End Europe’s deflationary mess with a 4% nominal GDP (level) target

From the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 the ECB has been more afraid of doing “too much” rather than too little. The ECB has been obsessing about fiscal policy being too easy in the euro zone and about that too easy monetary policy would create bubbles. As a consequence the ECB was overly eager to hike interest rates in 2011 – way ahead of the Federal Reserve started to talk about monetary tightening.

The paradox is that the ECB now is in a situation where nobody can imagine that interest rates should be hiked anytime soon exactly because the ECB’s über tight monetary stance has created a deflationary situation in the euro zone. As a consequence the ECB under the leadership (to the extent the Bundesbank allows it…) of Mario Draghi is trying to come up with all kind of measures to fight the deflationary pressures. Unfortunately the ECB doesn’t seem to understand that what is needed is open-ended quantitative easing with proper targets to change the situation.

Contrary to the situation in Europe the financial markets are increasing pricing in that a rate hike from the Federal Reserve is moving closer and the Fed will be done doing quantitative easing soon. Hence, the paradox is that the Fed is “normalizing” monetary policy much before the ECB is expected to do so – exactly because the Fed has been much less reluctant expanding the money base than the ECB.

The tragic difference between monetary policy in the US and Europe is very visible when we look at the difference in the development in nominal GDP in the euro zone and the US as the graph below shows.

NGDP EZ US

The story is very simple – while both the euro zone and the US were equally hard hit in 2008 and the recovery was similar in 2009-10 everything went badly wrong when the ECB prematurely started to hike interest rates in 2011. As a result NGDP has more or less flat-lined since 2011. This is the reason we are now seeing outright deflation in more and more euro zone countries and inflation expectations have dropped below 2% on most relevant time horizons.

While the Fed certainly also have failed in many ways and monetary policy still is far from perfect in the US the Fed has at least been able to (re)create a considerable degree of nominal stability – best illustrated by the fact that US NGDP basically has followed a straight line since mid-2009 growing an average of 4% per year. This I believe effectively is the Fed’s new target – 4% NGDP level targeting starting in Q2 of 2009.

The ECB should undo the mistakes of 2011 and copy the Fed

I believe it is about time the ECB fully recognizes the mistakes of the past – particularly the two catastrophic “Trichet hikes” of 2011. A way forward could be for the ECB to use the performance of the Fed over the last couple of years as a benchmark. After all the Fed has re-created a considerable level of nominal stability and this with out in any having created the kind of runaway inflation so feared in Frankfurt (by both central banks in the city).

So here is my suggestion. The ECB’s major failure started in April 2011 –  so let that be our starting point. And now lets assume that we want a 4% NGDP path starting at that time. With 2% potential real GDP growth in the euro zone this should over the cycle give us 2% euro zone inflation.

The graph below illustrate the difference between this hypothetical 4% path and the actual level of euro zone NGDP.

EZ NGDP path 4pct

The difference between the 4% path and the actual NGDP level is presently around 7.5%. The only way to close this gap is by doing aggressive and open-ended quantitative easing.

My suggestion would be that the ECB tomorrow should announce the it will close ‘the gap’ as fast as possible by doing open-ended QE until the gap has been closed. Lets pick a number – lets say the ECB did EUR 200bn QE per month starting tomorrow and that the ECB at the same time would announce that it every month would monitor whether the gap was closing or not. This of course would necessitate more than 4% NGDP growth to close the gap – so if for example expected NGDP growth dropped below for example 6-8% then the ECB would further step up QE in steps of EUR 50bn per month. In this regard it is important to remember that it would take as much as 8% yearly NGDP growth to close the gap in two years.

Such policy would course be a very powerful signal to the markets and we would likely get the reaction very fast. First of all the euro would weaken sharply and euro equity prices would shoot up. Furthermore, inflation expectations – particularly near-term inflation expectations would shoot up. This in itself would have a dramatic impact on nominal demand in the European economy and it would in my opinion be possible to close the NGDP gap in two years. When the gap is closed the ECB would just continue to target 4% NGDP growth and start “tapering” and then gradual rate hikes in the exact same way the Fed has done. But first we need to see some action from the ECB.

So Draghi what are you waiting for? Just announce it!

PS some would argue that the ECB is not allowed to do QE at all. I believe that is nonsense. Of course the ECB is allowed to issue money – after all if a central bank cannot issue money what is it then doing? The ECB might of course not be allowed to buy government bonds, but then the ECB could just buy something else. Buy covered bonds, buy equities, buy commodities etc. It is not about what to buy – it is about increasing the money base permanently and stick to the plan.

PPS Yes, yes I fully realize that my suggestion is completely unrealistic in terms of the ECB actually doing it, but not doing something like what I have suggested will condemn the euro zone to Japan-style deflationary pressures and constantly returning banking and public finances problems. Not to mention the risk of nasty political forces becoming more and more popular in Europe.

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Friedman’s Japanese lessons for the ECB

I often ask myself what Milton Friedman would have said about the present crisis and what he would have recommended. I know what the Friedmanite model in my head is telling me, but I don’t know what Milton Friedman actually would have said had he been alive today.

I might confess that when I hear (former?) monetarists like Allan Meltzer argue that Friedman would have said that we were facing huge inflationary risks then I get some doubts about my convictions – not about whether Meltzer is right or not about the perceived inflationary risks (he is of course very wrong), but about whether Milton Friedman would have been on the side of the Market Monetarists and called for monetary easing in the euro zone and the US.

However, today I got an idea about how to “test” indirectly what Friedman would have said. My idea is that there are economies that in the past were similar to the euro zone and the US economies of today and Friedman of course had a view on these economies. Japan naturally comes to mind.

This is what Friedman said about Japan in December 1997:

“Defenders of the Bank of Japan will say, “How? The bank has already cut its discount rate to 0.5 percent. What more can it do to increase the quantity of money?”

The answer is straightforward: The Bank of Japan can buy government bonds on the open market, paying for them with either currency or deposits at the Bank of Japan, what economists call high-powered money. Most of the proceeds will end up in commercial banks, adding to their reserves and enabling them to expand their liabilities by loans and open market purchases. But whether they do so or not, the money supply will increase.

