Be right for the right reasons

Richard Williamson has a comment on my earlier post ”NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy”.

While Richard agrees on the Market Monetarist call for NGDP targeting he nonetheless disagree with my arguments for NGDP targeting. He is Richard:

“That’s from Lars Christensen, in a post arguing that a lot of people (I presume he doesn’t intend to be talking to me, but he might as well be) of a market monetarist persuasion are using Keynesian-type terms when talking about NGDP targeting. Whilst I believe it is technically correct to argue that central bank NGDP targeting would improve ‘macro-stability’, or that we need ‘monetary stimulus’, or that NGDP targeting is conducive to higher long-run real GDP growth, I should probably recognise that a lot of these phrases comes with a whole load of connotations (especially to economists) that I don’t necessarily intend.”

I fundamentally do not have problem with using consequentialist arguments like “NGDP targeting would improve macro-stability”. Most Market Monetarists are doing that all the time. However, I am quite sceptical about that the call for “monetary stimulus”.

It might be because Richard is not an economist (no offence intend), but to a quasi-reactionary economist like myself when I hear the word “stimulus” I am reminded of discretionary policies. Market Monetarists are arguing strongly against discretionary policies and in favour of rules.

The key reason that quantitative easing of monetary policy in the US has not worked better than has been the case is to a very large extent that the Federal Reserve implemented QE without stating what it tried to achieve and hence missed anchoring expectations. Furthermore, if the Fed had been operating a NGDP level target or a price level target then it would not have needed to take nearly as aggressive action in terms of increasing the money base as the Chuck Norris effect probably would have done a lot to stabilise the macroeconomic situation. Said in another way a credible monetary target would have ensured that market forces would have done most of the lifting and therefore the unprecedented increase in the US monetary based would not have been needed.

So in conclusion Market Monetarists should be more focused on arguing the case for a monetary policy rule like NGDP level targeting or price level targeting rather than pushing for further QE.  Obviously further QE is likely needed if the Federal Reserve would do the right thing and a target a return of NGDP to the pre-crisis trend.

In fact from a strategically point of view more QE without a clear monetary policy rule might in fact undermine the public/political support for NGDP level targeting as another round of QE just risks just increasing the money base without really increasing expectations for NGDP growth. This is a key reason why it is so important for me to stress why we are favouring NGDP targeting. We have to be right for the right reasons.

Furthermore, again from a strategy perspective I think it would be much easier to win over conservative and libertarian economists and policy makers for the case for NGDP level targeting if is made completely clear that Market Monetarists are in favour restricting central banks’ powers rather than increasing their discretionary powers. Furthermore, it is also key that we make it completely clear that we are certainly not inflationists. In fact I personally think that in an ideal world central banks would targeting NGDP to ensure what George Selgin calls a productivity norm, which in fact would mean moderate (productive driven) deflation.

I am well aware it could be pretty counterproductive to argue for deflation right now as must people don’t understand the crucial difference between deflation generated by monetary excessive money demand and deflation as a result of productivity growth. But on the other hand there comes a day when we get out of the present mess and then we want to be able to argue as forcefully as now that monetary policy is overly loose. I would not have liked to be on the wrong side of the debate in the 1970s (I was born in the early 1970s so I did not do much debating on monetary policy then – that only started in the 1980s).

Sometime certain arguments can be “convenient”, but in the long-run convenient arguments don’t win the debates. The correct arguments win debates in the long-run. Just ask Milton Friedman.

Finally thanks to Richard Williamson for commenting on my post. It is highly appreciated even if I disagree.


NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy

I have come to realize that many when they hear about NGDP targeting think that it is in someway a counter-cyclical policy – a (feedback) rule to stabilize real GDP (RGDP). This is far from the case from case and should instead be seen as a rule to ensure monetary neutrality.

The problem is that most economists and none-economists alike think of the world as a world more or less without money and their starting point is real GDP. For Market Monetarist the starting point is money and that monetary disequilibrium can lead to swings in real GDP and prices.

The starting point for the traditional Taylor rule is basically a New Keynesian Phillips curve and the “input” in the Taylor rule is inflation and the output gap, where the output gap is measured as RGDP’s deviation from some trend. The Taylor rule thinking is basically the same as old Keynesian thinking in the sense that inflation is seen as a result of excessive growth in RGDP. For Market Monetarists inflation is a monetary phenomenon – if money supply growth outpaces money demand growth then you get inflation.

