Does Y determine MV or is it MV that determines P?

Scott Sumner a couple of days ago wrote a post on the what he believes is a Great Stagnation story for the US. I don’t agree with Scott about his pessimism about long-term US growth and I don’t think he does a particularly good job arguing his case.

I hope to be able to write something on that in the coming days, but this Sunday I will instead focus on another matter Scott (indirectly) brought up in his Great Stagnation post – the question of causality between nominal and real shocks.

This is Scott:

“I’ve been arguing that 1.2% RGDP and 3.0% NGDP growth is the new normal.  The RGDP growth is of course an arbitrary figure, reflecting the whims of statisticians at the BEA.  But the NGDP slowdown is real (pardon the pun.)”

The point Scott really is making here (other than the productivity story) is that it is real GDP that determines nominal GDP (“NGDP slowdown is real”). That doesn’t sound very (market) monetarist does it?

Is this because because Scott – the founding father of market monetarism – suddenly has become a Keynesian that basically just thinks of nominal GDP as a “residual”?

No, Scott has certainly not become a Keynesian, but rather Scott fully well knows that the causality between nominal and real shocks – whether RGDP determines NGDP or it is the other way around – is critically dependent on the monetary policy regime – a fact that most economists tend to forget or even fail to understand.

Let me explain – I have earlier argued that we should think of the monetary policy rule as the “missing equation” in the our model of the world. The equation which “closes” the model.

It is all very easy to understand by looking at the equation of exchange:

M*V=P*Y

The equation of exchange says that the money supply/base (M) times the velocity of money (V) equals the price level (P) times real GDP (Y).

The central bank controls M and sets M to hit a given nominal target. Market Monetarists of course have argued that central banks should set M so to hit an nominal GDP target. This essentially means that the central bank should set M so to hit a given target for P*Y.

We know that in the long run real GDP is determined by supply side factors rather than by monetary factors. So if we have a NGDP target then the central bank basically pegs M*V, which means that if the growth rate in Y drops (the Great Stagnation story) then the growth rate of P (inflation) will increase.

So we see that under an NGDP targeting regime the causality runs from M*V (and Y) to P. Inflation is so to speak the residual in the economy.

But this is not what Scott indicates in the quote above.

This is because he assumes that the Fed is targeting around 2% (in fact 1.8%) inflation. Therefore, IF the Fed in fact targets inflation – rather than NGDP – then in the equation of exchange the Fed “pegs” P (or rather the growth rate of P).

Therefore, under inflation targeting the Fed will have to reduce the growth rate of M (for a given V) by exactly as much has the slowdown in (long-term) growth rate of Y to keep inflation (growth P) on track.

This means that under inflation targeting shocks to Y (supply shocks) determines both M and P*Y, which of course also means that “NGDP slowdown is real” (as Scott argues) if we combine a slowdown in long-term Y growth and an inflation targeting regime.

Scott won – so he is wrong about causality

Scott since 2009 forcefully has argued that the Federal Reserve should target nominal GDP rather than inflation. I on the other hand believe that Scott has been even more succesfull than he believes and that the Federal Reserve already de facto has switched to an NGDP targeting regime (targeting 4% NGDP growth). Furthermore, I believe that the financial markets more or less realise this, which means that money demand (and therefore money-velocity) tend to move to reflect this regime.

This also means that if Scott won the argument over NGDP targeting (in the US) then he is wrong assuming that that real shocks will become nominal (that Y determines M*V).

The problem of course is that we are not entirely sure what the Fed really is targeting – and neither is most officials. As a consequence we should not think that the monetary-real causality in anyway is stable. This by the way is exactly why we can both have long and variable leads and lags in monetary policy.

For further discussion of these topics see these earlier posts of mine:

The monetary transmission mechanism – causality and monetary policy rule

Expectations and the transmission mechanism – why didn’t anybody think of that before?

How (un)stable is velocity?

The missing equation

The inverse relationship between central banks’ credibility and the credibility of monetarism

St. Louis Fed’s Bullard comes out in support of NGDP targeting

St. Louis Federal Reserve president James Bullard just came out in support of nominal GDP targeting – or rather he has co-authored a rather interesting new Working Paper, which concludes that NGDP targeting under some circumstances would be the best policy to pursue.

The paper with the ambitious title Optimal Monetary Policy at the Zero Lower Bound Bullard has co-authored with Costas Azariadis, Aarti Singh and Jacek Suda.

As the abstract reveals it is a rather technical paper:

We study optimal monetary policy at the zero lower bound. The macroeconomy we study has considerable income inequality which gives rise to a large private sector credit market. Households participating in this market use non-state contingent nominal contracts (NSCNC). A second, small group of households only uses cash and cannot participate in the credit market. The monetary authority supplies currency to cash-using households in a way that changes the price level to provide for optimal risk-sharing in the private credit market and thus to overcome the NSCNC friction. For succinctly large and persistent negative shocks the zero lower bound on nominal interest rates may threaten to bind. The monetary authority may credibly promise to increase the price level in this situation to maintain a smoothly functioning (complete) credit market. The optimal monetary policy in this model can be broadly viewed as a version of nominal GDP targeting.

I think the interesting thing about the paper is the focus on non-state contingent nominal contracts (NSCNC) as the key rigidity in economy rather wage and price rigidities. Simply stated, essentially NSCNC means that debt is nominal rather than real – and when a major negative shock to nominal incomes (NGDP) occurs then that causes debt/NGDP to rise and that is really at the cure of the financial distress that follows from a major negative NGDP shock (this by the way is why Greece now has a problem).

We can solve this problems in two ways – either by introducing (quasi) real contracts rather than nominal contract or by having the central bank targeting NGDP.

As such the paper is part of a growing, but small literature that focuses on NSCNC and the importance of this for the optimal monetary policy rule.

I was, however, a bit disappoint to see that the authors of the paper did not have a reference to any of the paper on this topic by the extremely overlooked David Eagle. I have written numerous blog posts on David’s work since 2011 and David has even written a number of guest posts for my blog. I list these posts below and I suggest everybody interested in this topic read not only the posts but also David’s papers.

The authors on the other hand do have a reference to the work of Evan Koenig who has done academic work very much in same spirit as David Eagle. I have also written about Evan’s work on this blog over the last couple of years and also list these blog posts below.

