Certainly not perfect, but Fed policy is not worse than during the Great Moderation (an answer to Scott Sumner)

Scott Sumner has replied to my previous post in which I argued that the Federal Reserve de facto has implemented a 4% NGDP level targeting regime (without directly articulating it).

Scott is less positive about actual Fed policy than I am. This is Scott answering my postulate that he would have been happy about a 4% NGDP growth path had it been announced in 2009:

Actually I would have been very upset, as indeed I was as soon as I saw what they were doing.  I favored a policy of level targeting, which meant returning to the previous trend line.

Now of course if they had adopted a permanent policy of 4% NGDP targeting, I would have had the satisfaction of knowing that while the policy was inappropriate at the moment, in the long run it would be optimal.  Alas, they did not do that.  The recent 4% growth in NGDP is not the result of a credible policy regime, and hence won’t be maintained when there is a shock to the economy.

I most admit that I am a bit puzzled by Scott’s comments. Surely one could be upset in 2009 – as both Scott and I were – that the Fed did not do anything to bring back the nominal GDP level back to the pre-crisis trend and it would likely also at that time have been a better policy to return to a 5% trend rather than a 4% trend. However, I would also note that that discussion is mostly irrelevant for present day US monetary policy and here I would note two factors, which I find important:

  1. We have had five years of supply side adjustments – five years of “internal devaluation”/”wage moderation” so to speak. It is correct that the Fed didn’t boost aggregate demand sufficiently to push down US unemployment to pre-crisis levels, but instead it has at least kept nominal spending growth very stable (despite numerous shocks – see below), which has allowed for the adjustment to take place on the supply side of the economy and US unemployment is now nearly back at pre-crisis levels (yes employment is much lower, but we don’t know to what extent that is permanent/structural or not).
  2. Furthermore, we have had numerous changes to supply side policies in the US – mostly negative such as Obamacare and an increase in US minimum wages, but also some positive such as the general general reduction in defense spending and steps towards ending the “War on Drugs”.

Given these supply side factors – both the adjustments and the policy changes – it would make very little sense in my view to try to bring the NGDP level back to the pre-2008 trend-level and I don’t think Scott is advocating this even though his comments could leave that impression. Furthermore, given that expectations seem to have fully adjusted to a 4% NGDP level-path there would be little to gain from targeting a higher NGDP growth rate (for example 5%).

The Fed is more credible today than during the Great Moderation

Furthermore, I would dispute Scott’s claim that the Fed’s policy is not credible. Or rather while the monetary policy regime is not well-articulated by the Fed it is nonetheless pretty well-understood by the markets and basically also by the Fed itself (even though that from time to time could be questioned).

Hence, both the markets and the Fed fully understand today that there effectively is no liquidity trap. There might be a Zero Lower Bound on interest rates but if needed the Fed can ease monetary policy through quantitative easing. This is clearly well-understood by the Fed system today and the markets fully well knows that if a new shock to for example money-velocity where to hit the US economy then the Fed would most likely once again step up QE. This is contrary to the situation prior to 2008 where the Fed certainly had not articulated a policy of how to conduct monetary policy at the Zero Lower Bound and this of course was a key reason why the monetary policy stance became so insanely tight in 2008.

This does in no way mean that monetary policy in the US is perfect. It is certainly not – just that it is no less credible than monetary policy was during the Greenspan years and that the Fed today is better prepared to conduct monetary policy at the ZLB than prior to 2008.

NGDP has been more stable since 2009/2010 than during the Great Moderation

If we look at the development in nominal GDP it has actually been considerably more stable – and therefore also more predictable – than during the Great Moderation. The graph below illustrates that.

NGDP gap New Moderation

It is particularly notable in the graph that the NGDP gap – the percentage difference between the actual NGDP level and the NGDP trend – has been considerably smaller in the period from July 2009 and until today than during the Great Moderation (here said to be from 1995 until 2007). In fact the average absolute NGDP gap (the green dotted lines) was nearly three times as large during the Great Moderation than it has been since July 2009. Similarly inflation expectations has been more stable since July 2009 than during the Great Moderation and there unlike in the euro zone there are no signs that inflation expectations have become unanchored.

