The cheapest and most effective firewall in the world

While the European crisis has escalated ECB officials have continued to stress that the ECB’s mandate is to ensure inflation below, but close to, 2%.

Lets assume that we have to come up with a monetary policy response to the European crisis that fulfils this condition.

I have a simple idea that I am confident would work. My idea is a put on inflation expectations or what we could call a velocity put.

A number of European countries issue inflation-linked bonds. From these bonds we can extract market expectations for inflation. These bonds provide the ECB with a potential very strong instrument to fight deflationary risks. My suggestion is simply that the ECB announces a minimum price for these bonds so the implicit inflation expectation extracted from the bonds would never drop below 1.95% (“close to 2%”) on all maturities. This would effectively be a put on inflation.

How would the inflation put work?

Imagine that we are in a situation where the implicit inflation expectation is exactly 1.95%. Now disaster strikes. Greece leaves the euro, a major Southern Europe bank collapses or a euro zone country defaults. As a consequence money demand spikes, people are redrawing money from the banks and are hoarding cash. The effect of course will be a sharp drop in money velocity. As velocity drops (for a given money supply) nominal (and real) GDP and prices will also drop sharply (remember MV=PY).

As velocity drops inflation expectations would drop and as consequence the price of the inflation-linked bond would drop below ECB’s minimum price. However, given the ECB’s commitment to keep inflation expectations above 1.95% it would have either directly to buy inflation linked bonds or by increasing inflation expectations by doing other forms of open market operations. The consequences would be that the ECB would increase the money base to counteract the drop in velocity. Hence, whatever “accident” would hit the euro zone a deflationary shock would be avoided as the money supply automatically would be increased in response to the drop in velocity. QE would be automatic – no reason for discretionary decisions. In fact the ECB would be able completely abandon ad hoc policies to counteract different kinds of financial distress.

This would mean that even if a major European bank where to collapse M*V would basically be kept constant as would inflation expectations and as a consequence this would seriously reduce the risk of spill-over from one “accident” to another. The same would of course be the case if Greece would leave the euro.

This is basically a similar policy to the one conducted by the Swiss central bank, which has announced it will not allow EUR/CHF to drop below 1.20. This mean an increase in money demand (which would tend to strengthen the Swiss franc) will be counteracted by an automatically increase in the money base if EUR/CHF would inch below 1.20.

Chuck Norris to the rescue

The Swiss experience clearly shows that a clearly stated and credible policy like the 1.20-target has some very clear advantages. One major advantage has been that the SNB have had to do significantly less intervention in the market than prior to the announcement of the policy. In fact the Swiss money base initially dropped after the introduction of the 1.20-target. This is the Chuck Norris effect of monetary policy – monetary policy primarily works through expectations and the market will do most of the lifting if the policy is clear and credible.

There is no reason to think that Chuck Norris would not be willing to help the ECB in the case it announced a lower bound on implicit inflation expectations. In fact I think inflation expectations would jump to 1.95% at once and even if Greece where to leave the euro or a major bank would collapse inflation expectations and therefore also velocity would remain stable.

This would in my view be an extremely simple but also highly effective firewall in the case of new “accidents” in the euro zone. Furthermore, it would likely be a very cheap policy. In addition there would be a build-in exit strategy. If inflation expectations moved above 1.95% the ECB would not conduct any “extraordinary” policy measures. Hence, the policy would be completely rules based and since it would target inflation expectations just below 2.0% no could hardly argue that it would threaten price stability. In fact as it would ensure against deflation it would to very large extent guarantee price stability.

Furthermore, the ECB could easily introduce this policy as a permanent measure as it in no way would conflict with the over policy objectives. Nor would it create any problems for the use of ECB’s traditional policy instruments.

I would of course like a futures based NGDP level targeting regime implemented in the euro zone, but that is very unlikely to find any support today. However, I would hope the ECB at least would consider introducing a velocity put and hence significantly contribute to financial and economic stability in the euro zone.

