Exchange rates are not truly floating when we target inflation

There is a couple of topics that have been on my mind lately and they have made me want to write this post. In the post I will claim that inflation targeting is a soft-version of what economists have called the fear-of-floating. But before getting to that let me run through the topics on my mind.

1) Last week I did a presentation for a group of Norwegian investors and even thought the topic was the Central and Eastern European economies the topic of Norwegian monetary politics came up. I am no big expert on the Norwegian economy or Norwegian monetary policy so I ran for the door or rather I started to talk about an other large oil producing economy, which I know much better – The Russian economy. I essentially re-told what I recently wrote about in a blog post on the Russian central bank causing the 2008/9-crisis in the Russian economy, by not allowing the ruble to drop in line with oil prices in the autumn of 2008. I told the Norwegian investors that the Russian central bank was suffering from a fear-of-floating. That rang a bell with the Norwegian investors – and they claimed – and rightly so I think – that the Norwegian central bank (Norges Bank) also suffers from a fear-of-floating. They had an excellent point: The Norwegian economy is booming, domestic demand continues to growth very strongly despite weak global growth, asset prices – particularly property prices – are rising strongly and unemployment is very low and finally do I need to mention that Norwegian NGDP long ago have returned to the pre-crisis trend? So all in all if anything the Norwegian economy probably needs tighter monetary policy rather than easier monetary policy. However, this is not what Norges Bank is discussing. If anything the Norges Bank has recently been moving towards monetary easing. In fact in March Norges Bank surprised investors by cutting interest rates and directly cited the strength of the Norwegian krone as a reason for the rate cut.

2) My recent interest in Jeff Frankel’s idea that commodity exporters should peg their currency to the price of the main export (PEP) has made me think about the connect between floating exchange rates and what monetary target the central bank operates. Frankel in one of his papers shows that historically there has been a rather high positive correlation between higher import prices and monetary tightening (currency appreciation) in countries with floating exchange rates and inflation targeting. The mechanism is clear – strict inflation targeting central banks an increase in import prices will cause headline inflation to increase as the aggregate supply curve shots to the left and as the central bank does not differentiate between supply shocks and nominal shocks it will react to a negative supply shock by tightening monetary policy causing the currency to strengthen. Any Market Monetarist would of course tell you that central banks should not react to supply shocks and should allow higher import prices to feed through to higher inflation – this is basically George Selgin’s productivity norm. Very few central banks allow this to happen – just remember the ECB’s two ill-fated rate hikes in 2011, which primarily was a response to higher import prices. Sad, but true.

3) Scott Sumner tells us that monetary policy works with long and variable leads. Expectations are tremendously important for the monetary transmission mechanism. One of the main channels by which monetary policy works in a small-open economy  – with long and variable leads – is the exchange rate channel. Taking the point 2 into consideration any investor would expect the ECB to tighten monetary policy  in responds to a negative supply shock in the form of a increase in import prices. Therefore, we would get an automatic strengthening of the euro if for example oil prices rose. The more credible an inflation target’er the central bank is the stronger the strengthening of the currency. On the other hand if the central bank is not targeting inflation, but instead export prices as Frankel is suggesting or the NGDP level then the currency would not “automatically” tend to strengthen in responds to higher oil prices. Hence, the correlation between the currency and import prices strictly depends on what monetary policy rule is in place.

These three point leads me to the conclusion that inflation targeting really just is a stealth version of the fear-of-floating. So why is that? Well, normally we would talk about the fear-of-floating when the central bank acts and cut rates in responds to the currency strengthening (at a point in time when the state of the economy does not warrant a rate cut). However, in a world of forward-looking investors the currency tends move as-if we had the old-fashioned form of fear-of-floating – it might be that higher oil prices leads to a strengthening of the Norwegian krone, but expectations of interest rate cuts will curb the strengthen of NOK. Similarly the euro is likely to be stronger than it otherwise would have been when oil prices rise as the ECB again and again has demonstrated the it reacts to negative supply shocks with monetary easing.