It is easy to be critical about the Fed’s conduct of monetary policy in recent years, but I find it very hard to argue that monetary policy has been worse than during the Great Moderation. 2008-9 was the catastrophic period, but since 2009/10 the Fed has re-established a considerable level of nominal stability and the Fed should be given some credit for that.

In this regard it is also notable that financial market volatility in the US today is at a historical low point – lower than during most of the Great Moderation period. This I believe to a large extent reflects a considerable level of “nominal predictability”.

No less sensitive to shocks than during the Great Moderation

Scott argues “(t)he recent 4% growth in NGDP is not the result of a credible policy regime, and hence won’t be maintained when there is a shock to the economy.” 

It is obviously correct that the Fed has failed to spell out that it is actually targeting a 4% NGDP level path and I agree with Scott that this is a major problem and that means that the US economy is much more sensitive to shocks than otherwise would be the case. However, I would also stress that first of all during the Great Moderation the Fed had an even less clear target officially than is the case today.

Second, we should not forget that we have actually seen considerable shocks to the global and to the US economy since 2009/10. Just think of the massive euro crisis, Greece’s de facto default, the Cyprus crisis, the “fiscal cliff” in the US, a spike in oil prices 2010-12 and lately a sharp rise in global geopolitical tensions. Despite of all these shocks US NGDP has stayed close to the 4% NGDP path started in July 2009.

This to me is a confirmation that the Fed has been able to re-establish a considerable level of nominal stability. It has not been according to Market Monetarist game plan, but it is hard to be critical about the outcome.

In regard to the so-called “fiscal cliff” – the considerable tightening of fiscal policy in 2013 – it is notable that Scott has forcefully and correctly in my view argued that it had no negative impact on total aggregate nominal demand exactly because of monetary policy – or rather the monetary policy regime – offset the fiscal shock.

This is of course the so-called Sumner critique. For the Sumner critique to hold it is necessary that the monetary policy regime is well-understood by the markets and that the regime is credible. Hence, when Scott argues that 2013 confirmed the Sumner critique then he is indirectly saying that the monetary policy regime was credible in 2013. Had the monetary policy regime not been credible then the fiscal tightening likely would have led to a sharp slowdown in US growth.

It is time to let bygones be bygones

Nearly exactly a year ago I argued in a post that it is time to let bygones be bygones in US monetary policy:

Obviously even though the US economy seems to be out of the expectational trap there is no guarantee that we could not slip back into troubled waters once again, (but)…

… it is pretty clear to most market participants that the Fed would likely step up quantitative easing if a shock would hit US aggregate demand and it is fairly clear that the Fed has become comfortable with using the money base as a policy instrument…

… I must admit that I increasingly think – and most of my Market Monetarist blogging friends will likely disagree – that the need for a Rooseveltian style monetary positive shock to the US economy is fairly small as expectations now generally have adjusted to long-term NGDP growth rates around 4-5%. So while additional monetary stimulus very likely would “work” and might even be warranted I have much bigger concerns than the lack of additional monetary “stimulus”.

Hence, the focus of the Fed should not be to lift NGDP by X% more or less in a one-off positive shock. Instead the Fed should be completely focused on defining its monetary policy rule. A proper rule would be to target of 4-5% NGDP growth – level targeting from the present level of NGDP. In that sense I now favour to let bygones to be bygones as expectations now seems to have more or less fully adjusted and five years have after all gone since the 2008 shock.

Therefore, it is not really meaningful to talk about bringing the NGDP level back to a rather arbitrary level (for example the pre-crisis trend level). That might have made sense a year ago when we clearly was caught in an expectations deflationary style trap, but that is not the case today. For Market Monetarists it was never about “monetary stimulus”, but rather about ensuring a rule based monetary policy.  Market Monetarists are not “doves” (or “hawks”). These terms are only fitting for people who like discretionary monetary policies.

