Leave it to the market to decide on “tapering”

The rally in the global stock markets has clearly run into trouble in the last couple of weeks. Particularly the Nikkei has taken a beating, but also the US stock market has been under some pressure.

If one follows the financial media on a daily basis it is very clear that there is basically only one reason being mentioned for the decline in global stock markets – the possible scaling back of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing.

This is three example from the past 24 hours. First CNBC:

“Stocks posted sharp declines across the board Wednesday, with the Dow ending below 15,000, following weakness in overseas markets and amid concerns over when the Fed will start tapering its bond-buying program on the heels of several mixed economic reports.”

And this is from Bloomberg:

“U.S. stocks fell, sending the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index to a one-month low, as jobs and factory data missed estimates and investors speculated whether the Federal Reserve will taper bond purchases.”

And finally Barron’s:

“Fear that the central bank may start scaling back its $85 billion in monthly bond purchases has helped trigger a sharp increase in market volatility over the last couple of weeks both here and overseas.”

I believe that what we are seeing in the financial markets right now is telling us a lot about how the monetary transmission mechanism works. Market Monetarists say that money matters and markets matter. The point is that the markets are telling us a lot about the expectations for future monetary policy. This is of course also why Scott Sumner likes to say that monetary policy works with long and variable LEADS.

Hence, what we are seeing now is that US monetary conditions are being tightened even before the fed has scaled back asset purchases. What is at work is the Chuck Norris effect. It is the threat of “tapering” that causes US stock markets to decline. Said in another way Ben Bernanke has over the past two weeks effectively tightened monetary conditions. I am not sure that that was Bernanke’s intension, but that has nonetheless been the consequence of his (badly timed) communication.

This is also telling us that Market Monetarists are right when we say that both interest rates and money supply data are unreliable indicators of monetary conditions – at least when they are used on their own. Market indicators are much better indicators of monetary conditions.

Hence, when the US stock market drops, the dollar strengthens and implied market expectations of inflation decline it is a very clear signal that US monetary conditions are becoming tighter. And this is of course exactly what have happened over the last couple of weeks – ever since Bernanke started to talk about “tapering”. The Bernanke triggered the tightening, but the markets are implementing the tigthening.

Leave it to the market to decide when the we should have “tapering”

I think it is pretty fair to say that Market Monetarists are not happy about what we are seeing playing out at the moment in the US markets or the global markets for that matter. The reason is that we are now effectively getting monetary tightening. This is certainly premature monetary tightening – unemployment is still significantly above the fed’s unofficial 6.5% “target”, inflation is well-below the fed’s other unofficial target – 2% inflation – and NGDP growth and the level NGDP is massively below where we would like to see it.

It is therefore hardly the market’s perception of where the economy is relative to the fed’s targets that now leads markets to price in monetary tightening, but rather it is Bernanke’s message of possible “tapering” of assets purchases, which has caused the market reaction.

This I believe this very well illustrates three problems with the way the fed conducts monetary policy.

First of all, there is considerable uncertainty about what the fed is actually trying to target. We have an general idea that the fed probably in some form is following an Evans rule – wanting to continue to expand the money base at a given speed as long as US unemployment is above 6.5% and PCE core inflation is below 3%. But we are certainly not sure about that as the fed has never directly formulated its target.

Second, it is clear that the fed has a clear instrument preference - the fed is uncomfortable with conducting monetary policy by changing the growth rate of the money base and would prefer to return to a world where the primary monetary policy instrument is the fed funds target rate. This means that the fed is tempted to start “tapering” even before we are certain that the fed will succeed in hitting its target(s). Said, in another way the monetary policy instrument is both on the left hand and the right hand side of the fed’s reaction function. By the way this is exactly what Brad DeLong has suggested is the case. Brad at the same time argues that that means that the fiscal multiplier is positive. See my discussion of that here.

Third the fed’s policy remains extremely discretionary rather than being rule based. Hence, Bernanke’s sudden talk of “tapering” was a major surprise to the financial markets. This would not have been the case had the fed formulated a clear nominal target and explained its “reaction function” to markets.

Market Montarists of course has the solution to these problems. First of all the fed should clearly formulate a clear nominal target. We obviously would prefer an NGDP level target, but nearly any nominal target – inflation targeting, price level targeting or NGDP growth targeting – would be preferable to the present “target uncertainty”.

Second, the fed should leave it to the market to decide on when monetary policy should be tightened (or eased) and leave it to the market to actually implement monetary policy. In the “perfect world” the fed would target a given price for an NGDP-linked bond so the implied market expectation for future NGDP was in line with the targeted level of NGDP.

