Forget about “hawks” and “doves” – what we need is a “monetary constitution”

Even though NGDP level targeting is becoming increasingly popular I am increasingly getting worried that people don’t really understand what Market Monetarists are talking about. The problem is that most observers and participants in the monetary policy debate continue to think about monetary policy in a highly discretionary way rather think about monetary policy in terms of rules.

Keynesian economists have traditionally been much less concerned about ensuring a rule based monetary policy so it is not surprising that they continue to think in terms of different positions in the monetary policy debate in terms of “hawks” and “doves”. However, a surprisingly large number of anti-keynesian free market oriented economists have also fallen into this trap of thinking about monetary policy issues in terms of “hawks” versus “doves”. They see themselves as “hawks” who should fight the keynesian “doves”. They tend to think that central banks only err on the inflationary side and never on the deflationary side and that the important thing therefore to always argue for tighter monetary policy.

However, the problem is not that central banks are always inflationary – they are not necessarily. Just look at the Bank of Japan or the ECB. The problem is that central banks are not ruled by a “monetary constitution”. There are no clear rules guiding the game and so they mess up things.

James Buchanan who sadly died earlier this week can hardly be said to have been a great monetary theorist (his monetary thinking was “old Chicago” – Frank Knight, Henry Simons and Lloyd Mints). However, that is not really important because what Buchanan taught us about monetary policy (and about everything else) was much more important. Buchanan was a constitutionalist. He was concerned about one thing and one thing only and that was how to define the rules the game – also in monetary matters. This to me is what Market Monetarism to a large extent is about (or at least should be about).

We want central banks to stop the ad hoc’ism. In fact we don’t even like independent central banks – as we don’t want to give them the opportunity to mess up things. Instead we basically want as Milton Friedman suggested to replace the central bank with a “computer”. The computer being a clear monetary policy rule. A monetary constitution if you like.

The problem with today’s monetary policy debate is that it is not a Buchanan inspired debate, but a debate about easier or tighter monetary policy. The debate should instead be about rules versus discretions and about what rules we should have.

Obviously Market Monetarists have been arguing in favour of monetary easing in both the US and the euro zone, but the argument is made within the framework of NGDP level targeting. We are not always “dovish”. In fact most of us would probably have argued that monetary policy in the US and in most Europe have been overly easy for the last 40 years. But that is besides the point. The point is that we really should not have a discussion about easier versus tighter monetary policy. We should debate the rules of the game – James Buchanan would have told us that.

I am not trying to say James Buchanan was Market Monetarist – he was not and I am sure he would not have liked that label. But I do think that Market Monetarists’ call for a rule based monetary policy is completely in the spirit of James Buchanan.

However, many of the economists who would normally be on the same side of the argument as Market Monetarists today see us as allies of the keynesians because they see the Market Monetarist call for easier monetary policy as meaning that we are keynesians – because they equate being keynesian with easy monetary policy and therefore if you are anti-keynesian you will have to be a “hawk”.

Take some of the “hawks” on the FOMC – for example Charles Plosser. Plosser of course academically comes from an economic tradition (Real Business Cycle theory) that should lead him to stress the importance of rules. However, over the last four years I have heard very little from Charles Plosser about the need for a rules based monetary policy. Instead Plosser has been speaking in the language of discretion. In that sense he has a lot more in common with the keynesian Federal Reserve officials of the 1970s than Market Monetarists have.

That said, Market Monetarists certainly have a problem as well. If somebody wrongly sees us as the monetary version of discretionary keynesian fiscalists like Paul Krugman then we have a problem. Then we need to explain ourselves. We need to explain that we want a monetary policy based on the constitutionalist thinking of James Buchanan. We don’t care about hawks and doves – the only thing we care about is limiting the central banks ability to mess us things by introducing clear and transparent monetary policy rules that limits the discretionary powers of the central banks. In that sense we have a lot in common with Austrian gold standard proponents despite the fact we strongly disagree on the causes of the Great Recession.

