The Kuroda recovery will be about domestic demand and not about exports

There has been a lot of focus on the fact that USD/JPY has now broken above 100 and that the slide in the yen is going to have a positive impact on Japanese exports. In fact it seems like most commentators and economists think that the easing of monetary policy we have seen in Japan is about the exchange rate and the impact on Japanese “competitiveness”. I think this focus is completely wrong.

While I strongly believe that the policies being undertaken by the Bank of Japan at the moment is likely to significantly boost Japanese nominal GDP growth – and likely also real GDP in the near-term – I doubt that the main contribution to growth will come from exports. Instead I believe that we are likely to see is a boost to domestic demand and that will be the main driver of growth. Yes, we are likely to see an improvement in Japanese export growth, but it is not really the most important channel for how monetary easing works.

The weaker yen is an indicator of monetary easing – but not the main driver of growth

I think that the way we should think about the weaker yen is as a indicator for monetary easing. Hence, when we seeing the yen weakeN, Japanese stock markets rallying and inflation expectations rise at the same time then it is pretty safe to assume that monetary conditions are indeed becoming easier. Of course the first we can conclude is that this shows that there is no “liquidity trap”. The central bank can always ease monetary policy – also when interest rates are zero or close to zero. The Bank of Japan is proving that at the moment.

Two things are happening at the moment in the Japan. One, the money base is increasing dramatically. Second and maybe more important money-velocity is picking up significantly.

Velocity is of course picking up because money demand in Japan is dropping as a consequence of households, companies and institutional investors expect the value of the cash they are holding to decline as inflation is likely to pick up. The drop in the yen is a very good indicator of that.

And what do you do when you reduce the demand for money? Well, you spend it, you invest it. This is likely to be what will have happen in Japan in the coming months and quarters – private consumption growth will pick-up, business investments will go up, construction activity will accelerate. So it is no wonder that equity analysts feel more optimistic about Japanese companies’ earnings.

Hence, the Bank of Japan (and the rest of us) should celebrate the sharp drop in the yen as it is an indicator of a sharp increase in money-velocity and not because it is helping Japanese “competitiveness”.

The focus on competitiveness is completely misplaced

I have in numerous earlier posts argued that when a country is going through a “devaluation” as a consequence of monetary easing the important thing is not competitiveness, but the impact on domestic demand.

I have for example earlier demonstrated that Swedish growth outpaced Danish growth in 2009-10 not because the Swedish krona depreciated strongly against the Danish krone (which is pegged to the euro), but because the Swedish Riksbank was able to ease monetary policy, while the Danish central bank effectively tightened monetary conditions due to the Danish fixed exchange rate policy. As a consequence domestic demand did much better in Sweden in 2009-10 than in Denmark, while – surprise, surprise – Swedish and Danish exports more or less grew at the same pace in 2009-10 (See graphs below).

Similarly I have earlier shown that when Argentina gave up its currency board regime in 2002 the major boost to growth did not primarly come from exports, but rather from domestic demand. Let me repeat a quote from Mark Weisbrot’s and Luis Sandoval’s 2007-paper on “Argentina’s economic recovery”:

“However, relatively little of Argentina’s growth over the last five years (2002-2007) is a result of exports or of the favorable prices of Argentina’s exports on world markets. This must be emphasized because the contrary is widely believed, and this mistaken assumption has often been used to dismiss the success or importance of the recovery, or to cast it as an unsustainable “commodity export boom…

During this period (The first six months following the devaluation in 2002) exports grew at a 6.7 percent annual rate and accounted for 71.3 percent of GDP growth. Imports dropped by more than 28 percent and therefore accounted for 167.8 percent of GDP growth during this period. Thus net exports (exports minus imports) accounted for 239.1 percent of GDP growth during the first six months of the recovery. This was countered mainly by declining consumption, with private consumption falling at a 5.0 percent annual rate.

