Counterfeiting, nazis and monetary separation

A couple of months ago a friend my sent me an article from the Guardian about how “Nazi Germany flooded Europe with fake British banknotes in an attempt to destroy confidence in the currency. The forgeries were so good that even German spymasters paid their agents in Britain with fake notes..The fake notes were first circulated in neutral Portugal and Spain with the double objective of raising money for the Nazi cause and creating a lack of confidence in the British currency.”

The article made me think about the impact of counterfeiting and whether thinking about the effects of counterfeiting could teach us anything about monetary theory. It should be stressed that my argument will not be a defense of counterfeiting. Counterfeiting is obviously fraudulent and as such immoral.

Thinking about the impact of counterfeiting we need to make two assumptions. First, are the counterfeited notes (and coins for the matter) “good” or not. Second what is the policy objective of the central bank – does the central bank have a nominal target or not.

Lets start out analyzing the case where the quality of the the counterfeited notes is so good that nobody will be able to distinguish them from the real thing and where the central bank has a clear and credible nominal target – for example a inflation target or a NGDP level target. In this case the counterfeiter basically is able to expand the money supply in a similar fashion as the central bank. Hence, effectively the nazi German counterfeiters in this scenario would be able to increase inflation and the level of NGDP in the UK in the same way as the Bank of  England. However, if the BoE had been operating an inflation target then any increase in inflation (above the inflation target) due to an increase in the counterfeit money supply would have lead the BoE to reduce the official money supply. Furthermore, if the inflation target was credible an increase in inflation would be considered to be temporary by market participants and would lead to a drop in money velocity (this is the Chuck Norris effect).

Hence, under a credible inflation targeting regime an increase in the counterfeit money supply would automatically lead to a drop in the official money supply and/or a drop in money-velocity and as a consequence it would not lead to an increase in inflation. The same would go for any other nominal target.

In fact we can imagine a situation where the entire official UK money supply would have been replaced by “nazi notes” and the only thing the BoE was be doing was to provide a credible nominal anchor. This would in fact be complete monetary separation – between the different functions of money. On the one hand the Nazi counterfeiters would be supplying both the medium of exchange and a medium for store of value, while the BoE would be supplying a unit of account.

Therefore the paradoxical result is that as long as the central bank provides a credible nominal target the impact of counterfeiting will be limited in terms of the impact on the economy. There is, however, one crucial impact and that is the revenue from seigniorage from iss uing money would be captured by the counterfeiters rather than by the central bank. From a fiscal perspective this might or might not be important.

Could counterfeiting be useful?

This also leads us to what surely is a controversial conclusion that a central bank, which is faced with a situation where there is strong monetary deflation – for example in the US during the Great Depression – counterfeiting would actually be beneficial as it would increase the “effective” money supply and therefore help curb the deflationary pressures. In that regard it would be noted that this case only is relevant when the nominal target – for example a NGDP level target or lets say a 2% inflation target is not seen to be credible.

Therefore, if the nominal target is not credible and there is deflation we could argue that counterfeiting could be beneficial in terms of hitting the nominal target. Of course in a situation with high inflation and no credible nominal target counterfeiting surely would make the inflationary problems even worse. This would probably have been the case in the UK during WW2 – inflation was high and there was not a credible nominal target and as such had the nazi counterfeiting been “successful” then it surely would have had a serious a negative impact on the British economy in the form of potential hyperinflation.

Monetary separation could be desirable – at least in terms of thinking about money

The discussion above in my view illustrates that it is important in separating the different functions of money when we talk about monetary policy and the example with perfect counterfeiting under a credible nominal target shows that we can imagine a situation where the provision of the unit of accounting is produced by a (monopoly) central bank, but where production the medium of exchange and storage is privatized. This is at the core of what used to be know as New Monetary Economics (NME).

The best known NME style policy proposal is the little understood BFH system proposed by Leland Yeager and Robert Greenfield. What Yeager and Greenfield basically is suggesting is that the only task the central bank should provide is the provision media of accounting, while the other functions should be privatised – or should I say it should be left to “counterfeiters”.

While I am skeptical about the practically workings of the BFH system and certainly is not proposing to legalise counterfeiting one should acknowledge that the starting point for monetary policy most be to provide the medium account – or said in another way under a monopoly central bank the main task of the central bank is to provide a numéraire. NGDP level targeting of course is such numéraire.

A more radical solution could of course be to allow private issuance of money denominated in the official medium of account. This effectively would take away the need for a lender of last resort, but would not be a full Free Banking system as the central bank would still set the numéraire, which occasionally would necessitate that the central bank issued its own money or sucked up privated issued money to ensure the NGDP target (or any other nominal target). This is of course not completely different from what is already happening in the sense the private banks under the present system is able to create money – and one can argue that that is in fact what happened in the US during the Great Moderation.

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Higher oil prices and higher bond yields – good or bad news?

Recently (since December) we have seen US bond yields start to inch up and at the same time oil prices (and other commodity prices) have also inched up. This seem to be a great worry to some commentators – “Higher oil prices and higher bond yields will kill the fragile recovery” seem to be the credo of the day. This, however, reveals that many commentators – including some economists – have a hard time with basic demand-and-supply analysis. Said, in another way they seem to have a problem distinguishing between moving the supply curve and moving the demand curve along the supply curve.

Oil prices can increase for two reasons. First, oil prices can increase because there has been a drop in the supply of oil or expectations that that will happen in the future – for example due to war somewhere in the Middle East. Or second oil prices can increase because of increased global demand due to easier monetary conditions globally (an increase in global NGDP growth). The first effect is a move of the supply curve to the left. The second is move on the supply curve. This difference is extremely important when we talk about the impact on the global economy – first is bad news and the second is good news for the global economy.

What we need to know when we look at market action is to know why asset prices are moving and the best way to do that is to compare how different asset markets are moving.

