Did Bennett McCallum run the SNB for the last 20 years?

Which central bank has conducted monetary policy in the best way in the last five years? Among “major” central banks the answer in my view clearly would have to be the SNB – the Swiss central bank.

Any Market Monetarist would of course tell you that you should judge a central bank’s performance on it’s ability to deliver nominal stability – for example hitting an nominal GDP level target. However, for an small very open economy like the Swiss it might make sense to look at Nominal Gross Domestic Demand (NGDD).

This is Swiss NGDD over the past 20 years.

NGDD Switzerland

Notice here how fast the NGDD gap (the difference between the actual NGDD level and the trend) closed after the 2008 shock. Already in 2010 NGDD was brought back to the 1993-trend and has since then NGDD has been kept more or less on the 1993-trend path.

Officially the SNB is not targeting NGDD, but rather “price stability” defined as keeping inflation between 0 and 2%. This has been the official policy since 2000, but at least judging from the actually development the policy might as well have been a policy to keep NGDD on a 2-3% growth path. 

Bennett McCallum style monetary policy is the key to success

So why have the SNB been so successful?

My answer is that the SNB – knowingly or unknowingly – has followed Bennett McCallum’s advice on how central banks in small open economies should conduct monetary policy. Bennett has particularly done research that is relevant to understand how the SNB has been conducting monetary policy over the past 20 years.

First, of all Bennett is a pioneer of NGDP targeting and he was recommending NGDP targeting well-before anybody ever heard of Scott Summer or Market Monetarism.  A difference between Market Monetarists and Bennett’s position is that Market Monetarists generally recommend level targeting, while Bennett (generally) has been recommending growth targeting.

Second, Bennett has always forcefully argued that monetary policy is effective in terms of determining NGDP (or NGDD) also when interest rates are at zero and he has done a lot of work on optimal monetary policy rules at the Zero Lower Bound (See for example here). One obvious policy is quantitative easing. This is what Bennett stressed in his early work on NGDP growth targeting.  Hence, the so-called Mccallum rule is defined in terms the central bank controlling the money base to hit a given NGDP growth target. However, for small open economies Bennett has also done very interesting work on the use of the exchange rate as a monetary policy tool when interest rates are close to zero.

I earlier discussed what Bennett has called a MC rule. According to the MC rule the central bank will basically use interest rates as the key monetary policy rule. However, as the policy interest rate gets close to zero the central bank will start giving guidance on the exchange rate to change monetary conditions. In his models Bennett express the policy instrument (“Monetary Conditions”) as a combination of a weighted average of the nominal exchange rate and a monetary policy interest rate.

SNB’s McCallum rule

My position is that basically we can discribe SNB’s monetary policy over the past 20 years based on these two key McCallum insights – NGDP targeting and the use of a combination of interest rates and the exchange rate as the policy instrument.

To illustrate that I have estimated a simple OLS regression model for Swiss interest rates.

It turns out that it is very to easy to model SNB’s reaction function for the last 20 years. Hence, I can explain 85% of the variation in the Swiss 3-month LIBOR rate since 1996 with only two variables – the nominal effective exchange rate (NEER) and the NGDD gap (the difference between the actual level of Nominal Gross Domestic Demand and the trend level of NGDD). Both variables are expressed in natural logarithms (ln).

The graph below shows the actually 3-month LIBOR rate and the estimated rate.

SNB policy rule

As the graph shows the fit is quite good and account well for the ups and down in Swiss interest rates since 1996 (the model also works fairly well for an even longer period). It should be noted that I have done the model for purely illustrative purposes and I have not tested for causality or the stability of the coefficients in the model. However, overall I think the fit is so good that this is a pretty good account of actual Swiss monetary policy in the last 15-20 years.

I think it is especially notable that once interest rates basically hit zero in early 2010 the SNB initially started to intervene in the currency markets to keep the Swiss franc from strengthening and later – in September 2011 – the SNB moved to put a floor under EUR/CHF at 120 so to completely curb the strengthening of Swiss franc beyond that level. As a result the nominal exchange rate effectively has been flat since September 2011 (after an initial 10% devaluation) despite massive inflows to Switzerland in connection with the euro crisis and rate of expansion in the Swiss money supply has accelerated significantly.

Concluding, Swiss monetary policy has very much been conducted in the spirit of Bennett McCallum – the SNB has effectively targeted (the level of) Nominal Gross Domestic Demand and SNB has effectively used the exchange rate instrument to ease monetary conditions with interest rates at the Zero Lower Bound.

The result is that the Swiss economy only had a very short period of crisis in 2008-9 and the economy has recovered nicely since then. Unfortunately none of the other major central banks of the world have followed the advice from Bennett McCallum and as a result we are still stuck in crisis in both Europe and the US.

