Venezuela’s monetary craziness

Yesterday I wrote a post about how we are inching closer and closer to outright deflation in Europe. However, for other countries the risk of deflation is not the issue. In Argentina and Venezuela outright hyperinflation is becoming more and more likely.

The situation seems particularly insane in Venezuela. This is from Bloomberg (a week ago):

Venezuela’s annual inflation rate rose more than expected to 54.3 percent last month, the fastest pace in as many as 16 years, as shoppers scrambled for scarce goods ahead of Christmas festivities.

October inflation compares with an annualized 49.4 percent the month earlier and the 52 percent median estimate of three analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. Prices rose 5.1 percent in the month, the central bank said today.

Currency controls have crimped imports in a country that gets about 70 percent of its goods from abroad, pushing up the cost of products that make it into the country. Price increases in the capital, Caracas, are running at the fastest pace since 1997, two years before former President Hugo Chavez came to power.

Anybody with the faintest idea about economics knows that you can only get this kind of inflation if the printing is running too fast. So there is only one way to combat inflation – slow the printing press. It is very simple.

But of course this is not the kind of answer Venezuela’s socialist president Nicolas Maduro would like to hear. Instead he has ordered the army to enforce massive cuts in retail prices. Just see this story:

After taking control of several appliance stores last week, Maduro vowed late Sunday to step up inspections of businesses selling shoes, clothes, automobiles and other goods to make sure they aren’t gouging consumers. He also said he’ll impose limits on profits as the government tries to curb inflation running at 54 per cent.

In eastern Caracas, a five-block line of bargain hunters, some waiting since Saturday, snaked from a JVG electronics store hoping for the chance to buy televisions, washing machines and refrigerators at deep discounts.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” said Sixto Mesa, a government supporter.

Maduro is gambling that by expanding price controls he can regain support he has lost since winning election in April, as inflation soared to a two-decade high and the U.S. dollar shot up on the black market to nine times its official value.

“We can’t just close the businesses; the owners have to go to jail,” Maduro said in an impassioned speech Sunday night in which he cited Jewish, Muslim and Christian texts to harangue businessmen he accuses of usury. “We can’t allow our hard currency to be used to rob people through the sale of these goods.”

At the same time Maduro is attacking merchants he calls the “parasitic bourgeoisie,” he has vowed zero tolerance for looting. On Monday, police fired shots in the air to prevent crowds from raiding a toy store in the Caracas suburb of Los Teques, with many businesses in the town shuttering early for fear of violence.

Maduro also took his offensive to the Internet, blocking access to seven websites that track the value of the country’s bolivar currency on the black market. The president over the weekend accused the websites of spreading panic and conspiring against his government.

What can you say? Insane…

“The Army just helped me ‘buy’ this nice flat-screen TV…”

Venezuela Frenzied Shopping

Toilet paper shortage is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon

This is from Sky News:

Venezuelans have been hit by a chronic toilet paper shortage, leading to empty supermarket shelves and long queues to snap up the remaining rolls…When new stocks arrive at supermarkets customers have been rushing in to fill their trollies.

It started with a food shortage and now it is the lack of toilet paper that is the latest economic problem in Venezuela. It is pretty clear that Venezuela’s chronic shortages of essential goods are a result of the combination of excessively easy monetary policy and price controls.

If monetary policy is excessive easy you obviously get high and rising inflation. There is only on way of stopping excessive inflation and that is by slowing the money printing press. Instead the Venezuelan government continues to fight inflation with draconian price controls.

The toilet paper shortage is just the latest round of news that confirms the absolutely failed policies of the socialist Venezuelan government, but as usual the government is unwilling to accept any responsibility for the social ills it is causing. Instead the Venezuelan government blames the media:

Commerce minister Alejandro Fleming said “excessive demand” for the tissue had built up due to a “media campaign that has been generated to disrupt the country.”

He said monthly consumption of toilet paper was normally 125 million rolls, but current demand “leads us to think that 40 million more are required”.

“We will bring in 50 million to show those groups that they won’t make us bow down,” he said.

Anybody who have studied economics for 3 minutes of course knows that Fleming’s explanation of the toilet paper shortage is outrageously wrong, but I guess that the Minister himself is unlikely to have problems getting toilet paper supplies himself as the Venezuelan government is massively corrupted and Ministers certainly do not seem to suffer from the social ills that average Venezuelan have to struggle with.

