Four graphs EM central bankers should study – lessons from two Reserve Banks (1997-98)

This week has brought more turmoil in the global Emerging Markets and this has caused a number of EM central banks to move to hike interest rates to “defend” their currencies (despite most Emerging Markets today officially have floating exchange rate regimes). Most notable the the Turkish central bank on Tuesday in a desperate move hiked its key policy aggressively. So far the aggressive actions from EM central banks around the world have done little to calm nerves in the global markets.

I have in a number of posts warned that this fear-of-floating can have a rather catastrophic macroeconomic and financial impact and that central bankers in Emerging Markets need to remain committed to the floating exchange rate regimes. Indeed I think central bankers need to learn a lesson from history.

In that regard I think it is illustrative to look at the experience of two countries, which had floating exchange rates and inflation targeting regime during the Asian and Russian crisis in 1997-98. I will here look at the conduct of monetary policy by the Reserve Banks of New Zealand and Australia in this period.

While the two Reserve Banks had very similar policy frameworks they reacted very differently to the external shocks in 1997-98. I will illustrate this with four graphs. Four graphs that today’s central bankers in Emerging Markets should study very closely to avoid repeating past mistakes.

The twin currency collapse

In a very similar fashion to today’s sell-off in Emerging Markets currencies in a number of countries came under serious depreciation pressures in 1997-98 as the both the Asian and the Russian crisis played out. That was also the case for the Australian dollar – the Aussie – and the New Zealand dollar – the Kiwi. Hence, during 1997-8 both the Aussie and the Kiwi weakened by 25-30%.

Aussie Kiwi

To hike or not to hike?

The sharp depreciation of the Kiwi and the Aussie caused inflation fears to increase. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand feared that a weaker currency would push up inflation as a result of higher import prices. On the other hand the Reserve Bank of Australia was more concerned with the negative impact of the negative shock to demand coming from a collapse in external demand.

This different perceptions of the risks led to different policy responses. Hence, the RBNZ reacted by pushing up interest rates during 1997 (only later to reverse its policy stance sharply in 1998), while the RBA kept its key policy rate on hold all through 1997-98. It is also notable  that these very clear differences in interest rate developments did little to change the performance of the Kiwi compared to the Aussie. This indicates that aggressive rate hikes will not help much if you want to prop up your currency in such environment.

rates NZ AU

Little difference in inflation performance

Hence, during 1997 there was a marked difference in the development in monetary conditions in the two countries. However, it is notable that there was very little difference in the inflation performance of the two countries.

Despite the sharp sell-off in both the Kiwi and the Aussie inflation remained low and below 2% in 1997-98 in both countries and it is very clear that the “import price effect” was nearly irrelevant compared to the negative demand effect.

CPI AU NZ

New Zealand’s unnecessary recession

While there was very little difference between the inflationary developments in the two countries in 1997-98 the story was very different when it comes to real GDP growth.

Hence, the graph below very clearly illustrates that the RBNZ’s interest rate hikes caused the New Zealand economy to go into recession. Obviously the RBNZ claimed that it was the result of the negative external shock. However, looking the what happened in Australia it is very clear that the recession in New Zealand was a result of monetary policy failure. In fact the RBA by not panicking and keeping its key policy rate unchanged ensured that recession was avoided in Australia despite being as negatively hit by an external demand shock as New Zealand.

This very clearly demonstrates that the central bank has the final word when it comes to nominal spending/aggregate demand in the economy. Any negative demand shock – whether a shock to exports or fiscal tightening – can be offset by monetary policy. The RBA seems to have understood this, while the RBNZ failed to understand it – which rather negative consequences.

RGDP AU NZ

The TCMB just repeated the 1997-mistakes of the RBNZ 

The conclusion from the experience in 1997-98 in Australia and New Zealand seems clear – there is very little to gain from fighting a currency weakening caused by a major negative shock and monetary tightening in respond to such a shock is very likely to be recessionary.

This week’s monetary tightening in Turkey is much bigger than what we saw in New Zealand in 1997 and it is therefore only natural to think that the impact on Turkish real GDP could be at least as negative as was the case in New Zealand in 1997-98. Therefore, the Turkish central bank (TCMB) should of course reverse cause as fast as possible. Yes, inflation is likely to increase as a result of a weaker lira, but the monetary policy response could also send the Turkish economy into recession.

Central bankers in Emerging Markets should stop fighting the depreciation of their currency and instead focus on their medium-term nominal policy objectives. Stop-go policies as presently being implemented in Turkey are likely to end in tears.

Instead EM central bankers should stay calm and let markets determine exchanges like the Reserve Bank of Australia did in 1997-98 and then it is likely that they will avoid importing recessions and financial distress and at the same time  any major risks to their nominal policy objectives in the medium-term.

HT David Laidler

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The sharply rising risk of Emerging Market policy blunders

I have an up-ed in today’s edition of UK’s City AM on the risk of major monetary policy mistakes – a repeat of the 1997 Asian crisis – in Emerging Markets in response to the recent currency sell-off across the EM universe.

 Quoting myself:

THE EMERGING market sell-off has prompted central bankers to act. Yesterday, South Africa’s central bank raised its benchmark interest rate by 0.5 per cent to 5.5 per cent, citing the depreciation of the rand and an increased risk to the country’s inflation outlook. The Reserve Bank of India has also increased its benchmark rate by 0.25 per cent to 8 per cent. Most unprecedented of all, however, was the Turkish central bank’s decision late on Tuesday to hike its key policy rate from 4.5 per cent to 10 per cent in response to the recent sharp sell-off in the Turkish lira.

