One step closer to euro zone deflation

This is from CNBC:

Euro zone consumer inflation came in lower than expected in December, adding to concerns that the euro zone could be heading towards a period of deflation.

Consumer prices rose by 0.8 percent year-on-year in December, below the 0.9 percent expected by economists. It comes after inflation increased by 0.9 percent in November.

Day by day it is becoming more and more clear that the euro zone is heading for deflation and despite of this the ECB so far has failed to act and it is blatantly obvious that the ECB is in breach of its own mandate to secure “price stability” defined as 2% inflation.

The failure to act is also a clear demonstration that the ECB in fact has an asymmetrical monetary policy rule (what I have called the Weidmann rule). The ECB will tighten monetary policy when inflation increases, but will not ease when inflation drops.

Depressing…

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

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

This is Jens Weidmann:

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

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

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

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

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

ASAD AD shock

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

The Weidmann rule – asymmetry rules

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

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

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

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

The Weidmann rule guarantees deflation 

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

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

NGDP euro zone USA

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

European horror graph of the day – the Greek price level collapse

It has been said that the recent decline in European inflation to a large extent is due to a positive supply shock. This is to some extent correct and it is something I have acknowledged on a number of occassions. However, the main deflationary problem comes from the demand side of the European economy and the fact that monetary policy remains extremely tight in the euro zone is the main cause of the deflationary pressures in the European economy. A simple (but incomplete) way to strip out supply side effects from the price level is to look at the GDP deflator. This is what I here have done for Greece. This is the horror graph of the day – it is the level of the Greek GDP deflator relative to the pre-crisis trend (2000-7).

greek-price-level

I challenge my readers to find ANY example from history where such a collapse in the price level has ended in anything else than tears. PS note that there are no signs of inflationary pressures in the Greek economy escalating prior to the crisis. This is not about imbalances, but about a negative monetary policy shock.

HAWKISH Market Monetarists

Over the past five years Market Monetarists have gotten a reputation for always being dovish in terms of monetary policy. The Market Monetarists have day-in and day-out been pushing for monetary easing in the US, the UK and the euro zone. So our reputation is correct in the sense that we – the Market Monetarists – in general have favoured a more dovish monetary stance both in the US and in Europe than has been implemented by central banks.

However, one might notice that the Market Monetarist bloggers have been surprisingly calm in recent months despite the sharp decline in inflation we have see in particularly Europe. Overall, we have obviously maintained that monetary policy in the euro zone is far too tight and that we are heading for deflation as a result of this. But the primary cause of the sharp decline in headline inflation in the euro zone has been lower commodity prices and to some extent also a result of an “austerity pause” (no indirect tax hikes).

Hence, Market Monetarists do not think a decline in inflation due a positive supply shock in itself should trigger interest rate cuts (or other forms of monetary policy easing). Remember Market Monetarists favour nominal GDP targeting and a supply shock will not impact nominal GDP – only composition of nominal GDP growth between inflation and real GDP growth.

As a result Market Monetarists actually tend to be somewhat less alarmed by the recent inflation decline in the euro zone than for example the ECB and in that sense you can argue that the Market Monetarists actually are more “hawkish” than the ECB presently is when it comes to the need for monetary easing in response to the recent decline in euro zone inflation. When Market Monetarists are calling for monetary easing in the euro zone it is hence for a somewhat different reason than the ECB.

Monetary policy remains overly tight in the euro zone and we are likely heading for deflation – even disregarding the recent supply side driven drop in inflation – and that is why we – the Market Monetarists are advocating monetary easing in the euro zone. Just a look at the dismail growth of nominal GDP in the euro zone – there is no better indication than that of the ECB’s failure to ease monetary policy appropriately. So we shouldn’t be too sad if the ECB moves to ease monetary policy – even if Market Monetarists think it is for the wrong reasons.

In 3-5 years the Market Monetarists will be among the biggest hawks

If we are lucky we continue to see supply side conditions improve both in the US and the euro zone in the coming years. I am personally particular optimistic about the outlook for the US economy, where I do expect a number of factors to give a welcomed lift to US potential growth. The end of the so-called commodity super cycle and fracking might hopefully to reduce oil prices. This is a positive supply shock to the US economy.

Furthermore, as I am optimistic that the US is in the process of ending two wars – the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. I will return to that issue in a later blog post, but I overall think that this is the direction we are moving in and that will be tremendously positive for the US labour supply (and public finances for that matter).

