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How I would like to teach Econ 101

Recently our friend Nick Rowe commented on what he considers to be wrong arguments by Joseph Stiglitz and Bryan Caplan. Nick obviously is a busy bee because he had time to write his comment in between exams (you might have noticed that the blogging among the Market Monetarist econ professors has gone down a bit recently – they have all been busy with exams I guess…). Nick’s comment and the fact that he was busy with exams inspired me to write this comment.

The purpose of my comment is not to comment on Nick’s view of Stiglitz and Caplan – Nick is of course right as usual so there no reason to try to disagree. However, something Nick said nonetheless is worthwhile commenting on. In his comment Nick states: “Macro is not the same as micro.”

That made me think – and this not to disagree with Nick but rather he inspired me to think about this – that maybe it is exactly the problem that the “normal” view is that macro and micro is not the same thing.

The fact is that when I started studying economics more than 20 years ago at the University of Copenhagen we where taught Micro 101 and Macro 101. There was basically no link between the two. In Micro with learned all the basic stuff – marginalism, general equilibrium, Walras’ Law and the Welfare theorems etc. In Macro 101 there was (initially) no mentioning of what we learned in Micro, but we instead started out with some Keynesian accounting: Y=C+I+G+X-M. Then we moved on to the IS-LM model. The AD-AS model did not get much attention at that time as far as I remember. Then we were told about some “crazy” people who thought that money matters, but that did not really fit into the models because we didn’t really differentiate between real and nominal. Why should we? Prices where fixed in our models. As a consequence most students of my time chose either to specialise in the highly technical and mathematically demanding microeconomic theory (that seemed very far away from the real world) or you focused on real world problems and specialised in macroeconomics which at that time was quite old school Keynesian. Things have since changed with the New Keynesian revolution and macroeconomics have now adopted a lot of the mathematical lingo and rational expectations have been introduced, but it is my feeling that most economics students both in Europe and the US to a very large degree still study Micro and Macro as very separated disciplines and that I think is a huge problem for how the average economist come to see the world.

While macroeconomics as discipline undoubtedly today has much more of a micro foundation than use to be the case the starting point often still is Y=C+I+G+X+M. So yes, we might have a micro foundation for how C (and I for that matter) is determined but we still end up adding up C (and I) with the other variables on the right hand side of the equation – leaving the impression that the causality runs from the right hand side of the equation to the left hand side of the equation. The next thing we do is to come up with some theory for inflation and then we add that on top of Y to get nominal GDP, but again this is rarely discussed. The world is just real to most econ students (and their professors). That then leave the impression that real GDP determines inflation (most often via a Phillips curve of some kind).

So what would I do differently? Well nothing much in terms of microeconomics. I guess that is more or less fine (To my Austrian friends: Maybe if somebody could elaborate on the entrepreneur and give a Nobel prize to Israel Kirzner for that then that could be part of Micro 101 as well). For the purpose of moving from micro the macro I think the most important thing is to understand general equilibrium and that in Arrow-Debreu world there are no recessions. Prices clear all markets. There are never over or under supply of goods and services.

“And then we move on to macroeconomics” the professors says. And instead of telling about Y=C+I+G+X-M he instead says…

“You remember that we had n goods and n prices and that one agent’s income was another person’s consumption/expenditure. Well, that is still the case in macroeconomics, but in the macroeconomy we also have something we call money!”

Lets assume we maintain the assumption that prices are flexible (wages are also prices). Then the professors tells about aggregation so instead we can aggregate prices into one price index P and all goods into one index Y.

And then professor smiles and says “its time to hear about the equation of exchange”:

(1) MV=PY

“Wauw!” screams the students. “You have just introduced money to the Arrow-Debreu World! Amazing!”. Did we just go from micro to macro? Yes we did!

The professor explains to the students that (1) can be rearranged into

(1)’ P=MV/Y

The professor tells the students that we call (1)’ the AD curve and that we can write a AS curve Y=f(K,L) (“you remember production functions from Micro 101” the professors notes).

The students are obviously very impressed, but they also think it is completely logical.

The professor has now introduced the AD-AS model (and the dynamic AD-AS model). Since AD is just (1)’ the professor has not started to talk about fiscal policy (what multiplier??). In his head the AD curve can be shifted by shocks to M or V, but that has nothing to do with fiscal policy. In “his” AD-AS model fiscal policy does really not exist, as it is basically a micro phenomenon – fiscal policy might have an impact on relative prices, but it has no impact on the PY aggregate and fiscal policy might impact the supply side of the economy, but not the AD-curve? No, of course not.