Will this change anything?

For those of us deeply interested in monetary policy matters the new paper obviously is interesting. First of all, it is helping deepening the theoretical understanding of monetary policy and second the paper could help further push the Federal Reserve (and other central banks!) toward in fact officially implementing some version of NGDP targeting – or at least I hope so.

That said there is a huge difference between in principle supporting NGDP targeting in a theoretical paper and then actually advocating NGDP targeting the real world and so far as I can see Jim Bullard has not yet done that. But obviously this is a huge step in the direction of Jim Bullard actually becoming an NGDP advocate and that obviously should be welcomed.

I have numerous times argued that the Fed actually from mid-2009 de facto started a policy to NGDP level targeting around a 4% path and this policy effectively has continued to this day (see here and here). However, this has never been articulated by any Fed official, which makes the “policy” much less effective and less credible.

Therefore, it would be great if we not only would get a theoretical endorsement of NGDP targeting from the likes of Jim Bullard, but rather a concrete proposal on how to actually implement NGDP targeting. I hope that will be the next paper Jim Bullard authors.

PS My friend Marcus Nunes also comments on the paper here.

PPS One of the authors of the paper discussed above is Jacek Suda from the Polish central bank (NBP). I would love to see a discussion of introducing NGDP targeting in my beloved Poland!

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Blog posts on and by David Eagle:

Guest post: Central Banks Should Quit “Kicking Them While They Are Down!” (by David Eagle)

Guest post: GDP-Linked Bonds (by David Eagle)

Guest blog: NGDP Targeting is NOT just for Central Banks! (David Eagle)

Guest blog: Why Price-Level Targeting Pareto Dominates Inflation Targeting (By David Eagle)

Guest Blog: The Two Fundamental Welfare Principles of Monetary Economics (By David Eagle)

Guest blog: Growth or level targeting? (by David Eagle)

Guest post: Why I Support NGDP Targeting (by David Eagle)

Dubai, Iceland, Baltics – can David Eagle explain the bubbles?

David Eagle’s framework and the micro-foundation of Market Monetarism

David Eagle on “Nominal Income Targeting for a Speedier Economic Recovery”

Selgin and Eagle should be best friends

Quasi-Real indexing – indexing for Market Monetarists

David Davidson and the productivity norm

Two Equations on the Pareto-Efficient Sharing of Real GDP Risk (a paper David and I co-authored in 2012)

Blog posts on Evan Koeing:

The Integral Reviews: Paper 1 – Koenig (2011)

“Monetary Policy, Financial Stability, and the Distribution of Risk”

 

UPDATE: Scott Sumner also comments on the Bullard el al paper.

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If you want to hear me speak about these topics or other related topics don’t hesitate to contact my speaker agency Specialist Speakers – e-mail: daniel@specialistspeakers.com or roz@specialistspeakers.com.

Mario, stay on track and avoid the mistakes of 1937 and 2011

The global stock markets have been facing some headwinds recently, and there may be numerous reasons for this. One obvious one is the recent rebound in oil prices, which I believe is essentially driven by markets’ expectation that the Saudi-led global oil price war is now ending.

If that is indeed the case then we are seeing a (minor) negative supply shock, particularly to the European and U.S. economies. Such supply shocks often get central banks into trouble. Just think of the ECB’s massive policy blunder(s) in 2011, when it reacted to a negative shock (higher oil prices on the back of the Arab spring) by hiking interest rates twice, or the Federal Reserve’s (or rather the Roosevelt Administration’s) premature monetary tightening in 1937 – also on the back of high global commodity prices.

It may be that the ECB will not repeat the mistakes of 2011, but you can’t blame investors for thinking that there is a risk that this could happen – particularly because the ECB continues to communicate primarily in terms of headline inflation.

Therefore, even if the ECB isn’t contemplating a tightening of monetary conditions in response to a negative supply, the markets will effectively tighten monetary conditions if there is uncertainty about the ECB’s policy rule. I believe that is part of the reason for the market action we have seen lately.

The ECB needs to spell out the policy rule clearly

What the ECB therefore needs to do right now is to remind market participants that it is not reacting to a negative supply shock, and that it will ignore any rise in inflation caused by higher oil prices. There are numerous ways of doing this.

1) Spell out an NGDP target

In my view the best thing would essentially be for the ECB to make it clear that it is focusing on the development of expected nominal GDP growth. This does not necessarily have to be in conflict with the overall target of hitting 2% over the medium term. All the ECB needs to do is to say that it is targeting, for example, 4% NGDP growth on average over the coming 5 years, reflecting a 2% inflation target and 2% growth in potential real GDP in the euro zone. That would ensure that markets also ignore short-term fluctuations in headline inflation.

2) Target 2y/2y and 5y/5y inflation

Alternatively, the ECB should only communicate about inflation developments in terms of what is happening to market inflation expectations – for example 2y/2y and 5y/5y inflation expectations. Again, this would seriously reduce the risk of sending the signal that the bank is about to react to negative supply shocks.

3) Re-introduce the focus on M3

There are numerous reasons not to rely on money supply data as the only indicator of monetary conditions. However, I strongly believe that it is useful to still keep an eye on monetary aggregates such as M1 and M3. Both M1 and M3 show that monetary conditions have indeed gotten easier since the ECB introduced its QE programme. That said, the money supply data is also telling us that monetary conditions overall can hardly be described as excessively easy. Yes, money supply growth is still picking up, but M3 growth is still below the 6.5% y/y that it reached in 2000-2008, and significantly below the 10% “target” I earlier suggested would be needed to bring us back to 2% inflation over the medium term.

If the ECB re-introduces more focus on the money supply numbers – and monetary analysis in general – then it would also send a pretty clear signal that the bank is not about to change course on QE just because oil prices are rising.

4) Change the price index to the GDP deflator or core inflation

Another pretty straightforward way of trying to convince the markets that the ECB will not react to negative supply shocks is by changing the focus in terms of the inflation target. Today, the ECB is officially targeting HICP (headline) inflation. This measure is highly sensitive to swings in oil and food prices as well as changes in indirect taxes. These factors obviously are completely outside the direct control of the ECB, and it therefore makes very little sense that the ECB is focusing on this measure.