Turkey’s decision, in particular, left the impression of monetary planners acting in sheer desperation. Its central bank – like some of its emerging market counterparts – looks to have forgotten that its currency (at least officially) is free floating. Its aggressive tightening of monetary conditions bears all the hallmarks of a misguided attempt to quasi-fix its exchange rate – with dangerous potential implications…

…the interest rate hike this week suggests that Turkey now fails to realise quite how high the cost of a pegged exchange rate regime can be. The central bank’s attempt to prop up the lira by aggressively tightening monetary conditions is effectively an attempt to quasi-fix the exchange rate – and we will likely see the same kind of negative growth effects as if there had been an actual pegged exchange rate regime. Obviously, Turkey has not returned to a pure pegged exchange rate. But trying to curb the sell-off in the lira in this stop-go fashion is likely to have a similarly damaging effect on growth. Ultimately, if the Turkish central bank continues to seek to prop up its currency, the end result will be serious financial distress as well.

I certainly hope that Turkey’s desperate monetary tightening was a one-off. I equally hope that emerging market central bankers more generally realise that the best way to avoid a repeat of the 1997 Asian crisis is to allow exchange rates be determined by the markets. Otherwise, ill-informed central planners risk turning emerging market volatility into something much more worrying.

It has been a busy week for me. Here is a bit of comments and notes from Danske Bank’s EM team:

Storm turns into hurricane – EM sell-off escalates
Argentina – easing currency controls
Emergency monetary meeting in Turkey
Weak rouble – nothing new
Mapping the EM sell-off
South Africa – SARB delivers 50bp rate hike in order to tame inflation
Helping the lira, killing the economy?

EM turmoil: It ain’t over till the Chinese lady sings

…and from my blog:

Argentina’s peso plunges

Please don’t fight it – the risk of EM policy mistakes

The EM sell-off and China as a global monetary superpower

The awkward moment when George Selgin realized he agreed with Paul Krugman

This is my hero George Selgin:

I never thought it would happen–perhaps I’m slipping.  But as I was preparing to bang-out this post, my first in over a month here, I discovered that, a couple hours ago while I was toiling away in class, Paul Krugman stole my thunder.

Despite that bad omen, I’m plunging in with my two-cents, which, like Krugman’s, has been provoked by an article in today’s New York Times.  The article, which is mainly about Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota, who just recently rotated onto the FOMC, includes a quote from Ed Prescott, who is himself (among other things) a member of the Minneapolis Fed’s research staff.  What Prescott said–and what put Krugman in high dudgeon–is: “It is an established scientific fact that monetary policy has had virtually no effect on output and employment in the U.S. since the formation of the Fed.”

That’s right: no effect–none, nada, zero, zilch–on output, or on employment, ever.  Not even in the 30s.  Or in the 70s.  Or recently.  Why, the Fed might as well set its policy targets by throwing darts at a board, for all the difference it would make to real activity.  Money’s just a veil, after all.  We know that–what’s more we know it “scientifically.”

Krugman rightfully pours scorn on Prescott’s assertion, which states a “scientific fact” only in the peculiar sense that distinguishes such facts from ordinary, unqualified, plain-old facts, that is, the sort of facts one might glean from experience.   A “scientific fact,” apparently, is not such a grubby affair.  It is, rather, something much more pure, even virginal; it is a fact implied by a theory.  The theory in this case is of course the “real business cycle” theory for which Prescott (and coauthor Finn Kydland) are famous.  The theory starts with the New Classical premise that prices always adjust instantly to their general equilibrium levels, thereby all but eliminating any scope for real consequences of monetary disturbances.  It then proceeds–hey presto!–to the conclusion that, if real variables bounce around, they must do so in response not to monetary but to real shocks.   It follows, as a matter of logic, that the world economy must have met with a whale of an adverse supply shock in the 1930s.  What shock, you wonder?  What difference do such details make?  There had to be a big bad shock, dontchyasee: the theory proves it.   If the historians and econometricians can’t find it, well, so much the worse for history and econometrics.

 I can understand George. I have had the same awkward feeling of agreeing with Krugman on numerous occasions. I probably feel less uncomfortable about it than George – maybe I have gotten used to it.This is of course a bit of fun, but the point is that monetarists and market monetarists and economists who think like us (including Free Bankers like George) think that money is hugely important for the economy. In our view both inflation and recessions are monetary phenomena. This also mean that we tend to stress the demand side of the economy when think about the business cycle. Keynesians like to talk about aggregate demand, while monetarists like to talk about nominal spending, but it is really the same thing. Furthermore, (Market) Monetarists and Keynesian agree that the present crisis is mostly a result of a contraction in aggregate demand (monetarists would say monetary tightening).

However, in Real Business Cycle models money are assumed to always be neutral – both in the short and the long run. I fundamentally think that is completely crazy and all empirical evidence is telling us that money is certainly not neutral i the short-run. Keynesian and monetarists (and even Austrians) agree on that, but the Real Business Cycle theorists do not agree. They basically think that recessions are a result of people suddenly wanting take have very long vacations (ok, that is not what they are saying, but it is fun…)

PS As I have stressed before all the different models of the business cycle are basically about different assumptions about the monetary policy rule. Hence, we would in fact be in something, which looked like a Real Business Cycle world if the central bank targets nominal GDP. So if the central bank had got it “perfectly right” then Prescott would have been sort of right, but we of course know that central banks tend to get it horribly wrong.