Radical fiscal and monetary reforms are needed 

I have earlier argued that at the core of Venezuela’s economic policies is the fact that the central bank basically has been ordered to finance excessive public spending by letting the printing presses run overtime. There is only one way of stopping the inflation pressures and that is by stopping this monetary funding of public expenditures and then to implement radical monetary reform.

This is reform that I earlier have suggested:

Market Monetarists generally speaking favour nominal GDP targeting or what we also could call nominal demand targeting. For large economies like the US that generally implies targeting the level of NGDP. However, for a commodity exporting economy like Venezuela we can achieve nominal stability by stabilizing the price of the main export good – in the case of Venezuela that is the price of oil measured in Venezuelan bolivar. The reason for this is that aggregate demand in the economy is highly correlated with export revenues and hence with the price of oil.

I have therefore at numerous occasions suggested that commodity exporting countries implement what I have called an Export Price Norm (EPN) and what Jeff Frankel has called a Peg-the Export-Price (PEP) policy.

The idea with EPN is basically that the central bank should peg the country’s currency to the price of the main export good. In the case of Venezuela that obviously would be the price of oil. However, it is not given that an one-to-one relationship between the bolivar and the oil price will ensure nominal stability.

My suggestion is therefore that the bolivar should be pegged to basket of 75% US dollars and 25% oil price. That in my view would view would ensure a considerable degree of nominal stability in Venezuela. So in periods of stable oil prices the Venezuelan bolivar would be more or less “fixed” against the US dollar and that likely would lead to nominal GDP growth in Venezuela that would be slightly higher than in the US (due to catching up effects in Venezuelan productivity), but in periods of rising oil prices the bolivar would strengthen against the dollar, but keep nominal GDP growth fairly stable.

Maybe the toilet paper shortage could convince the new Venezuelan president Maduro to end the Hugo Chavez’s fail policies and implement radical fiscal and monetary reforms – otherwise Venezuela might turn into the smelliest country in the world.

HT Rasmus Ole Hansen

PS This is my blog post #600.

A modest proposal for post-Chavez monetary reform in Venezuela

Let’s just say it as it is – I was very positively surprised by the massive response to my post on the economic legacy of Hugo Chavez. However, as somebody who primarily wants to blog about monetary policy it is a bit frustrating that I attract a lot more readers when I write about dead authoritarian presidents rather than about my favourite topic – monetary policy.

So I guess I have to combine the two themes – dead presidents and monetary policy. Therefore this post on my modest proposal for post-Chavez monetary reform in Venezuela.

It is very clear that a key problem in Venezuela is the high level of inflation, which clearly has very significant negative economic and social implications. Furthermore, the high level of inflation combined with insane price controls have led to massive food and energy shortages in Venezuela in recent years.

Obviously the high level of inflation in Venezuela is due to excessive money supply growth and there any monetary reform should have the purpose of bringing money supply growth under control.

A Export Price Norm will bring nominal stability to Venezuela

Market Monetarists generally speaking favour nominal GDP targeting or what we also could call nominal demand targeting. For large economies like the US that generally implies targeting the level of NGDP. However, for a commodity exporting economy like Venezuela we can achieve nominal stability by stabilizing the price of the main export good – in the case of Venezuela that is the price of oil measured in Venezuelan bolivar. The reason for this is that aggregate demand in the economy is highly correlated with export revenues and hence with the price of oil.

I have therefore at numerous occasions suggested that commodity exporting countries implement what I have called an Export Price Norm (EPN) and what Jeff Frankel has called a Peg-the Export-Price (PEP) policy.

The idea with EPN is basically that the central bank should peg the country’s currency to the price of the main export good. In the case of Venezuela that obviously would be the price of oil. However, it is not given that an one-to-one relationship between the bolivar and the oil price will ensure nominal stability.

My suggestion is therefore that the bolivar should be pegged to basket of 75% US dollars and 25% oil price. That in my view would view would ensure a considerable degree of nominal stability in Venezuela. So in periods of stable oil prices the Venezuelan bolivar would be more or less “fixed” against the US dollar and that likely would lead to nominal GDP growth in Venezuela that would be slightly higher than in the US (due to catching up effects in Venezuelan productivity), but in periods of rising oil prices the bolivar would strengthen against the dollar, but keep nominal GDP growth fairly stable.

