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You have to thank Scandinavian Airlines for this post – kind of a tribute to Nouriel Roubini

Dear friends if you like to read my blog posts you will have to thank Scandinavian Airlines for this one. I am stuck in Heathrow Airport for now. Cancellations and delays of my flight from London to Copenhagen mean that this has been a rather unproductive day. However, that is part of the life as a traveling standup comedian/economist – we spend a lot of time in airports. Today, however, has been a bit too much – particularly taking into account that my next trip will be on Wednesday.

The purpose of my next trip is to go to Lithuania where I will be battling it out with Dr. Doom aka Nouriel Roubini. Nouriel and I have known each other for 6-7 years. We used to agree that we were heading for trouble and we also agree that the ECB failed on monetary policy. But fundamentally Nouriel is a Austro-Keynesian – a position that I strongly disagrees with. The Austro-keynesian perception of the world, however, is very common these days: During the later years of the Great Moderation we overspend and as a result we are now having a hangover in the form of repaying debt and therefore having lower private consumption growth and lower investment growth. It is not clear why we overspend – the Austro-keynesians tend to believe that it was a combination of overly easy monetary policy and “animal spirits” that did it. I think this story is utterly wrong, but nonetheless it seems to be the majority view these days.

For the last four years Nouriel has been negative about the world. That to some extent has been right, but for the wrong reasons. Nouriel never forecasted that the ECB would fail so utterly – even though he correctly has criticized the ECB for overly tight monetary policy he certainly did not forecast how events played out.

In general I am very skeptical about making heroes out of people who got it right in 2008 – whether it is Nouriel Roubini or Peter Schiff or for that matter myself and my ultra negative call on Iceland and Central and Eastern Europe in 2006/7. The fact is that most of the people who got it right in 2008 had been negative for years (including myself who turned bearish in 2006). Peter Schiff for example has been screaming hyperinflation for years. He has been utterly wrong about that. Roubini has been negative on the US stock market for years. He has been utterly wrong on that. I was right about being negative about Iceland, but the bullish call I made on Iceland a year ago or so actually has been much more correct than my negative call in 2006 (it took much longer for the crisis to materialize than I expected), but nobody cared about that because being bullish is never as “fun” as being negative.

If all economists in the world throw out random forecasts all time some of them will be right some of the time. The more crackpot forecast you make the more spectacularly correct they will seem to be when they happen. Nassim Taleb even got famous for saying that rare events (“black swans”) happen and then a black swan event happened. Taleb didn’t forecast anything. But he is a celebrity anyway. Paradoxically the logic of his argument is that you can’t forecast anything and despite of that he is telling people how to invest based on this.

I am proud of the few things I forecasted right in my life, but frankly speaking getting a forecast right doesn’t make you a good economist. The popular press was suggesting that Robert Shiller should get the Nobel Prize for forecasting both the bust of the IT bubble and the property market bubble. Please come on – that is not the work of an economist, but that of gambler. Robert Shiller is a clever guy, but I don’t think his biggest achievement is forecasting the bust of two bubbles – that is just pure luck (I had similar views to Shiller in both cases, but do not claim to be a great forecaster). Shiller’s biggest achievement is his work on what he calls “macro markets” and his book on that topic. That work has gotten absolutely no attention, but it is very clever and significantly more interesting than his work on “bubbles”.

My friend Nouriel Roubini is a great economist, but my respect for himhas nothing to do with his bearish calls on the global economy. I, however, was a huge fan of Nouriel well before he made those bearish forecasts and before I ever met him. Nouriel has done amazingly good work with among others Alberto Alesina on political business cycles and the use of game theory in understanding monetary and fiscal policy. That didn’t make Nouriel an economic superstar, but it inspired me to study these topics. So I am forever grateful to Nouriel for that.

So Nouriel see you in a few days. As always it will be great seeing you. We will argue and you will tell me – as usual – that I am overly optimistic despite my gloomy view of the world and my distrust of policy makers. But no matter what it will be great fun. See you in Vilnius! And if you haven’t been to that great city before I am sure I will have time to show you a bit of it.

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Dangerous bubble fears

Here is Swedish central bank governor Stefan Ingves in an op-ed piece in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet last week:

“I also have to take responsibility for the long term consequences of today’s monetary policy…And there are risks associated with an all too low interest rate over a long period, which cannot be ignored.”

Said in another way if we keep interest rates too low we will get bubbles. So despite very clear signs that the Swedish economy is slowing Ingves would not like to ease monetary policy. Ingves in that sense is similar to many central bankers around the world. Many central bankers have concluded that the present crisis is a result of a bubble that bursted and the worst you could do is to ease monetary policy – even if the economic data is telling you that that is exactly what you should.