The EM sell-off and China as a global monetary superpower

This is what I just told Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at the Telegraph:

“We have all these countries in trouble like Argentina, Ukraine and Thailand that are each local cases, but behind the whole emerging market story is Fed tapering and worries about slowing Chinese growth…China is now a global monetary superpower, co-leader with the US. When China tightens, that hits trade and commodities across the world.”

…and about the emergency monetary policy meeting of the Turkish central bank (coming up late Tuesday):

“Danske Bank said the Turkish authorities may have to raise rates by 200 to 300 basis points to placate the markets, a shock treatment that risks going badly wrong. “They are tightening to defend their currency, and in doing so killing the economy. In the end they will be forced to give up. There is the same risk in India,” said Mr Christensen.”

This is essentially the same message I also spelled out in my post yesterday – “Please don’t fight it – the risk of EM policy mistakes”

Sino-monetary transmission mechanism

I have talked and written about China as a global monetary superpower before and I think it is useful to repeat (part of) this story to help better understand what presently is going on in Emerging Markets.

David Beckworth has argued (see for example here) that the Federal Reserve is a monetary superpower as “it manages the world’s main reserve currency and many emerging markets are formally or informally pegged to dollar. Thus, its monetary policy gets exported to much of the emerging world. “

I believe that the People’s Bank of China to a large extent has the same role – maybe even a bigger role for some Emerging Markets particularly in Asia and among commodity exporters. Hence, the PBoC can under certain circumstances “dictate” monetary policy in other countries – if these countries decide to import monetary conditions from China.

Overall I see three channels through which PBoC influence monetary conditions in the rest of the world:

1) The export channel: For many countries in the world China is now the biggest or second biggest export market. So a monetary induced slowdown in the Chinese economy will have significant impact on many countries’ export performance. This is the channel most keynesian trained economists focus on.

2) Commodity price channel: As China is a major commodity consumer Chinese monetary policy has a direct impact on the demand for and the price of commodities. So tighter Chinese monetary policy is causing global commodity prices to drop. This obviously is having a direct impact on commodity exporters. See for example my discussion of Chinese monetary policy and the Brazilian economy here.

3) The financial flow channel: China has the largest currency reserves in the world . This means that China obviously is extremely important for demand for global financial assets. A contraction in Chinese monetary policy will reduce Chinese FX reserve accumulation and as a result impact demand for for example Emerging Markets bonds and equities.

For the keynesian-trained economist the story would end here. However, we cannot properly understand the impact of Chinese monetary policy on the rest of the world if we do not understand the importance of “local” monetary policy. Hence, in my view other countries of the world can decide to import monetary tightening from China, but they can certainly also decide not to import is monetary tightening. The PBoC might be a monetary superpower, but only because other central banks of the world allow it to be.

… China can act as a monetary superpower and determine monetary conditions in the rest of the world, but also that this is only because central banks in the rest of world … allow this to happen. Malaysia or Hong Kong do not have to import Chinese monetary conditions. Hence, the central bank can choose to offset any shock from Chinese monetary policy. This is basically a variation of the Sumner Critique. The central bank of Malaysia obviously is in full control of nominal GDP/aggregate demand in Malaysia. If the monetary contraction in China leads to a weakening of the ringgit monetary conditions in Malaysia will only tighten if the central bank of Malaysia tries to to fight it by tightening monetary conditions.

Update 1: The Turkish central bank did not listen to me and instead hiked interest rates very aggressively – trying to stabilize the lira, but likely also killing growth. Recession can no longer be ruled out in Turkey. See my day-job comment on the Turkish ultra aggressive rate hike here.

Update 2: David Beckworth has an excellent comment on Ambrose and me. Read it! After it was David who came up with the term monetary superpower.

Please don’t fight it – the risk of EM policy mistakes

Emerging Markets are once again back in the headlines in the global financial media – from Turkey to Argentina market volatility has spiked from the beginning of the year.

The renewed Emerging Markets volatility has caused some commentators to claim that the crisis back. It migtht be, but also I think it is very important to differentiate between currency movements on its own and the underlying reasons for these movements and in this post I will argue that currency movements in itself is not necessarily a problem. In fact floating exchange rate regimes mean that the currency will move in response to shocks, which ideally should reduce macroeconomic volatility.

Imagine this would have been 1997

I think it is illustrative to think about what is going on in Emerging Markets right now by imagining that the dominant monetary and exchange rate regime had been pegged exchange rates as it was back in 1997 when the Asian crisis hit.

Lets take the case of Turkey and lets assume Turkey is operating a pegged exchange rate regime – for example against the US dollar. And lets at the same time note that Turkey presently has a current account deficit of around 7% of GDP. This current account deficit is nearly fully funded by portfolio inflows from abroad – for example foreign investors buying Turkish bonds and equities.

As long as investors are willing to buy these assets there is no problem. But then one day investors decide to close down their positions in Turkey – for example because of they expect the dollar to appreciate because of the Federal Reserve tightening monetary conditions or because investors simply become more risk averse for example because of concerns about Chinese growth. Lets assume this leads to a “sudden stop”. From day-to-day the funding of Turkey’s 7% current account deficit disappears.

Now Turkey has a serious funding problem. Turkey either needs to attract investors to fund the current account deficit or it needs to close the current account deficit immediately. The first option is unlikely to work in the short-term. So the current account deficit needs to be closed. That can happen either by a collapse in imports and/or through spike in exports.

