Nixon was a crook and Arthur Burns was a failed central banker

Back from my trip to Riga and Stockholm and two books had arrived in the mail from Amazon.

The first one “Inside The Nixon Administration – the Secret Diary of Arthur Burns 1969-1974” (Edited by Robert Ferrell, 2010). The second one is Larry White’s “Free Banking in Britain” (yes, dear readers believe it or not I did not read it before…).

Obviously I have not read the two books yet, but they are in some odd way complementary – the one is about how central banking can become hugely politicized and the second is about how to avoid that the monetary regime is politicized.

I did peak a little into the pages of the Burns diary. Burns who of course was Federal Reserve governor while Nixon was US president wrote a diary with notes from all its meetings with Nixon. I must admit that I am in total shock about how extreme the polarization of the US monetary policy was in the Nixon years. The man surely was a crook. One of the worst. However, from the little I have read Burns diary also clearly shows how misguided his views of monetary policy were. Again and again the diary mentions how he think price and wage controls are necessary to curb inflation, while Nixon at the same time is demanding money printing to be stepped up. Surely a bizarre duo – one a failed economist and one a crook. Very scary indeed.

So what is the lesson? Politics and money is a deadly cocktail and that is why you want to restrict both central bankers and a politicians when it comes to monetary policy.

If any of my readers have read these books I would be very happy to hear your opinion about them.

 

PEP, NGDPLT and (how to avoid) Russian monetary policy failure

I am sitting in Riga airport and writing this. I have an early (too early!) flight to Stockholm. I must admit it makes it slightly more fun to sit in an airport when you can do a bit of blogging.

Anyway, I have been giving quite a bit of thought to the Jeff Frankel’s idea about “Peg to the Export Price” (PEP). What Frankel’s is suggesting is that commodity exporters like Russia should peg their currencies to the price of the main commodity they export – in the case of Russia that would of course be the oil price.

This have made me think about the monetary transmission mechanism in an Emerging Market commodity exporter like Russia and how very few people really understand how monetary policy works in an economy like the Russian. I have, however, for more than a decade as part of my day-job spend quite a lot of time analysing the Russian economy so in this post I will try to spell out how I see the last couple of years economic development in Russia from a monetary perspective.

The oil-money nexus and why a higher oil price is a demand shock in Russia

Since the end of communism the Russian central bank has primarily conducted monetary policy by intervening in the currency market and currency intervention remains the Russian central bank’s (CBR) most important policy instrument. (Yes, I know this is a simplification, but bear with me…)

In the present Russian monetary set-up the CBR manages the ruble within a fluctuation band against a basket of euros (45%) and dollars (55%). The composition of the basket has changed over time and the CBR has gradually widened the fluctuation band so one can say that we today has moved closer to a managed or dirty float rather than a purely fixed currency. However, despite of for years having had the official intention of moving to a free float it is very clear that the CBR has a quite distinct “fear of floating”.  The CBR is not alone in this – many central banks around the world suffer from this rather irrational fear. This is also the case for countries in which the central banks officially pursue a floating exchange rate policy. How often have you not heard central bankers complain that the currency is too strong or too weak?

With the ruble being quasi-fixed changes in the money supply is basically determined by currency inflows and outflows and as oil and gas is Russia’s main exports (around 80% of total exports) changes in the oil prices determines these flows and hence the money supply.

Lets say that the global demand for oil increases and as a consequence oil prices increase by 10%. This will more or less lead to an 10% increase in the currency inflow into Russia. With inflows increasing the ruble will tend to strengthen. However, historically the CBR has not been happy to see such inflow translate into a strengthening of the ruble and as a consequence it has intervened in the FX market to curb the strengthening of the ruble. This basically means that that CBR is printing ruble and buying foreign currency. The logic consequence of this is the CBR rather than allowing the ruble to strengthen instead is accumulating ever-larger foreign currency reserves as the oil price is increasing. This basically has been the trend for the last decade or so.

So due to the CBR’s FX policy there is a more or less direct link from rising oil prices to an expansion of the Russian money supply. As we all know MV=PY so with unchanged money-velocity (V) an increase in M will lead to an increase in PY (nominal GDP).

This illustrates a very important point. Normally we tend to associate increases in oil prices with a supply shock. However, in the case of Russia and other oil exporting countries with pegged or quasi-pegged exchange rates an increase in the oil price will be a positive demand shock. Said in another other higher oil prices will push the AD curve to the right. This is also why higher oil prices have not always lead to a higher current account surplus in Russia – higher oil prices will boost private consumption growth and investments growth through an increase in the money supply. This is not exactly good news for the current account.

The point that an increase in oil prices is a demand shock in Russia is illustrated in the graph below. Over the past decade there has been a rather strong positive correlation changes in the price of oil (measured in ruble) and the growth of nominal GDP.

This correlation, however, can only exist as long as the CBR intervenes in the FX market to curb the strengthening of the ruble and if the CBR finally moved to a free floating ruble then the this correlation most likely would break down. Hence, with a freely floating ruble the money supply and hence NGDP would be unaffected by higher or lower oil prices.

