Draghi’s golden oppurtunity – building the perfect firewall

The ECB’s large scale quantitative easing programme already has had some success – initially inflation expectations increased, European stock markets performed nicely and the euro has continued to weaken. This overall means that this effectively is monetary easing and that we should expect it to help nominal spending growth in the euro zone accelerate and thereby also should be expected to curb deflationary pressures.

However, ECB Mario Draghi should certainly not declare victory already. Hence, inflation expectations on all relevant time horizons remains way below the ECB’s official 2% inflation target. In fact we are now again seeing inflation expectations declining on the back of renewed concerns over possible “Grexit” and renewed geopolitical tensions in Ukraine.

Draghi has – I believe rightly – been completely frank recently that the ECB has failed to ensure nominal stability and that policy action therefore is needed. However, Draghi needs to become even clearer on his and the ECB’s commitment to stabilise inflation expectations near 2%.

A golden opportunity

Obviously Mario Draghi cannot be happy that inflation expectations once again are on the decline, but he could and should also see this as an opportunity to tell the markets about his clear commitment to ensuring nominal stability.

I think the most straightforward way of doing this is directly targeting market inflation expectations. That would imply that the ECB would implement a Robert Hetzel style strategy (see here) where the ECB simply would buy inflation linked government bonds (linkers) until markets expectations are exactly 2% on all relevant time horizons.

The ECB has already announced that its new QE programme will include purchases of linkers so why not become even more clear how this actually will be done.

A simple strategy would simply be to announce that in the first month of QE the ECB would buy linkers worth EUR 5bn out of the total EUR 60bn monthly asset purchase, but also that this amount will be doubled every month as long as market inflation expectations are below 2% – to 10bn in month 2, to 20bn in month 3 and 40bn in month 4 and then thereafter every month the ECB would buy linkers worth EUR 60bn.

Given the European linkers market is fairly small I have no doubt that inflation expectations very fast would hit 2% – maybe already before the ECB would buy any linkers. In that regard it should be noted that in the same way as a central bank always weaken its currency it can also always hit a given inflation expectations target through purchases of linkers. Draghi needs to remind the markets about that by actually buying linkers.

That I believe would be a very effective way to demonstrate the ECB’s commitment to hitting its inflation target, but it would also be a very effective ‘firewall’ against potential shocks from shocks from for example the Russian crisis or a Grexit.

An very effective firewall   

I have in an earlier blog post suggested that the ECB should “build” such a firewall. Here is what I had to say on the issue back in May 2012:

A number of European countries issue inflation-linked bonds. From these bonds we can extract market expectations for inflation. These bonds provide the ECB with a potential very strong instrument to fight deflationary risks. My suggestion is simply that the ECB announces a minimum price for these bonds so the implicit inflation expectation extracted from the bonds would never drop below 1.95% (“close to 2%”) on all maturities. This would effectively be a put on inflation.

How would the inflation put work?

Imagine that we are in a situation where the implicit inflation expectation is exactly 1.95%. Now disaster strikes. Greece leaves the euro, a major Southern Europe bank collapses or a euro zone country defaults. As a consequence money demand spikes, people are redrawing money from the banks and are hoarding cash. The effect of course will be a sharp drop in money velocity. As velocity drops (for a given money supply) nominal (and real) GDP and prices will also drop sharply (remember MV=PY).

As velocity drops inflation expectations would drop and as consequence the price of the inflation-linked bond would drop below ECB’s minimum price. However, given the ECB’s commitment to keep inflation expectations above 1.95% it would have either directly to buy inflation linked bonds or by increasing inflation expectations by doing other forms of open market operations. The consequences would be that the ECB would increase the money base to counteract the drop in velocity. Hence, whatever “accident” would hit the euro zone a deflationary shock would be avoided as the money supply automatically would be increased in response to the drop in velocity. QE would be automatic – no reason for discretionary decisions. In fact the ECB would be able completely abandon ad hoc policies to counteract different kinds of financial distress.

This would mean that even if a major European bank where to collapse M*V would basically be kept constant as would inflation expectations and as a consequence this would seriously reduce the risk of spill-over from one “accident” to another. The same would of course be the case if Greece would leave the euro.

When I wrote all this in 2012 it seemed somewhat far-fetted that the ECB could implement such a policy. However, things have luckily changed. The ECB is now actually doing QE, Mario Draghi clearly seems to understand there needs to be a focus on market inflation expectations (rather than present inflation) and the ECB’s QE programme seems to be quasi-open-ended (but still not open-ended enough). Therefore, building a linkers-based ‘firewall’ would only be a natural part of what the ECB officially now has set out to do.

