NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative (we try again)

Most of the blogging Market Monetarists have their roots in a strong free market tradition and nearly all of us would probably describe ourselves as libertarians or classical liberal economists who believe that economic allocation is best left to market forces. Therefore most of us would also tend to agree with general free market positions regarding for example trade restrictions or minimum wages and generally consider government intervention in the economy as harmful.

I think that NGDP targeting is totally consistent with these general free market positions – in fact I believe that NGDP targeting is the monetary policy regime which best ensures well-functioning and undistorted free markets. I am here leaving aside the other obvious alternative, which is free banking, which my readers would know that I have considerable sympathy for.

However, while NGDP targeting to me is the true free market alternative this is certainly not the common view among free market oriented economists. In fact I find that most of the economists who I would normally agree with on other issues such as labour market policies or trade policy tend to oppose NGDP targeting. In fact most libertarian and conservative economists seem to think of NGDP targeting as some kind of quasi-keynesian position. Below I will argue why this perception of NGDP targeting is wrong and why libertarians and conservatives should embrace NGDP targeting as the true free market alternative.

Why is NGDP targeting the true free market alternative?

I see six key reasons why NGDP level targeting is the true free market alternative:

1) NGDP targeting is ”neutral” – hence unlike under for example inflation targeting NGDPLT do not distort relative prices – monetary policy “ignores” supply shocks.
2) NGDP targeting will not distort the saving-investment decision – both George Selgin and David Eagle argue this very forcefully.
3) NGDP targeting ”emulates” the Free Banking allocative outcome.
4) Level targeting minimizes the amount of discretion and maximises the amount of accountability in the conduct of monetary policy. Central banks cannot get away with “forgetting” about past mistakes. Under NGDP level targeting there is no letting bygones-be-bygones.
5) A futures based NGDP targeting regime will effective remove all discretion in monetary policy.
6) NGDP targeting is likely to make the central bank “smaller” than under the present regime(s). As NGDP targeting is likely to mean that the markets will do a lot of the lifting in terms of implementing monetary policy the money base would likely need to be expanded much less in the event of a negative shock to money velocity than is the case under the present regimes in for example the US or the euro zone. Under NGDP targeting nobody would be calling for QE3 in the US at the moment – because it would not be necessary as the markets would have fixed the problem.

So why are so many libertarians and conservatives sceptical about NGDP targeting?

Common misunderstandings:

1) NGDP targeting is a form of “countercyclical Keynesian policy”. However, Market Monetarists generally see recessions as a monetary phenomenon, hence monetary policy is not supposed to be countercyclical – it is supposed to be “neutral” and avoid “generating” recessions. NGDP level targeting ensures that.
2) Often the GDP in NGDP is perceived to be real GDP. However, NGDP targeting does not target RGDP. NGDP targeting is likely to stabilise RGDP as monetary shocks are minimized, but unlike for example inflation targeting the central bank will NOT react to supply shocks and as such NGDP targeting means significantly less “interference” with the natural order of things than inflation targeting.
3) NGDP targeting is discretionary. On the contrary NGDP targeting is extremely ruled based, however, this perception is probably a result of market monetarists call for easier monetary policy in the present situation in the US and the euro zone.
4) Inflation will be higher under NGDP targeting. This is obviously wrong. Over the long-run the central bank can choose whatever inflation rate it wants. If the central bank wants 2% inflation as long-term target then it will choose an NGDP growth path, which is compatible which this. If the long-term growth rate of real GDP is 2% then the central bank should target 4% NGDP growth path. This will ensure 2% inflation in the long run.

Another issue that might be distorting the discussion of NGDP targeting is the perception of the reasons for the Great Recession. Even many libertarian and conservative economists think that the present crisis is a result of some kind of “market disorder” – either due to the “natural instability” of markets (“animal spirits”) or due to excessively easy monetary policy in the years prior to the crisis. The proponents of these positions tend to think that NGDP targeting (which would mean monetary easing in the present situation) is some kind of a “bail out” of investors who have taken excessive risks.

Obviously this is not the case. In fact NGDP targeting would mean that central bank would get out of the business of messing around with credit allocation and NGDP targeting would lead to a strict separation of money and banking. Under NGDP targeting the central bank would only provide liquidity to “the market” against proper collateral and the central bank would not be in the business of saving banks (or governments). There is a strict no-bail out clause in NGDP targeting. However, NGDP targeting would significantly increase macroeconomic stability and as such sharply reduce the risk of banking crisis and sovereign debt crisis. As a result the political pressure for “bail outs” would be equally reduced. Similarly the increased macroeconomic stability will also reduce the perceived “need” for other interventionist measures such as tariffs and capital control. This of course follows the same logic as Milton Friedman’s argument against fixed exchange rates.

NGDP level targeting as a privatization strategy

As I argue above there are clear similarities between the allocative outcome under Free Banking – hence a fully privatized money supply – and NGDP targeting. In fact I believe that NGDP level targeting might very well be seen as part of a privatization strategy. (I have argued that before – see here)

Hence, a futures based NGDP targeting regime would basically replace the central bank with a computer in the sense that there would be no discretionary decisions at all in the conduct of monetary policy. In that sense the futures based NGDP targeting regime would be similar to a currency board, but instead of “pegging” monetary policy to a foreign currency monetary policy would be “pegged” to the market expectation of future nominal GDP. This would seriously limit the discretionary powers of central banks and a truly futures based NGDP targeting regime in my view would only be one small step away from Free Banking. This is also why I do not see any conflict between advocating NGDP level targeting and Free Banking. This of course is something, which is fully recognised by Free Banking proponents such as George Selgin, Larry White and Steve Horwitz.