PS if the ECB is worried that it would be intervening the the sovereign bonds market it could just issue it’s own inflation linked bonds. That would change nothing in terms of the efficiency of the policy. The purpose is not to help government fund their deficits but to stabilise inflation expectations and avoid a deflationary shock to velocity.

PPS My proposal is of course a variation of Robert Hetzel’s old idea that the Federal Reserve should ensure price stability with the use of TIPS.

David Cameron on the euro crisis

This is British Prime Minister David Cameron on the euro crisis:

“Just as in Britain we need to deal with the deficit and restore competitiveness, so the same is true of Europe…

…A rigid system that locks down each state’s monetary flexibility yet limits fiscal transfers between them can only resolve its internal imbalances through painful and prolonged adjustment.

So in my view, three things need to happen if the single currency is to function properly.

First, the high deficit, low competitiveness countries in the periphery of the Eurozone do need to confront their problems head on. They need to continue taking difficult steps to cut their spending, increase their revenues and undergo structural reform to become competitive. The idea that high deficit countries can borrow and spend their way to recovery is a dangerous delusion.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that they are less likely to be able to sustain that necessary adjustment economically or politically unless the core of the Eurozone, including through the ECB, does more to support demand and share the burden of adjustment.

In Britain we are able to ease that adjustment through loose monetary policy and a flexible exchange rate. And we are supplementing that monetary stimulus with active interventions such as credit easing, mortgage indemnities for first time buyers and guarantees for new infrastructure projects.

So I welcome the opportunity to explore new options for such monetary activism at a European level, for example through President Hollande’s ideas for project bonds. But to rebalance your economy in a currency union at a time of global economic weakness you need more fundamental support.

Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble is right to recognise rising wages in his country can play a part in correcting these imbalances but monetary policy in the Eurozone must also do more.

Second, the Eurozone needs to put in place governance arrangements that create confidence for the future. And as the British Government has been arguing for a year now that means following the logic of monetary union towards solutions that deliver greater forms of collective support and collective responsibility of which Eurobonds are one possible example. Steps such as these are needed to put an end to speculation about the future of the euro.

And third, we all need to address Europe’s overall low productivity and lack of economic dynamism, which remains its Achilles Heel. Most EU member states are becoming less competitive compared to the rest of the world, not more.

The Single Market is incomplete and competition throughout Europe is too constrained. Indeed, Britain has long been arguing for a pro-business, pro-growth agenda in Europe.

That’s why ahead of the last European Council I formed an unprecedented alliance with 11 other EU leaders setting out an action plan for jobs and growth in Europe and pushing for the completion of the Single Market in Services and Digital.

The Eurozone is at a cross-roads. It either has to make-up or it is looking at a potential break-up. Either Europe has a committed, stable, successful Eurozone with an effective firewall, well capitalised and regulated banks, a system of fiscal burden sharing, and supportive monetary policy across the Eurozone.

Or we are in unchartered territory which carries huge risks for everybody. As I have consistently said it is in Britain’s interest for the Eurozone to sort out its problems.

But be in no doubt: whichever path is chosen, I am prepared to do whatever is necessary to protect this country and secure our economy and financial system.”

While I certainly do not agree with everything that Cameron is saying I think it is tremendously important that he acknowledges that this crisis can only be solved by monetary easing from the ECB, while European governments at the same time should continue fiscal consolidation. Unfortunately Cameron apparently is the only European leader who seems to understand this.

Some how everything in Europe these days remind me of 1931-32. Britain of course successfully gave up the gold standard in 1931. The rest of the Europe governments (with the exception of the Nordic countries who followed the lead from Britain and gave up the gold standard) hated the British government for that decision. I hope they will not hate Cameron for his very sound advise today.

PS Britmouse also comments on Cameron’s speech here.

UPDATE: Scott Sumner now also have a comment on Cameron’s speech – unfortunately Scott misses the important European dimension of Cameron speech.

The discretionary decision to introduce rules

At the core of Market Monetarists thinking is that monetary policy should be conducted within a clearly rule based framework. However, as Market Monetarists we are facing a dilemma. The rules or rather quasi-rules that is presently being followed by the major central banks in the world are in our view the wrong rules. We are advocating NGDP level targeting, while most of the major central banks in the world are instead inflation targeters.

