Mussolini’s great monetary policy failure

Benito Mussolini is known for having been a horrible warmongering fascist dictator. However, he was also responsible for a major failed monetary experiment – the so-called Battle of the Lira.

Hence, in 1926 Mussolini announced a major revaluation of the Italian Lira as part of his general plan to revive the greatness of Italy.

This is how the Battle of the Lira was described in the New York Times in August 1927:

“It is just one year since Premier Mussolini, speaking at Pesaro, delivered that oration, destined to remain famous in the annals of modern Italian history, in which he announced his intention to revalue the lira.

‘We shall never inflict upon our wonderful Italian people, which for four years has been working with ascetic discipline and is ready for even greater sacrifieces, the moral shame and economic catastrophe of failure of the lira,’ he declared.

Looking back upon the last year, one must admit that Primier Mussolini has more than kept his word. In August 1926, the average exchange rate was 30 1/2 lira to the dollar. By October it had already dropped to 27 …the lira steadily continued its descent till in May (1927) it reached 18 to the the dollar, where it has remained ever since”

Hence, Mussolini engineered a nearly 70% revaluation of the lira in less than one year. Not surprisingly the economic impact was not positive. This how that is described in the same New York Times article:

“But the result has not been obtained without servere…jolts affecting all classes of citizens.

…Revaluation has led to a period of general stagnation and lack of enterprise in industry, for the gold value of money has increased automatically while the revaluation process was in progress and people preferred to leave their money in banks to rising it in ventures of any kind.

Unemployment is twice as high as it was in this month last year and greater than it has been at any time since 1924. Average quotations on stock exchanges have fallen 40 per cent. Wholesale prices have fallen about 30 per cent, but retail prices lag far behind and show a decrease of less than 15 per cent…

…Despite these somewhat depressing indications, the Government is convinced that the benefits of revaluation will ultimately far outweigh the drawbacks. The official opinion, indeed, is that now that the whole country has become adjusted to the new value of the lira, a rapid improvement will be expirienced.”

That of course never happened. Instead the Italian economy was hit by yet another shock in 1929 when the global crisis hit.

Finally in 1934 Mussolini decided to give up the gold standard and in October 1936 the lira was devalued by 41%.

What role Mussolini’s failed monetary policy played in his domestic policies and particularly in the foreign policy “adventures” – his war against Abyssinia in 1935-36 and his decision to ally himself with Hitler and Nazi-Germany in WWII – I don’t know, but there is nothing like war to take away the attention from failed economic policies.

Or as it was expressed in an article in New York Times in April 1935 at the start on Mussolini war against Abyssinia (but before the 1936 devaluation):

Behind each new political move in Europe, which expresses itself in the mobilization of larger armies, may generally be found an economic cause.

The article also touches on another key issue – the fact that (über) tight monetary policy historically has led to protectionist measures and that the logical consequence of such protectionist measures often is war:

The foreign trade of Italy is, figuratively, “shot to pieces.” The decrees against imports , the unwillingness to do business except where equal valued are exchanged by a foreign nation and the high rate of the lira have produced an alarming situation for a country that today under unobstructed movements of goods, would have an unfavorable trade balance.

One of the major efforts of Mussolini has been to place Italy on a self-supporting basis. Much has been done in this direction. As Italy is poor in natural resources that enter into processes of manufacture, the handicaps to attaining self-sufficiency are not easy to surmount.”

It is too bad today’s European policy makers didn’t study any economic history.

—-

Related blog posts:

“If goods don’t cross borders, armies will” – the case of Russia
Denmark and Norway were the PIIGS of the Scandinavian Currency Union

And posts on the early 1930s:

1931:
The Tragic year: 1931
Germany 1931, Argentina 2001 – Greece 2011?
Brüning (1931) and Papandreou (2011)
Lorenzo on Tooze – and a bit on 1931
“Meantime people wrangle about fiscal remedies”
“Incredible Europeans” have learned nothing from history
The Hoover (Merkel/Sarkozy) Moratorium
80 years on – here we go again…
“Our Monetary ills Laid to Puritanism”
Monetary policy and banking crisis – lessons from the Great Depression

1932:
“The gold standard remains the best available monetary mechanism”
Hjalmar Schacht’s echo – it all feels a lot more like 1932 than 1923
Greek and French political news slipped into the financial section
Political news kept slipping into the financial section – European style
November 1932: Hitler, FDR and European central bankers
Please listen to Nicholas Craft!
Needed: Rooseveltian Resolve
Gold, France and book recommendations
“…political news kept slipping into the financial section”
Gideon Gono, a time machine and the liquidity trap
France caused the Great Depression – who caused the Great Recession?