Finally, as the US economy continues to improve the present anti-immigration sentiment in the US will hopefully be reversed – after all Americans are more happy to welcome Mexicans to join the labour force when the economy is doing good rather than bad.

Add to that that US unemployment is still high so there is really no labour market constrains to growth at the moment in the US. So overall, I think we with a bit of luck could be in for a couple of years of fairly high real GDP growth driven by positive supply side factors. In such a scenario we could easily have 4% or even 5% real GDP growth for some years without any substantial pick-up in inflation. This would be very similar to mid-1990s.

Such a scenario would likely in 3-5 years time turn the Market Monetarist bloggers into proponents of Fed tightening – before most other economists would favour it. This would particularly be the case if the Fed overdo it on monetary easing in a scenario where positive supply side factors keep inflation low and hence we see a sharp pick-up in nominal GDP growth. This would of course be what Austrians call relative inflation.

So no, Market Monetarists are not always dovish. We advocate clear monetary policy rules and these rules sometimes leads us to advocate a dovish stance on monetary (as presently), but also to a hawkish stance if needed. For now I have no big fears that US monetary policy is becoming too easy, but if I am right about my “supply side optimism” then a Fed too focused on headline inflation might overdo it on the easy side down the road.

There is of course only one way to avoid such a monetary policy mistake – spell out a clear NGDP level targeting rule today.

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PS The ECB today did NOTHING to avoid deflation in the euro zone. No comments on that other than the ECB missed yet another opportunity to do the right thing.

PPS My best guess is that Scott Sumner will be a ultra hawk on US monetary policy in 2018-9.

Good and bad deflation – and horribly low euro zone M3 growth

I had an up-ed in today’s edition of the Danish Business daily Børsen. Here is the English translation:

Recently inflation has fallen sharply in most European countries and in some countries we already have deflation, and it is very likely that deflation will spread to several European countries in the near future.

In Sweden inflation has already fallen below zero , as is the case in several southern European countries.

There is certainly reason to fear deflation. In the 1930s deflation was allowed to spiral out of control and the consequences were disastrous. But in this context it is extremely important to remember that there are good and bad deflation.

The overall price level in the economy may fall for two reasons. First, productivity increases may cause prices to fall. As will falling input prices – for example lower oil prices. Second, a general contraction in aggregate demand – for example due to tighter monetary policy – can reduce the price level.

Economists normally call productivity increases and falling oil positive supply shock. They are unilaterally positive as an positive supply shock overall increases prosperity. That’s the good deflation.

Conversely a general decline in prices, which is a result of weak aggregate demand – a negative demand shock – is purely negative as it usually leads to higher unemployment and lower capacity utilization in the economy. That’s the bad deflation.

In general the economic development in Europe in the last five years has been characterized by very weak demand development. It has created ​​clear deflationary trends in several European economies. That certainly has not been good. It has been a bad deflation.

However, the recent decline in European inflation we have seen is primarily a result of falling oil prices – that is a good deflation, which in shouldn’t be a worry. The paradox is that these recent (positive) deflationary trends in the European economy seems to have caused the European Central Bank to wake up and reduce interest rates and it is now being speculated that the ECB will undertake further action to ease monetary policy.

According to the monetary policy textbook central banks should not respond to “good deflation”. This obviously could give reason to question the fact that the ECB is now finally moving to ease monetary policy. But the truth is that the ECB in the past five years have failed to sufficiently aggressively ease monetary policy to to avoid bad deflation.

Therefore, one can rightly say that the ECB is doing the right thing by easing monetary policy, but basically for the wrong reasons. But let’s just be happy that the ECB finally makes the right decision – to ease monetary policy – even if it is not for the right reasons.

The big question is now how the ECB will ease monetary policy when interest rates are already close to zero. But this “problem” is easily solved. A central bank can always ease monetary policy – even when the interest rate is zero. The Federal Reserve and Bank of Japan have solved this problem. They have simply increases the monetary base. The ECB has so far been very reluctant to move in this direction, but the fact that we are now moving toward deflation in the euro zone may also cause the ECB to move forward in this field. Let’s hope so – because if the ECB does not move in this direction we’re going to have ongoing problems with deflation – bad deflation – in Europe very soon.

Today we got more data underlining the fact that the ECB should be seriously worried about bad deflation. Hence, euro zone M3 grew by only 1.4% in October. The Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has an excellent comment on the horrible M3 numbers:

Eurozone money supply growth plummeted in October and loans to firms contracted at a record rate, heightening the risk of a stalled recovery and Japanese-style deflation next year.