The students are of course eager to hear what their new tool “money” can be used for and a clever student asks “Professor, what is the optimal monetary policy?”.

The professors answers “Do you remember the welfare theorems?”.

Student: “Yes, of course professor”.

Professor: “Good, then it is simple – we need a monetary policy that ensures a Pareto optimal allocation of consumption between different goods (including capital goods) and periods”.

Student: “But professor in the Arrow-Debreu world the market (relative prices) took care of that”.

Professor: “Exactly! So we should ‘emulate’ that in the macro world – how do we do that?”

Student: “That’s easy! We just fix MV!”

Professor: “Correct – you are absolutely right. In the world of monetary policy we call that Nominal Income Targeting or NGDP level targeting. It is one of the oldest ideas in monetary theory”.

Student: “Wauw that is cool. So when we fix that we don’t really have to think about aggregation and the macroeconomy anymore – correct?”

Professor: “Correct – and we could easily move back to Micro now”

That is of course not the whole story – the professor will of course introduce rigid prices and rational expectations. And of course when the NGDP targeting is sorted out then the students realise that generating wealth and prosperity is about increasing productivity – and of course they will learn about the supply side, but again they learned about production functions and savings and investments in Micro 101. But there is no need to introduce Y=C+I+G+X-M. Obviously it still holds formally, but it is not really interesting in the sense of understanding macroeconomics.

So Nick is not totally correct – macro and micro is basically the same thing if we have NGDP targeting. Where things go wrong is when we mess up things with another monetary policy rule (for example inflation targeting), but that kind of imperfects we will introduce in the next semester!

—-

PS The very clever student might ask “who produces money?” – Professor Selgin would answer “that is up to the market” and the student will reply “that makes sense – the market produces and allocates other goods very well so why not money?”.

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Monetary policy can’t fix all problems

You say that when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. Reading the Market Monetarist blogs including my own one could easing come to the conclusion that we are the “hammer boys” that scream at any problem out there “NGDP targeting will fix it!” However, nothing can be further from the truth.

Unlike keynesians Market Monetarists do think that monetary policy should be used to “solve” some problems with “market failure”. Rather we believe that monetary policy should avoid creating problems on it own. That is why we want central banks to follow a clearly defined policy rule and as we think recessions as well as bad inflation/deflation (primarily) are results of misguided monetary policies rather than of market failures we don’t think of monetary policy as a hammer.

Rather we believe in Selgin’s Monetary Credo:

The goal of monetary policy ought to be that of avoiding unnatural fluctuations in output…while refraining from interfering with fluctuations that are “natural.” That means having a single mandate only, where that mandate calls for the central bank to keep spending stable, and then tolerate as optimal, if it does not actually welcome, those changes in P and y that occur despite that stability

So monetary policy determines nominal variables – nominal spending/NGDP, nominal wages, the price level, exchange rates and inflation. We also clearly acknowledges that monetary policy can have real impact – in the short-run the Phillips curve is not vertical so monetary policy can push real GDP above the structural level of GDP and reduce unemployment temporarily. But the long-run Phillips curve certainly is vertical. However, unlike Keynesians we do not see a need to “play” this short-term trade off. It is correct that NGDP targeting probably also would be very helpful in a New Keynesian world, however, we are not starting our analysis at some “social welfare function” that needs to be maximized – there is not a Phillips curve trade off on which policy makers should choose some “optimal” combination of inflation and unemployment – as for example John Taylor basically claims. In that sense Market Monetarists certainly have much more faith in the power of the free market than John Talyor (and that might come to a surprise to conservative and libertarian critics of Market Monetarism…).

What we, however, do indeed argue is that if you commit mistakes you fix it yourself and that also goes for central banks. So if a central bank directly or indirectly (through it’s historical actions) has promised to deliver a certain nominal target then it better deliver and if it fails to do so it better correct the mistake as soon as possible. So when the Federal Reserve through its actions during the Great Moderation basically committed itself and “promised” to US households, corporations and institutions etc. that it would deliver 5% NGDP growth year in and year out and then suddenly failed to so in 2008/9 then it committed a policy mistake. It was not a market failure, but rather a failure of monetary policy. That failure the Fed obviously need to undo. So when Market Monetarists have called for the Fed to lift NGDP back to the pre-crisis trend then it is not some kind of vulgar-keynesian we-will-save-you-all policy, but rather it is about the undoing the mistakes of the past. Monetary policy is not about “stimulus”, but about ensuring a stable nominal framework in which economic agents can make their decisions.