1933:
Who did most for the US stock market? FDR or Bernanke?
“The Bacon Standard” (the PIG PEG) would have saved Denmark from the Great Depression
Remember the mistakes of 1937? A lesson for today’s policy makers
I am blaming Murray Rothbard for my writer’s block
Irving Fisher and the New Normal

 

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Italy’s Greater Depression – Eerie memories of the 1930s

This is from the Telegraph:

Italy was hit by strikes, violent demonstrations and protests against refugees on Friday as anger and frustration towards soaring unemployment and the enduring economic crisis exploded onto the streets.

Riot police clashed with protesters, students and unionists in Milan and Padua, in the north of the country, while in Rome a group of demonstrators scaled the Colosseum to protest against the labour reforms proposed by the government of Matteo Renzi, the 39-year-old prime minister.

Eggs and fire crackers were hurled at the economy ministry.

On the gritty, long-neglected outskirts of Rome there was continuing tension outside a centre for refugees, which was repeatedly attacked by local residents during the week.

Locals had hurled stones, flares and other missiles at the migrant centre, smashing windows, setting fire to dumpster rubbish bins and fighting running battles with riot police during several nights of violence.

They demanded that the facility be closed down and claimed that the refugees from Africa and Asia were dirty, anti-social and violent.

Some protesters, with suspected links to the extreme Right, yelled “Viva Il Duce” or Long Live Mussolini, calling the migrants “b*******”, “animals” and “filthy Arabs”.

…A group of 36 teenage migrants had to be evacuated from the centre in Tor Sapienza, a working-class suburb, on Thursday night after the authorities said the area was no longer safe for them.

The sense of chaos in the country was heightened by transport strikes, which disrupted buses, trams, trains and even flights at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. Demonstrations also took place in Turin, Naples and Genoa.

Unemployment among young people in Italy is around 42 per cent, prompting tens of thousands to emigrate in search of better opportunities, with Britain the top destination. The overall jobless rate is 12 per cent.

Mr Renzi’s attempts to reform the country’s labour laws, making it easier for firms to dismiss lazy or inefficient employees, are bitterly opposed by the unions.

The ongoing recession has also exacerbated racial tensions, with some Italians blaming refugees and immigrants for their economic woes.

It is hard not to be reminded of the kind of political and social chaos that we saw in Europe in the 1930s and it is hard not to think that the extremely weak Italian economy is the key catalyst for Italy’s political and social unrest.

By many measures the Italian economy of today is worse than the Italian economy of the 1930s. One can say – as Brad DeLong has suggested – that this is a Greater Depression than the Great Depression.

Just take a look at the development in real GDP over the past 10 years and during the 1925-1936-period.

crisis Italy

If you wonder why Italian GDP took a large jump in 1936 (year +6) it should be enough to be reminded that that was the year that the Italian lira was sharply devalued.

Today Italy don’t have the lira and everybody knows who I blame for the deep crisis in the Italian economy.

It is sad that so few European policy makers understand the monetary causes of this crisis and it is tragic that the longer the ECB takes to act the more political and social unrest we will face in Europe.

PS I do not mean to suggest that Italy do not have structural problems. Italy has massive structural problems, but the core reason for the Greater Depression is monetary policy failure. Don’t blame Renzi or the immigrants – blame the Italian in Frankfurt.

 

Three terrible Italian ‘gaps’

Yesterday we got confirmation that Italy feel back to recession in the second quarter of the year (see more here). In this post I will take a look at three terrible ‘gaps’ – the NGDP gap, the output gap and the price gap –  which explains why the Italian economy is so deeply sick.

