recession), because capital investments (and other long-lived purchases, like consumer durables) are unattractive when the cost of borrowing set by the Fed exceeds the potential return on those investments. Similarly, if the Fed were to push market rates too low, below the levels consistent with the equilibrium rate, the economy would eventually overheat, leading to inflation—also an unsustainable and undesirable situation. The bottom line is that the state of the economy, not the Fed, ultimately determines the real rate of return attainable by savers and investors. The Fed influences market rates but not in an unconstrained way; if it seeks a healthy economy, then it must try to push market rates toward levels consistent with the underlying equilibrium rate.

It will be hard to find any self-described Market Monetarist that would disagree with Bernanke’s comments. In fact as Benjamin Cole rightly notes Bernanke comes close to sounding exactly as David Beckworth. Just take a look at these blog posts by David (here, here and here).

So maybe Bernanke in future blog posts will come out even more directly advocating views that are similar to Market Monetarism and in this regard it would of course be extremely interesting to hear his views on Nominal GDP targeting.

Third and finally Richmond Fed’s Bob Hetzel has a very interesting new “Economic Brief”: Nominal GDP: Target or Benchmark? Here is the abstract:

Some observers have argued that the Federal Reserve would best fulfi ll its mandate by adopting a target for nominal gross domestic product (GDP). Insights from the monetarist tradition suggest that nominal GDP targeting could be destabilizing. However, adopting benchmarks for both nominal and real GDP could offer useful information about when monetary policy is too tight or too loose.

It might disappoint some that Bob fails to come out and explicitly advocate NGDP level targeting. However, I am not disappointed at all as I was well-aware of Bob’s reservations. However, the important point here is that Bob makes it clear that NGDP could be a useful “benchmark”. This is Bob:

At the same time, articulation of a benchmark path for the level of nominal GDP would be a useful start in formulating and communicating policy as a rule. An explicit rule would in turn highlight the importance of shaping the expectations of markets about the way in which the central bank will behave in the future. A benchmark path for the level of nominal GDP would encourage the FOMC to articulate a strategy (rule) that it believes will keep its forecasts of nominal GDP aligned with its benchmark path. In recessions, nominal GDP growth declines significantly. During periods of inflation, it increases significantly.

The FOMC would then need to address the source of these deviations. Did they arise as a consequence of powerful external shocks? Alternatively, did they arise as a consequence either of a poor strategy (rule) or from a departure from an optimal rule?

That I believe is the closest Bob ever on paper has been to give his full endorsement of NGDP “targeting” – Now we just need Bernanke (and Yellen!) to tell us that he agrees.

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UPDATE: This blog post should really have had the headline “Brad, Ben, Bob AND George”…as George Selgin has a new blog post on the new(ish) blog Alt-M and that is ‘Definitely Not “Ben Bernanke’s Blog”’

Mr. Kuroda’s credibility breakdown

This morning the Nikkei index has dropped has much as 6%. By any measure this is an extreme drop in stock prices in one day. Furthermore, we are now officially in bear market territory as the Nikkei is down more than 20% in just three weeks. I can only see one reason for this and one reason only and that is the breakdown of the credibility of Bank of Japan governor Kuroda and his commitment to fulfill his official 2% inflation target.

I would particularly highlight three events for this breakdown of credibility.

First of all I would stress that it seems like the Japanese government has been taken by surprise by the natural increase in bond yields and that is causing officials to question the course of monetary policy. This is Economy Minister Akira Amari commenting on the increase in bond yields on May 19:

“We need to enhance the credibility of government bonds to prevent a rise in long-term yields.”

This at least indirectly indicates that some Japanese government officials are questioning what the BoJ has been doing and given the highly political nature of the Japanese monetary policy setting these comments effectively could make investors question the direction of monetary policy in Japan.

Second the Minutes from Bank of Japan’s Policy board meeting on April 27 released On May 26 and comments following this week’s monetary policy meeting.