So concluding, Buchanan was right – we need a monetary constitution that limits the discretionary powers for central banks. Now lets discuss what that rule should be instead of the continued fruitless discussion about easier or tighter monetary policy and stop identifying yourselves as hawks or doves. The questions is whether you believe in a monetary constitution or not.

PS I use the term “keynesian” here in a certain way that I think that most of my readers understand and agree with. However, the New Keynesian traditions would certainly be as strongly against discretionary monetary policies as Market Monetarists. I would not place for example Paul Krugman in that New Keynesian tradition as he seems very happy to endorse all kind of discretionary shenanigans.

PPS The term “constitutionalist” is not meant to mean the US Constitution and it is not some fringe US populist tradition. It a form of economic thinking.

PPPS Market Monetarism of course is not just about NGDP level targeting and rules, but also about how to think about monetary theory – for example how to think about the monetary transmission mechanism. Hence, you are not automatically a Market Monetarist just because you favour NGDP level targeting and you can think as a Market Monetarist and not necessarily favour NGDP level targeting.

See this excellent lecture by James Buchanan about the Great Recession and Economists from 2011 (Buchanan was 91 at that time!). I disagree with some of his views of the specifics of the causes of the Great Recessions, but he fully agree with his view that the fundamental reason for the Great Recession was that the failure of the “rules”.

Related posts:

NGDP targeting is not about ”stimulus”
NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy
Be right for the right reasons
Monetary policy can’t fix all problems
Boettke’s important Political Economy questions for Market Monetarists
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative
Lets concentrate on the policy framework
Boettke and Smith on why we are wasting our time
Scott Sumner and the Case against Currency Monopoly…or how to privatize the Fed
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative (we try again)

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Patri Friedman on Market Monetarism

Here is Patri Friedman on his blog “Patri’s Peripatetic Peregrinations”:

“I sent a friend an intro to market monetarism (a modern, blogosphere-inspired adjustment to the traditional monetarism my grandfather helped create). He was surprised I believed that printing money could be good, rather than agreeing with the Austrians.”

I am happy to see that Patri has read my paper on Market Monetarism.

There is of course nothing wrong in thinking that “printing money could be good” (under certain circumstances). In fact this is completely in line with what Patri’s grandfather Milton Friedman argued in terms of the Great Depression and the Japanese crisis.

Patri in his post also discusses how a “helicopter drop” could happen in a world of digital cash. Interestingly enough this discussion is similar to a recent internal Market Monetarist debate between Nick Rowe, Bill Woolsey and Scott Sumner about whether money is a medium of exchange or a medium of account. See for example here, here and here. Kurt Schuler also has contributed to the discussion. Finally Miles Kimball similarly has a very interesting post on the case for electronic money.

Patri’s discussion of digital cash to some extent also relates to my own discussion of monetary reform in Africa and the development of mobile based money (See for example here, herehere and here).

Anyway, I am happy to Patri seems to be showing some sympathy for Market Monetarism.

HT Lasse Birk Olesen

David Laidler: “Two Crises, Two Ideas and One Question”

The main founding fathers of monetarism to me always was Milton Friedman, Anna Schwartz, Karl Brunner, Allan Meltzer and David Laidler. The three first have all now passed away and Allan Meltzer to some extent seems to have abandoned monetarism. However, David Laidler is still going strong and maintains his monetarist views. David has just published a new and very interesting paper – “Two Crises, Two Ideas and One Question” – in which he compares the Great Depression and the Great Recession through the lens of history of economic thought.

David’s paper is interesting in a number of respects and any student of economic history and history of economic thought will find it useful to read the paper. I particularly find David’s discussion of the views of Allan Meltzer and other (former!?) monetarists interesting. David makes it clear that he think that they have given up on monetarism or as he express it in footnote 18:

“In this group, with which I would usually expect to find myself in agreement (about the Great Recession), I include, among others, Thomas Humphrey, Allan Meltzer, the late Anna Schwartz, and John Taylor, though the latter does not have quite the same track record as a monetarist as do the others.”

