Jim, it is not complicated – NGDP tells you NOT to hike

This is what St. Louis Fed president James Bullard today told CNBC:

“there’s a powerful case to be made that it’s time to raise interest rates. And the case is not complicated. … Policy settings are [in] an emergency. The economy itself, the goals of the committee, have essentially been met.”

Bullard goes on to talk about the labour market and talk about low oil prices is helpful for the US economy. It all very much sounds like Bullard has made up his decision BEFORE he has looked at any data.

In fact it is hard to see what monetary policy rule Bullard is advocating and he seems to be cherry picking data to make an argument for rate hike. It is frankly speaking not very impressive.

But why doesn’t Bullard just look at nominal GDP? After all back in May he co-authored a Working Paper in which he essentially argued that the Federal Reserve should to target nominal GDP!

So lets have a look at how nominal GDP has been developing:

NGDP level 20102015

NGDP has since mid-2009 essentially been on a straight line growing on average slightly less than 4% a year and in Q2 2015 was slightly below this trend.

Why doesn’t Bullard just acknowledge that? He should be happy – the Fed is doing what he said it should be doing. But of course that would mean that there would not be any arguments for hiking interest rates. After all prediction markets (such as Hypermind) presently are forecasting around 3.5% NGDP growth for all of 2015 and in that sense the Fed is slightly undershooting it’s post-2009 de fact NGDP rule.

Jim, I was very happy to see you advocated NGDP targeting back in May – why have you already changed your mind??

PS Bullard talks about interest rates being at “emergency” setting. I guess Bullard has forgot what Milton Friedman told us about why low interest rates. Jim, interest rates are low because monetary policy has been tight.

If you want to hear me speak about these topics or other related topics don’t hesitate to contact my speaker agency Specialist Speakers – e-mail: roz@specialistspeakers.com. For US readers note that I will be “touring” the US in the end of October.

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Yellen is transforming the US economy into her favourite textbook model

When you read the standard macroeconomic textbook you will be introduced to different macroeconomic models and the characteristics of these models are often described as keynesian and classical/monetarist. In the textbook version it is said that keynesians believe that prices and wages are rigid, while monetarist/classical economist believe wages and prices are fully flexible. This really is nonsense – monetarist economists do NOT argue that prices are fully flexible neither did pre-keynesian classical economists. As a result the textbook dictum between different schools is wrong.

I would instead argue that the key element in understanding the different “scenarios” we talk about in the textbook is differences in monetary regimes. Hence, in my view there are certain monetary policy rules that would make the world look “keynesian”, while other monetary policy rules would make the world look “classical”. As I have stated earlier – No ‘General Theory’ should ignore the monetary policy rule.

The standard example is fixed exchange rates versus floating exchange rates regimes. In a fixed exchange rate regime – with rigid prices and wages – the central bank will use monetary policy to ensure a fixed exchange and hence will not offset any shocks to aggregate demand. As a result a tightening of fiscal policy will cause aggregate demand to drop. This would make the world look “keynesian”.

On the other hand under a floating exchange rate regime with for example inflation targeting (or NGDP targeting) a tightening of fiscal policy will initially cause a drop in aggregate demand, which will cause a drop in inflation expectations, but as the central bank is targeting a fixed rate of inflation it will ease monetary policy to offset the fiscal tightening. This mean that the world becomes “classical”.

We here see that it is not really about price rigidities, but rather about the monetary regime. This also means that when we discuss fiscal multipliers – whether or not fiscal policy has an impact on aggregate demand – it is crucial to understand what monetary policy rule we have.

In this regard it is also very important to understand that the monetary policy rule is not necessarily credible and that markets’ expectations about the monetary policy rule can change over time as a result of the actions and communication of the central and that that will cause the ‘functioning’ the economy to change. Hence, we can imagine that one day the economy is “classical” (and stable) and the next day the economy becomes “keynesian” (and unstable).

