Spain’s quasi-depression – an Austrian ‘bust’ or a monetary contraction? Or both?

A couple of days ago I wrote a post on the behavior of prices in the ‘bust’ phase of an Austrian style business cycle. My argument was that the Austrian business cycle story basically is a supply side story and that in the bust there is a negative supply shock. As a consequence one should expect inflation to increase during the ‘bust’ phase.

My post was not really about what have happened during the Great Recession, but it is obvious that the discussion could be relevant for understanding the present crisis.

Overall I don’t think that the present crisis can be explained by an Austrian style business cycle theory, but I nonetheless think that we can learn something relevant from Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT) that will deepen our understanding of the crisis.

Unlike Austrians Market Monetarists generally do not stress what happened prior to the crisis. I do, however, think that we prior to the crisis saw a significant misallocation of resources in some countries. I myself in the run up to the crisis – back in 2006/7 – pointed to the risk of boom-bust in for example Iceland and Baltic States. Furthermore, in hindsight one could certainly also argue that we saw a similar misallocation in some Southern European countries. This misallocation in my view was caused by a combination of overly easy monetary conditions and significant moral hazard problems.

This discussion has inspired me to have a look Spain in the light of my discussion of ABCT.

My starting point is to decompose Spanish inflation into a supply and a demand component. I have used the crude method - the Quasi-Real Price Index – that I inspired by David Eagle developed in a number of posts back in 2011. I will not go into details with the method here, but you can read more here.

This is my decomposition of Spanish inflation.

Spain inflation QRPI

The story prior to the crisis is pretty clear. Both demand and supply inflation is fairly stable and there are no real sign of strongly accelerating demand inflation. However, the picture that emerges in the “bust-years” is very different.

As the graph shows supply inflation spiked as the crisis played out and has remained elevated ever since and we are now seeing supply inflation around 5%. However, at the same time demand inflation has collapsed and we basically have had demand deflation since the outbreak of the crisis.

I would stress that my crude method of decomposing inflation assumes that the aggregate supply curve is vertical. That obviously is not the case and that likely lead to an overestimation of the supply side inflation. That said, I feel pretty confident that the overall story is correct.

Hence, the Spanish story in my view provides some support for an Austrian-inspired interpretation of the crisis in the Spanish economy. As the crisis in Spain started to unfold the Spanish economy was hit by a large negative supply shock, which caused supply inflation to spike. There is clearly an Austrian style argument to be made here. Investors realised that they had  made a mistake and therefore economic resources had to reallocated from unprofitable sectors (for example the construction sector) to other sector. With price and wage rigidities this is a supply shock.

A negative supply shock will not in itself cause a depression 

However, this is not the whole story. A purely Austrian interpretation of the crisis misses the main problem in the Spanish economy today – the collapse in aggregate demand. Despite the sharp increase in Spanish supply inflation headline inflation (measured with the GDP deflator) has collapsed! That can only happen if demand inflation drops more than supply inflation increases. This is exactly what have happened in Spain. In fact we have a situation where we have high suppply inflation AND demand deflation.

What have happened is that the Spanish economy has moved from the ‘bust’ phase to what Hayek called ‘secondary deflation’. The ‘secondary deflation’ is the post-bust phase where a negative demand shock causes the economy to go into depression and a general deflationary state. This is a massively negative monetary shock and this is the real cause of the prolonged crisis.

The ‘secondary deflation’ is not a natural consequence of an Austrian style boom-bust, but rather a consequence of a monetary contraction. In that sense the secondary deflation is more monetarist in nature than Austrian.

In the case of Spain the monetary contraction is a direct consequence of Spain’s euro membership. If a country has a freely floating exchange rate then a negative supply shock – the bust – will cause the country’s currency to depreciate. However, due to Spain’s membership this obviously is not possible. The lack of depreciation of Spain’s currency de facto is monetary tightening (process that plays out is basically David Hume’s Price-Specie-flow story).

In fact the monetary tightening in Spain has been massive and has caused demand inflation to drop from around 4% to today more than 5% (demand) deflation!