Said in another way David basically thinks that these economists have given up on monetarism. However, according to David monetarism is not dead as another other group of economists today continues to carry the monetarist torch – footnote 18 continues:

“Note that I self-consciously exclude such commentators as Timothy Congdon (2011), Robert Hetzel (2012) and that group of bloggers known as the “market monetarists”, which includes Lars Christensen, Scott Sumner, Nicholas Rowe …. – See Christensen (2011) for a survey of their work – from this list. These have all consistently advocated measures designed to increase money growth in recent years, and have sounded many themes similar to those explored here in theory work.”

I personally think it is a tremendous boost to the intellectual standing of Market Monetarism that no other than David Laidler in this way recognize the work of the Market Monetarists. Furthermore and again from a personal perspective when David recognizes Market Monetarist thinking in this way and further goes on to advocate monetary easing as a respond to the present crisis I must say that it confirms that we (the Market Monetarists) are right in our analysis of the crisis and helps my convince myself that I have not gone completely crazy. But read David’s paper – there is much more to it than praise of Market Monetarism.

PS This year it is exactly 30 years ago David’s book “Monetarist Perspectives” was published. I still would recommend the book to anybody interested in monetary theory. It had a profound impact on me when I first read it in the early 1990s, but I must say that when I reread it a couple of months ago I found myself in even more agreement with it than was the case 20 years ago.

Update: David Glasner also comments on Laidler’s paper.

Finding wisdom in letters to The Economist

It is always a pleasure to read The Economist. Normally, however, I do not find the letters to the editor especially interesting. However, when I picked up this week’s edition of the magazine today I stumbled on an interesting letter from Paul DeRosa. Mr. DeRosa writes about what Milton Friedman might have thought of the present crisis.

Here is from Mr. DeRosa’s letter to The Economist:

“At a seminar once, I remember hearing him [Friedman] make the generalization that monetary policy is easy only when the prices of assets are rising faster than the prices of the goods they produce…In any case, this thought applied to any reasonable constructed index of asset prices reveals that the Federal Reserve is barely on the easy side of neutral, and the European Central Bank has Europe in death grip”

I find Mr. DeRosa’s comments extremely interesting. The comments are interesting because it indicates that Milton Friedman indeed paid attention to asset prices as an indicator for the monetary policy stance – something that of course is at the core of Market Monetarism. Second, I believe the Mr. DeRosa’s conclusion is entirely correct – the markets are clearly telling us that monetary policy in the euro zone is insanely tight – and that the Fed is not doing a much better job.

Is Matthew Yglesias now fully converted to Market Monetarism?

The always interesting Matthew Yglesias comments on my point that we should stop talking about national accounting standards. In the process Matt is having a bit of fun with two identities.

The national account standard:

(1) Y=C+I+G+NX

And the equation of exchange:

(2) MV=PY

As Matt rightly notes that we can combine the two:

MV=C+I+G+NX

Matt uses the notation X for net exports – I use NX. P is assumed to be 1.

This is of course completely correct – both are identities. They do not tell us anything about causality. However, the point I have been making is that when people think of (1) they also tend to think that causality runs from right to left in the equation. However, that is only the case if you ignore (2).

This is of course is also why the fiscal multiplier is zero. Hence, public spending (G) can only increase nominal GDP (PY) if the central bank plays along (and increases MV) or as Matt express it:

“If monetary stimulus increases MV then what you’ll get is more spending across a wide variety of categories. Since in today’s economy some things are scarce (gasoline, apartments in San Francisco) and other things are not (unskilled labor, mall space near Phoenix) that will mean some increase in real output and some increase in prices. Similarly on the fiscal policy side, there’s no such thing as an inflation-adjusted tax cut or appropriation. You’re pulling on nominal levers, so if crowding out doesn’t occur that has to be because the central bank is tolerating an increase in the price level.”

This is of course also why the idea that we could use fiscal stimulus to get us out of the European crisis makes no sense at all unless the ECB plays along. You can not increase PY without increasing MV.