Recently, ECB chief Mario Draghi hinted that the ECB could start focusing on a core measure of inflation that excludes energy, food and taxes, and I certainly think that would be a step in the right direction if the bank does not want to introduce NGDP targeting. This would effectively mean that the ECB had a target similar to the Fed’s core PCE inflation measure. It would not be perfect, but certainly a lot better than the present headline inflation measure.

An alternative to a core inflation measure, which I believe is even better, would be to focus on the GDP deflator. The good thing about the GDP deflator (other than being the P in MV=PY) is that it measures the price of what is produced in the euro zone, and hence excludes imported inflation and indirect taxes.

Conclusion: It is still all about credibility – so more needs to be done

One can always discuss what is in fact going on in the markets at the moment – and I will deliberately avoid trying to explain why German government bond yields have spiked recently (it tells us very little about monetary conditions) – but I would focus instead on the markets’ serious nervousness about whether the ECB will prematurely end its QE programme.

There would be no reason for such nervousness if the ECB clearly spelled out that it does not intend to let a negative supply shock change its plans for quantitative easing, and that it is intent on ensuring nominal stability. I have given some suggestions on how the ECB could do that, and I fundamentally think that Mario Draghi understands that the ECB needs to move in this direction. Now he just needs to make it completely clear to the markets (and the Bundesbank?)

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If you want to hear me speak about this topic or other related topics don’t hesitate to contact my speaker agency Specialist Speakers – e-mail: daniel@specialistspeakers.com or roz@specialistspeakers.com.

The hawks should start advocating NGDP targeting to avoid embarrassment

Over the past six years the “hawks” among UK and US central bankers have been proven wrong. They have continued to argue that a spike in inflation was just around the corner because monetary policy was “high accommodative”. Obviously Market Monetarists have continued to argue that monetary policy has not been easy, but rather to tight in the US and the UK – at least until 2012-13.

The continued very low inflation continues to be an embarrassment for the hawks and looking into 2015-16 there are no indication that inflation is about to pick-up either in the US or in the UK.

That said, there might actually be good reasons for turning more hawkish right now – nominal GDP growth continues to pick up in both the UK and the US (I will ignore the euro zone in this blog post…)

The sharp drop in oil prices in recent months is likely to further push down headline inflation in the coming months. Central bankers should obviously completely ignore any drop in inflation caused by a positive supply shock, but with most hawks completely obsessed with inflation targeting a hawkish stance will become harder and harder to justify from an inflation targeting perspective exactly at the time when it actually might become more justified than at any time before in the past six years.

I would personally not be surprised if we get close to deflation in both the UK and the US in 2015 and maybe also in 2016 if we don’t get a rebound in oil prices, but I would also think that there is a pretty good chance that we could get 4-5% or maybe even higher nominal GDP growth in both the UK and US in 2015-16. And that would be a strong argument for a tighter monetary stance.

Hence, if strict inflation targeters would follow their own logic then they would be advocating monetary easing in 2015-16 in both Britain and the US, while those of us who are more focused on NGDP growth will likely see an increasing need for monetary tightening in 2015-16.

As a consequence if you are an old hawk who “feels” that there is a need for monetary tightening then you better stop looking at present inflation and instead start to focusing on expected NGDP growth.

But of course the idea that you are hawkish or dovish is in itself an idiotic idea. You should never be hawkish or dovish as that in itself means that you are likely advocating some sort of discretionary monetary policy. What should concern you should be the rules of the game – the monetary policy regime.

The story of a remarkably stable US NGDP trend

Today revised US GDP numbers for Q3 were released. While most commentators focused on the better than expected real GDP numbers I am on the other hand mostly impressed by just how stable the development in nominal GDP is. Just take a look at the graph below.

US NGDP 4 pct trend

I have earlier argued that the development in NGDP looks as if the Federal Reserve has had a 4% NGDP level target since Q3 2009. In fact at no time since 2009 has the actual level of NGDP diverged more than 1% from the 4% trend started in Q3 2009 and right now we are basically exactly on the 4% trend line. This is remarkable especially because the Fed never has made any official commitment to this target.

With market expectations fully aligned to with this trend and US unemployment probably quite close to the structural level of unemployment I see no reason why the Fed should not announce this – a 4% NGDP level target – as its official target.

PS I might join the hawks soon – if the trend in NGDP growth over the last couple of quarters continues in the coming quarter then we will move above the 4% NGDP trend and in that sense there is an argument for tighter monetary conditions.

PPS I am not arguing that monetary policy was appropriate back in 2009 or 2010. In fact I believe that monetary policy was far too tight, but after six years of real adjustments it is time to let bygones-be-bygones and I don’t think there would be anything to gain from a stepping up of monetary easing at the present time.

The Mankiw-Darda rule tells the Fed to wait a bit with hikes

Greg Mankiw has a blog post commenting on my previous post on the so-called Mankiw rule.

I show in my post that according to both the original and a re-estimated version of the Mankiw rule the Federal Reserve should be hiking rates right now. I should stress again that I don’t think the Fed should hike interest rates – I am only using the Mankiw rule to illustrate why we likely are moving closer to a rate hike from the Fed (that is the is a difference between thinking about what the Fed will do rather than what it should do).

Greg makes some good points why the Fed should not hike rates yet:

Taken at face value, the rule suggests that it is time for the Fed to start raising the federal funds rate.  If you believe this rule was reasonably good during the period of the Great Moderation, does this mean the Fed should start tightening now, as the economy gets back to normal?

Maybe, but not necessarily. There are two problems with interpreting such rules today.

The first and most obvious problem is that odd things have been happening in the labor market for the past several years. The unemployment rate (one of the right hand side variables in this rule) may not be a reliable indicator of slack.

The second and more subtle problem is the nagging issue of the zero lower bound.  For several years, the rule suggested a target federal funds rate deeply in the negative territory.  We are out of that range now, but should the past “errors” influence our target today?  An argument can be made that because the Fed kept the target rate “too high” for so long (that is, at zero rather than negative), it should commit itself now to keeping the target “too low” as compensation (that is, at zero for longer than the rule recommends).  By systematically doing so, the Fed encourages long rates to fall by more whenever the economy hits the zero lower bound. Such a policy might lead to greater stability than strict adherence to the rule as soon as we leave negative territory.

