Stock picker Janet Yellen

If you are looking for a new stock broker look no further! This is Fed chair Janet Yellen at her testimony in the US Senate yesterday:

“Valuation metrics in some sectors do appear substantially stretched—particularly those for smaller firms in the social media and biotechnology industries, despite a notable downturn in equity prices for such firms early in the year.”

This is quite unusual to say the least that the head of most powerful central bank in the world basically is telling investors what stocks to buy and sell.

Unfortunately it seems to part of a growing tendency among central bankers globally to be obsessing about “financial stability” and “bubbles”, while at the same time increasingly pushing their primary nominal targets in the background. In Sweden an obsession about household debt and property prices has caused the Riksbank to consistently undershot its inflation target. Should we now start to think that the Fed will introduce the valuation of biotech and social media stocks in its reaction function? Will the Fed tighten monetary policy if Facebook stock rises “too much”? What is Fed’s “price target” in Linkedin?

I believe this is part of a very unfortunate trend among central bankers around the world to talk about monetary policy in terms of “trade-offs”. As I have argued in a recent post in the 1970s inflation expectations became un-anchored exactly because central bankers refused to take responsibility for providing a nominal anchor and the excuse was that there are trade-offs in monetary policy – “yes, we can reduce inflation, but that will cause unemployment to increase”.

Today the excuse for not providing a nominal anchor is not unemployment, but rather the perceived risk of “bubbles” (apparently in biotech and social media stocks!)  The result is that inflation expectations again are becoming un-anchored – this time the result, however, is not excessively high inflation, but rather deflation. The impact on the economy is, however, the same as the failure to provide a nominal anchor will make the working of the price system less efficient and therefore cause a general welfare lose.

I am not arguing that there is not misallocation of credit and capital. I am just stating that it is not a task for central banks to deal with these problems. In think that moral hazard problems have grown significantly since 2008 – particularly in Europe. Therefore governments and international organisations like the EU and IMF need to reduce implicit and explicit guarantees and subsidies to (other) governments, banks and financial institutions to a minimum. And central banks should give up credit policies and focus 100% on monetary policy and on providing a nominal anchor for the economy and leave the price mechanism to allocate resources in the economy.

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The un-anchoring of inflation expectations – 1970s style monetary policy, but now with deflation

In country after country it is now becoming clear that we are heading for outright deflation. This is particularly the case in Europe – both inside and outside the euro area – where most central banks are failing to keep inflation close to their own announced inflation targets.

What we are basically seeing is an un-anchoring of inflation expectations. What is happening in my view is that central bankers are failing to take responsibility for inflation and in a broader sense for the development in nominal spending. Central bankers simply are refusing to provide an nominal anchor for the economy.

To understand this process and to understand what has gone wrong I think it is useful to compare the situation in two distinctly different periods – the Great Inflation (1970s and earlier 1980s) and the Great Moderation (from the mid-1980s to 2007/8).

The Great Inflation – “Blame somebody else for inflation”

Monetary developments were quite similar across countries in the Western world during the 1970s. What probably best describes monetary policy in this period is that central banks in general did not take responsibility for the development in inflation and in nominal spending – maybe with the exception of the Bundesbank and the Swiss National Bank.

In Milton Friedman’s wonderful TV series Free to Choose from 1980 he discusses how central bankers were blaming everybody else than themselves for inflation (see here)

As Friedman points out labour unions, oil prices (the OPEC) and taxes were said to have caused inflation to have risen. That led central bankers like then Fed chairman Arthur Burns to argue that to reduce inflation it was necessary to introduce price and wage controls.

Friedman of course rightly argued that the only way to curb inflation was to reduce central bank money creation, but in the 1970s most central bankers had lost faith in the fundamental truth of the quantity theory of money.

