The high cost of currency (rouble) stability

This is from Reuters today:

“The Russian currency has opened higher Thursday, continuing its recovery from the biggest intraday drop since 1998 default on so-called ‘Black Tuesday’. The dollar was down 65 kopeks at the opening on the Moscow Exchange, while on the stock market, the dollar-denominated RTS index was up 6.5 percent. That’s was hours before President Vladimir Putin commenced his much-anticipated Q&A marathon, in which he’s expected to face tough economic questions about the ruble and turmoil in the financial markets. ….On Wednesday, the ruble jumped 6 percent against the US dollar to finish trading at 60.51 against the Greenback. On ‘Black Tuesday’ the ruble dipped to as low as 80 rubles against the US dollar and hit a threshold of 100 against the euro.”

So after a terrible start to the week the Russian rouble has stabilised over the past two days. However, the (temporary?) stabilisation of the rouble has not been for free. Far from it in fact. Just take a look at this story from also from today:

Russian banks are getting cautious about lending each other money, with the interest rate on three-month interbank loans hitting its highest since at least 2005. The three-month “mosprime” interbank lending rate has soared to 28.3 per cent, which is its highest since it hit its financial crisis peak of 27.6 in January 2009. The rate is also sharply higher than it reached on Wednesday – the day after the Central Bank of Russia hiked interest rates to 17 per cent to stem a plunge in the rouble – when it closed at 22.33. Stresses have been building in Russian economy because of Western sanctions and a sharp fall in the oil price But another reason for the mosprime spike is that Russian banks are unsure about the state of each other’s businesses. Russian bank customers have been rushing to withdraw their roubles out of their bank accounts and convert them to dollars or euros.

Hence, the rouble might have stabilised, but monetary conditions have been tightened dramatically. So the question is whether the benefits of a (more) stable rouble outweigh the costs of tighter monetary conditions?

We might get the answer by looking that the graph below. The consequence of higher interest rates in 2008-9 was a 10% contraction in real GDP. This week’s spike in money market rates is even bigger (and steeper) than the spike in rates in 2008-9. Is there any good reason why we should not expect a similar contraction in real GDP this time? I think not… MosPrime 3m RGDP

PS obviously I would be the first to acknowledge that money market rates is not the entire story about monetary contraction and money market rates are only used for illustrative purposes here. There are also some differences between 2008-9 and now, but it should nonetheless be noted that the recent drop in oil prices is similar to what we saw in 2008-9.

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Oil-exporters need to rethink their monetary policy regimes

I started writing this post on Monday, but I have had an insanely busy week – mostly because of the continued sharp drop in oil prices and the impact of that on particularly the Russian rouble. But now I will try to finalize the post – it is after on a directly related topic to what I have focused on all week – in fact for most of 2014.

Oil prices have continued the sharp drop and this is leading to serious challenges for monetary policy in oil-exporting countries. Just the latest examples – The Russian central bank has been forced to abandon the managed float of the rouble and effectively the rouble is now (mostly) floating freely and in Nigeria the central bank the central bank has been forced to allow a major devaluation of the country’s currency the naira. In Brazil the central bank is – foolishly – fighting the sell-off in the real by hiking interest rates.

While lower oil prices is a positive supply shock for oil importing countries and as such should be ignored by monetary policy makers the story is very different for oil-exporters such as Norway, Russia, Angola or the Golf States. Here the drop in oil prices is a negative demand shock.

In a country like Norway, which has a floating exchange rate the shock is mostly visible in the exchange rate – at least to the extent Norges Bank allows the Norwegian krone to weaken. This of course is the right policy to pursue for oil-exporters.

However, many oil-exporting countries today have pegged or quasi-pegged exchange rates. This means that a drop in oil prices automatically becomes a monetary tightening. This is for example the case for the Golf States, Venezuela and Angola. In this countries what I have called the petro-monetary transmission mechanism comes into play.

An illustration of the petro-monetary transmission mechanism

When oil prices drop the currency inflows into oil-exporting countries drop – at the moment a lot – and this puts downward pressure on the commodity-currencies. In a country like Norway with a floating exchange rate this does not have a direct monetary consequence (that is not entirely correct if the central bank follows has a inflation target rather than a NGDP target – see here)

However, in a country like Saudi Arabia or Angola – countries with pegged exchange rates – the central bank will effectively will have tighten monetary policy to curb the depreciation pressures on the currency. Hence, lower oil prices will automatically lead to a contraction in the money base in Angola or Saudi Arabia. This in turn will cause a drop in the broad money supply and therefore in nominal spending in the economy, which likely will cause a recession and deflationary pressures.

The authorities can offset this monetary shock with fiscal easing – remember the Sumner critique does not hold in a fixed exchange rate regime – but many oil-exporters do not have proper fiscal buffers to use such policy effectively.

The Export-Price-Norm – good alternative to fiscal policy

Instead I have often – inspired by Jeffrey Frankel – suggested that the commodity exporters should peg their currencies to the price of the commodity the export or to a basket of a foreign currency and the export price. This is what I have termed the Export-Price-Norm (EPN).

For commodity exporters commodity exports is a sizable part of aggregate demand (nominal spending) and therefore one can think of a policy to stabilize export prices via an Export-Price-Norm as a policy to stabilize nominal spending growth in the economy. The graph – which I have often used – below illustrates that.

The graph shows the nominal GDP growth in Russia and the yearly growth rate of oil prices measured in roubles.

There is clearly a fairly high correlation between the two and oil prices measured in roubles leads NGDP growth. Hence, it is therefore reasonable in my view to argue that the Russian central bank could have stabilized NGDP growth by conducting monetary policy in such a way as to stabilize the growth oil prices in roubles.

That would effectively mean that the rouble should weaken when oil prices drop and appreciate when oil prices increase. This is of course exactly what would happen in proper floating exchange rate regime (with NGDP targeting), but it is also what would happen under an Export-Price-Norm.