PS this is no the first time I try to convince libertarians and conservatives that NGDP level targeting is the true free market alternative. See my first attempt here.

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Related posts:

NGDP targeting is not about ”stimulus”
NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy
Be right for the right reasons
Monetary policy can’t fix all problems
Boettke’s important Political Economy questions for Market Monetarists
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative
Lets concentrate on the policy framework
Boettke and Smith on why we are wasting our time
Scott Sumner and the Case against Currency Monopoly…or how to privatize the Fed

Update (July 23 2012): Scott Sumner once again tries to convince “conservatives” that monetary easing is the “right” position. I agree, but I predict that Scott will fail once again because he argue in terms of “stimulus” rather than in terms of rules.

Free Banking theorists should study Argentina’s experience with parallel currencies

The latest book I have got in the mail is Georgina M. Gómez’s “Argentina’s Parallel Currency” about Argentina’s experience with parallel currencies or what has also been termed Complementary Currency Systems (CCS).

I have only read 10-15 pages in the book and studied the index and references – so this is certainly no book review. As I expected this is not exactly the type of economic literature that I would normally read and it is certainly not in the broader neo-classical tradition of economics that I feel comfortable with. Rather it is an piece of institutional economics – and not in the tradition of Hayek. Anyway, I find the book very interesting nonetheless. And no, I am not open-minded, but I see opportunities in what I read. Opportunities that the research on CCS can teach us a lot about monetary theory and to a large extent can confirm some key Market Monetarist and Free Banking positions.

What strikes me when I read Dr. Gómez’s book is the near total lack of references to Free Banking theory and to monetary theory in general. For example there is no reference to Selgin, White, Horwitz and other Free Banking theorists. There is no references to Leland Yeager’s views on monetary disequilibrium either. That is too bad because I think theorists such as Selgin and Yeager would make it much easier for Gómez to explain and understand the emergence of CCS if she had utilized monetary disequilibrium theory and Free Banking theory.

For example Dr. Gómez notes the countercyclical nature of CCS. When the economy turns down people turn to CCS. In Argentina the participants in the country’s CCS exploded in 2001-2. Dr. Gómez note the correlation unemployment, property rates and growth, but fails (I think…) to mention the obvious connection to money-velocity.

To me it is pretty clear – if money demand outpaces money supply then there is an profit opportunity that entrepreneurs can explore by issuing “money substitutes”. This is exactly what CCS is. Therefore, we would expect that when money-velocity drops then the use of CCS will increase. This is exactly what happened in the US during the Great Depression and in Argentina in 2001-2.

The very clear countercyclical nature of CCS “users” to me is indirect confirmation that under a truly privatized monetary system of Free Banking the money supply would increase in response to an increase in the money demand. Hence, a Free Banking system would be truly “countercyclical”. Said, in another way nominal GDP would be stabilized – as under NGDP level targeting.

George Selgin has been very critical about CCS and I would certainly agree that the motives of many proponents of CCS seem rather dubious. For example many CCS proponents stress the “localist” nature of these systems. That smells of protectionism to George – and to me. However, the motives for CCS proponents are not important. What is important is that the experience with CCS in for example Argentina provides data for studying some key positions of Free Banking Theorists – such as the “countercyclical” nature of the money supply in a privatized monetary system.

Finally I should once again note that I have only read 10-15 pages of Dr. Gómez book and this is certainly not a review of her book and the points raised about is no critique of the book, but rather a call for monetary theorists to have a closer look at the Argentine experience.

Related post:

Time to try WIR in Greece or Ireland? (I know you are puzzled)

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Unrelated links:

Take a look at Ambrose Evan-Pritchard latest piece on US monetary policy. Ambrose is clearly the leading proponent of Market Monetarism among European journalists.

Kurt Schuler contributes to the renewed war of words between the Free Bankers and the Rothbardian Austrians. See my earlier post on the war here.

Ramesh Ponnuru tells the story of “The Republicans’ Most Hypocritical Economic Argument”, which is basically the story about why the Sumner critique also applies to defense.

PS I have not forgotten that I promised to do more on African monetary reform – I have 2-3 pieces in the pipeline. I still welcome suggestions on what to focus on in terms of my Protect African Monetary Reform.

Selgin just punched the 100-percent wasp’s nest again

One day George Selgin is picking a friendly fight with the Market Monetarists, the next day he is picking a fight with the Rothbardian Austrians. You will have to respect George for always being 100% intellectually honest and behaving like a true gentleman – something you can not always say about his opponents. His latest fight is over the old story of fractional reserve banking versus 100% reserve banking.

Personally I never understood the 100%-crowd, but I am not going to go into that debate other than saying I agree 100% with George on this issue. However, I want to do a bit of PR for George’s posts and the response to his posts.

Here is George’s first post: 100-Percent Censorship?

Here is  Joseph Salerno‘s response to George: The Selgin Story  (Warning: This is typical Rothbardian style)

And George’s response to Salerno: Reply to Salerno

When you read an exchange like this you will realise why Rothbardian style Austrianism is completely marginalised today and George is a well-respected monetary historian and theorist.

