This week has been nearly 100% about monetary policy in the financial markets and in the international financial media. In fact since 2008 monetary policy has been the main driver of prices in basically all asset classes. In the markets the main job of investors is to guess what the ECB or the Federal Reserve will do next. However, the problem is that there is tremendous uncertainty about what the central banks will do and this uncertainty is multi-dimensional. Hence, the question is not only whether XYZ central bank will ease monetary policy or not, but also about how it will do it.
Just take Mario Draghi’s press conference last week – he had to read out numerous different communiqués and he had to introduce completely new monetary concepts – just take OMT. OMT means Outright Monetary Transactions – not exactly a term you will find in the monetary theory textbook. And he also had to come up with completely new quasi-monetary institutions – just take the ESM. The ESM is the European Stability Mechanism. This is not really necessary and it just introduce completely unnecessary uncertainty about European monetary policy.
In reality monetary policy is extremely simple. Central bankers can fundamentally do two things. First, the central bank can increase or decrease the money base and second it can guide expectations. It is really simple. There is no reason for ESM, OMT, QE3 etc. The problem, however, is that central banks used to control the money base and expectations with interest rates, but with interest rates close to zero central bankers around the world seem to have lost the ability to communicate about what they want to do. As a result monetary policy has become extremely discretionary in both Europe and the US.
That need to change as this discretion is at the core the uncertainty about monetary policy. Central bankers therefore have to do two things to get back on track and to create some kind of normality. First, central banks should define very clear targets of what the want to achieve – preferably the ECB and the Fed should announce nominal GDP targets, but other target might do as well. Second, the central banks should give up communicating about monetary policy in terms of interest rates and rather communicate in terms of how much they want to change the money base.
In terms of changes in the money base the central banks should clarify how the money base is changed. The central bank can increase the money base, by buying different assets such as government bonds, foreign currencies, commodities or stocks. The important thing is that the central banks do not try to affect relative prices in the financial markets. When the Fed is conducting it “twist operations” it is trying to distort relative prices, which essentially is a form of central planning and has little to do with monetary policy. Therefore, the best the central banks could do is to define a clear basket of assets it will be buying or selling to increase or decrease the money base. This could be a fixed basket of bonds, currencies, commodities and stocks – or it could just be short-term government bonds. The important thing is that the central bank define a clear instrument.
This would remove the “instrument uncertainty” and the ECB or the Fed would not have to come up with new weird instruments every single month. Rather for example the Fed could just start at every regular FOMC meetings to state for example that “the expectations is now that without changes in our policy instrument we will undershoot our policy target and as a consequence we today have decided to use our policy instrument to increase the money base by X dollars to ensure that we will hit our policy target within the next 12 months. We will increase the money base further if contrary to our expectations policy target is not meet.”
In this world there would be no discretion at all – the central bank would be strictly rule following. It would use its well-defined policy instrument to always hit the policy target and there would be no problems with zero bound interest rates. But most important it would allow the financial markets to do most of the lifting as such set-up would be tremendously more transparent than what they are doing today.
Today we will see whether Ben Bernanke want to continue distorting relative prices and maintaining policy uncertainty by keeping the Fed’s highly discretionary habits or whether he want to ensure a target and rules based monetary policy.
PS a possibility would of course also be to use NGDP futures to conduct monetary policy as Scott Sumner has suggested, but that nearly seems like science fiction given the extreme conservatism of the world’s major central banks.