Exchange rates are not truly floating when we target inflation 

And this lead me to my conclusion. We cannot fundamentally say that currencies are truly floating as long as central banks continue to react to higher import prices due to inflation targeting mandates. We might formally have laid behind us the days of managed exchange rates (at least in North America and Europe), but de facto we have reintroduced it with inflation targeting. As a consequence monetary policy becomes excessively easy (tight) when import prices are dropping (increasing) and this is the recipe for boom-bust. Therefore, floating exchange rates and inflation targeting is not that happy a couple it often is made out to be and we can fundamentally only talk about truly floating exchange rates when monetary policy cease to react to supply shocks.

Therefore, the best way to ensure true exchange rates flexibility is through NGDP level targeting and if we want to manage exchange rates then at least do it by targeting the export price rather than the import price.

Greek and French political news slipped into the financial section

The political effects of monetary strangulation never fails to show up. That was the case during the 1930s and that is the case today.

The European political news over the weekend: Socialist  Francois Hollande won the second round of the French presidential elections on an anti-austerity platform and in Greece the mainstream political parties took a major beating with extremist parties doing extremely well in yesterday’s Greek parliament vote.

The radical-leftist grouping Syriza is now the second largest party in the Greek parliament with 16.7% of the vote. The effectively neo-nazi party Golden Dawn Party won 7% and will now for the first time be represented in the Greek parliament. (I dare you to have a look at Golden Dawn’s logo…scary)

It does not exactly look like the “reform-through-tight-money” policy is working…just have a look at the European markets today…

PS The outcome of the French presidential election reminded me of what happened in France during the Great Depression. If you are interested in that topic you should have a look at Clark Johnson’s classic “Gold, France and the Great Depression”.

Forget about those black swans

It has become highly fashionable to talk about “black swans” since the crisis began in 2008 and now even Scott Sumner talks about it in his recent post “Don’t forget about those black swans”. Ok, Scott is actually not obsessed with black swans, but his headline reminded me how much focus there is on “black swans” these days – especially among central bankers and regulators and to some extent also among market participants.

What is a black swan? The black swan theory was popularized by Nassim Taleb in 2007 book “The Black Swan”. Taleb’s idea basically is that the financial markets underprice the risk of extreme events happening. Taleb obviously felt vindicated when crisis hit in 2008. The extreme event happened and it had clearly not been priced by the market in advance.

Lets go back to back to Scott’s post. Here he quotes Matt Yglesias:

Here’s a fun Intrade price anomaly that showed up this morning. The markets indicate that there’s more than a 3 percent chance that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney will win the presidential election. That’s clearly way too high.

Scott then counter Matt by saying that we should not forget “something unusual happening”:

1.  One of the two major candidates is assassinated, and the replacement is elected (as in Mexico’s 1994 election.)

2.  Ditto, except one pulls out due to health problems, or scandal.

3.  A third party candidate comes out of nowhere to get elected.

Scott is of course right. All this could happen and as a consequence it would obviously be wrong if the market had price a 100% chance that nobody else than Obama or Romney would become US president.

Scott and I tend to think that financial markets are (more or less) efficient and as a consequence we would not be gambling men. Scott nonetheless seem to think that the odds are good:

“But 3% is low odds.  It’s basically saying once in ever 130 years you’d expect something really weird to happen in US presidential politics during an election year.   That’s a long time!  Given all the weird things that have happened, how unlikely is it?  Some might counter that none of the three scenarios I’ve outlined have occurred in the US during an election year (my history is weak so I’m not certain.)  But mind-bogglingly unusual things have happened on occasion.  On November 10, 1972, what kind of odds would Intrade have given on neither Nixon nor Agnew being President on January 1 1975?”

