Celebrating Friedman and Hetzel

Today Milton Friedman would have turned 102 years. Happy birthday Uncle Milty!

I have over the last couple of years done numerous posts celebrating Milton Friedman so this post will not be long. Instead I will leave the job to Robert Hetzel who I am also celebrating this year as Bob turned 70 years on July 3.

So I find it suiting that my readers should read Bob’s paper The Contributions of Milton Friedman to Economics. Here is the abstract:

Milton Friedman began his teaching career at the University of Chicago isolated intellectually. He defended the ideas that competitive markets work efficiently to allocate resources and that central banks are responsible for inflation. By the 1980s, these ideas had become commonplace. Friedman was one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century because of his major influence on how a broad public understood the Depression, the Fed’s stop-go monetary policy of the 1970s, flexible exchange rates, and the ability of market forces to advance individual welfare.

I my view Bob – with David Laidler and Edward Nelson – is one of the foremost Friedman scholars of the world. Friedman of course was Bob’s teacher and PhD thesis advisor at the University of Chicago.

This is a list of some of my earlier tributes to Milton Friedman:

Milton Friedman’s answer to a student at the “CEPOS Akademi”
There is a pragmatic (but not a libertarian) case for a “Basic Income Guarantee”
The end of Prohibition and two great monetary thinkers
If there is a ‘bond bubble’ – it is a result of excessive monetary TIGHTENING
Two cheers for higher Japanese bond yields (in the spirit of Milton Friedman)
This should teach you not to mess with Milton Friedman
15 years too late: Reviving Japan (the ECB should watch and learn)
“The Euro: Monetary Unity To Political Disunity?”
BYU radio interview with Christensen
Bernanke says Friedman would have approved of Fed’s recent actions – I think is he more or less right
The Hetzel-Ireland Synthesis
Woodford on NGDP targeting and Friedman
Friedman’s Japanese lessons for the ECB
Friedman, Schuler and Hanke on exchange rates – a minor and friendly disagreement
Dear Milton
You might know the words, but do you get the music?
I can hear Uncle Milty scream from upstairs – at James Bullard
“Free to Choose” now republished in Danish
Allen Sanderson on Milton Friedman
Understanding financial markets with MV=PY – a look at the bond market
Long and variable leads and lags
Christina Romer is also in love with Milton Friedman
A personal tribute to Milton Friedman
Dinner with Bob Chitester
Friedman should have supported NGDP targeting, but never did
Selgin is right – Friedman wanted to abolish the Fed
Friedman provided a theory for NGDP targeting
Friedman’s thermostat and why he obviously would support a NGDP target
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #1
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #2
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #3
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #4
Milton Friedman on exchange rate policy #5

See also my book on Milton Friedman (In Danish)


Lars’s Law – I blame the ECB

My colleague Arne Rasmussen put it well in a comment on Facebook today:

”…you have Godwin’s law and then you have Lars’s law…sooner or later he will blame it (everything) on the ECB…”

Arne is of course right. I just have to admit it – I do tend to blame the ECB for everything bad in this world.


PS if you forgot what Godwin’s law then this what Wikipedia is tellng us: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”

European central bankers are obsessing about everything else than monetary policy

While it is becoming increasingly clear that Europe is falling into a Japanese style deflationary trap European central bankers continue to refuse to talk about the need for monetary easing to curb deflationary pressures. Instead they seem to be focused on everything else. We have been through it all – the ECB has concerned itself with who was Prime Minister in Greece and Italy about Spanish fiscal policy, rising oil prices in 2011 and about “financial stability”. And believe it or not it has become fashionable for European central bankers to call for higher wages in Germany!

This is from Reuters (on Sunday):

The European Central Bank supports Germany‘s Bundesbank in its appeals for higher wage deals in Germany, Der Spiegel magazine quoted ECB Chief Economist Peter Praet as saying on Sunday.

Low wage agreements were needed in some crisis-hit countries in the euro zone to bolster competitiveness, the magazine quoted Praet as saying.

By contrast, in countries like Germany where “inflation is low and the labour market is in good shape”, higher earnings increases were appropriate, Der Spiegel reported him to have said.