PS I am well-aware that the discuss above is a as-if discussion that this is what the SNB has actually said it was doing, but rather that it might as well been officially have had a McCallum set-up.  

PPS If one really wants to do proper econometric research on Swiss monetary policy I think one should run a VAR model on the 3-month LIBOR rate, the NGDD gap and NEER and all of the variables de-trended with a HP-filter. I will leave that to somebody with econometric skills and time than myself. But I doubt it would change much with the conclusions.

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Richard Fisher and the “working men and women of America”

This is Richard Fisher, President of Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas:

“We have made rich people richer,” Fisher told CNBC today. “The question is, what have we done for the working men and women of America?”

Fisher was one of the earliest and most outspoken advocates of winding down the bond-buying program…

I had to read the comment a couple of times to make sure that I understood correctly. Fisher actually claims that the fed should scale back monetary easing because it is not doing anything for the “working men and women of America”.

Fisher’s comments are truly bizarre. Most wealthy Americans are still very wealthy (I have no problem with that) – crisis or not – but it is pretty clear that the overly tight monetary policies in the US over the past fives years has been the main cause of the significant increase in US unemployment and in that sense been a massive assault on the “working men and women of America”.

If Richard Fisher seriously wants to do you something for the “working men and women” then he should come out and support to bring back the level of nominal GDP to the pre-crisis trend level. That undoubtedly would be the best “employment policy” anybody could come up with in the present situation. However, I suspect that Fisher is just coming up with random arguments for opposing monetary easing rather than truly caring about the “working men and women of America”. I am not impressed…

employment NGDP

—–

PS I am certainly not claiming to be speaking on behalf of the “working men and women of America” – I just find ludicrous when somebody actually in a position to do something for these people through his actions (opposing monetary easing) is doing exactly the opposite.

PPS I don’t think it should be the job of central banks to hit a certain “employment level” or any other real variable and I find the fed’s “dual mandate” seriously flawed, but it is certainly not the job of central banks to “destroy jobs” either. A proper NGDP level targeting regime will provide the best nominal framework for letting the labour market work in a proper and undistorted way and as such would indirectly ensure the highest level of employment given the structures of the economy.

PPPS I wrote this on a flight to Stockholm. I had been thinking about writing something about Swedish monetary policy or Africa (the topic I will be speaking about in Stockholm today), but you can all blame Richard Fisher for distracting me.

Are half a million hardworking Poles to blame for the UK real estate bubble?

The answer to the question of course is no, but let me tell the story anyway. It is a story about positive supply shocks, inflation targeting, relative inflation and bubbles.

In 2004 Poland joined the EU. That gave Poles the possibility to enter the UK labour market (and other EU labour markets). It is estimated that as much as half a million poles have come to work in the UK since 2004. The graph below shows the numbers of Poles employed in the UK economy (I stole the graph from Wikipedia)

Polish-born_people_in_employment_in_the_UK_2003-2010_-_chart_2369a_at_statistics_gov_uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Effectively that has been a large positive supply shock to the UK economy. In a simple AS/AD model we can illustrate that as in the graph below.

Positive supply shock

The inflow of Polish workers pushes the AS curve to the right (from AS to AS’). As a result output increases from Y to Y’ and the price level drops to P’ from P.

Imagine that we to begin with is exactly at the Bank of England’s inflation target of 2%.

In this scenario a positive supply – half a million Polish workers – will push inflation below 2%.

As a strict inflation targeting central bank the BoE in response will ease monetary policy to push inflation back to the 2% inflation target.

We can illustrate that in an AS/AD graph as a shift in the AD curve to the right (for simplicity we here assume that the BoE targets the price level rather than inflation).

The BoE’s easing will keep that price level at P, but increase the output to Y” as the AD curve shifts to AD’. Note that that assumes that the long-run AS curve also have shifted – I have not illustrated that in the graphs.

Positive supply shock and demand shock

At this point the Austrian economist will wake up – because the BoE given it’s monetary easing in response to the positive supply shock is creating relative inflation.

Inflation targeting is distorting relative prices

If we just look at this in terms of the aggregate price level we miss an important point and that is what is happening to relative prices.

Hence, the Polish workers are mostly employed in service jobs. As a result the positive supply shock is the largest in the service sector. However, as the service sector prices fall the BoE will push up prices in all other sectors to ensure that the price level (or rather inflation) is unchanged. This for example causes property prices to increase.

This is what Austrian economists call relative inflation, but it also illustrates a key Market Monetarist critique of inflation targeting. Hence, inflation targeting will distort relative prices and in that sense inflation targeting is not a “neutral” monetary policy.

On the other hand had the BoE been targeting the nominal GDP level then it would have allowed the positive shock to lead to a permanent drop in prices (or lower inflation), while at the same time kept NGDP on track. Therefore, we can describe NGDP level targeting as a “neutral” monetary policy as it will not lead to a distortion of relative prices.