Scott certainly have a good point, but I will not question the market on this one. The market pricing is the best assessment of risk we have. If not there would be money in street ready to pick up for anybody – and there is not. Obviously Taleb disagrees as he believe that markets tend to underprice risk. However, I fundamentally think that Taleb is wrong and I don’t see much evidence that market underprice black swan events. The fact that rare events happen is not evidence that the market on average underprice the likelihood of this events.

The fashion long-shot bias and central banks

In the evidence from betting markets seem to indicate that if anything bettors tend to have a favourite-longshot bias meaning that they tend to overprice the likelihood that the favourite will loose elections or sport games. Said in another way if anything bettors tend to overprice the likelihood of a black swan events. I happen to think that this is not a market problem in markets in general, but it nonetheless indicates that if anything the problem is too much focus on black swan events rather than too little focus on them.

This to a very large extent has been the case of the past 4 years – especially in regard to central banking and banking regulation. There seem to be a near-obsession among some policy makers that a new black swan could turn up. How often have we heard the talk about the major risk of bubbles if interest rates are kept too low too long and most of the new financial regulation being push through across the world these days is justified by reference to the risk of some kind of black swan event.

Media and policy makers in my view have become obsessed with extreme events happening – you will be reminded about that every time you go through the security check in any airport in the world.

The obsession with black swan events is highly problematic as the cost of policy makers obsessing about very unlikely events happening lead them to implement very costly regulation that lead to massive waste of resources. Again just think about how many hours you have spend waiting to get through airport security over the last couple of years and if you think that is bad just think of the cost resulting from excessive new regulation of the global financial markets. So my suggestion is clearly to forget about those black swans!

Finally three book recommendations:

Risk by Dan Gardner that tells about the “politics of fear” (of black swans).

The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan explains why democracy tend to lead to irrationality while market lead to rationality. Said in another way policy makers would be more prone to focus on black swans than market participants in free markets would be.

Risk, Uncertain and Profit – Frank Knight’s classic. If you are really interested in the issues of risk and uncertainty then there is no reason at all to read Taleb’s books (I have read both The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness – they are “fun” and something you can read while you are waitin in line at the security check in the airport, but it is certainly not Nobel prize material). Instead just read Knight’s classic. It is much more insightful. It is actually something that frustrates me a great deal about Taleb’s books – there is really nothing new in what he is saying, but he claims to have come up with everything himself.

Interview with Christensen

Back home from Dublin. Here is an interview I did about the European situation during my stay in Dublin.

Imagine if Charles Evans was on the ECB’s Executive Board

Yesterday, I did a (very short) post about Irish deflation and there is no doubt that the euro crisis continues. Depressingly there is no really appetite among ECB policy maker to fundamentally have a change of monetary policy to change the status quo and while there is a (misguided) debate going on about fiscal austerity in Europe there is still no real debate about the monetary policy set-up in Europe. On the other hand in the US we are having a real debate among academics, commentators and central bankers about US monetary policy. In the US fed economists like Robert Hetzel are allowed to publish book about how monetary policy mistakes cause the Great Recession. In Europe there is no debate. That is very unfortunate.

The contrast between Europe and the US would be very clear by listen to what Chicago Fed’s Charles Evans have to say about US monetary policy. Take a look at this debate in which Evans endorse NGDP level targeting! Could you imagine that a member of the ECB Executive Board did that? Wouldn’t that just be a nice change from the business-as-usual climate we have now?

See also this excellent article from pro-market monetarist commentator Matt O’Brien at The Atlantic on Charles Evans’ endorsement of NGDP level targeting.

Our friend Marcus Nunes also has an update on Charles Evans pro-NGDP targeting position. See Scott Sumner on the same topic here.

PS Charlie if you are interest the British government is looking for a new Bank of England governor…

A picture of the Irish economy…

I have been busy, busy in Dublin today. No time (or energy) for a lot of blogging. But here is a picture of the Irish economy – the Irish price level is down 10% since the end of 2007.

Please tell me whether European monetary policy is easy or tight…

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