PEP would effective have been a ‘productivity norm’ in Russia

So by allowing the ruble to appreciate when oil prices are increase it will effective stabilise the development the money supply and therefore in NGDP. Another way to achieve this disconnect between NGDP and oil prices would be to directly peg the ruble to the oil price. So an increase in the oil price of 10% would directly lead to an appreciation of the ruble of 10% (against the dollar).

As the graph above shows there has been a very close correlation between changes in the oil prices (measured in ruble) and NGDP. Furthermore, over the past decade oil prices has increased around 20% yearly versus the ruble and the yearly average growth of nominal GDP has been the exactly the same. As a consequence had the CBR pegged pegged the ruble a decade ago then the growth of NGDP would likely have averaged 0% per year.

With NGDP growth “pegged” by PEP to 0% we would effectively have had what George Selgin has termed a “productivity norm” in Russia where higher real GDP growth (higher productivity growth) would lead to lower prices. Remember again – if MV=PY and MV is fixed through PEP then any increase in Y will have to lead to lower P. However, as oil prices measured in ruble are fixed it would only be the prices of non-tradable goods (locally produced and consumed goods), which would drop. This undoubtedly would have been a much better policy than the one the CBR has pursued for the last decade – and a boom and bust would have been avoid from 2005 to 2009. (And yes, I assume that nominal rigidities would not have created too large problems).

Russia boom-bust and how tight money cause the 2008-9 crisis in Russia

Anybody who visits Moscow will hear stories of insanely high property prices and especially during the boom years from 2006 to when crisis hit in 2008 property prices exploded in Russia’s big cities such St. Petersburg and Moscow. There is not doubt in my mind that this property market boom was caused my the very steep increase in the Russian money supply which was a direct consequence of the CBR’s fear of floating the ruble. As oil prices where increasing and currency inflows accelerated in 2006-7 the CBR intervened to curb the strengthening of the ruble.

However, the boom came to a sudden halt in 2008, however, unlike what is the common perception the crisis that hit hard in 2008 was not a consequence of the drop in oil prices, but rather as a result of too tight monetary policy. Yes, my friends recessions are always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon and that is also the case in Russia!

Global oil prices started to drop in July 2008 and initially the Russian central bank allowed the ruble to weaken. However, as the sell-off in global oil prices escalated in Q3 2008 the CBR clearly started to worry about the impact it would have on ruble. As a consequence the CBR started intervening very heavily in the FX markets to halt the sell-off in the ruble. Obviously to do this the CBR had to buy ruble and sell foreign currency, which naturally lead to drop in the Russian foreign currency reserves of around 200bn dollars in Q3 2008 and a very sharp contraction in the Russian money supply (M2 dropped around 20%!). This misguided intervention in the currency market and the monetary contraction that followed lead to a collapse in Russian property prices and sparked a major banking crisis in Russia – luckily the largest Russian banks was not too badly affected by this a number medium sized banks collapsed in late 2008 and early 2009. As a consequence money velocity also contracted, which further worsened the economic crisis. In fact the drop in real GDP was the latest among the G20 in 2008-9.

…and how monetary expansion brought Russia out of the crisis

As the Russian FX reserve was dwindling in the Autumn 2008 the Russian central bank (probably) realised that either it would cease intervening in the FX or be faced with a situation where the FX reserve would vanish. Therefore by December 2008 the CBR stepped back from the FX market and allowed for a steeper decline in the value of the ruble. As consequence the contraction in the Russian money supply came to an end. Furthermore, as the Federal Reserve finally started to ease US monetary policy in early 2009 global oil prices started to recover and as CBR now did not allow the rub to strengthen at the same pace of rising oil prices the price of oil measured in ruble increase quite a bit in the first half of 2009.

The monetary expansion has continued until today and as a consequence the Russian economy has continued to recover. In fact contrary to the situation in the US and the euro zone one could easily argue that monetary tightening is warranted it in Russia.

Oil prices should be included in the RUB basket

I hope that my arguments above illustrate how the Russian crisis of 2008-9 can be explained by what the great Bob Hetzel calls the monetary disorder view. I have no doubt that if the Russian central bank had allowed for a freely floating ruble then the boom (and misallocation) in 2006-7 would have been reduced significantly and had the ruble been allowed to drop more sharply in line with oil prices in the Autumn of 2008 then the crisis would have been much smaller and banking crisis would likely have been avoided.

Therefore, the policy recommendation must be that the CBR should move to a free float of ruble and I certainly think it would make sense for Russia also to introduce a NGDP level target. However, the Russian central bank despite the promises that the ruble soon will be floated (at the moment the CBR say it will happen in 2013) clearly seems to maintain a fear of floating. Furthermore, I would caution that the quality of economic data in Russia in general is rather pure, which would make a regular NGDP level targeting regime more challenging. At the same time with a relatively underdeveloped financial sector and a generally low level of liquidity in the Russian financial markets it might be challenging to conduct monetary policy in Russian through open market operations and interest rate changes.

As a consequence it might be an idea for Russia to move towards implementing PEP – or rather a variation of PEP. Today the CBR manages the ruble against a basket of euros and dollars and in my view it would make a lot of sense to expand this basket with oil prices. To begin with oil prices could be introduced into the basket with a 20% weight and then a 40% weight for both euros and dollars. This is far from perfect and the goal certainly should still be to move to a free floating ruble, but under the present circumstances it would be much preferable to the present monetary set-up and would strongly reduce the risk of renewed bubbles in the Russian economy and as well as insuring against a monetary contraction in the event of a new sharp sell-off in oil prices.