Yellen is a keynesian – unfortunately

I fear that what is happening right now in the US economy is that we are moving from a “classical” world – where the Federal Reserve was following a fairly well-defined rule (the Bernanke-Evans rule) and was using a fairly well-defined (though not optimal) monetary policy instrument (money base control) – and to a much less rule based monetary policy regime where first of all the target for monetary policy is changing and equally important that the Fed’s monetary policy instrument is changing.

When I listen to Janet Yellen speak it leaves me with the impression of a 1970s style keynesian who strongly believes that inflation is not a monetary phenomena, but rather is a result of a Phillips curve relationship where lower unemployment will cause wage inflation, which in turn will cause price inflation.

It is also clear that Yellen is extraordinarily uncomfortable about thinking about monetary policy in terms of money creation (money base control) and only think of monetary policy in terms of controlling the interest rate. And finally Yellen is essentially telling us that she (and the Fed) are better at forecasting than the markets as she continues to downplay in the importance of the fact that inflation expectations have dropped markedly recently.

This is very different from the views of Ben Bernanke who at least at the end of his term as Fed chairman left the impression that he was conducting monetary policy within a fairly well-defined framework, which included a clear commitment to offset shocks to aggregate demand. As a result the Bernanke ensured that the US economy – like during the Great Moderation – basically became “classical”. That was best illustrated during the “fiscal cliff”-episode in 2013 where major fiscal tightening did not cause the contraction in the US economy forecasted by keynesians like Paul Krugman.

However, as a result of Yellen’s much less rule based approach to monetary policy I am beginning to think that if we where to have a fiscal cliff style event today (it could for example be a Chinese meltdown) then the outcome would be a lot less benign than in 2011.

How a negative shock would play with Yellen in charge of the Fed

Imagine that the situation in China continues to deteriorate and develop into a significant downturn for the Chinese economy. How should we expect the Yellen-fed to react? First of all a “China shock” would be visible in lower market inflation expectations. However, Yellen would likely ignore that.

She has already told us she doesn’t really trust the market to tell us about future inflation. Instead Yellen would focus on the US labour market and since the labour market is a notoriously lagging indicator the labour market would tell her that everything is fine – even after the shock hit. As a result she would likely not move in terms of monetary policy before the shock would show up in the unemployment data.

Furthermore, Yellen would also be a lot less willing than Bernanke was to use money base control as the monetary policy instrument and rather use the interest rate as the monetary policy instrument. Given the fact that we are presently basically stuck at the Zero Lower Bound Yellen would likely conclude that she really couldn’t do much about the shock and instead argue that fiscal policy should be use to offset the “China shock”.

All this means that we now have introduced a new “rigidity” in the US economy. It is a “rigidity” in the Fed monetary policy rule, which means that monetary policy will not offset negative shocks to US aggregate demand.

If the market realizes this – and I believe that is actually what might be happening right now – then the financial markets might not work as the stabilizing factoring in the US economy that it was in 2013 during the fiscal cliff-event and as a result the US economy is becoming more “keynesian” and therefore also a less stable US economy.

Only a 50% keynesian economy

However, Yellen’s economy is only a 50% keynesian economy. Hence, imagine instead of a negative “China shock” we had a major easing of US fiscal policy, which would cause US aggregate demand to pick up sharply. Once that would cause US unemployment to drop Yellen would move to hike interest rates. Obviously the markets would realize this once the fiscal easing would be announced and as a result the pick up in aggregate demand would be offset by the expected monetary tightening, which would be visible in a stronger dollar, a flattening of the yield curve and a drop in equity prices.

In that sense the fiscal multiplier would be zero when fiscal policy is eased, but it would be positive when fiscal policy is tightened.

What Yellen should do 

I am concerned that Yellen’s old-school keynesian approach to monetary policy – adaptive expectations, the Phillips curve and reliance of interest rates as a policy instrument – is introducing a lot more instability in the US economy and might move us away from the nominal stability that Bernanke (finally) was able to ensure towards the end of his terms as Fed chairman.