Therefore we want monetary policy to be “neutral” and therefore also in a sense we want monetary policy to become invisible. Monetary policy should be conducted in such a way that investors and households make their investment and consumption decisions as if they lived in a Arrow-Debreu world or at least in a world free of monetary distortions. That also means that the purpose of monetary policy is NOT save investors and other that have made the wrong decisions. Monetary policy is and should not be some bail out mechanism.

Furthermore, central banks should not act as lenders-of-last-resort for governments. Governments should fund its deficits in the free markets and if that is not possible then the governments will have to tighten fiscal policy. That should be very clear. However, monetary policy should not be used as a political hammer by central banks to force governments to implement “reforms”. Monetary policy should be neutral – also in regard to the political decision process. Central banks should not solve budget problems, but central banks should not create fiscal pressures by allowing NGDP to drop significantly below the target level. It seems like certain central banks have a hard time separating this two issues.

Monetary policy should not be used to puncture bubbles either. However, some us – for example David Beckworth and myself – do believe that overly easy monetary policy under some circumstances can create bubbles, but here it is again about avoiding creating problems rather about solving problems. Hence, if the central bank just targets a growth path for the NGDP level then the risk of bubbles are greatly reduced and should they anyway emerge then it should not be task of monetary policy to solve that problem.

Monetary policy can not increase productivity in the economy. Of course productivity growth is likely to be higher in an economy with monetary stability and a high degree of predictability than in an economy with an erratic conduct of monetary policy. But other than securing a “neutral” monetary policy the central bank can not and should not do anything else to enhance the general level of wealth and welfare.

So monetary policy and NGDP level targeting are not some hammers to use to solve all kind of actual and perceived problems, but  who really needs a hammer when you got Chuck Norris?

——
Marcus Nunes has a related comment, but from a different perspective.

Scott is right: Recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon – just look at QRPI

Scott Sumner has a couple of fascinating posts on recessions on his blog (see here and here).

Scott argues strongly that recessions are a result of nominal shocks rather than real shocks. Scott uses an innovative measure to identify US recessions since 1948. Scott claims that the US economy can be said to be in recession if the unemployment rate increases by 0.6% or more over a 12 months period. That gives 11 recessions since 1948 in the US.

I have compared the timing of these recessions with my measure of “demand inflation” based on my Quasi-Real Price Index (QRPI). If Scott is right that nominal shocks are the key (the only?) driver of recessions then there should be a high correlation between demand inflation and recessions.

The correlation between the two measures is remarkably strong. Hence, if we define a negative nominal shock as a drop in demand inflation below 0% then we have had 7 negative nominal shocks since 1948 in the US. They all coincide with the Sumner-recessions – both in timing and length.

The only four of Scott’s recessions not “captured” by the QRPI development are the recessions in 1970s and the 1980s where demand inflation (and headline inflation) was very high. Furthermore, it should be noted that in two out of four “unexplained” recessions demand inflation nonetheless dropped significantly – also indicating a negative nominal shocks. This basically means that 9 out of 11 recessions can be explained as being a result of nominal shocks rather than real shocks.

Hence, the evidence is very strong that if demand inflation drops below zero then the US economy will very likely enter into recession.

So yes, Scott is certainly right – recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon! (at least in 80%  of the time). So if the Fed want to avoid recessions then it should pursuit a target for 2% growth path for QRPI or a 5% growth path for NGDP!

US Monetary History – The QRPI perspective: 1970s

I am continuing my mini-series on US monetary history through the lens of my decomposition of supply inflation and demand inflation based on what I inspired by David Eagle have termed a Quasi-Real Price Index (QRPI). In this post I take a closer look at the 1970s.

The economic history of the 1970s is mostly associated with two major oil price shocks – OPEC’s oil embargo of 1973 and the 1979-oil crisis in the wake of the Iranian revolution. The sharp rise in oil prices in the 1970s is often mentioned as the main culprit for the sharp increase in US inflation in that period. However, below I will demonstrate that rising oil prices actually played a relatively minor role in the increase in US inflation in that period.

