When US 30-year yields hit 5% the Great Recession will be over

US bond yields are spiking today. You might expect me to celebrate it and say this is great (while everybody else are freaking out…) Well, you are right – it doesn’t worry me the least bit.

That said, the US story is not necessarily the same story as the Japanese story. Hence, while Japanese real yields actually have declined sharply US real yields continue to rise as break-even inflation in the US has actually declined recently – most likely on the back of a positive supply shock due to lower commodity prices.

But obviously higher real yields should only be a worry if it is out sync with the development in the economy – as in 2008-9 when real yields and rates spiked, while at the same time the economy collapsed. However, if the economy is in recovery it is only naturally that real yields and rates start to rise as the recovery matures as it certainly seems to be the case in the US.

Anyway, this is not really what I wanted to discuss. Instead I was reminded about something Greenspan said in 1992:

“Let me put it to you this way. If you ask whether we are confirming our view to contain the success that we’ve had to date on inflation, the answer is “yes.” I think that policy is implicit among the members of this Committee, and the specific instruments that we may be using or not using are really a quite secondary question. As I read it, there is no debate within this Committee to abandon our view that a non-inflationary environment is best for this country over the longer term. Everything else, once we’ve said that, becomes technical questions. I would say in that context that on the basis of the studies, we have seen that to drive nominal GDP, let’s assume at 4-1/2 percent, in our old philosophy we would have said that [requires] a 4-1/2 percent growth in M2. In today’s analysis, we would say it’s significantly less than that. I’m basically arguing that we are really in a sense using [unintelligible] a nominal GDP goal of which the money supply relationships are technical mechanisms to achieve that. And I don’t see any change in our view…and we will know they are convinced (about “price stability”) when we see the 30-year Treasury at 5-1/2 percent.

Yes, that is correct. Greenspan was thinking that the Federal Reserve should (or actually did) target NGDP growth of 4.5%. Furthermore, he (indirectly) said that that would correspond to 30-year US Treasury yields being around 5.5%.

This is more or less also what we had all through the Great Moderation – or rather both 5% 30-year yields and 5% NGDP growth. However, the story is different today. While, NGDP growth expectations for the next 1-2 years are around 4-5% (ish) 30-year bond yields are around 3.3%. This in my view is a pretty good illustration that while the US economy is in recovery market participants remain very doubtful that we are about to return to a New Great Moderation of stable 5% NGDP growth.

That said, with yields continuing to rise faster than the acceleration in NGDP growth we can say that we are seeing a gradual return to something more like the Great Moderation. That obviously is great news.

In fact I would argue that when US 30-year hopefully again soon hit 5% then I think that we at that time will have to conclude that the Great Recession finally has come to an end. Last time US 30-year yields were at 5% was in the last year of the Great Moderation – 2007.

We are still very far away from 5% yields, but we are getting closer than we have been for a very long time – thanks to the fed’s change of policy regime in September last year.

Finally, when US 30-year bond yields hit 5% I will stop calling for US monetary easing. I will, however, not stop calling for a proper transparent and rule-based NGDP level targeting regime before we get that.

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Papers about money, regime uncertainty and efficient religions

I have the best wife in the world and she has been extremely understanding about my odd idea to start blogging, but there is one thing she is not too happy about and that is that I tend to leave printed copies of working papers scatted around our house. I must admit that I hate reading working papers on our iPad. I want the paper version, but I also read quite a few working papers and print out even more papers. So that creates quite a paper trail in our house…

But some of the working papers also end up in my bag. The content of my bag today might inspire some of my readers:

“Monetary Policy and Japan’s Liquidity Trap” by Lars E. O. Svensson and “Theoretical Analysis Regarding a Zero Lower Bound on Nominal Interest Rate” by Bennett T. McCallum.

These two papers I printed out when I was writting my recent post on Czech monetary policy. It is obvious that the Czech central bank is struggling with how to ease monetary policy when interest rates are close to zero. We can only hope that the Czech central bankers read papers like this – then they would be in no doubt how to get out of the deflationary trap. Frankly speaking I didn’t read the papers this week as I have read both papers a number of times before, but I still think that both papers are extremely important and I would hope central bankers around the world would study Svensson’s and McCallum’s work.

“Regime Uncertainty – Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed after the War” - by Robert Higgs.

My regular readers will know that I believe that the key problem in both the US and the European economies is overly tight monetary policy. However, that does not change the fact that I am extremely fascinated by Robert Higgs’ concept “Regime Uncertainty”. Higgs’ idea is that uncertainty about the regulatory framework in the economy will impact investment activity and therefore reduce growth. While I think that we primarily have a demand problem in the US and Europe I also think that regime uncertainty is a highly relevant concept. Unlike for example Steve Horwitz I don’t think that regime uncertainty can explain the slow recovery in the US economy. As I see it regime uncertainty as defined by Higgs is a supply side phenomena. Therefore, we should expect a high level of regime uncertainty to lower real GDP growth AND increase inflation. That is certainly not what we have in the US or in the euro zone today. However, there are certainly countries in the world where I would say regime uncertainty play a dominant role in the present economic situation and where tight monetary policy is not the key story. My two favourite examples of this are South Africa and Hungary. I would also point to regime uncertainty as being extremely important in countries like Venezuela and Argentina – and obviously in Iran. The last three countries are also very clear examples of a supply side collapse combined with extremely easy monetary policy.