Matt has been calling for fiscal stimulus in the US, but his fun with the identities could indicate that he is changing his mind or as David Wright comments on Matt’s article:

“The contrapositive of an assertion is logically equivilent to the original assertion, and the contrapositive of this statement is “if the central bank is enforcing an inflation target, fiscal policy will be ineffective because of crowding out”. This is precisely the claim that Scott Sumner has been shouting from the rooftops from the last couple of years, but in that same time you have been advocating fiscal stimulus and the fed has been consistently enforcing an inflation target. Have you changed your tune?” 

I will leave it to Matt to answer, but I agree with David that it surely looks like Matt is now fully converted from the New Keynesian view to Market Monetarism. Not that it really matters – Matt has long been advocating NGDP level targeting and that is what is really important…

UPDATE: Scott Sumner today comments on an other of Matt’s articles in which he also seems to endorse what he calls the Sumner Critique (the fiscal multiplier is zero).

– and unsurprisingly reaches the same conclusion as me (and a bit more).

Don’t forget the ”Market” in Market Monetarism

As traditional monetarists Market Monetarists see money as being at the centre of macroeconomic discussion. To us both inflation and recessions are monetary phenomena. If central banks print too much money we get inflation and if they print to little money we get recession or even depression.

This is often at the centre of the arguments made by Market Monetarists. However, we are exactly Market Monetarists because we have a broader view of monetary policy than traditional monetarists. We deeply believe in markets as the best “information system” – also about the stance of monetary policy. Even though we certainly do not disregard the value of studying monetary supply numbers we believe that the best indicator(s) of monetary policy stance is market pricing in currency markets, commodity markets, fixed income markets and equity markets. Hence, we believe in a Market Approach to monetary policy in the tradition of for example of “Manley” Johnson and Robert Keheler.

In fact we want to take out both the “central” and “banking” out of central banking and ideally replace monetary policy makers with the power of the market. Scott Sumner has suggested that the central banks should use NGDP futures in the conduct of monetary policy. In Scott’s set-up monetary policy ideally becomes “endogenous”. I on my part have suggested the use of prediction markets in the conduct of monetary policy.

Sometimes the Market Monetarist position is misunderstood to be a monetary version of (vulgar) discretionary Keynesianism. However, Market Monetarists are advocating the exact opposite thing. We strongly believe that monetary policy should be based on rules rather than discretion. Ideally we would prefer that the money supply was completely market based so that velocity would move inversely to the money supply to ensure a stable NGDP level. See my earlier post “NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy”

Even though Market Monetarists do not necessarily advocate Free Banking there is no doubt that Market Monetarist theory is closely related to the thinking of Free Banking theorist such as George Selgin and I have early argued that NGDP level targeting could be see as “privatisation strategy”. A less ambitious interpretation of Market Monetarism is certainly also possible, but no matter what Market Monetarists stress the importance of markets – both in analysing monetary policy and in the conduct monetary policy.

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See also my earlier post from today on a related topic.

David Davidson and the productivity norm

Mattias Lundbeck research fellow at the Swedish free market think tank Ratio has an interesting link to a paper by Gunnar Örn over at Scott Sumner’s blog. The paper is from 1999 and is in Swedish (so sorry to those of you who do not read and understand Scandinavian…).

The paper reminded me that David Davidson – who was a less well known member of the Stockholm School – was a early proponent of a variation of the productivity norm. Davidson suggested that the monetary authorities should decompose the price index between supply factors and monetary/demand factors. Hence, this is pretty much in line with what I recently have suggested with my Quasi-Real Price Index (strongly inspired by David Eagle). Davidson’s method is different from what I have suggested, but the idea is nonetheless the same.

George Selgin has discussed Davidson’s idea extensively in his research. See for example here from “Less than Zero”:

“In his own attempt to assess the wartime inflation Swedish economist David Davidson came up with an ‘index of scarcity’ showing the extent to which the inflation was due to real as opposed to monetary factors (Uhr, 1975, p. 297). Davidson subtracted his scarcity index from an index of wholesale prices to obtain a residual representing the truly monetary component of the inflation, that is, the component reflecting growth in aggregate nominal spending.”

