The monetary transmission mechanism – causality and monetary policy rules

Most economists pay little or no attention to nominal GDP when they think (and talk) about the business cycle, but if they had to explain how nominal GDP is determined they would likely mostly talk about NGDP as a quasi-residual. First real GDP is determined – by both supply and demand side factors – and then inflation is simply added to get to NGDP.

Market Monetarists on the other hand would think of nominal GDP determining real GDP. In fact if you read Scott Sumner’s excellent blog The Money Illusion – the father of all Market Monetarist blogs – you are often left with the impression that the causality always runs from NGDP to RGDP. I don’t think Scott thinks so, but that is nonetheless the impression you might get from reading his blog. Old-school monetarists like Milton Friedman were basically saying the same thing – or rather that the causality was running from the money supply to nominal spending to prices and real GDP.

In my view the truth is that there is no “natural” causality from RGDP to NGDP or the other way around. I will instead here argue that the macroeconomic causality is fully dependent about the central bank’s monetary policy rules and the credibility of and expectations to this rule.

In essenssens this also means that there is no given or fixed causality from money to prices and this also explains the apparent instability between the lags and leads of monetary policy.

From RGDP to NGDP – the US economy in 2008-9?

Some might argue that the question of causality and whilst what model of the economy, which is the right one is a simple empirical question. So lets look at an example – and let me then explain why it might not be all that simple.

The graph below shows real GDP and nominal GDP growth in the US during the sharp economic downturn in 2008-9. The graph is not entirely clearly, but it certainly looks like real GDP growth is leading nominal GDP growth.

RGDP NGDP USA 2003 2012

Looking at the graph is looks as if RGDP growth starts to slow already in 2004 and further takes a downturn in 2006 before totally collapsing in 2008-9. The picture for NGDP growth is not much different, but if anything NGDP growth is lagging RGDP growth slightly.

So looking at just at this graph it is hard to make that (market) monetarist argument that this crisis indeed was caused by a nominal shock. If anything it looks like a real shock caused first RGDP growth to drop and NGDP just followed suit. This is my view is not the correct story even though it looks like it. I will explain that now.

A real shock + inflation targeting => drop in NGDP growth expectations

So what was going on in 2006-9. I think the story really starts with a negative supply shock – a sharp rise in global commodity prices. Hence, from early 2007 to mid-2008 oil prices were more than doubled. That caused headline US inflation to rise strongly – with headline inflation (CPI) rising to 5.5% during the summer of 2008.

The logic of inflation targeting – the Federal Reserve at that time (and still is) was at least an quasi-inflation targeting central bank – is that the central bank should move to tighten monetary condition when inflation increases.

Obviously one could – and should – argue that clever inflation targeting should only target demand side inflation rather than headline inflation and that monetary policy should ignore supply shocks. To a large extent this is also what the Fed was doing during 2007-8. However, take a look at this from the Minutes from the June 24-25 2008 FOMC meeting:

Some participants noted that certain measures of the real federal funds rate, especially those using actual or forecasted headline inflation, were now negative, and very low by historical standards. In the view of these participants, the current stance of monetary policy was providing considerable support to aggregate demand and, if the negative real federal funds rate was maintained, it could well lead to higher trend inflation… 

…Conditions in some financial markets had improved… the near-term outlook for inflation had deteriorated, and the risks that underlying inflation pressures could prove to be greater than anticipated appeared to have risen. Members commented that the continued strong increases in energy and other commodity prices would prompt a difficult adjustment process involving both lower growth and higher rates of inflation in the near term. Members were also concerned about the heightened potential in current circumstances for an upward drift in long-run inflation expectations.With increased upside risks to inflation and inflation expectations, members believed that the next change in the stance of policy could well be an increase in the funds rate; indeed, one member thought that policy should be firmed at this meeting. 

Hence, not only did some FOMC members (the majority?) believe monetary policy was easy, but they even wanted to move to tighten monetary policy in response to a negative supply shock. Hence, even though the official line from the Fed was that the increase in inflation was due to higher oil prices and should be ignored it was also clear that that there was no consensus on the FOMC about this.

The Fed was of course not the only central bank in the world at that time to blur it’s signals about the monetary policy response to the increase in oil prices.

Notably both the Swedish Riksbank and the ECB hiked their key policy interest rates during the summer of 2008 – clearly reacting to a negative supply shock.

Most puzzling is likely the unbelievable rate hike from the Riksbank in September 2008 amidst a very sharp drop in Swedish economic activity and very serious global financial distress. This is what the Riksbank said at the time:

…the Executive Board of the Riksbank has decided to raise the repo rate to 4.75 per cent. The assessment is that the repo rate will remain at this level for the rest of the year… It is necessary to raise the repo rate now to prevent the increases in energy and food prices from spreading to other areas.

The world is falling apart, but we will just add to the fire by hiking interest rates. It is incredible how anybody could have come to the conclusion that monetary tightening was what the Swedish economy needed at that time. Fans of Lars E. O. Svensson should note that he has Riksbank deputy governor at the time actually voted for that insane rate hike.

Hence, it is very clear that both the Fed, the ECB and the Riksbank and a number of other central banks during the summer of 2008 actually became more hawkish and signaled possible rates (or actually did hike rates) in reaction to a negative supply shock.

So while one can rightly argue that flexible inflation targeting in principle would mean that central banks should ignore supply shocks it is also very clear that this is not what actually what happened during the summer and the late-summer of 2008.