Furthermore, we should remember that tight monetary policy in itself can lead to regime uncertainty. Just think about Greece. Extremely tight monetary conditions have lead to a economic collapse that have given rise to populist and extremist political forces and the outlook for economic policy in Greece is extremely uncertain. Or remember the 1930s where tight monetary conditions led to increased protectionism and generally interventionist policies around the world – for example the horrible National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in the US.

I have read Higg’s paper before, but hope to re-read it in the coming week (when I will be traveling a lot) as I plan to write something about the economic situation in Hungary from the perspective of regime uncertain. I have written a bit about that topic before.

“World Hyperinflations” by Steve Hanke and Nicholas Krus.

I have written about this paper before and I have now come around to read the paper. It is excellent and gives a very good overview of historical hyperinflations. There is a strong connection to Higgs’ concept of regime uncertainty. It is probably not a coincidence that the countries in the world where inflation is getting out of control are also countries with extreme regime uncertainty – again just think about Argentina, Venezuela and Iran.

“Morality and Monopoly: The Constitutional political economy of religious rules” by Gary Anderson and Robert Tollison.

This blog is about monetary policy issues and that is what I spend my time writing about, but I do certainly have other interests. There is no doubt that I am an economic imperialist and I do think that economics can explain most social phenomena – including religion. My recent trip to Provo, Utah inspired me to think about religion again or more specifically I got intrigued how the Church of Jesus Chris Latter day Saints (LDS) – the Mormons – has become so extremely successful. When I say successful I mean how the LDS have grown from being a couple of hundreds members back in the 1840s to having millions of practicing members today – including potentially the next US president. My hypothesis is that religion can be an extremely efficient mechanism by which to solve collective goods problems. In Anderson’s and Tollison’s paper they have a similar discussion.

If religion is an mechanism to solve collective goods problems then the most successful religions – at least those which compete in an unregulated and competitive market for religions – will be those religions that solve these collective goods problems in the most efficient way. My rather uneducated view is that the LDS has been so successful because it has been able to solve collective goods problems in a relatively efficient way. Just think about when the Mormons came to Utah in the late 1840s. At that time there was effectively no government in Utah – it was essentially an anarchic society. Government is an mechanism to solve collective goods problems, but with no government you have to solve these problems in another way. Religion provides such mechanism and I believe that this is what the LDS did when the pioneers arrived in Utah.

So if I was going to write a book about LDS from an economic perspective I think I would have to call it “LDS – the efficient religion”. But hey I am not going to do that because I don’t really know much about religion and especially not about Mormonism. Maybe it is good that we are in the midst of the Great Recession – otherwise I might write about the economics and religion or why I prefer to drive with taxi drivers who don’t wear seat belts.

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Update: David Friedman has kindly reminded me of Larry Iannaccone’s work on economics of religion. I am well aware of Larry’s work and he is undoubtedly the greatest authority on the economics of religion and he is president of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture. Larry’s paper “Introduction to the Economics of Religion” is an excellent introduction to the topic.

The counterfactual US inflation history – the case of NGDP targeting

Opponents of NGDP level targeting often accuse Market Monetarists of being “inflationists” and of being in favour of reflating bubbles. Nothing could be further from the truth – in fact we are strong proponents of sound money and nominal stability. I will try to illustrate that with a simple thought experiment.

Imagine that that the Federal Reserve had a strict NGDP level targeting regime in place for the past 20 years with NGDP growing 5% year in and year out. What would inflation then have been?

This kind of counterfactual history excise is obviously not easy to conduct, but I will try nonetheless. Lets start out with a definition:

(1) NGDP=P*RGDP

where NGDP is nominal GDP, RGDP is real GDP and P is the price level. It follows from (1) that:

(1)’ P=NGDP/RGDP

In our counterfactual calculation we will assume the NGDP would have grown 5% year-in and year-out over the last 20 years. Instead of using actual RGDP growth we RGDP growth we will use data for potential RGDP as calculated Congressional Budget Office (CBO) – as the this is closer to the path RGDP growth would have followed under NGDP targeting than the actual growth of RGDP.

As potential RGDP has not been constant in the US over paste 20 years the counterfactual inflation rate would have varied inversely with potential RGDP growth under a 5% NGDP targeting rule. As potential RGDP growth accelerates – as during the tech revolution during the 1990s – inflation would ease. This is obviously contrary to inflation targeting – where the central bank would ease monetary policy in response to higher potential RGDP growth. This is exactly what happened in the US during the 1990s.

The graph below shows the “counterfactual inflation rate” (what inflation would have been under strict NGDP targeting) and the actual inflation rate (GDP deflator).

The graph fairly clearly shows that actual US inflation during the Great Moderation (from 1992 to 2007 in the graph) pretty much followed an NGDP targeting ideal. Hence, inflation declined during the 1990s during the tech driven boost to US productivity growth. From around 2000 to 2007 inflation inched up as productivity growth slowed.

Hence, during the Great Moderation monetary policy nearly followed an NGDP targeting rule – but not totally.

At two points in time actual inflation became significantly higher than it would have been under a strict NGDP targeting rule – in 1999-2001 and 2004-2007.

This of course coincides with the two “bubbles” in the US economy over the past 20 years – the tech bubble in the late 1990s and the property bubble in the years just prior to the onset of the Great Recession in 2008.

Market Monetarists disagree among each other about the extent of bubbles particularly in 2004-2007. Scott Sumner and Marcus Nunes have stressed that there was no economy wide bubble, while David Beckworth argues that too easy monetary policy created a bubble in the years just prior to 2008. My own position probably has been somewhere in-between these two views. However, my counterfactual inflation history indicates that the Beckworth view is the right one. This view also plays a central role in the new Market Monetarist book “Boom and Bust Banking: The Causes and Cures of the Great Recession”, which David has edited. Free Banking theorists like George Selgin, Larry White and Steve Horwitz have a similar view.