This obviously is the real cause of the continued crisis in the Spanish economy. So while my decomposition of Spanish inflation seems to indicate that there has been an ‘Austrian story’ in the sense that there Spain has gone through of re-allocation (the negative supply shock) the dominant story is the collapse in aggregate demand caused by a monetary contraction.

The counterfactual story – and why a Austrian style bust is not recessionary

The discussion above in my view illustrates a clear problem with the Austrian story of the business cycle. I my view Austrians often fail to explain why a reallocation of economic resources will have to lead to a recession. Yes, it is clear that we will get a temporary downturn in real GDP in the bust phase, but there is nothing in ABCT that explains that that will turn into a depression-like situation as is the case in Spain.

What would for example have happened if Spain had had its own currency and an independent monetary policy regime where the central bank had targeted nominal GDP – for example along a 6% NGDP growth path.

Lets say that the entire initial Spanish downturn had been cause by a bubble bursting (it was not), but also that the central bank had been targeting a 6% NGDP growth path. Hence, as the bubble bursts real GDP growth decelerates sharply. However, as the central bank is keeping NGDP growth at 6% inflation will – temporary – increase. Most of the rise in inflation will be caused by an increase in supply inflation (but demand inflation will not drop). This is temporary and inflation will drop back once the re-allocation process has come to an end. Hence, there will not be a deflationary shock.

Therefore, the drop in real GDP growth is a necessary adjustment to a bubble bursting. However, the drop will likely be rather short-lived as aggregate demand (NGDP) is kept “on track” due to the NGDP target and hence “facilitate” a smooth re-allocation of resources in the Spanish economy.

This in my view clearly illustrates why we cannot use Austrian Business Cycle Theory to explain why the crisis in the Spanish economy is as deep as it is. Clever Austrians like Roger Garrison and Steve Horwitz will of course agree that ABCT is not a theory of depression. You need a monetary contraction to create a depression. This is Steve Horwitz on ABCT:

Both critics and adherents of the ABCT misunderstand it if they think it is some sort of comprehensive theory of the boom, breaking point, and length/depth of the bust.  It isn’t.  As Roger Garrison has long insisted, the theory by itself is a theory of the unsustainable boom.  It is a theory that explains why driving the market rate of interest below the natural rate through expansionary monetary policy produces a boom that contains endogenous processes that will cause that boom to turn to a bust.  Again, it’s a theory of the unsustainable boom.

ABCT tells us nothing about exactly when the boom will break and the precise factors that will cause it.  The theory claims that eventually costs will rise in such a way that make it clear that the longer-term production processes falsely induced by the boom will not be profitable, leading to their abandonment.  But it says nothing about which projects will be undertaken in which markets and which costs (other than perhaps the loan rate) will rise, and it tells us nothing about the timing of those events.  We know it has to happen, but the where and when are unique, not typical, features of business cycles.

… The ABCT is not a theory of the causes of the length and depth of recessions/depressions, but a theory of the unsustainable boom.

…The ABCT cannot explain the entirety of the Great Depression.  It simply can’t.  And adherents of theory who make the claim that it can are not doing the theory any favors.  What ABCT can explain (at least potentially, if the data support it) is why there was a recession at all in 1929.  It argues that it was the result of an unsustainable boom initiated by an excess supply of money at some point in the 1920s.  Yes, the bigger the boom, cet. par., the worse the bust, but even that doesn’t tell us much.  Once the turning point is reached, there’s not a lot that ABCT can say other than to let the healing process unfold unimpeded.

I think Steve’s description of ABCT is completely correct and in the same way as Steve doesn’t believe that ABCT can explain the entire Great Depression I would argue that ABCT cannot explain the Spanish crisis – or the euro crisis for that matter. Yes, there undoubtedly is some truth to the fact that overly easy monetary policy from the ECB contributed  to creating a unsustainable boom in the Spanish economy (and other European economies). However, ABCT cannot explain why we still five years into the crisis are trapped in a deflationary crisis in the Spanish economy. The depressionary state of the Spanish economy – at this stage – is nearly fully a consequence of a sharp monetary contraction. The bust has clearly long ago run its natural cause and what is keeping the Spanish economy from recovering is not a necessary re-allocation of economic resources, but very tight monetary conditions in Spain.

