Allan Meltzer’s great advice for the Federal Reserve

Here is Allan Meltzer’s great advice on US monetary policy:

“Repeatedly, the message has been to reduce tax rates permanently… A permanent tax cut was supposed to do what previous fiscal efforts had failed to do — generate sustained expansion of the American economy. 

No one should doubt that an expansion is desirable for US… and the rest of the world…The US government has watched the economy stagnate much too long. A policy change is long overdue. 

The problem with the advice (about fiscal easing) is that few would, and none should, believe that the US can reduce tax rates permanently. US has run big budget deficits for the past five years and accumulated a large debt that must be serviced at considerably higher interest rates in the future … And the US must soon start to finance large prospective deficits for old age pensions and health care. There is no way to finance these current and future liabilities that will not involve higher future tax rates… 

It is wrong when somebody tells the American to maintain the value of the dollar…The fluctuating rate system should work both ways. Strong economies appreciate; weak economies depreciate. 

What is the alternative? Deregulation is desirable, but it will do its work slowly. If temporary tax cuts are saved, not spent, and permanent tax cuts are impossible, the US choice is between devaluation and renewed deflation. The deflationary solution runs grave risks. Asset prices would continue to fall. Investors anticipating further asset price declines would have every reason to hold cash and wait for better prices. The fragile banking system would face larger losses as asset prices fell. 

Monetary expansion and devaluation is a much better solution. An announcement by the Federal Reserve and the government that the aim of policy is to prevent deflation and restore growth by providing enough money to raise asset prices would change beliefs and anticipations. Rising asset prices, including land and property prices, would revive markets for these assets once the public became convinced that the policy would be sustained. 

The volume of “bad loans” at US banks is not a fixed sum. Rising asset prices would change some loans from bad to good, thereby improving the position of the banking system. Faster money growth would add to the banks’ ability to make new loans, encouraging business expansion.

This program can work only if the exchange rate is allowed to depreciate. Five years of lowering interest rates has shown that there is no way to maintain the exchange rate and generate monetary expansion…

…Some will see devaluation as an attempt by the US to expand through exporting. This is a half-truth. Devaluation will initially increase US exports and reduce imports. As the economy recovers, incomes will rise. Rising incomes are the surest way of generating imports of raw materials and sub-assemblies from US trading partners.

Let money growth increase until asset prices start to rise.”

I think Allan Meltzer as a true monetarist presents a very strong case for US monetary easing and at the same time acknowledges that fiscal policy is irrelevant. Furthermore, Meltzer makes a forceful argument that if monetary policy is eased then that would significantly ease financial sector distress. The readers of my blog should not be surprised that Allan Meltzer always have been one of my favourite economists.

Meltzer indirectly hints that he wants the Federal Reserve to target asset prices. I am not sure how good an idea that is. After all what asset prices are we talking about? Stock prices? Bond prices? Or property prices? Much better to target the nominal GDP target level, but ok stock prices do indeed tend to forecast the future NGDP level pretty well.

OK, I admit it…I have been cheating! Allan Meltzer did indeed write this (or most of it), but he as not writing about the US. He was writing about Japan in 1999 (So I changed the text a little). It would be very interesting hearing why Dr. Meltzer thinks monetary easing is wrong for the US today, but right for Japan in 1999. Why would Allan Meltzer be against a NGDP target rule that would bring the US NGDP level back to the pre-crisis trend and then there after target a 3%, 4% or 5% growth path as suggested by US Market Monetarists such as Scott Sumner, Bill Woolsey and David Beckworth?

 

There is no such thing as fiscal policy – and that goes for Japan as well

Scott Sumner has a comment on Japan’s ”lost decades” and the importance of fiscal policy in Japan. Scott acknowledges based on comments from Paul Krugman and Tim Duy that in fact Japan has not had two lost decades. Scott also discusses whether fiscal policy has been helpful in reviving growth in the past decade in Japan.

I have written a number of comments on Japan (see here, here and here).

I have two main conclusions in these comments:

1)   Japan only had one “lost decade” and not two. The 1990s obviously was a disaster, but over the past decade Japan has grown in line with other large developed economies when real GDP growth is adjust for population growth. (And yes, 2008 was a disaster in Japan as well).

2)   Monetary policy is at the centre of these developments. Once the Bank of Japan introduced Quantitative Easing Japan pulled out of the slump (Until BoJ once again in 2007 gave up QE and allowed Japan to slip back to deflation). Se especially my post “Japan shows QE works”.

This graph of GDP/capita in the G7 proves the first point.

Second my method of decomposition of demand and supply inflation – the so-called Quasi-Real Price Index – shows that once Bank of Japan in 2001 introduced QE Japanese demand deflation eased and from 2004 to 2007 the deflation in Japan only reflected supply deflation while demand inflation was slightly positive or zero. This coincided with Japanese growth being revived. The graph below illustrates this.

Obviously the Bank of Japan’s policies during the past decades have been far from optimal, but the experience clearly shows that monetary policy is very powerful and even BoJ’s meagre QE program was enough to at least bring back growth to the Japanese economy.

Furthermore, it is clear that Japan’s extremely weak fiscal position to a large extent can be explained by the fact that BoJ de facto has been targeting 0% NGDP growth rather than for example 3% or 5% NGDP growth. I basically don’t think that there is a problem with a 0% NGDP growth path target if you start out with a totally unleveraged economy – one can hardly say Japan did that. The problem is that BoJ changed its de facto NGDP target during the 1990s. As a result public debt ratios exploded. This is similar to what we see in Europe today.

So yes, it is obvious that Japan can’t not afford “fiscal stimulus” – as it today is the case for the euro zone countries. But that discussion in my view is totally irrelevant! As I recently argued, there is no such thing as fiscal policy in the sense Keynesians claim. Only monetary policy can impact nominal spending and I strongly believe that fiscal policy has very little impact on the Japanese growth pattern over the last two decades.

Above I have basically added nothing new to the discussion about Japan’s lost decade (not decades!) and fiscal and monetary policy in Japan, but since Scott brought up the issue I thought it was an opportunity to remind my readers (including Scott) that I think that the Japanese story is pretty simple, but also that it is wrong that we keep on talking about Japan’s lost decades. The Japanese story tells us basically nothing new about fiscal policy (but reminds us that debt ratios explode when NGDP drops), but the experience shows that monetary policy is terribly important.

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PS I feel pretty sure that if the Bank of Japan and the ECB tomorrow announced that they would target an increase in NGDP of 10 or 15% over the coming two years and thereafter would target a 4% NGDP growth path then all talk of “lost decades”, the New Normal and fiscal crisis would disappear very fast. Well, the same would of course be true for the US.

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