I agree with both points. It seems particularly problematic for the original Mankiw rule that there seems to be a major problem on the US labour market with a discouraged worker effect – as a result the actual unemployment data tend to underestimate just how bad the situation has been (and still is?) on the US labour market. Many have simply given up looking for a job and left the labour market.

My good friend Michael Darda (MKM Partners) has suggested to deal with the discourage worker effect and other demographic problems by use the prime age employment ratio rather than the unemployment rate when estimating the Mankiw rule. Michael also uses core CPI rather than the core PCE deflator as a measure of inflation. The graph below shows the Mankiw-Darda rule (Michael’s estimate):

Mankiw Darda rule

 

We see that while the Mankiw-Darda rule has become increasingly “hawkish” since early 2011 it is still not “recommending” a rate hike – the predicted Fed fund rate is still negative (around -1.5%). Hence, it seems like the Mankiw-Darda rule is better at actually describing what the Fed is doing than the original Mankiw rule. This is not totally surprising.

Inflation targeting or price level targeting?

In an update to his post Greg makes some highly relevant comments, which will appeal to any Market Monetarist including myself:

There is another (related) argument for not raising rates now to offset shortfalls in the past. It is not about the interest rate. It is about the price level, the ultimate goal of monetary policy and measure of its performance.

If you plot the PCE deflator, there is a clear shortfall relative to a 2% price-level target. A 2% price level target fits very well during Greenspan’s time.  By the end of 2008, we were exactly on the 1992-target. But when I look at that plot starting in 2009 until the most recent data I see a gap.

A price-level target rule is optimal in normal times (Ball, Mankiw, and Reis) but is also an optimal policy in response to the dangers of the zero lower bound (Woodford). We have to catch up for the shortfall in the price level right now. And if you look at inflation expectations from surveys or markets, there seems to be no catch up expected, indicating that policy is still too tight.

Obviously I would prefer a nominal GDP level target to a price level target, but I think a price level target as here suggested by Greg is much preferable to an inflation target.

As I noted in my own previous post “inflation has drifted lower” since 2008. This is exactly the point Greg makes (based on comments from Ricardo Reis). Since 2008 the Fed has failed to keep the PCE price level on a 2% path trend. The graph below illustrates this:

Price gap US

 

The graph shows that it looks as if the Fed prior to 2008 had a 2% price level target and the actual price level closely followed a 2% trend line. However, since then inflation has consistently been below 2% and as a result the “price gap” has become increasingly negative.

This is paradoxical as the Fed now officially has 2% inflation target, while it prior to 2008 did not have such a target.

This is obviously another argument for why the original Mankiw rule at the moment is too “hawkish”. On the other hand one can certainly also discuss whether the Fed should close the “price gap” or not. Here I have the relatively pragmatic view that the Fed should let bygones-be-bygones as we over the past five years have seen some supply side adjustments. Furthermore, the decline in the price gap does not only reflect demand-side factors but likely also reflects a positive supply shock. In that regard it should be noted that longer-term inflation expectations in the US still remain above 2% (5-year/5-year US breakeven inflation this morning is 2.4%).

Therefore, if I was on the FOMC I would not favour a one-off money injection to close the price gap, but on the other hand the Mankiw-Darda rule and the consideration about the price gap also shows that the FOMC should not be in a hurry to tighten monetary conditions either. The Fed’s gradual and fairly well-communicated policy to continue “tapering” and then sometime next year gradually start increasing the fed funds rate therefore is consistent with a policy of ensuring nominal stability and it is also reducing the risk of a 1937-style premature tightening of monetary conditions, which would send the US economy back in recession. Said in another way I find it hard to be very critical about how the Fed at the moment is balancing risks both to the upside and to the downside.

A NGDP level target rule solve our problems

The discussion about the Mankiw rule illustrates two problems in common monetary policy thinking. First there remains a major focus on the US labour market. The problem of course is that we really don’t know the level of structural unemployment and this is particularly the case right now after we in 2008 got out of whack. Second, while inflation clearly has remained below 2% since 2008 we don’t know whether this is due to supply side factors or demand side factors.

There is of course a way around these problems – nominal GDP level targeting – and as I have argued in a recent post it in fact looks as if the Fed has followed a 4% NGDP level target rule since July 2009.

That would not have been my preferred policy in 2009, 2010 or 2011 as I would have argued that the Fed should have done a lot more to bring the NGDP level back to the pre-crisis trend-level. However, as time has gone by and we have had numerous supply shocks and some supply adjustments have gone on for nearly six years I have come to the conclusion that it is time to let bygones be bygones. We can do little to change the mistakes of six years ago today. But what we – or rather what the Fed can do – is to announce a policy for the future, which significantly reduces the likelihood of repeating the mistakes of 2008-9.

Therefore, the Fed should obviously announce a NGDP level target policy. Whether the Fed would target a 4% or a 5% path for the NGDP level is less important to me. It would be the right policy, but it would also be a pragmatic way around dealing with uncertainties regarding the state of the US labour markets and to avoid having supply side shock distorting monetary policy decisions.

PS My friend Marcus Nunes also comments on the Mankiw rule. Marcus seems to think that I am advocating that the Fed should tighten monetary policy. I am not doing that. All I have been saying it that the original Mankiw rule indicates that the Fed should tighten monetary conditions and that this is an indication of the direction we are moving in.

PPS My “playing around” with the Mankiw rule should be seen in the perspective that I am currently thinking quite a bit – in my day-job – about when the Fed will actually hike relative to what the markets are thinking the Fed will do. If the Fed moves earlier than expected by markets then it obviously is going to have clear implications for the global financial markets.

Certainly not perfect, but Fed policy is not worse than during the Great Moderation (an answer to Scott Sumner)

Scott Sumner has replied to my previous post in which I argued that the Federal Reserve de facto has implemented a 4% NGDP level targeting regime (without directly articulating it).

Scott is less positive about actual Fed policy than I am. This is Scott answering my postulate that he would have been happy about a 4% NGDP growth path had it been announced in 2009:

Actually I would have been very upset, as indeed I was as soon as I saw what they were doing.  I favored a policy of level targeting, which meant returning to the previous trend line.