Said in another way central bankers in the 1970s simply refused to take responsibility for the development in nominal spending and therefore for inflation. As a consequence inflation expectations became un-anchored as the central banks did not provide an nominal anchor. The result was predictable (for any monetarist) – the price level driffed aimlessly, inflation increased, became highly volatile and unpredictable.

Another thing which was characteristic about monetary policy in 1970s was the focus on trade-offs – particularly the Phillips curve relationship that there was a trade-off between inflation and unemployment (even in the long run). Hence, central bankers used high unemployment – caused by supply side factors – as an excuse not to curb money creation and hence inflation. We will see below that central bankers today find similar excuses useful when they refuse to take responsibility for ensuring nominal stability.

The Great Moderation – “Inflation is always and everywhere monetary phenomenon” 

That all started to change as Milton Friedman’s monetarist counterrevolution started to gain influence during the 1970s and in 1979 the newly appointed Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker started what would become a global trend towards central banks again taking responsibility for providing nominal stability and in the early 1990s central banks around the world moved to implement clearly defined nominal policy rules – mostly in the form of inflation targets (mostly around 2%) starting with the Reserve Bank of  New Zealand in 1990.

Said in the other way from the mid-1980s or so central banks started to believe in Milton Friedman’s dictum that “Inflation is always and everywhere monetary phenomenon” and more importantly they started to act as if they believed in this dictum. The result was predictable – inflation came down dramatically and became a lot more predictable and nominal spending/NGDP growth became stable.

By taking responsibility for nominal stability central banks around the world had created an nominal anchor, which ensured that the price mechanism in general could ensure an efficient allocation of resources. This was the great success of the Great Moderation period.

The only problem was that few central bankers understood why and how this was working. Robert Hetzel obvious was and still is a notable exception and he is telling us that reason we got nominal stability is exactly because central banks took responsibility for providing a nominal anchor.

That unfortunately ended suddenly in 2008.

The Great Recession – back to the bad habits of the 1970s

If we compare the conduct of monetary policy around the world over the past 5-6 years with the Great Inflation and Great Moderation periods I think it is very clear that we to a large extent has returned to the bad habits of the 1970s. That particularly is the case in Europe, while there are signs that monetary policy in the US, the UK and Japan is gradually moving back to practices similar to the Great Moderation period.

So what are the similarities with the 1970s?

1) Central banks refuse to acknowledge inflation (and NGDP growth) is a monetary phenomenon.

2) Central banks are concerned about trade-offs and have multiple targets (often none-monetary) rather focusing on one nominal target. 

Regarding 1) We have again and again heard central bankers say that they are “out of ammunition” and that they cannot ease monetary policy because interest rates are at zero – hence they are indirectly saying that they cannot control nominal spending growth, the money supply and the price level. Again and again we have heard ECB officials say that the monetary transmission mechanism is “broken”.

Regarding 2) Since 2008 central banks around the world have de facto given up on their inflation targets. In Europe for now nearly two years inflation has undershot the inflation targets of the ECB, the Riksbank, the Polish central bank, the Czech central bank and the Swiss National Bank etc.

And to make matters worse these central banks quite openly acknowledge that they don’t care much about the fact that they are not fulfilling their own stated inflation targets. Why? Because they are concerning themselves with other new (ad hoc!) targets – such as the development in asset prices or household debt.

The Swedish Riksbank is an example of this. Under the leadership of Riksbank governor the Stefan Ingves the Riksbank has de facto given up its inflation targeting regime and is now targeting everything from inflation, credit growth, property prices and household debt. This is completely ad hoc as the Riksbank has not even bothered to tell anybody what weight to put on these different targets.

It is therefore no surprise that the markets no longer see the Riksbank’s official 2% inflation target as credible. Hence, market expectations for Swedish inflation is consistency running below 2%. In 1970s the Riksbank failed because it effectively was preoccupied with hitting an unemployment target. Today the Riksbank is failing – for the same reason: It is trying to hit another other non-monetary target – the level of household debt.