It is no secret that I believe that we can understand most of what is going on in any economy by looking at the equation of exchange:

(1) M*V=P*Y

Where M is the money supply, V is money-velocity, P is the price level and Y is real GDP.

We can – inspired by David Eagle – of course re-write (1):

(1)’ N=P*Y

Where N is nominal GDP.

From N, P and Y we can construct our gaps. Each gap is the percentage difference between the actual level of the variable – for example nominal GDP – and the ‘pre-crisis trend’ (2000-2007).

The NGDP gap – massive tightening of monetary conditions post-2008 

We start by having a look at nominal GDP.

NGDP gap Italy

We can make numerous observations based on this graph.

First of all, we can see the Italian euro membership provided considerable nominal stability from 2000 to 2008 – nominal GDP basically followed a straight line during this period and at no time from 2000 to 2008 was the NGDP gap more than +/- 2%. During the period 2000-2007 NGDP grew by an average of 3.8% y/y.

Second, there were no signs of excessive NGDP growth in the years just prior to 2008. If anything NGDP growth was fairly slow during 2005-7. Therefore, it is hard to argue that what followed in 2008 and onwards in anyway can be explained as a bubble bursting.

Third, even though Italy obviously has deep structural (supply side) problems there is no getting around that what we have seen is a very significant drop in nominal spending/aggregate demand in the Italian economy since 2008. This is a reflection of the significant tightening of Italian monetary conditions that we have seen since 2008. And this is the reason why the NGDP gap no is nearly -20%!

Given this massive deflationary shock it is in my view actually somewhat of a miracle that the political situation in Italy is not a lot worse than it is!

An ever widening price gap

The scale of the deflationary shock is also visible if we look at the development in the price level – here the GDP deflation – and the price gap.

Price gap Italy

The picture in terms of prices is very much the same as for NGDP. Prior to 2007/8 we had a considerable level of nominal stability. The actual price level (the GDP deflator) more or less grew at a steady pace close to the pre-crisis trend. GDP deflator-inflation averaged 2.5% from 2000 to 2008.

However, we also see that the massive deflationary trends in the Italian economy post-2008. Hence, the price gap has widened significantly and is now close to 7%.

It is also notable that we basically have three sub-periods in terms of the development in the price gap. First, the ‘Lehman shock’ in 2008-9 where the price gap widened from zero to 4-5%. Then a period of stabilisation in 2010 (a similar pattern is visible in the NGDP gap) – and then another shock caused by the ECB’s two catastrophic interest rate hikes in 2011. Since 2011 the price gap has just continued to widen and there are absolutely no signs that the widening of the price gap is coming to an end.

What should be noted, however, is that the price gap is considerably smaller than the NGDP gap (7% vs 20% in 2014). This is an indication of considerably downward rigidity in Italian prices. Hence, had there been full price flexibility the NGDP gap and the price gap would have been of a similar size. We can therefore conclude that the Italian Aggregate Supply (AS) curve is fairly flat (the short-run Phillips curve is not vertical).

The Great Recession has caused a massive output loss in Italy

In a world of full price flexibility the AS curve is vertical and as a result a drop in nominal GDP should be translated fully into a drop in prices, while the output should be unaffected. However, as the difference between the NGDP gap and the price indicates the Italian AS curve is far from vertical. Therefore we should expect a major negative demand shock to cause a drop in prices (relative to the pre-crisis trend), but also a a drop in output (real GDP). The graph below shows that certainly also has been the case.

Output gap Italy

 

The graph confirms the story from the two first graphs – from 2000 to 2007 there was considerably nominal stability and that led to real stability as well. Hence, during that period real GDP growth consistently was fairly close to potential growth. However, the development in real GDP since 2008 has been catastrophic. Hence, real GDP today is basically at the same level today as 15 years ago!

The extremely negative development in real GDP means that the output gap (based on this simple method) today is -14%! And worse – there don’t seems to be any sign of stabilisation (yesterday’s GDP numbers confirmed that).

