Fear-of-floating, misallocation and the law of comparative advantages

The first commandment of central banking should be thou shall not distort relative prices. However, central bankers often tend to forget this – knowingly or unknowingly. How often have we not heard stern warnings from central bankers that property prices are too high or too low – or that a currency is overvalued or undervalued. And in the last couple of years central bankers have even tried to manipulate the shape of the bond yield curve – just think of the Fed’s “operation twist”.

Central bankers are distorting relative prices in many ways – by for example by trying to prick bubbles (or what they think are bubbles). Sometimes the distortion of relative prices is done unknowingly. The best example of this is when central banks operate an inflation target. Both George Selgin and David Eagle teach us that inflation targeting means that central banks react to supply shocks and thereby distort relative prices. In an open economy this will lead to a distortion of the relative prices between trade goods and non-traded goods.

As I will show below central bankers’ eagerness to distort relative prices is as harmful as other distortions of relative prices for example as a result of protectionism and will often lead to numerous negative side-effects.

The fear-of-floating – the violation of the Law of comparative advantages

I have recently given a bit of attention to the concept of fear-of-floating. Despite being officially committed to floating exchange rates many central banks from time to time intervene in the FX markets to “manage” the currency. As I have earlier noted a good example is the Norwegian central bank (Norges Bank), which often has intervened either directly or verbally in the currency market or verbally to try to curb the strengthening of the Norwegian krone. In March for example Norges Bank surprisingly cut interest rates to curb the strengthening of the krone – despite the general macroeconomic situation really warranted a tightening of monetary conditions.

So why is Norge Bank so fearful of a truly free floating krone? The best explanation in the case of Norway is that the central bank’s fears that when oil prices rise then the Norwegian krone will strengthen and hence make the non-oil sectors in the economy less competitive. This is what happened in 2003 when a sharp appreciation of the krone cause an “exodus” of non-oil sector companies from Norway. Hence, there is no doubt that it is a sub-target of Norwegian monetary policy to ensure a “diversified” Norwegian economy. This policy is strongly supported by the Norwegian government’s other policies – for example massive government support for the agricultural sector. Norway is not a EU member – and believe it or not government subsidies for the agricultural sector is larger than in the EU!

However, in the same way as government subsidies for the agricultural sector distort economic allocation so do intervention in the currency market. However, while most economists agree that government subsidies for ailing industries is violating the law of comparative advantages and lead to a general economic lose in the form of lower productivity and less innovation few economists seem to be aware that the fear-of-floating (including indirect fear-of-floating via inflation targeting) have the same impact.

Lets look at an example. Let say that oil prices increase by 30% and that tend to strengthen the Norwegian krone. This is the same as to say that the demand curve in the oil sector has shifted to the right. This will increase the demand for labour and capital in the oil sector. In a freely mobile labour market this will push up salaries both in the oil sector and in the none-oil sector. Hence, the none-oil sector will become less competitive – both as a result of higher labour and capital costs, but also because of a stronger krone. As a consequence labour and capital will move from the non-oil sector to the oil sector. Most economists would agree that this is a natural market process that ensures the most productive and profitable use of economic resources. As David Ricardo taught us long ago – countries should produce the goods in which the country has a comparative advantage. The unhampered market mechanism ensures this.

However, if the central bank suffers from fear-of-floating then the central bank will intervene to curb the strengthening of the krone. This has two consequences. First, the increase in profitability in the oil sector will be smaller than it would have been had the krone been allowed to strengthen. This would also mean that the increase in demand for capital and labour in the oil sector would be smaller than it would have been if the krone had been allowed to float completely freely (or had been pegged to the oil price). Second, this would mean that the “scaling down” of the non-oil sector will be smaller than otherwise would have been the case – and as a result this sector will demand too much labour and capital relative to what is economically optimal. This is exactly what the central bank would like to see. However, I think the example pretty clearly shows that such as policy is violating the law of comparative advantages. Relative prices are distorted and as a result the total economic output and welfare will be smaller than would have been the case under a freely floating currency.

It is often argued that if the oil price is very volatile and the krone (or another oil-exporting country’s currency) therefore would be more volatile and as a consequence the non-oil sector will see large swings in economic activity and it would be in the interest of the central bank to reduce this volatility and thereby stabilise the development in the non-oil sector. However, this completely misses the point with free markets. Prices should be allowed to adjust to ensure an efficient allocation of capital and labour. If you intervene in the market process allocation of resources will be less efficient.

Furthermore, the central bank cannot permanently distort relative prices. If the currency is kept artificially weak by easier monetary policy it will just inflated the entire economy – and as a result capital and labour cost will increase – as will inflation – and sooner or later the competitive advantage created by an artificially weak currency will be gradually eaten by higher prices and wages. In an economy where wages and prices are downward rigid – as surely is the case in the Norwegian economy – this will created major adjustment problems if oil prices drops sharply especially if the central bank also try to curb the weakening of the currency (as the Russian central bank did in 2008). Hence, by trying to dampen the swings in the FX rates the central bank will actually move the adjustment process from the FX markets (which is highly flexible) to the much less flexible labour and good markets. So even though the central bank might want to curb the volatility in economic activity in the non-oil sector it will actually rather increase the general level of volatility in the economy. In an economy with fully flexible prices and wages the manipulation of the FX rate would not be a problem. However, if for example wages are downward rigid because interventionist labour market policy as it is the case in Norway then a policy of curbing the volatility in the FX rate quite obviously (to me at least) leads to lower productivity and higher volatility in both nominal and rate variables.

I have used the Norwegian economy as an example. I should stress that I might as well have used for example Brazil or Russia – as the central banks in these countries to a much larger degree than Norges Bank suffers from a fear-of-floating. I could in fact also have used the ECB as the ECB indirectly suffers from a fear-of-floating as the ECB is targeting inflation.

I am not aware of any research on the consequences for productivity of fear-of-floating, but I am sure it could be an interesting area of research – I wonder if Norge Banks is aware how big the productive lose in the Norwegian economy has been due to it’s policy of curbing oil price driven swings in the krone. I am pretty sure that the Russian central bank and the Brazilian central bank have not given this much thought at all. Neither has most other Emerging Market central banks that frequently intervenes in the FX markets. 

PS do I need to say how to avoid these problems? Yes you guessed right – NGDP level targeting or by pegging the currency to the oil price. If you want to stay with in a inflation targeting framework then central bank central bank should at least target domestic demand inflation or what I earlier inspired by David Eagle has termed Quasi-Real inflation (QRPI).

PS Today I am spending my day in London – I wrote this on the flight. I bet a certain German central banker will be high on the agenda in my meetings with clients…

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