This remains my view. Learn from the mistakes of the past, but lets get on with life and lets instead focus fully on get the Fed’s target well-defined.

PS I hate being this positive about the Federal Reserve. In fact I am really not that positive. I just argue that the Fed is no worse today than during the Great Moderation.

The Fed’s un-announced 4% NGDP target was introduced already in July 2009

Scott Sumner started his now famous blog TheMoneyIllusion in February 2009 it was among other things “to show that we have fundamentally misdiagnosed the nature of the recession, attributing to the banking crisis what is actually a failure of monetary policy”.

Said in another way the Federal Reserve was to blame for the Great Recession and there was only one way out and that was monetary easing within a regime of nominal GDP level targeting (NGDP targeting).

NGDP targeting is of course today synonymous Scott Sumner. He more or less single-handedly “re-invented” NGDP targeting and created an enormous interest in the topic among academics, bloggers, financial sector economists and even policy makers.

The general perception is that NGDP targeting and Market Monetarism got the real break-through in 2013 when the Federal Reserve introduced the so-called Evans rule in September 2012 (See for example Matt Yglesias’ tribute to Scott from September 2012).

This has also until a few days ago been my take on the story of the success of Scott’s (and other’s) advocacy of NGDP targeting. However, I have now come to realize that the story might be slightly different and that the Fed effectively has been “market monetarist” (in a very broad sense) since July 2009.

The Fed might not have followed the MM game plan, but the outcome has effectively been NGDP targeting

Originally Scott basically argued that the Fed needed to bring the level nominal GDP back to the pre-crisis 5% trend path in NGDP that we had known during the so-called Great Moderation from the mid-1980s and until 2007-8.

We all know that this never happened and as time has gone by the original arguments for returning to the “old” NGDP trend-level seem much less convincing as there has been considerable supply side adjustments in the US economy.

Therefore, as time has gone by it becomes less important what is the “starting point” for doing NGDP targeting. Therefore, if we forgive the Fed for not bringing NGDP back to the pre-crisis trend-level and instead focus on the Fed’s ability to keep NGDP on “a straight line” then what would we say about the Fed’s performance in recent years?

Take a look at graph below – I have used (Nominal) Private Consumption Expenditure (PCE) as a monthly proxy for NGDP.

PCE gap

If we use July 2009 – the month the 2008-9 recession officially ended according to NBER – as our starting point (rather than the pre-crisis trend) then it becomes clear that in past five years PCE (and NGDP) has closely tracked a 4% path. In fact at no month over the past five years have PCE diverged more than 1% from the 4% path. In that sense the degree of nominal stability in the US economy has been remarkable and one could easily argue that we have had higher nominal stability in this period than during the so-called Great Moderation.

In fact I am pretty sure that if somebody had told Scott in July 2009 that from now on the Fed will follow a 4% NGDP target starting at the then level of NGDP then Scott would have applauded it. He might have said that he would have preferred a 5% trend rather than a 4% trend, but overall I think Scott would have been very happy to see a 4% NGDP target as official Fed policy.

The paradox is that Scott has not sounded very happy about the Fed’s performance for most of this period and neither have I and other Market Monetarists. The reason for this is that while the actual outcome has looked like NGDP targeting the Fed’s implementation of monetary policy has certainly not followed the Market Monetarist game plan.

Hence, the Market Monetarist message has all along been that the Fed should clearly announce its target (a NGDP level target), do aggressive quantitative easing to bring NGDP growth “back on track”, stop focusing on interest rates as a policy instrument and target expected NGDP rather than present macroeconomic variables. Actual US monetary policy has gradually moved closer to this ideal on a number of these points – particularly with the so-called Evan rule introduced in September 2012, but we are still very far away from having a Market Monetarist Fed when it comes to policy implementation.

