Revisiting the discretionary decision to introduce rules

A couple of days ago Scott Sumner had an interesting post on the theme “It’s policy regime that needs fixing”.

In his post Scott made an interesting observation:

“Good policy is rules-based, but first you must use discretion to decide the optimal rule. But we never actually do pick a rule, and hence the frustration of us rules proponents, we are always seeing the wrong debate take place.”

That reminded me about something I wrote back in May 2012. It is very similar to what Scott is saying. This is from my post “The discretionary decision to introduce rules”:

“At the core of Market Monetarists thinking is that monetary policy should be conducted within a clearly rule based framework. However, as Market Monetarists we are facing a dilemma. The rules or rather quasi-rules that are presently being followed by the major central banks in the world are in our view the wrong rules. We are advocating NGDP level targeting, while most of the major central banks in the world are instead inflation targeters.

So we have a problem. We believe strongly that monetary policy should be based on rules rather than on discretion. But to change the wrong rules (inflation targeting) to the right rules (NGDP targeting) you need to make a discretionary decision. There is no way around this, but it is not unproblematic.”

Scott’s as well as my point is that we need to get away from discussing the day-to-day policy actions of central banks. It for example does not make much sense to discuss whether the Federal Reserve should “taper” or not when it is unclear what monetary policy target the Fed is trying to hit.

Hence, we can really only understand whether monetary policy is too tight or too easy if we know what target the central bank is trying to achieve. Obviously we can assume that the Fed has a given nominal target and then argue that given that target it is right or wrong to taper presently.

Focusing on discussing monetary policy rules will also do a lot to unite Free Market economists who during the Great Recession have been split over the issue of how best to respond to the Great Recession. The point is exactly that central bankers should not be fire-fighters who makes discretionary decision to save the world from fires they often themselves have started. Optimally we should get rid of central bankers altogether and let rules and markets determine monetary conditions.

What we should be debating is what monetary policy rules best ensure nominal stability. I personally continue to think that NGDP level targeting is the “best” rule in terms of achieving nominal stability and the smallest level of distortion of relative prices, but there might be pragmatic reasons why other rules might be preferable for certain countries.

PS I am struggling a bit with a writer’s block at the moment. The key reason is that it so far has been an extremely busy year for me as there seems to be a constant flow of bad news for Emerging Markets. Lately of course the Ukrainian-Russian conflict has been taking a lot of my time and mental energy. I must admit that I am deeply worried about events in Eastern Europe and I find myself making historical comparisons that I don’t like to think about. Frustrations over bad central bankers is one thing – it is a completely another thing to worry about men with guns and bombs. Maybe in fact there is a relationship between the two things…anyway I would welcome any suggestions for topics regarding monetary issues that my readers would like to read about.

PPS If you want to understand what I worry about in relationship to the Ukraine-Russia situation you should read this book. Hopefully I am not overly hysterical in my thinking…

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