This is from the May 26 Minutes (quoted from MarketWatch):

“Regarding the effects of JGB purchases on liquidity in the JGB and repo market, a few members … expressed the opinion that it should continue to deliberate on measures to prevent a decline in liquidity”

Said in another way some BoJ board members would like the BoJ to try to keep bond yields from rising – hence responding to Mr. Amari’s fears. There is fundamentally only one way of doing this – abandoning the commitment to hit 2% inflation in two years. You can simply not have both – higher inflation and at the same time no increase in bond yields. Bond yields in Japan have been rising exactly because Mr. Kuroda has been successful in initially pushing up inflation expectations. It is that simple.

And third, at the BoJ’s monetary policy announcement this week Bank of Japan governor Kuroda failed to clarify the position of the BoJ and that undoubtedly has unnerved investors further.

5-year-inflation-expectations-japan

Hence, it is important that market turmoil does not reflect a fear of higher nominal bond yields on its own, but rather whether higher bond yields will cause the BoJ to abandon the commitment to increase inflation to 2%.

Therefore what is happening is a completely rational reaction from investors that rightly or wrongly fear that the BoJ is changing course.

As I again and again has stressed Mr. Kuroda can end the market turmoil by first of all stating that the increase nominal bond yields is no worry at all (particularly as real bond yields actually have dropped sharply) and furthermore he should clearly state that the BoJ’s focus is on inflation expectations. Hence, he should state that the BoJ effectively is ‘pegging’ market (breakeven) inflation expectations to 2%. If he did that he would effectively have hindered inflation expectations dropping over the past three weeks. The drop in Japanese inflation expectations in my view is the main cause of the turmoil in global financial markets over the past three weeks.

Should we give Mr. Kuroda a break?

I might be too harsh to Mr. Kuroda here. After all should we really expect everything to be ‘perfect’ at this early stage in the change to the monetary policy regime Japan after 15 years of failure?

This is the alway insightful Mikio Kumada commenting on Linkedin on one of my earlier posts on Japan:

“Lars, give it some time. The regime change at the BOJ is still very new and the ideological shifts in old conservative institutions, with long traditions, such as the BOJ take some time. I think Kuroda made it implicitly clear enough that higher nominal rates are ok as long as real interest rates slump/stay low.”

I think Mikio (who like a lot of market participants, central bankers and monetary policy nerds have join the Global Monetary Policy Network on Linkedin) is on to something here.

We are seeing a revolution at the BoJ so one should not really be surprised that it is not all smoothing sailing. However, on the other hand I am personally very doubtful where we are going next. Will Kuroda effectively be forced by events to abondon his commitment to 2% inflation or will he reaffirm that by becoming much more clear in his communication (don’t worry about higher nominal bond yields and communicate clearly in terms of inflation expectations).

I have my hopes, but I don’t know the answer to this question, but one thing seems clear and that is that nearly everything in the global financial markets – from the value of the South Africa rand, commodity prices and the sentiment in the US stock markets – these days dependent on what Mr. Kuroda does next. Don’t tell me that monetary policy is not important…

PS David Glasner is puzzled by what is going on the US financial markets. I think I just gave the answer above. It is not really Bernanke, but rather Mr. Kuroda David should focus on. At least this time around.

The fiscal cliff is good news

When I started this blog I set out to write about monetary policy issues – primarily from a none-US perspective – and furthermore I am on vacation with my family in Malaysia so writing this blog post goes against everything I should do – however, after listen to five minutes of debate about the ”fiscal cliff” on CNBC tonight I simply have to write this: What is your problem? Why are you so scared about fiscal consolidation? After all this is what the fiscal cliff is – a 4-5% improvement of public finances as share of GDP.

The point is that the US government is running clearly excessive public deficits and the public debt has grown far too large so isn’t fiscal tightening exactly what you need? I think it is and the fiscal cliff ensures that. Yes, I agree tax hikes are unfortunate from a supply side perspective, but cool down a bit – it is going to have only a marginally negative impact on the long-term US growth perspective that the Bush tax cuts expiries. But more importantly the fiscal cliff would mean cuts in US defense spending. The US is spending more on military hardware than any other country in the world. It seems to me that US policy makers have not realized that the Cold War is over. You don’t need to spend 5% of GDP on bombs. In fact I believe that if the entire 4-5% fiscal consolidation were done, as cuts to US defense spending the world would probably be a better place. But that is not my choice – and it is the peace-loving libertarian rather than the economist speaking (here is a humorous take on the sad story of war). What I am saying is that the world is not coming to an end if the US defense budget is cut marginally. Paradoxically US conservatives this time around are against budget consolidation. Sad – but true.