Conclusion: ABCT provide important insights, but will not help us now 

So to me the conclusion is pretty clear – Austrian Business Cycle theory do indeed provide some interesting and important insights to the boom-bust process. However, ABCT only explains a very limited part of the crisis in the Spanish economy and the euro zone for that matter. Had monetary policy been kept on track as the re-allocation process started the adjustment process in the Spanish economy would likely have been fairly painless and swift.

Unfortunately that has not been the case and monetary policy has caused the Spanish economy to enter a ‘secondary deflation’ and clever Austrians know that that is not a result of a bust, but rather a result of a monetary disequilibrium resulting from a excessive demand for money relative to the supply of money. There is no reason to worry about about reflating a bubble. The bubble has been deflated long ago.

PS The purpose of this post has been to discuss ABCT in the light of the crisis in Spain. However, the purpose has not been to tell the full story of Spain’s economic problems. Hence, it is clear that Spain struggles with serious structural problems such as extremely damaging firing-and-hiring rules. This structural problem significantly contribute to deepen and prolong the crisis, but it has not been the cause of the crisis.

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Spanish and Italian political news slipped into the financial section

One of my favourite Scott Sumner blog posts is on the connection been monetary policy failure and the impact of political news on the financial markets. I have quoted Scott many times on this issue, but let me do it again:

I once read all the New York Times from the 1930s (on microfilm.)  You can’t even imagine how frustrating it was.  They knew they had a big problem.  Then knew that deflation had badly hurt the economy (including the capitalists.)  They knew that monetary policy could reflate.  And yet . . .

Weeks went by, then months, then years.  Somehow they never connected the dots.

“Monetary policy is already highly stimulative.”

“There’s a danger we’d overshoot toward too much inflation.”

“Maybe the problems are structural.”

“There are green shoots, things are getting worse at a slower pace.  The economy needs to heal itself.”

“Consumer demand is saturated.  Even workingmen can now afford iceboxes and automobiles.  We produced too much stuff in the 1920s.”

And the worst part was the way political news kept slipping into the financial section.  Nazis make ominous gains in the 1932 German elections, Spanish Civil War, etc, etc.  In the 1930s the readers didn’t know what came next—but I did.

It has been a long time since political headlines really have been able to move the global financial markets (remember the fiscal cliff story never really did it). However, just take a look at these two stories from today:

 Ten-year Spanish government bond yields rose on Monday as the country’s opposition party called for the resignation of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy over a corruption scandal.

…and here:

Ten-year Italian government bond yields also rose on concerns that a scandal involving Monte Paschi bank could see a rise in the popularity of the centre-right party in the polls, whose election charge is being led by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Since August-September the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan the have moved in the direction of easing monetary policy and a significantly more ruled basked monetary policy and even the ECB has eased up with ECB chief Draghi’s promising to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro. And Mark Carney has given investors hope that the Bank of England will move towards some form of NGDP level targeting. As a result the “euro crisis” has more or less disappeared from the headlines in the newspapers’ “financial section” (just take a look at what Google trends has to say).

Hence, it seems pretty clear that the markets’ “responsiveness” to political worries is a function of the tightness of global monetary conditions with tighter monetary conditions leading to a bigger impact of political jitters.

So where are we now? It to me all dependent on the ECB. If the ECB move towards a clearly rule based regime – in a similar fashion as the Fed and the BoE (and likely soon also the Bank of England) then we are likely to see markets becoming more immune to political jitters. On the other hand if the ECB moves back to the bad habit of conditioning monetary policy on political outcome then once again the markets will start worrying about the finer details of Italian and Spanish politics.

PS Some would argue that European monetary conditions have become tighter recently as a result of higher money market rates and yields. However, I don’t think that is the case. Higher yields and rates reflect growth optimism – just look at European stock markets and implied inflation expectations in the European fixed income markets. Market Monetarists don’t run for the door in panic when yields rise – rather we argue that you should not make the interest rate fallacy and confuse higher (lower) rates/yields with tighter (easier) monetary policy. As Milton Friedman reminds us rates and yields are high (low) when monetary policy has been easy (tight).

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.

—-

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.”

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