European central bankers in the same way as in the 1970s no longer seem to understand or acknowledge that they have full control of nominal spending growth and therefore inflation and as a consequence they de facto have given up providing a nominal anchor for the economy. The result is that we are seeing a gradual un-anchoring of inflation expectations in Europe and this I believe is the reason that we are likely to see deflation becoming the “normal” state of affairs in Europe unless fundamental policy change is implemented.

Every time we get a new minor or larger negative shock to the European economy – banking crisis in Portugal or fiscal and political mess in France – we will just sink even deeper into deflation and since there is nominal anchor nothing will ensure that we get out of the deflationary trap. This is of course the “Japanese scenario” where the Bank of Japan for nearly two decade refused to take responsibility for providing an nominal anchor.

And as we continue to see a gradual unchoring of inflation expectations it is also clear that the economic system is becomimg increasingly dysfunctional and the price system will work less and less efficiently – exactly as in the 1970s. The only difference is really that while the problem in 1970s was excessively high inflation the problem today is deflation. But the reason is the same – central banks refusal to take responsibility for providing a nominal anchor.

Shock therapy is needed to re-anchor inflation expectations

The Great Inflation came to an end when central banks around the world finally took responsibility for providing a nominal anchor for the economy through a rule based monetary policy based on the fact that the central bank is in full control of nominal spending growth in the economy. To do that ‘shock therapy’ was needed.

For example example the Federal Reserve starting in 1979-82 fundamentally changed its policy and communication about its policy. It took responsibility for providing nominal stability. That re-anchored inflation expectations in the US and started a period of a very high level of nominal stability – stable and predictable growth in nominal spending and inflation.

To get back to a Great Moderation style regime central banks need to be completely clear that they take responsibility for for ensuring nominal stability and that they acknowledge that they have full control of nominal spending growth and as a consequence also the development in inflation. That can be done by introducing a clear nominal targeting – either restating inflation targets or even better introducing a NGDP targeting.

Furthermore, central banks should make it clear that there is no limits on the central bank’s ability to create money and controlling the money base. Finally central banks should permanently make it clear that you can’t have your cake and eat it – central banks can only have one target. It is the Tinbergen rule. There is one instrument – the money base – should the central bank can only hit one target. Doing anything else will end in disaster. 

The Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan have certainly moved in that direction of providing a nominal anchor in the last couple of years, while most central banks in Europe – including most importantly the ECB – needs a fundamental change of direction in policy to achieve a re-anchoring of inflation expectations and thereby avoiding falling even deeper into the deflationary trap.

—-

PS This post has been greatly inspired by re-reading a number of papers by Robert Hetzel on the Quantity Theory of Money and how to understand the importance of central bank credibility. In that sense this post is part of my series of “Tribute posts” to Robert Hetzel in connection with his 70 years birthday.

PPS Above I assume that central banks have responsibility for providing a nominal anchor for the economy. After all if a central bank has a monopoly on money creation then the least it can do is to live up to this responsibility. Otherwise it seems pretty hard to argue why there should be any central bank at all.

The monetary transmission mechanism – causality and monetary policy rules

Most economists pay little or no attention to nominal GDP when they think (and talk) about the business cycle, but if they had to explain how nominal GDP is determined they would likely mostly talk about NGDP as a quasi-residual. First real GDP is determined – by both supply and demand side factors – and then inflation is simply added to get to NGDP.

Market Monetarists on the other hand would think of nominal GDP determining real GDP. In fact if you read Scott Sumner’s excellent blog The Money Illusion – the father of all Market Monetarist blogs – you are often left with the impression that the causality always runs from NGDP to RGDP. I don’t think Scott thinks so, but that is nonetheless the impression you might get from reading his blog. Old-school monetarists like Milton Friedman were basically saying the same thing – or rather that the causality was running from the money supply to nominal spending to prices and real GDP.

In my view the truth is that there is no “natural” causality from RGDP to NGDP or the other way around. I will instead here argue that the macroeconomic causality is fully dependent about the central bank’s monetary policy rules and the credibility of and expectations to this rule.