But exports did not play a major role in the rest of the recovery after the first six months. The next phase of the recovery, from the third quarter of 2002 to the second quarter of 2004, was driven by private consumption and investment, with investment growing at a 41.1 percent annual rate during this period. Growth during the third phase of the recovery – the three years ending with the second half of this year – was also driven mainly by private consumption and investment… However, in this phase exports did contribute more than in the previous period, accounting for about 16.2 percent of growth; although imports grew faster, resulting in a negative contribution for net exports. Over the entire recovery through the first half of this year, exports accounted for about 13.6 percent of economic growth, and net exports (exports minus imports) contributed a negative 10.9 percent.

The economy reached its pre-recession level of real GDP in the first quarter of 2005. As of the second quarter this year, GDP was 20.8 percent higher than this previous peak. Since the beginning of the recovery, real (inflation-adjusted) GDP has grown by 50.9 percent, averaging 8.2 percent annually. All this is worth noting partly because Argentina’s rapid expansion is still sometimes dismissed as little more than a rebound from a deep recession.

…the fastest growing sectors of the economy were construction, which increased by 162.7 percent during the recovery; transport, storage and communications (73.4 percent); manufacturing (64.4 percent); and wholesale and retail trade and repair services (62.7 percent).

The impact of this rapid and sustained growth can be seen in the labor market and in household poverty rates… Unemployment fell from 21.5 percent in the first half of 2002 to 9.6 percent for the first half of 2007. The employment-to-population ratio rose from 32.8 percent to 43.4 percent during the same period. And the household poverty rate fell from 41.4 percent in the first half of 2002 to 16.3 percent in the first half of 2007. These are very large changes in unemployment, employment, and poverty rates.”

And if we want to go further back in history we can look at what happened in the US after FDR gave up the gold standard in 1933. Here the story was the same – it was domestic demand and not net exports which was the driver of the sharp recovery in growth during 1933.

These examples in my view clearly shows that the focus on the “competitiveness channel” is completely misplaced and the ongoing pick-up in Japanese growth is likely to be mostly about domestic demand rather than about exports.

Finally if anybody still worry about “currency war” they might want to rethink how they see the impact of monetary easing. When the Bank of Japan is easing monetary policy it is likely to have a much bigger positive impact on domestic demand than on Japanese exports. In fact I would not be surprised if the Japanese trade balance will worsen as a consequence of Kuroda’s heroic efforts to get Japan out of the deflationary trap.

HT Jonathan Cast

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PS Scott Sumner also comments on Japan.

PPS An important non-competitiveness impact of the weaker yen is that it is telling consumers and investors that inflation is likely to increase. Again the important thing is the signal about monetary policy, which is rather more important than the impact on competitiveness.

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Imagine that a S&P500 future was the Fed’s key policy tool

Here is Yale economics professor Stephen Roach:

“The ECB is pretty much out of ammunition.”

This sentence probably best illustrates what is wrong with monetary policy thinking in today’s world. Obviously the ECB is not out of ammunition, but Roach’s perception is very common.

What Roach fails to realise is that when central banks announce what we in general terms could call the “key policy rate” it is really just announcing a intermediate target for a given market interest rate. What the central bank actually is doing it setting the money base to fix a given market interest rate at a given level. In that sense the interest rates is merely a tool for communication. Nothing else.

The problem is that in most standard macroeconomic models the central bank does not determine the money base – in fact there is no money in most of today’s mainstream macroeconomic models – but rather the “interest rate”. In a world where interest rates are well above zero that is not a major problem, but when the key policy rate gets close to zero you get a communication problem. However, this is really only a perceived problem rather than an actual problem. The central bank can always expand the money base – also if the key policy rate is zero or close to zero.

The mental problem really is that interest rates have replaced money in today’s mainstream (mostly New Keynesian) macroeconomic models. Lets therefore imagine that we constructed a simple macroeconomic model where there is no interest rate, but where the central bank’s communication tool is stock prices or rather stock futures.

Many economists would willingly accept that stock prices can influence both private consumption (through a wealth effect) and investments (through a funding cost effect) and as such that would not be different from the “normal” assumption about how interest rates influence domestic demand. Therefore, by influencing the stock prices the central bank would be able to influence domestic demand. Note of course that I on purpose am “keynesian” in my rhetoric just to make my point in regard to mainstreaming thinking of monetary policy. (Obviously stock prices as well and private consumption and investments are determined by expectations of future nominal income.)