But it don’t have to be like that. Here is what I would recommend that Yellen should do:

Introduce a clear target for monetary policy

  • Since Mid-2009 US nominal GDP has grown along a nearly straight 4% path (see here). Yellen should make that official policy as this likely also would ensure inflation close to 2% and overall stable demand growth, which would mean that shocks to aggregate demand “automatically” would be offset. It would so to speak make the US economy “classical” and stable.

Make monetary policy forward-looking

  • Instead of focusing on labour conditions and a backward-looking Phillips curve Yellen should focus on forward-looking indicators. The best thing would obviously be to look at market indicators for nominal GDP growth, but as we do not have those at least the Fed should focus on market expectations for inflation combined with surveys of future nominal GDP growth. The Fed should completely give up making its own forecasts and particularly the idea that FOMC members are making forecasts for the US economy seems to be counter-productive (today FOMC members make up their minds about what they want to do and then make a forecast to fit that decision).

Forget about interest rates – monetary policy is about money base control

  • With interest rates essentially stuck at the Zero Lower Bound it becomes impossible to ease monetary policy by using the interest rate “instrument”. In fact interest rates can never really be an “instrument”. It can be a way of communicating, but the actual monetary policy instrument will alway be the money base, which is under the full control of the Federal Reserve. It is about time that the Fed stop talking about money base control in discretionary terms (as QE1, QE2 etc.) and instead start to talk about setting a target for money base growth to hit the ultimate target of monetary policy (4% NGDP level targeting) and let interest rates be fully market determined.

I am not optimistic that the Fed is likely to move in this direction anytime soon and rather I fear that monetary policy is set to become even more discretionary and that the downside risks to the US economy has increased as Yellen’s communication is making it less likely that the markets will trust her to offset negative shocks to the US economy. The Keynesians got what they asked for – a keynesian economy.

PS I have earlier had a similar discussion regarding the euro zone. See here. That post was very much inspired by Brad Delong and Larry Summers’ paper Fiscal Policy in a Depressed Economy.

PPS I would also blame Stanley Fischer – who I regret to say thought would make a good Fed chairman – for a lot of what is happening right now. While Stanley Fischer was the governor of the Bank of Israel he was essentially a NGDP targeting central banker, but now he seems preoccupied with “macroprudential” analysis, which is causing him to advocate monetary tightening at a time where the US economy does not need it.

PPPS I realize that my characterization of Janet Yellen partly is a caricature, but relative to Ben Bernanke and in terms of what this means for market expectations I believe the characterization is fair.

If you want to hear me speak about these topics or other related topics don’t hesitate to contact my speaker agency Specialist Speakers – e-mail: roz@specialistspeakers.com. For US readers note that I will be “touring” the US in the end of October.

A warning from the past: The politics of Trump and Corbyn – it is time for classical liberals to wake up

When I see what is being said about the new Labour leader in UK Jeremy Corbyn I fear that we are underestimating the change in electoral preferences in Europe.
 
It is said that Corbyn will cause Labour to collapse from within. That might very well be, but ask yourself why he was elected in the first place. And then ask yourself why Donald Trump is doing great in polls in the US and Syriza ruled Greece for six months and might – god forbid – continue to rule the country for sometime. 
 
What we are seeing is 1930s style politics. It is the politics of fascists and communists. It might be much less extreme, but remember these things don’t happen overnight. It is a gradual process where men in nazi uniforms put on suits – as they are doing in Sweden in the form of the Swedish Democrats. Or keep on the uniforms as Jobbik in Hungary.
 
It is a reflection of the fact that we are now eight years into an economic crisis – in my view mostly a results of failed monetary policies – as it was the case in 1930s. Mainstream democratic politicians failed to get us out of this crisis. In fact they made it worse and therefore people who otherwise would never have voted for Corbyn or Trump are now willing to listen to them.
 
And with mainstream democratic politics weakened in the US and Europe authoritarian figures from Putin, Erdogan, Orban and Assad are now increasingly setting the agenda for Europe and the world.
 