Larry White also has a good post on fractional reserve banking – and why it is the true free market outcome in an unregulated market economy.

If you are interested in this discussion then you should have a look at Larry and George’s classic article “In Defense of Fiduciary Media – or, We are Not Devo(lutionists), We are Misesians”.

Related post: I am blaming Murray Rothbard for my writer’s block

Update 1: The fist fight continues – here is a not too clever attacks on George from the comment section on Economic Policy Journal (which has nothing to do with a Journal) and here is George’s response: More Dumb Anti-Fractional Reserve Stuff

Meltzer’s transformation

Allan Meltzer was one of the founding fathers of monetarism and he has always been one of my favourite economists. However, I must admit that that is no longer the case. His commentary over the last couple of years has had very little to do with monetarism. In fact most of Meltzer’s commentary reminds me of “internet Austrianism”. His latest comment in the Wall Street Journal is certainly not better, but it quite well illustrates his transformation from monetarist to crypto-Austrian. In fact I think it is too depressing even to comment on it (or link to it). However, David Glasner has a very good comment on Meltzer. I suggest you all read it.

If you want to read something Meltzer once wrote that really makes a lot of sense I suggest you take a look at this. That to me is the real Meltzer and the Meltzer I will think of when I take down one of his excellent books on monetary theory and history from my bookshelf.

You might know the words, but do you get the music?

Back in March I wrote this:

“Some of the most clever economists I have encountered are actually not formally educated economists. In fact a number of Nobel Prize winners in Economics are not formally educated economists. One of my big heroes David Friedman is not formally educated as an economist, but to me he is certainly an economist – one of the greatest around. Another example is Gordon Tullock who was trained as a lawyer, but he is certainly an economist – in fact to me Gordon Tullock is one of the most clever economists of his generation and it is a complete mystery to me that he has not yet been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. The way I perceive people’s skills as economists has nothing to do with their formal education. To me Economics is not an education. Economics is a state of mind.

Therefore, you can easily be an economist without having a formal education as an economist. As a consequence there are also people who have been able to attain a formal title as an economist without reaching that higher state of mind that a real economist has. I have unfortunately also encountered many of this kind of “economists” – economists by title, but not in mind. Many of these people are unfortunately high ranking policy makers.”

For years I have been running around telling people that “Economics is not an education. Economics is a state of mind” and I have always believed that I have come up with a great saying. However, it turned out – as with most of my views – that I in some way got it from Milton Friedman. Over the weekend I was re-reading a couple of chapters in Milton’s and Rose’s  memoirs “Two Lucky People”. On page 543 I stumbled on this quote from Milton:

“I have long believed that a feeling for economics is something people are born with rather acquire through education. Many highly intelligent and even highly trained professional economists knows the words but don’t get the music. On the other hand, people with little or no training in economics may have an intuitive feeling for it.”

It be frank I don’t remember ever reading that before, but it is very close to what I said in March. But it is getting even more interesting when you have a look at some comments David Friedman was so kind to make on my post back in March:

“My father’s standard example of your point was Leo Szilard, a physicist who was also at Chicago. Apparently Szilard would come into my father’s office with ideas in economics. Generally they were things economists had worked out much earlier–but they were right….I don’t know of anything my father wrote about Szilard–I’m going by memory, but I’m almost certain I have the right physicist.”

Well David, your father did indeed write about Szilard. This is the footnote (7) to the Milton quote above:

“Another example is my former University of Chicago colleague Leo Szilard, the great physicist and chemist who first discovered the principle of the  chain reaction, and indeed, patented it. He was repeatedly reinventing economic theorems, and getting them right” 

I think this is a very good example of why I have in my book on Friedman called him a “pragmatic revolutionary”. Friedman makes you think. He so to speak installs a certain way of thinking in your brain once you get exposed  to him. It happened to me back in the mid-1980s. Obvious David got the exposure from birth.

Selgin’s challenge to the Market Monetarists

Anybody who have been following my blog knows how much admiration I have for George Selgin so when George speaks I listen and if he says I am wrong I would not easily dismiss it without very careful consideration.

Now George has written a challenge on Freebanking.org for us Market Monetarists. In his post “A Question for the Market Monetarists” George raises a number of issues that deserves answers. Here is my attempt to answer George’s question(s). But before you start reading I will warn you – as it is normally the case I think George is right at least to some extent.

Here is George:

“Although my work on the “Productivity Norm” has led to my being occasionally referred to as an early proponent of Market Monetarism, mine has not been among the voices calling out for more aggressive monetary expansion on the part of the Fed or ECB as a means for boosting employment.”

While it is correct that Market Monetarists – and I am one of them – have been calling for monetary easing both in the US and the euro zone this to me is not because I want to “boost employment”. I know that other Market Monetarists – particularly Scott Sumner – is more outspoken on the need for the Federal Reserve to fulfill it’s “dual mandate” and thereby boost employment (Udpate: Evan Soltas has a similar view – see comment section). I on my part have always said that I find the Fed’s dual mandate completely misguided. Employment is not a nominal variable so it makes no sense for a central bank to target employment or any other real variable. I am in favour of monetary easing in the euro zone and the US because I want the Fed and the ECB to undo the mistakes made in the past. I am not in favour of monetary policy letting bygones-be-bygones. I do, however, realise that the kind of monetary easing I am advocating likely would reduce unemployment significantly in both the euro zone and the US. That would certainly be positive, but it is not my motive for favouring monetary easing in the present situation. See here for a discussion of Fed’s mandate and NGDP targeting.