In essenssens this also means that there is no given or fixed causality from money to prices and this also explains the apparent instability between the lags and leads of monetary policy.

From RGDP to NGDP – the US economy in 2008-9?

Some might argue that the question of causality and whilst what model of the economy, which is the right one is a simple empirical question. So lets look at an example – and let me then explain why it might not be all that simple.

The graph below shows real GDP and nominal GDP growth in the US during the sharp economic downturn in 2008-9. The graph is not entirely clearly, but it certainly looks like real GDP growth is leading nominal GDP growth.

RGDP NGDP USA 2003 2012

Looking at the graph is looks as if RGDP growth starts to slow already in 2004 and further takes a downturn in 2006 before totally collapsing in 2008-9. The picture for NGDP growth is not much different, but if anything NGDP growth is lagging RGDP growth slightly.

So looking at just at this graph it is hard to make that (market) monetarist argument that this crisis indeed was caused by a nominal shock. If anything it looks like a real shock caused first RGDP growth to drop and NGDP just followed suit. This is my view is not the correct story even though it looks like it. I will explain that now.

A real shock + inflation targeting => drop in NGDP growth expectations

So what was going on in 2006-9. I think the story really starts with a negative supply shock – a sharp rise in global commodity prices. Hence, from early 2007 to mid-2008 oil prices were more than doubled. That caused headline US inflation to rise strongly – with headline inflation (CPI) rising to 5.5% during the summer of 2008.

The logic of inflation targeting – the Federal Reserve at that time (and still is) was at least an quasi-inflation targeting central bank – is that the central bank should move to tighten monetary condition when inflation increases.

Obviously one could – and should – argue that clever inflation targeting should only target demand side inflation rather than headline inflation and that monetary policy should ignore supply shocks. To a large extent this is also what the Fed was doing during 2007-8. However, take a look at this from the Minutes from the June 24-25 2008 FOMC meeting:

Some participants noted that certain measures of the real federal funds rate, especially those using actual or forecasted headline inflation, were now negative, and very low by historical standards. In the view of these participants, the current stance of monetary policy was providing considerable support to aggregate demand and, if the negative real federal funds rate was maintained, it could well lead to higher trend inflation… 

…Conditions in some financial markets had improved… the near-term outlook for inflation had deteriorated, and the risks that underlying inflation pressures could prove to be greater than anticipated appeared to have risen. Members commented that the continued strong increases in energy and other commodity prices would prompt a difficult adjustment process involving both lower growth and higher rates of inflation in the near term. Members were also concerned about the heightened potential in current circumstances for an upward drift in long-run inflation expectations.With increased upside risks to inflation and inflation expectations, members believed that the next change in the stance of policy could well be an increase in the funds rate; indeed, one member thought that policy should be firmed at this meeting. 

Hence, not only did some FOMC members (the majority?) believe monetary policy was easy, but they even wanted to move to tighten monetary policy in response to a negative supply shock. Hence, even though the official line from the Fed was that the increase in inflation was due to higher oil prices and should be ignored it was also clear that that there was no consensus on the FOMC about this.

The Fed was of course not the only central bank in the world at that time to blur it’s signals about the monetary policy response to the increase in oil prices.

Notably both the Swedish Riksbank and the ECB hiked their key policy interest rates during the summer of 2008 – clearly reacting to a negative supply shock.

Most puzzling is likely the unbelievable rate hike from the Riksbank in September 2008 amidst a very sharp drop in Swedish economic activity and very serious global financial distress. This is what the Riksbank said at the time:

…the Executive Board of the Riksbank has decided to raise the repo rate to 4.75 per cent. The assessment is that the repo rate will remain at this level for the rest of the year… It is necessary to raise the repo rate now to prevent the increases in energy and food prices from spreading to other areas.