 EPN is preferable to a purely fixed exchange rate regime

My friend Steve Hanke has suggested that Venezuela implements a currency board against the dollar and permanently peg the Venezuelan bolivar to the dollar. However, that in my view could have a rather destabilizing impact on the economy.

Imagine a situation where oil prices increase by 30% in a year (that is not usual given what we have seen over the past decade). In that scenario the appreciation pressures on the bolivar would be significant, but as the central bank was pegging the exchange rate money supply growth would increase significantly to curb the strengthening of the currency. That would undoubtedly be inflationary and could potentially lead to a bubble tendencies and an increase the risk of a boom-bust in the economy.

If on the other hand the bolivar had been pegged to 75-25% basket of US dollars and oil then an 30% increase in the oil prices would lead to an appreciation of the bolivar by 7.5% (25% of 30%). That would counteract the inflationary tendencies from the rise in oil prices. Similar in the case of a sharp drop in oil prices then the bolivar would “automatically” weaken as if the bolivar was freely floating and that would offset the negative demand effects of falling oil prices – contrary to what happened in Venezuela in 2008-9 where the authorities tried to keep the bolivar overly strong given the sharp drop in oil prices. This in my view is one of the main cause for the slump in Venezuelan economic activity in 2008-9. That would have been avoided had the Venezuelan central bank operated EPN style monetary regime.

I should stress that I have not done detailed work on what would be the “optimal” mixed between the US dollar and the oil price in a potential bolivar basket. However, that is not the important thing with my proposal. The important thing is that such a policy would provide the Venezuelan economy with an stable nominal anchor while at the time reduce the risk of boom-bust in the Venezuelan economy – contrary to what have been the case in the Chavez years.

Time to get rid of currency and price controls

The massively unsustainable fiscal and monetary policy since 1999 have “forced” the Venezuelan government and central bank to implement draconian measures to control prices and the exchange rate. The currency controls have lead to a large black market for foreign currency in Venezuela and at the same time the price controls have led to massive energy and food shortages in Venezuela.

Obviously one cannot fight inflation and currency depreciation with interventionist policies. Therefore, this policies will have to be abandoned sooner rather than later as the cost of these policies are massive. Furthermore, it is obvious that the arguments for these policies will disappear once monetary policy ensures nominal stability.

End monetary funding of public finances

A key reason for the high level of inflation in Venezuela since 1999 undoubtedly has to be explained by the fact that there is considerable monetary financing of public finances in Venezuela. To end high-inflation it is therefore necessary to stop the central bank funding of fiscal policy. That obviously requires to bring the fiscal house in order. I will not touch a lot more on that issue here, but obviously there is a lot of work to be undertaken here. A place to start would obviously be to initiate a large scale (re)privatization program.

A modest proposal for monetary reform

We can therefore sum up my proposal for monetary reform in Venezuela in the following four points:

1) Introduce an Export Price Norm – peg the Bolivar to a basket of 75% US dollars and 25% oil prices

2) Liberalize capital and currency controls completely

3) Get rid of all price and wage controls

4) Separate fiscal policy and monetary policy – stop monetary funding of the public budget

I doubt that this post will be popular as my latest post on Venezuela, but I think that this post is significantly more important for the future well-being of the Venezuelan economy and a post-Chavez regime should move as fast as possible to implement monetary reform because without monetary reform the Venezuelan economy is unlikely to fully recover from its present crisis.

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Jeffrey Frankel has made a similar proposal for the Gulf States. Have a look at Jeff’s proposal here.

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Update: Steve Hanke has a comment on his suggestion for full dollarization in Venezuela. Even though I prefer my own EPN proposal I must say that Steve’s idea has a lot of appeal given the obvious weakness of public institutions in Venezuela and a very long history (pre-dating Chavez) of monetary mismanagement.

Hugo Chavez’s economic legacy – the two graph version

Today (March 5th) – on the 60 year anniversary of Stalin’s death – Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez passed away.

I think Chavez’s economic legacy can be pretty well-illustrated by two graphs comparing Venezuela’s economic performance from 1999 when Chavez became president with three ‘neo-liberal’ Latin American countries – Chile, Peru and Colombia.

We start out with the real GDP level (Index 1999 = 100)

LATAM RGDP

And next the price level (GDP deflator, Index 1999 = 100)

LATAM inflation

I leave it to my readers to judge whether Hugo Chavez’s death is a positive or a negative shock to Venezuela’s economy.

PS I am not claiming that Venezuelan economic statistics has not been manipulated. My source is IMF.