Our starting point is not the Phillips curve, but rather Say’s Law and the equation of exchange. In a world without money Say’s Law holds – supply creates it’s own demand. Said in another way in a barter economy business cycles do not exist. It therefore follows logically that recessions always and everywhere is a monetary phenomenon.

Monetary policy can therefore “create” a business cycle by creating a monetary disequilibrium, however, in the absence of monetary disequilibrium there is no business cycle.

So while economists often talk of “money neutrality” as a positive concept Market Monetarists see monetary neutrality not only as a positive concept, but also as a normative concept. Yes, money is neutral in that sense that higher money supply growth cannot increase RGDP in the long run, but higher money supply growth (than money demand growth) will increase inflation and NGDP in the long run.

However, money is not neutral in the short-run due to for price and wage rigidities and therefore money disequilibrium and monetary disequilibrium can therefore create business cycles understood as a general glut or excess supply of goods and labour. Market Monetarists do not argue that the monetary authorities should stabilize RGDP growth, but rather we argue that the monetary authorities should avoid creating a monetary disequilibrium.

So why so much confusing?

I believe that much of the confusing about our position on monetary policy has to do with the kind of policy advise that Market Monetarist are giving in the present situation in both the US and the euro zone.

Both the euro zone and the US economy is at the presently in a deep recession with both RGDP and NGDP well below the pre-crisis trend levels. Market Monetarists have argued – in my view forcefully – that the reason for the Great Recession is that monetary authorities both in the US and the euro zone have allowed a passive tightening of monetary policy (See Scott Sumner’s excellent paper on the causes of the Great Recession here) – said in another way money demand growth has been allowed to strongly outpaced money supply growth. We are in a monetary disequilibrium. This is a direct result of a monetary policy mistakes and what we argue is that the monetary authorities should undo these mistakes. Nothing more, nothing less. To undo these mistakes the money supply and/or velocity need to be increased. We argue that that would happen more or less “automatically” (remember the Chuck Norris effect) if the central bank would implement a strict NGDP level target.

So when Market Monetarists like Scott Sumner has called for “monetary stimulus” it NOT does mean that he wants to use some artificial measures to permanently increase RGDP. Market Monetarists do not think that that is possible, but we do think that the monetary authorities can avoid creating a monetary disequilibrium through a NGDP level target where swings in velocity is counteracted by changes in the money supply. (See also my earlier post on “monetary stimulus”)

I have previously argued that when a NGDP target is credible market forces will ensure that any overshoot/undershoot in money supply growth will be counteracted by swings in velocity in the opposite direction. Similarly one can argue that monetary policy mistakes can create swings in velocity, which is the same as to say hat monetary policy mistakes creates monetary disequilibrium.

Therefore, we are in some sense to blame for the confusion. We should really stop calling for “monetary stimulus” and rather say “stop messing with Say’s Law, stop creating a monetary disequilibrium”. Unfortunately monetary policy discourse today is not used to this kind of terms and many Market Monetarists therefore for “convenience” use fundamentally Keynesian lingo. We should stop that and we should instead focus on “microsovereignty”

NGDP level targeting ensures microsovereignty

A good way to structure the discussion about monetary policy or rather monetary policy regimes is to look at the crucial difference between what Larry White has termed a “macroinstrumental” approach and a “microsovereignty” approach.

The Taylor rule is a typical example of the macroinstrumental approach. In this approached it is assumed that it is the purpose of monetary policy to “maximise” some utility function for society with includes a “laundry list” of more or less randomly chosen macroeconomic goals. In the Taylor rule this the laundry list includes two items – inflation and the output gap.

The alternative approach to choose a criteria for monetary success (as Larry White states it) is the microsovereignty approach – micro for microeconomic and sovereignty for individual sovereignty.

The microsovereignty approach states that the monetary regime should ensure an institutional set-up that allows individuals to make decisions on consumption, investment and general allocation without distortions from the monetary system. More technically the monetary system should ensure that individuals can “capture” Pareto improvements.

Therefore an “optimal” monetary regime ensures monetary neutrality. Larry White argues that Free Banking can ensure this, while Market Monetarists argue that given central banks exist a NGDP level targeting regime can ensure monetary neutrality and therefore microsovereignty.

This is basically a traditional neo-classical welfare economic approach to monetary theory. We should choose a monetary regime that “maximises” welfare by ensuring individual sovereignty.