We might be on the way out of the crisis economically in both the US and Europe, but remember that was in fact also the case in 1936. The US had given up the gold standard as had many European countries, but the economics turnaround came too late to change the political sentiment. The result was catastrophic. And with anti-immigrant sentiment increasing in both Europe and the US we have reasons to fear the worst. The fact that it is now becoming political acceptable to suggest mass deportation of Mexican immigrants in the US or of muslims in Europe is horrendous.
 
The similarities between the Great Recession and the Great Depression are unfortunately many. That also goes for the politics and geo-politics of the times: Populism, extremism, anti-foreigner politics, protectionism and war.
 
And who are most to blame other than the central bankers that brought us into this mess? Well, the classical liberals – like myself – who again and again failed to speak out against these tendencies.
 
Classical liberals initially had a very hard time identifying the causes of the crisis and many resorted to ill-informed internet-Austrian analysis of the crisis instead of embracing the monetarist explanation of the crisis (think of Hayek versus Cassel in the 1930s). This has caused classical liberals to oppose monetary easing that would have ended this crisis long ago. As a result many classical liberals – particularly German style ordo-liberalists – should be blamed for helping to create an economic situation, which have created the fundation for the populism and extremism.
Classical liberals also failed because they ignored the social injustice done by the massive rise in unemployment in Europe and partly in the US and the effect that has on the political sentiment. Classical liberals didn’t really care about the suffering of Europe’s unemployed – as was the case in 1930s. In Greece and Hungary parties like Golden Dawn and Jobbik show that they care (or rather pretend to care) for the suffering of the unemployed.
 
At the same time many classical liberals out of fear of the effects on public finances have not spoken out against the anti-immigrant rhetoric and as a result borderline racisme has become politically acceptable on the political right in the US and Europe.
 
Effectively the centre-right is no longer providing a message of hope and optimism. Instead the centre-right is increasingly being taken over by anti-immigrant crazies like Donald Trump and on the left the centrist and market oriented (social) democrats of 1990s have been replaced with people like Jeremy Corbyn who has praised IRA, Hezbollah and Hugo Chavez and who dream of a Great Britain where militant labour unions rule the land.
 
It is time for a counter-revolution against the politics of fear and hatred. It is time for liberals of the left and the right to speak out against those who would like to close the borders for goods, capital and people. It is time to speak out against the authoritarian tendencies in Europe and US politics and to the the libertarians who like the feeling of revolution and the anti-establishment sentiment, which is in the air when Trump and Corbyn speak I tell you – Hitler was also anti-establishment.
If we fail to speak out against racism and protectionism of Donald Trump and the economic fantasies of Jeremy Corbyn we will lose our freedom. 

China: It just got worse – more bad news and more policy mistakes

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Chinese authorities are mismanaging the economic and financial situation and the risk that the authorities will to cause something to blow increases day by day.

First we had the ill-advised attempts to prop up the falling Chinese stock market by the Chinese authorities essentially buying stocks and by to some extent banning the selling of stocks.

Now the Chinese authorities are trying something even more stupid – shooting the messenger:

Chinese authorities have arrested nearly 200 people for alleged online rumor-mongering about China’s stock market turmoil and a recent, deadly chemical factory explosion in Tianjin.

Among the arrested is Wang Xiaolu, a journalist for financial publication Caijing Magazine, “who has been placed under ‘criminal compulsory measures’ for suspected violations of colluding with others and fabricating and spreading fake information on securities and futures market,” according to Chinese state media.

This smells of desperation and signals to global investors that the Chinese authorities really are clueless about what is going on in the economy and in the markets.

Obviously the Chinese stock markets are not falling because of “rumours”, but this is the well-known behavior of many governments around the world – when the markets are going up it is because of the great policies of the government, but when they are going down it is because of the evil actions of “speculators”.