Less can, however, do it – the fed could simply leave forecasting to either the markets (policy futures and other forms of prediction markets) or it could conduct surveys of professional forecasters and make it clear that it will target these forecasts. This is Lars E. O. Svensson’s suggestion for “targeting the forecast” (with a Market Monetarist twist).

Concluding, the heightened volatility we have seen in the US stocks markets over the last two weeks is mostly the result of monetary policy failure – a failure to formulate a clear target, a failure to be clear on the policy instrument and a failure of making it clear how to implement monetary policy.

Bernanke don’t have to order the printing of more money. We don’t need more or less QE. What is needed is that Bernanke finally tells us what he is really targeting and then he should leave it to the market to implement monetary policy to hit that target.

PS I could have addressed this post to Bank of Japan and governor Kuroda as well. Kuroda is struggling with similar troubles as Bernanke. But he could start out by reading these two posts: “Mr. Kuroda please ‘peg’ inflation expectations to 2% now” and “A few words that would help Kuroda hit his target”. Kuroda should also take a look at what Marcus Nunes has to say.

About these ads

Remembering the “Market” in Market Monetarism

A couple of days ago the young and talented George Mason University economist Alex Salter wrote the following statement on his Facebook account:

I wish market monetarists would put relatively more emphasis on the “market” bit.

I agree with Alex as I believe that one of the main points of Market Monetarism is that not only do money matters, but it equally important that markets matter. Hence, it is no coincidence that the slogan of my blog ismarkets matter, money matters” and it was after all me who coined the phrase Market Monetarism.

Paul Krugman used to call Scott Sumner a quasi-monetarist, but I always thought that that missed an important point about Scott’s views (and my own views) and that of course is the “market” bit. In fact Alex’s statement reminded me of a blog post that I wrote back in January 2012 on exactly this topic.

This is from my post “Don’t forget the “Market” in Market Monetarism”:

As traditional monetarists Market Monetarists see money as being at the centre of macroeconomic discussion. To us both inflation and recessions are monetary phenomena. If central banks print too much money we get inflation and if they print to little money we get recession or even depression.

This is often at the centre of the arguments made by Market Monetarists. However, we are exactly Market Monetarists because we have a broader view of monetary policy than traditional monetarists. We deeply believe in markets as the best “information system” – also about the stance of monetary policy. Even though we certainly do not disregard the value of studying monetary supply numbers we believe that the best indicator(s) of monetary policy stance is market pricing in currency markets, commodity markets, fixed income markets and equity markets. Hence, we believe in a Market Approach to monetary policy in the tradition of for example of “Manley” Johnson and Robert Keheler.

Interestingly enough Alex himself has just recently put out a new working paper – “There a Self-Enforcing Monetary Constitution?” -
that makes the exact same point. This is the abstract from Alex’s paper:

This paper uses insights from monetary theory and constitutional political economy to discover what a self-enforcing monetary constitution — one whose rules did not require external enforcement — would look like. I argue that a desirable monetary constitution (a) institutionalizes an environment conducive to economic calculation via an unhampered price mechanism and (b) enables agents acting within the system to uphold the rule even in the presence of deviations from ideal knowledge and incentive assumptions. I show two radical alternatives to current monetary institutions — a version of NGDP targeting that relies on market implementation of monetary policy and free banking — meet these requirements, and thus represent self-enforcing monetary constitutions. I ultimately conclude that the maintenance of a stable monetary framework necessitates branching out from monetary theory narrowly conceived and considering insights from political economy, and constitutional political economy in particular.

I very much like Alex’s constitutional spin on the monetary policy issue. I strongly agree that the biggest problem in the conduct of monetary policy – basically everywhere in the world – is the lack of a clear rule based framework for the monetary system and equally agree that NGDP targeting with “market implication” and Free Banking fulfill the requirement for a monetary constitution. Or as I put it in my 2012 post:

In fact we want to take out both the “central” and “banking” out of central banking and ideally replace monetary policy makers with the power of the market. Scott Sumner has suggested that the central banks should use NGDP futures in the conduct of monetary policy. In Scott’s set-up monetary policy ideally becomes “endogenous”. I on my part have suggested the use of prediction markets in the conduct of monetary policy.

…Even though Market Monetarists do not necessarily advocate Free Banking there is no doubt that Market Monetarist theory is closely related to the thinking of Free Banking theorist such as George Selgin and I have early argued that NGDP level targeting could be see as an “privatisation strategy”. A less ambitious interpretation of Market Monetarism is certainly also possible, but no matter what Market Monetarists stress the importance of markets – both in analysing monetary policy and in the conduct monetary policy.

