Dear Mario and Ben – monetary policy is getting tighter and tighter by the minute

On the first page of the Market Monetarist bible it says that we can observe whether monetary policy is getting tighter or looser by watching the markets. From a US perspective US monetary policy is getting tighter when the US dollar strengthens, stock prices drop, bond yields drop and commodity prices fall. Guess what folks – monetary policy is getting a lot tighter today!

Is this what we need?

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When central banking becomes central planning

The great thing about the blogosphere is that everything is happening in “real-time”. In economic journals the exchange of ideas and arguments can go on forever without getting to any real conclusion and some debates is never undertaken in the economic journals because of the format of journals.

Such a debate is the discussion about whether central banking is central planning, which has been going on between the one hand Kurt Schuler and on the other hand David Glasner and Bill Woolsey. Frankly speaking, I shouldn’t really get involved in this debate as the three gentlemen all are extreme knowledgeable about exactly this topic and they have all written extensively about Free Banking – something that I frankly has not written much about.

In my day-job central banks are just something we accept as a fact that is not up for debate. Anyway, I want to let me readers know about this interesting debate and maybe add a bit of my humble opinion as we go along. There is, however, no reason to “reprint” every single argument in the debate so here are the key links:

From Glasner:

“Gold and Ideology, continued”

“Central Banking is not Central Planning”

“Hayek on the meaning of planning”

“Central Banking and Central Planning, again”

From Schuler:

“Central Banking is a form of Central Planning”

“Once more: central banking is a form of central planning”

From Woolsey:

“Central Banking is Not Central Planning”

Initially my thinking was, yes, of course central banking is central planning, but Bill Woolsey arguments won the day (Sorry David, the Hayek quotes didn’t convince me…).

Here is Bill Woolsey:

“Comprehensive central planning of the economy is the central direction of the production and consumption of all goods services. How many cars do we want this year? How much steel is needed to produce those cars? How much iron ore is needed to produce the steel?…Trying to do this for every good and service all the time for millions of people producing and consuming is really, really hard. Perhaps impossible is not too strong of a word, though that really means impossible to do very well at all, much less do better than a competitive market system…Central banking is very different. It does involve having a monopoly over a very important good–base money. Early on, governments sold that monopoly to private firms, but later either explicitly nationalized the central banks, or regulated and “taxed” them to a point where any private elements are just window dressing…Schuler’s error is to identify this monopoly on the provision of an important good with comprehensive central planning. Yes, a monopolist must determine how much of its product to produce and what price to charge. The central bank must determine what quantity of base money to produce and what interest rate to pay (or charge) on reserve balances. But that is nothing like determining how much of each and every good is to be produced while making sure that the resources needed to produce them are properly delivered to the correct places at the correct times.”

Bill continues (here its gets really convincing…):

“Suppose electric power was produced as a government monopoly. That is certainly realistic. The inefficiency of multiple sets of transmission lines provides a plausible rationale. The government power monopoly would need to determine some pricing scheme and how much power to generate. And, of course, these decisions would have implications for the overall level of economic activity. Not enough capacity, and blackouts disrupt economic activity. Too much capacity, and the higher rates needed to pay for it deter economic activity…It is hard to conceive of an electric utility centrally directing the economy, but it isn’t impossible. Ration electricity to all firms based upon a comprehensive plan for what they should be doing. Any firm that produces the wrong amount and sends it to the wrong place is cut off.”

Central banking might not be central planning

Hence, there is a crucial difference between central planning and a government monopoly on the production of certain goods (as for example money). One can of course argue that if government produces anything it is socialism and therefore central planning. However, then central planning loses its meaning and will just become synonymous with socialism. Therefore, arguing that central banking is central planning as Schuler does is in my view wrong. It might be a integral part of an socialist economic system that money is monopolized, but that is still not the same thing as to say central banking is central planning.

But increasingly central banking is conducted as central planning

While central banking need not to be central banking it is also clear that during certain periods of history and in certain countries monetary policy has been conducted as if part (or actually being part of) a overall central planning scheme. In fact until the early 1980s most Western European economies and the US had massively regulated financial markets and credit and money were to a large extent allocated with central planning methods by the financial authorities and by the central banks. Furthermore, exchange controls meant that there was not a free flow of capital, which “necessitated” central planning of which companies and institutions should have access to foreign currency. Therefore, central banking during the 1970s for example clearly involved significant amounts of central planning.