This would help bring average wage developments in the euro zone in line with the ECB’s inflation target of close to 2 percent, his argument continued, said Der Spiegel.

The Bundesbank historically has been a strong advocate of wage restraint, but with euro zone inflation stuck below 1 percent and consumer prices rising just 1.0 percent in June in Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, some fear deflation.

Bundesbank Chief Economist Jens Ulbrich has been widely reported by German media to have encouraged German trade unions to take a more aggressive stance in wage negotiations given low levels of inflation.

First of all one should ask the question why European central bankers in this way would interfere in the determination of prices (wages). The job of the central bank is to provide a nominal anchor – not to have a view on relative prices.

Second you got to wonder what textbook European central bank economists have been reading. It seems like they have completely missed the difference between the supply side and the demand side of the economy.

We know from earlier that ECB Chief Economist Praet seems to have a bit of a problem differentiating between supply and demand shocks. Apparently this is a general problem for Eureopan central bankers – or at least Bundesbank’ Jens Ulbrich suffers from the same problem.

What Ulbrich seems to be arguing is that we should solve Europe’s deflationary problem by basically engineering a negative supply shock to the German economy. The same kind of logic has been used as an argument for the recent misguided increase in German minimum wages.

Hence, it seems like both Praet and Ulbrich actually acknowledge that there is a deflationary problem in Europe, but at the same time they very clearly fail to understand that this is a monetary phenomenon. As a consequence they come up with very odd “solutions” for the problem.

This can be easily demonstrated in a simple Cowen-Tabarak style AS/AD framework – see the graph below.

wage shock

ECB’s overly tight monetary policy has caused aggregate demand to drop shifting the AD curve from AD to AD’, which has caused a drop in inflation to below 2% (likely also soon below 0%).

The Bundesbank now wants to deal with this problem not by doing the obvious – easing monetary policy aggressive – but instead by causing a negative supply shock. Obviously if German labour unions are given further monopoly powers and/or the German minimum wage is increased then that is a negative supply shock – wages increase without an increase in productivity or demand for labour. This causes the AS curve to shift left from AS to AS’.

The result of course would be higher inflation, but real GDP growth would drop further (to y” in the graph). Or said in another way it seems like the Bundebank are advocating “solving” Europe deflationary problem by increasing the structural problems on the German labour market.

Obviously Jens Ulbrich likely would argue that this is not what he means (his reasoning seems to follow a typical 1970s style “Keynesian” macroeconometric model where there is no money and no supply side – higher wage growth cause demand to increase), but that doesn’t matter as the outcome of an exogenous negative supply shock to the German economy would be bad news for Europe rather than good news.

Stop micromanaging the European economy – and do monetary easing

It is about time that European central bankers stop obsessing about matters that have nothing to do with monetary policy – whether it is fiscal policy, financial stability or labour market conditions. They can and not should try to influence these matters. The ECB should just take these matters as given when they conduct monetary policy, but it not for them to influence these matters.

The Bundesbank or the ECB should not have a view on what the level of the public deficit in Spain is or the how much German wages should increase. The first is for the Spanish government to decide on and the second is for German employers and labour unions to negotiate. It is becoming very hard to argue for central bank independence when central bankers (mis)use this independence to interfere in non-monetary matters.

The ECB is failing badly on this at the moment has the risk of falling into a deflationary trap is increase day by day. So why do the Bundesbank and the ECB just not focus on solving that issue? Depressingly the problem is very easy to solve – also without worsening German labour market conditions.

PS The argument for higher wage growth and tight money is very similar to what caused the so-called Recession in the Depression in the US in 1937. The Roosevelt administration got increasingly concerned in 1936-37 that inflation was picking up while wage growth remained weak. The Roosevelt administration feared this would cause real wage to drop, which would cause private consumption to drop and unemployment to increase. This obviously is a very primitive form of Keynesianism (but something Keynes did in fact advocate) and today it should be clear to everybody that political attempts to cause real wages to outpace productivity will lead to higher rather than lower unemployment. And this is what happened in 1937 – the FDR administration troed push up real wages by increasing nominal wage growth and tightening monetary policy caused the recession in 1937.

