Answering Tyler’s question on Japan with old blog post

Here is Tyler Cowen on Twitter:

Still not seeing much discussion of 4.1% unemployment rate in Japan, would love to see “jump start” defined.

What Tyler is basically saying is that there really is not an argument for “jump starting” the Japanese economy with fiscal and monetary stimulus when unemployment is this low. I many ways I share Tyler’s skepticism about “stimulus” in the case of Japan.

I have long argued that Japanese story is a lot more complicated than it is normally said to be (my first post on the topic was: “Japan’s deflation story is not really a horror story” from October 2011). It is correct that Japan’s lost decade was not a story of two lost decades and in my view quantitative easing ended the “lost decade” in 2001. This is what I said in my post “Japan shows that QE works”

In early 2001 the Bank of Japan finally decided to listen to the advise of Milton Friedman and as the graph clearly shows this is when Japan started to emerge from the lost decade and when real GDP/capita started to grow in line with the other G7 (well, Italy was falling behind…).

The actions of the Bank of Japan after 2001 are certainly not perfect and one can clearly question how the BoJ implemented QE, but I think it is pretty clearly that even BoJ’s half-hearted monetary easing did the job and pull Japan out of the depression. In that regard it should be noted that headline inflation remained negative after 2001, but as I have shown in my previous post Bank of Japan managed to end demand deflation (while supply deflation persisted).

And yes, yes the Bank of Japan of course should have introduces much clearer nominal target (preferably a NGDP level target) and yes Japan has once again gone back to demand deflation after the Bank of Japan ended QE in 2007. But that does not change that the little the BoJ actually did was enough to get Japan growing again.

This graph of GDP/capita in the G7 countries illustrates my point:


As I said in my earlier post: “A clear picture emerges. Japan was a star performer in 1980s. The 1990s clearly was a lost decade, while Japan in the past decade has performed more or less in line with the other G7 countries. In fact there is only one G7 country with a “lost decade” over the paste 10 years and that is Italy.”

Hence, Japan came out of the crisis from 2001. However, it should also be noted that Japan has once again fallen into crisis and more importantly Japan’s monetary policy certainly is not based on a rule based framework so the risk that Japan will continue to fall back into crisis remains high. This in my view is a discussion about securing Japan a “Monetary constitution” rather than about stimulus. Unfortunately Prime Minister Abe’s new government do seem to be more focused on short-term stimulus rather than on real institutional reform.

There is no such thing as fiscal policy

– and that goes for Japan as well

The Abe government is not only pursuing expansionary monetary policies, but has also announced that it wants to ease fiscal policy dramatically. This obviously will scare any Market Monetarist – or anybody who are simply able to realise that there is a budget constrain that any government will have to fulfill in the long-run.

This is what I earlier have said on the fiscal issue in the case of Japan:

Furthermore, it is clear that Japan’s extremely weak fiscal position to a large extent can be explained by the fact that BoJ de facto has been targeting 0% NGDP growth rather than for example 3% or 5% NGDP growth. I basically don’t think that there is a problem with a 0% NGDP growth path target if you start out with a totally unleveraged economy – one can hardly say Japan did that. The problem is that BoJ changed its de facto NGDP target during the 1990s. As a result public debt ratios exploded. This is similar to what we see in Europe today.

So yes, it is obvious that Japan can’t not afford “fiscal stimulus” – as it today is the case for the euro zone countries. But that discussion in my view is totally irrelevant! As I recently argued, there is no such thing as fiscal policy in the sense Keynesians claim. Only monetary policy can impact nominal spending and I strongly believe that fiscal policy has very little impact on the Japanese growth pattern over the last two decades.

Above I have basically added nothing new to the discussion about Japan’s lost decade (not decades!) and fiscal and monetary policy in Japan, but since Scott brought up the issue I thought it was an opportunity to remind my readers (including Scott) that I think that the Japanese story is pretty simple, but also that it is wrong that we keep on talking about Japan’s lost decades. The Japanese story tells us basically nothing new about fiscal policy (but reminds us that debt ratios explode when NGDP drops), but the experience shows that monetary policy is terribly important.

My advise: Target an 3% NGDP growth level path and balance the budget 

My advise to the Abe government would therefore be for the Bank of Japan to introduce proper monetary policy rules and I think that an NGDP level targeting rule targeting a growth path of 3% would be suiting for Japan given the negative demographic outlook for Japan. Furthermore, if the BoJ where to provide a proper framework for nominal stability then the Japanese government should begin a gradual process of fiscal consolidation by as soon as possible to bring the Japanese budget deficit back to balance. With an NGDP growth path of 3% Japanese public debt as a share of GDP would gradually decline in an orderly fashion on such fiscal-monetary framework.

So what Japan needs is not “stimulus” – neither fiscal nor monetary – but rather strict rules both for monetary policy and fiscal policy. The Abe government has the power to ensure that, but I am not optimistic that that will happen.

Earlier posts on Japan:

There is no such thing as fiscal policy – and that goes for Japan as well
The scary difference between the GDP deflator and CPI – the case of Japan
Friedman’s Japanese lessons for the ECB
There is no such thing as fiscal policy – and that goes for Japan as well
Japan shows that QE works
Did Japan have a “productivity norm”?
Japan’s deflation story is not really a horror story

PS even though I am skeptical about the way Shinzo Abe are going about things and I would have much preferred a rule based framework for Japan’s monetary and fiscal policy I nonetheless believe that the Abe government’s push for particularly monetary “stimulus” is likely to spur Japanese growth and is very likely to be good news for a global economy badly in need of higher growth.

