The Casselian-Mundelian view: An overvalued dollar caused the Great Recession

This is CNBC’s legendary Larry Kudlow in a comment to my previous post:

My friend Bob Mundell believes a massively over-valued dollar (ie, overly tight monetary policy) was proximate cause of financial freeze/meltdown.

Larry’s comment reminded me of my long held view that we have to see the Great Recession in an international perspective. Hence, even though I generally agree on the Hetzel-Sumner view of the cause – monetary tightening – of the Great Recession I think Bob Hetzel and Scott Sumner’s take on the causes of the Great Recession is too US centric. Said in another way I always wanted to stress the importance of the international monetary transmission mechanism. In that sense I am probably rather Mundellian – or what used to be called the monetary theory of the balance of payments or international monetarism.

Overall, it is my view that we should think of the global economy as operating on a dollar standard in the same way as we in the 1920s going into the Great Depression had a gold standard. Therefore, in the same way as Gustav Cassel and Ralph Hawtrey saw the Great Depression as result of gold hoarding we should think of the causes of the Great Recession as being a result of dollar hoarding.

In that sense I agree with Bob Mundell – the meltdown was caused by the sharp appreciation of the dollar in 2008 and the crisis only started to ease once the Federal Reserve started to provide dollar liquidity to the global markets going into 2009.

I have earlier written about how I believe international monetary disorder and policy mistakes turned the crisis into a global crisis. This is what I wrote on the topic back in May 2012:

In 2008 when the crisis hit we saw a massive tightening of monetary conditions in the US. The monetary contraction was a result of a sharp rise in money (dollar!) demand and as the Federal Reserve failed to increase the money supply we saw a sharp drop in money-velocity and hence in nominal (and real) GDP. Hence, in the US the drop in NGDP was not primarily driven by a contraction in the money supply, but rather by a drop in velocity.

The European story is quite different. In Europe the money demand also increased sharply, but it was not primarily the demand for euros, which increased, but rather the demand for US dollars. In fact I would argue that the monetary contraction in the US to a large extent was a result of European demand for dollars. As a result the euro zone did not see the same kind of contraction in money (euro) velocity as the US. On the other hand the money supply contracted somewhat more in the euro zone than in the US. Hence, the NGDP contraction in the US was caused by a contraction in velocity, but in the euro zone the NGDP contraction was caused by both a contraction in velocity and in the money supply, reflecting a much less aggressive response by the ECB than by the Federal Reserve.

To some extent one can say that the US economy was extraordinarily hard hit because the US dollar is the global reserve currency. As a result global demand for dollar spiked in 2008, which caused the drop in velocity (and a sharp appreciation of the dollar in late 2008).

In fact I believe that two factors are at the centre of the international transmission of the crisis in 2008-9.

First, it is key to what extent a country’s currency is considered as a safe haven or not. The dollar as the ultimate reserve currency of the world was the ultimate safe haven currency (and still is) – as gold was during the Great Depression. Few other currencies have a similar status, but the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen have a status that to some extent resembles that of the dollar. These currencies also appreciated at the onset of the crisis.

Second, it is completely key how monetary policy responded to the change in money demand. The Fed failed to increase the money supply enough to meet the increase in the dollar demand (among other things because of the failure of the primary dealer system). On the other hand the Swiss central bank (SNB) was much more successful in responding to the sharp increase in demand for Swiss francs – lately by introducing a very effective floor for EUR/CHF at 1.20. This means that any increase in demand for Swiss francs will be met by an equally large increase in the Swiss money supply. Had the Fed implemented a similar policy and for example announced in September 2008 that it would not allow the dollar to strengthen until US NGDP had stopped contracting then the crisis would have been much smaller and would long have been over…

…I hope to have demonstrated above that the increase in dollar demand in 2008 not only hit the US economy but also led to a monetary contraction in especially Europe. Not because of an increased demand for euros, lats or rubles, but because central banks tightened monetary policy either directly or indirectly to “manage” the weakening of their currencies. Or because they could not ease monetary policy as members of the euro zone. In the case of the ECB the strict inflation targeting regime let the ECB to fail to differentiate between supply and demand shocks which undoubtedly have made things a lot worse.