This is one of the key reasons why I again and again have described NGDP level targeting as the true free market alternative – as NGDP targeting is not distorting relative prices contrary to inflation targeting,which distorts relative prices and therefore also distorts the allocation of labour and capital. This is basically an Austrian style (unsustainable) boom that sooner or later leads to a bust.

So is this really the story about UK property prices?

It is important to stress that I don’t necessarily think that this is what happened in the UK property market. First, of all UK property prices seemed to have taken off a couple of years earlier than 2004 and I have really not studied the data close enough to claim that this is the real story. However, that is not really my point. Instead I am using this (quasi-hypothetical) example to illustrate that central bankers are much more likely to creating bubbles if they target inflation rather than the NGDP level and it is certainly the case that had the BoE had an NGDP level targeting (around for example a 5% trend path) then monetary policy would have been tighter during the “boom years” than was actually the case and hence the property market boom would likely have been much less extreme.

But again if anybody is to blame it is not the half million hardworking Poles in Britain, but rather the Bank of England’s overly easing monetary policy in the pre-crisis years.

PS I am a bit sloppy with the difference between changes in prices (inflation) and the price level above. Furthermore, I am not clear about whether we are talking about permanent or temporary supply shocks. That, however, do not change the conclusions and after all this is a blog post and not an academic article.

Mr. Osborne: “There is a lot of innovative stuff happening around the world”

It is hard not getting just a bit excited about the discussions getting under way in the UK after the coming Bank of England governor Mark Carney basically has endorsed NGDP level targeting. So far the UK government has not given its view on the matter, but it is pretty clear that UK policy makers are aware of the issues. That is good news and today we got a “reply” from the UK government to Carney’s (near) endorsement of NGDP targeting in the form of comments from UK Chancellor George Osborne.

This is from the Daily Telegraph:

The Chancellor said he was “glad” that Mark Carney, the next Governor of the Bank, had raised the prospect of ending central banks’ inflation targets to concentrate more on gross domestic product.

Mr Osborne described the suggestion (NGDP level targeting) as “innovative” and said he was pleased Mr Carney was discussing such ideas.

“There is a debate about the future of monetary policy — not exclusively in the UK, but in many countries. There is a lot of innovative stuff happening around the world,” he said.

“There is a debate going on. I am glad that the future central bank governor of the UK is part of that debate.”

Asked if he was considering making the change suggested by Mr Carney, Mr Osborne said: “There is a debate going on. Any decisions, any future decisions are a matter for government.”

He added: “I have no plans to change the framework. There is a debate going on. I think it’s right there is a debate.”

Mr Osborne said he had had “lots of discussions” with Mr Carney about monetary policy before appointing the Canadian to the Bank of England. But he declined to confirm they had discussed the inflation target, sating the conversations were “private”.

Although he signalled he was open to changing the target, he said that the current inflation target has “served us well” and he would have to be persuaded to changing it.

…A similar debate about nominal GDP targets has been underway for some time, Mr Osborne noted, adding: “It would be a good thing for academia to lead the debate and government to follow.”

This is certainly uplifting. Osborne signals that he don’t necessarily think that NGDP level targeting is a bad idea (it is a great idea!). Obviously for those of us who think NGDP targeting is a great idea it is natural to cheer and scream on Mr. Osborne to get to work on changing the BoE’s mandate immediately. However, for once I will be cautious. I think it makes very good sense for Mr. Osborne to encourage discussion about this issue. Changing a countries monetary regime is an extremely serious matter. Yes, I strongly believe that an NGDP level targeting regime would be preferable to the UK compared to today’s regime, but I also think that the “institutional infrastructure” needs to be sorted out before completely changing the regime.

That said as far as I understand the legal framework (and I am certainly no specialist on this) the Chancellor actually can change the BoE’s mandate simply by sending a letter to the Bank of England governor. So with the stroke of his pen Mr. Osborne could make the  UK first country in the world that had an NGDP targeting regime. I would compare such a policy move to the decision in 1931 that took the UK of the gold standard. That saved the country from deflation and depression. Mr. Osborne could write himself in to the economic history books by showing the same kind of resolve as the UK government did in 1931.

Mr. Osborne deserves a lot of credit for encouraging debate

While I do not agree that the UK’s inflation targeting regime has “served the UK well” I would also say that the UK could have had much worse regimes – just think of monetary policy in the UK in the 1970s or the failed experiment with pegging the pound with with the ERM in the early 1990s.  The is no doubt that an inflation targeting regime is preferable to both alternatives – discretionary inflationary madness or a misaligned fixed exchange rate regime.