Hence, if anything monetary policy would have been tighter in the late 1990s and and from 2004-2008 than actually was the case if the fed had indeed had a strict NGDP targeting rule. This in my view is an illustration that NGDP seriously reduces the risk of bubbles.

The Great Recession – the fed’s failure to keep NGDP on track 

According to the CBO’s numbers potential RGDP growth started to slow in 2007 and had the fed had a strict NGDP targeting rule at the time then inflation should have been allowed to increase above 3.5%. Even though I am somewhat skeptical about CBO’s estimate for potential RGDP growth it is clear that the fed would have allowed inflation to increase in 2007-2008. Instead the fed effective gave up 20 years of quasi NGDP targeting and as a result the US economy entered the biggest crisis after the Great Depression. The graph clearly illustrates how tight monetary conditions became in 2008 compared to what would have been the case if the fed had not discontinued the defacto NGDP targeting regime.

So yes, Market Monetarists argue that monetary policy in the US became far too tight in 2008 and that significant monetary easing still is warranted (actual inflation is way below the counterfactual rate of inflation), but Market Monetarists – if we had been blogging during the two “bubble episodes” – would also have favoured tighter rather than easier monetary policy during these episodes.

So NGDP targeting is not a recipe for inflation, but rather an cure against bubbles. Therefore, NGDP targeting should be endorsed by anybody who favours sound money and nominal stability and despise monetary induced boom-bust cycles.

Related posts:

Boom, bust and bubbles
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative (we try again)
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative

The ideal central banker spends most of his time golfing

Who is the best central banker – one who is very busy with his job or one who is spending most of his/her time on the golf field?

The answer is the golfing central banker is the best of the two because if you are very busy you have probably not been doing your job in a proper fashion. The task of any central banker should be to ensure nominal stability and not to distort relative prices in the economy.

The best way to ensure nominal stability is through implementing a monetary policy regime based on very clear, transparent and automatic rules. Central bankers that do that will not have a lot to do as the markets would do most of the lifting.

This is in fact what happened during the Great Moderation – both in the US and in most of Europe. During the Great Moderation the markets’ had a high level of trust in the credibility of central banks in the US and Europe and in general it was expected that these central banks would deliver nominal stability. In fact markets behaved as if the Fed and the ECB were targeting a NGDP level target. This meant that what central bankers basically had do was to put on the central banker outfit (a dark suit and a not too fancy tie) and then say things that confirmed the markets in the expectation that the central bank would ensure nominal stability. There would be lot of time for golfing in that scenario.

If the central bank is fully credible and monetary policy follow clear rules (for example a NGDP level target) then the central bankers are unlike to be busy – at least not with monetary policy. Monetary demand would simply move up and down and more or less ensure the fulfillment of the nominal target. However, if the central bank is not credible then there will be no time to spend on the golf course.

Lets say that the central bank has a NGDP level target and the NGDP level moves above the target level. In the case of the credible central bank the markets would expect the central bank to act to bring down NGDP to the target level. Hence, market participants would expect monetary policy to be tightened. This would lead to a strengthening of the country’s currency and a drop in stock prices. Similarly as investors and consumers expect tighter monetary policy they would expect the value of money to increase. As a consequence investors and consumers would increase money demand. All this would automatically slow NGDP growth and bring back the NGDP level to the target level. In the scenario with a 100% credible target the central bank would not do anything other than look serious and central bank-like and the market would take care of everything else. Changes in money demand rather than in the money supply that would ensure the fulfillment of the target.

On the other hand if the central bank is not credible then market participants would not expect the that the central bank would bring the NGDP level back on track. In this scenario the central bank would actively have to change the money supply to push back NGDP to the target level. In fact it might have to reduce the money supply a lot to counteract any moves in money demand. Hence, if NGDP increases above the target level and the central bank does not act then market participants would in fact think that the central bank will continue to increase NGDP and as a consequence money demand will drop like a stone. Therefore the central bank would be very busy trying to steer the money supply and would likely not succeed if it does not gain credibility and money-velocity would become increasingly erratic. This is why inflation normally increases much more than the money supply in the “normal” hyperinflation scenario.

The worst possible scenario is that the central bankers start to micromanage things. He/she does not like the currency to be too strong, but property prices are too high and credit growth too strong for his liking. And he is very concerned about foreign currency lending among households. But he is also concerned about the export sector’s weak competitiveness. So he is intervening in the currency market to weaken the currency, but that is spurring money supply growth and he does not like that either so he is telling commercial bank to stop the credit expansion or he will increase reserve requirements. The threats works. The commercial banks curb lending growth, but other players are not willing to listen – so more shady players in the consumer credit market moves in. No time for golfing and the central bankers is just getting more and more angry. “Stupid banks and markets. Can’t they understand that I can’t do everything?”  

This might be a caricature, but look at most central banks in the developed world since 2008 – they have been very busy and they have to a very large extent been busy micromanaging things. And regulators have not made their job easier.

So why is that? They are simply no longer credible central bankers. There is no time for golfing because the focus has been on micromanaging everything rather than on recreating credibility. It is time for that to change so central bankers once again will have time for golfing – and the global economy finally can move out of this crisis.