So there you go – you have to see the crisis in an international monetary perspective and the Fed could have avoided the crisis if it had acted to ensure that the dollar did not become significantly “overvalued” in 2008. So yes, I am as much a Mundellian (hence a Casselian) as a Sumnerian-Hetzelian when it comes to explaining the Great Recession. A lot of my blog posts on monetary policy in small-open economies and currency competition (and why it is good) reflect these views as does my advocacy for what I have termed an Export Price Norm in commodity exporting countries. Irving Fisher’s idea of a Compensated Dollar Plan has also inspired me in this direction.

That said, the dollar should be seen as an indicator or monetary policy tightness in both the US and globally. The dollar could be a policy instrument (or rather an intermediate target), but it is not presently a policy instrument and in my view it would be catastrophic for the Fed to peg the dollar (for example to the gold price).

Unlike Bob Mundell I am very skeptical about fixed exchange rate regimes (in all its forms – including currency unions and the gold standard). However, I do think it can be useful for particularly small-open economies to use the exchange rate as a policy instrument rather than interest rates. Here I think the policies of particularly the Czech, the Swiss and the Singaporean central banks should serve as inspiration.

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One step closer to euro zone deflation

This is from CNBC:

Euro zone consumer inflation came in lower than expected in December, adding to concerns that the euro zone could be heading towards a period of deflation.

Consumer prices rose by 0.8 percent year-on-year in December, below the 0.9 percent expected by economists. It comes after inflation increased by 0.9 percent in November.

Day by day it is becoming more and more clear that the euro zone is heading for deflation and despite of this the ECB so far has failed to act and it is blatantly obvious that the ECB is in breach of its own mandate to secure “price stability” defined as 2% inflation.

The failure to act is also a clear demonstration that the ECB in fact has an asymmetrical monetary policy rule (what I have called the Weidmann rule). The ECB will tighten monetary policy when inflation increases, but will not ease when inflation drops.

Depressing…

The “Weidmann rule” and the asymmetrical budget multiplier (is the euro zone 50% keynesian?)

During Christmas and New Years I have been able to (nearly) not think about monetary policy and economics, but I nonetheless came across some comments from Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann from last week, which made me think about the connection between monetary policy rules and fiscal austerity in the euro zone. I will try address these issues in this post.  

This is Jens Weidmann:

“The euro zone is recovering only gradually from the harshest economic crisis in the post-war period and there are few price risks. This justifies the low interest rate…Low price pressure however cannot be a licence for arbitrary monetary easing and we must be sure to raise rates at the right time should inflation pressure mount.”

It is the second part of the quote, which is interesting. Here Weidmann basically spells out his preferred reaction function for the ECB and what he is saying is that he bascially wants an asymmetrical monetary policy rule – when inflation drops below the ECB’s 2% inflation target the ECB should not “arbitrary” cut its key policy rate, but when inflation pressures increase he wants the ECB to act imitiately.

It is not given that the ECB actually has such a policy rule, but given the enormous influence of the Bundesbank on ECB policy making it is probably reasonable to assume that that is the case. That in my view would mean that Summer Critique does not apply (fully) to the euro zone and as a result we can think of the euro zone as being at least 50% “keynesian” in the sense that fiscal shocks will not be fully offset by monetary policy. As a result it would be wrong to assume that the budget multiplier is zero in the euro zone – or rather it is not always zero. The budget multiplier is asymmetrical.

Let me try to illustrate this within a simple AS/AD framework.

First we start out with a symmetrical policy rule – an inflation targeting ECB. Our starting point is a situation where inflation is at 2% – the ECB’s official inflation target – and the ECB will move to offset any shock (positive and negative) to aggregate demand to keep inflation (expectations) at 2%. The graph below illustrates this.

ASAD AD shock

If the euro zone economy is hit by a negative demand shock in the form of for example fiscal tightening across the currency union the AD curve inititally shifts to the left (from AD to AD’). This will push inflation below the ECB’s 2% inflation target. As this happens the ECB will automatically move to offset this shock by easing monetary policy. This will shift the AD curve back (from AD’ to AD). With a credible monetary policy rule the markets would probably do most of the lifting.

