A scary story: The Zero Lower Bound and exchange rate dynamics

I was in Sweden last week and again yesterday (today I am in Norway). My trips to Sweden have once again reminded me about the dangers of conducting monetary policy with interest rates at the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB). The Swedish central bank – Riksbanken – has cut is key policy rate to 1% and is like to cut it further to 0.75% before the end of the year so we are inching closer and closer to zero.

Riksbanken is just one of a number of European central banks close to zero on interest rates – most notably the ECB is at 0.25%. In the Czech Republic the key policy rate stands at 0.05%. And even Poland, Hungary, Norway are moving closer and closer to the ZLB.

Most of these central banks seem to be quite unprepared for what might happen at the Zero Lower Bound. In this post I will particularly focus on the exchange rate dynamics at the ZLB.

A Taylor rule world

Lets say we can describe monetary policy with a simple Taylor rule:

r = rN+a*(p-pT)+b(ygap)

In a “normal” world where everything is fine and the key policy rate (r) is well-above zero the central bank will hike or cut r in response to increasing or declining inflation (p) relative to the inflation target (pT) or in response to the output gap (ygap) increasing or decreasing. If the output gap is closed and inflation is at the inflation target then the central bank will set it’s key policy rate at the “natural” interest rate rN.

What happens at the ZLB?

However, lets assume that we are no longer in a normal world. Lets instead assume that p is well below the inflation target and the output gap is negative. As we know this is the case in most European countries today.

So if we plug these numbers into our Taylor rule above we might get r=1%. As long as r>0 we are not in trouble yet. The central bank can still conduct monetary policy with its chosen instrument – the key policy interest rate. This is how most inflation targeting central banks in the world are doing their business today.

But what happens if we get a negative shock to the economy. Lets for example assume that an overheated property markets starts to cool gradually and real GDP starts to slow. In this case the central bank according to it’s Taylor rule should cut its key policy rate further. Sooner or later the central bank hits the ZLB.

An then suddenly the currency starts strengthening dramatically

In fact imagine that the interest rate level needed to close the output gap and keep inflation at the inflation target is -2%.

We can say that monetary policy is neutral when the central bank sets interest rates according to the Taylor rule, but if interest rates are higher than the what the Taylor rule stipulates then monetary policy is tight. So if the Taylor rule tells us that the key policy rate should be -2% and the actual policy rate is zero then monetary policy is of course tight. This is what many central bankers fail to understand. Monetary policy is not necessarily easy just because the interest rate is low in a historical or absolute perspective.

And this is where it gets really, really dangerous because we now risk getting into a very unstable economic and financial situation – particularly if the central bank insists that monetary policy is already easy, while it is in fact tight.

What happens to the exchange rate in a situation where monetary policy is tightened? It of course appreciates. So when the “stipulated” (by the Taylor rule) interest rate drops to for example -2% and the actual interest rate is at 0% then obviously the currency starts to appreciates – leading to a further tightening of monetary conditions. With monetary conditions tightening inflation drops further and growth plummets. So now we might need an interest rate of -4 or -7%.

With that kind of monetary tightening you will fast get financial distress. Stock markets start to drop dramatically as inflation expectations plummets and the economy contracts. It is only a matter of time before the talk of banking troubles start to emerge.

The situation becomes particularly dangerous if the central bank maintains that monetary policy is easy and also claim that the appreciation of the currency is a signal that everything is just fine, but it is of course not fine. In fact the economy is heading for a massive collapse if the central bank does not change course.

This scenario is of course very similar to what played out in the US in 2008-9. A slowdown in the US property market caused a slowdown in the US economy. The Fed failed to respond by not cutting interest rates aggressive and fast enough and as a consequence we soon hit the ZLB. And what happened to the dollar? It strengthened dramatically! That of course was a very clear indication that monetary conditions were becoming very tight. Initially the Fed clearly failed to understand this – with disastrous consequences.

But don’t worry – there is a way out

The US is of course special as the dollar is a global reserve currency. However, I am pretty sure that if a similar thing plays out in other countries in the world we will see a similar exchange rate dynamics. So if the Taylor rule tells you that the key policy rate should be for example -4% and it is stuck at zero then the the currency will start strengthening dramatically and inflation and growth expectations will plummet potentially setting off financial crisis.