Related posts:
Food shortage is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon
A modest proposal for post-Chavez monetary reform in Venezuela

Argentina’s hidden inflation – another case of the horrors of price controls

In my previous post I discussed how price controls likely have created a wedge between inflation measured by CPI and by the GDP deflator in Malaysia. That made me think – can we find other examples of this in the world? And sure thing the story of Argentina’s inflation over the last decade seem to be more or less the same thing.

The graph below shows Argentine inflation measured by CPI and the GDP deflator since 2002. The difference is very easy to spot.

It is very clear that until 2005 the two measures of inflation tracks each other quite closely, but from 2005 a difference opens up. So what happened in 2005? Well, the story is exactly as in Malaysia – monetary policy is inflationary and the government tries to curb inflation not by printing less money, but by introducing price controls.

Here is a story from Bloomberg November 24 2005:

Argentine President Nestor Kirchner accused supermarkets of price fixing and said he would increase controls to slow a surge in inflation.

Kirchner, in a televised speech at the presidential palace, said agreements between supermarkets such as Coto CISA SA and Hipermercados Jumbo SA, a unit of Chilean retailer Cencosud SA, to increase prices would lead to 12 percent inflation next year. In the 12 months through October Argentina’s consumer prices rose 10.7 percent, the fastest rate of increase in 29 months.

“We will fight to defend consumers’ pockets,” Kirchner said, without specifying how he would slow price increases.

The accusation underscores the government’s concern over quickening inflation, which may increase poverty in a country where almost 50 percent of the population cannot afford to cover their food and other basic needs, said economist Rafael Ber of Argentine Research brokers in Buenos Aires.

Rising prices may also hurt the ability of Argentine producers to compete with foreign goods, Ber said.

Kirchner has already attacked private companies for increasing prices. In April, he called on consumers to boycott The Royal Dutch Shell Group after the energy company increased prices.

So there you go – price controls in response to inflation. That is never good news and the result has been the same in Argentina as in Malaysia (actually it is much worse) – shortages (See also my previous discussion of food shortages in Venezuela and Argentina here).

Price controls always have the same impact – shortages – and if you think Malaysia and Argentina are the only countries in the world to make this kind of policy mistakes think again. Here is from the US, where a Republican governor these days is experimenting with price controls and the result is the same as in Argentina and Malaysia – shortages!

PS it should be noted that the Argentine inflation data very likely is manipulated so there is more to it than just price controls – we also has a case of the books being cooked. See more on that here.

Regime Uncertainty, the Balkans and the weak US recovery

Today I have been in Oslo, Norway for client meetings. The topic on the agenda is Central and Eastern Europe and particularly the investment climate in South Eastern Europe. That gives me reason to discuss a favourite topic of mine – “regime uncertainty – as defined by Robert Higgs – and why the present lacklustre recovery in the US economy is unlikely in anyway to be related to such regime uncertainty.

As an economist who have been working professionally with Emerging Markets for more than I decade I know about regime uncertainty. In fact I think you to some extent can define an Emerging Markets economy as an economy where regime uncertainty is a dominant factor in the economy.

Robert Higgs basically defines regime uncertainty as a lack of protection of property right and a lack of respect for the rule of law. This is a serious problem in many Emerging Markets – including in the South Eastern European countries, which has been the focus of my meetings today.

My favourite source for a numerical measure of these uncertainties is the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index. We can use the sub-index for “Rule of Law” in the Economic Freedom Index as a proxy for “regime uncertainty”.

Let’s as an example look at two random South Eastern European countries – Albania and Bulgaria. Here is what Heritage Foundation has to say about the “Rule of Law” in Albania:

Albania still lacks a clear property rights system, particularly for land tenure. Security of land rights remains a problem in coastal areas where there is potential for tourism development. Although significant reforms of the legal system are underway, the courts are subject to political pressures and corruption. Protection of intellectual property rights is weak. Albania is a major transit country for human trafficking and illegal arms and narcotics.”

And similarly for Bulgaria:

“Respect for constitutional provisions securing property rights and providing for an independent judiciary is somewhat lax. The judicial system is unable to enforce property rights effectively, and inconsistent application of the rule of law discourages private investments. Despite legal restrictions, government corruption and organized crime present a threat to Bulgaria’s border security.”

In my view the Heritage Foundation’s description of the lack of respect for the rule of law and property rights in Albania and Bulgaria is pretty close to the reality in these two countries. So there is no doubt that there in both countries are a considerably degree of regime uncertainty.