The European Central Bank said M3 money growth fell to 1.4pc from a year earlier, lower than expected and far below the bank’s own 4.5pc target deemed necessary to keep the economy on an even keel.

Monetarists watch the M3 data — covering cash and a broad range of bank accounts — as an early warning signal for the economy a year or so in advance. “This a large dark cloud hanging over the eurozone in 2014; it means the public debt ratios in Southern Europe are at greater risk of exploding,” said Tim Congdon from International Monetary Research.

M3_2749266c

Ambrose also quotes me:

“The ECB needs to cut rates to zero and launch quantitative easing (QE) to head off deflation, but they are not there yet,” said Lars Christensen from Danske Bank. “The debt problem in Italy will be much worse if they let nominal GDP fall, leading to yet more austerity.”

So yes, we are seeing some good deflation in the euro zone at the moment and we should be happy about, but unfortunately we are likely to see a lot more bad deflation soon if the ECB does not get its act together soon.

Deflation – not hyperinflation – brought Hitler to power

This Matt O’Brien in The Atlantic:

“Everybody knows you can draw a straight line from its hyperinflation to Hitler, but, in this case, what everybody knows is wrong. The Nazis didn’t take power when prices were doubling every 4 days in 1923– they tried, and failed — but rather when prices were falling in 1933.”

Matt is of course right – unfortunately few European policy makers seem to have studied any economic and political history. Furthermore, few advocates of free market Capitalism today realise that the biggest threat to the capitalist system is not overly easy monetary policy. The biggest threat to free market Capitalism is overly tight monetary policy as it brings reactionary and populist forces – whether red or brown – to power.

Update: This is from the German magazine Spiegel:

From 1922-1923, hyperinflation plagued Germany and helped fuel the eventual rise of Adolf Hitler.”

…I guess somebody in the German media needs a lesson in German history.

HT Petar Sisko.

PS Scott Sumner has a new blog post on how wrong many free market proponents are about monetary issues.

PPS take a look at this news story from the deflationary euro zone.

Let me say it again – the euro zone is heading for deflation

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at the Telegraph quotes me on the risk of deflation in the euro zone:

Lars Christensen from Danske Bank said the EU authorities are repeating mistakes made in Japan in the early 1990s when deflation became lodged in the system. “Several eurozone countries are already in outright deflation, and that is making it even harder to deal with banking problems and the debt trajectory. There is no growth in the money supply, so this is going to get worse, not better.

“This is just like Japan. The central bank thought money was easy when in fact it was much too tight. But effects could be much worse in Europe because unemployment is so much higher.”

And yes I said it many times before – just see herehere and here.

End the euro crisis now with a 10% M3 target

This is Michael Steen in the Financial Times:

Inflation in the eurozone dropped unexpectedly to an annual rate of 0.7 per cent in October, far below the European Central Bank’s target of close to but below 2 per cent, and significantly increasing the chances of an interest-rate cut.

The so-called “flash” estimate by Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, showed that the rate at which prices rise had slowed further since September, when it was 1.1 per cent, which is roughly what economists had expected for October.

A sharp outright fall in energy costs, by 1.7 per cent, drove the slowdown in the harmonised indices of consumer prices, which the ECB targets, but “core inflation”, which strips out energy, food, alcohol and tobacco, also fell to 0.8 per cent from 1 per cent.

I must say I am not the least surprised by the fact that the euro zone is heading for deflation. This is what I told The Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard back in March:

“Europe is heading into a deflationary scenario if they don’t do anything to boost the money supply,” said Lars Christensen… “This already looks very similar to what happened in Japan in 1996 and 1997.”

It is tragic, but what we are seeing now in Europe is exactly the same as we saw in Japan in the mid-1990s – a central bank that pursued extremely tight monetary policies, while it continued to maintain that monetary policy was indeed very easing. We all know the result of the Bank of Japan’s failed policies was 15 years of stagnation and deflation – and sharply rising public debt levels. The ECB unfortunately is copying exactly the policies of the (old) BoJ instead of learning the lesson from the new BoJ’s effective anti-deflationary policies.