Update: Scott Sumner also comments on Japan and it seems like we have more or less the same advise. Here is Scott:

“Just to be clear, my views are somewhere between those of Feldstein and the more extreme Keynesians.  I agree with Feldstein that Japan has big debt problems and big structural problems, and needs to address both.  And that fiscal stimulus is foolish (as even Adam Posen recently argued.)  Unlike Feldstein I also think they have an AD problem that calls for modestly higher inflation and NGDP growth.  At a minimum they should be shooting for 2% to 3% NGDP growth, instead of the negative NGDP growth of the past 20 years.”

The Fed’s easing is working…in Mexico

Is the “Bernanke-Evans rule” working? Hell yes! At least in Mexico!

The Mexican economy recovered fast from the shock in 2008-9 and real GDP has been growing around 5% in the last three years and now growth is getting a further boost from the Fed’s monetary easing. Just take a look at the graphs below – especially keep an eye on what have happened since September 13 when the so-called Bernanke-Evans rule effectively was announced.

The Bernanke-Evans rule boosts the Mexican stock market

MXN stock market

Mexican consumers get a boost from Bernanke


Mexican industrialists are falling in love with Bernanke

PMI mexico

The US-Mex monetary transmission mechanism

A traditional Keynesian interpretation of what is going on would be that Bernanke’s monetary easing is boosting US industrial production, which is leading to an increase in Mexican exports to the US. The story is obviously right, but I would suggest that it is not the most important story. Rather what is important is the monetary transmission mechanism from the US to Mexico.

Here is that story. When the Fed steps up monetary easing it leads to a weakening of the dollar against all other currencies – including the Mexican peso as funds flow out of the US and into the Mexican markets. The Mexican central bank Banxico now has two options. Either the central bank de facto allows the peso to strengthen or it decides to “import” the Fed’s monetary easing by directly intervening in the currency market – buying dollars and selling pesos – or by cutting interest rates. No matter how this is done the result will be an increase in the Mexican money supply (relative to what otherwise would have happened). This in my view is what is driving the rally in the Mexican stock market and the spike in consumer and business confidence. It’s all monetary my friend.

Obviously Banxico don’t have to import the monetary easing from the US, but so far have chosen to do so. This has probably been well-advised, but the Mexican economy is certainly not in need of a US scale monetary easing. What is right for the US is not necessarily right for Mexico when it comes to monetary easing. Therefore, Banxico sooner or later have stop “importing” monetary easing from the US.

Luckily the Banxico can choose to “decouple” from the US monetary easing by allowing the peso to strengthen and thereby curb the increase in the money supply and reduce potential inflationary pressures. This in fact seems to be what has been happening in recent weeks where the peso has rallied against the dollar.

This is not the place to discuss what Banxico will do, but think the discussion of the US-Mex monetary transmission mechanism pretty well describe what many Emerging Markets central banks are now facing – monetary easing from the US is forcing them to choose between a stronger currency or a monetary expansion. However, unlike what Brazilian Finance Minister Mantega seems to think this is not such a terrible thing. Banxico and the Brazilian central bank and other EM central banks remain fully in charge of monetary policy themselves and if the central banks are clear about their monetary targets then the markets will do most of the lifting through the exchange rate channel.

Imagine for example that the Mexican peso starts to strengthen dramatically. Then that likely will push down Mexican inflation below Banxico’s inflation target pretty fast. With inflation dropping below the inflation target the markets will start to price a counter-reaction and a stepping up of monetary easing from Banxico and that in itself will curb the strengthening of the peso. Hence, the credibility of the central bank’s target is key.

And it is here that the Brazilians are facing a problem. As long as the central bank has one target things are fine. However, the Brazilian authorities often try to do more than one thing with monetary policy. Imagine the Brazilian economy is growing nicely and inflation is around the central bank’s inflation target. Then a positive monetary shock from the US will lead the Brazilian real to strengthen. That is no problem in terms of the inflation target. However, it will likely also lead the Brazilian export sector facing a competitiveness problem. Trying to “fix” this problem by easing monetary policy will on the other hand lead to excessively easy monetary policy. The Brazilian authorities have often tried to solve this “problem” by trying to curb currency inflows with different forms of currency restrictions and taxes. That has hardly been a success and luckily the Mexican authorities are much less interventionist in their attitudes.

The lesson here is that the Federal Reserve is a monetary superpower and the Fed can export monetary easing to other countries, but that do not mean that the Fed is in charge of monetary policy in Brazil or Mexico. The Brazilian and Mexican central banks can also choose not to import the monetary easing by simply letting their currencies strengthen and instead focus on it’s own monetary policy targets instead of trying to solve other “problems” such as competitiveness concerns. Excessive focus on competitiveness will lead central banks to ease monetary policy too much and the result is often rising inflationary pressures and bubbles.

PS don’t think that is this a zero sum – just because the Fed’s easing is working in Mexico does not mean that it is not working in the US.

PPS Nick Rowe once told a similar story about Hong Kong…with another FX regime.

Can NGDP level targeting cure the flu?