However, the inflation targeting regime in the UK likely added to fueling the UK housing bubble (sorry Scott – there was a UK housing bubble) and it has certainly made the crisis much deeper since 2008. An NGDP level targeting regime would have meant that UK monetary policy would have been tighter in the “boom year” just prior to 2008, but also easier over the past four years (but maybe with much less QE!). That would have led to more conservative fiscal policies, more prudent lending policies from the commercial banks and a small housing bubble prior to 2008 and most defiantly much stronger public finances and less unemployment after 2008. Who would seriously oppose such a monetary policy regime?

So I certainly think that an NGDP level targeting regime would have served the UK better than the inflation targeting regime. But Osborne is right – there need to be a debate about this and think the Mr. Osborne deserves a lot of credit for calling for such a debate instead of just declaring that nothing can ever be changed. That is wonderfully refreshing compared to the horrors of the (lack of) debate about monetary policy in Continental Europe (the euro zone…)

 

The “Export Price Norm” saved Australia from the Great Recession

Milton Friedman once said never to underestimate the importance of luck of nations. I believe that is very true and I think the same goes for central banks. Some nations came through the shock in 2008-9 much better than other nations and obviously better policy and particularly better monetary policy played a key role. However, luck certainly also played a role.

I think a decisive factor was the level of key policy interest rate at the start of the crisis. If interest rates already were low at the start of the crisis central banks were – mentally – unable to ease monetary policy enough to counteract the shock as most central banks did operationally conduct monetary policy within an interest rate targeting regime where a short-term interest rate was the key policy instrument. Obviously there is no limits to the amount of monetary easing a central bank can do – the money base after all can be expanded as much as you would like – but if the central bank is only using interest rates then they will have a problem as interest rates get close to zero. Furthermore, it played a key role whether demand for a country’s currency increased or decreased in response to the crisis. For example the demand for US dollars exploded in 2008 leading to a “passive tightening” of monetary policy in the US, while the demand for for example Turkish lira, Swedish krona or Polish zloty collapsed.

As said, for the US we got monetary tightening, but for Turkey, Sweden and Poland the drop in money was automatic monetary easing. That was luck and nothing else. The three mentioned countries in fact should give reason to be careful about cheering too much about the “good” central banks – The Turkish central bank has done a miserable job on communication, the Polish central bank might have engineered a recession by hiking interest rates earlier this year and the Swedish central bank now seems to be preoccupied with “financial stability” and household debt rather than focusing on it’s own stated inflation target.

In a recent post our friend and prolific writer Lorenzo wrote an interesting piece on Australia and how it has been possible for the country to avoid recession for 21 years. Lorenzo put a lot of emphasis on monetary policy. I agree with that – as recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomena – the key reason has to be monetary policy. However, I don’t want to give the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) too much credit. After all you could point to a number of monetary policy blunders in Australia over the last two decades that potentially could have ended in disaster (see below for an example).

I think fundamentally two things have saved the Australian economy from recession for the last 21 years.

First of all luck. Australia is a commodity exporter and commodity prices have been going up for more than a decade and when the crisis hit in 2008 the demand for Aussie dollars dropped rather than increased and Australia’s key policy rate was relatively high so the RBA could ease monetary policy aggressively without thinking about using other instruments than interest rates. The RBA was no more prepared for conducting monetary policy at the lower zero bound than the fed, the ECB or the Bank of England, but it didn’t need to be as prepared as interest rates were much higher in Australia to begin with – and the sharp weakening of the Aussie dollar obviously also did the RBA’s job easier. In fact I think the RBA is still completely unprepared for conducting monetary policy in a zero interest rate environment. I am not saying that the RBA is a bad central bank – far from it – but it is not necessarily the example of a “super central bank”. It is a central bank, which has done something right, but certainly also has been more lucky than for example the fed or the Bank of England.

Second – and this is here the RBA deserves a lot of credit – the RBA has been conducting it’s inflation targeting regime in a rather flexible fashion so it has allowed occasional overshooting and undershooting of the inflation target by being forward looking and that was certainly the case in 2008-9 where it did not panic as inflation was running too high compared to the inflation target.

One of the reasons why I think the RBA has been relatively successful is that it effectively has shadowed a policy of what Jeff Frankel calls PEP (Peg the currency to the Export Price) and what I (now) think should be called an “Export Price Norm” (EPN). EPN is basically the open economy version of NGDP level targeting.

If the primary factor in nominal demand changes in the economy is exports – as it tend to be in small open economies and in commodity exporting economies – then if the central bank pegs the price of the currency to the price of the primary exports then that effectively could stabilize aggregate demand or NGDP growth. This is in fact what I believe the RBA – probably unknowingly – has done over the last couple of decades and particularly since 2008. As a result the RBA has stabilized NGDP growth and therefore avoided monetary shocks to the economy.

