Property rights and banking crisis – towards a “Financial Constitution”

I just found a great paper – “A Coasean Approach to Bank Resolution Policy in the Eurozone” – on banking resolution by Gregory Connor and Brian O’Kelly. Here is the abstract:

“The Eurozone needs a bank resolution regime that can work across seventeen independent nations of diverse sizes with varying levels of financial development, limited fiscal co- responsibility, and with systemic instability induced by quick and low-cost deposit transfers across borders. We advocate a Coasean approach to bank resolution policy in the Eurozone, which emphasises clear and consistent contracts and makes explicit the public ownership of the externality costs of bank distress. A variety of resolution mechanisms are compared including bank debt holder bail-in, prompt corrective action, and contingent convertible bonds. We argue that the “dilute-in” of bank debt holders via contingent convertibility provides a clearer and simpler Coasean bargain for the Eurozone than the more conventional alternatives of debt holder bail-in or prompt corrective action.”

I found the paper as I was searching the internet for papers on banking regulation and property rights theory. If we fundamentally want to understand banking crisis we should understand incentives and property rights.

Who owns “profits” and “liability”? Who will be paying the bills? The banks’ owners, the clients, the employees, the bank management or the taxpayers? If property rights are badly defined or there are incentive conflicts we will get banking troubles.

In that sense banking crisis is a constitutional economics problem. Therefore, we cannot really understand banking crisis by just looking at specific issues such as how much capital or liquidity banks should hold. We need to understand the overall incentives facing all players in the “banking game” – owners, clients, employees, bank managements, regulators and politicians.

Inspired by Peter Boettke’s and Daniel Smith’s for a “Quest for Robust Political Economy” of monetary policy we could say we need a “Robust Political Economy of Financial Regulation”. I believe that Connor’s and O’Kelly’s paper contributes to this.

Another paper that helps use get a better understanding of the political economy of financial regulation and crisis is Josh Hendrickson’s new paper “Contingent Liability, Capital Requirements, and Financial Reform” (forthcoming in Cato Journal). Here is the abstract:

“Recently, it has been argued that banks hold an insufficient amount of capital. Put differently, banks issue too much debt relative to equity. This claim is particularly important because, all else equal, lower levels of capital put banks at greater risk of insolvency. As a result, some have advocated imposing capital requirements on banks. However, even if one accepts the proposition that banks hold too little capital, it does not neces- sarily follow that the correct policy response is to force banks to hold more capital. An alternative to higher capital requirements is a system in which banks have contingent liability. Under contingent liability, shareholders are liable for at least some portion of depositor losses. This alternative is not unprecedented. Historical evidence from the United States and elsewhere suggest that banks with contingent liability have more desirable charac- teristics than those with limited liability and that depositors tend to pre- fer contingent liability when given the choice. Successful banking reform should be aimed at re-aligning bank incentives rather than providing new rules for bank behavior.”

Lets just take the last sentence once again – “Successful banking reform should be aimed at re-aligning bank incentives rather than providing new rules for bank behavior.” 

Hence, if we want to “design” good banking regulation we fundamentally need a property rights perspective or even in a broader sense a “Financial Constitution” in the spirit of James Buchanan’s “Monetary Constitution”.

Concluding, yes we might learn something about banking crisis and banking regulation by studying finance theory, but we will probably learn a lot more by studying Law and Economics and Public Choice Theory.

Related posts:

“Fragile by design” – the political causes of banking crisis
Beating the Iron Law of Public Choice – a reply to Peter Boettke

Airport musings on India, Danish efficiency and Larry Summers

I am writing this while I am sitting in London’s Heathrow Airport (Terminal 5) after having spent a couple of days in London.

To be quite frank I think I have been suffering from a bit of writer’s block in the past couple of weeks – maybe because I have been too busy with other things, but also because I have been a bit uncertain what stories I really wanted to tell. I could of course blame Paul Krugman – after all his writings on Milton Friedman greatly upset me and I wanted to respond to Krugman’s posts on Friedman, but on the other hand I didn’t really want Krugman to dictate what I was going to blog about. So enough said about Krugman.