Now of course if they had adopted a permanent policy of 4% NGDP targeting, I would have had the satisfaction of knowing that while the policy was inappropriate at the moment, in the long run it would be optimal.  Alas, they did not do that.  The recent 4% growth in NGDP is not the result of a credible policy regime, and hence won’t be maintained when there is a shock to the economy.

I most admit that I am a bit puzzled by Scott’s comments. Surely one could be upset in 2009 – as both Scott and I were – that the Fed did not do anything to bring back the nominal GDP level back to the pre-crisis trend and it would likely also at that time have been a better policy to return to a 5% trend rather than a 4% trend. However, I would also note that that discussion is mostly irrelevant for present day US monetary policy and here I would note two factors, which I find important:

  1. We have had five years of supply side adjustments – five years of “internal devaluation”/”wage moderation” so to speak. It is correct that the Fed didn’t boost aggregate demand sufficiently to push down US unemployment to pre-crisis levels, but instead it has at least kept nominal spending growth very stable (despite numerous shocks – see below), which has allowed for the adjustment to take place on the supply side of the economy and US unemployment is now nearly back at pre-crisis levels (yes employment is much lower, but we don’t know to what extent that is permanent/structural or not).
  2. Furthermore, we have had numerous changes to supply side policies in the US – mostly negative such as Obamacare and an increase in US minimum wages, but also some positive such as the general general reduction in defense spending and steps towards ending the “War on Drugs”.

Given these supply side factors – both the adjustments and the policy changes – it would make very little sense in my view to try to bring the NGDP level back to the pre-2008 trend-level and I don’t think Scott is advocating this even though his comments could leave that impression. Furthermore, given that expectations seem to have fully adjusted to a 4% NGDP level-path there would be little to gain from targeting a higher NGDP growth rate (for example 5%).

The Fed is more credible today than during the Great Moderation

Furthermore, I would dispute Scott’s claim that the Fed’s policy is not credible. Or rather while the monetary policy regime is not well-articulated by the Fed it is nonetheless pretty well-understood by the markets and basically also by the Fed itself (even though that from time to time could be questioned).

Hence, both the markets and the Fed fully understand today that there effectively is no liquidity trap. There might be a Zero Lower Bound on interest rates but if needed the Fed can ease monetary policy through quantitative easing. This is clearly well-understood by the Fed system today and the markets fully well knows that if a new shock to for example money-velocity where to hit the US economy then the Fed would most likely once again step up QE. This is contrary to the situation prior to 2008 where the Fed certainly had not articulated a policy of how to conduct monetary policy at the Zero Lower Bound and this of course was a key reason why the monetary policy stance became so insanely tight in 2008.

This does in no way mean that monetary policy in the US is perfect. It is certainly not – just that it is no less credible than monetary policy was during the Greenspan years and that the Fed today is better prepared to conduct monetary policy at the ZLB than prior to 2008.

NGDP has been more stable since 2009/2010 than during the Great Moderation

If we look at the development in nominal GDP it has actually been considerably more stable – and therefore also more predictable – than during the Great Moderation. The graph below illustrates that.

NGDP gap New Moderation

It is particularly notable in the graph that the NGDP gap – the percentage difference between the actual NGDP level and the NGDP trend – has been considerably smaller in the period from July 2009 and until today than during the Great Moderation (here said to be from 1995 until 2007). In fact the average absolute NGDP gap (the green dotted lines) was nearly three times as large during the Great Moderation than it has been since July 2009. Similarly inflation expectations has been more stable since July 2009 than during the Great Moderation and there unlike in the euro zone there are no signs that inflation expectations have become unanchored.

It is easy to be critical about the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy in recent years, but I find it very hard to argue that monetary policy has been worse than during the Great Moderation. 2008-9 was the catastrophic period, but since 2009/10 the Fed has re-established a considerable level of nominal stability and the Fed should be given some credit for that.

In this regard it is also notable that financial market volatility in the US today is at a historical low point – lower than during most of the Great Moderation period. This I believe to a large extent reflects a considerable level of “nominal predictability”.

No less sensitive to shocks than during the Great Moderation

Scott argues “(t)he recent 4% growth in NGDP is not the result of a credible policy regime, and hence won’t be maintained when there is a shock to the economy.” 

It is obviously correct that the Fed has failed to spell out that it is actually targeting a 4% NGDP level path and I agree with Scott that this is a major problem and that means that the US economy is much more sensitive to shocks than otherwise would be the case. However, I would also stress that first of all during the Great Moderation the Fed had an even less clear target officially than is the case today.

Second, we should not forget that we have actually seen considerable shocks to the global and to the US economy since 2009/10. Just think of the massive euro crisis, Greece’s de facto default, the Cyprus crisis, the “fiscal cliff” in the US, a spike in oil prices 2010-12 and lately a sharp rise in global geopolitical tensions. Despite of all these shocks US NGDP has stayed close to the 4% NGDP path started in July 2009.

This to me is a confirmation that the Fed has been able to re-establish a considerable level of nominal stability. It has not been according to Market Monetarist game plan, but it is hard to be critical about the outcome.

In regard to the so-called “fiscal cliff” – the considerable tightening of fiscal policy in 2013 – it is notable that Scott has forcefully and correctly in my view argued that it had no negative impact on total aggregate nominal demand exactly because of monetary policy – or rather the monetary policy regime – offset the fiscal shock.

This is of course the so-called Sumner critique. For the Sumner critique to hold it is necessary that the monetary policy regime is well-understood by the markets and that the regime is credible. Hence, when Scott argues that 2013 confirmed the Sumner critique then he is indirectly saying that the monetary policy regime was credible in 2013. Had the monetary policy regime not been credible then the fiscal tightening likely would have led to a sharp slowdown in US growth.

It is time to let bygones be bygones

Nearly exactly a year ago I argued in a post that it is time to let bygones be bygones in US monetary policy:

Obviously even though the US economy seems to be out of the expectational trap there is no guarantee that we could not slip back into troubled waters once again, (but)…

… it is pretty clear to most market participants that the Fed would likely step up quantitative easing if a shock would hit US aggregate demand and it is fairly clear that the Fed has become comfortable with using the money base as a policy instrument…

… I must admit that I increasingly think – and most of my Market Monetarist blogging friends will likely disagree – that the need for a Rooseveltian style monetary positive shock to the US economy is fairly small as expectations now generally have adjusted to long-term NGDP growth rates around 4-5%. So while additional monetary stimulus very likely would “work” and might even be warranted I have much bigger concerns than the lack of additional monetary “stimulus”.