Under a pure EPN regime the central bank would peg the exchange rate to the export price. This is obviously not what the RBA has done. However, by it’s communication it has signalled that it would not mind the Aussie dollar to weaken and strengthen in response to swings in commodity prices – and hence in swings in Australian export prices. Hence, if one looks at commodity prices measured by the so-called CRB index and the Australian dollar against the US dollar over the last couple of decades one would see that there basically has been a 1-1 relationship between the two as if the Aussie dollar had been pegged to the CRB index. That in my view is the key reason for the stability of NGDP growth over the past two decade. The period from 2004/5 until 2008 is an exception. In this period the Aussie dollar strengthened “too little” compared to the increase in commodity prices – effectively leading to an excessive easing of monetary conditions – and if you want to look for a reason for the Australian property market boom (bubble?) then that is it.

This is how close the relationship is between the CRB index and the Aussie dollar (indexed at 100 in 2008):

However, when the Great Recession hit and global commodity prices plummet the RBA got it nearly perfectly right. The RBA could have panicked and hike interest rates to curb the rise in headline consumer price inflation (CPI inflation rose to around 5% y/y) caused by the weakening of the Aussie dollar. It did not do so, but rather allowed the Aussie dollar to weaken significantly. In fact the drop in commodity prices and in the Aussie dollar in 2008-9 was more or less the same. This is in my view is the key reason why Australia avoided recession – measured as two consecutive quarters of negative growth – in 2008-9.

But the RBA could have done a lot better

So yes, there is reason to praise the RBA, but I think Lorenzo goes too far in his praise. A reason why I am sceptical is that the RBA is much too focused on consumer price inflation (CPI) and as I have argued so often before if a central bank really wants to focus on inflation then at least the central bank should be focusing on the GDP deflator rather on CPI.

In my view Australia saw what Hayekian economists call “relative inflation” in the years prior to 2008. Yes, inflation measured by CPI was relatively well-behaved, but looking at the GDP deflator inflationary pressures were clearly building and because the RBA was overly focused on CPI – rather than aggregate demand/NGDP growth or the GDP deflator – monetary policy became excessively easy and the had the RBA not had the luck (and skills?) it had in 2008-9 then the monetary induced boom could have turned into a nasty bust. The same story is visible from studying nominal GDP growth – while NGDP grew pretty steadily around 6% y/y from 1992 to 2002, but from 2002 to 2008 NGDP growth escalated year-by-year and NGDP grew more than 10% in 2008. That in my view was a sign that monetary policy was becoming excessive easy in Australia. In that regard it should be noted that despite the negative shock in 2008-9 and a recent fairly marked slowdown in NGDP growth the actual level of NGDP is still somewhat above the 1992-2002 trend level.

George Selgin has forcefully argued that there is good and bad deflation. Bad deflation is driven by negative demand shocks and good deflation is driven by positive supply shocks. George as consequence of this has argued in favour of what he has called a “productivity norm” – effectively an NGDP target.

I believe that we can make a similar argument for commodity exporters. However, here it is not a productivity shock, but a “wealth shock”. Higher global commodity prices is a positive “wealth shock” for commodity exporters (Friedman would say higher permanent income). This is similar to a positive productivity shock. The way to ensure such “wealth shock” is transferred to the consumers in the economy is through benign consumer price deflation (disinflation) and you get that through a stronger currency, which reduces import prices. However, a drop in global commodity prices is a negative demand shock for a commodity exporting country and that you want to avoid. The way to do that is to allow the currency to weaken as commodity prices drop. This is why the Export Price Norm makes so much sense for commodity exporters.

The RBA effective acted as if it had an (variation of the) Export Price Norm in 2008-9, but certainly failed to do so in the boom years prior to the crisis. In those pre-crisis years the RBA should have tightened monetary policy conditions much more than it did and effectively allowed the Aussie dollar to strengthen more than it did. That would likely have pushed CPI inflation well-below the RBA’s official inflation (CPI) target of 2-3%. That, however, would have been just fine – there is no harm done in consumer price deflation generated by positive productivity shocks or positive wealth shocks. When you become wealthier it should show up in low consumer prices – or at least a slower growth of consumer price inflation.

So what should the RBA do now?

The RBA managed the crisis well, but as I have argued above the RBA was also fairly lucky and there is certainly no reason to be overly confident that the next shock will be handled equally well. I therefore think there are two main areas where the RBA could improve on it operational framework – other than the obvious one of introducing an NGDP level targeting regime.

First, the RBA should make it completely clear to investors and other agents in the economy what operational framework the RBA will be using if the key policy rate where to hit zero.

Second, the RBA should be more clear in it communication about the link between changes in commodity prices (measured in Aussie dollars) and aggregate demand/NGDP and that it consider the commodity-currency link as key element in the Australian monetary transmission mechanism – explicitly acknowledging the importance of the Export Price Norm.

