Sam Bowman calls for nominal spending targeting in the euro zone

My friend Sam Bowman, Research Director at the Adam Smith Institute, has written a letter to the Financial Times calling for the introduction of a nominal spending target in the euro zone. This is from Sam’s letter:

…While supply-side reforms are usually helpful and fiscal integration may help some eurozone states, Europe’s main problem is monetary.

Nominal spending has collapsed in the eurozone since 2008 and is still well below its pre-crisis trend level. As a result, Europe’s unemployed face a problem of musical chairs: too many jobseekers chasing too little money.

The eurozone’s best hope is for the European Central Bank to pursue a more expansionary monetary policy to raise nominal spending in the eurozone to its pre-crisis trend level, and commit to a nominal spending target thereafter.

Monetary chaos is the source of Europe’s woes: only monetary stability will overcome them.

I fully agree. The ECB can end the European crisis tomorrow by introducing a nominal spending target. Even a very modest proposal of 4% nominal GDP growth targeting would do the trick. Unfortunately nobody in Frankfurt or Brussels seems to be listening.

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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…

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.

ECB: “We’re not sure we can get out of it”

When Milton Friedman turned 90 years back in 2002 Ben Bernanke famously apologized for the Federal Reserve’s role in the Great Depression:

Let me end my talk by abusing slightly my status as an official representative of the Federal Reserve. I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.

On Twiiter Ravi Varghese has paraphrased Bernanke to describe the role of the ECB in the present crisis:

“You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But we’re not sure we can get out of it.”

Brilliant…follow Ravi on Twiiter here (and follow me 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.

Christopher Pissarides: Is Europe Working? (The answer obviously is no)

Nobel laureate Christopher Pissarides earlier this week gave a lecture at the London School of Economics on the theme “Is Europe Working?”. It is an extremely interesting lecture. I disagree with a lot of what professor Pissarides is saying. He focuses far too much on fiscal policy issues and far too little on monetary policy. But it is in general a very enlightened lecture and he raises a number of extremely important questions about the future of the euro zone.

Pissarides is clearly an old-fashioned Keynesian. I used to think that that was horrible, but frankly speaking old-fashioned Keynesian analysis of the euro crisis at least gets to the right conclusion in the sense that Keynesians agree with (market) monetarists that the core problem in the euro zone is weak aggregate demand (we – the monetarists – call it weak nominal spending/income growth). They are wrong on the solution (expansionary fiscal policy), but at least they make a lot more sense than the “calvinist” austerians who think that both fiscal and monetary policy need to be tightened.

Interestingly enough Pissarides used to be a “euro cheerleader” (Keynesians historically have been a lot more happy about fixed exchange rates than monetarists), but he now actually suggests to split-up the euro and it seems like he is realizing that different countries with different structures and fundamentals need their own sovereign monetary policy. He is not clear on that at all – after all he is a Keynesian so he doesn’t fully get that the “solution” is monetary rather than fiscal.

We don’t need fiscal union and fiscal transfers in the euro zone (this is Pissarides alternative to an euro split-up). What we need is for the ECB to provide nominal stability (See one of my suggestions on that topic here). At the moment the ECB is only providing continued deflationary pressures and therefore we are likely to continue to face debt-deflation problems. To avoid falling deeper into a deflationary trap we obviously need significant monetary easing within a forward-looking and rule-based framework. I wonder whether Pissarides would support that.

Listen to Professors Pissarides’ excellent lecture here (I say this despite the fact he says in the end of the lecture that he “was born a Keynesian and will die a Keynesian”)

PS I now know how uncomfortable Gustav Cassel must have felt agreeing more with Keynes than Hayek on the causes of and the solutions to the Great Depression.

PPS maybe the euro zone’s real problem is that European economists are all either Keynesians or Austrians (or should I say “Germans”?) Where are the European monetarists? And Market Monetarists?

“Whatever it takes to get deflation” (Stealing two graphs from Marcus Nunes)

Marcus Nunes has two extremely illustratative graphs in his latest blog post. Just take a look here:

 

 I don’t think any other comments are needed…

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.

Tick tock…here comes the Zero Lower Bound again

This week have brought even more confirmation that we are still basically in a deflationary world – particularly in Europe. Hence, inflation numbers for October in a number of European countries published this week confirm that that inflation is declining markedly and that we now very close to outright deflation in a number of countries. Just take the case of the Czech Republic where the so-called monetary policy relevant inflation dropped to 0.1% y/y in October or even worse Sweden where we now have outright deflation – Swedish consumer prices dropped by 0.1% in October compared to a year ago.

And the picture is the same everywhere – even a country like Hungary where inflation notoriously has been above the central bank’s 3% inflation target inflation is now inching dangerously close to zero.

Some might say that there is no reason to worry because the recent drop in inflation is largely driven by supply side factors. I would agree that we shouldn’t really worry about deflation or disinflation if it is driven by a positive supply shocks and central banks would not react to such shocks if they where targeting nominal GDP rather than headline consumer price inflation. In fact I think that we are presently seeing a rather large positive supply shock to the global economy and in that sense the recent drop in inflation is mostly positive. However, the fact is that the underlying trend in European prices is hugely deflationary even if we strip out supply side factors.

Just the fact that euro zone money supply growth have averaged 0-3% in the past five years tells us that there is a fundamental deflationary problem in the euro zone – and in other European countries. The fact is that inflation has been kept up by negative supply shocks in the past five years and in many countries higher indirect taxes have certainly also helped kept consumer price inflation higher than otherwise would have been the case.