Hence, the focus of the Fed should not be to lift NGDP by X% more or less in a one-off positive shock. Instead the Fed should be completely focused on defining its monetary policy rule. A proper rule would be to target of 4-5% NGDP growth – level targeting from the present level of NGDP. In that sense I now favour to let bygones to be bygones as expectations now seems to have more or less fully adjusted and five years have after all gone since the 2008 shock.

Therefore, it is not really meaningful to talk about bringing the NGDP level back to a rather arbitrary level (for example the pre-crisis trend level). That might have made sense a year ago when we clearly was caught in an expectations deflationary style trap, but that is not the case today. For Market Monetarists it was never about “monetary stimulus”, but rather about ensuring a rule based monetary policy.  Market Monetarists are not “doves” (or “hawks”). These terms are only fitting for people who like discretionary monetary policies.

This remains my view. Learn from the mistakes of the past, but lets get on with life and lets instead focus fully on get the Fed’s target well-defined.

PS I hate being this positive about the Federal Reserve. In fact I am really not that positive. I just argue that the Fed is no worse today than during the Great Moderation.

The Fed’s un-announced 4% NGDP target was introduced already in July 2009

Scott Sumner started his now famous blog TheMoneyIllusion in February 2009 it was among other things “to show that we have fundamentally misdiagnosed the nature of the recession, attributing to the banking crisis what is actually a failure of monetary policy”.

Said in another way the Federal Reserve was to blame for the Great Recession and there was only one way out and that was monetary easing within a regime of nominal GDP level targeting (NGDP targeting).

NGDP targeting is of course today synonymous Scott Sumner. He more or less single-handedly “re-invented” NGDP targeting and created an enormous interest in the topic among academics, bloggers, financial sector economists and even policy makers.

The general perception is that NGDP targeting and Market Monetarism got the real break-through in 2013 when the Federal Reserve introduced the so-called Evans rule in September 2012 (See for example Matt Yglesias’ tribute to Scott from September 2012).

This has also until a few days ago been my take on the story of the success of Scott’s (and other’s) advocacy of NGDP targeting. However, I have now come to realize that the story might be slightly different and that the Fed effectively has been “market monetarist” (in a very broad sense) since July 2009.

The Fed might not have followed the MM game plan, but the outcome has effectively been NGDP targeting

Originally Scott basically argued that the Fed needed to bring the level nominal GDP back to the pre-crisis 5% trend path in NGDP that we had known during the so-called Great Moderation from the mid-1980s and until 2007-8.

We all know that this never happened and as time has gone by the original arguments for returning to the “old” NGDP trend-level seem much less convincing as there has been considerable supply side adjustments in the US economy.

Therefore, as time has gone by it becomes less important what is the “starting point” for doing NGDP targeting. Therefore, if we forgive the Fed for not bringing NGDP back to the pre-crisis trend-level and instead focus on the Fed’s ability to keep NGDP on “a straight line” then what would we say about the Fed’s performance in recent years?

Take a look at graph below – I have used (Nominal) Private Consumption Expenditure (PCE) as a monthly proxy for NGDP.

PCE gap

If we use July 2009 – the month the 2008-9 recession officially ended according to NBER – as our starting point (rather than the pre-crisis trend) then it becomes clear that in past five years PCE (and NGDP) has closely tracked a 4% path. In fact at no month over the past five years have PCE diverged more than 1% from the 4% path. In that sense the degree of nominal stability in the US economy has been remarkable and one could easily argue that we have had higher nominal stability in this period than during the so-called Great Moderation.

In fact I am pretty sure that if somebody had told Scott in July 2009 that from now on the Fed will follow a 4% NGDP target starting at the then level of NGDP then Scott would have applauded it. He might have said that he would have preferred a 5% trend rather than a 4% trend, but overall I think Scott would have been very happy to see a 4% NGDP target as official Fed policy.

The paradox is that Scott has not sounded very happy about the Fed’s performance for most of this period and neither have I and other Market Monetarists. The reason for this is that while the actual outcome has looked like NGDP targeting the Fed’s implementation of monetary policy has certainly not followed the Market Monetarist game plan.

Hence, the Market Monetarist message has all along been that the Fed should clearly announce its target (a NGDP level target), do aggressive quantitative easing to bring NGDP growth “back on track”, stop focusing on interest rates as a policy instrument and target expected NGDP rather than present macroeconomic variables. Actual US monetary policy has gradually moved closer to this ideal on a number of these points – particularly with the so-called Evan rule introduced in September 2012, but we are still very far away from having a Market Monetarist Fed when it comes to policy implementation.

However, in the past five years the implementation of Fed policy has been one of trial-and-error – just think of QE1, QE2 and QE3, two times “Operation Twist” and all kinds of credit policies and a continued obsession with using interest rates rates as the primary policy “instrument”.

I believe we Market Monetarists rightly have been critical about the Fed’s muddling through and lack of commitment to transparent rules. However, I also think that we today have to acknowledge that this process of trail-and-error actually has served an important purpose and that is to have sent a very clear signal to the financial markets (and others for that matter) that the Fed is committed to re-establishing some kind of nominal stability and avoiding a deflationary depression. This of course is contrary to the much less clear commitment of the ECB.

The markets have understood it all along (and much better than the Fed)

Market Monetarists like to say that the markets are better at forecasting and the collective wisdom of the markets is bigger than that of individual market participants or policy makers and something could actually indicate that the markets from an early point understood that the Fed de facto would be keeping NGDP on a straight line.

An example is the US stock market bottomed out a few months before we started to establish the new 4% trend in US NGDP and the US stock markets have essentially been on an upward trend ever since, which is fully justified if you believe the Fed will keep this de facto NGDP target in place. Then we should basically be expecting US stock prices to increase more or less in line with NGDP (disregarding changes to interest rates).

Another and even more powerful example in my view is what the currency markets have been telling us. I  (and other Market Monetarists) have long argued that market expectations play a key role in the in the implementation of monetary policy and in the monetary policy transmission mechanism.