So now I am just waiting forward to the next positive surprise from Mario Draghi…

PS I would have been a lot more happy if the ECB would target 4% NGDP growth (level targeting) rather than 2% or at least make up for the failed policies over the past 6-7 years by overshooting the 2% inflation target for a couple of years, but a strict commitment to build a firewall against velocity-shocks and keeping inflation expectations close to 2% as suggested above would be much better than what we have had until recently.

PPS A firewall as suggested above should make a Grexit much less risky in terms of the risk of contagion and should hence be a good argument to gain the support from the Bundesbank for the idea (ok, that is just totally unrealistic…)

Related blog posts:

Bob Hetzel’s great idea
Kuroda still needs to work on communication
Mr. Kuroda please ‘peg’ inflation expectations to 2% now

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‘Draghi’s framework’ – a step in the right direction

It is no secret that I for years have been very critical about the ECB’s conduct of monetary policy. In fact I strongly believe that the mess we in Europe still are in mostly is due to monetary policy failure (even though I certainly do not deny Europe’s massive structural problems).

However, I do think that the ECB – and particularly ECB chief Mario Draghi – deserves some credit for the policy measures introduced today.

It is certainly not perfect, but neither is Fed or Bank of Japan policy, but for the first time since the beginning of the Great Recession soon seven years ago the ECB is in my view taking a major step in the right direction. It will not solve all of Europe’s problems – far from it – but I believe this will be quite helpful in curbing the strong deflationary pressures in the European economy.

The glass is half-full rather than half-empty

Below I will highlight a number of the things that I think is positive about today’s policy announcement.

1) The ECB’s nominal target has been made more clear

One thing that the Market Monetarists again and again have stressed is that central banks should be clear about their nominal targets. Even though I like other Market Monetarists prefer NGDP targeting I think that it should be welcomed that Mario Draghi and the ECB today was a lot clearer on the inflation target than ever before.

Furthermore, Draghi for the first time clearly acknowledged that the ECB was not living up to its commitment to ensure price stability interpreted as close to 2% inflation. By doing so Draghi quite clearly signaled that future possible changes in the amount of QE will dependent on the outlook for hitting the inflation target.

2) Draghi speaks in terms of market expectations

It was also notable that Draghi at the press conference following the monetary policy announcement again and again referred to the markets’ inflation expectations and he stressed that since market expectations for inflation are below 2% the ECB does not fulfil its target. That to me is quite a Market Monetarist – it is about ‘targeting the forecast’ more than anything else. At the time the ECB’s own forecasts played a much less prominent role in Draghi’s presentation. That I consider to be quite positive.

3) The ECB is using the right instrument

A major positive is that the ECB now finally seems to be focusing on the right instrument. The only mentioning of ‘interest rates’ was basically the announcement that the policy rates had been kept unchanged.

Furthermore, there was no talk about ‘credit policy’ and attempts to distort relative prices in the European fixed income markets.

Instead it was straight-forward about money base control. That I consider to be very positive. Now we have to hope that the ECB will continue to focus on money base growth rather than on interest rates. Furthermore, by focusing on money base growth (quantitative easing) the ECB signals clearly to the markets that there are no institutional or legal restrictions on the ECB’s ability/possibility to create money. That will make it significantly easier for the markets to trust the ECB to be committed to ensuring nominal stability.

4) The programme is fairly well ‘calibrated’

One can clearly debate what is the “right number” in terms of the necessary quantitative easing necessary to take the euro zone out of the deflationary mess. I have earlier argued that the ECB essentially should target 10% M3 growth in a number of years to undo past monetary policy sins (see here, here and here.)

The programme announced by the ECB – essentially 60bn euros QE per months until September 2016 is not in any way big enough to undo past sins, however, it is nonetheless sizable.

In fact if we assume that the trend in M3 growth we have seen during 2014 is maintained during 2015-16 and we add 60bn euros extra to that every single month until September 2016 then the pick-up in M3 growth will be substantial. In fact already by the end of this year M3 growth could hit 10% and remain at 8-9% all through 2016.

This is of course is under an assumption that there is no decline in the money-multiplier. I believe that is a fair assumption. In fact one can easily argue that it is likely that the money-multiplier will likely increase in response to the ECB money base expansion.

Hence, even though we will not close the ‘gap’ from past mistakes it looks likes ECB’s QE programme could provide quite substantial monetary stimulus and likely large enough to significantly lift nominal GDP growth during 2015 and 2016, which in turn likely will bring euro inflation back in line with the ECB’s 2% inflation target.