 

 

 

Counterfeiting, nazis and monetary separation

A couple of months ago a friend my sent me an article from the Guardian about how “Nazi Germany flooded Europe with fake British banknotes in an attempt to destroy confidence in the currency. The forgeries were so good that even German spymasters paid their agents in Britain with fake notes..The fake notes were first circulated in neutral Portugal and Spain with the double objective of raising money for the Nazi cause and creating a lack of confidence in the British currency.”

The article made me think about the impact of counterfeiting and whether thinking about the effects of counterfeiting could teach us anything about monetary theory. It should be stressed that my argument will not be a defense of counterfeiting. Counterfeiting is obviously fraudulent and as such immoral.

Thinking about the impact of counterfeiting we need to make two assumptions. First, are the counterfeited notes (and coins for the matter) “good” or not. Second what is the policy objective of the central bank – does the central bank have a nominal target or not.

Lets start out analyzing the case where the quality of the the counterfeited notes is so good that nobody will be able to distinguish them from the real thing and where the central bank has a clear and credible nominal target – for example a inflation target or a NGDP level target. In this case the counterfeiter basically is able to expand the money supply in a similar fashion as the central bank. Hence, effectively the nazi German counterfeiters in this scenario would be able to increase inflation and the level of NGDP in the UK in the same way as the Bank of  England. However, if the BoE had been operating an inflation target then any increase in inflation (above the inflation target) due to an increase in the counterfeit money supply would have lead the BoE to reduce the official money supply. Furthermore, if the inflation target was credible an increase in inflation would be considered to be temporary by market participants and would lead to a drop in money velocity (this is the Chuck Norris effect).

Hence, under a credible inflation targeting regime an increase in the counterfeit money supply would automatically lead to a drop in the official money supply and/or a drop in money-velocity and as a consequence it would not lead to an increase in inflation. The same would go for any other nominal target.

In fact we can imagine a situation where the entire official UK money supply would have been replaced by “nazi notes” and the only thing the BoE was be doing was to provide a credible nominal anchor. This would in fact be complete monetary separation – between the different functions of money. On the one hand the Nazi counterfeiters would be supplying both the medium of exchange and a medium for store of value, while the BoE would be supplying a unit of account.

Therefore the paradoxical result is that as long as the central bank provides a credible nominal target the impact of counterfeiting will be limited in terms of the impact on the economy. There is, however, one crucial impact and that is the revenue from seigniorage from iss uing money would be captured by the counterfeiters rather than by the central bank. From a fiscal perspective this might or might not be important.

Could counterfeiting be useful?

This also leads us to what surely is a controversial conclusion that a central bank, which is faced with a situation where there is strong monetary deflation – for example in the US during the Great Depression – counterfeiting would actually be beneficial as it would increase the “effective” money supply and therefore help curb the deflationary pressures. In that regard it would be noted that this case only is relevant when the nominal target – for example a NGDP level target or lets say a 2% inflation target is not seen to be credible.

Therefore, if the nominal target is not credible and there is deflation we could argue that counterfeiting could be beneficial in terms of hitting the nominal target. Of course in a situation with high inflation and no credible nominal target counterfeiting surely would make the inflationary problems even worse. This would probably have been the case in the UK during WW2 – inflation was high and there was not a credible nominal target and as such had the nazi counterfeiting been “successful” then it surely would have had a serious a negative impact on the British economy in the form of potential hyperinflation.

Monetary separation could be desirable – at least in terms of thinking about money

The discussion above in my view illustrates that it is important in separating the different functions of money when we talk about monetary policy and the example with perfect counterfeiting under a credible nominal target shows that we can imagine a situation where the provision of the unit of accounting is produced by a (monopoly) central bank, but where production the medium of exchange and storage is privatized. This is at the core of what used to be know as New Monetary Economics (NME).

The best known NME style policy proposal is the little understood BFH system proposed by Leland Yeager and Robert Greenfield. What Yeager and Greenfield basically is suggesting is that the only task the central bank should provide is the provision media of accounting, while the other functions should be privatised – or should I say it should be left to “counterfeiters”.

While I am skeptical about the practically workings of the BFH system and certainly is not proposing to legalise counterfeiting one should acknowledge that the starting point for monetary policy most be to provide the medium account – or said in another way under a monopoly central bank the main task of the central bank is to provide a numéraire. NGDP level targeting of course is such numéraire.

A more radical solution could of course be to allow private issuance of money denominated in the official medium of account. This effectively would take away the need for a lender of last resort, but would not be a full Free Banking system as the central bank would still set the numéraire, which occasionally would necessitate that the central bank issued its own money or sucked up privated issued money to ensure the NGDP target (or any other nominal target). This is of course not completely different from what is already happening in the sense the private banks under the present system is able to create money – and one can argue that that is in fact what happened in the US during the Great Moderation.

How (un)stable is velocity?

Traditional monetarists used to consider money-velocity as rather stable and predictable. In the simple textbook version of monetarism V in MV=PY is often assumed to be constant. This of course is a caricature. Traditional monetarists like Milton Friedman, Karl Brunner or Allan Meltzer never claimed that velocity was constant, but rather that the money demand function is relatively stable and predictable.

Market Monetarists on the other hand would argue that velocity is less stable than traditional monetarists argued.  However, the difference between the two views is much smaller than it might look on the surface. The key to understanding this is the importance of expectations and money policy rules.

In my view we can not think of money demand – and hence V – without understanding monetary policy rules and expectations (Robert Lucas of course told us that long ago…). Therefore, the discussion of the stability of velocity is in some way similar to the discussion about whether monetary policy whether monetary policy works with long and variable leads or lags.

