A scary story: The Zero Lower Bound and exchange rate dynamics

I was in Sweden last week and again yesterday (today I am in Norway). My trips to Sweden have once again reminded me about the dangers of conducting monetary policy with interest rates at the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB). The Swedish central bank – Riksbanken – has cut is key policy rate to 1% and is like to cut it further to 0.75% before the end of the year so we are inching closer and closer to zero.

Riksbanken is just one of a number of European central banks close to zero on interest rates – most notably the ECB is at 0.25%. In the Czech Republic the key policy rate stands at 0.05%. And even Poland, Hungary, Norway are moving closer and closer to the ZLB.

Most of these central banks seem to be quite unprepared for what might happen at the Zero Lower Bound. In this post I will particularly focus on the exchange rate dynamics at the ZLB.

A Taylor rule world

Lets say we can describe monetary policy with a simple Taylor rule:

r = rN+a*(p-pT)+b(ygap)

In a “normal” world where everything is fine and the key policy rate (r) is well-above zero the central bank will hike or cut r in response to increasing or declining inflation (p) relative to the inflation target (pT) or in response to the output gap (ygap) increasing or decreasing. If the output gap is closed and inflation is at the inflation target then the central bank will set it’s key policy rate at the “natural” interest rate rN.

What happens at the ZLB?

However, lets assume that we are no longer in a normal world. Lets instead assume that p is well below the inflation target and the output gap is negative. As we know this is the case in most European countries today.

So if we plug these numbers into our Taylor rule above we might get r=1%. As long as r>0 we are not in trouble yet. The central bank can still conduct monetary policy with its chosen instrument – the key policy interest rate. This is how most inflation targeting central banks in the world are doing their business today.

But what happens if we get a negative shock to the economy. Lets for example assume that an overheated property markets starts to cool gradually and real GDP starts to slow. In this case the central bank according to it’s Taylor rule should cut its key policy rate further. Sooner or later the central bank hits the ZLB.

An then suddenly the currency starts strengthening dramatically

In fact imagine that the interest rate level needed to close the output gap and keep inflation at the inflation target is -2%.

We can say that monetary policy is neutral when the central bank sets interest rates according to the Taylor rule, but if interest rates are higher than the what the Taylor rule stipulates then monetary policy is tight. So if the Taylor rule tells us that the key policy rate should be -2% and the actual policy rate is zero then monetary policy is of course tight. This is what many central bankers fail to understand. Monetary policy is not necessarily easy just because the interest rate is low in a historical or absolute perspective.

And this is where it gets really, really dangerous because we now risk getting into a very unstable economic and financial situation – particularly if the central bank insists that monetary policy is already easy, while it is in fact tight.

What happens to the exchange rate in a situation where monetary policy is tightened? It of course appreciates. So when the “stipulated” (by the Taylor rule) interest rate drops to for example -2% and the actual interest rate is at 0% then obviously the currency starts to appreciates – leading to a further tightening of monetary conditions. With monetary conditions tightening inflation drops further and growth plummets. So now we might need an interest rate of -4 or -7%.

With that kind of monetary tightening you will fast get financial distress. Stock markets start to drop dramatically as inflation expectations plummets and the economy contracts. It is only a matter of time before the talk of banking troubles start to emerge.

The situation becomes particularly dangerous if the central bank maintains that monetary policy is easy and also claim that the appreciation of the currency is a signal that everything is just fine, but it is of course not fine. In fact the economy is heading for a massive collapse if the central bank does not change course.

This scenario is of course very similar to what played out in the US in 2008-9. A slowdown in the US property market caused a slowdown in the US economy. The Fed failed to respond by not cutting interest rates aggressive and fast enough and as a consequence we soon hit the ZLB. And what happened to the dollar? It strengthened dramatically! That of course was a very clear indication that monetary conditions were becoming very tight. Initially the Fed clearly failed to understand this – with disastrous consequences.