As I have shown in my previous post higher long-term bond yields is an indication of higher future growth in nominal GDP. Therefore, if both oil prices and long term bond yields are inching upwards then it is probably a pretty good indication that monetary conditions are getting easier – and NGDP growth is expected to increase. To further confirm this is might be useful to look at equity prices – if global equity prices also are inching upward then I think one can safely say that that reflect a shift in the global AD curve to the right – hence global NGDP growth is expected to increase. This actually seem to be what have been happening since the ECB introduced the so-called 3-year LTRO in December.

On the other hand if oil prices continue to rise, but equity prices start to decline and bond yields inch down – then it is normally a pretty good indication that a negative supply shock just hit the global economy. That, however, does not seem to be the case right now.

I continue to find it odd that so many economists are not able to use the most useful tool in the the economist’s toolbox – the supply-and-demand diagram. It is really pretty simple. However, how often have we not heard that rising inflation will hurt the consumer and kill the recovery? This is really the same story. Inflation can increase because of higher nominal demand or because of lower supply. If demand is increasing – monetary conditions are becoming easier – then there really is no need to worry about the recovery. In fact we know that there is a close positive correlation between NGDP growth and RGDP growth in the short-run so any indication of higher NGDP growth in the present situation should really be expected to lead to higher RGDP growth.

So next time you hear somebody say that higher oil prices or higher bond yields might kill the recovery ask them to explain what they mean in a demand-and-supply diagram. If they move the supply curve to the left – then you need to ask them how they explain that global stock prices have been increasing as well…of course is stock prices indeed been falling then their analysis is of course correct…

PS needless to say we can of course have a situation where both the supply curve and the demand curve is moving at the same time. This often happens when central banks are unable to distinguishing between demand and supply shock. Hence, if inflation increase due to a negative supply shock as was the case in 2011 and then central banks react by tightening monetary conditions as the ECB did in 2011 then you get both the supply curve and the curve moving…(The ECB obviously made this policy mistake because somebody forgot to draw supply-and-demand diagrams…).

UPDATE: Our friend Jason Rave has a comment on a similar topic over at his blog Macro Matters. As me Jason is not worried about rising oil prices if they indeed do reflect higher global demand.

Expectations and the transmission mechanism – why didn’t anybody think of that before?

As I was writing my recent post on the discussion of the importance of expectations in the lead-lag structure in the monetary transmission mechanism I came think that is really somewhat odd how little role the discussion of expectations have had in the history of the theory of transmission mechanism .

Yes, we can find discussions of expectations in the works of for example Ludwig von Mises, John Maynard Keynes and Frank Knight. However, these discussions are not directly linked to the monetary transmission mechanism and it was not really before the development of rational expectations models in the 1970s that expectations started to entering into monetary theory. Today of course New Keynesians, New Classical economists and of course most notably Market Monetarists acknowledge the central role of expectations. While most monetary policy makers still seem rather ignorant about the connection between the monetary transmission mechanism and expectations. And even fewer acknowledge that monetary policy basically becomes endogenous in a world of a perfectly credible nominal target.

A good example of this disconnect between the view of expectations and the view of the monetary transmission mechanism is of course the works of Milton Friedman. Friedman more less prior to the Muth’s famous paper on rational expectation came to the conclusion that you can’t fool everybody all of the time and as consequence monetary policy can not permanently be use to exploit a trade-off between unemployment and inflation. This is of course was one of things that got him his Nobel Prize. However, Friedman to his death continued to talk about monetary policy as working with long and variable lags. However, why would there be long and variable lags if monetary policy was perfectly credible and the economic agents have rational expectations? One answer is – as I earlier suggested – that monetary policy in no way was credible when Friedman did his research on monetary theory and policy. One can say Friedman helped develop rational expectation theory, but never grasped that this would be quite important for how we understand the monetary transmission mechanism.

Friedman, however, was not along. Basically nobody (please correct me if I am wrong!!) prior to the development of New Keynesian theory talked seriously about the importance of expectations in the monetary transmission mechanism. The issue, however, was not ignored. Hence, at the centre of the debate about the gold standard in the 1930s was of course the discussion of the need to tight the hands of policy makers. And Kydland and Prescott did not invent Rules vs Discretion. Henry Simons of course in his famous paper Rules versus Authorities in Monetary Policy from 1936 discussed the issue at length. So in some way economists have always known the importance of expectations in monetary theory. However, they have said, very little about the importance of expectation in the monetary transmission mechanism.

Therefore in many ways the key contribution of Market Monetarism to the development of monetary theory might be that we fully acknowledge the importance of expectations in the transmission mechanism. Yes, New Keynesian like Mike Woodford and Gauti Eggertsson also understand the importance of expectations in the transmission mechanism, but their view of the transmission mechanism seems uniformly focused in the expectations of the future path of real interest rates rather than on a much broader set of asset prices.

However, I might be missing something here so I am very interested in hearing what my readers have to say about this issue. Can we find any pre-rational expectations economists that had expectations at the core of there understand of the monetary transmission mechanism? Cassel? Hawtrey? Wicksell? I am not sure…

PS Don’t say Hayek he missed up badly with expectations in Prices and Production

PPS I will be in London in the coming days on business so I am not sure I will have much time for blogging, but I will make sure to speak a lot about monetary policy…

Benn & Ben – would prediction markets be of interest to you?

Benn Steil from the Council on Foreign Relations has an interesting comment on the Federal Reserve’s forecasting performance. I don’t really want to discuss Benn Steil’s views, but rather the fed research he quotes.

Here is Steil:

“The Fed studied its own staff’s forecasting performance over the period 1986 to 2006. It found that the average root mean squared error—or the deviation from the actual result—for the staff’s next-year gross domestic product (GDP) forecasts was 1.34, compared with 1.29 by what the Fed describes as a “large group” of private forecasters. That is, the Fed’s predicting performance was worse than that of market-watchers outside the Fed. For next-year CPI forecasts, the error term was 1.03 for Fed staff, and only 0.93 for private forecasters. The Fed’s conclusion? In its own words, its “historical forecast errors are large in economic terms.”