So now I am trying to get over the writer’s block with another round of musings.

The most interesting story – India. Unfortunately it is not positive

Since May the Indian rupee has more or less been in a free fall to the great concern of Indian policy makers who are trying hard to curb the sell-off. Anybody who has read and understood Milton Friedman’s classic article “The Case for Flexible Exchange Rates” will be able to realize that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is making a serious policy mistake when it is trying to curb the weakening of the rupee.

The sell-off in the rupee has likely been triggered by market fears of Fed tapering, general Emerging Markets gloom and spill-over from the Chinese growth slowdown. However, it is also clear that India is suffering from serious structural problems which have resulted in a double deficit – sizable current account and public finance deficits.

All this easily explains and justifies the weakening of the rupee. Hence, the sell-off is a natural reaction to external shocks and imbalances in the Indian economy. The Indian authorities should therefore fundamentally welcome the drop in the rupee as a natural adjustment. An adjustment that will be a lot smoother than if India had had a fixed exchange rate regime.

However, the RBI’s insistence on trying to curb the sell-off in the rupee is fundamentally an abrupt monetary policy tightening and the likely result is that Indian growth is going to take a beating.

One can of course argue that the RBI long ago should have moved to tighten monetary policy – NGDP growth clearly was excessive in 2008-10. However, the fundamental problem is the RBI’s lack of commitment to a clear and transparent monetary policy rule. The RBI’s continued extremely discretionary stop-go policies are a serious problem in terms of both macroeconomic and financial stability.

In my view the RBI should implement an NGDP targeting regime targeting 7 or 8% NGDP growth going forward (see more on that suggestion here). That would be a “tighter” monetary policy than what we have seen in recent years, but it would likely be “expansionary” in the sense that it would provide a lot more stability for the Indian economy, which likely would help boost long-term real GDP growth. Furthermore, a clear and transparent monetary policy would provide the necessary nominal stability for the Indian government to start serious structural reforms to reduce India’s large public budget deficit and to boost long-term trend growth.

Ashok Rao has a couple of very good posts on India. Ashok provides some justification for the RBI’s attempts to curb the sell-off in the rupee and he also provides some arguments why we should not become too negative on the Indian economy. I disagree with some of what Ashok is saying, but he has good arguments. Take a look for yourself (here and here).

Denmark is the most efficient economy in the world (at least in terms of airport security)

Thursday morning when I was flying to London from Copenhagen I noticed a billboard saying that Copenhagen Airport has been voted the most efficient airport in the world when it comes to airport security by something called Skytrax. I have earlier argued that efficiency in airport security is a good indicator of the overall level of regulation/efficiency in an economy.

So I guess if Skytrax is right then there might be some reason to argue that Denmark indeed is the most efficient/competitive economy in the world or at least the least regulated economy in the world. If we look at different competitive and regulation indicators Denmark actually is on the very top in the world – whether you look at the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index, the World’s Ease of Doing Business index or the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report.

I haven’t had time to look more at the Skytrax data, but I am pretty convinced that the Skytrax rating of airport security efficiency will be highly correlated with other measures of economic efficiency/competitiveness. Maybe, maybe one of these days I will write more on this…

Summers is not more hawkish than Yellen, but he will be massively more partisan

I have been trying to write a blog post on Summers vs Yellen, but now I will instead just state some of the conclusions here.

It is normally assumed that Larry Summers will be a more hawkish Fed chairman than Janet Yellen because he dislikes quantitative easing (as many other paleo-Keynesians). However, I think it is important to note that Summers’ preferences in terms of unemployment versus inflation certainly are not hawkish. Rather the opposite. He just thinks that fiscal policy rather than monetary policy should be used to boost aggregate demand.

Therefore, in a world where the Fed is moving toward “tapering” and in a couple of years rate hikes there is likely not a big difference between Yellen and Summers. It is only if additional “stimulus” is needed – due to for example a new negative shock – that Summers will be more hawkish than Yellen.