Not even Scott Sumner would answer “yes” to this question, but while NGDP level targeting will not cure the flu at least it will not kill you. Inflation targeting on the other hand will kill you if you get the flu. Confused? Then let me explain…

Over the past week the entire Christensen family has been down with a nasty flu. It has not been great, but it for some reason reminded me about economics. After consulting Google Trends (and seeing Fabebook updates from US Facebook friends) I realized that there is a pretty big flu epidemic on the entire Northern Hemisphere. Just take a look at Google flu trends. In the US the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday said that flu had reached epidemic proportions.

I am certainly no flu expert, but judging what I have just been through and from talking to friends and colleagues this is a pretty nasty flu causing people to feel sick for as much as 5-10 days. Obviously we have flu season every year, but this one seems to be especially nasty so you don’t have to be an economic (or medical) genius to realize that that could negatively impact economic activity across the entire Northern Hemisphere.

In fact the flu epidemic is a negative supply side to the affected countries and given the fact that most major countries on the Northern Hemisphere have been affected one could make the argument without being an alarmist that this is a sizable negative shock. Or at least for the sake of the argument lets say it is. This is how the “flu shock” looks like to the Northern Hemisphere economy:

Flu ASADThe “flu shock” pushes the AS curve to the left. This lead to a drop in production (real GDP) to Y’ from Y and at the same time pushes up prices from P to P’.

This is the cost of flu shock – lower production and higher prices.

This pretty well illustrates the primary difference between inflation targeting (or price level targeting) and NGDP level targeting.

In the case of NGDP level targeting the central bank will keep the NGDP level constant (or at a constant growth path) – hence try to keep P*Y constant.

As I have drawn the graph the size of P*Y more or less is the same size as P’*Y’ in this scenario so the central bank will just keep AD unchanged.

Said in another way since the central bank cannot cure the flu (supply shocks) it will not try. But at least that will (hopefully) not kill you.

Inflation targeting will kill the patient 

As the graph above shows a flu shock will push up the price level (and hence inflation). An inflation targeting central bank in response will tighten monetary policy (we completely unrealistically assume it is a ECB type inflation targeting central bank that take all supply shocks to be permanent). The graph below shows that:


This is the doctor treating the flu (a negative supply) with pneumonia (a negative demand shock).

So if the flu will not kill the patient there is a good chance the pneumonia will.

So if  Northern Hemisphere economic data starts to deteriorate in the coming weeks and inflation indicators start to inch up at the same time – then please ignore the “German doctor” if he prescribes pneumonia to cure your flu. Not ignoring him might kill you.

Forget about “hawks” and “doves” – what we need is a “monetary constitution”

Even though NGDP level targeting is becoming increasingly popular I am increasingly getting worried that people don’t really understand what Market Monetarists are talking about. The problem is that most observers and participants in the monetary policy debate continue to think about monetary policy in a highly discretionary way rather think about monetary policy in terms of rules.

Keynesian economists have traditionally been much less concerned about ensuring a rule based monetary policy so it is not surprising that they continue to think in terms of different positions in the monetary policy debate in terms of “hawks” and “doves”. However, a surprisingly large number of anti-keynesian free market oriented economists have also fallen into this trap of thinking about monetary policy issues in terms of “hawks” versus “doves”. They see themselves as “hawks” who should fight the keynesian “doves”. They tend to think that central banks only err on the inflationary side and never on the deflationary side and that the important thing therefore to always argue for tighter monetary policy.

However, the problem is not that central banks are always inflationary – they are not necessarily. Just look at the Bank of Japan or the ECB. The problem is that central banks are not ruled by a “monetary constitution”. There are no clear rules guiding the game and so they mess up things.

James Buchanan who sadly died earlier this week can hardly be said to have been a great monetary theorist (his monetary thinking was “old Chicago” – Frank Knight, Henry Simons and Lloyd Mints). However, that is not really important because what Buchanan taught us about monetary policy (and about everything else) was much more important. Buchanan was a constitutionalist. He was concerned about one thing and one thing only and that was how to define the rules the game – also in monetary matters. This to me is what Market Monetarism to a large extent is about (or at least should be about).

We want central banks to stop the ad hoc’ism. In fact we don’t even like independent central banks – as we don’t want to give them the opportunity to mess up things. Instead we basically want as Milton Friedman suggested to replace the central bank with a “computer”. The computer being a clear monetary policy rule. A monetary constitution if you like.

The problem with today’s monetary policy debate is that it is not a Buchanan inspired debate, but a debate about easier or tighter monetary policy. The debate should instead be about rules versus discretions and about what rules we should have.

Obviously Market Monetarists have been arguing in favour of monetary easing in both the US and the euro zone, but the argument is made within the framework of NGDP level targeting. We are not always “dovish”. In fact most of us would probably have argued that monetary policy in the US and in most Europe have been overly easy for the last 40 years. But that is besides the point. The point is that we really should not have a discussion about easier versus tighter monetary policy. We should debate the rules of the game – James Buchanan would have told us that.

I am not trying to say James Buchanan was Market Monetarist – he was not and I am sure he would not have liked that label. But I do think that Market Monetarists’ call for a rule based monetary policy is completely in the spirit of James Buchanan.

However, many of the economists who would normally be on the same side of the argument as Market Monetarists today see us as allies of the keynesians because they see the Market Monetarist call for easier monetary policy as meaning that we are keynesians – because they equate being keynesian with easy monetary policy and therefore if you are anti-keynesian you will have to be a “hawk”.