However, there is no reason to repeat the Fed’s failure of 2008. In fact it is extremely easy to avoid such a scenario. The central bank just needs to acknowledge that it can always ease monetary policy at the ZLB. First of all it can conduct normal open market operations buying assets and printing its own currency. That is what we these days call Quantitative Easing.

For small open economies there is an even simpler way out. The central bank can simply intervene directly in the currency market to weak its currency and remember the market can never beat the central bank in this game. The central bank has the full control of the printing press.

So imagine we now hit the ZLB and we would need to ease monetary policy further. The central bank could simply announce that it will weaken its currency by X% per months until the output gap is close and inflation hits the inflation target. It is extremely simple. This is what Lars E.O. Svensson – the former deputy central bank governor in Sweden – has termed the foolproof way out of deflation.

And even better any central bank, which is getting dangerously close to the ZLB should pre-announce that it will in fact undertake such Svenssonian monetary operations to avoid the dangerous of conducting monetary policy at the ZLB. That would mean that as the economy is moving closer to the ZLB the currency would automatically start to weaken – ahead of the central bank doing anything – and in that sense the risk of hitting the ZLB would be much reduced.

Some central bankers understand this. For example Czech central bank governor Miroslav Singer who recently has put a floor under EUR/CZK, but unfortunately many other central bankers in Europe are dangerously ignorant about these issues.

PS I told the story above using a relatively New Keynesian framework of a Taylor rule, but this is as much a Market Monetarist story about understanding expectations and that the interest rate level is a very bad indicator of the monetary policy stance.

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Tick tock…here comes the Zero Lower Bound again

This week have brought even more confirmation that we are still basically in a deflationary world – particularly in Europe. Hence, inflation numbers for October in a number of European countries published this week confirm that that inflation is declining markedly and that we now very close to outright deflation in a number of countries. Just take the case of the Czech Republic where the so-called monetary policy relevant inflation dropped to 0.1% y/y in October or even worse Sweden where we now have outright deflation – Swedish consumer prices dropped by 0.1% in October compared to a year ago.

And the picture is the same everywhere – even a country like Hungary where inflation notoriously has been above the central bank’s 3% inflation target inflation is now inching dangerously close to zero.

Some might say that there is no reason to worry because the recent drop in inflation is largely driven by supply side factors. I would agree that we shouldn’t really worry about deflation or disinflation if it is driven by a positive supply shocks and central banks would not react to such shocks if they where targeting nominal GDP rather than headline consumer price inflation. In fact I think that we are presently seeing a rather large positive supply shock to the global economy and in that sense the recent drop in inflation is mostly positive. However, the fact is that the underlying trend in European prices is hugely deflationary even if we strip out supply side factors.

Just the fact that euro zone money supply growth have averaged 0-3% in the past five years tells us that there is a fundamental deflationary problem in the euro zone – and in other European countries. The fact is that inflation has been kept up by negative supply shocks in the past five years and in many countries higher indirect taxes have certainly also helped kept consumer price inflation higher than otherwise would have been the case.

So yes supply side factors help drag inflation down across Europe at the moment – however, some of this is due to the effect of earlier negative supply side shocks are “dropping out” of the numbers and because European governments are taking a break from the austerity measures and as a result is no longer increasing indirect taxes to the same extent as in earlier years in the crisis. Hence, what we are no seeing is to a large extent the real inflation picture in Europe and the fact is that Europe to a very large extent is caught in a quasi-deflatonary trap not unlike what we had in Japan for 15 years.

Here comes the Zero Lower Bound

Over the past five years it is not only the ECB that stubbornly has argued that monetary policy was easy, while it in fact was über tight. Other European central banks have failed in a similar manner. I could mention the Polish, the Czech central banks and the Swedish Riksbank. They have all to kept monetary policy too tight – and the result is that in all three countries inflation is now well-below the central bank’s inflation targets. Sweden already is in deflation and deflation might very soon also be the name of the game in the Czech Republic and Poland. It is monetary policy failure my friends!

In the case of Poland and Sweden the central banks have had plenty of room to cut interest rates, but both the Polish central bank and the Swedish Riksbank have been preoccupied with other issues. The Riksbank has been busy talking about macro prudential indicators and the risk of a property market bubble, while the economy has slowed and we now have deflation. In fact the Riksbank has consistently missed its 2% inflation target on the downside for years.