Said in another way what I want the is that the Fed and the ECB should to live up to what I have called Selgin’s monetary credo:

“The goal of monetary policy ought to be that of avoiding unnatural fluctuations in output…while refraining from interfering with fluctuations that are “natural.” That means having a single mandate only, where that mandate calls for the central bank to keep spending stable, and then tolerate as optimal, if it does not actually welcome, those changes in P and y that occur despite that stability“

Back to George:

“There are several reasons for my reticence. The first, more philosophical reason is that I think the Fed is quite large enough–too large, in fact, by about $2.8 trillion, about half of which has been added to its balance sheet since the 2008 crisis. The bigger the Fed gets, the dimmer the prospects for either getting rid of it or limiting its potential for doing mischief. A keel makes a lousy rudder.”

This is the Free Banking advocate George Selgin speaking. The Free Banking advocate Lars Christensen does not disagree with George’s fundamental free banking position. However, George also knows that in the event of a sharp rise in money demand in a free banking regime the money supply will expanded automatically to meet that increase in money demand (I learned that from George). In 2007-9 we saw a sharp rise in dollar demand and the problem was not that the Fed did too much to meet that demand, but rather that it failed to meet the increase in money demand. Something George so well has described in for example his recent paper on the failed US primary dealer system. See here.

However, I certainly agree with George’s position that had monetary policy been conducted in another more rational way – for example within a well-defined NGDP targeting regime and a proper lender-of-last-resort regime – then the Fed would likely have had to expand it’s money base much less than has been the case. Here I think that we Market Monetarists should listen to George’s concerns. Sometimes some of us are to eager to call for what could sound like a discretionary expansion of the money base. This is not really the Market Monetarist position. The Market Monetarist position – at least as I think of it – is that the Fed and the ECB should “emulate” a free banking outcome and ensure that any increase in money demand is met by an increase in the money base. This should obviously be based on a rule based set-up rather than on discretionary monetary policy changes. Both the Fed and the ECB have been insanely discretionary in the past four years.

Back to George:

“The second reason is that I worry about policy analyses (such as this recent one) that treat the “gap” between the present NGDP growth path and the pre-crisis one as evidence of inadequate NGDP growth. I am, after all, enough of a Hayekian to think that the crisis of 2008 was itself at least partly due to excessively rapid NGDP growth between 2001 and then, which resulted from the Fed’s decision to hold the federal funds rate below what appears (in retrospect at least) to have been it’s “natural” level.” 

This is a tricky point on which the main Market Monetarist bloggers do not necessarily agree. Scott Sumner and Marcus Nunes have both strongly argued against the “Hayekian position” and claim that US monetary policy was not too easy prior to 2008. David Beckworth prior to the crisis clearly was arguing that US monetary policy was too easy. My own position is somewhere in between. I certainly think that monetary policy was too easy in certain countries prior to the crisis. I for example have argued that continuously in my day-job back in 2006-7 where I warned that monetary conditions in for example Iceland, the Baltic States and in South Eastern European were overly loose. I am, however, less convinced that US monetary policy was too easy – for the US economy, but maybe for other economies in the world (this is basically what Beckworth is talking about when he prior to crisis introduced the concept the Fed as a “monetary superpower”).

However, it would be completely wrong to argue that the entire drop in NGDP in the US and the euro zone is a result of a bubble bursting. In fact if there was any “overshot” on pre-crisis NGDP or any “bubbles” (whatever that is) then they certainly long ago have been deflated. I am certain that George agrees on that. Therefore the possibility that there might or might have been a “bubble” is no argument for maintain the present tight monetary conditions in the euro zone and the US.

That said, as time goes by it makes less and less sense to talk about returning to a pre-crisis trend level for NGDP both in the US and the euro zone. But let’s address the issue in slightly different fashion. Let’s say we are where presented with two different scenarios. In scenario 1 the Fed and the ECB would bring back NGDP to the pre-crisis trend level, but then thereafter forget about NGDP level targeting and just continue their present misguided policies. In scenario 2 both the Fed and the ECB announce that they in the future will implement NGDP level targeting with the use of NGDP futures (as suggested by Scott), but would initiate the new policy from the present NGDP level. I would have no doubt that I would prefer the second scenario. I can of course not speak from my Market Monetarist co-conspiritors, but to me the it is extremely important that we return to a rule based monetary policy. The actual level of NGDP in regard is less important.

And then finally George’s question:

“And so, my question to the MM theorists: If a substantial share of today’s high unemployment really is due to a lack of spending, what sort of wage-expectations pattern is informing this outcome?”

This is an empirical question and I am not in a position to give an concrete answer to that. However, would argue that most of the increase in unemployment and the lack of a recovery in the labour market both in the US and the euro zone certainly is due to a lack of spending and therefore monetary easing would likely significantly reduce unemployment in both the US and the euro zone.