…as I am finishing this post my taxi is parking in front of my hotel in Stockholm so now you know what you will be able to write going from Latvia to Sweden on an early Wednesday morning. Later today I will be doing a presentation for Danske Bank’s clients in Stockholm. The topics are Emerging Markets and wine economics! (Yes, wine economics…after all I am a proud member for the American Association of Wine Economists).

Glasner on “Friedman and Schwartz on James Tobin”

David Glasner is a very nice and friendly person, but I have to admit that David always scares me a bit – especially when I disagree with him. For some reason when David is saying something I am inclined to agree with him even if I think he is wrong. There are two areas where David and I see things differently. One the “hot potato” theory of money and two our view of Milton Friedman. I tend to think that the way Nick Rowe – inspired by Leland Yeager – describes the monetary disequilibrium theory make a lot of sense. David disagrees with Nick. Similiarly I have an (irrational?) love of Milton Friedman so I tend to think he is right about everything. David on the other hand is much more skeptical about Friedman.

Now David has post in which he makes the argument that Friedman nearly had the same view as James Tobin on the hot potato theory of money – which of course is stark opposition to Nick’s view. So now I have a problem – if he is right I must either betray uncle Milt or revise my view of the hot potato theory of money. Ok, that is not entirely correct, but you get the drift.

Anyway I don’t have a lot of time to write a long post and David’s discussion is much more interesting than what I can come up with. So have a look for yourself here.

I will be traveling quite a bit in the coming weeks so I am not sure how much blogging I will have time for. I will be in Riga, Stockholm, London, Dublin, Moscow and New York in the next couple of weeks so I might run into some of my local readers.

PS David sent me Tobin’s article long ago and I must admit that I have not read it carefully enough to be able to argue strongly for or against it.

Should small open economies peg the currency to export prices?

Nominal GDP targeting makes a lot of sense for large currency areas like the US or the euro zone and it make sense that the central bank can implement a NGDP target through open market operations or as with the use of NGDP futures. However, operationally it might be much harder to implement a NGDP target in small open economies and particularly in Emerging Markets countries where there might be much more uncertainty regarding the measurement of NGDP and it will be hard to introduce NGDP futures in relatively underdeveloped and illiquid financial markets in Emerging Markets countries.

I have earlier (see here and here) suggested that a NGDP could be implemented through managing the FX rate – for example through a managed float against a basket of currencies – similar to the praxis of the Singaporean monetary authorities. However, for some time I have been intrigued by a proposal made by Jeffrey Frankel. What Frankel has suggested in a number of papers over the last decade is basically that small open economies and Emerging Markets – especially commodity exporters – could peg their currency to the price of the country’s main export commodity. Hence, for example Russia should peg the ruble to the price of oil – so a X% increase in oil prices would automatically lead to a X% appreciation of the ruble against the US dollar.

Frankel has termed this proposal PEP – Peg the Export Price. Any proponent of NGDP level target should realise that PEP has some attractive qualities.

I would especially from a Market Monetarist highlight two positive features that PEP has in common in (futures based) NGDP targeting. First, PEP would ensure a strict nominal anchor in the form of a FX peg. This would in reality remove any discretion in monetary policy – surely an attractive feature. Second, contrary to for example inflation targeting or price level targeting PEP does not react to supply shocks.

Lets have a closer look at the second feature – PEP and supply shocks. A key feature of NGDP targeting (and what George Selgin as termed the productivity norm) is that it does not distort relative market prices – hence, an negative supply shock will lead to higher prices (and temporary higher inflation) and similarly positive supply shocks will lead to lower prices (and benign deflation). As David Eagle teaches us – this ensures Pareto optimality and is not distorting relative prices. Contrary to this a negative supply shock will lead to a tightening of monetary policy under a inflation targeting regime. Under PEP the monetary authorities will not react to supply shock.

Hence, if the currency is peg to export prices and the economy is hit by an increase in import prices (for example higher oil prices – a negative supply shock for oil importers) then the outcome will be that prices (and inflation) will increase. However, this is not monetary inflation. Hence, what I inspired by David Eagle has termed Quasi-Real Prices (QRPI) have not increased and hence monetary policy under PEP is not distorting relative prices. Any Market Monetarist would tell you that that is a very positive feature of a monetary policy rule.

Therefore as I see it in terms of supply shocks PEP is basically a variation of NGDP targeting implemented through an exchange rate policy. The advantage of PEP over a NGDP target is that it operationally is much less complicated to implement. Take for example Russia – anybody who have done research on the Russian economy (I have done a lot…) would know that Russian economic data is notoriously unreliable. As a consequence, it would probably make much more sense for the Russian central bank simply to peg the ruble to oil prices rather than trying to implement a NGDP target (at the moment the Russian central bank is managing the ruble a basket of euros and dollars).

PEP seems especially to make sense for Emerging Markets commodity exporters like Russia or Latin American countries like Brazil or Chile. Obviously PEP would also make a lot for sense for African commodity exporters like Zambia. Zambia’s main export is copper and it would therefore make sense to peg the Zambian kwacha against the price of copper.