The graph below shows the decomposition of US inflation in 1970s. As I describe in my previous post demand inflation had already started to inch up in the second half of 1960s and was at the start of the 1970s already running at around 5%.

After a drop in demand inflation around the relatively mild 1969-70 recession demand inflation once again started to pick up from 1971 and reached nearly 10% at the beginning of 1973. This was well before oil prices had picked up. In fact if anything supply inflation helped curb headline inflation in 1970-71.

The reason for the drop in supply inflation might be partly explained by the Nixon administration’s use of price and wage controls to curb inflationary pressures. These draconian measures can hardly be said to have been successful and to the extent it helped curb inflation in the short-term it provided Federal Reserve chairman Arthur Burns with an excuse to allow the monetary driven demand inflation to continue to accelerate. It is well known that Burns – wrongly – was convinced that inflation primarily was a cost-push phenomenon and that he in the early 1970 clearly was reluctant to tighten monetary policy because he had the somewhat odd idea that if he tightened monetary policy it would signal that inflation was out control and that would undermine the wage controls. Robert Hetzel has a very useful discussion of this in his “The Monetary Policy of the Federal Reserve”.

As a result of Burn’s mistaken reluctance to tighten monetary policy demand inflation kept inching up and when then the oil crisis hit in 1974 headline inflation was pushed above 10%. However, at that point almost half of the inflation still could be attributed to demand inflation and hence to overly loose monetary policies.

Headline inflation initially peaked in 1974 and as oil prices stopped rising headline inflation gradually started to decline. However, from 1976 demand inflation again started inching and that pushed up headline inflation once again.

In 1979 Paul Volcker became Federal Reserve chairman and initiated the famous Volcker disinflation. Scott Sumner has argued that Volcker didn’t really tighten monetary policy before 1981. I agree with Scott that that is the conclusion that if you look at market data such as bond yields and the US stock market. Both peaked in 1981 rather than 1979 indicating that Volcker didn’t really initiate monetary tightening before Ronald Reagan became president in 1981. However, my measure for demand inflation tells a slightly different story.

Hence, demand inflation actually peaked already in the first quarter of 1979 and dropped more than 5%-point over the next 12 month. However, as demand inflation started to decline the second oil crisis of the decade hit and that towards 1980 pushed headline US inflation up towards 13%.

So there is no doubt that rising oil prices indeed did contribute to inflation in the US in the 1970s, however, my decomposition of the inflation data clearly shows that the primary reason for the high and increase through the decade was the Federal Reserve’s overly loose monetary policy.

Finally it should be noted that the 1970s-data show some strength and weaknesses in my decomposition method. It is clearly a strength that the measure shows the impact of the oil price shocks, but it is also notable that these shocks takes 3-4 years to play out. So while oil prices spiked fast in for example 1974 and then settle at a higher level the supply shock to inflation seems to be more long lasting. This indicates some stickiness in prices that my decomposition method does not fully into account. As one of my commentators “Integral” has noted in an earlier comment it is a weakness with this decomposition method that it does not take into account the upward-sloping short-run AS curve, but rather it is assumed that all supply shocks shifts the vertical long-run AS curve left and right. I hope I will be able to address this issue in future posts.

In my next post I will have a closer look at how Paul Volcker beat the “Great Inflation”.

US Monetary History – The QRPI perspective: 1960s

In my previous post I showed how US inflation can be decomposed between demand inflation and supply inflation by using what I term an Quasi-Real Price Index (QRPI). In the coming posts I will have a look at use US monetary history through the lens of QRPI. We start with the 1960s.

In monetary terms the 1960s in some sense was a relatively “boring” decade in the sense that inflation remained low and relatively stable and growth – real and nominal – was high and relatively stable. However, the monetary policies in the US during this period laid the “foundation” for the high inflation of the 1970s.

In the first half of the 1960s inflation remained quite subdued at not much more than 1%, however, towards the end of the decade inflation started to take off.

What is remarkable about the 1960s is the quite strong growth in productivity that kept inflation in check. The high growth in productivity “allowed” for easier monetary policy than would otherwise have been the case an demand inflation accelerated all through the 1960s and towards the end of the decade demand inflation was running at 5-6% and as productivity growth eased off in 1966-67 headline inflation started to inch up.