In Poland the central bank for mysteries reasons hiked interest rates in early 2012 and have ever since refused to acknowledged that the Polish economy has been slowing fairly dramatically and that inflation is likely to remain well-below its official 2.5% inflation target. In fact yesterday the Polish central bank published new forecasts for real GDP growth and inflation and the central bank forecasts inflation to stay well-below 2.5% in the next three years and real GDP is forecasted to growth much below potential growth.

If a central bank fails to hit its inflation target blame the central bank and if a central bank forecasts three years of failure to hit the target something is badly wrong. Polish monetary policy remains overly tight according to it own forecasts!

The stubbornly tight monetary stance of the Polish, the Czech and the Swedish central banks over the past couple of years have pushed these countries into a basically deflationary situation. That mean that these central banks now have to ease more than would have been the case had they not preoccupied themselves with property prices, the need for structural reforms and fiscal policy in recent years. However, as interest rates have been cut in all three countries – but too late and too little – we are now inching closer and closer to the Zero Lower Bound on interest rates.

In fact the Czech central bank has been there for some time and the Polish and the Swedish central bank might be there much earlier than policy makers presently realise. If we just get one “normal size” negative shock to the European economy and then the Polish and Swedish will have eventually to cut rates to zero. In fact with Sweden already in deflation one could argue that the Riksbank already should have cut rates to zero.

The Swedish and the Polish central banks are not unique in this sense. Most central banks in the developed world are very close to the ZLB or will get there if we get another negative shock to the global economy. However, most of them seem to be completely unprepared for this. Yes, the Federal Reserve now have a fairly well-defined framework for conducting monetary policy at the Zero Lower Bound, but it is still very imperfect. Bank of Japan is probably closer to having a operational framework at the ZLB. For the rest of the central banks you would have to say that they seem clueless about monetary policy at the Zero Lower Bound. In fact many central bankers seem to think that you cannot ease monetary policy more when you hit the ZLB. We of course know that is not the case, but few central bankers seem to be able to answer how to conduct monetary policy in a zero interest rate environment.

It is mysteries how central banks in apparently civilised and developed countries after five years of crisis have still not figured out how to combat deflation with interest rates at the Zero Lower Bound. It is a mental liquidity trap and it is telling of the serious institutional dysfunctionalities that dominate global central banking that central bankers are so badly prepared for dealing with the present situation.

But it is nonetheless a fact and it is hard not to think that we could be heading for decades of deflation in Europe if something revolutionary does not happen to the way monetary policy is conducted in Europe – not only by the ECB, but also by other central banks in Europe. In that sense the track record of the Swedish Riksbank or the Polish and Czech central banks is not much better than that of the ECB.

We can avoid deflation – it is easy!

Luckily there is a way out of deflation even when interest rates are stuck at zero. Anybody reading the Market Monetarists blogs know this and luckily some central bankers know it as well. BoJ chief Kuroda obviously knows what it takes to take Japan out of deflation and he is working on it. As do Czech central bank chief Miroslav Singer who last week – finally  – moved to use the exchange rate as policy instrument and devalued the Czech kurona by introducing a floor on EUR/CZK of 27. By doing this he copied the actions of the Swiss central bank. So there is hope.

Some central bankers do understand that there might be an Zero Lower Bound, but there is no liquidity trap. You can always avoid deflation. It is insanely easy, but mentally it seems to be a big challenge for central bankers in most countries in the world.

I am pretty optimistic that the Fed’s actions over the past year is taking the US economy out of the crisis. I am optimistic that the Bank of Japan will win the fight against deflation. I am totally convinced that the Swiss central bank is doing the right thing and I am hopeful that Miroslav Singer in the Czech Republic is winning the battle to take the Czech economy out of the deflationary trap. And I am even optimistic that the recent global positive supply shock will help lift global growth.

However, the ECB is still caught in its own calvinist logic and seems unable to realise what needs to be done to avoid a repeat of the past failures of the Bank of Japan. The Swedish central bank remains preoccupied with macro prudential stuff and imaginary fears of a property market bubble, while the Swedish economy now caught is in a deflationary state. The Polish central bank continues to forecast that it will fail to meet its own inflation target, while we are inching closer and closer to deflation. I could mention a number of other central banks in the world which seem trapped in the same kind of failed policies.