Since September the Federal Reserve has had the Bernanke-Evans rule in place. That means basically means that the Fed will step up monetary easing in response to any increase in unemployment. Hence, if the full fiscal cliff leads to any increase in unemployment the fed will counteract that with monetary easing. So effectively the fiscal cliff means fiscal tightening and monetary easing. This of course would also be the case if the fed was a strict inflation targeting central bank – that directly follows from the Sumner critique.

Fiscal consolidation and monetary easing is this is exactly what the US had in 1990s – the best period for the US economy since WWII. By at that time a Democrat President also had to work with a Republican dominated Congress.

So no, I don’t understand what there is to fear. Lower public spending and easier monetary policy is the right medine for the US economy (yes and please throw in some structural reforms as well). If that is the fiscal cliff please bring it on. It will be good for America and good for the world. And it might even be a more peaceful world.

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PS if you are really concerned about the fiscal cliff just agree on this:

1) Cut US defense spending to 2% of GDP

2) NO tax hikes

3) Commit the fed to bring back NGDP to the pre-crisis trend level through QE

Update: My version (second and third!) version of this post had an incredible amount of typos – sorry for that. I have now cleaned it up a bit.

Update 2: David Glasner also comments on the fiscal issue – David agrees with me in theory, but is more worried about the what the fed will do in the real world. When David is saying something I always listen. David is a real voice of reason – often also of moderation. That said, I strongly believe the Sumner Critique is correct. NGDP is determined by monetary policy and not by fiscal policy – so if the fiscal cliff will lead to a recession the fed will be to blame and not the US politicians (they are to blame for a lot of other things…).

More on Laffer and Estonia – just to get the facts right

Arthur Laffer’s recent piece in the Wall Street Journal on fiscal stimulus has generated quite a stir in the blogosphere – with mostly Keynesians and Market Monetarists coming out and pointing to the blatant mistakes in Laffer’s piece. I on my part I was particularly appalled by the fact that Laffer said Estonia, Finland, Slovakia and Ireland had particularly Keynesian policies in 2008.  In my previous post I went through why I think Laffer’s “analysis” is completely wrong, however, I did not go into details why Laffer got the numbers wrong. I do not plan to go through all Laffer’s mistakes, but instead I will zoom in on Estonian fiscal policy since 2006 to do some justice to the fiscal consolidation implemented by the Estonian government in 2009-10.

In his WSJ article Laffer claims that the Estonian government has pursued fiscal stimulus in response to the crisis. Nothing of course could be further from the truth. One major problem with Laffer’s numbers is that he is using public spending as share of GDP to analyze the magnitude of change in fiscal policy. However, for a given level of public spending in euro (the currency today in Estonia) a drop in nominal GDP will naturally lead to an increase in public spending as share of GDP. This is obviously not fiscal stimulus. Instead it makes more sense to look at the level of public spending adjusted for inflation and this is exactly what I have done in the graph below. I also plot Estonian GDP growth in the graph. The data is yearly data and the source is IMF.

Lets start out by looking at pre-crisis public spending. In the years just ahead of the escalation of the crisis after the collapse of Lehman Brother in the autumn of 2008 public spending grew quite strongly – and hence fiscal policy was strongly expansionary. I at the time I was a vocal critique of the Estonian’s government fiscal policies.

There is certainly reason to be critical of the conduct of fiscal policy in Estonia in the boom-years 2005-8, but it does not in anyway explain what happened in 2008. Laffer looks at changes in fiscal policy from 2007 to 2009. The problem with this obviously that he is not looking at the right period. He is looking at the period while the Estonian economy was still growing strongly. Hence, while the Estonian economy already started slowing in 2007 it was not before the autumn of 2008 that the crisis really hit. Therefore, the first full crisis year was 2009 and it was in 2009 we got the first crisis budget.