Therefore, V can said to be a function of the expectations of future growth in M and these expectations are determined by what monetary policy regime is in place. During the Great Moderation there was a clear inverse relationship between M and V. So when M increased above trend V would tend to drop and vice versa. The graph below shows this very clearly. I use the St. Louis Fed’s so-called MZM measure of the money supply.

This is not really surprising if you take into account that the Federal Reserve during this period de facto was targeting a growth path for nominal GDP (PY). Hence, a “overshoot” on money supply growth year one year would be counteracted the following year(s). That also mean that we should expect money demand to move in the direct opposite direction and this indeed what we saw during the Great Moderation. If the NGDP target is 100% credible the correlation between growth in M and growth in V to be exactly -1. (For more on the inverse relationship between M and V see here.)

The graph below shows the 3-year rolling correlation growth in M (MZM) and V in the US since 1960.

The graph very clearly illustrates changes in the credibility of US monetary policy and the monetary policy regimes of different periods. During the 1960 the correlation between M or V was highly unstable. This is during the Bretton Woods period, where the US effectively had a (quasi) fixed exchange rate. Hence, basically the growth of M and V was determined by the exchange rate policy.

However, in 1971 Nixon gave up the direct convertibility of gold to dollars and effectively killed the Bretton Woods system. The dollar was so to speak floated. This is very visible in the graph above. Around 1971 the (absolute) correlation between M and V becomes slightly more stable and significant higher. Hence, while the correlation between M and V was highly volatile during the 1960s and swung between +0 and -0.8 the correlation during the 1970s was more stable around -0.6, but still quite unstable compared to what followed during the Great Moderation.

The next regime change in US monetary policy happened in 1979 when Paul Volcker became Fed chairman. This is also highly visible in the graph. From 1979 we see a rather sharp increase in the (absolute) correlation between money supply growth and velocity growth.  Hence, from 1979 to 1983 the 3-year rolling correlation between MZM growth and velocity growth increased from around -0.6 to around -0.9. From 1983 and all through the rest of the Volcker-Greenspan period the correlation stayed around -0.8 to -0.9 indicating a very credible NGDP growth targeting regime. This is rather remarkable given the fact that the Fed never announced such a policy – nonetheless it seems pretty clear that money demand effectively behaved as if such a regime was in place.

It is also notable that there is a “pullback” in the correlation between M and V during the three recessions of the Great Moderation – 1990-91, 2001-2 and finally in 2008-9. This is rather clear indication of the monetary nature of these recessions.

The discussion above illustrates that the relationship between M and V to a very large degree is regime dependent. So while it might have been perfectly reasonable to assume that there was little correlation between M and V during the 1950s and 1960s that changed especially after Volcker defeated inflation and introduced a rule based monetary policy.

MV=PY is still the best tool for monetary analysis

So while V is far from as stable as traditional monetarists assumed the correlation between M and V is highly stable if monetary policy is credible and there is a clearly defined nominal target. Therefore MV=PY still provides the best tool for understanding monetary policy – and macroeconomics for that matter – as long as we never forget about the importance of monetary policy rules and expectations.

However, the discussion above also shows that we should be less worried about maintaining a stable rate of growth in M than traditional monetarists would argue. In fact the market mechanism will ensure a stable development in MV is the central bank has a credible target for PY. If we have a credible NGDP targeting regime then the correlation between M and V will be pretty close to -1.

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PS This discussion of course is highly relevant for what happened to US monetary policy in 2008, but the purpose of this post is to discuss the general mechanism rather than what happened in 2008. I would however notice that the correlation between growth in M and V dropped in 2008, but still remains fairly high. One should of course note here that this is the correlation between the growth of M and V rather than the level of M and V.

PPS In my discussion and graph above I have used MZM data rather than for example M2 data. The results are similar with M2, but slightly less clear. That to me indicates that MZM is a much better monetary indicator than M2. I am sure William Barnett would agree and maybe I would try to do the same exercise with his Divisia Money series.

Chuck Norris just pushed S&P500 above 1400

Today S&P500 closed above 1400 for the first time since June 2008. Hence, the US stock market is now well above the levels when Lehman Brothers collapsed in October 2008. So in terms of the US stock market at least the crisis is over. Obviously that can hardly be said for the labour market situation in the US and most European stock markets are still well below the levels of 2008.

So what have happened? Well, I think it is pretty clear that monetary policy has become more easy. Stock prices are up, commodity prices are rising and recently US long-term bond yields have also started to increase. As David Glasner notices in a recent post – the correlation between US stock prices and bond yields is now positive. This is how it used to be during the Great Moderation and is actually an indication that central banks are regaining some credibility.

By credibility I mean that market participants now are beginning to expect that central banks will actually again provide some nominal stability. This have not been directly been articulated. But remember during the Great Moderation the Federal Reserve never directly articulated that it de facto was following a NGDP level target, but as Josh Hendrickson has shown that is exactly what it actually did – and market participants knew that (even though most market participants might not have understood the bigger picture). As a commenter on my blog recently argued (central banks’) credibility is earned with long and variable lags (thank you Steve!). Said in another way one thing is nominal targets and other thing is to demonstrate that you actually are willing to do everything to achieve this target and thereby make the target credible.