This heightened level of regime uncertainty very likely is having a considerably negative impact on both foreign direct investments and domestic investments in both countries and therefore on the long-term growth prospects of these countries. Who would for example invest in a sea sight hotel in Albania it might be stolen from you tomorrow or in a year – maybe even with the tacit support of government officials?

Bulgaria and Albania are just two examples of serious regime uncertainty, but many (most!) developing economies and Emerging Markets around the world have serious problems with regime uncertainty. Therefore, as an Emerging Markets economist I find this issue highly relevant. However, I should also stress that I believe regime uncertainty is a supply side phenomenon. Regime uncertainty hampers investment, which reduces the productive capacity of the economy and hence reduces productivity growth, but as aggregate demand in the economy is determined by monetary factors regime uncertainty – in Higgs’ sense – cannot be a demand phenomenon. Yes, regime uncertainty can impact the composition of demand but not aggregate demand in the economy.

The best way to illustrate that regime uncertainty is a supply side phenomenon is to look at three contemporary examples – Venezuela, Argentina and Iran. The regimes in all three countries obviously have very little respect for the rule of law and there is weak protection of property rights in all three countries. However, all three countries also are struggling with high – and to some extent even escalating – inflation. If regime uncertainty were a demand phenomenon then inflation would be low and falling in these countries. It is not.

When I listen to the present political-economic debate in the US many conservative and libertarians economists and commentators (who I would normally tend to agree with) point to regime uncertainty as a key reason for the weak US recovery. Frankly speaking while I acknowledge that there might have been a rise in regime uncertainty in the US – in frank I am certain there has been – I doubt that it in any meaningful way can be said to have had a notable and sizable negative impact on US investment activity. Furthermore, the US economy is showing all the signs of having a demand side problem rather than a supply side problem. If the US economy had undergone a serious negative supply shock then US inflation would has been increasing – as is the case in for example Iran. US inflation is not increasing – rather since 2008 US PCE core inflation has averaged a little more than 1% a year on average.

Furthermore, even though uncertainty about the outlook for US tax rules have increased and Obamacare likely have had a negative impact on the overall investor sentiment in the US it would be rather foolish to claim that property rights are not well-protected in the US.  This is what Heritage Foundation has to say about the rule of law in the US:

“Property rights are guaranteed, and the judiciary functions independently and predictably. Serious constitutional questions related to government-mandated health insurance have been under consideration in the courts. Corruption is a growing concern as the cronyism and economic rent-seeking associated with the growth of government have undermined institutional integrity.”

Even though Heritage Foundation highlights some negative factors the US can hardly be said to be Bulgaria and Albania. In fact the US is in the very top in the world when it comes to protection of property rights and the respect for the rule of law. I therefore doubt that US multinational companies like Apple of Coca Cola are seriously concerned about the rule of law in the US when you take into account that these companies have been seeing there strong sales and income growth in Emerging Markets like China, India, Russia and Brazil.

In fact I could understand if these US companies would be concerned about the present regime uncertainty in China in connection with the ongoing leadership change in the Chinese communist party, the crackdown on freedom of speech in Russia under president Putin’s leadership, the scaling back of economic reforms in India or the ad hoc nature of changes to taxation of inward investments into Brazil.

So while I certainly remain concerned about the regulatory developments in the US over the past decade (yes it started well before Obama became president) I doubt that the present lacklustre recovery can be blamed on these problems. The reason for the lacklustre recovery is rather monetary uncertainty rather than regime uncertainty. Since 2008 US monetary policy has moved away from a ruled based regime to a highly discretionary and to some extent highly unpredictable regime. That is the problem.

So yes, US companies are likely worried about regime uncertainty, but it likely worries about regime uncertainty in China or Brazil rather than regime uncertainty in the US.

A simple way to illustrate this is to look at the Heritage Foundation’s score for protection of property rights in some of the countries mentioned in this blog post. Heritage Foundation considers a score between 80 and 100 to be a “free country”. It is very clear from the graph that investors should worry (a lot) about the protection of property rights in Albania, Bulgaria or in the so-called BRIC economies, but I doubt that many international investors have sleepless nights over the whether or not property right will be well-protected in the US.