However, in the past five years the implementation of Fed policy has been one of trial-and-error – just think of QE1, QE2 and QE3, two times “Operation Twist” and all kinds of credit policies and a continued obsession with using interest rates rates as the primary policy “instrument”.

I believe we Market Monetarists rightly have been critical about the Fed’s muddling through and lack of commitment to transparent rules. However, I also think that we today have to acknowledge that this process of trail-and-error actually has served an important purpose and that is to have sent a very clear signal to the financial markets (and others for that matter) that the Fed is committed to re-establishing some kind of nominal stability and avoiding a deflationary depression. This of course is contrary to the much less clear commitment of the ECB.

The markets have understood it all along (and much better than the Fed)

Market Monetarists like to say that the markets are better at forecasting and the collective wisdom of the markets is bigger than that of individual market participants or policy makers and something could actually indicate that the markets from an early point understood that the Fed de facto would be keeping NGDP on a straight line.

An example is the US stock market bottomed out a few months before we started to establish the new 4% trend in US NGDP and the US stock markets have essentially been on an upward trend ever since, which is fully justified if you believe the Fed will keep this de facto NGDP target in place. Then we should basically be expecting US stock prices to increase more or less in line with NGDP (disregarding changes to interest rates).

Another and even more powerful example in my view is what the currency markets have been telling us. I  (and other Market Monetarists) have long argued that market expectations play a key role in the in the implementation of monetary policy and in the monetary policy transmission mechanism.

In a situation where the central bank’s NGDP level target is credible rational investors will be able to forecast changes in the monetary policy stance based on the actual level of NGDP relative to the targeted level of NGDP. Hence, if actual NGDP is above the targeted level then it is rational to expect that the central bank will tighten the monetary policy stance to bring NGDP back on track with the target. This obviously has implications for the financial markets.

If the Fed is for example targeting a 4% NGDP path and the actual NGDP level is above this target then investors should rationally expect the dollar to strengthen until NGDP is back at the targeted level.

And guess what this is exactly how the dollar has traded since July 2009. Just take a look at the graph below.

NGDP gap dollar index 2

We are looking at the period where I argue that the Fed effectively has targeted a 4% NGDP path. Again I use PCE as a monthly proxy for NGDP and again the gap is the gap between the actual and the “targeted” NGDP (PCE) level. Look at the extremely close correlation with the dollar – here measured as a broad nominal dollar-index. Note the dollar-index is on an inverse axis.

The graph is very clear. When the NGDP gap has been negative/low (below target) as in the summer of 2010 then the dollar has weakened (as it was the case from from the summer of 2010under spring/summer of 2011. And similarly when the NGDP gap has been positive (NGDP above target) then the dollar has tended to strengthen as we essentially has seen since the second half of 2011 and until today.

I am not arguing that the dollar-level is determining the NGDP gap, but I rather argue that the dollar index has been a pretty good indicator for the future changes in monetary policy stance and therefore in NGDP.

Furthermore, I would argue that the FX markets essentially has figured out that the Fed de facto is targeting a 4% NGDP path and that currency investors have acted accordingly.

It is time for the Fed to fully recognize the 4% NGDP level target

Just because there has a very clear correlation between the dollar and the NGDP gap in the past five years it is not given that that correlation will remain in the future. A key reason for this is – and this is a key weakness in present Fed policy – that the Fed has not fully recognize that it is de facto targeting a 4%. Therefore, there is nothing that stops the Fed from diverging from the NGDP rule in the future.

Recognizing a 4% NGDP level target from the present level of NGDP in my view should be rather uncontroversial as this de facto has been the policy the Fed has been following over the past five years anyway. Furthermore, it could easily be argued as compatible  with the Fed’s (quasi) official 2% inflation target (assuming potential real GDP growth is around 2%).

In my previous post I argued that the ECB should introduce a 4% NGDP target. The Fed already done that. Now it is just up to Fed Chair Janet Yellen to announce it officially. Janet what are you waiting for?

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