So what we in fact have is that a negative shock is causing a negative demand shock. This makes it look like a drop in real GDP is causing a drop in nominal GDP. This is of course also what is happening, but it only happens because of the monetary policy regime. It is the monetary policy rule – where central banks implicitly or explicitly – tighten monetary policy in response to negative supply shocks that “creates” the RGDP-to-NGDP causality. A similar thing would have happened in a fixed exchange rate regime (Denmark is a very good illustration of that).

NGDP targeting: Decoupling NGDP from RGDP shocks 

I hope to have illustrated that what is causing the real shock to cause a nominal shock is really monetary policy (regime) failure rather than some naturally given economic mechanism.

The case of Israel illustrates this quite well I think. Take a look at the graph below.

NGDP RGDP Israel

What is notable is that while Israeli real GDP growth initially slows very much in line with what happened in the euro zone and the US the decline in nominal GDP growth is much less steep than what was the case in the US or the euro zone.

Hence, the Israeli economy was clearly hit by a negative supply shock (sharply higher oil prices and to a lesser extent also higher costs of capital due to global financial distress). This caused a fairly sharp deceleration real GDP growth, but as I have earlier shown the Bank of Israel under the leadership of then governor Stanley Fischer conducted monetary policy as if it was targeting nominal GDP rather than targeting inflation.

Obviously the BoI couldn’t do anything about the negative effect on RGDP growth due to the negative supply shock, but a secondary deflationary process was avoid as NGDP growth was kept fairly stable and as a result real GDP growth swiftly picked up in 2009 as the supply shock eased off going into 2009.

In regard to my overall point regarding the causality and correlation between RGDP and NGDP growth it is important here to note that NGDP targeting will not reverse the RGDP-NGDP causality, but rather decouple RGDP and NGDP growth from each other.

Hence, under “perfect” NGDP targeting there will be no correlation between RGDP growth and NGDP growth. It will be as if we are in the long-run classical textbook case where the Phillips curve is vertical. Monetary policy will hence be “neutral” by design rather than because wages and prices are fully flexible (they are not). This is also why we under a NGDP targeting regime effectively will be in a Real-Business-Cycle world – all fluctuations in real GDP growth (and inflation) will be caused by supply shocks.

This also leads us to the paradox – while Market Monetarists argue that monetary policy is highly potent under our prefered monetary policy rule (NGDP targeting) it would look like money is neutral also in the short-run.

The Friedmanite case of money (NGDP) causing RGDP

So while we under inflation targeting basically should expect causality to run from RGDP growth to NGDP growth we under NGDP targeting simply should expect that that would be no correlation between the two – supply shocks would causes fluctuations in RGDP growth, but NGDP growth would be kept stable by the NGDP targeting regime. However, is there also a case where causality runs from NGDP to RGDP?

Yes there sure is – this is what I will call the Friedmanite case. Hence, during particularly the 1970s there was a huge debate between monetarists and keynesians about whether “money” was causing “prices” or the other way around. This is basically the same question I have been asking – is NGDP causing RGDP or the other way around.

Milton Friedman and other monetarist at the time were arguing that swings in the money supply was causing swings in nominal spending and then swings in real GDP and inflation. In fact Friedman was very clear – higher money supply growth would first cause real GDP growth to pick and later inflation would pick-up.

Market monetarists maintain Friedman’s basic position that monetary easing will cause an increase in real GDP growth in the short run. (M, V and NGDP => RGDP, P). However, we would even to a larger extent than Friedman stress that this relationship is not stable – not only is there “variable lags”, but expectations and polucy rules might even turn lags into leads. Or as Scott Sumner likes to stress “monetary policy works with long and variable LEADS”.

It is undoubtedly correct that if we are in a situation where there is no clearly established monetary policy rule and the economic agent really are highly uncertain about what central bankers will do next (maybe surprisingly to some this has been the “norm” for central bankers as long as we have had central banks) then a monetary shock (lower money supply growth or a drop in money-velocity) will cause a contraction in nominal spending (NGDP), which will cause a drop in real GDP growth (assuming sticky prices).

This causality was what monetarists in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were trying to prove empirically. In my view the monetarist won the empirical debate with the keynesians of the time, but it was certainly not a convincing victory and there was lot of empirical examples of what was called “revered causality” – prices and real GDP causing money (and NGDP).

What Milton Friedman and other monetarists of the time was missing was the elephant in the room – the monetary policy regime. As I hopefully has illustrated in this blog post the causality between NGDP (money) and RGDP (and prices) is completely dependent on the monetary policy regime, which explain that the monetarists only had (at best) a narrow victory over the (old) keynesians.

I think there are two reasons why monetarists in for example the 1970s were missing this point. First of all monetary policy for example in the US was highly discretionary and the Fed’s actions would often be hard to predict. So while monetarists where strong proponents of rules they simply had not thought (enough) about how such rules (also when highly imperfect) could change the monetary transmission mechanism and money-prices causality. Second, monetarists like Milton Friedman, Karl Brunner or David Laidler mostly were using models with adaptive expectations as rational expectations only really started to be fully incorporated in macroeconomic models in the 1980s and 1990s. This led them to completely miss the importance of for example central bank communication and pre-announcements. Something we today know is extremely important.

That said, the monetarists of the times were not completely ignorant to these issues. This is my big hero David Laidler in his book Monetarist Perspectives” (page 150):

“If the structure of the economy through which policy effects are transmitted does vary with the goals of policy, and the means adopted to achieve them, then the notion of of a unique ‘transmission mechanism’ for monetary policy is chimera and it is small wonder that we have had so little success in tracking it down.”

Macroeconomists to this day unfortunately still forget or ignore the wisdom of David Laidler.

HT DL and RH.

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A five-step plan for Mark Carney

I am on the way to London – in fact I am writing this on the flight from Copenhagen – so I thought it would be fitting to write a piece on the challenges for the new Bank of England governor Mark Carney.