Take some of the “hawks” on the FOMC – for example Charles Plosser. Plosser of course academically comes from an economic tradition (Real Business Cycle theory) that should lead him to stress the importance of rules. However, over the last four years I have heard very little from Charles Plosser about the need for a rules based monetary policy. Instead Plosser has been speaking in the language of discretion. In that sense he has a lot more in common with the keynesian Federal Reserve officials of the 1970s than Market Monetarists have.

That said, Market Monetarists certainly have a problem as well. If somebody wrongly sees us as the monetary version of discretionary keynesian fiscalists like Paul Krugman then we have a problem. Then we need to explain ourselves. We need to explain that we want a monetary policy based on the constitutionalist thinking of James Buchanan. We don’t care about hawks and doves – the only thing we care about is limiting the central banks ability to mess us things by introducing clear and transparent monetary policy rules that limits the discretionary powers of the central banks. In that sense we have a lot in common with Austrian gold standard proponents despite the fact we strongly disagree on the causes of the Great Recession.

So concluding, Buchanan was right – we need a monetary constitution that limits the discretionary powers for central banks. Now lets discuss what that rule should be instead of the continued fruitless discussion about easier or tighter monetary policy and stop identifying yourselves as hawks or doves. The questions is whether you believe in a monetary constitution or not.

PS I use the term “keynesian” here in a certain way that I think that most of my readers understand and agree with. However, the New Keynesian traditions would certainly be as strongly against discretionary monetary policies as Market Monetarists. I would not place for example Paul Krugman in that New Keynesian tradition as he seems very happy to endorse all kind of discretionary shenanigans.

PPS The term “constitutionalist” is not meant to mean the US Constitution and it is not some fringe US populist tradition. It a form of economic thinking.

PPPS Market Monetarism of course is not just about NGDP level targeting and rules, but also about how to think about monetary theory – for example how to think about the monetary transmission mechanism. Hence, you are not automatically a Market Monetarist just because you favour NGDP level targeting and you can think as a Market Monetarist and not necessarily favour NGDP level targeting.

See this excellent lecture by James Buchanan about the Great Recession and Economists from 2011 (Buchanan was 91 at that time!). I disagree with some of his views of the specifics of the causes of the Great Recessions, but he fully agree with his view that the fundamental reason for the Great Recession was that the failure of the “rules”.

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

Damn flu…and a couple of interesting posts you should read

I have been down and out with a nasty flu in the last couple of days – as has the rest of Christensen household – so I am not really up for blogging. A bit of Googlenomics will tell you that I am not the only one with a flu in Denmark. See what Google Trends has to say about the issue here.

So you will have to excuse me – I am not really up for a lot of blogging. However, I anyway need to do a bit of PR for a couple of blog posts, which are critical (but friendly) of some of my posts.

First we start out with Bob Murphy. Bob wrote an excellent survey of why expansionary fiscal policy might not be expansionary at all and why fiscal austerity would not necessarily lead to a contraction in output. I wrote a post discussing this issue and while agreeing with Bob I claimed Bob ignored the importance. Now Bob has an excellent response to my post.

I my post I challenged Bob to find an example of “expansionary fiscal contraction” where NGDP growth was weak (monetary conditions were tight). Bob has this objection:

What do I mean? Well, suppose a new president (perhaps a fan of this blog) takes office in a small country and (a) cuts government spending by 30% in one year and income taxes by 15%, in absolute terms, and (b) abolishes the central bank and ties its currency to gold. A large budget deficit is transformed in one year into a modest surplus. Further suppose that my wacky Austrian views happen to be right–and Lars/Scott Sumner are utterly wrong. What happens?

Well, because I’m right (by stipulation), the real economy is just fine. There might be an initial period where the official unemployment rate in the country shoots through the roof, because workers have to move out of government (or government-subsidized) sectors, and into purely private sectors. But the big tax cuts and stability provided by the new gold standard, as well as the drop in government borrowing, lead to a fall in interest rates and a surge in private investment and job creation. Within 6 months, the unemployment rate is below the level at the start of the policy change. For the year, real GDP is up 8% when all is said and done, while consumer prices fall 2%.

Now I would look at this as a stunning refutation of Lars’ views, and a great counterexample. But he would look at the figures and say, “What do you mean Bob? Clearly maintaining aggregate expenditures was crucial for that giant reduction in government spending to work out. Nominal GDP rose 6% during the year, and interest rates fell. It was only the relatively loose monetary policy that offset the fiscal contraction.”

Does everybody see what I’m saying? Lars has defined “accommodative monetary policy” in such a way that I would have to find a government that simultaneously slashed spending while deliberately engineered massive price deflation. If the market monetarists are wrong, then it means a government could enact very tight restrictions on monetary inflation–perhaps going back on gold–and yet their own metric would classify that as “not tight” so long as the economy didn’t collapse. That is not a good way to think about these issues, especially since the very issue under dispute is whether the market monetarists are right

I am afraid Bob is right. I put together the challenge in a way that Bob would loose no matter what (I did not do that on purpose). Yes, I do doubt that the introduction of gold standard would do anything good to US growth (I in fact think it would be horribly negative), but Bob is right that if it had the impact that he describes then he would loose the argument with the Market Monetarists because we define monetary easing as an expansion in NGDP growth.