Hence, obviously the combination of NGDP target and a floating exchange rate regime would do it for commodity exporters. However, an Export-Price-Norm could do the same thing AND it would likely be simpler to implement for a typical Emerging Markets commodity exporter where macroeconomic data often is of a low quality and institutions a weak.

So yes, I certainly think a country like Saudi Arabia could – and should – float its currency and introduce NGDP targeting and thereby significantly increase macroeconomic stability. However, for countries like Angola, Nigeria or Venezueala I believe an EPN regime would be more likely to ensure a good macroeconomic outcome than a free float (with messy monetary policies).

A key reason is that it is not necessarily given that the central bank would respect the rules-of-the-game under a float and it might find it tempting to fool around with FX intervention from time to time. Contrary to this an Export-Price-Norm would remove nearly all discretion in monetary policy. In fact one could imagine a currency board set-up combined with EPN. Under such a regime there would be no monetary discretion at all.

The monetary regime reduces risks, but will not remove all costs of lower commodity prices

Concluding, I strongly believe that an Export-Price-Norm can do a lot to stabilise nominal spending growth – and therefore also to a large extent real GDP growth – but that does not mean that there is no cost to the commodity exporting country when commodity prices drop.

Hence, a EPN set-up would do a lot to stabilize aggregate demand and the economy in general, but it would not change the fact that a drop in oil prices makes oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and Angola less wealthy. That is the supply side effect of lower oil prices for oil producing countries. Obviously we should expect that to lower consumption – both public and private – as a drop in oil prices effectively is a drop in the what Milton Friedman termed the permanent income. Under a EPN set-up this will happen through an increase inflation due to higher import prices and hence lower real income and lower real consumption.

There is no way to get around this for oil exporters, but at least they can avoid excessive monetary tightening by either allowing currency to float (depreciate) free or by pegging the currency to the export price.

Who will try it out first? Kuwait? Angola or Venezuela? I don’t know, but as oil prices continue to plummet the pressure on governments and central banks in oil exporting countries is rising and for many countries this will necessitate a rethinking of the monetary policy regime to avoid unwarranted monetary tightening.

PS I should really mention a major weakness with EPN. Under an EPN regime monetary conditions will react “correctly” to shocks to the export prices and for countries like Russia or Anglo “normally” this is 90% of all shocks. However, imagine that we see a currency outflow for other reasons – for as in the case of Russia this year (political uncertainty/geopolitics) – then monetary conditions would be tightened automatically in an EPN set-up. This would be unfortunate. That, however, I think would be a fairly small cost compared to the stability EPN otherwise would be expected to oil exporters like Angola or Russia.

PPS I overall think that 80-90% of the drop in the rouble this year is driven by oil prices, while geopolitics only explains 10-20% of the drop in the rouble. See here.

Turning the Russian petro-monetary transmission mechanism upside-down

Big news out of Moscow today – not about the renewed escalation of military fighting in Eastern Ukraine, but rather about Russian monetary policy. Hence, today the Russian central bank (CBR) under the leadership of  Elvira Nabiullina effectively let the ruble float freely.

The CBR has increasing allowed the ruble to float more and more freely since 2008-9 within a bigger and bigger trading range. The Ukrainian crisis, negative Emerging Markets sentiments and falling oil prices have put the ruble under significant weakening pressures most of the year and even though the CBR generally has allowed for a significant weakening of the Russian currency it has also tried to slow the ruble’s slide by hiking interest rates and by intervening in the FX market. However, it has increasingly become clear that cost of the “defense” of the ruble was not worth the fight. So today the CBR finally announced that it would effectively float the ruble.

It should be no surprise to anybody who is reading my blog that I generally think that freely floating exchange rates is preferable to fixed exchange rate regimes and I therefore certainly also welcome CBR’s decision to finally float the ruble and I think CBR governor Elvira Nabiullina deserves a lot of praise for having push this decision through (whether or not her hand was forced by market pressures or not). Anybody familiar with Russian economic-policy decision making will know that this decision has not been a straightforward decision to make.

Elvira has turned the petro-monetary transmission mechanism upside-down

The purpose of this blog post is not necessarily to specifically discuss the change in the monetary policy set-up, but rather to use these changes to discuss how such changes impact the monetary transmission mechanism and how it changes the causality between money, markets and the economy in general.

Lets first start out with how the transmission mechanism looks like in a commodity exporting economy like Russia with a fixed (or quasi fixed) exchange rate like in Russia prior to 2008-9.

When the Russian ruble was fixed against the US dollar changes in the oil price was completely central to the monetary transmission – and that is why I have earlier called it the petro-monetary transmission mechanism. I have earlier explained how this works:

If we are in a pegged exchange rate regime and the price of oil increases by lets say 10% then the ruble will tend to strengthen as currency inflows increase. However, with a fully pegged exchange rate the CBR will intervene to keep the ruble pegged. In other words the central bank will sell ruble and buy foreign currency and thereby increase the currency reserve and the money supply (to be totally correct the money base). Remembering that MV=PY so an increase in the money supply (M) will increase nominal GDP (PY) and this likely will also increase real GDP at least in the short run as prices and wages are sticky.

So in a pegged exchange rate set-up causality runs from higher oil prices to higher money supply growth and then on to nominal GDP and real GDP and then likely also higher inflation. Furthermore, if the economic agents are forward-looking they will realize this and as they know higher oil prices will mean higher inflation they will reduce money demand pushing up money velocity (V) which in itself will push up NGDP and RGDP (and prices).

This effectively means that in such a set-up the CBR will have given up monetary sovereignty and instead will “import” monetary policy via the oil price and the exchange rate. In reality this also means that the global monetary superpower (the Fed and PBoC) – which to a large extent determines the global demand for oil indirectly will determine Russian monetary conditions.