Ben Bernanke once argued that the Bank of Japan should show Rooseveltian resolve to bring Japan out of the deflationary trap. Unfortunately very few central bankers in the world today are willing to show any resolve at all despite the fact that we at least Europe is sinking deeper and deeper into a deflationary trap.

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Update: Former Riksbank deputy governor Lars E. O. Svensson comments on the Swedish deflation. See here.

Reading recommendation for my friends in Prague

I am sitting in Copenhagen airport waiting for a flight to Dublin, but to be frank I am thinking a bit more about the Czech economy today than about the Irish economy. The reason is that the Czech central bank (CNB) today will have it’s monthly board meeting and the CNB board might (fingers crossed) finally act to steer away the Czech economy from the present deflationary path by finally starting to use the exchange rate channel to ease monetary policy.

With the key policy rate at 0.05% the CNB effectively has hit the Zero Lower Bound. Therefore, if the CNB wants to ease monetary policy it will have to utilise other monetary policy instruments and the most obvious instrument is to use the exchange rate.

I don’t have time for much blogging so here is just some reading recommondations that I think would be benefitial for the CNB board members to read ahead of today’s meeting:

The Czech interest rate fallacy and exchange rates

Monetary disorder in Central Europe (and some supply side problems)

The dangers of targeting CPI rather than the GDP deflator – the case of the Czech Republic

Sweden, Poland and Australia should have a look at McCallum’s MC rule

The short version of this is: The Czech economy is in a deflationary trap so the CNB needs to ease monetary policy, but with interest rates basically at zero the CNB needs to use the exchange rate to do this. This basically leaves the CNB with two options. Either to follow the lead from the Swiss Czech bank and put a floor under EUR/CZK or to implement a Singaporean style monetary regime, where the central bank starts using the exchange rate (and communication about future depreciation/appreciation) as the primary monetary policy instrument rather than interest rates.

See you in Dublin…

Update: The CNB delivered NOTHING – major disappointment.

Sweden, Poland and Australia should have a look at McCallum’s MC rule

Sweden, Poland and Australia all managed the shock from the outbreak of Great Recession quite well and all three countries recovered relatively fast from the initial shock. That meant that nominal GDP nearly was brought back to the pre-crisis trend in all three countries and as a result financial distress and debt problems were to a large extent avoided.

As I have earlier discussed on my post on Australian monetary policy there is basically three reasons for the success of monetary policy in the three countries (very broadly speaking!):

1)     Interest rates were initially high so the central banks of Sweden, Poland and Australia could cut rates without hitting the zero lower bound (Sweden, however, came very close).

2)     The demand for the countries’ currencies collapsed in response to the crisis, which effectively led to “automatic” monetary easing. In the case of Sweden the Riksbank even seemed to welcome the collapse of the krona.

3)     The central banks in the three countries chose to interpret their inflation targeting mandates in a “flexible” fashion and disregarded any short-term inflationary impact of weaker currencies.

However, recently the story for the three economies have become somewhat less rosy and there has been a visible slowdown in growth in Poland, Sweden and Australia. As a consequence all three central banks are back to cutting interest rates after increasing rates in 2009/10-11 – and paradoxically enough the slowdown in all three countries seems to have been exacerbated by the reluctance of the three central banks to re-start cutting interest rates.

This time around, however, the “rate cutting cycle” has been initiated from a lower “peak” than was the case in 2008 and as a consequence we are once heading for “new lows” on the key policy rates in all three countries. In fact in Australia we are now back to the lowest level of 2009 (3%) and in Sweden the key policy rate is down to 1.25%. So even though rates are higher than the lowest of 2009 (0.25%) in Sweden another major negative shock – for example another escalation of the euro crisis – would effectively push the Swedish key policy rate down to the “zero lower bound” – particularly if the demand for Swedish krona would increase in response to such a shock.