That said, the ECB has essentially failed to hit its inflation target since 2008 (leaving out negative supply shocks) and one can therefore argue that even 10% M3 growth will not be enough to lift inflation to 2% given the markets’ lack of trust in ECB’s willingness to do everything to provide nominal stability. Therefore, commitment on the ECB’s part to continue some form of QE also after September 2016 therefore might be necessary (more on that below.)

5) The programme is quasi-open-ended

Given the considerations above it is also very important that the ECB QE programme apparently is of a quasi-open-ended nature. So while the ECB plans for the program to end in September 2016 it should be noted that the ECB in its statements today said that the programme will run until “at least” September 2016. Hence, this is likely a signal that the programme could and will be extended if needed to meet the ECB’s 2% inflation target.

The quasi-open-ended nature of the programme opens the door for the ECB to communicate in terms of two dimensions – how long the programme will run and the monthly growth rate of the money base. That in turn could potentially – if we make a very optimistic assessment – bring us to a situation where the ECB becomes focused on money base control rather than interest rate targeting.

So overall the more I digest the details in the ECB new QE programme the more upbeat I have become about it. That is not to say that the program is perfect – far from it, but it is nonetheless in my view the biggest and most positive step undertaken by the ECB since crisis hit in 2008.

Things can still go badly wrong – and we are not out of the crisis yet

There is a lots of things that can go wrong – there is for example a clear risk that massive German resistance against the programme will undermine the credibility of the programme or that the ECB now thinks everything is fine and that no more work on the programme is needed. Therefore, to ensure success the ECB needs to work on the details of the QE programme in the coming weeks and months.

In the coming days I will try to write a couple of blog posts where I will try to come with recommendations on how to improve the ‘Draghi framework’. Particularly I will stress that the ECB needs to move closer to a purely rule-based framework rather than a discretionary framework. We are still someway away from that.

PS The markets’ judgement of the ECB’s new QE programme has been positive – European (and US) stocks are up, inflation expectations are up and the euro is weaker on the day. However, the markets’ reaction is significantly smaller than one could have hoped for given the scale of the programme. This illustrates just how big problems the ECB still has with its credibility. It will take time and hard work from the ECB to change that perception – seeing is believing.

PPS I was very happy today to see that the ECB did not just introduce yet another acronym for some new useless credit policies.

What the SNB should have done

I have got a lot of questions about what I think about the Swiss central bank’s (SNB) decision last week to give up its ‘floor’ on EUR/CHF – effectively revaluing the franc by 20% – and I must admit it has been harder to answer than people would think. Not because I in anyway think it was a good decision – I as basically everybody else thinks it was a terrible decision – but because I so far has been unable to understand how what I used to think of as one of the most competent central banks in the world is able to make such an obviously terrible decision.

One thing is that the SNB might have been dissatisfies with how it’s policy was working – and I would agree that the policy in place until last week had some major problems and I will get back to that – but what worries me is that the SNB instead of replacing its 120-rule with something better seems simply to have given up having any monetary policy rule at all.

It is clear that the SNB’s official inflation target (0-2%) really isn’t too important to the SNB. Or at least it is a highly asymmetrical target where the SNB apparently have no problems if inflation (deflation!) undershoots the target on the downside. At least it is hard to think otherwise when the SNB last week effectively decided to revalue the Swiss franc by 20% in a situation where we have deflation in Switzerland.

Try to imagine how this decision was made. One day somebody shows up in the office and says “we are facing continued deflation. That is what the markets, professional forecasters and our own internal forecasts are telling us very clearly. So why not test economic theory – lets implement a massive tightening of monetary conditions and see what will happens”. And what happened? Everybody in the SNB management screamed “Great idea! Lets try it. What can go wrong?”

Yes, I am still deeply puzzled how this happened. Switzerland is not exactly facing hyperinflation – in fact it is not even facing inflation. Rather deflation will now likely to deepen significantly and Switzerland might even fall into recession.

What was wrong with the ‘old’ policy?

When the SNB implemented its policy to put a ‘floor’ under EUR/CHF back in 2011 I was extremely supportive about it because I thought it was a clever and straightforward way to curb deflationary pressures in the Swiss economy coming from the escalating demand for Swiss franc. That said over the past year or so I have become increasingly sceptical about the policy because I think it was only a partial solution and it has become clear to me that the SNB had failed to articulate what it really wanted to achieve with the policy. Unfortunately I didn’t put these concerns into writing – at least not publicly.