A monetary regime that ensures microsovereignty does not have the purpose of stabilising the business cycle, but it will nonetheless be the likely consequence as NGDP level targeting removes or at least strongly reduces monetary disequilibrium and as recessions is a monetary phenomenon this will also strongly reduce RGDP and price volatility. This is, however, a pleasant consequence but not the main objective of NGDP level targeting.


Marcus Nunes has a similar discussion here.


UPDATE: There are two follow up article to this post:

“Be right for the right reasons”

“Roth’s Monetary and Fiscal Framework for Economic Stability”

Use googlenomics to track NGDP

Anybody who has been working on a trading floor will know the adrenalin rush one will experience when one of the major sets of macroeconomic data is published – for example US nonfarm payroll numbers. I think most dealers and analysts will recognise this and will acknowledge that it could become nearly addictive to get that feeling. However, I think that this might be a thing of the past due to the technological development.

Most macroeconomic data are published on a monthly or a quarterly basis. However, the economy does not develop in a discretionary fashion – rather the real economy develops continuously in time.

Now the technological development, however, gives us the possibility to follow the economic data real time. As more and more of the real economic happens on the internet or is reflected in some way on the internet the more easy it is to track economic developments in real time.

Just try to go to Google Trends and search words like “crisis”, “recession”, “Roubini” etc. and you will see that the trend in these searches tracks global macroeconomic developments in quite well. Another example is MIT’s so-called Billion Prices Project, which tracks consumer prices by monitoring prices on different retailers websites. The data is very strongly correlated with the official consumer price index for example in the US.

Market Monetarists are of course mostly interest in the development in nominal GDP – so he is a challenge to my reader – who can find the search word(s) on google trend that will track NGDP the best?

PS see also this paper by Google’s chief economist Hal Varian

Repeating a (not so) crazy idea – or if Chuck Norris was ECB chief

Recently I in a post came up with what I described as a crazy idea – that might in fact not be so crazy.

My suggestion was based on what I termed the Chuck Norris effect of monetary policy – that a central banks can ease monetary policy without printing money if it has a credible target. The Swiss central bank’s (SNB) actions to introduce a one-sided peg for the Swiss franc against the euro have demonstrated the power of the Chuck Norris effect.

The SNB has said it will maintain the peg until deflationary pressures in the Swiss economy disappears. The interesting thing is that the markets now on its own is doing the lifting so when the latest Swiss consumer prices data showed that we in fact now have deflation in Switzerland the franc weakened against the euro because market participants increased their bets that the SNB would devalue the franc further.

In recent days the euro crisis has escalated dramatically and it is pretty clear that what we are seeing in the European markets is having a deflationary impact not only on the European economy, but also on the global economy. Hence, monetary easing from the major central banks of the world seems warranted so why do the ECB not just do what the SNB has done? For that matter why does the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan not follow suit? The “crazy” idea would be a devaluation of euro, dollar, pound and yen not against each other but against commodity prices. If the four major central banks (I am leaving out the People’s Bank of China here) tomorrow announced that their four currencies had been devalued 15% against the CRB commodity index then I am pretty sure that global stock markets would increase sharply and the positive effects in global macro data would likely very fast be visible.

The four central banks should further announce that they would maintain the one-sided new “peg” for their currencies against CRB until the nominal GDP level of all for countries/regions have returned to pre-crisis trend levels around 10-15% above the present levels and that they would devalue further if NGDP again showed signs of contracting. They would also announce that the policies of pegging against CRB would be suspended once NGDP had returned to the pre-crisis trend levels.

If they did that do you think we would still talk about a euro crisis in two months’ time?

PS this idea is a variation of Irving Fisher’s compensated dollar plan and it is similar to the scheme that got Sweden fast and well out of the Great Depression. See Don Patinkin excellent paper on “Irving Fisher and His Compensated Dollar Plan” and Claes Berg’s and Lars Jonung’s paper on Swedish monetary policy in 1930s.

PPS this it not really my idea, but rather a variation of an idea one of my colleagues came up with – he is not an economist so that is maybe why he is able to think out of the box.

PPPS I real life I am not really a big supporter of coordinated monetary action and I think it has mostly backfired when central banks have tried to manipulate exchange rates. However, the purpose of this idea is really not to manipulate FX rates per se, but rather to ease global monetary conditions and the devaluation against CRB is really only method to increase money velocity.