But don’t worry – there is a way out

The US is of course special as the dollar is a global reserve currency. However, I am pretty sure that if a similar thing plays out in other countries in the world we will see a similar exchange rate dynamics. So if the Taylor rule tells you that the key policy rate should be for example -4% and it is stuck at zero then the the currency will start strengthening dramatically and inflation and growth expectations will plummet potentially setting off financial crisis.

However, there is no reason to repeat the Fed’s failure of 2008. In fact it is extremely easy to avoid such a scenario. The central bank just needs to acknowledge that it can always ease monetary policy at the ZLB. First of all it can conduct normal open market operations buying assets and printing its own currency. That is what we these days call Quantitative Easing.

For small open economies there is an even simpler way out. The central bank can simply intervene directly in the currency market to weak its currency and remember the market can never beat the central bank in this game. The central bank has the full control of the printing press.

So imagine we now hit the ZLB and we would need to ease monetary policy further. The central bank could simply announce that it will weaken its currency by X% per months until the output gap is close and inflation hits the inflation target. It is extremely simple. This is what Lars E.O. Svensson – the former deputy central bank governor in Sweden – has termed the foolproof way out of deflation.

And even better any central bank, which is getting dangerously close to the ZLB should pre-announce that it will in fact undertake such Svenssonian monetary operations to avoid the dangerous of conducting monetary policy at the ZLB. That would mean that as the economy is moving closer to the ZLB the currency would automatically start to weaken – ahead of the central bank doing anything – and in that sense the risk of hitting the ZLB would be much reduced.

Some central bankers understand this. For example Czech central bank governor Miroslav Singer who recently has put a floor under EUR/CZK, but unfortunately many other central bankers in Europe are dangerously ignorant about these issues.

PS I told the story above using a relatively New Keynesian framework of a Taylor rule, but this is as much a Market Monetarist story about understanding expectations and that the interest rate level is a very bad indicator of the monetary policy stance.

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The Czech interest rate fallacy and exchange rates

For many years Ludek Niedermayer was deputy central bank governor of the Czech central bank (CNB). Ludek did an outstanding job at the CNB where he was a steady hand on CNB’s board for many years. I have known Ludek for a number of years and I do consider him a good friend.

However, we often disagree – particularly about the importance of money. This is an issue we debate whenever we see each other – and I don’t think either of us find it boring. Unfortunately I have so far failed to convince Ludek.

Now it seems we have yet another reason to debate. The issue is over the impact of currency devaluation and the monetary transmission mechanism.

The Czech economy is doing extremely bad and it to me is pretty obvious that the economy is caught in a deflationary trap. The CNB’s key policy rate is close to zero and that is so far limiting the CNB from doing more monetary easing despite the very obvious need for monetary easing – no growth, disinflationary pressures, declining money-velocity and a fairly strong Czech koruna. However, the CNB seems nearly paralyzed. Among other things because the majority of CNB board members seem to think that monetary policy is already easy because interest rates are already very low.

What the majority on the CNB board fail to understand is of course that interest rates are low exactly because the economy is in such a slump. The majority on the CNB board members are guilty of what Milton Friedman called the “interest rate fallacy”.  As Friedman said in 1997:

“After the U.S. experience during the Great Depression, and after inflation and rising interest rates in the 1970s and disinflation and falling interest rates in the 1980s, I thought the fallacy of identifying tight money with high interest rates and easy money with low interest rates was dead. Apparently, old fallacies never die.”

Looking at the Czech economy makes it pretty clear that monetary policy is not easy. If monetary policy was easy then property prices would not be declining and nominal GDP would not be contracting. If monetary policy was easy then inflation would be rising – it is not.

