Committed to a failing strategy: low for longer = deflation for longer?

Recently there has been a debate about whether low interest rates counterintuitively actually leads deflationNarayana Kocherlakota, President of the Minneapolis Fed, made such an argument a couple of years ago (but seems to have changed his mind now) and it seems like BIS’ Claudio Borio has been making an similar argument recently. Maybe surprisingly to some (market) monetarists will make a similar argument. We will just turn the argument upside down a bit. Let me explain. 

Most people would of course say that low interest rates equals easy monetary policy and that that leads to higher inflation – and not deflation. However, this traditional keynesian (not New Keynesian) view is wrong because it confuses “the” interest rate for the central bank’s policy instrument, while the interest rate actually in the current setting for most inflation targeting central banks is an intermediate target.

The crucial difference between instruments, intermediate instruments and policy goals

To understand the problem at hand I think it is useful to remind my readers of the difference between monetary policy instruments, intermediate targets and policy goals.

The central bank really only has one instrument and that is the control of the amount of base money in the economy (now and in the future). The central bank has full control of this.

On the other hand interest rates or bond yields are not under the direct control of the central bank. Rather they are intermediate targets. So when a central bank says it is it is cutting or hiking interest rates it is not really doing that. It is intervening in the money market (or for that matter in the bond market) to change market pricing. But it is doing so by controlling the money base. This is why interest rates is an intermediate target. The idea is that by changing the money base the central bank can push interest rates up or down and there by influencing the aggregate demand to increase or decrease inflation is that is what the central bank ultimately wants to “hit”.

Similarly Milton Friedman’s suggestion for central banks to target money supply growth is an intermediate target. The central bank does not directly control M2 or M3, but only the money base.

So while interest rates (or bond yields) and the money supply are not money policy instruments they are intermediate targets. Something central banks “targets” to hit an the ultimate target of monetary policy. What we could call this the policy goal. This could be for example inflation or nominal GDP.

When you say interest rates will be low – you tell the markets you plan to fail

Why is this discussion important? Well, it is important because because when central banks are confused about these concepts they also fail to send the right signals about the monetary policy stance.

Milton Friedman of course famously told us that when interest rates are low it is normally because monetary policy has been tight. This of course is nothing else than what Irving Fisher long ago taught us – that there is a crucial difference between real and nominal interest rates. When inflation expectations increase nominal interest rates will increase – leaving real interest rates unchanged.

The graph below pretty well illustrates this relationship.

PCE core yield Fed funds

The correlation is pretty obvious – there is a positive (rather than a negative) correlation between on the one hand interest rates/bond yields and on the other hand inflation (PCE core). This of course says absolutely nothing about causality, but it seems to pretty clearly show that Friedman and Fisher were right – interest rates/yields are high (low) when inflation is high (low).

This is of course does not mean that we can increase inflation by hiking interest rates. This is exactly because the central bank does not directly control interest rates and yields. Arguably the central bank can of course (in some circumstances) in the short decrease rates and yields through a liquidity effect. For example by buying bonds the central banks can in the short-term push up the price of bonds and hence push down yields. However, if the policy is continued in a committed fashion it should lead to higher inflation expectations – this will push up rates and yields.  This is exactly what the graph above shows. Central bankers might suffer from money illusion, but you can’t fool everybody all of the time and investors, consumers and labourers will demand compensation for any increase in inflation.

This also illustrates that it might very well be counterproductive for central bankers to communicate about monetary in terms of interest rates or yields. Because when central bankers in recent years have said that they want to keep rates ‘low for longer’ or will do quantitative easing to push down bond yields they are effectively saying that they will ensure lower inflation or even deflation. Yes, that is correct central bankers have effectively been saying that they want to fail.

Said, in another if the central bank communicates as if the interest rate is it’s policy goal then when it says that it will ensure low interest rates then market expectation will adjust to reflect that. Therefore, market participants should expect low inflation or deflation. This will lead to an increase in money demand (lower velocity) and this will obviously on its own be deflationary. This is why “low for longer” if formulated as a policy goal could actually lead to deflation.

Obviously this is not really what central bankers want. But they are sending confusing signals then they talk about keeping rates and yields low and at the same time want to “stimulate” aggregate demand. As consequence “low for longer”-communication is actually undermining the commitment to spurring aggregate demand and “fighting” deflation.

Forget about rates and yields – communicates in terms of the ultimate target/goal 

Therefore, central bankers should stop communicating about monetary policy in terms of interest rates or bond yields. Instead central bankers should only communicate in terms of what they ultimately want to achieve – whether that is an inflation target or a NGDP target. In fact the word “target” might be a misnomer. Maybe it is actually better to talk about the goal of monetary policy.

