Oil prices, inflation and the FT’s good advice for central bankers

This is from the Financial Times’ FT View:

Pity the analyst forecasting today’s global economy. For every signal warning of stagnation there is another glowing green for go. But through this blur of clashing indicators it is possible to discern some consistent themes.

The clearest is weak inflation. The main cause is oversupply in the oil market where prices have fallen by one-third since the summer. With other commodities from cotton and hogs to wheat and soybeans similarly cheap, countries that rely on imported food and fuel have had a welcome boost.

American consumers in particular benefit from cheap fuel, which helps to explain growing momentum in the US economy. Strong jobs numbers on Friday confirmed a growing recovery. These bullish spirits are mirrored on Wall Street where the stock market has rebounded by 10 per cent since the turmoil of October.

But any student of the Great Depression would caution against seeing disinflationary forces in a purely positive light. In Japan and Europe, the persistent downwards trend in inflation is also a reflection of weak incomes. If left unchecked, this threatens to entrench a low-spending, deflationary mindset. Outside of a big slowdown, wage growth in much of the developed world has never been weaker. Even the most ambitious monetary policy can be undermined if pay packets are not growing. Instead of being spent, cash accumulates on the balance sheets of businesses unwilling to invest…

…Monetary policy provides the best key to understanding the variegated global picture. The central banks of the US, UK and Japan all adopted easier policies and were rewarded with an upturn. Given weak wage growth and a lack of fiscal support, such stimulus ought to continue.

Europe is an unhappy exception. Despite German misgivings, low interest rates are no evidence that money is too loose: nominal GDP growth stutters along at less than 3 per cent, a clear sign that the stance is much too tight. In recent years the ECB twice made the mistake of raising rates too soon, and thereby punished Europe with a deeper recession and a worse fiscal crisis. If its president Mario Draghi cannot ease policy further, the consequences will be just as serious.

The welcome boost provided by cheaper oil may help the global economy accelerate over the next year. Even Europe could participate, if only its policy makers would stop confusing the brake with the accelerator.

Do I need to say I agree with 99% of this? Yes, lower oil prices is mostly good news to the extent it reflects a positive supply shock in the oil market and yes if that was the only reason we are seeing deflation spreading then we should not worry.

However, take a look at any indicator of monetary condtions in the euro zone – the collapse in the money base since 2012, meager M3 growth, no NGDP growth, higher real interest rates, a stronger euro (since 2012) and sharply lower inflation expectations – and you should soon realise that the real deflation story in the euro zone is excessively tight monetary policy and the ECB need to do something about that whether oil trades at 40 or 140 dollars/barrel.

PS I don’t think the same story goes for the US. The recent drop in US inflation does not on its own warrant monetary easing. The Fed just needs to keep focused on expected NGDP growth and there is no signs of NGDP growth slowing in the US so I don’t think monetary policy is called for in the US.

PPS For some countries – oil-exporters with pegged exchange rates – lower oil prices is in fact monetary tightening – see here.

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The story of a remarkably stable US NGDP trend

Today revised US GDP numbers for Q3 were released. While most commentators focused on the better than expected real GDP numbers I am on the other hand mostly impressed by just how stable the development in nominal GDP is. Just take a look at the graph below.

US NGDP 4 pct trend

I have earlier argued that the development in NGDP looks as if the Federal Reserve has had a 4% NGDP level target since Q3 2009. In fact at no time since 2009 has the actual level of NGDP diverged more than 1% from the 4% trend started in Q3 2009 and right now we are basically exactly on the 4% trend line. This is remarkable especially because the Fed never has made any official commitment to this target.

With market expectations fully aligned to with this trend and US unemployment probably quite close to the structural level of unemployment I see no reason why the Fed should not announce this – a 4% NGDP level target – as its official target.

PS I might join the hawks soon – if the trend in NGDP growth over the last couple of quarters continues in the coming quarter then we will move above the 4% NGDP trend and in that sense there is an argument for tighter monetary conditions.

PPS I am not arguing that monetary policy was appropriate back in 2009 or 2010. In fact I believe that monetary policy was far too tight, but after six years of real adjustments it is time to let bygones-be-bygones and I don’t think there would be anything to gain from a stepping up of monetary easing at the present time.

The Fed was targeting the Labor Market Conditions Index 30 years before it was invented

Today the Federal Reserve published its much-hyped new Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI).

This is how the Fed describes the Index:

The U.S. labor market is large and multifaceted. Often-cited indicators, such as the unemployment rate or payroll employment, measure a particular dimension of labor market activity, and it is not uncommon for different indicators to send conflicting signals about labor market conditions. Accordingly, analysts typically look at many indicators when attempting to gauge labor market improvement. However, it is often difficult to know how to weigh signals from various indicators. Statistical models can be useful to such efforts because they provide a way to summarize information from several indicators…

…A factor model is a statistical tool intended to extract a small number of unobserved factors that summarize the comovement among a larger set of correlated time series.

In our model, these factors are assumed to summarize overall labor market conditions. What we call the LMCI is the primary source of common variation among 19 labor market indicators. One essential feature of our factor model is that its inference about labor market conditions places greater weight on indicators whose movements are highly correlated with each other. And, when indicators provide disparate signals, the model’s assessment of overall labor market conditions reflects primarily those indicators that are in broad agreement.

The included indicators are a large but certainly not exhaustive set of the available data on the labor market, covering the broad categories of unemployment and underemployment, employment, workweeks, wages, vacancies, hiring, layoffs, quits, and surveys of consumers and businesses.

So is there really anything new in all this? Well, not really. To me it is just another indicator for the US business cycle. The graph below illustrates this.