PPS Unfortunately the Abe government in Japan seems to suffering from the same illusion that “engineering” a rise in real wage – without a similar rise in productivity – can help the Japanese economy.


The stock market has reached “a permanently high plateau” (if the Fed does not mess up again…)

Last week I wrote a post criticizing Fed chair Janet Yellen for apparently becoming a stock picker. Later later in the week she spoke before the US House Financial Services Committee in Washington she seemed to tone down a bit her “stock picking” comments, but she nonetheless commented on the general valuation of the US stock market.

I am still critical about the idea that the Fed has a view at all on the valuation of the US stock market, but lets for a second forget that and instead address the issue of US stock market valuation. I am certainly no equity analyst and the normal disclaimer applies – this is not investment advice. This is an quasi-academic excise.

Last week Yellen said that in her assessment US asset values “aren’t out of line with norms“. Said in another way – the US stock market is basically fairly valued.

Equity strategists and investors have many different methods to evaluate stock market valuation. An often used method is what has become known as the so-called Fed-model (named by the legendary equity strategist Ed Yardeni).

An alternative Fed-model

The Fed-model basically says that there is a close historical relationship between the so-called earnings yield (the inverse of the P/E ratio) and US Treasury bond yields. While there certainly is good theoretical reason to discuss the model there is no doubt that over time the “model” as fitted the development in the US stock market fairly.

I will here use a slightly altered version of the Fed-model. Instead of using the earning yields I look at the ratio between on the one hand Private consumption expenditure (as a monthly proxy for nominal spending/NGDP) and stock prices (I use the Wilshire 5000 index here). I compare that not with US Treasury yields but instead with the yield on Aaa corporate bonds. I have “calibrated” my “earnings yield”  (PCE/Wilshire5000) so it is in January 1980 was exactly equal to the corporate bond yield. This obviously is an ad hoc assumption, but it ensures that the average “valuation” of the stock markets is more or less zero for the period since 1975.

The graph below shows that there is a quite close historical correlation between the “earnings yield” and the yield on US corporate bonds.

Fed model

We can show basically the same thing by looking at the Wilshire 5000 in level versus what I below call “fundamentals”. “Fundamentals” I here define as the ratio of Private Consumption Expenditure to the corporate bond yield. Also here I have calibrated the “model” so January 1980 is our “starting point”.

Wilshare 5000

Both graphs above illustrate Yellen’s argument that stocks are not overvalued. In fact US stock prices exactly seem to reflect “fundamentals” – at least if we use my version of the Fed-model.

There is no bubble – it is easy to explain what have happened since 2009  

Some central bankers and a lot of internet-Austrians are eager to claim that the development in stock prices since 2009 in some way reflect monetary policy “manipulation” of the stock market. Obviously we cannot understand the development in stock prices without understanding monetary policy, but there is nothing “unnatural” about what have happened and as the graphs above illustrates it doesn’t really look like there is a US stock market bubble.

In fact we can use the Fed-model to explain the development in stock prices fairly well since Wilshire 5000 hit rock bottom in 2009. Since then Private Consumption Expenditure has rebounded and Corporate bond yields have come down. Both factors are obviously bullish for stock prices according to my adjusted Fed-model. Furthermore, stocks became significantly undervalued in 2008-9 and this in fact seems to most important in terms of the stock market valuation.

Looking at the adjusted Fed-model Wilshire 5000 is now basically at “fair value” levels. So going forward we need either to see Private Consumption Expenditure to increase or Corporate bond yields to drop to see further (fundamentally driven) stock market gains.

I should again stress that this is not the work of an equity strategist and I am not providing investment advice here. My only concern is to discuss whether or not we can say that actions from the Federal Reserve have manipulated stock prices in such away that we can say there is a bubble in the US stock market.

 The stock market has reached “a permanently high plateau” – until the Fed once again mess up things…

Famously Irving Fisher shortly before the stock market crashed in 1929 announced that the US stock market had reached “a permanently high plateau”. I might be repeating this mistake by argueing that we are now basically trading at “fair value” levels for the US stock. So let me hedge my position (quite) a bit – unless the Federal Reserve will make another policy mistake then US stocks are at a permanently high plateau. Other central banks like the PBoC or the ECB might also very well mess up things.