Finally I am as worried about the rise of interventionist economic policies in the US and in Europe as anybody else, but we should be right for the right reasons. Interventionist economic policies surely reduce the growth prospects in the US and Europe, but that is supply side concerns for the longer run and we can’t blame these failed policies for the weak recovery.

Papers about money, regime uncertainty and efficient religions

I have the best wife in the world and she has been extremely understanding about my odd idea to start blogging, but there is one thing she is not too happy about and that is that I tend to leave printed copies of working papers scatted around our house. I must admit that I hate reading working papers on our iPad. I want the paper version, but I also read quite a few working papers and print out even more papers. So that creates quite a paper trail in our house…

But some of the working papers also end up in my bag. The content of my bag today might inspire some of my readers:

“Monetary Policy and Japan’s Liquidity Trap” by Lars E. O. Svensson and “Theoretical Analysis Regarding a Zero Lower Bound on Nominal Interest Rate” by Bennett T. McCallum.

These two papers I printed out when I was writting my recent post on Czech monetary policy. It is obvious that the Czech central bank is struggling with how to ease monetary policy when interest rates are close to zero. We can only hope that the Czech central bankers read papers like this – then they would be in no doubt how to get out of the deflationary trap. Frankly speaking I didn’t read the papers this week as I have read both papers a number of times before, but I still think that both papers are extremely important and I would hope central bankers around the world would study Svensson’s and McCallum’s work.

“Regime Uncertainty – Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed after the War” - by Robert Higgs.

My regular readers will know that I believe that the key problem in both the US and the European economies is overly tight monetary policy. However, that does not change the fact that I am extremely fascinated by Robert Higgs’ concept “Regime Uncertainty”. Higgs’ idea is that uncertainty about the regulatory framework in the economy will impact investment activity and therefore reduce growth. While I think that we primarily have a demand problem in the US and Europe I also think that regime uncertainty is a highly relevant concept. Unlike for example Steve Horwitz I don’t think that regime uncertainty can explain the slow recovery in the US economy. As I see it regime uncertainty as defined by Higgs is a supply side phenomena. Therefore, we should expect a high level of regime uncertainty to lower real GDP growth AND increase inflation. That is certainly not what we have in the US or in the euro zone today. However, there are certainly countries in the world where I would say regime uncertainty play a dominant role in the present economic situation and where tight monetary policy is not the key story. My two favourite examples of this are South Africa and Hungary. I would also point to regime uncertainty as being extremely important in countries like Venezuela and Argentina – and obviously in Iran. The last three countries are also very clear examples of a supply side collapse combined with extremely easy monetary policy.

Furthermore, we should remember that tight monetary policy in itself can lead to regime uncertainty. Just think about Greece. Extremely tight monetary conditions have lead to a economic collapse that have given rise to populist and extremist political forces and the outlook for economic policy in Greece is extremely uncertain. Or remember the 1930s where tight monetary conditions led to increased protectionism and generally interventionist policies around the world – for example the horrible National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in the US.

I have read Higg’s paper before, but hope to re-read it in the coming week (when I will be traveling a lot) as I plan to write something about the economic situation in Hungary from the perspective of regime uncertain. I have written a bit about that topic before.

“World Hyperinflations” by Steve Hanke and Nicholas Krus.

I have written about this paper before and I have now come around to read the paper. It is excellent and gives a very good overview of historical hyperinflations. There is a strong connection to Higgs’ concept of regime uncertainty. It is probably not a coincidence that the countries in the world where inflation is getting out of control are also countries with extreme regime uncertainty – again just think about Argentina, Venezuela and Iran.

“Morality and Monopoly: The Constitutional political economy of religious rules” by Gary Anderson and Robert Tollison.

This blog is about monetary policy issues and that is what I spend my time writing about, but I do certainly have other interests. There is no doubt that I am an economic imperialist and I do think that economics can explain most social phenomena – including religion. My recent trip to Provo, Utah inspired me to think about religion again or more specifically I got intrigued how the Church of Jesus Chris Latter day Saints (LDS) – the Mormons – has become so extremely successful. When I say successful I mean how the LDS have grown from being a couple of hundreds members back in the 1840s to having millions of practicing members today – including potentially the next US president. My hypothesis is that religion can be an extremely efficient mechanism by which to solve collective goods problems. In Anderson’s and Tollison’s paper they have a similar discussion.