I have unfortunately not be able to locate the research quoted by Steil so if anybody out there can locate it please let me know. I have the feeling that the research is rather old – and as such Steil’s story is not really “breaking news”.

Anyway what can I say? The Fed is not able to beat the “consensus forecast”. That is not really surprising. That does not show that the Fed economists in anyway are incompetent. It just shows that the “market” or the wisdowm of the crowds is better at forecasting than the Fed. In fact the “consensus” will most of the time beat any professional forecaster.

So the relevant question that Steil should ask is why is the Fed doing forecast instead of leaving it to the market. The Fed of course should set-up a prediction market rather than relying on in-house forecasts – especially when the market clearly is better at forecasting than the skilled economists at the Fed.

By the way contrary to what Steil implies I don’t think we can say anything about whether the Fed should be trusted or not based on the Fed’s forecasting performance. In fact if the Fed consistently was able to beat the market then I guess the market would pretty fast adopt the Fed forecast. There is a lot of reason to be skeptical about the Fed, but the “average” forecasting performance of the Fed’s staff is not one of them. I have personally been doing a lot of forecasting over the years and I would never claim that I am better at forecasting that the “crowd” so this is not a critique of the Fed economists, but rather an endorsement of the market.

See my previous posts on the use of prediction markets in the conduct of monetary policy.

Robin Hanson’s brilliant idea for central bank decision-making
Prediction markets and government budget forecasts
Please fasten your seatbelt and try to beat the market
Central banks should set up prediction markets

PS Mr. Steil might be interested in noting that market expectations for medium-term inflation still is well below 2%. Contrary to what Mr. Steil seems to think US monetary policy is overly tight! Unfortunately neither Benn nor Ben seem to care much about market expectations…

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Update: George Farnon alerted me to this article: Federal Open Market Committee forecasts: Guesses or guidance? It is yet another argument for prediction markets…the Fed would never dare…

It’s time to get rid of the ”representative agent” in monetary theory

“Tis vain to talk of adding quantities which after the addition will continue to be as distinct as they were before; one man’s happiness will never be another man’s happiness: a gain to one man is no gain to another: you might as well pretend to add 20 apples to 20 pears.”

- Jeremy Bentham, 1789

I have often felt that modern-day Austrian economists are fighting yesterday’s battles. They often seem to think that mainstream economists think as if they were the “market socialists” of the 1920s and that the “socialist-calculation-debate” is still on-going. I feel like screaming “wake up people! We won. No economist endorses central planning anymore!”

However, I am wrong. The Austrians are right. Many economists still knowingly or out of ignorance today endorse some of the worst failures of early-day welfare theory. Economists have known since the time of Jeremy Bentham that one man’s happiness can not be compared to another man’s happiness. Interpersonal utility comparison is a fundamental no-no in welfare theory. We cannot and shall not compare one person’s utility with another man’s utility. But this is exactly what “modern” monetary theorists do all the time.

Take any New Keynesian model of the style made famous by theorists like Michael Woodford. In these models the central banks is assumed to be independent (and benevolent). The central banker sets interest rates to minimize the “loss function” of a “representative agent”. Based on this kind of rationalisation economists like Woodford find theoretical justification for Taylor rule style monetary policy functions.

Nobody seems to find this problematic and it is often argued that Woodford even has provided the microeconomic foundation for these loss functions. Pardon my French, but that is bullsh*t. Woodford assumes that there is a representative agent. What is that? Imagine we introduced this character in other areas of economic research? Most economists would find that highly problematic.

There is no such thing as a representative agent. Let me illustrate it. The economy is hit by a negative shock to nominal GDP. With Woodford’s representative agent all agents in the economy is hit in the same way and the loss (or gain) is the same for all agents in the economy. No surprise – all agents are assumed to be the same. As a result there is no conflict between the objectives of different agents (there is basically only one agent).

But what if there are two agents in the economy. One borrower and one saver. The borrower is borrowing from the other agent at a fixed nominal interest rate. If nominal GDP drops then that will effectively be a transfer of wealth from the borrower to the saver.

This might of course of course make the Calvinist ideologue happy, but what would the modern day welfare theorist say?

The modern welfare theorist would of course apply a Pareto criterion to the situation and argue that only a monetary policy rule that ensures Pareto efficiency is a good monetary policy rule: An allocation is Pareto efficient if there is no other feasible allocation that makes at least one party better off without making anyone worse off. Hence, if the nominal GDP drops and lead to a transfer of wealth from one agent to another then a monetary policy that allows this does not ensure Pareto efficiency and is hence not an optimal monetary policy.

David Eagle has shown in a number of papers that only one monetary policy rule can ensure Pareto efficiency and that is NGDP level targeting (See David’s guest posts here, here and here). All other policy rules, inflation targeting, Price level targeting and NGDP growth targeting are all Pareto inefficient. Price level targeting, however, also ensures Pareto efficiency if there are no supply shocks in the economy.

This result is significantly more important than any result of New Keynesian analysis of monetary policy rules with a representative agent. Analysis based on the assumption of the representative agent completely fails to tell us anything about the present economic situation and the appropriate response to the crisis. Just think whether a model with a “representative country” in the euro zone or one with Greece (borrower) and Germany (saver) make more sense.

It is time to finally acknowledge that Bentham’s words also apply to monetary policy rules and finally get rid of the representative agent.

——

For a much more insightful and clever discussion of this topic see David Eagle’s paper “Pareto Efficiency vs. the Ad Hoc Standard Monetary Objective – An Analysis of Inflation Targeting” from 2005.

Chain of events in the boom-bust

In my recent post on “boom, bust and bubbles” I tried to sketch a monetary theory of bubbles. In this post I try to give an overview of what in my view seems to be the normal chain of events in boom-bust and in the formation of bubbles. This is not a theory, but rather what I consider to be some empirical regularities in the formation and bursting of bubbles – and the common policy mistakes made by central banks and governments.