And yes monetary policy failure is the biggest risk at the moment as I see it. The US economy is in recovery, stock prices continue to inch up and financial market volatility is low.

Why? Exactly because monetary policy in the US in general has returned to what Bob Hetzel has called a Lean-Against-the-Wind with credibility-regime. While Fed policy is far from perfect we broadly-speaking can say the Fed has returned to a (quasi) rule-based monetary policy where the markets in general are able to predict changes to the monetary policy stance. If anything the Fed is probably expected to deliver 4% nominal GDP growth – and this is exactly what the Fed has done in recent years.

However, if the Fed for some reason where to change cause (or change the implicit target) for example because it is becoming preoccupied with asset prices as in 1928-29 we could see the Fed trigger a negative shock to the US economy and that surely would send the US stock market down.

The Fed should certainly not worry about stock market valuation, but if it delivers a stable and predictable monetary policy regime then it will also create the best environment for a stable development in stock markets. In fact a predictable and strictly rule based monetary policy would make it extremely boring to be an equity strategist…

Stock picker Janet Yellen

If you are looking for a new stock broker look no further! This is Fed chair Janet Yellen at her testimony in the US Senate yesterday:

“Valuation metrics in some sectors do appear substantially stretched—particularly those for smaller firms in the social media and biotechnology industries, despite a notable downturn in equity prices for such firms early in the year.”

This is quite unusual to say the least that the head of most powerful central bank in the world basically is telling investors what stocks to buy and sell.

Unfortunately it seems to part of a growing tendency among central bankers globally to be obsessing about “financial stability” and “bubbles”, while at the same time increasingly pushing their primary nominal targets in the background. In Sweden an obsession about household debt and property prices has caused the Riksbank to consistently undershot its inflation target. Should we now start to think that the Fed will introduce the valuation of biotech and social media stocks in its reaction function? Will the Fed tighten monetary policy if Facebook stock rises “too much”? What is Fed’s “price target” in Linkedin?

I believe this is part of a very unfortunate trend among central bankers around the world to talk about monetary policy in terms of “trade-offs”. As I have argued in a recent post in the 1970s inflation expectations became un-anchored exactly because central bankers refused to take responsibility for providing a nominal anchor and the excuse was that there are trade-offs in monetary policy – “yes, we can reduce inflation, but that will cause unemployment to increase”.

Today the excuse for not providing a nominal anchor is not unemployment, but rather the perceived risk of “bubbles” (apparently in biotech and social media stocks!)  The result is that inflation expectations again are becoming un-anchored – this time the result, however, is not excessively high inflation, but rather deflation. The impact on the economy is, however, the same as the failure to provide a nominal anchor will make the working of the price system less efficient and therefore cause a general welfare lose.

I am not arguing that there is not misallocation of credit and capital. I am just stating that it is not a task for central banks to deal with these problems. In think that moral hazard problems have grown significantly since 2008 – particularly in Europe. Therefore governments and international organisations like the EU and IMF need to reduce implicit and explicit guarantees and subsidies to (other) governments, banks and financial institutions to a minimum. And central banks should give up credit policies and focus 100% on monetary policy and on providing a nominal anchor for the economy and leave the price mechanism to allocate resources in the economy.

Never reason from a price change – version #436552

This is ECB’s chief economist Peter Praet in an interview with Les Echos:

 “Normally, a fall in prices would be able to support purchasing power and, therefore, domestic demand. But demand has remained weak, including in the biggest euro area economies”

It seems like Praet is not entirely sure about the difference between supply and demand shocks, but let me just illustrate the dffference in two graphs (I don’t have much time so I did it by hand and with the help of an iPhone…)


The European situation is the graph on the right.

The un-anchoring of inflation expectations – 1970s style monetary policy, but now with deflation

In country after country it is now becoming clear that we are heading for outright deflation. This is particularly the case in Europe – both inside and outside the euro area – where most central banks are failing to keep inflation close to their own announced inflation targets.

What we are basically seeing is an un-anchoring of inflation expectations. What is happening in my view is that central bankers are failing to take responsibility for inflation and in a broader sense for the development in nominal spending. Central bankers simply are refusing to provide an nominal anchor for the economy.