So what happened in 2009? Inflation adjusted public spending dropped! This is what makes Estonia unique. The Estonian government did NOT implement Keynesian policies rather it did the opposite. It cut spending. This is clear from the graph (the blue line). It is also clear from the graph that the Estonian government introduced further austerity measures and cut public spending further in 2010. This is of course what Laffer calls “fiscal stimulus”. All other economists in the world would call it fiscal consolidation or fiscal tightening and it is surely not something that Keynesians like Paul Krugman would recommend. On the other hand I think the Estonian government deserves credit for its brave fiscal consolidation. The Estonian government estimates that the size of fiscal consolidation from 2008 to 2010 amounts to around 17% (!) of GDP. I think this estimate is more or less right – hardly Krugmanian policies.

And maybe it is here Laffer should have started his analysis. The Estonian government did the opposite of what Keynesians would have recommend and what happened? Growth picked up! I would not claim that that had much to do with the fiscal consolidation, but at least it is hard to argue based on the data that the fiscal consolidation had a massively negative impact on GDP growth. Laffer would have known that had he actually taken care to have proper look at the data rather than just fitting the data to his story.

Laffer of course could also have told the story about the years 2011 and 2012, where the Estonian government in fact did introduce (moderate) fiscal stimulus. And what was the result? Well, growth slowed! The result Laffer was looking for! Again he missed that story. I would of course not claim that fiscal policy caused GDP growth to slow in 20011-12, but at least it is an indication that fiscal stimulus will not necessary give a boost to growth.

I hope we now got the facts about Estonian fiscal policy right.

PS David Glasner has an excellent follow-up on Laffer’s data as well.

PPS If you really want to know what have driven Estonian growth – then you should have a look at the ECB. Both the boom and the bust was caused by the ECB. It is that simple – fiscal policy did not play the role claimed by Laffer or Krugman. It is all monetary and I might do post at that at a later stage.

PPPS Time also has an article on the “Laffer controversy”

The “Dajeeps” Critique and why I am skeptical about QE3

Dajeeps is a frequent commentator on this blog and the other Market Monetarist blogs. Dajeeps also writes her own blog. Dajeeps’s latest post – The Implications of the Sumner Critique to the current Monetary Policy Framework – is rather insightful and highly relevant to the present discussion about whether the Federal Reserve should implement another round of quantitative easing (QE3).

Here is Dajeeps:

“How I came to understand the meaning of the Sumner Critique was in applying it to the question of whether the Fed should embark on another round of QE. I agree with the opponents of more QE, although violently so, because under the current policy framework, the size, duration or promises that might come with it do not matter at all. It will be counteracted as soon as the forecast of expectations breach the 2% core PCE ceiling, if it not before. But in ensuring that policy doesn’t overshoot, which it must do in order to improve economic circumstances, the Fed must sell some assets at a loss or it needs some exogenous negative shock to destroy someone else’s assets. In other words, it has no issue with destroying privately held assets in a mini-nominal shock to bring inflation expectations back down to the 48 month average of 1.1% (that *could be* the Fed-action-free rate) and avoid taking losses on its own assets.”

Said in another way – the Fed’s biggest enemy is itself. If another round of quantitative easing (QE3) would work then it likely would push US inflation above the quasi-official inflation target of 2%. However, the Fed has also “promised” the market that it ensure that it will fulfill this target. Hence, if the inflation target is credible then any attempt by the Fed to push inflation above this target will likely meet a lot of headwind from the markets as the markets will start to price in a tightening of monetary policy once the policy starts to work. We could call this the Dajeeps Critique.

I strongly agree with the Dajeeps Critique and for the same reason I am quite skeptical about the prospects for QE3. Contrary to Dajeeps I do not oppose QE3. In fact I think that monetary easing is badly needed in the US (and even more in the euro zone), but I also think that QE3 comes with some very serious risks. No, I do not fear hyperinflation, but I fear that QE3 will not be successful exactly because the Fed’s insistence on targeting inflation (rather than the price LEVEL or the NGDP LEVEL) could seriously hamper the impact of QE3. Furthermore, I fear that another badly executed round of quantitative easing will further undermine the public and political support for monetary easing – and for NGDP targeting as many wrongly seem to see NGDP targeting as monetary easing.