Here is the story…

Chain of events in the boom-bust

- Positive supply shocks – often due to structural reforms that include supply side reforms and monetary stabilisation

- Supply side reforms leads to “supply deflation” – headline inflation drops both as a result of monetary stabiliisation and supply deflation. Real GDP growth picks up

- First policy mistake: The drop in headline inflation leads the central bank to ease monetary policy (in a fixed exchange rate regime this happens “automatically”)

- Relative inflation: Demand inflation increases sharply versus supply inflation – this is often is visible in for example sharply rising property prices and a “profit bubble”

- Investors jump on the good story – fears are dismissed often on the background of some implicit guarantees – moral hazard problems are visible

- More signs of trouble: The positive supply shock starts to ease off – headline inflation increases due to higher “supply inflation”

- Forward-looking investors start to worry about the boom turning into a bust when monetary policy will be tightened

- Second policy mistake: Cheerleading policy makers dismisses fears of boom-bust and as a result they get behind the curve on events to come and encourage investors to jump on the bandwagon

- In a fixed exchange rate the exit of worried investors effectively lead to a tightening of monetary conditions as the specie-flow mechanism sharply reduces the money supply

- The bubble bursts: Demand inflation drops sharply – this will often be mostly visible in a collapse in property prices

- The drop in demand inflation triggers financial distress – money velocity drops and triggers a further tightening of monetary conditions

- Third policy mistake: Policy makers realise that they made a mistake and now try to undo it “in hindsight” not realising that the setting has changed. Monetary conditions has already been tightened.

- Secondary deflation hits. Demand prices and NGDP drops below the pre-boom trend. Real GDP drops strongly, unemployment spikes

- Forth policy mistake: Monetary policy is kept tight – often because a fixed exchange rate regime is defended or because the central bank believes that monetary policy already is loose because interest rates are low

- A “forced” balance sheet recession takes place (it is NOT a Austrian style balance sheet recession…) – overly tight monetary policy forces investors and households through an unnecessary Fisherian debt-deflation

- Real GDP growth remains lackluster despite the initial financial distress easing. This is NOT due to an unavoidable deleveraging, but is a result of too tight monetary policy, but also because the positive supply shock that sat the entire process in motion has eased off.

-The country emerges from crisis when prices and wages have adjusted down or more likely when monetary policy finally is ease – for fixed exchange rate countries when the peg is given up

Boom, bust and bubbles

Recently it has gotten quite a bit of attention that some investors believe that there is a bubble in the Chinese property market and we will be heading for a bust soon and the fact that I recently visited Dubai have made me think of how to explain bubbles and if there is such a thing as bubbles in the first bubbles.

I must say I have some experience with bubbles. In 2006 I co-authoured a paper on the Icelandic economy where we forecasted a bust of the Icelandic bubble – I don’t think we called it a bubble, but it was pretty clear that that is what we meant it was. And in 2007 I co-authored a number of papers calling a bust to the bubbles in certain Central and Eastern European economies – most notably the Baltic economies. While I am proud to have gotten it right – both Iceland and the Baltic States went through major economic and financial crisis – I nonetheless still feel that I am not entire sure why I got it right. I am the first to admit that there certainly quite a bit of luck involved (never underestimate the importance of luck). Things could easily have gone much different. However, I do not doubt that the fact that monetary conditions were excessive loose played a key role both in the case of Iceland and in the Baltic States. I have since come to realise that moral hazard among investors undoubtedly played a key role in these bubbles. But most of all my conclusion is that the formation of bubbles is a complicated process where a number of factors play together to lead to bubbles. At the core of these “accidents”, however, is a chain of monetary policy mistakes.

What is bubbles? And do they really exist? 

If one follows the financial media one would nearly on a daily basis hear about “bubbles” in that and that market. Hence, financial journalists clearly have a tendency to see bubbles everywhere – and so do some economists especially those of us who work in the financial sector where “airtime” is important. However, the fact is that what really could be considered as bubbles are quite rare. The fact that all the bubble-thinkers can mention the South Sea bubble or the Dutch Tulip bubble of 1637 that happened hundreds years ago is a pretty good illustration of this. If bubbles really were this common then we would have hundreds of cases to study. We don’t have that. That to me this indicates that bubbles do not form easily – they are rare and form as a consequence of a complicated process of random events that play together in a complicated unpredictable process.

I think in general that it is wrong to see any increase in assets prices that is later corrected as a bubble. Obviously investors make mistakes. We after all live in an uncertain world. Mistakes are not bubbles. We can only talk about bubbles if most investors make the same mistakes at the same time.

Economists do not have a commonly accepted description of what a bubble is and this is probably again because bubbles are so relatively rare. But let me try to give a definitions. I my view bubbles are significant economic wide misallocation of labour and capital that last for a certain period and then is followed by an unwinding of this misallocation (we could also call this boom-bust). In that sense communist Soviet Union was a major bubble. That also illustrates that distortion of  relative prices is at the centre of the description and formation of bubbles.

Below I will try to sketch a monetary based theory of bubbles – and here the word sketch is important because I am not actually sure that there really can be formulated a theory of bubbles as they are “outliers” rather than the norm in free market economies.

The starting point – good things happen

In my view the starting point for the formation of bubbles actually is that something good happens. Most examples of “bubbles” (or quasi-bubbles) we can find with economic wide impact have been in Emerging Markets. A good example is the boom in the South East Asian economies in the early 1990s or the boom in Southern Europe and Central and Eastern European during the 2000s. All these economies saw significant structural reforms combined with some kind of monetary stabilisation, but also later on boom-bust.

Take for example Latvia that became independent in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After independence Latvia underwent serious structural reforms and the transformation from planned economy to a free market economy happened relatively fast. This lead to a massively positive supply shock. Furthermore, a quasi-currency board was implemented early on. The positive supply shock (which played out over years) and the monetary stabilisation through the currency board regime brought inflation down and (initially) under control. So the starting point for what later became a massive misallocation of resources started out with a lot of good things happening.