However, the liberalization of the financial markets in most Western countries during the 1980s sharply reduced the elements of central planning in central banking around the world.

The Great Recession, however, has lead to a reversal of this trend away from “central bank planning” and central banks are increasingly involved in “micromanagement” and what clear feels and look like central planning.

In the US the Federal Reserve has been highly involved in buying “distressed assets” and hence strongly been influencing the relative prices in financial markets. In Europe the ECB has been actively interfering in the pricing of government bonds by actively buying for example Greek or Italian bonds to “support” the prices of these bonds. This obviously is not central banking, but central planning of financial markets. It is not and should not be the task of central banks to influence the allocation of credit and capital.

With central banks increasingly getting involved in micromanaging financial market prices and trying to decide what is the “right price” (contrary to the market price) the central banks obviously are facing the same challenges as any Soviet time central planning would face.

Mises and Hayek convincing won the Socialist calculation debate back in the 1920s and the collapse of communism once and for all proved the impossibility of a central planned economy. I am, however, afraid that central banks around the world have forgotten that lesson and increasing are acting as if it was not Mises and Hayek who prevailed in the Socialist-calculation debate but rather Lerner and Lange.

Furthermore, the central banks’ focus on micromanaging financial market prices is taking away attention from the actual conduct of monetary policy. This should also be a lesson for Market Monetarists who for example have supported quantitative easing in the US. The fact remains that what have been called QE in the US in fact does not have the purpose of increasing the money supply (to reduce monetary disequilibrium), but rather had the purpose of micromanaging financial market prices. Therefore, Market Monetarists should again and again stress that we support central bank actions to reduce monetary disequilibrium within a rule-based framework, but we object to any suggestion of the use  central planning “tools” in the conduct of monetary policy.

“Our Monetary ills Laid to Puritanism”

Douglas Irwin has been so nice to send me an article from the New York Times from November 1 1931. It is a rather interesting article about the Swedish monetary guru Gustav Cassel’s view of monetary policy and especially how he saw puritanism among monetary policy makers as the great ill. I had not read the article when I wrote my comment on Calvinist economics, but I guess my thinking is rather Casselian.

The New York Times article is based on an article from the Swedish conservative Daily Svenska Dagbladet (the newspaper still exists).

Professor Cassel claims that overly tight US monetary policy in the early 1930s is due to two “main ills”: “deflation mania” and “liquidation fever”.

NYT quote Cassel: “The deeper psychological explanation of this whole movement..can without doubt be found in American Puritanism. This force assembled all its significant resources in what was considered a great moral attack on the diabolism of speculation. Each warning against deflation has stranded on fear on the part of Puritanism that a more liberal monetary policy might infuse new vigor in the spirit speculation.”

It isn’t it scary how much this reminds you about how today’s policy makers are scared of bubbles and inflation? I wonder what Gustav Cassel would tell the ECB to do today?

Maybe here would just say: “That the deflation has meant the ruin of one business after another and forced many banks to suspend payments is a matter that little concerns the stern Puritan”…”on the contrary, it is highly approves proper punishment of speculation and thorough cleaning out of questionable business projects. It totals disregards the fact that deflation in itself by degrees adversely affects the finances of any enterprise and forces even sound business to ruin”. 

Wouldn’t it be a blessing if Cassel was around today to advise central bankers? And that they actually would listen…but of course if you are a puritan or what I termed a believer on Calvinist economics then you don’t have to listen because all you want it just doom and pain to punish all the evil speculators.

 

 

 

Please help Mr. Simor

He is a challenge for you all.

András Simor is governor of the Hungarian central bank (MNB). Next week he will meet with his colleagues in the MNB’s Monetary Council. They will make announcement on the monetary policy action. Mr. Simor needs your help because he is in a tricky situation.

The MNB’s operates an inflation-targeting regime with a 3% inflation target. It is not a 100% credible and the MNB has a rather unfortunate history of overshooting the inflation target. At the moment inflation continues to be slightly above the inflation target and most forecasts shows that even though inflation is forecasted to come down a bit it will likely stay elevated for some time to come. At the same time Hungarian growth is basically zero and the outlook for the wider European economy is not giving much hope for optimism.

With inflation likely to inch down and growth still very weak some might argue that monetary policy should be eased.

