A dollar-based Free Banking system: The way to nominal stability in Argentina

Inflation is skyrocketing in Argentina and the country seems unable to ever maintaining any form of nominal stability. In my view the problem with lack of nominal stability in Argentina is, however, not fundamentally monetary – it is rather a constitutional problem. Hence, it seems like the country’s politicians are able to make the decisions that are necessary to maintain monetary stability.

So even though I am quite critical about different suggestions for dollarization in different countries I for some time have thought that in the case of Argentina there is no reason to try to come up with an “optimal” monetary regime. In many ways Argentina is economically-politically a failed state. Hence,  simply getting rid of the Argentine peso might be the least horrible solution.

Nicolas Cachanosky and Adrian O. Ravier in a new very interesting paper – A Proposal of Monetary Reform for Argentina: Flexible Dollarization and Free Banking – has an interesting proposal for dollarization in Argentina.

Here is the abstract:

Argentina’s economy and monetary institutions are, once again, experiencing a serious crisis. In this document, we propose a monetary reform for Argentina that consists of flexible dollarization plus a free banking regime. By flexible dollarization, we mean that the peso should be replaced with the U.S. dollar as a first step, but the market should have the freedom to interact with any selected currency. Therefore, the country does not become attached the U.S. dollar; on the contrary, it becomes a free currency country. By free banking, we mean giving financial institutions permission to issue their own banknotes convertible into U.S. dollars or any other currency or commodity of their choice.

It should be noted that the problems of the Argentine economy go beyond those of monetary policy. This proposal should not be understood as a sufficient reform to fix the Argentinean economy but as a necessary one. This proposal should also not be understood as a monetary panacea but as a monetary framework that is still superior to one provided by the Argentine central bank BCRA and Argentine policy makers to their country.

There is only major problem with the suggestion – Argentine policy makers seem unable to make sensible decisions. That said, ideas matter. In fact they matter a lot so hopefully one day some visionary Argentine reformist government will pick-up Cachanosky-Ravier monetary reform plan.

HT Anthony Evans

I simply have to read Adam Tooze’s new book

Adam Tooze is one of my favorite historians and I have often written about his fantastic book Wages of Destruction. It is an amazing book about the Nazi time German economy, which I strongly recommend to anybody who cares about listening to me.

Now Adam Tooze is ready with a new book – The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order 1916-1931According to Amazon the book will be released on May 29 2014. Here is the book description:

On the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, Deluge is a powerful explanation of why the war’s legacy continues to shape our world – from Adam Tooze, the Wolfson Prize-winning author of The Wages of Destruction

In the depths of the Great War, with millions of dead and no imaginable end to the conflict, societies around the world began to buckle. As the cataclysmic battles continued, a new global order was being born.

Adam Tooze’s panoramic new book tells a radical, new story of the struggle for global mastery from the battles of the Western Front in 1916 to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The war shook the foundations of political and economic order across Eurasia. Empires that had lasted since the Middle Ages collapsed into ruins. New nations sprang up. Strikes, street-fighting and revolution convulsed much of the world. And beneath the surface turmoil, the war set in motion a deeper and more lasting shift, a transformation that continues to shape the present day: 1916 was the year when world affairs began to revolve around the United States.

America was both a uniquely powerful global force: a force that was forward-looking, the focus of hope, money and ideas, and at the same time elusive, unpredictable and in fundamental respects unwilling to confront these unwished for responsibilities. Tooze shows how the fate of effectively the whole of civilization – the British Empire, the future of peace in Europe, the survival of the Weimar Republic, both the Russian and Chinese revolutions and stability in the Pacific – now came to revolve around this new power’s fraught relationship with a shockingly changed world.

The Deluge is both a brilliantly illuminating exploration of the past and an essential history for the present.

Damn, I look forward to reading this book!

One step closer to euro zone deflation

This is from CNBC:

Euro zone consumer inflation came in lower than expected in December, adding to concerns that the euro zone could be heading towards a period of deflation.

Consumer prices rose by 0.8 percent year-on-year in December, below the 0.9 percent expected by economists. It comes after inflation increased by 0.9 percent in November.

Day by day it is becoming more and more clear that the euro zone is heading for deflation and despite of this the ECB so far has failed to act and it is blatantly obvious that the ECB is in breach of its own mandate to secure “price stability” defined as 2% inflation.

The failure to act is also a clear demonstration that the ECB in fact has an asymmetrical monetary policy rule (what I have called the Weidmann rule). The ECB will tighten monetary policy when inflation increases, but will not ease when inflation drops.

Depressing…

The Kuroda boom remains all about domestic demand

Remember when then Bank of Japan last year initiated its unprecedented program of monetary easing most commentators saw that as an attempt to wage currency war to boost Japanese exports? I instead stressed that the “export channel” was not likely to be what would drag Japan out of the deflationary trap. Rather I stressed the importance of domestic demand.