Monetary policy and “relative inflation”

As the stabilisation and reform phase plays out the initial problems start to emerge. The problem is that the monetary policies that initially were stabilising soon becomes destabilising and here the distinction between “demand inflation” and “supply inflation” is key (See my discussion decomposion demand and supply inflation here). Often countries in Emerging Markets with underdeveloped financial markets will choose to fix their currency to more stable country’s currency – for example the US dollar or in the old days the D-mark – but a policy of inflation targeting has also in recent years been popular.

These policies often succeed in bringing nominal stability to begin with, but because the central bank directly or indirectly target headline inflation monetary policy is eased when positive supply shocks help curb inflationary pressures. What emerges is what Austrian economists has termed “relative inflation” – while headline inflation remains “under control” demand inflation (the inflation created by monetary policy) increases while supply inflation drops or even turn into supply deflation. This is a consequence of either a fixed exchange rate policy or an inflation targeting policy where headline inflation rather than demand inflation is targeted.

My view on relative inflation has to a very large extent been influenced by George Selgin’s work – see for example George’s excellent little book “Less than zero” for a discussion of relative inflation. I think, however, that I am slightly less concerned about the dangers of relative inflation than Selgin is and I would probably stress that relative inflation alone can not explain bubbles. It is a key ingredient in the formation of bubbles, but rarely the only ingredient.

Some – George Selgin for example (see here) – would argue that there was a significant rise in relatively inflation in the US prior to 2008. I am somewhat skeptical about this as I can not find it in my own decompostion of the inflation data and NGDP did not really increase above it’s 5-5.5% trend in the period just prior to 2008. However, a better candidate for rising relative inflation having played a role in the formation of a bubble in my view is the IT-bubble in the late 1990s that finally bursted in 2001, but I am even skeptical about this. For a good discussion of this see David Beckworth innovative Ph.D. dissertation from 2003.

There are, however, much more obvious candidates. While the I do not necessarily think US monetary policy was excessively loose in terms of the US economy it might have been too loose for everybody else and the dollar’s role as a international reserve currency might very well have exported loose monetary policy to other countries. That probably – combined with policy mistakes in Europe and easy Chinese monetary policy – lead to excessive loose monetary conditions globally which added to excessive risk taking globally (including in the US).

The Latvian bubble – an illustration of the dangers of relative inflation

I have already mentioned the cases of Iceland and the Baltic States. These examples are pretty clear examples of excessive easy monetary conditions leading to boom-bust. The graph below shows my decompostion of Latvian inflation based on a Quasi-Real Price Index for Latvia.

It is very clear from the graph that Latvia demand inflation starts to pick up significantly around 2004, but headline inflation is to some extent contained by the fact that supply deflation becomes more and more clear. It is no coincidence that this happens around 2004 as that was the year Latvia joined the EU and opened its markets further to foreign competition and investments – the positive impact on the economy is visible in the form of supply deflation. However, due to Latvia’s fixed exchange rate policy the positive supply shock did not lead to a stronger currency, but rather to an increase in demand inflation. This undoubtedly was a clear reason for the extreme misallocation of capital and labour in the Latvian economy in 2005-8.

The fact that headline inflation was kept down by a positive supply shock probably help “confuse” investors and policy makers alike and it was only when the positive supply shock started to ease off in 2006-7 that investors got alarmed.

Hence, here a Selginian explanation for the boom-bust seems to be a lot more obvious than for the US.

The role of Moral Hazard – policy makers as “cheerleaders of the boom”

To me it is pretty clear that relative inflation will have to be at the centre of a monetary theory of bubbles. However, I don’t think that relative inflation alone can explain bubbles like the one we saw in the Latvia. A very important reason for this is the fact that it took so relatively long for investors to acknowledge that something wrong in the Latvian economy. Why did they not recognise it earlier? I think that moral hazard played a role. Investors full well understood that there was a serious problem with strongly rising demand inflation and misallocation of capital and labour, but at the same time it was clear that Latvia seemed to be on the direct track to euro adoption within a relatively few years (yes, that was the clear expectation in 2005-6). As a result investors bet that if something would go wrong then Latvia would probably be bailed out by the EU and/or the Nordic governments and this is in fact what happened. Hence, investors with rational expectations rightly expected a bailout of Latvia if the worst-case scenario played out.
The Latvian case is certainly not unique. Robert Hetzel has made a forcefull argument in his excellent paper “Should Increased Regulation of Bank Risk Taking Come from Regulators or from the Market?” that moral hazard played a key role in the Asian crisis. Here is Hetzel:

“In early 1995, the Treasury with the Exchange Stabilization Fund, the Fed with swap accounts, and the IMF had bailed out international investors holding Mexican Tesobonos (Mexican government debt denominated in dollars) who were fleeing a Mexico rendered unstable by political turmoil. That bailout created the assumption that the United States would intervene to prevent financial collapse in its strategic allies. Russia was included as “too nuclear” to fail. Subsequently, large banks increased dramatically their short-term lending to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea. The Asia crisis emerged when the overvalued, pegged exchange rates of these countries collapsed revealing an insolvent banking system. Because of the size of the insolvencies as a fraction of the affected countries GDP, the prevailing TBTF assumption that Asian countries would bail out their banking systems suddenly disappeared.”

I would further add that I think policy makers often act as “cheerleaders of the boom” in the sense that they would dismiss warnings from analysts and market participants that something is wrong in the economy and often they are being supported by international institutions like the IMF. This clearly “helps” investors (and households) becoming more rationally ignorant or even rationally irrational about the “obvious” risks (See Bryan Caplan’s discussion of rational ignorance and rational irrationality here.)

Policy recommendation: Introduce NGDP level targeting

Yes, yes we might as well get out our hammer and say that the best way to avoid bubbles is to target the NGDP level. So why is that? Well, as I argued above a key ingredient in the creation of bubbles was relative inflation – that demand inflation rose without headline inflation increasing. With NGDP level targeting the central bank will indirectly target a level for demand prices – what I have called a Quasi-Real Price Index (QRPI). This clearly would reduce the risk of misallocation due to confusion of demand and supply shocks.