However, there is a reason why Mr. Simor is not likely to do this and that is his worries about the state of the Hungarian financial system. More than half of all household loans are in foreign currency – mostly in Swiss franc. Lately the Hungarian forint has been significantly weakened against the Swiss franc (despite the efforts of the Swiss central bank to stop the strengthening of the franc against the euro) and that is significantly increasing the funding costs for both Hungarian households and companies. Hence, for many the weakening of the forint feels like monetary tightening rather monetary easing and if Mr. Simor was to announce next week that he would be cutting interests to spur growth the funding costs for many households and companies would likely go up rather than down.

Mr. Simor is caught between a rock and a hard. Either he cuts interest rates and allows the forint to weaken further in the hope that can spur growth or he does nothing or even hike interest rates to strengthen the forint and therefore ease the pains of Swiss franc funding households and companies.

Mr. Simor does not have an easy job and unfortunately there is little he can do to make things better. Or maybe you have an idea?

PS The Hungarian government is not intent on helping out Mr. Simor in any way.

PPS When I started this blog I promised be less US centric than the other mainly US based Market Monetarist bloggers – I hope that his post is a reminder that I take that promise serious.

PPPS if you care to know the key policy rate in Hungary is 6%, but as you know interest rates are not really a good indicator of monetary policy “tightness”.

Calvinist economics – the sin of our times

A couple a days ago I had a discussion with a colleague of mine about the situation in Greece. My view is that it is pretty clear to everybody in the market that Greece is insolvent and therefore sooner or later we would have to see Greece default in some way or another and that it therefore is insane to continue to demand even more austerity measures from the Greek government, while at the same time asking the already insolvent Greek government to take on even more debt. My colleague on the other hand insisted that the Greeks “should pay back what they owe” and said “we can’t let countries default on their debt then everybody will do it”. It was a moral and not an economic argument he was making.

I am certainly not a Keynesian and I do not think that fiscal tightening necessarily is a bad thing for Greece, but I do, however, object strongly to what I would call Calvinist economic thinking, which increasingly is taking hold of our profession.

At the core of Calvinist economics is that Greece and other countries have committed a sin and therefore now have to repent and pay for these sins. It is obvious that the Greek government failed to tighten fiscal policy in time and even lied about the numbers, but its highly problematic that economic thinking should be based on some kind of quasi-religious morals. If a country is insolvent then that means that it will never be able to pay back its debt. It is therefore in the interest for both the country and its creditors that a deal on debt restructuring is reached. That’s textbook economics. There is no “right” or “wrong” about it – it is simple math. If you can’t be pay back your debts then you can’t pay. It’s pretty simple.

In another area very Calvinist economic thinking is widespread is in the conduct of monetary policy. Around the world central bankers resist easing monetary policy despite clear disinflationary or even deflationary tendencies and the main reason for this is not economic analysis of the economic situation, but rather the view that a loosening of monetary policy would be immoral. The Calvinists are screaming out “We will have another bubble if you ease monetary policy! Don’t let the speculators of the hook!”

The problem is that the Calvinists are confusing an easing of monetary policy or the default of insolvent nations with moral hazard.

If a central bank for example has a inflation target of 2% and inflation is running at below 1% and the central bank then decides to loosen monetary policy – then that might well be positive for “speculators” – such as property owners, banks or equity investors. The Calvinists see this as evil. As immoral, but the fact is that that is exactly what a central bank that is undershooting its inflation target should. Monetary policy is not about making judgements of what is “fair” or not, but rather about securing a nominal anchor in which investors, labour, companies and consumers can conduct there business in the market place.

The Calvinists are saying “It will be Japan”, “the global economy will not grow for a decade” and blah, blah…it nearly seems as if they want this to happen. We have sinned and now we need to repent. The interesting thing is that these Calvinists where not Calvinists back in 2005-6 and when some of us warned about excesses in the global economy they where all cheerleaders of the boom. They are like born-again Christian ex-alcoholics.

And finally just to get it completely clear. I am not in favour of bailing out anybody, or against fiscal austerity and I despise inflation. But my economics is back on economic reasoning and not on quasi-religious dogma.

PS anybody that studies history will note that Calvinist economics dominated economic thinking in countries which held on to the gold standard for too long. This is what Peter Temin has called the “Gold Standard mentality”. The in countries like France and Austria the gold standard mentality were widespread in the 1930s. We today know the consequences of that – Austria had major banking crisis in 1931, the country defaulted in 1938 and the same it ceased to existed as an independent nation. Good luck with your Calvinist economics. It spells ruins for nations around the world.

