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Oil-exporters need to rethink their monetary policy regimes

I started writing this post on Monday, but I have had an insanely busy week – mostly because of the continued sharp drop in oil prices and the impact of that on particularly the Russian rouble. But now I will try to finalize the post – it is after on a directly related topic to what I have focused on all week – in fact for most of 2014.

Oil prices have continued the sharp drop and this is leading to serious challenges for monetary policy in oil-exporting countries. Just the latest examples – The Russian central bank has been forced to abandon the managed float of the rouble and effectively the rouble is now (mostly) floating freely and in Nigeria the central bank the central bank has been forced to allow a major devaluation of the country’s currency the naira. In Brazil the central bank is – foolishly – fighting the sell-off in the real by hiking interest rates.

While lower oil prices is a positive supply shock for oil importing countries and as such should be ignored by monetary policy makers the story is very different for oil-exporters such as Norway, Russia, Angola or the Golf States. Here the drop in oil prices is a negative demand shock.

In a country like Norway, which has a floating exchange rate the shock is mostly visible in the exchange rate – at least to the extent Norges Bank allows the Norwegian krone to weaken. This of course is the right policy to pursue for oil-exporters.

However, many oil-exporting countries today have pegged or quasi-pegged exchange rates. This means that a drop in oil prices automatically becomes a monetary tightening. This is for example the case for the Golf States, Venezuela and Angola. In this countries what I have called the petro-monetary transmission mechanism comes into play.

An illustration of the petro-monetary transmission mechanism

When oil prices drop the currency inflows into oil-exporting countries drop – at the moment a lot – and this puts downward pressure on the commodity-currencies. In a country like Norway with a floating exchange rate this does not have a direct monetary consequence (that is not entirely correct if the central bank follows has a inflation target rather than a NGDP target – see here)

However, in a country like Saudi Arabia or Angola – countries with pegged exchange rates – the central bank will effectively will have tighten monetary policy to curb the depreciation pressures on the currency. Hence, lower oil prices will automatically lead to a contraction in the money base in Angola or Saudi Arabia. This in turn will cause a drop in the broad money supply and therefore in nominal spending in the economy, which likely will cause a recession and deflationary pressures.

The authorities can offset this monetary shock with fiscal easing – remember the Sumner critique does not hold in a fixed exchange rate regime – but many oil-exporters do not have proper fiscal buffers to use such policy effectively.

The Export-Price-Norm – good alternative to fiscal policy

Instead I have often – inspired by Jeffrey Frankel – suggested that the commodity exporters should peg their currencies to the price of the commodity the export or to a basket of a foreign currency and the export price. This is what I have termed the Export-Price-Norm (EPN).

For commodity exporters commodity exports is a sizable part of aggregate demand (nominal spending) and therefore one can think of a policy to stabilize export prices via an Export-Price-Norm as a policy to stabilize nominal spending growth in the economy. The graph – which I have often used – below illustrates that.

The graph shows the nominal GDP growth in Russia and the yearly growth rate of oil prices measured in roubles.

There is clearly a fairly high correlation between the two and oil prices measured in roubles leads NGDP growth. Hence, it is therefore reasonable in my view to argue that the Russian central bank could have stabilized NGDP growth by conducting monetary policy in such a way as to stabilize the growth oil prices in roubles.

That would effectively mean that the rouble should weaken when oil prices drop and appreciate when oil prices increase. This is of course exactly what would happen in proper floating exchange rate regime (with NGDP targeting), but it is also what would happen under an Export-Price-Norm.

Hence, obviously the combination of NGDP target and a floating exchange rate regime would do it for commodity exporters. However, an Export-Price-Norm could do the same thing AND it would likely be simpler to implement for a typical Emerging Markets commodity exporter where macroeconomic data often is of a low quality and institutions a weak.

So yes, I certainly think a country like Saudi Arabia could – and should – float its currency and introduce NGDP targeting and thereby significantly increase macroeconomic stability. However, for countries like Angola, Nigeria or Venezueala I believe an EPN regime would be more likely to ensure a good macroeconomic outcome than a free float (with messy monetary policies).