LMCI FF rate

The graph shows the relationship between on the one hand the cumulative Labor Market Conditions Index and on the other hand the year-on-year change in the real Fed Funds rate. I have deflated the Fed Funds rate with the core PCE deflator.

The picture is pretty clear – since the mid-1980s the Fed has tended to increase real rates, when “Labor Market Conditions” have improved and cut rates when labor market conditions have worsened. There is really nothing new in this – it is just another version of the Taylor rule or the Mankiw rule, which capture the Fed’s Lean-Against-the-Wind regime during the Great Moderation. I am hence sure that you could estimate a nice rule for the Fed funds rate for period 1985-2007 based on the LMCI and PCE core inflation. I might return to that in a later post…

That said, there seems to have been a “structural” break in the relationship around 2001/2. Prior to that the relationship was quite close, but since then the relationship has become somewhat weaker.

Anyway that is not really important. My point is just that the LMCI is not really telling us much new. That said, the LCMI might help the Fed to communicate better about it policy rule (I hope), but why bother when a NGDP level target would be so much better than trying to target real variables (fancy or not)?

PS don’t be fooled by the graph into concluding the Fed Funds rate should be hiked. To conclude that you at the least need an estimate relationship between the LMCI and the Fed Funds rate.

The dollar rally is testing the Fed’s credibility

The dollar has continued to strengthen since early July – just take a look at the graph below:

10y BE inflation dollar index

As the graph shows not only has the dollar strengthened since July, but inflation expectations have also dropped somewhat and interesting enough we have now 10-year break-even inflation expectations below 2%.

It is only the second time that that have happened since the Fed officially introduced a 2% inflation target in January 2012 (see here). Obviously we cannot directly compare the Fed’s inflation target and 10-year inflation expectations, but the decline in inflation expectations nonetheless is very indicative of the scale of monetary tightening that is expected from the Fed.

The graph also shows there is a very close negative correlation between the performance of the US dollar and US inflation expectations. This obviously can easily been explained from a monetary perspective. Expectations for Fed tightening (easing) will both cause the dollar to strengthen (weaken) and cause inflation expectations to drop (rise).

The close correlation between inflation expectations and the dollar means that a continued strengthening of the dollar will be a clear test of the Fed’s credibility and if the dollar continues to rally then it would be very obvious to everybody that the Fed’s credibility would be under pressure.

I am not speculating here whether the dollar rally will continue or not, but rather whether Fed’s inflation target is credible or not?

There is no bond market bubble

Bubbles, bubbles, everywhere bubbles. There is a lot of talk about bubbles among commentators and central bankers. One of the most common bubble fears is a fear of a bubble in the US bond market (just take a look at this recent “bond bubble”-story). Generally I am very skeptical about all kinds of bubble fears and that also goes for the fear of a bubble in the US bond market.

The general bond bubble story more or less assumes that quantitative easing from the Federal Reserve and other central banks has pushed down bond yields to artificially low levels and once QE is over the bond bubble will burst, bond yield will spike dramatically and send the US economy back into a major recession.

Should we fear this? Not really in my mind and I will try to show that in this blog post.

Inspired by Krugman and Mankiw

I very often disagree with Paul Krugman, but no one can dispute that he is a great communicator. Krugman is able to present complicated economic stories in a few sentences. This is exactly what he did in one of my favourite Krugman-blog posts back in 2010. The topic of the post was exactly the “bond bubble”. This is Krugman:

Here’s a thought for all those insisting that there’s a bond bubble: how unreasonable are current long-term interest rates given current macroeconomic forecasts? I mean, at this point almost everyone expects unemployment to stay high for years to come, and there’s every reason to expect low or even negative inflation for a long time too. Shouldn’t that imply that the Fed will keep short-term rates near zero for a long time? And shouldn’t that, in turn, mean that a low long-term rate is justified too?

So I decided to do a little exercise: what 10-year interest rate would make sense given the CBO projection of unemployment and inflation over the next decade?

… I decided to use the simplified Mankiw rule, which puts the same coefficient on core CPI inflation and unemployment. That is, it says that the Fed funds rate is a linear function of core CPI inflation minus the unemployment rate.

Krugman is basically using the Mankiw rule to forecast the Fed funds rate 10 years ahead and then he compared this forecast with the 10-year US government bond yield. It turned out that the 10-year yield was pretty well in line with the forecasted path for Fed Funds rates. I will now show that that is still the case.

Using the Mankiw rule to predict US monetary policy 10-years ahead

I have recently been playing a bit with the Mankiw rule (see here and here) so it is only natural to re-do Krugman’s small “experiment”.

Krugman is using CBO’s projections for core PCE inflation and unemployment. I will do the same (see the latest CBO forecast here) thing, but I will also use the FOMC’s recent projections (see here) for the same variables. I plug these projections into the Mankiw rule that I recently estimated. This gives us two forecasts for the Fed funds future rate for the coming 10-years. The graph below shows the two “forecasts”.

Mankiw rule FOMC CBO

Both forecasts (or maybe we should say simulations) point to interest rate hikes from the Fed in coming years. The forecast based on FOMC projections for unemployment and core inflation is a bit more “aggressive” in the rate hiking cycle than the Mankiw rule based on the CBO forecasts for the same variables.

The reason for this is primarily that the FOMC members expect unemployment to drop faster than forecasted by the CBO. Both the FOMC and CBO expects inflation to gradually increase to 2% over the coming 4 years.

The rule based on the FOMC projections indicates that the Fed funds target rate should be close to 3% in the “long run” (after 2018), while the CBO based rule is indicating a Fed funds rate around 2.6% i the long run. This difference is due to the FOMC expects unemployment at 5.0% in the long run, while the CBO expects unemployment at 5.5% in the long run.