Then now imagine that the central bank every month announces a certain level for the a stock market future instead of announcing a key policy interest rate. So for example in the case of the Federal Reserve the FOMC would every month announce a “target” for a given S&P500 future.

Would anybody question that the Fed could do this? And would anybody question whether the Fed could hit that target? No, of course not. The ECB obviously could do the exact same thing. There would be absolutely no technical problem in using stock prices (or rather stock futures) as a policy instrument.

Do you think Stephen Roach would argue that the ECB “pretty much” was out of ammunition had just increased it’s target for the Euronext 24 month future with 5%? No of course not and that in my view clearly illustrates that the zero bound on interest rates only is a mental problem, but an actual problem.

Finally note that I am not advocating that central banks should target stock prices (I advocate they should target an NGDP future), but I see little difference in such a policy instrument and interest rate targeting. Furthermore, there would not be a zero bound problem if the Fed was targeting S&P500 futures rather than interest rates and Stephen Roach might even realise that the ECB in no way is out of ammunition.

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PS over the long run NGDP and stock prices are actually quite strongly correlated and hence if the Fed announced that S&P500 should increase by lets say 5% a year over the coming 5 years and that it would ensure that by buying (or selling) S&P futures then it would probably do a much better job at hitting a given level of NGDP or inflation for that matter than the Fed’s present weird policy of promising to keep interest rates low for longer or the silly operation twist.

PPS I am pretty sure that Stephen Roach full well knows that the ECB is not out of ammunition, but when you talk to journalists you might make some intellectual short-cuts that distorts what you really think. At least I hope that is what happened.

PPPS If the Fed wanted to target the NGDP level then it is pretty easy to construct indicator for future NGDP from S&P500 futures, TIPS inflation expectations, CRB futures and the nominal effective dollar rate and then the Fed could just use that as a communication tool. Then it would never ever again have to talk about QE or running out of ammunition.

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Update: When I started writing my post I was thinking that Nick Rowe might have  written something similar. And yes, indeed he actually wrote a number of posts on the topic. So take a look at Nick’s posts:

“The Bank of Canada should peg the TSE 300″ – revisited
Why the Bank of Canada should ‘rise’ interest rates
The Fed should buy pro-cyclical assets, not bonds

The Fed can hit any NGDP target

I hate getting into debates where different bloggers go back and forth forever and never reach any conclusion. I am not blogging to get into debates, however, I must admit that Steven Williamson’s recent posts on NGDP level targeting have provoked me quite a bit.

In his first post Williamson makes a number of claims, which I find highly flawed. However, Scott Sumner has already at length addressed most of these issues in a reply to Williamson so I don’t want to get into that (and as you guessed I am fully in agreement with Scott). However, Williamson’s reply to Scott is not less flawed than his initial post. Again I don’t want to go through the whole thing. However, one statement that Williamson makes I think is a very common mistake and I therefore think a comment is in order. Here is Williamson:

“The key problem under the current circumstances is that you can’t just announce an arbitrary NGDP target and hit it with wishful thinking. The Fed needs some tools, and in spite of what Ben Bernanke says, it doesn’t have them.”

This is a very odd comment coming from somebody who calls himself a (New) Monetarist. It is at the core of monetarism in the sense of Friedman, Brunner, Meltzer, Cagan, Schwartz, Warburton and Yeager etc. that nominal GDP is determined by the central bank and no monetarist has ever acknowledged that there is a liquidity trap. Williamson claims that he does not agree with everything Friedman said, but I wonder what Friedman said he agrees with. If you don’t believe that NGDP is determined by the central bank then it makes absolutely no sense to call yourself a monetarist.

Furthermore, if you don’t think that the Fed can hit an NGDP target how could you think it could hit an inflation target? Both changes in NGDP and in prices are monetary phenomena.

Anyway, let’s get back to the question whether the central bank can hit an NGDP target and what instruments could be used to hit that target.

The simplest way to do it is actually to use the exchange rate channel. Let’s assume that the Federal Reserve wants to increase the US NGDP level by 15% and that it wants to do it by the end of 2013.