Therefore let me now try to explain what I think was wrong with the ‘old’ policy – the 120-floor on EUR/CHF.

At the core of the problem is that the SNB really never made it clear to itself or to the markets what ultimate nominal target it has. Was the SNB targeting the exchange rate, was it targeting a money market interest rate (the key policy rate) or was it targeting inflation? In fact it was trying to do it all.

And we all know that you cannot do that – it is the Tinbergen rule. You cannot have more targets than you have instruments. The SNB only has one instrument – the money base – so it will have to focusing on only one nominal target. The SNB never articulated clearly to the markets, which of the three targets – the exchange, the interest rate or inflation – had priority over the others.

This might work in short periods and it did. As long as the markets thought that the SNB would be willing to lift the EUR/CHF-floor even further (devalue) to hit its 2% inflation target there was no downward (appreciation) pressure on EUR/CHF and here the credibility of the policy clearly helped.

Hence, there is no doubt that the markets used to think that the floor could be moved up – the Swissy could be devalued further – to ensure that Switzerland would not fall into deflation. However, by its actions it has become increasingly clear to the markets that the SNB was not about to lift the floor to fight deflationary pressures. As a consequence the credibility of the floor-policy has increasingly been tested and the SNB has had to intervene heavily in the FX market to “defend” the 120-floor.

A proposal for a credible, rule-based policy that would work

My proposal for a policy that would work for the SNB would be the following:

First, the SNB should make it completely clear what its money policy instrument is and what intermediate and ultimate monetary policy target it has. It is obvious that the core monetary policy instrument is the money base – the SNB’s ability to print money. Second, in a small-open economy particularly when interest rates are at the Zero Lower Bound (ZLB) it can be useful to use the exchange rate as an intermediate target – a target the central bank uses to hit its ultimate target. This ultimate target could be a NGDP level target, a price level target or an inflation target.

Second, when choosing its intermediate target it better rely on the support of the markets – so the SNB should announce that it will adjust its intermediate target to always hit its ultimate target (for example the inflation target.)

In this regard I think it would make a lot of sense using the exchange rate – for example EUR/CHF or a basket of currencies – as an intermediate and adjustable target. By quasi-pegging EUR/CHF to 120 the SNB left the impression that the FX ‘target’ was the ultimate rather than an intermediate target of monetary policy.

By stating clearly that the exchange rate ‘target’ is only a target implemented to hit the ultimate target – for example 2% inflation – then there would never be any doubt about what the SNB would trying to do with monetary policy.

I think the best way to introduce such an intermediate target would have been to announced that for example the EUR/CHF floor had been increased to for example 130 – to signal monetary policy was too tight at 120 – but also that the SNB would allow EUR/CHF to fluctuate around a +/-10% fluctuation band.

At the same time the SNB should announce that it in the future would use the ‘mid-point’ of the fluctuation band as the de facto ‘instrument’ for implementing monetary policy so to signal that the mid-point could be changed always to hit the ultimate monetary policy target – for example 2% (expected) inflation.

That would mean that if inflation expectations were below 2% then the Swiss franc would tend to depreciate within the fluctuation band as the market (rightly) would expect the SNB to move the mid-point of the band to ensure that it would hit the inflation target.

This would also mean that there would be a perfect ‘ordering’ of targets and instruments. The expectations for inflation relative to the inflation target would both determine the expectations for the development in the exchange and what intermediate target SNB would set for EUR/CHF. This would mean that under normal circumstances where SNB’s regime is credible the market would effectively implement SNB policy through movements in the exchange rate within the fluctuation band.

As a consequence the SNB would rarely have to do anything with the money base. Of course one can of course think of periods where the SNB’s credibility is tested – for example if a spike global risk aversion causes massive inflows into CHF and push the CHF stronger even if inflation expectations are below the inflation target. That said the SNB would never have to give up “defending” CHF against strengthening as the SNB after all has the ability to print all the money it needs to defend the peg.

Of course this is the ability that has been tested recently, but I believe that the appreciation pressure on CHF has been greatly increased by the SNB failure to move up the target in response to the clear undershooting of he inflation target. Hence, the reluctance to respond to deflationary pressures really has undermined the peg.

Had the SNB moved up the EUR/CHF peg to 130 or 140 six months ago then there would not have been the appreciation pressures on the CHF we have seen and the SNB would not have had to expand its balance sheet as much as have been the case.

The ‘regime’ I have outlined above is any many ways similar to Singapore’s monetary regime where the monetary authorities use the exchange rate rather than interest rates to implement monetary policy. In such a regime the central bank allows interest rates to be completely market determined and the central bank would have no policy interest rate.