So I guess Bob and I will have to find a common framework in which we can figure out how to empirically test the Austrian versus the Market Monetarist view of fiscal policy. But that will be on a later time when I am not struggling with the flu. I am nonetheless grateful that Bob always is willing to engage in a gentlemanlike debate about important economic issues.

Talking about gentlemen. Here is Matt Nolan over at The Visible Hand in Economics:

Via James I saw this excellent post by Lars Christensen on why data revisions don’t matter for NGDP targeting.  I think it shows how much traction that the NGDP people are getting, when critiques like this start to appear – and it is good they are making a concerted effort to answer them.

Now I’m not actually someone who thinks that NGDP targeting isn’t what should be done (at this point, I’m still in agreement with the 2011 version of myself) – I don’t think it is terribly far off, and it provides a rule which is the main thing, so if it was to become core policy I wouldn’t be terribly concerned.

Now data revisions.  I think Christensen overstates how little they matter – even more than those who criticise NGDP targeting overstate how important it is.  In truth, the revisions issue is an important one because we are LEVEL targeting, and LEVEL targeting makes policy history dependent.  There are three real differences between flexible inflation targeting and NGDP targeting for a large economy, one of which is that point that NGDP targeting is level targeting and inflation targeting is growth rate targeting (for a small open economy, changes in tradeable good prices cause further issues – and I think NGDP doesn’t do this appropriately) … note, one other is the fact that NGDP targeting allows less discretion around the rule and an easier way to “judge” policy, something every economist outside of a central bank sees as a good thing ;) … note the third is that one is anchoring expectations of price growth unrelated to the market place, one is ahchoring expectations of the level of nominal income unrelated to the market place – here we can ask “which one is more important for business and household decisions”.

Even though Matt disagrees with some of my points I am nonetheless happy that he raises these points (there are a lot more in the post than what I quote here). I think NGDP targeting proponents need to engage the critiques. We need to explain our case. I hope to get back to the specific points in Matt’s post later, but until then I hope my readers will drop by The Visible Hand in Economics and take a look at Matt’s post for yourself.

Back to bed…

The last brick – RIP James M. Buchanan

Nobel Prize winning economist and founding father of the Public Choice school James M. Buchanan has died at age 93. His friends and students have already offered many kind words in his memory. Here I quote two of my friends professors Steve Horwtiz and Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard.

Here is Pete:

James M. Buchanan, RIP. If making a difference is what matters, he was one of the five most influential thinkers of the last 50 years. Sharp as a knife into his 90s and always the scholar.

And Steve:

There is much that one can say about him (Buchanan), not the least of which is that he was still intellectually sharp and active into his 90s. In short: he changed the face of economics and politics and advanced the cause of liberty as much as anyone in the second half of the 20th century…

…No one who wishes to talk responsibly about politics can be ignorant of public choice theory. No one should ever invoke the language of market failure (including externalities) without having digested his work on government failure. And people who run around talking about the constitution better be able to understand something of constitutional political economy.

Beyond all of that, he was a role model of the old school scholar: widely read and properly skeptical of turning economics into an engineering discipline. He was, at bottom, a humanist and a liberal in the oldest and best senses of the terms. And best of all: he was utterly unimpressed by degrees from fancy schools.

Buchanan produced an enormous amount of scholarly works including numerous books in his long life. Best known is probably The Calculus of Consent which he co-authored with Gordon Tullock. However, the works that had the biggest influence on my own thinking undoubtedly was “What should economists do?” and “Cost and Choice”.

Even though Buchanan primarily was a constitutional economist and a Public Choice theorist he also contributed to monetary thinking. His so-called brick standard was particularly intriguing. Here is Pete Boettke and Daniel Smith on Buchanan and the brick standard:

James Buchanan, sought to bring his extensive work on rule-making to bear in envisioning a monetary regime that could operate within a contemporary democratic setting. From the start, Buchanan (1999[1962]) eschewed the ‘presuppositions of Harvey road’ that held that economic policy would be crafted and implemented by a group of benevolent and enlightened elites. Buchanan set out to make the case for a monetary regime using comparative institutional analysis that compared monetary regimes in real, not ideal settings.

Buchanan (1999[1962]) believed that it was not so much the specific type of monetary regime adopted, but the set of rules that defined that regime. Buchanan argued that the brick standard, a labor standard, or a manager confined by well-defined rules, would all put a stop to the government growth let loose by the fiscal profligacy encouraged by the wide scale acceptance of Keynesian ideas in the political realm (see Buchanan and Wagner (2000[1977]). The brick standard, as defined by Buchanan, would be a monetary regime that allowed anyone to go to the mint with a standard building brick of a specified quality and exchange it for the monetary unit, and vice versa. As the general price level fluctuated, market forces would cause automatic adjustments as people would exchange money for bricks when the price level rose above the equilibrium level, and bricks for money when the price level fell below the equilibrium level. Under this regime, market actors, guided by profits and losses would be the mechanism that achieved price predictability, not a government-entity entrusted with the goal of achieving it. In addition, a brick standard would, most likely, divorce domestic monetary policy from international balance of payment and exchange rate policies due to the fact that a brick standard would be unsuitable for those purposes.