Lets take the case of the People’s Bank of China (PBoC). If the PBoC ease monetary policy – increase monetary supply growth – then it will increase Chinese demand for oil and push up oil prices. Higher oil prices will push up currency inflows into Russia and will cause appreciation pressure on the ruble. If the ruble is pegged then the CBR will have to intervene to keep the ruble from strengthening. Currency intervention of course is the same as sell ruble and buying foreign currency, which equals an increase in the Russian money base/supply. This will push up Russian nominal GDP growth.

Hence, causality runs from the monetary policy of the monetary superpowers – Fed and the PBoC – to Russian monetary policy as long as the CBR pegs or even quasi-peg the ruble. However, the story changes completely when the ruble is floated.

I have also discussed this before:

If we assume that the CBR introduce an inflation target and let the ruble float completely freely and convinces the markets that it don’t care about the level of the ruble then the causality in or model of the Russian economy changes completely.

Now imagine that oil prices rise by 10%. The ruble will tend to strengthen and as the CBR is not intervening in the FX market the ruble will in fact be allow to strengthen. What will that mean for nominal GDP? Nothing – the CBR is targeting inflation so if high oil prices is pushing up aggregate demand in the economy the central bank will counteract that by reducing the money supply so to keep aggregate demand “on track” and thereby ensuring that the central bank hits its inflation target. This is really a version of the Sumner Critique. While the Sumner Critique says that increased government spending will not increase aggregate demand under inflation targeting we are here dealing with a situation, where increased Russian net exports will not increase aggregate demand as the central bank will counteract it by tightening monetary policy. The export multiplier is zero under a floating exchange rate regime with inflation targeting.

Of course if the market participants realize this then the ruble should strengthen even more. Therefore, with a truly freely floating ruble the correlation between the exchange rate and the oil price will be very high. However, the correlation between the oil price and nominal GDP will be very low and nominal GDP will be fully determined by the central bank’s target. This is pretty much similar to Australian monetary policy. In Australia – another commodity exporter – the central bank allows the Aussie dollar to strengthen when commodity prices increases. In fact in Australia there is basically a one-to-one relationship between commodity prices and the Aussie dollar. A 1% increase in commodity prices more or less leads to a 1% strengthening of Aussie dollar – as if the currency was in fact pegged to the commodity price (what Jeff Frankel calls PEP).

Therefore with a truly floating exchange rate there would be little correlation between oil prices and nominal GDP and inflation, but a very strong correlation between oil prices and the currency. This of course is completely the opposite of the pegged exchange rate case, where there is a strong correlation between oil prices and therefore the money supply and nominal GDP.

If today’s announced change in monetary policy set-up in Russia is taken to be credible (it is not necessary) then it would mean the completion of the transformation of the monetary transmission which essentially was started in 2008 – moving from a pegged exchange/manage float regime to a floating exchange rate.

This will also means that the CBR governor Elvira Nabiullina will have ensured full monetary sovereignty – so it will be her rather than the Federal Reserve and the People’s Bank of China, who determines monetary conditions in Russia.

Whether this will be good or bad of course fully dependent on whether Yellen or Nabiullina will conduct the best monetary policy for Russia.

One can of course be highly skeptical about the Russian central bank’s ability to conduct monetary policy in a way to ensure nominal stability – there is certainly not good track record, but given the volatility in oil prices it is in my view also hard believe that a fully pegged exchange rate would bring more nominal stability to the Russian economy than a floating exchange rate combined with a proper nominal target – either an inflation target or better a NGDP level target.

Today Elvira Nabiullina has (hopefully) finalized the gradual transformation from a pegged exchange to a floating exchange rate. It is good news for the Russian economy. It will not save the Russia from a lot of other economic headaches (and there are many!), but it will at least reduce the risk of monetary policy failure.

PS I still believe that the Russian economy is already in recession and will likely fall even deeper into recession in the coming quarters.



Echoes from the past – how Molotov declared war on Poland in 1939

I got this from Erwan Mahé‘s excellent newsletter Thaler’s Corner:

September 17, 1939

Mr. Ambassador!

The Polish-German War has revealed the internal bankruptcy of the Polish State. During the course of ten days’ hostilities Poland has lost all her industrial areas and cultural centres. Warsaw, as the capital of Poland, no longer exists. The Polish Government has disintegrated, and no longer shows any sign of life. This means that the Polish State and its Government have, in point of fact, ceased to exist. In the same way, the Agreements concluded between the U.S.S.R. and Poland have ceased to operate. Left to her own devices and bereft of leadership, Poland has become a suitable field for all manner of hazards and surprises, which may constitute a threat to the U.S.S.R. For these reasons the Soviet Government, who have hitherto been neutral, cannot any longer preserve a neutral attitude towards these facts.

The Soviet Government also cannot view with indifference the fact that the kindred Ukrainian and White Russian people, who live on Polish territory and who are at the mercy of fate, should be left defenceless.

In these circumstances, the Soviet Government have directed the High Command of the Red Army to order the troops to cross the frontier and to take under their protection the life and property of the population of Western Ukraine and Western White Russia.

At the same time the Soviet Government propose to take all measures to extricate the Polish people from the unfortunate war into which they were dragged by their unwise leaders, and enable them to live a peaceful life.

Accept, Mister Ambassador, the assurance of my high consideration.
People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the U.S.S.R.

The Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of Poland, Mr. Grzybowski
Polish Embassy

Putin’s hopes for monetary miracles

There is a lot of focus on what Russian President Vladimir Putin is saying these days. However, it is mostly about geopolitics and much less about his views on economics and particularly on central banking. However, I came across some interesting comments from Putin on monetary policy, which quite well illustrates some of the problems with his – or rather his lack of – economic thinking.

This is from a recent article from Reuters:

Russian President Vladimir Putin told the country’s top finance and economy officials on Wednesday that the current forecast for gross domestic product this year was unacceptable.

“I will again stress that the existing growth rates and those forecast by the government cannot satisfy us,” Putin told Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, Kremlin economic adviser Andrei Belousov and others.

…The weakening rouble, which has lost more than 10 percent against the dollar so far this year to trade at all-time lows , is also putting the central bank’s goal of 5 percent inflation this year in jeopardy.