To “force” this process the central bank will have to tighten monetary conditions dramatically. This happens “automatically” in a fixed exchange rate regime. As money leaves the country the lira comes under pressures. The central bank will then intervene in the market to curb to the currency from weakening thereby reducing the foreign currency reserve and in parallel the money base drops. The drying up of liquidity will also send money market rate spiking. This is a sharp tightening of monetary conditions. The result is a collapse in private consumption, investments, asset prices and increased deflationary pressures (inflation and wage growth drop). An internal devaluation will be underway. The result is normally a sharp increase in public and private debt ratios as nominal GDP collapses.

This process will effectively continue until the current account deficit is gone. This would cause a massive collapse in economic activity and as asset prices and growth expectations drop financial distress also increases dramatically, which could set-off a financial crisis.

This is the kind of scenario that played out during the Asian crisis in 1997, but it is also what happened in Turkey in 2001 and forced the Turkish government to eventually give up a failed pegged (crawling) peg regime.

Luckily we have floating exchange rates in most Emerging Markets

Compare that to what has been going on the Emerging Markets over the past 6-7 months. We have seen widespread sell-off in Emerging Markets and yes we have seen growth expectations being adjusted down (mostly because some EM central banks have been fighting the sell-off by tightening monetary policy). BUT we have not seen financial crisis and we have not seen a collapse in Emerging Markets property markets. We have not seen major negative spill-over to developed markets. Hence, the sell-off in Emerging Markets currencies cannot be called a macroeconomic or a financial crisis.

In fact the sell-off in EM currencies means that we have avoided exactly the 1997 scenario. That is not to say that everything is fine. It is not. Anybody who have been following the still ongoing corruption scandal in Turkey or the demonstrations in Ukraine and Thailand know these countries are struggling with some real fundamental political and economic troubles. In fact I fear that a number of Emerging Markets countries at the moment are seeing an erosion of their long-term growth potential due to regime uncertainty and general macroeconomic mismanagement. But we are not seeing an unnecessary economic, financial and political collapse induced by a foolish exchange rate regime. Luckily most Emerging Markets today have floating exchange rate regimes.

But some foolishness remain   

So yes, I believe we – and the populations in most Emerging Markets – are lucky that fixed exchange rate regimes mostly are a thing of the past in Emerging Markets today, but unfortunately it is not all Emerging Markets central bankers who have learned the lesson. Hence, many central bankers still suffer from a fear-of-floating.

Just take the Turkish central bank (TCMB). On Tuesday it will hold an emergency monetary policy meeting to discuss measures to curb the sell-off in the lira. Officially it about ensuring “price stability”, but the decision to have an emerging meeting only a week after a regular monetary policy meeting smells of desperation on part of the TCMB.

It is widely expected that the TCMB will hike its key policy rate – the market is already pricing a rate hike in the order of 200bp. If the TCMB delivers this then it will only have marginal impact on the lira – if the TCMB delivers more then it could prop up the lira at least for the short-run. But a larger than expected rate hike would also be constitute monetary policy tightening and given the present sentiment in the global Emerging Markets the TCMB likely will have to do something very aggressive to have a major impact on the lira. And what would the outcome be? Well, it is pretty easy – we would get a major contraction in Turkish growth to well-below potential growth in the Turkish economy.

Given the fact that inflation expectations (24 month ahead) is around 7% and hence the TCMB official 5% inflation target there might certainly be a need for a moderate tightening of monetary policy in Turkey, but should that happen as an abrupt tightening, which would send the Turkish economy into recession? I think that would be foolish. The TCMB should instead try to get over its fear-of-floating and focus on ensuring nominal stability. It is failing to do that right now by pursuing what mostly look like 1970s style stop-go policies.

Luckily the stop-go policies of TCMB is no longer the norm for Emerging Markets central banks who generally seem to understand that the level of the exchange rate is best left to the market to determine.

PS see also my preview on Tuesday’s Turkish monetary policy meeting here.

PPS This post is about value of floating exchange rates and even though I think floating exchange rate regimes now substantially reduce the risk of major Emerging Markets financial and economic crisis I am certainly not unworried about the state of Emerging Markets. I already noted my structural concerns in a number of Emerging Markets, but I am even more worried about the monetary induced slowdown in Chinese growth and I am somewhat worried that the PBoC might “mis-step” and cause a major financial and economic crisis in China with global ramifications particularly is it fails to keep the eye on the ball and instead gets preoccupied with fighting bubbles.

Update: My friend in Malaysia Hishamh tells the same story, but focusing on Malaysia.

Argentina’s peso plunges

When I have written about monetary policy in Argentina I rarely have had anything positive to say. However, today I will have to say that the Argentine central bank made a sensible decision – even though it mostly looks like a coincidence.

This is from FT.com:

Argentina’s peso suffered its biggest one-day fall since the financial crisis of 2002 on Thursday, after the central bank stopped intervening in currency markets in an effort to preserve foreign exchange reserves that have fallen by almost a third over the past year.

The peso, whose long-running decline has accelerated since November, plunged 17.5 per cent to 8.1842 pesos to the dollar, according to Bloomberg data, although a lack of liquidity made it difficult to gauge its true level.

That is still at some distance from the black market rate that most Argentines use, which stood at around 12.85 to the dollar on Thursday.