I should stress that this is not my forecasts for the Fed funds rate as such, but rather an illustration of how we should expect the Fed’s policy rate to development over the coming 10 years if the Mankiw rule in general holds and we use the FOMC and CBO’s macroeconomic forecasts as input in this rule.

Drawing a (simplified) yield curve

We can now use these “predictions” to construct a (quasi) yield curve. Not to make things overly complicated (and spending to much time calculating the stuff…) I have simply constructed the “yield curve” by saying that “forecast” for for example the 2-year yield is simply the average of the predicted of the Fed funds rate in 2014 and 2015. Similarly the 5-yield is the average of the forecasted policy rate for 2014-2019. Hence, I disregard compounded interest and coupon payments.

The graph below shows the actual US yield curve compared with the two quasi-yield curve based on the two Mankiw rule based predictions for the Fed funds rate in the coming 10 years.

yield curve Fed Mankiw

Looking at the graph we imitatively spot two things:

First of all we see that the FOMC curve and CBO curve are considerably “higher” than the actual yield curve for the next couple of years. This should not be a surprise given the fact that we already know that forecasts based on the Mankiw rule is too “hawkish” compared to the actual Fed policy in 2014. Hence, the “predicted” rate for 2014 is 75-100bp too high. The reason for this is among other things that the simple Mankiw rule does not take into account “discouraged worker”-effects on the labour market, which seems to have been a a major problem in the past 5-6 years. Furthermore, the rule ignores that the Fed over the past 5-6 years more or less consistently has undershot it’s 2% inflation target. I have discussed these factors in my previous post.

These factors mean that we should probably pushed down the “rate path” in the next couple of years and that means that the yield curve does not look to be too “low” for 2-year or 5-years (very broadly speaking).

Second, we see that if we look at the 10-year yield we see that it is more or less exactly where the FOMC curve “predict” it to be (around 2.6%). We can of course not directly compare the two as I have not taken compounded interest and coupon payments into account (which would push the FOMC curve up), but on the other hand we should also remember that the Mankiw rule is too “hawkish” for the “early period” (which should push the FOMC curve down along the curve).

There is no “bond bubble”

I believe that the discussion above shows that US bond yields pretty well reflect realistic expectations to Federal Reserve policy over the coming decade given the FOMC’s and the CBO’s expectations for US unemployment and core inflation and it is therefore hard in my view to justify the claim that there is a bubble in the US bond market. That of course does not mean that yields cannot go up. They very likely will if FOMC’s and CBO’s expectations particularly for the US labour market are correct.

And the bond market might of course also be 50bp wrong is one or the other direction, but I find it very hard to see why US bond yields should suddenly spike 200 or 300bp as some of doomsayers are claiming.

And finally I should stress that this is not investment advice and I am not making any recommendations to sell or buy US Treasury bonds and the market might go in whatever direction.

Instead my point here is to argue that policy makers – the Fed – should not be overly concerned that quantitative easing has caused a bond bubble. It has not. If anything bond yields are this low because the Fed has not eased monetary policy enough rather than too much.

Related posts:

There is no bubble in the US stock market

The stock market has reached “a permanently high plateau” (if the Fed does not mess up again…)

If there is a ‘bond bubble’ – it is a result of excessive monetary TIGHTENING

The Mankiw-Darda rule tells the Fed to wait a bit with hikes

Greg Mankiw has a blog post commenting on my previous post on the so-called Mankiw rule.

I show in my post that according to both the original and a re-estimated version of the Mankiw rule the Federal Reserve should be hiking rates right now. I should stress again that I don’t think the Fed should hike interest rates – I am only using the Mankiw rule to illustrate why we likely are moving closer to a rate hike from the Fed (that is the is a difference between thinking about what the Fed will do rather than what it should do).

Greg makes some good points why the Fed should not hike rates yet:

Taken at face value, the rule suggests that it is time for the Fed to start raising the federal funds rate.  If you believe this rule was reasonably good during the period of the Great Moderation, does this mean the Fed should start tightening now, as the economy gets back to normal?

Maybe, but not necessarily. There are two problems with interpreting such rules today.

The first and most obvious problem is that odd things have been happening in the labor market for the past several years. The unemployment rate (one of the right hand side variables in this rule) may not be a reliable indicator of slack.

The second and more subtle problem is the nagging issue of the zero lower bound.  For several years, the rule suggested a target federal funds rate deeply in the negative territory.  We are out of that range now, but should the past “errors” influence our target today?  An argument can be made that because the Fed kept the target rate “too high” for so long (that is, at zero rather than negative), it should commit itself now to keeping the target “too low” as compensation (that is, at zero for longer than the rule recommends).  By systematically doing so, the Fed encourages long rates to fall by more whenever the economy hits the zero lower bound. Such a policy might lead to greater stability than strict adherence to the rule as soon as we leave negative territory.

I agree with both points. It seems particularly problematic for the original Mankiw rule that there seems to be a major problem on the US labour market with a discouraged worker effect – as a result the actual unemployment data tend to underestimate just how bad the situation has been (and still is?) on the US labour market. Many have simply given up looking for a job and left the labour market.

My good friend Michael Darda (MKM Partners) has suggested to deal with the discourage worker effect and other demographic problems by use the prime age employment ratio rather than the unemployment rate when estimating the Mankiw rule. Michael also uses core CPI rather than the core PCE deflator as a measure of inflation. The graph below shows the Mankiw-Darda rule (Michael’s estimate):

Mankiw Darda rule

 

We see that while the Mankiw-Darda rule has become increasingly “hawkish” since early 2011 it is still not “recommending” a rate hike – the predicted Fed fund rate is still negative (around -1.5%). Hence, it seems like the Mankiw-Darda rule is better at actually describing what the Fed is doing than the original Mankiw rule. This is not totally surprising.