Finally I don’t really think that George challenge to the Market Monetarists is question about wage-expectations. Rather I think George wants us to succeed in our endeavor to get the ECB and the Fed to target NGDP. While George does not spell it out directly I think he share the concern that I from time to time has voiced that we should be careful that we do not sound like vulgar Keynesians screaming for “monetary stimulus”. To many the call for QE3 from the sounds exactly like that and for exact that reason I have cautious in calling for another badly executed QE from the Fed. Yes, we certainly need to call for monetary easing, but no one should be in doubt that we want it within a proper ruled based regime.

I have in a number of posts since I started blogging in October last year warned that we should put more emphasis on our arguments for a rule based regime than on monetary expansion as our call for monetary easing creates confusion about what we really think. Or has I stated it back in November last year my my post NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy“:

“I believe that much of the confusing about our position on monetary policy has to do with the kind of policy advise that Market Monetarist are giving in the present situation in both the US and the euro zone.

Both the euro zone and the US economy is at the presently in a deep recession with both RGDP and NGDP well below the pre-crisis trend levels. Market Monetarists have argued – in my view forcefully – that the reason for the Great Recession is that monetary authorities both in the US and the euro zone have allowed a passive tightening of monetary policy (See Scott Sumner’s excellent paper on the causes of the Great Recession here) – said in another way money demand growth has been allowed to strongly outpaced money supply growth. We are in a monetary disequilibrium. This is a direct result of a monetary policy mistakes and what we argue is that the monetary authorities should undo these mistakes. Nothing more, nothing less. To undo these mistakes the money supply and/or velocity need to be increased. We argue that that would happen more or less “automatically”…if the central bank would implement a strict NGDP level target.

So when Market Monetarists (have)… called for “monetary stimulus” it NOT does mean that (we) want to use some artificial measures to permanently increase RGDP. Market Monetarists do not think that that is possible, but we do think that the monetary authorities can avoid creating a monetary disequilibrium through a NGDP level target where swings in velocity is counteracted by changes in the money supply…

Therefore, we are in some sense to blame for the confusion. We should really stop calling for “monetary stimulus” and rather say “stop messing with Say’s Law, stop creating a monetary disequilibrium”. Unfortunately monetary policy discourse today is not used to this kind of terms and many Market Monetarists therefore for “convenience” use fundamentally Keynesian lingo.” 

I hope that that is an answer to George’s more fundamental challenge to us Market Monetarists. We are not keynesians and we are strongly against discretionary monetary policy and I want to thank George for telling us to be more clear about that.

Finally I should stress that I do not speak on behalf of Scott, Marcus, Nick, 2 times David, Josh and Bill (and all the other Market Monetarists out there) and I am pretty sure that the rest of the gang will join in with answers to George. After all most of us are Selginians.

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Update: George now has an update where is answers his own question. I think it is a good answer. Here is George:

“My further reflections make me more inclined to see merit in Market Monetarists’ arguments for more accommodative monetary policy.”

Update 2: Scott also has a comment on George’s posts. I think this is highly productive. We are moving forward in our understanding of not only the theoretical foundation for Market Monetarism, but also in the understanding of the economic situation.

Udpate 3: Also comments from David Glasner, Marcus Nunes and Bill Woolsey.
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Related posts:

NGDP targeting is not about ”stimulus”
NGDP targeting is not a Keynesian business cycle policy
Be right for the right reasons
Monetary policy can’t fix all problems
Boettke’s important Political Economy questions for Market Monetarists
NGDP level targeting – the true Free Market alternative
Lets concentrate on the policy framework
Boettke and Smith on why we are wasting our time
Scott Sumner and the Case against Currency Monopoly…or how to privatize the Fed

Project African Monetary Reform (PAMR)

Project African Monetary Reform (PAMR) – post 1

The blogoshere is full of debates about US monetary policy and the mistakes of the ECB are also hotly debated. However, other than that there is really not much debate in the blogoshere about monetary policy issues in other countries. I have from I started blogging said that I wanted to broaden the monetary debate and make it less US-centric. Unfortunately I must say I also tend to write a lot about US monetary policy and there is no doubt that most of my readers are primarily interested in US monetary affairs. However, I still want to have a broader perspective on monetary theory, policy and history. Therefore as of today I am launching Project African Monetary Reform (PAMR).

I have no clue where PAMR will lead me other than I have a large interest in the African continent and it’s economies so why not combine it with my interest in monetary policy? My regular readers will know that I already have produced a number of posts related to African monetary issues. PAMR as such will not be a major change and I will not promise any regularity in my posts in the PAMR “series”, but I hope PAMR can be a framework within which I can write a bit more on African monetary matters. I will not get into the business of forecasting central bank behavior and market movements (I spend time on that kind of thing in my day-job), but I will hope to contribute to the discussion about monetary reform in Africa. Something still badly needed in many African countries.

In the process of studying monetary reform issues in Africa – we might even learn some good lessons for more “developed” economies like the US and the euro zone. So even if you are not interested in what is going on in Africa you might learn from tracking PAMR.

I therefore also would like to invite other economists, academics and policy makers with interest in African monetary reform to get in contact with me so we might be able to build a network of people with such interests. Furthermore, I would as always welcome guest posts concerning African monetary issues from other economists with special knowledge or interest in African monetary reform. I can be contacted at lacsen@gmail.com

Furthermore, I will invite you my dear readers to give me suggestions for the next post in the PAMR series. I want to take a look at the monetary policy set-up in a “random” African country. You my dear readers will make the choice on what country I should start with. But I rule out writing something on the three large ones: South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt. You can write the suggestion here or drop me a mail. I am all hears.