I hope in the future to be able to follow up on some of Davidson’s work and compare his price decomposition with my method (I should really say David Eagle’s method). Until then we can hope that some of our Swedish friends will pitch in with comments and suggestions.

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Mattias has a update on his blog on this comment. See here (Swedish)

 

Guess what Greenspan said on November 17 1992

This is then Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan at the meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee on November 1992:

“Let me put it to you this way. If you ask whether we are confirming our view to contain the success that we’ve had to date on inflation, the answer is “yes.” I think that policy is implicit among the members of this Committee, and the specific instruments that we may be using or not using are really a quite secondary question. As I read it, there is no debate within this Committee to abandon our view that a non-inflationary environment is best for this country over the longer term. Everything else, once we’ve said that, becomes technical questions. I would say in that context that on the basis of the studies, we have seen that to drive nominal GDP, let’s assume at 4-1/2 percent, in our old philosophy we would have said that [requires] a 4-1/2 percent growth in M2. In today’s analysis, we would say it’s significantly less than that. I’m basically arguing that we are really in a sense using [unintelligible] a nominal GDP goal of which the money supply relationships are technical mechanisms to achieve that. And I don’t see any change in our view…and we will know they are convinced (about “price stability”) when we see the 30-year Treasury at 5-1/2 percent.

So in 1992 the chairman of the Federal Reserve was targeting 4.5% NGDP growth and 30-years yields at 5.5% and calling it “price stability”. Imagine Ben Bernanke would announce tomorrow that he would conduct open market operations until he achieved the exact same target(s)?

PS I got this from Robert Hetzel’s great book on the history of the Fed “Monetary Policy of the Federal Reserve – A History”.

 


The Economist comments on Market Monetarism

The Economist has an interesting article on Market Monetarists as well as would the magazine calls “Heterodox economics” – Market Monetarism, Austrianism and “Modern Monetary Theory” (MMT).

I am happy to see this:

“Mr Sumner’s blog not only revealed his market monetarism to the world at large (“I cannot go anywhere in the world of economics…without hearing his name,” says Mr Cowen). It also drew together like-minded economists, many of them at small schools some distance from the centre of the economic universe, who did not realise there were other people thinking the same way they did. They had no institutional home, no critical mass. The blogs provided one. Lars Christensen, an economist at a Danish bank who came up with the name “market monetarism”, says it is the first economic school of thought to be born in the blogosphere, with post, counter-post and comment threads replacing the intramural exchanges of more established venues.” (Please have a look at my paper on Market Monetarism)

There is no doubt that Scott is at the centre of the Market Monetarist movement. To me he is the Milton Friedman of the day – a pragmatic revolutionary. Scott does not always realise this but his influence can not be underestimated. Our friend Bill Woolsey is also mentioned in the article. But I miss mentioning of for example David Beckworth.

One thing I would note about the Economist’s article is that the Austrianism presented in the article actually is quite close to Market Monetarism. Hence, Leland Yeager (who calls himself a monetarist) and one of the founders of the Free Banking school Larry White are quoted on Austrianism. Bob Murphy is not mentioned. Thats a little on unfair to Bob I think. I think that both Yeager’s and White’s is pretty close to MM thinking. In fact Larry White endorses NGDP targeting as do other George Mason Austrians like Steven Horwitz. I have written the GMU Austrians about earlier. See here and here.

And see this one:

“Austrians still struggle, however, to get published in the principal economics journals. Most economists do not share their admiration for the gold standard, which did not prevent severe booms and busts even in its heyday. And their theory of the business cycle has won few mainstream converts. According to Leland Yeager, a fellow-traveller of the Austrian school who once held the Mises chair at Auburn, it is “an embarrassing excrescence” that detracts from the Austrians’ other ideas. While it provides insights into booms and their ending, it fails to explain why things must end quite so badly, or how to escape when they do. Low interest rates no doubt helped to inflate America’s housing bubble. But this malinvestment cannot explain why 21.8m Americans remain unemployed or underemployed five years after the housing boom peaked.”

Market Monetarists of course provide that insight – overly tight monetary policy – and it seems like Leland Yeager agrees.