I fundamentally think that the UK economy is facing the same kind of problems as most other European economies – weak aggregate demand. However, I also believe that the UK economy is struggling with some serious supply side problems. Monetary policy can do something about the demand problem, but not much about the supply side problem.

Five things Carney should focus on

Bank of England’s legal mandate remains a flexible inflation targeting regime – however, in latest “update” of the mandate gives the Bank of England considerable leeway to be “flexible” – meaning it can allow for an overshoot on inflation in the short-run if needed to support growth. I am not happy with BoE’s updated mandate as I fear it opens the door for too much discretion in the conduct of monetary policy, but on the other hand it do also make it possible to put good policies in place. I therefore strongly believe that Mark Carney from day one at the BoE needs to be completely clear about the BoE’s policy objectives and on how to achieve this objective. I therefore suggest that Carney fast implement the following policy changes:

1)   Implement a temporary Nominal GDP level target: The BoE should announce that it over the coming two years will bring back the level of NGDP to the pre-crisis level defined as a 4% trend path from the 2008 peak. This would be fairly aggressive as it would require 8-10% NGDP growth over the coming two years. That, however, is also pretty telling about how deep the crisis is in the UK economy. Furthermore, the BoE should make it clear that it will do whatever it takes to reach this target and that it will step up these efforts if it looks like it is falling behind on reaching this target. It should similarly be made clear that the BoE is targeting the forecasted level of NGDP and not the present level. Finally, it should be made clear that once the temporary NGDP target is hit then the BoE will revert to flexible inflation targeting, but with a watchful eye on the level of NGDP as an indicator for inflationary/deflationary pressures. I would love to see a permanent NGDP targeting regime put in place, but I doubt that that is within the BoE’s present legal mandate.

NGDP UK Carney

 

2)   Institutionalise the Sumner Critique: According to the Sumner Critique the fiscal multiplier is zero is the central bank targets the NGDP level, the price level or inflation. I believe it would greatly enhance monetary policy predictability and transparency if the BoE so to speak institutionalized the Sumner Critique by announcing that the BoE in it conduct of monetary policy will offset significant demand shocks that threaten it’s NGDP target. Hence, the BoE would announce that if the UK government where to step up fiscal consolidation then the BoE will act to fully offset the impact of these measures on aggregate demand. Similarly the BoE should announce that any change in financial regulation that impacts aggregate demand will be offset by monetary policy. And finally any shocks to aggregate demand from the global economy will be fully offset. The “offset rule” should of course be symmetrical. Negative demand shocks will be lead to a stepping up of monetary easing, while positive demand shocks will be offset by tighter monetary policy. However, as long as NGDP is below the targeted level positive shocks to demand – for example if financial regulation is eased or fiscal policy is eased – then these shocks will not be offset as they “help” achieve the monetary policy target. This offset rule would to a large extent move the burden of adjusting monetary conditions to the financial markets as the markets “automatically” will pre-empt any policy changes. Hence, it for example British exports are hit by a negative shock then investors would expect the BoE to offset this and as a consequence the pound would weaken in advance, which in itself would provide stimulus to aggregate demand reducing the need for actually changes to monetary policy.

3)   Introduce a new policy instrument – the money base – and get rid of interest rates targeting: There is considerable confusion about what monetary policy instrument the BoE is using. Hence, the BoE has over the past five years both changed interest rates, done quantitative easing and implement different forms of credit policies. The BoE needs to focus on one instrument and one instrument only. To be able to ease monetary policy at the Zero Lower Bound the BoE needs to stop communicating about monetary policy in terms of interest rates and instead use the money base as it’s primary monetary policy instrument. The annual targeted money base growth rate should be announced every month at the BoE Monetary Policy Committee meetings. For transparency the BoE could announce that it will be controlling the growth of the money base by it buying or selling 2-year Treasury bonds from risk and GDP weighted basket of G7 countries. The money base will hence be the operational target of the BoE, while the level of NGDP will be the ultimate target. The targeted growth rate of the money base should always be set to hit the targeted level of NGDP.

4)   Reform the Lender of Last Resort (LoLR): Since the outbreak of the crisis in 2008 the BoE has introduced numerous more or less transparent lending facilities. The BoE should get rid of all these measures and instead introduce only one scheme that has the purpose of providing pound liquidity to the market against proper collateral. Access to pound liquidity should be open for everyone – bank or not, UK based or not. The important thing is that proper collateral is provided. In traditional Bagehotian fashion a penalty fee should obviously be paid on this lending. Needless to say the BoE should immediately stop the funding for lending program as it is likely to create moral hazard problems and it unlikely to be of any significantly value in terms of achieving BoE’s primary policy objectives. If the UK government – for some odd reason – wants to subsidies lending then it should not be a matter for the BoE to get involved in.  My suggestion for LoLR is similar to what George Selgin has suggested for the US.

5)   Reform macroeconomic forecasting: To avoid politicized and biased forecasts the BoE needs to serious reform it macroeconomic forecasting process by outsourcing forecasting. My suggestion would be that macroeconomic forecasts focusing on BoE’s policy objectives should come from three sources. First, there should be set up a prediction market for key policy variables. There is a major UK betting industry and there is every reason to believe that a prediction market easily could be set up. Second, the BoE should survey professional forecasters on a monthly basis. Third, the BoE could maintain an in-house macroeconomic forecast, but it would then be important to give full independence to such forecasting unit and organizationally keep it fully independent from the daily operations of the BoE and the Monetary Policy Committee. Finally, it would be very helpful if the British government started to issue NGDP-linked government bonds in the same way it today issues inflation-linked bonds.  These different forecasts should be given equal weight in the policy making process and it should be made clear that the BoE will adjust policy (money base growth) if the forecasts diverge from the stated policy objective. This is basically a forward-looking McCallum rule.