Intervention and currency controls have kept the Argentine peso artificially strong for years – or rather the official peso rate has been much stronger than the real market rate – the black market rate. By allowing the peso to weaken today the peso at least has been allowed to move closer to the true market value. Hence, the market distortions have been reduced today. That is good news.
That said, the fact the peso as dropped so sharply today reflects an underlining problem – the total lack of nominal stability in Argentina. What policy makers in Argentina needs to do is of course as fast as possible to moved towards a rule-based monetary policy.
There are numerous options for providing nominal stability, but one thing is clear if the present polices are not changed fundamentally then the peso collapse is likely to continue.
…And as I was wrapping up this blog post the Argentine central bank is back! It is apparently intervening to strengthen the peso. Never expect central bankers to learn anything.
——–
See also my recent post on Cachanosky and Ravier’s proposal for a dollar-based Free Banking monetary reform in Argentina.

No ‘General Theory’ should ignore the monetary policy rule

John Maynard Keynes famously titled his magnus opus from 1936 The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. However, General Theory, as it is generally known, is nothing of the kind. It is not a General Theory of macroeconomics – rather it is a specific theory of macroeconomics making very specific assumptions about the workings of the economy and I will argue here that Keynes made very specific assumptions particularly about the monetary policy regime or rule under which the economy operates.

Keynes most likely realised that he had made these assumptions, but later generations of Keynesians – particular from the 1950s to the early 1990s “forgot” that General Theory and the general macroeconomic of implications of it was fully dependent on the fundamental assumptions in General Theory about the monetary policy regime/rule.

When I took my first macroeconomic lessons at the University of Copenhagen in the early 1990s the first model we where introduced to was a rudimentary Keynesian model – the so-called 45-degree model or the Keynesian cross. It was basically said that the model was what Keynes was thinking about in General Theory and I would still agree that this simple model basically captures what Keynes was saying in General Theory about aggregate demand.

When I was taught this rudimentary Keynesian economics we were told that Keynes assumed that prices are sticky and this was what really was the difference between Keynes and the so-called Classics (economists before the Keynesian revolution). We today know that Keynes’ claim the “Classics” (Keynes’ term) did in fact not assume that prices and wages are fully flexible, but this is less important for what I want to discuss here. However, the focus on whether prices are sticky or not took away focus from what in my view is a core assumption Keynes makes and, which economists today continue to make and that is that the economy is essentially operating on a monetary standard similar to the gold standard or a fixed exchange rate regime.

When I was taught the Keynesian cross we where told that there was no money in the model – or at least that we ignored it. No big deal was made of it and there was no discussion about whether this was important or not. Now more than two decades later I think that economics students around the world generally are introduced to macroeconomics in the exact same way. We start out with the Keynesian cross, but students are not told that this starting point makes a clear – untold – assumption about the monetary policy regime.

Hence, the case it not that there is no money in the rudimentary Keynesian model, but rather that the supply of money (base money) was determined by a gold standard-like rule. However, this was never discussed when I took my first macroeconomic lessons – and I suspect this still is the norm around the world.

What I here will argue is that if Keynes instead had set out to write a truly General Theory, where he would have discussed the importance of different monetary policy rules then it would indeed have been a General Theory rather than a Theory of a Specific Monetary Regime (the gold standard). Rather what Keynes discusses in General Theory is how the macroeconomic situation looks like in a variation of the gold standard. He was in fact formulating a model for the British economy in 1930 or so. In that regard it is also notable that even though Keynes had called the gold standard a barbaric relic he argued against Britain giving up the gold standard and he seemed to continue to think of the British economy (and any other economy in the world) as operating on a gold standard-like monetary regime long after the gold standard had been given up around the world. He was of course instrumental in setting up the post-War Bretton Wood system, which introduced a global system of fixed – but adjustable – exchange rates. Thereby ensuring that his “model” of the economy still could be said to be “right”.

Yes, he was assuming that prices and wages where sticky, but that was not the crucial assumption. The crucial assumption was his assumption about the monetary policy regime.

A rudimentary Keynesian model with NGDP targeting    

We can illustrate this by accepting Keynes’ assumption that prices are not just sticky, but completely fixed (at least in the short-run). We can illustrate that in an AS/AD framework by claiming that that the AS curve is horizontal. This means that no matter what level of aggregate demand (AD) we have in the economy the price level will remain unchanged.

The graph below illustrates this.

Keynesian ASAD

Lets say some “animal spirits” causes investments to collapse (this was essential Keynes’ explanation for the Great Depression). The AD curve shifts to the left causing real GDP to drop to Y’ from Y. As the AS curve is completely flat nothing happens to prices. This is essentially what we have in the rudimentary Keynesian model.

But what have we assumed about monetary policy? Well, we have assumed that the money supply/base is fixed. No matter what happens to the economy the money base is just kept unchanged. This is of course what you (more or less) have under a gold standard.

But what if we had another monetary policy rule – for example a rule to keep nominal GDP (nominal spending) constant. This would mean that the central bank would change the money base to keep P*Y constant. Again lets illustrate this within an AS/AD framework and note that we maintain the assumption of completely fixed prices (a horizontal AS curve).

Keynesian ASAD NGDP rule

Here again the AD initially drops for example because some animal spirits cause aggregate demand to drop (1). However, this would cause nominal GDP (P*Y) to drop and as the central bank operates an NGDP target rule it would automatically increase the money base until the AD curve has been push back to the starting point (2).

So even if we assume completely fixed prices the world looks as if it is “Classic”. We will always be at the “full employment” level of real and nominal GDP.

This also illustrates that it was not enough for Keynes to assume that prices are sticky (not a very heroic assumption for the short-run and most “Classic” economists in fact agreed with that assumption), but he also had to make an assumption that the money base was fixed and all his results breakdown if another assumption about the monetary policy regime is introduced.