If just David Glasner was ECB chief…

The all-knowing David Glasner has a fantastic post on his blog putting the euro crisis into historical perspective. Glasner – as do I – see very strong parallels between the European crisis of the 1930s and the present crisis and it the same “gold standard mentality” which is at the heart of the crisis. Too tight monetary policy and not overly loose fiscal policy is really the main cause for the European crisis.

Here is Glasner deep insight:

“If the European central bank does not soon – and I mean really soon – grasp that there is no exit from the debt crisis without a reversal of monetary policy sufficient to enable nominal incomes in all the economies in the Eurozone to grow more rapidly than does their indebtedness, the downward spiral will overtake even the stronger European economies. (I pointed out three months ago that the European crisis is a NGDP crisis not a debt crisis.) As the weakest countries choose to ditch the euro and revert back to their own national currencies, the euro is likely to start to appreciate as it comes to resemble ever more closely the old deutschmark. At some point the deflationary pressures of a rising euro will cause even the Germans, like the French in 1935, to relent. But one shudders at the economic damage that will be inflicted until the Germans come to their senses. Only then will we be able to assess the full economic consequences of Mrs. Merkel.”

If just Glasner was ECB chief the world would be so much different…

Roubini of Central and Eastern Europe? Me?

From FT Alphaville:

“Lars Christensen, head of research at Danske Bank – the Nouriel Roubini of eastern Europe thanks to his perennial bearishness Cassandra-like status after warning of dangerous imbalances in emerging Europe in 2006 – reckons so. The Swiss National Bank should restate in strong terms it will provide liquidity to a select few central banks in the region and the IMF could signal its willingness to proffer contingent credit lines, he tells FT Alphaville. These are fair points but we are not so sure that the SNB will be willing to take proactive measures to help Hungary, for example, after its aggressive and contentious move to restructure FX mortgages, sparkingaccusations of asset expropriation.”

I am not really head of research at Danske Bank, but head of Emerging Markets at Danske Bank, but ok close enough. Nouriel is a Keynesian – that I am certainly not…

Gustav Cassel foresaw the Great Depression

I might be a complete monetary nerd, but I truly happy when I receive a new working paper in the mail from Douglas Irwin on Gustav Cassel. That happened tonight. I have been waiting for the final version of the paper for a couple weeks. Doug was so nice to send me a “preview” a couple a weeks ago. However, now the paper has been published on Dartmouth College’s website.

Lets just say it at once – it is a great paper about the views and influences of the great Swedish economist and monetary expert Gustav Cassel.

Here is the abstract:

“The intellectual response to the Great Depression is often portrayed as a battle between the ideas of Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes. Yet both the Austrian and the Keynesian interpretations of the Depression were incomplete. Austrians could explain how a country might get into a depression (bust following an investment boom) but not how to get out of one (liquidation). Keynesians could explain how a country might get out of a depression (government spending on public works) but not how it got into one (animal spirits). By contrast, the monetary approach of economists such as Gustav Cassel has been ignored. As early as 1920, Cassel warned that mismanagement of the gold standard could lead to a severe depression. Cassel not only explained how this could occur, but his explanation anticipates the way that scholars today describe how the Great Depression actually occurred. Unlike Keynes or Hayek, Cassel explained both how a country could get into a depression (deflation due to tight monetary policies) and how it could get out of one (monetary expansion).”

Douglas Irwin has written a great paper on Cassel and for those who do not already know Cassel’s important contributions not only to the monetary discussions in 1920s and 1930s, but to monetary theory should read Doug’s paper.

Cassel fully understood the monetary origins of the Great Depression contrary to the other main players in the discussion of the day – Hayek and Keynes. From the perspective of today it is striking how we are repeating all the discussions from the 1930s. To me there is no doubt Gustav Cassel would have been as outspoken a critique of both Keynesians and Austrians as he was in 1930s and I am pretty sure that he would have been a proud Market Monetarist. In fact – had it not been for the fantastic name of our school (ok, I got a ego problem…) then I might be tempted to say that we are really all New Casselian economists.

Cassel clearly explained how gold hoarding by especially the French and the US central banks was the key cause for the tightening of global monetary conditions that pushed the global economy into depression – exactly in the same way as “passive” monetary tightening due to a sharp rise in money demand generated deflationary pressures that push the global economy and particularly the US and the European economies into the Great Recession. I my mind Cassel would have been completely clear in his analysis of the causes of the Great Recession had he been alive today.