—–

UPDATE: Douglas Irwin has kindly reminded me that my post remind him of Gustav Cassel. Cassel used the term “puritans” about what I call Calvinist economics. Maybe Market Monetarists are New Casselians?

Open-minded Brits – and Austrians

American Alex Salter is a good example of the open-minded Austrians who has welcomed the dialogue with Market Monetarists. In my own part of the world Austrians is also engaging us in a serious fashion. A good example is Anthony Evans – self-declared Austrian, monetary specialist and Associate Professor of Economics at London’s ESCP Europe Business School, and Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at San Jose State University.

Anthony is endorsing a NGDP target for the Bank of England. See his latest comment from City A.M. here. See also this earlier comment.

In general it is interesting how British monetarists as well as British Austrian school economists seem to be much more open to Market Monetarist ideas than their counterparts in the US and in continental Europe. In that regard it should be noted that the Bank of England probably is the central bank in the world that is taking NGDP targeting most serious.

More on the McCallum-Christensen rule (and something on Selgin and the IMF)

I have just printed three papers to (re)read when the rest of the family will be sleeping tonight. You might want to have a look at the same papers.

The two first are connected. It is Lastrapes’s and Selgin’s 1995 paper “Gold Price Targeting by the Fed” and McCallum’s 2006 paper “Policy-Rule Retrospective on the Greenspan Era”. Both papers are basically about how the Greenspan conducted monetary policy.

The hypothesis in the first paper is that the Greenspan Fed used gold prices as an indicator for inflationary pressures, while the other is a restatement and an empirical test of the so-called McCallum rule. The McCallum rule basically saying that the Fed is targeting nominal GDP growth at 5% by controlling the money base.

As both papers confirm their hypothesis why not combine the results from the two papers? The Fed reserve controls the money base to ensure 5% NGDP growth and use the the gold price to see whether it is on track or not. Okay, lets be a little more open-minded and lets include other asset prices and lets look at more commodity prices than just gold. Then we have rule, which I have earlier called a McCallum-Christensen (yes, yes I have a ego problem…).

The McCallum-Christensen rule can be estimated in the following form:

dB=a+b*dV+cNGDPMI

d is %-quarterly growth, B is the money base (or rather I use MZM), V is the 4-year moving average of MZM-velocity and NGDPMI is a composite index of asset prices that all are leading indicators of NGDPMI.

In my constructed NGDPMI I use the following variables: S&P500, the yield curve (10y-2y UST), the CRB index (Commodity prices) and an index for the nominal effective dollar rate. I have de-trended the variables with a four-year moving average (thats simple), but one could also use a HP-filter. I have then standardized each of the variable so they get an average of 0 and a standard deviation of 1 – and then taken the average of the four sub-indicators.

And guess what? It works really well. I can be shown that during the 1990ties the Fed moved MZM up and down to track market expectations of NGDP captured by my NGDPMI indicator. This is the time where Manley Johnson and Bob Keleher played an important role in the conduct and formulation of monetary policy in the US. As I have earlier blogged about I fundamentally think that the Johnson-Keleher view of monetary policy is closely connected to the Market Monetarist view.

The McCallum-Christensen rule also fit relatively well in the following period from 2000 to 2007/8, but it is clear that monetary policy is becoming more erratic during this period – probably due to Y2K, 911, Enron etc. Hence, there is indications that the influence of Johnson and Keleher has been faithing in that period, but overall the McCallum-Christensen rule still fits pretty well.

Then the Great Recession hits and it is here it becomes interesting. Initially the Fed reacts in accordance with the McCallum-Christensen rule, but then in 2009-2010 it becomes clear that MZM growth far too slow compared to what the MC rule is telling you. Hence, this confirms the Sumnerian hypothesis that monetary policy turned far to negative in 2009-10.

So why is it that I am not writing a Working Paper about these results? Well, I might, but I just think the result are so extremely interesting that I need to share them with you. And I need more people to get involved with the econometrics. So this is an invitation. Who out there want to write this paper with me? And we still need some more number crunching!

But for now the results are extremely promising.

Okay, on to the third paper “Reserve Accumulation and International Monetary Stability”. Its an IMF working paper. I have a theory that the sharp rise in the accumulation of FX Reserves after the outbreak of the Great Recession has prolonged the crisis…but more on that another day…

PS I promised something on Selgin and this was not really enough…but hey the guy is great and you are all cheating yourselves of great inside into monetary theory if you don’t read everything George ever wrote.