Market Monetarists – like traditional monetarists – of course long have argued that “interest rate targeting” is a terribly bad monetary instrument, but it nonetheless remains the preferred policy instrument of most central banks in the world. Scott Sumner has suggested that central banks instead should use NGDP futures in the conduct of monetary policy and I have in numerous blog posts suggested that central banks in small open economies instead of interest rates could use the currency rate as a policy instrument (not as a target!). See for example my recent post on Singapore’s monetary policy regime.

Bennett McCallum has greatly influenced my thinking on monetary policy and particularly my thinking on using the exchange rate as a policy instrument and I would certainly suggest that policy makers should take a look at especially McCallum’s research on the conduct of monetary policy when interest rates are close to the “zero lower bound”.

In McCallum’s 2005 paper “A Monetary Policy Rule for Automatic Prevention of a Liquidity Trap? he discusses a new policy rule that could be highly relevant for the central banks in Sweden, Poland and Australia – and for matter a number of other central banks that risk hitting the zero lower bound in the event of a new negative demand shock (and of course for those who have ALREADY hit the zero lower bound as for example the Czech central bank).

What McCallum suggests is basically that central banks should continue to use interest rates as the key policy instruments, but also that the central bank should announce that if interest rates needs to be lowered below zero then it will automatically switch to a Singaporean style regime, where the central bank will communicate monetary easing and tightening by announcing appreciating/depreciating paths for the country’s exchange rate.

McCallum terms this rule the MC rule. The reason McCallum uses this term is obviously the resemblance of his rule to a Monetary Conditions Index, where monetary conditions are expressed as an index of interest rates and the exchange rate. The thinking behind McCallum’s MC rule, however, is very different from a traditional Monetary Conditions index.

McCallum basically express MC in the following way:

(1) MC=(1-Θ)R+Θ(-Δs)

Where R is the central bank’s key policy rate and Δs is the change in the nominal exchange rate over a certain period. A positive (negative) value for Δs means a depreciation (an appreciation) of the country’s currency. Θ is a weight between 0 and 1.

Hence, the monetary policy instrument is expressed as a weighted average of the key policy rate and the change in the nominal exchange.

It is easy to see that if interest rates hits zero (R=0) then monetary policy will only be expressed as changes in the exchange rate MC=Θ(-Δs).

While McCallum formulate the MC as a linear combination of interest rates and the exchange rate we could also formulate it as a digital rule where the central bank switches between using interest rates and exchange rates dependent on the level of interest rates so that when interest rates are at “normal” levels (well above zero) monetary policy will be communicated in terms if interest rates changes, but when we get near zero the central bank will announce that it will switch to communicating in changes in the nominal exchange rate.

It should be noted that the purpose of the rule is not to improve “competitiveness”, but rather to expand the money base via buying foreign currency to achieve a certain nominal target such as an inflation target or an NGDP level target. Therefore we could also formulate the rule for example in terms of commodity prices (that would basically be Irving Fisher’s Compensated dollar standard) or for that matter stock prices (See my earlier post on how to use stock prices as a monetary policy instrument here). That is not really important. The point is that monetary policy is far from impotent. There might be a Zero Lower Bound, but there is no liquidity trap. In the monetary policy debate the two are mistakenly often believed to be the same thing. As McCallum expresses it:

It would be better, I suggest, to use the term “zero lower bound situation,” rather than “liquidity trap,” since the latter seems to imply a priori that there is no available mechanism for generating monetary policy stimulus”

Implementing a MC rule would be easy, but very effective

So central banks are far from “out of ammunition” when they hit the zero lower bound and as McCallum demonstrates the central bank can just switch to managing the exchange rates when that happens. In the “real world” the central banks could of course announce they will be using a MC style instrument to communicate monetary policy. However, this would mean that central banks would have to change their present operational framework and the experience over the past four years have clearly demonstrated that most central banks around the world have a very hard time changing bad habits even when the consequence of this conservatism is stagnation, deflationary pressures, debt crisis and financial distress.

I would therefore suggest a less radical idea, but nonetheless an idea that essentially would be the same as the MC rule. My suggestion would be that for example the Swedish Riksbank or the Polish central bank (NBP) should continue to communicate monetary policy in terms of changes in the interest rates, but also announce that if interest rates where to drop below for example 1% then the central bank would switch to communicating monetary policy changes in terms of projected changes in the exchange rate in the exact same fashion as the Monetary Authorities are doing it in Singapore.