This is my five-step program for Mark Carney. I very much doubt that we will see much of my suggestions being implemented, but I strongly believe that it would greatly benefit the UK economy and dramatically improve monetary and financial stability if these measures where implemented. However, my flight is soon landing – so over and out from here…

PS it takes considerably longer to fly from Canada to the UK and from Denmark to the UK so Carney have more than two hours to put in place his program so maybe he can come up with something better than me.

The fiscal cliff and the Bernanke-Evans rule in a simple static IS/LM model

Sometimes simple macroeconomic models can help us understand the world better and even though I am not uncritical about the IS/LM model it nonetheless has some interesting features which from time to time makes it useful for policy analysis (if you are careful).

However, a key problem with the IS/LM model is that the model does not take into account – in its basic textbook form – the central bank’s policy rule. However, it is easy to expand the model to include a monetary policy rule.

I will do exactly that in this post and I will use the Federal Reserve’s new policy rulethe Bernanke-Evans rule – to analysis the impact of the so-called fiscal cliff on a (very!) stylised version of the US economy.

We start out with the two standard equations in the IS/LM model.

The money demand function:

(1) m=p+y-α×r

Where m is the money supply/demand, p is prices and y is real GDP. r is the interest rate and α is a coefficient.

Aggregate demand is defined as follows:

(2) y=g-β×r

Aggregate demand y equals public spending and private sector demand (β×r), which is a function of the interest rate r. β is a coefficient. It is assumed that private demand drops when the interest rate increases.

This is basically all you need in the textbook IS/LM model. However, we also need to define a monetary policy rule to be able to say something about the real world.

I will use a stylised version of the Bernanke-Evans rule based on the latest policy announcement from the Fed’s FOMC. The FOMC at it latest meeting argued that it basically would continue to expand the money base (in the IS/LM the money base and the money supply is the same thing) to hit a certain target for the unemployment rate. That means that we can define a simple Bernanke-Evans rule as follows:

(3) m=λ×U

One can think of U as either the unemployment rate or the deviation of the unemployment rate from the Fed’s unemployment target. λ is a coefficient that tells you how aggressive the fed will increase the money supply (m) if U increases.

We now need to model how the labour market works. We simply assume Okun’s law holds (we could also have used a simple production function):

(4) U=-δ×y

This obviously is very simplified as we totally disregard supply side issues on the labour market. However, we are not interested in using this model for analysis of such factors.

It is easy to solve the model. We get the LM curve from (1), (3) and (4):

LM: r= y×(1+δ×λ)⁄α+(1/α)×p

And we get the IS curve by rearranging (2):

IS: r =(1/β)×g-(1/β)×y

Under normal assumptions about the coefficients in the model the LM curve is upward sloping and the IS curve is downward sloping. This is as in the textbook version.

Note, however, that the slope of the LM does not only depend on the money demand’s interest rate elasticity (α), but also on how aggressive  (λ) the fed will react to an increase in unemployment.

The Sumner Critique applies if λ=∞

The fact that the slope of the LM curve depends on λ is critical. Hence, if the fed is fully committed to its unemployment target and will do everything to fulfill (as the FOMC signaled when it said it would step up QE until it hit its target) then λ equals infinity (∞) .

Obviously, if λ=∞ then the LM curve is vertical – as in the “monetarist” case in the textbook version of the IS/LM model. However, contrary to the “normal” the LM curve we don’t need α to be zero to ensure a vertical LM curve.

Hence, under a strict Bernanke-Evans rule where the fed will not accept any diviation from its unemployment target (λ=∞) the (government) budget multiplier is zero and the so-called Sumner Critique therefore applies: Fiscal policy cannot increase or decrease output (y) or the unemployment (U) as any fiscal “shock” (higher or lower g) will be fully offset by the fed’s actions.

The Bernanke-Evans rule reduces risks from the fiscal cliff

It follows that if the fed actually follows through on it commitment to hit its (still fuzzy) unemployment target then in the simple model outlined above the risk from a negative shock to demand from the so-called fiscal cliff is reduced greatly.

This is good news, but it is also a natural experiment of the Sumner Critique. Imagine that we indeed get a 4% of GDP tightening of fiscal policy next year, but at the same time the fed is 100% committed to hitting it unemployment target (that unemployment should drop) then if unemployment then increases anyway then Scott Sumner (and myself) is wrong – or the fed didn’t do it job well enough. Both are obviously very likely…

I am arguing that I believe the model presented above is the correct model of the US economy. The purpose has rather been to demonstrate the critical importance of a the monetary policy rule even in a standard textbook keynesian model and to demonstrate that fiscal policy is much less important than normally assumed by keynesians if we take the monetary policy rule into account.

I think Ben just did it…

This is what I in a post earlier today asked the Federal Reserve to do:

Rather for example the Fed could just start at every regular FOMC meetings to state for example that “the expectations is now that without changes in our policy instrument we will undershoot our policy target and as a consequence we today have decided to use our policy instrument to increase the money base by X dollars to ensure that we will hit our policy target within the next 12 months. We will increase the money base further if contrary to our expectations policy target is not meet.”

I must admit Ben Bernanke nearly got it right! Here is from the FOMC’s statement:

“The Committee is concerned that, without further policy accommodation, economic growth might not be strong enough to generate sustained improvement in labor market conditions.  Furthermore, strains in global financial markets continue to pose significant downside risks to the economic outlook.  The Committee also anticipates that inflation over the medium term likely would run at or below its 2 percent objective….