Furthermore, Summers is a Democrat and part of the Clinton “family”. Therefore I am fairly convinced that he will do anything to help Hillary Clinton get elected US president in 2016. Yellen on the other hand is much less likely to act as a partisan Fed chairwoman.

Now some might say that Market Monetarists have been screaming about the need for monetary easing for years so we should be happy if Summers becomes Fed chairman and actually steps up monetary easing toward the 2016 presidential elections.

That, however, would completely miss the point Market Monetarists have been making. We want a clear monetary policy rule. We don’t care about discussing monetary policy in terms of hawks and doves. We need the Fed to follow a monetary policy rule. Both Yellen and Summers are likely to be tempted to continue the Fed’s unfortunate discretionary policies.

Summers famously was on the “committee to save the world” when he with Rubin and Greenspan “saved” the world from disaster during the Asian crisis in 1997. I am extremely critical about about Summers’ abilities as a firefighter. In fact I am extremely critical about the very concept that central bankers should act as firefighters.

Central bankers should instead stop starting fires. However, I am afraid that 2014 might very well be the year where Chairman Summers will be trying to save the world from the Second Asian Crisis. Yes, I have some very deep concerns about how things will play out in Asia – with both China and India likely to make new serious policy mistakes.

PS I most of this article was written in Heathrow airport on Friday. I am now happily back home in Denmark.

 

Paul Krugman and ‘reality TV economics’

I have been thinking a lot about whether to write this blog post or not because by doing so I will get involved in what I am trying to criticize – the emergence of what we could term ‘reality TV economics’.

Even those of us who hate reality TV know about the Kardashians – not because we go looking for news of the reality TV family, but because the media around the world would write so much about the family that it is impossible not to come across “news” of the family. In fact every country in the world has a “Kardashian” – somebody who is only famous because they are famous. They are not famous because of their intellectual capacities or because they have been successful in business or sports. In fact many reality stars are reality stars because they have failed in what they aspired to do in the first place. Just think about the number of failed actors who today have their own reality TV show, but who are also unable to get an acting job. When your agent stops calling you will try to get your own reality TV show – it is unemployment insurance for Hollywood actors.

One of the things that makes reality TV stars “interesting” is that they will do and say outrageous things. It seems like there is a genuine demand for this kind of thing. I must say I personally hate it and I try not to watch any form of reality TV, but it is not going away. In fact it seems like we are getting more and more of it every year. I am tempted to say it is market failure, but growing up in Scandinavia I have tried purely government run TV. I prefer bad reality TV to that.

Is Paul Krugman the Kim Kardashian of economics?

Unfortunately the reality TV phenomenon is spreading to the field of economics – or at least to economics blogs. The best example of this trend is Paul Krugman. He is surely the Kim Kardashian of the economic blogosphere.

The fact that Paul Krugman won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2008 is not what makes him a “popular” economist. In fact most people don’t even have a clue about what research he did to get his well-deserved Nobel Prize. Krugman is famous for being Krugman – not for being a great trade theorist (he is). I find that extremely unfortunate, but you can only blame Paul Krugman for that.

Like the Kardashians Paul Krugman’s business model is to say outrageous things. That has made him extremely popular among leftists around the world and hated by many on the right. Lately he has succeeded in stirring up trouble by trashing both Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and belittling their contributions to economics and to the public discourse on economics.

I don’t even want to comment on Krugman’s comments on Friedman and Hayek other than saying that he has succeeded in his mission to provoke. However, his attempt to discredit two of the greatest economic minds of the last 100 years will not be successful. In 50 years nobody will read Krugman’s slanderous attacks on these two great economists, but economic students will certainly still study Hayek and Friedman. I would also hope that they will read Krugman’s contributions to trade theory and to “new economic geography”, but that is much less likely.

The unfortunate Krugman-industry

I do not read Paul Krugman’s blog regularly. The reason is that nine out of ten blog posts are about telling the readers how stupid other economists and policy makers are and how clever Paul Krugman is. That is not interesting for somebody truly interested in economics. However, I would also say that in 10% of his blog posts he demonstrates how truly great an economist he really is and these articles I always enjoy reading – both when I agree and when I disagree.