In fact demand inflation was nearly as high in the later part of the 1960s in the US as was the case in the otherwise inflationary 1970s. In that sense it can said that the “Great Inflation” really started in 1960 rather than in the 1970s.

My favourite source on US monetary history after the second War World is Allan Meltzer’s excellent book(s) “A History of the Federal Reserve”. However, Robert Hetzel’s – somewhat shorter – book “The Monetary Policy of the Federal Reserve: A History” also is very good.

Both Meltzer and Hetzel note a number of key elements that were decisive for the conduct of monetary policy in the US in the 1960s. A striking feature during the 1960s was to what extent the Federal Reserve was very direct political pressure by especially the Kennedy and Johnson administrations on the Fed to ease monetary policy. Another feature was the most Federal Reserve officials did not share Milton Friedman’s dictum that inflation is a monetary phenomenon rather the Fed thinking was strongly Keynesian and so was the thinking of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. As a consequence the Federal Reserve seemed to have ignored the rising inflationary pressures due to demand inflation and as such is fully to blame for the high headline inflation in the 1970. I will address that in my next post on US monetary history from an QRPI perspective.

A method to decompose supply and demand inflation

It is a key Market Monetarist position that there is good and bad deflation and therefore also good and bad inflation. (For a discussion of this see Scott Sumner’s and David Beckworth’s posts here and here). Basically one can say that bad inflation/deflation is a result of demand shocks, while good inflation/deflation is a result of supply shocks. Demand inflation is determined by monetary policy, while supply inflation is independent of whatever happens to monetary policy.

The problem is that the only thing that normally can be observed is “headline” inflation, which of course mostly is a result of both supply shocks and changes in monetary policy. However, inspired by David Eagle’s work on Quasi-Real Indexing (QRI) I will here suggest a method to decompose monetary policy induced changes in consumer prices from supply shock driven changes in consumer prices. I use US data since 1960 to illustrate the method.

Eagle’s simple equation of exchange

David Eagle in a number of his papers QRI starts out with the equation of exchange:

(1) M*V=P*Y

Eagle rewrites this to what he calls a simple equation of exchange:

(2) N=P*Y where N=M*V

This can be rewritten to

(3) P=N/Y

(3) Shows that consumer prices (P) are determined by the relationship between nominal GDP (N), which is determined by monetary policy (M*V) and by supply factors (Y, real GDP).

We can rewrite as growth rates:

(4) p=n-y

Where p is US headline inflation, n is nominal GDP growth and y is real GDP growth.

Introducing supply shocks

If we assume that we can separate underlining trend growth in y from supply shocks then we can rewrite (4):

(5) p=n-(yp+yt)

Where yp is the permanent growth in productivity and yt is transitory (shocks) changes in productivity.

Defining demand and supply inflation

We can then use (5) to define demand inflation pd:

(6) pd=n- yp

And supply inflation, ps, can then be defined as

(7) ps=p-pd (so p= ps+pd)

Below is shown the decomposition of US inflation since 1960. In the calculation of demand inflation I have assumed a constant growth rate in yp around 3% y/y (or 0.7% q/q). More advanced methods could of course be used to estimate yp (which is unlikely to be constant over time), but it seems like the long-term growth rate of GDP has been pretty stable around 3% of the last couple of decade. Furthermore, slightly higher or lower trend growth in RGDP does not really change the overall results.

We can of course go back from growth rates to the level and define a price index for demand prices as a Quasi-Real Price Index (QRPI). This is the price index that the monetary authorities can control.

The graph illustrates the development in demand inflation and supply inflation. There graph reveals a lot of insights to US monetary policy – for example that the increase in inflation in the 1970s was driven by demand inflation and hence caused by the Federal Reserve rather than by an increase in oil prices. Second and most interesting from today’s perspective demand inflation already started to ease in 2006 and in 2008 we saw a historically sharp drop in the Quasi-Real Price Index. Hence, it is very clear from our measure of the Quasi-Real Price Index that US monetary policy turning strongly deflationary already in early 2008 – and before (!) the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Lets target a 2% growth path for QRPI

It is clear that many people (including many economists) have a hard time comprehending NGDP level targeting. However, I am pretty certain that most people would agree that the central bank should target something it can actually directly influence. The Quasi-Real Price Index is just another modified price index (in the same way as for example core inflation) so why should the Federal Reserve not want to target a path level for QRPI with a growth path of 2%? (the clever reader will of course realise that will be exactly the same as a NGDP path level target of 5% – under an assumption of long term growth of RGDP of 3%).