…To support a stronger economic recovery and to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at the rate most consistent with its dual mandate, the Committee agreed today to increase policy accommodation by purchasing additional agency mortgage-backed securities at a pace of $40 billion per month. 

…The Committee will closely monitor incoming information on economic and financial developments in coming months.  If the outlook for the labor market does not improve substantially, the Committee will continue its purchases of agency mortgage-backed securities, undertake additional asset purchases, and employ its other policy tools as appropriate until such improvement is achieved in a context of price stability. “

So we nearly got what I asked for: 1) A clear target – not an NGDP level target, but a light Mankiw rule/Evans rule based on the Fed’s dual mandate. 2) A clear instrument to increase the money base: Mortgage backed securities. 3) A promise to do more if the target is not hit.

Now the markets should do a lot of the additional lifting.

I think it would be ungrateful to ask for more – yes, yes it is not NGDP level targeting and a lot of things can go wrong, but today I think we can take a little victory lap. This is excellent news for the US economy and for the global economy. Then we can hope that we in the coming months will get an even more clear defined “Bernanke rule” so we finally can back to a rule based rather than a discretionary monetary policy.

Related posts:

Scott Sumner has two comments (here and here) on the FOMC decision.

David Beckworth also has a comment and so has David Glanser.

While Scott and two times David share my general happiness about the Fed’s actions our friend Marcus Nunes is less euphoric. Marcus as always been the skeptic among the Market Monetarist bloggers, but he has also often been right so maybe we should be a little bit careful in not being carried away.

Update: Dajeeps and JPIrving are also happy.

Update 2: Our friend Mayor(!) Bill Woolsey also comments on the fed. Bill is as happy as the rest of us with the progress in the thinking of the FOMC, but he also correctly raises some points about the dangers of targeting real variables such as unemployment rather than focusing on nominal variables such as the NGDP level. Bill’s comment in many ways can be seen as the Market Monetarist reply to George Selgin’s friendly reminder to us (the Market Monetarists) that we should not become too friendly with the fed exactly because the fed is now so clearly targeting a real variable. Bill post was however (I think) written prior to George’s comment. Needless to say I agree with George and Bill. The FOMC’s actions is major step forward, BUT I am certainly also somewhat uncomfortable with the fact that the fed now so clearly targeting a real – rather than a nominal – variable.

Time to end discretionary monetary policy!

This week has been nearly 100% about monetary policy in the financial markets and in the international financial media. In fact since 2008 monetary policy has been the main driver of prices in basically all asset classes. In the markets the main job of investors is to guess what the ECB or the Federal Reserve will do next. However, the problem is that there is tremendous uncertainty about what the central banks will do and this uncertainty is multi-dimensional. Hence, the question is not only whether XYZ central bank will ease monetary policy or not, but also about how it will do it.

Just take Mario Draghi’s press conference last week – he had to read out numerous different communiqués and he had to introduce completely new monetary concepts – just take OMT. OMT means Outright Monetary Transactions – not exactly a term you will find in the monetary theory textbook. And he also had to come up with completely new quasi-monetary institutions – just take the ESM. The ESM is the European Stability Mechanism. This is not really necessary and it just introduce completely unnecessary uncertainty about European monetary policy.

In reality monetary policy is extremely simple. Central bankers can fundamentally do two things. First, the central bank can increase or decrease the money base and second it can guide expectations. It is really simple. There is no reason for ESM, OMT, QE3 etc. The problem, however, is that central banks used to control the money base and expectations with interest rates, but with interest rates close to zero central bankers around the world seem to have lost the ability to communicate about what they want to do. As a result monetary policy has become extremely discretionary in both Europe and the US.

That need to change as this discretion is at the core the uncertainty about monetary policy. Central bankers therefore have to do two things to get back on track and to create some kind of normality. First, central banks should define very clear targets of what the want to achieve – preferably the ECB and the Fed should announce nominal GDP targets, but other target might do as well. Second, the central banks should give up communicating about monetary policy in terms of interest rates and rather communicate in terms of how much they want to change the money base.

In terms of changes in the money base the central banks should clarify how the money base is changed. The central bank can increase the money base, by buying different assets such as government bonds, foreign currencies, commodities or stocks. The important thing is that the central banks do not try to affect relative prices in the financial markets. When the Fed is conducting it “twist operations” it is trying to distort relative prices, which essentially is a form of central planning and has little to do with monetary policy. Therefore, the best the central banks could do is to define a clear basket of assets it will be buying or selling to increase or decrease the money base. This could be a fixed basket of bonds, currencies, commodities and stocks – or it could just be short-term government bonds. The important thing is that the central bank define a clear instrument.

This would remove the “instrument uncertainty” and the ECB or the Fed would not have to come up with new weird instruments every single month. Rather for example the Fed could just start at every regular FOMC meetings to state for example that “the expectations is now that without changes in our policy instrument we will undershoot our policy target and as a consequence we today have decided to use our policy instrument to increase the money base by X dollars to ensure that we will hit our policy target within the next 12 months. We will increase the money base further if contrary to our expectations policy target is not meet.” 

In this world there would be no discretion at all – the central bank would be strictly rule following. It would use its well-defined policy instrument to always hit the policy target and there would be no problems with zero bound interest rates. But most important it would allow the financial markets to do most of the lifting as such set-up would be tremendously more transparent than what they are doing today.

Today we will see whether Ben Bernanke want to continue distorting relative prices and maintaining policy uncertainty by keeping the Fed’s highly discretionary habits or whether he want to ensure a target and rules based monetary policy.