This is what I said in May last year:

While I strongly believe that the policies being undertaken by the Bank of Japan at the moment are likely to significantly boost Japanese nominal GDP growth – and likely also real GDP growth in the near-term – I doubt that the main contribution to growth will come from exports. Instead I believe that we are likely to see a boost to domestic demand and that will be the main driver of growth. Yes, we are likely to see an improvement in Japanese export growth, but it is not really the most important channel for how monetary easing works.

I think that the way we should think about the weaker yen is as an indicator for monetary easing. Hence, when we are seeing the yen weaken, Japanese stock markets rallying and inflation expectations rising at the same time then it is pretty safe to assume that monetary conditions are indeed becoming easier. Of course the first thing we can conclude is that this shows that there is no “liquidity trap”. The central bank can always ease monetary policy – also when interest rates are zero or close to zero. The Bank of Japan is proving that at the moment.

Two things are happening at the moment in the Japan. One, the money base is increasing dramatically. Second and maybe more important money-velocity is picking up significantly.

Velocity is of course picking up because money demand in Japan is dropping as a consequence of households, companies and institutional investors expecting the value of the cash they are holding to decline as inflation is likely to pick up. The drop in the yen is a very good indicator of that.

And what do you do when you reduce the demand for money? Well, you spend it, you invest it. This is likely to be what will have happen in Japan in the coming months and quarters – private consumption growth will pick-up, business investments will go up, construction activity will accelerate.

…Hence, the Bank of Japan (and the rest of us) should celebrate the sharp drop in the yen as it is an indicator of a sharp increase in money-velocity and not because it is helping Japanese “competitiveness”.

Since then the Japanese economy has continued to recover  (much more strongly than any other of the major developed economies in the world) and it has to a very large extent been about domestic demand rather than exports.

And this morning we got the latest confirmation of a recovery driven by domestic demand. Just take a look at this story from the Dow Jones News Wire:

Japan’s domestic sales of new cars, trucks and buses climbed 18.7% from a year earlier in December for the fourth straight month, rising from a low basis of comparison a year earlier when demand was hurt after the end of the government incentives to buy fuel-efficient cars.

Sales totaled 254,464 vehicles in December, up from 214,429 in the same month last year, the Japan Automobile Dealers Association said Monday.

Toyota sales rose 11.8% to 102,566, with its Lexus luxury brand registering a 15.1% increase to 3,414. Nissan sold 31,420 vehicles, up a modest 1.0%. Honda’s sales doubled to 38,767 from 18,886 after the introduction of the redesigned Fit compact in September.

With the latest monthly figures counted, the nation’s domestic auto sales for the calendar year 2013 fell 3.8% to 3.26 million vehicles from 3.39 million in 2012, the association said.

Auto sales, as measured by vehicle registrations with the government, are monitored by economists since they are the first consumer spending numbers released each month.

So let me say it again – it’s domestic demand, stupid!

A textbook graph that even Augusto Costa and Cristina Kirchner should be able to understand

Argentina is an economic basket case. It is that simple. The country never seems to be able to emerge from its problems. The key reason is that the country is extremely weak constitutionally and institutionally and as a result the country has some of the worst policy makers in Latin America (if not in the world).

You probably don’t need a lot of further confirmation of the fact that Argentina has horrible policy makers, but try to take a look at this story from Bloomberg anyway:

Argentina’s government pledged that a new system of price controls introduced today won’t lead to the shortages that have crippled other countries’ attempts to enforce cost-cuts for consumers.

The government will use computer software to monitor prices on 194 products in the Greater Buenos Aires area, Commerce Secretary Augusto Costa said today in a press conference. The “voluntary” agreement comprises 10 supermarket chains and 65 suppliers and will incorporate other regions of the country during January, Costa said.

The accord follows a similar agreement in June when the government froze the price of 500 goods on supermarket shelves in a bid to rein in the region’s second-fastest inflation. Government and consumer vigilance along with fines and the threat of closure will stop supermarkets from reducing stocks and creating shortages, Costa said. About 1 in 5 products can’t be found on supermarket shelves in Venezuela where more than 100 products are price controlled.

“The prices we are agreeing today are viable prices — they’re reasonable from the point of view of production, distribution and commercialization,” Costa said. “They’re prices that will guarantee adequate supply but that won’t allow for disproportionate and unjustifiable costs that we’ve detected in certain cases.”

I sometimes get the impression that nobody in Argentina studied any economics (I know good Argentine economists so I know that that is not true) so maybe we should help the policy makers with a simple graph that explains what happens when you introduce price controls (a price ceiling). See here.

512px-Binding-price-ceiling

I stole the graph from Wikipieda, but you can find a similar graph in any intermediate microeconomic textbook. I suggest that Augusto Costa and his boss president Cristina Kirchner try to get hold of such textbook very soon so this foolishness can come to an end once and for all!

The “Weidmann rule” and the asymmetrical budget multiplier (is the euro zone 50% keynesian?)