To understand this process and to understand what has gone wrong I think it is useful to compare the situation in two distinctly different periods – the Great Inflation (1970s and earlier 1980s) and the Great Moderation (from the mid-1980s to 2007/8).

The Great Inflation – “Blame somebody else for inflation”

Monetary developments were quite similar across countries in the Western world during the 1970s. What probably best describes monetary policy in this period is that central banks in general did not take responsibility for the development in inflation and in nominal spending – maybe with the exception of the Bundesbank and the Swiss National Bank.

In Milton Friedman’s wonderful TV series Free to Choose from 1980 he discusses how central bankers were blaming everybody else than themselves for inflation (see here)

As Friedman points out labour unions, oil prices (the OPEC) and taxes were said to have caused inflation to have risen. That led central bankers like then Fed chairman Arthur Burns to argue that to reduce inflation it was necessary to introduce price and wage controls.

Friedman of course rightly argued that the only way to curb inflation was to reduce central bank money creation, but in the 1970s most central bankers had lost faith in the fundamental truth of the quantity theory of money.

Said in another way central bankers in the 1970s simply refused to take responsibility for the development in nominal spending and therefore for inflation. As a consequence inflation expectations became un-anchored as the central banks did not provide an nominal anchor. The result was predictable (for any monetarist) – the price level driffed aimlessly, inflation increased, became highly volatile and unpredictable.

Another thing which was characteristic about monetary policy in 1970s was the focus on trade-offs – particularly the Phillips curve relationship that there was a trade-off between inflation and unemployment (even in the long run). Hence, central bankers used high unemployment – caused by supply side factors – as an excuse not to curb money creation and hence inflation. We will see below that central bankers today find similar excuses useful when they refuse to take responsibility for ensuring nominal stability.

The Great Moderation – “Inflation is always and everywhere monetary phenomenon” 

That all started to change as Milton Friedman’s monetarist counterrevolution started to gain influence during the 1970s and in 1979 the newly appointed Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker started what would become a global trend towards central banks again taking responsibility for providing nominal stability and in the early 1990s central banks around the world moved to implement clearly defined nominal policy rules – mostly in the form of inflation targets (mostly around 2%) starting with the Reserve Bank of  New Zealand in 1990.

Said in the other way from the mid-1980s or so central banks started to believe in Milton Friedman’s dictum that “Inflation is always and everywhere monetary phenomenon” and more importantly they started to act as if they believed in this dictum. The result was predictable – inflation came down dramatically and became a lot more predictable and nominal spending/NGDP growth became stable.

By taking responsibility for nominal stability central banks around the world had created an nominal anchor, which ensured that the price mechanism in general could ensure an efficient allocation of resources. This was the great success of the Great Moderation period.

The only problem was that few central bankers understood why and how this was working. Robert Hetzel obvious was and still is a notable exception and he is telling us that reason we got nominal stability is exactly because central banks took responsibility for providing a nominal anchor.

That unfortunately ended suddenly in 2008.

The Great Recession – back to the bad habits of the 1970s

If we compare the conduct of monetary policy around the world over the past 5-6 years with the Great Inflation and Great Moderation periods I think it is very clear that we to a large extent has returned to the bad habits of the 1970s. That particularly is the case in Europe, while there are signs that monetary policy in the US, the UK and Japan is gradually moving back to practices similar to the Great Moderation period.

So what are the similarities with the 1970s?

1) Central banks refuse to acknowledge inflation (and NGDP growth) is a monetary phenomenon.

2) Central banks are concerned about trade-offs and have multiple targets (often none-monetary) rather focusing on one nominal target. 

Regarding 1) We have again and again heard central bankers say that they are “out of ammunition” and that they cannot ease monetary policy because interest rates are at zero – hence they are indirectly saying that they cannot control nominal spending growth, the money supply and the price level. Again and again we have heard ECB officials say that the monetary transmission mechanism is “broken”.

Regarding 2) Since 2008 central banks around the world have de facto given up on their inflation targets. In Europe for now nearly two years inflation has undershot the inflation targets of the ECB, the Riksbank, the Polish central bank, the Czech central bank and the Swiss National Bank etc.