Jeffrey Frankel has written numerous papers on PEP and variations of PEP. Interestingly enough Frankel was also an early proponent of NGDP targeting. Unfortunately, however, he does not discussion the similarities and differences between NGDP targeting and PEP in any of his papers. However, as far as I read his research it seems like PEP would lead to stabilisation of NGDP – at least much more so than a normal fixed exchange regime or inflation targeting.

One aspect I would especially find interesting is a discussion of shocks to money demand (velocity shocks) under PEP. Unfortunately Frankel does not discuss this issue in any of his papers. This is not entirely surprising as his focus is on commodity exporters. However, the Great Recession experience shows that any monetary policy rule that is not able in someway to react to velocity shocks are likely to be problematic in one way or another.

I hope to return to PEP and hope especially to return to the impact of velocity-shocks under PEP.

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Links to Frankel’s papers on PEP etc. can be found on Frankel’s website. See here.

The ideal central banker spends most of his time golfing

Who is the best central banker – one who is very busy with his job or one who is spending most of his/her time on the golf field?

The answer is the golfing central banker is the best of the two because if you are very busy you have probably not been doing your job in a proper fashion. The task of any central banker should be to ensure nominal stability and not to distort relative prices in the economy.

The best way to ensure nominal stability is through implementing a monetary policy regime based on very clear, transparent and automatic rules. Central bankers that do that will not have a lot to do as the markets would do most of the lifting.

This is in fact what happened during the Great Moderation – both in the US and in most of Europe. During the Great Moderation the markets’ had a high level of trust in the credibility of central banks in the US and Europe and in general it was expected that these central banks would deliver nominal stability. In fact markets behaved as if the Fed and the ECB were targeting a NGDP level target. This meant that what central bankers basically had do was to put on the central banker outfit (a dark suit and a not too fancy tie) and then say things that confirmed the markets in the expectation that the central bank would ensure nominal stability. There would be lot of time for golfing in that scenario.

If the central bank is fully credible and monetary policy follow clear rules (for example a NGDP level target) then the central bankers are unlike to be busy – at least not with monetary policy. Monetary demand would simply move up and down and more or less ensure the fulfillment of the nominal target. However, if the central bank is not credible then there will be no time to spend on the golf course.

Lets say that the central bank has a NGDP level target and the NGDP level moves above the target level. In the case of the credible central bank the markets would expect the central bank to act to bring down NGDP to the target level. Hence, market participants would expect monetary policy to be tightened. This would lead to a strengthening of the country’s currency and a drop in stock prices. Similarly as investors and consumers expect tighter monetary policy they would expect the value of money to increase. As a consequence investors and consumers would increase money demand. All this would automatically slow NGDP growth and bring back the NGDP level to the target level. In the scenario with a 100% credible target the central bank would not do anything other than look serious and central bank-like and the market would take care of everything else. Changes in money demand rather than in the money supply that would ensure the fulfillment of the target.

On the other hand if the central bank is not credible then market participants would not expect the that the central bank would bring the NGDP level back on track. In this scenario the central bank would actively have to change the money supply to push back NGDP to the target level. In fact it might have to reduce the money supply a lot to counteract any moves in money demand. Hence, if NGDP increases above the target level and the central bank does not act then market participants would in fact think that the central bank will continue to increase NGDP and as a consequence money demand will drop like a stone. Therefore the central bank would be very busy trying to steer the money supply and would likely not succeed if it does not gain credibility and money-velocity would become increasingly erratic. This is why inflation normally increases much more than the money supply in the “normal” hyperinflation scenario.

The worst possible scenario is that the central bankers start to micromanage things. He/she does not like the currency to be too strong, but property prices are too high and credit growth too strong for his liking. And he is very concerned about foreign currency lending among households. But he is also concerned about the export sector’s weak competitiveness. So he is intervening in the currency market to weaken the currency, but that is spurring money supply growth and he does not like that either so he is telling commercial bank to stop the credit expansion or he will increase reserve requirements. The threats works. The commercial banks curb lending growth, but other players are not willing to listen – so more shady players in the consumer credit market moves in. No time for golfing and the central bankers is just getting more and more angry. “Stupid banks and markets. Can’t they understand that I can’t do everything?”  

This might be a caricature, but look at most central banks in the developed world since 2008 – they have been very busy and they have to a very large extent been busy micromanaging things. And regulators have not made their job easier.

So why is that? They are simply no longer credible central bankers. There is no time for golfing because the focus has been on micromanaging everything rather than on recreating credibility. It is time for that to change so central bankers once again will have time for golfing – and the global economy finally can move out of this crisis.

 

 

 

Is Market Monetarism just market socialism?

The short answer to the question in the headline is no, but I can understand if somebody would suspect so. I will discuss this below.

If there had been an internet back in the 1920s then the leading Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek would have had their own blogs and so would the two leading “market socialists” Oskar Lange and Abba Lerner and in many ways the debate between the Austrians and the market socialists in the so-called Socialist Calculation Debate played out as debate do today in the blogosphere.

Recently I have given some attention to the need for Market Monetarists to stress the institutional context of monetary institutions and I think the critique by for example Daniel Smith and Peter Boettke in their recent paper “Monetary Policy and the Quest for Robust Political Economy” should be taken serious.