The Weidmann rule – asymmetry rules

However, the Weidmann rule as formulated above is not symmetrical. In Weidmann’s world a negative shock to aggregate demand – for example fiscal tightening – will not automatically be offset by monetary policy. Hence, in the graph above the negative shock aggregate demand (from AD to AD’) will just lead to a drop in real GDP growth and in inflation to below 2%. Given the ECB’s official 2% would imply the ECB should move to offset the negative AD shock, but that is not the case under the Weidmann rule. Hence, under the Weidmann rule a tightening of fiscal policy will lead to drop in aggregate demand. This means that the fiscal multiplier is positive, but only when the fiscal shock is negative.

This means that the Sumner Critique does not hold under the Weidman rule. Fiscal consolidation will indeed have a negative impact on aggregate demand (nominal spending). In that sense the keynesians are right – fiscal consolidation in the euro zone has likely had an negative impact on euro zone growth if the ECB consistently has followed a Weidmann rule. Whether that is the case or not is ultimately an empirical question, but I must admit that I increasingly think that that is the case. The austerity drive in the euro zone has likely been deflationary. However, it is important to note that this is only so because of the conduct of monetary policy in the euro area. Had the ECB instead had an fed style Evans rule with a symmetrical policy rule then the Sumner Critique would have applied also for the euro area.

The fact that the budget multiplier is positive could be seen as an argument against fiscal austerity in the euro zone. However, interestingly enough it is not an argument for fiscal stimulus.  Hence, according to Jens Weidmann the ECB “must be sure to raise rates at the right time should inflation pressure mount”. Said in another way if the AD curve shifts to the right – increasing inflation and real GDP growth then the ECB should offset this with higher interest rates even when inflation is below the ECB’s 2% inflation target.

This means that there is full monetary offset if fiscal policy is eased. Therefore the Sumner Critique applies under fiscal easing and the budget multiplier is zero.

The Weidmann rule guarantees deflation 

Concluding, with the Weidmann rule fiscal tightening will be deflationary – inflation will drop as will real GDP growth. But fiscal stimulus will not increase aggregate demand. The result of this is that if we assume the shocks to aggregate demand are equally distributed between positive and negative demand shocks the consequence will be that we over time will see the difference between nominal GDP in the US and the euro become larger and larger exactly because the fed has a symmetrical monetary policy rule (the Evans rule), while the ECB has a asymmetrical monetary policy rule (the Weidmann rule).

This is of course exactly what we have seen over the past five years. But don’t blame fiscal austerity – blame the Weidmann rule.

NGDP euro zone USA

PS I should really acknowledge that this is a variation over a theme stressed by Larry Summers and Brad Delong in their paper Fiscal Policy in a Depressed Economy. See my discussion of that paper here.

ECB: “We’re not sure we can get out of it”

When Milton Friedman turned 90 years back in 2002 Ben Bernanke famously apologized for the Federal Reserve’s role in the Great Depression:

Let me end my talk by abusing slightly my status as an official representative of the Federal Reserve. I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.

On Twiiter Ravi Varghese has paraphrased Bernanke to describe the role of the ECB in the present crisis:

“You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But we’re not sure we can get out of it.”

Brilliant…follow Ravi on Twiiter here (and follow me here).

European horror graph of the day – the Greek price level collapse

It has been said that the recent decline in European inflation to a large extent is due to a positive supply shock. This is to some extent correct and it is something I have acknowledged on a number of occassions. However, the main deflationary problem comes from the demand side of the European economy and the fact that monetary policy remains extremely tight in the euro zone is the main cause of the deflationary pressures in the European economy. A simple (but incomplete) way to strip out supply side effects from the price level is to look at the GDP deflator. This is what I here have done for Greece. This is the horror graph of the day – it is the level of the Greek GDP deflator relative to the pre-crisis trend (2000-7).

greek-price-level

I challenge my readers to find ANY example from history where such a collapse in the price level has ended in anything else than tears. PS note that there are no signs of inflationary pressures in the Greek economy escalating prior to the crisis. This is not about imbalances, but about a negative monetary policy shock.