And to make matters worse these central banks quite openly acknowledge that they don’t care much about the fact that they are not fulfilling their own stated inflation targets. Why? Because they are concerning themselves with other new (ad hoc!) targets – such as the development in asset prices or household debt.

The Swedish Riksbank is an example of this. Under the leadership of Riksbank governor the Stefan Ingves the Riksbank has de facto given up its inflation targeting regime and is now targeting everything from inflation, credit growth, property prices and household debt. This is completely ad hoc as the Riksbank has not even bothered to tell anybody what weight to put on these different targets.

It is therefore no surprise that the markets no longer see the Riksbank’s official 2% inflation target as credible. Hence, market expectations for Swedish inflation is consistency running below 2%. In 1970s the Riksbank failed because it effectively was preoccupied with hitting an unemployment target. Today the Riksbank is failing – for the same reason: It is trying to hit another other non-monetary target – the level of household debt.

European central bankers in the same way as in the 1970s no longer seem to understand or acknowledge that they have full control of nominal spending growth and therefore inflation and as a consequence they de facto have given up providing a nominal anchor for the economy. The result is that we are seeing a gradual un-anchoring of inflation expectations in Europe and this I believe is the reason that we are likely to see deflation becoming the “normal” state of affairs in Europe unless fundamental policy change is implemented.

Every time we get a new minor or larger negative shock to the European economy – banking crisis in Portugal or fiscal and political mess in France – we will just sink even deeper into deflation and since there is nominal anchor nothing will ensure that we get out of the deflationary trap. This is of course the “Japanese scenario” where the Bank of Japan for nearly two decade refused to take responsibility for providing an nominal anchor.

And as we continue to see a gradual unchoring of inflation expectations it is also clear that the economic system is becomimg increasingly dysfunctional and the price system will work less and less efficiently – exactly as in the 1970s. The only difference is really that while the problem in 1970s was excessively high inflation the problem today is deflation. But the reason is the same – central banks refusal to take responsibility for providing a nominal anchor.

Shock therapy is needed to re-anchor inflation expectations

The Great Inflation came to an end when central banks around the world finally took responsibility for providing a nominal anchor for the economy through a rule based monetary policy based on the fact that the central bank is in full control of nominal spending growth in the economy. To do that ‘shock therapy’ was needed.

For example example the Federal Reserve starting in 1979-82 fundamentally changed its policy and communication about its policy. It took responsibility for providing nominal stability. That re-anchored inflation expectations in the US and started a period of a very high level of nominal stability – stable and predictable growth in nominal spending and inflation.

To get back to a Great Moderation style regime central banks need to be completely clear that they take responsibility for for ensuring nominal stability and that they acknowledge that they have full control of nominal spending growth and as a consequence also the development in inflation. That can be done by introducing a clear nominal targeting – either restating inflation targets or even better introducing a NGDP targeting.

Furthermore, central banks should make it clear that there is no limits on the central bank’s ability to create money and controlling the money base. Finally central banks should permanently make it clear that you can’t have your cake and eat it – central banks can only have one target. It is the Tinbergen rule. There is one instrument – the money base – should the central bank can only hit one target. Doing anything else will end in disaster. 

The Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan have certainly moved in that direction of providing a nominal anchor in the last couple of years, while most central banks in Europe – including most importantly the ECB – needs a fundamental change of direction in policy to achieve a re-anchoring of inflation expectations and thereby avoiding falling even deeper into the deflationary trap.


PS This post has been greatly inspired by re-reading a number of papers by Robert Hetzel on the Quantity Theory of Money and how to understand the importance of central bank credibility. In that sense this post is part of my series of “Tribute posts” to Robert Hetzel in connection with his 70 years birthday.

PPS Above I assume that central banks have responsibility for providing a nominal anchor for the economy. After all if a central bank has a monopoly on money creation then the least it can do is to live up to this responsibility. Otherwise it seems pretty hard to argue why there should be any central bank at all.

Hollande’s Danish spectacles – Is France the next trouble spot in the euro zone?