It is often argued that central banks should in some way target asset prices to avoid bubbles. The major problem with this is that it assumes that the central bank can spot bubbles that market participants fail to spot. This is further ironic as it is exactly the central banks’ overly loose monetary policy which is likely at the core of the formation of bubbles. Further, if the central bank targets the NGDP level then the potential negative impact on money velocity of potential bubbles bursting will be counteracted by an increase in the money supply and hence any negative macroeconomic impact of the bubble bursting will be limited. Hence, it makes much more sense for central banks to significantly reduce the risk of bubbles by targeting the NGDP level than to trying to prick the bubbles.NGDP targeting reduces the risk of bubbles and also reduces the destabilising impact when the bubbles bursts.

Finally it goes without saying that moral hazard should be avoided, but here the solutions seems to be much harder to find and most likely involve fundamental institutional (some would argue constitutional) reforms.

But lets not worry too much about bubbles

As I stated above the bubbles are in reality rather rare and there is therefore in general no reason to worry too much about bubbles. That I think particularly is the case at the moment where overly tight monetary policy rather overly loose monetary policy. Furthermore, contrary to what some have argued the introduction – which effective in the present situation would equate monetary easing in for example the US or the euro zone – does not increase the risk of bubbles, but rather it reduces the risk of future bubbles significantly. That said, there is no doubt that the kind of bailouts that we have see of certain European governments and banks have increased the risk of moral hazard and that is certainly problematic. But again if monetary policy had follow a NGDP rule in the US and Europe the crisis would have been significantly smaller in the first place and bailouts would therefore not have been “necessary”.

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PS I started out mentioning the possible bursting of the Chinese property bubble. I have no plans to write on that topic at the moment, but have a look at two rather scary comments from Patrick Chovanec:

“China Data, Part 1A: More on Property Downturn”
“Foreign Affairs: China’s Real Estate Crash”

 

 



The Compensated dollar and monetary policy in small open economies

It is Christmas time and I am spending time with the family so it is really not the time for blogging, but just a little note about something I have on my mind – Irving Fisher’s Compensated dollar plan and how it might be useful in today’s world – especially for small open economies.

I am really writing on a couple of other blog posts at the moment that I will return to in the coming days and weeks, but Irving Fisher is hard to let go of. First of all I need to finalise my small series on modern US monetary history through the lens of Quasi-Real Indexing and then I am working on a post on bubbles (that might in fact turn into a numbers of posts). So stay tuned for these posts.

Back to the Compensated dollar plan. I have always been rather skeptical about fixed exchange rate regimes even though I acknowledge that they have worked well in some countries and at certain times. My dislike of fixed exchange rates originally led me to think that then one should advocate floating exchange rates and I certainly still think that a free floating exchange rate regime is much preferable to a fixed exchange rate regime for a country like the US. However, the present crisis have made me think twice about floating exchange rates – not because I think floating exchange rates have done any harm in this crisis. Countries like Sweden, Australia, Canada, Poland and Turkey have all benefitted a great deal from having floating exchange rates in this crisis. However, exchange rates are really the true price of money (or rather the relative price of monies). Unlike the interest rate which is certainly NOT – contrary to popular believe – the price of money. Therefore, if we want to change the price of money then the most direct way to do that is through the exchange rate.

As a consequence I also come to think that variations of Fisher’s proposal could be an idea for small open economies – especially as these countries typically have less developed financial markets and due to financial innovation – in especially Emerging Markets – have a hard time controlling the domestic money supply. Furthermore, a key advantage of using the exchange rate to conduct monetary policy is that there is no “lower zero bound” on the exchange rate as is the case with interest rates and the central bank can effectively “circumvent” the financial sector in the conduct of monetary policy – something which is likely to be an advantage when there is a financial crisis.

The Compensated dollar plan 

But lets first start out by revisiting Fisher’s compensated dollar plan. Irving Fisher first suggested the compensated dollar plan in 1911 in his book The Purchasing Power of Money. The idea is that the dollar (Fisher had a US perspective) should be fixed to the price of gold, but the price should be adjustable to ensure a stable level of purchasing power for the dollar (zero inflation). Fisher starts out by defining a price index (equal to what we today we call a consumer price index) at 100. Then Fisher defines the target for the central bank as 100 for this index – so if the index increases above 100 then monetary policy should be tightened – and vis-a-vis if the index drops. This is achieved by a proportional adjustment of  the US rate vis-a-vis the the gold prices. So it the consumer price index increase from 100 to 101 the central bank intervenes to strengthen the dollar by 1% against gold. Ideally – and in my view also most likely – this system will ensure stable consumer prices and likely provide significant nominal stability.

Irving Fisher campaigned unsuccessfully for his proposals for years and despite the fact that is was widely discussed it was not really given a chance anywhere. However, Sweden in the 1930s implemented a quasi-compensated dollar plan and as a result was able to stabilize Swedish consumer prices in the 1930s. This undoubtedly was the key reason why Sweden came so well through the Great Depression. I am very certain that had the US had a variation of the compensated dollar plan in place in 2008-9 then the crisis in the global economy wold have been much smaller.

Three reservations about the Compensated dollar plan

There is no doubt that the Compensated dollar plan fits well into Market Monetarist thinking. It uses market prices (the exchange rate and gold prices) in the conduct of monetary policy rather than a monetary aggregate, it is strictly ruled based and it ensures a strong nominal anchor.

From a Market Monetarists perspective I, however, have three reservations about the idea.

First, the plan is basically a price level targeting plan (with zero inflation) rather than a plan to target nominal spending/income (NGDP targeting). This is clearly preferable to inflation targeting, but nonetheless fails to differentiate between supply and demand inflation and as such still risk leading to misallocation and potential bubbles. This is especially relevant for Emerging Markets, which undergoes significant structural changes and therefore continuously is “hit” by a number of minor and larger supply shocks.