As I have earlier argued the development in velocity and money supply growth in Europe today is very similar to what we saw in Japan around 1996-97. Not surprisingly the outcome is the same – extremely weak nominal GDP growth and deflationary tendencies. In fact the outcome is much worse. Unemployment in the euro zone just keep on rising – contrary to the situation in the US, where the Fed’s monetary easing over the past year has helped improve the labour market situation.

In fact the latest unemployment numbers for the euro zone published yesterday (Thursday) shows that unemployment in the euro zone has reached a record-high level of 12.2% in September and even worse youth unemployment is now 24.1%. It is hard not to conclude that the ECB is directly responsible for the millions of European being without a job. Yes, there are serious structural problems in Europe, but the sharp increase in unemployment levels in the euro zone since particularly since the ECB’s misguided rate hikes in 2011 is nearly totally the fault of the ECB’s extremely tight monetary policy stance.

We are heading for deflation

But lets get back to why deflation looks more and more likely in the euro. This is what I had to say about the matter back in March:

If you don’t already realise why I am talking about the risk of deflation then you just have to remember the equation of exchange – MV=PY.

We can rewrite the equation of exchange in growth rates and rearrange it. That gives us the the following model for medium-term inflation:

(1) m + v = p + y

<=>

(1)’ p = m + v – y

If we assume that money-velocity (v) drops by 2.5% y/y (the historical average) and trend real GDP growth is 2% (also more or less the historical average) and use 3% as the present rate of M3 growth then we get the follow ‘forecast’ for euro zone inflation:

(1)’ p = 3 % + -2.5% – 2% = -1.5%

So the message from the equation of exchange is clear – we are closer to 2% deflation than 2% inflation.

Yes, it is really that simple and the policy makers in the ECB should of course have realized this long ago.

End the euro crisis now with a 10% M3 target

There is only one way to avoid deflation in the euro zone and that is an aggressive monetary policy response in the form of a significant and permanent expansion of the euro zone money base within a clearly defined rule-based framework.

I would obviously prefer that the ECB implemented an clear NGDP level targeting rule, but less might do it – and a lot of other policy options would be preferable to the present mess.

The “easy” solution would be for the ECB to re-instate its former two-pillar monetary policy – a money supply (M3) growth target and an inflation target. Therefore, I suggest that the ECB imitiately issues the following statement (I have suggested it before):

“Effective today the ECB will start to undertake monetary operations to ensure that euro zone M3 growth will average 10% every year until the euro zone output gap has been closed. The ECB will allow inflation to temporarily overshoot the normal 2% inflation. The ECB has decided to undertake these measures as a failure to do so would seriously threatens price stability in the euro zone – given the present growth rate of M3 deflation is a substantial risk – and to ensure financial and economic stability in Europe. A failure to fight the deflationary risks would endanger the survival of the euro.

The ECB will from now on every month announce an operational target for the purchase of a GDP weighted basket of euro zone 2-year government bonds. The purpose of the operations will not be to support any single euro zone government, but to ensure a M3 growth rate that is comparable with long-term price stability. The present growth rate of M3 is deflationary and it is therefore of the highest importance that M3 growth is increased significantly until the deflationary risks have been substantially reduced.

The announced measures are completely within the ECB’s mandate and obligations to ensure price stability and financial stability in the euro zone as spelled out in the Maastricht Treaty.”

That would end the euro crisis, while also ensuring inflation around 2% in the medium-term. There would be no bailing out or odd credit policies. Only a clear and rule based policy to ensure nominal stability. How hard can it be?

Lower (supply) inflation is NOT a reason to ease US monetary policy

Here are two news stories from today:

U.S. import prices fell in April due to a drop in oil costs, a positive sign for household finances that also pointed to benign inflation pressures.

Import prices slipped 0.5 percent last month, the biggest decline since December, the Labor Department said on Tuesday. March’s data was revised to show a 0.2 percent decline instead of the previously reported 0.5 percent drop.”

And the second one:

“U.S. producer prices recorded their largest drop in three years in April while a reading of manufacturing in New York indicated contraction.

Producer prices slid as gasoline and food costs tumbled, pointing to weak inflation pressures that should give the Federal Reserve latitude to keep monetary policy very accommodative.”

Now some might of course think that this would make Market Monetarists scream for the Federal Reserve to step up monetary easing. However, that would be extremely wrong. There are certainly good reasons for the fed to ease monetary policy, but a drop in inflation caused by a positive supply shock – lower import prices – is certainly not one of them.

At the core of Market Monetarist thinking is that central banks should not react to supply shock – positive or negative. Hence, we are arguing that central banks should target the level of nominal GDP – not inflation.