Inflation targeting or price level targeting?

In an update to his post Greg makes some highly relevant comments, which will appeal to any Market Monetarist including myself:

There is another (related) argument for not raising rates now to offset shortfalls in the past. It is not about the interest rate. It is about the price level, the ultimate goal of monetary policy and measure of its performance.

If you plot the PCE deflator, there is a clear shortfall relative to a 2% price-level target. A 2% price level target fits very well during Greenspan’s time.  By the end of 2008, we were exactly on the 1992-target. But when I look at that plot starting in 2009 until the most recent data I see a gap.

A price-level target rule is optimal in normal times (Ball, Mankiw, and Reis) but is also an optimal policy in response to the dangers of the zero lower bound (Woodford). We have to catch up for the shortfall in the price level right now. And if you look at inflation expectations from surveys or markets, there seems to be no catch up expected, indicating that policy is still too tight.

Obviously I would prefer a nominal GDP level target to a price level target, but I think a price level target as here suggested by Greg is much preferable to an inflation target.

As I noted in my own previous post “inflation has drifted lower” since 2008. This is exactly the point Greg makes (based on comments from Ricardo Reis). Since 2008 the Fed has failed to keep the PCE price level on a 2% path trend. The graph below illustrates this:

Price gap US

 

The graph shows that it looks as if the Fed prior to 2008 had a 2% price level target and the actual price level closely followed a 2% trend line. However, since then inflation has consistently been below 2% and as a result the “price gap” has become increasingly negative.

This is paradoxical as the Fed now officially has 2% inflation target, while it prior to 2008 did not have such a target.

This is obviously another argument for why the original Mankiw rule at the moment is too “hawkish”. On the other hand one can certainly also discuss whether the Fed should close the “price gap” or not. Here I have the relatively pragmatic view that the Fed should let bygones-be-bygones as we over the past five years have seen some supply side adjustments. Furthermore, the decline in the price gap does not only reflect demand-side factors but likely also reflects a positive supply shock. In that regard it should be noted that longer-term inflation expectations in the US still remain above 2% (5-year/5-year US breakeven inflation this morning is 2.4%).

Therefore, if I was on the FOMC I would not favour a one-off money injection to close the price gap, but on the other hand the Mankiw-Darda rule and the consideration about the price gap also shows that the FOMC should not be in a hurry to tighten monetary conditions either. The Fed’s gradual and fairly well-communicated policy to continue “tapering” and then sometime next year gradually start increasing the fed funds rate therefore is consistent with a policy of ensuring nominal stability and it is also reducing the risk of a 1937-style premature tightening of monetary conditions, which would send the US economy back in recession. Said in another way I find it hard to be very critical about how the Fed at the moment is balancing risks both to the upside and to the downside.

A NGDP level target rule solve our problems

The discussion about the Mankiw rule illustrates two problems in common monetary policy thinking. First there remains a major focus on the US labour market. The problem of course is that we really don’t know the level of structural unemployment and this is particularly the case right now after we in 2008 got out of whack. Second, while inflation clearly has remained below 2% since 2008 we don’t know whether this is due to supply side factors or demand side factors.

There is of course a way around these problems – nominal GDP level targeting – and as I have argued in a recent post it in fact looks as if the Fed has followed a 4% NGDP level target rule since July 2009.

That would not have been my preferred policy in 2009, 2010 or 2011 as I would have argued that the Fed should have done a lot more to bring the NGDP level back to the pre-crisis trend-level. However, as time has gone by and we have had numerous supply shocks and some supply adjustments have gone on for nearly six years I have come to the conclusion that it is time to let bygones be bygones. We can do little to change the mistakes of six years ago today. But what we – or rather what the Fed can do – is to announce a policy for the future, which significantly reduces the likelihood of repeating the mistakes of 2008-9.

Therefore, the Fed should obviously announce a NGDP level target policy. Whether the Fed would target a 4% or a 5% path for the NGDP level is less important to me. It would be the right policy, but it would also be a pragmatic way around dealing with uncertainties regarding the state of the US labour markets and to avoid having supply side shock distorting monetary policy decisions.

PS My friend Marcus Nunes also comments on the Mankiw rule. Marcus seems to think that I am advocating that the Fed should tighten monetary policy. I am not doing that. All I have been saying it that the original Mankiw rule indicates that the Fed should tighten monetary conditions and that this is an indication of the direction we are moving in.

PPS My “playing around” with the Mankiw rule should be seen in the perspective that I am currently thinking quite a bit – in my day-job – about when the Fed will actually hike relative to what the markets are thinking the Fed will do. If the Fed moves earlier than expected by markets then it obviously is going to have clear implications for the global financial markets.

Mankiw rule tells the Fed to tighten

The most famous monetary policy rule undoubtedly is the so-called Taylor rule, which basically tells monetary policy makers to set the key monetary policy interest rates as a function of on the one hand the inflation rate relative to the inflation target and on the other hand the output gap.

The Taylor rule is rather simple and seems to at least historically have been a pretty good indicator of the actual policy followed by particularly the Federal Reserve. Often the Taylor rule is taken to be the “optimal” monetary policy rule. That of course is not necessarily the case. Rather one should see the Taylor rule as a empirical representation of actual historical Fed policy.

A similar rule which has gotten much less attention than the Taylor rule, but which essentially is the same thing is the so-called Mankiw rule. Greg Mankiw originally spelled out his rule in a paper on US monetary policy in the 1990s.

The beauty of the Mankiw rule is that it is extremely simple as it simply says that the Fed is setting the fed funds rate as function of the difference between core inflation (PCE) and the US unemployment rate (this of course is also the Fed’s “dual mandate”). Here is the original rule from Mankiw’s paper:

Federal funds rate = 8.5 + 1.4 (Core inflation – Unemployment)

The graph below shows the original Mankiw rule versus actual Fed policy.