 

The Hottest Idea In Monetary Policy

Its pretty simple – Scott Sumner is a revolutionary with revolutionary idea and he is breaking through big time.

He is a story from businessinsider.com: “The Hottest Idea In Monetary Policy”.

I fundamentally think that if the Federal Reserve was to start listening to Scott then a whole lot of other economic and monetary problems would be a lot easy to solve – so that’s our hope in Europe.

NGDP targeting is not about ”stimulus”

Market Monetarists are often misunderstood to think that monetary policy should “stimulate” growth and that monetary policy is like a joystick that can be used to fine-tune the economic development. Our view is in fact rather the opposite. Most Market Monetarists believe that the economy should be left to its own devises and that the more policy makers stay out of the “game” the better as we in general believe that the market rather than governments ensure the most efficient allocation of resources.

Exactly because we believe more in the market than in fine-tuning and government intervention we stress how important it is for monetary policy to provide a transparent, stable and predictable “nominal anchor”. A nominal GDP target could be such an anchor. A price level target could be another.

Traditional monetarists used to think that central banks should provide a stable nominal anchor through a fixed money supply growth rule. Market Monetarists do not disagree with the fundamental thinking behind this. We, however, are sceptical about money supply targeting because of technical and regulatory develops mean that velocity is not constant and because we from time to time see shocks to money demand – as for example during the Great Recession.

A way to illustrate this is the equation of exchange:

M*V=P*Y

If the traditional monetarist assumption hold and V (velocity) is constant then the traditional monetarist rule of a constant growth rate of M equals the Market Monetarist call for a constant growth rate of nominal GDP (PY). There is another crucial difference and that is that Market Monetarists are in favour of targeting the level of PY, while traditional monetarists favours a target of the growth of M. That means that a NGDP level rule has “memory” – if the target overshots one period then growth in NGDP need to be higher the following period.

In the light in the Great Recession what US based Market Monetarists like Bill Woolsey or Scott Sumner have been calling for is basically that M should be expanded to make up for the drop in V we have seen on the back of the Great Recession and bring PY back to its old level path. This is not “stimulus” in the traditional Keynesian sense. Rather it is about re-establishing the “old” monetary equilibrium.

In some way Market Monetarists are to blame for the misunderstandings themselves as they from time to time are calling for “monetary stimulus” and have supported QE1 and QE2. However, in the Market Monetarists sense “monetary stimulus” basically means to fill the whole created by the drop in velocity and while Market Monetarists have supported QE1 and QE2 they have surely been very critical about how quantitative easing has been conducted in the US by the Federal Reserve.

Another way to address the issue is to say that the task of the central bank is to ensure “monetary neutrality”. Normally economists talk about monetary neutrality in a “positive” sense meaning that monetary policy cannot affect real GDP growth and employment in the long run. However, “monetary neutrality” can also be see in a “normative” sense to mean that monetary policy should not influence the allocation of economic resource. The central bank ensures monetary neutrality in a normative sense by always ensuring that the growth of money supply equals that growth of the money demand.

George Selgin and other Free Banking theorists have shown that in a Free Banking world where the money supply has been privatised the money supply is perfectly elastic to changes in money demand. In a Free Banking world an “automatic” increase in M will compensate for any drop V and visa versa. So in that sense a NGDP level target is basically committing the central bank to emulate the Free Banking (the Free Market) outcome in monetary matters.

The believe in the market rather than in “centralized control mechanisms” is also illustrated by the fact that Market Monetarists advocate using market indicators and preferably NGDP futures in the conduct of monetary policy rather than the central bank’s own subjective forecasts. In a world where monetary policy is linked to NGDP futures (or other market prices) the central bank basically do not need a research department to make forecasts. The market will take care of that. In fact monetary policy monetary policy will be completely automatic in the same way a gold standard or a fixed exchange rate policy is “automatic”.

Therefore Market Monetarists are certainly not Keynesian interventionist, but rather Free Banking Theorists that accept that central banks do exists – for now at least. If one wants to take the argument even further one could argue that NGDP level targeting is the first step toward the total privatisation of the money supply.

 

 

 

Nick, Chuck and the central banks

Here is Nick Rowe on central banks and Chuck Norris. If you don’t understand Chuck you don’t understand central banks.

 

 

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