Therefore, imagine that the fed indeed was targeting the the NGDP level and NGDP was “on track” and a positive supply shock hit. Then the fed would maintain monetary conditions completely unchanged – keeping NGDP on track – and allowed the positive supply shock to feed through to lower inflation (and higher real GDP). This is benign inflation and as such very welcomed as it do not reflect a deflationary and recessionary demand shock. Furthermore, some Market Monetarists like David Beckworth and myself also believe that monetary easing in response to positive supply shocks risks leading to economic misallocation and what Austrian economists call relative inflation.

Lower (supply) inflation is no reason for more QE
…but the fed needs to focus on defining its target

One can certainly argue that NGDP growth is too weak to catch up with the pre-crisis NGDP trend, but on the other hand it is also pretty clear that US NGDP growth is fairly robust. So instead of stepping up quantitative easing in response to lower import prices the fed instead should focus on becoming much more clear on what it wants to achieve. Hence, there is still considerable uncertainty about what the fed really wants to achieve.

Therefore, the fed should become more clear on its target. Preferably of course the fed should adopt an NGDP level target and decide whether the present growth rate of the money base is strong enough to achieve that or not. Regarding that I don’t think that the present policy with a not clearly defined target and the present growth rate of the money base is enough to return NGDP to the pre-crisis trend, but it is nonetheless likely to keep NGDP growing 4-5% and that is likely enough to maintain the present speed of recovery in real GDP and the US labour market. I think that is far too unambitious, but it is certainly better than what we are seeing in Europe.

The paradox – the positive supply shock is “pushing” central banks to do the right thing for the wrong reasons

The paradox, however, is that the recent drop in global commodity prices have pushed down headline inflation around the world and central banks have over the last couple of weeks been responding by cutting interest rates. Hence, Central banks in the eurozone, India, Australia, South Korea, Poland and Israel have all cut rates in recent weeks. While there certainly is very good reasons for monetary easing in nearly all of these countries it a paradox that these central banks now seem to have been “shocked” into easing monetary policy in response to a positive supply shock rather than in response to weak demand growth.

It would clearly be wrong to criticize these central banks for doing the right thing – easing monetary policy – but I also believe that it is important to stress that had monetary policy in these countries been “right” then these central banks would likely have been making a policy mistakes by easing monetary policy at the moment.

In that regard it is of course also important that central banks’ (apparent mental) inability to differentiate between supply and demand shocks often has lead central banks to tight monetary policy in response to negative supply. The ECB’s catastrophic rate hikes in 2011 is a very good example of this. Paradoxically we might be happy at the moment that the ECB’s tendency to react to supply shocks might push the ECB into stepping up monetary easing.

Finally I should stress that the recent decline in inflation globally is certainly not only caused by a positive supply. In fact I have long argued that we are likely heading for deflation in the euro zone due to excessively tight monetary policy. So my discussion above should mostly be seen as an attempt to stress the need for understanding the difference between demand and supply for the conduct of monetary policy. Unfortunately many central bankers seem unable to understand these important difference.

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Update: Market Monetarists think alike – I just realized that Marcus Nunes did a post yesterday that made the exact same argument as me.

The Czech interest rate fallacy and exchange rates

For many years Ludek Niedermayer was deputy central bank governor of the Czech central bank (CNB). Ludek did an outstanding job at the CNB where he was a steady hand on CNB’s board for many years. I have known Ludek for a number of years and I do consider him a good friend.

However, we often disagree – particularly about the importance of money. This is an issue we debate whenever we see each other – and I don’t think either of us find it boring. Unfortunately I have so far failed to convince Ludek.

Now it seems we have yet another reason to debate. The issue is over the impact of currency devaluation and the monetary transmission mechanism.

The Czech economy is doing extremely bad and it to me is pretty obvious that the economy is caught in a deflationary trap. The CNB’s key policy rate is close to zero and that is so far limiting the CNB from doing more monetary easing despite the very obvious need for monetary easing – no growth, disinflationary pressures, declining money-velocity and a fairly strong Czech koruna. However, the CNB seems nearly paralyzed. Among other things because the majority of CNB board members seem to think that monetary policy is already easy because interest rates are already very low.