Since December 8 when the ECB de facto introduced significant quantitative easing via it’s so-called 3-year LTRO market sentiment has changed. Rightly or wrongly market participants seem to think that the ECB has changed it’s reaction function. While the fear in November-December was that the ECB would not react to the sharp deflationary tendencies in the euro zone it is now clear that the ECB is in fact willing to ease monetary policy. I have earlier shown that the 3y LTRO significantly has reduced the the likelihood of a euro blow up. This has sharply reduced the demand for save haven currencies – particularly for the US dollars, but also the yen and the Swiss franc. Lower dollar demand is of course the same as a (passive) easing of US monetary conditions. You can say that the ECB has eased US monetary policy! This is the opposite of what happened in the Autumn of 2010 when the Fed’s QE2 effectively eased European monetary conditions.

Furthermore, we have actually had a change in a nominal target as the Bank of Japan less than a month ago upped it’s inflation target from 0% to 1% – thereby effectively telling the markets that the bank will step up monetary easing. The result has been clear – just have a look at the slide in the yen over the last month. Did the Bank of Japan announce a massive new QE programme? No it just called in Chuck Norris! This is of course the Chuck Norris effect in play – you don’t have to print money to see monetary policy if you are a credible central bank with a credible target.

So both the ECB and the BoJ has demonstrated that they want to move monetary policy in a more accommodative direction and the financial markets have reacted. The markets seem to think that the major global central banks indeed want to avoid a deflationary collapse and recreate nominal stability. We still don’t know if the markets are right, but I tend to think they are. Yes, neither the Fed nor the ECB have provide a clear definition of their nominal targets, but the Bank of Japan has clearly moved closer.

Effective the signal from the major global central banks is yes, we know monetary policy is potent and we want to use monetary policy to increase NGDP. This is at least how market participants are reading the signals – stock prices are up, so are commodity prices and most important inflation expectations and bond yields are increasing. This is basically the same as saying that money demand in the US, Europe and Japan is declining. Lower money demand equals higher money velocity and remember (if you had forgot) MV=PY. So with unchanged money supply (M) higher V has to lead to higher NGDP (PY). This is the Chuck Norris effect – the central banks don’t need to increase the money base/supply if they can convince market participants that they want an higher NGDP – the markets are doing all the lifting. Furthermore, it should be noted that the much feared global currency war is also helping ease global monetary conditions.

This obviously is very good news for the global economy and if the central banks do not panic once inflation and growth start to inch up and reverse the (passive) easing of monetary policy then it is my guess we could be in for a rather sharp recovery in global growth in the coming quarters. But hey, my blog is not about forecasting markets or the global economy – I do that in my day-job – but what we are seeing in the markets these days to me is a pretty clear indication of how powerful the Chuck Norris effect can be.  If central banks just could realise that and announced much more clear nominal targets then this crisis could be over very fast…

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PS For the record this is not investment advise and should not be seen as such, but rather as an attempt to illustrate how the monetary transmission mechanism works through expectations and credibility.

PPS a similar story…this time from my day-job.

Long and variable leads and lags

Scott Sumner yesterday posted a excellent overview of some key Market Monetarist positions. I initially thought I would also write a comment on what I think is the main positions of Market Monetarism but then realised that I already done that in my Working Paper on Market Monetarism from last year – “Market  Monetarism – The  Second  Monetarist  Counter-­revolution”

My fundamental view is that I personally do not mind being called an monetarist rather than a Market Monetarist even though I certainly think that Market Monetarism have some qualities that we do not find in traditional monetarism, but I fundamentally think Market Monetarism is a modern restatement of Monetarism rather than something fundamentally new.

I think the most important development in Market Monetarism is exactly that we as Market Monetarists stress the importance of expectations and how expectations of monetary policy can be read directly from market pricing. At the core of traditional monetarism is the assumption of adaptive expectations. However, today all economists acknowledge that economic agents (at least to some extent) are forward-looking and personally I have no problem in expressing that in the form of rational expectations – a view that Scott agrees with as do New Keynesians. However, unlike New Keynesian we stress that we can read these expectations directly from financial market pricing – stock prices, bond yields, commodity prices and exchange rates. Hence, by looking at changes in market pricing we can see whether monetary policy is becoming tighter or looser. This also has to do with our more nuanced view of the monetary transmission mechanism than is found among mainstream economists – including New Keynesians. As Scott express it:

Like monetarists, we assume many different transmission channels, not just interest rates.  Money affects all sorts of asset prices.  One slight difference from traditional monetarism is that we put more weight on the expected future level of NGDP, and hence the expected future hot potato effect.  Higher expected future NGDP tends to increase current AD, and current NGDP.

This is basically also the reason why Scott has stressed that monetary policy works with long and variable leads rather than with long and variable lags as traditionally expressed by Milton Friedman. In my view there is however really no conflict between the two positions and both are possible dependent on the institutional set-up in a given country at a given time.

Imagine the typical monetary policy set-up during the 1960s or 1970s when Friedman was doing research on monetary matters. During this period monetary policy clearly was missing a nominal anchor. Hence, there was no nominal target for monetary policy. Monetary policy was highly discretionary. In this environment it was very hard for market participants to forecast what policies to expect from for example the Federal Reserve. In fact in the 1960s and 1970s the Fed would not even bother to announce to market participant that it had changed monetary policy – it would simply just change the policy – for example interest rates. Furthermore, as the Fed was basically not communicating directly with the markets market participant would have to guess why a certain policy change had been implemented. As a result in such an institutional set-up market participants basically by default would have backward-looking expectations and would only gradually learn about what the Fed was trying to achieve. In such a set-up monetary policy nearly by definition would work with long and variable lags.