Mankiw rule

I have also added a Mankiw rule estimated on the period 2000-2007: Federal funds rate = 9.9 + 2.1 (Core inflation – Unemployment)

We see the Mankiw rule more or less precisely captures the actual movements up and down in the Fed funds rate from 2000 to 2008. Then in 2008 we of course hit the Zero Lower Bound. From the Autumn of 2008 the Mankiw rule told us that interest rates should have been cut to somewhere between -4% (the original rule) and -8% (the re-estimated rule). This is of course is what essentially have justified quantitative easing.

Mankiw rule is telling the Fed to hike rates 

Since early 2011 the Mankiw rule – both versions – has been saying that interest rates should become gradually less negative (mostly because the US unemployment rate has been declining) and maybe most interestingly both the original and the re-estimated Mankiw rule is now saying that the Fed should hike interest rates. In fact the re-estimated rule has just within the past couple of months has turned positive for the first time since 2008 and this is really why I am writing the this post.

Maybe we can use the Mankiw rule to understand why the Fed now seems to be moving in a more hawkish direction – we will know more about that later this week at the much anticipated FOMC meeting.

BUT the Mankiw rule is not an optimal rule

I have to admit I like the Mankiw rule for its extreme simplicity and because it is useful in understanding historical Fed policy actions. However, I do certainly not think of the Mankiw rule as an optimal monetary policy rule. Rather my regular readers will of course know that I would prefer that the Fed was targeting the nominal GDP level (something by the way Greg Mankiw also used to advocate) and I would like the Fed to use the money base rather than the Fed funds rate as its primary monetary policy instrument, but that is another story. The purpose here is simply to use the Mankiw rule to understand why the Fed – rightly or wrongly – might move in a move hawkish direction soon.

PS One could argue that the Mankiw rule needs to be adjusted for changes in the natural rate of unemployment, for discourage worker effects and for the apparent “drift” downward in the US core inflation rate since 2008. Those are all valid arguments, but again the purpose here is not to say what is “optimal” – just to use the simple Mankiw rule to maybe understand why the Fed is moving closer to rate hikes.

PPS One could also think of the Mankiw rule a simplistic description of the Evans rule, which the Fed basically announced in September 2012.

Certainly not perfect, but Fed policy is not worse than during the Great Moderation (an answer to Scott Sumner)

Scott Sumner has replied to my previous post in which I argued that the Federal Reserve de facto has implemented a 4% NGDP level targeting regime (without directly articulating it).

Scott is less positive about actual Fed policy than I am. This is Scott answering my postulate that he would have been happy about a 4% NGDP growth path had it been announced in 2009:

Actually I would have been very upset, as indeed I was as soon as I saw what they were doing.  I favored a policy of level targeting, which meant returning to the previous trend line.

Now of course if they had adopted a permanent policy of 4% NGDP targeting, I would have had the satisfaction of knowing that while the policy was inappropriate at the moment, in the long run it would be optimal.  Alas, they did not do that.  The recent 4% growth in NGDP is not the result of a credible policy regime, and hence won’t be maintained when there is a shock to the economy.

I most admit that I am a bit puzzled by Scott’s comments. Surely one could be upset in 2009 – as both Scott and I were – that the Fed did not do anything to bring back the nominal GDP level back to the pre-crisis trend and it would likely also at that time have been a better policy to return to a 5% trend rather than a 4% trend. However, I would also note that that discussion is mostly irrelevant for present day US monetary policy and here I would note two factors, which I find important:

  1. We have had five years of supply side adjustments – five years of “internal devaluation”/”wage moderation” so to speak. It is correct that the Fed didn’t boost aggregate demand sufficiently to push down US unemployment to pre-crisis levels, but instead it has at least kept nominal spending growth very stable (despite numerous shocks – see below), which has allowed for the adjustment to take place on the supply side of the economy and US unemployment is now nearly back at pre-crisis levels (yes employment is much lower, but we don’t know to what extent that is permanent/structural or not).
  2. Furthermore, we have had numerous changes to supply side policies in the US – mostly negative such as Obamacare and an increase in US minimum wages, but also some positive such as the general general reduction in defense spending and steps towards ending the “War on Drugs”.

Given these supply side factors – both the adjustments and the policy changes – it would make very little sense in my view to try to bring the NGDP level back to the pre-2008 trend-level and I don’t think Scott is advocating this even though his comments could leave that impression. Furthermore, given that expectations seem to have fully adjusted to a 4% NGDP level-path there would be little to gain from targeting a higher NGDP growth rate (for example 5%).

The Fed is more credible today than during the Great Moderation

Furthermore, I would dispute Scott’s claim that the Fed’s policy is not credible. Or rather while the monetary policy regime is not well-articulated by the Fed it is nonetheless pretty well-understood by the markets and basically also by the Fed itself (even though that from time to time could be questioned).

Hence, both the markets and the Fed fully understand today that there effectively is no liquidity trap. There might be a Zero Lower Bound on interest rates but if needed the Fed can ease monetary policy through quantitative easing. This is clearly well-understood by the Fed system today and the markets fully well knows that if a new shock to for example money-velocity where to hit the US economy then the Fed would most likely once again step up QE. This is contrary to the situation prior to 2008 where the Fed certainly had not articulated a policy of how to conduct monetary policy at the Zero Lower Bound and this of course was a key reason why the monetary policy stance became so insanely tight in 2008.

This does in no way mean that monetary policy in the US is perfect. It is certainly not – just that it is no less credible than monetary policy was during the Greenspan years and that the Fed today is better prepared to conduct monetary policy at the ZLB than prior to 2008.

