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.

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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).

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)

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

Last week we got GDP numbers for Q2 in both the Czech Republic and Hungary. Both countries plunged deeper into recession and as it is the case in most other countries in Europe the cause of the misery is monetary disorder. This is documented in two news pieces of research. One on Hungary by Steve Hanke and one the Czech Republic by myself.

Both pieces of research are actually more traditional monetarist in nature than market monetarist as the focus in both papers are on the lackluster growth in the broad money supply rather than on nominal GDP or on market pricing. However, the same analysis could easily have been conducted by looking at nominal GDP rather than the money supply.

Even though the two countries are similar in many ways – population size (around 10 million), economic development (transitional economies, middle income economies) and monetary policy regimes (inflation targeting and floating exchange rates) – there are also many differences such as the level of indebtedness (Hungary is high indebted and the Czech Republic have low levels of public and private debt).

I think both countries are highly interesting in terms of understanding the present global crisis. The Czech Republic is in a deep recession and is showing no signs of recovery and seems to be caught in a disinflationary trap. While many argue that the present global crisis is a “balance sheet recession” or a natural hangover after a too wild party that can hardly be argued for the Czech Republic. The country has quite low levels of private and public debt and the banking sector is quite healthy compared to most European economies. So it is hard to argue that the Czech recession is the result of too much debt or a bursting property market bubble. There is really only one cause: A failed monetary policy. I try to document that in the paper I have written in my day-job as head of Emerging Markets research at Danske Bank. Read the paper “Time for the CNB to take bold action” here.

I have for some time seen Hungary as the odd man out in Europe as Hungary’s main problem at the moment in my view is not monetary, but rather a deeper structural problem. Hungary has basically not seen any economic growth since 2006 and despite of that inflation has continued to run well above the Hungarian central bank’s inflation target of 3%. This to me is an indication of significant supply side problems in the Hungarian economy. The main supply side problem in Hungary is massive political uncertainty and a highly erratic conduct of economic policy. Hence, political uncertainty has dominated all economic decisions in Hungary for at least a decade. Hungary is probably the best example in Europe of what Robert Higgs has called “regime uncertainty”. Regime uncertainty basically mean that political and institutional uncertainty – such as uncertainty about tax rules – hampers investments and general entrepreneurial activity and therefore lowers productivity growth. Regime uncertainty therefore is a supply side phenomena. I strongly believe that this is at the core of Hungary’s lack of growth in that last 6 years. That said, I also agree that particular since 2010 monetary conditions have become tighter in Hungary and the monetary contraction has become especially nasty in the last six months of so.

In his new piece at Cato@Liberty Steve Hanke discusses particular the monetary developments in Hungary in the last couple of quarters. I especially like Steve’s discussion of the policy mix in Hungary – that is fiscal policy versus monetary policy:

“When monetary and fiscal policies move in opposite directions, the economy will follow the direction taken by monetary (not fiscal) policy – money dominates. For doubters, just consider Japan and the United States in the 1990s. The Japanese government engaged in a massive fiscal stimulus program, while the Bank of Japan embraced a super-tight monetary policy. In consequence, Japan suffered under deflationary pressures and experienced a lost decade of economic growth.

In the U.S., the 1990s were marked by a strong boom. The Fed was accommodative and President Clinton was super-austere – the most tight-fisted president in the post-World War II era. President Clinton chopped 3.9 percentage points off federal government expenditures as a percent of GDP. No other modern U.S. President has even come close to Clinton’s record.”

This is of course is two examples of the so-called Sumner critique, which I discussed in recent post on German monetary and fiscal policy after the German reunification.

I agree with Steve – the reason for lack of growth in the Hungarian economy is not due to fiscal tightening. It is due to supply side problems – massive regime uncertainty – and recently also due to an unwarranted tightening of monetary conditions.

So yes, the recent drop in economic activity in both the Czech Republic and Hungary is certainty due to a renewed monetary contraction, but while I think the “fix” is it pretty simple for the Czech Republic (ease monetary policy aggressively and soon) I am more skeptical that monetary easing alone will provide a lot of longer lasting help for the Hungarian economy. Hungary desperately needs to improve the general investor climate and implement real supply side reforms and most of all there is a need to reduce regime uncertainty. One might add that the tight monetary conditions in the Czech Republic likely is also creating supply side problems as the Czech government has reacted to the deterioration of public finances caused by low growth by sharply increasing taxes. Supply side problems and tight monetary policy is hardly a combination that gets you out of recession.

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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