This is from the Telegraph:

François Hollande has been urged to drop his new dark-rimmed Danish designer spectacles for ones “Made in France”, with Gallic makers saying his choice is unpatriotic at a time when the government is promoting home-grown products.

Domestic spectacle makers saw red when they discovered two weeks ago that their Socialist president had exchanged his old French rimless glasses for rectangular, retro Scandinavian ones.

The directors of a company called Roussilhe, near Nantes, western France and employing 35 people, decided to send him a pair of similar specs “but 100 per cent made in France” with a label guaranteeing proof of origin.

The pair came with a letter in which the bosses fretted about the “intense international competition” they faced, the need to “bolster local savoir-faire” and “to retain our jobs after two decades of layoffs”.

“By wearing our glasses, you will become an ambassador of French spectacles around the world,” they wrote.

Mr Hollande, whose office pointed out that the lenses of his current glasses are in fact French and only the frames foreign, reportedly phoned the company no sooner had he read the letter and offered to buy another pair of their sunglasses for the summer on the spot.

A second French company then waded in, with Sabine Begault Vagner from Orleans sending him a “pretty pair of blue and red rectangular glasses”. The Elysée rang her too, saying the president would use them as his spares.

The “spectacle affair” emerged on the day that Arnaud Montebourg, France’s flamboyant economy minister was due to unveil his “roadmap for French economic recovery”, including a plan to create “tamper-proof” secret codes on tags for wine, foie gras and other local products to promote “le Made in France”.

Besides irking French spectacle makers, Mr Hollande’s change in glasses has triggered furious debate among political observers over their symbolism.

Jacques Séguéla, the advertising guru, said the new glasses were “final proof of his reformist coming of age”.

It is rumoured that the Danish Prime Minister recently had a glass of French red wine. There was no public uproar over that in Denmark.

But given this story it is hard not to think why France will not be the next euro zone country to get into (renewed) trouble…



David Beckworth says goodbye to inflation targeting

David Beckworth just sent me a new paper – Inflation Targeting: A Monetary Policy Regime Whose Time Has Come and Gone – he has written on why it is time to say goodbye to inflation targeting.

Here is the abstract:

Inflation targeting emerged in the early 1990s and soon became the dominant monetary-policy regime. It provided a much-needed nominal anchor that had been missing since the collapse of the Bretton Woods system. Its arrival coincided with a rise in macroeconomic stability for numerous countries, and this led many observ- ers to conclude that it is the best way to do monetary policy. Some studies show, however, that inflation targeting got lucky. It is a monetary regime that has a hard time dealing with large supply shocks, and its arrival occurred during a period when they were small. Since this time, supply shocks have become larger, and inflation targeting has struggled to cope with them. Moreover, the recent crisis suggests it has also has a tough time dealing with large demand shocks, and it may even contribute to financial instability. Inflation targeting, therefore, is not a robust monetary-policy regime, and it needs to be replaced.

David is an extremely clever guy and everything he writes on monetary matters is very interesting and insightful so it would be rather foolish not to read his latest paper. I will start right away – there is after all no World Cup football tonight!



When forward guidance fails: the Fisher equation and the Swedish paradox

On 3 July the Swedish central bank, Riksbanken, cut its key policy rate by 50bp to 0.25%. Most analysts – and the markets – were taken by surprise by this decision. It was particularly surprising as Riksbanken’s governor Stefan Ingves had been voted down by a majority of Riksbanken’s board.

Most people – including myself – would say that when a central bank cuts it key policy rate more than expected, it is monetary easing, and it seemed that was how the market was interpreting Riksbanken’s move – the Swedish krona weakened significantly and Swedish share prices spiked. However, something was not as it should be – Swedish inflation expectations dropped (!) on the back of the rate decision, e.g. Swedish 2-year breakeven inflation dropped from around 0.85% before the rate decision to around 0.65% after the rate decision. This is a paradox – a Swedish paradox: when you cut rates you get lower inflation expectations. So judging from the inflation expectations Riksbanken had actually tightened monetary conditions rather than eased.

BE inflation expectations Sweden

The Fisher equation and focusing on the wrong target

So what went wrong? The answer in my view is that Riksbanken is focusing on the wrong policy target. Hence, the bank communicates in terms of interest rates rather than inflation expectations. And yes, the interest rates are an intermediate target.