Christopher Pissarides: Is Europe Working? (The answer obviously is no)

Nobel laureate Christopher Pissarides earlier this week gave a lecture at the London School of Economics on the theme “Is Europe Working?”. It is an extremely interesting lecture. I disagree with a lot of what professor Pissarides is saying. He focuses far too much on fiscal policy issues and far too little on monetary policy. But it is in general a very enlightened lecture and he raises a number of extremely important questions about the future of the euro zone.

Pissarides is clearly an old-fashioned Keynesian. I used to think that that was horrible, but frankly speaking old-fashioned Keynesian analysis of the euro crisis at least gets to the right conclusion in the sense that Keynesians agree with (market) monetarists that the core problem in the euro zone is weak aggregate demand (we – the monetarists – call it weak nominal spending/income growth). They are wrong on the solution (expansionary fiscal policy), but at least they make a lot more sense than the “calvinist” austerians who think that both fiscal and monetary policy need to be tightened.

Interestingly enough Pissarides used to be a “euro cheerleader” (Keynesians historically have been a lot more happy about fixed exchange rates than monetarists), but he now actually suggests to split-up the euro and it seems like he is realizing that different countries with different structures and fundamentals need their own sovereign monetary policy. He is not clear on that at all – after all he is a Keynesian so he doesn’t fully get that the “solution” is monetary rather than fiscal.

We don’t need fiscal union and fiscal transfers in the euro zone (this is Pissarides alternative to an euro split-up). What we need is for the ECB to provide nominal stability (See one of my suggestions on that topic here). At the moment the ECB is only providing continued deflationary pressures and therefore we are likely to continue to face debt-deflation problems. To avoid falling deeper into a deflationary trap we obviously need significant monetary easing within a forward-looking and rule-based framework. I wonder whether Pissarides would support that.

Listen to Professors Pissarides’ excellent lecture here (I say this despite the fact he says in the end of the lecture that he “was born a Keynesian and will die a Keynesian”)

PS I now know how uncomfortable Gustav Cassel must have felt agreeing more with Keynes than Hayek on the causes of and the solutions to the Great Depression.

PPS maybe the euro zone’s real problem is that European economists are all either Keynesians or Austrians (or should I say “Germans”?) Where are the European monetarists? And Market Monetarists?

HAWKISH Market Monetarists

Over the past five years Market Monetarists have gotten a reputation for always being dovish in terms of monetary policy. The Market Monetarists have day-in and day-out been pushing for monetary easing in the US, the UK and the euro zone. So our reputation is correct in the sense that we – the Market Monetarists – in general have favoured a more dovish monetary stance both in the US and in Europe than has been implemented by central banks.

However, one might notice that the Market Monetarist bloggers have been surprisingly calm in recent months despite the sharp decline in inflation we have see in particularly Europe. Overall, we have obviously maintained that monetary policy in the euro zone is far too tight and that we are heading for deflation as a result of this. But the primary cause of the sharp decline in headline inflation in the euro zone has been lower commodity prices and to some extent also a result of an “austerity pause” (no indirect tax hikes).

Hence, Market Monetarists do not think a decline in inflation due a positive supply shock in itself should trigger interest rate cuts (or other forms of monetary policy easing). Remember Market Monetarists favour nominal GDP targeting and a supply shock will not impact nominal GDP – only composition of nominal GDP growth between inflation and real GDP growth.

As a result Market Monetarists actually tend to be somewhat less alarmed by the recent inflation decline in the euro zone than for example the ECB and in that sense you can argue that the Market Monetarists actually are more “hawkish” than the ECB presently is when it comes to the need for monetary easing in response to the recent decline in euro zone inflation. When Market Monetarists are calling for monetary easing in the euro zone it is hence for a somewhat different reason than the ECB.

Monetary policy remains overly tight in the euro zone and we are likely heading for deflation – even disregarding the recent supply side driven drop in inflation – and that is why we – the Market Monetarists are advocating monetary easing in the euro zone. Just a look at the dismail growth of nominal GDP in the euro zone – there is no better indication than that of the ECB’s failure to ease monetary policy appropriately. So we shouldn’t be too sad if the ECB moves to ease monetary policy – even if Market Monetarists think it is for the wrong reasons.