Scott has suggested using NGDP futures to hit the NGDP target, but let’s assume that is too complicated to understand for the critics and the Fed. Instead the Fed will survey professional forecasters about their expectations for the level of NGDP by the end of 2013. The Fed will then announce that as long as the “consensus” forecast for NGDP is below the target the Fed will step up monetary easing. The Fed will do the survey once a month.

Let’s start out with the first announcement under this new regime. Initially the forecasters are skeptical and forecast NGDP to be 12% below target. As a consequence the Fed announces a Swiss style exchange target. It simply announces that it will intervene in the FX market buying unlimited amounts of foreign currency until the US dollar has weakened 20% in nominal effective terms (and yes, the Fed has the instruments to do that – it has the printing press to print dollars). I am pretty sure that Williamson would agree that that directly would increase US NGDP (if not I would love to see his model…).

The following month the forecasters will likely have moved their forecasts for NGDP closer to the target level. But we might still have too low a level of forecasted NGDP. Therefore, the Fed will the following month announce a further “devaluation” by lets say 5%. The process will continue until the forecasted level for NGDP equals the target level. If the consensus forecast starts to overshoot the target the Fed will simply announce that it will reverse the process and revalue the dollar.

Therefore there is certainly no reason to argue 1) that the Fed can not hit any NGDP target 2) that the Fed does not have an instrument. The exchange rate channel can easily do the job. Furthermore, if the Fed announces this policy then it is very likely that the market will be doing most of the lifting. The dollar would automatically appreciate and depreciate until the market expectations are equal to the NGDP target.

If you have heard all this before then it is because this a variation of Irving Fisher’s compensated dollar plan and Lars E. O. Svensson’s foolproof way out of a liquidity trap. And yes, I have previously suggested this for small open economies, but the Fed could easily use the same method to hit a given NGDP target.

Update: I should note that the example above is exactly that – an example. I use the example to illustrate that a central bank can always increase NGDP and that the exchange rate channel is an effective tool to achieve this goal. However, the numbers mentioned in my post are purely “fictional” and again it example rather than a policy recommendation. That said, I am pretty that if the Fed did exactly as what I suggest above the US would very fast bee out of this crisis. The same goes for the ECB.

Update II: Marcus Nunes and Bill Woolsey also comment on Williamson. Nick Rowe comments on David Adolfatto’s anti-NGDP targeting post(s).

Forget about the “Credit Channel”

One thing that has always frustrated me about the Austrian business cycle theory (ABCT) is that it is assumes that “new money” is injected into the economy via the banking sector and many of the results in the model is dependent this assumption. Something Ludwig von Mises by the way acknowledges openly in for example “Human Action”.

If instead it had been assumed that money is injected into economy via a “helicopter drop” directly to households and companies then the lag structure in the ABCT model completely changes (I know because I many years ago wrote my master thesis on ABCT).

In this sense the Austrians are “Creditist” exactly like Ben Bernanke.

But hold on – so are the Keynesian proponents of the liquidity trap hypothesis. Those who argue that we are in a liquidity trap argues that an increase in the money base will not increase the money supply because there is a banking crisis so banks will to hold on the extra liquidity they get from the central bank and not lend it out. I know that this is not the exactly the “correct” theoretical interpretation of the liquidity trap, but nonetheless the “popular” description of the why there is a liquidity trap (there of course is no liquidity trap).

The assumption that “new money” is injected into the economy via the banking sector (through a “Credit Channel”) hence is critical for the results in all these models and this is highly problematic for the policy recommendations from these models.

The “New Keynesian” (the vulgar sort – not people like Lars E. O. Svensson) argues that monetary policy don’t work so we need to loosen fiscal policy, while the Creditist like Bernanke says that we need to “fix” the problems in the banking sector to make monetary policy work and hence become preoccupied with banking sector rescue rather than with the expansion of the broader money supply. (“fix” in Bernanke’s thinking is something like TARP etc.). The Austrians are just preoccupied with the risk of boom-bust (could we only get that…).

What I and other Market Monetarist are arguing is that there is no liquidity trap and money can be injected into the economy in many ways. Lars E. O. Svensson of course suggested a foolproof way out of the liquidity trap and is for the central bank to engage in currency market intervention. The central bank can always increase the money supply by printing its own currency and using it to buy foreign currency.