What the majority on the CNB board fail to understand is of course that interest rates are low exactly because the economy is in such a slump. The majority on the CNB board members are guilty of what Milton Friedman called the “interest rate fallacy”.  As Friedman said in 1997:

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

Looking at the Czech economy makes it pretty clear that monetary policy is not easy. If monetary policy was easy then property prices would not be declining and nominal GDP would not be contracting. If monetary policy was easy then inflation would be rising – it is not.

It therefore obvious that the Czech economy desperately needs monetary easing and since interest rates are already close to zero it is obvious that the CNB needs to use other instruments to ease monetary policy. To me the most obvious and simplest way to ease monetary policy in the present situation would be to use the exchange rate channel. The CNB should simply buy foreign currency to weaken the Czech koruna until a certain nominal target is met – for example bringing back the level of the GDP deflator back to its pre-crisis trend. The best way to do this would be to set a temporary target on Czech koruna against the euro – in a similar fashion as the Swiss central bank has done – until the given nominal target is reached. This is what Lars E. O. Svensson – now deputy governor of the Swedish central bank – has called the foolproof way out of deflation.

CNB governor Miroslav Singer seems to be open to this option. Here is what he said in a recent interview with the Czech business paper Hospodarske Noviny (my translation – with help from Czech friends and Google translate…):

“We talked about it in the central bank’s board about what the central bank can buy and put the money into circulation. What all can lend and – in extreme case - we can simply hand out money to citizens. Something that is sometimes referred to as “throwing money from a helicopter.” If it really was needed, it seems to be the easiest to move the exchange rate. It is logical for the country, which exports the products of eighty per cent of its GDP. If we felt that in our country there is a long deflationary pressures, the obvious way to deal with it is through a weakening currency.”

It should be stressed that I am slightly paraphrasing Singer’s comments, but the meaning is clear – governor Singer full well knows that monetary policy works and I certain agree with him on this issue. Unfortunately my good friend Ludek Niedermayer to some extent disagrees.

Here is Ludek in the same article:

“It would mean leaving a floating exchange rate and our trading partners would be able to complain, that we in this way supports our own exports”

Ludek here seems to argue that the way a weakening of the koruna only works through a “competitiveness channel” – in fact governor Singer seems to have the same view. However, as I have so often argued the primary channel by which a devaluation works is through the impact on domestic demand through increased inflation expectations (or rather less deflationary expectations) and an increase in the money base rather than through the competitiveness channel.

Let’s assume that the CNB tomorrow announced that it would set a new target for EUR/CZK at 30 – versus around 24.90 today (note this is an example and not a forecast). Obviously this would help Czech exports, but much more importantly it would be a signal to Czech households and companies that the CNB will not allow the Czech economy to sink further into a deflationary slump. This would undoubtedly lead households and companies to reduce their cash reserves that they are holding now.

In other words a committed and sizable devaluation to the Czech koruna would lead to a sharp drop in demand for Czech koruna – and for a given money supply this would effectively be aggressive monetary easing. This will push up money-velocity. Furthermore, as the CNB is buying foreign currency it is effectively expanding the money supply. With higher money supply growth and higher velocity nominal GDP will expand and with sticky prices and wages and a large negative output gap this would likely also increase real GDP.

This would be similarly to what happened for example in Poland and Sweden in 2008-9, where a weakening of the zloty and the Swedish krona supported domestic demand. Hence, the relatively strong performance of the Swedish and the Polish economies in 2009-10 were due to strong domestic demand rather than strong exports. Again, the exchange rate channel is not really about competitiveness, but about boosting domestic demand through higher money supply growth and higher velocity.

The good news is that the CNB is not out of ammunition and it is similarly good news that the CNB governor Singer full well knows this. The bad news is that he might not have convinced the majority on the CNB board about this. In that sense the CNB is not different from most central banks in the world – bubble fears dominates while deflationary risks are ignored. Sad, but true.

PS I strongly recommend for anybody who can read Czech – or can use Google translate – to read the entire interview with Miroslav Singer. Governor Singer fully well understands that he is not out of ammunition – that is a refreshing view from a European central banker.

Related posts:

Is monetary easing (devaluation) a hostile act?
Exchange rates and monetary policy – it’s not about competitiveness: Some Argentine lessons
Mises was clueless about the effects of devaluation
The luck of the ‘Scandies’
“The Bacon Standard” (the PIG PEG) would have saved Denmark from the Great Depression
The dangers of targeting CPI rather than the GDP deflator – the case of the Czech Republic
Monetary disorder in Central Europe (and some supply side problems)

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