In a situation where the central bank’s NGDP level target is credible rational investors will be able to forecast changes in the monetary policy stance based on the actual level of NGDP relative to the targeted level of NGDP. Hence, if actual NGDP is above the targeted level then it is rational to expect that the central bank will tighten the monetary policy stance to bring NGDP back on track with the target. This obviously has implications for the financial markets.

If the Fed is for example targeting a 4% NGDP path and the actual NGDP level is above this target then investors should rationally expect the dollar to strengthen until NGDP is back at the targeted level.

And guess what this is exactly how the dollar has traded since July 2009. Just take a look at the graph below.

NGDP gap dollar index 2

We are looking at the period where I argue that the Fed effectively has targeted a 4% NGDP path. Again I use PCE as a monthly proxy for NGDP and again the gap is the gap between the actual and the “targeted” NGDP (PCE) level. Look at the extremely close correlation with the dollar – here measured as a broad nominal dollar-index. Note the dollar-index is on an inverse axis.

The graph is very clear. When the NGDP gap has been negative/low (below target) as in the summer of 2010 then the dollar has weakened (as it was the case from from the summer of 2010under spring/summer of 2011. And similarly when the NGDP gap has been positive (NGDP above target) then the dollar has tended to strengthen as we essentially has seen since the second half of 2011 and until today.

I am not arguing that the dollar-level is determining the NGDP gap, but I rather argue that the dollar index has been a pretty good indicator for the future changes in monetary policy stance and therefore in NGDP.

Furthermore, I would argue that the FX markets essentially has figured out that the Fed de facto is targeting a 4% NGDP path and that currency investors have acted accordingly.

It is time for the Fed to fully recognize the 4% NGDP level target

Just because there has a very clear correlation between the dollar and the NGDP gap in the past five years it is not given that that correlation will remain in the future. A key reason for this is – and this is a key weakness in present Fed policy – that the Fed has not fully recognize that it is de facto targeting a 4%. Therefore, there is nothing that stops the Fed from diverging from the NGDP rule in the future.

Recognizing a 4% NGDP level target from the present level of NGDP in my view should be rather uncontroversial as this de facto has been the policy the Fed has been following over the past five years anyway. Furthermore, it could easily be argued as compatible  with the Fed’s (quasi) official 2% inflation target (assuming potential real GDP growth is around 2%).

In my previous post I argued that the ECB should introduce a 4% NGDP target. The Fed already done that. Now it is just up to Fed Chair Janet Yellen to announce it officially. Janet what are you waiting for?

Is Karnit Flug jeopardizing Stan Fischer’s “straight line policy”? Not yet, but…

It is no secret that I think that Stanley Fischer did a good job as governor of the Bank of Israel from 2005 to 2013. He basically saved Israel from the Great Recession by essentially keeping Israeli nominal GDP “on a straight line”. During his time in office the Israeli NGDP level diverged no more than 1-1.5% from what we could call the Fischer-trend.

However, Fischer is no longer at the BoI. Instead former deputy governor Karnit Flug has taken over – effectively from July 2013 and officially from November 2013. The question then is has Mrs. Flug been able to maintain Fischer’s “straight line policy” in place? The graph below gives us the answer.

Karnit Flug NGDP

The picture is pretty clear – essentially coinciding with Flug taking over as BoI governor the slowdown in NGDP growth (already started in 2012) has accelerated and we have now dropped somewhat below the Fischer-trend. It would be foolish to say that this in any way is catastrophic, but the change is nonetheless visible and should give reason for serious concern if it is allowed to continue to “drift off”.

Are inflation expectations becoming un-anchored? 

I have earlier warned that there is a risk that we are seeing inflation expectations becoming un-anchored in for example the euro zone because policy makers are preoccupied with everything else than focusing on their nominal target (for example an inflation target).

On the other hand I have also praised the Bank of Israel for always communicating in terms of (market) inflation expectations relative to the BoI’s 1-3% inflation target (range). However, one could argue that the Bank of Israel is beginning to look more like the Swedish Riksbank (which is preoccupied with household debt and  property prices) or the ECB (which is preoccupied by “everything else”).

A look at inflation expectations can tell us whether these fears are justified or not.

Inflation expectations Israel

The graph shows five different measures of inflation expectations. The first four are inflation expectations based on financial market pricing (BoI’s calculations) and the last one is based on a survey of professional forecasters.

Most of the measures show that there has been a pretty consistent downtrend in most of the measures of inflation expectations for little more than a year. However, it is also notable that we are still within the BoI’s 1-3% inflation target range and 5-year and 10-year inflation expectations are still close to 2% and as remained fairly stable.

Therefore, it is too early to say that inflation expectations have become un-anchored, but it should also be noted that we might be risking a sneaking un-anchoring of inflation expectations if policy actions is not taken to avoid it.

Bringing us back on the “straight line”

The recent rate cuts from the Bank of Israel shows that the BoI is not completely ignorant to these risks and I believe that particularly the latest rate cut to 0.25% on August 25 is helping in curbing deflationary pressures. However, more could likely be done to insure against the deflationary risks.

So what should Karnit Flug and her colleagues at the Bank of Israel do to bring us back to the Fischer-trend and to avoid an un-anchoring inflation expectations?

I have three suggestions:

1) Avoid repeating the mistakes of the Riksbank. The Swedish Riksbank has consistenly for some time now undershoot its official inflation target and in my view this has very much been the result of a preoccupation with household debts and property prices. Historical the Bank of Israel has avoided making this mistake, but there are undoubtedly voices within the BoI that what monetary policy to be more dependent on the development household debt and property prices (these voices are within all central banks these days…)

That said, the Bank of Israel is far from being the Riksbank and so far the emphasis on property market developments in communication about monetary policy has not been overly problematic, but that could change in the future and if the BoI became more focused on these issues then I fear that that could led to a more fundamental un-anchoring of inflation expectations and therefore a more unstable economic development.

2) Avoid repeating the mistakes of the ECB. While the Riksbank has been preoccupied with property prices the ECB has been preoccupied with fiscal policy. There are some signs that the Bank of Israel is getting a bit too focused on fiscal policy rather than focusing on monetary policy. Hence, Mrs. Flug has recently been in a bit of war of words with Finance Minister Yair Lapid about the public budget deficit (see for example here).