In fact even though I think Market Monetarists tell a convincing and correct story of the causes for the Great Recession and I also sure that Gustav Cassel would have helped Market Monetarists in seeing the international dimensions of the crisis – particular European demand for dollars – better.

Douglas Irwin has written an excellent paper and it should be read by anyone who is interested monetary theory and monetary history.

Thank you Doug – you did it again!


See a couple of previous comments on Doug’s work and on Cassel:

Hawtrey, Cassel and Glasner

“Our Monetary ills Laid to Puritanism”

“Calvinist economics – the sin of our times”

“Gustav Cassel on recessions”

“France caused the Great Depression – who caused the Great Recession?”

Kelly Evans interviews Scott Sumner

The Wall Street Journal’s Kelly Evans interviews Scott Sumner

Good to see the Journal is opening the door for Scott.

HT Marcus Nunes

UPDATE: Scott has a comment on his interview as well.


Scott’s prediction market

Scott Sumner has long argued that the Federal Reserve or the US Treasury should help set-up a NGDP futures markets and conduct monetary policy based on market expectations of NGDP. This is a great idea, but so far it does not really look like the Fed is interested in the idea.

However, there is another and far more simple possibility. Scott should just drop the good people at Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM) a mail and ask them to set up a “prediction market” on future US NGDP. They would probably be happy to play along – after all this is the sexiest idea in US monetary debate today.

So what is IEM? It is “a group of real-money prediction markets/futures markets operated by the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business. Unlike normal futures markets, the IEM is not-for-profit; the markets are run for educational and research purposes. The IEM allows traders to buy and sell contracts based on, among other things, political election results and economic indicators. Some markets are only available to academic traders. The political election results have been highly accurate, especially when compared with traditional polling. This may be because it uses a free market model to predict an outcome, instead of the aggregation of many individuals’ opinions. The speculator is more interested in a correct outcome than in his or her desired outcome.” (Stolen from Wikipedia).

Prediction markets have been very successful in predicting the outcome of for example US presidential elections so why should prediction market not be able to predict NGDP two, three or fours year out in the future? At least prediction market based forecasts of NGDP will be as good as any in-house forecast from the Fed.

How would it work? IEM would set up a bet on US NGDP for 2012, 2013 and 2018. Scott is presently recommending that the Fed should aim for bringing back NGDP to the pre-crisis trend and thereafter target a growth path of 5%. The outcome from the prediction market can then be compared with Scott’s target path – if the predicted numbers are below Scott’s preferred path then he has “market backing” for claiming US monetary policy is too tight…and maybe even Ben Bernanke would play a long…

PS If IEM are not up for the challenge then the good people at the Holly Stock Exchange might be up for it – Scott after all is fast becoming a big celebrity.


UPDATE: Just found out somebody else got the same idea (before me) – see Chris Fox and John Salvatier at  “Good morning, Economics”.

A history of bunganomics

Market attention has changed from Greece to Italy. As in Greece the centre of attention is the dual concerns of public finance trouble and political uncertainty.

A look at Italian economic and monetary history, however, reveals some interesting facts. While Greece is a serial defaulter Italy has in fact only defaulted on it’s public debt one time since Italy become an independent and unified nation in 1861. Contrary to this Greece has been in default in more than 50% of the time since it became an independent nation in 1822 (1830).

Minimal knowledge of Italian history will teach you that the country is notorious unstable politically and that public finance trouble historically as been as much a norm as in Greece so how come that the Italian government has not defaulted more than once?

Some Unpleasant Monetarist Arithmetic will help us explain that. Sargent and Wallace teach us that public deficits can be financed by either issuing public debt or by printing money. Historically Italian governments have had a clear affinity for printing money.

Rogoff’s and Reinhardt’s “This Time is Different” provides us with the statistics on this. Hence, among the present euro countries Italy has been the third most inflation-prone country historically – after Austria and Greece. Hence, since 1800 Italy has had inflation above 20% in more than 11% of the time. The similar numbers for Austria and Greece are 20% and 13% respectively.

Michele Fratianni, Franco Spinelli and Anna J. Schwartz have written the “Monetary History of Italy” and the authors reach the same conclusion – that the core of Italy’s inflationary problems is the Italian government’s lack of ability to balance the budget.

This time around the money printing option is not easily available – at least not if the Italian government wants to keep Italy in the euro zone. Sargent and Wallace would tell us to watch inflation expectations to see whether the Italian government is credible or not when it says it will not leave the euro.

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