This would have that clear advantage that there would never be any doubt what target the SNB would be trying to hit and how to hit it. This of course is contrary to the ‘old’ regime where the SNB effectively tried to have both an exchange rate target, an interest rate target and the inflation target. This inherent internal contradiction in the system I believe is the fundamental reason why SNB’s management felt it had to give it up.

Unfortunately the SNB so far has failed to put something else instead of the old regime and we now seem to be in a state of complete monetary policy discretion.

I hope that the SNB soon will realise that monetary policy should be rule-based and transparent. My suggestion above would be such a regime.

Update: I realise that I really should have dedicated this blog post to Irving Fischer, Lars E. O. Svensson, Bennett McCallum, Robert Hetzel and Michael Belongia. Their work on monetary and exchange policy greatly influenced the thinking in the post.

Guess what ‘currency’ underperformed the rouble in 2014

2014 wasn’t exactly a great year for the Russian rouble. However, there is a ‘currency’, which performed worse than the rouble in 2014…Bitcoin

RUB Bitcoin

Great news! Scott Sumner Joins the Mercatus Center at George Mason University

Great news – it has just been published that Scott Sumner will join the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and become Ralph G. Hawtrey Chair in Monetary Policy.

This is from Mercatus Center’s press release:

Arlington, VA, January 13, 2015 – The Mercatus Center at George Mason University welcomes Professor Scott Sumner as the Ralph G. Hawtrey Chair in Monetary Policy.

“Scott has significantly improved our understanding of the causes of the Great Recession, starting in 2008, and more generally he has brought the notion of a rules-based approach to monetary policy back into favor,” says Mercatus General Director Tyler Cowen. “With his establishment of the Program on Monetary Policy at Mercatus, we can look forward to a robust research program focused on these and other areas.”

Sumner, named one of Foreign Policy’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers,” is a professor of economics at Bentley University and best known for his research on the Great Depression, prediction markets, and monetary policy. He is the author of the influential economics blog The Money Illusion, where he has written extensively about the need for rules-based monetary policy, particularly the concept of nominal GDP targeting.

“The Mercatus Center has developed a reputation as a world-class research center that academics, policymakers, and the media can turn to for answers, grounded in social-science research, to pressing problems facing the country and the world today,” says Sumner. “That is why I am so pleased to be directing the Mercatus Center’s new Program on Monetary Policy. I look forward to building this platform into a vital resource on issues concerning monetary-policy reform, including rules-based Fed policy and nominal GDP targeting.”

Everything about this is great. The Mercatus Center is an outstanding institution and Scott will make it even better.

PS Scott also comments on his new career.

 

 

Differences in central banker pay illustrates why the euro is not an “optimal currency area”

Bloomberg has a great story on differences in the pay of different central bank governors within the euro area.

This graph is from the Bloomberg story:

cb pay

As the graph illustrates there is a massive difference between how much the different euro zone central bank governors are paid. These differences probably very well reflect the general differences in income levels within the euro area.

Normally we would say that a core condition for being a “Optimal Currency Area” is that the income (productivity) level of different countries/regions within the currency area should be on a fairly similar level. The pay differences of euro zone central bankers illustrates quite well that this core condition is not fulfilled within the euro area.

PS  This is from the Bloomberg story: “The economic turmoil has also crimped earnings at the Greek central bank. Governor Yannis Stournaras gets 7,342 euros a month after taxes following two rounds of voluntary cuts by his predecessor, by 20 percent and 30 percent.”

Grexit, Germany and Googlenomics

The talk of Greece leaving the euro area – Grexit – is back. Will Grexit actually happen? I don’t know, but I do know that more and more people worry that it will in fact happen.

This is what Google Trends is telling us about Google searches for “Grexit“:

Grexit

And guess what? While this is happening euro zone inflation expectations have collapsed. In fact this week 5-year German inflation expectations turned negative! This mean that the fixed income markets now expect German inflation to be negative for the next five years!

It is hard to find any better arguments for massive quantitative easing within a rule-based framework in the euro zone (with or without Greece). And this is how it should be done.

PS it has been argued recently that euro zone bond yields have declined because the markets are pricing in QE from the ECB. Well, if that is the case why is inflation expectations collapsing? After all investors should not expect monetary easing to led to lower inflation (in fact deflation) – should they?

PPS I do realise that the drop in oil prices play a role here, but the markets (forwards) do not forecast a drop in oil prices over the coming five years so oil prices cannot explain the deflationary expectations in Europe.

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