In 3-5 years the Market Monetarists will be among the biggest hawks

If we are lucky we continue to see supply side conditions improve both in the US and the euro zone in the coming years. I am personally particular optimistic about the outlook for the US economy, where I do expect a number of factors to give a welcomed lift to US potential growth. The end of the so-called commodity super cycle and fracking might hopefully to reduce oil prices. This is a positive supply shock to the US economy.

Furthermore, as I am optimistic that the US is in the process of ending two wars – the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. I will return to that issue in a later blog post, but I overall think that this is the direction we are moving in and that will be tremendously positive for the US labour supply (and public finances for that matter).

Finally, as the US economy continues to improve the present anti-immigration sentiment in the US will hopefully be reversed – after all Americans are more happy to welcome Mexicans to join the labour force when the economy is doing good rather than bad.

Add to that that US unemployment is still high so there is really no labour market constrains to growth at the moment in the US. So overall, I think we with a bit of luck could be in for a couple of years of fairly high real GDP growth driven by positive supply side factors. In such a scenario we could easily have 4% or even 5% real GDP growth for some years without any substantial pick-up in inflation. This would be very similar to mid-1990s.

Such a scenario would likely in 3-5 years time turn the Market Monetarist bloggers into proponents of Fed tightening – before most other economists would favour it. This would particularly be the case if the Fed overdo it on monetary easing in a scenario where positive supply side factors keep inflation low and hence we see a sharp pick-up in nominal GDP growth. This would of course be what Austrians call relative inflation.

So no, Market Monetarists are not always dovish. We advocate clear monetary policy rules and these rules sometimes leads us to advocate a dovish stance on monetary (as presently), but also to a hawkish stance if needed. For now I have no big fears that US monetary policy is becoming too easy, but if I am right about my “supply side optimism” then a Fed too focused on headline inflation might overdo it on the easy side down the road.

There is of course only one way to avoid such a monetary policy mistake – spell out a clear NGDP level targeting rule today.

—-

PS The ECB today did NOTHING to avoid deflation in the euro zone. No comments on that other than the ECB missed yet another opportunity to do the right thing.

PPS My best guess is that Scott Sumner will be a ultra hawk on US monetary policy in 2018-9.

There is nothing “unconventional” about money base control

Central bankers around the world talk about monetary policy as being “unconventional” when they undertake “quantitative easing” to expand the money base. This term frustrates me a great deal as there is nothing unconventional about the fact that the central bank is changing the money base.

In fact controlling the money base is exactly what central banks are doing when they undertake “normal” monetary policy. Central bankers might talk about monetary policy in terms of changing interest rates, but what central banks are doing – when they are undertaking what they consider to be “normal” monetary policy – is to control the money base to target a certain level for short-term interest rates.

In that sense there is nothing unconventional about controlling the money base – it is what central banks have always been doing. Many central bankers have just forgot it as they are used to talk about monetary policy in terms of changes in interest rates.

Therefore it is completely meaningless to talk about quantitative easing as being “unconventional” monetary policy. However, what is “unconventional” is when central bankers think that credit policy is monetary policy.

So when the ECB for example is intervening in the European sovereign bond market to distort the relative prices of for example Spanish and Germans government bond then that is credit policy. Particularly as the ECB consistently has said that any such operations will be “sterilized” – hence, the ECB will ensure that its operations have no impact on the money base. But again that is not “unconventional” monetary policy. It is not monetary policy at all – it is credit policy.

Monetary policy is two things. It is the central banks ability to increase or decrease the money base. It can do this by buying or selling assets in the market place. And second, it is the central bank’s ability to communicate about future changes in the money base (forward guidance).

Unfortunately few central bankers really seem to understand that this is what central banking should be about. Most central bankers still think “normal” monetary policy is about controlling the interest rate to hit some nominal target (mostly inflation). But central bankers can’t really control interest rates and at the same time hit another target – for example inflation. The interest rate is not even a policy instrument – it is an intermediate target. The money base is the instrument.

Therefore, it is of course also completely meaningless when the Federal Reserve earlier tried to influence the shape of the yield in its so-called operation twist and it is equally meaningless that the Fed now seems to be very concerned about what is happening to bond yields. The Fed should not care at all about bond yields.