The two points above could of course easily be combined. The RBA could simply announce that it will continue it’s present operational framework, but if interest rates where to drop below for example 1% it would automatically peg the Aussie dollar to the CRB index and then thereafter announce monetary policy changes in terms of the changes to the Aussie dollar-CRB “parity”.

Australian NGDP still remains somewhat above the old trend and as such monetary policy is too loose. However, given the fact that we have been off-trend for a decade it probably would make very little sense to force NGDP back down to the old trend. Rather the RBA should announce that monetary policy is now “neutral” and that it in the future will keep NGDP growth around a 5% or 6% trend (level targeting). Using the trend level starting in for example 2007 in my view would be a useful benchmark.

It is pretty clear that Australian monetary conditions are tightening at the moment, which is visible in both weak NGDP growth and the fact that commodity prices measured in Australian dollars are declining. Furthermore, it should be noted that GDP deflator growth (y/y) turned negative earlier in the year – also indicating sharply tighter monetary conditions. Furthermore, NGDP has now dropped below the – somewhat arbitrary – 2007-12 NGDP trend level. All that could seem to indicate that moderate monetary easing is warranted.

Concluding, the RBA did a fairly good job over the past two decades, but luck certainly played a major role in why Australia has avoided recession and if the RBA wants to preserve it’s good reputation in the future then it needs to look at a few details (some major) in the how it conducts its monetary policy.

PS I could obviously tell the same story for other commodity exporters such as Norway, Canada, Russia, Brazil or Angola for that matter and these countries actually needs the lesson a lot more than the RBA (maybe with the exception of Canada).

PPS Sometimes Market Monetarist bloggers – including myself – probably sound like “if we where only running things then everything would be better”. I would stress that I don’t think so. I am fully aware of the institutional and political constrains that every central banker in the world faces. Furthermore, one could easily argue that central banks by construction will never be able to do a good job and will always be doomed to fail (just ask Pete Boettke or Larry White). As everybody knows I have a lot of sympathy for that view. However, we need to have a debate about monetary policy and how we can improve it – at least as long as we maintain central banks. And I don’t think the answer is better central bankers, but rather I want better institutions. It is correct it makes a difference who runs the central banks, but the institutional framework is much more important and a discussion about past and present failures of central banks will hopefully help shape the ideas to secure more sound monetary systems in the future.

PPPS I should say this post was inspired not only by Lorenzo’s post and my long time thinking the that the RBA had been lucky, but also by Saturos’ comments to my earlier post on Malaysia. Saturos pointed out the difference between the GDP deflator and CPI in Australia to me. That was an important import to this post.

BoJ might become the first central bank in the world to introduce NGDP targeting

I stole this from Britmouse (who got it from Bloomberg):

Abe advocates increased monetary easing to reverse more than a decade of falling prices and said he would consider revising a law guaranteeing the independence of the Bank of Japan. (8301) In an economic policy plan issued yesterday, the LDP said it would pursue policies to attain 3 percent nominal growth.

Talk about good news! Shinzo Abe of course is the leader of Japan’s main opposition party the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). LDP is favourite to win the upcoming Japanese parliament elections – so soon Japan might have a Prime Minister who favours NGDP targeting.

So how could this be implemented? Well, Lars E. O. Svensson has a solution and I am pretty sure he would gladly accept the job if Abe offered him to become new Bank of Japan governor. After all he does not seem to happy with his colleagues at the Swedish Riksbank at the moment.

PS I would love to get in contact with any Japanese economist interested in NGDP targeting – please drop me a mail (lacsen@gmail.com)

PPS I can recommend vacation in Langkawi Malaysia – this is lunch time blogging in the shadow of the palms

Update: Oops – Scott also comments on this story.

China is now targeting 9% NGDP growth

Did I get your attention? No China has not announced an NGDP level targeting regime, but did so in an indirect fashion. Let me explain why. The clever French economist Nicolas Goetzmann pointed me to this quote on ft.com:

“Speaking to several thousand current and retired Communist party officials in the Great Hall of the People, Mr Hu, who along with Premier Wen Jiabao has steered China for the past decade, also unveiled economic targets, saying the government would strive to double rural and urban incomes by the end of 2020.”

If you want to double the income level in China towards 2020 then that would mean 9% nominal GDP on average per year (Nicolas educated me on that as well). So de facto Mr. Hu just announced an 9% NGDP level target. And as Nicolas also convinced me – this is very good communication as it effectively is a level target rather than a growth target. If NGDP falls behind the target one year then growth will have to be higher the next year to hit the target in the 2020 income target.