And it should further be noted that even before the crisis Italian RGDP growth was quite weak. Hence, in the period 2000-2007 real GDP grew by an average of only 1.2% y/y – strongly indicating that Italy not only has to struggle with a massive negative demand problem, but also with serious structural problems.

Without monetary easing it could take a decade to close the output gap  

The message from the graphs above is clear – the Italian economy is suffering from a massive demand short-fall due to overly tight monetary conditions (a collapse in nominal GDP).

One can obviously imagine that the Italian output gap can be closed without monetary easing from the ECB. That would, however, necessitate a sharp drop in the Italian price level (basically 14% relative to the pre-crisis trend – the difference between the NGDP gap and the price gap).

A back of an envelop calculation illustrates how long this process would take. Over the last couple of years the GDP deflator has grown by 1-1.5% y/y compared a pre-crisis trend-growth rate around 2.5%. This means that the yearly widening of the price gap at the present pace is 1-1.5%. Hence, at that pace it would take 9-14 years to increase the price gap to 20%.

However, even if this was political and socially possible we should remember that such an “internal devaluation” would lead to a continued rise in both public and private debt ratios as it would means that nominal GDP growth would remain extremely low even if real GDP growth where to pick up a bit.

Concluding, without a monetary easing from the ECB Italy is likely to remain in a debt-deflation spiral within things that follows from that – banking distress, public finances troubles and political and social distress.

PS An Italian – Mario Draghi – told us today that the ECB does not think that there is a need for monetary easing right now. Looking at the “terrible gaps” it is pretty hard for me to agree with Mr. Draghi.

“God forbid that our policy should ever work”

This is Mario Draghi at the ECB’s press conference yesterday:

“Meanwhile, inflation expectations for the euro area over the medium to long term continue to be firmly anchored in line with our aim of maintaining inflation rates below, but close to, 2%. Looking ahead, the Governing Council is strongly determined to safeguard this anchoring.”

You got to ask yourself why you would ease monetary policy if you don’t want inflation expectations to increase. And ask yourself if the market will believe this will work if the ECB is so eager to say that the policy will not increase inflation expectations.

It all just feel so Japanese – pre-Kuroda…

HT Nicolas Goetzmann

 

The ECB is way behind the curve (the one graph version)

The ECB is today widely expected to introduce a number of measures to ease monetary conditions in the euro zone and it seems like the ECB is finally beginning to recognize the serious deflationary risks facing the euro zone.

But how far behind the curve is the ECB? There are a lot of measures of that, but if we look at the ECB’s own stated goal of 2% inflation then we will see that the ECB has basically failed consistently since 2008.

Below I look at the the level of the GDP deflator (which I believe is a better indicator of inflation than the ECB’s prefered measure – the HCIP inflation).

Price gap ECB

I think the graph very well illustrates just how big the ECB’s policy failure has been since 2008. From 1999 to 2008 the ECB basically kept the actual price level on a straight 2% path in line with its stated policy goal. However, since 2008 GDP deflator-inflation has consistently been well-below the 2%. As a result what I here call the price gap - the percentage difference between the actual price level and the 2% path – has kept on widening so the gap today is around 4%.

This is a massive policy mistake – and this is why the euro zone remains in crisis – and given the fact that we are basically not seeing any broad money supply growth at the moment the price gap is very likely to continue to widen. In fact outright deflation seems very likely if the ECB once again fails to take decisive action.

What should be done? It is really easy, but the ECB is likely to make it complicated 

At the ECB in Frankfurt they are happy to repeat Milton Friedman’s dictum that inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. So it should be really simple – if you have less than 2% inflation and want to ensure 2% inflation then you need to create more money. Unfortunately the ECB seems to think that it is in someway ‘dirty’ to create money and therefore we are unlikely to see any measures today to actually create money.

Most analysts expect a cut in ECB’s deposit rate to negative territory and maybe a new LTRO and even some kind of lending scheme to European SMEs. But all of that is basically credit policies and not monetary policy. Credit policy has the purpose of distorting market prices – and that shouldn’t really be the business of central banks – while monetary policy is about hitting nominal variables such as the price level or nominal spending by controlling the money base (money creation).