NGDP has been more stable since 2009/2010 than during the Great Moderation

If we look at the development in nominal GDP it has actually been considerably more stable – and therefore also more predictable – than during the Great Moderation. The graph below illustrates that.

NGDP gap New Moderation

It is particularly notable in the graph that the NGDP gap – the percentage difference between the actual NGDP level and the NGDP trend – has been considerably smaller in the period from July 2009 and until today than during the Great Moderation (here said to be from 1995 until 2007). In fact the average absolute NGDP gap (the green dotted lines) was nearly three times as large during the Great Moderation than it has been since July 2009. Similarly inflation expectations has been more stable since July 2009 than during the Great Moderation and there unlike in the euro zone there are no signs that inflation expectations have become unanchored.

It is easy to be critical about the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy in recent years, but I find it very hard to argue that monetary policy has been worse than during the Great Moderation. 2008-9 was the catastrophic period, but since 2009/10 the Fed has re-established a considerable level of nominal stability and the Fed should be given some credit for that.

In this regard it is also notable that financial market volatility in the US today is at a historical low point – lower than during most of the Great Moderation period. This I believe to a large extent reflects a considerable level of “nominal predictability”.

No less sensitive to shocks than during the Great Moderation

Scott argues “(t)he recent 4% growth in NGDP is not the result of a credible policy regime, and hence won’t be maintained when there is a shock to the economy.” 

It is obviously correct that the Fed has failed to spell out that it is actually targeting a 4% NGDP level path and I agree with Scott that this is a major problem and that means that the US economy is much more sensitive to shocks than otherwise would be the case. However, I would also stress that first of all during the Great Moderation the Fed had an even less clear target officially than is the case today.

Second, we should not forget that we have actually seen considerable shocks to the global and to the US economy since 2009/10. Just think of the massive euro crisis, Greece’s de facto default, the Cyprus crisis, the “fiscal cliff” in the US, a spike in oil prices 2010-12 and lately a sharp rise in global geopolitical tensions. Despite of all these shocks US NGDP has stayed close to the 4% NGDP path started in July 2009.

This to me is a confirmation that the Fed has been able to re-establish a considerable level of nominal stability. It has not been according to Market Monetarist game plan, but it is hard to be critical about the outcome.

In regard to the so-called “fiscal cliff” – the considerable tightening of fiscal policy in 2013 – it is notable that Scott has forcefully and correctly in my view argued that it had no negative impact on total aggregate nominal demand exactly because of monetary policy – or rather the monetary policy regime – offset the fiscal shock.

This is of course the so-called Sumner critique. For the Sumner critique to hold it is necessary that the monetary policy regime is well-understood by the markets and that the regime is credible. Hence, when Scott argues that 2013 confirmed the Sumner critique then he is indirectly saying that the monetary policy regime was credible in 2013. Had the monetary policy regime not been credible then the fiscal tightening likely would have led to a sharp slowdown in US growth.

It is time to let bygones be bygones

Nearly exactly a year ago I argued in a post that it is time to let bygones be bygones in US monetary policy:

Obviously even though the US economy seems to be out of the expectational trap there is no guarantee that we could not slip back into troubled waters once again, (but)…

… it is pretty clear to most market participants that the Fed would likely step up quantitative easing if a shock would hit US aggregate demand and it is fairly clear that the Fed has become comfortable with using the money base as a policy instrument…

… I must admit that I increasingly think – and most of my Market Monetarist blogging friends will likely disagree – that the need for a Rooseveltian style monetary positive shock to the US economy is fairly small as expectations now generally have adjusted to long-term NGDP growth rates around 4-5%. So while additional monetary stimulus very likely would “work” and might even be warranted I have much bigger concerns than the lack of additional monetary “stimulus”.

Hence, the focus of the Fed should not be to lift NGDP by X% more or less in a one-off positive shock. Instead the Fed should be completely focused on defining its monetary policy rule. A proper rule would be to target of 4-5% NGDP growth – level targeting from the present level of NGDP. In that sense I now favour to let bygones to be bygones as expectations now seems to have more or less fully adjusted and five years have after all gone since the 2008 shock.

Therefore, it is not really meaningful to talk about bringing the NGDP level back to a rather arbitrary level (for example the pre-crisis trend level). That might have made sense a year ago when we clearly was caught in an expectations deflationary style trap, but that is not the case today. For Market Monetarists it was never about “monetary stimulus”, but rather about ensuring a rule based monetary policy.  Market Monetarists are not “doves” (or “hawks”). These terms are only fitting for people who like discretionary monetary policies.

This remains my view. Learn from the mistakes of the past, but lets get on with life and lets instead focus fully on get the Fed’s target well-defined.

PS I hate being this positive about the Federal Reserve. In fact I am really not that positive. I just argue that the Fed is no worse today than during the Great Moderation.

The Fed’s un-announced 4% NGDP target was introduced already in July 2009

Scott Sumner started his now famous blog TheMoneyIllusion in February 2009 it was among other things “to show that we have fundamentally misdiagnosed the nature of the recession, attributing to the banking crisis what is actually a failure of monetary policy”.

Said in another way the Federal Reserve was to blame for the Great Recession and there was only one way out and that was monetary easing within a regime of nominal GDP level targeting (NGDP targeting).

NGDP targeting is of course today synonymous Scott Sumner. He more or less single-handedly “re-invented” NGDP targeting and created an enormous interest in the topic among academics, bloggers, financial sector economists and even policy makers.

The general perception is that NGDP targeting and Market Monetarism got the real break-through in 2013 when the Federal Reserve introduced the so-called Evans rule in September 2012 (See for example Matt Yglesias’ tribute to Scott from September 2012).