For Buchanan (1999[1962], 417), it came down to a toss-up between a brick type standard and a limited manager. What mattered most for monetary predictability was that the rules that set up the monetary regime must be of the ‘constitutional’ variety. In other words, the rules must be set to be ‘relatively absolute absolutes’ in order to protect them from tampering.

R.I.P. James M. Buchanan


Update – other economists and scholars on James Buchanan:

Steve Horwitz

Daniel Kuehn

Eamonn Butler

Don Boudreaux (also from Don in 2005 and Don in WSJ)

Mark D. White

Grover Cleveland

Mario Rizzo

David Boaz

Robert Higgs

David Henderson

Alex Tabarrok

Randall Holcombe

Peter Boettke

Ryan Young

Bill Woolsey

Veronique de Rugy

Nick Gillespie

Arnold Kling

Brad DeLong

Christian Bjørnskov (in Danish)

Tyler Cowen (more from Tyler Cowen)

Lenore Ealy

Garett Jones

Charles Rowley

Edward Lopez

The Economist: Free Exchange


Will anybody read this post if I put “data revisions” in the headline?

Opponents of NGDP level targeting often argue that nominal GDP is problematic as national account data often is revised and hence one would risk targeting the wrong data and that that could lead to serious policy mistakes. I in general find this argumentation flawed and find that it often based on a misunderstanding about what NGDP level targeting is about.

First of all let me acknowledge that macroeconomic data in general tend to undergo numerous revisions and often the data quality is very bad. That goes for all macroeconomic data in all countries. Some have for example argued that the seasonal adjustment of macroeconomic data has gone badly wrong in many countries after 2008. Furthermore, it is certainly not a nontrivial excise to correct data for different calendar effects – for example whether Easter takes place in February or March. Therefore, macroeconomic data are potentially flawed – not only NGDP data. That said, in many countries national account numbers – including GDP data – are often revised quite dramatically.

However, what critics fail to realise is that Market Monetarists and other proponents NGDP level targeting is arguing to target the present or history level of NGDP, but rather the future NGDP level. Therefore, the real uncertainty is not data revisions but about the forecasting abilities of central banks. The same is of course the case for inflation targeting – even though it often looks like the ECB is targeting historical or present inflation the textbook version of inflation forecasting clearly states that the central bank should forecast future inflation. In that sense future NGDP is not harder to forecast than future inflation.

I believe, however, there is pretty strong evidence that central banks in general are pretty bad forecasters and the forecasts are often biased in one or the other direction. There is therefore good reason to believe that the market is better at predicting nominal variables such as NGDP and inflation than central banks. Therefore, Market Monetarists – and Bill Woolsey and Scott Sumner particular – have argued that central banks (or governments) should set up futures markets for NGDP in the same way the so-called TIPS market in the US provides a market forecast for inflation. As such a market is a real-time “forecaster” and there will be no revisions and as the market would be forecasting future NGDP level the market would also provide an implicit forecast for data revisions – unlike regular macroeconomic forecasts. By using NGDP futures to guide monetary policy the central banks would not have to rely on potentially bias in-house forecasts and there would be no major problem with potential data revisions.

Furthermore, arguing that NGDP data can be revised might point to a potential (!) problem with NGDP, but at the same time if one argues that national account data in general is unreliable then it is also a problem for an inflation targeting central bank. The reason is that most inflation targeting central banks historical have use a so-called Taylor rule (or something similar) to guide monetary policy – to see whether interest rates should be increased or lowered.

We can write a simple Taylor rule in the following way:


Where R is the key policy interest rate, a and b are coefficients, p is actual inflation pT is the inflation target, y is real GDP and y* is potential GDP.

Hence, it is clear that a Taylor rule based inflation target also relies on national account data – not NGDP, but RGDP. And even more important the Taylor rule dependent on an estimate of potential real GDP.

Anybody who have ever seriously worked with trying to estimate potential GDP will readily acknowledge how hard it is to estimate and there are numerous methods to estimate potential GDP and the different methods – for example production function or HP filters – that would lead to quite different results. So here we both have the problem with data revisions AND the problem with estimating potential GDP from data that might be revised.

This is particularly important right now as many economists have argued that potential GDP has dropped in the both the US and the euro zone on the back of the crisis. If that is in fact the case then for a given inflation target monetary policy will have to be tighter than if there has not been a drop in potential GDP. Whether or not that has been a case is impossible to know – we might know it in 5 or 10 years, but now it is impossible to say whether euro zone trend growth is 1.2% or 2.2%. Who knows? That is a massive challenge to inflation targeting central bankers.

Contrary to this changes in potential GDP or for that matter short-term supply shocks (for example higher oil prices) will have no impact on the conduct on monetary policy as the NGDP targeting central bank will not concern itself with the split between real GDP growth and inflation.

An example of the problems of how we measure inflation is the ECB two catastrophic interest rate hikes in 2011. The ECB twice hiked interest rates and in my view caused a massive escalation of the euro crisis. What the ECB reacted to was a fairly steep increase in headline consumer prices. However, in hindsight (and for some of us also in real-time) it is (was) pretty clear that there was not a real increase in inflationary pressures in the euro zone. The increase in headline consumer price inflation was caused by supply shocks and higher indirect taxes, which is evident from comparing the GDP deflator (which showed no signs of escalating inflationary pressures) with consumer prices inflation. Again, there would have been no mixing up of demand and supply shocks if the ECB had targeted the NGDP level instead. From that it was very clear that monetary conditions were very tight in 2011 and got even tighter as the ECB moved to hike interest rates. Had the ECB focused on the NGDP level then it would obviously have realised that what was needed was monetary easing and not monetary tightening and had the ECB acted on that then the euro crisis likely would already have been over.