In the coming days I will have a look at the QRPI and US monetary history since the 1960s through the lens of the decomposition of inflation between supply inflation and demand inflation.

Guest post: J’Accuse Mr. Ben Bernanke-San

Benjamin Cole is well-known commentator on the Market Monetarist blogs. Benjamin’s perspective is not that of an academic or a nerdy commercial bank economist, but rather the voice of the practically oriented advocate of Market Monetarist monetary policies.

I greatly admire Benjamin for his always frank advocacy for monetary easing to pull the US economy out of this crisis. I often also disagree with Benjamin, but my blog is open to free and frank discussion of monetary policy issues. I have therefore invited Benjamin to share his views on US monetary policy and to outline his monetary plan for revival of the US economy.

Benjamin’s advocacy brings memories of the 1980s where the US right had a pro-growth agenda that spurred optimism not only in the US, but around the world.  I am grateful to Benjamin for his contribution to my blog and hope my readers will enjoy it.

Benjamin, the floor is yours…

Lars Christensen

Guest post: J’Accuse Mr. Ben Bernanke-San

By Benjamin Cole

Regime Uncertainty? The business class of the United States needs a clear picture of where the Federal Reserve Board plans to go, and assurance that the Fed is will brook no obstacle or political interference in its journey.

Moreover, the Fed must define our future not only in terms of policies, but clear targets.  Lastly, the Fed must eschew any regime that places prosperity below other related goals.  The Fed’s obligations are catholic, enduring and immediate—and cannot be dodged by citing adherence and slavish rectitude towards “price stability,” however defined. Beating inflation is easy—the Bank of Japan has proved that, and redundantly.

Providing a regime for prosperity is another matter.

Recent events prove that the Fed, like the Bank of Japan, has failed in its true mission—sustained economic prosperity—perhaps aided by mediocre federal regulatory and tax policies.

The Cure—Market Monetarism

Ben Bernanke, Fed chieftain, must forthrightly embrace the targeting of growth in nominal gross domestic product, or NGDP, then publicly set targets, and then identify the appropriate, aggressive and sustained policies or mechanisms to reach the NGDP targets.  These are basic market monetarism principles.  Feeble dithering is not Market Monetarism.

Transparency, clarity and resolve in government are tonics upon markets, as they are upon democracies.  There is no better way to govern, whether from the White House or the Federal Reserve.   Ergo, Bernanke needs to directly, with resolve and without equivocation, dissembling or qualifiers, adopt of NGDP target of 7.5 percent annual growth for the next four years.  To get there, Bernanke needs to affirm to the market that the Fed will conduct quantitative easing to the tune of $100 billion a month until quarterly readings assure that we have reached the 7.5 percent level of NGDP growth—a policy very much in keeping with what the great economist Milton Friedman recommended to Japan, when he advised that nation in the 1990s.  Forgotten today is not only did Friedman advocate tight money for restraining inflation, but he also advocated aggressive central bank action to spur growth in low-inflation environments.

The recommended concrete sum of $100 billion a month in QE is not an amount rendered after consultation with esoteric, complex and often fragile econometric models.  Quite the opposite—it is sum admittedly only roughly right, but more importantly a sum that sends a clear signal to the market.  It is a sum that can be tracked every month by all market players.  It has the supreme attributes of resolve, clarity and conviction. The sum states the Fed will beat the recession, that is the Fed’s goal, and that the Fed is bringing the big guns to bear until it does, no ifs, ands, or buts.

At such time that the NGDP growth targets are hit, the Fed should transparently usher in a new rules-based regime for targeting NGDP going forward, drawing upon the full range of tools, from interest rates to QE to limiting interest on excess reserves at commercial banks.

At the present, the Fed needs to stop rewarding banks to sit on their hands, as it does when it pays banks 0.25 percent annual interest on excess reserves.  This is not a time for “do nothing” policies, or to promote caution and inaction on the part of our nation’s banks.  Bankers always want to lend, especially on real estate, in good times—oddly enough, when risks to capital are highest. In bad times (after property values have cratered) banks don’t want to lend.  No need to the Fed to exacerbate this market curiosity.