Chinese officials seem to think that trend real GDP growth is likely to slow to around 7% in the coming decade – as the catch-up potential is reduced and China is facing demographic headwinds. That would effectively mean that China is now targeting a medium inflation rate around 2% (9%-7%).

As I have shown in an earlier post the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) more or less kept money supply (M1) growth around 15-16% for a little bit more than a decade. Obviously PBoC has to target a lower rate of money supply growth to hit a 9% NGDP target. Since 2000 M1 velocity has dropped around 1% so a M1 target consistent with a 9% NGDP target would likely mean 10% M1 growth. That is significantly faster than now, but also significantly lower than what used to be the case.

However, China is continuing to liberalize its financial markets and velocity is therefore likely to be less stable than it used to be the case, which will make money supply targeting much more challenging. Therefore the PBoC should obviously start to move towards NGDP targeting rather than money supply targeting. A really (really!) optimistic spin on Mr. Hu speech is that China indeed is moving in that direction.

Finally thanks to Nicolas for the pointer to Mr. Ho’s speech. If you like this post give the credit to Nicolas, but if you hated it blame me. Have a look at Nicolas blog (in French – I have understand nothing…) here.

Rerun: Daylight saving time and NGDP targeting

Today I got up one hour later than normal. The reason is the same as for most other Europeans this morning – the last Sunday of October – we move our clocks back one hour due to the end of Daylight saving time (summertime).

That reminded me of Milton Friedman’s so-called Daylight saving argument for floating exchange rates. According to Friedman, the argument in favour of flexible exchange rates is in many ways the same as that for summertime. Instead of changing the clocks to summertime, everyone could instead “just” change their behaviour: meet an hour later at work, change programme times on the TV, let buses and trains run an hour later, etc. The reason we do not do this is precisely because it is easier and more practical to put clocks an hour forward than to change everyone’s behaviour at the same time. It is the same with exchange rates, one can either change countless prices or change just one – the exchange rate.

There is a similar argument in favour of NGDP level targeting. Lets illustrate it with the equation of exchange.

M*V=P*Y

P*Y is of course the same as NGDP the equation of exchange can also be written as

M*V=NGDP

What Market Monetarists are arguing is that if we hold NGDP constant (or it grows along a constant path) then any shock to velocity (V) should be counteracted by an increase or decrease in the money supply (M).

Obviously one could just keep M constant, but then any shock to V would feed directly through to NGDP, but NGDP is not “one number” – it is in fact made up of countless goods and prices. So an “accommodated” shock to V in fact necessitates changing numerous prices (and volumes for the matter). By having a NGDP level target the money supply will do the adjusting instead and no prices would have to change. Monetary policy would therefore by construction be neutral – as it would not influence relative prices and volumes in the economy.

This is of course also similar to Milton Friedman’s analogy of monetary policy being like setting a thermostat (HT David Beckworth).

The conclusion therefore is that when you read Friedman’s “The Case for Floating Exchange Rates” then try think instead of “The Case for NGDP Level Targeting” – it is really the same story.

See my posts on Friedman’s arguments for floating exchange rates:

Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #1
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #2
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #3

PS Do you remember reading this before then you are right – this is a rerun of what I wrote exactly a year ago.

The counterfactual US inflation history – the case of NGDP targeting

Opponents of NGDP level targeting often accuse Market Monetarists of being “inflationists” and of being in favour of reflating bubbles. Nothing could be further from the truth – in fact we are strong proponents of sound money and nominal stability. I will try to illustrate that with a simple thought experiment.

Imagine that that the Federal Reserve had a strict NGDP level targeting regime in place for the past 20 years with NGDP growing 5% year in and year out. What would inflation then have been?

This kind of counterfactual history excise is obviously not easy to conduct, but I will try nonetheless. Lets start out with a definition:

(1) NGDP=P*RGDP

where NGDP is nominal GDP, RGDP is real GDP and P is the price level. It follows from (1) that:

(1)’ P=NGDP/RGDP

In our counterfactual calculation we will assume the NGDP would have grown 5% year-in and year-out over the last 20 years. Instead of using actual RGDP growth we RGDP growth we will use data for potential RGDP as calculated Congressional Budget Office (CBO) – as the this is closer to the path RGDP growth would have followed under NGDP targeting than the actual growth of RGDP.

As potential RGDP has not been constant in the US over paste 20 years the counterfactual inflation rate would have varied inversely with potential RGDP growth under a 5% NGDP targeting rule. As potential RGDP growth accelerates – as during the tech revolution during the 1990s – inflation would ease. This is obviously contrary to inflation targeting – where the central bank would ease monetary policy in response to higher potential RGDP growth. This is exactly what happened in the US during the 1990s.

The graph below shows the “counterfactual inflation rate” (what inflation would have been under strict NGDP targeting) and the actual inflation rate (GDP deflator).