A key reason is that it is not necessarily given that the central bank would respect the rules-of-the-game under a float and it might find it tempting to fool around with FX intervention from time to time. Contrary to this an Export-Price-Norm would remove nearly all discretion in monetary policy. In fact one could imagine a currency board set-up combined with EPN. Under such a regime there would be no monetary discretion at all.

The monetary regime reduces risks, but will not remove all costs of lower commodity prices

Concluding, I strongly believe that an Export-Price-Norm can do a lot to stabilise nominal spending growth – and therefore also to a large extent real GDP growth – but that does not mean that there is no cost to the commodity exporting country when commodity prices drop.

Hence, a EPN set-up would do a lot to stabilize aggregate demand and the economy in general, but it would not change the fact that a drop in oil prices makes oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and Angola less wealthy. That is the supply side effect of lower oil prices for oil producing countries. Obviously we should expect that to lower consumption – both public and private – as a drop in oil prices effectively is a drop in the what Milton Friedman termed the permanent income. Under a EPN set-up this will happen through an increase inflation due to higher import prices and hence lower real income and lower real consumption.

There is no way to get around this for oil exporters, but at least they can avoid excessive monetary tightening by either allowing currency to float (depreciate) free or by pegging the currency to the export price.

Who will try it out first? Kuwait? Angola or Venezuela? I don’t know, but as oil prices continue to plummet the pressure on governments and central banks in oil exporting countries is rising and for many countries this will necessitate a rethinking of the monetary policy regime to avoid unwarranted monetary tightening.

PS I should really mention a major weakness with EPN. Under an EPN regime monetary conditions will react “correctly” to shocks to the export prices and for countries like Russia or Anglo “normally” this is 90% of all shocks. However, imagine that we see a currency outflow for other reasons – for as in the case of Russia this year (political uncertainty/geopolitics) – then monetary conditions would be tightened automatically in an EPN set-up. This would be unfortunate. That, however, I think would be a fairly small cost compared to the stability EPN otherwise would be expected to oil exporters like Angola or Russia.

PPS I overall think that 80-90% of the drop in the rouble this year is driven by oil prices, while geopolitics only explains 10-20% of the drop in the rouble. See here.

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5 Comments

  1. Very good post. Fully agree with Export-Price-Norm (EPN), with Bank of Russia decision to float the Rouble and with the need for Arab nations to get out of the peg and to a floating exchange rate.

    For the NGDP part, as usual, I disagree. At first sight, I wanted to classify the relationship between NGDP and oil prices, as financial charlatalism, as I described in the Swiss franc case. http://snbchf.com/chf/chf-pseudo-mathematics-and-financial-charlatanism/
    The reason was the small time period considered between 2004 and 2013.

    NGDP growth is closely related to the inflation rate and this one again closely to the change in oil prices. This relationship is valid in any country – not only in Russia. Hence a simple tautology.
    I admit that there is one country that does not obey to this tautology: In the US, GDP, investments and jobs rise more when the oil price is low. This has to do with the status as 1:N reserve country, big distances and the heavy US dependency on imports.

    Before finally classifying your graph either as financial charlatalism or as a simple tautology, I would like some backtesting of the empirical evidence into the 1990s that includes the 1998 Russia crisis.
    I suppose that the graph will break and will do so in the 2014/2015 Russia crisis, because it will not be able to reflect the necessary adjustments of the savings rate that are needed to counter capital outflows. You mentioned the outflows only briefly.
    My hypothesis is that higher savings and tight monetary policy will slow NGDP growth in 2015/2016, despite the fact that oil prices might rise again. The opposite movement is visible in 2005/2006 when NGDP outpaced oil prices.

    More hints in my Seeking Alpha article “The Best Contrarian Macro Investment: Russia?”
    http://seekingalpha.com/article/2409105-the-best-contrarian-macro-investment-russia

    Reply
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