Meanwhile the Chinese authorities are continuing to claim that everything is fine and that real GDP is growing above 7%. However, looking at all other indicators of Chinese growth it is clear that the Chinese economy is slowing fast and is growing much less than 7%.

Just take two sets of data published today. First of all, the final Caixin/Markit manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) dropped to 47.3 in August – the lowest reading since March 2009 and down from 47.8 in July.

Second and equally telling South Korean exports dropped as much as 14.7% y/y in August – much more than the consensus expectation of a 5.9% y/y drop. China of course is a key market for South Korean exports and South Korean export normally is a very good indicator of Chinese manufactoring activity.

Given the kind of drop in the Chinese stock markets we have seen in August and what the commodity markets are telling us and given the macroeconomic data coming out it is pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that China was hit by a “sudden stop” in August as we saw a serious escalation of the currency and capital outflows.

This is of course also what we have been seeing in the currency markets, where the Chinese authorities have been forced to allow the renminbi to weaken. The forward markets are telling us that more devaluations should be expected.

To make things worse we today got yet another policy failure when the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) in yet another attempt to make the problems go away announced that it will try to limit capital outflows by imposing a reserve requirement on financial institutions trading in foreign-exchange forwards for clients. This is essentially a form of currency controls.

This is of course just another attempt of trying to shoot the messenger. The markets are telling us that more devaluations are coming. How do you manage that problem? Shot down the market. Again this smells of panic and the likely consequence is to further escalate the outflows rather than the opposite.

But it not only smells of panic – it also is doing a lot of harm to the Chinese economy. Maybe paradoxically the small stepwise devaluations of the renminbi have signaled to the markets that more devaluations are coming and as a result this has escalated currency and capital outflows.

As a result the PBoC has had to do even more intervention in the currency markets to prop up the renminbi. This of course is essentially monetary tightening and the consequence will be a further slowdown of the Chinese economy and likely also more financial distress.

Let the RMB float!

This is also an important lessons to other “peggers”. There is no such thing as a small devaluation. Either you maintain your peg or you let you currency float.

So to me there is really only one way out of this problem for the Chinese authorities – stop the shenanigans and let the renminbi float freely!

This likely would lead to a major drop in the Chinese currency in the near-term, but the alternative is that the outflows continues and if the PBoC continues to intervene and continues to introduce draconian anti-market measures (such as jailing journalists and banding FX and equity selling) and then the crisis will just deepen.

The developments in the past few weeks have reminded us all that China really still very much is an Emerging Markets and that the Chinese authorities are much less in control of events than many people believed.

The Chinese authorities had it easy as long as the structural tailwinds kept the capital flows coming in and the US kept monetary policy easy. However, now we are seeing a sharp structural slowdown in the Chinese economy, currency outflows and an effective tightening of US monetary conditions. As a consequence it is becoming more and more evident that the Chinese authorities are not the supermen that they sometimes have been made up to be.

As I argued in my previous blog post this is essentially the ‘dollar bloc’, which is falling apart. If the Chinese authorities continues to try to fight the inevitable – a fairly large renminbi depreciation – then a lot more harm will be done to the Chinese economy and the risk of full-scale financial crisis increases dramatically.

We have it all here – monetary strangulation through a badly constructed monetary regime, political mismanagement and when the story of this crisis will be written I don’t doubt there will be lots of talk of moral hazard and cronyism as well. In fact when I watch the actions of the Chinese authorities I am reminded of the way the Suharto regime in Indonesia (mis)handled the crisis in 1997-98.

It was the same finger-pointing at “evil speculators” and the introduction of draconian and ill-advised methods to prop up the currency. In the end it all failed – the central bank was forced to allow a major devaluation, but only after an ill-fated attempt to prop up the currency more or less had blown up the financial system and caused a major contraction in the economy. And it was of course also an end of the Suharto regime (probably the most positive effect of the crisis).

The Chinese Communist party today should remember how and why Suharto’s regime fell apart. China can still avoid a Indonesian style crisis, but then the Chinese authorities should stop copying Suharto’s policies.

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