During Christmas and New Years I have been able to (nearly) not think about monetary policy and economics, but I nonetheless came across some comments from Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann from last week, which made me think about the connection between monetary policy rules and fiscal austerity in the euro zone. I will try address these issues in this post.  

This is Jens Weidmann:

“The euro zone is recovering only gradually from the harshest economic crisis in the post-war period and there are few price risks. This justifies the low interest rate…Low price pressure however cannot be a licence for arbitrary monetary easing and we must be sure to raise rates at the right time should inflation pressure mount.”

It is the second part of the quote, which is interesting. Here Weidmann basically spells out his preferred reaction function for the ECB and what he is saying is that he bascially wants an asymmetrical monetary policy rule – when inflation drops below the ECB’s 2% inflation target the ECB should not “arbitrary” cut its key policy rate, but when inflation pressures increase he wants the ECB to act imitiately.

It is not given that the ECB actually has such a policy rule, but given the enormous influence of the Bundesbank on ECB policy making it is probably reasonable to assume that that is the case. That in my view would mean that Summer Critique does not apply (fully) to the euro zone and as a result we can think of the euro zone as being at least 50% “keynesian” in the sense that fiscal shocks will not be fully offset by monetary policy. As a result it would be wrong to assume that the budget multiplier is zero in the euro zone – or rather it is not always zero. The budget multiplier is asymmetrical.

Let me try to illustrate this within a simple AS/AD framework.

First we start out with a symmetrical policy rule – an inflation targeting ECB. Our starting point is a situation where inflation is at 2% – the ECB’s official inflation target – and the ECB will move to offset any shock (positive and negative) to aggregate demand to keep inflation (expectations) at 2%. The graph below illustrates this.

ASAD AD shock

If the euro zone economy is hit by a negative demand shock in the form of for example fiscal tightening across the currency union the AD curve inititally shifts to the left (from AD to AD’). This will push inflation below the ECB’s 2% inflation target. As this happens the ECB will automatically move to offset this shock by easing monetary policy. This will shift the AD curve back (from AD’ to AD). With a credible monetary policy rule the markets would probably do most of the lifting.

The Weidmann rule – asymmetry rules

However, the Weidmann rule as formulated above is not symmetrical. In Weidmann’s world a negative shock to aggregate demand – for example fiscal tightening – will not automatically be offset by monetary policy. Hence, in the graph above the negative shock aggregate demand (from AD to AD’) will just lead to a drop in real GDP growth and in inflation to below 2%. Given the ECB’s official 2% would imply the ECB should move to offset the negative AD shock, but that is not the case under the Weidmann rule. Hence, under the Weidmann rule a tightening of fiscal policy will lead to drop in aggregate demand. This means that the fiscal multiplier is positive, but only when the fiscal shock is negative.

This means that the Sumner Critique does not hold under the Weidman rule. Fiscal consolidation will indeed have a negative impact on aggregate demand (nominal spending). In that sense the keynesians are right – fiscal consolidation in the euro zone has likely had an negative impact on euro zone growth if the ECB consistently has followed a Weidmann rule. Whether that is the case or not is ultimately an empirical question, but I must admit that I increasingly think that that is the case. The austerity drive in the euro zone has likely been deflationary. However, it is important to note that this is only so because of the conduct of monetary policy in the euro area. Had the ECB instead had an fed style Evans rule with a symmetrical policy rule then the Sumner Critique would have applied also for the euro area.

The fact that the budget multiplier is positive could be seen as an argument against fiscal austerity in the euro zone. However, interestingly enough it is not an argument for fiscal stimulus.  Hence, according to Jens Weidmann the ECB “must be sure to raise rates at the right time should inflation pressure mount”. Said in another way if the AD curve shifts to the right – increasing inflation and real GDP growth then the ECB should offset this with higher interest rates even when inflation is below the ECB’s 2% inflation target.

This means that there is full monetary offset if fiscal policy is eased. Therefore the Sumner Critique applies under fiscal easing and the budget multiplier is zero.

The Weidmann rule guarantees deflation 

Concluding, with the Weidmann rule fiscal tightening will be deflationary – inflation will drop as will real GDP growth. But fiscal stimulus will not increase aggregate demand. The result of this is that if we assume the shocks to aggregate demand are equally distributed between positive and negative demand shocks the consequence will be that we over time will see the difference between nominal GDP in the US and the euro become larger and larger exactly because the fed has a symmetrical monetary policy rule (the Evans rule), while the ECB has a asymmetrical monetary policy rule (the Weidmann rule).

This is of course exactly what we have seen over the past five years. But don’t blame fiscal austerity – blame the Weidmann rule.

NGDP euro zone USA

PS I should really acknowledge that this is a variation over a theme stressed by Larry Summers and Brad Delong in their paper Fiscal Policy in a Depressed Economy. See my discussion of that paper here.

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