There is no limit to the extent to which the Bank of Japan can increase the money supply if it wishes to do so. Higher monetary growth will have the same effect as always. After a year or so, the economy will expand more rapidly; output will grow, and after another delay, inflation will increase moderately. A return to the conditions of the late 1980s would rejuvenate Japan and help shore up the rest of Asia.”

So Friedman was basically telling the Bank of Japan to do quantitative easing – print money to buy government bonds (not to “bail out” the government, but to increase the money base).

What were the economic conditions of Japan at that time? The graph below illustrates this. I am looking at numbers for Q3 1997 (which would have been the data available when Friedman recommended QE to BoJ) and I am looking at things the central bank can influence (or rather can determine) according to traditional monetarist thinking: nominal GDP growth, inflation and money supply growth. The blue bars are the Japanese numbers.

Now compare the Japanese numbers with the similar data for the euro zone today (Q1 2012). The euro zone numbers are the red bars.

Isn’t striking how similar the numbers are? Inflation around 2-2.5%, nominal GDP growth of 1-1.5% and broad money growth around 3%. That was the story in Japan in 1997 and that is the story in the euro zone today.

Obviously there are many differences between Japan in 1997 and the euro zone today (unemployment is for example much higher in the euro zone today than it was in Japan in 1997), but judging alone from factors under the direct control of the central bank – NGDP, inflation and the money supply – Japan 1997 and the euro zone 2012 are very similar.

Therefore, I think it is pretty obvious. If Friedman had been alive today then his analysis would have been similar to his analysis of Japan in 1997 and his conclusion would have been the same: Monetary policy in the euro zone is far too tight and the ECB needs to do QE to “rejuvenate” the European economy. Any other view would have been terribly inconsistent and I would not like to think that Friedman could be so inconsistent. Allan Meltzer could be, but not Milton Friedman.

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* Broad money is M2 for Japan and M3 for the euro zone.

Related posts:

Meltzer’s transformation
Allan Meltzer’s great advice for the Federal Reserve
Failed monetary policy – (another) one graph version
Jens Weidmann, do you remember the second pillar?

John Williams understands the Chuck Norris effect

Here is ft.com quoting John Williams president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco:

“If the Fed launched another round of quantitative easing, Mr Williams suggested that buying mortgage-backed securities rather than Treasuries would have a stronger effect on financial conditions. “There’s a lot more you can buy without interfering with market function and you maybe get a little more bang for the buck,” he said.

He added that there would also be benefits in having an open-ended programme of QE, where the ultimate amount of purchases was not fixed in advance like the $600bn “QE2” programme launched in November 2010 but rather adjusted according to economic conditions.

“The main benefit from my point of view is it will get the markets to stop focusing on the terminal date [when a programme of purchases ends] and also focusing on, ‘Oh, are they going to do QE3?’” he said. Instead, markets would adjust their expectation of Fed purchases as economic conditions changed.”

Williams is talking about open-ended QE. This is exactly what Market Monetarists have been recommending. The Fed needs to focus on the target and  not on how much QE to do to achieve a given target. Let the market do the lifting – we call it the Chuck Norris effect!
HT Matt O’Brien

The “Dajeeps” Critique and why I am skeptical about QE3

Dajeeps is a frequent commentator on this blog and the other Market Monetarist blogs. Dajeeps also writes her own blog. Dajeeps’s latest post – The Implications of the Sumner Critique to the current Monetary Policy Framework – is rather insightful and highly relevant to the present discussion about whether the Federal Reserve should implement another round of quantitative easing (QE3).

Here is Dajeeps:

“How I came to understand the meaning of the Sumner Critique was in applying it to the question of whether the Fed should embark on another round of QE. I agree with the opponents of more QE, although violently so, because under the current policy framework, the size, duration or promises that might come with it do not matter at all. It will be counteracted as soon as the forecast of expectations breach the 2% core PCE ceiling, if it not before. But in ensuring that policy doesn’t overshoot, which it must do in order to improve economic circumstances, the Fed must sell some assets at a loss or it needs some exogenous negative shock to destroy someone else’s assets. In other words, it has no issue with destroying privately held assets in a mini-nominal shock to bring inflation expectations back down to the 48 month average of 1.1% (that *could be* the Fed-action-free rate) and avoid taking losses on its own assets.”

Said in another way – the Fed’s biggest enemy is itself. If another round of quantitative easing (QE3) would work then it likely would push US inflation above the quasi-official inflation target of 2%. However, the Fed has also “promised” the market that it ensure that it will fulfill this target. Hence, if the inflation target is credible then any attempt by the Fed to push inflation above this target will likely meet a lot of headwind from the markets as the markets will start to price in a tightening of monetary policy once the policy starts to work. We could call this the Dajeeps Critique.

I strongly agree with the Dajeeps Critique and for the same reason I am quite skeptical about the prospects for QE3. Contrary to Dajeeps I do not oppose QE3. In fact I think that monetary easing is badly needed in the US (and even more in the euro zone), but I also think that QE3 comes with some very serious risks. No, I do not fear hyperinflation, but I fear that QE3 will not be successful exactly because the Fed’s insistence on targeting inflation (rather than the price LEVEL or the NGDP LEVEL) could seriously hamper the impact of QE3. Furthermore, I fear that another badly executed round of quantitative easing will further undermine the public and political support for monetary easing – and for NGDP targeting as many wrongly seem to see NGDP targeting as monetary easing.

Skeptical about QE3, but I would support it anyway 

While I am skeptical about QE3 because I fear that Fed would once again do it in the wrong I would nonetheless vote for another round of QE if I was on the FOMC. But I must admit I don’t have high hopes it would help a lot if it would be implemented without a significant change in the way the Fed communicates about monetary policy.

A proper target would be much better

At the core of the problems with QE in the way the Fed (and the Bank of England) has been doing it is that it is highly discretionary in nature. It would be much better that we did not have these discussions about what discretionary changes in policy the Fed should implement. If the Fed had a proper target – a NGDP level target or a price level target – then there would be no discussion about what to expect from the Fed and even better if the policy had been implemented within the framework of a futures based NGDP level target as Scott Sumner has suggested then the money base would automatically be increased or decreased when market expectations for future level of nominal GDP changed.

For these reasons I think it makes more sense arguing in favour of a proper monetary target (NGDP level targeting) and a proper operational framework for the Fed than to waste a lot of time arguing about whether or not the Fed should implement QE3 or not. Monetary easing is badly needed both in the US and the euro zone, but discretionary changes in the present policy framework is likely to only have short-term impact. We could do so much better.

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Related posts:

Steve Horwitz on why he oppose QE3. I disagree with Steve on his arguments and is not opposing QE3, but I understand why he is skeptical

David Glasner on why Steve is wrong opposing QE3. I agree with David’s critique of Steve’s views.

My own post on why NGDP level targeting is the true Free Market alternative – we will only convince our fellow free marketeers if we focus on the policy framework rather than discretionary policy changes such as QE3.

My post on QE in the UK. In my post I among other things discuss why Bank of England’s inflation target has undermined the bank’s attempt to increase nominal spending. This should be a lesson for the Federal Reserve when it hopefully implements QE3.

See also my old post on QE without a proper framework in the UK.

“The impact of QE on the UK economy — some supportive monetarist arithmetic”

Over the last 1-2 decades so-called DSGE (dynamic stochastic general equilibrium) models have become the dominate research tool for central banks around the world. These models certainly have some advantages, but it is notable that these models generally are models without money. Yes, that is right the favourite models of central bankers are not telling them anything about money and the impact of money on the economy. That is not necessarily a major problem when everything is on track and interest rates are well above zero. However, in the present environment with interest rates close to zero in many countries these models become completely worthless in assessing monetary policy.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised this week when I discovered a relatively new working paper – “The impact of QE on the UK economy — some supportive monetarist arithmetic” from the Bank of England (BoE) in which the authors Jonathan Bridges and Ryland Thomas estimate what they call a “broad” monetarist model and use their model(s) to evaluate the impact on the UK economy of BoE’s quantitative easing over the past four years. Here is the paper’s abstract:

“This paper uses a simple money demand and supply framework to estimate the impact of quantitative easing (QE) on asset prices and nominal spending. We use standard money accounting to try to establish the impact of asset purchases on broad money holdings. We show that the initial impact of £200 billion of asset purchases on the money supply was partially offset by other ‘shocks’ to the money supply. Some of these offsets may have been the indirect result of QE. Our central case estimate is that QE boosted the broad money supply by £122 billion or 8%. We apply our estimates of the impact of QE on the money supply to a set of ‘monetarist’ econometric models that articulate the extent to which asset prices and spending need to adjust to make the demand for money consistent with the increased broad money supply associated with QE. Our preferred, central case estimate is that an 8% increase in money holdings may have pushed down on yields by an average of around 150 basis points in 2010 and increased asset values by approximately 20%. This in turn would have had a peak impact on output of 2% by the start of 2011, with an impact on inflation of 1 percentage point around a year later. These estimates are necessarily uncertain and we show the sensitivity of our results to different assumptions about the size of the shock to the money supply and the nature of the transmission mechanism.”

I draw a number of conclusions from the paper. First, the authors clearly show that monetary policy is highly potent. An increase in the money supply via QE will increase nominal GDP and in the short-run also real GDP. Second, the paper has a very good discussion of the monetary transmission mechanism stressing that monetary policy does not primarily work through the central bank’s key policy rate, but rather through changes in a number of asset prices.

The authors’ discussion of the transmission mechanism and the empirical results also clearly refute that money and other assets are perfect substitutes. Therefore, unlike what for example has been suggested by Steven Williamson open market operations will impact nominal income.

I particularly find the discussion of the so-called buffer stock theory of money interesting. The Buffer stock theory, which was developed by among others David Laidler, has had a particularly large impact on British monetarists and in general Bridges and Thomas seem to write in what Tim Congdon has called the British monetarist tradition which stresses the interaction between credit and money more than traditional US monetarists do. British monetarists like Tim Congdon, Gordon Pepper and Patrick Minford – as do Bridges and Thomas – also traditionally have stressed the importance of broad money more than narrow money.

Furthermore, Bridges and Thomas also stress the so-called “hot-potato” effect in monetary policy, something often stressed by Market Monetarists like Nick Rowe and myself for that matter. Here is Bridges and Thomas:

“A further key distinction is the difference between the individual agent’s or sector’s attempt to reduce its money holdings and the adjustment of the economy in the aggregate. An individual can only reduce his surplus liquidity by passing that liquidity on to someone else. This is the genesis of ‘hot potato’ effects where money gets passed on among agents until ultimately the transactions underlying the transfers of deposits lead to sufficient changes in asset prices and/or nominal spending that the demand for money is made equal to supply.”

Even though I think the paper is extremely interesting and clearly confirms some key monetarist positions I must say that I miss a discussion of certain topics. I would particularly stress three topics.

1) A discussion of the property market in the UK monetary transmission mechanism. Traditionally UK monetarists have stressed the importance of the UK property market in the transmission of monetary policy shocks. Bridges and Thomas discuss the importance of the equity market, but the property market is absent in their models. I believe that that likely leads to an underestimation of the potency of UK monetary policy. Furthermore, Bridges and Thomas use the broad FTSE All Shares equity index as an indicator for the stock market. While this obviously makes sense it should also be noted that the FTSE index likely is determined more by global monetary conditions rather than UK monetary conditions. It would therefore be interesting to see how the empirical results would change if a more “local” equity index had been used.

2) The importance of the expectational channel is strongly underestimated. Even though Bridges and Thomas discuss the importance of expectations they do not take that into account in their empirical modeling. There are good reasons for that – the empirical tools are simply not there for doing that well enough. However, it should be stressed that it is not irrelevant under what expectational regime monetary policy operates. The experience from the changes in Swiss monetary and exchange rate policy over the last couple of years clearly shows that the expectational channel is very important. Furthermore, it should be stressed that the empirical results in the paper likely are strongly influenced by the fact that there was significant nominal stability in most of the estimation period. I believe that the failure to fully account for the expectational channel strongly underestimates the potency of UK monetary policy. That said, the BoE has also to a very large degree failed to utilize the expectational channel. Hence, the BoE has maintained and even stressed its inflation target during the “experiments” with QE. Any Market Monetarist would tell you that if you announce monetary easing and at the same time say that it will not increase inflation then the impact of monetary easing is likely to be much smaller than if you for example announced a clear nominal target (preferably an NGDP level target).

In regard to the expectational channel it should also be noted that the markets seem to have anticipated QE from the BoE. As it is noted in the paper the British pound started to depreciate ahead of the BoE initiating the first round of QE. This presents an econometric challenge as one could argue that the start of QE was not the time it was officially started, but rather the point in time when it was being priced into the market. This of course is a key Market Monetarist position – that monetary policy (can) work with long and variable leads. This clearly complicates the empirical analysis and likely also leads to an underestimation of the impact of QE on the exchange rate and hence on the economy in general.

3) The unexplained odd behavior of money-velocity. One of my biggest problems with the empirical results in the paper is the behaviour of money-velocity. Hence, in the paper it is shown that velocity follows a V-shaped pattern following QE. Hence, first velocity drops quite sharply in response to QE and then thereafter velocity rebounds. The authors unfortunately do not really discuss the reasons for this result, which I find hard to reconcile with monetary theory – at least in models with forward-looking agents.

In my view we should expect velocity to increase in connection with the announcement of QE as the expectation of higher inflation will lead to a drop in money demand. So if anything we should expect an inverse V-shaped pattern for velocity following the announcement of QE. This is also quite clearly what we saw in the US in 1933 when Roosevelt gave up the gold standard or in Argentina following the collapse of the currency board in 2002. I believe that Bridges and Thomas’ results are a consequence of failing to appropriately account for the expectational channel in monetary policy.

A simple way to illustrate the expectational channel is by looking at Google searches for “QE” and “Quantitative Easing”. I have done that in Google Insights and it is clear that the expectation (measured by number of Google searches) for QE starts to increase in the autumn of 2008, but really escalates from January 2009 and peaks in March 2009 when the BoE actually initiated QE. It should also be noted that BoE Governor Mervyn King already in January 2009 had hinted quite clearly that the BoE would indeed introduce QE (See here). That said, M4-velocity did continue to drop until the summer of 2009 whereafter velocity rebounded strongly – coinciding with the BoE’s second round of QE.

Despite reservations…

Despite my reservations about parts of Bridges and Thomas’ paper I think it is one of the most insightful papers on QE I have seen from any central bank and I think the paper provides a lot of insight to the monetary transmission mechanism and I think it would be tremendously interesting to see what results a similar empirical study would produce for for example the US economy.

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Related post:

Josh Hendrickson has a great post on his blog The Everyday Economist on the monetary transmission mechanism.

See also my earlier post “Ben Volcker” and the monetary transmission mechanism.

Britmouse just came up with the coolest idea of the year

Our good friend and die hard British market monetarist Britmouse has a new post on his excellent blog Uneconomical. I think it might just be the coolest idea of the year. Here is Britmouse:

“Will the ECB will stand by and let Spain go under?  Spain is a nice country with a fairly large economy.  It’d be a… shame, right?   So if the ECB won’t do anything, I think the UK should act instead.

David Cameron should immediately instruct the Bank of England to print Sterling, exchange it for Euros, and start buying up Spanish government debt.  Spain apparently has about €570bn of debt outstanding, so the Bank could buy, say, all of it.

We all know that the Bank of England balance sheet has no possible effect on the UK economy except when it is used to back changes in Bank Rate.  Right?  So these actions by the Bank can make no difference to, say, the Sterling/Euro exchange rate, and hence no impact on the demand for domestically produced goods and services in the UK.  Right?

Sure, the Bank would take on some credit risk and exchange rate risk.  But they can do all this in the Asset Purchase Facility (used for conventional QE), which already has a indemnity from the Treasury against losses.”

Your reaction will probably be that Britmouse is mad. But you are wrong. He is neither mad nor is he wrong. British NGDP is in decline and the Bank of England need to go back to QE as fast as possible and the best way to do this is through the FX market. Print Sterling and buy foreign currency – this is what Lars E. O. Svensson has called the the foolproof way out of a liquidity trap. And while you are at it buy Spanish government debt for the money. That would surely help curb the euro zone crisis and hence reduce the risk of nasty spill-over to the British economy (furthermore it would teach the ECB as badly needed lesson…). And by the way why do the Federal Reserve not do the same thing?

Obviously this discussion would not be necessary if the ECB would take care of it obligation to ensure nominal stability, but unfortunately the ECB has failed and we are now at a risk of a catastrophic outcome and if the ECB continues to refuse to act other central banks sooner or later are likely to step in.

You can think of Britmouse’ suggestion what you want, but think about it and then you will never again say that monetary policy is out of ammunition.

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Update – this is from a reply below. To get it completely clear what I think…

“Nickikt, no I certainly do not support bailing out either bank or countries. I should of course have wrote that. The reason why I wrote that this is a “cool idea” is that is a fantastic illustration of how the monetary transmission mechanism works and that monetary policy is far form impotent.

So if you ask me the question what I would do if I was on the MPC of Bank of England then I would clearly have voted no to Britmouse’s suggestion. I but I 100% share the frustration that it reflects. That is why I wrote the comment in the way I did.

So again, no I am strongly against bail outs and I fear the consequences in terms of moral hazard. However, Spain’s problems – both in terms of public finances and the banking sector primarily reflects ECB’s tight monetary policy rather than banking or public finance failure. Has there been mistake made in terms and public finances and in terms of the banking sector? Clearly yes, but the main cause of the problems is a disfunctional monetary union and monetary policy failure.”

Monetary disorder – not animal spirits – caused the Great Recession

If one follows the financial media on a daily basis as I do there is ample room to get both depressed and frustrated over the coverage of the financial markets. Often market movements are described as being very irrational and the description of what is happening in the markets is often based on an “understanding” of economic agents as somebody who have huge mood swings due to what Keynes termed animal spirits.

Swings in the financial markets created by these animal spirits then apparently impact the macroeconomy through the impact on investment and private consumption. In this understanding markets move up and down based on rather irrational mood swings among investors. This is what Robert Hetzel has called the “market disorder”-view. It is market imperfections and particularly the animal spirits of investors which created swings not only in the markets, but also in the financial markets. Bob obviously in his new book convincingly demonstrates that this “theory” is grossly flawed and that animal spirits is not the cause of neither the volatility in the markets nor did animal spirits cause the present crisis.

The Great Recession is a result of numerous monetary policy mistakes – this is the “monetary disorder”-view – rather than a result of irrational investors behaving as drunken fools. This is very easy to illustrate. Just have a look first at S&P500 during the Great Recession.

The 6-7 phases of the Great Recession – so far

We can basically spot six or seven overall phases in S&P500 since the onset of the crisis. In my view all of these phases or shifts in “market sentiment” can easy be shown to coincide with monetary policy changes from either the Federal Reserve or the ECB (or to some extent also the PBoC).

We can start out with the very unfortunate decision by the ECB to hike interest rates in July 2008. Shortly after the ECB hike the S&P500 plummeted (and yes, yes Lehman Brother collapses in the process). The free fall in S&P500 was to some extent curbed by relatively steep interest rate reductions in the Autumn of 2008 from all of the major central banks in the world. However, the drop in the US stock markets did not come to an end before March 2009.

March-April 2009: TAF and dollar swap lines

However, from March-April 2009 the US stock markets recovered strongly and the recovery continued all through 2009. So what happened in March-April 2009? Did all investors suddenly out of the blue become optimists? Nope. From early March the Federal Reserve stepped up its efforts to improve its role as lender-of-last resort. The de facto collapse of the Fed primary dealer system in the Autumn of 2008 had effective made it very hard for the Fed to function as a lender-of-last-resort and effectively the Fed could not provide sufficient dollar liquidity to the market. See more on this topic in George Selgin’s excellent paper  “L Street: Bagehotian Prescriptions for a 21st-Century Money Market”.

Here especially the two things are important. First, the so-called Term Auction Facility (TAF). TAF was first introduced in 2007, but was expanded considerably on March 9 2009. This is also the day the S&P500 bottomed out! That is certainly no coincidence.

Second, on April 9 when the Fed announced that it had opened dollar swap lines with a number of central banks around the world. Both measures significantly reduced the lack of dollar liquidity. As a result the supply of dollars effectively was increased sharply relatively to the demand for dollars. This effectively ended the first monetary contraction during the early stage of the Great Recession and the results are very visible in S&P500.

This as it very clear from the graph above the Fed’s effects to increase the supply of dollar liquidity in March-April 2009 completely coincides with the beginning of the up-leg in the S&P500. It was not animal spirits that triggered the recovery in S&P500, but rather easier monetary conditions.

January-April 2010: Swap lines expiry, Chinese monetary tightening and Fed raises discount rate

The dollar swap lines expired February 1 2010. That could hardly be a surprise to the markets, but nonetheless this seem to have coincided with the S&P500 beginning to loose steam in the early part of 2010. However, it was probably more important that speculation grew in the markets that global central banks could move to tighten monetary conditions in respond to the continued recovery in the global economy at that time.

On January 12 2010 the People’s Bank of China increased reserve requirements for the Chinese banks. In the following months the PBoC moved to tighten monetary conditions further. Other central banks also started to signal future monetary tightening.

Even the Federal Reserve signaled that it might be reversing it’s monetary stance. Hence, on February 18 2010 the Fed increased the discount rate by 25bp. The Fed insisted that it was not monetary tightening, but judging from the market reaction it could hardly be seen by investors as anything else.

Overall the impression investors most have got from the actions from PBoC, the Fed and other central banks in early 2010 was that the central banks now was moving closer to initiating monetary tightening. Not surprisingly this coincides with the S&P500 starting to move sideways in the first half of 2010. This also coincides with the “Greek crisis” becoming a market theme for the first time.

August 27 2010: Ben Bernanke announces QE2 and stock market takes off again

By mid-2010 it had become very clear that talk of monetary tightening had bene premature and the Federal Reserve started to signal that a new round of monetary easing might be forthcoming and on August 27 at his now famous Jackson Hole speech Ben Bernanke basically announced a new round quantitative easing – the so-called QE2. The actual policy was not implemented before November, but as any Market Monetarist would tell you – it is the Chuck Norris effect of monetary policy: Monetary policy mainly works through expectations.

The quasi-announcement of QE2 on August 27 is pretty closely connected with another up-leg in S&P500 starting in August 2010. The actual upturn in the market, however, started slightly before Bernanke’s speech. This is probably a reflection that the markets started to anticipate that Bernanke was inching closer to introducing QE2. See for example this news article from early August 2010. This obviously is an example of Scott Sumner’s point that monetary policy works with long and variable leads. Hence, monetary policy might be working before it is actually announced if the market start to price in the action beforehand.

April and July 2011: The ECB’s catastrophic rate hikes

The upturn in the S&P500 lasted the reminder of 2010 and continued into 2011, but commodity prices also inched up and when two major negative supply shocks (revolutions in Northern Africa and the Japanese Tsunami) hit in early 2011 headline inflation increased in the euro zone. This triggered the ECB to take the near catastrophic decision to increase interest rates twice – once in April and then again in July. At the same time the ECB also started to scale back liquidity programs.

The market movements in the S&P500 to a very large extent coincide with the ECB’s rate hikes. The ECB hiked the first time on April 7. Shortly there after – on April 29 – the S&P500 reached it’s 2011 peak. The ECB hiked for the second time on July 7 and even signaled more rate hikes! Shortly thereafter S&P500 slumped. This obviously also coincided with the “euro crisis” flaring up once again.

September-December 2011: “Low for longer”, Operation twist and LTRO – cleaning up your own mess

The re-escalation of the European crisis got the Federal Reserve into action. On September 9 2011 the FOMC announced that it would keep interest rates low at least until 2013. Not exactly a policy that is in the spirit of Market Monetarism, but nonetheless a signal that the Fed acknowledged the need for monetary easing. Interestingly enough September 9 2011 was also the date where the three-month centered moving average of S&P500 bottomed out.

On September 21 2011 the Federal Reserve launched what has come to be known as Operation Twist. Once again this is certainly not a kind of monetary operation which is loved by Market Monetarists, but again at least it was an signal that the Fed acknowledged the need for monetary easing.

The Fed’s actions in September pretty much coincided with S&P500 starting a new up-leg. The recovery in S&P500 got further imputes after the ECB finally acknowledged a responsibility for cleaning up the mess after the two rate hikes earlier in 2011 and on December 8 the ECB introduced the so-called 3-year longer-term refinancing operations (LTRO).

The rally in S&P500 hence got more momentum after the introduction of the 3-year LTRO in December 2011 and the rally lasted until March-April 2012.

The present downturn: Have a look at ECB’s new collateral rules

We are presently in the midst of a new crisis and the media attention is on the Greek political situation and while the need for monetary policy easing in the euro zone finally seem to be moving up on the agenda there is still very little acknowledgement in the general debate about the monetary causes of this crisis. But again we can explain the last downturn in S&P500 by looking at monetary policy.

On March 23 the ECB moved to tighten the rules for banks’ use of assets as collateral. This basically coincided with the S&P500 reaching its peak for the year so far on March 19 and in the period that has followed numerous European central bankers have ruled out that there is a need for monetary easing (who are they kidding?)

Conclusion: its monetary disorder and not animal spirits

Above I have tried to show that the major ups and downs in the US stock markets since 2008 can be explained by changes monetary policy by the major central banks in the world. Hence, the volatility in the markets is a direct consequence of monetary policy failure rather than irrational investor behavior. Therefore, the best way to ensure stability in the financial markets is to ensure nominal stability through a rule based monetary policy. It is time for central banks to do some soul searching rather than blaming animal spirits.

This in no way is a full account of the causes of the Great Recession, but rather meant to show that changes in monetary policy – rather than animal spirits – are at the centre of market movements over the past four years. I have used the S&P500 to illustrate this, but a similar picture would emerge if the story was told with US or German bond yields, inflation expectations, commodity prices or exchange rates.

Appendix: Some Key monetary changes during the Great Recession

July 2008: ECB hikes interest rates

March-April 2009: Fed expand TAF and introduces dollar swap lines

January-April 2010: Swap lines expiry, Chinese monetary tightening and Fed raises discount rate

August 27 2010: Bernanke announces QE2

April and July 2011: The ECB hike interest rates twice

September-December 2011: Fed announces policy to keep rate very low until the end of 2013 and introduces “operation twist”. The ECB introduces the 3-year LTRO

March 2012: ECB tightens collateral rules

International monetary disorder – how policy mistakes turned the crisis into a global crisis

Most Market Monetarist bloggers have a fairly US centric perspective (and from time to time a euro zone focus). I have however from I started blogging promised to cover non-US monetary issues. It is also in the light of this that I have been giving attention to the conduct of monetary policy in open economies – both developed and emerging markets. In the discussion about the present crisis there has been extremely little focus on the international transmission of monetary shocks. As a consequences policy makers also seem to misread the crisis and why and how it spread globally. I hope to help broaden the discussion and give a Market Monetarist perspective on why the crisis spread globally and why some countries “miraculously” avoided the crisis or at least was much less hit than other countries.

The euro zone-US connection

– why the dollar’ status as reserve currency is important

In 2008 when crisis hit we saw a massive tightening of monetary conditions in the US. The monetary contraction was a result of a sharp rise in money (dollar!) demand and as the Federal Reserve failed to increase the money supply we saw a sharp drop in money-velocity and hence in nominal (and real) GDP. Hence, in the US the drop in NGDP was not primarily driven by a contraction in the money supply, but rather by a drop in velocity.

The European story is quite different. In Europe the money demand also increased sharply, but it was not primarily the demand for euros, which increased, but rather the demand for US dollars. In fact I would argue that the monetary contraction in the US to a large extent was a result of European demand for dollars. As a result the euro zone did not see the same kind of contraction in money (euro) velocity as the US. On the other hand the money supply contracted somewhat more in the euro zone than in the US. Hence, the NGDP contraction in the US was caused by a contraction in velocity, but in the euro zone the NGDP contraction was caused to drop by both a contraction in velocity and in the money supply. Reflecting a much less aggressive response by the ECB than by the Federal Reserve.

To some extent one can say that the US economy was extraordinarily hard hit because the US dollar is the global reserve currency. As a result global demand for dollar spiked in 2008, which caused the drop in velocity (and a sharp appreciation of the dollar in late 2008).

In fact I believe that two factors are at the centre of the international transmission of the crisis in 2008-9.

First, it is key to what extent a country’s currency is considered as a safe haven or not. The dollar as the ultimate reserve currency of the world was the ultimate safe haven currency (and still is) – as gold was during the Great Depression. Few other currencies have a similar status, but the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen have a status that to some extent resembles that of the dollar. These currencies also appreciated at the onset of the crisis.

Second, it is completely key how monetary policy responded to the change in money demand. The Fed failed to increase the money supply enough to the increase in the dollar demand (among other things because of the failure of the primary dealer system). On the other hand the Swiss central bank (SNB) was much more successful in responding to the sharp increase in demand for Swiss franc – lately by introducing a very effective floor for EUR/CHF at 1.20. This means that any increase in demand for Swiss franc will be met by an equally large increase in the Swiss money supply. Had the Fed implemented a similar policy and for example announced in September 2008 that it would not allow the dollar to strengthen until US NGDP had stopped contracting then the crisis would have been much smaller and would long have been over.

Why was the contraction so extreme in for example the PIIGS countries and Russia?

While the Fed failed to increase the money supply enough to counteract the increase in dollar demand it nonetheless acted through a number of measures. Most notably two (and a half) rounds of quantitative easing and the opening of dollar swap lines with other central banks in the world. Other central banks faced bigger challenges in terms of the possibility – or rather the willingness – to respond to the increase in dollar demand. This was especially the case for countries with fixed exchanges regimes – for example Denmark, Bulgaria and the Baltic States – and countries in currencies unions – most notably the so-called PIIGS countries.

I have earlier showed that when oil prices dropped in 2008 the Russian ruble started depreciated (the demand for ruble dropped). However, the Russian central bank would not accept the drop in the ruble and was therefore heavily intervening in the currency market to curb the ruble depreciation. The result was a 20% contraction in the Russian money supply in a few months during the autumn of 2008. As a consequence Russia saw the biggest real GDP contraction in 2009 among the G20 countries and rather unnecessary banking crisis! Hence, it was not a drop in velocity that caused the Russian crisis but the Russian central bank lack of willingness to allow the ruble to depreciate. The CBR suffers from a distinct degree of fear-of-floating and that is what triggered it’s unfortunate policy response.

The ultimate fear-of-floating is of course a pegged exchange rate regime. A good example is Latvia. When the crisis hit the Latvian economy was already in the process of a rather sharp slowdown as the bursting of the Latvian housing bubble was unfolding. However, in 2008 the demand for Latvian lat collapsed, but due to the country’s quasi-currency board the lat was not allowed to depreciate. As a result the Latvian money supply contracted sharply and send the economy into a near-Great Depression style collapse and real GDP dropped nearly 30%. Again it was primarily the contraction in the money supply rather and a velocity collapse that caused the crisis.

The story was – and still is – the same for the so-called PIIGS countries in the euro zone. Take for example the Greek central bank. It is not able to on it’s own to increase the money supply as it is part of the euro area. As the crisis hit (and later escalated strongly) banking distress escalated and this lead to a marked drop in the money multiplier and drop in bank deposits. This is what caused a very sharp drop in the Greek board money supply. This of course is at the core of the Greek crisis and this has massively worsened Greece’s debt woes.

Therefore, in my view there is a very close connection between the international spreading of the crisis and the currency regime in different countries. In general countries with floating exchange rates have managed the crisis much better than countries with countries with pegged or quasi-pegged exchange rates. Obviously other factors have also played a role, but at the key of the spreading of the crisis was the monetary policy and exchange rate regime in different countries.

Why did Sweden, Poland and Turkey manage the crisis so well?

While some countries like the Baltic States or the PIIGS have been extremely hard hit by the crisis others have come out of the crisis much better. For countries like Poland, Turkey and Sweden nominal GDP has returned more or less to the pre-crisis trend and banking distress has been much more limited than in other countries.

What do Poland, Turkey and Sweden have in common? Two things.

First of all, their currencies are not traditional reserve currencies. So when the crisis hit money demand actually dropped rather increased in these countries. For an unchanged supply of zloty, lira or krona a drop in demand for (local) money would actually be a passive or automatic easing of monetary condition. A drop in money demand would also lead these currencies to depreciate. That is exactly what we saw in late 2008 and early 2009. Contrary to what we saw in for example the Baltic States, Russia or in the PIIGS the money supply did not contract in Poland, Sweden and Turkey. It expanded!

And second all three countries operate floating exchange rate regimes and as a consequence the central banks in these countries could act relatively decisively in 2008-9 and they made it clear that they indeed would ease monetary policy to counter the crisis. Avoiding crisis was clearly much more important than maintaining some arbitrary level of their currencies. In the case of Sweden and Turkey growth rebound strongly after the initial shock and in the case of Poland we did not even have negative growth in 2009. All three central banks have since moved to tighten monetary policy – as growth has remained robust. The Swedish Riksbank is, however, now on the way back to monetary easing (and rightly so…)

I could also have mentioned the Canada, Australia and New Zealand as cases where the extent of the crisis was significantly reduced due to floating exchange rates regimes and a (more or less) proper policy response from the local central banks.

Fear-of-floating via inflation targeting

Some countries fall in the category between the PIIGS et al and Sweden-like countries. That is countries that suffer from an indirect form of fear-of-floating as a result of inflation targeting. The most obvious case is the ECB. Unlike for example the Swedish Riksbank or the Turkish central bank (TCMB) the ECB is a strict inflation targeter. The ECB does target headline inflation. So if inflation increases due to a negative supply shock the ECB will move to tighten monetary policy. It did so in 2008 and again in 2011. On both occasions with near-catastrophic results. As I have earlier demonstrated this kind of inflation targeting will ensure that the currency will tend to strengthen (or weaken less) when import prices increases. This will lead to an “automatic” fear-of-floating effect. It is obviously less damaging than a strict currency peg or Russian style intervention, but still can be harmful enough – as it clear has been in the case of the euro zone.

Conclusion: The (international) monetary disorder view explains the global crisis

I hope to have demonstrated above that the increase in dollar demand in 2008 not only hit the US economy but also lead to a monetary contraction in especially Europe. Not because of an increase demand for euro, lats or rubles, but because central banks tighten monetary policy either directly or indirectly to “manage” the weakening of their currencies. Or because they could not ease monetary policy as member of the euro zone. In the case of the ECB the strict inflation targeting regime let the ECB to fail to differentiate between supply and demand shocks which undoubtedly have made things a lot worse.

The international transmission was not caused by “market disorder”, but by monetary policy failure. In a world of freely floating exchange rates (or PEP – currencies pegged to export prices) and/or NGDP level targeting the crisis would never have become a global crisis and I certainly would have no reason to write about it four-five years after the whole thing started.

Obviously, the “local” problems would never have become any large problem had the Fed and the ECB got it right. However, the both the Fed and the ECB failed – and so did monetary policy in a number of other countries.

DISCLAIMER: I have discussed different countries in this post. I would however, stress that the different countries are used as examples. Other countries – both the good, the bad and the ugly – could also have been used. Just because I for example highlight Poland, Turkey and Sweden as good examples does not mean that these countries did everything right. Far from it. The Polish central bank had horrible communication in early 2009 and was overly preoccupied the weakening of the zloty. The Turkish central bank’s communication was horrific last year and the Sweden bank has recently been far too reluctant to move towards monetary easing. And I might even have something positive to say about the ECB, but let me come back on that one when I figure out what that is (it could take a while…) Furthermore, remember I often quote Milton Friedman for saying you never should underestimate the importance of luck of nations. The same goes for central banks.

PS You are probably wondering, “Why did Lars not mention Asia?” Well, that is easy – the Asian economies in general did not have a major funding problem in US dollar (remember the Asian countries’ general large FX reserve) so dollar demand did not increase out of Asia and as a consequence Asia did not have the same problems as Europe. Long story, but just show that Asia was not key in the global transmission of the crisis and the same goes for Latin America.

PPS For more on the distinction between the ‘monetary disorder view’ and the ‘market disorder view’ in Hetzel (2012).

Allan Meltzer’s great advice for the Federal Reserve

Here is Allan Meltzer’s great advice on US monetary policy:

“Repeatedly, the message has been to reduce tax rates permanently… A permanent tax cut was supposed to do what previous fiscal efforts had failed to do — generate sustained expansion of the American economy. 

No one should doubt that an expansion is desirable for US… and the rest of the world…The US government has watched the economy stagnate much too long. A policy change is long overdue. 

The problem with the advice (about fiscal easing) is that few would, and none should, believe that the US can reduce tax rates permanently. US has run big budget deficits for the past five years and accumulated a large debt that must be serviced at considerably higher interest rates in the future … And the US must soon start to finance large prospective deficits for old age pensions and health care. There is no way to finance these current and future liabilities that will not involve higher future tax rates… 

It is wrong when somebody tells the American to maintain the value of the dollar…The fluctuating rate system should work both ways. Strong economies appreciate; weak economies depreciate. 

What is the alternative? Deregulation is desirable, but it will do its work slowly. If temporary tax cuts are saved, not spent, and permanent tax cuts are impossible, the US choice is between devaluation and renewed deflation. The deflationary solution runs grave risks. Asset prices would continue to fall. Investors anticipating further asset price declines would have every reason to hold cash and wait for better prices. The fragile banking system would face larger losses as asset prices fell. 

Monetary expansion and devaluation is a much better solution. An announcement by the Federal Reserve and the government that the aim of policy is to prevent deflation and restore growth by providing enough money to raise asset prices would change beliefs and anticipations. Rising asset prices, including land and property prices, would revive markets for these assets once the public became convinced that the policy would be sustained. 

The volume of “bad loans” at US banks is not a fixed sum. Rising asset prices would change some loans from bad to good, thereby improving the position of the banking system. Faster money growth would add to the banks’ ability to make new loans, encouraging business expansion.

This program can work only if the exchange rate is allowed to depreciate. Five years of lowering interest rates has shown that there is no way to maintain the exchange rate and generate monetary expansion…

…Some will see devaluation as an attempt by the US to expand through exporting. This is a half-truth. Devaluation will initially increase US exports and reduce imports. As the economy recovers, incomes will rise. Rising incomes are the surest way of generating imports of raw materials and sub-assemblies from US trading partners.

Let money growth increase until asset prices start to rise.”

I think Allan Meltzer as a true monetarist presents a very strong case for US monetary easing and at the same time acknowledges that fiscal policy is irrelevant. Furthermore, Meltzer makes a forceful argument that if monetary policy is eased then that would significantly ease financial sector distress. The readers of my blog should not be surprised that Allan Meltzer always have been one of my favourite economists.

Meltzer indirectly hints that he wants the Federal Reserve to target asset prices. I am not sure how good an idea that is. After all what asset prices are we talking about? Stock prices? Bond prices? Or property prices? Much better to target the nominal GDP target level, but ok stock prices do indeed tend to forecast the future NGDP level pretty well.

OK, I admit it…I have been cheating! Allan Meltzer did indeed write this (or most of it), but he as not writing about the US. He was writing about Japan in 1999 (So I changed the text a little). It would be very interesting hearing why Dr. Meltzer thinks monetary easing is wrong for the US today, but right for Japan in 1999. Why would Allan Meltzer be against a NGDP target rule that would bring the US NGDP level back to the pre-crisis trend and then there after target a 3%, 4% or 5% growth path as suggested by US Market Monetarists such as Scott Sumner, Bill Woolsey and David Beckworth?

 

There is no such thing as fiscal policy – and that goes for Japan as well

Scott Sumner has a comment on Japan’s ”lost decades” and the importance of fiscal policy in Japan. Scott acknowledges based on comments from Paul Krugman and Tim Duy that in fact Japan has not had two lost decades. Scott also discusses whether fiscal policy has been helpful in reviving growth in the past decade in Japan.

I have written a number of comments on Japan (see here, here and here).

I have two main conclusions in these comments:

1)   Japan only had one “lost decade” and not two. The 1990s obviously was a disaster, but over the past decade Japan has grown in line with other large developed economies when real GDP growth is adjust for population growth. (And yes, 2008 was a disaster in Japan as well).

2)   Monetary policy is at the centre of these developments. Once the Bank of Japan introduced Quantitative Easing Japan pulled out of the slump (Until BoJ once again in 2007 gave up QE and allowed Japan to slip back to deflation). Se especially my post “Japan shows QE works”.

This graph of GDP/capita in the G7 proves the first point.

Second my method of decomposition of demand and supply inflation – the so-called Quasi-Real Price Index – shows that once Bank of Japan in 2001 introduced QE Japanese demand deflation eased and from 2004 to 2007 the deflation in Japan only reflected supply deflation while demand inflation was slightly positive or zero. This coincided with Japanese growth being revived. The graph below illustrates this.

Obviously the Bank of Japan’s policies during the past decades have been far from optimal, but the experience clearly shows that monetary policy is very powerful and even BoJ’s meagre QE program was enough to at least bring back growth to the Japanese economy.

Furthermore, it is clear that Japan’s extremely weak fiscal position to a large extent can be explained by the fact that BoJ de facto has been targeting 0% NGDP growth rather than for example 3% or 5% NGDP growth. I basically don’t think that there is a problem with a 0% NGDP growth path target if you start out with a totally unleveraged economy – one can hardly say Japan did that. The problem is that BoJ changed its de facto NGDP target during the 1990s. As a result public debt ratios exploded. This is similar to what we see in Europe today.

So yes, it is obvious that Japan can’t not afford “fiscal stimulus” – as it today is the case for the euro zone countries. But that discussion in my view is totally irrelevant! As I recently argued, there is no such thing as fiscal policy in the sense Keynesians claim. Only monetary policy can impact nominal spending and I strongly believe that fiscal policy has very little impact on the Japanese growth pattern over the last two decades.

Above I have basically added nothing new to the discussion about Japan’s lost decade (not decades!) and fiscal and monetary policy in Japan, but since Scott brought up the issue I thought it was an opportunity to remind my readers (including Scott) that I think that the Japanese story is pretty simple, but also that it is wrong that we keep on talking about Japan’s lost decades. The Japanese story tells us basically nothing new about fiscal policy (but reminds us that debt ratios explode when NGDP drops), but the experience shows that monetary policy is terribly important.

——–

PS I feel pretty sure that if the Bank of Japan and the ECB tomorrow announced that they would target an increase in NGDP of 10 or 15% over the coming two years and thereafter would target a 4% NGDP growth path then all talk of “lost decades”, the New Normal and fiscal crisis would disappear very fast. Well, the same would of course be true for the US.

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