PS a possibility would of course also be to use NGDP futures to conduct monetary policy as Scott Sumner has suggested, but that nearly seems like science fiction given the extreme conservatism of the world’s major central banks.

Between the money supply and velocity – the euro zone vs the US

When crisis hit in 2008 it was mostly called the subprime crisis and it was normally assumed that the crisis had an US origin. I have always been skeptical about the US centric description of the crisis. As I see it the initial “impulse” to the crisis came from Europe rather than the US. However, the consequence of this impulse stemming from Europe led to a “passive” tightening of US monetary conditions as the Fed failed to meet the increased demand for dollars.

The collapse in both nominal (and real) GDP in the US and the euro zone in 2008-9 was very similar, but the “composition” of the shock was very different. In Europe the shock to NGDP came from a sharp drop in money supply growth, while the contraction in US NGDP was a result of a sharp contraction in money-velocity. The graphs below illustrate this.

The first graph is a graph with the broad money supply relative to the pre-crisis trend (2000-2007) in the euro zone and the US. The second graph is broad money velocity in the US and the euro zone relative to the pre-crisis trend (2000-2007).

The graphs very clearly illustrates that there has been a massive monetary contraction in the euro zone as a result of M3 significantly undershooting the pre-crisis trend. Had the ECB kept M3 growth on the pre-crisis trend then euro zone nominal GDP would long ago returned to the pre-crisis trend. On the other hand the Federal Reserve has actually been able to keep M2 on the pre-crisis path. However, that has not been enough to keep US NGDP on trend as M2-velocity has contracted sharply relative the pre-crisis trend.

Said in another way a M3 growth target of for example 6.5% would basically have been as good as an NGDP level target for the euro zone as velocity has returned to the pre-crisis trend. However, that would not have been the case in the US and that I my view illustrates why an NGDP level target is much preferable to a money supply target.

The European origin of the crisis – or how European banks caused a tightening of US monetary policy

Not surprisingly the focus of the discussion of the causes of the crisis often is on the US given both the subprime debacle and the collapse of Lehman Brothers. However, I believe that the shock actually (mostly) originated in Europe rather than the US. What happened in 2008 was that we saw a sharp rise in dollar demand coming from the European financial sector. This is best illustrated by the sharp drop in EUR/USD from close to 1.60 in July 2008 to 1.25 in early November 2008. The rise in dollar demand is obviously what caused the collapse in US money-velocity and in that regard it is notable that the rise in money demand in Europe primarily was an increase in demand for dollar rather than for euros.

This is why I stress the European origin of the crisis. However, the cause of the crisis nonetheless was a tightening of US monetary conditions as the Fed (initially) failed to appropriately respond to the increase in dollar demand – mostly because of the collapse of the US primary dealer system. Had the Fed had a more efficient system for open market operations in 2008 then I believe the crisis would have been much smaller and would have been over already in 2009. As the Fed got dollar-swap lines up and running and initiated quantitative easing the recovery got underway in 2009. This triggered a brisk recovery in both US and euro zone money-velocity. In that regard it is notable that the rebound in velocity actually was somewhat steeper in the euro zone than in the US.

The crisis might very well have ended in 2009, but new policy mistakes have prolonged the crisis and once again European problems are causing most headaches and the cause now clearly is that the ECB has allowed European monetary conditions to become excessively tight – just have a look at the money supply graph above. Euro zone M3 has now dropped more than 15% below the pre-crisis trend. This policy mistake has to some extent been counteracted by the Fed’s efforts to increase the US money supply, but the euro crisis have also led to another downleg in US money velocity. The Fed once again has failed to appropriately counteract this.

Both the Fed and the ECB have failed

In the discussion above I have tried to illustrate that we cannot fully understand the Great Recession without understanding the relationship between US and euro zone monetary policy and I believe that a full understanding of the crisis necessitates a discussion of European dollar demand.

Furthermore, the discussion shows that a credible money supply target would significantly have reduced the crisis in the euro zone. However, the shock to US money-velocity shows that an NGDP level target would “perform” much better than a simple money supply rule.

The conclusion is that both the Fed and the ECB have failed. The Fed failed to respond appropriately in 2008 to the increase in the dollar demand. On the other hand the ECB has nearly constantly since 2008/9 failed to increase the money supply and nominal GDP. Not to mention the numerous communication failures and the massively discretionary conduct of monetary policy.

Even though the challenges facing the Fed and ECB since 2008 have been somewhat different in nature I would argue that proper nominal targets (for example a NGDP level target or a price level target) and better operational procedures could have ended this crisis long ago.

—–

Related posts:

Failed monetary policy – (another) one graph version
International monetary disorder – how policy mistakes turned the crisis into a global crisis

Project African Monetary Reform (PAMR)

Project African Monetary Reform (PAMR) – post 1

The blogoshere is full of debates about US monetary policy and the mistakes of the ECB are also hotly debated. However, other than that there is really not much debate in the blogoshere about monetary policy issues in other countries. I have from I started blogging said that I wanted to broaden the monetary debate and make it less US-centric. Unfortunately I must say I also tend to write a lot about US monetary policy and there is no doubt that most of my readers are primarily interested in US monetary affairs. However, I still want to have a broader perspective on monetary theory, policy and history. Therefore as of today I am launching Project African Monetary Reform (PAMR).

I have no clue where PAMR will lead me other than I have a large interest in the African continent and it’s economies so why not combine it with my interest in monetary policy? My regular readers will know that I already have produced a number of posts related to African monetary issues. PAMR as such will not be a major change and I will not promise any regularity in my posts in the PAMR “series”, but I hope PAMR can be a framework within which I can write a bit more on African monetary matters. I will not get into the business of forecasting central bank behavior and market movements (I spend time on that kind of thing in my day-job), but I will hope to contribute to the discussion about monetary reform in Africa. Something still badly needed in many African countries.