This of course also illustrate that Keynes’ famous fiscal multiplier and his argument that fiscal policy can (and should) boost aggregate demand are crucially dependent on assuming a gold standard style monetary policy regime. Hence, the graph above illustrates that even if prices are fixed the fiscal multiplier will be zero under an NGDP targeting regime. This is what we today know as the Sumner Critique.

Obviously it was completely natural to assume that the economy was operating within a gold standard when Keynes wrote the General Theory. However, his insistence on focusing on fiscal policy and ignoring the monetary policy regime for decades caused macroeconomic discourse to be side-tracked. Had he instead argued that his results were crucially dependent on the monetary policy regime then he would truly have written a General Theory and the debate could have been shifted to a discussion about the monetary regime.

Keynes was of course right that the gold standard was barbaric relic, but he failed to understand that the Great Depression was not caused by animal spirits, but was a direct result of this barbaric relic. Instead Keynes argued against Britain giving up the gold standard and instead argued for major public works programs. This is what he tried to justify in his General Theory.

For decades after the publication of General Theory macroeconomists around the world adopted Keynes’ reasoning without realising that Keynes’ core policy recommendations were based on an assumption that we remained on a gold standard. Unfortunately most of today’s macroeconomists continue to ignore the crucial importance of what monetary policy regime we operate under.

The straw men – vertical AS curve and the vertical LM curve   

Going back to my university days again. Following the induction of the rudimentary Keynesian model and the introduction of the famous definition of aggregate demand as Y=G+I+C+X-M we where taught that there of course where other schools of thought.

However, it was never emphasised that we basically all through remained more or less ignorant about the importance of monetary policy rules. Hence, instead the discussion instead focused on two other topics. First, whether prices and wages indeed were fixed/sticky or not. Second what assumptions we should make about the interest rate elasticity of money demand and investments.

This boiled down to two “extreme” assumptions in first the AS/AD model (in a Keynesian variant) and in the IS/LM model. First we where told that if we assumed prices where fully flexible then the AS curve would be vertical and that would mean that fiscal policy (and monetary policy) would never be able to increase real GDP and any fiscal or monetary “stimulus” would just cause inflation to increase. This was called – and still is in most mainstream macroeconomic textbook – the Classical position. This very obviously is a misnomer, which we should blame Keynes for. Hence, most pre-Keynesian “Classical” economists did indeed not assume fully flexible wages and prices. Furthermore, the extreme Keynesian position was exactly unrealistic as everybody can see that real-world prices change all the time. Something which rarely where noted when I took my macroeconomic lessons at the University of Copenhagen in the early 1990s.

It was easy for our professors to dismiss the assumption about fully flexible price. Just look out the window. There are lot of wage contracts and “menu costs” etc., which cause prices to become sticky. Hence, the world was essentially Keynesian. The fiscal multiplier was of course positive – or that is how the argument when. It was enough to show to prices are not fully flexible to argue that we where in a Keynesian world.

When discussing the IS/LM model we again were introduced to an extreme position. The position was that the level of interest rates did have no impact on the demand for money, which would cause the LM-curve to become vertical. This was termed the “monetarist” position. This assumption was harder for our professors to dismiss than the assumption of fully flexible prices, but they could nonetheless come up with graphs for different countries that showed a fairly clear negative relationship between the interest rate level and real money balances (M/P).

So my professors concluded that of neither the AS curve nor LM curve where vertical in the real world because prices are not fully flexible and of course the demand for money depend on the level of interest rates so even though our assumptions in the rudimentary Keynesian model were a bit heroic the fundamental conclusions would still hold. The world was Keynesian and fiscal multiplier was positive.

However, as with the rudimentary Keynesian model in these more “advanced” models we essentially maintained the assumption that the supply of money was fixed. The monetary policy rule essentially was a fixed exchange rate or a gold standard. This was never really stated clearly and I am sure that most of my professors never realized just how important this assumption was for the results that they presented to their students and I suspect that this remains the case for most economic professors around the world today.

A Sketch for a simple (alternative) General Theory

If Keynes really had wanted to formulated a General Theory he in my view should have started out with an AS/AD framework and then discussed the macroeconomic outcome under different assumptions of prices “stickiness” AND the monetary policy rule.

I will now try to sketch an alternative General Theory, which basically encompasses all of the “normal” models, which students are introduced to in their intermediate macroeconomic lessons.

The first model is the rudimentary Keynesian model. As my graph above illustrates we get Keynesian results if we assume that prices are sticky (or completely) fixed only if we also assumes that the money stock is “sticky” or fixed – i.e. if we are in a gold standard/fixed exchange rate world.

This “model” probably is fairly useful in understanding the short-term economic developments in countries like Denmark, which operates a pegged exchange rate regime (a peg to the euro) or for a country like the Netherland, which is a member of a currency union (the euro area). It should, however, be noted that we in this world has made a similar problematic assumption. We have ignored the public budget constraint. Keynes did that as well, but it would probably be quite wrong when analysing the present day Greek economy to ignore the budget constrain (while we probably easily could ignore it in the case of Denmark or the Netherlands). So yes, in the case of Denmark, Netherland or Greece the fiscal multiplier might indeed be positive, but in the case of Greece the Greek government cannot afford utilizing this fact.

However, the rudimentary Keynesian model will provide us with very little inside for countries with explicit inflation targets such as Sweden, Canada or Australia. Here the central banks set the money base – and as a consequence the AD curve – to ensure that a certain inflation target is hit. In this world the fiscal multiplier is zero. This would mean that the world looks as if it is “Classic” or “monetarist” (in the textbook lingo). This would even be the case if we assume that prices are completely fixed. This is more or less similar to the second graph above (the NGDP targeting case).