If religion is an mechanism to solve collective goods problems then the most successful religions – at least those which compete in an unregulated and competitive market for religions – will be those religions that solve these collective goods problems in the most efficient way. My rather uneducated view is that the LDS has been so successful because it has been able to solve collective goods problems in a relatively efficient way. Just think about when the Mormons came to Utah in the late 1840s. At that time there was effectively no government in Utah – it was essentially an anarchic society. Government is an mechanism to solve collective goods problems, but with no government you have to solve these problems in another way. Religion provides such mechanism and I believe that this is what the LDS did when the pioneers arrived in Utah.

So if I was going to write a book about LDS from an economic perspective I think I would have to call it “LDS – the efficient religion”. But hey I am not going to do that because I don’t really know much about religion and especially not about Mormonism. Maybe it is good that we are in the midst of the Great Recession – otherwise I might write about the economics and religion or why I prefer to drive with taxi drivers who don’t wear seat belts.

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Update: David Friedman has kindly reminded me of Larry Iannaccone’s work on economics of religion. I am well aware of Larry’s work and he is undoubtedly the greatest authority on the economics of religion and he is president of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture. Larry’s paper “Introduction to the Economics of Religion” is an excellent introduction to the topic.

Food shortage is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon

When policy makers mess around with the price mechanism it nearly always have negative consequences – things certainly gets no better when they do that to “solve” problems created by a failed monetary policy. New York Times has a story that confirms this once again.

The story is about increasing food shortage in Venezuela. It is an all too familiar story. The Venezuelan central bank certainly is proving that there is not such a thing as a liquidity trap – it is clearly capable of creating inflation by printing money. However, the authoritarian-socialist Venezuelan government refuses to accept the monetary causes of high and increasing Venezuelan inflation and instead of putting measures in place to curb money supply growth has implemented draconian price controls. Any normally educated economist would tell you that when you introduce a price-cap in a certain market the result will always be same –shortages. This unfortunately has also been the case in Venezuela. Here is from the NYT article:

Some residents arrange their calendars around the once-a-week deliveries made to government-subsidized stores like this one, lining up before dawn to buy a single frozen chicken before the stock runs out. Or a couple of bags of flour. Or a bottle of cooking oil.

The shortages affect both the poor and the well-off, in surprising ways. A supermarket in the upscale La Castellana neighborhood recently had plenty of chicken and cheese — even quail eggs — but not a single roll of toilet paper. Only a few bags of coffee remained on a bottom shelf.

Asked where a shopper could get milk on a day when that, too, was out of stock, a manager said with sarcasm, “At Chávez’s house.”

Chávez of course refers to Venezuela’s socialist president Hugo Chávez.

Monetary disequilibrium causes food shortage in Venezuela and ‘job shortage’ in the US and Europe

When more money is printed than is demanded then you get inflation. That is the case in Venezuela. The opposite is the case in the euro zone and the US – here demand for money is outpacing the supply of money and as a result you get deflationary pressures. Both are examples of monetary disequilibrium.

If prices and wages are fully flexible then monetary disequilibrium will not lead to disequilibrium in the labour and goods markets. There is so to speak be no “spill-over” from the market for money to other markets. However, price and wage rigidities create such a spill-over. In the case of Venezuela government regulated prices create such rigidities and as a result you get food shortages. Said, in another way – Food shortage is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon (that’s of course not correct, but you get the point…).

In the case of the euro zone and the US it is not price caps, which are causing the macroeconomic problems, but rather downward rigidities in wages and prices – some of which undoubtedly also are a consequence of government regulation.

Obviously any government regulation, which reduces price flexibility and hampers the market mechanism is problematic and as such should be done away with. However, some rigidities obviously are also facts of nature that would exist even in my dream world of a completely unhampered free market.

Interestingly enough any Internet Austrian who heard the story of Venezuelan food shortages would as I immediately respond: “Stop printing all that money and then you would not ‘need’ price controls”. Unfortunately it is much harder to convince the same Austrians (and many policy makers) that the “job shortage” in Europe and the US is also primarily a result of monetary disequilibrium.

Obviously both food shortage and job shortage is a result of the combination of monetary disequilibrium and price rigidities. However, if the monetary institutions reduce monetary disequilibrium then the problems with rigidities will be much smaller.

Hence, if the Venezuelan central bank stops printing more money than is demanded and the ECB on the other hand prints enough money to meet the demand for money then the problem of food shortage in Venezuela and the problem of job shortage in Europe will be solved and there would be no (perceived) “need” for fiscal stimulus in Europe and price caps in Venezuela.

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