Skeptical about QE3, but I would support it anyway 

While I am skeptical about QE3 because I fear that Fed would once again do it in the wrong I would nonetheless vote for another round of QE if I was on the FOMC. But I must admit I don’t have high hopes it would help a lot if it would be implemented without a significant change in the way the Fed communicates about monetary policy.

A proper target would be much better

At the core of the problems with QE in the way the Fed (and the Bank of England) has been doing it is that it is highly discretionary in nature. It would be much better that we did not have these discussions about what discretionary changes in policy the Fed should implement. If the Fed had a proper target – a NGDP level target or a price level target – then there would be no discussion about what to expect from the Fed and even better if the policy had been implemented within the framework of a futures based NGDP level target as Scott Sumner has suggested then the money base would automatically be increased or decreased when market expectations for future level of nominal GDP changed.

For these reasons I think it makes more sense arguing in favour of a proper monetary target (NGDP level targeting) and a proper operational framework for the Fed than to waste a lot of time arguing about whether or not the Fed should implement QE3 or not. Monetary easing is badly needed both in the US and the euro zone, but discretionary changes in the present policy framework is likely to only have short-term impact. We could do so much better.

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Related posts:

Steve Horwitz on why he oppose QE3. I disagree with Steve on his arguments and is not opposing QE3, but I understand why he is skeptical

David Glasner on why Steve is wrong opposing QE3. I agree with David’s critique of Steve’s views.

My own post on why NGDP level targeting is the true Free Market alternative – we will only convince our fellow free marketeers if we focus on the policy framework rather than discretionary policy changes such as QE3.

My post on QE in the UK. In my post I among other things discuss why Bank of England’s inflation target has undermined the bank’s attempt to increase nominal spending. This should be a lesson for the Federal Reserve when it hopefully implements QE3.

See also my old post on QE without a proper framework in the UK.

Hjalmar Schacht’s echo – it all feels a lot more like 1932 than 1923

The weekend’s Greek elections brought a neo-nazi party (“Golden Dawn”) into the Greek parliament. The outcome of the Greek elections made me think about the German parliament elections in July 1932 which gave a stunning victory to Hitler’s nazi party. The Communist Party and other extreme leftist also did well in the Greek elections as they did in Germany in 1932. I am tempted to say that fascism is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. At least that was the case in Germany in 1932 as it is today in Greece. And as in 1932 central bankers does not seem to realise the connection between monetary strangulation and the rise of extremist political forces.

The rise of Hitler in 1932 was to a large extent a result of the deflationary policies of the German Reichbank under the leadership of the notorious Hjalmar Schacht who later served in Hitler’s government as Economics Ministers.

Schacht was both a hero and a villain. He successfully ended the 1923 German hyperinflation, but he also was a staunch supporter of the gold standard which lead to massive German deflation that laid the foundation for Hitler’s rise to power. After Hitler’s rise to power Schacht helped implement draconian policies, which effectively turned Germany into a planned economy that lead to the suffering of millions of Germans and he was instrumental in bringing in policies to support Hitler’s rearmament policies. However, he also played a (minor) role in the German resistance movement to Hitler.

The good and bad legacy of Hjalmar Schacht is a reminder that central bankers can do good and bad, but also that central bankers very seldom will admit when they make mistakes. This is what Matthew Yglesias in a blog post from last year called the Perverse Reputational Incentives In Central Banking.

Here is Matt:

I was reading recently in Hjalmar Schacht’s biography Confessions of the Old Wizard … and part of what’s so incredible about it are that Schacht’s two great achievements—the Weimar-era whipping of hyperinflation and the Nazi-era whipping of deflation—were both so easy. The both involved, in essence, simply deciding that the central bank actually wanted to solve the problem.