Second, the plan is based on a backward-looking target rather than on a forward-looking target – where is the price level today rather than where is the price level tomorrow? In stable times this is not a major problem, but in a time of shocks to the economy and the financial system this might become a problem. How big this problem is in reality is hard to say.

Finally third, the fact that the plan uses only one commodity price as an “anchor” might become a problem. As Robert Hall among other have argued it would be preferable to use a basket of commodities as an anchor instead and he has suggest the so-called ANCAP standard where the anchor is a basket of Ammonium Nitrate, Copper, Aluminum and Plywood.

Exchange rate based NGDP targeting for small-open economies

If we take this reservations into account we get to a proposal for an exchange rate based NGDP target regime which I believe would be particularly suiting for small open economies and Emerging Markets. I have in an earlier post spelled out the proposal – so I am repeating myself here, but I think the idea is worth it.

My suggestion is that it the the small open economy (SOE) announces that it will peg a growth path for NGDP (or maybe for nominal wages as data might be faster available than NGDP data) of for example 5% a year and it sets the index at 100 at the day of the introduction of the new monetary regime. Instead of targeting the gold price it could choose to either to “peg” the currency against a basket of other currencies – for example the 3-4 main trading partners of the country – or against a basket of commodities (I would prefer the CRB index which is pretty closely correlated with global NGDP growth).

Thereafter the central bank should every month announce a monthly rate of depreciation/appreciation of the currency against the anchor for the coming 24-36 month in the same way as most central banks today announces interest rate decisions. The target of course would be to “hit” the NGDP target path within a certain period. The rule could be fully automatic or there could be allowed for some discretion within the overall framework. Instead of using historical NGDP the central bank naturally should use some forecast for NGDP (for example market consensus or the central bank’s own forecast).

It could be done, but will anybody dare?

Central bankers are conservative people and they don’t go around and change their monetary policy set-up on a daily basis. Nonetheless it might be time for central banks around the world to reconsider their current set-up as monetary policy far from having been successfully in recent years. I believe Irving Fisher’s Compensated dollar plan is an excellent place to start and I have provided a (simple) proposal for how small-open economies might implement it.

How I would like to teach Econ 101

Recently our friend Nick Rowe commented on what he considers to be wrong arguments by Joseph Stiglitz and Bryan Caplan. Nick obviously is a busy bee because he had time to write his comment in between exams (you might have noticed that the blogging among the Market Monetarist econ professors has gone down a bit recently – they have all been busy with exams I guess…). Nick’s comment and the fact that he was busy with exams inspired me to write this comment.

The purpose of my comment is not to comment on Nick’s view of Stiglitz and Caplan – Nick is of course right as usual so there no reason to try to disagree. However, something Nick said nonetheless is worthwhile commenting on. In his comment Nick states: “Macro is not the same as micro.”

That made me think – and this not to disagree with Nick but rather he inspired me to think about this – that maybe it is exactly the problem that the “normal” view is that macro and micro is not the same thing.

The fact is that when I started studying economics more than 20 years ago at the University of Copenhagen we where taught Micro 101 and Macro 101. There was basically no link between the two. In Micro with learned all the basic stuff – marginalism, general equilibrium, Walras’ Law and the Welfare theorems etc. In Macro 101 there was (initially) no mentioning of what we learned in Micro, but we instead started out with some Keynesian accounting: Y=C+I+G+X-M. Then we moved on to the IS-LM model. The AD-AS model did not get much attention at that time as far as I remember. Then we were told about some “crazy” people who thought that money matters, but that did not really fit into the models because we didn’t really differentiate between real and nominal. Why should we? Prices where fixed in our models. As a consequence most students of my time chose either to specialise in the highly technical and mathematically demanding microeconomic theory (that seemed very far away from the real world) or you focused on real world problems and specialised in macroeconomics which at that time was quite old school Keynesian. Things have since changed with the New Keynesian revolution and macroeconomics have now adopted a lot of the mathematical lingo and rational expectations have been introduced, but it is my feeling that most economics students both in Europe and the US to a very large degree still study Micro and Macro as very separated disciplines and that I think is a huge problem for how the average economist come to see the world.

While macroeconomics as discipline undoubtedly today has much more of a micro foundation than use to be the case the starting point often still is Y=C+I+G+X+M. So yes, we might have a micro foundation for how C (and I for that matter) is determined but we still end up adding up C (and I) with the other variables on the right hand side of the equation – leaving the impression that the causality runs from the right hand side of the equation to the left hand side of the equation. The next thing we do is to come up with some theory for inflation and then we add that on top of Y to get nominal GDP, but again this is rarely discussed. The world is just real to most econ students (and their professors). That then leave the impression that real GDP determines inflation (most often via a Phillips curve of some kind).

So what would I do differently? Well nothing much in terms of microeconomics. I guess that is more or less fine (To my Austrian friends: Maybe if somebody could elaborate on the entrepreneur and give a Nobel prize to Israel Kirzner for that then that could be part of Micro 101 as well). For the purpose of moving from micro the macro I think the most important thing is to understand general equilibrium and that in Arrow-Debreu world there are no recessions. Prices clear all markets. There are never over or under supply of goods and services.

“And then we move on to macroeconomics” the professors says. And instead of telling about Y=C+I+G+X-M he instead says…

“You remember that we had n goods and n prices and that one agent’s income was another person’s consumption/expenditure. Well, that is still the case in macroeconomics, but in the macroeconomy we also have something we call money!”

Lets assume we maintain the assumption that prices are flexible (wages are also prices). Then the professors tells about aggregation so instead we can aggregate prices into one price index P and all goods into one index Y.

And then professor smiles and says “its time to hear about the equation of exchange”:

(1) MV=PY

“Wauw!” screams the students. “You have just introduced money to the Arrow-Debreu World! Amazing!”. Did we just go from micro to macro? Yes we did!