“(We need to) … keep inflation at an acceptable, low level,” Putin said. He did not give details.

So Putin wants higher growth and lower inflation. Well, that is just great. Lower inflation and higher growth would certainly be great for Russia. The problem of course is whether the Russian central bank can deliver this?

Anybody who studied the AS/AD framework knows that monetary policy cannot deliver what Putin wants.

The only way to get lower inflation and higher real GDP growth is through a positive supply shock and we all know that the central bank – either the Russian or any other any other central bank in the world – cannot control what happens to the supply side of the economy.

CBR governor Nabiullina can fully control nominal spending (aggregate demand) in the Russian economy, but she has no powers to control aggregate supply. Unfortunately for her the Russian economy is presently experiencing a very significant negative aggregate supply shock – mostly due to capital outflow related to Putin’s de facto annexation of Crimea.

We can understand this negative supply shock by focusing on a number of different – but related – factors, which should be seen as part of the aggregated supply shock feeding through the Russian economy at the moment.

First of all the we are presently seeing massive capital outflows out of Russia as foreign investors are reducing exposure to the Russian economy and Foreign Direct Investments into Russian has probably come to a “sudden stop”. Lower investments obviously mean less capital accumulation and hence lower productivity growth. This of course is a negative supply shock.

Second, as a consequence of the geopolitical developments investors are undoubtedly seeing more of what Robert Higgs have called “regime uncertainty”. Will Russia become a more closed economy in the future? Will government come to play even bigger role in the economy and will we see even more regulation and corruption? All these factors are impacting investments – both foreign and domestic – negatively.

Third, the massive capital outflows have pushed the Russian rouble weaker. As a result import prices are rising significantly. That is increasing input costs in Russian industry and is hence also a negative supply shock.

Not only are these factors likely to be very negative, but they are likely also fairly permanent in nature and more importantly the Russian central bank can do very little about it.

The negative supply shock is illustrated in the graph below. The three factors described above are all adding up to pushing the Russian Aggregate Supply (AS) curve to the left. The result is of course that real GDP growth drops from y to y’ and that inflation increases from p to p’. This is not exactly what the doctor – or rather president Putin – ordered.

Negative supply shock demand shock Russia

So now governor Nabiullina can chose to ignore one of two demands from Putin. Either she tries to lower inflation or she tries to spur real GDP growth. However, if the shock to aggregate supply is permanent then she will not even be able to push up real GDP growth – at least not for long as inflation expectations are likely to “catch up” with any monetary easing fast.

She can, however, deliver lower inflation by tightening monetary conditions and this is of course exactly what she has done. The problem is of course that that comes at a cost – likely a large cost – of killing growth.

This is also illustrated in the graph above. When monetary conditions are tightened significantly (CBR as likely intervened for as much as USD 20bn in the currency markets over the past month and increased it key policy rate by 150bp) then the aggregate demand (AD) curve shifts to the left – pushing inflation down to p’’, but also further reducing real GDP growth to y’’ from y’.

In fact most economists who are covering the Russian economy have recently been revising down their growth forecasts for the Russian economy in 2014. And goes for myself as well and I am quite convinced that the Russian economy will go into recession and experience negative quarter-to-quarter GDP growth in at least the next couple of quarters.

Former Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin agrees. Mr. Kudrin a couple of days ago said that he now expect a Russian recession in 2014 (See here).

So why is the CBR tightening monetary policy when it so obviously is likely to lead to a sharp slowdown in Russian growth? I most say I continue to be puzzled by Emerging Markets central banks around world, which over the past year have moved to sharply tightening monetary conditions to curb exchange rate depreciation despite these central banks officially operate floating exchange rate regimes.

The most likely explanation in my view is that policy makers – on strong pressures from governments – are politically motivated by the fact that currency weakness is see as being politically embarrassing for local rulers such as Russia’s President Putin or Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan.

The paradox here is that this fear-of-floating likely is doing a lot more damage to the Russian economy at the moment than any of the sanctions, which this week have been introduced by the EU and the US.

Recession time for Russia – the ultra wonkish version

I have long been a proponent of what I have called the Export Price Norm (EPN). The idea with EPN is that commodity exporting countries can ensure stable nominal spending growth by pegging their currency to either the price of the country’s main export good or to a basket of the export product and a foreign currency.

The case of Russia is illustrative. Hence, one could imagine that the Russian central bank (CBR) implemented a variation of EPN by including oil prices in the basket of euros and dollars, which the CBR has been “shadowing” in recent years. I believe that this in general would lead to a stabilisation of nominal GDP growth in Russia.

The graph below, I believe, illustrates this well.

EPN Russia

We see that over the past 10 years there has been a very high and stable correlation between Russian NGDP growth and (the growth of) the price of oil measured in roubles. As the oil price in roubles seems to lead NGDP growth by 1-2 quarters it is clear that the CBR would have been able to stabilize NGDP growth by managing the rouble in such a way to ‘offset’ positive and negative shocks to the oil price. That of course would have happened “automatically” if the CBR had included the oil price in it’s EUR-USD basket – or alternatively allowed the rouble to float freely and communicated that it would allow the rouble to appreciate or depreciate to offset shocks to the oil price to ensure stable nominal spending growth in the Russian economy.

Nothing surprising about the slowdown in Russian growth

In the last couple of the years the Russian economy has slowed considerably. This I believe is due to the fact that the CBR effectively has been tightening the monetary conditions by keeping the rouble too strong relative to the development in oil prices.

Since early 2011 the oil price (in US dollars) has been declining moderately. This effectively has meant that the currency inflow into Russia has been slowing and not surprisingly this has put downward pressure on the rouble. This should be welcomed news, but the CBR has nonetheless kept monetary conditions too tight by not allowing a large enough depreciation of the rouble to fully offset the oil price shock.

As a result nominal GDP growth has slowed quite significantly and as prices and wages are sticky in Russia (as everywhere else) this has also led to a slowdown in Russian real GDP growth.