This has also until a few days ago been my take on the story of the success of Scott’s (and other’s) advocacy of NGDP targeting. However, I have now come to realize that the story might be slightly different and that the Fed effectively has been “market monetarist” (in a very broad sense) since July 2009.

The Fed might not have followed the MM game plan, but the outcome has effectively been NGDP targeting

Originally Scott basically argued that the Fed needed to bring the level nominal GDP back to the pre-crisis 5% trend path in NGDP that we had known during the so-called Great Moderation from the mid-1980s and until 2007-8.

We all know that this never happened and as time has gone by the original arguments for returning to the “old” NGDP trend-level seem much less convincing as there has been considerable supply side adjustments in the US economy.

Therefore, as time has gone by it becomes less important what is the “starting point” for doing NGDP targeting. Therefore, if we forgive the Fed for not bringing NGDP back to the pre-crisis trend-level and instead focus on the Fed’s ability to keep NGDP on “a straight line” then what would we say about the Fed’s performance in recent years?

Take a look at graph below – I have used (Nominal) Private Consumption Expenditure (PCE) as a monthly proxy for NGDP.

PCE gap

If we use July 2009 – the month the 2008-9 recession officially ended according to NBER – as our starting point (rather than the pre-crisis trend) then it becomes clear that in past five years PCE (and NGDP) has closely tracked a 4% path. In fact at no month over the past five years have PCE diverged more than 1% from the 4% path. In that sense the degree of nominal stability in the US economy has been remarkable and one could easily argue that we have had higher nominal stability in this period than during the so-called Great Moderation.

In fact I am pretty sure that if somebody had told Scott in July 2009 that from now on the Fed will follow a 4% NGDP target starting at the then level of NGDP then Scott would have applauded it. He might have said that he would have preferred a 5% trend rather than a 4% trend, but overall I think Scott would have been very happy to see a 4% NGDP target as official Fed policy.

The paradox is that Scott has not sounded very happy about the Fed’s performance for most of this period and neither have I and other Market Monetarists. The reason for this is that while the actual outcome has looked like NGDP targeting the Fed’s implementation of monetary policy has certainly not followed the Market Monetarist game plan.

Hence, the Market Monetarist message has all along been that the Fed should clearly announce its target (a NGDP level target), do aggressive quantitative easing to bring NGDP growth “back on track”, stop focusing on interest rates as a policy instrument and target expected NGDP rather than present macroeconomic variables. Actual US monetary policy has gradually moved closer to this ideal on a number of these points – particularly with the so-called Evan rule introduced in September 2012, but we are still very far away from having a Market Monetarist Fed when it comes to policy implementation.

However, in the past five years the implementation of Fed policy has been one of trial-and-error – just think of QE1, QE2 and QE3, two times “Operation Twist” and all kinds of credit policies and a continued obsession with using interest rates rates as the primary policy “instrument”.

I believe we Market Monetarists rightly have been critical about the Fed’s muddling through and lack of commitment to transparent rules. However, I also think that we today have to acknowledge that this process of trail-and-error actually has served an important purpose and that is to have sent a very clear signal to the financial markets (and others for that matter) that the Fed is committed to re-establishing some kind of nominal stability and avoiding a deflationary depression. This of course is contrary to the much less clear commitment of the ECB.

The markets have understood it all along (and much better than the Fed)

Market Monetarists like to say that the markets are better at forecasting and the collective wisdom of the markets is bigger than that of individual market participants or policy makers and something could actually indicate that the markets from an early point understood that the Fed de facto would be keeping NGDP on a straight line.

An example is the US stock market bottomed out a few months before we started to establish the new 4% trend in US NGDP and the US stock markets have essentially been on an upward trend ever since, which is fully justified if you believe the Fed will keep this de facto NGDP target in place. Then we should basically be expecting US stock prices to increase more or less in line with NGDP (disregarding changes to interest rates).

Another and even more powerful example in my view is what the currency markets have been telling us. I  (and other Market Monetarists) have long argued that market expectations play a key role in the in the implementation of monetary policy and in the monetary policy transmission mechanism.

In a situation where the central bank’s NGDP level target is credible rational investors will be able to forecast changes in the monetary policy stance based on the actual level of NGDP relative to the targeted level of NGDP. Hence, if actual NGDP is above the targeted level then it is rational to expect that the central bank will tighten the monetary policy stance to bring NGDP back on track with the target. This obviously has implications for the financial markets.

If the Fed is for example targeting a 4% NGDP path and the actual NGDP level is above this target then investors should rationally expect the dollar to strengthen until NGDP is back at the targeted level.

And guess what this is exactly how the dollar has traded since July 2009. Just take a look at the graph below.

NGDP gap dollar index 2

We are looking at the period where I argue that the Fed effectively has targeted a 4% NGDP path. Again I use PCE as a monthly proxy for NGDP and again the gap is the gap between the actual and the “targeted” NGDP (PCE) level. Look at the extremely close correlation with the dollar – here measured as a broad nominal dollar-index. Note the dollar-index is on an inverse axis.

The graph is very clear. When the NGDP gap has been negative/low (below target) as in the summer of 2010 then the dollar has weakened (as it was the case from from the summer of 2010under spring/summer of 2011. And similarly when the NGDP gap has been positive (NGDP above target) then the dollar has tended to strengthen as we essentially has seen since the second half of 2011 and until today.

I am not arguing that the dollar-level is determining the NGDP gap, but I rather argue that the dollar index has been a pretty good indicator for the future changes in monetary policy stance and therefore in NGDP.

Furthermore, I would argue that the FX markets essentially has figured out that the Fed de facto is targeting a 4% NGDP path and that currency investors have acted accordingly.