To step back to the hyperinflation. You might ask yourself how things could possibly have gotten that bad. And the answer really just comes down to refusal to admit that a mistake had been made. To halt the inflation, the Reichsbank would have to stop printing money. But once the inflation had gotten too high for Reichsbank President Rudolf Havenstein to stop printing money and stop the inflation would be an implicit admission that the whole thing had been his fault in the first place and he should have done it earlier…

…So things continued for several years until a new government brought Schacht on as a sort of currency czar. Schacht stopped the private issuance of money, launched a new land-backed currency and simply . . . refused to print too much of it. The problem was solved both very quickly and very easily…

…The institutional and psychological problem here turns out to be really severe. If the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee were to take strong action at its next meeting and put the United States on a path to rapid catch-up growth, all that would do is serve to vindicate the position of the Fed’s critics that it’s been screwing up for years now. Rather than looking like geniuses for solving the problem, they would look like idiots for having let it fester so long. By contrast, if you were to appoint an entirely new team then their reputational incentives would point in the direction of fixing the problem as soon as possible.

Matt is of course very right. Central banks and central banks alone determines inflation, deflation, the price level and nominal GDP. Therefore central banks are responsible if we get hyperinflation, debt-deflation or a massive drop in nominal GDP. However, central bankers seem to think that they are only in control of these factors when they are “on track”, but once the nominal variables move “off track” then it is the mistake of speculators, labour unions or irresponsible politicians. Just think of how Fed chief Arthur Burns kept demanding wage and price controls in the early 1970s to curb inflationary pressures he created himself by excessive money issuance.  The credo seems to be that central bankers are never to blame.

Here is today’s German central bank governor Jens Weidmann in comment in today’s edition of the Financial Times:

Contrary to widespread belief, monetary policy is not a panacea and central banks’ firepower is not unlimited, especially not in the monetary union. First, to protect their independence central banks in the eurozone face clear constraints to the risks they are allowed to take.

…Second, unconditional further easing would ignore the lessons learned from the financial crisis.

This crisis is exceptional in scale and scope and extraordinary times do call for extraordinary measures. But we have to make sure that by putting out the fire now, we are not unwittingly preparing the ground for the next one. The medicine of a near-zero interest rate policy combined with large-scale intervention in financial markets does not come without side effects – which are all the more severe, the longer the drug is administered.

I don’t feel like commenting more on Weidmann’s comments (you can pretty well guess what I think…), but I do note that German long-term bond yields today have inch down further and is now at record low levels. Normally long-term bond yields and NGDP growth tend to move more or less in sync – so with German government 10-year bond yields at 1.5% we can safely say that the markets are not exactly afraid of inflation. Or said in another way, if ECB deliver 2% inflation in line with its inflation target over the coming decade then you will be loosing 1/2% every year by holding German government bonds. This is not exactly an indication that we are about to repeat the mistakes of the Reichbank in 1923, but rather an indication that we are in the process of repeating the mistakes of 1932. The Greek election is sad testimony to that.

PS David Glasner comments also comments on Jens Weidmann. He is not holding back…

PPS Scott Sumner today compares the newly elected French president Francois Hollande with Léon Blum. I have been having been thinking the same thing. Léon Blum served as French Prime Minister from June 1936 to June 1937. Blum of course gave up the gold standard in 1936 and allowed a 25% devaluation of the French franc. While most of Blum’s economic policies were grossly misguided the devaluation of the franc nonetheless did the job – the French economy started a gradual recovery. Unfortunately at that time the gold standard had already destroyed Europe’s economy and the next thing that followed was World War II. I wonder if central bankers ever study history…They might want to start with Adam Tooze’s Wages of Destruction.

Update: See Matt O’Brien’s story on “Europe’s FDR? How France’s New President Could Save Europe”. Matt is making the same point as me – just a lot more forcefully.

Glasner on “Friedman and Schwartz on James Tobin”

David Glasner is a very nice and friendly person, but I have to admit that David always scares me a bit – especially when I disagree with him. For some reason when David is saying something I am inclined to agree with him even if I think he is wrong. There are two areas where David and I see things differently. One the “hot potato” theory of money and two our view of Milton Friedman. I tend to think that the way Nick Rowe – inspired by Leland Yeager – describes the monetary disequilibrium theory make a lot of sense. David disagrees with Nick. Similiarly I have an (irrational?) love of Milton Friedman so I tend to think he is right about everything. David on the other hand is much more skeptical about Friedman.