Consider the current economic environment: Our countrymen are too much unemployed; indeed they are quitting the labor force, and labor participation rates are falling.  Our real estate industry is in a shambles, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average is languishing at levels breeched 13 years ago.  Ever more we resemble Japan.  In the United States, real GDP is 13 percent below trend, with attendant losses in income for businesses and families.  Investors have been kicked in the head—it is precisely the wrong time for do-nothing leaders, timid caretakers or kowtowing to the Chicken Inflation Littles.

That said, certain policies seem to reward unemployment, most notably the extended unemployment insurance.  The record shows people tend to find jobs when insurance runs out.  Ergo, unemployment insurance should not be extended—harsh medicine, but necessary for harsh times.

The American Character

The worst course of action today is to allow a peevish fixation—really an unhealthy obsession—with inflation to undercut a confident and expansionary monetary policy.

The United States economy flourished from 1982 to 2007—industrial production, for example, doubled, while per capita rose by more than one-third—while inflation (as measured by the CPI) almost invariably ranged between 2 percent and 6 percent. That is not an ideology speaking, that is not a theoretical construct.  It is irrefutably the historical record.  If that is the historical record, why the current hysterical insistence that inflation of more than 2 percent is dangerous or even catastrophic?

Why would Bernanke genuflect to 2 percent inflation—even in the depths of the worst recession since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt?  It is an inexplicably poor time to pompously pettifog about minute rates of inflation.

Add on: Americans like boom times; investors take the plunge not when they sense a pending 2 percent increase in asset values, but that home runs will be swatted. Few invest in real estate or stocks assuming values will rise by 2 percent a year.  Americans need the prospect of Fat City.  We have the gambling streak in us.  The Fed and tax and regulatory code must reward  risk-taking, a trait deep in the American character, but suffocated lately by the Fed’s overly cramped, even perversely obstinate monetary policy.  Is there anything more deeply annoying than prim announcements from the Fed that it could do more for the economy, but is not?

While the American business class needs assurance of a pro-growth monetary policy, instead the Fed issues sermonettes that caution, to the point of inaction, is prudent.  Every commodities boom—and commodities prices are determined in global markets and speculative exchanges—chills the American business class, who then fear the monetary noose of the Fed will draw tight.  That sort of regime uncertainty destroys investment incentives.

Some say the Fed cannot stimulate, as the economy cannot expand under he current regulatory regime, and thus only inflation will result. To be sure, the U.S. federal government needs to radically reconsider its posture towards business, and abandon any hint of an adversarial stance.  It is the private sector, for of all its flaws, that generates innovations and a higher standard of living.  The private sector, every year, does more with less, while the opposite is true of the federal government, civilian and military. Shrinking the federal government share of GDP to 18 percent or less should also be a goal.

However, in no way should monetary policy be held captive to the fiscal policy objectives or outcomes.  Whatever the share of federal spending of total outlays, or whatever the size of the federal deficit, or whatever regulatory regime is in place, the Fed must always target NGDP, to give at least that level of regime certainty to our business class.  By and large, today’s tax and regulatory regime is better than that of the 1970s, and on par with that of the 1980s and 1990s.  And most concede the United States has a better regulatory posture than the governments of Europe, or even that of mainland China.  The productivity of US workers is still rising, and unit labor costs are actually falling.  The regulatory environment could be improved, but that is no grounds to add to woes by an unpredictable and restrictive monetary policy.

Conclusion

There are times in history when caution is not rewarded, and for the crafters of monetary policy, this is one of those times.  What appears prudent by old shibboleths is in fact precarious by today’s realities.   Feeble inaction, and stilted moralizing about inflation are not substitutes for transparent resolve to reinvigorate the United States economy.

Market Monetarism is an idea whose time has come.  It offers a way to prosperity without crushing federal deficits, and offers regime stability to the American business class.

The only question is why Bernanke instead chooses the pathway cleared by the Bank of Japan.

Gold prices are telling us that monetary policy is too tight – or maybe not

Over the last week commodity prices has dropped quite a bit – and especially the much watched gold price has been quite a bit under pressure.