Why the EPN ‘prediction’ might be wrong this time around

However, things have been changing over the past year. So while the oil price has continued to “stagnate” the rouble has weakened significantly over the past year – as has been the case for most other Emerging Markets currencies in the world.

Hence, as the drop in the value of the rouble has been significantly larger than the change in the oil price (in USD) the oil price measured in roubles has increased somewhat.

As the graph above shows this de facto monetary easing has already started lifting NGDP growth and given the historical relationship between the oil price measured in rouble and NGDP growth then one should expect NGDP growth to pick up from well-below 10% to 13-14% y/y.

However, this “prediction” strictly based on the Export Price Norm is likely to be far too optimistic. The reason is that the Export Price Norm only ensures nominal stability if all shocks come from the export price – in the case of Russia from oil price shocks.

Historically it has been a reasonable assumption that nearly all shocks to Russian aggregate demand are shocks to the oil price (remember in the case of Russia an oil price shock is a demand shock and not a supply shock). This is why we have such a good fit in the graph above.

But over the past year the Russian economy has been hit by another external shock and a lot of the outflows from Russia has been driven by other factors than oil prices. Hence, the general negative Emerging Markets sentiment over the past year has undoubtedly own its own contributed to the currency outflow.

Furthermore, and more importantly the sharply increased geo-political tensions in relationship to Putin’s military intervention on the peninsula of Crimea has clearly shocked foreign investors who are now dumping Russian assets on large scale. Just Monday this week the Russian stock market fell in excess of 10% and some of the major bank stocks lost 20% of their value on a single day.

In response to this massive outflow the Russian central bank – foolishly in my view – hiked its key policy rate by 150bp and intervened heavily in the currency market to prop up the rouble on Monday. Some commentators have suggested that the CBR might have spent more than USD 10bn of the foreign currency reserve just on Monday. Thereby inflicting greater harm to the Russian economy than any of the planned sanctions by EU and the US against Russia.

By definition a drop in foreign currency reserve translates directly into a contraction in the money base combined with the CBR’s rate hike we this week has seen a very significant tightening of monetary conditions in Russia – something which is likely to send the Russian economy into recession (understood as one or two quarters of negative real GDP growth).

This in my view illustrates a weakness in the very strict form of an Export Price Norm. If the central bank pegs the currency directly to the export price – for example oil prices in the case of Russia – then other negative external shocks – would effectively be monetary tightening.

CBR should implement a 40-40-20 basket with an adjustable +/-15% fluctuation band

Given this weakness in the strict form of the EPN I believe it would be better for the Russian central bank to implement a less strict variation of EPN.

The most obvious solution would be to include oil prices in the CBR’s present operational basket. Overall I think a basket of 40% euros, 40% dollars and 20% oil prices would be a suitable policy basket for the central bank. Furthermore, the CBR should allow for a +/-15% fluctuation band around this policy basket.

The reason I stress that it should be a policy basket is that the ultimate target of the CBR should not be that basket but rather to achieve a stable growth rate of nominal spending in the Russian economy – for example 8-10% NGDP growth.

I believe that under most circumstances the CBR could maintain composition of the policy basket and maintain the fluctuation band unchanged and that would to a large degree ensure nominal stability without changing the basket or the “parity” for this basket and long as the CBR communicates clearly that the purpose of this policy is to ensure nominal growth stability. Then the market would take care of the rest.

Unfortunately Putin’s Russia has much bigger (self-inflicted) problems than monetary policy these days…


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A Crimean style aggregate supply shock

It has been a busy couple of weeks for me. It is events in particularly Ukraine, Turkey and partly Venezuela that have kept me very busy so there has not been much time or energy for blogging.

My blog is mostly about monetary issues, but the most important thing going on in the global economy and markets right now in my view is not monetary affairs, but rather the escalation of geo-political risks or what Robert Higgs in the most general sense have called “regime uncertainty”.

So let me quote myself. This is from EMEA Weekly – a Weekly produced by my hard working colleagues in Danske Bank’s research department and myself. This is on the recent developments in Ukraine:

Centre of attention moves to Crimea

This week there has been a sharp increase in geopolitical tension on the back of the violent in recent weeks and particularly since the Ukrainian parliament voted to oust President Viktor Yanukovych at the weekend and appointed a new caretaker president and a new government ahead of presidential elections, which are now scheduled to be held in May.

As we pointed out in Flash Comment Ukraine – geopolitical risks increase, the events over the weekend sharply increased geopolitical risk and we expected the focus of the markets to turn to eastern Ukraine and the peninsula of Crimea. The events this week have confirmed this.

We also note that most of the population in Crimea is ethnic Russian and many hold a Russian passport. During the Russian-Georgian conflict in 2008, fears about increased separatist sentiment in Crimea increased tensions between the then Ukrainian government and Russia. These concerns have now returned. This morning a group of apparently pro- Russian armed men seized Crimea’s regional parliament and the government headquarters of the Russian-majority region.

Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered tests of the combat readiness of Russian armed forces in western and central Russia and today the Russian Ministry of Defence said it had put its fighter jets on ‘combat alert’ on its western border.

The new Ukrainian government has reacted angrily to recent geopolitical events. Hence, Ukraine’s interim President Olexander Turchynov has warned Russia against any ‘military aggression’ in Crimea.

The clear escalation of the geopolitical situation is now having a very clear impact on not only the Russian and Ukrainian markets. Hence, over the past couple of weeks there has been some contagion – so far fairly moderate – to other central and eastern European markets but, as of today, it seems that we are seeing an even broader spillover as fears of an armed conflict have increased.

The Ukrainian hryvnia has fallen sharply this week and today alone it is down around 10% against the US dollar. The Ukrainian central bank has effectively stopped defending the hryvnia as it has more or less run out of foreign currency reserves. Furthermore, it is very clear to us that the banking sector has effectively stopped working in Ukraine and the country is close to default. Indeed, we think it is impossible to avoid a sovereign default unless the Ukrainian government receives foreign financial assistance. This is also reflected in the pricing of Ukraine’s credit default swap.