Lets take an example. The Federal Reserve wants to hit a given NGDP level goal. It therefore should announces the following:

“To ensure our goal of achieve 5% nominal GDP growth (level targeting) we will in the future adjust the money base in such a fashion to alway aiming at hitting our policy goal. There will be no limits to increases or decreases in the money base. We will also do whatever is necessary to hit this goal.”

And lets say Fed boss Janet Yellen is asked by a journalist about the interest rates and bond yields. Yellen should reply the following:

“Interest rate and bond yields are market prices in the same way as the exchange rate or property prices. The Fed is not targeting either and it is not our policy instrument. Our policy goal is the level of nominal GDP and we use changes in the money base – this is our policy instrument – to ensure this policy goal. We expect interest rates and yield to adjust in such a fashion to reflect our monetary policy. My only advice to investors is to expect us to alway hit our policy goal.”

Said in another way interest rates and yields are endogenous. They reflect market expectations for inflation and growth. So when the Fed and other central banks in giving “forward guidance” in terms of interest rates they are seriously missing the point about forward guidance. The only forward guidance needed is what policy goal the central bank has and an “all-in” commitment to hit that policy goal by adjusting the money base.

Finally, notice that I am NOT arguing that the Fed or any other central bank should hike interest rates to fight deflation – that would be complete nonsense. I am arguing to totally stop communicating about rates and yields as it totally mess up central bank communication.

PS Scott Sumner and Tim Duy have similar discussions in recent blog posts.

PPS Mike Belongia has been helpful in shaping my view on these matters.

About these ads

The (Divisia) money trail – a very bullish UK story

Recently, the data for the UK economy has been very strong, and it is very clear that the UK economy is in recovery. So what is the reason? Well, you guessed it – monetary policy.

I think it is fairly easy to understand this recovery if we follow the money trail. It is a story about how UK households are reducing precautionary cash holdings (in long-term time deposits) because they no longer fear a deflationary scenario for the British economy and, that is due to the shift in UK monetary policy that basically started with the Bank of England’s second round of quantitative easing being initiated in October 2011.

The graphs below I think tells most of the story.

Lets start out with a series for growth of the Divisia Money Supply in the UK.

Divisia Money UK

Take a look at the pick-up in Divisia Money growth from around October 2011 and all through 2012 and 2013.

Historically, UK Divisia Money has been a quite strong leading indicator for UK nominal GDP growth so the sharp pick-up in Divisia Money growth is an indication of a future pick-up in NGDP growth. In fact recently, actual NGDP growth has picked up substantially, and other indicators show that the pick-up is continuing.

If you don’t believe me on the correlation between UK Divisia Money growth and NGDP growth, then take a look at this very informative blog post by Duncan Brown, who has done the econometrics to demonstrate the correlation between Divisia (and Broad) Money and NGDP growth in the UK.

Shifting money

So what caused Divisia Money growth to pick-up like this? Well, as I indicated, above the pick-up has coincided with a major movement of money in the UK economy – from less liquid time deposits to more liquid readably available short-term deposits. The graph below shows this.

Deposits UK

So here is the story as I see it.

In October 2011 (A:QE in the chart), the Bank of England restarts its quantitative easing program in response the escalating euro crisis. The BoE then steps up quantitative easing in both February 2012 (B: QE) and in July 2012 (C: QE). This I believe had two impacts.

First of all, it reduced deflationary fears in the UK economy, and as a result households moved to reduced their precautionary holdings of cash in higher-yielding time deposits. This is the drop in time deposits we are starting to see in the Autumn of 2011.

Second, there is a hot potato effect. As the Bank of England is buying assets, banks and financial institutions’ holdings of cash increase. As liquidity is now readily available to these institutions, they no longer to the same extent as earlier need to get liquidity from the household sector, and therefore they become less willing to accept time deposits than before.

Furthermore, it should be noted that in December 2012, the ECB started its so-called Long-Term Refinancing Operation (LTRO), which also made euro liquidity available to UK financial institutions. This further dramatically helped the liquidity situation for UK financial institutions.

Hence, we are seeing both a push and pull effect on the households’ time deposits. The net result has been a marked drop in time deposits and a similar increase in instant access deposits. I believe it has been equally important that there has been a marked shift in expectations about UK monetary policy with the appointment of Mark Carney in December 2012 (D: Carney).