Smith’s and Boettke’s thesis is basically that monetary theorists – including – Market Monetarists tend to be overly focused on designing the optimal policy rules under the assumption that central bankers acts in a benevolent fashion to ensure a higher good. Smith and Boettke argue contrary to this that central bankers are unlikely to act in a benevolent fashion and we therefore instead of debating “optimal” policy rules we instead should debate how we could ultimately limit central banks discretionary powers by getting rid of them all together. Said in another way – you can not reform central banks so they should just be abolished.

I have written numerous posts arguing basically along the same lines as Boettke and Smith (See fore example here and here). I especially have argued that we certainly should not see central bankers as automatically acting in a benevolent fashion and that central bankers will act in their own self-interests as every other individual. That said, I also think that Smith and Boettke are too defeatist in their assessment and fail to acknowledge that NGDP level targeting could be seen as step toward abolishing central banks altogether.

From the Smith-Boettke perspective one might argue that Market Monetarism really is just the monetary equivalent of market socialism and I can understand why (Note Smith and Boettke are not arguing this). I have often argued that NGDP targeting is a way to emulate the outcome in a truly competitive Free Banking system (See for example here page 26) and that is certainly a common factor with the market socialists of the 1920s. What paretian market socialists like Lerner and Lange wanted was a socialist planned economy where the allocation would emulate the allocation under a Walrasian general equilibrium model.

So yes, on the surface there as some similarities between Market Monetarism and market socialism. However, note here the important difference of the use of “market” in the two names. In Market Monetarism the reference is about using the market in the conduct of monetary policy. In market socialism it is about using socialist instruments to “copy” the market. Hence, in Market Monetarism the purpose is to move towards market allocation and about monetary policy not distorting relative market prices, while the purpose of market socialism is about moving away from market allocation. Market Monetarism provides an privatisation strategy, while market socialism provides an nationalisation strategy. I am not sure that Boettke and Smith realise this. But they are not alone – I think many NGDP targeting proponents also fail to see these aspects .

George Selgin – who certainly is in favour of Free Banking – in a number of recent papers (see here and here) have discussed strategies for central bank reforms that could move us closer to Free Banking. I think that George fully demonstrates that just because you might be favouring Free Banking and wanting to get rid of central banks you don’t have to stop reforms of central banking that does not go all the way.

This debate is really similar to the critique some Austrians – particular Murray Rothbard – had of Milton Friedman’s proposal for the introduction of school vouchers. Rothbard would argue that Friedman’s ideas was just clever socialism and would preserve a socialist system rather than break it down.

However, even Rothbard acknowledged in For a New Liberty that  Friedman’s school voucher proposal was “a great improvement over the present system in permitting a wider range of parental choice and enabling the abolition of the public school system” (I stole the quote from Bryan Caplan)Shouldn’t Free Banking advocates think about NGDP level targeting in the same way?

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Posts on central bank as (or not) central planning:

Maybe Scott should talk about Hayek instead of EMH
It’s time to get rid of the ”representative agent” in monetary theory
Guest blog: Central banking – between planning and rules
When central banking becomes central planning

Counterfeiting, nazis and monetary separation

A couple of months ago a friend my sent me an article from the Guardian about how “Nazi Germany flooded Europe with fake British banknotes in an attempt to destroy confidence in the currency. The forgeries were so good that even German spymasters paid their agents in Britain with fake notes..The fake notes were first circulated in neutral Portugal and Spain with the double objective of raising money for the Nazi cause and creating a lack of confidence in the British currency.”

The article made me think about the impact of counterfeiting and whether thinking about the effects of counterfeiting could teach us anything about monetary theory. It should be stressed that my argument will not be a defense of counterfeiting. Counterfeiting is obviously fraudulent and as such immoral.

Thinking about the impact of counterfeiting we need to make two assumptions. First, are the counterfeited notes (and coins for the matter) “good” or not. Second what is the policy objective of the central bank – does the central bank have a nominal target or not.

Lets start out analyzing the case where the quality of the the counterfeited notes is so good that nobody will be able to distinguish them from the real thing and where the central bank has a clear and credible nominal target – for example a inflation target or a NGDP level target. In this case the counterfeiter basically is able to expand the money supply in a similar fashion as the central bank. Hence, effectively the nazi German counterfeiters in this scenario would be able to increase inflation and the level of NGDP in the UK in the same way as the Bank of  England. However, if the BoE had been operating an inflation target then any increase in inflation (above the inflation target) due to an increase in the counterfeit money supply would have lead the BoE to reduce the official money supply. Furthermore, if the inflation target was credible an increase in inflation would be considered to be temporary by market participants and would lead to a drop in money velocity (this is the Chuck Norris effect).

Hence, under a credible inflation targeting regime an increase in the counterfeit money supply would automatically lead to a drop in the official money supply and/or a drop in money-velocity and as a consequence it would not lead to an increase in inflation. The same would go for any other nominal target.

In fact we can imagine a situation where the entire official UK money supply would have been replaced by “nazi notes” and the only thing the BoE was be doing was to provide a credible nominal anchor. This would in fact be complete monetary separation – between the different functions of money. On the one hand the Nazi counterfeiters would be supplying both the medium of exchange and a medium for store of value, while the BoE would be supplying a unit of account.