So be it. It is his choice to write in the way he wants and as far as I can see his business model has made him a very wealthy man so I can understand that he maintains this reality TV style. The fact that he is in the process of likely also destroying his intellectual legacy is another thing. I used to have respect for Paul Krugman the economist, but I have no respect for his tribalist slander of fellow economists. This is not a question about whether I agree with him or not. It is a matter of style.

What I, however, think is more critical about this is the emergence of a Krugman-industry. Hence, it is unquestionable that Krugman’s New York Times blog is the most popular economics blog in the world (mainly because it is about American political tribalism rather than economics). No economist in the world has more followers on Twitter (he is, however, nobody compared to Kim Kardashian who has 18 million followers on Twitter). The popularity of Krugman means that you can get some of that popularity – in the blogosphere measured by hits on your blog – if Krugman says you are a great guy and or that you are an idiot. In fact there is a large industry providing services to Krugman haters.

This means that if you want to greatly increase the traffic on your blog you try to be mentioned by Krugman on his blog (and no that is not what I am trying to do here…). This is what makes Krugman interesting to his fellow bloggers – whether Keynesian, socialist, Marxist, Monetarist, Conservative or Austrian – and I guess this is the reason why so many bloggers like to write about Krugman. For some it has become their business model to cheerlead for Krugman and for others the business model is to badmouth him. No matter what they are generally not contributing to economic discourse, but are rather becoming part of the ever increasing industry of ‘reality TV economics’.

I am no saint. I would love to get millions of hits on my blog and I have often been tempted to go down the path of reality TV economics (and have done it from time to time) and I know that the likelihood that one of my posts will get a lot of hits increases dramatically if I slander a fellow economist or call a policy maker an idiot (that is easy). Saying that Paul Krugman is the Kim Kardashian of economics is surely likely to increase the traffic on my blog a lot more than when I write about monetary policy in Angola. I just hope it was different.

Mark Carney’s tiny step in the right direction

I have an oped in UK’s City AM on Bank of England’s new forward guidance regime. Yes, I am disappointed…

ALMOST everyone will be disappointed by governor Mark Carney’s announcement yesterday. Those hoping the Bank of England would announce more monetary easing will feel let down. And while those of us hoping for strictly rules-based policy do have something to be happy about, Carney needed to go much further.

The Bank has now spelled out its own version of the Federal Reserve’s Evans Rule. The “Carney Rule”, as we might call it, implies that the Bank will commit itself to maintaining interest rates at the present level as long as unemployment is above 7 per cent, and the Bank’s inflation forecast is below 2.5 per cent….

Read more here

PS Mark Carney tightened monetary policy yesterday. Just look at the pound (it strengthened) and the UK stock market (it dropped). So those who fear that inflation is about to get out of control in the UK are very wrong.

Mark Carney please listen to “Reform”

The UK think tank Reform has good advice for Bank of England governor Mark Carney. This is from Reform’s latest publication “Kick-starting growth” (I stole it from it from Britmouse):

“The upshot is that ideal Bank policy should pin the two or three year forecast of inflation at 2 per cent, unless there are extenuating factors. Figure 6 shows that monetary policy performed exceptionally well on that score prior to the recession.

However, when the financial crisis hit the Bank was slow to respond, with the two-year inflation forecast dropping to just 0.3 per cent in 2009. That, coupled with the huge fall in nominal output, indicates a need to massively loosen monetary policy, which the Bank eventually did when it dropped its interest rate to 0.5 per cent and implemented a programme of quantitative easing.

Those actions have often been represented as constituting extremely loose monetary policy but the persistently low inflation forecasts tell a different story. In fact, monetary policy has been tight by the Bank’s own measures, with forecast inflation well below target throughout much of the recession. The low forecast path looks even worse in light of the series of external shocks to the CPI, such as VAT and tuition fees, detailed previously. Bearing in mind the large, positive shocks to the CPI, the forecast path shows even tighter policy, which suggests the Bank may have been focussing on inflation concerns to the exclusion of growth.