While I have sympathy for Mrs. Flug’s fiscal conservatism it is not really the task of any central bank to have a view on fiscal policy other than just take fiscal policy as an exogenous factor when setting policy instruments to hit the central bank’s target. The Bank of Israel should make this completely clear so market participants do not come to think that the BoI will keep monetary policy overly tight (ECB fashion) to punish the Israeli government for overly easy fiscal policy.

3) Pre-announce what to at the Zero Lower Bound. With the BoI’s key policy rates at 0.25% we are effectively at the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB). It is no secret that (Market) Monetarists like myself don’t think that the ZLB is a binding constraint on the possibility for further easing monetary policy. However, the ZLB is often a mental constraint on monetary policy makers.

I think that most observers of the BoI knows that the BoI does not have major “mental” problem with using other instruments – than the interest rate – to ease monetary. Hence, the BoI has since 2008 both bond quantitative easing by buying government bonds and intervened in the currency market to weaken the Israeli shekel. It could easily do that again and I think most market participants full well knows this. Hence, in that sense Israel is in a much better than for example the euro zone.

However, instead of letting the market guessing what it might do in the future if necessary the BoI should already today announce what instrument it would be using to conduct monetary policy at the ZLB. Personally I think the most suitable “instrument” to use for small open economy is the exchange rate channel either in the way it has been done for years by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) or in recent years by the Swiss and Czech central banks.

I think the best option would simply be for the BoI to announce that it – if needed – could put a floor under USD/ILS and at the same time announce that it will keep the door open for moving up this floor until inflation expectations on all relevant time horizons are between 2 and 2.5%. That in my view would likely lead to a weakening of the shekel of a magnitude to bring inflation expectations immediately in line with this narrow “target” range.

Karnit Flug doesn’t have an easy job to do, but she has a solid foundation to build on

There is no doubt that there is a risk that Stan Fischer’s achievements as Bank of Israeli governor could be jeopardized. However, Karnit Flug has not failed yet and she still have the opportunity to continue the success of Stan Fischer.

But then this has to focus on bringing back the “straight line policy” and ensuring that inflation expectations do not become un-anchored. Hence, she needs to not allow herself to be distracted by the development in property prices and fiscal policy and instead focus on how to conduct monetary policy in a transparent and efficient way at the Zero Lower Bound.

PS I am well-aware that Stan Fischer no longer officially is a proponent of NGDP level targeting and that the BoI does not have an NGDP level target, but rather an inflation target. However, thing of a NGDP target as an intermediate target to implement the “ultimate” target – the inflation target. If the BoI for example keeps the NGDP level on a 5% path and we assume that potential real GDP growth is 2% then the outcome will be 2% over the cycle.

Let me say it again – The Kuroda recovery will be about domestic demand and not about exports

This morning we got strong GDP numbers from Japan for Q1. The numbers show that it is primarily domestic demand – private consumption and investment – rather than exports, which drive growth.

This is from Bloomberg:

Japan’s economy grew at the fastest pace since 2011 in the first quarter as companies stepped up investment and consumers splurged before the first sales-tax rise in 17 years last month.

Gross domestic product grew an annualized 5.9 percent from the previous quarter, the Cabinet Office said today in Tokyo, more than a 4.2 percent median forecast in a Bloomberg News survey of 32 economists. Consumer spending rose at the fastest pace since the quarter before the 1997 tax increase, while capital spending jumped the most since 2011.

…Consumer spending rose 2.1 percent from the previous quarter, the highest since a 2.2 percent increase in the first three months of 1997.

So it is domestic demand, while net exports are actually a drag on the economy (also from Bloomberg):

Exports rose 6 percent from the previous quarter and imports climbed 6.3 percent.

The yen’s slide since Abe came to power in December 2012 has inflated the value of imported energy as the nation’s nuclear reactors remain shuttered after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011.

The numbers fits very well with the story I told about the excepted “Kuroda recovery” (it is not Abenomics but monetary policy…) a year ago.

This is what I wrote in my blog post “The Kuroda recovery will be about domestic demand and not about exports” nearly exactly a year ago (May 10 2013):

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

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

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

While I am happy to acknowledge that today’s numbers likely are influenced by a number of special factors – such as increased private consumption ahead of planned sales tax hikes and likely also some distortions of the investment numbers I think it is clear that I overall have been right that what we have seen in the Japanese economy over the past year is indeed a moderate recovery led by domestic demand .

The biggest worry: Inflation targeting and a negative supply shock

That said, I am also worried about the momentum of the recovery and I am particularly concerned about the unfortunate combination of the Bank of Japan’s focus on inflation targeting – rather than nominal GDP targeting – than a negative supply shock.

This is particularly the situation where we are both going to see a sales tax hike – which will increase headline inflation – and we are seeing a significant negative supply shock due to higher energy prices. Furthermore note that the Abe administration’s misguided push to increase wage growth – to a pace faster than productivity growth – effectively also is a negative supply shock to the extent the policy is “working”.

While the BoJ has said it will ignore such effects on headline inflation it is likely to nonetheless at least confuse the picture of the Japanese economy and might make some investors speculate that the BoJ might cut short monetary easing.

This might explain three factors that have been worrying me. First, of all while broad money supply in Japan clearly has accelerated we have not see a pick-up in money-velocity. Second, the Japanese stock market has generally been underperforming this year. Third, we are not really seeing the hoped pick-up in medium-term inflation expectations.

All this indicate that the BoJ are facing some credibility problems – consumers and investors seem to fear that the BoJ might end monetary easing prematurely.

To me there is only one way to fundamentally solve these credibility problems – the BoJ should introduce a NGDP level target of lets say 3-4%. That would significantly reduce the fear among investors and consumers that the BoJ might scale back monetary easing in response to tax hikes and negative supply shocks, while at the same time maintain price stability over the longer run (around 2% inflation over the medium-term assuming that potential real GDP growth is 1-2%).

PS Q1 2014 nominal GDP grew 3.1% y/y against the prior reading of 2.2% y/y.

PPS See also my previous post where I among other things discuss the problems of inflation targeting and supply shocks.

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