The sentiment that Ingves is expressing is similar to the view of the ECB and the fed in 2008/9: We just had a bubble and if we ease too aggressively we will get another one. Interestingly enough those central banks that did well in 2008/9 and eased monetary policy more aggressively and therefore avoided major crisis today seem to be most fearful about “bubbles”. Take the Polish central bank (NBP). The NBP in 2009 allowed the zloty to weaken significantly and cut interest rates sharply. That in my view saved the Polish economy from recession in 2009 – Poland was the only country in Europe with positive real GDP growth in 2009. However, today the story is different. NBP hiked interest rates earlier in the year and is now taking very long time in easing monetary policy despite very clear signs the Polish economy is slowing quite fast. In that sense you can say the NBP has failed this year because it did so well in 2009.

The People’s Bank of China in many ways is the same story – the PBoC eased monetary policy aggressively in 2009 and that pulled the Chinese economy out of the crisis very fast, but since 2010 the PBoC obviously has become fearful that it had created a bubble – which is probably did. To me Chinese monetary policy probably became excessively easy in early 2010 so it was right to scale back on monetary easing, but money supply growth has slowed very dramatically in the last two years and monetary policy now seem to have become excessively tight.

So the story is the same in Sweden, Poland and China. The countries that escaped the crisis did so by easing monetary conditions. As their exports collapsed domestic demand had to fill the gap and easier monetary policy made that possible. So it not surprising that these countries have seen property prices continuing to increase during the last four years and also have seen fairly strong growth in private consumption and investments. However, this now seem to be a major headache for central bankers in these countries.

I think these bubble fears are quite dangerous. It was this kind of fears that led the fed and the ECB to allow monetary conditions to become excessive tight in 2008/9. Riksbanken, NBP and the PBoC now risk making the same kind of mistake.

At the core of this problem is that central bankers are trying to concern themselves with relative prices. Monetary policy is very effective when it comes to determine the price level or nominal GDP, but it is also a very blunt instrument. Monetary policy cannot – and certainly should not – influence relative prices. Therefore, the idea that the central bank should target for example property prices in my view is quite a unhealthy suggestion.

Obviously I do not deny that overly easy monetary policy under certain circumstances can lead to the formation of bubbles, but it should not be the job of central bankers to prick bubbles.

The best way to avoid that monetary policy do not create bubbles is that the central bank has a proper monetary target such as NGDP level targeting. Contrary to inflation targeting where positive supply shocks can lead to what Austrians call relative inflation there is not such a risk with NGDP level targeting.

Let’s assume that the economy is hit by a positive supply shock – for example lower import prices. That would push down headline inflation. An inflation targeting central bank – like Riksbanken and NBP – in that situation would ease monetary policy and as a result you would get relative inflation – domestic prices would increase relative to import prices and that is where you get bubbles in the property markets. Under NGDP level targeting the central bank would not ease monetary policy in response to a positive supply shock and inflation would drop ease, but the NGDP level would on the other hand remain on track.

However, the response to a demand shock – for example a drop in money velocity – would be symmetric under NGDP level targeting and inflation target. Both under IT and NGDP targeting the central bank would ease monetary policy. However, this is not what central banks that are concerned about “bubbles” are doing. They are trying to target more than one target. The first page in the macroeconomic textbook, however, tells you that you cannot have more policy targets than policy instruments. Hence, if you target a certain asset price – like property prices – it would mean that you effectively has abandoned your original target – in the case of Riksbanken and NBP that is the inflation target. So when governor Ingves express concern about asset bubbles he effective has said that he for now is not operating an inflation targeting regime. I am sure his colleague deputy governor Lars E. O. Svensson is making that argument to him right now.

I don’t deny that bubbles exist and I am not claiming that there is no bubbles in the Swedish, Polish or Chinese economies (I don’t know the answer to that question). However, I am arguing that monetary policy is a very bad instrument to “fight” bubbles. Monetary policy should not add to the risk of bubbles, but “bubble fighting” should not be the task of the central bank. The central bank should ensure nominal stability and let the market determine relative prices in the economy. Obviously other policies – such as tax policy or fiscal policy should not create moral hazard problems through implicit or explicit guarantees to “bubble makers”.

Japan has been in a 15 year deflationary environment with falling asset prices and a primary reason for that is the Bank of Japan’s insane fear of creating bubbles. I doubt that the Riksbank, NBP or the PBoC will make the same kind of mistakes, but bubbles have clearly led all three central banks to become overly cautious and as a result the Swedish, the Polish and the Chinese economy are now cooling too much.

I should stress that I do not suggest some kind of “fine tuning” policy, but rather I suggest that central banks should focus on one single policy target – and I prefer NGDP level targeting – and leave other issues to other policy makers. If central banks are concerned about bubbles they should convince politicians to implement policies that reduce moral hazard rather than trying to micromanage relative prices and then of course focus on a proper and forward looking monetary policy target like NGDP level targeting.

PS Note that I did not mention the interest rate fallacy, but I am sure Milton Friedman would have told governor Ingves about it.
PPS You can thank Scandinavian Airlines for this blog post – my flight from London to Copenhagen got cancelled so I needed to kill some time before my much later flight.

Related posts:

Boom, bust and bubbles
The luck of the ‘Scandies’
Four reasons why central bankers ignore Scott Sumner’s good advice

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