As Milton Friedman famously remarked, “Low interest rates are generally a sign that money has been tight, as in Japan; high interest rates, that money has been easy.” The UK’s low interest rates are not a signal that policy is easy, but rather a sign that nominal growth expectations are low. That problem can largely be laid at the feet of monetary policy.”

It hardly gets more Market Monetarist than this and we can only hope that Carney have read the Reform report ahead of tomorrow’s crucial and long-awaited announcement of BoE’s new “strategy”. I doubt we will get an announcement of an NGDP targeting regime, but we might get the announcement of a Evans rule style monetary policy in the UK. That would be NGDP targeting ultra light.

Even though I am not too optimistic about major regime change in UK monetary policy I must on the other hand say that there is no country in the world where Market Monetarists ideas have had such a big impact on the intellectual debate as in the UK – particularly among the UK think tanks. That makes me optimistic that UK monetary policy in the coming years will move even closer to the Market Monetarist ideal – even if Carney disappoint us all tomorrow.

HT Mike Bird

Did Bennett McCallum run the SNB for the last 20 years?

Which central bank has conducted monetary policy in the best way in the last five years? Among “major” central banks the answer in my view clearly would have to be the SNB – the Swiss central bank.

Any Market Monetarist would of course tell you that you should judge a central bank’s performance on it’s ability to deliver nominal stability – for example hitting an nominal GDP level target. However, for an small very open economy like the Swiss it might make sense to look at Nominal Gross Domestic Demand (NGDD).

This is Swiss NGDD over the past 20 years.

NGDD Switzerland

Notice here how fast the NGDD gap (the difference between the actual NGDD level and the trend) closed after the 2008 shock. Already in 2010 NGDD was brought back to the 1993-trend and has since then NGDD has been kept more or less on the 1993-trend path.

Officially the SNB is not targeting NGDD, but rather “price stability” defined as keeping inflation between 0 and 2%. This has been the official policy since 2000, but at least judging from the actually development the policy might as well have been a policy to keep NGDD on a 2-3% growth path. 

Bennett McCallum style monetary policy is the key to success

So why have the SNB been so successful?

My answer is that the SNB – knowingly or unknowingly – has followed Bennett McCallum’s advice on how central banks in small open economies should conduct monetary policy. Bennett has particularly done research that is relevant to understand how the SNB has been conducting monetary policy over the past 20 years.

First, of all Bennett is a pioneer of NGDP targeting and he was recommending NGDP targeting well-before anybody ever heard of Scott Summer or Market Monetarism.  A difference between Market Monetarists and Bennett’s position is that Market Monetarists generally recommend level targeting, while Bennett (generally) has been recommending growth targeting.

Second, Bennett has always forcefully argued that monetary policy is effective in terms of determining NGDP (or NGDD) also when interest rates are at zero and he has done a lot of work on optimal monetary policy rules at the Zero Lower Bound (See for example here). One obvious policy is quantitative easing. This is what Bennett stressed in his early work on NGDP growth targeting.  Hence, the so-called Mccallum rule is defined in terms the central bank controlling the money base to hit a given NGDP growth target. However, for small open economies Bennett has also done very interesting work on the use of the exchange rate as a monetary policy tool when interest rates are close to zero.

I earlier discussed what Bennett has called a MC rule. According to the MC rule the central bank will basically use interest rates as the key monetary policy rule. However, as the policy interest rate gets close to zero the central bank will start giving guidance on the exchange rate to change monetary conditions. In his models Bennett express the policy instrument (“Monetary Conditions”) as a combination of a weighted average of the nominal exchange rate and a monetary policy interest rate.

SNB’s McCallum rule

My position is that basically we can discribe SNB’s monetary policy over the past 20 years based on these two key McCallum insights – NGDP targeting and the use of a combination of interest rates and the exchange rate as the policy instrument.

To illustrate that I have estimated a simple OLS regression model for Swiss interest rates.

It turns out that it is very to easy to model SNB’s reaction function for the last 20 years. Hence, I can explain 85% of the variation in the Swiss 3-month LIBOR rate since 1996 with only two variables – the nominal effective exchange rate (NEER) and the NGDD gap (the difference between the actual level of Nominal Gross Domestic Demand and the trend level of NGDD). Both variables are expressed in natural logarithms (ln).

The graph below shows the actually 3-month LIBOR rate and the estimated rate.

SNB policy rule

As the graph shows the fit is quite good and account well for the ups and down in Swiss interest rates since 1996 (the model also works fairly well for an even longer period). It should be noted that I have done the model for purely illustrative purposes and I have not tested for causality or the stability of the coefficients in the model. However, overall I think the fit is so good that this is a pretty good account of actual Swiss monetary policy in the last 15-20 years.

I think it is especially notable that once interest rates basically hit zero in early 2010 the SNB initially started to intervene in the currency markets to keep the Swiss franc from strengthening and later – in September 2011 – the SNB moved to put a floor under EUR/CHF at 120 so to completely curb the strengthening of Swiss franc beyond that level. As a result the nominal exchange rate effectively has been flat since September 2011 (after an initial 10% devaluation) despite massive inflows to Switzerland in connection with the euro crisis and rate of expansion in the Swiss money supply has accelerated significantly.

Concluding, Swiss monetary policy has very much been conducted in the spirit of Bennett McCallum – the SNB has effectively targeted (the level of) Nominal Gross Domestic Demand and SNB has effectively used the exchange rate instrument to ease monetary conditions with interest rates at the Zero Lower Bound.

The result is that the Swiss economy only had a very short period of crisis in 2008-9 and the economy has recovered nicely since then. Unfortunately none of the other major central banks of the world have followed the advice from Bennett McCallum and as a result we are still stuck in crisis in both Europe and the US.

PS I am well-aware that the discuss above is a as-if discussion that this is what the SNB has actually said it was doing, but rather that it might as well been officially have had a McCallum set-up.  

PPS If one really wants to do proper econometric research on Swiss monetary policy I think one should run a VAR model on the 3-month LIBOR rate, the NGDD gap and NEER and all of the variables de-trended with a HP-filter. I will leave that to somebody with econometric skills and time than myself. But I doubt it would change much with the conclusions.

Mr. Kuroda’s vacation plans

This is from the Wall Street Journal blog Japan Real Time:

Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda has set himself apart from his predecessors with his aggressive style of running the central bank, and it turns out his approach to preparing for summer vacation is a departure from the past too.

In an unusual move for a Japanese central bank governor, Mr. Kuroda on Monday talked a little about his summer holiday plans.

“To tell the truth, I’m planning to take time overseas for a summer holiday in mid-August,” Mr. Kuroda said in response to a question at an otherwise straightforward speech on monetary policy and the economy.

While taking a week off during the summer isn’t unusual for a BOJ governor or other senior officials, talking about it in front of an audience of nearly 1,400 is unusual.

Customarily, the BOJ keeps the governor’s holiday schedule secret, partly out of concern that announcing it could lead to unintended speculation in financial markets.

Moreover, the BOJ governor’s absence during Japan’s traditional August holiday season suggests the central bank doesn’t expect any major issues to arise during that period. Mr. Kuroda did indeed appear relaxed as he talked about the effects of his monetary easing program, saying the economy is on a “steady path toward escaping deflation.”

Good for him! This is how a central bank chief should be speaking, but it is in stark contrast to the “central banker as firefighter” attitude of many central bankers around the world.

If you think of yourself as a firefighter who permanently have to stand ready to fly in a save the world when crisis erupts you will never have time for vacation. In fact you would think that if you tell anybody that you go on vacation then the world will fall apart because you are not there to fight the fire.

However, it seems like Mr. Kuroda rightly do not see himself as a firefighter, but rather as a rule-following central banker. He has used his first time in office to spell out what Bank of Japan’s nominal target (2% inflation) and what instrument (money base expansion) he will to achieve this target.

As a result he could and should look relax and he should certainly take the luxury of a one-week vacation. In fact I would argue that he could easily book a month’s vacation if he was confident that Japanese public and the markets understood the BoJ’s target and its “reaction function”.  He wouldn’t have to do much – given the announced monetary base expansion goes on and the inflation target is well-defined he should leave the rest of the “implementation” of monetary policy to the market.

Imagine that his policy was 100% credible (it is not!) and a shock hits while he was on vacation. Lets for example imagine the the euro crisis flares up again and initially the demand for yen spikes. That would push down Japanese inflation expectations. However, under a 100% credible 2% inflation target if inflation expectations drops below the target investors will soon realize that that the BoJ will not allow inflation expectations to remain under 2% and as a result it will be profitable to put on trades that benefits from an easier monetary policy – higher stock prices, a weaker yen and a steeper yield curve. By doing this investors would automatically “implement” monetary easing and that will push inflation expectations back to 2% – whether or not Mr. Kuroda was on vacation or not.

Lack of credibility shortens Mr. Kuroda’s vacation

Unfortunately Mr. Kuroda’s inflation target is still not a 100% credible. In fact we are still very far from having a fully credible monetary policy target in Japan. Hence, market expectations of future Japanese inflation is still way below 2%. That is a pretty clear indication that investors are not fully convinced that Mr. Kuroda is on the way to beating deflation.

Therfore, more work is needed to establish monetary policy credibility in Japan. I have previously argued (see here and here) that Mr. Kuroda should be even more explicit on referring to market inflation expectations than he has been.

So maybe he should have added the following statement when he talked about his vacation plans:

“…So while inflation expectations have increased they are still far below our 2% inflation target on all relevant time horizons. We therefore stand ready if necessary to further step up the monthly increase in the money base. We will evaluate that need based on market expectations of future inflation.

We will particularly focus on market pricing of 2year/2year and 5year/5year break-even inflation expectations. We want investors to understand that we will ensure that market pricing fully reflects our inflation target. That means 2% inflation expectations on all relevant time horizons. No less, no more.

So when I am back from vacation in four weeks time I am sure the market will be pricing in 2% inflation. See you guys.”

The world needs central bankers who implement credible nominal targets and therefore are able to take long vacations rather than firefighting central bankers who are never on vacation. The fact that Mr. Kuroda happily talks about his vacation plans indicate that we indeed has seen a shift in monetary policy in Japan from firefighting to a (more) rule-based monetary regime.

PS Mr. Kuroda is saying he want to spend his vacation reading book. Good choice, but maybe he should also spend some time golfing. See here why.

PPS At some point I will have to write a blog post why I think the Japanese are making a mistake when they are implementing an inflation target rather than an NGDP level target.

—-

This blog post is also available in Japanese here.

Firefighter Arsonists – the myth of the central bankers as ‘good’ crisis managers

The recent debate about who should be the new Federal Reserve governor has made me think about the general misperception that a good central bank governor is a good “crisis manager”.

This is for example Ezra Klein endorsing Larry Summer for new Fed chief:

Summers knows how to manage a crisis. This White House is particularly attuned to the idea that the economy can fall apart at any moment. Summers, they think, knows what to do when that happens. He was at the center of the Clinton administration’s efforts to fight back the various emerging-markets crises of the 1990s (remember “The Committee to Save the World”?). He was core to the Obama administration’s efforts to fight the financial crisis in 2009 and 2010. Few people on earth are as experienced at dealing with financial crises — both of the domestic and international variety — as Summers.
What is wrong with this argument?

First, of all the assumption is that crisis is a result of the market economy’s inherent instability and that the regulators’ and the central bankers’ role is to somehow correct these failures. There is no doubt that central bankers like this image as saviours of the world. However, history shows that again and again we are in fact talking about firefighter arsonists – central banks again and again have caused crisis and afterwards been hailed as the firefighters who flew in and saved the world.