The world is falling apart, but we will just add to the fire by hiking interest rates. It is incredible how anybody could have come to the conclusion that monetary tightening was what the Swedish economy needed at that time. Fans of Lars E. O. Svensson should note that he has Riksbank deputy governor at the time actually voted for that insane rate hike.

Hence, it is very clear that both the Fed, the ECB and the Riksbank and a number of other central banks during the summer of 2008 actually became more hawkish and signaled possible rates (or actually did hike rates) in reaction to a negative supply shock.

So while one can rightly argue that flexible inflation targeting in principle would mean that central banks should ignore supply shocks it is also very clear that this is not what actually what happened during the summer and the late-summer of 2008.

So what we in fact have is that a negative shock is causing a negative demand shock. This makes it look like a drop in real GDP is causing a drop in nominal GDP. This is of course also what is happening, but it only happens because of the monetary policy regime. It is the monetary policy rule – where central banks implicitly or explicitly – tighten monetary policy in response to negative supply shocks that “creates” the RGDP-to-NGDP causality. A similar thing would have happened in a fixed exchange rate regime (Denmark is a very good illustration of that).

NGDP targeting: Decoupling NGDP from RGDP shocks 

I hope to have illustrated that what is causing the real shock to cause a nominal shock is really monetary policy (regime) failure rather than some naturally given economic mechanism.

The case of Israel illustrates this quite well I think. Take a look at the graph below.

NGDP RGDP Israel

What is notable is that while Israeli real GDP growth initially slows very much in line with what happened in the euro zone and the US the decline in nominal GDP growth is much less steep than what was the case in the US or the euro zone.

Hence, the Israeli economy was clearly hit by a negative supply shock (sharply higher oil prices and to a lesser extent also higher costs of capital due to global financial distress). This caused a fairly sharp deceleration real GDP growth, but as I have earlier shown the Bank of Israel under the leadership of then governor Stanley Fischer conducted monetary policy as if it was targeting nominal GDP rather than targeting inflation.

Obviously the BoI couldn’t do anything about the negative effect on RGDP growth due to the negative supply shock, but a secondary deflationary process was avoid as NGDP growth was kept fairly stable and as a result real GDP growth swiftly picked up in 2009 as the supply shock eased off going into 2009.

In regard to my overall point regarding the causality and correlation between RGDP and NGDP growth it is important here to note that NGDP targeting will not reverse the RGDP-NGDP causality, but rather decouple RGDP and NGDP growth from each other.

Hence, under “perfect” NGDP targeting there will be no correlation between RGDP growth and NGDP growth. It will be as if we are in the long-run classical textbook case where the Phillips curve is vertical. Monetary policy will hence be “neutral” by design rather than because wages and prices are fully flexible (they are not). This is also why we under a NGDP targeting regime effectively will be in a Real-Business-Cycle world – all fluctuations in real GDP growth (and inflation) will be caused by supply shocks.

This also leads us to the paradox – while Market Monetarists argue that monetary policy is highly potent under our prefered monetary policy rule (NGDP targeting) it would look like money is neutral also in the short-run.

The Friedmanite case of money (NGDP) causing RGDP

So while we under inflation targeting basically should expect causality to run from RGDP growth to NGDP growth we under NGDP targeting simply should expect that that would be no correlation between the two – supply shocks would causes fluctuations in RGDP growth, but NGDP growth would be kept stable by the NGDP targeting regime. However, is there also a case where causality runs from NGDP to RGDP?

Yes there sure is – this is what I will call the Friedmanite case. Hence, during particularly the 1970s there was a huge debate between monetarists and keynesians about whether “money” was causing “prices” or the other way around. This is basically the same question I have been asking – is NGDP causing RGDP or the other way around.

Milton Friedman and other monetarist at the time were arguing that swings in the money supply was causing swings in nominal spending and then swings in real GDP and inflation. In fact Friedman was very clear – higher money supply growth would first cause real GDP growth to pick and later inflation would pick-up.