Therefore the paradoxical result is that as long as the central bank provides a credible nominal target the impact of counterfeiting will be limited in terms of the impact on the economy. There is, however, one crucial impact and that is the revenue from seigniorage from iss uing money would be captured by the counterfeiters rather than by the central bank. From a fiscal perspective this might or might not be important.

Could counterfeiting be useful?

This also leads us to what surely is a controversial conclusion that a central bank, which is faced with a situation where there is strong monetary deflation – for example in the US during the Great Depression – counterfeiting would actually be beneficial as it would increase the “effective” money supply and therefore help curb the deflationary pressures. In that regard it would be noted that this case only is relevant when the nominal target – for example a NGDP level target or lets say a 2% inflation target is not seen to be credible.

Therefore, if the nominal target is not credible and there is deflation we could argue that counterfeiting could be beneficial in terms of hitting the nominal target. Of course in a situation with high inflation and no credible nominal target counterfeiting surely would make the inflationary problems even worse. This would probably have been the case in the UK during WW2 – inflation was high and there was not a credible nominal target and as such had the nazi counterfeiting been “successful” then it surely would have had a serious a negative impact on the British economy in the form of potential hyperinflation.

Monetary separation could be desirable – at least in terms of thinking about money

The discussion above in my view illustrates that it is important in separating the different functions of money when we talk about monetary policy and the example with perfect counterfeiting under a credible nominal target shows that we can imagine a situation where the provision of the unit of accounting is produced by a (monopoly) central bank, but where production the medium of exchange and storage is privatized. This is at the core of what used to be know as New Monetary Economics (NME).

The best known NME style policy proposal is the little understood BFH system proposed by Leland Yeager and Robert Greenfield. What Yeager and Greenfield basically is suggesting is that the only task the central bank should provide is the provision media of accounting, while the other functions should be privatised – or should I say it should be left to “counterfeiters”.

While I am skeptical about the practically workings of the BFH system and certainly is not proposing to legalise counterfeiting one should acknowledge that the starting point for monetary policy most be to provide the medium account – or said in another way under a monopoly central bank the main task of the central bank is to provide a numéraire. NGDP level targeting of course is such numéraire.

A more radical solution could of course be to allow private issuance of money denominated in the official medium of account. This effectively would take away the need for a lender of last resort, but would not be a full Free Banking system as the central bank would still set the numéraire, which occasionally would necessitate that the central bank issued its own money or sucked up privated issued money to ensure the NGDP target (or any other nominal target). This is of course not completely different from what is already happening in the sense the private banks under the present system is able to create money – and one can argue that that is in fact what happened in the US during the Great Moderation.

Googlenomics and the popularity of Bitcoin

Lasse Birk Olesen’s guest post about Bitcoin inspired me to do a bit of Googlenomics. I simply had a look at searches in Google for ‘Bitcoin’ using Google Insight.

The “bubble” that Lasse talked about in 2011 is certainly also visible in google searches. Have a look on this graph.

Since June 2011 the search activity for Bitcoin, however, has gone down somewhat, but is still at a somewhat higher level than prior to the 2011 spike. So judging from a bit of Googlenomics Bitcoin is still alive – whether it is kicking is another question.

I am still not sure what to make of Bitcoin as an alternative currency. However, any monetary theorist should take the development in the Bitcoin market serious as it might tell us something about not only the Bitcoin itself, but also about the general monetary developments. It would for example be very interesting to see a study of what determines the exchange rate for Bitcoins against other currencies.

Furthermore, if anybody is aware of any serious academic studies of the Bitcoin market I would be very interesting in hearing from you (lacsen@gmail.com).

Everybody interested not only in Bitcoin, but more generally in what George Selgin has termed Quasi-Commodity money should have a look here. Scott Sumner as a somewhat different, but equally relevant in a post today.

I will not in anyway promise to give more attention to the Bitcoin phenomon. That is not the is not the purpose of my blog, but I do promise that to the extent that I think the Bitcoin market can teach us more about monetary theory and monetary policy in general I surely will follow up on these developments in the future.

Guest post: Bitcoin, Money and Free Banking (by Lasse Birk Olesen)

Lee Kelly in a recent guest post here on The Market Monetarist discussed the implication of excess demand for money for the development of barter and Free Banking. I found Lee’s discussion extremely interesting and think that it could be interesting to see how monetary disequilibrium actually could work as a catalyst for the development of alternative monetary systems – for example the development of so-called local currencies in Greece.

One of the most interesting developments in recently years in the fields of alternative monetary systems is Bitcoin. I am no expect on Bitcoin and I have certainly not made up my mind about the implications of Bitcoin so I have asked the founder of BitcoinNordic.com Lasse Birk Olesen to do a guest post about Bitcoin. I am happy that Lasse has accepted the challenge.

Lars Christensen

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Guest post: Bitcoin, Money and Free Banking
by Lasse Birk Olesen, founder of BitcoinNordic.com

Started in 2009, the decentralized means of exchange for the internet known as Bitcoin has been gaining traction every year since. With no central institution backing it, with no one knowing whether to classify it as currency or as commodity, and their inherent nature making them hard to regulate, Bitcoin has been the subject of much controversy. This post is a short summary of what I have learned about Bitcoin and serves as an introduction to the concept, its economic properties, and a couple of its potential implications for the financial infrastructure of the world.