It is time for the Fed to fully recognize the 4% NGDP level target

Just because there has a very clear correlation between the dollar and the NGDP gap in the past five years it is not given that that correlation will remain in the future. A key reason for this is – and this is a key weakness in present Fed policy – that the Fed has not fully recognize that it is de facto targeting a 4%. Therefore, there is nothing that stops the Fed from diverging from the NGDP rule in the future.

Recognizing a 4% NGDP level target from the present level of NGDP in my view should be rather uncontroversial as this de facto has been the policy the Fed has been following over the past five years anyway. Furthermore, it could easily be argued as compatible  with the Fed’s (quasi) official 2% inflation target (assuming potential real GDP growth is around 2%).

In my previous post I argued that the ECB should introduce a 4% NGDP target. The Fed already done that. Now it is just up to Fed Chair Janet Yellen to announce it officially. Janet what are you waiting for?

End Europe’s deflationary mess with a 4% nominal GDP (level) target

From the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 the ECB has been more afraid of doing “too much” rather than too little. The ECB has been obsessing about fiscal policy being too easy in the euro zone and about that too easy monetary policy would create bubbles. As a consequence the ECB was overly eager to hike interest rates in 2011 – way ahead of the Federal Reserve started to talk about monetary tightening.

The paradox is that the ECB now is in a situation where nobody can imagine that interest rates should be hiked anytime soon exactly because the ECB’s über tight monetary stance has created a deflationary situation in the euro zone. As a consequence the ECB under the leadership (to the extent the Bundesbank allows it…) of Mario Draghi is trying to come up with all kind of measures to fight the deflationary pressures. Unfortunately the ECB doesn’t seem to understand that what is needed is open-ended quantitative easing with proper targets to change the situation.

Contrary to the situation in Europe the financial markets are increasing pricing in that a rate hike from the Federal Reserve is moving closer and the Fed will be done doing quantitative easing soon. Hence, the paradox is that the Fed is “normalizing” monetary policy much before the ECB is expected to do so – exactly because the Fed has been much less reluctant expanding the money base than the ECB.

The tragic difference between monetary policy in the US and Europe is very visible when we look at the difference in the development in nominal GDP in the euro zone and the US as the graph below shows.

NGDP EZ US

The story is very simple – while both the euro zone and the US were equally hard hit in 2008 and the recovery was similar in 2009-10 everything went badly wrong when the ECB prematurely started to hike interest rates in 2011. As a result NGDP has more or less flat-lined since 2011. This is the reason we are now seeing outright deflation in more and more euro zone countries and inflation expectations have dropped below 2% on most relevant time horizons.

While the Fed certainly also have failed in many ways and monetary policy still is far from perfect in the US the Fed has at least been able to (re)create a considerable degree of nominal stability – best illustrated by the fact that US NGDP basically has followed a straight line since mid-2009 growing an average of 4% per year. This I believe effectively is the Fed’s new target – 4% NGDP level targeting starting in Q2 of 2009.

The ECB should undo the mistakes of 2011 and copy the Fed

I believe it is about time the ECB fully recognizes the mistakes of the past – particularly the two catastrophic “Trichet hikes” of 2011. A way forward could be for the ECB to use the performance of the Fed over the last couple of years as a benchmark. After all the Fed has re-created a considerable level of nominal stability and this with out in any having created the kind of runaway inflation so feared in Frankfurt (by both central banks in the city).

So here is my suggestion. The ECB’s major failure started in April 2011 –  so let that be our starting point. And now lets assume that we want a 4% NGDP path starting at that time. With 2% potential real GDP growth in the euro zone this should over the cycle give us 2% euro zone inflation.

The graph below illustrate the difference between this hypothetical 4% path and the actual level of euro zone NGDP.

EZ NGDP path 4pct

The difference between the 4% path and the actual NGDP level is presently around 7.5%. The only way to close this gap is by doing aggressive and open-ended quantitative easing.

My suggestion would be that the ECB tomorrow should announce the it will close ‘the gap’ as fast as possible by doing open-ended QE until the gap has been closed. Lets pick a number – lets say the ECB did EUR 200bn QE per month starting tomorrow and that the ECB at the same time would announce that it every month would monitor whether the gap was closing or not. This of course would necessitate more than 4% NGDP growth to close the gap – so if for example expected NGDP growth dropped below for example 6-8% then the ECB would further step up QE in steps of EUR 50bn per month. In this regard it is important to remember that it would take as much as 8% yearly NGDP growth to close the gap in two years.

Such policy would course be a very powerful signal to the markets and we would likely get the reaction very fast. First of all the euro would weaken sharply and euro equity prices would shoot up. Furthermore, inflation expectations – particularly near-term inflation expectations would shoot up. This in itself would have a dramatic impact on nominal demand in the European economy and it would in my opinion be possible to close the NGDP gap in two years. When the gap is closed the ECB would just continue to target 4% NGDP growth and start “tapering” and then gradual rate hikes in the exact same way the Fed has done. But first we need to see some action from the ECB.

So Draghi what are you waiting for? Just announce it!

PS some would argue that the ECB is not allowed to do QE at all. I believe that is nonsense. Of course the ECB is allowed to issue money – after all if a central bank cannot issue money what is it then doing? The ECB might of course not be allowed to buy government bonds, but then the ECB could just buy something else. Buy covered bonds, buy equities, buy commodities etc. It is not about what to buy – it is about increasing the money base permanently and stick to the plan.

PPS Yes, yes I fully realize that my suggestion is completely unrealistic in terms of the ECB actually doing it, but not doing something like what I have suggested will condemn the euro zone to Japan-style deflationary pressures and constantly returning banking and public finances problems. Not to mention the risk of nasty political forces becoming more and more popular in Europe.

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