It therefore obvious that the Czech economy desperately needs monetary easing and since interest rates are already close to zero it is obvious that the CNB needs to use other instruments to ease monetary policy. To me the most obvious and simplest way to ease monetary policy in the present situation would be to use the exchange rate channel. The CNB should simply buy foreign currency to weaken the Czech koruna until a certain nominal target is met – for example bringing back the level of the GDP deflator back to its pre-crisis trend. The best way to do this would be to set a temporary target on Czech koruna against the euro – in a similar fashion as the Swiss central bank has done – until the given nominal target is reached. This is what Lars E. O. Svensson – now deputy governor of the Swedish central bank – has called the foolproof way out of deflation.

CNB governor Miroslav Singer seems to be open to this option. Here is what he said in a recent interview with the Czech business paper Hospodarske Noviny (my translation – with help from Czech friends and Google translate…):

“We talked about it in the central bank’s board about what the central bank can buy and put the money into circulation. What all can lend and – in extreme case – we can simply hand out money to citizens. Something that is sometimes referred to as “throwing money from a helicopter.” If it really was needed, it seems to be the easiest to move the exchange rate. It is logical for the country, which exports the products of eighty per cent of its GDP. If we felt that in our country there is a long deflationary pressures, the obvious way to deal with it is through a weakening currency.”

It should be stressed that I am slightly paraphrasing Singer’s comments, but the meaning is clear – governor Singer full well knows that monetary policy works and I certain agree with him on this issue. Unfortunately my good friend Ludek Niedermayer to some extent disagrees.

Here is Ludek in the same article:

“It would mean leaving a floating exchange rate and our trading partners would be able to complain, that we in this way supports our own exports”

Ludek here seems to argue that the way a weakening of the koruna only works through a “competitiveness channel” – in fact governor Singer seems to have the same view. However, as I have so often argued the primary channel by which a devaluation works is through the impact on domestic demand through increased inflation expectations (or rather less deflationary expectations) and an increase in the money base rather than through the competitiveness channel.

Let’s assume that the CNB tomorrow announced that it would set a new target for EUR/CZK at 30 – versus around 24.90 today (note this is an example and not a forecast). Obviously this would help Czech exports, but much more importantly it would be a signal to Czech households and companies that the CNB will not allow the Czech economy to sink further into a deflationary slump. This would undoubtedly lead households and companies to reduce their cash reserves that they are holding now.

In other words a committed and sizable devaluation to the Czech koruna would lead to a sharp drop in demand for Czech koruna – and for a given money supply this would effectively be aggressive monetary easing. This will push up money-velocity. Furthermore, as the CNB is buying foreign currency it is effectively expanding the money supply. With higher money supply growth and higher velocity nominal GDP will expand and with sticky prices and wages and a large negative output gap this would likely also increase real GDP.

This would be similarly to what happened for example in Poland and Sweden in 2008-9, where a weakening of the zloty and the Swedish krona supported domestic demand. Hence, the relatively strong performance of the Swedish and the Polish economies in 2009-10 were due to strong domestic demand rather than strong exports. Again, the exchange rate channel is not really about competitiveness, but about boosting domestic demand through higher money supply growth and higher velocity.

The good news is that the CNB is not out of ammunition and it is similarly good news that the CNB governor Singer full well knows this. The bad news is that he might not have convinced the majority on the CNB board about this. In that sense the CNB is not different from most central banks in the world – bubble fears dominates while deflationary risks are ignored. Sad, but true.

PS I strongly recommend for anybody who can read Czech – or can use Google translate – to read the entire interview with Miroslav Singer. Governor Singer fully well understands that he is not out of ammunition – that is a refreshing view from a European central banker.

Related posts:

Is monetary easing (devaluation) a hostile act?
Exchange rates and monetary policy – it’s not about competitiveness: Some Argentine lessons
Mises was clueless about the effects of devaluation
The luck of the ‘Scandies’
“The Bacon Standard” (the PIG PEG) would have saved Denmark from the Great Depression
The dangers of targeting CPI rather than the GDP deflator – the case of the Czech Republic
Monetary disorder in Central Europe (and some supply side problems)

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