How does it work? Consider a special type of e-mail that cannot be copied. This means that when you forward this e-mail to someone else, you must lose it from your own inbox. Now also consider that there exists only a finite amount of these special e-mails, and no one can create more of them. Because of these properties, people have started considering these e-mails as valuable. These unique e-mails are of course called Bitcoins.

The above is a technically incorrect description of how Bitcoin works (see The Economist for a more accurate and technical overview). But it is a useful analogy for a quick understanding of the concept, and it is not too far from the actual end-user experience.

Value
As Bitcoins have no physical manifestation and no use besides as a medium of exchange, many economists (some citing Mises’ regression theorem) have predicted their value to be a bubble driven by novelty and hype, just waiting for an inevitable burst.

And the Bitcoin price definitely did experience a bubble in the summer of 2011. Going from 1 USD/BTC to 30 USD/BTC in just 2 months from April to June and then dropping back to 2 USD/BTC in November, most of the Bitcoin critics would probably have bet that the show was over. But over the next couple of months the exchange rate went back to 5 USD/BTC and has remained in that area since.

While the exchange rate is not in itself an indicator of the success of Bitcoin, it is of course an indicator of the market’s expectation of the future success of Bitcoin. If Bitcoin enjoys widespread adoption its exchange rate is bound to rise as demand increases.

But while the Bitcoin critics are right that most historical money such as gold had other uses before they became accepted as money, as Mises’ regression theorem states, this does not mean that it is the only way a viable money can come into existence.

Historical examples of money with no other uses exist. One is the case of large rocks known as rai stones which were used for trade between the islands of Micronesia. The rocks, definitely too large for use as tools, derived their value solely from being a means of exchange. In other words, the only reason to value them was because everyone else did.

Properties as money
And so is the case with Bitcoin. With no institution guaranteeing their value, with no guaranteed exchange rate to traditional currencies, Bitcoins’ value stems only from their use as a means of exchange. But unlike the rai stones, which were difficult to transport, Bitcoins ace almost all of the requirements traditionally set forth for good money:

  • Scarce: No more than 21 million will ever exist
  • Divisible: Each of the 21 million can be divided infinitely
  • Fungible: One Bitcoin is as good as the next
  • Mobile: Can be sent from New York to Tokyo in 10 seconds for an infinitesimal fee
  • Durable: Will remain intact as long as anyone uses the system

In addition, Bitcoin is the first electronic cash system being completely decentralized and semi-anonymous. No one needs to know who you pay or how many you own. Adding these properties together gives you a unique money system that the world has not seen before. It streamlines many financial operations, and it can open up entirely new markets that had been impossible until now. This uniqueness is what drives the support of the Bitcoin community and gives each coin value. No other system currently allows you to transfer value to the other side of the world in seconds practically for free and without identifying yourself.

As a store of value, however, Bitcoins are still a very poor money, as the mentions of the exchange rate above shows. But with the existence of liquid exchanges to traditional currencies in multiple countries it retains its use as an international transfer of value. And if Bitcoin sees widespread adoption the exchange rate will become less volatile as market depth increases.

Free banking
The inherently decentralized and semi-anonymous nature of Bitcoin makes it hard to regulate. You cannot punish a violator of your country’s laws if you do not know who he is. And you cannot shut down a system if it doesn’t have a point of attack. Trying to close decentralized networks such as Bitcoin is like cutting off Hydra’s heads: Cut one and two new ones grow as the entertainment industry has already realized in combating file sharing networks.

This means that Bitcoin will potentially enable free banking in Bitcoins even if government regulation doesn’t allow it as banks can keep accounts and transactions hidden.

At the moment, there is little to no banking activity in the Bitcoin economy. Lending is done on a peer-to-peer basis between forum users across the world. Because of the difficulty in assigning credit ratings to internet nicknames, interest rates are naturally high in this very interesting and unregulated developing market.

If Bitcoin adoption grows, we should expect actual banks, with or without government banking licenses, to appear to judge borrowers based on face to face interactions instead of internet forum posts.

A common misconception is that fractional reserve banking is impossible with Bitcoins. But just as fractional reserve banking can be done with gold it can be done with Bitcoins.

Less banking
In addition to new opportunities for free banking, I predict that given a larger adoption of Bitcoin we will also see less private banking. The main reason most people store fiat money in banks is not to get interest on their small amount of savings. They do it to for security and to be able to participate in the electronic economy – that is, to be able to shop online and avoid the need to carry around cash and use credit cards instead.

Bitcoins are incredibly flexible when it comes to storage. They can be stored on any digital or analog medium, encrypted by cryptography stronger than used in online banking, and backed up to an infinite amount of locations. They can even be saved in your brain. If your assets are in Bitcoin you no longer need a bank for safeguarding.

And as they are inherently digital, you don’t need a bank to act as a gateway for you to spend them in the electronic economy. Stored on your smartphone you could carry them to a restaurant and pay the bill using your phone instead of a card.

People having less reasons to store their money in banks will contribute to a higher real interest rate. On the other hand, the deflationary nature of Bitcoin will encourage savings and contribute to a lower interest rate. I cannot predict which will be the dominating effect (note: corrected slightly compared to earlier version).