You might object that in for example in Poland the key policy rate is still way above zero so why worry now? Yes, that is true, but the experience over the last four years shows that when you hit the zero lower bound and there is no pre-prepared operational framework in place then it is much harder to come up with away around the problem. Furthermore, by announcing such a rule the risk that it will have to “kick in” is in fact greatly reduced – as the exchange rate automatically would start to weaken as interest rates get closer to zero.

Imagine for example that the US had had such a rule in place in 2008. As the initial shock hit the Federal Reserve was able to cut rates but as fed funds rates came closer to zero the investors realized that there was an operational (!) limit to the amount of monetary easing the fed could do and the dollar then started to strengthen dramatically. However, had the fed had in place a rule that would have led to an “automatic” switch to a Singapore style policy as interest rates dropped close to zero then the markets would have realized that in advance and there wouldn’t had been any market fears that the Fed would not ease monetary policy further. As a consequence the massive strengthening of the dollar we saw would very likely have been avoided and there would probably never had been a Great Recession.

The problem was not that the fed was not willing to ease monetary policy, but that it operationally was unable to do so initially. Tragically Al Broaddus president of the Richmond Federal Reserve already back in 2003 (See Bob Hetzel’s “Great Recession – Market Failure or Policy Failure?” page 301) had suggested the Federal Reserve should pre-announce what policy instrument(s) should be used in the event that interest rates hit zero. The suggestion tragically was ignored and we now know the consequence of this blunder.

The Swedish Riksbank, the Polish central bank and the Australian Reserve Bank could all avoid repeating the fed’s blunder by already today announcing a MC style. That would lead to an “automatic prevention of the liquidity trap”.

PS it should be noted that this post is not meant as a discussion about what the central bank ultimately should target, but rather about what instruments to use to hit the given target. McCallum in his 2005 paper expresses his MC as a Taylor style rule, but one could obviously also think of a MC rule that is used to implement for example a price level target or even better an NGDP level rule and McCallum obviously is one of the founding father of NGDP targeting (I have earlier called McCallum the grandfather of Market Monetarism).

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 Czech interest rate fallacy and exchange rates

For many years Ludek Niedermayer was deputy central bank governor of the Czech central bank (CNB). Ludek did an outstanding job at the CNB where he was a steady hand on CNB’s board for many years. I have known Ludek for a number of years and I do consider him a good friend.

However, we often disagree – particularly about the importance of money. This is an issue we debate whenever we see each other – and I don’t think either of us find it boring. Unfortunately I have so far failed to convince Ludek.

Now it seems we have yet another reason to debate. The issue is over the impact of currency devaluation and the monetary transmission mechanism.

The Czech economy is doing extremely bad and it to me is pretty obvious that the economy is caught in a deflationary trap. The CNB’s key policy rate is close to zero and that is so far limiting the CNB from doing more monetary easing despite the very obvious need for monetary easing – no growth, disinflationary pressures, declining money-velocity and a fairly strong Czech koruna. However, the CNB seems nearly paralyzed. Among other things because the majority of CNB board members seem to think that monetary policy is already easy because interest rates are already very low.

What the majority on the CNB board fail to understand is of course that interest rates are low exactly because the economy is in such a slump. The majority on the CNB board members are guilty of what Milton Friedman called the “interest rate fallacy”.  As Friedman said in 1997:

“After the U.S. experience during the Great Depression, and after inflation and rising interest rates in the 1970s and disinflation and falling interest rates in the 1980s, I thought the fallacy of identifying tight money with high interest rates and easy money with low interest rates was dead. Apparently, old fallacies never die.”

Looking at the Czech economy makes it pretty clear that monetary policy is not easy. If monetary policy was easy then property prices would not be declining and nominal GDP would not be contracting. If monetary policy was easy then inflation would be rising – it is not.

It therefore obvious that the Czech economy desperately needs monetary easing and since interest rates are already close to zero it is obvious that the CNB needs to use other instruments to ease monetary policy. To me the most obvious and simplest way to ease monetary policy in the present situation would be to use the exchange rate channel. The CNB should simply buy foreign currency to weaken the Czech koruna until a certain nominal target is met – for example bringing back the level of the GDP deflator back to its pre-crisis trend. The best way to do this would be to set a temporary target on Czech koruna against the euro – in a similar fashion as the Swiss central bank has done – until the given nominal target is reached. This is what Lars E. O. Svensson – now deputy governor of the Swedish central bank – has called the foolproof way out of deflation.