The ECB needs to stop worrying about credit markets and instead focus on ensuring nominal stability. So to me it is very simple. Today Mario Draghi simply should announce that the ECB has failed since 2008, but that that will now change.

He should pre-commit to bringing back the price level to the ‘old’ trend within the next two years and do that he should keep expanding the euro zone money base (by buying a basket of GDP weight euro zone government bonds) until he achieves that goal and he should make is completely clear that there will be no limits to the expansion of the money base. The sole purpose of his actions will be to ensure that the price level is brought back on track as fast as possible.

Once the price level is brought back to the old trend it should be kept on this 2% trend path.

How hard can it be?

PS Yes, I fundamentally would like the ECB to target the nominal GDP level, but targeting the GDP deflator price level would be pretty close to my preferred policy.

Follow me on Twitter here.

“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…

Mr. Draghi you have not delivered price stability. Now please do!

The ECB is very proud of its 2% inflation target. The problem is just that it is not hitting it.

According to the ECB price stability is defined as “inflation rates below, but close to, 2% over the medium term”.

Today the ECB published it’s new inflation and growth forecasts. The ECB now forecasts 1.4% inflation in 2013 and 1.3% in 2014. That might be below, but it is certainly not close to 2%. In fact inflation has been nowhere close to 2% for five years (!) if you look at the GDP deflator rather than HCIP inflation.

So how does the ECB response to its own forecast that it will fail in deliver price stability in both 2013 and 2014? Well, by saying everything is just fine and no monetary easing is needed.

No further comments are needed – its just depressing…

PS don’t tell me that euro zone inflation is low because of a positive supply shock. In 2011 the ECB nearly killed the euro by hiking interest rates twice in response to a negative supply shock.

PPS with M3 growth just above 3% is it pretty easy to conclude that the euro zone is heading for deflation sooner or later.

15 years too late: Reviving Japan (the ECB should watch and learn)

After 15 years of deflationary policies the Bank of Japan now clearly is changing course. That should be clear to everybody after today’s policy announcement from the Bank of Japan. I don’t have a lot of writing here other than I will say this is extremely good news. Good for Japan and good for the global economy and what the BoJ is doing is nearly textbook style monetary easing. The only minus is that the BOJ is targeting inflation and not the NGDP level, but anyway I am pretty convinced this will work and work soon.

Anyway lets pay tribute to Milton Friedman. This is Uncle Milty in 1998 in his article “Reviving Japan”:

The surest road to a healthy economic recovery is to increase the rate of monetary growth, to shift from tight money to easier money, to a rate of monetary growth closer to that which prevailed in the golden 1980s but without again overdoing it. That would make much-needed financial and economic reforms far easier to achieve.

Defenders of the Bank of Japan will say, “How? The bank has already cut its discount rate to 0.5 percent. What more can it do to increase the quantity of money?”

The answer is straightforward: The Bank of Japan can buy government bonds on the open market, paying for them with either currency or deposits at the Bank of Japan, what economists call high-powered money. Most of the proceeds will end up in commercial banks, adding to their reserves and enabling them to expand their liabilities by loans and open market purchases. But whether they do so or not, the money supply will increase.

There is no limit to the extent to which the Bank of Japan can increase the money supply if it wishes to do so. Higher monetary growth will have the same effect as always. After a year or so, the economy will expand more rapidly; output will grow, and after another delay, inflation will increase moderately. A return to the conditions of the late 1980s would rejuvenate Japan and help shore up the rest of Asia.

This is what the BoJ announced today:

Under this guideline, the monetary base — whose amount outstanding was 138 trillion yen at end-2012 — is expected to reach 200 trillion yen at end-2013 and 270 trillion yen at end-2014.

The monthly flow of JGB (Japanese Government Bonds) purchases is expected to become 7+ trillion yen on a gross basis.

The Bank will achieve the price stability target of 2 percent in terms of the year-on-year rate of change in the consumer price index (CPI) at the earliest possible time, with a time horizon of about two years. In order to do so, it will enter a new phase of monetary easing both in terms of quantity and quality. It will double the monetary base and the amounts outstanding of Japanese government bonds (JGBs) as well as exchange-traded funds (ETFs) in two years, and more than double the average remaining maturity of JGB purchases.