Note this is course not because Swedish prices are more flexible than Danish prices, but because of differences in the monetary policy regime. Paradoxically enough both Danish and Swedish economics students still to this day are introduced to macroeconomics starting with the rudimentary Keynesian model. Rarely (I think) is there made in reference to the importance of the monetary policy regime in the two countries.

When I was at university in the early 1990s the new hot thing in macroeconomics was the so-called Real Business Cycle model. The RBC models were a real break with Keynesian thinking as RBC theorists like Nobel Prize winner Edward Prescott argued that the business cycle essentially was driven by supply shocks rather than demand shocks.

I remember thinking at the time that the idea that the primary cause of business cycles was supply shocks was crazy. As did most other students and professors, but it was mathematically an impressive set-up, which caused some interesting among students and professors and I was personally equally attracted the RBC theorists insistence on having a proper microeconomic foundation for macroeconomics.

However, today even though I am rather sceptical about the empirical relevance of RBC models I most say that the RBC model would likely be the best model to descript the economic development under a “perfect” NGDP targeting regime. Again it is about the monetary policy. Something RBC theorist in a similar fashion as Keynesian before completely ignored. Instead early RBC theorist made rather bizarre assumptions about price and wage flexibility that seemed to live up to live up to Keynes’ caricature of the “Classical” economists.

Anyway, if we in an AS/AD framework assume that the central bank has a nominal GDP target then it becomes obvious that all the ups and downs in economic activity will be a result of supply shocks. Hence, all shocks to demand will be “neutralized” or offset by the monetary policy rule to keep aggregate demand fixed (or fixed around a steady growth path). There will be no aggregate demand shocks. We can get shocks to the composition of aggregate demand, but the fiscal multiplier is zero and even if we assume that investments are determined by irrational and crazy animal spirits aggregate demand will grow at a steady fixed rate.

Hence, under “perfect” NGDP targeting the world would look as if the RBC model is right. This is not because demand shock can’t influence the economy, but because monetary policy ensures that that will not be the case.

Conclusion: The crucial assumption is about the monetary regime

I hope to have demonstrated above that the crucial assumption we make in macroeconomic models is not primarily the assumptions about prices flexibility or interest rate elasticities as macroeconomic students still are taught, but the assumption about the monetary policy regime.

Hence, some real world economies look “Keynesian”, while other looks “Classic” and other look like RBC economies – even if we assume the same level of price stickiness.

It is the monetary policy regime stupid!

Related posts:

How I would like to teach Econ 101
The fiscal cliff and the Bernanke-Evans rule in a simple static IS/LM model
Daniel Lin is teaching macro! Lets introduce his students to the IS/LM+ model

Sam Bowman calls for nominal spending targeting in the euro zone

My friend Sam Bowman, Research Director at the Adam Smith Institute, has written a letter to the Financial Times calling for the introduction of a nominal spending target in the euro zone. This is from Sam’s letter:

…While supply-side reforms are usually helpful and fiscal integration may help some eurozone states, Europe’s main problem is monetary.

Nominal spending has collapsed in the eurozone since 2008 and is still well below its pre-crisis trend level. As a result, Europe’s unemployed face a problem of musical chairs: too many jobseekers chasing too little money.

The eurozone’s best hope is for the European Central Bank to pursue a more expansionary monetary policy to raise nominal spending in the eurozone to its pre-crisis trend level, and commit to a nominal spending target thereafter.

Monetary chaos is the source of Europe’s woes: only monetary stability will overcome them.

I fully agree. The ECB can end the European crisis tomorrow by introducing a nominal spending target. Even a very modest proposal of 4% nominal GDP growth targeting would do the trick. Unfortunately nobody in Frankfurt or Brussels seems to be listening.

The Casselian-Mundelian view: An overvalued dollar caused the Great Recession

This is CNBC’s legendary Larry Kudlow in a comment to my previous post:

My friend Bob Mundell believes a massively over-valued dollar (ie, overly tight monetary policy) was proximate cause of financial freeze/meltdown.

Larry’s comment reminded me of my long held view that we have to see the Great Recession in an international perspective. Hence, even though I generally agree on the Hetzel-Sumner view of the cause – monetary tightening – of the Great Recession I think Bob Hetzel and Scott Sumner’s take on the causes of the Great Recession is too US centric. Said in another way I always wanted to stress the importance of the international monetary transmission mechanism. In that sense I am probably rather Mundellian – or what used to be called the monetary theory of the balance of payments or international monetarism.

Overall, it is my view that we should think of the global economy as operating on a dollar standard in the same way as we in the 1920s going into the Great Depression had a gold standard. Therefore, in the same way as Gustav Cassel and Ralph Hawtrey saw the Great Depression as result of gold hoarding we should think of the causes of the Great Recession as being a result of dollar hoarding.

In that sense I agree with Bob Mundell – the meltdown was caused by the sharp appreciation of the dollar in 2008 and the crisis only started to ease once the Federal Reserve started to provide dollar liquidity to the global markets going into 2009.

I have earlier written about how I believe international monetary disorder and policy mistakes turned the crisis into a global crisis. This is what I wrote on the topic back in May 2012:

In 2008 when the crisis hit we saw a massive tightening of monetary conditions in the US. The monetary contraction was a result of a sharp rise in money (dollar!) demand and as the Federal Reserve failed to increase the money supply we saw a sharp drop in money-velocity and hence in nominal (and real) GDP. Hence, in the US the drop in NGDP was not primarily driven by a contraction in the money supply, but rather by a drop in velocity.