The Russian rouble has also come under additional pressure. The rouble, which has been under pressure for some time and has lost some 20% in value over the past year. yesterday hit the weak end of the official fluctuation band against the basket of the euro and the US dollar.

This morning USD/RUB reached 36.11 – a five-year high. The dual currency basket hit a record high of 42.11. The Russian central bank Bank Rossii has refrained from significant support of the rouble, intervening by around USD300m per day and shifting repeatedly up the rouble’s trading band. We do not expect any significant turnaround in the rouble’s rate this year or any significant support from Bank Rossii as the authorities believe the rouble’s weakness helps the domestic economy.

As a direct consequence of recent events, we have changed our already very bearish forecast on the Ukrainian hryvnia to 15 against the dollar. This implies an almost 70% devaluation of the hryvnia compared with pre-crisis levels. We are also considering whether to revise our rouble forecast and it is obvious to us that there is considerable downside risk for the rouble if the geopolitical situation worsens further.

It is also obvious to us that these events have significant negative ramifications for both the Russian and Ukrainian economies.

I normally like to tell my stories within a simple AS/AD framework. If you want to understand the economics of what is going on right now in both Russia and Ukraine think of recent events as a negative aggregate supply shock to both economies. So we will have lower growth and higher inflation – as well as weaker currencies in both Ukraine and Russia as a result of these events.

This is how it looks – the geo-political shocks pushes the short-run aggregate supply curve (SRAS) to the left – from SRAS to SRAS’. This causes inflation to increase from p to p’ and real GDP growth drops to y’ from y.

AS AD SRAS shock

From a monetary policy perspective the worst thing to do would of course be to tighten monetary policy in response to such a shock. Interestingly enough it seems like both countries despite initially tighthening monetary conditions to “defend” their currencies now have accepted that this is a foolish policy and both countries’ central banks are now moving in the direction of freely floating exchange rates. So at least here there is some common ground.

Lets hope and pray that peace prevalence.

Indian superstar economists, Egyptian (not so liberal!) dictators, the Great Deceleration and Taliban banking regulation – Some more unfocused musings

While the vacation is over for the Christensen family I have decided to continue with my unfocused musings. I am not sure how much I will do of this kind of thing in the future, but it means that I will write a bit more about other things than just monetary issues. My blog will still primarily be about money, but my readers seem to be happy that I venture into other areas as well from time to time. So that is what I will do.

Two elderly Indian economists and the most interesting debate in economics today

In recent weeks an very interesting war of words has been playing out between the two giants of Indian economic thinking – Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen. While I don’t really think that they two giants have been behaving themselves in a gentlemanly fashion the debate it is nonetheless an extremely interesting and the topic the are debate – how to increase the growth potential of the Indian economy – is highly relevant not only for India but also for other Emerging Markets that seem to have entered a “Great Deceleration” (see below).

While Bhagwati has been arguing in favour of a free market model Sen seems to want a more “Scandinavian” development model for India with bigger government involvement in the economy. I think my readers know that I tend to agree with Bhagwati here and in that regard I will also remind the readers that the high level of income AND the high level of equality in Scandinavia were created during a period where all of the Scandinavian countries had rather small public sectors. In fact until the mid-1960s the role of government in Scandinavia was more limited than even in the US at the same time.

Anyway, I would recommend to anybody interested in economic development to follow the Bhagwati-Sen debate.
Nupur Acharya has a good summery of the debate so and provides some useful links. See here.

By the way this is Bhagwati’s new book – co-authored with Arvind Panagariya.


The Economics of Superstar Economists

Both Bhagwati and Sen are what we call Superstar economists. Other superstar economists are people like Tyler Cowen and Paul Krugman. Often these economists are also bloggers. I could also mention Nouriel Roubini as a superstar economist.

I have been thinking about this concept for a while  and have come to the conclusion that superstar economists is the real deal and are extremely important in today’s public debate about economics. They may or may not be academics, but the important feature is that they have an extremely high public profile and are very well-paid for sharing their views on everything – even on topics they do not necessarily have much real professional insight about (yes, Krugman comes to mind).

In 1981 Sherwin Rosen wrote an extremely interesting article on the topic of The Economic of Superstars. Rosen’s thesis is that superstars – whether in sports, cultural, media or the economics profession for that matter earn a disproportional high income relative to their skills. While, economists or actors with skills just moderately below the superstar level earn significantly less than the superstars.

I think this phenomenon is increasingly important in the economics profession. That is not to say that there has not been economic superstars before – Cassel and Keynes surely were superstars of their time and so was Milton Friedman, but I doubt that they were able to make the same kind of money that Paul Krugman is today.  What do you think?

The Great Deceleration – 50% structural, 50% monetary

The front page of The Economist rarely disappoints. This week is no exception. The front page headline (on the European edition) is “The Great Deceleration” and it is about the slowdown in the BRIC economies.

I think the headline is very suiting for a trend playing out in the global economy today – the fact that many or actually most Emerging Markets economies are loosing speed – decelerating. While the signs of continued recovery in the developed economies particularly the US and Japan are clear.

The Economist rightly asks the question whether the slowdown is temporary or more permanent. The answer from The Economist is that it is a bit of both. And I agree.

There is no doubt that particularly monetary tightening in China is an extremely important factor in the continued slowdown in Emerging Markets growth – and as I have argued before China’s role as monetary superpower is rather important.