Some of my previous posts related to African monetary issues:

The spike in Kenyan inflation and why it might offer a (partial) solution to the euro crisis

“Good E-money” can solve Zimbabwe’s ‘coin problem’

M-pesa – Free Banking in Africa?

 

Imagine that a S&P500 future was the Fed’s key policy tool

Here is Yale economics professor Stephen Roach:

“The ECB is pretty much out of ammunition.”

This sentence probably best illustrates what is wrong with monetary policy thinking in today’s world. Obviously the ECB is not out of ammunition, but Roach’s perception is very common.

What Roach fails to realise is that when central banks announce what we in general terms could call the “key policy rate” it is really just announcing a intermediate target for a given market interest rate. What the central bank actually is doing it setting the money base to fix a given market interest rate at a given level. In that sense the interest rates is merely a tool for communication. Nothing else.

The problem is that in most standard macroeconomic models the central bank does not determine the money base – in fact there is no money in most of today’s mainstream macroeconomic models – but rather the “interest rate”. In a world where interest rates are well above zero that is not a major problem, but when the key policy rate gets close to zero you get a communication problem. However, this is really only a perceived problem rather than an actual problem. The central bank can always expand the money base – also if the key policy rate is zero or close to zero.

The mental problem really is that interest rates have replaced money in today’s mainstream (mostly New Keynesian) macroeconomic models. Lets therefore imagine that we constructed a simple macroeconomic model where there is no interest rate, but where the central bank’s communication tool is stock prices or rather stock futures.

Many economists would willingly accept that stock prices can influence both private consumption (through a wealth effect) and investments (through a funding cost effect) and as such that would not be different from the “normal” assumption about how interest rates influence domestic demand. Therefore, by influencing the stock prices the central bank would be able to influence domestic demand. Note of course that I on purpose am “keynesian” in my rhetoric just to make my point in regard to mainstreaming thinking of monetary policy. (Obviously stock prices as well and private consumption and investments are determined by expectations of future nominal income.)

Then now imagine that the central bank every month announces a certain level for the a stock market future instead of announcing a key policy interest rate. So for example in the case of the Federal Reserve the FOMC would every month announce a “target” for a given S&P500 future.

Would anybody question that the Fed could do this? And would anybody question whether the Fed could hit that target? No, of course not. The ECB obviously could do the exact same thing. There would be absolutely no technical problem in using stock prices (or rather stock futures) as a policy instrument.

Do you think Stephen Roach would argue that the ECB “pretty much” was out of ammunition had just increased it’s target for the Euronext 24 month future with 5%? No of course not and that in my view clearly illustrates that the zero bound on interest rates only is a mental problem, but an actual problem.

Finally note that I am not advocating that central banks should target stock prices (I advocate they should target an NGDP future), but I see little difference in such a policy instrument and interest rate targeting. Furthermore, there would not be a zero bound problem if the Fed was targeting S&P500 futures rather than interest rates and Stephen Roach might even realise that the ECB in no way is out of ammunition.

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PS over the long run NGDP and stock prices are actually quite strongly correlated and hence if the Fed announced that S&P500 should increase by lets say 5% a year over the coming 5 years and that it would ensure that by buying (or selling) S&P futures then it would probably do a much better job at hitting a given level of NGDP or inflation for that matter than the Fed’s present weird policy of promising to keep interest rates low for longer or the silly operation twist.

PPS I am pretty sure that Stephen Roach full well knows that the ECB is not out of ammunition, but when you talk to journalists you might make some intellectual short-cuts that distorts what you really think. At least I hope that is what happened.

PPPS If the Fed wanted to target the NGDP level then it is pretty easy to construct indicator for future NGDP from S&P500 futures, TIPS inflation expectations, CRB futures and the nominal effective dollar rate and then the Fed could just use that as a communication tool. Then it would never ever again have to talk about QE or running out of ammunition.

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Update: When I started writing my post I was thinking that Nick Rowe might have  written something similar. And yes, indeed he actually wrote a number of posts on the topic. So take a look at Nick’s posts:

“The Bank of Canada should peg the TSE 300” – revisited
Why the Bank of Canada should ‘rise’ interest rates
The Fed should buy pro-cyclical assets, not bonds

Noah Smith should ask why stock markets are volatile

Noah Smith has a new blog post where he questions Scott Sumner’s idea that monetary policy should be conducted with the use of NGDP futures.

Here is Noah:

I have a problem with that. The problem is called “excess volatility”. According to some theories, asset prices should be an optimal forecast of (discounted) future payouts – for example, the price of a stock should be an optimal forecast of discounted future dividends, etc. An optimal forecast should not respond to “noise”; in other words, if something happens that doesn’t affect dividends, it shouldn’t affect the forecast. This means that actual dividends should be more variable than prices – the dividends should have lots of “surprises”.

Based on this Noah claims that NGDP futures would also be excessively volatile:

Now back to NGDP futures targeting. An NGDP futures price will probably experience excess volatility too. It will bounce around more than changes in actual NGDP. This means that the Fed will be trying to hit a very volatile moving target. One quarter, futures prices will soar, the next month they will crash, and the Fed will be trying to keep up, tightening dramatically in the first quarter and loosening dramatically in the second. This will happen even if a true optimal forecast of NGDP (which of course no one really knows) is relatively stable! Asset market volatility will cause policy volatility.