Hence, Alex and I are in fundamental agreement, but I also want to acknowledge that we – the Market Monetarists – from time to time are more (too?) focused on the need to ease monetary policy – in the present situation in the US or the euro zone – than to talk about “market implementation” of monetary policy.

There are numerous reasons for this, but the key reason is probably one of political realism, but there is also a serious risk in letting “political realism” dictate the agenda. Therefore, I think we should listen to Alex’s advice and try to stress the “market” bit in Market Monetarism a bit more. Afterall, we have made serious inroads in the global monetary policy debate in regard to NGDP level targeting – why should we not be able to make the same kind of progress when it comes to “market implementation” of monetary policy?

Ben maybe you should try “policy futures”?

My readers will know that I think that the Federal Reserve has taken a step in the right direction with its latest policy action. I do think that the fed finally after four years of failure is moving towards a more rule based monetary policy. However, it is certainly far from perfect and there is still a lot of risks involved.

The Minutes from the latest FOMC meeting was published yesterday and it is clear that the FOMC is well-aware that it needs to address it’s communication problem. That’s positive. However, it is also clear that the fed still don’t have a proper communication policy in place and even though we are moving towards a more rule based monetary policy it still not completely clear what the rule is and it is not entire clear how it should be implemented. We are still far away from Milton Friedman’s ideal of having a computer control monetary policy. However, I think that the fed should move in the direction of that ideal and it could start the journey toward this goal by introducing what we could call “policy futures”.

It is obvious that the fed is aware that there is problems with the present forecasting set-up within the fed. The key problem is one that every central bank in the world is facing – should the central bank forecast that it will fail? That is effectively what the fed has been doing so far when it is saying that it expect a fragile and weak recovery.

Scott Sumner has suggested that monetary policy should be “pegged” to a NGDP future, which would mean that the money base is increased or decreased continuously as market expectations for future level NGDP changes. This is basically the Friedman ideal of a computer – or rather the market – controlling monetary policy. However, a less radical plan where futures are “just” used for policy guidance and forecasting is also possible and that is what I suggest that the fed should look at.

There are some very clear advantages of using the market to forecast. First of all the fed would not have to know the “real model” of the US economy. Second the forecasts would be unbiased. Third the fed would have real-time forecasts of its policy variables.

It is pretty clear that the fed is now moving towards some kind of Evans rule where changes in the money base is a function of unemployment and inflation. We don’t know fed’s reaction function, but a version of the Evans rules could take the following form:

(1)    ∆b = α(U-U*)-β(π-πT)

Where ∆b is the change in the money base, α and β are coefficients, U is unemployment and U* is the fed’s unemployment target or the structural unemployment, π is inflation and πT is the inflation target.

There plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the fact that the fed is so clearly targeting real variables (employment/unemployment). However, by using policy futures it might be possible to greatly reduce these risks.

I imagine that the fed set up a futures or an options market on for example inflation, employment/unemployment and obviously NGDP on different time horizons.

Let’s say that the fed has the target of reducing unemployment to 6%, but also want to maintain long term price stability (keeping inflation around 2%). If structural unemployment is higher than 6% then that would obviously not be possible – and if the fed tried to push unemployment below 6% then inflation would explode. A policy future would greatly help assess this risk.

Hence, the fed could issue a put option that would be knocked in if unemployment dropped by 6% and inflation was below 2 or 3% at some future date – for example January 1 2013. Such an option would give an assessment about whether it is likely that the fed will hit it’s policy objectives. If the market assess that structural unemployment is above 6% then that would be reflected in the pricing of the put option.

If the fed issued a number of different policy futures and options on the key policy objectives it could get the markets’ assessment of whether it is on the right track in terms of fulfilling it’s monetary policy objectives or not by cross-checking the pricing of different policy futures.

Such policy futures could also greatly help the fed in it’s communication with the markets and it would probably also be much easier to get consensus on the FOMC about the possible risk to monetary policy.

The fed would very easily be able to set up such policy futures markets, but the informational gains would in my view be tremendous. The only “problem” would that the fed would need fewer economists to do forecasting…

Related posts:
Yet another argument for prediction markets: “Reputation and Forecast Revisions: Evidence from the FOMC”
Benn & Ben – would prediction markets be of interest to you?
Prediction markets and government budget forecasts
Central banks should set up prediction markets
Markets are telling us where NGDP growth is heading
Scott’s prediction market
Robin Hanson’s brilliant idea for central bank decision-making

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,885 other followers

%d bloggers like this: