NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative (we try again)

Most of the blogging Market Monetarists have their roots in a strong free market tradition and nearly all of us would probably describe ourselves as libertarians or classical liberal economists who believe that economic allocation is best left to market forces. Therefore most of us would also tend to agree with general free market positions regarding for example trade restrictions or minimum wages and generally consider government intervention in the economy as harmful.

I think that NGDP targeting is totally consistent with these general free market positions – in fact I believe that NGDP targeting is the monetary policy regime which best ensures well-functioning and undistorted free markets. I am here leaving aside the other obvious alternative, which is free banking, which my readers would know that I have considerable sympathy for.

However, while NGDP targeting to me is the true free market alternative this is certainly not the common view among free market oriented economists. In fact I find that most of the economists who I would normally agree with on other issues such as labour market policies or trade policy tend to oppose NGDP targeting. In fact most libertarian and conservative economists seem to think of NGDP targeting as some kind of quasi-keynesian position. Below I will argue why this perception of NGDP targeting is wrong and why libertarians and conservatives should embrace NGDP targeting as the true free market alternative.

Why is NGDP targeting the true free market alternative?

I see six key reasons why NGDP level targeting is the true free market alternative:

1) NGDP targeting is ”neutral” – hence unlike under for example inflation targeting NGDPLT do not distort relative prices – monetary policy “ignores” supply shocks.
2) NGDP targeting will not distort the saving-investment decision – both George Selgin and David Eagle argue this very forcefully.
3) NGDP targeting ”emulates” the Free Banking allocative outcome.
4) Level targeting minimizes the amount of discretion and maximises the amount of accountability in the conduct of monetary policy. Central banks cannot get away with “forgetting” about past mistakes. Under NGDP level targeting there is no letting bygones-be-bygones.
5) A futures based NGDP targeting regime will effective remove all discretion in monetary policy.
6) NGDP targeting is likely to make the central bank “smaller” than under the present regime(s). As NGDP targeting is likely to mean that the markets will do a lot of the lifting in terms of implementing monetary policy the money base would likely need to be expanded much less in the event of a negative shock to money velocity than is the case under the present regimes in for example the US or the euro zone. Under NGDP targeting nobody would be calling for QE3 in the US at the moment – because it would not be necessary as the markets would have fixed the problem.

So why are so many libertarians and conservatives sceptical about NGDP targeting?

Common misunderstandings:

1) NGDP targeting is a form of “countercyclical Keynesian policy”. However, Market Monetarists generally see recessions as a monetary phenomenon, hence monetary policy is not supposed to be countercyclical – it is supposed to be “neutral” and avoid “generating” recessions. NGDP level targeting ensures that.
2) Often the GDP in NGDP is perceived to be real GDP. However, NGDP targeting does not target RGDP. NGDP targeting is likely to stabilise RGDP as monetary shocks are minimized, but unlike for example inflation targeting the central bank will NOT react to supply shocks and as such NGDP targeting means significantly less “interference” with the natural order of things than inflation targeting.
3) NGDP targeting is discretionary. On the contrary NGDP targeting is extremely ruled based, however, this perception is probably a result of market monetarists call for easier monetary policy in the present situation in the US and the euro zone.
4) Inflation will be higher under NGDP targeting. This is obviously wrong. Over the long-run the central bank can choose whatever inflation rate it wants. If the central bank wants 2% inflation as long-term target then it will choose an NGDP growth path, which is compatible which this. If the long-term growth rate of real GDP is 2% then the central bank should target 4% NGDP growth path. This will ensure 2% inflation in the long run.

Another issue that might be distorting the discussion of NGDP targeting is the perception of the reasons for the Great Recession. Even many libertarian and conservative economists think that the present crisis is a result of some kind of “market disorder” – either due to the “natural instability” of markets (“animal spirits”) or due to excessively easy monetary policy in the years prior to the crisis. The proponents of these positions tend to think that NGDP targeting (which would mean monetary easing in the present situation) is some kind of a “bail out” of investors who have taken excessive risks.

Obviously this is not the case. In fact NGDP targeting would mean that central bank would get out of the business of messing around with credit allocation and NGDP targeting would lead to a strict separation of money and banking. Under NGDP targeting the central bank would only provide liquidity to “the market” against proper collateral and the central bank would not be in the business of saving banks (or governments). There is a strict no-bail out clause in NGDP targeting. However, NGDP targeting would significantly increase macroeconomic stability and as such sharply reduce the risk of banking crisis and sovereign debt crisis. As a result the political pressure for “bail outs” would be equally reduced. Similarly the increased macroeconomic stability will also reduce the perceived “need” for other interventionist measures such as tariffs and capital control. This of course follows the same logic as Milton Friedman’s argument against fixed exchange rates.

NGDP level targeting as a privatization strategy

As I argue above there are clear similarities between the allocative outcome under Free Banking – hence a fully privatized money supply – and NGDP targeting. In fact I believe that NGDP level targeting might very well be seen as part of a privatization strategy. (I have argued that before – see here)

Hence, a futures based NGDP targeting regime would basically replace the central bank with a computer in the sense that there would be no discretionary decisions at all in the conduct of monetary policy. In that sense the futures based NGDP targeting regime would be similar to a currency board, but instead of “pegging” monetary policy to a foreign currency monetary policy would be “pegged” to the market expectation of future nominal GDP. This would seriously limit the discretionary powers of central banks and a truly futures based NGDP targeting regime in my view would only be one small step away from Free Banking. This is also why I do not see any conflict between advocating NGDP level targeting and Free Banking. This of course is something, which is fully recognised by Free Banking proponents such as George Selgin, Larry White and Steve Horwitz.

PS this is no the first time I try to convince libertarians and conservatives that NGDP level targeting is the true free market alternative. See my first attempt here.

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Related posts:

NGDP targeting is not about ”stimulus”
NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy
Be right for the right reasons
Monetary policy can’t fix all problems
Boettke’s important Political Economy questions for Market Monetarists
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative
Lets concentrate on the policy framework
Boettke and Smith on why we are wasting our time
Scott Sumner and the Case against Currency Monopoly…or how to privatize the Fed

Update (July 23 2012): Scott Sumner once again tries to convince “conservatives” that monetary easing is the “right” position. I agree, but I predict that Scott will fail once again because he argue in terms of “stimulus” rather than in terms of rules.

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Lets concentrate on the policy framework

Here is Scott Sumner:

I’ve noticed that when I discuss economic policy with other free market types, it’s easier to get agreement on broad policy rules than day-to-day discretionary decisions.

I have noticed the same thing – or rather I find that when pro-market economists are presented with Market Monetarist ideas based on the fact that we want to limit the discretionary powers of central banks then it is much easier to sell our views than when we just argue for monetary “stimulus”. I don’t want central bank to ease monetary policy. I don’t want central banks to tighten monetary policy. I simply want to central banks to stop distorting relative prices. I believe the best way to ensure that is with futures based NGDP targeting as this is the closest we get to the outcome that would prevail under a truly free monetary system with competitive issuance of money.

I have often argued that NGDP level targeting is not about monetary stimulus (See here, here and here) and argued that NGDP level targeting is the truly free market alternative (see here).

This in my view is the uniting view for free market oriented economists. We can disagree about whether monetary policy was too loose in the US and Europe prior to 2008 or whether it became too tight in 2008/9. My personal view is that both US and European monetary policy likely was (a bit!) too loose prior to 2008, but then turned extremely tight in 2008/09. The Great Depression was not caused by too easy monetary policy, but too tight monetary policy. However, in terms of policy recommendations is that really important? Yes it is important in the sense of what we think that the Fed or the ECB should do right now in the absence of a clear framework of NGDP targeting (or any other clear nominal target). However, the really important thing is not whether the Fed or the ECB will ease a little bit more or a little less in the coming month or quarter, but how we ensure the right institutional framework to avoid a future repeat of the catastrophic policy response in 2008/9 (and 2011!). In fact I would be more than happy if we could convince the ECB and the Fed to implement NGDP level target at the present levels of NGDP in Europe and the US – that would mean a lot more to me than a little bit more easing from the major central banks of the world (even though I continue to think that would be highly desirable as well).

What can Scott Sumner, George Selgin, Pete Boettke, Steve Horwitz, Bob Murphy and John Taylor all agree about? They want to limit the discretionary powers of central banks. Some of them would like to get rid of central banks all together, but as long as that option is not on the table they they all want to tie the hands of central bankers as much as possible. Scott, Steve and George all would agree that a form of nominal income targeting would be the best rule. Taylor might be convinced about that I think if it was completely rule based (at least if he listens to Evan Koeing). Bob of course want something completely else, but I think that even he would agree that a futures based NGDP targeting regime would be preferable to the present discretionary policies.

So maybe it is about time that we take this step by step and instead of screaming for monetary stimulus in the US and Europe start build alliances with those economists who really should endorse Market Monetarist ideas in the first place.

Here are the steps – or rather the questions Market Monetarists should ask other free market types (as Scott calls them…):

1) Do you agree that in the absence of Free Banking that monetary policy should be rule based rather than based on discretion?

2) Do you agree that markets send useful and appropriate signals for the conduct of monetary policy?

3) Do you agree that the market should be used to do forecasting for central banks and to markets should be used to implement policies rather than to leave it to technocrats? For example through the use of prediction markets and futures markets. (See my comments on prediction markets and market based monetary policy here and here).

4) Do you agree that there is good and bad inflation and good and bad deflation?

5) Do you agree that central banks should not respond to non-monetary shocks to the price level?

6) Do you agree that monetary policy can not solve all problems? (This Market Monetarists do not think so – see here)

7) Do you agree that the appropriate target for a central bank should be to the NGDP level?

I am pretty sure that most free market oriented monetary economists would answer “yes” to most of these questions. I would of course answer “yes” to them all.

So I suggest to my fellow Market Monetarists that these are the questions we should ask other free market economists instead of telling them that they are wrong about being against QE3 from the Fed. In fact would it really be strategically correct to argue for QE3 in the US right now? I am not sure. I would rather argue for strict NGDP level targeting and then I am pretty sure that the Chuck Norris effect and the market would do most of the lifting. We should basically stop arguing in favour of or against any discretionary policies.

PS I remain totally convinced that when economists in future discuss the causes of the Great Recession then the consensus among monetary historians will be that the Hetzelian-Sumnerian explanation of the crisis was correct. Bob Hetzel and Scott Sumner are the Hawtreys and Cassels of the day.

Monetary policy can’t fix all problems

You say that when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. Reading the Market Monetarist blogs including my own one could easing come to the conclusion that we are the “hammer boys” that scream at any problem out there “NGDP targeting will fix it!” However, nothing can be further from the truth.

Unlike keynesians Market Monetarists do think that monetary policy should be used to “solve” some problems with “market failure”. Rather we believe that monetary policy should avoid creating problems on it own. That is why we want central banks to follow a clearly defined policy rule and as we think recessions as well as bad inflation/deflation (primarily) are results of misguided monetary policies rather than of market failures we don’t think of monetary policy as a hammer.

Rather we believe in Selgin’s Monetary Credo:

The goal of monetary policy ought to be that of avoiding unnatural fluctuations in output…while refraining from interfering with fluctuations that are “natural.” That means having a single mandate only, where that mandate calls for the central bank to keep spending stable, and then tolerate as optimal, if it does not actually welcome, those changes in P and y that occur despite that stability

So monetary policy determines nominal variables – nominal spending/NGDP, nominal wages, the price level, exchange rates and inflation. We also clearly acknowledges that monetary policy can have real impact – in the short-run the Phillips curve is not vertical so monetary policy can push real GDP above the structural level of GDP and reduce unemployment temporarily. But the long-run Phillips curve certainly is vertical. However, unlike Keynesians we do not see a need to “play” this short-term trade off. It is correct that NGDP targeting probably also would be very helpful in a New Keynesian world, however, we are not starting our analysis at some “social welfare function” that needs to be maximized – there is not a Phillips curve trade off on which policy makers should choose some “optimal” combination of inflation and unemployment – as for example John Taylor basically claims. In that sense Market Monetarists certainly have much more faith in the power of the free market than John Talyor (and that might come to a surprise to conservative and libertarian critics of Market Monetarism…).

What we, however, do indeed argue is that if you commit mistakes you fix it yourself and that also goes for central banks. So if a central bank directly or indirectly (through it’s historical actions) has promised to deliver a certain nominal target then it better deliver and if it fails to do so it better correct the mistake as soon as possible. So when the Federal Reserve through its actions during the Great Moderation basically committed itself and “promised” to US households, corporations and institutions etc. that it would deliver 5% NGDP growth year in and year out and then suddenly failed to so in 2008/9 then it committed a policy mistake. It was not a market failure, but rather a failure of monetary policy. That failure the Fed obviously need to undo. So when Market Monetarists have called for the Fed to lift NGDP back to the pre-crisis trend then it is not some kind of vulgar-keynesian we-will-save-you-all policy, but rather it is about the undoing the mistakes of the past. Monetary policy is not about “stimulus”, but about ensuring a stable nominal framework in which economic agents can make their decisions.

Therefore we want monetary policy to be “neutral” and therefore also in a sense we want monetary policy to become invisible. Monetary policy should be conducted in such a way that investors and households make their investment and consumption decisions as if they lived in a Arrow-Debreu world or at least in a world free of monetary distortions. That also means that the purpose of monetary policy is NOT save investors and other that have made the wrong decisions. Monetary policy is and should not be some bail out mechanism.

Furthermore, central banks should not act as lenders-of-last-resort for governments. Governments should fund its deficits in the free markets and if that is not possible then the governments will have to tighten fiscal policy. That should be very clear. However, monetary policy should not be used as a political hammer by central banks to force governments to implement “reforms”. Monetary policy should be neutral – also in regard to the political decision process. Central banks should not solve budget problems, but central banks should not create fiscal pressures by allowing NGDP to drop significantly below the target level. It seems like certain central banks have a hard time separating this two issues.

Monetary policy should not be used to puncture bubbles either. However, some us – for example David Beckworth and myself – do believe that overly easy monetary policy under some circumstances can create bubbles, but here it is again about avoiding creating problems rather about solving problems. Hence, if the central bank just targets a growth path for the NGDP level then the risk of bubbles are greatly reduced and should they anyway emerge then it should not be task of monetary policy to solve that problem.

Monetary policy can not increase productivity in the economy. Of course productivity growth is likely to be higher in an economy with monetary stability and a high degree of predictability than in an economy with an erratic conduct of monetary policy. But other than securing a “neutral” monetary policy the central bank can not and should not do anything else to enhance the general level of wealth and welfare.

So monetary policy and NGDP level targeting are not some hammers to use to solve all kind of actual and perceived problems, but  who really needs a hammer when you got Chuck Norris?

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Marcus Nunes has a related comment, but from a different perspective.

Selgin’s Monetary Credo – Please Dr. Taylor read it!

Ok, there is no reason to hide it – I love George Selgin or at least his thinking on monetary theory. George of course is the source to go to on Free Banking theory and history (ok, Larry White is also pretty cool…) and he is of course an expert and a true pioneer on nominal income targeting. His work on the so-called Productivity Norm should be standard reading for anybody with the slightest interest in monetary theory. And now George is out with a comment on NGDP targeting. It is primarily a response to John Taylor’s recent critique of NGDP targeting.

Here is Selgin:

“Thus Professor Taylor complains that, “if an inflation shock takes the price level and thus NGDP above the target NGDP path, then the Fed will have to take sharp tightening action which would cause real GDP to fall much more than with inflation targetting.” Now, first of all, while it is apparently sound “Economics One” to begin a chain of reasoning by imagining an “inflation shock,” it is crappy Economics 101 (or pick your own preferred intro class number), because a (positive) P or inflation “shock” must itself be the consequence of an underlying “shock” to either the demand for or the supply of goods. The implications of the “inflation shock” will differ, moreover, according to its underlying cause. If an adverse supply shock is to blame, then the positive “inflation shock” has as its counterpart a negative output shock. If, on the other hand, the “inflation shock” is caused by an increase in aggregate demand, then it will tend to involve an increase in real output. Try it by sketching AS and AD schedules on a paper napkin, and you will see what I mean.”

Damn, I would not like to be on the receiving end of a critique from Dr. Selgin! But he is of course ever so right…inflation is alway and everywhere a monetary phenomenon (as is recessions) and the problem with the economics of John Taylor and other New Keynesians (yes guys, he is a New Keynesian!) is that they see inflation fluctuations as basically non-monetary shocks or at least think that monetary policy should be used to “counteract” non-monetary shocks.

John Taylor and other New Keynesians therefore see monetary policy as responding either with rules (as Taylor prefers) or with discretionary monetary policy to “shocks”. However, fluctuations in nominal GDP, the price level and inflation are monetary phenonoma. Therefore, monetary policy do not need to “respond” to “shocks”. Monetary policy should not create the shocks in the first place and that is the purpose of NGDP targeting. As I have earlier tired to explain – NGDP is not a form of monetary “fine tuning”. It is in fact the direct opposite.

Or say George explains: “We shall have no real progress in monetary policy until monetary economists realize that, although it is true that unsound monetary policy tends to contribute to undesirable and unnecessary fluctuations in prices and output, it does not follow that the soundest conceivable policy is one that eliminates such fluctuations altogether. The goal of monetary policy ought, rather, to be that of avoiding unnatural fluctuations in output–that is, departures of output from its full-information level–while refraining from interfering with fluctuations that are “natural.” That means having a single mandate only, where that mandate calls for the central bank to keep spending stable, and then tolerate as optimal, if it does not actually welcome, those changes in P and y that occur despite that stability

Any Market Monetarist (in fact anybody with interest in monetary theory and policy) should remember these words. So lets repeat them (in a shorter version) and let us call it Selgin’s Monetary Credo:

The goal of monetary policy ought to be that of avoiding unnatural fluctuations in output…while refraining from interfering with fluctuations that are “natural.” That means having a single mandate only, where that mandate calls for the central bank to keep spending stable, and then tolerate as optimal, if it does not actually welcome, those changes in P and y that occur despite that stability

So one more time – the goal of monetary policy is NOT to fine tune the economic development, but to avoid creating “unnatural” fluctuations in nominal spending and prices.

I have often been critical about the call for “monetary stimulus” from some Market Monetarists as it has lead many to think that we are in favour of activist monetary policies. We are not in favour of activist policies, we are in favour of “Selgin’s monetary credo”!

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See my earlier overview of the Market Monetarist response to John Taylor’s critique of NGDP targeting here.

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Marcus Nunes also has a comment on Selgin as do Scott Sumner.

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