Noah of course has a fair point. If we just observe financial markets they might look terribly volatile. However, the real question Noah should be asking is why are financial markets so volatile?

My answer is that financial markets often are “excessively” volatile because of – you guessed it – volatile monetary policy.

Let me explain. What determines stock prices? Stocks is basically determined by three factors: Expectations for future dividends, a risk premium and the “risk free interest rate”. What determines future dividends? Nominal GDP! Over the long-run the capital-labour ratio in the economy is constant (or else Karl Marx is right…) and as a consequence nominal earnings should track NGDP closely.

As NGDP is determined by monetary policy it follows that expectations for future earnings will to a large extent be determined by expectations to future monetary policy. Therefore, if monetary policy is volatile as for example in the 1970s (or now) then stock markets will tend to be volatile (and the risk premium will be higher).

The same obviously goes for the fixed income and FX markets. Bond yields mostly reflect inflation expectations and as inflation is a monetary phenomena excessive volatility in fixed income markets is directly linked to monetary policy volatility. The same obviously goes the currency markets as exchange rates exactly reflect market expectations for the future supply and demand for a currency. The central bank of course determines the supply of the currency.

I have already in a couple of post tried to illustrate that the volatility in the US equity and bond markets in the last four years reflects volatile monetary policy more than anything else.

These two graphs should illustrate that:

The two graphs are from my previous posts “Monetary disorder – not animal spirits – caused the Great Recession” and “Tight money = low yields – also during the Great Recession”

In these two posts I argue that the volatility in the markets over the past fours years primarily has been caused by monetary policy failure rather than “market disorder” and while I certainly do not want to argue that market volatility is only caused by monetary policy mistakes I would like to stress that that at least over the past four years market volatility to a very large extent have been caused by failed monetary policy.

That in my view clearly underscores the need for monetary policy to be rule-following rather than discretionary.

A monetary policy based on NGDP futures is a very strong form of rule-following monetary policy and as a consequence I am convinced that such a policy would significantly reduce financial market volatility.

In that regard it is also worth noticing that the real benchmark for whether a NGDP futures market would be stable or not is not the stock market, but rather the so-called TIPS market. TIPS of course is inflation-linked US government bonds. During the Great Moderation when monetary policy de facto “shadowed” a NGDP level targeting regime TIPS-inflation expectations where extremely stable. TIPS inflation expectations only became volatile after the monetary policy “breakdown” in 2008.

Finally I would also argue that market volatility in that sense of “large swings” in financial markets is not necessarily all bad. In fact it might be a problem if the financial markets are not “volatile” enough. An example is the lack of volatility in exchange rates in countries when the central bank suffers from fear-of-floating. (See the relevant posts below).

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Related posts:

“Understanding financial markets with MV=PY – a look at the bond market”

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

“Exchange rates are not truly floating when we target inflation”

 

Update: The always insightful Bill Woolsey has an excellent comment on Noah Smith.

Is monetary easing (devaluation) a hostile act?

One of the great things about blogging is that people comment on your posts and thereby challenge your views and at the same time create new ideas for blog posts. Therefore I want to thank commentator Max for the following response to my previous post:

“I don’t think exchange rate intervention is a good idea for a large country. For one thing, it’s a hostile act given that other countries have exactly the same issue. And it can’t work without their cooperation, since they have the power to undo the intervention.” 

Let me start out by saying that Max is wrong on both accounts, but I would also acknowledge that both views are more or less the “consensus” view of devaluations and my view – which is based on the monetary approach to balance of payments and exchange rates – is the minority view. Let me address the two issues separately.

Is monetary easing a hostile act?

In his comment Max describes a devaluation as a hostile act towards other countries. This is a very common view and it is often said that it is a reflection of a beggar-thy-neighbour policy for a country to devalue its currency. I have two comments on that.

First, if a devaluation is a hostile act then all forms of monetary easing are hostile acts as any form of monetary easing is likely to lead to a weakening of the currency. Let’s for example assume that the Federal Reserve tomorrow announced that it would buy unlimited amounts of US equities and it would continue to do so until US nominal GDP had increased 15%. I am pretty sure that would lead to a massive weakening of the US dollar. In fact we can basically define monetary easing as a situation where the supply of the currency is increased relative to the demand for the currency. Said, in another way if the currency weakens it is a pretty good indication that monetary conditions are getting easier.

Second, I have often argued that the impact of a devaluation does not primarily work through an improvement in the country’s competitiveness. In fact the purpose of the devaluation should be to increase prices (and wages) and hence nominal GDP. An increase in prices and wages can hardly be said to be an improvement of competitiveness. It is correct that if prices and wages are sticky then you might get an initial real depreciation of the currency, however that impact is not really important compared to the monetary impact. Hence, a devaluation will lead to an increase in the money supply (that is how you engineer the devaluation) and likely also to an increase in money-velocity as inflation expectations increase. Empirically that is much more important than any possible competitiveness effect.

A good example of how the monetary effect dominates the competitiveness effect: the Argentine devaluation in 2002 actually led to a deterioration of the Argentine trade balance and what really was the driver of the recovery was the sharp pickup in domestic demand due to an increase in the money supply and money-velocity rather than an improvement in exports. See my previous comment on the episode here. When the US gave up the gold standard in 1933 the story was the same – the monetary effect strongly dominated the competitiveness effect.