Market monetarists maintain Friedman’s basic position that monetary easing will cause an increase in real GDP growth in the short run. (M, V and NGDP => RGDP, P). However, we would even to a larger extent than Friedman stress that this relationship is not stable – not only is there “variable lags”, but expectations and polucy rules might even turn lags into leads. Or as Scott Sumner likes to stress “monetary policy works with long and variable LEADS”.

It is undoubtedly correct that if we are in a situation where there is no clearly established monetary policy rule and the economic agent really are highly uncertain about what central bankers will do next (maybe surprisingly to some this has been the “norm” for central bankers as long as we have had central banks) then a monetary shock (lower money supply growth or a drop in money-velocity) will cause a contraction in nominal spending (NGDP), which will cause a drop in real GDP growth (assuming sticky prices).

This causality was what monetarists in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were trying to prove empirically. In my view the monetarist won the empirical debate with the keynesians of the time, but it was certainly not a convincing victory and there was lot of empirical examples of what was called “revered causality” – prices and real GDP causing money (and NGDP).

What Milton Friedman and other monetarists of the time was missing was the elephant in the room – the monetary policy regime. As I hopefully has illustrated in this blog post the causality between NGDP (money) and RGDP (and prices) is completely dependent on the monetary policy regime, which explain that the monetarists only had (at best) a narrow victory over the (old) keynesians.

I think there are two reasons why monetarists in for example the 1970s were missing this point. First of all monetary policy for example in the US was highly discretionary and the Fed’s actions would often be hard to predict. So while monetarists where strong proponents of rules they simply had not thought (enough) about how such rules (also when highly imperfect) could change the monetary transmission mechanism and money-prices causality. Second, monetarists like Milton Friedman, Karl Brunner or David Laidler mostly were using models with adaptive expectations as rational expectations only really started to be fully incorporated in macroeconomic models in the 1980s and 1990s. This led them to completely miss the importance of for example central bank communication and pre-announcements. Something we today know is extremely important.

That said, the monetarists of the times were not completely ignorant to these issues. This is my big hero David Laidler in his book Monetarist Perspectives” (page 150):

“If the structure of the economy through which policy effects are transmitted does vary with the goals of policy, and the means adopted to achieve them, then the notion of of a unique ‘transmission mechanism’ for monetary policy is chimera and it is small wonder that we have had so little success in tracking it down.”

Macroeconomists to this day unfortunately still forget or ignore the wisdom of David Laidler.

HT DL and RH.

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.

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).

Stanley Fischer – this guy can keep NGDP on a straight line

This is from Reuters:

Stanley Fischer, who led the Bank of Israel for eight years until he stepped down in June, has been asked to be the Federal Reserve’s next vice chair once Janet Yellen takes over as chief of the U.S. central bank, a source familiar with the issue said on Wednesday.

Fischer, 70, is widely respected as one of the world’s top monetary economists. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he once taught current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank president.

Yellen, the current Fed vice chair, is expected to win approval from the U.S. Senate next week to take the reins from Bernanke, whose term ends in January.

Fischer, as an American-Israeli, was widely credited with guiding Israel through the global economic crisis with minimal damage. For the Fed, he would offer the fresh perspective of a Fed outsider yet offer some continuity as well.

Good news! Stanley Fischer certainly is qualified for the job. He knows about monetary theory and policy. And even better he used to have some sympathy for nominal income targeting. Just take a look at this quote from his 1995 American Economic Review article “Central Bank Independence Revisited” (I stole this from Evan Soltas):

“In the short run, monetary policy affects both output and inflation, and monetary policy is conducted in the short run–albeit with long-run targets and consequences in mind. Nominal- income-targeting provides an automatic answer to the question of how to combine real income and inflation targets, namely, they should be traded off one-for-one…Because a supply shock leads to higher prices and lower output, monetary policy would tend to tighten less in response to an adverse supply shock under nominal-income-targeting than it would under inflation-targeting. Thus nominal-income-targeting tends to implya better automatic response of monetary policy to supply shocks…I judge that inflation-targeting is preferable to nominal-income-targeting, provided the target is adjusted for supply shocks.”