After 15 years the BoJ is finally listening to Friedman’s advice and I am sure it will do a lot to revive the Japanese economy. In fact the BoJ is doing more than listening to Milton Friedman. The BoJ is also listening to the Market Monetarist message of using the Chuck Norris Effect by guiding market expectations. Good work Kuroda.

And finally a message to ECB boss Mario Draghi. If you want to end the euro crisis just copy-paste today’s BoJ statement. You have the same inflation target anyway. It is not really that hard to do.

Time to end discretionary monetary policy!

This week has been nearly 100% about monetary policy in the financial markets and in the international financial media. In fact since 2008 monetary policy has been the main driver of prices in basically all asset classes. In the markets the main job of investors is to guess what the ECB or the Federal Reserve will do next. However, the problem is that there is tremendous uncertainty about what the central banks will do and this uncertainty is multi-dimensional. Hence, the question is not only whether XYZ central bank will ease monetary policy or not, but also about how it will do it.

Just take Mario Draghi’s press conference last week – he had to read out numerous different communiqués and he had to introduce completely new monetary concepts – just take OMT. OMT means Outright Monetary Transactions – not exactly a term you will find in the monetary theory textbook. And he also had to come up with completely new quasi-monetary institutions – just take the ESM. The ESM is the European Stability Mechanism. This is not really necessary and it just introduce completely unnecessary uncertainty about European monetary policy.

In reality monetary policy is extremely simple. Central bankers can fundamentally do two things. First, the central bank can increase or decrease the money base and second it can guide expectations. It is really simple. There is no reason for ESM, OMT, QE3 etc. The problem, however, is that central banks used to control the money base and expectations with interest rates, but with interest rates close to zero central bankers around the world seem to have lost the ability to communicate about what they want to do. As a result monetary policy has become extremely discretionary in both Europe and the US.

That need to change as this discretion is at the core the uncertainty about monetary policy. Central bankers therefore have to do two things to get back on track and to create some kind of normality. First, central banks should define very clear targets of what the want to achieve – preferably the ECB and the Fed should announce nominal GDP targets, but other target might do as well. Second, the central banks should give up communicating about monetary policy in terms of interest rates and rather communicate in terms of how much they want to change the money base.

In terms of changes in the money base the central banks should clarify how the money base is changed. The central bank can increase the money base, by buying different assets such as government bonds, foreign currencies, commodities or stocks. The important thing is that the central banks do not try to affect relative prices in the financial markets. When the Fed is conducting it “twist operations” it is trying to distort relative prices, which essentially is a form of central planning and has little to do with monetary policy. Therefore, the best the central banks could do is to define a clear basket of assets it will be buying or selling to increase or decrease the money base. This could be a fixed basket of bonds, currencies, commodities and stocks – or it could just be short-term government bonds. The important thing is that the central bank define a clear instrument.

This would remove the “instrument uncertainty” and the ECB or the Fed would not have to come up with new weird instruments every single month. Rather for example the Fed could just start at every regular FOMC meetings to state for example that “the expectations is now that without changes in our policy instrument we will undershoot our policy target and as a consequence we today have decided to use our policy instrument to increase the money base by X dollars to ensure that we will hit our policy target within the next 12 months. We will increase the money base further if contrary to our expectations policy target is not meet.” 

In this world there would be no discretion at all – the central bank would be strictly rule following. It would use its well-defined policy instrument to always hit the policy target and there would be no problems with zero bound interest rates. But most important it would allow the financial markets to do most of the lifting as such set-up would be tremendously more transparent than what they are doing today.

Today we will see whether Ben Bernanke want to continue distorting relative prices and maintaining policy uncertainty by keeping the Fed’s highly discretionary habits or whether he want to ensure a target and rules based monetary policy.

PS a possibility would of course also be to use NGDP futures to conduct monetary policy as Scott Sumner has suggested, but that nearly seems like science fiction given the extreme conservatism of the world’s major central banks.