However, it is also clear that many Emerging Markets are facing structural headwinds – such as negative demographics (China, Russia and most of the rest of Central and Eastern Europe), renewed “Regime Uncertainty” (Egypt, Turkey and partly South Africa) and old well-known structural problems (for example the protectionism of India and Brazil).  Maybe it would be an idea for policy makers in Emerging Markets to read Bhagwati and Panagariya’s new book or even better Hernando de Soto’s “The Mystery of Capital – Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else”

Egypt – so much for “liberal dictators”

While vacationing I wrote a bit Hayek’s concept of the “liberal dictator” and how that relates to events in Egypt (see here and here). While I certainly think that the concept a liberal dictatorship is oxymoronic to say the least I do acknowledge that there are examples in history of dictators pursuing classical liberal economic reforms – Pinochet in Chile is probably the best known example – but in general I think the idea that a man in uniform ever are going to push through liberal reforms is pretty far-fetched. That is certainly also the impression one gets by following events in Egypt. Just see this from AFP:

With tensions already running high three weeks after the military ousted president Mohamed Morsi, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s call for demonstrations raises the prospect of further deadly violence.

…Sisi made his unprecedented move in a speech broadcast live on state television.

“Next Friday, all honourable Egyptians must take to the street to give me a mandate and command to end terrorism and violence,” said the general, wearing dark sunglasses as he addressed a military graduation ceremony near Alexandria.

You can judge for yourself, but I am pretty skeptical that this is going to lead to anything good – and certainly not to (classical) liberal reforms.

Just take a look at this guy – is that the picture of a reformer? I think not.


Banking regulation and the Taliban

Vince Cable undoubtedly is one of the most outspoken and colourful ministers in the UK government. This is what he earlier this week had to say in an interview with Finance Times about Bank of England and banking regulation:

“One of the anxieties in the business community is that the so called ‘capital Taliban’ in the Bank of England are imposing restrictions which at this delicate stage of recovery actually make it more difficult for companies to operate and expand.”

While one can certainly question Mr. Cable’s wording it is hard to disagree that the aggressive tightening of capital requirements by the Bank of England is hampering UK growth. Or rather if one looks at tighter capital requirements on banks then it is effectively an tax on production of “private” money. In that sense tighter capital requirements are counteracting the effects of the quantitative easing undertaken by the BoE. Said in another way – the tight capital requirements the more quantitative easing is needed to hit the BoE’s nominal targets.

That is not to say that there are not arguments for tighter capital requirements particularly if one fears that banks that get into trouble in the future “automatically” will be bailed out by the taxpayers and the system so to speak is prone to moral hazard. Hence, higher capital requirements in that since is a “second best” to a strict no-bailout regime.

However, the tightening of capital requirements clearly is badly timed given the stile very fragile recovery in the UK economy. Therefore, I think that the Bank of England – if it wants to go ahead with tightening capital requirements – should link this the performance of the UK economy. Hence, the BoE should pre-annonce that mandatory capital and liquidity ratios for UK banks and financial institutions in general will dependent on the level of nominal GDP. So as the economy recovers capital and liquidity ratios are gradually increased and if there is a new setback in economy capital and liquidity ratios will automatically be reduced. This would put banking regulation in sync with the broader monetary policy objectives in the UK.


Russia’s slowdown – another domestic demand story

Today I am in to Moscow to do a presentation on the Russian economy. It will be yet another chance to tell one of my pet-stories and that is that growth in nominal GDP in Russia is basically determined by the price of oil measured in rubles. Furthermore, I will stress that changes in the oil price feeds through to the Russian economy not primarily through net exports, but through domestic demand. This is what I earlier have termed the petro-monetary transmission mechanism.

The Russian economy is slowing – it is mostly monetary

In the last couple of quarters the Russian economy has been slowing. This is a direct result of a monetary contraction caused by lower Russian export prices (measured in rubles). Hence, even though the ruble has been “soft” it has not weakened nearly as much as the drop in oil prices and this effectively is causing a tightening of Russian monetary conditions.

oil price rub

This is how the petro-monetary transmission mechanism works. What happens is that when the oil price drops it puts downward pressure on the ruble. If the Russian central bank had been following what I have called Export Price Norm the ruble would have weakened in parallel with the drop in the oil price.

However, the Russian central bank is not allowing the ruble to weaken enough to keep the price of oil measured in rubles stable and as a consequence we effectively are seeing a drop in the Russian foreign exchange reserves (compared to what otherwise would have happened). There of course is a direct (nearly) one-to-one link between the decline in the FX reserve and the decline in the Russian money base. Hence, due to the managed float of the ruble – rather than a freely floating RUB (and a clear nominal target) – we are getting an “automatic”, but unnecessary, tightening of monetary conditions.

This means that there is a fairly close correlation between changes in oil prices measured in rubles and the growth of nominal GDP. The graph below illustrates this quite well.

NGDP russia oil price

I should of course stress that the slowdown in NGDP growth not necessarily a problem. Unemployment has continued to decline in Russia since 2010 and is now at fairly low levels, while inflation recently have been picking up to around 7%. Hence, it is hard to argue that there is a massive demand side problem in Russia. Yes, both nominal and real GDP is slowing, but it is certainly not catastrophic and I strongly believe that the Russian central bank should target 5-8% NGDP growth rather than 20 or 30% NGDP growth (which is what we saw prior to the crisis erupting in 2008-9). In that sense the gradual tightening of monetary conditions we have seen over the last 2 years might have been warranted. The problem, however, is that the Russian central banks is not very clear on want it wants to achieve with its policies.

It is all about domestic demand rather than net exports

Many would instinctively, but wrongly, conclude that the recent drop in oil prices is a drop in net exports and that is the reason for the slowdown in economic activity. However, that is far from right. In fact net export growth has remained fairly stable with Russian exports and imports growing more or less by the same rate. Hence, there has basically been only a small negative impact on GDP growth from the development in net exports.

What of course is happening is that even though export growth has slowed so has import growth as a result of a fairly sharp slowdown in domestic demand – particularly investment growth.

In that sense the present slowdown is quite similar to the massive collapse in economic activity in 2008-9. The difference is of course that what we are seeing now is not a collapse, but simply a slowdown in growth, but the mechanism is the same – monetary conditions have become tighter as the ruble has not weakened enough to “accommodate” the drop in the oil price.