While at the Bank of Israel Fischer certainly conducted monetary policy as if he was targeting the level of nominal GDP. Just take a look at the graph below and note the “missing” crisis in 2008.

NGDP Israel

Undoubtedly Fischer had some luck, while at the BoI, and I must also say that I think he from time to time had a problem with his “forward guidance”, but his track-record speaks for itself – while Bank of Israel  governor, Stanley Fischer provided unprecedented nominal stability, something very rare in Israeli economic history. Lets hope he will help do that at the Fed as well.

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.

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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.

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.

No tapering, but no rule either. Net, net that is bad

I just arrived in New York and I will spend the next couple of days in the New York and Boston. For once my timing is good – the Federal Reserve just announce that there is not going to be any tapering.

Scott Sumner is happy, but I must admit that I for once disagree with the Fed on the hawkish side (kind of). Not that I am not favouring monetary easing, but I don’t really think that the important thing is the amount of quantitative easing the Fed is doing in the sense of 10 or 20 billion dollars more or less per month relative to Fed communication.

Blackrock’s Larry Fink is speaking on CNBC as I am writing this. He is saying that minor tapering with better guidance would have been better. I agree on that. I would much more have liked to see the Fed coming out today spelling out its monetary policy much more clearly. The fact is that the US economy is getting better – slowly, but surely so tapering is justified sooner or latter.

After all the Fed has now spend months getting the markets ready for the tapering and now it didn’t “deliver”. Not that I want tightening US monetary policy, but I want much better communication and better rules. The Fed didn’t move in that direction today. That is a missed opportunity. Today the fed could have tapered by 10 or 20 billion dollars, but at the same time clearly spelled out a rule for money base growth. It didn’t do tapering, but didn’t spell out a rule. Remember – Market Monetarism is not about monetary “stimulus”. It is about a rule based monetary policy. And remember the Fed could actually have eased today with a clear rule AND done tapering at the same time.

There is still good arguments for monetary easing in the US, but relative to the need for spelling a clear monetary policy rule that it unimportant.

Unfortunately I don’t have more time for blogging now – I am off to dinner with a good friend who happens to be another Market Monetarist. Try to guess who it is…

PS Larry Fink is also talking on CNBC about the debt celling. I don’t care about that. Lets just ignore it. Phew Larry Fink thinks Larry Summers would be a great Fed chairman. I don’t.

Rules vs central bank superheros

I have a new piece in today’s City AM on central bankers as (pretend) superheros versus rules based monetary policy:

LARRY Summers is out of the race to succeed Ben Bernanke as Fed chair. After months of debate, with politicians and media picking over Summers’s personality and background, the spotlight has returned to Janet Yellen, deputy Fed chairwoman. Is she now a certainty? Or is another monetary superhero about to emerge?

All of this recalls the moment when George Osborne announced that Mark Carney would be governor of the Bank of England. Carney was described by both the chancellor and the media as a superstar. It’s hard to miss the parallel with the hubbub around Gareth Bale’s £85.3m switch to Real Madrid.

But it’s a problem when monetary policy becomes viewed as uniquely dependent on a single “personality”. Central bankers should not be seen as star footballers. At best, they are referees. This is partly a problem of job description. What should the governor do? Should he or she fly about, putting out fires as they erupt in the economy? Or should he or she follow clearly defined monetary policy rules?

Over the past five years, we have grown increasingly used to the idea of the fire-fighting central banker. Even in 1999, Time magazine described Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin and Summers as “The Committee to Save the World” for their role in the Asian crisis, the Russian crisis and the collapse of long-term capital management. Summers’s reputation nearly landed him the top job at the Fed.

Read the rest here.

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