What the Fed – and other central banks – should do is to define a very clear nominal target (the policy objective) – for example the nominal GDP level, the price level or inflation – and then undertake open-market operations – buying and selling assets – to control the development in the money base so as to hit the policy objective and it of course needs clearly to communicate about what target it has and show full commitment to hitting this.

Central banks should let interest rates and bond yields be determined by the markets. Central banks should not be in the business of distorting relative prices in the money and bond markets. The central bank’s only task is to ensure nominal stability and it should use the control of the money base and forward guidance to do this. Everything else is likely to be counterproductive.

The sooner central bankers realizes this and stop communicating about monetary policy in terms of interest rates as “conventional” monetary policy and money base control as “unconventional” the sooner they will be able to make the necessary decisions to ensure nominal stability.

The ECB’s refusal to conduct monetary policy

The best illustration of central bankers’ lack of understanding of these matters is the ECB’s policy actions. The ECB as a principle refuses to conduct monetary policy. It will not undertake actions to increase the money base even when it is totally clear that it is seriously undershooting its own official 2% inflation target.

ECB officials again and again will tell you that it is not allowed to buy European government bonds because that would be monetization of government debt. But excuse me – the job of central banks is to create money.

Money creation is at the core of what central banks should be doing. And if the ECB doesn’t feel like buying government debt to increase the money base it can always buy something else.

But the ECB seems to think there is something “dirty” about controlling the money base. It is only allowed to conduct monetary policy by hiking or cutting interest rates. But how do you think the ECB is controlling interest rates? By changing the money base! Why this obsession with interest rates?

The ECB should give up controlling interest rates and move to an open and transparent operational procedure by which to control the money base.

I fundamentally think that the ECB should announce that it in the future will stop using interest rates as a way to communicating about monetary policy and instead it should move to a system where it every month will announce the future rate of growth of the money base and that it will change its operational target of money base growth when ever needed to hit a certain nominal target (the policy objective).

The simplest way of controlling the money base for the ECB in my view would be to buy and sell a GDP-weighted basket of 2-year euro zone government bonds. Not with the purpose of influencing the relative prices of European sovereign bonds, but with the purpose of expanding or decreasing the money base.

Over the past five years the ECB (and the BoE and the Fed for that matter) has come up with a complicated set of operational procedures. Most of these procedures have had the purpose of distorting relative prices in the European sovereign bond markets. The ECB should scrap all of these schemes. There is no need for these schemes. They distort markets and have drastically increased moral hazard problems in the European financial system.

The ECB – and other central banks – should of course act as lender-of-last resort. That is a rather simple task. The central bank provides liquidity to the market (including banks) against proper collateral. Other than that the central bank should increase and decrease its money base to hit its nominal target. It is really simple.

So central bankers should stop calling changes to the money base “unconventional” monetary policy. It is perfectly normal monetary policy. But central banks should also give up the complicated and counterproductive credit policies. These credit policy is the unconventional part of “monetary” policy (it is not really monetary policy).

If central bankers acknowledged that controlling the money base is what they are in the business of doing then we could end the fruitless discussion about “exit strategies” from QE. Quantitative easing in that sense is also a meaningless term. Central banks control the quantity of base money. It can increase it and or decrease now and in the future. There is no exit strategy from that. If you have decided to have a central bank then it is because you want it to create money. There is certainly nothing “unconventional” about that – that is what central banks always have done.

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As I was writing this post I came to think of the numerous mails I have exchanged with Professor Michael Belongia on this topic and related topics. So I dedicate this post to Mike and I would suggest to my readers that you take a look at some of the papers Mike have written on this topic. See for example here:

Belongia, Michael & Hinich, Melvin, 2009. “The evolving role and definition of the federal funds rate in the conduct of U.S. monetary policy,” MPRA Paper 18970, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised Aug 2009.

Michael T. Belongia, 1992. “Selecting an intermediate target variable for monetary policy when the goal is price stability,” Working Papers 1992-008, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Mike has made numerous comments to a draft of this post among other things about how do reorganize it. This post, however, is more or the less the unedited version of the blog post, but I plan to expand this post into a bigger paper based on some of Mike’s insightful suggestions. Hopefully I will get to that soon…Input and suggestions are very welcome.