Yet another example of the monetary effect of a devaluation dominating the competitiveness effect is Denmark and Sweden in 2008-9. It is a common misunderstanding that Sweden grew stronger than Denmark in 2008-9 because a sharp depreciation of the Swedish krona led to a massive improvement in competitiveness. It is correct that Swedish competitiveness was improved due to the weakening of the krona, but this was not the main reason for Sweden’s relatively fast recovery from the crisis. The real reason was that Sweden did not see any substantial decline in money-velocity and the Swedish money supply grew relatively steadily through the crisis.

Looking at Swedish exports in 2008-9 it is very hard to spot any advantage from the depreciation of the krona. In fact Swedish exports did more or less as badly as Danish exports in 2008-9 despite the fact that the Danish krone did not depreciate due to Denmark’s fixed exchange rate regime. However, looking at domestic demand there was a much sharper contraction in Danish private consumption and investment than was the case in Sweden. This difference can easily be explained by the sharp monetary contraction in Denmark in 2008-9 (both a drop in M and V).

Furthermore, let’s assume that the Federal Reserve announced massive intervention in the FX market to weaken the US dollar and the result was a sharp increase in US nominal GDP. Would the rest of the world be worse off? I doubt it. Yes, the likely impact would be that for example German exports would get under pressure as the euro would strengthen dramatically against the dollar. However, nothing would stop the ECB from also undertaking monetary easing to counteract the strengthening of the euro. This is what somebody calls “competitive devaluations” or even “currency war”. However, in a deflationary environment such “currency war” should be welcomed as it basically would be a competition to print money. Hence, the “net result” of currency war would not be any change in competitiveness, but an increase in the global money supply (and global money-velocity) and hence in global nominal GDP. Who would be against that and in a situation where the global economy continues to contract and as such a currency war like that would be very welcomed news. In fact we can not really talk about a “war” as it would be mutually beneficial. So I say please bring on the currency war!

Is global monetary cooperation needed? No, but…

This brings us to Max’s second argument: “And it can’t work without their cooperation, since they have the power to undo the intervention.

This is obviously related to the discussion above. Max seems to think a devaluation will not work if it is met by “competitive devaluations” from all other countries. As I have argued above this is completely wrong. It would work as the devaluation will increase the money supply and money-velocity even if the devaluation has no impact on competitiveness at all. As a result there is no need for international monetary cooperation. In fact healthy competition among currencies is exactly what we need. In fact every time the major nations of the world have gotten together to agree on realigning exchange rates it has had major negative consequences.

However, there is one argument for international coordination that I think is extremely important and that is the need for cooperation to avoid “competitive protectionism”. The problem is that most global policy makers perceive devaluations in the same way as Max. They see devaluations as hostile acts and therefore these policy makers might react to devaluations by introducing trade tariffs and other protectionist measures. This is what happened in the 1930s where especially the (foolish) countries which maintained the gold standard reacted by introducing trade tariffs against for example the UK and the Scandinavian countries, which early on gave up the gold standard.

Unfortunately Mitt Romney seems to think as Max

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has said that his first act as US president would be to slap tariffs on China for being a “currency manipulator”. Here is what Romney recently said:

“If I’m president, I will label China a currency manipulator and apply tariffs” wherever needed “to stop them from unfair trade practices”

The discussion above should show clearly that Romney’s comments on China’s currency policy is economically meaningless – or rather extremely dangerous. Imagine what would be the impact on the US economy if China tomorrow announced a 40% (just to pick a number) revaluation of the yuan. To engineer this the People’s Bank of China would have to cause a sharp contraction in the Chinese money supply and money-velocity. The result would undoubtedly throw China into a massive recession – or more likely a depression. You can only wonder what that would do to US exports to China and to US employment. Obviously this would be massively negative for the US economy.

Furthermore, a sharp appreciation of the yuan would effectively be a massive negative supply shock to the US economy as US import prices would skyrocket. Given the present (wrongful) thinking of the Federal Reserve, that might even trigger monetary tightening as US inflation would pick up. In other words the US might face stagflation and I am pretty sure that Romney would have no friends left on Wall Street if that where to happen and he would certainly not be reelected in four years.

I hope that Romney has some economic advisors that realize the insanity of forcing China to a massive appreciation of the yuan. Unfortunately I do not have high hope that there is an understanding of these issues in today’s Republican Party – as it was the case in 1930 when two Republican lawmakers Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis C. Hawley sponsored the draconian and very damaging Smoot-Hawley tariff act.

Finally, thanks to Max for your comments. I hope you appreciate that I do not think that you would like the same kind of protectionist policies as Mitt Romney, but I do think that when we get it wrong on the monetary impact of devaluations we might end up with the kind of policy response that Mitt Romney is suggesting. And no, this is no endorsement of President Obama – I think my readers fully understand that. Furthermore to Max, I do appreciate your comments even though I disagree on this exact topic.

PS if you want to learn more about the policy dynamics that led to Smoot-Hawley you should have a look at Doug Irwin’s great little book “Peddling Protectionism: Smoot-Hawley and the Great Depression”.

Update: Scott Sumner has a similar discussion of the effects of devaluation.
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