CNB governor Miroslav Singer seems to be open to this option. Here is what he said in a recent interview with the Czech business paper Hospodarske Noviny (my translation – with help from Czech friends and Google translate…):

“We talked about it in the central bank’s board about what the central bank can buy and put the money into circulation. What all can lend and – in extreme case – we can simply hand out money to citizens. Something that is sometimes referred to as “throwing money from a helicopter.” If it really was needed, it seems to be the easiest to move the exchange rate. It is logical for the country, which exports the products of eighty per cent of its GDP. If we felt that in our country there is a long deflationary pressures, the obvious way to deal with it is through a weakening currency.”

It should be stressed that I am slightly paraphrasing Singer’s comments, but the meaning is clear – governor Singer full well knows that monetary policy works and I certain agree with him on this issue. Unfortunately my good friend Ludek Niedermayer to some extent disagrees.

Here is Ludek in the same article:

“It would mean leaving a floating exchange rate and our trading partners would be able to complain, that we in this way supports our own exports”

Ludek here seems to argue that the way a weakening of the koruna only works through a “competitiveness channel” – in fact governor Singer seems to have the same view. However, as I have so often argued the primary channel by which a devaluation works is through the impact on domestic demand through increased inflation expectations (or rather less deflationary expectations) and an increase in the money base rather than through the competitiveness channel.

Let’s assume that the CNB tomorrow announced that it would set a new target for EUR/CZK at 30 – versus around 24.90 today (note this is an example and not a forecast). Obviously this would help Czech exports, but much more importantly it would be a signal to Czech households and companies that the CNB will not allow the Czech economy to sink further into a deflationary slump. This would undoubtedly lead households and companies to reduce their cash reserves that they are holding now.

In other words a committed and sizable devaluation to the Czech koruna would lead to a sharp drop in demand for Czech koruna – and for a given money supply this would effectively be aggressive monetary easing. This will push up money-velocity. Furthermore, as the CNB is buying foreign currency it is effectively expanding the money supply. With higher money supply growth and higher velocity nominal GDP will expand and with sticky prices and wages and a large negative output gap this would likely also increase real GDP.

This would be similarly to what happened for example in Poland and Sweden in 2008-9, where a weakening of the zloty and the Swedish krona supported domestic demand. Hence, the relatively strong performance of the Swedish and the Polish economies in 2009-10 were due to strong domestic demand rather than strong exports. Again, the exchange rate channel is not really about competitiveness, but about boosting domestic demand through higher money supply growth and higher velocity.

The good news is that the CNB is not out of ammunition and it is similarly good news that the CNB governor Singer full well knows this. The bad news is that he might not have convinced the majority on the CNB board about this. In that sense the CNB is not different from most central banks in the world – bubble fears dominates while deflationary risks are ignored. Sad, but true.

PS I strongly recommend for anybody who can read Czech – or can use Google translate – to read the entire interview with Miroslav Singer. Governor Singer fully well understands that he is not out of ammunition – that is a refreshing view from a European central banker.

Related posts:

Is monetary easing (devaluation) a hostile act?
Exchange rates and monetary policy – it’s not about competitiveness: Some Argentine lessons
Mises was clueless about the effects of devaluation
The luck of the ‘Scandies’
“The Bacon Standard” (the PIG PEG) would have saved Denmark from the Great Depression
The dangers of targeting CPI rather than the GDP deflator – the case of the Czech Republic
Monetary disorder in Central Europe (and some supply side problems)

The dangers of targeting CPI rather than the GDP deflator – the case of the Czech Republic

It is no secret that Market Monetarists favour nominal GDP level targeting over inflation target. We do so for a number of reasons, but an important reason is that we believe that the central bank should not react to supply shocks are thereby distort the relative prices in the economy. However, for now the Market Monetarist quest for NGDP targeting has not yet lead any central bank in the world to officially switching to NGDP targeting. Inflation targeting still remains the preferred operational framework for central banks in the developed world and partly also in Emerging Markets.