Contrary to this is the kind of set-up we had during the Great Moderation. Even though the Federal Reserve had not clearly formulated its policy target (it still hasn’t) market participants had a pretty good idea that the Fed probably was targeting the nominal GDP level or followed a kind of Taylor rule and market participants rarely got surprised by policy changes. Hence, market participants could reasonably deduct from economic and financial developments how policy would be change in the future. During this period monetary policy basically became endogenous. If NGDP was above trend then market participant would expect that monetary policy would be tightened. That would increase money demand and push down money-velocity and push up short-term interest rates. Often the Fed would even hint in what direction monetary policy was headed which would move stock prices, commodity prices, the exchange rates and bond yields in advance for any actual policy change. A good example of this dynamics is what we saw during early 2001. As a market participant I remember that the US stock market would rally on days when weak US macroeconomic data were released as market participants priced in future monetary easing. Hence, during this period monetary policy clear worked with long and variable leads.

In fact if we lived in a world of perfectly credible NGDP level targeting monetary policy would be fully automatic and probably monetary easing and tightening would happen through changes in money demand rather than through changes in the money base. In such a world the lead in monetary policy would be extremely short. This is the Market Monetarist dream world. In fact we could say that not only is “long and variable leads” a description of how the world is, but a normative position of how it should be.

Concluding there is no conflict between whether monetary policy works with long and variable leads or lags, but rather this is strictly dependent on the monetary policy regime and how monetary policy is implemented. A key problem in both the ECB’s and the Fed’s present policies today is that both central banks are far from clear about what nominal targets they have and how to achieve it – in some ways we are back to the pre-Great Moderation days of policy uncertainty. As a consequence market participants will only gradually learn about what the central bank’s real policy objectives are and therefore there is clearly an element of long and variable lags in monetary policy. However, if the Fed tomorrow announced that it would aim to increase NGDP by 15% by the end of 2013 and it would try to achieve that by buying unlimited amounts of foreign currency I am pretty sure we would swiftly move to a world of instantaneously working monetary policy – hence we would move from a quasi-Friedmanian world to a Sumnerian world.

Without rules we live in Friedmanian world – with clear nominal targets we live live in Sumnerian world.

PS Today is a Sumnerian day – hints from both the Fed and the ECB about possible monetary tightening is leading to monetary policy tightening today. Just take a look at US stock markets…(Ok, Greek worries is also playing apart, but that is passive monetary tightening as dollar demand increases)

”Regime Uncertainty” – a Market Monetarist perspective

My outburst over the weekend against the Rothbardian version of Austrian business cycle theory was not my normal style of blogging. I normally try to be non-confrontational in my blogging style. Krugman-style blogging is not really for me, but I must admit my outburst had some positive consequences. Most important it generated some good – friendly – exchanges with Steve Horwitz and other Austrians.

Steve’s blog post in response to my post gave some interesting insight. Most interesting for me was that Steve highlighted Robert Higgs’ “Regime Uncertainty” theory of the Great Depression.

Higg’s thesis is that the recovery from the Great Depression was prolonged due to “Regime Uncertainty”, which hampered especially growth in investment. Here is Higgs:

“The hypothesis is a variant of an old idea: the willingness of businesspeople to invest requires a sufficiently healthy state of “business confidence,” and the Second New Deal ravaged the requisite confidence …. To narrow the concept of business confidence, I adopt the interpretation that businesspeople may be more or less “uncertain about the regime,” by which I mean, distressed that investors’ private property rights in their capital and the income it yields will be attenuated further by government action. Such attenuations can arise from many sources, ranging from simple tax-rate increases to the imposition of new kinds of taxes to outright confiscation of private property. Many intermediate threats can arise from various sorts of regulation, for instance, of securities markets, labor markets, and product markets. In any event, the security of private property rights rests not so much on the letter of the law as on the character of the government that enforces, or threatens, presumptive rights.”

Overall I think Higgs’ concept makes a lot of sense and there is no doubt that uncertainty about economic policy had negative impact on the performance of the US economy during the Great Depression. I would especially highlight that the so-called National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and the Smoot-Hawley tariff act not only had directly negative impact on the US economy, but mostly likely also created uncertainty about core capitalist institutions such as property rights and the freedom of contract. This likely hampered investment growth in the way described by Higgs.

However, I am somewhat critical about the “transmission mechanism” of this regime uncertainty. From the Market Monetarist perspective recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. Hence, in my view regime uncertainty can only impact nominal GDP if it in someway impact monetary policy – either through money demand or the money supply.

This is contrary to Higgs’ description of the “transmission mechanism”. Higgs’ description is – believe it or not – fundamentally Keynesian in its character (no offence meant Bob): An increase in regime uncertainty reduces investments and that directly reduces real GDP. This is exactly similar to how the fiscal multiplier works in a traditional Keynesian model.

In a Market Monetarist set-up this will only have impact if the monetary authorities allowed it – in the same way as the fiscal multiplier will only be higher than zero if monetary policy allow it. See my discussion of fiscal policy here.

Hence, from a Market Monetarist perspective the impact on investment will be only important from a supply side perspective rather than from a demand side perspective. That, however, does not mean that it is not important – rather the opposite. What makes us rich or poor in the long run is supply side factor and not demand side factors.

The real uncertainty is nominal

While a drop in investment surely has a negative impact on the long run on real GDP growth I would suggest that we should focus on a slightly different kind of regime uncertain than the uncertainty discussed by Higgs. Or rather we should also focus on the uncertainty about the monetary regime.