Mark Carney’s hints – also in December 2012 – that he could favour NGDP targeting also helped send the signal that more monetary easing would be forthcoming if needed, as did the introduction of more clear forward guidance in August 2013 (E: ‘Carney Rule’). In addition to that, the general global easing of monetary conditions on the back of the Federal Reserve’s introduction of the Evans rule in September 2012 and the Bank of Japan’s aggressive measures to hit it new 2% inflation undoubtedly have also helped ease financial conditions in Britain.

Hence, I believe the shift in UK (and global) monetary policy that started in the Autumn of 2011 is the main reason for the shift in the UK households’ behaviour over the past two years.

Monetary policy is highly potent

But you might of course say – isn’t it just money being shifted around? How is that impacting the economy? Well, here the Divisia Money concept helps us. Divisia money uses a form of aggregation of money supply components that takes this into account and weights the components of money according to their usefulness in transactions.

Hence, as short-term deposits are more liquid and hence readably available for transactions (consumption or investments) than  time deposits a shift in cash holdings from time deposits to short-term deposits will cause an increase in the Divisia Money supply. This is exactly what we have seen in the UK over the past two years.

And since as we know that UK Divisia Money growth leads UK NGDP growth, there is good reason to expect this to continue to feed through to higher NGDP growth and higher economic activity in Britain.

Concluding, it seems rather clear that the quantitative easing implemented in 2011-12 in the UK and the change in forward guidance overall has not only increased UK money base growth, but also the much broader measures of money supply growth such as Divisia Money. This demonstrates that monetary policy is highly potent and also that expectations of future monetary policy, which helped caused this basic portfolio readjustment process, works quite well.

“Monetary” analysis based on looking at interest rates would never had uncovered this. However, a traditional monetarist analysis of money and the monetary transmission mechanism, combined with Market Monetarist insights about the importance of expectations, can fully explain why we are now seeing a fairly sharp pick-up in UK growth. Now we just need policy makers to understand this.

—–

Acknowledgements:

I think some acknowledgements are in place here as this blog post has been inspired by the work of a number of other monetarist and monetarists oriented economists and commentators. First of all Britmouse needs thanking for pointing me to the excellent work on the “raid” on UK households’ saving by Sky TV’s economics editor Ed Conway, who himself was inspired by Henderson Economics’ chief economist Simon Ward, who has done excellent work on the dishoarding of money in the UK. My friend professor Anthony Evans also helped altert me to what is going on in UK Divisia Money growth. Anthony himself publishes a similar data series called MA.

Second of course, a thanks to Duncan Brown for his great econometric work on the causality of Divisia Money and NGDP growth in the UK.

And finally, thanks to the godfather of Divisia Money Bill Barnett who nearly single-handledly has pushed the agenda for Divisia Money as an alternative to simple-sum monetary aggregates for decades. In recent years, he has been helped by Josh Hendrickson and Mike Belongia who has done very interesting empirical work on Divisia Money.

For a very recent blog post on Divisia Money, see this excellent piece by JP Koning.

And while you are at it, you might as well buy Bill Barnett’s excellent book “Getting It Wrong” about “how faulty monetary statistics undermine the Fed, the financial system and the economy”.

 

Maybe the Brazilian central bank should give Mike Belongia a call

Central banks from India to Turkey and Brazil these days seem to completely have lost track of their objectives – jumping from one objective (inflation targeting) to another (exchange rate targeting) and back. Confusion rules.

Maybe they should take a bit of advice from Mike Belongia. This is Mike in a piece from Public Choice in 2007:

“Transparency,” as it applies to the conduct of monetary policy in the United States, appears to be like pornography in the sense that it defies objective definition. In general, however, a transparent framework would include at least these elements: A well-defined statement of monetary policy’s goals, the enunciation of an economic model by which the central bank’s ultimate goal variable(s) is determined and the announcement of which policy levers (instruments) the Federal Reserve has chosen to manipulate in its pursuit of a policy objective(s). With an understanding of these three components of monetary policy, it can be argued, the public would have a clear idea of what the Fed is trying to accomplish and how it intends to achieve the goal(s) it has identified. In the absence of information about any of these of three components of monetary policy, however, the Fed becomes less a policy institution that serves the public and more like a Wizard of Oz figure who operates behind a curtain of secrecy and asks the public to trust it with blind optimism.