“Whatever it takes to get deflation” (Stealing two graphs from Marcus Nunes)

Marcus Nunes has two extremely illustratative graphs in his latest blog post. Just take a look here:

 

 I don’t think any other comments are needed…

Good and bad deflation – and horribly low euro zone M3 growth

I had an up-ed in today’s edition of the Danish Business daily Børsen. Here is the English translation:

Recently inflation has fallen sharply in most European countries and in some countries we already have deflation, and it is very likely that deflation will spread to several European countries in the near future.

In Sweden inflation has already fallen below zero , as is the case in several southern European countries.

There is certainly reason to fear deflation. In the 1930s deflation was allowed to spiral out of control and the consequences were disastrous. But in this context it is extremely important to remember that there are good and bad deflation.

The overall price level in the economy may fall for two reasons. First, productivity increases may cause prices to fall. As will falling input prices – for example lower oil prices. Second, a general contraction in aggregate demand – for example due to tighter monetary policy – can reduce the price level.

Economists normally call productivity increases and falling oil positive supply shock. They are unilaterally positive as an positive supply shock overall increases prosperity. That’s the good deflation.

Conversely a general decline in prices, which is a result of weak aggregate demand – a negative demand shock – is purely negative as it usually leads to higher unemployment and lower capacity utilization in the economy. That’s the bad deflation.

In general the economic development in Europe in the last five years has been characterized by very weak demand development. It has created ​​clear deflationary trends in several European economies. That certainly has not been good. It has been a bad deflation.

However, the recent decline in European inflation we have seen is primarily a result of falling oil prices – that is a good deflation, which in shouldn’t be a worry. The paradox is that these recent (positive) deflationary trends in the European economy seems to have caused the European Central Bank to wake up and reduce interest rates and it is now being speculated that the ECB will undertake further action to ease monetary policy.

According to the monetary policy textbook central banks should not respond to “good deflation”. This obviously could give reason to question the fact that the ECB is now finally moving to ease monetary policy. But the truth is that the ECB in the past five years have failed to sufficiently aggressively ease monetary policy to to avoid bad deflation.

Therefore, one can rightly say that the ECB is doing the right thing by easing monetary policy, but basically for the wrong reasons. But let’s just be happy that the ECB finally makes the right decision – to ease monetary policy – even if it is not for the right reasons.

The big question is now how the ECB will ease monetary policy when interest rates are already close to zero. But this “problem” is easily solved. A central bank can always ease monetary policy – even when the interest rate is zero. The Federal Reserve and Bank of Japan have solved this problem. They have simply increases the monetary base. The ECB has so far been very reluctant to move in this direction, but the fact that we are now moving toward deflation in the euro zone may also cause the ECB to move forward in this field. Let’s hope so – because if the ECB does not move in this direction we’re going to have ongoing problems with deflation – bad deflation – in Europe very soon.

Today we got more data underlining the fact that the ECB should be seriously worried about bad deflation. Hence, euro zone M3 grew by only 1.4% in October. The Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has an excellent comment on the horrible M3 numbers:

Eurozone money supply growth plummeted in October and loans to firms contracted at a record rate, heightening the risk of a stalled recovery and Japanese-style deflation next year.

The European Central Bank said M3 money growth fell to 1.4pc from a year earlier, lower than expected and far below the bank’s own 4.5pc target deemed necessary to keep the economy on an even keel.

Monetarists watch the M3 data — covering cash and a broad range of bank accounts — as an early warning signal for the economy a year or so in advance. “This a large dark cloud hanging over the eurozone in 2014; it means the public debt ratios in Southern Europe are at greater risk of exploding,” said Tim Congdon from International Monetary Research.

M3_2749266c

Ambrose also quotes me:

“The ECB needs to cut rates to zero and launch quantitative easing (QE) to head off deflation, but they are not there yet,” said Lars Christensen from Danske Bank. “The debt problem in Italy will be much worse if they let nominal GDP fall, leading to yet more austerity.”

So yes, we are seeing some good deflation in the euro zone at the moment and we should be happy about, but unfortunately we are likely to see a lot more bad deflation soon if the ECB does not get its act together soon.

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