Now David has post in which he makes the argument that Friedman nearly had the same view as James Tobin on the hot potato theory of money – which of course is stark opposition to Nick’s view. So now I have a problem – if he is right I must either betray uncle Milt or revise my view of the hot potato theory of money. Ok, that is not entirely correct, but you get the drift.

Anyway I don’t have a lot of time to write a long post and David’s discussion is much more interesting than what I can come up with. So have a look for yourself here.

I will be traveling quite a bit in the coming weeks so I am not sure how much blogging I will have time for. I will be in Riga, Stockholm, London, Dublin, Moscow and New York in the next couple of weeks so I might run into some of my local readers.

PS David sent me Tobin’s article long ago and I must admit that I have not read it carefully enough to be able to argue strongly for or against it.

Josh Barro do indeed favour NGDP level targeting

A couple of days ago I noted that Josh Barro had a good understanding of US monetary policy and the causes of the Great Recession. In my post I wondered whether Josh also would favour NGDP level targeting.

He is Josh’s “answer”:

I would prefer to see the Federal Reserve adopt a rule, such as NGDP level targeting, that would lay out an orderly path for monetary easing in recessions and tightening upon recovery. But I don’t think we need to worry about the Federal Reserve losing its grip on any ad-hoc decisions to allow some moderate inflation. It’s just not in this Fed’s nature—and the markets know it.

The quote above is from an article today in on the Forbes website where he discusses Amity Shlaes’ very odd claim that Milton Friedman would have been against QE in the US over the last couple of years. I don’t want to go into that discussion (I will simply become too upset…). Let me instead quote Josh:

The Cleveland Fed inflation estimates, based on financial market data including the interest rate spread between ordinary and inflation-protected Treasury bonds, show expected inflation of 1.4 percent per year over the next ten years. So, if Shlaes knows about an inflation bomb that the young guns on Wall Street can’t see, she has the opportunity to go make a ton of money in the bond markets.

Inflation isn’t nearly as mysterious as Shlaes makes it out to be. Milton Friedman is on point here: “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon in the sense that it is and can be produced only by a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output.” If inflation starts to get out of control, all the Fed has to do is contract the money supply.

The Fed is sure to have to do this in the medium term. The housing crash, banking crisis and recession caused a sharp drop in the velocity of money. MV = PQ, so the Fed had to greatly expand the monetary base in order to prevent deflation. As the velocity of money picks up, the Fed will need to contract the monetary base to prevent rapid inflation.

If it’s this simple, why do countries ever have undesirably high inflation? Sometimes, as with Zimbabwe, it’s because they’re printing money as a fiscal strategy. At other times, as in the U.S. in the 1970s, there is insufficient political will for the sometimes-painful step of monetary contraction.

The former is not a serious fear in the United States. As for the latter, it is possible to imagine a central bank that lacks the discipline to tighten when appropriate. But not this Federal Reserve, which has a strong bias toward disinflation and many of whose members seem to have had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the insufficient amount of easing we have had to date.

Josh is obviously completely right and I hope that he in the future will continue to participate in the debate concerning US monetary policy and continue to advocate NGDP level targeting.

PS David Glasner also has a comment on Amity Shlaes’ claims concerning QE and Milton Friedman – HEALTH WARNING! My friend David is moderately critical of Friedman in his comment – despite of this we are still friends;-)

UPDATE: Scott Sumner also has a comment on Josh Barro.

Chuck Norris just pushed S&P500 above 1400

Today S&P500 closed above 1400 for the first time since June 2008. Hence, the US stock market is now well above the levels when Lehman Brothers collapsed in October 2008. So in terms of the US stock market at least the crisis is over. Obviously that can hardly be said for the labour market situation in the US and most European stock markets are still well below the levels of 2008.