So we have a problem. We believe strongly that monetary policy should be based on rules rather than on discretion. But to change the wrong rules (inflation targeting) to the right rules (NGDP targeting) you need to make a discretionary decision. There is no way around this, but it is not unproblematic.

The absolute strength of the way inflation targeting – as it has been conducted over the past nearly two decades – has been that monetary policy a large extent has become de-politicised. This undoubtedly has been a major progress compared to the massive politicisation of monetary policy, which used to be so common. And while we might be (very!) frustrated with central bankers these days I think that most Market Monetarists would strongly agree that monetary policy is better conducted by independent central banks than by politicians.

That said, I have also argued that central bank independence certainly should not mean that central banks should not be held accountable. In the absence of a Free Banking system, where central banks are given a monopoly there need to be very strict limits to what central banks can do and if they do not fulfil the tasks given to them under their monopoly then it should have consequences. For example the ECB has clear mandate to secure price stability in the euro zone. I personally think that the ECB has failed to ensure this and serious deflationary threats have been allowed to develop. To be independent does not mean that you can do whatever you want with monetary policy and it does not mean that you should be free of critique.

However, there is a fine line between critique of a central bank (particularly when it is politicians doing it) and threatening the independence of the central banks. However, the best way to ensure central bank independence is that the central bank is given a very clear mandate on monetary policy. However, it should be the right mandate.

Therefore, there is no way around it. I think the right decision both in the euro zone and in the US would be to move to change the mandate of the central banks to a very clearly defined NGDP level target mandate.

However, when you are changing the rules you are also creating a risk that changing rules become the norm and that is a strong argument for maintain rules that might not be 100% optimal (no rule is…). Latest year it was debated whether the Bank of Canada should change it’s flexible inflation targeting regime to a NGDP targeting. It was decided to maintain the inflation targeting regime. I think that was too bad, but I also fully acknowledge that the way the BoC has been operating overall has worked well and unlike the ECB the BoC has understood that ensuring price stability does not mean that you should react to supply shocks. As consequence you can say the BoC’s inflation targeting regime has been NGDP targeting light. The same can be said about the way for example the Polish central bank (NBP) or the Swedish central banks have been conducting monetary policy.

Market Monetarists have to acknowledge that changing the rules comes with costs and the cost is that you risk opening the door of politicising monetary policy in the future. These costs have to be compared to the gains from introducing NGDP level targeting. So while I do think that the BoC, Riksbanken and the NBP seriously should consider moving to NGDP targeting I also acknowledge that as long as these central banks are doing a far better job than the ECB and the Fed there might not be a very urgent need to change the present set-up.

Other cases are much more clear. Take the Russian central bank (CBR) which today is operating a highly unclear and not very rule based regime. Here there would be absolutely not cost of moving to a NGDP targeting regime or a similar regime. I have earlier argued that could the easiest be done with PEP style set-up where a currency basket of currencies and oil prices could be used to target the NGDP level.

Concluding, we must acknowledge that changing the monetary policy set-up involve discretionary decisions. However, we cannot maintain rules that so obviously have failed. We need rules in monetary policy to ensure nominal stability, but when the rules so clearly is creating instability, economic ruin and financial distress there is no way out of taking a discretionary decision to get of the rules and replace them with better rules.

PS While writing this I am hearing George Selgin in my head telling me “Lars, stop this talk about what central banks should do. They will never do the right thing anyway”. I fear George is right…

PPS Jeffrey Frankel has a very good article on the Death of Inflation Targeting at Project Syndicate. Scott also comments on Jeff’s article. Marcus Nunes also comments on Jeff’s article.

PPPS It is a public holiday in Denmark today, but I have had a look at the financial markets today. When stock markets drop, commodity prices decline and long-term bond yields drop then it as a very good indication that monetary conditions are getting tighter…I hope central banks around the world realise this…

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