So yes supply side factors help drag inflation down across Europe at the moment – however, some of this is due to the effect of earlier negative supply side shocks are “dropping out” of the numbers and because European governments are taking a break from the austerity measures and as a result is no longer increasing indirect taxes to the same extent as in earlier years in the crisis. Hence, what we are no seeing is to a large extent the real inflation picture in Europe and the fact is that Europe to a very large extent is caught in a quasi-deflatonary trap not unlike what we had in Japan for 15 years.

Here comes the Zero Lower Bound

Over the past five years it is not only the ECB that stubbornly has argued that monetary policy was easy, while it in fact was über tight. Other European central banks have failed in a similar manner. I could mention the Polish, the Czech central banks and the Swedish Riksbank. They have all to kept monetary policy too tight – and the result is that in all three countries inflation is now well-below the central bank’s inflation targets. Sweden already is in deflation and deflation might very soon also be the name of the game in the Czech Republic and Poland. It is monetary policy failure my friends!

In the case of Poland and Sweden the central banks have had plenty of room to cut interest rates, but both the Polish central bank and the Swedish Riksbank have been preoccupied with other issues. The Riksbank has been busy talking about macro prudential indicators and the risk of a property market bubble, while the economy has slowed and we now have deflation. In fact the Riksbank has consistently missed its 2% inflation target on the downside for years.

In Poland the central bank for mysteries reasons hiked interest rates in early 2012 and have ever since refused to acknowledged that the Polish economy has been slowing fairly dramatically and that inflation is likely to remain well-below its official 2.5% inflation target. In fact yesterday the Polish central bank published new forecasts for real GDP growth and inflation and the central bank forecasts inflation to stay well-below 2.5% in the next three years and real GDP is forecasted to growth much below potential growth.

If a central bank fails to hit its inflation target blame the central bank and if a central bank forecasts three years of failure to hit the target something is badly wrong. Polish monetary policy remains overly tight according to it own forecasts!

The stubbornly tight monetary stance of the Polish, the Czech and the Swedish central banks over the past couple of years have pushed these countries into a basically deflationary situation. That mean that these central banks now have to ease more than would have been the case had they not preoccupied themselves with property prices, the need for structural reforms and fiscal policy in recent years. However, as interest rates have been cut in all three countries – but too late and too little – we are now inching closer and closer to the Zero Lower Bound on interest rates.

In fact the Czech central bank has been there for some time and the Polish and the Swedish central bank might be there much earlier than policy makers presently realise. If we just get one “normal size” negative shock to the European economy and then the Polish and Swedish will have eventually to cut rates to zero. In fact with Sweden already in deflation one could argue that the Riksbank already should have cut rates to zero.

The Swedish and the Polish central banks are not unique in this sense. Most central banks in the developed world are very close to the ZLB or will get there if we get another negative shock to the global economy. However, most of them seem to be completely unprepared for this. Yes, the Federal Reserve now have a fairly well-defined framework for conducting monetary policy at the Zero Lower Bound, but it is still very imperfect. Bank of Japan is probably closer to having a operational framework at the ZLB. For the rest of the central banks you would have to say that they seem clueless about monetary policy at the Zero Lower Bound. In fact many central bankers seem to think that you cannot ease monetary policy more when you hit the ZLB. We of course know that is not the case, but few central bankers seem to be able to answer how to conduct monetary policy in a zero interest rate environment.

It is mysteries how central banks in apparently civilised and developed countries after five years of crisis have still not figured out how to combat deflation with interest rates at the Zero Lower Bound. It is a mental liquidity trap and it is telling of the serious institutional dysfunctionalities that dominate global central banking that central bankers are so badly prepared for dealing with the present situation.

But it is nonetheless a fact and it is hard not to think that we could be heading for decades of deflation in Europe if something revolutionary does not happen to the way monetary policy is conducted in Europe – not only by the ECB, but also by other central banks in Europe. In that sense the track record of the Swedish Riksbank or the Polish and Czech central banks is not much better than that of the ECB.

We can avoid deflation – it is easy!

Luckily there is a way out of deflation even when interest rates are stuck at zero. Anybody reading the Market Monetarists blogs know this and luckily some central bankers know it as well. BoJ chief Kuroda obviously knows what it takes to take Japan out of deflation and he is working on it. As do Czech central bank chief Miroslav Singer who last week – finally  - moved to use the exchange rate as policy instrument and devalued the Czech kurona by introducing a floor on EUR/CZK of 27. By doing this he copied the actions of the Swiss central bank. So there is hope.

Some central bankers do understand that there might be an Zero Lower Bound, but there is no liquidity trap. You can always avoid deflation. It is insanely easy, but mentally it seems to be a big challenge for central bankers in most countries in the world.

I am pretty optimistic that the Fed’s actions over the past year is taking the US economy out of the crisis. I am optimistic that the Bank of Japan will win the fight against deflation. I am totally convinced that the Swiss central bank is doing the right thing and I am hopeful that Miroslav Singer in the Czech Republic is winning the battle to take the Czech economy out of the deflationary trap. And I am even optimistic that the recent global positive supply shock will help lift global growth.

However, the ECB is still caught in its own calvinist logic and seems unable to realise what needs to be done to avoid a repeat of the past failures of the Bank of Japan. The Swedish central bank remains preoccupied with macro prudential stuff and imaginary fears of a property market bubble, while the Swedish economy now caught is in a deflationary state. The Polish central bank continues to forecast that it will fail to meet its own inflation target, while we are inching closer and closer to deflation. I could mention a number of other central banks in the world which seem trapped in the same kind of failed policies.

Ben Bernanke once argued that the Bank of Japan should show Rooseveltian resolve to bring Japan out of the deflationary trap. Unfortunately very few central bankers in the world today are willing to show any resolve at all despite the fact that we at least Europe is sinking deeper and deeper into a deflationary trap.

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Update: Former Riksbank deputy governor Lars E. O. Svensson comments on the Swedish deflation. See here.

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.

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