It should be noted that the ruble today is significantly more freely floating than prior and during the 2008-9 crisis. As a result the ruble has moved much more in sync with the oil price than was the case in 2008-9. So while the oil price has gradually declined since the highs of 2011 the ruble has also weakened moderately against the US dollar in this period. However, the net result has nonetheless been that the price of oil measured in ruble has declined by 25-30% since the peak in 2011. Furthermore, the drop in the oil price measured in rubles has further accelerated since March. As a consequence we are likely to see the slowdown in economic activity continue towards the end of the year.

Overall I believe that the  gradual and moderate tightening of monetary conditions in 2010-12 was warranted. However, it is also clear that what we have see in the last couple of months likely is an excessive tightening of monetary conditions.

 The Export Price Norm is still the best solution for Russia

I have earlier argued that the Russian central bank should implement a variation of what I have termed an Export Price Norm (EPN) and what Jeff Frankel calls Peg-the-Export-Price (PEP) to ensure a stable growth rate in nominal GDP.

I think simplest way of doing this would be to include the oil price in the basket of currencies that the Russian central bank is now shadowing (dollars and euros). Hence, I believe that if the Russian central bank announced that it would shadow a basket of 20% oil prices and 40% dollars and 40% euros to ensure stable NGDP growth for example 7% and allowed for a +/-15% fluctuation band around the basket then I believe that you would get a monetary regime that automatically and without policy discretion would provide tremendous nominal stability and fairly low inflation (2-4%). In such a regime most of the changes in monetary policy would be implemented by market forces. Hence, if the oil price dropped the ruble would automatically be depreciated and equally important if the NGDP growth slowed due to other factors – for example a fiscal tightening or financial distress – then the ruble would automatically weak relative to the basket within the fluctuation band. Obviously there might be – rare – occasions where the “mid-point” of the fluctuation band could be changed and market participants should obviously be made aware that the purpose of the regime is not exchange rate stability but nominal stability. In such a set-up the central bank’s policy instrument would be the level for the mid-point for the fluctuation band around the basket.

Alternatively the Russian central bank could also opt for a completely freely floating exchange rate with NGDP targeting or flexible inflation targeting. I, however, would be skeptical about such solution as the domestic Russian financial markets are still quite illiquid and underdeveloped which complicates the conduct of monetary policy. Furthermore, an EPN solution would actually be more rule based than a freely floating ruble regime as a freely floating ruble regime would necessitate regular changes in for example the interest rate (or the money base) to be announced by the central bank. That opens the door for monetary policy to become unnecessarily discretionary.

Russia’s biggest problems are not monetary

It is correct that Market Monetarists seem to be obsessed with talking about monetary policy, but in the case of Russia I would also argue that even though there is a significant need for monetary policy reform monetary policy is not Russia’s biggest problem. In fact I believe the conduction of monetary policy has improved greatly in the last couple of years.

Russia’s biggest problem is structural. The country is struggling with massive overregulation, lack of competition and widespread corruption. There are very esay solutions to this: Deregulation and privatization. Every sane economist would tell you that, but the political reality in Russia means that reforms are painfully slow. In fact if anything corruption seems to have become even more widespread over the past decade.

Russian policy makers need to deal with these issues if they want to boost real GDP growth over the medium term. The Russian central bank can ensure nominal stability but it can do little else to increase real GDP growth. That is a case for the Russian government. On that I am unfortunately not too optimistic, but hope I will be proven wrong.

Ease of doing business russia

PS My story that the drop in oil prices measured in ruble is about domestic demand rather than export growth is of course very similar to the point I have been making about Japanese monetary stimulus. Monetary easing in Japan might be weakening the currency, but it is not about lifting exports, but about boosting domestic demand. That be the way seem to be exactly what is happening in the Japan. See for example this story from Bloomberg from earlier today.

Thinking about monetary policy in Russia – a useful DSGE model?

I am going to Moscow in a couple of weeks. Going to Russia always inspires me to think about monetary policy in commodity exporting countries. I recently found what looks to be an interesting paper on monetary policy in commodity exporting countries – Monetary Policy in an Economy Sick with Dutch Disease”. The paper is from 2007.

I have started reading the paper, but as usual I want to share my joy of having found the paper with my readers before actually having read the entire paper. Here is the abstract:

“The paper studies monetary policy in an economy, in which the manufacturing sector is ousted completely by the presence of a large natural resource industry. Thus, the economy produces only non-tradable goods, which can complement or substitute imported goods, and the primary shock to the economy comes from the fluctuations in the world price of the exported commodity. A model of such an economy is calibrated using parameters relevant for Russia, which is an example of an economy sick with Dutch Disease, and several conventional policy rules are considered. It is shown that in absence of a well-functioning fiscal stabilization fund, it may be optimal for monetary authorities to respond to the real exchange rate, as the Bank of Russia allegedly does, using purchases of foreign reserves as the policy instrument. The logic of these actions is to replace the absent fiscal stabilization policy. In case monetary policy is conducted using an interest rate instrument, there should be no reaction to the real exchange rate and only slight one – to inflation.”

In the paper the authors Kirill Sosunov and Oleg Zamulin present a DSGE model for the Russian economy. The model in many ways is similar to my own thinking of the Russian economy and I therefore think it would be interesting to update Zamulin and Sosunov’s work. It would for example be extremely interesting to simulate the 2008-9 shock in the model under different monetary policy rules and what rules would have done the least harm to the Russian economy. Would my suggestion that Russia should have followed an Export Price Norm for example have prevented the crisis?

I have earlier claimed the sharp contraction in the Russian economy in 2008-9 was due to monetary policy failure. My feeling is that Zamulin and Sosunov’s model would yield a similar result, but I am not sure.

Anyway, I hope to be able to do some work on that model myself – with the help of my colleague Jens Pedersen – in the coming weeks. Then we will see what we manage to get out of the model and I would of course encourage others out there with interest in DGSE model and particularly with interest in monetary policy in commodity exporting countries to have a look at the model for yourself (please drop me a mail if you are doing work on monetary policy in commodity exporting countries as well –

Now back to reading the paper…


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