So what have happened? Well, I think it is pretty clear that monetary policy has become more easy. Stock prices are up, commodity prices are rising and recently US long-term bond yields have also started to increase. As David Glasner notices in a recent post – the correlation between US stock prices and bond yields is now positive. This is how it used to be during the Great Moderation and is actually an indication that central banks are regaining some credibility.

By credibility I mean that market participants now are beginning to expect that central banks will actually again provide some nominal stability. This have not been directly been articulated. But remember during the Great Moderation the Federal Reserve never directly articulated that it de facto was following a NGDP level target, but as Josh Hendrickson has shown that is exactly what it actually did – and market participants knew that (even though most market participants might not have understood the bigger picture). As a commenter on my blog recently argued (central banks’) credibility is earned with long and variable lags (thank you Steve!). Said in another way one thing is nominal targets and other thing is to demonstrate that you actually are willing to do everything to achieve this target and thereby make the target credible.

Since December 8 when the ECB de facto introduced significant quantitative easing via it’s so-called 3-year LTRO market sentiment has changed. Rightly or wrongly market participants seem to think that the ECB has changed it’s reaction function. While the fear in November-December was that the ECB would not react to the sharp deflationary tendencies in the euro zone it is now clear that the ECB is in fact willing to ease monetary policy. I have earlier shown that the 3y LTRO significantly has reduced the the likelihood of a euro blow up. This has sharply reduced the demand for save haven currencies – particularly for the US dollars, but also the yen and the Swiss franc. Lower dollar demand is of course the same as a (passive) easing of US monetary conditions. You can say that the ECB has eased US monetary policy! This is the opposite of what happened in the Autumn of 2010 when the Fed’s QE2 effectively eased European monetary conditions.

Furthermore, we have actually had a change in a nominal target as the Bank of Japan less than a month ago upped it’s inflation target from 0% to 1% – thereby effectively telling the markets that the bank will step up monetary easing. The result has been clear – just have a look at the slide in the yen over the last month. Did the Bank of Japan announce a massive new QE programme? No it just called in Chuck Norris! This is of course the Chuck Norris effect in play – you don’t have to print money to see monetary policy if you are a credible central bank with a credible target.

So both the ECB and the BoJ has demonstrated that they want to move monetary policy in a more accommodative direction and the financial markets have reacted. The markets seem to think that the major global central banks indeed want to avoid a deflationary collapse and recreate nominal stability. We still don’t know if the markets are right, but I tend to think they are. Yes, neither the Fed nor the ECB have provide a clear definition of their nominal targets, but the Bank of Japan has clearly moved closer.

Effective the signal from the major global central banks is yes, we know monetary policy is potent and we want to use monetary policy to increase NGDP. This is at least how market participants are reading the signals – stock prices are up, so are commodity prices and most important inflation expectations and bond yields are increasing. This is basically the same as saying that money demand in the US, Europe and Japan is declining. Lower money demand equals higher money velocity and remember (if you had forgot) MV=PY. So with unchanged money supply (M) higher V has to lead to higher NGDP (PY). This is the Chuck Norris effect – the central banks don’t need to increase the money base/supply if they can convince market participants that they want an higher NGDP – the markets are doing all the lifting. Furthermore, it should be noted that the much feared global currency war is also helping ease global monetary conditions.

This obviously is very good news for the global economy and if the central banks do not panic once inflation and growth start to inch up and reverse the (passive) easing of monetary policy then it is my guess we could be in for a rather sharp recovery in global growth in the coming quarters. But hey, my blog is not about forecasting markets or the global economy – I do that in my day-job – but what we are seeing in the markets these days to me is a pretty clear indication of how powerful the Chuck Norris effect can be.  If central banks just could realise that and announced much more clear nominal targets then this crisis could be over very fast…

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PS For the record this is not investment advise and should not be seen as such, but rather as an attempt to illustrate how the monetary transmission mechanism works through expectations and credibility.

PPS a similar story…this time from my day-job.

Glasner on Austrian economics

Here is David Glasner – great as always:

“I had just started getting interested in Austrian economics – while my contemporaries were experimenting with drugs, I was experimenting with Austrian economics; go figure! I sure hope no permanent damage was done”

This from a great comment on the 1920-21 US Recession.

 

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