It should also be noted that even though NGDP numbers tend to be revised that does not mean that the quality of the numbers as such are worse than inflation data. In fact inflation data are often of a very dubious character. An example is the changes in the measurement of consumers prices in the US after the so-called Boskin report came out in 1996. The report concluded that US inflation data overestimated inflation by more than 1% – and therefore equally underestimated real GDP growth. Try to plug that into the Taylor rule above. That means that p is lower and y* is higher – both would lead to the conclusion that interest rates should be lowered. Some have claimed that the revisions made to the measurement of consumer prices in the US caused the Federal Reserve to pursue an overly easy monetary stance in the end of the 1990s, which caused the dot-com bubble. I have some sympathy for this view and at least I know that had the Fed been following a strict NGDP level targeting regime at the end of the 1990s then it would have tighten monetary faster and more aggressively than it did in particularly 1999-2000 as the Fed would have disregarded the split between prices and real GDP and instead focused on the escalation of NGDP growth.

Concluding, yes national account numbers – including NGDP numbers – are often revised and that creates some challenges for NGDP targeting. However, the important point is that present and historical data is not important, but rather the expectation of the future NGDP, which an NGDP futures market (or a bookmaker for that matter) could provide a good forecast of (including possible data revisions). Contrary to this inflation targeting central banks also face challenges of data revisions and particularly a challenge to separate demand shocks from supply shocks and estimating potential GDP.
Therefore, any critique of NGDP targeting based on the “data revision”-argument is equally valid – or even more so – in the case of inflation targeting. Hence, worries about data quality is not an argument against NGDP targeting, but rather an argument for scrapping inflation targeting – the ECB with its unfortunate actions proved that in both 2008 and 2011.

The trillion dollar coin is an utterly idiotic idea

Following US political debate these days is like following a bad parody of a third world banana republic and even though I the deepest respect for Americans and US in general I must say it is hard not to agree with those Europeans that shake their heads these days and say “they are stupid those Americans”. Well, it is not the Americans – it is their politicians and you could say a similar thing about Europe.

The latest banana republic gimmick is the suggestion that the US Treasury should use a legal loophole to print a trillion dollar coin in the event that the US congressional majority – that’s the Republicans – would refuse to increase the so-called debt celling.

The idea in my view is completely ludicrous and it is incredible that anybody seriously would even contemplate such an idea. Anyway, is Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman:

“It’s easy to make sententious remarks to the effect that we shouldn’t look for gimmicks, we should sit down like serious people and deal with our problems realistically. That may sound reasonable — if you’ve been living in a cave for the past four years.Given the realities of our political situation, and in particular the mixture of ruthlessness and craziness that now characterizes House Republicans, it’s just ridiculous — far more ridiculous than the notion of the coin.

So if the 14th amendment solution — simply declaring that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional — isn’t workable, go with the coin.”

Nobel Prize or not Krugman is wrong – as he so often is.

First, of all there is no reason to think that the US government would have to default on it’s public debt just because the debt ceiling is not increased. The monthly debt servicing costs in the US is significantly smaller than the US government’s total monthly tax revenues. It might be that the US Treasury would have to stop paying out salaries to US Congressmen and stop buying new military hardware for a while – neither would be a major lose – but the tax revenues would easily cover  the debt servicing costs. That of course do not mean that I suggest that the debt ceiling should not be increased – that is US party political shenanigans that I simply don’t even want to comment on. However, it is wrong to suggest that the US government would automatically default if the debt ceiling is not increased.

Lars, wouldn’t a 1 trillion dollar coin be monetary easing? So it most be good?

What I really want to discuss is the Market Monetarist perspective on this discussion. Yes, Market Monetarists have for the past four years argued that US monetary policy has been overly tight and the reason the US recovery has been so relatively weak is the that Federal Reserve has had too tight monetary policy. That has led Market Monetarists like myself and other to call for monetary easing from the Federal Reserve.

However, at the core of Market Monetarist thinking is not the call for monetary easing and no Market Monetarist has ever said that monetary easing is the cure of all evils. Rather at the centre of Market Monetarist thinking is the call for a rule based monetary policy. An easing of monetary policy based on a trillion dollar coin is probably the most discretionary and least rule based monetary (and fiscal) idea anybody have come up with over the past four years.

Yes, Market Monetarists are certainly skeptical about central bankers ability to conduct monetary policy in a proper fashion, but that certainly do not mean that we think US politicians and bureaucrats in the US Treasury would do a better job. Far from it!

I would even go further – I don’t necessarily think that the US economy needs more quantitative easing IF the Federal Reserve started conducting monetary policy based on a transparent monetary rule like NGDP level targeting. Furthermore, if I would have to chose between an NGDP level target or a massive ramping up of quantitative easing within a discretionary framework then there is no doubt that I would choose the rule based framework. Market Monetarists are not the monetary version of discretionary Krugmanian fiscal policy.

Concluding, the trillion dollar coin idea is stupid. It is stupid because it banana republic “economic” policy based on the worst political motives without any foundation in the rule of law and a general rules based framework.