It would of course have been great if the Economist had endorsed Market Monetarism, but it is great to see that Market Monetarism now is getting broad coverage in the financial media and there is no doubt that especially Scott’s advocacy is beginning to have a real impact – now we can only hope that they read the Economist at the Federal Reserve and the ECB.

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See also the comments on the Economists from Scott Sumner, Marcus NunesDavid BeckworthLuis Arroyo (in Spanish) and Tyler Cowen.

US Monetary History – The QRPI perspective: The Volcker disinflation

I am continuing my mini-series on modern US monetary history through the lens of my decomposition of supply inflation and demand inflation based on what I inspired by David Eagle have termed a Quasi-Real Price Index (QRPI). In this post I will have a look at the early 1980s and what have been termed the Volcker disinflation.

When Paul Volcker became Federal Reserve chairman in August 1979 US inflation was on the way to 10% and the fight against inflation had more or less been given up and there was certainly no consensus even among economists that inflation was a monetary phenomenon. Volcker set out to defeat inflation. Volcker is widely credited with achieving this goal and even though one can question US monetary policy in a number of ways in the period that Volcker was Fed chairman there is no doubt in mind my that Volcker succeed and by doing so laid the foundation for the great stability of the Great Moderation that followed from the mid-80s and lasted until 2008.

Below you see my decomposition of US inflation in the 1980s between demand inflation (which the central bank controls) and supply inflation.

As the graph shows – and as I spelled out in my earlier post on the 1970s inflationary outburst – the main cause of the rise in US inflation in 1970s was excessive loose monetary policy. This was particularly the case in late 1970s and when Volcker became Fed chairman demand inflation was well above 10%.

Volcker early on set out to reduce inflation by implementing (quasi) money supply targeting. It is obviously that the Volcker’s Fed had some operational problems with this strategy and it effectively (unfairly?) undermined the idea of a monetary policy based on Friedman style money supply targeting, but it nonetheless clearly was what brought inflation down.

The first year of Volcker’s tenure undoubtedly was extremely challenging and Volcker hardly can say to have been lucky with the timing. More or less as he became Fed chairman the second oil crisis hit and oil prices spiked dramatically in the wake of the Iranian revolution in 1979. The spike in oil prices boosted supply inflation dramatically and that pushed headline inflation well above 10% – hardly a good start point for Volcker.

Quasi-Real Price Index and the decomposition of the inflation data seem very clearly to illustrate all the key factors in the Volcker disinflation:

1)   Initially Volker dictated disinflation by introducing money supply targeting. The impact on demand inflation seems to have been nearly immediate. As the graph shows demand inflation dropped sharply in1980 and the only reason headline inflation did not decrease was the sharp rise in oil prices that pushed up supply inflation.

2)   The significant monetary tightening sent the US economy into recession in 1980 and this lead Volcker & Co. to abandon the policy of monetary tightening and “re-eased” monetary policy in the summer of 1980. Again the impact seems to have been immediate – demand inflation picked up sharply going into 1981.

3)   Over the summer the Fed moved to hike interest rates dramatically and slow money supply growth sharply. That caused demand inflation to ease off significantly and inflation had finally been beaten.

4)   The Fed allowed demand inflation to pick up once again in 1984-85, but at that time Volcker was more lucky as supply factors helped curb headline inflation.

The zigzagging in monetary policy in the early 1980s is clearly captured by my decomposition of inflation. To me shows how relatively useful these measures are and I think they could be help tools for both analysts and central bankers.

This post in no way is a full account of the Volcker disinflation. Rather it is meant as an illustration of the Quasi-Real Price Index and my suggested decomposition of inflation.

My two main sources on modern US monetary history is Robert Hetzel’s “The Monetary Policy and the Federal Reserve – A History” and Allan Meltzer’s “A History of the Federal Reserve”. However, for a critical account of the first years of the Volcker disinflation I can clearly recommend our friend David Glasner’s “Free Banking and Monetary Reform”. I am significantly less critical about money supply targeting than David, but I think his account of the Volcker disinflation clear give some insight to the problems of money supply targeting.

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