Riksbanken controls the Swedish money base and it can use this to control money market rates – in the short term. However, the so-called Tinbergen rule also tells us that a central bank can only hit one target if it has one instrument.

Therefore, if Riksbanken targets interest rates it cannot at the same time effectively target inflation (expectations). Unless it uses an additional “instrument”, such as credibility. If the market believes that Riksbanken will always adjust monetary parameters to ensure that it hits its 2% inflation target, it will be able to move the money market rate (temporarily) away from the ‘natural’ interest rates.

Hence, if Riksbanken’s inflation target is fully credible, inflation expectations will basically be pegged at 2%. However, if the inflation target is not credible, the story is very different, and as inflation expectations are presently well below 2%, it is very clear that the 2% inflation target is presently not credible and has not been credible for years.

A way to illustrate this is to have a look at the so-called Fisher equation:

(1) i = r + pe

i is the nominal interest rate, r is the real interest rate and pe is inflation expectations. When we talk about money market rates we can also see i as the policy rate.

It follows logically from (1) that if the inflation target is fully credible – that is, if pe is ‘fixed’ – a cut in i will ‘automatically’ lower r. On the other hand, if inflation expectations are not well-anchored, a cut in i might as well reduce pe.

I believe this is exactly what happened in Sweden on the back of Riksbanken’s surprise cut.

Not only is Riksbanken communicating in terms of interest rates (rather than inflation expectations) but it is also communicating in terms of the interest rate path. Hence, Riksbanken is not only announcing rate decisions but it is also communicating about future expected changes in the policy rate.

In that regard it is important that Riksbanken actually lowered its expectations for interest rates in two years even more than it lowered its present key policy rate. In other words, Riksbanken flattened the money market rate curve. So for a given real interest rate Riksbanken is actually indirectly telling the market that it expects inflation expectations to decline even further in the coming two years.

Obviously this is not what Riksbanken meant to say (I hope) but when it chooses to focus on interest rates rather than inflation expectations, this is what the market will focus on as well. Riksbanken’s interest rate focus therefore ‘overruled’ the focus on inflation expectations. In fact, in Riksbanken’s statement there was no reference to the market’s inflation expectations.

Lesson: central banks should focus on the ultimate policy target rather than the intermediate one 

I think the lesson we can learn from thisis that central banks should not focus on intermediate targets – such as interest rates and the interest rate path – but should focus on the ultimate policy goal – in the case of Riksbanken expected inflation.

Imagine that Riksbanken had issued the following statement last week:

‘Inflation expectations are presently well below Riksbanken’s 2% inflation target. This is unsatisfactory and as a consequence the repo rate is now being cut by 0.5 percentage points to 0.25% and Riksbanken is fully committed to introducing further monetary easing if needed to ensure that market expectations will fully reflect its 2% inflation target. If needed the repo rate will be cut further and Riksbanken will actively intervene in the currency markets to ease monetary conditions through the FX channel until inflation expectations are at 2%’.

I think it is pretty clear that such a statement would have caused an immediate jump in (market) inflation expectations to 2%. This would obviously also have caused a significant drop in real interest rates – both as a result of the lower nominal rates AND, more importantly, through higher inflation expectations.

What a difference a few words make…

PS Riksbanken is not alone in terms of these problems. The ECB faces a similar problems, while the Fed and the Bank of Japan are focusing on the ultimate policy goal rather than on intermediate targets. However, during Operation Twist in 2011-12 the Fed was facing Riksbanken-style problems.

PPS In Swedish CPI there is an explicit (mortgage) interest rate component, weighing around 5% of total CPI (and hence, of course, incl when calculating breakeven inflation), implying that shorter breakeven inflation should indeed come down by some 0.3 p.p. if a full pass-through into mortgage rates from the cut. That, however, does not really change the point. The Riksbank is targeting CPI so it is really irrelevant why inflation is too low.


Related blog posts:

Committed to a failing strategy: low for longer = deflation for longer?
Riksbanken moves close to the ZLB – Now it is time to give Bennett McCallum a call
A scary story: The Zero Lower Bound and exchange rate dynamics


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