The fact is that the US government faces serious fiscal challenges. The US public debt level needs to be reduced and even if the Federal Reserve pushed back NGDP to its pre-crisis trend level I believe there would be a significant need for fiscal consolidation. There is no getting around it – debt ceiling or not, trillion dollar coin or not – fiscal policy will have to be tightened sooner or later. And if you need idea about what to cut I have some ideas about that as well (see here).

It is simple mamanomics – you can’t continue spending more money than you have. It might be that certain US policy makers would be happy if their mom raised their weekly allowances, but would they also be happy if their mom prostituted herself to do that?

PS there is no party politics in what I am saying – I have the same lack of respect for both main political parties in the US as do most Americans.

PPS Scott Sumner and Tyler Cowen also comment on the trillion dollar coin – for some reason the two gentlemen are slightly more diplomatic than I am. Josh Hendrickson, however, is as clear on the issue as I am – Josh has two posts on the trillion dollar coin. See here and here.

PPPS If you think there is a lot of James Buchanan and Friedrich Hayek in this post then I have achieved what I want to achieve. After all Friedman and Schwartz’s “Monetary History” is not the only book I read.

Update: Both Steve Horwitz and George Selgin comment on the trillion dollar coin – not surprisingly I have no reason to disagree with the two gentlemen.

Bob Murphy on fiscal austerity – he is nearly right

Bob Murphy has a very good discussion on Econlib about “What Economic Research Says About Fiscal Austerity and Higher Tax Rates”.

Bob has a very good discussion about why the traditional keynesian thinking on monetary policy is wrong and has a good discussion about what Bob terms “Expansionary Austerity”, but what also have been termed expansionary fiscal contractions.

Bob among other points to Giavazz and Pagano’s pathbreaking 1990 study “Can Severe Fiscal Contractions Be Expansionary? Tales of Two Small European Countries.”  Giavazz and Pagano in their paper highlight two cases of expansionary fiscal contractions. That is Denmark 1982-1985 and Ireland 1987-89. In both cases fiscal policy was tightened and the public deficit reduced dramatically and in both cases – contrary to what (paleo?) Keynesian theory would predicted – the economy expanded.

The Danish and Irish cases are hence often highlighted when the case is made that fiscal policy can be tightened without leading to a recession. I fully share this view. However, where a lot of the literature on expansionary fiscal contractions – including Bob’s mini survey of the literature – fails is that the role of monetary policy is not discussed. In fact I would argue that Denmark was a case of an expansionary monetary contraction – a the introduction of new strict pegged exchange rate regime strongly reduced inflation expectations (I might return to that issue in a later post…).

In all the cases I know of where there has been expansionary fiscal contractions monetary policy has been kept accommodative in the since that nominal GDP – which of course is determined by the central bank – is kept “on track”. This was also the case in the Danish and Irish cases where NGDP grew strong through the fiscal consolidation period.

My view is therefore that that fiscal austerity certainly will not have to lead to a recession IF monetary policy ensures a stable growth rate of nominal GDP. This in my view mean that we will have to be a lot more skeptical about austerity for example in Spain or Greece being successful. Spain and Greece do not have their own monetary policy and therefore the countries cannot counteract possible contractionary effects of fiscal austerity with monetary policy. That of course does not mean that these countries should not tighten fiscal policy – in my view there is no other option – but it mean that austerity in these countries are not likely to have the same positive growth effects as in Denmark and Ireland in the 1980s.

Therefore, in my view the future research on expansionary fiscal contractions should focus on the policy mix – what happened to monetary policy during the periods of fiscal consolidation? -instead of just focusing on the fiscal part of the story.

All the cases of expansionary fiscal consolidations I have studied has been accompanied by a period of fairly high and stable NGDP growth and the unsuccessful periods have been accompanied by monetary contractions. My challenge to Bob would therefore be that he should find just one case of a expansionary fiscal contraction where NGDP growth was weak…

PS the discussion above it about the business cycle perspective. Obviously if we take a longer term perspective then supply side factors dominate demand side factors. In these cases I think is it fairly easy to demonstrate that cuts in public spending will increase potential or long-term real GDP growth. I am pretty sure that Bob and I fully agree on this issue – others might not…



Billl Gates on M-Pesa

Here is Bill Gates:

Usually, “optimism” and “realism” are used to describe two different outlooks on life. But I believe that a realistic appraisal of the human condition compels an optimistic worldview. I am particularly optimistic about the potential for technological innovation to improve the lives of the poorest people in the world. That is why I do the work that I do.

Consider the example of M-Pesa, Kenya’s mobile-banking service that allows people to send money via their cellphones. M-Pesa first needed to invest in many brick-and-mortar stores where subscribers could convert the cash they earn into digital money (and back into cash). This real-world infrastructure will be necessary until economies become completely cashless, which will take decades.
Without omnipresent cash points, M-Pesa would be no more convenient than traditional ways of moving money around. At the same time, it was impossible to persuade retail stores to sign on as cash points unless there were enough M-Pesa subscribers to make it profitable for them.
There have been many successful small-scale pilot programmes using cellphones. But examples of large-scale, self-sustaining programmes powered by digital technology, like M-Pesa, are harder to find, because the key pieces have not been put into place to enable the required work to advance beyond the limits of controlled experiments.
So true, so true…
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