The Angell rule – a market approach to monetary policy

I have for some time had the idea that Federal Reserve thinking in the second half of the 1980s and the early part of the 1990s was dominated by a view that in many ways resembles Market Monetarist thinking. Here especially Wayne Angell and  Manuel “Manley” Johnson played an important role. Johnson was on the Fed’s Board of Governors from 1986 to 1990, while Angell served on the Board of Governors from 1986 until 1994. Both had been appointed by President Reagan. You can think of them as the original Supply Side Monetarists.

Like Market Monetarists Angell and Johnson believed (and still do as far as I can judge) that the best way to judge the monetary policy stance is by observing the price action in financial markets. Angell particularly stressed commodity prices as an indicator of monetary policy, while Johnson advocated looking at a broader range of financial markets – ranging from commodity and equity prices to the exchange rate and the yield curve.

Johnson explained his unique take on monetary policy in his excellent book Monetary Policy, A Market Price Approach, which he co-authored with Robert Keleher. See more on Keleher’s and Johnson’s thinking here.

The Angell rule

A couple of days ago I came across an interesting paper by Wayne Angell from 1991. In the paper – “Commodity Prices and Monetary Policy – What Have we Learned?” from 1991. In the paper Angell spells out his thinking about commodity prices as forward-looking indicators of the monetary policy stance. Angell is quite clear that both interest rates and monetary aggregates are quite imperfect indicators of the monetary policy stance.

While reading the paper I got the idea that Angell not only spelled out an idea about how to conduct monetary policy, but maybe he was also describing actual US monetary policy during the years while he was at the Fed. In his paper Angell basically is saying that the Fed should ensure price stability and to achieve that should use commodity prices (among other things) as an indicator of future price pressures.

Hence, effectively Angell was suggesting that the Fed should follow a rule for the money base where the money base is increased or decreased dependent on the development in commodity prices.

Looking at the development in the money base during the time Angell was at the Fed it surely looks like this is effectively was the policy the Fed actually followed. Just take a look at the graph below.

Angell rule

You don’t need advanced econometric studies to see that there is a pretty clear relationship.

As commodity prices (the CRB Index) drop the Fed reacts within some quarters by expanding the growth rate of the money base. This is for example the case from 1984 to 1987 and again from 1989 to 1993.

Hence, the Fed de facto seems to have changed the monetary policy stance based on the signals from financial market data. This is pretty much in line with general Market Monetarist recommendations. However, it should of course be remembered that while Market Monetarists advocate NGDP level targeting Angell effectively favours Price Level Targeting (“Price Stability”).

Furthermore, this is also the period in Fed history where the Fed move toward what Bob Hetzel has termed a Lean-Against-the-Wind with credibility policy. Angell again and again has stressed the need for a rule based monetary policy rather than a discretionary monetary policy.

The lesson we should learn from the Angell rule is not that we should reintroduce the the Angell rule – at least not in the sense that we should use only commodity prices as an indicator of the monetary policy (Angell never argued that), but that market prices are excellent indicators of the monetary policy stance. This is of course also why we need a proper NGDP futures markets, which the Fed could utilize in the conduct of monetary policy.

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Kurt Schuler endorses NGDP targeting

Long time free banking advocate Kurt Schuler has a new piece at freebanking.org in which he endorses NGDP targeting.

This is Kurt:

Given that I do not expect to see free banking in the immediate future, I would like to see one, or preferably more, central banks that now target inflation try targeting nominal GDP targeting instead. Targeting nominal GDP has some prospective advantages over inflation targeting. One is that nominal GDP targeting allows what seems to be a more appropriate behavior for prices over the business cycle, allowing “good” (productivity- rather than money supply-driven) deflation during the boom and “good” inflation during the bust.

I agree very much with Kurt on this and it is in fact one of the key reasons why I support NGDP targeting. Central banks should indeed allow ‘good deflation’ as well as ‘good inflation’. Hence, to the extent the present drop in inflation in for example the US reflects a positive supply shock the Federal Reserve should not react to that by easing monetary policy. I have discussed that topic in among others this recent post.

Back to Kurt:

Another is that inflation targeting as it has been both most widely proposed and as it has always been adopted has been a “bygones are bygones” version, with no later compensation for past misses of the target. During the Great Recession, many central banks undershot their targets, even allowing deflation to occur. They never corrected their mistakes. Nominal GDP targeting in the form that Scott Sumner and others have advocated it requires the central bank to undo its past mistakes.

Note here that Kurt comes out in favour of the Market Monetarist explanation of the Great Recession. It was the Federal Reserve and other central  banks’ failure to keep NGDP ‘on track’ – and even their failure to just hit their inflation targets – that caused the crisis.

And I think it is notable that Kurt notes that “(i)f it (the central bank) undershot last year’s target, it has to increase the growth rate of the monetary base, other things being equal, to meet this year’s target, which is last year’s target plus several percentage points.” 