In the process of studying monetary reform issues in Africa – we might even learn some good lessons for more “developed” economies like the US and the euro zone. So even if you are not interested in what is going on in Africa you might learn from tracking PAMR.

I therefore also would like to invite other economists, academics and policy makers with interest in African monetary reform to get in contact with me so we might be able to build a network of people with such interests. Furthermore, I would as always welcome guest posts concerning African monetary issues from other economists with special knowledge or interest in African monetary reform. I can be contacted at lacsen@gmail.com

Furthermore, I will invite you my dear readers to give me suggestions for the next post in the PAMR series. I want to take a look at the monetary policy set-up in a “random” African country. You my dear readers will make the choice on what country I should start with. But I rule out writing something on the three large ones: South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt. You can write the suggestion here or drop me a mail. I am all hears.

Some of my previous posts related to African monetary issues:

The spike in Kenyan inflation and why it might offer a (partial) solution to the euro crisis

“Good E-money” can solve Zimbabwe’s ‘coin problem’

M-pesa – Free Banking in Africa?

 

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.

——

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.

—–

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 ECB has the model to understand the Great Recession – now use it!

By chance I today found an ECB working paper from 2004 – “The Great Depression and the Friedman-Schwartz hypothesis” by Christiano, Motto and Rostagno.

Here is the abstract:

“We evaluate the Friedman-Schwartz hypothesis that a more accommodative monetary policy could have greatly reduced the severity of the Great Depression. To do this, we first estimate a dynamic, general equilibrium model using data from the 1920s and 1930s. Although the model includes eight shocks, the story it tells about the Great Depression turns out to be a simple and familiar one. The contraction phase was primarily a consequence of a shock that induced a shift away from privately intermediated liabilities, such as demand deposits and liabilities that resemble equity, and towards currency. The slowness of the recovery from the Depression was due to a shock that increased the market power of workers. We identify a monetary base rule which responds only to the money demand shocks in the model. We solve the model with this counterfactual monetary policy rule. We then simulate the dynamic response of this model to all the estimated shocks. Based on the model analysis, we conclude that if the counterfactual policy rule had been in place in the 1930s, the Great Depression would have been relatively mild.”

It is interesting stuff and you would imagine that the model developed in the paper could also shed light on the causes and possible cures for the Great Recession as well.

Is it only me who is reminded about 2008-9 when you read this:

“The empirical exercise conducted on the basis of the model ascribes the sharp contraction of 1929-1933 mainly to a sudden shift in investors’ portfolio preferences from risky instruments used to finance business activity to currency (a flight-to-safety explanation). One interpretation of this finding could be that households . in strict analogy with commercial banks holding larger cash reserves against their less liquid assets . might add to their cash holdings when they feel to be overexposed to risk. This explanation seems plausible in the wake of the rush to stocks that occurred in the second half of the 1920.s. The paper also documents how the failure of the Fed in 1929-1933 to provide highpowered money needed to meet the increased demand for a safe asset led to a credit crunch which in turn produced deflation and economic contraction.”

The authors also answer the question about the appropriate policy response.

“We finally conduct a counterfactual policy experiment designed to answer the following questions: could a different monetary policy have avoided the economic collapse of the 1930s? More generally: To what extent does the impossibility for central banks to cut the nominal interest rate to levels below zero stand in the way of a potent counter-deflationary monetary policy? Our answers are that indeed a different monetary policy could have turned the economic collapse of the 1930s into a far more moderate recession and that the central bank can resort to an appropriate management of expectations to circumvent – or at least loosen – the lower bound constraint.

The counterfactual monetary policy that we study temporarily expands the growth rate in the monetary base in the wake of the money demand shocks that we identify. To ensure that this policy does not violate the zero lower-bound constraint on the interest rate, we consider quantitative policies which expand the monetary base in the periods a shock. By injecting an anticipated inflation effect into the interest rate, this delayed-response feature of our policy prevents the zero bound constraint from binding along the equilibrium paths that we consider. At the same time, by activating this channel, the central bank can secure control of the short-term real interest rate and, hence, aggregate spending.

The conclusion that an appropriately designed quantitative policy could have largely insulated the economy from the effects of the major money demand shocks that had manifested themselves in the   late 1920s is in line with the famous conjecture of Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz (1963).”

So what policy rule are the authors talking about? Well, it is basically a feedback rule where the money base is expanded to counteract negative shocks to money-velocity in the previous period. This is not completely a NGDP targeting rule, but it is close – at least in spirit. Under NGDP level targeting the central bank will increase in the money base to counteract shocks to velocity to keep NGDP on a stable growth path. The rule suggested in the paper is a soft version of this. It could obviously be very interesting to see how a real NGDP rule would have done in the model.

Anyway, I can highly recommend the paper – especially to the members of the ECB’s The Governing Council and I see no reason that they should not implement a rule for the euro zone similar to the one suggested in the paper. If the ECB had such a rule in place then Spanish 10-year bond yields probably would not have been above 7% today.

PS Scott Sumner has been looking for a model for some time. Maybe the Christiano-Motto-Rostagno model would be something for Scott…


 

Jeff Frankel restates his support for NGDP targeting

It is no secret that I have been fascinated by some of Havard professor Jeff Frankel’s ideas especially his idea for Emerging Markets commodity exporters to peg the currency to the price of their main export (PEP). I have written numerous posts on this (see below) However, Frankel is also a long-time supporter of NGDP target and now he has restated is his views on NGDP targeting.