The European story is quite different. In Europe the money demand also increased sharply, but it was not primarily the demand for euros, which increased, but rather the demand for US dollars. In fact I would argue that the monetary contraction in the US to a large extent was a result of European demand for dollars. As a result the euro zone did not see the same kind of contraction in money (euro) velocity as the US. On the other hand the money supply contracted somewhat more in the euro zone than in the US. Hence, the NGDP contraction in the US was caused by a contraction in velocity, but in the euro zone the NGDP contraction was caused by both a contraction in velocity and in the money supply, reflecting a much less aggressive response by the ECB than by the Federal Reserve.

To some extent one can say that the US economy was extraordinarily hard hit because the US dollar is the global reserve currency. As a result global demand for dollar spiked in 2008, which caused the drop in velocity (and a sharp appreciation of the dollar in late 2008).

In fact I believe that two factors are at the centre of the international transmission of the crisis in 2008-9.

First, it is key to what extent a country’s currency is considered as a safe haven or not. The dollar as the ultimate reserve currency of the world was the ultimate safe haven currency (and still is) – as gold was during the Great Depression. Few other currencies have a similar status, but the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen have a status that to some extent resembles that of the dollar. These currencies also appreciated at the onset of the crisis.

Second, it is completely key how monetary policy responded to the change in money demand. The Fed failed to increase the money supply enough to meet the increase in the dollar demand (among other things because of the failure of the primary dealer system). On the other hand the Swiss central bank (SNB) was much more successful in responding to the sharp increase in demand for Swiss francs – lately by introducing a very effective floor for EUR/CHF at 1.20. This means that any increase in demand for Swiss francs will be met by an equally large increase in the Swiss money supply. Had the Fed implemented a similar policy and for example announced in September 2008 that it would not allow the dollar to strengthen until US NGDP had stopped contracting then the crisis would have been much smaller and would long have been over…

…I hope to have demonstrated above that the increase in dollar demand in 2008 not only hit the US economy but also led to a monetary contraction in especially Europe. Not because of an increased demand for euros, lats or rubles, but because central banks tightened monetary policy either directly or indirectly to “manage” the weakening of their currencies. Or because they could not ease monetary policy as members of the euro zone. In the case of the ECB the strict inflation targeting regime let the ECB to fail to differentiate between supply and demand shocks which undoubtedly have made things a lot worse.

So there you go – you have to see the crisis in an international monetary perspective and the Fed could have avoided the crisis if it had acted to ensure that the dollar did not become significantly “overvalued” in 2008. So yes, I am as much a Mundellian (hence a Casselian) as a Sumnerian-Hetzelian when it comes to explaining the Great Recession. A lot of my blog posts on monetary policy in small-open economies and currency competition (and why it is good) reflect these views as does my advocacy for what I have termed an Export Price Norm in commodity exporting countries. Irving Fisher’s idea of a Compensated Dollar Plan has also inspired me in this direction.

That said, the dollar should be seen as an indicator or monetary policy tightness in both the US and globally. The dollar could be a policy instrument (or rather an intermediate target), but it is not presently a policy instrument and in my view it would be catastrophic for the Fed to peg the dollar (for example to the gold price).

Unlike Bob Mundell I am very skeptical about fixed exchange rate regimes (in all its forms – including currency unions and the gold standard). However, I do think it can be useful for particularly small-open economies to use the exchange rate as a policy instrument rather than interest rates. Here I think the policies of particularly the Czech, the Swiss and the Singaporean central banks should serve as inspiration.

The “there was no bubble” reading list

The “normal” story of the Great Recession is that the crisis was caused by the bursting of a giant property market bubble in the US and other places. The normal story is an odd synthesis between a old-school Keynesian animal spirits story and a vulgar version of Austrian business cycle theory.

Market Montarists have long argued that the crisis was not a result of a bubble bursting, but rather a result of a monetary policy disorder – a unwarranted massive tightening of monetary conditions in both the US and the euro zone (and other places).

Market Monetarists, however, have paid less attention to whether or not there in fact was a bubble – and we do not necessarily agree on this. Scott Sumner and Marcus Nunes are quite critical that there was a bubble in the US property market, while David Beckworth and myself are more open to the idea that there might have been a bubble (whatever that is). Personally, I also focus on other countries than the US where I believe it is fairly obvious that there were substantial misallocation, which also manifested itself in a “bubble” in the property market. I certainly believe that that was the case in the Baltic States, Iceland and Spain. That said, that was not the cause of the crisis and therefore I would tend to downplay the importance of these “bubbles”.

Even though I believe that there might have been bubble in some countries prior to the crisis I am very critical about the normal story of widespread bubbles and that these bubbles were what caused the crisis.

In recent days there have been put out a number of blog posts that all seem to show that there was no bubble prior to the crisis. I think it is worthwhile reading all of these posts.

Here is the “there was no bubble” reading list:

We start out with Marcus Nunes post “Excuses Galore” from July last year on the US property market.

Marcus’ post has inspired Adam Smith Institute’s Sam Bowman to write a post on why “There was no British housing bubble”.

Sam has a follow-up post – “Bubble and a ballons”.

Finally you should read Harry Flam’s post on why there is no Swedish property market bubble.

Maybe I should write a post on why Danish property price indeed were (too) high prior to the crisis, but that it hardly was a bubble and the crash was not caused by a bubble bursting, but because of monetary tightening…but that will have to wait.

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