That of course indirectly support for monetary easing to get the NGDP level back on track. I am sure that will enrage some Austrian School readers of freebanking.org in the same way as they recently got very upset by George Selgin apparent defense of quantitative easing in 2008/9. See for example Joe Salerno’s angry response to George Selgin here. See George’s reply to Joe (and Pete Boettke) here.

I am, however, not at all surprised by Kurt’s views on this issues – I knew them already – but I am happy to once again be reminded that Free Banking thinkers like Kurt and George and Market Monetarists think very alike. In fact I personally have a hard time disagreeing with anything Kurt and George has to say about monetary theory. And I would also note that Kurt has been an advocate of the market based approach to monetary policy analysis advocated particularly by Manley Johnson and Bob Keleher in their book “Monetary Policy, A Market Price Approach”. The Johnson-Keleher view of markets and money of course comes very close to being Market Monetarism. For more on this topic see Kurt on Keleher here.

However, I would also use this occasion to stress that Market Monetarists should learn from people like George and Kurt and we should particularly listen to their more cautious approach to central banks as hugely imperfect institutions. This is Kurt:

With nominal GDP targeting it may well also happen that there will be flaws that only become apparent through experience. My reason for thinking that flaws are likely is that, like inflation targeting, nominal GDP targeting is an imposed monetary arrangement. It is not a fully competitive one that that people are at liberty to cease using at will, individually, the way they can cease buying Coca-Coca and start buying Pepsi or apple juice instead. Nominal GDP targeting when carried out by a central bank, which has monopoly powers, is a form of central economic planning subject to the same criticisms that apply to all forms of central planning. In particular, it does not allow for the occurrence of the type of discovery of knowledge that comes from being able to replace one arrangement with another through competition.

I agree with Kurt here. Even if NGDP targeting is preferable to other “targets” central banks are still to a large extent very flared institutions. Therefore, it is in my opinion not enough just to advocate NGDP targeting – or even worse just advocating monetary easing in the present situation – we also need to fundamentally reform of monetary institutions.

Finally, advocating NGDP targeting is not just a plain argument for more monetary easing – not even in the present situation. Hence, it is for example notable that the recent drop in inflation in for example the US to a very large extent seems to have been caused by a positive supply shock. This has caused some to call for the fed to step up monetary easing. However, to the extent that what we are seeing is a positive supply this of course is “good deflation”. So yes, there are numerous reasons to argue for a continued expansion of the US money base, but lower inflation is not necessarily such reason.

Robert E. Keleher R.I.P.

I was saddened by the news that Robert E. Keleher has pasted away on May 27 at an age of 67. Keleher pioneered what he termed the Market Price Approach to Monetary Policy. I my view Keleher’s work on monetary policy clearly was similar to Market Monetarism.

Here is Kurt Schuler on Freebanking.org:

“Bob’s most significant work was Monetary Policy, a Market Price Approach, a book he wrote with Manuel H. Johnson. Bob developed the ideas that led to it while working as Johnson’s adviser when Johnson was vice governor of the Federal Reserve Board. It was published in 1996, after they had left the Board. It is, to my knowledge, the only book-length treatment of the question, What indicators should a central bank with a floating exchange rate use to conduct a forward-looking monetary policy? This is, obviously, the question facing most major central banks in the world today, and the answer is vital to the well-being of billions of people.

None of the work I have seen on inflation targeting addresses the question in a fully satisfactory way. Using last month’s inflation reading to guide this month’s monetary policy is like driving using the rear-view mirror. Proponents of inflation targeting understand this point, and they advocate an emphasis on expected inflation, but they do not say enough about the particular indicators that an inflation targeting central bank should use. In practice, central banks do look at particular indicators using particular frameworks, but their procedures are tacitly embodied in institutional practice rather than explicitly articulated in the way Bob’s book does.

The market price framework rests on ideas that come from the Swedish economist Knut Wicksell, and it is therefore of interest to any current of thought influenced by Wicksell’s monetary theory—not just inflation targeting, but nominal GDP targeting, more discretionary approaches to central banking, and even free banking. Advocates of nominal GDP targeting say, “Target the forecast!” The market price framework can help the private sector make the forecast. If free banking were to take the form envisioned by Friedrich Hayek, with competing floating-rate currencies, the market price framework can help issuers of currency decide how much currency to issue.

The particular forward-looking market price indicators the framework recommends examining are broad indices of commodity prices; foreign exchange rates; and bond yields. No mechanical rule suffices for judging whether the central bank is supplying an equilibrium amount of the monetary base, so the book explains how to examine indicators jointly and extract signals from them.”

I believe that Keleher’s work on monetary policy is highly relevant to today’s crisis and his work deserves a lot more attention than it has gotten. I have previously written on Keleher’s work. See here and here.

Robert. E. Keleher, R.I.P.

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