Just take the ECB’s actions of the last couple of years. The introduction of the so-called OMT program is often said to have ended the fire that was (is) the euro zone crisis. But why did we have a euro crisis to begin with? Well, it is pretty hard to get around fact that the ECB’s two rate hikes in 2011 played a very significant role in igniting the crisis in the first place. So is the ECB a firefighter or an arsonist?

Second, describing central bankers as crisis managers and firefighters exactly defines monetary policy as first of all a highly discretionary discipline. There are no rules to follow. A crisis suddenly erupts and the clever and imaginative crisis manager – a Larry Summers style person – flies in and saves the day. This is often done with the introduction of enormous amounts of moral hazard into the global financial system.  This has certainly been the case during the Great Recession and it was certainly also the case when Summers was on “The Committee to Save the World”.

committee-to-save-the-world-303x400

Did the “The Committee to Save the World” actually save the world or did it introduce a lot more moral hazard into the global financial system?

We don’t need crisis managers – we need strict and predictable monetary policy rules

We need to stop thinking of central bankers as crisis managers. They are not crisis managers and to the extent they try to be crisis managers they are not necessarily good crisis managers. As long as there is a monopoly on money issuance the central bank’s role is to ensure nominal stability and act of as lender of last resort. Nothing more than that.

To the extent the central bank should play a role in a crisis it should ensure nominal stability by providing an elastic supply of money. Hence, in the event of a drop in money velocity the central bank should increase the money base to stabilize nominal GDP. Second, the central bank shall act as lender-of-last resort and provide liquidity against proper collateral. Those are the core central bank tasks. Often central banks have failed on these key roles – the Fed certainly failed on that in 2008 when the Primary Dealer system broke down and the Fed effectively failed to act as a lender-of-last resort and allowed money-velocity to collapse without increasing the money base enough to offset it.

On the other hand the Fed got involved in tasks that it should never have gotten itself into – such as bank rescue and credit policies.

A stable monetary and financial system is strictly rule based. There should be very clear rules for what tasks the central bank are undertaking and how they are doing it. The central bank’s reaction function should be clearly defined. Furthermore, bank resolution, supervision and enforcement of capital requirements etc. should also be strictly rule based.

If we have a strictly rule based monetary policy and rule-based financial regulation (for example very clearly defined norms for banking resolution) then we will strongly reduce the risk of economic and financial crisis in the first place.  That would completely eliminate the argument for central banking firefighters. Public Choice theory, however, tells us that that might not be in the interest of firefighters – because why would we need firefighters if there are not fires?

Finally let me quote Robert Hetzel’s conclusion on the Asian crisis from his book on the history of the Fed (pp 215):

“…market irrationality was not the source of the financial crisis that began in 1997. The fundamental source was the moral hazard created by the investor safety net put together by the no-fail policies of governments in emerging-market economies for their financial sectors and underwritten by the IMF credit lines. The Fed response to the Asia crisis would propagate asset market volatility by exacerbating a rise in U.S. equity markets”

Hence, the firefighters created the conditions for the Asian crisis and following stock market bubble. And we should remember that today. Because central bankers over the past five years have acted as discretionary firefighters (the Larry Summers playbook) they rather than acting within a rule based monetary policy framework might instead very well have laid the foundation for the next crisis by further increasing moral hazard problems in the global financial system. Paradoxically enough central bankers have been extremely reluctant about doing what they are meant to do – ensuring nominal stability by providing an elastic money supply – but have happily ventured into credit policies and bailouts.

PS Given the discussion some might be wrongly led to conclude that I think monetary easing is the same as moral hazard. That, however, is not the case. See a discussion of that topic here. We have had too tight monetary policy in the euro zone and the US in the past five years, but far too much credit policy and too much moral hazard.

My CNBC interview on why Chuck Norris should be the next Fed chairman

This is me on CNBC being interviewed by Kelly Evans about why I think Chuck Norris should be the next Fed chairman. Enjoy.

The interview was inspired by this blog post of mine on the same topic.

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