Here is Jeff:

“In my preceding blogpost, I argued that the developments of the last five years have sharply pointed up the limitations of Inflation Targeting (IT), much as the currency crises of the 1990s dramatized the vulnerability of exchange rate targeting and the velocity shocks of the 1980s killed money supply targeting.   But if IT is dead, what is to take its place as an intermediate target that central banks can use to anchor expectations?

The leading candidate to take the position of preferred nominal anchor is probably Nominal GDP Targeting.  It has gained popularity rather suddenly, over the last year.  But the idea is not new.  It had been a candidate to succeed money targeting in the 1980s, because it did not share the latter’s vulnerability to shifts in money demand.  Under certain conditions, it dominates not only a money target (due to velocity shocks) but also an exchange rate target  (if exchange rate shocks are large) and a price level target (if supply shocks are large).   First proposed by James Meade (1978), it attracted the interest in the 1980s of such eminent economists as Jim Tobin (1983), Charlie Bean(1983), Bob Gordon (1985), Ken West (1986), Martin Feldstein & Jim Stock (1994), Bob Hall & Greg Mankiw (1994), Ben McCallum (1987, 1999), and others.

Nominal GDP targeting was not adopted by any country in the 1980s.  Amazingly, the founders of the European Central Bank in the 1990s never even considered it on their list of possible anchors for euro monetary policy.  (They ended up with a “two pillar approach,” of which one pillar was supposedly the money supply.)” 

So far so good…and here is something, which will make all of us blogging Market Monetarists happy:

“But now nominal GDP targeting is back, thanks to enthusiastic blogging by ScottSumner (at Money Illusion), LarsChristensen (at Market Monetarist), David Beckworth (at Macromarket Musings),Marcus Nunes (at Historinhas) and others.  Indeed, the Economist has held up the successful revival of this idea as an example of the benefits to society of the blogosphere.”

This is a great endorsement of the Market Monetarist “movement” and it is certainly good news that Jeff so clearly recognize the work of the blogging Market Monetarists. Anyway back to the important points Jeff are making.

“Fans of nominal GDP targeting point out that it would not, like Inflation Targeting, have the problem of excessive tightening in response to adverse supply shocks.    Nominal GDP targeting stabilizes demand, which is really all that can be asked of monetary policy.  An adverse supply shock is automatically divided between inflation and real GDP, equally, which is pretty much what a central bank with discretion would do anyway.

In the long term, the advantage of a regime that targets nominal GDP is that it is more robust with respect to shocks than the competitors (gold standard, money target, exchange rate target, or CPI target).   But why has it suddenly gained popularity at this point in history, after two decades of living in obscurity?  Nominal GDP targeting might also have another advantage in the current unfortunate economic situation that afflicts much of the world:  Its proponents see it as a way of achieving a monetary expansion that is much-needed at the current juncture.”

Exactly! The great advantage of NGDP level targeting compared to other monetary policy rules is that it handles both velocity shocks and supply shocks. No other rules (other than maybe Jeff’s own PEP) does that. Furthermore, I would add something, which is tremendously important to me and that is that unlike any other monetary policy rule NGDP level targeting does not distort relative prices. NGDP level targeting as such ensures the optimal and unhampered working of a free market economy.

Back to Jeff:

“Monetary easing in advanced countries since 2008, though strong, has not been strong enough to bring unemployment down rapidly nor to restore output to potential.  It is hard to get the real interest rate down when the nominal interest rate is already close to zero. This has led some, such as Olivier Blanchard and Paul Krugman, to recommend that central banks announce a higher inflation target: 4 or 5 per cent.   (This is what Krugman and Ben Bernanke advised the Bank of Japan to do in the 1990s, to get out of its deflationary trap.)  But most economists, and an even higher percentage of central bankers, are loath to give up the anchoring of expected inflation at 2 per cent which they fought so long and hard to achieve in the 1980s and 1990s.  Of course one could declare that the shift from a 2 % target to 4 % would be temporary.  But it is hard to deny that this would damage the long-run credibility of the sacrosanct 2% number.   An attraction of nominal GDP targeting is that one could set a target for nominal GDP that constituted 4 or 5% increase over the coming year – which for a country teetering on the fence between recovery and recession would in effect supply as much monetary ease as a 4% inflation target – and yet one would not be giving up the hard-won emphasis on 2% inflation as the long-run anchor.”

I completely agree. I have always found the idea of temporary changing the inflation target to be very odd. The problem is not whether to target 2,3 or 4% inflation. The problem is the inflation targeting itself. Inflation targeting tends to create bubbles when the economy is hit by positive supply shocks. It does not fully response to negative velocity shocks and it leads to excessive tightening of monetary policy when the economy is hit by negative supply shocks (just have look at the ECB’s conduct of monetary policy!)
Market Monetarists advocate a clear rule based monetary policy exactly because we think that expectations is tremendously important in the monetary transmission mechanism. A temporary change in the inflation target would completely undermining the effectiveness of the monetary transmission mechanism and we would still be left with a bad monetary policy rule.
Let me give the final word to Jeff:
Thus nominal GDP targeting could help address our current problems as well as a durable monetary regime for the future.
_______
Some of my earlier posts on Jeff’s ideas:

Next stop Moscow
International monetary disorder – how policy mistakes turned the crisis into a global crisis
Fear-of-floating, misallocation and the law of comparative advantages
Exchange rates are not truly floating when we target inflation
“The Bacon Standard” (the PIG PEG) would have saved Denmark from the Great Depression
PEP, NGDPLT and (how to avoid) Russian monetary policy failure
Should small open economies peg the currency to export prices?

Scott Sumner also comments on Jeff’s blogpost.

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