Bitcoin-enforced contracts
An interesting development is the creation of Bitcoin-enforced contracts. For an example of how this could work consider you bought a car for a small down payment and has agreed to make more payments once a month. With the car being connected to the Bitcoin network, it could check for new payments to the seller’s Bitcoin address every month. If your monthly payment has not arrived the car will refuse to start.

One could also imagine this happening today with a deactivation system remote controlled by the car seller. But what if the seller deactivated your car after you had already made all your payments? With a Bitcoin-enforced contract you don’t need to trust the seller, you only need to trust the Bitcoin network of which everyone can check the source code.

Also, scripts can be embedded into Bitcoin transactions which opens up for even more contractual possibilities. One use of this is for pooling resources towards a common good, i.e. to fund the creation of something with positive externalities.

Say your neighborhood wants to buy an empty lot to turn it into a park. Normally someone will start raising money, but what happens if he doesn’t get enough to actually complete the project? Can you trust him to give you your money back? Instead, you can make your donation to his Bitcoin address with the condition that the money is returned to you if not X amount has been sent by others to the same address before Y date. The Bitcoin network will enforce this without you needing to trust the person accepting the donation or even a third party.

The future
As seen in the above section on contracts, Bitcoin is more than a better means of exchange. People discover new uses for the technology every month.

One can conceive of several threats to Bitcoin’s survival and widespread adoption: Could a flaw in the design be discovered that leaves the system open to counterfeiting? It’s very unlikely since it hasn’t been discovered yet even as there is a large financial incentive to do so. And if it happens, the system allows for large structural repairs while carrying on using the same coins. Will the world find no utility in larger adoption of Bitcoin? Unlikely as the financial infrastructure of today belongs to the pre-internet era. For instance, it shouldn’t take days and cost tens of dollars to move value from Europe to the US or Asia.

Perhaps the biggest threat would be from a technically superior Bitcoin 2 that could replace the current system and leave original Bitcoins worthless. As Bitcoin has the momentum, Bitcoin 2 would need to be vastly improved. And as with anything new, the change will not happen in the blink of an eye. Some will be risk takers and make early investments in Bitcoin 2 while others will stick with the good ol’ familiar Bitcoin for a longer time.

I remain optimistic on behalf of Bitcoin. And it certainly is an incredibly exciting experiment that no matter the outcome will have an impact on the theory of money.

More:
Bitcoin myths
An overview of exchange markets
Historical exchange rates
Merchants that accept Bitcoin as payment
The Economist with an overview of the technical workings of Bitcoin

© Copyright (2012) Lasse Birk Olesen

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Related posts:

Googlenomics and the popularity of Bitcoin
Guest post: Nick Rowe, Barter, and Free Banking (By Lee Kelly)
Selgin on Quasi-Commodity Money (Part 1)
George Selgin outlines strategy for the privatisation of the money supply
M-pesa – Free Banking in Africa?
Scott Sumner and the Case against Currency Monopoly…or how to privatize the Fed

Crisis, happiness and suicide

While driving home from a family vacation in the West of Denmark (Jutland) today we were listening to the news on the radio. The news had two stories, which in some odd way were related to each other as both stories were about happiness. The first story was about Denmark (again!) being ranked number 1 in something called the World Happiness Report. The second story was more sad – it was about a 77-year-old Greek man who killed himself in Athens’ busy Syntagma Square on Wednesday morning. The man apparently killed himself in disappear over his own and his country’s economic situation.

Going through the international media one gets the impression that the sad events in Athens was a general tendency across the crisis hit South European countries. However, the stories made me think about the connection between the economic crisis, happiness and suicide.

Apparently we Danes are very happy about life and Greeks are so miserable that they kill themselves in big numbers. The problem is just that does not exactly fit the empirical facts – at least not if we compare the suicide rate in Denmark and Greece. In fact Danes are more than three times more likely killing themselves than Greeks. According to data from the World Health Organization the suicide rate in Denmark was 11.9 suicides per 100,000 people per year in 2011. In Greece the similar number was 3.5.

Interestingly Danes are more suicidal than all of the PIIGS. The suicide rate in Portugal is 7.9, in Italy it is 6.3, in Ireland 11.8 and in Spain 7.6. So one can hardly argue that scores of people are killing themselves in disappear over the economic crisis. Southern European generally are not very suicidal – contrary to Scandinavians.

Obviously journalists love the story that economic crisis leads to a surge in suicides. The stories about people jumping from skyscrapers during the Great Depression in the US is also widespread. However, the stories are generally not true. No can not find a strong correlation between economic crisis and the level of suicides in a nation. I am not saying that economic crisis does not impact the number of suicides, but other factors are far more important (the fact that we have long and dark winters in Scandinavia might explain something…). Anybody saying anything else should explain why Danes and Finns (number 1 and 2 in the “Happiness” ranking) are killing the themselves in much greater numbers than Greeks or Italians. Yes, the number of suicides in for example Greece has increased since 2008, but saying that primarily is a result of the economic crisis is simply to farfetched.

As a Dane I can only wonder why we apparently are so happy and then at the same time kill ourselves in great numbers. Dare I say there is a survivorship bias in the survey?

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