The graph fairly clearly shows that actual US inflation during the Great Moderation (from 1992 to 2007 in the graph) pretty much followed an NGDP targeting ideal. Hence, inflation declined during the 1990s during the tech driven boost to US productivity growth. From around 2000 to 2007 inflation inched up as productivity growth slowed.

Hence, during the Great Moderation monetary policy nearly followed an NGDP targeting rule – but not totally.

At two points in time actual inflation became significantly higher than it would have been under a strict NGDP targeting rule – in 1999-2001 and 2004-2007.

This of course coincides with the two “bubbles” in the US economy over the past 20 years – the tech bubble in the late 1990s and the property bubble in the years just prior to the onset of the Great Recession in 2008.

Market Monetarists disagree among each other about the extent of bubbles particularly in 2004-2007. Scott Sumner and Marcus Nunes have stressed that there was no economy wide bubble, while David Beckworth argues that too easy monetary policy created a bubble in the years just prior to 2008. My own position probably has been somewhere in-between these two views. However, my counterfactual inflation history indicates that the Beckworth view is the right one. This view also plays a central role in the new Market Monetarist book “Boom and Bust Banking: The Causes and Cures of the Great Recession”, which David has edited. Free Banking theorists like George Selgin, Larry White and Steve Horwitz have a similar view.

Hence, if anything monetary policy would have been tighter in the late 1990s and and from 2004-2008 than actually was the case if the fed had indeed had a strict NGDP targeting rule. This in my view is an illustration that NGDP seriously reduces the risk of bubbles.

The Great Recession – the fed’s failure to keep NGDP on track 

According to the CBO’s numbers potential RGDP growth started to slow in 2007 and had the fed had a strict NGDP targeting rule at the time then inflation should have been allowed to increase above 3.5%. Even though I am somewhat skeptical about CBO’s estimate for potential RGDP growth it is clear that the fed would have allowed inflation to increase in 2007-2008. Instead the fed effective gave up 20 years of quasi NGDP targeting and as a result the US economy entered the biggest crisis after the Great Depression. The graph clearly illustrates how tight monetary conditions became in 2008 compared to what would have been the case if the fed had not discontinued the defacto NGDP targeting regime.

So yes, Market Monetarists argue that monetary policy in the US became far too tight in 2008 and that significant monetary easing still is warranted (actual inflation is way below the counterfactual rate of inflation), but Market Monetarists – if we had been blogging during the two “bubble episodes” – would also have favoured tighter rather than easier monetary policy during these episodes.

So NGDP targeting is not a recipe for inflation, but rather an cure against bubbles. Therefore, NGDP targeting should be endorsed by anybody who favours sound money and nominal stability and despise monetary induced boom-bust cycles.

Related posts:

Boom, bust and bubbles
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative (we try again)
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative

Woodford on NGDP targeting and Friedman

Michael Woodford’s Jackson Hole paper is a goldmine. I haven’t read all of it, but I just want to share this quote:

“Essentially, the nominal GDP target path represents a compromise between the aspiration to choose a target that would achieve an ideal equilibrium if correctly understood and the need to pick a target that can be widely understood and can be implemented in a way that allows for verification of the central bank’s pursuit of its alleged target, in the spirit of Milton Friedman’s celebrated proposal of a constant growth rate for a monetary aggregate. Indeed, it can be viewed as a modern version of Friedman’s “k-percent rule” proposal, in which the variable that Friedman actually cared about stabilizing (the growth rate of nominal income) replaces the monetary aggregate that he proposed as a better proximate target, on the ground that the Fed had much more direct control over the money supply. On the one hand, the Fed’s ability to directly control broad monetary aggregates (the ones more directly related to nominal income in the way that Friedman assumed) can no longer be taken for granted, under current conditions; and on the other hand, modern methods of forecast targeting make a commitment to the pursuit of a target defined in terms of variables that are not under the short-run control of the central bank more credible. Under these circumstances, a case can be made that a nominal GDP target path would remain true to Friedman’s fundamental concerns.”

Exactly! NGDP targeting is exactly in the spirit of Friedman.

And Woodford goes on to quote one of the founding fathers of Market Monetarism:

“See, for example, (David) Beckworth (2011) for an argument to this effect. Beckworth notes that Friedman (2003) praised the accuracy of “the Fed’s thermostat,” for having reduced M2 growth during the period of increasing “velocity” in 1988-1997, and then increased M2 growth by several percent- age points during a period of decreasing velocity in 1997-2003. One might conclude that Friedman valued successful stabilization of nominal GDP growth more than strict fidelity to a “k-percent rule.”

See David’s take on Woodford here and here is what Scott Sumner has to say.

Related posts:
Friedman provided a theory for NGDP targeting
Michael Woodford endorses NGDP level targeting

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