At the core of many of today’s misunderstandings of monetary policy is that people mix up “credit” and “money” and they think that the interest rate is the price of money. Market Monetarists of course full well know that that is not the case. (See my Working Paper on the Market Monetarism for a discussion of the difference between “credit” and “money”)

As long as policy makers continue to think that the only way that money can enter into the economy is via the “credit channel” and by manipulating the price of credit (not the price of money) we will be trapped – not in a liquidity trap, but in a mental trap that hinders the right policy response to the crisis. It might therefore be beneficial that Market Monetarists other than just arguing for NGDP level targeting also explain how this practically be done in terms of policy instruments. I have for example argued that small open economies (and large open economies for that matter) could introduce “exchange rate based NGDP targeting” (a variation of Irving Fisher’s Compensated dollar plan).

Please listen to Nicholas Craft!

Professor Nicholas Craft as written a report for the British think tank Centre Forum on “Delivering growth while reducing deficits: lessons from the 1930s”. The report is an excellent overview of the British experience during the 1930s, where monetary easing through exchange rate depreciation combined with fiscal tightening delivered results that certainly should be of interest to today’s policy makers.

If you are the lazy type then you can just read the conclusion:

“The 1930s offers important lessons for today’s policymakers. At that time, the UK was attempting fiscal consolidation with interest rates at the lower bound but devised a policy package that took the economy out of a double-dip recession and into a strong recovery. The way this was achieved was through monetary rather than fiscal stimulus.

The key to recovery both in the UK and the United States in the 1930s was the adoption of credible policies to raise the price level and in so doing to reduce real interest rates. This provided monetary stimulus even though, as today, nominal interest rates could not be cut further. In the UK, the ‘cheap money’ policy put in place in 1932 provided an important offset to the deflationary impact of fiscal consolidation that had pushed the economy into a double-dip recession in that year.

If economic recovery falters in 2012, it may be necessary to go beyond further quantitative easing as practised hitherto. It is important to recognize that at that point there would be an alternative to fiscal stimulus which might be preferable given the weak state of public finances. The key requirement would be to reduce real interest rates by raising inflationary expectations.

At that point, inflation targeting as currently practised in the UK would no longer be appropriate. A possible reform would be to adopt a price level target which commits the MPC to increase the price level by a significant amount, say 15 per cent, over four years. In the 1930s, the Treasury succeeded in developing a clear and credible policy to raise prices. It maybe necessary to adopt a similar strategy in the near future.

It would be attractive if this kind of monetary stimulus worked, as in the 1930s, through encouraging housebuilding. This suggests that an important complementary policy reform would be to liberalize the planning restrictions which make it most unlikely that we will ever see the private sector again build 293000 houses in a year as happened in 1934/5.”

If I have any reservations against Craft’s views then it is the focus on real interest rates in the monetary transmission mechanism. I think that is a far to narrow description of the transmission mechanism in which I think interest rates plays a rather minor role. See my previous comment on the transmission mechanism.

That minor issue aside Craft provides some very insightful comments on the 1930s and the present crisis and  I hope some European policy makers would read Craft’s report…

I got this reference from David Glasner who also has written a comment on Craft’s report.

Taxes and the liquidity trap

How often have you heard it? Monetary policy is impotent because interest rates are very low and if you increase the money base banks will just hoard all the money and will not lend out anything. Market Monetarists of course know that this is nonsense, but we have all also tried to explain this to people that seem unable to listen to the arguments.

Here is an idea how you make people listen. If somebody refuses to accept the power of monetary policy just ask them the following question: “So if an increase in the money base will not be able to increase nominal GDP why should we then have taxes?”

Hence, if there indeed were a liquidity trap there would indeed be a free lunch – you could pay for all expenditure with newly printed money from the central bank without getting inflation. This statement will normally upset people quite a bit and they will scream at you “then we will get hyperinflation!”…when you hear that you know you won the argument and you just reply “Q.E.D.”.

PS I am not suggesting this – exactly because I know there is no liquidity trap.

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