A lot of the alarmists who seem to be suffering from permanent inflation paranoia have pointed to gold prices as a good (the best?) indicator for further inflation. Now gold prices are dropping sharply (in fact much in the same manner as prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008). So shouldn’t the inflation alarmists now come out as deflation alarmists? Of course they should – at least if they want to be consistent.

While I certainly agree that market prices – including that of commodity prices – give us a lot of information about the stance of monetary policy (remember money matters and markets matter) I would also argue never just to look at one market price. So if a numbers of market indicators of monetary policy is pointing in the same direction then we can safely conclude that monetary policy is becoming tighter or looser, but one or two more or less random prices will not tell us that.

All prices – including the price of gold – is determined by supply and demand. By (just) observing the drop in gold prices we can not say whether it is driven by a shift in demand for gold or a shift in the supply of gold. Furthermore, if it indeed is driven by a drop in demand we can not say that this is a result of a drop in only the demand for gold or a general drop in overall demand (monetary tightening).

So while there is no doubt that the move in gold prices is telling us something and surely indicating that monetary conditions might be tightening further I would like to warn against drawing to clear conclusions from this drop in gold prices.

I hope the inflation alarmists will think in the same way once and if gold prices again start to rise.

 

 

 

 

Lorenzo on Tooze – and a bit on 1931

The other day I was asking for comments on Adam Tooze’s book  “Wages of Destruction”. Now our good friend “Lorenzo from Oz” has answered my call. It turns out that he already back in 2009 wrote a review on the book on his excellent blog Thinking Out Aloud.

Here is Lorenzo’s wrap-up:

“Tooze’s book is genuinely revelatory. The purposiveness of Nazi policy, the fears and aspirations that drove it, the limitations it laboured under are all made clear. Hitler was, from first to last, a wilful gambler who knew himself to be such. He was also a consummate political game player who attracted and used people of genuine talent for a purpose that was horrific. That the Nazi economy was a loot economy was not happenstance but the nature of the beast. Genghis Khan with a telephone indeed.”

So far every single review of this book I have read has been positive – I am still hoping to find some time to read it – until then I highly recommend that you all have a look at Lorenzo’s review of the book.

PS I continue to think that we can learn a lot about the present crisis by studying history. Yesterday I spend some time in the company the Danish central bank governor Niels Bernstein and Polish central bank governor Marek Belka. Dr. Belka brought up the year of 1931. Dr. Belka of course spend time at the University of Chicago in 1980s so he full well understand monetary policy and monetary history. I hope that Dr. Belka will educate his European colleagues about monetary history (he yesterday also referenced Friedman’s and Schwartz’s “Monetary History”). See what I earlier have written on the “Tagic year 1931”.

Defining central bank credibility

In a comment to my previous post on QE and NGDP targeting Joseph Ward argues that the Federal Reserve has “relatively solid central bank credibility”. The question is of course how to define central bank credibility.

To me a central bank is credible if the markets (and the general public) expect the central bank to hit the targets it have. The problem of course for the Fed is that it does not have a target. That makes it pretty hard to say whether it is credible or not.

Another way of saying whether a central bank is credible or not is to look at the predictability of nominal variables: money suppy, velocity, nominal wages, prices, inflation, NGDP, the exchange rates etc. I am pretty sure that if you estimate of example simple AR-models for these variables you will see the error-term in the models has exploded since 2008. I must, however, say I am guessing here. but I am pretty sure I am right – maybe an econometrician out there would try to estimate it?

In the case of the ECB the collapse in credibility is pretty clear. The ECB used to have a two-pillar policy – targeting directly or indirectly M3 growth and inflation. Judging from market expectations for medium term inflation the credibility is not good – in fact it has never been this bad. Medium-term inflation expectations are well-below the 2% inflation target. In terms of M3 the ECB has normally targeted a reference rate around 4.5% y/y. The actual growth rate on M3 is much below this “target”.

HOWEVER, if the central banks were indeed so credible then the markets should fully believe any nominal target they would announce. So if the Fed is 100% credible and announce that it will increase NGDP by 15% over the coming two years then there should be no problem meeting this target – without printing more money. What would happen is the money-velocity would jump, which with an unchanged money supply would increase NGDP.

During the Great Moderation there was a very high degree of negative correlation between M and V growth in the US. This indicates in my view that markets expected the Fed to meet a NGDP “target” and in that sense monetary policy became endogenous – pretty much in the same way as in a Selgin-White Free Banking model.

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