Tighter monetary conditions – not lower oil prices – are pushing down inflation expectations

Oil prices are tumbling and so are inflation expectations so it is only natural to conclude that the drop in inflation expectations is caused by a positive supply shock – lower oil prices. However, that is not necessarily the case. In fact I believe it is wrong.

Let me explain. If for example 2-year/2-year euro zone inflation expectations drop now because of lower oil prices then it cannot be because of lower oil prices now, but rather because of expectations for lower oil prices in the future.

2y2y BEI euro zone

But the market is not expecting lower oil prices (or lower commodity prices in general) in the future. In fact the oil futures market expects oil prices to rise going forward.

Just take a look at the so-called 1-year forward premium for brent oil. This is the expected increase in oil prices over the next year as priced by the forward market.

brent 1-year foreard

Oil prices have now dropped so much that market participants now actually expect rising oil prices over the going year.

Hence, we cannot justify lower inflation expectations by pointing to expectations for lower oil prices – because the market actual expects higher oil prices – more than 2.5% higher oil prices over the coming year.

So it is not primarily a positive supply shock we are seeing playing out right now. Rather it is primarily a negative demand shock – tighter monetary conditions.

Who is tightening? Well, everybody -The Fed has signalled rate hikes next year, the ECB is continuing to failing to deliver on QE, the BoJ is allowing the strengthening of the yen to continue and the PBoC is allowing nominal demand growth to continue to slow.

As a result the world is once again becoming increasingly deflationary and that might also be the real reason why we are seeing lower commodity prices right now.

Furthermore, if we were indeed primarily seeing a positive supply shock – rather than tighter global monetary conditions – then global stock prices would have been up and not down.

I can understand the confusion. It is hard to differentiate between supply and demand shocks, but we should never reason from a price change and Scott Sumner is therefore totally correct when he is saying that we need a NGDP futures market as such a market would give us a direct and very good indicator of whether monetary/demand conditions are tightening or not.

Unfortunately we do not have such a market and there is therefore the risk that central banks around the world will claim that the drop in inflation expectations is driven by supply factors and that they therefore don’t have to react to it, while in fact global monetary conditions once again are tightening.

We have seen it over and over again in the past six years – monetary policy failure happens when central bankers fail to differentiate properly between supply and demand shocks. Hopefully this time they will realized the mistake before things get too bad.

PS I am not arguing that the drop in actual inflation right now is not caused by lower oil prices. I am claiming that lower inflation expectations are not caused by an expectation of lower oil prices in the future.

PPS This post was greatly inspired by clever young colleague Jens Pedersen.

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The Crowd: “Lars, you are fat!”

On Friday I was doing a presentation on the global economy (yes, yes mainly on global monetary policy) for 40-50 colleagues who are working as investment advisors in the Danske Bank group.

As I was about to start my presentation somebody said “The audience have been kind of quiet today”. I thought that was a challenge so I immediately so I jumped on top of a table. That woke up the crowd.

I asked the audience to guess my weight. They all wrote their guesses on a piece of paper. All the guesses were collected and an average guess – the “consensus forecast” – was calculated, while I continued my presentation.

I started my presentation and I naturally started telling why all of my forecasts would be useless – or at least that they should not expect that I would be able to beat the market. I of course wanted to demonstrate exactly that with my little stunt. It was a matter of demonstrating the wisdom of the crowds – or a simple party-version of the Efficient Market Hypothesis.

I am certainly not weighing myself on a daily basis so I was “guestimating” my own weight then I told the audience that my weight is 81 kilograms (fully dressed). I usually think of my own weight as being just below 80 kg, but I was trying to correct it for the fact I was fully dressed – and I added a bit extra because my wife has been teasing me that I gained weight recently.

As always I was completely confident that the “survey” result would come in close to the “right” number. So I was bit surprised when the  “consensus forecast” for my weight came in at 84.6 kg

It was close enough for me to claim that the “market” – or the crowd – was good at “forecasting”, but I must say that I thought the “verdict” was wrong – nearly 85 kg. That is fat. I am not fat…or am I?

So once I came back home I immediately jumped on the scale – for once I hoped to show that the Efficient Market Hypothesis was wrong. But the verdict was even more cruel. 84 kg!

So the “consensus forecast” was only half a kilo wrong and way better than my own guestimate. So not only am I fat, but I was also beaten by the “market” in guessing my own weight.

I need a cake

PS My height is 183 cm – so my Body Mass Index is 25.08 – that is officially overweight (just a little – above 25 is overweight).

PPS I have done this kind of experiments before. See here.

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.

Guest post: Central bankers should watch the Eurovision (by Jens Pedersen)

Guest post: Central bankers should watch the Eurovision

By Jens Pedersen

Congratulations Emmelie de Forest with the 2013 Eurovision song contest first place. You have made all of Denmark very proud!! Denmark normally does not win anything, so this is really big for us! (note the irony…)

However, I regret to say that I did not watch the competition yesterday. Not that I do not like a good song contest or that I am not a patriot rooting for my country.  The reason that I did not watch the song contest was simply that the bookmakers had Denmark as a heavy favourite to win and history shows that the bookmakers are rarely wrong in their Eurovision predictions. Bookmakers have correctly predicted four out of last five Eurovision winners. Hence, the results were pretty much given before hand, which really takes away all of the excitement.

I do, however, hope that every central banker out there watched the Eurovision song contest yesterday. It serves a great example that looking at market expectations is the best way of predicting the outcome of an uncertain event.  If markets can predict the winner of the Eurovision they should also come pretty close at predicting the future rate of inflation, real and nominal GDP growth, the rate of unemployment etc. Hence, the first thing central banks should do on Monday is to set up prediction markets for key economic variables. This will be a great help in guiding future monetary policy decisions.

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?

Gabe Newell on prediction markets – NGDP level targeting and Lindsay Lohan

This is interesting – Gabe Newell on Youtube on the value of prediction markets. I love it…Gabe is co-founder and managing director of Video game developer video game development and online distribution company Valve Corporation (I stole that from Wikipedia). This guy is brilliant and he certainly understands markets.

Some of my earlier posts on prediction markets:

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
Bank of England should leave forecasting to Ladbrokes
Ben maybe you should try “policy futures”?
Robin Hanson’s brilliant idea for central bank decision-making

Bank of England should leave forecasting to Ladbrokes

Last week former Federal Reserve economist David Stockton’s report on Bank of England’s forecasting track record was published. City AM had this wrap-up (I didn’t read the report yet):

“INFLATION has been damaging British living standards and dragging down the economy – but the officials who are meant to keep a lid on prices didn’t do enough to help because their forecasts were too often wrong, according to a Bank of England report out today.

And even though the Bank was consistently worse at predicting changes in growth and inflation than other economists, it stuck with its flawed model, making excuses for its errors instead of trying to improve its forecasts.”

I would probably be less critical about that Bank of England’s forecasting abilities – or rather I know how hard it is to forecast anything, but I am not surprised to learn that Stockton find that BoE’s forecasts are biased. In fact I would be surprised if he had found that it was not biased. Central banks have strong incentives to do biased forecasts – and sometimes that might actually be what you want central banks to do. I for example find it very odd when central bank forecast that they will fail in achieving their policy objectives, but I also realize that central banks fail to hit their policy targets all the time.

David Stockton has 21 ideas to improve BoE’s forecasting abilities. Some of Stockton’s ideas are probably good, but I think that there is a more fundamental problem – and that is that central banks’ in-house forecasts very likely always will be biased. Therefore central banks should outsource forecasting – not because other institutions or companies (like banks!) necessarily are better at making forecasts than central banks, but because the forecasts of “outside” agents is likely to be much less biased than a in-house forecast.

One way would be to simply to outsource the forecasting to a private research company. Another possibility would be to base the forecast on a survey of professional forecasts – or even better as I have suggested numerous times that the central bank simply set-up a prediction market. In Britain that would be extremely easy – I don’t think there is a country in the world with so many bookmakers. The Bank of England could simply ask a company like Ladbrokes or a similar company to set-up betting markets for key macro economic variables – such as inflation and nominal GDP. It would be extremely cheap and the forecast created from such prediction market would likely be at least as good as what is presently produced by the otherwise clever staff at the BoE.

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
Scott’s prediction market
Ben maybe you should try “policy futures”?
What can Niskanan teach us about central bank bureaucrats?
Robin Hanson’s brilliant idea for central bank decision-making
Please fasten your seatbelt and try to beat the market

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

Markets are telling us where NGDP growth is heading

I am still in Provo Utah and even though I have had a busy time I have watch a bit of Bloomberg TV and CNBC over the last couple of days (to fight my jet lag). I have noticed some very puzzling comments from commentators. There have been one special theme and that has come up again and again over the last couple of days among the commentators on US financial TV and that is that “yeah, monetary easing might be positive for the markets, but it is not have any impact on the real economy”. This is a story about disconnect between the economy and the markets.

I find that perception very odd, but it seems like a lot of commentators simply are not mentally able to accept that monetary policy is highly effective. The story goes that when the Federal Reserve and the ECB moves towards monetary easing then it might do the markets good, but “real people” will not be helped. I find it unbelievable that well-educated economists would make such claims.

Markets are forward-looking and market pricing is the best tool we have for forecasting the future. When stock prices are rising, bond yields are rising, the dollar is weakening and commodity prices are going up then it is a very good indication that monetary conditions are getting easier and easier monetary conditions mean higher nominal GDP growth (remember MV=NGP!) and with sticky prices and excess capacity that most likely also mean higher real GDP growth. That has always been that case and that is also the case now. There is no disconnect between the markets and the economy, but there is a disconnect between what many commentators would like to see (that monetary policy is not working) and the reality.

To try to illustrate the connection between the markets and NGDP I have constructed a very simple index to track market expectations of future NGDP. I have only used two market indicators – a dollar index and the S&P500. I am constructed an index based on these two indicators – I have looked year-year percentage changes in both indices. I have standardized the indices and deducted them from each other – remember higher S&P500 means higher NGDP, but a stronger dollar (a higher USD index) means lower NGDP. I call this index the NGDP Market Indicator. The indicator has been standardized so it has the same average and standard deviation as NGDP growth since 1990.

As the graph below shows this simple indicator for future NGDP growth has done a fairly good job in forecasting NGDP since 1990. (You can see the background data for the indicator here).

During the 1990s the indicator indicates a fairly stable growth rate of NGDP and that is in fact what we had. In 1999 the indicator started to send a pretty clear signal that NGDP growth was going to slow – and that is exactly what we got. The indicator also clearly captures the shock in 2008 and the recovery in 2009-10.

It is obvious that this indicator is not perfect, but the indicator nonetheless clearly illustrates that there in general is no disconnect between the markets and the economy – when stock prices are rising and the dollar is weakening at the same time then it would normally be indicating that NGDP growth will be accelerating in the coming quarters. Having that in mind it is of course worrying that the indicator in the last couple of months has been indicating a relative sharp slowdown in NGDP growth, which of course provides some justification for the Fed’s recent action.

I must stress that I have constructed the NGDP market indicator for illustrative purposes, but I am also convinced that if commodity prices and bond yields and maybe market inflation expectations were included in the indicator and the weighing of the different sub-indicators was based on proper econometric methods (rather than a simple unweighted index) then it would be possible to construct an indicator that would be able to forecast NGDP growth 1-4 quarters ahead very well.

So again – there is no disconnect between the markets and the economy. Rather market prices are very good indicators of monetary policy “easiness” and therefore of future NGDP. In fact there is probably no better indicator for the monetary policy stance than market prices and the Federal Reserve and other central banks should utilize market prices much more in assessing the impact of monetary policy on the economy than it presently the case. An obvious possibility is also to use a future NGDP to guide monetary policy as suggested by Scott Sumner.

Related posts:

Understanding financial markets with MV=PY – a look at the bond market
Don’t forget the ”Market” in Market Monetarism
Central banks should set up prediction markets
Market Monetarist Methodology – Markets rather than econometric testing
Brad, the market will tell you when monetary policy is easy
Keleher’s Market Monetarism

Bernanke, Obama and the political business cycle – and some research ideas

This week I attended a presentation by my good friend and professor of political science at the University Copenhagen Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard about the upcoming US presidential elections. In his presentation Peter presented some of his models for predicting the outcome of US presidential elections.

Peter’s thesis is that what determines the US presidential election primarily is the economic situation in the US in the 8 quarters prior to the election. Peter’s models are inspired by Douglas Hibbs’ so-called “bread and peace” models.

If Peter is right – and I think he is – then the US president and his party will have an incentive to manipulate the business cycle to peak just prior to the elections. This is of course also is what inspired a large theoretical and empirical literature on the so-called political business cycles (PBC).

Most PBC models focus on fiscal policy. In William Nordhaus’ traditional PBC model the government would increase public spending and/or cut taxes prior to the elections and as Nordhaus assumed a traditional keynesian model of the world the government would hence be able to manipulate the business cycle.

The fact that Nordhaus assumed a rather naive keynesian model of the world obviously is also a big problem with the model and with the integration of rational expectations in macroeconomic models in 1980s and 1990s it also became increasingly clear that even though Nordhaus’ traditional PBC model is intuitively appealing it did not stand the test of time.

The biggest problem with the traditional PBC models, however, is they disregarded the importance of monetary policy. Hence, it might be that a government or a president can increase public spending prior to an election to try to get reelected, but how will the central bank react to that? Obviously if the central bank is under political control the government can just dictate to the central bank to play along and to ease monetary policy prior to the elections.

However, it is not given that the central bank is under the control of the government. In fact the central bank might even be hostile to the government and favour the opposition and in that case the central bank might actually itself be involved in manipulating the business cycle to achieve a certain political outcome which would be in contrast to what the government would like to see. In an earlier post I have described how the Bundesbank in the early 1990s punished the Helmut Kohl’s government for overly easy fiscal policy following the German reunification. This hardly helped Kohl’s government, but the Bundesbank was nonetheless unsuccessful in its indirect attempt to oust Kohl.

Did Bernanke just ensure Obama’s reelection?

During Peter’s presentation he highlighted that political prediction markets such – as the Iowa Electronic Markets – are better at predicting the outcome of US presidential elections than opinion polls. I certainly agree with Peter on this issue and therefore one of my first thoughts just after the FOMC announced it new policy action on September 13 was to think about how this influences Obama’s reelection chances.

If Peters models are right that higher real GDP growth increases the likelihood that Obama will be reelected and if I am right that I think Bernanke’s actions will likely spur real GDP growth in the short-run then the answer must be that Bernanke just helped Obama get reelected.

So what are the prediction markets saying? Well, there is no question that Obama’s election chances have increased significantly in recently. Political pundits talk about Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democrats’ convention or Romney’s not too elegant comments about Democrat voters. However, both Peter and I know that that is not really what is important. To us it is as James Carville used to say “It’s the economy, stupid”

Just have a look at the market pricing of Obama’s reelection chances – this is data from intrade.com:

I think it is pretty clear – the Federal Reserve’s actions on September 13 have helped increase the likelihood of Obama getting reelected. Whether this is good or bad is a separate matter, but it certainly illustrates that if you want to be elected president in the US you want to have fed on your side.

This is not major news – for example former Fed chairman Arthur Burn’s rather scary account  “Inside the Nixon Administration” – of his meetings with President Nixon shows that Nixon certainly was well-aware that the fed’s actions could do a lot to increase his reelection chances and that he put a lot of pressure on Burns to ease monetary policy prior to 1972 presidential elections (See my earlier post on Nixon and Burns here and Burton Abrams’ excellent discussion of the same topic here.)

This is of course also why you want to depoliticize monetary policy and get it as far away from political influence as possible – if politicians gets to control monetary policy the likelihood that they will misuse that power certainly is very high. Here the keyword is depoliticize – you in general don’t want central banks to interfere in politics for good or for bad. The central bank should just take fiscal policy as a given and respond to it only to the extent that it has an impact of it’s monetary policy target. That also includes that the central bank should not punish governments for bad policies either – as the ECB seem to be doing.

In the case of the present situation in the US it is therefore paradoxical that the Obama administration apparently has done so little to influence the decisions at the fed. So even though the Obama administration has appointed numerous Fed policy makers it does not look as if any attempt has been made to appoint Fed officials that would press for monetary easing – which obviously would have been in Obama’s interest (note this is an uneducated outsider’s guess…). This might be because the president’s main economic advisors are staunch keynesians who have little time for monetary policy matters. So if Obama is not reelected he might want to blame Larry Summers for past sins. It is equally a paradox that the fact that the Fed now seems to be moving in the direction of a more ruled based policy is what likely will help Obama get reelected.

Ideas for future research 

When I started thinking about writing this blog post I actually started out with a research idea and I want to get back to that. One of the reasons that the literature on political business cycles has not produced any general conclusions or strong empirical results is in my view that models predictions are so dependent on what assumptions are made about the institutional set-up. Is the central bank for example independent or not? Will monetary policy counteract or accommodate pre-election spending?

I therefore think that there is scope for new research on particularly central bank’s institutional structures and how that might influence the political business cycle.

In the case of the US and the Federal Reserve I think it would be very interesting to study how different FOMC member’s partisan affiliations influence their voting during the election cycle. Would for example FOMC member appointed by the president vote for easier monetary policies prior to presidential elections? And will FOMC members from certain Fed districts vote in a way favorable to the dominant political affiliation of the given fed district?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think it could be a rather interesting research project…

PS Peter’s model predicts that it will be 50/50 on who wins that presidential elections. If he is right then the present market pricing which clear favours Obama is wrong. Do you trust the models of a political scientist more than the market? I am sure that Peter would be on the side of the market…

PPS I should stress that I think that Bernanke and his colleagues with its latest actions have moved closer to a rule based monetary policy, which in itself should reduce the risk of political motivated monetary policy and I in general think that it is positive. That, however, does not change the fact that that might also have helped Obama. Whether that is a positive or negative side-effect dependents on your (party) political views and I luckily don’t have to have a view on who should win the US presidential elections…

PPPS Obviously the best way to avoid political business cycles is a strongly rule based monetary policy – such as NGDP level targeting, fixed exchange rates, a gold standard or free banking…some of these options I like better than others.

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Related post – Se how the ECB also has had significant impact on Obama’s reelection changes:“Will Draghi’s LTRO get Obama reelected?”

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