The professor explains to the students that (1) can be rearranged into

(1)’ P=MV/Y

The professor tells the students that we call (1)’ the AD curve and that we can write a AS curve Y=f(K,L) (“you remember production functions from Micro 101” the professors notes).

The students are obviously very impressed, but they also think it is completely logical.

The professor has now introduced the AD-AS model (and the dynamic AD-AS model). Since AD is just (1)’ the professor has not started to talk about fiscal policy (what multiplier??). In his head the AD curve can be shifted by shocks to M or V, but that has nothing to do with fiscal policy. In “his” AD-AS model fiscal policy does really not exist, as it is basically a micro phenomenon – fiscal policy might have an impact on relative prices, but it has no impact on the PY aggregate and fiscal policy might impact the supply side of the economy, but not the AD-curve? No, of course not.

The students are of course eager to hear what their new tool “money” can be used for and a clever student asks “Professor, what is the optimal monetary policy?”.

The professors answers “Do you remember the welfare theorems?”.

Student: “Yes, of course professor”.

Professor: “Good, then it is simple – we need a monetary policy that ensures a Pareto optimal allocation of consumption between different goods (including capital goods) and periods”.

Student: “But professor in the Arrow-Debreu world the market (relative prices) took care of that”.

Professor: “Exactly! So we should ‘emulate’ that in the macro world – how do we do that?”

Student: “That’s easy! We just fix MV!”

Professor: “Correct – you are absolutely right. In the world of monetary policy we call that Nominal Income Targeting or NGDP level targeting. It is one of the oldest ideas in monetary theory”.

Student: “Wauw that is cool. So when we fix that we don’t really have to think about aggregation and the macroeconomy anymore – correct?”

Professor: “Correct – and we could easily move back to Micro now”

That is of course not the whole story – the professor will of course introduce rigid prices and rational expectations. And of course when the NGDP targeting is sorted out then the students realise that generating wealth and prosperity is about increasing productivity – and of course they will learn about the supply side, but again they learned about production functions and savings and investments in Micro 101. But there is no need to introduce Y=C+I+G+X-M. Obviously it still holds formally, but it is not really interesting in the sense of understanding macroeconomics.

So Nick is not totally correct – macro and micro is basically the same thing if we have NGDP targeting. Where things go wrong is when we mess up things with another monetary policy rule (for example inflation targeting), but that kind of imperfects we will introduce in the next semester!

—-

PS The very clever student might ask “who produces money?” – Professor Selgin would answer “that is up to the market” and the student will reply “that makes sense – the market produces and allocates other goods very well so why not money?”.

The thinking of a ”Great Moderation” economist

Imagine you are ”born” as a macroeconomists in the US or Europe around 1990. You are told that you are not allowed to study history and all you your thinking should be based on (apparent) correlations you observe from now on and going forward. What would you then think of the world?

First, you all you would see swings in economic activity and unemployment as basically being a result of swings in inventories and moderate supply shocks when oil prices drop or increase due to “geo-political” uncertainty in the Middle East. What is basically “white noise” in economic activity in a longer perspective (going back for example a 100 years) you will perceive as business cycles.

Second, inflation is anchored around 2% and you know that inflation normally tend to move back to this rate, but you really don’t care why that is the case. You will tell people that “globalisation” is the reason inflation remains low. But you also think that when inflation diverges from the 2% rate it is because geo-political uncertainty pushes oil prices up. Sometimes you will also refer to a rudimentary version of the Phillips curve where inflationary pressures increase when GDP growth is above what you define as trend-growth around 2-3%. But basically you don’t spend much time on the inflation process and even though you know that central banks target inflation you don’t really think of inflation as a monetary phenomenon.

Third, monetary policy is a focal point when you talk about economic policy. You will say things like “the Federal Reserve is increase interest rates because growth is strong”. For you think monetary policy is about controlling the level of interest rates. You never look at money supply numbers and have no real idea about how monetary policy is conduct (and you really don’t see why you should care). Central banks just cut or hike interest rates and central bankers have the same model as you so they move interest rates up or down according to a Taylor rule. And if somebody would to ask you about the “monetary transmission mechanism” you would have no clue about what they are talking about. But then you would explain that the central bank sets interest rates thereby control “the price of money” (this is here the Market Monetarist will be screaming!) and that this impact the investment and private consumption.

Forth, your world is basically “stationary” – GDP growth moves up and down 1-2%-point relative to trend growth of 2%. The same with inflation – inflation would more or less move around 2% +/- 1%-point. Given this and the Taylor rule it follows that interest rates will be moving up and down around what you will call the natural interest rate (you don’t know anything about Wicksell – and you don’t care what determine the natural interest rate). So sometimes interest rates moves up to 5-6% and sometime down to 2-3%.

What you off course does not realise is that what you are doing has nothing to do with macroeconomics. You are basically just observing “white noise” and trying to make sense of it and your economic analysis is basically empirical observations. You never heard of the Lucas critique so you don’t realise that observed empirical regularities is strictly dependent on what monetary policy regime you are in and you don’t realise that nominal GDP (NGDP) is growing closely around a 5% growth path and that mean that “macroeconomics” basically has disappeared. Everything is now really just about microeconomics.

And then disaster hits you right in the face! Nominal GDP collapses (you think it is a financial crisis). You are desperate because now the world is no longer “stationary”. All you models are not working anymore. What is happening? You are starting to make theories as you go alone (most of them without any foundation in logic analysis – crackpots have a field day). Now interest rates hit 0%. Your Taylor rule is telling you that central banks should cut interest rates to -7%. They can’t do that so that mean we are all doomed.

Then enters the Market Monetarists…they tell you that interest rates is not the price of money, that we are not doomed and central bank can ease monetary policy even with interest rates at zero if we just implement NGDP level targeting. You look at them and shake your head. They must be crazy. Haven’t they studied history?? They indeed have, but their history book started in 1929 and not in 1990.

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