“Conditionality” is ECB’s term for the Sumner Critique

Some time ago Scott Sumner did a number of blog posts on fiscal policy and why he believes that the budget multiplier is zero. At the time I was somewhat frustrated that the amount of time Scott was using to focus on an issue that I found quite obvious. However, I now found myself doing exactly the same thing – I can’t let go of the game played by central banks against governments and impact this has on the economic policy mix. This is maybe because I find empirical evidence for the so-called Sumner Critique popping up everywhere.

The Sumner Critique basically says that the central bank can always overrule any impact of expansionary fiscal policy on aggregate demand by tightening monetary policy and if the central bank is targeting for example inflation or nominal GDP then it will do so. Therefore, under inflation targeting or NGDP targeting the budget multiplier will always be zero even if the world is Keynesian.

Last week’s policy announcement from the ECB gives further (quasi) empirical support for the Sumner Critique. Hence, the ECB announced that it would conduct what it calls “Outright Monetary Transactions” (OMT) – that is it would (or rather could) buy euro government bonds.

But see here what the ECB said about the conditions for OMT:

“A necessary condition for Outright Monetary Transactions is strict and effective conditionality attached to an appropriate European Financial Stability Facility/European Stability Mechanism (EFSF/ESM) programme. Such programmes can take the form of a full EFSF/ESM macroeconomic adjustment programme or a precautionary programme (Enhanced Conditions Credit Line), provided that they include the possibility of EFSF/ESM primary market purchases. The involvement of the IMF shall also be sought for the design of the country-specific conditionality and the monitoring of such a programme.

The Governing Council will consider Outright Monetary Transactions to the extent that they are warranted from a monetary policy perspective as long as programme conditionality is fully respected, and terminate them once their objectives are achieved or when there is non-compliance with the macroeconomic adjustment or precautionary programme.

Following a thorough assessment, the Governing Council will decide on the start, continuation and suspension of Outright Monetary Transactions in full discretion and acting in accordance with its monetary policy mandate.”

The important term here is “conditionality”. The ECB’s condition for buying government bonds is that the individual euro zone country has a EFSF/ESM macroeconomic adjustment programme. Such a programme is basically a pledge of a given government to tighten fiscal policy. In other words – the ECB could buy for example Spanish government bonds, but the condition would be that the Spanish government should tighten fiscal policy.

Therefore, what the ECB is doing is basically asking the Spanish government and other euro zone governments to be the “Stackelberg leader”: First you tighten fiscal policy and then we will ease monetary policy.

As a consequence the ECB has basically said that the fiscal multiplier should be zero – the ECB will “neutralize” any impact on aggregate demand of changes in fiscal policy. This is better news than it might sound. Obviously European monetary policy is much too tight in the euro zone and I would have liked to see a lot more action from the ECB. However, one could understand “conditionality” to mean that the ECB will fill the possible hole in aggregate demand from fiscal consolidation in euro zone – monetary policy will be eased in response to fiscal tightening. That is good news.

However, the crucial problem of course is that the euro zone needs higher aggregate demand and therefore I would have been much happier if the ECB had announced a clear plan to increase aggregate demand (or rather nominal GDP) – it did not do that. However, if the ECB at least will try to counteract the possible negative impact on aggregate demand from fiscal consolidation then that is good news. One could of course say that this is a completely natural consequence of the ECB’s inflation targeting regime – if fiscal tightening reduces aggregate demand then the ECB should ease monetary policy to avoid inflation undershooting the inflation targeting.

Concluding, “conditionality” is another term for the Sumner Critique and it is in my view yet another illustration that expansionary fiscal policy is unlikely to bring us out of this crisis if central banks is not playing along.

Related posts:

In New Zealand the Sumner Critique is official policy
Policy coordination, game theory and the Sumner Critique
The fiscal cliff and why fiscal conservatives should endorse NGDP targeting
The Bundesbank demonstrated the Sumner critique in 1991-92
“Meantime people wrangle about fiscal remedies”
Please keep “politics” out of the monetary reaction function
Is Matthew Yglesias now fully converted to Market Monetarism?
Mr. Hollande the fiscal multiplier is zero if Mario says so
Maybe Jens Weidmann and Francios Hollande should switch jobs
There is no such thing as fiscal policy

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