It is not more complicated than that. Unfortunately 7 years later the Fed has still not really defined its policy objective or its policy instrument and I am beginning to doubt that the central banks of India, Turkey and Brazil even know what they are trying to achieve with the use of multiple odd instruments. It is depressing…

The Hetzel-Ireland Synthesis

I am writing this while I am flying with Delta Airlines over the Atlantic. I will be speaking about the European crisis at a seminar on Friday at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

I must admit that it has been a bit of a challenge to blog in recent weeks. Mostly because both my professional and my private life have been demanding. After all blogging is something I do in my spare time. So even though I wanted to blog a lot about the latest FOMC decision and the world in general I have simply not been able to get out the message. Furthermore – and this will interest many of my readers – Robert Hetzel and his wonderful wife Mary visited Denmark last week. Bob had a very busy schedule – and so did I as I attended all of Bob’s presentations in Copenhagen that week. Bob told me before his presentations that I would not be disappointed and that none of the presentations would be a “rerun”. Bob is incredible – all of this presentations covered different countries and topics. Obviously there was a main theme: The central banks failed.

I must admit after three days of following Bob and having the privilege to hear him talk about the University of Chicago in 1970s and his stories about Milton Friedman I simply had an mental “overload”. I had a very hard time expressing my monetary policy views – and the major policy turnaround at the Fed didn’t make it easier.

Anyway I feel that I have to share some of Bob’s incredible insight after his visit to Copenhagen, but I also feel that whatever I write will not do justice to his views.

So I have chosen a different way of doing it. Instead of telling you what Bob said in Copenhagen I will try to tell the story about how (a clever version of) New Keynesian economics and Monetarism could come to similar conclusions – and that merger is really Market Monetarism.

Why is that? I have for some time wanted to write something about a couple of new and very interesting, but slightly technical paper by Mike Belongia and Peter Ireland. Both Mike and Peter have a monetarist background, but Peter has done a lot work in the more technical New Keynesian tradition. And that is what I will focus on here, but I promise to return to Mike’s and Peter’s other papers.

The other day my colleague and good friend Jens Pedersen sent me a paper Peter wrote in 2010 – “A New Keynesian Perspective on the Great Recession”. When I read the paper I realised how I was going to write the story about Bob’s visit to Copenhagen.

Bob’s and Peter’s explanations of the Great Recession are exactly the same – just told within slightly different frameworks. Bob first wrote a piece on the Great Recession it in 2009 and Peter wrote his piece in 2010.

Peter and Bob are friends and both have been at the Richmond fed so it is not totally surprising that their stories of what happened in 2008-9 are rather similar, but I nonetheless think that we can learn quite a bit from how these two great intellects think about the crisis.

So what is the common story?

In think we have to go back to Milton Friedman’s Permanent Income Hypothesis (PIH). While at the Richmond Peter while at the Richmond fed in 1995 actually wrote about PIH and how it could be used for forecasting purposes. And one thing I noticed at all of Bob’s presentations in Copenhagen was how he returned to Irving Fisher and the determination of interests as a trade off between consumption today and in the future. Friedman and Fisher in my view are at the core of Bob’s and Peter’s thinking of the Great Recession.

So here is the Peter and Bob story: In 2007-8 the global economy was hit by a large negative supply shock in the form of higher oil prices. That pushed up US inflation and as a consequence US consumers reduced their expectations for their future income – or rather their Permanent Income. With the outlook for Permanent Income worsening interest rates should drop. However, as interest rates hit zero the Federal Reserve failed to ease monetary policy because it was unprepared for a world of zero interest rates. The Fed should of course more aggressively moved to a policy of monetary easing through an increase in the money base. The fed moved in that direction, but it was too late and too little and as a result monetary conditions tightened sharply particularly in late 2008 and during 2009. That can be described within a traditional monetarist framework as Bob do his excellent book “The Great Recession – policy failure or market failure” (on in his 2009 paper on the same topic) or within an intelligent New Keynesian framework as Peter do in his 2010 paper.

Peter uses the term a “New Keyensian Perspective” in his 2010. However, he does not make the mistakes many New Keynesians do. First, for all he realizes that low nominal interest rates is not easy monetary policy. Second, he do not assume that the central bank is always making the right decisions and finally he realizes that monetary policy is not out of ammunition when interest rates hit zero. Therefore, he might as well have called his paper a “New Friedmanite-Fisherian Perspective on the Great Recession”.

Anyway, try read Bob’s book (and his 2009 paper) and Peter’s paper(s). Then you will realize that Milton Friedman and Irving Fisher is all you need to understand this crisis and the way out of is.

I am finalizing this post after having arrived to my hotel in Provo, Utah and have had a night of sleeping – damn time difference. I look forward to some very interesting days at BYU, but I am not sure that I will have much time for blogging.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,533 other followers

%d bloggers like this: