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.

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Malaysia should peg the renggit to the price of rubber and natural gas

The Christensen family arrived in Malaysia yesterday. It is vacation time! So since I am in Malaysia I was thinking I would write a small piece on Malaysian monetary policy, but frankly speaking I don’t know much about the Malaysian economy and I do not follow it on a daily basis. So my account of how the Malaysian economy is at best going to be a second hand account.

However, when I looked at the Malaysian data something nonetheless caught my eye. Looking at the monetary policy of a country I find it useful to compare the development in real GDP (RGDP) and nominal GDP (NGDP). I did the same thing for Malaysia. The RGDP numbers didn’t surprise me – I knew that from the research I from time to time would read on the Malaysian economy. However, most economists are still not writing much about the development in NGDP.

In my head trend RGDP growth is around 5% in Malaysia and from most of the research I have read on the Malaysian economy I have gotten the impression that inflation is pretty much under control and is around 2-3% – so I would have expected NGDP growth to have been around 7-8%. However, for most of the past decade NGDP growth in Malaysia has been much higher – 10-15%. The only exception is 2009 when NGDP growth contracted nearly 8%!

How could I be so wrong? Well, the most important explanation is that I don’t follow the Malaysian economy very closely on a daily basis. However, another much more important reason is the difference between how inflation is measured. The most common measure of inflation is the consumer price index (CPI). However, another measure, which is much closer to what the central bank controls is the GDP deflator – the difference between NGDP and RGDP.

In previous posts I have argued that if one looks at the GDP deflator rather than on CPI then monetary policy in Japan and the euro zone has been much more deflationary than CPI would indicate and the fact that the Bank of Japan and the ECB have been more focused on CPI than on the GDP deflator have  led to serious negative economic consequences. However, it turns out that the story of Malaysian inflation is exactly the opposite!

While Malaysian inflation seems well-behaved and is growing around 2% the GDP deflator tells a completely different story. The graph below illustrates this.

As the graph shows inflation measured by the GDP deflator averaged nearly 7% in the 2004-2008 period. In the same period CPI inflation was around 3%. So why do we have such a massive difference between the two measures of inflation? The GDP deflator is basically the price level of domestically produced goods, while CPI is the price level of domestically consumed goods. The main difference between the two is therefore that CPI includes indirect taxes and import prices.

However, another difference that we seldom talk about is the difference between the domestic price and the export price of the same good. Hence, if the price of a certain good – for example natural gas – increased internationally, but not domestically then if the country is an natural gas producer – as Malaysia is – then the GDP deflator will increase faster than CPI.

I think this explains the difference between CPI and GDP deflator inflation Malaysia in the last 10-12 years – there is simply a large difference between the domestic price and the international price development of a lot of goods in Malaysia and the reason is price controls. The Malaysian government has implemented price controls on a number of goods, which is artificially keeping prices from rising on these goods.

The difference between CPI and the GDP deflator therefore is a reflection of a massive misallocation of economic resources in the Malaysian economy and inflation is in reality much larger than indicated by CPI. While the inflation is not showing up in CPI – due to price controls – it is showing up in shortages. As any economist knows if you limit prices from rising when demand outpaces supply then you will get shortages (Bob Murphy explains that quite well).

Here is an 2010 Malaysian news story:

PETALING JAYA: There is an acute shortage of sugar in the country.

Consumers and traders in several states have voiced their frustration in getting supply of the essential commodity, describing the shortage as the “worst so far”.

A check at several grocery shops here revealed that no sugar had been on sale for over a week…

…Fomca secretary-general Muhd Sha’ani Abdullah said it had received complaints in various areas including Kuantan, Muar, Klang and Temerloh since a month ago.

He said the problem was not due to retailers hoarding sugar but the smuggling of the item to other countries, especially Thailand.

Federation of Sundry Goods Merchants president Lean Hing Chuan said the shortage nationwide was caused by manufacturers halving production, adding that its members started noticing the slowdown in April.

“Factories might be slowing down their production to keep their costs down until subsidies for sugar are withdrawn,” Lean said.

I got this from the excellent local blog “Malaysia Economics” in which the economics of price controls is explained very well (See this post). By the way the author of Malaysia Economics has a lot of sympathy for Market Monetarism – so I am happy to quote his blog.

So while the problem in Japan and the euro zone is hidden deflation the problem in Malaysia is hidden inflation. The consequence of hidden inflation is always problems with shortages and as it is always the case with such shortages you will get problems with a ever increasing black economy with smuggling and corruption. This is also the case in Malaysia.

I believe the source of these problems has to be found in the Malaysian authorities response to the 1997 Asian crisis. Malaysia came out of the Asian crisis faster than most of other South East Asian countries due to among other things fairly aggressive monetary policy easing. Any Market Monetarist would tell you that that probably was the right response – however, the problem is that the Malaysian central bank (BNM) kept easing monetary policy well after the Malaysian economy had recovered from the crisis by keeping the Malaysian ringgit artificially weak.

The graph below clearly shows how the price level measured with the GDP deflator and CPI started to diverge in 1997-98.

As global commodity prices started to rise around a decade ago the price of a lot of Malaysia’s main export goods – such as rubber, petroleum and liquified natural gas – started to rise strongly. However, until 2005 the BNM kept the Malaysian ringgit more less fixed against the US dollar. Therefore, to keep the renggit from strengthen the BNM had to increase the money supply as Malaysian export prices were increasing. This obviously is inflationary.

There are to ways to curb such inflationary pressures. Either you allow your currency to strengthen or you introduce price controls. The one is the solution of economists – the other is the solution of politicians. After 2005 the BNM has moved closer to a floating renggit, but it is still has fairly tightly managed currency and the renggit has not strengthened nearly as much as the rise in export prices would have dictated. As a consequence inflationary pressures have remained high.

Two possible monetary policy changes for Malaysia

Overall I believe the the combination of price controls and overly easy monetary policy is damaging the for the Malaysian economy. As I see it there are two possible changes that could be made to Malaysian monetary policy. Both solutions, however, would have to involve a scrapping of price controls and subsidies in the Malaysian economy. The Malaysian government has been moving in that direction in the last couple of years and there clearly are fewer price controls today than just a few years ago.

The fact that price controls are being eased is having a positive effect (and GDP deflator inflation and CPI inflation also is much more in line with each other than earlier). See for example this recent news story on how easing price controls on sugar has led to a sharp drop in smuggling of sugar. It is impossible to conduct monetary policy in a proper fashion if prices are massively distorted by price controls and regulations. The liberalization of price in Malaysia is therefore good news for monetary reform in Malaysia.

The first option for monetary reform is simply to allow the renggit to float completely freely and then target some domestic nominal variable like inflation (the GDP deflator!), the price level or preferably the NGDP level. This is more or less the direction BNM has been moving in since 2005, but we still seems to be far away from a truly freely floating renggit.

Another possibility is to move closer to policy closer to Jeff Frankel’s idea of Pegging the exchange rate to the Export Price (PEP). In many ways I think such a proposal would be suitable for Malaysia – especially in a situation where price controls have not been fully liberalized and where the authorities clearly are uncomfortable with a freely floating renggit.

A major advantage of PEP compared to a freely floating currency is that the central bank needs a lot less macroeconomic data to conduct monetary policy. This obviously would be an advantage in Malaysia where macroeconomic data still is distorted by price controls and subsidies. Second, PEP also means that monetary policy automatically would be rule based. Third, compared to a strict FX peg a variation of PEP would not lead to boom-bust cycles when export prices rise and fall as the currency would “automatically” appreciate and depreciate in line with changes in export prices.

Another reason why a variation of PEP might be a good solution for Malaysia is that the prices of the country’s main export goods such as rubber, petroleum and liquified natural gas are highly correlated with internationally traded commodity prices. Hence, it would be very easy to construct a real-time basket of international traded commodity prices that would be nearly perfectly correlated with Malaysian export prices.

The BNM is already managing the renggit against a basket of currencies. It would be very simply to include a basket of international traded commodity prices – which is correlated with Malaysian export prices (I have made a similar suggestion for Russia – see here). This I believe would give the same advantage as a floating exchange rate, but with less need for potentially distorted macroeconomic data while at the same time avoiding the disadvantages of a fixed exchange rate.

Had the BNM operated such a PEP style monetary policy over the last decade the renggit would had strengthened significantly more than was the case from 2000 until 2008. However, the renggit would have weaken sharply in 2008 when commodity prices plummeted at the onset of the Great Recession. Since 2009 the renggit would then had started strengthening again (more than has been the case). This in my view would have lead to a significantly more stable development in nominal GDP (and real GDP).

And price controls would not have been “needed”. Hence, while commodity prices were rising the renggit would also have been strengthening significantly more than actually was the case and as a consequences import prices would have dropped sharply and therefore push down consumer prices (CPI). Hence, the Malaysian consumers would have been the primary beneficiaries of rising export prices. In that sense my suggestion would have been a Malaysian version of George Selgin’s “productivity norm” – or rather a “export price norm” (maybe we should call PEP that in the future?).

But now I should be heading back to the pool – I am on vacation after all…

PS I got a challenge to my clever readers: Construct a basket of US dollars and oil prices (or rubber and natural gas) against the renggit that would have stabilized NGDP growth in Malaysia at 5-7% since 2000. I think it is possible…

Exchange rates are not truly floating when we target inflation

There is a couple of topics that have been on my mind lately and they have made me want to write this post. In the post I will claim that inflation targeting is a soft-version of what economists have called the fear-of-floating. But before getting to that let me run through the topics on my mind.

1) Last week I did a presentation for a group of Norwegian investors and even thought the topic was the Central and Eastern European economies the topic of Norwegian monetary politics came up. I am no big expert on the Norwegian economy or Norwegian monetary policy so I ran for the door or rather I started to talk about an other large oil producing economy, which I know much better – The Russian economy. I essentially re-told what I recently wrote about in a blog post on the Russian central bank causing the 2008/9-crisis in the Russian economy, by not allowing the ruble to drop in line with oil prices in the autumn of 2008. I told the Norwegian investors that the Russian central bank was suffering from a fear-of-floating. That rang a bell with the Norwegian investors – and they claimed – and rightly so I think – that the Norwegian central bank (Norges Bank) also suffers from a fear-of-floating. They had an excellent point: The Norwegian economy is booming, domestic demand continues to growth very strongly despite weak global growth, asset prices – particularly property prices – are rising strongly and unemployment is very low and finally do I need to mention that Norwegian NGDP long ago have returned to the pre-crisis trend? So all in all if anything the Norwegian economy probably needs tighter monetary policy rather than easier monetary policy. However, this is not what Norges Bank is discussing. If anything the Norges Bank has recently been moving towards monetary easing. In fact in March Norges Bank surprised investors by cutting interest rates and directly cited the strength of the Norwegian krone as a reason for the rate cut.

2) My recent interest in Jeff Frankel’s idea that commodity exporters should peg their currency to the price of the main export (PEP) has made me think about the connect between floating exchange rates and what monetary target the central bank operates. Frankel in one of his papers shows that historically there has been a rather high positive correlation between higher import prices and monetary tightening (currency appreciation) in countries with floating exchange rates and inflation targeting. The mechanism is clear – strict inflation targeting central banks an increase in import prices will cause headline inflation to increase as the aggregate supply curve shots to the left and as the central bank does not differentiate between supply shocks and nominal shocks it will react to a negative supply shock by tightening monetary policy causing the currency to strengthen. Any Market Monetarist would of course tell you that central banks should not react to supply shocks and should allow higher import prices to feed through to higher inflation – this is basically George Selgin’s productivity norm. Very few central banks allow this to happen – just remember the ECB’s two ill-fated rate hikes in 2011, which primarily was a response to higher import prices. Sad, but true.

3) Scott Sumner tells us that monetary policy works with long and variable leads. Expectations are tremendously important for the monetary transmission mechanism. One of the main channels by which monetary policy works in a small-open economy  – with long and variable leads – is the exchange rate channel. Taking the point 2 into consideration any investor would expect the ECB to tighten monetary policy  in responds to a negative supply shock in the form of a increase in import prices. Therefore, we would get an automatic strengthening of the euro if for example oil prices rose. The more credible an inflation target’er the central bank is the stronger the strengthening of the currency. On the other hand if the central bank is not targeting inflation, but instead export prices as Frankel is suggesting or the NGDP level then the currency would not “automatically” tend to strengthen in responds to higher oil prices. Hence, the correlation between the currency and import prices strictly depends on what monetary policy rule is in place.

These three point leads me to the conclusion that inflation targeting really just is a stealth version of the fear-of-floating. So why is that? Well, normally we would talk about the fear-of-floating when the central bank acts and cut rates in responds to the currency strengthening (at a point in time when the state of the economy does not warrant a rate cut). However, in a world of forward-looking investors the currency tends move as-if we had the old-fashioned form of fear-of-floating – it might be that higher oil prices leads to a strengthening of the Norwegian krone, but expectations of interest rate cuts will curb the strengthen of NOK. Similarly the euro is likely to be stronger than it otherwise would have been when oil prices rise as the ECB again and again has demonstrated the it reacts to negative supply shocks with monetary easing.

Exchange rates are not truly floating when we target inflation 

And this lead me to my conclusion. We cannot fundamentally say that currencies are truly floating as long as central banks continue to react to higher import prices due to inflation targeting mandates. We might formally have laid behind us the days of managed exchange rates (at least in North America and Europe), but de facto we have reintroduced it with inflation targeting. As a consequence monetary policy becomes excessively easy (tight) when import prices are dropping (increasing) and this is the recipe for boom-bust. Therefore, floating exchange rates and inflation targeting is not that happy a couple it often is made out to be and we can fundamentally only talk about truly floating exchange rates when monetary policy cease to react to supply shocks.

Therefore, the best way to ensure true exchange rates flexibility is through NGDP level targeting and if we want to manage exchange rates then at least do it by targeting the export price rather than the import price.

PEP, NGDPLT and (how to avoid) Russian monetary policy failure

I am sitting in Riga airport and writing this. I have an early (too early!) flight to Stockholm. I must admit it makes it slightly more fun to sit in an airport when you can do a bit of blogging.

Anyway, I have been giving quite a bit of thought to the Jeff Frankel’s idea about “Peg to the Export Price” (PEP). What Frankel’s is suggesting is that commodity exporters like Russia should peg their currencies to the price of the main commodity they export – in the case of Russia that would of course be the oil price.

This have made me think about the monetary transmission mechanism in an Emerging Market commodity exporter like Russia and how very few people really understand how monetary policy works in an economy like the Russian. I have, however, for more than a decade as part of my day-job spend quite a lot of time analysing the Russian economy so in this post I will try to spell out how I see the last couple of years economic development in Russia from a monetary perspective.

The oil-money nexus and why a higher oil price is a demand shock in Russia

Since the end of communism the Russian central bank has primarily conducted monetary policy by intervening in the currency market and currency intervention remains the Russian central bank’s (CBR) most important policy instrument. (Yes, I know this is a simplification, but bear with me…)

In the present Russian monetary set-up the CBR manages the ruble within a fluctuation band against a basket of euros (45%) and dollars (55%). The composition of the basket has changed over time and the CBR has gradually widened the fluctuation band so one can say that we today has moved closer to a managed or dirty float rather than a purely fixed currency. However, despite of for years having had the official intention of moving to a free float it is very clear that the CBR has a quite distinct “fear of floating”.  The CBR is not alone in this – many central banks around the world suffer from this rather irrational fear. This is also the case for countries in which the central banks officially pursue a floating exchange rate policy. How often have you not heard central bankers complain that the currency is too strong or too weak?

With the ruble being quasi-fixed changes in the money supply is basically determined by currency inflows and outflows and as oil and gas is Russia’s main exports (around 80% of total exports) changes in the oil prices determines these flows and hence the money supply.

Lets say that the global demand for oil increases and as a consequence oil prices increase by 10%. This will more or less lead to an 10% increase in the currency inflow into Russia. With inflows increasing the ruble will tend to strengthen. However, historically the CBR has not been happy to see such inflow translate into a strengthening of the ruble and as a consequence it has intervened in the FX market to curb the strengthening of the ruble. This basically means that that CBR is printing ruble and buying foreign currency. The logic consequence of this is the CBR rather than allowing the ruble to strengthen instead is accumulating ever-larger foreign currency reserves as the oil price is increasing. This basically has been the trend for the last decade or so.

So due to the CBR’s FX policy there is a more or less direct link from rising oil prices to an expansion of the Russian money supply. As we all know MV=PY so with unchanged money-velocity (V) an increase in M will lead to an increase in PY (nominal GDP).

This illustrates a very important point. Normally we tend to associate increases in oil prices with a supply shock. However, in the case of Russia and other oil exporting countries with pegged or quasi-pegged exchange rates an increase in the oil price will be a positive demand shock. Said in another other higher oil prices will push the AD curve to the right. This is also why higher oil prices have not always lead to a higher current account surplus in Russia – higher oil prices will boost private consumption growth and investments growth through an increase in the money supply. This is not exactly good news for the current account.

The point that an increase in oil prices is a demand shock in Russia is illustrated in the graph below. Over the past decade there has been a rather strong positive correlation changes in the price of oil (measured in ruble) and the growth of nominal GDP.

This correlation, however, can only exist as long as the CBR intervenes in the FX market to curb the strengthening of the ruble and if the CBR finally moved to a free floating ruble then the this correlation most likely would break down. Hence, with a freely floating ruble the money supply and hence NGDP would be unaffected by higher or lower oil prices.

PEP would effective have been a ‘productivity norm’ in Russia

So by allowing the ruble to appreciate when oil prices are increase it will effective stabilise the development the money supply and therefore in NGDP. Another way to achieve this disconnect between NGDP and oil prices would be to directly peg the ruble to the oil price. So an increase in the oil price of 10% would directly lead to an appreciation of the ruble of 10% (against the dollar).

As the graph above shows there has been a very close correlation between changes in the oil prices (measured in ruble) and NGDP. Furthermore, over the past decade oil prices has increased around 20% yearly versus the ruble and the yearly average growth of nominal GDP has been the exactly the same. As a consequence had the CBR pegged pegged the ruble a decade ago then the growth of NGDP would likely have averaged 0% per year.

With NGDP growth “pegged” by PEP to 0% we would effectively have had what George Selgin has termed a “productivity norm” in Russia where higher real GDP growth (higher productivity growth) would lead to lower prices. Remember again – if MV=PY and MV is fixed through PEP then any increase in Y will have to lead to lower P. However, as oil prices measured in ruble are fixed it would only be the prices of non-tradable goods (locally produced and consumed goods), which would drop. This undoubtedly would have been a much better policy than the one the CBR has pursued for the last decade – and a boom and bust would have been avoid from 2005 to 2009. (And yes, I assume that nominal rigidities would not have created too large problems).

Russia boom-bust and how tight money cause the 2008-9 crisis in Russia

Anybody who visits Moscow will hear stories of insanely high property prices and especially during the boom years from 2006 to when crisis hit in 2008 property prices exploded in Russia’s big cities such St. Petersburg and Moscow. There is not doubt in my mind that this property market boom was caused my the very steep increase in the Russian money supply which was a direct consequence of the CBR’s fear of floating the ruble. As oil prices where increasing and currency inflows accelerated in 2006-7 the CBR intervened to curb the strengthening of the ruble.

However, the boom came to a sudden halt in 2008, however, unlike what is the common perception the crisis that hit hard in 2008 was not a consequence of the drop in oil prices, but rather as a result of too tight monetary policy. Yes, my friends recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon and that is also the case in Russia!

Global oil prices started to drop in July 2008 and initially the Russian central bank allowed the ruble to weaken. However, as the sell-off in global oil prices escalated in Q3 2008 the CBR clearly started to worry about the impact it would have on ruble. As a consequence the CBR started intervening very heavily in the FX markets to halt the sell-off in the ruble. Obviously to do this the CBR had to buy ruble and sell foreign currency, which naturally lead to drop in the Russian foreign currency reserves of around 200bn dollars in Q3 2008 and a very sharp contraction in the Russian money supply (M2 dropped around 20%!). This misguided intervention in the currency market and the monetary contraction that followed lead to a collapse in Russian property prices and sparked a major banking crisis in Russia – luckily the largest Russian banks was not too badly affected by this a number medium sized banks collapsed in late 2008 and early 2009. As a consequence money velocity also contracted, which further worsened the economic crisis. In fact the drop in real GDP was the latest among the G20 in 2008-9.

…and how monetary expansion brought Russia out of the crisis

As the Russian FX reserve was dwindling in the Autumn 2008 the Russian central bank (probably) realised that either it would cease intervening in the FX or be faced with a situation where the FX reserve would vanish. Therefore by December 2008 the CBR stepped back from the FX market and allowed for a steeper decline in the value of the ruble. As consequence the contraction in the Russian money supply came to an end. Furthermore, as the Federal Reserve finally started to ease US monetary policy in early 2009 global oil prices started to recover and as CBR now did not allow the rub to strengthen at the same pace of rising oil prices the price of oil measured in ruble increase quite a bit in the first half of 2009.

The monetary expansion has continued until today and as a consequence the Russian economy has continued to recover. In fact contrary to the situation in the US and the euro zone one could easily argue that monetary tightening is warranted it in Russia.

Oil prices should be included in the RUB basket

I hope that my arguments above illustrate how the Russian crisis of 2008-9 can be explained by what the great Bob Hetzel calls the monetary disorder view. I have no doubt that if the Russian central bank had allowed for a freely floating ruble then the boom (and misallocation) in 2006-7 would have been reduced significantly and had the ruble been allowed to drop more sharply in line with oil prices in the Autumn of 2008 then the crisis would have been much smaller and banking crisis would likely have been avoided.

Therefore, the policy recommendation must be that the CBR should move to a free float of ruble and I certainly think it would make sense for Russia also to introduce a NGDP level target. However, the Russian central bank despite the promises that the ruble soon will be floated (at the moment the CBR say it will happen in 2013) clearly seems to maintain a fear of floating. Furthermore, I would caution that the quality of economic data in Russia in general is rather pure, which would make a regular NGDP level targeting regime more challenging. At the same time with a relatively underdeveloped financial sector and a generally low level of liquidity in the Russian financial markets it might be challenging to conduct monetary policy in Russian through open market operations and interest rate changes.

As a consequence it might be an idea for Russia to move towards implementing PEP – or rather a variation of PEP. Today the CBR manages the ruble against a basket of euros and dollars and in my view it would make a lot of sense to expand this basket with oil prices. To begin with oil prices could be introduced into the basket with a 20% weight and then a 40% weight for both euros and dollars. This is far from perfect and the goal certainly should still be to move to a free floating ruble, but under the present circumstances it would be much preferable to the present monetary set-up and would strongly reduce the risk of renewed bubbles in the Russian economy and as well as insuring against a monetary contraction in the event of a new sharp sell-off in oil prices.

…as I am finishing this post my taxi is parking in front of my hotel in Stockholm so now you know what you will be able to write going from Latvia to Sweden on an early Wednesday morning. Later today I will be doing a presentation for Danske Bank’s clients in Stockholm. The topics are Emerging Markets and wine economics! (Yes, wine economics…after all I am a proud member for the American Association of Wine Economists).

Should small open economies peg the currency to export prices?

Nominal GDP targeting makes a lot of sense for large currency areas like the US or the euro zone and it make sense that the central bank can implement a NGDP target through open market operations or as with the use of NGDP futures. However, operationally it might be much harder to implement a NGDP target in small open economies and particularly in Emerging Markets countries where there might be much more uncertainty regarding the measurement of NGDP and it will be hard to introduce NGDP futures in relatively underdeveloped and illiquid financial markets in Emerging Markets countries.

I have earlier (see here and here) suggested that a NGDP could be implemented through managing the FX rate – for example through a managed float against a basket of currencies – similar to the praxis of the Singaporean monetary authorities. However, for some time I have been intrigued by a proposal made by Jeffrey Frankel. What Frankel has suggested in a number of papers over the last decade is basically that small open economies and Emerging Markets – especially commodity exporters – could peg their currency to the price of the country’s main export commodity. Hence, for example Russia should peg the ruble to the price of oil – so a X% increase in oil prices would automatically lead to a X% appreciation of the ruble against the US dollar.

Frankel has termed this proposal PEP – Peg the Export Price. Any proponent of NGDP level target should realise that PEP has some attractive qualities.

I would especially from a Market Monetarist highlight two positive features that PEP has in common in (futures based) NGDP targeting. First, PEP would ensure a strict nominal anchor in the form of a FX peg. This would in reality remove any discretion in monetary policy – surely an attractive feature. Second, contrary to for example inflation targeting or price level targeting PEP does not react to supply shocks.

Lets have a closer look at the second feature – PEP and supply shocks. A key feature of NGDP targeting (and what George Selgin as termed the productivity norm) is that it does not distort relative market prices – hence, an negative supply shock will lead to higher prices (and temporary higher inflation) and similarly positive supply shocks will lead to lower prices (and benign deflation). As David Eagle teaches us – this ensures Pareto optimality and is not distorting relative prices. Contrary to this a negative supply shock will lead to a tightening of monetary policy under a inflation targeting regime. Under PEP the monetary authorities will not react to supply shock.

Hence, if the currency is peg to export prices and the economy is hit by an increase in import prices (for example higher oil prices – a negative supply shock for oil importers) then the outcome will be that prices (and inflation) will increase. However, this is not monetary inflation. Hence, what I inspired by David Eagle has termed Quasi-Real Prices (QRPI) have not increased and hence monetary policy under PEP is not distorting relative prices. Any Market Monetarist would tell you that that is a very positive feature of a monetary policy rule.

Therefore as I see it in terms of supply shocks PEP is basically a variation of NGDP targeting implemented through an exchange rate policy. The advantage of PEP over a NGDP target is that it operationally is much less complicated to implement. Take for example Russia – anybody who have done research on the Russian economy (I have done a lot…) would know that Russian economic data is notoriously unreliable. As a consequence, it would probably make much more sense for the Russian central bank simply to peg the ruble to oil prices rather than trying to implement a NGDP target (at the moment the Russian central bank is managing the ruble a basket of euros and dollars).

PEP seems especially to make sense for Emerging Markets commodity exporters like Russia or Latin American countries like Brazil or Chile. Obviously PEP would also make a lot for sense for African commodity exporters like Zambia. Zambia’s main export is copper and it would therefore make sense to peg the Zambian kwacha against the price of copper.

Jeffrey Frankel has written numerous papers on PEP and variations of PEP. Interestingly enough Frankel was also an early proponent of NGDP targeting. Unfortunately, however, he does not discussion the similarities and differences between NGDP targeting and PEP in any of his papers. However, as far as I read his research it seems like PEP would lead to stabilisation of NGDP – at least much more so than a normal fixed exchange regime or inflation targeting.

One aspect I would especially find interesting is a discussion of shocks to money demand (velocity shocks) under PEP. Unfortunately Frankel does not discuss this issue in any of his papers. This is not entirely surprising as his focus is on commodity exporters. However, the Great Recession experience shows that any monetary policy rule that is not able in someway to react to velocity shocks are likely to be problematic in one way or another.

I hope to return to PEP and hope especially to return to the impact of velocity-shocks under PEP.

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Links to Frankel’s papers on PEP etc. can be found on Frankel’s website. See here.

Let the Fed target a Quasi-Real PCE Price Index (QRPCE)

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday said it would target a long-run inflation target of 2%. Some of my blogging Market Monetarist friends are not too happy about this – See Scott Sumner and Marcus Nunes. But I have an idea that might bring the Fed very close to the Market Monetarist position without having to go back on the comments from Wednesday.

We know that the Fed’s favourite price index is the deflator for Private Consumption Expenditure (PCE) for and the Fed tends to adjust this for supply shocks by referring to “core PCE”. Market Monetarists of course would welcome that the Fed would actually targeting something it can influence directly and not react to positive and negative supply shocks. This is kind of the idea behind NGDP level targeting (as well as George Selgin’s Productivity Norm).

Instead of using the core PCE I think the Fed should decomposed the PCE deflator between demand inflation and supply by using a Quasi Real Price Index. I have spelled out how to do this in an earlier post.

In my earlier post I show that demand inflation (pd) can be calculated in the following way:

(1) Pd=n-yp

Where n is nominal GDP growth and yp is trend growth in real GDP.

Private Consumption Expenditure growth and NGDP growth is extremely highly correlated over time and the amplitude in PCE and NGDP growth is nearly exactly the same. Therefore, we can easily calculate Pd from PCE:

(2) Pd=pce-yp

Where pce is the growth rate in PCE. An advantage of using PCE rather than NGDP is that the PCE numbers are monthly rather than quarterly which is the case for NGDP.

Of course the Fed is taking about the “long-run”. To Market Monetarists that would mean that the Fed should target the level rather growth of the index. Hence, we really want to go back to a Price Index.

If we write (2) in levels rather than in growth rates we basically get the following:

(3) QRPCE=PCE/RGDP*

Where QRPCE is what we could term a Quasi-Real PCE Price Index, PCE is the nominal level of Private Consumption Expenditure and RGDP* is the long-term trend in real GDP. Below I show a graph for QRPCE assuming 3% RGDP in the long-run. The scale is natural logarithm.

I have compared the QRPCE with a 2% trend starting the 2000. The starting point is rather arbitrary, but nonetheless shows that Fed policy ensured that QRPCE grew around a 2% growth path in the half of the decade and then from 2004-5 monetary policy became too easy to ensure this target. However, from 2008 QRPCE dropped sharply below the 2% growth path and is presently around 9% below the “target”.

So if the Fed really wants to use a price index based on Private Consumption Expenditure it should use a Quasi-Real Price Index rather than a “core” measure and it should of course state that long-run inflation of 2% means that this target is symmetrical which means that it will be targeting the level for the price index rather the year-on-year growth rate of the index. This would effectively mean that the Fed would be targeting a NGDP growth path around 5% but it would be packaged as price level targeting that ensures 2% inflation in the long run. Maybe Fed chairman Bernanke could be convince that QRPCE is actually the index to look at rather than PCE core? Packaging actually do matter in politics – and maybe that is also the case for monetary policy.

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

I am extremely happy that David Eagle is continuing his series of guest blogs on my blog.

I strongly believe that David’s ideas are truly revolutionary and anybody who takes monetary policy and monetary theory serious should study  these ideas carefully. In this blog David presents what he has termed the “Two Fundamental Welfare Principles of Monetary Economics” as an clear alternative to the ad hoc loss functions being used in most of the New Keynesian monetary literature.

To me David Eagle here provides the clear microeconomic and welfare economic foundation for Market Monetarism. David’s thinking and ideas have a lot in common with George Selgin’s view of monetary theory – particularly in “Less than zero” (despite their clear methodological differences – David embraces math while George use verbal logic). Anybody that reads and understands David’s and George’s research will forever abandon the idea of a “Taylor function” and New Keynesian loss functions.

Enjoy this long, but very, very important blog post.

Lars Christensen

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Guest Blog: The Two Fundamental Welfare Principles of Monetary Economics

by David Eagle

Good Inflation vs. Bad Inflation

At one time, doctors considered all cholesterol as bad.  Now they talk about good cholesterol and bad cholesterol.  Today, most economists considered all inflation uncertainty as bad, at least all core inflation uncertainty.  However, some economists including George Selgin (2002), Evan Koenig (2011), Dale Domian, and myself (and probably most of the market monetarists) believe that while aggregate-demand-caused inflation uncertainty is bad, aggregate-supply-caused inflation or deflation actually improves the efficiency of our economies.  Through inflation or deflation, nominal contracts under Nominal GDP (NGDP) targeting naturally provide the appropriate real-GDP risk sharing between borrowers and lenders, between workers and employers, and more generally between the payers and receivers of any prearranged nominal payment.  Inflation targeting (IT), price-level targeting (PLT), and conventional inflation indexing actually interfere with the natural risk sharing inherent in nominal contracts.

I am not the first economist to think this way as George Selgin (2002, p. 42) reports that “Samuel Bailey (1837, pp. 115-18) made much the same point.”  Also, the wage indexation literature that originated in the 1970s, makes the distinction between demand-induced inflation shocks and supply-induced inflation shocks, although that literature did not address the issue of risk sharing.

The Macroeconomic Ad Hoc Loss Function vs. Parerto Efficiency

The predominant view of most macroeconomists and monetary economists is that all inflation uncertainty is bad regardless the cause.  This view is reflected in the ad hoc loss function that forms the central foundation for conventional macroeconomic and monetary theory.  This loss function is often expressed as a weighted sum of the variances of (i) deviations of inflation from its target and (ii) output gap.  Macro/monetary economists using this loss function give the impression that their analyses are “scientific” because they often use control theory to minimize this function.  Nevertheless, as Sargent and Wallace (1975) noted, the form of this loss function is ad hoc; it is just assumed by the economist making the analysis.

I do not agree with this loss function and hence I am at odds with the vast majority of the macro/monetary economists.  However, I have neoclassical microfoundations on my side – our side when we include Selgin, Bailey, Koenig, Domian, and many of the market monetarists.  This ad hoc social loss function used as the basis for much of macroeconomic and monetary theory is basically the negative of an ad hoc social utility function.  The microeconomic profession has long viewed the Pareto criterion as vastly superior to and more “scientific” than ad hoc social utility functions that are based on the biased preconceptions of economists.  By applying the Pareto criterion instead of a loss function, Dale Domian and I found what I now call, “The Two Fundamental Welfare Principles of Monetary Economics.”  My hope is that these Fundamental Principles will in time supplant the standard ad hoc loss function approach to macro/monetary economics.

These Pareto-theoretic principles support what George Selgin (p. 42) stated in 2002 and what Samuel Bailey (pp. 115-18) stated in 1837.  Some economists have dismissed Selgin’s and Bailey’s arguments as “unscientific.”  No longer can they legitimately do so.  The rigorous application of neoclassical microeconomics and the Pareto criterion give the “scientific” support for Selgin’s and Bailey’s positions.  The standard ad-hoc-loss-function approach in macro- and monetary economics, on the other hand, is based on pulling this ad hoc loss function out of thin air without any “scientific” microfoundations basis.

Macroeconomists and monetary economists have applied the Pareto criterion to models involving representative consumers.  However, representative consumers miss the important ramifications of monetary policy on diverse consumers.  In particular, models of representative consumers miss (i) the well-known distributional effect that borrowers and lenders are affected differently when the price level differs from their expectations, and (ii) the Pareto implications about how different individuals should share in changes in RGDP.

The Two Direct Determinants of the Price Level

Remember the equation of exchange (also called the “quantity equation), which says that MV=N=PY where M is the money supply, V is income velocity, N is nominal aggregate spending as measured by nominal GDP, P is the price level, and Y is aggregate supply as measured by real GDP.  Focusing on the N=PY part of this equation and solving for P, we get:

(1) P=N/Y

This shows there are two and only two direct determinants of the price level:

(i)             nominal aggregate spending as measured by nominal GDP, and

(ii)           aggregate supply as measured by real GDP.

This also means that these are the two and only two direct determinants of inflation.

The Two Fundamental Welfare Principles of Monetary Economics

When computing partial derivatives in calculus, we treat one variable as constant while we vary the other variable.  Doing just that with respect to the direct determinants of the price level leads us to The Two Fundamental Welfare Principles of Monetary Economics:

Principle #1:    When all individuals are risk averse and RGDP remains the same, Pareto efficiency requires that each individual’s consumption be unaffected by the level of NGDP.

Principle #2:    For an individual with average relative risk aversion, Pareto efficiency requires that individual’s consumption be proportional to RGDP.[1]

Dale Domian and I (2005) proved these two principles for a simple, pure-exchange economy without storage, although we believe the essence of these Principles go well beyond pure-exchange economies and apply to our actual economies.

My intention in this blog is not to present rigorous mathematical proofs for these principles.  These proofs are in Eagle and Domian (2005).  Instead, this blog presents these principles, discusses the intuition behind the principles, and gives examples applying the principles.

Applying the First Principle to Nominal Loans:

I begin by applying the First Principle to borrowers and lenders; this application will give the sense of the logic behind the First Principle.  Assume the typical nominal loan arrangement where the borrower has previously agreed to pay a nominal loan payment to the lender at some future date.  If NGDP at this future date exceeds its expected value whereas RGDP is as expected, then the price level must exceed its expected level because P=N/Y.  Since the price level exceeds its expected level, the real value of the loan payment will be lower than expected, which will make the borrower better off and the lender worse off.  On the other hand, if NGDP at this future date is less than its expected value when RGDP remains as expected, then the price level will be less than expected, and the real value of the loan payment will be higher than expected, making the borrower worse off and the lender better off.  A priori both the borrower and the lender would be better off without this price-level risk.  Hence, a Pareto improvement can be made by eliminating this price-level risk.

One way to eliminate this price-level risk is for the central bank to target the price level, which if successful will eliminate the price-level risk; however, doing so will interfere will the Second Principle as we will explain later.  A second way to eliminate this price-level risk when RGDP stays the same (which is when the First Principle applies), is for the central bank to target NGDP; as long as both NGDP and RGDP are as expected, the price level will also be as expected, i.e., no price-level risk..

Inflation indexing is still another way to eliminate this price-level risk.  However, conventional inflation indexing will also interfere with the Second Principle as we will soon learn.

That borrowers gain (lose) and lenders lose (gain) when the price level exceeds (fall short of) its expectations is well known.  However, economists usually refer to this as “inflation risk.” Technically, it is not inflation risk; it is price-level risk, which is especially relevant when we are comparing inflation targeting (IT) with price-level targeting (PLT).

An additional clarification that the First Principle makes clear concerning this price-level risk faced by borrowers and lenders is that risk only applies as long as RGDP stays the same.  When RGDP changes, the Second Principle applies.

Applying the Second Principle to Nominal Loans under IT, PLT, and NT:

The Second Principle is really what differentiates Dale Domian’s and my position and the positions of Bailey, Selgin, and Koenig from the conventional macroeconomic and monetary views.  Nevertheless, the second principle is really fairly easy to understand.  Aggregate consumption equals RGDP in a pure exchange economy without storage, capital, or government.  Hence, when RGDP falls by 1%, aggregate consumption must also fall by 1%.  If the total population has not changed, then average consumption must fall by 1% as well.  If there is a consumer A whose consumption falls by less than 1%, there must be another consumer B whose consumption falls by more than 1%.  While that could be Pareto justified if A has more relative risk aversion than does B, when both A and B have the same level of relative risk aversion, their Pareto-efficient consumption must fall by the same percent.  In particular, when RGDP falls by 1%, then the consumption level of anyone with average relative risk aversion should fall by 1%.  (See Eagle and Domian, 2005, and Eagle and Christensen, 2012, for the basis of these last two statements.)

My presentation of the Second Principle is such that it focuses on the average consumer, a consumer with average relative risk aversion.  My belief is that monetary policy should do what is optimal for consumers with average relative risk aversions rather than for the central bank to second guess how the relative-risk-aversion coefficients of different groups (such as borrowers and lenders) compare to the average relative risk aversion.

Let us now apply the Second Principle to borrowers and lenders where we assume that both the borrowers and the lenders have average relative risk aversion.  (By the way “relative risk aversion” is a technical economic term invented Kenneth Arrow, 1957, and John Pratt, 1964.)  Let us also assume that the real net incomes of both the borrower and the lender other than the loan payment are proportional to RGDP.  Please note that this assumption really must hold on average since RGDP is real income.  Hence, average real income = RGDP/m where m is the number of households, which means average real income is proportional to RGDP by definition (the proportion is 1/m).

The Second Principle says that since both the borrower and lender have average relative risk aversion, Pareto efficiency requires that both of their consumption levels must be proportional to RGDP.  When their other real net incomes are proportional to RGDP, their consumption levels can be proportional to RGDP only if the real value of their nominal loan payment is also proportional to RGDP.

However, assume the central bank successfully targets either inflation or the price level so that the price level at the time of this loan payment is as expected no matter what happens to RGDP.  Then the real value of this loan payment will be constant no matter what happens to RGDP.  That would mean the lenders will be guaranteed this real value of the loan payment no matter what happens to RGDP, and the borrowers will have to pay that constant real value even though their other net real incomes have declined when RGDP declined.  Under successful IT or PLT, borrowers absorb the RGDP risk so that the lenders don’t have to absorb any RGDP risk.  This unbalanced exposure to RGDP risk is Pareto inefficient when both borrowers and lenders have average relative risk aversion as the Second Principle states.

Since IT and PLT violate the Second Principle, we need to search for an alternative targeting regime that will automatically and proportionately adjust the real value of a nominal loan payment when RGDP changes?  Remember that the real value of the nominal loan payment is xt=Xt/P.  Replace P with N/Y to get xt=(Xt/Nt)Yt, which means the proportion of xt to Yt equals Xt/Nt.  When Xt is a fixed nominal payment, the only one way for the proportion Xt/Nt to equal a constant is for Nt to be a known in advance.  That will only happen under successful NGDP targeting.

What this has shown is that the proportionality of the real value of the loan payment, which is needed for the Pareto-efficient sharing of RGDP risk for people with average relative risk aversion, happens naturally with nominal fixed-payment loans under successful NGDP targeting.  When RGDP decreases (increases) while NGDP remains as expected by successful NGDP targeting, the price level increases (decreases), which decreases (increases) the real value of the nominal payment by the same percentage by which RGDP decreases (increases).

The natural ability of nominal contracts (under successful NGDP targeting) to appropriately distribute the RGDP risk for people with average relative risk aversion pertains not just to nominal loan contracts, but to any prearranged nominal contract including nominal wage contracts.  However, inflation targeting and price-level targeting will circumvent the nominal contract’s ability to appropriate distribute this RGDP risk by making the real value constant rather than varying proportionately with RGDP.

Inflation Indexing and the Two Principles:

Earlier in this blog I discussed how conventional inflation indexing could eliminate that price-level risk when RGDP remains as expected, but NGDP drifts away from its expected value.  While that is true, conventional inflation indexing leads to violations in the Second Principle.  Consider an inflation indexed loan when the principal and hence the payment are adjusted for changes in the price level.  Basically, the payment of an inflation-indexed loan would have a constant real value no matter what, no matter what the value of NGDP and no matter what the value of RGDP.  While the “no matter what the value of NGDP” is good for the First Principle, the “no matter what the value of RGDP” is in violation of the Second Principle.

What is needed is a type of inflation indexing that complies with both Principles.  That is what Dale Domian’s and my “quasi-real indexing” does.  It adjusts for the aggregate-demand-caused inflation, but not to the aggregate-supply-caused inflation that is necessary for the Pareto-efficient distribution of RGDP among people with average relative risk aversion.

Previous Literature:

Up until now, I have just mentioned Bailey (1837) and Selgin (2002) without quoting them.  Now I will quote them.  Selgin (2002, p. 42) states, ““ …the absence of unexpected price-level changes” is “a requirement … for avoiding ‘windfall’ transfers of wealth from creditors to debtors or vice-versa.”  This “argument … is perfectly valid so long as aggregate productivity is unchanging. But if productivity is subject to random changes, the argument no longer applies.”  When RGDP increases causing the price level to fall, “Creditors will automatically enjoy a share of the improvements, while debtors will have no reason to complain: although the real value of the debtors’ obligations does rise, so does their real income.”

Also, Selgin (2002, p. 41) reports that “Samuel Bailey (1837, pp. 115-18) made much the same point.  Suppose … A lends £100 to B for one year, and that prices in the meantime unexpectedly fall 50 per cent. If the fall in prices is due to a decline in spending, A obtains a real advantage, while B suffers an equivalent loss. But if the fall in prices is due to a general improvement in productivity, … the enhanced real value of B’s repayment corresponds with the enhanced ease with which B and other members of the community are able to produce a given amount of real wealth. …Likewise, if the price level were … to rise unexpectedly because of a halving of productivity, ‘both A and B would lose nearly half the efficiency of their incomes’, but ‘this loss would arise from the diminution of productive power, and not from the transfer of any advantage from one to the other’.”

The wage indexation literature as founded by Grey and Fischer recognized the difference between unexpected inflation caused by aggregate-demand shocks and aggregate-supply shocks; the main conclusion of this literature is that when aggregate-supply shocks exist, partial rather than full inflation indexing should take place.  Fischer (1984) concluded that the ideal form of inflation indexing would be a scheme that would filter out the aggregate-demand-caused inflation but leave the aggregate-supply-caused inflation intact.  However, he stated that no such inflation indexing scheme had yet been derived, and it would probably be too complicated to be of any practical use.  Dale Domian and I published our quasi-real indexing (QRI) in 1995 and QRI is not that much more complicated than conventional inflation indexing.  Despite the wage indexation literature leading to these conclusions, the distinction between aggregate-demand-caused inflation and aggregate-supply-caused inflation has not been integrated into mainstream macroeconomic theory.  I hope this blog will help change that.

Conclusions:

As the wage indexation literature has realized, there are two types of inflation:  (i) aggregate-demand-caused inflation and (ii) aggregate-supply-caused inflation.  The aggregate-demand-caused inflation is bad inflation because it unnecessary imposes price-level risk on the parties of a prearranged nominal contract.  However, aggregate-supply-caused inflation is good in that that inflation is necessary for nominal contracts to naturally spread the RGDP risk between the parties of the contract.  Nominal GDP targeting tries to keep the bad aggregate-demand-caused unexpected inflation or deflation to a minimum, while letting the good aggregate-supply-caused inflation or deflation take place so that both parties in the nominal contract proportionately share in RGDP risk.  Inflation targeting (IT), price-level targeting (PLT), and conventional inflation indexing interfere with the natural ability of nominal contracts to Pareto efficiently distribute RGDP risk.  Quasi-real indexing, on the other hand, gets rid of the bad inflation while keeping the good inflation.

Note that successful price-level targeting and conventional inflation indexing basically have the same effect on the real value of loan payments.   As such, we can look at conventional inflation indexing as insurance against the central bank not meeting its price-level target.

Note that successfully NGDP targeting and quasi-real indexing have the same effect on the real value of loan payments.  As such quasi-real indexing should be looked at as being insurance against the central bank not meeting its NGDP target.

A couple of exercises some readers could do to get more familiar with the Two Fundamental Welfare Principles of Welfare Economics is to apply them to the mortgage borrowers in the U.S. and to the Greek government since the negative NGDP base drift that occurred in the U.S. and the Euro zone after 2007.  In a future blog I very likely present my own view on how these Principles apply in these cases.

References:

Arrow, K.J. (1965) “The theory of risk aversion” in Aspects of the Theory of Risk Bearing, by Yrjo Jahnssonin Saatio, Helsinki.

Bailey, Samuel (1837) “Money and Its Vicissitudes in Value” (London: Effingham Wilson).

Debreu, Gerard, (1959) “Theory of Value” (New York:  John Wiley & Sons, Inc.), Chapter 7.

Eagle, David & Dale Domian, (2005). “Quasi-Real Indexing– The Pareto-Efficient Solution to Inflation Indexing” Finance 0509017, EconWPA, http://ideas.repec.org/p/wpa/wuwpfi/0509017.html.

Eagle, David & Lars Christensen (2012). “Two Equations on the Pareto-Efficient Sharing of Real GDP Risk,” future URL: http://www.cbpa.ewu.edu/papers/Eq2RGDPrisk.pdf.

Sargent, Thomas and Neil Wallace (1975). “’Rational’ Expectations, the Optimal Monetary Instrument, and the Optimal Money Supply Rule”. Journal of Political Economy 83 (2): 241–254.

Selgin, George (2002), Less than Zero: The Case for a Falling Price Level in a Growing Economy. (London: Institute of Economic Affairs).

Koenig, Evan (2011). “Monetary Policy, Financial Stability, and the Distribution of Risk,” Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas Research Department Working Paper 1111.

Pratt, J. W., “Risk aversion in the small and in the large,” Econometrica 32, January–April 1964, 122–136.

© Copyright (2012) by David Eagle

 


[1] Technically, the Second Principle should replace “average relative risk aversion” with “average relative risk tolerance,” which is from a generalization and reinterpretation by Eagle and Christensen (2012) of the formula Koenig (2011) derived.

Did Japan have a “productivity norm”?

A couple of days ago I stumbled on a comment from George Selgin that made me think of deflation in Japan. Here is George’s comment (from 2009):

“From roughly 1999 through 2005, on the other hand, Japan’s deflation rate did more-or-less match its rate of productivity growth. But by then the Japanese economy was growing again, if only modestly. This happened in part precisely because the Japanese government had at last turned to quantitative easing: had it not done so Japan’s deflation might well have proceeded well beyond productivity-norm bounds. In short, Japan’s case suggests that deflation (insofar as it doesn’t exceed the bounds of productivity growth) and zero interest rates are each of them red-herrings: Japan’s economy tanked when its NGDP growth rate fell dramatically, and it began to recover when the rate stabilized again, even though it stabilized at a very low value. (It has since slumped badly again.)”

So what George is saying is effectively saying is that at least for a period Japan did de facto have a “productivity norm”. I was unaware that George had that view when I sometime ago commented on Japanese deflation. In my comment “Japan’s deflation story is not really a horror story” I argued that “obviously, Japan has deflation because money demand growth consistently outpaces money supply growth. That’s pretty simple. That, however, does not necessarily have to be a problem in the long run if expectations have adjusted accordingly. The best indication that this has happened is that Japanese unemployment in fact is relatively low. So maybe what we are seeing in Japan is a version of George Selgin’s “productivity norm”. I am not saying Japanese monetary policy is fantastic, but it might not be worse than what we are seeing in the US and Europe.”

I have to admit that I wrote that without having a real good look at the Japanese data and before I had written about decomposition of inflation between demand inflation and supply inflation. So when I read George’s comment  I decided to have a look at the Japanese data once again and do a Quasi-Real Price Index for Japan.

The graph below tells the Japanese deflation story.

The graph shows that George is a bit too “optimistic” about how long Japan have had a productivity norm – while George claims that this (unintended!) policy started in 1999 that is not what my decomposition of Japanese inflation shows. In fact Japan saw significant demand deflation until 2003. That said, the period 1999 until 2008 was clearly less deflationary than was the case in the 1990s when monetary policy was strongly deflationary and we saw significant demand deflation. However, it is clear that George to some extent is right and there was clearly a period over the past decade where monetary policy looked liked it followed a productivity norm, but it is also clear – as George states – that from 2007/8 monetary policy turned strongly deflationary once again.

Overall, I am pleasantly surprised by the numbers as it very clearly illustrates the shifts in monetary policy in Japan over the past 30 years. First, it is very clear how Japanese monetary policy was tightened in 1992-93 and remained strongly deflationary until 2002-3, In that regard it is hardly surprisingly that the 1990s is called Japan’s “lost decade”. The fault no doubt is with Bank of Japan – it kept monetary policy in a deflationary mode for nearly a decade.

However, in March 2001 the Bank of Japan announced a policy of quantitative easing. For those who believe that QE does not work they should have a look at my graph. It is very clear indeed that it does work – and from 2002 demand deflation eased off. This by the way coincided with a relatively strong rebound in Japanese growth and the Japanese economy kept on growing nicely until the Bank of Japan reversed its QE policy in 2007. Since then deflation has returned – and once again the Bank of Japan is to blame.

But once again George Selgin is correct – yes, we continued to have headline deflation in the period 2001-2007, but from 2003 this deflation was primarily a result of a positive productivity shock. In that sense the Bank of Japan had a period where it followed a productivity norm. The problem was that this was never a stated policy and as a result Japan was once allowed fall back to demand deflation from 2007.

NGDP targeting would have prevented the Asian crisis

I have written a bit about boom, bust and bubbles recently. Not because I think we are heading for a new bubble – I think we are far from that – but because I am trying to explain why bubbles emerge and what role monetary policy plays in these bubbles. Furthermore, I have tried to demonstrate that my decomposition of inflation between supply inflation and demand inflation based on an Quasi-Real Price Index is useful in spotting bubbles and as a guide for monetary policy.

For the fun of it I have tried to look at what role “relative inflation” played in the run up to the Asian crisis in 1997. We can define “relative inflation” as situation where headline inflation is kept down by a positive supply shock (supply deflation), which “allow” the monetary authorities to pursue a easy monetary policies that spurs demand inflation.

Thailand was the first country to be hit by the crisis in 1997 where the country was forced to give up it’s fixed exchange rate policy. As the graph below shows the risks of boom-bust would have been clearly visible if one had observed the relative inflation in Thailand in the years just prior to the crisis.

When Prem Tinsulanonda became Thai Prime Minister in 1980 he started to implement economic reforms and most importantly he opened the Thai economy to trade and investments. That undoubtedly had a positive effect on the supply side of the Thai economy. This is quite visible in the decomposition of the inflation. From around 1987 to 1995 Thailand experience very significant supply deflation. Hence, if the Thai central bank had pursued a nominal income target or a Selgin style productivity norm then inflation would have been significantly lower than was the case. Thailand, however, had a fixed exchange rate policy and that meant that the supply deflation was “counteracted” by a significant increase in demand inflation in the 10 years prior to the crisis in 1997.

In my view this overly loose monetary policy was at the core of the Thai boom, but why did investors not react to the strongly inflationary pressures earlier? As I have argued earlier loose monetary policy on its own is probably not enough to create bubbles and other factors need to be in play as well – most notably the moral hazard.

Few people remember it today, but the Thai devaluation in 1997 was not completely unexpected. In fact in the years ahead of the ’97-devaluation there had been considerably worries expressed by international investors about the bubble signs in the Thai economy. However, the majority of investors decided – rightly or wrongly – ignore or downplay these risks and that might be due to moral hazard. Robert Hetzel has suggested that the US bailout of Mexico after the so-called Tequila crisis of 1994 might have convinced investors that the US and the IMF would come to the rescue of key US allies if they where to get into economic troubles. Thailand then and now undoubtedly is a key US ally in South East Asia.

What comes after the bust?

After boom comes bust it is said, but does that also mean that a country that have experience a bubble will have to go through years of misery as a result of this? I am certainly not an Austrian in that regard. Rather in my view there is a natural adjustment when a bubble bursts, as was the case in Thailand in 1997. However, if the central bank allow monetary conditions to be tightened as the crisis plays out that will undoubtedly worsen the crisis and lead to a forced and unnecessarily debt-deflation – what Hayek called a secondary deflation. In the case of Thailand the fixed exchange rate regime was given up and that eventually lead to a loosening of monetary conditions that pulled the

NGDP targeting reduces the risk of bubbles and ensures a more swift recovery

One thing is how to react to the bubble bursting – another thing is, however, to avoid the bubble in the first place. Market Monetarists in favour NGDP level targeting and at the moment Market Monetarists are often seen to be in favour of easier monetary policy (at least for the US and the euro zone). However, what would have happened if Thailand had had a NGDP level-targeting regime in place when the bubble started to get out of hand in 1988 instead of the fixed exchange rate regime?

The graph below illustrates this. I have assumed that the Thailand central bank had targeted a NGDP growth path level of 10% (5% inflation + 5% RGDP growth). This was more or less the NGDP growth in from 1980 to 1987. The graph shows that the actually NGDP level increased well above the “target” in 1988-1989. Under a NGDP target rule the Thai central bank would have tightened monetary policy significantly in 1988, but given the fixed exchange rate policy the central bank did not curb the “automatic” monetary easing that followed from the combination of the pegged exchange rate policy and the positive supply shocks.

The graph also show that had the NGDP target been in place when the crisis hit then NGDP would have been allowed to drop more or less in line with what we actually saw. Since 2001-2 Thai NGDP has been more or less back to the pre-crisis NGDP trend. In that sense one can say that the Thai monetary policy response to the crisis was better than was the case in the US and the euro zone after 2008 – NGDP never dropped below the pre-boom trend. That said, the bubble had been rather extreme with the NGDP level rising to more than 40% above the assumed “target” in 1996 and as a result the “necessary” NGDP was very large. That said, the NGDP “gap” would never have become this large if there had been a NGDP target in place to begin with.

My conclusion is that NGDP targeting is not a policy only for crisis, but it is certainly also a policy that significantly reduces the risk of bubbles. So when some argue that NGDP targeting increases the risks of bubble the answer from Market Monetarists must be that we likely would not have seen a Thai boom-bust if the Thai central bank had had NGDP target in the 1990s.

No balance sheet recession in Thailand – despite a massive bubble

It is often being argued that the global economy is heading for a “New Normal” – a period of low trend-growth – caused by a “balance sheet” recession as the world goes through a necessary deleveraging. I am very sceptical about this and have commented on it before and I think that Thai experience shows pretty clearly that we a long-term balance sheet recession will have to follow after a bubble comes to an end. Hence, even though we saw significant demand deflation in Thailand after the bubble busted NGDP never fell below the pre-boom NGDP trend. This is pretty remarkable when the situation is compared to what we saw in Europe and the US in 2008-9 where NGDP was allowed to drop well below the early trend and in that regard it should be noted that Thai boom was far more extreme that was the case in the US or Europe for that matter.

David Davidson and the productivity norm

Mattias Lundbeck research fellow at the Swedish free market think tank Ratio has an interesting link to a paper by Gunnar Örn over at Scott Sumner’s blog. The paper is from 1999 and is in Swedish (so sorry to those of you who do not read and understand Scandinavian…).

The paper reminded me that David Davidson – who was a less well known member of the Stockholm School – was a early proponent of a variation of the productivity norm. Davidson suggested that the monetary authorities should decompose the price index between supply factors and monetary/demand factors. Hence, this is pretty much in line with what I recently have suggested with my Quasi-Real Price Index (strongly inspired by David Eagle). Davidson’s method is different from what I have suggested, but the idea is nonetheless the same.

George Selgin has discussed Davidson’s idea extensively in his research. See for example here from “Less than Zero”:

“In his own attempt to assess the wartime inflation Swedish economist David Davidson came up with an ‘index of scarcity’ showing the extent to which the inflation was due to real as opposed to monetary factors (Uhr, 1975, p. 297). Davidson subtracted his scarcity index from an index of wholesale prices to obtain a residual representing the truly monetary component of the inflation, that is, the component reflecting growth in aggregate nominal spending.”

I hope in the future to be able to follow up on some of Davidson’s work and compare his price decomposition with my method (I should really say David Eagle’s method). Until then we can hope that some of our Swedish friends will pitch in with comments and suggestions.

——-

Mattias has a update on his blog on this comment. See here (Swedish)

 

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