Let me illustrate this by looking at the present crisis. The Great Moderation lasted from around 1985 and until 2008. This period was characterised by a tremendously high degree of nominal stability. Said in another way there was little or no uncertainty about the monetary regime. Market participants could rightly expect the Federal Reserve to conduct monetary policy in such a way to ensure that nominal GDP grew around 5% year in and year out and if NGDP overshot or undershot the target level one year then the Fed would makes to bring back NGDP on the “agreed” path. This environment basically meant that monetary policy became endogenous and the markets were doing most of the lifting to keep NGDP on its “announced” path.

However, the well-known – even though not the official – monetary regime broke down in 2008. As a consequence uncertainty about the monetary regime increased dramatically – especially as a result of the Federal Reserve’s very odd unwillingness to state a clearly nominal target.

This increase in monetary regime uncertainty mean that market participants now have a much harder time forecasting nominal income flows (NGDP growth). As a result market participants will try to ensure themselves negative surprises in the development in nominal variables by keeping a large “cash buffer”. Remember in uncertain times cash is king! Hence, as a result money demand will remain elevated as long as there is a high degree of regime uncertainty.

As a consequence the Federal Reserve could very easily ease monetary conditions without printing a cent more by clearly announcing a nominal target (preferably a NGDP level target). Hence, if the Fed announced a clear nominal target the demand for cash would like drop significantly and for a given money supply a decrease in money demand is as we know monetary easing.

This is the direct impact of monetary regime uncertainty and in my view this is significantly more important for economic activity in the short to medium run than the supply effects described above. However, it should also be noted that in the present situation with extremely subdued economic activity in the US the calls for all kind of interventionist policies are on the rise. Calls for fiscal easing, call for an increase in minimum wages and worst of all calls for all kind of protectionist initiatives (the China bashing surely has gotten worse and worse since 2008). This is also regime uncertainty, which is likely to have an negative impact on US investment activity, but equally important if you are afraid about for example what kind of tax regime you will be facing in one or two years time it is also likely to increase the demand for money. I by the way regard uncertainty about banking regulation and taxation to a be part of the uncertainty regarding the monetary regime. Hence, uncertainty about non-monetary issues such as taxation can under certain circumstances have monetary effects.

Concluding at the moment – as was the case during the Great Depression – uncertainty about the monetary regime is the biggest single regime uncertain both in the US and Europe. This monetary regime uncertainty in my view has tremendously negative impact on the economic perform in both the US and Europe.

So while I am sceptical about the transmission mechanism of regime uncertainty in the Higgs model I do certainly agree that we need regime certain. We can only get that with sound monetary institutions that secure nominal stability. I am sure that Steve Horwitz and Peter Boettke would agree on that.

Stable NGDP growth can stabilise the property market

It is often argued that falling and low interest rates sparked a global housing bubble. However, the empirical evidence of this is actually quite weak and the development in global property markets is undoubtedly much more complicated than often argued in the media – and by some economists.

Personally I have always been critical about the sharp rise in property prices we have seen in many countries, but trusting the markets I have also been critical about simplified explanations of that increase.

Now a new paper by Kenneth N. Kuttner provides more empirical evidence on the global property market trends. Here is the abstract of Kuttner’s paper “Low Interest Rates and Housing Bubbles: Still No Smoking Gun” (I stole the reference from Tyler Cowen):

“This paper revisits the relationship between interest rates and house prices. Surveying a number of recent studies and bringing to bear some new evidence on the question, this paper argues that in the data, the impact of interest rates on house prices appears to be quite modest. Specifically, the estimated effects are uniformly smaller than those implied by the conventional user cost theory of house prices, and they are too small to explain the previous decade’s real estate boom in the U.S. and elsewhere. However in some countries, there does appear to have been a link between the rapid expansion of the monetary base and growth in house prices and housing credit.”

Hence, we can not conclude that low interest rates generally created housing bubbles around the world.

Kuttner has for example an interesting point about the rise in US property prices and interest rates (UC = user costs/interest rates):

 “For one thing, the timing does not line up. House prices began to appreciate in 1998, three years before the drop in UC, and by 2001 the FMHPI index  (property prices) had already outpaced rents by 10%. The initial stages of the boom therefore appear to have had nothing to do with interest rates. It is only after 2001 that low interest rates enter the picture.”

Luckily for me Kuttner highlights two countries as having the most spectacular property market booms – Iceland and Estonia. I guess it should be known to my readers that I on my part (in my dayjob) warned about the boom-bust risks in both Iceland (in 2006) and in Estonia (in 2007). In these countries Kuttner demonstrates that there is a close relationship between overly easy monetary policy (strong money base growth) and the increase in property prices. These are, however, special cases and even though we saw a global trend towards higher real property prices in the prior to 2008 there are very significant differences from country to country.

Kuttner’s paper is very interesting and do certainly shed some light on the developments in the global property markets. However, I miss one thing and that is what impact the increased macroeconomic stability during the Great Moderation had on property prices. I have done some very simple and preliminary econometric studies of the impact of the (much) lower variance in NGDP growth during the Great Moderation on the US stock market. I have not done a similar study of the impact of the property markets, but I am sure that if Kuttner had included for example a 5-year rolling variance of NGDP growth in this estimates then he could have demonstrated that the increased stability of NGDP growth of the Great Moderation had a very significant impact on property prices. In fact I will argue that the increase in the stability of NGDP growth during the Great Moderation played at least as big a role in the increase in property prices as the drop in real interest rates. I challenge anybody to test this empirically.

If I am right then the best way for central banks to end the property market bust is to stabilise NGDP growth.

 

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