However, when we talk about inflation targeting it is not given what inflation we are talking about. Now you are probably thinking “what is he talking about? Inflation is inflation”. No, there are a number of different measure of inflation and dependent on what measures of inflation the central bank is targeting it might get to very different conclusions about whether to tighten or ease monetary policy.

Most inflation targeting central banks tend to target inflation measured with some kind of consumer price index (CPI). The Consumer Price Index is a fixed basket prices of goods and services. Crucially CPI also includes prices of imported goods and services. Therefor a negative supply shock in the form of higher import prices will show up directly in higher CPI-inflation. Furthermore, increases in indirect taxes will also push up CPI.

Hence, try to imagine a small very open economy where most of the production of the country is exported and everything that is consumed domestically is imported. In such a economy the central bank will basically have no direct influence on inflation – or at least if the central bank targets headline CPI inflation then it will basically be targeting prices determined in the outside world (and by indirect taxes) rather than domestically.

Contrary to CPI the GDP deflator is a price index of all goods and services produced within the country. This of course is what the central bank can impact directly. Therefore, it could seem somewhat paradoxically that central banks around the world tend to focus on CPI rather than on the GDP deflator. In fact I would argue that many central bankers are not even aware about what is happening to the GDP deflator.

It is not surprising that many central bankers knowingly or unknowingly are ignorant of the developments in the GDP deflator. After all normally the GDP deflator and CPI tend to move more or less in sync so “normally” there are not major difference between inflation measured with CPI and GDP deflator. However, we are not in “normal times”.

The deflationary Czech economy

A very good example of the difference between CPI and the GDP deflator is the Czech economy. This is clearly illustrated in the graph below.

The Czech central bank (CNB) is targeting 2% inflation. As the graph shows both CPI and the GDP deflator grew close to a 2% growth-path from the early 2000s and until crisis hit in 2008. However, since then the two measures have diverged dramatically from each other. The consumer price index has clearly moved above the 2%-trend – among other things due to increases in indirect taxes. On the other hand the GDP deflator has at best been flat and one can even say that it until recently was trending downwards.

Hence, if you as a Czech central banker focus on inflation measured by CPI then you might be alarmed by the rise in CPI well above the 2%-trend. And this has in fact been the case with the CNB’s board, which has remained concerned about inflationary risks all through this crisis as the CNB officially targets CPI inflation.

However, if you instead look at the GDP deflator you would realise that the CNB has had too tight monetary policy. In fact one can easily argue that CNB’s policies have been deflationary and as such it is no surprise that the Czech economy now shows a growth pattern more Japanese in style than a catching-up economy. In that regard it should be noted that the Czech economy certainly cannot be said to be a very leveraged economy. Rather both the public and private debt in the Czech Republic is quite low. Hence, there is certainly no “balance sheet recession” here (I believe that such thing does not really exists…). The Czech economy is not growing because monetary policy is deflationary. The GDP deflator shows that very clearly. Unfortunately the CNB does not focus on the GDP deflator, but rather on CPI.

A easy fix for the Czech economy would therefore be for the CNB to acknowledge that CPI gives a wrong impression of inflationary/deflationary risks in the economy and that the CNB therefore in the future will target inflation measured from the GDP deflator and that it because it has undershot this measure of inflation in the past couple of years it will bring the GDP deflator back to it’s pre-crisis trend. That would necessitate an increase in level of the GDP deflator of 6-7% from the present level. There after the CNB could return to targeting growth rate in the GDP deflator around 2% trend level. This could in my view easily be implemented by announcing the policy and then start to implement it through a policy of buying of foreign currency. Such a policy would in my view be fully in line with the CNB’s 2% inflation target and would in no way jeopardize the long time nominal stability of the Czech economy. Rather it would be the best insurance against the present environment of stagnation turning into a debt and financial crisis.

Obviously I think it would make more sense to focus on targeting the NGDP level, but if the CNB insists on targeting inflation then it at least should focus on targeting an inflation measure it can influence directly. The CNB cannot influence global commodity prices or indirect taxes, but it can influence the price of domestically produced products so that is what it should be aiming at rather than to focus on CPI. It is time to replace CPI with the GDP deflator in it’s inflation target.

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